A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy | Full Audiobook | Part 1

A Pair of Blue Eyes Author’s PREFACE A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy.
PREFACE ‘A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more.’ The following chapters were written at a time when the craze for indiscriminate church-restoration had just reached the remotest nooks of western England, where the wild and tragic features of the coast had long combined in perfect harmony with the crude Gothic Art of the ecclesiastical buildings scattered along it, throwing into extraordinary discord all architectural attempts at newness there. To restore the grey carcases of a mediaevalism whose spirit had fled, seemed a not less incongruous act than to set about renovating the adjoining crags themselves.

Hence it happened that an imaginary history of three human hearts, whose emotions were not without correspondence with these material circumstances, found in the ordinary incidents of such church-renovations a fitting frame for its presentation. The shore and country about ‘Castle Boterel’ is now getting well known, and will be readily recognized. The spot is, I may add, the furthest westward of all those convenient corners wherein I have ventured to erect my theatre for these imperfect little dramas of country life and passions; and it lies near to, or no great way beyond, the vague border of the Wessex kingdom on that side, which, like the westering verge of modern American settlements, was progressive and uncertain. This, however, is of little importance. The place is pre-eminently (for one person at least) the region of dream and mystery. The ghostly birds, the pall-like sea, the frothy wind, the eternal soliloquy of the waters, the bloom of dark purple cast, that seems to exhale from the shoreward precipices, in themselves lend to the scene an atmosphere like the twilight of a night vision. One enormous sea-bord cliff in particular figures in the narrative; and for some forgotten reason or other this cliff was described in the story as being without a name. Accuracy would require the statement to be that a remarkable cliff which resembles in many points the cliff of the description bears a name that no event has made famous.
T. H. March 1899 THE PERSONS

STEPHEN SMITH an Architect
HENRY KNIGHT a Reviewer and Essayist
MARY AND KATE two little Girls
WILLIAM WORM a dazed Factotum
JOHN SMITH a Master-mason
UNITY a Maid-servant

Other servants, masons, labourers, grooms, nondescripts, etc., etc. THE SCENE

Mostly on the outskirts of Lower Wessex. Chapter I
‘A fair vestal, throned in the west’ Elfride Swancourt was a girl whose emotions
lay very near the surface. Their nature more precisely, and as modified by the creeping
hours of time, was known only to those who watched the circumstances of her history. Personally, she was the combination of very
interesting particulars, whose rarity, however, lay in the combination itself rather than
in the individual elements combined. As a matter of fact, you did not see the form and
substance of her features when conversing with her; and this charming power of preventing
a material study of her lineaments by an interlocutor, originated not in the cloaking effect of a
well-formed manner (for her manner was childish and scarcely formed), but in the attractive
crudeness of the remarks themselves. She had lived all her life in retirement—the monstrari
gigito of idle men had not flattered her, and at the age of nineteen or twenty she was
no further on in social consciousness than an urban young lady of fifteen. One point in her, however, you did notice:
that was her eyes. In them was seen a sublimation of all of her; it was not necessary to look
further: there she lived. These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance—blue
as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny
September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was
looked INTO rather than AT. As to her presence, it was not powerful; it
was weak. Some women can make their personality pervade the atmosphere of a whole banqueting
hall; Elfride’s was no more pervasive than that of a kitten. Elfride had as her own the thoughtfulness
which appears in the face of the Madonna della Sedia, without its rapture: the warmth and
spirit of the type of woman’s feature most common to the beauties—mortal and immortal—of
Rubens, without their insistent fleshiness. The characteristic expression of the female
faces of Correggio—that of the yearning human thoughts that lie too deep for tears—was
hers sometimes, but seldom under ordinary conditions. The point in Elfride Swancourt’s life at
which a deeper current may be said to have permanently set in, was one winter afternoon
when she found herself standing, in the character of hostess, face to face with a man she had
never seen before—moreover, looking at him with a Miranda-like curiosity and interest
that she had never yet bestowed on a mortal. On this particular day her father, the vicar
of a parish on the sea-swept outskirts of Lower Wessex, and a widower, was suffering
from an attack of gout. After finishing her household supervisions Elfride became restless,
and several times left the room, ascended the staircase, and knocked at her father’s
chamber-door. ‘Come in!’ was always answered in a hearty
out-of-door voice from the inside. ‘Papa,’ she said on one occasion to the
fine, red-faced, handsome man of forty, who, puffing and fizzing like a bursting bottle,
lay on the bed wrapped in a dressing-gown, and every now and then enunciating, in spite
of himself, about one letter of some word or words that were almost oaths; ‘papa,
will you not come downstairs this evening?’ She spoke distinctly: he was rather deaf. ‘Afraid not—eh-hh!—very much afraid
I shall not, Elfride. Piph-ph-ph! I can’t bear even a handkerchief upon this deuced
toe of mine, much less a stocking or slipper—piph-ph-ph! There ‘tis again! No, I shan’t get up
till to-morrow.’ ‘Then I hope this London man won’t come;
for I don’t know what I should do, papa.’ ‘Well, it would be awkward, certainly.’ ‘I should hardly think he would come to-day.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because the wind blows so.’ ‘Wind! What ideas you have, Elfride! Who
ever heard of wind stopping a man from doing his business? The idea of this toe of mine
coming on so suddenly!…If he should come, you must send him up to me, I suppose, and
then give him some food and put him to bed in some way. Dear me, what a nuisance all
this is!’ ‘Must he have dinner?’ ‘Too heavy for a tired man at the end of
a tedious journey.’ ‘Tea, then?’ ‘Not substantial enough.’ ‘High tea, then? There is cold fowl, rabbit-pie,
some pasties, and things of that kind.’ ‘Yes, high tea.’ ‘Must I pour out his tea, papa?’ ‘Of course; you are the mistress of the
house.’ ‘What! sit there all the time with a stranger,
just as if I knew him, and not anybody to introduce us?’ ‘Nonsense, child, about introducing; you
know better than that. A practical professional man, tired and hungry, who has been travelling
ever since daylight this morning, will hardly be inclined to talk and air courtesies to-night.
He wants food and shelter, and you must see that he has it, simply because I am suddenly
laid up and cannot. There is nothing so dreadful in that, I hope? You get all kinds of stuff
into your head from reading so many of those novels.’ ‘Oh no; there is nothing dreadful in it
when it becomes plainly a case of necessity like this. But, you see, you are always there
when people come to dinner, even if we know them; and this is some strange London man
of the world, who will think it odd, perhaps.’ ‘Very well; let him.’ ‘Is he Mr. Hewby’s partner?’ ‘I should scarcely think so: he may be.’ ‘How old is he, I wonder?’ ‘That I cannot tell. You will find the copy
of my letter to Mr. Hewby, and his answer, upon the table in the study. You may read
them, and then you’ll know as much as I do about our visitor.’ ‘I have read them.’ ‘Well, what’s the use of asking questions,
then? They contain all I know. Ugh-h-h!…Od plague you, you young scamp! don’t put anything
there! I can’t bear the weight of a fly.’ ‘Oh, I am sorry, papa. I forgot; I thought
you might be cold,’ she said, hastily removing the rug she had thrown upon the feet of the
sufferer; and waiting till she saw that consciousness of her offence had passed from his face, she
withdrew from the room, and retired again downstairs. Chapter II
‘Twas on the evening of a winter’s day.’ When two or three additional hours had merged
the same afternoon in evening, some moving outlines might have been observed against
the sky on the summit of a wild lone hill in that district. They circumscribed two men,
having at present the aspect of silhouettes, sitting in a dog-cart and pushing along in
the teeth of the wind. Scarcely a solitary house or man had been visible along the whole
dreary distance of open country they were traversing; and now that night had begun to
fall, the faint twilight, which still gave an idea of the landscape to their observation,
was enlivened by the quiet appearance of the planet Jupiter, momentarily gleaming in intenser
brilliancy in front of them, and by Sirius shedding his rays in rivalry from his position
over their shoulders. The only lights apparent on earth were some spots of dull red, glowing
here and there upon the distant hills, which, as the driver of the vehicle gratuitously
remarked to the hirer, were smouldering fires for the consumption of peat and gorse-roots,
where the common was being broken up for agricultural purposes. The wind prevailed with but little
abatement from its daytime boisterousness, three or four small clouds, delicate and pale,
creeping along under the sky southward to the Channel. Fourteen of the sixteen miles intervening
between the railway terminus and the end of their journey had been gone over, when they
began to pass along the brink of a valley some miles in extent, wherein the wintry skeletons
of a more luxuriant vegetation than had hitherto surrounded them proclaimed an increased richness
of soil, which showed signs of far more careful enclosure and management than had any slopes
they had yet passed. A little farther, and an opening in the elms stretching up from
this fertile valley revealed a mansion. ‘That’s Endelstow House, Lord Luxellian’s,’
said the driver. ‘Endelstow House, Lord Luxellian’s,’
repeated the other mechanically. He then turned himself sideways, and keenly scrutinized the
almost invisible house with an interest which the indistinct picture itself seemed far from
adequate to create. ‘Yes, that’s Lord Luxellian’s,’ he said yet again after
a while, as he still looked in the same direction. ‘What, be we going there?’ ‘No; Endelstow Vicarage, as I have told
you.’ ‘I thought you m’t have altered your mind,
sir, as ye have stared that way at nothing so long.’ ‘Oh no; I am interested in the house, that’s
all.’ ‘Most people be, as the saying is.’ ‘Not in the sense that I am.’ ‘Oh!…Well, his family is no better than
my own, ‘a b’lieve.’ ‘How is that?’ ‘Hedgers and ditchers by rights. But once
in ancient times one of ‘em, when he was at work, changed clothes with King Charles
the Second, and saved the king’s life. King Charles came up to him like a common man,
and said off-hand, “Man in the smock-frock, my name is Charles the Second, and that’s
the truth on’t. Will you lend me your clothes?” “I don’t mind if I do,” said Hedger
Luxellian; and they changed there and then. “Now mind ye,” King Charles the Second
said, like a common man, as he rode away, “if ever I come to the crown, you come to
court, knock at the door, and say out bold, ‘Is King Charles the Second at home?’
Tell your name, and they shall let you in, and you shall be made a lord.” Now, that
was very nice of Master Charley?’ ‘Very nice indeed.’ ‘Well, as the story is, the king came to
the throne; and some years after that, away went Hedger Luxellian, knocked at the king’s
door, and asked if King Charles the Second was in. “No, he isn’t,” they said. “Then,
is Charles the Third?” said Hedger Luxellian. “Yes,” said a young feller standing by
like a common man, only he had a crown on, “my name is Charles the Third.” And——’ ‘I really fancy that must be a mistake.
I don’t recollect anything in English history about Charles the Third,’ said the other
in a tone of mild remonstrance. ‘Oh, that’s right history enough, only
‘twasn’t prented; he was rather a queer-tempered man, if you remember.’ ‘Very well; go on.’ ‘And, by hook or by crook, Hedger Luxellian
was made a lord, and everything went on well till some time after, when he got into a most
terrible row with King Charles the Fourth. ‘I can’t stand Charles the Fourth. Upon
my word, that’s too much.’ ‘Why? There was a George the Fourth, wasn’t
there?’ ‘Certainly.’ ‘Well, Charleses be as common as Georges.
However I’ll say no more about it….Ah, well! ‘tis the funniest world ever I lived
in—upon my life ‘tis. Ah, that such should be!’ The dusk had thickened into darkness while
they thus conversed, and the outline and surface of the mansion gradually disappeared. The
windows, which had before been as black blots on a lighter expanse of wall, became illuminated,
and were transfigured to squares of light on the general dark body of the night landscape
as it absorbed the outlines of the edifice into its gloomy monochrome. Not another word was spoken for some time,
and they climbed a hill, then another hill piled on the summit of the first. An additional
mile of plateau followed, from which could be discerned two light-houses on the coast
they were nearing, reposing on the horizon with a calm lustre of benignity. Another oasis
was reached; a little dell lay like a nest at their feet, towards which the driver pulled
the horse at a sharp angle, and descended a steep slope which dived under the trees
like a rabbit’s burrow. They sank lower and lower. ‘Endelstow Vicarage is inside here,’ continued
the man with the reins. ‘This part about here is West Endelstow; Lord Luxellian’s
is East Endelstow, and has a church to itself. Pa’son Swancourt is the pa’son of both,
and bobs backward and forward. Ah, well! ‘tis a funny world. ‘A b’lieve there was once
a quarry where this house stands. The man who built it in past time scraped all the
glebe for earth to put round the vicarage, and laid out a little paradise of flowers
and trees in the soil he had got together in this way, whilst the fields he scraped
have been good for nothing ever since.’ ‘How long has the present incumbent been
here?’ ‘Maybe about a year, or a year and half:
‘tisn’t two years; for they don’t scandalize him yet; and, as a rule, a parish begins to
scandalize the pa’son at the end of two years among ‘em familiar. But he’s a very
nice party. Ay, Pa’son Swancourt knows me pretty well from often driving over; and I
know Pa’son Swancourt.’ They emerged from the bower, swept round in
a curve, and the chimneys and gables of the vicarage became darkly visible. Not a light
showed anywhere. They alighted; the man felt his way into the porch, and rang the bell. At the end of three or four minutes, spent
in patient waiting without hearing any sounds of a response, the stranger advanced and repeated
the call in a more decided manner. He then fancied he heard footsteps in the hall, and
sundry movements of the door-knob, but nobody appeared. ‘Perhaps they beant at home,’ sighed the
driver. ‘And I promised myself a bit of supper in Pa’son Swancourt’s kitchen.
Sich lovely mate-pize and figged keakes, and cider, and drops o’ cordial that they do
keep here!’ ‘All right, naibours! Be ye rich men or
be ye poor men, that ye must needs come to the world’s end at this time o’ night?’
exclaimed a voice at this instant; and, turning their heads, they saw a rickety individual
shambling round from the back door with a horn lantern dangling from his hand. ‘Time o’ night, ‘a b’lieve! and the
clock only gone seven of ‘em. Show a light, and let us in, William Worm.’ ‘Oh, that you, Robert Lickpan?’ ‘Nobody else, William Worm.’ ‘And is the visiting man a-come?’ ‘Yes,’ said the stranger. ‘Is Mr. Swancourt
at home?’ ‘That ‘a is, sir. And would ye mind coming
round by the back way? The front door is got stuck wi’ the wet, as he will do sometimes;
and the Turk can’t open en. I know I am only a poor wambling man that ‘ill never
pay the Lord for my making, sir; but I can show the way in, sir.’ The new arrival followed his guide through
a little door in a wall, and then promenaded a scullery and a kitchen, along which he passed
with eyes rigidly fixed in advance, an inbred horror of prying forbidding him to gaze around
apartments that formed the back side of the household tapestry. Entering the hall, he
was about to be shown to his room, when from the inner lobby of the front entrance, whither
she had gone to learn the cause of the delay, sailed forth the form of Elfride. Her start
of amazement at the sight of the visitor coming forth from under the stairs proved that she
had not been expecting this surprising flank movement, which had been originated entirely
by the ingenuity of William Worm. She appeared in the prettiest of all feminine
guises, that is to say, in demi-toilette, with plenty of loose curly hair tumbling down
about her shoulders. An expression of uneasiness pervaded her countenance; and altogether she
scarcely appeared woman enough for the situation. The visitor removed his hat, and the first
words were spoken; Elfride prelusively looking with a deal of interest, not unmixed with
surprise, at the person towards whom she was to do the duties of hospitality. ‘I am Mr. Smith,’ said the stranger in
a musical voice. ‘I am Miss Swancourt,’ said Elfride. Her constraint was over. The great contrast
between the reality she beheld before her, and the dark, taciturn, sharp, elderly man
of business who had lurked in her imagination—a man with clothes smelling of city smoke, skin
sallow from want of sun, and talk flavoured with epigram—was such a relief to her that
Elfride smiled, almost laughed, in the new-comer’s face. Stephen Smith, who has hitherto been hidden
from us by the darkness, was at this time of his life but a youth in appearance, and
barely a man in years. Judging from his look, London was the last place in the world that
one would have imagined to be the scene of his activities: such a face surely could not
be nourished amid smoke and mud and fog and dust; such an open countenance could never
even have seen anything of ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’ of Babylon the
Second. His complexion was as fine as Elfride’s
own; the pink of his cheeks as delicate. His mouth as perfect as Cupid’s bow in form,
and as cherry-red in colour as hers. Bright curly hair; bright sparkling blue-gray eyes;
a boy’s blush and manner; neither whisker nor moustache, unless a little light-brown
fur on his upper lip deserved the latter title: this composed the London professional man,
the prospect of whose advent had so troubled Elfride. Elfride hastened to say she was sorry to tell
him that Mr. Swancourt was not able to receive him that evening, and gave the reason why.
Mr. Smith replied, in a voice boyish by nature and manly by art, that he was very sorry to
hear this news; but that as far as his reception was concerned, it did not matter in the least. Stephen was shown up to his room. In his absence
Elfride stealthily glided into her father’s. ‘He’s come, papa. Such a young man for
a business man!’ ‘Oh, indeed!’ ‘His face is—well—PRETTY; just like
mine.’ ‘H’m! what next?’ ‘Nothing; that’s all I know of him yet.
It is rather nice, is it not?’ ‘Well, we shall see that when we know him
better. Go down and give the poor fellow something to eat and drink, for Heaven’s sake. And
when he has done eating, say I should like to have a few words with him, if he doesn’t
mind coming up here.’ The young lady glided downstairs again, and
whilst she awaits young Smith’s entry, the letters referring to his visit had better
be given. 1.—MR. SWANCOURT TO MR. HEWBY. ‘ENDELSTOW VICARAGE, Feb. 18, 18—. ‘SIR,—We are thinking of restoring the
tower and aisle of the church in this parish; and Lord Luxellian, the patron of the living,
has mentioned your name as that of a trustworthy architect whom it would be desirable to ask
to superintend the work. ‘I am exceedingly ignorant of the necessary
preliminary steps. Probably, however, the first is that (should you be, as Lord Luxellian
says you are, disposed to assist us) yourself or some member of your staff come and see
the building, and report thereupon for the satisfaction of parishioners and others. ‘The spot is a very remote one: we have
no railway within fourteen miles; and the nearest place for putting up at—called a
town, though merely a large village—is Castle Boterel, two miles further on; so that it
would be most convenient for you to stay at the vicarage—which I am glad to place at
your disposal—instead of pushing on to the hotel at Castle Boterel, and coming back again
in the morning. ‘Any day of the next week that you like
to name for the visit will find us quite ready to receive you.—Yours very truly, CHRISTOPHER SWANCOURT. 2.—MR. HEWBY TO MR.
SWANCOURT. “PERCY PLACE, CHARING CROSS, Feb. 20, 18—. ‘DEAR SIR,—Agreeably to your request of
the 18th instant, I have arranged to survey and make drawings of the aisle and tower of
your parish church, and of the dilapidations which have been suffered to accrue thereto,
with a view to its restoration. ‘My assistant, Mr. Stephen Smith, will leave
London by the early train to-morrow morning for the purpose. Many thanks for your proposal
to accommodate him. He will take advantage of your offer, and will probably reach your
house at some hour of the evening. You may put every confidence in him, and may rely
upon his discernment in the matter of church architecture. ‘Trusting that the plans for the restoration,
which I shall prepare from the details of his survey, will prove satisfactory to yourself
and Lord Luxellian, I am, dear sir, yours faithfully, WALTER HEWBY.’ Chapter III
‘Melodious birds sing madrigals’ That first repast in Endelstow Vicarage was
a very agreeable one to young Stephen Smith. The table was spread, as Elfride had suggested
to her father, with the materials for the heterogeneous meal called high tea—a class
of refection welcome to all when away from men and towns, and particularly attractive
to youthful palates. The table was prettily decked with winter flowers and leaves, amid
which the eye was greeted by chops, chicken, pie, &c., and two huge pasties overhanging
the sides of the dish with a cheerful aspect of abundance. At the end, towards the fireplace, appeared
the tea-service, of old-fashioned Worcester porcelain, and behind this arose the slight
form of Elfride, attempting to add matronly dignity to the movement of pouring out tea,
and to have a weighty and concerned look in matters of marmalade, honey, and clotted cream.
Having made her own meal before he arrived, she found to her embarrassment that there
was nothing left for her to do but talk when not assisting him. She asked him if he would
excuse her finishing a letter she had been writing at a side-table, and, after sitting
down to it, tingled with a sense of being grossly rude. However, seeing that he noticed
nothing personally wrong in her, and that he too was embarrassed when she attentively
watched his cup to refill it, Elfride became better at ease; and when furthermore he accidentally
kicked the leg of the table, and then nearly upset his tea-cup, just as schoolboys did,
she felt herself mistress of the situation, and could talk very well. In a few minutes
ingenuousness and a common term of years obliterated all recollection that they were strangers
just met. Stephen began to wax eloquent on extremely slight experiences connected with
his professional pursuits; and she, having no experiences to fall back upon, recounted
with much animation stories that had been related to her by her father, which would
have astonished him had he heard with what fidelity of action and tone they were rendered.
Upon the whole, a very interesting picture of Sweet-and-Twenty was on view that evening
in Mr. Swancourt’s house. Ultimately Stephen had to go upstairs and
talk loud to the vicar, receiving from him between his puffs a great many apologies for
calling him so unceremoniously to a stranger’s bedroom. ‘But,’ continued Mr. Swancourt,
‘I felt that I wanted to say a few words to you before the morning, on the business
of your visit. One’s patience gets exhausted by staying a prisoner in bed all day through
a sudden freak of one’s enemy—new to me, though—for I have known very little of gout
as yet. However, he’s gone to my other toe in a very mild manner, and I expect he’ll
slink off altogether by the morning. I hope you have been well attended to downstairs?’ ‘Perfectly. And though it is unfortunate,
and I am sorry to see you laid up, I beg you will not take the slightest notice of my being
in the house the while.’ ‘I will not. But I shall be down to-morrow.
My daughter is an excellent doctor. A dose or two of her mild mixtures will fetch me
round quicker than all the drug stuff in the world. Well, now about the church business.
Take a seat, do. We can’t afford to stand upon ceremony in these parts as you see, and
for this reason, that a civilized human being seldom stays long with us; and so we cannot
waste time in approaching him, or he will be gone before we have had the pleasure of
close acquaintance. This tower of ours is, as you will notice, entirely gone beyond the
possibility of restoration; but the church itself is well enough. You should see some
of the churches in this county. Floors rotten: ivy lining the walls.’ ‘Dear me!’ ‘Oh, that’s nothing. The congregation
of a neighbour of mine, whenever a storm of rain comes on during service, open their umbrellas
and hold them up till the dripping ceases from the roof. Now, if you will kindly bring
me those papers and letters you see lying on the table, I will show you how far we have
got.’ Stephen crossed the room to fetch them, and
the vicar seemed to notice more particularly the slim figure of his visitor. ‘I suppose you are quite competent?’ he
said. ‘Quite,’ said the young man, colouring
slightly. ‘You are very young, I fancy—I should
say you are not more than nineteen?’ I am nearly twenty-one.’ ‘Exactly half my age; I am forty-two.’ ‘By the way,’ said Mr. Swancourt, after
some conversation, ‘you said your whole name was Stephen Fitzmaurice, and that your
grandfather came originally from Caxbury. Since I have been speaking, it has occurred
to me that I know something of you. You belong to a well-known ancient county family—not
ordinary Smiths in the least.’ ‘I don’t think we have any of their blood
in our veins.’ ‘Nonsense! you must. Hand me the “Landed
Gentry.” Now, let me see. There, Stephen Fitzmaurice Smith—he lies in St. Mary’s
Church, doesn’t he? Well, out of that family Sprang the Leaseworthy Smiths, and collaterally
came General Sir Stephen Fitzmaurice Smith of Caxbury——’ ‘Yes; I have seen his monument there,’
shouted Stephen. ‘But there is no connection between his family and mine: there cannot
be.’ ‘There is none, possibly, to your knowledge.
But look at this, my dear sir,’ said the vicar, striking his fist upon the bedpost
for emphasis. ‘Here are you, Stephen Fitzmaurice Smith, living in London, but springing from
Caxbury. Here in this book is a genealogical tree of the Stephen Fitzmaurice Smiths of
Caxbury Manor. You may be only a family of professional men now—I am not inquisitive:
I don’t ask questions of that kind; it is not in me to do so—but it is as plain as
the nose in your face that there’s your origin! And, Mr. Smith, I congratulate you
upon your blood; blue blood, sir; and, upon my life, a very desirable colour, as the world
goes.’ ‘I wish you could congratulate me upon some
more tangible quality,’ said the younger man, sadly no less than modestly. ‘Nonsense! that will come with time. You
are young: all your life is before you. Now look—see how far back in the mists of antiquity
my own family of Swancourt have a root. Here, you see,’ he continued, turning to the page,
‘is Geoffrey, the one among my ancestors who lost a barony because he would cut his
joke. Ah, it’s the sort of us! But the story is too long to tell now. Ay, I’m a poor
man—a poor gentleman, in fact: those I would be friends with, won’t be friends with me;
those who are willing to be friends with me, I am above being friends with. Beyond dining
with a neighbouring incumbent or two, and an occasional chat—sometimes dinner—with
Lord Luxellian, a connection of mine, I am in absolute solitude—absolute.’ ‘You have your studies, your books, and
your—daughter.’ ‘Oh yes, yes; and I don’t complain of
poverty. Canto coram latrone. Well, Mr. Smith, don’t let me detain you any longer in a
sick room. Ha! that reminds me of a story I once heard in my younger days.’ Here the
vicar began a series of small private laughs, and Stephen looked inquiry. ‘Oh, no, no!
it is too bad—too bad to tell!’ continued Mr. Swancourt in undertones of grim mirth.
‘Well, go downstairs; my daughter must do the best she can with you this evening. Ask
her to sing to you—she plays and sings very nicely. Good-night; I feel as if I had known
you for five or six years. I’ll ring for somebody to show you down.’ ‘Never mind,’ said Stephen, ‘I can find
the way.’ And he went downstairs, thinking of the delightful freedom of manner in the
remoter counties in comparison with the reserve of London. ‘I forgot to tell you that my father was
rather deaf,’ said Elfride anxiously, when Stephen entered the little drawing-room. ‘Never mind; I know all about it, and we
are great friends,’ the man of business replied enthusiastically. ‘And, Miss Swancourt,
will you kindly sing to me?’ To Miss Swancourt this request seemed, what
in fact it was, exceptionally point-blank; though she guessed that her father had some
hand in framing it, knowing, rather to her cost, of his unceremonious way of utilizing
her for the benefit of dull sojourners. At the same time, as Mr. Smith’s manner was
too frank to provoke criticism, and his age too little to inspire fear, she was ready—not
to say pleased—to accede. Selecting from the canterbury some old family ditties, that
in years gone by had been played and sung by her mother, Elfride sat down to the pianoforte,
and began, ‘’Twas on the evening of a winter’s day,’ in a pretty contralto voice. ‘Do you like that old thing, Mr. Smith?’
she said at the end. ‘Yes, I do much,’ said Stephen—words
he would have uttered, and sincerely, to anything on earth, from glee to requiem, that she might
have chosen. ‘You shall have a little one by De Leyre,
that was given me by a young French lady who was staying at Endelstow House: ‘“Je l’ai plante, je l’ai vu naitre,
Ce beau rosier ou les oiseaux,” &c.; and then I shall want to give you my own favourite
for the very last, Shelley’s “When the lamp is shattered,” as set to music by my
poor mother. I so much like singing to anybody who REALLY cares to hear me.’ Every woman who makes a permanent impression
on a man is usually recalled to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene,
which seems ordained to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his
memory. As the patron Saint has her attitude and accessories in mediaeval illumination,
so the sweetheart may be said to have hers upon the table of her true Love’s fancy,
without which she is rarely introduced there except by effort; and this though she may,
on further acquaintance, have been observed in many other phases which one would imagine
to be far more appropriate to love’s young dream. Miss Elfride’s image chose the form in which
she was beheld during these minutes of singing, for her permanent attitude of visitation to
Stephen’s eyes during his sleeping and waking hours in after days. The profile is seen of
a young woman in a pale gray silk dress with trimmings of swan’s-down, and opening up
from a point in front, like a waistcoat without a shirt; the cool colour contrasting admirably
with the warm bloom of her neck and face. The furthermost candle on the piano comes
immediately in a line with her head, and half invisible itself, forms the accidentally frizzled
hair into a nebulous haze of light, surrounding her crown like an aureola. Her hands are in
their place on the keys, her lips parted, and trilling forth, in a tender diminuendo,
the closing words of the sad apostrophe: ‘O Love, who bewailest
The frailty of all things here, Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier!’ Her head is forward a little, and her eyes
directed keenly upward to the top of the page of music confronting her. Then comes a rapid
look into Stephen’s face, and a still more rapid look back again to her business, her
face having dropped its sadness, and acquired a certain expression of mischievous archness
the while; which lingered there for some time, but was never developed into a positive smile
of flirtation. Stephen suddenly shifted his position from
her right hand to her left, where there was just room enough for a small ottoman to stand
between the piano and the corner of the room. Into this nook he squeezed himself, and gazed
wistfully up into Elfride’s face. So long and so earnestly gazed he, that her cheek
deepened to a more and more crimson tint as each line was added to her song. Concluding,
and pausing motionless after the last word for a minute or two, she ventured to look
at him again. His features wore an expression of unutterable heaviness. ‘You don’t hear many songs, do you, Mr.
Smith, to take so much notice of these of mine?’ ‘Perhaps it was the means and vehicle of
the song that I was noticing: I mean yourself,’ he answered gently. ‘Now, Mr. Smith!’ ‘It is perfectly true; I don’t hear much
singing. You mistake what I am, I fancy. Because I come as a stranger to a secluded spot, you
think I must needs come from a life of bustle, and know the latest movements of the day.
But I don’t. My life is as quiet as yours, and more solitary; solitary as death.’ ‘The death which comes from a plethora of
life? But seriously, I can quite see that you are not the least what I thought you would
be before I saw you. You are not critical, or experienced, or—much to mind. That’s
why I don’t mind singing airs to you that I only half know.’ Finding that by this
confession she had vexed him in a way she did not intend, she added naively, ‘I mean,
Mr. Smith, that you are better, not worse, for being only young and not very experienced.
You don’t think my life here so very tame and dull, I know.’ ‘I do not, indeed,’ he said with fervour.
‘It must be delightfully poetical, and sparkling, and fresh, and——’ ‘There you go, Mr. Smith! Well, men of another
kind, when I get them to be honest enough to own the truth, think just the reverse:
that my life must be a dreadful bore in its normal state, though pleasant for the exceptional
few days they pass here.’ ‘I could live here always!’ he said, and
with such a tone and look of unconscious revelation that Elfride was startled to find that her
harmonies had fired a small Troy, in the shape of Stephen’s heart. She said quickly: ‘But you can’t live here always.’ ‘Oh no.’ And he drew himself in with the
sensitiveness of a snail. Elfride’s emotions were sudden as his in
kindling, but the least of woman’s lesser infirmities—love of admiration—caused
an inflammable disposition on his part, so exactly similar to her own, to appear as meritorious
in him as modesty made her own seem culpable in her. Chapter IV
‘Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap.’
For reasons of his own, Stephen Smith was stirring a short time after dawn the next
morning. From the window of his room he could see, first, two bold escarpments sloping down
together like the letter V. Towards the bottom, like liquid in a funnel, appeared the sea,
gray and small. On the brow of one hill, of rather greater altitude than its neighbour,
stood the church which was to be the scene of his operations. The lonely edifice was
black and bare, cutting up into the sky from the very tip of the hill. It had a square
mouldering tower, owning neither battlement nor pinnacle, and seemed a monolithic termination,
of one substance with the ridge, rather than a structure raised thereon. Round the church
ran a low wall; over-topping the wall in general level was the graveyard; not as a graveyard
usually is, a fragment of landscape with its due variety of chiaro-oscuro, but a mere profile
against the sky, serrated with the outlines of graves and a very few memorial stones.
Not a tree could exist up there: nothing but the monotonous gray-green grass. Five minutes after this casual survey was
made his bedroom was empty, and its occupant had vanished quietly from the house. At the end of two hours he was again in the
room, looking warm and glowing. He now pursued the artistic details of dressing, which on
his first rising had been entirely omitted. And a very blooming boy he looked, after that
mysterious morning scamper. His mouth was a triumph of its class. It was the cleanly-cut,
piquantly pursed-up mouth of William Pitt, as represented in the well or little known
bust by Nollekens—a mouth which is in itself a young man’s fortune, if properly exercised.
His round chin, where its upper part turned inward, still continued its perfect and full
curve, seeming to press in to a point the bottom of his nether lip at their place of
junction. Once he murmured the name of Elfride. Ah,
there she was! On the lawn in a plain dress, without hat or bonnet, running with a boy’s
velocity, superadded to a girl’s lightness, after a tame rabbit she was endeavouring to
capture, her strategic intonations of coaxing words alternating with desperate rushes so
much out of keeping with them, that the hollowness of such expressions was but too evident to
her pet, who darted and dodged in carefully timed counterpart. The scene down there was altogether different
from that of the hills. A thicket of shrubs and trees enclosed the favoured spot from
the wilderness without; even at this time of the year the grass was luxuriant there.
No wind blew inside the protecting belt of evergreens, wasting its force upon the higher
and stronger trees forming the outer margin of the grove. Then he heard a heavy person shuffling about
in slippers, and calling ‘Mr. Smith!’ Smith proceeded to the study, and found Mr.
Swancourt. The young man expressed his gladness to see his host downstairs. ‘Oh yes; I knew I should soon be right again.
I have not made the acquaintance of gout for more than two years, and it generally goes
off the second night. Well, where have you been this morning? I saw you come in just
now, I think!’ ‘Yes; I have been for a walk.’ ‘Start early?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Very early, I think?’ ‘Yes, it was rather early.’ ‘Which way did you go? To the sea, I suppose.
Everybody goes seaward.’ ‘No; I followed up the river as far as the
park wall.’ ‘You are different from your kind. Well,
I suppose such a wild place is a novelty, and so tempted you out of bed?’ ‘Not altogether a novelty. I like it.’ The youth seemed averse to explanation. ‘You must, you must; to go cock-watching
the morning after a journey of fourteen or sixteen hours. But there’s no accounting
for tastes, and I am glad to see that yours are no meaner. After breakfast, but not before,
I shall be good for a ten miles’ walk, Master Smith.’ Certainly there seemed nothing exaggerated
in that assertion. Mr. Swancourt by daylight showed himself to be a man who, in common
with the other two people under his roof, had really strong claims to be considered
handsome,—handsome, that is, in the sense in which the moon is bright: the ravines and
valleys which, on a close inspection, are seen to diversify its surface being left out
of the argument. His face was of a tint that never deepened upon his cheeks nor lightened
upon his forehead, but remained uniform throughout; the usual neutral salmon-colour of a man who
feeds well—not to say too well—and does not think hard; every pore being in visible
working order. His tout ensemble was that of a highly improved class of farmer, dressed
up in the wrong clothes; that of a firm-standing perpendicular man, whose fall would have been
backwards in direction if he had ever lost his balance. The vicar’s background was at present what
a vicar’s background should be, his study. Here the consistency ends. All along the chimneypiece
were ranged bottles of horse, pig, and cow medicines, and against the wall was a high
table, made up of the fragments of an old oak Iychgate. Upon this stood stuffed specimens
of owls, divers, and gulls, and over them bunches of wheat and barley ears, labelled
with the date of the year that produced them. Some cases and shelves, more or less laden
with books, the prominent titles of which were Dr. Brown’s ‘Notes on the Romans,’
Dr. Smith’s ‘Notes on the Corinthians,’ and Dr. Robinson’s ‘Notes on the Galatians,
Ephesians, and Philippians,’ just saved the character of the place, in spite of a
girl’s doll’s-house standing above them, a marine aquarium in the window, and Elfride’s
hat hanging on its corner. ‘Business, business!’ said Mr. Swancourt
after breakfast. He began to find it necessary to act the part of a fly-wheel towards the
somewhat irregular forces of his visitor. They prepared to go to the church; the vicar,
on second thoughts, mounting his coal-black mare to avoid exerting his foot too much at
starting. Stephen said he should want a man to assist him. ‘Worm!’ the vicar shouted. A minute or two after a voice was heard round
the corner of the building, mumbling, ‘Ah, I used to be strong enough, but ‘tis altered
now! Well, there, I’m as independent as one here and there, even if they do write
‘squire after their names.’ ‘What’s the matter?’ said the vicar,
as William Worm appeared; when the remarks were repeated to him. ‘Worm says some very true things sometimes,’
Mr. Swancourt said, turning to Stephen. ‘Now, as regards that word “esquire.” Why, Mr.
Smith, that word “esquire” is gone to the dogs,—used on the letters of every jackanapes
who has a black coat. Anything else, Worm?’ ‘Ay, the folk have begun frying again!’ ‘Dear me! I’m sorry to hear that.’ ‘Yes,’ Worm said groaningly to Stephen,
‘I’ve got such a noise in my head that there’s no living night nor day. ‘Tis
just for all the world like people frying fish: fry, fry, fry, all day long in my poor
head, till I don’t know whe’r I’m here or yonder. There, God A’mighty will find
it out sooner or later, I hope, and relieve me.’ ‘Now, my deafness,’ said Mr. Swancourt
impressively, ‘is a dead silence; but William Worm’s is that of people frying fish in
his head. Very remarkable, isn’t it?’ ‘I can hear the frying-pan a-fizzing as
naterel as life,’ said Worm corroboratively. ‘Yes, it is remarkable,’ said Mr. Smith. ‘Very peculiar, very peculiar,’ echoed
the vicar; and they all then followed the path up the hill, bounded on each side by
a little stone wall, from which gleamed fragments of quartz and blood-red marbles, apparently
of inestimable value, in their setting of brown alluvium. Stephen walked with the dignity
of a man close to the horse’s head, Worm stumbled along a stone’s throw in the rear,
and Elfride was nowhere in particular, yet everywhere; sometimes in front, sometimes
behind, sometimes at the sides, hovering about the procession like a butterfly; not definitely
engaged in travelling, yet somehow chiming in at points with the general progress. The vicar explained things as he went on:
‘The fact is, Mr. Smith, I didn’t want this bother of church restoration at all,
but it was necessary to do something in self-defence, on account of those d——dissenters: I use
the word in its scriptural meaning, of course, not as an expletive.’ ‘How very odd!’ said Stephen, with the
concern demanded of serious friendliness. ‘Odd? That’s nothing to how it is in the
parish of Twinkley. Both the churchwardens are——; there, I won’t say what they
are; and the clerk and the sexton as well.’ ‘How very strange!’ said Stephen. ‘Strange? My dear sir, that’s nothing
to how it is in the parish of Sinnerton. However, as to our own parish, I hope we shall make
some progress soon.’ ‘You must trust to circumstances.’ ‘There are no circumstances to trust to.
We may as well trust in Providence if we trust at all. But here we are. A wild place, isn’t
it? But I like it on such days as these.’ The churchyard was entered on this side by
a stone stile, over which having clambered, you remained still on the wild hill, the within
not being so divided from the without as to obliterate the sense of open freedom. A delightful
place to be buried in, postulating that delight can accompany a man to his tomb under any
circumstances. There was nothing horrible in this churchyard, in the shape of tight
mounds bonded with sticks, which shout imprisonment in the ears rather than whisper rest; or trim
garden-flowers, which only raise images of people in new black crape and white handkerchiefs
coming to tend them; or wheel-marks, which remind us of hearses and mourning coaches;
or cypress-bushes, which make a parade of sorrow; or coffin-boards and bones lying behind
trees, showing that we are only leaseholders of our graves. No; nothing but long, wild,
untutored grass, diversifying the forms of the mounds it covered,—themselves irregularly
shaped, with no eye to effect; the impressive presence of the old mountain that all this
was a part of being nowhere excluded by disguising art. Outside were similar slopes and similar
grass; and then the serene impassive sea, visible to a width of half the horizon, and
meeting the eye with the effect of a vast concave, like the interior of a blue vessel.
Detached rocks stood upright afar, a collar of foam girding their bases, and repeating
in its whiteness the plumage of a countless multitude of gulls that restlessly hovered
about. ‘Now, Worm!’ said Mr. Swancourt sharply;
and Worm started into an attitude of attention at once to receive orders. Stephen and himself
were then left in possession, and the work went on till early in the afternoon, when
dinner was announced by Unity of the vicarage kitchen running up the hill without a bonnet. Elfride did not make her appearance inside
the building till late in the afternoon, and came then by special invitation from Stephen
during dinner. She looked so intensely LIVING and full of movement as she came into the
old silent place, that young Smith’s world began to be lit by ‘the purple light’
in all its definiteness. Worm was got rid of by sending him to measure the height of
the tower. What could she do but come close—so close
that a minute arc of her skirt touched his foot—and asked him how he was getting on
with his sketches, and set herself to learn the principles of practical mensuration as
applied to irregular buildings? Then she must ascend the pulpit to re-imagine for the hundredth
time how it would seem to be a preacher. Presently she leant over the front of the
pulpit. ‘Don’t you tell papa, will you, Mr. Smith,
if I tell you something?’ she said with a sudden impulse to make a confidence. ‘Oh no, that I won’t,’ said he, staring
up. ‘Well, I write papa’s sermons for him
very often, and he preaches them better than he does his own; and then afterwards he talks
to people and to me about what he said in his sermon to-day, and forgets that I wrote
it for him. Isn’t it absurd?’ ‘How clever you must be!’ said Stephen.
‘I couldn’t write a sermon for the world.’ ‘Oh, it’s easy enough,’ she said, descending
from the pulpit and coming close to him to explain more vividly. ‘You do it like this.
Did you ever play a game of forfeits called “When is it? where is it? what is it?”’ ‘No, never.’ ‘Ah, that’s a pity, because writing a
sermon is very much like playing that game. You take the text. You think, why is it? what
is it? and so on. You put that down under “Generally.” Then you proceed to the First,
Secondly, and Thirdly. Papa won’t have Fourthlys—says they are all my eye. Then you have a final
Collectively, several pages of this being put in great black brackets, writing opposite,
then A Few Words And I Have Done. Well, all this time you have put on the back of each
page, “KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN”—I mean,’ she added, correcting herself, ‘that’s
how I do in papa’s sermon-book, because otherwise he gets louder and louder, till
at last he shouts like a farmer up a-field. Oh, papa is so funny in some things!’ Then, after this childish burst of confidence,
she was frightened, as if warned by womanly instinct, which for the moment her ardour
had outrun, that she had been too forward to a comparative stranger. Elfride saw her father then, and went away
into the wind, being caught by a gust as she ascended the churchyard slope, in which gust
she had the motions, without the motives, of a hoiden; the grace, without the self-consciousness,
of a pirouetter. She conversed for a minute or two with her father, and proceeded homeward,
Mr. Swancourt coming on to the church to Stephen. The wind had freshened his warm complexion
as it freshens the glow of a brand. He was in a mood of jollity, and watched Elfride
down the hill with a smile. ‘You little flyaway! you look wild enough
now,’ he said, and turned to Stephen. ‘But she’s not a wild child at all, Mr. Smith.
As steady as you; and that you are steady I see from your diligence here.’ ‘I think Miss Swancourt very clever,’
Stephen observed. ‘Yes, she is; certainly, she is,’ said
papa, turning his voice as much as possible to the neutral tone of disinterested criticism.
‘Now, Smith, I’ll tell you something; but she mustn’t know it for the world—not
for the world, mind, for she insists upon keeping it a dead secret. Why, SHE WRITES
MY SERMONS FOR ME OFTEN, and a very good job she makes of them!’ ‘She can do anything.’ ‘She can do that. The little rascal has
the very trick of the trade. But, mind you, Smith, not a word about it to her, not a single
word!’ ‘Not a word,’ said Smith. ‘Look there,’ said Mr. Swancourt. ‘What
do you think of my roofing?’ He pointed with his walking-stick at the chancel roof, ‘Did you do that, sir?’ ‘Yes, I worked in shirt-sleeves all the
time that was going on. I pulled down the old rafters, fixed the new ones, put on the
battens, slated the roof, all with my own hands, Worm being my assistant. We worked
like slaves, didn’t we, Worm?’ ‘Ay, sure, we did; harder than some here
and there—hee, hee!’ said William Worm, cropping up from somewhere. ‘Like slaves,
‘a b’lieve—hee, hee! And weren’t ye foaming mad, sir, when the nails wouldn’t
go straight? Mighty I! There, ‘tisn’t so bad to cuss and keep it in as to cuss and
let it out, is it, sir?’ ‘Well—why?’ ‘Because you, sir, when ye were a-putting
on the roof, only used to cuss in your mind, which is, I suppose, no harm at all.’ ‘I don’t think you know what goes on in
my mind, Worm.’ ‘Oh, doan’t I, sir—hee, hee! Maybe I’m
but a poor wambling thing, sir, and can’t read much; but I can spell as well as some
here and there. Doan’t ye mind, sir, that blustrous night when ye asked me to hold the
candle to ye in yer workshop, when you were making a new chair for the chancel?’ ‘Yes; what of that?’ ‘I stood with the candle, and you said you
liked company, if ‘twas only a dog or cat—maning me; and the chair wouldn’t do nohow.’ ‘Ah, I remember.’ ‘No; the chair wouldn’t do nohow. ‘A
was very well to look at; but, Lord!——’ ‘Worm, how often have I corrected you for
irreverent speaking?’ ‘—‘A was very well to look at, but you
couldn’t sit in the chair nohow. ‘Twas all a-twist wi’ the chair, like the letter
Z, directly you sat down upon the chair. “Get up, Worm,” says you, when you seed the chair
go all a-sway wi’ me. Up you took the chair, and flung en like fire and brimstone to t’other
end of your shop—all in a passion. “Damn the chair!” says I. “Just what I was thinking,”
says you, sir. “I could see it in your face, sir,” says I, “and I hope you and God
will forgi’e me for saying what you wouldn’t.” To save your life you couldn’t help laughing,
sir, at a poor wambler reading your thoughts so plain. Ay, I’m as wise as one here and
there.’ ‘I thought you had better have a practical
man to go over the church and tower with you,’ Mr. Swancourt said to Stephen the following
morning, ‘so I got Lord Luxellian’s permission to send for a man when you came. I told him
to be there at ten o’clock. He’s a very intelligent man, and he will tell you all
you want to know about the state of the walls. His name is John Smith.’ Elfride did not like to be seen again at the
church with Stephen. ‘I will watch here for your appearance at the top of the tower,’
she said laughingly. ‘I shall see your figure against the sky.’ ‘And when I am up there I’ll wave my handkerchief
to you, Miss Swancourt,’ said Stephen. ‘In twelve minutes from this present moment,’
he added, looking at his watch, ‘I’ll be at the summit and look out for you.’ She went round to the corner of the shrubbery,
whence she could watch him down the slope leading to the foot of the hill on which the
church stood. There she saw waiting for him a white spot—a mason in his working clothes.
Stephen met this man and stopped. To her surprise, instead of their moving on
to the churchyard, they both leisurely sat down upon a stone close by their meeting-place,
and remained as if in deep conversation. Elfride looked at the time; nine of the twelve minutes
had passed, and Stephen showed no signs of moving. More minutes passed—she grew cold
with waiting, and shivered. It was not till the end of a quarter of an hour that they
began to slowly wend up the hill at a snail’s pace. ‘Rude and unmannerly!’ she said to herself,
colouring with pique. ‘Anybody would think he was in love with that horrid mason instead
of with——’ The sentence remained unspoken, though not
unthought. She returned to the porch. ‘Is the man you sent for a lazy, sit-still,
do-nothing kind of man?’ she inquired of her father. ‘No,’ he said surprised; ‘quite the
reverse. He is Lord Luxellian’s master-mason, John Smith.’ ‘Oh,’ said Elfride indifferently, and
returned towards her bleak station, and waited and shivered again. It was a trifle, after
all—a childish thing—looking out from a tower and waving a handkerchief. But her
new friend had promised, and why should he tease her so? The effect of a blow is as proportionate
to the texture of the object struck as to its own momentum; and she had such a superlative
capacity for being wounded that little hits struck her hard. It was not till the end of half an hour that
two figures were seen above the parapet of the dreary old pile, motionless as bitterns
on a ruined mosque. Even then Stephen was not true enough to perform what he was so
courteous to promise, and he vanished without making a sign. He returned at midday. Elfride looked vexed
when unconscious that his eyes were upon her; when conscious, severe. However, her attitude
of coldness had long outlived the coldness itself, and she could no longer utter feigned
words of indifference. ‘Ah, you weren’t kind to keep me waiting
in the cold, and break your promise,’ she said at last reproachfully, in tones too low
for her father’s powers of hearing. ‘Forgive, forgive me!’ said Stephen with
dismay. ‘I had forgotten—quite forgotten! Something prevented my remembering.’ ‘Any further explanation?’ said Miss Capricious,
pouting. He was silent
for a few minutes, and looked askance. ‘None,’ he said, with the accent of one
who concealed a sin. Chapter V
‘Bosom’d high in tufted trees.’ It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which
took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped
themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar,
and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the
herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown;
the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect,
the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it
did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come. Elfride had turned from the table towards
the fire and was idly elevating a hand-screen before her face, when she heard the click
of a little gate outside. ‘Ah, here’s the postman!’ she said,
as a shuffling, active man came through an opening in the shrubbery and across the lawn.
She vanished, and met him in the porch, afterwards coming in with her hands behind her back. ‘How many are there? Three for papa, one
for Mr. Smith, none for Miss Swancourt. And, papa, look here, one of yours is from—whom
do you think?—Lord Luxellian. And it has something HARD in it—a lump of something.
I’ve been feeling it through the envelope, and can’t think what it is.’ ‘What does Luxellian write for, I wonder?’
Mr. Swancourt had said simultaneously with her words. He handed Stephen his letter, and
took his own, putting on his countenance a higher class of look than was customary, as
became a poor gentleman who was going to read a letter from a peer. Stephen read his missive with a countenance
quite the reverse of the vicar’s. ‘PERCY PLACE, Thursday Evening.
‘DEAR SMITH,—Old H. is in a towering rage with you for being so long
about the church sketches. Swears you are more trouble than you are
worth. He says I am to write and say you are to stay no longer on
any consideration—that he would have done it all in three hours very
easily. I told him that you were not like an experienced hand, which he
seemed to forget, but it did not make much difference. However, between
you and me privately, if I were you I would not alarm myself for a day
or so, if I were not inclined to return. I would make out the week and
finish my spree. He will blow up just as much if you appear here on
Saturday as if you keep away till Monday morning.—Yours very truly,
‘SIMPKINS JENKINS. ‘Dear me—very awkward!’ said Stephen,
rather en l’air, and confused with the kind of confusion that assails an understrapper
when he has been enlarged by accident to the dimensions of a superior, and is somewhat
rudely pared down to his original size. ‘What is awkward?’ said Miss Swancourt. Smith by this time recovered his equanimity,
and with it the professional dignity of an experienced architect. ‘Important business demands my immediate
presence in London, I regret to say,’ he replied. ‘What! Must you go at once?’ said Mr.
Swancourt, looking over the edge of his letter. ‘Important business? A young fellow like
you to have important business!’ ‘The truth is,’ said Stephen blushing,
and rather ashamed of having pretended even so slightly to a consequence which did not
belong to him,—‘the truth is, Mr. Hewby has sent to say I am to come home; and I must
obey him.’ ‘I see; I see. It is politic to do so, you
mean. Now I can see more than you think. You are to be his partner. I booked you for that
directly I read his letter to me the other day, and the way he spoke of you. He thinks
a great deal of you, Mr. Smith, or he wouldn’t be so anxious for your return.’ Unpleasant to Stephen such remarks as these
could not sound; to have the expectancy of partnership with one of the largest-practising
architects in London thrust upon him was cheering, however untenable he felt the idea to be.
He saw that, whatever Mr. Hewby might think, Mr. Swancourt certainly thought much of him
to entertain such an idea on such slender ground as to be absolutely no ground at all.
And then, unaccountably, his speaking face exhibited a cloud of sadness, which a reflection
on the remoteness of any such contingency could hardly have sufficed to cause. Elfride was struck with that look of his;
even Mr. Swancourt noticed it. ‘Well,’ he said cheerfully, ‘never mind
that now. You must come again on your own account; not on business. Come to see me as
a visitor, you know—say, in your holidays—all you town men have holidays like schoolboys.
When are they?’ ‘In August, I believe.’ ‘Very well; come in August; and then you
need not hurry away so. I am glad to get somebody decent to talk to, or at, in this outlandish
ultima Thule. But, by the bye, I have something to say—you won’t go to-day?’ ‘No; I need not,’ said Stephen hesitatingly.
‘I am not obliged to get back before Monday morning.’ ‘Very well, then, that brings me to what
I am going to propose. This is a letter from Lord Luxellian. I think you heard me speak
of him as the resident landowner in this district, and patron of this living?’ ‘I—know of him.’ ‘He is in London now. It seems that he has
run up on business for a day or two, and taken Lady Luxellian with him. He has written to
ask me to go to his house, and search for a paper among his private memoranda, which
he forgot to take with him.’ ‘What did he send in the letter?’ inquired
Elfride. ‘The key of a private desk in which the
papers are. He doesn’t like to trust such a matter to any body else. I have done such
things for him before. And what I propose is, that we make an afternoon of it—all
three of us. Go for a drive to Targan Bay, come home by way of Endelstow House; and whilst
I am looking over the documents you can ramble about the rooms where you like. I have the
run of the house at any time, you know. The building, though nothing but a mass of gables
outside, has a splendid hall, staircase, and gallery within; and there are a few good pictures.’ ‘Yes, there are,’ said Stephen. ‘Have you seen the place, then? ‘I saw it as I came by,’ he said hastily. ‘Oh yes; but I was alluding to the interior.
And the church—St. Eval’s—is much older than our St. Agnes’ here. I do duty in that
and this alternately, you know. The fact is, I ought to have some help; riding across that
park for two miles on a wet morning is not at all the thing. If my constitution were
not well seasoned, as thank God it is,’—here Mr. Swancourt looked down his front, as if
his constitution were visible there,—‘I should be coughing and barking all the year
round. And when the family goes away, there are only about three servants to preach to
when I get there. Well, that shall be the arrangement, then. Elfride, you will like
to go?’ Elfride assented; and the little breakfast-party
separated. Stephen rose to go and take a few final measurements at the church, the vicar
following him to the door with a mysterious expression of inquiry on his face. ‘You’ll put up with our not having family
prayer this morning, I hope?’ he whispered. ‘Yes; quite so,’ said Stephen. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he continued
in the same undertone, ‘we don’t make a regular thing of it; but when we have strangers
visiting us, I am strongly of opinion that it is the proper thing to do, and I always
do it. I am very strict on that point. But you, Smith, there is something in your face
which makes me feel quite at home; no nonsense about you, in short. Ah, it reminds me of
a splendid story I used to hear when I was a helter-skelter young fellow—such a story!
But’—here the vicar shook his head self-forbiddingly, and grimly laughed. ‘Was it a good story?’ said young Smith,
smiling too. ‘Oh yes; but ‘tis too bad—too bad! Couldn’t
tell it to you for the world!’ Stephen went across the lawn, hearing the
vicar chuckling privately at the recollection as he withdrew. They started at three o’clock. The gray
morning had resolved itself into an afternoon bright with a pale pervasive sunlight, without
the sun itself being visible. Lightly they trotted along—the wheels nearly silent,
the horse’s hoofs clapping, almost ringing, upon the hard, white, turnpike road as it
followed the level ridge in a perfectly straight line, seeming to be absorbed ultimately by
the white of the sky. Targan Bay—which had the merit of being
easily got at—was duly visited. They then swept round by innumerable lanes, in which
not twenty consecutive yards were either straight or level, to the domain of Lord Luxellian.
A woman with a double chin and thick neck, like Queen Anne by Dahl, threw open the lodge
gate, a little boy standing behind her. ‘I’ll give him something, poor little
fellow,’ said Elfride, pulling out her purse and hastily opening it. From the interior
of her purse a host of bits of paper, like a flock of white birds, floated into the air,
and were blown about in all directions. ‘Well, to be sure!’ said Stephen with
a slight laugh. ‘What the dickens is all that?’ said Mr.
Swancourt. ‘Not halves of bank-notes, Elfride?’ Elfride looked annoyed and guilty. ‘They
are only something of mine, papa,’ she faltered, whilst Stephen leapt out, and, assisted by
the lodge-keeper’s little boy, crept about round the wheels and horse’s hoofs till
the papers were all gathered together again. He handed them back to her, and remounted. ‘I suppose you are wondering what those
scraps were?’ she said, as they bowled along up the sycamore avenue. ‘And so I may as
well tell you. They are notes for a romance I am writing.’ She could not help colouring at the confession,
much as she tried to avoid it. ‘A story, do you mean?’ said Stephen,
Mr. Swancourt half listening, and catching a word of the conversation now and then. ‘Yes; THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE; a romance
of the fifteenth century. Such writing is out of date now, I know; but I like doing
it.’ ‘A romance carried in a purse! If a highwayman
were to rob you, he would be taken in.’ ‘Yes; that’s my way of carrying manuscript.
The real reason is, that I mostly write bits of it on scraps of paper when I am on horseback;
and I put them there for convenience.’ ‘What are you going to do with your romance
when you have written it?’ said Stephen. ‘I don’t know,’ she replied, and turned
her head to look at the prospect. For by this time they had reached the precincts
of Endelstow House. Driving through an ancient gate-way of dun-coloured stone, spanned by
the high-shouldered Tudor arch, they found themselves in a spacious court, closed by
a facade on each of its three sides. The substantial portions of the existing building dated from
the reign of Henry VIII.; but the picturesque and sheltered spot had been the site of an
erection of a much earlier date. A licence to crenellate mansum infra manerium suum was
granted by Edward II. to ‘Hugo Luxellen chivaler;’ but though the faint outline
of the ditch and mound was visible at points, no sign of the original building remained. The windows on all sides were long and many-mullioned;
the roof lines broken up by dormer lights of the same pattern. The apex stones of these
dormers, together with those of the gables, were surmounted by grotesque figures in rampant,
passant, and couchant variety. Tall octagonal and twisted chimneys thrust themselves high
up into the sky, surpassed in height, however, by some poplars and sycamores at the back,
which showed their gently rocking summits over ridge and parapet. In the corners of
the court polygonal bays, whose surfaces were entirely occupied by buttresses and windows,
broke into the squareness of the enclosure; and a far-projecting oriel, springing from
a fantastic series of mouldings, overhung the archway of the chief entrance to the house. As Mr. Swancourt had remarked, he had the
freedom of the mansion in the absence of its owner. Upon a statement of his errand they
were all admitted to the library, and left entirely to themselves. Mr. Swancourt was
soon up to his eyes in the examination of a heap of papers he had taken from the cabinet
described by his correspondent. Stephen and Elfride had nothing to do but to wander about
till her father was ready. Elfride entered the gallery, and Stephen followed
her without seeming to do so. It was a long sombre apartment, enriched with fittings a
century or so later in style than the walls of the mansion. Pilasters of Renaissance workmanship
supported a cornice from which sprang a curved ceiling, panelled in the awkward twists and
curls of the period. The old Gothic quarries still remained in the upper portion of the
large window at the end, though they had made way for a more modern form of glazing elsewhere. Stephen was at one end of the gallery looking
towards Elfride, who stood in the midst, beginning to feel somewhat depressed by the society
of Luxellian shades of cadaverous complexion fixed by Holbein, Kneller, and Lely, and seeming
to gaze at and through her in a moralizing mood. The silence, which cast almost a spell
upon them, was broken by the sudden opening of a door at the far end. Out bounded a pair of little girls, lightly
yet warmly dressed. Their eyes were sparkling; their hair swinging about and around; their
red mouths laughing with unalloyed gladness. ‘Ah, Miss Swancourt: dearest Elfie! we heard
you. Are you going to stay here? You are our little mamma, are you not—our big mamma
is gone to London,’ said one. ‘Let me tiss you,’ said the other, in
appearance very much like the first, but to a smaller pattern. Their pink cheeks and yellow hair were speedily
intermingled with the folds of Elfride’s dress; she then stooped and tenderly embraced
them both. ‘Such an odd thing,’ said Elfride, smiling,
and turning to Stephen. ‘They have taken it into their heads lately to call me “little
mamma,” because I am very fond of them, and wore a dress the other day something like
one of Lady Luxellian’s.’ These two young creatures were the Honourable
Mary and the Honourable Kate—scarcely appearing large enough as yet to bear the weight of
such ponderous prefixes. They were the only two children of Lord and Lady Luxellian, and,
as it proved, had been left at home during their parents’ temporary absence, in the
custody of nurse and governess. Lord Luxellian was dotingly fond of the children; rather
indifferent towards his wife, since she had begun to show an inclination not to please
him by giving him a boy. All children instinctively ran after Elfride,
looking upon her more as an unusually nice large specimen of their own tribe than as
a grown-up elder. It had now become an established rule, that whenever she met them—indoors
or out-of-doors, weekdays or Sundays—they were to be severally pressed against her face
and bosom for the space of a quarter of a minute, and other-wise made much of on the
delightful system of cumulative epithet and caress to which unpractised girls will occasionally
abandon themselves. A look of misgiving by the youngsters towards
the door by which they had entered directed attention to a maid-servant appearing from
the same quarter, to put an end to this sweet freedom of the poor Honourables Mary and Kate. ‘I wish you lived here, Miss Swancourt,’
piped one like a melancholy bullfinch. ‘So do I,’ piped the other like a rather
more melancholy bullfinch. ‘Mamma can’t play with us so nicely as you do. I don’t
think she ever learnt playing when she was little. When shall we come to see you?’ ‘As soon as you like, dears.’ ‘And sleep at your house all night? That’s
what I mean by coming to see you. I don’t care to see people with hats and bonnets on,
and all standing up and walking about.’ ‘As soon as we can get mamma’s permission
you shall come and stay as long as ever you like. Good-bye!’ The prisoners were then led off, Elfride again
turning her attention to her guest, whom she had left standing at the remote end of the
gallery. On looking around for him he was nowhere to be seen. Elfride stepped down to
the library, thinking he might have rejoined her father there. But Mr. Swancourt, now cheerfully
illuminated by a pair of candles, was still alone, untying packets of letters and papers,
and tying them up again. As Elfride did not stand on a sufficiently
intimate footing with the object of her interest to justify her, as a proper young lady, to
commence the active search for him that youthful impulsiveness prompted, and as, nevertheless,
for a nascent reason connected with those divinely cut lips of his, she did not like
him to be absent from her side, she wandered desultorily back to the oak staircase, pouting
and casting her eyes about in hope of discerning his boyish figure. Though daylight still prevailed in the rooms,
the corridors were in a depth of shadow—chill, sad, and silent; and it was only by looking
along them towards light spaces beyond that anything or anybody could be discerned therein.
One of these light spots she found to be caused by a side-door with glass panels in the upper
part. Elfride opened it, and found herself confronting a secondary or inner lawn, separated
from the principal lawn front by a shrubbery. And now she saw a perplexing sight. At right
angles to the face of the wing she had emerged from, and within a few feet of the door, jutted
out another wing of the mansion, lower and with less architectural character. Immediately
opposite to her, in the wall of this wing, was a large broad window, having its blind
drawn down, and illuminated by a light in the room it screened. On the blind was a shadow from somebody close
inside it—a person in profile. The profile was unmistakably that of Stephen. It was just
possible to see that his arms were uplifted, and that his hands held an article of some
kind. Then another shadow appeared—also in profile—and came close to him. This was
the shadow of a woman. She turned her back towards Stephen: he lifted and held out what
now proved to be a shawl or mantle—placed it carefully—so carefully—round the lady;
disappeared; reappeared in her front—fastened the mantle. Did he then kiss her? Surely not.
Yet the motion might have been a kiss. Then both shadows swelled to colossal dimensions—grew
distorted—vanished. Two minutes elapsed. ‘Ah, Miss Swancourt! I am so glad to find
you. I was looking for you,’ said a voice at her elbow—Stephen’s voice. She stepped
into the passage. ‘Do you know any of the members of this
establishment?’ said she. ‘Not a single one: how should I?’ he replied. Chapter VI
‘Fare thee weel awhile!’ Simultaneously with the conclusion of Stephen’s
remark, the sound of the closing of an external door in their immediate neighbourhood reached
Elfride’s ears. It came from the further side of the wing containing the illuminated
room. She then discerned, by the aid of the dusky departing light, a figure, whose sex
was undistinguishable, walking down the gravelled path by the parterre towards the river. The
figure grew fainter, and vanished under the trees. Mr. Swancourt’s voice was heard calling
out their names from a distant corridor in the body of the building. They retraced their
steps, and found him with his coat buttoned up and his hat on, awaiting their advent in
a mood of self-satisfaction at having brought his search to a successful close. The carriage
was brought round, and without further delay the trio drove away from the mansion, under
the echoing gateway arch, and along by the leafless sycamores, as the stars began to
kindle their trembling lights behind the maze of branches and twigs. No words were spoken either by youth or maiden.
Her unpractised mind was completely occupied in fathoming its recent acquisition. The young
man who had inspired her with such novelty of feeling, who had come directly from London
on business to her father, having been brought by chance to Endelstow House had, by some
means or other, acquired the privilege of approaching some lady he had found therein,
and of honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind,—all in the space of half an
hour. What room were they standing in? thought Elfride.
As nearly as she could guess, it was Lord Luxellian’s business-room, or office. What
people were in the house? None but the governess and servants, as far as she knew, and of these
he had professed a total ignorance. Had the person she had indistinctly seen leaving the
house anything to do with the performance? It was impossible to say without appealing
to the culprit himself, and that she would never do. The more Elfride reflected, the
more certain did it appear that the meeting was a chance rencounter, and not an appointment.
On the ultimate inquiry as to the individuality of the woman, Elfride at once assumed that
she could not be an inferior. Stephen Smith was not the man to care about passages-at-love
with women beneath him. Though gentle, ambition was visible in his kindling eyes; he evidently
hoped for much; hoped indefinitely, but extensively. Elfride was puzzled, and being puzzled, was,
by a natural sequence of girlish sensations, vexed with him. No more pleasure came in recognizing
that from liking to attract him she was getting on to love him, boyish as he was and innocent
as he had seemed. They reached the bridge which formed a link
between the eastern and western halves of the parish. Situated in a valley that was
bounded outwardly by the sea, it formed a point of depression from which the road ascended
with great steepness to West Endelstow and the Vicarage. There was no absolute necessity
for either of them to alight, but as it was the vicar’s custom after a long journey
to humour the horse in making this winding ascent, Elfride, moved by an imitative instinct,
suddenly jumped out when Pleasant had just begun to adopt the deliberate stalk he associated
with this portion of the road. The young man seemed glad of any excuse for
breaking the silence. ‘Why, Miss Swancourt, what a risky thing to do!’ he exclaimed,
immediately following her example by jumping down on the other side. ‘Oh no, not at all,’ replied she coldly;
the shadow phenomenon at Endelstow House still paramount within her. Stephen walked along by himself for two or
three minutes, wrapped in the rigid reserve dictated by her tone. Then apparently thinking
that it was only for girls to pout, he came serenely round to her side, and offered his
arm with Castilian gallantry, to assist her in ascending the remaining three-quarters
of the steep. Here was a temptation: it was the first time
in her life that Elfride had been treated as a grown-up woman in this way—offered
an arm in a manner implying that she had a right to refuse it. Till to-night she had
never received masculine attentions beyond those which might be contained in such homely
remarks as ‘Elfride, give me your hand;’ ‘Elfride, take hold of my arm,’ from her
father. Her callow heart made an epoch of the incident; she considered her array of
feelings, for and against. Collectively they were for taking this offered arm; the single
one of pique determined her to punish Stephen by refusing. ‘No, thank you, Mr. Smith; I can get along
better by myself’ It was Elfride’s first fragile attempt at
browbeating a lover. Fearing more the issue of such an undertaking than what a gentle
young man might think of her waywardness, she immediately afterwards determined to please
herself by reversing her statement. ‘On second thoughts, I will take it,’
she said. They slowly went their way up the hill, a
few yards behind the carriage. ‘How silent you are, Miss Swancourt!’
Stephen observed. ‘Perhaps I think you silent too,’ she
returned. ‘I may have reason to be.’ ‘Scarcely; it is sadness that makes people
silent, and you can have none.’ ‘You don’t know: I have a trouble; though
some might think it less a trouble than a dilemma.’ ‘What is it?’ she asked impulsively. Stephen hesitated. ‘I might tell,’ he
said; ‘at the same time, perhaps, it is as well——’ She let go his arm and imperatively pushed
it from her, tossing her head. She had just learnt that a good deal of dignity is lost
by asking a question to which an answer is refused, even ever so politely; for though
politeness does good service in cases of requisition and compromise, it but little helps a direct
refusal. ‘I don’t wish to know anything of it; I don’t wish it,’ she went on.
‘The carriage is waiting for us at the top of the hill; we must get in;’ and Elfride
flitted to the front. ‘Papa, here is your Elfride!’ she exclaimed to the dusky figure
of the old gentleman, as she sprang up and sank by his side without deigning to accept
aid from Stephen. ‘Ah, yes!’ uttered the vicar in artificially
alert tones, awaking from a most profound sleep, and suddenly preparing to alight. ‘Why, what are you doing, papa? We are not
home yet.’ ‘Oh no, no; of course not; we are not at
home yet,’ Mr. Swancourt said very hastily, endeavouring to dodge back to his original
position with the air of a man who had not moved at all. ‘The fact is I was so lost
in deep meditation that I forgot whereabouts we were.’ And in a minute the vicar was
snoring again. That evening, being the last, seemed to throw
an exceptional shade of sadness over Stephen Smith, and the repeated injunctions of the
vicar, that he was to come and revisit them in the summer, apparently tended less to raise
his spirits than to unearth some misgiving. He left them in the gray light of dawn, whilst
the colours of earth were sombre, and the sun was yet hidden in the east. Elfride had
fidgeted all night in her little bed lest none of the household should be awake soon
enough to start him, and also lest she might miss seeing again the bright eyes and curly
hair, to which their owner’s possession of a hidden mystery added a deeper tinge of
romance. To some extent—so soon does womanly interest take a solicitous turn—she felt
herself responsible for his safe conduct. They breakfasted before daylight; Mr. Swancourt,
being more and more taken with his guest’s ingenuous appearance, having determined to
rise early and bid him a friendly farewell. It was, however, rather to the vicar’s astonishment,
that he saw Elfride walk in to the breakfast-table, candle in hand. Whilst William Worm performed his toilet (during
which performance the inmates of the vicarage were always in the habit of waiting with exemplary
patience), Elfride wandered desultorily to the summer house. Stephen followed her thither.
The copse-covered valley was visible from this position, a mist now lying all along
its length, hiding the stream which trickled through it, though the observers themselves
were in clear air. They stood close together, leaning over the
rustic balustrading which bounded the arbour on the outward side, and formed the crest
of a steep slope beneath Elfride constrainedly pointed out some features of the distant uplands
rising irregularly opposite. But the artistic eye was, either from nature or circumstance,
very faint in Stephen now, and he only half attended to her description, as if he spared
time from some other thought going on within him. ‘Well, good-bye,’ he said suddenly; ‘I
must never see you again, I suppose, Miss Swancourt, in spite of invitations.’ His genuine tribulation played directly upon
the delicate chords of her nature. She could afford to forgive him for a concealment or
two. Moreover, the shyness which would not allow him to look her in the face lent bravery
to her own eyes and tongue. ‘Oh, DO come again, Mr. Smith!’ she said
prettily. ‘I should delight in it; but it will be
better if I do not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Certain circumstances in connection with
me make it undesirable. Not on my account; on yours.’ ‘Goodness! As if anything in connection
with you could hurt me,’ she said with serene supremacy; but seeing that this plan of treatment
was inappropriate, she tuned a smaller note. ‘Ah, I know why you will not come. You don’t
want to. You’ll go home to London and to all the stirring people there, and will never
want to see us any more!’ ‘You know I have no such reason.’ ‘And go on writing letters to the lady you
are engaged to, just as before.’ ‘What does that mean? I am not engaged.’ ‘You wrote a letter to a Miss Somebody;
I saw it in the letter-rack.’ ‘Pooh! an elderly woman who keeps a stationer’s
shop; and it was to tell her to keep my newspapers till I get back.’ ‘You needn’t have explained: it was not
my business at all.’ Miss Elfride was rather relieved to hear that statement, nevertheless.
‘And you won’t come again to see my father?’ she insisted. ‘I should like to—and to see you again,
but——’ ‘Will you reveal to me that matter you hide?’
she interrupted petulantly. ‘No; not now.’ She could not but go on, graceless as it might
seem. ‘Tell me this,’ she importuned with a
trembling mouth. ‘Does any meeting of yours with a lady at Endelstow Vicarage clash with—any
interest you may take in me?’ He started a little. ‘It does not,’ he
said emphatically; and looked into the pupils of her eyes with the confidence that only
honesty can give, and even that to youth alone. The explanation had not come, but a gloom
left her. She could not but believe that utterance. Whatever enigma might lie in the shadow on
the blind, it was not an enigma of underhand passion. She turned towards the house, entering it
through the conservatory. Stephen went round to the front door. Mr. Swancourt was standing
on the step in his slippers. Worm was adjusting a buckle in the harness, and murmuring about
his poor head; and everything was ready for Stephen’s departure. ‘You named August for your visit. August
it shall be; that is, if you care for the society of such a fossilized Tory,’ said
Mr. Swancourt. Mr. Smith only responded hesitatingly, that
he should like to come again. ‘You said you would, and you must,’ insisted
Elfride, coming to the door and speaking under her father’s arm. Whatever reason the youth may have had for
not wishing to enter the house as a guest, it no longer predominated. He promised, and
bade them adieu, and got into the pony-carriage, which crept up the slope, and bore him out
of their sight. ‘I never was so much taken with anybody
in my life as I am with that young fellow—never! I cannot understand it—can’t understand
it anyhow,’ said Mr. Swancourt quite energetically to himself; and went indoors. Chapter VII
‘No more of me you knew, my love!’
Stephen Smith revisited Endelstow Vicarage, agreeably to his promise. He had a genuine
artistic reason for coming, though no such reason seemed to be required. Six-and-thirty
old seat ends, of exquisite fifteenth-century workmanship, were rapidly decaying in an aisle
of the church; and it became politic to make drawings of their worm-eaten contours ere
they were battered past recognition in the turmoil of the so-called restoration. He entered the house at sunset, and the world
was pleasant again to the two fair-haired ones. A momentary pang of disappointment had,
nevertheless, passed through Elfride when she casually discovered that he had not come
that minute post-haste from London, but had reached the neighbourhood the previous evening.
Surprise would have accompanied the feeling, had she not remembered that several tourists
were haunting the coast at this season, and that Stephen might have chosen to do likewise. They did little besides chat that evening,
Mr. Swancourt beginning to question his visitor, closely yet paternally, and in good part,
on his hopes and prospects from the profession he had embraced. Stephen gave vague answers.
The next day it rained. In the evening, when twenty-four hours of Elfride had completely
rekindled her admirer’s ardour, a game of chess was proposed between them. The game had its value in helping on the developments
of their future. Elfride soon perceived that her opponent was
but a learner. She next noticed that he had a very odd way of handling the pieces when
castling or taking a man. Antecedently she would have supposed that the same performance
must be gone through by all players in the same manner; she was taught by his differing
action that all ordinary players, who learn the game by sight, unconsciously touch the
men in a stereotyped way. This impression of indescribable oddness in Stephen’s touch
culminated in speech when she saw him, at the taking of one of her bishops, push it
aside with the taking man instead of lifting it as a preliminary to the move. ‘How strangely you handle the men, Mr. Smith!’ ‘Do I? I am sorry for that.’ ‘Oh no—don’t be sorry; it is not a matter
great enough for sorrow. But who taught you to play?’ ‘Nobody, Miss Swancourt,’ he said. ‘I
learnt from a book lent me by my friend Mr. Knight, the noblest man in the world.’ ‘But you have seen people play?’ ‘I have never seen the playing of a single
game. This is the first time I ever had the opportunity of playing with a living opponent.
I have worked out many games from books, and studied the reasons of the different moves,
but that is all.’ This was a full explanation of his mannerism;
but the fact that a man with the desire for chess should have grown up without being able
to see or engage in a game astonished her not a little. She pondered on the circumstance
for some time, looking into vacancy and hindering the play. Mr. Swancourt was sitting with his eyes fixed
on the board, but apparently thinking of other things. Half to himself he said, pending the
move of Elfride: ‘“Quae finis aut quod me manet stipendium?”’ Stephen replied instantly: ‘“Effare: jussas cum fide poenas luam.”’ ‘Excellent—prompt—gratifying!’ said
Mr. Swancourt with feeling, bringing down his hand upon the table, and making three
pawns and a knight dance over their borders by the shaking. ‘I was musing on those words
as applicable to a strange course I am steering—but enough of that. I am delighted with you, Mr.
Smith, for it is so seldom in this desert that I meet with a man who is gentleman and
scholar enough to continue a quotation, however trite it may be.’ ‘I also apply the words to myself,’ said
Stephen quietly. ‘You? The last man in the world to do that,
I should have thought.’ ‘Come,’ murmured Elfride poutingly, and
insinuating herself between them, ‘tell me all about it. Come, construe, construe!’ Stephen looked steadfastly into her face,
and said slowly, and in a voice full of a far-off meaning that seemed quaintly premature
in one so young: ‘Quae finis WHAT WILL BE THE END, aut OR,
quod stipendium WHAT FINE, manet me AWAITS ME? Effare SPEAK OUT; luam I WILL PAY, cum
fide WITH FAITH, jussas poenas THE PENALTY REQUIRED.’ The vicar, who had listened with a critical
compression of the lips to this school-boy recitation, and by reason of his imperfect
hearing had missed the marked realism of Stephen’s tone in the English words, now said hesitatingly:
‘By the bye, Mr. Smith (I know you’ll excuse my curiosity), though your translation
was unexceptionably correct and close, you have a way of pronouncing your Latin which
to me seems most peculiar. Not that the pronunciation of a dead language is of much importance;
yet your accents and quantities have a grotesque sound to my ears. I thought first that you
had acquired your way of breathing the vowels from some of the northern colleges; but it
cannot be so with the quantities. What I was going to ask was, if your instructor in the
classics could possibly have been an Oxford or Cambridge man?’ ‘Yes; he was an Oxford man—Fellow of St.
Cyprian’s.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Oh yes; there’s no doubt about it. ‘The oddest thing ever I heard of!’ said
Mr. Swancourt, starting with astonishment. ‘That the pupil of such a man——’ ‘The best and cleverest man in England!’
cried Stephen enthusiastically. ‘That the pupil of such a man should pronounce
Latin in the way you pronounce it beats all I ever heard. How long did he instruct you?’ ‘Four years.’ ‘Four years!’ ‘It is not so strange when I explain,’
Stephen hastened to say. ‘It was done in this way—by letter. I sent him exercises
and construing twice a week, and twice a week he sent them back to me corrected, with marginal
notes of instruction. That is how I learnt my Latin and Greek, such as it is. He is not
responsible for my scanning. He has never heard me scan a line.’ ‘A novel case, and a singular instance of
patience!’ cried the vicar. ‘On his part, not on mine. Ah, Henry Knight
is one in a thousand! I remember his speaking to me on this very subject of pronunciation.
He says that, much to his regret, he sees a time coming when every man will pronounce
even the common words of his own tongue as seems right in his own ears, and be thought
none the worse for it; that the speaking age is passing away, to make room for the writing
age.’ Both Elfride and her father had waited attentively
to hear Stephen go on to what would have been the most interesting part of the story, namely,
what circumstances could have necessitated such an unusual method of education. But no
further explanation was volunteered; and they saw, by the young man’s manner of concentrating
himself upon the chess-board, that he was anxious to drop the subject. The game proceeded. Elfride played by rote;
Stephen by thought. It was the cruellest thing to checkmate him after so much labour, she
considered. What was she dishonest enough to do in her compassion? To let him checkmate
her. A second game followed; and being herself absolutely indifferent as to the result (her
playing was above the average among women, and she knew it), she allowed him to give
checkmate again. A final game, in which she adopted the Muzio gambit as her opening, was
terminated by Elfride’s victory at the twelfth move. Stephen looked up suspiciously. His heart
was throbbing even more excitedly than was hers, which itself had quickened when she
seriously set to work on this last occasion. Mr. Swancourt had left the room. ‘You have been trifling with me till now!’
he exclaimed, his face flushing. ‘You did not play your best in the first two games?’ Elfride’s guilt showed in her face. Stephen
became the picture of vexation and sadness, which, relishable for a moment, caused her
the next instant to regret the mistake she had made. ‘Mr. Smith, forgive me!’ she said sweetly.
‘I see now, though I did not at first, that what I have done seems like contempt for your
skill. But, indeed, I did not mean it in that sense. I could not, upon my conscience, win
a victory in those first and second games over one who fought at such a disadvantage
and so manfully.’ He drew a long breath, and murmured bitterly,
‘Ah, you are cleverer than I. You can do everything—I can do nothing! O Miss Swancourt!’
he burst out wildly, his heart swelling in his throat, ‘I must tell you how I love
you! All these months of my absence I have worshipped you.’ He leapt from his seat like the impulsive
lad that he was, slid round to her side, and almost before she suspected it his arm was
round her waist, and the two sets of curls intermingled. So entirely new was full-blown love to Elfride,
that she trembled as much from the novelty of the emotion as from the emotion itself.
Then she suddenly withdrew herself and stood upright, vexed that she had submitted unresistingly
even to his momentary pressure. She resolved to consider this demonstration as premature. ‘You must not begin such things as those,’
she said with coquettish hauteur of a very transparent nature ‘And—you must not do
so again—and papa is coming.’ ‘Let me kiss you—only a little one,’
he said with his usual delicacy, and without reading the factitiousness of her manner. ‘No; not one.’ ‘Only on your cheek?’ ‘No.’ ‘Forehead?’ ‘Certainly not.’ ‘You care for somebody else, then? Ah, I
thought so!’ ‘I am sure I do not.’ ‘Nor for me either?’ ‘How can I tell?’ she said simply, the
simplicity lying merely in the broad outlines of her manner and speech. There were the semitone
of voice and half-hidden expression of eyes which tell the initiated how very fragile
is the ice of reserve at these times. Footsteps were heard. Mr. Swancourt then entered
the room, and their private colloquy ended. The day after this partial revelation, Mr.
Swancourt proposed a drive to the cliffs beyond Targan Bay, a distance of three or four miles. Half an hour before the time of departure
a crash was heard in the back yard, and presently Worm came in, saying partly to the world in
general, partly to himself, and slightly to his auditors: ‘Ay, ay, sure! That frying of fish will
be the end of William Worm. They be at it again this morning—same as ever—fizz,
fizz, fizz!’ ‘Your head bad again, Worm?’ said Mr.
Swancourt. ‘What was that noise we heard in the yard?’ ‘Ay, sir, a weak wambling man am I; and
the frying have been going on in my poor head all through the long night and this morning
as usual; and I was so dazed wi’ it that down fell a piece of leg-wood across the shaft
of the pony-shay, and splintered it off. “Ay,” says I, “I feel it as if ‘twas my own
shay; and though I’ve done it, and parish pay is my lot if I go from here, perhaps I
am as independent as one here and there.”’ ‘Dear me, the shaft of the carriage broken!’
cried Elfride. She was disappointed: Stephen doubly so. The vicar showed more warmth of
temper than the accident seemed to demand, much to Stephen’s uneasiness and rather
to his surprise. He had not supposed so much latent sternness could co-exist with Mr. Swancourt’s
frankness and good-nature. ‘You shall not be disappointed,’ said
the vicar at length. ‘It is almost too long a distance for you to walk. Elfride can trot
down on her pony, and you shall have my old nag, Smith.’ Elfride exclaimed triumphantly, ‘You have
never seen me on horseback—Oh, you must!’ She looked at Stephen and read his thoughts
immediately. ‘Ah, you don’t ride, Mr. Smith?’ ‘I am sorry to say I don’t.’ ‘Fancy a man not able to ride!’ said she
rather pertly. The vicar came to his rescue. ‘That’s
common enough; he has had other lessons to learn. Now, I recommend this plan: let Elfride
ride on horseback, and you, Mr. Smith, walk beside her.’ The arrangement was welcomed with secret delight
by Stephen. It seemed to combine in itself all the advantages of a long slow ramble with
Elfride, without the contingent possibility of the enjoyment being spoilt by her becoming
weary. The pony was saddled and brought round. ‘Now, Mr. Smith,’ said the lady imperatively,
coming downstairs, and appearing in her riding-habit, as she always did in a change of dress, like
a new edition of a delightful volume, ‘you have a task to perform to-day. These earrings
are my very favourite darling ones; but the worst of it is that they have such short hooks
that they are liable to be dropped if I toss my head about much, and when I am riding I
can’t give my mind to them. It would be doing me knight service if you keep your eyes
fixed upon them, and remember them every minute of the day, and tell me directly I drop one.
They have had such hairbreadth escapes, haven’t they, Unity?’ she continued to the parlour-maid
who was standing at the door. ‘Yes, miss, that they have!’ said Unity
with round-eyed commiseration. ‘Once ‘twas in the lane that I found one
of them,’ pursued Elfride reflectively. ‘And then ‘twas by the gate into Eighteen
Acres,’ Unity chimed in. ‘And then ‘twas on the carpet in my own
room,’ rejoined Elfride merrily. ‘And then ‘twas dangling on the embroidery
of your petticoat, miss; and then ‘twas down your back, miss, wasn’t it? And oh,
what a way you was in, miss, wasn’t you? my! until you found it!’ Stephen took Elfride’s slight foot upon
his hand: ‘One, two, three, and up!’ she said. Unfortunately not so. He staggered and lifted,
and the horse edged round; and Elfride was ultimately deposited upon the ground rather
more forcibly than was pleasant. Smith looked all contrition. ‘Never mind,’ said the vicar encouragingly;
‘try again! ‘Tis a little accomplishment that requires some practice, although it looks
so easy. Stand closer to the horse’s head, Mr. Smith.’ ‘Indeed, I shan’t let him try again,’
said she with a microscopic look of indignation. ‘Worm, come here, and help me to mount.’
Worm stepped forward, and she was in the saddle in a trice. Then they moved on, going for some distance
in silence, the hot air of the valley being occasionally brushed from their faces by a
cool breeze, which wound its way along ravines leading up from the sea. ‘I suppose,’ said Stephen, ‘that a man
who can neither sit in a saddle himself nor help another person into one seems a useless
incumbrance; but, Miss Swancourt, I’ll learn to do it all for your sake; I will, indeed.’ ‘What is so unusual in you,’ she said,
in a didactic tone justifiable in a horsewoman’s address to a benighted walker, ‘is that
your knowledge of certain things should be combined with your ignorance of certain other
things.’ Stephen lifted his eyes earnestly to hers. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘it is simply because
there are so many other things to be learnt in this wide world that I didn’t trouble
about that particular bit of knowledge. I thought it would be useless to me; but I don’t
think so now. I will learn riding, and all connected with it, because then you would
like me better. Do you like me much less for this?’ She looked sideways at him with critical meditation
tenderly rendered. ‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’
she began suddenly, without replying to his question. ‘Fancy yourself saying, Mr. Smith: “I sat her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long, For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A fairy’s song, She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;” and that’s all she did.’ ‘No, no,’ said the young man stilly, and
with a rising colour. ‘“And sure in language strange she said,
I love thee true.”’ ‘Not at all,’ she rejoined quickly. ‘See
how I can gallop. Now, Pansy, off!’ And Elfride started; and Stephen beheld her light
figure contracting to the dimensions of a bird as she sank into the distance—her hair
flowing. He walked on in the same direction, and for
a considerable time could see no signs of her returning. Dull as a flower without the
sun he sat down upon a stone, and not for fifteen minutes was any sound of horse or
rider to be heard. Then Elfride and Pansy appeared on the hill in a round trot. ‘Such a delightful scamper as we have had!’
she said, her face flushed and her eyes sparkling. She turned the horse’s head, Stephen arose,
and they went on again. ‘Well, what have you to say to me, Mr. Smith,
after my long absence?’ ‘Do you remember a question you could not
exactly answer last night—whether I was more to you than anybody else?’ said he. ‘I cannot exactly answer now, either.’ ‘Why can’t you?’ ‘Because I don’t know if I am more to
you than any one else.’ ‘Yes, indeed, you are!’ he exclaimed in
a voice of intensest appreciation, at the same time gliding round and looking into her
face. ‘Eyes in eyes,’ he murmured playfully;
and she blushingly obeyed, looking back into his. ‘And why not lips on lips?’ continued
Stephen daringly. ‘No, certainly not. Anybody might look;
and it would be the death of me. You may kiss my hand if you like.’ He expressed by a look that to kiss a hand
through a glove, and that a riding-glove, was not a great treat under the circumstances. ‘There, then; I’ll take my glove off.
Isn’t it a pretty white hand? Ah, you don’t want to kiss it, and you shall not now!’ ‘If I do not, may I never kiss again, you
severe Elfride! You know I think more of you than I can tell; that you are my queen. I
would die for you, Elfride!’ A rapid red again filled her cheeks, and she
looked at him meditatively. What a proud moment it was for Elfride then! She was ruling a
heart with absolute despotism for the first time in her life. Stephen stealthily pounced upon her hand. ‘No; I won’t, I won’t!’ she said intractably;
‘and you shouldn’t take me by surprise.’ There ensued a mild form of tussle for absolute
possession of the much-coveted hand, in which the boisterousness of boy and girl was far
more prominent than the dignity of man and woman. Then Pansy became restless. Elfride
recovered her position and remembered herself. ‘You make me behave in not a nice way at
all!’ she exclaimed, in a tone neither of pleasure nor anger, but partaking of both.
‘I ought not to have allowed such a romp! We are too old now for that sort of thing.’ ‘I hope you don’t think me too—too much
of a creeping-round sort of man,’ said he in a penitent tone, conscious that he too
had lost a little dignity by the proceeding. ‘You are too familiar; and I can’t have
it! Considering the shortness of the time we have known each other, Mr. Smith, you take
too much upon you. You think I am a country girl, and it doesn’t matter how you behave
to me!’ ‘I assure you, Miss Swancourt, that I had
no idea of freak in my mind. I wanted to imprint a sweet—serious kiss upon your hand; and
that’s all.’ ‘Now, that’s creeping round again! And
you mustn’t look into my eyes so,’ she said, shaking her head at him, and trotting
on a few paces in advance. Thus she led the way out of the lane and across some fields
in the direction of the cliffs. At the boundary of the fields nearest the sea she expressed
a wish to dismount. The horse was tied to a post, and they both followed an irregular
path, which ultimately terminated upon a flat ledge passing round the face of the huge blue-black
rock at a height about midway between the sea and the topmost verge. There, far beneath
and before them, lay the everlasting stretch of ocean; there, upon detached rocks, were
the white screaming gulls, seeming ever intending to settle, and yet always passing on. Right
and left ranked the toothed and zigzag line of storm-torn heights, forming the series
which culminated in the one beneath their feet. Behind the youth and maiden was a tempting
alcove and seat, formed naturally in the beetling mass, and wide enough to admit two or three
persons. Elfride sat down, and Stephen sat beside her. ‘I am afraid it is hardly proper of us to
be here, either,’ she said half inquiringly. ‘We have not known each other long enough
for this kind of thing, have we!’ ‘Oh yes,’ he replied judicially; ‘quite
long enough.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘It is not length of time, but the manner
in which our minutes beat, that makes enough or not enough in our acquaintanceship.’ ‘Yes, I see that. But I wish papa suspected
or knew what a VERY NEW THING I am doing. He does not think of it at all.’ ‘Darling Elfie, I wish we could be married!
It is wrong for me to say it—I know it is—before you know more; but I wish we might be, all
the same. Do you love me deeply, deeply?’ ‘No!’ she said in a fluster. At this point-blank denial, Stephen turned
his face away decisively, and preserved an ominous silence; the only objects of interest
on earth for him being apparently the three or four-score sea-birds circling in the air
afar off. ‘I didn’t mean to stop you quite,’ she
faltered with some alarm; and seeing that he still remained silent, she added more anxiously,
‘If you say that again, perhaps, I will not be quite—quite so obstinate—if—if
you don’t like me to be.’ ‘Oh, my Elfride!’ he exclaimed, and kissed
her. It was Elfride’s first kiss. And so awkward
and unused was she; full of striving—no relenting. There was none of those apparent
struggles to get out of the trap which only results in getting further in: no final attitude
of receptivity: no easy close of shoulder to shoulder, hand upon hand, face upon face,
and, in spite of coyness, the lips in the right place at the supreme moment. That graceful
though apparently accidental falling into position, which many have noticed as precipitating
the end and making sweethearts the sweeter, was not here. Why? Because experience was
absent. A woman must have had many kisses before she kisses well. In fact, the art of tendering the lips for
these amatory salutes follows the principles laid down in treatises on legerdemain for
performing the trick called Forcing a Card. The card is to be shifted nimbly, withdrawn,
edged under, and withal not to be offered till the moment the unsuspecting person’s
hand reaches the pack; this forcing to be done so modestly and yet so coaxingly, that
the person trifled with imagines he is really choosing what is in fact thrust into his hand. Well, there were no such facilities now; and
Stephen was conscious of it—first with a momentary regret that his kiss should be spoilt
by her confused receipt of it, and then with the pleasant perception that her awkwardness
was her charm. ‘And you do care for me and love me?’
said he. ‘Yes.’ ‘Very much?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And I mustn’t ask you if you’ll wait
for me, and be my wife some day?’ ‘Why not?’ she said naively. ‘There is a reason why, my Elfride.’ ‘Not any one that I know of.’ ‘Suppose there is something connected with
me which makes it almost impossible for you to agree to be my wife, or for your father
to countenance such an idea?’ ‘Nothing shall make me cease to love you:
no blemish can be found upon your personal nature. That is pure and generous, I know;
and having that, how can I be cold to you?’ ‘And shall nothing else affect us—shall
nothing beyond my nature be a part of my quality in your eyes, Elfie?’ ‘Nothing whatever,’ she said with a breath
of relief. ‘Is that all? Some outside circumstance? What do I care?’ ‘You can hardly judge, dear, till you know
what has to be judged. For that, we will stop till we get home. I believe in you, but I
cannot feel bright.’ ‘Love is new, and fresh to us as the dew;
and we are together. As the lover’s world goes, this is a great deal. Stephen, I fancy
I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content
to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making
a world to suit your happiness.’ ‘Elfride, you sometimes say things which
make you seem suddenly to become five years older than you are, or than I am; and that
remark is one. I couldn’t think so OLD as that, try how I might….And no lover has
ever kissed you before?’ ‘Never.’ ‘I knew that; you were so unused. You ride
well, but you don’t kiss nicely at all; and I was told once, by my friend Knight,
that that is an excellent fault in woman.’ ‘Now, come; I must mount again, or we shall
not be home by dinner-time.’ And they returned to where Pansy stood tethered. ‘Instead
of entrusting my weight to a young man’s unstable palm,’ she continued gaily, ‘I
prefer a surer “upping-stock” (as the villagers call it), in the form of a gate.
There—now I am myself again.’ They proceeded homeward at the same walking
pace. Her blitheness won Stephen out of his thoughtfulness,
and each forgot everything but the tone of the moment. ‘What did you love me for?’ she said,
after a long musing look at a flying bird. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied idly. ‘Oh yes, you do,’ insisted Elfride. ‘Perhaps, for your eyes.’ ‘What of them?—now, don’t vex me by
a light answer. What of my eyes?’ ‘Oh, nothing to be mentioned. They are indifferently
good.’ ‘Come, Stephen, I won’t have that. What
did you love me for?’ ‘It might have been for your mouth?’ ‘Well, what about my mouth?’ ‘I thought it was a passable mouth enough——’ ‘That’s not very comforting.’ ‘With a pretty pout and sweet lips; but
actually, nothing more than what everybody has.’ ‘Don’t make up things out of your head
as you go on, there’s a dear Stephen. Now—what—did—you—love—me—for?’ ‘Perhaps, ‘twas for your neck and hair;
though I am not sure: or for your idle blood, that did nothing but wander away from your
cheeks and back again; but I am not sure. Or your hands and arms, that they eclipsed
all other hands and arms; or your feet, that they played about under your dress like little
mice; or your tongue, that it was of a dear delicate tone. But I am not altogether sure.’ ‘Ah, that’s pretty to say; but I don’t
care for your love, if it made a mere flat picture of me in that way, and not being sure,
and such cold reasoning; but what you FELT I was, you know, Stephen’ (at this a stealthy
laugh and frisky look into his face), ‘when you said to yourself, “I’ll certainly
love that young lady.”’ ‘I never said it.’ ‘When you said to yourself, then, “I never
will love that young lady.”’ ‘I didn’t say that, either.’ ‘Then was it, “I suppose I must love that
young lady?”’ ‘No.’ ‘What, then?’ ‘’Twas much more fluctuating—not so
definite.’ ‘Tell me; do, do.’ ‘It was that I ought not to think about
you if I loved you truly.’ ‘Ah, that I don’t understand. There’s
no getting it out of you. And I’ll not ask you ever any more—never more—to say out
of the deep reality of your heart what you loved me for.’ ‘Sweet tantalizer, what’s the use? It
comes to this sole simple thing: That at one time I had never seen you, and I didn’t
love you; that then I saw you, and I did love you. Is that enough?’ ‘Yes; I will make it do….I know, I think,
what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It
is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities
for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.
‘Well, never mind. I must ask your father to allow us to be engaged directly we get
indoors. It will be for a long time.’ ‘I like it the better….Stephen, don’t
mention it till to-morrow.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because, if he should object—I don’t
think he will; but if he should—we shall have a day longer of happiness from our ignorance….Well,
what are you thinking of so deeply?’ ‘I was thinking how my dear friend Knight
would enjoy this scene. I wish he could come here.’ ‘You seem very much engrossed with him,’
she answered, with a jealous little toss. ‘He must be an interesting man to take up
so much of your attention.’ ‘Interesting!’ said Stephen, his face
glowing with his fervour; ‘noble, you ought to say.’ ‘Oh yes, yes; I forgot,’ she said half
satirically. ‘The noblest man in England, as you told us last night.’ ‘He is a fine fellow, laugh as you will,
Miss Elfie.’ ‘I know he is your hero. But what does he
do? anything?’ ‘He writes.’ ‘What does he write? I have never heard
of his name.’ ‘Because his personality, and that of several
others like him, is absorbed into a huge WE, namely, the impalpable entity called the PRESENT—a
social and literary Review.’ ‘Is he only a reviewer?’ ‘ONLY, Elfie! Why, I can tell you it is
a fine thing to be on the staff of the PRESENT. Finer than being a novelist considerably.’ ‘That’s a hit at me, and my poor COURT
OF KELLYON CASTLE.’ ‘No, Elfride,’ he whispered; ‘I didn’t
mean that. I mean that he is really a literary man of some eminence, and not altogether a
reviewer. He writes things of a higher class than reviews, though he reviews a book occasionally.
His ordinary productions are social and ethical essays—all that the PRESENT contains which
is not literary reviewing.’ ‘I admit he must be talented if he writes
for the PRESENT. We have it sent to us irregularly. I want papa to be a subscriber, but he’s
so conservative. Now the next point in this Mr. Knight—I suppose he is a very good man.’ ‘An excellent man. I shall try to be his
intimate friend some day.’ ‘But aren’t you now?’ ‘No; not so much as that,’ replied Stephen,
as if such a supposition were extravagant. ‘You see, it was in this way—he came originally
from the same place as I, and taught me things; but I am not intimate with him. Shan’t I
be glad when I get richer and better known, and hob and nob with him!’ Stephen’s eyes
sparkled. A pout began to shape itself upon Elfride’s
soft lips. ‘You think always of him, and like him better than you do me!’ ‘No, indeed, Elfride. The feeling is different
quite. But I do like him, and he deserves even more affection from me than I give.’ ‘You are not nice now, and you make me as
jealous as possible!’ she exclaimed perversely. ‘I know you will never speak to any third
person of me so warmly as you do to me of him.’ ‘But you don’t understand, Elfride,’
he said with an anxious movement. ‘You shall know him some day. He is so brilliant—no,
it isn’t exactly brilliant; so thoughtful—nor does thoughtful express him—that it would
charm you to talk to him. He’s a most desirable friend, and that isn’t half I could say.’ ‘I don’t care how good he is; I don’t
want to know him, because he comes between me and you. You think of him night and day,
ever so much more than of anybody else; and when you are thinking of him, I am shut out
of your mind.’ ‘No, dear Elfride; I love you dearly.’ ‘And I don’t like you to tell me so warmly
about him when you are in the middle of loving me. Stephen, suppose that I and this man Knight
of yours were both drowning, and you could only save one of us——’ ‘Yes—the stupid old proposition—which
would I save? ‘Well, which? Not me.’ ‘Both of you,’ he said, pressing her pendent
hand. ‘No, that won’t do; only one of us.’ ‘I cannot say; I don’t know. It is disagreeable—quite
a horrid idea to have to handle.’ ‘A-ha, I know. You would save him, and let
me drown, drown, drown; and I don’t care about your love!’ She had endeavoured to give a playful tone
to her words, but the latter speech was rather forced in its gaiety. At this point in the discussion she trotted
off to turn a corner which was avoided by the footpath, the road and the path reuniting
at a point a little further on. On again making her appearance she continually managed to
look in a direction away from him, and left him in the cool shade of her displeasure.
Stephen was soon beaten at this game of indifference. He went round and entered the range of her
vision. ‘Are you offended, Elfie? Why don’t you
talk?’ ‘Save me, then, and let that Mr. Clever
of yours drown. I hate him. Now, which would you?’ ‘Really, Elfride, you should not press such
a hard question. It is ridiculous.’ ‘Then I won’t be alone with you any more.
Unkind, to wound me so!’ She laughed at her own absurdity but persisted. ‘Come, Elfie, let’s make it up and be
friends.’ ‘Say you would save me, then, and let him
drown.’ ‘I would save you—and him too.’ ‘And let him drown. Come, or you don’t
love me!’ she teasingly went on. ‘And let him drown,’ he ejaculated despairingly. ‘There; now I am yours!’ she said, and
a woman’s flush of triumph lit her eyes. ‘Only one earring, miss, as I’m alive,’
said Unity on their entering the hall. With a face expressive of wretched misgiving,
Elfride’s hand flew like an arrow to her ear. ‘There!’ she exclaimed to Stephen, looking
at him with eyes full of reproach. ‘I quite forgot, indeed. If I had only remembered!’
he answered, with a conscience-stricken face. She wheeled herself round, and turned into
the shrubbery. Stephen followed. ‘If you had told me to watch anything, Stephen,
I should have religiously done it,’ she capriciously went on, as soon as she heard
him behind her. ‘Forgetting is forgivable.’ ‘Well, you will find it, if you want me
to respect you and be engaged to you when we have asked papa.’ She considered a moment,
and added more seriously, ‘I know now where I dropped it, Stephen. It was on the cliff.
I remember a faint sensation of some change about me, but I was too absent to think of
it then. And that’s where it is now, and you must go and look there.’ ‘I’ll go at once.’ And he strode away up the valley, under a
broiling sun and amid the deathlike silence of early afternoon. He ascended, with giddy-paced
haste, the windy range of rocks to where they had sat, felt and peered about the stones
and crannies, but Elfride’s stray jewel was nowhere to be seen. Next Stephen slowly
retraced his steps, and, pausing at a cross-road to reflect a while, he left the plateau and
struck downwards across some fields, in the direction of Endelstow House. He walked along the path by the river without
the slightest hesitation as to its bearing, apparently quite familiar with every inch
of the ground. As the shadows began to lengthen and the sunlight to mellow, he passed through
two wicket-gates, and drew near the outskirts of Endelstow Park. The river now ran along
under the park fence, previous to entering the grove itself, a little further on. Here stood a cottage, between the fence and
the stream, on a slightly elevated spot of ground, round which the river took a turn.
The characteristic feature of this snug habitation was its one chimney in the gable end, its
squareness of form disguised by a huge cloak of ivy, which had grown so luxuriantly and
extended so far from its base, as to increase the apparent bulk of the chimney to the dimensions
of a tower. Some little distance from the back of the house rose the park boundary,
and over this were to be seen the sycamores of the grove, making slow inclinations to
the just-awakening air. Stephen crossed the little wood bridge in
front, went up to the cottage door, and opened it without knock or signal of any kind. Exclamations of welcome burst from some person
or persons when the door was thrust ajar, followed by the scrape of chairs on a stone
floor, as if pushed back by their occupiers in rising from a table. The door was closed
again, and nothing could now be heard from within, save a lively chatter and
the rattle of plates. Chapter VIII
‘Allen-a-Dale is no baron or lord.’ The mists were creeping out of pools and swamps
for their pilgrimages of the night when Stephen came up to the front door of the vicarage.
Elfride was standing on the step illuminated by a lemon-hued expanse of western sky. ‘You never have been all this time looking
for that earring?’ she said anxiously. ‘Oh no; and I have not found it.’ ‘Never mind. Though I am much vexed; they
are my prettiest. But, Stephen, what ever have you been doing—where have you been?
I have been so uneasy. I feared for you, knowing not an inch of the country. I thought, suppose
he has fallen over the cliff! But now I am inclined to scold you for frightening me so.’ ‘I must speak to your father now,’ he
said rather abruptly; ‘I have so much to say to him—and to you, Elfride.’ ‘Will what you have to say endanger this
nice time of ours, and is it that same shadowy secret you allude to so frequently, and will
it make me unhappy?’ ‘Possibly.’ She breathed heavily, and looked around as
if for a prompter. ‘Put it off till to-morrow,’ she said. He involuntarily sighed too. ‘No; it must come to-night. Where is your
father, Elfride?’ ‘Somewhere in the kitchen garden, I think,’
she replied. ‘That is his favourite evening retreat. I will leave you now. Say all that’s
to be said—do all there is to be done. Think of me waiting anxiously for the end.’ And
she re-entered the house. She waited in the drawing-room, watching the
lights sink to shadows, the shadows sink to darkness, until her impatience to know what
had occurred in the garden could no longer be controlled. She passed round the shrubbery,
unlatched the garden door, and skimmed with her keen eyes the whole twilighted space that
the four walls enclosed and sheltered: they were not there. She mounted a little ladder,
which had been used for gathering fruit, and looked over the wall into the field. This
field extended to the limits of the glebe, which was enclosed on that side by a privet-hedge.
Under the hedge was Mr. Swancourt, walking up and down, and talking aloud—to himself,
as it sounded at first. No: another voice shouted occasional replies; and this interlocutor
seemed to be on the other side of the hedge. The voice, though soft in quality, was not
Stephen’s. The second speaker must have been in the long-neglected
garden of an old manor-house hard by, which, together with a small estate attached, had
lately been purchased by a person named Troyton, whom Elfride had never seen. Her father might
have struck up an acquaintanceship with some member of that family through the privet-hedge,
or a stranger to the neighbourhood might have wandered thither. Well, there was no necessity for disturbing
him. And it seemed that, after all, Stephen had
not yet made his desired communication to her father. Again she went indoors, wondering
where Stephen could be. For want of something better to do, she went upstairs to her own
little room. Here she sat down at the open window, and, leaning with her elbow on the
table and her cheek upon her hand, she fell into meditation. It was a hot and still August night. Every
disturbance of the silence which rose to the dignity of a noise could be heard for miles,
and the merest sound for a long distance. So she remained, thinking of Stephen, and
wishing he had not deprived her of his company to no purpose, as it appeared. How delicate
and sensitive he was, she reflected; and yet he was man enough to have a private mystery,
which considerably elevated him in her eyes. Thus, looking at things with an inward vision,
she lost consciousness of the flight of time. Strange conjunctions of circumstances, particularly
those of a trivial everyday kind, are so frequent in an ordinary life, that we grow used to
their unaccountableness, and forget the question whether the very long odds against such juxtaposition
is not almost a disproof of it being a matter of chance at all. What occurred to Elfride
at this moment was a case in point. She was vividly imagining, for the twentieth time,
the kiss of the morning, and putting her lips together in the position another such a one
would demand, when she heard the identical operation performed on the lawn, immediately
beneath her window. A kiss—not of the quiet and stealthy kind,
but decisive, loud, and smart. Her face flushed and she looked out, but to
no purpose. The dark rim of the upland drew a keen sad line against the pale glow of the
sky, unbroken except where a young cedar on the lawn, that had outgrown its fellow trees,
shot its pointed head across the horizon, piercing the firmamental lustre like a sting. It was just possible that, had any persons
been standing on the grassy portions of the lawn, Elfride might have seen their dusky
forms. But the shrubs, which once had merely dotted the glade, had now grown bushy and
large, till they hid at least half the enclosure containing them. The kissing pair might have
been behind some of these; at any rate, nobody was in sight. Had no enigma ever been connected with her
lover by his hints and absences, Elfride would never have thought of admitting into her mind
a suspicion that he might be concerned in the foregoing enactment. But the reservations
he at present insisted on, while they added to the mystery without which perhaps she would
never have seriously loved him at all, were calculated to nourish doubts of all kinds,
and with a slow flush of jealousy she asked herself, might he not be the culprit? Elfride glided downstairs on tiptoe, and out
to the precise spot on which she had parted from Stephen to enable him to speak privately
to her father. Thence she wandered into all the nooks around the place from which the
sound seemed to proceed—among the huge laurestines, about the tufts of pampas grasses, amid the
variegated hollies, under the weeping wych-elm—nobody was there. Returning indoors she called ‘Unity!’ ‘She is gone to her aunt’s, to spend the
evening,’ said Mr. Swancourt, thrusting his head out of his study door, and letting
the light of his candles stream upon Elfride’s face—less revealing than, as it seemed to
herself, creating the blush of uneasy perplexity that was burning upon her cheek. ‘I didn’t know you were indoors, papa,’
she said with surprise. ‘Surely no light was shining from the window when I was on
the lawn?’ and she looked and saw that the shutters were still open. ‘Oh yes, I am in,’ he said indifferently.
‘What did you want Unity for? I think she laid supper before she went out.’ ‘Did she?—I have not been to see—I didn’t
want her for that.’ Elfride scarcely knew, now that a definite
reason was required, what that reason was. Her mind for a moment strayed to another subject,
unimportant as it seemed. The red ember of a match was lying inside the fender, which
explained that why she had seen no rays from the window was because the candles had only
just been lighted. ‘I’ll come directly,’ said the vicar.
‘I thought you were out somewhere with Mr. Smith.’ Even the inexperienced Elfride could not help
thinking that her father must be wonderfully blind if he failed to perceive what was the
nascent consequence of herself and Stephen being so unceremoniously left together; wonderfully
careless, if he saw it and did not think about it; wonderfully good, if, as seemed to her
by far the most probable supposition, he saw it and thought about it and approved of it.
These reflections were cut short by the appearance of Stephen just outside the porch, silvered
about the head and shoulders with touches of moonlight, that had begun to creep through
the trees. ‘Has your trouble anything to do with a
kiss on the lawn?’ she asked abruptly, almost passionately. ‘Kiss on the lawn?’ ‘Yes!’ she said, imperiously now. ‘I didn’t comprehend your meaning, nor
do I now exactly. I certainly have kissed nobody on the lawn, if that is really what
you want to know, Elfride.’ ‘You know nothing about such a performance?’ ‘Nothing whatever. What makes you ask?’ ‘Don’t press me to tell; it is nothing
of importance. And, Stephen, you have not yet spoken to papa about our engagement?’ ‘No,’ he said regretfully, ‘I could
not find him directly; and then I went on thinking so much of what you said about objections,
refusals—bitter words possibly—ending our happiness, that I resolved to put it off
till to-morrow; that gives us one more day of delight—delight of a tremulous kind.’ ‘Yes; but it would be improper to be silent
too long, I think,’ she said in a delicate voice, which implied that her face had grown
warm. ‘I want him to know we love, Stephen. Why did you adopt as your own my thought of
delay?’ ‘I will explain; but I want to tell you
of my secret first—to tell you now. It is two or three hours yet to bedtime. Let us
walk up the hill to the church.’ Elfride passively assented, and they went
from the lawn by a side wicket, and ascended into the open expanse of moonlight which streamed
around the lonely edifice on the summit of the hill. The door was locked. They turned from the
porch, and walked hand in hand to find a resting-place in the churchyard. Stephen chose a flat tomb,
showing itself to be newer and whiter than those around it, and sitting down himself,
gently drew her hand towards him. ‘No, not there,’ she said. ‘Why not here?’ ‘A mere fancy; but never mind.’ And she
sat down. ‘Elfie, will you love me, in spite of everything
that may be said against me?’ ‘O Stephen, what makes you repeat that so
continually and so sadly? You know I will. Yes, indeed,’ she said, drawing closer,
‘whatever may be said of you—and nothing bad can be—I will cling to you just the
same. Your ways shall be my ways until I die.’ ‘Did you ever think what my parents might
be, or what society I originally moved in?’ ‘No, not particularly. I have observed one
or two little points in your manners which are rather quaint—no more. I suppose you
have moved in the ordinary society of professional people.’ ‘Supposing I have not—that none of my
family have a profession except me?’ ‘I don’t mind. What you are only concerns
me.’ ‘Where do you think I went to school—I
mean, to what kind of school?’ ‘Dr. Somebody’s academy,’ she said simply. ‘No. To a dame school originally, then to
a national school.’ ‘Only to those! Well, I love you just as
much, Stephen, dear Stephen,’ she murmured tenderly, ‘I do indeed. And why should you
tell me these things so impressively? What do they matter to me?’ He held her closer and proceeded: ‘What do you think my father is—does for
his living, that is to say?’ ‘He practises some profession or calling,
I suppose.’ ‘No; he is a mason.’ ‘A Freemason?’ ‘No; a cottager and journeyman mason.’ Elfride said nothing at first. After a while
she whispered: ‘That is a strange idea to me. But never
mind; what does it matter?’ ‘But aren’t you angry with me for not
telling you before?’ ‘No, not at all. Is your mother alive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is she a nice lady?’ ‘Very—the best mother in the world. Her
people had been well-to-do yeomen for centuries, but she was only a dairymaid.’ ‘O Stephen!’ came from her in whispered
exclamation. ‘She continued to attend to a dairy long
after my father married her,’ pursued Stephen, without further hesitation. ‘And I remember
very well how, when I was very young, I used to go to the milking, look on at the skimming,
sleep through the churning, and make believe I helped her. Ah, that was a happy time enough!’ ‘No, never—not happy.’ ‘Yes, it was.’ ‘I don’t see how happiness could be where
the drudgery of dairy-work had to be done for a living—the hands red and chapped,
and the shoes clogged….Stephen, I do own that it seems odd to regard you in the light
of—of—having been so rough in your youth, and done menial things of that kind.’ (Stephen
withdrew an inch or two from her side.) ‘But I DO LOVE YOU just the same,’ she continued,
getting closer under his shoulder again, ‘and I don’t care anything about the past; and
I see that you are all the worthier for having pushed on in the world in such a way.’ ‘It is not my worthiness; it is Knight’s,
who pushed me.’ ‘Ah, always he—always he!’ ‘Yes, and properly so. Now, Elfride, you
see the reason of his teaching me by letter. I knew him years before he went to Oxford,
but I had not got far enough in my reading for him to entertain the idea of helping me
in classics till he left home. Then I was sent away from the village, and we very seldom
met; but he kept up this system of tuition by correspondence with the greatest regularity.
I will tell you all the story, but not now. There is nothing more to say now, beyond giving
places, persons, and dates.’ His voice became timidly slow at this point. ‘No; don’t take trouble to say more. You
are a dear honest fellow to say so much as you have; and it is not so dreadful either.
It has become a normal thing that millionaires commence by going up to London with their
tools at their back, and half-a-crown in their pockets. That sort of origin is getting so
respected,’ she continued cheerfully, ‘that it is acquiring some of the odour of Norman
ancestry.’ ‘Ah, if I had MADE my fortune, I shouldn’t
mind. But I am only a possible maker of it as yet.’ ‘It is quite enough. And so THIS is what
your trouble was?’ ‘I thought I was doing wrong in letting
you love me without telling you my story; and yet I feared to do so, Elfie. I dreaded
to lose you, and I was cowardly on that account.’ ‘How plain everything about you seems after
this explanation! Your peculiarities in chess-playing, the pronunciation papa noticed in your Latin,
your odd mixture of book-knowledge with ignorance of ordinary social accomplishments, are accounted
for in a moment. And has this anything to do with what I saw at Lord Luxellian’s?’ ‘What did you see?’ ‘I saw the shadow of yourself putting a
cloak round a lady. I was at the side door; you two were in a room with the window towards
me. You came to me a moment later.’ ‘She was my mother.’ ‘Your mother THERE!’ She withdrew herself
to look at him silently in her interest. ‘Elfride,’ said Stephen, ‘I was going
to tell you the remainder to-morrow—I have been keeping it back—I must tell it now,
after all. The remainder of my revelation refers to where my parents are. Where do you
think they live? You know them—by sight at any rate.’ ‘I know them!’ she said in suspended amazement. ‘Yes. My father is John Smith, Lord Luxellian’s
master-mason, who lives under the park wall by the river.’ ‘O Stephen! can it be?’ ‘He built—or assisted at the building
of the house you live in, years ago. He put up those stone gate piers at the lodge entrance
to Lord Luxellian’s park. My grandfather planted the trees that belt in your lawn;
my grandmother—who worked in the fields with him—held each tree upright whilst he
filled in the earth: they told me so when I was a child. He was the sexton, too, and
dug many of the graves around us.’ ‘And was your unaccountable vanishing on
the first morning of your arrival, and again this afternoon, a run to see your father and
mother?…I understand now; no wonder you seemed to know your way about the village!’ ‘No wonder. But remember, I have not lived
here since I was nine years old. I then went to live with my uncle, a blacksmith, near
Exonbury, in order to be able to attend a national school as a day scholar; there was
none on this remote coast then. It was there I met with my friend Knight. And when I was
fifteen and had been fairly educated by the school-master—and more particularly by Knight—I
was put as a pupil in an architect’s office in that town, because I was skilful in the
use of the pencil. A full premium was paid by the efforts of my mother and father, rather
against the wishes of Lord Luxellian, who likes my father, however, and thinks a great
deal of him. There I stayed till six months ago, when I obtained a situation as improver,
as it is called, in a London office. That’s all of me.’ ‘To think YOU, the London visitor, the town
man, should have been born here, and have known this village so many years before I
did. How strange—how very strange it seems to me!’ she murmured. ‘My mother curtseyed to you and your father
last Sunday,’ said Stephen, with a pained smile at the thought of the incongruity. ‘And
your papa said to her, “I am glad to see you so regular at church, JANE.”’ ‘I remember it, but I have never spoken
to her. We have only been here eighteen months, and the parish is so large.’ ‘Contrast with this,’ said Stephen, with
a miserable laugh, ‘your father’s belief in my “blue blood,” which is still prevalent
in his mind. The first night I came, he insisted upon proving my descent from one of the most
ancient west-county families, on account of my second Christian name; when the truth is,
it was given me because my grandfather was assistant gardener in the Fitzmaurice-Smith
family for thirty years. Having seen your face, my darling, I had not heart to contradict
him, and tell him what would have cut me off from a friendly knowledge of you.’ She sighed deeply. ‘Yes, I see now how this
inequality may be made to trouble us,’ she murmured, and continued in a low, sad whisper,
‘I wouldn’t have minded if they had lived far away. Papa might have consented to an
engagement between us if your connection had been with villagers a hundred miles off; remoteness
softens family contrasts. But he will not like—O Stephen, Stephen! what can I do?’ ‘Do?’ he said tentatively, yet with heaviness.
‘Give me up; let me go back to London, and think no more of me.’ ‘No, no; I cannot give you up! This hopelessness
in our affairs makes me care more for you….I see what did not strike me at first. Stephen,
why do we trouble? Why should papa object? An architect in London is an architect in
London. Who inquires there? Nobody. We shall live there, shall we not? Why need we be so
alarmed?’ ‘And Elfie,’ said Stephen, his hopes kindling
with hers, ‘Knight thinks nothing of my being only a cottager’s son; he says I am
as worthy of his friendship as if I were a lord’s; and if I am worthy of his friendship,
I am worthy of you, am I not, Elfride?’ ‘I not only have never loved anybody but
you,’ she said, instead of giving an answer, ‘but I have not even formed a strong friendship,
such as you have for Knight. I wish you hadn’t. It diminishes me.’ ‘Now, Elfride, you know better,’ he said
wooingly. ‘And had you really never any sweetheart at all?’ ‘None that was ever recognized by me as
such.’ ‘But did nobody ever love you?’ ‘Yes—a man did once; very much, he said.’ ‘How long ago?’ ‘Oh, a long time.’ ‘How long, dearest? ‘A twelvemonth.’ ‘That’s not VERY long’ (rather disappointedly). ‘I said long, not very long.’ ‘And did he want to marry you?’ ‘I believe he did. But I didn’t see anything
in him. He was not good enough, even if I had loved him.’ ‘May I ask what he was?’ ‘A farmer.’ ‘A farmer not good enough—how much better
than my family!’ Stephen murmured. ‘Where is he now?’ he continued to Elfride. ‘HERE.’ ‘Here! what do you mean by that?’ ‘I mean that he is here.’ ‘Where here?’ ‘Under us. He is under this tomb. He is
dead, and we are sitting on his grave.’ ‘Elfie,’ said the young man, standing
up and looking at the tomb, ‘how odd and sad that revelation seems! It quite depresses
me for the moment.’ ‘Stephen! I didn’t wish to sit here; but
you would do so.’ ‘You never encouraged him?’ ‘Never by look, word, or sign,’ she said
solemnly. ‘He died of consumption, and was buried the day you first came.’ ‘Let us go away. I don’t like standing
by HIM, even if you never loved him. He was BEFORE me.’ ‘Worries make you unreasonable,’ she half
pouted, following Stephen at the distance of a few steps. ‘Perhaps I ought to have
told you before we sat down. Yes; let us go.’ Chapter IX
‘Her father did fume’ Oppressed, in spite of themselves, by a foresight
of impending complications, Elfride and Stephen returned down the hill hand in hand. At the
door they paused wistfully, like children late at school. Women accept their destiny more readily than
men. Elfride had now resigned herself to the overwhelming idea of her lover’s sorry antecedents;
Stephen had not forgotten the trifling grievance that Elfride had known earlier admiration
than his own. ‘What was that young man’s name?’ he
inquired. ‘Felix Jethway; a widow’s only son.’ ‘I remember the family.’ ‘She hates me now. She says I killed him.’ Stephen mused, and they entered the porch. ‘Stephen, I love only you,’ she tremulously
whispered. He pressed her fingers, and the trifling shadow passed away, to admit again
the mutual and more tangible trouble. The study appeared to be the only room lighted
up. They entered, each with a demeanour intended to conceal the inconcealable fact that reciprocal
love was their dominant chord. Elfride perceived a man, sitting with his back towards herself,
talking to her father. She would have retired, but Mr. Swancourt had seen her. ‘Come in,’ he said; ‘it is only Martin
Cannister, come for a copy of the register for poor Mrs. Jethway.’ Martin Cannister, the sexton, was rather a
favourite with Elfride. He used to absorb her attention by telling her of his strange
experiences in digging up after long years the bodies of persons he had known, and recognizing
them by some little sign (though in reality he had never recognized any). He had shrewd
small eyes and a great wealth of double chin, which compensated in some measure for considerable
poverty of nose. The appearance of a slip of paper in Cannister’s
hand, and a few shillings lying on the table in front of him, denoted that the business
had been transacted, and the tenor of their conversation went to show that a summary of
village news was now engaging the attention of parishioner and parson. Mr. Cannister stood up and touched his forehead
over his eye with his finger, in respectful salutation of Elfride, gave half as much salute
to Stephen (whom he, in common with other villagers, had never for a moment recognized),
then sat down again and resumed his discourse. ‘Where had I got on to, sir?’ ‘To driving the pile,’ said Mr. Swancourt. ‘The pile ‘twas. So, as I was saying,
Nat was driving the pile in this manner, as I might say.’ Here Mr. Cannister held his
walking-stick scrupulously vertical with his left hand, and struck a blow with great force
on the knob of the stick with his right. ‘John was steadying the pile so, as I might say.’
Here he gave the stick a slight shake, and looked firmly in the various eyes around to
see that before proceeding further his listeners well grasped the subject at that stage. ‘Well,
when Nat had struck some half-dozen blows more upon the pile, ‘a stopped for a second
or two. John, thinking he had done striking, put his hand upon the top o’ the pile to
gie en a pull, and see if ‘a were firm in the ground.’ Mr. Cannister spread his hand
over the top of the stick, completely covering it with his palm. ‘Well, so to speak, Nat
hadn’t maned to stop striking, and when John had put his hand upon the pile, the beetle——’ ‘Oh dreadful!’ said Elfride. ‘The beetle was already coming down, you
see, sir. Nat just caught sight of his hand, but couldn’t stop the blow in time. Down
came the beetle upon poor John Smith’s hand, and squashed en to a pummy.’ ‘Dear me, dear me! poor fellow!’ said
the vicar, with an intonation like the groans of the wounded in a pianoforte performance
of the ‘Battle of Prague.’ ‘John Smith, the master-mason?’ cried
Stephen hurriedly. ‘Ay, no other; and a better-hearted man
God A’mighty never made.’ ‘Is he so much hurt?’ ‘I have heard,’ said Mr. Swancourt, not
noticing Stephen, ‘that he has a son in London, a very promising young fellow.’ ‘Oh, how he must be hurt!’ repeated Stephen. ‘A beetle couldn’t hurt very little. Well,
sir, good-night t’ye; and ye, sir; and you, miss, I’m sure.’ Mr. Cannister had been making unnoticeable
motions of withdrawal, and by the time this farewell remark came from his lips he was
just outside the door of the room. He tramped along the hall, stayed more than a minute
endeavouring to close the door properly, and then was lost to their hearing. Stephen had meanwhile turned and said to the
vicar: ‘Please excuse me this evening! I must leave.
John Smith is my father.’ The vicar did not comprehend at first. ‘What did you say?’ he inquired. ‘John Smith is my father,’ said Stephen
deliberately. A surplus tinge of redness rose from Mr. Swancourt’s
neck, and came round over his face, the lines of his features became more firmly defined,
and his lips seemed to get thinner. It was evident that a series of little circumstances,
hitherto unheeded, were now fitting themselves together, and forming a lucid picture in Mr.
Swancourt’s mind in such a manner as to render useless further explanation on Stephen’s
part. ‘Indeed,’ the vicar said, in a voice dry
and without inflection. This being a word which depends entirely upon
its tone for its meaning, Mr. Swancourt’s enunciation was equivalent to no expression
at all. ‘I have to go now,’ said Stephen, with
an agitated bearing, and a movement as if he scarcely knew whether he ought to run off
or stay longer. ‘On my return, sir, will you kindly grant me a few minutes’ private
conversation?’ ‘Certainly. Though antecedently it does
not seem possible that there can be anything of the nature of private business between
us.’ Mr. Swancourt put on his straw hat, crossed
the drawing-room, into which the moonlight was shining, and stepped out of the French
window into the verandah. It required no further effort to perceive what, indeed, reasoning
might have foretold as the natural colour of a mind whose pleasures were taken amid
genealogies, good dinners, and patrician reminiscences, that Mr. Swancourt’s prejudices were too
strong for his generosity, and that Stephen’s moments as his friend and equal were numbered,
or had even now ceased. Stephen moved forward as if he would follow
the vicar, then as if he would not, and in absolute perplexity whither to turn himself,
went awkwardly to the door. Elfride followed lingeringly behind him. Before he had receded
two yards from the doorstep, Unity and Ann the housemaid came home from their visit to
the village. ‘Have you heard anything about John Smith?
The accident is not so bad as was reported, is it?’ said Elfride intuitively. ‘Oh no; the doctor says it is only a bad
bruise.’ ‘I thought so!’ cried Elfride gladly. ‘He says that, although Nat believes he
did not check the beetle as it came down, he must have done so without knowing it—checked
it very considerably too; for the full blow would have knocked his hand abroad, and in
reality it is only made black-and-blue like.’ ‘How thankful I am!’ said Stephen. The perplexed Unity looked at him with her
mouth rather than with her eyes. ‘That will do, Unity,’ said Elfride magisterially;
and the two maids passed on. ‘Elfride, do you forgive me?’ said Stephen
with a faint smile. ‘No man is fair in love;’ and he took her fingers lightly in his own. With her head thrown sideways in the Greuze
attitude, she looked a tender reproach at his doubt and pressed his hand. Stephen returned
the pressure threefold, then hastily went off to his father’s cottage by the wall
of Endelstow Park. ‘Elfride, what have you to say to this?’
inquired her father, coming up immediately Stephen had retired. With feminine quickness she grasped at any
straw that would enable her to plead his cause. ‘He had told me of it,’ she faltered;
‘so that it is not a discovery in spite of him. He was just coming in to tell you.’ ‘COMING to tell! Why hadn’t he already
told? I object as much, if not more, to his underhand concealment of this, than I do to
the fact itself. It looks very much like his making a fool of me, and of you too. You and
he have been about together, and corresponding together, in a way I don’t at all approve
of—in a most unseemly way. You should have known how improper such conduct is. A woman
can’t be too careful not to be seen alone with I-don’t-know-whom.’ ‘You saw us, papa, and have never said a
word.’ ‘My fault, of course; my fault. What the
deuce could I be thinking of! He, a villager’s son; and we, Swancourts, connections of the
Luxellians. We have been coming to nothing for centuries, and now I believe we have got
there. What shall I next invite here, I wonder!’ Elfride began to cry at this very unpropitious
aspect of affairs. ‘O papa, papa, forgive me and him! We care so much for one another,
papa—O, so much! And what he was going to ask you is, if you will allow of an engagement
between us till he is a gentleman as good as you. We are not in a hurry, dear papa;
we don’t want in the least to marry now; not until he is richer. Only will you let
us be engaged, because I love him so, and he loves me?’ Mr. Swancourt’s feelings were a little touched
by this appeal, and he was annoyed that such should be the case. ‘Certainly not!’ he
replied. He pronounced the inhibition lengthily and sonorously, so that the ‘not’ sounded
like ‘n-o-o-o-t!’ ‘No, no, no; don’t say it!’ ‘Foh! A fine story. It is not enough that
I have been deluded and disgraced by having him here,—the son of one of my village peasants,—but
now I am to make him my son-in-law! Heavens above us, are you mad, Elfride?’ ‘You have seen his letters come to me ever
since his first visit, papa, and you knew they were a sort of—love-letters; and since
he has been here you have let him be alone with me almost entirely; and you guessed,
you must have guessed, what we were thinking of, and doing, and you didn’t stop him.
Next to love-making comes love-winning, and you knew it would come to that, papa.’ The vicar parried this common-sense thrust.
‘I know—since you press me so—I know I did guess some childish attachment might
arise between you; I own I did not take much trouble to prevent it; but I have not particularly
countenanced it; and, Elfride, how can you expect that I should now? It is impossible;
no father in England would hear of such a thing.’ ‘But he is the same man, papa; the same
in every particular; and how can he be less fit for me than he was before?’ ‘He appeared a young man with well-to-do
friends, and a little property; but having neither, he is another man.’ ‘You inquired nothing about him?’ ‘I went by Hewby’s introduction. He should
have told me. So should the young man himself; of course he should. I consider it a most
dishonourable thing to come into a man’s house like a treacherous I-don’t-know-what.’ ‘But he was afraid to tell you, and so should
I have been. He loved me too well to like to run the risk. And as to speaking of his
friends on his first visit, I don’t see why he should have done so at all. He came
here on business: it was no affair of ours who his parents were. And then he knew that
if he told you he would never be asked here, and would perhaps never see me again. And
he wanted to see me. Who can blame him for trying, by any means, to stay near me—the
girl he loves? All is fair in love. I have heard you say so yourself, papa; and you yourself
would have done just as he has—so would any man.’ ‘And any man, on discovering what I have
discovered, would also do as I do, and mend my mistake; that is, get shot of him again,
as soon as the laws of hospitality will allow.’ But Mr. Swancourt then remembered that he
was a Christian. ‘I would not, for the world, seem to turn him out of doors,’ he added;
‘but I think he will have the tact to see that he cannot stay long after this, with
good taste.’ ‘He will, because he’s a gentleman. See
how graceful his manners are,’ Elfride went on; though perhaps Stephen’s manners, like
the feats of Euryalus, owed their attractiveness in her eyes rather to the attractiveness of
his person than to their own excellence. ‘Ay; anybody can be what you call graceful,
if he lives a little time in a city, and keeps his eyes open. And he might have picked up
his gentlemanliness by going to the galleries of theatres, and watching stage drawing-room
manners. He reminds me of one of the worst stories I ever heard in my life.’ ‘What story was that?’ ‘Oh no, thank you! I wouldn’t tell you
such an improper matter for the world!’ ‘If his father and mother had lived in the
north or east of England,’ gallantly persisted Elfride, though her sobs began to interrupt
her articulation, ‘anywhere but here—you—would have—only regarded—HIM, and not THEM!
His station—would have—been what—his profession makes it,—and not fixed by—his
father’s humble position—at all; whom he never lives with—now. Though John Smith
has saved lots of money, and is better off than we are, they say, or he couldn’t have
put his son to such an expensive profession. And it is clever and—honourable—of Stephen,
to be the best of his family.’ ‘Yes. “Let a beast be lord of beasts,
and his crib shall stand at the king’s mess.”’ ‘You insult me, papa!’ she burst out.
‘You do, you do! He is my own Stephen, he is!’ ‘That may or may not be true, Elfride,’
returned her father, again uncomfortably agitated in spite of himself ‘You confuse future
probabilities with present facts,—what the young man may be with what he is. We must
look at what he is, not what an improbable degree of success in his profession may make
him. The case is this: the son of a working-man in my parish who may or may not be able to
buy me up—a youth who has not yet advanced so far into life as to have any income of
his own deserving the name, and therefore of his father’s degree as regards station—wants
to be engaged to you. His family are living in precisely the same spot in England as yours,
so throughout this county—which is the world to us—you would always be known as the wife
of Jack Smith the mason’s son, and not under any circumstances as the wife of a London
professional man. It is the drawback, not the compensating fact, that is talked of always.
There, say no more. You may argue all night, and prove what you will; I’ll stick to my
words.’ Elfride looked silently and hopelessly out
of the window with large heavy eyes and wet cheeks. ‘I call it great temerity—and long to
call it audacity—in Hewby,’ resumed her father. ‘I never heard such a thing—giving
such a hobbledehoy native of this place such an introduction to me as he did. Naturally
you were deceived as well as I was. I don’t blame you at all, so far.’ He went and searched
for Mr. Hewby’s original letter. ‘Here’s what he said to me: “Dear Sir,—Agreeably
to your request of the 18th instant, I have arranged to survey and make drawings,” et
cetera. “My assistant, Mr. Stephen Smith,”—assistant, you see he called him, and naturally I understood
him to mean a sort of partner. Why didn’t he say “clerk”?’ ‘They never call them clerks in that profession,
because they do not write. Stephen—Mr. Smith—told me so. So that Mr. Hewby simply used the accepted
word.’ ‘Let me speak, please, Elfride! My assistant,
Mr. Stephen Smith, will leave London by the early train to-morrow morning…MANY THANKS
upon his discernment in the matter of church architecture.” Well, I repeat that Hewby
ought to be ashamed of himself for making so much of a poor lad of that sort.’ ‘Professional men in London,’ Elfride
argued, ‘don’t know anything about their clerks’ fathers and mothers. They have assistants
who come to their offices and shops for years, and hardly even know where they live. What
they can do—what profits they can bring the firm—that’s all London men care about.
And that is helped in him by his faculty of being uniformly pleasant.’ ‘Uniform pleasantness is rather a defect
than a faculty. It shows that a man hasn’t sense enough to know whom to despise.’ ‘It shows that he acts by faith and not
by sight, as those you claim succession from directed.’ ‘That’s some more of what he’s been
telling you, I suppose! Yes, I was inclined to suspect him, because he didn’t care about
sauces of any kind. I always did doubt a man’s being a gentleman if his palate had no acquired
tastes. An unedified palate is the irrepressible cloven foot of the upstart. The idea of my
bringing out a bottle of my ‘40 Martinez—only eleven of them left now—to a man who didn’t
know it from eighteenpenny! Then the Latin line he gave to my quotation; it was very
cut-and-dried, very; or I, who haven’t looked into a classical author for the last eighteen
years, shouldn’t have remembered it. Well, Elfride, you had better go to your room; you’ll
get over this bit of tomfoolery in time.’ ‘No, no, no, papa,’ she moaned. For of
all the miseries attaching to miserable love, the worst is the misery of thinking that the
passion which is the cause of them all may cease. ‘Elfride,’ said her father with rough
friendliness, ‘I have an excellent scheme on hand, which I cannot tell you of now. A
scheme to benefit you and me. It has been thrust upon me for some little time—yes,
thrust upon me—but I didn’t dream of its value till this afternoon, when the revelation
came. I should be most unwise to refuse to entertain it.’ ‘I don’t like that word,’ she returned
wearily. ‘You have lost so much already by schemes. Is it those wretched mines again?’ ‘No; not a mining scheme.’ ‘Railways?’ ‘Nor railways. It is like those mysterious
offers we see advertised, by which any gentleman with no brains at all may make so much a week
without risk, trouble, or soiling his fingers. However, I am intending to say nothing till
it is settled, though I will just say this much, that you soon may have other fish to
fry than to think of Stephen Smith. Remember, I wish, not to be angry, but friendly, to
the young man; for your sake I’ll regard him as a friend in a certain sense. But this
is enough; in a few days you will be quite my way of thinking. There, now, go to your
bedroom. Unity shall bring you up some supper. I wish you not to be here when he comes back.’ Chapter X
‘Beneath the shelter of an aged tree.’ Stephen retraced his steps towards the cottage
he had visited only two or three hours previously. He drew near and under the rich foliage growing
about the outskirts of Endelstow Park, the spotty lights and shades from the shining
moon maintaining a race over his head and down his back in an endless gambol. When he
crossed the plank bridge and entered the garden-gate, he saw an illuminated figure coming from the
enclosed plot towards the house on the other side. It was his father, with his hand in
a sling, taking a general moonlight view of the garden, and particularly of a plot of
the youngest of young turnips, previous to closing the cottage for the night. He saluted his son with customary force. ‘Hallo,
Stephen! We should ha’ been in bed in another ten minutes. Come to see what’s the matter
wi’ me, I suppose, my lad?’ The doctor had come and gone, and the hand
had been pronounced as injured but slightly, though it might possibly have been considered
a far more serious case if Mr. Smith had been a more important man. Stephen’s anxious
inquiry drew from his father words of regret at the inconvenience to the world of his doing
nothing for the next two days, rather than of concern for the pain of the accident. Together
they entered the house. John Smith—brown as autumn as to skin, white
as winter as to clothes—was a satisfactory specimen of the village artificer in stone.
In common with most rural mechanics, he had too much individuality to be a typical ‘working-man’—a
resultant of that beach-pebble attrition with his kind only to be experienced in large towns,
which metamorphoses the unit Self into a fraction of the unit Class. There was not the speciality in his labour
which distinguishes the handicraftsmen of towns. Though only a mason, strictly speaking,
he was not above handling a brick, if bricks were the order of the day; or a slate or tile,
if a roof had to be covered before the wet weather set in, and nobody was near who could
do it better. Indeed, on one or two occasions in the depth of winter, when frost peremptorily
forbids all use of the trowel, making foundations to settle, stones to fly, and mortar to crumble,
he had taken to felling and sawing trees. Moreover, he had practised gardening in his
own plot for so many years that, on an emergency, he might have made a living by that calling. Probably our countryman was not such an accomplished
artificer in a particular direction as his town brethren in the trades. But he was, in
truth, like that clumsy pin-maker who made the whole pin, and who was despised by Adam
Smith on that account and respected by Macaulay, much more the artist nevertheless. Appearing now, indoors, by the light of the
candle, his stalwart healthiness was a sight to see. His beard was close and knotted as
that of a chiselled Hercules; his shirt sleeves were partly rolled up, his waistcoat unbuttoned;
the difference in hue between the snowy linen and the ruddy arms and face contrasting like
the white of an egg and its yolk. Mrs. Smith, on hearing them enter, advanced from the pantry. Mrs. Smith was a matron whose countenance
addressed itself to the mind rather than to the eye, though not exclusively. She retained
her personal freshness even now, in the prosy afternoon-time of her life; but what her features
were primarily indicative of was a sound common sense behind them; as a whole, appearing to
carry with them a sort of argumentative commentary on the world in general. The details of the accident were then rehearsed
by Stephen’s father, in the dramatic manner also common to Martin Cannister, other individuals
of the neighbourhood, and the rural world generally. Mrs. Smith threw in her sentiments
between the acts, as Coryphaeus of the tragedy, to make the description complete. The story
at last came to an end, as the longest will, and Stephen directed the conversation into
another channel. ‘Well, mother, they know everything about
me now,’ he said quietly. ‘Well done!’ replied his father; ‘now
my mind’s at peace.’ ‘I blame myself—I never shall forgive
myself—for not telling them before,’ continued the young man. Mrs. Smith at this point abstracted her mind
from the former subject. ‘I don’t see what you have to grieve about, Stephen,’
she said. ‘People who accidentally get friends don’t, as a first stroke, tell the history
of their families.’ ‘Ye’ve done no wrong, certainly,’ said
his father. ‘No; but I should have spoken sooner. There’s
more in this visit of mine than you think—a good deal more.’ ‘Not more than I think,’ Mrs. Smith replied,
looking contemplatively at him. Stephen blushed; and his father looked from one to the other
in a state of utter incomprehension. ‘She’s a pretty piece enough,’ Mrs.
Smith continued, ‘and very lady-like and clever too. But though she’s very well fit
for you as far as that is, why, mercy ‘pon me, what ever do you want any woman at all
for yet?’ John made his naturally short mouth a long
one, and wrinkled his forehead, ‘That’s the way the wind d’blow, is it?’ he said. ‘Mother,’ exclaimed Stephen, ‘how absurdly
you speak! Criticizing whether she’s fit for me or no, as if there were room for doubt
on the matter! Why, to marry her would be the great blessing of my life—socially and
practically, as well as in other respects. No such good fortune as that, I’m afraid;
she’s too far above me. Her family doesn’t want such country lads as I in it.’ ‘Then if they don’t want you, I’d see
them dead corpses before I’d want them, and go to better families who do want you.’ ‘Ah, yes; but I could never put up with
the distaste of being welcomed among such people as you mean, whilst I could get indifference
among such people as hers.’ ‘What crazy twist o’ thinking will enter
your head next?’ said his mother. ‘And come to that, she’s not a bit too high for
you, or you too low for her. See how careful I be to keep myself up. I’m sure I never
stop for more than a minute together to talk to any journeymen people; and I never invite
anybody to our party o’ Christmases who are not in business for themselves. And I
talk to several toppermost carriage people that come to my lord’s without saying ma’am
or sir to ‘em, and they take it as quiet as lambs.’ ‘You curtseyed to the vicar, mother; and
I wish you hadn’t.’ ‘But it was before he called me by my Christian
name, or he would have got very little curtseying from me!’ said Mrs. Smith, bridling and
sparkling with vexation. ‘You go on at me, Stephen, as if I were your worst enemy! What
else could I do with the man to get rid of him, banging it into me and your father by
side and by seam, about his greatness, and what happened when he was a young fellow at
college, and I don’t know what-all; the tongue o’ en flopping round his mouth like
a mop-rag round a dairy. That ‘a did, didn’t he, John?’ ‘That’s about the size o’t,’ replied
her husband. ‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs.
Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father.
The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the
dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’ ‘That’s what she thinks herself.’ ‘It only shows her sense. I knew she was
after ‘ee, Stephen—I knew it.’ ‘After me! Good Lord, what next!’ ‘And I really must say again that you ought
not to be in such a hurry, and wait for a few years. You might go higher than a bankrupt
pa’son’s girl then.’ ‘The fact is, mother,’ said Stephen impatiently,
‘you don’t know anything about it. I shall never go higher, because I don’t want to,
nor should I if I lived to be a hundred. As to you saying that she’s after me, I don’t
like such a remark about her, for it implies a scheming woman, and a man worth scheming
for, both of which are not only untrue, but ludicrously untrue, of this case. Isn’t
it so, father?’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the matter
well enough to gie my opinion,’ said his father, in the tone of the fox who had a cold
and could not smell. ‘She couldn’t have been very backward
anyhow, considering the short time you have known her,’ said his mother. ‘Well I think
that five years hence you’ll be plenty young enough to think of such things. And really
she can very well afford to wait, and will too, take my word. Living down in an out-step
place like this, I am sure she ought to be very thankful that you took notice of her.
She’d most likely have died an old maid if you hadn’t turned up.’ ‘All nonsense,’ said Stephen, but not
aloud. ‘A nice little thing she is,’ Mrs. Smith
went on in a more complacent tone now that Stephen had been talked down; ‘there’s
not a word to say against her, I’ll own. I see her sometimes decked out like a horse
going to fair, and I admire her for’t. A perfect little lady. But people can’t help
their thoughts, and if she’d learnt to make figures instead of letters when she was at
school ‘twould have been better for her pocket; for as I said, there never were worse
times for such as she than now.’ ‘Now, now, mother!’ said Stephen with
smiling deprecation. ‘But I will!’ said his mother with asperity.
‘I don’t read the papers for nothing, and I know men all move up a stage by marriage.
Men of her class, that is, parsons, marry squires’ daughters; squires marry lords’
daughters; lords marry dukes’ daughters; dukes marry queens’ daughters. All stages
of gentlemen mate a stage higher; and the lowest stage of gentlewomen are left single,
or marry out of their class.’ ‘But you said just now, dear mother——’
retorted Stephen, unable to resist the temptation of showing his mother her inconsistency. Then
he paused. ‘Well, what did I say?’ And Mrs. Smith
prepared her lips for a new campaign. Stephen, regretting that he had begun, since
a volcano might be the consequence, was obliged to go on. ‘You said I wasn’t out of her class just
before.’ ‘Yes, there, there! That’s you; that’s
my own flesh and blood. I’ll warrant that you’ll pick holes in everything your mother
says, if you can, Stephen. You are just like your father for that; take anybody’s part
but mine. Whilst I am speaking and talking and trying and slaving away for your good,
you are waiting to catch me out in that way. So you are in her class, but ‘tis what HER
people would CALL marrying out of her class. Don’t be so quarrelsome, Stephen!’ Stephen preserved a discreet silence, in which
he was imitated by his father, and for several minutes nothing was heard but the ticking
of the green-faced case-clock against the wall. ‘I’m sure,’ added Mrs. Smith in a more
philosophic tone, and as a terminative speech, ‘if there’d been so much trouble to get
a husband in my time as there is in these days—when you must make a god-almighty of
a man to get en to hae ye—I’d have trod clay for bricks before I’d ever have lowered
my dignity to marry, or there’s no bread in nine loaves.’ The discussion now dropped, and as it was
getting late, Stephen bade his parents farewell for the evening, his mother none the less
warmly for their sparring; for although Mrs. Smith and Stephen were always contending,
they were never at enmity. ‘And possibly,’ said Stephen, ‘I may
leave here altogether to-morrow; I don’t know. So that if I shouldn’t call again
before returning to London, don’t be alarmed, will you?’ ‘But didn’t you come for a fortnight?’
said his mother. ‘And haven’t you a month’s holiday altogether? They are going to turn
you out, then?’ ‘Not at all. I may stay longer; I may go.
If I go, you had better say nothing about my having been here, for her sake. At what
time of the morning does the carrier pass Endelstow lane?’ ‘Seven o’clock.’ And then he left them. His thoughts were,
that should the vicar permit him to become engaged, to hope for an engagement, or in
any way to think of his beloved Elfride, he might stay longer. Should he be forbidden
to think of any such thing, he resolved to go at once. And the latter, even to young
hopefulness, seemed the more probable alternative. Stephen walked back to the vicarage through
the meadows, as he had come, surrounded by the soft musical purl of the water through
little weirs, the modest light of the moon, the freshening smell of the dews out-spread
around. It was a time when mere seeing is meditation, and meditation peace. Stephen
was hardly philosopher enough to avail himself of Nature’s offer. His constitution was
made up of very simple particulars; was one which, rare in the spring-time of civilizations,
seems to grow abundant as a nation gets older, individuality fades, and education spreads;
that is, his brain had extraordinary receptive powers, and no great creativeness. Quickly
acquiring any kind of knowledge he saw around him, and having a plastic adaptability more
common in woman than in man, he changed colour like a chameleon as the society he found himself
in assumed a higher and more artificial tone. He had not many original ideas, and yet there
was scarcely an idea to which, under proper training, he could not have added a respectable
co-ordinate. He saw nothing outside himself to-night; and
what he saw within was a weariness to his flesh. Yet to a dispassionate observer, his
pretensions to Elfride, though rather premature, were far from absurd as marriages go, unless
the accidental proximity of simple but honest parents could be said to make them so. The clock struck eleven when he entered the
house. Elfride had been waiting with scarcely a movement since he departed. Before he had
spoken to her she caught sight of him passing into the study with her father. She saw that
he had by some means obtained the private interview he desired. A nervous headache had been growing on the
excitable girl during the absence of Stephen, and now she could do nothing beyond going
up again to her room as she had done before. Instead of lying down she sat again in the
darkness without closing the door, and listened with a beating heart to every sound from downstairs.
The servants had gone to bed. She ultimately heard the two men come from the study and
cross to the dining-room, where supper had been lingering for more than an hour. The
door was left open, and she found that the meal, such as it was, passed off between her
father and her lover without any remark, save commonplaces as to cucumbers and melons, their
wholesomeness and culture, uttered in a stiff and formal way. It seemed to prefigure failure. Shortly afterwards Stephen came upstairs to
his bedroom, and was almost immediately followed by her father, who also retired for the night.
Not inclined to get a light, she partly undressed and sat on the bed, where she remained in
pained thought for some time, possibly an hour. Then rising to close her door previously
to fully unrobing, she saw a streak of light shining across the landing. Her father’s
door was shut, and he could be heard snoring regularly. The light came from Stephen’s
room, and the slight sounds also coming thence emphatically denoted what he was doing. In
the perfect silence she could hear the closing of a lid and the clicking of a lock,—he
was fastening his hat-box. Then the buckling of straps and the click of another key,—he
was securing his portmanteau. With trebled foreboding she opened her door softly, and
went towards his. One sensation pervaded her to distraction. Stephen, her handsome youth
and darling, was going away, and she might never see him again except in secret and in
sadness—perhaps never more. At any rate, she could no longer wait till the morning
to hear the result of the interview, as she had intended. She flung her dressing-gown
round her, tapped lightly at his door, and whispered ‘Stephen!’ He came instantly,
opened the door, and stepped out. ‘Tell me; are we to hope?’ He replied in a disturbed whisper, and a tear
approached its outlet, though none fell. ‘I am not to think of such a preposterous
thing—that’s what he said. And I am going to-morrow. I should have called you up to
bid you good-bye.’ ‘But he didn’t say you were to go—O
Stephen, he didn’t say that?’ ‘No; not in words. But I cannot stay.’ ‘Oh, don’t, don’t go! Do come and let
us talk. Let us come down to the drawing-room for a few minutes; he will hear us here.’ She preceded him down the staircase with the
taper light in her hand, looking unnaturally tall and thin in the long dove-coloured dressing-gown
she wore. She did not stop to think of the propriety or otherwise of this midnight interview
under such circumstances. She thought that the tragedy of her life was beginning, and,
for the first time almost, felt that her existence might have a grave side, the shade of which
enveloped and rendered invisible the delicate gradations of custom and punctilio. Elfride
softly opened the drawing-room door and they both went in. When she had placed the candle
on the table, he enclosed her with his arms, dried her eyes with his handkerchief, and
kissed their lids. ‘Stephen, it is over—happy love is over;
and there is no more sunshine now!’ ‘I will make a fortune, and come to you,
and have you. Yes, I will!’ ‘Papa will never hear of it—never—never!
You don’t know him. I do. He is either biassed in favour of a thing, or prejudiced against
it. Argument is powerless against either feeling.’ ‘No; I won’t think of him so,’ said
Stephen. ‘If I appear before him some time hence as a man of established name, he will
accept me—I know he will. He is not a wicked man.’ ‘No, he is not wicked. But you say “some
time hence,” as if it were no time. To you, among bustle and excitement, it will be comparatively
a short time, perhaps; oh, to me, it will be its real length trebled! Every summer will
be a year—autumn a year—winter a year! O Stephen! and you may forget me!’ Forget: that was, and is, the real sting of
waiting to fond-hearted woman. The remark awoke in Stephen the converse fear. ‘You,
too, may be persuaded to give me up, when time has made me fainter in your memory. For,
remember, your love for me must be nourished in secret; there will be no long visits from
me to support you. Circumstances will always tend to obliterate me.’ ‘Stephen,’ she said, filled with her own
misgivings, and unheeding his last words, ‘there are beautiful women where you live—of
course I know there are—and they may win you away from me.’ Her tears came visibly
as she drew a mental picture of his faithlessness. ‘And it won’t be your fault,’ she continued,
looking into the candle with doleful eyes. ‘No! You will think that our family don’t
want you, and get to include me with them. And there will be a vacancy in your heart,
and some others will be let in.’ ‘I could not, I would not. Elfie, do not
be so full of forebodings.’ ‘Oh yes, they will,’ she replied. ‘And
you will look at them, not caring at first, and then you will look and be interested,
and after a while you will think, “Ah, they know all about city life, and assemblies,
and coteries, and the manners of the titled, and poor little Elfie, with all the fuss that’s
made about her having me, doesn’t know about anything but a little house and a few cliffs
and a space of sea, far away.” And then you’ll be more interested in them, and they’ll
make you have them instead of me, on purpose to be cruel to me because I am silly, and
they are clever and hate me. And I hate them, too; yes, I do!’ Her impulsive words had power to impress him
at any rate with the recognition of the uncertainty of all that is not accomplished. And, worse
than that general feeling, there of course remained the sadness which arose from the
special features of his own case. However remote a desired issue may be, the mere fact
of having entered the groove which leads to it, cheers to some extent with a sense of
accomplishment. Had Mr. Swancourt consented to an engagement of no less length than ten
years, Stephen would have been comparatively cheerful in waiting; they would have felt
that they were somewhere on the road to Cupid’s garden. But, with a possibility of a shorter
probation, they had not as yet any prospect of the beginning; the zero of hope had yet
to be reached. Mr. Swancourt would have to revoke his formidable words before the waiting
for marriage could even set in. And this was despair. ‘I wish we could marry now,’ murmured
Stephen, as an impossible fancy. ‘So do I,’ said she also, as if regarding
an idle dream. ‘’Tis the only thing that ever does sweethearts good!’ ‘Secretly would do, would it not, Elfie?’ ‘Yes, secretly would do; secretly would
indeed be best,’ she said, and went on reflectively: ‘All we want is to render it absolutely
impossible for any future circumstance to upset our future intention of being happy
together; not to begin being happy now.’ ‘Exactly,’ he murmured in a voice and
manner the counterpart of hers. ‘To marry and part secretly, and live on as we are living
now; merely to put it out of anybody’s power to force you away from me, dearest.’ ‘Or you away from me, Stephen.’ ‘Or me from you. It is possible to conceive
a force of circumstance strong enough to make any woman in the world marry against her will:
no conceivable pressure, up to torture or starvation, can make a woman once married
to her lover anybody else’s wife.’ Now up to this point the idea of an immediate
secret marriage had been held by both as an untenable hypothesis, wherewith simply to
beguile a miserable moment. During a pause which followed Stephen’s last remark, a
fascinating perception, then an alluring conviction, flashed along the brain of both. The perception
was that an immediate marriage COULD be contrived; the conviction that such an act, in spite
of its daring, its fathomless results, its deceptiveness, would be preferred by each
to the life they must lead under any other conditions. The youth spoke first, and his voice trembled
with the magnitude of the conception he was cherishing. ‘How strong we should feel,
Elfride! going on our separate courses as before, without the fear of ultimate separation!
O Elfride! think of it; think of it!’ It is certain that the young girl’s love
for Stephen received a fanning from her father’s opposition which made it blaze with a dozen
times the intensity it would have exhibited if left alone. Never were conditions more
favourable for developing a girl’s first passing fancy for a handsome boyish face—a
fancy rooted in inexperience and nourished by seclusion—into a wild unreflecting passion
fervid enough for anything. All the elements of such a development were there, the chief
one being hopelessness—a necessary ingredient always to perfect the mixture of feelings
united under the name of loving to distraction. ‘We would tell papa soon, would we not?’
she inquired timidly. ‘Nobody else need know. He would then be convinced that hearts
cannot be played with; love encouraged be ready to grow, love discouraged be ready to
die, at a moment’s notice. Stephen, do you not think that if marriages against a parent’s
consent are ever justifiable, they are when young people have been favoured up to a point,
as we have, and then have had that favour suddenly withdrawn?’ ‘Yes. It is not as if we had from the beginning
acted in opposition to your papa’s wishes. Only think, Elfie, how pleasant he was towards
me but six hours ago! He liked me, praised me, never objected to my being alone with
you.’ ‘I believe he MUST like you now,’ she
cried. ‘And if he found that you irremediably belonged to me, he would own it and help you.
‘O Stephen, Stephen,’ she burst out again, as the remembrance of his packing came afresh
to her mind, ‘I cannot bear your going away like this! It is too dreadful. All I have
been expecting miserably killed within me like this!’ Stephen flushed hot with impulse. ‘I will
not be a doubt to you—thought of you shall not be a misery to me!’ he said. ‘We will
be wife and husband before we part for long!’ She hid her face on his shoulder. ‘Anything
to make SURE!’ she whispered. ‘I did not like to propose it immediately,’
continued Stephen. ‘It seemed to me—it seems to me now—like trying to catch you—a
girl better in the world than I.’ ‘Not that, indeed! And am I better in worldly
station? What’s the use of have beens? We may have been something once; we are nothing
now.’ Then they whispered long and earnestly together;
Stephen hesitatingly proposing this and that plan, Elfride modifying them, with quick breathings,
and hectic flush, and unnaturally bright eyes. It was two o’clock before an arrangement
was finally concluded. She then told him to leave her, giving him
his light to go up to his own room. They parted with an agreement not to meet again in the
morning. After his door had been some time closed he heard her softly gliding into her
chamber. Chapter XI
‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’ Stephen lay watching the Great Bear; Elfride
was regarding a monotonous parallelogram of window blind. Neither slept that night. Early the next morning—that is to say, four
hours after their stolen interview, and just as the earliest servant was heard moving about—Stephen
Smith went downstairs, portmanteau in hand. Throughout the night he had intended to see
Mr. Swancourt again, but the sharp rebuff of the previous evening rendered such an interview
particularly distasteful. Perhaps there was another and less honest reason. He decided
to put it off. Whatever of moral timidity or obliquity may have lain in such a decision,
no perception of it was strong enough to detain him. He wrote a note in his room, which stated
simply that he did not feel happy in the house after Mr. Swancourt’s sudden veto on what
he had favoured a few hours before; but that he hoped a time would come, and that soon,
when his original feelings of pleasure as Mr. Swancourt’s guest might be recovered. He expected to find the downstairs rooms wearing
the gray and cheerless aspect that early morning gives to everything out of the sun. He found
in the dining room a breakfast laid, of which somebody had just partaken. Stephen gave the maid-servant his note of
adieu. She stated that Mr. Swancourt had risen early that morning, and made an early breakfast.
He was not going away that she knew of. Stephen took a cup of coffee, left the house
of his love, and turned into the lane. It was so early that the shaded places still
smelt like night time, and the sunny spots had hardly felt the sun. The horizontal rays
made every shallow dip in the ground to show as a well-marked hollow. Even the channel
of the path was enough to throw shade, and the very stones of the road cast tapering
dashes of darkness westward, as long as Jael’s tent-nail. At a spot not more than a hundred yards from
the vicar’s residence the lane leading thence crossed the high road. Stephen reached the
point of intersection, stood still and listened. Nothing could be heard save the lengthy, murmuring
line of the sea upon the adjacent shore. He looked at his watch, and then mounted a gate
upon which he seated himself, to await the arrival of the carrier. Whilst he sat he heard
wheels coming in two directions. The vehicle approaching on his right he soon
recognized as the carrier’s. There were the accompanying sounds of the owner’s voice
and the smack of his whip, distinct in the still morning air, by which he encouraged
his horses up the hill. The other set of wheels sounded from the lane
Stephen had just traversed. On closer observation, he perceived that they were moving from the
precincts of the ancient manor-house adjoining the vicarage grounds. A carriage then left
the entrance gates of the house, and wheeling round came fully in sight. It was a plain
travelling carriage, with a small quantity of luggage, apparently a lady’s. The vehicle
came to the junction of the four ways half-a-minute before the carrier reached the same spot,
and crossed directly in his front, proceeding by the lane on the other side. Inside the carriage Stephen could just discern
an elderly lady with a younger woman, who seemed to be her maid. The road they had taken
led to Stratleigh, a small watering-place sixteen miles north. He heard the manor-house gates swing again,
and looking up saw another person leaving them, and walking off in the direction of
the parsonage. ‘Ah, how much I wish I were moving that way!’ felt he parenthetically.
The gentleman was tall, and resembled Mr. Swancourt in outline and attire. He opened
the vicarage gate and went in. Mr. Swancourt, then, it certainly was. Instead of remaining
in bed that morning Mr. Swancourt must have taken it into his head to see his new neighbour
off on a journey. He must have been greatly interested in that neighbour to do such an
unusual thing. The carrier’s conveyance had pulled up,
and Stephen now handed in his portmanteau and mounted the shafts. ‘Who is that lady
in the carriage?’ he inquired indifferently of Lickpan the carrier. ‘That, sir, is Mrs. Troyton, a widder wi’
a mint o’ money. She’s the owner of all that part of Endelstow that is not Lord Luxellian’s.
Only been here a short time; she came into it by law. The owner formerly was a terrible
mysterious party—never lived here—hardly ever was seen here except in the month of
September, as I might say.’ The horses were started again, and noise rendered
further discourse a matter of too great exertion. Stephen crept inside under the tilt, and was
soon lost in reverie. Three hours and a half of straining up hills
and jogging down brought them to St. Launce’s, the market town and railway station nearest
to Endelstow, and the place from which Stephen Smith had journeyed over the downs on the,
to him, memorable winter evening at the beginning of the same year. The carrier’s van was
so timed as to meet a starting up-train, which Stephen entered. Two or three hours’ railway
travel through vertical cuttings in metamorphic rock, through oak copses rich and green, stretching
over slopes and down delightful valleys, glens, and ravines, sparkling with water like many-rilled
Ida, and he plunged amid the hundred and fifty thousand people composing the town of Plymouth. There being some time upon his hands he left
his luggage at the cloak-room, and went on foot along Bedford Street to the nearest church.
Here Stephen wandered among the multifarious tombstones and looked in at the chancel window,
dreaming of something that was likely to happen by the altar there in the course of the coming
month. He turned away and ascended the Hoe, viewed the magnificent stretch of sea and
massive promontories of land, but without particularly discerning one feature of the
varied perspective. He still saw that inner prospect—the event he hoped for in yonder
church. The wide Sound, the Breakwater, the light-house on far-off Eddystone, the dark
steam vessels, brigs, barques, and schooners, either floating stilly, or gliding with tiniest
motion, were as the dream, then; the dreamed-of event was as the reality. Soon Stephen went down from the Hoe, and returned
to the railway station. He took his ticket, and entered the London train. That day was an irksome time at Endelstow
vicarage. Neither father nor daughter alluded to the departure of Stephen. Mr. Swancourt’s
manner towards her partook of the compunctious kindness that arises from a misgiving as to
the justice of some previous act. Either from lack of the capacity to grasp
the whole coup d’oeil, or from a natural endowment for certain kinds of stoicism, women
are cooler than men in critical situations of the passive form. Probably, in Elfride’s
case at least, it was blindness to the greater contingencies of the future she was preparing
for herself, which enabled her to ask her father in a quiet voice if he could give her
a holiday soon, to ride to St. Launce’s and go on to Plymouth. Now, she had only once before gone alone to
Plymouth, and that was in consequence of some unavoidable difficulty. Being a country girl,
and a good, not to say a wild, horsewoman, it had been her delight to canter, without
the ghost of an attendant, over the fourteen or sixteen miles of hard road intervening
between their home and the station at St. Launce’s, put up the horse, and go on the
remainder of the distance by train, returning in the same manner in the evening. It was
then resolved that, though she had successfully accomplished this journey once, it was not
to be repeated without some attendance. But Elfride must not be confounded with ordinary
young feminine equestrians. The circumstances of her lonely and narrow life made it imperative
that in trotting about the neighbourhood she must trot alone or else not at all. Usage
soon rendered this perfectly natural to herself. Her father, who had had other experiences,
did not much like the idea of a Swancourt, whose pedigree could be as distinctly traced
as a thread in a skein of silk, scampering over the hills like a farmer’s daughter,
even though he could habitually neglect her. But what with his not being able to afford
her a regular attendant, and his inveterate habit of letting anything be to save himself
trouble, the circumstance grew customary. And so there arose a chronic notion in the
villagers’ minds that all ladies rode without an attendant, like Miss Swancourt, except
a few who were sometimes visiting at Lord Luxellian’s. ‘I don’t like your going to Plymouth alone,
particularly going to St. Launce’s on horseback. Why not drive, and take the man?’ ‘It is not nice to be so overlooked.’
Worm’s company would not seriously have interfered with her plans, but it was her
humour to go without him. ‘When do you want to go?’ said her father. She only answered, ‘Soon.’ ‘I will consider,’ he said. Only a few days elapsed before she asked again.
A letter had reached her from Stephen. It had been timed to come on that day by special
arrangement between them. In it he named the earliest morning on which he could meet her
at Plymouth. Her father had been on a journey to Stratleigh, and returned in unusual buoyancy
of spirit. It was a good opportunity; and since the dismissal of Stephen her father
had been generally in a mood to make small concessions, that he might steer clear of
large ones connected with that outcast lover of hers. ‘Next Thursday week I am going from home
in a different direction,’ said her father. ‘In fact, I shall leave home the night before.
You might choose the same day, for they wish to take up the carpets, or some such thing,
I think. As I said, I don’t like you to be seen in a town on horseback alone; but
go if you will.’ Thursday week. Her father had named the very
day that Stephen also had named that morning as the earliest on which it would be of any
use to meet her; that was, about fifteen days from the day on which he had left Endelstow.
Fifteen days—that fragment of duration which has acquired such an interesting individuality
from its connection with the English marriage law. She involuntarily looked at her father so
strangely, that on becoming conscious of the look she paled with embarrassment. Her father,
too, looked confused. What was he thinking of? There seemed to be a special facility offered
her by a power external to herself in the circumstance that Mr. Swancourt had proposed
to leave home the night previous to her wished-for day. Her father seldom took long journeys;
seldom slept from home except perhaps on the night following a remote Visitation. Well,
she would not inquire too curiously into the reason of the opportunity, nor did he, as
would have been natural, proceed to explain it of his own accord. In matters of fact there
had hitherto been no reserve between them, though they were not usually confidential
in its full sense. But the divergence of their emotions on Stephen’s account had produced
an estrangement which just at present went even to the extent of reticence on the most
ordinary household topics. Elfride was almost unconsciously relieved,
persuading herself that her father’s reserve on his business justified her in secrecy as
regarded her own—a secrecy which was necessarily a foregone decision with her. So anxious is
a young conscience to discover a palliative, that the ex post facto nature of a reason
is of no account in excluding it. The intervening fortnight was spent by her
mostly in walking by herself among the shrubs and trees, indulging sometimes in sanguine
anticipations; more, far more frequently, in misgivings. All her flowers seemed dull
of hue; her pets seemed to look wistfully into her eyes, as if they no longer stood
in the same friendly relation to her as formerly. She wore melancholy jewellery, gazed at sunsets,
and talked to old men and women. It was the first time that she had had an inner and private
world apart from the visible one about her. She wished that her father, instead of neglecting
her even more than usual, would make some advance—just one word; she would then tell
all, and risk Stephen’s displeasure. Thus brought round to the youth again, she saw
him in her fancy, standing, touching her, his eyes full of sad affection, hopelessly
renouncing his attempt because she had renounced hers; and she could not recede. On the Wednesday she was to receive another
letter. She had resolved to let her father see the arrival of this one, be the consequences
what they might: the dread of losing her lover by this deed of honesty prevented her acting
upon the resolve. Five minutes before the postman’s expected arrival she slipped out,
and down the lane to meet him. She met him immediately upon turning a sharp angle, which
hid her from view in the direction of the vicarage. The man smilingly handed one missive,
and was going on to hand another, a circular from some tradesman. ‘No,’ she said; ‘take that on to the
house.’ ‘Why, miss, you are doing what your father
has done for the last fortnight.’ She did not comprehend. ‘Why, come to this corner, and take a letter
of me every morning, all writ in the same handwriting, and letting any others for him
go on to the house.’ And on the postman went. No sooner had he turned the corner behind
her back than she heard her father meet and address the man. She had saved her letter
by two minutes. Her father audibly went through precisely the same performance as she had
just been guilty of herself. This stealthy conduct of his was, to say the
least, peculiar. Given an impulsive inconsequent girl, neglected
as to her inner life by her only parent, and the following forces alive within her; to
determine a resultant: First love acted upon by a deadly fear of
separation from its object: inexperience, guiding onward a frantic wish to prevent the
above-named issue: misgivings as to propriety, met by hope of ultimate exoneration: indignation
at parental inconsistency in first encouraging, then forbidding: a chilling sense of disobedience,
overpowered by a conscientious inability to brook a breaking of plighted faith with a
man who, in essentials, had remained unaltered from the beginning: a blessed hope that opposition
would turn an erroneous judgement: a bright faith that things would mend thereby, and
wind up well. Probably the result would, after all, have
been nil, had not the following few remarks been made one day at breakfast. Her father was in his old hearty spirits.
He smiled to himself at stories too bad to tell, and called Elfride a little scamp for
surreptitiously preserving some blind kittens that ought to have been drowned. After this
expression, she said to him suddenly: ‘If Mr. Smith had been already in the family,
you would not have been made wretched by discovering he had poor relations?’ ‘Do you mean in the family by marriage?’
he replied inattentively, and continuing to peel his egg. The accumulating scarlet told that was her
meaning, as much as the affirmative reply. ‘I should have put up with it, no doubt,’
Mr. Swancourt observed. ‘So that you would not have been driven
into hopeless melancholy, but have made the best of him?’ Elfride’s erratic mind had from her youth
upwards been constantly in the habit of perplexing her father by hypothetical questions, based
on absurd conditions. The present seemed to be cast so precisely in the mould of previous
ones that, not being given to syntheses of circumstances, he answered it with customary
complacency. ‘If he were allied to us irretrievably,
of course I, or any sensible man, should accept conditions that could not be altered; certainly
not be hopelessly melancholy about it. I don’t believe anything in the world would make me
hopelessly melancholy. And don’t let anything make you so, either.’ ‘I won’t, papa,’ she cried, with a serene
brightness that pleased him. Certainly Mr. Swancourt must have been far
from thinking that the brightness came from an exhilarating intention to hold back no
longer from the mad action she had planned. In the evening he drove away towards Stratleigh,
quite alone. It was an unusual course for him. At the door Elfride had been again almost
impelled by her feelings to pour out all. ‘Why are you going to Stratleigh, papa?’
she said, and looked at him longingly. ‘I will tell you to-morrow when I come back,’
he said cheerily; ‘not before then, Elfride. Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know,
and so far will I trust thee, gentle Elfride.’ She was repressed and hurt. ‘I will tell you my errand to Plymouth,
too, when I come back,’ she murmured. He went away. His jocularity made her intention
seem the lighter, as his indifference made her more resolved to do as she liked. It was a familiar September sunset, dark-blue
fragments of cloud upon an orange-yellow sky. These sunsets used to tempt her to walk towards
them, as any beautiful thing tempts a near approach. She went through the field to the
privet hedge, clambered into the middle of it, and reclined upon the thick boughs. After
looking westward for a considerable time, she blamed herself for not looking eastward
to where Stephen was, and turned round. Ultimately her eyes fell upon the ground. A peculiarity was observable beneath her.
A green field spread itself on each side of the hedge, one belonging to the glebe, the
other being a part of the land attached to the manor-house adjoining. On the vicarage
side she saw a little footpath, the distinctive and altogether exceptional feature of which
consisted in its being only about ten yards long; it terminated abruptly at each end. A footpath, suddenly beginning and suddenly
ending, coming from nowhere and leading nowhere, she had never seen before. Yes, she had, on second thoughts. She had
seen exactly such a path trodden in the front of barracks by the sentry. And this recollection explained the origin
of the path here. Her father had trodden it by pacing up and down, as she had once seen
him doing. Sitting on the hedge as she sat now, her eyes
commanded a view of both sides of it. And a few minutes later, Elfride looked over to
the manor side. Here was another sentry path. It was like
the first in length, and it began and ended exactly opposite the beginning and ending
of its neighbour, but it was thinner, and less distinct. Two reasons existed for the difference. This
one might have been trodden by a similar weight of tread to the other, exercised a less number
of times; or it might have been walked just as frequently, but by lighter feet. Probably a gentleman from Scotland-yard, had
he been passing at the time, might have considered the latter alternative as the more probable.
Elfride thought otherwise, so far as she thought at all. But her own great To-Morrow was now
imminent; all thoughts inspired by casual sights of the eye were only allowed to exercise
themselves in inferior corners of her brain, previously to being banished altogether. Elfride was at length compelled to reason
practically upon her undertaking. All her definite perceptions thereon, when the emotion
accompanying them was abstracted, amounted to no more than these: ‘Say an hour and three-quarters to ride
to St. Launce’s. ‘Say half an hour at the Falcon to change
my dress. ‘Say two hours waiting for some train and
getting to Plymouth. ‘Say an hour to spare before twelve o’clock. ‘Total time from leaving Endelstow till
twelve o’clock, five hours. ‘Therefore I shall have to start at seven.’ No surprise or sense of unwontedness entered
the minds of the servants at her early ride. The monotony of life we associate with people
of small incomes in districts out of the sound of the railway whistle, has one exception,
which puts into shade the experience of dwellers about the great centres of population—that
is, in travelling. Every journey there is more or less an adventure; adventurous hours
are necessarily chosen for the most commonplace outing. Miss Elfride had to leave early—that
was all. Elfride never went out on horseback but she
brought home something—something found, or something bought. If she trotted to town
or village, her burden was books. If to hills, woods, or the seashore, it was wonderful mosses,
abnormal twigs, a handkerchief of wet shells or seaweed. Once, in muddy weather, when Pansy was walking
with her down the street of Castle Boterel, on a fair-day, a packet in front of her and
a packet under her arm, an accident befell the packets, and they slipped down. On one
side of her, three volumes of fiction lay kissing the mud; on the other numerous skeins
of polychromatic wools lay absorbing it. Unpleasant women smiled through windows at the mishap,
the men all looked round, and a boy, who was minding a ginger-bread stall whilst the owner
had gone to get drunk, laughed loudly. The blue eyes turned to sapphires, and the cheeks
crimsoned with vexation. After that misadventure she set her wits to
work, and was ingenious enough to invent an arrangement of small straps about the saddle,
by which a great deal could be safely carried thereon, in a small compass. Here she now
spread out and fastened a plain dark walking-dress and a few other trifles of apparel. Worm opened
the gate for her, and she vanished away. One of the brightest mornings of late summer
shone upon her. The heather was at its purplest, the furze at its yellowest, the grasshoppers
chirped loud enough for birds, the snakes hissed like little engines, and Elfride at
first felt lively. Sitting at ease upon Pansy, in her orthodox riding-habit and nondescript
hat, she looked what she felt. But the mercury of those days had a trick of falling unexpectedly.
First, only for one minute in ten had she a sense of depression. Then a large cloud,
that had been hanging in the north like a black fleece, came and placed itself between
her and the sun. It helped on what was already inevitable, and she sank into a uniformity
of sadness. She turned in the saddle and looked back.
They were now on an open table-land, whose altitude still gave her a view of the sea
by Endelstow. She looked longingly at that spot. During this little revulsion of feeling Pansy
had been still advancing, and Elfride felt it would be absurd to turn her little mare’s
head the other way. ‘Still,’ she thought, ‘if I had a mamma at home I WOULD go back!’ And making one of those stealthy movements
by which women let their hearts juggle with their brains, she did put the horse’s head
about, as if unconsciously, and went at a hand-gallop towards home for more than a mile.
By this time, from the inveterate habit of valuing what we have renounced directly the
alternative is chosen, the thought of her forsaken Stephen recalled her, and she turned
about, and cantered on to St. Launce’s again. This miserable strife of thought now began
to rage in all its wildness. Overwrought and trembling, she dropped the rein upon Pansy’s
shoulders, and vowed she would be led whither the horse would take her. Pansy slackened her pace to a walk, and walked
on with her agitated burden for three or four minutes. At the expiration of this time they
had come to a little by-way on the right, leading down a slope to a pool of water. The
pony stopped, looked towards the pool, and then advanced and stooped to drink. Elfride looked at her watch and discovered
that if she were going to reach St. Launce’s early enough to change her dress at the Falcon,
and get a chance of some early train to Plymouth—there were only two available—it was necessary
to proceed at once. She was impatient. It seemed as if Pansy would
never stop drinking; and the repose of the pool, the idle motions of the insects and
flies upon it, the placid waving of the flags, the leaf-skeletons, like Genoese filigree,
placidly sleeping at the bottom, by their contrast with her own turmoil made her impatience
greater. Pansy did turn at last, and went up the slope
again to the high-road. The pony came upon it, and stood cross-wise, looking up and down.
Elfride’s heart throbbed erratically, and she thought, ‘Horses, if left to themselves,
make for where they are best fed. Pansy will go home.’ Pansy turned and walked on towards St. Launce’s Pansy at home, during summer, had little but
grass to live on. After a run to St. Launce’s she always had a feed of corn to support her
on the return journey. Therefore, being now more than half way, she preferred St. Launce’s. But Elfride did not remember this now. All
she cared to recognize was a dreamy fancy that to-day’s rash action was not her own.
She was disabled by her moods, and it seemed indispensable to adhere to the programme.
So strangely involved are motives that, more than by her promise to Stephen, more even
than by her love, she was forced on by a sense of the necessity of keeping faith with herself,
as promised in the inane vow of ten minutes ago. She hesitated no longer. Pansy went, like
the steed of Adonis, as if she told the steps. Presently the quaint gables and jumbled roofs
of St. Launce’s were spread beneath her, and going down the hill she entered the courtyard
of the Falcon. Mrs. Buckle, the landlady, came to the door to meet her. The Swancourts were well known here. The transition
from equestrian to the ordinary guise of railway travellers had been more than once performed
by father and daughter in this establishment. In less than a quarter of an hour Elfride
emerged from the door in her walking dress, and went to the railway. She had not told
Mrs. Buckle anything as to her intentions, and was supposed to have gone out shopping. An hour and forty minutes later, and she was
in Stephen’s arms at the Plymouth station. Not upon the platform—in the secret retreat
of a deserted waiting-room. Stephen’s face boded ill. He was pale and
despondent. ‘What is the matter?’ she asked. ‘We cannot be married here to-day, my Elfie!
I ought to have known it and stayed here. In my ignorance I did not. I have the licence,
but it can only be used in my parish in London. I only came down last night, as you know.’ ‘What shall we do?’ she said blankly. ‘There’s only one thing we can do, darling.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Go on to London by a train just starting,
and be married there to-morrow.’ ‘Passengers for the 11.5 up-train take their
seats!’ said a guard’s voice on the platform. ‘Will you go, Elfride?’ ‘I will.’ In three minutes the train had moved off,
bearing away with it Stephen and Elfride. Chapter XII
‘Adieu! she cries, and waved her lily hand.’ The few tattered clouds of the morning enlarged
and united, the sun withdrew behind them to emerge no more that day, and the evening drew
to a close in drifts of rain. The water-drops beat like duck shot against the window of
the railway-carriage containing Stephen and Elfride. The journey from Plymouth to Paddington, by
even the most headlong express, allows quite enough leisure for passion of any sort to
cool. Elfride’s excitement had passed off, and she sat in a kind of stupor during the
latter half of the journey. She was aroused by the clanging of the maze of rails over
which they traced their way at the entrance to the station. Is this London?’ she said. ‘Yes, darling,’ said Stephen in a tone
of assurance he was far from feeling. To him, no less than to her, the reality so greatly
differed from the prefiguring. She peered out as well as the window, beaded
with drops, would allow her, and saw only the lamps, which had just been lit, blinking
in the wet atmosphere, and rows of hideous zinc chimney-pipes in dim relief against the
sky. She writhed uneasily, as when a thought is swelling in the mind which must cause much
pain at its deliverance in words. Elfride had known no more about the stings of evil
report than the native wild-fowl knew of the effects of Crusoe’s first shot. Now she
saw a little further, and a little further still. The train stopped. Stephen relinquished the
soft hand he had held all the day, and proceeded to assist her on to the platform. This act of alighting upon strange ground
seemed all that was wanted to complete a resolution within her. She looked at her betrothed with despairing
eyes. ‘O Stephen,’ she exclaimed, ‘I am so
miserable! I must go home again—I must—I must! Forgive my wretched vacillation. I don’t
like it here—nor myself—nor you!’ Stephen looked bewildered, and did not speak. ‘Will you allow me to go home?’ she implored.
‘I won’t trouble you to go with me. I will not be any weight upon you; only say
you will agree to my returning; that you will not hate me for it, Stephen! It is better
that I should return again; indeed it is, Stephen.’ ‘But we can’t return now,’ he said in
a deprecatory tone. ‘I must! I will!’ ‘How? When do you want to go?’ ‘Now. Can we go at once?’ The lad looked hopelessly along the platform. ‘If you must go, and think it wrong to remain,
dearest,’ said he sadly, ‘you shall. You shall do whatever you like, my Elfride. But
would you in reality rather go now than stay till to-morrow, and go as my wife?’ ‘Yes, yes—much—anything to go now. I
must; I must!’ she cried. ‘We ought to have done one of two things,’
he answered gloomily. ‘Never to have started, or not to have returned without being married.
I don’t like to say it, Elfride—indeed I don’t; but you must be told this, that
going back unmarried may compromise your good name in the eyes of people who may hear of
it.’ ‘They will not; and I must go.’ ‘O Elfride! I am to blame for bringing you
away.’ ‘Not at all. I am the elder.’ ‘By a month; and what’s that? But never
mind that now.’ He looked around. ‘Is there a train for Plymouth to-night?’ he
inquired of a guard. The guard passed on and did not speak. ‘Is there a train for Plymouth to-night?’
said Elfride to another. ‘Yes, miss; the 8.10—leaves in ten minutes.
You have come to the wrong platform; it is the other side. Change at Bristol into the
night mail. Down that staircase, and under the line.’ They ran down the staircase—Elfride first—to
the booking-office, and into a carriage with an official standing beside the door. ‘Show
your tickets, please.’ They are locked in—men about the platform accelerate their velocities
till they fly up and down like shuttles in a loom—a whistle—the waving of a flag—a
human cry—a steam groan—and away they go to Plymouth again, just catching these
words as they glide off: ‘Those two youngsters had a near run for
it, and no mistake!’ Elfride found her breath. ‘And have you come too, Stephen? Why did
you?’ ‘I shall not leave you till I see you safe
at St. Launce’s. Do not think worse of me than I am, Elfride.’ And then they rattled along through the night,
back again by the way they had come. The weather cleared, and the stars shone in upon them.
Their two or three fellow-passengers sat for most of the time with closed eyes. Stephen
sometimes slept; Elfride alone was wakeful and palpitating hour after hour. The day began to break, and revealed that
they were by the sea. Red rocks overhung them, and, receding into distance, grew livid in
the blue grey atmosphere. The sun rose, and sent penetrating shafts of light in upon their
weary faces. Another hour, and the world began to be busy. They waited yet a little, and
the train slackened its speed in view of the platform at St. Launce’s. She shivered, and mused sadly. ‘I did not see all the consequences,’
she said. ‘Appearances are wofully against me. If anybody finds me out, I am, I suppose,
disgraced.’ ‘Then appearances will speak falsely; and
how can that matter, even if they do? I shall be your husband sooner or later, for certain,
and so prove your purity.’ ‘Stephen, once in London I ought to have
married you,’ she said firmly. ‘It was my only safe defence. I see more things now
than I did yesterday. My only remaining chance is not to be discovered; and that we must
fight for most desperately.’ They stepped out. Elfride pulled a thick veil
over her face. A woman with red and scaly eyelids and glistening
eyes was sitting on a bench just inside the office-door. She fixed her eyes upon Elfride
with an expression whose force it was impossible to doubt, but the meaning of which was not
clear; then upon the carriage they had left. She seemed to read a sinister story in the
scene. Elfride shrank back, and turned the other
way. ‘Who is that woman?’ said Stephen. ‘She
looked hard at you.’ ‘Mrs. Jethway—a widow, and mother of that
young man whose tomb we sat on the other night. Stephen, she is my enemy. Would that God had
had mercy enough upon me to have hidden this from HER!’ ‘Do not talk so hopelessly,’ he remonstrated.
‘I don’t think she recognized us.’ ‘I pray that she did not.’ He put on a more vigorous mood. ‘Now, we will go and get some breakfast.’ ‘No, no!’ she begged. ‘I cannot eat.
I MUST get back to Endelstow.’ Elfride was as if she had grown years older
than Stephen now. ‘But you have had nothing since last night
but that cup of tea at Bristol.’ ‘I can’t eat, Stephen.’ ‘Wine and biscuit?’ ‘No.’ ‘Nor tea, nor coffee?’ ‘No.’ ‘A glass of water?’ ‘No. I want something that makes people
strong and energetic for the present, that borrows the strength of to-morrow for use
to-day—leaving to-morrow without any at all for that matter; or even that would take
all life away to-morrow, so long as it enabled me to get home again now. Brandy, that’s
what I want. That woman’s eyes have eaten my heart away!’ ‘You are wild; and you grieve me, darling.
Must it be brandy?’ ‘Yes, if you please.’ ‘How much?’ ‘I don’t know. I have never drunk more
than a teaspoonful at once. All I know is that I want it. Don’t get it at the Falcon.’ He left her in the fields, and went to the
nearest inn in that direction. Presently he returned with a small flask nearly full, and
some slices of bread-and-butter, thin as wafers, in a paper-bag. Elfride took a sip or two. ‘It goes into my eyes,’ she said wearily.
‘I can’t take any more. Yes, I will; I will close my eyes. Ah, it goes to them by
an inside route. I don’t want it; throw it away.’ However, she could eat, and did eat. Her chief
attention was concentrated upon how to get the horse from the Falcon stables without
suspicion. Stephen was not allowed to accompany her into the town. She acted now upon conclusions
reached without any aid from him: his power over her seemed to have departed. ‘You had better not be seen with me, even
here where I am so little known. We have begun stealthily as thieves, and we must end stealthily
as thieves, at all hazards. Until papa has been told by me myself, a discovery would
be terrible.’ Walking and gloomily talking thus they waited
till nearly nine o’clock, at which time Elfride thought she might call at the Falcon
without creating much surprise. Behind the railway-station was the river, spanned by
an old Tudor bridge, whence the road diverged in two directions, one skirting the suburbs
of the town, and winding round again into the high-road to Endelstow. Beside this road
Stephen sat, and awaited her return from the Falcon. He sat as one sitting for a portrait, motionless,
watching the chequered lights and shades on the tree-trunks, the children playing opposite
the school previous to entering for the morning lesson, the reapers in a field afar off. The
certainty of possession had not come, and there was nothing to mitigate the youth’s
gloom, that increased with the thought of the parting now so near. At length she came trotting round to him,
in appearance much as on the romantic morning of their visit to the cliff, but shorn of
the radiance which glistened about her then. However, her comparative immunity from further
risk and trouble had considerably composed her. Elfride’s capacity for being wounded
was only surpassed by her capacity for healing, which rightly or wrongly is by some considered
an index of transientness of feeling in general. ‘Elfride, what did they say at the Falcon?’ ‘Nothing. Nobody seemed curious about me.
They knew I went to Plymouth, and I have stayed there a night now and then with Miss Bicknell.
I rather calculated upon that.’ And now parting arose like a death to these
children, for it was imperative that she should start at once. Stephen walked beside her for
nearly a mile. During the walk he said sadly: ‘Elfride, four-and-twenty hours have passed,
and the thing is not done.’ ‘But you have insured that it shall be done.’ ‘How have I?’ ‘O Stephen, you ask how! Do you think I
could marry another man on earth after having gone thus far with you? Have I not shown beyond
possibility of doubt that I can be nobody else’s? Have I not irretrievably committed
myself?—pride has stood for nothing in the face of my great love. You misunderstood my
turning back, and I cannot explain it. It was wrong to go with you at all; and though
it would have been worse to go further, it would have been better policy, perhaps. Be
assured of this, that whenever you have a home for me—however poor and humble—and
come and claim me, I am ready.’ She added bitterly, ‘When my father knows of this
day’s work, he may be only too glad to let me go.’ ‘Perhaps he may, then, insist upon our marriage
at once!’ Stephen answered, seeing a ray of hope in the very focus of her remorse.
‘I hope he may, even if we had still to part till I am ready for you, as we intended.’ Elfride did not reply. ‘You don’t seem the same woman, Elfie,
that you were yesterday.’ ‘Nor am I. But good-bye. Go back now.’
And she reined the horse for parting. ‘O Stephen,’ she cried, ‘I feel so weak!
I don’t know how to meet him. Cannot you, after all, come back with me?’ ‘Shall I come?’ Elfride paused to think. ‘No; it will not do. It is my utter foolishness
that makes me say such words. But he will send for you.’ ‘Say to him,’ continued Stephen, ‘that
we did this in the absolute despair of our minds. Tell him we don’t wish him to favour
us—only to deal justly with us. If he says, marry now, so much the better. If not, say
that all may be put right by his promise to allow me to have you when I am good enough
for you—which may be soon. Say I have nothing to offer him in exchange for his treasure—the
more sorry I; but all the love, and all the life, and all the labour of an honest man
shall be yours. As to when this had better be told, I leave you to judge.’ His words made her cheerful enough to toy
with her position. ‘And if ill report should come, Stephen,’
she said smiling, ‘why, the orange-tree must save me, as it saved virgins in St. George’s
time from the poisonous breath of the dragon. There, forgive me for forwardness: I am going.’ Then the boy and girl beguiled themselves
with words of half-parting only. ‘Own wifie, God bless you till we meet again!’ ‘Till we meet again, good-bye!’ And the pony went on, and she spoke to him
no more. He saw her figure diminish and her blue veil grow gray—saw it with the agonizing
sensations of a slow death. After thus parting from a man than whom she
had known none greater as yet, Elfride rode rapidly onwards, a tear being occasionally
shaken from her eyes into the road. What yesterday had seemed so desirable, so promising, even
trifling, had now acquired the complexion of a tragedy. She saw the rocks and sea in the neighbourhood
of Endelstow, and heaved a sigh of relief. When she passed a field behind the vicarage
she heard the voices of Unity and William Worm. They were hanging a carpet upon a line.
Unity was uttering a sentence that concluded with ‘when Miss Elfride comes.’ ‘When d’ye expect her?’ ‘Not till evening now. She’s safe enough
at Miss Bicknell’s, bless ye.’ Elfride went round to the door. She did not
knock or ring; and seeing nobody to take the horse, Elfride led her round to the yard,
slipped off the bridle and saddle, drove her towards the paddock, and turned her in. Then
Elfride crept indoors, and looked into all the ground-floor rooms. Her father was not
there. On the mantelpiece of the drawing-room stood
a letter addressed to her in his handwriting. She took it and read it as she went upstairs
to change her habit. STRATLEIGH, Thursday. ‘DEAR ELFRIDE,—On second thoughts I will
not return to-day, but only come as far as Wadcombe. I shall be at home by to-morrow
afternoon, and bring a friend with me.—Yours, in haste, C. S.’ After making a quick toilet she felt more
revived, though still suffering from a headache. On going out of the door she met Unity at
the top of the stair. ‘O Miss Elfride! I said to myself ‘tis
her sperrit! We didn’t dream o’ you not coming home last night. You didn’t say anything
about staying.’ ‘I intended to come home the same evening,
but altered my plan. I wished I hadn’t afterwards. Papa will be angry, I suppose?’ ‘Better not tell him, miss,’ said Unity. ‘I do fear to,’ she murmured. ‘Unity,
would you just begin telling him when he comes home?’ ‘What! and get you into trouble?’ ‘I deserve it.’ ‘No, indeed, I won’t,’ said Unity. ‘It
is not such a mighty matter, Miss Elfride. I says to myself, master’s taking a hollerday,
and because he’s not been kind lately to Miss Elfride, she——’ ‘Is imitating him. Well, do as you like.
And will you now bring me some luncheon?’ After satisfying an appetite which the fresh
marine air had given her in its victory over an agitated mind, she put on her hat and went
to the garden and summer-house. She sat down, and leant with her head in a corner. Here
she fell asleep. Half-awake, she hurriedly looked at the time.
She had been there three hours. At the same moment she heard the outer gate swing together,
and wheels sweep round the entrance; some prior noise from the same source having probably
been the cause of her awaking. Next her father’s voice was heard calling to Worm. Elfride passed along a walk towards the house
behind a belt of shrubs. She heard a tongue holding converse with her father, which was
not that of either of the servants. Her father and the stranger were laughing together. Then
there was a rustling of silk, and Mr. Swancourt and his companion, or companions, to all seeming
entered the door of the house, for nothing more of them was audible. Elfride had turned
back to meditate on what friends these could be, when she heard footsteps, and her father
exclaiming behind her: ‘O Elfride, here you are! I hope you got
on well?’ Elfride’s heart smote her, and she did not
speak. ‘Come back to the summer-house a minute,’
continued Mr. Swancourt; ‘I have to tell you of that I promised to.’ They entered the summer-house, and stood leaning
over the knotty woodwork of the balustrade. ‘Now,’ said her father radiantly, ‘guess
what I have to say.’ He seemed to be regarding his own existence so intently, that he took
no interest in nor even saw the complexion of hers. ‘I cannot, papa,’ she said sadly. ‘Try, dear.’ ‘I would rather not, indeed.’ ‘You are tired. You look worn. The ride
was too much for you. Well, this is what I went away for. I went to be married!’ ‘Married!’ she faltered, and could hardly
check an involuntary ‘So did I.’ A moment after and her resolve to confess perished
like a bubble. ‘Yes; to whom do you think? Mrs. Troyton,
the new owner of the estate over the hedge, and of the old manor-house. It was only finally
settled between us when I went to Stratleigh a few days ago.’ He lowered his voice to
a sly tone of merriment. ‘Now, as to your stepmother, you’ll find she is not much
to look at, though a good deal to listen to. She is twenty years older than myself, for
one thing.’ ‘You forget that I know her. She called
here once, after we had been, and found her away from home.’ ‘Of course, of course. Well, whatever her
looks are, she’s as excellent a woman as ever breathed. She has had lately left her
as absolute property three thousand five hundred a year, besides the devise of this estate—and,
by the way, a large legacy came to her in satisfaction of dower, as it is called.’ ‘Three thousand five hundred a year!’ ‘And a large—well, a fair-sized—mansion
in town, and a pedigree as long as my walking-stick; though that bears evidence of being rather
a raked-up affair—done since the family got rich—people do those things now as they
build ruins on maiden estates and cast antiques at Birmingham.’ Elfride merely listened and said nothing. He continued more quietly and impressively.
‘Yes, Elfride, she is wealthy in comparison with us, though with few connections. However,
she will introduce you to the world a little. We are going to exchange her house in Baker
Street for one at Kensington, for your sake. Everybody is going there now, she says. At
Easters we shall fly to town for the usual three months—I shall have a curate of course
by that time. Elfride, I am past love, you know, and I honestly confess that I married
her for your sake. Why a woman of her standing should have thrown herself away upon me, God
knows. But I suppose her age and plainness were too pronounced for a town man. With your
good looks, if you now play your cards well, you may marry anybody. Of course, a little
contrivance will be necessary; but there’s nothing to stand between you and a husband
with a title, that I can see. Lady Luxellian was only a squire’s daughter. Now, don’t
you see how foolish the old fancy was? But come, she is indoors waiting to see you. It
is as good as a play, too,’ continued the vicar, as they walked towards the house. ‘I
courted her through the privet hedge yonder: not entirely, you know, but we used to walk
there of an evening—nearly every evening at last. But I needn’t tell you details
now; everything was terribly matter-of-fact, I assure you. At last, that day I saw her
at Stratleigh, we determined to settle it off-hand.’ ‘And you never said a word to me,’ replied
Elfride, not reproachfully either in tone or thought. Indeed, her feeling was the very
reverse of reproachful. She felt relieved and even thankful. Where confidence had not
been given, how could confidence be expected? Her father mistook her dispassionateness for
a veil of politeness over a sense of ill-usage. ‘I am not altogether to blame,’ he said.
‘There were two or three reasons for secrecy. One was the recent death of her relative the
testator, though that did not apply to you. But remember, Elfride,’ he continued in
a stiffer tone, ‘you had mixed yourself up so foolishly with those low people, the
Smiths—and it was just, too, when Mrs. Troyton and myself were beginning to understand each
other—that I resolved to say nothing even to you. How did I know how far you had gone
with them and their son? You might have made a point of taking tea with them every day,
for all that I knew.’ Elfride swallowed her feelings as she best
could, and languidly though flatly asked a question. ‘Did you kiss Mrs. Troyton on the lawn about
three weeks ago? That evening I came into the study and found you had just had candles
in?’ Mr. Swancourt looked rather red and abashed,
as middle-aged lovers are apt to do when caught in the tricks of younger ones. ‘Well, yes; I think I did,’ he stammered;
‘just to please her, you know.’ And then recovering himself he laughed heartily. ‘And was this what your Horatian quotation
referred to?’ ‘It was, Elfride.’ They stepped into the drawing-room from the
verandah. At that moment Mrs. Swancourt came downstairs, and entered the same room by the
door. ‘Here, Charlotte, is my little Elfride,’
said Mr. Swancourt, with the increased affection of tone often adopted towards relations when
newly produced. Poor Elfride, not knowing what to do, did
nothing at all; but stood receptive of all that came to her by sight, hearing, and touch. Mrs. Swancourt moved forward, took her step-daughter’s
hand, then kissed her. ‘Ah, darling!’ she exclaimed good-humouredly,
‘you didn’t think when you showed a strange old woman over the conservatory a month or
two ago, and explained the flowers to her so prettily, that she would so soon be here
in new colours. Nor did she, I am sure.’ The new mother had been truthfully enough
described by Mr. Swancourt. She was not physically attractive. She was dark—very dark—in
complexion, portly in figure, and with a plentiful residuum of hair in the proportion of half
a dozen white ones to half a dozen black ones, though the latter were black indeed. No further
observed, she was not a woman to like. But there was more to see. To the most superficial
critic it was apparent that she made no attempt to disguise her age. She looked sixty at the
first glance, and close acquaintanceship never proved her older. Another and still more winning trait was one
attaching to the corners of her mouth. Before she made a remark these often twitched gently:
not backwards and forwards, the index of nervousness; not down upon the jaw, the sign of determination;
but palpably upwards, in precisely the curve adopted to represent mirth in the broad caricatures
of schoolboys. Only this element in her face was expressive of anything within the woman,
but it was unmistakable. It expressed humour subjective as well as objective—which could
survey the peculiarities of self in as whimsical a light as those of other people. This is not all of Mrs. Swancourt. She had
held out to Elfride hands whose fingers were literally stiff with rings, signis auroque
rigentes, like Helen’s robe. These rows of rings were not worn in vanity apparently.
They were mostly antique and dull, though a few were the reverse. RIGHT HAND. 1st. Plainly set oval onyx, representing a
devil’s head. 2nd. Green jasper intaglio, with red veins. 3rd. Entirely gold, bearing
figure of a hideous griffin. 4th. A sea-green monster diamond, with small diamonds round
it. 5th. Antique cornelian intaglio of dancing figure of a satyr. 6th. An angular band chased
with dragons’ heads. 7th. A facetted carbuncle accompanied by ten little twinkling emeralds;
&c. &c. LEFT HAND. 1st. A reddish-yellow toadstone. 2nd. A heavy
ring enamelled in colours, and bearing a jacynth. 3rd. An amethystine sapphire. 4th. A polished
ruby, surrounded by diamonds. 5th. The engraved ring of an abbess. 6th. A gloomy intaglio;
&c. &c. Beyond this rather quaint array of stone and
metal Mrs. Swancourt wore no ornament whatever. Elfride had been favourably impressed with
Mrs. Troyton at their meeting about two months earlier; but to be pleased with a woman as
a momentary acquaintance was different from being taken with her as a stepmother. However,
the suspension of feeling was but for a moment. Elfride decided to like her still. Mrs. Swancourt was a woman of the world as
to knowledge, the reverse as to action, as her marriage suggested. Elfride and the lady
were soon inextricably involved in conversation, and Mr. Swancourt left them to themselves. ‘And what do you find to do with yourself
here?’ Mrs. Swancourt said, after a few remarks about the wedding. ‘You ride, I
know.’ ‘Yes, I ride. But not much, because papa
doesn’t like my going alone.’ ‘You must have somebody to look after you.’ ‘And I read, and write a little.’ ‘You should write a novel. The regular resource
of people who don’t go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one.’ ‘I have done it,’ said Elfride, looking
dubiously at Mrs. Swancourt, as if in doubt whether she would meet with ridicule there. ‘That’s right. Now, then, what is it about,
dear?’ ‘About—well, it is a romance of the Middle
Ages.’ ‘Knowing nothing of the present age, which
everybody knows about, for safety you chose an age known neither to you nor other people.
That’s it, eh? No, no; I don’t mean it, dear.’ ‘Well, I have had some opportunities of
studying mediaeval art and manners in the library and private museum at Endelstow House,
and I thought I should like to try my hand upon a fiction. I know the time for these
tales is past; but I was interested in it, very much interested.’ ‘When is it to appear?’ ‘Oh, never, I suppose.’ ‘Nonsense, my dear girl. Publish it, by
all means. All ladies do that sort of thing now; not for profit, you know, but as a guarantee
of mental respectability to their future husbands.’ ‘An excellent idea of us ladies.’ ‘Though I am afraid it rather resembles
the melancholy ruse of throwing loaves over castle-walls at besiegers, and suggests desperation
rather than plenty inside.’ ‘Did you ever try it?’ ‘No; I was too far gone even for that.’ ‘Papa says no publisher will take my book.’ ‘That remains to be proved. I’ll give
my word, my dear, that by this time next year it shall be printed.’ ‘Will you, indeed?’ said Elfride, partially
brightening with pleasure, though she was sad enough in her depths. ‘I thought brains
were the indispensable, even if the only, qualification for admission to the republic
of letters. A mere commonplace creature like me will soon be turned out again.’ ‘Oh no; once you are there you’ll be like
a drop of water in a piece of rock-crystal—your medium will dignify your commonness.’ ‘It will be a great satisfaction,’ Elfride
murmured, and thought of Stephen, and wished she could make a great fortune by writing
romances, and marry him and live happily. ‘And then we’ll go to London, and then
to Paris,’ said Mrs. Swancourt. ‘I have been talking to your father about it. But
we have first to move into the manor-house, and we think of staying at Torquay whilst
that is going on. Meanwhile, instead of going on a honeymoon scamper by ourselves, we have
come home to fetch you, and go all together to Bath for two or three weeks.’ Elfride assented pleasantly, even gladly;
but she saw that, by this marriage, her father and herself had ceased for ever to be the
close relations they had been up to a few weeks ago. It was impossible now to tell him
the tale of her wild elopement with Stephen Smith. He was still snugly housed in her heart. His
absence had regained for him much of that aureola of saintship which had been nearly
abstracted during her reproachful mood on that miserable journey from London. Rapture
is often cooled by contact with its cause, especially if under awkward conditions. And
that last experience with Stephen had done anything but make him shine in her eyes. His
very kindness in letting her return was his offence. Elfride had her sex’s love of sheer
force in a man, however ill-directed; and at that critical juncture in London Stephen’s
only chance of retaining the ascendancy over her that his face and not his parts had acquired
for him, would have been by doing what, for one thing, he was too youthful to undertake—that
was, dragging her by the wrist to the rails of some altar, and peremptorily marrying her.
Decisive action is seen by appreciative minds to be frequently objectless, and sometimes
fatal; but decision, however suicidal, has more charm for a woman than the most unequivocal
Fabian success. However, some of the unpleasant accessories
of that occasion were now out of sight again, and Stephen had resumed not a few of his fancy colours. Chapter XIII
‘He set in order many proverbs.’ It is London in October—two months further
on in the story. Bede’s Inn has this peculiarity, that it
faces, receives from, and discharges into a bustling thoroughfare speaking only of wealth
and respectability, whilst its postern abuts on as crowded and poverty-stricken a network
of alleys as are to be found anywhere in the metropolis. The moral consequences are, first,
that those who occupy chambers in the Inn may see a great deal of shirtless humanity’s
habits and enjoyments without doing more than look down from a back window; and second they
may hear wholesome though unpleasant social reminders through the medium of a harsh voice,
an unequal footstep, the echo of a blow or a fall, which originates in the person of
some drunkard or wife-beater, as he crosses and interferes with the quiet of the square.
Characters of this kind frequently pass through the Inn from a little foxhole of an alley
at the back, but they never loiter there. It is hardly necessary to state that all the
sights and movements proper to the Inn are most orderly. On the fine October evening
on which we follow Stephen Smith to this place, a placid porter is sitting on a stool under
a sycamore-tree in the midst, with a little cane in his hand. We notice the thick coat
of soot upon the branches, hanging underneath them in flakes, as in a chimney. The blackness
of these boughs does not at present improve the tree—nearly forsaken by its leaves as
it is—but in the spring their green fresh beauty is made doubly beautiful by the contrast.
Within the railings is a flower-garden of respectable dahlias and chrysanthemums, where
a man is sweeping the leaves from the grass. Stephen selects a doorway, and ascends an
old though wide wooden staircase, with moulded balusters and handrail, which in a country
manor-house would be considered a noteworthy specimen of Renaissance workmanship. He reaches
a door on the first floor, over which is painted, in black letters, ‘Mr. Henry Knight’—‘Barrister-at-law’
being understood but not expressed. The wall is thick, and there is a door at its outer
and inner face. The outer one happens to be ajar: Stephen goes to the other, and taps. ‘Come in!’ from distant penetralia. First was a small anteroom, divided from the
inner apartment by a wainscoted archway two or three yards wide. Across this archway hung
a pair of dark-green curtains, making a mystery of all within the arch except the spasmodic
scratching of a quill pen. Here was grouped a chaotic assemblage of articles—mainly
old framed prints and paintings—leaning edgewise against the wall, like roofing slates
in a builder’s yard. All the books visible here were folios too big to be stolen—some
lying on a heavy oak table in one corner, some on the floor among the pictures, the
whole intermingled with old coats, hats, umbrellas, and walking-sticks. Stephen pushed aside the curtain, and before
him sat a man writing away as if his life depended upon it—which it did. A man of thirty in a speckled coat, with dark
brown hair, curly beard, and crisp moustache: the latter running into the beard on each
side of the mouth, and, as usual, hiding the real expression of that organ under a chronic
aspect of impassivity. ‘Ah, my dear fellow, I knew ‘twas you,’
said Knight, looking up with a smile, and holding out his hand. Knight’s mouth and eyes came to view now.
Both features were good, and had the peculiarity of appearing younger and fresher than the
brow and face they belonged to, which were getting sicklied o’er by the unmistakable
pale cast. The mouth had not quite relinquished rotundity of curve for the firm angularities
of middle life; and the eyes, though keen, permeated rather than penetrated: what they
had lost of their boy-time brightness by a dozen years of hard reading lending a quietness
to their gaze which suited them well. A lady would have said there was a smell of
tobacco in the room: a man that there was not. Knight did not rise. He looked at a timepiece
on the mantelshelf, then turned again to his letters, pointing to a chair. ‘Well, I am glad you have come. I only returned
to town yesterday; now, don’t speak, Stephen, for ten minutes; I have just that time to
the late post. At the eleventh minute, I’m your man.’ Stephen sat down as if this kind of reception
was by no means new, and away went Knight’s pen, beating up and down like a ship in a
storm. Cicero called the library the soul of the
house; here the house was all soul. Portions of the floor, and half the wall-space, were
taken up by book-shelves ordinary and extraordinary; the remaining parts, together with brackets,
side-tables, &c., being occupied by casts, statuettes, medallions, and plaques of various
descriptions, picked up by the owner in his wanderings through France and Italy. One stream only of evening sunlight came into
the room from a window quite in the corner, overlooking a court. An aquarium stood in
the window. It was a dull parallelopipedon enough for living creatures at most hours
of the day; but for a few minutes in the evening, as now, an errant, kindly ray lighted up and
warmed the little world therein, when the many-coloured zoophytes opened and put forth
their arms, the weeds acquired a rich transparency, the shells gleamed of a more golden yellow,
and the timid community expressed gladness more plainly than in words. Within the prescribed ten minutes Knight flung
down his pen, rang for the boy to take the letters to the post, and at the closing of
the door exclaimed, ‘There; thank God, that’s done. Now, Stephen, pull your chair round,
and tell me what you have been doing all this time. Have you kept up your Greek?’ ‘No.’ ‘How’s that?’ ‘I haven’t enough spare time.’ ‘That’s nonsense.’ ‘Well, I have done a great many things,
if not that. And I have done one extraordinary thing.’ Knight turned full upon Stephen. ‘Ah-ha!
Now, then, let me look into your face, put two and two together, and make a shrewd guess.’ Stephen changed to a redder colour. ‘Why, Smith,’ said Knight, after holding
him rigidly by the shoulders, and keenly scrutinising his countenance for a minute in silence, ‘you
have fallen in love.’ ‘Well—the fact is——’ ‘Now, out with it.’ But seeing that Stephen
looked rather distressed, he changed to a kindly tone. ‘Now Smith, my lad, you know
me well enough by this time, or you ought to; and you know very well that if you choose
to give me a detailed account of the phenomenon within you, I shall listen; if you don’t,
I am the last man in the world to care to hear it.’ ‘I’ll tell this much: I HAVE fallen in
love, and I want to be MARRIED.’ Knight looked ominous as this passed Stephen’s
lips. ‘Don’t judge me before you have heard
more,’ cried Stephen anxiously, seeing the change in his friend’s countenance. ‘I don’t judge. Does your mother know
about it?’ ‘Nothing definite.’ ‘Father?’ ‘No. But I’ll tell you. The young person——’ ‘Come, that’s dreadfully ungallant. But
perhaps I understand the frame of mind a little, so go on. Your sweetheart——’ ‘She is rather higher in the world than
I am.’ ‘As it should be.’ ‘And her father won’t hear of it, as I
now stand.’ ‘Not an uncommon case.’ ‘And now comes what I want your advice upon.
Something has happened at her house which makes it out of the question for us to ask
her father again now. So we are keeping silent. In the meantime an architect in India has
just written to Mr. Hewby to ask whether he can find for him a young assistant willing
to go over to Bombay to prepare drawings for work formerly done by the engineers. The salary
he offers is 350 rupees a month, or about 35 Pounds. Hewby has mentioned it to me, and
I have been to Dr. Wray, who says I shall acclimatise without much illness. Now, would
you go?’ ‘You mean to say, because it is a possible
road to the young lady.’ ‘Yes; I was thinking I could go over and
make a little money, and then come back and ask for her. I have the option of practising
for myself after a year.’ ‘Would she be staunch?’ ‘Oh yes! For ever—to the end of her life!’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Why, how do people know? Of course, she
will.’ Knight leant back in his chair. ‘Now, though
I know her thoroughly as she exists in your heart, Stephen, I don’t know her in the
flesh. All I want to ask is, is this idea of going to India based entirely upon a belief
in her fidelity?’ ‘Yes; I should not go if it were not for
her.’ ‘Well, Stephen, you have put me in rather
an awkward position. If I give my true sentiments, I shall hurt your feelings; if I don’t,
I shall hurt my own judgment. And remember, I don’t know much about women.’ ‘But you have had attachments, although
you tell me very little about them.’ ‘And I only hope you’ll continue to prosper
till I tell you more.’ Stephen winced at this rap. ‘I have never
formed a deep attachment,’ continued Knight. ‘I never have found a woman worth it. Nor
have I been once engaged to be married.’ ‘You write as if you had been engaged a
hundred times, if I may be allowed to say so,’ said Stephen in an injured tone. ‘Yes, that may be. But, my dear Stephen,
it is only those who half know a thing that write about it. Those who know it thoroughly
don’t take the trouble. All I know about women, or men either, is a mass of generalities.
I plod along, and occasionally lift my eyes and skim the weltering surface of mankind
lying between me and the horizon, as a crow might; no more.’ Knight stopped as if he had fallen into a
train of thought, and Stephen looked with affectionate awe at a master whose mind, he
believed, could swallow up at one meal all that his own head contained. There was affective sympathy, but no great
intellectual fellowship, between Knight and Stephen Smith. Knight had seen his young friend
when the latter was a cherry-cheeked happy boy, had been interested in him, had kept
his eye upon him, and generously helped the lad to books, till the mere connection of
patronage grew to acquaintance, and that ripened to friendship. And so, though Smith was not
at all the man Knight would have deliberately chosen as a friend—or even for one of a
group of a dozen friends—he somehow was his friend. Circumstance, as usual, did it
all. How many of us can say of our most intimate alter ego, leaving alone friends of the outer
circle, that he is the man we should have chosen, as embodying the net result after
adding up all the points in human nature that we love, and principles we hold, and subtracting
all that we hate? The man is really somebody we got to know by mere physical juxtaposition
long maintained, and was taken into our confidence, and even heart, as a makeshift. ‘And what do you think of her?’ Stephen
ventured to say, after a silence. ‘Taking her merits on trust from you,’
said Knight, ‘as we do those of the Roman poets of whom we know nothing but that they
lived, I still think she will not stick to you through, say, three years of absence in
India.’ ‘But she will!’ cried Stephen desperately.
‘She is a girl all delicacy and honour. And no woman of that kind, who has committed
herself so into a man’s hands as she has into mine, could possibly marry another.’ ‘How has she committed herself?’ asked
Knight cunously. Stephen did not answer. Knight had looked
on his love so sceptically that it would not do to say all that he had intended to say
by any means. ‘Well, don’t tell,’ said Knight. ‘But
you are begging the question, which is, I suppose, inevitable in love.’ ‘And I’ll tell you another thing,’ the
younger man pleaded. ‘You remember what you said to me once about women receiving
a kiss. Don’t you? Why, that instead of our being charmed by the fascination of their
bearing at such a time, we should immediately doubt them if their confusion has any GRACE
in it—that awkward bungling was the true charm of the occasion, implying that we are
the first who has played such a part with them.’ ‘It is true, quite,’ said Knight musingly. It often happened that the disciple thus remembered
the lessons of the master long after the master himself had forgotten them. ‘Well, that was like her!’ cried Stephen
triumphantly. ‘She was in such a flurry that she didn’t know what she was doing.’ ‘Splendid, splendid!’ said Knight soothingly.
‘So that all I have to say is, that if you see a good opening in Bombay there’s no
reason why you should not go without troubling to draw fine distinctions as to reasons. No
man fully realizes what opinions he acts upon, or what his actions mean.’ ‘Yes; I go to Bombay. I’ll write a note
here, if you don’t mind.’ ‘Sleep over it—it is the best plan—and
write to-morrow. Meantime, go there to that window and sit down, and look at my Humanity
Show. I am going to dine out this evening, and have to dress here out of my portmanteau.
I bring up my things like this to save the trouble of going down to my place at Richmond
and back again.’ Knight then went to the middle of the room
and flung open his portmanteau, and Stephen drew near the window. The streak of sunlight
had crept upward, edged away, and vanished; the zoophytes slept: a dusky gloom pervaded
the room. And now another volume of light shone over the window. ‘There!’ said Knight, ‘where is there
in England a spectacle to equal that? I sit there and watch them every night before I
go home. Softly open the sash.’ Beneath them was an alley running up to the
wall, and thence turning sideways and passing under an arch, so that Knight’s back window
was immediately over the angle, and commanded a view of the alley lengthwise. Crowds—mostly
of women—were surging, bustling, and pacing up and down. Gaslights glared from butchers’
stalls, illuminating the lumps of flesh to splotches of orange and vermilion, like the
wild colouring of Turner’s later pictures, whilst the purl and babble of tongues of every
pitch and mood was to this human wild-wood what the ripple of a brook is to the natural
forest. Nearly ten minutes passed. Then Knight also
came to the window. ‘Well, now, I call a cab and vanish down
the street in the direction of Berkeley Square,’ he said, buttoning his waistcoat and kicking
his morning suit into a corner. Stephen rose to leave. ‘What a heap of literature!’ remarked
the young man, taking a final longing survey round the room, as if to abide there for ever
would be the great pleasure of his life, yet feeling that he had almost outstayed his welcome-while.
His eyes rested upon an arm-chair piled full of newspapers, magazines, and bright new volumes
in green and red. ‘Yes,’ said Knight, also looking at them
and breathing a sigh of weariness; ‘something must be done with several of them soon, I
suppose. Stephen, you needn’t hurry away for a few minutes, you know, if you want to
stay; I am not quite ready. Overhaul those volumes whilst I put on my coat, and I’ll
walk a little way with you.’ Stephen sat down beside the arm-chair and
began to tumble the books about. Among the rest he found a novelette in one volume, THE
COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE. By Ernest Field. ‘Are you going to review this?’ inquired
Stephen with apparent unconcern, and holding up Elfride’s effusion. ‘Which? Oh, that! I may—though I don’t
do much light reviewing now. But it is reviewable.’ ‘How do you mean?’ Knight never liked to be asked what he meant.
‘Mean! I mean that the majority of books published are neither good enough nor bad
enough to provoke criticism, and that that book does provoke it.’ ‘By its goodness or its badness?’ Stephen
said with some anxiety on poor little Elfride’s score. ‘Its badness. It seems to be written by
some girl in her teens.’ Stephen said not another word. He did not
care to speak plainly of Elfride after that unfortunate slip his tongue had made in respect
of her having committed herself; and, apart from that, Knight’s severe—almost dogged
and self-willed—honesty in criticizing was unassailable by the humble wish of a youthful
friend like Stephen. Knight was now ready. Turning off the gas,
and slamming together the door, they went downstairs and into the street. Chapter XIV
‘We frolic while ‘tis May.’ It has now to be realized that nearly three-quarters
of a year have passed away. In place of the autumnal scenery which formed a setting to
the previous enactments, we have the culminating blooms of summer in the year following. Stephen is in India, slaving away at an office
in Bombay; occasionally going up the country on professional errands, and wondering why
people who had been there longer than he complained so much of the effect of the climate upon
their constitutions. Never had a young man a finer start than seemed now to present itself
to Stephen. It was just in that exceptional heyday of prosperity which shone over Bombay
some few years ago, that he arrived on the scene. Building and engineering partook of
the general impetus. Speculation moved with an accelerated velocity every successive day,
the only disagreeable contingency connected with it being the possibility of a collapse. Elfride had never told her father of the four-and-twenty-hours’
escapade with Stephen, nor had it, to her knowledge, come to his ears by any other route.
It was a secret trouble and grief to the girl for a short time, and Stephen’s departure
was another ingredient in her sorrow. But Elfride possessed special facilities for getting
rid of trouble after a decent interval. Whilst a slow nature was imbibing a misfortune little
by little, she had swallowed the whole agony of it at a draught and was brightening again.
She could slough off a sadness and replace it by a hope as easily as a lizard renews
a diseased limb. And two such excellent distractions had presented
themselves. One was bringing out the romance and looking for notices in the papers, which,
though they had been significantly short so far, had served to divert her thoughts. The
other was migrating from the vicarage to the more commodious old house of Mrs. Swancourt’s,
overlooking the same valley. Mr. Swancourt at first disliked the idea of being transplanted
to feminine soil, but the obvious advantages of such an accession of dignity reconciled
him to the change. So there was a radical ‘move;’ the two ladies staying at Torquay
as had been arranged, the vicar going to and fro. Mrs. Swancourt considerably enlarged Elfride’s
ideas in an aristocratic direction, and she began to forgive her father for his politic
marriage. Certainly, in a worldly sense, a handsome face at three-and-forty had never
served a man in better stead. The new house at Kensington was ready, and
they were all in town. The Hyde Park shrubs had been transplanted
as usual, the chairs ranked in line, the grass edgings trimmed, the roads made to look as
if they were suffering from a heavy thunderstorm; carriages had been called for by the easeful,
horses by the brisk, and the Drive and Row were again the groove of gaiety for an hour.
We gaze upon the spectacle, at six o’clock on this midsummer afternoon, in a melon-frame
atmosphere and beneath a violet sky. The Swancourt equipage formed one in the stream. Mrs. Swancourt was a talker of talk of the
incisive kind, which her low musical voice—the only beautiful point in the old woman—prevented
from being wearisome. ‘Now,’ she said to Elfride, who, like
AEneas at Carthage, was full of admiration for the brilliant scene, ‘you will find
that our companionless state will give us, as it does everybody, an extraordinary power
in reading the features of our fellow-creatures here. I always am a listener in such places
as these—not to the narratives told by my neighbours’ tongues, but by their faces—the
advantage of which is, that whether I am in Row, Boulevard, Rialto, or Prado, they all
speak the same language. I may have acquired some skill in this practice through having
been an ugly lonely woman for so many years, with nobody to give me information; a thing
you will not consider strange when the parallel case is borne in mind,—how truly people
who have no clocks will tell the time of day.’ ‘Ay, that they will,’ said Mr. Swancourt
corroboratively. ‘I have known labouring men at Endelstow and other farms who had framed
complete systems of observation for that purpose. By means of shadows, winds, clouds, the movements
of sheep and oxen, the singing of birds, the crowing of cocks, and a hundred other sights
and sounds which people with watches in their pockets never know the existence of, they
are able to pronounce within ten minutes of the hour almost at any required instant. That
reminds me of an old story which I’m afraid is too bad—too bad to repeat.’ Here the
vicar shook his head and laughed inwardly. ‘Tell it—do!’ said the ladies. ‘I mustn’t quite tell it.’ ‘That’s absurd,’ said Mrs. Swancourt. ‘It was only about a man who, by the same
careful system of observation, was known to deceive persons for more than two years into
the belief that he kept a barometer by stealth, so exactly did he foretell all changes in
the weather by the braying of his ass and the temper of his wife.’ Elfride laughed. ‘Exactly,’ said Mrs. Swancourt. ‘And
in just the way that those learnt the signs of nature, I have learnt the language of her
illegitimate sister—artificiality; and the fibbing of eyes, the contempt of nose-tips,
the indignation of back hair, the laughter of clothes, the cynicism of footsteps, and
the various emotions lying in walking-stick twirls, hat-liftings, the elevation of parasols,
the carriage of umbrellas, become as A B C to me. ‘Just look at that daughter’s sister class
of mamma in the carriage across there,’ she continued to Elfride, pointing with merely
a turn of her eye. ‘The absorbing self-consciousness of her position that is shown by her countenance
is most humiliating to a lover of one’s country. You would hardly believe, would you,
that members of a Fashionable World, whose professed zero is far above the highest degree
of the humble, could be so ignorant of the elementary instincts of reticence.’ ‘How?’ ‘Why, to bear on their faces, as plainly
as on a phylactery, the inscription, “Do, pray, look at the coronet on my panels.”’ ‘Really, Charlotte,’ said the vicar, ‘you
see as much in faces as Mr. Puff saw in Lord Burleigh’s nod.’ Elfride could not but admire the beauty of
her fellow countrywomen, especially since herself and her own few acquaintances had
always been slightly sunburnt or marked on the back of the hands by a bramble-scratch
at this time of the year. ‘And what lovely flowers and leaves they
wear in their bonnets!’ she exclaimed. ‘Oh yes,’ returned Mrs. Swancourt. ‘Some
of them are even more striking in colour than any real ones. Look at that beautiful rose
worn by the lady inside the rails. Elegant vine-tendrils introduced upon the stem as
an improvement upon prickles, and all growing so naturally just over her ear—I say growing
advisedly, for the pink of the petals and the pink of her handsome cheeks are equally
from Nature’s hand to the eyes of the most casual observer.’ ‘But praise them a little, they do deserve
it!’ said generous Elfride. ‘Well, I do. See how the Duchess of——waves
to and fro in her seat, utilizing the sway of her landau by looking around only when
her head is swung forward, with a passive pride which forbids a resistance to the force
of circumstance. Look at the pretty pout on the mouths of that family there, retaining
no traces of being arranged beforehand, so well is it done. Look at the demure close
of the little fists holding the parasols; the tiny alert thumb, sticking up erect against
the ivory stem as knowing as can be, the satin of the parasol invariably matching the complexion
of the face beneath it, yet seemingly by an accident, which makes the thing so attractive.
There’s the red book lying on the opposite seat, bespeaking the vast numbers of their
acquaintance. And I particularly admire the aspect of that abundantly daughtered woman
on the other side—I mean her look of unconsciousness that the girls are stared at by the walkers,
and above all the look of the girls themselves—losing their gaze in the depths of handsome men’s
eyes without appearing to notice whether they are observing masculine eyes or the leaves
of the trees. There’s praise for you. But I am only jesting, child—you know that.’ ‘Piph-ph-ph—how warm it is, to be sure!’
said Mr. Swancourt, as if his mind were a long distance from all he saw. ‘I declare
that my watch is so hot that I can scarcely bear to touch it to see what the time is,
and all the world smells like the inside of a hat.’ ‘How the men stare at you, Elfride!’ said
the elder lady. ‘You will kill me quite, I am afraid.’ ‘Kill you?’ ‘As a diamond kills an opal in the same
setting.’ ‘I have noticed several ladies and gentlemen
looking at me,’ said Elfride artlessly, showing her pleasure at being observed. ‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen”
nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became
her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word
is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It
is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘“Ladies and MEN” always.’ At this moment appeared in the stream of vehicles
moving in the contrary direction a chariot presenting in its general surface the rich
indigo hue of a midnight sky, the wheels and margins being picked out in delicate lines
of ultramarine; the servants’ liveries were dark-blue coats and silver lace, and breeches
of neutral Indian red. The whole concern formed an organic whole, and moved along behind a
pair of dark chestnut geldings, who advanced in an indifferently zealous trot, very daintily
performed, and occasionally shrugged divers points of their veiny surface as if they were
rather above the business. In this sat a gentleman with no decided characteristics
more than that he somewhat resembled a good-natured commercial traveller of the superior class.
Beside him was a lady with skim-milky eyes and complexion, belonging to the “interesting”
class of women, where that class merges in the sickly, her greatest pleasure being apparently
to enjoy nothing. Opposite this pair sat two little girls in white hats and blue feathers. The lady saw Elfride, smiled and bowed, and
touched her husband’s elbow, who turned and received Elfride’s movement of recognition
with a gallant elevation of his hat. Then the two children held up their arms to Elfride,
and laughed gleefully. ‘Who is that?’ ‘Why, Lord Luxellian, isn’t it?’ said
Mrs. Swancourt, who with the vicar had been seated with her back towards them. ‘Yes,’ replied Elfride. ‘He is the one
man of those I have seen here whom I consider handsomer than papa.’ ‘Thank you, dear,’ said Mr. Swancourt. ‘Yes; but your father is so much older.
When Lord Luxellian gets a little further on in life, he won’t be half so good-looking
as our man.’ ‘Thank you, dear, likewise,’ said Mr.
Swancourt. ‘See,’ exclaimed Elfride, still looking
towards them, ‘how those little dears want me! Actually one of them is crying for me
to come.’ ‘We were talking of bracelets just now.
Look at Lady Luxellian’s,’ said Mrs. Swancourt, as that baroness lifted up her arm to support
one of the children. ‘It is slipping up her arm—too large by half. I hate to see
daylight between a bracelet and a wrist; I wonder women haven’t better taste.’ ‘It is not on that account, indeed,’ Elfride
expostulated. ‘It is that her arm has got thin, poor thing. You cannot think how much
she has altered in this last twelvemonth.’ The carriages were now nearer together, and
there was an exchange of more familiar greetings between the two families. Then the Luxellians
crossed over and drew up under the plane-trees, just in the rear of the Swancourts. Lord Luxellian
alighted, and came forward with a musical laugh. It was his attraction as a man. People liked
him for those tones, and forgot that he had no talents. Acquaintances remembered Mr. Swancourt
by his manner; they remembered Stephen Smith by his face, Lord Luxellian by his laugh. Mr. Swancourt made some friendly remarks—among
others things upon the heat. ‘Yes,’ said Lord Luxellian, ‘we were
driving by a furrier’s window this afternoon, and the sight filled us all with such a sense
of suffocation that we were glad to get away. Ha-ha!’ He turned to Elfride. ‘Miss Swancourt,
I have hardly seen or spoken to you since your literary feat was made public. I had
no idea a chiel was taking notes down at quiet Endelstow, or I should certainly have put
myself and friends upon our best behaviour. Swancourt, why didn’t you give me a hint!’ Elfride fluttered, blushed, laughed, said
it was nothing to speak of, &c. &c. ‘Well, I think you were rather unfairly
treated by the PRESENT, I certainly do. Writing a heavy review like that upon an elegant trifle
like the COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE was absurd.’ ‘What?’ said Elfride, opening her eyes.
‘Was I reviewed in the PRESENT?’ ‘Oh yes; didn’t you see it? Why, it was
four or five months ago!’ ‘No, I never saw it. How sorry I am! What
a shame of my publishers! They promised to send me every notice that appeared.’ ‘Ah, then, I am almost afraid I have been
giving you disagreeable information, intentionally withheld out of courtesy. Depend upon it they
thought no good would come of sending it, and so would not pain you unnecessarily.’ ‘Oh no; I am indeed glad you have told me,
Lord Luxellian. It is quite a mistaken kindness on their part. Is the review so much against
me?’ she inquired tremulously. ‘No, no; not that exactly—though I almost
forget its exact purport now. It was merely—merely sharp, you know—ungenerous, I might say.
But really my memory does not enable me to speak decidedly.’ ‘We’ll drive to the PRESENT office, and
get one directly; shall we, papa?’ ‘If you are so anxious, dear, we will, or
send. But to-morrow will do.’ ‘And do oblige me in a little matter now,
Elfride,’ said Lord Luxellian warmly, and looking as if he were sorry he had brought
news that disturbed her. ‘I am in reality sent here as a special messenger by my little
Polly and Katie to ask you to come into our carriage with them for a short time. I am
just going to walk across into Piccadilly, and my wife is left alone with them. I am
afraid they are rather spoilt children; but I have half promised them you shall come.’ The steps were let down, and Elfride was transferred—to
the intense delight of the little girls, and to the mild interest of loungers with red
skins and long necks, who cursorily eyed the performance with their walking-sticks to their
lips, occasionally laughing from far down their throats and with their eyes, their mouths
not being concerned in the operation at all. Lord Luxellian then told the coachman to drive
on, lifted his hat, smiled a smile that missed its mark and alighted on a total stranger,
who bowed in bewilderment. Lord Luxellian looked long at Elfride. The look was a manly, open, and genuine look
of admiration; a momentary tribute of a kind which any honest Englishman might have paid
to fairness without being ashamed of the feeling, or permitting it to encroach in the slightest
degree upon his emotional obligations as a husband and head of a family. Then Lord Luxellian
turned away, and walked musingly to the upper end of the promenade. Mr. Swancourt had alighted at the same time
with Elfride, crossing over to the Row for a few minutes to speak to a friend he recognized
there; and his wife was thus left sole tenant of the carriage. Now, whilst this little act had been in course
of performance, there stood among the promenading spectators a man of somewhat different description
from the rest. Behind the general throng, in the rear of the chairs, and leaning against
the trunk of a tree, he looked at Elfride with quiet and critical interest. Three points about this unobtrusive person
showed promptly to the exercised eye that he was not a Row man pur sang. First, an irrepressible
wrinkle or two in the waist of his frock-coat—denoting that he had not damned his tailor sufficiently
to drive that tradesman up to the orthodox high pressure of cunning workmanship. Second,
a slight slovenliness of umbrella, occasioned by its owner’s habit of resting heavily
upon it, and using it as a veritable walking-stick, instead of letting its point touch the ground
in the most coquettish of kisses, as is the proper Row manner to do. Third, and chief
reason, that try how you might, you could scarcely help supposing, on looking at his
face, that your eyes were not far from a well-finished mind, instead of the well-finished skin et
praeterea nihil, which is by rights the Mark of the Row. The probability is that, had not Mrs. Swancourt
been left alone in her carriage under the tree, this man would have remained in his
unobserved seclusion. But seeing her thus, he came round to the front, stooped under
the rail, and stood beside the carriage-door. Mrs. Swancourt looked reflectively at him
for a quarter of a minute, then held out her hand laughingly: ‘Why, Henry Knight—of course it is! My—second—third—fourth
cousin—what shall I say? At any rate, my kinsman.’ ‘Yes, one of a remnant not yet cut off.
I scarcely was certain of you, either, from where I was standing.’ ‘I have not seen you since you first went
to Oxford; consider the number of years! You know, I suppose, of my marriage?’ And there sprang up a dialogue concerning
family matters of birth, death, and marriage, which it is not necessary to detail. Knight
presently inquired: ‘The young lady who changed into the other
carriage is, then, your stepdaughter?’ ‘Yes, Elfride. You must know her.’ ‘And who was the lady in the carriage Elfride
entered; who had an ill-defined and watery look, as if she were only the reflection of
herself in a pool?’ ‘Lady Luxellian; very weakly, Elfride says.
My husband is remotely connected with them; but there is not much intimacy on account
of——. However, Henry, you’ll come and see us, of course. 24 Chevron Square. Come
this week. We shall only be in town a week or two longer.’ ‘Let me see. I’ve got to run up to Oxford
to-morrow, where I shall be for several days; so that I must, I fear, lose the pleasure
of seeing you in London this year.’ ‘Then come to Endelstow; why not return
with us?’ ‘I am afraid if I were to come before August
I should have to leave again in a day or two. I should be delighted to be with you at the
beginning of that month; and I could stay a nice long time. I have thought of going
westward all the summer.’ ‘Very well. Now remember that’s a compact.
And won’t you wait now and see Mr. Swancourt? He will not be away ten minutes longer.’ ‘No; I’ll beg to be excused; for I must
get to my chambers again this evening before I go home; indeed, I ought to have been there
now—I have such a press of matters to attend to just at present. You will explain to him,
please. Good-bye.’ ‘And let us know the day of your appearance
as soon as you can.’ ‘I will’ Chapter XV
‘A wandering voice.’ Though sheer and intelligible griefs are not
charmed away by being confided to mere acquaintances, the process is a palliative to certain ill-humours.
Among these, perplexed vexation is one—a species of trouble which, like a stream, gets
shallower by the simple operation of widening it in any quarter. On the evening of the day succeeding that
of the meeting in the Park, Elfride and Mrs. Swancourt were engaged in conversation in
the dressing-room of the latter. Such a treatment of such a case was in course of adoption here. Elfride had just before received an affectionate
letter from Stephen Smith in Bombay, which had been forwarded to her from Endelstow.
But since this is not the case referred to, it is not worth while to pry further into
the contents of the letter than to discover that, with rash though pardonable confidence
in coming times, he addressed her in high spirits as his darling future wife. Probably
there cannot be instanced a briefer and surer rule-of-thumb test of a man’s temperament—sanguine
or cautious—than this: did he or does he ante-date the word wife in corresponding with
a sweet-heart he honestly loves? She had taken this epistle into her own room,
read a little of it, then SAVED the rest for to-morrow, not wishing to be so extravagant
as to consume the pleasure all at once. Nevertheless, she could not resist the wish to enjoy yet
a little more, so out came the letter again, and in spite of misgivings as to prodigality
the whole was devoured. The letter was finally reperused and placed in her pocket. What was this? Also a newspaper for Elfride,
which she had overlooked in her hurry to open the letter. It was the old number of the PRESENT,
containing the article upon her book, forwarded as had been requested. Elfride had hastily read it through, shrunk
perceptibly smaller, and had then gone with the paper in her hand to Mrs. Swancourt’s
dressing-room, to lighten or at least modify her vexation by a discriminating estimate
from her stepmother. She was now looking disconsolately out of
the window. ‘Never mind, my child,’ said Mrs. Swancourt
after a careful perusal of the matter indicated. ‘I don’t see that the review is such a
terrible one, after all. Besides, everybody has forgotten about it by this time. I’m
sure the opening is good enough for any book ever written. Just listen—it sounds better
read aloud than when you pore over it silently: “THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE. A ROMANCE
OF THE MIDDLE AGES. BY ERNEST FIELD. In the belief that we were for a while escaping the
monotonous repetition of wearisome details in modern social scenery, analyses of uninteresting
character, or the unnatural unfoldings of a sensation plot, we took this volume into
our hands with a feeling of pleasure. We were disposed to beguile ourselves with the fancy
that some new change might possibly be rung upon donjon keeps, chain and plate armour,
deeply scarred cheeks, tender maidens disguised as pages, to which we had not listened long
ago.” Now, that’s a very good beginning, in my opinion, and one to be proud of having
brought out of a man who has never seen you.’ ‘Ah, yes,’ murmured Elfride wofully. ‘But,
then, see further on!’ ‘Well the next bit is rather unkind, I must
own,’ said Mrs. Swancourt, and read on. ‘“Instead of this we found ourselves in
the hands of some young lady, hardly arrived at years of discretion, to judge by the silly
device it has been thought worth while to adopt on the title-page, with the idea of
disguising her sex.”’ ‘I am not “silly”!’ said Elfride indignantly.
‘He might have called me anything but that.’ ‘You are not, indeed. Well:—“Hands of
a young lady…whose chapters are simply devoted to impossible tournaments, towers, and escapades,
which read like flat copies of like scenes in the stories of Mr. G. P. R. James, and
the most unreal portions of IVANHOE. The bait is so palpably artificial that the most credulous
gudgeon turns away.” Now, my dear, I don’t see overmuch to complain of in that. It proves
that you were clever enough to make him think of Sir Walter Scott, which is a great deal.’ ‘Oh yes; though I cannot romance myself,
I am able to remind him of those who can!’ Elfride intended to hurl these words sarcastically
at her invisible enemy, but as she had no more satirical power than a wood-pigeon, they
merely fell in a pretty murmur from lips shaped to a pout. ‘Certainly: and that’s something. Your
book is good enough to be bad in an ordinary literary manner, and doesn’t stand by itself
in a melancholy position altogether worse than assailable.—“That interest in an
historical romance may nowadays have any chance of being sustained, it is indispensable that
the reader find himself under the guidance of some nearly extinct species of legendary,
who, in addition to an impulse towards antiquarian research and an unweakened faith in the mediaeval
halo, shall possess an inventive faculty in which delicacy of sentiment is far overtopped
by a power of welding to stirring incident a spirited variety of the elementary human
passions.” Well, that long-winded effusion doesn’t refer to you at all, Elfride, merely
something put in to fill up. Let me see, when does he come to you again;…not till the
very end, actually. Here you are finally polished off: ‘“But to return to the little work we
have used as the text of this article. We are far from altogether disparaging the author’s
powers. She has a certain versatility that enables her to use with effect a style of
narration peculiar to herself, which may be called a murmuring of delicate emotional trifles,
the particular gift of those to whom the social sympathies of a peaceful time are as daily
food. Hence, where matters of domestic experience, and the natural touches which make people
real, can be introduced without anachronisms too striking, she is occasionally felicitous;
and upon the whole we feel justified in saying that the book will bear looking into for the
sake of those portions which have nothing whatever to do with the story.” ‘Well, I suppose it is intended for satire;
but don’t think anything more of it now, my dear. It is seven o’clock.’ And Mrs.
Swancourt rang for her maid. Attack is more piquant than concord. Stephen’s
letter was concerning nothing but oneness with her: the review was the very reverse.
And a stranger with neither name nor shape, age nor appearance, but a mighty voice, is
naturally rather an interesting novelty to a lady he chooses to address. When Elfride
fell asleep that night she was loving the writer of the letter, but thinking of the
writer of that article. Chapter XVI
‘Then fancy shapes—as fancy can.’ On a day about three weeks later, the Swancourt
trio were sitting quietly in the drawing-room of The Crags, Mrs. Swancourt’s house at
Endelstow, chatting, and taking easeful survey of their previous month or two of town—a
tangible weariness even to people whose acquaintances there might be counted on the fingers. A mere season in London with her practised
step-mother had so advanced Elfride’s perceptions, that her courtship by Stephen seemed emotionally
meagre, and to have drifted back several years into a childish past. In regarding our mental
experiences, as in visual observation, our own progress reads like a dwindling of that
we progress from. She was seated on a low chair, looking over
her romance with melancholy interest for the first time since she had become acquainted
with the remarks of the PRESENT thereupon. ‘Still thinking of that reviewer, Elfie?’ ‘Not of him personally; but I am thinking
of his opinion. Really, on looking into the volume after this long time has elapsed, he
seems to have estimated one part of it fairly enough.’ ‘No, no; I wouldn’t show the white feather
now! Fancy that of all people in the world the writer herself should go over to the enemy.
How shall Monmouth’s men fight when Monmouth runs away?’ ‘I don’t do that. But I think he is right
in some of his arguments, though wrong in others. And because he has some claim to my
respect I regret all the more that he should think so mistakenly of my motives in one or
two instances. It is more vexing to be misunderstood than to be misrepresented; and he misunderstands
me. I cannot be easy whilst a person goes to rest night after night attributing to me
intentions I never had.’ ‘He doesn’t know your name, or anything
about you. And he has doubtless forgotten there is such a book in existence by this
time.’ ‘I myself should certainly like him to be
put right upon one or two matters,’ said the vicar, who had hitherto been silent. ‘You
see, critics go on writing, and are never corrected or argued with, and therefore are
never improved.’ ‘Papa,’ said Elfride brightening, ‘write
to him!’ ‘I would as soon write to him as look at
him, for the matter of that,’ said Mr. Swancourt. ‘Do! And say, the young person who wrote
the book did not adopt a masculine pseudonym in vanity or conceit, but because she was
afraid it would be thought presumptuous to publish her name, and that she did not mean
the story for such as he, but as a sweetener of history for young people, who might thereby
acquire a taste for what went on in their own country hundreds of years ago, and be
tempted to dive deeper into the subject. Oh, there is so much to explain; I wish I might
write myself!’ ‘Now, Elfie, I’ll tell you what we will
do,’ answered Mr. Swancourt, tickled with a sort of bucolic humour at the idea of criticizing
the critic. ‘You shall write a clear account of what he is wrong in, and I will copy it
and send it as mine.’ ‘Yes, now, directly!’ said Elfride, jumping
up. ‘When will you send it, papa?’ ‘Oh, in a day or two, I suppose,’ he returned.
Then the vicar paused and slightly yawned, and in the manner of elderly people began
to cool from his ardour for the undertaking now that it came to the point. ‘But, really,
it is hardly worth while,’ he said. ‘O papa!’ said Elfride, with much disappointment.
‘You said you would, and now you won’t. That is not fair!’ ‘But how can we send it if we don’t know
whom to send it to?’ ‘If you really want to send such a thing
it can easily be done,’ said Mrs. Swancourt, coming to her step-daughter’s rescue. ‘An
envelope addressed, “To the Critic of THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE, care of the Editor
of the PRESENT,” would find him.’ ‘Yes, I suppose it would.’ ‘Why not write your answer yourself, Elfride?’
Mrs. Swancourt inquired. ‘I might,’ she said hesitatingly; ‘and
send it anonymously: that would be treating him as he has treated me.’ ‘No use in the world!’ ‘But I don’t like to let him know my exact
name. Suppose I put my initials only? The less you are known the more you are thought
of.’ ‘Yes; you might do that.’ Elfride set to work there and then. Her one
desire for the last fortnight seemed likely to be realized. As happens with sensitive
and secluded minds, a continual dwelling upon the subject had magnified to colossal proportions
the space she assumed herself to occupy or to have occupied in the occult critic’s
mind. At noon and at night she had been pestering herself with endeavours to perceive more distinctly
his conception of her as a woman apart from an author: whether he really despised her;
whether he thought more or less of her than of ordinary young women who never ventured
into the fire of criticism at all. Now she would have the satisfaction of feeling that
at any rate he knew her true intent in crossing his path, and annoying him so by her performance,
and be taught perhaps to despise it a little less. Four days later an envelope, directed to Miss
Swancourt in a strange hand, made its appearance from the post-bag. ‘Oh,’ said Elfride, her heart sinking
within her. ‘Can it be from that man—a lecture for impertinence? And actually one
for Mrs. Swancourt in the same hand-writing!’ She feared to open hers. ‘Yet how can he
know my name? No; it is somebody else.’ ‘Nonsense!’ said her father grimly. ‘You
sent your initials, and the Directory was available. Though he wouldn’t have taken
the trouble to look there unless he had been thoroughly savage with you. I thought you
wrote with rather more asperity than simple literary discussion required.’ This timely
clause was introduced to save the character of the vicar’s judgment under any issue
of affairs. ‘Well, here I go,’ said Elfride, desperately
tearing open the seal. ‘To be sure, of course,’ exclaimed Mrs.
Swancourt; and looking up from her own letter. ‘Christopher, I quite forgot to tell you,
when I mentioned that I had seen my distant relative, Harry Knight, that I invited him
here for whatever length of time he could spare. And now he says he can come any day
in August.’ ‘Write, and say the first of the month,’
replied the indiscriminate vicar. She read on, ‘Goodness me—and that isn’t
all. He is actually the reviewer of Elfride’s book. How absurd, to be sure! I had no idea
he reviewed novels or had anything to do with the PRESENT. He is a barrister—and I thought
he only wrote in the Quarterlies. Why, Elfride, you have brought about an odd entanglement!
What does he say to you?’ Elfride had put down her letter with a dissatisfied
flush on her face. ‘I don’t know. The idea of his knowing my name and all about
me!…Why, he says nothing particular, only this— ‘“MY DEAR MADAM,—Though I am sorry that
my remarks should have seemed harsh to you, it is a pleasure to find that they have been
the means of bringing forth such an ingeniously argued reply. Unfortunately, it is so long
since I wrote my review, that my memory does not serve me sufficiently to say a single
word in my defence, even supposing there remains one to be said, which is doubtful. You will
find from a letter I have written to Mrs. Swancourt, that we are not such strangers
to each other as we have been imagining. Possibly, I may have the pleasure of seeing you soon,
when any argument you choose to advance shall receive all the attention it deserves.” ‘That is dim sarcasm—I know it is.’ ‘Oh no, Elfride.’ ‘And then, his remarks didn’t seem harsh—I
mean I did not say so.’ ‘He thinks you are in a frightful temper,’
said Mr. Swancourt, chuckling in undertones. ‘And he will come and see me, and find the
authoress as contemptible in speech as she has been impertinent in manner. I do heartily
wish I had never written a word to him!’ ‘Never mind,’ said Mrs. Swancourt, also
laughing in low quiet jerks; ‘it will make the meeting such a comical affair, and afford
splendid by-play for your father and myself. The idea of our running our heads against
Harry Knight all the time! I cannot get over that.’ The vicar had immediately remembered the name
to be that of Stephen Smith’s preceptor and friend; but having ceased to concern himself
in the matter he made no remark to that effect, consistently forbearing to allude to anything
which could restore recollection of the (to him) disagreeable mistake with regard to poor
Stephen’s lineage and position. Elfride had of course perceived the same thing, which
added to the complication of relationship a mesh that her stepmother knew nothing of. The identification scarcely heightened Knight’s
attractions now, though a twelvemonth ago she would only have cared to see him for the
interest he possessed as Stephen’s friend. Fortunately for Knight’s advent, such a
reason for welcome had only begun to be awkward to her at a time when the interest he had
acquired on his own account made it no longer necessary. These coincidences, in common with all relating
to him, tended to keep Elfride’s mind upon the stretch concerning Knight. As was her
custom when upon the horns of a dilemma, she walked off by herself among the laurel bushes,
and there, standing still and splitting up a leaf without removing it from its stalk,
fetched back recollections of Stephen’s frequent words in praise of his friend, and
wished she had listened more attentively. Then, still pulling the leaf, she would blush
at some fancied mortification that would accrue to her from his words when they met, in consequence
of her intrusiveness, as she now considered it, in writing to him. The next development of her meditations was
the subject of what this man’s personal appearance might be—was he tall or short,
dark or fair, gay or grim? She would have asked Mrs. Swancourt but for the risk she
might thereby incur of some teasing remark being returned. Ultimately Elfride would say,
‘Oh, what a plague that reviewer is to me!’ and turn her face to where she imagined India
lay, and murmur to herself, ‘Ah, my little husband, what are you doing now? Let me see,
where are you—south, east, where? Behind that hill, ever so far behind!’ Chapter XVII
‘Her welcome, spoke in faltering phrase.’ ‘There is Henry Knight, I declare!’ said
Mrs. Swancourt one day. They were gazing from the jutting angle of
a wild enclosure not far from The Crags, which almost overhung the valley already described
as leading up from the sea and little port of Castle Boterel. The stony escarpment upon
which they stood had the contour of a man’s face, and it was covered with furze as with
a beard. People in the field above were preserved from an accidental roll down these prominences
and hollows by a hedge on the very crest, which was doing that kindly service for Elfride
and her mother now. Scrambling higher into the hedge and stretching
her neck further over the furze, Elfride beheld the individual signified. He was walking leisurely
along the little green path at the bottom, beside the stream, a satchel slung upon his
left hip, a stout walking-stick in his hand, and a brown-holland sun-hat upon his head.
The satchel was worn and old, and the outer polished surface of the leather was cracked
and peeling off. Knight having arrived over the hills to Castle
Boterel upon the top of a crazy omnibus, preferred to walk the remaining two miles up the valley,
leaving his luggage to be brought on. Behind him wandered, helter-skelter, a boy
of whom Knight had briefly inquired the way to Endelstow; and by that natural law of physics
which causes lesser bodies to gravitate towards the greater, this boy had kept near to Knight,
and trotted like a little dog close at his heels, whistling as he went, with his eyes
fixed upon Knight’s boots as they rose and fell. When they had reached a point precisely opposite
that in which Mrs. and Miss Swancourt lay in ambush, Knight stopped and turned round. ‘Look here, my boy,’ he said. The boy parted his lips, opened his eyes,
and answered nothing. ‘Here’s sixpence for you, on condition
that you don’t again come within twenty yards of my heels, all the way up the valley.’ The boy, who apparently had not known he had
been looking at Knight’s heels at all, took the sixpence mechanically, and Knight went
on again, wrapt in meditation. ‘A nice voice,’ Elfride thought; ‘but
what a singular temper!’ ‘Now we must get indoors before he ascends
the slope,’ said Mrs. Swancourt softly. And they went across by a short cut over a
stile, entering the lawn by a side door, and so on to the house. Mr. Swancourt had gone into the village with
the curate, and Elfride felt too nervous to await their visitor’s arrival in the drawing-room
with Mrs. Swancourt. So that when the elder lady entered, Elfride made some pretence of
perceiving a new variety of crimson geranium, and lingered behind among the flower beds. There was nothing gained by this, after all,
she thought; and a few minutes after boldly came into the house by the glass side-door.
She walked along the corridor, and entered the drawing-room. Nobody was there. A window at the angle of the room opened directly
into an octagonal conservatory, enclosing the corner of the building. From the conservatory
came voices in conversation—Mrs. Swancourt’s and the stranger’s. She had expected him to talk brilliantly.
To her surprise he was asking questions in quite a learner’s manner, on subjects connected
with the flowers and shrubs that she had known for years. When after the lapse of a few minutes
he spoke at some length, she considered there was a hard square decisiveness in the shape
of his sentences, as if, unlike her own and Stephen’s, they were not there and then
newly constructed, but were drawn forth from a large store ready-made. They were now approaching
the window to come in again. ‘That is a flesh-coloured variety,’ said
Mrs. Swancourt. ‘But oleanders, though they are such bulky shrubs, are so very easily
wounded as to be unprunable—giants with the sensitiveness of young ladies. Oh, here
is Elfride!’ Elfride looked as guilty and crestfallen as
Lady Teazle at the dropping of the screen. Mrs. Swancourt presented him half comically,
and Knight in a minute or two placed himself beside the young lady. A complexity of instincts checked Elfride’s
conventional smiles of complaisance and hospitality; and, to make her still less comfortable, Mrs.
Swancourt immediately afterwards left them together to seek her husband. Mr. Knight,
however, did not seem at all incommoded by his feelings, and he said with light easefulness: ‘So, Miss Swancourt, I have met you at last.
You escaped me by a few minutes only when we were in London.’ ‘Yes. I found that you had seen Mrs. Swancourt.’ ‘And now reviewer and reviewed are face
to face,’ he added unconcernedly. ‘Yes: though the fact of your being a relation
of Mrs. Swancourt’s takes off the edge of it. It was strange that you should be one
of her family all the time.’ Elfride began to recover herself now, and to look into Knight’s
face. ‘I was merely anxious to let you know my REAL meaning in writing the book—extremely
anxious.’ ‘I can quite understand the wish; and I
was gratified that my remarks should have reached home. They very seldom do, I am afraid.’ Elfride drew herself in. Here he was, sticking
to his opinions as firmly as if friendship and politeness did not in the least require
an immediate renunciation of them. ‘You made me very uneasy and sorry by writing
such things!’ she murmured, suddenly dropping the mere cacueterie of a fashionable first
introduction, and speaking with some of the dudgeon of a child towards a severe schoolmaster. ‘That is rather the object of honest critics
in such a case. Not to cause unnecessary sorrow, but: “To make you sorry after a proper manner,
that ye may receive damage by us in nothing,” as a powerful pen once wrote to the Gentiles.
Are you going to write another romance?’ ‘Write another?’ she said. ‘That somebody
may pen a condemnation and “nail’t wi’ Scripture” again, as you do now, Mr. Knight?’ ‘You may do better next time,’ he said
placidly: ‘I think you will. But I would advise you to confine yourself to domestic
scenes.’ ‘Thank you. But never again!’ ‘Well, you may be right. That a young woman
has taken to writing is not by any means the best thing to hear about her.’ ‘What is the best?’ ‘I prefer not to say.’ ‘Do you know? Then, do tell me, please.’ ‘Well’—(Knight was evidently changing
his meaning)—‘I suppose to hear that she has married.’ Elfride hesitated. ‘And what when she has
been married?’ she said at last, partly in order to withdraw her own person from the
argument. ‘Then to hear no more about her. It is as
Smeaton said of his lighthouse: her greatest real praise, when the novelty of her inauguration
has worn off, is that nothing happens to keep the talk of her alive.’ ‘Yes, I see,’ said Elfride softly and
thoughtfully. ‘But of course it is different quite with men. Why don’t you write novels,
Mr. Knight?’ ‘Because I couldn’t write one that would
interest anybody.’ ‘Why?’ ‘For several reasons. It requires a judicious
omission of your real thoughts to make a novel popular, for one thing.’ ‘Is that really necessary? Well, I am sure
you could learn to do that with practice,’ said Elfride with an ex-cathedra air, as became
a person who spoke from experience in the art. ‘You would make a great name for certain,’
she continued. ‘So many people make a name nowadays, that
it is more distinguished to remain in obscurity.’ ‘Tell me seriously—apart from the subject—why
don’t you write a volume instead of loose articles?’ she insisted. ‘Since you are pleased to make me talk of
myself, I will tell you seriously,’ said Knight, not less amused at this catechism
by his young friend than he was interested in her appearance. ‘As I have implied, I
have not the wish. And if I had the wish, I could not now concentrate sufficiently.
We all have only our one cruse of energy given us to make the best of. And where that energy
has been leaked away week by week, quarter by quarter, as mine has for the last nine
or ten years, there is not enough dammed back behind the mill at any given period to supply
the force a complete book on any subject requires. Then there is the self-confidence and waiting
power. Where quick results have grown customary, they are fatal to a lively faith in the future.’ ‘Yes, I comprehend; and so you choose to
write in fragments?’ ‘No, I don’t choose to do it in the sense
you mean; choosing from a whole world of professions, all possible. It was by the constraint of
accident merely. Not that I object to the accident.’ ‘Why don’t you object—I mean, why do
you feel so quiet about things?’ Elfride was half afraid to question him so, but her
intense curiosity to see what the inside of literary Mr. Knight was like, kept her going
on. Knight certainly did not mind being frank
with her. Instances of this trait in men who are not without feeling, but are reticent
from habit, may be recalled by all of us. When they find a listener who can by no possibility
make use of them, rival them, or condemn them, reserved and even suspicious men of the world
become frank, keenly enjoying the inner side of their frankness. ‘Why I don’t mind the accidental constraint,’
he replied, ‘is because, in making beginnings, a chance limitation of direction is often
better than absolute freedom.’ ‘I see—that is, I should if I quite understood
what all those generalities mean.’ ‘Why, this: That an arbitrary foundation
for one’s work, which no length of thought can alter, leaves the attention free to fix
itself on the work itself, and make the best of it.’ ‘Lateral compression forcing altitude, as
would be said in that tongue,’ she said mischievously. ‘And I suppose where no limit
exists, as in the case of a rich man with a wide taste who wants to do something, it
will be better to choose a limit capriciously than to have none.’ ‘Yes,’ he said meditatively. ‘I can
go as far as that.’ ‘Well,’ resumed Elfride, ‘I think it
better for a man’s nature if he does nothing in particular.’ ‘There is such a case as being obliged to.’ ‘Yes, yes; I was speaking of when you are
not obliged for any other reason than delight in the prospect of fame. I have thought many
times lately that a thin widespread happiness, commencing now, and of a piece with the days
of your life, is preferable to an anticipated heap far away in the future, and none now.’ ‘Why, that’s the very thing I said just
now as being the principle of all ephemeral doers like myself.’ ‘Oh, I am sorry to have parodied you,’
she said with some confusion. ‘Yes, of course. That is what you meant about not trying to
be famous.’ And she added, with the quickness of conviction characteristic of her mind:
‘There is much littleness in trying to be great. A man must think a good deal of himself,
and be conceited enough to believe in himself, before he tries at all.’ ‘But it is soon enough to say there is harm
in a man’s thinking a good deal of himself when it is proved he has been thinking wrong,
and too soon then sometimes. Besides, we should not conclude that a man who strives earnestly
for success does so with a strong sense of his own merit. He may see how little success
has to do with merit, and his motive may be his very humility.’ This manner of treating her rather provoked
Elfride. No sooner did she agree with him than he ceased to seem to wish it, and took
the other side. ‘Ah,’ she thought inwardly, ‘I shall have nothing to do with a man of
this kind, though he is our visitor.’ ‘I think you will find,’ resumed Knight,
pursuing the conversation more for the sake of finishing off his thoughts on the subject
than for engaging her attention, ‘that in actual life it is merely a matter of instinct
with men—this trying to push on. They awake to a recognition that they have, without premeditation,
begun to try a little, and they say to themselves, “Since I have tried thus much, I will try
a little more.” They go on because they have begun.’ Elfride, in her turn, was not particularly
attending to his words at this moment. She had, unconsciously to herself, a way of seizing
any point in the remarks of an interlocutor which interested her, and dwelling upon it,
and thinking thoughts of her own thereupon, totally oblivious of all that he might say
in continuation. On such occasions she artlessly surveyed the person speaking; and then there
was a time for a painter. Her eyes seemed to look at you, and past you, as you were
then, into your future; and past your future into your eternity—not reading it, but gazing
in an unused, unconscious way—her mind still clinging to its original thought. This is how she was looking at Knight. Suddenly Elfride became conscious of what
she was doing, and was painfully confused. ‘What were you so intent upon in me?’
he inquired. ‘As far as I was thinking of you at all,
I was thinking how clever you are,’ she said, with a want of premeditation that was
startling in its honesty and simplicity. Feeling restless now that she had so unwittingly
spoken, she arose and stepped to the window, having heard the voices of her father and
Mrs. Swancourt coming up below the terrace. ‘Here they are,’ she said, going out.
Knight walked out upon the lawn behind her. She stood upon the edge of the terrace, close
to the stone balustrade, and looked towards the sun, hanging over a glade just now fair
as Tempe’s vale, up which her father was walking. Knight could not help looking at her. The
sun was within ten degrees of the horizon, and its warm light flooded her face and heightened
the bright rose colour of her cheeks to a vermilion red, their moderate pink hue being
only seen in its natural tone where the cheek curved round into shadow. The ends of her
hanging hair softly dragged themselves backwards and forwards upon her shoulder as each faint
breeze thrust against or relinquished it. Fringes and ribbons of her dress, moved by
the same breeze, licked like tongues upon the parts around them, and fluttering forward
from shady folds caught likewise their share of the lustrous orange glow. Mr. Swancourt shouted out a welcome to Knight
from a distance of about thirty yards, and after a few preliminary words proceeded to
a conversation of deep earnestness on Knight’s fine old family name, and theories as to lineage
and intermarriage connected therewith. Knight’s portmanteau having in the meantime arrived,
they soon retired to prepare for dinner, which had been postponed two hours later than the
usual time of that meal. An arrival was an event in the life of Elfride,
now that they were again in the country, and that of Knight necessarily an engrossing one.
And that evening she went to bed for the first time without thinking
of Stephen at all. Chapter XVIII
‘He heard her musical pants.’ The old tower of West Endelstow Church had
reached the last weeks of its existence. It was to be replaced by a new one from the designs
of Mr. Hewby, the architect who had sent down Stephen. Planks and poles had arrived in the
churchyard, iron bars had been thrust into the venerable crack extending down the belfry
wall to the foundation, the bells had been taken down, the owls had forsaken this home
of their forefathers, and six iconoclasts in white fustian, to whom a cracked edifice
was a species of Mumbo Jumbo, had taken lodgings in the village previous to beginning the actual
removal of the stones. This was the day after Knight’s arrival.
To enjoy for the last time the prospect seaward from the summit, the vicar, Mrs. Swancourt,
Knight, and Elfride, all ascended the winding turret—Mr. Swancourt stepping forward with
many loud breaths, his wife struggling along silently, but suffering none the less. They
had hardly reached the top when a large lurid cloud, palpably a reservoir of rain, thunder,
and lightning, was seen to be advancing overhead from the north. The two cautious elders suggested an immediate
return, and proceeded to put it in practice as regarded themselves. ‘Dear me, I wish I had not come up,’ exclaimed
Mrs. Swancourt. ‘We shall be slower than you two in going
down,’ the vicar said over his shoulder, ‘and so, don’t you start till we are nearly
at the bottom, or you will run over us and break our necks somewhere in the darkness
of the turret.’ Accordingly Elfride and Knight waited on the
leads till the staircase should be clear. Knight was not in a talkative mood that morning.
Elfride was rather wilful, by reason of his inattention, which she privately set down
to his thinking her not worth talking to. Whilst Knight stood watching the rise of the
cloud, she sauntered to the other side of the tower, and there remembered a giddy feat
she had performed the year before. It was to walk round upon the parapet of the tower—which
was quite without battlement or pinnacle, and presented a smooth flat surface about
two feet wide, forming a pathway on all the four sides. Without reflecting in the least
upon what she was doing she now stepped upon the parapet in the old way, and began walking
along. ‘We are down, cousin Henry,’ cried Mrs.
Swancourt up the turret. ‘Follow us when you like.’ Knight turned and saw Elfride beginning her
elevated promenade. His face flushed with mingled concern and anger at her rashness. ‘I certainly gave you credit for more common
sense,’ he said. She reddened a little and walked on. ‘Miss Swancourt, I insist upon your coming
down,’ he exclaimed. ‘I will in a minute. I am safe enough. I
have done it often.’ At that moment, by reason of a slight perturbation
his words had caused in her, Elfride’s foot caught itself in a little tuft of grass growing
in a joint of the stone-work, and she almost lost her balance. Knight sprang forward with
a face of horror. By what seemed the special interposition of a considerate Providence
she tottered to the inner edge of the parapet instead of to the outer, and reeled over upon
the lead roof two or three feet below the wall. Knight seized her as in a vice, and he said,
panting, ‘That ever I should have met a woman fool enough to do a thing of that kind!
Good God, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ The close proximity of the Shadow of Death
had made her sick and pale as a corpse before he spoke. Already lowered to that state, his
words completely over-powered her, and she swooned away as he held her. Elfride’s eyes were not closed for more
than forty seconds. She opened them, and remembered the position instantly. His face had altered
its expression from stern anger to pity. But his severe remarks had rather frightened her,
and she struggled to be free. ‘If you can stand, of course you may,’
he said, and loosened his arms. ‘I hardly know whether most to laugh at your freak or
to chide you for its folly.’ She immediately sank upon the lead-work. Knight
lifted her again. ‘Are you hurt?’ he said. She murmured an incoherent expression, and
tried to smile; saying, with a fitful aversion of her face, ‘I am only frightened. Put
me down, do put me down!’ ‘But you can’t walk,’ said Knight. ‘You don’t know that; how can you? I am
only frightened, I tell you,’ she answered petulantly, and raised her hand to her forehead.
Knight then saw that she was bleeding from a severe cut in her wrist, apparently where
it had descended upon a salient corner of the lead-work. Elfride, too, seemed to perceive
and feel this now for the first time, and for a minute nearly lost consciousness again.
Knight rapidly bound his handkerchief round the place, and to add to the complication,
the thundercloud he had been watching began to shed some heavy drops of rain. Knight looked
up and saw the vicar striding towards the house, and Mrs. Swancourt waddling beside
him like a hard-driven duck. ‘As you are so faint, it will be much better
to let me carry you down,’ said Knight; ‘or at any rate inside out of the rain.’
But her objection to be lifted made it impossible for him to support her for more than five
steps. ‘This is folly, great folly,’ he exclaimed,
setting her down. ‘Indeed!’ she murmured, with tears in
her eyes. ‘I say I will not be carried, and you say this is folly!’ ‘So it is.’ ‘No, it isn’t!’ ‘It is folly, I think. At any rate, the
origin of it all is.’ ‘I don’t agree to it. And you needn’t
get so angry with me; I am not worth it.’ ‘Indeed you are. You are worth the enmity
of princes, as was said of such another. Now, then, will you clasp your hands behind my
neck, that I may carry you down without hurting you?’ ‘No, no.’ ‘You had better, or I shall foreclose.’ ‘What’s that!’ ‘Deprive you of your chance.’ Elfride gave a little toss. ‘Now, don’t writhe so when I attempt to
carry you.’ ‘I can’t help it.’ ‘Then submit quietly.’ ‘I don’t care. I don’t care,’ she
murmured in languid tones and with closed eyes. He took her into his arms, entered the turret,
and with slow and cautious steps descended round and round. Then, with the gentleness
of a nursing mother, he attended to the cut on her arm. During his progress through the
operations of wiping it and binding it up anew, her face changed its aspect from pained
indifference to something like bashful interest, interspersed with small tremors and shudders
of a trifling kind. In the centre of each pale cheek a small red
spot the size of a wafer had now made its appearance, and continued to grow larger.
Elfride momentarily expected a recurrence to the lecture on her foolishness, but Knight
said no more than this— ‘Promise me NEVER to walk on that parapet
again.’ ‘It will be pulled down soon: so I do.’
In a few minutes she continued in a lower tone, and seriously, ‘You are familiar of
course, as everybody is, with those strange sensations we sometimes have, that our life
for the moment exists in duplicate.’ ‘That we have lived through that moment
before?’ ‘Or shall again. Well, I felt on the tower
that something similar to that scene is again to be common to us both.’ ‘God forbid!’ said Knight. ‘Promise
me that you will never again walk on any such place on any consideration.’ ‘I do.’ ‘That such a thing has not been before,
we know. That it shall not be again, you vow. Therefore think no more of such a foolish
fancy.’ There had fallen a great deal of rain, but
unaccompanied by lightning. A few minutes longer, and the storm had ceased. ‘Now, take my arm, please.’ ‘Oh no, it is not necessary.’ This relapse
into wilfulness was because he had again connected the epithet foolish with her. ‘Nonsense: it is quite necessary; it will
rain again directly, and you are not half recovered.’ And without more ado Knight
took her hand, drew it under his arm, and held it there so firmly that she could not
have removed it without a struggle. Feeling like a colt in a halter for the first time,
at thus being led along, yet afraid to be angry, it was to her great relief that she
saw the carriage coming round the corner to fetch them. Her fall upon the roof was necessarily explained
to some extent upon their entering the house; but both forbore to mention a word of what
she had been doing to cause such an accident. During the remainder of the afternoon Elfride
was invisible; but at dinner-time she appeared as bright as ever. In the drawing-room, after having been exclusively
engaged with Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt through the intervening hour, Knight again found himself
thrown with Elfride. She had been looking over a chess problem in one of the illustrated
periodicals. ‘You like chess, Miss Swancourt?’ ‘Yes. It is my favourite scientific game;
indeed, excludes every other. Do you play?’ ‘I have played; though not lately.’ ‘Challenge him, Elfride,’ said the vicar
heartily. ‘She plays very well for a lady, Mr. Knight.’ ‘Shall we play?’ asked Elfride tentatively. ‘Oh, certainly. I shall be delighted.’ The game began. Mr. Swancourt had forgotten
a similar performance with Stephen Smith the year before. Elfride had not; but she had
begun to take for her maxim the undoubted truth that the necessity of continuing faithful
to Stephen, without suspicion, dictated a fickle behaviour almost as imperatively as
fickleness itself; a fact, however, which would give a startling advantage to the latter
quality should it ever appear. Knight, by one of those inexcusable oversights
which will sometimes afflict the best of players, placed his rook in the arms of one of her
pawns. It was her first advantage. She looked triumphant—even ruthless. ‘By George! what was I thinking of?’ said
Knight quietly; and then dismissed all concern at his accident. ‘Club laws we’ll have, won’t we, Mr.
Knight?’ said Elfride suasively. ‘Oh yes, certainly,’ said Mr. Knight,
a thought, however, just occurring to his mind, that he had two or three times allowed
her to replace a man on her religiously assuring him that such a move was an absolute blunder. She immediately took up the unfortunate rook
and the contest proceeded, Elfride having now rather the better of the game. Then he
won the exchange, regained his position, and began to press her hard. Elfride grew flurried,
and placed her queen on his remaining rook’s file. ‘There—how stupid! Upon my word, I did
not see your rook. Of course nobody but a fool would have put a queen there knowingly!’ She spoke excitedly, half expecting her antagonist
to give her back the move. ‘Nobody, of course,’ said Knight serenely,
and stretched out his hand towards his royal victim. ‘It is not very pleasant to have it taken
advantage of, then,’ she said with some vexation. ‘Club laws, I think you said?’ returned
Knight blandly, and mercilessly appropriating the queen. She was on the brink of pouting, but was ashamed
to show it; tears almost stood in her eyes. She had been trying so hard—so very hard—thinking
and thinking till her brain was in a whirl; and it seemed so heartless of him to treat
her so, after all. ‘I think it is——’ she began. ‘What?’ —‘Unkind to take advantage of a pure mistake
I make in that way.’ ‘I lost my rook by even a purer mistake,’
said the enemy in an inexorable tone, without lifting his eyes. ‘Yes, but——’ However, as his logic
was absolutely unanswerable, she merely registered a protest. ‘I cannot endure those cold-blooded
ways of clubs and professional players, like Staunton and Morphy. Just as if it really
mattered whether you have raised your fingers from a man or no!’ Knight smiled as pitilessly as before, and
they went on in silence. ‘Checkmate,’ said Knight. ‘Another game,’ said Elfride peremptorily,
and looking very warm. ‘With all my heart,’ said Knight. ‘Checkmate,’ said Knight again at the
end of forty minutes. ‘Another game,’ she returned resolutely. ‘I’ll give you the odds of a bishop,’
Knight said to her kindly. ‘No, thank you,’ Elfride replied in a
tone intended for courteous indifference; but, as a fact, very cavalier indeed. ‘Checkmate,’ said her opponent without
the least emotion. Oh, the difference between Elfride’s condition
of mind now, and when she purposely made blunders that Stephen Smith might win! It was bedtime. Her mind as distracted as
if it would throb itself out of her head, she went off to her chamber, full of mortification
at being beaten time after time when she herself was the aggressor. Having for two or three
years enjoyed the reputation throughout the globe of her father’s brain—which almost
constituted her entire world—of being an excellent player, this fiasco was intolerable;
for unfortunately the person most dogged in the belief in a false reputation is always
that one, the possessor, who has the best means of knowing that it is not true. In bed no sleep came to soothe her; that gentle
thing being the very middle-of-summer friend in this respect of flying away at the merest
troublous cloud. After lying awake till two o’clock an idea seemed to strike her. She
softly arose, got a light, and fetched a Chess Praxis from the library. Returning and sitting
up in bed, she diligently studied the volume till the clock struck five, and her eyelids
felt thick and heavy. She then extinguished the light and lay down again. ‘You look pale, Elfride,’ said Mrs. Swancourt
the next morning at breakfast. ‘Isn’t she, cousin Harry?’ A young girl who is scarcely ill at all can
hardly help becoming so when regarded as such by all eyes turning upon her at the table
in obedience to some remark. Everybody looked at Elfride. She certainly was pale. ‘Am I pale?’ she said with a faint smile.
‘I did not sleep much. I could not get rid of armies of bishops and knights, try how
I would.’ ‘Chess is a bad thing just before bedtime;
especially for excitable people like yourself, dear. Don’t ever play late again.’ ‘I’ll play early instead. Cousin Knight,’
she said in imitation of Mrs. Swancourt, ‘will you oblige me in something?’ ‘Even to half my kingdom.’ ‘Well, it is to play one game more.’ ‘When?’ ‘Now, instantly; the moment we have breakfasted.’ ‘Nonsense, Elfride,’ said her father.
‘Making yourself a slave to the game like that.’ ‘But I want to, papa! Honestly, I am restless
at having been so ignominiously overcome. And Mr. Knight doesn’t mind. So what harm
can there be?’ ‘Let us play, by all means, if you wish
it,’ said Knight. So, when breakfast was over, the combatants
withdrew to the quiet of the library, and the door was closed. Elfride seemed to have
an idea that her conduct was rather ill-regulated and startlingly free from conventional restraint.
And worse, she fancied upon Knight’s face a slightly amused look at her proceedings. ‘You think me foolish, I suppose,’ she
said recklessly; ‘but I want to do my very best just once, and see whether I can overcome
you.’ ‘Certainly: nothing more natural. Though
I am afraid it is not the plan adopted by women of the world after a defeat.’ ‘Why, pray?’ ‘Because they know that as good as overcoming
is skill in effacing recollection of being overcome, and turn their attention to that
entirely.’ ‘I am wrong again, of course.’ ‘Perhaps your wrong is more pleasing than
their right.’ ‘I don’t quite know whether you mean that,
or whether you are laughing at me,’ she said, looking doubtingly at him, yet inclining
to accept the more flattering interpretation. ‘I am almost sure you think it vanity in
me to think I am a match for you. Well, if you do, I say that vanity is no crime in such
a case.’ ‘Well, perhaps not. Though it is hardly
a virtue.’ ‘Oh yes, in battle! Nelson’s bravery lay
in his vanity.’ ‘Indeed! Then so did his death.’ Oh no, no! For it is written in the book of
the prophet Shakespeare— “Fear and be slain? no worse can come to
fight; And fight and die, is death destroying death!” And down they sat, and the contest began,
Elfride having the first move. The game progressed. Elfride’s heart beat so violently that she
could not sit still. Her dread was lest he should hear it. And he did discover it at
last—some flowers upon the table being set throbbing by its pulsations. ‘I think we had better give over,’ said
Knight, looking at her gently. ‘It is too much for you, I know. Let us write down the
position, and finish another time.’ ‘No, please not,’ she implored. ‘I should
not rest if I did not know the result at once. It is your move.’ Ten minutes passed. She started up suddenly. ‘I know what you
are doing?’ she cried, an angry colour upon her cheeks, and her eyes indignant. ‘You
were thinking of letting me win to please me!’ ‘I don’t mind owning that I was,’ Knight
responded phlegmatically, and appearing all the more so by contrast with her own turmoil. ‘But you must not! I won’t have it.’ ‘Very well.’ ‘No, that will not do; I insist that you
promise not to do any such absurd thing. It is insulting me!’ ‘Very well, madam. I won’t do any such
absurd thing. You shall not win.’ ‘That is to be proved!’ she returned proudly;
and the play went on. Nothing is now heard but the ticking of a
quaint old timepiece on the summit of a bookcase. Ten minutes pass; he captures her knight;
she takes his knight, and looks a very Rhadamanthus. More minutes tick away; she takes his pawn
and has the advantage, showing her sense of it rather prominently. Five minutes more: he takes her bishop: she
brings things even by taking his knight. Three minutes: she looks bold, and takes his
queen: he looks placid, and takes hers. Eight or ten minutes pass: he takes a pawn;
she utters a little pooh! but not the ghost of a pawn can she take in retaliation. Ten minutes pass: he takes another pawn and
says, ‘Check!’ She flushes, extricates herself by capturing his bishop, and looks
triumphant. He immediately takes her bishop: she looks surprised. Five minutes longer: she makes a dash and
takes his only remaining bishop; he replies by taking her only remaining knight. Two minutes: he gives check; her mind is now
in a painful state of tension, and she shades her face with her hand. Yet a few minutes more: he takes her rook
and checks again. She literally trembles now lest an artful surprise she has in store for
him shall be anticipated by the artful surprise he evidently has in store for her. Five minutes: ‘Checkmate in two moves!’
exclaims Elfride. ‘If you can,’ says Knight. ‘Oh, I have miscalculated; that is cruel!’ ‘Checkmate,’ says Knight; and the victory
is won. Elfride arose and turned away without letting
him see her face. Once in the hall she ran upstairs and into her room, and flung herself
down upon her bed, weeping bitterly. ‘Where is Elfride?’ said her father at
luncheon. Knight listened anxiously for the answer.
He had been hoping to see her again before this time. ‘She isn’t well, sir,’ was the reply. Mrs. Swancourt rose and left the room, going
upstairs to Elfride’s apartment. At the door was Unity, who occupied in the
new establishment a position between young lady’s maid and middle-housemaid. ‘She is sound asleep, ma’am,’ Unity
whispered. Mrs. Swancourt opened the door. Elfride was
lying full-dressed on the bed, her face hot and red, her arms thrown abroad. At intervals
of a minute she tossed restlessly from side to side, and indistinctly moaned words used
in the game of chess. Mrs. Swancourt had a turn for doctoring, and
felt her pulse. It was twanging like a harp-string, at the rate of nearly a hundred and fifty
a minute. Softly moving the sleeping girl to a little less cramped position, she went
downstairs again. ‘She is asleep now,’ said Mrs. Swancourt.
‘She does not seem very well. Cousin Knight, what were you thinking of? her tender brain
won’t bear cudgelling like your great head. You should have strictly forbidden her to
play again.’ In truth, the essayist’s experience of the
nature of young women was far less extensive than his abstract knowledge of them led himself
and others to believe. He could pack them into sentences like a workman, but practically
was nowhere. ‘I am indeed sorry,’ said Knight, feeling
even more than he expressed. ‘But surely, the young lady knows best what is good for
her!’ ‘Bless you, that’s just what she doesn’t
know. She never thinks of such things, does she, Christopher? Her father and I have to
command her and keep her in order, as you would a child. She will say things worthy
of a French epigrammatist, and act like a robin in a greenhouse. But I think we will
send for Dr. Granson—there can be no harm.’ A man was straightway despatched on horseback
to Castle Boterel, and the gentleman known as Dr. Granson came in the course of the afternoon.
He pronounced her nervous system to be in a decided state of disorder; forwarded some
soothing draught, and gave orders that on no account whatever was she to play chess
again. The next morning Knight, much vexed with himself,
waited with a curiously compounded feeling for her entry to breakfast. The women servants
came in to prayers at irregular intervals, and as each entered, he could not, to save
his life, avoid turning his head with the hope that she might be Elfride. Mr. Swancourt
began reading without waiting for her. Then somebody glided in noiselessly; Knight softly
glanced up: it was only the little kitchen-maid. Knight thought reading prayers a bore. He went out alone, and for almost the first
time failed to recognize that holding converse with Nature’s charms was not solitude. On
nearing the house again he perceived his young friend crossing a slope by a path which ran
into the one he was following in the angle of the field. Here they met. Elfride was at
once exultant and abashed: coming into his presence had upon her the effect of entering
a cathedral. Knight had his note-book in his hand, and
had, in fact, been in the very act of writing therein when they came in view of each other.
He left off in the midst of a sentence, and proceeded to inquire warmly concerning her
state of health. She said she was perfectly well, and indeed had never looked better.
Her health was as inconsequent as her actions. Her lips were red, WITHOUT the polish that
cherries have, and their redness margined with the white skin in a clearly defined line,
which had nothing of jagged confusion in it. Altogether she stood as the last person in
the world to be knocked over by a game of chess, because too ephemeral-looking to play
one. ‘Are you taking notes?’ she inquired with
an alacrity plainly arising less from interest in the subject than from a wish to divert
his thoughts from herself. ‘Yes; I was making an entry. And with your
permission I will complete it.’ Knight then stood still and wrote. Elfride remained beside
him a moment, and afterwards walked on. ‘I should like to see all the secrets that
are in that book,’ she gaily flung back to him over her shoulder. ‘I don’t think you would find much to
interest you.’ ‘I know I should.’ ‘Then of course I have no more to say.’ ‘But I would ask this question first. Is
it a book of mere facts concerning journeys and expenditure, and so on, or a book of thoughts?’ ‘Well, to tell the truth, it is not exactly
either. It consists for the most part of jottings for articles and essays, disjointed and disconnected,
of no possible interest to anybody but myself.’ ‘It contains, I suppose, your developed
thoughts in embryo?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘If they are interesting when enlarged to
the size of an article, what must they be in their concentrated form? Pure rectified
spirit, above proof; before it is lowered to be fit for human consumption: “words
that burn” indeed.’ ‘Rather like a balloon before it is inflated:
flabby, shapeless, dead. You could hardly read them.’ ‘May I try?’ she said coaxingly. ‘I
wrote my poor romance in that way—I mean in bits, out of doors—and I should like
to see whether your way of entering things is the same as mine.’ ‘Really, that’s rather an awkward request.
I suppose I can hardly refuse now you have asked so directly; but——’ ‘You think me ill-mannered in asking. But
does not this justify me—your writing in my presence, Mr. Knight? If I had lighted
upon your book by chance, it would have been different; but you stand before me, and say,
“Excuse me,” without caring whether I do or not, and write on, and then tell me
they are not private facts but public ideas.’ ‘Very well, Miss Swancourt. If you really
must see, the consequences be upon your own head. Remember, my advice to you is to leave
my book alone.’ ‘But with that caution I have your permission?’ ‘Yes.’ She hesitated a moment, looked at his hand
containing the book, then laughed, and saying, ‘I must see it,’ withdrew it from his
fingers. Knight rambled on towards the house, leaving
her standing in the path turning over the leaves. By the time he had reached the wicket-gate
he saw that she had moved, and waited till she came up. Elfride had closed the note-book, and was
carrying it disdainfully by the corner between her finger and thumb; her face wore a nettled
look. She silently extended the volume towards him, raising her eyes no higher than her hand
was lifted. ‘Take it,’ said Elfride quickly. ‘I
don’t want to read it.’ ‘Could you understand it?’ said Knight. ‘As far as I looked. But I didn’t care
to read much.’ ‘Why, Miss Swancourt?’ ‘Only because I didn’t wish to—that’s
all.’ ‘I warned you that you might not.’ ‘Yes, but I never supposed you would have
put me there.’ ‘Your name is not mentioned once within
the four corners.’ ‘Not my name—I know that.’ ‘Nor your description, nor anything by which
anybody would recognize you.’ ‘Except myself. For what is this?’ she
exclaimed, taking it from him and opening a page. ‘August 7. That’s the day before
yesterday. But I won’t read it,’ Elfride said, closing the book again with pretty hauteur.
‘Why should I? I had no business to ask to see your book, and it serves me right.’ Knight hardly recollected what he had written,
and turned over the book to see. He came to this: ‘Aug. 7. Girl gets into her teens, and her
self-consciousness is born. After a certain interval passed in infantine helplessness
it begins to act. Simple, young, and inexperienced at first. Persons of observation can tell
to a nicety how old this consciousness is by the skill it has acquired in the art necessary
to its success—the art of hiding itself. Generally begins career by actions which are
popularly termed showing-off. Method adopted depends in each case upon the disposition,
rank, residence, of the young lady attempting it. Town-bred girl will utter some moral paradox
on fast men, or love. Country miss adopts the more material media of taking a ghastly
fence, whistling, or making your blood run cold by appearing to risk her neck. (MEM.
On Endelstow Tower.) ‘An innocent vanity is of course the origin
of these displays. “Look at me,” say these youthful beginners in womanly artifice, without
reflecting whether or not it be to their advantage to show so very much of themselves. (Amplify
and correct for paper on Artless Arts.)’ ‘Yes, I remember now,’ said Knight. ‘The
notes were certainly suggested by your manoeuvre on the church tower. But you must not think
too much of such random observations,’ he continued encouragingly, as he noticed her
injured looks. ‘A mere fancy passing through my head assumes a factitious importance to
you, because it has been made permanent by being written down. All mankind think thoughts
as bad as those of people they most love on earth, but such thoughts never getting embodied
on paper, it becomes assumed that they never existed. I daresay that you yourself have
thought some disagreeable thing or other of me, which would seem just as bad as this if
written. I challenge you, now, to tell me.’ ‘The worst thing I have thought of you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I must not.’ ‘Oh yes.’ ‘I thought you were rather round-shouldered.’ Knight looked slightly redder. ‘And that there was a little bald spot on
the top of your head.’ ‘Heh-heh! Two ineradicable defects,’ said
Knight, there being a faint ghastliness discernible in his laugh. ‘They are much worse in a
lady’s eye than being thought self-conscious, I suppose.’ ‘Ah, that’s very fine,’ she said, too
inexperienced to perceive her hit, and hence not quite disposed to forgive his notes. ‘You
alluded to me in that entry as if I were such a child, too. Everybody does that. I cannot
understand it. I am quite a woman, you know. How old do you think I am?’ ‘How old? Why, seventeen, I should say.
All girls are seventeen.’ ‘You are wrong. I am nearly nineteen. Which
class of women do you like best, those who seem younger, or those who seem older than
they are?’ ‘Off-hand I should be inclined to say those
who seem older.’ So it was not Elfride’s class. ‘But it is well known,’ she said eagerly,
and there was something touching in the artless anxiety to be thought much of which she revealed
by her words, ‘that the slower a nature is to develop, the richer the nature. Youths
and girls who are men and women before they come of age are nobodies by the time that
backward people have shown their full compass.’ ‘Yes,’ said Knight thoughtfully. ‘There
is really something in that remark. But at the risk of offence I must remind you that
you there take it for granted that the woman behind her time at a given age has not reached
the end of her tether. Her backwardness may be not because she is slow to develop, but
because she soon exhausted her capacity for developing.’ Elfride looked disappointed. By this time
they were indoors. Mrs. Swancourt, to whom match-making by any honest means was meat
and drink, had now a little scheme of that nature concerning this pair. The morning-room,
in which they both expected to find her, was empty; the old lady having, for the above
reason, vacated it by the second door as they entered by the first. Knight went to the chimney-piece, and carelessly
surveyed two portraits on ivory. ‘Though these pink ladies had very rudimentary
features, judging by what I see here,’ he observed, ‘they had unquestionably beautiful
heads of hair.’ ‘Yes; and that is everything,’ said Elfride,
possibly conscious of her own, possibly not. ‘Not everything; though a great deal, certainly.’ ‘Which colour do you like best?’ she ventured
to ask. ‘More depends on its abundance than on its
colour.’ ‘Abundances being equal, may I inquire your
favourite colour?’ ‘Dark.’ ‘I mean for women,’ she said, with the
minutest fall of countenance, and a hope that she had been misunderstood. ‘So do I,’ Knight replied. It was impossible for any man not to know
the colour of Elfride’s hair. In women who wear it plainly such a feature may be overlooked
by men not given to ocular intentness. But hers was always in the way. You saw her hair
as far as you could see her sex, and knew that it was the palest brown. She knew instantly
that Knight, being perfectly aware of this, had an independent standard of admiration
in the matter. Elfride was thoroughly vexed. She could not
but be struck with the honesty of his opinions, and the worst of it was, that the more they
went against her, the more she respected them. And now, like a reckless gambler, she hazarded
her last and best treasure. Her eyes: they were her all now. ‘What coloured eyes do you like best, Mr.
Knight?’ she said slowly. ‘Honestly, or as a compliment?’ ‘Of course honestly; I don’t want anybody’s
compliment!’ And yet Elfride knew otherwise: that a compliment
or word of approval from that man then would have been like a well to a famished Arab. ‘I prefer hazel,’ he said serenely. She had played and lost again. Chapter XIX
‘Love was in the next degree.’ Knight had none of those light familiarities
of speech which, by judicious touches of epigrammatic flattery, obliterate a woman’s recollection
of the speaker’s abstract opinions. So no more was said by either on the subject of
hair, eyes, or development. Elfride’s mind had been impregnated with sentiments of her
own smallness to an uncomfortable degree of distinctness, and her discomfort was visible
in her face. The whole tendency of the conversation latterly had been to quietly but surely disparage
her; and she was fain to take Stephen into favour in self-defence. He would not have
been so unloving, she said, as to admire an idiosyncrasy and features different from her
own. True, Stephen had declared he loved her: Mr. Knight had never done anything of the
sort. Somehow this did not mend matters, and the sensation of her smallness in Knight’s
eyes still remained. Had the position been reversed—had Stephen loved her in spite
of a differing taste, and had Knight been indifferent in spite of her resemblance to
his ideal, it would have engendered far happier thoughts. As matters stood, Stephen’s admiration
might have its root in a blindness the result of passion. Perhaps any keen man’s judgment
was condemnatory of her. During the remainder of Saturday they were
more or less thrown with their seniors, and no conversation arose which was exclusively
their own. When Elfride was in bed that night her thoughts recurred to the same subject.
At one moment she insisted that it was ill-natured of him to speak so decisively as he had done;
the next, that it was sterling honesty. ‘Ah, what a poor nobody I am!’ she said,
sighing. ‘People like him, who go about the great world, don’t care in the least
what I am like either in mood or feature.’ Perhaps a man who has got thoroughly into
a woman’s mind in this manner, is half way to her heart; the distance between those two
stations is proverbially short. ‘And are you really going away this week?’
said Mrs. Swancourt to Knight on the following evening, which was Sunday. They were all leisurely climbing the hill
to the church, where a last service was now to be held at the rather exceptional time
of evening instead of in the afternoon, previous to the demolition of the ruinous portions. ‘I am intending to cross to Cork from Bristol,’
returned Knight; ‘and then I go on to Dublin.’ ‘Return this way, and stay a little longer
with us,’ said the vicar. ‘A week is nothing. We have hardly been able to realize your presence
yet. I remember a story which——’ The vicar suddenly stopped. He had forgotten
it was Sunday, and would probably have gone on in his week-day mode of thought had not
a turn in the breeze blown the skirt of his college gown within the range of his vision,
and so reminded him. He at once diverted the current of his narrative with the dexterity
the occasion demanded. ‘The story of the Levite who journeyed to
Bethlehem-judah, from which I took my text the Sunday before last, is quite to the point,’
he continued, with the pronunciation of a man who, far from having intended to tell
a week-day story a moment earlier, had thought of nothing but Sabbath matters for several
weeks. ‘What did he gain after all by his restlessness? Had he remained in the city
of the Jebusites, and not been so anxious for Gibeah, none of his troubles would have
arisen.’ ‘But he had wasted five days already,’
said Knight, closing his eyes to the vicar’s commendable diversion. ‘His fault lay in
beginning the tarrying system originally.’ ‘True, true; my illustration fails.’ ‘But not the hospitality which prompted
the story.’ ‘So you are to come just the same,’ urged
Mrs. Swancourt, for she had seen an almost imperceptible fall of countenance in her stepdaughter
at Knight’s announcement. Knight half promised to call on his return
journey; but the uncertainty with which he spoke was quite enough to fill Elfride with
a regretful interest in all he did during the few remaining hours. The curate having
already officiated twice that day in the two churches, Mr. Swancourt had undertaken the
whole of the evening service, and Knight read the lessons for him. The sun streamed across
from the dilapidated west window, and lighted all the assembled worshippers with a golden
glow, Knight as he read being illuminated by the same mellow lustre. Elfride at the
organ regarded him with a throbbing sadness of mood which was fed by a sense of being
far removed from his sphere. As he went deliberately through the chapter appointed—a portion
of the history of Elijah—and ascended that magnificent climax of the wind, the earthquake,
the fire, and the still small voice, his deep tones echoed past with such apparent disregard
of her existence, that his presence inspired her with a forlorn sense of unapproachableness,
which his absence would hardly have been able to cause. At the same time, turning her face for a moment
to catch the glory of the dying sun as it fell on his form, her eyes were arrested by
the shape and aspect of a woman in the west gallery. It was the bleak barren countenance
of the widow Jethway, whom Elfride had not seen much of since the morning of her return
with Stephen Smith. Possessing the smallest of competencies, this unhappy woman appeared
to spend her life in journeyings between Endelstow Churchyard and that of a village near Southampton,
where her father and mother were laid. She had not attended the service here for
a considerable time, and she now seemed to have a reason for her choice of seat. From
the gallery window the tomb of her son was plainly visible—standing as the nearest
object in a prospect which was closed outwardly by the changeless horizon of the sea. The streaming rays, too, flooded her face,
now bent towards Elfride with a hard and bitter expression that the solemnity of the place
raised to a tragic dignity it did not intrinsically possess. The girl resumed her normal attitude
with an added disquiet. Elfride’s emotion was cumulative, and after
a while would assert itself on a sudden. A slight touch was enough to set it free—a
poem, a sunset, a cunningly contrived chord of music, a vague imagining, being the usual
accidents of its exhibition. The longing for Knight’s respect, which was leading up to
an incipient yearning for his love, made the present conjuncture a sufficient one. Whilst
kneeling down previous to leaving, when the sunny streaks had gone upward to the roof,
and the lower part of the church was in soft shadow, she could not help thinking of Coleridge’s
morbid poem ‘The Three Graves,’ and shuddering as she wondered if Mrs. Jethway were cursing
her, she wept as if her heart would break. They came out of church just as the sun went
down, leaving the landscape like a platform from which an eloquent speaker has retired,
and nothing remains for the audience to do but to rise and go home. Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt
went off in the carriage, Knight and Elfride preferring to walk, as the skilful old matchmaker
had imagined. They descended the hill together. ‘I liked your reading, Mr. Knight,’ Elfride
presently found herself saying. ‘You read better than papa.’ ‘I will praise anybody that will praise
me. You played excellently, Miss Swancourt, and very correctly.’ ‘Correctly—yes.’ ‘It must be a great pleasure to you to take
an active part in the service.’ ‘I want to be able to play with more feeling.
But I have not a good selection of music, sacred or secular. I wish I had a nice little
music-library—well chosen, and that the only new pieces sent me were those of genuine
merit.’ ‘I am glad to hear such a wish from you.
It is extraordinary how many women have no honest love of music as an end and not as
a means, even leaving out those who have nothing in them. They mostly like it for its accessories.
I have never met a woman who loves music as do ten or a dozen men I know.’ ‘How would you draw the line between women
with something and women with nothing in them?’ ‘Well,’ said Knight, reflecting a moment,
‘I mean by nothing in them those who don’t care about anything solid. This is an instance:
I knew a man who had a young friend in whom he was much interested; in fact, they were
going to be married. She was seemingly poetical, and he offered her a choice of two editions
of the British poets, which she pretended to want badly. He said, “Which of them would
you like best for me to send?” She said, “A pair of the prettiest earrings in Bond
Street, if you don’t mind, would be nicer than either.” Now I call her a girl with
not much in her but vanity; and so do you, I daresay.’ ‘Oh yes,’ replied Elfride with an effort. Happening to catch a glimpse of her face as
she was speaking, and noticing that her attempt at heartiness was a miserable failure, he
appeared to have misgivings. ‘You, Miss Swancourt, would not, under such
circumstances, have preferred the nicknacks?’ ‘No, I don’t think I should, indeed,’
she stammered. ‘I’ll put it to you,’ said the inflexible
Knight. ‘Which will you have of these two things of about equal value—the well-chosen
little library of the best music you spoke of—bound in morocco, walnut case, lock and
key—or a pair of the very prettiest earrings in Bond Street windows?’ ‘Of course the music,’ Elfride replied
with forced earnestness. ‘You are quite certain?’ he said emphatically. ‘Quite,’ she faltered; ‘if I could for
certain buy the earrings afterwards.’ Knight, somewhat blamably, keenly enjoyed
sparring with the palpitating mobile creature, whose excitable nature made any such thing
a species of cruelty. He looked at her rather oddly, and said, ‘Fie!’ ‘Forgive me,’ she said, laughing a little,
a little frightened, and blushing very deeply. ‘Ah, Miss Elfie, why didn’t you say at
first, as any firm woman would have said, I am as bad as she, and shall choose the same?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Elfride wofully,
and with a distressful smile. ‘I thought you were exceptionally musical?’ ‘So I am, I think. But the test is so severe—quite
painful.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘Music doesn’t do any real good, or rather——’ ‘That IS a thing to say, Miss Swancourt!
Why, what——’ ‘You don’t understand! you don’t understand!’ ‘Why, what conceivable use is there in jimcrack
jewellery?’ ‘No, no, no, no!’ she cried petulantly;
‘I didn’t mean what you think. I like the music best, only I like——’ ‘Earrings better—own it!’ he said in
a teasing tone. ‘Well, I think I should have had the moral courage to own it at once,
without pretending to an elevation I could not reach.’ Like the French soldiery, Elfride was not
brave when on the defensive. So it was almost with tears in her eyes that she answered desperately: ‘My meaning is, that I like earrings best
just now, because I lost one of my prettiest pair last year, and papa said he would not
buy any more, or allow me to myself, because I was careless; and now I wish I had some
like them—that’s what my meaning is—indeed it is, Mr. Knight.’ ‘I am afraid I have been very harsh and
rude,’ said Knight, with a look of regret at seeing how disturbed she was. ‘But seriously,
if women only knew how they ruin their good looks by such appurtenances, I am sure they
would never want them.’ ‘They were lovely, and became me so!’ ‘Not if they were like the ordinary hideous
things women stuff their ears with nowadays—like the governor of a steam-engine, or a pair
of scales, or gold gibbets and chains, and artists’ palettes, and compensation pendulums,
and Heaven knows what besides.’ ‘No; they were not one of those things.
So pretty—like this,’ she said with eager animation. And she drew with the point of
her parasol an enlarged view of one of the lamented darlings, to a scale that would have
suited a giantess half-a-mile high. ‘Yes, very pretty—very,’ said Knight
dryly. ‘How did you come to lose such a precious pair of articles?’ ‘I only lost one—nobody ever loses both
at the same time.’ She made this remark with embarrassment, and
a nervous movement of the fingers. Seeing that the loss occurred whilst Stephen Smith
was attempting to kiss her for the first time on the cliff, her confusion was hardly to
be wondered at. The question had been awkward, and received no direct answer. Knight seemed not to notice her manner. ‘Oh, nobody ever loses both—I see. And
certainly the fact that it was a case of loss takes away all odour of vanity from your choice.’ ‘As I never know whether you are in earnest,
I don’t now,’ she said, looking up inquiringly at the hairy face of the oracle. And coming
gallantly to her own rescue, ‘If I really seem vain, it is that I am only vain in my
ways—not in my heart. The worst women are those vain in their hearts, and not in their
ways.’ ‘An adroit distinction. Well, they are certainly
the more objectionable of the two,’ said Knight. ‘Is vanity a mortal or a venial sin? You
know what life is: tell me.’ ‘I am very far from knowing what life is.
A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing
through it.’ ‘Will the fact of a woman being fond of
jewellery be likely to make her life, in its higher sense, a failure?’ ‘Nobody’s life is altogether a failure.’ ‘Well, you know what I mean, even though
my words are badly selected and commonplace,’ she said impatiently. ‘Because I utter commonplace
words, you must not suppose I think only commonplace thoughts. My poor stock of words are like
a limited number of rough moulds I have to cast all my materials in, good and bad; and
the novelty or delicacy of the substance is often lost in the coarse triteness of the
form.’ ‘Very well; I’ll believe that ingenious
representation. As to the subject in hand—lives which are failures—you need not trouble
yourself. Anybody’s life may be just as romantic and strange and interesting if he
or she fails as if he or she succeed. All the difference is, that the last chapter is
wanting in the story. If a man of power tries to do a great deed, and just falls short of
it by an accident not his fault, up to that time his history had as much in it as that
of a great man who has done his great deed. It is whimsical of the world to hold that
particulars of how a lad went to school and so on should be as an interesting romance
or as nothing to them, precisely in proportion to his after renown.’ They were walking between the sunset and the
moonrise. With the dropping of the sun a nearly full moon had begun to raise itself. Their
shadows, as cast by the western glare, showed signs of becoming obliterated in the interest
of a rival pair in the opposite direction which the moon was bringing to distinctness. ‘I consider my life to some extent a failure,’
said Knight again after a pause, during which he had noticed the antagonistic shadows. ‘You! How?’ ‘I don’t precisely know. But in some way
I have missed the mark.’ ‘Really? To have done it is not much to
be sad about, but to feel that you have done it must be a cause of sorrow. Am I right?’ ‘Partly, though not quite. For a sensation
of being profoundly experienced serves as a sort of consolation to people who are conscious
of having taken wrong turnings. Contradictory as it seems, there is nothing truer than that
people who have always gone right don’t know half as much about the nature and ways
of going right as those do who have gone wrong. However, it is not desirable for me to chill
your summer-time by going into this.’ ‘You have not told me even now if I am really
vain.’ ‘If I say Yes, I shall offend you; if I
say No, you’ll think I don’t mean it,’ he replied, looking curiously into her face. ‘Ah, well,’ she replied, with a little
breath of distress, ‘“That which is exceeding deep, who will find it out?” I suppose I
must take you as I do the Bible—find out and understand all I can; and on the strength
of that, swallow the rest in a lump, by simple faith. Think me vain, if you will. Worldly
greatness requires so much littleness to grow up in, that an infirmity more or less is not
a matter for regret.’ ‘As regards women, I can’t say,’ answered
Knight carelessly; ‘but it is without doubt a misfortune for a man who has a living to
get, to be born of a truly noble nature. A high soul will bring a man to the workhouse;
so you may be right in sticking up for vanity.’ ‘No, no, I don’t do that,’ she said
regretfully. Mr. Knight, when you are gone, will you send
me something you have written? I think I should like to see whether you write as you have
lately spoken, or in your better mood. Which is your true self—the cynic you have been
this evening, or the nice philosopher you were up to to-night?’ ‘Ah, which? You know as well as I.’ Their conversation detained them on the lawn
and in the portico till the stars blinked out. Elfride flung back her head, and said
idly— ‘There’s a bright star exactly over me.’ ‘Each bright star is overhead somewhere.’ ‘Is it? Oh yes, of course. Where is that
one?’ and she pointed with her finger. ‘That is poised like a white hawk over one
of the Cape Verde Islands.’ ‘And that?’ ‘Looking down upon the source of the Nile.’ ‘And that lonely quiet-looking one?’ ‘He watches the North Pole, and has no less
than the whole equator for his horizon. And that idle one low down upon the ground, that
we have almost rolled away from, is in India—over the head of a young friend of mine, who very
possibly looks at the star in our zenith, as it hangs low upon his horizon, and thinks
of it as marking where his true love dwells.’ Elfride glanced at Knight with misgiving.
Did he mean her? She could not see his features; but his attitude seemed to show unconsciousness. ‘The star is over MY head,’ she said with
hesitation. ‘Or anybody else’s in England.’ ‘Oh yes, I see:’ she breathed her relief. ‘His parents, I believe, are natives of
this county. I don’t know them, though I have been in correspondence with him for many
years till lately. Fortunately or unfortunately for him he fell in love, and then went to
Bombay. Since that time I have heard very little of him.’ Knight went no further in his volunteered
statement, and though Elfride at one moment was inclined to profit by the lessons in honesty
he had just been giving her, the flesh was weak, and the intention dispersed into silence.
There seemed a reproach in Knight’s blind words, and yet she was not able to clearly
define any disloyalty that she had been guilty of.

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