The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter IX
When Ernest woke on the morning after the ball it was ten o'clock, and he had a severe headache. This—the headache—was his first impression, but presently his eye fell upon a withering red rose that lay upon the dressing table, and he smiled. Then followed reflections, those confounded reflections that always dog the heels of everything pleasant in life, and he ceased to smile.
In the end he yawned and got up. When he reached the sitting-room, which looked cool and pleasant in contrast to the hot July sunshine that beat upon the little patch of bare turf in front of the house, and the glittering sea beyond, he found that the others had done their breakfast. Jeremy had gone out, but his sister was there, looking a little pale, no doubt from the late hours of the previous night.
“Good-morning, Ernest,” she answered, rather coldly. “I have been keeping your tea as warm as I can, but I'm afraid it is getting cold.”
“You are a good Samaritan, Doll. I've got such a head! perhaps the tea will make it better.”
She smiled as she gave it to him; had she spoke what was in her mind, she would have answered that she had “such a heart.”
He drank the tea, and apparently felt better for it, for presently he asked her, in comparatively cheerful tones, how she liked the dance.
“O, very well, thank you, Ernest: how did you like it?”
“O, awfully! I say, Doll!”
“Isn't she lovely?”
“Who! why, Eva Ceswick, of course.”
“Yes, Ernest, she is very lovely.”
There was something about her tone that was not encouraging; at any rate he did not pursue his subject.
“Where is Jeremy?” he asked next.
“He has gone out.”
Presently, Ernest, having finished his second cup of tea, went out too, and came across Jeremy mooning about the yard.
“Hulloa, my hearty! and how are you after your dissipations?”
“All right, thank you,” answered Jeremy, sulkily.
Ernest glanced up quickly. The voice was the voice of Jeremy, but the tones were not his tones.
“What is up, old chap?” he said, slipping his arm through his friend's.
“O yes, there is, though. What is it? Out with it! I am a splendid father confessor.”
Jeremy freed his arm, and remained sulkier than ever. Ernest looked hurt, and the look softened the other.
“Well, of course, if you won't tell me, there is nothing more to be said”; and he prepared to move off.
“As though you didn't know!”
“Upon my honour I don't.”
“Then if you'll come in here, I will tell you”; and Jeremy opened the door of the little outhouse, where he stuffed his birds and kept his gun and collection of eggs and butterflies, and motioned Ernest majestically in.
He entered and seated himself upon the stuffing-table, gazing abstractedly at a bittern that Jeremy had shot about the time that this story opened, and which was now very moth-eaten, and waved one melancholy leg in the air in a way meant to be imposing, but only succeeded in being grotesque.
“Well, what is it?” he interrogated of the glassy eye of the decaying bittern.
Jeremy turned his broad back upon Ernest—he felt that he could speak better on such a subject with his back turned—and, addressing empty space before him, said:
“I think it was precious unkind of you.”
“What was precious unkind?”
“To go and cut me out of the only girl——”
“I ever loved?” suggested Ernest, for he was hesitating.
“I ever loved!” chimed in Jeremy; for the phrase expressed his sentiments exactly.
“Well, old chap, if you would come to the point a little more, and tell me who the deuce you are talking about——”
“Why, who should I be talking about? there is only one girl——”
“You ever loved?”
“I ever loved!”
“Well, in the name of the Holy Roman Empire, who is she?”
“Why, Eva Ceswick.”
“I say, old chap,” he said, after a pause, “why didn't you tell me? I didn't even know that you knew her. Are you engaged to her, then?”
“Well, then, have you an understanding with her?”
“No, of course not.”
“Look here, old fellow, if you would just slew round a bit and tell me how the matter stands, we might get on a little.”
“It doesn't stand at all, but—I worship the ground she treads on; there!”
“Ah!” said Ernest, “that's awkward, for so do I—at least I think I do.”
Jeremy groaned, and Ernest groaned too, by way of company.
“Look here, old chap,” said the latter, “what is to be done? You should have told me, but you didn't, you see. If you had, I would have kept clear. Fact is, she bowled me over altogether, bowled me clean.”
“So she did me.”
“I'll tell you what, Jeremy, I'll go away and leave you to make the running. Not that I see that there is much good in either of us making the running, for we have nothing to marry on, and no more has she.”
“And we are only twenty-one. We can't marry at twenty-one,” put in Jeremy, “or we should have a large family by the time we're thirty. Fellows who marry at twenty-one always do.”
“She's twenty-one; she told me so.”
“She told me too,” said Jeremy, determined to show that Ernest was not the only person favoured with this exciting fact.
“Well, shall I clear? we can't jaw about it for ever.”
“No,” said Jeremy, slowly, and in a way that showed that it cost him an effort to say it, “that would not be fair; besides, I expect that the mischief is done; everybody gets fond of you, old fellow, men or women. No, you shan't go, and we won't get to loggerheads over it either. I'll tell you what we will do—we will toss up.”
This struck Ernest as a brilliant suggestion.
“Right you are,” he said, at once producing a shilling; “singles or threes?”
“Singles, of course; it's sooner over.”
Ernest poised the coin on his thumb.
“You call. But, I say, what are we tossing for? We can't draw lots for the girl like the fellows in Homer. We haven't captured her yet.”
This was obviously a point that required consideration. Jeremy scratched his head.
“How will this do?” he said. “The winner to have a month to make the running in, the loser not to interfere. If she won't have anything to say to him after a month, then the loser to have his fling. If she will, loser to keep away.”
“That will do. Stand clear; up you go.”
The shilling spun in the air.
“Tails!” howled Jeremy.
It lit on the beak of the astonished bittern and bounded off on to the floor, finally rolling under a box full of choice specimens of petrified bones of antediluvian animals that had been washed out of the cliffs. The box was lugged out of the way with difficulty, and the shilling disclosed.
“Heads it is!” said Ernest exultingly.
“I expected as much; just my luck. Well, shake hands, Ernest. We won't quarrel about the girl, please God.”
They shook hands heartily enough and parted; but from that time for many a long day there was an invisible something between them that had not been there before. Strong indeed must be the friendship of which the bonds do not slacken when the shadow of a woman's love falls upon it.
That afternoon Dorothy said that she wanted to go into Kesterwick to make some purchases, and Ernest offered to accompany her. They walked in silence as far as Titheburgh Abbey; indeed, they both suffered from a curious constraint that seemed effectually to check their usual brother-and-sister-like relations. Ernest was just beginning to feel the silence awkward when Dorothy stopped.
“What was that?” she said. “I thought I heard somebody cry out.”
They listened, and presently both heard a woman's voice calling for help. The sound seemed to come from the cliff on their left. They stepped to the edge and looked over. As may be remembered, some twenty feet from the top of the cliff, and fifty or more from the bottom, there was at this spot a sandy ledge, on which were deposited many of the remains washed out of the churchyard by the sea. Now, this particular spot was almost inaccessible without ladders, because, although it was easy enough to get down to its level, the cliff bulged out on either side of it, and gave for the space of some yards little or no hold for the hands or feet of the climber.
The first thing that caught Ernest's eyes when he looked over was a lady's foot and ankle, which appeared to be resting on a tiny piece of rock that projected from the surface of the cliff; the next was the imploring face of Eva Ceswick, who was sprawling in a most undignified position on the bulge of sandstone, with nothing more between her and eternity than the very unsatisfactory and insufficient knob of rock. It was evident that she could move neither one way or the other without being precipitated to the bottom of the cliff, to which she was apparently clinging by suction like a fly.
“Great God!” exclaimed Ernest. “Hold on, I will come to you.”
“I can't hold much longer.”
It was one thing to say that he would come, and another to do it. The sand gave scarcely any foothold; how was he to get enough purchase to pull Eva round the bulge? He looked at Dorothy in despair. Her quick mind had taken in the situation at a glance.
“You must get down there above her, Ernest, and lie flat, and stretch out your hand to her.”
“But there is nothing to hold to. When she puts her weight on to my hand we shall both go together.”
“No, I will hold your legs. Be quick, she is getting exhausted.”
It took Ernest but two seconds to reach the spot that Dorothy had pointed to, and to lay himself flat, or rather slanting, for his heels were a great deal higher than his head. Fortunately, he discovered a hard knob of sandstone, against which he could rest his left hand. Meanwhile, Dorothy, seating herself as securely as she could above, seized him by the ankles. Then Ernest stretched his hand downwards, and, gripping Eva by the wrist, began to put out his strength. Had the three found any time to indulge their sense of humour, they might have found the appearance they presented intensely ludicrous; but they did not, for the very good reason that for thirty seconds or so their lives were not worth a farthing's purchase. Ernest strained and strained, but Eva was a large woman, although she danced so lightly, and the bulge over which he had to pull her was almost perpendicular. Presently he felt that Dorothy was beginning to slip above him.
“She must make an effort, or we shall all go,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Drive your knees into the sand and throw yourself forward, it is your only chance!” gasped Ernest to the exhausted girl beneath him.
She realised the meaning of his words, and gave a desperate struggle.
“Pull, Doll; for God's sake, pull! she's coming.”
Then followed a second of despairing effort, and she was beside him on the spot where he lay; another struggle and the three sank exhausted on the top of the cliff, rescued from a most imminent death.
“By Jove!” ejaculated Ernest, “that was a near thing!”
Dorothy nodded; she was too exhausted to speak. Eva smiled and fainted.
He turned to her with a little cry and began to chafe her cold hands.
“Oh, she's dead, Doll!” he said.
“No, she has fainted. Give me your hat.”
Before he could do so she had seized it, and was running as quickly as her exhaustion would allow towards a spring that bubbled up a hundred yards away, and which once had been the water supply of the old abbey.
Ernest went on rubbing for a minute or more, but without producing the slightest effect. He was in despair. The beautiful face beneath him looked so wan and death-like; all the red had left her lips. In his distress, and scarcely knowing what he did, he bent over them and kissed them, once, twice, thrice. That mode of restoration is not recommended in the medicine chest “guide,” but in this instance it was not without its effect. Presently a faint and tremulous glow diffused itself over the pale cheek; in another moment it deepened to a most unmistakable blush. (Was it a half-consciousness of Ernest's new method of treatment, or merely the returning blood that produced the blush? Let us not inquire.) Next Eva sighed, opened her eyes, and sat up.
“Oh, you are not dead!”
“No, I don't think so, but I can't quite remember. What was it? Ah, I know”; and she shut her eyes, as though to keep out some horrid sight. Presently she opened them again. “You have saved my life,” she said. “If it had not been for you, I should have now been lying crushed at the foot of that dreadful cliff. I am so grateful.”
At that moment Dorothy came back with a little water in Ernest's black hat, for in her hurry she had spilled most of it.
“Here, drink some of this,” she said.
Eva tried to do so; but a billycock hat is not a very convenient drinking vessel till you get used to it, and she upset more than she swallowed. But what she drank did her good. She put down the hat, and they all three laughed a little; it was so funny drinking out of an old hat.
“Were you long down there before we came?” asked Dorothy.
“No, not long; only about half a minute on that dreadful bulge.”
“What on earth did you go there for?” said Ernest, putting his dripping hat on to his head, for the sun was hot.
“I wanted to see the bones. I am very active, and thought that I could get up quite safely; but sand is so slippery. Oh, I forgot; look here”; and she pointed to a thin cord that was tied to her wrist.
“What is that?”
“Why, it is tied to such an odd lead box that I found in the sand. Mr. Jones said the other day that he thought it was a bit of an old coffin, but it is not, it is a lead box with a rusty iron handle. I could not move it much; but I had this bit of cord with me—I thought I might want it getting down, you know—so I tied one end of it to the handle.”
“Let us pull it up,” said Ernest, unfastening the cord from Eva's wrist, and beginning to tug.
But the case was too heavy for him to lift alone; indeed, it proved as much as they could all three manage to drag it to the top. However, up it came at last. Ernest examined it carefully, and came to the conclusion that it was very ancient. The massive iron handle at the top of the oblong case was almost eaten through with rust, and the lead itself was much corroded, although, from fragments that still clung to it, it was evident that it had once been protected by an outer case of oak. Evidently the case had been washed out of the churchyard where it had lain for centuries.
“This is quite exciting,” said Eva, who was now sufficiently interested to forget all about her escape. “What can be in it?—treasure or papers, I should think.”
“I don't know,” answered Ernest; “I should hardly think that they would bury such things in a churchyard. Perhaps it is a small baby.”
“Ernest,” broke in Dorothy, in an agitated way, “I don't like that thing. I can't tell you why, but I am sure it is unlucky. I wish that you would throw it back to where it came from, or into the sea. It is a horrid thing, and we have nearly lost our lives over it already.”
“Nonsense, Doll! whoever thought that you were so superstitious? Why, perhaps it is full of money or jewels. Let's take it home and open it.”
“I am not superstitious, and you can take it home if you like. I will not touch it; I tell you it is a horrid thing.”
“All right Doll, then you shan't have a share of the spoil. Miss Ceswick and I will divide it. Will you help me to carry it to the house, Miss Ceswick?—that is, unless you are afraid of it, like Doll.”
“Oh no,” she answered, “I am not afraid; I am dying of curiosity to see what is inside.”