Next morning Knight was again crossing St. George's Channel—not returning to London by the Holyhead route as he had originally intended, but towards Bristol—availing himself of Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt's invitation to revisit them on his homeward journey.
We flit forward to Elfride.
Woman's ruling passion—to fascinate and influence those more powerful than she—though operant in Elfride, was decidedly purposeless. She had wanted her friend Knight's good opinion from the first: how much more than that elementary ingredient of friendship she now desired, her fears would hardly allow her to think. In originally wishing to please the highest class of man she had ever intimately known, there was no disloyalty to Stephen Smith. She could not—and few women can—realize the possible vastness of an issue which has only an insignificant begetting.
Her letters from Stephen were necessarily few, and her sense of fidelity clung to the last she had received as a wrecked mariner clings to flotsam. The young girl persuaded herself that she was glad Stephen had such a right to her hand as he had acquired (in her eyes) by the elopement. She beguiled herself by saying, 'Perhaps if I had not so committed myself I might fall in love with Mr. Knight.'
All this made the week of Knight's absence very gloomy and distasteful to her. She retained Stephen in her prayers, and his old letters were re-read—as a medicine in reality, though she deceived herself into the belief that it was as a pleasure.
These letters had grown more and more hopeful. He told her that he finished his work every day with a pleasant consciousness of having removed one more stone from the barrier which divided them. Then he drew images of what a fine figure they two would cut some day. People would turn their heads and say, 'What a prize he has won!' She was not to be sad about that wild runaway attempt of theirs (Elfride had repeatedly said that it grieved her). Whatever any other person who knew of it might think, he knew well enough the modesty of her nature. The only reproach was a gentle one for not having written quite so devotedly during her visit to London. Her letter had seemed to have a liveliness derived from other thoughts than thoughts of him.
Knight's intention of an early return to Endelstow having originally been faint, his promise to do so had been fainter. He was a man who kept his words well to the rear of his possible actions. The vicar was rather surprised to see him again so soon: Mrs. Swancourt was not. Knight found, on meeting them all, after his arrival had been announced, that they had formed an intention to go to St. Leonards for a few days at the end of the month.
No satisfactory conjuncture offered itself on this first evening of his return for presenting Elfride with what he had been at such pains to procure. He was fastidious in his reading of opportunities for such an intended act. The next morning chancing to break fine after a week of cloudy weather, it was proposed and decided that they should all drive to Barwith Strand, a local lion which neither Mrs. Swancourt nor Knight had seen. Knight scented romantic occasions from afar, and foresaw that such a one might be expected before the coming night.
The journey was along a road by neutral green hills, upon which hedgerows lay trailing like ropes on a quay. Gaps in these uplands revealed the blue sea, flecked with a few dashes of white and a solitary white sail, the whole brimming up to a keen horizon which lay like a line ruled from hillside to hillside. Then they rolled down a pass, the chocolate-toned rocks forming a wall on both sides, from one of which fell a heavy jagged shade over half the roadway. A spout of fresh water burst from an occasional crevice, and pattering down upon broad green leaves, ran along as a rivulet at the bottom. Unkempt locks of heather overhung the brow of each steep, whence at divers points a bramble swung forth into mid-air, snatching at their head-dresses like a claw.
They mounted the last crest, and the bay which was to be the end of their pilgrimage burst upon them. The ocean blueness deepened its colour as it stretched to the foot of the crags, where it terminated in a fringe of white—silent at this distance, though moving and heaving like a counterpane upon a restless sleeper. The shadowed hollows of the purple and brown rocks would have been called blue had not that tint been so entirely appropriated by the water beside them.
The carriage was put up at a little cottage with a shed attached, and an ostler and the coachman carried the hamper of provisions down to the shore.
Knight found his opportunity. 'I did not forget your wish,' he began, when they were apart from their friends.
Elfride looked as if she did not understand.
'And I have brought you these,' he continued, awkwardly pulling out the case, and opening it while holding it towards her.
'O Mr. Knight!' said Elfride confusedly, and turning to a lively red; 'I didn't know you had any intention or meaning in what you said. I thought it a mere supposition. I don't want them.'
A thought which had flashed into her mind gave the reply a greater decisiveness than it might otherwise have possessed. To-morrow was the day for Stephen's letter.
'But will you not accept them?' Knight returned, feeling less her master than heretofore.
'I would rather not. They are beautiful—more beautiful than any I have ever seen,' she answered earnestly, looking half-wishfully at the temptation, as Eve may have looked at the apple. 'But I don't want to have them, if you will kindly forgive me, Mr. Knight.'
'No kindness at all,' said Mr. Knight, brought to a full stop at this unexpected turn of events.
A silence followed. Knight held the open case, looking rather wofully at the glittering forms he had forsaken his orbit to procure; turning it about and holding it up as if, feeling his gift to be slighted by her, he were endeavouring to admire it very much himself.
'Shut them up, and don't let me see them any longer—do!' she said laughingly, and with a quaint mixture of reluctance and entreaty.
'Not Elfie to you, Mr. Knight. Oh, because I shall want them. There, I am silly, I know, to say that! But I have a reason for not taking them—now.' She kept in the last word for a moment, intending to imply that her refusal was finite, but somehow the word slipped out, and undid all the rest.
'You will take them some day?'
'I don't want to.'
'Why don't you want to, Elfride Swancourt?'
'Because I don't. I don't like to take them.'
'I have read a fact of distressing significance in that,' said Knight. 'Since you like them, your dislike to having them must be towards me?'
'No, it isn't.'
'What, then? Do you like me?'
Elfride deepened in tint, and looked into the distance with features shaped to an expression of the nicest criticism as regarded her answer.
'I like you pretty well,' she at length murmured mildly.
'Not very much?'
'You are so sharp with me, and say hard things, and so how can I?' she replied evasively.
'You think me a fogey, I suppose?'
'No, I don't—I mean I do—I don't know what I think you, I mean. Let us go to papa,' responded Elfride, with somewhat of a flurried delivery.
'Well, I'll tell you my object in getting the present,' said Knight, with a composure intended to remove from her mind any possible impression of his being what he was—her lover. 'You see it was the very least I could do in common civility.'
Elfride felt rather blank at this lucid statement.
Knight continued, putting away the case: 'I felt as anybody naturally would have, you know, that my words on your choice the other day were invidious and unfair, and thought an apology should take a practical shape.'
Elfride was sorry—she could not tell why—that he gave such a legitimate reason. It was a disappointment that he had all the time a cool motive, which might be stated to anybody without raising a smile. Had she known they were offered in that spirit, she would certainly have accepted the seductive gift. And the tantalizing feature was that perhaps he suspected her to imagine them offered as a lover's token, which was mortifying enough if they were not.
Mrs. Swancourt came now to where they were sitting, to select a flat boulder for spreading their table-cloth upon, and, amid the discussion on that subject, the matter pending between Knight and Elfride was shelved for a while. He read her refusal so certainly as the bashfulness of a girl in a novel position, that, upon the whole, he could tolerate such a beginning. Could Knight have been told that it was a sense of fidelity struggling against new love, whilst no less assuring as to his ultimate victory, it might have entirely abstracted the wish to secure it.
At the same time a slight constraint of manner was visible between them for the remainder of the afternoon. The tide turned, and they were obliged to ascend to higher ground. The day glided on to its end with the usual quiet dreamy passivity of such occasions—when every deed done and thing thought is in endeavouring to avoid doing and thinking more. Looking idly over the verge of a crag, they beheld their stone dining-table gradually being splashed upon and their crumbs and fragments all washed away by the incoming sea. The vicar drew a moral lesson from the scene; Knight replied in the same satisfied strain. And then the waves rolled in furiously—the neutral green-and-blue tongues of water slid up the slopes, and were metamorphosed into foam by a careless blow, falling back white and faint, and leaving trailing followers behind.
The passing of a heavy shower was the next scene—driving them to shelter in a shallow cave—after which the horses were put in, and they started to return homeward. By the time they reached the higher levels the sky had again cleared, and the sunset rays glanced directly upon the wet uphill road they had climbed. The ruts formed by their carriage-wheels on the ascent—a pair of Liliputian canals—were as shining bars of gold, tapering to nothing in the distance. Upon this also they turned their backs, and night spread over the sea.
The evening was chilly, and there was no moon. Knight sat close to Elfride, and, when the darkness rendered the position of a person a matter of uncertainty, particularly close. Elfride edged away.
'I hope you allow me my place ungrudgingly?' he whispered.
'Oh yes; 'tis the least I can do in common civility,' she said, accenting the words so that he might recognize them as his own returned.
Both of them felt delicately balanced between two possibilities. Thus they reached home.
To Knight this mild experience was delightful. It was to him a gentle innocent time—a time which, though there may not be much in it, seldom repeats itself in a man's life, and has a peculiar dearness when glanced at retrospectively. He is not inconveniently deep in love, and is lulled by a peaceful sense of being able to enjoy the most trivial thing with a childlike enjoyment. The movement of a wave, the colour of a stone, anything, was enough for Knight's drowsy thoughts of that day to precipitate themselves upon. Even the sermonizing platitudes the vicar had delivered himself of—chiefly because something seemed to be professionally required of him in the presence of a man of Knight's proclivities—were swallowed whole. The presence of Elfride led him not merely to tolerate that kind of talk from the necessities of ordinary courtesy; but he listened to it—took in the ideas with an enjoyable make-believe that they were proper and necessary, and indulged in a conservative feeling that the face of things was complete.
Entering her room that evening Elfride found a packet for herself on the dressing-table. How it came there she did not know. She tremblingly undid the folds of white paper that covered it. Yes; it was the treasure of a morocco case, containing those treasures of ornament she had refused in the daytime.
Elfride dressed herself in them for a moment, looked at herself in the glass, blushed red, and put them away. They filled her dreams all that night. Never had she seen anything so lovely, and never was it more clear that as an honest woman she was in duty bound to refuse them. Why it was not equally clear to her that duty required more vigorous co-ordinate conduct as well, let those who dissect her say.
The next morning glared in like a spectre upon her. It was Stephen's letter-day, and she was bound to meet the postman—to stealthily do a deed she had never liked, to secure an end she now had ceased to desire.
But she went.
There were two letters.
One was from the bank at St. Launce's, in which she had a small private deposit—probably something about interest. She put that in her pocket for a moment, and going indoors and upstairs to be safer from observation, tremblingly opened Stephen's.
What was this he said to her?
She was to go to the St. Launce's Bank and take a sum of money which they had received private advices to pay her.
The sum was two hundred pounds.
There was no check, order, or anything of the nature of guarantee. In fact the information amounted to this: the money was now in the St. Launce's Bank, standing in her name.
She instantly opened the other letter. It contained a deposit-note from the bank for the sum of two hundred pounds which had that day been added to her account. Stephen's information, then, was correct, and the transfer made.
'I have saved this in one year,' Stephen's letter went on to say, 'and what so proper as well as pleasant for me to do as to hand it over to you to keep for your use? I have plenty for myself, independently of this. Should you not be disposed to let it lie idle in the bank, get your father to invest it in your name on good security. It is a little present to you from your more than betrothed. He will, I think, Elfride, feel now that my pretensions to your hand are anything but the dream of a silly boy not worth rational consideration.'
With a natural delicacy, Elfride, in mentioning her father's marriage, had refrained from all allusion to the pecuniary resources of the lady.
Leaving this matter-of-fact subject, he went on, somewhat after his boyish manner:
'Do you remember, darling, that first morning of my arrival at your house, when your father read at prayers the miracle of healing the sick of the palsy—where he is told to take up his bed and walk? I do, and I can now so well realize the force of that passage. The smallest piece of mat is the bed of the Oriental, and yesterday I saw a native perform the very action, which reminded me to mention it. But you are better read than I, and perhaps you knew all this long ago....One day I bought some small native idols to send home to you as curiosities, but afterwards finding they had been cast in England, made to look old, and shipped over, I threw them away in disgust.
'Speaking of this reminds me that we are obliged to import all our house-building ironwork from England. Never was such foresight required to be exercised in building houses as here. Before we begin, we have to order every column, lock, hinge, and screw that will be required. We cannot go into the next street, as in London, and get them cast at a minute's notice. Mr. L. says somebody will have to go to England very soon and superintend the selection of a large order of this kind. I only wish I may be the man.'
There before her lay the deposit-receipt for the two hundred pounds, and beside it the elegant present of Knight. Elfride grew cold—then her cheeks felt heated by beating blood. If by destroying the piece of paper the whole transaction could have been withdrawn from her experience, she would willingly have sacrificed the money it represented. She did not know what to do in either case. She almost feared to let the two articles lie in juxtaposition: so antagonistic were the interests they represented that a miraculous repulsion of one by the other was almost to be expected.
That day she was seen little of. By the evening she had come to a resolution, and acted upon it. The packet was sealed up—with a tear of regret as she closed the case upon the pretty forms it contained—directed, and placed upon the writing-table in Knight's room. And a letter was written to Stephen, stating that as yet she hardly understood her position with regard to the money sent; but declaring that she was ready to fulfil her promise to marry him. After this letter had been written she delayed posting it—although never ceasing to feel strenuously that the deed must be done.
Several days passed. There was another Indian letter for Elfride. Coming unexpectedly, her father saw it, but made no remark—why, she could not tell. The news this time was absolutely overwhelming. Stephen, as he had wished, had been actually chosen as the most fitting to execute the iron-work commission he had alluded to as impending. This duty completed he would have three months' leave. His letter continued that he should follow it in a week, and should take the opportunity to plainly ask her father to permit the engagement. Then came a page expressive of his delight and hers at the reunion; and finally, the information that he would write to the shipping agents, asking them to telegraph and tell her when the ship bringing him home should be in sight—knowing how acceptable such information would be.
Elfride lived and moved now as in a dream. Knight had at first become almost angry at her persistent refusal of his offering—and no less with the manner than the fact of it. But he saw that she began to look worn and ill—and his vexation lessened to simple perplexity.
He ceased now to remain in the house for long hours together as before, but made it a mere centre for antiquarian and geological excursions in the neighbourhood. Throw up his cards and go away he fain would have done, but could not. And, thus, availing himself of the privileges of a relative, he went in and out the premises as fancy led him—but still lingered on.
'I don't wish to stay here another day if my presence is distasteful,' he said one afternoon. 'At first you used to imply that I was severe with you; and when I am kind you treat me unfairly.'
'No, no. Don't say so.'
The origin of their acquaintanceship had been such as to render their manner towards each other peculiar and uncommon. It was of a kind to cause them to speak out their minds on any feelings of objection and difference: to be reticent on gentler matters.
'I have a good mind to go away and never trouble you again,' continued Knight.
She said nothing, but the eloquent expression of her eyes and wan face was enough to reproach him for harshness.
'Do you like me to be here, then?' inquired Knight gently.
'Yes,' she said. Fidelity to the old love and truth to the new were ranged on opposite sides, and truth virtuelessly prevailed.
'Then I'll stay a little longer,' said Knight.
'Don't be vexed if I keep by myself a good deal, will you? Perhaps something may happen, and I may tell you something.'
'Mere coyness,' said Knight to himself; and went away with a lighter heart. The trick of reading truly the enigmatical forces at work in women at given times, which with some men is an unerring instinct, is peculiar to minds less direct and honest than Knight's.
The next evening, about five o'clock, before Knight had returned from a pilgrimage along the shore, a man walked up to the house. He was a messenger from Camelton, a town a few miles off, to which place the railway had been advanced during the summer.
'A telegram for Miss Swancourt, and three and sixpence to pay for the special messenger.' Miss Swancourt sent out the money, signed the paper, and opened her letter with a trembling hand. She read:
'Johnson, Liverpool, to Miss Swancourt, Endelstow, near Castle Boterel.
'Amaryllis telegraphed off Holyhead, four o'clock. Expect will dock and land passengers at Canning's Basin ten o'clock to-morrow morning.'
Her father called her into the study.
'Elfride, who sent you that message?' he asked suspiciously.
'Johnson.' 'Who is Johnson, for Heaven's sake?'
'I don't know.'
'The deuce you don't! Who is to know, then?'
'I have never heard of him till now.'
'That's a singular story, isn't it.'
'I don't know.'
'Come, come, miss! What was the telegram?'
'Do you really wish to know, papa?'
'Well, I do.'
'Remember, I am a full-grown woman now.'
'Well, what then?'
'Being a woman, and not a child, I may, I think, have a secret or two.'
'You will, it seems.'
'Women have, as a rule.'
'But don't keep them. So speak out.'
'If you will not press me now, I give my word to tell you the meaning of all this before the week is past.'
'On your honour?'
'On my honour.'
'Very well. I have had a certain suspicion, you know; and I shall be glad to find it false. I don't like your manner lately.'
'At the end of the week, I said, papa.'
Her father did not reply, and Elfride left the room.
She began to look out for the postman again. Three mornings later he brought an inland letter from Stephen. It contained very little matter, having been written in haste; but the meaning was bulky enough. Stephen said that, having executed a commission in Liverpool, he should arrive at his father's house, East Endelstow, at five or six o'clock that same evening; that he would after dusk walk on to the next village, and meet her, if she would, in the church porch, as in the old time. He proposed this plan because he thought it unadvisable to call formally at her house so late in the evening; yet he could not sleep without having seen her. The minutes would seem hours till he clasped her in his arms.
Elfride was still steadfast in her opinion that honour compelled her to meet him. Probably the very longing to avoid him lent additional weight to the conviction; for she was markedly one of those who sigh for the unattainable—to whom, superlatively, a hope is pleasing because not a possession. And she knew it so well that her intellect was inclined to exaggerate this defect in herself.
So during the day she looked her duty steadfastly in the face; read Wordsworth's astringent yet depressing ode to that Deity; committed herself to her guidance; and still felt the weight of chance desires.
But she began to take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the sacrifice of herself to the man whom a maidenly sense of propriety compelled her to regard as her only possible husband. She would meet him, and do all that lay in her power to marry him. To guard against a relapse, a note was at once despatched to his father's cottage for Stephen on his arrival, fixing an hour for the interview.
'On thy cold grey stones, O sea!'
Stephen had said that he should come by way of Bristol, and thence by a steamer to Castle Boterel, in order to avoid the long journey over the hills from St. Launce's. He did not know of the extension of the railway to Camelton.
During the afternoon a thought occurred to Elfride, that from any cliff along the shore it would be possible to see the steamer some hours before its arrival.
She had accumulated religious force enough to do an act of supererogation. The act was this—to go to some point of land and watch for the ship that brought her future husband home.
It was a cloudy afternoon. Elfride was often diverted from a purpose by a dull sky; and though she used to persuade herself that the weather was as fine as possible on the other side of the clouds, she could not bring about any practical result from this fancy. Now, her mood was such that the humid sky harmonized with it.
Having ascended and passed over a hill behind the house, Elfride came to a small stream. She used it as a guide to the coast. It was smaller than that in her own valley, and flowed altogether at a higher level. Bushes lined the slopes of its shallow trough; but at the bottom, where the water ran, was a soft green carpet, in a strip two or three yards wide.
In winter, the water flowed over the grass; in summer, as now, it trickled along a channel in the midst.
Elfride had a sensation of eyes regarding her from somewhere. She turned, and there was Mr. Knight. He had dropped into the valley from the side of the hill. She felt a thrill of pleasure, and rebelliously allowed it to exist.
'What utter loneliness to find you in!'
'I am going to the shore by tracking the stream. I believe it empties itself not far off, in a silver thread of water, over a cascade of great height.'
'Why do you load yourself with that heavy telescope?'
'To look over the sea with it,' she said faintly.
'I'll carry it for you to your journey's end.' And he took the glass from her unresisting hands. 'It cannot be half a mile further. See, there is the water.' He pointed to a short fragment of level muddy-gray colour, cutting against the sky.
Elfride had already scanned the small surface of ocean visible, and had seen no ship.
They walked along in company, sometimes with the brook between them—for it was no wider than a man's stride—sometimes close together. The green carpet grew swampy, and they kept higher up.
One of the two ridges between which they walked dwindled lower and became insignificant. That on the right hand rose with their advance, and terminated in a clearly defined edge against the light, as if it were abruptly sawn off. A little further, and the bed of the rivulet ended in the same fashion.
They had come to a bank breast-high, and over it the valley was no longer to be seen. It was withdrawn cleanly and completely. In its place was sky and boundless atmosphere; and perpendicularly down beneath them—small and far off—lay the corrugated surface of the Atlantic.
The small stream here found its death. Running over the precipice it was dispersed in spray before it was half-way down, and falling like rain upon projecting ledges, made minute grassy meadows of them. At the bottom the water-drops soaked away amid the debris of the cliff. This was the inglorious end of the river.
'What are you looking for? said Knight, following the direction of her eyes.
She was gazing hard at a black object—nearer to the shore than to the horizon—from the summit of which came a nebulous haze, stretching like gauze over the sea.
'The Puffin, a little summer steamboat—from Bristol to Castle Boterel,' she said. 'I think that is it—look. Will you give me the glass?'
Knight pulled open the old-fashioned but powerful telescope, and handed it to Elfride, who had looked on with heavy eyes.
'I can't keep it up now,' she said.
'Rest it on my shoulder.'
'It is too high.'
'Under my arm.'
'Too low. You may look instead,' she murmured weakly.
Knight raised the glass to his eye, and swept the sea till the Puffin entered its field.
'Yes, it is the Puffin—a tiny craft. I can see her figure-head distinctly—a bird with a beak as big as its head.'
'Can you see the deck?'
'Wait a minute; yes, pretty clearly. And I can see the black forms of the passengers against its white surface. One of them has taken something from another—a glass, I think—yes, it is—and he is levelling it in this direction. Depend upon it we are conspicuous objects against the sky to them. Now, it seems to rain upon them, and they put on overcoats and open umbrellas. They vanish and go below—all but that one who has borrowed the glass. He is a slim young fellow, and still watches us.'
Elfride grew pale, and shifted her little feet uneasily.
Knight lowered the glass.
'I think we had better return,' he said. 'That cloud which is raining on them may soon reach us. Why, you look ill. How is that?'
'Something in the air affects my face.'
'Those fair cheeks are very fastidious, I fear,' returned Knight tenderly. 'This air would make those rosy that were never so before, one would think—eh, Nature's spoilt child?'
Elfride's colour returned again.
'There is more to see behind us, after all,' said Knight.
She turned her back upon the boat and Stephen Smith, and saw, towering still higher than themselves, the vertical face of the hill on the right, which did not project seaward so far as the bed of the valley, but formed the back of a small cove, and so was visible like a concave wall, bending round from their position towards the left.
The composition of the huge hill was revealed to its backbone and marrow here at its rent extremity. It consisted of a vast stratification of blackish-gray slate, unvaried in its whole height by a single change of shade.
It is with cliffs and mountains as with persons; they have what is called a presence, which is not necessarily proportionate to their actual bulk. A little cliff will impress you powerfully; a great one not at all. It depends, as with man, upon the countenance of the cliff.
'I cannot bear to look at that cliff,' said Elfride. 'It has a horrid personality, and makes me shudder. We will go.'
'Can you climb?' said Knight. 'If so, we will ascend by that path over the grim old fellow's brow.'
'Try me,' said Elfride disdainfully. 'I have ascended steeper slopes than that.'
From where they had been loitering, a grassy path wound along inside a bank, placed as a safeguard for unwary pedestrians, to the top of the precipice, and over it along the hill in an inland direction.
'Take my arm, Miss Swancourt,' said Knight.
'I can get on better without it, thank you.'
When they were one quarter of the way up, Elfride stopped to take breath. Knight stretched out his hand.
She took it, and they ascended the remaining slope together. Reaching the very top, they sat down to rest by mutual consent.
'Heavens, what an altitude!' said Knight between his pants, and looking far over the sea. The cascade at the bottom of the slope appeared a mere span in height from where they were now.
Elfride was looking to the left. The steamboat was in full view again, and by reason of the vast surface of sea their higher position uncovered it seemed almost close to the shore.
'Over that edge,' said Knight, 'where nothing but vacancy appears, is a moving compact mass. The wind strikes the face of the rock, runs up it, rises like a fountain to a height far above our heads, curls over us in an arch, and disperses behind us. In fact, an inverted cascade is there—as perfect as the Niagara Falls—but rising instead of falling, and air instead of water. Now look here.'
Knight threw a stone over the bank, aiming it as if to go onward over the cliff. Reaching the verge, it towered into the air like a bird, turned back, and alighted on the ground behind them. They themselves were in a dead calm.
'A boat crosses Niagara immediately at the foot of the falls, where the water is quite still, the fallen mass curving under it. We are in precisely the same position with regard to our atmospheric cataract here. If you run back from the cliff fifty yards, you will be in a brisk wind. Now I daresay over the bank is a little backward current.'
Knight rose and leant over the bank. No sooner was his head above it than his hat appeared to be sucked from his head—slipping over his forehead in a seaward direction.
'That's the backward eddy, as I told you,' he cried, and vanished over the little bank after his hat.
Elfride waited one minute; he did not return. She waited another, and there was no sign of him.
A few drops of rain fell, then a sudden shower.
She arose, and looked over the bank. On the other side were two or three yards of level ground—then a short steep preparatory slope—then the verge of the precipice.
On the slope was Knight, his hat on his head. He was on his hands and knees, trying to climb back to the level ground. The rain had wetted the shaly surface of the incline. A slight superficial wetting of the soil hereabout made it far more slippery to stand on than the same soil thoroughly drenched. The inner substance was still hard, and was lubricated by the moistened film.
'I find a difficulty in getting back,' said Knight.
Elfride's heart fell like lead.
'But you can get back?' she wildly inquired.
Knight strove with all his might for two or three minutes, and the drops of perspiration began to bead his brow.
'No, I am unable to do it,' he answered.
Elfride, by a wrench of thought, forced away from her mind the sensation that Knight was in bodily danger. But attempt to help him she must. She ventured upon the treacherous incline, propped herself with the closed telescope, and gave him her hand before he saw her movements.
'O Elfride! why did you?' said he. 'I am afraid you have only endangered yourself.'
And as if to prove his statement, in making an endeavour by her assistance they both slipped lower, and then he was again stayed. His foot was propped by a bracket of quartz rock, balanced on the verge of the precipice. Fixed by this, he steadied her, her head being about a foot below the beginning of the slope. Elfride had dropped the glass; it rolled to the edge and vanished over it into a nether sky.
'Hold tightly to me,' he said.
She flung her arms round his neck with such a firm grasp that whilst he remained it was impossible for her to fall.
'Don't be flurried,' Knight continued. 'So long as we stay above this block we are perfectly safe. Wait a moment whilst I consider what we had better do.'
He turned his eyes to the dizzy depths beneath them, and surveyed the position of affairs.
Two glances told him a tale with ghastly distinctness. It was that, unless they performed their feat of getting up the slope with the precision of machines, they were over the edge and whirling in mid-air.
For this purpose it was necessary that he should recover the breath and strength which his previous efforts had cost him. So he still waited, and looked in the face of the enemy.
The crest of this terrible natural facade passed among the neighbouring inhabitants as being seven hundred feet above the water it overhung. It had been proved by actual measurement to be not a foot less than six hundred and fifty.
That is to say, it is nearly three times the height of Flamborough, half as high again as the South Foreland, a hundred feet higher than Beachy Head—the loftiest promontory on the east or south side of this island—twice the height of St. Aldhelm's, thrice as high as the Lizard, and just double the height of St. Bee's. One sea-bord point on the western coast is known to surpass it in altitude, but only by a few feet. This is Great Orme's Head, in Caernarvonshire.
And it must be remembered that the cliff exhibits an intensifying feature which some of those are without—sheer perpendicularity from the half-tide level.
Yet this remarkable rampart forms no headland: it rather walls in an inlet—the promontory on each side being much lower. Thus, far from being salient, its horizontal section is concave. The sea, rolling direct from the shores of North America, has in fact eaten a chasm into the middle of a hill, and the giant, embayed and unobtrusive, stands in the rear of pigmy supporters. Not least singularly, neither hill, chasm, nor precipice has a name. On this account I will call the precipice the Cliff without a Name.*
* See Preface
What gave an added terror to its height was its blackness. And upon this dark face the beating of ten thousand west winds had formed a kind of bloom, which had a visual effect not unlike that of a Hambro' grape. Moreover it seemed to float off into the atmosphere, and inspire terror through the lungs.
'This piece of quartz, supporting my feet, is on the very nose of the cliff,' said Knight, breaking the silence after his rigid stoical meditation. 'Now what you are to do is this. Clamber up my body till your feet are on my shoulders: when you are there you will, I think, be able to climb on to level ground.'
'What will you do?'
'Wait whilst you run for assistance.'
'I ought to have done that in the first place, ought I not?'
'I was in the act of slipping, and should have reached no stand-point without your weight, in all probability. But don't let us talk. Be brave, Elfride, and climb.'
She prepared to ascend, saying, 'This is the moment I anticipated when on the tower. I thought it would come!'
'This is not a time for superstition,' said Knight. 'Dismiss all that.'
'I will,' she said humbly.
'Now put your foot into my hand: next the other. That's good—well done. Hold to my shoulder.'
She placed her feet upon the stirrup he made of his hand, and was high enough to get a view of the natural surface of the hill over the bank.
'Can you now climb on to level ground?'
'I am afraid not. I will try.'
'What can you see?'
'The sloping common.'
'What upon it?'
'Purple heather and some grass.'
'Nothing more—no man or human being of any kind?'
'Now try to get higher in this way. You see that tuft of sea-pink above you. Get that well into your hand, but don't trust to it entirely. Then step upon my shoulder, and I think you will reach the top.'
With trembling limbs she did exactly as he told her. The preternatural quiet and solemnity of his manner overspread upon herself, and gave her a courage not her own. She made a spring from the top of his shoulder, and was up.
Then she turned to look at him.
By an ill fate, the force downwards of her bound, added to his own weight, had been too much for the block of quartz upon which his feet depended. It was, indeed, originally an igneous protrusion into the enormous masses of black strata, which had since been worn away from the sides of the alien fragment by centuries of frost and rain, and now left it without much support.
It moved. Knight seized a tuft of sea-pink with each hand.
The quartz rock which had been his salvation was worse than useless now. It rolled over, out of sight, and away into the same nether sky that had engulfed the telescope.
One of the tufts by which he held came out at the root, and Knight began to follow the quartz. It was a terrible moment. Elfride uttered a low wild wail of agony, bowed her head, and covered her face with her hands.
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation—the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.
In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
She lay on her side above him—her fingers clasped. Seeing him again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
'Now, if I can only save you by running for help!' she cried. 'Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver me?' And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
'Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?'
'Three-quarters of an hour.'
'That won't do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is there nobody nearer?'
'No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.'
'He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a pole or stick of any kind on the common?'
She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather and grass.
A minute—perhaps more time—was passed in mute thought by both. On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She vanished over the bank from his sight.
Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.
'A woman's way.'
Haggard cliffs, of every ugly altitude, are as common as sea-fowl along the line of coast between Exmoor and Land's End; but this outflanked and encompassed specimen was the ugliest of them all. Their summits are not safe places for scientific experiment on the principles of air-currents, as Knight had now found, to his dismay.
He still clutched the face of the escarpment—not with the frenzied hold of despair, but with a dogged determination to make the most of his every jot of endurance, and so give the longest possible scope to Elfride's intentions, whatever they might be.
He reclined hand in hand with the world in its infancy. Not a blade, not an insect, which spoke of the present, was between him and the past. The inveterate antagonism of these black precipices to all strugglers for life is in no way more forcibly suggested than by the paucity of tufts of grass, lichens, or confervae on their outermost ledges.
Knight pondered on the meaning of Elfride's hasty disappearance, but could not avoid an instinctive conclusion that there existed but a doubtful hope for him. As far as he could judge, his sole chance of deliverance lay in the possibility of a rope or pole being brought; and this possibility was remote indeed. The soil upon these high downs was left so untended that they were unenclosed for miles, except by a casual bank or dry wall, and were rarely visited but for the purpose of collecting or counting the flock which found a scanty means of subsistence thereon.
At first, when death appeared improbable, because it had never visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at Nature's treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to thwart her.
From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a semicircle, he could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
The creature represented but a low type of animal existence, for never in their vernal years had the plains indicated by those numberless slaty layers been traversed by an intelligence worthy of the name. Zoophytes, mollusca, shell-fish, were the highest developments of those ancient dates. The immense lapses of time each formation represented had known nothing of the dignity of man. They were grand times, but they were mean times too, and mean were their relics. He was to be with the small in his death.
Knight was a geologist; and such is the supremacy of habit over occasion, as a pioneer of the thoughts of men, that at this dreadful juncture his mind found time to take in, by a momentary sweep, the varied scenes that had had their day between this creature's epoch and his own. There is no place like a cleft landscape for bringing home such imaginings as these.
Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw himself at one extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in the hides of beasts, and carrying, for defence and attack, huge clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud huts—perhaps in caves of the neighbouring rocks. Behind them stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine forms, the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous size, the megatherium, and the myledon—all, for the moment, in juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped by these, were perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as horses. Still more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian outlines—alligators and other uncouth shapes, culminating in the colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms and clouds of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings of lower development; and so on, till the lifetime scenes of the fossil confronting him were a present and modern condition of things. These images passed before Knight's inner eye in less than half a minute, and he was again considering the actual present. Was he to die? The mental picture of Elfride in the world, without himself to cherish her, smote his heart like a whip. He had hoped for deliverance, but what could a girl do? He dared not move an inch. Was Death really stretching out his hand? The previous sensation, that it was improbable he would die, was fainter now.
However, Knight still clung to the cliff.
To those musing weather-beaten West-country folk who pass the greater part of their days and nights out of doors, Nature seems to have moods in other than a poetical sense: predilections for certain deeds at certain times, without any apparent law to govern or season to account for them. She is read as a person with a curious temper; as one who does not scatter kindnesses and cruelties alternately, impartially, and in order, but heartless severities or overwhelming generosities in lawless caprice. Man's case is always that of the prodigal's favourite or the miser's pensioner. In her unfriendly moments there seems a feline fun in her tricks, begotten by a foretaste of her pleasure in swallowing the victim.
Such a way of thinking had been absurd to Knight, but he began to adopt it now. He was first spitted on to a rock. New tortures followed. The rain increased, and persecuted him with an exceptional persistency which he was moved to believe owed its cause to the fact that he was in such a wretched state already. An entirely new order of things could be observed in this introduction of rain upon the scene. It rained upwards instead of down. The strong ascending air carried the rain-drops with it in its race up the escarpment, coming to him with such velocity that they stuck into his flesh like cold needles. Each drop was virtually a shaft, and it pierced him to his skin. The water-shafts seemed to lift him on their points: no downward rain ever had such a torturing effect. In a brief space he was drenched, except in two places. These were on the top of his shoulders and on the crown of his hat.
The wind, though not intense in other situations was strong here. It tugged at his coat and lifted it. We are mostly accustomed to look upon all opposition which is not animate, as that of the stolid, inexorable hand of indifference, which wears out the patience more than the strength. Here, at any rate, hostility did not assume that slow and sickening form. It was a cosmic agency, active, lashing, eager for conquest: determination; not an insensate standing in the way.
Knight had over-estimated the strength of his hands. They were getting weak already. 'She will never come again; she has been gone ten minutes,' he said to himself.
This mistake arose from the unusual compression of his experiences just now: she had really been gone but three.
'As many more minutes will be my end,' he thought.
Next came another instance of the incapacity of the mind to make comparisons at such times.
'This is a summer afternoon,' he said, 'and there can never have been such a heavy and cold rain on a summer day in my life before.'
He was again mistaken. The rain was quite ordinary in quantity; the air in temperature. It was, as is usual, the menacing attitude in which they approached him that magnified their powers.
He again looked straight downwards, the wind and the water-dashes lifting his moustache, scudding up his cheeks, under his eyelids, and into his eyes. This is what he saw down there: the surface of the sea—visually just past his toes, and under his feet; actually one-eighth of a mile, or more than two hundred yards, below them. We colour according to our moods the objects we survey. The sea would have been a deep neutral blue, had happier auspices attended the gazer it was now no otherwise than distinctly black to his vision. That narrow white border was foam, he knew well; but its boisterous tosses were so distant as to appear a pulsation only, and its plashing was barely audible. A white border to a black sea—his funeral pall and its edging.
The world was to some extent turned upside down for him. Rain descended from below. Beneath his feet was aerial space and the unknown; above him was the firm, familiar ground, and upon it all that he loved best.
Pitiless nature had then two voices, and two only. The nearer was the voice of the wind in his ears rising and falling as it mauled and thrust him hard or softly. The second and distant one was the moan of that unplummetted ocean below and afar—rubbing its restless flank against the Cliff without a Name.
Knight perseveringly held fast. Had he any faith in Elfride? Perhaps. Love is faith, and faith, like a gathered flower, will rootlessly live on.
Nobody would have expected the sun to shine on such an evening as this. Yet it appeared, low down upon the sea. Not with its natural golden fringe, sweeping the furthest ends of the landscape, not with the strange glare of whiteness which it sometimes puts on as an alternative to colour, but as a splotch of vermilion red upon a leaden ground—a red face looking on with a drunken leer.
Most men who have brains know it, and few are so foolish as to disguise this fact from themselves or others, even though an ostentatious display may be called self-conceit. Knight, without showing it much, knew that his intellect was above the average. And he thought—he could not help thinking—that his death would be a deliberate loss to earth of good material; that such an experiment in killing might have been practised upon some less developed life.
A fancy some people hold, when in a bitter mood, is that inexorable circumstance only tries to prevent what intelligence attempts. Renounce a desire for a long-contested position, and go on another tack, and after a while the prize is thrown at you, seemingly in disappointment that no more tantalizing is possible.
Knight gave up thoughts of life utterly and entirely, and turned to contemplate the Dark Valley and the unknown future beyond. Into the shadowy depths of these speculations we will not follow him. Let it suffice to state what ensued.
At that moment of taking no more thought for this life, something disturbed the outline of the bank above him. A spot appeared. It was the head of Elfride.
Knight immediately prepared to welcome life again.
The expression of a face consigned to utter loneliness, when a friend first looks in upon it, is moving in the extreme. In rowing seaward to a light-ship or sea-girt lighthouse, where, without any immediate terror of death, the inmates experience the gloom of monotonous seclusion, the grateful eloquence of their countenances at the greeting, expressive of thankfulness for the visit, is enough to stir the emotions of the most careless observer.
Knight's upward look at Elfride was of a nature with, but far transcending, such an instance as this. The lines of his face had deepened to furrows, and every one of them thanked her visibly. His lips moved to the word 'Elfride,' though the emotion evolved no sound. His eyes passed all description in their combination of the whole diapason of eloquence, from lover's deep love to fellow-man's gratitude for a token of remembrance from one of his kind.
Elfride had come back. What she had come to do he did not know. She could only look on at his death, perhaps. Still, she had come back, and not deserted him utterly, and it was much.
It was a novelty in the extreme to see Henry Knight, to whom Elfride was but a child, who had swayed her as a tree sways a bird's nest, who mastered her and made her weep most bitterly at her own insignificance, thus thankful for a sight of her face. She looked down upon him, her face glistening with rain and tears. He smiled faintly.
'How calm he is!' she thought. 'How great and noble he is to be so calm!' She would have died ten times for him then.
The gliding form of the steamboat caught her eye: she heeded it no longer.
'How much longer can you wait?' came from her pale lips and along the wind to his position.
'Four minutes,' said Knight in a weaker voice than her own.
'But with a good hope of being saved?'
'Seven or eight.'
He now noticed that in her arms she bore a bundle of white linen, and that her form was singularly attenuated. So preternaturally thin and flexible was Elfride at this moment, that she appeared to bend under the light blows of the rain-shafts, as they struck into her sides and bosom, and splintered into spray on her face. There is nothing like a thorough drenching for reducing the protuberances of clothes, but Elfride's seemed to cling to her like a glove.
Without heeding the attack of the clouds further than by raising her hand and wiping away the spirts of rain when they went more particularly into her eyes, she sat down and hurriedly began rending the linen into strips. These she knotted end to end, and afterwards twisted them like the strands of a cord. In a short space of time she had formed a perfect rope by this means, six or seven yards long.
'Can you wait while I bind it?' she said, anxiously extending her gaze down to him.
'Yes, if not very long. Hope has given me a wonderful instalment of strength.'
Elfride dropped her eyes again, tore the remaining material into narrow tape-like ligaments, knotted each to each as before, but on a smaller scale, and wound the lengthy string she had thus formed round and round the linen rope, which, without this binding, had a tendency to spread abroad.
'Now,' said Knight, who, watching the proceedings intently, had by this time not only grasped her scheme, but reasoned further on, 'I can hold three minutes longer yet. And do you use the time in testing the strength of the knots, one by one.'
She at once obeyed, tested each singly by putting her foot on the rope between each knot, and pulling with her hands. One of the knots slipped.
'Oh, think! It would have broken but for your forethought,' Elfride exclaimed apprehensively.
She retied the two ends. The rope was now firm in every part.
'When you have let it down,' said Knight, already resuming his position of ruling power, 'go back from the edge of the slope, and over the bank as far as the rope will allow you. Then lean down, and hold the end with both hands.'
He had first thought of a safer plan for his own deliverance, but it involved the disadvantage of possibly endangering her life.
'I have tied it round my waist,' she cried, 'and I will lean directly upon the bank, holding with my hands as well.'
It was the arrangement he had thought of, but would not suggest.
'I will raise and drop it three times when I am behind the bank,' she continued, 'to signify that I am ready. Take care, oh, take the greatest care, I beg you!'
She dropped the rope over him, to learn how much of its length it would be necessary to expend on that side of the bank, went back, and disappeared as she had done before.
The rope was trailing by Knight's shoulders. In a few moments it twitched three times.
He waited yet a second or two, then laid hold.
The incline of this upper portion of the precipice, to the length only of a few feet, useless to a climber empty-handed, was invaluable now. Not more than half his weight depended entirely on the linen rope. Half a dozen extensions of the arms, alternating with half a dozen seizures of the rope with his feet, brought him up to the level of the soil.
He was saved, and by Elfride.
He extended his cramped limbs like an awakened sleeper, and sprang over the bank.
At sight of him she leapt to her feet with almost a shriek of joy. Knight's eyes met hers, and with supreme eloquence the glance of each told a long-concealed tale of emotion in that short half-moment. Moved by an impulse neither could resist, they ran together and into each other's arms.
At the moment of embracing, Elfride's eyes involuntarily flashed towards the Puffin steamboat. It had doubled the point, and was no longer to be seen.
An overwhelming rush of exultation at having delivered the man she revered from one of the most terrible forms of death, shook the gentle girl to the centre of her soul. It merged in a defiance of duty to Stephen, and a total recklessness as to plighted faith. Every nerve of her will was now in entire subjection to her feeling—volition as a guiding power had forsaken her. To remain passive, as she remained now, encircled by his arms, was a sufficiently complete result—a glorious crown to all the years of her life. Perhaps he was only grateful, and did not love her. No matter: it was infinitely more to be even the slave of the greater than the queen of the less. Some such sensation as this, though it was not recognized as a finished thought, raced along the impressionable soul of Elfride.
Regarding their attitude, it was impossible for two persons to go nearer to a kiss than went Knight and Elfride during those minutes of impulsive embrace in the pelting rain. Yet they did not kiss. Knight's peculiarity of nature was such that it would not allow him to take advantage of the unguarded and passionate avowal she had tacitly made.
Elfride recovered herself, and gently struggled to be free.
He reluctantly relinquished her, and then surveyed her from crown to toe. She seemed as small as an infant. He perceived whence she had obtained the rope.
'Elfride, my Elfride!' he exclaimed in gratified amazement.
'I must leave you now,' she said, her face doubling its red, with an expression between gladness and shame 'You follow me, but at some distance.'
'The rain and wind pierce you through; the chill will kill you. God bless you for such devotion! Take my coat and put it on.'
'No; I shall get warm running.'
Elfride had absolutely nothing between her and the weather but her exterior robe or 'costume.' The door had been made upon a woman's wit, and it had found its way out. Behind the bank, whilst Knight reclined upon the dizzy slope waiting for death, she had taken off her whole clothing, and replaced only her outer bodice and skirt. Every thread of the remainder lay upon the ground in the form of a woollen and cotton rope.
'I am used to being wet through,' she added. 'I have been drenched on Pansy dozens of times. Good-bye till we meet, clothed and in our right minds, by the fireside at home!'
She then ran off from him through the pelting rain like a hare; or more like a pheasant when, scampering away with a lowered tail, it has a mind to fly, but does not. Elfride was soon out of sight.
Knight felt uncomfortably wet and chilled, but glowing with fervour nevertheless. He fully appreciated Elfride's girlish delicacy in refusing his escort in the meagre habiliments she wore, yet felt that necessary abstraction of herself for a short half-hour as a most grievous loss to him.
He gathered up her knotted and twisted plumage of linen, lace, and embroidery work, and laid it across his arm. He noticed on the ground an envelope, limp and wet. In endeavouring to restore this to its proper shape, he loosened from the envelope a piece of paper it had contained, which was seized by the wind in falling from Knight's hand. It was blown to the right, blown to the left—it floated to the edge of the cliff and over the sea, where it was hurled aloft. It twirled in the air, and then flew back over his head.
Knight followed the paper, and secured it. Having done so, he looked to discover if it had been worth securing.
The troublesome sheet was a banker's receipt for two hundred pounds, placed to the credit of Miss Swancourt, which the impractical girl had totally forgotten she carried with her.
Knight folded it as carefully as its moist condition would allow, put it in his pocket, and followed Elfride.
'Should auld acquaintance be forgot?'
By this time Stephen Smith had stepped out upon the quay at Castle Boterel, and breathed his native air.
A darker skin, a more pronounced moustache, and an incipient beard, were the chief additions and changes noticeable in his appearance.
In spite of the falling rain, which had somewhat lessened, he took a small valise in his hand, and, leaving the remainder of his luggage at the inn, ascended the hills towards East Endelstow. This place lay in a vale of its own, further inland than the west village, and though so near it, had little of physical feature in common with the latter. East Endelstow was more wooded and fertile: it boasted of Lord Luxellian's mansion and park, and was free from those bleak open uplands which lent such an air of desolation to the vicinage of the coast—always excepting the small valley in which stood the vicarage and Mrs. Swancourt's old house, The Crags.
Stephen had arrived nearly at the summit of the ridge when the rain again increased its volume, and, looking about for temporary shelter, he ascended a steep path which penetrated dense hazel bushes in the lower part of its course. Further up it emerged upon a ledge immediately over the turnpike-road, and sheltered by an overhanging face of rubble rock, with bushes above. For a reason of his own he made this spot his refuge from the storm, and turning his face to the left, conned the landscape as a book.
He was overlooking the valley containing Elfride's residence.
From this point of observation the prospect exhibited the peculiarity of being either brilliant foreground or the subdued tone of distance, a sudden dip in the surface of the country lowering out of sight all the intermediate prospect. In apparent contact with the trees and bushes growing close beside him appeared the distant tract, terminated suddenly by the brink of the series of cliffs which culminated in the tall giant without a name—small and unimportant as here beheld. A leaf on a bough at Stephen's elbow blotted out a whole hill in the contrasting district far away; a green bunch of nuts covered a complete upland there, and the great cliff itself was outvied by a pigmy crag in the bank hard by him. Stephen had looked upon these things hundreds of times before to-day, but he had never viewed them with such tenderness as now.
Stepping forward in this direction yet a little further, he could see the tower of West Endelstow Church, beneath which he was to meet his Elfride that night. And at the same time he noticed, coming over the hill from the cliffs, a white speck in motion. It seemed first to be a sea-gull flying low, but ultimately proved to be a human figure, running with great rapidity. The form flitted on, heedless of the rain which had caused Stephen's halt in this place, dropped down the heathery hill, entered the vale, and was out of sight.
Whilst he meditated upon the meaning of this phenomenon, he was surprised to see swim into his ken from the same point of departure another moving speck, as different from the first as well could be, insomuch that it was perceptible only by its blackness. Slowly and regularly it took the same course, and there was not much doubt that this was the form of a man. He, too, gradually descended from the upper levels, and was lost in the valley below.
The rain had by this time again abated, and Stephen returned to the road. Looking ahead, he saw two men and a cart. They were soon obscured by the intervention of a high hedge. Just before they emerged again he heard voices in conversation.
''A must soon be in the naibourhood, too, if so be he's a-coming,' said a tenor tongue, which Stephen instantly recognized as Martin Cannister's.
''A must 'a b'lieve,' said another voice—that of Stephen's father.
Stephen stepped forward, and came before them face to face. His father and Martin were walking, dressed in their second best suits, and beside them rambled along a grizzel horse and brightly painted spring-cart.
'All right, Mr. Cannister; here's the lost man!' exclaimed young Smith, entering at once upon the old style of greeting. 'Father, here I am.'
'All right, my sonny; and glad I be for't!' returned John Smith, overjoyed to see the young man. 'How be ye? Well, come along home, and don't let's bide out here in the damp. Such weather must be terrible bad for a young chap just come from a fiery nation like Indy; hey, naibour Cannister?'
'Trew, trew. And about getting home his traps? Boxes, monstrous bales, and noble packages of foreign description, I make no doubt?'
'Hardly all that,' said Stephen laughing.
'We brought the cart, maning to go right on to Castle Boterel afore ye landed,' said his father. '"Put in the horse," says Martin. "Ay," says I, "so we will;" and did it straightway. Now, maybe, Martin had better go on wi' the cart for the things, and you and I walk home-along.'
'And I shall be back a'most as soon as you. Peggy is a pretty step still, though time d' begin to tell upon her as upon the rest o' us.'
Stephen told Martin where to find his baggage, and then continued his journey homeward in the company of his father.
'Owing to your coming a day sooner than we first expected,' said John, 'you'll find us in a turk of a mess, sir—"sir," says I to my own son! but ye've gone up so, Stephen. We've killed the pig this morning for ye, thinking ye'd be hungry, and glad of a morsel of fresh mate. And 'a won't be cut up till to-night. However, we can make ye a good supper of fry, which will chaw up well wi' a dab o' mustard and a few nice new taters, and a drop of shilling ale to wash it down. Your mother have scrubbed the house through because ye were coming, and dusted all the chimmer furniture, and bought a new basin and jug of a travelling crockery-woman that came to our door, and scoured the cannel-sticks, and claned the winders! Ay, I don't know what 'a ha'n't a done. Never were such a steer, 'a b'lieve.'
Conversation of this kind and inquiries of Stephen for his mother's wellbeing occupied them for the remainder of the journey. When they drew near the river, and the cottage behind it, they could hear the master-mason's clock striking off the bygone hours of the day at intervals of a quarter of a minute, during which intervals Stephen's imagination readily pictured his mother's forefinger wandering round the dial in company with the minute-hand.
'The clock stopped this morning, and your mother in putting en right seemingly,' said his father in an explanatory tone; and they went up the garden to the door.
When they had entered, and Stephen had dutifully and warmly greeted his mother—who appeared in a cotton dress of a dark-blue ground, covered broadcast with a multitude of new and full moons, stars, and planets, with an occasional dash of a comet-like aspect to diversify the scene—the crackle of cart-wheels was heard outside, and Martin Cannister stamped in at the doorway, in the form of a pair of legs beneath a great box, his body being nowhere visible. When the luggage had been all taken down, and Stephen had gone upstairs to change his clothes, Mrs. Smith's mind seemed to recover a lost thread.
'Really our clock is not worth a penny,' she said, turning to it and attempting to start the pendulum.
'Stopped again?' inquired Martin with commiseration.
'Yes, sure,' replied Mrs. Smith; and continued after the manner of certain matrons, to whose tongues the harmony of a subject with a casual mood is a greater recommendation than its pertinence to the occasion, 'John would spend pounds a year upon the jimcrack old thing, if he might, in having it claned, when at the same time you may doctor it yourself as well. "The clock's stopped again, John," I say to him. "Better have en claned," says he. There's five shillings. "That clock grinds again," I say to en. "Better have en claned," 'a says again. "That clock strikes wrong, John," says I. "Better have en claned," he goes on. The wheels would have been polished to skeletons by this time if I had listened to en, and I assure you we could have bought a chainey-faced beauty wi' the good money we've flung away these last ten years upon this old green-faced mortal. And, Martin, you must be wet. My son is gone up to change. John is damper than I should like to be, but 'a calls it nothing. Some of Mrs. Swancourt's servants have been here—they ran in out of the rain when going for a walk—and I assure you the state of their bonnets was frightful.'
'How's the folks? We've been over to Castle Boterel, and what wi' running and stopping out of the storms, my poor head is beyond everything! fizz, fizz fizz; 'tis frying o' fish from morning to night,' said a cracked voice in the doorway at this instant.
'Lord so's, who's that?' said Mrs. Smith, in a private exclamation, and turning round saw William Worm, endeavouring to make himself look passing civil and friendly by overspreading his face with a large smile that seemed to have no connection with the humour he was in. Behind him stood a woman about twice his size, with a large umbrella over her head. This was Mrs. Worm, William's wife.
'Come in, William,' said John Smith. 'We don't kill a pig every day. And you, likewise, Mrs. Worm. I make ye welcome. Since ye left Parson Swancourt, William, I don't see much of 'ee.'
'No, for to tell the truth, since I took to the turn-pike-gate line, I've been out but little, coming to church o' Sundays not being my duty now, as 'twas in a parson's family, you see. However, our boy is able to mind the gate now, and I said, says I, "Barbara, let's call and see John Smith."'
'I am sorry to hear yer pore head is so bad still.'
'Ay, I assure you that frying o' fish is going on for nights and days. And, you know, sometimes 'tisn't only fish, but rashers o' bacon and inions. Ay, I can hear the fat pop and fizz as nateral as life; can't I, Barbara?'
Mrs. Worm, who had been all this time engaged in closing her umbrella, corroborated this statement, and now, coming indoors, showed herself to be a wide-faced, comfortable-looking woman, with a wart upon her cheek, bearing a small tuft of hair in its centre.
'Have ye ever tried anything to cure yer noise, Maister Worm?' inquired Martin Cannister.
'Oh ay; bless ye, I've tried everything. Ay, Providence is a merciful man, and I have hoped He'd have found it out by this time, living so many years in a parson's family, too, as I have, but 'a don't seem to relieve me. Ay, I be a poor wambling man, and life's a mint o' trouble!'
'True, mournful true, William Worm. 'Tis so. The world wants looking to, or 'tis all sixes and sevens wi' us.'
'Take your things off, Mrs. Worm,' said Mrs. Smith. 'We be rather in a muddle, to tell the truth, for my son is just dropped in from Indy a day sooner than we expected, and the pig-killer is coming presently to cut up.'
Mrs. Barbara Worm, not wishing to take any mean advantage of persons in a muddle by observing them, removed her bonnet and mantle with eyes fixed upon the flowers in the plot outside the door.
'What beautiful tiger-lilies!' said Mrs. Worm.
'Yes, they be very well, but such a trouble to me on account of the children that come here. They will go eating the berries on the stem, and call 'em currants. Taste wi' junivals is quite fancy, really.'
'And your snapdragons look as fierce as ever.'
'Well, really,' answered Mrs. Smith, entering didactically into the subject, 'they are more like Christians than flowers. But they make up well enough wi' the rest, and don't require much tending. And the same can be said o' these miller's wheels. 'Tis a flower I like very much, though so simple. John says he never cares about the flowers o' 'em, but men have no eye for anything neat. He says his favourite flower is a cauliflower. And I assure you I tremble in the springtime, for 'tis perfect murder.'
'You don't say so, Mrs. Smith!'
'John digs round the roots, you know. In goes his blundering spade, through roots, bulbs, everything that hasn't got a good show above ground, turning 'em up cut all to slices. Only the very last fall I went to move some tulips, when I found every bulb upside down, and the stems crooked round. He had turned 'em over in the spring, and the cunning creatures had soon found that heaven was not where it used to be.'
'What's that long-favoured flower under the hedge?'
'They? O Lord, they are the horrid Jacob's ladders! Instead of praising 'em, I be mad wi' 'em for being so ready to bide where they are not wanted. They be very well in their way, but I do not care for things that neglect won't kill. Do what I will, dig, drag, scrap, pull, I get too many of 'em. I chop the roots: up they'll come, treble strong. Throw 'em over hedge; there they'll grow, staring me in the face like a hungry dog driven away, and creep back again in a week or two the same as before. 'Tis Jacob's ladder here, Jacob's ladder there, and plant 'em where nothing in the world will grow, you get crowds of 'em in a month or two. John made a new manure mixen last summer, and he said, "Maria, now if you've got any flowers or such like, that you don't want, you may plant 'em round my mixen so as to hide it a bit, though 'tis not likely anything of much value will grow there." I thought, "There's them Jacob's ladders; I'll put them there, since they can't do harm in such a place;" and I planted the Jacob's ladders sure enough. They growed, and they growed, in the mixen and out of the mixen, all over the litter, covering it quite up. When John wanted to use it about the garden, 'a said, "Nation seize them Jacob's ladders of yours, Maria! They've eat the goodness out of every morsel of my manure, so that 'tis no better than sand itself!" Sure enough the hungry mortals had. 'Tis my belief that in the secret souls o' 'em, Jacob's ladders be weeds, and not flowers at all, if the truth was known.'
Robert Lickpan, pig-killer and carrier, arrived at this moment. The fatted animal hanging in the back kitchen was cleft down the middle of its backbone, Mrs. Smith being meanwhile engaged in cooking supper.
Between the cutting and chopping, ale was handed round, and Worm and the pig-killer listened to John Smith's description of the meeting with Stephen, with eyes blankly fixed upon the table-cloth, in order that nothing in the external world should interrupt their efforts to conjure up the scene correctly.
Stephen came downstairs in the middle of the story, and after the little interruption occasioned by his entrance and welcome, the narrative was again continued, precisely as if he had not been there at all, and was told inclusively to him, as to somebody who knew nothing about the matter.
'"Ay," I said, as I catched sight o' en through the brimbles, "that's the lad, for I d' know en by his grand-father's walk;" for 'a stapped out like poor father for all the world. Still there was a touch o' the frisky that set me wondering. 'A got closer, and I said, "That's the lad, for I d' know en by his carrying a black case like a travelling man." Still, a road is common to all the world, and there be more travelling men than one. But I kept my eye cocked, and I said to Martin, "'Tis the boy, now, for I d' know en by the wold twirl o' the stick and the family step." Then 'a come closer, and a' said, "All right." I could swear to en then.'
Stephen's personal appearance was next criticised.
'He d' look a deal thinner in face, surely, than when I seed en at the parson's, and never knowed en, if ye'll believe me,' said Martin.
'Ay, there,' said another, without removing his eyes from Stephen's face, 'I should ha' knowed en anywhere. 'Tis his father's nose to a T.'
'It has been often remarked,' said Stephen modestly.
'And he's certainly taller,' said Martin, letting his glance run over Stephen's form from bottom to top.
'I was thinking 'a was exactly the same height,' Worm replied.
'Bless thy soul, that's because he's bigger round likewise.' And the united eyes all moved to Stephen's waist.
'I be a poor wambling man, but I can make allowances,' said William Worm. 'Ah, sure, and how he came as a stranger and pilgrim to Parson Swancourt's that time, not a soul knowing en after so many years! Ay, life's a strange picter, Stephen: but I suppose I must say Sir to ye?'
'Oh, it is not necessary at present,' Stephen replied, though mentally resolving to avoid the vicinity of that familiar friend as soon as he had made pretensions to the hand of Elfride.
'Ah, well,' said Worm musingly, 'some would have looked for no less than a Sir. There's a sight of difference in people.'
'And in pigs likewise,' observed John Smith, looking at the halved carcass of his own.
Robert Lickpan, the pig-killer, here seemed called upon to enter the lists of conversation.
'Yes, they've got their particular naters good-now,' he remarked initially. 'Many's the rum-tempered pig I've knowed.'
'I don't doubt it, Master Lickpan,' answered Martin, in a tone expressing that his convictions, no less than good manners, demanded the reply.
'Yes,' continued the pig-killer, as one accustomed to be heard. 'One that I knowed was deaf and dumb, and we couldn't make out what was the matter wi' the pig. 'A would eat well enough when 'a seed the trough, but when his back was turned, you might a-rattled the bucket all day, the poor soul never heard ye. Ye could play tricks upon en behind his back, and a' wouldn't find it out no quicker than poor deaf Grammer Cates. But a' fatted well, and I never seed a pig open better when a' was killed, and 'a was very tender eating, very; as pretty a bit of mate as ever you see; you could suck that mate through a quill.
'And another I knowed,' resumed the killer, after quietly letting a pint of ale run down his throat of its own accord, and setting down the cup with mathematical exactness upon the spot from which he had raised it—'another went out of his mind.'
'How very mournful!' murmured Mrs. Worm.
'Ay, poor thing, 'a did! As clean out of his mind as the cleverest Christian could go. In early life 'a was very melancholy, and never seemed a hopeful pig by no means. 'Twas Andrew Stainer's pig—that's whose pig 'twas.'
'I can mind the pig well enough,' attested John Smith.
'And a pretty little porker 'a was. And you all know Farmer Buckle's sort? Every jack o' em suffer from the rheumatism to this day, owing to a damp sty they lived in when they were striplings, as 'twere.'
'Well, now we'll weigh,' said John.
'If so be he were not so fine, we'd weigh en whole: but as he is, we'll take a side at a time. John, you can mind my old joke, ey?'
'I do so; though 'twas a good few years ago I first heard en.'
'Yes,' said Lickpan, 'that there old familiar joke have been in our family for generations, I may say. My father used that joke regular at pig-killings for more than five and forty years—the time he followed the calling. And 'a told me that 'a had it from his father when he was quite a chiel, who made use o' en just the same at every killing more or less; and pig-killings were pig-killings in those days.'
'Trewly they were.'
'I've never heard the joke,' said Mrs. Smith tentatively.
'Nor I,' chimed in Mrs. Worm, who, being the only other lady in the room, felt bound by the laws of courtesy to feel like Mrs. Smith in everything.
'Surely, surely you have,' said the killer, looking sceptically at the benighted females. 'However, 'tisn't much—I don't wish to say it is. It commences like this: "Bob will tell the weight of your pig, 'a b'lieve," says I. The congregation of neighbours think I mane my son Bob, naturally; but the secret is that I mane the bob o' the steelyard. Ha, ha, ha!'
'Haw, haw, haw!' laughed Martin Cannister, who had heard the explanation of this striking story for the hundredth time.
'Huh, huh, huh!' laughed John Smith, who had heard it for the thousandth.
'Hee, hee, hee!' laughed William Worm, who had never heard it at all, but was afraid to say so.
'Thy grandfather, Robert, must have been a wide-awake chap to make that story,' said Martin Cannister, subsiding to a placid aspect of delighted criticism.
'He had a head, by all account. And, you see, as the first-born of the Lickpans have all been Roberts, they've all been Bobs, so the story was handed down to the present day.'
'Poor Joseph, your second boy, will never be able to bring it out in company, which is rather unfortunate,' said Mrs. Worm thoughtfully.
''A won't. Yes, grandfer was a clever chap, as ye say; but I knowed a cleverer. 'Twas my uncle Levi. Uncle Levi made a snuff-box that should be a puzzle to his friends to open. He used to hand en round at wedding parties, christenings, funerals, and in other jolly company, and let 'em try their skill. This extraordinary snuff-box had a spring behind that would push in and out—a hinge where seemed to be the cover; a slide at the end, a screw in front, and knobs and queer notches everywhere. One man would try the spring, another would try the screw, another would try the slide; but try as they would, the box wouldn't open. And they couldn't open en, and they didn't open en. Now what might you think was the secret of that box?'
All put on an expression that their united thoughts were inadequate to the occasion.
'Why the box wouldn't open at all. 'A were made not to open, and ye might have tried till the end of Revelations, 'twould have been as naught, for the box were glued all round.'
'A very deep man to have made such a box.'
'Yes. 'Twas like uncle Levi all over.'
''Twas. I can mind the man very well. Tallest man ever I seed.'
''A was so. He never slept upon a bedstead after he growed up a hard boy-chap—never could get one long enough. When 'a lived in that little small house by the pond, he used to have to leave open his chamber door every night at going to his bed, and let his feet poke out upon the landing.'
'He's dead and gone now, nevertheless, poor man, as we all shall,' observed Worm, to fill the pause which followed the conclusion of Robert Lickpan's speech.
The weighing and cutting up was pursued amid an animated discourse on Stephen's travels; and at the finish, the first-fruits of the day's slaughter, fried in onions, were then turned from the pan into a dish on the table, each piece steaming and hissing till it reached their very mouths.
It must be owned that the gentlemanly son of the house looked rather out of place in the course of this operation. Nor was his mind quite philosophic enough to allow him to be comfortable with these old-established persons, his father's friends. He had never lived long at home—scarcely at all since his childhood. The presence of William Worm was the most awkward feature of the case, for, though Worm had left the house of Mr. Swancourt, the being hand-in-glove with a ci-devant servitor reminded Stephen too forcibly of the vicar's classification of himself before he went from England. Mrs. Smith was conscious of the defect in her arrangements which had brought about the undesired conjunction. She spoke to Stephen privately.
'I am above having such people here, Stephen; but what could I do? And your father is so rough in his nature that he's more mixed up with them than need be.'
'Never mind, mother,' said Stephen; 'I'll put up with it now.'
'When we leave my lord's service, and get further up the country—as I hope we shall soon—it will be different. We shall be among fresh people, and in a larger house, and shall keep ourselves up a bit, I hope.'
'Is Miss Swancourt at home, do you know?' Stephen inquired
'Yes, your father saw her this morning.'
'Do you often see her?'
'Scarcely ever. Mr. Glim, the curate, calls occasionally, but the Swancourts don't come into the village now any more than to drive through it. They dine at my lord's oftener than they used. Ah, here's a note was brought this morning for you by a boy.'
Stephen eagerly took the note and opened it, his mother watching him. He read what Elfride had written and sent before she started for the cliff that afternoon:
'Yes; I will meet you in the church at nine to-night.—E. S.'
'I don't know, Stephen,' his mother said meaningly, 'whe'r you still think about Miss Elfride, but if I were you I wouldn't concern about her. They say that none of old Mrs. Swancourt's money will come to her step-daughter.'
'I see the evening has turned out fine; I am going out for a little while to look round the place,' he said, evading the direct query. 'Probably by the time I return our visitors will be gone, and we'll have a more confidential talk.'
'Breeze, bird, and flower confess the hour.'
The rain had ceased since the sunset, but it was a cloudy night; and the light of the moon, softened and dispersed by its misty veil, was distributed over the land in pale gray.
A dark figure stepped from the doorway of John Smith's river-side cottage, and strode rapidly towards West Endelstow with a light footstep. Soon ascending from the lower levels he turned a corner, followed a cart-track, and saw the tower of the church he was in quest of distinctly shaped forth against the sky. In less than half an hour from the time of starting he swung himself over the churchyard stile.
The wild irregular enclosure was as much as ever an integral part of the old hill. The grass was still long, the graves were shaped precisely as passing years chose to alter them from their orthodox form as laid down by Martin Cannister, and by Stephen's own grandfather before him.
A sound sped into the air from the direction in which Castle Boterel lay. It was the striking of the church clock, distinct in the still atmosphere as if it had come from the tower hard by, which, wrapt in its solitary silentness, gave out no such sounds of life.
'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.' Stephen carefully counted the strokes, though he well knew their number beforehand. Nine o'clock. It was the hour Elfride had herself named as the most convenient for meeting him.
Stephen stood at the door of the porch and listened. He could have heard the softest breathing of any person within the porch; nobody was there. He went inside the doorway, sat down upon the stone bench, and waited with a beating heart.
The faint sounds heard only accentuated the silence. The rising and falling of the sea, far away along the coast, was the most important. A minor sound was the scurr of a distant night-hawk. Among the minutest where all were minute were the light settlement of gossamer fragments floating in the air, a toad humbly labouring along through the grass near the entrance, the crackle of a dead leaf which a worm was endeavouring to pull into the earth, a waft of air, getting nearer and nearer, and expiring at his feet under the burden of a winged seed.
Among all these soft sounds came not the only soft sound he cared to hear—the footfall of Elfride.
For a whole quarter of an hour Stephen sat thus intent, without moving a muscle. At the end of that time he walked to the west front of the church. Turning the corner of the tower, a white form stared him in the face. He started back, and recovered himself. It was the tomb of young farmer Jethway, looking still as fresh and as new as when it was first erected, the white stone in which it was hewn having a singular weirdness amid the dark blue slabs from local quarries, of which the whole remaining gravestones were formed.
He thought of the night when he had sat thereon with Elfride as his companion, and well remembered his regret that she had received, even unwillingly, earlier homage than his own. But his present tangible anxiety reduced such a feeling to sentimental nonsense in comparison; and he strolled on over the graves to the border of the churchyard, whence in the daytime could be clearly seen the vicarage and the present residence of the Swancourts. No footstep was discernible upon the path up the hill, but a light was shining from a window in the last-named house.
Stephen knew there could be no mistake about the time or place, and no difficulty about keeping the engagement. He waited yet longer, passing from impatience into a mood which failed to take any account of the lapse of time. He was awakened from his reverie by Castle Boterel clock.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN.
One little fall of the hammer in addition to the number it had been sharp pleasure to hear, and what a difference to him!
He left the churchyard on the side opposite to his point of entrance, and went down the hill. Slowly he drew near the gate of her house. This he softly opened, and walked up the gravel drive to the door. Here he paused for several minutes.
At the expiration of that time the murmured speech of a manly voice came out to his ears through an open window behind the corner of the house. This was responded to by a clear soft laugh. It was the laugh of Elfride.
Stephen was conscious of a gnawing pain at his heart. He retreated as he had come. There are disappointments which wring us, and there are those which inflict a wound whose mark we bear to our graves. Such are so keen that no future gratification of the same desire can ever obliterate them: they become registered as a permanent loss of happiness. Such a one was Stephen's now: the crowning aureola of the dream had been the meeting here by stealth; and if Elfride had come to him only ten minutes after he had turned away, the disappointment would have been recognizable still.
When the young man reached home he found there a letter which had arrived in his absence. Believing it to contain some reason for her non-appearance, yet unable to imagine one that could justify her, he hastily tore open the envelope.
The paper contained not a word from Elfride. It was the deposit-note for his two hundred pounds. On the back was the form of a cheque, and this she had filled up with the same sum, payable to the bearer.
Stephen was confounded. He attempted to divine her motive. Considering how limited was his knowledge of her later actions, he guessed rather shrewdly that, between the time of her sending the note in the morning and the evening's silent refusal of his gift, something had occurred which had caused a total change in her attitude towards him.
He knew not what to do. It seemed absurd now to go to her father next morning, as he had purposed, and ask for an engagement with her, a possibility impending all the while that Elfride herself would not be on his side. Only one course recommended itself as wise. To wait and see what the days would bring forth; to go and execute his commissions in Birmingham; then to return, learn if anything had happened, and try what a meeting might do; perhaps her surprise at his backwardness would bring her forward to show latent warmth as decidedly as in old times.
This act of patience was in keeping only with the nature of a man precisely of Stephen's constitution. Nine men out of ten would perhaps have rushed off, got into her presence, by fair means or foul, and provoked a catastrophe of some sort. Possibly for the better, probably for the worse.
He started for Birmingham the next morning. A day's delay would have made no difference; but he could not rest until he had begun and ended the programme proposed to himself. Bodily activity will sometimes take the sting out of anxiety as completely as assurance itself.
'Mine own familiar friend.'
During these days of absence Stephen lived under alternate conditions. Whenever his emotions were active, he was in agony. Whenever he was not in agony, the business in hand had driven out of his mind by sheer force all deep reflection on the subject of Elfride and love.
By the time he took his return journey at the week's end, Stephen had very nearly worked himself up to an intention to call and see her face to face. On this occasion also he adopted his favourite route—by the little summer steamer from Bristol to Castle Boterel; the time saved by speed on the railway being wasted at junctions, and in following a devious course.
It was a bright silent evening at the beginning of September when Smith again set foot in the little town. He felt inclined to linger awhile upon the quay before ascending the hills, having formed a romantic intention to go home by way of her house, yet not wishing to wander in its neighbourhood till the evening shades should sufficiently screen him from observation.
And thus waiting for night's nearer approach, he watched the placid scene, over which the pale luminosity of the west cast a sorrowful monochrome, that became slowly embrowned by the dusk. A star appeared, and another, and another. They sparkled amid the yards and rigging of the two coal brigs lying alangside, as if they had been tiny lamps suspended in the ropes. The masts rocked sleepily to the infinitesimal flux of the tide, which clucked and gurgled with idle regularity in nooks and holes of the harbour wall.
The twilight was now quite pronounced enough for his purpose; and as, rather sad at heart, he was about to move on, a little boat containing two persons glided up the middle of the harbour with the lightness of a shadow. The boat came opposite him, passed on, and touched the landing-steps at the further end. One of its occupants was a man, as Stephen had known by the easy stroke of the oars. When the pair ascended the steps, and came into greater prominence, he was enabled to discern that the second personage was a woman; also that she wore a white decoration—apparently a feather—in her hat or bonnet, which spot of white was the only distinctly visible portion of her clothing.
Stephen remained a moment in their rear, and they passed on, when he pursued his way also, and soon forgot the circumstance. Having crossed a bridge, forsaken the high road, and entered the footpath which led up the vale to West Endelstow, he heard a little wicket click softly together some yards ahead. By the time that Stephen had reached the wicket and passed it, he heard another click of precisely the same nature from another gate yet further on. Clearly some person or persons were preceding him along the path, their footsteps being rendered noiseless by the soft carpet of turf. Stephen now walked a little quicker, and perceived two forms. One of them bore aloft the white feather he had noticed in the woman's hat on the quay: they were the couple he had seen in the boat. Stephen dropped a little further to the rear.
From the bottom of the valley, along which the path had hitherto lain, beside the margin of the trickling streamlet, another path now diverged, and ascended the slope of the left-hand hill. This footway led only to the residence of Mrs. Swancourt and a cottage or two in its vicinity. No grass covered this diverging path in portions of its length, and Stephen was reminded that the pair in front of him had taken this route by the occasional rattle of loose stones under their feet. Stephen climbed in the same direction, but for some undefined reason he trod more softly than did those preceding him. His mind was unconsciously in exercise upon whom the woman might be—whether a visitor to The Crags, a servant, or Elfride. He put it to himself yet more forcibly; could the lady be Elfride? A possible reason for her unaccountable failure to keep the appointment with him returned with painful force.
They entered the grounds of the house by the side wicket, whence the path, now wide and well trimmed, wound fantastically through the shrubbery to an octagonal pavilion called the Belvedere, by reason of the comprehensive view over the adjacent district that its green seats afforded. The path passed this erection and went on to the house as well as to the gardener's cottage on the other side, straggling thence to East Endelstow; so that Stephen felt no hesitation in entering a promenade which could scarcely be called private.
He fancied that he heard the gate open and swing together again behind him. Turning, he saw nobody.
The people of the boat came to the summer-house. One of them spoke.
'I am afraid we shall get a scolding for being so late.'
Stephen instantly recognised the familiar voice, richer and fuller now than it used to be. 'Elfride!' he whispered to himself, and held fast by a sapling, to steady himself under the agitation her presence caused him. His heart swerved from its beat; he shunned receiving the meaning he sought.
'A breeze is rising again; how the ash tree rustles!' said Elfride. 'Don't you hear it? I wonder what the time is.'
Stephen relinquished the sapling.
'I will get a light and tell you. Step into the summer-house; the air is quiet there.'
The cadence of that voice—its peculiarity seemed to come home to him like that of some notes of the northern birds on his return to his native clime, as an old natural thing renewed, yet not particularly noticed as natural before that renewal.
They entered the Belvedere. In the lower part it was formed of close wood-work nailed crosswise, and had openings in the upper by way of windows.
The scratch of a striking light was heard, and a bright glow radiated from the interior of the building. The light gave birth to dancing leaf-shadows, stem-shadows, lustrous streaks, dots, sparkles, and threads of silver sheen of all imaginable variety and transience. It awakened gnats, which flew towards it, revealed shiny gossamer threads, disturbed earthworms. Stephen gave but little attention to these phenomena, and less time. He saw in the summer-house a strongly illuminated picture.
First, the face of his friend and preceptor Henry Knight, between whom and himself an estrangement had arisen, not from any definite causes beyond those of absence, increasing age, and diverging sympathies.
Next, his bright particular star, Elfride. The face of Elfride was more womanly than when she had called herself his, but as clear and healthy as ever. Her plenteous twines of beautiful hair were looking much as usual, with the exception of a slight modification in their arrangement in deference to the changes of fashion.