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

Chapter 17. ‘The Princess Egeria’

London, say what we will of it, is after all the head of the British giant, and if not the liveliest in bubbles, it is past competition the largest broth-pot of brains anywhere simmering on the hob: over the steadiest of furnaces too. And the oceans and the continents, as you know, are perpetual and copious contributors, either to the heating apparatus or to the contents of the pot. Let grander similes besought. This one fits for the smoky receptacle cherishing millions, magnetic to tens of millions more, with its caked outside of grime, and the inward substance incessantly kicking the lid, prankish, but never casting it off. A good stew, you perceive; not a parlous boiling. Weak as we may be in our domestic cookery, our political has been sagaciously adjusted as yet to catch the ardours of the furnace without being subject to their volcanic activities.

That the social is also somewhat at fault, we have proof in occasional outcries over the absence of these or those particular persons famous for inspiriting. It sticks and clogs. The improvising songster is missed, the convivial essayist, the humorous Dean, the travelled cynic, and he, the one of his day, the iridescent Irishman, whose remembered repartees are a feast, sharp and ringing, at divers tables descending from the upper to the fat citizen’s, where, instead of coming in the sequence of talk, they are exposed by blasting, like fossil teeth of old Deluge sharks in monotonous walls of our chalk-quarries. Nor are these the less welcome for the violence of their introduction among a people glad to be set burning rather briskly awhile by the most unexpected of digs in the ribs. Dan Merion, to give an example. That was Dan Merion’s joke with the watchman: and he said that other thing to the Marquis of Kingsbury, when the latter asked him if he had ever won a donkey-race. And old Dan is dead, and we are the duller for it! which leads to the question: Is genius hereditary? And the affirmative and negative are respectively maintained, rather against the Yes is the dispute, until a member of the audience speaks of Dan Merion’s having left a daughter reputed for a sparkling wit not much below the level of his own. Why, are you unaware that the Mrs. Warwick of that scandal case of Warwick versus Dannisburgh was old Dan Merion’s girl—and his only child? It is true; for a friend had it from a man who had it straight from Mr. Braddock, of the firm of Braddock, Thorpe and Simnel, her solicitors in the action, who told him he could sit listening to her for hours, and that she was as innocent as day; a wonderful combination of a good woman and a clever woman and a real beauty. Only her misfortune was to have a furiously jealous husband, and they say he went mad after hearing the verdict.

Diana was talked of in the London circles. A witty woman is such salt that where she has once been tasted she must perforce be missed more than any of the absent, the dowering heavens not having yet showered her like very plentifully upon us. Then it was first heard that Percy Dacier had been travelling with her. Miss Asper heard of it. Her uncle, Mr. Quintin Manx, the millionnaire, was an acquaintance of the new Judge and titled dignitary, Sir Cramborne Wathin, and she visited Lady Wathin, at whose table the report in the journals of the Nile-boat party was mentioned. Lady Wathin’s table could dispense with witty women, and, for that matter, witty men. The intrusion of the spontaneous on the stereotyped would have clashed. She preferred, as hostess, the old legal anecdotes sure of their laugh, and the citations from the manufactories of fun in the Press, which were current and instantly intelligible to all her guests. She smiled suavely on an impromptu pun, because her experience of the humorous appreciation of it by her guests bade her welcome the upstart. Nothing else impromptu was acceptable. Mrs. Warwick therefore was not missed by Lady Wathin. ‘I have met her,’ she said. ‘I confess I am not one of the fanatics about Mrs. Warwick. She has a sort of skill in getting men to clamour. If you stoop to tickle them, they will applaud. It is a way of winning a reputation.’ When the ladies were separated from the gentlemen by the stream of Claret, Miss Asper heard Lady Wathin speak of Mrs. Warwick again. An allusion to Lord Dannisburgh’s fit of illness in the House of Lords led to her saying that there was no doubt he had been fascinated, and that, in her opinion, Mrs. Warwick was a dangerous woman. Sir Cramborne knew something of Mr. Warwick; ‘Poor man!’ she added. A lady present put a question concerning Mrs. Warwick’s beauty. ‘Yes,’ Lady Wathin said, ‘she has good looks to aid her. Judging from what I hear and have seen, her thirst is for notoriety. Sooner or later we shall have her making a noise, you may be certain. Yes, she has the secret of dressing well—in the French style.’

A simple newspaper report of the expedition of a Nileboat party could stir the Powers to take her up and turn her on their wheel in this manner.

But others of the sons and daughters of London were regretting her prolonged absence. The great and exclusive Whitmonby, who had dined once at Lady Wathin’s table, and vowed never more to repeat that offence to his patience, lamented bitterly to Henry Wilmers that the sole woman worthy of sitting at a little Sunday evening dinner with the cream of the choicest men of the time was away wasting herself in that insane modern chase of the picturesque! He called her a perverted Celimene.

Redworth had less to regret than the rest of her male friends, as he was receiving at intervals pleasant descriptive letters, besides manuscript sheets of ANTONIA’S new piece of composition, to correct the proofs for the press, and he read them critically, he thought. He read them with a watchful eye to guard them from the critics. ANTONIA, whatever her faults as a writer, was not one of the order whose Muse is the Public Taste. She did at least draw her inspiration from herself, and there was much to be feared in her work, if a sale was the object. Otherwise Redworth’s highly critical perusal led him flatly to admire. This was like her, and that was like her, and here and there a phrase gave him the very play of her mouth, the flash of her eyes. Could he possibly wish, or bear, to, have anything altered? But she had reason to desire an extended sale of the work. Her aim, in the teeth of her independent style, was at the means of independence—a feminine method of attempting to conciliate contraries; and after despatching the last sheets to the printer, he meditated upon the several ways which might serve to, assist her; the main way running thus in his mind:—We have a work of genius. Genius is good for the public. What is good for the public should be recommended by the critics. It should be. How then to come at them to, get it done? As he was not a member of the honourable literary craft, and regarded its arcana altogether externally, it may be confessed of him that he deemed the Incorruptible corruptible;—not, of course, with filthy coin slid into sticky palms. Critics are human, and exceedingly, beyond the common lot, when touched; and they are excited by mysterious hints of loftiness in authorship; by rumours of veiled loveliness; whispers, of a general anticipation; and also Editors can jog them. Redworth was rising to be a Railway King of a period soon to glitter with rails, iron in the concrete, golden in the visionary. He had already his Court, much against his will. The powerful magnetic attractions of those who can help the world to fortune, was exercised by him in spite of his disgust of sycophants. He dropped words to right and left of a coming work by ANTONIA. And who was ANTONIA?—Ah! there hung the riddle.—An exalted personage?—So much so that he dared not name her even in confidence to ladies; he named the publishers. To men he said he was at liberty to speak of her only as the most beautiful woman of her time. His courtiers of both sexes were recommended to read the new story, THE PRINCESS EGERIA.

Oddly, one great lady of his Court had heard a forthcoming work of this title spoken of by Percy Dacier, not a man to read silly fiction, unless there was meaning behind the lines: that is, rich scandal of the aristocracy, diversified by stinging epigrams to the address of discernible personages. She talked of THE PRINCESS EGERIA: nay, laid her finger on the identical Princess. Others followed her. Dozens were soon flying with the torch: a new work immediately to be published from the pen of the Duchess of Stars!—And the Princess who lends her title to the book is a living portrait of the Princess of Highest Eminence, the Hope of all Civilization.—Orders for copies of THE PRINCESS EGERIA reached the astonished publishers before the book was advertized.

Speaking to editors, Redworth complimented them with friendly intimations of the real authorship of the remarkable work appearing. He used a certain penetrative mildness of tone in saying that ‘he hoped the book would succeed’: it deserved to; it was original; but the originality might tell against it. All would depend upon a favourable launching of such a book. ‘Mrs. Warwick? Mrs. Warwick?’ said the most influential of editors, Mr. Marcus Tonans; ‘what! that singularly handsome woman?.. The Dannisburgh affair? . . . She’s Whitmonby’s heroine. If she writes as cleverly as she talks, her work is worth trumpeting.’ He promised to see that it went into good hands for the review, and a prompt review—an essential point; none of your long digestions of the contents.

Diana’s indefatigable friend had fair assurances that her book would be noticed before it dropped dead to the public appetite for novelty. He was anxious next, notwithstanding his admiration of the originality of the conception and the cleverness of the writing, lest the Literary Reviews should fail ‘to do it justice’: he used the term; for if they wounded her, they would take the pleasure out of success; and he had always present to him that picture of the beloved woman kneeling at the fire-grate at The Crossways, which made the thought of her suffering any wound his personal anguish, so crucially sweet and saintly had her image then been stamped on him. He bethought him, in consequence, while sitting in the House of Commons; engaged upon the affairs of the nation, and honestly engaged, for he was a vigilant worker—that the Irish Secretary, Charles Raiser, with whom he stood in amicable relations, had an interest, to the extent of reputed ownership, in the chief of the Literary Reviews. He saw Raiser on the benches, and marked him to speak for him. Looking for him shortly afterward, the man was gone. ‘Off to the Opera, if he’s not too late for the drop,’ a neighbour said, smiling queerly, as though he ought to know; and then Redworth recollected current stories of Raiser’s fantastical devotion to the popular prima donna of the angelical voice.—He hurried to the Opera and met the vomit, and heard in the crushroom how divine she had been that night. A fellow member of the House, tolerably intimate with Raiser, informed him, between frightful stomachic roulades of her final aria, of the likeliest place where Raiser might be found when the Opera was over: not at his Club, nor at his chambers: on one of the bridges—Westminster, he fancied.

There was no need for Redworth to run hunting the man at so late an hour, but he was drawn on by the similarity in dissimilarity of this devotee of a woman, who could worship her at a distance, and talk of her to everybody. Not till he beheld Raiser’s tall figure cutting the bridge-parapet, with a star over his shoulder, did he reflect on the views the other might entertain of the nocturnal solicitation to see ‘justice done’ to a lady’s new book in a particular Review, and the absurd outside of the request was immediately smothered by the natural simplicity and pressing necessity of its inside.

He crossed the road and said, ‘Ah?’ in recognition. ‘Were you at the Opera this evening?’

‘Oh, just at the end,’ said Raiser, pacing forward. ‘It’s a fine night. Did you hear her?’

‘No; too late.’

Raiser pressed ahead, to meditate by himself, as was his wont. Finding Redworth beside him, he monologuized in his depths: ‘They’ll kill her. She puts her soul into it, gives her blood. There ‘s no failing of the voice. You see how it wears her. She’s doomed. Half a year’s rest on Como . . . somewhere . . . she might be saved! She won’t refuse to work.’

‘Have you spoken to her?’ said Redworth.

‘And next to Berlin! Vienna! A horse would be. . . .

I? I don’t know her,’ Raiser replied. ‘Some of their women stand it. She’s delicately built. You can’t treat a lute like a drum without destroying the instrument. We look on at a murder!’

The haggard prospect from that step of the climax checked his delivery.

Redworth knew him to be a sober man in office, a man with a head for statecraft: he had made a weighty speech in the House a couple of hours back. This Opera cantatrice, no beauty, though gentle, thrilling, winning, was his corner of romance.

‘Do you come here often?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I can’t sleep.’

‘London at night, from the bridge, looks fine. By the way . . . ’

‘It ‘s lonely here, that’s the advantage,’ said Rainer; ‘I keep silver in my pocket for poor girls going to their homes, and I’m left in peace. An hour later, there’s the dawn down yonder.’

‘By the way,’ Redworth interposed, and was told that after these nights of her singing she never slept till morning. He swallowed the fact, sympathized, and resumed: ‘I want a small favour.’

‘No business here, please!’

‘Not a bit of it. You know Mrs. Warwick. . . . You know of her. She ‘s publishing a book. I want you to use your influence to get it noticed quickly, if you can.’

‘Warwick? Oh, yes, a handsome woman. Ah, yes; the Dannisburgh affair, yes. What did I hear!—They say she ‘s thick with Percy Dacier at present. Who was talking of her! Yes, old Lady Dacier. So she ‘s a friend of yours?’

‘She’s an old friend,’ said Redworth, composing himself; for the dose he had taken was not of the sweetest, and no protestations could be uttered by a man of the world to repel a charge of tattlers. ‘The truth is, her book is clever. I have read the proofs. She must have an income, and she won’t apply to her husband, and literature should help her, if she ‘s fairly treated. She ‘s Irish by descent; Merion’s daughter, witty as her father. It’s odd you haven’t met her. The mere writing of the book is extraordinarily good. If it ‘s put into capable hands for review! that’s all it requires. And full of life . . . bright dialogue.. capital sketches. The book’s a piece of literature. Only it must have competent critics!’

So he talked while Rainer ejaculated: ‘Warwick? Warwick?’ in the irritating tone of dozens of others. ‘What did I hear of her husband? He has a post. . . . Yes, yes. Some one said the verdict in that case knocked him over— heart disease, or something.’

He glanced at the dark Thames water. ‘Take my word for it, the groves of Academe won’t compare with one of our bridges at night, if you seek philosophy. You see the London above and the London below: round us the sleepy city, and the stars in the water looking like souls of suicides. I caught a girl with a bad fit on her once. I had to lecture her! It’s when we become parsons we find out our cousinship with these poor peripatetics, whose “last philosophy” is a jump across the parapet. The bridge at night is a bath for a public man. But choose another; leave me mine.’

Redworth took the hint. He stated the title of Mrs. Warwick’s book, and imagined from the thoughtful cast of Rainer’s head, that he was impressing THE PRINCESS EGERIA On his memory.

Rainer burst out, with clenched fists: ‘He beats her! The fellow lives on her and beats her; strikes that woman! He drags her about to every Capital in Europe to make money for him, and the scoundrel pays her with blows.’

In the course of a heavy tirade against the scoundrel, Redworth apprehended that it was the cantatrice’s husband. He expressed his horror and regret; paused, and named THE PRINCESS EGERIA and a certain Critical Review. Another outburst seemed to be in preparation. Nothing further was to be done for the book at that hour. So, with a blunt ‘Good night,’ he left Charles Rainer pacing, and thought on his walk home of the strange effects wrought by women unwittingly upon men (Englishmen); those women, or some of them, as little knowing it as the moon her traditional influence upon the tides. He thought of Percy Dacier too. In his bed he could have wished himself peregrinating a bridge.

The PRINCESS EGERIA appeared, with the reviews at her heels, a pack of clappers, causing her to fly over editions clean as a doe the gates and hedges—to quote Mr. Sullivan Smith, who knew not a sentence of the work save what he gathered of it from Redworth, at their chance meeting on Piccadilly pavement, and then immediately he knew enough to blow his huntsman’s horn in honour of the sale. His hallali rang high. ‘Here’s another Irish girl to win their laurels! ’Tis one of the blazing successes. A most enthralling work, beautifully composed. And where is she now, Mr. Redworth, since she broke away from that husband of hers, that wears the clothes of the worst tailor ever begotten by a thread on a needle, as I tell every soul of ’em in my part of the country?’

‘You have seen him?’ said Redworth.

‘Why, sir, wasn’t he on show at the Court he applied to for relief and damages? as we heard when we were watching the case daily, scarce drawing our breath for fear the innocent—and one of our own blood, would be crushed. Sure, there he stood; ay, and looking the very donkey for a woman to flip off her fingers, like the dust from my great uncle’s prise of snuff! She’s a glory to the old country. And better you than another, I’d say, since it wasn’t an Irishman to have her: but what induced the dear lady to take him, is the question we’re all of us asking! And it’s mournful to think that somehow you contrive to get the pick of us in the girls! If ever we’re united, ’twill be by a trick of circumvention of that sort, pretty sure. There’s a turn in the market when they shut their eyes and drop to the handiest: and London’s a vortex that poor dear dull old Dublin can’t compete with. I’ll beg you for the address of the lady her friend, Lady Dunstane.’

Mr. Sullivan Smith walked with Redworth through the park to the House of Commons, discoursing of Rails and his excellent old friend’s rise to the top rung of the ladder and Beanstalk land, so elevated that one had to look up at him with watery eyes, as if one had flung a ball at the meridian sun. Arrived at famed St. Stephen’s, he sent in his compliments to the noble patriot and accepted an invitation to dinner.

‘And mind you read THE PRINCESS EGERIA,’ said Redworth.

‘Again and again, my friend. The book is bought.’ Sullivan Smith slapped his breastpocket.

‘There’s a bit of Erin in it.’

‘It sprouts from Erin.’

‘Trumpet it.’

‘Loud as cavalry to the charge!’

Once with the title stamped on his memory, the zealous Irishman might be trusted to become an ambulant advertizer. Others, personal friends, adherents, courtiers of Redworth’s, were active. Lady Pennon and Henry Wilmers, in the upper circle; Whitmonby and Westlake, in the literary; spread the fever for this new book. The chief interpreter of public opinion caught the way of the wind and headed the gale.

Editions of the book did really run like fires in summer furze; and to such an extent that a simple literary performance grew to be respected in Great Britain, as representing Money.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57