«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: ...»
Will you not forgive me?' It is a melancholy thought, that men who at first will not allow the verdict of perfection they pronounce upon their sweethearts or wives to be disturbed by God's own testimony to the contrary, will, once suspecting their purity, morally hang them upon evidence they would be ashamed to admit in judging a dog.
The reluctance to tell, which arose from Elfride's simplicity in thinking herself so much more culpable than she really was, had been doing fatal work in Knight's mind. The man of many ideas, now that his first dream of impossible things was over, vibrated too far in the contrary direction; and her every movement of feature—every tremor—every confused word—was taken as so much proof of her unworthiness.
'Elfride, we must bid good-bye to compliment,' said Knight: 'we must do without politeness now. Look in my face, and as you believe in God above, tell me truly one thing more. Were you away alone with him?' 'Yes.' 'Did you return home the same day on which you left it?' 'No.' The word fell like a bolt, and the very land and sky seemed to suffer. Knight turned aside.
Meantime Elfride's countenance wore a look indicating utter despair of being able to explain matters so that they would seem no more than they really were,—a despair which not only relinquishes the hope of direct explanation, but wearily gives up all collateral chances of extenuation.
The scene was engraved for years on the retina of Knight's eye: the dead and brown stubble, the weeds among it, the distant belt of beeches shutting out the view of the house, the leaves of which were now red and sick to death.
'You must forget me,' he said. 'We shall not marry, Elfride.' How much anguish passed into her soul at those words from him was told by the look of supreme torture she wore.
'What meaning have you, Harry? You only say so, do you?' She looked doubtingly up at him, and tried to laugh, as if the unreality of his words must be unquestionable.
'You are not in earnest, I know—I hope you are not? Surely I belong to you, and you are going to keep me for yours?' 'Elfride, I have been speaking too roughly to you; I have said what I ought only to have thought. I like you; and let me give you a word of advice. Marry your man as soon as you can. However weary of each other you may feel, you belong to each other, and I am not going to step between you. Do you think I would—do you think I could for a moment? If you cannot marry him now, and another makes you his wife, do not reveal this secret to him after marriage, if you do not before. Honesty would be damnation then.' Bewildered by his expressions, she exclaimed— 'No, no; I will not be a wife unless I am yours; and I must be yours!' 'If we had married——' 'But you don't MEAN—that—that—you will go away and leave me, and not be anything more to me—oh, you don't!' Convulsive sobs took all nerve out of her utterance. She checked them, and continued to look in his face for the ray of hope that was not to be found there.
'I am going indoors,' said Knight. 'You will not follow me, Elfride; I wish you not to.' 'Oh no; indeed, I will not.' 'And then I am going to Castle Boterel. Good-bye.' He spoke the farewell as if it were but for the day—lightly, as he had spoken such temporary farewells many times before—and she seemed to understand it as such. Knight had not the
power to tell her plainly that he was going for ever; he hardly knew for certain that he was:
whether he should rush back again upon the current of an irresistible emotion, or whether he could sufficiently conquer himself, and her in him, to establish that parting as a supreme farewell, and present himself to the world again as no woman's.
Ten minutes later he had left the house, leaving directions that if he did not return in the evening his luggage was to be sent to his chambers in London, whence he intended to write to Mr. Swancourt as to the reasons of his sudden departure. He descended the valley, and could not forbear turning his head. He saw the stubble-field, and a slight girlish figure in the midst of it—up against the sky. Elfride, docile as ever, had hardly moved a step, for he had said, Remain. He looked and saw her again—he saw her for weeks and months. He withdrew his eyes from the scene, swept his hand across them, as if to brush away the sight, breathed a low groan, and went on.
CHAPTER 35 'And wilt thou leave me thus?—say nay—say nay!' The scene shifts to Knight's chambers in Bede's Inn. It was late in the evening of the day following his departure from Endelstow. A drizzling rain descended upon London, forming a humid and dreary halo over every well-lighted street. The rain had not yet been prevalent long enough to give to rapid vehicles that clear and distinct rattle which follows the thorough washing of the stones by a drenching rain, but was just sufficient to make footway and roadway slippery, adhesive, and clogging to both feet and wheels.
Knight was standing by the fire, looking into its expiring embers, previously to emerging from his door for a dreary journey home to Richmond. His hat was on, and the gas turned off. The blind of the window overlooking the alley was not drawn down; and with the light from beneath, which shone over the ceiling of the room, came, in place of the usual babble, only the reduced clatter and quick speech which were the result of necessity rather than choice.
Whilst he thus stood, waiting for the expiration of the few minutes that were wanting to the time for his catching the train, a light tapping upon the door mingled with the other sounds that reached his ears. It was so faint at first that the outer noises were almost sufficient to drown it. Finding it repeated Knight crossed the lobby, crowded with books and rubbish, and opened the door.
A woman, closely muffled up, but visibly of fragile build, was standing on the landing under the gaslight. She sprang forward, flung her arms round Knight's neck, and uttered a low cry— 'O Harry, Harry, you are killing me! I could not help coming. Don't send me away—don't!
Forgive your Elfride for coming—I love you so!' Knight's agitation and astonishment mastered him for a few moments.
'Elfride!' he cried, 'what does this mean? What have you done?' 'Do not hurt me and punish me—Oh, do not! I couldn't help coming; it was killing me. Last night, when you did not come back, I could not bear it—I could not! Only let me be with you, and see your face, Harry; I don't ask for more.' Her eyelids were hot, heavy, and thick with excessive weeping, and the delicate rose-red of her cheeks was disfigured and inflamed by the constant chafing of the handkerchief in wiping her many tears.
'Who is with you? Have you come alone?' he hurriedly inquired.
'Yes. When you did not come last night, I sat up hoping you would come—and the night was all agony—and I waited on and on, and you did not come! Then when it was morning, and your letter said you were gone, I could not endure it; and I ran away from them to St.
Launce's, and came by the train. And I have been all day travelling to you, and you won't make me go away again, will you, Harry, because I shall always love you till I die?' 'Yet it is wrong for you to stay. O Elfride! what have you committed yourself to? It is ruin to your good name to run to me like this! Has not your first experience been sufficient to keep you from these things?' 'My name! Harry, I shall soon die, and what good will my name be to me then? Oh, could I but be the man and you the woman, I would not leave you for such a little fault as mine! Do not think it was so vile a thing in me to run away with him. Ah, how I wish you could have run away with twenty women before you knew me, that I might show you I would think it no fault, but be glad to get you after them all, so that I had you! If you only knew me through and through, how true I am, Harry. Cannot I be yours? Say you love me just the same, and don't let me be separated from you again, will you? I cannot bear it—all the long hours and days and nights going on, and you not there, but away because you hate me!' 'Not hate you, Elfride,' he said gently, and supported her with his arm. 'But you cannot stay here now—just at present, I mean.' 'I suppose I must not—I wish I might. I am afraid that if—you lose sight of me—something dark will happen, and we shall not meet again. Harry, if I am not good enough to be your wife, I wish I could be your servant and live with you, and not be sent away never to see you again. I don't mind what it is except that!' 'No, I cannot send you away: I cannot. God knows what dark future may arise out of this evening's work; but I cannot send you away! You must sit down, and I will endeavour to collect my thoughts and see what had better be done.
At that moment a loud knocking at the house door was heard by both, accompanied by a hurried ringing of the bell that echoed from attic to basement. The door was quickly opened, and after a few hasty words of converse in the hall, heavy footsteps ascended the stairs.
The face of Mr. Swancourt, flushed, grieved, and stern, appeared round the landing of the staircase. He came higher up, and stood beside them. Glancing over and past Knight with silent indignation, he turned to the trembling girl.
'O Elfride! and have I found you at last? Are these your tricks, madam? When will you get rid of your idiocies, and conduct yourself like a decent woman? Is my family name and house to be disgraced by acts that would be a scandal to a washerwoman's daughter? Come along, madam; come!' 'She is so weary!' said Knight, in a voice of intensest anguish. 'Mr. Swancourt, don't be harsh with her—let me beg of you to be tender with her, and love her!' 'To you, sir,' said Mr. Swancourt, turning to him as if by the sheer pressure of circumstances, 'I have little to say. I can only remark, that the sooner I can retire from your presence the better I shall be pleased. Why you could not conduct your courtship of my daughter like an honest man, I do not know. Why she—a foolish inexperienced girl—should have been tempted to this piece of folly, I do not know. Even if she had not known better than to leave her home, you might have, I should think.' 'It is not his fault: he did not tempt me, papa! I came.' 'If you wished the marriage broken off, why didn't you say so plainly? If you never intended to marry, why could you not leave her alone? Upon my soul, it grates me to the heart to be obliged to think so ill of a man I thought my friend!' Knight, soul-sick and weary of his life, did not arouse himself to utter a word in reply. How should he defend himself when his defence was the accusation of Elfride? On that account he felt a miserable satisfaction in letting her father go on thinking and speaking wrongfully.
It was a faint ray of pleasure straying into the great gloominess of his brain to think that the vicar might never know but that he, as her lover, tempted her away, which seemed to be the form Mr. Swancourt's misapprehension had taken.
'Now, are you coming?' said Mr. Swancourt to her again. He took her unresisting hand, drew it within his arm, and led her down the stairs. Knight's eyes followed her, the last moment begetting in him a frantic hope that she would turn her head. She passed on, and never looked back.
He heard the door open—close again. The wheels of a cab grazed the kerbstone, a murmured direction followed. The door was slammed together, the wheels moved, and they rolled away.
From that hour of her reappearance a dreadful conflict raged within the breast of Henry Knight. His instinct, emotion, affectiveness—or whatever it may be called—urged him to stand forward, seize upon Elfride, and be her cherisher and protector through life. Then came the devastating thought that Elfride's childlike, unreasoning, and indiscreet act in flying to him only proved that the proprieties must be a dead letter with her; that the unreserve, which was really artlessness without ballast, meant indifference to decorum; and what so likely as that such a woman had been deceived in the past? He said to himself, in a mood of the bitterest cynicism: 'The suspicious discreet woman who imagines dark and evil things of all her fellow-creatures is far too shrewd to be deluded by man: trusting beings like Elfride are the women who fall.' Hours and days went by, and Knight remained inactive. Lengthening time, which made fainter the heart-awakening power of her presence, strengthened the mental ability to reason her down. Elfride loved him, he knew, and he could not leave off loving her but marry her he would not. If she could but be again his own Elfride—the woman she had seemed to be—but that woman was dead and buried, and he knew her no more! And how could he marry this Elfride, one who, if he had originally seen her as she was, would have been barely an interesting pitiable acquaintance in his eyes—no more?
It cankered his heart to think he was confronted by the closest instance of a worse state of things than any he had assumed in the pleasant social philosophy and satire of his essays.
The moral rightness of this man's life was worthy of all praise; but in spite of some intellectual acumen, Knight had in him a modicum of that wrongheadedness which is mostly found in scrupulously honest people. With him, truth seemed too clean and pure an abstraction to be so hopelessly churned in with error as practical persons find it. Having now seen himself mistaken in supposing Elfride to be peerless, nothing on earth could make him believe she was not so very bad after all.
He lingered in town a fortnight, doing little else than vibrate between passion and opinions.
One idea remained intact—that it was better Elfride and himself should not meet.