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«A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. This edition was created and published by Global Grey 2015. ©GlobalGrey 2015 Get more free eBooks at: ...»

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'And possibly,' said Stephen, 'I may leave here altogether to-morrow; I don't know. So that if I shouldn't call again before returning to London, don't be alarmed, will you?' 'But didn't you come for a fortnight?' said his mother. 'And haven't you a month's holiday altogether? They are going to turn you out, then?' 'Not at all. I may stay longer; I may go. If I go, you had better say nothing about my having been here, for her sake. At what time of the morning does the carrier pass Endelstow lane?' 'Seven o'clock.' And then he left them. His thoughts were, that should the vicar permit him to become engaged, to hope for an engagement, or in any way to think of his beloved Elfride, he might stay longer. Should he be forbidden to think of any such thing, he resolved to go at once.

And the latter, even to young hopefulness, seemed the more probable alternative.

Stephen walked back to the vicarage through the meadows, as he had come, surrounded by the soft musical purl of the water through little weirs, the modest light of the moon, the freshening smell of the dews out-spread around. It was a time when mere seeing is meditation, and meditation peace. Stephen was hardly philosopher enough to avail himself of Nature's offer. His constitution was made up of very simple particulars; was one which, rare in the spring-time of civilizations, seems to grow abundant as a nation gets older, individuality fades, and education spreads; that is, his brain had extraordinary receptive powers, and no great creativeness. Quickly acquiring any kind of knowledge he saw around him, and having a plastic adaptability more common in woman than in man, he changed colour like a chameleon as the society he found himself in assumed a higher and more artificial tone. He had not many original ideas, and yet there was scarcely an idea to which, under proper training, he could not have added a respectable co-ordinate.

He saw nothing outside himself to-night; and what he saw within was a weariness to his flesh. Yet to a dispassionate observer, his pretensions to Elfride, though rather premature, were far from absurd as marriages go, unless the accidental proximity of simple but honest parents could be said to make them so.

The clock struck eleven when he entered the house. Elfride had been waiting with scarcely a movement since he departed. Before he had spoken to her she caught sight of him passing into the study with her father. She saw that he had by some means obtained the private interview he desired.

A nervous headache had been growing on the excitable girl during the absence of Stephen, and now she could do nothing beyond going up again to her room as she had done before.

Instead of lying down she sat again in the darkness without closing the door, and listened with a beating heart to every sound from downstairs. The servants had gone to bed. She ultimately heard the two men come from the study and cross to the dining-room, where supper had been lingering for more than an hour. The door was left open, and she found that the meal, such as it was, passed off between her father and her lover without any remark, save commonplaces as to cucumbers and melons, their wholesomeness and culture, uttered in a stiff and formal way. It seemed to prefigure failure.

Shortly afterwards Stephen came upstairs to his bedroom, and was almost immediately followed by her father, who also retired for the night. Not inclined to get a light, she partly undressed and sat on the bed, where she remained in pained thought for some time, possibly an hour. Then rising to close her door previously to fully unrobing, she saw a streak of light shining across the landing. Her father's door was shut, and he could be heard snoring regularly. The light came from Stephen's room, and the slight sounds also coming thence emphatically denoted what he was doing. In the perfect silence she could hear the closing of a lid and the clicking of a lock,—he was fastening his hat-box. Then the buckling of straps and the click of another key,—he was securing his portmanteau. With trebled foreboding she opened her door softly, and went towards his. One sensation pervaded her to distraction. Stephen, her handsome youth and darling, was going away, and she might never see him again except in secret and in sadness—perhaps never more. At any rate, she could no longer wait till the morning to hear the result of the interview, as she had intended. She flung her dressing-gown round her, tapped lightly at his door, and whispered 'Stephen!' He came instantly, opened the door, and stepped out.

'Tell me; are we to hope?' He replied in a disturbed whisper, and a tear approached its outlet, though none fell.

'I am not to think of such a preposterous thing—that's what he said. And I am going tomorrow. I should have called you up to bid you good-bye.' 'But he didn't say you were to go—O Stephen, he didn't say that?' 'No; not in words. But I cannot stay.' 'Oh, don't, don't go! Do come and let us talk. Let us come down to the drawing-room for a few minutes; he will hear us here.' She preceded him down the staircase with the taper light in her hand, looking unnaturally tall and thin in the long dove-coloured dressing-gown she wore. She did not stop to think of the propriety or otherwise of this midnight interview under such circumstances. She thought that the tragedy of her life was beginning, and, for the first time almost, felt that her existence might have a grave side, the shade of which enveloped and rendered invisible the delicate gradations of custom and punctilio. Elfride softly opened the drawing-room door and they both went in. When she had placed the candle on the table, he enclosed her with his arms, dried her eyes with his handkerchief, and kissed their lids.

'Stephen, it is over—happy love is over; and there is no more sunshine now!' 'I will make a fortune, and come to you, and have you. Yes, I will!' 'Papa will never hear of it—never—never! You don't know him. I do. He is either biassed in favour of a thing, or prejudiced against it. Argument is powerless against either feeling.' 'No; I won't think of him so,' said Stephen. 'If I appear before him some time hence as a man of established name, he will accept me—I know he will. He is not a wicked man.' 'No, he is not wicked. But you say "some time hence," as if it were no time. To you, among bustle and excitement, it will be comparatively a short time, perhaps; oh, to me, it will be its real length trebled! Every summer will be a year—autumn a year—winter a year! O Stephen! and you may forget me!' Forget: that was, and is, the real sting of waiting to fond-hearted woman. The remark awoke in Stephen the converse fear. 'You, too, may be persuaded to give me up, when time has made me fainter in your memory. For, remember, your love for me must be nourished in secret; there will be no long visits from me to support you. Circumstances will always tend to obliterate me.' 'Stephen,' she said, filled with her own misgivings, and unheeding his last words, 'there are beautiful women where you live—of course I know there are—and they may win you away from me.' Her tears came visibly as she drew a mental picture of his faithlessness. 'And it won't be your fault,' she continued, looking into the candle with doleful eyes. 'No! You will think that our family don't want you, and get to include me with them. And there will be a vacancy in your heart, and some others will be let in.' 'I could not, I would not. Elfie, do not be so full of forebodings.' 'Oh yes, they will,' she replied. 'And you will look at them, not caring at first, and then you will look and be interested, and after a while you will think, "Ah, they know all about city life, and assemblies, and coteries, and the manners of the titled, and poor little Elfie, with all the fuss that's made about her having me, doesn't know about anything but a little house and a few cliffs and a space of sea, far away." And then you'll be more interested in them, and they'll make you have them instead of me, on purpose to be cruel to me because I am silly, and they are clever and hate me. And I hate them, too; yes, I do!' Her impulsive words had power to impress him at any rate with the recognition of the uncertainty of all that is not accomplished. And, worse than that general feeling, there of course remained the sadness which arose from the special features of his own case.

However remote a desired issue may be, the mere fact of having entered the groove which leads to it, cheers to some extent with a sense of accomplishment. Had Mr. Swancourt consented to an engagement of no less length than ten years, Stephen would have been comparatively cheerful in waiting; they would have felt that they were somewhere on the road to Cupid's garden. But, with a possibility of a shorter probation, they had not as yet any prospect of the beginning; the zero of hope had yet to be reached. Mr. Swancourt would have to revoke his formidable words before the waiting for marriage could even set in. And this was despair.

'I wish we could marry now,' murmured Stephen, as an impossible fancy.

'So do I,' said she also, as if regarding an idle dream. ''Tis the only thing that ever does sweethearts good!' 'Secretly would do, would it not, Elfie?' 'Yes, secretly would do; secretly would indeed be best,' she said, and went on reflectively:

'All we want is to render it absolutely impossible for any future circumstance to upset our future intention of being happy together; not to begin being happy now.' 'Exactly,' he murmured in a voice and manner the counterpart of hers. 'To marry and part secretly, and live on as we are living now; merely to put it out of anybody's power to force you away from me, dearest.' 'Or you away from me, Stephen.' 'Or me from you. It is possible to conceive a force of circumstance strong enough to make any woman in the world marry against her will: no conceivable pressure, up to torture or starvation, can make a woman once married to her lover anybody else's wife.' Now up to this point the idea of an immediate secret marriage had been held by both as an untenable hypothesis, wherewith simply to beguile a miserable moment. During a pause which followed Stephen's last remark, a fascinating perception, then an alluring conviction, flashed along the brain of both. The perception was that an immediate marriage COULD be contrived; the conviction that such an act, in spite of its daring, its fathomless results, its deceptiveness, would be preferred by each to the life they must lead under any other conditions.

The youth spoke first, and his voice trembled with the magnitude of the conception he was cherishing. 'How strong we should feel, Elfride! going on our separate courses as before, without the fear of ultimate separation! O Elfride! think of it; think of it!' It is certain that the young girl's love for Stephen received a fanning from her father's opposition which made it blaze with a dozen times the intensity it would have exhibited if left alone. Never were conditions more favourable for developing a girl's first passing fancy for a handsome boyish face—a fancy rooted in inexperience and nourished by seclusion— into a wild unreflecting passion fervid enough for anything. All the elements of such a development were there, the chief one being hopelessness—a necessary ingredient always to perfect the mixture of feelings united under the name of loving to distraction.

'We would tell papa soon, would we not?' she inquired timidly. 'Nobody else need know. He would then be convinced that hearts cannot be played with; love encouraged be ready to grow, love discouraged be ready to die, at a moment's notice. Stephen, do you not think that if marriages against a parent's consent are ever justifiable, they are when young people have been favoured up to a point, as we have, and then have had that favour suddenly withdrawn?' 'Yes. It is not as if we had from the beginning acted in opposition to your papa's wishes. Only think, Elfie, how pleasant he was towards me but six hours ago! He liked me, praised me, never objected to my being alone with you.' 'I believe he MUST like you now,' she cried. 'And if he found that you irremediably belonged to me, he would own it and help you. 'O Stephen, Stephen,' she burst out again, as the remembrance of his packing came afresh to her mind, 'I cannot bear your going away like this! It is too dreadful. All I have been expecting miserably killed within me like this!' Stephen flushed hot with impulse. 'I will not be a doubt to you—thought of you shall not be a misery to me!' he said. 'We will be wife and husband before we part for long!' She hid her face on his shoulder. 'Anything to make SURE!' she whispered.

'I did not like to propose it immediately,' continued Stephen. 'It seemed to me—it seems to me now—like trying to catch you—a girl better in the world than I.' 'Not that, indeed! And am I better in worldly station? What's the use of have beens? We may have been something once; we are nothing now.' Then they whispered long and earnestly together; Stephen hesitatingly proposing this and that plan, Elfride modifying them, with quick breathings, and hectic flush, and unnaturally bright eyes. It was two o'clock before an arrangement was finally concluded.

She then told him to leave her, giving him his light to go up to his own room. They parted with an agreement not to meet again in the morning. After his door had been some time closed he heard her softly gliding into her chamber.

CHAPTER 11 'Journeys end in lovers meeting.' Stephen lay watching the Great Bear; Elfride was regarding a monotonous parallelogram of window blind. Neither slept that night.

Early the next morning—that is to say, four hours after their stolen interview, and just as the earliest servant was heard moving about—Stephen Smith went downstairs, portmanteau in hand. Throughout the night he had intended to see Mr. Swancourt again, but the sharp rebuff of the previous evening rendered such an interview particularly distasteful. Perhaps there was another and less honest reason. He decided to put it off. Whatever of moral timidity or obliquity may have lain in such a decision, no perception of it was strong enough to detain him. He wrote a note in his room, which stated simply that he did not feel happy in the house after Mr. Swancourt's sudden veto on what he had favoured a few hours before;

but that he hoped a time would come, and that soon, when his original feelings of pleasure as Mr. Swancourt's guest might be recovered.

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