The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XI
Ernest reached the Government office and registered his name, and in due course received “her Majesty's gracious pardon and indemnity from and against all actions, proceedings, and prosecutions at law, having arisen, arising, or to arise, by whomsoever undertaken, &c., conveyed through his Excellency the Administrator of Our said territory of the Transvaal.”
When this precious document was in his pocket, Ernest thought that he now for the first time fully realised what must be the feelings of a slave unexpectedly manumitted. Had it not been for this fortunate accident, the consequences of that fatal duel must have continually overshadowed him. Had he returned to England, he would have been liable at any period of his life to a prosecution for murder. Indeed, the arm of the law is long, and he lived in continual apprehension of an application for his extradition being made to the authorities of whatever country he was in. But now all this was gone from him, and he felt that he would not be afraid to have words with an attorney-general, or shudder any more at the sight of a policeman.
His first idea on getting his pardon was to return straightway to England; but that silent Fate which directs men's lives, driving them whither they would not, and forcing their bare and bleeding feet to stumble along the stony paths of its hidden purpose, came into his mind, and made him see that it would be better to delay a while. In a few weeks Eva's answer would surely reach him. If he were to go now, it was even possible that he might pass her in mid-ocean, for in his heart he never doubted but that she would come.
And indeed the very next mail there came a letter from Dorothy, written in answer to that which he had posted on the same day that he had written to Eva. It was only a short letter—the last post that could catch the mail was just going out, and his welcome letter had only just arrived; but she had twenty minutes, and she would send one line. She told him how grateful they were to hear that he was well and safe, and reproached him gently for not writing. Then she thanked him for making her his confidante about Eva Ceswick. She had guessed it long before, she said; and she thought they were both lucky in each other, and hoped and prayed that when the time came they would be as completely happy as it was possible for people to be. She had never spoken to Eva about him; but she should no longer feel any diffidence in doing so now. She should go and see her very soon, and plead his cause: not that it wanted any pleading, however, she was sure of that. Eva looked sad now that he was gone. There had been some talk a while back of Mr. Plowden, the new clergyman; but she supposed that Eva had given him his quietus, as she heard no more of it now; and so on, till “the postman is at the door waiting for this letter.”
Little did Ernest guess what it cost poor Dorothy to write her congratulations and wishes of happiness. A man—the nobler animal, remember—could hardly have done it; only the inferior woman would show such unselfishness.
This letter filled Ernest with a sure and certain hope. Eva, he clearly saw, had not had time to write by that mail; by the next her answer would come. It can be imagined that he waited for its advent with some anxiety.
Mr. Alston, Ernest, and Jeremy had taken a house in Pretoria, and for the past month or two had been living in it very comfortably. It was a pleasant one-storied house, with a verandah and a patch of flower-garden in front of it, in which grew a large gardenia-bush covered with hundreds of sweet-scented blooms, and many rose-trees, that in the divine climate of Pretoria flourish like thistles in our own. Beyond the flowers was a patch of vines, covered at this season of the year with enormous bunches of grapes, extending down to the line of waving willow-trees, interspersed with clumps of bamboo that grew along the edge of the sluit and kept the house private from the road. On the other side of the narrow path which led to the gate was a bed of melons, now rapidly coming to perfection. This garden was Ernest's especial pride and occupation, and just then he was much troubled in his mind about the melons, which were getting scorched by the bright rays of the sun. To obviate this he had designed cunning frameworks of little willow twigs, which he stuck over the melons and covered with dry grass—“parasols” he called them.
One morning—it was a particularly lovely morning—Ernest was standing after breakfast on this path, smoking, and directing Mazooku as to the erection of the “parasols” over his favourite melons. It was not a job at all suited to the capacity of the great Zulu, whose assegai, stuck in the ground behind him in the middle of a small bundle of knob-sticks, seemed a tool ominously unlike those used by gardeners of other lands. However, “needs must when the devil drives,” and there was the brawny fellow on his knees, puffing and blowing, and trying to fix the tuft of grass to Ernest's satisfaction.
“Mazooku, you lazy hound,” said the latter, at last, “if you don't put that tuft right in two shakes, by the heaven you will never reach, I'll break your head with your own kerrie!”
“Ow, Inkoos,” replied the Zulu sulkily, again trying to prop up the tuft, and muttering to himself meanwhile.
“Do you catch what that fellow of yours is saying?” asked Mr. Alston. “He is saying that all Englishmen are mad, and that you are the maddest of the mad. He considers that nobody who was not a lunatic would bother his head with those 'weeds that stink' (flowers), or those fruits which, even if you succeed in growing them—and surely the things are bewitched, or they would grow without 'hats'“ (Ernest's parasols)—“must lie very cold on the stomach.”
At that moment the particular “hat” which Mazooku was trying to arrange fell down again, whereupon the Zulu's patience gave out, and, cursing it for a witch in the most vigorous language, he emphasised his words by bringing his fist straight down on the melon, smashing it to pieces. Whereupon Ernest made for him, and he vanished swiftly.
Mr. Alston stood by laughing at the scene, and awaited Ernest's return. Presently he came strolling back, not having caught Mazooku. Indeed, it would not have greatly mattered if he had; for, as that swarthy gentleman very well knew, great indeed must be the provocation that could induce Ernest to touch a native. It was a thing to which he had an almost unconquerable aversion, in the same way that he objected to the word “nigger” as applied to a people who, whatever their faults may be, are, as a rule, gentlemen in the truest sense of the word.
As he came strolling down the path towards him, his face a little flushed with the exertion, Mr. Alston thought to himself that Ernest was growing into a very handsome fellow. The tall frame, narrow at the waist and broad at the shoulders, the eloquent dark eyes, which so far surpass the loveliest grey or blue, the silken hair, which curled over his head like that on a Grecian statue, the curved lips, the quick intelligence and kindly smile that lit the whole face—all these things helped to make his appearance not so much handsome as charming, and to women captivating to a dangerous extent. His dress, too—which consisted of riding-breeches, boots and spurs, a white waistcoat and linen coat, with a very broad soft felt hat looped up at one side, so as to throw the face into alternate light and shadow—helped the general effect considerably. Altogether Ernest was a pretty fellow in those days.
Jeremy was lounging on an easy-chair in the verandah, in company with the boy Roger Alston, and intensely interested in watching a furious battle between two lines of ants, black and red, who had their homes somewhere in the stonework. For a long while the issue of the battle remained doubtful, victory inclining, if anything, to the side of the thin red line, when suddenly, from the entrance to the nest of the black ants, there emerged a battalion of giants—great fellows, at least six times the size of the others—who fell upon the red ants and routed them, taking many prisoners. Then followed the most curious spectacle, namely, the deliberate execution of the captive red ants, by having their heads bitten off by the great black soldiers. Jeremy and Roger knew what was coming very well, for these battles were of frequent occurrence, and the casualties among the red ants simply frightful. On this occasion they determined to save the prisoners, which was effected by dipping a match in some of the nicotine at the bottom of a pipe, and placing it in front of the black giants. The ferocious insects would thereupon abandon their captives, and, rushing at the strange intruder, hang on like bulldogs till the poison did its work, and they dropped off senseless, to recover presently and stagger off home, holding their legs to their antennæ and exhibiting every other symptom of a frightful headache.
Jeremy was sitting on a chair, oiling the matches, and Roger, kneeling on the pavement, was employed in beguiling the giants into biting them, when suddenly they heard the sound of galloping horses and the rattle of wheels. The lad, lowering his head still more, looked out towards the market-square through a gap between the willow-stems.
“Hurrah, Mr. Jones,” he said, “here comes the mail!”
Next minute, amid loud blasts from the bugle, and enveloped in a cloud of dust, the heavy cart, to the sides and seats of which the begrimed and worn-out passengers were clinging like drowning men to straws, came rattling along as fast as the six greys reserved for the last stage could gallop, and vanished towards the post-office.
“There's the mail, Ernest,” hallooed Jeremy; “she will bring the English letters.”
Ernest nodded, turned a little pale, and nervously knocked out his pipe. No wonder: that mail-cart carried his destiny, and he knew it. Presently he walked across the square to the post-office. The letters were not sorted, and he was the first person there. Very soon one of his Excellency's staff came riding down to get the Government House bag. It was the same gentleman with whom he had sung “Auld lang syne" so enthusiastically on the day of Jeremy's encounter with the giant, and had afterwards been carted home in the wheelbarrow.
“Hullo, Kershaw, here we are, 'primos inter omnes,' 'primos primi primores,' which is it? Come, Kershaw, you are the last from school—which is it? I don't believe you know—ha! ha! ha! What are you doing down here so soon? Does the 'expectant swain await the postmen's knock?' Why, my dear fellow, you look pale; you must be in love or thirsty. So am I—the latter, not the former. Love, I do abjure thee. 'Quis separabit,' who will have a split? I think that the sun can't be far from the line. Shall we, my dear Kershaw, shall we take an observation? Ha! ha! ha!”
“No, thank you, I never drink anything between meals.”
“Ah! my boy, a bad habit; give it up before it is too late. Break it off, my dear Kershaw, and always wet your whistle in the strictest moderation, or you will die young. What says the poet?—
“'He who drinks strong beer, and goes to bed mellow, Lives as he ought to live, lives as he ought to live, Lives as he ought to live, and dies a jolly good fellow.'
“Byron, I think, is it not? Ha! ha! ha!”
Just then some others came up, and, somewhat to Ernest's relief, his friend turned the light of his kindly countenance to shine elsewhere, and left him to his thoughts.
At last the little shutter of the post-office was thrown up, and Ernest got his own letters, together with those belonging to Mr. Alston and Jeremy. He turned into the shade of a neighbouring verandah, and rapidly sorted the pile. There was no letter in Eva's handwriting. But there was one in that of her sister Florence. Ernest knew the writing well; there was no mistaking its peculiar upright, powerful-looking characters. This he opened hurriedly. Enclosed in the letter was a note, which was in the writing he had expected to see. He rapidly unfolded it, and as he did so, a flash of fear passed through his brain.
“Why did she write in this way?”
The note could not have been a long one, for in another minute it was lying on the ground, and Ernest, pale-faced and with catching breath, was clinging to the verandah-post with both hands to save himself from falling. In a few seconds he recovered, and, picking up the note, walked quickly across the square towards the house. Half-way across he was overtaken by his friend on the Staff cantering gaily along on a particularly wooden-looking pony, from the sides of which his legs projected widely, and waving in one hand the Colonial Office bag addressed to the administrator of the Government.
“Hallo, my abstemious friend!” he hallooed, as he pulled up the wooden pony with a jerk that sent each of its stiff legs sprawling in a different direction. “Was patience rewarded? Is Chloe over the water kind? If not, take my advice, and don't trouble your head about her. Quant on n'a pas ce qu'on aime, the wise man aimes ce qu'il a. Kershaw, I have conceived a great affection for you, and I will let you into a secret. Come with me this afternoon, and I will introduce you to two charming specimens of indigenous beauty. Like roses they bloom upon the veld, and waste their sweetness on the desert air. 'Mater pulchra, puella pulcherrima,' as Virgil says. I, as befits my years, will attach myself to the mater, for your sweet youth shall be reserved the puella. Ha! ha! ha!” And he brought the despatch-bag down with a sounding whack between the ears of the wooden pony, with the result that he was nearly sent flying into the sluit, being landed by a sudden plunge well on the animal's crupper.
“Woho, Bucephaluas, woho! or your mealies shall be cut off.”
Just then he for the first time caught sight of the face of his companion, who was plodding along in silence by his side.
“Hullo! what's up, Kershaw?” he said, in an altered tone; “you don't look well. Nothing wrong, I hope?”
“Nothing, nothing,” answered Ernest quietly; “that is, I have got some bad news, that is all. Nothing to speak of, nothing.”
“My dear fellow, I am so sorry, and I have been troubling you with my nonsense. Forgive me. There, you wish to be alone. Good-bye.”
A few seconds later Mr. Alston and Jeremy, from their point of vantage on the verandah, saw Ernest coming with swift strides up the garden path. His face was drawn with pain, and there was a fleck of blood upon his lip. He passed them without a word, and, entering the house, slammed the door of his own room. Mr. Alston and Jeremy looked at one another.
“What's up?” said the laconic Jeremy.
Mr. Alston thought a while before he answered, as was his fashion.
“Something gone wrong with 'the ideal,' I should say,” he said at length; “that is the way of ideals.”
“Shall we go and see?” said Jeremy, uneasily.
“No, give him a minute or two to pull himself together. Lots of time for consultation afterwards.”
Meanwhile Ernest, having got into his room, sat down upon the bed, and again read the note which was enclosed in Florence's letter. Then he folded it up and put it down, slowly and methodically. Next he opened the other letter, which he had not yet looked at, and read that too. After he had done it he threw himself face downwards on the pillow, and thought a while. Presently he arose, and, going to the other side of the room, took down a revolver-case which hung to a nail, and drew out a revolver, which was loaded. Returning, he again sat down upon the bed, and cocked it. So he remained for a minute or two, and then slowly lifted the pistol towards his head. At that moment he heard footsteps approaching, and, with a quick movement, threw the weapon under the bed. As he did so Mr. Alston and Jeremy entered.
“Any letters, Ernest?” asked the former.
“Letters! O yes, I beg your pardon; here they are;” and he took a packet from the pocket of his white coat, and handed them to him.
Mr. Alston took them, looking all the while fixedly at Ernest, who avoided his glance.
“What is the matter, my boy?” he said kindly, at last; “nothing wrong, I hope.”
Ernest looked at him blankly.
“What is it, old chap?” said Jeremy, seating himself on the bed beside him, and laying his hand on his arm.
Then Ernest broke out into a paroxysm of grief painful to behold. Fortunately for all concerned, it was brief. Had it lasted much longer, something must have given way. Suddenly his mood changed, and he grew hard and bitter.
“Nothing, my dear fellow, nothing,” he said; “that is, only the sequel to a pretty little idyl. You may remember a letter I wrote—to a woman—some months back. There, you both of you know the story. Now you shall hear the answer, or, to be more correct, the answers.
“That—woman has a sister. Both she and her sister have written to me. My—her sister's letter is the longest. We will take it first. I think that we may skip the first page, there is nothing particular in it, and I do not wish to—waste your time. Now listen:
“'By the way, I have a piece of news for you which will interest you, and which you will, I am sure, be glad to hear; for, of course, you will have by this time got over any little tendresse you may have had in that direction. Eva' (that is the woman to whom I wrote, and to whom I thought I was engaged) 'is going to be married to a Mr. Plowden, a gentleman who has been acting as locum tenens for Mr. Halford.'”
Here Jeremy sprang up, and swore a great oath. Ernest motioned him down, and went on:
“'I say I am certain that you will be glad to hear this, because the match is in every respect a satisfactory one, and will, I am sure, bring dear Eva happiness. Mr. Plowden is well off, and, of course, a clergyman—two great guarantees for the success of their matrimonial venture. Eva tells me that she had a letter from you last mail' (the letter I read you, gentlemen), 'and asks me to thank you for it. If she can find time, she will send you a line shortly; but, as you will understand, she has her hands very full just at present. The wedding is to take place at Kesterwick Church on the 17th of May' (that is to-morrow, gentlemen), 'and, if this letter reaches you in time, I am sure you will think of us all on that day. It will be very quiet owing to our dear aunt's death being still so comparatively recent. Indeed, the engagement has, in obedience to Mr. Plowden's wishes—for he is very retiring—been kept quite secret, and you are absolutely the first person to whom it has been announced. I hope that you will feel duly flattered, sir. We are very busy about the trousseau and just now the burning question is, of what colour the dress in which Eva is to go away in after the wedding shall be. Eva and I are all for grey. Mr. Plowden is for olive-green, and, as is natural under the circumstances, I expect that he will carry the day. They are together in the drawing-room setting it now. You always admired Eva (rather warmly once; do you remember how cut up you both were when you went away? Alas for the fickleness of human nature!); you should see her now. Her happiness makes her look lovely; but I hear her calling me. No doubt they have settled the momentous question. Good-bye. I am not clever at writing, but I hope that my news will make up for my want of skill.—Always yours,
“Now for the enclosure,” said Ernest.
“'Dear Ernest,—I got your letter. Florence will tell you what there is to tell. I am going to be married. Think what you will of me; I cannot help myself. Believe me, this has cost me great suffering; but my duty seems clear. I hope that you will forget me, Ernest, as henceforth it will be my duty to forget you. Good-bye, my dear Ernest; Oh, good-bye!
“Humph!” murmured Alston beneath his breath. “As I thought—clay, and damned bad clay, too!”
Slowly Ernest tore the letter into small fragments, threw them down, and stamped upon them with his foot as though they were a living thing.
“I wish I had shaken the life out of that devil of a parson!” groaned Jeremy, who was in his way as much affected by the news as his friend.
“Curse you!” said Ernest, turning on him fiercely; “why didn't you stop where you were and look after her, instead of coming humbugging after me?”
Jeremy only groaned humbly by way of answer. Mr. Alston, as was his way when perplexed, filled his pipe and lit it. Ernest paced swiftly up and down the little room, the white walls of which he had decorated with pictures cut from illustrated papers, Christmas cards, and photographs. Over the head of the bed was a photograph of Eva herself, which he had framed in some beautiful native wood. He reached it down.
“Look,” he said, “that is the lady herself. Handsome, isn't she, and pleasant to look on? Who would have thought that she was such a devil? Tells me to forget her, and talks about 'her duty'! Women love a little joke!”
He hurled the photograph on to the floor, and treated it as he had treated the letter, grinding it to pieces with his heel.
“They say,” he went on, “that a man's curses are sometimes heard wherever it is they arrange these pleasant surprises for us. Now, you fellows, bear witness to what I say, and watch that woman's life. I curse her before God and man! May she lay down her head in sorrow night by night and year by year! May her——”
“Stop, Ernest,” said Mr. Alston, with a shrug; “you might be taken at your word, and you wouldn't like that, you know. Besides, it is cowardly to go on cursing at a woman.”
Ernest paused, standing for a moment with his clenched fist still raised above his head, his pale lips quivering with intense excitement, and his dark eyes flashing and blazing like stars.
“You are right,” he said, dropping his fist on to the table. “It is with the man that I have to deal.”
“This Plowden. I fear that I shall disturb his honeymoon.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I am going to kill him, or he is going to kill me; it does not matter which.”
“Why, what quarrel have you with the man? Of course he looked after himself. You could not expect him to consider your interests, could you?”
“If he had cut me out fairly, I should not have a word to say. Every man for himself in this pleasant world. But, mark my words, this parson and Florence have forced Eva into this unholy business, and I will have his life in payment. If you don't believe me, ask Jeremy. He saw something of the game before he left.”
“Look here, Kershaw, the man's a parson. He will take shelter behind his cloth; he won't fight. What shall you do then?”
“I shall shoot him,” was the cool reply.
“Ernest, you are mad; it won't do. You shall not go, and that is all about it. You shall not ruin yourself over this woman, who is not fit to black an honest man's shoes.”
“Shall not! shall not! Alston, you use strong language. Who will prevent me?”
“I will prevent you,” he answered, sternly. “I am your superior officer, and the corps you belong to is not disbanded. If you try to leave this place you shall be arrested as a deserter. Now don't be a fool, lad; you have killed one man, and got out of the mess. If you kill another you will not get out of it. Besides, what will the satisfaction be? If you want revenge, be patient. It will come. I have seen something of life; at least, I am old enough to be your father, and I know that you think me a cynic because I laugh at your 'high-falutin' about women. How justly I warned you, you see now. But, cynic or not, I believe in the God above us, and I believe, too, that there is a rough justice in this world. It is in the world principally that people expiate the sins of the world; and if this marriage is such a wicked thing as you think, it will bring its own trouble with it, without any help from you. Time will avenge you. Everything comes to him who can wait.”
Ernest's eyes glittered coldly as he answered:
“I cannot wait. I am a ruined man already; all my life is laid waste. I wish to die, but I wish to kill him before I die.”
“So sure as my name is Alston, you shall not go!”
“So sure as my name is Kershaw, I will go!”
For a moment the two men faced one another; it would have been hard to say which looked the most determined. Then Mr. Alston turned and left the room and the house. On the verandah he paused and considered for a moment.
“The boy means business,” he thought to himself. “He will try and bolt. How can I stop him? Ah, I have it!” And he set off briskly towards Government house, saying aloud as he went, “I love that lad too well to let him destroy himself over a jilt.”