The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter XIII
“Ernest,” said Mr. Cardus, on the morning following the events described in the previous chapter. “I want to speak to you in my office—and to you too, Jeremy.”
They both followed him into his room, wondering what was the matter. He sat down and so did they, and then, as was his habit, letting his eyes stray over every part of their persons except their faces, he began:
“It is time that you two fellows took to doing something for yourselves. You must not learn to be idle men—not that most young men require much teaching in that way. What do you propose to do?”
Jeremy and Ernest stared at one another rather blankly, but apparently Mr. Cardus did not expect an answer. At any rate, he went on before either of them could frame one.
“You don't seem to know, never gave the matter any consideration probably; quite content to obey the Bible literally, and take no thought for the morrow. Well, it is lucky that you have somebody to think for you. Now I will tell you what I propose for you both. I want you, Ernest, to go to the bar. It is a foolish profession for most of young men to take to, but it will not be so in your case, because, as it happens, if you show yourself capable I shall by degrees be able to put a good deal of business in your hands—Chancery business, for I have little to do with any other. I dare say that you will wonder where the business is to come from? I don't seem to do very much here, do I? with a mad old hunting-man as a clerk, and Dorothy to copy my private letters; but I do, for all that. I may as well tell you both, in confidence, that this place is only the head centre of my business. I have another office in London, another at Ipswich, and another at Norwich, though they all work under different names; besides which I have other agencies of a different nature. But all this is neither here nor there. I have communicated with Aster, the rising Chancery man, and he will have a vacancy in his chambers next turn. Let me see—term begins on November 2nd; I propose, Ernest, to write to-day to enter you at Lincoln's Inn. I shall make you an allowance of three hundred a year, which you must clearly understand you must not exceed. I think that is all I have to say about the matter.”
“I am sure I am very much obliged to you, uncle”—began Ernest, fervently, for since the previous evening he had clearly realised that it was necessary for him to make a beginning of doing something.
But his uncle cut him short.
“All right, Ernest, we will understand all that. Now, Jeremy, for you. I propose that you shall be articled to me, and if you work well and prove useful, it is my intention in time to admit you to a share of the business. In order that you may not feel entirely dependent, it is my further intention to make you an allowance also, on the amount of which I have not yet settled.”
Jeremy groaned in spirit at the thought of becoming a lawyer, even with a “share of the business,” but he remembered his conversation with Dorothy, and thanked Mr. Cardus with the best grace that he could muster.
“All right, then; I will have the articles prepared at once, and you can take to your stool in the office next week. I think that is all I have to say.”
Acting on this hint, the pair were departing, Jeremy in the deepest state of depression, induced by the near prospect of that stool, when Mr. Cardus called Ernest back.
“I want to talk to you about something else,” he said thoughtfully. “Shut the door.”
Ernest turned cold down his back, and wondered if his uncle could have heard anything about Eva. He had the full intention of speaking to him about the matter, but it would be awkward to be boarded himself before he had made up his mind what to say. He shut the door, and then walking to the glass entrance to the orchid blooming-house, stood looking at the flowers, and waiting for Mr. Cardus to begin. But he did not begin; he seemed to be lost in thought.
“Well, uncle,” he said at last.
“It is a delicate business, Ernest, but I may as well get it over. I am going to make a request to you, a request to which I beg you will give me no immediate answer, for from its nature it will require the most anxious and careful consideration. I want you to listen, and say nothing. You can give me your answer when you come back from abroad. At the same time, I must tell you that it is a matter which I trust you will not disappoint me in; indeed, I do not think that you could be so cruel as to do so. I must also tell you that if you do, you must prepare to be a great loser, financially speaking.”
“I have not the faintest idea what you are driving at, uncle,” said Ernest, turning from the glass door to speak.
“I know you have not. I will tell you. Listen; I will tell you a little story. Many years ago a great misfortune overtook me, a misfortune so great that it struck me as lightning sometimes does a tree—it left the bark sound, but turned the heart to ashes. Never mind what the details were, they were nothing out of the common; such things sometimes happen to men and women. The blow was so severe that it almost turned my brain, so from that day I gave myself to revenge. It sounds melodramatic, but there was nothing of the sort about it. I had been cruelly wronged, and I determined that those who had wronged me should taste of their own medicine. With the exception of one man they have done so. He has escaped me for a time, but he is doomed. To pass on. The woman who caused the trouble—for wherever there is trouble there is generally a woman who causes it—had children. Those children were Dorothy and her brother. I adopted them. As time went on, I grew to love the girl for her likeness to her mother. The boy I never loved; to this hour I cannot like him, though he is a gentleman, which his father never was. I can, however, honestly say that I have done my duty by him. I have told you all this in order that you may understand the request which I am going to make. I trust to you never to speak of it, and if you can to forget it. And now for my request itself.”
Ernest looked up wonderingly.
“It is my most earnest desire that you should marry Dorothy.”
His listener started violently, turned quite pale, and opened his lips to speak. Mr. Cardus lifted his hand and went on:
“Remember what I asked you. Pray say nothing; only listen. Of course I cannot force you into this or any other marriage. I can only beg you to give heed to my wishes, knowing that they will in every way prove to your advantage. That girl has a heart of gold; and if you marry her you shall inherit nearly all my fortune, which is now very large. I have observed that you have lately been about a great deal with Eva Ceswick. She is a handsome woman, and very likely has taken some hold upon your fancy. I warn you that any entanglement in that direction would be most disagreeable to me, and would to a great extent destroy your prospects, so far as I am concerned.”
Again Ernest was about to speak, and again his uncle stopped him.
“I want no confidences, Ernest, and had much rather that no words passed between us which we might afterwards regret. And now I understand that you are going abroad with your friend Batty for a couple of months. When you return you shall give me your answer about Dorothy. In the meanwhile here is cheque for your expenses; what is over you can spend as you like. Perhaps you have some bills to pay.”
He gave him a folded cheque, and then went on:
“Now leave me, as I am busy.”
Ernest walked out of the room in a perfect maze. In the yard he mechanically unfolded the cheque. It was for a large sum—two hundred and fifty pounds. He put it in his pocket, and began to reflect upon his position, which was about as painful a position as can well be. Truly he was on the horns of a dilemma; probably before he was much older, one of them would have pierced him. For a moment he was about to return to his uncle and tell him all the truth, but on reflection he could not see what was to be gained by such a course. At any rate, it seemed to him that he must first consult Eva, whom he had arranged to meet on the beach at three o'clock; there was nobody else whom he could consult, for he was shy of talking about Eva to Jeremy or Dolly.
The rest of that morning went very ill for Ernest, but three o'clock came at last, and found him at the trysting-place.
About a mile on the farther side of Kesterwick, that is, two miles or so from Titheburgh Abbey, the cliff jutted out into the sea in a way that corresponded very curiously with the little promontory known as Dum's Ness, the reason of its resistance to the action of the waves being that it was at this spot composed of an upcrop of rock of a more durable nature than the sandstone and pebbles of the remainder of the line of cliff. Just at the point of this promontory the waves had worn a hollow in the rock that was locally dignified by the name of the Cave. For two hours or more at high tide this hollow was under water, and it was, therefore, impossible to pass the headland except by boat; but during the rest of the day it formed a convenient grotto or trysting-place, the more so as anybody sitting in it was quite invisible either from the beach, the cliff, or indeed, unless the boat was quite close in shore, the sea in front.
Here it was that Ernest had arranged to meet Eva, and on turning the rocky corner of the cave he found her sitting on a mass of fallen rock waiting for him. At the sight of her beautiful form he forgot all his troubles, and when rising to greet him, blushing like the dawn, she lifted her pure face for him to kiss, there was not a happier lad in England. Then she made room for him beside her—the rock was just wide enough for two—and he placed his arm round her waist, and for a minute or two she laid her head upon his shoulder, and they were very happy.
“You are early,” he said at last.
“Yes; I wanted to get away from Florence and have a good think. You have no idea how unpleasant she is; she seems to know everything. For instance she knew that we went out sailing together last evening, for this morning at breakfast she said in the most cheerful way that she hoped that I enjoyed my moonlight sail last night.”
“The deuce she did! and what did you say?”
“I said that I enjoyed it very much, and luckily my aunt did not take any notice.”
“Why did you not say at once that we were engaged? We are engaged, you know.”
“Yes—that is, I suppose so.”
“Suppose so! There is no supposition about it. At least, if we are not engaged, what are we?”
“Well, you see, Ernest, it sounds so absurd to say that one is engaged to a boy! I love you Ernest, love you dearly, but how can I say that I am engaged to you?”
Ernest rose in great wrath. “I tell you what it is, Eva, if I am not good enough to acknowledge, I am not good enough to have anything to do with. A boy, indeed! I am one-and-twenty; that is my full age. Confound it all! you are always talking about my being so young, just as though I should not get old fast enough. Can't you wait for me for a year or two?” he asked, with tears of mortification in his eyes.
“O, Ernest, Ernest, do be reasonable, there's a dear; what is the good of getting angry and making me wretched? Come and sit down here, dear, and tell me, am I not worth a little patience? There is not the slightest possibility, so far as I can see, of our getting married at present; so the question is, if it is of any use to trumpet out an engagement that will only make us the object of a great deal of gossip, and which, perhaps, your uncle would not like?”
“O, by Jove!” he said, “that reminds me;” and sitting down beside her again, he told her the story of the interview with his uncle. She listened in silence.
“This is all very bad,” she said, when he had finished.
“Yes, it is bad enough; but what is to be done?”
“There is nothing to be done at present.”
“Shall I make a clean breast of it to him?”
“No, no, not now; it will only make matters worse. We must wait, dear. You must go abroad for a couple of months, as you had arranged, and then when you come back we will see what can be arranged.”
“But, my dearest, I cannot bear to leave you; it makes my heart ache to think of it.”
“Dear, I know that it is hard; but it must be done. You could not stop here now very well without speaking about—our engagement, and to do that would only be to bring your uncle's anger on you. No, you had better go away, Ernest, and meanwhile I will try to get into Mr. Cardus's good graces, and, if I fail, then when you come back we can agree upon some plan. Perhaps by that time you will take your uncle's view of the matter and want to marry Dorothy. She would make you a better wife than I shall, Ernest, my dear.”
“Eva, how can you say such things! It is not kind of you!”
“O, why not? It is true. O yes, I know that I am better-looking, and that is what you men always think of; but she has more brains, more fixity of mind, and, perhaps, for all I know, more heart than I have, though, for the matter of that, I feel as if I was all heart just now. Really, Ernest, you had better transfer your allegiance. Give me up, and forget me, dear; it will save you much trouble. I know that there is trouble coming; it is in the air. Better marry Dorothy, and leave me to fight my sorrow out alone. I will release you, Ernest;” and she began to cry at the bare idea.
“I shall wait to give you up until you have given me up,” said Ernest, when he had found means to stop her tears; “and as for forgetting you, I can never do that. Please, dear, don't talk so any more; it pains me.”
“Very well, Ernest; then let us vow eternal fidelity instead; but, my dear, I know that I shall bring you trouble.”
“It is the price that men have always paid for the smiles of women like you,” he answered. “Trouble may come—so be it, let it come; at any rate, I have the consciousness of your love. When I have lost that, then, and then only, will I think that I have bought you too dear.”
In the course of his after life these words often came back to Ernest's mind.