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   Chapter 12 THE DINNER-PARTY

Celt and Saxon -- Complete By George Meredith Characters: 22201

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Miss Mattock ventured on a prediction in her mind:

She was sure the letter would go. And there was not much to signify if it did. But the curious fatality that a person of such a native uprightness as Mrs. Adister should have been drawn in among Irishmen, set her thoughts upon the composer of the letter, and upon the contrast of his ingenuous look with the powerful cast of his head. She fancied a certain danger about him; of what kind she could not quite distinguish, for it had no reference to woman's heart, and he was too young to be much of a politician, and he was not in the priesthood. His transparency was of a totally different order from Captain Con's, which proclaimed itself genuine by the inability to conceal a shoal of subterfuges. The younger cousin's features carried a something invisible behind them, and she was just perceptive enough to spy it, and it excited her suspicions. Irishmen both she and her brother had to learn to like, owing to their bad repute for stability: they are, moreover, Papists: they are not given to ideas: that one of the working for the future has not struck them. In fine, they are not solid, not law-supporting, not disposed to be (humbly be it said) beneficent, like the good English. These were her views, and as she held it a weakness to have to confess that Irishmen are socially more fascinating than the good English, she was on her guard against them.

Of course the letter had gone. She heard of it before the commencement of the dinner, after Mrs. Adister had introduced Captain Philip O'Donnell to her, and while she was exchanging a word or two with Colonel Adister, who stood ready to conduct her to the table. If he addressed any remarks to the lady under his charge, Miss Mattock did not hear him; and she listened-who shall say why? His unlike likeness to his brother had struck her. Patrick opposite was flowing in speech. But Captain Philip O'Donnell's taciturnity seemed no uncivil gloom: it wore nothing of that look of being beneath the table, which some of our good English are guilty of at their social festivities, or of towering aloof a Matterhorn above it, in the style of Colonel Adister. Her discourse with the latter amused her passing reflections. They started a subject, and he punctuated her observations, or she his, and so they speedily ran to earth.

'I think,' says she, 'you were in Egypt this time last winter.'

He supplies her with a comma: 'Rather later.'

Then he carries on the line. 'Dull enough, if you don't have the right sort of travelling crew in your boat.'

'Naturally,' she puts her semicolon, ominous of the full stop.

'I fancy you have never been in Egypt?'

'No'

There it is; for the tone betrays no curiosity about Egypt and her Nile, and he is led to suppose that she has a distaste for foreign places.

Condescending to attempt to please, which he has reason to wish to succeed in doing, the task of pursuing conversational intercourse devolves upon him-

'I missed Parlatti last spring. What opinion have you formed of her?'

'I know her only by name at present.'

'Ah, I fancy you are indifferent to Opera.'

'Not at all; I enjoy it. I was as busy then as I am now.'

'Meetings? Dorcas, so forth.'

'Not Dorcas, I assure you. You might join if you would.'

'Your most obliged.'

A period perfectly rounded. At the same time Miss Mattock exchanged a smile with her hostess, of whose benignant designs in handing her to the entertaining officer she was not conscious. She felt bound to look happy to gratify an excellent lady presiding over the duller half of a table of eighteen. She turned slightly to Captain O'Donnell. He had committed himself to speech at last, without tilting his shoulders to exclude the company by devoting himself to his partner, and as he faced the table Miss Mattock's inclination to listen attracted him. He cast his eyes on her: a quiet look, neither languid nor frigid seeming to her both open and uninviting. She had the oddest little shiver, due to she knew not what. A scrutiny she could have borne, and she might have read a signification; but the look of those mild clear eyes which appeared to say nothing save that there was fire behind them, hit on some perplexity, or created it; for she was aware of his unhappy passion for the beautiful Miss Adister; the whole story had been poured into her ears; she had been moved by it. Possibly she had expected the eyes of such a lover to betray melancholy, and his power of containing the expression where the sentiment is imagined to be most transparent may have surprised her, thrilling her as melancholy orbs would not have done.

Captain Con could have thumped his platter with vexation. His wife's diplomacy in giving the heiress to Colonel Adister for the evening had received his cordial support while he manoeuvred cleverly to place Philip on the other side of her; and now not a step did the senseless fellow take, though she offered him his chance, dead sick of her man on the right; not a word did he have in ordinary civility; he was a burning disgrace to the chivalry of Erin. She would certainly be snapped up by a man merely yawning to take the bite. And there's another opportunity gone for the old country!-one's family to boot!

Those two were in the middle of the table, and it is beyond mortal, beyond Irish, capacity, from one end of a table of eighteen to whip up the whole body of them into a lively unanimous froth, like a dish of cream fetched out of thickness to the airiest lightness. Politics, in the form of a firebrand or apple of Discord, might knead them together and cut them in batches, only he had pledged his word to his wife to shun politics as the plague, considering Mr. Mattock's presence. And yet it was tempting: the recent Irish news had stung him; he could say sharp things from the heart, give neat thrusts; and they were fairly divided and well matched. There was himself, a giant; and there was an unrecognised bard of his country, no other than himself too; and there was a profound politician, profoundly hidden at present, like powder in a mine-the same person. And opposite to him was Mr. John Mattock, a worthy antagonist, delightful to rouse, for he carried big guns and took the noise of them for the shattering of the enemy, and this champion could be pricked on to a point of assertion sure to fire the phlegm in Philip; and then young Patrick might be trusted to warm to the work. Three heroes out skirmishing on our side. Then it begins to grow hot, and seeing them at it in earnest, Forbery glows and couches his gun, the heaviest weight of the Irish light brigade. Gallant deeds! and now Mr. Marbury Dyke opens on Forbery's flank to support Mattock hardpressed, and this artillery of English Rockney resounds, with a similar object: the ladies to look on and award the crown of victory, Saxon though they be, excepting Rockney's wife, a sure deserter to the camp of the brave, should fortune frown on them, for a punishment to Rockney for his carrying off to himself a flower of the Green Island and holding inveterate against her native land in his black ingratitude. Oh! but eloquence upon a good cause will win you the hearts of all women, Saxon or other, never doubt of it. And Jane Mattock there, imbibing forced doses of Arthur Adister, will find her patriotism dissolving in the natural human current; and she and Philip have a pretty wrangle, and like one another none the worse for not agreeing: patriotically speaking, she's really unrooted by that half-thawed colonel, a creature snow-bound up to his chin; and already she's leaping to be transplanted. Jane is one of the first to give her vote for the Irish party, in spite of her love for her brother John: in common justice, she says, and because she hopes for complete union between the two islands. And thereupon we debate upon union. On the whole, yes: union, on the understanding that we have justice, before you think of setting to work to sow the land with affection:-and that 's a crop in a clear soil will spring up harvest-thick in a single summer night across St. George's Channel, ladies!...

Indeed a goodly vision of strife and peace: but, politics forbidden, it was entirely a dream, seeing that politics alone, and a vast amount of blowing even on the topic of politics, will stir these English to enter the arena and try a fall. You cannot, until you say ten times more than you began by meaning, and have heated yourself to fancy you mean more still, get them into any state of fluency at all. Forbery's anecdote now and then serves its turn, but these English won't take it up as a start for fresh pastures; they lend their ears and laugh a finale to it; you see them dwelling on the relish, chewing the cud, by way of mental note for their friends to-morrow, as if they were kettles come here merely for boiling purposes, to make tea elsewhere, and putting a damper on the fire that does the business for them. They laugh, but they laugh extinguishingly, and not a bit to spread a general conflagration and illumination.

The case appeared hopeless to Captain Con, bearing an eye on Philip. He surveyed his inanimate eights right and left, and folded his combative ardour around him, as the soldier's martial cloak when he takes his rest on the field. Mrs. Marbury Dyke, the lady under his wing, honoured wife of the chairman of his imagined that a sigh escaped him, and said in sympathy: 'Is the bad news from India confirmed?'

He feared it was not bright, and called to Philip for the latest.

'Nothing that you have not had already in the newspapers,' Philip replied, distinctly from afar, but very bluntly, as through a trumpet.

Miss Mattock was attentive. She had a look as good as handsome when she kindled.

The captain persevered to draw his cousin out.

'Your chief has his orders?'

'There's a rumour to that effect.'

'The fellow's training for diplomacy,' Con groaned.

Philip spoke to Miss Mattock: he was questioned and he answered, and answered dead as a newspaper telegraphic paragraph, presenting simply the corpse of the fact, and there an end. He was a rival of Arthur Adister for military brevity.

'Your nephew is quite the diplomatist,' said Mrs. Dyke, admiring Philip's head.

'Cousin, ma'am. Nephews I might drive to any market to make the most of them. Cousins pretend they're better than pigs, and diverge bounding from the road at the hint of the stick. You can't get them to grunt more than is exactly agreeable to them.'

'My belief is that if our cause is just our flag will triumph,' Miss Grace Barrow, Jane Mattock's fellow-worker and particular friend, observed to Dr. Forbery.

'You may be enjoying an original blessing that we in Ireland missed in the cradle,' said he.

She emphasised: 'I speak of the just cause; it must succeed.'

'The stainless flag'll be in the ascendant in the long run,' he assented.

'Is it the flag of Great Britain you're speaking of, Forbery?' the captain inquired.

'There's a harp or two in it,' he responded pacificall

y.

Mrs. Dyke was not pleased with the tone. 'And never will be out of it!' she thumped her interjection.

'Or where 's your music?' said the captain, twinkling for an adversary among the males, too distant or too dull to distinguish a note of challenge. 'You'd be having to mount your drum and fife in their places, ma'am.'

She saw no fear of the necessity.

'But the fife's a pretty instrument,' he suggested, and with a candour that seduced the unwary lady to think dubiously whether she quite liked the fife. Miss Barrow pronounced it cheerful.

'Oh, and martial!' he exclaimed, happy to have caught Rockney's deliberate gaze. 'The effect of it, I'm told in the provinces is astonishing for promoting enlistment. Hear it any morning in your London parks, at the head of a marching regiment of your giant foot-Guards. Three bangs of the drum, like the famous mountain, and the fife announces himself to be born, and they follow him, left leg and right leg and bearskin. And what if he's a small one and a trifle squeaky; so 's a prince when the attendant dignitaries receive him submissively and hear him informing the nation of his advent. It 's the idea that 's grand.'

'The idea is everything in military affairs,' a solemn dupe, a Mr. Rumford, partly bald, of benevolent aspect, and looking more copious than his flow, observed to the lady beside him. 'The flag is only an idea.'

She protested against the barbarism of war, and he agreed with her, but thought it must be: it had always been: he deplored the fatality. Nevertheless, he esteemed our soldiers, our sailors too. A city man himself and a man of peace, he cordially esteemed and hailed the victories of a military body whose idea was Duty instead of Ambition.

'One thing,' said Mrs. Dyke, evading the ambiguous fife, 'patriotic as I am, I hope, one thing I confess; I never have yet brought myself to venerate thoroughly our Royal Standard. I dare say it is because I do not understand it.'

A strong fraternal impulse moved Mr. Rumford to lean forward and show her the face of one who had long been harassed by the same incapacity to digest that one thing. He guessed it at once, without a doubt of the accuracy of the shot. Ever since he was a child the difficulty had haunted him; and as no one hitherto had even comprehended his dilemma, he beamed like a man preparing to embrace a recovered sister.

'The Unicorn!' he exclaimed.

'It is the Unicorn!' she sighed. 'The Lion is noble.'

'The Unicorn, if I may speak by my own feelings, certainly does not inspire attachment, that is to say, the sense of devotion, which we should always be led to see in national symbols,' Mr. Rumford resumed, and he looked humorously rueful while speaking with some earnestness; to show that he knew the subject to be of the minor sort, though it was not enough to trip and jar a loyal enthusiasm in the strictly meditative.

'The Saxon should carry his White Horse, I suppose,' Dr. Forbery said.

'But how do we account for the horn on his forehead?' Mr. Rumford sadly queried.

'Two would have been better for the harmony of the Unicorn's appearance,' Captain Con remarked, desirous to play a floundering fish, and tender to the known simple goodness of the ingenuous man. 'What do you say, Forbery? The poor brute had a fall on his pate and his horn grew of it, and it 's to prove that he has got something in his head, and is dangerous both fore and aft, which is not the case with other horses, who're usually wicked at the heels alone. That's it, be sure, or near it. And his horn's there to file the subject nation's grievances for the Lion to peruse at his leisure. And his colour's prophetic of the Horse to come, that rides over all.'

'Lion and Unicorn signify the conquest of the two hemispheres, Matter and Mind,' said Dr. Forbery. 'The Lion there's no mistake about. The Unicorn sets you thinking. So it's a splendid Standard, and means the more for not being perfectly intelligible at a glance.'

'But if the Lion, as they've whispered of late, Forbery, happens to be stuffed with straw or with what's worse, with sawdust, a fellow bearing a pointed horn at close quarters might do him mortal harm; and it must be a situation trying to the patience of them both. The Lion seems to say "No prancing!" as if he knew his peril; and the Unicorn to threaten a playful dig at his flank, as if he understood where he's ticklish.'

Mr. Rumford drank some champagne and murmured with a shrug to the acquiescent lady beside him: 'Irishmen!' implying that the race could not be brought to treat serious themes as befitted the seriousness of the sentiments they stir in their bosoms. He was personally a little hurt, having unfolded a shy secret of his feelings, which were keenly patriotic in a phlegmatic frame, and he retired within himself, assuring the lady that he accepted our standard in its integrity; his objection was not really an objection; it was, he explained to her, a ridiculous desire to have a perfect comprehension of the idea in the symbol. But where there was no seriousness everything was made absurd. He could, he said, laugh as well as others on the proper occasion. As for the Lion being stuffed, he warned England's enemies for their own sakes not to be deluded by any such patent calumny. The strong can afford to be magnanimous and forbearing. Only let not that be mistaken for weakness. A wag of his tail would suffice.

The lady agreed. But women are volatile. She was the next moment laughing at something she had heard with the largest part of her ear, and she thought the worthy gentleman too simple, though she knew him for one who had amassed wealth. Captain Con and Dr. Forbery had driven the Unicorn to shelter, and were now baiting the Lion. The tremendous import of that wag of his tail among the nations was burlesqued by them, and it came into collision with Mr. Rumford's legendary forefinger threat. She excused herself for laughing:

'They are so preposterous!'

'Yes, yes, I can laugh,' said he, soberly performing the act: and Mr. Rumford covered the wound his delicate sensations had experienced under an apology for Captain Con, that would redound to the credit of his artfulness were it not notorious our sensations are the creatures and born doctors of art in discovering unguents for healing their bruises. 'O'Donnell has a shrewd head for business. He is sound at heart. There is not a drop of gout in his wine.'

The lady laughed again, as we do when we are fairly swung by the tide, and underneath her convulsion she quietly mused on the preference she would give to the simple English citizen for soundness.

'What can they be discussing down there?' Miss Mattock said to Philip, enviously as poor Londoners in November when they receive letters from the sapphire Riviera.

'I will venture to guess at nonsense,' he answered.

'Nothing political, then.'

'That scarcely follows; but a host at his own table may be trusted to shelve politics.'

'I should not object.'

'To controversy?'

'Temperately conducted.'

'One would go a long way to see the exhibition.'

'But why cannot men be temperate in their political arguments?'

'The questions raised are too close about the roots of us.'

'That sounds very pessimist.'

'More duels come from politics than from any other source.'

'I fear it is true. Then women might set you an example.'

'By avoiding it?'

'I think you have been out of England for some time.'

'I have been in America.'

'We are not exactly on the pattern of the Americans.' Philip hinted a bow. He praised the Republican people.

'Yes, but in our own way we are working out our own problems over here,' said she. 'We have infinitely more to contend with: old institutions, monstrous prejudices, and a slower-minded people, I dare say: much slower, I admit. We are not shining to advantage at present. Still, that is not the fault of English women.'

'Are they so spirited?'

Spirited was hardly the word Miss Mattock would have chosen to designate the spirit in them. She hummed a second or two, deliberating; it flashed through her during the pause that he had been guilty of irony, and she reddened: and remembering a foregoing strange sensation she reddened more. She had been in her girlhood a martyr to this malady of youth; it had tied her to the stake and enveloped her in flames for no accountable reason, causing her to suffer cruelly and feel humiliated. She knew the pangs of it in public, and in private as well. And she had not conquered it yet. She was angered to find herself such a merely physical victim of the rushing blood: which condition of her senses did not immediately restore her natural colour.

'They mean nobly,' she said, to fill an extending gap in the conversation under a blush; and conscious of an ultra-swollen phrase, she snatched at it nervously to correct it: 'They are becoming alive to the necessity for action.' But she was talking to a soldier! 'I mean, their heads are opening.' It sounded ludicrous. 'They are educating themselves differently.' Were they? 'They wish to take their part in the work of the world.' That was nearer the proper tone, though it had a ring of claptrap rhetoric hateful to her: she had read it and shrunk from it in reports of otherwise laudable meetings.

'Well, spirited, yes. I think they are. I believe they are. One has need to hope so.'

Philip offered a polite affirmative, evidently formal.

Not a sign had he shown of noticing her state of scarlet. His grave liquid eyes were unalterable. She might have been grateful, but the reflection that she had made a step to unlock the antechamber of her dearest deepest matters to an ordinary military officer, whose notions of women were probably those of his professional brethren, impelled her to transfer his polished decorousness to the burden of his masculine antagonism-plainly visible. She brought the dialogue to a close. Colonel Adister sidled an eye at a three-quarter view of her face. 'I fancy you're feeling the heat of the room,' he said.

Jane acknowledged a sensibility to some degree of warmth.

The colonel was her devoted squire on the instant for any practical service. His appeal to his aunt concerning one of the windows was answered by her appeal to Jane's countenance for a disposition to rise and leave the gentlemen. Captain Con, holding the door for the passage of his wife and her train of ladies, received the injunction:

'Ten,' from her, and remarked: 'Minutes,' as he shut it. The shortness of the period of grace proposed dejection to him on the one hand, and on the other a stimulated activity to squeeze it for its juices without any delay. Winding past Dr. Forbery to the vacated seat of the hostess he frowned forbiddingly.

'It's I, is it!' cried the doctor. Was it ever he that endangered the peace and placability of social gatherings! He sat down prepared rather for a bout with Captain Con than with their common opponents, notwithstanding that he had accurately read the mock thunder of his brows.

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