The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter VIII
Ernest did not sleep well that night: the scene of the evening haunted his dreams, and he awoke with a sense of oppression that follows impartially on the heels of misfortune, folly, and lobster-salad. Nor did the broad light of the summer day disperse his sorrows; indeed, it only served to define them more clearly. Ernest was a very inexperienced youth, but, inexperienced as he was, he could not but recognise that he had let himself in for an awkward business. He was not in the smallest degree in love with Florence Ceswick; indeed, his predominant feeling towards her was one of fear. She was, as he had said, so terribly in earnest. In short, though she was barely a year older than himself, she was a woman possessed of a strength of purpose and a rigidity of will that few of her sex ever attain to at any period of their lives. This he had guessed long ago; but what he had not guessed was that all the tide of her life set so strongly towards himself.
That unlucky kiss, as it were, had shot the bolt of the sluice-gates, and now he was in a fair way to be overwhelmed by the rush of the waters. What course of action he had best take with her now it was beyond his powers to decide. He thought of taking Dorothy into his confidence and asking her advice, but instinctively he shrank from doing so. Then he thought of Jeremy, only, however, to reject the idea. What would Jeremy know of such things? He little guessed that Jeremy was swelling with a secret of his own, of which he was too shy to deliver himself. It seemed to Ernest, the more he considered the matter, that there was only one safe course for him to follow, and that was to run away. It would be ignominious, it is true, but at any rate Florence could not run after him. He had made arrangements to meet a friend, and go for a tour with him in France towards the end of the month of August, or about five weeks from the present date. These arrangements he now determined to modify; he would go for his tour at once.
Partially comforted by these reflections, he dressed himself that evening for the dance at the Smythes', where he was to meet Florence, who, however, he reflected gratefully, could not expect him to kiss her there. The dance was to follow a lawn-tennis party, to which Dorothy, accompanied by Jeremy, had gone already, Ernest having, for reasons best known to himself, declined to go to the lawn-tennis, preferring to follow them to the dance.
When he entered the ballroom at the Smythes', the first quadrille was in progress. Making his way up the room, Ernest soon came upon Florence Ceswick, who was sitting with Dorothy, while in the background loomed Jeremy's gigantic form. Both the girls appeared to be waiting for him, for on his approach Florence, by a movement of her dress, and an almost imperceptible motion of her hand, at once made room for him on the bench beside her, and invited him to sit down. He did so.
“You are late,” she said; “why did you not come to the lawn-tennis?”
“I thought that our party was sufficiently represented,” he answered lamely, nodding towards Jeremy and his sister. “Why are you not dancing?”
“Because nobody asked me,” she said, sharply; “and besides, I was waiting for you.”
“Jeremy,” said Ernest, “here is Florence saying that you didn't ask her to dance.”
“Don't talk humbug, Ernest; you know I don't dance.”
“No, indeed,” put in Dorothy, “it is easy to see that; I never saw anybody look so miserable as you do.”
“Or so big,” said Florence, consolingly.
Jeremy shrank back into his corner and tried to look smaller. His sister was right, a dance was untold misery to him. The quadrille had ceased by now and presently the band struck up a waltz which Ernest danced with Florence. They both waltzed well, and Ernest kept going as much as possible perhaps in order to give no opportunity for conversation. At any rate no allusion was made to the events of the previous evening.
“Where are your aunt and sister, Florence?” he asked, as he led her back to her seat.
“They are coming presently,” she answered, shortly.
The next dance was a galop, and this he danced with Dorothy, whose slim figure looked, in the white muslin dress she wore, more like that of a child than a grown woman. But child or woman, her general appearance was singularly pleasing and attractive. Ernest thought that he had never seen the quaint, puckered little face, with the two steady blue eyes in it, look so attractive. Not that it was pretty—it was not, but it was a face with a great deal of thought in it; moreover, it was a face through which the goodness of its owner seemed to shine like the light through a lamp.
“You look so nice to-night, Doll,” said Ernest.
She flushed with pleasure, and answered simply, “I am glad you think so.”
“Yes, I do think so; you are really pretty.”
“Nonsense, Ernest! Can't you find some other butt to practise your compliments on? What is the good of wasting them on me? I am going to sit down.”
“Really, Doll, I don't know what has come to you lately, you have grown so cross.”
She sighed as she answered gently:
“No more do I, Ernest. I did not mean to speak crossly, but you should not make fun of me. Ah, here come Miss Ceswick and Eva.”
They had rejoined Florence and Jeremy. The two ladies were seated, while Ernest and Jeremy were standing, the former in front of them, the latter against the wall behind, for they were gathered at the topmost end of the long room. At Dorothy's announcement both the lads bent forward to look down the room, and both the women fixed their eyes on Ernest's face anxiously, expectantly, something as a criminal fixes his eyes on the foreman of a jury who is about to pronounce words that will one way or another affect all his life.
“I don't see them,” said Ernest carelessly. “O, here they come. By George!”
Whatever these two women were looking for in his face, they had found it, and, to all appearance, it pleased them very little. Dorothy turned pale, and leaned back with a faint smile of resignation; she had expected it, that smile seemed to say; but the blood flamed like a danger-flag into Florence's haughty features—there was no resignation there. And meanwhile Ernest was staring down the room, quite unaware of the little comedy that was going on around him; so was Jeremy, and so was every other man who was there to stare.
And this was what they were staring at. Up the centre of the long room walked, or rather swept, Miss Ceswick, for even at her advanced age she moved like a queen, and at any other time her appearance would in itself have been sufficient to excite remark. But people were not looking at Miss Ceswick, but rather at the radiant creature who accompanied her, and whose stature dwarfed her, tall as she was. Eva Ceswick—for it was she—was dressed in white soie de chiné, in the bosom of which was fixed a single rose. The dress was cut low, and her splendid neck and arms were entirely without ornament. In the masses of dark hair, which was coiled like a coronet round her head, their glistened a diamond star. Simple as was her costume, there was a grandeur about it that struck the whole room; but in truth it sprang from the almost perfect beauty of the woman who wore it. Any dress would have looked beautiful upon that noble form, that towered so high, and yet seemed to float up the room with the grace of a swan and sway like a willow in the wind. But her loveliness did not end there. From those dark eyes there shone a light that few men could look upon and forget, and yet there was nothing bold about it. It was like the light of a star.
On she came, her lips half-parted, seemingly unconscious of the admiration she was attracting, eclipsing all other women as she passed, and making their beauty, that before had seemed bright enough, look poor and mean beside her own. It took but a few seconds, ten perhaps, for her to walk up the room, and yet to Ernest it seemed long before her eyes met his own, and something passed from them into his heart that remained there all his life.
His gaze made her blush a little, it was so unmistakable. She guessed who he was, and passed him with a little inclination of her head.
“Well, here we are at last,” she said, addressing her sister in her pure musical voice. “What do you think? something went wrong with the wheel of the fly, and we had to stop to get it mended!”
“Indeed!” answered Florence; “I thought that perhaps you came late in order to make a more effective entry.”
“Florence,” said her aunt, reprovingly, “you should not say such things.”
Florence did not answer, but put her lace handkerchief to her lip. She had bitten it till the blood ran.
By this time Ernest had recovered himself. He saw several young fellows bearing down upon them, and knew what they were seeking.
“Miss Ceswick,” he said, “will you introduce me?”
No sooner said than done, and at that moment the band began to play a waltz. In five seconds more Eva was floating down the room upon his arm, and the advancing young gentlemen were left lamenting, and, if the truth must be told, anathematising “that puppy Kershaw” beneath their breath.
There was a spirit in her feet; she danced divinely. Lightly leaning on his arm, they swept round the room, the incarnation of youthful strength and beauty, and, as they passed, even sour old Lady Astleigh lowered her ancient nose an inch or more, and deigned to ask who was that handsome young man dancing with the “tall girl.” Presently they halted, and Ernest observed a more than usually intrepid man coming towards them, with the design, no doubt, of obtaining an introduction and the promise of dances. But again he was equal to the occasion. “Have you a card?” he asked.
“Will you allow me to put my name down for another dance? I think that our steps suit.”
“Yes, we get on nicely. Here it is.”
Ernest took it. The young man had arrived now, and was hovering round and glowering. Ernest nodded to him cheerfully, and “put his name” very much down—indeed, for no less than three dances and an extra.
Eva opened her eyes a little, but she said nothing; their steps suited so very well.
“May I ask you, Kershaw——” began his would-be rival.
“O, certainly,” answered Ernest benignly, “I will be with you presently”; and they floated off again on the rising wave of the music.
When the dance ended, they stopped just by the spot where Miss Ceswick was sitting. Florence and Dorothy were both dancing, but Jeremy, who did not dance, was standing by her, looking as sulky as a bear with a sore head. Eva stretched out her hand to him with a smile.
“I hope that you are going to dance with me, Mr. Jones,” she said.
“I don't dance,” he answered, curtly, and walked away.
She glanced after him wonderingly; his manner was decidedly rude.
“I do not think that Mr. Jones is in a good temper,” she said to Ernest, with a smile.
“O, he is a queer fellow; going out always makes him cross,” he answered carelessly.
Then the gathering phalanx of would-be partners marched in and took possession and Ernest had to retire.
The ball was drawing to its close. The dancing-room, notwithstanding its open windows, was intensely hot, and many of the dancers were strolling in the gardens, among them Ernest and Eva. They had just danced their third waltz, in which they had discovered that their steps suited better than ever.
Florence, Dorothy, and her brother were also walking, all three together. It is curious how people in misfortune cling to one another. They walked in silence; they had nothing to say. Presently they caught sight of two tall figures standing by a bush, on which was fixed a dying Chinese lantern. It is sometimes unfortunate to be tall, it betrays one's identity; there was no mistaking the two figures, though it was so dark. Instinctively the three halted. And just then the expiring Chinese lantern did an unkind thing; it caught fire, and threw a lurid light upon a very pretty little scene. Ernest was bending forward towards Eva with all his soul in his expressive eyes, and begging for something. She was blushing sweetly, and looking down at the rose in her bosom; one hand, too, was raised, as though to unfasten it. The light for a moment was so strong that Dorothy afterwards remembered noticing how long Eva's curling black eyelashes looked against her cheek. In another second it had flared out, and the darkness hid the sequel; but it may here be stated that when Eva re-appeared in the ballroom she had lost her rose.
Charming and idyllic as undoubtedly was this tableau très vivant of youth and beauty, obeying the primary laws of nature, and making love in a Garden of Eden illumined with Chinese lanterns, it did not seem to please any of the three spectators.
Jeremy actually forgot the presence of ladies, and went so far as to swear aloud. Nor did they reprove him; probably it gave their feelings some vicarious relief.
“I think we had better be going home; it is late,” said Dorothy, after a pause. “Jeremy, will you go and order the carriage?”
Florence said nothing, but she took her fan in both her hands and bent it slowly, so that the ivory sticks snapped one by one with a succession of sharp reports. Then she threw it down, and set her heel upon it, and ground it into the path. There was something inexpressibly cruel about the way in which she crushed the pretty toy. The action seemed to be the appropriate and unconscious outcome of some mental process, and it is an odd proof of the excitement under which they were both labouring, that at the time the gentle-minded Dorothy saw in it nothing strange. At that moment the two girls were nearer each other than they had ever been before, or would ever be again; the common stroke of misfortune for a moment welded their opposite natures into one. At that moment, too, they knew that they both loved the same man; before, they had guessed it, and had not liked each other the better for it, but now that was forgotten.
“I think, Florence,” said Dorothy, with a little tremor in her voice, “that we are 'out of the running,' as Jeremy says. Your sister is too beautiful for any woman to stand against her. He has fallen in love with her.”
“Yes,” said Florence, with a bitter laugh and a flash of her brown eyes; “his highness has thrown a handkerchief to a new favourite, and she has lost no time in picking it up. We always used to call her 'the sultana'”; and she laughed again.
“Perhaps,” suggested Dorothy, “she only means to flirt with him a little; I hoped that Jeremy——”
“Jeremy! what chance has Jeremy against him? Ernest would make more way with a woman in two hours than Jeremy would in two years. We all love to be taken by storm, my dear. Do not deceive yourself. Flirt with him! she will love him wildly in a week. Who could help loving him?” she added, with a thrill of her rich voice.
Dorothy said nothing: she knew that it was true, and they walked a few steps in silence.
“Dorothy, do you know what generally happens to favourites and sultanas?”
“They come to a bad end; the other ladies of the harem murder them, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don't be frightened; I don't mean that we should murder my dear sister. What I do mean is, that I think we might manage to depose her. Will you help me if I find a plan?”
Dorothy's better self had had time to assert itself by now; the influence of the blow was over, and their natures were wide apart again.
“No, certainly not,” she answered. “Ernest has a right to choose for himself, and if your sister gets the better of us, it is the fortune of war, that is all—though certainly the fight is not quite fair,” she added, as she thought of Eva's radiant loveliness.
Florence glanced at her contemptuously.
“You have no spirit,” she said.
“What do you mean to do?”
“Mean to do!” she answered, swinging round and facing her; “I mean to have my revenge.”
“O, Florence, it is wicked to talk so! Whom are you going to be revenged on—Ernest? It is not his fault if—if you are fond of him.”
“Yes, it is his fault; but whether it is his fault or not, I suffer. Remember what I say, for it will come true; he shall suffer. Why should I bear it all alone? But he shall not suffer so much as she. I told her that I was fond of him, and she promised to leave him alone—do you hear that?—and yet she is taking him away from me to gratify her vanity—she, who can have anybody she likes.”
“Hush, Florence! Don't give way to your temper so, or you will be overheard. Besides, I daresay that we are making a great deal of nothing; after all, she only gave him a rose.”
“I don't care if we are overheard, and it is nothing. I guessed that it would be so, I knew it would be so, and I know what is coming now. Mark my words, within a month Ernest and my sweet sister will be sitting about on the cliff with their arms around each other's necks. I have only to shut my eyes, and I can see it. O, here is Jeremy! Is the carriage there, Jeremy? That's right. Come on, Dorothy, let us go and say good-night and be off. You will drop me at the cottage, won't you?”
Half an hour later the fly that had brought Miss Ceswick and Eva came round, and with it Ernest's dog-cart. But as Miss Ceswick was rather anxious about the injured wheel, Ernest, as in duty bound, offered to see them safe home, and ordering the cart to follow, got into the fly without waiting for an answer.
Of course Miss Ceswick went to sleep, but it is not probable that either Ernest or Eva followed her example. Perhaps they were too tired to talk; perhaps they were beginning to find out what a delightful companionship is to be found in silence; perhaps his gentle pressure of the little white-gloved hand, that lay unresisting in his own, was more eloquent than any speech.
Don't be shocked, my reader; you or I would have done the same, and thought ourselves very lucky fellows!
At any rate, that drive was over all too soon.
Florence opened the door for them; she had told the servant to go to bed.
When Eva reached the door of her room she turned round to say good-night to her sister; but the latter, instead of contenting herself with a nod, as was her custom, came and kissed her on the face.
“I congratulate you on your dress and on your conquest,” and again she kissed her and was gone.
“It is not like Florence to be so kind,” reflected her younger sister. “I can't remember when she kissed me last.”
Eva did not know that as there are some kisses that declare peace, and set the seal on love, there are others that announce war, and proclaim the hour of vengeance or treachery. Judas kissed his Master when he betrayed Him.