The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter VI

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The Witch's Head by H. Rider Haggard
Chapter VI: How It All Came About

How did it all come about?

Let us try and discover. Dorothy and Ernest were together all day long. They only separated when Mazooku came to lead the latter off to bed. At breakfast-time he led him back again, and handed him over to Dorothy for the day. Not that our Zulu friend liked this; he did not like it at all. It was, he considered, his business to lead his master about, and not that of the “Rosebud,” who was, as he discovered, after all nothing but a girl connected with his master neither by birth nor marriage. On this point there finally arose a difference of opinion between the Rosebud and Mazooku.

The latter was leading Ernest for his morning walk, when Dorothy, perceiving it, and being very jealous of what she considered her rights, sallied out and took his hand from the great Zulu's. Then did Mazooku's long-pent indignation break forth.

“O Rosebud, sweet and small Rosebud!” he commenced, addressing her in Zulu, of which, needless to say, she understood not one word, “why do you come and take my father's hand out of my hand? Is not Mazimba my father blind, and am I not his dog, his old dog, to lead him in his blindness? Why do you take his bone from a dog?”

“What is the man saying?” asked Dorothy.

“He is offended because you come to lead me; he says that he is my dog, and that you snatch his bone from him. A pretty sort of bone, indeed!” he added.

“Tell him,” said Dorothy, “that here in this country I hold your hand. What does he want? Is he not always with you? Does he not sleep across your door? What more does he want?”

Ernest translated her reply.

“Ow!” said the Zulu, with a grunt of dissatisfaction.

“He is a faithful fellow, Doll, and has stood by me for many years; you must not vex him.”

But Dorothy, after the manner of loving women, was tenacious of what she considered her rights.

“Tell him that he can walk in front,” she said, putting on an obstinate little look—and she could look obstinate when she liked. “Besides,” she added, “he cannot be trusted to lead you. I am sure he was tipsy last night.”

Ernest translated the first remark only—into the latter he did not care to inquire, for the Zulu vowed that he could never understand Dorothy's English, and Mazooku accepted the compromise. Thus for awhile the difference was patched up.

Sometimes Dorothy and Ernest would go out riding together; for, blind as he was, Ernest could not be persuaded to give up his riding. It was a pretty sight to see them; Ernest mounted on his towering black stallion, “The Devil,” which in his hands was as gentle as a lamb, but with everybody else fully justified his appellation, and Dorothy on a cream-coloured cob Mr. Cardus had given her, holding in her right hand a steel guiding-rein linked to “The Devil's” bit. In this way they would wander all over the country-side, and sometimes, when a good piece of turf presented itself, even venture on a sharp canter. Behind them Mazooku rode as groom, mounted on a stout pony, with his feet stuck, Zulu fashion, well out at right angles to his animal's side.

They were a strange trio.

So from week's end to week's end Dorothy was ever by Ernest's side, reading to him, writing for him, walking and riding with him, weaving herself into the substance of his life.

At last there came one sunny August day, when they were sitting together in the shade of the chancel of Titheburgh Abbey. It was a favourite spot of theirs, for the grey old walls sheltered them from the glare of the sun and the breath of the winds. It was a spot, too, rich in memories of the dead past, and a pleasant place to sit.

Through the gaping window-places came the murmur of the ocean and the warmth of the harvest sunshine; and gazing out by the chancel doorway, Dorothy could see the long lights of the afternoon dance and sparkle on the emerald waves.

She had been reading to him, and the book lay idle on her knees as she gazed dreamily at those lights and shadows, a sweet picture of pensive womanhood. He, too, had relapsed into silence, and was evidently thinking deeply.

Presently she roused herself.

“Well, Ernest,” she said, “what are you thinking about? You are as dull as—as the dullest thing in the world, whatever that may be. What is the dullest thing in the world?”

“I don't know,” he answered, awakening. “Yes, I think I do; an American novel.”

“Yes, that is a good definition. You are as dull as an American novel.”

“It is unkind of you to say so, Doll, my dear. I was thinking of something, Doll.”

She made a little face, which of course he could not see, and answered quickly:

“You generally are thinking of something. You generally are thinking of—Eva, except when you are asleep, and then you are dreaming of her.”

Ernest coloured up.

“Yes,” he said, “it is true; she is often more or less in my mind. It is my misfortune, Doll, not my fault. You see, I do not do things by halves.”

Dorothy bit her lip.

“She should be vastly flattered, I am sure. Few women can boast of having inspired such affection in a man. I suppose it is because she treated you so badly. Dogs love the hand that whips them. You are a curious character, Ernest. Not many men would give so much to one who has returned so little.”

“So much the better for them. If I had a son, I think that I should teach him to make love to all women, and to use their affection as a means of amusement and self-advancement, but to fall in love with none.”

“That is one of your bitter remarks, for which I suppose we must thank Eva. You are always making them now. Let me tell you that there are good women in the world; yes, and honest, faithful women, who, when they have given their heart, are true to their choice, and would not do it violence to be made Queen of England. But you men do not go the right way to find them. You think of nothing but beauty, and never take the trouble to learn the hearts of the sweet girls who grow like daisies in the grass all round you, but who do not happen to have great melting eyes or a splendid figure. You tread them underfoot, and if they were not so humble they would be crushed, as you rush off and try to pick the rose; and then you prick your fingers and cry out, and tell all the daisies how shamefully the rose has treated you.”

Ernest laughed, and Dorothy went on:

“Yes, it is an unjust world. Let a woman but be beautiful, and everything is at her feet, for you men are despicable creatures, and care for little except what is pleasant to the senses. On the other hand, let her be plain, or only ordinary-looking—for the fate of most of us is just to escape being ugly—and you pay as much regard to her as you do to the chairs you sit on. And yet, strange as it may seem to you, probably she has her feelings, and her capacities for high affections, and her imaginative power, all working vigorously behind her plain little face. Probably, too, she is better than your beauty. Nature does not give everything. When she endows a woman with perfect loveliness, she robes her either of her heart or her brains, or perhaps of both. But you men don't see that, because you won't look; so in course of time all the fine possibilities in Miss Plain-face wither up, and she becomes a disappointed old maid, while my Lady Beauty pursues her career of selfishness and mischief-making, till at last she withers up too, that's one comfort. We all end in bones, you know, and there isn't much difference between us then.”

Ernest had been listening with great amusement to Dorothy's views. He had no idea that she took such matters into her shrewd consideration.

“I heard a girl say the other day that, on the whole, most women preferred to become old maids,” he said.

“Then she told fibs; they don't. It isn't natural that they should—that is, if they care for anybody. Just think, there are more than ten hundred thousand of our charming sisterhood in these islands, and more women being born every day! Ten hundred thousand restless, unoccupied, disgusted, loveless women! It is simply awful to think of. I wonder they don't breed a revolution. If they were all beautiful, they would.”

He laughed again.

“Do you know what remedy Mazooku would apply to this state of affairs?”

“No.”

“The instant adoption of polygamy. There are no unmarried women among the Natal Zulus, and as a class they are extremely happy.”

Dorothy shook her head.

“It wouldn't do here; it would be too expensive.”

“I say, Doll, you spoke just now of our 'charming sisterhood'; you are rather young to consider yourself an old maid. Do you want to become one?”

“Yes,” she said sharply.

“Then you don't care for anybody, eh?”

She blushed up furiously.

“What business is it of yours, I should like to know?” she answered.

“Well, Doll, not much. But will you be angry with me if I say something?”

“I suppose you can say what you like.”

“Yes; but will you listen?”

“If you speak I cannot help hearing.”

“Well, then, Doll—now don't be angry, dear.”

“O Ernest, how you aggravate me! Can't you get it out and have done with it?”

“All right, Doll, I'll steam straight ahead this time. It is this. I have sometimes lately been vain enough to think that you cared a little about me, Doll, although I am as blind as a bat. I want to ask you if it is true. You must tell me plain, Doll, because I cannot see your eyes to learn the truth from them.”

She turned quite pale at his words, and her eyes rested upon his blind orbs with a look of unutterable tenderness. So it had come at last.

“Why do you ask me that question, Ernest? Whether or no I care for you, I am very sure that you do not care for me.”

“You are not quite right there, Doll, but I will tell you why I ask it; it is not out of mere curiosity.

“You know all the history of my life, Doll, or at least most of it. You know how I loved Eva, and gave her all that a foolish youngster can give to a weak woman—gave it in such a way that I can never have it back again. Well, she deserted me; I have lost her—certainly for this world and perhaps for all others if there are any others, since I cannot see why people in a new existence should differ greatly from what they were in the old. The leopard does not change its spots, you know! The best happiness of my life has been wrecked beyond redemption; that is a fact which must be accepted as much as the fact of my blindness. I am physically and morally crippled, and certainly in no fit state to ask a woman to marry me on the ground of my personal advantages. But if, dear Doll, you should, as I have sometimes thought, happen to care about anything so worthless, then, you see, the affair assumes a different aspect.”

“I don't quite understand you. What do you mean?” she said, in a low voice.

“I mean that in that case I will ask you if you will take me for a husband.”

“You do not love me, Ernest; I should weary you.”

He felt for her hand, found it, and took it in his own. She made no resistance.

“Dear,” he said, “it is this way: I can never give you that passion I gave to Eva, because, thank God, the human heart can know it but once in a life; but I can and will give you a husband's tenderest love. You are very dear to me, Doll, though it is not in the same way that Eva is dear. I have always loved you as a sister, and I think that I should make you a good husband. But, before you answer me, I want you to thoroughly understand about Eva. Whether I marry or not, I fear that I shall never be able to shake her out of my mind. At one time I thought that perhaps if I made love to other women I might be able to do so, on the principle that one nail drives out another. But it was a failure; for a month or two I got the better of my thoughts, then they would get the better of me again. Besides, to tell you the truth, I am not quite sure that I wish to do so. My trouble about this woman has become a part of myself. It is, as I told you, my 'evil destiny'; and goes where I go. And now, dear Doll, you will see why I asked you if you really cared for me, before I asked you to marry me. If you do not care for me, then it will clearly not be worth your while to marry me, for I am about as poor a catch as a man can well be; if you do—well, then it is a matter for your consideration.”

She paused awhile and answered:

“Suppose that the positions were reversed, Ernest; at least, suppose this: suppose that you had loved your Eva all your life, but she had not loved you except as a brother, having given her heart to some other man, who was, say, married to somebody else, or in some way separated from her. Well, supposing that this man died, and that one day Eva came to you and said, 'Ernest, my dear, I cannot love you as I loved him who has gone, and whom I one day hope to rejoin in heaven; but if you wish it, and it will make you the happier, I will be your true and tender wife.' What should you answer her, Ernest?”

“Answer? why, I suppose that I should take her at her word and be thankful. Yes, I think that I should take her at her word.”

“And so, dear Ernest, do I take you at your word; for as it is with you about Eva, so it is with me about you. As a child I loved you; ever since I have been a woman I have loved you more and more, even through all those cold years of absence. And when you came back, ah, then it was to me as it would be to you if you suddenly once more saw the light of day. Ernest, my beloved, you are all my life to me, and I take you at your word, my dear. I will be your wife.”

He stretched out his arms, found her, drew her to him, and kissed her on the lips.

“Doll, I don't deserve that you should love me so; it makes me feel ashamed that I have not everything to give you in return.”

“Ernest, you will give me all you can; I mean to make you grow very fond of me. Perhaps too one day you will give me 'everything.'”

He hesitated a little while before he spoke again.

“Doll,” he said, “you are sure quite that you do not mind about Eva?”

“My dear Ernest, I accept Eva as a fact, and make the best of her, just as I should if I wanted to marry a man with a monomania that he was Henry VIII.”

“Doll, you know I call her my evil destiny. The fact is, I am afraid of her; she overpowers my reason. Well, now, Doll, what I am driving at is this: supposing—not that I think she will—that she were to crop up again, and take it into her head to try and make a fool of me! She might succeed, Doll.”

“Ernest, will you promise me something on your honour?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Promise me that you will hide from me nothing that passes between Eva and yourself, if anything ever should pass, and that in this matter you will always consider me not in the light of a wife, but of a trusted friend.”

“Why do you ask me to promise that?”

“Because then I shall, I hope, be able to keep you both out of trouble. You are not fit to look after yourselves, either of you.”

“I promise. And now, Doll, there is one more thing. Notwithstanding what I said just now it is somehow fixed in my mind that my fate and that woman's are intertwined. I believe, perhaps foolishly enough, that what we are now passing through is but a single phase of interwoven existence; that we have already passed through possibly many stages and that many higher stages and developments await us. The question is, do you care to link your life with that of a man who holds such a belief?”

“Ernest, I daresay your belief is a true one, at any rate to you who believe it, for it seems probable that as we sow so shall we reap, as we spiritually imagine so shall we spiritually inherit, since causes must in time produce effects. These beliefs are not implanted in our hearts for nothing, and surely in the wide heavens there is room for the realisation of them all. But I too have my beliefs, and one of them is, that in God's great hereafter every loving and desiring soul will be with the soul thus loved and desired. For him or her, at any rate, the other will be there, forming a part of his or her life, though, perhaps, it may elsewhere and with others also be pursuing its own desires and satisfying its own aspirations. So you see, Ernest, your beliefs will not interfere with mine, nor shall I be afraid of losing you in another place.

“And now, Ernest, my heart's love, take my hand, and let me lead you home; take my hand as you have taken my heart, and never leave go of it again till at last I die.”

So hand in hand they went home together, through the lights and shadows of the twilight.