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A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy

Part 7 out of 9

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unforgiving was heightened by the thought of yesterday's artifice,
which might possibly add disgust to his disappointment. The
certainty of one more day's affection, which she gained by
silence, outvalued the hope of a perpetuity combined with the risk
of all.

The trepidation caused by these thoughts on what she had intended
to say shook so naturally the words she did say, that Knight never
for a moment suspected them to be a last moment's substitution.
He smiled and pressed her hand warmly.

'My dear Elfie--yes, you are now--no protestation--what a winning
little woman you are, to be so absurdly scrupulous about a mere
iota! Really, I never once have thought whether your nineteenth
year was the last or the present. And, by George, well I may not;
for it would never do for a staid fogey a dozen years older to
stand upon such a trifle as that.'

'Don't praise me--don't praise me! Though I prize it from your
lips, I don't deserve it now.'

But Knight, being in an exceptionally genial mood, merely saw this
distressful exclamation as modesty. 'Well,' he added, after a
minute, 'I like you all the better, you know, for such moral
precision, although I called it absurd.' He went on with tender
earnestness: 'For, Elfride, there is one thing I do love to see in
a woman--that is, a soul truthful and clear as heaven's light. I
could put up with anything if I had that--forgive nothing if I had
it not. Elfride, you have such a soul, if ever woman had; and
having it, retain it, and don't ever listen to the fashionable
theories of the day about a woman's privileges and natural right
to practise wiles. Depend upon it, my dear girl, that a noble
woman must be as honest as a noble man. I specially mean by
honesty, fairness not only in matters of business and social
detail, but in all the delicate dealings of love, to which the
licence given to your sex particularly refers.'

Elfride looked troublously at the trees.

'Now let us go on to the river, Elfie.'

'I would if I had a hat on,' she said with a sort of suppressed
woe.

'I will get it for you,' said Knight, very willing to purchase her
companionship at so cheap a price. 'You sit down there a minute.'
And he turned and walked rapidly back to the house for the article
in question.

Elfride sat down upon one of the rustic benches which adorned this
portion of the grounds, and remained with her eyes upon the grass.
She was induced to lift them by hearing the brush of light and
irregular footsteps hard by. Passing along the path which
intersected the one she was in and traversed the outer
shrubberies, Elfride beheld the farmer's widow, Mrs. Jethway.
Before she noticed Elfride, she paused to look at the house,
portions of which were visible through the bushes. Elfride,
shrinking back, hoped the unpleasant woman might go on without
seeing her. But Mrs. Jethway, silently apostrophizing the house,
with actions which seemed dictated by a half-overturned reason,
had discerned the girl, and immediately came up and stood in front
of her.

'Ah, Miss Swancourt! Why did you disturb me? Mustn't I trespass
here?'

'You may walk here if you like, Mrs. Jethway. I do not disturb
you.'

'You disturb my mind, and my mind is my whole life; for my boy is
there still, and he is gone from my body.'

'Yes, poor young man. I was sorry when he died.'

'Do you know what he died of? '

'Consumption.'

'Oh no, no!' said the widow. 'That word "consumption" covers a
good deal. He died because you were his own well-agreed
sweetheart, and then proved false--and it killed him. Yes, Miss
Swancourt,' she said in an excited whisper, 'you killed my son!'

'How can you be so wicked and foolish!' replied Elfride, rising
indignantly. But indignation was not natural to her, and having
been so worn and harrowed by late events, she lost any powers of
defence that mood might have lent her. 'I could not help his
loving me, Mrs. Jethway!'

'That's just what you could have helped. You know how it began,
Miss Elfride. Yes: you said you liked the name of Felix better
than any other name in the parish, and you knew it was his name,
and that those you said it to would report it to him.'

'I knew it was his name--of course I did; but I am sure, Mrs.
Jethway, I did not intend anybody to tell him.'

'But you knew they would.'

'No, I didn't.'

'And then, after that, when you were riding on Revels-day by our
house, and the lads were gathered there, and you wanted to
dismount, when Jim Drake and George Upway and three or four more
ran forward to hold your pony, and Felix stood back timid, why did
you beckon to him, and say you would rather he held it? '

'O Mrs. Jethway, you do think so mistakenly! I liked him best--
that's why I wanted him to do it. He was gentle and nice--I
always thought him so--and I liked him.'

'Then why did you let him kiss you?'

'It is a falsehood; oh, it is, it is!' said Elfride, weeping with
desperation. 'He came behind me, and attempted to kiss me; and
that was why I told him never to let me see him again.'

'But you did not tell your father or anybody, as you would have if
you had looked upon it then as the insult you now pretend it was.'

'He begged me not to tell, and foolishly enough I did not. And I
wish I had now. I little expected to be scourged with my own
kindness. Pray leave me, Mrs. Jethway.' The girl only
expostulated now.

'Well, you harshly dismissed him, and he died. And before his
body was cold, you took another to your heart. Then as carelessly
sent him about his business, and took a third. And if you
consider that nothing, Miss Swancourt,' she continued, drawing
closer; 'it led on to what was very serious indeed. Have you
forgotten the would-be runaway marriage? The journey to London,
and the return the next day without being married, and that
there's enough disgrace in that to ruin a woman's good name far
less light than yours? You may have: I have not. Fickleness
towards a lover is bad, but fickleness after playing the wife is
wantonness.'

'Oh, it's a wicked cruel lie! Do not say it; oh, do not! '

'Does your new man know of it? I think not, or he would be no man
of yours! As much of the story as was known is creeping about the
neighbourhood even now; but I know more than any of them, and why
should I respect your love?'

'I defy you!' cried Elfride tempestuously. 'Do and say all you
can to ruin me; try; put your tongue at work; I invite it! I defy
you as a slanderous woman! Look, there he comes.' And her voice
trembled greatly as she saw through the leaves the beloved form of
Knight coming from the door with her hat in his hand. 'Tell him
at once; I can bear it.'

'Not now,' said the woman, and disappeared down the path.

The excitement of her latter words had restored colour to
Elfride's cheeks; and hastily wiping her eyes, she walked farther
on, so that by the time her lover had overtaken her the traces of
emotion had nearly disappeared from her face. Knight put the hat
upon her head, took her hand, and drew it within his arm.

It was the last day but one previous to their departure for St.
Leonards; and Knight seemed to have a purpose in being much in her
company that day. They rambled along the valley. The season was
that period in the autumn when the foliage alone of an ordinary
plantation is rich enough in hues to exhaust the chromatic
combinations of an artist's palette. Most lustrous of all are the
beeches, graduating from bright rusty red at the extremity of the
boughs to a bright yellow at their inner parts; young oaks are
still of a neutral green; Scotch firs and hollies are nearly blue;
whilst occasional dottings of other varieties give maroons and
purples of every tinge.

The river--such as it was--here pursued its course amid flagstones
as level as a pavement, but divided by crevices of irregular
width. With the summer drought the torrent had narrowed till it
was now but a thread of crystal clearness, meandering along a
central channel in the rocky bed of the winter current. Knight
scrambled through the bushes which at this point nearly covered
the brook from sight, and leapt down upon the dry portion of the
river bottom.

'Elfride, I never saw such a sight!' he exclaimed. 'The hazels
overhang the river's course in a perfect arch, and the floor is
beautifully paved. The place reminds one of the passages of a
cloister. Let me help you down.'

He assisted her through the marginal underwood and down to the
stones. They walked on together to a tiny cascade about a foot
wide and high, and sat down beside it on the flags that for nine
months in the year were submerged beneath a gushing bourne. From
their feet trickled the attenuated thread of water which alone
remained to tell the intent and reason of this leaf-covered aisle,
and journeyed on in a zigzag line till lost in the shade.

Knight, leaning on his elbow, after contemplating all this, looked
critically at Elfride.

'Does not such a luxuriant head of hair exhaust itself and get
thin as the years go on from eighteen to eight-and-twenty?' he
asked at length.

'Oh no!' she said quickly, with a visible disinclination to
harbour such a thought, which came upon her with an unpleasantness
whose force it would be difficult for men to understand. She
added afterwards, with smouldering uneasiness, 'Do you really
think that a great abundance of hair is more likely to get thin
than a moderate quantity?'

'Yes, I really do. I believe--am almost sure, in fact--that if
statistics could be obtained on the subject, you would find the
persons with thin hair were those who had a superabundance
originally, and that those who start with a moderate quantity
retain it without much loss.'

Elfride's troubles sat upon her face as well as in her heart.
Perhaps to a woman it is almost as dreadful to think of losing her
beauty as of losing her reputation. At any rate, she looked quite
as gloomy as she had looked at any minute that day.

'You shouldn't be so troubled about a mere personal adornment,'
said Knight, with some of the severity of tone that had been
customary before she had beguiled him into softness.

'I think it is a woman's duty to be as beautiful as she can. If I
were a scholar, I would give you chapter and verse for it from one
of your own Latin authors. I know there is such a passage, for
papa has alluded to it.'

"'Munditiae, et ornatus, et cultus," &c.--is that it? A passage in
Livy which is no defence at all.'

'No, it is not that.'

'Never mind, then; for I have a reason for not taking up my old
cudgels against you, Elfie. Can you guess what the reason is?'

'No; but I am glad to hear it,' she said thankfully. 'For it is
dreadful when you talk so. For whatever dreadful name the
weakness may deserve, I must candidly own that I am terrified to
think my hair may ever get thin.'

'Of course; a sensible woman would rather lose her wits than her
beauty.'

'I don't care if you do say satire and judge me cruelly. I know
my hair is beautiful; everybody says so.'

'Why, my dear Miss Swancourt,' he tenderly replied, 'I have not
said anything against it. But you know what is said about
handsome being and handsome doing.'

'Poor Miss Handsome-does cuts but a sorry figure beside Miss
Handsome-is in every man's eyes, your own not excepted, Mr.
Knight, though it pleases you to throw off so,' said Elfride
saucily. And lowering her voice: 'You ought not to have taken so
much trouble to save me from falling over the cliff, for you don't
think mine a life worth much trouble evidently.'

'Perhaps you think mine was not worth yours.'

'It was worth anybody's!'

Her hand was plashing in the little waterfall, and her eyes were
bent the same way.

'You talk about my severity with you, Elfride. You are unkind to
me, you know.'

'How?' she asked, looking up from her idle occupation.

'After my taking trouble to get jewellery to please you, you
wouldn't accept it.'

'Perhaps I would now; perhaps I want to.'

'Do!' said Knight.

And the packet was withdrawn from his pocket and presented the
third time. Elfride took it with delight. The obstacle was rent
in twain, and the significant gift was hers.

'I'll take out these ugly ones at once,' she exclaimed, 'and I'll
wear yours--shall I?'

'I should be gratified.'

Now, though it may seem unlikely, considering how far the two had
gone in converse, Knight had never yet ventured to kiss Elfride.
Far slower was he than Stephen Smith in matters like that. The
utmost advance he had made in such demonstrations had been to the
degree witnessed by Stephen in the summer-house. So Elfride's
cheek being still forbidden fruit to him, he said impulsively.

'Elfie, I should like to touch that seductive ear of yours. Those
are my gifts; so let me dress you in them.'

She hesitated with a stimulating hesitation.

'Let me put just one in its place, then?'

Her face grew much warmer.

'I don't think it would be quite the usual or proper course,' she
said, suddenly turning and resuming her operation of plashing in
the miniature cataract.

The stillness of things was disturbed by a bird coming to the
streamlet to drink. After watching him dip his bill, sprinkle
himself, and fly into a tree, Knight replied, with the courteous
brusqueness she so much liked to hear--

'Elfride, now you may as well be fair. You would mind my doing it
but little, I think; so give me leave, do.'

'I will be fair, then,' she said confidingly, and looking him full
in the face. It was a particular pleasure to her to be able to do
a little honesty without fear. 'I should not mind your doing so--
I should like such an attention. My thought was, would it be
right to let you?'

'Then I will!' he rejoined, with that singular earnestness about a
small matter--in the eyes of a ladies' man but a momentary peg for
flirtation or jest--which is only found in deep natures who have
been wholly unused to toying with womankind, and which, from its
unwontedness, is in itself a tribute the most precious that can be
rendered, and homage the most exquisite to be received.

'And you shall,' she whispered, without reserve, and no longer
mistress of the ceremonies. And then Elfride inclined herself
towards him, thrust back her hair, and poised her head sideways.
In doing this her arm and shoulder necessarily rested against his
breast.

At the touch, the sensation of both seemed to be concentrated at
the point of contact. All the time he was performing the delicate
manoeuvre Knight trembled like a young surgeon in his first
operation.

'Now the other,' said Knight in a whisper.

'No, no.'

'Why not?'

'I don't know exactly.'

'You must know.'

'Your touch agitates me so. Let us go home.'

'Don't say that, Elfride. What is it, after all? A mere nothing.
Now turn round, dearest.'

She was powerless to disobey, and turned forthwith; and then,
without any defined intention in either's mind, his face and hers
drew closer together; and he supported her there, and kissed her.

Knight was at once the most ardent and the coolest man alive.
When his emotions slumbered he appeared almost phlegmatic; when
they were moved he was no less than passionate. And now, without
having quite intended an early marriage, he put the question
plainly. It came with all the ardour which was the accumulation
of long years behind a natural reserve.

'Elfride, when shall we be married?'

The words were sweet to her; but there was a bitter in the sweet.
These newly-overt acts of his, which had culminated in this plain
question, coming on the very day of Mrs. Jethway's blasting
reproaches, painted distinctly her fickleness as an enormity.
Loving him in secret had not seemed such thorough-going
inconstancy as the same love recognized and acted upon in the face
of threats. Her distraction was interpreted by him at her side as
the outward signs of an unwonted experience.

'I don't press you for an answer now, darling,' he said, seeing
she was not likely to give a lucid reply. 'Take your time.'

Knight was as honourable a man as was ever loved and deluded by
woman. It may be said that his blindness in love proved the
point, for shrewdness in love usually goes with meanness in
general. Once the passion had mastered him, the intellect had
gone for naught. Knight, as a lover, was more single-minded and
far simpler than his friend Stephen, who in other capacities was
shallow beside him.

Without saying more on the subject of their marriage, Knight held
her at arm's length, as if she had been a large bouquet, and
looked at her with critical affection.

'Does your pretty gift become me?' she inquired, with tears of
excitement on the fringes of her eyes.

'Undoubtedly, perfectly!' said her lover, adopting a lighter tone
to put her at her ease. 'Ah, you should see them; you look
shinier than ever. Fancy that I have been able to improve you!'

'Am I really so nice? I am glad for your sake. I wish I could see
myself.'

'You can't. You must wait till we get home.'

'I shall never be able,' she said, laughing. 'Look: here's a
way.'

'So there is. Well done, woman's wit!'

'Hold me steady!'

'Oh yes.'

'And don't let me fall, will you?'

'By no means.'

Below their seat the thread of water paused to spread out into a
smooth small pool. Knight supported her whilst she knelt down and
leant over it.

'I can see myself. Really, try as religiously as I will, I cannot
help admiring my appearance in them.'

'Doubtless. How can you be so fond of finery? I believe you are
corrupting me into a taste for it. I used to hate every such
thing before I knew you.'

'I like ornaments, because I want people to admire what you
possess, and envy you, and say, "I wish I was he." '

'I suppose I ought not to object after that. And how much longer
are you going to look in there at yourself?'

'Until you are tired of holding me? Oh, I want to ask you
something.' And she turned round. 'Now tell truly, won't you?
What colour of hair do you like best now?'

Knight did not answer at the moment.

'Say light, do!' she whispered coaxingly. 'Don't say dark, as you
did that time.'

'Light-brown, then. Exactly the colour of my sweetheart's.'

'Really?' said Elfride, enjoying as truth what she knew to be
flattery.

'Yes.'

'And blue eyes, too, not hazel? Say yes, say yes!'

'One recantation is enough for to-day.'

'No, no.'

'Very well, blue eyes.' And Knight laughed, and drew her close and
kissed her the second time, which operations he performed with the
carefulness of a fruiterer touching a bunch of grapes so as not to
disturb their bloom.

Elfride objected to a second, and flung away her face, the
movement causing a slight disarrangement of hat and hair. Hardly
thinking what she said in the trepidation of the moment, she
exclaimed, clapping her hand to her ear--

'Ah, we must be careful! I lost the other earring doing like
this.'

No sooner did she realise the significant words than a troubled
look passed across her face, and she shut her lips as if to keep
them back.

'Doing like what?' said Knight, perplexed.

'Oh, sitting down out of doors,' she replied hastily.

Chapter XXIX

'Care, thou canker.'

It is an evening at the beginning of October, and the mellowest of
autumn sunsets irradiates London, even to its uttermost eastern
end. Between the eye and the flaming West, columns of smoke stand
up in the still air like tall trees. Everything in the shade is
rich and misty blue.

Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt and Elfride are looking at these lustrous
and lurid contrasts from the window of a large hotel near London
Bridge. The visit to their friends at St. Leonards is over, and
they are staying a day or two in the metropolis on their way home.

Knight spent the same interval of time in crossing over to
Brittany by way of Jersey and St. Malo. He then passed through
Normandy, and returned to London also, his arrival there having
been two days later than that of Elfride and her parents.

So the evening of this October day saw them all meeting at the
above-mentioned hotel, where they had previously engaged
apartments. During the afternoon Knight had been to his lodgings
at Richmond to make a little change in the nature of his baggage;
and on coming up again there was never ushered by a bland waiter
into a comfortable room a happier man than Knight when shown to
where Elfride and her step-mother were sitting after a fatiguing
day of shopping.

Elfride looked none the better for her change: Knight was as brown
as a nut. They were soon engaged by themselves in a corner of the
room. Now that the precious words of promise had been spoken, the
young girl had no idea of keeping up her price by the system of
reserve which other more accomplished maidens use. Her lover was
with her again, and it was enough: she made her heart over to him
entirely.

Dinner was soon despatched. And when a preliminary round of
conversation concerning their doings since the last parting had
been concluded, they reverted to the subject of to-morrow's
journey home.

'That enervating ride through the myrtle climate of South Devon--
how I dread it to-morrow!' Mrs. Swancourt was saying. 'I had
hoped the weather would have been cooler by this time.'

'Did you ever go by water?' said Knight.

'Never--by never, I mean not since the time of railways.'

'Then if you can afford an additional day, I propose that we do
it,' said Knight. 'The Channel is like a lake just now. We
should reach Plymouth in about forty hours, I think, and the boats
start from just below the bridge here' (pointing over his shoulder
eastward).

'Hear, hear!' said the vicar.

'It's an idea, certainly,' said his wife.

'Of course these coasters are rather tubby,' said Knight. 'But
you wouldn't mind that?'

'No: we wouldn't mind.'

'And the saloon is a place like the fishmarket of a ninth-rate
country town, but that wouldn't matter?'

'Oh dear, no. If we had only thought of it soon enough, we might
have had the use of Lord Luxellian's yacht. But never mind, we'll
go. We shall escape the worrying rattle through the whole length
of London to-morrow morning--not to mention the risk of being
killed by excursion trains, which is not a little one at this time
of the year, if the papers are true.'

Elfride, too, thought the arrangement delightful; and accordingly,
ten o'clock the following morning saw two cabs crawling round by
the Mint, and between the preternaturally high walls of
Nightingale Lane towards the river side.

The first vehicle was occupied by the travellers in person, and
the second brought up the luggage, under the supervision of Mrs.
Snewson, Mrs. Swancourt's maid--and for the last fortnight
Elfride's also; for although the younger lady had never been
accustomed to any such attendant at robing times, her stepmother
forced her into a semblance of familiarity with one when they were
away from home.

Presently waggons, bales, and smells of all descriptions increased
to such an extent that the advance of the cabs was at the slowest
possible rate. At intervals it was necessary to halt entirely,
that the heavy vehicles unloading in front might be moved aside, a
feat which was not accomplished without a deal of swearing and
noise. The vicar put his head out of the window.

'Surely there must be some mistake in the way,' he said with great
concern, drawing in his head again. 'There's not a respectable
conveyance to be seen here except ours. I've heard that there are
strange dens in this part of London, into which people have been
entrapped and murdered--surely there is no conspiracy on the part
of the cabman?'

'Oh no, no. It is all right,' said Mr. Knight, who was as placid
as dewy eve by the side of Elfride.

'But what I argue from,' said the vicar, with a greater emphasis
of uneasiness, 'are plain appearances. This can't be the highway
from London to Plymouth by water, because it is no way at all to
any place. We shall miss our steamer and our train too--that's
what I think.'

'Depend upon it we are right. In fact, here we are.'

'Trimmer's Wharf,' said the cabman, opening the door.

No sooner had they alighted than they perceived a tussle going on
between the hindmost cabman and a crowd of light porters who had
charged him in column, to obtain possession of the bags and boxes,
Mrs. Snewson's hands being seen stretched towards heaven in the
midst of the melee. Knight advanced gallantly, and after a hard
struggle reduced the crowd to two, upon whose shoulders and trucks
the goods vanished away in the direction of the water's edge with
startling rapidity.

Then more of the same tribe, who had run on ahead, were heard
shouting to boatmen, three of whom pulled alongside, and two being
vanquished, the luggage went tumbling into the remaining one.

'Never saw such a dreadful scene in my life--never!' said Mr.
Swancourt, floundering into the boat. 'Worse than Famine and
Sword upon one. I thought such customs were confined to
continental ports. Aren't you astonished, Elfride?'

'Oh no,' said Elfride, appearing amid the dingy scene like a
rainbow in a murky sky. 'It is a pleasant novelty, I think.'

'Where in the wide ocean is our steamer?' the vicar inquired. 'I
can see nothing but old hulks, for the life of me.'

'Just behind that one,' said Knight; 'we shall soon be round under
her.'

The object of their search was soon after disclosed to view--a
great lumbering form of inky blackness, which looked as if it had
never known the touch of a paint-brush for fifty years. It was
lying beside just such another, and the way on board was down a
narrow lane of water between the two, about a yard and a half wide
at one end, and gradually converging to a point. At the moment of
their entry into this narrow passage, a brilliantly painted rival
paddled down the river like a trotting steed, creating such a
series of waves and splashes that their frail wherry was tossed
like a teacup, and the vicar and his wife slanted this way and
that, inclining their heads into contact with a Punch-and-Judy air
and countenance, the wavelets striking the sides of the two hulls,
and flapping back into their laps.

'Dreadful! horrible!' Mr. Swancourt murmured privately; and said
aloud, I thought we walked on board. I don't think really I
should have come, if I had known this trouble was attached to it.'

'If they must splash, I wish they would splash us with clean
water,' said the old lady, wiping her dress with her handkerchief.

'I hope it is perfectly safe,' continued the vicar.

'O papa! you are not very brave,' cried Elfride merrily.

'Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,'
Mr. Swancourt severely answered.

Mrs. Swancourt laughed, and Elfride laughed, and Knight laughed,
in the midst of which pleasantness a man shouted to them from some
position between their heads and the sky, and they found they were
close to the Juliet, into which they quiveringly ascended.

It having been found that the lowness of the tide would prevent
their getting off for an hour, the Swancourts, having nothing else
to do, allowed their eyes to idle upon men in blue jerseys
performing mysterious mending operations with tar-twine; they
turned to look at the dashes of lurid sunlight, like burnished
copper stars afloat on the ripples, which danced into and
tantalized their vision; or listened to the loud music of a steam-
crane at work close by; or to sighing sounds from the funnels of
passing steamers, getting dead as they grew more distant; or to
shouts from the decks of different craft in their vicinity, all of
them assuming the form of 'Ah-he-hay!'

Half-past ten: not yet off. Mr. Swancourt breathed a breath of
weariness, and looked at his fellow-travellers in general. Their
faces were certainly not worth looking at. The expression
'Waiting' was written upon them so absolutely that nothing more
could be discerned there. All animation was suspended till
Providence should raise the water and let them go.

'I have been thinking,' said Knight, 'that we have come amongst
the rarest class of people in the kingdom. Of all human
characteristics, a low opinion of the value of his own time by an
individual must be among the strangest to find. Here we see
numbers of that patient and happy species. Rovers, as distinct
from travellers.'

'But they are pleasure-seekers, to whom time is of no importance.'

'Oh no. The pleasure-seekers we meet on the grand routes are more
anxious than commercial travellers to rush on. And added to the
loss of time in getting to their journey's end, these exceptional
people take their chance of sea-sickness by coming this way.'

'Can it be?' inquired the vicar with apprehension. 'Surely not,
Mr. Knight, just here in our English Channel--close at our doors,
as I may say.'

'Entrance passages are very draughty places, and the Channel is
like the rest. It ruins the temper of sailors. It has been
calculated by philosophers that more damns go up to heaven from
the Channel, in the course of a year, than from all the five
oceans put together.'

They really start now, and the dead looks of all the throng come
to life immediately. The man who has been frantically hauling in
a rope that bade fair to have no end ceases his labours, and they
glide down the serpentine bends of the Thames.

Anything anywhere was a mine of interest to Elfride, and so was
this.

'It is well enough now,' said Mrs. Swancourt, after they had
passed the Nore, 'but I can't say I have cared for my voyage
hitherto.' For being now in the open sea a slight breeze had
sprung up, which cheered her as well as her two younger
companions. But unfortunately it had a reverse effect upon the
vicar, who, after turning a sort of apricot jam colour,
interspersed with dashes of raspberry, pleaded indisposition, and
vanished from their sight.

The afternoon wore on. Mrs. Swancourt kindly sat apart by herself
reading, and the betrothed pair were left to themselves. Elfride
clung trustingly to Knight's arm, and proud was she to walk with
him up and down the deck, or to go forward, and leaning with him
against the forecastle rails, watch the setting sun gradually
withdrawing itself over their stern into a huge bank of livid
cloud with golden edges that rose to meet it.

She was childishly full of life and spirits, though in walking up
and down with him before the other passengers, and getting noticed
by them, she was at starting rather confused, it being the first
time she had shown herself so openly under that kind of
protection. 'I expect they are envious and saying things about
us, don't you?' she would whisper to Knight with a stealthy smile.

'Oh no,' he would answer unconcernedly. 'Why should they envy us,
and what can they say?'

'Not any harm, of course,' Elfride replied, 'except such as this:
"How happy those two are! she is proud enough now." What makes it
worse,' she continued in the extremity of confidence, 'I heard
those two cricketing men say just now, "She's the nobbiest girl on
the boat." But I don't mind it, you know, Harry.'

'I should hardly have supposed you did, even if you had not told
me,' said Knight with great blandness.

She was never tired of asking her lover questions and admiring his
answers, good, bad, or indifferent as they might be. The evening
grew dark and night came on, and lights shone upon them from the
horizon and from the sky.

'Now look there ahead of us, at that halo in the air, of silvery
brightness. Watch it, and you will see what it comes to.'

She watched for a few minutes, when two white lights emerged from
the side of a hill, and showed themselves to be the origin of the
halo.

'What a dazzling brilliance! What do they mark?'

'The South Foreland: they were previously covered by the cliff.'

'What is that level line of little sparkles--a town, I suppose?'

'That's Dover.'

All this time, and later, soft sheet lightning expanded from a
cloud in their path, enkindling their faces as they paced up and
down, shining over the water, and, for a moment, showing the
horizon as a keen line.

Elfride slept soundly that night. Her first thought the next
morning was the thrilling one that Knight was as close at hand as
when they were at home at Endelstow, and her first sight, on
looking out of the cabin window, was the perpendicular face of
Beachy Head, gleaming white in a brilliant six-o'clock-in-the-
morning sun. This fair daybreak, however, soon changed its
aspect. A cold wind and a pale mist descended upon the sea, and
seemed to threaten a dreary day.

When they were nearing Southampton, Mrs. Swancourt came to say
that her husband was so ill that he wished to be put on shore
here, and left to do the remainder of the journey by land. 'He
will be perfectly well directly he treads firm ground again.
Which shall we do--go with him, or finish our voyage as we
intended?'

Elfride was comfortably housed under an umbrella which Knight was
holding over her to keep off the wind. 'Oh, don't let us go on
shore!' she said with dismay. 'It would be such a pity!'

'That's very fine,' said Mrs. Swancourt archly, as to a child.
'See, the wind has increased her colour, the sea her appetite and
spirits, and somebody her happiness. Yes, it would be a pity,
certainly.'

''Tis my misfortune to be always spoken to from a pedestal,'
sighed Elfride.

'Well, we will do as you like, Mrs. Swancourt,' said Knight, 'but----'

'I myself would rather remain on board,' interrupted the elder
lady. 'And Mr. Swancourt particularly wishes to go by himself.
So that shall settle the matter.'

The vicar, now a drab colour, was put ashore, and became as well
as ever forthwith.

Elfride, sitting alone in a retired part of the vessel, saw a
veiled woman walk aboard among the very latest arrivals at this
port. She was clothed in black silk, and carried a dark shawl
upon her arm. The woman, without looking around her, turned to
the quarter allotted to the second-cabin passengers. All the
carnation Mrs. Swancourt had complimented her step-daughter upon
possessing left Elfride's cheeks, and she trembled visibly.

She ran to the other side of the boat, where Mrs. Swancourt was
standing.

'Let us go home by railway with papa, after all,' she pleaded
earnestly. 'I would rather go with him--shall we?'

Mrs. Swancourt looked around for a moment, as if unable to decide.
'Ah,' she exclaimed, 'it is too late now. Why did not you say so
before, when we had plenty of time?'

The Juliet had at that minute let go, the engines had started, and
they were gliding slowly away from the quay. There was no help
for it but to remain, unless the Juliet could be made to put back,
and that would create a great disturbance. Elfride gave up the
idea and submitted quietly. Her happiness was sadly mutilated
now.

The woman whose presence had so disturbed her was exactly like
Mrs. Jethway. She seemed to haunt Elfride like a shadow. After
several minutes' vain endeavour to account for any design Mrs.
Jethway could have in watching her, Elfride decided to think that,
if it were the widow, the encounter was accidental. She
remembered that the widow in her restlessness was often visiting
the village near Southampton, which was her original home, and it
was possible that she chose water-transit with the idea of saving
expense.

'What is the matter, Elfride?' Knight inquired, standing before
her.

'Nothing more than that I am rather depressed.'

'I don't much wonder at it; that wharf was depressing. We seemed
underneath and inferior to everything around us. But we shall be
in the sea breeze again soon, and that will freshen you, dear.'

The evening closed in and dusk increased as they made way down
Southampton Water and through the Solent. Elfride's disturbance
of mind was such that her light spirits of the foregoing four and
twenty hours had entirely deserted her. The weather too had grown
more gloomy, for though the showers of the morning had ceased, the
sky was covered more closely than ever with dense leaden clouds.
How beautiful was the sunset when they rounded the North Foreland
the previous evening! now it was impossible to tell within half an
hour the time of the luminary's going down. Knight led her about,
and being by this time accustomed to her sudden changes of mood,
overlooked the necessity of a cause in regarding the conditions--
impressionableness and elasticity.

Elfride looked stealthily to the other end of the vessel. Mrs.
Jethway, or her double, was sitting at the stern--her eye steadily
regarding Elfride.

'Let us go to the forepart,' she said quickly to Knight. 'See
there--the man is fixing the lights for the night.'

Knight assented, and after watching the operation of fixing the
red and the green lights on the port and starboard bows, and the
hoisting of the white light to the masthead, he walked up and down
with her till the increase of wind rendered promenading difficult.
Elfride's eyes were occasionally to be found furtively gazing
abaft, to learn if her enemy were really there. Nobody was
visible now.

'Shall we go below?' said Knight, seeing that the deck was nearly
deserted.

'No,' she said. 'If you will kindly get me a rug from Mrs.
Swancourt, I should like, if you don't mind, to stay here.' She
had recently fancied the assumed Mrs. Jethway might be a first-
class passenger, and dreaded meeting her by accident.

Knight appeared with the rug, and they sat down behind a weather-
cloth on the windward side, just as the two red eyes of the
Needles glared upon them from the gloom, their pointed summits
rising like shadowy phantom figures against the sky. It became
necessary to go below to an eight-o'clock meal of nondescript
kind, and Elfride was immensely relieved at finding no sign of
Mrs. Jethway there. They again ascended, and remained above till
Mrs. Snewson staggered up to them with the message that Mrs.
Swancourt thought it was time for Elfride to come below. Knight
accompanied her down, and returned again to pass a little more
time on deck.

Elfride partly undressed herself and lay down, and soon became
unconscious, though her sleep was light How long she had lain, she
knew not, when by slow degrees she became cognizant of a
whispering in her ear.

'You are well on with him, I can see. Well, provoke me now, but
my day will come, you will find.' That seemed to be the utterance,
or words to that effect.

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 l 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--

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