The Penultimate: Showing a Final Struggle for Liberty and Run into Harness
The prophet of the storm had forgotten his prediction; which, however, was of small concern to him, apart from the ducking he received midway between the valley and the heights of Copsley; whither he was bound, on a mission so serious that, according to his custom in such instances, he chose to take counsel of his active legs: an adviseable course when the brain wants clearing and the heart fortifying. Diana’s face was clearly before him through the deluge; now in ogle features, the dimple running from her mouth, the dark bright eyes and cut of eyelids, and nostrils alive under their lightning; now inkier whole radiant smile, or musefully listening, nursing a thought. Or she was obscured, and he felt the face. The individuality of it had him by the heart, beyond his powers of visioning. On his arrival, he stood in the hall, adrip like one of the trees of the lawn, laughing at Lady Dunstane’s anxious exclamations. His portmanteau had come and he was expected; she hurried out at the first ringing of the bell, to greet and reproach him for walking in such weather.
‘Diana has left me,’ she said, when he reappeared in dry clothing. ‘We are neighbours; she has taken cottage-lodgings at Selshall, about an hour’s walk:— one of her wild dreams of independence. Are you disappointed?’
‘I am,’ Redworth confessed.
Emma coloured. ‘She requires an immense deal of humouring at present. The fit will wear off; only we must wait for it. Any menace to her precious liberty makes her prickly. She is passing the day with the Pettigrews, who have taken a place near her village for a month. She promised to dine and sleep here, if she returned in time. What is your news?’
‘Nothing; the world wags on.’
‘You have nothing special to tell her?’
‘Nothing’; he hummed; ‘nothing, I fancy, that she does not know.’
‘You said you were disappointed.’
‘It’s always a pleasure to see her.’
‘Even in her worst moods, I find it so.’
‘Oh! moods!’ quoth Redworth.
‘My friend, they are to be reckoned, with women.’
‘Certainly; what I meant was, that I don’t count them against women.’
‘Good: but my meaning was . . . I think I remember your once comparing them and the weather; and you spoke of the “one point more variable in women.” You may forestall your storms. There is no calculating the effect of a few little words at a wrong season.’
‘With women! I suppose not. I have no pretension to a knowledge of the sex.’
Emma imagined she had spoken plainly enough, if he had immediate designs; and she was not sure of that, and wished rather to shun his confidences while Tony was in her young widowhood, revelling in her joy of liberty. By and by, was her thought: perhaps next year. She dreaded Tony’s refusal of the yoke, and her iron-hardness to the dearest of men proposing it; and moreover, her further to be apprehended holding to the refusal, for the sake of consistency, if it was once uttered. For her own sake, she shrank from hearing intentions, that distressing the good man, she would have to discountenance. His candour in confessing disappointment, and his open face, his excellent sense too, gave her some assurance of his not being foolishly impetuous. After he had read to her for an hour, as his habit was on evenings and wet days, their discussion of this and that in the book lulled any doubts she had of his prudence, enough to render it even a dubious point whether she might be speculating upon a wealthy bachelor in the old-fashioned ultra-feminine manner; the which she so abhorred that she rejected the idea. Consequently, Redworth’s proposal to walk down to the valley for Diana, and bring her back, struck her as natural when a shaft of western sunshine from a whitened edge of raincloud struck her windows. She let him go without an intimated monition or a thought of one; thinking simply that her Tony would be more likely to come, having him for escort. Those are silly women who are always imagining designs and intrigues and future palpitations in the commonest actions of either sex. Emma Dunstane leaned to the contrast between herself and them.
Danvers was at the house about sunset, reporting her mistress to be on her way, with Mr. Redworth. The maid’s tale of the dreadful state of the lanes, accounted for their tardiness; and besides the sunset had been magnificent. Diana knocked at Emma’s bedroom door, to say, outside, hurriedly in passing, how splendid the sunset had been, and beg for an extra five minutes. Taking full fifteen, she swam into the drawing-room, lively with kisses on Emma’s cheeks, and excuses, referring her misconduct in being late to the seductions of ‘Sol’ in his glory. Redworth said he had rarely seen so wonderful a sunset. The result of their unanimity stirred Emma’s bosom to match-making regrets; and the walk of the pair together, alone under the propitious laming heavens, appeared to her now as an opportunity lost. From sisterly sympathy, she fancied she could understand Tony’s liberty-loving reluctance: she had no comprehension of the backwardness of the man beholding the dear woman handsomer than in her maiden or her married time: and sprightlier as well. She chatted deliciously, and drew Redworth to talk his best on his choicer subjects, playing over them like a fide-wisp, determined at once to flounder him and to make him shine. Her tender esteem for the man was transparent through it all; and Emma, whose evening had gone happily between them, said to her, in their privacy, before parting: ‘You seemed to have been inspired by “Sol,” my dear. You do like him, don’t you?’
Diana vowed she adored him; and with a face of laughter in rosy suffusion, put Sol for Redworth, Redworth for Sol; but, watchful of Emma’s visage, said finally: ‘If you mean the mortal man, I think him up to almost all your hyperboles — as far as men go; and he departed to his night’s rest, which I hope will be good, like a king. Not to admire him, would argue me senseless, heartless. I do; I have reason to.’
‘And you make him the butt of your ridicule, Tony.’
‘No; I said “like a king”; and he is one. He has, to me, morally the grandeur of your Sol sinking, Caesar stabbed, Cato on the sword-point. He is Roman, Spartan, Imperial; English, if you like, the pick, of the land. It is an honour to call him friend, and I do trust he will choose the pick among us, to make her a happy woman — if she’s for running in harness. There, I can’t say more.’
Emma had to be satisfied with it, for the present.
They were astonished at breakfast by seeing Sir Lukin ride past the windows. He entered with the veritable appetite of a cavalier who had ridden from London fasting; and why he had come at that early hour, he was too hungry to explain. The ladies retired to read their letters by the morning’s post; whereupon Sir Lukin called to Redworth; ‘I met that woman in the park yesterday, and had to stand a volley. I went beating about London for you all the afternoon and evening. She swears you rated her like a scullery wench, and threatened to ruin Wroxeter. Did you see him? She says, the story’s true in one particular, that he did snatch a kiss, and got mauled. Not so much to pay for it! But what a ruffian — eh?’
‘I saw him,’ said Redworth. ‘He ‘s one of the new set of noblemen who take bribes to serve as baits for transactions in the City. They help to the ruin of their order, or are signs of its decay. We won’t judge it by him. He favoured me with his “word of honour” that the thing you heard was entirely a misstatement, and so forth:— apologized, I suppose. He mumbled something.’
‘A thorough cur!’
‘He professed his readiness to fight, if either of us was not contented.’
‘He spoke to the wrong man. I’ve half a mind to ride back and have him out for that rascal “osculation” and the lady unwilling! — and she a young one, a girl, under the protection of the house! By Jove! Redworth, when you come to consider the scoundrels men can be, it stirs a fellow’s bile. There’s a deal of that sort of villany going — and succeeding sometimes! He deserves the whip or a bullet.’
‘A sermon from Lukin Dunstane might punish him.’
‘Oh! I’m a sinner, I know. But, go and tell one woman of another woman, and that a lie! That’s beyond me.’
‘The gradations of the deeps are perhaps measurable to those who are in them.’
‘The sermon’s at me — pop!’ said Sir Lukin. ‘By the way, I’m coming round to think Diana Warwick was right when she used to jibe at me for throwing up my commission. Idleness is the devil — or mother of him. I manage my estates; but the truth is, it doesn’t occupy my mind.’
‘My mind, I say.’
‘Whichever you please.’
‘You’re crusty today, Redworth. Let me tell you, I think — and hard too, when the fit’s on me. However, you did right in stopping — I’ll own — a piece of folly, and shutting the mouths of those two; though it caused me to come in for a regular drencher. But a pretty woman in a right-down termagant passion is good theatre; because it can’t last, at that pace; and you’re sure of your agreeable tableau. Not that I trust her ten minutes out of sight — or any woman, except one or two; my wife and Diana Warwick. Trust those you’ve tried, old boy. Diana Warwick ought to be taught to thank you; though I don’t know how it’s to be done.’
‘The fact of it is,’ Redworth frowned and rose, ‘I’ve done mischief. I had no right to mix myself in it. I’m seldom caught off my feet by an impulse; but I was. I took the fever from you.’
He squared his figure at the window, and looked up on a driving sky.
‘Come, let’s play open cards, Tom Redworth,’ said Sir Lukin, leaving the table and joining his friend by the window. ‘You moral men are doomed to be marrying men, always; and quite right. Not that one doesn’t hear a roundabout thing or two about you: no harm. Very much the contrary:— as the world goes. But you’re the man to marry a wife; and if I guess the lady, she’s a sensible girl and won’t be jealous. I ‘d swear she only waits for asking.’
‘Then you don’t guess the lady,’ said Redworth.
The desperate half-laugh greeting the name convinced more than a dozen denials.
Sir Lukin kept edging round for a full view of the friend who shunned inspection. ‘But is it? . . . can it be? it must be, after all! . . . why, of course it is! But the thing staring us in the face is just what we never see. Just the husband for her! — and she’s the wife! Why, Diana Warwick ‘s the very woman, of course! I remember I used to think so before she was free to wed.’
‘She is not of that opinion.’ Redworth blew a heavy breath; and it should be chronicled as a sigh; but it was hugely masculine.
‘Because you didn’t attack, the moment she was free; that ‘s what upset my calculations,’ the sagacious gentleman continued, for a vindication of his acuteness: then seizing the reply: ‘Refuses? you don’t mean to say you’re the man to take a refusal? and from a green widow in the blush? Did you see her cheeks when she was peeping at the letter in her hand? She colours at half a word — takes the lift of a finger for Hymen coming. And lots of fellows are after her; I know it from Emmy. But you’re not the man to be refused. You’re her friend — her champion. That woman Fryar–Gunnett would have it you were the favoured lover, and sneered at my talk of old friendship. Women are always down dead on the facts; can’t put them off a scent!’
‘There’s the mischief!’ Redworth blew again. ‘I had no right to be championing Mrs. Warwick’s name. Or the world won’t give it, at all events. I’m a blundering donkey. Yes, she wishes to keep her liberty. And, upon my soul, I’m in love with everything she wishes! I’ve got the habit.’
‘Habit be hanged!’ cried Sir Lukin. ‘You’re in love with the woman. I know a little more of you now, Mr. Tom. You’re a fellow in earnest about what you do. You’re feeling it now, on the rack, by heaven! though you keep a bold face. Did she speak positively? — sort of feminine of “you’re the monster, not the man”? or measured little doctor’s dose of pity? — worse sign.’ You’re not going?’
‘If you’ll drive me down in half an hour,’ said Redworth.
‘Give me an hour,’ Sir Lukin replied, and went straight to his wife’s blue-room.
Diana was roused from a meditation on a letter she held, by the entrance of Emma in her bed-chamber, to whom she said: ‘I have here the very craziest bit of writing! — but what is disturbing you, dear?’
Emma sat beside her, panting and composing her lips to speak. ‘Do you, love me? I throw policy to the winds, if only, I can batter at you for your heart and find it! Tony, do you love me? But don’t answer: give me your hand. You have rejected him!’
‘He has told you?’
‘No. He is not the man to cry out for a wound. He heard in London — Lukin has had the courage to tell me, after his fashion:— Tom Redworth heard an old story, coming from one of the baser kind of women: grossly false, he knew. I mention only Lord Wroxeter and Lockton. He went to man and woman both, and had it refuted, and stopped their tongues, on peril; as he of all men is able to do when he wills it.’
Observing the quick change in Tony’s eyes, Emma exclaimed: ‘How you looked disdain when you asked whether he had told me! But why are you the handsome tigress to him, of all men living! The dear fellow, dear to me at least! since the day he first saw you, has worshipped you and striven to serve you:— and harder than any Scriptural service to have the beloved woman to wife. I know nothing to compare with it, for he is a man of warmth. He is one of those rare men of honour who can command their passion; who venerate when they love: and those are the men that women select for punishment! Yes, you! It is to the woman he loves that he cannot show himself as he is, because he is at her feet. You have managed to stamp your spirit on him; and as a consequence, he defends you now, for flinging him off. And now his chief regret is, that he has caused his name to be coupled with yours. I suppose he had some poor hope, seeing you free. Or else the impulse to protect the woman of his heart and soul was too strong. I have seen what he suffered, years back, at the news of your engagement.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t,’ cried Tony, tears running over, and her dream of freedom, her visions of romance, drowning.
‘It was like the snapping of the branch of an oak, when the trunk stands firm,’ Emma resumed, in her desire to scourge as well as to soften. ‘But similes applied to him will strike you as incongruous.’ Tony swayed her body, for a negative, very girlishly and consciously. ‘He probably did not woo you in a poetic style, or the courtly by prescription.’ Again Tony swayed; she had to hug herself under the stripes, and felt as if alone at sea, with her dear heavens pelting. ‘You have sneered at him for his calculating — to his face: and it was when he was comparatively poor that he calculated — to his cost! that he dared not ask you to marry a man who could not offer you a tithe of what he considered fit for the peerless woman. Peerless, I admit. There he was not wrong. But if he had valued you half a grain less, he might have won you. You talk much of chivalry; you conceive a superhuman ideal, to which you fit a very indifferent wooden model, while the man of all the world the most chivalrous! . . . He is a man quite other from what you think him: anything but a “Cuthbert Dering” or a “Man of Two Minds.” He was in the drawing-room below, on the day I received your last maiden letter from The Crossways — now his property, in the hope of making it yours.’
‘I behaved abominably there!’ interposed Tony, with a gasp.
‘Let it pass. At any rate, that was the prick of a needle, not the blow of a sword.’
‘But marriage, dear Emmy! marriage! Is marriage to be the end of me?’
‘What amazing apotheosis have you in prospect? And are you steering so particularly well by yourself?’
‘Miserably! But I can dream. And the thought of a husband cuts me from any dreaming. It’s all dead flat earth at once!’
‘Would, you lave rejected him when you were a girl?’
‘I think so.’
‘The superior merits of another . . .?’
‘Oh, no, no, no, no! I might have accepted him: and I might not have made him happy. I wanted a hero, and the jewelled garb and the feather did not suit him.’
‘No; he is not that description of lay-figure. You have dressed it, and gemmed it, and — made your discovery. Here is a true man; and if you can find me any of your heroes to match him, I will thank you. He came on the day I speak of, to consult me as to whether, with the income he then had . . . Well, I had to tell him you were engaged. The man has never wavered in his love of you since that day. He has had to bear something.’
This was an electrical bolt into Tony’s bosom, shaking her from self-pity and shame to remorseful pity of the suffering lover; and the tears ran in streams, as she said:
‘He bore it, Emmy, he bore it.’ She sobbed out: ‘And he went on building a fortune and batting! Whatever he undertakes he does perfectly-approve of the pattern or not. Oh! I have no doubt he had his nest of wish piping to him all the while: only it seems quaint, dear, quaint, and against everything we’ve been reading of lovers! Love was his bread and butter!’ Her dark eyes showered. ‘And to tell you what you do not know of him, his way of making love is really,’ she sobbed, ‘pretty. It . . . it took me by surprise; I was expecting a bellow and an assault of horns; and if, dear:— you will say, what boarding-school girl have you got with you! and I feel myself getting childish:— if Sol in his glory had not been so m . . . majestically m . . . magnificent, nor seemed to show me the king . . . kingdom of my dreams, I might have stammered the opposite word to the one he heard. Last night, when he took my hand kindly before going to bed I had a fit for dropping on my knees to him. I saw him bleed, and he held himself right royally. I told you he did; — Sol in his moral grandeur! How infinitely above the physical monarch — is he not, Emmy? What one dislikes, is the devotion of all that grandeur to win a widow. It should be a maiden princess. You feel it so, I am sure. And here am I, as if a maiden princess were I, demanding romantic accessories of rubious vapour in the man condescending to implore the widow to wed him. But, tell me, does he know everything of his widow — everything? I shall not have to go through the frightful chapter?’
‘He is a man with his eyes awake; he knows as much as any husband could require to know,’ said Emma; adding: ‘My darling! he trusts you. It is the soul of the man that loves you, as it is mine. You will not tease him? Promise me. Give yourself frankly. You see it clearly before you.’
‘I see compulsion, my dear. What I see, is a regiment of Proverbs, bearing placards instead of guns, and each one a taunt at women, especially at widows. They march; they form square; they enclose me in the middle, and I have their inscriptions to digest. Read that crazy letter from Mary Paynham while I am putting on my bonnet. I perceive I have been crying like a raw creature in her teens. I don’t know myself. An advantage of the darker complexions is our speedier concealment of the traces.’
Emma read Miss Paynham’s letter, and returned it with the comment: ‘Utterly crazy.’ Tony said: ‘Is it not? I am to “Pause before I trifle with a noble heart too long.” She is to “have her happiness in the constant prayer for ours”; and she is “warned by one of those intimations never failing her, that he runs a serious danger.” It reads like a Wizard’s Almanack. And here “Homogeneity of sentiment the most perfect, is unable to contend with the fatal charm, which exercised by an indifferent person, must be ascribed to original predestination.” She should be under the wing of Lady Wathin. There is the mother for such chicks! But I’ll own to you, Emmy, that after the perusal, I did ask myself a question as to my likeness of late to the writer. I have drivelled . . . I was shuddering over it when you came in. I have sentimentalized up to thin smoke. And she tells a truth when she says I am not to “count social cleverness”— she means volubility —“as a warrant for domineering a capacious intelligence”: because of the gentleman’s modesty. Agreed: I have done it; I am contrite. I am going into slavery to make amends for presumption. Banality, thy name is marriage!’
‘Your business is to accept life as we have it,’ said Emma; and Tony shrugged. She was precipitate in going forth to her commonplace fate, and scarcely looked at the man requested by Emma to escort her to her cottage. After their departure, Emma fell into laughter at the last words with the kiss of her cheeks: ‘Here goes old Ireland!’ But, from her look and from what she had said upstairs, Emma could believe that the singular sprite of girlishness invading and governing her latterly, had yielded place to the woman she loved.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52