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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: ...»

-- [ Page 17 ] --

He continued more quietly and impressively. 'Yes, Elfride, she is wealthy in comparison with us, though with few connections. However, she will introduce you to the world a little. We are going to exchange her house in Baker Street for one at Kensington, for your sake.

Everybody is going there now, she says. At Easters we shall fly to town for the usual three months—I shall have a curate of course by that time. Elfride, I am past love, you know, and I honestly confess that I married her for your sake. Why a woman of her standing should have thrown herself away upon me, God knows. But I suppose her age and plainness were too pronounced for a town man. With your good looks, if you now play your cards well, you may marry anybody. Of course, a little contrivance will be necessary; but there's nothing to stand between you and a husband with a title, that I can see. Lady Luxellian was only a squire's daughter. Now, don't you see how foolish the old fancy was? But come, she is indoors waiting to see you. It is as good as a play, too,' continued the vicar, as they walked towards the house. 'I courted her through the privet hedge yonder: not entirely, you know, but we used to walk there of an evening—nearly every evening at last. But I needn't tell you details now; everything was terribly matter-of-fact, I assure you. At last, that day I saw her at Stratleigh, we determined to settle it off-hand.' 'And you never said a word to me,' replied Elfride, not reproachfully either in tone or thought. Indeed, her feeling was the very reverse of reproachful. She felt relieved and even thankful. Where confidence had not been given, how could confidence be expected?

Her father mistook her dispassionateness for a veil of politeness over a sense of ill-usage. 'I am not altogether to blame,' he said. 'There were two or three reasons for secrecy. One was the recent death of her relative the testator, though that did not apply to you. But remember, Elfride,' he continued in a stiffer tone, 'you had mixed yourself up so foolishly with those low people, the Smiths—and it was just, too, when Mrs. Troyton and myself were beginning to understand each other—that I resolved to say nothing even to you. How did I know how far you had gone with them and their son? You might have made a point of taking tea with them every day, for all that I knew.' Elfride swallowed her feelings as she best could, and languidly though flatly asked a question.

'Did you kiss Mrs. Troyton on the lawn about three weeks ago? That evening I came into the study and found you had just had candles in?' Mr. Swancourt looked rather red and abashed, as middle-aged lovers are apt to do when caught in the tricks of younger ones.

'Well, yes; I think I did,' he stammered; 'just to please her, you know.' And then recovering himself he laughed heartily.

'And was this what your Horatian quotation referred to?' 'It was, Elfride.' They stepped into the drawing-room from the verandah. At that moment Mrs. Swancourt came downstairs, and entered the same room by the door.

'Here, Charlotte, is my little Elfride,' said Mr. Swancourt, with the increased affection of tone often adopted towards relations when newly produced.

Poor Elfride, not knowing what to do, did nothing at all; but stood receptive of all that came to her by sight, hearing, and touch.

Mrs. Swancourt moved forward, took her step-daughter's hand, then kissed her.

'Ah, darling!' she exclaimed good-humouredly, 'you didn't think when you showed a strange old woman over the conservatory a month or two ago, and explained the flowers to her so prettily, that she would so soon be here in new colours. Nor did she, I am sure.' The new mother had been truthfully enough described by Mr. Swancourt. She was not physically attractive. She was dark—very dark—in complexion, portly in figure, and with a plentiful residuum of hair in the proportion of half a dozen white ones to half a dozen black ones, though the latter were black indeed. No further observed, she was not a woman to like. But there was more to see. To the most superficial critic it was apparent that she made no attempt to disguise her age. She looked sixty at the first glance, and close acquaintanceship never proved her older.

Another and still more winning trait was one attaching to the corners of her mouth. Before she made a remark these often twitched gently: not backwards and forwards, the index of nervousness; not down upon the jaw, the sign of determination; but palpably upwards, in precisely the curve adopted to represent mirth in the broad caricatures of schoolboys. Only this element in her face was expressive of anything within the woman, but it was unmistakable. It expressed humour subjective as well as objective—which could survey the peculiarities of self in as whimsical a light as those of other people.

This is not all of Mrs. Swancourt. She had held out to Elfride hands whose fingers were literally stiff with rings, signis auroque rigentes, like Helen's robe. These rows of rings were not worn in vanity apparently. They were mostly antique and dull, though a few were the reverse.

RIGHT HAND.

1st. Plainly set oval onyx, representing a devil's head. 2nd. Green jasper intaglio, with red veins. 3rd. Entirely gold, bearing figure of a hideous griffin. 4th. A sea-green monster diamond, with small diamonds round it. 5th. Antique cornelian intaglio of dancing figure of a satyr. 6th. An angular band chased with dragons' heads. 7th. A facetted carbuncle accompanied by ten little twinkling emeralds; &c. &c.





LEFT HAND.

1st. A reddish-yellow toadstone. 2nd. A heavy ring enamelled in colours, and bearing a jacynth. 3rd. An amethystine sapphire. 4th. A polished ruby, surrounded by diamonds. 5th.

The engraved ring of an abbess. 6th. A gloomy intaglio; &c. &c.

Beyond this rather quaint array of stone and metal Mrs. Swancourt wore no ornament whatever.

Elfride had been favourably impressed with Mrs. Troyton at their meeting about two months earlier; but to be pleased with a woman as a momentary acquaintance was different from being taken with her as a stepmother. However, the suspension of feeling was but for a moment. Elfride decided to like her still.

Mrs. Swancourt was a woman of the world as to knowledge, the reverse as to action, as her marriage suggested. Elfride and the lady were soon inextricably involved in conversation, and Mr. Swancourt left them to themselves.

'And what do you find to do with yourself here?' Mrs. Swancourt said, after a few remarks about the wedding. 'You ride, I know.' 'Yes, I ride. But not much, because papa doesn't like my going alone.' 'You must have somebody to look after you.' 'And I read, and write a little.' 'You should write a novel. The regular resource of people who don't go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one.' 'I have done it,' said Elfride, looking dubiously at Mrs. Swancourt, as if in doubt whether she would meet with ridicule there.

'That's right. Now, then, what is it about, dear?' 'About—well, it is a romance of the Middle Ages.' 'Knowing nothing of the present age, which everybody knows about, for safety you chose an age known neither to you nor other people. That's it, eh? No, no; I don't mean it, dear.' 'Well, I have had some opportunities of studying mediaeval art and manners in the library and private museum at Endelstow House, and I thought I should like to try my hand upon a fiction. I know the time for these tales is past; but I was interested in it, very much interested.' 'When is it to appear?' 'Oh, never, I suppose.' 'Nonsense, my dear girl. Publish it, by all means. All ladies do that sort of thing now; not for profit, you know, but as a guarantee of mental respectability to their future husbands.' 'An excellent idea of us ladies.' 'Though I am afraid it rather resembles the melancholy ruse of throwing loaves over castlewalls at besiegers, and suggests desperation rather than plenty inside.' 'Did you ever try it?' 'No; I was too far gone even for that.' 'Papa says no publisher will take my book.' 'That remains to be proved. I'll give my word, my dear, that by this time next year it shall be printed.' 'Will you, indeed?' said Elfride, partially brightening with pleasure, though she was sad enough in her depths. 'I thought brains were the indispensable, even if the only, qualification for admission to the republic of letters. A mere commonplace creature like me will soon be turned out again.' 'Oh no; once you are there you'll be like a drop of water in a piece of rock-crystal—your medium will dignify your commonness.' 'It will be a great satisfaction,' Elfride murmured, and thought of Stephen, and wished she could make a great fortune by writing romances, and marry him and live happily.

'And then we'll go to London, and then to Paris,' said Mrs. Swancourt. 'I have been talking to your father about it. But we have first to move into the manor-house, and we think of staying at Torquay whilst that is going on. Meanwhile, instead of going on a honeymoon scamper by ourselves, we have come home to fetch you, and go all together to Bath for two or three weeks.' Elfride assented pleasantly, even gladly; but she saw that, by this marriage, her father and herself had ceased for ever to be the close relations they had been up to a few weeks ago. It was impossible now to tell him the tale of her wild elopement with Stephen Smith.

He was still snugly housed in her heart. His absence had regained for him much of that aureola of saintship which had been nearly abstracted during her reproachful mood on that miserable journey from London. Rapture is often cooled by contact with its cause, especially if under awkward conditions. And that last experience with Stephen had done anything but make him shine in her eyes. His very kindness in letting her return was his offence. Elfride had her sex's love of sheer force in a man, however ill-directed; and at that critical juncture in London Stephen's only chance of retaining the ascendancy over her that his face and not his parts had acquired for him, would have been by doing what, for one thing, he was too youthful to undertake—that was, dragging her by the wrist to the rails of some altar, and peremptorily marrying her. Decisive action is seen by appreciative minds to be frequently objectless, and sometimes fatal; but decision, however suicidal, has more charm for a woman than the most unequivocal Fabian success.

However, some of the unpleasant accessories of that occasion were now out of sight again, and Stephen had resumed not a few of his fancy colours.

CHAPTER 13 'He set in order many proverbs.' It is London in October—two months further on in the story.

Bede's Inn has this peculiarity, that it faces, receives from, and discharges into a bustling thoroughfare speaking only of wealth and respectability, whilst its postern abuts on as crowded and poverty-stricken a network of alleys as are to be found anywhere in the metropolis. The moral consequences are, first, that those who occupy chambers in the Inn may see a great deal of shirtless humanity's habits and enjoyments without doing more than look down from a back window; and second they may hear wholesome though unpleasant social reminders through the medium of a harsh voice, an unequal footstep, the echo of a blow or a fall, which originates in the person of some drunkard or wife-beater, as he crosses and interferes with the quiet of the square. Characters of this kind frequently pass through the Inn from a little foxhole of an alley at the back, but they never loiter there.

It is hardly necessary to state that all the sights and movements proper to the Inn are most orderly. On the fine October evening on which we follow Stephen Smith to this place, a placid porter is sitting on a stool under a sycamore-tree in the midst, with a little cane in his hand. We notice the thick coat of soot upon the branches, hanging underneath them in flakes, as in a chimney. The blackness of these boughs does not at present improve the tree—nearly forsaken by its leaves as it is—but in the spring their green fresh beauty is made doubly beautiful by the contrast. Within the railings is a flower-garden of respectable dahlias and chrysanthemums, where a man is sweeping the leaves from the grass.

Stephen selects a doorway, and ascends an old though wide wooden staircase, with moulded balusters and handrail, which in a country manor-house would be considered a noteworthy specimen of Renaissance workmanship. He reaches a door on the first floor, over which is painted, in black letters, 'Mr. Henry Knight'—'Barrister-at-law' being understood but not expressed. The wall is thick, and there is a door at its outer and inner face. The outer one happens to be ajar: Stephen goes to the other, and taps.

'Come in!' from distant penetralia.

First was a small anteroom, divided from the inner apartment by a wainscoted archway two or three yards wide. Across this archway hung a pair of dark-green curtains, making a mystery of all within the arch except the spasmodic scratching of a quill pen. Here was grouped a chaotic assemblage of articles—mainly old framed prints and paintings—leaning edgewise against the wall, like roofing slates in a builder's yard. All the books visible here were folios too big to be stolen—some lying on a heavy oak table in one corner, some on the floor among the pictures, the whole intermingled with old coats, hats, umbrellas, and walking-sticks.

Stephen pushed aside the curtain, and before him sat a man writing away as if his life depended upon it—which it did.

A man of thirty in a speckled coat, with dark brown hair, curly beard, and crisp moustache:

the latter running into the beard on each side of the mouth, and, as usual, hiding the real expression of that organ under a chronic aspect of impassivity.

'Ah, my dear fellow, I knew 'twas you,' said Knight, looking up with a smile, and holding out his hand.

Knight's mouth and eyes came to view now. Both features were good, and had the peculiarity of appearing younger and fresher than the brow and face they belonged to, which were getting sicklied o'er by the unmistakable pale cast. The mouth had not quite relinquished rotundity of curve for the firm angularities of middle life; and the eyes, though keen, permeated rather than penetrated: what they had lost of their boy-time brightness by a dozen years of hard reading lending a quietness to their gaze which suited them well.

A lady would have said there was a smell of tobacco in the room: a man that there was not.



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