A Pair of Blue Eyes Audiobook by Thomas Hardy | Audiobook with Subtitles | Part 2

A Pair of Blue Eyes Chapter XX.
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. Chapter XX
‘A distant dearness in the hill.’ Knight turned his back upon the parish of
Endelstow, and crossed over to Cork. One day of absence superimposed itself on
another, and proportionately weighted his heart. He pushed on to the Lakes of Killarney,
rambled amid their luxuriant woods, surveyed the infinite variety of island, hill, and
dale there to be found, listened to the marvellous echoes of that romantic spot; but altogether
missed the glory and the dream he formerly found in such favoured regions. Whilst in the company of Elfride, her girlish
presence had not perceptibly affected him to any depth. He had not been conscious that
her entry into his sphere had added anything to himself; but now that she was taken away
he was very conscious of a great deal being abstracted. The superfluity had become a necessity,
and Knight was in love. Stephen fell in love with Elfride by looking
at her: Knight by ceasing to do so. When or how the spirit entered into him he knew not:
certain he was that when on the point of leaving Endelstow he had felt none of that exquisite
nicety of poignant sadness natural to such severances, seeing how delightful a subject
of contemplation Elfride had been ever since. Had he begun to love her when she met his
eye after her mishap on the tower? He had simply thought her weak. Had he grown to love
her whilst standing on the lawn brightened all over by the evening sun? He had thought
her complexion good: no more. Was it her conversation that had sown the seed? He had thought her
words ingenious, and very creditable to a young woman, but not noteworthy. Had the chess-playing
anything to do with it? Certainly not: he had thought her at that time a rather conceited
child. Knight’s experience was a complete disproof
of the assumption that love always comes by glances of the eye and sympathetic touches
of the fingers: that, like flame, it makes itself palpable at the moment of generation.
Not till they were parted, and she had become sublimated in his memory, could he be said
to have even attentively regarded her. Thus, having passively gathered up images
of her which his mind did not act upon till the cause of them was no longer before him,
he appeared to himself to have fallen in love with her soul, which had temporarily assumed
its disembodiment to accompany him on his way. She began to rule him so imperiously now that,
accustomed to analysis, he almost trembled at the possible result of the introduction
of this new force among the nicely adjusted ones of his ordinary life. He became restless:
then he forgot all collateral subjects in the pleasure of thinking about her. Yet it must be said that Knight loved philosophically
rather than with romance. He thought of her manner towards him. Simplicity
verges on coquetry. Was she flirting? he said to himself. No forcible translation of favour
into suspicion was able to uphold such a theory. The performance had been too well done to
be anything but real. It had the defects without which nothing is genuine. No actress of twenty
years’ standing, no bald-necked lady whose earliest season ‘out’ was lost in the
discreet mist of evasive talk, could have played before him the part of ingenuous girl
as Elfride lived it. She had the little artful ways which partly make up ingenuousness. There are bachelors by nature and bachelors
by circumstance: spinsters there doubtless are also of both kinds, though some think
only those of the latter. However, Knight had been looked upon as a bachelor by nature.
What was he coming to? It was very odd to himself to look at his theories on the subject
of love, and reading them now by the full light of a new experience, to see how much
more his sentences meant than he had felt them to mean when they were written. People
often discover the real force of a trite old maxim only when it is thrust upon them by
a chance adventure; but Knight had never before known the case of a man who learnt the full
compass of his own epigrams by such means. He was intensely satisfied with one aspect
of the affair. Inbred in him was an invincible objection to be any but the first comer in
a woman’s heart. He had discovered within himself the condition that if ever he did
make up his mind to marry, it must be on the certainty that no cropping out of inconvenient
old letters, no bow and blush to a mysterious stranger casually met, should be a possible
source of discomposure. Knight’s sentiments were only the ordinary ones of a man of his
age who loves genuinely, perhaps exaggerated a little by his pursuits. When men first love
as lads, it is with the very centre of their hearts, nothing else being concerned in the
operation. With added years, more of the faculties attempt a partnership in the passion, till
at Knight’s age the understanding is fain to have a hand in it. It may as well be left
out. A man in love setting up his brains as a gauge of his position is as one determining
a ship’s longitude from a light at the mast-head. Knight argued from Elfride’s unwontedness
of manner, which was matter of fact, to an unwontedness in love, which was matter of
inference only. Incredules les plus credules. ‘Elfride,’ he said, ‘had hardly looked
upon a man till she saw me.’ He had never forgotten his severity to her
because she preferred ornament to edification, and had since excused her a hundred times
by thinking how natural to womankind was a love of adornment, and how necessary became
a mild infusion of personal vanity to complete the delicate and fascinating dye of the feminine
mind. So at the end of the week’s absence, which had brought him as far as Dublin, he
resolved to curtail his tour, return to Endelstow, and commit himself by making a reality of
the hypothetical offer of that Sunday evening. Notwithstanding that he had concocted a great
deal of paper theory on social amenities and modern manners generally, the special ounce
of practice was wanting, and now for his life Knight could not recollect whether it was
considered correct to give a young lady personal ornaments before a regular engagement to marry
had been initiated. But the day before leaving Dublin he looked around anxiously for a high-class
jewellery establishment, in which he purchased what he considered would suit her best. It was with a most awkward and unwonted feeling
that after entering and closing the door of his room he sat down, opened the morocco case,
and held up each of the fragile bits of gold-work before his eyes. Many things had become old
to the solitary man of letters, but these were new, and he handled like a child an outcome
of civilization which had never before been touched by his fingers. A sudden fastidious
decision that the pattern chosen would not suit her after all caused him to rise in a
flurry and tear down the street to change them for others. After a great deal of trouble
in reselecting, during which his mind became so bewildered that the critical faculty on
objects of art seemed to have vacated his person altogether, Knight carried off another
pair of ear-rings. These remained in his possession till the afternoon, when, after contemplating
them fifty times with a growing misgiving that the last choice was worse than the first,
he felt that no sleep would visit his pillow till he had improved upon his previous purchases
yet again. In a perfect heat of vexation with himself for such tergiversation, he went anew
to the shop-door, was absolutely ashamed to enter and give further trouble, went to another
shop, bought a pair at an enormously increased price, because they seemed the very thing,
asked the goldsmiths if they would take the other pair in exchange, was told that they
could not exchange articles bought of another maker, paid down the money, and went off with
the two pairs in his possession, wondering what on earth to do with the superfluous pair.
He almost wished he could lose them, or that somebody would steal them, and was burdened
with an interposing sense that, as a capable man, with true ideas of economy, he must necessarily
sell them somewhere, which he did at last for a mere song. Mingled with a blank feeling
of a whole day being lost to him in running about the city on this new and extraordinary
class of errand, and of several pounds being lost through his bungling, was a slight sense
of satisfaction that he had emerged for ever from his antediluvian ignorance on the subject
of ladies’ jewellery, as well as secured a truly artistic production at last. During
the remainder of that day he scanned the ornaments of every lady he met with the profoundly experienced
eye of an appraiser. Next morning Knight was again crossing St.
George’s Channel—not returning to London by the Holyhead route as he had originally
intended, but towards Bristol—availing himself of Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt’s invitation to
revisit them on his homeward journey. We flit forward to Elfride. Woman’s ruling passion—to fascinate and
influence those more powerful than she—though operant in Elfride, was decidedly purposeless.
She had wanted her friend Knight’s good opinion from the first: how much more than
that elementary ingredient of friendship she now desired, her fears would hardly allow
her to think. In originally wishing to please the highest class of man she had ever intimately
known, there was no disloyalty to Stephen Smith. She could not—and few women can—realize
the possible vastness of an issue which has only an insignificant begetting. Her letters from Stephen were necessarily
few, and her sense of fidelity clung to the last she had received as a wrecked mariner
clings to flotsam. The young girl persuaded herself that she was glad Stephen had such
a right to her hand as he had acquired (in her eyes) by the elopement. She beguiled herself
by saying, ‘Perhaps if I had not so committed myself I might fall in love with Mr. Knight.’ All this made the week of Knight’s absence
very gloomy and distasteful to her. She retained Stephen in her prayers, and his old letters
were re-read—as a medicine in reality, though she deceived herself into the belief that
it was as a pleasure. These letters had grown more and more hopeful.
He told her that he finished his work every day with a pleasant consciousness of having
removed one more stone from the barrier which divided them. Then he drew images of what
a fine figure they two would cut some day. People would turn their heads and say, ‘What
a prize he has won!’ She was not to be sad about that wild runaway attempt of theirs
(Elfride had repeatedly said that it grieved her). Whatever any other person who knew of
it might think, he knew well enough the modesty of her nature. The only reproach was a gentle
one for not having written quite so devotedly during her visit to London. Her letter had
seemed to have a liveliness derived from other thoughts than thoughts of him. Knight’s intention of an early return to
Endelstow having originally been faint, his promise to do so had been fainter. He was
a man who kept his words well to the rear of his possible actions. The vicar was rather
surprised to see him again so soon: Mrs. Swancourt was not. Knight found, on meeting them all,
after his arrival had been announced, that they had formed an intention to go to St.
Leonards for a few days at the end of the month. No satisfactory conjuncture offered itself
on this first evening of his return for presenting Elfride with what he had been at such pains
to procure. He was fastidious in his reading of opportunities for such an intended act.
The next morning chancing to break fine after a week of cloudy weather, it was proposed
and decided that they should all drive to Barwith Strand, a local lion which neither
Mrs. Swancourt nor Knight had seen. Knight scented romantic occasions from afar, and
foresaw that such a one might be expected before the coming night. The journey was along a road by neutral green
hills, upon which hedgerows lay trailing like ropes on a quay. Gaps in these uplands revealed
the blue sea, flecked with a few dashes of white and a solitary white sail, the whole
brimming up to a keen horizon which lay like a line ruled from hillside to hillside. Then
they rolled down a pass, the chocolate-toned rocks forming a wall on both sides, from one
of which fell a heavy jagged shade over half the roadway. A spout of fresh water burst
from an occasional crevice, and pattering down upon broad green leaves, ran along as
a rivulet at the bottom. Unkempt locks of heather overhung the brow of each steep, whence
at divers points a bramble swung forth into mid-air, snatching at their head-dresses like
a claw. They mounted the last crest, and the bay which
was to be the end of their pilgrimage burst upon them. The ocean blueness deepened its
colour as it stretched to the foot of the crags, where it terminated in a fringe of
white—silent at this distance, though moving and heaving like a counterpane upon a restless
sleeper. The shadowed hollows of the purple and brown rocks would have been called blue
had not that tint been so entirely appropriated by the water beside them. The carriage was put up at a little cottage
with a shed attached, and an ostler and the coachman carried the hamper of provisions
down to the shore. Knight found his opportunity. ‘I did not
forget your wish,’ he began, when they were apart from their friends. Elfride looked as if she did not understand. ‘And I have brought you these,’ he continued,
awkwardly pulling out the case, and opening it while holding it towards her. ‘O Mr. Knight!’ said Elfride confusedly,
and turning to a lively red; ‘I didn’t know you had any intention or meaning in what
you said. I thought it a mere supposition. I don’t want them.’ A thought which had flashed into her mind
gave the reply a greater decisiveness than it might otherwise have possessed. To-morrow
was the day for Stephen’s letter. ‘But will you not accept them?’ Knight
returned, feeling less her master than heretofore. ‘I would rather not. They are beautiful—more
beautiful than any I have ever seen,’ she answered earnestly, looking half-wishfully
at the temptation, as Eve may have looked at the apple. ‘But I don’t want to have
them, if you will kindly forgive me, Mr. Knight.’ ‘No kindness at all,’ said Mr. Knight,
brought to a full stop at this unexpected turn of events. A silence followed. Knight held the open case,
looking rather wofully at the glittering forms he had forsaken his orbit to procure; turning
it about and holding it up as if, feeling his gift to be slighted by her, he were endeavouring
to admire it very much himself. ‘Shut them up, and don’t let me see them
any longer—do!’ she said laughingly, and with a quaint mixture of reluctance and entreaty. ‘Why, Elfie?’ ‘Not Elfie to you, Mr. Knight. Oh, because
I shall want them. There, I am silly, I know, to say that! But I have a reason for not taking
them—now.’ She kept in the last word for a moment, intending to imply that her refusal
was finite, but somehow the word slipped out, and undid all the rest. ‘You will take them some day?’ ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why don’t you want to, Elfride Swancourt?’ ‘Because I don’t. I don’t like to take
them.’ ‘I have read a fact of distressing significance
in that,’ said Knight. ‘Since you like them, your dislike to having them must be
towards me?’ ‘No, it isn’t.’ ‘What, then? Do you like me?’ Elfride deepened in tint, and looked into
the distance with features shaped to an expression of the nicest criticism as regarded her answer. ‘I like you pretty well,’ she at length
murmured mildly. ‘Not very much?’ ‘You are so sharp with me, and say hard
things, and so how can I?’ she replied evasively. ‘You think me a fogey, I suppose?’ ‘No, I don’t—I mean I do—I don’t
know what I think you, I mean. Let us go to papa,’ responded Elfride, with somewhat
of a flurried delivery. ‘Well, I’ll tell you my object in getting
the present,’ said Knight, with a composure intended to remove from her mind any possible
impression of his being what he was—her lover. ‘You see it was the very least I
could do in common civility.’ Elfride felt rather blank at this lucid statement. Knight continued, putting away the case: ‘I
felt as anybody naturally would have, you know, that my words on your choice the other
day were invidious and unfair, and thought an apology should take a practical shape.’ ‘Oh yes.’ Elfride was sorry—she could not tell why—that
he gave such a legitimate reason. It was a disappointment that he had all the time a
cool motive, which might be stated to anybody without raising a smile. Had she known they
were offered in that spirit, she would certainly have accepted the seductive gift. And the
tantalizing feature was that perhaps he suspected her to imagine them offered as a lover’s
token, which was mortifying enough if they were not. Mrs. Swancourt came now to where they were
sitting, to select a flat boulder for spreading their table-cloth upon, and, amid the discussion
on that subject, the matter pending between Knight and Elfride was shelved for a while.
He read her refusal so certainly as the bashfulness of a girl in a novel position, that, upon
the whole, he could tolerate such a beginning. Could Knight have been told that it was a
sense of fidelity struggling against new love, whilst no less assuring as to his ultimate
victory, it might have entirely abstracted the wish to secure it. At the same time a slight constraint of manner
was visible between them for the remainder of the afternoon. The tide turned, and they
were obliged to ascend to higher ground. The day glided on to its end with the usual quiet
dreamy passivity of such occasions—when every deed done and thing thought is in endeavouring
to avoid doing and thinking more. Looking idly over the verge of a crag, they beheld
their stone dining-table gradually being splashed upon and their crumbs and fragments all washed
away by the incoming sea. The vicar drew a moral lesson from the scene; Knight replied
in the same satisfied strain. And then the waves rolled in furiously—the neutral green-and-blue
tongues of water slid up the slopes, and were metamorphosed into foam by a careless blow,
falling back white and faint, and leaving trailing followers behind. The passing of a heavy shower was the next
scene—driving them to shelter in a shallow cave—after which the horses were put in,
and they started to return homeward. By the time they reached the higher levels the sky
had again cleared, and the sunset rays glanced directly upon the wet uphill road they had
climbed. The ruts formed by their carriage-wheels on the ascent—a pair of Liliputian canals—were
as shining bars of gold, tapering to nothing in the distance. Upon this also they turned
their backs, and night spread over the sea. The evening was chilly, and there was no moon.
Knight sat close to Elfride, and, when the darkness rendered the position of a person
a matter of uncertainty, particularly close. Elfride edged away. ‘I hope you allow me my place ungrudgingly?’
he whispered. ‘Oh yes; ‘tis the least I can do in common
civility,’ she said, accenting the words so that he might recognize them as his own
returned. Both of them felt delicately balanced between
two possibilities. Thus they reached home. To Knight this mild experience was delightful.
It was to him a gentle innocent time—a time which, though there may not be much in it,
seldom repeats itself in a man’s life, and has a peculiar dearness when glanced at retrospectively.
He is not inconveniently deep in love, and is lulled by a peaceful sense of being able
to enjoy the most trivial thing with a childlike enjoyment. The movement of a wave, the colour
of a stone, anything, was enough for Knight’s drowsy thoughts of that day to precipitate
themselves upon. Even the sermonizing platitudes the vicar had delivered himself of—chiefly
because something seemed to be professionally required of him in the presence of a man of
Knight’s proclivities—were swallowed whole. The presence of Elfride led him not merely
to tolerate that kind of talk from the necessities of ordinary courtesy; but he listened to it—took
in the ideas with an enjoyable make-believe that they were proper and necessary, and indulged
in a conservative feeling that the face of things was complete. Entering her room that evening Elfride found
a packet for herself on the dressing-table. How it came there she did not know. She tremblingly
undid the folds of white paper that covered it. Yes; it was the treasure of a morocco
case, containing those treasures of ornament she had refused in the daytime. Elfride dressed herself in them for a moment,
looked at herself in the glass, blushed red, and put them away. They filled her dreams
all that night. Never had she seen anything so lovely, and never was it more clear that
as an honest woman she was in duty bound to refuse them. Why it was not equally clear
to her that duty required more vigorous co-ordinate conduct as well, let those who dissect her
say. The next morning glared in like a spectre
upon her. It was Stephen’s letter-day, and she was bound to meet the postman—to stealthily
do a deed she had never liked, to secure an end she now had ceased to desire. But she went. There were two letters. One was from the bank at St. Launce’s, in
which she had a small private deposit—probably something about interest. She put that in
her pocket for a moment, and going indoors and upstairs to be safer from observation,
tremblingly opened Stephen’s. What was this he said to her? She was to go to the St. Launce’s Bank and
take a sum of money which they had received private advices to pay her. The sum was two hundred pounds. There was no check, order, or anything of
the nature of guarantee. In fact the information amounted to this: the money was now in the
St. Launce’s Bank, standing in her name. She instantly opened the other letter. It
contained a deposit-note from the bank for the sum of two hundred pounds which had that
day been added to her account. Stephen’s information, then, was correct, and the transfer
made. ‘I have saved this in one year,’ Stephen’s
letter went on to say, ‘and what so proper as well as pleasant for me to do as to hand
it over to you to keep for your use? I have plenty for myself, independently of this.
Should you not be disposed to let it lie idle in the bank, get your father to invest it
in your name on good security. It is a little present to you from your more than betrothed.
He will, I think, Elfride, feel now that my pretensions to your hand are anything but
the dream of a silly boy not worth rational consideration.’ With a natural delicacy, Elfride, in mentioning
her father’s marriage, had refrained from all allusion to the pecuniary resources of
the lady. Leaving this matter-of-fact subject, he went
on, somewhat after his boyish manner: ‘Do you remember, darling, that first morning
of my arrival at your house, when your father read at prayers the miracle of healing the
sick of the palsy—where he is told to take up his bed and walk? I do, and I can now so
well realize the force of that passage. The smallest piece of mat is the bed of the Oriental,
and yesterday I saw a native perform the very action, which reminded me to mention it. But
you are better read than I, and perhaps you knew all this long ago….One day I bought
some small native idols to send home to you as curiosities, but afterwards finding they
had been cast in England, made to look old, and shipped over, I threw them away in disgust. ‘Speaking of this reminds me that we are
obliged to import all our house-building ironwork from England. Never was such foresight required
to be exercised in building houses as here. Before we begin, we have to order every column,
lock, hinge, and screw that will be required. We cannot go into the next street, as in London,
and get them cast at a minute’s notice. Mr. L. says somebody will have to go to England
very soon and superintend the selection of a large order of this kind. I only wish I
may be the man.’ There before her lay the deposit-receipt for
the two hundred pounds, and beside it the elegant present of Knight. Elfride grew cold—then
her cheeks felt heated by beating blood. If by destroying the piece of paper the whole
transaction could have been withdrawn from her experience, she would willingly have sacrificed
the money it represented. She did not know what to do in either case. She almost feared
to let the two articles lie in juxtaposition: so antagonistic were the interests they represented
that a miraculous repulsion of one by the other was almost to be expected. That day she was seen little of. By the evening
she had come to a resolution, and acted upon it. The packet was sealed up—with a tear
of regret as she closed the case upon the pretty forms it contained—directed, and
placed upon the writing-table in Knight’s room. And a letter was written to Stephen,
stating that as yet she hardly understood her position with regard to the money sent;
but declaring that she was ready to fulfil her promise to marry him. After this letter
had been written she delayed posting it—although never ceasing to feel strenuously that the
deed must be done. Several days passed. There was another Indian
letter for Elfride. Coming unexpectedly, her father saw it, but made no remark—why, she
could not tell. The news this time was absolutely overwhelming. Stephen, as he had wished, had
been actually chosen as the most fitting to execute the iron-work commission he had alluded
to as impending. This duty completed he would have three months’ leave. His letter continued
that he should follow it in a week, and should take the opportunity to plainly ask her father
to permit the engagement. Then came a page expressive of his delight and hers at the
reunion; and finally, the information that he would write to the shipping agents, asking
them to telegraph and tell her when the ship bringing him home should be in sight—knowing
how acceptable such information would be. Elfride lived and moved now as in a dream.
Knight had at first become almost angry at her persistent refusal of his offering—and
no less with the manner than the fact of it. But he saw that she began to look worn and
ill—and his vexation lessened to simple perplexity. He ceased now to remain in the house for long
hours together as before, but made it a mere centre for antiquarian and geological excursions
in the neighbourhood. Throw up his cards and go away he fain would have done, but could
not. And, thus, availing himself of the privileges of a relative, he went in and out the premises
as fancy led him—but still lingered on. ‘I don’t wish to stay here another day
if my presence is distasteful,’ he said one afternoon. ‘At first you used to imply
that I was severe with you; and when I am kind you treat me unfairly.’ ‘No, no. Don’t say so.’ The origin of their acquaintanceship had been
such as to render their manner towards each other peculiar and uncommon. It was of a kind
to cause them to speak out their minds on any feelings of objection and difference:
to be reticent on gentler matters. ‘I have a good mind to go away and never
trouble you again,’ continued Knight. She said nothing, but the eloquent expression
of her eyes and wan face was enough to reproach him for harshness. ‘Do you like me to be here, then?’ inquired
Knight gently. ‘Yes,’ she said. Fidelity to the old love
and truth to the new were ranged on opposite sides, and truth virtuelessly prevailed. ‘Then I’ll stay a little longer,’ said
Knight. ‘Don’t be vexed if I keep by myself a
good deal, will you? Perhaps something may happen, and I may tell you something.’ ‘Mere coyness,’ said Knight to himself;
and went away with a lighter heart. The trick of reading truly the enigmatical forces at
work in women at given times, which with some men is an unerring instinct, is peculiar to
minds less direct and honest than Knight’s. The next evening, about five o’clock, before
Knight had returned from a pilgrimage along the shore, a man walked up to the house. He
was a messenger from Camelton, a town a few miles off, to which place the railway had
been advanced during the summer. ‘A telegram for Miss Swancourt, and three
and sixpence to pay for the special messenger.’ Miss Swancourt sent out the money, signed
the paper, and opened her letter with a trembling hand. She read: ‘Johnson, Liverpool, to Miss Swancourt,
Endelstow, near Castle Boterel. ‘Amaryllis telegraphed off Holyhead, four
o’clock. Expect will dock and land passengers at Canning’s Basin ten o’clock to-morrow
morning.’ Her father called her into the study. ‘Elfride, who sent you that message?’
he asked suspiciously. ‘Johnson.’ ‘Who is Johnson, for Heaven’s
sake?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘The deuce you don’t! Who is to know,
then?’ ‘I have never heard of him till now.’ ‘That’s a singular story, isn’t it.’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Come, come, miss! What was the telegram?’ ‘Do you really wish to know, papa?’ ‘Well, I do.’ ‘Remember, I am a full-grown woman now.’ ‘Well, what then?’ ‘Being a woman, and not a child, I may,
I think, have a secret or two.’ ‘You will, it seems.’ ‘Women have, as a rule.’ ‘But don’t keep them. So speak out.’ ‘If you will not press me now, I give my
word to tell you the meaning of all this before the week is past.’ ‘On your honour?’ ‘On my honour.’ ‘Very well. I have had a certain suspicion,
you know; and I shall be glad to find it false. I don’t like your manner lately.’ ‘At the end of the week, I said, papa.’ Her father did not reply, and Elfride left
the room. She began to look out for the postman again.
Three mornings later he brought an inland letter from Stephen. It contained very little
matter, having been written in haste; but the meaning was bulky enough. Stephen said
that, having executed a commission in Liverpool, he should arrive at his father’s house,
East Endelstow, at five or six o’clock that same evening; that he would after dusk walk
on to the next village, and meet her, if she would, in the church porch, as in the old
time. He proposed this plan because he thought it unadvisable to call formally at her house
so late in the evening; yet he could not sleep without having seen her. The minutes would
seem hours till he clasped her in his arms. Elfride was still steadfast in her opinion
that honour compelled her to meet him. Probably the very longing to avoid him lent additional
weight to the conviction; for she was markedly one of those who sigh for the unattainable—to
whom, superlatively, a hope is pleasing because not a possession. And she knew it so well
that her intellect was inclined to exaggerate this defect in herself. So during the day she looked her duty steadfastly
in the face; read Wordsworth’s astringent yet depressing ode to that Deity; committed
herself to her guidance; and still felt the weight of chance desires. But she began to take a melancholy pleasure
in contemplating the sacrifice of herself to the man whom a maidenly sense of propriety
compelled her to regard as her only possible husband. She would meet him, and do all that
lay in her power to marry him. To guard against a relapse, a note was at once despatched to
his father’s cottage for Stephen on his arrival, fixing an hour for the interview. Chapter XXI
‘On thy cold grey stones, O sea!’ Stephen had said that he should come by way
of Bristol, and thence by a steamer to Castle Boterel, in order to avoid the long journey
over the hills from St. Launce’s. He did not know of the extension of the railway to
Camelton. During the afternoon a thought occurred to
Elfride, that from any cliff along the shore it would be possible to see the steamer some
hours before its arrival. She had accumulated religious force enough
to do an act of supererogation. The act was this—to go to some point of land and watch
for the ship that brought her future husband home. It was a cloudy afternoon. Elfride was often
diverted from a purpose by a dull sky; and though she used to persuade herself that the
weather was as fine as possible on the other side of the clouds, she could not bring about
any practical result from this fancy. Now, her mood was such that the humid sky harmonized
with it. Having ascended and passed over a hill behind
the house, Elfride came to a small stream. She used it as a guide to the coast. It was
smaller than that in her own valley, and flowed altogether at a higher level. Bushes lined
the slopes of its shallow trough; but at the bottom, where the water ran, was a soft green
carpet, in a strip two or three yards wide. In winter, the water flowed over the grass;
in summer, as now, it trickled along a channel in the midst. Elfride had a sensation of eyes regarding
her from somewhere. She turned, and there was Mr. Knight. He had dropped into the valley
from the side of the hill. She felt a thrill of pleasure, and rebelliously allowed it to
exist. ‘What utter loneliness to find you in!’ ‘I am going to the shore by tracking the
stream. I believe it empties itself not far off, in a silver thread of water, over a cascade
of great height.’ ‘Why do you load yourself with that heavy
telescope?’ ‘To look over the sea with it,’ she said
faintly. ‘I’ll carry it for you to your journey’s
end.’ And he took the glass from her unresisting hands. ‘It cannot be half a mile further.
See, there is the water.’ He pointed to a short fragment of level muddy-gray colour,
cutting against the sky. Elfride had already scanned the small surface
of ocean visible, and had seen no ship. They walked along in company, sometimes with
the brook between them—for it was no wider than a man’s stride—sometimes close together.
The green carpet grew swampy, and they kept higher up. One of the two ridges between which they walked
dwindled lower and became insignificant. That on the right hand rose with their advance,
and terminated in a clearly defined edge against the light, as if it were abruptly sawn off.
A little further, and the bed of the rivulet ended in the same fashion. They had come to a bank breast-high, and over
it the valley was no longer to be seen. It was withdrawn cleanly and completely. In its
place was sky and boundless atmosphere; and perpendicularly down beneath them—small
and far off—lay the corrugated surface of the Atlantic. The small stream here found its death. Running
over the precipice it was dispersed in spray before it was half-way down, and falling like
rain upon projecting ledges, made minute grassy meadows of them. At the bottom the water-drops
soaked away amid the debris of the cliff. This was the inglorious end of the river. ‘What are you looking for? said Knight,
following the direction of her eyes. She was gazing hard at a black object—nearer
to the shore than to the horizon—from the summit of which came a nebulous haze, stretching
like gauze over the sea. ‘The Puffin, a little summer steamboat—from
Bristol to Castle Boterel,’ she said. ‘I think that is it—look. Will you give me
the glass?’ Knight pulled open the old-fashioned but powerful
telescope, and handed it to Elfride, who had looked on with heavy eyes. ‘I can’t keep it up now,’ she said. ‘Rest it on my shoulder.’ ‘It is too high.’ ‘Under my arm.’ ‘Too low. You may look instead,’ she murmured
weakly. Knight raised the glass to his eye, and swept
the sea till the Puffin entered its field. ‘Yes, it is the Puffin—a tiny craft. I
can see her figure-head distinctly—a bird with a beak as big as its head.’ ‘Can you see the deck?’ ‘Wait a minute; yes, pretty clearly. And
I can see the black forms of the passengers against its white surface. One of them has
taken something from another—a glass, I think—yes, it is—and he is levelling it
in this direction. Depend upon it we are conspicuous objects against the sky to them. Now, it seems
to rain upon them, and they put on overcoats and open umbrellas. They vanish and go below—all
but that one who has borrowed the glass. He is a slim young fellow, and still watches
us.’ Elfride grew pale, and shifted her little
feet uneasily. Knight lowered the glass. ‘I think we had better return,’ he said.
‘That cloud which is raining on them may soon reach us. Why, you look ill. How is that?’ ‘Something in the air affects my face.’ ‘Those fair cheeks are very fastidious,
I fear,’ returned Knight tenderly. ‘This air would make those rosy that were never
so before, one would think—eh, Nature’s spoilt child?’ Elfride’s colour returned again. ‘There is more to see behind us, after all,’
said Knight. She turned her back upon the boat and Stephen
Smith, and saw, towering still higher than themselves, the vertical face of the hill
on the right, which did not project seaward so far as the bed of the valley, but formed
the back of a small cove, and so was visible like a concave wall, bending round from their
position towards the left. The composition of the huge hill was revealed
to its backbone and marrow here at its rent extremity. It consisted of a vast stratification
of blackish-gray slate, unvaried in its whole height by a single change of shade. It is with cliffs and mountains as with persons;
they have what is called a presence, which is not necessarily proportionate to their
actual bulk. A little cliff will impress you powerfully; a great one not at all. It depends,
as with man, upon the countenance of the cliff. ‘I cannot bear to look at that cliff,’
said Elfride. ‘It has a horrid personality, and makes me shudder. We will go.’ ‘Can you climb?’ said Knight. ‘If so,
we will ascend by that path over the grim old fellow’s brow.’ ‘Try me,’ said Elfride disdainfully. ‘I
have ascended steeper slopes than that.’ From where they had been loitering, a grassy
path wound along inside a bank, placed as a safeguard for unwary pedestrians, to the
top of the precipice, and over it along the hill in an inland direction. ‘Take my arm, Miss Swancourt,’ said Knight. ‘I can get on better without it, thank you.’ When they were one quarter of the way up,
Elfride stopped to take breath. Knight stretched out his hand. She took it, and they ascended the remaining
slope together. Reaching the very top, they sat down to rest by mutual consent. ‘Heavens, what an altitude!’ said Knight
between his pants, and looking far over the sea. The cascade at the bottom of the slope
appeared a mere span in height from where they were now. Elfride was looking to the left. The steamboat
was in full view again, and by reason of the vast surface of sea their higher position
uncovered it seemed almost close to the shore. ‘Over that edge,’ said Knight, ‘where
nothing but vacancy appears, is a moving compact mass. The wind strikes the face of the rock,
runs up it, rises like a fountain to a height far above our heads, curls over us in an arch,
and disperses behind us. In fact, an inverted cascade is there—as perfect as the Niagara
Falls—but rising instead of falling, and air instead of water. Now look here.’ Knight threw a stone over the bank, aiming
it as if to go onward over the cliff. Reaching the verge, it towered into the air like a
bird, turned back, and alighted on the ground behind them. They themselves were in a dead
calm. ‘A boat crosses Niagara immediately at the
foot of the falls, where the water is quite still, the fallen mass curving under it. We
are in precisely the same position with regard to our atmospheric cataract here. If you run
back from the cliff fifty yards, you will be in a brisk wind. Now I daresay over the
bank is a little backward current.’ Knight rose and leant over the bank. No sooner
was his head above it than his hat appeared to be sucked from his head—slipping over
his forehead in a seaward direction. ‘That’s the backward eddy, as I told you,’
he cried, and vanished over the little bank after his hat. Elfride waited one minute; he did not return.
She waited another, and there was no sign of him. A few drops of rain fell, then a sudden shower. She arose, and looked over the bank. On the
other side were two or three yards of level ground—then a short steep preparatory slope—then
the verge of the precipice. On the slope was Knight, his hat on his head.
He was on his hands and knees, trying to climb back to the level ground. The rain had wetted
the shaly surface of the incline. A slight superficial wetting of the soil hereabout
made it far more slippery to stand on than the same soil thoroughly drenched. The inner
substance was still hard, and was lubricated by the moistened film. ‘I find a difficulty in getting back,’
said Knight. Elfride’s heart fell like lead. ‘But you can get back?’ she wildly inquired. Knight strove with all his might for two or
three minutes, and the drops of perspiration began to bead his brow. ‘No, I am unable to do it,’ he answered. Elfride, by a wrench of thought, forced away
from her mind the sensation that Knight was in bodily danger. But attempt to help him
she must. She ventured upon the treacherous incline, propped herself with the closed telescope,
and gave him her hand before he saw her movements. ‘O Elfride! why did you?’ said he. ‘I
am afraid you have only endangered yourself.’ And as if to prove his statement, in making
an endeavour by her assistance they both slipped lower, and then he was again stayed. His foot
was propped by a bracket of quartz rock, balanced on the verge of the precipice. Fixed by this,
he steadied her, her head being about a foot below the beginning of the slope. Elfride
had dropped the glass; it rolled to the edge and vanished over it into a nether sky. ‘Hold tightly to me,’ he said. She flung her arms round his neck with such
a firm grasp that whilst he remained it was impossible for her to fall. ‘Don’t be flurried,’ Knight continued.
‘So long as we stay above this block we are perfectly safe. Wait a moment whilst I
consider what we had better do.’ He turned his eyes to the dizzy depths beneath
them, and surveyed the position of affairs. Two glances told him a tale with ghastly distinctness.
It was that, unless they performed their feat of getting up the slope with the precision
of machines, they were over the edge and whirling in mid-air. For this purpose it was necessary that he
should recover the breath and strength which his previous efforts had cost him. So he still
waited, and looked in the face of the enemy. The crest of this terrible natural facade
passed among the neighbouring inhabitants as being seven hundred feet above the water
it overhung. It had been proved by actual measurement to be not a foot less than six
hundred and fifty. That is to say, it is nearly three times the
height of Flamborough, half as high again as the South Foreland, a hundred feet higher
than Beachy Head—the loftiest promontory on the east or south side of this island—twice
the height of St. Aldhelm’s, thrice as high as the Lizard, and just double the height
of St. Bee’s. One sea-bord point on the western coast is known to surpass it in altitude,
but only by a few feet. This is Great Orme’s Head, in Caernarvonshire. And it must be remembered that the cliff exhibits
an intensifying feature which some of those are without—sheer perpendicularity from
the half-tide level. Yet this remarkable rampart forms no headland:
it rather walls in an inlet—the promontory on each side being much lower. Thus, far from
being salient, its horizontal section is concave. The sea, rolling direct from the shores of
North America, has in fact eaten a chasm into the middle of a hill, and the giant, embayed
and unobtrusive, stands in the rear of pigmy supporters. Not least singularly, neither
hill, chasm, nor precipice has a name. On this account I will call the precipice the
Cliff without a Name.* * See Preface
What gave an added terror to its height was its blackness. And upon this dark face the
beating of ten thousand west winds had formed a kind of bloom, which had a visual effect
not unlike that of a Hambro’ grape. Moreover it seemed to float off into the atmosphere,
and inspire terror through the lungs. ‘This piece of quartz, supporting my feet,
is on the very nose of the cliff,’ said Knight, breaking the silence after his rigid
stoical meditation. ‘Now what you are to do is this. Clamber up my body till your feet
are on my shoulders: when you are there you will, I think, be able to climb on to level
ground.’ ‘What will you do?’ ‘Wait whilst you run for assistance.’ ‘I ought to have done that in the first
place, ought I not?’ ‘I was in the act of slipping, and should
have reached no stand-point without your weight, in all probability. But don’t let us talk.
Be brave, Elfride, and climb.’ She prepared to ascend, saying, ‘This is
the moment I anticipated when on the tower. I thought it would come!’ ‘This is not a time for superstition,’
said Knight. ‘Dismiss all that.’ ‘I will,’ she said humbly. ‘Now put your foot into my hand: next the
other. That’s good—well done. Hold to my shoulder.’ She placed her feet upon the stirrup he made
of his hand, and was high enough to get a view of the natural surface of the hill over
the bank. ‘Can you now climb on to level ground?’ ‘I am afraid not. I will try.’ ‘What can you see?’ ‘The sloping common.’ ‘What upon it?’ ‘Purple heather and some grass.’ ‘Nothing more—no man or human being of
any kind?’ ‘Nobody.’ ‘Now try to get higher in this way. You
see that tuft of sea-pink above you. Get that well into your hand, but don’t trust to
it entirely. Then step upon my shoulder, and I think you will reach the top.’ With trembling limbs she did exactly as he
told her. The preternatural quiet and solemnity of his manner overspread upon herself, and
gave her a courage not her own. She made a spring from the top of his shoulder, and was
up. Then she turned to look at him. By an ill fate, the force downwards of her
bound, added to his own weight, had been too much for the block of quartz upon which his
feet depended. It was, indeed, originally an igneous protrusion into the enormous masses
of black strata, which had since been worn away from the sides of the alien fragment
by centuries of frost and rain, and now left it without much support. It moved. Knight seized a tuft of sea-pink
with each hand. The quartz rock which had been his salvation
was worse than useless now. It rolled over, out of sight, and away into the same nether
sky that had engulfed the telescope. One of the tufts by which he held came out
at the root, and Knight began to follow the quartz. It was a terrible moment. Elfride
uttered a low wild wail of agony, bowed her head, and covered her face with her hands. Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic
perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet
steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made
a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation—the last outlying knot of starved
herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was
now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would
call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight,
but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him. In spite of this dreadful tension of body
and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe. She lay on her side above him—her fingers
clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet. ‘Now, if I can only save you by running
for help!’ she cried. ‘Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver
me?’ And she turned away wildly to run for assistance. ‘Elfride, how long will it take you to run
to Endelstow and back?’ ‘Three-quarters of an hour.’ ‘That won’t do; my hands will not hold
out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?’ ‘No; unless a chance passer may happen to
be.’ ‘He would have nothing with him that could
save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?’ She gazed around. The common was bare of everything
but heather and grass. A minute—perhaps more time—was passed
in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished
over the bank from his sight. Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized
loneliness. Chapter XXII
‘A woman’s way.’ Haggard cliffs, of every ugly altitude, are
as common as sea-fowl along the line of coast between Exmoor and Land’s End; but this
outflanked and encompassed specimen was the ugliest of them all. Their summits are not
safe places for scientific experiment on the principles of air-currents, as Knight had
now found, to his dismay. He still clutched the face of the escarpment—not
with the frenzied hold of despair, but with a dogged determination to make the most of
his every jot of endurance, and so give the longest possible scope to Elfride’s intentions,
whatever they might be. He reclined hand in hand with the world in
its infancy. Not a blade, not an insect, which spoke of the present, was between him and
the past. The inveterate antagonism of these black precipices to all strugglers for life
is in no way more forcibly suggested than by the paucity of tufts of grass, lichens,
or confervae on their outermost ledges. Knight pondered on the meaning of Elfride’s
hasty disappearance, but could not avoid an instinctive conclusion that there existed
but a doubtful hope for him. As far as he could judge, his sole chance of deliverance
lay in the possibility of a rope or pole being brought; and this possibility was remote indeed.
The soil upon these high downs was left so untended that they were unenclosed for miles,
except by a casual bank or dry wall, and were rarely visited but for the purpose of collecting
or counting the flock which found a scanty means of subsistence thereon. At first, when death appeared improbable,
because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything
connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature’s treacherous attempt
to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her. From the fact that the cliff formed the inner
face of the segment of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom,
which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a semicircle, he could see the vertical
face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more
thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels
the inimical shape was desolation. By one of those familiar conjunctions of things
wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense,
opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock.
It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding
him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years
in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was
the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had
had a body to save, as he himself had now. The creature represented but a low type of
animal existence, for never in their vernal years had the plains indicated by those numberless
slaty layers been traversed by an intelligence worthy of the name. Zoophytes, mollusca, shell-fish,
were the highest developments of those ancient dates. The immense lapses of time each formation
represented had known nothing of the dignity of man. They were grand times, but they were
mean times too, and mean were their relics. He was to be with the small in his death. Knight was a geologist; and such is the supremacy
of habit over occasion, as a pioneer of the thoughts of men, that at this dreadful juncture
his mind found time to take in, by a momentary sweep, the varied scenes that had had their
day between this creature’s epoch and his own. There is no place like a cleft landscape
for bringing home such imaginings as these. Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw
himself at one extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate
centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in the hides of beasts, and carrying, for
defence and attack, huge clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms
before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud huts—perhaps in caves of
the neighbouring rocks. Behind them stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine
forms, the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous size, the megatherium,
and the myledon—all, for the moment, in juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped
by these, were perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as horses. Still
more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian outlines—alligators and other uncouth shapes,
culminating in the colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms and clouds
of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings of lower development; and so
on, till the lifetime scenes of the fossil confronting him were a present and modern
condition of things. These images passed before Knight’s inner eye in less than half a minute,
and he was again considering the actual present. Was he to die? The mental picture of Elfride
in the world, without himself to cherish her, smote his heart like a whip. He had hoped
for deliverance, but what could a girl do? He dared not move an inch. Was Death really
stretching out his hand? The previous sensation, that it was improbable he would die, was fainter
now. However, Knight still clung to the cliff. To those musing weather-beaten West-country
folk who pass the greater part of their days and nights out of doors, Nature seems to have
moods in other than a poetical sense: predilections for certain deeds at certain times, without
any apparent law to govern or season to account for them. She is read as a person with a curious
temper; as one who does not scatter kindnesses and cruelties alternately, impartially, and
in order, but heartless severities or overwhelming generosities in lawless caprice. Man’s case
is always that of the prodigal’s favourite or the miser’s pensioner. In her unfriendly
moments there seems a feline fun in her tricks, begotten by a foretaste of her pleasure in
swallowing the victim. Such a way of thinking had been absurd to
Knight, but he began to adopt it now. He was first spitted on to a rock. New tortures followed.
The rain increased, and persecuted him with an exceptional persistency which he was moved
to believe owed its cause to the fact that he was in such a wretched state already. An
entirely new order of things could be observed in this introduction of rain upon the scene.
It rained upwards instead of down. The strong ascending air carried the rain-drops with
it in its race up the escarpment, coming to him with such velocity that they stuck into
his flesh like cold needles. Each drop was virtually a shaft, and it pierced him to his
skin. The water-shafts seemed to lift him on their points: no downward rain ever had
such a torturing effect. In a brief space he was drenched, except in two places. These
were on the top of his shoulders and on the crown of his hat. The wind, though not intense in other situations
was strong here. It tugged at his coat and lifted it. We are mostly accustomed to look
upon all opposition which is not animate, as that of the stolid, inexorable hand of
indifference, which wears out the patience more than the strength. Here, at any rate,
hostility did not assume that slow and sickening form. It was a cosmic agency, active, lashing,
eager for conquest: determination; not an insensate standing in the way. Knight had over-estimated the strength of
his hands. They were getting weak already. ‘She will never come again; she has been
gone ten minutes,’ he said to himself. This mistake arose from the unusual compression
of his experiences just now: she had really been gone but three. ‘As many more minutes will be my end,’
he thought. Next came another instance of the incapacity
of the mind to make comparisons at such times. ‘This is a summer afternoon,’ he said,
‘and there can never have been such a heavy and cold rain on a summer day in my life before.’ He was again mistaken. The rain was quite
ordinary in quantity; the air in temperature. It was, as is usual, the menacing attitude
in which they approached him that magnified their powers. He again looked straight downwards, the wind
and the water-dashes lifting his moustache, scudding up his cheeks, under his eyelids,
and into his eyes. This is what he saw down there: the surface of the sea—visually just
past his toes, and under his feet; actually one-eighth of a mile, or more than two hundred
yards, below them. We colour according to our moods the objects we survey. The sea would
have been a deep neutral blue, had happier auspices attended the gazer it was now no
otherwise than distinctly black to his vision. That narrow white border was foam, he knew
well; but its boisterous tosses were so distant as to appear a pulsation only, and its plashing
was barely audible. A white border to a black sea—his funeral pall and its edging. The world was to some extent turned upside
down for him. Rain descended from below. Beneath his feet was aerial space and the unknown;
above him was the firm, familiar ground, and upon it all that he loved best. Pitiless nature had then two voices, and two
only. The nearer was the voice of the wind in his ears rising and falling as it mauled
and thrust him hard or softly. The second and distant one was the moan of that unplummetted
ocean below and afar—rubbing its restless flank against the Cliff without a Name. Knight perseveringly held fast. Had he any
faith in Elfride? Perhaps. Love is faith, and faith, like a gathered flower, will rootlessly
live on. Nobody would have expected the sun to shine
on such an evening as this. Yet it appeared, low down upon the sea. Not with its natural
golden fringe, sweeping the furthest ends of the landscape, not with the strange glare
of whiteness which it sometimes puts on as an alternative to colour, but as a splotch
of vermilion red upon a leaden ground—a red face looking on with a drunken leer. Most men who have brains know it, and few
are so foolish as to disguise this fact from themselves or others, even though an ostentatious
display may be called self-conceit. Knight, without showing it much, knew that his intellect
was above the average. And he thought—he could not help thinking—that his death would
be a deliberate loss to earth of good material; that such an experiment in killing might have
been practised upon some less developed life. A fancy some people hold, when in a bitter
mood, is that inexorable circumstance only tries to prevent what intelligence attempts.
Renounce a desire for a long-contested position, and go on another tack, and after a while
the prize is thrown at you, seemingly in disappointment that no more tantalizing is possible. Knight gave up thoughts of life utterly and
entirely, and turned to contemplate the Dark Valley and the unknown future beyond. Into
the shadowy depths of these speculations we will not follow him. Let it suffice to state
what ensued. At that moment of taking no more thought for
this life, something disturbed the outline of the bank above him. A spot appeared. It
was the head of Elfride. Knight immediately prepared to welcome life
again. The expression of a face consigned to utter
loneliness, when a friend first looks in upon it, is moving in the extreme. In rowing seaward
to a light-ship or sea-girt lighthouse, where, without any immediate terror of death, the
inmates experience the gloom of monotonous seclusion, the grateful eloquence of their
countenances at the greeting, expressive of thankfulness for the visit, is enough to stir
the emotions of the most careless observer. Knight’s upward look at Elfride was of a
nature with, but far transcending, such an instance as this. The lines of his face had
deepened to furrows, and every one of them thanked her visibly. His lips moved to the
word ‘Elfride,’ though the emotion evolved no sound. His eyes passed all description
in their combination of the whole diapason of eloquence, from lover’s deep love to
fellow-man’s gratitude for a token of remembrance from one of his kind. Elfride had come back. What she had come to
do he did not know. She could only look on at his death, perhaps. Still, she had come
back, and not deserted him utterly, and it was much. It was a novelty in the extreme to see Henry
Knight, to whom Elfride was but a child, who had swayed her as a tree sways a bird’s
nest, who mastered her and made her weep most bitterly at her own insignificance, thus thankful
for a sight of her face. She looked down upon him, her face glistening with rain and tears.
He smiled faintly. ‘How calm he is!’ she thought. ‘How
great and noble he is to be so calm!’ She would have died ten times for him then. The gliding form of the steamboat caught her
eye: she heeded it no longer. ‘How much longer can you wait?’ came from
her pale lips and along the wind to his position. ‘Four minutes,’ said Knight in a weaker
voice than her own. ‘But with a good hope of being saved?’ ‘Seven or eight.’ He now noticed that in her arms she bore a
bundle of white linen, and that her form was singularly attenuated. So preternaturally
thin and flexible was Elfride at this moment, that she appeared to bend under the light
blows of the rain-shafts, as they struck into her sides and bosom, and splintered into spray
on her face. There is nothing like a thorough drenching for reducing the protuberances of
clothes, but Elfride’s seemed to cling to her like a glove. Without heeding the attack of the clouds further
than by raising her hand and wiping away the spirts of rain when they went more particularly
into her eyes, she sat down and hurriedly began rending the linen into strips. These
she knotted end to end, and afterwards twisted them like the strands of a cord. In a short
space of time she had formed a perfect rope by this means, six or seven yards long. ‘Can you wait while I bind it?’ she said,
anxiously extending her gaze down to him. ‘Yes, if not very long. Hope has given me
a wonderful instalment of strength.’ Elfride dropped her eyes again, tore the remaining
material into narrow tape-like ligaments, knotted each to each as before, but on a smaller
scale, and wound the lengthy string she had thus formed round and round the linen rope,
which, without this binding, had a tendency to spread abroad. ‘Now,’ said Knight, who, watching the
proceedings intently, had by this time not only grasped her scheme, but reasoned further
on, ‘I can hold three minutes longer yet. And do you use the time in testing the strength
of the knots, one by one.’ She at once obeyed, tested each singly by
putting her foot on the rope between each knot, and pulling with her hands. One of the
knots slipped. ‘Oh, think! It would have broken but for
your forethought,’ Elfride exclaimed apprehensively. She retied the two ends. The rope was now
firm in every part. ‘When you have let it down,’ said Knight,
already resuming his position of ruling power, ‘go back from the edge of the slope, and
over the bank as far as the rope will allow you. Then lean down, and hold the end with
both hands.’ He had first thought of a safer plan for his
own deliverance, but it involved the disadvantage of possibly endangering her life. ‘I have tied it round my waist,’ she cried,
‘and I will lean directly upon the bank, holding with my hands as well.’ It was the arrangement he had thought of,
but would not suggest. ‘I will raise and drop it three times when
I am behind the bank,’ she continued, ‘to signify that I am ready. Take care, oh, take
the greatest care, I beg you!’ She dropped the rope over him, to learn how
much of its length it would be necessary to expend on that side of the bank, went back,
and disappeared as she had done before. The rope was trailing by Knight’s shoulders.
In a few moments it twitched three times. He waited yet a second or two, then laid hold. The incline of this upper portion of the precipice,
to the length only of a few feet, useless to a climber empty-handed, was invaluable
now. Not more than half his weight depended entirely on the linen rope. Half a dozen extensions
of the arms, alternating with half a dozen seizures of the rope with his feet, brought
him up to the level of the soil. He was saved, and by Elfride. He extended his cramped limbs like an awakened
sleeper, and sprang over the bank. At sight of him she leapt to her feet with
almost a shriek of joy. Knight’s eyes met hers, and with supreme eloquence the glance
of each told a long-concealed tale of emotion in that short half-moment. Moved by an impulse
neither could resist, they ran together and into each other’s arms. At the moment of embracing, Elfride’s eyes
involuntarily flashed towards the Puffin steamboat. It had doubled the point, and was no longer
to be seen. An overwhelming rush of exultation at having
delivered the man she revered from one of the most terrible forms of death, shook the
gentle girl to the centre of her soul. It merged in a defiance of duty to Stephen, and
a total recklessness as to plighted faith. Every nerve of her will was now in entire
subjection to her feeling—volition as a guiding power had forsaken her. To remain
passive, as she remained now, encircled by his arms, was a sufficiently complete result—a
glorious crown to all the years of her life. Perhaps he was only grateful, and did not
love her. No matter: it was infinitely more to be even the slave of the greater than the
queen of the less. Some such sensation as this, though it was not recognized as a finished
thought, raced along the impressionable soul of Elfride. Regarding their attitude, it was impossible
for two persons to go nearer to a kiss than went Knight and Elfride during those minutes
of impulsive embrace in the pelting rain. Yet they did not kiss. Knight’s peculiarity
of nature was such that it would not allow him to take advantage of the unguarded and
passionate avowal she had tacitly made. Elfride recovered herself, and gently struggled
to be free. He reluctantly relinquished her, and then
surveyed her from crown to toe. She seemed as small as an infant. He perceived whence
she had obtained the rope. ‘Elfride, my Elfride!’ he exclaimed in
gratified amazement. ‘I must leave you now,’ she said, her
face doubling its red, with an expression between gladness and shame ‘You follow me,
but at some distance.’ ‘The rain and wind pierce you through; the
chill will kill you. God bless you for such devotion! Take my coat and put it on.’ ‘No; I shall get warm running.’ Elfride had absolutely nothing between her
and the weather but her exterior robe or ‘costume.’ The door had been made upon a woman’s wit,
and it had found its way out. Behind the bank, whilst Knight reclined upon the dizzy slope
waiting for death, she had taken off her whole clothing, and replaced only her outer bodice
and skirt. Every thread of the remainder lay upon the ground in the form of a woollen and
cotton rope. ‘I am used to being wet through,’ she
added. ‘I have been drenched on Pansy dozens of times. Good-bye till we meet, clothed and
in our right minds, by the fireside at home!’ She then ran off from him through the pelting
rain like a hare; or more like a pheasant when, scampering away with a lowered tail,
it has a mind to fly, but does not. Elfride was soon out of sight. Knight felt uncomfortably wet and chilled,
but glowing with fervour nevertheless. He fully appreciated Elfride’s girlish delicacy
in refusing his escort in the meagre habiliments she wore, yet felt that necessary abstraction
of herself for a short half-hour as a most grievous loss to him. He gathered up her knotted and twisted plumage
of linen, lace, and embroidery work, and laid it across his arm. He noticed on the ground
an envelope, limp and wet. In endeavouring to restore this to its proper shape, he loosened
from the envelope a piece of paper it had contained, which was seized by the wind in
falling from Knight’s hand. It was blown to the right, blown to the left—it floated
to the edge of the cliff and over the sea, where it was hurled aloft. It twirled in the
air, and then flew back over his head. Knight followed the paper, and secured it.
Having done so, he looked to discover if it had been worth securing. The troublesome sheet was a banker’s receipt
for two hundred pounds, placed to the credit of Miss Swancourt, which the impractical girl
had totally forgotten she carried with her. Knight folded it as carefully as its moist
condition would allow, put it in his pocket, and followed Elfride. Chapter XXIII
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot?’ By this time Stephen Smith had stepped out
upon the quay at Castle Boterel, and breathed his native air. A darker skin, a more pronounced moustache,
and an incipient beard, were the chief additions and changes noticeable in his appearance. In spite of the falling rain, which had somewhat
lessened, he took a small valise in his hand, and, leaving the remainder of his luggage
at the inn, ascended the hills towards East Endelstow. This place lay in a vale of its
own, further inland than the west village, and though so near it, had little of physical
feature in common with the latter. East Endelstow was more wooded and fertile: it boasted of
Lord Luxellian’s mansion and park, and was free from those bleak open uplands which lent
such an air of desolation to the vicinage of the coast—always excepting the small
valley in which stood the vicarage and Mrs. Swancourt’s old house, The Crags. Stephen had arrived nearly at the summit of
the ridge when the rain again increased its volume, and, looking about for temporary shelter,
he ascended a steep path which penetrated dense hazel bushes in the lower part of its
course. Further up it emerged upon a ledge immediately over the turnpike-road, and sheltered
by an overhanging face of rubble rock, with bushes above. For a reason of his own he made
this spot his refuge from the storm, and turning his face to the left, conned the landscape
as a book. He was overlooking the valley containing Elfride’s
residence. From this point of observation the prospect
exhibited the peculiarity of being either brilliant foreground or the subdued tone of
distance, a sudden dip in the surface of the country lowering out of sight all the intermediate
prospect. In apparent contact with the trees and bushes growing close beside him appeared
the distant tract, terminated suddenly by the brink of the series of cliffs which culminated
in the tall giant without a name—small and unimportant as here beheld. A leaf on a bough
at Stephen’s elbow blotted out a whole hill in the contrasting district far away; a green
bunch of nuts covered a complete upland there, and the great cliff itself was outvied by
a pigmy crag in the bank hard by him. Stephen had looked upon these things hundreds of times
before to-day, but he had never viewed them with such tenderness as now. Stepping forward in this direction yet a little
further, he could see the tower of West Endelstow Church, beneath which he was to meet his Elfride
that night. And at the same time he noticed, coming over the hill from the cliffs, a white
speck in motion. It seemed first to be a sea-gull flying low, but ultimately proved to be a
human figure, running with great rapidity. The form flitted on, heedless of the rain
which had caused Stephen’s halt in this place, dropped down the heathery hill, entered
the vale, and was out of sight. Whilst he meditated upon the meaning of this
phenomenon, he was surprised to see swim into his ken from the same point of departure another
moving speck, as different from the first as well could be, insomuch that it was perceptible
only by its blackness. Slowly and regularly it took the same course, and there was not
much doubt that this was the form of a man. He, too, gradually descended from the upper
levels, and was lost in the valley below. The rain had by this time again abated, and
Stephen returned to the road. Looking ahead, he saw two men and a cart. They were soon
obscured by the intervention of a high hedge. Just before they emerged again he heard voices
in conversation. ‘’A must soon be in the naibourhood, too,
if so be he’s a-coming,’ said a tenor tongue, which Stephen instantly recognized
as Martin Cannister’s. ‘’A must ‘a b’lieve,’ said another
voice—that of Stephen’s father. Stephen stepped forward, and came before them
face to face. His father and Martin were walking, dressed in their second best suits, and beside
them rambled along a grizzel horse and brightly painted spring-cart. ‘All right, Mr. Cannister; here’s the
lost man!’ exclaimed young Smith, entering at once upon the old style of greeting. ‘Father,
here I am.’ ‘All right, my sonny; and glad I be for’t!’
returned John Smith, overjoyed to see the young man. ‘How be ye? Well, come along
home, and don’t let’s bide out here in the damp. Such weather must be terrible bad
for a young chap just come from a fiery nation like Indy; hey, naibour Cannister?’ ‘Trew, trew. And about getting home his
traps? Boxes, monstrous bales, and noble packages of foreign description, I make no doubt?’ ‘Hardly all that,’ said Stephen laughing. ‘We brought the cart, maning to go right
on to Castle Boterel afore ye landed,’ said his father. ‘“Put in the horse,” says
Martin. “Ay,” says I, “so we will;” and did it straightway. Now, maybe, Martin
had better go on wi’ the cart for the things, and you and I walk home-along.’ ‘And I shall be back a’most as soon as
you. Peggy is a pretty step still, though time d’ begin to tell upon her as upon the
rest o’ us.’ Stephen told Martin where to find his baggage,
and then continued his journey homeward in the company of his father. ‘Owing to your coming a day sooner than
we first expected,’ said John, ‘you’ll find us in a turk of a mess, sir—“sir,”
says I to my own son! but ye’ve gone up so, Stephen. We’ve killed the pig this morning
for ye, thinking ye’d be hungry, and glad of a morsel of fresh mate. And ‘a won’t
be cut up till to-night. However, we can make ye a good supper of fry, which will chaw up
well wi’ a dab o’ mustard and a few nice new taters, and a drop of shilling ale to
wash it down. Your mother have scrubbed the house through because ye were coming, and
dusted all the chimmer furniture, and bought a new basin and jug of a travelling crockery-woman
that came to our door, and scoured the cannel-sticks, and claned the winders! Ay, I don’t know
what ‘a ha’n’t a done. Never were such a steer, ‘a b’lieve.’ Conversation of this kind and inquiries of
Stephen for his mother’s wellbeing occupied them for the remainder of the journey. When
they drew near the river, and the cottage behind it, they could hear the master-mason’s
clock striking off the bygone hours of the day at intervals of a quarter of a minute,
during which intervals Stephen’s imagination readily pictured his mother’s forefinger
wandering round the dial in company with the minute-hand. ‘The clock stopped this morning, and your
mother in putting en right seemingly,’ said his father in an explanatory tone; and they
went up the garden to the door. When they had entered, and Stephen had dutifully
and warmly greeted his mother—who appeared in a cotton dress of a dark-blue ground, covered
broadcast with a multitude of new and full moons, stars, and planets, with an occasional
dash of a comet-like aspect to diversify the scene—the crackle of cart-wheels was heard
outside, and Martin Cannister stamped in at the doorway, in the form of a pair of legs
beneath a great box, his body being nowhere visible. When the luggage had been all taken
down, and Stephen had gone upstairs to change his clothes, Mrs. Smith’s mind seemed to
recover a lost thread. ‘Really our clock is not worth a penny,’
she said, turning to it and attempting to start the pendulum. ‘Stopped again?’ inquired Martin with
commiseration. ‘Yes, sure,’ replied Mrs. Smith; and continued
after the manner of certain matrons, to whose tongues the harmony of a subject with a casual
mood is a greater recommendation than its pertinence to the occasion, ‘John would
spend pounds a year upon the jimcrack old thing, if he might, in having it claned, when
at the same time you may doctor it yourself as well. “The clock’s stopped again, John,”
I say to him. “Better have en claned,” says he. There’s five shillings. “That
clock grinds again,” I say to en. “Better have en claned,” ‘a says again. “That
clock strikes wrong, John,” says I. “Better have en claned,” he goes on. The wheels
would have been polished to skeletons by this time if I had listened to en, and I assure
you we could have bought a chainey-faced beauty wi’ the good money we’ve flung away these
last ten years upon this old green-faced mortal. And, Martin, you must be wet. My son is gone
up to change. John is damper than I should like to be, but ‘a calls it nothing. Some
of Mrs. Swancourt’s servants have been here—they ran in out of the rain when going for a walk—and
I assure you the state of their bonnets was frightful.’ ‘How’s the folks? We’ve been over to
Castle Boterel, and what wi’ running and stopping out of the storms, my poor head is
beyond everything! fizz, fizz fizz; ‘tis frying o’ fish from morning to night,’
said a cracked voice in the doorway at this instant. ‘Lord so’s, who’s that?’ said Mrs.
Smith, in a private exclamation, and turning round saw William Worm, endeavouring to make
himself look passing civil and friendly by overspreading his face with a large smile
that seemed to have no connection with the humour he was in. Behind him stood a woman
about twice his size, with a large umbrella over her head. This was Mrs. Worm, William’s
wife. ‘Come in, William,’ said John Smith. ‘We
don’t kill a pig every day. And you, likewise, Mrs. Worm. I make ye welcome. Since ye left
Parson Swancourt, William, I don’t see much of ‘ee.’ ‘No, for to tell the truth, since I took
to the turn-pike-gate line, I’ve been out but little, coming to church o’ Sundays
not being my duty now, as ‘twas in a parson’s family, you see. However, our boy is able
to mind the gate now, and I said, says I, “Barbara, let’s call and see John Smith.”’ ‘I am sorry to hear yer pore head is so
bad still.’ ‘Ay, I assure you that frying o’ fish
is going on for nights and days. And, you know, sometimes ‘tisn’t only fish, but
rashers o’ bacon and inions. Ay, I can hear the fat pop and fizz as nateral as life; can’t
I, Barbara?’ Mrs. Worm, who had been all this time engaged
in closing her umbrella, corroborated this statement, and now, coming indoors, showed
herself to be a wide-faced, comfortable-looking woman, with a wart upon her cheek, bearing
a small tuft of hair in its centre. ‘Have ye ever tried anything to cure yer
noise, Maister Worm?’ inquired Martin Cannister. ‘Oh ay; bless ye, I’ve tried everything.
Ay, Providence is a merciful man, and I have hoped He’d have found it out by this time,
living so many years in a parson’s family, too, as I have, but ‘a don’t seem to relieve
me. Ay, I be a poor wambling man, and life’s a mint o’ trouble!’ ‘True, mournful true, William Worm. ‘Tis
so. The world wants looking to, or ‘tis all sixes and sevens wi’ us.’ ‘Take your things off, Mrs. Worm,’ said
Mrs. Smith. ‘We be rather in a muddle, to tell the truth, for my son is just dropped
in from Indy a day sooner than we expected, and the pig-killer is coming presently to
cut up.’ Mrs. Barbara Worm, not wishing to take any
mean advantage of persons in a muddle by observing them, removed her bonnet and mantle with eyes
fixed upon the flowers in the plot outside the door. ‘What beautiful tiger-lilies!’ said Mrs.
Worm. ‘Yes, they be very well, but such a trouble
to me on account of the children that come here. They will go eating the berries on the
stem, and call ‘em currants. Taste wi’ junivals is quite fancy, really.’ ‘And your snapdragons look as fierce as
ever.’ ‘Well, really,’ answered Mrs. Smith, entering
didactically into the subject, ‘they are more like Christians than flowers. But they
make up well enough wi’ the rest, and don’t require much tending. And the same can be
said o’ these miller’s wheels. ‘Tis a flower I like very much, though so simple.
John says he never cares about the flowers o’ ‘em, but men have no eye for anything
neat. He says his favourite flower is a cauliflower. And I assure you I tremble in the springtime,
for ‘tis perfect murder.’ ‘You don’t say so, Mrs. Smith!’ ‘John digs round the roots, you know. In
goes his blundering spade, through roots, bulbs, everything that hasn’t got a good
show above ground, turning ‘em up cut all to slices. Only the very last fall I went
to move some tulips, when I found every bulb upside down, and the stems crooked round.
He had turned ‘em over in the spring, and the cunning creatures had soon found that
heaven was not where it used to be.’ ‘What’s that long-favoured flower under
the hedge?’ ‘They? O Lord, they are the horrid Jacob’s
ladders! Instead of praising ‘em, I be mad wi’ ‘em for being so ready to bide where
they are not wanted. They be very well in their way, but I do not care for things that
neglect won’t kill. Do what I will, dig, drag, scrap, pull, I get too many of ‘em.
I chop the roots: up they’ll come, treble strong. Throw ‘em over hedge; there they’ll
grow, staring me in the face like a hungry dog driven away, and creep back again in a
week or two the same as before. ‘Tis Jacob’s ladder here, Jacob’s ladder there, and plant
‘em where nothing in the world will grow, you get crowds of ‘em in a month or two.
John made a new manure mixen last summer, and he said, “Maria, now if you’ve got
any flowers or such like, that you don’t want, you may plant ‘em round my mixen so
as to hide it a bit, though ‘tis not likely anything of much value will grow there.”
I thought, “There’s them Jacob’s ladders; I’ll put them there, since they can’t
do harm in such a place;” and I planted the Jacob’s ladders sure enough. They growed,
and they growed, in the mixen and out of the mixen, all over the litter, covering it quite
up. When John wanted to use it about the garden, ‘a said, “Nation seize them Jacob’s
ladders of yours, Maria! They’ve eat the goodness out of every morsel of my manure,
so that ‘tis no better than sand itself!” Sure enough the hungry mortals had. ‘Tis
my belief that in the secret souls o’ ‘em, Jacob’s ladders be weeds, and not flowers
at all, if the truth was known.’ Robert Lickpan, pig-killer and carrier, arrived
at this moment. The fatted animal hanging in the back kitchen was cleft down the middle
of its backbone, Mrs. Smith being meanwhile engaged in cooking supper. Between the cutting and chopping, ale was
handed round, and Worm and the pig-killer listened to John Smith’s description of
the meeting with Stephen, with eyes blankly fixed upon the table-cloth, in order that
nothing in the external world should interrupt their efforts to conjure up the scene correctly. Stephen came downstairs in the middle of the
story, and after the little interruption occasioned by his entrance and welcome, the narrative
was again continued, precisely as if he had not been there at all, and was told inclusively
to him, as to somebody who knew nothing about the matter. ‘“Ay,” I said, as I catched sight o’
en through the brimbles, “that’s the lad, for I d’ know en by his grand-father’s
walk;” for ‘a stapped out like poor father for all the world. Still there was a touch
o’ the frisky that set me wondering. ‘A got closer, and I said, “That’s the lad,
for I d’ know en by his carrying a black case like a travelling man.” Still, a road
is common to all the world, and there be more travelling men than one. But I kept my eye
cocked, and I said to Martin, “‘Tis the boy, now, for I d’ know en by the wold twirl
o’ the stick and the family step.” Then ‘a come closer, and a’ said, “All right.”
I could swear to en then.’ Stephen’s personal appearance was next criticised. ‘He d’ look a deal thinner in face, surely,
than when I seed en at the parson’s, and never knowed en, if ye’ll believe me,’
said Martin. ‘Ay, there,’ said another, without removing
his eyes from Stephen’s face, ‘I should ha’ knowed en anywhere. ‘Tis his father’s
nose to a T.’ ‘It has been often remarked,’ said Stephen
modestly. ‘And he’s certainly taller,’ said Martin,
letting his glance run over Stephen’s form from bottom to top. ‘I was thinking ‘a was exactly the same
height,’ Worm replied. ‘Bless thy soul, that’s because he’s
bigger round likewise.’ And the united eyes all moved to Stephen’s waist. ‘I be a poor wambling man, but I can make
allowances,’ said William Worm. ‘Ah, sure, and how he came as a stranger and pilgrim
to Parson Swancourt’s that time, not a soul knowing en after so many years! Ay, life’s
a strange picter, Stephen: but I suppose I must say Sir to ye?’ ‘Oh, it is not necessary at present,’
Stephen replied, though mentally resolving to avoid the vicinity of that familiar friend
as soon as he had made pretensions to the hand of Elfride. ‘Ah, well,’ said Worm musingly, ‘some
would have looked for no less than a Sir. There’s a sight of difference in people.’ ‘And in pigs likewise,’ observed John
Smith, looking at the halved carcass of his own. Robert Lickpan, the pig-killer, here seemed
called upon to enter the lists of conversation. ‘Yes, they’ve got their particular naters
good-now,’ he remarked initially. ‘Many’s the rum-tempered pig I’ve knowed.’ ‘I don’t doubt it, Master Lickpan,’
answered Martin, in a tone expressing that his convictions, no less than good manners,
demanded the reply. ‘Yes,’ continued the pig-killer, as one
accustomed to be heard. ‘One that I knowed was deaf and dumb, and we couldn’t make
out what was the matter wi’ the pig. ‘A would eat well enough when ‘a seed the trough,
but when his back was turned, you might a-rattled the bucket all day, the poor soul never heard
ye. Ye could play tricks upon en behind his back, and a’ wouldn’t find it out no quicker
than poor deaf Grammer Cates. But a’ fatted well, and I never seed a pig open better when
a’ was killed, and ‘a was very tender eating, very; as pretty a bit of mate as ever
you see; you could suck that mate through a quill. ‘And another I knowed,’ resumed the killer,
after quietly letting a pint of ale run down his throat of its own accord, and setting
down the cup with mathematical exactness upon the spot from which he had raised it—‘another
went out of his mind.’ ‘How very mournful!’ murmured Mrs. Worm. ‘Ay, poor thing, ‘a did! As clean out
of his mind as the cleverest Christian could go. In early life ‘a was very melancholy,
and never seemed a hopeful pig by no means. ‘Twas Andrew Stainer’s pig—that’s
whose pig ‘twas.’ ‘I can mind the pig well enough,’ attested
John Smith. ‘And a pretty little porker ‘a was. And
you all know Farmer Buckle’s sort? Every jack o’ em suffer from the rheumatism to
this day, owing to a damp sty they lived in when they were striplings, as ‘twere.’ ‘Well, now we’ll weigh,’ said John. ‘If so be he were not so fine, we’d weigh
en whole: but as he is, we’ll take a side at a time. John, you can mind my old joke,
ey?’ ‘I do so; though ‘twas a good few years
ago I first heard en.’ ‘Yes,’ said Lickpan, ‘that there old
familiar joke have been in our family for generations, I may say. My father used that
joke regular at pig-killings for more than five and forty years—the time he followed
the calling. And ‘a told me that ‘a had it from his father when he was quite a chiel,
who made use o’ en just the same at every killing more or less; and pig-killings were
pig-killings in those days.’ ‘Trewly they were.’ ‘I’ve never heard the joke,’ said Mrs.
Smith tentatively. ‘Nor I,’ chimed in Mrs. Worm, who, being
the only other lady in the room, felt bound by the laws of courtesy to feel like Mrs.
Smith in everything. ‘Surely, surely you have,’ said the killer,
looking sceptically at the benighted females. ‘However, ‘tisn’t much—I don’t wish
to say it is. It commences like this: “Bob will tell the weight of your pig, ‘a b’lieve,”
says I. The congregation of neighbours think I mane my son Bob, naturally; but the secret
is that I mane the bob o’ the steelyard. Ha, ha, ha!’ ‘Haw, haw, haw!’ laughed Martin Cannister,
who had heard the explanation of this striking story for the hundredth time. ‘Huh, huh, huh!’ laughed John Smith, who
had heard it for the thousandth. ‘Hee, hee, hee!’ laughed William Worm,
who had never heard it at all, but was afraid to say so. ‘Thy grandfather, Robert, must have been
a wide-awake chap to make that story,’ said Martin Cannister, subsiding to a placid aspect
of delighted criticism. ‘He had a head, by all account. And, you
see, as the first-born of the Lickpans have all been Roberts, they’ve all been Bobs,
so the story was handed down to the present day.’ ‘Poor Joseph, your second boy, will never
be able to bring it out in company, which is rather unfortunate,’ said Mrs. Worm thoughtfully. ‘’A won’t. Yes, grandfer was a clever
chap, as ye say; but I knowed a cleverer. ‘Twas my uncle Levi. Uncle Levi made a snuff-box
that should be a puzzle to his friends to open. He used to hand en round at wedding
parties, christenings, funerals, and in other jolly company, and let ‘em try their skill.
This extraordinary snuff-box had a spring behind that would push in and out—a hinge
where seemed to be the cover; a slide at the end, a screw in front, and knobs and queer
notches everywhere. One man would try the spring, another would try the screw, another
would try the slide; but try as they would, the box wouldn’t open. And they couldn’t
open en, and they didn’t open en. Now what might you think was the secret of that box?’ All put on an expression that their united
thoughts were inadequate to the occasion. ‘Why the box wouldn’t open at all. ‘A
were made not to open, and ye might have tried till the end of Revelations, ‘twould have
been as naught, for the box were glued all round.’ ‘A very deep man to have made such a box.’ ‘Yes. ‘Twas like uncle Levi all over.’ ‘’Twas. I can mind the man very well.
Tallest man ever I seed.’ ‘’A was so. He never slept upon a bedstead
after he growed up a hard boy-chap—never could get one long enough. When ‘a lived
in that little small house by the pond, he used to have to leave open his chamber door
every night at going to his bed, and let his feet poke out upon the landing.’ ‘He’s dead and gone now, nevertheless,
poor man, as we all shall,’ observed Worm, to fill the pause which followed the conclusion
of Robert Lickpan’s speech. The weighing and cutting up was pursued amid
an animated discourse on Stephen’s travels; and at the finish, the first-fruits of the
day’s slaughter, fried in onions, were then turned from the pan into a dish on the table,
each piece steaming and hissing till it reached their very mouths. It must be owned that the gentlemanly son
of the house looked rather out of place in the course of this operation. Nor was his
mind quite philosophic enough to allow him to be comfortable with these old-established
persons, his father’s friends. He had never lived long at home—scarcely at all since
his childhood. The presence of William Worm was the most awkward feature of the case,
for, though Worm had left the house of Mr. Swancourt, the being hand-in-glove with a
ci-devant servitor reminded Stephen too forcibly of the vicar’s classification of himself
before he went from England. Mrs. Smith was conscious of the defect in her arrangements
which had brought about the undesired conjunction. She spoke to Stephen privately. ‘I am above having such people here, Stephen;
but what could I do? And your father is so rough in his nature that he’s more mixed
up with them than need be.’ ‘Never mind, mother,’ said Stephen; ‘I’ll
put up with it now.’ ‘When we leave my lord’s service, and
get further up the country—as I hope we shall soon—it will be different. We shall
be among fresh people, and in a larger house, and shall keep ourselves up a bit, I hope.’ ‘Is Miss Swancourt at home, do you know?’
Stephen inquired ‘Yes, your father saw her this morning.’ ‘Do you often see her?’ ‘Scarcely ever. Mr. Glim, the curate, calls
occasionally, but the Swancourts don’t come into the village now any more than to drive
through it. They dine at my lord’s oftener than they used. Ah, here’s a note was brought
this morning for you by a boy.’ Stephen eagerly took the note and opened it,
his mother watching him. He read what Elfride had written and sent before she started for
the cliff that afternoon: ‘Yes; I will meet you in the church at nine
to-night.—E. S.’ ‘I don’t know, Stephen,’ his mother
said meaningly, ‘whe’r you still think about Miss Elfride, but if I were you I wouldn’t
concern about her. They say that none of old Mrs. Swancourt’s money will come to her
step-daughter.’ ‘I see the evening has turned out fine;
I am going out for a little while to look round the place,’ he said, evading the direct
query. ‘Probably by the time I return our visitors will be gone, and we’ll have a
more confidential talk.’ Chapter XXIV
‘Breeze, bird, and flower confess the hour.’ The rain had ceased since the sunset, but
it was a cloudy night; and the light of the moon, softened and dispersed by its misty
veil, was distributed over the land in pale gray. A dark figure stepped from the doorway of
John Smith’s river-side cottage, and strode rapidly towards West Endelstow with a light
footstep. Soon ascending from the lower levels he turned a corner, followed a cart-track,
and saw the tower of the church he was in quest of distinctly shaped forth against the
sky. In less than half an hour from the time of starting he swung himself over the churchyard
stile. The wild irregular enclosure was as much as
ever an integral part of the old hill. The grass was still long, the graves were shaped
precisely as passing years chose to alter them from their orthodox form as laid down
by Martin Cannister, and by Stephen’s own grandfather before him. A sound sped into the air from the direction
in which Castle Boterel lay. It was the striking of the church clock, distinct in the still
atmosphere as if it had come from the tower hard by, which, wrapt in its solitary silentness,
gave out no such sounds of life. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,
eight, nine.’ Stephen carefully counted the strokes, though he well knew their number
beforehand. Nine o’clock. It was the hour Elfride had herself named as the most convenient
for meeting him. Stephen stood at the door of the porch and
listened. He could have heard the softest breathing of any person within the porch;
nobody was there. He went inside the doorway, sat down upon the stone bench, and waited
with a beating heart. The faint sounds heard only accentuated the
silence. The rising and falling of the sea, far away along the coast, was the most important.
A minor sound was the scurr of a distant night-hawk. Among the minutest where all were minute were
the light settlement of gossamer fragments floating in the air, a toad humbly labouring
along through the grass near the entrance, the crackle of a dead leaf which a worm was
endeavouring to pull into the earth, a waft of air, getting nearer and nearer, and expiring
at his feet under the burden of a winged seed. Among all these soft sounds came not the only
soft sound he cared to hear—the footfall of Elfride. For a whole quarter of an hour Stephen sat
thus intent, without moving a muscle. At the end of that time he walked to the west front
of the church. Turning the corner of the tower, a white form stared him in the face. He started
back, and recovered himself. It was the tomb of young farmer Jethway, looking still as
fresh and as new as when it was first erected, the white stone in which it was hewn having
a singular weirdness amid the dark blue slabs from local quarries, of which the whole remaining
gravestones were formed. He thought of the night when he had sat thereon
with Elfride as his companion, and well remembered his regret that she had received, even unwillingly,
earlier homage than his own. But his present tangible anxiety reduced such a feeling to
sentimental nonsense in comparison; and he strolled on over the graves to the border
of the churchyard, whence in the daytime could be clearly seen the vicarage and the present
residence of the Swancourts. No footstep was discernible upon the path up the hill, but
a light was shining from a window in the last-named house. Stephen knew there could be no mistake about
the time or place, and no difficulty about keeping the engagement. He waited yet longer,
passing from impatience into a mood which failed to take any account of the lapse of
time. He was awakened from his reverie by Castle Boterel clock. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,
nine, TEN. One little fall of the hammer in addition
to the number it had been sharp pleasure to hear, and what a difference to him! He left the churchyard on the side opposite
to his point of entrance, and went down the hill. Slowly he drew near the gate of her
house. This he softly opened, and walked up the gravel drive to the door. Here he paused
for several minutes. At the expiration of that time the murmured
speech of a manly voice came out to his ears through an open window behind the corner of
the house. This was responded to by a clear soft laugh. It was the laugh of Elfride. Stephen was conscious of a gnawing pain at
his heart. He retreated as he had come. There are disappointments which wring us, and there
are those which inflict a wound whose mark we bear to our graves. Such are so keen that
no future gratification of the same desire can ever obliterate them: they become registered
as a permanent loss of happiness. Such a one was Stephen’s now: the crowning aureola
of the dream had been the meeting here by stealth; and if Elfride had come to him only
ten minutes after he had turned away, the disappointment would have been recognizable
still. When the young man reached home he found there
a letter which had arrived in his absence. Believing it to contain some reason for her
non-appearance, yet unable to imagine one that could justify her, he hastily tore open
the envelope. The paper contained not a word from Elfride.
It was the deposit-note for his two hundred pounds. On the back was the form of a cheque,
and this she had filled up with the same sum, payable to the bearer. Stephen was confounded. He attempted to divine
her motive. Considering how limited was his knowledge of her later actions, he guessed
rather shrewdly that, between the time of her sending the note in the morning and the
evening’s silent refusal of his gift, something had occurred which had caused a total change
in her attitude towards him. He knew not what to do. It seemed absurd now
to go to her father next morning, as he had purposed, and ask for an engagement with her,
a possibility impending all the while that Elfride herself would not be on his side.
Only one course recommended itself as wise. To wait and see what the days would bring
forth; to go and execute his commissions in Birmingham; then to return, learn if anything
had happened, and try what a meeting might do; perhaps her surprise at his backwardness
would bring her forward to show latent warmth as decidedly as in old times. This act of patience was in keeping only with
the nature of a man precisely of Stephen’s constitution. Nine men out of ten would perhaps
have rushed off, got into her presence, by fair means or foul, and provoked a catastrophe
of some sort. Possibly for the better, probably for the worse. He started for Birmingham the next morning.
A day’s delay would have made no difference; but he could not rest until he had begun and
ended the programme proposed to himself. Bodily activity will sometimes take the sting out
of anxiety as completely as assurance itself. Chapter XXV
‘Mine own familiar friend.’ During these days of absence Stephen lived
under alternate conditions. Whenever his emotions were active, he was in agony. Whenever he
was not in agony, the business in hand had driven out of his mind by sheer force all
deep reflection on the subject of Elfride and love. By the time he took his return journey at
the week’s end, Stephen had very nearly worked himself up to an intention to call
and see her face to face. On this occasion also he adopted his favourite route—by the
little summer steamer from Bristol to Castle Boterel; the time saved by speed on the railway
being wasted at junctions, and in following a devious course. It was a bright silent evening at the beginning
of September when Smith again set foot in the little town. He felt inclined to linger
awhile upon the quay before ascending the hills, having formed a romantic intention
to go home by way of her house, yet not wishing to wander in its neighbourhood till the evening
shades should sufficiently screen him from observation. And thus waiting for night’s nearer approach,
he watched the placid scene, over which the pale luminosity of the west cast a sorrowful
monochrome, that became slowly embrowned by the dusk. A star appeared, and another, and
another. They sparkled amid the yards and rigging of the two coal brigs lying alangside,
as if they had been tiny lamps suspended in the ropes. The masts rocked sleepily to the
infinitesimal flux of the tide, which clucked and gurgled with idle regularity in nooks
and holes of the harbour wall. The twilight was now quite pronounced enough
for his purpose; and as, rather sad at heart, he was about to move on, a little boat containing
two persons glided up the middle of the harbour with the lightness of a shadow. The boat came
opposite him, passed on, and touched the landing-steps at the further end. One of its occupants was
a man, as Stephen had known by the easy stroke of the oars. When the pair ascended the steps,
and came into greater prominence, he was enabled to discern that the second personage was a
woman; also that she wore a white decoration—apparently a feather—in her hat or bonnet, which spot
of white was the only distinctly visible portion of her clothing. Stephen remained a moment in their rear, and
they passed on, when he pursued his way also, and soon forgot the circumstance. Having crossed
a bridge, forsaken the high road, and entered the footpath which led up the vale to West
Endelstow, he heard a little wicket click softly together some yards ahead. By the time
that Stephen had reached the wicket and passed it, he heard another click of precisely the
same nature from another gate yet further on. Clearly some person or persons were preceding
him along the path, their footsteps being rendered noiseless by the soft carpet of turf.
Stephen now walked a little quicker, and perceived two forms. One of them bore aloft the white
feather he had noticed in the woman’s hat on the quay: they were the couple he had seen
in the boat. Stephen dropped a little further to the rear. From the bottom of the valley, along which
the path had hitherto lain, beside the margin of the trickling streamlet, another path now
diverged, and ascended the slope of the left-hand hill. This footway led only to the residence
of Mrs. Swancourt and a cottage or two in its vicinity. No grass covered this diverging
path in portions of its length, and Stephen was reminded that the pair in front of him
had taken this route by the occasional rattle of loose stones under their feet. Stephen
climbed in the same direction, but for some undefined reason he trod more softly than
did those preceding him. His mind was unconsciously in exercise upon whom the woman might be—whether
a visitor to The Crags, a servant, or Elfride. He put it to himself yet more forcibly; could
the lady be Elfride? A possible reason for her unaccountable failure to keep the appointment
with him returned with painful force. They entered the grounds of the house by the
side wicket, whence the path, now wide and well trimmed, wound fantastically through
the shrubbery to an octagonal pavilion called the Belvedere, by reason of the comprehensive
view over the adjacent district that its green seats afforded. The path passed this erection
and went on to the house as well as to the gardener’s cottage on the other side, straggling
thence to East Endelstow; so that Stephen felt no hesitation in entering a promenade
which could scarcely be called private. He fancied that he heard the gate open and
swing together again behind him. Turning, he saw nobody. The people of the boat came to the summer-house.
One of them spoke. ‘I am afraid we shall get a scolding for
being so late.’ Stephen instantly recognised the familiar
voice, richer and fuller now than it used to be. ‘Elfride!’ he whispered to himself,
and held fast by a sapling, to steady himself under the agitation her presence caused him.
His heart swerved from its beat; he shunned receiving the meaning he sought. ‘A breeze is rising again; how the ash tree
rustles!’ said Elfride. ‘Don’t you hear it? I wonder what the time is.’ Stephen relinquished the sapling. ‘I will get a light and tell you. Step into
the summer-house; the air is quiet there.’ The cadence of that voice—its peculiarity
seemed to come home to him like that of some notes of the northern birds on his return
to his native clime, as an old natural thing renewed, yet not particularly noticed as natural
before that renewal. They entered the Belvedere. In the lower part
it was formed of close wood-work nailed crosswise, and had openings in the upper by way of windows. The scratch of a striking light was heard,
and a bright glow radiated from the interior of the building. The light gave birth to dancing
leaf-shadows, stem-shadows, lustrous streaks, dots, sparkles, and threads of silver sheen
of all imaginable variety and transience. It awakened gnats, which flew towards it,
revealed shiny gossamer threads, disturbed earthworms. Stephen gave but little attention
to these phenomena, and less time. He saw in the summer-house a strongly illuminated
picture. First, the face of his friend and preceptor
Henry Knight, between whom and himself an estrangement had arisen, not from any definite
causes beyond those of absence, increasing age, and diverging sympathies. Next, his bright particular star, Elfride.
The face of Elfride was more womanly than when she had called herself his, but as clear
and healthy as ever. Her plenteous twines of beautiful hair were looking much as usual,
with the exception of a slight modification in their arrangement in deference to the changes
of fashion. Their two foreheads were close together, almost
touching, and both were looking down. Elfride was holding her watch, Knight was holding
the light with one hand, his left arm being round her waist. Part of the scene reached
Stephen’s eyes through the horizontal bars of woodwork, which crossed their forms like
the ribs of a skeleton. Knight’s arm stole still further round the
waist of Elfride. ‘It is half-past eight,’ she said in a
low voice, which had a peculiar music in it, seemingly born of a thrill of pleasure at
the new proof that she was beloved. The flame dwindled down, died away, and all
was wrapped in a darkness to which the gloom before the illumination bore no comparison
in apparent density. Stephen, shattered in spirit and sick to his heart’s centre, turned
away. In turning, he saw a shadowy outline behind the summer-house on the other side.
His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Was the form a human form, or was it an opaque
bush of juniper? The lovers arose, brushed against the laurestines,
and pursued their way to the house. The indistinct figure had moved, and now passed across Smith’s
front. So completely enveloped was the person, that it was impossible to discern him or her
any more than as a shape. The shape glided noiselessly on. Stephen stepped forward, fearing any mischief
was intended to the other two. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘Never mind who I am,’ answered a weak
whisper from the enveloping folds. ‘WHAT I am, may she be! Perhaps I knew well—ah,
so well!—a youth whose place you took, as he there now takes yours. Will you let her
break your heart, and bring you to an untimely grave, as she did the one before you?’ ‘You are Mrs. Jethway, I think. What do
you do here? And why do you talk so wildly?’ ‘Because my heart is desolate, and nobody
cares about it. May hers be so that brought trouble upon me!’ ‘Silence!’ said Stephen, staunch to Elfride
in spite of himself. ‘She would harm nobody wilfully, never would she! How do you come
here?’ ‘I saw the two coming up the path, and wanted
to learn if she were not one of them. Can I help disliking her if I think of the past?
Can I help watching her if I remember my boy? Can I help ill-wishing her if I well-wish
him?’ The bowed form went on, passed through the
wicket, and was enveloped by the shadows of the field. Stephen had heard that Mrs. Jethway, since
the death of her son, had become a crazed, forlorn woman; and bestowing a pitying thought
upon her, he dismissed her fancied wrongs from his mind, but not her condemnation of
Elfride’s faithlessness. That entered into and mingled with the sensations his new experience
had begotten. The tale told by the little scene he had witnessed ran parallel with the
unhappy woman’s opinion, which, however baseless it might have been antecedently,
had become true enough as regarded himself. A slow weight of despair, as distinct from
a violent paroxysm as starvation from a mortal shot, filled him and wrung him body and soul.
The discovery had not been altogether unexpected, for throughout his anxiety of the last few
days since the night in the churchyard, he had been inclined to construe the uncertainty
unfavourably for himself. His hopes for the best had been but periodic interruptions to
a chronic fear of the worst. A strange concomitant of his misery was the
singularity of its form. That his rival should be Knight, whom once upon a time he had adored
as a man is very rarely adored by another in modern times, and whom he loved now, added
deprecation to sorrow, and cynicism to both. Henry Knight, whose praises he had so frequently
trumpeted in her ears, of whom she had actually been jealous, lest she herself should be lessened
in Stephen’s love on account of him, had probably won her the more easily by reason
of those very praises which he had only ceased to utter by her command. She had ruled him
like a queen in that matter, as in all others. Stephen could tell by her manner, brief as
had been his observation of it, and by her words, few as they were, that her position
was far different with Knight. That she looked up at and adored her new lover from below
his pedestal, was even more perceptible than that she had smiled down upon Stephen from
a height above him. The suddenness of Elfride’s renunciation
of himself was food for more torture. To an unimpassioned outsider, it admitted of at
least two interpretations—it might either have proceeded from an endeavour to be faithful
to her first choice, till the lover seen absolutely overpowered the lover remembered, or from
a wish not to lose his love till sure of the love of another. But to Stephen Smith the
motive involved in the latter alternative made it untenable where Elfride was the actor. He mused on her letters to him, in which she
had never mentioned a syllable concerning Knight. It is desirable, however, to observe
that only in two letters could she possibly have done so. One was written about a week
before Knight’s arrival, when, though she did not mention his promised coming to Stephen,
she had hardly a definite reason in her mind for neglecting to do it. In the next she did
casually allude to Knight. But Stephen had left Bombay long before that letter arrived. Stephen looked at the black form of the adjacent
house, where it cut a dark polygonal notch out of the sky, and felt that he hated the
spot. He did not know many facts of the case, but could not help instinctively associating
Elfride’s fickleness with the marriage of her father, and their introduction to London
society. He closed the iron gate bounding the shrubbery as noiselessly as he had opened
it, and went into the grassy field. Here he could see the old vicarage, the house alone
that was associated with the sweet pleasant time of his incipient love for Elfride. Turning
sadly from the place that was no longer a nook in which his thoughts might nestle when
he was far away, he wandered in the direction of the east village, to reach his father’s
house before they retired to rest. The nearest way to the cottage was by crossing
the park. He did not hurry. Happiness frequently has reason for haste, but it is seldom that
desolation need scramble or strain. Sometimes he paused under the low-hanging arms of the
trees, looking vacantly on the ground. Stephen was standing thus, scarcely less crippled
in thought than he was blank in vision, when a clear sound permeated the quiet air about
him, and spread on far beyond. The sound was the stroke of a bell from the tower of East
Endelstow Church, which stood in a dell not forty yards from Lord Luxellian’s mansion,
and within the park enclosure. Another stroke greeted his ear, and gave character to both:
then came a slow succession of them. ‘Somebody is dead,’ he said aloud. The death-knell of an inhabitant of the eastern
parish was being tolled. An unusual feature in the tolling was that
it had not been begun according to the custom in Endelstow and other parishes in the neighbourhood.
At every death the sex and age of the deceased were announced by a system of changes. Three
times three strokes signified that the departed one was a man; three times two, a woman; twice
three, a boy; twice two, a girl. The regular continuity of the tolling suggested that it
was the resumption rather than the beginning of a knell—the opening portion of which
Stephen had not been near enough to hear. The momentary anxiety he had felt with regard
to his parents passed away. He had left them in perfect health, and had any serious illness
seized either, a communication would have reached him ere this. At the same time, since
his way homeward lay under the churchyard yews, he resolved to look into the belfry
in passing by, and speak a word to Martin Cannister, who would be there. Stephen reached the brow of the hill, and
felt inclined to renounce his idea. His mood was such that talking to any person to whom
he could not unburden himself would be wearisome. However, before he could put any inclination
into effect, the young man saw from amid the trees a bright light shining, the rays from
which radiated like needles through the sad plumy foliage of the yews. Its direction was
from the centre of the churchyard. Stephen mechanically went forward. Never could
there be a greater contrast between two places of like purpose than between this graveyard
and that of the further village. Here the grass was carefully tended, and formed virtually
a part of the manor-house lawn; flowers and shrubs being planted indiscriminately over
both, whilst the few graves visible were mathematically exact in shape and smoothness, appearing in
the daytime like chins newly shaven. There was no wall, the division between God’s
Acre and Lord Luxellian’s being marked only by a few square stones set at equidistant
points. Among those persons who have romantic sentiments on the subject of their last dwelling-place,
probably the greater number would have chosen such a spot as this in preference to any other:
a few would have fancied a constraint in its trim neatness, and would have preferred the
wild hill-top of the neighbouring site, with Nature in her most negligent attire. The light in the churchyard he next discovered
to have its source in a point very near the ground, and Stephen imagined it might come
from a lantern in the interior of a partly-dug grave. But a nearer approach showed him that
its position was immediately under the wall of the aisle, and within the mouth of an archway.
He could now hear voices, and the truth of the whole matter began to dawn upon him. Walking
on towards the opening, Smith discerned on his left hand a heap of earth, and before
him a flight of stone steps which the removed earth had uncovered, leading down under the
edifice. It was the entrance to a large family vault, extending under the north aisle. Stephen had never before seen it open, and
descending one or two steps stooped to look under the arch. The vault appeared to be crowded
with coffins, with the exception of an open central space, which had been necessarily
kept free for ingress and access to the sides, round three of which the coffins were stacked
in stone bins or niches. The place was well lighted with candles stuck
in slips of wood that were fastened to the wall. On making the descent of another step
the living inhabitants of the vault were recognizable. They were his father the master-mason, an
under-mason, Martin Cannister, and two or three young and old labouring-men. Crowbars
and workmen’s hammers were scattered about. The whole company, sitting round on coffins
which had been removed from their places, apparently for some alteration or enlargement
of the vault, were eating bread and cheese, and drinking ale from a cup with two handles,
passed round from each to each. ‘Who is dead?’ Stephen inquired, stepping
down. Chapter XXVI
‘To that last nothing under earth.’ All eyes were turned to the entrance as Stephen
spoke, and the ancient-mannered conclave scrutinized him inquiringly. ‘Why, ‘tis our Stephen!’ said his father,
rising from his seat; and, still retaining the frothy mug in his left hand, he swung
forward his right for a grasp. ‘Your mother is expecting ye—thought you would have come
afore dark. But you’ll wait and go home with me? I have all but done for the day,
and was going directly.’ ‘Yes, ‘tis Master Stephy, sure enough.
Glad to see you so soon again, Master Smith,’ said Martin Cannister, chastening the gladness
expressed in his words by a strict neutrality of countenance, in order to harmonize the
feeling as much as possible with the solemnity of a family vault. ‘The same to you, Martin; and you, William,’
said Stephen, nodding around to the rest, who, having their mouths full of bread and
cheese, were of necessity compelled to reply merely by compressing their eyes to friendly
lines and wrinkles. ‘And who is dead?’ Stephen repeated. ‘Lady Luxellian, poor gentlewoman, as we
all shall, said the under-mason. ‘Ay, and we be going to enlarge the vault to make room
for her.’ ‘When did she die?’ ‘Early this morning,’ his father replied,
with an appearance of recurring to a chronic thought. ‘Yes, this morning. Martin hev
been tolling ever since, almost. There, ‘twas expected. She was very limber.’ ‘Ay, poor soul, this morning,’ resumed
the under-mason, a marvellously old man, whose skin seemed so much too large for his body
that it would not stay in position. ‘She must know by this time whether she’s to
go up or down, poor woman.’ ‘What was her age?’ ‘Not more than seven or eight and twenty
by candlelight. But, Lord! by day ‘a was forty if ‘a were an hour.’ ‘Ay, night-time or day-time makes a difference
of twenty years to rich feymels,’ observed Martin. ‘She was one and thirty really,’ said
John Smith. ‘I had it from them that know.’ ‘Not more than that!’ ‘’A looked very bad, poor lady. In faith,
ye might say she was dead for years afore ‘a would own it.’ ‘As my old father used to say, “dead,
but wouldn’t drop down.”’ ‘I seed her, poor soul,’ said a labourer
from behind some removed coffins, ‘only but last Valentine’s-day of all the world.
‘A was arm in crook wi’ my lord. I says to myself, “You be ticketed Churchyard,
my noble lady, although you don’t dream on’t.”’ ‘I suppose my lord will write to all the
other lords anointed in the nation, to let ‘em know that she that was is now no more?’ ‘’Tis done and past. I see a bundle of
letters go off an hour after the death. Sich wonderful black rims as they letters had—half-an-inch
wide, at the very least.’ ‘Too much,’ observed Martin. ‘In short,
‘tis out of the question that a human being can be so mournful as black edges half-an-inch
wide. I’m sure people don’t feel more than a very narrow border when they feels
most of all.’ ‘And there are two little girls, are there
not?’ said Stephen. ‘Nice clane little faces!—left motherless
now.’ ‘They used to come to Parson Swancourt’s
to play with Miss Elfride when I were there,’ said William Worm. ‘Ah, they did so’s!’
The latter sentence was introduced to add the necessary melancholy to a remark which,
intrinsically, could hardly be made to possess enough for the occasion. ‘Yes,’ continued
Worm, ‘they’d run upstairs, they’d run down; flitting about with her everywhere.
Very fond of her, they were. Ah, well!’ ‘Fonder than ever they were of their mother,
so ‘tis said here and there,’ added a labourer. ‘Well, you see, ‘tis natural. Lady Luxellian
stood aloof from ‘em so—was so drowsy-like, that they couldn’t love her in the jolly-companion
way children want to like folks. Only last winter I seed Miss Elfride talking to my lady
and the two children, and Miss Elfride wiped their noses for em’ SO careful—my lady
never once seeing that it wanted doing; and, naturally, children take to people that’s
their best friend.’ ‘Be as ‘twill, the woman is dead and gone,
and we must make a place for her,’ said John. ‘Come, lads, drink up your ale, and
we’ll just rid this corner, so as to have all clear for beginning at the wall, as soon
as ‘tis light to-morrow.’ Stephen then asked where Lady Luxellian was
to lie. ‘Here,’ said his father. ‘We are going
to set back this wall and make a recess; and ‘tis enough for us to do before the funeral.
When my lord’s mother died, she said, “John, the place must be enlarged before another
can be put in.” But ‘a never expected ‘twould be wanted so soon. Better move Lord
George first, I suppose, Simeon?’ He pointed with his foot to a heavy coffin,
covered with what had originally been red velvet, the colour of which could only just
be distinguished now. ‘Just as ye think best, Master John,’
replied the shrivelled mason. ‘Ah, poor Lord George!’ he continued, looking contemplatively
at the huge coffin; ‘he and I were as bitter enemies once as any could be when one is a
lord and t’other only a mortal man. Poor fellow! He’d clap his hand upon my shoulder
and cuss me as familial and neighbourly as if he’d been a common chap. Ay, ‘a cussed
me up hill and ‘a cussed me down; and then ‘a would rave out again, and the goold clamps
of his fine new teeth would glisten in the sun like fetters of brass, while I, being
a small man and poor, was fain to say nothing at all. Such a strappen fine gentleman as
he was too! Yes, I rather liked en sometimes. But once now and then, when I looked at his
towering height, I’d think in my inside, “What a weight you’ll be, my lord, for
our arms to lower under the aisle of Endelstow Church some day!”’ ‘And was he?’ inquired a young labourer. ‘He was. He was five hundredweight if ‘a
were a pound. What with his lead, and his oak, and his handles, and his one thing and
t’other’—here the ancient man slapped his hand upon the cover with a force that
caused a rattle among the bones inside—‘he half broke my back when I took his feet to
lower en down the steps there. “Ah,” saith I to John there—didn’t I, John?—“that
ever one man’s glory should be such a weight upon another man!” But there, I liked my
lord George sometimes.’ ‘’Tis a strange thought,’ said another,
‘that while they be all here under one roof, a snug united family o’ Luxellians, they
be really scattered miles away from one another in the form of good sheep and wicked goats,
isn’t it?’ ‘True; ‘tis a thought to look at.’ ‘And that one, if he’s gone upward, don’t
know what his wife is doing no more than the man in the moon if she’s gone downward.
And that some unfortunate one in the hot place is a-hollering across to a lucky one up in
the clouds, and quite forgetting their bodies be boxed close together all the time.’ ‘Ay, ‘tis a thought to look at, too, that
I can say “Hullo!” close to fiery Lord George, and ‘a can’t hear me.’ ‘And that I be eating my onion close to
dainty Lady Jane’s nose, and she can’t smell me.’ ‘What do ‘em put all their heads one way
for?’ inquired a young man. ‘Because ‘tis churchyard law, you simple.
The law of the living is, that a man shall be upright and down-right, and the law of
the dead is, that a man shall be east and west. Every state of society have its laws.’ ‘We must break the law wi’ a few of the
poor souls, however. Come, buckle to,’ said the master-mason. And they set to work anew. The order of interment could be distinctly
traced by observing the appearance of the coffins as they lay piled around. On those
which had been standing there but a generation or two the trappings still remained. Those
of an earlier period showed bare wood, with a few tattered rags dangling therefrom. Earlier
still, the wood lay in fragments on the floor of the niche, and the coffin consisted of
naked lead alone; whilst in the case of the very oldest, even the lead was bulging and
cracking in pieces, revealing to the curious eye a heap of dust within. The shields upon
many were quite loose, and removable by the hand, their lustreless surfaces still indistinctly
exhibiting the name and title of the deceased. Overhead the groins and concavities of the
arches curved in all directions, dropping low towards the walls, where the height was
no more than sufficient to enable a person to stand upright. The body of George the fourteenth baron, together
with two or three others, all of more recent date than the great bulk of coffins piled
there, had, for want of room, been placed at the end of the vault on tressels, and not
in niches like the others. These it was necessary to remove, to form behind them the chamber
in which they were ultimately to be deposited. Stephen, finding the place and proceedings
in keeping with the sombre colours of his mind, waited there still. ‘Simeon, I suppose you can mind poor Lady
Elfride, and how she ran away with the actor?’ said John Smith, after awhile. ‘I think
it fell upon the time my father was sexton here. Let us see—where is she?’ ‘Here somewhere,’ returned Simeon, looking
round him. ‘Why, I’ve got my arms round the very
gentlewoman at this moment.’ He lowered the end of the coffin he was holding, wiped
his face, and throwing a morsel of rotten wood upon another as an indicator, continued:
‘That’s her husband there. They was as fair a couple as you should see anywhere round
about; and a good-hearted pair likewise. Ay, I can mind it, though I was but a chiel at
the time. She fell in love with this young man of hers, and their banns were asked in
some church in London; and the old lord her father actually heard ‘em asked the three
times, and didn’t notice her name, being gabbled on wi’ a host of others. When she
had married she told her father, and ‘a fleed into a monstrous rage, and said she
shouldn’ hae a farthing. Lady Elfride said she didn’t think of wishing it; if he’d
forgie her ‘twas all she asked, and as for a living, she was content to play plays with
her husband. This frightened the old lord, and ‘a gie’d ‘em a house to live in,
and a great garden, and a little field or two, and a carriage, and a good few guineas.
Well, the poor thing died at her first gossiping, and her husband—who was as tender-hearted
a man as ever eat meat, and would have died for her—went wild in his mind, and broke
his heart (so ‘twas said). Anyhow, they were buried the same day—father and mother—but
the baby lived. Ay, my lord’s family made much of that man then, and put him here with
his wife, and there in the corner the man is now. The Sunday after there was a funeral
sermon: the text was, “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken;”
and when ‘twas preaching the men drew their hands across their eyes several times, and
every woman cried out loud.’ ‘And what became of the baby?’ said Stephen,
who had frequently heard portions of the story. ‘She was brought up by her grandmother,
and a pretty maid she were. And she must needs run away with the curate—Parson Swancourt
that is now. Then her grandmother died, and the title and everything went away to another
branch of the family altogether. Parson Swancourt wasted a good deal of his wife’s money,
and she left him Miss Elfride. That trick of running away seems to be handed down in
families, like craziness or gout. And they two women be alike as peas.’ ‘Which two?’ ‘Lady Elfride and young Miss that’s alive
now. The same hair and eyes: but Miss Elfride’s mother was darker a good deal.’ ‘Life’s a strangle bubble, ye see,’
said William Worm musingly. ‘For if the Lord’s anointment had descended upon women
instead of men, Miss Elfride would be Lord Luxellian—Lady, I mane. But as it is, the
blood is run out, and she’s nothing to the Luxellian family by law, whatever she may
be by gospel.’ ‘I used to fancy,’ said Simeon, ‘when
I seed Miss Elfride hugging the little ladyships, that there was a likeness; but I suppose ‘twas
only my dream, for years must have altered the old family shape.’ ‘And now we’ll move these two, and home-along,’
interposed John Smith, reviving, as became a master, the spirit of labour, which had
showed unmistakable signs of being nearly vanquished by the spirit of chat, ‘The flagon
of ale we don’t want we’ll let bide here till to-morrow; none of the poor souls will
touch it ‘a b’lieve.’ So the evening’s work was concluded, and
the party drew from the abode of the quiet dead, closing the old iron door, and shooting
the lock loudly into the huge copper staple—an incongruous act of imprisonment towards those
who had no dreams of escape. Chapter XXVII
‘How should I greet thee?’ Love frequently dies of time alone—much
more frequently of displacement. With Elfride Swancourt, a powerful reason why the displacement
should be successful was that the new-comer was a greater man than the first. By the side
of the instructive and piquant snubbings she received from Knight, Stephen’s general
agreeableness seemed watery; by the side of Knight’s spare love-making, Stephen’s
continual outflow seemed lackadaisical. She had begun to sigh for somebody further on
in manhood. Stephen was hardly enough of a man. Perhaps there was a proneness to inconstancy
in her nature—a nature, to those who contemplate it from a standpoint beyond the influence
of that inconstancy, the most exquisite of all in its plasticity and ready sympathies.
Partly, too, Stephen’s failure to make his hold on her heart a permanent one was his
too timid habit of dispraising himself beside her—a peculiarity which, exercised towards
sensible men, stirs a kindly chord of attachment that a marked assertiveness would leave untouched,
but inevitably leads the most sensible woman in the world to undervalue him who practises
it. Directly domineering ceases in the man, snubbing begins in the woman; the trite but
no less unfortunate fact being that the gentler creature rarely has the capacity to appreciate
fair treatment from her natural complement. The abiding perception of the position of
Stephen’s parents had, of course, a little to do with Elfride’s renunciation. To such
girls poverty may not be, as to the more worldly masses of humanity, a sin in itself; but it
is a sin, because graceful and dainty manners seldom exist in such an atmosphere. Few women
of old family can be thoroughly taught that a fine soul may wear a smock-frock, and an
admittedly common man in one is but a worm in their eyes. John Smith’s rough hands
and clothes, his wife’s dialect, the necessary narrowness of their ways, being constantly
under Elfride’s notice, were not without their deflecting influence. On reaching home after the perilous adventure
by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young
lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly
clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account
of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed
the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left
her. The mutual avowal which it had been the means of precipitating occupied a far longer
length of her meditations. Elfride’s disquiet now was on account of
that miserable promise to meet Stephen, which returned like a spectre again and again. The
perception of his littleness beside Knight grew upon her alarmingly. She now thought
how sound had been her father’s advice to her to give him up, and was as passionately
desirous of following it as she had hitherto been averse. Perhaps there is nothing more
hardening to the tone of young minds than thus to discover how their dearest and strongest
wishes become gradually attuned by Time the Cynic to the very note of some selfish policy
which in earlier days they despised. The hour of appointment came, and with it
a crisis; and with the crisis a collapse. ‘God forgive me—I can’t meet Stephen!’
she exclaimed to herself. ‘I don’t love him less, but I love Mr. Knight more!’ Yes: she would save herself from a man not
fit for her—in spite of vows. She would obey her father, and have no more to do with
Stephen Smith. Thus the fickle resolve showed signs of assuming the complexion of a virtue. The following days were passed without any
definite avowal from Knight’s lips. Such solitary walks and scenes as that witnessed
by Smith in the summer-house were frequent, but he courted her so intangibly that to any
but such a delicate perception as Elfride’s it would have appeared no courtship at all.
The time now really began to be sweet with her. She dismissed the sense of sin in her
past actions, and was automatic in the intoxication of the moment. The fact that Knight made no
actual declaration was no drawback. Knowing since the betrayal of his sentiments that
love for her really existed, she preferred it for the present in its form of essence,
and was willing to avoid for awhile the grosser medium of words. Their feelings having been
forced to a rather premature demonstration, a reaction was indulged in by both. But no sooner had she got rid of her troubled
conscience on the matter of faithlessness than a new anxiety confronted her. It was
lest Knight should accidentally meet Stephen in the parish, and that herself should be
the subject of discourse. Elfride, learning Knight more thoroughly,
perceived that, far from having a notion of Stephen’s precedence, he had no idea that
she had ever been wooed before by anybody. On ordinary occasions she had a tongue so
frank as to show her whole mind, and a mind so straightforward as to reveal her heart
to its innermost shrine. But the time for a change had come. She never alluded to even
a knowledge of Knight’s friend. When women are secret they are secret indeed; and more
often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover. The elopement was now a spectre worse than
the first, and, like the Spirit in Glenfinlas, it waxed taller with every attempt to lay
it. Her natural honesty invited her to confide in Knight, and trust to his generosity for
forgiveness: she knew also that as mere policy it would be better to tell him early if he
was to be told at all. The longer her concealment the more difficult would be the revelation.
But she put it off. The intense fear which accompanies intense love in young women was
too strong to allow the exercise of a moral quality antagonistic to itself: ‘Where love is great, the littlest doubts
are fear; Where little fears grow great, great love
grows there.’ The match was looked upon as made by her father
and mother. The vicar remembered her promise to reveal the meaning of the telegram she
had received, and two days after the scene in the summer-house, asked her pointedly.
She was frank with him now. ‘I had been corresponding with Stephen Smith
ever since he left England, till lately,’ she calmly said. ‘What!’ cried the vicar aghast; ‘under
the eyes of Mr. Knight, too?’ ‘No; when I found I cared most for Mr. Knight,
I obeyed you.’ ‘You were very kind, I’m sure. When did
you begin to like Mr. Knight?’ ‘I don’t see that that is a pertinent
question, papa; the telegram was from the shipping agent, and was not sent at my request.
It announced the arrival of the vessel bringing him home.’ ‘Home! What, is he here?’ ‘Yes; in the village, I believe.’ ‘Has he tried to see you?’ ‘Only by fair means. But don’t, papa,
question me so! It is torture.’ ‘I will only say one word more,’ he replied.
‘Have you met him?’ ‘I have not. I can assure you that at the
present moment there is no more of an understanding between me and the young man you so much disliked
than between him and you. You told me to forget him; and I have forgotten him.’ ‘Oh, well; though you did not obey me in
the beginning, you are a good girl, Elfride, in obeying me at last.’ ‘Don’t call me “good,” papa,’ she
said bitterly; ‘you don’t know—and the less said about some things the better. Remember,
Mr. Knight knows nothing about the other. Oh, how wrong it all is! I don’t know what
I am coming to.’ ‘As matters stand, I should be inclined
to tell him; or, at any rate, I should not alarm myself about his knowing. He found out
the other day that this was the parish young Smith’s father lives in—what puts you
in such a flurry?’ ‘I can’t say; but promise—pray don’t
let him know! It would be my ruin!’ ‘Pooh, child. Knight is a good fellow and
a clever man; but at the same time it does not escape my perceptions that he is no great
catch for you. Men of his turn of mind are nothing so wonderful in the way of husbands.
If you had chosen to wait, you might have mated with a much wealthier man. But remember,
I have not a word to say against your having him, if you like him. Charlotte is delighted,
as you know.’ ‘Well, papa,’ she said, smiling hopefully
through a sigh, ‘it is nice to feel that in giving way to—to caring for him, I have
pleased my family. But I am not good; oh no, I am very far from that!’ ‘None of us are good, I am sorry to say,’
said her father blandly; ‘but girls have a chartered right to change their minds, you
know. It has been recognized by poets from time immemorial. Catullus says, “Mulier
cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento—” What a memory mine is! However, the passage is,
that a woman’s words to a lover are as a matter of course written only on wind and
water. Now don’t be troubled about that, Elfride.’ ‘Ah, you don’t know!’ They had been standing on the lawn, and Knight
was now seen lingering some way down a winding walk. When Elfride met him, it was with a
much greater lightness of heart; things were more straightforward now. The responsibility
of her fickleness seemed partly shifted from her own shoulders to her father’s. Still,
there were shadows. ‘Ah, could he have known how far I went
with Stephen, and yet have said the same, how much happier I should be!’ That was
her prevailing thought. In the afternoon the lovers went out together
on horseback for an hour or two; and though not wishing to be observed, by reason of the
late death of Lady Luxellian, whose funeral had taken place very privately on the previous
day, they yet found it necessary to pass East Endelstow Church. The steps to the vault, as has been stated,
were on the outside of the building, immediately under the aisle wall. Being on horseback,
both Knight and Elfride could overlook the shrubs which screened the church-yard. ‘Look, the vault seems still to be open,’
said Knight. ‘Yes, it is open,’ she answered ‘Who is that man close by it? The mason,
I suppose?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I wonder if it is John Smith, Stephen’s
father?’ ‘I believe it is,’ said Elfride, with
apprehension. ‘Ah, and can it be? I should like to inquire
how his son, my truant protege’, is going on. And from your father’s description of
the vault, the interior must be interesting. Suppose we go in.’ ‘Had we better, do you think? May not Lord
Luxellian be there?’ ‘It is not at all likely.’ Elfride then assented, since she could do
nothing else. Her heart, which at first had quailed in consternation, recovered itself
when she considered the character of John Smith. A quiet unassuming man, he would be
sure to act towards her as before those love passages with his son, which might have given
a more pretentious mechanic airs. So without much alarm she took Knight’s arm after dismounting,
and went with him between and over the graves. The master-mason recognized her as she approached,
and, as usual, lifted his hat respectfully. ‘I know you to be Mr. Smith, my former friend
Stephen’s father,’ said Knight, directly he had scanned the embrowned and ruddy features
of John. ‘Yes, sir, I b’lieve I be.’ ‘How is your son now? I have only once heard
from him since he went to India. I daresay you have heard him speak of me—Mr. Knight,
who became acquainted with him some years ago in Exonbury.’ ‘Ay, that I have. Stephen is very well,
thank you, sir, and he’s in England; in fact, he’s at home. In short, sir, he’s
down in the vault there, a-looking at the departed coffins.’ Elfride’s heart fluttered like a butterfly. Knight looked amazed. ‘Well, that is extraordinary.’
he murmured. ‘Did he know I was in the parish?’ ‘I really can’t say, sir,’ said John,
wishing himself out of the entanglement he rather suspected than thoroughly understood. ‘Would it be considered an intrusion by
the family if we went into the vault?’ ‘Oh, bless ye, no, sir; scores of folk have
been stepping down. ‘Tis left open a-purpose.’ ‘We will go down, Elfride.’ ‘I am afraid the air is close,’ she said
appealingly. ‘Oh no, ma’am,’ said John. ‘We white-limed
the walls and arches the day ‘twas opened, as we always do, and again on the morning
of the funeral; the place is as sweet as a granary. ‘Then I should like you to accompany me,
Elfie; having originally sprung from the family too.’ ‘I don’t like going where death is so
emphatically present. I’ll stay by the horses whilst you go in; they may get loose.’ ‘What nonsense! I had no idea your sentiments
were so flimsily formed as to be perturbed by a few remnants of mortality; but stay out,
if you are so afraid, by all means.’ ‘Oh no, I am not afraid; don’t say that.’ She held miserably to his arm, thinking that,
perhaps, the revelation might as well come at once as ten minutes later, for Stephen
would be sure to accompany his friend to his horse. At first, the gloom of the vault, which was
lighted only by a couple of candles, was too great to admit of their seeing anything distinctly;
but with a further advance Knight discerned, in front of the black masses lining the walls,
a young man standing, and writing in a pocket-book. Knight said one word: ‘Stephen!’ Stephen Smith, not being in such absolute
ignorance of Knight’s whereabouts as Knight had been of Smith’s instantly recognized
his friend, and knew by rote the outlines of the fair woman standing behind him. Stephen came forward and shook him by the
hand, without speaking. ‘Why have you not written, my boy?’ said
Knight, without in any way signifying Elfride’s presence to Stephen. To the essayist, Smith
was still the country lad whom he had patronized and tended; one to whom the formal presentation
of a lady betrothed to himself would have seemed incongruous and absurd. ‘Why haven’t you written to me?’ said
Stephen. ‘Ah, yes. Why haven’t I? why haven’t
we? That’s always the query which we cannot clearly answer without an unsatisfactory sense
of our inadequacies. However, I have not forgotten you, Smith. And now we have met; and we must
meet again, and have a longer chat than this can conveniently be. I must know all you have
been doing. That you have thriven, I know, and you must teach me the way.’ Elfride stood in the background. Stephen had
read the position at a glance, and immediately guessed that she had never mentioned his name
to Knight. His tact in avoiding catastrophes was the chief quality which made him intellectually
respectable, in which quality he far transcended Knight; and he decided that a tranquil issue
out of the encounter, without any harrowing of the feelings of either Knight or Elfride,
was to be attempted if possible. His old sense of indebtedness to Knight had never wholly
forsaken him; his love for Elfride was generous now. As far as he dared look at her movements he
saw that her bearing towards him would be dictated by his own towards her; and if he
acted as a stranger she would do likewise as a means of deliverance. Circumstances favouring
this course, it was desirable also to be rather reserved towards Knight, to shorten the meeting
as much as possible. ‘I am afraid that my time is almost too
short to allow even of such a pleasure,’ he said. ‘I leave here to-morrow. And until
I start for the Continent and India, which will be in a fortnight, I shall have hardly
a moment to spare.’ Knight’s disappointment and dissatisfied
looks at this reply sent a pang through Stephen as great as any he had felt at the sight of
Elfride. The words about shortness of time were literally true, but their tone was far
from being so. He would have been gratified to talk with Knight as in past times, and
saw as a dead loss to himself that, to save the woman who cared nothing for him, he was
deliberately throwing away his friend. ‘Oh, I am sorry to hear that,’ said Knight,
in a changed tone. ‘But of course, if you have weighty concerns to attend to, they must
not be neglected. And if this is to be our first and last meeting, let me say that I
wish you success with all my heart!’ Knight’s warmth revived towards the end; the solemn
impressions he was beginning to receive from the scene around them abstracting from his
heart as a puerility any momentary vexation at words. ‘It is a strange place for us
to meet in,’ he continued, looking round the vault. Stephen briefly assented, and there was a
silence. The blackened coffins were now revealed more clearly than at first, the whitened walls
and arches throwing them forward in strong relief. It was a scene which was remembered
by all three as an indelible mark in their history. Knight, with an abstracted face,
was standing between his companions, though a little in advance of them, Elfride being
on his right hand, and Stephen Smith on his left. The white daylight on his right side
gleamed faintly in, and was toned to a blueness by contrast with the yellow rays from the
candle against the wall. Elfride, timidly shrinking back, and nearest the entrance,
received most of the light therefrom, whilst Stephen was entirely in candlelight, and to
him the spot of outer sky visible above the steps was as a steely blue patch, and nothing
more. ‘I have been here two or three times since
it was opened,’ said Stephen. ‘My father was engaged in the work, you know.’ ‘Yes. What are you doing?’ Knight inquired,
looking at the note-book and pencil Stephen held in his hand. ‘I have been sketching a few details in
the church, and since then I have been copying the names from some of the coffins here. Before
I left England I used to do a good deal of this sort of thing.’ ‘Yes; of course. Ah, that’s poor Lady
Luxellian, I suppose.’ Knight pointed to a coffin of light satin-wood, which stood
on the stone sleepers in the new niche. ‘And the remainder of the family are on this side.
Who are those two, so snug and close together?’ Stephen’s voice altered slightly as he replied
‘That’s Lady Elfride Kingsmore—born Luxellian, and that is Arthur, her husband.
I have heard my father say that they—he—ran away with her, and married her against the
wish of her parents.’ ‘Then I imagine this to be where you got
your Christian name, Miss Swancourt?’ said Knight, turning to her. ‘I think you told
me it was three or four generations ago that your family branched off from the Luxellians?’ ‘She was my grandmother,’ said Elfride,
vainly endeavouring to moisten her dry lips before she spoke. Elfride had then the conscience-stricken
look of Guido’s Magdalen, rendered upon a more childlike form. She kept her face partially
away from Knight and Stephen, and set her eyes upon the sky visible outside, as if her
salvation depended upon quickly reaching it. Her left hand rested lightly within Knight’s
arm, half withdrawn, from a sense of shame at claiming him before her old lover, yet
unwilling to renounce him; so that her glove merely touched his sleeve. ‘“Can one be
pardoned, and retain the offence?”’ quoted Elfride’s heart then. Conversation seemed to have no self-sustaining
power, and went on in the shape of disjointed remarks. ‘One’s mind gets thronged with
thoughts while standing so solemnly here,’ Knight said, in a measured quiet voice. ‘How
much has been said on death from time to time! how much we ourselves can think upon it! We
may fancy each of these who lie here saying: ‘For Thou, to make my fall more great,
Didst lift me up on high.’ What comes next, Elfride? It is the Hundred-and-second
Psalm I am thinking of.’ ‘Yes, I know it,’ she murmured, and went
on in a still lower voice, seemingly afraid for any words from the emotional side of her
nature to reach Stephen: ‘“My days, just hastening to their end,
Are like an evening shade; My beauty doth, like wither’d grass,
With waning lustre fade.”’ ‘Well,’ said Knight musingly, ‘let us
leave them. Such occasions as these seem to compel us to roam outside ourselves, far away
from the fragile frame we live in, and to expand till our perception grows so vast that
our physical reality bears no sort of proportion to it. We look back upon the weak and minute
stem on which this luxuriant growth depends, and ask, Can it be possible that such a capacity
has a foundation so small? Must I again return to my daily walk in that narrow cell, a human
body, where worldly thoughts can torture me? Do we not?’ ‘Yes,’ said Stephen and Elfride. ‘One has a sense of wrong, too, that such
an appreciative breadth as a sentient being possesses should be committed to the frail
casket of a body. What weakens one’s intentions regarding the future like the thought of this?…However,
let us tune ourselves to a more cheerful chord, for there’s a great deal to be done yet
by us all.’ As Knight meditatively addressed his juniors
thus, unconscious of the deception practised, for different reasons, by the severed hearts
at his side, and of the scenes that had in earlier days united them, each one felt that
he and she did not gain by contrast with their musing mentor. Physically not so handsome
as either the youthful architect or the vicar’s daughter, the thoroughness and integrity of
Knight illuminated his features with a dignity not even incipient in the other two. It is
difficult to frame rules which shall apply to both sexes, and Elfride, an undeveloped
girl, must, perhaps, hardly be laden with the moral responsibilities which attach to
a man in like circumstances. The charm of woman, too, lies partly in her subtleness
in matters of love. But if honesty is a virtue in itself, Elfride, having none of it now,
seemed, being for being, scarcely good enough for Knight. Stephen, though deceptive for
no unworthy purpose, was deceptive after all; and whatever good results grace such strategy
if it succeed, it seldom draws admiration, especially when it fails. On an ordinary occasion, had Knight been even
quite alone with Stephen, he would hardly have alluded to his possible relationship
to Elfride. But moved by attendant circumstances Knight was impelled to be confiding. ‘Stephen,’ he said, ‘this lady is Miss
Swancourt. I am staying at her father’s house, as you probably know.’ He stepped
a few paces nearer to Smith, and said in a lower tone: ‘I may as well tell you that
we are engaged to be married.’ Low as the words had been spoken, Elfride
had heard them, and awaited Stephen’s reply in breathless silence, if that could be called
silence where Elfride’s dress, at each throb of her heart, shook and indicated it like
a pulse-glass, rustling also against the wall in reply to the same throbbing. The ray of
daylight which reached her face lent it a blue pallor in comparison with those of the
other two. ‘I congratulate you,’ Stephen whispered;
and said aloud, ‘I know Miss Swancourt—a little. You must remember that my father is
a parishioner of Mr. Swancourt’s.’ ‘I thought you might possibly not have lived
at home since they have been here.’ ‘I have never lived at home, certainly,
since that time.’ ‘I have seen Mr. Smith,’ faltered Elfride. ‘Well, there is no excuse for me. As strangers
to each other I ought, I suppose, to have introduced you: as acquaintances, I should
not have stood so persistently between you. But the fact is, Smith, you seem a boy to
me, even now.’ Stephen appeared to have a more than previous
consciousness of the intense cruelty of his fate at the present moment. He could not repress
the words, uttered with a dim bitterness: ‘You should have said that I seemed still
the rural mechanic’s son I am, and hence an unfit subject for the ceremony of introductions.’ ‘Oh, no, no! I won’t have that.’ Knight
endeavoured to give his reply a laughing tone in Elfride’s ears, and an earnestness in
Stephen’s: in both which efforts he signally failed, and produced a forced speech pleasant
to neither. ‘Well, let us go into the open air again; Miss Swancourt, you are particularly
silent. You mustn’t mind Smith. I have known him for years, as I have told you.’ ‘Yes, you have,’ she said. ‘To think she has never mentioned her knowledge
of me!’ Smith murmured, and thought with some remorse how much her conduct resembled
his own on his first arrival at her house as a stranger to the place. They ascended to the daylight, Knight taking
no further notice of Elfride’s manner, which, as usual, he attributed to the natural shyness
of a young woman at being discovered walking with him on terms which left not much doubt
of their meaning. Elfride stepped a little in advance, and passed through the churchyard. ‘You are changed very considerably, Smith,’
said Knight, ‘and I suppose it is no more than was to be expected. However, don’t
imagine that I shall feel any the less interest in you and your fortunes whenever you care
to confide them to me. I have not forgotten the attachment you spoke of as your reason
for going away to India. A London young lady, was it not? I hope all is prosperous?’ ‘No: the match is broken off.’ It being always difficult to know whether
to express sorrow or gladness under such circumstances—all depending upon the character of the match—Knight
took shelter in the safe words: ‘I trust it was for the best.’ ‘I hope it was. But I beg that you will
not press me further: no, you have not pressed me—I don’t mean that—but I would rather
not speak upon the subject.’ Stephen’s words were hurried. Knight said no more, and they followed in
the footsteps of Elfride, who still kept some paces in advance, and had not heard Knight’s
unconscious allusion to her. Stephen bade him adieu at the churchyard-gate without going
outside, and watched whilst he and his sweetheart mounted their horses. ‘Good heavens, Elfride,’ Knight exclaimed,
‘how pale you are! I suppose I ought not to have taken you into that vault. What is
the matter?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Elfride faintly. ‘I
shall be myself in a moment. All was so strange and unexpected down there, that it made me
unwell.’ ‘I thought you said very little. Shall I
get some water?’ ‘No, no.’ ‘Do you think it is safe for you to mount?’ ‘Quite—indeed it is,’ she said, with
a look of appeal. ‘Now then—up she goes!’ whispered Knight,
and lifted her tenderly into the saddle. Her old lover still looked on at the performance
as he leant over the gate a dozen yards off. Once in the saddle, and having a firm grip
of the reins, she turned her head as if by a resistless fascination, and for the first
time since that memorable parting on the moor outside St. Launce’s after the passionate
attempt at marriage with him, Elfride looked in the face of the young man she first had
loved. He was the youth who had called her his inseparable wife many a time, and whom
she had even addressed as her husband. Their eyes met. Measurement of life should be proportioned
rather to the intensity of the experience than to its actual length. Their glance, but
a moment chronologically, was a season in their history. To Elfride the intense agony
of reproach in Stephen’s eye was a nail piercing her heart with a deadliness no words
can describe. With a spasmodic effort she withdrew her eyes, urged on the horse, and
in the chaos of perturbed memories was oblivious of any presence beside her. The deed of deception
was complete. Gaining a knoll on which the park transformed
itself into wood and copse, Knight came still closer to her side, and said, ‘Are you better
now, dearest?’ ‘Oh yes.’ She pressed a hand to her eyes,
as if to blot out the image of Stephen. A vivid scarlet spot now shone with preternatural
brightness in the centre of each cheek, leaving the remainder of her face lily-white as before. ‘Elfride,’ said Knight, rather in his
old tone of mentor, ‘you know I don’t for a moment chide you, but is there not a
great deal of unwomanly weakness in your allowing yourself to be so overwhelmed by the sight
of what, after all, is no novelty? Every woman worthy of the name should, I think, be able
to look upon death with something like composure. Surely you think so too?’ ‘Yes; I own it.’ His obtuseness to the cause of her indisposition,
by evidencing his entire freedom from the suspicion of anything behind the scenes, showed
how incapable Knight was of deception himself, rather than any inherent dulness in him regarding
human nature. This, clearly perceived by Elfride, added poignancy to her self-reproach, and
she idolized him the more because of their difference. Even the recent sight of Stephen’s
face and the sound of his voice, which for a moment had stirred a chord or two of ancient
kindness, were unable to keep down the adoration re-existent now that he was again out of view. She had replied to Knight’s question hastily,
and immediately went on to speak of indifferent subjects. After they had reached home she
was apart from him till dinner-time. When dinner was over, and they were watching the
dusk in the drawing-room, Knight stepped out upon the terrace. Elfride went after him very
decisively, on the spur of a virtuous intention. ‘Mr. Knight, I want to tell you something,’
she said, with quiet firmness. ‘And what is it about?’ gaily returned
her lover. ‘Happiness, I hope. Do not let anything keep you so sad as you seem to have
been to-day.’ ‘I cannot mention the matter until I tell
you the whole substance of it,’ she said. ‘And that I will do to-morrow. I have been
reminded of it to-day. It is about something I once did, and don’t think I ought to have
done.’ This, it must be said, was rather a mild way
of referring to a frantic passion and flight, which, much or little in itself, only accident
had saved from being a scandal in the public eye. Knight thought the matter some trifle, and
said pleasantly: ‘Then I am not to hear the dreadful confession
now?’ ‘No, not now. I did not mean to-night,’
Elfride responded, with a slight decline in the firmness of her voice. ‘It is not light
as you think it—it troubles me a great deal.’ Fearing now the effect of her own earnestness,
she added forcedly, ‘Though, perhaps, you may think it light after all.’ ‘But you have not said when it is to be?’ ‘To-morrow morning. Name a time, will you,
and bind me to it? I want you to fix an hour, because I am weak, and may otherwise try to
get out of it.’ She added a little artificial laugh, which showed how timorous her resolution
was still. ‘Well, say after breakfast—at eleven o’clock.’ ‘Yes, eleven o’clock. I promise you. Bind
me strictly to my word.’ Chapter XXVIII
‘I lull a fancy, trouble-tost.’ Miss Swancourt, it is eleven o’clock.’ She was looking out of her dressing-room window
on the first floor, and Knight was regarding her from the terrace balustrade, upon which
he had been idly sitting for some time—dividing the glances of his eye between the pages of
a book in his hand, the brilliant hues of the geraniums and calceolarias, and the open
window above-mentioned. ‘Yes, it is, I know. I am coming.’ He drew closer, and under the window. ‘How are you this morning, Elfride? You
look no better for your long night’s rest.’ She appeared at the door shortly after, took
his offered arm, and together they walked slowly down the gravel path leading to the
river and away under the trees. Her resolution, sustained during the last
fifteen hours, had been to tell the whole truth, and now the moment had come. Step by step they advanced, and still she
did not speak. They were nearly at the end of the walk, when Knight broke the silence. ‘Well, what is the confession, Elfride?’ She paused a moment, drew a long breath; and
this is what she said: ‘I told you one day—or rather I gave you
to understand—what was not true. I fancy you thought me to mean I was nineteen my next
birthday, but it was my last I was nineteen.’ The moment had been too much for her. Now
that the crisis had come, no qualms of conscience, no love of honesty, no yearning to make a
confidence and obtain forgiveness with a kiss, could string Elfride up to the venture. Her
dread lest he should be unforgiving was heightened by the thought of yesterday’s artifice,
which might possibly add disgust to his disappointment. The certainty of one more day’s affection,
which she gained by silence, outvalued the hope of a perpetuity combined with the risk
of all. The trepidation caused by these thoughts on
what she had intended to say shook so naturally the words she did say, that Knight never for
a moment suspected them to be a last moment’s substitution. He smiled and pressed her hand
warmly. ‘My dear Elfie—yes, you are now—no protestation—what
a winning little woman you are, to be so absurdly scrupulous about a mere iota! Really, I never
once have thought whether your nineteenth year was the last or the present. And, by
George, well I may not; for it would never do for a staid fogey a dozen years older to
stand upon such a trifle as that.’ ‘Don’t praise me—don’t praise me!
Though I prize it from your lips, I don’t deserve it now.’ But Knight, being in an exceptionally genial
mood, merely saw this distressful exclamation as modesty. ‘Well,’ he added, after a
minute, ‘I like you all the better, you know, for such moral precision, although I
called it absurd.’ He went on with tender earnestness: ‘For, Elfride, there is one
thing I do love to see in a woman—that is, a soul truthful and clear as heaven’s light.
I could put up with anything if I had that—forgive nothing if I had it not. Elfride, you have
such a soul, if ever woman had; and having it, retain it, and don’t ever listen to
the fashionable theories of the day about a woman’s privileges and natural right to
practise wiles. Depend upon it, my dear girl, that a noble woman must be as honest as a
noble man. I specially mean by honesty, fairness not only in matters of business and social
detail, but in all the delicate dealings of love, to which the licence given to your sex
particularly refers.’ Elfride looked troublously at the trees. ‘Now let us go on to the river, Elfie.’ ‘I would if I had a hat on,’ she said
with a sort of suppressed woe. ‘I will get it for you,’ said Knight,
very willing to purchase her companionship at so cheap a price. ‘You sit down there
a minute.’ And he turned and walked rapidly back to the house for the article in question. Elfride sat down upon one of the rustic benches
which adorned this portion of the grounds, and remained with her eyes upon the grass.
She was induced to lift them by hearing the brush of light and irregular footsteps hard
by. Passing along the path which intersected the one she was in and traversed the outer
shrubberies, Elfride beheld the farmer’s widow, Mrs. Jethway. Before she noticed Elfride,
she paused to look at the house, portions of which were visible through the bushes.
Elfride, shrinking back, hoped the unpleasant woman might go on without seeing her. But
Mrs. Jethway, silently apostrophizing the house, with actions which seemed dictated
by a half-overturned reason, had discerned the girl, and immediately came up and stood
in front of her. ‘Ah, Miss Swancourt! Why did you disturb
me? Mustn’t I trespass here?’ ‘You may walk here if you like, Mrs. Jethway.
I do not disturb you.’ ‘You disturb my mind, and my mind is my
whole life; for my boy is there still, and he is gone from my body.’ ‘Yes, poor young man. I was sorry when he
died.’ ‘Do you know what he died of?’ ‘Consumption.’ ‘Oh no, no!’ said the widow. ‘That word
“consumption” covers a good deal. He died because you were his own well-agreed sweetheart,
and then proved false—and it killed him. Yes, Miss Swancourt,’ she said in an excited
whisper, ‘you killed my son!’ ‘How can you be so wicked and foolish!’
replied Elfride, rising indignantly. But indignation was not natural to her, and having been so
worn and harrowed by late events, she lost any powers of defence that mood might have
lent her. ‘I could not help his loving me, Mrs. Jethway!’ ‘That’s just what you could have helped.
You know how it began, Miss Elfride. Yes: you said you liked the name of Felix better
than any other name in the parish, and you knew it was his name, and that those you said
it to would report it to him.’ ‘I knew it was his name—of course I did;
but I am sure, Mrs. Jethway, I did not intend anybody to tell him.’ ‘But you knew they would.’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ ‘And then, after that, when you were riding
on Revels-day by our house, and the lads were gathered there, and you wanted to dismount,
when Jim Drake and George Upway and three or four more ran forward to hold your pony,
and Felix stood back timid, why did you beckon to him, and say you would rather he held it?’ ‘O Mrs. Jethway, you do think so mistakenly!
I liked him best—that’s why I wanted him to do it. He was gentle and nice—I always
thought him so—and I liked him.’ ‘Then why did you let him kiss you?’ ‘It is a falsehood; oh, it is, it is!’
said Elfride, weeping with desperation. ‘He came behind me, and attempted to kiss me;
and that was why I told him never to let me see him again.’ ‘But you did not tell your father or anybody,
as you would have if you had looked upon it then as the insult you now pretend it was.’ ‘He begged me not to tell, and foolishly
enough I did not. And I wish I had now. I little expected to be scourged with my own
kindness. Pray leave me, Mrs. Jethway.’ The girl only expostulated now. ‘Well, you harshly dismissed him, and he
died. And before his body was cold, you took another to your heart. Then as carelessly
sent him about his business, and took a third. And if you consider that nothing, Miss Swancourt,’
she continued, drawing closer; ‘it led on to what was very serious indeed. Have you
forgotten the would-be runaway marriage? The journey to London, and the return the next
day without being married, and that there’s enough disgrace in that to ruin a woman’s
good name far less light than yours? You may have: I have not. Fickleness towards a lover
is bad, but fickleness after playing the wife is wantonness.’ ‘Oh, it’s a wicked cruel lie! Do not say
it; oh, do not!’ ‘Does your new man know of it? I think not,
or he would be no man of yours! As much of the story as was known is creeping about the
neighbourhood even now; but I know more than any of them, and why should I respect your
love?’ ‘I defy you!’ cried Elfride tempestuously.
‘Do and say all you can to ruin me; try; put your tongue at work; I invite it! I defy
you as a slanderous woman! Look, there he comes.’ And her voice trembled greatly as
she saw through the leaves the beloved form of Knight coming from the door with her hat
in his hand. ‘Tell him at once; I can bear it.’ ‘Not now,’ said the woman, and disappeared
down the path. The excitement of her latter words had restored
colour to Elfride’s cheeks; and hastily wiping her eyes, she walked farther on, so
that by the time her lover had overtaken her the traces of emotion had nearly disappeared
from her face. Knight put the hat upon her head, took her hand, and drew it within his
arm. It was the last day but one previous to their
departure for St. Leonards; and Knight seemed to have a purpose in being much in her company
that day. They rambled along the valley. The season was that period in the autumn when
the foliage alone of an ordinary plantation is rich enough in hues to exhaust the chromatic
combinations of an artist’s palette. Most lustrous of all are the beeches, graduating
from bright rusty red at the extremity of the boughs to a bright yellow at their inner
parts; young oaks are still of a neutral green; Scotch firs and hollies are nearly blue; whilst
occasional dottings of other varieties give maroons and purples of every tinge. The river—such as it was—here pursued
its course amid flagstones as level as a pavement, but divided by crevices of irregular width.
With the summer drought the torrent had narrowed till it was now but a thread of crystal clearness,
meandering along a central channel in the rocky bed of the winter current. Knight scrambled
through the bushes which at this point nearly covered the brook from sight, and leapt down
upon the dry portion of the river bottom. ‘Elfride, I never saw such a sight!’ he
exclaimed. ‘The hazels overhang the river’s course in a perfect arch, and the floor is
beautifully paved. The place reminds one of the passages of a cloister. Let me help you
down.’ He assisted her through the marginal underwood
and down to the stones. They walked on together to a tiny cascade about a foot wide and high,
and sat down beside it on the flags that for nine months in the year were submerged beneath
a gushing bourne. From their feet trickled the attenuated thread of water which alone
remained to tell the intent and reason of this leaf-covered aisle, and journeyed on
in a zigzag line till lost in the shade. Knight, leaning on his elbow, after contemplating
all this, looked critically at Elfride. ‘Does not such a luxuriant head of hair
exhaust itself and get thin as the years go on from eighteen to eight-and-twenty?’ he
asked at length. ‘Oh no!’ she said quickly, with a visible
disinclination to harbour such a thought, which came upon her with an unpleasantness
whose force it would be difficult for men to understand. She added afterwards, with
smouldering uneasiness, ‘Do you really think that a great abundance of hair is more likely
to get thin than a moderate quantity?’ ‘Yes, I really do. I believe—am almost
sure, in fact—that if statistics could be obtained on the subject, you would find the
persons with thin hair were those who had a superabundance originally, and that those
who start with a moderate quantity retain it without much loss.’ Elfride’s troubles sat upon her face as
well as in her heart. Perhaps to a woman it is almost as dreadful to think of losing her
beauty as of losing her reputation. At any rate, she looked quite as gloomy as she had
looked at any minute that day. ‘You shouldn’t be so troubled about a
mere personal adornment,’ said Knight, with some of the severity of tone that had been
customary before she had beguiled him into softness. ‘I think it is a woman’s duty to be as
beautiful as she can. If I were a scholar, I would give you chapter and verse for it
from one of your own Latin authors. I know there is such a passage, for papa has alluded
to it.’ “‘Munditiae, et ornatus, et cultus,”
&c.—is that it? A passage in Livy which is no defence at all.’ ‘No, it is not that.’ ‘Never mind, then; for I have a reason for
not taking up my old cudgels against you, Elfie. Can you guess what the reason is?’ ‘No; but I am glad to hear it,’ she said
thankfully. ‘For it is dreadful when you talk so. For whatever dreadful name the weakness
may deserve, I must candidly own that I am terrified to think my hair may ever get thin.’ ‘Of course; a sensible woman would rather
lose her wits than her beauty.’ ‘I don’t care if you do say satire and
judge me cruelly. I know my hair is beautiful; everybody says so.’ ‘Why, my dear Miss Swancourt,’ he tenderly
replied, ‘I have not said anything against it. But you know what is said about handsome
being and handsome doing.’ ‘Poor Miss Handsome-does cuts but a sorry
figure beside Miss Handsome-is in every man’s eyes, your own not excepted, Mr. Knight, though
it pleases you to throw off so,’ said Elfride saucily. And lowering her voice: ‘You ought
not to have taken so much trouble to save me from falling over the cliff, for you don’t
think mine a life worth much trouble evidently.’ ‘Perhaps you think mine was not worth yours.’ ‘It was worth anybody’s!’ Her hand was plashing in the little waterfall,
and her eyes were bent the same way. ‘You talk about my severity with you, Elfride.
You are unkind to me, you know.’ ‘How?’ she asked, looking up from her
idle occupation. ‘After my taking trouble to get jewellery
to please you, you wouldn’t accept it.’ ‘Perhaps I would now; perhaps I want to.’ ‘Do!’ said Knight. And the packet was withdrawn from his pocket
and presented the third time. Elfride took it with delight. The obstacle was rent in
twain, and the significant gift was hers. ‘I’ll take out these ugly ones at once,’
she exclaimed, ‘and I’ll wear yours—shall I?’ ‘I should be gratified.’ Now, though it may seem unlikely, considering
how far the two had gone in converse, Knight had never yet ventured to kiss Elfride. Far
slower was he than Stephen Smith in matters like that. The utmost advance he had made
in such demonstrations had been to the degree witnessed by Stephen in the summer-house.
So Elfride’s cheek being still forbidden fruit to him, he said impulsively. ‘Elfie, I should like to touch that seductive
ear of yours. Those are my gifts; so let me dress you in them.’ She hesitated with a stimulating hesitation. ‘Let me put just one in its place, then?’ Her face grew much warmer. ‘I don’t think it would be quite the usual
or proper course,’ she said, suddenly turning and resuming her operation of plashing in
the miniature cataract. The stillness of things was disturbed by a
bird coming to the streamlet to drink. After watching him dip his bill, sprinkle himself,
and fly into a tree, Knight replied, with the courteous brusqueness she so much liked
to hear— ‘Elfride, now you may as well be fair. You
would mind my doing it but little, I think; so give me leave, do.’ ‘I will be fair, then,’ she said confidingly,
and looking him full in the face. It was a particular pleasure to her to be able to do
a little honesty without fear. ‘I should not mind your doing so—I should like such
an attention. My thought was, would it be right to let you?’ ‘Then I will!’ he rejoined, with that
singular earnestness about a small matter—in the eyes of a ladies’ man but a momentary
peg for flirtation or jest—which is only found in deep natures who have been wholly
unused to toying with womankind, and which, from its unwontedness, is in itself a tribute
the most precious that can be rendered, and homage the most exquisite to be received. ‘And you shall,’ she whispered, without
reserve, and no longer mistress of the ceremonies. And then Elfride inclined herself towards
him, thrust back her hair, and poised her head sideways. In doing this her arm and shoulder
necessarily rested against his breast. At the touch, the sensation of both seemed
to be concentrated at the point of contact. All the time he was performing the delicate
manoeuvre Knight trembled like a young surgeon in his first operation. ‘Now the other,’ said Knight in a whisper. ‘No, no.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I don’t know exactly.’ ‘You must know.’ ‘Your touch agitates me so. Let us go home.’ ‘Don’t say that, Elfride. What is it,
after all? A mere nothing. Now turn round, dearest.’ She was powerless to disobey, and turned forthwith;
and then, without any defined intention in either’s mind, his face and hers drew closer
together; and he supported her there, and kissed her. Knight was at once the most ardent and the
coolest man alive. When his emotions slumbered he appeared almost phlegmatic; when they were
moved he was no less than passionate. And now, without having quite intended an early
marriage, he put the question plainly. It came with all the ardour which was the accumulation
of long years behind a natural reserve. ‘Elfride, when shall we be married?’ The words were sweet to her; but there was
a bitter in the sweet. These newly-overt acts of his, which had culminated in this plain
question, coming on the very day of Mrs. Jethway’s blasting reproaches, painted distinctly her
fickleness as an enormity. Loving him in secret had not seemed such thorough-going inconstancy
as the same love recognized and acted upon in the face of threats. Her distraction was
interpreted by him at her side as the outward signs of an unwonted experience. ‘I don’t press you for an answer now,
darling,’ he said, seeing she was not likely to give a lucid reply. ‘Take your time.’ Knight was as honourable a man as was ever
loved and deluded by woman. It may be said that his blindness in love proved the point,
for shrewdness in love usually goes with meanness in general. Once the passion had mastered
him, the intellect had gone for naught. Knight, as a lover, was more single-minded and far
simpler than his friend Stephen, who in other capacities was shallow beside him. Without saying more on the subject of their
marriage, Knight held her at arm’s length, as if she had been a large bouquet, and looked
at her with critical affection. ‘Does your pretty gift become me?’ she
inquired, with tears of excitement on the fringes of her eyes. ‘Undoubtedly, perfectly!’ said her lover,
adopting a lighter tone to put her at her ease. ‘Ah, you should see them; you look
shinier than ever. Fancy that I have been able to improve you!’ ‘Am I really so nice? I am glad for your
sake. I wish I could see myself.’ ‘You can’t. You must wait till we get
home.’ ‘I shall never be able,’ she said, laughing.
‘Look: here’s a way.’ ‘So there is. Well done, woman’s wit!’ ‘Hold me steady!’ ‘Oh yes.’ ‘And don’t let me fall, will you?’ ‘By no means.’ Below their seat the thread of water paused
to spread out into a smooth small pool. Knight supported her whilst she knelt down and leant
over it. ‘I can see myself. Really, try as religiously
as I will, I cannot help admiring my appearance in them.’ ‘Doubtless. How can you be so fond of finery?
I believe you are corrupting me into a taste for it. I used to hate every such thing before
I knew you.’ ‘I like ornaments, because I want people
to admire what you possess, and envy you, and say, “I wish I was he.”’ ‘I suppose I ought not to object after that.
And how much longer are you going to look in there at yourself?’ ‘Until you are tired of holding me? Oh,
I want to ask you something.’ And she turned round. ‘Now tell truly, won’t you? What
colour of hair do you like best now?’ Knight did not answer at the moment. ‘Say light, do!’ she whispered coaxingly.
‘Don’t say dark, as you did that time.’ ‘Light-brown, then. Exactly the colour of
my sweetheart’s.’ ‘Really?’ said Elfride, enjoying as truth
what she knew to be flattery. ‘Yes.’ ‘And blue eyes, too, not hazel? Say yes,
say yes!’ ‘One recantation is enough for to-day.’ ‘No, no.’ ‘Very well, blue eyes.’ And Knight laughed,
and drew her close and kissed her the second time, which operations he performed with the
carefulness of a fruiterer touching a bunch of grapes so as not to disturb their bloom. Elfride objected to a second, and flung away
her face, the movement causing a slight disarrangement of hat and hair. Hardly thinking what she
said in the trepidation of the moment, she exclaimed, clapping her hand to her ear— ‘Ah, we must be careful! I lost the other
earring doing like this.’ No sooner did she realise the significant
words than a troubled look passed across her face, and she shut her lips as if to keep
them back. ‘Doing like what?’ said Knight, perplexed. ‘Oh, sitting down out of doors,’ she replied
hastily. Chapter XXIX
‘Care, thou canker.’ It is an evening at the beginning of October,
and the mellowest of autumn sunsets irradiates London, even to its uttermost eastern end.
Between the eye and the flaming West, columns of smoke stand up in the still air like tall
trees. Everything in the shade is rich and misty blue. Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt and Elfride are looking
at these lustrous and lurid contrasts from the window of a large hotel near London Bridge.
The visit to their friends at St. Leonards is over, and they are staying a day or two
in the metropolis on their way home. Knight spent the same interval of time in
crossing over to Brittany by way of Jersey and St. Malo. He then passed through Normandy,
and returned to London also, his arrival there having been two days later than that of Elfride
and her parents. So the evening of this October day saw them
all meeting at the above-mentioned hotel, where they had previously engaged apartments.
During the afternoon Knight had been to his lodgings at Richmond to make a little change
in the nature of his baggage; and on coming up again there was never ushered by a bland
waiter into a comfortable room a happier man than Knight when shown to where Elfride and
her step-mother were sitting after a fatiguing day of shopping. Elfride looked none the better for her change:
Knight was as brown as a nut. They were soon engaged by themselves in a corner of the room.
Now that the precious words of promise had been spoken, the young girl had no idea of
keeping up her price by the system of reserve which other more accomplished maidens use.
Her lover was with her again, and it was enough: she made her heart over to him entirely. Dinner was soon despatched. And when a preliminary
round of conversation concerning their doings since the last parting had been concluded,
they reverted to the subject of to-morrow’s journey home. ‘That enervating ride through the myrtle
climate of South Devon—how I dread it to-morrow!’ Mrs. Swancourt was saying. ‘I had hoped
the weather would have been cooler by this time.’ ‘Did you ever go by water?’ said Knight. ‘Never—by never, I mean not since the
time of railways.’ ‘Then if you can afford an additional day,
I propose that we do it,’ said Knight. ‘The Channel is like a lake just now. We should
reach Plymouth in about forty hours, I think, and the boats start from just below the bridge
here’ (pointing over his shoulder eastward). ‘Hear, hear!’ said the vicar. ‘It’s an idea, certainly,’ said his
wife. ‘Of course these coasters are rather tubby,’
said Knight. ‘But you wouldn’t mind that?’ ‘No: we wouldn’t mind.’ ‘And the saloon is a place like the fishmarket
of a ninth-rate country town, but that wouldn’t matter?’ ‘Oh dear, no. If we had only thought of
it soon enough, we might have had the use of Lord Luxellian’s yacht. But never mind,
we’ll go. We shall escape the worrying rattle through the whole length of London to-morrow
morning—not to mention the risk of being killed by excursion trains, which is not a
little one at this time of the year, if the papers are true.’ Elfride, too, thought the arrangement delightful;
and accordingly, ten o’clock the following morning saw two cabs crawling round by the
Mint, and between the preternaturally high walls of Nightingale Lane towards the river
side. The first vehicle was occupied by the travellers
in person, and the second brought up the luggage, under the supervision of Mrs. Snewson, Mrs.
Swancourt’s maid—and for the last fortnight Elfride’s also; for although the younger
lady had never been accustomed to any such attendant at robing times, her stepmother
forced her into a semblance of familiarity with one when they were away from home. Presently waggons, bales, and smells of all
descriptions increased to such an extent that the advance of the cabs was at the slowest
possible rate. At intervals it was necessary to halt entirely, that the heavy vehicles
unloading in front might be moved aside, a feat which was not accomplished without a
deal of swearing and noise. The vicar put his head out of the window. ‘Surely there must be some mistake in the
way,’ he said with great concern, drawing in his head again. ‘There’s not a respectable
conveyance to be seen here except ours. I’ve heard that there are strange dens in this
part of London, into which people have been entrapped and murdered—surely there is no
conspiracy on the part of the cabman?’ ‘Oh no, no. It is all right,’ said Mr.
Knight, who was as placid as dewy eve by the side of Elfride. ‘But what I argue from,’ said the vicar,
with a greater emphasis of uneasiness, ‘are plain appearances. This can’t be the highway
from London to Plymouth by water, because it is no way at all to any place. We shall
miss our steamer and our train too—that’s what I think.’ ‘Depend upon it we are right. In fact, here
we are.’ ‘Trimmer’s Wharf,’ said the cabman,
opening the door. No sooner had they alighted than they perceived
a tussle going on between the hindmost cabman and a crowd of light porters who had charged
him in column, to obtain possession of the bags and boxes, Mrs. Snewson’s hands being
seen stretched towards heaven in the midst of the melee. Knight advanced gallantly, and
after a hard struggle reduced the crowd to two, upon whose shoulders and trucks the goods
vanished away in the direction of the water’s edge with startling rapidity. Then more of the same tribe, who had run on
ahead, were heard shouting to boatmen, three of whom pulled alongside, and two being vanquished,
the luggage went tumbling into the remaining one. ‘Never saw such a dreadful scene in my life—never!’
said Mr. Swancourt, floundering into the boat. ‘Worse than Famine and Sword upon one. I
thought such customs were confined to continental ports. Aren’t you astonished, Elfride?’ ‘Oh no,’ said Elfride, appearing amid
the dingy scene like a rainbow in a murky sky. ‘It is a pleasant novelty, I think.’ ‘Where in the wide ocean is our steamer?’
the vicar inquired. ‘I can see nothing but old hulks, for the life of me.’ ‘Just behind that one,’ said Knight; ‘we
shall soon be round under her.’ The object of their search was soon after
disclosed to view—a great lumbering form of inky blackness, which looked as if it had
never known the touch of a paint-brush for fifty years. It was lying beside just such
another, and the way on board was down a narrow lane of water between the two, about a yard
and a half wide at one end, and gradually converging to a point. At the moment of their
entry into this narrow passage, a brilliantly painted rival paddled down the river like
a trotting steed, creating such a series of waves and splashes that their frail wherry
was tossed like a teacup, and the vicar and his wife slanted this way and that, inclining
their heads into contact with a Punch-and-Judy air and countenance, the wavelets striking
the sides of the two hulls, and flapping back into their laps. ‘Dreadful! horrible!’ Mr. Swancourt murmured
privately; and said aloud, I thought we walked on board. I don’t think really I should
have come, if I had known this trouble was attached to it.’ ‘If they must splash, I wish they would
splash us with clean water,’ said the old lady, wiping her dress with her handkerchief. ‘I hope it is perfectly safe,’ continued
the vicar. ‘O papa! you are not very brave,’ cried
Elfride merrily. ‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception
of contingencies,’ Mr. Swancourt severely answered. Mrs. Swancourt laughed, and Elfride laughed,
and Knight laughed, in the midst of which pleasantness a man shouted to them from some
position between their heads and the sky, and they found they were close to the Juliet,
into which they quiveringly ascended. It having been found that the lowness of the
tide would prevent their getting off for an hour, the Swancourts, having nothing else
to do, allowed their eyes to idle upon men in blue jerseys performing mysterious mending
operations with tar-twine; they turned to look at the dashes of lurid sunlight, like
burnished copper stars afloat on the ripples, which danced into and tantalized their vision;
or listened to the loud music of a steam-crane at work close by; or to sighing sounds from
the funnels of passing steamers, getting dead as they grew more distant; or to shouts from
the decks of different craft in their vicinity, all of them assuming the form of ‘Ah-he-hay!’ Half-past ten: not yet off. Mr. Swancourt
breathed a breath of weariness, and looked at his fellow-travellers in general. Their
faces were certainly not worth looking at. The expression ‘Waiting’ was written upon
them so absolutely that nothing more could be discerned there. All animation was suspended
till Providence should raise the water and let them go. ‘I have been thinking,’ said Knight, ‘that
we have come amongst the rarest class of people in the kingdom. Of all human characteristics,
a low opinion of the value of his own time by an individual must be among the strangest
to find. Here we see numbers of that patient and happy species. Rovers, as distinct from
travellers.’ ‘But they are pleasure-seekers, to whom
time is of no importance.’ ‘Oh no. The pleasure-seekers we meet on
the grand routes are more anxious than commercial travellers to rush on. And added to the loss
of time in getting to their journey’s end, these exceptional people take their chance
of sea-sickness by coming this way.’ ‘Can it be?’ inquired the vicar with apprehension.
‘Surely not, Mr. Knight, just here in our English Channel—close at our doors, as I
may say.’ ‘Entrance passages are very draughty places,
and the Channel is like the rest. It ruins the temper of sailors. It has been calculated
by philosophers that more damns go up to heaven from the Channel, in the course of a year,
than from all the five oceans put together.’ They really start now, and the dead looks
of all the throng come to life immediately. The man who has been frantically hauling in
a rope that bade fair to have no end ceases his labours, and they glide down the serpentine
bends of the Thames. Anything anywhere was a mine of interest to
Elfride, and so was this. ‘It is well enough now,’ said Mrs. Swancourt,
after they had passed the Nore, ‘but I can’t say I have cared for my voyage hitherto.’
For being now in the open sea a slight breeze had sprung up, which cheered her as well as
her two younger companions. But unfortunately it had a reverse effect upon the vicar, who,
after turning a sort of apricot jam colour, interspersed with dashes of raspberry, pleaded
indisposition, and vanished from their sight. The afternoon wore on. Mrs. Swancourt kindly
sat apart by herself reading, and the betrothed pair were left to themselves. Elfride clung
trustingly to Knight’s arm, and proud was she to walk with him up and down the deck,
or to go forward, and leaning with him against the forecastle rails, watch the setting sun
gradually withdrawing itself over their stern into a huge bank of livid cloud with golden
edges that rose to meet it. She was childishly full of life and spirits,
though in walking up and down with him before the other passengers, and getting noticed
by them, she was at starting rather confused, it being the first time she had shown herself
so openly under that kind of protection. ‘I expect they are envious and saying things
about us, don’t you?’ she would whisper to Knight with a stealthy smile. ‘Oh no,’ he would answer unconcernedly.
‘Why should they envy us, and what can they say?’ ‘Not any harm, of course,’ Elfride replied,
‘except such as this: “How happy those two are! she is proud enough now.” What
makes it worse,’ she continued in the extremity of confidence, ‘I heard those two cricketing
men say just now, “She’s the nobbiest girl on the boat.” But I don’t mind it,
you know, Harry.’ ‘I should hardly have supposed you did,
even if you had not told me,’ said Knight with great blandness. She was never tired of asking her lover questions
and admiring his answers, good, bad, or indifferent as they might be. The evening grew dark and
night came on, and lights shone upon them from the horizon and from the sky. ‘Now look there ahead of us, at that halo
in the air, of silvery brightness. Watch it, and you will see what it comes to.’ She watched for a few minutes, when two white
lights emerged from the side of a hill, and showed themselves to be the origin of the
halo. ‘What a dazzling brilliance! What do they
mark?’ ‘The South Foreland: they were previously
covered by the cliff.’ ‘What is that level line of little sparkles—a
town, I suppose?’ ‘That’s Dover.’ All this time, and later, soft sheet lightning
expanded from a cloud in their path, enkindling their faces as they paced up and down, shining
over the water, and, for a moment, showing the horizon as a keen line. Elfride slept soundly that night. Her first
thought the next morning was the thrilling one that Knight was as close at hand as when
they were at home at Endelstow, and her first sight, on looking out of the cabin window,
was the perpendicular face of Beachy Head, gleaming white in a brilliant six-o’clock-in-the-morning
sun. This fair daybreak, however, soon changed its aspect. A cold wind and a pale mist descended
upon the sea, and seemed to threaten a dreary day. When they were nearing Southampton, Mrs. Swancourt
came to say that her husband was so ill that he wished to be put on shore here, and left
to do the remainder of the journey by land. ‘He will be perfectly well directly he treads
firm ground again. Which shall we do—go with him, or finish our voyage as we intended?’ Elfride was comfortably housed under an umbrella
which Knight was holding over her to keep off the wind. ‘Oh, don’t let us go on
shore!’ she said with dismay. ‘It would be such a pity!’ ‘That’s very fine,’ said Mrs. Swancourt
archly, as to a child. ‘See, the wind has increased her colour, the sea her appetite
and spirits, and somebody her happiness. Yes, it would be a pity, certainly.’ ‘’Tis my misfortune to be always spoken
to from a pedestal,’ sighed Elfride. ‘Well, we will do as you like, Mrs. Swancourt,’
said Knight, ‘but——’ ‘I myself would rather remain on board,’
interrupted the elder lady. ‘And Mr. Swancourt particularly wishes to go by himself. So that
shall settle the matter.’ The vicar, now a drab colour, was put ashore,
and became as well as ever forthwith. Elfride, sitting alone in a retired part of
the vessel, saw a veiled woman walk aboard among the very latest arrivals at this port.
She was clothed in black silk, and carried a dark shawl upon her arm. The woman, without
looking around her, turned to the quarter allotted to the second-cabin passengers. All
the carnation Mrs. Swancourt had complimented her step-daughter upon possessing left Elfride’s
cheeks, and she trembled visibly. She ran to the other side of the boat, where
Mrs. Swancourt was standing. ‘Let us go home by railway with papa, after
all,’ she pleaded earnestly. ‘I would rather go with him—shall we?’ Mrs. Swancourt looked around for a moment,
as if unable to decide. ‘Ah,’ she exclaimed, ‘it is too late now. Why did not you say
so before, when we had plenty of time?’ The Juliet had at that minute let go, the
engines had started, and they were gliding slowly away from the quay. There was no help
for it but to remain, unless the Juliet could be made to put back, and that would create
a great disturbance. Elfride gave up the idea and submitted quietly. Her happiness was sadly
mutilated now. The woman whose presence had so disturbed
her was exactly like Mrs. Jethway. She seemed to haunt Elfride like a shadow. After several
minutes’ vain endeavour to account for any design Mrs. Jethway could have in watching
her, Elfride decided to think that, if it were the widow, the encounter was accidental.
She remembered that the widow in her restlessness was often visiting the village near Southampton,
which was her original home, and it was possible that she chose water-transit with the idea
of saving expense. ‘What is the matter, Elfride?’ Knight
inquired, standing before her. ‘Nothing more than that I am rather depressed.’ ‘I don’t much wonder at it; that wharf
was depressing. We seemed underneath and inferior to everything around us. But we shall be in
the sea breeze again soon, and that will freshen you, dear.’ The evening closed in and dusk increased as
they made way down Southampton Water and through the Solent. Elfride’s disturbance of mind
was such that her light spirits of the foregoing four and twenty hours had entirely deserted
her. The weather too had grown more gloomy, for though the showers of the morning had
ceased, the sky was covered more closely than ever with dense leaden clouds. How beautiful
was the sunset when they rounded the North Foreland the previous evening! now it was
impossible to tell within half an hour the time of the luminary’s going down. Knight
led her about, and being by this time accustomed to her sudden changes of mood, overlooked
the necessity of a cause in regarding the conditions—impressionableness and elasticity. Elfride looked stealthily to the other end
of the vessel. Mrs. Jethway, or her double, was sitting at the stern—her eye steadily
regarding Elfride. ‘Let us go to the forepart,’ she said
quickly to Knight. ‘See there—the man is fixing the lights for the night.’ Knight assented, and after watching the operation
of fixing the red and the green lights on the port and starboard bows, and the hoisting
of the white light to the masthead, he walked up and down with her till the increase of
wind rendered promenading difficult. Elfride’s eyes were occasionally to be found furtively
gazing abaft, to learn if her enemy were really there. Nobody was visible now. ‘Shall we go below?’ said Knight, seeing
that the deck was nearly deserted. ‘No,’ she said. ‘If you will kindly
get me a rug from Mrs. Swancourt, I should like, if you don’t mind, to stay here.’
She had recently fancied the assumed Mrs. Jethway might be a first-class passenger,
and dreaded meeting her by accident. Knight appeared with the rug, and they sat
down behind a weather-cloth on the windward side, just as the two red eyes of the Needles
glared upon them from the gloom, their pointed summits rising like shadowy phantom figures
against the sky. It became necessary to go below to an eight-o’clock meal of nondescript
kind, and Elfride was immensely relieved at finding no sign of Mrs. Jethway there. They
again ascended, and remained above till Mrs. Snewson staggered up to them with the message
that Mrs. Swancourt thought it was time for Elfride to come below. Knight accompanied
her down, and returned again to pass a little more time on deck. Elfride partly undressed herself and lay down,
and soon became unconscious, though her sleep was light. How long she had lain, she knew
not, when by slow degrees she became cognizant of a whispering in her ear. ‘You are well on with him, I can see. Well,
provoke me now, but my day will come, you will find.’ That seemed to be the utterance,
or words to that effect. Elfride became broad awake and terrified.
She knew the words, if real, could be only those of one person, and that person the widow
Jethway. The lamp had gone out and the place was in
darkness. In the next berth she could hear her stepmother breathing heavily, further
on Snewson breathing more heavily still. These were the only other legitimate occupants of
the cabin, and Mrs. Jethway must have stealthily come in by some means and retreated again,
or else she had entered an empty berth next Snewson’s. The fear that this was the case
increased Elfride’s perturbation, till it assumed the dimensions of a certainty, for
how could a stranger from the other end of the ship possibly contrive to get in? Could
it have been a dream? Elfride raised herself higher and looked out
of the window. There was the sea, floundering and rushing against the ship’s side just
by her head, and thence stretching away, dim and moaning, into an expanse of indistinctness;
and far beyond all this two placid lights like rayless stars. Now almost fearing to
turn her face inwards again, lest Mrs. Jethway should appear at her elbow, Elfride meditated
upon whether to call Snewson to keep her company. ‘Four bells’ sounded, and she heard voices,
which gave her a little courage. It was not worth while to call Snewson. At any rate Elfride could not stay there panting
longer, at the risk of being again disturbed by that dreadful whispering. So wrapping herself
up hurriedly she emerged into the passage, and by the aid of a faint light burning at
the entrance to the saloon found the foot of the stairs, and ascended to the deck. Dreary
the place was in the extreme. It seemed a new spot altogether in contrast with its daytime
self. She could see the glowworm light from the binnacle, and the dim outline of the man
at the wheel; also a form at the bows. Not another soul was apparent from stem to stern. Yes, there were two more—by the bulwarks.
One proved to be her Harry, the other the mate. She was glad indeed, and on drawing
closer found they were holding a low slow chat about nautical affairs. She ran up and
slipped her hand through Knight’s arm, partly for love, partly for stability. ‘Elfie! not asleep?’ said Knight, after
moving a few steps aside with her. ‘No: I cannot sleep. May I stay here? It
is so dismal down there, and—and I was afraid. Where are we now?’ ‘Due south of Portland Bill. Those are the
lights abeam of us: look. A terrible spot, that, on a stormy night. And do you see a
very small light that dips and rises to the right? That’s a light-ship on the dangerous
shoal called the Shambles, where many a good vessel has gone to pieces. Between it and
ourselves is the Race—a place where antagonistic currents meet and form whirlpools—a spot
which is rough in the smoothest weather, and terrific in a wind. That dark, dreary horizon
we just discern to the left is the West Bay, terminated landwards by the Chesil Beach.’ ‘What time is it, Harry?’ ‘Just past two.’ ‘Are you going below?’ ‘Oh no; not to-night. I prefer pure air.’ She fancied he might be displeased with her
for coming to him at this unearthly hour. ‘I should like to stay here too, if you
will allow me,’ she said timidly. ‘I want to ask you things.’ ‘Allow you, Elfie!’ said Knight, putting
his arm round her and drawing her closer. ‘I am twice as happy with you by my side.
Yes: we will stay, and watch the approach of day.’ So they again sought out the sheltered nook,
and sitting down wrapped themselves in the rug as before. ‘What were you going to ask me?’ he inquired,
as they undulated up and down. ‘Oh, it was not much—perhaps a thing I
ought not to ask,’ she said hesitatingly. Her sudden wish had really been to discover
at once whether he had ever before been engaged to be married. If he had, she would make that
a ground for telling him a little of her conduct with Stephen. Mrs. Jethway’s seeming words
had so depressed the girl that she herself now painted her flight in the darkest colours,
and longed to ease her burdened mind by an instant confession. If Knight had ever been
imprudent himself, he might, she hoped, forgive all. ‘I wanted to ask you,’ she went on, ‘if—you
had ever been engaged before.’ She added tremulously, ‘I hope you have—I mean,
I don’t mind at all if you have.’ ‘No, I never was,’ Knight instantly and
heartily replied. ‘Elfride’—and there was a certain happy pride in his tone—‘I
am twelve years older than you, and I have been about the world, and, in a way, into
society, and you have not. And yet I am not so unfit for you as strict-thinking people
might imagine, who would assume the difference in age to signify most surely an equal addition
to my practice in love-making.’ Elfride shivered. ‘You are cold—is the wind too much for
you?’ ‘No,’ she said gloomily. The belief which
had been her sheet-anchor in hoping for forgiveness had proved false. This account of the exceptional
nature of his experience, a matter which would have set her rejoicing two years ago, chilled
her now like a frost. ‘You don’t mind my asking you?’ she
continued. ‘Oh no—not at all.’ ‘And have you never kissed many ladies?’
she whispered, hoping he would say a hundred at the least. The time, the circumstances, and the scene
were such as to draw confidences from the most reserved. ‘Elfride,’ whispered Knight
in reply, ‘it is strange you should have asked that question. But I’ll answer it,
though I have never told such a thing before. I have been rather absurd in my avoidance
of women. I have never given a woman a kiss in my life, except yourself and my mother.’
The man of two and thirty with the experienced mind warmed all over with a boy’s ingenuous
shame as he made the confession. ‘What, not one?’ she faltered. ‘No; not one.’ ‘How very strange!’ ‘Yes, the reverse experience may be commoner.
And yet, to those who have observed their own sex, as I have, my case is not remarkable.
Men about town are women’s favourites—that’s the postulate—and superficial people don’t
think far enough to see that there may be reserved, lonely exceptions.’ ‘Are you proud of it, Harry?’ ‘No, indeed. Of late years I have wished
I had gone my ways and trod out my measure like lighter-hearted men. I have thought of
how many happy experiences I may have lost through never going to woo.’ ‘Then why did you hold aloof?’ ‘I cannot say. I don’t think it was my
nature to: circumstance hindered me, perhaps. I have regretted it for another reason. This
great remissness of mine has had its effect upon me. The older I have grown, the more
distinctly have I perceived that it was absolutely preventing me from liking any woman who was
not as unpractised as I; and I gave up the expectation of finding a nineteenth-century
young lady in my own raw state. Then I found you, Elfride, and I felt for the first time
that my fastidiousness was a blessing. And it helped to make me worthy of you. I felt
at once that, differing as we did in other experiences, in this matter I resembled you.
Well, aren’t you glad to hear it, Elfride?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ she answered in a forced
voice. ‘But I always had thought that men made lots of engagements before they married—especially
if they don’t marry very young.’ ‘So all women think, I suppose—and rightly,
indeed, of the majority of bachelors, as I said before. But an appreciable minority of
slow-coach men do not—and it makes them very awkward when they do come to the point.
However, it didn’t matter in my case.’ ‘Why?’ she asked uneasily. ‘Because you know even less of love-making
and matrimonial prearrangement than I, and so you can’t draw invidious comparisons
if I do my engaging improperly.’ ‘I think you do it beautifully!’ ‘Thank you, dear. But,’ continued Knight
laughingly, ‘your opinion is not that of an expert, which alone is of value.’ Had she answered, ‘Yes, it is,’ half as
strongly as she felt it, Knight might have been a little astonished. ‘If you had ever been engaged to be married
before,’ he went on, ‘I expect your opinion of my addresses would be different. But then,
I should not——’ ‘Should not what, Harry?’ ‘Oh, I was merely going to say that in that
case I should never have given myself the pleasure of proposing to you, since your freedom
from that experience was your attraction, darling.’ ‘You are severe on women, are you not?’ ‘No, I think not. I had a right to please
my taste, and that was for untried lips. Other men than those of my sort acquire the taste
as they get older—but don’t find an Elfride——’ ‘What horrid sound is that we hear when
we pitch forward?’ ‘Only the screw—don’t find an Elfride
as I did. To think that I should have discovered such an unseen flower down there in the West—to
whom a man is as much as a multitude to some women, and a trip down the English Channel
like a voyage round the world!’ ‘And would you,’ she said, and her voice
was tremulous, ‘have given up a lady—if you had become engaged to her—and then found
she had had ONE kiss before yours—and would you have—gone away and left her?’ ‘One kiss,—no, hardly for that.’ ‘Two?’ ‘Well—I could hardly say inventorially
like that. Too much of that sort of thing certainly would make me dislike a woman. But
let us confine our attention to ourselves, not go thinking of might have beens.’ So Elfride had allowed her thoughts to ‘dally
with false surmise,’ and every one of Knight’s words fell upon her like a weight. After this
they were silent for a long time, gazing upon the black mysterious sea, and hearing the
strange voice of the restless wind. A rocking to and fro on the waves, when the breeze is
not too violent and cold, produces a soothing effect even upon the most highly-wrought mind.
Elfride slowly sank against Knight, and looking down, he found by her soft regular breathing
that she had fallen asleep. Not wishing to disturb her, he continued still, and took
an intense pleasure in supporting her warm young form as it rose and fell with her every
breath. Knight fell to dreaming too, though he continued
wide awake. It was pleasant to realize the implicit trust she placed in him, and to think
of the charming innocence of one who could sink to sleep in so simple and unceremonious
a manner. More than all, the musing unpractical student felt the immense responsibility he
was taking upon himself by becoming the protector and guide of such a trusting creature. The
quiet slumber of her soul lent a quietness to his own. Then she moaned, and turned herself
restlessly. Presently her mutterings became distinct: ‘Don’t tell him—he will not love me….I
did not mean any disgrace—indeed I did not, so don’t tell Harry. We were going to be
married—that was why I ran away….And he says he will not have a kissed woman….And
if you tell him he will go away, and I shall die. I pray have mercy—Oh!’ Elfride started up wildly. The previous moment a musical ding-dong had
spread into the air from their right hand, and awakened her. ‘What is it?’ she exclaimed in terror. ‘Only “eight bells,”’ said Knight
soothingly. ‘Don’t be frightened, little bird, you are safe. What have you been dreaming
about?’ ‘I can’t tell, I can’t tell!’ she
said with a shudder. ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do!’ ‘Stay quietly with me. We shall soon see
the dawn now. Look, the morning star is lovely over there. The clouds have completely cleared
off whilst you have been sleeping. What have you been dreaming of?’ ‘A woman in our parish.’ ‘Don’t you like her?’ ‘I don’t. She doesn’t like me. Where
are we?’ ‘About south of the Exe.’ Knight said no more on the words of her dream.
They watched the sky till Elfride grew calm, and the dawn appeared. It was mere wan lightness
first. Then the wind blew in a changed spirit, and died away to a zephyr. The star dissolved
into the day. ‘That’s how I should like to die,’ said
Elfride, rising from her seat and leaning over the bulwark to watch the star’s last
expiring gleam. ‘As the lines say,’ Knight replied—— ‘“To set as sets the morning star, which
goes Not down behind the darken’d west, nor hides
Obscured among the tempests of the sky, But melts away into the light of heaven.”’
‘Oh, other people have thought the same thing, have they? That’s always the case
with my originalities—they are original to nobody but myself.’ ‘Not only the case with yours. When I was
a young hand at reviewing I used to find that a frightful pitfall—dilating upon subjects
I met with, which were novelties to me, and finding afterwards they had been exhausted
by the thinking world when I was in pinafores.’ ‘That is delightful. Whenever I find you
have done a foolish thing I am glad, because it seems to bring you a little nearer to me,
who have done many.’ And Elfride thought again of her enemy asleep under the deck they
trod. All up the coast, prominences singled themselves
out from recesses. Then a rosy sky spread over the eastern sea and behind the low line
of land, flinging its livery in dashes upon the thin airy clouds in that direction. Every
projection on the land seemed now so many fingers anxious to catch a little of the liquid
light thrown so prodigally over the sky, and after a fantastic time of lustrous yellows
in the east, the higher elevations along the shore were flooded with the same hues. The
bluff and bare contours of Start Point caught the brightest, earliest glow of all, and so
also did the sides of its white lighthouse, perched upon a shelf in its precipitous front
like a mediaeval saint in a niche. Their lofty neighbour Bolt Head on the left remained as
yet ungilded, and retained its gray. Then up came the sun, as it were in jerks,
just to seaward of the easternmost point of land, flinging out a Jacob’s-ladder path
of light from itself to Elfride and Knight, and coating them with rays in a few minutes.
The inferior dignitaries of the shore—Froward Point, Berry Head, and Prawle—all had acquired
their share of the illumination ere this, and at length the very smallest protuberance
of wave, cliff, or inlet, even to the innermost recesses of the lovely valley of the Dart,
had its portion; and sunlight, now the common possession of all, ceased to be the wonderful
and coveted thing it had been a short half hour before. After breakfast, Plymouth arose into view,
and grew distincter to their nearing vision, the Breakwater appearing like a streak of
phosphoric light upon the surface of the sea. Elfride looked furtively around for Mrs. Jethway,
but could discern no shape like hers. Afterwards, in the bustle of landing, she looked again
with the same result, by which time the woman had probably glided upon the quay unobserved.
Expanding with a sense of relief, Elfride waited whilst Knight looked to their luggage,
and then saw her father approaching through the crowd, twirling his walking-stick to catch
their attention. Elbowing their way to him they all entered the town, which smiled as
sunny a smile upon Elfride as it had done between one and two years earlier, when she
had entered it at precisely the same hour as the bride-elect of Stephen Smith. Chapter XXX
‘Vassal unto Love.’ Elfride clung closer to Knight as day succeeded
day. Whatever else might admit of question, there could be no dispute that the allegiance
she bore him absorbed her whole soul and existence. A greater than Stephen had arisen, and she
had left all to follow him. The unreserved girl was never chary of letting
her lover discover how much she admired him. She never once held an idea in opposition
to any one of his, or insisted on any point with him, or showed any independence, or held
her own on any subject. His lightest whim she respected and obeyed as law, and if, expressing
her opinion on a matter, he took up the subject and differed from her, she instantly threw
down her own opinion as wrong and untenable. Even her ambiguities and espieglerie were
but media of the same manifestation; acted charades, embodying the words of her prototype,
the tender and susceptible daughter-in-law of Naomi: ‘Let me find favour in thy sight,
my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto
thine handmaid.’ She was syringing the plants one wet day in
the greenhouse. Knight was sitting under a great passion-flower observing the scene.
Sometimes he looked out at the rain from the sky, and then at Elfride’s inner rain of
larger drops, which fell from trees and shrubs, after having previously hung from the twigs
like small silver fruit. ‘I must give you something to make you think
of me during this autumn at your chambers,’ she was saying. ‘What shall it be? Portraits
do more harm than good, by selecting the worst expression of which your face is capable.
Hair is unlucky. And you don’t like jewellery.’ ‘Something which shall bring back to my
mind the many scenes we have enacted in this conservatory. I see what I should prize very
much. That dwarf myrtle tree in the pot, which you have been so carefully tending.’ Elfride looked thoughtfully at the myrtle. ‘I can carry it comfortably in my hat box,’
said Knight. ‘And I will put it in my window, and so, it being always before my eyes, I
shall think of you continually.’ It so happened that the myrtle which Knight
had singled out had a peculiar beginning and history. It had originally been a twig worn
in Stephen Smith’s button-hole, and he had taken it thence, stuck it into the pot, and
told her that if it grew, she was to take care of it, and keep it in remembrance of
him when he was far away. She looked wistfully at the plant, and a sense
of fairness to Smith’s memory caused her a pang of regret that Knight should have asked
for that very one. It seemed exceeding a common heartlessness to let it go. ‘Is there not anything you like better?’
she said sadly. ‘That is only an ordinary myrtle.’ ‘No: I am fond of myrtle.’ Seeing that
she did not take kindly to the idea, he said again, ‘Why do you object to my having that?’ ‘Oh no—I don’t object precisely—it
was a feeling.—Ah, here’s another cutting lately struck, and just as small—of a better
kind, and with prettier leaves—myrtus microphylla.’ ‘That will do nicely. Let it be put in my
room, that I may not forget it. What romance attaches to the other?’ ‘It was a gift to me.’ The subject then dropped. Knight thought no
more of the matter till, on entering his bedroom in the evening, he found the second myrtle
placed upon his dressing-table as he had directed. He stood for a moment admiring the fresh appearance
of the leaves by candlelight, and then he thought of the transaction of the day. Male lovers as well as female can be spoilt
by too much kindness, and Elfride’s uniform submissiveness had given Knight a rather exacting
manner at crises, attached to her as he was. ‘Why should she have refused the one I first
chose?’ he now asked himself. Even such slight opposition as she had shown then was
exceptional enough to make itself noticeable. He was not vexed with her in the least: the
mere variation of her way to-day from her usual ways kept him musing on the subject,
because it perplexed him. ‘It was a gift’—those were her words. Admitting it to be a gift,
he thought she could hardly value a mere friend more than she valued him as a lover, and giving
the plant into his charge would have made no difference. ‘Except, indeed, it was the
gift of a lover,’ he murmured. ‘I wonder if Elfride has ever had a lover
before?’ he said aloud, as a new idea, quite. This and companion thoughts were enough to
occupy him completely till he fell asleep—rather later than usual. The next day, when they were again alone,
he said to her rather suddenly— ‘Do you love me more or less, Elfie, for
what I told you on board the steamer?’ ‘You told me so many things,’ she returned,
lifting her eyes to his and smiling. ‘I mean the confession you coaxed out of
me—that I had never been in the position of lover before.’ ‘It is a satisfaction, I suppose, to be
the first in your heart,’ she said to him, with an attempt to continue her smiling. ‘I am going to ask you a question now,’
said Knight, somewhat awkwardly. ‘I only ask it in a whimsical way, you know: not with
great seriousness, Elfride. You may think it odd, perhaps.’ Elfride tried desperately to keep the colour
in her face. She could not, though distressed to think that getting pale showed consciousness
of deeper guilt than merely getting red. ‘Oh no—I shall not think that,’ she
said, because obliged to say something to fill the pause which followed her questioner’s
remark. ‘It is this: have you ever had a lover?
I am almost sure you have not; but, have you?’ ‘Not, as it were, a lover; I mean, not worth
mentioning, Harry,’ she faltered. Knight, overstrained in sentiment as he knew
the feeling to be, felt some sickness of heart. ‘Still, he was a lover?’ ‘Well, a sort of lover, I suppose,’ she
responded tardily. ‘A man, I mean, you know.’ ‘Yes; but only a mere person, and——’ ‘But truly your lover?’ ‘Yes; a lover certainly—he was that. Yes,
he might have been called my lover.’ Knight said nothing to this for a minute or
more, and kept silent time with his finger to the tick of the old library clock, in which
room the colloquy was going on. ‘You don’t mind, Harry, do you?’ she
said anxiously, nestling close to him, and watching his face. ‘Of course, I don’t seriously mind. In
reason, a man cannot object to such a trifle. I only thought you hadn’t—that was all.’ However, one ray was abstracted from the glory
about her head. But afterwards, when Knight was wandering by himself over the bare and
breezy hills, and meditating on the subject, that ray suddenly returned. For she might
have had a lover, and never have cared in the least for him. She might have used the
word improperly, and meant ‘admirer’ all the time. Of course she had been admired;
and one man might have made his admiration more prominent than that of the rest—a very
natural case. They were sitting on one of the garden seats
when he found occasion to put the supposition to the test. ‘Did you love that lover or
admirer of yours ever so little, Elfie?’ She murmured reluctantly, ‘Yes, I think
I did.’ Knight felt the same faint touch of misery.
‘Only a very little?’ he said. ‘I am not sure how much.’ ‘But you are sure, darling, you loved him
a little?’ ‘I think I am sure I loved him a little.’ ‘And not a great deal, Elfie?’ ‘My love was not supported by reverence
for his powers.’ ‘But, Elfride, did you love him deeply?’
said Knight restlessly. ‘I don’t exactly know how deep you mean
by deeply.’ ‘That’s nonsense.’ ‘You misapprehend; and you have let go my
hand!’ she cried, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Harry, don’t be severe with me,
and don’t question me. I did not love him as I do you. And could it be deeply if I did
not think him cleverer than myself? For I did not. You grieve me so much—you can’t
think.’ ‘I will not say another word about it.’ ‘And you will not think about it, either,
will you? I know you think of weaknesses in me after I am out of your sight; and not knowing
what they are, I cannot combat them. I almost wish you were of a grosser nature, Harry;
in truth I do! Or rather, I wish I could have the advantages such a nature in you would
afford me, and yet have you as you are.’ ‘What advantages would they be?’ ‘Less anxiety, and more security. Ordinary
men are not so delicate in their tastes as you; and where the lover or husband is not
fastidious, and refined, and of a deep nature, things seem to go on better, I fancy—as
far as I have been able to observe the world.’ ‘Yes; I suppose it is right. Shallowness
has this advantage, that you can’t be drowned there.’ ‘But I think I’ll have you as you are;
yes, I will!’ she said winsomely. ‘The practical husbands and wives who take things
philosophically are very humdrum, are they not? Yes, it would kill me quite. You please
me best as you are.’ ‘Even though I wish you had never cared
for one before me?’ ‘Yes. And you must not wish it. Don’t!’ ‘I’ll try not to, Elfride.’ So she hoped, but her heart was troubled.
If he felt so deeply on this point, what would he say did he know all, and see it as Mrs.
Jethway saw it? He would never make her the happiest girl in the world by taking her to
be his own for aye. The thought enclosed her as a tomb whenever it presented itself to
her perturbed brain. She tried to believe that Mrs. Jethway would never do her such
a cruel wrong as to increase the bad appearance of her folly by innuendoes; and concluded
that concealment, having been begun, must be persisted in, if possible. For what he
might consider as bad as the fact, was her previous concealment of it by strategy. But Elfride knew Mrs. Jethway to be her enemy,
and to hate her. It was possible she would do her worst. And should she do it, all might
be over. Would the woman listen to reason, and be persuaded
not to ruin one who had never intentionally harmed her? It was night in the valley between Endelstow
Crags and the shore. The brook which trickled that way to the sea was distinct in its murmurs
now, and over the line of its course there began to hang a white riband of fog. Against
the sky, on the left hand of the vale, the black form of the church could be seen. On
the other rose hazel-bushes, a few trees, and where these were absent, furze tufts—as
tall as men—on stems nearly as stout as timber. The shriek of some bird was occasionally
heard, as it flew terror-stricken from its first roost, to seek a new sleeping-place,
where it might pass the night unmolested. In the evening shade, some way down the valley,
and under a row of scrubby oaks, a cottage could still be discerned. It stood absolutely
alone. The house was rather large, and the windows of some of the rooms were nailed up
with boards on the outside, which gave a particularly deserted appearance to the whole erection.
From the front door an irregular series of rough and misshapen steps, cut in the solid
rock, led down to the edge of the streamlet, which, at their extremity, was hollowed into
a basin through which the water trickled. This was evidently the means of water supply
to the dweller or dwellers in the cottage. A light footstep was heard descending from
the higher slopes of the hillside. Indistinct in the pathway appeared a moving female shape,
who advanced and knocked timidly at the door. No answer being returned the knock was repeated,
with the same result, and it was then repeated a third time. This also was unsuccessful. From one of the only two windows on the ground
floor which were not boarded up came rays of light, no shutter or curtain obscuring
the room from the eyes of a passer on the outside. So few walked that way after nightfall
that any such means to secure secrecy were probably deemed unnecessary. The inequality of the rays falling upon the
trees outside told that the light had its origin in a flickering fire only. The visitor,
after the third knocking, stepped a little to the left in order to gain a view of the
interior, and threw back the hood from her face. The dancing yellow sheen revealed the
fair and anxious countenance of Elfride. Inside the house this firelight was enough
to illumine the room distinctly, and to show that the furniture of the cottage was superior
to what might have been expected from so unpromising an exterior. It also showed to Elfride that
the room was empty. Beyond the light quiver and flap of the flames nothing moved or was
audible therein. She turned the handle and entered, throwing
off the cloak which enveloped her, under which she appeared without hat or bonnet, and in
the sort of half-toilette country people ordinarily dine in. Then advancing to the foot of the
staircase she called distinctly, but somewhat fearfully, ‘Mrs. Jethway!’ No answer. With a look of relief and regret combined,
denoting that ease came to the heart and disappointment to the brain, Elfride paused for several minutes,
as if undecided how to act. Determining to wait, she sat down on a chair. The minutes
drew on, and after sitting on the thorns of impatience for half an hour, she searched
her pocket, took therefrom a letter, and tore off the blank leaf. Then taking out a pencil
she wrote upon the paper: ‘DEAR MRS. JETHWAY,—I have been to visit
you. I wanted much to see you, but I cannot wait any longer. I came to beg you not to
execute the threats you have repeated to me. Do not, I beseech you, Mrs. Jethway, let any
one know I ran away from home! It would ruin me with him, and break my heart. I will do
anything for you, if you will be kind to me. In the name of our common womanhood, do not,
I implore you, make a scandal of me.—Yours, E. SWANCOURT.’ She folded the note cornerwise, directed it,
and placed it on the table. Then again drawing the hood over her curly head she emerged silently
as she had come. Whilst this episode had been in action at
Mrs. Jethway’s cottage, Knight had gone from the dining-room into the drawing-room,
and found Mrs. Swancourt there alone. ‘Elfride has vanished upstairs or somewhere,’
she said. ‘And I have been reading an article in an
old number of the PRESENT that I lighted on by chance a short time ago; it is an article
you once told us was yours. Well, Harry, with due deference to your literary powers, allow
me to say that this effusion is all nonsense, in my opinion.’ ‘What is it about?’ said Knight, taking
up the paper and reading. ‘There: don’t get red about it. Own that
experience has taught you to be more charitable. I have never read such unchivalrous sentiments
in my life—from a man, I mean. There, I forgive you; it was before you knew Elfride.’ ‘Oh yes,’ said Knight, looking up. ‘I
remember now. The text of that sermon was not my own at all, but was suggested to me
by a young man named Smith—the same whom I have mentioned to you as coming from this
parish. I thought the idea rather ingenious at the time, and enlarged it to the weight
of a few guineas, because I had nothing else in my head.’ ‘Which idea do you call the text? I am curious
to know that.’ ‘Well, this,’ said Knight, somewhat unwillingly.
‘That experience teaches, and your sweetheart, no less than your tailor, is necessarily very
imperfect in her duties, if you are her first patron: and conversely, the sweetheart who
is graceful under the initial kiss must be supposed to have had some practice in the
trade.’ ‘And do you mean to say that you wrote that
upon the strength of another man’s remark, without having tested it by practice?’ ‘Yes—indeed I do.’ ‘Then I think it was uncalled for and unfair.
And how do you know it is true? I expect you regret it now.’ ‘Since you bring me into a serious mood,
I will speak candidly. I do believe that remark to be perfectly true, and, having written
it, I would defend it anywhere. But I do often regret having ever written it, as well as
others of the sort. I have grown older since, and I find such a tone of writing is calculated
to do harm in the world. Every literary Jack becomes a gentleman if he can only pen a few
indifferent satires upon womankind: women themselves, too, have taken to the trick;
and so, upon the whole, I begin to be rather ashamed of my companions.’ ‘Ah, Henry, you have fallen in love since
and it makes a difference,’ said Mrs. Swancourt with a faint tone of banter. ‘That’s true; but that is not my reason.’ ‘Having found that, in a case of your own
experience, a so-called goose was a swan, it seems absurd to deny such a possibility
in other men’s experiences.’ ‘You can hit palpably, cousin Charlotte,’
said Knight. ‘You are like the boy who puts a stone inside his snowball, and I shall play
with you no longer. Excuse me—I am going for my evening stroll.’ Though Knight had spoken jestingly, this incident
and conversation had caused him a sudden depression. Coming, rather singularly, just after his
discovery that Elfride had known what it was to love warmly before she had known him, his
mind dwelt upon the subject, and the familiar pipe he smoked, whilst pacing up and down
the shrubbery-path, failed to be a solace. He thought again of those idle words—hitherto
quite forgotten—about the first kiss of a girl, and the theory seemed more than reasonable.
Of course their sting now lay in their bearing on Elfride. Elfride, under Knight’s kiss, had certainly
been a very different woman from herself under Stephen’s. Whether for good or for ill,
she had marvellously well learnt a betrothed lady’s part; and the fascinating finish
of her deportment in this second campaign did probably arise from her unreserved encouragement
of Stephen. Knight, with all the rapidity of jealous sensitiveness, pounced upon some
words she had inadvertently let fall about an earring, which he had only partially understood
at the time. It was during that ‘initial kiss’ by the little waterfall: ‘We must be careful. I lost the other by
doing this!’ A flush which had in it as much of wounded
pride as of sorrow, passed over Knight as he thought of what he had so frequently said
to her in his simplicity. ‘I always meant to be the first comer in a woman’s heart,
fresh lips or none for me.’ How childishly blind he must have seemed to this mere girl!
How she must have laughed at him inwardly! He absolutely writhed as he thought of the
confession she had wrung from him on the boat in the darkness of night. The one conception
which had sustained his dignity when drawn out of his shell on that occasion—that of
her charming ignorance of all such matters—how absurd it was! This man, whose imagination had been fed up
to preternatural size by lonely study and silent observations of his kind—whose emotions
had been drawn out long and delicate by his seclusion, like plants in a cellar—was now
absolutely in pain. Moreover, several years of poetic study, and, if the truth must be
told, poetic efforts, had tended to develop the affective side of his constitution still
further, in proportion to his active faculties. It was his belief in the absolute newness
of blandishment to Elfride which had constituted her primary charm. He began to think it was
as hard to be earliest in a woman’s heart as it was to be first in the Pool of Bethesda. That Knight should have been thus constituted:
that Elfride’s second lover should not have been one of the great mass of bustling mankind,
little given to introspection, whose good-nature might have compensated for any lack of appreciativeness,
was the chance of things. That her throbbing, self-confounding, indiscreet heart should
have to defend itself unaided against the keen scrutiny and logical power which Knight,
now that his suspicions were awakened, would sooner or later be sure to exercise against
her, was her misfortune. A miserable incongruity was apparent in the circumstance of a strong
mind practising its unerring archery upon a heart which the owner of that mind loved
better than his own. Elfride’s docile devotion to Knight was
now its own enemy. Clinging to him so dependently, she taught him in time to presume upon that
devotion—a lesson men are not slow to learn. A slight rebelliousness occasionally would
have done him no harm, and would have been a world of advantage to her. But she idolized
him, and was proud to be his bond-servant. Chapter XXXI
‘A worm i’ the bud.’ One day the reviewer said, ‘Let us go to
the cliffs again, Elfride;’ and, without consulting her wishes, he moved as if to start
at once. ‘The cliff of our dreadful adventure?’
she inquired, with a shudder. ‘Death stares me in the face in the person of that cliff.’ Nevertheless, so entirely had she sunk her
individuality in his that the remark was not uttered as an expostulation, and she immediately
prepared to accompany him. ‘No, not that place,’ said Knight. ‘It
is ghastly to me, too. That other, I mean; what is its name?—Windy Beak.’ Windy Beak was the second cliff in height
along that coast, and, as is frequently the case with the natural features of the globe
no less than with the intellectual features of men, it enjoyed the reputation of being
the first. Moreover, it was the cliff to which Elfride had ridden with Stephen Smith, on
a well-remembered morning of his summer visit. So, though thought of the former cliff had
caused her to shudder at the perils to which her lover and herself had there been exposed,
by being associated with Knight only it was not so objectionable as Windy Beak. That place
was worse than gloomy, it was a perpetual reproach to her. But not liking to refuse, she said, ‘It
is further than the other cliff.’ ‘Yes; but you can ride.’ ‘And will you too?’ ‘No, I’ll walk.’ A duplicate of her original arrangement with
Stephen. Some fatality must be hanging over her head. But she ceased objecting. ‘Very well, Harry, I’ll ride,’ she said
meekly. A quarter of an hour later she was in the
saddle. But how different the mood from that of the former time. She had, indeed, given
up her position as queen of the less to be vassal of the greater. Here was no showing
off now; no scampering out of sight with Pansy, to perplex and tire her companion; no saucy
remarks on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI. Elfride was burdened with the very intensity of her
love. Knight did most of the talking along the journey.
Elfride silently listened, and entirely resigned herself to the motions of the ambling horse
upon which she sat, alternately rising and sinking gently, like a sea bird upon a sea
wave. When they had reached the limit of a quadruped’s
possibilities in walking, Knight tenderly lifted her from the saddle, tied the horse,
and rambled on with her to the seat in the rock. Knight sat down, and drew Elfride deftly
beside him, and they looked over the sea. Two or three degrees above that melancholy
and eternally level line, the ocean horizon, hung a sun of brass, with no visible rays,
in a sky of ashen hue. It was a sky the sun did not illuminate or enkindle, as is usual
at sunsets. This sheet of sky was met by the salt mass of gray water, flecked here and
there with white. A waft of dampness occasionally rose to their faces, which was probably rarefied
spray from the blows of the sea upon the foot of the cliff. Elfride wished it could be a longer time ago
that she had sat there with Stephen as her lover, and agreed to be his wife. The significant
closeness of that time to the present was another item to add to the list of passionate
fears which were chronic with her now. Yet Knight was very tender this evening, and
sustained her close to him as they sat. Not a word had been uttered by either since
sitting down, when Knight said musingly, looking still afar— ‘I wonder if any lovers in past years ever
sat here with arms locked, as we do now. Probably they have, for the place seems formed for
a seat.’ Her recollection of a well-known pair who
had, and the much-talked-of loss which had ensued therefrom, and how the young man had
been sent back to look for the missing article, led Elfride to glance down to her side, and
behind her back. Many people who lose a trinket involuntarily give a momentary look for it
in passing the spot ever so long afterwards. They do not often find it. Elfride, in turning
her head, saw something shine weakly from a crevice in the rocky sedile. Only for a
few minutes during the day did the sun light the alcove to its innermost rifts and slits,
but these were the minutes now, and its level rays did Elfride the good or evil turn of
revealing the lost ornament. Elfride’s thoughts instantly reverted to
the words she had unintentionally uttered upon what had been going on when the earring
was lost. And she was immediately seized with a misgiving that Knight, on seeing the object,
would be reminded of her words. Her instinctive act therefore was to secure it privately. It was so deep in the crack that Elfride could
not pull it out with her hand, though she made several surreptitious trials. ‘What are you doing, Elfie?’ said Knight,
noticing her attempts, and looking behind him likewise. She had relinquished the endeavour, but too
late. Knight peered into the joint from which her
hand had been withdrawn, and saw what she had seen. He instantly took a penknife from
his pocket, and by dint of probing and scraping brought the earring out upon open ground. ‘It is not yours, surely?’ he inquired. ‘Yes, it is,’ she said quietly. ‘Well, that is a most extraordinary thing,
that we should find it like this!’ Knight then remembered more circumstances; ‘What,
is it the one you have told me of?’ ‘Yes.’ The unfortunate remark of hers at the kiss
came into his mind, if eyes were ever an index to be trusted. Trying to repress the words
he yet spoke on the subject, more to obtain assurance that what it had seemed to imply
was not true than from a wish to pry into bygones. ‘Were you really engaged to be married to
that lover?’ he said, looking straight forward at the sea again. ‘Yes—but not exactly. Yet I think I was.’ ‘O Elfride, engaged to be married!’ he
murmured. ‘It would have been called a—secret engagement,
I suppose. But don’t look so disappointed; don’t blame me.’ ‘No, no.’ ‘Why do you say “No, no,” in such a
way? Sweetly enough, but so barely?’ Knight made no direct reply to this. ‘Elfride,
I told you once,’ he said, following out his thoughts, ‘that I never kissed a woman
as a sweetheart until I kissed you. A kiss is not much, I suppose, and it happens to
few young people to be able to avoid all blandishments and attentions except from the one they afterwards
marry. But I have peculiar weaknesses, Elfride; and because I have led a peculiar life, I
must suffer for it, I suppose. I had hoped—well, what I had no right to hope in connection
with you. You naturally granted your former lover the privileges you grant me.’ A ‘yes’ came from her like the last sad
whisper of a breeze. ‘And he used to kiss you—of course he
did.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And perhaps you allowed him a more free
manner in his love-making than I have shown in mine.’ ‘No, I did not.’ This was rather more
alertly spoken. ‘But he adopted it without being allowed?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How much I have made of you, Elfride, and
how I have kept aloof!’ said Knight in deep and shaken tones. ‘So many days and hours
as I have hoped in you—I have feared to kiss you more than those two times. And he
made no scruples to…’ She crept closer to him and trembled as if
with cold. Her dread that the whole story, with random additions, would become known
to him, caused her manner to be so agitated that Knight was alarmed and perplexed into
stillness. The actual innocence which made her think so fearfully of what, as the world
goes, was not a great matter, magnified her apparent guilt. It may have said to Knight
that a woman who was so flurried in the preliminaries must have a dreadful sequel to her tale. ‘I know,’ continued Knight, with an indescribable
drag of manner and intonation,—‘I know I am absurdly scrupulous about you—that
I want you too exclusively mine. In your past before you knew me—from your very cradle—I
wanted to think you had been mine. I would make you mine by main force. Elfride,’ he
went on vehemently, ‘I can’t help this jealousy over you! It is my nature, and must
be so, and I HATE the fact that you have been caressed before: yes hate it!’ She drew a long deep breath, which was half
a sob. Knight’s face was hard, and he never looked at her at all, still fixing his gaze
far out to sea, which the sun had now resigned to the shade. In high places it is not long
from sunset to night, dusk being in a measure banished, and though only evening where they
sat, it had been twilight in the valleys for half an hour. Upon the dull expanse of sea
there gradually intensified itself into existence the gleam of a distant light-ship. ‘When that lover first kissed you, Elfride
was it in such a place as this?’ ‘Yes, it was.’ ‘You don’t tell me anything but what I
wring out of you. Why is that? Why have you suppressed all mention of this when casual
confidences of mine should have suggested confidence in return? On board the Juliet,
why were you so secret? It seems like being made a fool of, Elfride, to think that, when
I was teaching you how desirable it was that we should have no secrets from each other,
you were assenting in words, but in act contradicting me. Confidence would have been so much more
promising for our happiness. If you had had confidence in me, and told me willingly, I
should—be different. But you suppress everything, and I shall question you. Did you live at
Endelstow at that time?’ ‘Yes,’ she said faintly. ‘Where were you when he first kissed you?’ ‘Sitting in this seat.’ ‘Ah, I thought so!’ said Knight, rising
and facing her. ‘And that accounts for everything—the
exclamation which you explained deceitfully, and all! Forgive the harsh word, Elfride—forgive
it.’ He smiled a surface smile as he continued: ‘What a poor mortal I am to play second
fiddle in everything and to be deluded by fibs!’ ‘Oh, don’t say it; don’t, Harry!’ ‘Where did he kiss you besides here?’ ‘Sitting on—a tomb in the—churchyard—and
other places,’ she answered with slow recklessness. ‘Never mind, never mind,’ he exclaimed,
on seeing her tears and perturbation. ‘I don’t want to grieve you. I don’t care.’ But Knight did care. ‘It makes no difference, you know,’ he
continued, seeing she did not reply. ‘I feel cold,’ said Elfride. ‘Shall
we go home?’ ‘Yes; it is late in the year to sit long
out of doors: we ought to be off this ledge before it gets too dark to let us see our
footing. I daresay the horse is impatient.’ Knight spoke the merest commonplace to her
now. He had hoped to the last moment that she would have volunteered the whole story
of her first attachment. It grew more and more distasteful to him that she should have
a secret of this nature. Such entire confidence as he had pictured as about to exist between
himself and the innocent young wife who had known no lover’s tones save his—was this
its beginning? He lifted her upon the horse, and they went along constrainedly. The poison
of suspicion was doing its work well. An incident occurred on this homeward journey
which was long remembered by both, as adding shade to shadow. Knight could not keep from
his mind the words of Adam’s reproach to Eve in PARADISE LOST, and at last whispered
them to himself— ‘Fool’d and beguiled: by him thou, I by
thee!’ ‘What did you say?’ Elfride inquired timorously. ‘It was only a quotation.’ They had now dropped into a hollow, and the
church tower made its appearance against the pale evening sky, its lower part being hidden
by some intervening trees. Elfride, being denied an answer, was looking at the tower
and trying to think of some contrasting quotation she might use to regain his tenderness. After
a little thought she said in winning tones— “Thou hast been my hope, and a strong tower
for me against the enemy.”’ They passed on. A few minutes later three
or four birds were seen to fly out of the tower. ‘The strong tower moves,’ said Knight,
with surprise. A corner of the square mass swayed forward,
sank, and vanished. A loud rumble followed, and a cloud of dust arose where all had previously
been so clear. ‘The church restorers have done it!’ said
Elfride. At this minute Mr. Swancourt was seen approaching
them. He came up with a bustling demeanour, apparently much engrossed by some business
in hand. ‘We have got the tower down!’ he exclaimed.
‘It came rather quicker than we intended it should. The first idea was to take it down
stone by stone, you know. In doing this the crack widened considerably, and it was not
believed safe for the men to stand upon the walls any longer. Then we decided to undermine
it, and three men set to work at the weakest corner this afternoon. They had left off for
the evening, intending to give the final blow to-morrow morning, and had been home about
half an hour, when down it came. A very successful job—a very fine job indeed. But he was a
tough old fellow in spite of the crack.’ Here Mr. Swancourt wiped from his face the
perspiration his excitement had caused him. ‘Poor old tower!’ said Elfride. ‘Yes, I am sorry for it,’ said Knight.
‘It was an interesting piece of antiquity—a local record of local art.’ ‘Ah, but my dear sir, we shall have a new
one, expostulated Mr. Swancourt; ‘a splendid tower—designed by a first-rate London man—in
the newest style of Gothic art, and full of Christian feeling.’ ‘Indeed!’ said Knight. ‘Oh yes. Not in the barbarous clumsy architecture
of this neighbourhood; you see nothing so rough and pagan anywhere else in England.
When the men are gone, I would advise you to go and see the church before anything further
is done to it. You can now sit in the chancel, and look down the nave through the west arch,
and through that far out to sea. In fact,’ said Mr. Swancourt significantly, ‘if a
wedding were performed at the altar to-morrow morning, it might be witnessed from the deck
of a ship on a voyage to the South Seas, with a good glass. However, after dinner, when
the moon has risen, go up and see for yourselves.’ Knight assented with feverish readiness. He
had decided within the last few minutes that he could not rest another night without further
talk with Elfride upon the subject which now divided them: he was determined to know all,
and relieve his disquiet in some way. Elfride would gladly have escaped further converse
alone with him that night, but it seemed inevitable. Just after moonrise they left the house. How
little any expectation of the moonlight prospect—which was the ostensible reason of their pilgrimage—had
to do with Knight’s real motive in getting the gentle girl again upon his arm, Elfride
no less than himself well knew. Chapter XXXII
‘Had I wist before I kist’
It was now October, and the night air was chill. After looking to see that she was well
wrapped up, Knight took her along the hillside path they had ascended so many times in each
other’s company, when doubt was a thing unknown. On reaching the church they found
that one side of the tower was, as the vicar had stated, entirely removed, and lying in
the shape of rubbish at their feet. The tower on its eastern side still was firm, and might
have withstood the shock of storms and the siege of battering years for many a generation
even now. They entered by the side-door, went eastward, and sat down by the altar-steps. The heavy arch spanning the junction of tower
and nave formed to-night a black frame to a distant misty view, stretching far westward.
Just outside the arch came the heap of fallen stones, then a portion of moonlit churchyard,
then the wide and convex sea behind. It was a coup-d’oeil which had never been possible
since the mediaeval masons first attached the old tower to the older church it dignified,
and hence must be supposed to have had an interest apart from that of simple moonlight
on ancient wall and sea and shore—any mention of which has by this time, it is to be feared,
become one of the cuckoo-cries which are heard but not regarded. Rays of crimson, blue, and
purple shone upon the twain from the east window behind them, wherein saints and angels
vied with each other in primitive surroundings of landscape and sky, and threw upon the pavement
at the sitters’ feet a softer reproduction of the same translucent hues, amid which the
shadows of the two living heads of Knight and Elfride were opaque and prominent blots.
Presently the moon became covered by a cloud, and the iridescence died away. ‘There, it is gone!’ said Knight. ‘I’ve
been thinking, Elfride, that this place we sit on is where we may hope to kneel together
soon. But I am restless and uneasy, and you know why.’ Before she replied the moonlight returned
again, irradiating that portion of churchyard within their view. It brightened the near
part first, and against the background which the cloud-shadow had not yet uncovered stood,
brightest of all, a white tomb—the tomb of young Jethway. Knight, still alive on the subject of Elfride’s
secret, thought of her words concerning the kiss that it once had occurred on a tomb in
this churchyard. ‘Elfride,’ he said, with a superficial
archness which did not half cover an undercurrent of reproach, ‘do you know, I think you might
have told me voluntarily about that past—of kisses and betrothing—without giving me
so much uneasiness and trouble. Was that the tomb you alluded to as having sat on with
him?’ She waited an instant. ‘Yes,’ she said. The correctness of his random shot startled
Knight; though, considering that almost all the other memorials in the churchyard were
upright headstones upon which nobody could possibly sit, it was not so wonderful. Elfride did not even now go on with the explanation
her exacting lover wished to have, and her reticence began to irritate him as before.
He was inclined to read her a lecture. ‘Why don’t you tell me all?’ he said
somewhat indignantly. ‘Elfride, there is not a single subject upon which I feel more
strongly than upon this—that everything ought to be cleared up between two persons
before they become husband and wife. See how desirable and wise such a course is, in order
to avoid disagreeable contingencies in the form of discoveries afterwards. For, Elfride,
a secret of no importance at all may be made the basis of some fatal misunderstanding only
because it is discovered, and not confessed. They say there never was a couple of whom
one had not some secret the other never knew or was intended to know. This may or may not
be true; but if it be true, some have been happy in spite rather than in consequence
of it. If a man were to see another man looking significantly at his wife, and she were blushing
crimson and appearing startled, do you think he would be so well satisfied with, for instance,
her truthful explanation that once, to her great annoyance, she accidentally fainted
into his arms, as if she had said it voluntarily long ago, before the circumstance occurred
which forced it from her? Suppose that admirer you spoke of in connection with the tomb yonder
should turn up, and bother me. It would embitter our lives, if I were then half in the dark,
as I am now!’ Knight spoke the latter sentences with growing
force. ‘It cannot be,’ she said. ‘Why not?’ he asked sharply. Elfride was distressed to find him in so stern
a mood, and she trembled. In a confusion of ideas, probably not intending a wilful prevarication,
she answered hurriedly— ‘If he’s dead, how can you meet him?’ ‘Is he dead? Oh, that’s different altogether!’
said Knight, immensely relieved. ‘But, let me see—what did you say about that tomb
and him?’ ‘That’s his tomb,’ she continued faintly. ‘What! was he who lies buried there the
man who was your lover?’ Knight asked in a distinct voice. ‘Yes; and I didn’t love him or encourage
him.’ ‘But you let him kiss you—you said so,
you know, Elfride.’ She made no reply. ‘Why,’ said Knight, recollecting circumstances
by degrees, ‘you surely said you were in some degree engaged to him—and of course
you were if he kissed you. And now you say you never encouraged him. And I have been
fancying you said—I am almost sure you did—that you were sitting with him ON that tomb. Good
God!’ he cried, suddenly starting up in anger, ‘are you telling me untruths? Why
should you play with me like this? I’ll have the right of it. Elfride, we shall never
be happy! There’s a blight upon us, or me, or you, and it must be cleared off before
we marry.’ Knight moved away impetuously as if to leave her. She jumped up and clutched his arm ‘Don’t go, Harry—don’t! ‘Tell me, then,’ said Knight sternly.
‘And remember this, no more fibs, or, upon my soul, I shall hate you. Heavens! that I
should come to this, to be made a fool of by a girl’s untruths——’ ‘Don’t, don’t treat me so cruelly! O
Harry, Harry, have pity, and withdraw those dreadful words! I am truthful by nature—I
am—and I don’t know how I came to make you misunderstand! But I was frightened!’
She quivered so in her perturbation that she shook him with her {Note: sentence incomplete
in text.} ‘Did you say you were sitting on that tomb?’
he asked moodily. ‘Yes; and it was true.’ ‘Then how, in the name of Heaven, can a
man sit upon his own tomb?’ ‘That was another man. Forgive me, Harry,
won’t you?’ ‘What, a lover in the tomb and a lover on
it?’ ‘Oh—Oh—yes!’ ‘Then there were two before me? ‘I—suppose so.’ ‘Now, don’t be a silly woman with your
supposing—I hate all that,’ said Knight contemptuously almost. ‘Well, we learn strange
things. I don’t know what I might have done—no man can say into what shape circumstances
may warp him—but I hardly think I should have had the conscience to accept the favours
of a new lover whilst sitting over the poor remains of the old one; upon my soul, I don’t.’
Knight, in moody meditation, continued looking towards the tomb, which stood staring them
in the face like an avenging ghost. ‘But you wrong me—Oh, so grievously!’
she cried. ‘I did not meditate any such thing: believe me, Harry, I did not. It only
happened so—quite of itself.’ ‘Well, I suppose you didn’t INTEND such
a thing,’ he said. ‘Nobody ever does,’ he sadly continued. ‘And him in the grave I never once loved.’ ‘I suppose the second lover and you, as
you sat there, vowed to be faithful to each other for ever?’ Elfride only replied by quick heavy breaths,
showing she was on the brink of a sob. ‘You don’t choose to be anything but reserved,
then?’ he said imperatively. ‘Of course we did,’ she responded. ‘“Of course!” You seem to treat the
subject very lightly?’ ‘It is past, and is nothing to us now.’ ‘Elfride, it is a nothing which, though
it may make a careless man laugh, cannot but make a genuine one grieve. It is a very gnawing
pain. Tell me straight through—all of it.’ ‘Never. O Harry! how can you expect it when
so little of it makes you so harsh with me?’ ‘Now, Elfride, listen to this. You know
that what you have told only jars the subtler fancies in one, after all. The feeling I have
about it would be called, and is, mere sentimentality; and I don’t want you to suppose that an
ordinary previous engagement of a straightforward kind would make any practical difference in
my love, or my wish to make you my wife. But you seem to have more to tell, and that’s
where the wrong is. Is there more?’ ‘Not much more,’ she wearily answered. Knight preserved a grave silence for a minute.
‘“Not much more,”’ he said at last. ‘I should think not, indeed!’ His voice
assumed a low and steady pitch. ‘Elfride, you must not mind my saying a strange-sounding
thing, for say it I shall. It is this: that if there WERE much more to add to an account
which already includes all the particulars that a broken marriage engagement could possibly
include with propriety, it must be some exceptional thing which might make it impossible for me
or any one else to love you and marry you.’ Knight’s disturbed mood led him much further
than he would have gone in a quieter moment. And, even as it was, had she been assertive
to any degree he would not have been so peremptory; and had she been a stronger character—more
practical and less imaginative—she would have made more use of her position in his
heart to influence him. But the confiding tenderness which had won him is ever accompanied
by a sort of self-committal to the stream of events, leading every such woman to trust
more to the kindness of fate for good results than to any argument of her own. ‘Well, well,’ he murmured cynically; ‘I
won’t say it is your fault: it is my ill-luck, I suppose. I had no real right to question
you—everybody would say it was presuming. But when we have misunderstood, we feel injured
by the subject of our misunderstanding. You never said you had had nobody else here making
love to you, so why should I blame you? Elfride, I beg your pardon.’ ‘No, no! I would rather have your anger
than that cool aggrieved politeness. Do drop that, Harry! Why should you inflict that upon
me? It reduces me to the level of a mere acquaintance.’ ‘You do that with me. Why not confidence
for confidence?’ ‘Yes; but I didn’t ask you a single question
with regard to your past: I didn’t wish to know about it. All I cared for was that,
wherever you came from, whatever you had done, whoever you had loved, you were mine at last.
Harry, if originally you had known I had loved, would you never have cared for me?’ ‘I won’t quite say that. Though I own
that the idea of your inexperienced state had a great charm for me. But I think this:
that if I had known there was any phase of your past love you would refuse to reveal
if I asked to know it, I should never have loved you.’ Elfride sobbed bitterly. ‘Am I such a—mere
characterless toy—as to have no attrac—tion in me, apart from—freshness? Haven’t I
brains? You said—I was clever and ingenious in my thoughts, and—isn’t that anything?
Have I not some beauty? I think I have a little—and I know I have—yes, I do! You have praised
my voice, and my manner, and my accomplishments. Yet all these together are so much rubbish
because I—accidentally saw a man before you!’ ‘Oh, come, Elfride. “Accidentally saw
a man” is very cool. You loved him, remember.’ —‘And loved him a little!’ ‘And refuse now to answer the simple question
how it ended. Do you refuse still, Elfride?’ ‘You have no right to question me so—you
said so. It is unfair. Trust me as I trust you.’ ‘That’s not at all.’ ‘I shall not love you if you are so cruel.
It is cruel to me to argue like this.’ ‘Perhaps it is. Yes, it is. I was carried
away by my feeling for you. Heaven knows that I didn’t mean to; but I have loved you so
that I have used you badly.’ ‘I don’t mind it, Harry!’ she instantly
answered, creeping up and nestling against him; ‘and I will not think at all that you
used me harshly if you will forgive me, and not be vexed with me any more? I do wish I
had been exactly as you thought I was, but I could not help it, you know. If I had only
known you had been coming, what a nunnery I would have lived in to have been good enough
for you!’ ‘Well, never mind,’ said Knight; and he
turned to go. He endeavoured to speak sportively as they went on. ‘Diogenes Laertius says
that philosophers used voluntarily to deprive themselves of sight to be uninterrupted in
their meditations. Men, becoming lovers, ought to do the same thing.’ ‘Why?—but never mind—I don’t want
to know. Don’t speak laconically to me,’ she said with deprecation. ‘Why? Because they would never then be distracted
by discovering their idol was second-hand.’ She looked down and sighed; and they passed
out of the crumbling old place, and slowly crossed to the churchyard entrance. Knight
was not himself, and he could not pretend to be. She had not told all. He supported her lightly over the stile, and
was practically as attentive as a lover could be. But there had passed away a glory, and
the dream was not as it had been of yore. Perhaps Knight was not shaped by Nature for
a marrying man. Perhaps his lifelong constraint towards women, which he had attributed to
accident, was not chance after all, but the natural result of instinctive acts so minute
as to be undiscernible even by himself. Or whether the rough dispelling of any bright
illusion, however imaginative, depreciates the real and unexaggerated brightness which
appertains to its basis, one cannot say. Certain it was that Knight’s disappointment at finding
himself second or third in the field, at Elfride’s momentary equivoque, and at her reluctance
to be candid, brought him to the verge of cynicism. Chapter XXXIII
‘O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery.’ A habit of Knight’s, when not immediately
occupied with Elfride—to walk by himself for half an hour or so between dinner and
bedtime—had become familiar to his friends at Endelstow, Elfride herself among them.
When he had helped her over the stile, she said gently, ‘If you wish to take your usual
turn on the hill, Harry, I can run down to the house alone.’ ‘Thank you, Elfie; then I think I will.’ Her form diminished to blackness in the moonlight,
and Knight, after remaining upon the churchyard stile a few minutes longer, turned back again
towards the building. His usual course was now to light a cigar or pipe, and indulge
in a quiet meditation. But to-night his mind was too tense to bethink itself of such a
solace. He merely walked round to the site of the fallen tower, and sat himself down
upon some of the large stones which had composed it until this day, when the chain of circumstance
originated by Stephen Smith, while in the employ of Mr. Hewby, the London man of art,
had brought about its overthrow. Pondering on the possible episodes of Elfride’s
past life, and on how he had supposed her to have had no past justifying the name, he
sat and regarded the white tomb of young Jethway, now close in front of him. The sea, though
comparatively placid, could as usual be heard from this point along the whole distance between
promontories to the right and left, floundering and entangling itself among the insulated
stacks of rock which dotted the water’s edge—the miserable skeletons of tortured
old cliffs that would not even yet succumb to the wear and tear of the tides. As a change from thoughts not of a very cheerful
kind, Knight attempted exertion. He stood up, and prepared to ascend to the summit of
the ruinous heap of stones, from which a more extended outlook was obtainable than from
the ground. He stretched out his arm to seize the projecting arris of a larger block than
ordinary, and so help himself up, when his hand lighted plump upon a substance differing
in the greatest possible degree from what he had expected to seize—hard stone. It
was stringy and entangled, and trailed upon the stone. The deep shadow from the aisle
wall prevented his seeing anything here distinctly, and he began guessing as a necessity. ‘It
is a tressy species of moss or lichen,’ he said to himself. But it lay loosely over the stone. ‘It is a tuft of grass,’ he said. But it lacked the roughness and humidity of
the finest grass. ‘It is a mason’s whitewash-brush.’ Such brushes, he remembered, were more bristly;
and however much used in repairing a structure, would not be required in pulling one down. He said, ‘It must be a thready silk fringe.’ He felt further in. It was somewhat warm.
Knight instantly felt somewhat cold. To find the coldness of inanimate matter where
you expect warmth is startling enough; but a colder temperature than that of the body
being rather the rule than the exception in common substances, it hardly conveys such
a shock to the system as finding warmth where utter frigidity is anticipated. ‘God only knows what it is,’ he said. He felt further, and in the course of a minute
put his hand upon a human head. The head was warm, but motionless. The thready mass was
the hair of the head—long and straggling, showing that the head was a woman’s. Knight in his perplexity stood still for a
moment, and collected his thoughts. The vicar’s account of the fall of the tower was that
the workmen had been undermining it all the day, and had left in the evening intending
to give the finishing stroke the next morning. Half an hour after they had gone the undermined
angle came down. The woman who was half buried, as it seemed, must have been beneath it at
the moment of the fall. Knight leapt up and began endeavouring to
remove the rubbish with his hands. The heap overlying the body was for the most part fine
and dusty, but in immense quantity. It would be a saving of time to run for assistance.
He crossed to the churchyard wall, and hastened down the hill. A little way down an intersecting road passed
over a small ridge, which now showed up darkly against the moon, and this road here formed
a kind of notch in the sky-line. At the moment that Knight arrived at the crossing he beheld
a man on this eminence, coming towards him. Knight turned aside and met the stranger. ‘There has been an accident at the church,’
said Knight, without preface. ‘The tower has fallen on somebody, who has been lying
there ever since. Will you come and help?’ ‘That I will,’ said the man. ‘It is a woman,’ said Knight, as they
hurried back, ‘and I think we two are enough to extricate her. Do you know of a shovel?’ ‘The grave-digging shovels are about somewhere.
They used to stay in the tower.’ ‘And there must be some belonging to the
workmen.’ They searched about, and in an angle of the
porch found three carefully stowed away. Going round to the west end Knight signified the
spot of the tragedy. ‘We ought to have brought a lantern,’
he exclaimed. ‘But we may be able to do without.’ He set to work removing the superincumbent
mass. The other man, who looked on somewhat helplessly
at first, now followed the example of Knight’s activity, and removed the larger stones which
were mingled with the rubbish. But with all their efforts it was quite ten minutes before
the body of the unfortunate creature could be extricated. They lifted her as carefully
as they could, breathlessly carried her to Felix Jethway’s tomb, which was only a few
steps westward, and laid her thereon. ‘Is she dead indeed?’ said the stranger. ‘She appears to be,’ said Knight. ‘Which
is the nearest house? The vicarage, I suppose.’ ‘Yes; but since we shall have to call a
surgeon from Castle Boterel, I think it would be better to carry her in that direction,
instead of away from the town.’ ‘And is it not much further to the first
house we come to going that way, than to the vicarage or to The Crags?’ ‘Not much,’ the stranger replied. ‘Suppose we take her there, then. And I
think the best way to do it would be thus, if you don’t mind joining hands with me.’ ‘Not in the least; I am glad to assist.’ Making a kind of cradle, by clasping their
hands crosswise under the inanimate woman, they lifted her, and walked on side by side
down a path indicated by the stranger, who appeared to know the locality well. ‘I had been sitting in the church for nearly
an hour,’ Knight resumed, when they were out of the churchyard. ‘Afterwards I walked
round to the site of the fallen tower, and so found her. It is painful to think I unconsciously
wasted so much time in the very presence of a perishing, flying soul.’ ‘The tower fell at dusk, did it not? quite
two hours ago, I think?’ ‘Yes. She must have been there alone. What
could have been her object in visiting the churchyard then? ‘It is difficult to say.’ The stranger
looked inquiringly into the reclining face of the motionless form they bore. ‘Would
you turn her round for a moment, so that the light shines on her face?’ he said. They turned her face to the moon, and the
man looked closer into her features. ‘Why, I know her!’ he exclaimed. ‘Who is she?’ ‘Mrs. Jethway. And the cottage we are taking
her to is her own. She is a widow; and I was speaking to her only this afternoon. I was
at Castle Boterel post-office, and she came there to post a letter. Poor soul! Let us
hurry on.’ ‘Hold my wrist a little tighter. Was not
that tomb we laid her on the tomb of her only son?’ ‘Yes, it was. Yes, I see it now. She was
there to visit the tomb. Since the death of that son she has been a desolate, desponding
woman, always bewailing him. She was a farmer’s wife, very well educated—a governess originally,
I believe.’ Knight’s heart was moved to sympathy. His
own fortunes seemed in some strange way to be interwoven with those of this Jethway family,
through the influence of Elfride over himself and the unfortunate son of that house. He
made no reply, and they still walked on. ‘She begins to feel heavy,’ said the stranger,
breaking the silence. ‘Yes, she does,’ said Knight; and after
another pause added, ‘I think I have met you before, though where I cannot recollect.
May I ask who you are?’ ‘Oh yes. I am Lord Luxellian. Who are you?’ ‘I am a visitor at The Crags—Mr. Knight.’ ‘I have heard of you, Mr. Knight.’ ‘And I of you, Lord Luxellian. I am glad
to meet you.’ ‘I may say the same. I am familiar with
your name in print.’ ‘And I with yours. Is this the house?’ ‘Yes.’ The door was locked. Knight, reflecting a
moment, searched the pocket of the lifeless woman, and found therein a large key which,
on being applied to the door, opened it easily. The fire was out, but the moonlight entered
the quarried window, and made patterns upon the floor. The rays enabled them to see that
the room into which they had entered was pretty well furnished, it being the same room that
Elfride had visited alone two or three evenings earlier. They deposited their still burden
on an old-fashioned couch which stood against the wall, and Knight searched about for a
lamp or candle. He found a candle on a shelf, lighted it, and placed it on the table. Both Knight and Lord Luxellian examined the
pale countenance attentively, and both were nearly convinced that there was no hope. No
marks of violence were visible in the casual examination they made. ‘I think that as I know where Doctor Granson
lives,’ said Lord Luxellian, ‘I had better run for him whilst you stay here.’ Knight agreed to this. Lord Luxellian then
went off, and his hurrying footsteps died away. Knight continued bending over the body,
and a few minutes longer of careful scrutiny perfectly satisfied him that the woman was
far beyond the reach of the lancet and the drug. Her extremities were already beginning
to get stiff and cold. Knight covered her face, and sat down. The minutes went by. The essayist remained
musing on all the occurrences of the night. His eyes were directed upon the table, and
he had seen for some time that writing-materials were spread upon it. He now noticed these
more particularly: there were an inkstand, pen, blotting-book, and note-paper. Several
sheets of paper were thrust aside from the rest, upon which letters had been begun and
relinquished, as if their form had not been satisfactory to the writer. A stick of black
sealing-wax and seal were there too, as if the ordinary fastening had not been considered
sufficiently secure. The abandoned sheets of paper lying as they did open upon the table,
made it possible, as he sat, to read the few words written on each. One ran thus: ‘SIR,—As a woman who was once blest with
a dear son of her own, I implore you to accept a warning——’ Another: ‘SIR,—If you will deign to receive warning
from a stranger before it is too late to alter your course, listen to——’ The third: ‘SIR,—With this letter I enclose to you
another which, unaided by any explanation from me, tells a startling tale. I wish, however,
to add a few words to make your delusion yet more clear to you——’ It was plain that, after these renounced beginnings,
a fourth letter had been written and despatched, which had been deemed a proper one. Upon the
table were two drops of sealing-wax, the stick from which they were taken having been laid
down overhanging the edge of the table; the end of it drooped, showing that the wax was
placed there whilst warm. There was the chair in which the writer had sat, the impression
of the letter’s address upon the blotting-paper, and the poor widow who had caused these results
lying dead hard by. Knight had seen enough to lead him to the conclusion that Mrs. Jethway,
having matter of great importance to communicate to some friend or acquaintance, had written
him a very careful letter, and gone herself to post it; that she had not returned to the
house from that time of leaving it till Lord Luxellian and himself had brought her back
dead. The unutterable melancholy of the whole scene,
as he waited on, silent and alone, did not altogether clash with the mood of Knight,
even though he was the affianced of a fair and winning girl, and though so lately he
had been in her company. Whilst sitting on the remains of the demolished tower he had
defined a new sensation; that the lengthened course of inaction he had lately been indulging
in on Elfride’s account might probably not be good for him as a man who had work to do.
It could quickly be put an end to by hastening on his marriage with her. Knight, in his own opinion, was one who had
missed his mark by excessive aiming. Having now, to a great extent, given up ideal ambitions,
he wished earnestly to direct his powers into a more practical channel, and thus correct
the introspective tendencies which had never brought himself much happiness, or done his
fellow-creatures any great good. To make a start in this new direction by marriage, which,
since knowing Elfride, had been so entrancing an idea, was less exquisite to-night. That
the curtailment of his illusion regarding her had something to do with the reaction,
and with the return of his old sentiments on wasting time, is more than probable. Though
Knight’s heart had so greatly mastered him, the mastery was not so complete as to be easily
maintained in the face of a moderate intellectual revival. His reverie was broken by the sound of wheels,
and a horse’s tramp. The door opened to admit the surgeon, Lord Luxellian, and a Mr.
Coole, coroner for the division (who had been attending at Castle Boterel that very day,
and was having an after-dinner chat with the doctor when Lord Luxellian arrived); next
came two female nurses and some idlers. Mr. Granson, after a cursory examination,
pronounced the woman dead from suffocation, induced by intense pressure on the respiratory
organs; and arrangements were made that the inquiry should take place on the following
morning, before the return of the coroner to St. Launce’s. Shortly afterwards the house of the widow
was deserted by all its living occupants, and she abode in death, as she had in her life during the past two years, entirely
alone. Chapter XXXIV
‘Yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.’
Sixteen hours had passed. Knight was entering the ladies’ boudoir at The Crags, upon his
return from attending the inquest touching the death of Mrs. Jethway. Elfride was not
in the apartment. Mrs. Swancourt made a few inquiries concerning
the verdict and collateral circumstances. Then she said— ‘The postman came this morning the minute
after you left the house. There was only one letter for you, and I have it here.’ She took a letter from the lid of her workbox,
and handed it to him. Knight took the missive abstractedly, but struck by its appearance
murmured a few words and left the room. The letter was fastened with a black seal,
and the handwriting in which it was addressed had lain under his eyes, long and prominently,
only the evening before. Knight was greatly agitated, and looked about
for a spot where he might be secure from interruption. It was the season of heavy dews, which lay
on the herbage in shady places all the day long; nevertheless, he entered a small patch
of neglected grass-plat enclosed by the shrubbery, and there perused the letter, which he had
opened on his way thither. The handwriting, the seal, the paper, the
introductory words, all had told on the instant that the letter had come to him from the hands
of the widow Jethway, now dead and cold. He had instantly understood that the unfinished
notes which caught his eye yesternight were intended for nobody but himself. He had remembered
some of the words of Elfride in her sleep on the steamer, that somebody was not to tell
him of something, or it would be her ruin—a circumstance hitherto deemed so trivial and
meaningless that he had well-nigh forgotten it. All these things infused into him an emotion
intense in power and supremely distressing in quality. The paper in his hand quivered
as he read: ‘THE VALLEY, ENDELSTOW. ‘SIR,—A woman who has not much in the
world to lose by any censure this act may bring upon her, wishes to give you some hints
concerning a lady you love. If you will deign to accept a warning before it is too late,
you will notice what your correspondent has to say. ‘You are deceived. Can such a woman as this
be worthy? ‘One who encouraged an honest youth to love
her, then slighted him, so that he died. ‘One who next took a man of no birth as
a lover, who was forbidden the house by her father. ‘One who secretly left her home to be married
to that man, met him, and went with him to London. ‘One who, for some reason or other, returned
again unmarried. ‘One who, in her after-correspondence with
him, went so far as to address him as her husband. ‘One who wrote the enclosed letter to ask
me, who better than anybody else knows the story, to keep the scandal a secret. ‘I hope soon to be beyond the reach of either
blame or praise. But before removing me God has put it in my power to avenge the death
of my son. ‘GERTRUDE JETHWAY.’ The letter enclosed was the note in pencil
that Elfride had written in Mrs. Jethway’s cottage: ‘DEAR MRS. JETHWAY,—I have been to visit
you. I wanted much to see you, but I cannot wait any longer. I came to beg you not to
execute the threats you have repeated to me. Do not, I beseech you, Mrs. Jethway, let any
one know I ran away from home! It would ruin me with him, and break my heart. I will do
anything for you, if you will be kind to me. In the name of our common womanhood, do not,
I implore you, make a scandal of me.—Yours, ‘E. SWANCOURT. Knight turned his head wearily towards the
house. The ground rose rapidly on nearing the shrubbery in which he stood, raising it
almost to a level with the first floor of The Crags. Elfride’s dressing-room lay in
the salient angle in this direction, and it was lighted by two windows in such a position
that, from Knight’s standing-place, his sight passed through both windows, and raked
the room. Elfride was there; she was pausing between the two windows, looking at her figure
in the cheval-glass. She regarded herself long and attentively in front; turned, flung
back her head, and observed the reflection over her shoulder. Nobody can predicate as to her object or fancy;
she may have done the deed in the very abstraction of deep sadness. She may have been moaning
from the bottom of her heart, ‘How unhappy am I!’ But the impression produced on Knight
was not a good one. He dropped his eyes moodily. The dead woman’s letter had a virtue in
the accident of its juncture far beyond any it intrinsically exhibited. Circumstance lent
to evil words a ring of pitiless justice echoing from the grave. Knight could not endure their
possession. He tore the letter into fragments. He heard a brushing among the bushes behind,
and turning his head he saw Elfride following him. The fair girl looked in his face with
a wistful smile of hope, too forcedly hopeful to displace the firmly established dread beneath
it. His severe words of the previous night still sat heavy upon her. ‘I saw you from my window, Harry,’ she
said timidly. ‘The dew will make your feet wet,’ he
observed, as one deaf. ‘I don’t mind it.’ ‘There is danger in getting wet feet.’ ‘Yes…Harry, what is the matter?’ ‘Oh, nothing. Shall I resume the serious
conversation I had with you last night? No, perhaps not; perhaps I had better not.’ ‘Oh, I cannot tell! How wretched it all
is! Ah, I wish you were your own dear self again, and had kissed me when I came up! Why
didn’t you ask me for one? why don’t you now?’ ‘Too free in manner by half,’ he heard
murmur the voice within him. ‘It was that hateful conversation last night,’
she went on. ‘Oh, those words! Last night was a black night for me.’ ‘Kiss!—I hate that word! Don’t talk
of kissing, for God’s sake! I should think you might with advantage have shown tact enough
to keep back that word “kiss,” considering those you have accepted.’ She became very pale, and a rigid and desolate
charactery took possession of her face. That face was so delicate and tender in appearance
now, that one could fancy the pressure of a finger upon it would cause a livid spot. Knight walked on, and Elfride with him, silent
and unopposing. He opened a gate, and they entered a path across a stubble-field. ‘Perhaps I intrude upon you?’ she said
as he closed the gate. ‘Shall I go away?’ ‘No. Listen to me, Elfride.’ Knight’s
voice was low and unequal. ‘I have been honest with you: will you be so with me? If
any—strange—connection has existed between yourself and a predecessor of mine, tell it
now. It is better that I know it now, even though the knowledge should part us, than
that I should discover it in time to come. And suspicions have been awakened in me. I
think I will not say how, because I despise the means. A discovery of any mystery of your
past would embitter our lives.’ Knight waited with a slow manner of calmness.
His eyes were sad and imperative. They went farther along the path. ‘Will you forgive me if I tell you all?’
she exclaimed entreatingly. ‘I can’t promise; so much depends upon
what you have to tell.’ Elfride could not endure the silence which
followed. ‘Are you not going to love me?’ she burst
out. ‘Harry, Harry, love me, and speak as usual! Do; I beseech you, Harry!’ ‘Are you going to act fairly by me?’ said
Knight, with rising anger; ‘or are you not? What have I done to you that I should be put
off like this? Be caught like a bird in a springe; everything intended to be hidden
from me! Why is it, Elfride? That’s what I ask you.’ In their agitation they had left the path,
and were wandering among the wet and obstructive stubble, without knowing or heeding it. ‘What have I done?’ she faltered. ‘What? How can you ask what, when you know
so well? You KNOW that I have designedly been kept in ignorance of something attaching to
you, which, had I known of it, might have altered all my conduct; and yet you say, what?’ She drooped visibly, and made no answer. ‘Not that I believe in malicious letter-writers
and whisperers; not I. I don’t know whether I do or don’t: upon my soul, I can’t tell.
I know this: a religion was building itself upon you in my heart. I looked into your eyes,
and thought I saw there truth and innocence as pure and perfect as ever embodied by God
in the flesh of woman. Perfect truth is too much to expect, but ordinary truth I WILL
HAVE or nothing at all. Just say, then; is the matter you keep back of the gravest importance,
or is it not?’ ‘I don’t understand all your meaning.
If I have hidden anything from you, it has been because I loved you so, and I feared—feared—to
lose you.’ ‘Since you are not given to confidence,
I want to ask you some plain questions. Have I your permission?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, and there came over her
face a weary resignation. ‘Say the harshest words you can; I will bear them!’ ‘There is a scandal in the air concerning
you, Elfride; and I cannot even combat it without knowing definitely what it is. It
may not refer to you entirely, or even at all.’ Knight trifled in the very bitterness
of his feeling. ‘In the time of the French Revolution, Pariseau, a ballet-master, was
beheaded by mistake for Parisot, a captain of the King’s Guard. I wish there was another
“E. Swancourt” in the neighbourhood. Look at this.’ He handed her the letter she had written and
left on the table at Mrs. Jethway’s. She looked over it vacantly. ‘It is not so much as it seems!’ she pleaded.
‘It seems wickedly deceptive to look at now, but it had a much more natural origin
than you think. My sole wish was not to endanger our love. O Harry! that was all my idea. It
was not much harm.’ ‘Yes, yes; but independently of the poor
miserable creature’s remarks, it seems to imply—something wrong.’ ‘What remarks?’ ‘Those she wrote me—now torn to pieces.
Elfride, DID you run away with a man you loved?—that was the damnable statement. Has such an accusation
life in it—really, truly, Elfride?’ ‘Yes,’ she whispered. Knight’s countenance sank. ‘To be married
to him?’ came huskily from his lips. ‘Yes. Oh, forgive me! I had never seen you,
Harry.’ ‘To London?’ ‘Yes; but I——’ ‘Answer my questions; say nothing else,
Elfride Did you ever deliberately try to marry him in secret?’ ‘No; not deliberately.’ ‘But did you do it?’ A feeble red passed over her face. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And after that—did you—write to him
as your husband; and did he address you as his wife?’ ‘Listen, listen! It was——’ ‘Do answer me; only answer me!’ ‘Then, yes, we did.’ Her lips shook; but
it was with some little dignity that she continued: ‘I would gladly have told you; for I knew
and know I had done wrong. But I dared not; I loved you too well. Oh, so well! You have
been everything in the world to me—and you are now. Will you not forgive me?’ It is a melancholy thought, that men who at
first will not allow the verdict of perfection they pronounce upon their sweethearts or wives
to be disturbed by God’s own testimony to the contrary, will, once suspecting their
purity, morally hang them upon evidence they would be ashamed to admit in judging a dog. The reluctance to tell, which arose from Elfride’s
simplicity in thinking herself so much more culpable than she really was, had been doing
fatal work in Knight’s mind. The man of many ideas, now that his first dream of impossible
things was over, vibrated too far in the contrary direction; and her every movement of feature—every
tremor—every confused word—was taken as so much proof of her unworthiness. ‘Elfride, we must bid good-bye to compliment,’
said Knight: ‘we must do without politeness now. Look in my face, and as you believe in
God above, tell me truly one thing more. Were you away alone with him?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you return home the same day on which
you left it?’ ‘No.’ The word fell like a bolt, and the very land
and sky seemed to suffer. Knight turned aside. Meantime Elfride’s countenance wore a look
indicating utter despair of being able to explain matters so that they would seem no
more than they really were,—a despair which not only relinquishes the hope of direct explanation,
but wearily gives up all collateral chances of extenuation. The scene was engraved for years on the retina
of Knight’s eye: the dead and brown stubble, the weeds among it, the distant belt of beeches
shutting out the view of the house, the leaves of which were now red and sick to death. ‘You must forget me,’ he said. ‘We shall
not marry, Elfride.’ How much anguish passed into her soul at those
words from him was told by the look of supreme torture she wore. ‘What meaning have you, Harry? You only
say so, do you?’ She looked doubtingly up at him, and tried
to laugh, as if the unreality of his words must be unquestionable. ‘You are not in earnest, I know—I hope
you are not? Surely I belong to you, and you are going to keep me for yours?’ ‘Elfride, I have been speaking too roughly
to you; I have said what I ought only to have thought. I like you; and let me give you a
word of advice. Marry your man as soon as you can. However weary of each other you may
feel, you belong to each other, and I am not going to step between you. Do you think I
would—do you think I could for a moment? If you cannot marry him now, and another makes
you his wife, do not reveal this secret to him after marriage, if you do not before.
Honesty would be damnation then.’ Bewildered by his expressions, she exclaimed— ‘No, no; I will not be a wife unless I am
yours; and I must be yours!’ ‘If we had married——’ ‘But you don’t MEAN—that—that—you
will go away and leave me, and not be anything more to me—oh, you don’t!’ Convulsive sobs took all nerve out of her
utterance. She checked them, and continued to look in his face for the ray of hope that
was not to be found there. ‘I am going indoors,’ said Knight. ‘You
will not follow me, Elfride; I wish you not to.’ ‘Oh no; indeed, I will not.’ ‘And then I am going to Castle Boterel.
Good-bye.’ He spoke the farewell as if it were but for
the day—lightly, as he had spoken such temporary farewells many times before—and she seemed
to understand it as such. Knight had not the power to tell her plainly that he was going
for ever; he hardly knew for certain that he was: whether he should rush back again
upon the current of an irresistible emotion, or whether he could sufficiently conquer himself,
and her in him, to establish that parting as a supreme farewell, and present himself
to the world again as no woman’s. Ten minutes later he had left the house, leaving
directions that if he did not return in the evening his luggage was to be sent to his
chambers in London, whence he intended to write to Mr. Swancourt as to the reasons of
his sudden departure. He descended the valley, and could not forbear turning his head. He
saw the stubble-field, and a slight girlish figure in the midst of it—up against the
sky. Elfride, docile as ever, had hardly moved a step, for he had said, Remain. He looked
and saw her again—he saw her for weeks and months. He withdrew his eyes from the scene,
swept his hand across them, as if to brush away the sight, breathed a low groan, and
went on. Chapter XXXV
‘And wilt thou leave me thus?—say nay—say nay!’
The scene shifts to Knight’s chambers in Bede’s Inn. It was late in the evening of
the day following his departure from Endelstow. A drizzling rain descended upon London, forming
a humid and dreary halo over every well-lighted street. The rain had not yet been prevalent
long enough to give to rapid vehicles that clear and distinct rattle which follows the
thorough washing of the stones by a drenching rain, but was just sufficient to make footway
and roadway slippery, adhesive, and clogging to both feet and wheels. Knight was standing by the fire, looking into
its expiring embers, previously to emerging from his door for a dreary journey home to
Richmond. His hat was on, and the gas turned off. The blind of the window overlooking the
alley was not drawn down; and with the light from beneath, which shone over the ceiling
of the room, came, in place of the usual babble, only the reduced clatter and quick speech
which were the result of necessity rather than choice. Whilst he thus stood, waiting for the expiration
of the few minutes that were wanting to the time for his catching the train, a light tapping
upon the door mingled with the other sounds that reached his ears. It was so faint at
first that the outer noises were almost sufficient to drown it. Finding it repeated Knight crossed
the lobby, crowded with books and rubbish, and opened the door. A woman, closely muffled up, but visibly of
fragile build, was standing on the landing under the gaslight. She sprang forward, flung
her arms round Knight’s neck, and uttered a low cry— ‘O Harry, Harry, you are killing me! I could
not help coming. Don’t send me away—don’t! Forgive your Elfride for coming—I love you
so!’ Knight’s agitation and astonishment mastered
him for a few moments. ‘Elfride!’ he cried, ‘what does this
mean? What have you done?’ ‘Do not hurt me and punish me—Oh, do not!
I couldn’t help coming; it was killing me. Last night, when you did not come back, I
could not bear it—I could not! Only let me be with you, and see your face, Harry;
I don’t ask for more.’ Her eyelids were hot, heavy, and thick with
excessive weeping, and the delicate rose-red of her cheeks was disfigured and inflamed
by the constant chafing of the handkerchief in wiping her many tears. ‘Who is with you? Have you come alone?’
he hurriedly inquired. ‘Yes. When you did not come last night,
I sat up hoping you would come—and the night was all agony—and I waited on and on, and
you did not come! Then when it was morning, and your letter said you were gone, I could
not endure it; and I ran away from them to St. Launce’s, and came by the train. And
I have been all day travelling to you, and you won’t make me go away again, will you,
Harry, because I shall always love you till I die?’ ‘Yet it is wrong for you to stay. O Elfride!
what have you committed yourself to? It is ruin to your good name to run to me like this!
Has not your first experience been sufficient to keep you from these things?’ ‘My name! Harry, I shall soon die, and what
good will my name be to me then? Oh, could I but be the man and you the woman, I would
not leave you for such a little fault as mine! Do not think it was so vile a thing in me
to run away with him. Ah, how I wish you could have run away with twenty women before you
knew me, that I might show you I would think it no fault, but be glad to get you after
them all, so that I had you! If you only knew me through and through, how true I am, Harry.
Cannot I be yours? Say you love me just the same, and don’t let me be separated from
you again, will you? I cannot bear it—all the long hours and days and nights going on,
and you not there, but away because you hate me!’ ‘Not hate you, Elfride,’ he said gently,
and supported her with his arm. ‘But you cannot stay here now—just at present, I
mean.’ ‘I suppose I must not—I wish I might.
I am afraid that if—you lose sight of me—something dark will happen, and we shall not meet again.
Harry, if I am not good enough to be your wife, I wish I could be your servant and live
with you, and not be sent away never to see you again. I don’t mind what it is except
that!’ ‘No, I cannot send you away: I cannot. God
knows what dark future may arise out of this evening’s work; but I cannot send you away!
You must sit down, and I will endeavour to collect my thoughts and see what had better
be done. At that moment a loud knocking at the house
door was heard by both, accompanied by a hurried ringing of the bell that echoed from attic
to basement. The door was quickly opened, and after a few hasty words of converse in
the hall, heavy footsteps ascended the stairs. The face of Mr. Swancourt, flushed, grieved,
and stern, appeared round the landing of the staircase. He came higher up, and stood beside
them. Glancing over and past Knight with silent indignation, he turned to the trembling girl. ‘O Elfride! and have I found you at last?
Are these your tricks, madam? When will you get rid of your idiocies, and conduct yourself
like a decent woman? Is my family name and house to be disgraced by acts that would be
a scandal to a washerwoman’s daughter? Come along, madam; come!’ ‘She is so weary!’ said Knight, in a voice
of intensest anguish. ‘Mr. Swancourt, don’t be harsh with her—let me beg of you to be
tender with her, and love her!’ ‘To you, sir,’ said Mr. Swancourt, turning
to him as if by the sheer pressure of circumstances, ‘I have little to say. I can only remark,
that the sooner I can retire from your presence the better I shall be pleased. Why you could
not conduct your courtship of my daughter like an honest man, I do not know. Why she—a
foolish inexperienced girl—should have been tempted to this piece of folly, I do not know.
Even if she had not known better than to leave her home, you might have, I should think.’ ‘It is not his fault: he did not tempt me,
papa! I came.’ ‘If you wished the marriage broken off,
why didn’t you say so plainly? If you never intended to marry, why could you not leave
her alone? Upon my soul, it grates me to the heart to be obliged to think so ill of a man
I thought my friend!’ Knight, soul-sick and weary of his life, did
not arouse himself to utter a word in reply. How should he defend himself when his defence
was the accusation of Elfride? On that account he felt a miserable satisfaction in letting
her father go on thinking and speaking wrongfully. It was a faint ray of pleasure straying into
the great gloominess of his brain to think that the vicar might never know but that he,
as her lover, tempted her away, which seemed to be the form Mr. Swancourt’s misapprehension
had taken. ‘Now, are you coming?’ said Mr. Swancourt
to her again. He took her unresisting hand, drew it within his arm, and led her down the
stairs. Knight’s eyes followed her, the last moment begetting in him a frantic hope
that she would turn her head. She passed on, and never looked back. He heard the door open—close again. The
wheels of a cab grazed the kerbstone, a murmured direction followed. The door was slammed together,
the wheels moved, and they rolled away. From that hour of her reappearance a dreadful
conflict raged within the breast of Henry Knight. His instinct, emotion, affectiveness—or
whatever it may be called—urged him to stand forward, seize upon Elfride, and be her cherisher
and protector through life. Then came the devastating thought that Elfride’s childlike,
unreasoning, and indiscreet act in flying to him only proved that the proprieties must
be a dead letter with her; that the unreserve, which was really artlessness without ballast,
meant indifference to decorum; and what so likely as that such a woman had been deceived
in the past? He said to himself, in a mood of the bitterest cynicism: ‘The suspicious
discreet woman who imagines dark and evil things of all her fellow-creatures is far
too shrewd to be deluded by man: trusting beings like Elfride are the women who fall.’ Hours and days went by, and Knight remained
inactive. Lengthening time, which made fainter the heart-awakening power of her presence,
strengthened the mental ability to reason her down. Elfride loved him, he knew, and
he could not leave off loving her but marry her he would not. If she could but be again
his own Elfride—the woman she had seemed to be—but that woman was dead and buried,
and he knew her no more! And how could he marry this Elfride, one who, if he had originally
seen her as she was, would have been barely an interesting pitiable acquaintance in his
eyes—no more? It cankered his heart to think he was confronted
by the closest instance of a worse state of things than any he had assumed in the pleasant
social philosophy and satire of his essays. The moral rightness of this man’s life was
worthy of all praise; but in spite of some intellectual acumen, Knight had in him a modicum
of that wrongheadedness which is mostly found in scrupulously honest people. With him, truth
seemed too clean and pure an abstraction to be so hopelessly churned in with error as
practical persons find it. Having now seen himself mistaken in supposing Elfride to be
peerless, nothing on earth could make him believe she was not so very bad after all. He lingered in town a fortnight, doing little
else than vibrate between passion and opinions. One idea remained intact—that it was better
Elfride and himself should not meet. When he surveyed the volumes on his shelves—few
of which had been opened since Elfride first took possession of his heart—their untouched
and orderly arrangement reproached him as an apostate from the old faith of his youth
and early manhood. He had deserted those never-failing friends, so they seemed to say, for an unstable
delight in a ductile woman, which had ended all in bitterness. The spirit of self-denial,
verging on asceticism, which had ever animated Knight in old times, announced itself as having
departed with the birth of love, with it having gone the self-respect which had compensated
for the lack of self-gratification. Poor little Elfride, instead of holding, as formerly,
a place in his religion, began to assume the hue of a temptation. Perhaps it was human
and correctly natural that Knight never once thought whether he did not owe her a little
sacrifice for her unchary devotion in saving his life. With a consciousness of having thus, like
Antony, kissed away kingdoms and provinces, he next considered how he had revealed his
higher secrets and intentions to her, an unreserve he would never have allowed himself with any
man living. How was it that he had not been able to refrain from telling her of adumbrations
heretofore locked in the closest strongholds of his mind? Knight’s was a robust intellect, which could
escape outside the atmosphere of heart, and perceive that his own love, as well as other
people’s, could be reduced by change of scene and circumstances. At the same time
the perception was a superimposed sorrow: ‘O last regret, regret can die!’
But being convinced that the death of this regret was the best thing for him, he did
not long shrink from attempting it. He closed his chambers, suspended his connection with
editors, and left London for the Continent. Here we will leave him to wander without purpose,
beyond the nominal one of encouraging obliviousness of Elfride. Chapter XXXVI
‘The pennie’s the jewel that beautifies a’.’
‘I can’t think what’s coming to these St. Launce’s people at all at all.’ ‘With their “How-d’ye-do’s,” do
you mean?’ ‘Ay, with their “How-d’ye-do’s,”
and shaking of hands, asking me in, and tender inquiries for you, John.’ These words formed part of a conversation
between John Smith and his wife on a Saturday evening in the spring which followed Knight’s
departure from England. Stephen had long since returned to India; and the persevering couple
themselves had migrated from Lord Luxellian’s park at Endelstow to a comfortable roadside
dwelling about a mile out of St. Launce’s, where John had opened a small stone and slate
yard in his own name. ‘When we came here six months ago,’ continued
Mrs. Smith, ‘though I had paid ready money so many years in the town, my friskier shopkeepers
would only speak over the counter. Meet ‘em in the street half-an-hour after, and they’d
treat me with staring ignorance of my face.’ ‘Look through ye as through a glass winder?’ ‘Yes, the brazen ones would. The quiet and
cool ones would glance over the top of my head, past my side, over my shoulder, but
never meet my eye. The gentle-modest would turn their faces south if I were coming east,
flit down a passage if I were about to halve the pavement with them. There was the spruce
young bookseller would play the same tricks; the butcher’s daughters; the upholsterer’s
young men. Hand in glove when doing business out of sight with you; but caring nothing
for a’ old woman when playing the genteel away from all signs of their trade.’ ‘True enough, Maria.’ ‘Well, to-day ‘tis all different. I’d
no sooner got to market than Mrs. Joakes rushed up to me in the eyes of the town and said,
“My dear Mrs. Smith, now you must be tired with your walk! Come in and have some lunch!
I insist upon it; knowing you so many years as I have! Don’t you remember when we used
to go looking for owls’ feathers together in the Castle ruins?” There’s no knowing
what you may need, so I answered the woman civilly. I hadn’t got to the corner before
that thriving young lawyer, Sweet, who’s quite the dandy, ran after me out of breath.
“Mrs. Smith,” he says, “excuse my rudeness, but there’s a bramble on the tail of your
dress, which you’ve dragged in from the country; allow me to pull it off for you.”
If you’ll believe me, this was in the very front of the Town Hall. What’s the meaning
of such sudden love for a’ old woman?’ ‘Can’t say; unless ‘tis repentance.’ ‘Repentance! was there ever such a fool
as you. John? Did anybody ever repent with money in’s pocket and fifty years to live?’ ‘Now, I’ve been thinking too,’ said
John, passing over the query as hardly pertinent, ‘that I’ve had more loving-kindness from
folks to-day than I ever have before since we moved here. Why, old Alderman Tope walked
out to the middle of the street where I was, to shake hands with me—so ‘a did. Having
on my working clothes, I thought ‘twas odd. Ay, and there was young Werrington.’ ‘Who’s he?’ ‘Why, the man in Hill Street, who plays
and sells flutes, trumpets, and fiddles, and grand pehanners. He was talking to Egloskerry,
that very small bachelor-man with money in the funds. I was going by, I’m sure, without
thinking or expecting a nod from men of that glib kidney when in my working clothes——’ ‘You always will go poking into town in
your working clothes. Beg you to change how I will, ‘tis no use.’ ‘Well, however, I was in my working clothes.
Werrington saw me. “Ah, Mr. Smith! a fine morning; excellent weather for building,”
says he, out as loud and friendly as if I’d met him in some deep hollow, where he could
get nobody else to speak to at all. ‘Twas odd: for Werrington is one of the very ringleaders
of the fast class.’ At that moment a tap came to the door. The
door was immediately opened by Mrs. Smith in person. ‘You’ll excuse us, I’m sure, Mrs. Smith,
but this beautiful spring weather was too much for us. Yes, and we could stay in no
longer; and I took Mrs. Trewen upon my arm directly we’d had a cup of tea, and out
we came. And seeing your beautiful crocuses in such a bloom, we’ve taken the liberty
to enter. We’ll step round the garden, if you don’t mind.’ ‘Not at all,’ said Mrs. Smith; and they
walked round the garden. She lifted her hands in amazement directly their backs were turned.
‘Goodness send us grace!’ ‘Who be they?’ said her husband. ‘Actually Mr. Trewen, the bank-manager,
and his wife.’ John Smith, staggered in mind, went out of
doors and looked over the garden gate, to collect his ideas. He had not been there two
minutes when wheels were heard, and a carriage and pair rolled along the road. A distinguished-looking
lady, with the demeanour of a duchess, reclined within. When opposite Smith’s gate she turned
her head, and instantly commanded the coachman to stop. ‘Ah, Mr. Smith, I am glad to see you looking
so well. I could not help stopping a moment to congratulate you and Mrs. Smith upon the
happiness you must enjoy. Joseph, you may drive on.’ And the carriage rolled away towards St. Launce’s. Out rushed Mrs. Smith from behind a laurel-bush,
where she had stood pondering. ‘Just going to touch my hat to her,’ said
John; ‘just for all the world as I would have to poor Lady Luxellian years ago.’ ‘Lord! who is she?’ ‘The public-house woman—what’s her name?
Mrs.—Mrs.—at the Falcon.’ ‘Public-house woman. The clumsiness of the
Smith family! You MIGHT say the landlady of the Falcon Hotel, since we are in for politeness.
The people are ridiculous enough, but give them their due.’ The possibility is that Mrs. Smith was getting
mollified, in spite of herself, by these remarkably friendly phenomena among the people of St.
Launce’s. And in justice to them it was quite desirable that she should do so. The
interest which the unpractised ones of this town expressed so grotesquely was genuine
of its kind, and equal in intrinsic worth to the more polished smiles of larger communities. By this time Mr. and Mrs. Trewen were returning
from the garden. ‘I’ll ask ‘em flat,’ whispered John
to his wife. ‘I’ll say, “We be in a fog—you’ll excuse my asking a question,
Mr. and Mrs. Trewen. How is it you all be so friendly to-day?” Hey? ‘Twould sound
right and sensible, wouldn’t it?’ ‘Not a word! Good mercy, when will the man
have manners!’ ‘It must be a proud moment for you, I am
sure, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to have a son so celebrated,’ said the bank-manager advancing. ‘Ah, ‘tis Stephen—I knew it!’ said
Mrs. Smith triumphantly to herself. ‘We don’t know particulars,’ said John. ‘Not know!’ ‘No.’ ‘Why, ‘tis all over town. Our worthy Mayor
alluded to it in a speech at the dinner last night of the Every-Man-his-own-Maker Club.’ ‘And what about Stephen?’ urged Mrs. Smith. ‘Why, your son has been feted by deputy-governors
and Parsee princes and nobody-knows-who in India; is hand in glove with nabobs, and is
to design a large palace, and cathedral, and hospitals, colleges, halls, and fortifications,
by the general consent of the ruling powers, Christian and Pagan alike.’ ‘’Twas sure to come to the boy,’ said
Mr. Smith unassumingly. ‘’Tis in yesterday’s St. Launce’s
Chronicle; and our worthy Mayor in the chair introduced the subject into his speech last
night in a masterly manner.’ ‘’Twas very good of the worthy Mayor in
the chair I’m sure,’ said Stephen’s mother. ‘I hope the boy will have the sense
to keep what he’s got; but as for men, they are a simple sex. Some woman will hook him.’ ‘Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the evening closes
in, and we must be going; and remember this, that every Saturday when you come in to market,
you are to make our house as your own. There will be always a tea-cup and saucer for you,
as you know there has been for months, though you may have forgotten it. I’m a plain-speaking
woman, and what I say I mean.’ When the visitors were gone, and the sun had
set, and the moon’s rays were just beginning to assert themselves upon the walls of the
dwelling, John Smith and his wife sat dawn to the newspaper they had hastily procured
from the town. And when the reading was done, they considered how best to meet the new social
requirements settling upon them, which Mrs. Smith considered could be done by new furniture
and house enlargement alone. ‘And, John, mind one thing,’ she said
in conclusion. ‘In writing to Stephen, never by any means mention the name of Elfride Swancourt
again. We’ve left the place, and know no more about her except by hearsay. He seems
to be getting free of her, and glad am I for it. It was a cloudy hour for him when he first
set eyes upon the girl. That family’s been no good to him, first or last; so let them
keep their blood to themselves if they want to. He thinks of her, I know, but not so hopelessly.
So don’t try to know anything about her, and we can’t answer his questions. She may
die out of his mind then.’ ‘That shall be it,’ said John. Chapter XXXVII
‘After many days.’ Knight roamed south, under colour of studying
Continental antiquities. He paced the lofty aisles of Amiens, loitered
by Ardennes Abbey, climbed into the strange towers of Laon, analyzed Noyon and Rheims.
Then he went to Chartres, and examined its scaly spires and quaint carving then he idled
about Coutances. He rowed beneath the base of Mont St. Michel, and caught the varied
skyline of the crumbling edifices encrusting it. St. Ouen’s, Rouen, knew him for days;
so did Vezelay, Sens, and many a hallowed monument besides. Abandoning the inspection
of early French art with the same purposeless haste as he had shown in undertaking it, he
went further, and lingered about Ferrara, Padua, and Pisa. Satiated with mediaevalism,
he tried the Roman Forum. Next he observed moonlight and starlight effects by the bay
of Naples. He turned to Austria, became enervated and depressed on Hungarian and Bohemian plains,
and was refreshed again by breezes on the declivities of the Carpathians. Then he found himself in Greece. He visited
the plain of Marathon, and strove to imagine the Persian defeat; to Mars Hill, to picture
St. Paul addressing the ancient Athenians; to Thermopylae and Salamis, to run through
the facts and traditions of the Second Invasion—the result of his endeavours being more or less
chaotic. Knight grew as weary of these places as of all others. Then he felt the shock of
an earthquake in the Ionian Islands, and went to Venice. Here he shot in gondolas up and
down the winding thoroughfare of the Grand Canal, and loitered on calle and piazza at
night, when the lagunes were undisturbed by a ripple, and no sound was to be heard but
the stroke of the midnight clock. Afterwards he remained for weeks in the museums, galleries,
and libraries of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris; and thence came home. Time thus rolls us on to a February afternoon,
divided by fifteen months from the parting of Elfride and her lover in the brown stubble
field towards the sea. Two men obviously not Londoners, and with
a touch of foreignness in their look, met by accident on one of the gravel walks leading
across Hyde Park. The younger, more given to looking about him than his fellow, saw
and noticed the approach of his senior some time before the latter had raised his eyes
from the ground, upon which they were bent in an abstracted gaze that seemed habitual
with him. ‘Mr. Knight—indeed it is!’ exclaimed
the younger man. ‘Ah, Stephen Smith!’ said Knight. Simultaneous operations might now have been
observed progressing in both, the result being that an expression less frank and impulsive
than the first took possession of their features. It was manifest that the next words uttered
were a superficial covering to constraint on both sides. ‘Have you been in England long?’ said
Knight. ‘Only two days,’ said Smith. ‘India ever since?’ ‘Nearly ever since.’ ‘They were making a fuss about you at St.
Launce’s last year. I fancy I saw something of the sort in the papers.’ ‘Yes; I believe something was said about
me.’ ‘I must congratulate you on your achievements.’ ‘Thanks, but they are nothing very extraordinary.
A natural professional progress where there was no opposition.’ There followed that want of words which will
always assert itself between nominal friends who find they have ceased to be real ones,
and have not yet sunk to the level of mere acquaintance. Each looked up and down the
Park. Knight may possibly have borne in mind during the intervening months Stephen’s
manner towards him the last time they had met, and may have encouraged his former interest
in Stephen’s welfare to die out of him as misplaced. Stephen certainly was full of the
feelings begotten by the belief that Knight had taken away the woman he loved so well. Stephen Smith then asked a question, adopting
a certain recklessness of manner and tone to hide, if possible, the fact that the subject
was a much greater one to him than his friend had ever supposed. ‘Are you married?’ ‘I am not.’ Knight spoke in an indescribable tone of bitterness
that was almost moroseness. ‘And I never shall be,’ he added decisively.
‘Are you?’ ‘No,’ said Stephen, sadly and quietly,
like a man in a sick-room. Totally ignorant whether or not Knight knew of his own previous
claims upon Elfride, he yet resolved to hazard a few more words upon the topic which had
an aching fascination for him even now. ‘Then your engagement to Miss Swancourt
came to nothing,’ he said. ‘You remember I met you with her once?’ Stephen’s voice gave way a little here,
in defiance of his firmest will to the contrary. Indian affairs had not yet lowered those emotions
down to the point of control. ‘It was broken off,’ came quickly from
Knight. ‘Engagements to marry often end like that—for better or for worse.’ ‘Yes; so they do. And what have you been
doing lately?’ ‘Doing? Nothing.’ ‘Where have you been?’ ‘I can hardly tell you. In the main, going
about Europe; and it may perhaps interest you to know that I have been attempting the
serious study of Continental art of the Middle Ages. My notes on each example I visited are
at your service. They are of no use to me.’ ‘I shall be glad with them….Oh, travelling
far and near!’ ‘Not far,’ said Knight, with moody carelessness.
‘You know, I daresay, that sheep occasionally become giddy—hydatids in the head, ‘tis
called, in which their brains become eaten up, and the animal exhibits the strange peculiarity
of walking round and round in a circle continually. I have travelled just in the same way—round
and round like a giddy ram.’ The reckless, bitter, and rambling style in
which Knight talked, as if rather to vent his images than to convey any ideas to Stephen,
struck the young man painfully. His former friend’s days had become cankered in some
way: Knight was a changed man. He himself had changed much, but not as Knight had changed. ‘Yesterday I came home,’ continued Knight,
‘without having, to the best of my belief, imbibed half-a-dozen ideas worth retaining.’ ‘You out-Hamlet Hamlet in morbidness of
mood,’ said Stephen, with regretful frankness. Knight made no reply. ‘Do you know,’ Stephen continued, ‘I
could almost have sworn that you would be married before this time, from what I saw?’ Knight’s face grew harder. ‘Could you?’
he said. Stephen was powerless to forsake the depressing,
luring subject. ‘Yes; and I simply wonder at it.’ ‘Whom did you expect me to marry?’ ‘Her I saw you with.’ ‘Thank you for that wonder.’ ‘Did she jilt you?’ ‘Smith, now one word to you,’ Knight returned
steadily. ‘Don’t you ever question me on that subject. I have a reason for making
this request, mind. And if you do question me, you will not get an answer.’ ‘Oh, I don’t for a moment wish to ask
what is unpleasant to you—not I. I had a momentary feeling that I should like to explain
something on my side, and hear a similar explanation on yours. But let it go, let it go, by all
means.’ ‘What would you explain?’ ‘I lost the woman I was going to marry:
you have not married as you intended. We might have compared notes.’ ‘I have never asked you a word about your
case.’ ‘I know that.’ ‘And the inference is obvious.’ ‘Quite so.’ ‘The truth is, Stephen, I have doggedly
resolved never to allude to the matter—for which I have a very good reason.’ ‘Doubtless. As good a reason as you had
for not marrying her.’ ‘You talk insidiously. I had a good one—a
miserably good one!’ Smith’s anxiety urged him to venture one
more question. ‘Did she not love you enough?’ He drew
his breath in a slow and attenuated stream, as he waited in timorous hope for the answer. ‘Stephen, you rather strain ordinary courtesy
in pressing questions of that kind after what I have said. I cannot understand you at all.
I must go on now.’ ‘Why, good God!’ exclaimed Stephen passionately,
‘you talk as if you hadn’t at all taken her away from anybody who had better claims
to her than you!’ ‘What do you mean by that?’ said Knight,
with a puzzled air. ‘What have you heard?’ ‘Nothing. I too must go on. Good-day.’ ‘If you will go,’ said Knight, reluctantly
now, ‘you must, I suppose. I am sure I cannot understand why you behave so.’ ‘Nor I why you do. I have always been grateful
to you, and as far as I am concerned we need never have become so estranged as we have.’ ‘And have I ever been anything but well-disposed
towards you, Stephen? Surely you know that I have not! The system of reserve began with
you: you know that.’ ‘No, no! You altogether mistake our position.
You were always from the first reserved to me, though I was confidential to you. That
was, I suppose, the natural issue of our differing positions in life. And when I, the pupil,
became reserved like you, the master, you did not like it. However, I was going to ask
you to come round and see me.’ ‘Where are you staying?’ ‘At the Grosvenor Hotel, Pimlico.’ ‘So am I.’ ‘That’s convenient, not to say odd. Well,
I am detained in London for a day or two; then I am going down to see my father and
mother, who live at St. Launce’s now. Will you see me this evening?’ ‘I may; but I will not promise. I was wishing
to be alone for an hour or two; but I shall know where to find you, at any rate. Good-bye.’ Chapter XXXVIII
‘Jealousy is cruel as the grave.’ Stephen pondered not a little on this meeting
with his old friend and once-beloved exemplar. He was grieved, for amid all the distractions
of his latter years a still small voice of fidelity to Knight had lingered on in him.
Perhaps this staunchness was because Knight ever treated him as a mere disciple—even
to snubbing him sometimes; and had at last, though unwittingly, inflicted upon him the
greatest snub of all, that of taking away his sweetheart. The emotional side of his
constitution was built rather after a feminine than a male model; and that tremendous wound
from Knight’s hand may have tended to keep alive a warmth which solicitousness would
have extinguished altogether. Knight, on his part, was vexed, after they
had parted, that he had not taken Stephen in hand a little after the old manner. Those
words which Smith had let fall concerning somebody having a prior claim to Elfride,
would, if uttered when the man was younger, have provoked such a query as, ‘Come, tell
me all about it, my lad,’ from Knight, and Stephen would straightway have delivered himself
of all he knew on the subject. Stephen the ingenuous boy, though now obliterated
externally by Stephen the contriving man, returned to Knight’s memory vividly that
afternoon. He was at present but a sojourner in London; and after attending to the two
or three matters of business which remained to be done that day, he walked abstractedly
into the gloomy corridors of the British Museum for the half-hour previous to their closing.
That meeting with Smith had reunited the present with the past, closing up the chasm of his
absence from England as if it had never existed, until the final circumstances of his previous
time of residence in London formed but a yesterday to the circumstances now. The conflict that
then had raged in him concerning Elfride Swancourt revived, strengthened by its sleep. Indeed,
in those many months of absence, though quelling the intention to make her his wife, he had
never forgotten that she was the type of woman adapted to his nature; and instead of trying
to obliterate thoughts of her altogether, he had grown to regard them as an infirmity
it was necessary to tolerate. Knight returned to his hotel much earlier
in the evening than he would have done in the ordinary course of things. He did not
care to think whether this arose from a friendly wish to close the gap that had slowly been
widening between himself and his earliest acquaintance, or from a hankering desire to
hear the meaning of the dark oracles Stephen had hastily pronounced, betokening that he
knew something more of Elfride than Knight had supposed. He made a hasty dinner, inquired for Smith,
and soon was ushered into the young man’s presence, whom he found sitting in front of
a comfortable fire, beside a table spread with a few scientific periodicals and art
reviews. ‘I have come to you, after all,’ said
Knight. ‘My manner was odd this morning, and it seemed desirable to call; but that
you had too much sense to notice, Stephen, I know. Put it down to my wanderings in France
and Italy.’ ‘Don’t say another word, but sit down.
I am only too glad to see you again.’ Stephen would hardly have cared to tell Knight
just then that the minute before Knight was announced he had been reading over some old
letters of Elfride’s. They were not many; and until to-night had been sealed up, and
stowed away in a corner of his leather trunk, with a few other mementoes and relics which
had accompanied him in his travels. The familiar sights and sounds of London, the meeting with
his friend, had with him also revived that sense of abiding continuity with regard to
Elfride and love which his absence at the other side of the world had to some extent
suspended, though never ruptured. He at first intended only to look over these letters on
the outside; then he read one; then another; until the whole was thus re-used as a stimulus
to sad memories. He folded them away again, placed them in his pocket, and instead of
going on with an examination into the state of the artistic world, had remained musing
on the strange circumstance that he had returned to find Knight not the husband of Elfride
after all. The possibility of any given gratification
begets a cumulative sense of its necessity. Stephen gave the rein to his imagination,
and felt more intensely than he had felt for many months that, without Elfride, his life
would never be any great pleasure to himself, or honour to his Maker. They sat by the fire, chatting on external
and random subjects, neither caring to be the first to approach the matter each most
longed to discuss. On the table with the periodicals lay two or three pocket-books, one of them
being open. Knight seeing from the exposed page that the contents were sketches only,
began turning the leaves over carelessly with his finger. When, some time later, Stephen
was out of the room, Knight proceeded to pass the interval by looking at the sketches more
carefully. The first crude ideas, pertaining to dwellings
of all kinds, were roughly outlined on the different pages. Antiquities had been copied;
fragments of Indian columns, colossal statues, and outlandish ornament from the temples of
Elephanta and Kenneri, were carelessly intruded upon by outlines of modern doors, windows,
roofs, cooking-stoves, and household furniture; everything, in short, which comes within the
range of a practising architect’s experience, who travels with his eyes open. Among these
occasionally appeared rough delineations of mediaeval subjects for carving or illumination—heads
of Virgins, Saints, and Prophets. Stephen was not professedly a free-hand draughtsman,
but he drew the human figure with correctness and skill. In its numerous repetitions on
the sides and edges of the leaves, Knight began to notice a peculiarity. All the feminine
saints had one type of feature. There were large nimbi and small nimbi about their drooping
heads, but the face was always the same. That profile—how well Knight knew that profile! Had there been but one specimen of the familiar
countenance, he might have passed over the resemblance as accidental; but a repetition
meant more. Knight thought anew of Smith’s hasty words earlier in the day, and looked
at the sketches again and again. On the young man’s entry, Knight said with
palpable agitation— ‘Stephen, who are those intended for?’ Stephen looked over the book with utter unconcern,
‘Saints and angels, done in my leisure moments. They were intended as designs for the stained
glass of an English church.’ ‘But whom do you idealize by that type of
woman you always adopt for the Virgin?’ ‘Nobody.’ And then a thought raced along Stephen’s
mind and he looked up at his friend. The truth is, Stephen’s introduction of
Elfride’s lineaments had been so unconscious that he had not at first understood his companion’s
drift. The hand, like the tongue, easily acquires the trick of repetition by rote, without calling
in the mind to assist at all; and this had been the case here. Young men who cannot write
verses about their Loves generally take to portraying them, and in the early days of
his attachment Smith had never been weary of outlining Elfride. The lay-figure of Stephen’s
sketches now initiated an adjustment of many things. Knight had recognized her. The opportunity
of comparing notes had come unsought. ‘Elfride Swancourt, to whom I was engaged,’
he said quietly. ‘Stephen!’ ‘I know what you mean by speaking like that.’ ‘Was it Elfride? YOU the man, Stephen?’ ‘Yes; and you are thinking why did I conceal
the fact from you that time at Endelstow, are you not?’ ‘Yes, and more—more.’ ‘I did it for the best; blame me if you
will; I did it for the best. And now say how could I be with you afterwards as I had been
before?’ ‘I don’t know at all; I can’t say.’ Knight remained fixed in thought, and once
he murmured— ‘I had a suspicion this afternoon that there
might be some such meaning in your words about my taking her away. But I dismissed it. How
came you to know her?’ he presently asked, in almost a peremptory tone. ‘I went down about the church; years ago
now.’ ‘When you were with Hewby, of course, of
course. Well, I can’t understand it.’ His tones rose. ‘I don’t know what to
say, your hoodwinking me like this for so long!’ ‘I don’t see that I have hoodwinked you
at all.’ ‘Yes, yes, but’—— Knight arose from his seat, and began pacing
up and down the room. His face was markedly pale, and his voice perturbed, as he said— ‘You did not act as I should have acted
towards you under those circumstances. I feel it deeply; and I tell you plainly, I shall
never forget it!’ ‘What?’ ‘Your behaviour at that meeting in the family
vault, when I told you we were going to be married. Deception, dishonesty, everywhere;
all the world’s of a piece!’ Stephen did not much like this misconstruction
of his motives, even though it was but the hasty conclusion of a friend disturbed by
emotion. ‘I could do no otherwise than I did, with
due regard to her,’ he said stiffly. ‘Indeed!’ said Knight, in the bitterest
tone of reproach. ‘Nor could you with due regard to her have married her, I suppose!
I have hoped—longed—that HE, who turns out to be YOU, would ultimately have done
that.’ ‘I am much obliged to you for that hope.
But you talk very mysteriously. I think I had about the best reason anybody could have
had for not doing that.’ ‘Oh, what reason was it?’ ‘That I could not.’ ‘You ought to have made an opportunity;
you ought to do so now, in bare justice to her, Stephen!’ cried Knight, carried beyond
himself. ‘That you know very well, and it hurts and wounds me more than you dream to
find you never have tried to make any reparation to a woman of that kind—so trusting, so
apt to be run away with by her feelings—poor little fool, so much the worse for her!’ ‘Why, you talk like a madman! You took her
away from me, did you not?’ ‘Picking up what another throws down can
scarcely be called “taking away.” However, we shall not agree too well upon that subject,
so we had better part.’ ‘But I am quite certain you misapprehend
something most grievously,’ said Stephen, shaken to the bottom of his heart. ‘What
have I done; tell me? I have lost Elfride, but is that such a sin?’ ‘Was it her doing, or yours?’ ‘Was what?’ ‘That you parted.’ ‘I will tell you honestly. It was hers entirely,
entirely.’ ‘What was her reason?’ ‘I can hardly say. But I’ll tell the story
without reserve.’ Stephen until to-day had unhesitatingly held
that she grew tired of him and turned to Knight; but he did not like to advance the statement
now, or even to think the thought. To fancy otherwise accorded better with the hope to
which Knight’s estrangement had given birth: that love for his friend was not the direct
cause, but a result of her suspension of love for himself. ‘Such a matter must not be allowed to breed
discord between us,’ Knight returned, relapsing into a manner which concealed all his true
feeling, as if confidence now was intolerable. ‘I do see that your reticence towards me
in the vault may have been dictated by prudential considerations.’ He concluded artificially,
‘It was a strange thing altogether; but not of much importance, I suppose, at this
distance of time; and it does not concern me now, though I don’t mind hearing your
story.’ These words from Knight, uttered with such
an air of renunciation and apparent indifference, prompted Smith to speak on—perhaps with
a little complacency—of his old secret engagement to Elfride. He told the details of its origin,
and the peremptory words and actions of her father to extinguish their love. Knight persevered in the tone and manner of
a disinterested outsider. It had become more than ever imperative to screen his emotions
from Stephen’s eye; the young man would otherwise be less frank, and their meeting
would be again embittered. What was the use of untoward candour? Stephen had now arrived at the point in his
ingenuous narrative where he left the vicarage because of her father’s manner. Knight’s
interest increased. Their love seemed so innocent and childlike thus far. ‘It is a nice point in casuistry,’ he
observed, ‘to decide whether you were culpable or not in not telling Swancourt that your
friends were parishioners of his. It was only human nature to hold your tongue under the
circumstances. Well, what was the result of your dismissal by him?’ ‘That we agreed to be secretly faithful.
And to insure this we thought we would marry.’ Knight’s suspense and agitation rose higher
when Stephen entered upon this phase of the subject. ‘Do you mind telling on?’ he said, steadying
his manner of speech. ‘Oh, not at all.’ Then Stephen gave in full the particulars
of the meeting with Elfride at the railway station; the necessity they were under of
going to London, unless the ceremony were to be postponed. The long journey of the afternoon
and evening; her timidity and revulsion of feeling; its culmination on reaching London;
the crossing over to the down-platform and their immediate departure again, solely in
obedience to her wish; the journey all night; their anxious watching for the dawn; their
arrival at St. Launce’s at last—were detailed. And he told how a village woman named Jethway
was the only person who recognized them, either going or coming; and how dreadfully this terrified
Elfride. He told how he waited in the fields whilst this then reproachful sweetheart went
for her pony, and how the last kiss he ever gave her was given a mile out of the town,
on the way to Endelstow. These things Stephen related with a will.
He believed that in doing so he established word by word the reasonableness of his claim
to Elfride. ‘Curse her! curse that woman!—that miserable
letter that parted us! O God!’ Knight began pacing the room again, and uttered
this at further end. ‘What did you say?’ said Stephen, turning
round. ‘Say? Did I say anything? Oh, I was merely
thinking about your story, and the oddness of my having a fancy for the same woman afterwards.
And that now I—I have forgotten her almost; and neither of us care about her, except just
as a friend, you know, eh?’ Knight still continued at the further end
of the room, somewhat in shadow. ‘Exactly,’ said Stephen, inwardly exultant,
for he was really deceived by Knight’s off-hand manner. Yet he was deceived less by the completeness
of Knight’s disguise than by the persuasive power which lay in the fact that Knight had
never before deceived him in anything. So this supposition that his companion had ceased
to love Elfride was an enormous lightening of the weight which had turned the scale against
him. ‘Admitting that Elfride COULD love another
man after you,’ said the elder, under the same varnish of careless criticism, ‘she
was none the worse for that experience.’ ‘The worse? Of course she was none the worse.’ ‘Did you ever think it a wild and thoughtless
thing for her to do?’ ‘Indeed, I never did,’ said Stephen. ‘I
persuaded her. She saw no harm in it until she decided to return, nor did I; nor was
there, except to the extent of indiscretion.’ ‘Directly she thought it was wrong she would
go no further?’ ‘That was it. I had just begun to think
it wrong too.’ ‘Such a childish escapade might have been
misrepresented by any evil-disposed person, might it not?’ ‘It might; but I never heard that it was.
Nobody who really knew all the circumstances would have done otherwise than smile. If all
the world had known it, Elfride would still have remained the only one who thought her
action a sin. Poor child, she always persisted in thinking so, and was frightened more than
enough.’ ‘Stephen, do you love her now?’ ‘Well, I like her; I always shall, you know,’
he said evasively, and with all the strategy love suggested. ‘But I have not seen her
for so long that I can hardly be expected to love her. Do you love her still?’ ‘How shall I answer without being ashamed?
What fickle beings we men are, Stephen! Men may love strongest for a while, but women
love longest. I used to love her—in my way, you know.’ ‘Yes, I understand. Ah, and I used to love
her in my way. In fact, I loved her a good deal at one time; but travel has a tendency
to obliterate early fancies.’ ‘It has—it has, truly.’ Perhaps the most extraordinary feature in
this conversation was the circumstance that, though each interlocutor had at first his
suspicions of the other’s abiding passion awakened by several little acts, neither would
allow himself to see that his friend might now be speaking deceitfully as well as he. ‘Stephen.’ resumed Knight, ‘now that
matters are smooth between us, I think I must leave you. You won’t mind my hurrying off
to my quarters?’ ‘You’ll stay to some sort of supper surely?
didn’t you come to dinner!’ ‘You must really excuse me this once.’ ‘Then you’ll drop in to breakfast to-morrow.’ ‘I shall be rather pressed for time.’ ‘An early breakfast, which shall interfere
with nothing?’ ‘I’ll come,’ said Knight, with as much
readiness as it was possible to graft upon a huge stock of reluctance. ‘Yes, early;
eight o’clock say, as we are under the same roof.’ ‘Any time you like. Eight it shall be.’ And Knight left him. To wear a mask, to dissemble
his feelings as he had in their late miserable conversation, was such torture that he could
support it no longer. It was the first time in Knight’s life that he had ever been so
entirely the player of a part. And the man he had thus deceived was Stephen, who had
docilely looked up to him from youth as a superior of unblemished integrity. He went to bed, and allowed the fever of his
excitement to rage uncontrolled. Stephen—it was only he who was the rival—only Stephen!
There was an anti-climax of absurdity which Knight, wretched and conscience-stricken as
he was, could not help recognizing. Stephen was but a boy to him. Where the great grief
lay was in perceiving that the very innocence of Elfride in reading her little fault as
one so grave was what had fatally misled him. Had Elfride, with any degree of coolness,
asserted that she had done no harm, the poisonous breath of the dead Mrs. Jethway would have
been inoperative. Why did he not make his little docile girl tell more? If on that subject
he had only exercised the imperativeness customary with him on others, all might have been revealed.
It smote his heart like a switch when he remembered how gently she had borne his scourging speeches,
never answering him with a single reproach, only assuring him of her unbounded love. Knight blessed Elfride for her sweetness,
and forgot her fault. He pictured with a vivid fancy those fair summer scenes with her. He
again saw her as at their first meeting, timid at speaking, yet in her eagerness to be explanatory
borne forward almost against her will. How she would wait for him in green places, without
showing any of the ordinary womanly affectations of indifference! How proud she was to be seen
walking with him, bearing legibly in her eyes the thought that he was the greatest genius
in the world! He formed a resolution; and after that could
make pretence of slumber no longer. Rising and dressing himself, he sat down and waited
for day. That night Stephen was restless too. Not because
of the unwontedness of a return to English scenery; not because he was about to meet
his parents, and settle down for awhile to English cottage life. He was indulging in
dreams, and for the nonce the warehouses of Bombay and the plains and forts of Poonah
were but a shadow’s shadow. His dream was based on this one atom of fact: Elfride and
Knight had become separated, and their engagement was as if it had never been. Their rupture
must have occurred soon after Stephen’s discovery of the fact of their union; and,
Stephen went on to think, what so probable as that a return of her errant affection to
himself was the cause? Stephen’s opinions in this matter were those
of a lover, and not the balanced judgment of an unbiassed spectator. His naturally sanguine
spirit built hope upon hope, till scarcely a doubt remained in his mind that her lingering
tenderness for him had in some way been perceived by Knight, and had provoked their parting. To go and see Elfride was the suggestion of
impulses it was impossible to withstand. At any rate, to run down from St. Launce’s
to Castle Poterel, a distance of less than twenty miles, and glide like a ghost about
their old haunts, making stealthy inquiries about her, would be a fascinating way of passing
the first spare hours after reaching home on the day after the morrow. He was now a richer man than heretofore, standing
on his own bottom; and the definite position in which he had rooted himself nullified old
local distinctions. He had become illustrious, even sanguine clarus, judging from the tone
of the worthy Mayor of St. Launce’s. Chapter XXXIX
‘Each to the loved one’s side.’ The friends and rivals breakfasted together
the next morning. Not a word was said on either side upon the matter discussed the previous
evening so glibly and so hollowly. Stephen was absorbed the greater part of the time
in wishing he were not forced to stay in town yet another day. ‘I don’t intend to leave for St. Launce’s
till to-morrow, as you know,’ he said to Knight at the end of the meal. ‘What are
you going to do with yourself to-day?’ ‘I have an engagement just before ten,’
said Knight deliberately; ‘and after that time I must call upon two or three people.’ ‘I’ll look for you this evening,’ said
Stephen. ‘Yes, do. You may as well come and dine
with me; that is, if we can meet. I may not sleep in London to-night; in fact, I am absolutely
unsettled as to my movements yet. However, the first thing I am going to do is to get
my baggage shifted from this place to Bede’s Inn. Good-bye for the present. I’ll write,
you know, if I can’t meet you.’ It now wanted a quarter to nine o’clock.
When Knight was gone, Stephen felt yet more impatient of the circumstance that another
day would have to drag itself away wearily before he could set out for that spot of earth
whereon a soft thought of him might perhaps be nourished still. On a sudden he admitted
to his mind the possibility that the engagement he was waiting in town to keep might be postponed
without much harm. It was no sooner perceived than attempted.
Looking at his watch, he found it wanted forty minutes to the departure of the ten o’clock
train from Paddington, which left him a surplus quarter of an hour before it would be necessary
to start for the station. Scribbling a hasty note or two—one putting
off the business meeting, another to Knight apologizing for not being able to see him
in the evening—paying his bill, and leaving his heavier luggage to follow him by goods-train,
he jumped into a cab and rattled off to the Great Western Station. Shortly afterwards he took his seat in the
railway carriage. The guard paused on his whistle, to let into
the next compartment to Smith’s a man of whom Stephen had caught but a hasty glimpse
as he ran across the platform at the last moment. Smith sank back into the carriage, stilled
by perplexity. The man was like Knight—astonishingly like him. Was it possible it could be he?
To have got there he must have driven like the wind to Bede’s Inn, and hardly have
alighted before starting again. No, it could not be he; that was not his way of doing things. During the early part of the journey Stephen
Smith’s thoughts busied themselves till his brain seemed swollen. One subject was
concerning his own approaching actions. He was a day earlier than his letter to his parents
had stated, and his arrangement with them had been that they should meet him at Plymouth;
a plan which pleased the worthy couple beyond expression. Once before the same engagement
had been made, which he had then quashed by ante-dating his arrival. This time he would
go right on to Castle Boterel; ramble in that well-known neighbourhood during the evening
and next morning, making inquiries; and return to Plymouth to meet them as arranged—a contrivance
which would leave their cherished project undisturbed, relieving his own impatience
also. At Chippenham there was a little waiting,
and some loosening and attaching of carriages. Stephen looked out. At the same moment another
man’s head emerged from the adjoining window. Each looked in the other’s face. Knight and Stephen confronted one another. ‘You here!’ said the younger man. ‘Yes. It seems that you are too,’ said
Knight, strangely. ‘Yes.’ The selfishness of love and the cruelty of
jealousy were fairly exemplified at this moment. Each of the two men looked at his friend as
he had never looked at him before. Each was TROUBLED at the other’s presence. ‘I thought you said you were not coming
till to-morrow,’ remarked Knight. ‘I did. It was an afterthought to come to-day.
This journey was your engagement, then?’ ‘No, it was not. This is an afterthought
of mine too. I left a note to explain it, and account for my not being able to meet
you this evening as we arranged.’ ‘So did I for you.’ ‘You don’t look well: you did not this
morning.’ ‘I have a headache. You are paler to-day
than you were.’ ‘I, too, have been suffering from headache.
We have to wait here a few minutes, I think.’ They walked up and down the platform, each
one more and more embarrassingly concerned with the awkwardness of his friend’s presence.
They reached the end of the footway, and paused in sheer absent-mindedness. Stephen’s vacant
eyes rested upon the operations of some porters, who were shifting a dark and curious-looking
van from the rear of the train, to shunt another which was between it and the fore part of
the train. This operation having been concluded, the two friends returned to the side of their
carriage. ‘Will you come in here?’ said Knight,
not very warmly. ‘I have my rug and portmanteau and umbrella
with me: it is rather bothering to move now,’ said Stephen reluctantly. ‘Why not you come
here?’ ‘I have my traps too. It is hardly worth
while to shift them, for I shall see you again, you know.’ ‘Oh, yes.’ And each got into his own place. Just at starting,
a man on the platform held up his hands and stopped the train. Stephen looked out to see what was the matter. One of the officials was exclaiming to another,
‘That carriage should have been attached again. Can’t you see it is for the main
line? Quick! What fools there are in the world!’ ‘What a confounded nuisance these stoppages
are!’ exclaimed Knight impatiently, looking out from his compartment. ‘What is it?’ ‘That singular carriage we saw has been
unfastened from our train by mistake, it seems,’ said Stephen. He was watching the process of attaching it.
The van or carriage, which he now recognized as having seen at Paddington before they started,
was rich and solemn rather than gloomy in aspect. It seemed to be quite new, and of
modern design, and its impressive personality attracted the notice of others beside himself.
He beheld it gradually wheeled forward by two men on each side: slower and more sadly
it seemed to approach: then a slight concussion, and they were connected with it, and off again. Stephen sat all the afternoon pondering upon
the reason of Knight’s unexpected reappearance. Was he going as far as Castle Boterel? If
so, he could only have one object in view—a visit to Elfride. And what an idea it seemed! At Plymouth Smith partook of a little refreshment,
and then went round to the side from which the train started for Camelton, the new station
near Castle Boterel and Endelstow. Knight was already there. Stephen walked up and stood beside him without
speaking. Two men at this moment crept out from among the wheels of the waiting train. ‘The carriage is light enough,’ said one
in a grim tone. ‘Light as vanity; full of nothing.’ ‘Nothing in size, but a good deal in signification,’
said the other, a man of brighter mind and manners. Smith then perceived that to their train was
attached that same carriage of grand and dark aspect which had haunted them all the way
from London. ‘You are going on, I suppose?’ said Knight,
turning to Stephen, after idly looking at the same object. ‘Yes.’ ‘We may as well travel together for the
remaining distance, may we not?’ ‘Certainly we will;’ and they both entered
the same door. Evening drew on apace. It chanced to be the
eve of St. Valentine’s—that bishop of blessed memory to youthful lovers—and the
sun shone low under the rim of a thick hard cloud, decorating the eminences of the landscape
with crowns of orange fire. As the train changed its direction on a curve, the same rays stretched
in through the window, and coaxed open Knight’s half-closed eyes. ‘You will get out at St. Launce’s, I suppose?’
he murmured. ‘No,’ said Stephen, ‘I am not expected
till to-morrow.’ Knight was silent. ‘And you—are you going to Endelstow?’
said the younger man pointedly. ‘Since you ask, I can do no less than say
I am, Stephen,’ continued Knight slowly, and with more resolution of manner than he
had shown all the day. ‘I am going to Endelstow to see if Elfride Swancourt is still free;
and if so, to ask her to be my wife.’ ‘So am I,’ said Stephen Smith. ‘I think you’ll lose your labour,’ Knight
returned with decision. ‘Naturally you do.’ There was a strong
accent of bitterness in Stephen’s voice. ‘You might have said HOPE instead of THINK,’
he added. ‘I might have done no such thing. I gave
you my opinion. Elfride Swancourt may have loved you once, no doubt, but it was when
she was so young that she hardly knew her own mind.’ ‘Thank you,’ said Stephen laconically.
‘She knew her mind as well as I did. We are the same age. If you hadn’t interfered——’ ‘Don’t say that—don’t say it, Stephen!
How can you make out that I interfered? Be just, please!’ ‘Well,’ said his friend, ‘she was mine
before she was yours—you know that! And it seemed a hard thing to find you had got
her, and that if it had not been for you, all might have turned out well for me.’
Stephen spoke with a swelling heart, and looked out of the window to hide the emotion that
would make itself visible upon his face. ‘It is absurd,’ said Knight in a kinder
tone, ‘for you to look at the matter in that light. What I tell you is for your good.
You naturally do not like to realize the truth—that her liking for you was only a girl’s first
fancy, which has no root ever.’ ‘It is not true!’ said Stephen passionately.
‘It was you put me out. And now you’ll be pushing in again between us, and depriving
me of my chance again! My right, that’s what it is! How ungenerous of you to come
anew and try to take her away from me! When you had won her, I did not interfere; and
you might, I think, Mr. Knight, do by me as I did by you!’ ‘Don’t “Mr.” me; you are as well in
the world as I am now.’ ‘First love is deepest; and that was mine.’ ‘Who told you that?’ said Knight superciliously. ‘I had her first love. And it was through
me that you and she parted. I can guess that well enough.’ ‘It was. And if I were to explain to you
in what way that operated in parting us, I should convince you that you do quite wrong
in intruding upon her—that, as I said at first, your labour will be lost. I don’t
choose to explain, because the particulars are painful. But if you won’t listen to
me, go on, for Heaven’s sake. I don’t care what you do, my boy.’ ‘You have no right to domineer over me as
you do. Just because, when I was a lad, I was accustomed to look up to you as a master,
and you helped me a little, for which I was grateful to you and have loved you, you assume
too much now, and step in before me. It is cruel—it is unjust—of you to injure me
so!’ Knight showed himself keenly hurt at this.
‘Stephen, those words are untrue and unworthy of any man, and they are unworthy of you.
You know you wrong me. If you have ever profited by any instruction of mine, I am only too
glad to know it. You know it was given ungrudgingly, and that I have never once looked upon it
as making you in any way a debtor to me.’ Stephen’s naturally gentle nature was touched,
and it was in a troubled voice that he said, ‘Yes, yes. I am unjust in that—I own it.’ ‘This is St. Launce’s Station, I think.
Are you going to get out?’ Knight’s manner of returning to the matter
in hand drew Stephen again into himself. ‘No; I told you I was going to Endelstow,’ he
resolutely replied. Knight’s features became impassive, and
he said no more. The train continued rattling on, and Stephen leant back in his corner and
closed his eyes. The yellows of evening had turned to browns, the dusky shades thickened,
and a flying cloud of dust occasionally stroked the window—borne upon a chilling breeze
which blew from the north-east. The previously gilded but now dreary hills began to lose
their daylight aspects of rotundity, and to become black discs vandyked against the sky,
all nature wearing the cloak that six o’clock casts over the landscape at this time of the
year. Stephen started up in bewilderment after a
long stillness, and it was some time before he recollected himself. ‘Well, how real, how real!’ he exclaimed,
brushing his hand across his eyes. ‘What is?’ said Knight. ‘That dream. I fell asleep for a few minutes,
and have had a dream—the most vivid I ever remember.’ He wearily looked out into the gloom. They
were now drawing near to Camelton. The lighting of the lamps was perceptible through the veil
of evening—each flame starting into existence at intervals, and blinking weakly against
the gusts of wind. ‘What did you dream?’ said Knight moodily. ‘Oh, nothing to be told. ‘Twas a sort
of incubus. There is never anything in dreams.’ ‘I hardly supposed there was.’ ‘I know that. However, what I so vividly
dreamt was this, since you would like to hear. It was the brightest of bright mornings at
East Endelstow Church, and you and I stood by the font. Far away in the chancel Lord
Luxellian was standing alone, cold and impassive, and utterly unlike his usual self: but I knew
it was he. Inside the altar rail stood a strange clergyman with his book open. He looked up
and said to Lord Luxellian, “Where’s the bride?” Lord Luxellian said, “There’s
no bride.” At that moment somebody came in at the door, and I knew her to be Lady
Luxellian who died. He turned and said to her, “I thought you were in the vault below
us; but that could have only been a dream of mine. Come on.” Then she came on. And
in brushing between us she chilled me so with cold that I exclaimed, “The life is gone
out of me!” and, in the way of dreams, I awoke. But here we are at Camelton.’ They were slowly entering the station. ‘What are you going to do?’ said Knight.
‘Do you really intend to call on the Swancourts?’ ‘By no means. I am going to make inquiries
first. I shall stay at the Luxellian Arms to-night. You will go right on to Endelstow,
I suppose, at once?’ ‘I can hardly do that at this time of the
day. Perhaps you are not aware that the family—her father, at any rate—is at variance with
me as much as with you. ‘I didn’t know it.’ ‘And that I cannot rush into the house as
an old friend any more than you can. Certainly I have the privileges of a distant relationship,
whatever they may be.’ Knight let down the window, and looked ahead.
‘There are a great many people at the station,’ he said. ‘They seem all to be on the look-out
for us.’ When the train stopped, the half-estranged
friends could perceive by the lamplight that the assemblage of idlers enclosed as a kernel
a group of men in black cloaks. A side gate in the platform railing was open, and outside
this stood a dark vehicle, which they could not at first characterize. Then Knight saw
on its upper part forms against the sky like cedars by night, and knew the vehicle to be
a hearse. Few people were at the carriage doors to meet the passengers—the majority
had congregated at this upper end. Knight and Stephen alighted, and turned for a moment
in the same direction. The sombre van, which had accompanied them
all day from London, now began to reveal that their destination was also its own. It had
been drawn up exactly opposite the open gate. The bystanders all fell back, forming a clear
lane from the gateway to the van, and the men in cloaks entered the latter conveyance. ‘They are labourers, I fancy,’ said Stephen.
‘Ah, it is strange; but I recognize three of them as Endelstow men. Rather remarkable
this.’ Presently they began to come out, two and
two; and under the rays of the lamp they were seen to bear between them a light-coloured
coffin of satin-wood, brightly polished, and without a nail. The eight men took the burden
upon their shoulders, and slowly crossed with it over to the gate. Knight and Stephen went outside, and came
close to the procession as it moved off. A carriage belonging to the cortege turned round
close to a lamp. The rays shone in upon the face of the vicar of Endelstow, Mr. Swancourt—looking
many years older than when they had last seen him. Knight and Stephen involuntarily drew
back. Knight spoke to a bystander. ‘What has Mr.
Swancourt to do with that funeral?’ ‘He is the lady’s father,’ said the
bystander. ‘What lady’s father?’ said Knight, in
a voice so hollow that the man stared at him. ‘The father of the lady in the coffin. She
died in London, you know, and has been brought here by this train. She is to be taken home
to-night, and buried to-morrow.’ Knight stood staring blindly at where the
hearse had been; as if he saw it, or some one, there. Then he turned, and beheld the
lithe form of Stephen bowed down like that of an old man. He took his young friend’s
arm, and led him away from the light. Chapter XL
‘Welcome, proud lady.’ Half an hour has passed. Two miserable men
are wandering in the darkness up the miles of road from Camelton to Endelstow. ‘Has she broken her heart?’ said Henry
Knight. ‘Can it be that I have killed her? I was bitter with her, Stephen, and she has
died! And may God have NO mercy upon me!’ ‘How can you have killed her more than I?’ ‘Why, I went away from her—stole away
almost—and didn’t tell her I should not come again; and at that last meeting I did
not kiss her once, but let her miserably go. I have been a fool—a fool! I wish the most
abject confession of it before crowds of my countrymen could in any way make amends to
my darling for the intense cruelty I have shown her!’ ‘YOUR darling!’ said Stephen, with a sort
of laugh. ‘Any man can say that, I suppose; any man can. I know this, she was MY darling
before she was yours; and after too. If anybody has a right to call her his own, it is I.’ ‘You talk like a man in the dark; which
is what you are. Did she ever do anything for you? Risk her name, for instance, for
you?’ Yes, she did,’ said Stephen emphatically. ‘Not entirely. Did she ever live for you—prove
she could not live without you—laugh and weep for you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Never! Did she ever risk her life for you—no!
My darling did for me.’ ‘Then it was in kindness only. When did
she risk her life for you?’ ‘To save mine on the cliff yonder. The poor
child was with me looking at the approach of the Puffin steamboat, and I slipped down.
We both had a narrow escape. I wish we had died there!’ ‘Ah, but wait,’ Stephen pleaded with wet
eyes. ‘She went on that cliff to see me arrive home: she had promised it. She told
me she would months before. And would she have gone there if she had not cared for me
at all?’ ‘You have an idea that Elfride died for
you, no doubt,’ said Knight, with a mournful sarcasm too nerveless to support itself. ‘Never mind. If we find that—that she
died yours, I’ll say no more ever.’ ‘And if we find she died yours, I’ll say
no more.’ ‘Very well—so it shall be.’ The dark clouds into which the sun had sunk
had begun to drop rain in an increasing volume. ‘Can we wait somewhere here till this shower
is over?’ said Stephen desultorily. ‘As you will. But it is not worth while.
We’ll hear the particulars, and return. Don’t let people know who we are. I am not
much now.’ They had reached a point at which the road
branched into two—just outside the west village, one fork of the diverging routes
passing into the latter place, the other stretching on to East Endelstow. Having come some of
the distance by the footpath, they now found that the hearse was only a little in advance
of them. ‘I fancy it has turned off to East Endelstow.
Can you see?’ ‘I cannot. You must be mistaken.’ Knight and Stephen entered the village. A
bar of fiery light lay across the road, proceeding from the half-open door of a smithy, in which
bellows were heard blowing and a hammer ringing. The rain had increased, and they mechanically
turned for shelter towards the warm and cosy scene. Close at their heels came another man, without
over-coat or umbrella, and with a parcel under his arm. ‘A wet evening,’ he said to the two friends,
and passed by them. They stood in the outer penthouse, but the man went in to the fire. The smith ceased his blowing, and began talking
to the man who had entered. ‘I have walked all the way from Camelton,’
said the latter. ‘Was obliged to come to-night, you know.’ He held the parcel, which was a flat one,
towards the firelight, to learn if the rain had penetrated it. Resting it edgewise on
the forge, he supported it perpendicularly with one hand, wiping his face with the handkerchief
he held in the other. ‘I suppose you know what I’ve got here?’
he observed to the smith. ‘No, I don’t,’ said the smith, pausing
again on his bellows. ‘As the rain’s not over, I’ll show you,’
said the bearer. He laid the thin and broad package, which
had acute angles in different directions, flat upon the anvil, and the smith blew up
the fire to give him more light. First, after untying the package, a sheet of brown paper
was removed: this was laid flat. Then he unfolded a piece of baize: this also he spread flat
on the paper. The third covering was a wrapper of tissue paper, which was spread out in its
turn. The enclosure was revealed, and he held it up for the smith’s inspection. ‘Oh—I see!’ said the smith, kindling
with a chastened interest, and drawing close. ‘Poor young lady—ah, terrible melancholy
thing—so soon too!’ Knight and Stephen turned their heads and
looked. ‘And what’s that?’ continued the smith. ‘That’s the coronet—beautifully finished,
isn’t it? Ah, that cost some money!’ ‘’Tis as fine a bit of metal work as ever
I see—that ‘tis.’ ‘It came from the same people as the coffin,
you know, but was not ready soon enough to be sent round to the house in London yesterday.
I’ve got to fix it on this very night.’ The carefully-packed articles were a coffin-plate
and coronet. Knight and Stephen came forward. The undertaker’s
man, on seeing them look for the inscription, civilly turned it round towards them, and
each read, almost at one moment, by the ruddy light of the coals: E L F R I D E,
Wife of Spenser Hugo Luxellian, Fifteenth Baron Luxellian:
Died February 10, 18—. They read it, and read it, and read it again—Stephen
and Knight—as if animated by one soul. Then Stephen put his hand upon Knight’s arm,
and they retired from the yellow glow, further, further, till the chill darkness enclosed
them round, and the quiet sky asserted its presence overhead as a dim grey sheet of blank
monotony. ‘Where shall we go?’ said Stephen. ‘I don’t know.’ A long silence ensued….‘Elfride married!’
said Stephen then in a thin whisper, as if he feared to let the assertion loose on the
world. ‘False,’ whispered Knight. ‘And dead. Denied us both. I hate “false”—I
hate it!’ Knight made no answer. Nothing was heard by them now save the slow
measurement of time by their beating pulses, the soft touch of the dribbling rain upon
their clothes, and the low purr of the blacksmith’s bellows hard by. ‘Shall we follow Elfie any further?’ Stephen
said. ‘No: let us leave her alone. She is beyond
our love, and let her be beyond our reproach. Since we don’t know half the reasons that
made her do as she did, Stephen, how can we say, even now, that she was not pure and true
in heart?’ Knight’s voice had now become mild and gentle as a child’s. He went on:
‘Can we call her ambitious? No. Circumstance has, as usual, overpowered her purposes—fragile
and delicate as she—liable to be overthrown in a moment by the coarse elements of accident.
I know that’s it,—don’t you?’ ‘It may be—it must be. Let us go on.’ They began to bend their steps towards Castle
Boterel, whither they had sent their bags from Camelton. They wandered on in silence
for many minutes. Stephen then paused, and lightly put his hand within Knight’s arm. ‘I wonder how she came to die,’ he said
in a broken whisper. ‘Shall we return and learn a little more?’ They turned back again, and entering Endelstow
a second time, came to a door which was standing open. It was that of an inn called the Welcome
Home, and the house appeared to have been recently repaired and entirely modernized.
The name too was not that of the same landlord as formerly, but Martin Cannister’s. Knight and Smith entered. The inn was quite
silent, and they followed the passage till they reached the kitchen, where a huge fire
was burning, which roared up the chimney, and sent over the floor, ceiling, and newly-whitened
walls a glare so intense as to make the candle quite a secondary light. A woman in a white
apron and black gown was standing there alone behind a cleanly-scrubbed deal table. Stephen
first, and Knight afterwards, recognized her as Unity, who had been parlour-maid at the
vicarage and young lady’s-maid at the Crags. ‘Unity,’ said Stephen softly, ‘don’t
you know me?’ She looked inquiringly a moment, and her face
cleared up. ‘Mr. Smith—ay, that it is!’ she said.
‘And that’s Mr. Knight. I beg you to sit down. Perhaps you know that since I saw you
last I have married Martin Cannister.’ ‘How long have you been married?’ ‘About five months. We were married the
same day that my dear Miss Elfie became Lady Luxellian.’ Tears appeared in Unity’s
eyes, and filled them, and fell down her cheek, in spite of efforts to the contrary. The pain of the two men in resolutely controlling
themselves when thus exampled to admit relief of the same kind was distressing. They both
turned their backs and walked a few steps away. Then Unity said, ‘Will you go into the parlour,
gentlemen?’ ‘Let us stay here with her,’ Knight whispered,
and turning said, ‘No; we will sit here. We want to rest and dry ourselves here for
a time, if you please.’ That evening the sorrowing friends sat with
their hostess beside the large fire, Knight in the recess formed by the chimney breast,
where he was in shade. And by showing a little confidence they won hers, and she told them
what they had stayed to hear—the latter history of poor Elfride. ‘One day—after you, Mr. Knight, left us
for the last time—she was missed from the Crags, and her father went after her, and
brought her home ill. Where she went to, I never knew—but she was very unwell for weeks
afterwards. And she said to me that she didn’t care what became of her, and she wished she
could die. When she was better, I said she would live to be married yet, and she said
then, “Yes; I’ll do anything for the benefit of my family, so as to turn my useless life
to some practical account.” Well, it began like this about Lord Luxellian courting her.
The first Lady Luxellian had died, and he was in great trouble because the little girls
were left motherless. After a while they used to come and see her in their little black
frocks, for they liked her as well or better than their own mother—-that’s true. They
used to call her “little mamma.” These children made her a shade livelier, but she
was not the girl she had been—I could see that—and she grew thinner a good deal. Well,
my lord got to ask the Swancourts oftener and oftener to dinner—nobody else of his
acquaintance—and at last the vicar’s family were backwards and forwards at all hours of
the day. Well, people say that the little girls asked their father to let Miss Elfride
come and live with them, and that he said perhaps he would if they were good children.
However, the time went on, and one day I said, “Miss Elfride, you don’t look so well
as you used to; and though nobody else seems to notice it I do.” She laughed a little,
and said, “I shall live to be married yet, as you told me.” ‘“Shall you, miss? I am glad to hear that,”
I said. ‘“Whom do you think I am going to be married
to?” she said again. ‘“Mr. Knight, I suppose,” said I. ‘“Oh!” she cried, and turned off so
white, and afore I could get to her she had sunk down like a heap of clothes, and fainted
away. Well, then, she came to herself after a time, and said, “Unity, now we’ll go
on with our conversation.” ‘“Better not to-day, miss,” I said. ‘“Yes, we will,” she said. “Whom do
you think I am going to be married to?” ‘“I don’t know,” I said this time. ‘“Guess,” she said. ‘“‘Tisn’t my lord, is it?” says
I. ‘“Yes, ‘tis,” says she, in a sick
wild way. ‘“But he don’t come courting much,”
I said. “‘Ah! you don’t know,” she said, and
told me ‘twas going to be in October. After that she freshened up a bit—whether ‘twas
with the thought of getting away from home or not, I don’t know. For, perhaps, I may
as well speak plainly, and tell you that her home was no home to her now. Her father was
bitter to her and harsh upon her; and though Mrs. Swancourt was well enough in her way,
‘twas a sort of cold politeness that was not worth much, and the little thing had a
worrying time of it altogether. About a month before the wedding, she and my lord and the
two children used to ride about together upon horseback, and a very pretty sight they were;
and if you’ll believe me, I never saw him once with her unless the children were with
her too—which made the courting so strange-looking. Ay, and my lord is so handsome, you know,
so that at last I think she rather liked him; and I have seen her smile and blush a bit
at things he said. He wanted her the more because the children did, for everybody could
see that she would be a most tender mother to them, and friend and playmate too. And
my lord is not only handsome, but a splendid courter, and up to all the ways o’t. So
he made her the beautifullest presents; ah, one I can mind—a lovely bracelet, with diamonds
and emeralds. Oh, how red her face came when she saw it! The old roses came back to her
cheeks for a minute or two then. I helped dress her the day we both were married—it
was the last service I did her, poor child! When she was ready, I ran upstairs and slipped
on my own wedding gown, and away they went, and away went Martin and I; and no sooner
had my lord and my lady been married than the parson married us. It was a very quiet
pair of weddings—hardly anybody knew it. Well, hope will hold its own in a young heart,
if so be it can; and my lady freshened up a bit, for my lord was SO handsome and kind.’ ‘How came she to die—and away from home?’
murmured Knight. ‘Don’t you see, sir, she fell off again
afore they’d been married long, and my lord took her abroad for change of scene. They
were coming home, and had got as far as London, when she was taken very ill and couldn’t
be moved, and there she died.’ ‘Was he very fond of her?’ ‘What, my lord? Oh, he was!’ ‘VERY fond of her?’ ‘VERY, beyond everything. Not suddenly,
but by slow degrees. ‘Twas her nature to win people more when they knew her well. He’d
have died for her, I believe. Poor my lord, he’s heart-broken now!’ ‘The funeral is to-morrow?’ ‘Yes; my husband is now at the vault with
the masons, opening the steps and cleaning down the walls.’ The next day two men walked up the familiar
valley from Castle Boterel to East Endelstow Church. And when the funeral was over, and
every one had left the lawn-like churchyard, the pair went softly down the steps of the
Luxellian vault, and under the low-groined arches they had beheld once before, lit up
then as now. In the new niche of the crypt lay a rather new coffin, which had lost some
of its lustre, and a newer coffin still, bright and untarnished in the slightest degree. Beside the latter was the dark form of a man,
kneeling on the damp floor, his body flung across the coffin, his hands clasped, and
his whole frame seemingly given up in utter abandonment to grief. He was still young—younger,
perhaps, than Knight—and even now showed how graceful was his figure and symmetrical
his build. He murmured a prayer half aloud, and was quite unconscious that two others
were standing within a few yards of him. Knight and Stephen had advanced to where they
once stood beside Elfride on the day all three had met there, before she had herself gone
down into silence like her ancestors, and shut her bright blue eyes for ever. Not until
then did they see the kneeling figure in the dim light. Knight instantly recognized the
mourner as Lord Luxellian, the bereaved husband of Elfride. They felt themselves to be intruders. Knight
pressed Stephen back, and they silently withdrew as they had entered. ‘Come away,’ he said, in a broken voice.
‘We have no right to be there. Another stands before us—nearer to her than we!’ And side by side they both retraced their
steps down the grey still valley to Castle Boterel.

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