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'I wanted to ask you,' she went on, 'if—you had ever been engaged before.' She added tremulously, 'I hope you have—I mean, I don't mind at all if you have.' 'No, I never was,' Knight instantly and heartily replied. 'Elfride'—and there was a certain happy pride in his tone—'I am twelve years older than you, and I have been about the world, and, in a way, into society, and you have not. And yet I am not so unfit for you as strict-thinking people might imagine, who would assume the difference in age to signify most surely an equal addition to my practice in love-making.' Elfride shivered.
'You are cold—is the wind too much for you?' 'No,' she said gloomily. The belief which had been her sheet-anchor in hoping for forgiveness had proved false. This account of the exceptional nature of his experience, a matter which would have set her rejoicing two years ago, chilled her now like a frost.
'You don't mind my asking you?' she continued.
'Oh no—not at all.' 'And have you never kissed many ladies?' she whispered, hoping he would say a hundred at the least.
The time, the circumstances, and the scene were such as to draw confidences from the most reserved. 'Elfride,' whispered Knight in reply, 'it is strange you should have asked that question. But I'll answer it, though I have never told such a thing before. I have been rather absurd in my avoidance of women. I have never given a woman a kiss in my life, except yourself and my mother.' The man of two and thirty with the experienced mind warmed all over with a boy's ingenuous shame as he made the confession.
'What, not one?' she faltered.
'No; not one.' 'How very strange!' 'Yes, the reverse experience may be commoner. And yet, to those who have observed their own sex, as I have, my case is not remarkable. Men about town are women's favourites— that's the postulate—and superficial people don't think far enough to see that there may be reserved, lonely exceptions.' 'Are you proud of it, Harry?' 'No, indeed. Of late years I have wished I had gone my ways and trod out my measure like lighter-hearted men. I have thought of how many happy experiences I may have lost through never going to woo.' 'Then why did you hold aloof?' 'I cannot say. I don't think it was my nature to: circumstance hindered me, perhaps. I have regretted it for another reason. This great remissness of mine has had its effect upon me.
The older I have grown, the more distinctly have I perceived that it was absolutely preventing me from liking any woman who was not as unpractised as I; and I gave up the expectation of finding a nineteenth-century young lady in my own raw state. Then I found you, Elfride, and I felt for the first time that my fastidiousness was a blessing. And it helped to make me worthy of you. I felt at once that, differing as we did in other experiences, in this matter I resembled you. Well, aren't you glad to hear it, Elfride?' 'Yes, I am,' she answered in a forced voice. 'But I always had thought that men made lots of engagements before they married—especially if they don't marry very young.' 'So all women think, I suppose—and rightly, indeed, of the majority of bachelors, as I said before. But an appreciable minority of slow-coach men do not—and it makes them very awkward when they do come to the point. However, it didn't matter in my case.' 'Why?' she asked uneasily.
'Because you know even less of love-making and matrimonial prearrangement than I, and so you can't draw invidious comparisons if I do my engaging improperly.' 'I think you do it beautifully!' 'Thank you, dear. But,' continued Knight laughingly, 'your opinion is not that of an expert, which alone is of value.' Had she answered, 'Yes, it is,' half as strongly as she felt it, Knight might have been a little astonished.
'If you had ever been engaged to be married before,' he went on, 'I expect your opinion of my addresses would be different. But then, I should not——' 'Should not what, Harry?' 'Oh, I was merely going to say that in that case I should never have given myself the pleasure of proposing to you, since your freedom from that experience was your attraction, darling.' 'You are severe on women, are you not?' 'No, I think not. I had a right to please my taste, and that was for untried lips. Other men than those of my sort acquire the taste as they get older—but don't find an Elfride——' 'What horrid sound is that we hear when we pitch forward?' 'Only the screw—don't find an Elfride as I did. To think that I should have discovered such an unseen flower down there in the West—to whom a man is as much as a multitude to some women, and a trip down the English Channel like a voyage round the world!' 'And would you,' she said, and her voice was tremulous, 'have given up a lady—if you had become engaged to her—and then found she had had ONE kiss before yours—and would you have—gone away and left her?' 'One kiss,—no, hardly for that.' 'Two?' 'Well—I could hardly say inventorially like that. Too much of that sort of thing certainly would make me dislike a woman. But let us confine our attention to ourselves, not go thinking of might have beens.' So Elfride had allowed her thoughts to 'dally with false surmise,' and every one of Knight's words fell upon her like a weight. After this they were silent for a long time, gazing upon the black mysterious sea, and hearing the strange voice of the restless wind. A rocking to and fro on the waves, when the breeze is not too violent and cold, produces a soothing effect even upon the most highly-wrought mind. Elfride slowly sank against Knight, and looking down, he found by her soft regular breathing that she had fallen asleep. Not wishing to disturb her, he continued still, and took an intense pleasure in supporting her warm young form as it rose and fell with her every breath.
Knight fell to dreaming too, though he continued wide awake. It was pleasant to realize the implicit trust she placed in him, and to think of the charming innocence of one who could sink to sleep in so simple and unceremonious a manner. More than all, the musing unpractical student felt the immense responsibility he was taking upon himself by becoming the protector and guide of such a trusting creature. The quiet slumber of her soul lent a quietness to his own. Then she moaned, and turned herself restlessly. Presently her
mutterings became distinct:
'Don't tell him—he will not love me....I did not mean any disgrace—indeed I did not, so don't tell Harry. We were going to be married—that was why I ran away....And he says he will not have a kissed woman....And if you tell him he will go away, and I shall die. I pray have mercy—Oh!' Elfride started up wildly.
The previous moment a musical ding-dong had spread into the air from their right hand, and awakened her.
'What is it?' she exclaimed in terror.
'Only "eight bells,"' said Knight soothingly. 'Don't be frightened, little bird, you are safe.
What have you been dreaming about?' 'I can't tell, I can't tell!' she said with a shudder. 'Oh, I don't know what to do!' 'Stay quietly with me. We shall soon see the dawn now. Look, the morning star is lovely over there. The clouds have completely cleared off whilst you have been sleeping. What have you been dreaming of?' 'A woman in our parish.' 'Don't you like her?' 'I don't. She doesn't like me. Where are we?' 'About south of the Exe.' Knight said no more on the words of her dream. They watched the sky till Elfride grew calm, and the dawn appeared. It was mere wan lightness first. Then the wind blew in a changed spirit, and died away to a zephyr. The star dissolved into the day.
'That's how I should like to die,' said Elfride, rising from her seat and leaning over the bulwark to watch the star's last expiring gleam.
'As the lines say,' Knight replied—— '"To set as sets the morning star, which goes Not down behind the darken'd west, nor hides Obscured among the tempests of the sky, But melts away into the light of heaven."' 'Oh, other people have thought the same thing, have they? That's always the case with my originalities—they are original to nobody but myself.' 'Not only the case with yours. When I was a young hand at reviewing I used to find that a frightful pitfall—dilating upon subjects I met with, which were novelties to me, and finding afterwards they had been exhausted by the thinking world when I was in pinafores.' 'That is delightful. Whenever I find you have done a foolish thing I am glad, because it seems to bring you a little nearer to me, who have done many.' And Elfride thought again of her enemy asleep under the deck they trod.
All up the coast, prominences singled themselves out from recesses. Then a rosy sky spread over the eastern sea and behind the low line of land, flinging its livery in dashes upon the thin airy clouds in that direction. Every projection on the land seemed now so many fingers anxious to catch a little of the liquid light thrown so prodigally over the sky, and after a fantastic time of lustrous yellows in the east, the higher elevations along the shore were flooded with the same hues. The bluff and bare contours of Start Point caught the brightest, earliest glow of all, and so also did the sides of its white lighthouse, perched upon a shelf in its precipitous front like a mediaeval saint in a niche. Their lofty neighbour Bolt Head on the left remained as yet ungilded, and retained its gray.
Then up came the sun, as it were in jerks, just to seaward of the easternmost point of land, flinging out a Jacob's-ladder path of light from itself to Elfride and Knight, and coating them with rays in a few minutes. The inferior dignitaries of the shore—Froward Point, Berry Head, and Prawle—all had acquired their share of the illumination ere this, and at length the very smallest protuberance of wave, cliff, or inlet, even to the innermost recesses of the lovely valley of the Dart, had its portion; and sunlight, now the common possession of all, ceased to be the wonderful and coveted thing it had been a short half hour before.
After breakfast, Plymouth arose into view, and grew distincter to their nearing vision, the Breakwater appearing like a streak of phosphoric light upon the surface of the sea. Elfride looked furtively around for Mrs. Jethway, but could discern no shape like hers. Afterwards, in the bustle of landing, she looked again with the same result, by which time the woman had probably glided upon the quay unobserved. Expanding with a sense of relief, Elfride waited whilst Knight looked to their luggage, and then saw her father approaching through the crowd, twirling his walking-stick to catch their attention. Elbowing their way to him they all entered the town, which smiled as sunny a smile upon Elfride as it had done between one and two years earlier, when she had entered it at precisely the same hour as the brideelect of Stephen Smith.
CHAPTER 30 'Vassal unto Love.' Elfride clung closer to Knight as day succeeded day. Whatever else might admit of question, there could be no dispute that the allegiance she bore him absorbed her whole soul and existence. A greater than Stephen had arisen, and she had left all to follow him.
The unreserved girl was never chary of letting her lover discover how much she admired him. She never once held an idea in opposition to any one of his, or insisted on any point with him, or showed any independence, or held her own on any subject. His lightest whim she respected and obeyed as law, and if, expressing her opinion on a matter, he took up the subject and differed from her, she instantly threw down her own opinion as wrong and untenable. Even her ambiguities and espieglerie were but media of the same manifestation;
acted charades, embodying the words of her prototype, the tender and susceptible daughter-in-law of Naomi: 'Let me find favour in thy sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid.' She was syringing the plants one wet day in the greenhouse. Knight was sitting under a great passion-flower observing the scene. Sometimes he looked out at the rain from the sky, and then at Elfride's inner rain of larger drops, which fell from trees and shrubs, after having previously hung from the twigs like small silver fruit.
'I must give you something to make you think of me during this autumn at your chambers,' she was saying. 'What shall it be? Portraits do more harm than good, by selecting the worst expression of which your face is capable. Hair is unlucky. And you don't like jewellery.' 'Something which shall bring back to my mind the many scenes we have enacted in this conservatory. I see what I should prize very much. That dwarf myrtle tree in the pot, which you have been so carefully tending.' Elfride looked thoughtfully at the myrtle.
'I can carry it comfortably in my hat box,' said Knight. 'And I will put it in my window, and so, it being always before my eyes, I shall think of you continually.' It so happened that the myrtle which Knight had singled out had a peculiar beginning and history. It had originally been a twig worn in Stephen Smith's button-hole, and he had taken it thence, stuck it into the pot, and told her that if it grew, she was to take care of it, and keep it in remembrance of him when he was far away.
She looked wistfully at the plant, and a sense of fairness to Smith's memory caused her a pang of regret that Knight should have asked for that very one. It seemed exceeding a common heartlessness to let it go.
'Is there not anything you like better?' she said sadly. 'That is only an ordinary myrtle.' 'No: I am fond of myrtle.' Seeing that she did not take kindly to the idea, he said again, 'Why do you object to my having that?' 'Oh no—I don't object precisely—it was a feeling.—Ah, here's another cutting lately struck, and just as small—of a better kind, and with prettier leaves—myrtus microphylla.' 'That will do nicely. Let it be put in my room, that I may not forget it. What romance attaches to the other?' 'It was a gift to me.' The subject then dropped. Knight thought no more of the matter till, on entering his bedroom in the evening, he found the second myrtle placed upon his dressing-table as he had directed. He stood for a moment admiring the fresh appearance of the leaves by candlelight, and then he thought of the transaction of the day.