The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter I

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter I: Ernest's Appearance

“Come here, boy, let me look at you.”

Ernest advanced a step or two and looked his uncle in the face. He was a noble-looking lad of about thirteen, with large dark eyes, black hair that curled over his head, and the unmistakable air of breeding that marks Englishmen of good race.

His uncle let his wandering glance stray round him, but, wandering as it was, it seemed to take him in from top to toe. Presently he spoke again:

“I like you, boy.”

Ernest said nothing.

“Let me see—your second name is Beyton. I am glad they called you Beyton; it was your grandmother's maiden name, and a good old name too. Ernest Beyton Kershaw. By the way, have you ever seen anything of your other uncle, Sir Hugh Kershaw?”

The boy's cheek flushed.

“No, I have not; and I never wish to,” he answered.

“Why not?”

“Because when my mother wrote to him before she died”—here the lad's voice choked—“just after the bank broke and she lost all her money, he wrote back and said that because his brother—I mean my father—had made a low marriage, that was no reason why he should support his child and widow; but he sent her five pounds to go on with. She sent it back.”

“That was like your mother, she always had a high spirit. He must be a cur, and he does not speak the truth. Your mother comes of a better stock than the Kershaws. The Carduses are one of the oldest families in the Eastern counties. Why, boy, our family lived down in the Fens by Lynn there for centuries, until your grandfather, poor weak man, got involved in his great lawsuit and ruined us all. There, there, it has gone into the law, but it is coming back, it is coming back fast. This Sir Hugh has only one son, by the way. Do you know that if anything happened to him you would be next in the entail? At any rate you would get the baronetcy.”

“I don't want his baronetcy,” said Ernest, sulkily; “I will have nothing of his.”

“A title, boy, is an incorporeal hereditament, for which the holder is indebted to nobody. It does not descend to him, it vests in him. But tell me, how long was this before your mother died—that he sent the five pounds, I mean?”

“About three months.”

Mr. Cardus hesitated a little before he spoke again, tapping his white fingers nervously on the table.

“I hope my sister was not in want, Ernest?” he said, jerkily.

“For a fortnight before she died we had scarcely enough to eat,” was the blunt reply.

Mr. Cardus turned himself to the window, and for a minute the light of the dull December day shone and glistened upon his brow and head, which was perfectly bald. Then before he spoke he drew himself back into the shadow, perhaps to hide something like a tear that shone in his soft black eyes.

“And why did she not appeal to me? I could have helped her.”

“She said that when you had quarrelled with her about her marrying my father, you told her never to write or speak to you again, and that she never would.”

“Then why did you not do it, boy? You knew how things were.”

“Because we had begged once, and I would not beg again.”

“Ah,” muttered Mr. Cardus, “the old spirit cropping up. Poor Rose, nearly starving, and dying too, and I with so much which I do not want. O, boy, boy, when you are a man never set up an idol, for it frightens good spirits away. Nothing else can live in its temple; it is a place where all things are forgotten—duty, and the claims of blood, and sometimes those of honour too. Look now, I have my idol, and it has made me forget my sister and your mother. Had she not written at last when she was dying, I should have forgotten you too.”

The boy looked up puzzled.

“An idol!”

“Yes,” went on his uncle in his dreamy way—“an idol. Many people have them; they keep them in the cupboard with their family skeleton; sometimes the two are identical. And they call them by many names, too; frequently it is a woman's name; sometimes that of a passion; sometimes that of a vice, but a virtue's—not often.”

“And what is the name of yours, uncle?” asked the wondering boy.

“Mine? O, never mind!”

At this moment a swing-door in the side of the room was opened, and a tall, bony woman, with beady eyes, came through.

“Mr. de Talor to see you, sir, in the office.”

Mr. Cardus whistled softly.

“Ah,” he said, “tell him I am coming. By the way, Grice, this young gentleman has come to live here; his room is ready, is it not?”

“Yes, sir; Miss Dorothy has been seeing to it.”

“Good; where is Miss Dorothy?”

“She has walked into Kesterwick, sir.”

“O, and Master Jeremy?”

“He is about, sir; I saw him pass with a ferret a while back.”

“Tell Sampson or the groom to find him and send him to Master Ernest here. That will do, thank you. Now, Ernest, I must go. I hope that you will be pretty happy here, my boy, when your trouble has worn off a bit. You will have Jeremy for a companion; he is a lout, and an unpleasant lout, it is true, but I suppose that he is better than nobody. And then there is Dorothy”—and his voice softened as he muttered her name—“but she is a girl.”

“Who are Dorothy and Jeremy?” broke in his nephew; “are they your children?”

Mr. Cardus started perceptibly, and his thick white eyebrows contracted over his dark eyes till they almost met.

“Children!” he said, sharply; “I have no children. They are my wards. Their name is Jones;” and he left the room.

“Well, he is a rum sort,” reflected Ernest to himself, “and I don't think I ever saw such a shiny head before. I wonder if he oils it? But, at any rate, he is kind to me. Perhaps it would have been better if mother had written to him before. She might have gone on living then.”

Rubbing his hand across his face to clear away the water gathering in his eyes at the thought of his dead mother. Ernest made his way to the wide fireplace at the top end of the room, peeped into the ancient inglenooks on each side, and at the old Dutch tiles with which it was lined, and then, lifting his coat after a grown-up fashion, proceeded to warm himself and inspect his surroundings. It was a curious room in which he stood, and its leading feature was old oak-panelling. All down its considerable length the walls were oak-clad to the low ceiling, which was supported by enormous beams of the same material; the shutters of the narrow windows which looked out on the sea were oak, so were the doors and table, and even the mantelshelf. The general idea given by the display of so much timber was certainly one of stolidity, but it could scarcely be called cheerful—not even the numerous suits of armour and shining weapons which were placed about upon the walls could make it cheerful. It was a remarkable room, but its effect upon the observer was undoubtedly depressing.

Just as Ernest was beginning to realise this fact, things were made more lively by the sudden appearance through the swing-door of a large savage-looking bull-terrier, which began to steer for the fireplace, where evidently it was accustomed to lie. On seeing Ernest it stopped and sniffed.

“Hullo, good dog!” said Ernest.

The terrier growled and showed its teeth.

Ernest put out his leg towards it as a caution to keep it off. It acknowledged the compliment by sending its teeth through his trousers. Then the lad, growing wroth, and being not free from fear, seized the poker and hit the dog over the head so shrewdly that the blood streamed from the blow, and the brute, losing his grip, turned and fled howling.

While Ernest was yet warm with the glow of victory, the door once more swung open, violently this time, and through it there came a boy of about his own age, a dirty deep-chested boy, with uncut hair, and a slow heavy face in which were set great grey eyes, just now ablaze with indignation. On seeing Ernest he pulled up much as the dog had done, and regarded him angrily.

“Did you hit my dog?” he asked.

“I hit a dog,” replied Ernest politely, “but——”

“I don't want your 'buts.' Can you fight?”

Ernest inquired whether this question was put with a view of gaining general information or for any particular purpose.

“Can you fight?” was the only rejoinder.

Slightly nettled, Ernest replied that under certain circumstances he could fight like a tom-cat.

“Then look out; I'm going to make your head as you have made my dog's.”

Ernest, in the polite language of youth, opined that there would be hair and toe-nails flying first.

To this sally, Jeremy Jones, for it was he, replied only by springing at him, his hair streaming behind like a Red Indian's, and, smiting him severely in the left eye, caused him to measure his length upon the floor. Arising quickly, Ernest returned the compliment with interest; but this time they both went down together, pummelling each other heartily. With whom the victory would ultimately have remained could scarcely be doubtful, for Jeremy, who even at that age gave promise of enormous physical strength which afterwards made him such a noted character, must have crushed his antagonist in the end. But while his strength still endured Ernest was fighting with such ungovernable fury, and such a complete disregard of personal consequences, that he was for a while, at any rate, getting the best of it. And luckily for him, while matters were yet in the balanced scales of Fate, an interruption occurred. For at that moment there rose before the blurred sight of the struggling boys a vision of a small woman—at least she looked like a woman—with an indignant little face and an uplifted forefinger.

“O, you wicked boys! what will Reginald say, I should like to know? O, you bad Jeremy! I am ashamed to have such a brother. Get up!”

“My eye!” said Jeremy thickly, for his lip was cut, “it's Dolly!”