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Stephen Smith then asked a question, adopting a certain recklessness of manner and tone to hide, if possible, the fact that the subject was a much greater one to him than his friend had ever supposed.
'Are you married?' 'I am not.' Knight spoke in an indescribable tone of bitterness that was almost moroseness.
'And I never shall be,' he added decisively. 'Are you?' 'No,' said Stephen, sadly and quietly, like a man in a sick-room. Totally ignorant whether or not Knight knew of his own previous claims upon Elfride, he yet resolved to hazard a few more words upon the topic which had an aching fascination for him even now.
'Then your engagement to Miss Swancourt came to nothing,' he said. 'You remember I met you with her once?' Stephen's voice gave way a little here, in defiance of his firmest will to the contrary. Indian affairs had not yet lowered those emotions down to the point of control.
'It was broken off,' came quickly from Knight. 'Engagements to marry often end like that— for better or for worse.' 'Yes; so they do. And what have you been doing lately?' 'Doing? Nothing.' 'Where have you been?' 'I can hardly tell you. In the main, going about Europe; and it may perhaps interest you to know that I have been attempting the serious study of Continental art of the Middle Ages.
My notes on each example I visited are at your service. They are of no use to me.' 'I shall be glad with them....Oh, travelling far and near!' 'Not far,' said Knight, with moody carelessness. 'You know, I daresay, that sheep occasionally become giddy—hydatids in the head, 'tis called, in which their brains become eaten up, and the animal exhibits the strange peculiarity of walking round and round in a circle continually. I have travelled just in the same way—round and round like a giddy ram.' The reckless, bitter, and rambling style in which Knight talked, as if rather to vent his images than to convey any ideas to Stephen, struck the young man painfully. His former friend's days had become cankered in some way: Knight was a changed man. He himself had changed much, but not as Knight had changed.
'Yesterday I came home,' continued Knight, 'without having, to the best of my belief, imbibed half-a-dozen ideas worth retaining.' 'You out-Hamlet Hamlet in morbidness of mood,' said Stephen, with regretful frankness.
Knight made no reply.
'Do you know,' Stephen continued, 'I could almost have sworn that you would be married before this time, from what I saw?' Knight's face grew harder. 'Could you?' he said.
Stephen was powerless to forsake the depressing, luring subject.
'Yes; and I simply wonder at it.' 'Whom did you expect me to marry?' 'Her I saw you with.' 'Thank you for that wonder.' 'Did she jilt you?' 'Smith, now one word to you,' Knight returned steadily. 'Don't you ever question me on that subject. I have a reason for making this request, mind. And if you do question me, you will not get an answer.' 'Oh, I don't for a moment wish to ask what is unpleasant to you—not I. I had a momentary feeling that I should like to explain something on my side, and hear a similar explanation on yours. But let it go, let it go, by all means.' 'What would you explain?' 'I lost the woman I was going to marry: you have not married as you intended. We might have compared notes.' 'I have never asked you a word about your case.' 'I know that.' 'And the inference is obvious.' 'Quite so.' 'The truth is, Stephen, I have doggedly resolved never to allude to the matter—for which I have a very good reason.' 'Doubtless. As good a reason as you had for not marrying her.' 'You talk insidiously. I had a good one—a miserably good one!' Smith's anxiety urged him to venture one more question.
'Did she not love you enough?' He drew his breath in a slow and attenuated stream, as he waited in timorous hope for the answer.
'Stephen, you rather strain ordinary courtesy in pressing questions of that kind after what I have said. I cannot understand you at all. I must go on now.' 'Why, good God!' exclaimed Stephen passionately, 'you talk as if you hadn't at all taken her away from anybody who had better claims to her than you!' 'What do you mean by that?' said Knight, with a puzzled air. 'What have you heard?' 'Nothing. I too must go on. Good-day.' 'If you will go,' said Knight, reluctantly now, 'you must, I suppose. I am sure I cannot understand why you behave so.' 'Nor I why you do. I have always been grateful to you, and as far as I am concerned we need never have become so estranged as we have.' 'And have I ever been anything but well-disposed towards you, Stephen? Surely you know that I have not! The system of reserve began with you: you know that.' 'No, no! You altogether mistake our position. You were always from the first reserved to me, though I was confidential to you. That was, I suppose, the natural issue of our differing positions in life. And when I, the pupil, became reserved like you, the master, you did not like it. However, I was going to ask you to come round and see me.' 'Where are you staying?' 'At the Grosvenor Hotel, Pimlico.' 'So am I.' 'That's convenient, not to say odd. Well, I am detained in London for a day or two; then I am going down to see my father and mother, who live at St. Launce's now. Will you see me this evening?' 'I may; but I will not promise. I was wishing to be alone for an hour or two; but I shall know where to find you, at any rate. Good-bye.' CHAPTER 38 'Jealousy is cruel as the grave.' Stephen pondered not a little on this meeting with his old friend and once-beloved exemplar. He was grieved, for amid all the distractions of his latter years a still small voice of fidelity to Knight had lingered on in him. Perhaps this staunchness was because Knight ever treated him as a mere disciple—even to snubbing him sometimes; and had at last, though unwittingly, inflicted upon him the greatest snub of all, that of taking away his sweetheart.
The emotional side of his constitution was built rather after a feminine than a male model;
and that tremendous wound from Knight's hand may have tended to keep alive a warmth which solicitousness would have extinguished altogether.
Knight, on his part, was vexed, after they had parted, that he had not taken Stephen in hand a little after the old manner. Those words which Smith had let fall concerning somebody having a prior claim to Elfride, would, if uttered when the man was younger, have provoked such a query as, 'Come, tell me all about it, my lad,' from Knight, and Stephen would straightway have delivered himself of all he knew on the subject.
Stephen the ingenuous boy, though now obliterated externally by Stephen the contriving man, returned to Knight's memory vividly that afternoon. He was at present but a sojourner in London; and after attending to the two or three matters of business which remained to be done that day, he walked abstractedly into the gloomy corridors of the British Museum for the half-hour previous to their closing. That meeting with Smith had reunited the present with the past, closing up the chasm of his absence from England as if it had never existed, until the final circumstances of his previous time of residence in London formed but a yesterday to the circumstances now. The conflict that then had raged in him concerning Elfride Swancourt revived, strengthened by its sleep. Indeed, in those many months of absence, though quelling the intention to make her his wife, he had never forgotten that she was the type of woman adapted to his nature; and instead of trying to obliterate thoughts of her altogether, he had grown to regard them as an infirmity it was necessary to tolerate.
Knight returned to his hotel much earlier in the evening than he would have done in the ordinary course of things. He did not care to think whether this arose from a friendly wish to close the gap that had slowly been widening between himself and his earliest acquaintance, or from a hankering desire to hear the meaning of the dark oracles Stephen had hastily pronounced, betokening that he knew something more of Elfride than Knight had supposed.
He made a hasty dinner, inquired for Smith, and soon was ushered into the young man's presence, whom he found sitting in front of a comfortable fire, beside a table spread with a few scientific periodicals and art reviews.
'I have come to you, after all,' said Knight. 'My manner was odd this morning, and it seemed desirable to call; but that you had too much sense to notice, Stephen, I know. Put it down to my wanderings in France and Italy.' 'Don't say another word, but sit down. I am only too glad to see you again.' Stephen would hardly have cared to tell Knight just then that the minute before Knight was announced he had been reading over some old letters of Elfride's. They were not many; and until to-night had been sealed up, and stowed away in a corner of his leather trunk, with a few other mementoes and relics which had accompanied him in his travels. The familiar sights and sounds of London, the meeting with his friend, had with him also revived that sense of abiding continuity with regard to Elfride and love which his absence at the other side of the world had to some extent suspended, though never ruptured. He at first intended only to look over these letters on the outside; then he read one; then another;
until the whole was thus re-used as a stimulus to sad memories. He folded them away again, placed them in his pocket, and instead of going on with an examination into the state of the artistic world, had remained musing on the strange circumstance that he had returned to find Knight not the husband of Elfride after all.
The possibility of any given gratification begets a cumulative sense of its necessity. Stephen gave the rein to his imagination, and felt more intensely than he had felt for many months that, without Elfride, his life would never be any great pleasure to himself, or honour to his Maker.
They sat by the fire, chatting on external and random subjects, neither caring to be the first to approach the matter each most longed to discuss. On the table with the periodicals lay two or three pocket-books, one of them being open. Knight seeing from the exposed page that the contents were sketches only, began turning the leaves over carelessly with his finger. When, some time later, Stephen was out of the room, Knight proceeded to pass the interval by looking at the sketches more carefully.
The first crude ideas, pertaining to dwellings of all kinds, were roughly outlined on the different pages. Antiquities had been copied; fragments of Indian columns, colossal statues, and outlandish ornament from the temples of Elephanta and Kenneri, were carelessly intruded upon by outlines of modern doors, windows, roofs, cooking-stoves, and household furniture; everything, in short, which comes within the range of a practising architect's experience, who travels with his eyes open. Among these occasionally appeared rough delineations of mediaeval subjects for carving or illumination—heads of Virgins, Saints, and Prophets.
Stephen was not professedly a free-hand draughtsman, but he drew the human figure with correctness and skill. In its numerous repetitions on the sides and edges of the leaves, Knight began to notice a peculiarity. All the feminine saints had one type of feature. There were large nimbi and small nimbi about their drooping heads, but the face was always the same. That profile—how well Knight knew that profile!
Had there been but one specimen of the familiar countenance, he might have passed over the resemblance as accidental; but a repetition meant more. Knight thought anew of Smith's hasty words earlier in the day, and looked at the sketches again and again.
On the young man's entry, Knight said with palpable agitation— 'Stephen, who are those intended for?' Stephen looked over the book with utter unconcern, 'Saints and angels, done in my leisure moments. They were intended as designs for the stained glass of an English church.' 'But whom do you idealize by that type of woman you always adopt for the Virgin?' 'Nobody.' And then a thought raced along Stephen's mind and he looked up at his friend.
The truth is, Stephen's introduction of Elfride's lineaments had been so unconscious that he had not at first understood his companion's drift. The hand, like the tongue, easily acquires the trick of repetition by rote, without calling in the mind to assist at all; and this had been the case here. Young men who cannot write verses about their Loves generally take to portraying them, and in the early days of his attachment Smith had never been weary of outlining Elfride. The lay-figure of Stephen's sketches now initiated an adjustment of many things. Knight had recognized her. The opportunity of comparing notes had come unsought.
'Elfride Swancourt, to whom I was engaged,' he said quietly.
'Stephen!' 'I know what you mean by speaking like that.' 'Was it Elfride? YOU the man, Stephen?' 'Yes; and you are thinking why did I conceal the fact from you that time at Endelstow, are you not?' 'Yes, and more—more.' 'I did it for the best; blame me if you will; I did it for the best. And now say how could I be with you afterwards as I had been before?' 'I don't know at all; I can't say.' Knight remained fixed in thought, and once he murmured— 'I had a suspicion this afternoon that there might be some such meaning in your words about my taking her away. But I dismissed it. How came you to know her?' he presently asked, in almost a peremptory tone.
'I went down about the church; years ago now.' 'When you were with Hewby, of course, of course. Well, I can't understand it.' His tones rose. 'I don't know what to say, your hoodwinking me like this for so long!' 'I don't see that I have hoodwinked you at all.' 'Yes, yes, but'—— Knight arose from his seat, and began pacing up and down the room. His face was markedly pale, and his voice perturbed, as he said— 'You did not act as I should have acted towards you under those circumstances. I feel it deeply; and I tell you plainly, I shall never forget it!' 'What?' 'Your behaviour at that meeting in the family vault, when I told you we were going to be married. Deception, dishonesty, everywhere; all the world's of a piece!' Stephen did not much like this misconstruction of his motives, even though it was but the hasty conclusion of a friend disturbed by emotion.
'I could do no otherwise than I did, with due regard to her,' he said stiffly.