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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 23 ] --

'Oh, certainly. I shall be delighted.' The game began. Mr. Swancourt had forgotten a similar performance with Stephen Smith the year before. Elfride had not; but she had begun to take for her maxim the undoubted truth that the necessity of continuing faithful to Stephen, without suspicion, dictated a fickle behaviour almost as imperatively as fickleness itself; a fact, however, which would give a startling advantage to the latter quality should it ever appear.

Knight, by one of those inexcusable oversights which will sometimes afflict the best of players, placed his rook in the arms of one of her pawns. It was her first advantage. She looked triumphant—even ruthless.

'By George! what was I thinking of?' said Knight quietly; and then dismissed all concern at his accident.

'Club laws we'll have, won't we, Mr. Knight?' said Elfride suasively.

'Oh yes, certainly,' said Mr. Knight, a thought, however, just occurring to his mind, that he had two or three times allowed her to replace a man on her religiously assuring him that such a move was an absolute blunder.

She immediately took up the unfortunate rook and the contest proceeded, Elfride having now rather the better of the game. Then he won the exchange, regained his position, and began to press her hard. Elfride grew flurried, and placed her queen on his remaining rook's file.

'There—how stupid! Upon my word, I did not see your rook. Of course nobody but a fool would have put a queen there knowingly!' She spoke excitedly, half expecting her antagonist to give her back the move.

'Nobody, of course,' said Knight serenely, and stretched out his hand towards his royal victim.

'It is not very pleasant to have it taken advantage of, then,' she said with some vexation.

'Club laws, I think you said?' returned Knight blandly, and mercilessly appropriating the queen.

She was on the brink of pouting, but was ashamed to show it; tears almost stood in her eyes. She had been trying so hard—so very hard—thinking and thinking till her brain was in a whirl; and it seemed so heartless of him to treat her so, after all.

'I think it is——' she began.

'What?' —'Unkind to take advantage of a pure mistake I make in that way.' 'I lost my rook by even a purer mistake,' said the enemy in an inexorable tone, without lifting his eyes.

'Yes, but——' However, as his logic was absolutely unanswerable, she merely registered a protest. 'I cannot endure those cold-blooded ways of clubs and professional players, like Staunton and Morphy. Just as if it really mattered whether you have raised your fingers from a man or no!' Knight smiled as pitilessly as before, and they went on in silence.

'Checkmate,' said Knight.

'Another game,' said Elfride peremptorily, and looking very warm.

'With all my heart,' said Knight.

'Checkmate,' said Knight again at the end of forty minutes.

'Another game,' she returned resolutely.

'I'll give you the odds of a bishop,' Knight said to her kindly.

'No, thank you,' Elfride replied in a tone intended for courteous indifference; but, as a fact, very cavalier indeed.

'Checkmate,' said her opponent without the least emotion.

Oh, the difference between Elfride's condition of mind now, and when she purposely made blunders that Stephen Smith might win!

It was bedtime. Her mind as distracted as if it would throb itself out of her head, she went off to her chamber, full of mortification at being beaten time after time when she herself was the aggressor. Having for two or three years enjoyed the reputation throughout the globe of her father's brain—which almost constituted her entire world—of being an excellent player, this fiasco was intolerable; for unfortunately the person most dogged in the belief in a false reputation is always that one, the possessor, who has the best means of knowing that it is not true.

In bed no sleep came to soothe her; that gentle thing being the very middle-of-summer friend in this respect of flying away at the merest troublous cloud. After lying awake till two o'clock an idea seemed to strike her. She softly arose, got a light, and fetched a Chess Praxis from the library. Returning and sitting up in bed, she diligently studied the volume till the clock struck five, and her eyelids felt thick and heavy. She then extinguished the light and lay down again.

'You look pale, Elfride,' said Mrs. Swancourt the next morning at breakfast. 'Isn't she, cousin Harry?' A young girl who is scarcely ill at all can hardly help becoming so when regarded as such by all eyes turning upon her at the table in obedience to some remark. Everybody looked at Elfride. She certainly was pale.

'Am I pale?' she said with a faint smile. 'I did not sleep much. I could not get rid of armies of bishops and knights, try how I would.' 'Chess is a bad thing just before bedtime; especially for excitable people like yourself, dear.

Don't ever play late again.' 'I'll play early instead. Cousin Knight,' she said in imitation of Mrs. Swancourt, 'will you oblige me in something?' 'Even to half my kingdom.' 'Well, it is to play one game more.' 'When?' 'Now, instantly; the moment we have breakfasted.' 'Nonsense, Elfride,' said her father. 'Making yourself a slave to the game like that.' 'But I want to, papa! Honestly, I am restless at having been so ignominiously overcome. And Mr. Knight doesn't mind. So what harm can there be?' 'Let us play, by all means, if you wish it,' said Knight.





So, when breakfast was over, the combatants withdrew to the quiet of the library, and the door was closed. Elfride seemed to have an idea that her conduct was rather ill-regulated and startlingly free from conventional restraint. And worse, she fancied upon Knight's face a slightly amused look at her proceedings.

'You think me foolish, I suppose,' she said recklessly; 'but I want to do my very best just once, and see whether I can overcome you.' 'Certainly: nothing more natural. Though I am afraid it is not the plan adopted by women of the world after a defeat.' 'Why, pray?' 'Because they know that as good as overcoming is skill in effacing recollection of being overcome, and turn their attention to that entirely.' 'I am wrong again, of course.' 'Perhaps your wrong is more pleasing than their right.' 'I don't quite know whether you mean that, or whether you are laughing at me,' she said, looking doubtingly at him, yet inclining to accept the more flattering interpretation. 'I am almost sure you think it vanity in me to think I am a match for you. Well, if you do, I say that vanity is no crime in such a case.' 'Well, perhaps not. Though it is hardly a virtue.' 'Oh yes, in battle! Nelson's bravery lay in his vanity.' 'Indeed! Then so did his death.' Oh no, no! For it is written in the book of the prophet Shakespeare— "Fear and be slain? no worse can come to fight;

And fight and die, is death destroying death!" And down they sat, and the contest began, Elfride having the first move. The game progressed. Elfride's heart beat so violently that she could not sit still. Her dread was lest he should hear it. And he did discover it at last—some flowers upon the table being set throbbing by its pulsations.

'I think we had better give over,' said Knight, looking at her gently. 'It is too much for you, I know. Let us write down the position, and finish another time.' 'No, please not,' she implored. 'I should not rest if I did not know the result at once. It is your move.' Ten minutes passed.

She started up suddenly. 'I know what you are doing?' she cried, an angry colour upon her cheeks, and her eyes indignant. 'You were thinking of letting me win to please me!' 'I don't mind owning that I was,' Knight responded phlegmatically, and appearing all the more so by contrast with her own turmoil.

'But you must not! I won't have it.' 'Very well.' 'No, that will not do; I insist that you promise not to do any such absurd thing. It is insulting me!' 'Very well, madam. I won't do any such absurd thing. You shall not win.' 'That is to be proved!' she returned proudly; and the play went on.

Nothing is now heard but the ticking of a quaint old timepiece on the summit of a bookcase.

Ten minutes pass; he captures her knight; she takes his knight, and looks a very Rhadamanthus.

More minutes tick away; she takes his pawn and has the advantage, showing her sense of it rather prominently.

Five minutes more: he takes her bishop: she brings things even by taking his knight.

Three minutes: she looks bold, and takes his queen: he looks placid, and takes hers.

Eight or ten minutes pass: he takes a pawn; she utters a little pooh! but not the ghost of a pawn can she take in retaliation.

Ten minutes pass: he takes another pawn and says, 'Check!' She flushes, extricates herself by capturing his bishop, and looks triumphant. He immediately takes her bishop: she looks surprised.

Five minutes longer: she makes a dash and takes his only remaining bishop; he replies by taking her only remaining knight.

Two minutes: he gives check; her mind is now in a painful state of tension, and she shades her face with her hand.

Yet a few minutes more: he takes her rook and checks again. She literally trembles now lest an artful surprise she has in store for him shall be anticipated by the artful surprise he evidently has in store for her.

Five minutes: 'Checkmate in two moves!' exclaims Elfride.

'If you can,' says Knight.

'Oh, I have miscalculated; that is cruel!' 'Checkmate,' says Knight; and the victory is won.

Elfride arose and turned away without letting him see her face. Once in the hall she ran upstairs and into her room, and flung herself down upon her bed, weeping bitterly.

'Where is Elfride?' said her father at luncheon.

Knight listened anxiously for the answer. He had been hoping to see her again before this time.

'She isn't well, sir,' was the reply.

Mrs. Swancourt rose and left the room, going upstairs to Elfride's apartment.

At the door was Unity, who occupied in the new establishment a position between young lady's maid and middle-housemaid.

'She is sound asleep, ma'am,' Unity whispered.

Mrs. Swancourt opened the door. Elfride was lying full-dressed on the bed, her face hot and red, her arms thrown abroad. At intervals of a minute she tossed restlessly from side to side, and indistinctly moaned words used in the game of chess.

Mrs. Swancourt had a turn for doctoring, and felt her pulse. It was twanging like a harpstring, at the rate of nearly a hundred and fifty a minute. Softly moving the sleeping girl to a little less cramped position, she went downstairs again.

'She is asleep now,' said Mrs. Swancourt. 'She does not seem very well. Cousin Knight, what were you thinking of? her tender brain won't bear cudgelling like your great head. You should have strictly forbidden her to play again.' In truth, the essayist's experience of the nature of young women was far less extensive than his

Abstract

knowledge of them led himself and others to believe. He could pack them into sentences like a workman, but practically was nowhere.

'I am indeed sorry,' said Knight, feeling even more than he expressed. 'But surely, the young lady knows best what is good for her!' 'Bless you, that's just what she doesn't know. She never thinks of such things, does she, Christopher? Her father and I have to command her and keep her in order, as you would a child. She will say things worthy of a French epigrammatist, and act like a robin in a greenhouse. But I think we will send for Dr. Granson—there can be no harm.' A man was straightway despatched on horseback to Castle Boterel, and the gentleman known as Dr. Granson came in the course of the afternoon. He pronounced her nervous system to be in a decided state of disorder; forwarded some soothing draught, and gave orders that on no account whatever was she to play chess again.

The next morning Knight, much vexed with himself, waited with a curiously compounded feeling for her entry to breakfast. The women servants came in to prayers at irregular intervals, and as each entered, he could not, to save his life, avoid turning his head with the hope that she might be Elfride. Mr. Swancourt began reading without waiting for her. Then somebody glided in noiselessly; Knight softly glanced up: it was only the little kitchen-maid.

Knight thought reading prayers a bore.

He went out alone, and for almost the first time failed to recognize that holding converse with Nature's charms was not solitude. On nearing the house again he perceived his young friend crossing a slope by a path which ran into the one he was following in the angle of the field. Here they met. Elfride was at once exultant and abashed: coming into his presence had upon her the effect of entering a cathedral.

Knight had his note-book in his hand, and had, in fact, been in the very act of writing therein when they came in view of each other. He left off in the midst of a sentence, and proceeded to inquire warmly concerning her state of health. She said she was perfectly well, and indeed had never looked better. Her health was as inconsequent as her actions. Her lips were red, WITHOUT the polish that cherries have, and their redness margined with the white skin in a clearly defined line, which had nothing of jagged confusion in it. Altogether she stood as the last person in the world to be knocked over by a game of chess, because too ephemeral-looking to play one.

'Are you taking notes?' she inquired with an alacrity plainly arising less from interest in the subject than from a wish to divert his thoughts from herself.

'Yes; I was making an entry. And with your permission I will complete it.' Knight then stood still and wrote. Elfride remained beside him a moment, and afterwards walked on.

'I should like to see all the secrets that are in that book,' she gaily flung back to him over her shoulder.



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