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Whatever reason the youth may have had for not wishing to enter the house as a guest, it no longer predominated. He promised, and bade them adieu, and got into the ponycarriage, which crept up the slope, and bore him out of their sight.
'I never was so much taken with anybody in my life as I am with that young fellow—never! I cannot understand it—can't understand it anyhow,' said Mr. Swancourt quite energetically to himself; and went indoors.
CHAPTER 7 'No more of me you knew, my love!' Stephen Smith revisited Endelstow Vicarage, agreeably to his promise. He had a genuine artistic reason for coming, though no such reason seemed to be required. Six-and-thirty old seat ends, of exquisite fifteenth-century workmanship, were rapidly decaying in an aisle of the church; and it became politic to make drawings of their worm-eaten contours ere they were battered past recognition in the turmoil of the so-called restoration.
He entered the house at sunset, and the world was pleasant again to the two fair-haired ones. A momentary pang of disappointment had, nevertheless, passed through Elfride when she casually discovered that he had not come that minute post-haste from London, but had reached the neighbourhood the previous evening. Surprise would have accompanied the feeling, had she not remembered that several tourists were haunting the coast at this season, and that Stephen might have chosen to do likewise.
They did little besides chat that evening, Mr. Swancourt beginning to question his visitor, closely yet paternally, and in good part, on his hopes and prospects from the profession he had embraced. Stephen gave vague answers. The next day it rained. In the evening, when twenty-four hours of Elfride had completely rekindled her admirer's ardour, a game of chess was proposed between them.
The game had its value in helping on the developments of their future.
Elfride soon perceived that her opponent was but a learner. She next noticed that he had a very odd way of handling the pieces when castling or taking a man. Antecedently she would have supposed that the same performance must be gone through by all players in the same manner; she was taught by his differing action that all ordinary players, who learn the game by sight, unconsciously touch the men in a stereotyped way. This impression of indescribable oddness in Stephen's touch culminated in speech when she saw him, at the taking of one of her bishops, push it aside with the taking man instead of lifting it as a preliminary to the move.
'How strangely you handle the men, Mr. Smith!' 'Do I? I am sorry for that.' 'Oh no—don't be sorry; it is not a matter great enough for sorrow. But who taught you to play?' 'Nobody, Miss Swancourt,' he said. 'I learnt from a book lent me by my friend Mr. Knight, the noblest man in the world.' 'But you have seen people play?' 'I have never seen the playing of a single game. This is the first time I ever had the opportunity of playing with a living opponent. I have worked out many games from books, and studied the reasons of the different moves, but that is all.' This was a full explanation of his mannerism; but the fact that a man with the desire for chess should have grown up without being able to see or engage in a game astonished her not a little. She pondered on the circumstance for some time, looking into vacancy and hindering the play.
Mr. Swancourt was sitting with his eyes fixed on the board, but apparently thinking of other
things. Half to himself he said, pending the move of Elfride:
'"Quae finis aut quod me manet stipendium?"'
Stephen replied instantly:
'"Effare: jussas cum fide poenas luam."' 'Excellent—prompt—gratifying!' said Mr. Swancourt with feeling, bringing down his hand upon the table, and making three pawns and a knight dance over their borders by the shaking. 'I was musing on those words as applicable to a strange course I am steering—but enough of that. I am delighted with you, Mr. Smith, for it is so seldom in this desert that I meet with a man who is gentleman and scholar enough to continue a quotation, however trite it may be.' 'I also apply the words to myself,' said Stephen quietly.
'You? The last man in the world to do that, I should have thought.' 'Come,' murmured Elfride poutingly, and insinuating herself between them, 'tell me all about it. Come, construe, construe!' Stephen looked steadfastly into her face, and said slowly, and in a voice full of a far-off
meaning that seemed quaintly premature in one so young:
'Quae finis WHAT WILL BE THE END, aut OR, quod stipendium WHAT FINE, manet me AWAITS ME? Effare SPEAK OUT; luam I WILL PAY, cum fide WITH FAITH, jussas poenas THE PENALTY REQUIRED.' The vicar, who had listened with a critical compression of the lips to this school-boy recitation, and by reason of his imperfect hearing had missed the marked realism of Stephen's tone in the English words, now said hesitatingly: 'By the bye, Mr. Smith (I know you'll excuse my curiosity), though your translation was unexceptionably correct and close, you have a way of pronouncing your Latin which to me seems most peculiar. Not that the pronunciation of a dead language is of much importance; yet your accents and quantities have a grotesque sound to my ears. I thought first that you had acquired your way of breathing the vowels from some of the northern colleges; but it cannot be so with the quantities. What I was going to ask was, if your instructor in the classics could possibly have been an Oxford or Cambridge man?' 'Yes; he was an Oxford man—Fellow of St. Cyprian's.' 'Really?' 'Oh yes; there's no doubt about it.
'The oddest thing ever I heard of!' said Mr. Swancourt, starting with astonishment. 'That the pupil of such a man——' 'The best and cleverest man in England!' cried Stephen enthusiastically.
'That the pupil of such a man should pronounce Latin in the way you pronounce it beats all I ever heard. How long did he instruct you?' 'Four years.' 'Four years!' 'It is not so strange when I explain,' Stephen hastened to say. 'It was done in this way—by letter. I sent him exercises and construing twice a week, and twice a week he sent them back to me corrected, with marginal notes of instruction. That is how I learnt my Latin and Greek, such as it is. He is not responsible for my scanning. He has never heard me scan a line.' 'A novel case, and a singular instance of patience!' cried the vicar.
'On his part, not on mine. Ah, Henry Knight is one in a thousand! I remember his speaking to me on this very subject of pronunciation. He says that, much to his regret, he sees a time coming when every man will pronounce even the common words of his own tongue as seems right in his own ears, and be thought none the worse for it; that the speaking age is passing away, to make room for the writing age.' Both Elfride and her father had waited attentively to hear Stephen go on to what would have been the most interesting part of the story, namely, what circumstances could have necessitated such an unusual method of education. But no further explanation was volunteered; and they saw, by the young man's manner of concentrating himself upon the chess-board, that he was anxious to drop the subject.
The game proceeded. Elfride played by rote; Stephen by thought. It was the cruellest thing to checkmate him after so much labour, she considered. What was she dishonest enough to do in her compassion? To let him checkmate her. A second game followed; and being herself absolutely indifferent as to the result (her playing was above the average among women, and she knew it), she allowed him to give checkmate again. A final game, in which she adopted the Muzio gambit as her opening, was terminated by Elfride's victory at the twelfth move.
Stephen looked up suspiciously. His heart was throbbing even more excitedly than was hers, which itself had quickened when she seriously set to work on this last occasion. Mr.
Swancourt had left the room.
'You have been trifling with me till now!' he exclaimed, his face flushing. 'You did not play your best in the first two games?' Elfride's guilt showed in her face. Stephen became the picture of vexation and sadness, which, relishable for a moment, caused her the next instant to regret the mistake she had made.
'Mr. Smith, forgive me!' she said sweetly. 'I see now, though I did not at first, that what I have done seems like contempt for your skill. But, indeed, I did not mean it in that sense. I could not, upon my conscience, win a victory in those first and second games over one who fought at such a disadvantage and so manfully.' He drew a long breath, and murmured bitterly, 'Ah, you are cleverer than I. You can do everything—I can do nothing! O Miss Swancourt!' he burst out wildly, his heart swelling in his throat, 'I must tell you how I love you! All these months of my absence I have worshipped you.' He leapt from his seat like the impulsive lad that he was, slid round to her side, and almost before she suspected it his arm was round her waist, and the two sets of curls intermingled.
So entirely new was full-blown love to Elfride, that she trembled as much from the novelty of the emotion as from the emotion itself. Then she suddenly withdrew herself and stood upright, vexed that she had submitted unresistingly even to his momentary pressure. She resolved to consider this demonstration as premature.
'You must not begin such things as those,' she said with coquettish hauteur of a very transparent nature 'And—you must not do so again—and papa is coming.' 'Let me kiss you—only a little one,' he said with his usual delicacy, and without reading the factitiousness of her manner.
'No; not one.' 'Only on your cheek?' 'No.' 'Forehead?' 'Certainly not.' 'You care for somebody else, then? Ah, I thought so!' 'I am sure I do not.' 'Nor for me either?' 'How can I tell?' she said simply, the simplicity lying merely in the broad outlines of her manner and speech. There were the semitone of voice and half-hidden expression of eyes which tell the initiated how very fragile is the ice of reserve at these times.
Footsteps were heard. Mr. Swancourt then entered the room, and their private colloquy ended.
The day after this partial revelation, Mr. Swancourt proposed a drive to the cliffs beyond Targan Bay, a distance of three or four miles.
Half an hour before the time of departure a crash was heard in the back yard, and presently Worm came in, saying partly to the world in general, partly to himself, and slightly to his
'Ay, ay, sure! That frying of fish will be the end of William Worm. They be at it again this morning—same as ever—fizz, fizz, fizz!' 'Your head bad again, Worm?' said Mr. Swancourt. 'What was that noise we heard in the yard?' 'Ay, sir, a weak wambling man am I; and the frying have been going on in my poor head all through the long night and this morning as usual; and I was so dazed wi' it that down fell a piece of leg-wood across the shaft of the pony-shay, and splintered it off. "Ay," says I, "I feel it as if 'twas my own shay; and though I've done it, and parish pay is my lot if I go from here, perhaps I am as independent as one here and there."' 'Dear me, the shaft of the carriage broken!' cried Elfride. She was disappointed: Stephen doubly so. The vicar showed more warmth of temper than the accident seemed to demand, much to Stephen's uneasiness and rather to his surprise. He had not supposed so much latent sternness could co-exist with Mr. Swancourt's frankness and good-nature.
'You shall not be disappointed,' said the vicar at length. 'It is almost too long a distance for you to walk. Elfride can trot down on her pony, and you shall have my old nag, Smith.' Elfride exclaimed triumphantly, 'You have never seen me on horseback—Oh, you must!' She looked at Stephen and read his thoughts immediately. 'Ah, you don't ride, Mr. Smith?' 'I am sorry to say I don't.' 'Fancy a man not able to ride!' said she rather pertly.
The vicar came to his rescue. 'That's common enough; he has had other lessons to learn.
Now, I recommend this plan: let Elfride ride on horseback, and you, Mr. Smith, walk beside her.' The arrangement was welcomed with secret delight by Stephen. It seemed to combine in itself all the advantages of a long slow ramble with Elfride, without the contingent possibility of the enjoyment being spoilt by her becoming weary. The pony was saddled and brought round.
'Now, Mr. Smith,' said the lady imperatively, coming downstairs, and appearing in her riding-habit, as she always did in a change of dress, like a new edition of a delightful volume, 'you have a task to perform to-day. These earrings are my very favourite darling ones; but the worst of it is that they have such short hooks that they are liable to be dropped if I toss my head about much, and when I am riding I can't give my mind to them. It would be doing me knight service if you keep your eyes fixed upon them, and remember them every minute of the day, and tell me directly I drop one. They have had such hairbreadth escapes, haven't they, Unity?' she continued to the parlour-maid who was standing at the door.
'Yes, miss, that they have!' said Unity with round-eyed commiseration.
'Once 'twas in the lane that I found one of them,' pursued Elfride reflectively.
'And then 'twas by the gate into Eighteen Acres,' Unity chimed in.
'And then 'twas on the carpet in my own room,' rejoined Elfride merrily.
'And then 'twas dangling on the embroidery of your petticoat, miss; and then 'twas down your back, miss, wasn't it? And oh, what a way you was in, miss, wasn't you? my! until you found it!' Stephen took Elfride's slight foot upon his hand: 'One, two, three, and up!' she said.
Unfortunately not so. He staggered and lifted, and the horse edged round; and Elfride was ultimately deposited upon the ground rather more forcibly than was pleasant. Smith looked all contrition.
'Never mind,' said the vicar encouragingly; 'try again! 'Tis a little accomplishment that requires some practice, although it looks so easy. Stand closer to the horse's head, Mr.
Smith.' 'Indeed, I shan't let him try again,' said she with a microscopic look of indignation. 'Worm, come here, and help me to mount.' Worm stepped forward, and she was in the saddle in a trice.
Then they moved on, going for some distance in silence, the hot air of the valley being occasionally brushed from their faces by a cool breeze, which wound its way along ravines leading up from the sea.