The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter III
Eva Plowden could scarcely be said to be a happy woman. A refined person who has deliberately married one man when she loves another is not as a rule happy afterwards, unless indeed, she is blessed or cursed, with a singularly callous nature. But there are degrees and degrees of unhappiness. Such a fate as Eva's would have killed Dorothy, and would have driven Florence, bad as she might otherwise be, to suicide or madness. But with Eva herself it was not so; she was not sufficiently finely strung to suffer thus. Hers was not a very happy life, but that was all. She had been most miserable; but when the first burst of her misery had passed, like the raving storm that sometimes ushers in a wet December day, like a sensible woman, she had more or less reconciled herself to her position. The day was always rather wet, it is true; but still the sun peeped out now and again, and if life was not exactly a joyous thing, it was at least endurable.
Yet with it all she loved Ernest in her heart as much as ever; his memory was inexpressibly dear to her, and her regrets were sometimes very bitter. On the whole, however, she had got over it wonderfully—better than anybody would have thought possible who could have witnessed her agony some years before, when Florence told her the whole truth immediately after the wedding. The Sabine women, we are told, offered a very reasonable resistance to their rape by the Romans, but before long they gave the strongest proofs of reconciliation to their lot. There was something of the Sabine woman about Eva. Indeed, the contrast between her state of mind as regarded Ernest, and Ernest's state of mind as regarded her, would make a curious study. They each loved the other, and yet how different had the results of that love been on the two natures! To Eva it had been and was a shamed sorrow, sometimes very real; to Ernest, the destruction of all that made life worth living. The contrast, indeed, was so striking as to be almost pitiable; so wide a gulf was fixed between the two. The passion of the one was a wretched thing compared to the other. But both were real; it remained merely a difference of degree. If Eva's affection was weak when measured by Ernest's, this was because the soil in which it grew was poorer. She gave all she had to give.
As for Mr. Plowden, he could not but feel that on the whole his matrimonial speculation had answered very well. He was honestly fond of his wife, and, as he had a right to be, very proud of her. At times she was cold and capricious, and at times she was sarcastic; but, take it altogether, she made him a good and serviceable wife, and lifted him up many pegs in the social scale. People saw that though Plowden was not a gentleman, he had managed to marry a lady, and a very lovely lady too; and he was tolerated, indeed to a certain extent courted, for the sake of his wife. It was principally to attain this end that he had married her, so he had every reason to be satisfied with his bargain, and he was, besides, proud to be the legal owner of so handsome a creature.
Eva often thought of her old lover, though, except in the vaguest way, she had heard nothing of him for years. Indeed, she was, as it happened, thinking of him tenderly enough that very morning when her little girl had called her attention to the “nice blind man.” And when at last, in a way which seemed to her little short of miraculous, she set eyes again upon his face, her smothered, smouldering passion broke into flame, and she felt that she still loved him with all her strength, such as it was. At that moment indeed she realised how great, how bitter, how complete was the mistake she had made, and what a beautiful thing life might have been for her if things had gone differently. But, remembering how things were, she bowed her head and passed on, for the time completely crushed.
Presently, however, two points became clear in the confusion of her mind, taking shape and form as distinct and indisputable mental facts, and these were—first, that she was wildly jealous of Dorothy; second, that it was her fixed determination to see Ernest. She regretted now that she had been too overcome to go up and speak to him, for see him she must and would; indeed, her sick longing to look upon his face and hear his voice, filled her with alarm.
Eva reached her home, after the meeting on the Hoe, just before luncheon-time. Her husband was now acting as locum tenens for the rector of one of the Plymouth parishes. They had moved thus from place to place for years, waiting for the Kesterwick living to fall vacant, and Eva liked the roving life well enough—it diverted her thoughts.
Presently she heard her husband enter, bringing somebody else with him, and summoned up the sweet smile for which she was remarkable to greet him.
In another instant he was in the room, followed by a fresh-faced subaltern, whose appearance reminded her of the pictures of cherubs. Mr. Plowden had changed but little since we saw him last, with the exception that his hair was now streaked with white, and the whole face rather stouter. Otherwise the cold grey eyes were as cold as ever, and the countenance of Plowden was what the countenance of Plowden had always been—powerful, intelligent, and coarse-looking.
“Let me introduce my friend Lieutenant Jasper to you, my dear,” he said, in his full strong voice, which was yet unpleasant to the ear. “We met at Captain Johnstone's, and, as it is a long way to go to the barracks for lunch, I asked him to come and take pot-luck with us.”
The cherubic Jasper had screwed an eyeglass into his round eye, and through it was contemplating Eva with astonished ecstasy. Like most very beautiful women, she was used to that sort of thing, and it only amused her faintly. Mr. Plowden, too, was used to it, and took it as a personal compliment.
“I am delighted,” she murmured, and held out her hand.
The cherub, suddenly waking to the fact, dropped his eyeglass, and, plunging at the hand, seized it as a pike does a little fish, and shook it with enthusiasm.
Eva smiled again.
“Shall we go to lunch?” she said, sweetly: and they went to lunch, she sailing down in front of them with the grace of a swan.
At lunch itself the conversation lagged rather—that is, Mr. Plowden talked with all the facility of an extemporary preacher; the cherub gazed at this pale, dark-eyed angel; and Eva, fully occupied with her own thoughts, contributed a great many appreciative smiles and a few random remarks. Just as they were, to her intense relief, nearing the conclusion of the meal, a messenger arrived to summon Mr. Plowden to christen a dying baby. He got up at once, for he was punctilious in the performance of his duties, and, making excuses to his guest, departed on his errand, thus forcing Eva to carry on the conversation.
“Have you been in Plymouth long, Mr. Jasper?” she asked.
The eyeglass dropped spasmodically.
“Plymouth? O dear, no; I only landed this morning.”
“Landed? Indeed! where from? I did not know that any boat was in except the Conway Castle.”
“Well, I came by her, from the Zulu war, you know. I was invalided home for fever.”
The cherub suddenly became intensely interesting to Eva, for it struck her that Ernest must have come from Africa.
“Indeed! I hope you had a pleasant voyage. It depends so much on your fellow-passengers, does it not?”
“O yes, we had a very nice lot of men on board, wounded officers mostly. There were a couple of very decent civilians, too—a giant of a fellow called Jones, and a blind baronet, Sir Ernest Kershaw.”
Eva's bosom heaved.
“I once knew a Mr. Ernest Kershaw; I wonder if it is the same? He was tall, and had dark eyes.”
“That's the man; he only got his title a month or two ago. A melancholy sort of chap, I thought; but then he can't see now. That Jones is a wonderful fellow, though—could pull two heavy men up at once, as easily as you would lift a puppy-dog. Saw him do it myself. I knew them both out there.”
“Oh? Where did you meet them!”
“Well, it was rather curious. I suppose you heard of the great disaster at that place with that awful name. Well, I was at a beastly hole called Helpmakaar, when a fellow came riding like anything from Rorke's Drift, telling us what had happened, and that the Zulus were coming. So we all set to and worked like mad, and just as we had got the place a little fit for them, somebody shouted that he saw them coming. That was just as it was getting dark. I ran to the wall to look, and saw, not the Zulus, but a great big fellow carrying a dead man in his arms, followed by a Kafir leading three horses. At least, I thought the fellow was dead, but he wasn't—he had been struck by lightning. We let him in; and such a sight as they were you never saw, all soaked with blood from top to toe!”
“Ah! And how did they come like that?”
“They were the only survivors of a volunteer corps called Alston's Horse. They killed all the Zulus that were attacking them, when the Zulus had killed everybody except them. Then they came away, and the blind fellow—that is, Sir Ernest—got struck in a storm; fellows often do out there.”
Eva put further questions, and listened with breathless interest to the story of Ernest's and Jeremy's wonderful escape, so far as the details were known to Mr. Jasper, quite regardless of the pitiless fire that young gentleman was keeping on herself through his eyeglass. At last, reluctantly enough, he rose to go.
“I must be off now, Mrs. Plowden; I want to go and call on Sir Ernest at the hotel. He lent me a Derringer pistol to practise at a bottle with, and I forgot to give it back.”
Eva turned the full battery of her beautiful eyes upon him. She saw that the young gentleman was struck, and determined to make use of him. Women are unscrupulous when they have an end in view.
“I am sorry you must go; but I hope you will come and see me again, and tell me some more about the war and the battles.”
“You are very kind,” he stammered. “I shall be delighted.”
He did not think it necessary to add that he had not had the luck to see a shot fired himself. Why should he?
“By the way, if you are going to see Sir Ernest, do you think you could give him a private message from me? I have a reason for not wishing it to be overheard.”
“O yes, I daresay I can. Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
“You are very good.” Another glance. “Will you tell him that I wish he would take a fly and come to see me? I shall be in all this afternoon.”
A pang of jealousy shot through the cherubic bosom, but he comforted himself with the reflection that a fine woman like that could not care for a “blind fellow.”
“O, certainly, I will try.”
“Thank you”; and she extended her hand.
He took it, and intoxicated by those superb eyes, ventured to press it tenderly. A mild wonder took possession of Eva's mind that anybody so very young could have developed such an astonishing amount of impudence, but she did not resent the pressure. What did she care about having her hand squeezed when it was a question of seeing Ernest?
Poor deluded cherub!