The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter X
“You are sure you are not too tired?” said Ernest, after a moment's consideration.
“No, indeed, I have quite recovered,” she answered with a blush.
Ernest blushed too, from sympathy probably, and went to pick up a bough that lay beneath a stunted oak-tree which grew in the ruins of the abbey, on the spot where once the altar had stood. This he ran through the iron handle, and, directing Eva to take hold of one end, he took the other himself, Dorothy marching solemnly in front.
As it happened, Jeremy and Mr. Cardus were strolling along together smoking, when suddenly they caught sight of the cavalcade advancing, and hurried to meet it.
“What is all this?” asked Mr. Cardus of Dorothy, who was now nearly fifty yards ahead of the other two.
“Well, Reginald, it is a long story. First we found Eva Ceswick slipping down the cliff, and dragged her up just in time.”
“My luck again!” thought Jeremy, groaning in spirit. “I might have sat on the edge of that cliff for ten years, and never got a chance of dragging her up.”
“Then we pulled up that horrid box, which she found down in the sand, and tied a cord to.”
“Yes,” exclaimed Ernest, who was now arriving, “and, would you believe it, Dorothy wanted us to throw it back again!”
“I know I did; I said that it was unlucky, and it is unlucky.”
“Nonsense, Dorothy! it is very interesting. I expect that it will be found to contain deeds buried in the churchyard for safety and never dug up again,” broke in Mr. Cardus, much interested. “Let me catch hold of that stick, Miss Ceswick, and I daresay that Jeremy will go on and get a hammer and a cold chisel, and we will soon solve the mystery.”
“Oh, very well, Reginald; you will see,” said Dorothy.
Mr. Cardus glanced at her. It was curious her taking such an idea. Then they walked to the house. On reaching the sitting-room they found Jeremy already there with his hammer and chisel. He was an admirable amateur blacksmith; indeed, there were few manual trades of which he did not know a little, and, placing the case on the table, he set about the task of opening it in a most workmanlike manner.
The lead, though it was in places eaten quite away, was still thick and sound near the edges, and it took him a good quarter of an hour's hard chopping to remove what appeared to be the front of the case. Excitement was at its height as it fell forward with a bang on the table; but it was then found that what had been removed was merely a portion of an outer case, there being beneath it an inner chest, also of lead.
“Well,” said Jeremy, “they fastened it up pretty well”; and then he set to work again.
This inner skin of lead was thinner and easier to cut than the first had been, and he got through the job more quickly though not nearly quickly enough for the impatience of the bystanders. At last the front fell out, and disclosed a small cabinet made of solid pieces of black oak and having a hinged door, which was fastened by a tiny latch and hasp of the common pattern that is probably as old as doors are. From this cabinet there came a strong odour of spices.
The excitement was now intense, and seemed to be shared by everybody in the house. Grice had come in through the swing-door and stationed herself in the background, Sampson and the groom were peering through the window, and even old Atterleigh, attracted by the sound of the hammering, had strolled aimlessly in.
“What can it be?” said Eva, with a gasp.
Slowly Jeremy extracted the cabinet from its leaden coverings and set it on the table.
“Shall I open it?” he said. Suiting the action to the word, he lifted the latch, and placing the chisel between the edge of the little door and its frame, prised the cabinet open.
The smell of spices became even more pronounced than ever, and for a moment the cloud of dust that came from them, as their fragments rolled out of the cabinet on to the table, prevented the spectators, who, all but Dorothy, were crowding up to the case, from seeing what it contained. Presently, however, a large whitish bundle became visible. Jeremy put in his hand, pulled it out, and laid it on the top of the box. It was heavy. But when he had done this he did not seem inclined to go any further in the matter. The bundle had, he considered, an uncanny look.
At that moment an interruption took place, for Florence Ceswick entered through the open door. She had come up to see Dorothy, and was astonished to find such a gathering.
“Why, what is it all about?” she asked.
Somebody told her in as few words as possible, for everybody's attention was concentrated on the bundle, which nobody seemed inclined to touch.
“Well, why don't you open it?” asked Florence.
“I think that they are all afraid,” said Mr. Cardus, with a laugh.
He was watching the various expressions on the faces with an amused air.
“Well, I am not afraid, at any rate,” said Florence. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, the Gorgon's head is about to be unveiled: look the other way, or you will all be turned to stone.”
“This is getting delightfully ghastly,” said Eva to Ernest.
“I know that it will be something horrid,” added Dorothy.
Meanwhile Florence had drawn out a heavy pin of ancient make, with which the wrapping of the bundle was fastened, and began to unwind a long piece of discoloured linen. At the first turn another shower of spices fell out. As soon as these had been swept aside, Florence proceeded slowly with her task, and as she removed fold after fold of the linen, the bundle began to take shape and form, and the shape it took was that of a human head!
Eva saw it and drew closer to Ernest; Jeremy saw it, and felt inclined to bolt; Dorothy saw it, and knew that her presentiments as to the disagreeable nature of the contents of that unlucky case were coming true; Mr. Cardus saw it, and was more interested than ever. Only Florence and “Hard-riding Atterleigh” saw nothing. Another turn or two of the long winding-sheet, and it slipped suddenly away from whatever it enclosed.
There was a moment's dead silence as the company regarded the object thus left open to their gaze. Then one of the women gave a low cry of fear, and, actuated by some common impulse, they all turned and broke from the room in terror, and calling, “It is alive!” No, not all. Florence turned pale, but she stood there by the object, the winding-sheet in her hands; and old Atterleigh also remained staring at it, either paralysed or fascinated.
It, too, seemed to stare at him from its point of vantage on the oak chest, in which it had rested for so many centuries.
And this was what he saw there upon the box. Let the reader imagine the face and head of a lovely woman of some thirty years of age, the latter covered with rippling brown locks of great length, above which was set a roughly fashioned coronet studded with uncut gems. Let him imagine this face, all but the lips, which were coloured red, pale with the bloodless pallor of death, and the flesh so firm and fresh-looking that it might have been that of a corpse not a day old; so firm, indeed, that the head and all its pendant weight of beautiful hair could stand on the unshrunken base of the neck which, in some far-past age, cold steel had made so smooth. Then let him imagine the crowning horror of this weird sight. The eyes of a corpse are shut, but the eyes in this head were wide open, and the long black lashes, as perfect now as on the day of death, hung over what, when the light struck them, appeared to be two balls of trembling fire, that glittered and rolled and fixed themselves upon the face of the observer like living human eyes. It was these awful eyes that carried such terror to the hearts of the onlookers when they cast their first glance around, and made them not unnaturally cry out that the head was alive.
It was not until he had made a very careful examination of these fiery orbs that Mr. Cardus was afterwards able to discover what they were; and as the reader may as well understand at once that this head had nothing about it different from any other skilfully preserved head, he shall be taken into confidence without delay. They were balls of crystal fitted, probably by the aid of slender springs, into the eye-sockets with such infernal art that they shook and trembled to the slightest sound, and even on occasion rolled about. The head itself, he also discovered, had not been embalmed in the ordinary way, by extracting the brain, and filling the cavity with spices of bitumen, but had been preserved by means of the injection of silica, or some kindred substance, into the brain, veins, and arteries, which, after permeating all the flesh, had solidified and made it like marble. Some brilliant pigment had been used to give the lips their natural colour, and the hair had been preserved by means of the spices. But perhaps the most dreadful thing about this relic of forgotten ages was the mocking smile that the artist who “set it up” had managed to preserve upon the face—a smile that just drew the lips up enough to show the white teeth beneath, and gave the idea that its wearer had died in the full enjoyment of some malicious jest or triumph. It was a terrible thing to look on, that long-dead, beautiful face, with its abundant hair, its crowning coronet, its moving crystal eyes, and its smile. Yet there was something awfully fascinating about it; those who had seen it once would always long to see it again.
Mr. Cardus had fled with the rest, but as soon as he got outside the swing-door his common sense reasserted itself, and he stopped.
“Come, come,” he called to the others, “don't be so silly; you are not going to run away from a dead woman's head, are you?”
“You ran too,” said Dorothy, pulling up and gasping.
“Yes, I know I did; those eyes startled me; but, of course, they are glass. I am going back; it is a great curiosity.”
“It is an accursed thing,” muttered Dorothy.
Mr. Cardus turned and re-entered the room, and the others, comforting themselves with the reflection that it was broad daylight, and drawn by their devouring curiosity, followed him. That is, they all followed him except Grice, who was ill for two days afterwards. As for Sampson and the groom, who had seen the sight through the window, they ran for a mile or more along the cliff before they stopped.
When they got back into the room, they found old Atterleigh still standing and staring at the crystal eyes, that seemed to be returning his gaze with compound interest, while Florence was there with the long linen wrapper in her hand, gazing down at the beautiful hair that flowed from the head on to the oak box, from the box to the table, and from the table nearly to the ground. It was, oddly enough, of the same colour and texture as her own. She had taken off her hat when she began to undo the wrappings, and they all noticed the fact. Nor did the resemblance stop there. The sharp fine features of the mummied head were very like Florence's; so were the beautiful teeth and the fixed hard smile. The dead face was more lovely, indeed, but otherwise the woman of the Saxon era—for, to judge from the rude tiara on her brow, it is probable that she was Saxon—and the living girl of the nineteenth century might have been sisters, or mother and daughter. The resemblance startled them all as they entered the room, but they said nothing.
They drew near, and gazed again without a word. Dorothy was the first to break the silence.
“I think she must have been a witch,” she said. “I hope that you will have it thrown away, Reginald, for she will bring us bad luck. The place where she has been buried has been unlucky; it was a great abbey once, now it is a deserted ruin. When we tried to get the case up, we were all very nearly killed. She will bring us bad luck. I am sure of it. Throw it away, Reginald, throw her into the sea. Look, she is just like Florence there.”
Florence had smiled at Dorothy's words, and the resemblance became more striking than ever. Eva shuddered as she noticed it.
“Nonsense, Dorothy!” said Mr. Cardus, who was a bit of an antiquarian, and had now forgotten his start in his collector's zeal, “it is a splendid find. But I forgot,” he added, in a tone of disappointment, “it does not belong to me, it belongs to Miss Ceswick.”
“O, I am sure you are welcome to it, so far as I am concerned,” said Eva, hastily. “I would not have it near me on any account.”
“O, very well. I am much obliged to you. I shall value the relic very much.”
Florence had meanwhile moved round the table, and was gazing earnestly into the crystal eyes.
“What are you doing, Florence?” asked Ernest sharply, for the scene was uncanny, and jarred upon him.
“I?” she answered with a little laugh; “I am seeking an inspiration. That face looks wise, it may teach me something. Besides, it is so like my own, I think she must be some far-distant ancestress.”
“So she had noticed it too,” thought Ernest.
“Put her back in the box, Jeremy,” said Mr. Cardus. “I must have an airtight case made.”
“I can do that,” said Jeremy, “by lining the old one with lead, and putting a glass front to it.”
Jeremy set about putting the head away, touching it very gingerly. When he got it back into the oak case, he dusted it, and placed it upon a bracket that jutted from the oak-panelling at the end of the room.
“Well,” said Florence, “now that you have put your guardian angel on her pedestal, I think that we must be going home. Will any of you walk a little way with us?”
Dorothy said that they would all come—that is, all except Mr. Cardus, who had gone back to his office. Accordingly they started, and as they did so, Florence intimated to Ernest that she wished to speak to him. He was alarmed and disappointed, for he was afraid of Florence, and wished to walk with Eva, and presumably his face betrayed what was in his mind to her.
“Do not be frightened,” she said, with a slight smile; “I am not going to say anything disagreeable.”
Of course he replied that he knew that she never could say anything disagreeable at any time; at which she smiled again the same faint smile, and they dropped behind.
“Ernest,” she said presently, “I want to speak to you. You remember what happened between us two evenings ago on this very beach”; for they were walking home by the beach.
“Yes, Florence, I remember,” answered Ernest.
“Well, Ernest, the words I have to say are hard for a woman's lips, but I must say them. I made a mistake, Ernest, in telling you that I loved you as I did, and in talking all the wild nonsense that I talked. I don't know what made me do it—some foolish impulse, no doubt. Women are very curious, you know, Ernest, and I think that I am more curious than most. I suppose I thought that I loved you, Ernest—I know I thought it when you kissed me; but last night, when I saw you at the Smythes' dance, I knew that it was all a mistake, and that I cared for you—no more than you cared for me, Ernest. Do you understand me?”
He did not understand her in the least, but he nodded his head, feeling vaguely that things were turning out very well for him.
She looked at him and went on:
“So here, in the same place where I said them, I renounce them. We will forget all that foolish scene, Ernest. I was in error when I told you that my heart was as deep as the sea; I find that it is shallow as a brook. But will you answer me one question, Ernest, before we close this conversation?”
“Yes, Florence, if I can.”
“Well, when you—you kissed me the other night, you did not really mean it, did you? I mean you only did so for a freak, or from the impulse of the moment, not because you loved me? Don't be afraid to tell me, because if it was so, I shall not be angry; you see you have so much to forgive me for. I am breaking faith, am I not?” And she looked at him straight in the face with her piercing eyes.
Ernest's glance fell under that searching gaze, and the lie that men are apt to think it no shame to use where women are concerned rose to his lips. But he could not get it out—he could not bring himself to say that he did not love her—so he compromised matters.
“I think that perhaps you were more in earnest than I was, Florence.”
She laughed, a cold little laugh, that somehow made his flesh creep.
“Thank you for being candid; it makes matters so much easier, does it not? But, do you know, I suspected as much, when I was standing there by that head to-day, just at the time when you took Eva's hand?”
Ernest started visibly. “Why, your back was turned!” he said.
“Yes, but I saw what you did reflected in the crystal eyes. Well, do you know, as I stood there, it seemed to me as though I could consider the whole matter as dispassionately and with as clear a brain as though I had been that dead woman. All of a sudden I grew wise. But there are the others waiting for us.”
“We shall part friends, I hope, Florence?” said Ernest, anxiously.
“O yes, Ernest, a woman always follows the career of her old admirer with the deepest interest, and for about five seconds you were my admirer—when you kissed me, you know. I shall watch all your life, and my thoughts shall follow your footsteps like a shadow. Good-night, Ernest, good-night;” and again she smiled the mocking smile which was so like that on the features of the dead woman, and fixed her piercing eyes upon his face. He bade her good-night, and made his way homewards with the others, feeling an undefinable dread heavy on his heart.