Their two foreheads were close together, almost touching, and both were looking down. Elfride was holding her watch, Knight was holding the light with one hand, his left arm being round her waist. Part of the scene reached Stephen's eyes through the horizontal bars of woodwork, which crossed their forms like the ribs of a skeleton.
Knight's arm stole still further round the waist of Elfride.
'It is half-past eight,' she said in a low voice, which had a peculiar music in it, seemingly born of a thrill of pleasure at the new proof that she was beloved.
The flame dwindled down, died away, and all was wrapped in a darkness to which the gloom before the illumination bore no comparison in apparent density. Stephen, shattered in spirit and sick to his heart's centre, turned away. In turning, he saw a shadowy outline behind the summer-house on the other side. His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Was the form a human form, or was it an opaque bush of juniper?
The lovers arose, brushed against the laurestines, and pursued their way to the house. The indistinct figure had moved, and now passed across Smith's front. So completely enveloped was the person, that it was impossible to discern him or her any more than as a shape. The shape glided noiselessly on.
Stephen stepped forward, fearing any mischief was intended to the other two. 'Who are you?' he said.
'Never mind who I am,' answered a weak whisper from the enveloping folds. 'WHAT I am, may she be! Perhaps I knew well—ah, so well!—a youth whose place you took, as he there now takes yours. Will you let her break your heart, and bring you to an untimely grave, as she did the one before you?'
'You are Mrs. Jethway, I think. What do you do here? And why do you talk so wildly?'
'Because my heart is desolate, and nobody cares about it. May hers be so that brought trouble upon me!'
'Silence!' said Stephen, staunch to Elfride in spite of himself. 'She would harm nobody wilfully, never would she! How do you come here?'
'I saw the two coming up the path, and wanted to learn if she were not one of them. Can I help disliking her if I think of the past? Can I help watching her if I remember my boy? Can I help ill-wishing her if I well-wish him?'
The bowed form went on, passed through the wicket, and was enveloped by the shadows of the field.
Stephen had heard that Mrs. Jethway, since the death of her son, had become a crazed, forlorn woman; and bestowing a pitying thought upon her, he dismissed her fancied wrongs from his mind, but not her condemnation of Elfride's faithlessness. That entered into and mingled with the sensations his new experience had begotten. The tale told by the little scene he had witnessed ran parallel with the unhappy woman's opinion, which, however baseless it might have been antecedently, had become true enough as regarded himself.
A slow weight of despair, as distinct from a violent paroxysm as starvation from a mortal shot, filled him and wrung him body and soul. The discovery had not been altogether unexpected, for throughout his anxiety of the last few days since the night in the churchyard, he had been inclined to construe the uncertainty unfavourably for himself. His hopes for the best had been but periodic interruptions to a chronic fear of the worst.
A strange concomitant of his misery was the singularity of its form. That his rival should be Knight, whom once upon a time he had adored as a man is very rarely adored by another in modern times, and whom he loved now, added deprecation to sorrow, and cynicism to both. Henry Knight, whose praises he had so frequently trumpeted in her ears, of whom she had actually been jealous, lest she herself should be lessened in Stephen's love on account of him, had probably won her the more easily by reason of those very praises which he had only ceased to utter by her command. She had ruled him like a queen in that matter, as in all others. Stephen could tell by her manner, brief as had been his observation of it, and by her words, few as they were, that her position was far different with Knight. That she looked up at and adored her new lover from below his pedestal, was even more perceptible than that she had smiled down upon Stephen from a height above him.
The suddenness of Elfride's renunciation of himself was food for more torture. To an unimpassioned outsider, it admitted of at least two interpretations—it might either have proceeded from an endeavour to be faithful to her first choice, till the lover seen absolutely overpowered the lover remembered, or from a wish not to lose his love till sure of the love of another. But to Stephen Smith the motive involved in the latter alternative made it untenable where Elfride was the actor.
He mused on her letters to him, in which she had never mentioned a syllable concerning Knight. It is desirable, however, to observe that only in two letters could she possibly have done so. One was written about a week before Knight's arrival, when, though she did not mention his promised coming to Stephen, she had hardly a definite reason in her mind for neglecting to do it. In the next she did casually allude to Knight. But Stephen had left Bombay long before that letter arrived.
Stephen looked at the black form of the adjacent house, where it cut a dark polygonal notch out of the sky, and felt that he hated the spot. He did not know many facts of the case, but could not help instinctively associating Elfride's fickleness with the marriage of her father, and their introduction to London society. He closed the iron gate bounding the shrubbery as noiselessly as he had opened it, and went into the grassy field. Here he could see the old vicarage, the house alone that was associated with the sweet pleasant time of his incipient love for Elfride. Turning sadly from the place that was no longer a nook in which his thoughts might nestle when he was far away, he wandered in the direction of the east village, to reach his father's house before they retired to rest.
The nearest way to the cottage was by crossing the park. He did not hurry. Happiness frequently has reason for haste, but it is seldom that desolation need scramble or strain. Sometimes he paused under the low-hanging arms of the trees, looking vacantly on the ground.
Stephen was standing thus, scarcely less crippled in thought than he was blank in vision, when a clear sound permeated the quiet air about him, and spread on far beyond. The sound was the stroke of a bell from the tower of East Endelstow Church, which stood in a dell not forty yards from Lord Luxellian's mansion, and within the park enclosure. Another stroke greeted his ear, and gave character to both: then came a slow succession of them.
'Somebody is dead,' he said aloud.
The death-knell of an inhabitant of the eastern parish was being tolled.
An unusual feature in the tolling was that it had not been begun according to the custom in Endelstow and other parishes in the neighbourhood. At every death the sex and age of the deceased were announced by a system of changes. Three times three strokes signified that the departed one was a man; three times two, a woman; twice three, a boy; twice two, a girl. The regular continuity of the tolling suggested that it was the resumption rather than the beginning of a knell—the opening portion of which Stephen had not been near enough to hear.
The momentary anxiety he had felt with regard to his parents passed away. He had left them in perfect health, and had any serious illness seized either, a communication would have reached him ere this. At the same time, since his way homeward lay under the churchyard yews, he resolved to look into the belfry in passing by, and speak a word to Martin Cannister, who would be there.
Stephen reached the brow of the hill, and felt inclined to renounce his idea. His mood was such that talking to any person to whom he could not unburden himself would be wearisome. However, before he could put any inclination into effect, the young man saw from amid the trees a bright light shining, the rays from which radiated like needles through the sad plumy foliage of the yews. Its direction was from the centre of the churchyard.
Stephen mechanically went forward. Never could there be a greater contrast between two places of like purpose than between this graveyard and that of the further village. Here the grass was carefully tended, and formed virtually a part of the manor-house lawn; flowers and shrubs being planted indiscriminately over both, whilst the few graves visible were mathematically exact in shape and smoothness, appearing in the daytime like chins newly shaven. There was no wall, the division between God's Acre and Lord Luxellian's being marked only by a few square stones set at equidistant points. Among those persons who have romantic sentiments on the subject of their last dwelling-place, probably the greater number would have chosen such a spot as this in preference to any other: a few would have fancied a constraint in its trim neatness, and would have preferred the wild hill-top of the neighbouring site, with Nature in her most negligent attire.
The light in the churchyard he next discovered to have its source in a point very near the ground, and Stephen imagined it might come from a lantern in the interior of a partly-dug grave. But a nearer approach showed him that its position was immediately under the wall of the aisle, and within the mouth of an archway. He could now hear voices, and the truth of the whole matter began to dawn upon him. Walking on towards the opening, Smith discerned on his left hand a heap of earth, and before him a flight of stone steps which the removed earth had uncovered, leading down under the edifice. It was the entrance to a large family vault, extending under the north aisle.
Stephen had never before seen it open, and descending one or two steps stooped to look under the arch. The vault appeared to be crowded with coffins, with the exception of an open central space, which had been necessarily kept free for ingress and access to the sides, round three of which the coffins were stacked in stone bins or niches.
The place was well lighted with candles stuck in slips of wood that were fastened to the wall. On making the descent of another step the living inhabitants of the vault were recognizable. They were his father the master-mason, an under-mason, Martin Cannister, and two or three young and old labouring-men. Crowbars and workmen's hammers were scattered about. The whole company, sitting round on coffins which had been removed from their places, apparently for some alteration or enlargement of the vault, were eating bread and cheese, and drinking ale from a cup with two handles, passed round from each to each.
'Who is dead?' Stephen inquired, stepping down.
'To that last nothing under earth.'
All eyes were turned to the entrance as Stephen spoke, and the ancient-mannered conclave scrutinized him inquiringly.
'Why, 'tis our Stephen!' said his father, rising from his seat; and, still retaining the frothy mug in his left hand, he swung forward his right for a grasp. 'Your mother is expecting ye—thought you would have come afore dark. But you'll wait and go home with me? I have all but done for the day, and was going directly.'
'Yes, 'tis Master Stephy, sure enough. Glad to see you so soon again, Master Smith,' said Martin Cannister, chastening the gladness expressed in his words by a strict neutrality of countenance, in order to harmonize the feeling as much as possible with the solemnity of a family vault.
'The same to you, Martin; and you, William,' said Stephen, nodding around to the rest, who, having their mouths full of bread and cheese, were of necessity compelled to reply merely by compressing their eyes to friendly lines and wrinkles.
'And who is dead?' Stephen repeated.
'Lady Luxellian, poor gentlewoman, as we all shall, said the under-mason. 'Ay, and we be going to enlarge the vault to make room for her.'
'When did she die?'
'Early this morning,' his father replied, with an appearance of recurring to a chronic thought. 'Yes, this morning. Martin hev been tolling ever since, almost. There, 'twas expected. She was very limber.'
'Ay, poor soul, this morning,' resumed the under-mason, a marvellously old man, whose skin seemed so much too large for his body that it would not stay in position. 'She must know by this time whether she's to go up or down, poor woman.'
'What was her age?'
'Not more than seven or eight and twenty by candlelight. But, Lord! by day 'a was forty if 'a were an hour.'
'Ay, night-time or day-time makes a difference of twenty years to rich feymels,' observed Martin.
'She was one and thirty really,' said John Smith. 'I had it from them that know.'
'Not more than that!'
''A looked very bad, poor lady. In faith, ye might say she was dead for years afore 'a would own it.'
'As my old father used to say, "dead, but wouldn't drop down."'
'I seed her, poor soul,' said a labourer from behind some removed coffins, 'only but last Valentine's-day of all the world. 'A was arm in crook wi' my lord. I says to myself, "You be ticketed Churchyard, my noble lady, although you don't dream on't."'
'I suppose my lord will write to all the other lords anointed in the nation, to let 'em know that she that was is now no more?'
''Tis done and past. I see a bundle of letters go off an hour after the death. Sich wonderful black rims as they letters had—half-an-inch wide, at the very least.'
'Too much,' observed Martin. 'In short, 'tis out of the question that a human being can be so mournful as black edges half-an-inch wide. I'm sure people don't feel more than a very narrow border when they feels most of all.'
'And there are two little girls, are there not?' said Stephen.
'Nice clane little faces!—left motherless now.'
'They used to come to Parson Swancourt's to play with Miss Elfride when I were there,' said William Worm. 'Ah, they did so's!' The latter sentence was introduced to add the necessary melancholy to a remark which, intrinsically, could hardly be made to possess enough for the occasion. 'Yes,' continued Worm, 'they'd run upstairs, they'd run down; flitting about with her everywhere. Very fond of her, they were. Ah, well!'
'Fonder than ever they were of their mother, so 'tis said here and there,' added a labourer.
'Well, you see, 'tis natural. Lady Luxellian stood aloof from 'em so—was so drowsy-like, that they couldn't love her in the jolly-companion way children want to like folks. Only last winter I seed Miss Elfride talking to my lady and the two children, and Miss Elfride wiped their noses for em' SO careful—my lady never once seeing that it wanted doing; and, naturally, children take to people that's their best friend.'
'Be as 'twill, the woman is dead and gone, and we must make a place for her,' said John. 'Come, lads, drink up your ale, and we'll just rid this corner, so as to have all clear for beginning at the wall, as soon as 'tis light to-morrow.'
Stephen then asked where Lady Luxellian was to lie.
'Here,' said his father. 'We are going to set back this wall and make a recess; and 'tis enough for us to do before the funeral. When my lord's mother died, she said, "John, the place must be enlarged before another can be put in." But 'a never expected 'twould be wanted so soon. Better move Lord George first, I suppose, Simeon?'
He pointed with his foot to a heavy coffin, covered with what had originally been red velvet, the colour of which could only just be distinguished now.
'Just as ye think best, Master John,' replied the shrivelled mason. 'Ah, poor Lord George!' he continued, looking contemplatively at the huge coffin; 'he and I were as bitter enemies once as any could be when one is a lord and t'other only a mortal man. Poor fellow! He'd clap his hand upon my shoulder and cuss me as familial and neighbourly as if he'd been a common chap. Ay, 'a cussed me up hill and 'a cussed me down; and then 'a would rave out again, and the goold clamps of his fine new teeth would glisten in the sun like fetters of brass, while I, being a small man and poor, was fain to say nothing at all. Such a strappen fine gentleman as he was too! Yes, I rather liked en sometimes. But once now and then, when I looked at his towering height, I'd think in my inside, "What a weight you'll be, my lord, for our arms to lower under the aisle of Endelstow Church some day!"'
'And was he?' inquired a young labourer.
'He was. He was five hundredweight if 'a were a pound. What with his lead, and his oak, and his handles, and his one thing and t'other'—here the ancient man slapped his hand upon the cover with a force that caused a rattle among the bones inside—'he half broke my back when I took his feet to lower en down the steps there. "Ah," saith I to John there—didn't I, John?—"that ever one man's glory should be such a weight upon another man!" But there, I liked my lord George sometimes.'
''Tis a strange thought,' said another, 'that while they be all here under one roof, a snug united family o' Luxellians, they be really scattered miles away from one another in the form of good sheep and wicked goats, isn't it?'
'True; 'tis a thought to look at.'
'And that one, if he's gone upward, don't know what his wife is doing no more than the man in the moon if she's gone downward. And that some unfortunate one in the hot place is a-hollering across to a lucky one up in the clouds, and quite forgetting their bodies be boxed close together all the time.'
'Ay, 'tis a thought to look at, too, that I can say "Hullo!" close to fiery Lord George, and 'a can't hear me.'
'And that I be eating my onion close to dainty Lady Jane's nose, and she can't smell me.'
'What do 'em put all their heads one way for?' inquired a young man.
'Because 'tis churchyard law, you simple. The law of the living is, that a man shall be upright and down-right, and the law of the dead is, that a man shall be east and west. Every state of society have its laws.'
'We must break the law wi' a few of the poor souls, however. Come, buckle to,' said the master-mason.
And they set to work anew.
The order of interment could be distinctly traced by observing the appearance of the coffins as they lay piled around. On those which had been standing there but a generation or two the trappings still remained. Those of an earlier period showed bare wood, with a few tattered rags dangling therefrom. Earlier still, the wood lay in fragments on the floor of the niche, and the coffin consisted of naked lead alone; whilst in the case of the very oldest, even the lead was bulging and cracking in pieces, revealing to the curious eye a heap of dust within. The shields upon many were quite loose, and removable by the hand, their lustreless surfaces still indistinctly exhibiting the name and title of the deceased.
Overhead the groins and concavities of the arches curved in all directions, dropping low towards the walls, where the height was no more than sufficient to enable a person to stand upright.
The body of George the fourteenth baron, together with two or three others, all of more recent date than the great bulk of coffins piled there, had, for want of room, been placed at the end of the vault on tressels, and not in niches like the others. These it was necessary to remove, to form behind them the chamber in which they were ultimately to be deposited. Stephen, finding the place and proceedings in keeping with the sombre colours of his mind, waited there still.
'Simeon, I suppose you can mind poor Lady Elfride, and how she ran away with the actor?' said John Smith, after awhile. 'I think it fell upon the time my father was sexton here. Let us see—where is she?'
'Here somewhere,' returned Simeon, looking round him.
'Why, I've got my arms round the very gentlewoman at this moment.' He lowered the end of the coffin he was holding, wiped his face, and throwing a morsel of rotten wood upon another as an indicator, continued: 'That's her husband there. They was as fair a couple as you should see anywhere round about; and a good-hearted pair likewise. Ay, I can mind it, though I was but a chiel at the time. She fell in love with this young man of hers, and their banns were asked in some church in London; and the old lord her father actually heard 'em asked the three times, and didn't notice her name, being gabbled on wi' a host of others. When she had married she told her father, and 'a fleed into a monstrous rage, and said she shouldn' hae a farthing. Lady Elfride said she didn't think of wishing it; if he'd forgie her 'twas all she asked, and as for a living, she was content to play plays with her husband. This frightened the old lord, and 'a gie'd 'em a house to live in, and a great garden, and a little field or two, and a carriage, and a good few guineas. Well, the poor thing died at her first gossiping, and her husband—who was as tender-hearted a man as ever eat meat, and would have died for her—went wild in his mind, and broke his heart (so 'twas said). Anyhow, they were buried the same day—father and mother—but the baby lived. Ay, my lord's family made much of that man then, and put him here with his wife, and there in the corner the man is now. The Sunday after there was a funeral sermon: the text was, "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken;" and when 'twas preaching the men drew their hands across their eyes several times, and every woman cried out loud.'
'And what became of the baby?' said Stephen, who had frequently heard portions of the story.
'She was brought up by her grandmother, and a pretty maid she were. And she must needs run away with the curate—Parson Swancourt that is now. Then her grandmother died, and the title and everything went away to another branch of the family altogether. Parson Swancourt wasted a good deal of his wife's money, and she left him Miss Elfride. That trick of running away seems to be handed down in families, like craziness or gout. And they two women be alike as peas.'
'Lady Elfride and young Miss that's alive now. The same hair and eyes: but Miss Elfride's mother was darker a good deal.'
'Life's a strangle bubble, ye see,' said William Worm musingly. 'For if the Lord's anointment had descended upon women instead of men, Miss Elfride would be Lord Luxellian—Lady, I mane. But as it is, the blood is run out, and she's nothing to the Luxellian family by law, whatever she may be by gospel.'
'I used to fancy,' said Simeon, 'when I seed Miss Elfride hugging the little ladyships, that there was a likeness; but I suppose 'twas only my dream, for years must have altered the old family shape.'
'And now we'll move these two, and home-along,' interposed John Smith, reviving, as became a master, the spirit of labour, which had showed unmistakable signs of being nearly vanquished by the spirit of chat, 'The flagon of ale we don't want we'll let bide here till to-morrow; none of the poor souls will touch it 'a b'lieve.'
So the evening's work was concluded, and the party drew from the abode of the quiet dead, closing the old iron door, and shooting the lock loudly into the huge copper staple—an incongruous act of imprisonment towards those who had no dreams of escape.
'How should I greet thee?'
Love frequently dies of time alone—much more frequently of displacement. With Elfride Swancourt, a powerful reason why the displacement should be successful was that the new-comer was a greater man than the first. By the side of the instructive and piquant snubbings she received from Knight, Stephen's general agreeableness seemed watery; by the side of Knight's spare love-making, Stephen's continual outflow seemed lackadaisical. She had begun to sigh for somebody further on in manhood. Stephen was hardly enough of a man.
Perhaps there was a proneness to inconstancy in her nature—a nature, to those who contemplate it from a standpoint beyond the influence of that inconstancy, the most exquisite of all in its plasticity and ready sympathies. Partly, too, Stephen's failure to make his hold on her heart a permanent one was his too timid habit of dispraising himself beside her—a peculiarity which, exercised towards sensible men, stirs a kindly chord of attachment that a marked assertiveness would leave untouched, but inevitably leads the most sensible woman in the world to undervalue him who practises it. Directly domineering ceases in the man, snubbing begins in the woman; the trite but no less unfortunate fact being that the gentler creature rarely has the capacity to appreciate fair treatment from her natural complement. The abiding perception of the position of Stephen's parents had, of course, a little to do with Elfride's renunciation. To such girls poverty may not be, as to the more worldly masses of humanity, a sin in itself; but it is a sin, because graceful and dainty manners seldom exist in such an atmosphere. Few women of old family can be thoroughly taught that a fine soul may wear a smock-frock, and an admittedly common man in one is but a worm in their eyes. John Smith's rough hands and clothes, his wife's dialect, the necessary narrowness of their ways, being constantly under Elfride's notice, were not without their deflecting influence.
On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o'clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her. The mutual avowal which it had been the means of precipitating occupied a far longer length of her meditations.
Elfride's disquiet now was on account of that miserable promise to meet Stephen, which returned like a spectre again and again. The perception of his littleness beside Knight grew upon her alarmingly. She now thought how sound had been her father's advice to her to give him up, and was as passionately desirous of following it as she had hitherto been averse. Perhaps there is nothing more hardening to the tone of young minds than thus to discover how their dearest and strongest wishes become gradually attuned by Time the Cynic to the very note of some selfish policy which in earlier days they despised.
The hour of appointment came, and with it a crisis; and with the crisis a collapse.
'God forgive me—I can't meet Stephen!' she exclaimed to herself. 'I don't love him less, but I love Mr. Knight more!'
Yes: she would save herself from a man not fit for her—in spite of vows. She would obey her father, and have no more to do with Stephen Smith. Thus the fickle resolve showed signs of assuming the complexion of a virtue.
The following days were passed without any definite avowal from Knight's lips. Such solitary walks and scenes as that witnessed by Smith in the summer-house were frequent, but he courted her so intangibly that to any but such a delicate perception as Elfride's it would have appeared no courtship at all. The time now really began to be sweet with her. She dismissed the sense of sin in her past actions, and was automatic in the intoxication of the moment. The fact that Knight made no actual declaration was no drawback. Knowing since the betrayal of his sentiments that love for her really existed, she preferred it for the present in its form of essence, and was willing to avoid for awhile the grosser medium of words. Their feelings having been forced to a rather premature demonstration, a reaction was indulged in by both.
But no sooner had she got rid of her troubled conscience on the matter of faithlessness than a new anxiety confronted her. It was lest Knight should accidentally meet Stephen in the parish, and that herself should be the subject of discourse.
Elfride, learning Knight more thoroughly, perceived that, far from having a notion of Stephen's precedence, he had no idea that she had ever been wooed before by anybody. On ordinary occasions she had a tongue so frank as to show her whole mind, and a mind so straightforward as to reveal her heart to its innermost shrine. But the time for a change had come. She never alluded to even a knowledge of Knight's friend. When women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.
The elopement was now a spectre worse than the first, and, like the Spirit in Glenfinlas, it waxed taller with every attempt to lay it. Her natural honesty invited her to confide in Knight, and trust to his generosity for forgiveness: she knew also that as mere policy it would be better to tell him early if he was to be told at all. The longer her concealment the more difficult would be the revelation. But she put it off. The intense fear which accompanies intense love in young women was too strong to allow the exercise of a moral quality antagonistic to itself:
'Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear; Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.'
The match was looked upon as made by her father and mother. The vicar remembered her promise to reveal the meaning of the telegram she had received, and two days after the scene in the summer-house, asked her pointedly. She was frank with him now.
'I had been corresponding with Stephen Smith ever since he left England, till lately,' she calmly said.
'What!' cried the vicar aghast; 'under the eyes of Mr. Knight, too?'
'No; when I found I cared most for Mr. Knight, I obeyed you.'
'You were very kind, I'm sure. When did you begin to like Mr. Knight?'
'I don't see that that is a pertinent question, papa; the telegram was from the shipping agent, and was not sent at my request. It announced the arrival of the vessel bringing him home.'
'Home! What, is he here?'
'Yes; in the village, I believe.'
'Has he tried to see you?'
'Only by fair means. But don't, papa, question me so! It is torture.'
'I will only say one word more,' he replied. 'Have you met him?'
'I have not. I can assure you that at the present moment there is no more of an understanding between me and the young man you so much disliked than between him and you. You told me to forget him; and I have forgotten him.'
'Oh, well; though you did not obey me in the beginning, you are a good girl, Elfride, in obeying me at last.'
'Don't call me "good," papa,' she said bitterly; 'you don't know—and the less said about some things the better. Remember, Mr. Knight knows nothing about the other. Oh, how wrong it all is! I don't know what I am coming to.'
'As matters stand, I should be inclined to tell him; or, at any rate, I should not alarm myself about his knowing. He found out the other day that this was the parish young Smith's father lives in—what puts you in such a flurry?'
'I can't say; but promise—pray don't let him know! It would be my ruin!'
'Pooh, child. Knight is a good fellow and a clever man; but at the same time it does not escape my perceptions that he is no great catch for you. Men of his turn of mind are nothing so wonderful in the way of husbands. If you had chosen to wait, you might have mated with a much wealthier man. But remember, I have not a word to say against your having him, if you like him. Charlotte is delighted, as you know.'
'Well, papa,' she said, smiling hopefully through a sigh, 'it is nice to feel that in giving way to—to caring for him, I have pleased my family. But I am not good; oh no, I am very far from that!'
'None of us are good, I am sorry to say,' said her father blandly; 'but girls have a chartered right to change their minds, you know. It has been recognized by poets from time immemorial. Catullus says, "Mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento—" What a memory mine is! However, the passage is, that a woman's words to a lover are as a matter of course written only on wind and water. Now don't be troubled about that, Elfride.'
'Ah, you don't know!'
They had been standing on the lawn, and Knight was now seen lingering some way down a winding walk. When Elfride met him, it was with a much greater lightness of heart; things were more straightforward now. The responsibility of her fickleness seemed partly shifted from her own shoulders to her father's. Still, there were shadows.
'Ah, could he have known how far I went with Stephen, and yet have said the same, how much happier I should be!' That was her prevailing thought.
In the afternoon the lovers went out together on horseback for an hour or two; and though not wishing to be observed, by reason of the late death of Lady Luxellian, whose funeral had taken place very privately on the previous day, they yet found it necessary to pass East Endelstow Church.
The steps to the vault, as has been stated, were on the outside of the building, immediately under the aisle wall. Being on horseback, both Knight and Elfride could overlook the shrubs which screened the church-yard.
'Look, the vault seems still to be open,' said Knight.
'Yes, it is open,' she answered
'Who is that man close by it? The mason, I suppose?'
'I wonder if it is John Smith, Stephen's father?'
'I believe it is,' said Elfride, with apprehension.
'Ah, and can it be? I should like to inquire how his son, my truant protege', is going on. And from your father's description of the vault, the interior must be interesting. Suppose we go in.'
'Had we better, do you think? May not Lord Luxellian be there?'
'It is not at all likely.'
Elfride then assented, since she could do nothing else. Her heart, which at first had quailed in consternation, recovered itself when she considered the character of John Smith. A quiet unassuming man, he would be sure to act towards her as before those love passages with his son, which might have given a more pretentious mechanic airs. So without much alarm she took Knight's arm after dismounting, and went with him between and over the graves. The master-mason recognized her as she approached, and, as usual, lifted his hat respectfully.
'I know you to be Mr. Smith, my former friend Stephen's father,' said Knight, directly he had scanned the embrowned and ruddy features of John.
'Yes, sir, I b'lieve I be.'
'How is your son now? I have only once heard from him since he went to India. I daresay you have heard him speak of me—Mr. Knight, who became acquainted with him some years ago in Exonbury.'
'Ay, that I have. Stephen is very well, thank you, sir, and he's in England; in fact, he's at home. In short, sir, he's down in the vault there, a-looking at the departed coffins.'
Elfride's heart fluttered like a butterfly.
Knight looked amazed. 'Well, that is extraordinary.' he murmured. 'Did he know I was in the parish?'
'I really can't say, sir,' said John, wishing himself out of the entanglement he rather suspected than thoroughly understood.
'Would it be considered an intrusion by the family if we went into the vault?'
'Oh, bless ye, no, sir; scores of folk have been stepping down. 'Tis left open a-purpose.'
'We will go down, Elfride.'
'I am afraid the air is close,' she said appealingly.
'Oh no, ma'am,' said John. 'We white-limed the walls and arches the day 'twas opened, as we always do, and again on the morning of the funeral; the place is as sweet as a granary.
'Then I should like you to accompany me, Elfie; having originally sprung from the family too.'
'I don't like going where death is so emphatically present. I'll stay by the horses whilst you go in; they may get loose.'
'What nonsense! I had no idea your sentiments were so flimsily formed as to be perturbed by a few remnants of mortality; but stay out, if you are so afraid, by all means.'
'Oh no, I am not afraid; don't say that.'
She held miserably to his arm, thinking that, perhaps, the revelation might as well come at once as ten minutes later, for Stephen would be sure to accompany his friend to his horse.
At first, the gloom of the vault, which was lighted only by a couple of candles, was too great to admit of their seeing anything distinctly; but with a further advance Knight discerned, in front of the black masses lining the walls, a young man standing, and writing in a pocket-book.
Knight said one word: 'Stephen!'
Stephen Smith, not being in such absolute ignorance of Knight's whereabouts as Knight had been of Smith's instantly recognized his friend, and knew by rote the outlines of the fair woman standing behind him.
Stephen came forward and shook him by the hand, without speaking.
'Why have you not written, my boy?' said Knight, without in any way signifying Elfride's presence to Stephen. To the essayist, Smith was still the country lad whom he had patronized and tended; one to whom the formal presentation of a lady betrothed to himself would have seemed incongruous and absurd.
'Why haven't you written to me?' said Stephen.
'Ah, yes. Why haven't I? why haven't we? That's always the query which we cannot clearly answer without an unsatisfactory sense of our inadequacies. However, I have not forgotten you, Smith. And now we have met; and we must meet again, and have a longer chat than this can conveniently be. I must know all you have been doing. That you have thriven, I know, and you must teach me the way.'
Elfride stood in the background. Stephen had read the position at a glance, and immediately guessed that she had never mentioned his name to Knight. His tact in avoiding catastrophes was the chief quality which made him intellectually respectable, in which quality he far transcended Knight; and he decided that a tranquil issue out of the encounter, without any harrowing of the feelings of either Knight or Elfride, was to be attempted if possible. His old sense of indebtedness to Knight had never wholly forsaken him; his love for Elfride was generous now.
As far as he dared look at her movements he saw that her bearing towards him would be dictated by his own towards her; and if he acted as a stranger she would do likewise as a means of deliverance. Circumstances favouring this course, it was desirable also to be rather reserved towards Knight, to shorten the meeting as much as possible.
'I am afraid that my time is almost too short to allow even of such a pleasure,' he said. 'I leave here to-morrow. And until I start for the Continent and India, which will be in a fortnight, I shall have hardly a moment to spare.'
Knight's disappointment and dissatisfied looks at this reply sent a pang through Stephen as great as any he had felt at the sight of Elfride. The words about shortness of time were literally true, but their tone was far from being so. He would have been gratified to talk with Knight as in past times, and saw as a dead loss to himself that, to save the woman who cared nothing for him, he was deliberately throwing away his friend.
'Oh, I am sorry to hear that,' said Knight, in a changed tone. 'But of course, if you have weighty concerns to attend to, they must not be neglected. And if this is to be our first and last meeting, let me say that I wish you success with all my heart!' Knight's warmth revived towards the end; the solemn impressions he was beginning to receive from the scene around them abstracting from his heart as a puerility any momentary vexation at words. 'It is a strange place for us to meet in,' he continued, looking round the vault.
Stephen briefly assented, and there was a silence. The blackened coffins were now revealed more clearly than at first, the whitened walls and arches throwing them forward in strong relief. It was a scene which was remembered by all three as an indelible mark in their history. Knight, with an abstracted face, was standing between his companions, though a little in advance of them, Elfride being on his right hand, and Stephen Smith on his left. The white daylight on his right side gleamed faintly in, and was toned to a blueness by contrast with the yellow rays from the candle against the wall. Elfride, timidly shrinking back, and nearest the entrance, received most of the light therefrom, whilst Stephen was entirely in candlelight, and to him the spot of outer sky visible above the steps was as a steely blue patch, and nothing more.
'I have been here two or three times since it was opened,' said Stephen. 'My father was engaged in the work, you know.'
'Yes. What are you doing?' Knight inquired, looking at the note-book and pencil Stephen held in his hand.
'I have been sketching a few details in the church, and since then I have been copying the names from some of the coffins here. Before I left England I used to do a good deal of this sort of thing.'
'Yes; of course. Ah, that's poor Lady Luxellian, I suppose.' Knight pointed to a coffin of light satin-wood, which stood on the stone sleepers in the new niche. 'And the remainder of the family are on this side. Who are those two, so snug and close together?'
Stephen's voice altered slightly as he replied 'That's Lady Elfride Kingsmore—born Luxellian, and that is Arthur, her husband. I have heard my father say that they—he—ran away with her, and married her against the wish of her parents.'
'Then I imagine this to be where you got your Christian name, Miss Swancourt?' said Knight, turning to her. 'I think you told me it was three or four generations ago that your family branched off from the Luxellians?'
'She was my grandmother,' said Elfride, vainly endeavouring to moisten her dry lips before she spoke. Elfride had then the conscience-stricken look of Guido's Magdalen, rendered upon a more childlike form. She kept her face partially away from Knight and Stephen, and set her eyes upon the sky visible outside, as if her salvation depended upon quickly reaching it. Her left hand rested lightly within Knight's arm, half withdrawn, from a sense of shame at claiming him before her old lover, yet unwilling to renounce him; so that her glove merely touched his sleeve. '"Can one be pardoned, and retain the offence?"' quoted Elfride's heart then.
Conversation seemed to have no self-sustaining power, and went on in the shape of disjointed remarks. 'One's mind gets thronged with thoughts while standing so solemnly here,' Knight said, in a measured quiet voice. 'How much has been said on death from time to time! how much we ourselves can think upon it! We may fancy each of these who lie here saying:
'For Thou, to make my fall more great, Didst lift me up on high.'
What comes next, Elfride? It is the Hundred-and-second Psalm I am thinking of.'
'Yes, I know it,' she murmured, and went on in a still lower voice, seemingly afraid for any words from the emotional side of her nature to reach Stephen:
'"My days, just hastening to their end, Are like an evening shade; My beauty doth, like wither'd grass, With waning lustre fade."'
'Well,' said Knight musingly, 'let us leave them. Such occasions as these seem to compel us to roam outside ourselves, far away from the fragile frame we live in, and to expand till our perception grows so vast that our physical reality bears no sort of proportion to it. We look back upon the weak and minute stem on which this luxuriant growth depends, and ask, Can it be possible that such a capacity has a foundation so small? Must I again return to my daily walk in that narrow cell, a human body, where worldly thoughts can torture me? Do we not?'
'Yes,' said Stephen and Elfride.
'One has a sense of wrong, too, that such an appreciative breadth as a sentient being possesses should be committed to the frail casket of a body. What weakens one's intentions regarding the future like the thought of this?...However, let us tune ourselves to a more cheerful chord, for there's a great deal to be done yet by us all.'
As Knight meditatively addressed his juniors thus, unconscious of the deception practised, for different reasons, by the severed hearts at his side, and of the scenes that had in earlier days united them, each one felt that he and she did not gain by contrast with their musing mentor. Physically not so handsome as either the youthful architect or the vicar's daughter, the thoroughness and integrity of Knight illuminated his features with a dignity not even incipient in the other two. It is difficult to frame rules which shall apply to both sexes, and Elfride, an undeveloped girl, must, perhaps, hardly be laden with the moral responsibilities which attach to a man in like circumstances. The charm of woman, too, lies partly in her subtleness in matters of love. But if honesty is a virtue in itself, Elfride, having none of it now, seemed, being for being, scarcely good enough for Knight. Stephen, though deceptive for no unworthy purpose, was deceptive after all; and whatever good results grace such strategy if it succeed, it seldom draws admiration, especially when it fails.
On an ordinary occasion, had Knight been even quite alone with Stephen, he would hardly have alluded to his possible relationship to Elfride. But moved by attendant circumstances Knight was impelled to be confiding.
'Stephen,' he said, 'this lady is Miss Swancourt. I am staying at her father's house, as you probably know.' He stepped a few paces nearer to Smith, and said in a lower tone: 'I may as well tell you that we are engaged to be married.'
Low as the words had been spoken, Elfride had heard them, and awaited Stephen's reply in breathless silence, if that could be called silence where Elfride's dress, at each throb of her heart, shook and indicated it like a pulse-glass, rustling also against the wall in reply to the same throbbing. The ray of daylight which reached her face lent it a blue pallor in comparison with those of the other two.
'I congratulate you,' Stephen whispered; and said aloud, 'I know Miss Swancourt—a little. You must remember that my father is a parishioner of Mr. Swancourt's.'
'I thought you might possibly not have lived at home since they have been here.'
'I have never lived at home, certainly, since that time.'
'I have seen Mr. Smith,' faltered Elfride.
'Well, there is no excuse for me. As strangers to each other I ought, I suppose, to have introduced you: as acquaintances, I should not have stood so persistently between you. But the fact is, Smith, you seem a boy to me, even now.'
Stephen appeared to have a more than previous consciousness of the intense cruelty of his fate at the present moment. He could not repress the words, uttered with a dim bitterness:
'You should have said that I seemed still the rural mechanic's son I am, and hence an unfit subject for the ceremony of introductions.'
'Oh, no, no! I won't have that.' Knight endeavoured to give his reply a laughing tone in Elfride's ears, and an earnestness in Stephen's: in both which efforts he signally failed, and produced a forced speech pleasant to neither. 'Well, let us go into the open air again; Miss Swancourt, you are particularly silent. You mustn't mind Smith. I have known him for years, as I have told you.'
'Yes, you have,' she said.
'To think she has never mentioned her knowledge of me!' Smith murmured, and thought with some remorse how much her conduct resembled his own on his first arrival at her house as a stranger to the place.
They ascended to the daylight, Knight taking no further notice of Elfride's manner, which, as usual, he attributed to the natural shyness of a young woman at being discovered walking with him on terms which left not much doubt of their meaning. Elfride stepped a little in advance, and passed through the churchyard.
'You are changed very considerably, Smith,' said Knight, 'and I suppose it is no more than was to be expected. However, don't imagine that I shall feel any the less interest in you and your fortunes whenever you care to confide them to me. I have not forgotten the attachment you spoke of as your reason for going away to India. A London young lady, was it not? I hope all is prosperous?'
'No: the match is broken off.'
It being always difficult to know whether to express sorrow or gladness under such circumstances—all depending upon the character of the match—Knight took shelter in the safe words: 'I trust it was for the best.'
'I hope it was. But I beg that you will not press me further: no, you have not pressed me—I don't mean that—but I would rather not speak upon the subject.'
Stephen's words were hurried.
Knight said no more, and they followed in the footsteps of Elfride, who still kept some paces in advance, and had not heard Knight's unconscious allusion to her. Stephen bade him adieu at the churchyard-gate without going outside, and watched whilst he and his sweetheart mounted their horses.
'Good heavens, Elfride,' Knight exclaimed, 'how pale you are! I suppose I ought not to have taken you into that vault. What is the matter?'
'Nothing,' said Elfride faintly. 'I shall be myself in a moment. All was so strange and unexpected down there, that it made me unwell.'
'I thought you said very little. Shall I get some water?'
'Do you think it is safe for you to mount?'
'Quite—indeed it is,' she said, with a look of appeal.
'Now then—up she goes!' whispered Knight, and lifted her tenderly into the saddle.
Her old lover still looked on at the performance as he leant over the gate a dozen yards off. Once in the saddle, and having a firm grip of the reins, she turned her head as if by a resistless fascination, and for the first time since that memorable parting on the moor outside St. Launce's after the passionate attempt at marriage with him, Elfride looked in the face of the young man she first had loved. He was the youth who had called her his inseparable wife many a time, and whom she had even addressed as her husband. Their eyes met. Measurement of life should be proportioned rather to the intensity of the experience than to its actual length. Their glance, but a moment chronologically, was a season in their history. To Elfride the intense agony of reproach in Stephen's eye was a nail piercing her heart with a deadliness no words can describe. With a spasmodic effort she withdrew her eyes, urged on the horse, and in the chaos of perturbed memories was oblivious of any presence beside her. The deed of deception was complete.
Gaining a knoll on which the park transformed itself into wood and copse, Knight came still closer to her side, and said, 'Are you better now, dearest?'
'Oh yes.' She pressed a hand to her eyes, as if to blot out the image of Stephen. A vivid scarlet spot now shone with preternatural brightness in the centre of each cheek, leaving the remainder of her face lily-white as before.
'Elfride,' said Knight, rather in his old tone of mentor, 'you know I don't for a moment chide you, but is there not a great deal of unwomanly weakness in your allowing yourself to be so overwhelmed by the sight of what, after all, is no novelty? Every woman worthy of the name should, I think, be able to look upon death with something like composure. Surely you think so too?'
'Yes; I own it.'
His obtuseness to the cause of her indisposition, by evidencing his entire freedom from the suspicion of anything behind the scenes, showed how incapable Knight was of deception himself, rather than any inherent dulness in him regarding human nature. This, clearly perceived by Elfride, added poignancy to her self-reproach, and she idolized him the more because of their difference. Even the recent sight of Stephen's face and the sound of his voice, which for a moment had stirred a chord or two of ancient kindness, were unable to keep down the adoration re-existent now that he was again out of view.
She had replied to Knight's question hastily, and immediately went on to speak of indifferent subjects. After they had reached home she was apart from him till dinner-time. When dinner was over, and they were watching the dusk in the drawing-room, Knight stepped out upon the terrace. Elfride went after him very decisively, on the spur of a virtuous intention.
'Mr. Knight, I want to tell you something,' she said, with quiet firmness.
'And what is it about?' gaily returned her lover. 'Happiness, I hope. Do not let anything keep you so sad as you seem to have been to-day.'
'I cannot mention the matter until I tell you the whole substance of it,' she said. 'And that I will do to-morrow. I have been reminded of it to-day. It is about something I once did, and don't think I ought to have done.'
This, it must be said, was rather a mild way of referring to a frantic passion and flight, which, much or little in itself, only accident had saved from being a scandal in the public eye.
Knight thought the matter some trifle, and said pleasantly:
'Then I am not to hear the dreadful confession now?'
'No, not now. I did not mean to-night,' Elfride responded, with a slight decline in the firmness of her voice. 'It is not light as you think it—it troubles me a great deal.' Fearing now the effect of her own earnestness, she added forcedly, 'Though, perhaps, you may think it light after all.'
'But you have not said when it is to be?'
'To-morrow morning. Name a time, will you, and bind me to it? I want you to fix an hour, because I am weak, and may otherwise try to get out of it.' She added a little artificial laugh, which showed how timorous her resolution was still.
'Well, say after breakfast—at eleven o'clock.'
'Yes, eleven o'clock. I promise you. Bind me strictly to my word.'
'I lull a fancy, trouble-tost.'
Miss Swancourt, it is eleven o'clock.'
She was looking out of her dressing-room window on the first floor, and Knight was regarding her from the terrace balustrade, upon which he had been idly sitting for some time—dividing the glances of his eye between the pages of a book in his hand, the brilliant hues of the geraniums and calceolarias, and the open window above-mentioned.
'Yes, it is, I know. I am coming.'
He drew closer, and under the window.
'How are you this morning, Elfride? You look no better for your long night's rest.'
She appeared at the door shortly after, took his offered arm, and together they walked slowly down the gravel path leading to the river and away under the trees.
Her resolution, sustained during the last fifteen hours, had been to tell the whole truth, and now the moment had come.
Step by step they advanced, and still she did not speak. They were nearly at the end of the walk, when Knight broke the silence.
'Well, what is the confession, Elfride?'
She paused a moment, drew a long breath; and this is what she said:
'I told you one day—or rather I gave you to understand—what was not true. I fancy you thought me to mean I was nineteen my next birthday, but it was my last I was nineteen.'
The moment had been too much for her. Now that the crisis had come, no qualms of conscience, no love of honesty, no yearning to make a confidence and obtain forgiveness with a kiss, could string Elfride up to the venture. Her dread lest he should be unforgiving was heightened by the thought of yesterday's artifice, which might possibly add disgust to his disappointment. The certainty of one more day's affection, which she gained by silence, outvalued the hope of a perpetuity combined with the risk of all.
The trepidation caused by these thoughts on what she had intended to say shook so naturally the words she did say, that Knight never for a moment suspected them to be a last moment's substitution. He smiled and pressed her hand warmly.
'My dear Elfie—yes, you are now—no protestation—what a winning little woman you are, to be so absurdly scrupulous about a mere iota! Really, I never once have thought whether your nineteenth year was the last or the present. And, by George, well I may not; for it would never do for a staid fogey a dozen years older to stand upon such a trifle as that.'
'Don't praise me—don't praise me! Though I prize it from your lips, I don't deserve it now.'
But Knight, being in an exceptionally genial mood, merely saw this distressful exclamation as modesty. 'Well,' he added, after a minute, 'I like you all the better, you know, for such moral precision, although I called it absurd.' He went on with tender earnestness: 'For, Elfride, there is one thing I do love to see in a woman—that is, a soul truthful and clear as heaven's light. I could put up with anything if I had that—forgive nothing if I had it not. Elfride, you have such a soul, if ever woman had; and having it, retain it, and don't ever listen to the fashionable theories of the day about a woman's privileges and natural right to practise wiles. Depend upon it, my dear girl, that a noble woman must be as honest as a noble man. I specially mean by honesty, fairness not only in matters of business and social detail, but in all the delicate dealings of love, to which the licence given to your sex particularly refers.'
Elfride looked troublously at the trees.
'Now let us go on to the river, Elfie.'
'I would if I had a hat on,' she said with a sort of suppressed woe.
'I will get it for you,' said Knight, very willing to purchase her companionship at so cheap a price. 'You sit down there a minute.' And he turned and walked rapidly back to the house for the article in question.
Elfride sat down upon one of the rustic benches which adorned this portion of the grounds, and remained with her eyes upon the grass. She was induced to lift them by hearing the brush of light and irregular footsteps hard by. Passing along the path which intersected the one she was in and traversed the outer shrubberies, Elfride beheld the farmer's widow, Mrs. Jethway. Before she noticed Elfride, she paused to look at the house, portions of which were visible through the bushes. Elfride, shrinking back, hoped the unpleasant woman might go on without seeing her. But Mrs. Jethway, silently apostrophizing the house, with actions which seemed dictated by a half-overturned reason, had discerned the girl, and immediately came up and stood in front of her.
'Ah, Miss Swancourt! Why did you disturb me? Mustn't I trespass here?'
'You may walk here if you like, Mrs. Jethway. I do not disturb you.'
'You disturb my mind, and my mind is my whole life; for my boy is there still, and he is gone from my body.'
'Yes, poor young man. I was sorry when he died.'
'Do you know what he died of?'
'Oh no, no!' said the widow. 'That word "consumption" covers a good deal. He died because you were his own well-agreed sweetheart, and then proved false—and it killed him. Yes, Miss Swancourt,' she said in an excited whisper, 'you killed my son!'
'How can you be so wicked and foolish!' replied Elfride, rising indignantly. But indignation was not natural to her, and having been so worn and harrowed by late events, she lost any powers of defence that mood might have lent her. 'I could not help his loving me, Mrs. Jethway!'
'That's just what you could have helped. You know how it began, Miss Elfride. Yes: you said you liked the name of Felix better than any other name in the parish, and you knew it was his name, and that those you said it to would report it to him.'
'I knew it was his name—of course I did; but I am sure, Mrs. Jethway, I did not intend anybody to tell him.'
'But you knew they would.'
'No, I didn't.'
'And then, after that, when you were riding on Revels-day by our house, and the lads were gathered there, and you wanted to dismount, when Jim Drake and George Upway and three or four more ran forward to hold your pony, and Felix stood back timid, why did you beckon to him, and say you would rather he held it?'
'O Mrs. Jethway, you do think so mistakenly! I liked him best—that's why I wanted him to do it. He was gentle and nice—I always thought him so—and I liked him.'
'Then why did you let him kiss you?'
'It is a falsehood; oh, it is, it is!' said Elfride, weeping with desperation. 'He came behind me, and attempted to kiss me; and that was why I told him never to let me see him again.'
'But you did not tell your father or anybody, as you would have if you had looked upon it then as the insult you now pretend it was.'
'He begged me not to tell, and foolishly enough I did not. And I wish I had now. I little expected to be scourged with my own kindness. Pray leave me, Mrs. Jethway.' The girl only expostulated now.
'Well, you harshly dismissed him, and he died. And before his body was cold, you took another to your heart. Then as carelessly sent him about his business, and took a third. And if you consider that nothing, Miss Swancourt,' she continued, drawing closer; 'it led on to what was very serious indeed. Have you forgotten the would-be runaway marriage? The journey to London, and the return the next day without being married, and that there's enough disgrace in that to ruin a woman's good name far less light than yours? You may have: I have not. Fickleness towards a lover is bad, but fickleness after playing the wife is wantonness.'
'Oh, it's a wicked cruel lie! Do not say it; oh, do not!'
'Does your new man know of it? I think not, or he would be no man of yours! As much of the story as was known is creeping about the neighbourhood even now; but I know more than any of them, and why should I respect your love?'
'I defy you!' cried Elfride tempestuously. 'Do and say all you can to ruin me; try; put your tongue at work; I invite it! I defy you as a slanderous woman! Look, there he comes.' And her voice trembled greatly as she saw through the leaves the beloved form of Knight coming from the door with her hat in his hand. 'Tell him at once; I can bear it.'
'Not now,' said the woman, and disappeared down the path.
The excitement of her latter words had restored colour to Elfride's cheeks; and hastily wiping her eyes, she walked farther on, so that by the time her lover had overtaken her the traces of emotion had nearly disappeared from her face. Knight put the hat upon her head, took her hand, and drew it within his arm.
It was the last day but one previous to their departure for St. Leonards; and Knight seemed to have a purpose in being much in her company that day. They rambled along the valley. The season was that period in the autumn when the foliage alone of an ordinary plantation is rich enough in hues to exhaust the chromatic combinations of an artist's palette. Most lustrous of all are the beeches, graduating from bright rusty red at the extremity of the boughs to a bright yellow at their inner parts; young oaks are still of a neutral green; Scotch firs and hollies are nearly blue; whilst occasional dottings of other varieties give maroons and purples of every tinge.
The river—such as it was—here pursued its course amid flagstones as level as a pavement, but divided by crevices of irregular width. With the summer drought the torrent had narrowed till it was now but a thread of crystal clearness, meandering along a central channel in the rocky bed of the winter current. Knight scrambled through the bushes which at this point nearly covered the brook from sight, and leapt down upon the dry portion of the river bottom.
'Elfride, I never saw such a sight!' he exclaimed. 'The hazels overhang the river's course in a perfect arch, and the floor is beautifully paved. The place reminds one of the passages of a cloister. Let me help you down.'
He assisted her through the marginal underwood and down to the stones. They walked on together to a tiny cascade about a foot wide and high, and sat down beside it on the flags that for nine months in the year were submerged beneath a gushing bourne. From their feet trickled the attenuated thread of water which alone remained to tell the intent and reason of this leaf-covered aisle, and journeyed on in a zigzag line till lost in the shade.
Knight, leaning on his elbow, after contemplating all this, looked critically at Elfride.
'Does not such a luxuriant head of hair exhaust itself and get thin as the years go on from eighteen to eight-and-twenty?' he asked at length.
'Oh no!' she said quickly, with a visible disinclination to harbour such a thought, which came upon her with an unpleasantness whose force it would be difficult for men to understand. She added afterwards, with smouldering uneasiness, 'Do you really think that a great abundance of hair is more likely to get thin than a moderate quantity?'
'Yes, I really do. I believe—am almost sure, in fact—that if statistics could be obtained on the subject, you would find the persons with thin hair were those who had a superabundance originally, and that those who start with a moderate quantity retain it without much loss.'
Elfride's troubles sat upon her face as well as in her heart. Perhaps to a woman it is almost as dreadful to think of losing her beauty as of losing her reputation. At any rate, she looked quite as gloomy as she had looked at any minute that day.
'You shouldn't be so troubled about a mere personal adornment,' said Knight, with some of the severity of tone that had been customary before she had beguiled him into softness.
'I think it is a woman's duty to be as beautiful as she can. If I were a scholar, I would give you chapter and verse for it from one of your own Latin authors. I know there is such a passage, for papa has alluded to it.'
"'Munditiae, et ornatus, et cultus," &c.—is that it? A passage in Livy which is no defence at all.'
'No, it is not that.'
'Never mind, then; for I have a reason for not taking up my old cudgels against you, Elfie. Can you guess what the reason is?'
'No; but I am glad to hear it,' she said thankfully. 'For it is dreadful when you talk so. For whatever dreadful name the weakness may deserve, I must candidly own that I am terrified to think my hair may ever get thin.'
'Of course; a sensible woman would rather lose her wits than her beauty.'
'I don't care if you do say satire and judge me cruelly. I know my hair is beautiful; everybody says so.'
'Why, my dear Miss Swancourt,' he tenderly replied, 'I have not said anything against it. But you know what is said about handsome being and handsome doing.'
'Poor Miss Handsome-does cuts but a sorry figure beside Miss Handsome-is in every man's eyes, your own not excepted, Mr. Knight, though it pleases you to throw off so,' said Elfride saucily. And lowering her voice: 'You ought not to have taken so much trouble to save me from falling over the cliff, for you don't think mine a life worth much trouble evidently.'
'Perhaps you think mine was not worth yours.'
'It was worth anybody's!'
Her hand was plashing in the little waterfall, and her eyes were bent the same way.
'You talk about my severity with you, Elfride. You are unkind to me, you know.'
'How?' she asked, looking up from her idle occupation.
'After my taking trouble to get jewellery to please you, you wouldn't accept it.'
'Perhaps I would now; perhaps I want to.'
'Do!' said Knight.
And the packet was withdrawn from his pocket and presented the third time. Elfride took it with delight. The obstacle was rent in twain, and the significant gift was hers.
'I'll take out these ugly ones at once,' she exclaimed, 'and I'll wear yours—shall I?'
'I should be gratified.'
Now, though it may seem unlikely, considering how far the two had gone in converse, Knight had never yet ventured to kiss Elfride. Far slower was he than Stephen Smith in matters like that. The utmost advance he had made in such demonstrations had been to the degree witnessed by Stephen in the summer-house. So Elfride's cheek being still forbidden fruit to him, he said impulsively.
'Elfie, I should like to touch that seductive ear of yours. Those are my gifts; so let me dress you in them.'
She hesitated with a stimulating hesitation.
'Let me put just one in its place, then?'
Her face grew much warmer.
'I don't think it would be quite the usual or proper course,' she said, suddenly turning and resuming her operation of plashing in the miniature cataract.
The stillness of things was disturbed by a bird coming to the streamlet to drink. After watching him dip his bill, sprinkle himself, and fly into a tree, Knight replied, with the courteous brusqueness she so much liked to hear—
'Elfride, now you may as well be fair. You would mind my doing it but little, I think; so give me leave, do.'
'I will be fair, then,' she said confidingly, and looking him full in the face. It was a particular pleasure to her to be able to do a little honesty without fear. 'I should not mind your doing so—I should like such an attention. My thought was, would it be right to let you?'
'Then I will!' he rejoined, with that singular earnestness about a small matter—in the eyes of a ladies' man but a momentary peg for flirtation or jest—which is only found in deep natures who have been wholly unused to toying with womankind, and which, from its unwontedness, is in itself a tribute the most precious that can be rendered, and homage the most exquisite to be received.
'And you shall,' she whispered, without reserve, and no longer mistress of the ceremonies. And then Elfride inclined herself towards him, thrust back her hair, and poised her head sideways. In doing this her arm and shoulder necessarily rested against his breast.
At the touch, the sensation of both seemed to be concentrated at the point of contact. All the time he was performing the delicate manoeuvre Knight trembled like a young surgeon in his first operation.
'Now the other,' said Knight in a whisper.
'I don't know exactly.'
'You must know.'
'Your touch agitates me so. Let us go home.'
'Don't say that, Elfride. What is it, after all? A mere nothing. Now turn round, dearest.'
She was powerless to disobey, and turned forthwith; and then, without any defined intention in either's mind, his face and hers drew closer together; and he supported her there, and kissed her.
Knight was at once the most ardent and the coolest man alive. When his emotions slumbered he appeared almost phlegmatic; when they were moved he was no less than passionate. And now, without having quite intended an early marriage, he put the question plainly. It came with all the ardour which was the accumulation of long years behind a natural reserve.
'Elfride, when shall we be married?'
The words were sweet to her; but there was a bitter in the sweet. These newly-overt acts of his, which had culminated in this plain question, coming on the very day of Mrs. Jethway's blasting reproaches, painted distinctly her fickleness as an enormity. Loving him in secret had not seemed such thorough-going inconstancy as the same love recognized and acted upon in the face of threats. Her distraction was interpreted by him at her side as the outward signs of an unwonted experience.
'I don't press you for an answer now, darling,' he said, seeing she was not likely to give a lucid reply. 'Take your time.'
Knight was as honourable a man as was ever loved and deluded by woman. It may be said that his blindness in love proved the point, for shrewdness in love usually goes with meanness in general. Once the passion had mastered him, the intellect had gone for naught. Knight, as a lover, was more single-minded and far simpler than his friend Stephen, who in other capacities was shallow beside him.
Without saying more on the subject of their marriage, Knight held her at arm's length, as if she had been a large bouquet, and looked at her with critical affection.
'Does your pretty gift become me?' she inquired, with tears of excitement on the fringes of her eyes.
'Undoubtedly, perfectly!' said her lover, adopting a lighter tone to put her at her ease. 'Ah, you should see them; you look shinier than ever. Fancy that I have been able to improve you!'
'Am I really so nice? I am glad for your sake. I wish I could see myself.'
'You can't. You must wait till we get home.'
'I shall never be able,' she said, laughing. 'Look: here's a way.'
'So there is. Well done, woman's wit!'
'Hold me steady!'
'And don't let me fall, will you?'
'By no means.'
Below their seat the thread of water paused to spread out into a smooth small pool. Knight supported her whilst she knelt down and leant over it.
'I can see myself. Really, try as religiously as I will, I cannot help admiring my appearance in them.'
'Doubtless. How can you be so fond of finery? I believe you are corrupting me into a taste for it. I used to hate every such thing before I knew you.'
'I like ornaments, because I want people to admire what you possess, and envy you, and say, "I wish I was he."'
'I suppose I ought not to object after that. And how much longer are you going to look in there at yourself?'
'Until you are tired of holding me? Oh, I want to ask you something.' And she turned round. 'Now tell truly, won't you? What colour of hair do you like best now?'
Knight did not answer at the moment.
'Say light, do!' she whispered coaxingly. 'Don't say dark, as you did that time.'
'Light-brown, then. Exactly the colour of my sweetheart's.'
'Really?' said Elfride, enjoying as truth what she knew to be flattery.
'And blue eyes, too, not hazel? Say yes, say yes!'
'One recantation is enough for to-day.'
'Very well, blue eyes.' And Knight laughed, and drew her close and kissed her the second time, which operations he performed with the carefulness of a fruiterer touching a bunch of grapes so as not to disturb their bloom.
Elfride objected to a second, and flung away her face, the movement causing a slight disarrangement of hat and hair. Hardly thinking what she said in the trepidation of the moment, she exclaimed, clapping her hand to her ear—
'Ah, we must be careful! I lost the other earring doing like this.'
No sooner did she realise the significant words than a troubled look passed across her face, and she shut her lips as if to keep them back.
'Doing like what?' said Knight, perplexed.
'Oh, sitting down out of doors,' she replied hastily.
'Care, thou canker.'
It is an evening at the beginning of October, and the mellowest of autumn sunsets irradiates London, even to its uttermost eastern end. Between the eye and the flaming West, columns of smoke stand up in the still air like tall trees. Everything in the shade is rich and misty blue.
Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt and Elfride are looking at these lustrous and lurid contrasts from the window of a large hotel near London Bridge. The visit to their friends at St. Leonards is over, and they are staying a day or two in the metropolis on their way home.
Knight spent the same interval of time in crossing over to Brittany by way of Jersey and St. Malo. He then passed through Normandy, and returned to London also, his arrival there having been two days later than that of Elfride and her parents.
So the evening of this October day saw them all meeting at the above-mentioned hotel, where they had previously engaged apartments. During the afternoon Knight had been to his lodgings at Richmond to make a little change in the nature of his baggage; and on coming up again there was never ushered by a bland waiter into a comfortable room a happier man than Knight when shown to where Elfride and her step-mother were sitting after a fatiguing day of shopping.
Elfride looked none the better for her change: Knight was as brown as a nut. They were soon engaged by themselves in a corner of the room. Now that the precious words of promise had been spoken, the young girl had no idea of keeping up her price by the system of reserve which other more accomplished maidens use. Her lover was with her again, and it was enough: she made her heart over to him entirely.
Dinner was soon despatched. And when a preliminary round of conversation concerning their doings since the last parting had been concluded, they reverted to the subject of to-morrow's journey home.
'That enervating ride through the myrtle climate of South Devon—how I dread it to-morrow!' Mrs. Swancourt was saying. 'I had hoped the weather would have been cooler by this time.'
'Did you ever go by water?' said Knight.
'Never—by never, I mean not since the time of railways.'
'Then if you can afford an additional day, I propose that we do it,' said Knight. 'The Channel is like a lake just now. We should reach Plymouth in about forty hours, I think, and the boats start from just below the bridge here' (pointing over his shoulder eastward).
'Hear, hear!' said the vicar.
'It's an idea, certainly,' said his wife.
'Of course these coasters are rather tubby,' said Knight. 'But you wouldn't mind that?'
'No: we wouldn't mind.'
'And the saloon is a place like the fishmarket of a ninth-rate country town, but that wouldn't matter?'
'Oh dear, no. If we had only thought of it soon enough, we might have had the use of Lord Luxellian's yacht. But never mind, we'll go. We shall escape the worrying rattle through the whole length of London to-morrow morning—not to mention the risk of being killed by excursion trains, which is not a little one at this time of the year, if the papers are true.'
Elfride, too, thought the arrangement delightful; and accordingly, ten o'clock the following morning saw two cabs crawling round by the Mint, and between the preternaturally high walls of Nightingale Lane towards the river side.
The first vehicle was occupied by the travellers in person, and the second brought up the luggage, under the supervision of Mrs. Snewson, Mrs. Swancourt's maid—and for the last fortnight Elfride's also; for although the younger lady had never been accustomed to any such attendant at robing times, her stepmother forced her into a semblance of familiarity with one when they were away from home.
Presently waggons, bales, and smells of all descriptions increased to such an extent that the advance of the cabs was at the slowest possible rate. At intervals it was necessary to halt entirely, that the heavy vehicles unloading in front might be moved aside, a feat which was not accomplished without a deal of swearing and noise. The vicar put his head out of the window.
'Surely there must be some mistake in the way,' he said with great concern, drawing in his head again. 'There's not a respectable conveyance to be seen here except ours. I've heard that there are strange dens in this part of London, into which people have been entrapped and murdered—surely there is no conspiracy on the part of the cabman?'
'Oh no, no. It is all right,' said Mr. Knight, who was as placid as dewy eve by the side of Elfride.
'But what I argue from,' said the vicar, with a greater emphasis of uneasiness, 'are plain appearances. This can't be the highway from London to Plymouth by water, because it is no way at all to any place. We shall miss our steamer and our train too—that's what I think.'
'Depend upon it we are right. In fact, here we are.'
'Trimmer's Wharf,' said the cabman, opening the door.
No sooner had they alighted than they perceived a tussle going on between the hindmost cabman and a crowd of light porters who had charged him in column, to obtain possession of the bags and boxes, Mrs. Snewson's hands being seen stretched towards heaven in the midst of the melee. Knight advanced gallantly, and after a hard struggle reduced the crowd to two, upon whose shoulders and trucks the goods vanished away in the direction of the water's edge with startling rapidity.
Then more of the same tribe, who had run on ahead, were heard shouting to boatmen, three of whom pulled alongside, and two being vanquished, the luggage went tumbling into the remaining one.
'Never saw such a dreadful scene in my life—never!' said Mr. Swancourt, floundering into the boat. 'Worse than Famine and Sword upon one. I thought such customs were confined to continental ports. Aren't you astonished, Elfride?'
'Oh no,' said Elfride, appearing amid the dingy scene like a rainbow in a murky sky. 'It is a pleasant novelty, I think.'
'Where in the wide ocean is our steamer?' the vicar inquired. 'I can see nothing but old hulks, for the life of me.'
'Just behind that one,' said Knight; 'we shall soon be round under her.'
The object of their search was soon after disclosed to view—a great lumbering form of inky blackness, which looked as if it had never known the touch of a paint-brush for fifty years. It was lying beside just such another, and the way on board was down a narrow lane of water between the two, about a yard and a half wide at one end, and gradually converging to a point. At the moment of their entry into this narrow passage, a brilliantly painted rival paddled down the river like a trotting steed, creating such a series of waves and splashes that their frail wherry was tossed like a teacup, and the vicar and his wife slanted this way and that, inclining their heads into contact with a Punch-and-Judy air and countenance, the wavelets striking the sides of the two hulls, and flapping back into their laps.
'Dreadful! horrible!' Mr. Swancourt murmured privately; and said aloud, I thought we walked on board. I don't think really I should have come, if I had known this trouble was attached to it.'
'If they must splash, I wish they would splash us with clean water,' said the old lady, wiping her dress with her handkerchief.
'I hope it is perfectly safe,' continued the vicar.
'O papa! you are not very brave,' cried Elfride merrily.
'Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,' Mr. Swancourt severely answered.
Mrs. Swancourt laughed, and Elfride laughed, and Knight laughed, in the midst of which pleasantness a man shouted to them from some position between their heads and the sky, and they found they were close to the Juliet, into which they quiveringly ascended.
It having been found that the lowness of the tide would prevent their getting off for an hour, the Swancourts, having nothing else to do, allowed their eyes to idle upon men in blue jerseys performing mysterious mending operations with tar-twine; they turned to look at the dashes of lurid sunlight, like burnished copper stars afloat on the ripples, which danced into and tantalized their vision; or listened to the loud music of a steam-crane at work close by; or to sighing sounds from the funnels of passing steamers, getting dead as they grew more distant; or to shouts from the decks of different craft in their vicinity, all of them assuming the form of 'Ah-he-hay!'
Half-past ten: not yet off. Mr. Swancourt breathed a breath of weariness, and looked at his fellow-travellers in general. Their faces were certainly not worth looking at. The expression 'Waiting' was written upon them so absolutely that nothing more could be discerned there. All animation was suspended till Providence should raise the water and let them go.
'I have been thinking,' said Knight, 'that we have come amongst the rarest class of people in the kingdom. Of all human characteristics, a low opinion of the value of his own time by an individual must be among the strangest to find. Here we see numbers of that patient and happy species. Rovers, as distinct from travellers.'
'But they are pleasure-seekers, to whom time is of no importance.'
'Oh no. The pleasure-seekers we meet on the grand routes are more anxious than commercial travellers to rush on. And added to the loss of time in getting to their journey's end, these exceptional people take their chance of sea-sickness by coming this way.'
'Can it be?' inquired the vicar with apprehension. 'Surely not, Mr. Knight, just here in our English Channel—close at our doors, as I may say.'
'Entrance passages are very draughty places, and the Channel is like the rest. It ruins the temper of sailors. It has been calculated by philosophers that more damns go up to heaven from the Channel, in the course of a year, than from all the five oceans put together.'
They really start now, and the dead looks of all the throng come to life immediately. The man who has been frantically hauling in a rope that bade fair to have no end ceases his labours, and they glide down the serpentine bends of the Thames.
Anything anywhere was a mine of interest to Elfride, and so was this.
'It is well enough now,' said Mrs. Swancourt, after they had passed the Nore, 'but I can't say I have cared for my voyage hitherto.' For being now in the open sea a slight breeze had sprung up, which cheered her as well as her two younger companions. But unfortunately it had a reverse effect upon the vicar, who, after turning a sort of apricot jam colour, interspersed with dashes of raspberry, pleaded indisposition, and vanished from their sight.
The afternoon wore on. Mrs. Swancourt kindly sat apart by herself reading, and the betrothed pair were left to themselves. Elfride clung trustingly to Knight's arm, and proud was she to walk with him up and down the deck, or to go forward, and leaning with him against the forecastle rails, watch the setting sun gradually withdrawing itself over their stern into a huge bank of livid cloud with golden edges that rose to meet it.
She was childishly full of life and spirits, though in walking up and down with him before the other passengers, and getting noticed by them, she was at starting rather confused, it being the first time she had shown herself so openly under that kind of protection. 'I expect they are envious and saying things about us, don't you?' she would whisper to Knight with a stealthy smile.
'Oh no,' he would answer unconcernedly. 'Why should they envy us, and what can they say?'
'Not any harm, of course,' Elfride replied, 'except such as this: "How happy those two are! she is proud enough now." What makes it worse,' she continued in the extremity of confidence, 'I heard those two cricketing men say just now, "She's the nobbiest girl on the boat." But I don't mind it, you know, Harry.'
'I should hardly have supposed you did, even if you had not told me,' said Knight with great blandness.
She was never tired of asking her lover questions and admiring his answers, good, bad, or indifferent as they might be. The evening grew dark and night came on, and lights shone upon them from the horizon and from the sky.
'Now look there ahead of us, at that halo in the air, of silvery brightness. Watch it, and you will see what it comes to.'
She watched for a few minutes, when two white lights emerged from the side of a hill, and showed themselves to be the origin of the halo.
'What a dazzling brilliance! What do they mark?'
'The South Foreland: they were previously covered by the cliff.'
'What is that level line of little sparkles—a town, I suppose?'
All this time, and later, soft sheet lightning expanded from a cloud in their path, enkindling their faces as they paced up and down, shining over the water, and, for a moment, showing the horizon as a keen line.
Elfride slept soundly that night. Her first thought the next morning was the thrilling one that Knight was as close at hand as when they were at home at Endelstow, and her first sight, on looking out of the cabin window, was the perpendicular face of Beachy Head, gleaming white in a brilliant six-o'clock-in-the-morning sun. This fair daybreak, however, soon changed its aspect. A cold wind and a pale mist descended upon the sea, and seemed to threaten a dreary day.
When they were nearing Southampton, Mrs. Swancourt came to say that her husband was so ill that he wished to be put on shore here, and left to do the remainder of the journey by land. 'He will be perfectly well directly he treads firm ground again. Which shall we do—go with him, or finish our voyage as we intended?'
Elfride was comfortably housed under an umbrella which Knight was holding over her to keep off the wind. 'Oh, don't let us go on shore!' she said with dismay. 'It would be such a pity!'
'That's very fine,' said Mrs. Swancourt archly, as to a child. 'See, the wind has increased her colour, the sea her appetite and spirits, and somebody her happiness. Yes, it would be a pity, certainly.'
''Tis my misfortune to be always spoken to from a pedestal,' sighed Elfride.
'Well, we will do as you like, Mrs. Swancourt,' said Knight, 'but——'
'I myself would rather remain on board,' interrupted the elder lady. 'And Mr. Swancourt particularly wishes to go by himself. So that shall settle the matter.'
The vicar, now a drab colour, was put ashore, and became as well as ever forthwith.
Elfride, sitting alone in a retired part of the vessel, saw a veiled woman walk aboard among the very latest arrivals at this port. She was clothed in black silk, and carried a dark shawl upon her arm. The woman, without looking around her, turned to the quarter allotted to the second-cabin passengers. All the carnation Mrs. Swancourt had complimented her step-daughter upon possessing left Elfride's cheeks, and she trembled visibly.
She ran to the other side of the boat, where Mrs. Swancourt was standing.
'Let us go home by railway with papa, after all,' she pleaded earnestly. 'I would rather go with him—shall we?'
Mrs. Swancourt looked around for a moment, as if unable to decide. 'Ah,' she exclaimed, 'it is too late now. Why did not you say so before, when we had plenty of time?'
The Juliet had at that minute let go, the engines had started, and they were gliding slowly away from the quay. There was no help for it but to remain, unless the Juliet could be made to put back, and that would create a great disturbance. Elfride gave up the idea and submitted quietly. Her happiness was sadly mutilated now.
The woman whose presence had so disturbed her was exactly like Mrs. Jethway. She seemed to haunt Elfride like a shadow. After several minutes' vain endeavour to account for any design Mrs. Jethway could have in watching her, Elfride decided to think that, if it were the widow, the encounter was accidental. She remembered that the widow in her restlessness was often visiting the village near Southampton, which was her original home, and it was possible that she chose water-transit with the idea of saving expense.
'What is the matter, Elfride?' Knight inquired, standing before her.
'Nothing more than that I am rather depressed.'
'I don't much wonder at it; that wharf was depressing. We seemed underneath and inferior to everything around us. But we shall be in the sea breeze again soon, and that will freshen you, dear.'
The evening closed in and dusk increased as they made way down Southampton Water and through the Solent. Elfride's disturbance of mind was such that her light spirits of the foregoing four and twenty hours had entirely deserted her. The weather too had grown more gloomy, for though the showers of the morning had ceased, the sky was covered more closely than ever with dense leaden clouds. How beautiful was the sunset when they rounded the North Foreland the previous evening! now it was impossible to tell within half an hour the time of the luminary's going down. Knight led her about, and being by this time accustomed to her sudden changes of mood, overlooked the necessity of a cause in regarding the conditions—impressionableness and elasticity.
Elfride looked stealthily to the other end of the vessel. Mrs. Jethway, or her double, was sitting at the stern—her eye steadily regarding Elfride.
'Let us go to the forepart,' she said quickly to Knight. 'See there—the man is fixing the lights for the night.'
Knight assented, and after watching the operation of fixing the red and the green lights on the port and starboard bows, and the hoisting of the white light to the masthead, he walked up and down with her till the increase of wind rendered promenading difficult. Elfride's eyes were occasionally to be found furtively gazing abaft, to learn if her enemy were really there. Nobody was visible now.
'Shall we go below?' said Knight, seeing that the deck was nearly deserted.
'No,' she said. 'If you will kindly get me a rug from Mrs. Swancourt, I should like, if you don't mind, to stay here.' She had recently fancied the assumed Mrs. Jethway might be a first-class passenger, and dreaded meeting her by accident.
Knight appeared with the rug, and they sat down behind a weather-cloth on the windward side, just as the two red eyes of the Needles glared upon them from the gloom, their pointed summits rising like shadowy phantom figures against the sky. It became necessary to go below to an eight-o'clock meal of nondescript kind, and Elfride was immensely relieved at finding no sign of Mrs. Jethway there. They again ascended, and remained above till Mrs. Snewson staggered up to them with the message that Mrs. Swancourt thought it was time for Elfride to come below. Knight accompanied her down, and returned again to pass a little more time on deck.
Elfride partly undressed herself and lay down, and soon became unconscious, though her sleep was light. How long she had lain, she knew not, when by slow degrees she became cognizant of a whispering in her ear.
'You are well on with him, I can see. Well, provoke me now, but my day will come, you will find.' That seemed to be the utterance, or words to that effect.