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'Why I don't mind the accidental constraint,' he replied, 'is because, in making beginnings, a chance limitation of direction is often better than absolute freedom.' 'I see—that is, I should if I quite understood what all those generalities mean.' 'Why, this: That an arbitrary foundation for one's work, which no length of thought can alter, leaves the attention free to fix itself on the work itself, and make the best of it.' 'Lateral compression forcing altitude, as would be said in that tongue,' she said mischievously. 'And I suppose where no limit exists, as in the case of a rich man with a wide taste who wants to do something, it will be better to choose a limit capriciously than to have none.' 'Yes,' he said meditatively. 'I can go as far as that.' 'Well,' resumed Elfride, 'I think it better for a man's nature if he does nothing in particular.' 'There is such a case as being obliged to.' 'Yes, yes; I was speaking of when you are not obliged for any other reason than delight in the prospect of fame. I have thought many times lately that a thin widespread happiness, commencing now, and of a piece with the days of your life, is preferable to an anticipated heap far away in the future, and none now.' 'Why, that's the very thing I said just now as being the principle of all ephemeral doers like myself.' 'Oh, I am sorry to have parodied you,' she said with some confusion. 'Yes, of course.
This is how she was looking at Knight.
Suddenly Elfride became conscious of what she was doing, and was painfully confused.
'What were you so intent upon in me?' he inquired.
'As far as I was thinking of you at all, I was thinking how clever you are,' she said, with a want of premeditation that was startling in its honesty and simplicity.
Feeling restless now that she had so unwittingly spoken, she arose and stepped to the window, having heard the voices of her father and Mrs. Swancourt coming up below the terrace. 'Here they are,' she said, going out. Knight walked out upon the lawn behind her.
She stood upon the edge of the terrace, close to the stone balustrade, and looked towards the sun, hanging over a glade just now fair as Tempe's vale, up which her father was walking. Knight could not help looking at her. The sun was within ten degrees of the horizon, and its warm light flooded her face and heightened the bright rose colour of her cheeks to a vermilion red, their moderate pink hue being only seen in its natural tone where the cheek curved round into shadow. The ends of her hanging hair softly dragged themselves backwards and forwards upon her shoulder as each faint breeze thrust against or relinquished it. Fringes and ribbons of her dress, moved by the same breeze, licked like tongues upon the parts around them, and fluttering forward from shady folds caught likewise their share of the lustrous orange glow.
Mr. Swancourt shouted out a welcome to Knight from a distance of about thirty yards, and after a few preliminary words proceeded to a conversation of deep earnestness on Knight's fine old family name, and theories as to lineage and intermarriage connected therewith.
Knight's portmanteau having in the meantime arrived, they soon retired to prepare for dinner, which had been postponed two hours later than the usual time of that meal.
An arrival was an event in the life of Elfride, now that they were again in the country, and that of Knight necessarily an engrossing one. And that evening she went to bed for the first time without thinking of Stephen at all.
CHAPTER 18 'He heard her musical pants.' The old tower of West Endelstow Church had reached the last weeks of its existence. It was to be replaced by a new one from the designs of Mr. Hewby, the architect who had sent down Stephen. Planks and poles had arrived in the churchyard, iron bars had been thrust into the venerable crack extending down the belfry wall to the foundation, the bells had been taken down, the owls had forsaken this home of their forefathers, and six iconoclasts in white fustian, to whom a cracked edifice was a species of Mumbo Jumbo, had taken lodgings in the village previous to beginning the actual removal of the stones.
This was the day after Knight's arrival. To enjoy for the last time the prospect seaward from the summit, the vicar, Mrs. Swancourt, Knight, and Elfride, all ascended the winding turret— Mr. Swancourt stepping forward with many loud breaths, his wife struggling along silently, but suffering none the less. They had hardly reached the top when a large lurid cloud, palpably a reservoir of rain, thunder, and lightning, was seen to be advancing overhead from the north.
The two cautious elders suggested an immediate return, and proceeded to put it in practice as regarded themselves.
'Dear me, I wish I had not come up,' exclaimed Mrs. Swancourt.
'We shall be slower than you two in going down,' the vicar said over his shoulder, 'and so, don't you start till we are nearly at the bottom, or you will run over us and break our necks somewhere in the darkness of the turret.' Accordingly Elfride and Knight waited on the leads till the staircase should be clear. Knight was not in a talkative mood that morning. Elfride was rather wilful, by reason of his inattention, which she privately set down to his thinking her not worth talking to. Whilst Knight stood watching the rise of the cloud, she sauntered to the other side of the tower, and there remembered a giddy feat she had performed the year before. It was to walk round upon the parapet of the tower—which was quite without battlement or pinnacle, and presented a smooth flat surface about two feet wide, forming a pathway on all the four sides. Without reflecting in the least upon what she was doing she now stepped upon the parapet in the old way, and began walking along.
'We are down, cousin Henry,' cried Mrs. Swancourt up the turret. 'Follow us when you like.' Knight turned and saw Elfride beginning her elevated promenade. His face flushed with mingled concern and anger at her rashness.
'I certainly gave you credit for more common sense,' he said.
She reddened a little and walked on.
'Miss Swancourt, I insist upon your coming down,' he exclaimed.
'I will in a minute. I am safe enough. I have done it often.' At that moment, by reason of a slight perturbation his words had caused in her, Elfride's foot caught itself in a little tuft of grass growing in a joint of the stone-work, and she almost lost her balance. Knight sprang forward with a face of horror. By what seemed the special interposition of a considerate Providence she tottered to the inner edge of the parapet instead of to the outer, and reeled over upon the lead roof two or three feet below the wall.
Knight seized her as in a vice, and he said, panting, 'That ever I should have met a woman fool enough to do a thing of that kind! Good God, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!' The close proximity of the Shadow of Death had made her sick and pale as a corpse before he spoke. Already lowered to that state, his words completely over-powered her, and she swooned away as he held her.
Elfride's eyes were not closed for more than forty seconds. She opened them, and remembered the position instantly. His face had altered its expression from stern anger to pity. But his severe remarks had rather frightened her, and she struggled to be free.
'If you can stand, of course you may,' he said, and loosened his arms. 'I hardly know whether most to laugh at your freak or to chide you for its folly.' She immediately sank upon the lead-work. Knight lifted her again. 'Are you hurt?' he said.
She murmured an incoherent expression, and tried to smile; saying, with a fitful aversion of her face, 'I am only frightened. Put me down, do put me down!' 'But you can't walk,' said Knight.
'You don't know that; how can you? I am only frightened, I tell you,' she answered petulantly, and raised her hand to her forehead. Knight then saw that she was bleeding from a severe cut in her wrist, apparently where it had descended upon a salient corner of the lead-work. Elfride, too, seemed to perceive and feel this now for the first time, and for a minute nearly lost consciousness again. Knight rapidly bound his handkerchief round the place, and to add to the complication, the thundercloud he had been watching began to shed some heavy drops of rain. Knight looked up and saw the vicar striding towards the house, and Mrs. Swancourt waddling beside him like a hard-driven duck.
'As you are so faint, it will be much better to let me carry you down,' said Knight; 'or at any rate inside out of the rain.' But her objection to be lifted made it impossible for him to support her for more than five steps.
'This is folly, great folly,' he exclaimed, setting her down.
'Indeed!' she murmured, with tears in her eyes. 'I say I will not be carried, and you say this is folly!' 'So it is.' 'No, it isn't!' 'It is folly, I think. At any rate, the origin of it all is.' 'I don't agree to it. And you needn't get so angry with me; I am not worth it.' 'Indeed you are. You are worth the enmity of princes, as was said of such another. Now, then, will you clasp your hands behind my neck, that I may carry you down without hurting you?' 'No, no.' 'You had better, or I shall foreclose.' 'What's that!' 'Deprive you of your chance.' Elfride gave a little toss.
'Now, don't writhe so when I attempt to carry you.' 'I can't help it.' 'Then submit quietly.' 'I don't care. I don't care,' she murmured in languid tones and with closed eyes.
He took her into his arms, entered the turret, and with slow and cautious steps descended round and round. Then, with the gentleness of a nursing mother, he attended to the cut on her arm. During his progress through the operations of wiping it and binding it up anew, her face changed its aspect from pained indifference to something like bashful interest, interspersed with small tremors and shudders of a trifling kind.
In the centre of each pale cheek a small red spot the size of a wafer had now made its appearance, and continued to grow larger. Elfride momentarily expected a recurrence to the lecture on her foolishness, but Knight said no more than this— 'Promise me NEVER to walk on that parapet again.' 'It will be pulled down soon: so I do.' In a few minutes she continued in a lower tone, and seriously, 'You are familiar of course, as everybody is, with those strange sensations we sometimes have, that our life for the moment exists in duplicate.' 'That we have lived through that moment before?' 'Or shall again. Well, I felt on the tower that something similar to that scene is again to be common to us both.' 'God forbid!' said Knight. 'Promise me that you will never again walk on any such place on any consideration.' 'I do.' 'That such a thing has not been before, we know. That it shall not be again, you vow.
Therefore think no more of such a foolish fancy.' There had fallen a great deal of rain, but unaccompanied by lightning. A few minutes longer, and the storm had ceased.
'Now, take my arm, please.' 'Oh no, it is not necessary.' This relapse into wilfulness was because he had again connected the epithet foolish with her.
'Nonsense: it is quite necessary; it will rain again directly, and you are not half recovered.' And without more ado Knight took her hand, drew it under his arm, and held it there so firmly that she could not have removed it without a struggle. Feeling like a colt in a halter for the first time, at thus being led along, yet afraid to be angry, it was to her great relief that she saw the carriage coming round the corner to fetch them.
Her fall upon the roof was necessarily explained to some extent upon their entering the house; but both forbore to mention a word of what she had been doing to cause such an accident. During the remainder of the afternoon Elfride was invisible; but at dinner-time she appeared as bright as ever.
In the drawing-room, after having been exclusively engaged with Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt through the intervening hour, Knight again found himself thrown with Elfride. She had been looking over a chess problem in one of the illustrated periodicals.
'You like chess, Miss Swancourt?' 'Yes. It is my favourite scientific game; indeed, excludes every other. Do you play?' 'I have played; though not lately.' 'Challenge him, Elfride,' said the vicar heartily. 'She plays very well for a lady, Mr. Knight.' 'Shall we play?' asked Elfride tentatively.