The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter III

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter III: Eva Takes a District

The Reverend James Plowden was born of rich but honest parents in the sugar-broking way. He was one of a large family, who were objects of anxious thought to Mr. and Mrs. Plowden. These worthy people, aware of the disadvantages under which they laboured in the matter of education, determined that neither trouble nor money should be spared to make their children “genteel.” And so it came to pass that the “mansion” near Bloomsbury was overrun with the most expensive nurses, milliners, governesses, and tutors, all straining every nerve to secure the perfect gentility of the young Plowdens. The result was highly ornamental, but scarcely equivalent to the vast expense incurred. The Plowden youth of both sexes may be said to have been painted, and varnished, and gilded into an admirable imitation of gentlefolks; but if the lacquer-work would stand the buffetings of the world's weather was another question, and one which does not concern us, except in so far as it has to do with a single member of the family.

Master James Plowden came about halfway down the family list, but he might just as well have stood at the head of it, for he ruled his brothers and sisters—old and young—with a heavy rod. He was the strong one of the family, strong both in mind and body, and he had a hand of iron.

For his misdeeds were his brothers thrashed, preferring to take those ills they knew of from the hands of the thrasher rather than endure the unimagined horrors brother James would make ready for them should they venture to protest.

Thus it was that he became to be considered par excellence the good boy of the family, as he was certainly the clever one, and bore every sort of blushing honour thick upon him.

It was to an occurrence in his boyhood that Mr. Plowden owed his parents' determination to send him into the Church. His future career had always been a matter of much speculation to them, for they belonged to that class of people who love to arrange their infants' destines when the infants themselves are still in the cradle, and argue their fitness for certain lines of life from remarks which they make at three years old.

Now, James's mamma had a very favourite parrot with a red tail, and out of this tail it was James's delight to pull the feathers, having discovered that so doing gave a parrot a lively twinge of pain. The onus of the feather-pulling, if discovered, was shouldered on to a chosen brother, who was promptly thrashed.

But on one occasion things went wrong with Master James. The parrot was climbing up the outside of his cage, presenting the remainder of his tail to the hand of the spoiler in a way that was irresistibly seductive. But, aware of the fact that his enemy was in the neighbourhood, he kept a careful lookout from the corner of his eye, and the moment that he saw James's stealthy hand draw near his tail made a sudden dart at it, and actually succeeded in making his powerful beak meet through its forefinger. James shrieked with pain and fury, and shaking the bird on to the floor, stunned it with a book. But he was not satisfied with this revenge, for, as soon as he saw that it could no longer bite, he seized it and twisted its neck.

“There, you devil!” he said, throwing the creature into the cage. “Hullo, something has burst in my forehead!”

“O James, what have you done?” said his little brother Montague, well knowing that he had a lively personal interest in James's misdoings.

“Nonsense! what have you done? Now remember, Montague, you killed the parrot.”

Just then Mr. and Mrs. Plowden came in from a drive, and a very lively scene ensued, into which we need not enter. Suffice it to say that, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, James was acquitted on the ground of general good character, and Montague, howling and protesting his innocence, was led off to execution. Justly fearful lest something further should transpire, James was hurriedly leaving the room, when his mother called him back.

“Why, what is that on your forehead?”

“Don't know,” answered James; “something went snap there just now.”

“Well I never! Just look at the boy, John; he has got a cross upon his forehead.”

Mr. Plowden papa examined the phenomenon very carefully, and then, solemnly removing his spectacles, remarked with much deliberation:

“Elizabeth, that settles the point.”

“What point, John?”

“What point! Why, the point of the boy's profession. It is, as you remark, a cross upon his forehead. Good!—he shall go into the Church. Now, I must decline to be argued with, Elizabeth. The matter is settled.”

And so in due course James Plowden, Esq., went to Cambridge, and became the Reverend James Plowden.

Shortly after the Reverend James had started in life as a curate—having first beguiled his parents into settling on himself a portion just twice as large as that to which he was entitled—he found it convenient to cut off his connection with a family he considered vulgar, and a drag upon his professional success. But somehow, with all his gifts—and undoubtedly he was by nature well-endowed, especially as regards his mind, that was remarkable for a species of hard cleverness and persuasive power—and with all the advantages which he derived from being in receipt of an independent income, the Reverend James had not hitherto proved a conspicuous success. He had held some important curacies, and of late had acted as the locum tenens of several gentlemen who, like Mr. Halford, through loss of health or other reasons, had been called away from their livings for a length of time.

But from all these places the Reverend James had departed without regret, nor had there been any very universal lamentations over his going. The fact of the matter was that the Reverend James was not a popular man. He had ability in plenty, and money in plenty, and would expend both without stint if he had an end to gain. He was more or less of a good companion, too, in the ordinary sense of the word; that is, he could make himself agreeable in a rough, exaggerated kind of way to both men and women. Indeed, by the former he was often spoken of carelessly as a good “fellow”; but women, or rather ladies, following their finer instincts, disliked him intensely. He jarred upon them.

Of course, it is impossible to lay down any fixed rule about men, but there are two tokens by which they may be known. The first is by their friends; the second by the degree of friendship and affection to which they are admitted by women. The man to whom members of the other sex attach themselves is in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a good fellow, and women's instinct tells them so, or they would not love him. It may be urged that women often love blackguards. To this the answer is, that there must be a good deal of good mixed up with the blackguardism. Show me the man whom two or three women of his own rank love or have loved with all their honest hearts, and I will trust all I have into his hands and not be a penny the poorer.

But women did not love the Reverend James Plowden, although he had for several years come to the conclusion that it was desirable that they should, or rather that one of them should. In plain language he had for some years past thought that he would improve his position by getting married. He was a shrewd man, and he could not disguise from himself the fact that so far he was not altogether a success. He had tried his best, but, with all his considerable advantages, he had failed. There was only one avenue to success which he had not tried, and that was marriage. Marriage with a woman of high caste, quick intellect, and beauty, might give him the tone that his social position so badly needed. He was a man in a good position, he had money, he had intelligence of a robust if of a coarse order, he had fairly good looks, and he was only thirty-five; why should he not marry blood, brains, and beauty, and shine with a reflected splendour?

Such were the thoughts which were simmering in the astute brain of the Reverend James Plowden when he first set eyes upon Eva Ceswick in the old church at Kesterwick.

Within a week or so of his arrival, Mr. Plowden, in his character of spiritual adviser to the motley Kesterwick flock, paid a ceremonious call on the Misses Ceswick. They were all at home.

Miss Ceswick and Florence welcomed him graciously; Eva politely, but with an air that said plainly that he interested her not at all. Yet it was to Eva that he chiefly directed himself. He took this opportunity to inform them all, especially Eva, that he felt the responsibilities of his position as locum tenens to weigh heavily upon him. He appealed to them all, especially Eva, to help him bear his load. He was going to institute a new system of district visiting. Would they all, especially Eva, assist him? If they would, the good work was already half done. There was so much for young ladies to do. He could assure them, from his personal experience, that one visit from a young lady, however useless she might be in a general way, which his instinct assured him these particular young ladies before him were not, had more influence with a distressed and godless family than six from well-meaning but unsympathetic clergymen like himself. Might he rely on their help?

“I am afraid that I am too old for that sort of thing, Mr. Plowden,” answered Miss Ceswick. “You might see what you can do with my nieces.”

“I am sure that I shall be delighted to help,” said Florence, “if Eva will bear me company. I always feel a shyness about intruding myself into cottages unsupported.”

“Your shyness is not surprising, Miss Ceswick. I suffered from it myself for many years, but at last I have, I am thankful to say, got the better of it. But I am sure that we shall not appeal to your sister in vain.”

“I shall be glad to help if you think that I can do any good,” put in Eva, thus directly appealed to; “but I must tell you I have no great faith in myself.”

“Do the work, Miss Ceswick, and the faith will come; sow the seed and the tree will spring up, and bear fruit too in due season.”

There was no reply, so he continued: “Then I have your permission to put you down for a district?”

“O yes, Mr. Plowden,” answered Florence. “Will you take some more tea?”

Mr. Plowden would take no more tea, but went on his way to finish the day's work he had mapped out for himself—for he worked hard and according to a strict rule—reflecting that Eva Ceswick was the loveliest woman he had ever seen.

“I think that we must congratulate you on a conquest, Eva,” said Miss Ceswick, cheerfully, as the front door closed. “Mr. Plowden never took his eyes off you, and really, my dear, I do not wonder at it; you look charming.”

Eva flushed up angrily.

“Nonsense, aunt!” she said, and left the room.

“Really,” said Miss Ceswick, “I don't know what has come to Eva lately, she is so very strange.”

“I expect that you have touched her on a sore point. I rather fancy that she has taken a liking to Mr. Plowden,” said Florence, dryly.

“O, indeed!” answered the old lady, nodding her head wisely.

In due course a district was assigned to the two Miss Ceswicks, and for her part Eva was glad of the occupation. It brought her a good deal into contact with Mr. Plowden, which was not altogether pleasant to her, for she cherished a vague dislike of the clergyman, and did not admire his shifty eyes. But, as she got to know him better, she could find nothing to justify her dislike. He was not, it is true, quite a gentleman, but that was his misfortune. His manner to herself was subdued and almost deferential; he never obtruded himself upon her society, though somehow he was in it almost daily. Indeed, he even succeeded in raising her to some enthusiasm about her work, a quality in which poor Eva had of late been sadly lacking. She thought him a very good clergyman, with his heart in his duty. But she disliked him all the same.

Eva never answered Ernest's letter. Once she began an answer, but bethought her of Florence's sage advice, and changed her mind. “He will write again,” she said to herself. She did not know Ernest; his was not a nature to humble itself before a woman. Could she have seen her lover hanging about the steps of the Maritzburg post-office when the English mail was being delivered, in order to go back to the window when the people had dispersed, and ask the tired clerk if he was “sure” that there were no more letters for Ernest Beyton, and get severely snubbed for his pains, perhaps her heart would have relented. And yet it was a performance which poor Ernest went through once a week out there in Natal.

One mail-day Mr. Alston went with him.

“Well, Ernest, has it come?” he asked, as he came down the steps, a letter from Dorothy in his hand.

“No, Alston, and never will. She has thrown me over.”

Mr. Alston took his arm, and walked away with him across the market-square.

“Look here, my lad,” he said; “the woman who deserts a man in trouble, or as soon as his back is turned, is worthless. It is a sharp lesson to learn, but, as most men have cause to know, the world is full of sharp lessons and worthless women. You know that she got your letter?”

“Yes, she told my friend so.”

“Then I tell you that your Eva, or whatever her name is, is more worthless than most of them. She has been tried and found wanting. Look,” he went on, pointing to a shapely Kafir girl passing with a pot of native beer on her head, “you had better take that Intombi to wife than such a woman as this Eva. She at any rate would stand by you in trouble, and if you fell would stop to be killed over your dead body. Come, be a man, and have done with her.”

“Ay, by Heaven I will!” answered Ernest.

“That's right; and now, look here, the waggons will be at Lydenburg in a week. Let us take the post-cart to-morrow and go up. Then we can have a month's vilderbeeste and koodoo shooting until it is safe to go into the fever country. Once you get among the big game you won't think any more about that woman. Women are all very well in their way, but if it comes to choosing between them and big game shooting, give me the big game.”