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Stephen briefly assented, and there was a silence. The blackened coffins were now revealed more clearly than at first, the whitened walls and arches throwing them forward in strong relief. It was a scene which was remembered by all three as an indelible mark in their history. Knight, with an abstracted face, was standing between his companions, though a little in advance of them, Elfride being on his right hand, and Stephen Smith on his left. The white daylight on his right side gleamed faintly in, and was toned to a blueness by contrast with the yellow rays from the candle against the wall. Elfride, timidly shrinking back, and nearest the entrance, received most of the light therefrom, whilst Stephen was entirely in candlelight, and to him the spot of outer sky visible above the steps was as a steely blue patch, and nothing more.
'I have been here two or three times since it was opened,' said Stephen. 'My father was engaged in the work, you know.' 'Yes. What are you doing?' Knight inquired, looking at the note-book and pencil Stephen held in his hand.
'I have been sketching a few details in the church, and since then I have been copying the names from some of the coffins here. Before I left England I used to do a good deal of this sort of thing.' 'Yes; of course. Ah, that's poor Lady Luxellian, I suppose.' Knight pointed to a coffin of light satin-wood, which stood on the stone sleepers in the new niche. 'And the remainder of the family are on this side. Who are those two, so snug and close together?' Stephen's voice altered slightly as he replied 'That's Lady Elfride Kingsmore—born Luxellian, and that is Arthur, her husband. I have heard my father say that they—he—ran away with her, and married her against the wish of her parents.' 'Then I imagine this to be where you got your Christian name, Miss Swancourt?' said Knight, turning to her. 'I think you told me it was three or four generations ago that your family branched off from the Luxellians?' 'She was my grandmother,' said Elfride, vainly endeavouring to moisten her dry lips before she spoke. Elfride had then the conscience-stricken look of Guido's Magdalen, rendered upon a more childlike form. She kept her face partially away from Knight and Stephen, and set her eyes upon the sky visible outside, as if her salvation depended upon quickly reaching it. Her left hand rested lightly within Knight's arm, half withdrawn, from a sense of shame at claiming him before her old lover, yet unwilling to renounce him; so that her glove merely touched his sleeve. '"Can one be pardoned, and retain the offence?"' quoted Elfride's heart then.
Conversation seemed to have no self-sustaining power, and went on in the shape of disjointed remarks. 'One's mind gets thronged with thoughts while standing so solemnly here,' Knight said, in a measured quiet voice. 'How much has been said on death from time to time! how much we ourselves can think upon it! We may fancy each of these who lie
'For Thou, to make my fall more great,
What comes next, Elfride? It is the Hundred-and-second Psalm I am thinking of.' 'Yes, I know it,' she murmured, and went on in a still lower voice, seemingly afraid for any
words from the emotional side of her nature to reach Stephen:
'"My days, just hastening to their end, Are like an evening shade;
My beauty doth, like wither'd grass, With waning lustre fade."' 'Well,' said Knight musingly, 'let us leave them. Such occasions as these seem to compel us to roam outside ourselves, far away from the fragile frame we live in, and to expand till our perception grows so vast that our physical reality bears no sort of proportion to it. We look back upon the weak and minute stem on which this luxuriant growth depends, and ask, Can it be possible that such a capacity has a foundation so small? Must I again return to my daily walk in that narrow cell, a human body, where worldly thoughts can torture me? Do we not?' 'Yes,' said Stephen and Elfride.
'One has a sense of wrong, too, that such an appreciative breadth as a sentient being possesses should be committed to the frail casket of a body. What weakens one's intentions regarding the future like the thought of this?...However, let us tune ourselves to a more cheerful chord, for there's a great deal to be done yet by us all.' As Knight meditatively addressed his juniors thus, unconscious of the deception practised, for different reasons, by the severed hearts at his side, and of the scenes that had in earlier days united them, each one felt that he and she did not gain by contrast with their musing mentor. Physically not so handsome as either the youthful architect or the vicar's daughter, the thoroughness and integrity of Knight illuminated his features with a dignity not even incipient in the other two. It is difficult to frame rules which shall apply to both sexes, and Elfride, an undeveloped girl, must, perhaps, hardly be laden with the moral responsibilities which attach to a man in like circumstances. The charm of woman, too, lies partly in her subtleness in matters of love. But if honesty is a virtue in itself, Elfride, having none of it now, seemed, being for being, scarcely good enough for Knight. Stephen, though deceptive for no unworthy purpose, was deceptive after all; and whatever good results grace such strategy if it succeed, it seldom draws admiration, especially when it fails.
On an ordinary occasion, had Knight been even quite alone with Stephen, he would hardly have alluded to his possible relationship to Elfride. But moved by attendant circumstances Knight was impelled to be confiding.
'Stephen,' he said, 'this lady is Miss Swancourt. I am staying at her father's house, as you probably know.' He stepped a few paces nearer to Smith, and said in a lower tone: 'I may as well tell you that we are engaged to be married.' Low as the words had been spoken, Elfride had heard them, and awaited Stephen's reply in breathless silence, if that could be called silence where Elfride's dress, at each throb of her heart, shook and indicated it like a pulse-glass, rustling also against the wall in reply to the same throbbing. The ray of daylight which reached her face lent it a blue pallor in comparison with those of the other two.
'I congratulate you,' Stephen whispered; and said aloud, 'I know Miss Swancourt—a little.
You must remember that my father is a parishioner of Mr. Swancourt's.' 'I thought you might possibly not have lived at home since they have been here.' 'I have never lived at home, certainly, since that time.' 'I have seen Mr. Smith,' faltered Elfride.
'Well, there is no excuse for me. As strangers to each other I ought, I suppose, to have introduced you: as acquaintances, I should not have stood so persistently between you. But the fact is, Smith, you seem a boy to me, even now.' Stephen appeared to have a more than previous consciousness of the intense cruelty of his
fate at the present moment. He could not repress the words, uttered with a dim bitterness:
'You should have said that I seemed still the rural mechanic's son I am, and hence an unfit subject for the ceremony of introductions.' 'Oh, no, no! I won't have that.' Knight endeavoured to give his reply a laughing tone in Elfride's ears, and an earnestness in Stephen's: in both which efforts he signally failed, and produced a forced speech pleasant to neither. 'Well, let us go into the open air again; Miss Swancourt, you are particularly silent. You mustn't mind Smith. I have known him for years, as I have told you.' 'Yes, you have,' she said.
'To think she has never mentioned her knowledge of me!' Smith murmured, and thought with some remorse how much her conduct resembled his own on his first arrival at her house as a stranger to the place.
They ascended to the daylight, Knight taking no further notice of Elfride's manner, which, as usual, he attributed to the natural shyness of a young woman at being discovered walking with him on terms which left not much doubt of their meaning. Elfride stepped a little in advance, and passed through the churchyard.
'You are changed very considerably, Smith,' said Knight, 'and I suppose it is no more than was to be expected. However, don't imagine that I shall feel any the less interest in you and your fortunes whenever you care to confide them to me. I have not forgotten the attachment you spoke of as your reason for going away to India. A London young lady, was it not? I hope all is prosperous?' 'No: the match is broken off.' It being always difficult to know whether to express sorrow or gladness under such circumstances—all depending upon the character of the match—Knight took shelter in the safe words: 'I trust it was for the best.' 'I hope it was. But I beg that you will not press me further: no, you have not pressed me—I don't mean that—but I would rather not speak upon the subject.' Stephen's words were hurried.
Knight said no more, and they followed in the footsteps of Elfride, who still kept some paces in advance, and had not heard Knight's unconscious allusion to her. Stephen bade him adieu at the churchyard-gate without going outside, and watched whilst he and his sweetheart mounted their horses.
'Good heavens, Elfride,' Knight exclaimed, 'how pale you are! I suppose I ought not to have taken you into that vault. What is the matter?' 'Nothing,' said Elfride faintly. 'I shall be myself in a moment. All was so strange and unexpected down there, that it made me unwell.' 'I thought you said very little. Shall I get some water?' 'No, no.' 'Do you think it is safe for you to mount?' 'Quite—indeed it is,' she said, with a look of appeal.
'Now then—up she goes!' whispered Knight, and lifted her tenderly into the saddle.
Her old lover still looked on at the performance as he leant over the gate a dozen yards off.
Once in the saddle, and having a firm grip of the reins, she turned her head as if by a resistless fascination, and for the first time since that memorable parting on the moor outside St. Launce's after the passionate attempt at marriage with him, Elfride looked in the face of the young man she first had loved. He was the youth who had called her his inseparable wife many a time, and whom she had even addressed as her husband. Their eyes met. Measurement of life should be proportioned rather to the intensity of the experience than to its actual length. Their glance, but a moment chronologically, was a season in their history. To Elfride the intense agony of reproach in Stephen's eye was a nail piercing her heart with a deadliness no words can describe. With a spasmodic effort she withdrew her eyes, urged on the horse, and in the chaos of perturbed memories was oblivious of any presence beside her. The deed of deception was complete.
Gaining a knoll on which the park transformed itself into wood and copse, Knight came still closer to her side, and said, 'Are you better now, dearest?' 'Oh yes.' She pressed a hand to her eyes, as if to blot out the image of Stephen. A vivid scarlet spot now shone with preternatural brightness in the centre of each cheek, leaving the remainder of her face lily-white as before.
'Elfride,' said Knight, rather in his old tone of mentor, 'you know I don't for a moment chide you, but is there not a great deal of unwomanly weakness in your allowing yourself to be so overwhelmed by the sight of what, after all, is no novelty? Every woman worthy of the name should, I think, be able to look upon death with something like composure. Surely you think so too?' 'Yes; I own it.' His obtuseness to the cause of her indisposition, by evidencing his entire freedom from the suspicion of anything behind the scenes, showed how incapable Knight was of deception himself, rather than any inherent dulness in him regarding human nature. This, clearly perceived by Elfride, added poignancy to her self-reproach, and she idolized him the more because of their difference. Even the recent sight of Stephen's face and the sound of his voice, which for a moment had stirred a chord or two of ancient kindness, were unable to keep down the adoration re-existent now that he was again out of view.
She had replied to Knight's question hastily, and immediately went on to speak of indifferent subjects. After they had reached home she was apart from him till dinner-time.
When dinner was over, and they were watching the dusk in the drawing-room, Knight stepped out upon the terrace. Elfride went after him very decisively, on the spur of a virtuous intention.
'Mr. Knight, I want to tell you something,' she said, with quiet firmness.
'And what is it about?' gaily returned her lover. 'Happiness, I hope. Do not let anything keep you so sad as you seem to have been to-day.' 'I cannot mention the matter until I tell you the whole substance of it,' she said. 'And that I will do to-morrow. I have been reminded of it to-day. It is about something I once did, and don't think I ought to have done.' This, it must be said, was rather a mild way of referring to a frantic passion and flight, which, much or little in itself, only accident had saved from being a scandal in the public eye.
Knight thought the matter some trifle, and said pleasantly:
'Then I am not to hear the dreadful confession now?' 'No, not now. I did not mean to-night,' Elfride responded, with a slight decline in the firmness of her voice. 'It is not light as you think it—it troubles me a great deal.' Fearing now the effect of her own earnestness, she added forcedly, 'Though, perhaps, you may think it light after all.' 'But you have not said when it is to be?' 'To-morrow morning. Name a time, will you, and bind me to it? I want you to fix an hour, because I am weak, and may otherwise try to get out of it.' She added a little artificial laugh, which showed how timorous her resolution was still.
'Well, say after breakfast—at eleven o'clock.' 'Yes, eleven o'clock. I promise you. Bind me strictly to my word.' CHAPTER 28 'I lull a fancy, trouble-tost.' Miss Swancourt, it is eleven o'clock.' She was looking out of her dressing-room window on the first floor, and Knight was regarding her from the terrace balustrade, upon which he had been idly sitting for some time—dividing the glances of his eye between the pages of a book in his hand, the brilliant hues of the geraniums and calceolarias, and the open window above-mentioned.
'Yes, it is, I know. I am coming.' He drew closer, and under the window.