The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter III

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter III: Old Dum's Ness

When Mr. Cardus came half an hour or so later to take his place at the dinner-table—for in those days they dined in the middle of the day at Dum's Ness—he was not in a good mood. The pool into which the records of an individual existence are ever gathering, which we call our past, will not often bear much stirring, even when its waters are not bitter. Certainly Mr. Cardus's would not. Yet that morning he had stirred it violently enough.

In the long, oak-panelled room, used indifferently as a sitting and dining room, Mr. Cardus found “Hard-riding Atterleigh” and his grand-daughter, little Dorothy Jones. The old man was already seated at table, and Dorothy was busying herself cutting bread, looking as composed and grown-up as though she had been four-and-twenty instead of fourteen. She was a strange child, with her assured air and woman's ways and dress, her curious thoughtful face, and her large blue eyes that shone steadily as the light of a lamp. But just now the little face was more anxious than usual.

“Reginald,” she began, as soon as he was in the room (for by Mr. Cardus's wish she always called him by his Christian name), “I am sorry to tell you that there has been a sad disturbance.”

“What is it?” he asked, with a frown; “Jeremy again?” Mr. Cardus could be very stern where Jeremy was concerned.

“Yes, I am afraid it is. The two boys——” but it was unnecessary for her to carry her explanations further, for at that moment the swing-door opened, and through it appeared the young gentlemen in question, driven in like sheep by the beady-eyed Grice. Ernest was leading, attempting the impossible feat of looking jaunty with a lump of raw beefsteak tied over one eye, and presenting a general appearance that suggested the idea of the colours of the rainbow in a state of decomposition.

Behind him shuffled Jeremy, his matted locks still wet from being pumped on. But his wounds were either unsuited to the dreadful remedy of raw beefsteak, or he had adopted in preference an heroic one of his own, of which grease plentifully sprinkled with flour formed the basis.

For a moment there was silence, then Mr. Cardus, with awful politeness, asked Jeremy what was the meaning of this sight.

“We've been fighting,” answered the boy, sulkily. “He hit——”

“Thank you, Jeremy, I don't want the particulars, but I will take this opportunity to tell you before your sister and my nephew what I think of you. You are a boor and a lout, and, what is more, you are a coward.”

At this unjust taunt the lad coloured to his eyes.

“Yes, you may colour, but let me tell you that it is cowardly to pick a quarrel with a boy the moment he sets foot inside my doors——”

“I say, uncle,” broke in Ernest, who was unable to see anything cowardly about fighting, an amusement to which he was rather partial himself, and who thought that his late antagonist was getting more than his due, “I began it, you know.”

It was not true, except in the sense that he had begun it by striking the dog: nor did this statement produce any great effect on Mr. Cardus, who was evidently seriously angry with Jeremy on more points than this. But at least it was one of those well-meant fibs at which the recording angel should not be offended.

“I do not care who began it,” went on Mr. Cardus, angrily, “nor is it about this only that I am angry. You are a discredit to me, Jeremy, and a discredit to your sister. You are dirty, you are idle; your ways are not those of a gentleman. I sent you to school—you ran away. I give you good clothes—you will not wear them. I tell you, boy, that I will not stand it any longer. Now listen. I am going to make arrangements with Mr. Halford, the clergyman at Kesterwick, to undertake Ernest's education. You shall go with him; and if I see no improvement in your ways in the course of the next few months, I shall wash my hands of you. Do you understand me now?”

The boy Jeremy had, during this oration, been standing in the middle of the room, first on one leg, then on the other. At its conclusion he brought the leg that was at the moment in the air down to the ground, and stood firm.

“Well,” went on Mr. Cardus, “what have you to say?”

“I have to say,” blurted out Jeremy, “that I don't want your education. You care nothing about me,” he went on, his grey eyes flashing and his heavy face lighting up; “nobody cares about me except my dog Nails. Yes, you make a dog of me myself; you throw things to me as I throw Nails a bone. I don't want your education, and I won't have it. I don't want the fine clothes you buy for me, and I won't wear them. I don't want to be a burden on you either. Let me go away and be a fisher-lad and earn my bread. If it hadn't been for her,” pointing to his sister, who was sitting aghast at his outburst, “and for Nails, I'd have gone long ago, I can tell you. At any rate, I should not be a dog then. I should be earning my living, and have no one to thank for it. Let me go, I say, where I shan't be mocked at if I do my fair day's work. I'm strong enough; let me go. There! I've spoken my mind now;" and the lad broke out into a storm of tears, and, turning, tramped out of the room.

As he went, all Mr. Cardus's wrath seemed to leave him.

“I did not think he had so much spirit in him,” he said aloud. “Well, let us have our dinner.”

At dinner the conversation flagged, the scene that preceded it having presumably left a painful impression; and Ernest, who was an observant youth, fell to watching little Dorothy doing the honours of the table; cutting up her crazed old grandfather's food for him, seeing that everybody had what he wanted, and generally making herself unobtrusively useful. In due course the meal came to an end, and Mr. Cardus and old Atterleigh went back to the office, leaving Dorothy alone with Ernest. Presently the former began to talk.

“I hope that your eye is not painful,” she said. “Jeremy hits very hard.”

“O no, it's all right. I'm used to it. When I was at school in London I often used to fight. I'm sorry for him, though—your brother, I mean.”

“Jeremy! O yes, he is always in trouble, and now I suppose that it will be worse than ever. I do all I can to keep things smooth, but it is no good. If he won't go to Mr. Halford's, I am sure I don't know what will happen;” and the little lady sighed deeply.

“O, I daresay that he will go. Let's go and look for him, and try and persuade him.”

“We might try,” she said, doubtfully. “Stop a minute, and I will put on my hat, and then if you will take that nasty thing off your eye, we might walk on to Kesterwick. I want to take a book, out of which I have been teaching myself French, back to the cottage where old Miss Ceswick lives, you know.”

“All right,” said Ernest.

Presently Dorothy returned, and they went out by the back way to a little room near the coach-house, where Jeremy stuffed birds and kept his collection of eggs and butterflies; but he was not there. On inquiring of Sampson, the old Scotch gardener who looked after Mr. Cardus's orchid-houses, she discovered that Jeremy had gone out to shoot snipe, having borrowed Sampson's gun for that purpose.

“That is just like Jeremy,” she sighed. “He is always going out shooting instead of attending to things.”

“Can he hit birds flying, then?” asked Ernest.

“Hit them!” she answered, with a touch of pride; “I don't think he ever misses them. I wish he could do other things as well.”

Jeremy at once went up at least fifty per cent. in Ernest's estimation.

On their way back to the house they peeped in through the office window, and Ernest saw “Hard-riding Atterleigh” at his work, copying deeds.

“He's your grandfather, isn't he?”

“Yes.”

“Does he know you?”

“In a sort of way; but he is quite mad. He thinks that Reginald is the devil, whom he must serve for a certain number of years. He has got a stick with numbers of notches on it, and he cuts out a notch every month. It is all very sad. I think it is a very sad world;” and she sighed again.

“Why does he wear hunting-clothes?” asked Ernest.

“Because he always used to ride a good deal. He loves a horse now. Sometimes you will see him get up from his writing table, and the tears come into his eyes if anybody comes into the yard on horseback. Once he came out and tried to get on to a horse and ride off, but they stopped him.”

“Why don't they let him ride?”

“O, he would soon kill himself. Old Jack Tares, who lives at Kesterwick, and gets his living by rats and ferrets, used to be whip to grandfather's hounds when he had them, and says that he always was a little mad about riding. One moonlight night he and grandfather went out to hunt a stag that had strayed here out of some park. They put the stag out of a little grove at a place called Claffton, five miles away, and he took them round by Starton and Ashleigh, and then came down the flats to the sea, about a mile and a half below here, just this side of the quicksand. The moon was so bright that it was almost like day, and for the last mile the stag was in view not more than a hundred yards in front of the hounds, and the pace was racing. When he came to the beach he went right through the waves out to the sea, and the hounds after him, and grandfather after them. They caught him a hundred yards out and killed him, and then grandfather turned his horse's head and swam with the hounds.”

“My eye!” was Ernest's comment on this story. “And what did Jack Tares do?”

“O, he stopped on the beach and said his prayers; he thought that they would all be drowned.”

Then they passed through the old house, which was built on a little ness or headland that jutted beyond the level of the shore-line, and across which the wind swept and raved all the winter long, driving the great waves in ceaseless thunder against the sandy cliffs. It was a desolate spot that the grey and massive house, of which the roof was secured by huge blocks of rock, looked out upon, nude of vegetation, save for rank, rush-like grass and plants of sea-holly. In front was the great ocean, rushing in continually upon the sandy bulwarks, and with but few ships to break its loneliness. To the left, far as the eye could reach, ran a line of cliff, till it was as full of gaps as an old crone's jaw. Behind this stretched mile upon mile of desolate-looking land, covered for the most part with ling and heath, and cut up with dikes, whence the water was pumped by means of windmills, that gave a Dutch appearance to the landscape.

“Look,” said Dorothy, pointing to a small white house about a mile and a half away up the shore-line, “that is the lock-house, where the great sluice-gates are, and beyond that is the dreadful quick-sand in which a whole army was once swallowed up, like the Egyptians in the Red Sea.”

“My word,” said Ernest, much interested; “and, I say, did my uncle build this house?”

“You silly boy! why, it has been built for hundreds of years. Somebody of the name of Dum built it, and that is why it is called Dum's Ness; at least, I suppose so. There is an old chart that Reginald has, which was made in the time of Henry VII., and it is marked as Dum's Ness there, so Dum must have lived before then. Look,” she went on, as, turning to the right, they rounded the old house and reached the road which ran along the top of the cliff, “there are the ruins of Titheburgh Abbey;” and she pointed to the remains of an enormous church with a still perfect tower, that stood within a few hundred yards of them, almost upon the edge of the cliff.

“Why don't they build it up again?” asked Ernest.

Dorothy shook her head. “Because in a few years the sea will swallow it. Nearly all the graveyard has gone already. It is the same with Kesterwick, where we are going. Kesterwick was a great town once. The kings of East Anglia made it their capital, and a bishop lived there. After that it was a great port, with thousands upon thousands of inhabitants. But the sea came on and on and choked up the harbour, and washed away the cliffs, and they could not keep it out, and now Kesterwick is nothing but a little village with one fine old church left. The real Kesterwick lies there, under the sea. If you walk along the beach after a great gale, you will find hundreds of bricks and tiles washed from the houses that are going to pieces down in the deep water. Just fancy, on one Sunday afternoon, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, three of the parish churches were washed over the cliff into the sea!”

So she went on, telling the listening Ernest tale after tale of the old town, than which Babylon had not fallen more completely, till they came to a pretty little modern house bowered up in trees—that is, in summer, for there were no leaves upon them now—with which Ernest was destined to become very well acquainted in after years.

Dorothy left her companion at the gate while she went in to leave her book, remarking that she would be ashamed to introduce a boy with so black an eye. Presently she came back again, saying that Miss Ceswick was out.

“Who is Miss Ceswick?” asked Ernest, who at this period of his existence had a burning thirst for information of every sort.

“She is a very beautiful old lady,” was Dorothy's answer. “Her family lived for many years at a place called Ceswick's Ness; but her brother lost all his money gambling, and the place was sold, and Mr. de Talor, that horrid fat man whom you saw drive away this morning, bought it.”

“Does she live alone?”

“Yes; but she has some nice nieces, the daughter of her brother who is dead, and whose mother is very ill; and if she dies one of them is coming to live with her. She is just my age, so I hope she will come.”

After this there was silence for a while.

“Ernest,” said the little woman presently, “you look kind, so I will ask you. I want you to help me about Jeremy.”

Ernest, feeling much puffed up at the compliment implied, expressed his willingness to do anything he could.

“You see, Ernest,” she went on, fixing her sweet blue eyes on his face, “Jeremy is a great trouble to me. He will go his own way. And he does not like Reginald, and Reginald does not like him. If Reginald comes in at one door, Jeremy goes out at the other. Besides, he always flies in Reginald's face. And, you see, it is not right of Jeremy, because after all Reginald is very kind to us, and there is no reason he should be, except that I believe he was fond of our mother; and if it was not for Reginald, whom I love very much, though he is curious sometimes, I don't know what would become of grandfather or us. So, you see, I think that Jeremy ought to behave better to him, and I want to ask you to bear with his rough ways, and try to be friends with him, and get him to behave better. It is not much for him to do in return for all your uncle's kindness. You see, I can do a little something, because I look after the housekeeping; but he does nothing. First I want you to get him to make no more trouble about going to Mr. Halford's.”

“All right, I'll try; but, I say, how do you learn? you seem to know an awful lot.”

“O, I teach myself in the evenings. Reginald wanted to get me a governess, but I would not. How should I ever get Grice and the servants to obey me if they saw that I had to do what a strange woman told me? It would not do at all.”

Just then they were passing the ruins of Titheburgh Abbey. It was almost dark, for the winter's evening was closing in rapidly, when suddenly Dorothy gave a little shriek, for from behind a ruined wall there rose up an armed mysterious figure with something white behind it. Next second she saw that it was Jeremy, who had returned from shooting, and was apparently waiting for them.

“O Jeremy, how you frightened me! What is it?”

“I want to speak to him,” was the laconic reply.

Ernest stood still, wondering what was coming.

“Look here! You told a lie to try to save me from catching it this morning. You said that you began it. You didn't, I began it. I'd have told him too,” and he jerked his thumb in the direction of Dum's Ness, “only my mouth was so full of words that I could not get it out. But I want to say I thank you, and here, take the dog. He's a nasty tempered devil, but he'll grow very fond of you if you are kind to him;” and seizing the astonished Nails by the collar, he thrust him towards Ernest.

For a moment there was a struggle in Ernest's mind, for he greatly longed to possess a bull-terrier dog; but his gentleman-like feeling prevailed. “I don't want the dog, and I didn't do anything in particular.”

“Yes, you did, though,” replied Jeremy, greatly relieved that Ernest did not accept his dog, which he loved, “or at least you did more than anybody ever did before; but I tell you what, I'll do as much for you one day. I'll do anything you like.”

“Will you, though?” answered Ernest, who was a sharp youth, and opportunely remembered Dorothy's request.

“Yes, I will.”

“Well, then, come to this fellow Halford with me; I don't want to go alone.”

Jeremy slowly rubbed his face with the back of an exceedingly dirty hand. This was more than he had bargained for, but his word was his word.

“All right,” he answered. “I'll come.” Then whistling to his dog he vanished into the shadows. Thus began a friendship between these two that endured all their lives.