The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter XI

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In due course Jeremy duly fitted up “the witch,” as the mysterious head came to be called at Dum's Ness, in her air-tight cabinet, which he lengthened till it looked like a clock-case, in order to allow the beautiful hair to hang down at full length, retaining, however, the original door and ancient latch and hasp. His next step was to fit the plate-glass front, and exhaust the air as well as was feasible from the interior of the case. Then he screwed on the outside door, and stood it back on its bracket in the oak-panelled sitting-room, where, as has been said, it looked for all the world like an eight-day clock-case.

Just as he had finished the job, a visitor—it was Mr. de Talor—came in, and remarked that he had made a precious ugly clock. Jeremy, who disliked the De Talor, as he called him, excessively, said that he would not say so when he had seen the works, and at the same time unhasped the oak door of the cabinet, and turned the full glare of the dreadful crystal eyes on to his face. The results were startling. For a moment de Talor stared and gasped; then all the rich hues faded from his features, and he sank back in a sort of fit. Jeremy shut up the door in a hurry, and his visitor soon recovered; but for years nothing would induce him to enter that room again.

As for Jeremy himself, at first he was dreadfully afraid of “the witch,” but as time went on—for his job took him several days—he seemed to lose his awe of her, and even to find a fearful joy in her society. He spent whole hours, as he sat in his workshop in the yard tinkering at the air-tight case, in weaving histories in which this beautiful creature, whose head had been thus marvellously recovered, played the leading-part. It was so strange to look at her lovely scornful face, and think that, long ages since, men had loved it, and kissed it, and played with the waving hair.

There it was, this relic of the dead, preserved by the consummate skill of some old monk or chemist, so that it retained all its ancient beauty long after the echoes of the tragedy with which it must have been connected had died out of the world. For, as he wrought at the case, Jeremy grew certain that here was the ghastly memento of some enormous crime; indeed, by degrees, as he tacked and hammered at the lead lining, he made up a history that was quite satisfactory to his mind, appealing on doubtful points to the witch herself, who was on the table near him, and ascertaining whether she meant “yes” or “no” by the simple process of observing whether or not her eyes trembled when he spoke. It was slow work getting the story together in this fashion, but then the manufacture of the case was slow also, and it was not without its charm, for he felt it an honour to be taken into the confidence of so lovely a lady.

But if the head had a fascination for Jeremy, it had a still greater charm for his grandfather. The old man would continually slip out of the office and cross the yard to the little room where Jeremy worked, in order to stare at this wonderful relic. One night, indeed, when the case was nearly finished, Jeremy remembered that he had not locked the door of his workshop. He was already half undressed, but slipping on his coat again, he went out by the back door, and crossed the yard, carrying the key with him. It was bright moonlight, and Jeremy, having slippers on, walked without noise. When he reached the workshop, and was about to lock the door, he thought he heard a sound in the room. This startled him, and for a moment he meditated retreat, leaving the head to look after itself. Those eyes were interesting in the daytime, but he scarcely cared to face them alone at night. It was foolish, but they did look so very much alive!

After a moment's hesitation, during which the sound, whatever it was, again made itself audible, he determined to compromise matters by going round to the other side of the room and looking in at the little window. With a beating heart he stole round, and quietly peered in. The moonlight was shining bright into the room, and struck full upon the long case he had manufactured. He had left it shut, and the head inside it. Now it was open; he could clearly see the white outlines of the trembling eyes. The sound, too—a muttering sound—was still going on. Jeremy drew back, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and for the second time thought of flight. But his curiosity overcame him, and he looked again. This time he discovered the cause of the muttering.

Seated upon his carpenter's bench was his grandfather, old Atterleigh, who appeared to be staring with all his might at the head, and talking incoherently to himself. This was the noise he had heard through the door. It was an uncanny sight, and made Jeremy feel cold down the back. While he was still contemplating it, and wondering what to do, old Atterleigh rose, closed the case, and left the room. Jeremy slipped round, locked up the door, and made his way back to bed much astonished. He did not, however, say anything of what he had seen, only in future he was careful never to leave the door of his workshop open.

At last the case was finished, and for an amateur, a very good job it looked. When it was done he placed it, as already narrated, back on the bracket, and showed it to Mr. de Talor.

But from the day when Eva Ceswick nearly fell to the bottom of the cliff in the course of her antiquarian researches, things began to go wrong at Dum's Ness. Everybody felt it except Ernest, and he was thinking too much of other things. Dorothy was very unhappy in those days, and began to look thin and miserable, though she sturdily alleged, when asked, that she never felt better in her life. Jeremy himself was also unhappy, and for a good reason. He had caught the fever that women like Eva Ceswick have it in their power to give to the sons of men. His was a deep self-contained nature, very gentle and tender, not admitting many things into its affections, but loving such as were admitted with all the heart and soul and strength. And it was in the deepest depths of this loyal nature that Eva Ceswick had printed her image; before he knew it, before he had time to think, it was photographed there upon his heart, and he felt that there it must stay for good or evil; that plate could never be used again.

She had been so kind to him; her eyes had grown so bright and friendly when she saw him coming! He was sure that she liked him (which indeed she did), and once he had ventured to press her little hand, and he had thought that she had returned the pressure, and had not slept all night in consequence.

But perhaps this was a mistake. And then, just as he was getting on so nicely, came Ernest, and scattered his hopes like mists before the morning sun. From the moment that those two met, he knew that it was all over with his chance. Next, to make assurance doubly sure, Providence itself, in the shape of a shilling, had declared against him, and he was left lamenting. Well, it was all fair; but still it was very hard, and for the first time in his life he felt inclined to be angry with Ernest. Indeed, he was angry, and the fact made him more unhappy than ever, because he knew that his anger was unjust, and because his brotherly love condemned it.

But for all that, the shadow between them grew darker.

Mr. Cardus, too, had his troubles, connected, needless to say—for nothing else ever really troubled him—with his monomania of revenge. Mr. de Talor, of whose discomfiture he had at last made sure, had unexpectedly slipped out of his power, nor could he at present see any way in which to draw him back again. Consequently he was distressed. As for “Hard-riding Atterleigh,” ever since he had found himself fixed by “the witch's” crystal eyes, he had been madder than ever, and more perfectly convinced that Mr. Cardus was the devil in person. Indeed, Dorothy, who watched over the old man, the grandfather who never knew her, thought that she observed a marked change in him. He worked away at his writing as usual, but, it appeared to her, with more vigour, as though it were a thing to encounter and get rid of. He would cut the notches out of his stick calendar, too, more eagerly than heretofore, and altogether it seemed as though his life had become dominated by some new purpose. She called Mr. Cardus's attention to this change; but he laughed, and said that it was nothing, and would probably soon pass with the moon.

But if nobody else was happy, Ernest was—that is, except when he was sunk in the depths of woe, which was, on an average, about three days a week. On the occasion of these seizures, Dorothy, noting his miserable aspect and entire want of appetite, felt much alarmed, and took an occasion after supper to ask him what was the matter. Before many minutes were over she had cause to regret it; for Ernest burst forth with a history of his love and his wrongs that lasted for an hour. It appeared that another young gentleman, one of those who danced with the lovely Eva at the Smythes' ball, had been making the most unmistakable advances; he had called—three times; he had sent flowers—twice (Ernest sent them every morning, beguiling Sampson into cutting the best orchid-blooms for that purpose); he had been out walking—once. Dorothy listened quietly, till he ceased of his own accord. Then she spoke.

“So you really love her, Ernest?”

“Love her! I”—but we will not enter into a description of this young man's raptures. When he had done, Dorothy did a curious thing. She rose from her chair, and coming to where Ernest was sitting, bent over him and kissed him on the forehead. As she did so he noticed vaguely that she had great black rings round her eyes.

“I hope that you will be happy, my dear brother. You will have a lovely wife, and I think that she is as good as she is beautiful.” She spoke quietly, but somehow her voice sounded like a sob. He kissed her in acknowledgment, and she glided away.

Ernest did not think much of the incident, however. Indeed in five minutes his thoughts were back with Eva, with whom he was seriously and earnestly in love. In sober truth, the antics that he played were enough to make the angels weep to see a human being possessing the normal weight of brain making such a donkey of himself. For instance, he would promenade for hours at night in the neighbourhood of the Cottage. Once he ventured into the garden to enjoy the perfect bliss of staring at six panes of glass, got severely bitten by the house-dog for his pains, and was finally chased for a mile or more by both the dog and the policeman, who, having heard of the mysterious figure that was to be seen mooning (in every sense of the word) round the cottage, had laid up to watch for him. Next day he had the satisfaction of hearing from his adored's own lips the story of the attempted burglary, but as she told it there was a smile playing about the corners of her mouth which almost seemed to indicate that she had her suspicions as to who the burglar was. But then Ernest walked so very lame, which, considering that the teeth of a brute called Towzer had made a big hole in his calf, was not to be wondered at.

After this he was obliged to give up his midnight sighing, but he took it out in other ways. Once indeed, without warning, he flopped down on to the floor and kissed Eva's hand, and then, aghast at his own boldness, fled from the room.

At first all this amused Eva greatly. She was pleased at her conquest, and took a malicious pleasure in leading Ernest on. When she knew that he was coming she would make herself as lovely as possible, and put on all her charming little ways and graces in order more thoroughly to enslave him. Somehow, whenever Ernest thought of her in after years as she was at that period of her life, his memory would call up a vision of her in a pretty little drawing-room at the Cottage, leaning back in a low chair in such a way as to contrive to show off her splendid figure to the best advantage, also the tiny foot and slender ankle that peeped from beneath her soft white dress. There she sat, a little Skye-terrier called “Tails” on her lap, with which his rival had presented her but a fortnight before, and—yes—actually kissing the brute at intervals, her eyes shining all the time with innocent coquetry. What would not Ernest have given to occupy for a single minute the position of that unappreciative Skye-terrier! It was agony to see so many kisses wasted on a dog, and Eva, aware that he thought so, kissed the animal more vigorously than ever.

At last he could stand it no longer. “Put that dog down!” he said, peremptorily.

She obeyed him, then, remembering that he had no right to dictate to her what she should do, made an effort to pick it up again. But “Tails,” who, be it added, was not used to being kissed in private life, and thought the whole operation rather a bore, promptly bolted.

“Why should I put the dog down?” she asked, with a quick look of defiance.

“Because I hate seeing you kiss it; it is so effeminate.”

He spoke in a masterful way; it was a touch of the curb, and there are few things a proud woman resents so much as the first touch of the curb.

“What right have you to dictate what I shall or shall not do?” she asked, tapping her foot upon the floor.

Ernest was very humble in those days, and he collapsed.

“None at all. Don't be angry, Eva” (it was the first time he had called her so; till now she had always been Miss Ceswick), “but the fact was I could not bear to see you kissing that dog; I was jealous of the brute.”

Whereupon she blushed furiously and changed the subject. Still after a while Eva's coquettishness began to be less and less marked. When they met she no longer greeted him with a smile of mischief, but with serious eyes that once or twice, he thought, bore traces of tears. At the same time she threw him into despair by her coldness. Did he venture a tender remark, she would pretend not to hear it—alas, that the mounting blood should so obstinately proclaim that she did! Did he touch her hand, it was cold and unresponsive. She was quieter, too, and her reserve frightened him. Once he tried to break it, and began some passionate appeal, but she rose without answering and turned her face to the window. He followed her, and saw that her dark eyes were full of tears. This he felt was even more awful than her coldness, and, fearing that he had offended her, he obeyed her whispered entreaty and went. Poor boy! he was very young. Had he had a little more experience, he might have found means to brush away her tears and his own doubts. It is a melancholy thing that such opportunities should, as a rule, present themselves before people are old or experienced enough to take advantage of them.

The secret of all this change of conduct was not far to seek. Eva had toyed with edged tools till she cut her fingers to the bone. The dark-eyed boy, who danced so well and had such a handsome, happy face, had become very dear to her. She had begun by playing with him, and now, alas! she loved him better than anybody in the world. That was the sting of the thing; she had fallen in love with a boy as young as herself—a boy, too, who, so far as she was aware, had no particular prospects in life. It was humiliating to her pride to think that she, who, in the few months that she had been “out” in London, before her cousins rose up and cast her forth, had already found the satisfaction of seeing one or two men of middle age and established position at her feet, and the further satisfaction of requesting them to kneel there no more, should in the upshot have to strike her colours to a boy of twenty-one, even though he did stand six feet high, and had more wits in his young head and more love in his young heart than all her middle-aged admirers put together.

Perhaps, though she was a woman grown, she was not herself quite old enough to appreciate the great advantage it is to any girl to stamp her image upon the heart of the man she loves while the wax is yet soft and undefaced by the half worn-out marks of many shallow dies; perhaps she did not know what a blessing it is to be able really to love a man at all, young, middle-aged, or old. Many women wait till they cannot love without shame to make that discovery. Perhaps she forgot that Ernest's youth was a fault which would mend day by day, and that he had abilities which, if she would consent to inspire them, might lead him to great things. At any rate, two facts remained in her mind after much thinking: she loved him with all her heart, and of it she was ashamed.

But as yet she could not make up her mind to any fixed course. It would have been easy to crush poor Ernest, to tell him that his pretensions were ridiculous, to send him away, or to go away herself, and so to make an end of a position that she felt was growing absurd, and which we may be sure her elder sister Florence did nothing to make more pleasant. But she could not do it; that was the long and the short of the matter. The idea of living without Ernest made her feel cold all over; it seemed to her that the only hours that she really did live were the hours which they spent together, and that when he went away he took her heart with him. No, she could not make up her mind to that; the thought was too cruel. Then there was the other alternative, to encourage him a little and become engaged to him, to brave everything for his sake. But as yet she could not make up her mind to that either.

Eva Ceswick was very loving, very sweet and very good, but she did not possess a determined mind.