«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: ...»
On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o'clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her. The mutual avowal which it had been the means of precipitating occupied a far longer length of her meditations.
Elfride's disquiet now was on account of that miserable promise to meet Stephen, which returned like a spectre again and again. The perception of his littleness beside Knight grew upon her alarmingly. She now thought how sound had been her father's advice to her to give him up, and was as passionately desirous of following it as she had hitherto been averse. Perhaps there is nothing more hardening to the tone of young minds than thus to discover how their dearest and strongest wishes become gradually attuned by Time the Cynic to the very note of some selfish policy which in earlier days they despised.
The hour of appointment came, and with it a crisis; and with the crisis a collapse.
'God forgive me—I can't meet Stephen!' she exclaimed to herself. 'I don't love him less, but I love Mr. Knight more!' Yes: she would save herself from a man not fit for her—in spite of vows. She would obey her father, and have no more to do with Stephen Smith. Thus the fickle resolve showed signs of assuming the complexion of a virtue.
The following days were passed without any definite avowal from Knight's lips. Such solitary walks and scenes as that witnessed by Smith in the summer-house were frequent, but he courted her so intangibly that to any but such a delicate perception as Elfride's it would have appeared no courtship at all. The time now really began to be sweet with her. She dismissed the sense of sin in her past actions, and was automatic in the intoxication of the moment. The fact that Knight made no actual declaration was no drawback. Knowing since the betrayal of his sentiments that love for her really existed, she preferred it for the present in its form of essence, and was willing to avoid for awhile the grosser medium of words. Their feelings having been forced to a rather premature demonstration, a reaction was indulged in by both.
But no sooner had she got rid of her troubled conscience on the matter of faithlessness than a new anxiety confronted her. It was lest Knight should accidentally meet Stephen in the parish, and that herself should be the subject of discourse.
Elfride, learning Knight more thoroughly, perceived that, far from having a notion of Stephen's precedence, he had no idea that she had ever been wooed before by anybody. On ordinary occasions she had a tongue so frank as to show her whole mind, and a mind so straightforward as to reveal her heart to its innermost shrine. But the time for a change had come. She never alluded to even a knowledge of Knight's friend. When women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.
The elopement was now a spectre worse than the first, and, like the Spirit in Glenfinlas, it waxed taller with every attempt to lay it. Her natural honesty invited her to confide in Knight, and trust to his generosity for forgiveness: she knew also that as mere policy it would be better to tell him early if he was to be told at all. The longer her concealment the more difficult would be the revelation. But she put it off. The intense fear which accompanies intense love in young women was too strong to allow the exercise of a moral
quality antagonistic to itself:
'Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear;
Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.' The match was looked upon as made by her father and mother. The vicar remembered her promise to reveal the meaning of the telegram she had received, and two days after the scene in the summer-house, asked her pointedly. She was frank with him now.
'I had been corresponding with Stephen Smith ever since he left England, till lately,' she calmly said.
'What!' cried the vicar aghast; 'under the eyes of Mr. Knight, too?' 'No; when I found I cared most for Mr. Knight, I obeyed you.' 'You were very kind, I'm sure. When did you begin to like Mr. Knight?' 'I don't see that that is a pertinent question, papa; the telegram was from the shipping agent, and was not sent at my request. It announced the arrival of the vessel bringing him home.' 'Home! What, is he here?' 'Yes; in the village, I believe.' 'Has he tried to see you?' 'Only by fair means. But don't, papa, question me so! It is torture.' 'I will only say one word more,' he replied. 'Have you met him?' 'I have not. I can assure you that at the present moment there is no more of an understanding between me and the young man you so much disliked than between him and you. You told me to forget him; and I have forgotten him.' 'Oh, well; though you did not obey me in the beginning, you are a good girl, Elfride, in obeying me at last.' 'Don't call me "good," papa,' she said bitterly; 'you don't know—and the less said about some things the better. Remember, Mr. Knight knows nothing about the other. Oh, how wrong it all is! I don't know what I am coming to.' 'As matters stand, I should be inclined to tell him; or, at any rate, I should not alarm myself about his knowing. He found out the other day that this was the parish young Smith's father lives in—what puts you in such a flurry?' 'I can't say; but promise—pray don't let him know! It would be my ruin!' 'Pooh, child. Knight is a good fellow and a clever man; but at the same time it does not escape my perceptions that he is no great catch for you. Men of his turn of mind are nothing so wonderful in the way of husbands. If you had chosen to wait, you might have mated with a much wealthier man. But remember, I have not a word to say against your having him, if you like him. Charlotte is delighted, as you know.' 'Well, papa,' she said, smiling hopefully through a sigh, 'it is nice to feel that in giving way to—to caring for him, I have pleased my family. But I am not good; oh no, I am very far from that!' 'None of us are good, I am sorry to say,' said her father blandly; 'but girls have a chartered right to change their minds, you know. It has been recognized by poets from time immemorial. Catullus says, "Mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento—" What a memory mine is! However, the passage is, that a woman's words to a lover are as a matter of course written only on wind and water. Now don't be troubled about that, Elfride.' 'Ah, you don't know!' They had been standing on the lawn, and Knight was now seen lingering some way down a winding walk. When Elfride met him, it was with a much greater lightness of heart; things were more straightforward now. The responsibility of her fickleness seemed partly shifted from her own shoulders to her father's. Still, there were shadows.
'Ah, could he have known how far I went with Stephen, and yet have said the same, how much happier I should be!' That was her prevailing thought.
In the afternoon the lovers went out together on horseback for an hour or two; and though not wishing to be observed, by reason of the late death of Lady Luxellian, whose funeral had taken place very privately on the previous day, they yet found it necessary to pass East Endelstow Church.
The steps to the vault, as has been stated, were on the outside of the building, immediately under the aisle wall. Being on horseback, both Knight and Elfride could overlook the shrubs which screened the church-yard.
'Look, the vault seems still to be open,' said Knight.
'Yes, it is open,' she answered 'Who is that man close by it? The mason, I suppose?' 'Yes.' 'I wonder if it is John Smith, Stephen's father?' 'I believe it is,' said Elfride, with apprehension.
'Ah, and can it be? I should like to inquire how his son, my truant protege', is going on. And from your father's description of the vault, the interior must be interesting. Suppose we go in.' 'Had we better, do you think? May not Lord Luxellian be there?' 'It is not at all likely.' Elfride then assented, since she could do nothing else. Her heart, which at first had quailed in consternation, recovered itself when she considered the character of John Smith. A quiet unassuming man, he would be sure to act towards her as before those love passages with his son, which might have given a more pretentious mechanic airs. So without much alarm she took Knight's arm after dismounting, and went with him between and over the graves.
The master-mason recognized her as she approached, and, as usual, lifted his hat respectfully.
'I know you to be Mr. Smith, my former friend Stephen's father,' said Knight, directly he had scanned the embrowned and ruddy features of John.
'Yes, sir, I b'lieve I be.' 'How is your son now? I have only once heard from him since he went to India. I daresay you have heard him speak of me—Mr. Knight, who became acquainted with him some years ago in Exonbury.' 'Ay, that I have. Stephen is very well, thank you, sir, and he's in England; in fact, he's at home. In short, sir, he's down in the vault there, a-looking at the departed coffins.' Elfride's heart fluttered like a butterfly.
Knight looked amazed. 'Well, that is extraordinary.' he murmured. 'Did he know I was in the parish?' 'I really can't say, sir,' said John, wishing himself out of the entanglement he rather suspected than thoroughly understood.
'Would it be considered an intrusion by the family if we went into the vault?' 'Oh, bless ye, no, sir; scores of folk have been stepping down. 'Tis left open a-purpose.' 'We will go down, Elfride.' 'I am afraid the air is close,' she said appealingly.
'Oh no, ma'am,' said John. 'We white-limed the walls and arches the day 'twas opened, as we always do, and again on the morning of the funeral; the place is as sweet as a granary.
'Then I should like you to accompany me, Elfie; having originally sprung from the family too.' 'I don't like going where death is so emphatically present. I'll stay by the horses whilst you go in; they may get loose.' 'What nonsense! I had no idea your sentiments were so flimsily formed as to be perturbed by a few remnants of mortality; but stay out, if you are so afraid, by all means.' 'Oh no, I am not afraid; don't say that.' She held miserably to his arm, thinking that, perhaps, the revelation might as well come at once as ten minutes later, for Stephen would be sure to accompany his friend to his horse.
At first, the gloom of the vault, which was lighted only by a couple of candles, was too great to admit of their seeing anything distinctly; but with a further advance Knight discerned, in front of the black masses lining the walls, a young man standing, and writing in a pocketbook.
Knight said one word: 'Stephen!' Stephen Smith, not being in such absolute ignorance of Knight's whereabouts as Knight had been of Smith's instantly recognized his friend, and knew by rote the outlines of the fair woman standing behind him.
Stephen came forward and shook him by the hand, without speaking.
'Why have you not written, my boy?' said Knight, without in any way signifying Elfride's presence to Stephen. To the essayist, Smith was still the country lad whom he had patronized and tended; one to whom the formal presentation of a lady betrothed to himself would have seemed incongruous and absurd.
'Why haven't you written to me?' said Stephen.
'Ah, yes. Why haven't I? why haven't we? That's always the query which we cannot clearly answer without an unsatisfactory sense of our inadequacies. However, I have not forgotten you, Smith. And now we have met; and we must meet again, and have a longer chat than this can conveniently be. I must know all you have been doing. That you have thriven, I know, and you must teach me the way.' Elfride stood in the background. Stephen had read the position at a glance, and immediately guessed that she had never mentioned his name to Knight. His tact in avoiding catastrophes was the chief quality which made him intellectually respectable, in which quality he far transcended Knight; and he decided that a tranquil issue out of the encounter, without any harrowing of the feelings of either Knight or Elfride, was to be attempted if possible. His old sense of indebtedness to Knight had never wholly forsaken him; his love for Elfride was generous now.
As far as he dared look at her movements he saw that her bearing towards him would be dictated by his own towards her; and if he acted as a stranger she would do likewise as a means of deliverance. Circumstances favouring this course, it was desirable also to be rather reserved towards Knight, to shorten the meeting as much as possible.
'I am afraid that my time is almost too short to allow even of such a pleasure,' he said. 'I leave here to-morrow. And until I start for the Continent and India, which will be in a fortnight, I shall have hardly a moment to spare.' Knight's disappointment and dissatisfied looks at this reply sent a pang through Stephen as great as any he had felt at the sight of Elfride. The words about shortness of time were literally true, but their tone was far from being so. He would have been gratified to talk with Knight as in past times, and saw as a dead loss to himself that, to save the woman who cared nothing for him, he was deliberately throwing away his friend.
'Oh, I am sorry to hear that,' said Knight, in a changed tone. 'But of course, if you have weighty concerns to attend to, they must not be neglected. And if this is to be our first and last meeting, let me say that I wish you success with all my heart!' Knight's warmth revived towards the end; the solemn impressions he was beginning to receive from the scene around them abstracting from his heart as a puerility any momentary vexation at words. 'It is a strange place for us to meet in,' he continued, looking round the vault.