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'I don't think you would find much to interest you.' 'I know I should.' 'Then of course I have no more to say.' 'But I would ask this question first. Is it a book of mere facts concerning journeys and expenditure, and so on, or a book of thoughts?' 'Well, to tell the truth, it is not exactly either. It consists for the most part of jottings for articles and essays, disjointed and disconnected, of no possible interest to anybody but myself.' 'It contains, I suppose, your developed thoughts in embryo?' 'Yes.' 'If they are interesting when enlarged to the size of an article, what must they be in their concentrated form? Pure rectified spirit, above proof; before it is lowered to be fit for human consumption: "words that burn" indeed.' 'Rather like a balloon before it is inflated: flabby, shapeless, dead. You could hardly read them.' 'May I try?' she said coaxingly. 'I wrote my poor romance in that way—I mean in bits, out of doors—and I should like to see whether your way of entering things is the same as mine.' 'Really, that's rather an awkward request. I suppose I can hardly refuse now you have asked so directly; but——' 'You think me ill-mannered in asking. But does not this justify me—your writing in my presence, Mr.
Knight rambled on towards the house, leaving her standing in the path turning over the leaves. By the time he had reached the wicket-gate he saw that she had moved, and waited till she came up.
Elfride had closed the note-book, and was carrying it disdainfully by the corner between her finger and thumb; her face wore a nettled look. She silently extended the volume towards him, raising her eyes no higher than her hand was lifted.
'Take it,' said Elfride quickly. 'I don't want to read it.' 'Could you understand it?' said Knight.
'As far as I looked. But I didn't care to read much.' 'Why, Miss Swancourt?' 'Only because I didn't wish to—that's all.' 'I warned you that you might not.' 'Yes, but I never supposed you would have put me there.' 'Your name is not mentioned once within the four corners.' 'Not my name—I know that.' 'Nor your description, nor anything by which anybody would recognize you.' 'Except myself. For what is this?' she exclaimed, taking it from him and opening a page.
'August 7. That's the day before yesterday. But I won't read it,' Elfride said, closing the book again with pretty hauteur. 'Why should I? I had no business to ask to see your book, and it serves me right.' Knight hardly recollected what he had written, and turned over the book to see. He came to
'Aug. 7. Girl gets into her teens, and her self-consciousness is born. After a certain interval passed in infantine helplessness it begins to act. Simple, young, and inexperienced at first.
Persons of observation can tell to a nicety how old this consciousness is by the skill it has acquired in the art necessary to its success—the art of hiding itself. Generally begins career by actions which are popularly termed showing-off. Method adopted depends in each case upon the disposition, rank, residence, of the young lady attempting it. Town-bred girl will utter some moral paradox on fast men, or love. Country miss adopts the more material media of taking a ghastly fence, whistling, or making your blood run cold by appearing to risk her neck. (MEM. On Endelstow Tower.) 'An innocent vanity is of course the origin of these displays. "Look at me," say these youthful beginners in womanly artifice, without reflecting whether or not it be to their advantage to show so very much of themselves. (Amplify and correct for paper on Artless Arts.)' 'Yes, I remember now,' said Knight. 'The notes were certainly suggested by your manoeuvre on the church tower. But you must not think too much of such random observations,' he continued encouragingly, as he noticed her injured looks. 'A mere fancy passing through my head assumes a factitious importance to you, because it has been made permanent by being written down. All mankind think thoughts as bad as those of people they most love on earth, but such thoughts never getting embodied on paper, it becomes assumed that they never existed. I daresay that you yourself have thought some disagreeable thing or other of me, which would seem just as bad as this if written. I challenge you, now, to tell me.' 'The worst thing I have thought of you?' 'Yes.' 'I must not.' 'Oh yes.' 'I thought you were rather round-shouldered.' Knight looked slightly redder.
'And that there was a little bald spot on the top of your head.' 'Heh-heh! Two ineradicable defects,' said Knight, there being a faint ghastliness discernible in his laugh. 'They are much worse in a lady's eye than being thought self-conscious, I suppose.' 'Ah, that's very fine,' she said, too inexperienced to perceive her hit, and hence not quite disposed to forgive his notes. 'You alluded to me in that entry as if I were such a child, too.
Everybody does that. I cannot understand it. I am quite a woman, you know. How old do you think I am?' 'How old? Why, seventeen, I should say. All girls are seventeen.' 'You are wrong. I am nearly nineteen. Which class of women do you like best, those who seem younger, or those who seem older than they are?' 'Off-hand I should be inclined to say those who seem older.' So it was not Elfride's class.
'But it is well known,' she said eagerly, and there was something touching in the artless anxiety to be thought much of which she revealed by her words, 'that the slower a nature is to develop, the richer the nature. Youths and girls who are men and women before they come of age are nobodies by the time that backward people have shown their full compass.' 'Yes,' said Knight thoughtfully. 'There is really something in that remark. But at the risk of offence I must remind you that you there take it for granted that the woman behind her time at a given age has not reached the end of her tether. Her backwardness may be not because she is slow to develop, but because she soon exhausted her capacity for developing.' Elfride looked disappointed. By this time they were indoors. Mrs. Swancourt, to whom match-making by any honest means was meat and drink, had now a little scheme of that nature concerning this pair. The morning-room, in which they both expected to find her, was empty; the old lady having, for the above reason, vacated it by the second door as they entered by the first.
Knight went to the chimney-piece, and carelessly surveyed two portraits on ivory.
'Though these pink ladies had very rudimentary features, judging by what I see here,' he observed, 'they had unquestionably beautiful heads of hair.' 'Yes; and that is everything,' said Elfride, possibly conscious of her own, possibly not.
'Not everything; though a great deal, certainly.' 'Which colour do you like best?' she ventured to ask.
'More depends on its abundance than on its colour.' 'Abundances being equal, may I inquire your favourite colour?' 'Dark.' 'I mean for women,' she said, with the minutest fall of countenance, and a hope that she had been misunderstood.
'So do I,' Knight replied.
It was impossible for any man not to know the colour of Elfride's hair. In women who wear it plainly such a feature may be overlooked by men not given to ocular intentness. But hers was always in the way. You saw her hair as far as you could see her sex, and knew that it was the palest brown. She knew instantly that Knight, being perfectly aware of this, had an independent standard of admiration in the matter.
Elfride was thoroughly vexed. She could not but be struck with the honesty of his opinions, and the worst of it was, that the more they went against her, the more she respected them.
And now, like a reckless gambler, she hazarded her last and best treasure. Her eyes: they were her all now.
'What coloured eyes do you like best, Mr. Knight?' she said slowly.
'Honestly, or as a compliment?' 'Of course honestly; I don't want anybody's compliment!' And yet Elfride knew otherwise: that a compliment or word of approval from that man then would have been like a well to a famished Arab.
'I prefer hazel,' he said serenely.
She had played and lost again.
CHAPTER 19 'Love was in the next degree.' Knight had none of those light familiarities of speech which, by judicious touches of epigrammatic flattery, obliterate a woman's recollection of the speaker's abstract opinions.
So no more was said by either on the subject of hair, eyes, or development. Elfride's mind had been impregnated with sentiments of her own smallness to an uncomfortable degree of distinctness, and her discomfort was visible in her face. The whole tendency of the conversation latterly had been to quietly but surely disparage her; and she was fain to take Stephen into favour in self-defence. He would not have been so unloving, she said, as to admire an idiosyncrasy and features different from her own. True, Stephen had declared he loved her: Mr. Knight had never done anything of the sort. Somehow this did not mend matters, and the sensation of her smallness in Knight's eyes still remained. Had the position been reversed—had Stephen loved her in spite of a differing taste, and had Knight been indifferent in spite of her resemblance to his ideal, it would have engendered far happier thoughts. As matters stood, Stephen's admiration might have its root in a blindness the result of passion. Perhaps any keen man's judgment was condemnatory of her.
During the remainder of Saturday they were more or less thrown with their seniors, and no conversation arose which was exclusively their own. When Elfride was in bed that night her thoughts recurred to the same subject. At one moment she insisted that it was ill-natured of him to speak so decisively as he had done; the next, that it was sterling honesty.
'Ah, what a poor nobody I am!' she said, sighing. 'People like him, who go about the great world, don't care in the least what I am like either in mood or feature.' Perhaps a man who has got thoroughly into a woman's mind in this manner, is half way to her heart; the distance between those two stations is proverbially short.
'And are you really going away this week?' said Mrs. Swancourt to Knight on the following evening, which was Sunday.
They were all leisurely climbing the hill to the church, where a last service was now to be held at the rather exceptional time of evening instead of in the afternoon, previous to the demolition of the ruinous portions.
'I am intending to cross to Cork from Bristol,' returned Knight; 'and then I go on to Dublin.' 'Return this way, and stay a little longer with us,' said the vicar. 'A week is nothing. We have hardly been able to realize your presence yet. I remember a story which——' The vicar suddenly stopped. He had forgotten it was Sunday, and would probably have gone on in his week-day mode of thought had not a turn in the breeze blown the skirt of his college gown within the range of his vision, and so reminded him. He at once diverted the current of his narrative with the dexterity the occasion demanded.
'The story of the Levite who journeyed to Bethlehem-judah, from which I took my text the Sunday before last, is quite to the point,' he continued, with the pronunciation of a man who, far from having intended to tell a week-day story a moment earlier, had thought of nothing but Sabbath matters for several weeks. 'What did he gain after all by his restlessness? Had he remained in the city of the Jebusites, and not been so anxious for Gibeah, none of his troubles would have arisen.' 'But he had wasted five days already,' said Knight, closing his eyes to the vicar's commendable diversion. 'His fault lay in beginning the tarrying system originally.' 'True, true; my illustration fails.' 'But not the hospitality which prompted the story.' 'So you are to come just the same,' urged Mrs. Swancourt, for she had seen an almost imperceptible fall of countenance in her stepdaughter at Knight's announcement.
Knight half promised to call on his return journey; but the uncertainty with which he spoke was quite enough to fill Elfride with a regretful interest in all he did during the few remaining hours. The curate having already officiated twice that day in the two churches, Mr. Swancourt had undertaken the whole of the evening service, and Knight read the lessons for him. The sun streamed across from the dilapidated west window, and lighted all the assembled worshippers with a golden glow, Knight as he read being illuminated by the same mellow lustre. Elfride at the organ regarded him with a throbbing sadness of mood which was fed by a sense of being far removed from his sphere. As he went deliberately through the chapter appointed—a portion of the history of Elijah—and ascended that magnificent climax of the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the still small voice, his deep tones echoed past with such apparent disregard of her existence, that his presence inspired her with a forlorn sense of unapproachableness, which his absence would hardly have been able to cause.
At the same time, turning her face for a moment to catch the glory of the dying sun as it fell on his form, her eyes were arrested by the shape and aspect of a woman in the west gallery.
It was the bleak barren countenance of the widow Jethway, whom Elfride had not seen much of since the morning of her return with Stephen Smith. Possessing the smallest of competencies, this unhappy woman appeared to spend her life in journeyings between Endelstow Churchyard and that of a village near Southampton, where her father and mother were laid.
She had not attended the service here for a considerable time, and she now seemed to have a reason for her choice of seat. From the gallery window the tomb of her son was plainly visible—standing as the nearest object in a prospect which was closed outwardly by the changeless horizon of the sea.
The streaming rays, too, flooded her face, now bent towards Elfride with a hard and bitter expression that the solemnity of the place raised to a tragic dignity it did not intrinsically possess. The girl resumed her normal attitude with an added disquiet.