«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: ...»
The stillness of things was disturbed by a bird coming to the streamlet to drink. After watching him dip his bill, sprinkle himself, and fly into a tree, Knight replied, with the courteous brusqueness she so much liked to hear— 'Elfride, now you may as well be fair. You would mind my doing it but little, I think; so give me leave, do.' 'I will be fair, then,' she said confidingly, and looking him full in the face. It was a particular pleasure to her to be able to do a little honesty without fear. 'I should not mind your doing so—I should like such an attention. My thought was, would it be right to let you?' 'Then I will!' he rejoined, with that singular earnestness about a small matter—in the eyes of a ladies' man but a momentary peg for flirtation or jest—which is only found in deep natures who have been wholly unused to toying with womankind, and which, from its unwontedness, is in itself a tribute the most precious that can be rendered, and homage the most exquisite to be received.
'And you shall,' she whispered, without reserve, and no longer mistress of the ceremonies.
And then Elfride inclined herself towards him, thrust back her hair, and poised her head sideways. In doing this her arm and shoulder necessarily rested against his breast.
At the touch, the sensation of both seemed to be concentrated at the point of contact. All the time he was performing the delicate manoeuvre Knight trembled like a young surgeon in his first operation.
'Now the other,' said Knight in a whisper.
'No, no.' 'Why not?' 'I don't know exactly.' 'You must know.' 'Your touch agitates me so. Let us go home.' 'Don't say that, Elfride. What is it, after all? A mere nothing. Now turn round, dearest.' She was powerless to disobey, and turned forthwith; and then, without any defined intention in either's mind, his face and hers drew closer together; and he supported her there, and kissed her.
Knight was at once the most ardent and the coolest man alive. When his emotions slumbered he appeared almost phlegmatic; when they were moved he was no less than passionate. And now, without having quite intended an early marriage, he put the question plainly. It came with all the ardour which was the accumulation of long years behind a natural reserve.
'Elfride, when shall we be married?' The words were sweet to her; but there was a bitter in the sweet. These newly-overt acts of his, which had culminated in this plain question, coming on the very day of Mrs. Jethway's blasting reproaches, painted distinctly her fickleness as an enormity. Loving him in secret had not seemed such thorough-going inconstancy as the same love recognized and acted upon in the face of threats. Her distraction was interpreted by him at her side as the outward signs of an unwonted experience.
'I don't press you for an answer now, darling,' he said, seeing she was not likely to give a lucid reply. 'Take your time.' Knight was as honourable a man as was ever loved and deluded by woman. It may be said that his blindness in love proved the point, for shrewdness in love usually goes with meanness in general. Once the passion had mastered him, the intellect had gone for naught.
Knight, as a lover, was more single-minded and far simpler than his friend Stephen, who in other capacities was shallow beside him.
Without saying more on the subject of their marriage, Knight held her at arm's length, as if she had been a large bouquet, and looked at her with critical affection.
'Does your pretty gift become me?' she inquired, with tears of excitement on the fringes of her eyes.
'Undoubtedly, perfectly!' said her lover, adopting a lighter tone to put her at her ease. 'Ah, you should see them; you look shinier than ever. Fancy that I have been able to improve you!' 'Am I really so nice? I am glad for your sake. I wish I could see myself.' 'You can't. You must wait till we get home.' 'I shall never be able,' she said, laughing. 'Look: here's a way.' 'So there is. Well done, woman's wit!' 'Hold me steady!' 'Oh yes.' 'And don't let me fall, will you?' 'By no means.' Below their seat the thread of water paused to spread out into a smooth small pool. Knight supported her whilst she knelt down and leant over it.
'I can see myself. Really, try as religiously as I will, I cannot help admiring my appearance in them.' 'Doubtless. How can you be so fond of finery? I believe you are corrupting me into a taste for it. I used to hate every such thing before I knew you.' 'I like ornaments, because I want people to admire what you possess, and envy you, and say, "I wish I was he."' 'I suppose I ought not to object after that. And how much longer are you going to look in there at yourself?' 'Until you are tired of holding me? Oh, I want to ask you something.' And she turned round.
'Now tell truly, won't you? What colour of hair do you like best now?' Knight did not answer at the moment.
'Say light, do!' she whispered coaxingly. 'Don't say dark, as you did that time.' 'Light-brown, then. Exactly the colour of my sweetheart's.' 'Really?' said Elfride, enjoying as truth what she knew to be flattery.
'Yes.' 'And blue eyes, too, not hazel? Say yes, say yes!' 'One recantation is enough for to-day.' 'No, no.' 'Very well, blue eyes.' And Knight laughed, and drew her close and kissed her the second time, which operations he performed with the carefulness of a fruiterer touching a bunch of grapes so as not to disturb their bloom.
Elfride objected to a second, and flung away her face, the movement causing a slight disarrangement of hat and hair. Hardly thinking what she said in the trepidation of the moment, she exclaimed, clapping her hand to her ear— 'Ah, we must be careful! I lost the other earring doing like this.' No sooner did she realise the significant words than a troubled look passed across her face, and she shut her lips as if to keep them back.
'Doing like what?' said Knight, perplexed.
'Oh, sitting down out of doors,' she replied hastily.
CHAPTER 29 'Care, thou canker.' It is an evening at the beginning of October, and the mellowest of autumn sunsets irradiates London, even to its uttermost eastern end. Between the eye and the flaming West, columns of smoke stand up in the still air like tall trees. Everything in the shade is rich and misty blue.
Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt and Elfride are looking at these lustrous and lurid contrasts from the window of a large hotel near London Bridge. The visit to their friends at St. Leonards is over, and they are staying a day or two in the metropolis on their way home.
Knight spent the same interval of time in crossing over to Brittany by way of Jersey and St.
Malo. He then passed through Normandy, and returned to London also, his arrival there having been two days later than that of Elfride and her parents.
So the evening of this October day saw them all meeting at the above-mentioned hotel, where they had previously engaged apartments. During the afternoon Knight had been to his lodgings at Richmond to make a little change in the nature of his baggage; and on coming up again there was never ushered by a bland waiter into a comfortable room a happier man than Knight when shown to where Elfride and her step-mother were sitting after a fatiguing day of shopping.
Elfride looked none the better for her change: Knight was as brown as a nut. They were soon engaged by themselves in a corner of the room. Now that the precious words of promise had been spoken, the young girl had no idea of keeping up her price by the system of reserve which other more accomplished maidens use. Her lover was with her again, and it was enough: she made her heart over to him entirely.
Dinner was soon despatched. And when a preliminary round of conversation concerning their doings since the last parting had been concluded, they reverted to the subject of tomorrow's journey home.
'That enervating ride through the myrtle climate of South Devon—how I dread it tomorrow!' Mrs. Swancourt was saying. 'I had hoped the weather would have been cooler by this time.' 'Did you ever go by water?' said Knight.
'Never—by never, I mean not since the time of railways.' 'Then if you can afford an additional day, I propose that we do it,' said Knight. 'The Channel is like a lake just now. We should reach Plymouth in about forty hours, I think, and the boats start from just below the bridge here' (pointing over his shoulder eastward).
'Hear, hear!' said the vicar.
'It's an idea, certainly,' said his wife.
'Of course these coasters are rather tubby,' said Knight. 'But you wouldn't mind that?' 'No: we wouldn't mind.' 'And the saloon is a place like the fishmarket of a ninth-rate country town, but that wouldn't matter?' 'Oh dear, no. If we had only thought of it soon enough, we might have had the use of Lord Luxellian's yacht. But never mind, we'll go. We shall escape the worrying rattle through the whole length of London to-morrow morning—not to mention the risk of being killed by excursion trains, which is not a little one at this time of the year, if the papers are true.' Elfride, too, thought the arrangement delightful; and accordingly, ten o'clock the following morning saw two cabs crawling round by the Mint, and between the preternaturally high walls of Nightingale Lane towards the river side.
The first vehicle was occupied by the travellers in person, and the second brought up the luggage, under the supervision of Mrs. Snewson, Mrs. Swancourt's maid—and for the last fortnight Elfride's also; for although the younger lady had never been accustomed to any such attendant at robing times, her stepmother forced her into a semblance of familiarity with one when they were away from home.
Presently waggons, bales, and smells of all descriptions increased to such an extent that the advance of the cabs was at the slowest possible rate. At intervals it was necessary to halt entirely, that the heavy vehicles unloading in front might be moved aside, a feat which was not accomplished without a deal of swearing and noise. The vicar put his head out of the window.
'Surely there must be some mistake in the way,' he said with great concern, drawing in his head again. 'There's not a respectable conveyance to be seen here except ours. I've heard that there are strange dens in this part of London, into which people have been entrapped and murdered—surely there is no conspiracy on the part of the cabman?' 'Oh no, no. It is all right,' said Mr. Knight, who was as placid as dewy eve by the side of Elfride.
'But what I argue from,' said the vicar, with a greater emphasis of uneasiness, 'are plain appearances. This can't be the highway from London to Plymouth by water, because it is no way at all to any place. We shall miss our steamer and our train too—that's what I think.' 'Depend upon it we are right. In fact, here we are.' 'Trimmer's Wharf,' said the cabman, opening the door.
No sooner had they alighted than they perceived a tussle going on between the hindmost cabman and a crowd of light porters who had charged him in column, to obtain possession of the bags and boxes, Mrs. Snewson's hands being seen stretched towards heaven in the midst of the melee. Knight advanced gallantly, and after a hard struggle reduced the crowd to two, upon whose shoulders and trucks the goods vanished away in the direction of the water's edge with startling rapidity.
Then more of the same tribe, who had run on ahead, were heard shouting to boatmen, three of whom pulled alongside, and two being vanquished, the luggage went tumbling into the remaining one.
'Never saw such a dreadful scene in my life—never!' said Mr. Swancourt, floundering into the boat. 'Worse than Famine and Sword upon one. I thought such customs were confined to continental ports. Aren't you astonished, Elfride?' 'Oh no,' said Elfride, appearing amid the dingy scene like a rainbow in a murky sky. 'It is a pleasant novelty, I think.' 'Where in the wide ocean is our steamer?' the vicar inquired. 'I can see nothing but old hulks, for the life of me.' 'Just behind that one,' said Knight; 'we shall soon be round under her.' The object of their search was soon after disclosed to view—a great lumbering form of inky blackness, which looked as if it had never known the touch of a paint-brush for fifty years. It was lying beside just such another, and the way on board was down a narrow lane of water between the two, about a yard and a half wide at one end, and gradually converging to a point. At the moment of their entry into this narrow passage, a brilliantly painted rival paddled down the river like a trotting steed, creating such a series of waves and splashes that their frail wherry was tossed like a teacup, and the vicar and his wife slanted this way and that, inclining their heads into contact with a Punch-and-Judy air and countenance, the wavelets striking the sides of the two hulls, and flapping back into their laps.
'Dreadful! horrible!' Mr. Swancourt murmured privately; and said aloud, I thought we walked on board. I don't think really I should have come, if I had known this trouble was attached to it.' 'If they must splash, I wish they would splash us with clean water,' said the old lady, wiping her dress with her handkerchief.
'I hope it is perfectly safe,' continued the vicar.
'O papa! you are not very brave,' cried Elfride merrily.
'Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,' Mr. Swancourt severely answered.
Mrs. Swancourt laughed, and Elfride laughed, and Knight laughed, in the midst of which pleasantness a man shouted to them from some position between their heads and the sky, and they found they were close to the Juliet, into which they quiveringly ascended.
It having been found that the lowness of the tide would prevent their getting off for an hour, the Swancourts, having nothing else to do, allowed their eyes to idle upon men in blue jerseys performing mysterious mending operations with tar-twine; they turned to look at the dashes of lurid sunlight, like burnished copper stars afloat on the ripples, which danced into and tantalized their vision; or listened to the loud music of a steam-crane at work close by; or to sighing sounds from the funnels of passing steamers, getting dead as they grew more distant; or to shouts from the decks of different craft in their vicinity, all of them assuming the form of 'Ah-he-hay!' Half-past ten: not yet off. Mr. Swancourt breathed a breath of weariness, and looked at his fellow-travellers in general. Their faces were certainly not worth looking at. The expression 'Waiting' was written upon them so absolutely that nothing more could be discerned there.