The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter XV

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter XV: Ernest Gets in Trouble

When Mr. Alston and Ernest reached the hotel, there was still a quarter of an hour to elapse before the table d'hôte, so after washing his hands and putting on a black coat, Ernest went down into the coffee-room. There was only one other person in it, a tall fair Frenchwoman, apparently about thirty years of age. She was standing by the empty fireplace, her arm upon the mantelpiece, and a lace pocket-handkerchief in her hand; and Ernest's first impression of her was that she was handsome and much over-dressed. There was a newspaper upon the mantelpiece, which he desired to get possession of. As he advanced for this purpose, the lady dropped her handkerchief. Stooping down he picked it out of the grate and handed it to her.

“Mille remerciments, monsieur,” she said, with a little curtsey.

“Du tout, madame?”

“Ah, monsieur parle français?”

“Mais oui, madame.”

And then they drifted into a conversation, in the course of which Ernest learned that madame thought St. Peter's Port very dull; that she had been there three days with her friends, and was nearly dead de tristesse; that she was going, however, to the public dance at the “Hall” that night. “Of course monsieur would be there;” and many other things, for madame had a considerable command of language.

In the middle of all this the door opened, and another lady of much the same cut as madame entered, followed by two young men. The first of these had a face of the commonplace English type, rather a good-humoured face; but when he saw the second, Ernest started, it was so like his own, as his would become if he were to spend half a dozen years in drinking, dicing, late hours, and their concomitants. The man to whom this face belonged was evidently a gentleman, but he looked an ill-tempered one, and very puny and out of health; at least so thought Ernest.

“It is time for dinner, Camille,” said the gentleman to madame, at the same time favouring Ernest with a most comprehensive scowl.

Madame appeared not to understand, and made some remark to Ernest.

“It is time for dinner, Camille,” said the gentleman again, in a savage voice. This time she lifted her head and looked at him.

“Din-nare, dinnare! quest-que c'est que din-nare?”

“Table d'hôte,” said the gentleman.

“O, pardon;” and with a little bow and most fascinating smile to Ernest, she took the gentleman's extended arm and sailed away.

“Why did you pretend not to understand me?” Ernest heard him ask, and she saw her shrug her shoulders in reply. The other gentleman followed with his companion, and after him came Ernest. When he reached the salle-à-manger he found that the only chair vacant at the table was one next to his friend of the salon. Indeed, had he thought of it, it might have struck him that madame had contrived to keep that chair vacant, for on his approach she gathered together the folds of her silk dress, which had almost hidden it, and welcomed him with a little nod.

Ernest took the chair, and forthwith madame entered into a most lively conversation with him, a course of proceeding that appeared to be extremely distasteful to the gentleman on her right, who pished and pshawed and pushed away his plate in a manner that soon became quite noticeable. But madame talked serenely on, quite careless of his antics, till at last he whispered something to her that caused the blood to mount to her fair cheek.

“Mais tais-toi, donc,” Ernest heard her answer, and next moment—the subsequent history of our hero demands that the truth should be told—it was his turn to colour, for, alas! there was no doubt about it, he distinctly felt madame's little foot pressed upon his own. He took up his wine and drank a little to hide his confusion; but whether he had or had not the moral courage to withdraw from the situation, by placing his toes under the more chilly but safe guardianship of the chair-legs, history saith not; let us hope and presume that he had. But if this was so or not he did not get on very well with his dinner, for the situation was novel and not conducive to appetite. Presently Mr. Alston, who was sitting opposite, addressed him across the table.

“Are you going to the dance here to-night, Mr. Kershaw?”

To Ernest's surprise, the gentleman on the other side of madame answered, with an astonished look:

“Yes, I am going.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Alston, “I was speaking to the gentleman on your left.”

“Oh, indeed! I thought you said Kershaw.”

“Yes, I did; the gentleman's name is Kershaw, I think.”

“Yes,” put in Ernest, “my name is Kershaw.”

“That is odd,” said the other gentleman, “so is mine. I did not know that there were any other Kershaws.”

“Nor did I,” answered Ernest, “except Sir Hugh Kershaw;” and his face darkened as he pronounced the name.

“I am Sir Hugh Kershaw's son; my name is Hugh Kershaw,” was the reply.

“Indeed! Then we are cousins, I suppose; for I am his nephew, the son of his brother Ernest.”

Hugh Kershaw the elder did not receive this intelligence with even the moderate amount of enthusiasm that might have been expected; he simply lifted his scanty eyebrows, and said, “Oh, I remember, my uncle left a son;” then he turned and made some remark to the gentleman who sat next him that made the latter laugh.

Ernest felt the blood rise to his cheeks; there was something very insolent about his cousin's tone.

Shortly afterwards the dinner came to an end, and madame with another fascinating smile, retired. As for Ernest, he smoked a pipe with Mr. Alston, and about nine o'clock strolled over with him to the Hall, or Assembly Rooms, a building largely composed of glass, where thrice a week, during the season, the visitors at St. Peter's Port adjoined to dance, flirt, and make merry.

One of the first sights that caught his eye was a fair creature in evening dress, and with conspicuously white shoulders, in whom he recognised madame. She was sitting near the door, and appeared to be watching it. Ernest bowed to her, and was about to pass on; but, pursuing her former tactics, she dropped the bouquet she was carrying. He stooped, picked it up, returned it, and again made as though he would pass on, when she addressed him, just as the band struck up.

“Ah, que c'est belle, la musique! Monsieur valse, n'est-ce pas?”

In another minute they were floating down the room together. As they passed along, Ernest saw his cousin standing in the corner, looking at him with no amiable air. Madame saw his glance.

“Ah,” she said, “Monsieur Hugh ne valse pas, il se grise; il a l'air jaloux, n'est-ce pas?”

Ernest danced three times with this fair enslaver, and with their last waltz the ball came to an end. Just then his cousin came up, and they all, including Mr. Alston, walked together along the steep streets, which were now quite deserted, to the door of the hotel. Here Ernest said good-night to madame, who extended her hand. He took it, and as he did so he felt a note slipped into it, which, not being accustomed to such transactions, he clumsily dropped. It was the ball programme, and there was something written across it in pencil. Unfortunately, he was not the only one who saw this; his cousin, Hugh, who had evidently been drinking, saw it too, and tried to pick up the programme, but Ernest was too quick for him.

“Give me that,” said his cousin, hoarsely.

Ernest answered by putting it into his pocket.

“What is written on that programme?”

“I don't know.”

“What have you written on that programme, Camille?”

“Mon Dieu, mais vous m'ennuyez!” was the answer.

“I insist upon your giving me that!” with an oath.

“Monsieur est 'gentleman.' Monsieur ne la rendra pas,” said madame, with a meaning glance; and then turning, she entered the hotel.

“I am not going to give it to you,” said Ernest.

“You shall give it to me.”

“Is this lady your wife?” asked Ernest.

“That is my affair; give me that note.”

“I shall not give it to you,” said Ernest, whose temper was rapidly rising. “I don't know what is on it, and I don't wish to know; but whatever it is, the lady gave it to me, and not to you. She is not your wife, and you have no right to ask for it.”

His cousin Hugh turned livid with fury. At the best of times he was an evil-tempered man; and now, inflamed as he was by drink and jealousy, he looked a perfect fiend.

“Damn you!” he hissed, “you half-bred cur; I suppose that you get your——manners from your——of a mother!”

He did not get any further; for at this point Ernest knocked him into the gutter, and then stood over him, very quiet and pale, and told him that if ever he dared to let a disrespectful word about his mother pass his lips again, he (Ernest) would half-kill him (Hugh). Then he let him get up.

Hugh Kershaw rose, and turning, whispered something to his friend, who had sat next him at dinner, a man about thirty years of age, and with a military air about him. His friend listened and pulled his large moustache thoughtfully. Then he addressed Ernest with the utmost politeness:

“I am Captain Justice, of the ——Hussars. Of course, Mr. Kershaw, you are aware that you cannot indulge yourself in the luxury of knocking people down without hearing more about it. Have you any friend with you?”

Ernest shook his head as he answered: “This,” indicating Mr. Alston, who had been an attentive observer of everything that had passed, “is the only gentleman I know in the town, and I cannot ask him to mix himself up in my quarrels.” Ernest was beginning to understand that this quarrel was a very serious business.

“All right, my lad,” said Mr. Alston quietly, “I will stand by you.”

“Really, I have no right——” began Ernest.

“Nonsense! It is one of our colonial customs to stick by one another.”

“Mr. Justice——”

“Captain Justice,” put in that gentleman, with a bow.

“Captain Justice, my name is Alston. I am very much at your service.”

Captain Justice turned to Hugh Kershaw, whose clothes were dripping from the water in the gutter, and after whispering with him for a moment, said aloud, “If I were you, Kershaw, I should go and change those clothes; you will catch cold.” And then, addressing Mr. Alston, “I think the smoking-room is empty. Shall we go and have a chat?”

Mr. Alston assented, and they went in together. Ernest followed; but having lit his pipe, sat down in a far corner of the room. Presently, Mr. Alston called him.

“Look here, Kershaw, this is a serious business, and as you are principally concerned, I think you had better give your own answer. To be brief, your cousin, Mr. Hugh Kershaw, demands that you should apologise in writing for having struck him.”

“I am willing to do that if he will apologise for the terms he used in connection with my mother.”

“Ah!” said the gallant Captain, “the young gentleman is coming to reason.”

“He also demands that you should hand over the note you received from the lady.”

“That I certainly shall not do,” he answered; and drawing the card from his pocket, he tore it into fragments unread.

Captain Justice bowed and left the room. In a few minutes he returned, and, addressing Mr. Alston and Ernest, said:

“Mr. Kershaw is not satisfied with what you offer to do. He declines to apologise for any expression that he may have used with reference to your mother, and he now wishes you to choose between signing an apology, which I shall dictate, or meeting him to-morrow morning. You must remember that we are in Guernsey, where you cannot insult a man on the payment of forty shillings.”

Of course, this view was an entirely incorrect one. Although Guernsey has a political constitution of its own, many of its laws being based upon the old Norman-French customs, and judicial proceedings being carried on in French, &c., it is quite as criminal an act to fight a duel there as in England, as Captain Justice himself afterwards found out to his cost. But they none of them knew that.

Ernest felt the blood run to his heart. He understood now what Captain Justice meant. He answered simply:

“I shall be very happy to meet my cousin in whatever place and way you and Mr. Alston may agree upon;” and then he returned to his chair, and gave himself up to the enjoyment of his pipe and an entirely new set of sensations.

Captain Justice gazed after him pityingly. “I am sorry for him,” he said to Mr. Alston. “Kershaw is, I believe, a good shot with pistols. I suppose you will choose pistols. It would be difficult to get swords in such a hurry. He is a fine young fellow. Took it coolly, by George! Well, I don't think that he will trouble the world much longer.”

“This is a silly business, and likely to land us all in a nasty mess. Is there no way out of it?”

“None that I know of, unless your young friend will eat dirt. He is a nasty-tempered fellow, Kershaw, and wild about that woman, over whom he has spent thousands. Nor is he likely to forgive being rolled in the gutter. You had better get your man to give in, for if you don't, Kershaw will kill him.”

“It is no good talking of it. I have lived a rough life, and know what men are made of. He is not of that sort. Besides, your man is in the wrong, not that boy. If anybody spoke of my mother like that I would shoot him.”

“Very good, Mr. Alston. And now about the pistols; I have none.”

“I have a pair of Smith &Wesson revolvers that I bought yesterday to take out to Africa with me. They throw a very heavy bullet, Captain Justice.”

“Too heavy. If one of them is hit anywhere in the body——” He did not finish the sentence.

Mr. Alston nodded. “We must put them twenty paces apart, to give them a chance of missing. And now about the place and the time?”

“I know a place on the beach, about a mile and a half from here, that will do very well. You go down that street till you strike the beach, then turn to your right, and follow the line of the sea till you come to a deserted hut or cottage. There we will meet you.”

“At what time?”

“Let me see; shall we say a quarter to five. It will be light enough for us then.”

“Very good. The Weymouth boat leaves at half-past six. I am going to see about getting my things ready to go to meet it. I should advise you to do the same, Captain Justice. We had better not return here after it is over.”

“No.”

Then they parted.

Luckily the manager of the hotel had not gone to bed; so the various parties concerned were able to pay their bills, and make arrangements about their luggage being sent to meet the early boat, without exciting the slightest suspicion. Ernest wrote a note, and left it to be given to his friend when he should arrive on the morrow, in which he stated mysteriously that business had called him away. He could not help smiling to himself sadly when he thought that his business might be of a sort that it would take all eternity to settle.

Then he went to his room and wrote two letters, one to Eva and one to Dorothy. Mr. Alston was to post them if anything happened to him. The first was of a passionate nature, and breathed hopes of reunion in another place—ah, how fondly the poor human heart clings to that idea!—the second collected and sensible enough. The letters finished, following Mr. Alston's advice, he undressed and took a bath; then he said his prayers—the prayers his mother had taught him—put on a quiet dark suit of clothes, and went and sat by the open window. The night was very still and fragrant with the sweet strong breath of the sea. Not a sound came from the quaint old town beneath—all was at peace. Ernest, sitting there, wondered whether he would live to see another night, and, if not, what the nights were like in the land whither he was journeying. As he thought of it the grey damps that hide that unrisen world from our gaze struck into his soul and made him feel afraid. Not afraid of death, but afraid of the empty loneliness beyond it—of the cold air of an infinite space in which nothing human can live. Would his mother meet him there, he wondered, or would she put him from her, coming with blood upon his hands? Next he thought of Eva, and in his solitude a tear gathered in his dark eyes, it seemed so hard to go to that other place without her.