Bewildered by his expressions, she exclaimed—
'No, no; I will not be a wife unless I am yours; and I must be yours!'
'If we had married——'
'But you don't MEAN—that—that—you will go away and leave me, and not be anything more to me—oh, you don't!'
Convulsive sobs took all nerve out of her utterance. She checked them, and continued to look in his face for the ray of hope that was not to be found there.
'I am going indoors,' said Knight. 'You will not follow me, Elfride; I wish you not to.'
'Oh no; indeed, I will not.'
'And then I am going to Castle Boterel. Good-bye.'
He spoke the farewell as if it were but for the day—lightly, as he had spoken such temporary farewells many times before—and she seemed to understand it as such. Knight had not the power to tell her plainly that he was going for ever; he hardly knew for certain that he was: whether he should rush back again upon the current of an irresistible emotion, or whether he could sufficiently conquer himself, and her in him, to establish that parting as a supreme farewell, and present himself to the world again as no woman's.
Ten minutes later he had left the house, leaving directions that if he did not return in the evening his luggage was to be sent to his chambers in London, whence he intended to write to Mr. Swancourt as to the reasons of his sudden departure. He descended the valley, and could not forbear turning his head. He saw the stubble-field, and a slight girlish figure in the midst of it—up against the sky. Elfride, docile as ever, had hardly moved a step, for he had said, Remain. He looked and saw her again—he saw her for weeks and months. He withdrew his eyes from the scene, swept his hand across them, as if to brush away the sight, breathed a low groan, and went on.
'And wilt thou leave me thus?—say nay—say nay!'
The scene shifts to Knight's chambers in Bede's Inn. It was late in the evening of the day following his departure from Endelstow. A drizzling rain descended upon London, forming a humid and dreary halo over every well-lighted street. The rain had not yet been prevalent long enough to give to rapid vehicles that clear and distinct rattle which follows the thorough washing of the stones by a drenching rain, but was just sufficient to make footway and roadway slippery, adhesive, and clogging to both feet and wheels.
Knight was standing by the fire, looking into its expiring embers, previously to emerging from his door for a dreary journey home to Richmond. His hat was on, and the gas turned off. The blind of the window overlooking the alley was not drawn down; and with the light from beneath, which shone over the ceiling of the room, came, in place of the usual babble, only the reduced clatter and quick speech which were the result of necessity rather than choice.
Whilst he thus stood, waiting for the expiration of the few minutes that were wanting to the time for his catching the train, a light tapping upon the door mingled with the other sounds that reached his ears. It was so faint at first that the outer noises were almost sufficient to drown it. Finding it repeated Knight crossed the lobby, crowded with books and rubbish, and opened the door.
A woman, closely muffled up, but visibly of fragile build, was standing on the landing under the gaslight. She sprang forward, flung her arms round Knight's neck, and uttered a low cry—
'O Harry, Harry, you are killing me! I could not help coming. Don't send me away—don't! Forgive your Elfride for coming—I love you so!'
Knight's agitation and astonishment mastered him for a few moments.
'Elfride!' he cried, 'what does this mean? What have you done?'
'Do not hurt me and punish me—Oh, do not! I couldn't help coming; it was killing me. Last night, when you did not come back, I could not bear it—I could not! Only let me be with you, and see your face, Harry; I don't ask for more.'
Her eyelids were hot, heavy, and thick with excessive weeping, and the delicate rose-red of her cheeks was disfigured and inflamed by the constant chafing of the handkerchief in wiping her many tears.
'Who is with you? Have you come alone?' he hurriedly inquired.
'Yes. When you did not come last night, I sat up hoping you would come—and the night was all agony—and I waited on and on, and you did not come! Then when it was morning, and your letter said you were gone, I could not endure it; and I ran away from them to St. Launce's, and came by the train. And I have been all day travelling to you, and you won't make me go away again, will you, Harry, because I shall always love you till I die?'
'Yet it is wrong for you to stay. O Elfride! what have you committed yourself to? It is ruin to your good name to run to me like this! Has not your first experience been sufficient to keep you from these things?'
'My name! Harry, I shall soon die, and what good will my name be to me then? Oh, could I but be the man and you the woman, I would not leave you for such a little fault as mine! Do not think it was so vile a thing in me to run away with him. Ah, how I wish you could have run away with twenty women before you knew me, that I might show you I would think it no fault, but be glad to get you after them all, so that I had you! If you only knew me through and through, how true I am, Harry. Cannot I be yours? Say you love me just the same, and don't let me be separated from you again, will you? I cannot bear it—all the long hours and days and nights going on, and you not there, but away because you hate me!'
'Not hate you, Elfride,' he said gently, and supported her with his arm. 'But you cannot stay here now—just at present, I mean.'
'I suppose I must not—I wish I might. I am afraid that if—you lose sight of me—something dark will happen, and we shall not meet again. Harry, if I am not good enough to be your wife, I wish I could be your servant and live with you, and not be sent away never to see you again. I don't mind what it is except that!'
'No, I cannot send you away: I cannot. God knows what dark future may arise out of this evening's work; but I cannot send you away! You must sit down, and I will endeavour to collect my thoughts and see what had better be done.
At that moment a loud knocking at the house door was heard by both, accompanied by a hurried ringing of the bell that echoed from attic to basement. The door was quickly opened, and after a few hasty words of converse in the hall, heavy footsteps ascended the stairs.
The face of Mr. Swancourt, flushed, grieved, and stern, appeared round the landing of the staircase. He came higher up, and stood beside them. Glancing over and past Knight with silent indignation, he turned to the trembling girl.
'O Elfride! and have I found you at last? Are these your tricks, madam? When will you get rid of your idiocies, and conduct yourself like a decent woman? Is my family name and house to be disgraced by acts that would be a scandal to a washerwoman's daughter? Come along, madam; come!'
'She is so weary!' said Knight, in a voice of intensest anguish. 'Mr. Swancourt, don't be harsh with her—let me beg of you to be tender with her, and love her!'
'To you, sir,' said Mr. Swancourt, turning to him as if by the sheer pressure of circumstances, 'I have little to say. I can only remark, that the sooner I can retire from your presence the better I shall be pleased. Why you could not conduct your courtship of my daughter like an honest man, I do not know. Why she—a foolish inexperienced girl—should have been tempted to this piece of folly, I do not know. Even if she had not known better than to leave her home, you might have, I should think.'
'It is not his fault: he did not tempt me, papa! I came.'
'If you wished the marriage broken off, why didn't you say so plainly? If you never intended to marry, why could you not leave her alone? Upon my soul, it grates me to the heart to be obliged to think so ill of a man I thought my friend!'
Knight, soul-sick and weary of his life, did not arouse himself to utter a word in reply. How should he defend himself when his defence was the accusation of Elfride? On that account he felt a miserable satisfaction in letting her father go on thinking and speaking wrongfully. It was a faint ray of pleasure straying into the great gloominess of his brain to think that the vicar might never know but that he, as her lover, tempted her away, which seemed to be the form Mr. Swancourt's misapprehension had taken.
'Now, are you coming?' said Mr. Swancourt to her again. He took her unresisting hand, drew it within his arm, and led her down the stairs. Knight's eyes followed her, the last moment begetting in him a frantic hope that she would turn her head. She passed on, and never looked back.
He heard the door open—close again. The wheels of a cab grazed the kerbstone, a murmured direction followed. The door was slammed together, the wheels moved, and they rolled away.
From that hour of her reappearance a dreadful conflict raged within the breast of Henry Knight. His instinct, emotion, affectiveness—or whatever it may be called—urged him to stand forward, seize upon Elfride, and be her cherisher and protector through life. Then came the devastating thought that Elfride's childlike, unreasoning, and indiscreet act in flying to him only proved that the proprieties must be a dead letter with her; that the unreserve, which was really artlessness without ballast, meant indifference to decorum; and what so likely as that such a woman had been deceived in the past? He said to himself, in a mood of the bitterest cynicism: 'The suspicious discreet woman who imagines dark and evil things of all her fellow-creatures is far too shrewd to be deluded by man: trusting beings like Elfride are the women who fall.'
Hours and days went by, and Knight remained inactive. Lengthening time, which made fainter the heart-awakening power of her presence, strengthened the mental ability to reason her down. Elfride loved him, he knew, and he could not leave off loving her but marry her he would not. If she could but be again his own Elfride—the woman she had seemed to be—but that woman was dead and buried, and he knew her no more! And how could he marry this Elfride, one who, if he had originally seen her as she was, would have been barely an interesting pitiable acquaintance in his eyes—no more?
It cankered his heart to think he was confronted by the closest instance of a worse state of things than any he had assumed in the pleasant social philosophy and satire of his essays.
The moral rightness of this man's life was worthy of all praise; but in spite of some intellectual acumen, Knight had in him a modicum of that wrongheadedness which is mostly found in scrupulously honest people. With him, truth seemed too clean and pure an abstraction to be so hopelessly churned in with error as practical persons find it. Having now seen himself mistaken in supposing Elfride to be peerless, nothing on earth could make him believe she was not so very bad after all.
He lingered in town a fortnight, doing little else than vibrate between passion and opinions. One idea remained intact—that it was better Elfride and himself should not meet.
When he surveyed the volumes on his shelves—few of which had been opened since Elfride first took possession of his heart—their untouched and orderly arrangement reproached him as an apostate from the old faith of his youth and early manhood. He had deserted those never-failing friends, so they seemed to say, for an unstable delight in a ductile woman, which had ended all in bitterness. The spirit of self-denial, verging on asceticism, which had ever animated Knight in old times, announced itself as having departed with the birth of love, with it having gone the self-respect which had compensated for the lack of self-gratification. Poor little Elfride, instead of holding, as formerly, a place in his religion, began to assume the hue of a temptation. Perhaps it was human and correctly natural that Knight never once thought whether he did not owe her a little sacrifice for her unchary devotion in saving his life.
With a consciousness of having thus, like Antony, kissed away kingdoms and provinces, he next considered how he had revealed his higher secrets and intentions to her, an unreserve he would never have allowed himself with any man living. How was it that he had not been able to refrain from telling her of adumbrations heretofore locked in the closest strongholds of his mind?
Knight's was a robust intellect, which could escape outside the atmosphere of heart, and perceive that his own love, as well as other people's, could be reduced by change of scene and circumstances. At the same time the perception was a superimposed sorrow:
'O last regret, regret can die!'
But being convinced that the death of this regret was the best thing for him, he did not long shrink from attempting it. He closed his chambers, suspended his connection with editors, and left London for the Continent. Here we will leave him to wander without purpose, beyond the nominal one of encouraging obliviousness of Elfride.
'The pennie's the jewel that beautifies a'.'
'I can't think what's coming to these St. Launce's people at all at all.'
'With their "How-d'ye-do's," do you mean?'
'Ay, with their "How-d'ye-do's," and shaking of hands, asking me in, and tender inquiries for you, John.'
These words formed part of a conversation between John Smith and his wife on a Saturday evening in the spring which followed Knight's departure from England. Stephen had long since returned to India; and the persevering couple themselves had migrated from Lord Luxellian's park at Endelstow to a comfortable roadside dwelling about a mile out of St. Launce's, where John had opened a small stone and slate yard in his own name.
'When we came here six months ago,' continued Mrs. Smith, 'though I had paid ready money so many years in the town, my friskier shopkeepers would only speak over the counter. Meet 'em in the street half-an-hour after, and they'd treat me with staring ignorance of my face.'
'Look through ye as through a glass winder?'
'Yes, the brazen ones would. The quiet and cool ones would glance over the top of my head, past my side, over my shoulder, but never meet my eye. The gentle-modest would turn their faces south if I were coming east, flit down a passage if I were about to halve the pavement with them. There was the spruce young bookseller would play the same tricks; the butcher's daughters; the upholsterer's young men. Hand in glove when doing business out of sight with you; but caring nothing for a' old woman when playing the genteel away from all signs of their trade.'
'True enough, Maria.'
'Well, to-day 'tis all different. I'd no sooner got to market than Mrs. Joakes rushed up to me in the eyes of the town and said, "My dear Mrs. Smith, now you must be tired with your walk! Come in and have some lunch! I insist upon it; knowing you so many years as I have! Don't you remember when we used to go looking for owls' feathers together in the Castle ruins?" There's no knowing what you may need, so I answered the woman civilly. I hadn't got to the corner before that thriving young lawyer, Sweet, who's quite the dandy, ran after me out of breath. "Mrs. Smith," he says, "excuse my rudeness, but there's a bramble on the tail of your dress, which you've dragged in from the country; allow me to pull it off for you." If you'll believe me, this was in the very front of the Town Hall. What's the meaning of such sudden love for a' old woman?'
'Can't say; unless 'tis repentance.'
'Repentance! was there ever such a fool as you. John? Did anybody ever repent with money in's pocket and fifty years to live?'
'Now, I've been thinking too,' said John, passing over the query as hardly pertinent, 'that I've had more loving-kindness from folks to-day than I ever have before since we moved here. Why, old Alderman Tope walked out to the middle of the street where I was, to shake hands with me—so 'a did. Having on my working clothes, I thought 'twas odd. Ay, and there was young Werrington.'
'Why, the man in Hill Street, who plays and sells flutes, trumpets, and fiddles, and grand pehanners. He was talking to Egloskerry, that very small bachelor-man with money in the funds. I was going by, I'm sure, without thinking or expecting a nod from men of that glib kidney when in my working clothes——'
'You always will go poking into town in your working clothes. Beg you to change how I will, 'tis no use.'
'Well, however, I was in my working clothes. Werrington saw me. "Ah, Mr. Smith! a fine morning; excellent weather for building," says he, out as loud and friendly as if I'd met him in some deep hollow, where he could get nobody else to speak to at all. 'Twas odd: for Werrington is one of the very ringleaders of the fast class.'
At that moment a tap came to the door. The door was immediately opened by Mrs. Smith in person.
'You'll excuse us, I'm sure, Mrs. Smith, but this beautiful spring weather was too much for us. Yes, and we could stay in no longer; and I took Mrs. Trewen upon my arm directly we'd had a cup of tea, and out we came. And seeing your beautiful crocuses in such a bloom, we've taken the liberty to enter. We'll step round the garden, if you don't mind.'
'Not at all,' said Mrs. Smith; and they walked round the garden. She lifted her hands in amazement directly their backs were turned. 'Goodness send us grace!'
'Who be they?' said her husband.
'Actually Mr. Trewen, the bank-manager, and his wife.'
John Smith, staggered in mind, went out of doors and looked over the garden gate, to collect his ideas. He had not been there two minutes when wheels were heard, and a carriage and pair rolled along the road. A distinguished-looking lady, with the demeanour of a duchess, reclined within. When opposite Smith's gate she turned her head, and instantly commanded the coachman to stop.
'Ah, Mr. Smith, I am glad to see you looking so well. I could not help stopping a moment to congratulate you and Mrs. Smith upon the happiness you must enjoy. Joseph, you may drive on.'
And the carriage rolled away towards St. Launce's.
Out rushed Mrs. Smith from behind a laurel-bush, where she had stood pondering.
'Just going to touch my hat to her,' said John; 'just for all the world as I would have to poor Lady Luxellian years ago.'
'Lord! who is she?'
'The public-house woman—what's her name? Mrs.—Mrs.—at the Falcon.'
'Public-house woman. The clumsiness of the Smith family! You MIGHT say the landlady of the Falcon Hotel, since we are in for politeness. The people are ridiculous enough, but give them their due.'
The possibility is that Mrs. Smith was getting mollified, in spite of herself, by these remarkably friendly phenomena among the people of St. Launce's. And in justice to them it was quite desirable that she should do so. The interest which the unpractised ones of this town expressed so grotesquely was genuine of its kind, and equal in intrinsic worth to the more polished smiles of larger communities.
By this time Mr. and Mrs. Trewen were returning from the garden.
'I'll ask 'em flat,' whispered John to his wife. 'I'll say, "We be in a fog—you'll excuse my asking a question, Mr. and Mrs. Trewen. How is it you all be so friendly to-day?" Hey? 'Twould sound right and sensible, wouldn't it?'
'Not a word! Good mercy, when will the man have manners!'
'It must be a proud moment for you, I am sure, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to have a son so celebrated,' said the bank-manager advancing.
'Ah, 'tis Stephen—I knew it!' said Mrs. Smith triumphantly to herself.
'We don't know particulars,' said John.
'Why, 'tis all over town. Our worthy Mayor alluded to it in a speech at the dinner last night of the Every-Man-his-own-Maker Club.'
'And what about Stephen?' urged Mrs. Smith.
'Why, your son has been feted by deputy-governors and Parsee princes and nobody-knows-who in India; is hand in glove with nabobs, and is to design a large palace, and cathedral, and hospitals, colleges, halls, and fortifications, by the general consent of the ruling powers, Christian and Pagan alike.'
''Twas sure to come to the boy,' said Mr. Smith unassumingly.
''Tis in yesterday's St. Launce's Chronicle; and our worthy Mayor in the chair introduced the subject into his speech last night in a masterly manner.'
''Twas very good of the worthy Mayor in the chair I'm sure,' said Stephen's mother. 'I hope the boy will have the sense to keep what he's got; but as for men, they are a simple sex. Some woman will hook him.'
'Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the evening closes in, and we must be going; and remember this, that every Saturday when you come in to market, you are to make our house as your own. There will be always a tea-cup and saucer for you, as you know there has been for months, though you may have forgotten it. I'm a plain-speaking woman, and what I say I mean.'
When the visitors were gone, and the sun had set, and the moon's rays were just beginning to assert themselves upon the walls of the dwelling, John Smith and his wife sat dawn to the newspaper they had hastily procured from the town. And when the reading was done, they considered how best to meet the new social requirements settling upon them, which Mrs. Smith considered could be done by new furniture and house enlargement alone.
'And, John, mind one thing,' she said in conclusion. 'In writing to Stephen, never by any means mention the name of Elfride Swancourt again. We've left the place, and know no more about her except by hearsay. He seems to be getting free of her, and glad am I for it. It was a cloudy hour for him when he first set eyes upon the girl. That family's been no good to him, first or last; so let them keep their blood to themselves if they want to. He thinks of her, I know, but not so hopelessly. So don't try to know anything about her, and we can't answer his questions. She may die out of his mind then.'
'That shall be it,' said John.
'After many days.'
Knight roamed south, under colour of studying Continental antiquities.
He paced the lofty aisles of Amiens, loitered by Ardennes Abbey, climbed into the strange towers of Laon, analyzed Noyon and Rheims. Then he went to Chartres, and examined its scaly spires and quaint carving then he idled about Coutances. He rowed beneath the base of Mont St. Michel, and caught the varied skyline of the crumbling edifices encrusting it. St. Ouen's, Rouen, knew him for days; so did Vezelay, Sens, and many a hallowed monument besides. Abandoning the inspection of early French art with the same purposeless haste as he had shown in undertaking it, he went further, and lingered about Ferrara, Padua, and Pisa. Satiated with mediaevalism, he tried the Roman Forum. Next he observed moonlight and starlight effects by the bay of Naples. He turned to Austria, became enervated and depressed on Hungarian and Bohemian plains, and was refreshed again by breezes on the declivities of the Carpathians.
Then he found himself in Greece. He visited the plain of Marathon, and strove to imagine the Persian defeat; to Mars Hill, to picture St. Paul addressing the ancient Athenians; to Thermopylae and Salamis, to run through the facts and traditions of the Second Invasion—the result of his endeavours being more or less chaotic. Knight grew as weary of these places as of all others. Then he felt the shock of an earthquake in the Ionian Islands, and went to Venice. Here he shot in gondolas up and down the winding thoroughfare of the Grand Canal, and loitered on calle and piazza at night, when the lagunes were undisturbed by a ripple, and no sound was to be heard but the stroke of the midnight clock. Afterwards he remained for weeks in the museums, galleries, and libraries of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris; and thence came home.
Time thus rolls us on to a February afternoon, divided by fifteen months from the parting of Elfride and her lover in the brown stubble field towards the sea.
Two men obviously not Londoners, and with a touch of foreignness in their look, met by accident on one of the gravel walks leading across Hyde Park. The younger, more given to looking about him than his fellow, saw and noticed the approach of his senior some time before the latter had raised his eyes from the ground, upon which they were bent in an abstracted gaze that seemed habitual with him.
'Mr. Knight—indeed it is!' exclaimed the younger man.
'Ah, Stephen Smith!' said Knight.
Simultaneous operations might now have been observed progressing in both, the result being that an expression less frank and impulsive than the first took possession of their features. It was manifest that the next words uttered were a superficial covering to constraint on both sides.
'Have you been in England long?' said Knight.
'Only two days,' said Smith.
'India ever since?'
'Nearly ever since.'
'They were making a fuss about you at St. Launce's last year. I fancy I saw something of the sort in the papers.'
'Yes; I believe something was said about me.'
'I must congratulate you on your achievements.'
'Thanks, but they are nothing very extraordinary. A natural professional progress where there was no opposition.'
There followed that want of words which will always assert itself between nominal friends who find they have ceased to be real ones, and have not yet sunk to the level of mere acquaintance. Each looked up and down the Park. Knight may possibly have borne in mind during the intervening months Stephen's manner towards him the last time they had met, and may have encouraged his former interest in Stephen's welfare to die out of him as misplaced. Stephen certainly was full of the feelings begotten by the belief that Knight had taken away the woman he loved so well.
Stephen Smith then asked a question, adopting a certain recklessness of manner and tone to hide, if possible, the fact that the subject was a much greater one to him than his friend had ever supposed.
'Are you married?'
'I am not.'
Knight spoke in an indescribable tone of bitterness that was almost moroseness.
'And I never shall be,' he added decisively. 'Are you?'
'No,' said Stephen, sadly and quietly, like a man in a sick-room. Totally ignorant whether or not Knight knew of his own previous claims upon Elfride, he yet resolved to hazard a few more words upon the topic which had an aching fascination for him even now.
'Then your engagement to Miss Swancourt came to nothing,' he said. 'You remember I met you with her once?'
Stephen's voice gave way a little here, in defiance of his firmest will to the contrary. Indian affairs had not yet lowered those emotions down to the point of control.
'It was broken off,' came quickly from Knight. 'Engagements to marry often end like that—for better or for worse.'
'Yes; so they do. And what have you been doing lately?'
'Where have you been?'
'I can hardly tell you. In the main, going about Europe; and it may perhaps interest you to know that I have been attempting the serious study of Continental art of the Middle Ages. My notes on each example I visited are at your service. They are of no use to me.'
'I shall be glad with them....Oh, travelling far and near!'
'Not far,' said Knight, with moody carelessness. 'You know, I daresay, that sheep occasionally become giddy—hydatids in the head, 'tis called, in which their brains become eaten up, and the animal exhibits the strange peculiarity of walking round and round in a circle continually. I have travelled just in the same way—round and round like a giddy ram.'
The reckless, bitter, and rambling style in which Knight talked, as if rather to vent his images than to convey any ideas to Stephen, struck the young man painfully. His former friend's days had become cankered in some way: Knight was a changed man. He himself had changed much, but not as Knight had changed.
'Yesterday I came home,' continued Knight, 'without having, to the best of my belief, imbibed half-a-dozen ideas worth retaining.'
'You out-Hamlet Hamlet in morbidness of mood,' said Stephen, with regretful frankness.
Knight made no reply.
'Do you know,' Stephen continued, 'I could almost have sworn that you would be married before this time, from what I saw?'
Knight's face grew harder. 'Could you?' he said.
Stephen was powerless to forsake the depressing, luring subject.
'Yes; and I simply wonder at it.'
'Whom did you expect me to marry?'
'Her I saw you with.'
'Thank you for that wonder.'
'Did she jilt you?'
'Smith, now one word to you,' Knight returned steadily. 'Don't you ever question me on that subject. I have a reason for making this request, mind. And if you do question me, you will not get an answer.'
'Oh, I don't for a moment wish to ask what is unpleasant to you—not I. I had a momentary feeling that I should like to explain something on my side, and hear a similar explanation on yours. But let it go, let it go, by all means.'
'What would you explain?'
'I lost the woman I was going to marry: you have not married as you intended. We might have compared notes.'
'I have never asked you a word about your case.'
'I know that.'
'And the inference is obvious.'
'The truth is, Stephen, I have doggedly resolved never to allude to the matter—for which I have a very good reason.'
'Doubtless. As good a reason as you had for not marrying her.'
'You talk insidiously. I had a good one—a miserably good one!'
Smith's anxiety urged him to venture one more question.
'Did she not love you enough?' He drew his breath in a slow and attenuated stream, as he waited in timorous hope for the answer.
'Stephen, you rather strain ordinary courtesy in pressing questions of that kind after what I have said. I cannot understand you at all. I must go on now.'
'Why, good God!' exclaimed Stephen passionately, 'you talk as if you hadn't at all taken her away from anybody who had better claims to her than you!'
'What do you mean by that?' said Knight, with a puzzled air. 'What have you heard?'
'Nothing. I too must go on. Good-day.'
'If you will go,' said Knight, reluctantly now, 'you must, I suppose. I am sure I cannot understand why you behave so.'
'Nor I why you do. I have always been grateful to you, and as far as I am concerned we need never have become so estranged as we have.'
'And have I ever been anything but well-disposed towards you, Stephen? Surely you know that I have not! The system of reserve began with you: you know that.'
'No, no! You altogether mistake our position. You were always from the first reserved to me, though I was confidential to you. That was, I suppose, the natural issue of our differing positions in life. And when I, the pupil, became reserved like you, the master, you did not like it. However, I was going to ask you to come round and see me.'
'Where are you staying?'
'At the Grosvenor Hotel, Pimlico.'
'So am I.'
'That's convenient, not to say odd. Well, I am detained in London for a day or two; then I am going down to see my father and mother, who live at St. Launce's now. Will you see me this evening?'
'I may; but I will not promise. I was wishing to be alone for an hour or two; but I shall know where to find you, at any rate. Good-bye.'
'Jealousy is cruel as the grave.'
Stephen pondered not a little on this meeting with his old friend and once-beloved exemplar. He was grieved, for amid all the distractions of his latter years a still small voice of fidelity to Knight had lingered on in him. Perhaps this staunchness was because Knight ever treated him as a mere disciple—even to snubbing him sometimes; and had at last, though unwittingly, inflicted upon him the greatest snub of all, that of taking away his sweetheart. The emotional side of his constitution was built rather after a feminine than a male model; and that tremendous wound from Knight's hand may have tended to keep alive a warmth which solicitousness would have extinguished altogether.
Knight, on his part, was vexed, after they had parted, that he had not taken Stephen in hand a little after the old manner. Those words which Smith had let fall concerning somebody having a prior claim to Elfride, would, if uttered when the man was younger, have provoked such a query as, 'Come, tell me all about it, my lad,' from Knight, and Stephen would straightway have delivered himself of all he knew on the subject.
Stephen the ingenuous boy, though now obliterated externally by Stephen the contriving man, returned to Knight's memory vividly that afternoon. He was at present but a sojourner in London; and after attending to the two or three matters of business which remained to be done that day, he walked abstractedly into the gloomy corridors of the British Museum for the half-hour previous to their closing. That meeting with Smith had reunited the present with the past, closing up the chasm of his absence from England as if it had never existed, until the final circumstances of his previous time of residence in London formed but a yesterday to the circumstances now. The conflict that then had raged in him concerning Elfride Swancourt revived, strengthened by its sleep. Indeed, in those many months of absence, though quelling the intention to make her his wife, he had never forgotten that she was the type of woman adapted to his nature; and instead of trying to obliterate thoughts of her altogether, he had grown to regard them as an infirmity it was necessary to tolerate.
Knight returned to his hotel much earlier in the evening than he would have done in the ordinary course of things. He did not care to think whether this arose from a friendly wish to close the gap that had slowly been widening between himself and his earliest acquaintance, or from a hankering desire to hear the meaning of the dark oracles Stephen had hastily pronounced, betokening that he knew something more of Elfride than Knight had supposed.
He made a hasty dinner, inquired for Smith, and soon was ushered into the young man's presence, whom he found sitting in front of a comfortable fire, beside a table spread with a few scientific periodicals and art reviews.
'I have come to you, after all,' said Knight. 'My manner was odd this morning, and it seemed desirable to call; but that you had too much sense to notice, Stephen, I know. Put it down to my wanderings in France and Italy.'
'Don't say another word, but sit down. I am only too glad to see you again.'
Stephen would hardly have cared to tell Knight just then that the minute before Knight was announced he had been reading over some old letters of Elfride's. They were not many; and until to-night had been sealed up, and stowed away in a corner of his leather trunk, with a few other mementoes and relics which had accompanied him in his travels. The familiar sights and sounds of London, the meeting with his friend, had with him also revived that sense of abiding continuity with regard to Elfride and love which his absence at the other side of the world had to some extent suspended, though never ruptured. He at first intended only to look over these letters on the outside; then he read one; then another; until the whole was thus re-used as a stimulus to sad memories. He folded them away again, placed them in his pocket, and instead of going on with an examination into the state of the artistic world, had remained musing on the strange circumstance that he had returned to find Knight not the husband of Elfride after all.
The possibility of any given gratification begets a cumulative sense of its necessity. Stephen gave the rein to his imagination, and felt more intensely than he had felt for many months that, without Elfride, his life would never be any great pleasure to himself, or honour to his Maker.
They sat by the fire, chatting on external and random subjects, neither caring to be the first to approach the matter each most longed to discuss. On the table with the periodicals lay two or three pocket-books, one of them being open. Knight seeing from the exposed page that the contents were sketches only, began turning the leaves over carelessly with his finger. When, some time later, Stephen was out of the room, Knight proceeded to pass the interval by looking at the sketches more carefully.
The first crude ideas, pertaining to dwellings of all kinds, were roughly outlined on the different pages. Antiquities had been copied; fragments of Indian columns, colossal statues, and outlandish ornament from the temples of Elephanta and Kenneri, were carelessly intruded upon by outlines of modern doors, windows, roofs, cooking-stoves, and household furniture; everything, in short, which comes within the range of a practising architect's experience, who travels with his eyes open. Among these occasionally appeared rough delineations of mediaeval subjects for carving or illumination—heads of Virgins, Saints, and Prophets.
Stephen was not professedly a free-hand draughtsman, but he drew the human figure with correctness and skill. In its numerous repetitions on the sides and edges of the leaves, Knight began to notice a peculiarity. All the feminine saints had one type of feature. There were large nimbi and small nimbi about their drooping heads, but the face was always the same. That profile—how well Knight knew that profile!
Had there been but one specimen of the familiar countenance, he might have passed over the resemblance as accidental; but a repetition meant more. Knight thought anew of Smith's hasty words earlier in the day, and looked at the sketches again and again.
On the young man's entry, Knight said with palpable agitation—
'Stephen, who are those intended for?'
Stephen looked over the book with utter unconcern, 'Saints and angels, done in my leisure moments. They were intended as designs for the stained glass of an English church.'
'But whom do you idealize by that type of woman you always adopt for the Virgin?'
And then a thought raced along Stephen's mind and he looked up at his friend.
The truth is, Stephen's introduction of Elfride's lineaments had been so unconscious that he had not at first understood his companion's drift. The hand, like the tongue, easily acquires the trick of repetition by rote, without calling in the mind to assist at all; and this had been the case here. Young men who cannot write verses about their Loves generally take to portraying them, and in the early days of his attachment Smith had never been weary of outlining Elfride. The lay-figure of Stephen's sketches now initiated an adjustment of many things. Knight had recognized her. The opportunity of comparing notes had come unsought.
'Elfride Swancourt, to whom I was engaged,' he said quietly.
'I know what you mean by speaking like that.'
'Was it Elfride? YOU the man, Stephen?'
'Yes; and you are thinking why did I conceal the fact from you that time at Endelstow, are you not?'
'Yes, and more—more.'
'I did it for the best; blame me if you will; I did it for the best. And now say how could I be with you afterwards as I had been before?'
'I don't know at all; I can't say.'
Knight remained fixed in thought, and once he murmured—
'I had a suspicion this afternoon that there might be some such meaning in your words about my taking her away. But I dismissed it. How came you to know her?' he presently asked, in almost a peremptory tone.
'I went down about the church; years ago now.'
'When you were with Hewby, of course, of course. Well, I can't understand it.' His tones rose. 'I don't know what to say, your hoodwinking me like this for so long!'
'I don't see that I have hoodwinked you at all.'
'Yes, yes, but'——
Knight arose from his seat, and began pacing up and down the room. His face was markedly pale, and his voice perturbed, as he said—
'You did not act as I should have acted towards you under those circumstances. I feel it deeply; and I tell you plainly, I shall never forget it!'
'Your behaviour at that meeting in the family vault, when I told you we were going to be married. Deception, dishonesty, everywhere; all the world's of a piece!'
Stephen did not much like this misconstruction of his motives, even though it was but the hasty conclusion of a friend disturbed by emotion.
'I could do no otherwise than I did, with due regard to her,' he said stiffly.
'Indeed!' said Knight, in the bitterest tone of reproach. 'Nor could you with due regard to her have married her, I suppose! I have hoped—longed—that HE, who turns out to be YOU, would ultimately have done that.'
'I am much obliged to you for that hope. But you talk very mysteriously. I think I had about the best reason anybody could have had for not doing that.'
'Oh, what reason was it?'
'That I could not.'
'You ought to have made an opportunity; you ought to do so now, in bare justice to her, Stephen!' cried Knight, carried beyond himself. 'That you know very well, and it hurts and wounds me more than you dream to find you never have tried to make any reparation to a woman of that kind—so trusting, so apt to be run away with by her feelings—poor little fool, so much the worse for her!'
'Why, you talk like a madman! You took her away from me, did you not?'
'Picking up what another throws down can scarcely be called "taking away." However, we shall not agree too well upon that subject, so we had better part.'
'But I am quite certain you misapprehend something most grievously,' said Stephen, shaken to the bottom of his heart. 'What have I done; tell me? I have lost Elfride, but is that such a sin?'
'Was it her doing, or yours?'
'That you parted.'
'I will tell you honestly. It was hers entirely, entirely.'
'What was her reason?'
'I can hardly say. But I'll tell the story without reserve.'
Stephen until to-day had unhesitatingly held that she grew tired of him and turned to Knight; but he did not like to advance the statement now, or even to think the thought. To fancy otherwise accorded better with the hope to which Knight's estrangement had given birth: that love for his friend was not the direct cause, but a result of her suspension of love for himself.
'Such a matter must not be allowed to breed discord between us,' Knight returned, relapsing into a manner which concealed all his true feeling, as if confidence now was intolerable. 'I do see that your reticence towards me in the vault may have been dictated by prudential considerations.' He concluded artificially, 'It was a strange thing altogether; but not of much importance, I suppose, at this distance of time; and it does not concern me now, though I don't mind hearing your story.'
These words from Knight, uttered with such an air of renunciation and apparent indifference, prompted Smith to speak on—perhaps with a little complacency—of his old secret engagement to Elfride. He told the details of its origin, and the peremptory words and actions of her father to extinguish their love.
Knight persevered in the tone and manner of a disinterested outsider. It had become more than ever imperative to screen his emotions from Stephen's eye; the young man would otherwise be less frank, and their meeting would be again embittered. What was the use of untoward candour?
Stephen had now arrived at the point in his ingenuous narrative where he left the vicarage because of her father's manner. Knight's interest increased. Their love seemed so innocent and childlike thus far.
'It is a nice point in casuistry,' he observed, 'to decide whether you were culpable or not in not telling Swancourt that your friends were parishioners of his. It was only human nature to hold your tongue under the circumstances. Well, what was the result of your dismissal by him?'
'That we agreed to be secretly faithful. And to insure this we thought we would marry.'
Knight's suspense and agitation rose higher when Stephen entered upon this phase of the subject.
'Do you mind telling on?' he said, steadying his manner of speech.
'Oh, not at all.'
Then Stephen gave in full the particulars of the meeting with Elfride at the railway station; the necessity they were under of going to London, unless the ceremony were to be postponed. The long journey of the afternoon and evening; her timidity and revulsion of feeling; its culmination on reaching London; the crossing over to the down-platform and their immediate departure again, solely in obedience to her wish; the journey all night; their anxious watching for the dawn; their arrival at St. Launce's at last—were detailed. And he told how a village woman named Jethway was the only person who recognized them, either going or coming; and how dreadfully this terrified Elfride. He told how he waited in the fields whilst this then reproachful sweetheart went for her pony, and how the last kiss he ever gave her was given a mile out of the town, on the way to Endelstow.
These things Stephen related with a will. He believed that in doing so he established word by word the reasonableness of his claim to Elfride.
'Curse her! curse that woman!—that miserable letter that parted us! O God!'
Knight began pacing the room again, and uttered this at further end.
'What did you say?' said Stephen, turning round.
'Say? Did I say anything? Oh, I was merely thinking about your story, and the oddness of my having a fancy for the same woman afterwards. And that now I—I have forgotten her almost; and neither of us care about her, except just as a friend, you know, eh?'
Knight still continued at the further end of the room, somewhat in shadow.
'Exactly,' said Stephen, inwardly exultant, for he was really deceived by Knight's off-hand manner.
Yet he was deceived less by the completeness of Knight's disguise than by the persuasive power which lay in the fact that Knight had never before deceived him in anything. So this supposition that his companion had ceased to love Elfride was an enormous lightening of the weight which had turned the scale against him.
'Admitting that Elfride COULD love another man after you,' said the elder, under the same varnish of careless criticism, 'she was none the worse for that experience.'
'The worse? Of course she was none the worse.'
'Did you ever think it a wild and thoughtless thing for her to do?'
'Indeed, I never did,' said Stephen. 'I persuaded her. She saw no harm in it until she decided to return, nor did I; nor was there, except to the extent of indiscretion.'
'Directly she thought it was wrong she would go no further?'
'That was it. I had just begun to think it wrong too.'
'Such a childish escapade might have been misrepresented by any evil-disposed person, might it not?'
'It might; but I never heard that it was. Nobody who really knew all the circumstances would have done otherwise than smile. If all the world had known it, Elfride would still have remained the only one who thought her action a sin. Poor child, she always persisted in thinking so, and was frightened more than enough.'
'Stephen, do you love her now?'
'Well, I like her; I always shall, you know,' he said evasively, and with all the strategy love suggested. 'But I have not seen her for so long that I can hardly be expected to love her. Do you love her still?'
'How shall I answer without being ashamed? What fickle beings we men are, Stephen! Men may love strongest for a while, but women love longest. I used to love her—in my way, you know.'
'Yes, I understand. Ah, and I used to love her in my way. In fact, I loved her a good deal at one time; but travel has a tendency to obliterate early fancies.'
'It has—it has, truly.'
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature in this conversation was the circumstance that, though each interlocutor had at first his suspicions of the other's abiding passion awakened by several little acts, neither would allow himself to see that his friend might now be speaking deceitfully as well as he.
'Stephen.' resumed Knight, 'now that matters are smooth between us, I think I must leave you. You won't mind my hurrying off to my quarters?'
'You'll stay to some sort of supper surely? didn't you come to dinner!'
'You must really excuse me this once.'
'Then you'll drop in to breakfast to-morrow.'
'I shall be rather pressed for time.'
'An early breakfast, which shall interfere with nothing?'
'I'll come,' said Knight, with as much readiness as it was possible to graft upon a huge stock of reluctance. 'Yes, early; eight o'clock say, as we are under the same roof.'
'Any time you like. Eight it shall be.'
And Knight left him. To wear a mask, to dissemble his feelings as he had in their late miserable conversation, was such torture that he could support it no longer. It was the first time in Knight's life that he had ever been so entirely the player of a part. And the man he had thus deceived was Stephen, who had docilely looked up to him from youth as a superior of unblemished integrity.
He went to bed, and allowed the fever of his excitement to rage uncontrolled. Stephen—it was only he who was the rival—only Stephen! There was an anti-climax of absurdity which Knight, wretched and conscience-stricken as he was, could not help recognizing. Stephen was but a boy to him. Where the great grief lay was in perceiving that the very innocence of Elfride in reading her little fault as one so grave was what had fatally misled him. Had Elfride, with any degree of coolness, asserted that she had done no harm, the poisonous breath of the dead Mrs. Jethway would have been inoperative. Why did he not make his little docile girl tell more? If on that subject he had only exercised the imperativeness customary with him on others, all might have been revealed. It smote his heart like a switch when he remembered how gently she had borne his scourging speeches, never answering him with a single reproach, only assuring him of her unbounded love.
Knight blessed Elfride for her sweetness, and forgot her fault. He pictured with a vivid fancy those fair summer scenes with her. He again saw her as at their first meeting, timid at speaking, yet in her eagerness to be explanatory borne forward almost against her will. How she would wait for him in green places, without showing any of the ordinary womanly affectations of indifference! How proud she was to be seen walking with him, bearing legibly in her eyes the thought that he was the greatest genius in the world!
He formed a resolution; and after that could make pretence of slumber no longer. Rising and dressing himself, he sat down and waited for day.
That night Stephen was restless too. Not because of the unwontedness of a return to English scenery; not because he was about to meet his parents, and settle down for awhile to English cottage life. He was indulging in dreams, and for the nonce the warehouses of Bombay and the plains and forts of Poonah were but a shadow's shadow. His dream was based on this one atom of fact: Elfride and Knight had become separated, and their engagement was as if it had never been. Their rupture must have occurred soon after Stephen's discovery of the fact of their union; and, Stephen went on to think, what so probable as that a return of her errant affection to himself was the cause?
Stephen's opinions in this matter were those of a lover, and not the balanced judgment of an unbiassed spectator. His naturally sanguine spirit built hope upon hope, till scarcely a doubt remained in his mind that her lingering tenderness for him had in some way been perceived by Knight, and had provoked their parting.
To go and see Elfride was the suggestion of impulses it was impossible to withstand. At any rate, to run down from St. Launce's to Castle Poterel, a distance of less than twenty miles, and glide like a ghost about their old haunts, making stealthy inquiries about her, would be a fascinating way of passing the first spare hours after reaching home on the day after the morrow.
He was now a richer man than heretofore, standing on his own bottom; and the definite position in which he had rooted himself nullified old local distinctions. He had become illustrious, even sanguine clarus, judging from the tone of the worthy Mayor of St. Launce's.
'Each to the loved one's side.'
The friends and rivals breakfasted together the next morning. Not a word was said on either side upon the matter discussed the previous evening so glibly and so hollowly. Stephen was absorbed the greater part of the time in wishing he were not forced to stay in town yet another day.
'I don't intend to leave for St. Launce's till to-morrow, as you know,' he said to Knight at the end of the meal. 'What are you going to do with yourself to-day?'
'I have an engagement just before ten,' said Knight deliberately; 'and after that time I must call upon two or three people.'
'I'll look for you this evening,' said Stephen.
'Yes, do. You may as well come and dine with me; that is, if we can meet. I may not sleep in London to-night; in fact, I am absolutely unsettled as to my movements yet. However, the first thing I am going to do is to get my baggage shifted from this place to Bede's Inn. Good-bye for the present. I'll write, you know, if I can't meet you.'
It now wanted a quarter to nine o'clock. When Knight was gone, Stephen felt yet more impatient of the circumstance that another day would have to drag itself away wearily before he could set out for that spot of earth whereon a soft thought of him might perhaps be nourished still. On a sudden he admitted to his mind the possibility that the engagement he was waiting in town to keep might be postponed without much harm.
It was no sooner perceived than attempted. Looking at his watch, he found it wanted forty minutes to the departure of the ten o'clock train from Paddington, which left him a surplus quarter of an hour before it would be necessary to start for the station.
Scribbling a hasty note or two—one putting off the business meeting, another to Knight apologizing for not being able to see him in the evening—paying his bill, and leaving his heavier luggage to follow him by goods-train, he jumped into a cab and rattled off to the Great Western Station.
Shortly afterwards he took his seat in the railway carriage.
The guard paused on his whistle, to let into the next compartment to Smith's a man of whom Stephen had caught but a hasty glimpse as he ran across the platform at the last moment.
Smith sank back into the carriage, stilled by perplexity. The man was like Knight—astonishingly like him. Was it possible it could be he? To have got there he must have driven like the wind to Bede's Inn, and hardly have alighted before starting again. No, it could not be he; that was not his way of doing things.
During the early part of the journey Stephen Smith's thoughts busied themselves till his brain seemed swollen. One subject was concerning his own approaching actions. He was a day earlier than his letter to his parents had stated, and his arrangement with them had been that they should meet him at Plymouth; a plan which pleased the worthy couple beyond expression. Once before the same engagement had been made, which he had then quashed by ante-dating his arrival. This time he would go right on to Castle Boterel; ramble in that well-known neighbourhood during the evening and next morning, making inquiries; and return to Plymouth to meet them as arranged—a contrivance which would leave their cherished project undisturbed, relieving his own impatience also.
At Chippenham there was a little waiting, and some loosening and attaching of carriages.
Stephen looked out. At the same moment another man's head emerged from the adjoining window. Each looked in the other's face.
Knight and Stephen confronted one another.
'You here!' said the younger man.
'Yes. It seems that you are too,' said Knight, strangely.
The selfishness of love and the cruelty of jealousy were fairly exemplified at this moment. Each of the two men looked at his friend as he had never looked at him before. Each was TROUBLED at the other's presence.
'I thought you said you were not coming till to-morrow,' remarked Knight.
'I did. It was an afterthought to come to-day. This journey was your engagement, then?'
'No, it was not. This is an afterthought of mine too. I left a note to explain it, and account for my not being able to meet you this evening as we arranged.'
'So did I for you.'
'You don't look well: you did not this morning.'
'I have a headache. You are paler to-day than you were.'
'I, too, have been suffering from headache. We have to wait here a few minutes, I think.'
They walked up and down the platform, each one more and more embarrassingly concerned with the awkwardness of his friend's presence. They reached the end of the footway, and paused in sheer absent-mindedness. Stephen's vacant eyes rested upon the operations of some porters, who were shifting a dark and curious-looking van from the rear of the train, to shunt another which was between it and the fore part of the train. This operation having been concluded, the two friends returned to the side of their carriage.
'Will you come in here?' said Knight, not very warmly.
'I have my rug and portmanteau and umbrella with me: it is rather bothering to move now,' said Stephen reluctantly. 'Why not you come here?'
'I have my traps too. It is hardly worth while to shift them, for I shall see you again, you know.'
And each got into his own place. Just at starting, a man on the platform held up his hands and stopped the train.
Stephen looked out to see what was the matter.
One of the officials was exclaiming to another, 'That carriage should have been attached again. Can't you see it is for the main line? Quick! What fools there are in the world!'
'What a confounded nuisance these stoppages are!' exclaimed Knight impatiently, looking out from his compartment. 'What is it?'
'That singular carriage we saw has been unfastened from our train by mistake, it seems,' said Stephen.
He was watching the process of attaching it. The van or carriage, which he now recognized as having seen at Paddington before they started, was rich and solemn rather than gloomy in aspect. It seemed to be quite new, and of modern design, and its impressive personality attracted the notice of others beside himself. He beheld it gradually wheeled forward by two men on each side: slower and more sadly it seemed to approach: then a slight concussion, and they were connected with it, and off again.
Stephen sat all the afternoon pondering upon the reason of Knight's unexpected reappearance. Was he going as far as Castle Boterel? If so, he could only have one object in view—a visit to Elfride. And what an idea it seemed!
At Plymouth Smith partook of a little refreshment, and then went round to the side from which the train started for Camelton, the new station near Castle Boterel and Endelstow.
Knight was already there.
Stephen walked up and stood beside him without speaking. Two men at this moment crept out from among the wheels of the waiting train.
'The carriage is light enough,' said one in a grim tone. 'Light as vanity; full of nothing.'
'Nothing in size, but a good deal in signification,' said the other, a man of brighter mind and manners.
Smith then perceived that to their train was attached that same carriage of grand and dark aspect which had haunted them all the way from London.
'You are going on, I suppose?' said Knight, turning to Stephen, after idly looking at the same object.
'We may as well travel together for the remaining distance, may we not?'
'Certainly we will;' and they both entered the same door.
Evening drew on apace. It chanced to be the eve of St. Valentine's—that bishop of blessed memory to youthful lovers—and the sun shone low under the rim of a thick hard cloud, decorating the eminences of the landscape with crowns of orange fire. As the train changed its direction on a curve, the same rays stretched in through the window, and coaxed open Knight's half-closed eyes.
'You will get out at St. Launce's, I suppose?' he murmured.
'No,' said Stephen, 'I am not expected till to-morrow.' Knight was silent.
'And you—are you going to Endelstow?' said the younger man pointedly.
'Since you ask, I can do no less than say I am, Stephen,' continued Knight slowly, and with more resolution of manner than he had shown all the day. 'I am going to Endelstow to see if Elfride Swancourt is still free; and if so, to ask her to be my wife.'
'So am I,' said Stephen Smith.
'I think you'll lose your labour,' Knight returned with decision.
'Naturally you do.' There was a strong accent of bitterness in Stephen's voice. 'You might have said HOPE instead of THINK,' he added.
'I might have done no such thing. I gave you my opinion. Elfride Swancourt may have loved you once, no doubt, but it was when she was so young that she hardly knew her own mind.'
'Thank you,' said Stephen laconically. 'She knew her mind as well as I did. We are the same age. If you hadn't interfered——'
'Don't say that—don't say it, Stephen! How can you make out that I interfered? Be just, please!'
'Well,' said his friend, 'she was mine before she was yours—you know that! And it seemed a hard thing to find you had got her, and that if it had not been for you, all might have turned out well for me.' Stephen spoke with a swelling heart, and looked out of the window to hide the emotion that would make itself visible upon his face.
'It is absurd,' said Knight in a kinder tone, 'for you to look at the matter in that light. What I tell you is for your good. You naturally do not like to realize the truth—that her liking for you was only a girl's first fancy, which has no root ever.'
'It is not true!' said Stephen passionately. 'It was you put me out. And now you'll be pushing in again between us, and depriving me of my chance again! My right, that's what it is! How ungenerous of you to come anew and try to take her away from me! When you had won her, I did not interfere; and you might, I think, Mr. Knight, do by me as I did by you!'
'Don't "Mr." me; you are as well in the world as I am now.'
'First love is deepest; and that was mine.'
'Who told you that?' said Knight superciliously.
'I had her first love. And it was through me that you and she parted. I can guess that well enough.'
'It was. And if I were to explain to you in what way that operated in parting us, I should convince you that you do quite wrong in intruding upon her—that, as I said at first, your labour will be lost. I don't choose to explain, because the particulars are painful. But if you won't listen to me, go on, for Heaven's sake. I don't care what you do, my boy.'
'You have no right to domineer over me as you do. Just because, when I was a lad, I was accustomed to look up to you as a master, and you helped me a little, for which I was grateful to you and have loved you, you assume too much now, and step in before me. It is cruel—it is unjust—of you to injure me so!'
Knight showed himself keenly hurt at this. 'Stephen, those words are untrue and unworthy of any man, and they are unworthy of you. You know you wrong me. If you have ever profited by any instruction of mine, I am only too glad to know it. You know it was given ungrudgingly, and that I have never once looked upon it as making you in any way a debtor to me.'
Stephen's naturally gentle nature was touched, and it was in a troubled voice that he said, 'Yes, yes. I am unjust in that—I own it.'
'This is St. Launce's Station, I think. Are you going to get out?'
Knight's manner of returning to the matter in hand drew Stephen again into himself. 'No; I told you I was going to Endelstow,' he resolutely replied.
Knight's features became impassive, and he said no more. The train continued rattling on, and Stephen leant back in his corner and closed his eyes. The yellows of evening had turned to browns, the dusky shades thickened, and a flying cloud of dust occasionally stroked the window—borne upon a chilling breeze which blew from the north-east. The previously gilded but now dreary hills began to lose their daylight aspects of rotundity, and to become black discs vandyked against the sky, all nature wearing the cloak that six o'clock casts over the landscape at this time of the year.
Stephen started up in bewilderment after a long stillness, and it was some time before he recollected himself.
'Well, how real, how real!' he exclaimed, brushing his hand across his eyes.
'What is?' said Knight.
'That dream. I fell asleep for a few minutes, and have had a dream—the most vivid I ever remember.'
He wearily looked out into the gloom. They were now drawing near to Camelton. The lighting of the lamps was perceptible through the veil of evening—each flame starting into existence at intervals, and blinking weakly against the gusts of wind.
'What did you dream?' said Knight moodily.
'Oh, nothing to be told. 'Twas a sort of incubus. There is never anything in dreams.'
'I hardly supposed there was.'
'I know that. However, what I so vividly dreamt was this, since you would like to hear. It was the brightest of bright mornings at East Endelstow Church, and you and I stood by the font. Far away in the chancel Lord Luxellian was standing alone, cold and impassive, and utterly unlike his usual self: but I knew it was he. Inside the altar rail stood a strange clergyman with his book open. He looked up and said to Lord Luxellian, "Where's the bride?" Lord Luxellian said, "There's no bride." At that moment somebody came in at the door, and I knew her to be Lady Luxellian who died. He turned and said to her, "I thought you were in the vault below us; but that could have only been a dream of mine. Come on." Then she came on. And in brushing between us she chilled me so with cold that I exclaimed, "The life is gone out of me!" and, in the way of dreams, I awoke. But here we are at Camelton.'
They were slowly entering the station.
'What are you going to do?' said Knight. 'Do you really intend to call on the Swancourts?'
'By no means. I am going to make inquiries first. I shall stay at the Luxellian Arms to-night. You will go right on to Endelstow, I suppose, at once?'
'I can hardly do that at this time of the day. Perhaps you are not aware that the family—her father, at any rate—is at variance with me as much as with you.
'I didn't know it.'
'And that I cannot rush into the house as an old friend any more than you can. Certainly I have the privileges of a distant relationship, whatever they may be.'
Knight let down the window, and looked ahead. 'There are a great many people at the station,' he said. 'They seem all to be on the look-out for us.'
When the train stopped, the half-estranged friends could perceive by the lamplight that the assemblage of idlers enclosed as a kernel a group of men in black cloaks. A side gate in the platform railing was open, and outside this stood a dark vehicle, which they could not at first characterize. Then Knight saw on its upper part forms against the sky like cedars by night, and knew the vehicle to be a hearse. Few people were at the carriage doors to meet the passengers—the majority had congregated at this upper end. Knight and Stephen alighted, and turned for a moment in the same direction.
The sombre van, which had accompanied them all day from London, now began to reveal that their destination was also its own. It had been drawn up exactly opposite the open gate. The bystanders all fell back, forming a clear lane from the gateway to the van, and the men in cloaks entered the latter conveyance.
'They are labourers, I fancy,' said Stephen. 'Ah, it is strange; but I recognize three of them as Endelstow men. Rather remarkable this.'
Presently they began to come out, two and two; and under the rays of the lamp they were seen to bear between them a light-coloured coffin of satin-wood, brightly polished, and without a nail. The eight men took the burden upon their shoulders, and slowly crossed with it over to the gate.
Knight and Stephen went outside, and came close to the procession as it moved off. A carriage belonging to the cortege turned round close to a lamp. The rays shone in upon the face of the vicar of Endelstow, Mr. Swancourt—looking many years older than when they had last seen him. Knight and Stephen involuntarily drew back.
Knight spoke to a bystander. 'What has Mr. Swancourt to do with that funeral?'
'He is the lady's father,' said the bystander.
'What lady's father?' said Knight, in a voice so hollow that the man stared at him.
'The father of the lady in the coffin. She died in London, you know, and has been brought here by this train. She is to be taken home to-night, and buried to-morrow.'
Knight stood staring blindly at where the hearse had been; as if he saw it, or some one, there. Then he turned, and beheld the lithe form of Stephen bowed down like that of an old man. He took his young friend's arm, and led him away from the light.
'Welcome, proud lady.'
Half an hour has passed. Two miserable men are wandering in the darkness up the miles of road from Camelton to Endelstow.
'Has she broken her heart?' said Henry Knight. 'Can it be that I have killed her? I was bitter with her, Stephen, and she has died! And may God have NO mercy upon me!'
'How can you have killed her more than I?'
'Why, I went away from her—stole away almost—and didn't tell her I should not come again; and at that last meeting I did not kiss her once, but let her miserably go. I have been a fool—a fool! I wish the most abject confession of it before crowds of my countrymen could in any way make amends to my darling for the intense cruelty I have shown her!'
'YOUR darling!' said Stephen, with a sort of laugh. 'Any man can say that, I suppose; any man can. I know this, she was MY darling before she was yours; and after too. If anybody has a right to call her his own, it is I.'
'You talk like a man in the dark; which is what you are. Did she ever do anything for you? Risk her name, for instance, for you?'
Yes, she did,' said Stephen emphatically.
'Not entirely. Did she ever live for you—prove she could not live without you—laugh and weep for you?'
'Never! Did she ever risk her life for you—no! My darling did for me.'
'Then it was in kindness only. When did she risk her life for you?'
'To save mine on the cliff yonder. The poor child was with me looking at the approach of the Puffin steamboat, and I slipped down. We both had a narrow escape. I wish we had died there!'
'Ah, but wait,' Stephen pleaded with wet eyes. 'She went on that cliff to see me arrive home: she had promised it. She told me she would months before. And would she have gone there if she had not cared for me at all?'
'You have an idea that Elfride died for you, no doubt,' said Knight, with a mournful sarcasm too nerveless to support itself.
'Never mind. If we find that—that she died yours, I'll say no more ever.'
'And if we find she died yours, I'll say no more.'
'Very well—so it shall be.'
The dark clouds into which the sun had sunk had begun to drop rain in an increasing volume.
'Can we wait somewhere here till this shower is over?' said Stephen desultorily.
'As you will. But it is not worth while. We'll hear the particulars, and return. Don't let people know who we are. I am not much now.'
They had reached a point at which the road branched into two—just outside the west village, one fork of the diverging routes passing into the latter place, the other stretching on to East Endelstow. Having come some of the distance by the footpath, they now found that the hearse was only a little in advance of them.
'I fancy it has turned off to East Endelstow. Can you see?'
'I cannot. You must be mistaken.'
Knight and Stephen entered the village. A bar of fiery light lay across the road, proceeding from the half-open door of a smithy, in which bellows were heard blowing and a hammer ringing. The rain had increased, and they mechanically turned for shelter towards the warm and cosy scene.
Close at their heels came another man, without over-coat or umbrella, and with a parcel under his arm.
'A wet evening,' he said to the two friends, and passed by them. They stood in the outer penthouse, but the man went in to the fire.
The smith ceased his blowing, and began talking to the man who had entered.
'I have walked all the way from Camelton,' said the latter. 'Was obliged to come to-night, you know.'
He held the parcel, which was a flat one, towards the firelight, to learn if the rain had penetrated it. Resting it edgewise on the forge, he supported it perpendicularly with one hand, wiping his face with the handkerchief he held in the other.
'I suppose you know what I've got here?' he observed to the smith.
'No, I don't,' said the smith, pausing again on his bellows.
'As the rain's not over, I'll show you,' said the bearer.
He laid the thin and broad package, which had acute angles in different directions, flat upon the anvil, and the smith blew up the fire to give him more light. First, after untying the package, a sheet of brown paper was removed: this was laid flat. Then he unfolded a piece of baize: this also he spread flat on the paper. The third covering was a wrapper of tissue paper, which was spread out in its turn. The enclosure was revealed, and he held it up for the smith's inspection.
'Oh—I see!' said the smith, kindling with a chastened interest, and drawing close. 'Poor young lady—ah, terrible melancholy thing—so soon too!'
Knight and Stephen turned their heads and looked.
'And what's that?' continued the smith.
'That's the coronet—beautifully finished, isn't it? Ah, that cost some money!'
''Tis as fine a bit of metal work as ever I see—that 'tis.'
'It came from the same people as the coffin, you know, but was not ready soon enough to be sent round to the house in London yesterday. I've got to fix it on this very night.'
The carefully-packed articles were a coffin-plate and coronet.
Knight and Stephen came forward. The undertaker's man, on seeing them look for the inscription, civilly turned it round towards them, and each read, almost at one moment, by the ruddy light of the coals:
E L F R I D E, Wife of Spenser Hugo Luxellian, Fifteenth Baron Luxellian: Died February 10, 18—.
They read it, and read it, and read it again—Stephen and Knight—as if animated by one soul. Then Stephen put his hand upon Knight's arm, and they retired from the yellow glow, further, further, till the chill darkness enclosed them round, and the quiet sky asserted its presence overhead as a dim grey sheet of blank monotony.
'Where shall we go?' said Stephen.
'I don't know.'
A long silence ensued....'Elfride married!' said Stephen then in a thin whisper, as if he feared to let the assertion loose on the world.
'False,' whispered Knight.
'And dead. Denied us both. I hate "false"—I hate it!'
Knight made no answer.
Nothing was heard by them now save the slow measurement of time by their beating pulses, the soft touch of the dribbling rain upon their clothes, and the low purr of the blacksmith's bellows hard by.
'Shall we follow Elfie any further?' Stephen said.
'No: let us leave her alone. She is beyond our love, and let her be beyond our reproach. Since we don't know half the reasons that made her do as she did, Stephen, how can we say, even now, that she was not pure and true in heart?' Knight's voice had now become mild and gentle as a child's. He went on: 'Can we call her ambitious? No. Circumstance has, as usual, overpowered her purposes—fragile and delicate as she—liable to be overthrown in a moment by the coarse elements of accident. I know that's it,—don't you?'
'It may be—it must be. Let us go on.'
They began to bend their steps towards Castle Boterel, whither they had sent their bags from Camelton. They wandered on in silence for many minutes. Stephen then paused, and lightly put his hand within Knight's arm.
'I wonder how she came to die,' he said in a broken whisper. 'Shall we return and learn a little more?'
They turned back again, and entering Endelstow a second time, came to a door which was standing open. It was that of an inn called the Welcome Home, and the house appeared to have been recently repaired and entirely modernized. The name too was not that of the same landlord as formerly, but Martin Cannister's.
Knight and Smith entered. The inn was quite silent, and they followed the passage till they reached the kitchen, where a huge fire was burning, which roared up the chimney, and sent over the floor, ceiling, and newly-whitened walls a glare so intense as to make the candle quite a secondary light. A woman in a white apron and black gown was standing there alone behind a cleanly-scrubbed deal table. Stephen first, and Knight afterwards, recognized her as Unity, who had been parlour-maid at the vicarage and young lady's-maid at the Crags.
'Unity,' said Stephen softly, 'don't you know me?'
She looked inquiringly a moment, and her face cleared up.
'Mr. Smith—ay, that it is!' she said. 'And that's Mr. Knight. I beg you to sit down. Perhaps you know that since I saw you last I have married Martin Cannister.'
'How long have you been married?'
'About five months. We were married the same day that my dear Miss Elfie became Lady Luxellian.' Tears appeared in Unity's eyes, and filled them, and fell down her cheek, in spite of efforts to the contrary.
The pain of the two men in resolutely controlling themselves when thus exampled to admit relief of the same kind was distressing. They both turned their backs and walked a few steps away.
Then Unity said, 'Will you go into the parlour, gentlemen?'
'Let us stay here with her,' Knight whispered, and turning said, 'No; we will sit here. We want to rest and dry ourselves here for a time, if you please.'
That evening the sorrowing friends sat with their hostess beside the large fire, Knight in the recess formed by the chimney breast, where he was in shade. And by showing a little confidence they won hers, and she told them what they had stayed to hear—the latter history of poor Elfride.
'One day—after you, Mr. Knight, left us for the last time—she was missed from the Crags, and her father went after her, and brought her home ill. Where she went to, I never knew—but she was very unwell for weeks afterwards. And she said to me that she didn't care what became of her, and she wished she could die. When she was better, I said she would live to be married yet, and she said then, "Yes; I'll do anything for the benefit of my family, so as to turn my useless life to some practical account." Well, it began like this about Lord Luxellian courting her. The first Lady Luxellian had died, and he was in great trouble because the little girls were left motherless. After a while they used to come and see her in their little black frocks, for they liked her as well or better than their own mother—-that's true. They used to call her "little mamma." These children made her a shade livelier, but she was not the girl she had been—I could see that—and she grew thinner a good deal. Well, my lord got to ask the Swancourts oftener and oftener to dinner—nobody else of his acquaintance—and at last the vicar's family were backwards and forwards at all hours of the day. Well, people say that the little girls asked their father to let Miss Elfride come and live with them, and that he said perhaps he would if they were good children. However, the time went on, and one day I said, "Miss Elfride, you don't look so well as you used to; and though nobody else seems to notice it I do." She laughed a little, and said, "I shall live to be married yet, as you told me."
'"Shall you, miss? I am glad to hear that," I said.
'"Whom do you think I am going to be married to?" she said again.
'"Mr. Knight, I suppose," said I.
'"Oh!" she cried, and turned off so white, and afore I could get to her she had sunk down like a heap of clothes, and fainted away. Well, then, she came to herself after a time, and said, "Unity, now we'll go on with our conversation."
'"Better not to-day, miss," I said.
'"Yes, we will," she said. "Whom do you think I am going to be married to?"
'"I don't know," I said this time.
'"Guess," she said.
'"'Tisn't my lord, is it?" says I.
'"Yes, 'tis," says she, in a sick wild way.
'"But he don't come courting much," I said.
"'Ah! you don't know," she said, and told me 'twas going to be in October. After that she freshened up a bit—whether 'twas with the thought of getting away from home or not, I don't know. For, perhaps, I may as well speak plainly, and tell you that her home was no home to her now. Her father was bitter to her and harsh upon her; and though Mrs. Swancourt was well enough in her way, 'twas a sort of cold politeness that was not worth much, and the little thing had a worrying time of it altogether. About a month before the wedding, she and my lord and the two children used to ride about together upon horseback, and a very pretty sight they were; and if you'll believe me, I never saw him once with her unless the children were with her too—which made the courting so strange-looking. Ay, and my lord is so handsome, you know, so that at last I think she rather liked him; and I have seen her smile and blush a bit at things he said. He wanted her the more because the children did, for everybody could see that she would be a most tender mother to them, and friend and playmate too. And my lord is not only handsome, but a splendid courter, and up to all the ways o't. So he made her the beautifullest presents; ah, one I can mind—a lovely bracelet, with diamonds and emeralds. Oh, how red her face came when she saw it! The old roses came back to her cheeks for a minute or two then. I helped dress her the day we both were married—it was the last service I did her, poor child! When she was ready, I ran upstairs and slipped on my own wedding gown, and away they went, and away went Martin and I; and no sooner had my lord and my lady been married than the parson married us. It was a very quiet pair of weddings—hardly anybody knew it. Well, hope will hold its own in a young heart, if so be it can; and my lady freshened up a bit, for my lord was SO handsome and kind.'
'How came she to die—and away from home?' murmured Knight.
'Don't you see, sir, she fell off again afore they'd been married long, and my lord took her abroad for change of scene. They were coming home, and had got as far as London, when she was taken very ill and couldn't be moved, and there she died.'
'Was he very fond of her?'
'What, my lord? Oh, he was!'
'VERY fond of her?'
'VERY, beyond everything. Not suddenly, but by slow degrees. 'Twas her nature to win people more when they knew her well. He'd have died for her, I believe. Poor my lord, he's heart-broken now!'
'The funeral is to-morrow?'
'Yes; my husband is now at the vault with the masons, opening the steps and cleaning down the walls.'
The next day two men walked up the familiar valley from Castle Boterel to East Endelstow Church. And when the funeral was over, and every one had left the lawn-like churchyard, the pair went softly down the steps of the Luxellian vault, and under the low-groined arches they had beheld once before, lit up then as now. In the new niche of the crypt lay a rather new coffin, which had lost some of its lustre, and a newer coffin still, bright and untarnished in the slightest degree.
Beside the latter was the dark form of a man, kneeling on the damp floor, his body flung across the coffin, his hands clasped, and his whole frame seemingly given up in utter abandonment to grief. He was still young—younger, perhaps, than Knight—and even now showed how graceful was his figure and symmetrical his build. He murmured a prayer half aloud, and was quite unconscious that two others were standing within a few yards of him.
Knight and Stephen had advanced to where they once stood beside Elfride on the day all three had met there, before she had herself gone down into silence like her ancestors, and shut her bright blue eyes for ever. Not until then did they see the kneeling figure in the dim light. Knight instantly recognized the mourner as Lord Luxellian, the bereaved husband of Elfride.
They felt themselves to be intruders. Knight pressed Stephen back, and they silently withdrew as they had entered.
'Come away,' he said, in a broken voice. 'We have no right to be there. Another stands before us—nearer to her than we!'
And side by side they both retraced their steps down the grey still valley to Castle Boterel.