Between Diana and Dacier: The Wind East Over Bleak Land
On the third day of the Easter recess Percy Dacier landed from the Havre steamer at Caen and drove straightway for the sandy coast, past fields of colza to brine-blown meadows of coarse grass, and then to the low dunes and long stretching sands of the ebb in semicircle: a desolate place at that season; with a dwarf fishing-village by the shore; an East wind driving landward in streamers every object that had a scrap to fly. He made head to the inn, where the first person he encountered in the passage was Diana’s maid Danvers, who relaxed from the dramatic exaggeration of her surprise at the sight of a real English gentleman in these woebegone regions, to inform him that her mistress might be found walking somewhere along the sea-shore, and had her dog to protect her. They were to stay here a whole week, Danvers added, for a conveyance of her private sentiments. Second thoughts however whispered to her shrewdness that his arrival could only be by appointment. She had been anticipating something of the sort for some time.
Dacier butted against the stringing wind, that kept him at a rocking incline to his left for a mile. He then discerned in what had seemed a dredger’s dot on the sands, a lady’s figure, unmistakably she, without the corroborating testimony of Leander paw-deep in the low-tide water. She was out at a distance on the ebb-sands, hurtled, gyred, beaten to all shapes, in rolls, twists, volumes, like a blown banner-flag, by the pressing wind. A kerchief tied her bonnet under her chin. Bonnet and breast-ribands rattled rapidly as drummer-sticks. She stood near the little running ripple of the flat sea-water, as it hurried from a long streaked back to a tiny imitation of spray. When she turned to the shore she saw him advancing, but did not recognize; when they met she merely looked with wide parted lips. This was no appointment.
‘I had to see you,’ Dacier said.
She coloured to a deeper red than the rose-conjuring wind had whipped in her cheeks. Her quick intuition of the reason of his coming barred a mental evasion, and she had no thought of asking either him or herself what special urgency had brought him.
‘I have been here four days.’
‘Lady Esquart spoke of the place.’
‘Lady Esquart should not have betrayed me.’
‘She did it inadvertently, without an idea of my profiting by it.’
Diana indicated the scene in a glance. ‘Dreary country, do you think?’
‘Anywhere!’— said he.
They walked up the sand-heap. The roaring Easter with its shrieks and whistles at her ribands was not favourable to speech. His ‘Anywhere!’ had a penetrating significance, the fuller for the break that left it vague.
Speech between them was commanded; he could not be suffered to remain. She descended upon a sheltered pathway running along a ditch, the border of pastures where cattle cropped, raised heads, and resumed their one comforting occupation.
Diana gazed on them, smarting from the buffets of the wind she had met.
‘No play of their tails today’; she said, as she slackened her steps. ‘You left Lady Esquart well?’
‘Lady Esquart . . . I think was well. I had to see you. I thought you would be with her in Berkshire. She told me of a little sea-side place close to Caen.’
‘You had to see me?’
‘I miss you now if it’s a day!’
‘I heard a story in London . . . ’
‘In London there are many stories. I heard one. Is there a foundation for it?’
He breathed relieved. ‘I wanted to see you once before . . . if it was true. It would have made a change in my life-a gap.’
‘You do me the honour to like my Sunday evenings?’
‘Beyond everything London can offer.’
‘A letter would have reached me.’
‘I should have had to wait for the answer. There is no truth in it?’
Her choice was to treat the direct assailant frankly or imperil her defence by the ordinary feminine evolutions, which might be taken for inviting: poor pranks always.
‘There have been overtures,’ she said.
‘Forgive me; I have scarcely the right to ask . . . speak of it!’
‘My friends may use their right to take an interest in my fortunes.’
‘I thought I might, on my way to Paris, turn aside . . . coming by this route.’
‘If you determined not to lose much of your time.’
The coolness of her fencing disconcerted a gentleman conscious of his madness. She took instant advantage of any circuitous move; she gave him no practicable point. He was little skilled in the arts of attack, and felt that she checked his impetuousness; respected her for it, chafed at it, writhed with the fervours precipitating him here, and relapsed on his pleasure in seeing her face, hearing her voice.
‘Your happiness, I hope, is the chief thought in such a case,’ he said.
‘I am sure you would consider it.’
‘I can’t quite forget my own.’
‘You compliment an ambitious hostess.’
Dacier glanced across the pastures, ‘What was it that tempted you to this place?’
‘A poet would say it looks like a figure in the shroud. It has no features; it has a sort of grandeur belonging to death. I heard of it as the place where I might be certain of not meeting an acquaintance.’
‘And I am the intruder.’
‘An hour or two will not give you that title.’
‘Am I to count the minutes by my watch?’
‘By the sun. We will supply you an omelette and piquette, and send you back sobered and friarly — to Caen for Paris at sunset.’
‘Let the fare be Spartan. I could take my black broth with philosophy every day of the year under your auspices. What I should miss . . . ’
‘You bring no news of the world or the House?’
‘None. You know as much as I know. The Irish agitation is chronic. The Corn-law threatens to be the same.’
‘And your Chief — in personal colloquy?’
‘He keeps a calm front. I may tell you: there is nothing I would not confide to you: he has let fall some dubious words in private. I don’t know what to think of them.’
‘But if he should waver?’
‘It’s not wavering. It’s the openness of his mind.’
‘Ah! the mind. We imagine it free. The House and the country are the sentient frame governing the mind of the politician more than his ideas. He cannot think independently of them:— nor I of my natural anatomy. You will test the truth of that after your omelette and piquette, and marvel at the quitting of your line of route for Paris. As soon as the mind attempts to think independently, it is like a kite with the cord cut, and performs a series of darts and frisks, that have the look of wildest liberty till you see it fall flat to earth. The openness of his mind is most honourable to him.’
‘Ominous for his party.’
‘Likely to be good for his country.’
‘That is the question.’
‘Prepare to encounter it. In politics I am with the active minority on behalf of the inert but suffering majority. That is my rule. It leads, unless you have a despotism, to the conquering side. It is always the noblest. I won’t say, listen to me; only do believe my words have some weight. This is a question of bread.’
‘It involves many other questions.’
‘And how clearly those leaders put their case! They are admirable debaters. If I were asked to write against them, I should have but to quote them to confound my argument. I tried it once, and wasted a couple of my precious hours.’
‘They are cogent debaters,’ Dacier assented. ‘They make me wince now and then, without convincing me: I own it to you. The confession is not agreeable, though it’s a small matter.’
‘One’s pride may feel a touch with the foils as keenly as the point of a rapier,’ said Diana.
The remark drew a sharp look of pleasure from him.
‘Does the Princess Egeria propose to dismiss the individual she inspires, when he is growing most sensible of her wisdom?’
‘A young Minister of State should be gleaning at large when holiday is granted him.’
Dacier coloured. ‘May I presume on what is currently reported?’
‘Parts, parts; a bit here, a bit there,’ she rejoined. ‘Authors find their models where they can, and generally hit on the nearest.’
‘Happy the nearest!’
‘If you run to interjections I shall cite you a sentence, from your latest speech in the House.’
He asked for it, and to school him she consented to flatter with her recollection of his commonest words:
‘“Dealing with subjects of this nature emotionally does, not advance us a calculable inch.”’
‘I must have said that in relation to hard matter of business.’
‘It applies. There is my hostelry, and the spectral form of Danvers, utterly depaysee. Have you spoken to the poor soul? I can never discover the links of her attachment to my service.’
‘She knows a good mistress. — I have but a few minutes, if you are relentless. May I . . ., shall I ever be privileged to speak your Christian name?’
‘My Christian name! It is Pagan. In one sphere I am Hecate. Remember that.’
‘I am not among the people who so regard you.’
‘The time may come.’
‘I break no tie. I owe no allegiance whatever to the name.’
‘Keep to the formal title with me. We are Mrs. Warwick and Mr. Dacier. I think I am two years younger than you; socially therefore ten in seniority; and I know how this flower of friendship is nourished and may be withered. You see already what you have done? You have cast me on the discretion of my maid. I suppose her trusty, but I am at her mercy, and a breath from her to the people beholding me as Hecate queen of Witches! . . . I have a sensation of the scirocco it would blow.’
‘In that event, the least I can offer is my whole life.’
‘We will not conjecture the event.’
‘The best I could hope for!’
‘I see I shall have to revise the next edition of THE YOUNG MINISTER, and make an emotional curate of him. Observe Danvers. The woman is wretched; and now she sees me coming she pretends to be using her wits in studying the things about her, as I have directed. She is a riddle. I have the idea that any morning she may explode; and yet I trust her and sleep soundly. I must be free, though I vex the world’s watchdogs. — So, Danvers, you are noticing how thoroughly Frenchwomen do their work.’
Danvers replied with a slight mincing: ‘They may, ma’am; but they chatter chatter so.’
‘The result proves that it is not a waste of energy. They manage their fowls too.’
‘They’ve no such thing as mutton, ma’am.’
Dacier patriotically laughed.
‘She strikes the apology for wealthy and leisurely landlords,’ Diana said.
Danvers remarked that the poor fed meagrely in France. She was not convinced of its being good for them by hearing that they could work on it sixteen hours out of the four and twenty.
Mr. Percy Dacier’s repast was furnished to him half an hour later. At sunset Diana, taking Danvers beside her, walked with him to the line of the country road bearing on Caen. The wind had sunk. A large brown disk paused rayless on the western hills.
‘A Dacier ought to feel at home in Normandy; and you may have sprung from this neighbourhood,’ said she, simply to chat. ‘Here the land is poorish, and a mile inland rich enough to bear repeated crops of colza, which tries the soil, I hear. As for beauty, those blue hills you see, enfold charming valleys. I meditate an expedition to Harcourt before I return. An English professor of his native tongue at the Lycee at Caen told me on my way here that for twenty shillings a week you may live in royal ease round about Harcourt. So we have our bed and board in prospect if fortune fails us, Danvers!
‘I would rather die in England, ma’am,’ was the maid’s reply.
Dacier set foot on his carriage-step. He drew a long breath to say a short farewell, and he and Diana parted.
They parted as the plainest of sincere good friends, each at heart respecting the other for the repression of that which their hearts craved; any word of which might have carried them headlong, bound together on a Mazeppa-race, with scandal for the hounding wolves, and social ruin for the rocks and torrents.
Dacier was the thankfuller, the most admiring of the two; at the same time the least satisfied. He saw the abyss she had aided him in escaping; and it was refreshful to look abroad after his desperate impulse. Prominent as he stood before the world, he could not think without a shudder of behaving like a young frenetic of the passion. Those whose aim is at the leadership of the English people know, that however truly based the charges of hypocrisy, soundness of moral fibre runs throughout the country and is the national integrity, which may condone old sins for present service; but will not have present sins to flout it. He was in tune with the English character. The passion was in him nevertheless, and the stronger for a slow growth that confirmed its union of the mind and heart. Her counsel fortified him, her suggestions opened springs; her phrases were golden-lettered in his memory; and more, she had worked an extraordinary change in his views of life and aptitude for social converse: he acknowledged it with genial candour. Through her he was encouraged, led, excited to sparkle with the witty, feel new gifts, or a greater breadth of nature; and thanking her, he became thirstily susceptible to her dark beauty; he claimed to have found the key of her, and he prized it. She was not passionless: the blood flowed warm. Proud, chaste, she was nobly spirited; having an intellectual refuge from the besiegings of the blood; a rockfortress. The ‘wife no wife’ appeared to him, striking the higher elements of the man, the commonly masculine also. — Would he espouse her, had he the chance? — tomorrow! this instant! With her to back him, he would be doubled in manhood, doubled in brain and heart-energy. To call her wife, spring from her and return, a man might accept his fate to fight Trojan or Greek, sure of his mark on the enemy.
But if, after all, this imputed Helen of a decayed Paris passed, submissive to the legitimate solicitor, back to her husband?
The thought shot Dacier on his legs for a look at the blank behind him. He vowed she had promised it should not be. Could it ever be, after the ruin the meanly suspicious fellow had brought upon her? — Diana voluntarily reunited to the treacherous cur?
He sat, resolving sombrely that if the debate arose he would try what force he had to save her from such an ignominy, and dedicate his life to her, let the world wag its tongue. So the knot would be cut.
Men unaccustomed to a knot in their system find the prospect of cutting it an extreme relief, even when they know that the cut has an edge to wound mortally as well as pacify. The wound was not heavy payment for the rapture of having so incomparable a woman his own. He reflected wonderingly on the husband, as he had previously done, and came again to the conclusion that it was a poor creature, abjectly jealous of a wife, he could neither master, nor equal, nor attract. And thinking of jealousy, Dacier felt none; none of individuals, only of facts: her marriage, her bondage. Her condemnation to perpetual widowhood angered him, as at an unrighteous decree. The sharp sweet bloom of her beauty, fresh in swarthiness, under the whipping Easter, cried out against that loathed inhumanity. Or he made it cry.
Being a stranger to the jealousy of men, he took the soft assurance that he was preferred above them all. Competitors were numerous: not any won her eyes as he did. She revealed nothing of the same pleasures in the shining of the others touched by her magical wand. Would she have pardoned one of them the ‘Diana!’ bursting from his mouth?
She was not a woman for trifling, still less for secresy. He was as little the kind of lover. Both would be ready to take up their burden, if the burden was laid on them. Diana had thus far impressed him.
Meanwhile he faced the cathedral towers of the ancient Norman city, standing up in the smoky hues of the West; and a sentence out of her book seemed fitting to the scene and what he felt. He rolled it over luxuriously as the next of delights to having her beside him. — She wrote of; ‘Thoughts that are bare dark outlines, coloured by some odd passion of the soul, like towers of a distant city seen in the funeral waste of day.’— His bluff English anti-poetic training would have caused him to shrug at the stuff coming from another pen: he might condescendingly have criticized it, with a sneer embalmed in humour. The words were hers; she had written them; almost by a sort of anticipation, he imagined; for he at once fell into the mood they suggested, and had a full crop of the ‘bare dark outlines’ of thoughts coloured by his particular form of passion.
Diana had impressed him powerfully when she set him swallowing and assimilating a sentence ethereally thin in substance of mere sentimental significance, that he would antecedently have read aloud in a drawing-room, picking up the book by hazard, as your modern specimen of romantic vapouring. Mr. Dacier however was at the time in observation of the towers of Caen, fresh from her presence, animated to some conception of her spirit. He drove into the streets, desiring, half determining, to risk a drive back on the morrow.
The cold light of the morrow combined with his fear of distressing her to restrain him. Perhaps he thought it well not to risk his gains. He was a northerner in blood. He may have thought it well not further to run the personal risk immediately.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52