The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter VII

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter VII: Ernest is Indiscreet

Kesterwick is a primitive place, and has no railway station nearer than Raffham, four miles off. Ernest was expected by the midday train, and Dorothy and her brother went to meet him.

When they reached the station the train was just in sight, and Dorothy got down to await its arrival. Presently it snorted up composedly—trains do not hurry themselves on the single lines in the Eastern counties—and in due course deposited Ernest and his portmanteau.

“Hullo, Doll! so you have come to meet me. How are you, old girl?” and he embraced her on the platform.

“You shouldn't, Ernest: I am too big to be kissed like a little girl, and in public too.”

“Big—h'm! Miss five-feet-nothing, and as for the public, I don't see any.” The train had gone on, and the solitary porter had vanished with the portmanteau.

“Well, there is no need for you to laugh at me for being small; it is not everybody who can be a May-pole, like you, or as broad as he is long, like Jeremy.”

An unearthly view halloo from this last-named personage, who had caught sight of Ernest through the door of the booking-office, put a stop to further controversy, and presently all three were driving back, each talking at the top of his or her voice.

At the door of Dum's Ness they found Mr. Cardus apparently gazing abstractedly at the ocean, but in reality waiting to greet Ernest, to whom of late years he had grown greatly attached, though his reserve seldom allowed him to show it.

“Hullo, uncle, how are you? You look pretty fresh,” sang out that young gentleman before the cart had fairly come to a standstill.

“Very well, thank you, Ernest. I need not ask how you are. I am glad to see you back. You have come at a lucky moment, too, for the 'Batemania Wallisii' is in flower, and the 'Grammatophyllum speciosum' too. The last is splendid.”

“Ah,” said Ernest, deeply interested, for he had much of his uncle's love for orchids, “let's go and see them.”

“Better have some dinner first; you must be hungry. The orchids will keep, but the dinner won't.”

It was curious to see what a ray of light this lad brought with him into that rather gloomy household. Everybody began to laugh as soon as he was inside the doors. Even Grice of the beady eyes laughed when he feigned to be thunderstruck at the newly developed beauty of her person, and mad old Atterleigh's contorted features lit up with something like a smile of recognition when Ernest seized his hand and worked it like a pump-handle, roaring out his congratulations on the jollity of his looks. He was a bonny lad, the sight of whom was good for sore eyes.

After dinner he went with his uncle, and spent half an hour in going round the orchid-houses with him and Sampson the gardener. The latter was not behind the rest of the household in his appreciation of “Meester” Ernest. “'Twasn't many lads,” he would say, “that knew an 'Odontoglossum' from a 'Sobralia,'“ but Ernest did, and, what was more, knew whether it was well grown or not. Sampson appreciated a man who could discriminate orchids, and set his preference for Ernest down to that cause. The dour-visaged old Scotchman did not like to own that what really charmed him was the lad's openhanded, open-hearted manner, to say nothing of his ready sympathy and honest eyes.

While they were still engaged in admiring the lovely bloom of the “Grammatophyllum,” Mr. Cardus saw Mr. de Talor come into his office, which, it may be remembered, was connected with the orchid blooming-house by a glass door. Ernest was much interested in observing the curious change that this man's appearance produced in his uncle. As a peaceful cat, dozing on a warm stone in summer, becomes suddenly changed into a thing of bristling wickedness and fury by the vision of the most inoffensive dog, so did the placid, bald-headed old gentleman, glowing with innocent pleasure at his horticultural masterpiece, commence to glow with very different emotions at the sight of the pompous De Talor. The ruling passion of his life asserted its sway in a moment, and his whole face changed; the upper lip began to quiver, the roving eyes glittered with a dangerous light; and then a mask seemed to gather over the features, which grew hard and almost inscrutable. It was an interesting transformation.

Although they could see De Talor, he could not see them; so for a minute they enjoyed an undisturbed period of observation.

The visitor walked round the room, and, casting a look of contempt at the flowers in the blooming-house, stopped at Mr. Cardus's desk, and glanced at the papers lying on it. Finding apparently nothing to interest him he retired to the window, and, putting his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, amused himself by staring out of it. There was something so intensely vulgar and insolent in his appearance as he stood thus, that Ernest could not help laughing.

“Ah!” said Mr. Cardus, with a look of suppressed malignity, half to himself and half to Ernest, “I have really got a hold of you at last, and you may look out, my friend.” Then he went in, and as he left the blooming-house Ernest heard him greet his visitor in that suave manner, with just a touch of deference in it, that he knew so well how to assume, and De Talor's reply of “'Ow do, Cardus? 'ow's the business getting on?”

Outside the glass houses Ernest found Jeremy waiting for him. It had for years been an understood thing that the latter was not to enter them. There was no particular reason why he should not; it was merely one of those signs of Mr. Cardus's disfavour that caused Jeremy's pride such bitter injury.

“What are you going to do, old fellow?” he asked of Ernest.

“Well, I want to go down and see Florence Ceswick, but I suppose you won't care to come.”

“O yes, I'll come.”

“The deuce you will! well, I never! I say, Doll,” he sang out to that young lady as she appeared upon the scene, “what has happened to Jeremy—he's coming out calling?”

“I fancy he's got an attraction,” said Miss Dorothy.

“I say, old fellow, you haven't been cutting me out with Florence, have you?”

“I am sure it would be no great loss if he had,” put in Dorothy, with an impatient little stamp of the foot.

“You be quiet, Doll. I'm very fond of Florence, she's so clever, and nice-looking too.”

“If being clever means being able to say spiteful things, and having a temper like—like a fiend, she is certainly clever enough; and as for her looks, they are a matter of taste—not that it is for me to talk about good looks.”

“O, how humble we are, Doll! dust on our head and sackcloth on our back, and how our blue eyes flash!”

“Be quiet, Ernest, or I shall get angry.”

“O no, don't do that; leave that to people with a temper 'like—like a fiend,' you know. There, there, don't get cross, Dolly; let's kiss and be friends.”

“I won't kiss you, and I won't be friends, and you may walk by yourselves”; and before anybody could stop her she was gone.

Ernest whistled softly, reflecting that Dorothy was not good at standing chaff. Then, after waiting awhile, he and Jeremy started to pay their call.

But they were destined to be unfortunate. Eva, whom Ernest had never seen, and of whom he had heard nothing beyond that she was “good-looking”—for Jeremy, notwithstanding his expressed intention of consulting him, could not make up his mind to broach the subject—was in bed with a bad headache, and Florence had gone out to spend the afternoon with a friend. The old lady was at home, however, and received them both warmly, more especially her favourite Ernest, whom she kissed affectionately.

“I am lucky,” she said, “in having two nieces, or I should never see anything of young gentlemen like you.”

“I think,” said Ernest, audaciously, “that old ladies are much pleasanter to talk to than young ones.”

“Indeed, Master Ernest! then why did you look so blank when I told you that my young ladies were not visible?”

“Because I regretted,” replied that young gentleman, who was not often at a loss, “having lost an opportunity of confirming my views.”

“I will put the question again when they are present to take their own part,” was the answer.

When their call was over, Ernest and Jeremy separated, Jeremy to return home, and Ernest to go to see his old master, Mr. Halford, with whom he stopped to tea. It was past seven on one of the most beautiful evenings in July when he set out on his homeward path. There were two ways of reaching Dum's Ness, either by the road that ran along the cliff, or by walking on the shingle of the beach. He chose the latter, and had reached the spot where Titheburgh Abbey frowned at its enemy, the advancing sea, when he suddenly became aware of a young lady wearing a shady hat and swinging a walking-stick, in whom he recognised Florence Ceswick.

“How do you do, Ernest?” she said, coolly, but with a slight flush upon her olive skin, which betrayed that she was not quite so cool as she looked; “what are you dreaming about? I have seen you coming for the last two hundred yards, but you never saw me.”

“I was dreaming of you, of course, Florence.”

“O, indeed!” she answered dryly; “I thought perhaps that Eva had got over her headache—her headaches do go in the most wonderful way—and that you had seen her, and were dreaming of her.”

“And why should I dream of her, even if I had seen her?”

“For the reason that men do dream of women—because she is handsome.”

“Is she better-looking than you, then, Florence?”

“Better-looking, indeed! I am not good-looking.”

“Nonsense, Florence! you are very good-looking.”

She stopped, for he had turned and was walking with her, and laid her hand lightly on his arm.

“Do you really think so?” she said, gazing full into his dark eyes. “I am glad you think so.”

They were quite alone in the summer twilight; there was not a single soul to be seen on the beach, or on the cliffs above it. Her touch and the earnestness of her manner thrilled him; the beauty and the quiet of the evening, the sweet freshness of the air, the murmur of the falling waves, the fading purples in the sky, all these things thrilled him too. Her face looked very handsome in its own stern way, as she gazed at him so earnestly; and, remember, he was only twenty-one. He bent his dark head towards her very slowly, to give her an opportunity of escaping if she wished; but she made no sign, and in another moment he had kissed her trembling lips.

It was a foolish act, for he was not in love with Florence, and he had scarcely done it before his better sense told him that it was foolish. But it was done, and who can recall a kiss?

He saw the olive face grow pale, and for a moment she raised her arm as though to fling it about his neck, but next second she started back from him.

“Did you mean that,” she said wildly, “or are you playing with me?”

Ernest looked alarmed, as well he might; the young lady's aspect at the moment was not reassuring.

“Mean it?” he said, “O yes, I meant it.”

“I mean, Ernest,” and again she laid her hand upon his arm and looked into his eyes, “did you mean that you loved me, as—for now I am not ashamed to tell you—I love you?”

Ernest felt that this was getting awful. To kiss a young woman was one thing—he had done that before—but such an outburst as this was more than he had bargained for. Gratifying as it was to him to learn that he possessed Florence's affection, he would at that moment have given something to be without it. He hesitated a little.

“How serious you are!” he said at last.

“Yes,” she answered, “I am. I have been serious for some time. Probably you know enough of me to be aware that I am not a woman to be played with. I hope that you are serious too; if you are not, it may be the worse for us both”; and she flung his arm from her as though it had stung her.

Ernest turned cold all over, and realised that the position was positively gruesome. What to say or do he did not know; so he stood silent, and, as it happened, silence served his turn better than speech.

“There, Ernest, I have startled you. It is—it is because I love you. When you kissed me just now, everything that is beautiful in the world seemed to pass before my eyes, and for a moment I heard such music as they play in heaven. You don't understand me yet, Ernest—I am fierce, I know—but sometimes I think that my heart is deep as the sea, and I can love with ten times the strength of the shallow women round me; and as I can love, so I can hate.”

This was not reassuring intelligence to Ernest.

“You are a strange girl,” he said feebly.

“Yes,” she answered, with a smile. “I know I am strange; but while I am with you I feel so good, and when you are away all my life is a void, in which bitter thoughts flit about like bats. But there, good-night. I shall see you at the Smythes' dance to-morrow, shall I not? You will dance with me, will you not? And you must not dance with Eva, remember—at least not too much—or I shall get jealous, and that will be bad for us both. And now good-night, my dear, good-night”; and again she put up her face to be kissed.

He kissed it—he had no alternative—and she left him swiftly. He watched her retreating form till it vanished in the shadows, and then he sat down upon a stone, wiped his forehead, and whistled.

Well might he whistle!