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'Indeed!' said Knight, in the bitterest tone of reproach. 'Nor could you with due regard to her have married her, I suppose! I have hoped—longed—that HE, who turns out to be YOU, would ultimately have done that.' 'I am much obliged to you for that hope. But you talk very mysteriously. I think I had about the best reason anybody could have had for not doing that.' 'Oh, what reason was it?' 'That I could not.' 'You ought to have made an opportunity; you ought to do so now, in bare justice to her, Stephen!' cried Knight, carried beyond himself. 'That you know very well, and it hurts and wounds me more than you dream to find you never have tried to make any reparation to a woman of that kind—so trusting, so apt to be run away with by her feelings—poor little fool, so much the worse for her!' 'Why, you talk like a madman! You took her away from me, did you not?' 'Picking up what another throws down can scarcely be called "taking away." However, we shall not agree too well upon that subject, so we had better part.' 'But I am quite certain you misapprehend something most grievously,' said Stephen, shaken to the bottom of his heart. 'What have I done; tell me? I have lost Elfride, but is that such a sin?' 'Was it her doing, or yours?' 'Was what?' 'That you parted.' 'I will tell you honestly. It was hers entirely, entirely.' 'What was her reason?' 'I can hardly say.
'Such a matter must not be allowed to breed discord between us,' Knight returned, relapsing into a manner which concealed all his true feeling, as if confidence now was intolerable. 'I do see that your reticence towards me in the vault may have been dictated by prudential considerations.' He concluded artificially, 'It was a strange thing altogether; but not of much importance, I suppose, at this distance of time; and it does not concern me now, though I don't mind hearing your story.' These words from Knight, uttered with such an air of renunciation and apparent indifference, prompted Smith to speak on—perhaps with a little complacency—of his old secret engagement to Elfride. He told the details of its origin, and the peremptory words and actions of her father to extinguish their love.
Knight persevered in the tone and manner of a disinterested outsider. It had become more than ever imperative to screen his emotions from Stephen's eye; the young man would otherwise be less frank, and their meeting would be again embittered. What was the use of untoward candour?
Stephen had now arrived at the point in his ingenuous narrative where he left the vicarage because of her father's manner. Knight's interest increased. Their love seemed so innocent and childlike thus far.
'It is a nice point in casuistry,' he observed, 'to decide whether you were culpable or not in not telling Swancourt that your friends were parishioners of his. It was only human nature to hold your tongue under the circumstances. Well, what was the result of your dismissal by him?' 'That we agreed to be secretly faithful. And to insure this we thought we would marry.' Knight's suspense and agitation rose higher when Stephen entered upon this phase of the subject.
'Do you mind telling on?' he said, steadying his manner of speech.
'Oh, not at all.' Then Stephen gave in full the particulars of the meeting with Elfride at the railway station;
the necessity they were under of going to London, unless the ceremony were to be postponed. The long journey of the afternoon and evening; her timidity and revulsion of feeling; its culmination on reaching London; the crossing over to the down-platform and their immediate departure again, solely in obedience to her wish; the journey all night; their anxious watching for the dawn; their arrival at St. Launce's at last—were detailed. And he told how a village woman named Jethway was the only person who recognized them, either going or coming; and how dreadfully this terrified Elfride. He told how he waited in the fields whilst this then reproachful sweetheart went for her pony, and how the last kiss he ever gave her was given a mile out of the town, on the way to Endelstow.
These things Stephen related with a will. He believed that in doing so he established word by word the reasonableness of his claim to Elfride.
'Curse her! curse that woman!—that miserable letter that parted us! O God!' Knight began pacing the room again, and uttered this at further end.
'What did you say?' said Stephen, turning round.
'Say? Did I say anything? Oh, I was merely thinking about your story, and the oddness of my having a fancy for the same woman afterwards. And that now I—I have forgotten her almost; and neither of us care about her, except just as a friend, you know, eh?' Knight still continued at the further end of the room, somewhat in shadow.
'Exactly,' said Stephen, inwardly exultant, for he was really deceived by Knight's off-hand manner.
Yet he was deceived less by the completeness of Knight's disguise than by the persuasive power which lay in the fact that Knight had never before deceived him in anything. So this supposition that his companion had ceased to love Elfride was an enormous lightening of the weight which had turned the scale against him.
'Admitting that Elfride COULD love another man after you,' said the elder, under the same varnish of careless criticism, 'she was none the worse for that experience.' 'The worse? Of course she was none the worse.' 'Did you ever think it a wild and thoughtless thing for her to do?' 'Indeed, I never did,' said Stephen. 'I persuaded her. She saw no harm in it until she decided to return, nor did I; nor was there, except to the extent of indiscretion.' 'Directly she thought it was wrong she would go no further?' 'That was it. I had just begun to think it wrong too.' 'Such a childish escapade might have been misrepresented by any evil-disposed person, might it not?' 'It might; but I never heard that it was. Nobody who really knew all the circumstances would have done otherwise than smile. If all the world had known it, Elfride would still have remained the only one who thought her action a sin. Poor child, she always persisted in thinking so, and was frightened more than enough.' 'Stephen, do you love her now?' 'Well, I like her; I always shall, you know,' he said evasively, and with all the strategy love suggested. 'But I have not seen her for so long that I can hardly be expected to love her. Do you love her still?' 'How shall I answer without being ashamed? What fickle beings we men are, Stephen! Men may love strongest for a while, but women love longest. I used to love her—in my way, you know.' 'Yes, I understand. Ah, and I used to love her in my way. In fact, I loved her a good deal at one time; but travel has a tendency to obliterate early fancies.' 'It has—it has, truly.' Perhaps the most extraordinary feature in this conversation was the circumstance that, though each interlocutor had at first his suspicions of the other's abiding passion awakened by several little acts, neither would allow himself to see that his friend might now be speaking deceitfully as well as he.
'Stephen.' resumed Knight, 'now that matters are smooth between us, I think I must leave you. You won't mind my hurrying off to my quarters?' 'You'll stay to some sort of supper surely? didn't you come to dinner!' 'You must really excuse me this once.' 'Then you'll drop in to breakfast to-morrow.' 'I shall be rather pressed for time.' 'An early breakfast, which shall interfere with nothing?' 'I'll come,' said Knight, with as much readiness as it was possible to graft upon a huge stock of reluctance. 'Yes, early; eight o'clock say, as we are under the same roof.' 'Any time you like. Eight it shall be.' And Knight left him. To wear a mask, to dissemble his feelings as he had in their late miserable conversation, was such torture that he could support it no longer. It was the first time in Knight's life that he had ever been so entirely the player of a part. And the man he had thus deceived was Stephen, who had docilely looked up to him from youth as a superior of unblemished integrity.
He went to bed, and allowed the fever of his excitement to rage uncontrolled. Stephen—it was only he who was the rival—only Stephen! There was an anti-climax of absurdity which Knight, wretched and conscience-stricken as he was, could not help recognizing. Stephen was but a boy to him. Where the great grief lay was in perceiving that the very innocence of Elfride in reading her little fault as one so grave was what had fatally misled him. Had Elfride, with any degree of coolness, asserted that she had done no harm, the poisonous breath of the dead Mrs. Jethway would have been inoperative. Why did he not make his little docile girl tell more? If on that subject he had only exercised the imperativeness customary with him on others, all might have been revealed. It smote his heart like a switch when he remembered how gently she had borne his scourging speeches, never answering him with a single reproach, only assuring him of her unbounded love.
Knight blessed Elfride for her sweetness, and forgot her fault. He pictured with a vivid fancy those fair summer scenes with her. He again saw her as at their first meeting, timid at speaking, yet in her eagerness to be explanatory borne forward almost against her will. How she would wait for him in green places, without showing any of the ordinary womanly affectations of indifference! How proud she was to be seen walking with him, bearing legibly in her eyes the thought that he was the greatest genius in the world!
He formed a resolution; and after that could make pretence of slumber no longer. Rising and dressing himself, he sat down and waited for day.
That night Stephen was restless too. Not because of the unwontedness of a return to English scenery; not because he was about to meet his parents, and settle down for awhile to English cottage life. He was indulging in dreams, and for the nonce the warehouses of Bombay and the plains and forts of Poonah were but a shadow's shadow. His dream was based on this one atom of fact: Elfride and Knight had become separated, and their engagement was as if it had never been. Their rupture must have occurred soon after Stephen's discovery of the fact of their union; and, Stephen went on to think, what so probable as that a return of her errant affection to himself was the cause?
Stephen's opinions in this matter were those of a lover, and not the balanced judgment of an unbiassed spectator. His naturally sanguine spirit built hope upon hope, till scarcely a doubt remained in his mind that her lingering tenderness for him had in some way been perceived by Knight, and had provoked their parting.
To go and see Elfride was the suggestion of impulses it was impossible to withstand. At any rate, to run down from St. Launce's to Castle Poterel, a distance of less than twenty miles, and glide like a ghost about their old haunts, making stealthy inquiries about her, would be a fascinating way of passing the first spare hours after reaching home on the day after the morrow.
He was now a richer man than heretofore, standing on his own bottom; and the definite position in which he had rooted himself nullified old local distinctions. He had become illustrious, even sanguine clarus, judging from the tone of the worthy Mayor of St. Launce's.
CHAPTER 39 'Each to the loved one's side.' The friends and rivals breakfasted together the next morning. Not a word was said on either side upon the matter discussed the previous evening so glibly and so hollowly. Stephen was absorbed the greater part of the time in wishing he were not forced to stay in town yet another day.
'I don't intend to leave for St. Launce's till to-morrow, as you know,' he said to Knight at the end of the meal. 'What are you going to do with yourself to-day?' 'I have an engagement just before ten,' said Knight deliberately; 'and after that time I must call upon two or three people.' 'I'll look for you this evening,' said Stephen.
'Yes, do. You may as well come and dine with me; that is, if we can meet. I may not sleep in London to-night; in fact, I am absolutely unsettled as to my movements yet. However, the first thing I am going to do is to get my baggage shifted from this place to Bede's Inn. Goodbye for the present. I'll write, you know, if I can't meet you.' It now wanted a quarter to nine o'clock. When Knight was gone, Stephen felt yet more impatient of the circumstance that another day would have to drag itself away wearily before he could set out for that spot of earth whereon a soft thought of him might perhaps be nourished still. On a sudden he admitted to his mind the possibility that the engagement he was waiting in town to keep might be postponed without much harm.
It was no sooner perceived than attempted. Looking at his watch, he found it wanted forty minutes to the departure of the ten o'clock train from Paddington, which left him a surplus quarter of an hour before it would be necessary to start for the station.
Scribbling a hasty note or two—one putting off the business meeting, another to Knight apologizing for not being able to see him in the evening—paying his bill, and leaving his heavier luggage to follow him by goods-train, he jumped into a cab and rattled off to the Great Western Station.
Shortly afterwards he took his seat in the railway carriage.
The guard paused on his whistle, to let into the next compartment to Smith's a man of whom Stephen had caught but a hasty glimpse as he ran across the platform at the last moment.
Smith sank back into the carriage, stilled by perplexity. The man was like Knight— astonishingly like him. Was it possible it could be he? To have got there he must have driven like the wind to Bede's Inn, and hardly have alighted before starting again. No, it could not be he; that was not his way of doing things.