The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter II

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter II: The Locum Tenens

And so it came to pass that Ernest's letter remained unanswered. But Mr. Cardus, Dorothy, and Jeremy all wrote. Mr. Cardus's letter was very kind and considerate. It expressed his deep grief at what had happened, and told him of the excitement that the duel had caused, and of the threatening letters which he had received from Sir Hugh Kershaw, who was half-wild with grief and fury at the loss of his son. Finally, it commended his wisdom in putting the seas between himself and the avengers of blood, and told him that he should not want for money, as his drafts would be honoured to the extent of a thousand a year, should he require so much—Mr. Cardus was very open-handed where Ernest was concerned; also if he required any particular sum of money for any purpose, such as to buy land or start a business, he was to let him know.

Dorothy's letter was like herself, sweet and gentle, and overflowing with womanly sympathy. She bade him not to be downhearted, but to hope for a time when all this dreadful business would be forgotten, and he would be able to return in peace to England. She bade him also, shyly enough, to remember that there was only one Power that could really wash away the stain of blood upon his hands. Every month she said she would write him a letter, whether he answered it or not. This promise she faithfully kept.

Jeremy's letter was characteristic. It is worth transcribing:


“My dear old Fellow,—Your news has knocked us all into the middle of next week. To think of your fighting a duel, and my not being there to hold the sponge! And I will tell you what it is, old chap; some of these people round here, like that old de Talor, call it murder, but that is gammon, and don't you trouble your head about it. It was he who got up the row, not you, and he tried to shoot you into the bargain. I am awfully glad that you kept your nerve and plugged him; it would have been better if you could have nailed him through the right shoulder, which would not have killed him; but at the best of times you were never good enough with a pistol for that. Don't you remember when we used to shoot with the old pistols at the man I cut out on the cliff, you were always just as likely to hit him on the head or in the stomach as through the heart? It is a sad pity that you did not practise a little more, but it is no use crying over spilt milk—and after all the shot seems to have been a very creditable one. So you are going on a shooting expedition up in Secocoeni's country. That is what I call glorious. To think of a rhinoceros makes my mouth water; I would give one of my fingers to shoot one. Life here is simply wretched now that you have gone—Mr. Cardus as glum as Titheburgh Abbey on a cloudy day, and Doll always looking as though she had been crying, or were going to cry. Old Grandfather Atterleigh is quite lively compared to those two. As for the office, I hate it, everlastingly copying deeds which I don't in the slightest understand, and adding up figures in which I make mistakes. Your respected uncle told me the other day, in his politest way, that he considered I sailed as near being a complete fool as any man he ever knew. I answered that I quite agreed with him.

“I met that young fellow Smithers the other day, the one who gave Eva that little brute of a dog. He said something disagreeable about wondering if they would hang you. I told him that I didn't know if they would or not, but unless he dropped his infernal sneer I was very sure that I would break his neck. He concluded to move on. By the way, I met Eva Ceswick herself yesterday. She looked pale, and asked if we had heard anything of you. She said that she had got a letter from you. Florence came up here, and spoke up well for you; she said that she was proud of you, or would be if she had a right to. I never liked her before, but now I think that she is a brick. Good-bye, old chap; I never wrote such a long letter before. You don't know how I miss you; life doesn't seem worth having. Yesterday was the First; I went out and killed twenty brace to my own gun—fired forty-six cartridges. Not bad, eh! And yet somehow I didn't seem to care a twopenny curse about the whole thing, though if you had been there you would have duffed them awfully. I feel sure you would have set my teeth on edge with letting them off—the birds, I mean. Mind you write to me often. Good-bye, old fellow. God bless you!

“Your affectionate friend, “Jeremy Jones.”

“P.S.—In shooting big game, a fellow told me that the top of the flank raking forward is a very deadly shot, as it either breaks the back or passes through the kidneys to the lungs and heart. I should have thought that the shot was very apt to waste itself in the flesh of the flank. Please try it, and take notes of the results.”

About a fortnight after these letters, addressed Ernest Beyton, Esq., Post Office, Maritzburg, Natal, had been despatched, Kesterwick and its neighbourhood was thrown into a state of mild excitement by the announcement that Mr. Halford, the clergyman, whose health had of late been none of the best, purposed to take a year's rest, and that the Bishop had consented to the duties of his parish being carried on by a locum tenens, named the Reverend James Plowden. Mr. Halford was much liked and respected, and the intelligence was received with general regret, which was, however, tempered with curiosity as to the new-comer. Thus, when it became known that Mr. Plowden was to preach in the parish church at the evening service on the third Sunday in September, all Kesterwick was seized with profound religious fervour, and went to hear him.

The parish church at Kesterwick was unusually large and beautiful, being a relic of an age when, whatever men's lives may have been, they spared neither their money nor their thought in rearing up fitting habitations to the Deity, whom they regarded perhaps with more of superstitious awe than true religious feeling. Standing as it did somewhat back from the sea, it alone had escaped the shock of the devouring waves, and remained till this day a monument of architectural triumph. Its tall tower, pointing like a great finger up to heaven, looked very solemn on that quiet September evening as the crowd of church-goers passed beneath its shadow into the old doorway, through which most of them had been carried to their christening, and would in due time be carried to their burial. At least so thought Eva and Dorothy, as they stood for a moment by the monument to “five unknown sailors,” washed ashore after a great gale, and buried in a common grave. How many suffering, erring human beings had stood upon the same spot and thought the same thoughts! How many more now sleeping in the womb of time would stand there and think them, when these two had suffered and erred their full, and been long forgotten!

They formed a strange contrast, those two sweet women, as they passed together into the sacred stillness of the church—the one stately, dark, and splendid, with an unrestful trouble in her eyes; the other almost insignificant in figure, but pure and patient of face, and with steady blue eyes which never wavered. Did they guess, those two, as they walked thus together, how closely their destines were linked? Did they know that each at heart was striving for the same prize—a poor one indeed, but still all the world to them? Perhaps they did, very vaguely, and it was the pressure of their common trouble that drew them closer together in those days. But if they did, they never spoke of it; and as for little Dorothy, she never dreamed of winning. She was content to be allowed to toil along in the painful race.

When they reached the pew that the Ceswicks habitually occupied, they found Miss Ceswick and Florence already there. Jeremy had refused to come; he had a most unreasonable antipathy to parsons. Mr. Halford he liked, but of this new man he would have none. The general curiosity to see him was to Jeremy inexplicable, his opinion being that he should soon see a great deal more of him than he liked. “Just like a pack of girls running after a new doll,” he growled; “well, there is one thing, you will soon be tired of hearing him squeak.”

As the service went on, the aisles of the great church grew dim except where the setting sun shot a crimson shaft through the west window, which wandered from spot to spot and face to face, and made them glorious. When it came to the hymn before the sermon, Eva could scarcely see to read, and with the exception of the crimson pencil of sunlight that came through the head of the Virgin Mary, and wavered restlessly about, and the strong glow of the lights upon the pulpit, the church was almost dark.

When the new clergyman, Mr. Plowden, ascended the steps of the ancient pulpit and gave out his text, Eva looked at him in common with the rest of the congregation. Mr. Plowden was a large man of a somewhat lumbering make. His head, too, was large, and covered with masses of rather coarse-textured black hair. The forehead was prominent, and gave signs of intellectual power; the eyebrows thick and strongly-marked, and in curious contrast to the cold light-grey eyes that played unceasingly beneath them. All the lower part of the face, which, to judge from the purple hue of the skin, Nature had intended should be plentifully clothed with hair, was clean shaven, and revealed a large jaw, square chin, and pair of thick lips. Altogether Mr. Plowden was considered a fine man, and his face was generally spoken of as “striking.” Perhaps the most curious thing about it, however, was a species of varicose vein on the forehead, which was generally quite unnoticeable, but whenever he was excited or nervous stood out above the level of the skin in the form of a perfect cross. It was thus visible when Eva looked at him, and it struck her as being an unpleasant mark to have on one's forehead. She turned her eyes away—the man did not please her fastidious taste—and listened for his voice. Presently it came; it was powerful and even musical, but coarse.

“He is not a gentleman,” thought Eva to herself; and then dismissing him and his sermon too from her mind, she leaned back against the poppy-head at the end of the pew, half-closed her eyes, and let her thoughts wander in the way that thoughts have the power to do in church. Far cross the sea they flew, to where a great vessel, labouring in a heavy gale, was ploughing her steady way along—to where a young man stood clinging to the iron stanchions, and gazed out into the darkness with sorrow in his eyes.

Wonderfully soft and tender grew her beautiful face as the vision passed before her soul; the ripe lips quivered, and there was a world of love in the half-opened eyes. And just then the wandering patch of glory perceived her, settled on her like a butterfly upon a flower, and for a while wandered no longer.

Suddenly she became aware of a momentary pause in the even flow of the clergyman's eloquence, and waking from her reverie, glanced up at that spot of light surrounding him, and as she did so it struck her that she herself was illuminated with a more beautiful light—that he and she alone were distinguishable out of all the people beneath that roof.

The same thought had evidently struck Mr. Plowden, for he was gazing intently at her.

Instinctively she drew back into the shadow, and Mr. Plowden went on with his sermon. But he had driven away poor Eva's vision; there only remained of it the sad reproachful look of those dark eyes.

Outside the church Dorothy found Jeremy waiting to escort her home. They all went together as far as the Cottage. When they got clear of the crowd Florence spoke:

“What a good-looking man Mr. Plowden is, and how well he preached!”

“I did not like him much,” said Dorothy.

“What do you think of him, Eva?” asked Florence.

“I? Oh, I do not know. I do not think he is a gentleman.”

“I am sure that he is not,” put in Jeremy. “I saw him by the post-office this morning. He is a cad.”

“Rather a sweeping remark that, is it not, Mr. Jones?” said Florence.

“I don't know if it is sweeping or not,” answered Jeremy sententiously, “but I am sure that it is true.”

Then they said good-night, and went their separate ways.