The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XIII
When last we saw Eva she had just become privately engaged to the Reverend James Plowden. But the marriage was not to take place till the following spring, and the following spring was a long way off. Vaguely she hoped something might occur to prevent it, forgetting that, as a rule, in real life it is only happy things which accidents occur to prevent. Rare, indeed, is it that the Plowdens of this world are prevented from marrying the Evas; Fate has sufficient to do in thwarting the Ernests. And, meanwhile, her position was not altogether unendurable, for she had made a bargain with her lover that the usual amenities of courtship were to be dispensed with. There were to be no embracings or other tender passages; she was not even to be forced to call him James. “James!” how she detested the name! Thus did the wretched girl try to put off the evil day, much as the ostrich is supposed to hide her head in a bush and indulge in dreams of fancied security. Mr. Plowden did not object; he was too wary a hunter to do so. While his stately prey was there with her head in the thickest of the bush he was sure of her. She would never wake from her foolish dream till the ripe moment came to deliver the fatal blow, and all would be over. But if, on the contrary, he startled her now, she might take flight more swiftly than he could follow, and leave him alone in the desert.
So when Eva made her little stipulations he acquiesced in them, after only just so much hesitation as he thought would seem lover-like. “Life, Eva,” he said, sententiously, “is a compromise. I yield to your wishes.” But in his heart he thought that a time would come when she would have to yield to him, and his cold eye gleamed. Eva saw the gleam, and shuddered prophetically.
The Reverend Mr. Plowden did not suffer much distress at the coldness with which he was treated. He knew that his day would come, and was content to wait for it like a wise man. He was not in love with Eva. A nature like his is scarcely capable of any such feeling as that, for instance, which Eva and Ernest bore to each other. True love, crowned with immortality, veils his shining face from such men as Mr. Plowden. He was fascinated by her beauty, that was all. But his cunning was of a superior order, and he was quite content to wait. So he contrived to extract a letter from Eva, in which she talked of “our engagement,” and alluded to “our forthcoming marriage,” and waited.
And thus the time went on all too quickly for Eva. She was quietly miserable, but she was not acutely unhappy. That was yet to come, with other evil things. Christmas came and went, the spring came too, and with the daffodils and violets came Ernest's letter.
Eva was down the first one morning, and was engaged in making the tea in the Cottage dining-room, when that modern minister to the decrees of Fate, the postman, brought the letter. She recognised the writing in a moment, and the tea-caddy fell with a crash on to the floor. Seizing the sealed letter, she tore it open and read it swiftly. O, what a wave of love surged up in her heart as she read! Pressing the senseless paper to her lips, she kissed it again and again.
“O Ernest!” she murmured; “O my love, my darling!”
Just then Florence came down, looking cool and composed, and giving that idea of quiet strength which is the natural attribute of some women.
Eva pushed the letter into her bosom.
“What is the matter, Eva?” said Florence, quietly, noting her flushed face, “and why have you upset the tea?”
“Matter!” she answered, laughing happily—she had not laughed so for months; “O, nothing—I have heard from Ernest, that is all.”
“Indeed!” answered her sister, with a troubled smile on her dark face; “and what has our runaway to say for himself?”
“Say! O, he has a great deal to say, and I have something to say too. I am going to marry him.”
“Indeed! And Mr. Plowden?”
Eva turned pale.
“Mr. Plowden! I have done with Mr. Plowden.”
“Indeed!” said Florence, again; “really this is quite romantic. But please pick up that tea. Whoever you marry, let us have some breakfast in the meanwhile. Excuse me for one moment, I have forgotten my handkerchief.”
Eva did as she was bid, and made the tea after a fashion.
Meanwhile Florence went to her room and scribbled a note, enclosed it in an envelope, and rang the bell.
The servant answered.
“Tell John to take this to Mr. Plowden's lodgings at once; and if he should be out, to follow him till he finds him, and deliver it.”
Ten minutes later Mr. Plowden got the following note:
“Come here at once. Eva has heard from Ernest Kershaw, and announces her intention of throwing you over and marrying him. Be prepared for a struggle, but do not show that you have heard from me. You must find means to hold your own. Burn this.”
Mr. Plowden whistled as he laid the paper down. Going to his desk, he unlocked it, and extracted the letter he had received from Eva, in which she acknowledged her engagement to him, and then, seizing his hat, walked swiftly towards the Cottage.
Meanwhile Florence made her way downstairs again, saying to herself as she went, “An unlucky chance. If I had seen the letter first, I would have burned it. But we shall win yet. She has not the stamina to stand out against that brute.”
As soon as she reached the dining-room Eva began to say something more about her letter, but her sister stopped her quickly.
“Let me have my breakfast in peace, Eva. We will talk of the letter afterwards. He does not interest me, your Ernest, and it takes away my appetite to talk business at meals.”
Eva ceased, and sat silent; breakfast had no charms for her that morning.
Presently there was a knock at the door, and Mr. Plowden entered with a smile of forced gaiety on his face.
“How do you do, Florence?” he said; “how do you do, dear Eva? You see I have come to see you early this morning. I want a little refreshment to enable me to get though my day's duty. The early suitor has come to pick up the worm of his affections,” and he laughed at his joke.
Florence shuddered at the simile, and thought to herself that there was a fair chance of the affectionate worm disagreeing with the early suitor.
Eva said nothing. She sat quite still and pale.
“Why, what is the matter with you both? Have you seen a ghost?”
“Not exactly; but I think that Eva has received a message from the dead,” said Florence, with a nervous laugh.
Eva rose. “I think, Mr. Plowden,” she said, “that I had better be frank with you at once. I ask you to listen to me for a few moments.”
“Am I not always at your service, dear Eva?”
“I wish,” began Eva, and broke down—“I wish,” she went on again, “to appeal to your generosity and to your feelings as a gentleman.”
Mr. Plowden bowed with mock humility and smiled too—a very ugly smile.
“You are aware that, before I became engaged to you, I had had a previous affair.”
“With the boy who committed a murder,” put in Mr. Plowden.
“With a gentleman who had the misfortune to kill a man in a duel,” explained Eva.
“The Church and the law call it murder.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Plowden, we are dealing neither with the Church nor the law; we are dealing with the thing as it is called among gentlemen and ladies.”
“Go on,” said Mr. Plowden.
“Well, misunderstandings, which I need not now enter into, arose with reference to that affair, though, as I told you, I loved the man. To-day I have heard from him, and his letter puts everything straight in my mind, and I see how wrong and unjust has been my behaviour to him, and I know that I love him more than ever.”
“Curse the fellow's impudence!” said the clergyman, furiously; “if he were here I would give him a bit of my mind!”
Eva's spirit rose, and she turned on him with flashing eyes, looking like a queen in her imperial beauty.
“If he were here, Mr. Plowden, you would not dare to look him in the face. Men like you only take advantage of the absent.”
The clergyman ground his teeth. He felt his furious temper rising and did not dare to answer, though he was a bold man, in face of a woman. He feared lest it should get beyond him; but beneath his breath he muttered, “You shall pay for that, my lady!”
“Under these circumstances,” went on Eva, “I appeal to you as a gentleman to release me from an engagement into which, as you know, I have been drawn more by force of circumstances than by my own wish. Surely it is not necessary for me to say any more.”
Mr. Plowden rose and came and stood quite close to her, so that his face was within a few inches of her eyes.
“Eva,” he said, “I am not going to be trifled with like this. You have promised to marry me, and I shall keep you to your promise. You laid yourself out to win my affection, the affection of an honest man.”
Again Florence smiled, and Eva made a faint motion of dissent.
“Yes, but you did, you encouraged me. It is very well for you to deny it now, when it suits your purpose, but you did, and you know it, and your sister there knows it.”
Florence bowed her head in assent.
“And now you wish, in order to gratify an unlawful passion for a shedder of blood—you wish to throw me over, to trample upon my holiest feelings, and to rob me of the prize which I have won. No, Eva, I will not release you.”
“Surely, surely, Mr. Plowden,” said Eva, faintly, for she was a gentle creature, and the man's violence overwhelmed her, “you will not force me into a marriage which I tell you is repugnant to me? I appeal to your generosity to release me. You can never oblige me to marry you when I tell you that I do not love you, and that my whole heart is given to another man.”
Mr. Plowden saw that his violence was doing its work, and determined to follow it up. He raised his voice till it was almost a shout.
“Yes,” he said, “I will; I will not submit to such wickedness. Love! that will come. I am quite willing to take my chance of it. No, I tell you fairly that I will not let you off; and if you try to avoid fulfilling your engagement to me I will do more: I will proclaim you all over the country as a jilt; I will bring an action for breach of promise of marriage against you—perhaps you did not know that men can do that as well as women—and cover your name with disgrace! Look, I have your written promise of marriage”; and he produced her letter.
Eva turned to her sister.
“Florence,” she said, “cannot you say a word to help me? I am overwhelmed.”
“I wish I could, Eva dear,” answered her sister, kindly; “but how can I? What Mr. Plowden says is just and right. You are engaged to him, and are in honour bound to marry him. O, Eva, do not bring trouble and disgrace upon us all by your obstinacy! You owe something to your name as well as to yourself, and something to me too. I am sure that Mr. Plowden will be willing to forget all about this if you will undertake never to allude to it again.”
“O yes, certainly, Miss Florence. I am not revengeful; I only want my rights.”
Eva looked faintly from one to the other; her head sank, and great black rings painted themselves beneath her eyes. The lily was broken at last.
“You are very cruel,” she said, slowly; “but I suppose it must be as you wish. Pray God I may die first, that is all!” and she put her hands to her head and stumbled from the room, leaving the two conspirators facing each other.
“Come, we got over that capitally,” said Mr. Plowden, rubbing his hands. “There is nothing like taking the high hand with a woman. Ladies must sometimes be taught that gentlemen have rights as well as themselves.”
Florence turned on him with bitter scorn.
“Gentlemen! Mr. Plowden, why is the word so often on your lips? Surely, after the part you have just played, you do not presume to rank yourself among gentlemen? Listen! it suits my purposes that you should marry Eva, and you shall marry her; but I will not stoop to play the hypocrite with a man like you. You talk of yourself as a gentleman, and do not scruple to force an innocent girl into a wicked marriage, and to crush her spirit with your cunning cruelty. A gentleman, forsooth!—a satyr, a devil in disguise!”
“I am only asserting my rights,” he said furiously, “and whatever I have done, you have done more.”
“Do not try your violence on me, Mr. Plowden; it will not do. I am not made of the same stuff as your victim. Lower your voice, or leave the house and do not enter it again.”
Mr. Plowden's heavy under-jaw fell a little; he was terribly afraid of Florence.
“Now,” she said, “listen! I do not choose that you should labour under any mistake. I hold your hand in this business, though to have to do with you in any way is in itself a defilement,” and she wiped her delicate fingers on a pocket-handkerchief as she said the word, “because I have an end of my own to gain. Not a vulgar end like yours, but a revenge which shall be almost divine or diabolical, call it which you will, in its completeness. Perhaps it is a madness, perhaps it is an inspiration, perhaps it is a fate. Whatever it is, it animates me body and soul, and I will gratify it, though to do so I have to use a tool like you. I wished to explain this to you. I wished, too, to make it clear to you that I consider you contemptible. I have done both, and I have now the pleasure to wish you good-morning.”
Mr. Plowden left the house white with fury, and cursing in a manner remarkable in a clergyman.
“If she wasn't so handsome, hang me if I would not throw the whole thing up!” he said.
Needless to say, he did nothing of the sort; he only kept out of Florence's way.