The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XII
When Alston left the room, Ernest sat down on the bed again.
“I am not going to be domineered over by Alston,” he said excitedly; “he presumes upon his friendship.”
Jeremy came in and sat beside him, and took hold of his arm.
“My dear fellow, don't talk like that. You know he means kindly by you. You are not yourself just yet. By-and-by you will see things in a different light.”
“Not myself, indeed! Would you be yourself, I wonder, if you knew that the woman who had pinned all your soul to her bosom, as though it were a ribbon, was going to marry another man to-morrow?”
“Old fellow, you forget, though I can't talk of it in as pretty words as you can, I loved her too. I could bear to give her up to you, especially as she didn't care a brass farthing about me; but when I think about this other fellow, with his cold grey eye, and that mark on his confounded forehead—ah, Ernest, it makes me sick!”
And they sat on the bed together and groaned in chorus, looking, to tell the truth, rather absurd.
“I tell you what it is, Jeremy,” said Ernest, when he had finished groaning at the vision of his successful rival as painted by Jeremy; “you are a good fellow, and I am a selfish beast. Here have I been kicking up all this devil's delight, and you haven't said a word. You are a more decent chap than I am, Jeremy, by a long chalk. And I daresay you are as fond of her as I am. No, I don't think you can be that, though.”
“My dear fellow, there is no parallel between our cases. I never expected to marry her. You did, and had every right to do so. Besides, we are differently made. You feel things three times as much as I do.”
Ernest laughed bitterly.
“I don't think that I shall ever feel anything again,” he said. “My capacities for suffering will be pretty nearly used up. O, what a sublime fool is the man who gives all his life and heart to one woman! No man would have done it; but what could you expect of a couple of boys like we were? That is why women like boys: it is so easy to take them in—like puppies going to be drowned, in love and faith they lick the hand that will destroy them. It must be amusing—to the destroyers. By Jove, Alston was right about his ideals! Do you know, I am beginning to see all these things in quite a different light. I used to believe in women, Jeremy—actually I used to believe in them. I thought they were better than we are,” and he laughed hysterically. “Well, we buy our experience; I shan't make the mistake again.”
“Come, come, Ernest, don't go on talking like that. You have got a blow as bad as death, and the only thing to do is to meet it as you would death—in silence. You will not go after that fellow, will you? It will only make things worse, you see. You won't have time to kill him before he marries her, and it really would not be worth while getting hanged about it when the mischief is done. There is literally nothing to be done except grin and bear it. We won't go back to England at all, but right up to the Zambesi, and hunt elephants; and as things have turned out, if you should get knocked on the head, why, you won't so much mind it, you know.”
Ernest made no answer to this consolatory address, and Jeremy left him alone, thinking that he had convinced him. But the Ernest of midday was a very different man from the Ernest of the morning, directing the erection of “parasols” over melons. The cruel news that the mail had brought him, and which from force of association caused him for years afterwards to hate the sight of a letter, had, figuratively speaking, destroyed him. He could never recover from it, though he would certainly survive it. Sharp indeed must be the grief which kills. But all the bloom and beauty had gone from his life; the gentle faith which he had placed in women was gone (for so narrow-minded are we all, that we cannot help judging a class by our salient experience of individuals), and, from that day forward, for many years, he was handed over to a long-drawn-out pain, which never quite ceased, though it frequently culminated in paroxysms, and to which death itself would have been almost preferable.
But as yet he did not realise all these things; what he did realise was an intense and savage thirst for revenge, so intense, indeed, that he felt as though he must put himself in a way to gratify it, or his brain would go. To-morrow, he thought, was to see the final act of his betrayal. To-day was the eve of her marriage, and he as powerless to avert it as a child. O, great God! And yet through it all he knew she loved him.
Ernest, like many other pleasant, kindly-tempered men, if once stung into action by the sense of overpowering wrong was extremely dangerous. Ill indeed would it have fared with Mr. Plowden if he could have come across him at that moment. And he honestly meant that it should fare ill with that reverend gentleman. So much did he mean it that, before he left his room he wrote his resignation of membership of the volunteer corps to which he belonged, and took it up to the Government office. Then, remembering that the Potchefstroom post-cart left Pretoria at dawn on the following morning, he made his way to the office, and ascertained that there were no passengers booked to leave by it. But he did not take a place; he was too clever to do that. Leaving the office, he went to the bank, and drew one hundred and fifty pounds in gold. Then he went home again. Here he found a Kafir messenger, dressed in the Government white uniform, waiting for him with an official letter.
The letter acknowledged receipt of his resignation, but “regretted that, in the present unsettled state of affairs, his Excellency was, in the interest of the public service, unable to dispense with his services.”
Ernest dismissed the messenger, and tore the letter across. If the Government could not dispense with him, he would dispense with the Government. His aim was to go to Potchefstroom, and thence to the Diamond Fields. Once there, he could take the post-cart to Cape Town, where he would meet the English mail steamer, and in one month from the present date be once more in England.
That evening he dined with Mr. Alston, Jeremy, and Roger as usual, and no allusion was made to the events of the morning. About eleven o'clock he went to bed, but not to sleep. The post-cart left at four. At three he rose very quietly, and put a few things into a leather saddle-bag, extracted his revolver from under the bed where he had thrown it when, in the first burst of his agony, he had been interrupted in this contemplated act of self-destruction, and buckled it round his waist. Then he slipped out through the window of his room, crept stealthily down the garden-path, and struck out for the Potchefstroom road. But, silently and secretly as he went, there went behind him one more silent and secret than he—one to whose race, through long generations of tracking foes and wild beasts, silence and secrecy had become an instinct. It was the Hottentot boy, Aasvögel.
The Hottentot followed him in the dim light, never more than fifty paces behind him, sometimes not more than ten, and yet totally invisible. Now he was behind a bush or a tuft of rank grass; now he was running down a ditch; and now again creeping over the open on his belly like a two-legged snake. As soon as Ernest got out of the town, and began to loiter along the Potchefstroom road, the Hottentot halted, uttering to himself a guttural expression of satisfaction. Then, watching his opportunity, he turned and ran swiftly back to Pretoria. In ten minutes he was at Ernest's house.
In front of the door were five horses, three with white riders, two being held by Kafirs. On the verandah, as usual, smoking, was Mr. Alston, and with him Jeremy, the latter armed and spurred.
The Hottentot made his report and vanished.
Mr. Alston turned and addressed Jeremy in the tone of one giving an order.
“Now go,” he said at last, handing him a paper; and Jeremy went, and, mounting one of the led horses, a powerful cream-coloured animal with a snow-white mane and tail, galloped off in the twilight, followed by the three white men.
Meanwhile Ernest walked quietly along the road. Once he paused, thinking that he heard the sound of galloping horses, half a mile or so to the left. It passed, and he went on again. Presently the mist began to lift, and the glorious sun came up; then came a rumble of wheels running along the silent road, and the post-cart with six fresh horses was upon him. He halted, and held up his hand to the native driver. The man knew him, and stopped the team at once.
“I am going with you to Potchefstroom, Apollo,” he said.
“All right, sar; plenty of room inside, sar. No passenger this trip, sar, and damn good job too.”
Ernest got up, and off they went. He was safe now. There was no telegraph to Potchefstroom, and nothing could catch the post-cart if it had an hour's start.
A mile further on there was a hill, up which the unlovely Apollo walked his horses. At the top of the hill was a clump of mimosa-bush, out of which, to the intense astonishment of both Ernest and Apollo, there emerged four mounted men with a led horse. One of these men was Jeremy; it was impossible to mistake his powerful form, sitting on his horse with the grip of a centaur.
They rode up to the post-cart in silence. Jeremy motioned to Apollo to pull up. He obeyed, and one of the men dismounted and seized the horse's head.
“Tricked, by Heaven!” said Ernest.
“You must come back with me, Ernest,” said Jeremy quietly. “I have a warrant for your arrest as a deserter, signed by the Governor.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then my orders are to take you back.”
Ernest drew his revolver.
“This is a trick,” he said, “and I shall not go back.”
“Then I must take you,” was the reply; and Jeremy coolly dismounted.
Ernest's eyes flashed dangerously, and he lifted the pistol.
“O yes, you can shoot me if you like; but if you do, the others will take you;” and he continued to walk towards him.
Ernest cocked his revolver and pointed it.
“At your peril!” he said.
“So be it,” said Jeremy, and he walked up to the cart.
Ernest dropped his weapon.
“It is mean of you, Jeremy,” he said. “You know I can't fire at you.”
“Of course you can't, old fellow. Come, skip out of that; you are keeping the mail. I have a horse ready for you, a slow one; you won't be able to run away on him.”
Ernest obeyed, feeling rather small, and in half an hour was back at his own house.
Mr. Alston was waiting for him.
“Good-morning, Ernest,” he said, cheerfully. “Went out driving and came back riding, eh?”
Ernest looked at him, and his brown cheek flushed.
“You have played me a dirty trick,” he said.
“Look here, my boy,” answered Mr. Alston, sternly, “I am slow at making a friend; but when once I take his hand I hold it till one of the two grows cold. I should have been no true friend to you if I had let you go on this fool's errand, this wicked errand. Will you give me your word that you will not attempt to escape, or must I put you under arrest?”
“I give you my word,” answered Ernest, humbled; “and I ask your forgiveness.”
Thus it was that, for the first time in his life, Ernest tried to run away.
That morning Jeremy, missing Ernest, went into his room to see what he was doing. The room was shuttered to keep out the glare of the sun; but when he got used to the light he discovered Ernest sitting at the table, and staring straight before him with a wild look in his eyes.
“Come in, old fellow, come in,” he called out, with bitter jocularity, “and assist in this happy ceremony. Rather dark, isn't it? but lovers like the dark. Look!” he went on, pointing to his watch, which lay upon the table before him, “by English time it is now about twenty minutes past eleven. They are being married now, Jeremy, my boy, I can feel it. By Heaven, I have only to shut my eyes, and I can see it!”
“Come, come, Ernest,” said Jeremy, “don't go on like that. You are not yourself, man.”
He laughed and answered:
“I am sure I wish I wasn't. I tell you I can see it all. I can see Kesterwick Church full of people, and before the altar, in her white dress, is Eva; but her face is whiter than her dress, Jeremy, and her eyes are very much afraid. And there is Florence, with her dark smile, and your friend Mr. Plowden, too, with his cold eyes and the cross upon his forehead. Oh, I assure you, I can see them all. It is a pretty wedding, very. There, it is over now, and I think I will go away before the kissing.”
“O, hang it all, Ernest, wake up!” said Jeremy, shaking him by the shoulder. “You will drive yourself mad if you give your imagination too much rein.”
“Wake up, my boy! I feel more inclined to sleep. Have some grog. Won't you? Well, I will.”
He rose and went to the mantelpiece, on which stood a square bottle of hollands and a tumbler. Rapidly filling the tumbler with raw spirit, he drank it as fast as the contractions of his throat would allow. He filled it again, and drank that too. Then he fell insensible upon the bed.
It was a strange scene, and in some ways a coarse one, yet not without a pathos of its own.
“Ernest,” said Mr. Alston, three weeks later, “you are strong enough to travel now; what do you say to six months or a year among the elephants? The oxen are in first-rate condition, and we ought to get to our ground in six or seven weeks.”
Ernest, who was lying back in a low cane-chair, looking very thin and pale, thought for a moment before he answered:
“All right, I'm your man; only let's get off soon. I am tired of this place, and want something to think about.”
“You have given up any idea of returning to England?”
“And what do you say, Jeremy?”
“Where Ernest goes, there will I go also. Besides, to shoot an elephant is the one ambition of my life.”
“Good! then we will consider that settled. We shall want to pick up another eight-bore; but I know of one a fellow wants to sell, a beauty, by Riley. I will begin to make arrangements at once.”