Diana of the Crossways, by Meredith, George, 1828-1909

Chapter 9

Shows How a Position of Delicacy for a Lady and Gentleman was Met in Simple Fashion Without Hurt to Either

Redworth’s impulse was to laugh for very gladness of heart, as he proffered excuses for his tremendous alarums and in doing so, the worthy gentleman imagined he must have persisted in clamouring for admission because he suspected, that if at home, she would require a violent summons to betray herself. It was necessary to him to follow his abashed sagacity up to the mark of his happy animation.

‘Had I known it was you!’ said Diana, bidding him enter the passage. She wore a black silk mantilla and was warmly covered.

She called to her maid Danvers, whom Redworth remembered: a firm woman of about forty, wrapped, like her mistress, in head-covering, cloak, scarf and shawl. Telling her to scour the kitchen for firewood, Diana led into a sitting-room. ‘I need not ask — you have come from Lady Dunstane,’ she said. ‘Is she well?’

‘She is deeply anxious.’

‘You are cold. Empty houses are colder than out of doors. You shall soon have a fire.’

She begged him to be seated.

The small glow of candle-light made her dark rich colouring orange in shadow.

‘House and grounds are open to a tenant,’ she resumed. ‘I say good-bye to them tomorrow morning. The old couple who are in charge sleep in the village to-night. I did not want them here. You have quitted the Government service, I think?’

‘A year or so since.’

‘When did you return from America?’

‘Two days back.’

‘And paid your visit to Copsley immediately?’

‘As early as I could.’

‘That was true friendliness. You have a letter for me?’

‘I have.’

He put his hand to his pocket for the letter.

‘Presently,’ she said. She divined the contents, and nursed her resolution to withstand them. Danvers had brought firewood and coal. Orders were given to her, and in spite of the opposition of the maid and intervention of the gentleman, Diana knelt at the grate, observing:

‘Allow me to do this. I can lay and light a fire.’

He was obliged to look on: she was a woman who spoke her meaning. She knelt, handling paper, firewood and matches, like a housemaid. Danvers proceeded on her mission, and Redworth eyed Diana in the first fire-glow. He could have imagined a Madonna on an old black Spanish canvas.

The act of service was beautiful in gracefulness, and her simplicity in doing the work touched it spiritually. He thought, as she knelt there, that never had he seen how lovely and how charged with mystery her features were; the dark large eyes full on the brows; the proud line of a straight nose in right measure to the bow of the lips; reposeful red lips, shut, and their curve of the slumber-smile at the corners. Her forehead was broad; the chin of a sufficient firmness to sustain: that noble square; the brows marked by a soft thick brush to the temples; her black hair plainly drawn along her head to the knot, revealed by the mantilla fallen on her neck.

Elegant in plainness, the classic poet would have said of her hair and dress. She was of the women whose wits are quick in everything they do. That which was proper to her position, complexion, and the hour, surely marked her appearance. Unaccountably this night, the fair fleshly presence over-weighted her intellectual distinction, to an observer bent on vindicating her innocence. Or rather, he saw the hidden in the visible.

Owner of such a woman, and to lose her! Redworth pitied the husband.

The crackling flames reddened her whole person. Gazing, he remembered Lady Dunstane saying of her once, that in anger she had the nostrils of a war-horse. The nostrils now were faintly alive under some sensitive impression of her musings. The olive cheeks, pale as she stood in the doorway, were flushed by the fire-beams, though no longer with their swarthy central rose, tropic flower of a pure and abounding blood, as it had seemed. She was now beset by battle. His pity for her, and his eager championship, overwhelmed the spirit of compassion for the foolish wretched husband. Dolt, the man must be, Redworth thought; and he asked inwardly, Did the miserable tyrant suppose of a woman like this, that she would be content to shine as a candle in a grated lanthorn? The generosity of men speculating upon other men’s possessions is known. Yet the man who loves a woman has to the full the husband’s jealousy of her good name. And a lover, that without the claims of the alliance, can be wounded on her behalf, is less distracted in his homage by the personal luminary, to which man’s manufacture of balm and incense is mainly drawn when his love is wounded. That contemplation of her incomparable beauty, with the multitude of his ideas fluttering round it, did somewhat shake the personal luminary in Redworth. He was conscious of pangs. The question bit him: How far had she been indiscreet or wilful? and the bite of it was a keen acid to his nerves. A woman doubted by her husband, is always, and even to her champions in the first hours of the noxious rumour, until they had solidified in confidence through service, a creature of the wilds, marked for our ancient running. Nay, more than a cynical world, these latter will be sensible of it. The doubt casts her forth, the general yelp drags her down; she runs like the prey of the forest under spotting branches; clear if we can think so, but it has to be thought in devotedness: her character is abroad. Redworth bore a strong resemblance to, his fellowmen, except for his power of faith in this woman. Nevertheless it required the superbness of her beauty and the contrasting charm of her humble posture of kneeling by the fire, to set him on his right track of mind. He knew and was sure of her. He dispersed the unhallowed fry in attendance upon any stirring of the reptile part of us, to look at her with the eyes of a friend. And if . . .! — a little mouse of a thought scampered out of one of the chambers of his head and darted along the passages, fetching a sweat to his brows. Well, whatsoever the fact, his heart was hers! He hoped he could be charitable to women.

She rose from her knees and said: ‘Now, please, give me the letter.’

He was entreated to excuse her for consigning him to firelight when she left the room.

Danvers brought in a dismal tallow candle, remarking that her mistress had not expected visitors: her mistress had nothing but tea and bread and butter to offer him. Danvers uttered no complaint of her sufferings; happy in being the picture of them. ‘I’m not hungry,’ said he.

A plate of Andrew Hedger’s own would not have tempted him. The foolish frizzle of bacon sang in his ears as he walked from end to end of the room; an illusion of his fancy pricked by a frost-edged appetite. But the anticipated contest with Diana checked and numbed the craving.

Was Warwick a man to proceed to extremities on a mad suspicion? — What kind of proof had he?

Redworth summoned the portrait of Mr. Warwick before him, and beheld a sweeping of close eyes in cloud, a long upper lip in cloud; the rest of him was all cloud. As usual with these conjurations of a face, the index of the nature conceived by him displayed itself, and no more; but he took it for the whole physiognomy, and pronounced of the husband thus delineated, that those close eyes of the long upper lip would both suspect and proceed madly.

He was invited by Danvers to enter the dining-room.

There Diana joined him.

‘The best of a dinner on bread and butter is, that one is ready for supper soon after it,’ she said, swimming to the tea-tray. ‘You have dined?’

‘At the inn,’ he replied.

‘The Three Ravens! When my father’s guests from London flooded The Crossways, The Three Ravens provided the overflow with beds. On nights like this I have got up and scraped the frost from my window-panes to see them step into the old fly, singing some song of his. The inn had a good reputation for hospitality in those days. I hope they treated you well?’

‘Excellently,’ said Redworth, taking an enormous mouthful, while his heart sank to see that she who smiled to encourage his eating had been weeping. But she also consumed her bread and butter.

‘That poor maid of mine is an instance of a woman able to do things against the grain,’ she said. ‘Danvers is a foster-child of luxury. She loves it; great houses, plentiful meals, and the crowd of twinkling footmen’s calves. Yet you see her here in a desolate house, consenting to cold, and I know not what, terrors of ghosts! poor soul. I have some mysterious attraction for her. She would not let me come alone. I should have had to hire some old Storling grannam, or retain the tattling keepers of the house. She loves her native country too, and disdains the foreigner. My tea you may trust.’

Redworth had not a doubt of it. He was becoming a tea-taster. The merit of warmth pertained to the beverage. ‘I think you get your tea from Scoppin’s, in the City,’ he said.

That was the warehouse for Mrs. Warwick’s tea. They conversed of Teas; the black, the green, the mixtures; each thinking of the attack to come, and the defence. Meantime, the cut bread and butter having flown, Redwerth attacked the loaf. He apologized.

‘Oh! pay me a practical compliment,’ Diana said, and looked really happy at his unfeigned relish of her simple fare.

She had given him one opportunity in speaking of her maid’s love of native country. But it came too early.

‘They say that bread and butter is fattening,’ he remarked.

‘You preserve the mean,’ said she.

He admitted that his health was good. For some little time, to his vexation at the absurdity, she kept him talking of himself. So flowing was she, and so sweet the motion of her mouth in utterance, that he followed her lead, and he said odd things and corrected them. He had to describe his ride to her.

‘Yes! the view of the Downs from Dewhurst,’ she exclaimed. ‘Or any point along the ridge. Emma and I once drove there in Summer, with clotted cream from her dairy, and we bought fresh-plucked wortleberries, and stewed them in a hollow of the furzes, and ate them with ground biscuits and the clotted cream iced, and thought it a luncheon for seraphs. Then you dropped to the road round under the sand-heights — and meditated railways!’

‘Just a notion or two.’

‘You have been very successful in America?’

‘Successful; perhaps; we exclude extremes in our calculations of the still problematical.’

‘I am sure,’ said she, ‘you always have faith in your calculations.’

Her innocent archness dealt him a stab sharper than any he had known since the day of his hearing of her engagement. He muttered of his calculations being human; he was as much of a fool as other men — more!

‘Oh! no,’ said she.

‘Positively.’

‘I cannot think it.’

‘I know it.’

‘Mr. Redworth, you will never persuade me to believe it.’

He knocked a rising groan on the head, and rejoined ‘I hope I may not have to say so to-night.’

Diana felt the edge of the dart. ‘And meditating railways, you scored our poor land of herds and flocks; and night fell, and the moon sprang up, and on you came. It was clever of you to find your way by the moonbeams.’

‘That’s about the one thing I seem fit for!’

‘But what delusion is this, in the mind of a man succeeding in everything he does!’ cried Diana, curious despite her wariness. ‘Is there to be the revelation of a hairshirt ultimately? — a Journal of Confessions? You succeeded in everything you aimed at, and broke your heart over one chance miss?’

‘My heart is not of the stuff to break,’ he said, and laughed off her fortuitous thrust straight into it. ‘Another cup, yes. I came . . . ’

‘By night,’ said she, ‘and cleverly found your way, and dined at The Three Ravens, and walked to The Crossways, and met no ghosts.’

‘On the contrary — or at least I saw a couple.’

‘Tell me of them; we breed them here. We sell them periodically to the newspapers!’

‘Well, I started them in their natal locality. I saw them, going down the churchyard, and bellowed after them with all my lungs. I wanted directions to The Crossways; I had missed my way at some turning. In an instant they were vapour.’

Diana smiled. ‘It was indeed a voice to startle delicate apparitions! So do roar Hyrcanean tigers. Pyramus and Thisbe — slaying lions! One of your ghosts carried a loaf of bread, and dropped it in fright; one carried a pound of fresh butter for home consumption. They were in the churchyard for one in passing to kneel at her father’s grave and kiss his tombstone.’

She bowed her head, forgetful of her guard.

The pause presented an opening. Redworth left his chair and walked to the mantelpiece. It was easier to him to speak, not facing her.

‘You have read Lady Dunstane’s letter,’ he began.

She nodded. ‘I have.’

‘Can you resist her appeal to you?’

‘I must.’

‘She is not in a condition to bear it well. You will pardon me, Mrs. Warwick . . . ’

‘Fully! Fully!’

‘I venture to offer merely practical advice. You have thought of it all, but have not felt it. In these cases, the one thing to do is to make a stand. Lady Dunstane has a clear head. She sees what has to be endured by you. Consider: she appeals to me to bring you her letter. Would she have chosen me, or any man, for her messenger, if it had not appeared to her a matter of life and death? You count me among your friends.’

‘One of the truest.’

‘Here are two, then, and your own good sense. For I do not believe it to be a question of courage.’

‘He has commenced. Let him carry it out,’ said Diana.

Her desperation could have added the cry — And give me freedom! That was the secret in her heart. She had struck on the hope for the detested yoke to be broken at any cost.

‘I decline to meet his charges. I despise them. If my friends have faith in me — and they may! — I want nothing more.’

‘Well, I won’t talk commonplaces about the world,’ said Redworth. ‘We can none of us afford to have it against us. Consider a moment: to your friends you are the Diana Merion they knew, and they will not suffer an injury to your good name without a struggle. But if you fly? You leave the dearest you have to the whole brunt of it.

‘They will, if they love me.’

‘They will. But think of the shock to her. Lady Dunstane reads you —’

‘Not quite. No, not if she even wishes me to stay!’ said Diana.

He was too intent on his pleading to perceive a signification.

‘She reads you as clearly in the dark as if you were present with her.’

‘Oh! why am I not ten years older!’ Diana cried, and tried to face round to him, and stopped paralyzed. ‘Ten years older, I could discuss my situation, as an old woman of the world, and use my wits to defend myself.’

‘And then you would not dream of flight before it!’

‘No, she does not read me: no! She saw that I might come to The Crossways. She — no one but myself can see the wisdom of my holding aloof, in contempt of this baseness.’

‘And of allowing her to sink under that which your presence would arrest. Her strength will not support it.’

‘Emma! Oh, cruel!’ Diana sprang up to give play to her limbs. She dropped on another chair. ‘Go I must, I cannot turn back. She saw my old attachment to this place. It was not difficult to guess . . . Who but I can see the wisest course for me!’

‘It comes to this, that the blow aimed at you in your absence will strike her, and mortally,’ said Redworth.

‘Then I say it is terrible to have a friend,’ said Diana, with her bosom heaving.

‘Friendship, I fancy, means one heart between two.’

His unstressed observation hit a bell in her head, and set it reverberating. She and Emma had spoken, written, the very words. She drew forth her Emma’s letter from under her left breast, and read some half-blinded lines.

Redworth immediately prepared to leave her to her feelings — trustier guides than her judgement in this crisis.

‘Adieu, for the night, Mrs. Warwick,’ he said, and was guilty of eulogizing the judgement he thought erratic for the moment. ‘Night is a calm adviser. Let me presume to come again in the morning. I dare not go back without you.’

She looked up. As they faced together each saw that the other had passed through a furnace, scorching enough to him, though hers was the delicacy exposed. The reflection had its weight with her during the night.

‘Danvers is getting ready a bed for you; she is airing linen,’ Diana, said. But the bed was declined, and the hospitality was not pressed. The offer of it seemed to him significant of an unwary cordiality and thoughtlessness of tattlers that might account possibly for many things — supposing a fool or madman, or malignants, to interpret them.

‘Then, good night,’ said she.

They joined hands. He exacted no promise that she would be present in the morning to receive him; and it was a consolation to her desire for freedom, until she reflected on the perfect confidence it implied, and felt as a quivering butterfly impalpably pinned.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11