The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter I

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter I: My Poor Eva

Two days after the pilot-boat, flitting away from the vessel's side like some silent-flighted bird, had vanished into the night, Florence Ceswick happened to be walking past the village post-office on her way to pay a visit to Dorothy, when it struck her that the afternoon post must be in, and that she might as well ask if there were any letters for Dum's Ness. There was no second delivery at Kesterwick, and she knew that it was not always convenient to Mr. Cardus to send in. The civil old postmaster gave her a little bundle of letters, remarking at the same time that he thought that there was one for the Cottage.

“Is it for me, Mr. Brown?” asked Florence.

“No, miss; it is for Miss Eva.”

“O, then, I will leave it; I am going up to Dum's Ness. No doubt Miss Eva will call.”

She knew that Eva watched the arrival of the posts very carefully. When she got outside the office she glanced at the bundle of letters in her hand, and noticed with a start that one of them, addressed to Mr. Cardus, was in Ernest's handwriting. It bore a Southampton post-mark. What, she wondered, could he be doing at Southampton? He should have been in Guernsey.

She walked on briskly to Dum's Ness, and on her arrival found Dorothy sitting working in the sitting-room. After she had greeted her she handed over the letters.

“There is one from Ernest,” she said.

“O, I am so glad!” answered Dorothy. “Who is it for?”

“For Mr. Cardus. O, here he comes.”

Mr. Cardus shook hands with her, and thanked her for bringing the letters, which he turned over casually, after the fashion of a man accustomed to receive large quantities of correspondence of an uninteresting nature. Presently his manner quickened, and he opened Ernest's letter. Florence fixed her keen eyes upon him. He read the letter; she read his face.

Mr. Cardus was accustomed to conceal his emotions, but on this occasion it was clear that they were too strong for him. Astonishment and grief pursued each other across his features as he proceeded. Finally he put the letter down and glanced at an enclosure.

“What is it, Reginald, what is it?” asked Dorothy.

“It is,” answered Mr. Cardus solemnly, “that Ernest is a murderer and a fugitive.”

Dorothy sank into a chair with a groan, and covered her face with her hands. Florence turned ashy pale.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“Read the letter for yourself, and see. Stop, read it aloud, and the enclosure too. I may have misunderstood.”

Florence did so in a quiet voice. It was wonderful how her power came out in contrast to the intense disturbance of the other two. The old man of the world shook like a leaf, the young girl stood firm as a rock. Yet, in all probability, her interest in Ernest was more intense than his.

When she had finished, Mr. Cardus spoke again.

“You see,” he said, “I was right. He is a murderer and an outcast. And I loved the boy, I loved him. Well, let him go.”

“O, Ernest, Ernest!” sobbed Dorothy.

Florence glanced from one to the other with contempt.

“What are you talking about?” she said at last. “What is there to make all this fuss about? 'Murderer,' indeed! Then our grandfathers were often murderers. What would you have had him do? Would you have had him give up the woman's letter to save himself? Would you have had him put up with this other man's insults about his mother? If he had, I would never have spoken to him again. Stop that groaning, Dorothy. You should be proud of him; he behaved as a gentleman should. If I had the right I should be proud of him;” and her breast heaved and the proud lips curled as she said it.

Mr. Cardus listened attentively, and it was evident that her enthusiasm moved him.

“There is something in what Florence says,” he broke in. “I should not have liked the boy to show the white feather. But it is an awful business to kill one's own first cousin, especially when one is next in the entail. Old Kershaw will be furious at losing his only son, and Ernest will never be able to come back to this country while he lives, or he will set the law on him.”

“It is dreadful!” said Dorothy; “just as he was beginning life, and going into a profession, and now to have to go and wander in that far-off country under a false name!”

“O, yes, it is sad enough,” said Mr. Cardus; “but what is done cannot be undone. He is young, and will live it down, and if the worst comes to the worst, must make himself a home out there. But it is hard upon me, hard upon me;” and he went to his office, muttering, “hard upon me.”

When Florence started upon her homeward way, the afternoon had set in wet and chilly, and the sea was hidden in wreaths of grey mist. Altogether the scene was depressing. On arrival at the Cottage she found Eva standing, the picture of melancholy, by the window, and staring out at the misty sea.

“O, Florence, I am glad that you have come home; I really began to feel inclined to commit suicide.”

“Indeed! and may I ask why?”

“I don't know; the rain is so depressing, I suppose.”

“It does not depress me.”

“No, nothing ever does; you live in the land of perpetual calm.”

“I take exercise, and keep my liver in good order. Have you been out this afternoon?”

“No.”

“Ah, I thought not. No wonder you feel depressed, staying indoors all day. Why don't you go for a walk?”

“There is nowhere to go.”

“Really, Eva, I don't know what has come to you lately. Why don't you go along the cliff, or stop—have you been to the post-office? I called for the Dum's Ness letters, and Mr. Brown said that there was one for you.”

Eva jumped up with remarkable animation, and passed out of the room with her peculiarly light tread. The mention of that word “letter” had sufficed to change the aspect of things considerably.

Florence watched her go with a dark little smile.

“Ah,” she said aloud, as the door closed, “your feet will soon fall heavily enough.”

Presently Eva went out, and Florence, having thrown off her cloak, took her sister's place at the window and waited. It was seven minute's walk to the post-office. She would be back in about a quarter of an hour. Watch in hand, Florence waited patiently. Seventeen minutes had elapsed when the garden-gate was opened, and Eva re-entered, her face quite grey with pain, and furtively applying a handkerchief to her eyes. Florence smiled again.

“I thought so,” she said.

From all of which it will be seen that Florence was a very remarkable woman. She had scarcely exaggerated when she said that her heart was as deep as the sea. The love that she bore Ernest was the strongest thing in all her strong and vigorous life; when every other characteristic and influence crumbled away and was forgotten, it would still remain over-mastering as ever. And when she discovered that her high love, the greatest and best part of her, had been made a plaything of by a thoughtless boy, who kissed girls on the same principle that a duck takes to water, because it came natural to him, the love in its mortal agonies gave birth to a hate destined to grow as great as itself. But, with all a woman's injustice, it was not directed towards the same object. On Ernest, indeed, she would wreak vengeance if she could, but she still loved him as dearly as at first. The revenge would be a mere episode in the history of her passion. But to her sister, the innocent woman who, she chose to consider had robbed her, she gave all that bountiful hate. Herself the more powerful character of the two, she determined upon the utter destruction of the weaker. Strong as Fate, and unrelenting as Time, she dedicated her life to that end. Everything, she said, comes to those who can wait. She forgot that the Providence above us can wait the longest of us all. In the end it is Providence that wins.

Eva came in, and Florence heard her make her way up the stairs to her room. Again she spoke to herself:

“The poor fool will weep over him and renounce him. If she had the courage she would follow him and comfort him in his trouble, and so tie him to her for ever. Oh, that I had her chance! But the chances always come to fools.”

Then she went upstairs and listened outside Eva's door. She was sobbing audibly. Turning the handle, she walked casually in.

“Well, Eva, did you——Why, my dear girl, what is the matter with you?”

Eva, who was lying sobbing on her bed, turned her head to the wall and went on sobbing.

“What is the matter, Eva? If you only knew how absurd you look!”

“No-no-nothing!”

“Nonsense! People do not make such a scene as this for nothing.”

No answer.

“Come, my dear, as your affectionate sister, I really must ask what has happened to you.”

The tone was commanding, and half unconsciously Eva obeyed it. “Ernest!” she ejaculated.

“Well, what about Ernest? He is nothing to you, is he?”

“No—that is, yes. O, it is so dreadful! It was the letter;” and she touched a sheet of closely written paper that lay on the bed beside her.

“Well, as you do not seem to be in a condition to explain yourself, perhaps you had better let me read the letter.”

“O no.”

“Nonsense! Give it me; perhaps I may be able to help you;” and she took the paper from her unresisting grasp and, turning her face from the light, read it deliberately through.

It was very passionate in its terms, and rather incoherent; such a letter, in short, as a lad almost wild with love and grief would write under the circumstances.

“So,” said Florence, as she coolly folded it up, “it appears that you are engaged to him.”

No answer, unless sobs can be said to constitute one.

“And it seems that you are engaged to a man who has just committed a frightful murder, and run away from the consequences.”

Eva sat up on the bed.

“It was not a murder; it was a duel.”

“Precisely, a duel about another woman; but the law calls it murder. If he is caught he will be hanged.”

“O Florence! how can you say such dreadful things?”

“I only say what is true. Poor Eva, I do not wonder that you are distressed.”

“It is all so dreadful!”

“You love him, I suppose?”

“O yes, dearly.”

“Then you must get over it; you must never think of him any more.”

“Never think of him! I shall think of him all my life.”

“That is as it may be. You must never have anything more to do with him. He has blood upon his hands, blood shed for some bad woman.”

“I cannot desert him, Florence, because he has got into trouble.”

“Over another woman.”

A peculiar expression of pain passed over Eva's face.

“How cruel you are, Florence! He is only a boy, and boys will go wrong sometimes. Anybody can make a fool of a boy.”

“And it seems that boys can make fools of some people who should know better.”

“O Florence, what is to be done? You have such a clear head; tell me what I must do. I cannot give him up; I cannot indeed.”

Florence seated herself on the bed beside her sister, and put an arm round her neck and kissed her. Eva was much touched at her kindness.

“My poor Eva,” she said, “I am so sorry for you! But tell me, when did you get engaged to him—that evening you went out sailing together?”

“Yes.”

“He kissed you, I suppose, and all that?”

“Yes. Oh, I was so happy!”

“My poor Eva!”

“I tell you I cannot give him up.”

“Well, perhaps there will be no need for you to do so. But you must not answer that letter.”

“Why not?”

“Because it will not do. Look at it which way you will, Ernest has just killed his own cousin in a quarrel about another woman. It is necessary that you should mark your disapproval of that in some way or other. Do not answer his letter. If in time he can wash himself clear of the reproach, and remains faithful to you, then it will be soon enough to show that you still care for him.”

“But if I leave him like that, he will fall into the hands of other women, though he loves me all the time. I know him well; his is not a nature that can stand alone.”

“Well, let him.”

“But, Florence, you forget that I love him, too. I cannot bear to think of it. O, I love him, I love him!” and she dropped her head upon her sister's shoulder and began to sob again.

“My dear, it is just because you do love him so that you should prove him; and besides, my dear, you have your own self-respect to think of. Be guided by me, Eva; do not answer that letter; I am sure that you will regret it if you do. Let matters stand for a few months, then we can arrange a plan of action. Above all, do not let your engagement transpire to anybody. There will be a dreadful scandal about this business, and it will be most unpleasant for you, and, indeed, for us all, to have our name mixed up in the matter. Hark! there is aunt coming in. I will go and talk to her; you can stop here and recover yourself a little. You will follow my advice, will you not, dearest?”

“I suppose so,” answered Eva, with a heavy sigh, as she buried her face in the pillow.

Then Florence left her.