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they are when young people have been favoured up to a point, as we have, and then have had that favour suddenly withdrawn?'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.
'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.'
'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?'
In three minutes the train had moved off, bearing away with it Stephen and Elfride.
'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?'
'Nor tea, nor coffee?'
'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.'
'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.
'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,
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.
'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.
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.
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.
'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?'
'I haven't enough spare time.'
'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?'
'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.
'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.'
'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.'
'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.'
'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.'
'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.'