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At any rate, my kinsman.' 'Yes, one of a remnant not yet cut off. I scarcely was certain of you, either, from where I was standing.' 'I have not seen you since you first went to Oxford; consider the number of years! You know, I suppose, of my marriage?' And there sprang up a dialogue concerning family matters of birth, death, and marriage,
which it is not necessary to detail. Knight presently inquired:
'The young lady who changed into the other carriage is, then, your stepdaughter?' 'Yes, Elfride. You must know her.' 'And who was the lady in the carriage Elfride entered; who had an ill-defined and watery look, as if she were only the reflection of herself in a pool?' 'Lady Luxellian; very weakly, Elfride says. My husband is remotely connected with them; but there is not much intimacy on account of——. However, Henry, you'll come and see us, of course. 24 Chevron Square. Come this week. We shall only be in town a week or two longer.' 'Let me see. I've got to run up to Oxford to-morrow, where I shall be for several days; so that I must, I fear, lose the pleasure of seeing you in London this year.' 'Then come to Endelstow; why not return with us?' 'I am afraid if I were to come before August I should have to leave again in a day or two. I should be delighted to be with you at the beginning of that month; and I could stay a nice long time. I have thought of going westward all the summer.' 'Very well. Now remember that's a compact. And won't you wait now and see Mr.
Swancourt? He will not be away ten minutes longer.' 'No; I'll beg to be excused; for I must get to my chambers again this evening before I go home; indeed, I ought to have been there now—I have such a press of matters to attend to just at present. You will explain to him, please. Good-bye.' 'And let us know the day of your appearance as soon as you can.' 'I will' CHAPTER 15 'A wandering voice.' Though sheer and intelligible griefs are not charmed away by being confided to mere acquaintances, the process is a palliative to certain ill-humours. Among these, perplexed vexation is one—a species of trouble which, like a stream, gets shallower by the simple operation of widening it in any quarter.
On the evening of the day succeeding that of the meeting in the Park, Elfride and Mrs.
Swancourt were engaged in conversation in the dressing-room of the latter. Such a treatment of such a case was in course of adoption here.
Elfride had just before received an affectionate letter from Stephen Smith in Bombay, which had been forwarded to her from Endelstow. But since this is not the case referred to, it is not worth while to pry further into the contents of the letter than to discover that, with rash though pardonable confidence in coming times, he addressed her in high spirits as his darling future wife. Probably there cannot be instanced a briefer and surer rule-of-thumb test of a man's temperament—sanguine or cautious—than this: did he or does he ante-date the word wife in corresponding with a sweet-heart he honestly loves?
She had taken this epistle into her own room, read a little of it, then SAVED the rest for tomorrow, not wishing to be so extravagant as to consume the pleasure all at once.
Nevertheless, she could not resist the wish to enjoy yet a little more, so out came the letter again, and in spite of misgivings as to prodigality the whole was devoured. The letter was finally reperused and placed in her pocket.
What was this? Also a newspaper for Elfride, which she had overlooked in her hurry to open the letter. It was the old number of the PRESENT, containing the article upon her book, forwarded as had been requested.
Elfride had hastily read it through, shrunk perceptibly smaller, and had then gone with the paper in her hand to Mrs. Swancourt's dressing-room, to lighten or at least modify her vexation by a discriminating estimate from her stepmother.
She was now looking disconsolately out of the window.
'Never mind, my child,' said Mrs. Swancourt after a careful perusal of the matter indicated. 'I don't see that the review is such a terrible one, after all. Besides, everybody has forgotten about it by this time. I'm sure the opening is good enough for any book ever written. Just listen—it sounds better read aloud than when you pore over it silently: "THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE. A ROMANCE OF THE MIDDLE AGES. BY ERNEST FIELD. In the belief that we were for a while escaping the monotonous repetition of wearisome details in modern social scenery, analyses of uninteresting character, or the unnatural unfoldings of a sensation plot, we took this volume into our hands with a feeling of pleasure. We were disposed to beguile ourselves with the fancy that some new change might possibly be rung upon donjon keeps, chain and plate armour, deeply scarred cheeks, tender maidens disguised as pages, to which we had not listened long ago." Now, that's a very good beginning, in my opinion, and one to be proud of having brought out of a man who has never seen you.' 'Ah, yes,' murmured Elfride wofully. 'But, then, see further on!' 'Well the next bit is rather unkind, I must own,' said Mrs. Swancourt, and read on. '"Instead of this we found ourselves in the hands of some young lady, hardly arrived at years of discretion, to judge by the silly device it has been thought worth while to adopt on the titlepage, with the idea of disguising her sex."' 'I am not "silly"!' said Elfride indignantly. 'He might have called me anything but that.' 'You are not, indeed. Well:—"Hands of a young lady...whose chapters are simply devoted to impossible tournaments, towers, and escapades, which read like flat copies of like scenes in the stories of Mr. G. P. R. James, and the most unreal portions of IVANHOE. The bait is so palpably artificial that the most credulous gudgeon turns away." Now, my dear, I don't see overmuch to complain of in that. It proves that you were clever enough to make him think of Sir Walter Scott, which is a great deal.' 'Oh yes; though I cannot romance myself, I am able to remind him of those who can!' Elfride intended to hurl these words sarcastically at her invisible enemy, but as she had no more satirical power than a wood-pigeon, they merely fell in a pretty murmur from lips shaped to a pout.
'Certainly: and that's something. Your book is good enough to be bad in an ordinary literary manner, and doesn't stand by itself in a melancholy position altogether worse than assailable.—"That interest in an historical romance may nowadays have any chance of being sustained, it is indispensable that the reader find himself under the guidance of some nearly extinct species of legendary, who, in addition to an impulse towards antiquarian research and an unweakened faith in the mediaeval halo, shall possess an inventive faculty in which delicacy of sentiment is far overtopped by a power of welding to stirring incident a spirited variety of the elementary human passions." Well, that long-winded effusion doesn't refer to you at all, Elfride, merely something put in to fill up. Let me see, when does he come to you
again;...not till the very end, actually. Here you are finally polished off:
'"But to return to the little work we have used as the text of this article. We are far from altogether disparaging the author's powers. She has a certain versatility that enables her to use with effect a style of narration peculiar to herself, which may be called a murmuring of delicate emotional trifles, the particular gift of those to whom the social sympathies of a peaceful time are as daily food. Hence, where matters of domestic experience, and the natural touches which make people real, can be introduced without anachronisms too striking, she is occasionally felicitous; and upon the whole we feel justified in saying that the book will bear looking into for the sake of those portions which have nothing whatever to do with the story."
'Well, I suppose it is intended for satire; but don't think anything more of it now, my dear. It is seven o'clock.' And Mrs. Swancourt rang for her maid.
Attack is more piquant than concord. Stephen's letter was concerning nothing but oneness with her: the review was the very reverse. And a stranger with neither name nor shape, age nor appearance, but a mighty voice, is naturally rather an interesting novelty to a lady he chooses to address. When Elfride fell asleep that night she was loving the writer of the letter, but thinking of the writer of that article.
CHAPTER 16 'Then fancy shapes—as fancy can.' On a day about three weeks later, the Swancourt trio were sitting quietly in the drawingroom of The Crags, Mrs. Swancourt's house at Endelstow, chatting, and taking easeful survey of their previous month or two of town—a tangible weariness even to people whose acquaintances there might be counted on the fingers.
A mere season in London with her practised step-mother had so advanced Elfride's perceptions, that her courtship by Stephen seemed emotionally meagre, and to have drifted back several years into a childish past. In regarding our mental experiences, as in visual observation, our own progress reads like a dwindling of that we progress from.
She was seated on a low chair, looking over her romance with melancholy interest for the first time since she had become acquainted with the remarks of the PRESENT thereupon.
'Still thinking of that reviewer, Elfie?' 'Not of him personally; but I am thinking of his opinion. Really, on looking into the volume after this long time has elapsed, he seems to have estimated one part of it fairly enough.' 'No, no; I wouldn't show the white feather now! Fancy that of all people in the world the writer herself should go over to the enemy. How shall Monmouth's men fight when Monmouth runs away?' 'I don't do that. But I think he is right in some of his arguments, though wrong in others. And because he has some claim to my respect I regret all the more that he should think so mistakenly of my motives in one or two instances. It is more vexing to be misunderstood than to be misrepresented; and he misunderstands me. I cannot be easy whilst a person goes to rest night after night attributing to me intentions I never had.' 'He doesn't know your name, or anything about you. And he has doubtless forgotten there is such a book in existence by this time.' 'I myself should certainly like him to be put right upon one or two matters,' said the vicar, who had hitherto been silent. 'You see, critics go on writing, and are never corrected or argued with, and therefore are never improved.' 'Papa,' said Elfride brightening, 'write to him!' 'I would as soon write to him as look at him, for the matter of that,' said Mr. Swancourt.
'Do! And say, the young person who wrote the book did not adopt a masculine pseudonym in vanity or conceit, but because she was afraid it would be thought presumptuous to publish her name, and that she did not mean the story for such as he, but as a sweetener of history for young people, who might thereby acquire a taste for what went on in their own country hundreds of years ago, and be tempted to dive deeper into the subject. Oh, there is so much to explain; I wish I might write myself!' 'Now, Elfie, I'll tell you what we will do,' answered Mr. Swancourt, tickled with a sort of bucolic humour at the idea of criticizing the critic. 'You shall write a clear account of what he is wrong in, and I will copy it and send it as mine.' 'Yes, now, directly!' said Elfride, jumping up. 'When will you send it, papa?' 'Oh, in a day or two, I suppose,' he returned. Then the vicar paused and slightly yawned, and in the manner of elderly people began to cool from his ardour for the undertaking now that it came to the point. 'But, really, it is hardly worth while,' he said.
'O papa!' said Elfride, with much disappointment. 'You said you would, and now you won't.
That is not fair!' 'But how can we send it if we don't know whom to send it to?' 'If you really want to send such a thing it can easily be done,' said Mrs. Swancourt, coming to her step-daughter's rescue. 'An envelope addressed, "To the Critic of THE COURT OF KELLYON CASTLE, care of the Editor of the PRESENT," would find him.' 'Yes, I suppose it would.' 'Why not write your answer yourself, Elfride?' Mrs. Swancourt inquired.
'I might,' she said hesitatingly; 'and send it anonymously: that would be treating him as he has treated me.' 'No use in the world!' 'But I don't like to let him know my exact name. Suppose I put my initials only? The less you are known the more you are thought of.' 'Yes; you might do that.' Elfride set to work there and then. Her one desire for the last fortnight seemed likely to be realized. As happens with sensitive and secluded minds, a continual dwelling upon the subject had magnified to colossal proportions the space she assumed herself to occupy or to have occupied in the occult critic's mind. At noon and at night she had been pestering herself with endeavours to perceive more distinctly his conception of her as a woman apart from an author: whether he really despised her; whether he thought more or less of her than of ordinary young women who never ventured into the fire of criticism at all. Now she would have the satisfaction of feeling that at any rate he knew her true intent in crossing his path, and annoying him so by her performance, and be taught perhaps to despise it a little less.
Four days later an envelope, directed to Miss Swancourt in a strange hand, made its appearance from the post-bag.
'Oh,' said Elfride, her heart sinking within her. 'Can it be from that man—a lecture for impertinence? And actually one for Mrs. Swancourt in the same hand-writing!' She feared to open hers. 'Yet how can he know my name? No; it is somebody else.' 'Nonsense!' said her father grimly. 'You sent your initials, and the Directory was available.
Though he wouldn't have taken the trouble to look there unless he had been thoroughly savage with you. I thought you wrote with rather more asperity than simple literary discussion required.' This timely clause was introduced to save the character of the vicar's judgment under any issue of affairs.
'Well, here I go,' said Elfride, desperately tearing open the seal.
'To be sure, of course,' exclaimed Mrs. Swancourt; and looking up from her own letter.
'Christopher, I quite forgot to tell you, when I mentioned that I had seen my distant relative, Harry Knight, that I invited him here for whatever length of time he could spare. And now he says he can come any day in August.' 'Write, and say the first of the month,' replied the indiscriminate vicar.
She read on, 'Goodness me—and that isn't all. He is actually the reviewer of Elfride's book.