Sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.
Catullus, Carmina LXX
MR LADISLAW and Mrs Casaubon were to be married in five days' time, quietly, by Mr Farebrother at Lowick Church. It was a great sadness to Dorothea, no less to Celia, that the bride's brother-in-law continued in opposition to the marriage; both, however, felt that a wife's influence on this matter could not but succeed as the months and the joyful reports from Mr Brooke went by, and the happiness of the betrothed continued unabashed by Will's unfortunate mixture of blood.
'My dear Sir James,' admonished Mrs Cadwallader, 'it might have been a Turk, or a potentate from the Indies. A potentate, sir - and then the Chettams themselves would have had to bow the knee]'
The wedding journey was planned with haste: not Rome, which might have stirred bitter memories, but Florence and Venice, with a week or more at Geneva afterwards for the air.
One matter only remained to cloud Will's ecstasy at the prospect of being united with Dorothea. Each time the door was opened to him at the Grange, each time a red-cheeked Tantripp conducted him to the drawing room where Dorothea awaited him, each time he drew her shining face towards his own, he felt a dark stooping shade lean towards him. The shade did not speak, did not look at the lovers standing silent in the shaft of June sunlight that fell through the tall windows. It was, and its very presence asked a question.
'My dearest one,' he said on this fifth day before their union, as they at last sat down. (They had found many more imaginative names to call one another in the intervening days, including those of most small creatures to be found pecking and snorting and sniffing in a farmyard.)
'You are troubled,' said Dorothea, not ceasing for a moment to smile. 'You prefer Naples to Venice. Very well, Naples it shall be.'
'Naples? But my darling, the smell] Oh, Dorothea, kiss me again]' Will drew her to her feet for another kiss, and in that moment his passion for her rose like a torrent in him, like the floodstream that takes a tiny year-old shoot of alder at the river's edge and bears it away imperatively on its breast. He trembled for fear of it; she felt him quiver in her arms, felt together with his fear a strength which made her too tremble.
There had been in Dorothea's soul, too, a question which persisted despite her quiet assurance to herself that time would furnish an answer. Quietly, increasingly, her passion itself began to find a reply, but that reply merely gave fire to other, less easily answered questions.
'Come,' she said. 'I cannot stay indoors on such a day. We will walk, and as we walk you will tell me all your mind.'
Passion energized Will, and Dorothea had almost to run to keep his hand in hers through the shrubbery and across the park. When they reached the wood she begged for mercy, and he took her arm, and they walked slowly through the tall beeches and oaks springing green, and brushed last autumn's leaves and beech-mast under their feet and listened to the liquid coo of pigeons overhead.
At last he paused, and taking both her hands and holding her gaze fiercely, said, 'Dorothea, you are a widow.'
She nodded gravely.
'You have been already married.'
Another nod, this time with an unsuppressed ripple at the corners of the mouth. 'I have.'
'You are aware what marriage means. Dodo -' the childhood name arrested her smile and made her lighten her hands in his - 'Dodo, you know, do you not?'
'To love, honour and obey, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer . . . For richer, for poorer. I know, Will.'
'In sickness, and in health. With my cousin, it was for the most part the former.'
'Yes.' Dorothea was puzzled now, not able to divine his thought. 'You know that my wish to marry him lay mainly in my hope of helping him in his work, despite his failing eyesight and energies.'
'But - my darling girl - how can I ask you . . . How failing were Mr Casaubon's energies? How . . . Oh, it is impossible]' He clasped her to himself, praying that supernatural means would float his question on the air from his mind directly to his love's.
Quietly, into his shoulder, she said, 'Will - there is a moment of the last few weeks that I must share with you. May I?' She took his hand and led him a little way farther on, where a recently felled oak lay in a clearing awaiting the work of the sawyer.
'The last few weeks?' Will repeated, fearing that Dorothea had not grasped in the slightest what he wished to say.
They sat on the rough trunk and held each other's hands in silence for a few moments, while Dorothea found a beginning. 'When I came to Mrs Lydgate's house that morning . . .'
'Do not talk of it] I lashed her when you left - Dorothea, I lashed her with my tongue. She had trapped me there . . . But she will never forgive me.'
'Hush: it is not that. Later that day, I dined with Mr Farebrother and his family.
Your name was mentioned - lovingly - and it broke me. I made my excuses and left. I locked the door of my room and I wept, and wept, and wept.' Will's arm tightened. 'Through that night - spent half in prayer, half in tears, for the most part kneeling, almost lying on the floor . . .' She shook with the memory of it. 'I began to know myself, Will, as I had not known myself before. I came to know that the spark of passion lit in me even before my marriage to Mr Casaubon - lit, I think, the moment you stood up from sketching the yew-tree at Lowick and I saw your grey eyes for the first time - that spark was not a matter of intellectual affinity, nor of spiritual kinship. I must be truthful: it was those too. But the recognition of the mind and soul was fired by something - a human frailty which reacts so instantaneously, so undeniably, that all else goes into immediate eclipse. Eclipsed, that is, until we are able to set our inventive minds to work upon it and persuade ourselves that the unacceptable is not so.'
Will put his fingers to her hair and began to stroke it. The fates had smiled on him: his thought had indeed flown on the wings of love. 'But I - I, that day, looked on you and swore, infidel that I am, that there could be no passion in a girl who married Casaubon.'
Dorothea said faintly, 'It would have been well if it were so.'
'Dodo - ' Will's hand paused. 'Dodo. My question is almost answered.'
Dorothea went on hastily, 'After Celia married James, she tried to allude . . . She laughed, awkwardly, and said that marriage was a strange rite, where all was public talk of property and propriety, yet the real matter was private and unspoken. I said to her, I think somewhat coldly, that such was the nature of things. In all likelihood she concluded that my husband had made advances to me which I felt to be repellent, but which I was unable to refuse. Whereas the truth was much less than that.'
'And much more] My dearest dear, do you tell me, in all seriousness, that my cousin did not - that he never . . .' Will took his arm away and took her hands. 'That you were not, in fact, man and wife in the truest sense at all?'
Dorothea shook her head.
Will threw back his head and his curls flew. His whole frame shook with laughter. 'The man could blink - he could scratch his pen - he could purse his mean old lips - but he could not - '
'Will] Do not - please]' The pain of love refused still tore in Dorothea like a strain on an unhealed wound. But then she remembered Mr Casaubon's request to her on the night before his death: that she would promise to carry out his wishes after his death - a promise to be made when she could not know what those wishes were.
She looked at the man beside her who was laughing - she felt the chill of the man who was dead - and her body gave a convulsive shiver and she was laughing too. Still shame was in her, and she must stand, pull him to his feet, take hold of his jacket and bury her face in it: but she was laughing at Mr Casaubon.
They held each other, helpless, till the fit released them. Able to speak at last, Dorothea said, 'They do not tell us. They do not tell us. But - ' She looked up at him suddenly. 'Do they tell you? Are boys - do men - '
Will had plunged into the clouded river of this matter precipitated only by his passionate curiosity, his need to discover whether other feet had trodden where his devoted feet should tread. Somewhere, as he stood poised upon the bank, from the quiet corners of his mind there came a sound like a distant bird's warning call. Swimming freely in these waters now, he heard the call again, and louder.
'We do,' he answered Dorothea. 'Boys after sport at school - men as they discuss their horses, their prowess at hunting, naturally move to hints of passions nearer to their heart. It is easier - clearer - for us.'
'Yes.' Dorothea's response was barely audible. 'Will, I am afraid.'
He knew - he could see it. And there was no help for it: he was afraid for her too. He knew the tenderness of her soul and of her frame, and he feared to be the instrument of pain for her. 'We will be together,' he said. 'There will be happiness. At first there will be fear, and confusion. But it will be my joy to bring you with me to a joy that is your own.'
She murmured, still against his chest, 'I do not doubt it. Celia - ' she brightened - 'Celia seems content. I see her catching James's eye occasionally, as if they have a smiling secret between them.'
The warning call sounded once again in Will's heart. This time it could not be denied. 'I must tell you, my darling - I must confess to you a terrible thing.'
'Confess? Will]' She felt paper-thin, as though her snatched happiness could be torn by a bird fluttering its merest feather against it.
'It is - '
'It is someone you loved before,' she interrupted, almost gasping out the words so that the truth be known and she accept it.
'Not loved.' His heart-beat was so strong that she could feel it against her. They sat down on the log again.
'She loved you - you could not return it - '
'No.' His mouth was dry: it seemed impossible for him to say the words. Yet if he did not say them, he must die, or walk away. 'In Italy, Dorothea, before I met you on your wedding journey, a painter friend - an Italian named Benito - urged me to a house of ill repute. He told me all men did so, otherwise their wives would find them ignorant, incapable.'
Dorothea was silent in his arms.
'We had drunk much that night: Benito had completed a canvas, it was a celebration. 'Come', he said, as we made for home. 'This night has no sleep in it. I will take you to a palace of delights.' His friends concurred: they had been to such places before. What could I do but accompany them? Weakling - of course I could have stayed away, I could have pled fatigue, too much wine, anything. But I was curious, and I went. My love - ' With grief he turned her face up to his. 'She was a poor, thin girl. Hard - she told me to tell her my pleasure and she would give me more. But afterwards, she trembled beside me in the bed. I gave her twice the money I had offered, and left before Benito and his friends emerged. Never, I vowed, never would I enter such a place again.'
Dorothea made her eyes return to his. 'It is what men do,' she said. Then, pleadingly, 'It is, is it not?'
'It is,' Will said, knowing that she was begging for this to be the end. But it was not. 'Two days after my humiliation, I saw you beside the Ariadne in the Vatican. The vision of you seemed to shout my degradation, to howl me as unfit to be your friend, to associate with you in any way. But, as you know, I was able to spend a little time with you. You became my goddess.'
'I am not, Will] I am a mortal - your mortal] Tell me everything - I cannot bear to have you look at me with shame]'
'Dearest - I must tell you all - I can no more keep my mind from you than I can keep away my fear that you will turn from me for ever.'
'Do not promise it. Do not promise what you do not know]'
Again the memory came to Dorothea of that last night with her husband. 'No, no.' She loved Will the more, feared the more, and begged him to continue.
'After you had left Rome, I was unwell. It seemed a small thing, an infection, and I have little patience with physicians. A friend saw an unaccustomed anxiety in me, and I told him. He urged me to seek advice. I did.' Will forced himself to look at Dorothea. No glint of suspicion lay in her eye. 'The woman I had been with - was diseased.'
'You understand now why I ordered you to stay your promise?'
'The disease . . .'
'Was one - ' He pressed one hand against his chest as if to force the words from himself - 'that is passed by contacts such as mine with that woman.'
Dorothea shuddered, and the motion of her body seemed to transmit itself to his. She whispered, 'You saw a doctor?'
He nodded. 'He said the infection was of a lesser kind than some, and gave me some unpleasant medicine. I was cured: in fact, on my return to England I saw a practitioner here to gain a second opinion on my cure. He told me there was no sign any more.'
It seemed to Dorothea that the world in which she had been living was split open - split with a crack so thunderous it would shatter the ear, split into so many parts that she could not see through the mass of them flying around her. She did not recoil from Will - rather she clung faster to him. There was not blame in her, but the assault of a hundred thousand shouted questions and a hundred thousand nameless fears. It was as if a tiny beetle had been set upon by all the fury of Wellington's forces at Waterloo.
But this small beetle which was Dorothea did not lie and await the moment of her crushing. She looked suddenly at Will with a gaze of such passionate anger that he held her shoulders in astonishment. 'Will - why are we women kept in ignorance? Why are we protected from these things? Why must men visit houses of ill-repute to gain their knowledge? Why are we women not told - ' She fell on his shoulder, exhausted as suddenly as she was aroused.
'But how could that be, Dorothea? How should you be told? What words are there that can be used without the risk of shock, of degradation?'
'Shock?' Straightway she was roused again. 'Are we not shocked when these things are finally forced upon us? How many women turn upon their husbands on the night of their marriage and say, 'This was not part of the contract into which I entered? In all the talk of propriety and property, not a word was spoken of the necessity of this]'? The suspicion is in us - the awareness of the unsaid. Even as children . . . I found Celia giggling with her dolls one day - it was soon after our parents died, I did not understand how she could laugh when I was full of grief. She looked up at me innocently and said that one of her dolls was going to have a child. It should be told, it should] Oh - Will . . .'
He had wondered in his heart whether, in the many years to come, Dorothea would retain the power to astonish him. Now the certainty came to him that it would be so. 'My love?'
'How I long to give my love to you] Why may women not give this of their own free will, this love they bear a man? Why may they not give it knowingly? Will, when I confessed to you just now about my night of sorrow, when I found words to tell you that I love you with my flesh as well as with my soul - when I confessed this to you, that confession cost me as dearly as this confession has cost you. For we women - we angels, we delicate creatures who may not stand for more than five minutes without fainting with fatigue - we who also labour hours and days to bring your children into the world . . . we are not deemed to feel as human beings feel] We are not given the power to love - to let our love be known] All that we are offered is the sterile part - the part that says 'I take' but not 'I give'] That part I have suffered once, Will. I shall not suffer it again. I give my love to you, Will - with my whole being I give it.'
Will struggled, but could find no words. He stood, and drew her up, and she came to him with open eyes, and they clasped each other knowing that, in their separate frailties, they could be joined together, joined into a unity the strength of which could withstand whatever storms or frights the future might bring, whatever shocks and whatever joys. They had passed the first great trial: they could tell their minds to one another, and could share the pain as well as the ecstasy of love.
Alison Leonard writes novels and plays. Her most recent novel, for young adults, is 'Kiss the Kremlin Goodbye' (Walker Books); her play 'Heretics' will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 28 May. 'Middlemarch Chapter LXXXVII' is published in 'Northern Stories Vol 2' (Littlewood, 1990)
Allison Pearson, page 27
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