The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter XIV
Dorothy, in her note to Ernest that he received by the mail previous to the one that brought the letters which at a single blow laid the hope and promise of his life in the dust, it may be remembered, had stated her intention of going to see Eva in order to plead Ernest's cause; but what with one thing and another, her visit was considerably delayed. Twice she was on the point of going, and twice something occurred to prevent her. The fact of the matter was, the errand was distasteful, and she was in no hurry to execute it. She loved Ernest herself, and, however deep that love might be trampled down, however fast it might be chained in the dungeons of her secret thoughts, it was still there, a living thing, an immortal thing. She could tread it down and chain it; she could not kill it. Its shade would rise and walk in the upper chambers of her heart, and wring its hands and cry to her, telling what it suffered in those subterranean places, whispering how bitterly it envied the bright and happy life which moved in the free air, and had usurped the love it claimed. It was hard to have to ignore those pleadings, to disregard those cries for pity, and to say that there was no hope, that it must always be chained, till time ate away the chains. It was harder still to have to be one of the actual ministers to the suffering. Still, she meant to go. Her duty to Ernest was not to be forsaken because it was a painful duty.
On two or three occasions she met Eva, but got no opportunity of speaking to her. Either her sister Florence was with her, or she was obliged to return immediately. The truth was that, after the scene described in the last chapter, Eva was subjected to the closest espionage. At home, Florence watched her as a cat watches a mouse; abroad, Mr. Plowden seemed to be constantly hovering on her flank, or, if he was not there, then she became aware of the presence of the ancient and contemplative mariner who traded in Dutch cheeses. Mr. Plowden feared lest she should run away, and so cheat him of his prize; Florence, lest she should confide in Dorothy, or possibly Mr. Cardus, and, supported by them, find the courage to assert herself and defraud her of her revenge. So they watched her every movement.
At last Dorothy made up her mind to wait no longer for opportunities, but to go and see Eva at her own home. She knew nothing of the Plowden imbroglio; but it did strike her as curious that no one had said anything about Ernest. He had written; it was scarcely likely the letter had miscarried. How was it that Eva had not said anything on the subject? Little did Dorothy guess that, even as these thoughts were passing through her mind, a great vessel was steaming out of Southampton docks, bearing those epistles of final renunciation which Ernest, very little to his satisfaction, received in due course.
Full of these reflections, Dorothy found herself one lovely spring afternoon knocking at the door of the Cottage. Eva was at home, and she was at once ushered into her presence. She was sitting in a low chair—the same on which Ernest always pictured her with that confounded Skye terrier she was so fond of kissing—an open book upon her knee, and looking out at the little garden and the sea beyond. She looked pale and thin, Dorothy thought.
On her visitor's entrance, Eva rose and kissed her.
“I am so glad to see you,” she said; “I was feeling lonely.”
“Lonely!” answered Dorothy, in her straightforward way; “why, I have been trying to find you alone for the last fortnight, and have never succeeded.”
Eva coloured. “One may be lonely with ever so many people round one.”
Then for a minute or so they talked about the weather; so persistently did they discuss it, indeed, that the womanly instinct of each told her that the other was fencing.
After all, it was Eva who broke the ice first.
“Have you heard from Ernest lately?” she said, nervously.
“Yes; I got a note by last mail.”
“Oh,” said Eva, clasping her hands involuntarily, “what did he say?”
“Nothing much. But I got a letter by the mail before that, in which he said a good deal. Among other things, he said he had written to you. Did you get the letter?”
Eva coloured to her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered.
Dorothy rose, and seated herself again on a footstool by Eva's feet, and wondered at the trouble in her eyes. How could she be troubled when she had heard from Ernest—“like that?”
“What did you answer him, dear?”
Eva covered her face with her hands.
“Do not talk about it,” she said; “it is too dreadful to me!”
“What can you mean? He tells me you are engaged to him.”
“Yes—that is, no. I was half engaged. Now I am engaged to Mr. Plowden.”
Dorothy gave a gasp of horrified astonishment.
“Engaged to that man when you were engaged to Ernest! You must be joking.”
“O Dorothy, I am not joking; I wish to Heaven I were. I am engaged to him. I am to marry him in less than a month. O, pity me, I am wretched.”
“You mean to tell me,” said Dorothy, rising, “that you are engaged to Mr. Plowden when you love Ernest?”
“Yes, oh yes; I cannot help——”
At that moment the door opened, and Florence entered, attended by Mr. Plowden.
Her keen eyes saw at once that something was wrong, and her intelligence told her what it was. After her bold fashion, she determined to take the bull by the horns. Unless something were done, with Dorothy at her back, Eva might prove obdurate after all.
Advancing, she shook Dorothy cordially by the hand.
“I see from your face,” she said, “that you have just heard the good news. Mr. Plowden is so shy that he would not consent to announce it before; but here he is to receive your congratulations.”
Mr. Plowden took the cue, and advanced effusively on Dorothy with outstretched hand. “Yes, Miss Jones, I am sure you will congratulate me; and I ought to be congratulated. I am the luckiest——”
Here he broke off. It really was very awkward. His hand remained limply hanging in the air before Dorothy, but not the slightest sign did that dignified little lady show of taking it. On the contrary, she drew herself up to her full height—which was not very tall—and fixing her steady blue eyes on the clergyman's shifty orbs, deliberately placed her right hand behind her back.
“I do not shake hands with people who play such tricks,” she said, quietly.
Mr. Plowden's hand fell to his side, and he stepped back. He did not expect such courage in anything so small. Florence however, sailed in to the rescue.
“Really, Dorothy, we do not quite understand.”
“O yes, I think you do, Florence, or if you do not, then I will explain. Eva here was engaged to marry Ernest Kershaw. Eva here has just with her own lips told me that she still loves Ernest, but that she is obliged to marry—that man”; and she pointed with her little forefinger at Mr. Plowden, who recoiled another step. “Is not that true, Eva?”
Eva bowed her head by way of answer. She still sat in the low chair, with her hands over her face.
“Really, Dorothy, I fail to see what right you have to interfere in this matter,” said Florence.
“I have the right of common justice, Florence—the right a friend has to protect the absent. Are you not ashamed of such a wicked plot to wrong an absent man? Is there no way” (addressing Mr. Plowden) “in which I can appeal to your feelings, to induce you to free this wretched girl you have entrapped?”
“I only ask my own,” said Mr. Plowden, sulkily.
“For shame, for shame! And you a minister of God's Word! And you too, Florence! Oh, now I can read your heart, and see the bad thoughts looking from your eyes!”
Florence for a moment was abashed, and turned her face aside.
“And you, Eva—how can you become a party to such a shameful thing? You, a good girl, to sell yourself away from dear Ernest to such a man as that”; and again she pointed contemptuously at Mr. Plowden.
“Oh, don't, Dorothy, don't; it is my duty. You don't understand.”
“Yes, Eva, I do understand. I understand that it is your duty to drown yourself before you do such a thing. I am a woman as well as you, and though I am not beautiful, I have a heart and a conscience, and I understand only too well.”
“You will be lost if you drown yourself—I mean it is very wicked,” said Mr. Plowden to Eva, suddenly assuming his clerical character as most likely to be effective. The suggestion alarmed him. He had bargained for a live Eva.
“Yes, Mr. Plowden,” went on Dorothy, “you are right: it would be wicked, but not so wicked as to marry you. God gave us women our lives, but He put a spirit in our hearts which tells us that we should rather throw them away than suffer ourselves to be degraded. Oh, Eva, tell me that you will not do this shameful thing. No, do not whisper to her, Florence.”
“Dorothy, Dorothy,” said Eva, rising and wringing her hands, “it is all useless. Do not break my heart with your cruel words. I must marry him. I have fallen into the power of people who do not know what mercy is.”
“Thank you,” said Florence.
Mr. Plowden scowled darkly.
“Then I have done”; and Dorothy walked towards the door. Before she reached it she paused and turned. “One word, and I will trouble you no more. What do you all expect will come of this wicked marriage?”
There was no answer. Then Dorothy went.
But her efforts did not stop there. She made her way straight to Mr. Cardus's office.
“O Reginald,” she said, “I have such dreadful news for you. There, let me cry a little first, and I will tell you.”
And she did, telling him the whole story from beginning to end. It was entirely new to him, and he listened with some astonishment, and with a feeling of something like indignation against Ernest. He had intended that young gentleman to fall in love with Dorothy, and behold, he had fallen in love with Eva. Alas for the perversity of youth!
“Well,” he said, when she had done, “and what do you wish me to do? It seems that you have to do with a heartless scheming woman, a clerical cad, and a beautiful fool. One might deal with the schemer and the fool, but no power on earth can soften the cad. At least, that is my experience. Besides, I think the whole thing is much better left alone. I should be very sorry to see Ernest married to a woman so worthless as this Eva must be. She is handsome, it is true, and that is about all she is, as far as I can see. Don't distress yourself, my dear; he will get over it, and after he has had his fling out there, and lived down that duel business, he will come home, and if he is wise, I know where he will look for consolation.”
Dorothy tossed her head and coloured.
“It is not a question of consolation,” she said; “it is a question of Ernest's happiness in life.”
“Don't alarm yourself, Dorothy; people's happiness is not so easily affected. He will forget all about her in a year.”
“I think that men always talk of each other like that, Reginald,” said Dorothy, resting her head upon her hands, and looking straight at the old gentleman. “Each of you likes to think that he has a monopoly of feeling, and that the rest of his kind are as shallow as a milk-pan. And yet it was only last night that you were talking to me about my mother. You told me, you remember, that life had been a worthless thing to you since she was torn from you, which no success had been able to render pleasant. You said more: you said that you hoped that the end was not far off; that you had suffered enough and waited enough; and that, though you had not seen her face for five-and-twenty years, you loved her as wildly as you did the day when she first promised to become your wife.”
Mr. Cardus had risen, and was looking through the glass door at the blooming orchids. Dorothy got up, and following him, laid her hand upon his shoulder.
“Reginald,” she said, “think! Ernest is about to be robbed of his wife under circumstances curiously like those by which you were robbed of yours. Unless it is prevented, what you have suffered all your life he will suffer also. Remember you are of the same blood, and, allowing for the difference between your ages, of very much the same temperament too. Think how different life would have been to you if any one had staved off your disaster, and then I am sure you will do all you can to stave off his.”
“Life would have been non-existent for you,” he answered, “for you would never have been born.”
“Ah, well,” she said, with a little sigh, “I am sure I should have got on every well without. I could have spared myself.”
Mr. Cardus was a keen man, and could see as far into the human heart as most.
“Girl,” he said, contracting his white eyebrows and suddenly turning round upon her, “you love Ernest yourself. I have often suspected it; now I am sure you do.”
“Yes,” she answered, “I do love him. What then?”
“And yet you are advocating my interference to secure his marriage with another woman, a worthless creature who does not know her own mind. You cannot really care about him.”
“Care about him!” and she turned her sweet blue eyes upwards. “I love him with all my heart and soul and strength. I have always loved him; I always shall love him. I love him so well that I can do my duty to him, Reginald. It is my duty to strain every nerve to prevent this marriage. I had rather that my heart should ache than Ernest's. I implore of you to help me.”
“Dorothy, it has always been my dearest wish that you should marry Ernest. I told him so just before that unhappy duel. I love you both. All the fibres of my heart that are left alive have wound themselves around you. Jeremy I could never care for. Indeed, I fear that I used sometimes to treat the boy harshly. He reminds me so of his father. And do you know, my dear, I sometimes think that on that point I am not quite sane. But because you have asked me to do it, and because you have quoted your dear mother—may peace be with her!—I will do what I can. This girl Eva is of age, and I will write and offer her a home. She need fear no persecution here.”
“You are kind and good, Reginald, and I thank you.”
“The letter shall go by to-night's post. But run away, now; I see my friend De Talor coming to speak to me”; and the white eyebrows drew near together in a way that it would have been unpleasant for the great De Talor to behold. “That business is drawing towards its end.”
“O Reginald,” answered Dorothy, shaking her forefinger at him in her old childish way, “haven't you given up those ideas yet? They are very wrong.”
“Never mind, Dorothy. I shall give them up soon, when I have squared accounts with De Talor. A year or two more—a stern chase is a long chase, you know—and the thing will be done, and then I shall become a good Christian again.”
The letter was written. It offered Eva a home and protection.
In due course an answer, signed by Eva herself, came back. It thanked him for his kindness, and regretted that circumstances and “her sense of duty” prevented her from accepting the offer.
Then Dorothy felt that she had done all that in her lay, and gave the matter up.
It was about this time that Florence drew another picture. It represented Eva as Andromeda gazing hopelessly in the dim light of a ghastly dawn out across a glassy sea; and far away in the oily depths there was a ripple, and beneath the ripple a form travelling towards the chained maiden. The form had a human head and cold grey eyes, and its features were those of Mr. Plowden.
And so, day by day, Destiny, throned in space, shot her flaming shuttle from darkness into darkness, and the time passed on, as time must pass, till the inevitable end of all things is attained.
Eva existed and suffered, and that was all she did. She scarcely ate, or drank, or slept. But still she lived; she was not brave enough to die, and the chains were riveted too tight round her tender wrists to let her flee away. Poor nineteenth-century Andromeda! No Perseus shall come to save you.
The sun rose and set in his appointed course, the flowers bloomed and died, children were born, and the allotted portion of mankind passed onwards to its rest; but no godlike Perseus came flying out of the golden east.
Once more the sun rose. The dragon heaved his head above the quiet waters, and she was lost. By her own act, of her own folly and weakness, she was undone. Behold her! the wedding is over. The echoes of the loud mockery of the bells have scarcely died upon the noonday air, and in her chamber, the chamber of her free and happy maidenhood, the virgin martyr stands alone.
It is done. There lie the sickly scented flowers; there, too, the bride's white robe. It is done. Oh, that life were done too, that she might once more press her lips to his and die!
The door opens, and Florence stands before her, pale, triumphant, awe-inspiring.
“I must congratulate you, my dear Eva. You really went through the ceremony very well; only you looked like a statue.”
“Florence, why do you come to mock me?”
“Mock you, Eva, mock you! I come to wish you joy as Mr. Plowden's wife. I hope that you will be happy.”
“Happy! I shall never be happy. I detest him!”
“You detest him, and you marry him; there must be some mistake.”
“There is no mistake. O Ernest, my darling!”
“If Ernest is your darling, why did you not marry Ernest?”
“How could I marry him when you forced me into this?”
“Forced you! A free woman of full age cannot be forced. You married Mr. Plowden of your own will. You might have married Ernest Kershaw if you chose—he is in many ways a more desirable match than Mr. Plowden—but you did not choose.”
“Florence, what do you mean? You always said it was impossible. Is this all some cruel plot of yours?”
“Impossible! there is nothing impossible to those who have courage. Yes,” and she turned upon her sister fiercely, “it was a plot, and you shall know it, you poor weak fool! I loved Ernest Kershaw, and you robbed me of him, although you promised to leave him alone; and so I have revenged myself upon you. I despise you, I tell you; you are quite contemptible, and yet he could prefer you to me. Well, he has got his reward. You have deserted him when he was absent and in trouble, and you have outraged his love and your own. You have fallen very low indeed, Eva, and presently you will fall lower yet. I know you well. You will sink till at last you even lose the sense of your own humiliation. Don't you wonder what Ernest must think of you now? There is Mr. Plowden calling you. Come, it is time for you to be going.”
Eva listened aghast, and then sank against the wall, sobbing despairingly.