A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy
Part 5 out of 9
'Return this way, and stay a little longer with us,' said the
vicar. 'A week is nothing. We have hardly been able to realize
your presence yet. I remember a story which----'
The vicar suddenly stopped. He had forgotten it was Sunday, and
would probably have gone on in his week-day mode of thought had
not a turn in the breeze blown the skirt of his college gown
within the range of his vision, and so reminded him. He at once
diverted the current of his narrative with the dexterity the
'The story of the Levite who journeyed to Bethlehem-judah, from
which I took my text the Sunday before last, is quite to the
point,' he continued, with the pronunciation of a man who, far
from having intended to tell a week-day story a moment earlier,
had thought of nothing but Sabbath matters for several weeks.
'What did he gain after all by his restlessness? Had he remained
in the city of the Jebusites, and not been so anxious for Gibeah,
none of his troubles would have arisen.'
'But he had wasted five days already,' said Knight, closing his
eyes to the vicar's commendable diversion. 'His fault lay in
beginning the tarrying system originally.'
'True, true; my illustration fails.'
'But not the hospitality which prompted the story.'
'So you are to come just the same,' urged Mrs. Swancourt, for she
had seen an almost imperceptible fall of countenance in her
stepdaughter at Knight's announcement.
Knight half promised to call on his return journey; but the
uncertainty with which he spoke was quite enough to fill Elfride
with a regretful interest in all he did during the few remaining
hours. The curate having already officiated twice that day in the
two churches, Mr. Swancourt had undertaken the whole of the
evening service, and Knight read the lessons for him. The sun
streamed across from the dilapidated west window, and lighted all
the assembled worshippers with a golden glow, Knight as he read
being illuminated by the same mellow lustre. Elfride at the organ
regarded him with a throbbing sadness of mood which was fed by a
sense of being far removed from his sphere. As he went
deliberately through the chapter appointed--a portion of the
history of Elijah--and ascended that magnificent climax of the
wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the still small voice, his
deep tones echoed past with such apparent disregard of her
existence, that his presence inspired her with a forlorn sense of
unapproachableness, which his absence would hardly have been able
At the same time, turning her face for a moment to catch the glory
of the dying sun as it fell on his form, her eyes were arrested by
the shape and aspect of a woman in the west gallery. It was the
bleak barren countenance of the widow Jethway, whom Elfride had
not seen much of since the morning of her return with Stephen
Smith. Possessing the smallest of competencies, this unhappy
woman appeared to spend her life in journeyings between Endelstow
Churchyard and that of a village near Southampton, where her
father and mother were laid.
She had not attended the service here for a considerable time, and
she now seemed to have a reason for her choice of seat. From the
gallery window the tomb of her son was plainly visible--standing
as the nearest object in a prospect which was closed outwardly by
the changeless horizon of the sea.
The streaming rays, too, flooded her face, now bent towards
Elfride with a hard and bitter expression that the solemnity of
the place raised to a tragic dignity it did not intrinsically
possess. The girl resumed her normal attitude with an added
Elfride's emotion was cumulative, and after a while would assert
itself on a sudden. A slight touch was enough to set it free--a
poem, a sunset, a cunningly contrived chord of music, a vague
imagining, being the usual accidents of its exhibition. The
longing for Knight's respect, which was leading up to an incipient
yearning for his love, made the present conjuncture a sufficient
one. Whilst kneeling down previous to leaving, when the sunny
streaks had gone upward to the roof, and the lower part of the
church was in soft shadow, she could not help thinking of
Coleridge's morbid poem 'The Three Graves,' and shuddering as she
wondered if Mrs. Jethway were cursing her, she wept as if her
heart would break.
They came out of church just as the sun went down, leaving the
landscape like a platform from which an eloquent speaker has
retired, and nothing remains for the audience to do but to rise
and go home. Mr. and Mrs. Swancourt went off in the carriage,
Knight and Elfride preferring to walk, as the skilful old
matchmaker had imagined. They descended the hill together.
'I liked your reading, Mr. Knight,' Elfride presently found
herself saying. 'You read better than papa.'
'I will praise anybody that will praise me. You played
excellently, Miss Swancourt, and very correctly.'
'It must be a great pleasure to you to take an active part in the
'I want to be able to play with more feeling. But I have not a
good selection of music, sacred or secular. I wish I had a nice
little music-library--well chosen, and that the only new pieces
sent me were those of genuine merit.'
'I am glad to hear such a wish from you. It is extraordinary how
many women have no honest love of music as an end and not as a
means, even leaving out those who have nothing in them. They
mostly like it for its accessories. I have never met a woman who
loves music as do ten or a dozen men I know.'
'How would you draw the line between women with something and
women with nothing in them?'
'Well,' said Knight, reflecting a moment, 'I mean by nothing in
them those who don't care about anything solid. This is an
instance: I knew a man who had a young friend in whom he was much
interested; in fact, they were going to be married. She was
seemingly poetical, and he offered her a choice of two editions of
the British poets, which she pretended to want badly. He said,
"Which of them would you like best for me to send?" She said, "A
pair of the prettiest earrings in Bond Street, if you don't mind,
would be nicer than either." Now I call her a girl with not much
in her but vanity; and so do you, I daresay.'
'Oh yes,' replied Elfride with an effort.
Happening to catch a glimpse of her face as she was speaking, and
noticing that her attempt at heartiness was a miserable failure,
he appeared to have misgivings.
'You, Miss Swancourt, would not, under such circumstances, have
preferred the nicknacks?'
'No, I don't think I should, indeed,' she stammered.
'I'll put it to you,' said the inflexible Knight. 'Which will you
have of these two things of about equal value--the well-chosen
little library of the best music you spoke of--bound in morocco,
walnut case, lock and key--or a pair of the very prettiest
earrings in Bond Street windows?'
'Of course the music,' Elfride replied with forced earnestness.
'You are quite certain?' he said emphatically.
'Quite,' she faltered; 'if I could for certain buy the earrings
Knight, somewhat blamably, keenly enjoyed sparring with the
palpitating mobile creature, whose excitable nature made any such
thing a species of cruelty.
He looked at her rather oddly, and said, 'Fie!'
'Forgive me,' she said, laughing a little, a little frightened,
and blushing very deeply.
'Ah, Miss Elfie, why didn't you say at first, as any firm woman
would have said, I am as bad as she, and shall choose the same?'
'I don't know,' said Elfride wofully, and with a distressful
'I thought you were exceptionally musical?'
'So I am, I think. But the test is so severe--quite painful.'
'I don't understand.'
'Music doesn't do any real good, or rather----'
'That IS a thing to say, Miss Swancourt! Why, what----'
'You don't understand! you don't understand!'
'Why, what conceivable use is there in jimcrack jewellery?'
'No, no, no, no!' she cried petulantly; 'I didn't mean what you
think. I like the music best, only I like----'
'Earrings better--own it!' he said in a teasing tone. 'Well, I
think I should have had the moral courage to own it at once,
without pretending to an elevation I could not reach.'
Like the French soldiery, Elfride was not brave when on the
defensive. So it was almost with tears in her eyes that she
'My meaning is, that I like earrings best just now, because I lost
one of my prettiest pair last year, and papa said he would not buy
any more, or allow me to myself, because I was careless; and now I
wish I had some like them--that's what my meaning is--indeed it
is, Mr. Knight.'
'I am afraid I have been very harsh and rude,' said Knight, with a
look of regret at seeing how disturbed she was. 'But seriously,
if women only knew how they ruin their good looks by such
appurtenances, I am sure they would never want them.'
'They were lovely, and became me so!'
'Not if they were like the ordinary hideous things women stuff
their ears with nowadays--like the governor of a steam-engine, or
a pair of scales, or gold gibbets and chains, and artists'
palettes, and compensation pendulums, and Heaven knows what
'No; they were not one of those things. So pretty--like this,'
she said with eager animation. And she drew with the point of her
parasol an enlarged view of one of the lamented darlings, to a
scale that would have suited a giantess half-a-mile high.
'Yes, very pretty--very,' said Knight dryly. 'How did you come to
lose such a precious pair of articles?'
'I only lost one--nobody ever loses both at the same time.'
She made this remark with embarrassment, and a nervous movement of
the fingers. Seeing that the loss occurred whilst Stephen Smith
was attempting to kiss her for the first time on the cliff, her
confusion was hardly to be wondered at. The question had been
awkward, and received no direct answer.
Knight seemed not to notice her manner.
'Oh, nobody ever loses both--I see. And certainly the fact that
it was a case of loss takes away all odour of vanity from your
'As I never know whether you are in earnest, I don't now,' she
said, looking up inquiringly at the hairy face of the oracle. And
coming gallantly to her own rescue, 'If I really seem vain, it is
that I am only vain in my ways--not in my heart. The worst women
are those vain in their hearts, and not in their ways.'
'An adroit distinction. Well, they are certainly the more
objectionable of the two,' said Knight.
'Is vanity a mortal or a venial sin? You know what life is: tell
'I am very far from knowing what life is. A just conception of
life is too large a thing to grasp during the short interval of
passing through it.'
'Will the fact of a woman being fond of jewellery be likely to
make her life, in its higher sense, a failure?'
'Nobody's life is altogether a failure.'
'Well, you know what I mean, even though my words are badly
selected and commonplace,' she said impatiently. 'Because I utter
commonplace words, you must not suppose I think only commonplace
thoughts. My poor stock of words are like a limited number of
rough moulds I have to cast all my materials in, good and bad; and
the novelty or delicacy of the substance is often lost in the
coarse triteness of the form.'
'Very well; I'll believe that ingenious representation. As to the
subject in hand--lives which are failures--you need not trouble
yourself. Anybody's life may be just as romantic and strange and
interesting if he or she fails as if he or she succeed. All the
difference is, that the last chapter is wanting in the story. If
a man of power tries to do a great deed, and just falls short of
it by an accident not his fault, up to that time his history had
as much in it as that of a great man who has done his great deed.
It is whimsical of the world to hold that particulars of how a lad
went to school and so on should be as an interesting romance or as
nothing to them, precisely in proportion to his after renown.'
They were walking between the sunset and the moonrise. With the
dropping of the sun a nearly full moon had begun to raise itself.
Their shadows, as cast by the western glare, showed signs of
becoming obliterated in the interest of a rival pair in the
opposite direction which the moon was bringing to distinctness.
'I consider my life to some extent a failure,' said Knight again
after a pause, during which he had noticed the antagonistic
'I don't precisely know. But in some way I have missed the mark.'
'Really? To have done it is not much to be sad about, but to feel
that you have done it must be a cause of sorrow. Am I right?'
'Partly, though not quite. For a sensation of being profoundly
experienced serves as a sort of consolation to people who are
conscious of having taken wrong turnings. Contradictory as it
seems, there is nothing truer than that people who have always
gone right don't know half as much about the nature and ways of
going right as those do who have gone wrong. However, it is not
desirable for me to chill your summer-time by going into this.'
'You have not told me even now if I am really vain.'
'If I say Yes, I shall offend you; if I say No, you'll think I
don't mean it,' he replied, looking curiously into her face.
'Ah, well,' she replied, with a little breath of distress, '"That
which is exceeding deep, who will find it out?" I suppose I must
take you as I do the Bible--find out and understand all I can; and
on the strength of that, swallow the rest in a lump, by simple
faith. Think me vain, if you will. Worldly greatness requires so
much littleness to grow up in, that an infirmity more or less is
not a matter for regret.'
'As regards women, I can't say,' answered Knight carelessly; 'but
it is without doubt a misfortune for a man who has a living to
get, to be born of a truly noble nature. A high soul will bring a
man to the workhouse; so you may be right in sticking up for
'No, no, I don't do that,' she said regretfully.
Mr. Knight, when you are gone, will you send me something you have
written? I think I should like to see whether you write as you
have lately spoken, or in your better mood. Which is your true
self--the cynic you have been this evening, or the nice
philosopher you were up to to-night?'
'Ah, which? You know as well as I.'
Their conversation detained them on the lawn and in the portico
till the stars blinked out. Elfride flung back her head, and said
'There's a bright star exactly over me.'
'Each bright star is overhead somewhere.'
'Is it? Oh yes, of course. Where is that one?' and she pointed
with her finger.
'That is poised like a white hawk over one of the Cape Verde
'Looking down upon the source of the Nile.'
'And that lonely quiet-looking one?'
'He watches the North Pole, and has no less than the whole equator
for his horizon. And that idle one low down upon the ground, that
we have almost rolled away from, is in India--over the head of a
young friend of mine, who very possibly looks at the star in our
zenith, as it hangs low upon his horizon, and thinks of it as
marking where his true love dwells.'
Elfride glanced at Knight with misgiving. Did he mean her? She
could not see his features; but his attitude seemed to show
'The star is over MY head,' she said with hesitation.
'Or anybody else's in England.'
'Oh yes, I see:' she breathed her relief.
'His parents, I believe, are natives of this county. I don't know
them, though I have been in correspondence with him for many years
till lately. Fortunately or unfortunately for him he fell in
love, and then went to Bombay. Since that time I have heard very
little of him.'
Knight went no further in his volunteered statement, and though
Elfride at one moment was inclined to profit by the lessons in
honesty he had just been giving her, the flesh was weak, and the
intention dispersed into silence. There seemed a reproach in
Knight's blind words, and yet she was not able to clearly define
any disloyalty that she had been guilty of.
'A distant dearness in the hill.'
Knight turned his back upon the parish of Endelstow, and crossed
over to Cork.
One day of absence superimposed itself on another, and
proportionately weighted his heart. He pushed on to the Lakes of
Killarney, rambled amid their luxuriant woods, surveyed the
infinite variety of island, hill, and dale there to be found,
listened to the marvellous echoes of that romantic spot; but
altogether missed the glory and the dream he formerly found in
such favoured regions.
Whilst in the company of Elfride, her girlish presence had not
perceptibly affected him to any depth. He had not been conscious
that her entry into his sphere had added anything to himself; but
now that she was taken away he was very conscious of a great deal
being abstracted. The superfluity had become a necessity, and
Knight was in love.
Stephen fell in love with Elfride by looking at her: Knight by
ceasing to do so. When or how the spirit entered into him he knew
not: certain he was that when on the point of leaving Endelstow he
had felt none of that exquisite nicety of poignant sadness natural
to such severances, seeing how delightful a subject of
contemplation Elfride had been ever since. Had he begun to love
her when she met his eye after her mishap on the tower? He had
simply thought her weak. Had he grown to love her whilst standing
on the lawn brightened all over by the evening sun? He had thought
her complexion good: no more. Was it her conversation that had
sown the seed? He had thought her words ingenious, and very
creditable to a young woman, but not noteworthy. Had the chess-
playing anything to do with it? Certainly not: he had thought her
at that time a rather conceited child.
Knight's experience was a complete disproof of the assumption that
love always comes by glances of the eye and sympathetic touches of
the fingers: that, like flame, it makes itself palpable at the
moment of generation. Not till they were parted, and she had
become sublimated in his memory, could he be said to have even
attentively regarded her.
Thus, having passively gathered up images of her which his mind
did not act upon till the cause of them was no longer before him,
he appeared to himself to have fallen in love with her soul, which
had temporarily assumed its disembodiment to accompany him on his
She began to rule him so imperiously now that, accustomed to
analysis, he almost trembled at the possible result of the
introduction of this new force among the nicely adjusted ones of
his ordinary life. He became restless: then he forgot all
collateral subjects in the pleasure of thinking about her.
Yet it must be said that Knight loved philosophically rather than
He thought of her manner towards him. Simplicity verges on
coquetry. Was she flirting? he said to himself. No forcible
translation of favour into suspicion was able to uphold such a
theory. The performance had been too well done to be anything but
real. It had the defects without which nothing is genuine. No
actress of twenty years' standing, no bald-necked lady whose
earliest season 'out' was lost in the discreet mist of evasive
talk, could have played before him the part of ingenuous girl as
Elfride lived it. She had the little artful ways which partly
make up ingenuousness.
There are bachelors by nature and bachelors by circumstance:
spinsters there doubtless are also of both kinds, though some
think only those of the latter. However, Knight had been looked
upon as a bachelor by nature. What was he coming to? It was very
odd to himself to look at his theories on the subject of love, and
reading them now by the full light of a new experience, to see how
much more his sentences meant than he had felt them to mean when
they were written. People often discover the real force of a
trite old maxim only when it is thrust upon them by a chance
adventure; but Knight had never before known the case of a man who
learnt the full compass of his own epigrams by such means.
He was intensely satisfied with one aspect of the affair. Inbred
in him was an invincible objection to be any but the first comer
in a woman's heart. He had discovered within himself the
condition that if ever he did make up his mind to marry, it must
be on the certainty that no cropping out of inconvenient old
letters, no bow and blush to a mysterious stranger casually met,
should be a possible source of discomposure. Knight's sentiments
were only the ordinary ones of a man of his age who loves
genuinely, perhaps exaggerated a little by his pursuits. When men
first love as lads, it is with the very centre of their hearts,
nothing else being concerned in the operation. With added years,
more of the faculties attempt a partnership in the passion, till
at Knight's age the understanding is fain to have a hand in it.
It may as well be left out. A man in love setting up his brains
as a gauge of his position is as one determining a ship's
longitude from a light at the mast-head.
Knight argued from Elfride's unwontedness of manner, which was
matter of fact, to an unwontedness in love, which was matter of
inference only. Incredules les plus credules. 'Elfride,' he
said, 'had hardly looked upon a man till she saw me.'
He had never forgotten his severity to her because she preferred
ornament to edification, and had since excused her a hundred times
by thinking how natural to womankind was a love of adornment, and
how necessary became a mild infusion of personal vanity to
complete the delicate and fascinating dye of the feminine mind.
So at the end of the week's absence, which had brought him as far
as Dublin, he resolved to curtail his tour, return to Endelstow,
and commit himself by making a reality of the hypothetical offer
of that Sunday evening.
Notwithstanding that he had concocted a great deal of paper theory
on social amenities and modern manners generally, the special
ounce of practice was wanting, and now for his life Knight could
not recollect whether it was considered correct to give a young
lady personal ornaments before a regular engagement to marry had
been initiated. But the day before leaving Dublin he looked
around anxiously for a high-class jewellery establishment, in
which he purchased what he considered would suit her best.
It was with a most awkward and unwonted feeling that after
entering and closing the door of his room he sat down, opened the
morocco case, and held up each of the fragile bits of gold-work
before his eyes. Many things had become old to the solitary man
of letters, but these were new, and he handled like a child an
outcome of civilization which had never before been touched by his
fingers. A sudden fastidious decision that the pattern chosen
would not suit her after all caused him to rise in a flurry and
tear down the street to change them for others. After a great
deal of trouble in reselecting, during which his mind became so
bewildered that the critical faculty on objects of art seemed to
have vacated his person altogether, Knight carried off another
pair of ear-rings. These remained in his possession till the
afternoon, when, after contemplating them fifty times with a
growing misgiving that the last choice was worse than the first,
he felt that no sleep would visit his pillow till he had improved
upon his previous purchases yet again. In a perfect heat of
vexation with himself for such tergiversation, he went anew to the
shop-door, was absolutely ashamed to enter and give further
trouble, went to another shop, bought a pair at an enormously
increased price, because they seemed the very thing, asked the
goldsmiths if they would take the other pair in exchange, was told
that they could not exchange articles bought of another maker,
paid down the money, and went off with the two pairs in his
possession, wondering what on earth to do with the superfluous
pair. He almost wished he could lose them, or that somebody would
steal them, and was burdened with an interposing sense that, as a
capable man, with true ideas of economy, he must necessarily sell
them somewhere, which he did at last for a mere song. Mingled
with a blank feeling of a whole day being lost to him in running
about the city on this new and extraordinary class of errand, and
of several pounds being lost through his bungling, was a slight
sense of satisfaction that he had emerged for ever from his
antediluvian ignorance on the subject of ladies' jewellery, as
well as secured a truly artistic production at last. During the
remainder of that day he scanned the ornaments of every lady he
met with the profoundly experienced eye of an appraiser.
Next morning Knight was again crossing St. George's Channel--not
returning to London by the Holyhead route as he had originally
intended, but towards Bristol--availing himself of Mr. and Mrs.
Swancourt's invitation to revisit them on his homeward journey.
We flit forward to Elfride.
Woman's ruling passion--to fascinate and influence those more
powerful than she--though operant in Elfride, was decidedly
purposeless. She had wanted her friend Knight's good opinion from
the first: how much more than that elementary ingredient of
friendship she now desired, her fears would hardly allow her to
think. In originally wishing to please the highest class of man
she had ever intimately known, there was no disloyalty to Stephen
Smith. She could not--and few women can--realize the possible
vastness of an issue which has only an insignificant begetting.
Her letters from Stephen were necessarily few, and her sense of
fidelity clung to the last she had received as a wrecked mariner
clings to flotsam. The young girl persuaded herself that she was
glad Stephen had such a right to her hand as he had acquired (in
her eyes) by the elopement. She beguiled herself by saying,
'Perhaps if I had not so committed myself I might fall in love
with Mr. Knight.'
All this made the week of Knight's absence very gloomy and
distasteful to her. She retained Stephen in her prayers, and his
old letters were re-read--as a medicine in reality, though she
deceived herself into the belief that it was as a pleasure.
These letters had grown more and more hopeful. He told her that
he finished his work every day with a pleasant consciousness of
having removed one more stone from the barrier which divided them.
Then he drew images of what a fine figure they two would cut some
day. People would turn their heads and say, 'What a prize he has
won!' She was not to be sad about that wild runaway attempt of
theirs (Elfride had repeatedly said that it grieved her).
Whatever any other person who knew of it might think, he knew well
enough the modesty of her nature. The only reproach was a gentle
one for not having written quite so devotedly during her visit to
London. Her letter had seemed to have a liveliness derived from
other thoughts than thoughts of him.
Knight's intention of an early return to Endelstow having
originally been faint, his promise to do so had been fainter. He
was a man who kept his words well to the rear of his possible
actions. The vicar was rather surprised to see him again so soon:
Mrs. Swancourt was not. Knight found, on meeting them all, after
his arrival had been announced, that they had formed an intention
to go to St. Leonards for a few days at the end of the month.
No satisfactory conjuncture offered itself on this first evening
of his return for presenting Elfride with what he had been at such
pains to procure. He was fastidious in his reading of
opportunities for such an intended act. The next morning chancing
to break fine after a week of cloudy weather, it was proposed and
decided that they should all drive to Barwith Strand, a local lion
which neither Mrs. Swancourt nor Knight had seen. Knight scented
romantic occasions from afar, and foresaw that such a one might be
expected before the coming night.
The journey was along a road by neutral green hills, upon which
hedgerows lay trailing like ropes on a quay. Gaps in these
uplands revealed the blue sea, flecked with a few dashes of white
and a solitary white sail, the whole brimming up to a keen horizon
which lay like a line ruled from hillside to hillside. Then they
rolled down a pass, the chocolate-toned rocks forming a wall on
both sides, from one of which fell a heavy jagged shade over half
the roadway. A spout of fresh water burst from an occasional
crevice, and pattering down upon broad green leaves, ran along as
a rivulet at the bottom. Unkempt locks of heather overhung the
brow of each steep, whence at divers points a bramble swung forth
into mid-air, snatching at their head-dresses like a claw.
They mounted the last crest, and the bay which was to be the end
of their pilgrimage burst upon them. The ocean blueness deepened
its colour as it stretched to the foot of the crags, where it
terminated in a fringe of white--silent at this distance, though
moving and heaving like a counterpane upon a restless sleeper.
The shadowed hollows of the purple and brown rocks would have been
called blue had not that tint been so entirely appropriated by the
water beside them.
The carriage was put up at a little cottage with a shed attached,
and an ostler and the coachman carried the hamper of provisions
down to the shore.
Knight found his opportunity. 'I did not forget your wish,' he
began, when they were apart from their friends.
Elfride looked as if she did not understand.
'And I have brought you these,' he continued, awkwardly pulling
out the case, and opening it while holding it towards her.
'O Mr. Knight!' said Elfride confusedly, and turning to a lively
red; 'I didn't know you had any intention or meaning in what you
said. I thought it a mere supposition. I don't want them.'
A thought which had flashed into her mind gave the reply a greater
decisiveness than it might otherwise have possessed. To-morrow
was the day for Stephen's letter.
'But will you not accept them?' Knight returned, feeling less her
master than heretofore.
'I would rather not. They are beautiful--more beautiful than any
I have ever seen,' she answered earnestly, looking half-wishfully
at the temptation, as Eve may have looked at the apple. 'But I
don't want to have them, if you will kindly forgive me, Mr.
'No kindness at all,' said Mr. Knight, brought to a full stop at
this unexpected turn of events.
A silence followed. Knight held the open case, looking rather
wofully at the glittering forms he had forsaken his orbit to
procure; turning it about and holding it up as if, feeling his
gift to be slighted by her, he were endeavouring to admire it very
'Shut them up, and don't let me see them any longer--do!' she said
laughingly, and with a quaint mixture of reluctance and entreaty.
'Not Elfie to you, Mr. Knight. Oh, because I shall want them.
There, I am silly, I know, to say that! But I have a reason for
not taking them--now.' She kept in the last word for a moment,
intending to imply that her refusal was finite, but somehow the
word slipped out, and undid all the rest.
'You will take them some day?'
'I don't want to.'
'Why don't you want to, Elfride Swancourt?'
'Because I don't. I don't like to take them.'
'I have read a fact of distressing significance in that,' said
Knight. 'Since you like them, your dislike to having them must be
'No, it isn't.'
'What, then? Do you like me?'
Elfride deepened in tint, and looked into the distance with
features shaped to an expression of the nicest criticism as
regarded her answer.
'I like you pretty well,' she at length murmured mildly.
'Not very much?'
'You are so sharp with me, and say hard things, and so how can I?'
she replied evasively.
'You think me a fogey, I suppose?'
'No, I don't--I mean I do--I don't know what I think you, I mean.
Let us go to papa,' responded Elfride, with somewhat of a flurried
'Well, I'll tell you my object in getting the present,' said
Knight, with a composure intended to remove from her mind any
possible impression of his being what he was--her lover. 'You see
it was the very least I could do in common civility.'
Elfride felt rather blank at this lucid statement.
Knight continued, putting away the case: 'I felt as anybody
naturally would have, you know, that my words on your choice the
other day were invidious and unfair, and thought an apology should
take a practical shape.'
Elfride was sorry--she could not tell why--that he gave such a
legitimate reason. It was a disappointment that he had all the
time a cool motive, which might be stated to anybody without
raising a smile. Had she known they were offered in that spirit,
she would certainly have accepted the seductive gift. And the
tantalizing feature was that perhaps he suspected her to imagine
them offered as a lover's token, which was mortifying enough if
they were not.
Mrs. Swancourt came now to where they were sitting, to select a
flat boulder for spreading their table-cloth upon, and, amid the
discussion on that subject, the matter pending between Knight and
Elfride was shelved for a while. He read her refusal so certainly
as the bashfulness of a girl in a novel position, that, upon the
whole, he could tolerate such a beginning. Could Knight have been
told that it was a sense of fidelity struggling against new love,
whilst no less assuring as to his ultimate victory, it might have
entirely abstracted the wish to secure it.
At the same time a slight constraint of manner was visible between
them for the remainder of the afternoon. The tide turned, and
they were obliged to ascend to higher ground. The day glided on
to its end with the usual quiet dreamy passivity of such
occasions--when every deed done and thing thought is in
endeavouring to avoid doing and thinking more. Looking idly over
the verge of a crag, they beheld their stone dining-table
gradually being splashed upon and their crumbs and fragments all
washed away by the incoming sea. The vicar drew a moral lesson
from the scene; Knight replied in the same satisfied strain. And
then the waves rolled in furiously--the neutral green-and-blue
tongues of water slid up the slopes, and were metamorphosed into
foam by a careless blow, falling back white and faint, and leaving
trailing followers behind.
The passing of a heavy shower was the next scene--driving them to
shelter in a shallow cave--after which the horses were put in, and
they started to return homeward. By the time they reached the
higher levels the sky had again cleared, and the sunset rays
glanced directly upon the wet uphill road they had climbed. The
ruts formed by their carriage-wheels on the ascent--a pair of
Liliputian canals--were as shining bars of gold, tapering to
nothing in the distance. Upon this also they turned their backs,
and night spread over the sea.
The evening was chilly, and there was no moon. Knight sat close
to Elfride, and, when the darkness rendered the position of a
person a matter of uncertainty, particularly close. Elfride edged
'I hope you allow me my place ungrudgingly?' he whispered.
'Oh yes; 'tis the least I can do in common civility,' she said,
accenting the words so that he might recognize them as his own
Both of them felt delicately balanced between two possibilities.
Thus they reached home.
To Knight this mild experience was delightful. It was to him a
gentle innocent time--a time which, though there may not be much
in it, seldom repeats itself in a man's life, and has a peculiar
dearness when glanced at retrospectively. He is not
inconveniently deep in love, and is lulled by a peaceful sense of
being able to enjoy the most trivial thing with a childlike
enjoyment. The movement of a wave, the colour of a stone,
anything, was enough for Knight's drowsy thoughts of that day to
precipitate themselves upon. Even the sermonizing platitudes the
vicar had delivered himself of--chiefly because something seemed
to be professionally required of him in the presence of a man of
Knight's proclivities--were swallowed whole. The presence of
Elfride led him not merely to tolerate that kind of talk from the
necessities of ordinary courtesy; but he listened to it--took in
the ideas with an enjoyable make-believe that they were proper and
necessary, and indulged in a conservative feeling that the face of
things was complete.
Entering her room that evening Elfride found a packet for herself
on the dressing-table. How it came there she did not know. She
tremblingly undid the folds of white paper that covered it. Yes;
it was the treasure of a morocco case, containing those treasures
of ornament she had refused in the daytime.
Elfride dressed herself in them for a moment, looked at herself in
the glass, blushed red, and put them away. They filled her dreams
all that night. Never had she seen anything so lovely, and never
was it more clear that as an honest woman she was in duty bound to
refuse them. Why it was not equally clear to her that duty
required more vigorous co-ordinate conduct as well, let those who
dissect her say.
The next morning glared in like a spectre upon her. It was
Stephen's letter-day, and she was bound to meet the postman--to
stealthily do a deed she had never liked, to secure an end she now
had ceased to desire.
But she went.
There were two letters.
One was from the bank at St. Launce's, in which she had a small
private deposit--probably something about interest. She put that
in her pocket for a moment, and going indoors and upstairs to be
safer from observation, tremblingly opened Stephen's.
What was this he said to her?
She was to go to the St. Launce's Bank and take a sum of money
which they had received private advices to pay her.
The sum was two hundred pounds.
There was no check, order, or anything of the nature of guarantee.
In fact the information amounted to this: the money was now in the
St. Launce's Bank, standing in her name.
She instantly opened the other letter. It contained a deposit-
note from the bank for the sum of two hundred pounds which had
that day been added to her account. Stephen's information, then,
was correct, and the transfer made.
'I have saved this in one year,' Stephen's letter went on to say,
'and what so proper as well as pleasant for me to do as to hand it
over to you to keep for your use? I have plenty for myself,
independently of this. Should you not be disposed to let it lie
idle in the bank, get your father to invest it in your name on
good security. It is a little present to you from your more than
betrothed. He will, I think, Elfride, feel now that my
pretensions to your hand are anything but the dream of a silly boy
not worth rational consideration.'
With a natural delicacy, Elfride, in mentioning her father's
marriage, had refrained from all allusion to the pecuniary
resources of the lady.
Leaving this matter-of-fact subject, he went on, somewhat after
his boyish manner:
'Do you remember, darling, that first morning of my arrival at
your house, when your father read at prayers the miracle of
healing the sick of the palsy--where he is told to take up his bed
and walk? I do, and I can now so well realize the force of that
passage. The smallest piece of mat is the bed of the Oriental,
and yesterday I saw a native perform the very action, which
reminded me to mention it. But you are better read than I, and
perhaps you knew all this long ago....One day I bought some small
native idols to send home to you as curiosities, but afterwards
finding they had been cast in England, made to look old, and
shipped over, I threw them away in disgust.
'Speaking of this reminds me that we are obliged to import all our
house-building ironwork from England. Never was such foresight
required to be exercised in building houses as here. Before we
begin, we have to order every column, lock, hinge, and screw that
will be required. We cannot go into the next street, as in
London, and get them cast at a minute's notice. Mr. L. says
somebody will have to go to England very soon and superintend the
selection of a large order of this kind. I only wish I may be the
There before her lay the deposit-receipt for the two hundred
pounds, and beside it the elegant present of Knight. Elfride grew
cold--then her cheeks felt heated by beating blood. If by
destroying the piece of paper the whole transaction could have
been withdrawn from her experience, she would willingly have
sacrificed the money it represented. She did not know what to do
in either case. She almost feared to let the two articles lie in
juxtaposition: so antagonistic were the interests they represented
that a miraculous repulsion of one by the other was almost to be
That day she was seen little of. By the evening she had come to a
resolution, and acted upon it. The packet was sealed up--with a
tear of regret as she closed the case upon the pretty forms it
contained--directed, and placed upon the writing-table in Knight's
room. And a letter was written to Stephen, stating that as yet
she hardly understood her position with regard to the money sent;
but declaring that she was ready to fulfil her promise to marry
him. After this letter had been written she delayed posting it--
although never ceasing to feel strenuously that the deed must be
Several days passed. There was another Indian letter for Elfride.
Coming unexpectedly, her father saw it, but made no remark--why,
she could not tell. The news this time was absolutely
overwhelming. Stephen, as he had wished, had been actually chosen
as the most fitting to execute the iron-work commission he had
alluded to as impending. This duty completed he would have three
months' leave. His letter continued that he should follow it in a
week, and should take the opportunity to plainly ask her father to
permit the engagement. Then came a page expressive of his delight
and hers at the reunion; and finally, the information that he
would write to the shipping agents, asking them to telegraph and
tell her when the ship bringing him home should be in sight--
knowing how acceptable such information would be.
Elfride lived and moved now as in a dream. Knight had at first
become almost angry at her persistent refusal of his offering--and
no less with the manner than the fact of it. But he saw that she
began to look worn and ill--and his vexation lessened to simple
He ceased now to remain in the house for long hours together as
before, but made it a mere centre for antiquarian and geological
excursions in the neighbourhood. Throw up his cards and go away
he fain would have done, but could not. And, thus, availing
himself of the privileges of a relative, he went in and out the
premises as fancy led him--but still lingered on.
'I don't wish to stay here another day if my presence is
distasteful,' he said one afternoon. 'At first you used to imply
that I was severe with you; and when I am kind you treat me
'No, no. Don't say so.'
The origin of their acquaintanceship had been such as to render
their manner towards each other peculiar and uncommon. It was of
a kind to cause them to speak out their minds on any feelings of
objection and difference: to be reticent on gentler matters.
'I have a good mind to go away and never trouble you again,'
She said nothing, but the eloquent expression of her eyes and wan
face was enough to reproach him for harshness.
'Do you like me to be here, then?' inquired Knight gently.
'Yes,' she said. Fidelity to the old love and truth to the new
were ranged on opposite sides, and truth virtuelessly prevailed.
'Then I'll stay a little longer,' said Knight.
'Don't be vexed if I keep by myself a good deal, will you? Perhaps
something may happen, and I may tell you something.'
'Mere coyness,' said Knight to himself; and went away with a
lighter heart. The trick of reading truly the enigmatical forces
at work in women at given times, which with some men is an
unerring instinct, is peculiar to minds less direct and honest
The next evening, about five o'clock, before Knight had returned
from a pilgrimage along the shore, a man walked up to the house.
He was a messenger from Camelton, a town a few miles off, to which
place the railway had been advanced during the summer.
'A telegram for Miss Swancourt, and three and sixpence to pay for
the special messenger.' Miss Swancourt sent out the money, signed
the paper, and opened her letter with a trembling hand. She read:
'Johnson, Liverpool, to Miss Swancourt, Endelstow, near Castle
'Amaryllis telegraphed off Holyhead, four o'clock. Expect will
dock and land passengers at Canning's Basin ten o'clock to-morrow
Her father called her into the study.
'Elfride, who sent you that message?' he asked suspiciously.
'Who is Johnson, for Heaven's sake?'
'I don't know.'
'The deuce you don't! Who is to know, then?'
'I have never heard of him till now.'
'That's a singular story, isn't it.'
'I don't know.'
'Come, come, miss! What was the telegram?'
'Do you really wish to know, papa?'
'Well, I do.'
'Remember, I am a full-grown woman now.'
'Well, what then?'
'Being a woman, and not a child, I may, I think, have a secret or
'You will, it seems.'
'Women have, as a rule.'
'But don't keep them. So speak out.'
'If you will not press me now, I give my word to tell you the
meaning of all this before the week is past.'
'On your honour?'
'On my honour.'
'Very well. I have had a certain suspicion, you know; and I shall
be glad to find it false. I don't like your manner lately.'
'At the end of the week, I said, papa.'
Her father did not reply, and Elfride left the room.
She began to look out for the postman again. Three mornings later
he brought an inland letter from Stephen. It contained very
little matter, having been written in haste; but the meaning was
bulky enough. Stephen said that, having executed a commission in
Liverpool, he should arrive at his father's house, East Endelstow,
at five or six o'clock that same evening; that he would after dusk
walk on to the next village, and meet her, if she would, in the
church porch, as in the old time. He proposed this plan because
he thought it unadvisable to call formally at her house so late in
the evening; yet he could not sleep without having seen her. The
minutes would seem hours till he clasped her in his arms.
Elfride was still steadfast in her opinion that honour compelled
her to meet him. Probably the very longing to avoid him lent
additional weight to the conviction; for she was markedly one of
those who sigh for the unattainable--to whom, superlatively, a
hope is pleasing because not a possession. And she knew it so
well that her intellect was inclined to exaggerate this defect in
So during the day she looked her duty steadfastly in the face;
read Wordsworth's astringent yet depressing ode to that Deity;
committed herself to her guidance; and still felt the weight of
But she began to take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the
sacrifice of herself to the man whom a maidenly sense of propriety
compelled her to regard as her only possible husband. She would
meet him, and do all that lay in her power to marry him. To guard
against a relapse, a note was at once despatched to his father's
cottage for Stephen on his arrival, fixing an hour for the
'On thy cold grey stones, O sea!'
Stephen had said that he should come by way of Bristol, and thence
by a steamer to Castle Boterel, in order to avoid the long journey
over the hills from St. Launce's. He did not know of the
extension of the railway to Camelton.
During the afternoon a thought occurred to Elfride, that from any
cliff along the shore it would be possible to see the steamer some
hours before its arrival.
She had accumulated religious force enough to do an act of
supererogation. The act was this--to go to some point of land and
watch for the ship that brought her future husband home.
It was a cloudy afternoon. Elfride was often diverted from a
purpose by a dull sky; and though she used to persuade herself
that the weather was as fine as possible on the other side of the
clouds, she could not bring about any practical result from this
fancy. Now, her mood was such that the humid sky harmonized with
Having ascended and passed over a hill behind the house, Elfride
came to a small stream. She used it as a guide to the coast. It
was smaller than that in her own valley, and flowed altogether at
a higher level. Bushes lined the slopes of its shallow trough;
but at the bottom, where the water ran, was a soft green carpet,
in a strip two or three yards wide.
In winter, the water flowed over the grass; in summer, as now, it
trickled along a channel in the midst.
Elfride had a sensation of eyes regarding her from somewhere. She
turned, and there was Mr. Knight. He had dropped into the valley
from the side of the hill. She felt a thrill of pleasure, and
rebelliously allowed it to exist.
'What utter loneliness to find you in!'
'I am going to the shore by tracking the stream. I believe it
empties itself not far off, in a silver thread of water, over a
cascade of great height.'
'Why do you load yourself with that heavy telescope?'
'To look over the sea with it,' she said faintly.
'I'll carry it for you to your journey's end.' And he took the
glass from her unresisting hands. 'It cannot be half a mile
further. See, there is the water.' He pointed to a short fragment
of level muddy-gray colour, cutting against the sky.
Elfride had already scanned the small surface of ocean visible,
and had seen no ship.
They walked along in company, sometimes with the brook between
them--for it was no wider than a man's stride--sometimes close
together. The green carpet grew swampy, and they kept higher up.
One of the two ridges between which they walked dwindled lower and
became insignificant. That on the right hand rose with their
advance, and terminated in a clearly defined edge against the
light, as if it were abruptly sawn off. A little further, and the
bed of the rivulet ended in the same fashion.
They had come to a bank breast-high, and over it the valley was no
longer to be seen. It was withdrawn cleanly and completely. In
its place was sky and boundless atmosphere; and perpendicularly
down beneath them--small and far off--lay the corrugated surface
of the Atlantic.
The small stream here found its death. Running over the precipice
it was dispersed in spray before it was half-way down, and falling
like rain upon projecting ledges, made minute grassy meadows of
them. At the bottom the water-drops soaked away amid the debris
of the cliff. This was the inglorious end of the river.
'What are you looking for? said Knight, following the direction of
She was gazing hard at a black object--nearer to the shore than to
the horizon--from the summit of which came a nebulous haze,
stretching like gauze over the sea.
'The Puffin, a little summer steamboat--from Bristol to Castle
Boterel,' she said. 'I think that is it--look. Will you give me
Knight pulled open the old-fashioned but powerful telescope, and
handed it to Elfride, who had looked on with heavy eyes.
'I can't keep it up now,' she said.
'Rest it on my shoulder.'
'It is too high.'
'Under my arm.'
'Too low. You may look instead,' she murmured weakly.
Knight raised the glass to his eye, and swept the sea till the
Puffin entered its field.
'Yes, it is the Puffin--a tiny craft. I can see her figure-head
distinctly--a bird with a beak as big as its head.'
'Can you see the deck?'
"Wait a minute; yes, pretty clearly. And I can see the black
forms of the passengers against its white surface. One of them
has taken something from another--a glass, I think--yes, it is--
and he is levelling it in this direction. Depend upon it we are
conspicuous objects against the sky to them. Now, it seems to
rain upon them, and they put on overcoats and open umbrellas.
They vanish and go below--all but that one who has borrowed the
glass. He is a slim young fellow, and still watches us.'
Elfride grew pale, and shifted her little feet uneasily.
Knight lowered the glass.
'I think we had better return,' he said. 'That cloud which is
raining on them may soon reach us. Why, you look ill. How is
'Something in the air affects my face.'
'Those fair cheeks are very fastidious, I fear,' returned Knight
tenderly. 'This air would make those rosy that were never so
before, one would think--eh, Nature's spoilt child?'
Elfride's colour returned again.
'There is more to see behind us, after all,' said Knight.
She turned her back upon the boat and Stephen Smith, and saw,
towering still higher than themselves, the vertical face of the
hill on the right, which did not project seaward so far as the bed
of the valley, but formed the back of a small cove, and so was
visible like a concave wall, bending round from their position
towards the left.
The composition of the huge hill was revealed to its backbone and
marrow here at its rent extremity. It consisted of a vast
stratification of blackish-gray slate, unvaried in its whole
height by a single change of shade.
It is with cliffs and mountains as with persons; they have what is
called a presence, which is not necessarily proportionate to their
actual bulk. A little cliff will impress you powerfully; a great
one not at all. It depends, as with man, upon the countenance of
'I cannot bear to look at that cliff,' said Elfride. 'It has a
horrid personality, and makes me shudder. We will go.'
'Can you climb?' said Knight. 'If so, we will ascend by that path
over the grim old fellow's brow.'
'Try me,' said Elfride disdainfully. 'I have ascended steeper
slopes than that.'
From where they had been loitering, a grassy path wound along
inside a bank, placed as a safeguard for unwary pedestrians, to
the top of the precipice, and over it along the hill in an inland
'Take my arm, Miss Swancourt,' said Knight.
'I can get on better without it, thank you.'
When they were one quarter of the way up, Elfride stopped to take
breath. Knight stretched out his hand.
She took it, and they ascended the remaining slope together.
Reaching the very top, they sat down to rest by mutual consent.
'Heavens, what an altitude!' said Knight between his pants, and
looking far over the sea. The cascade at the bottom of the slope
appeared a mere span in height from where they were now.
Elfride was looking to the left. The steamboat was in full view
again, and by reason of the vast surface of sea their higher
position uncovered it seemed almost close to the shore.
'Over that edge,' said Knight, 'where nothing but vacancy appears,
is a moving compact mass. The wind strikes the face of the rock,
runs up it, rises like a fountain to a height far above our heads,
curls over us in an arch, and disperses behind us. In fact, an
inverted cascade is there--as perfect as the Niagara Falls--but
rising instead of falling, and air instead of water. Now look
Knight threw a stone over the bank, aiming it as if to go onward
over the cliff. Reaching the verge, it towered into the air like
a bird, turned back, and alighted on the ground behind them. They
themselves were in a dead calm.
'A boat crosses Niagara immediately at the foot of the falls,
where the water is quite still, the fallen mass curving under it.
We are in precisely the same position with regard to our
atmospheric cataract here. If you run back from the cliff fifty
yards, you will be in a brisk wind. Now I daresay over the bank
is a little backward current.'
Knight rose and leant over the bank. No sooner was his head above
it than his hat appeared to be sucked from his head--slipping over
his forehead in a seaward direction.
'That's the backward eddy, as I told you,' he cried, and vanished
over the little bank after his hat.
Elfride waited one minute; he did not return. She waited another,
and there was no sign of him.
A few drops of rain fell, then a sudden shower.
She arose, and looked over the bank. On the other side were two
or three yards of level ground--then a short steep preparatory
slope--then the verge of the precipice.
On the slope was Knight, his hat on his head. He was on his hands
and knees, trying to climb back to the level ground. The rain had
wetted the shaly surface of the incline. A slight superficial
wetting of the soil hereabout made it far more slippery to stand
on than the same soil thoroughly drenched. The inner substance
was still hard, and was lubricated by the moistened film.
'I find a difficulty in getting back,' said Knight.
Elfride's heart fell like lead.
'But you can get back?' she wildly inquired.
Knight strove with all his might for two or three minutes, and the
drops of perspiration began to bead his brow.
'No, I am unable to do it,' he answered.
Elfride, by a wrench of thought, forced away from her mind the
sensation that Knight was in bodily danger. But attempt to help
him she must. She ventured upon the treacherous incline, propped
herself with the closed telescope, and gave him her hand before he
saw her movements.
'O Elfride! why did you?' said he. 'I am afraid you have only
And as if to prove his statement, in making an endeavour by her
assistance they both slipped lower, and then he was again stayed.
His foot was propped by a bracket of quartz rock, balanced on the
verge of the precipice. Fixed by this, he steadied her, her head
being about a foot below the beginning of the slope. Elfride had
dropped the glass; it rolled to the edge and vanished over it into
a nether sky.
'Hold tightly to me,' he said.
She flung her arms round his neck with such a firm grasp that
whilst he remained it was impossible for her to fall.
'Don't be flurried,' Knight continued. 'So long as we stay above
this block we are perfectly safe. Wait a moment whilst I consider
what we had better do.'
He turned his eyes to the dizzy depths beneath them, and surveyed
the position of affairs.
Two glances told him a tale with ghastly distinctness. It was
that, unless they performed their feat of getting up the slope
with the precision of machines, they were over the edge and
whirling in mid-air.
For this purpose it was necessary that he should recover the
breath and strength which his previous efforts had cost him. So
he still waited, and looked in the face of the enemy.
The crest of this terrible natural facade passed among the
neighbouring inhabitants as being seven hundred feet above the
water it overhung. It had been proved by actual measurement to be
not a foot less than six hundred and fifty.
That is to say, it is nearly three times the height of
Flamborough, half as high again as the South Foreland, a hundred
feet higher than Beachy Head--the loftiest promontory on the east
or south side of this island--twice the height of St. Aldhelm's,
thrice as high as the Lizard, and just double the height of St.
Bee's. One sea-bord point on the western coast is known to
surpass it in altitude, but only by a few feet. This is Great
Orme's Head, in Caernarvonshire.
And it must be remembered that the cliff exhibits an intensifying
feature which some of those are without--sheer perpendicularity
from the half-tide level.
Yet this remarkable rampart forms no headland: it rather walls in
an inlet--the promontory on each side being much lower. Thus, far
from being salient, its horizontal section is concave. The sea,
rolling direct from the shores of North America, has in fact eaten
a chasm into the middle of a hill, and the giant, embayed and
unobtrusive, stands in the rear of pigmy supporters. Not least
singularly, neither hill, chasm, nor precipice has a name. On
this account I will call the precipice the Cliff without a Name.*
* See Preface
What gave an added terror to its height was its blackness. And
upon this dark face the beating of ten thousand west winds had
formed a kind of bloom, which had a visual effect not unlike that
of a Hambro' grape. Moreover it seemed to float off into the
atmosphere, and inspire terror through the lungs.
'This piece of quartz, supporting my feet, is on the very nose of
the cliff,' said Knight, breaking the silence after his rigid
stoical meditation. 'Now what you are to do is this. Clamber up
my body till your feet are on my shoulders: when you are there you
will, I think, be able to climb on to level ground.'
'What will you do?'
'Wait whilst you run for assistance.'
'I ought to have done that in the first place, ought I not?'
'I was in the act of slipping, and should have reached no stand-
point without your weight, in all probability. But don't let us
talk. Be brave, Elfride, and climb.'
She prepared to ascend, saying, 'This is the moment I anticipated
when on the tower. I thought it would come!'
'This is not a time for superstition,' said Knight. 'Dismiss all
'I will,' she said humbly.
'Now put your foot into my hand: next the other. That's good--
well done. Hold to my shoulder.'
She placed her feet upon the stirrup he made of his hand, and was
high enough to get a view of the natural surface of the hill over
'Can you now climb on to level ground?'
'I am afraid not. I will try.'
'What can you see?'
'The sloping common.'
'What upon it?'
'Purple heather and some grass.'
'Nothing more--no man or human being of any kind?'
'Now try to get higher in this way. You see that tuft of sea-pink
above you. Get that well into your hand, but don't trust to it
entirely. Then step upon my shoulder, and I think you will reach
With trembling limbs she did exactly as he told her. The
preternatural quiet and solemnity of his manner overspread upon
herself, and gave her a courage not her own. She made a spring
from the top of his shoulder, and was up.
Then she turned to look at him.
By an ill fate, the force downwards of her bound, added to his own
weight, had been too much for the block of quartz upon which his
feet depended. It was, indeed, originally an igneous protrusion
into the enormous masses of black strata, which had since been
worn away from the sides of the alien fragment by centuries of
frost and rain, and now left it without much support.
It moved. Knight seized a tuft of sea-pink with each hand.
The quartz rock which had been his salvation was worse than
useless now. It rolled over, out of sight, and away into the same
nether sky that had engulfed the telescope.
One of the tufts by which he held came out at the root, and Knight
began to follow the quartz. It was a terrible moment. Elfride
uttered a low wild wail of agony, bowed her head, and covered her
face with her hands.
Between the turf-covered slope and the gigantic perpendicular rock
intervened a weather-worn series of jagged edges, forming a face
yet steeper than the former slope. As he slowly slid inch by inch
upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft
of vegetation--the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the
rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further
descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the
incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a
quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion
of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat
face to support him.
In spite of this dreadful tension of body and mind, Knight found
time for a moment of thankfulness. Elfride was safe.
She lay on her side above him--her fingers clasped. Seeing him
again steady, she jumped upon her feet.
'Now, if I can only save you by running for help!' she cried.
'Oh, I would have died instead! Why did you try so hard to deliver
me?' And she turned away wildly to run for assistance.
'Elfride, how long will it take you to run to Endelstow and back?'
'Three-quarters of an hour.'
'That won't do; my hands will not hold out ten minutes. And is
there nobody nearer?'
'No; unless a chance passer may happen to be.'
'He would have nothing with him that could save me. Is there a
pole or stick of any kind on the common?'
She gazed around. The common was bare of everything but heather
A minute--perhaps more time--was passed in mute thought by both.
On a sudden the blank and helpless agony left her face. She
vanished over the bank from his sight.
Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized lonliness.
'A woman's way.'
Haggard cliffs, of every ugly altitude, are as common as sea-fowl
along the line of coast between Exmoor and Land's End; but this
outflanked and encompassed specimen was the ugliest of them all.
Their summits are not safe places for scientific experiment on the
principles of air-currents, as Knight had now found, to his
He still clutched the face of the escarpment--not with the
frenzied hold of despair, but with a dogged determination to make
the most of his every jot of endurance, and so give the longest
possible scope to Elfride's intentions, whatever they might be.
He reclined hand in hand with the world in its infancy. Not a
blade, not an insect, which spoke of the present, was between him
and the past. The inveterate antagonism of these black precipices
to all strugglers for life is in no way more forcibly suggested
than by the paucity of tufts of grass, lichens, or confervae on
their outermost ledges.
Knight pondered on the meaning of Elfride's hasty disappearance,
but could not avoid an instinctive conclusion that there existed
but a doubtful hope for him. As far as he could judge, his sole
chance of deliverance lay in the possibility of a rope or pole
being brought; and this possibility was remote indeed. The soil
upon these high downs was left so untended that they were
unenclosed for miles, except by a casual bank or dry wall, and
were rarely visited but for the purpose of collecting or counting
the flock which found a scanty means of subsistence thereon.
At first, when death appeared improbable, because it had never
visited him before, Knight could think of no future, nor of
anything connected with his past. He could only look sternly at
Nature's treacherous attempt to put an end to him, and strive to
From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment
of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a
bottom, which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a
semicircle, he could see the vertical face curving round on each
side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more
thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature,
and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the
inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of
suspense, opposite Knight's eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing
forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes.
The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him.
It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated
by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling
seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance
within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive
and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
The creature represented but a low type of animal existence, for
never in their vernal years had the plains indicated by those
numberless slaty layers been traversed by an intelligence worthy
of the name. Zoophytes, mollusca, shell-fish, were the highest
developments of those ancient dates. The immense lapses of time
each formation represented had known nothing of the dignity of
man. They were grand times, but they were mean times too, and
mean were their relics. He was to be with the small in his death.
Knight was a geologist; and such is the supremacy of habit over
occasion, as a pioneer of the thoughts of men, that at this
dreadful juncture his mind found time to take in, by a momentary
sweep, the varied scenes that had had their day between this
creature's epoch and his own. There is no place like a cleft
landscape for bringing home such imaginings as these.
Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw himself at one
extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all
the intermediate centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in
the hides of beasts, and carrying, for defence and attack, huge
clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms
before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud
huts--perhaps in caves of the neighbouring rocks. Behind them
stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine forms,
the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous
size, the megatherium, and the myledon--all, for the moment, in
juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped by these, were
perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as
horses. Still more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian
outlines--alligators and other uncouth shapes, culminating in the
colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms
and clouds of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings
of lower development; and so on, till the lifetime scenes of the
fossil confronting him were a present and modern condition of
things. These images passed before Knight's inner eye in less
than half a minute, and he was again considering the actual
present. Was he to die? The mental picture of Elfride in the
world, without himself to cherish her, smote his heart like a
whip. He had hoped for deliverance, but what could a girl do? He
dared not move an inch. Was Death really stretching out his hand?
The previous sensation, that it was improbable he would die, was
However, Knight still clung to the cliff.
To those musing weather-beaten West-country folk who pass the
greater part of their days and nights out of doors, Nature seems
to have moods in other than a poetical sense: predilections for
certain deeds at certain times, without any apparent law to govern
or season to account for them. She is read as a person with a
curious temper; as one who does not scatter kindnesses and
cruelties alternately, impartially, and in order, but heartless
severities or overwhelming generosities in lawless caprice. Man's
case is always that of the prodigal's favourite or the miser's
pensioner. In her unfriendly moments there seems a feline fun in
her tricks, begotten by a foretaste of her pleasure in swallowing
Such a way of thinking had been absurd to Knight, but he began to
adopt it now. He was first spitted on to a rock. New tortures
followed. The rain increased, and persecuted him with an
exceptional persistency which he was moved to believe owed its
cause to the fact that he was in such a wretched state already.
An entirely new order of things could be observed in this
introduction of rain upon the scene. It rained upwards instead of
down. The strong ascending air carried the rain-drops with it in
its race up the escarpment, coming to him with such velocity that
they stuck into his flesh like cold needles. Each drop was
virtually a shaft, and it pierced him to his skin. The water-
shafts seemed to lift him on their points: no downward rain ever
had such a torturing effect. In a brief space he was drenched,
except in two places. These were on the top of his shoulders and
on the crown of his hat.
The wind, though not intense in other situations was strong here.
It tugged at his coat and lifted it. We are mostly accustomed to
look upon all opposition which is not animate, as that of the
stolid, inexorable hand of indifference, which wears out the
patience more than the strength. Here, at any rate, hostility did
not assume that slow and sickening form. It was a cosmic agency,
active, lashing, eager for conquest: determination; not an
insensate standing in the way.
Knight had over-estimated the strength of his hands. They were
getting weak already. 'She will never come again; she has been
gone ten minutes,' he said to himself.
This mistake arose from the unusual compression of his experiences
just now: she had really been gone but three.
'As many more minutes will be my end,' he thought.
Next came another instance of the incapacity of the mind to make
comparisons at such times.
'This is a summer afternoon,' he said, 'and there can never have
been such a heavy and cold rain on a summer day in my life
He was again mistaken. The rain was quite ordinary in quantity;
the air in temperature. It was, as is usual, the menacing
attitude in which they approached him that magnified their powers.
He again looked straight downwards, the wind and the water-dashes
lifting his moustache, scudding up his cheeks, under his eyelids,
and into his eyes. This is what he saw down there: the surface of
the sea--visually just past his toes, and under his feet; actually
one-eighth of a mile, or more than two hundred yards, below them.
We colour according to our moods the objects we survey. The sea
would have been a deep neutral blue, had happier auspices attended
the gazer it was now no otherwise than distinctly black to his
vision. That narrow white border was foam, he knew well; but its
boisterous tosses were so distant as to appear a pulsation only,
and its plashing was barely audible. A white border to a black
sea--his funeral pall and its edging.
The world was to some extent turned upside down for him. Rain
descended from below. Beneath his feet was aerial space and the
unknown; above him was the firm, familiar ground, and upon it all
that he loved best.
Pitiless nature had then two voices, and two only. The nearer was
the voice of the wind in his ears rising and falling as it mauled
and thrust him hard or softly. The second and distant one was the
moan of that unplummetted ocean below and afar--rubbing its
restless flank against the Cliff without a Name.
Knight perseveringly held fast. Had he any faith in Elfride?
Perhaps. Love is faith, and faith, like a gathered flower, will
rootlessly live on.
Nobody would have expected the sun to shine on such an evening as
this. Yet it appeared, low down upon the sea. Not with its
natural golden fringe, sweeping the furthest ends of the
landscape, not with the strange glare of whiteness which it
sometimes puts on as an alternative to colour, but as a splotch of
vermilion red upon a leaden ground--a red face looking on with a
Most men who have brains know it, and few are so foolish as to
disguise this fact from themselves or others, even though an
ostentatious display may be called self-conceit. Knight, without
showing it much, knew that his intellect was above the average.
And he thought--he could not help thinking--that his death would
be a deliberate loss to earth of good material; that such an
experiment in killing might have been practised upon some less
A fancy some people hold, when in a bitter mood, is that
inexorable circumstance only tries to prevent what intelligence
attempts. Renounce a desire for a long-contested position, and go
on another tack, and after a while the prize is thrown at you,
seemingly in disappointment that no more tantalizing is possible.
Knight gave up thoughts of life utterly and entirely, and turned
to contemplate the Dark Valley and the unknown future beyond.
Into the shadowy depths of these speculations we will not follow
him. Let it suffice to state what ensued.
At that moment of taking no more thought for this life, something
disturbed the outline of the bank above him. A spot appeared. It
was the head of Elfride.
Knight immediately prepared to welcome life again.
The expression of a face consigned to utter loneliness, when a
friend first looks in upon it, is moving in the extreme. In
rowing seaward to a light-ship or sea-girt lighthouse, where,
without any immediate terror of death, the inmates experience the
gloom of monotonous seclusion, the grateful eloquence of their
countenances at the greeting, expressive of thankfulness for the
visit, is enough to stir the emotions of the most careless
Knight's upward look at Elfride was of a nature with, but far
transcending, such an instance as this. The lines of his face had
deepened to furrows, and every one of them thanked her visibly.
His lips moved to the word 'Elfride,' though the emotion evolved
no sound. His eyes passed all description in their combination of
the whole diapason of eloquence, from lover's deep love to fellow-
man's gratitude for a token of remembrance from one of his kind.
Elfride had come back. What she had come to do he did not know.
She could only look on at his death, perhaps. Still, she had come
back, and not deserted him utterly, and it was much.
It was a novelty in the extreme to see Henry Knight, to whom
Elfride was but a child, who had swayed her as a tree sways a
bird's nest, who mastered her and made her weep most bitterly at
her own insignificance, thus thankful for a sight of her face.
She looked down upon him, her face glistening with rain and tears.
He smiled faintly.
'How calm he is!' she thought. 'How great and noble he is to be
so calm!' She would have died ten times for him then.
The gliding form of the steamboat caught her eye: she heeded it no
'How much longer can you wait?' came from her pale lips and along
the wind to his position.
'Four minutes,' said Knight in a weaker voice than her own.
'But with a good hope of being saved?'
'Seven or eight.'
He now noticed that in her arms she bore a bundle of white linen,
and that her form was singularly attenuated. So preternaturally
thin and flexible was Elfride at this moment, that she appeared to
bend under the light blows of the rain-shafts, as they struck into
her sides and bosom, and splintered into spray on her face. There
is nothing like a thorough drenching for reducing the
protuberances of clothes, but Elfride's seemed to cling to her
like a glove.
Without heeding the attack of the clouds further than by raising
her hand and wiping away the spirts of rain when they went more
particularly into her eyes, she sat down and hurriedly began
rending the linen into strips. These she knotted end to end, and
afterwards twisted them like the strands of a cord. In a short
space of time she had formed a perfect rope by this means, six or
seven yards long.
'Can you wait while I bind it?' she said, anxiously extending her
gaze down to him.
'Yes, if not very long. Hope has given me a wonderful instalment
Elfride dropped her eyes again, tore the remaining material into
narrow tape-like ligaments, knotted each to each as before, but on
a smaller scale, and wound the lengthy string she had thus formed
round and round the linen rope, which, without this binding, had a
tendency to spread abroad.
'Now,' said Knight, who, watching the proceedings intently, had by
this time not only grasped her scheme, but reasoned further on, 'I
can hold three minutes longer yet. And do you use the time in
testing the strength of the knots, one by one.'
She at once obeyed, tested each singly by putting her foot on the
rope between each knot, and pulling with her hands. One of the
'Oh, think! It would have broken but for your forethought,'
Elfride exclaimed apprehensively.
She retied the two ends. The rope was now firm in every part.
'When you have let it down,' said Knight, already resuming his
position of ruling power, 'go back from the edge of the slope, and
over the bank as far as the rope will allow you. Then lean down,
and hold the end with both hands.'
He had first thought of a safer plan for his own deliverance, but
it involved the disadvantage of possibly endangering her life.
'I have tied it round my waist,' she cried, 'and I will lean
directly upon the bank, holding with my hands as well.'
It was the arrangement he had thought of, but would not suggest.
'I will raise and drop it three times when I am behind the bank,'
she continued, 'to signify that I am ready. Take care, oh, take
the greatest care, I beg you!'
She dropped the rope over him, to learn how much of its length it
would be necessary to expend on that side of the bank, went back,
and disappeared as she had done before.
The rope was trailing by Knight's shoulders. In a few moments it
twitched three times.
He waited yet a second or two, then laid hold.
The incline of this upper portion of the precipice, to the length
only of a few feet, useless to a climber empty-handed, was
invaluable now. Not more than half his weight depended entirely
on the linen rope. Half a dozen extensions of the arms,
alternating with half a dozen seizures of the rope with his feet,
brought him up to the level of the soil.
He was saved, and by Elfride.
He extended his cramped limbs like an awakened sleeper, and sprang
over the bank.
At sight of him she leapt to her feet with almost a shriek of joy.
Knight's eyes met hers, and with supreme eloquence the glance of
each told a long-concealed tale of emotion in that short half-
moment. Moved by an impulse neither could resist, they ran
together and into each other's arms.
At the moment of embracing, Elfride's eyes involuntarily flashed
towards the Puffin steamboat. It had doubled the point, and was
no longer to be seen.
An overwhelming rush of exultation at having delivered the man she
revered from one of the most terrible forms of death, shook the
gentle girl to the centre of her soul. It merged in a defiance of
duty to Stephen, and a total recklessness as to plighted faith.
Every nerve of her will was now in entire subjection to her
feeling--volition as a guiding power had forsaken her. To remain
passive, as she remained now, encircled by his arms, was a
sufficiently complete result--a glorious crown to all the years of
her life. Perhaps he was only grateful, and did not love her. No
matter: it was infinitely more to be even the slave of the greater
than the queen of the less. Some such sensation as this, though
it was not recognized as a finished thought, raced along the
impressionable soul of Elfride.
Regarding their attitude, it was impossible for two persons to go
nearer to a kiss than went Knight and Elfride during those minutes
of impulsive embrace in the pelting rain. Yet they did not kiss.
Knight's peculiarity of nature was such that it would not allow
him to take advantage of the unguarded and passionate avowal she
had tacitly made.
Elfride recovered herself, and gently struggled to be free.
He reluctantly relinquished her, and then surveyed her from crown
to toe. She seemed as small as an infant. He perceived whence
she had obtained the rope.
'Elfride, my Elfride!' he exclaimed in gratified amazement.
'I must leave you now,' she said, her face doubling its red, with
an expression between gladness and shame 'You follow me, but at
'The rain and wind pierce you through; the chill will kill you.
God bless you for such devotion! Take my coat and put it on.'
'No; I shall get warm running.'
Elfride had absolutely nothing between her and the weather but her
exterior robe or 'costume.' The door had been made upon a woman's
wit, and it had found its way out. Behind the bank, whilst Knight
reclined upon the dizzy slope waiting for death, she had taken off
her whole clothing, and replaced only her outer bodice and skirt.
Every thread of the remainder lay upon the ground in the form of a
woollen and cotton rope.
'I am used to being wet through,' she added. 'I have been
drenched on Pansy dozens of times. Good-bye till we meet, clothed
and in our right minds, by the fireside at home!'
She then ran off from him through the pelting rain like a hare; or
more like a pheasant when, scampering away with a lowered tail, it
has a mind to fly, but does not. Elfride was soon out of sight.
Knight felt uncomfortably wet and chilled, but glowing with
fervour nevertheless. He fully appreciated Elfride's girlish
delicacy in refusing his escort in the meagre habiliments she
wore, yet felt that necessary abstraction of herself for a short
half-hour as a most grievous loss to him.
He gathered up her knotted and twisted plumage of linen, lace, and
embroidery work, and laid it across his arm. He noticed on the
ground an envelope, limp and wet. In endeavouring to restore this
to its proper shape, he loosened from the envelope a piece of
paper it had contained, which was seized by the wind in falling
from Knight's hand. It was blown to the right, blown to the left--
it floated to the edge of the cliff and over the sea, where it
was hurled aloft. It twirled in the air, and then flew back over
Knight followed the paper, and secured it. Having done so, he
looked to discover if it had been worth securing.
The troublesome sheet was a banker's receipt for two hundred
pounds, placed to the credit of Miss Swancourt, which the
impractical girl had totally forgotten she carried with her.
Knight folded it as carefully as its moist condition would allow,
put it in his pocket, and followed Elfride.
'Should auld acquaintance be forgot?'
By this time Stephen Smith had stepped out upon the quay at Castle
Boterel, and breathed his native air.
A darker skin, a more pronounced moustache, and an incipient
beard, were the chief additions and changes noticeable in his
In spite of the falling rain, which had somewhat lessened, he took
a small valise in his hand, and, leaving the remainder of his
luggage at the inn, ascended the hills towards East Endelstow.
This place lay in a vale of its own, further inland than the west
village, and though so near it, had little of physical feature in
common with the latter. East Endelstow was more wooded and
fertile: it boasted of Lord Luxellian's mansion and park, and was
free from those bleak open uplands which lent such an air of
desolation to the vicinage of the coast--always excepting the
small valley in which stood the vicarage and Mrs. Swancourt's old
house, The Crags.
Stephen had arrived nearly at the summit of the ridge when the
rain again increased its volume, and, looking about for temporary
shelter, he ascended a steep path which penetrated dense hazel
bushes in the lower part of its course. Further up it emerged
upon a ledge immediately over the turnpike-road, and sheltered by
an overhanging face of rubble rock, with bushes above. For a
reason of his own he made this spot his refuge from the storm, and
turning his face to the left, conned the landscape as a book.
He was overlooking the valley containing Elfride's residence.
From this point of observation the prospect exhibited the
peculiarity of being either brilliant foreground or the subdued
tone of distance, a sudden dip in the surface of the country
lowering out of sight all the intermediate prospect. In apparent
contact with the trees and bushes growing close beside him
appeared the distant tract, terminated suddenly by the brink of
the series of cliffs which culminated in the tall giant without a
name--small and unimportant as here beheld. A leaf on a bough at
Stephen's elbow blotted out a whole hill in the contrasting
district far away; a green bunch of nuts covered a complete upland
there, and the great cliff itself was outvied by a pigmy crag in
the bank hard by him. Stephen had looked upon these things
hundreds of times before to-day, but he had never viewed them with
such tenderness as now.
Stepping forward in this direction yet a little further, he could
see the tower of West Endelstow Church, beneath which he was to
meet his Elfride that night. And at the same time he noticed,
coming over the hill from the cliffs, a white speck in motion. It
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