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A Pair of Blue Eyes
by Thomas Hardy
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'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 FOR YOUR PROPOSAL TO ACCOMMODATE HIM...YOU MAY PUT EVERY CONFIDENCE IN HIM, and may rely 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.'

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