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During the early part of the journey Stephen Smith's thoughts busied themselves till his brain seemed swollen. One subject was concerning his own approaching actions. He was a day earlier than his letter to his parents had stated, and his arrangement with them had been that they should meet him at Plymouth; a plan which pleased the worthy couple beyond expression. Once before the same engagement had been made, which he had then quashed by ante-dating his arrival. This time he would go right on to Castle Boterel; ramble in that well-known neighbourhood during the evening and next morning, making inquiries;
and return to Plymouth to meet them as arranged—a contrivance which would leave their cherished project undisturbed, relieving his own impatience also.
At Chippenham there was a little waiting, and some loosening and attaching of carriages.
Stephen looked out. At the same moment another man's head emerged from the adjoining window. Each looked in the other's face.
Knight and Stephen confronted one another.
'You here!' said the younger man.
'Yes. It seems that you are too,' said Knight, strangely.
'Yes.' The selfishness of love and the cruelty of jealousy were fairly exemplified at this moment.
Each of the two men looked at his friend as he had never looked at him before. Each was TROUBLED at the other's presence.
'I thought you said you were not coming till to-morrow,' remarked Knight.
'I did. It was an afterthought to come to-day. This journey was your engagement, then?' 'No, it was not. This is an afterthought of mine too. I left a note to explain it, and account for my not being able to meet you this evening as we arranged.' 'So did I for you.' 'You don't look well: you did not this morning.' 'I have a headache. You are paler to-day than you were.' 'I, too, have been suffering from headache. We have to wait here a few minutes, I think.' They walked up and down the platform, each one more and more embarrassingly concerned with the awkwardness of his friend's presence. They reached the end of the footway, and paused in sheer absent-mindedness. Stephen's vacant eyes rested upon the operations of some porters, who were shifting a dark and curious-looking van from the rear of the train, to shunt another which was between it and the fore part of the train. This operation having been concluded, the two friends returned to the side of their carriage.
'Will you come in here?' said Knight, not very warmly.
'I have my rug and portmanteau and umbrella with me: it is rather bothering to move now,' said Stephen reluctantly. 'Why not you come here?' 'I have my traps too. It is hardly worth while to shift them, for I shall see you again, you know.' 'Oh, yes.' And each got into his own place. Just at starting, a man on the platform held up his hands and stopped the train.
Stephen looked out to see what was the matter.
One of the officials was exclaiming to another, 'That carriage should have been attached again. Can't you see it is for the main line? Quick! What fools there are in the world!' 'What a confounded nuisance these stoppages are!' exclaimed Knight impatiently, looking out from his compartment. 'What is it?' 'That singular carriage we saw has been unfastened from our train by mistake, it seems,' said Stephen.
He was watching the process of attaching it. The van or carriage, which he now recognized as having seen at Paddington before they started, was rich and solemn rather than gloomy in aspect. It seemed to be quite new, and of modern design, and its impressive personality attracted the notice of others beside himself. He beheld it gradually wheeled forward by two men on each side: slower and more sadly it seemed to approach: then a slight concussion, and they were connected with it, and off again.
Stephen sat all the afternoon pondering upon the reason of Knight's unexpected reappearance. Was he going as far as Castle Boterel? If so, he could only have one object in view—a visit to Elfride. And what an idea it seemed!
At Plymouth Smith partook of a little refreshment, and then went round to the side from which the train started for Camelton, the new station near Castle Boterel and Endelstow.
Knight was already there.
Stephen walked up and stood beside him without speaking. Two men at this moment crept out from among the wheels of the waiting train.
'The carriage is light enough,' said one in a grim tone. 'Light as vanity; full of nothing.' 'Nothing in size, but a good deal in signification,' said the other, a man of brighter mind and manners.
Smith then perceived that to their train was attached that same carriage of grand and dark aspect which had haunted them all the way from London.
'You are going on, I suppose?' said Knight, turning to Stephen, after idly looking at the same object.
'Yes.' 'We may as well travel together for the remaining distance, may we not?' 'Certainly we will;' and they both entered the same door.
Evening drew on apace. It chanced to be the eve of St. Valentine's—that bishop of blessed memory to youthful lovers—and the sun shone low under the rim of a thick hard cloud, decorating the eminences of the landscape with crowns of orange fire. As the train changed its direction on a curve, the same rays stretched in through the window, and coaxed open Knight's half-closed eyes.
'You will get out at St. Launce's, I suppose?' he murmured.
'No,' said Stephen, 'I am not expected till to-morrow.' Knight was silent.
'And you—are you going to Endelstow?' said the younger man pointedly.
'Since you ask, I can do no less than say I am, Stephen,' continued Knight slowly, and with more resolution of manner than he had shown all the day. 'I am going to Endelstow to see if Elfride Swancourt is still free; and if so, to ask her to be my wife.' 'So am I,' said Stephen Smith.
'I think you'll lose your labour,' Knight returned with decision.
'Naturally you do.' There was a strong accent of bitterness in Stephen's voice. 'You might have said HOPE instead of THINK,' he added.
'I might have done no such thing. I gave you my opinion. Elfride Swancourt may have loved you once, no doubt, but it was when she was so young that she hardly knew her own mind.' 'Thank you,' said Stephen laconically. 'She knew her mind as well as I did. We are the same age. If you hadn't interfered——' 'Don't say that—don't say it, Stephen! How can you make out that I interfered? Be just, please!' 'Well,' said his friend, 'she was mine before she was yours—you know that! And it seemed a hard thing to find you had got her, and that if it had not been for you, all might have turned out well for me.' Stephen spoke with a swelling heart, and looked out of the window to hide the emotion that would make itself visible upon his face.
'It is absurd,' said Knight in a kinder tone, 'for you to look at the matter in that light. What I tell you is for your good. You naturally do not like to realize the truth—that her liking for you was only a girl's first fancy, which has no root ever.' 'It is not true!' said Stephen passionately. 'It was you put me out. And now you'll be pushing in again between us, and depriving me of my chance again! My right, that's what it is! How ungenerous of you to come anew and try to take her away from me! When you had won her, I did not interfere; and you might, I think, Mr. Knight, do by me as I did by you!' 'Don't "Mr." me; you are as well in the world as I am now.' 'First love is deepest; and that was mine.' 'Who told you that?' said Knight superciliously.
'I had her first love. And it was through me that you and she parted. I can guess that well enough.' 'It was. And if I were to explain to you in what way that operated in parting us, I should convince you that you do quite wrong in intruding upon her—that, as I said at first, your labour will be lost. I don't choose to explain, because the particulars are painful. But if you won't listen to me, go on, for Heaven's sake. I don't care what you do, my boy.' 'You have no right to domineer over me as you do. Just because, when I was a lad, I was accustomed to look up to you as a master, and you helped me a little, for which I was grateful to you and have loved you, you assume too much now, and step in before me. It is cruel—it is unjust—of you to injure me so!' Knight showed himself keenly hurt at this. 'Stephen, those words are untrue and unworthy of any man, and they are unworthy of you. You know you wrong me. If you have ever profited by any instruction of mine, I am only too glad to know it. You know it was given ungrudgingly, and that I have never once looked upon it as making you in any way a debtor to me.' Stephen's naturally gentle nature was touched, and it was in a troubled voice that he said, 'Yes, yes. I am unjust in that—I own it.' 'This is St. Launce's Station, I think. Are you going to get out?' Knight's manner of returning to the matter in hand drew Stephen again into himself. 'No; I told you I was going to Endelstow,' he resolutely replied.
Knight's features became impassive, and he said no more. The train continued rattling on, and Stephen leant back in his corner and closed his eyes. The yellows of evening had turned to browns, the dusky shades thickened, and a flying cloud of dust occasionally stroked the window—borne upon a chilling breeze which blew from the north-east. The previously gilded but now dreary hills began to lose their daylight aspects of rotundity, and to become black discs vandyked against the sky, all nature wearing the cloak that six o'clock casts over the landscape at this time of the year.
Stephen started up in bewilderment after a long stillness, and it was some time before he recollected himself.
'Well, how real, how real!' he exclaimed, brushing his hand across his eyes.
'What is?' said Knight.
'That dream. I fell asleep for a few minutes, and have had a dream—the most vivid I ever remember.' He wearily looked out into the gloom. They were now drawing near to Camelton. The lighting of the lamps was perceptible through the veil of evening—each flame starting into existence at intervals, and blinking weakly against the gusts of wind.
'What did you dream?' said Knight moodily.
'Oh, nothing to be told. 'Twas a sort of incubus. There is never anything in dreams.' 'I hardly supposed there was.' 'I know that. However, what I so vividly dreamt was this, since you would like to hear. It was the brightest of bright mornings at East Endelstow Church, and you and I stood by the font.
Far away in the chancel Lord Luxellian was standing alone, cold and impassive, and utterly unlike his usual self: but I knew it was he. Inside the altar rail stood a strange clergyman with his book open. He looked up and said to Lord Luxellian, "Where's the bride?" Lord Luxellian said, "There's no bride." At that moment somebody came in at the door, and I knew her to be Lady Luxellian who died. He turned and said to her, "I thought you were in the vault below us; but that could have only been a dream of mine. Come on." Then she came on.
And in brushing between us she chilled me so with cold that I exclaimed, "The life is gone out of me!" and, in the way of dreams, I awoke. But here we are at Camelton.' They were slowly entering the station.
'What are you going to do?' said Knight. 'Do you really intend to call on the Swancourts?' 'By no means. I am going to make inquiries first. I shall stay at the Luxellian Arms to-night.
You will go right on to Endelstow, I suppose, at once?' 'I can hardly do that at this time of the day. Perhaps you are not aware that the family—her father, at any rate—is at variance with me as much as with you.
'I didn't know it.' 'And that I cannot rush into the house as an old friend any more than you can. Certainly I have the privileges of a distant relationship, whatever they may be.' Knight let down the window, and looked ahead. 'There are a great many people at the station,' he said. 'They seem all to be on the look-out for us.' When the train stopped, the half-estranged friends could perceive by the lamplight that the assemblage of idlers enclosed as a kernel a group of men in black cloaks. A side gate in the platform railing was open, and outside this stood a dark vehicle, which they could not at first characterize. Then Knight saw on its upper part forms against the sky like cedars by night, and knew the vehicle to be a hearse. Few people were at the carriage doors to meet the passengers—the majority had congregated at this upper end. Knight and Stephen alighted, and turned for a moment in the same direction.
The sombre van, which had accompanied them all day from London, now began to reveal that their destination was also its own. It had been drawn up exactly opposite the open gate. The bystanders all fell back, forming a clear lane from the gateway to the van, and the men in cloaks entered the latter conveyance.
'They are labourers, I fancy,' said Stephen. 'Ah, it is strange; but I recognize three of them as Endelstow men. Rather remarkable this.' Presently they began to come out, two and two; and under the rays of the lamp they were seen to bear between them a light-coloured coffin of satin-wood, brightly polished, and without a nail. The eight men took the burden upon their shoulders, and slowly crossed with it over to the gate.
Knight and Stephen went outside, and came close to the procession as it moved off. A carriage belonging to the cortege turned round close to a lamp. The rays shone in upon the face of the vicar of Endelstow, Mr. Swancourt—looking many years older than when they had last seen him. Knight and Stephen involuntarily drew back.
Knight spoke to a bystander. 'What has Mr. Swancourt to do with that funeral?' 'He is the lady's father,' said the bystander.
'What lady's father?' said Knight, in a voice so hollow that the man stared at him.
'The father of the lady in the coffin. She died in London, you know, and has been brought here by this train. She is to be taken home to-night, and buried to-morrow.' Knight stood staring blindly at where the hearse had been; as if he saw it, or some one, there. Then he turned, and beheld the lithe form of Stephen bowed down like that of an old man. He took his young friend's arm, and led him away from the light.
CHAPTER 40 'Welcome, proud lady.' Half an hour has passed. Two miserable men are wandering in the darkness up the miles of road from Camelton to Endelstow.
'Has she broken her heart?' said Henry Knight. 'Can it be that I have killed her? I was bitter with her, Stephen, and she has died! And may God have NO mercy upon me!' 'How can you have killed her more than I?' 'Why, I went away from her—stole away almost—and didn't tell her I should not come again; and at that last meeting I did not kiss her once, but let her miserably go. I have been a fool—a fool! I wish the most abject confession of it before crowds of my countrymen could in any way make amends to my darling for the intense cruelty I have shown her!' 'YOUR darling!' said Stephen, with a sort of laugh. 'Any man can say that, I suppose; any man can. I know this, she was MY darling before she was yours; and after too. If anybody has a right to call her his own, it is I.' 'You talk like a man in the dark; which is what you are. Did she ever do anything for you?
Risk her name, for instance, for you?' Yes, she did,' said Stephen emphatically.
'Not entirely. Did she ever live for you—prove she could not live without you—laugh and weep for you?' 'Yes.' 'Never! Did she ever risk her life for you—no! My darling did for me.' 'Then it was in kindness only. When did she risk her life for you?' 'To save mine on the cliff yonder. The poor child was with me looking at the approach of the Puffin steamboat, and I slipped down. We both had a narrow escape. I wish we had died there!' 'Ah, but wait,' Stephen pleaded with wet eyes. 'She went on that cliff to see me arrive home: she had promised it. She told me she would months before. And would she have gone there if she had not cared for me at all?' 'You have an idea that Elfride died for you, no doubt,' said Knight, with a mournful sarcasm too nerveless to support itself.
'Never mind. If we find that—that she died yours, I'll say no more ever.' 'And if we find she died yours, I'll say no more.' 'Very well—so it shall be.' The dark clouds into which the sun had sunk had begun to drop rain in an increasing volume.
'Can we wait somewhere here till this shower is over?' said Stephen desultorily.
'As you will. But it is not worth while. We'll hear the particulars, and return. Don't let people know who we are. I am not much now.' They had reached a point at which the road branched into two—just outside the west village, one fork of the diverging routes passing into the latter place, the other stretching on to East Endelstow. Having come some of the distance by the footpath, they now found that the hearse was only a little in advance of them.
'I fancy it has turned off to East Endelstow. Can you see?' 'I cannot. You must be mistaken.' Knight and Stephen entered the village. A bar of fiery light lay across the road, proceeding from the half-open door of a smithy, in which bellows were heard blowing and a hammer ringing. The rain had increased, and they mechanically turned for shelter towards the warm and cosy scene.
Close at their heels came another man, without over-coat or umbrella, and with a parcel under his arm.
'A wet evening,' he said to the two friends, and passed by them. They stood in the outer penthouse, but the man went in to the fire.
The smith ceased his blowing, and began talking to the man who had entered.
'I have walked all the way from Camelton,' said the latter. 'Was obliged to come to-night, you know.' He held the parcel, which was a flat one, towards the firelight, to learn if the rain had penetrated it. Resting it edgewise on the forge, he supported it perpendicularly with one hand, wiping his face with the handkerchief he held in the other.
'I suppose you know what I've got here?' he observed to the smith.
'No, I don't,' said the smith, pausing again on his bellows.
'As the rain's not over, I'll show you,' said the bearer.
He laid the thin and broad package, which had acute angles in different directions, flat upon the anvil, and the smith blew up the fire to give him more light. First, after untying the package, a sheet of brown paper was removed: this was laid flat. Then he unfolded a piece of baize: this also he spread flat on the paper. The third covering was a wrapper of tissue paper, which was spread out in its turn. The enclosure was revealed, and he held it up for the smith's inspection.
'Oh—I see!' said the smith, kindling with a chastened interest, and drawing close. 'Poor young lady—ah, terrible melancholy thing—so soon too!' Knight and Stephen turned their heads and looked.
'And what's that?' continued the smith.
'That's the coronet—beautifully finished, isn't it? Ah, that cost some money!' ''Tis as fine a bit of metal work as ever I see—that 'tis.' 'It came from the same people as the coffin, you know, but was not ready soon enough to be sent round to the house in London yesterday. I've got to fix it on this very night.' The carefully-packed articles were a coffin-plate and coronet.
Knight and Stephen came forward. The undertaker's man, on seeing them look for the inscription, civilly turned it round towards them, and each read, almost at one moment, by
the ruddy light of the coals:
They read it, and read it, and read it again—Stephen and Knight—as if animated by one soul.
Then Stephen put his hand upon Knight's arm, and they retired from the yellow glow, further, further, till the chill darkness enclosed them round, and the quiet sky asserted its presence overhead as a dim grey sheet of blank monotony.
'Where shall we go?' said Stephen.
'I don't know.' A long silence ensued....'Elfride married!' said Stephen then in a thin whisper, as if he feared to let the assertion loose on the world.
'False,' whispered Knight.
'And dead. Denied us both. I hate "false"—I hate it!' Knight made no answer.
Nothing was heard by them now save the slow measurement of time by their beating pulses, the soft touch of the dribbling rain upon their clothes, and the low purr of the blacksmith's bellows hard by.
'Shall we follow Elfie any further?' Stephen said.
'No: let us leave her alone. She is beyond our love, and let her be beyond our reproach.
Since we don't know half the reasons that made her do as she did, Stephen, how can we say, even now, that she was not pure and true in heart?' Knight's voice had now become mild and gentle as a child's. He went on: 'Can we call her ambitious? No. Circumstance has, as usual, overpowered her purposes—fragile and delicate as she—liable to be overthrown in a moment by the coarse elements of accident. I know that's it,—don't you?' 'It may be—it must be. Let us go on.' They began to bend their steps towards Castle Boterel, whither they had sent their bags from Camelton. They wandered on in silence for many minutes. Stephen then paused, and lightly put his hand within Knight's arm.
'I wonder how she came to die,' he said in a broken whisper. 'Shall we return and learn a little more?' They turned back again, and entering Endelstow a second time, came to a door which was standing open. It was that of an inn called the Welcome Home, and the house appeared to have been recently repaired and entirely modernized. The name too was not that of the same landlord as formerly, but Martin Cannister's.
Knight and Smith entered. The inn was quite silent, and they followed the passage till they reached the kitchen, where a huge fire was burning, which roared up the chimney, and sent over the floor, ceiling, and newly-whitened walls a glare so intense as to make the candle quite a secondary light. A woman in a white apron and black gown was standing there alone behind a cleanly-scrubbed deal table. Stephen first, and Knight afterwards, recognized her as Unity, who had been parlour-maid at the vicarage and young lady's-maid at the Crags.
'Unity,' said Stephen softly, 'don't you know me?' She looked inquiringly a moment, and her face cleared up.
'Mr. Smith—ay, that it is!' she said. 'And that's Mr. Knight. I beg you to sit down. Perhaps you know that since I saw you last I have married Martin Cannister.' 'How long have you been married?' 'About five months. We were married the same day that my dear Miss Elfie became Lady Luxellian.' Tears appeared in Unity's eyes, and filled them, and fell down her cheek, in spite of efforts to the contrary.
The pain of the two men in resolutely controlling themselves when thus exampled to admit relief of the same kind was distressing. They both turned their backs and walked a few steps away.
Then Unity said, 'Will you go into the parlour, gentlemen?' 'Let us stay here with her,' Knight whispered, and turning said, 'No; we will sit here. We want to rest and dry ourselves here for a time, if you please.' That evening the sorrowing friends sat with their hostess beside the large fire, Knight in the recess formed by the chimney breast, where he was in shade. And by showing a little confidence they won hers, and she told them what they had stayed to hear—the latter history of poor Elfride.
'One day—after you, Mr. Knight, left us for the last time—she was missed from the Crags, and her father went after her, and brought her home ill. Where she went to, I never knew— but she was very unwell for weeks afterwards. And she said to me that she didn't care what became of her, and she wished she could die. When she was better, I said she would live to be married yet, and she said then, "Yes; I'll do anything for the benefit of my family, so as to turn my useless life to some practical account." Well, it began like this about Lord Luxellian courting her. The first Lady Luxellian had died, and he was in great trouble because the little girls were left motherless. After a while they used to come and see her in their little black frocks, for they liked her as well or better than their own mother—-that's true. They used to call her "little mamma." These children made her a shade livelier, but she was not the girl she had been—I could see that—and she grew thinner a good deal. Well, my lord got to ask the Swancourts oftener and oftener to dinner—nobody else of his acquaintance—and at last the vicar's family were backwards and forwards at all hours of the day. Well, people say that the little girls asked their father to let Miss Elfride come and live with them, and that he said perhaps he would if they were good children. However, the time went on, and one day I said, "Miss Elfride, you don't look so well as you used to; and though nobody else seems to notice it I do." She laughed a little, and said, "I shall live to be married yet, as you told me."
'"Shall you, miss? I am glad to hear that," I said.
'"Whom do you think I am going to be married to?" she said again.
'"Mr. Knight, I suppose," said I.
'"Oh!" she cried, and turned off so white, and afore I could get to her she had sunk down like a heap of clothes, and fainted away. Well, then, she came to herself after a time, and said, "Unity, now we'll go on with our conversation."
'"Better not to-day, miss," I said.
'"Yes, we will," she said. "Whom do you think I am going to be married to?" '"I don't know," I said this time.
'"Guess," she said.
'"'Tisn't my lord, is it?" says I.
'"Yes, 'tis," says she, in a sick wild way.
'"But he don't come courting much," I said.
"'Ah! you don't know," she said, and told me 'twas going to be in October. After that she freshened up a bit—whether 'twas with the thought of getting away from home or not, I don't know. For, perhaps, I may as well speak plainly, and tell you that her home was no home to her now. Her father was bitter to her and harsh upon her; and though Mrs.
Swancourt was well enough in her way, 'twas a sort of cold politeness that was not worth much, and the little thing had a worrying time of it altogether. About a month before the wedding, she and my lord and the two children used to ride about together upon horseback, and a very pretty sight they were; and if you'll believe me, I never saw him once with her unless the children were with her too—which made the courting so strange-looking. Ay, and my lord is so handsome, you know, so that at last I think she rather liked him; and I have seen her smile and blush a bit at things he said. He wanted her the more because the children did, for everybody could see that she would be a most tender mother to them, and friend and playmate too. And my lord is not only handsome, but a splendid courter, and up to all the ways o't. So he made her the beautifullest presents; ah, one I can mind—a lovely bracelet, with diamonds and emeralds. Oh, how red her face came when she saw it! The old roses came back to her cheeks for a minute or two then. I helped dress her the day we both were married—it was the last service I did her, poor child! When she was ready, I ran upstairs and slipped on my own wedding gown, and away they went, and away went Martin and I; and no sooner had my lord and my lady been married than the parson married us. It was a very quiet pair of weddings—hardly anybody knew it. Well, hope will hold its own in a young heart, if so be it can; and my lady freshened up a bit, for my lord was SO handsome and kind.' 'How came she to die—and away from home?' murmured Knight.
'Don't you see, sir, she fell off again afore they'd been married long, and my lord took her abroad for change of scene. They were coming home, and had got as far as London, when she was taken very ill and couldn't be moved, and there she died.' 'Was he very fond of her?' 'What, my lord? Oh, he was!' 'VERY fond of her?' 'VERY, beyond everything. Not suddenly, but by slow degrees. 'Twas her nature to win people more when they knew her well. He'd have died for her, I believe. Poor my lord, he's heart-broken now!' 'The funeral is to-morrow?' 'Yes; my husband is now at the vault with the masons, opening the steps and cleaning down the walls.' The next day two men walked up the familiar valley from Castle Boterel to East Endelstow Church. And when the funeral was over, and every one had left the lawn-like churchyard, the pair went softly down the steps of the Luxellian vault, and under the low-groined arches they had beheld once before, lit up then as now. In the new niche of the crypt lay a rather new coffin, which had lost some of its lustre, and a newer coffin still, bright and untarnished in the slightest degree.
Beside the latter was the dark form of a man, kneeling on the damp floor, his body flung across the coffin, his hands clasped, and his whole frame seemingly given up in utter abandonment to grief. He was still young—younger, perhaps, than Knight—and even now showed how graceful was his figure and symmetrical his build. He murmured a prayer half aloud, and was quite unconscious that two others were standing within a few yards of him.
Knight and Stephen had advanced to where they once stood beside Elfride on the day all three had met there, before she had herself gone down into silence like her ancestors, and shut her bright blue eyes for ever. Not until then did they see the kneeling figure in the dim light. Knight instantly recognized the mourner as Lord Luxellian, the bereaved husband of Elfride.
They felt themselves to be intruders. Knight pressed Stephen back, and they silently withdrew as they had entered.
'Come away,' he said, in a broken voice. 'We have no right to be there. Another stands before us—nearer to her than we!' And side by side they both retraced their steps down the grey still valley to Castle Boterel.