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A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy

Part 9 out of 9

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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!'

'What?'

'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?'

'Was what?'

'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.

Chapter XXXIX

'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.

'Yes.'

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.'

'Oh, yes.'

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.

'Yes.'

'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.

Chapter XL

'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?'

'Yes.'

'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.

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