The shutting of her house-door closed for Dacier that woman’s history in connection with himself. He set his mind on the consequences of the act of folly—the trusting a secret to a woman. All were possibly not so bad: none should be trusted.
The air of the street fanned him agreeably as he revolved the horrible project of confession to the man who had put faith in him. Particulars might be asked. She would be unnamed, but an imagination of the effect of naming her placarded a notorious woman in fresh paint: two members of the same family her victims!
And last night, no later than last night, he had swung round at this very corner of the street to give her the fullest proof of his affection. He beheld a dupe trotting into a carefully-laid pitfall. She had him by the generosity of his confidence in her. Moreover, the recollection of her recent feeble phrasing, when she stood convicted of the treachery, when a really clever woman would have developed her resources, led him to doubt her being so finely gifted. She was just clever enough to hoodwink. He attributed the dupery to a trick of imposing the idea of her virtue upon men. Attracted by her good looks and sparkle, they entered the circle of her charm, became delightfully intimate, suffered a rebuff, and were from that time prepared to serve her purpose. How many other wretched dupes had she dangling? He spied at Westlake, spied at Redworth, at old Lord Larrian, at Lord Dannisburgh, at Arthur Rhodes, dozens. Old and young were alike to her if she saw an end to be gained by keeping them hooked. Tonans too, and Whitmonby. Newspaper editors were especially serviceable. Perhaps ‘a young Minister of State’ held the foremost rank in that respect: if completely duped and squeezeable, he produced more substantial stuff.
The background of ice in Dacier’s composition was brought to the front by his righteous contempt of her treachery. No explanation of it would have appeased him. She was guilty, and he condemned her. She stood condemned by all the evil likely to ensue from her misdeed. Scarcely had he left her house last night when she was away to betray him!—He shook her from him without a pang. Crediting her with the one merit she had—that of not imploring for mercy—he the more easily shook her off. Treacherous, she had not proved theatrical. So there was no fuss in putting out her light, and it was done. He was justified by the brute facts. Honourable, courteous, kindly gentleman, highly civilized, an excellent citizen and a patriot, he was icy at an outrage to his principles, and in the dominion of Love a sultan of the bow-string and chopper period, sovereignly endowed to stretch a finger for the scimitared Mesrour to make the erring woman head and trunk with one blow: and away with those remnants! This internally he did. Enough that the brute facts justified him.
St. James’s park was crossed, and the grass of the Green park, to avoid inquisitive friends. He was obliged to walk; exercise, action of any sort, was imperative, and but for some engagement he would have gone to his fencing-rooms for a bout with the master. He remembered his engagement and grew doubly embittered. He had absurdly pledged himself to lunch with Quintin Manx; that was, to pretend to eat while submitting to be questioned by a political dullard strong on his present right to overhaul and rail at his superiors. The house was one of a block along the North–Western line of Hyde park. He kicked at the subjection to go there, but a promise was binding, though he gave it when stunned. He could have silenced Mr. Manx with the posing interrogation: Why have I so long consented to put myself at the mercy of a bore? For him, he could not answer it, though Manx, as leader of the Shipping interest, was influential. The man had to be endured, like other doses in politics.
Dacier did not once think of the great ship-owner’s niece till Miss Constance Asper stepped into her drawing-room to welcome him. She was an image of repose to his mind. The calm pure outline of her white features refreshed him as the Alps the Londoner newly alighted at Berne; smoke, wrangle, the wrestling city’s wickedness, behind him.
‘My uncle is very disturbed,’ she said. ‘Is the news—if I am not very indiscreet in inquiring?’
‘I have a practice of never paying attention to newspaper articles,’ Dacier replied.
‘I am only affected by living with one who does,’ Miss Asper observed, and the lofty isolation of her head above politics gave her a moral attractiveness in addition to physical beauty. Her water-colour sketches were on her uncle’s walls: the beautiful in nature claimed and absorbed her. She dressed with a pretty rigour, a lovely simplicity, picturesque of the nunnery. She looked indeed a high-born young lady-abbess.
‘It’s a dusty game for ladies,’ Dacier said, abhorring the women defiled by it.
And when one thinks of the desire of men to worship women, there is a pathos in a man’s discovery of the fair young creature undefiled by any interest in public affairs, virginal amid her bower’s environments.
The angelical beauty of a virgin mind and person captivated him, by contrast. His natural taste was to admire it, shunning the lures and tangles of the women on high seas, notably the married: who, by the way, contrive to ensnare us through wonderment at a cleverness caught from their traffic with the masculine world: often—if we did but know!—a parrot-repetition of the last male visitor’s remarks. But that which the fair maiden speaks, though it may be simple, is her own.
She too is her own: or vowed but to one. She is on all sides impressive in purity. The world worships her as its perfect pearl: and we are brought refreshfully to acknowledge that the world is right.
By contrast, the white radiation of Innocence distinguished Constance Asper celestially. As he was well aware, she had long preferred him—the reserved among many pleading pressing suitors. Her steady faithfulness had fed on the poorest crumbs.
He ventured to express the hope that she was well.
‘Yes,’ she answered, with eyelids lifted softly to thank him for his concern in so humble a person.
‘You look a little pale,’ he said.
She coloured like a sea-water shell. ‘I am inclined to paleness by nature.’
Her uncle disturbed them. Lunch was ready. He apologized for the absence of Mrs. Markland, a maternal aunt of Constance, who kept house for them. Quintin Manx fell upon the meats, and then upon the Minister. Dacier found himself happily surprised by the accession of an appetite. He mentioned it, to escape from the worrying of his host, as unusual with him at midday: and Miss Asper, supporting him in that effort, said benevolently: ‘Gentlemen should eat; they have so many fatigues and troubles.’ She herself did not like to be seen eating in public. Her lips opened to the morsels, as with a bird’s bill, though with none of the pecking eagerness we complacently observe in poultry.
‘But now, I say, positively, how about that article?’ said Quintin.
Dacier visibly winced, and Constance immediately said ‘Oh! spare us politics, dear uncle.’
Her intercession was without avail, but by contrast with the woman implicated in the horrible article, it was a carol of the seraphs.
‘Come, you can say whether there’s anything in it,’ Dacier’s host pushed him.
‘I should not say it if I could,’ he replied.
The mild sweetness of Miss Asper’s look encouraged him.
He was touched to the quick by hearing her say: ‘You ask for Cabinet secrets, uncle. All secrets are holy, but secrets of State are under a seal next to divine.’
Next to divine! She was the mouthpiece of his ruling principle.
‘I ‘m not, prying into secrets,’ Quintin persisted; ‘all I want to know is, whether there ‘s any foundation for that article—all London’s boiling about it, I can tell you—or it’s only newspaper’s humbug.’
‘Clearly the oracle for you is the Editor’s office,’ rejoined Dacier.
‘A pretty sort of answer I should get.’
‘It would at least be complimentary.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The net was cast for you—and the sight of a fish in it!’
Miss Asper almost laughed. ‘Have you heard the choir at St. Catherine’s?’ she asked.
Dacier had not. He repented of his worldliness, and drinking persuasive claret, said he would go to hear it next Sunday.
‘Do,’ she murmured.
‘Well, you seem to be a pair against me,’ her uncle grumbled. ‘Anyhow I think it’s important. People have been talking for some time, and I don’t want to be taken unawares; I won’t be a yoked ox, mind you.’
‘Have you been sketching lately?’ Dacier asked Miss Asper.
She generally filled a book in the autumn, she said.
‘May I see it?’
‘If you wish.’
They had a short tussle with her uncle and escaped. He was conducted to a room midway upstairs: an heiress’s conception of a saintly little room; and more impresive in purity, indeed it was, than a saint’s, with the many crucifixes, gold and silver emblems, velvet prie-Dieu chairs, jewel-clasped sacred volumes: every invitation to meditate in luxury on an ascetic religiousness.
She depreciated her sketching powers. ‘I am impatient with my imperfections. I am therefore doomed not to advance.’
‘On the contrary, that is the state guaranteeing ultimate excellence,’ he said, much disposed to drone about it.
She sighed: ‘I fear not.’
He turned the leaves, comparing her modesty with the performance. The third of the leaves was a subject instantly recognized by him. It represented the place he had inherited from Lord Dannisburgh.
He named it.
She smiled: ‘You are good enough to see a likeness? My aunt and I were passing it last October, and I waited for a day, to sketch.’
‘You have taken it from my favourite point of view.’
‘I am glad.’
‘How much I should like a copy!’
‘If you will accept that?’
‘I could not rob you.’
‘I can make a duplicate.’
‘The look of the place pleases you?’
‘Oh! yes; the pines behind it; the sweet little village church; even the appearance of the rustics;—it is all impressively old English. I suppose you are very seldom there?’
‘Does it look like a home to you?’
‘No place more!’
‘I feel the loneliness.’
‘Where I live I feel no loneliness!’
‘You have heavenly messengers near you.’
‘They do not always come.’
‘Would you consent to make the place less lonely to me?’
Her bosom rose. In deference to her maidenly understanding, she gazed inquiringly.
‘If you love it!’ said he.
‘The place?’ she said, looking soft at the possessor.
‘Is it true?’
‘As you yourself. Could it be other than true? This hand is mine?’
Borrowing the world’s poetry to describe them, the long prayed-for Summer enveloped the melting snows.
So the recollection of Diana’s watch beside his uncle’s death-bed was wiped out. Ay, and the hissing of her treachery silenced. This maidenly hand put him at peace with the world, instead of his defying it for a worthless woman —who could not do better than accept the shelter of her husband’s house, as she ought to be told, if her friends wished her to save her reputation.
Dacier made his way downstairs to Quintin Manx, by whom he was hotly congratulated and informed of the extent of the young lady’s fortune: on the strength of which it was expected that he would certainly speak a private word in elucidation of that newspaper article.
‘I know nothing of it,’ said Dacier, but promised to come and dine. Alone in her happiness Constance Asper despatched various brief notes under her gold-symbolled crest to sisterly friends; one to Lady Wathin, containing the single line:
‘Your prophesy is confirmed.’
Dacier was comfortably able to face his Club after the excitement of a proposal, with a bride on his hands. He was assaulted concerning the article, and he parried capitally. Say that her lips were rather cold: at any rate, they invigorated him. Her character was guaranteed—not the hazy idea of a dupe. And her fortune would be enormous: a speculation merely due to worldly prudence and prospective ambition.
At the dinner-table of four, in the evening, conversation would have seemed dull to him, by contrast, had it not, been for the presiding grace of his bride, whose habitually eminent feminine air of superiority to the repast was throned by her appreciative receptiveness of his looks and utterances. Before leaving her, he won her consent to a very early marriage; on the plea of a possibly approaching Session, and also that they had waited long. The consent, notwithstanding the hurry of preparations, it involved, besides the annihilation of her desire to meditate on so solemn a change in her life and savour the congratulations of her friends and have the choir of St. Catherine’s rigorously drilled in her favourite anthems was beautifully yielded to the pressure of circumstances.
There lay on his table at night a letter; a bulky letter. No need to tear it open for sight of the signature: the superscription was redolent of that betraying woman. He tossed it unopened into the fire.
As it was thick, it burned sullenly, discolouring his name on the address, as she had done, and still offering him a last chance of viewing the contents. She fought on the consuming fire to have her exculpation heard.
But was she not a shameless traitor? She had caught him by his love of his country and hope to serve it. She had wound into his heart to bleed him of all he knew and sell the secrets for money. A wonderful sort of eloquence lay there, on those coals, no doubt. He felt a slight movement of curiosity to glance at two or three random sentences: very slight. And why read them now? They were valueless to him, mere outcries. He judged her by the brute facts. She and her slowly-consuming letter were of a common blackness. Moreover, to read them when he was plighted to another woman would be senseless. In the discovery of her baseness, she had made a poor figure. Doubtless during the afternoon she had trimmed her intuitive Belial art of making ‘the worse appear the better cause’: queer to peruse, and instructive in an unprofitable department of knowledge-the tricks of the sex.
He said to himself, with little intuition of the popular taste: She wouldn’t be a bad heroine of Romance! He said it derisively of the Romantic. But the right worshipful heroine of Romance was the front-face female picture he had won for his walls. Poor Diana was the flecked heroine of Reality: not always the same; not impeccable; not an ignorant-innocent, nor a guileless: good under good leading; devoted to the death in a grave crisis; often wrestling with her terrestrial nature nobly; and a growing soul; but not one whose purity was carved in marble for the assurance to an Englishman that his possession of the changeless thing defies time and his fellows, is the pillar of his home and universally enviable. Your fair one of Romance cannot suffer a mishap without a plotting villain, perchance many of them; to wreak the dread iniquity: she cannot move without him; she is the marble block, and if she is to have a feature, he is the sculptor; she depends on him for life, and her human history at least is married to him far more than to the rescuing lover. No wonder, then, that men should find her thrice cherishable featureless, or with the most moderate possible indication of a countenance. Thousands of the excellent simple creatures do; and every reader of her tale. On the contrary, the heroine of Reality is that woman whom you have met or heard of once in your course of years, and very probably despised for bearing in her composition the motive principle; at best, you say, a singular mixture of good and bad; anything but the feminine ideal of man. Feature to some excess, you think, distinguishes her. Yet she furnishes not any of the sweet sensual excitement pertaining to her spotless rival pursued by villany. She knocks at the doors of the mind, and the mind must open to be interested in her. Mind and heart must be wide open to excuse her sheer descent from the pure ideal of man.
Dacier’s wandering reflections all came back in crowds to the judicial Bench of the Black Cap. He felt finely, apart from the treason, that her want of money degraded her: him too, by contact. Money she might have had to any extent: upon application for it, of course. How was he to imagine that she wanted money! Smilingly as she welcomed him and his friends, entertaining them royally, he was bound to think she had means. A decent propriety bound him not to think of the matter at all. He naturally supposed she was capable of conducting her affairs. And—money! It soiled his memory: though the hour at Rovio was rather pretty, and the scene at Copsley touching: other times also, short glimpses of the woman, were taking. The flood of her treachery effaced them. And why reflect? Constance called to him to look her way.
Diana’s letter died hard. The corners were burnt to black tissue, with an edge or two of discoloured paper. A small frayed central heap still resisted, and in kindness to the necessity for privacy, he impressed the fire-tongs to complete the execution. After which he went to his desk and worked, under the presidency of Constance.
Last updated Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at 18:34