The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XVI

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter XVI: Ernest Accepts a Commision

A young man of that ardent, impetuous, intelligent mind which makes him charming and a thing to love, as contrasted with the young man of the sober, cautious, money-making mind (infinitely the more useful article), which makes him a “comfort” to his relatives and a thing to respect, avoid, and marry your daughter to, has two great safeguards standing between him and the ruin which dogs the heels of the ardent, the impetuous, and the intelligent. These are, his religion and his belief in women. It is probable that he will start on his erratic career with a full store of both. He has never questioned the former; the latter, so far as his own class in life is concerned, are to him all sweet and good, and perhaps there is one particular star who only shines for him, and is the sweetest and best of them all.

But one day the sweetest and best of all throws him over, being a younger son, and marries his eldest brother, or a paralytic cotton-spinner of enormous wealth and uncertain temper, and then a sudden change comes over the spirit of the ardent, intelligent, and impetuous one. Not being of a well-balanced mind, he rushes to the other extreme, and believes in his sore heart that all women would throw over such as he and marry eldest brothers or superannuated cotton-spinners. He may be right or he may be wrong. The materials for ascertaining the fact are wanting, for all women engaged to impecunious young gentlemen to not get the chance. But, right or wrong, the result upon the sufferer is the same—his faith in women is shaken, if not destroyed. Nor does the mischief stop there; his religion often follows his belief in the other sex, for in some mysterious way the two things are interwoven. A young man of the nobler class of mind in love is generally for the time being a religious man; his affection lifts him more or less above the things of earth, and floats him on its radiant wings a day's journey nearer heaven.

The same thing applies conversely. If a man's religious belief is emasculated, he becomes suspicious of the “sweetest and best”; he grows cynical, and no longer puts faith in superlatives. From atheism there is but a small step to misogyny, or rather to that disbelief in humanity which embraces a profounder constituent disbelief in its feminine section, and in turn, as already said, the misogynist walks daily along the edge of atheism. Of course there is a way out of these discouraging results. If the mind that suffers and falls through its suffering be of the truly noble order, it may in time come to see that this world is a world not of superlatives, but of the most arid positives, with here and there a little comparative oasis to break the monotony of its general outline. Its owner may learn that the fault lay with him, for believing too much, for trusting too far, for setting up as an idol a creature exactly like himself, only several degrees lower beneath proof; and at last he may come to see that though “sweetest and bests” are chimerical, there are women in the world who may fairly be called “sweet and good.”

Or, to return to the converse side of the picture, it may occur to our young gentleman that although Providence starts us in the world with a full inherited or indoctrinated belief in a given religion, that is not what Providence understands by faith. Faith, perfect faith, is only to be won by struggle, and in most cultivated minds by the passage through the dim, mirage-clad land of disbelief. The true believer is he who has trodden down disbelief, not he who has run away from it. When we have descended from the height of our childhood, when we have entertained Apollyon, and having considered what he has to say, given him battle and routed him in the plain, then, and not till then, can we say with guileless hearts, “Lord, I believe,” and feel no need to add the sadly qualifying words, “help Thou mine unbelief.”

Now these are more or less principles of human nature. They may not be universally true, probably nothing is—that is, as we define and understand truth. But they apply to the majority of those cases which fall strictly within their limits. Among others they applied rather strikingly to Ernest Kershaw. Eva's desertion struck his belief in womanhood to the ground, and soon his religion lay in the dust beside it. Of this his life for some years after that event gave considerable evidence. He took to evil ways, he forgot his better self. He raced horses, he devoted himself with great success to love-affairs that he would have done better to leave alone. Sometimes, to his shame be it said, he drank—for the excitement of drinking, not for the love of it. In short, he gave himself and all his fund of energy up to any and every excitement and dissipation he could command, and he managed to command a good many. Travelling rapidly from place to place in South Africa, he was well known and well liked in all. Now he was at Kimberley, now at King William's Town, now at Durban. In each of these places he kept race-horses; in each there was some fair woman's face that grew the brighter for his coming.

But Ernest's face did not grow brighter; on the contrary, his eyes acquired a peculiar sadness which was almost pathetic in one so young. He could not forget. For a few days or a few months he might stifle thought, but it always re-rose. Eva, pale queen of women, was ever there to haunt his sleep, and though in his waking hours he might curse her memory, when night drew the veil from truth the words he murmured were words of love eternal.

He no longer prayed, he no longer reverenced woman, but he was not the happier for having freed his soul from these burdens. He despised himself. Occasionally he would take stock of his mental condition, and at each stocktaking he would notice that he had receded, not progressed. He was growing coarse, his finer sense was being blunted; he was no longer the same Ernest who had written that queer letter to his betrothed before disaster overwhelmed him. Slowly and surely he was sinking. He knew it, but he did not try to save himself. Why should he? He had no object in life. But at times a great depression and weariness of existence would take possession of him. It has been said that he never prayed; that is not strictly true. Once or twice he did throw himself upon his knees and pray with all his strength that he might die. He did more: he persistently courted death, and, as is usual in such cases, it persistently avoided him. About taking his own life he had scruples, or perhaps he would have taken it. In those dark days he hated life, and in his calmer and more reflective moments he loathed the pleasures and excitements by means of which he strove to make it palatable. His was a fine strung mind, and, in spite of himself, he shuddered when it was set to play such coarse music.

During those years Ernest seemed to bear a charmed existence. There was a well-known thoroughbred horse in the Transvaal which had killed two men in rapid succession. Ernest bought it and rode it, and it never hurt him. Disturbances broke out in Secocoeni's country, and one of the chief strongholds was ordered to be stormed. Ernest rode down from Pretoria with Jeremy to see the fun, and, reaching the fort the day before the attack, got leave to join the storming party. Accordingly, next day at dawn they attacked in the teeth of a furious fusillade, and in time took the place, though with very heavy loss to themselves. Jeremy's hat was shot off with one bullet and his hand cut by another; Ernest, as usual, came off scathless; the man next to him was killed, but he was not touched. After that he insisted upon going buffalo-shooting towards Delagoa Bay in the height of the fever-season, having got rid of Jeremy by persuading him to go to New Scotland to see about a tract of land they had bought. He started with a dozen bearers and Mazooku. Six weeks later he, Mazooku, and three bearers returned—all the rest were dead of fever.

On another occasion, Alston, Jeremy, and himself were sent on a political mission to a hostile chief, whose stronghold lay in the heart of almost inaccessible mountains. The “indaba” (palaver) took all day, and was purposely prolonged in order to enable the intelligent native to set an ambush in the pass through which the white chiefs must go back, with strict instructions to murder all three of them. When they left the stronghold the moon was rising, and, as they neared the pass, up she came behind the mountains in all her splendour, flooding the wide valley behind them with her mysterious light, and throwing a pale, sad lustre on every stone and tree. On they rode steadily through the moonlight and the silence, little guessing how near death was to them. The faint beauty of the scene sank deep into Ernest's heart, and presently, when they came to a spot where a track ran out loopwise from the main pass, returning to it a couple of miles farther on, he half insisted on their taking it, because it passed over yet higher ground, and would give them a better view of the moon-bathed valley. Mr. Alston grumbled at “his nonsense” and complied, and meanwhile a party of murderers half a mile farther on played with their assegais, and wondered why they did not hear the sound of the white men's feet. But the white men had already passed along the higher path three-quarters of a mile to their right. Ernest's love of moonlight effects had saved them all from a certain and perhaps from a lingering death.

It was shortly after this incident that Ernest and Jeremy were seated together on the verandah of the same house at Pretoria where they had been living before they went on the elephant hunt, and which they had now purchased. Ernest had been in the garden, watering a cucumber-plant he was trying to develop from a very sickly seedling. Even if he only stopped a month in a place he would start a little garden; it was a habit of his. Presently he came back to the verandah, where Jeremy was as usual watching the battle of the red and black ants, which after several years' encounter was not yet finally decided.

“Curse that cucumber-plant!” said Ernest emphatically, “it won't grow. I tell you what it is, Jeremy, I am sick of this place; I vote we go away.”

“For goodness' sake, Ernest, let us have a little rest; you do rattle one about so in those confounded post-carts,” replied Jeremy, yawning.

“I mean, go away from South Africa altogether.”

“Oh,” said Jeremy, dragging his great frame into an upright position, “the deuce you do! And where do you want to go to—England?”

“England! no, I have had enough of England. South America, I think. But perhaps you want to go home. It is not fair to keep dragging you all over the world.”

“My dear fellow, I like it, I assure you. I have no wish to return to Mr. Cardus's stool. For goodness' sake, don't suggest such a thing; I should be wretched.”

“Yes, but you ought to be doing something with your life. It is all very well for me, who am a poor devil of a waif and stray, to go on with this sort of existence, but I don't see why you should; you should be making your way in the world.”

“Wait a bit, my hearty!” said Jeremy, with his slow smile; “I am going to read you a statement of our financial affairs which I drew up last night. Considering that we have been doing nothing all this time except enjoy ourselves, and that all our investments have been made out of income, which no doubt your respected uncle fancies we have dissipated, I do not think that the total is so bad.” And Jeremy read:


“Landed property in Natal and the Transvaal, estimated value £2,500 This house 940 Stocks—waggons, etc., say 300 Race-horses

“I have left that blank.”

“Put them at £800,” said Ernest, after thinking. “You know I won £500 with Lady Mary on the Cape Town Plate last week.”

Jeremy went on:


“Race-horses and winnings £1,300 Sundries—cash, balance, &c. 180 ———- Total £5,220

“Now, of this we have actually saved and invested about twenty-five hundred, the rest we have made or it has accumulated. Now, I ask you, where could we have done better than that, as things go? So don't talk to me about wasting my time.”

“Bravo, Jeremy! My uncle was right, after all: you ought to have been a lawyer; you are first-class at figures. I congratulate you on your management of the estates.”

“My system is simple,” answered Jeremy. “Whenever there is any money to spare I buy something with it, then you are not likely to spend it. Then, when I have things enough—waggons, oxen, horses, what not—I sell them and buy some land; that can't run away. If you only do that sort of thing long enough, you will grow rich at last.”

“Sweetly simple, certainly. Well, five thousand will go a long way towards stocking a farm or something in South America, or wherever we make up our minds to go, and then I don't think that we need draw on my uncle any more. It is hardly fair to drain him so. Old Alston will come with us, I think, and will put in another five thousand. He told me some time ago that he was getting tired of South Africa, with its Boers and blacks, in his old age, and had a fancy to make a start in some other place. I will write to him to-night. What hotel is he staying at in Maritzburg? the Royal, isn't it? And then I vote we clear in the spring.”

“Right you are, my hearty!”

“But I say, Jeremy, I really should advise you to think twice before you come. A fine, upstanding young man like you should not waste his sweetness on the desert air of Mexico, or any such place. You should go home and be admired of the young women—they appreciate a great big chap like you—and make a good marriage, and rear up a large family in a virtuous, respectable, and Jones-like fashion. I am a sort of wandering comet without the shine; but, I repeat, I see no reason why you should play tail to a second-class comet.”

“Married! get married! I! No, thank you, my boy. Look you, Ernest, in the words of the prophet, 'When a wise man openeth his eye, and seeth a thing, verily he shutteth it not up again.' Now, I opened my eye and saw one or two things in the course of our joint little affair—Eva, you know.”

Ernest winced at the name.

“I beg your pardon,” said Jeremy, noticing it; “I don't want to allude to painful subjects, but I must to make my meaning clear. I was very hard hit, you know, over that lady, but I stopped in time, and, not having any imagination to speak of, did not give it rein. What is the consequence? I have got over it; sleep well at night, have a capital appetite, and don't think about her twice a week. But with you it is different. Hard hit, too, large amount of imagination galloping about loose, so to speak—rapturous joy, dreams of true love and perfect union of souls, which no doubt would be well enough if the woman could put in her whack of soul, which she can't, not having it to spare, but in a general way is gammon. Results, when the burst-up comes: want of sleep, want of appetite, a desire to go buffalo-shooting in the fever-season, and to be potted by Basutos from behind rocks. In short, a general weariness and disgust of life—O yes, you needn't deny it, I have watched you—most unwholesome state of mind. Further results: horse-racing, a disposition to stop away from church, and nip Cape sherry; and, worse sign of all, a leaning to ladies' society. Being a reasoning creature I notice this, and draw my own deductions, which amount to the conclusion that you are in a fair way to go to the deuce, owing to trusting your life to a woman. And the moral of all this, which I lay to heart for my own guidance, is, never speak to a woman if you can avoid it, and when you can't, let your speech be yea, yea, and nay, nay, more especially 'nay.' Then you stand a good chance of keeping your appetite and peace of mind, and of making your way in the world. Marriage, indeed!—never talk to me of marriage again;” and Jeremy shivered at the thought.

Ernest laughed out loud at this lengthy disquisition.

“And I'll tell you what, old fellow,” he went on, drawing himself up to his full height, and standing right over Ernest, so that the latter's six feet looked very insignificant beside him, “never you speak to me about leaving you again, unless you want to put me clean out of temper, because, look here, I don't like it. We have lived together since we were twelve, or thereabouts, and, so far as I am concerned, I mean to go on living together to the end of the chapter, or till I see I am not wanted. You can go to Mexico, or the North Pole, or Acapulto, or wherever you like, but I shall go too, and so that is all about it.”

“Thank you, old fellow,” said Ernest, simply; and at that moment their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a Kafir messenger with a telegram addressed to Ernest. He opened it and read it. “Hullo,” he said, “here is something better than Mexico; listen.


“'Alston, Pieter Maritzburg, to Kershaw, Pretoria. High Commissioner has declared war against Cetywayo. Local cavalry urgently required for service in Zululand. Have offered to raise a small corps of about seventy mounted men. Offer has been accepted. Will you accept post of second in command?—you would hold the Queen's commission. If so, set about picking suitable recruits. Terms ten shillings a day, all found. Am coming up Pretoria by this post-cart. Ask Jones if he will accept sergeant-majorship.'

“Hurrah!” sang out Ernest, with flashing eyes. “Here is some real service at last. Of course you will accept.”

“Of course,” said Jeremy, quietly; “but don't indulge in rejoicings yet; this is going to be a big business, unless I am mistaken."