“Gwendolen at the roulette table”
Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ’mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.
Were uneasiness of conscience measured by extent of crime, human history had been different, and one should look to see the contrivers of greedy wars and the mighty marauders of the money-market in one troop of self-lacerating penitents with the meaner robber and cut-purse and the murderer that doth his butchery in small with his own hand. No doubt wickedness hath its rewards to distribute; but who so wins in this devil’s game must needs be baser, more cruel, more brutal than the order of this planet will allow for the multitude born of woman, the most of these carrying a form of conscience — a fear which is the shadow of justice, a pity which is the shadow of love — that hindereth from the prize of serene wickedness, itself difficult of maintenance in our composite flesh.
On the twenty-ninth of December Deronda knew that the Grandcourts had arrived at the Abbey, but he had had no glimpse of them before he went to dress for dinner. There had been a splendid fall of snow, allowing the party of children the rare pleasures of snow-balling and snow-building, and in the Christmas holidays the Mallinger girls were content with no amusement unless it were joined in and managed by “cousin,” as they had always called Deronda. After that outdoor exertion he had been playing billiards, and thus the hours had passed without his dwelling at all on the prospect of meeting Gwendolen at dinner. Nevertheless that prospect was interesting to him; and when, a little tired and heated with working at amusement, he went to his room before the half-hour bell had rung, he began to think of it with some speculation on the sort of influence her marriage with Grandcourt would have on her, and on the probability that there would be some discernible shades of change in her manner since he saw her at Diplow, just as there had been since his first vision of her at Leubronn.
“I fancy there are some natures one could see growing or degenerating every day, if one watched them,” was his thought. “I suppose some of us go on faster than others: and I am sure she is a creature who keeps strong traces of anything that has once impressed her. That little affair of the necklace, and the idea that somebody thought her gambling wrong, had evidently bitten into her. But such impressibility leads both ways: it may drive one to desperation as soon as to anything better. And whatever fascinations Grandcourt may have for capricious tastes — good heavens! who can believe that he would call out the tender affections in daily companionship? One might be tempted to horsewhip him for the sake of getting some show of passion into his face and speech. I’m afraid she married him out of ambition — to escape poverty. But why did she run out of his way at first? The poverty came after, though. Poor thing! she may have been urged into it. How can one feel anything else than pity for a young creature like that — full of unused life — ignorantly rash — hanging all her blind expectations on that remnant of a human being.”
Doubtless the phrases which Deronda’s meditation applied to the bridegroom were the less complimentary for the excuses and pity in which it clad the bride. His notion of Grandcourt as a “remnant” was founded on no particular knowledge, but simply on the impression which ordinary polite intercourse had given him that Grandcourt had worn out all his natural healthy interest in things.
In general, one may be sure that whenever a marriage of any mark takes place, male acquaintances are likely to pity the bride, female acquaintances the bridegroom: each, it is thought, might have done better; and especially where the bride is charming, young gentlemen on the scene are apt to conclude that she can have no real attachment to a fellow so uninteresting to themselves as her husband, but has married him on other grounds. Who, under such circumstances, pities the husband? Even his female friends are apt to think his position retributive: he should have chosen some one else. But perhaps Deronda may be excused that he did not prepare any pity for Grandcourt, who had never struck acquaintances as likely to come out of his experiences with more suffering than he inflicted; whereas, for Gwendolen, young, headlong, eager for pleasure, fed with the flattery which makes a lovely girl believe in her divine right to rule — how quickly might life turn from expectancy to a bitter sense of the irremediable! After what he had seen of her he must have had rather dull feelings not to have looked forward with some interest to her entrance into the room. Still, since the honeymoon was already three weeks in the distance, and Gwendolen had been enthroned, not only at Ryelands, but at Diplow, she was likely to have composed her countenance with suitable manifestation or concealment, not being one who would indulge the curious by a helpless exposure of her feelings.
A various party had been invited to meet the new couple; the old aristocracy was represented by Lord and Lady Pentreath; the old gentry by young Mr. and Mrs. Fitzadam of the Worcestershire branch of the Fitzadams; politics and the public good, as specialized in the cider interest, by Mr. Fenn, member for West Orchards, accompanied by his two daughters; Lady Mallinger’s family, by her brother, Mr. Raymond, and his wife; the useful bachelor element by Mr. Sinker, the eminent counsel, and by Mr. Vandernoodt, whose acquaintance Sir Hugo had found pleasant enough at Leubronn to be adopted in England.
All had assembled in the drawing-room before the new couple appeared. Meanwhile, the time was being passed chiefly in noticing the children — various little Raymonds, nephews and nieces of Lady Mallinger’s with her own three girls, who were always allowed to appear at this hour. The scene was really delightful — enlarged by full-length portraits with deep backgrounds, inserted in the cedar paneling — surmounted by a ceiling that glowed with the rich colors of the coats of arms ranged between the sockets — illuminated almost as much by the red fire of oak-boughs as by the pale wax-lights — stilled by the deep-piled carpet and by the high English breeding that subdues all voices; while the mixture of ages, from the white-haired Lord and Lady Pentreath to the four-year-old Edgar Raymond, gave a varied charm to the living groups. Lady Mallinger, with fair matronly roundness and mildly prominent blue eyes, moved about in her black velvet, carrying a tiny white dog on her arm as a sort of finish to her costume; the children were scattered among the ladies, while most of the gentlemen were standing rather aloof, conversing with that very moderate vivacity observable during the long minutes before dinner. Deronda was a little out of the circle in a dialogue fixed upon him by Mr. Vandernoodt, a man of the best Dutch blood imported at the revolution: for the rest, one of those commodious persons in society who are nothing particular themselves, but are understood to be acquainted with the best in every department; close-clipped, pale-eyed, nonchalant, as good a foil as could well be found to the intense coloring and vivid gravity of Deronda.
He was talking of the bride and bridegroom, whose appearance was being waited for. Mr. Vandernoodt was an industrious gleaner of personal details, and could probably tell everything about a great philosopher or physicist except his theories or discoveries; he was now implying that he had learned many facts about Grandcourt since meeting him at Leubronn.
“Men who have seen a good deal of life don’t always end by choosing their wives so well. He has had rather an anecdotic history — gone rather deep into pleasures, I fancy, lazy as he is. But, of course, you know all about him.”
“No, really,” said Deronda, in an indifferent tone. “I know little more of him than that he is Sir Hugo’s nephew.”
But now the door opened and deferred any satisfaction of Mr. Vandernoodt’s communicativeness.
The scene was one to set off any figure of distinction that entered on it, and certainly when Mr. and Mrs. Grandcourt entered, no beholder could deny that their figures had distinction. The bridegroom had neither more nor less easy perfection of costume, neither more nor less well-cut impassibility of face, than before his marriage. It was to be supposed of him that he would put up with nothing less than the best in outward equipment, wife included; and the bride was what he might have been expected to choose. “By George, I think she’s handsomer, if anything!” said Mr. Vandernoodt. And Deronda was of the same opinion, but he said nothing. The white silk and diamonds — it may seem strange, but she did wear diamonds on her neck, in her ears, in her hair — might have something to do with the new imposingness of her beauty, which flashed on him as more unquestionable if not more thoroughly satisfactory than when he had first seen her at the gaming-table. Some faces which are peculiar in their beauty are like original works of art: for the first time they are almost always met with question. But in seeing Gwendolen at Diplow, Deronda had discerned in her more than he had expected of that tender appealing charm which we call womanly. Was there any new change since then? He distrusted his impressions; but as he saw her receiving greetings with what seemed a proud cold quietude and a superficial smile, there seemed to be at work within her the same demonic force that had possessed her when she took him in her resolute glance and turned away a loser from the gaming-table. There was no time for more of a conclusion — no time even for him to give his greeting before the summons to dinner.
He sat not far from opposite to her at table, and could sometimes hear what she said in answer to Sir Hugo, who was at his liveliest in conversation with her; but though he looked toward her with the intention of bowing, she gave him no opportunity of doing so for some time. At last Sir Hugo, who might have imagined that they had already spoken to each other, said, “Deronda, you will like to hear what Mrs. Grandcourt tells me about your favorite Klesmer.”
Gwendolen’s eyelids had been lowered, and Deronda, already looking at her, thought he discovered a quivering reluctance as she was obliged to raise them and return his unembarrassed bow and smile, her own smile being one of the lip merely. It was but an instant, and Sir Hugo continued without pause,
“The Arrowpoints have condoned the marriage, and he is spending the Christmas with his bride at Quetcham.”
“I suppose he will be glad of it for the sake of his wife, else I dare say he would not have minded keeping at a distance,” said Deronda.
“It’s a sort of troubadour story,” said Lady Pentreath, an easy, deep-voiced old lady; “I’m glad to find a little romance left among us. I think our young people now are getting too worldly wise.”
“It shows the Arrowpoints’ good sense, however, to have adopted the affair, after the fuss in the paper,” said Sir Hugo. “And disowning your own child because of a mésalliance is something like disowning your one eye: everybody knows it’s yours, and you have no other to make an appearance with.”
“As to mésalliance, there’s no blood on any side,” said Lady Pentreath. “Old Admiral Arrowpoint was one of Nelson’s men, you know — a doctor’s son. And we all know how the mother’s money came.”
“If they were any mésalliance in the case, I should say it was on Klesmer’s side,” said Deronda.
“Ah, you think it is a case of the immortal marrying the mortal. What is your opinion?” said Sir Hugo, looking at Gwendolen.
“I have no doubt that Herr Klesmer thinks himself immortal. But I dare say his wife will burn as much incense before him as he requires,” said Gwendolen. She had recovered any composure that she might have lost.
“Don’t you approve of a wife burning incense before her husband?” said Sir Hugo, with an air of jocoseness.
“Oh, yes,” said Gwendolen, “if it were only to make others believe in him.” She paused a moment and then said with more gayety, “When Herr Klesmer admires his own genius, it will take off some of the absurdity if his wife says Amen.”
“Klesmer is no favorite of yours, I see,” said Sir Hugo.
“I think very highly of him, I assure you,” said Gwendolen. “His genius is quite above my judgment, and I know him to be exceedingly generous.”
She spoke with the sudden seriousness which is often meant to correct an unfair or indiscreet sally, having a bitterness against Klesmer in her secret soul which she knew herself unable to justify. Deronda was wondering what he should have thought of her if he had never heard of her before: probably that she put on a little hardness and defiance by way of concealing some painful consciousness — if, indeed, he could imagine her manners otherwise than in the light of his suspicion. But why did she not recognize him with more friendliness?
Sir Hugo, by way of changing the subject, said to her, “Is not this a beautiful room? It was part of the refectory of the Abbey. There was a division made by those pillars and the three arches, and afterward they were built up. Else it was half as large again originally. There used to be rows of Benedictines sitting where we are sitting. Suppose we were suddenly to see the lights burning low and the ghosts of the old monks rising behind all our chairs!”
“Please don’t!” said Gwendolen, with a playful shudder. “It is very nice to come after ancestors and monks, but they should know their places and keep underground. I should be rather frightened to go about this house all alone. I suppose the old generations must be angry with us because we have altered things so much.”
“Oh, the ghosts must be of all political parties,” said Sir Hugo. “And those fellows who wanted to change things while they lived and couldn’t do it must be on our side. But if you would not like to go over the house alone, you will like to go in company, I hope. You and Grandcourt ought to see it all. And we will ask Deronda to go round with us. He is more learned about it than I am.” The baronet was in the most complaisant of humors.
Gwendolen stole a glance at Deronda, who must have heard what Sir Hugo said, for he had his face turned toward them helping himself to an entrée; but he looked as impassive as a picture. At the notion of Deronda’s showing her and Grandcourt the place which was to be theirs, and which she with painful emphasis remembered might have been his (perhaps, if others had acted differently), certain thoughts had rushed in — thoughts repeated within her, but now returning on an occasion embarrassingly new; and was conscious of something furtive and awkward in her glance which Sir Hugo must have noticed. With her usual readiness of resource against betrayal, she said, playfully, “You don’t know how much I am afraid of Mr. Deronda.”
“How’s that? Because you think him too learned?” said Sir Hugo, whom the peculiarity of her glance had not escaped.
“No. It is ever since I first saw him at Leubronn. Because when he came to look on at the roulette-table, I began to lose. He cast an evil eye on my play. He didn’t approve it. He has told me so. And now whatever I do before him, I am afraid he will cast an evil eye upon it.”
“Gad! I’m rather afraid of him myself when he doesn’t approve,” said Sir Hugo, glancing at Deronda; and then turning his face toward Gwendolen, he said less audibly, “I don’t think ladies generally object to have his eyes upon them.” The baronet’s small chronic complaint of facetiousness was at this moment almost as annoying to Gwendolen as it often was to Deronda.
“I object to any eyes that are critical,” she said, in a cool, high voice, with a turn of her neck. “Are there many of these old rooms left in the Abbey?”
“Not many. There is a fine cloistered court with a long gallery above it. But the finest bit of all is turned into stables. It is part of the old church. When I improved the place I made the most of every other bit; but it was out of my reach to change the stables, so the horses have the benefit of the fine old choir. You must go and see it.”
“I shall like to see the horses as well as the building,” said Gwendolen.
“Oh, I have no stud to speak of. Grandcourt will look with contempt at my horses,” said Sir Hugo. “I’ve given up hunting, and go on in a jog-trot way, as becomes an old gentlemen with daughters. The fact is, I went in for doing too much at this place. We all lived at Diplow for two years while the alterations were going on: Do you like Diplow?”
“Not particularly,” said Gwendolen, with indifference. One would have thought that the young lady had all her life had more family seats than she cared to go to.
“Ah! it will not do after Ryelands,” said Sir Hugo, well pleased. “Grandcourt, I know, took it for the sake of the hunting. But he found something so much better there,” added the baronet, lowering his voice, “that he might well prefer it to any other place in the world.”
“It has one attraction for me,” said Gwendolen, passing over this compliment with a chill smile, “that it is within reach of Offendene.”
“I understand that,” said Sir Hugo, and then let the subject drop.
What amiable baronet can escape the effect of a strong desire for a particular possession? Sir Hugo would have been glad that Grandcourt, with or without reason, should prefer any other place to Diplow; but inasmuch as in the pure process of wishing we can always make the conditions of our gratification benevolent, he did wish that Grandcourt’s convenient disgust for Diplow should not be associated with his marriage with this very charming bride. Gwendolen was much to the baronet’s taste, but, as he observed afterward to Lady Mallinger, he should never have taken her for a young girl who had married beyond her expectations.
Deronda had not heard much of this conversation, having given his attention elsewhere, but the glimpses he had of Gwendolen’s manner deepened the impression that it had something newly artificial.
Later, in the drawing-room, Deronda, at somebody’s request, sat down to the piano and sang. Afterward, Mrs. Raymond took his place; and on rising he observed that Gwendolen had left her seat, and had come to this end of the room, as if to listen more fully, but was now standing with her back to every one, apparently contemplating a fine cowled head carved in ivory which hung over a small table. He longed to go to her and speak. Why should he not obey such an impulse, as he would have done toward any other lady in the room? Yet he hesitated some moments, observing the graceful lines of her back, but not moving.
If you have any reason for not indulging a wish to speak to a fair woman, it is a bad plan to look long at her back: the wish to see what it screens becomes the stronger. There may be a very sweet smile on the other side. Deronda ended by going to the end of the small table, at right angles to Gwendolen’s position, but before he could speak she had turned on him no smile, but such an appealing look of sadness, so utterly different from the chill effort of her recognition at table, that his speech was checked. For what was an appreciative space of time to both, though the observation of others could not have measured it, they looked at each other — she seeming to take the deep rest of confession, he with an answering depth of sympathy that neutralized all other feelings.
“Will you not join in the music?” he said, by way of meeting the necessity for speech.
That her look of confession had been involuntary was shown by that just perceptible shake and change of countenance with which she roused herself to reply calmly, “I join in it by listening. I am fond of music.”
“Are you not a musician?”
“I have given a great deal of time to music. But I have not talent enough to make it worth while. I shall never sing again.”
“But if you are fond of music, it will always be worth while in private, for your own delight. I make it a virtue to be content with my middlingness,” said Deronda, smiling; “it is always pardonable, so that one does not ask others to take it for superiority.”
“I cannot imitate you,” said Gwendolen, recovering her tone of artificial vivacity. “To be middling with me is another phrase for being dull. And the worst fault I have to find with the world is that it is dull. Do you know, I am going to justify gambling in spite of you. It is a refuge from dullness.”