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When he surveyed the volumes on his shelves—few of which had been opened since Elfride first took possession of his heart—their untouched and orderly arrangement reproached him as an apostate from the old faith of his youth and early manhood. He had deserted those never-failing friends, so they seemed to say, for an unstable delight in a ductile woman, which had ended all in bitterness. The spirit of self-denial, verging on asceticism, which had ever animated Knight in old times, announced itself as having departed with the birth of love, with it having gone the self-respect which had compensated for the lack of self-gratification. Poor little Elfride, instead of holding, as formerly, a place in his religion, began to assume the hue of a temptation. Perhaps it was human and correctly natural that Knight never once thought whether he did not owe her a little sacrifice for her unchary devotion in saving his life.
With a consciousness of having thus, like Antony, kissed away kingdoms and provinces, he next considered how he had revealed his higher secrets and intentions to her, an unreserve he would never have allowed himself with any man living. How was it that he had not been able to refrain from telling her of adumbrations heretofore locked in the closest strongholds of his mind?
Knight's was a robust intellect, which could escape outside the atmosphere of heart, and perceive that his own love, as well as other people's, could be reduced by change of scene
and circumstances. At the same time the perception was a superimposed sorrow:
'O last regret, regret can die!' But being convinced that the death of this regret was the best thing for him, he did not long shrink from attempting it. He closed his chambers, suspended his connection with editors, and left London for the Continent. Here we will leave him to wander without purpose, beyond the nominal one of encouraging obliviousness of Elfride.
CHAPTER 36 'The pennie's the jewel that beautifies a'.' 'I can't think what's coming to these St. Launce's people at all at all.' 'With their "How-d'ye-do's," do you mean?' 'Ay, with their "How-d'ye-do's," and shaking of hands, asking me in, and tender inquiries for you, John.' These words formed part of a conversation between John Smith and his wife on a Saturday evening in the spring which followed Knight's departure from England. Stephen had long since returned to India; and the persevering couple themselves had migrated from Lord Luxellian's park at Endelstow to a comfortable roadside dwelling about a mile out of St.
Launce's, where John had opened a small stone and slate yard in his own name.
'When we came here six months ago,' continued Mrs. Smith, 'though I had paid ready money so many years in the town, my friskier shopkeepers would only speak over the counter. Meet 'em in the street half-an-hour after, and they'd treat me with staring ignorance of my face.' 'Look through ye as through a glass winder?' 'Yes, the brazen ones would. The quiet and cool ones would glance over the top of my head, past my side, over my shoulder, but never meet my eye. The gentle-modest would turn their faces south if I were coming east, flit down a passage if I were about to halve the pavement with them. There was the spruce young bookseller would play the same tricks; the butcher's daughters; the upholsterer's young men. Hand in glove when doing business out of sight with you; but caring nothing for a' old woman when playing the genteel away from all signs of their trade.' 'True enough, Maria.' 'Well, to-day 'tis all different. I'd no sooner got to market than Mrs. Joakes rushed up to me in the eyes of the town and said, "My dear Mrs. Smith, now you must be tired with your walk! Come in and have some lunch! I insist upon it; knowing you so many years as I have!
Don't you remember when we used to go looking for owls' feathers together in the Castle ruins?" There's no knowing what you may need, so I answered the woman civilly. I hadn't got to the corner before that thriving young lawyer, Sweet, who's quite the dandy, ran after me out of breath. "Mrs. Smith," he says, "excuse my rudeness, but there's a bramble on the tail of your dress, which you've dragged in from the country; allow me to pull it off for you."
If you'll believe me, this was in the very front of the Town Hall. What's the meaning of such sudden love for a' old woman?' 'Can't say; unless 'tis repentance.' 'Repentance! was there ever such a fool as you. John? Did anybody ever repent with money in's pocket and fifty years to live?' 'Now, I've been thinking too,' said John, passing over the query as hardly pertinent, 'that I've had more loving-kindness from folks to-day than I ever have before since we moved here.
Why, old Alderman Tope walked out to the middle of the street where I was, to shake hands with me—so 'a did. Having on my working clothes, I thought 'twas odd. Ay, and there was young Werrington.' 'Who's he?' 'Why, the man in Hill Street, who plays and sells flutes, trumpets, and fiddles, and grand pehanners. He was talking to Egloskerry, that very small bachelor-man with money in the funds. I was going by, I'm sure, without thinking or expecting a nod from men of that glib kidney when in my working clothes——' 'You always will go poking into town in your working clothes. Beg you to change how I will, 'tis no use.' 'Well, however, I was in my working clothes. Werrington saw me. "Ah, Mr. Smith! a fine morning; excellent weather for building," says he, out as loud and friendly as if I'd met him in some deep hollow, where he could get nobody else to speak to at all. 'Twas odd: for Werrington is one of the very ringleaders of the fast class.' At that moment a tap came to the door. The door was immediately opened by Mrs. Smith in person.
'You'll excuse us, I'm sure, Mrs. Smith, but this beautiful spring weather was too much for us. Yes, and we could stay in no longer; and I took Mrs. Trewen upon my arm directly we'd had a cup of tea, and out we came. And seeing your beautiful crocuses in such a bloom, we've taken the liberty to enter. We'll step round the garden, if you don't mind.' 'Not at all,' said Mrs. Smith; and they walked round the garden. She lifted her hands in amazement directly their backs were turned. 'Goodness send us grace!' 'Who be they?' said her husband.
'Actually Mr. Trewen, the bank-manager, and his wife.' John Smith, staggered in mind, went out of doors and looked over the garden gate, to collect his ideas. He had not been there two minutes when wheels were heard, and a carriage and pair rolled along the road. A distinguished-looking lady, with the demeanour of a duchess, reclined within. When opposite Smith's gate she turned her head, and instantly commanded the coachman to stop.
'Ah, Mr. Smith, I am glad to see you looking so well. I could not help stopping a moment to congratulate you and Mrs. Smith upon the happiness you must enjoy. Joseph, you may drive on.' And the carriage rolled away towards St. Launce's.
Out rushed Mrs. Smith from behind a laurel-bush, where she had stood pondering.
'Just going to touch my hat to her,' said John; 'just for all the world as I would have to poor Lady Luxellian years ago.' 'Lord! who is she?' 'The public-house woman—what's her name? Mrs.—Mrs.—at the Falcon.' 'Public-house woman. The clumsiness of the Smith family! You MIGHT say the landlady of the Falcon Hotel, since we are in for politeness. The people are ridiculous enough, but give them their due.' The possibility is that Mrs. Smith was getting mollified, in spite of herself, by these remarkably friendly phenomena among the people of St. Launce's. And in justice to them it was quite desirable that she should do so. The interest which the unpractised ones of this town expressed so grotesquely was genuine of its kind, and equal in intrinsic worth to the more polished smiles of larger communities.
By this time Mr. and Mrs. Trewen were returning from the garden.
'I'll ask 'em flat,' whispered John to his wife. 'I'll say, "We be in a fog—you'll excuse my asking a question, Mr. and Mrs. Trewen. How is it you all be so friendly to-day?" Hey?
'Twould sound right and sensible, wouldn't it?' 'Not a word! Good mercy, when will the man have manners!' 'It must be a proud moment for you, I am sure, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to have a son so celebrated,' said the bank-manager advancing.
'Ah, 'tis Stephen—I knew it!' said Mrs. Smith triumphantly to herself.
'We don't know particulars,' said John.
'Not know!' 'No.' 'Why, 'tis all over town. Our worthy Mayor alluded to it in a speech at the dinner last night of the Every-Man-his-own-Maker Club.' 'And what about Stephen?' urged Mrs. Smith.
'Why, your son has been feted by deputy-governors and Parsee princes and nobody-knowswho in India; is hand in glove with nabobs, and is to design a large palace, and cathedral, and hospitals, colleges, halls, and fortifications, by the general consent of the ruling powers, Christian and Pagan alike.' ''Twas sure to come to the boy,' said Mr. Smith unassumingly.
''Tis in yesterday's St. Launce's Chronicle; and our worthy Mayor in the chair introduced the subject into his speech last night in a masterly manner.' ''Twas very good of the worthy Mayor in the chair I'm sure,' said Stephen's mother. 'I hope the boy will have the sense to keep what he's got; but as for men, they are a simple sex.
Some woman will hook him.' 'Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the evening closes in, and we must be going; and remember this, that every Saturday when you come in to market, you are to make our house as your own.
There will be always a tea-cup and saucer for you, as you know there has been for months, though you may have forgotten it. I'm a plain-speaking woman, and what I say I mean.' When the visitors were gone, and the sun had set, and the moon's rays were just beginning to assert themselves upon the walls of the dwelling, John Smith and his wife sat dawn to the newspaper they had hastily procured from the town. And when the reading was done, they considered how best to meet the new social requirements settling upon them, which Mrs.
Smith considered could be done by new furniture and house enlargement alone.
'And, John, mind one thing,' she said in conclusion. 'In writing to Stephen, never by any means mention the name of Elfride Swancourt again. We've left the place, and know no more about her except by hearsay. He seems to be getting free of her, and glad am I for it. It was a cloudy hour for him when he first set eyes upon the girl. That family's been no good to him, first or last; so let them keep their blood to themselves if they want to. He thinks of her, I know, but not so hopelessly. So don't try to know anything about her, and we can't answer his questions. She may die out of his mind then.' 'That shall be it,' said John.
CHAPTER 37 'After many days.' Knight roamed south, under colour of studying Continental antiquities.
He paced the lofty aisles of Amiens, loitered by Ardennes Abbey, climbed into the strange towers of Laon, analyzed Noyon and Rheims. Then he went to Chartres, and examined its scaly spires and quaint carving then he idled about Coutances. He rowed beneath the base of Mont St. Michel, and caught the varied skyline of the crumbling edifices encrusting it. St.
Ouen's, Rouen, knew him for days; so did Vezelay, Sens, and many a hallowed monument besides. Abandoning the inspection of early French art with the same purposeless haste as he had shown in undertaking it, he went further, and lingered about Ferrara, Padua, and Pisa. Satiated with mediaevalism, he tried the Roman Forum. Next he observed moonlight and starlight effects by the bay of Naples. He turned to Austria, became enervated and depressed on Hungarian and Bohemian plains, and was refreshed again by breezes on the declivities of the Carpathians.
Then he found himself in Greece. He visited the plain of Marathon, and strove to imagine the Persian defeat; to Mars Hill, to picture St. Paul addressing the ancient Athenians; to Thermopylae and Salamis, to run through the facts and traditions of the Second Invasion— the result of his endeavours being more or less chaotic. Knight grew as weary of these places as of all others. Then he felt the shock of an earthquake in the Ionian Islands, and went to Venice. Here he shot in gondolas up and down the winding thoroughfare of the Grand Canal, and loitered on calle and piazza at night, when the lagunes were undisturbed by a ripple, and no sound was to be heard but the stroke of the midnight clock. Afterwards he remained for weeks in the museums, galleries, and libraries of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris;
and thence came home.
Time thus rolls us on to a February afternoon, divided by fifteen months from the parting of Elfride and her lover in the brown stubble field towards the sea.
Two men obviously not Londoners, and with a touch of foreignness in their look, met by accident on one of the gravel walks leading across Hyde Park. The younger, more given to looking about him than his fellow, saw and noticed the approach of his senior some time before the latter had raised his eyes from the ground, upon which they were bent in an abstracted gaze that seemed habitual with him.
'Mr. Knight—indeed it is!' exclaimed the younger man.
'Ah, Stephen Smith!' said Knight.
Simultaneous operations might now have been observed progressing in both, the result being that an expression less frank and impulsive than the first took possession of their features. It was manifest that the next words uttered were a superficial covering to constraint on both sides.
'Have you been in England long?' said Knight.
'Only two days,' said Smith.
'India ever since?' 'Nearly ever since.' 'They were making a fuss about you at St. Launce's last year. I fancy I saw something of the sort in the papers.' 'Yes; I believe something was said about me.' 'I must congratulate you on your achievements.' 'Thanks, but they are nothing very extraordinary. A natural professional progress where there was no opposition.' There followed that want of words which will always assert itself between nominal friends who find they have ceased to be real ones, and have not yet sunk to the level of mere acquaintance. Each looked up and down the Park. Knight may possibly have borne in mind during the intervening months Stephen's manner towards him the last time they had met, and may have encouraged his former interest in Stephen's welfare to die out of him as misplaced. Stephen certainly was full of the feelings begotten by the belief that Knight had taken away the woman he loved so well.