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A Pair of Blue Eyes
by Thomas Hardy
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Elfride became broad awake and terrified. She knew the words, if real, could be only those of one person, and that person the widow Jethway.

The lamp had gone out and the place was in darkness. In the next berth she could hear her stepmother breathing heavily, further on Snewson breathing more heavily still. These were the only other legitimate occupants of the cabin, and Mrs. Jethway must have stealthily come in by some means and retreated again, or else she had entered an empty berth next Snewson's. The fear that this was the case increased Elfride's perturbation, till it assumed the dimensions of a certainty, for how could a stranger from the other end of the ship possibly contrive to get in? Could it have been a dream?

Elfride raised herself higher and looked out of the window. There was the sea, floundering and rushing against the ship's side just by her head, and thence stretching away, dim and moaning, into an expanse of indistinctness; and far beyond all this two placid lights like rayless stars. Now almost fearing to turn her face inwards again, lest Mrs. Jethway should appear at her elbow, Elfride meditated upon whether to call Snewson to keep her company. 'Four bells' sounded, and she heard voices, which gave her a little courage. It was not worth while to call Snewson.

At any rate Elfride could not stay there panting longer, at the risk of being again disturbed by that dreadful whispering. So wrapping herself up hurriedly she emerged into the passage, and by the aid of a faint light burning at the entrance to the saloon found the foot of the stairs, and ascended to the deck. Dreary the place was in the extreme. It seemed a new spot altogether in contrast with its daytime self. She could see the glowworm light from the binnacle, and the dim outline of the man at the wheel; also a form at the bows. Not another soul was apparent from stem to stern.

Yes, there were two more—by the bulwarks. One proved to be her Harry, the other the mate. She was glad indeed, and on drawing closer found they were holding a low slow chat about nautical affairs. She ran up and slipped her hand through Knight's arm, partly for love, partly for stability.

'Elfie! not asleep?' said Knight, after moving a few steps aside with her.

'No: I cannot sleep. May I stay here? It is so dismal down there, and—and I was afraid. Where are we now?'

'Due south of Portland Bill. Those are the lights abeam of us: look. A terrible spot, that, on a stormy night. And do you see a very small light that dips and rises to the right? That's a light-ship on the dangerous shoal called the Shambles, where many a good vessel has gone to pieces. Between it and ourselves is the Race—a place where antagonistic currents meet and form whirlpools—a spot which is rough in the smoothest weather, and terrific in a wind. That dark, dreary horizon we just discern to the left is the West Bay, terminated landwards by the Chesil Beach.'

'What time is it, Harry?'

'Just past two.'

'Are you going below?'

'Oh no; not to-night. I prefer pure air.'

She fancied he might be displeased with her for coming to him at this unearthly hour. 'I should like to stay here too, if you will allow me,' she said timidly.

'I want to ask you things.'

'Allow you, Elfie!' said Knight, putting his arm round her and drawing her closer. 'I am twice as happy with you by my side. Yes: we will stay, and watch the approach of day.'

So they again sought out the sheltered nook, and sitting down wrapped themselves in the rug as before.

'What were you going to ask me?' he inquired, as they undulated up and down.

'Oh, it was not much—perhaps a thing I ought not to ask,' she said hesitatingly. Her sudden wish had really been to discover at once whether he had ever before been engaged to be married. If he had, she would make that a ground for telling him a little of her conduct with Stephen. Mrs. Jethway's seeming words had so depressed the girl that she herself now painted her flight in the darkest colours, and longed to ease her burdened mind by an instant confession. If Knight had ever been imprudent himself, he might, she hoped, forgive all.

'I wanted to ask you,' she went on, 'if—you had ever been engaged before.' She added tremulously, 'I hope you have—I mean, I don't mind at all if you have.'

'No, I never was,' Knight instantly and heartily replied. 'Elfride'—and there was a certain happy pride in his tone—'I am twelve years older than you, and I have been about the world, and, in a way, into society, and you have not. And yet I am not so unfit for you as strict-thinking people might imagine, who would assume the difference in age to signify most surely an equal addition to my practice in love-making.'

Elfride shivered.

'You are cold—is the wind too much for you?'

'No,' she said gloomily. The belief which had been her sheet-anchor in hoping for forgiveness had proved false. This account of the exceptional nature of his experience, a matter which would have set her rejoicing two years ago, chilled her now like a frost.

'You don't mind my asking you?' she continued.

'Oh no—not at all.'

'And have you never kissed many ladies?' she whispered, hoping he would say a hundred at the least.

The time, the circumstances, and the scene were such as to draw confidences from the most reserved. 'Elfride,' whispered Knight in reply, 'it is strange you should have asked that question. But I'll answer it, though I have never told such a thing before. I have been rather absurd in my avoidance of women. I have never given a woman a kiss in my life, except yourself and my mother.' The man of two and thirty with the experienced mind warmed all over with a boy's ingenuous shame as he made the confession.

'What, not one?' she faltered.

'No; not one.'

'How very strange!'

'Yes, the reverse experience may be commoner. And yet, to those who have observed their own sex, as I have, my case is not remarkable. Men about town are women's favourites—that's the postulate—and superficial people don't think far enough to see that there may be reserved, lonely exceptions.'

'Are you proud of it, Harry?'

'No, indeed. Of late years I have wished I had gone my ways and trod out my measure like lighter-hearted men. I have thought of how many happy experiences I may have lost through never going to woo.'

'Then why did you hold aloof?'

'I cannot say. I don't think it was my nature to: circumstance hindered me, perhaps. I have regretted it for another reason. This great remissness of mine has had its effect upon me. The older I have grown, the more distinctly have I perceived that it was absolutely preventing me from liking any woman who was not as unpractised as I; and I gave up the expectation of finding a nineteenth-century young lady in my own raw state. Then I found you, Elfride, and I felt for the first time that my fastidiousness was a blessing. And it helped to make me worthy of you. I felt at once that, differing as we did in other experiences, in this matter I resembled you. Well, aren't you glad to hear it, Elfride?'

'Yes, I am,' she answered in a forced voice. 'But I always had thought that men made lots of engagements before they married—especially if they don't marry very young.'

'So all women think, I suppose—and rightly, indeed, of the majority of bachelors, as I said before. But an appreciable minority of slow-coach men do not—and it makes them very awkward when they do come to the point. However, it didn't matter in my case.'

'Why?' she asked uneasily.

'Because you know even less of love-making and matrimonial prearrangement than I, and so you can't draw invidious comparisons if I do my engaging improperly.'

'I think you do it beautifully!'

'Thank you, dear. But,' continued Knight laughingly, 'your opinion is not that of an expert, which alone is of value.'

Had she answered, 'Yes, it is,' half as strongly as she felt it, Knight might have been a little astonished.

'If you had ever been engaged to be married before,' he went on, 'I expect your opinion of my addresses would be different. But then, I should not——'

'Should not what, Harry?'

'Oh, I was merely going to say that in that case I should never have given myself the pleasure of proposing to you, since your freedom from that experience was your attraction, darling.'

'You are severe on women, are you not?'

'No, I think not. I had a right to please my taste, and that was for untried lips. Other men than those of my sort acquire the taste as they get older—but don't find an Elfride——'

'What horrid sound is that we hear when we pitch forward?'

'Only the screw—don't find an Elfride as I did. To think that I should have discovered such an unseen flower down there in the West—to whom a man is as much as a multitude to some women, and a trip down the English Channel like a voyage round the world!'

'And would you,' she said, and her voice was tremulous, 'have given up a lady—if you had become engaged to her—and then found she had had ONE kiss before yours—and would you have—gone away and left her?'

'One kiss,—no, hardly for that.'

'Two?'

'Well—I could hardly say inventorially like that. Too much of that sort of thing certainly would make me dislike a woman. But let us confine our attention to ourselves, not go thinking of might have beens.'

So Elfride had allowed her thoughts to 'dally with false surmise,' and every one of Knight's words fell upon her like a weight. After this they were silent for a long time, gazing upon the black mysterious sea, and hearing the strange voice of the restless wind. A rocking to and fro on the waves, when the breeze is not too violent and cold, produces a soothing effect even upon the most highly-wrought mind. Elfride slowly sank against Knight, and looking down, he found by her soft regular breathing that she had fallen asleep. Not wishing to disturb her, he continued still, and took an intense pleasure in supporting her warm young form as it rose and fell with her every breath.

Knight fell to dreaming too, though he continued wide awake. It was pleasant to realize the implicit trust she placed in him, and to think of the charming innocence of one who could sink to sleep in so simple and unceremonious a manner. More than all, the musing unpractical student felt the immense responsibility he was taking upon himself by becoming the protector and guide of such a trusting creature. The quiet slumber of her soul lent a quietness to his own. Then she moaned, and turned herself restlessly. Presently her mutterings became distinct:

'Don't tell him—he will not love me....I did not mean any disgrace—indeed I did not, so don't tell Harry. We were going to be married—that was why I ran away....And he says he will not have a kissed woman....And if you tell him he will go away, and I shall die. I pray have mercy—Oh!'

Elfride started up wildly.

The previous moment a musical ding-dong had spread into the air from their right hand, and awakened her.

'What is it?' she exclaimed in terror.

'Only "eight bells,"' said Knight soothingly. 'Don't be frightened, little bird, you are safe. What have you been dreaming about?'

'I can't tell, I can't tell!' she said with a shudder. 'Oh, I don't know what to do!'

'Stay quietly with me. We shall soon see the dawn now. Look, the morning star is lovely over there. The clouds have completely cleared off whilst you have been sleeping. What have you been dreaming of?'

'A woman in our parish.'

'Don't you like her?'

'I don't. She doesn't like me. Where are we?'

'About south of the Exe.'

Knight said no more on the words of her dream. They watched the sky till Elfride grew calm, and the dawn appeared. It was mere wan lightness first. Then the wind blew in a changed spirit, and died away to a zephyr. The star dissolved into the day.

'That's how I should like to die,' said Elfride, rising from her seat and leaning over the bulwark to watch the star's last expiring gleam.

'As the lines say,' Knight replied——

'"To set as sets the morning star, which goes Not down behind the darken'd west, nor hides Obscured among the tempests of the sky, But melts away into the light of heaven."'

'Oh, other people have thought the same thing, have they? That's always the case with my originalities—they are original to nobody but myself.'

'Not only the case with yours. When I was a young hand at reviewing I used to find that a frightful pitfall—dilating upon subjects I met with, which were novelties to me, and finding afterwards they had been exhausted by the thinking world when I was in pinafores.'

'That is delightful. Whenever I find you have done a foolish thing I am glad, because it seems to bring you a little nearer to me, who have done many.' And Elfride thought again of her enemy asleep under the deck they trod.

All up the coast, prominences singled themselves out from recesses. Then a rosy sky spread over the eastern sea and behind the low line of land, flinging its livery in dashes upon the thin airy clouds in that direction. Every projection on the land seemed now so many fingers anxious to catch a little of the liquid light thrown so prodigally over the sky, and after a fantastic time of lustrous yellows in the east, the higher elevations along the shore were flooded with the same hues. The bluff and bare contours of Start Point caught the brightest, earliest glow of all, and so also did the sides of its white lighthouse, perched upon a shelf in its precipitous front like a mediaeval saint in a niche. Their lofty neighbour Bolt Head on the left remained as yet ungilded, and retained its gray.

Then up came the sun, as it were in jerks, just to seaward of the easternmost point of land, flinging out a Jacob's-ladder path of light from itself to Elfride and Knight, and coating them with rays in a few minutes. The inferior dignitaries of the shore—Froward Point, Berry Head, and Prawle—all had acquired their share of the illumination ere this, and at length the very smallest protuberance of wave, cliff, or inlet, even to the innermost recesses of the lovely valley of the Dart, had its portion; and sunlight, now the common possession of all, ceased to be the wonderful and coveted thing it had been a short half hour before.

After breakfast, Plymouth arose into view, and grew distincter to their nearing vision, the Breakwater appearing like a streak of phosphoric light upon the surface of the sea. Elfride looked furtively around for Mrs. Jethway, but could discern no shape like hers. Afterwards, in the bustle of landing, she looked again with the same result, by which time the woman had probably glided upon the quay unobserved. Expanding with a sense of relief, Elfride waited whilst Knight looked to their luggage, and then saw her father approaching through the crowd, twirling his walking-stick to catch their attention. Elbowing their way to him they all entered the town, which smiled as sunny a smile upon Elfride as it had done between one and two years earlier, when she had entered it at precisely the same hour as the bride-elect of Stephen Smith.



Chapter XXX

'Vassal unto Love.'

Elfride clung closer to Knight as day succeeded day. Whatever else might admit of question, there could be no dispute that the allegiance she bore him absorbed her whole soul and existence. A greater than Stephen had arisen, and she had left all to follow him.

The unreserved girl was never chary of letting her lover discover how much she admired him. She never once held an idea in opposition to any one of his, or insisted on any point with him, or showed any independence, or held her own on any subject. His lightest whim she respected and obeyed as law, and if, expressing her opinion on a matter, he took up the subject and differed from her, she instantly threw down her own opinion as wrong and untenable. Even her ambiguities and espieglerie were but media of the same manifestation; acted charades, embodying the words of her prototype, the tender and susceptible daughter-in-law of Naomi: 'Let me find favour in thy sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid.'

She was syringing the plants one wet day in the greenhouse. Knight was sitting under a great passion-flower observing the scene. Sometimes he looked out at the rain from the sky, and then at Elfride's inner rain of larger drops, which fell from trees and shrubs, after having previously hung from the twigs like small silver fruit.

'I must give you something to make you think of me during this autumn at your chambers,' she was saying. 'What shall it be? Portraits do more harm than good, by selecting the worst expression of which your face is capable. Hair is unlucky. And you don't like jewellery.'

'Something which shall bring back to my mind the many scenes we have enacted in this conservatory. I see what I should prize very much. That dwarf myrtle tree in the pot, which you have been so carefully tending.'

Elfride looked thoughtfully at the myrtle.

'I can carry it comfortably in my hat box,' said Knight. 'And I will put it in my window, and so, it being always before my eyes, I shall think of you continually.'

It so happened that the myrtle which Knight had singled out had a peculiar beginning and history. It had originally been a twig worn in Stephen Smith's button-hole, and he had taken it thence, stuck it into the pot, and told her that if it grew, she was to take care of it, and keep it in remembrance of him when he was far away.

She looked wistfully at the plant, and a sense of fairness to Smith's memory caused her a pang of regret that Knight should have asked for that very one. It seemed exceeding a common heartlessness to let it go.

'Is there not anything you like better?' she said sadly. 'That is only an ordinary myrtle.'

'No: I am fond of myrtle.' Seeing that she did not take kindly to the idea, he said again, 'Why do you object to my having that?'

'Oh no—I don't object precisely—it was a feeling.—Ah, here's another cutting lately struck, and just as small—of a better kind, and with prettier leaves—myrtus microphylla.'

'That will do nicely. Let it be put in my room, that I may not forget it. What romance attaches to the other?'

'It was a gift to me.'

The subject then dropped. Knight thought no more of the matter till, on entering his bedroom in the evening, he found the second myrtle placed upon his dressing-table as he had directed. He stood for a moment admiring the fresh appearance of the leaves by candlelight, and then he thought of the transaction of the day.

Male lovers as well as female can be spoilt by too much kindness, and Elfride's uniform submissiveness had given Knight a rather exacting manner at crises, attached to her as he was. 'Why should she have refused the one I first chose?' he now asked himself. Even such slight opposition as she had shown then was exceptional enough to make itself noticeable. He was not vexed with her in the least: the mere variation of her way to-day from her usual ways kept him musing on the subject, because it perplexed him. 'It was a gift'—those were her words. Admitting it to be a gift, he thought she could hardly value a mere friend more than she valued him as a lover, and giving the plant into his charge would have made no difference. 'Except, indeed, it was the gift of a lover,' he murmured.

'I wonder if Elfride has ever had a lover before?' he said aloud, as a new idea, quite. This and companion thoughts were enough to occupy him completely till he fell asleep—rather later than usual.

The next day, when they were again alone, he said to her rather suddenly—

'Do you love me more or less, Elfie, for what I told you on board the steamer?'

'You told me so many things,' she returned, lifting her eyes to his and smiling.

'I mean the confession you coaxed out of me—that I had never been in the position of lover before.'

'It is a satisfaction, I suppose, to be the first in your heart,' she said to him, with an attempt to continue her smiling.

'I am going to ask you a question now,' said Knight, somewhat awkwardly. 'I only ask it in a whimsical way, you know: not with great seriousness, Elfride. You may think it odd, perhaps.'

Elfride tried desperately to keep the colour in her face. She could not, though distressed to think that getting pale showed consciousness of deeper guilt than merely getting red.

'Oh no—I shall not think that,' she said, because obliged to say something to fill the pause which followed her questioner's remark.

'It is this: have you ever had a lover? I am almost sure you have not; but, have you?'

'Not, as it were, a lover; I mean, not worth mentioning, Harry,' she faltered.

Knight, overstrained in sentiment as he knew the feeling to be, felt some sickness of heart.

'Still, he was a lover?'

'Well, a sort of lover, I suppose,' she responded tardily.

'A man, I mean, you know.'

'Yes; but only a mere person, and——'

'But truly your lover?'

'Yes; a lover certainly—he was that. Yes, he might have been called my lover.'

Knight said nothing to this for a minute or more, and kept silent time with his finger to the tick of the old library clock, in which room the colloquy was going on.

'You don't mind, Harry, do you?' she said anxiously, nestling close to him, and watching his face.

'Of course, I don't seriously mind. In reason, a man cannot object to such a trifle. I only thought you hadn't—that was all.'

However, one ray was abstracted from the glory about her head. But afterwards, when Knight was wandering by himself over the bare and breezy hills, and meditating on the subject, that ray suddenly returned. For she might have had a lover, and never have cared in the least for him. She might have used the word improperly, and meant 'admirer' all the time. Of course she had been admired; and one man might have made his admiration more prominent than that of the rest—a very natural case.

They were sitting on one of the garden seats when he found occasion to put the supposition to the test. 'Did you love that lover or admirer of yours ever so little, Elfie?'

She murmured reluctantly, 'Yes, I think I did.'

Knight felt the same faint touch of misery. 'Only a very little?' he said.

'I am not sure how much.'

'But you are sure, darling, you loved him a little?'

'I think I am sure I loved him a little.'

'And not a great deal, Elfie?'

'My love was not supported by reverence for his powers.'

'But, Elfride, did you love him deeply?' said Knight restlessly.

'I don't exactly know how deep you mean by deeply.'

'That's nonsense.'

'You misapprehend; and you have let go my hand!' she cried, her eyes filling with tears. 'Harry, don't be severe with me, and don't question me. I did not love him as I do you. And could it be deeply if I did not think him cleverer than myself? For I did not. You grieve me so much—you can't think.'

'I will not say another word about it.'

'And you will not think about it, either, will you? I know you think of weaknesses in me after I am out of your sight; and not knowing what they are, I cannot combat them. I almost wish you were of a grosser nature, Harry; in truth I do! Or rather, I wish I could have the advantages such a nature in you would afford me, and yet have you as you are.'

'What advantages would they be?'

'Less anxiety, and more security. Ordinary men are not so delicate in their tastes as you; and where the lover or husband is not fastidious, and refined, and of a deep nature, things seem to go on better, I fancy—as far as I have been able to observe the world.'

'Yes; I suppose it is right. Shallowness has this advantage, that you can't be drowned there.'

'But I think I'll have you as you are; yes, I will!' she said winsomely. 'The practical husbands and wives who take things philosophically are very humdrum, are they not? Yes, it would kill me quite. You please me best as you are.'

'Even though I wish you had never cared for one before me?'

'Yes. And you must not wish it. Don't!'

'I'll try not to, Elfride.'

So she hoped, but her heart was troubled. If he felt so deeply on this point, what would he say did he know all, and see it as Mrs. Jethway saw it? He would never make her the happiest girl in the world by taking her to be his own for aye. The thought enclosed her as a tomb whenever it presented itself to her perturbed brain. She tried to believe that Mrs. Jethway would never do her such a cruel wrong as to increase the bad appearance of her folly by innuendoes; and concluded that concealment, having been begun, must be persisted in, if possible. For what he might consider as bad as the fact, was her previous concealment of it by strategy.

But Elfride knew Mrs. Jethway to be her enemy, and to hate her. It was possible she would do her worst. And should she do it, all might be over.

Would the woman listen to reason, and be persuaded not to ruin one who had never intentionally harmed her?



It was night in the valley between Endelstow Crags and the shore. The brook which trickled that way to the sea was distinct in its murmurs now, and over the line of its course there began to hang a white riband of fog. Against the sky, on the left hand of the vale, the black form of the church could be seen. On the other rose hazel-bushes, a few trees, and where these were absent, furze tufts—as tall as men—on stems nearly as stout as timber. The shriek of some bird was occasionally heard, as it flew terror-stricken from its first roost, to seek a new sleeping-place, where it might pass the night unmolested.

In the evening shade, some way down the valley, and under a row of scrubby oaks, a cottage could still be discerned. It stood absolutely alone. The house was rather large, and the windows of some of the rooms were nailed up with boards on the outside, which gave a particularly deserted appearance to the whole erection. From the front door an irregular series of rough and misshapen steps, cut in the solid rock, led down to the edge of the streamlet, which, at their extremity, was hollowed into a basin through which the water trickled. This was evidently the means of water supply to the dweller or dwellers in the cottage.

A light footstep was heard descending from the higher slopes of the hillside. Indistinct in the pathway appeared a moving female shape, who advanced and knocked timidly at the door. No answer being returned the knock was repeated, with the same result, and it was then repeated a third time. This also was unsuccessful.

From one of the only two windows on the ground floor which were not boarded up came rays of light, no shutter or curtain obscuring the room from the eyes of a passer on the outside. So few walked that way after nightfall that any such means to secure secrecy were probably deemed unnecessary.

The inequality of the rays falling upon the trees outside told that the light had its origin in a flickering fire only. The visitor, after the third knocking, stepped a little to the left in order to gain a view of the interior, and threw back the hood from her face. The dancing yellow sheen revealed the fair and anxious countenance of Elfride.

Inside the house this firelight was enough to illumine the room distinctly, and to show that the furniture of the cottage was superior to what might have been expected from so unpromising an exterior. It also showed to Elfride that the room was empty. Beyond the light quiver and flap of the flames nothing moved or was audible therein.

She turned the handle and entered, throwing off the cloak which enveloped her, under which she appeared without hat or bonnet, and in the sort of half-toilette country people ordinarily dine in. Then advancing to the foot of the staircase she called distinctly, but somewhat fearfully, 'Mrs. Jethway!'

No answer.

With a look of relief and regret combined, denoting that ease came to the heart and disappointment to the brain, Elfride paused for several minutes, as if undecided how to act. Determining to wait, she sat down on a chair. The minutes drew on, and after sitting on the thorns of impatience for half an hour, she searched her pocket, took therefrom a letter, and tore off the blank leaf. Then taking out a pencil she wrote upon the paper:

'DEAR MRS. JETHWAY,—I have been to visit you. I wanted much to see you, but I cannot wait any longer. I came to beg you not to execute the threats you have repeated to me. Do not, I beseech you, Mrs. Jethway, let any one know I ran away from home! It would ruin me with him, and break my heart. I will do anything for you, if you will be kind to me. In the name of our common womanhood, do not, I implore you, make a scandal of me.—Yours, E. SWANCOURT.'

She folded the note cornerwise, directed it, and placed it on the table. Then again drawing the hood over her curly head she emerged silently as she had come.

Whilst this episode had been in action at Mrs. Jethway's cottage, Knight had gone from the dining-room into the drawing-room, and found Mrs. Swancourt there alone.

'Elfride has vanished upstairs or somewhere,' she said.

'And I have been reading an article in an old number of the PRESENT that I lighted on by chance a short time ago; it is an article you once told us was yours. Well, Harry, with due deference to your literary powers, allow me to say that this effusion is all nonsense, in my opinion.'

'What is it about?' said Knight, taking up the paper and reading.

'There: don't get red about it. Own that experience has taught you to be more charitable. I have never read such unchivalrous sentiments in my life—from a man, I mean. There, I forgive you; it was before you knew Elfride.'

'Oh yes,' said Knight, looking up. 'I remember now. The text of that sermon was not my own at all, but was suggested to me by a young man named Smith—the same whom I have mentioned to you as coming from this parish. I thought the idea rather ingenious at the time, and enlarged it to the weight of a few guineas, because I had nothing else in my head.'

'Which idea do you call the text? I am curious to know that.'

'Well, this,' said Knight, somewhat unwillingly. 'That experience teaches, and your sweetheart, no less than your tailor, is necessarily very imperfect in her duties, if you are her first patron: and conversely, the sweetheart who is graceful under the initial kiss must be supposed to have had some practice in the trade.'

'And do you mean to say that you wrote that upon the strength of another man's remark, without having tested it by practice?'

'Yes—indeed I do.'

'Then I think it was uncalled for and unfair. And how do you know it is true? I expect you regret it now.'

'Since you bring me into a serious mood, I will speak candidly. I do believe that remark to be perfectly true, and, having written it, I would defend it anywhere. But I do often regret having ever written it, as well as others of the sort. I have grown older since, and I find such a tone of writing is calculated to do harm in the world. Every literary Jack becomes a gentleman if he can only pen a few indifferent satires upon womankind: women themselves, too, have taken to the trick; and so, upon the whole, I begin to be rather ashamed of my companions.'

'Ah, Henry, you have fallen in love since and it makes a difference,' said Mrs. Swancourt with a faint tone of banter.

'That's true; but that is not my reason.'

'Having found that, in a case of your own experience, a so-called goose was a swan, it seems absurd to deny such a possibility in other men's experiences.'

'You can hit palpably, cousin Charlotte,' said Knight. 'You are like the boy who puts a stone inside his snowball, and I shall play with you no longer. Excuse me—I am going for my evening stroll.'

Though Knight had spoken jestingly, this incident and conversation had caused him a sudden depression. Coming, rather singularly, just after his discovery that Elfride had known what it was to love warmly before she had known him, his mind dwelt upon the subject, and the familiar pipe he smoked, whilst pacing up and down the shrubbery-path, failed to be a solace. He thought again of those idle words—hitherto quite forgotten—about the first kiss of a girl, and the theory seemed more than reasonable. Of course their sting now lay in their bearing on Elfride.

Elfride, under Knight's kiss, had certainly been a very different woman from herself under Stephen's. Whether for good or for ill, she had marvellously well learnt a betrothed lady's part; and the fascinating finish of her deportment in this second campaign did probably arise from her unreserved encouragement of Stephen. Knight, with all the rapidity of jealous sensitiveness, pounced upon some words she had inadvertently let fall about an earring, which he had only partially understood at the time. It was during that 'initial kiss' by the little waterfall:

'We must be careful. I lost the other by doing this!'

A flush which had in it as much of wounded pride as of sorrow, passed over Knight as he thought of what he had so frequently said to her in his simplicity. 'I always meant to be the first comer in a woman's heart, fresh lips or none for me.' How childishly blind he must have seemed to this mere girl! How she must have laughed at him inwardly! He absolutely writhed as he thought of the confession she had wrung from him on the boat in the darkness of night. The one conception which had sustained his dignity when drawn out of his shell on that occasion—that of her charming ignorance of all such matters—how absurd it was!

This man, whose imagination had been fed up to preternatural size by lonely study and silent observations of his kind—whose emotions had been drawn out long and delicate by his seclusion, like plants in a cellar—was now absolutely in pain. Moreover, several years of poetic study, and, if the truth must be told, poetic efforts, had tended to develop the affective side of his constitution still further, in proportion to his active faculties. It was his belief in the absolute newness of blandishment to Elfride which had constituted her primary charm. He began to think it was as hard to be earliest in a woman's heart as it was to be first in the Pool of Bethesda.

That Knight should have been thus constituted: that Elfride's second lover should not have been one of the great mass of bustling mankind, little given to introspection, whose good-nature might have compensated for any lack of appreciativeness, was the chance of things. That her throbbing, self-confounding, indiscreet heart should have to defend itself unaided against the keen scrutiny and logical power which Knight, now that his suspicions were awakened, would sooner or later be sure to exercise against her, was her misfortune. A miserable incongruity was apparent in the circumstance of a strong mind practising its unerring archery upon a heart which the owner of that mind loved better than his own.

Elfride's docile devotion to Knight was now its own enemy. Clinging to him so dependently, she taught him in time to presume upon that devotion—a lesson men are not slow to learn. A slight rebelliousness occasionally would have done him no harm, and would have been a world of advantage to her. But she idolized him, and was proud to be his bond-servant.



Chapter XXXI

'A worm i' the bud.'

One day the reviewer said, 'Let us go to the cliffs again, Elfride;' and, without consulting her wishes, he moved as if to start at once.

'The cliff of our dreadful adventure?' she inquired, with a shudder. 'Death stares me in the face in the person of that cliff.'

Nevertheless, so entirely had she sunk her individuality in his that the remark was not uttered as an expostulation, and she immediately prepared to accompany him.

'No, not that place,' said Knight. 'It is ghastly to me, too. That other, I mean; what is its name?—Windy Beak.'

Windy Beak was the second cliff in height along that coast, and, as is frequently the case with the natural features of the globe no less than with the intellectual features of men, it enjoyed the reputation of being the first. Moreover, it was the cliff to which Elfride had ridden with Stephen Smith, on a well-remembered morning of his summer visit.

So, though thought of the former cliff had caused her to shudder at the perils to which her lover and herself had there been exposed, by being associated with Knight only it was not so objectionable as Windy Beak. That place was worse than gloomy, it was a perpetual reproach to her.

But not liking to refuse, she said, 'It is further than the other cliff.'

'Yes; but you can ride.'

'And will you too?'

'No, I'll walk.'

A duplicate of her original arrangement with Stephen. Some fatality must be hanging over her head. But she ceased objecting.

'Very well, Harry, I'll ride,' she said meekly.

A quarter of an hour later she was in the saddle. But how different the mood from that of the former time. She had, indeed, given up her position as queen of the less to be vassal of the greater. Here was no showing off now; no scampering out of sight with Pansy, to perplex and tire her companion; no saucy remarks on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI. Elfride was burdened with the very intensity of her love.

Knight did most of the talking along the journey. Elfride silently listened, and entirely resigned herself to the motions of the ambling horse upon which she sat, alternately rising and sinking gently, like a sea bird upon a sea wave.

When they had reached the limit of a quadruped's possibilities in walking, Knight tenderly lifted her from the saddle, tied the horse, and rambled on with her to the seat in the rock. Knight sat down, and drew Elfride deftly beside him, and they looked over the sea.

Two or three degrees above that melancholy and eternally level line, the ocean horizon, hung a sun of brass, with no visible rays, in a sky of ashen hue. It was a sky the sun did not illuminate or enkindle, as is usual at sunsets. This sheet of sky was met by the salt mass of gray water, flecked here and there with white. A waft of dampness occasionally rose to their faces, which was probably rarefied spray from the blows of the sea upon the foot of the cliff.

Elfride wished it could be a longer time ago that she had sat there with Stephen as her lover, and agreed to be his wife. The significant closeness of that time to the present was another item to add to the list of passionate fears which were chronic with her now.

Yet Knight was very tender this evening, and sustained her close to him as they sat.

Not a word had been uttered by either since sitting down, when Knight said musingly, looking still afar—

'I wonder if any lovers in past years ever sat here with arms locked, as we do now. Probably they have, for the place seems formed for a seat.'

Her recollection of a well-known pair who had, and the much-talked-of loss which had ensued therefrom, and how the young man had been sent back to look for the missing article, led Elfride to glance down to her side, and behind her back. Many people who lose a trinket involuntarily give a momentary look for it in passing the spot ever so long afterwards. They do not often find it. Elfride, in turning her head, saw something shine weakly from a crevice in the rocky sedile. Only for a few minutes during the day did the sun light the alcove to its innermost rifts and slits, but these were the minutes now, and its level rays did Elfride the good or evil turn of revealing the lost ornament.

Elfride's thoughts instantly reverted to the words she had unintentionally uttered upon what had been going on when the earring was lost. And she was immediately seized with a misgiving that Knight, on seeing the object, would be reminded of her words. Her instinctive act therefore was to secure it privately.

It was so deep in the crack that Elfride could not pull it out with her hand, though she made several surreptitious trials.

'What are you doing, Elfie?' said Knight, noticing her attempts, and looking behind him likewise.

She had relinquished the endeavour, but too late.

Knight peered into the joint from which her hand had been withdrawn, and saw what she had seen. He instantly took a penknife from his pocket, and by dint of probing and scraping brought the earring out upon open ground.

'It is not yours, surely?' he inquired.

'Yes, it is,' she said quietly.

'Well, that is a most extraordinary thing, that we should find it like this!' Knight then remembered more circumstances; 'What, is it the one you have told me of?'

'Yes.'

The unfortunate remark of hers at the kiss came into his mind, if eyes were ever an index to be trusted. Trying to repress the words he yet spoke on the subject, more to obtain assurance that what it had seemed to imply was not true than from a wish to pry into bygones.

'Were you really engaged to be married to that lover?' he said, looking straight forward at the sea again.

'Yes—but not exactly. Yet I think I was.'

'O Elfride, engaged to be married!' he murmured.

'It would have been called a—secret engagement, I suppose. But don't look so disappointed; don't blame me.'

'No, no.'

'Why do you say "No, no," in such a way? Sweetly enough, but so barely?'

Knight made no direct reply to this. 'Elfride, I told you once,' he said, following out his thoughts, 'that I never kissed a woman as a sweetheart until I kissed you. A kiss is not much, I suppose, and it happens to few young people to be able to avoid all blandishments and attentions except from the one they afterwards marry. But I have peculiar weaknesses, Elfride; and because I have led a peculiar life, I must suffer for it, I suppose. I had hoped—well, what I had no right to hope in connection with you. You naturally granted your former lover the privileges you grant me.'

A 'yes' came from her like the last sad whisper of a breeze.

'And he used to kiss you—of course he did.'

'Yes.'

'And perhaps you allowed him a more free manner in his love-making than I have shown in mine.'

'No, I did not.' This was rather more alertly spoken.

'But he adopted it without being allowed?'

'Yes.'

'How much I have made of you, Elfride, and how I have kept aloof!' said Knight in deep and shaken tones. 'So many days and hours as I have hoped in you—I have feared to kiss you more than those two times. And he made no scruples to...'

She crept closer to him and trembled as if with cold. Her dread that the whole story, with random additions, would become known to him, caused her manner to be so agitated that Knight was alarmed and perplexed into stillness. The actual innocence which made her think so fearfully of what, as the world goes, was not a great matter, magnified her apparent guilt. It may have said to Knight that a woman who was so flurried in the preliminaries must have a dreadful sequel to her tale.

'I know,' continued Knight, with an indescribable drag of manner and intonation,—'I know I am absurdly scrupulous about you—that I want you too exclusively mine. In your past before you knew me—from your very cradle—I wanted to think you had been mine. I would make you mine by main force. Elfride,' he went on vehemently, 'I can't help this jealousy over you! It is my nature, and must be so, and I HATE the fact that you have been caressed before: yes hate it!'

She drew a long deep breath, which was half a sob. Knight's face was hard, and he never looked at her at all, still fixing his gaze far out to sea, which the sun had now resigned to the shade. In high places it is not long from sunset to night, dusk being in a measure banished, and though only evening where they sat, it had been twilight in the valleys for half an hour. Upon the dull expanse of sea there gradually intensified itself into existence the gleam of a distant light-ship.

'When that lover first kissed you, Elfride was it in such a place as this?'

'Yes, it was.'

'You don't tell me anything but what I wring out of you. Why is that? Why have you suppressed all mention of this when casual confidences of mine should have suggested confidence in return? On board the Juliet, why were you so secret? It seems like being made a fool of, Elfride, to think that, when I was teaching you how desirable it was that we should have no secrets from each other, you were assenting in words, but in act contradicting me. Confidence would have been so much more promising for our happiness. If you had had confidence in me, and told me willingly, I should—be different. But you suppress everything, and I shall question you. Did you live at Endelstow at that time?'

'Yes,' she said faintly.

'Where were you when he first kissed you?'

'Sitting in this seat.'

'Ah, I thought so!' said Knight, rising and facing her.

'And that accounts for everything—the exclamation which you explained deceitfully, and all! Forgive the harsh word, Elfride—forgive it.' He smiled a surface smile as he continued: 'What a poor mortal I am to play second fiddle in everything and to be deluded by fibs!'

'Oh, don't say it; don't, Harry!'

'Where did he kiss you besides here?'

'Sitting on—a tomb in the—churchyard—and other places,' she answered with slow recklessness.

'Never mind, never mind,' he exclaimed, on seeing her tears and perturbation. 'I don't want to grieve you. I don't care.'

But Knight did care.

'It makes no difference, you know,' he continued, seeing she did not reply.

'I feel cold,' said Elfride. 'Shall we go home?'

'Yes; it is late in the year to sit long out of doors: we ought to be off this ledge before it gets too dark to let us see our footing. I daresay the horse is impatient.'

Knight spoke the merest commonplace to her now. He had hoped to the last moment that she would have volunteered the whole story of her first attachment. It grew more and more distasteful to him that she should have a secret of this nature. Such entire confidence as he had pictured as about to exist between himself and the innocent young wife who had known no lover's tones save his—was this its beginning? He lifted her upon the horse, and they went along constrainedly. The poison of suspicion was doing its work well.

An incident occurred on this homeward journey which was long remembered by both, as adding shade to shadow. Knight could not keep from his mind the words of Adam's reproach to Eve in PARADISE LOST, and at last whispered them to himself—

'Fool'd and beguiled: by him thou, I by thee!'

'What did you say?' Elfride inquired timorously.

'It was only a quotation.'

They had now dropped into a hollow, and the church tower made its appearance against the pale evening sky, its lower part being hidden by some intervening trees. Elfride, being denied an answer, was looking at the tower and trying to think of some contrasting quotation she might use to regain his tenderness. After a little thought she said in winning tones—

"Thou hast been my hope, and a strong tower for me against the enemy."'

They passed on. A few minutes later three or four birds were seen to fly out of the tower.

'The strong tower moves,' said Knight, with surprise.

A corner of the square mass swayed forward, sank, and vanished. A loud rumble followed, and a cloud of dust arose where all had previously been so clear.

'The church restorers have done it!' said Elfride.

At this minute Mr. Swancourt was seen approaching them. He came up with a bustling demeanour, apparently much engrossed by some business in hand.

'We have got the tower down!' he exclaimed. 'It came rather quicker than we intended it should. The first idea was to take it down stone by stone, you know. In doing this the crack widened considerably, and it was not believed safe for the men to stand upon the walls any longer. Then we decided to undermine it, and three men set to work at the weakest corner this afternoon. They had left off for the evening, intending to give the final blow to-morrow morning, and had been home about half an hour, when down it came. A very successful job—a very fine job indeed. But he was a tough old fellow in spite of the crack.' Here Mr. Swancourt wiped from his face the perspiration his excitement had caused him.

'Poor old tower!' said Elfride.

'Yes, I am sorry for it,' said Knight. 'It was an interesting piece of antiquity—a local record of local art.'

'Ah, but my dear sir, we shall have a new one, expostulated Mr. Swancourt; 'a splendid tower—designed by a first-rate London man—in the newest style of Gothic art, and full of Christian feeling.'

'Indeed!' said Knight.

'Oh yes. Not in the barbarous clumsy architecture of this neighbourhood; you see nothing so rough and pagan anywhere else in England. When the men are gone, I would advise you to go and see the church before anything further is done to it. You can now sit in the chancel, and look down the nave through the west arch, and through that far out to sea. In fact,' said Mr. Swancourt significantly, 'if a wedding were performed at the altar to-morrow morning, it might be witnessed from the deck of a ship on a voyage to the South Seas, with a good glass. However, after dinner, when the moon has risen, go up and see for yourselves.'

Knight assented with feverish readiness. He had decided within the last few minutes that he could not rest another night without further talk with Elfride upon the subject which now divided them: he was determined to know all, and relieve his disquiet in some way. Elfride would gladly have escaped further converse alone with him that night, but it seemed inevitable.

Just after moonrise they left the house. How little any expectation of the moonlight prospect—which was the ostensible reason of their pilgrimage—had to do with Knight's real motive in getting the gentle girl again upon his arm, Elfride no less than himself well knew.



Chapter XXXII

'Had I wist before I kist'

It was now October, and the night air was chill. After looking to see that she was well wrapped up, Knight took her along the hillside path they had ascended so many times in each other's company, when doubt was a thing unknown. On reaching the church they found that one side of the tower was, as the vicar had stated, entirely removed, and lying in the shape of rubbish at their feet. The tower on its eastern side still was firm, and might have withstood the shock of storms and the siege of battering years for many a generation even now. They entered by the side-door, went eastward, and sat down by the altar-steps.

The heavy arch spanning the junction of tower and nave formed to-night a black frame to a distant misty view, stretching far westward. Just outside the arch came the heap of fallen stones, then a portion of moonlit churchyard, then the wide and convex sea behind. It was a coup-d'oeil which had never been possible since the mediaeval masons first attached the old tower to the older church it dignified, and hence must be supposed to have had an interest apart from that of simple moonlight on ancient wall and sea and shore—any mention of which has by this time, it is to be feared, become one of the cuckoo-cries which are heard but not regarded. Rays of crimson, blue, and purple shone upon the twain from the east window behind them, wherein saints and angels vied with each other in primitive surroundings of landscape and sky, and threw upon the pavement at the sitters' feet a softer reproduction of the same translucent hues, amid which the shadows of the two living heads of Knight and Elfride were opaque and prominent blots. Presently the moon became covered by a cloud, and the iridescence died away.

'There, it is gone!' said Knight. 'I've been thinking, Elfride, that this place we sit on is where we may hope to kneel together soon. But I am restless and uneasy, and you know why.'

Before she replied the moonlight returned again, irradiating that portion of churchyard within their view. It brightened the near part first, and against the background which the cloud-shadow had not yet uncovered stood, brightest of all, a white tomb—the tomb of young Jethway.

Knight, still alive on the subject of Elfride's secret, thought of her words concerning the kiss that it once had occurred on a tomb in this churchyard.

'Elfride,' he said, with a superficial archness which did not half cover an undercurrent of reproach, 'do you know, I think you might have told me voluntarily about that past—of kisses and betrothing—without giving me so much uneasiness and trouble. Was that the tomb you alluded to as having sat on with him?'

She waited an instant. 'Yes,' she said.

The correctness of his random shot startled Knight; though, considering that almost all the other memorials in the churchyard were upright headstones upon which nobody could possibly sit, it was not so wonderful.

Elfride did not even now go on with the explanation her exacting lover wished to have, and her reticence began to irritate him as before. He was inclined to read her a lecture.

'Why don't you tell me all?' he said somewhat indignantly. 'Elfride, there is not a single subject upon which I feel more strongly than upon this—that everything ought to be cleared up between two persons before they become husband and wife. See how desirable and wise such a course is, in order to avoid disagreeable contingencies in the form of discoveries afterwards. For, Elfride, a secret of no importance at all may be made the basis of some fatal misunderstanding only because it is discovered, and not confessed. They say there never was a couple of whom one had not some secret the other never knew or was intended to know. This may or may not be true; but if it be true, some have been happy in spite rather than in consequence of it. If a man were to see another man looking significantly at his wife, and she were blushing crimson and appearing startled, do you think he would be so well satisfied with, for instance, her truthful explanation that once, to her great annoyance, she accidentally fainted into his arms, as if she had said it voluntarily long ago, before the circumstance occurred which forced it from her? Suppose that admirer you spoke of in connection with the tomb yonder should turn up, and bother me. It would embitter our lives, if I were then half in the dark, as I am now!'

Knight spoke the latter sentences with growing force.

'It cannot be,' she said.

'Why not?' he asked sharply.

Elfride was distressed to find him in so stern a mood, and she trembled. In a confusion of ideas, probably not intending a wilful prevarication, she answered hurriedly—

'If he's dead, how can you meet him?'

'Is he dead? Oh, that's different altogether!' said Knight, immensely relieved. 'But, let me see—what did you say about that tomb and him?'

'That's his tomb,' she continued faintly.

'What! was he who lies buried there the man who was your lover?' Knight asked in a distinct voice.

'Yes; and I didn't love him or encourage him.'

'But you let him kiss you—you said so, you know, Elfride.'

She made no reply.

'Why,' said Knight, recollecting circumstances by degrees, 'you surely said you were in some degree engaged to him—and of course you were if he kissed you. And now you say you never encouraged him. And I have been fancying you said—I am almost sure you did—that you were sitting with him ON that tomb. Good God!' he cried, suddenly starting up in anger, 'are you telling me untruths? Why should you play with me like this? I'll have the right of it. Elfride, we shall never be happy! There's a blight upon us, or me, or you, and it must be cleared off before we marry.' Knight moved away impetuously as if to leave her.

She jumped up and clutched his arm

'Don't go, Harry—don't!

'Tell me, then,' said Knight sternly. 'And remember this, no more fibs, or, upon my soul, I shall hate you. Heavens! that I should come to this, to be made a fool of by a girl's untruths——'

'Don't, don't treat me so cruelly! O Harry, Harry, have pity, and withdraw those dreadful words! I am truthful by nature—I am—and I don't know how I came to make you misunderstand! But I was frightened!' She quivered so in her perturbation that she shook him with her {Note: sentence incomplete in text.}

'Did you say you were sitting on that tomb?' he asked moodily.

'Yes; and it was true.'

'Then how, in the name of Heaven, can a man sit upon his own tomb?'

'That was another man. Forgive me, Harry, won't you?'

'What, a lover in the tomb and a lover on it?'

'Oh—Oh—yes!'

'Then there were two before me?

'I—suppose so.'

'Now, don't be a silly woman with your supposing—I hate all that,' said Knight contemptuously almost. 'Well, we learn strange things. I don't know what I might have done—no man can say into what shape circumstances may warp him—but I hardly think I should have had the conscience to accept the favours of a new lover whilst sitting over the poor remains of the old one; upon my soul, I don't.' Knight, in moody meditation, continued looking towards the tomb, which stood staring them in the face like an avenging ghost.

'But you wrong me—Oh, so grievously!' she cried. 'I did not meditate any such thing: believe me, Harry, I did not. It only happened so—quite of itself.'

'Well, I suppose you didn't INTEND such a thing,' he said. 'Nobody ever does,' he sadly continued.

'And him in the grave I never once loved.'

'I suppose the second lover and you, as you sat there, vowed to be faithful to each other for ever?'

Elfride only replied by quick heavy breaths, showing she was on the brink of a sob.

'You don't choose to be anything but reserved, then?' he said imperatively.

'Of course we did,' she responded.

'"Of course!" You seem to treat the subject very lightly?'

'It is past, and is nothing to us now.'

'Elfride, it is a nothing which, though it may make a careless man laugh, cannot but make a genuine one grieve. It is a very gnawing pain. Tell me straight through—all of it.'

'Never. O Harry! how can you expect it when so little of it makes you so harsh with me?'

'Now, Elfride, listen to this. You know that what you have told only jars the subtler fancies in one, after all. The feeling I have about it would be called, and is, mere sentimentality; and I don't want you to suppose that an ordinary previous engagement of a straightforward kind would make any practical difference in my love, or my wish to make you my wife. But you seem to have more to tell, and that's where the wrong is. Is there more?'

'Not much more,' she wearily answered.

Knight preserved a grave silence for a minute. '"Not much more,"' he said at last. 'I should think not, indeed!' His voice assumed a low and steady pitch. 'Elfride, you must not mind my saying a strange-sounding thing, for say it I shall. It is this: that if there WERE much more to add to an account which already includes all the particulars that a broken marriage engagement could possibly include with propriety, it must be some exceptional thing which might make it impossible for me or any one else to love you and marry you.'

Knight's disturbed mood led him much further than he would have gone in a quieter moment. And, even as it was, had she been assertive to any degree he would not have been so peremptory; and had she been a stronger character—more practical and less imaginative—she would have made more use of her position in his heart to influence him. But the confiding tenderness which had won him is ever accompanied by a sort of self-committal to the stream of events, leading every such woman to trust more to the kindness of fate for good results than to any argument of her own.

'Well, well,' he murmured cynically; 'I won't say it is your fault: it is my ill-luck, I suppose. I had no real right to question you—everybody would say it was presuming. But when we have misunderstood, we feel injured by the subject of our misunderstanding. You never said you had had nobody else here making love to you, so why should I blame you? Elfride, I beg your pardon.'

'No, no! I would rather have your anger than that cool aggrieved politeness. Do drop that, Harry! Why should you inflict that upon me? It reduces me to the level of a mere acquaintance.'

'You do that with me. Why not confidence for confidence?'

'Yes; but I didn't ask you a single question with regard to your past: I didn't wish to know about it. All I cared for was that, wherever you came from, whatever you had done, whoever you had loved, you were mine at last. Harry, if originally you had known I had loved, would you never have cared for me?'

'I won't quite say that. Though I own that the idea of your inexperienced state had a great charm for me. But I think this: that if I had known there was any phase of your past love you would refuse to reveal if I asked to know it, I should never have loved you.'

Elfride sobbed bitterly. 'Am I such a—mere characterless toy—as to have no attrac—tion in me, apart from—freshness? Haven't I brains? You said—I was clever and ingenious in my thoughts, and—isn't that anything? Have I not some beauty? I think I have a little—and I know I have—yes, I do! You have praised my voice, and my manner, and my accomplishments. Yet all these together are so much rubbish because I—accidentally saw a man before you!'

'Oh, come, Elfride. "Accidentally saw a man" is very cool. You loved him, remember.'

—'And loved him a little!'

'And refuse now to answer the simple question how it ended. Do you refuse still, Elfride?'

'You have no right to question me so—you said so. It is unfair. Trust me as I trust you.'

'That's not at all.'

'I shall not love you if you are so cruel. It is cruel to me to argue like this.'

'Perhaps it is. Yes, it is. I was carried away by my feeling for you. Heaven knows that I didn't mean to; but I have loved you so that I have used you badly.'

'I don't mind it, Harry!' she instantly answered, creeping up and nestling against him; 'and I will not think at all that you used me harshly if you will forgive me, and not be vexed with me any more? I do wish I had been exactly as you thought I was, but I could not help it, you know. If I had only known you had been coming, what a nunnery I would have lived in to have been good enough for you!'

'Well, never mind,' said Knight; and he turned to go. He endeavoured to speak sportively as they went on. 'Diogenes Laertius says that philosophers used voluntarily to deprive themselves of sight to be uninterrupted in their meditations. Men, becoming lovers, ought to do the same thing.'

'Why?—but never mind—I don't want to know. Don't speak laconically to me,' she said with deprecation.

'Why? Because they would never then be distracted by discovering their idol was second-hand.'

She looked down and sighed; and they passed out of the crumbling old place, and slowly crossed to the churchyard entrance. Knight was not himself, and he could not pretend to be. She had not told all.

He supported her lightly over the stile, and was practically as attentive as a lover could be. But there had passed away a glory, and the dream was not as it had been of yore. Perhaps Knight was not shaped by Nature for a marrying man. Perhaps his lifelong constraint towards women, which he had attributed to accident, was not chance after all, but the natural result of instinctive acts so minute as to be undiscernible even by himself. Or whether the rough dispelling of any bright illusion, however imaginative, depreciates the real and unexaggerated brightness which appertains to its basis, one cannot say. Certain it was that Knight's disappointment at finding himself second or third in the field, at Elfride's momentary equivoque, and at her reluctance to be candid, brought him to the verge of cynicism.



Chapter XXXIII

'O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery.'

A habit of Knight's, when not immediately occupied with Elfride—to walk by himself for half an hour or so between dinner and bedtime—had become familiar to his friends at Endelstow, Elfride herself among them. When he had helped her over the stile, she said gently, 'If you wish to take your usual turn on the hill, Harry, I can run down to the house alone.'

'Thank you, Elfie; then I think I will.'

Her form diminished to blackness in the moonlight, and Knight, after remaining upon the churchyard stile a few minutes longer, turned back again towards the building. His usual course was now to light a cigar or pipe, and indulge in a quiet meditation. But to-night his mind was too tense to bethink itself of such a solace. He merely walked round to the site of the fallen tower, and sat himself down upon some of the large stones which had composed it until this day, when the chain of circumstance originated by Stephen Smith, while in the employ of Mr. Hewby, the London man of art, had brought about its overthrow.

Pondering on the possible episodes of Elfride's past life, and on how he had supposed her to have had no past justifying the name, he sat and regarded the white tomb of young Jethway, now close in front of him. The sea, though comparatively placid, could as usual be heard from this point along the whole distance between promontories to the right and left, floundering and entangling itself among the insulated stacks of rock which dotted the water's edge—the miserable skeletons of tortured old cliffs that would not even yet succumb to the wear and tear of the tides.

As a change from thoughts not of a very cheerful kind, Knight attempted exertion. He stood up, and prepared to ascend to the summit of the ruinous heap of stones, from which a more extended outlook was obtainable than from the ground. He stretched out his arm to seize the projecting arris of a larger block than ordinary, and so help himself up, when his hand lighted plump upon a substance differing in the greatest possible degree from what he had expected to seize—hard stone. It was stringy and entangled, and trailed upon the stone. The deep shadow from the aisle wall prevented his seeing anything here distinctly, and he began guessing as a necessity. 'It is a tressy species of moss or lichen,' he said to himself.

But it lay loosely over the stone.

'It is a tuft of grass,' he said.

But it lacked the roughness and humidity of the finest grass.

'It is a mason's whitewash-brush.'

Such brushes, he remembered, were more bristly; and however much used in repairing a structure, would not be required in pulling one down.

He said, 'It must be a thready silk fringe.'

He felt further in. It was somewhat warm. Knight instantly felt somewhat cold.

To find the coldness of inanimate matter where you expect warmth is startling enough; but a colder temperature than that of the body being rather the rule than the exception in common substances, it hardly conveys such a shock to the system as finding warmth where utter frigidity is anticipated.

'God only knows what it is,' he said.

He felt further, and in the course of a minute put his hand upon a human head. The head was warm, but motionless. The thready mass was the hair of the head—long and straggling, showing that the head was a woman's.

Knight in his perplexity stood still for a moment, and collected his thoughts. The vicar's account of the fall of the tower was that the workmen had been undermining it all the day, and had left in the evening intending to give the finishing stroke the next morning. Half an hour after they had gone the undermined angle came down. The woman who was half buried, as it seemed, must have been beneath it at the moment of the fall.

Knight leapt up and began endeavouring to remove the rubbish with his hands. The heap overlying the body was for the most part fine and dusty, but in immense quantity. It would be a saving of time to run for assistance. He crossed to the churchyard wall, and hastened down the hill.

A little way down an intersecting road passed over a small ridge, which now showed up darkly against the moon, and this road here formed a kind of notch in the sky-line. At the moment that Knight arrived at the crossing he beheld a man on this eminence, coming towards him. Knight turned aside and met the stranger.

'There has been an accident at the church,' said Knight, without preface. 'The tower has fallen on somebody, who has been lying there ever since. Will you come and help?'

'That I will,' said the man.

'It is a woman,' said Knight, as they hurried back, 'and I think we two are enough to extricate her. Do you know of a shovel?'

'The grave-digging shovels are about somewhere. They used to stay in the tower.'

'And there must be some belonging to the workmen.'

They searched about, and in an angle of the porch found three carefully stowed away. Going round to the west end Knight signified the spot of the tragedy.

'We ought to have brought a lantern,' he exclaimed. 'But we may be able to do without.' He set to work removing the superincumbent mass.

The other man, who looked on somewhat helplessly at first, now followed the example of Knight's activity, and removed the larger stones which were mingled with the rubbish. But with all their efforts it was quite ten minutes before the body of the unfortunate creature could be extricated. They lifted her as carefully as they could, breathlessly carried her to Felix Jethway's tomb, which was only a few steps westward, and laid her thereon.

'Is she dead indeed?' said the stranger.

'She appears to be,' said Knight. 'Which is the nearest house? The vicarage, I suppose.'

'Yes; but since we shall have to call a surgeon from Castle Boterel, I think it would be better to carry her in that direction, instead of away from the town.'

'And is it not much further to the first house we come to going that way, than to the vicarage or to The Crags?'

'Not much,' the stranger replied.

'Suppose we take her there, then. And I think the best way to do it would be thus, if you don't mind joining hands with me.'

'Not in the least; I am glad to assist.'

Making a kind of cradle, by clasping their hands crosswise under the inanimate woman, they lifted her, and walked on side by side down a path indicated by the stranger, who appeared to know the locality well.

'I had been sitting in the church for nearly an hour,' Knight resumed, when they were out of the churchyard. 'Afterwards I walked round to the site of the fallen tower, and so found her. It is painful to think I unconsciously wasted so much time in the very presence of a perishing, flying soul.'

'The tower fell at dusk, did it not? quite two hours ago, I think?'

'Yes. She must have been there alone. What could have been her object in visiting the churchyard then?

'It is difficult to say.' The stranger looked inquiringly into the reclining face of the motionless form they bore. 'Would you turn her round for a moment, so that the light shines on her face?' he said.

They turned her face to the moon, and the man looked closer into her features. 'Why, I know her!' he exclaimed.

'Who is she?'

'Mrs. Jethway. And the cottage we are taking her to is her own. She is a widow; and I was speaking to her only this afternoon. I was at Castle Boterel post-office, and she came there to post a letter. Poor soul! Let us hurry on.'

'Hold my wrist a little tighter. Was not that tomb we laid her on the tomb of her only son?'

'Yes, it was. Yes, I see it now. She was there to visit the tomb. Since the death of that son she has been a desolate, desponding woman, always bewailing him. She was a farmer's wife, very well educated—a governess originally, I believe.'

Knight's heart was moved to sympathy. His own fortunes seemed in some strange way to be interwoven with those of this Jethway family, through the influence of Elfride over himself and the unfortunate son of that house. He made no reply, and they still walked on.

'She begins to feel heavy,' said the stranger, breaking the silence.

'Yes, she does,' said Knight; and after another pause added, 'I think I have met you before, though where I cannot recollect. May I ask who you are?'

'Oh yes. I am Lord Luxellian. Who are you?'

'I am a visitor at The Crags—Mr. Knight.'

'I have heard of you, Mr. Knight.'

'And I of you, Lord Luxellian. I am glad to meet you.'

'I may say the same. I am familiar with your name in print.'

'And I with yours. Is this the house?'

'Yes.'

The door was locked. Knight, reflecting a moment, searched the pocket of the lifeless woman, and found therein a large key which, on being applied to the door, opened it easily. The fire was out, but the moonlight entered the quarried window, and made patterns upon the floor. The rays enabled them to see that the room into which they had entered was pretty well furnished, it being the same room that Elfride had visited alone two or three evenings earlier. They deposited their still burden on an old-fashioned couch which stood against the wall, and Knight searched about for a lamp or candle. He found a candle on a shelf, lighted it, and placed it on the table.

Both Knight and Lord Luxellian examined the pale countenance attentively, and both were nearly convinced that there was no hope. No marks of violence were visible in the casual examination they made.

'I think that as I know where Doctor Granson lives,' said Lord Luxellian, 'I had better run for him whilst you stay here.'

Knight agreed to this. Lord Luxellian then went off, and his hurrying footsteps died away. Knight continued bending over the body, and a few minutes longer of careful scrutiny perfectly satisfied him that the woman was far beyond the reach of the lancet and the drug. Her extremities were already beginning to get stiff and cold. Knight covered her face, and sat down.

The minutes went by. The essayist remained musing on all the occurrences of the night. His eyes were directed upon the table, and he had seen for some time that writing-materials were spread upon it. He now noticed these more particularly: there were an inkstand, pen, blotting-book, and note-paper. Several sheets of paper were thrust aside from the rest, upon which letters had been begun and relinquished, as if their form had not been satisfactory to the writer. A stick of black sealing-wax and seal were there too, as if the ordinary fastening had not been considered sufficiently secure. The abandoned sheets of paper lying as they did open upon the table, made it possible, as he sat, to read the few words written on each. One ran thus:

'SIR,—As a woman who was once blest with a dear son of her own, I implore you to accept a warning——'

Another:

'SIR,—If you will deign to receive warning from a stranger before it is too late to alter your course, listen to——'

The third:

'SIR,—With this letter I enclose to you another which, unaided by any explanation from me, tells a startling tale. I wish, however, to add a few words to make your delusion yet more clear to you——'



It was plain that, after these renounced beginnings, a fourth letter had been written and despatched, which had been deemed a proper one. Upon the table were two drops of sealing-wax, the stick from which they were taken having been laid down overhanging the edge of the table; the end of it drooped, showing that the wax was placed there whilst warm. There was the chair in which the writer had sat, the impression of the letter's address upon the blotting-paper, and the poor widow who had caused these results lying dead hard by. Knight had seen enough to lead him to the conclusion that Mrs. Jethway, having matter of great importance to communicate to some friend or acquaintance, had written him a very careful letter, and gone herself to post it; that she had not returned to the house from that time of leaving it till Lord Luxellian and himself had brought her back dead.

The unutterable melancholy of the whole scene, as he waited on, silent and alone, did not altogether clash with the mood of Knight, even though he was the affianced of a fair and winning girl, and though so lately he had been in her company. Whilst sitting on the remains of the demolished tower he had defined a new sensation; that the lengthened course of inaction he had lately been indulging in on Elfride's account might probably not be good for him as a man who had work to do. It could quickly be put an end to by hastening on his marriage with her.

Knight, in his own opinion, was one who had missed his mark by excessive aiming. Having now, to a great extent, given up ideal ambitions, he wished earnestly to direct his powers into a more practical channel, and thus correct the introspective tendencies which had never brought himself much happiness, or done his fellow-creatures any great good. To make a start in this new direction by marriage, which, since knowing Elfride, had been so entrancing an idea, was less exquisite to-night. That the curtailment of his illusion regarding her had something to do with the reaction, and with the return of his old sentiments on wasting time, is more than probable. Though Knight's heart had so greatly mastered him, the mastery was not so complete as to be easily maintained in the face of a moderate intellectual revival.

His reverie was broken by the sound of wheels, and a horse's tramp. The door opened to admit the surgeon, Lord Luxellian, and a Mr. Coole, coroner for the division (who had been attending at Castle Boterel that very day, and was having an after-dinner chat with the doctor when Lord Luxellian arrived); next came two female nurses and some idlers.

Mr. Granson, after a cursory examination, pronounced the woman dead from suffocation, induced by intense pressure on the respiratory organs; and arrangements were made that the inquiry should take place on the following morning, before the return of the coroner to St. Launce's.

Shortly afterwards the house of the widow was deserted by all its living occupants, and she abode in death, as she had in her life during the past two years, entirely alone.



Chapter XXXIV

'Yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.'

Sixteen hours had passed. Knight was entering the ladies' boudoir at The Crags, upon his return from attending the inquest touching the death of Mrs. Jethway. Elfride was not in the apartment.

Mrs. Swancourt made a few inquiries concerning the verdict and collateral circumstances. Then she said—

'The postman came this morning the minute after you left the house. There was only one letter for you, and I have it here.'

She took a letter from the lid of her workbox, and handed it to him. Knight took the missive abstractedly, but struck by its appearance murmured a few words and left the room.

The letter was fastened with a black seal, and the handwriting in which it was addressed had lain under his eyes, long and prominently, only the evening before.

Knight was greatly agitated, and looked about for a spot where he might be secure from interruption. It was the season of heavy dews, which lay on the herbage in shady places all the day long; nevertheless, he entered a small patch of neglected grass-plat enclosed by the shrubbery, and there perused the letter, which he had opened on his way thither.

The handwriting, the seal, the paper, the introductory words, all had told on the instant that the letter had come to him from the hands of the widow Jethway, now dead and cold. He had instantly understood that the unfinished notes which caught his eye yesternight were intended for nobody but himself. He had remembered some of the words of Elfride in her sleep on the steamer, that somebody was not to tell him of something, or it would be her ruin—a circumstance hitherto deemed so trivial and meaningless that he had well-nigh forgotten it. All these things infused into him an emotion intense in power and supremely distressing in quality. The paper in his hand quivered as he read:

'THE VALLEY, ENDELSTOW.

'SIR,—A woman who has not much in the world to lose by any censure this act may bring upon her, wishes to give you some hints concerning a lady you love. If you will deign to accept a warning before it is too late, you will notice what your correspondent has to say.

'You are deceived. Can such a woman as this be worthy?

'One who encouraged an honest youth to love her, then slighted him, so that he died.

'One who next took a man of no birth as a lover, who was forbidden the house by her father.

'One who secretly left her home to be married to that man, met him, and went with him to London.

'One who, for some reason or other, returned again unmarried.

'One who, in her after-correspondence with him, went so far as to address him as her husband.

'One who wrote the enclosed letter to ask me, who better than anybody else knows the story, to keep the scandal a secret.

'I hope soon to be beyond the reach of either blame or praise. But before removing me God has put it in my power to avenge the death of my son.

'GERTRUDE JETHWAY.'

The letter enclosed was the note in pencil that Elfride had written in Mrs. Jethway's cottage:

'DEAR MRS. JETHWAY,—I have been to visit you. I wanted much to see you, but I cannot wait any longer. I came to beg you not to execute the threats you have repeated to me. Do not, I beseech you, Mrs. Jethway, let any one know I ran away from home! It would ruin me with him, and break my heart. I will do anything for you, if you will be kind to me. In the name of our common womanhood, do not, I implore you, make a scandal of me.—Yours,

'E. SWANCOURT.

Knight turned his head wearily towards the house. The ground rose rapidly on nearing the shrubbery in which he stood, raising it almost to a level with the first floor of The Crags. Elfride's dressing-room lay in the salient angle in this direction, and it was lighted by two windows in such a position that, from Knight's standing-place, his sight passed through both windows, and raked the room. Elfride was there; she was pausing between the two windows, looking at her figure in the cheval-glass. She regarded herself long and attentively in front; turned, flung back her head, and observed the reflection over her shoulder.

Nobody can predicate as to her object or fancy; she may have done the deed in the very abstraction of deep sadness. She may have been moaning from the bottom of her heart, 'How unhappy am I!' But the impression produced on Knight was not a good one. He dropped his eyes moodily. The dead woman's letter had a virtue in the accident of its juncture far beyond any it intrinsically exhibited. Circumstance lent to evil words a ring of pitiless justice echoing from the grave. Knight could not endure their possession. He tore the letter into fragments.

He heard a brushing among the bushes behind, and turning his head he saw Elfride following him. The fair girl looked in his face with a wistful smile of hope, too forcedly hopeful to displace the firmly established dread beneath it. His severe words of the previous night still sat heavy upon her.

'I saw you from my window, Harry,' she said timidly.

'The dew will make your feet wet,' he observed, as one deaf.

'I don't mind it.'

'There is danger in getting wet feet.'

'Yes...Harry, what is the matter?'

'Oh, nothing. Shall I resume the serious conversation I had with you last night? No, perhaps not; perhaps I had better not.'

'Oh, I cannot tell! How wretched it all is! Ah, I wish you were your own dear self again, and had kissed me when I came up! Why didn't you ask me for one? why don't you now?'

'Too free in manner by half,' he heard murmur the voice within him.

'It was that hateful conversation last night,' she went on. 'Oh, those words! Last night was a black night for me.'

'Kiss!—I hate that word! Don't talk of kissing, for God's sake! I should think you might with advantage have shown tact enough to keep back that word "kiss," considering those you have accepted.'

She became very pale, and a rigid and desolate charactery took possession of her face. That face was so delicate and tender in appearance now, that one could fancy the pressure of a finger upon it would cause a livid spot.

Knight walked on, and Elfride with him, silent and unopposing. He opened a gate, and they entered a path across a stubble-field.

'Perhaps I intrude upon you?' she said as he closed the gate. 'Shall I go away?'

'No. Listen to me, Elfride.' Knight's voice was low and unequal. 'I have been honest with you: will you be so with me? If any—strange—connection has existed between yourself and a predecessor of mine, tell it now. It is better that I know it now, even though the knowledge should part us, than that I should discover it in time to come. And suspicions have been awakened in me. I think I will not say how, because I despise the means. A discovery of any mystery of your past would embitter our lives.'

Knight waited with a slow manner of calmness. His eyes were sad and imperative. They went farther along the path.

'Will you forgive me if I tell you all?' she exclaimed entreatingly.

'I can't promise; so much depends upon what you have to tell.'

Elfride could not endure the silence which followed.

'Are you not going to love me?' she burst out. 'Harry, Harry, love me, and speak as usual! Do; I beseech you, Harry!'

'Are you going to act fairly by me?' said Knight, with rising anger; 'or are you not? What have I done to you that I should be put off like this? Be caught like a bird in a springe; everything intended to be hidden from me! Why is it, Elfride? That's what I ask you.'

In their agitation they had left the path, and were wandering among the wet and obstructive stubble, without knowing or heeding it.

'What have I done?' she faltered.

'What? How can you ask what, when you know so well? You KNOW that I have designedly been kept in ignorance of something attaching to you, which, had I known of it, might have altered all my conduct; and yet you say, what?'

She drooped visibly, and made no answer.

'Not that I believe in malicious letter-writers and whisperers; not I. I don't know whether I do or don't: upon my soul, I can't tell. I know this: a religion was building itself upon you in my heart. I looked into your eyes, and thought I saw there truth and innocence as pure and perfect as ever embodied by God in the flesh of woman. Perfect truth is too much to expect, but ordinary truth I WILL HAVE or nothing at all. Just say, then; is the matter you keep back of the gravest importance, or is it not?'

'I don't understand all your meaning. If I have hidden anything from you, it has been because I loved you so, and I feared—feared—to lose you.'

'Since you are not given to confidence, I want to ask you some plain questions. Have I your permission?'

'Yes,' she said, and there came over her face a weary resignation. 'Say the harshest words you can; I will bear them!'

'There is a scandal in the air concerning you, Elfride; and I cannot even combat it without knowing definitely what it is. It may not refer to you entirely, or even at all.' Knight trifled in the very bitterness of his feeling. 'In the time of the French Revolution, Pariseau, a ballet-master, was beheaded by mistake for Parisot, a captain of the King's Guard. I wish there was another "E. Swancourt" in the neighbourhood. Look at this.'

He handed her the letter she had written and left on the table at Mrs. Jethway's. She looked over it vacantly.

'It is not so much as it seems!' she pleaded. 'It seems wickedly deceptive to look at now, but it had a much more natural origin than you think. My sole wish was not to endanger our love. O Harry! that was all my idea. It was not much harm.'

'Yes, yes; but independently of the poor miserable creature's remarks, it seems to imply—something wrong.'

'What remarks?'

'Those she wrote me—now torn to pieces. Elfride, DID you run away with a man you loved?—that was the damnable statement. Has such an accusation life in it—really, truly, Elfride?'

'Yes,' she whispered.

Knight's countenance sank. 'To be married to him?' came huskily from his lips.

'Yes. Oh, forgive me! I had never seen you, Harry.'

'To London?'

'Yes; but I——'

'Answer my questions; say nothing else, Elfride Did you ever deliberately try to marry him in secret?'

'No; not deliberately.'

'But did you do it?'

A feeble red passed over her face.

'Yes,' she said.

'And after that—did you—write to him as your husband; and did he address you as his wife?'

'Listen, listen! It was——'

'Do answer me; only answer me!'

'Then, yes, we did.' Her lips shook; but it was with some little dignity that she continued: 'I would gladly have told you; for I knew and know I had done wrong. But I dared not; I loved you too well. Oh, so well! You have been everything in the world to me—and you are now. Will you not forgive me?'

It is a melancholy thought, that men who at first will not allow the verdict of perfection they pronounce upon their sweethearts or wives to be disturbed by God's own testimony to the contrary, will, once suspecting their purity, morally hang them upon evidence they would be ashamed to admit in judging a dog.

The reluctance to tell, which arose from Elfride's simplicity in thinking herself so much more culpable than she really was, had been doing fatal work in Knight's mind. The man of many ideas, now that his first dream of impossible things was over, vibrated too far in the contrary direction; and her every movement of feature—every tremor—every confused word—was taken as so much proof of her unworthiness.

'Elfride, we must bid good-bye to compliment,' said Knight: 'we must do without politeness now. Look in my face, and as you believe in God above, tell me truly one thing more. Were you away alone with him?'

'Yes.'

'Did you return home the same day on which you left it?'

'No.'

The word fell like a bolt, and the very land and sky seemed to suffer. Knight turned aside. Meantime Elfride's countenance wore a look indicating utter despair of being able to explain matters so that they would seem no more than they really were,—a despair which not only relinquishes the hope of direct explanation, but wearily gives up all collateral chances of extenuation.

The scene was engraved for years on the retina of Knight's eye: the dead and brown stubble, the weeds among it, the distant belt of beeches shutting out the view of the house, the leaves of which were now red and sick to death.

'You must forget me,' he said. 'We shall not marry, Elfride.'

How much anguish passed into her soul at those words from him was told by the look of supreme torture she wore.

'What meaning have you, Harry? You only say so, do you?'

She looked doubtingly up at him, and tried to laugh, as if the unreality of his words must be unquestionable.

'You are not in earnest, I know—I hope you are not? Surely I belong to you, and you are going to keep me for yours?'

'Elfride, I have been speaking too roughly to you; I have said what I ought only to have thought. I like you; and let me give you a word of advice. Marry your man as soon as you can. However weary of each other you may feel, you belong to each other, and I am not going to step between you. Do you think I would—do you think I could for a moment? If you cannot marry him now, and another makes you his wife, do not reveal this secret to him after marriage, if you do not before. Honesty would be damnation then.'

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