'Ah, yes,' murmured Elfride wofully. 'But, then, see further on!'
'Well the next bit is rather unkind, I must own,' said Mrs. Swancourt, and read on. '"Instead of this we found ourselves in the hands of some young lady, hardly arrived at years of discretion, to judge by the silly device it has been thought worth while to adopt on the title-page, with the idea of disguising her sex."'
'I am not "silly"!' said Elfride indignantly. 'He might have called me anything but that.'
'You are not, indeed. Well:—"Hands of a young lady...whose chapters are simply devoted to impossible tournaments, towers, and escapades, which read like flat copies of like scenes in the stories of Mr. G. P. R. James, and the most unreal portions of IVANHOE. The bait is so palpably artificial that the most credulous gudgeon turns away." Now, my dear, I don't see overmuch to complain of in that. It proves that you were clever enough to make him think of Sir Walter Scott, which is a great deal.'
'Oh yes; though I cannot romance myself, I am able to remind him of those who can!' Elfride intended to hurl these words sarcastically at her invisible enemy, but as she had no more satirical power than a wood-pigeon, they merely fell in a pretty murmur from lips shaped to a pout.
'Certainly: and that's something. Your book is good enough to be bad in an ordinary literary manner, and doesn't stand by itself in a melancholy position altogether worse than assailable.—"That interest in an historical romance may nowadays have any chance of being sustained, it is indispensable that the reader find himself under the guidance of some nearly extinct species of legendary, who, in addition to an impulse towards antiquarian research and an unweakened faith in the mediaeval halo, shall possess an inventive faculty in which delicacy of sentiment is far overtopped by a power of welding to stirring incident a spirited variety of the elementary human passions." Well, that long-winded effusion doesn't refer to you at all, Elfride, merely something put in to fill up. Let me see, when does he come to you again;...not till the very end, actually. Here you are finally polished off:
'"But to return to the little work we have used as the text of this article. We are far from altogether disparaging the author's powers. She has a certain versatility that enables her to use with effect a style of narration peculiar to herself, which may be called a murmuring of delicate emotional trifles, the particular gift of those to whom the social sympathies of a peaceful time are as daily food. Hence, where matters of domestic experience, and the natural touches which make people real, can be introduced without anachronisms too striking, she is occasionally felicitous; and upon the whole we feel justified in saying that the book will bear looking into for the sake of those portions which have nothing whatever to do with the story."
'Well, I suppose it is intended for satire; but don't think anything more of it now, my dear. It is seven o'clock.' And Mrs. Swancourt rang for her maid.
Attack is more piquant than concord. Stephen's letter was concerning nothing but oneness with her: the review was the very reverse. And a stranger with neither name nor shape, age nor appearance, but a mighty voice, is naturally rather an interesting novelty to a lady he chooses to address. When Elfride fell asleep that night she was loving the writer of the letter, but thinking of the writer of that article.
'Then fancy shapes—as fancy can.'
On a day about three weeks later, the Swancourt trio were sitting quietly in the drawing-room of The Crags, Mrs. Swancourt's house at Endelstow, chatting, and taking easeful survey of their previous month or two of town—a tangible weariness even to people whose acquaintances there might be counted on the fingers.
A mere season in London with her practised step-mother had so advanced Elfride's perceptions, that her courtship by Stephen seemed emotionally meagre, and to have drifted back several years into a childish past. In regarding our mental experiences, as in visual observation, our own progress reads like a dwindling of that we progress from.
She was seated on a low chair, looking over her romance with melancholy interest for the first time since she had become acquainted with the remarks of the PRESENT thereupon.
'Still thinking of that reviewer, Elfie?'
'Not of him personally; but I am thinking of his opinion. Really, on looking into the volume after this long time has elapsed, he seems to have estimated one part of it fairly enough.'
'No, no; I wouldn't show the white feather now! Fancy that of all people in the world the writer herself should go over to the enemy. How shall Monmouth's men fight when Monmouth runs away?'
'I don't do that. But I think he is right in some of his arguments, though wrong in others. And because he has some claim to my respect I regret all the more that he should think so mistakenly of my motives in one or two instances. It is more vexing to be misunderstood than to be misrepresented; and he misunderstands me. I cannot be easy whilst a person goes to rest night after night attributing to me intentions I never had.'
'He doesn't know your name, or anything about you. And he has doubtless forgotten there is such a book in existence by this time.'
'I myself should certainly like him to be put right upon one or two matters,' said the vicar, who had hitherto been silent. 'You see, critics go on writing, and are never corrected or argued with, and therefore are never improved.'
'Papa,' said Elfride brightening, 'write to him!'
'I would as soon write to him as look at him, for the matter of that,' said Mr. Swancourt.
'Do! And say, the young person who wrote the book did not adopt a masculine pseudonym in vanity or conceit, but because she was afraid it would be thought presumptuous to publish her name, and that she did not mean the story for such as he, but as a sweetener of history for young people, who might thereby acquire a taste for what went on in their own country hundreds of years ago, and be tempted to dive deeper into the subject. Oh, there is so much to explain; I wish I might write myself!'
'Now, Elfie, I'll tell you what we will do,' answered Mr. Swancourt, tickled with a sort of bucolic humour at the idea of criticizing the critic. 'You shall write a clear account of what he is wrong in, and I will copy it and send it as mine.'
'Yes, now, directly!' said Elfride, jumping up. 'When will you send it, papa?'
'Oh, in a day or two, I suppose,' he returned. Then the vicar paused and slightly yawned, and in the manner of elderly people began to cool from his ardour for the undertaking now that it came to the point. 'But, really, it is hardly worth while,' he said.
'O papa!' said Elfride, with much disappointment. 'You said you would, and now you won't. That is not fair!'
'But how can we send it if we don't know whom to send it to?'
'If you really want to send such a thing it can easily be done,' said Mrs. Swancourt, coming to her step-daughter's rescue. 'An envelope addressed, "To the Critic of THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE, care of the Editor of the PRESENT," would find him.'
'Yes, I suppose it would.'
'Why not write your answer yourself, Elfride?' Mrs. Swancourt inquired.
'I might,' she said hesitatingly; 'and send it anonymously: that would be treating him as he has treated me.'
'No use in the world!'
'But I don't like to let him know my exact name. Suppose I put my initials only? The less you are known the more you are thought of.'
'Yes; you might do that.'
Elfride set to work there and then. Her one desire for the last fortnight seemed likely to be realized. As happens with sensitive and secluded minds, a continual dwelling upon the subject had magnified to colossal proportions the space she assumed herself to occupy or to have occupied in the occult critic's mind. At noon and at night she had been pestering herself with endeavours to perceive more distinctly his conception of her as a woman apart from an author: whether he really despised her; whether he thought more or less of her than of ordinary young women who never ventured into the fire of criticism at all. Now she would have the satisfaction of feeling that at any rate he knew her true intent in crossing his path, and annoying him so by her performance, and be taught perhaps to despise it a little less.
Four days later an envelope, directed to Miss Swancourt in a strange hand, made its appearance from the post-bag.
'Oh,' said Elfride, her heart sinking within her. 'Can it be from that man—a lecture for impertinence? And actually one for Mrs. Swancourt in the same hand-writing!' She feared to open hers. 'Yet how can he know my name? No; it is somebody else.'
'Nonsense!' said her father grimly. 'You sent your initials, and the Directory was available. Though he wouldn't have taken the trouble to look there unless he had been thoroughly savage with you. I thought you wrote with rather more asperity than simple literary discussion required.' This timely clause was introduced to save the character of the vicar's judgment under any issue of affairs.
'Well, here I go,' said Elfride, desperately tearing open the seal.
'To be sure, of course,' exclaimed Mrs. Swancourt; and looking up from her own letter. 'Christopher, I quite forgot to tell you, when I mentioned that I had seen my distant relative, Harry Knight, that I invited him here for whatever length of time he could spare. And now he says he can come any day in August.'
'Write, and say the first of the month,' replied the indiscriminate vicar.
She read on, 'Goodness me—and that isn't all. He is actually the reviewer of Elfride's book. How absurd, to be sure! I had no idea he reviewed novels or had anything to do with the PRESENT. He is a barrister—and I thought he only wrote in the Quarterlies. Why, Elfride, you have brought about an odd entanglement! What does he say to you?'
Elfride had put down her letter with a dissatisfied flush on her face. 'I don't know. The idea of his knowing my name and all about me!...Why, he says nothing particular, only this—
'"MY DEAR MADAM,—Though I am sorry that my remarks should have seemed harsh to you, it is a pleasure to find that they have been the means of bringing forth such an ingeniously argued reply. Unfortunately, it is so long since I wrote my review, that my memory does not serve me sufficiently to say a single word in my defence, even supposing there remains one to be said, which is doubtful. You will find from a letter I have written to Mrs. Swancourt, that we are not such strangers to each other as we have been imagining. Possibly, I may have the pleasure of seeing you soon, when any argument you choose to advance shall receive all the attention it deserves."
'That is dim sarcasm—I know it is.'
'Oh no, Elfride.'
'And then, his remarks didn't seem harsh—I mean I did not say so.'
'He thinks you are in a frightful temper,' said Mr. Swancourt, chuckling in undertones.
'And he will come and see me, and find the authoress as contemptible in speech as she has been impertinent in manner. I do heartily wish I had never written a word to him!'
'Never mind,' said Mrs. Swancourt, also laughing in low quiet jerks; 'it will make the meeting such a comical affair, and afford splendid by-play for your father and myself. The idea of our running our heads against Harry Knight all the time! I cannot get over that.'
The vicar had immediately remembered the name to be that of Stephen Smith's preceptor and friend; but having ceased to concern himself in the matter he made no remark to that effect, consistently forbearing to allude to anything which could restore recollection of the (to him) disagreeable mistake with regard to poor Stephen's lineage and position. Elfride had of course perceived the same thing, which added to the complication of relationship a mesh that her stepmother knew nothing of.
The identification scarcely heightened Knight's attractions now, though a twelvemonth ago she would only have cared to see him for the interest he possessed as Stephen's friend. Fortunately for Knight's advent, such a reason for welcome had only begun to be awkward to her at a time when the interest he had acquired on his own account made it no longer necessary.
These coincidences, in common with all relating to him, tended to keep Elfride's mind upon the stretch concerning Knight. As was her custom when upon the horns of a dilemma, she walked off by herself among the laurel bushes, and there, standing still and splitting up a leaf without removing it from its stalk, fetched back recollections of Stephen's frequent words in praise of his friend, and wished she had listened more attentively. Then, still pulling the leaf, she would blush at some fancied mortification that would accrue to her from his words when they met, in consequence of her intrusiveness, as she now considered it, in writing to him.
The next development of her meditations was the subject of what this man's personal appearance might be—was he tall or short, dark or fair, gay or grim? She would have asked Mrs. Swancourt but for the risk she might thereby incur of some teasing remark being returned. Ultimately Elfride would say, 'Oh, what a plague that reviewer is to me!' and turn her face to where she imagined India lay, and murmur to herself, 'Ah, my little husband, what are you doing now? Let me see, where are you—south, east, where? Behind that hill, ever so far behind!'
'Her welcome, spoke in faltering phrase.'
'There is Henry Knight, I declare!' said Mrs. Swancourt one day.
They were gazing from the jutting angle of a wild enclosure not far from The Crags, which almost overhung the valley already described as leading up from the sea and little port of Castle Boterel. The stony escarpment upon which they stood had the contour of a man's face, and it was covered with furze as with a beard. People in the field above were preserved from an accidental roll down these prominences and hollows by a hedge on the very crest, which was doing that kindly service for Elfride and her mother now.
Scrambling higher into the hedge and stretching her neck further over the furze, Elfride beheld the individual signified. He was walking leisurely along the little green path at the bottom, beside the stream, a satchel slung upon his left hip, a stout walking-stick in his hand, and a brown-holland sun-hat upon his head. The satchel was worn and old, and the outer polished surface of the leather was cracked and peeling off.
Knight having arrived over the hills to Castle Boterel upon the top of a crazy omnibus, preferred to walk the remaining two miles up the valley, leaving his luggage to be brought on.
Behind him wandered, helter-skelter, a boy of whom Knight had briefly inquired the way to Endelstow; and by that natural law of physics which causes lesser bodies to gravitate towards the greater, this boy had kept near to Knight, and trotted like a little dog close at his heels, whistling as he went, with his eyes fixed upon Knight's boots as they rose and fell.
When they had reached a point precisely opposite that in which Mrs. and Miss Swancourt lay in ambush, Knight stopped and turned round.
'Look here, my boy,' he said.
The boy parted his lips, opened his eyes, and answered nothing.
'Here's sixpence for you, on condition that you don't again come within twenty yards of my heels, all the way up the valley.'
The boy, who apparently had not known he had been looking at Knight's heels at all, took the sixpence mechanically, and Knight went on again, wrapt in meditation.
'A nice voice,' Elfride thought; 'but what a singular temper!'
'Now we must get indoors before he ascends the slope,' said Mrs. Swancourt softly. And they went across by a short cut over a stile, entering the lawn by a side door, and so on to the house.
Mr. Swancourt had gone into the village with the curate, and Elfride felt too nervous to await their visitor's arrival in the drawing-room with Mrs. Swancourt. So that when the elder lady entered, Elfride made some pretence of perceiving a new variety of crimson geranium, and lingered behind among the flower beds.
There was nothing gained by this, after all, she thought; and a few minutes after boldly came into the house by the glass side-door. She walked along the corridor, and entered the drawing-room. Nobody was there.
A window at the angle of the room opened directly into an octagonal conservatory, enclosing the corner of the building. From the conservatory came voices in conversation—Mrs. Swancourt's and the stranger's.
She had expected him to talk brilliantly. To her surprise he was asking questions in quite a learner's manner, on subjects connected with the flowers and shrubs that she had known for years. When after the lapse of a few minutes he spoke at some length, she considered there was a hard square decisiveness in the shape of his sentences, as if, unlike her own and Stephen's, they were not there and then newly constructed, but were drawn forth from a large store ready-made. They were now approaching the window to come in again.
'That is a flesh-coloured variety,' said Mrs. Swancourt. 'But oleanders, though they are such bulky shrubs, are so very easily wounded as to be unprunable—giants with the sensitiveness of young ladies. Oh, here is Elfride!'
Elfride looked as guilty and crestfallen as Lady Teazle at the dropping of the screen. Mrs. Swancourt presented him half comically, and Knight in a minute or two placed himself beside the young lady.
A complexity of instincts checked Elfride's conventional smiles of complaisance and hospitality; and, to make her still less comfortable, Mrs. Swancourt immediately afterwards left them together to seek her husband. Mr. Knight, however, did not seem at all incommoded by his feelings, and he said with light easefulness:
'So, Miss Swancourt, I have met you at last. You escaped me by a few minutes only when we were in London.'
'Yes. I found that you had seen Mrs. Swancourt.'
'And now reviewer and reviewed are face to face,' he added unconcernedly.
'Yes: though the fact of your being a relation of Mrs. Swancourt's takes off the edge of it. It was strange that you should be one of her family all the time.' Elfride began to recover herself now, and to look into Knight's face. 'I was merely anxious to let you know my REAL meaning in writing the book—extremely anxious.'
'I can quite understand the wish; and I was gratified that my remarks should have reached home. They very seldom do, I am afraid.'
Elfride drew herself in. Here he was, sticking to his opinions as firmly as if friendship and politeness did not in the least require an immediate renunciation of them.
'You made me very uneasy and sorry by writing such things!' she murmured, suddenly dropping the mere cacueterie of a fashionable first introduction, and speaking with some of the dudgeon of a child towards a severe schoolmaster.
'That is rather the object of honest critics in such a case. Not to cause unnecessary sorrow, but: "To make you sorry after a proper manner, that ye may receive damage by us in nothing," as a powerful pen once wrote to the Gentiles. Are you going to write another romance?'
'Write another?' she said. 'That somebody may pen a condemnation and "nail't wi' Scripture" again, as you do now, Mr. Knight?'
'You may do better next time,' he said placidly: 'I think you will. But I would advise you to confine yourself to domestic scenes.'
'Thank you. But never again!'
'Well, you may be right. That a young woman has taken to writing is not by any means the best thing to hear about her.'
'What is the best?'
'I prefer not to say.'
'Do you know? Then, do tell me, please.'
'Well'—(Knight was evidently changing his meaning)—'I suppose to hear that she has married.'
Elfride hesitated. 'And what when she has been married?' she said at last, partly in order to withdraw her own person from the argument.
'Then to hear no more about her. It is as Smeaton said of his lighthouse: her greatest real praise, when the novelty of her inauguration has worn off, is that nothing happens to keep the talk of her alive.'
'Yes, I see,' said Elfride softly and thoughtfully. 'But of course it is different quite with men. Why don't you write novels, Mr. Knight?'
'Because I couldn't write one that would interest anybody.'
'For several reasons. It requires a judicious omission of your real thoughts to make a novel popular, for one thing.'
'Is that really necessary? Well, I am sure you could learn to do that with practice,' said Elfride with an ex-cathedra air, as became a person who spoke from experience in the art. 'You would make a great name for certain,' she continued.
'So many people make a name nowadays, that it is more distinguished to remain in obscurity.'
'Tell me seriously—apart from the subject—why don't you write a volume instead of loose articles?' she insisted.
'Since you are pleased to make me talk of myself, I will tell you seriously,' said Knight, not less amused at this catechism by his young friend than he was interested in her appearance. 'As I have implied, I have not the wish. And if I had the wish, I could not now concentrate sufficiently. We all have only our one cruse of energy given us to make the best of. And where that energy has been leaked away week by week, quarter by quarter, as mine has for the last nine or ten years, there is not enough dammed back behind the mill at any given period to supply the force a complete book on any subject requires. Then there is the self-confidence and waiting power. Where quick results have grown customary, they are fatal to a lively faith in the future.'
'Yes, I comprehend; and so you choose to write in fragments?'
'No, I don't choose to do it in the sense you mean; choosing from a whole world of professions, all possible. It was by the constraint of accident merely. Not that I object to the accident.'
'Why don't you object—I mean, why do you feel so quiet about things?' Elfride was half afraid to question him so, but her intense curiosity to see what the inside of literary Mr. Knight was like, kept her going on.
Knight certainly did not mind being frank with her. Instances of this trait in men who are not without feeling, but are reticent from habit, may be recalled by all of us. When they find a listener who can by no possibility make use of them, rival them, or condemn them, reserved and even suspicious men of the world become frank, keenly enjoying the inner side of their frankness.
'Why I don't mind the accidental constraint,' he replied, 'is because, in making beginnings, a chance limitation of direction is often better than absolute freedom.'
'I see—that is, I should if I quite understood what all those generalities mean.'
'Why, this: That an arbitrary foundation for one's work, which no length of thought can alter, leaves the attention free to fix itself on the work itself, and make the best of it.'
'Lateral compression forcing altitude, as would be said in that tongue,' she said mischievously. 'And I suppose where no limit exists, as in the case of a rich man with a wide taste who wants to do something, it will be better to choose a limit capriciously than to have none.'
'Yes,' he said meditatively. 'I can go as far as that.'
'Well,' resumed Elfride, 'I think it better for a man's nature if he does nothing in particular.'
'There is such a case as being obliged to.'
'Yes, yes; I was speaking of when you are not obliged for any other reason than delight in the prospect of fame. I have thought many times lately that a thin widespread happiness, commencing now, and of a piece with the days of your life, is preferable to an anticipated heap far away in the future, and none now.'
'Why, that's the very thing I said just now as being the principle of all ephemeral doers like myself.'
'Oh, I am sorry to have parodied you,' she said with some confusion. 'Yes, of course. That is what you meant about not trying to be famous.' And she added, with the quickness of conviction characteristic of her mind: 'There is much littleness in trying to be great. A man must think a good deal of himself, and be conceited enough to believe in himself, before he tries at all.'
'But it is soon enough to say there is harm in a man's thinking a good deal of himself when it is proved he has been thinking wrong, and too soon then sometimes. Besides, we should not conclude that a man who strives earnestly for success does so with a strong sense of his own merit. He may see how little success has to do with merit, and his motive may be his very humility.'
This manner of treating her rather provoked Elfride. No sooner did she agree with him than he ceased to seem to wish it, and took the other side. 'Ah,' she thought inwardly, 'I shall have nothing to do with a man of this kind, though he is our visitor.'
'I think you will find,' resumed Knight, pursuing the conversation more for the sake of finishing off his thoughts on the subject than for engaging her attention, 'that in actual life it is merely a matter of instinct with men—this trying to push on. They awake to a recognition that they have, without premeditation, begun to try a little, and they say to themselves, "Since I have tried thus much, I will try a little more." They go on because they have begun.'
Elfride, in her turn, was not particularly attending to his words at this moment. She had, unconsciously to herself, a way of seizing any point in the remarks of an interlocutor which interested her, and dwelling upon it, and thinking thoughts of her own thereupon, totally oblivious of all that he might say in continuation. On such occasions she artlessly surveyed the person speaking; and then there was a time for a painter. Her eyes seemed to look at you, and past you, as you were then, into your future; and past your future into your eternity—not reading it, but gazing in an unused, unconscious way—her mind still clinging to its original thought.
This is how she was looking at Knight.
Suddenly Elfride became conscious of what she was doing, and was painfully confused.
'What were you so intent upon in me?' he inquired.
'As far as I was thinking of you at all, I was thinking how clever you are,' she said, with a want of premeditation that was startling in its honesty and simplicity.
Feeling restless now that she had so unwittingly spoken, she arose and stepped to the window, having heard the voices of her father and Mrs. Swancourt coming up below the terrace. 'Here they are,' she said, going out. Knight walked out upon the lawn behind her. She stood upon the edge of the terrace, close to the stone balustrade, and looked towards the sun, hanging over a glade just now fair as Tempe's vale, up which her father was walking.
Knight could not help looking at her. The sun was within ten degrees of the horizon, and its warm light flooded her face and heightened the bright rose colour of her cheeks to a vermilion red, their moderate pink hue being only seen in its natural tone where the cheek curved round into shadow. The ends of her hanging hair softly dragged themselves backwards and forwards upon her shoulder as each faint breeze thrust against or relinquished it. Fringes and ribbons of her dress, moved by the same breeze, licked like tongues upon the parts around them, and fluttering forward from shady folds caught likewise their share of the lustrous orange glow.
Mr. Swancourt shouted out a welcome to Knight from a distance of about thirty yards, and after a few preliminary words proceeded to a conversation of deep earnestness on Knight's fine old family name, and theories as to lineage and intermarriage connected therewith. Knight's portmanteau having in the meantime arrived, they soon retired to prepare for dinner, which had been postponed two hours later than the usual time of that meal.
An arrival was an event in the life of Elfride, now that they were again in the country, and that of Knight necessarily an engrossing one. And that evening she went to bed for the first time without thinking of Stephen at all.
'He heard her musical pants.'
The old tower of West Endelstow Church had reached the last weeks of its existence. It was to be replaced by a new one from the designs of Mr. Hewby, the architect who had sent down Stephen. Planks and poles had arrived in the churchyard, iron bars had been thrust into the venerable crack extending down the belfry wall to the foundation, the bells had been taken down, the owls had forsaken this home of their forefathers, and six iconoclasts in white fustian, to whom a cracked edifice was a species of Mumbo Jumbo, had taken lodgings in the village previous to beginning the actual removal of the stones.
This was the day after Knight's arrival. To enjoy for the last time the prospect seaward from the summit, the vicar, Mrs. Swancourt, Knight, and Elfride, all ascended the winding turret—Mr. Swancourt stepping forward with many loud breaths, his wife struggling along silently, but suffering none the less. They had hardly reached the top when a large lurid cloud, palpably a reservoir of rain, thunder, and lightning, was seen to be advancing overhead from the north.
The two cautious elders suggested an immediate return, and proceeded to put it in practice as regarded themselves.
'Dear me, I wish I had not come up,' exclaimed Mrs. Swancourt.
'We shall be slower than you two in going down,' the vicar said over his shoulder, 'and so, don't you start till we are nearly at the bottom, or you will run over us and break our necks somewhere in the darkness of the turret.'
Accordingly Elfride and Knight waited on the leads till the staircase should be clear. Knight was not in a talkative mood that morning. Elfride was rather wilful, by reason of his inattention, which she privately set down to his thinking her not worth talking to. Whilst Knight stood watching the rise of the cloud, she sauntered to the other side of the tower, and there remembered a giddy feat she had performed the year before. It was to walk round upon the parapet of the tower—which was quite without battlement or pinnacle, and presented a smooth flat surface about two feet wide, forming a pathway on all the four sides. Without reflecting in the least upon what she was doing she now stepped upon the parapet in the old way, and began walking along.
'We are down, cousin Henry,' cried Mrs. Swancourt up the turret. 'Follow us when you like.'
Knight turned and saw Elfride beginning her elevated promenade. His face flushed with mingled concern and anger at her rashness.
'I certainly gave you credit for more common sense,' he said.
She reddened a little and walked on.
'Miss Swancourt, I insist upon your coming down,' he exclaimed.
'I will in a minute. I am safe enough. I have done it often.'
At that moment, by reason of a slight perturbation his words had caused in her, Elfride's foot caught itself in a little tuft of grass growing in a joint of the stone-work, and she almost lost her balance. Knight sprang forward with a face of horror. By what seemed the special interposition of a considerate Providence she tottered to the inner edge of the parapet instead of to the outer, and reeled over upon the lead roof two or three feet below the wall.
Knight seized her as in a vice, and he said, panting, 'That ever I should have met a woman fool enough to do a thing of that kind! Good God, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!'
The close proximity of the Shadow of Death had made her sick and pale as a corpse before he spoke. Already lowered to that state, his words completely over-powered her, and she swooned away as he held her.
Elfride's eyes were not closed for more than forty seconds. She opened them, and remembered the position instantly. His face had altered its expression from stern anger to pity. But his severe remarks had rather frightened her, and she struggled to be free.
'If you can stand, of course you may,' he said, and loosened his arms. 'I hardly know whether most to laugh at your freak or to chide you for its folly.'
She immediately sank upon the lead-work. Knight lifted her again. 'Are you hurt?' he said.
She murmured an incoherent expression, and tried to smile; saying, with a fitful aversion of her face, 'I am only frightened. Put me down, do put me down!'
'But you can't walk,' said Knight.
'You don't know that; how can you? I am only frightened, I tell you,' she answered petulantly, and raised her hand to her forehead. Knight then saw that she was bleeding from a severe cut in her wrist, apparently where it had descended upon a salient corner of the lead-work. Elfride, too, seemed to perceive and feel this now for the first time, and for a minute nearly lost consciousness again. Knight rapidly bound his handkerchief round the place, and to add to the complication, the thundercloud he had been watching began to shed some heavy drops of rain. Knight looked up and saw the vicar striding towards the house, and Mrs. Swancourt waddling beside him like a hard-driven duck.
'As you are so faint, it will be much better to let me carry you down,' said Knight; 'or at any rate inside out of the rain.' But her objection to be lifted made it impossible for him to support her for more than five steps.
'This is folly, great folly,' he exclaimed, setting her down.
'Indeed!' she murmured, with tears in her eyes. 'I say I will not be carried, and you say this is folly!'
'So it is.'
'No, it isn't!'
'It is folly, I think. At any rate, the origin of it all is.'
'I don't agree to it. And you needn't get so angry with me; I am not worth it.'
'Indeed you are. You are worth the enmity of princes, as was said of such another. Now, then, will you clasp your hands behind my neck, that I may carry you down without hurting you?'
'You had better, or I shall foreclose.'
'Deprive you of your chance.'
Elfride gave a little toss.
'Now, don't writhe so when I attempt to carry you.'
'I can't help it.'
'Then submit quietly.'
'I don't care. I don't care,' she murmured in languid tones and with closed eyes.
He took her into his arms, entered the turret, and with slow and cautious steps descended round and round. Then, with the gentleness of a nursing mother, he attended to the cut on her arm. During his progress through the operations of wiping it and binding it up anew, her face changed its aspect from pained indifference to something like bashful interest, interspersed with small tremors and shudders of a trifling kind.
In the centre of each pale cheek a small red spot the size of a wafer had now made its appearance, and continued to grow larger. Elfride momentarily expected a recurrence to the lecture on her foolishness, but Knight said no more than this—
'Promise me NEVER to walk on that parapet again.'
'It will be pulled down soon: so I do.' In a few minutes she continued in a lower tone, and seriously, 'You are familiar of course, as everybody is, with those strange sensations we sometimes have, that our life for the moment exists in duplicate.'
'That we have lived through that moment before?'
'Or shall again. Well, I felt on the tower that something similar to that scene is again to be common to us both.'
'God forbid!' said Knight. 'Promise me that you will never again walk on any such place on any consideration.'
'That such a thing has not been before, we know. That it shall not be again, you vow. Therefore think no more of such a foolish fancy.'
There had fallen a great deal of rain, but unaccompanied by lightning. A few minutes longer, and the storm had ceased.
'Now, take my arm, please.'
'Oh no, it is not necessary.' This relapse into wilfulness was because he had again connected the epithet foolish with her.
'Nonsense: it is quite necessary; it will rain again directly, and you are not half recovered.' And without more ado Knight took her hand, drew it under his arm, and held it there so firmly that she could not have removed it without a struggle. Feeling like a colt in a halter for the first time, at thus being led along, yet afraid to be angry, it was to her great relief that she saw the carriage coming round the corner to fetch them.
Her fall upon the roof was necessarily explained to some extent upon their entering the house; but both forbore to mention a word of what she had been doing to cause such an accident. During the remainder of the afternoon Elfride was invisible; but at dinner-time she appeared as bright as ever.
In the drawing-room, after having been exclusively engaged with Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt through the intervening hour, Knight again found himself thrown with Elfride. She had been looking over a chess problem in one of the illustrated periodicals.
'You like chess, Miss Swancourt?'
'Yes. It is my favourite scientific game; indeed, excludes every other. Do you play?'
'I have played; though not lately.'
'Challenge him, Elfride,' said the vicar heartily. 'She plays very well for a lady, Mr. Knight.'
'Shall we play?' asked Elfride tentatively.
'Oh, certainly. I shall be delighted.'
The game began. Mr. Swancourt had forgotten a similar performance with Stephen Smith the year before. Elfride had not; but she had begun to take for her maxim the undoubted truth that the necessity of continuing faithful to Stephen, without suspicion, dictated a fickle behaviour almost as imperatively as fickleness itself; a fact, however, which would give a startling advantage to the latter quality should it ever appear.
Knight, by one of those inexcusable oversights which will sometimes afflict the best of players, placed his rook in the arms of one of her pawns. It was her first advantage. She looked triumphant—even ruthless.
'By George! what was I thinking of?' said Knight quietly; and then dismissed all concern at his accident.
'Club laws we'll have, won't we, Mr. Knight?' said Elfride suasively.
'Oh yes, certainly,' said Mr. Knight, a thought, however, just occurring to his mind, that he had two or three times allowed her to replace a man on her religiously assuring him that such a move was an absolute blunder.
She immediately took up the unfortunate rook and the contest proceeded, Elfride having now rather the better of the game. Then he won the exchange, regained his position, and began to press her hard. Elfride grew flurried, and placed her queen on his remaining rook's file.
'There—how stupid! Upon my word, I did not see your rook. Of course nobody but a fool would have put a queen there knowingly!'
She spoke excitedly, half expecting her antagonist to give her back the move.
'Nobody, of course,' said Knight serenely, and stretched out his hand towards his royal victim.
'It is not very pleasant to have it taken advantage of, then,' she said with some vexation.
'Club laws, I think you said?' returned Knight blandly, and mercilessly appropriating the queen.
She was on the brink of pouting, but was ashamed to show it; tears almost stood in her eyes. She had been trying so hard—so very hard—thinking and thinking till her brain was in a whirl; and it seemed so heartless of him to treat her so, after all.
'I think it is——' she began.
—'Unkind to take advantage of a pure mistake I make in that way.'
'I lost my rook by even a purer mistake,' said the enemy in an inexorable tone, without lifting his eyes.
'Yes, but——' However, as his logic was absolutely unanswerable, she merely registered a protest. 'I cannot endure those cold-blooded ways of clubs and professional players, like Staunton and Morphy. Just as if it really mattered whether you have raised your fingers from a man or no!'
Knight smiled as pitilessly as before, and they went on in silence.
'Checkmate,' said Knight.
'Another game,' said Elfride peremptorily, and looking very warm.
'With all my heart,' said Knight.
'Checkmate,' said Knight again at the end of forty minutes.
'Another game,' she returned resolutely.
'I'll give you the odds of a bishop,' Knight said to her kindly.
'No, thank you,' Elfride replied in a tone intended for courteous indifference; but, as a fact, very cavalier indeed.
'Checkmate,' said her opponent without the least emotion.
Oh, the difference between Elfride's condition of mind now, and when she purposely made blunders that Stephen Smith might win!
It was bedtime. Her mind as distracted as if it would throb itself out of her head, she went off to her chamber, full of mortification at being beaten time after time when she herself was the aggressor. Having for two or three years enjoyed the reputation throughout the globe of her father's brain—which almost constituted her entire world—of being an excellent player, this fiasco was intolerable; for unfortunately the person most dogged in the belief in a false reputation is always that one, the possessor, who has the best means of knowing that it is not true.
In bed no sleep came to soothe her; that gentle thing being the very middle-of-summer friend in this respect of flying away at the merest troublous cloud. After lying awake till two o'clock an idea seemed to strike her. She softly arose, got a light, and fetched a Chess Praxis from the library. Returning and sitting up in bed, she diligently studied the volume till the clock struck five, and her eyelids felt thick and heavy. She then extinguished the light and lay down again.
'You look pale, Elfride,' said Mrs. Swancourt the next morning at breakfast. 'Isn't she, cousin Harry?'
A young girl who is scarcely ill at all can hardly help becoming so when regarded as such by all eyes turning upon her at the table in obedience to some remark. Everybody looked at Elfride. She certainly was pale.
'Am I pale?' she said with a faint smile. 'I did not sleep much. I could not get rid of armies of bishops and knights, try how I would.'
'Chess is a bad thing just before bedtime; especially for excitable people like yourself, dear. Don't ever play late again.'
'I'll play early instead. Cousin Knight,' she said in imitation of Mrs. Swancourt, 'will you oblige me in something?'
'Even to half my kingdom.'
'Well, it is to play one game more.'
'Now, instantly; the moment we have breakfasted.'
'Nonsense, Elfride,' said her father. 'Making yourself a slave to the game like that.'
'But I want to, papa! Honestly, I am restless at having been so ignominiously overcome. And Mr. Knight doesn't mind. So what harm can there be?'
'Let us play, by all means, if you wish it,' said Knight.
So, when breakfast was over, the combatants withdrew to the quiet of the library, and the door was closed. Elfride seemed to have an idea that her conduct was rather ill-regulated and startlingly free from conventional restraint. And worse, she fancied upon Knight's face a slightly amused look at her proceedings.
'You think me foolish, I suppose,' she said recklessly; 'but I want to do my very best just once, and see whether I can overcome you.'
'Certainly: nothing more natural. Though I am afraid it is not the plan adopted by women of the world after a defeat.'
'Because they know that as good as overcoming is skill in effacing recollection of being overcome, and turn their attention to that entirely.'
'I am wrong again, of course.'
'Perhaps your wrong is more pleasing than their right.'
'I don't quite know whether you mean that, or whether you are laughing at me,' she said, looking doubtingly at him, yet inclining to accept the more flattering interpretation. 'I am almost sure you think it vanity in me to think I am a match for you. Well, if you do, I say that vanity is no crime in such a case.'
'Well, perhaps not. Though it is hardly a virtue.'
'Oh yes, in battle! Nelson's bravery lay in his vanity.'
'Indeed! Then so did his death.'
Oh no, no! For it is written in the book of the prophet Shakespeare—
"Fear and be slain? no worse can come to fight; And fight and die, is death destroying death!"
And down they sat, and the contest began, Elfride having the first move. The game progressed. Elfride's heart beat so violently that she could not sit still. Her dread was lest he should hear it. And he did discover it at last—some flowers upon the table being set throbbing by its pulsations.
'I think we had better give over,' said Knight, looking at her gently. 'It is too much for you, I know. Let us write down the position, and finish another time.'
'No, please not,' she implored. 'I should not rest if I did not know the result at once. It is your move.'
Ten minutes passed.
She started up suddenly. 'I know what you are doing?' she cried, an angry colour upon her cheeks, and her eyes indignant. 'You were thinking of letting me win to please me!'
'I don't mind owning that I was,' Knight responded phlegmatically, and appearing all the more so by contrast with her own turmoil.
'But you must not! I won't have it.'
'No, that will not do; I insist that you promise not to do any such absurd thing. It is insulting me!'
'Very well, madam. I won't do any such absurd thing. You shall not win.'
'That is to be proved!' she returned proudly; and the play went on.
Nothing is now heard but the ticking of a quaint old timepiece on the summit of a bookcase. Ten minutes pass; he captures her knight; she takes his knight, and looks a very Rhadamanthus.
More minutes tick away; she takes his pawn and has the advantage, showing her sense of it rather prominently.
Five minutes more: he takes her bishop: she brings things even by taking his knight.
Three minutes: she looks bold, and takes his queen: he looks placid, and takes hers.
Eight or ten minutes pass: he takes a pawn; she utters a little pooh! but not the ghost of a pawn can she take in retaliation.
Ten minutes pass: he takes another pawn and says, 'Check!' She flushes, extricates herself by capturing his bishop, and looks triumphant. He immediately takes her bishop: she looks surprised.
Five minutes longer: she makes a dash and takes his only remaining bishop; he replies by taking her only remaining knight.
Two minutes: he gives check; her mind is now in a painful state of tension, and she shades her face with her hand.
Yet a few minutes more: he takes her rook and checks again. She literally trembles now lest an artful surprise she has in store for him shall be anticipated by the artful surprise he evidently has in store for her.
Five minutes: 'Checkmate in two moves!' exclaims Elfride.
'If you can,' says Knight.
'Oh, I have miscalculated; that is cruel!'
'Checkmate,' says Knight; and the victory is won.
Elfride arose and turned away without letting him see her face. Once in the hall she ran upstairs and into her room, and flung herself down upon her bed, weeping bitterly.
'Where is Elfride?' said her father at luncheon.
Knight listened anxiously for the answer. He had been hoping to see her again before this time.
'She isn't well, sir,' was the reply.
Mrs. Swancourt rose and left the room, going upstairs to Elfride's apartment.
At the door was Unity, who occupied in the new establishment a position between young lady's maid and middle-housemaid.
'She is sound asleep, ma'am,' Unity whispered.
Mrs. Swancourt opened the door. Elfride was lying full-dressed on the bed, her face hot and red, her arms thrown abroad. At intervals of a minute she tossed restlessly from side to side, and indistinctly moaned words used in the game of chess.
Mrs. Swancourt had a turn for doctoring, and felt her pulse. It was twanging like a harp-string, at the rate of nearly a hundred and fifty a minute. Softly moving the sleeping girl to a little less cramped position, she went downstairs again.
'She is asleep now,' said Mrs. Swancourt. 'She does not seem very well. Cousin Knight, what were you thinking of? her tender brain won't bear cudgelling like your great head. You should have strictly forbidden her to play again.'
In truth, the essayist's experience of the nature of young women was far less extensive than his abstract knowledge of them led himself and others to believe. He could pack them into sentences like a workman, but practically was nowhere.
'I am indeed sorry,' said Knight, feeling even more than he expressed. 'But surely, the young lady knows best what is good for her!'
'Bless you, that's just what she doesn't know. She never thinks of such things, does she, Christopher? Her father and I have to command her and keep her in order, as you would a child. She will say things worthy of a French epigrammatist, and act like a robin in a greenhouse. But I think we will send for Dr. Granson—there can be no harm.'
A man was straightway despatched on horseback to Castle Boterel, and the gentleman known as Dr. Granson came in the course of the afternoon. He pronounced her nervous system to be in a decided state of disorder; forwarded some soothing draught, and gave orders that on no account whatever was she to play chess again.
The next morning Knight, much vexed with himself, waited with a curiously compounded feeling for her entry to breakfast. The women servants came in to prayers at irregular intervals, and as each entered, he could not, to save his life, avoid turning his head with the hope that she might be Elfride. Mr. Swancourt began reading without waiting for her. Then somebody glided in noiselessly; Knight softly glanced up: it was only the little kitchen-maid. Knight thought reading prayers a bore.
He went out alone, and for almost the first time failed to recognize that holding converse with Nature's charms was not solitude. On nearing the house again he perceived his young friend crossing a slope by a path which ran into the one he was following in the angle of the field. Here they met. Elfride was at once exultant and abashed: coming into his presence had upon her the effect of entering a cathedral.
Knight had his note-book in his hand, and had, in fact, been in the very act of writing therein when they came in view of each other. He left off in the midst of a sentence, and proceeded to inquire warmly concerning her state of health. She said she was perfectly well, and indeed had never looked better. Her health was as inconsequent as her actions. Her lips were red, WITHOUT the polish that cherries have, and their redness margined with the white skin in a clearly defined line, which had nothing of jagged confusion in it. Altogether she stood as the last person in the world to be knocked over by a game of chess, because too ephemeral-looking to play one.
'Are you taking notes?' she inquired with an alacrity plainly arising less from interest in the subject than from a wish to divert his thoughts from herself.
'Yes; I was making an entry. And with your permission I will complete it.' Knight then stood still and wrote. Elfride remained beside him a moment, and afterwards walked on.
'I should like to see all the secrets that are in that book,' she gaily flung back to him over her shoulder.
'I don't think you would find much to interest you.'
'I know I should.'
'Then of course I have no more to say.'
'But I would ask this question first. Is it a book of mere facts concerning journeys and expenditure, and so on, or a book of thoughts?'
'Well, to tell the truth, it is not exactly either. It consists for the most part of jottings for articles and essays, disjointed and disconnected, of no possible interest to anybody but myself.'
'It contains, I suppose, your developed thoughts in embryo?'
'If they are interesting when enlarged to the size of an article, what must they be in their concentrated form? Pure rectified spirit, above proof; before it is lowered to be fit for human consumption: "words that burn" indeed.'
'Rather like a balloon before it is inflated: flabby, shapeless, dead. You could hardly read them.'
'May I try?' she said coaxingly. 'I wrote my poor romance in that way—I mean in bits, out of doors—and I should like to see whether your way of entering things is the same as mine.'
'Really, that's rather an awkward request. I suppose I can hardly refuse now you have asked so directly; but——'
'You think me ill-mannered in asking. But does not this justify me—your writing in my presence, Mr. Knight? If I had lighted upon your book by chance, it would have been different; but you stand before me, and say, "Excuse me," without caring whether I do or not, and write on, and then tell me they are not private facts but public ideas.'
'Very well, Miss Swancourt. If you really must see, the consequences be upon your own head. Remember, my advice to you is to leave my book alone.'
'But with that caution I have your permission?'
She hesitated a moment, looked at his hand containing the book, then laughed, and saying, 'I must see it,' withdrew it from his fingers.
Knight rambled on towards the house, leaving her standing in the path turning over the leaves. By the time he had reached the wicket-gate he saw that she had moved, and waited till she came up.
Elfride had closed the note-book, and was carrying it disdainfully by the corner between her finger and thumb; her face wore a nettled look. She silently extended the volume towards him, raising her eyes no higher than her hand was lifted.
'Take it,' said Elfride quickly. 'I don't want to read it.'
'Could you understand it?' said Knight.
'As far as I looked. But I didn't care to read much.'
'Why, Miss Swancourt?'
'Only because I didn't wish to—that's all.'
'I warned you that you might not.'
'Yes, but I never supposed you would have put me there.'
'Your name is not mentioned once within the four corners.'
'Not my name—I know that.'
'Nor your description, nor anything by which anybody would recognize you.'
'Except myself. For what is this?' she exclaimed, taking it from him and opening a page. 'August 7. That's the day before yesterday. But I won't read it,' Elfride said, closing the book again with pretty hauteur. 'Why should I? I had no business to ask to see your book, and it serves me right.'
Knight hardly recollected what he had written, and turned over the book to see. He came to this:
'Aug. 7. Girl gets into her teens, and her self-consciousness is born. After a certain interval passed in infantine helplessness it begins to act. Simple, young, and inexperienced at first. Persons of observation can tell to a nicety how old this consciousness is by the skill it has acquired in the art necessary to its success—the art of hiding itself. Generally begins career by actions which are popularly termed showing-off. Method adopted depends in each case upon the disposition, rank, residence, of the young lady attempting it. Town-bred girl will utter some moral paradox on fast men, or love. Country miss adopts the more material media of taking a ghastly fence, whistling, or making your blood run cold by appearing to risk her neck. (MEM. On Endelstow Tower.)
'An innocent vanity is of course the origin of these displays. "Look at me," say these youthful beginners in womanly artifice, without reflecting whether or not it be to their advantage to show so very much of themselves. (Amplify and correct for paper on Artless Arts.)'
'Yes, I remember now,' said Knight. 'The notes were certainly suggested by your manoeuvre on the church tower. But you must not think too much of such random observations,' he continued encouragingly, as he noticed her injured looks. 'A mere fancy passing through my head assumes a factitious importance to you, because it has been made permanent by being written down. All mankind think thoughts as bad as those of people they most love on earth, but such thoughts never getting embodied on paper, it becomes assumed that they never existed. I daresay that you yourself have thought some disagreeable thing or other of me, which would seem just as bad as this if written. I challenge you, now, to tell me.'
'The worst thing I have thought of you?'
'I must not.'
'I thought you were rather round-shouldered.'
Knight looked slightly redder.
'And that there was a little bald spot on the top of your head.'
'Heh-heh! Two ineradicable defects,' said Knight, there being a faint ghastliness discernible in his laugh. 'They are much worse in a lady's eye than being thought self-conscious, I suppose.'
'Ah, that's very fine,' she said, too inexperienced to perceive her hit, and hence not quite disposed to forgive his notes. 'You alluded to me in that entry as if I were such a child, too. Everybody does that. I cannot understand it. I am quite a woman, you know. How old do you think I am?'
'How old? Why, seventeen, I should say. All girls are seventeen.'
'You are wrong. I am nearly nineteen. Which class of women do you like best, those who seem younger, or those who seem older than they are?'
'Off-hand I should be inclined to say those who seem older.'
So it was not Elfride's class.
'But it is well known,' she said eagerly, and there was something touching in the artless anxiety to be thought much of which she revealed by her words, 'that the slower a nature is to develop, the richer the nature. Youths and girls who are men and women before they come of age are nobodies by the time that backward people have shown their full compass.'
'Yes,' said Knight thoughtfully. 'There is really something in that remark. But at the risk of offence I must remind you that you there take it for granted that the woman behind her time at a given age has not reached the end of her tether. Her backwardness may be not because she is slow to develop, but because she soon exhausted her capacity for developing.'
Elfride looked disappointed. By this time they were indoors. Mrs. Swancourt, to whom match-making by any honest means was meat and drink, had now a little scheme of that nature concerning this pair. The morning-room, in which they both expected to find her, was empty; the old lady having, for the above reason, vacated it by the second door as they entered by the first.
Knight went to the chimney-piece, and carelessly surveyed two portraits on ivory.
'Though these pink ladies had very rudimentary features, judging by what I see here,' he observed, 'they had unquestionably beautiful heads of hair.'
'Yes; and that is everything,' said Elfride, possibly conscious of her own, possibly not.
'Not everything; though a great deal, certainly.'
'Which colour do you like best?' she ventured to ask.
'More depends on its abundance than on its colour.'
'Abundances being equal, may I inquire your favourite colour?'
'I mean for women,' she said, with the minutest fall of countenance, and a hope that she had been misunderstood.
'So do I,' Knight replied.
It was impossible for any man not to know the colour of Elfride's hair. In women who wear it plainly such a feature may be overlooked by men not given to ocular intentness. But hers was always in the way. You saw her hair as far as you could see her sex, and knew that it was the palest brown. She knew instantly that Knight, being perfectly aware of this, had an independent standard of admiration in the matter.
Elfride was thoroughly vexed. She could not but be struck with the honesty of his opinions, and the worst of it was, that the more they went against her, the more she respected them. And now, like a reckless gambler, she hazarded her last and best treasure. Her eyes: they were her all now.
'What coloured eyes do you like best, Mr. Knight?' she said slowly.
'Honestly, or as a compliment?'
'Of course honestly; I don't want anybody's compliment!'
And yet Elfride knew otherwise: that a compliment or word of approval from that man then would have been like a well to a famished Arab.
'I prefer hazel,' he said serenely.
She had played and lost again.
'Love was in the next degree.'
Knight had none of those light familiarities of speech which, by judicious touches of epigrammatic flattery, obliterate a woman's recollection of the speaker's abstract opinions. So no more was said by either on the subject of hair, eyes, or development. Elfride's mind had been impregnated with sentiments of her own smallness to an uncomfortable degree of distinctness, and her discomfort was visible in her face. The whole tendency of the conversation latterly had been to quietly but surely disparage her; and she was fain to take Stephen into favour in self-defence. He would not have been so unloving, she said, as to admire an idiosyncrasy and features different from her own. True, Stephen had declared he loved her: Mr. Knight had never done anything of the sort. Somehow this did not mend matters, and the sensation of her smallness in Knight's eyes still remained. Had the position been reversed—had Stephen loved her in spite of a differing taste, and had Knight been indifferent in spite of her resemblance to his ideal, it would have engendered far happier thoughts. As matters stood, Stephen's admiration might have its root in a blindness the result of passion. Perhaps any keen man's judgment was condemnatory of her.
During the remainder of Saturday they were more or less thrown with their seniors, and no conversation arose which was exclusively their own. When Elfride was in bed that night her thoughts recurred to the same subject. At one moment she insisted that it was ill-natured of him to speak so decisively as he had done; the next, that it was sterling honesty.
'Ah, what a poor nobody I am!' she said, sighing. 'People like him, who go about the great world, don't care in the least what I am like either in mood or feature.'
Perhaps a man who has got thoroughly into a woman's mind in this manner, is half way to her heart; the distance between those two stations is proverbially short.
'And are you really going away this week?' said Mrs. Swancourt to Knight on the following evening, which was Sunday.
They were all leisurely climbing the hill to the church, where a last service was now to be held at the rather exceptional time of evening instead of in the afternoon, previous to the demolition of the ruinous portions.
'I am intending to cross to Cork from Bristol,' returned Knight; 'and then I go on to Dublin.'
'Return this way, and stay a little longer with us,' said the vicar. 'A week is nothing. We have hardly been able to realize your presence yet. I remember a story which——'
The vicar suddenly stopped. He had forgotten it was Sunday, and would probably have gone on in his week-day mode of thought had not a turn in the breeze blown the skirt of his college gown within the range of his vision, and so reminded him. He at once diverted the current of his narrative with the dexterity the occasion demanded.
'The story of the Levite who journeyed to Bethlehem-judah, from which I took my text the Sunday before last, is quite to the point,' he continued, with the pronunciation of a man who, far from having intended to tell a week-day story a moment earlier, had thought of nothing but Sabbath matters for several weeks. 'What did he gain after all by his restlessness? Had he remained in the city of the Jebusites, and not been so anxious for Gibeah, none of his troubles would have arisen.'
'But he had wasted five days already,' said Knight, closing his eyes to the vicar's commendable diversion. 'His fault lay in beginning the tarrying system originally.'
'True, true; my illustration fails.'
'But not the hospitality which prompted the story.'
'So you are to come just the same,' urged Mrs. Swancourt, for she had seen an almost imperceptible fall of countenance in her stepdaughter at Knight's announcement.
Knight half promised to call on his return journey; but the uncertainty with which he spoke was quite enough to fill Elfride with a regretful interest in all he did during the few remaining hours. The curate having already officiated twice that day in the two churches, Mr. Swancourt had undertaken the whole of the evening service, and Knight read the lessons for him. The sun streamed across from the dilapidated west window, and lighted all the assembled worshippers with a golden glow, Knight as he read being illuminated by the same mellow lustre. Elfride at the organ regarded him with a throbbing sadness of mood which was fed by a sense of being far removed from his sphere. As he went deliberately through the chapter appointed—a portion of the history of Elijah—and ascended that magnificent climax of the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the still small voice, his deep tones echoed past with such apparent disregard of her existence, that his presence inspired her with a forlorn sense of unapproachableness, which his absence would hardly have been able to cause.
At the same time, turning her face for a moment to catch the glory of the dying sun as it fell on his form, her eyes were arrested by the shape and aspect of a woman in the west gallery. It was the bleak barren countenance of the widow Jethway, whom Elfride had not seen much of since the morning of her return with Stephen Smith. Possessing the smallest of competencies, this unhappy woman appeared to spend her life in journeyings between Endelstow Churchyard and that of a village near Southampton, where her father and mother were laid.
She had not attended the service here for a considerable time, and she now seemed to have a reason for her choice of seat. From the gallery window the tomb of her son was plainly visible—standing as the nearest object in a prospect which was closed outwardly by the changeless horizon of the sea.
The streaming rays, too, flooded her face, now bent towards Elfride with a hard and bitter expression that the solemnity of the place raised to a tragic dignity it did not intrinsically possess. The girl resumed her normal attitude with an added disquiet.
Elfride's emotion was cumulative, and after a while would assert itself on a sudden. A slight touch was enough to set it free—a poem, a sunset, a cunningly contrived chord of music, a vague imagining, being the usual accidents of its exhibition. The longing for Knight's respect, which was leading up to an incipient yearning for his love, made the present conjuncture a sufficient one. Whilst kneeling down previous to leaving, when the sunny streaks had gone upward to the roof, and the lower part of the church was in soft shadow, she could not help thinking of Coleridge's morbid poem 'The Three Graves,' and shuddering as she wondered if Mrs. Jethway were cursing her, she wept as if her heart would break.
They came out of church just as the sun went down, leaving the landscape like a platform from which an eloquent speaker has retired, and nothing remains for the audience to do but to rise and go home. Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt went off in the carriage, Knight and Elfride preferring to walk, as the skilful old matchmaker had imagined. They descended the hill together.
'I liked your reading, Mr. Knight,' Elfride presently found herself saying. 'You read better than papa.'
'I will praise anybody that will praise me. You played excellently, Miss Swancourt, and very correctly.'
'It must be a great pleasure to you to take an active part in the service.'
'I want to be able to play with more feeling. But I have not a good selection of music, sacred or secular. I wish I had a nice little music-library—well chosen, and that the only new pieces sent me were those of genuine merit.'
'I am glad to hear such a wish from you. It is extraordinary how many women have no honest love of music as an end and not as a means, even leaving out those who have nothing in them. They mostly like it for its accessories. I have never met a woman who loves music as do ten or a dozen men I know.'
'How would you draw the line between women with something and women with nothing in them?'
'Well,' said Knight, reflecting a moment, 'I mean by nothing in them those who don't care about anything solid. This is an instance: I knew a man who had a young friend in whom he was much interested; in fact, they were going to be married. She was seemingly poetical, and he offered her a choice of two editions of the British poets, which she pretended to want badly. He said, "Which of them would you like best for me to send?" She said, "A pair of the prettiest earrings in Bond Street, if you don't mind, would be nicer than either." Now I call her a girl with not much in her but vanity; and so do you, I daresay.'
'Oh yes,' replied Elfride with an effort.
Happening to catch a glimpse of her face as she was speaking, and noticing that her attempt at heartiness was a miserable failure, he appeared to have misgivings.
'You, Miss Swancourt, would not, under such circumstances, have preferred the nicknacks?'
'No, I don't think I should, indeed,' she stammered.
'I'll put it to you,' said the inflexible Knight. 'Which will you have of these two things of about equal value—the well-chosen little library of the best music you spoke of—bound in morocco, walnut case, lock and key—or a pair of the very prettiest earrings in Bond Street windows?'
'Of course the music,' Elfride replied with forced earnestness.
'You are quite certain?' he said emphatically.
'Quite,' she faltered; 'if I could for certain buy the earrings afterwards.'
Knight, somewhat blamably, keenly enjoyed sparring with the palpitating mobile creature, whose excitable nature made any such thing a species of cruelty.
He looked at her rather oddly, and said, 'Fie!'
'Forgive me,' she said, laughing a little, a little frightened, and blushing very deeply.
'Ah, Miss Elfie, why didn't you say at first, as any firm woman would have said, I am as bad as she, and shall choose the same?'
'I don't know,' said Elfride wofully, and with a distressful smile.
'I thought you were exceptionally musical?'
'So I am, I think. But the test is so severe—quite painful.'
'I don't understand.'
'Music doesn't do any real good, or rather——'
'That IS a thing to say, Miss Swancourt! Why, what——'
'You don't understand! you don't understand!'
'Why, what conceivable use is there in jimcrack jewellery?'
'No, no, no, no!' she cried petulantly; 'I didn't mean what you think. I like the music best, only I like——'
'Earrings better—own it!' he said in a teasing tone. 'Well, I think I should have had the moral courage to own it at once, without pretending to an elevation I could not reach.'
Like the French soldiery, Elfride was not brave when on the defensive. So it was almost with tears in her eyes that she answered desperately:
'My meaning is, that I like earrings best just now, because I lost one of my prettiest pair last year, and papa said he would not buy any more, or allow me to myself, because I was careless; and now I wish I had some like them—that's what my meaning is—indeed it is, Mr. Knight.'
'I am afraid I have been very harsh and rude,' said Knight, with a look of regret at seeing how disturbed she was. 'But seriously, if women only knew how they ruin their good looks by such appurtenances, I am sure they would never want them.'
'They were lovely, and became me so!'
'Not if they were like the ordinary hideous things women stuff their ears with nowadays—like the governor of a steam-engine, or a pair of scales, or gold gibbets and chains, and artists' palettes, and compensation pendulums, and Heaven knows what besides.'
'No; they were not one of those things. So pretty—like this,' she said with eager animation. And she drew with the point of her parasol an enlarged view of one of the lamented darlings, to a scale that would have suited a giantess half-a-mile high.
'Yes, very pretty—very,' said Knight dryly. 'How did you come to lose such a precious pair of articles?'
'I only lost one—nobody ever loses both at the same time.'
She made this remark with embarrassment, and a nervous movement of the fingers. Seeing that the loss occurred whilst Stephen Smith was attempting to kiss her for the first time on the cliff, her confusion was hardly to be wondered at. The question had been awkward, and received no direct answer.
Knight seemed not to notice her manner.
'Oh, nobody ever loses both—I see. And certainly the fact that it was a case of loss takes away all odour of vanity from your choice.'
'As I never know whether you are in earnest, I don't now,' she said, looking up inquiringly at the hairy face of the oracle. And coming gallantly to her own rescue, 'If I really seem vain, it is that I am only vain in my ways—not in my heart. The worst women are those vain in their hearts, and not in their ways.'
'An adroit distinction. Well, they are certainly the more objectionable of the two,' said Knight.
'Is vanity a mortal or a venial sin? You know what life is: tell me.'
'I am very far from knowing what life is. A just conception of life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of passing through it.'
'Will the fact of a woman being fond of jewellery be likely to make her life, in its higher sense, a failure?'
'Nobody's life is altogether a failure.'
'Well, you know what I mean, even though my words are badly selected and commonplace,' she said impatiently. 'Because I utter commonplace words, you must not suppose I think only commonplace thoughts. My poor stock of words are like a limited number of rough moulds I have to cast all my materials in, good and bad; and the novelty or delicacy of the substance is often lost in the coarse triteness of the form.'
'Very well; I'll believe that ingenious representation. As to the subject in hand—lives which are failures—you need not trouble yourself. Anybody's life may be just as romantic and strange and interesting if he or she fails as if he or she succeed. All the difference is, that the last chapter is wanting in the story. If a man of power tries to do a great deed, and just falls short of it by an accident not his fault, up to that time his history had as much in it as that of a great man who has done his great deed. It is whimsical of the world to hold that particulars of how a lad went to school and so on should be as an interesting romance or as nothing to them, precisely in proportion to his after renown.'
They were walking between the sunset and the moonrise. With the dropping of the sun a nearly full moon had begun to raise itself. Their shadows, as cast by the western glare, showed signs of becoming obliterated in the interest of a rival pair in the opposite direction which the moon was bringing to distinctness.
'I consider my life to some extent a failure,' said Knight again after a pause, during which he had noticed the antagonistic shadows.
'I don't precisely know. But in some way I have missed the mark.'
'Really? To have done it is not much to be sad about, but to feel that you have done it must be a cause of sorrow. Am I right?'
'Partly, though not quite. For a sensation of being profoundly experienced serves as a sort of consolation to people who are conscious of having taken wrong turnings. Contradictory as it seems, there is nothing truer than that people who have always gone right don't know half as much about the nature and ways of going right as those do who have gone wrong. However, it is not desirable for me to chill your summer-time by going into this.'
'You have not told me even now if I am really vain.'
'If I say Yes, I shall offend you; if I say No, you'll think I don't mean it,' he replied, looking curiously into her face.
'Ah, well,' she replied, with a little breath of distress, '"That which is exceeding deep, who will find it out?" I suppose I must take you as I do the Bible—find out and understand all I can; and on the strength of that, swallow the rest in a lump, by simple faith. Think me vain, if you will. Worldly greatness requires so much littleness to grow up in, that an infirmity more or less is not a matter for regret.'
'As regards women, I can't say,' answered Knight carelessly; 'but it is without doubt a misfortune for a man who has a living to get, to be born of a truly noble nature. A high soul will bring a man to the workhouse; so you may be right in sticking up for vanity.'
'No, no, I don't do that,' she said regretfully.
Mr. Knight, when you are gone, will you send me something you have written? I think I should like to see whether you write as you have lately spoken, or in your better mood. Which is your true self—the cynic you have been this evening, or the nice philosopher you were up to to-night?'
'Ah, which? You know as well as I.'
Their conversation detained them on the lawn and in the portico till the stars blinked out. Elfride flung back her head, and said idly—
'There's a bright star exactly over me.'
'Each bright star is overhead somewhere.'
'Is it? Oh yes, of course. Where is that one?' and she pointed with her finger.
'That is poised like a white hawk over one of the Cape Verde Islands.'
'Looking down upon the source of the Nile.'
'And that lonely quiet-looking one?'
'He watches the North Pole, and has no less than the whole equator for his horizon. And that idle one low down upon the ground, that we have almost rolled away from, is in India—over the head of a young friend of mine, who very possibly looks at the star in our zenith, as it hangs low upon his horizon, and thinks of it as marking where his true love dwells.'
Elfride glanced at Knight with misgiving. Did he mean her? She could not see his features; but his attitude seemed to show unconsciousness.
'The star is over MY head,' she said with hesitation.
'Or anybody else's in England.'
'Oh yes, I see:' she breathed her relief.
'His parents, I believe, are natives of this county. I don't know them, though I have been in correspondence with him for many years till lately. Fortunately or unfortunately for him he fell in love, and then went to Bombay. Since that time I have heard very little of him.'
Knight went no further in his volunteered statement, and though Elfride at one moment was inclined to profit by the lessons in honesty he had just been giving her, the flesh was weak, and the intention dispersed into silence. There seemed a reproach in Knight's blind words, and yet she was not able to clearly define any disloyalty that she had been guilty of.
'A distant dearness in the hill.'
Knight turned his back upon the parish of Endelstow, and crossed over to Cork.
One day of absence superimposed itself on another, and proportionately weighted his heart. He pushed on to the Lakes of Killarney, rambled amid their luxuriant woods, surveyed the infinite variety of island, hill, and dale there to be found, listened to the marvellous echoes of that romantic spot; but altogether missed the glory and the dream he formerly found in such favoured regions.
Whilst in the company of Elfride, her girlish presence had not perceptibly affected him to any depth. He had not been conscious that her entry into his sphere had added anything to himself; but now that she was taken away he was very conscious of a great deal being abstracted. The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love.
Stephen fell in love with Elfride by looking at her: Knight by ceasing to do so. When or how the spirit entered into him he knew not: certain he was that when on the point of leaving Endelstow he had felt none of that exquisite nicety of poignant sadness natural to such severances, seeing how delightful a subject of contemplation Elfride had been ever since. Had he begun to love her when she met his eye after her mishap on the tower? He had simply thought her weak. Had he grown to love her whilst standing on the lawn brightened all over by the evening sun? He had thought her complexion good: no more. Was it her conversation that had sown the seed? He had thought her words ingenious, and very creditable to a young woman, but not noteworthy. Had the chess-playing anything to do with it? Certainly not: he had thought her at that time a rather conceited child.
Knight's experience was a complete disproof of the assumption that love always comes by glances of the eye and sympathetic touches of the fingers: that, like flame, it makes itself palpable at the moment of generation. Not till they were parted, and she had become sublimated in his memory, could he be said to have even attentively regarded her.
Thus, having passively gathered up images of her which his mind did not act upon till the cause of them was no longer before him, he appeared to himself to have fallen in love with her soul, which had temporarily assumed its disembodiment to accompany him on his way.
She began to rule him so imperiously now that, accustomed to analysis, he almost trembled at the possible result of the introduction of this new force among the nicely adjusted ones of his ordinary life. He became restless: then he forgot all collateral subjects in the pleasure of thinking about her.
Yet it must be said that Knight loved philosophically rather than with romance.
He thought of her manner towards him. Simplicity verges on coquetry. Was she flirting? he said to himself. No forcible translation of favour into suspicion was able to uphold such a theory. The performance had been too well done to be anything but real. It had the defects without which nothing is genuine. No actress of twenty years' standing, no bald-necked lady whose earliest season 'out' was lost in the discreet mist of evasive talk, could have played before him the part of ingenuous girl as Elfride lived it. She had the little artful ways which partly make up ingenuousness.
There are bachelors by nature and bachelors by circumstance: spinsters there doubtless are also of both kinds, though some think only those of the latter. However, Knight had been looked upon as a bachelor by nature. What was he coming to? It was very odd to himself to look at his theories on the subject of love, and reading them now by the full light of a new experience, to see how much more his sentences meant than he had felt them to mean when they were written. People often discover the real force of a trite old maxim only when it is thrust upon them by a chance adventure; but Knight had never before known the case of a man who learnt the full compass of his own epigrams by such means.
He was intensely satisfied with one aspect of the affair. Inbred in him was an invincible objection to be any but the first comer in a woman's heart. He had discovered within himself the condition that if ever he did make up his mind to marry, it must be on the certainty that no cropping out of inconvenient old letters, no bow and blush to a mysterious stranger casually met, should be a possible source of discomposure. Knight's sentiments were only the ordinary ones of a man of his age who loves genuinely, perhaps exaggerated a little by his pursuits. When men first love as lads, it is with the very centre of their hearts, nothing else being concerned in the operation. With added years, more of the faculties attempt a partnership in the passion, till at Knight's age the understanding is fain to have a hand in it. It may as well be left out. A man in love setting up his brains as a gauge of his position is as one determining a ship's longitude from a light at the mast-head.
Knight argued from Elfride's unwontedness of manner, which was matter of fact, to an unwontedness in love, which was matter of inference only. Incredules les plus credules. 'Elfride,' he said, 'had hardly looked upon a man till she saw me.'
He had never forgotten his severity to her because she preferred ornament to edification, and had since excused her a hundred times by thinking how natural to womankind was a love of adornment, and how necessary became a mild infusion of personal vanity to complete the delicate and fascinating dye of the feminine mind. So at the end of the week's absence, which had brought him as far as Dublin, he resolved to curtail his tour, return to Endelstow, and commit himself by making a reality of the hypothetical offer of that Sunday evening.
Notwithstanding that he had concocted a great deal of paper theory on social amenities and modern manners generally, the special ounce of practice was wanting, and now for his life Knight could not recollect whether it was considered correct to give a young lady personal ornaments before a regular engagement to marry had been initiated. But the day before leaving Dublin he looked around anxiously for a high-class jewellery establishment, in which he purchased what he considered would suit her best.
It was with a most awkward and unwonted feeling that after entering and closing the door of his room he sat down, opened the morocco case, and held up each of the fragile bits of gold-work before his eyes. Many things had become old to the solitary man of letters, but these were new, and he handled like a child an outcome of civilization which had never before been touched by his fingers. A sudden fastidious decision that the pattern chosen would not suit her after all caused him to rise in a flurry and tear down the street to change them for others. After a great deal of trouble in reselecting, during which his mind became so bewildered that the critical faculty on objects of art seemed to have vacated his person altogether, Knight carried off another pair of ear-rings. These remained in his possession till the afternoon, when, after contemplating them fifty times with a growing misgiving that the last choice was worse than the first, he felt that no sleep would visit his pillow till he had improved upon his previous purchases yet again. In a perfect heat of vexation with himself for such tergiversation, he went anew to the shop-door, was absolutely ashamed to enter and give further trouble, went to another shop, bought a pair at an enormously increased price, because they seemed the very thing, asked the goldsmiths if they would take the other pair in exchange, was told that they could not exchange articles bought of another maker, paid down the money, and went off with the two pairs in his possession, wondering what on earth to do with the superfluous pair. He almost wished he could lose them, or that somebody would steal them, and was burdened with an interposing sense that, as a capable man, with true ideas of economy, he must necessarily sell them somewhere, which he did at last for a mere song. Mingled with a blank feeling of a whole day being lost to him in running about the city on this new and extraordinary class of errand, and of several pounds being lost through his bungling, was a slight sense of satisfaction that he had emerged for ever from his antediluvian ignorance on the subject of ladies' jewellery, as well as secured a truly artistic production at last. During the remainder of that day he scanned the ornaments of every lady he met with the profoundly experienced eye of an appraiser.