The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter XIV
There are some scenes, trivial enough perhaps in themselves, that yet retain a peculiar power of standing out in sharp relief, as we cast our mind's eye down the long vista of our past. The group of events with which these particular scenes were connected may have long ago vanished from our mental sight, or faded into a dim and misty uniformity, and be as difficult to distinguish one from the other as the trees of a forest viewed from a height. But here and there an event, a sensation, or a face will stand out as perfectly clear as if it had been that moment experienced, felt, or seen. Perhaps it is only some scene of our childhood, such as a fish darting beneath a rustic bridge, and the ripple which its motion left upon the water. We have seen many larger fish dart in many fine rivers since then, and have forgotten them; but somehow that one little fish has kept awake in the storehouse of our brain, where most things sleep, though none are really obliterated.
It was in this clear and brilliant fashion that every little detail of the scene was indelibly photographed on Ernest's mind when, on the morning following their meeting in the cave, he said good-bye to Eva before he went abroad. It was a public good-bye, for, as it happened, there was no opportunity for the lovers to meet alone. They were all gathered in the little drawing-room at the Cottage: Miss Ceswick seated on a straight-backed chair in the bow-window; Ernest on one side of the round table, looking intensely uncomfortable; Eva on the other, a scrap-book in her hand, which she studiously kept before her; and in the background, leaning carelessly over the back of a chair in such a way that her own face could not be seen, though she could survey everybody else's, was Florence. Ernest, from where he sat, could just make out the outline of her olive face, and the quick glance of her brown eyes.
So they sat for a long time, but what was said he could not remember; it was only the scene that imprinted itself upon his memory.
Then at last the fatal moment came—he knew that it was time to go, and said good-bye to Miss Ceswick, who made some remark about his good fortune in going to France and Italy, and warned him to be careful not to lose his heart to a foreign girl. He crossed the room and shook hands with Florence, who smiled coolly in his face, and read him through with her piercing eyes; and last of all came to Eva, who dropped her album and a pocket-handkerchief in her confusion as she rose to give him her hand. He stooped and picked them up—the album he placed on the table, the little lace-edged handkerchief he crumpled up in the palm of his left hand and kept; it was almost the only souvenir he had of her. Then he took her hand, and for a moment looked into her face. It wore a smile, but beneath it the features were wan and troubled. It was so hard to part.
“Well, Ernest,” said Miss Ceswick, “you two are taking leave of each other as solemnly as though you were never going to meet again.”
“Perhaps they never will,” said Florence, in her clear voice; and at that moment Ernest felt as though he hated her.
“You should not croak, Florence; it is unlucky,” said Miss Ceswick.
Then Ernest dropped the cold hand, and turning, left the room. Florence followed him, and, snatching a hat from the pegs, passed into the garden before him. When he was halfway down the garden-walk, he found her ostensibly picking some carnations.
“I want to speak to you for a minute, Ernest,” she said; “turn this way with me;” and she led him past the bow-window, down a small shrubbery-walk about twenty paces long. “I must offer you my congratulations,” she went on. “I hope that you two will be happy. Such a handsome pair ought to be happy, you know.”
“Why, Florence, who told you?”
“Told me! nobody told me. I have seen it all along. Let me see, you first took a fancy to one another on the night of the Smythes' dance, when she gave you a rose, and the next day you saved her life quite in the romantic and orthodox way. Well, and then events took their natural course, till one evening you went out sailing together in a boat. Shall I go on?”
“I don't think it is necessary, Florence. I am sure I don't know how you know all these things.”
She had stopped, and was standing slowly picking a carnation to pieces leaf by leaf.
“Don't you?” she answered, with a laugh. “Lovers are blind; but it does not follow that other people are. I have been thinking, Ernest, that it is very fortunate that I found out my little mistake before you discovered yours. Supposing I really had cared for you, the position would have been awkward now, would it not?”
Ernest was forced to admit that it would.
“But luckily, you see, I do not. I am only your true friend now, Ernest; and it is as a friend that I wish to say a word to you about Eva—a word of warning.”
“You love Eva, and Eva loves you, Ernest; but remember this, she is weak as water. She always was so from a child; those beautiful women often are; Nature does not give them everything, you see.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I say, nothing more. She is very weak; and you must not be surprised if she throws you over.”
“Good heavens, Florence! Why, she loves me with all her heart!”
“Yes; still, women often think of other things besides their hearts. But there, I don't want to frighten you, only I would not pin all my faith to Eva's constancy, however dearly you may think she loves you. Don't look so distressed, Ernest; I did not wish to pain you. And remember that if any difficulty should arise between Eva and you, you will always have me on your side. You will always think of me as your true friend, won't you, Ernest?” and she held out her hand.
He took it.
“Indeed I will,” he said.
They had turned now, and again reached the bow-window, one of the divisions of which stood open. Florence touched his arm, and pointed into the room. He looked in through the open window. Miss Ceswick had gone, but Eva was still at her old place by the table. Her head was down upon the table, resting on the album he had picked up, and he could see from the motion of her shoulders that she was sobbing bitterly. Presently she lifted her face—it was all stained with tears—only, however, to drop it again. Ernest made a motion as though he would enter the house, but Florence stopped him.
“Best leave her alone,” she whispered; and then, when they were well past the window, added aloud, “I am sorry that you saw her like that; if you should never meet again, or be separated for a very long time, it will leave a painful recollection in your mind. Well, good-bye. I hope that you will enjoy yourself.”
Ernest shook hands in silence—there was a lump in his throat that prevented him from speaking—and then went on his way, feeling utterly miserable. As for Florence, she put up her hand to shade her keen eyes from the sun, and watched him, till he turned the corner, with a look of intense love and longing, which slowly changed into one of bitter hate. When he was out of sight she turned, and, making her way to her bedroom, flung herself upon the bed, and, burying her face in the pillow to stifle the sound of her sobbing, gave way to an outburst of jealous rage that was almost awful in its intensity.
Ernest had only just time to get back to Dum's Ness, and go through the form of eating some luncheon, before he was obliged to start to catch his train. Dorothy had packed his things, and made all those little preparations for his journey that women think of; so, after going to the office to bid good-bye to his uncle, who shook him heartily by the hand, and bade him not forget the subject of their conversation, he had nothing to do but jump into the cart and start. In the sitting-room he found Dorothy waiting for him, with his coat and gloves, also Jeremy, who was going to drive to the station with him. He put on his coat in silence; they were all quite silent; indeed, he might have been going for a long sojourn in a deadly climate, instead of two months' pleasure-tour, so depressed was everybody.
“Good-bye, Doll dear,” he said, stooping to kiss her; but she shrank away from him. In another minute he was gone.
At the station a word or two about Eva passed between Jeremy and himself.
“Well, Ernest,” asked the former nervously, “have you pulled it off?”
“Of course; who else?”
“Yes, I have. But, Jeremy——”
“I don't want you to say anything about it to anybody at present.”
“I say, old fellow,” Ernest went on, after a pause, “I hope you don't mind very much.”
“If I said I did not mind, Ernest,” he answered, slowly turning his honest eyes full on to his friend's face, “I should be telling a lie. But I do say this: as I could not win her myself, I am glad that you have, because next to her I think I love you better than anybody in the world. You always had the luck, and I wish you joy. There's the train.”
Ernest wrung his hand.
“Thanks, old chap,” he said; “you are a downright good fellow, and a good friend too. I know I have had the luck, but perhaps it is going to turn. Good-bye.”
Ernest's plans were to sleep in London, and to leave on the following morning, a Wednesday, for Guernsey. There he was to meet his friend on Thursday, when they were to start upon their tour, first to Normandy, and thence wherever their fancy led them.
This programme he carried out to the letter—at least the first part of it. On his way from Liverpool Street Station to the rooms where he had always slept on the few occasions that he had been in London, his hansom passed down Fleet Street, and got blocked opposite No. 19. His eye caught the number, and he wondered what there was about it familiar to him. Then he remembered that 19 Fleet Street was the address of Messrs. Gosling and Sharpe, the bankers on whom his uncle had given him the cheque for £250. Bethinking himself that he might as well cash it, he stopped the cab and entered the bank. As he did so, the cashier was just leaving his desk, for it was past closing hour; but he courteously took Ernest's cheque, and though it was for a large sum, cashed it without hesitation. Mr. Cardus's name was evidently well known in the establishment. Ernest proceeded on his journey with a crisp little bundle of Bank of England notes in his breast-pocket, a circumstance that, in certain events of which at that moment he little dreamed, proved of the utmost service to him.
It will not be necessary for us to follow him in his journey to St. Peter's Port, which very much resembled other people's journeys. He arrived there safely enough on Wednesday afternoon, and proceeded to the best hotel, took a room, and inquired the hour of the table d'hôte.
In the course of the voyage from Southampton, Ernest had fallen into conversation with a quiet, foreign-looking man, who spoke English with a curious little accent. This gentleman—for there was no doubt about his being a gentleman—was accompanied by a boy about nine years of age, remarkable for his singularly prepossessing face and manners, whom Ernest rightly judged to be his son. Mr. Alston—for such he discovered his companion's name to be—was a middle-aged man, not possessed of any remarkable looks or advantages of person, nor in any way brilliant-minded. But nobody could know Mr. Alston for long without discovering that, his neutral tints notwithstanding, he was the possessor of an almost striking individuality. From his open way of talking, Ernest guessed that he was a colonial; for he had often noticed at college that colonials are much less reserved than Englishmen proper are bred up to be. He soon learned that Mr. Alston was a Natal colonist, now, for the first time, paying a visit to the old country. He had, until lately, held a high position in the Natal Government service; but having unexpectedly come into a moderate fortune through the death of an aged lady, a sister of his father in England, he had resigned his position in the service; and after his short visit “home,” as colonists always call the mother country, even when they have never seen it, intended to start on a big game-shooting expedition in the country between Secocoeni's country and Delagoa Bay.
All this Ernest learned before the boat reached the harbour at St. Peter's Port, and they separated. He was, however, pleased when, having seen his luggage put into his room, he went into the little courtyard of the hotel and found Mr. Alston standing there with his son, and looking rather puzzled.
“Hullo!” said Ernest, “I am glad that you have come to this hotel. Do you want anything?”
“Well, yes, I do. The fact of the matter is, I don't understand a word of French, and I want to find my way to a place that my boy and I have come over here to see. If they talked Zulu or Sisutu, you see, I should be equal to the occasion; but to me French is a barbarous tongue, and the people about here all seem to talk nothing else. Here is the address.”
“I can talk French,” said Ernest, “and, if you like, I will go with you. The table d'hôte is not till seven, and it is not six yet.”
“It is very kind of you.”
“Not at all. I have no doubt that you would show me the way about Zululand, if ever I wandered there.”
“Ay, that I would, with pleasure;” and they started.
It was with considerable difficulty that Ernest discovered the place Mr. Alston was in search of. Finally, however, he found it. It was a quaint out-of-the-way little street, very narrow and crooked, an odd mixture of old private houses and shops, most of which seemed to deal in soap and candles. At last they came to No. 36, a grey old house standing in its own grounds. Mr. Alston scanned it eagerly.
“That is the place,” he said; “she often told me of the coat-of-arms over the doorway—a mullet impaled with three squirrels; there they are. I wonder if it is still a school?”
It turned out that it was still a school, and in due course they were admitted, and allowed to wander round the ancient walled garden, with every nook of which Mr. Alston seemed to be perfectly acquainted.
“There is the tree under which she used to sit,” he said sadly to his boy, pointing to an old yew-tree, under which there stood a rotting bench.
“Who?” asked Ernest, much interested.
“My dead wife, that boy's mother; she was educated here,” he said, with a sigh. “There, I have seen it. Let us go.”