The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter IX
A month had passed since Mr. de Talor had crept, utterly crushed, from the presence of the man whom he had wronged. During this time Mr. Cardus had been busy from morning till night. He was always a busy man, writing daily with his own hand an almost incredible number of letters; for he carried on all, or nearly all, his great affairs by correspondence, but of late his work seemed to have doubled.
In the course of that month the society in the neighbourhood of Kesterwick experienced a pleasurable sensation of excitement, for suddenly the De Talor family vanished off the face of the Kesterwick world, and the Ceswick Ness estates, after being advertised, were put up for sale, and bought, so said report, by a London firm of lawyers on behalf of an unknown client. The De Talors were gone, where to nobody knew, nor did they much care to inquire—that is with the exception of the servants whose wages were left unpaid, and the tradespeople to whom large sums were owing. They inquired vigorously enough, but without the smallest result; the De Talors had gone and left no trace, except the trace of bankruptcy, and Kesterwick knew them no more, but was glad over the sensation made by their disappearance.
But on one Saturday Mr. Cardus's business seemed to come to a sudden stop. He wrote some letters and put them in the post bag. Then he went to admire his orchids.
“Life,” he said aloud to himself, “shall be all orchids now; my work is done. I will build a new house for tropical sorts, and spend two hundred pounds on stocking it. Well, I can afford it.”
This was about five o'clock. Half an hour later, when he had well examined his flowers, he strolled out Titheburgh Abbey way, and here he met Ernest and his wife, who had been sitting in their favourite spot.
“Well, my dears,” he said, “and how are you?”
“Pretty well, uncle, thank you; and how are you?”
“I? O, I am very jolly indeed for an old man; as jolly as an individual who has just bid good-bye to work for ever should be,” he said.
“Why, Reginald, what do you mean?”
“Mean, Dorothy, my dear? I mean that I have wound up my affairs and retired on a modest competence. Ah, you young people should be grateful to me, for let me tell you that everything is now in apple-pie order, and when I slip off you will have no trouble at all, except to pay the probate duty, and that will be considerable. I never quite knew till a week ago how rich I was; but, as I said the other day, everything I have touched has turned to gold. It will be a large fortune for you to manage, my dears; you will find it a great responsibility.”
“I hope you will live many years to manage it yourself,” said Ernest.
“Ah, I don't know. I am pretty tough; but who can see the future? Dolly, my dear girl,” he went on, in a dreamy way, “you are growing like your mother. Do you know, I sometimes think that I am not far off her now; you see I speak plainly to you two. Years ago I used to think—that is, sometimes—that your mother was dust and nothing more; that she had left me for ever; but of late I have changed my ideas. I have seen,” he went on, speaking in an absent way, as though he were meditating to himself, “how wonderfully Providence works even in the affairs of this imperfect world, and I begin to believe that there must be a place where it allows itself a larger development. Yes, I think I shall find your mother somewhere, Dorothy, my dear. I seem to feel her very near me sometimes. Well, I have avenged her.”
“I think that you will find her, Reginald,” she answered; “but your vengeance is wicked and wrong. I have often made bold to tell you so, though sometimes you have been angry with me, and I tell you so again. It can only bring evil with it. What have we poor creatures to do with vengeance, who do not understand the reason of things, and can scarcely see an inch before our noses? What right have we to judge others, who, if we knew everything, would probably be the first to pardon them?”
“Perhaps you are right, my love—you generally are right in the main; but my desire for vengeance upon that man De Talor has been the breath of my nostrils, and I have achieved it. Man, if he only lives long enough, and has strength of will enough, can achieve everything except happiness. But man fritters away his powers over a variety of objects; he is led astray in pursuit of the butterfly Pleasure, or the bubble Ambition, or the Destroying Angel Woman; and his purposes fall to the ground between a dozen stools. Most men, too, are not capable of a purpose. Men are weak creatures; and yet what a mighty seed lies hid in every human breast. Think, my children, what man might, nay, may become, when his weakness and follies have fallen from him, when his rudimentary virtues have been developed, and his capacities for physical and mental beauties brought to an undreamed of perfection! Look at the wild flower and the flower of the hothouse—it is nothing compared to the possibilities inherent in man, even as we know him. It is a splendid dream! Will it ever be fulfilled, I wonder? Well, well—
“Come, let us turn; it will soon be time to dress for dinner. By the way, Dorothy, that reminds me. I don't quite like the way that your respected grandfather is going on. I told him that I had no more deeds for him to copy, that I had done with deeds, and he went and got that confounded stick of his, and showed me that according to his own little calculations his time was up; and then he got his slate and wrote about my being the devil on it, but that I had no more power over him, and that he was bound for heaven. The other day, too, I caught him staring at me through the glass of the door with a very queer look in his eyes.”
“Ah, Reginald, so you have noticed it! I quite agree with you; I don't at all like his goings-on. Do you know, I think that he had better be shut up.”
“I don't like to shut him up, Dorothy. However, here we are; we will talk about it to-morrow.”
Having led Ernest to his room, Dorothy, before beginning to dress herself, went to the office to see if her grandfather was still there. And there, sure enough, she found him, pacing up and down, muttering and waving his long stick, out of which all the notches had now been cut.
“What are you doing, grandfather?” she asked; “why haven't you gone to dress?”
He snatched up his slate and wrote rapidly upon it:
“Time's up! Time's up! Time's up! I've done with the devil and all his works. I'm off to heaven on the big black horse to find Mary. Who are you? You look like Mary.”
“Grandfather,” said Dolly, quietly taking the slate out of his hand, “what do you mean by writing such nonsense? Let me hear no more of it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Now, mind, I will have no more of it. Put away that stick, and go and wash your hands for dinner.”
The old man did as he was bid somewhat sulkily, Dorothy thought; but when he arrived at the dinner-table there was nothing noticeable about his manner.
They dined at a quarter to seven, and dinner did not take them very long. When it was over, old Atterleigh drank some wine, and then, according to his habit, went and sat in the ancient inglenook which had presumably been built by the forgotten Dum for his comfort on winter evenings. And on winter evenings, when there was a jolly wood-fire burning on the hearth, it was a pleasant spot enough; but to sit there in the dark on a lovely summer night was an act, well—worthy of old Atterleigh.
After dinner the conversation turned upon that fatal day when Alston's Horse was wiped out at Isandhlwana. It was a painful subject both to Ernest and Jeremy, but the former was gratifying his uncle's curiosity by explaining to him how that last dread struggle with the six Zulus came to determine itself in their favour.
“And how was it?” asked Mr. Cardus, “that you managed to get the better of the fellow with whom you rolled down the hill?”
“Because the assegai broke, and, fortunately enough, the blade was left in my hand. Where is it, Doll?” (for Jeremy had brought it home with him).
Dorothy got up and reached the broken assegai, which had about eight inches of the shaft, from its place over the mantelpiece.
“Now then, Jeremy, if you would be so good as to sprawl upon your back upon the floor, I will just show my uncle what happened.”
Jeremy complied, not without grumbling about dirtying his dress-coat.
“Jeremy, my boy, where are you? O, there! Well, excuse my taking the liberty of kneeling on your chest, and holloa out of the assegai goes into you. If we are going to have a performance at all, it may as well be a realistic one. Now, uncle, you see when we finished rolling, which was just as this assegai snapped in two, as luck would have it I was uppermost, and managed to get my knee on my friend's left arm and to hold his right with my left. Then, before he could get loose, I drove this bit of spear through the side of his throat, just there, so that it cut the jugular vein, and he died shortly afterwards; and now you know all about it.”
Here Ernest rose and laid the spear upon the table, and Jeremy, entering into the spirit of the thing, began to die as artistically as a regard for his dress-coat would allow. Just then Dorothy, looking up, saw her grandfather Atterleigh's distorted face peering round the wall of the inglenook, where he was sitting in the dark, and looking at the scene of mimic slaughter with that same curious gaze which he had worn on several occasions lately. He withdrew his head at once.
“Get up, Jeremy!” said his sister, sharply, “and stop writhing about there like a great snake. You look as though you had been murdered; it is horrible!”
Jeremy arose laughing, and, having obtained Dorothy's permission, they all lit their pipes, and, sitting there in the fading light, fell to talking about that sad scene of slaughter which indeed appeared that night to have a strange fascination for Mr. Cardus. He asked Ernest and Jeremy about it again and again—how this man was killed, and that?—did they die at once? and so on.
The subject was always distressing to Ernest, and one to which he rarely alluded, full as it was for him of the most painful recollections, especially those connected with his dear friend Alston and his son.
Dorothy knew this, and knew too that Ernest would be low spirited for at least a day after the conversation, which she did her best to stop. At last she succeeded; but the melancholy associations connected with the talk had apparently already done their work, for everybody lapsed into the most complete silence, and sat grouped together at the top-end of the old oak table as quietly as though they were cut in stone. Meanwhile, the twilight deepened, little gusts of wind arose, and gently shook the old-fashioned window-lattices, making a sound as though feeble hands were trying to throw them open. The dull evening light crept from place to place, and threw great shadows about the room, glanced upon the armour on its panelled walls, and at last began to die away into darkness. The whole scene was eerie, and for some unknown reason it oppressed Dorothy. She wondered why everybody was so silent, and yet she herself did not feel equal to breaking the silence; there was a load upon her heart.
Just then a curious thing happened. As may be remembered, the case containing the wonderful mummied head, found by Eva Ceswick, had years before been placed by Jeremy upon a bracket at the end of the room. Round about this case hung various pieces of armour, and among others, above it, suspended by a piece of string from a projecting hook, was a heavy iron gauntlet. For many years—twenty or more—it had hung from the hook, but now at last the string was worn through, and even as Dorothy was wondering at the silence, it gave. Down came the heavy iron hand with a crash, and, as it passed, it caught the latch of the long air-tight case, and jarred the door wide open.
Everybody in the room sprang to their feet, and, as they did so, a last ray from the setting sun struggled through one of the windows, and rested upon the open case, staining it, and all about it, the hue of blood, and filling the fearful crystal eyes within with a lurid light. How they glowed and shone, to be sure, after their long sleep!—for the case had scarcely been opened for years—while their tremulous glance, now dull, now intense, according as the light played upon them, appeared to wander round and round the room, as though in search of somebody or something.
It was an awful sight which that ray of sunlight showed, as it played upon the trembling crystal orbs, the scornful, deathly features, and the matchless hair that streamed on either side. Together with the sudden break in the silence, caused by the crashing fall of the gauntlet, as it had done many years before, it proved altogether too much for the beholders' nerves.
“What is that?” asked Ernest, with a start, as the gauntlet fell.
Dorothy glanced up and gave a little cry of horror. “Oh, that dreadful head! it is looking at us.”
They all rose to their feet, and Dorothy, seizing Ernest by one hand, and covering her eyes with the other, retreated slowly, followed by the others, towards the swing-door. Soon they had reached the door, were through it, down the passage, and out into the peaceful stillness of the evening. Then Jeremy spoke, and his language was more forcible than polite.
“Well, I am blowed!” he said, wiping the cold perspiration from his forehead.
“Oh, Reginald, I do wish you would get that horrible thing out of the house; there has been nothing but misfortune ever since it has been here. I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it!” said Dolly, hysterically.
“Nonsense, you superstitious child!” answered Mr. Cardus, who was now recovering from his start. “The gauntlet knocked the door open, that was all. It is nothing but a mummied head; but, if you don't like it, I will send it to the British Museum to-morrow.”
“Oh, please do, Reginald,” answered Dorothy, who appeared quite unhinged.
So hurried had been their retreat from the room that everybody had forgotten “Hard-riding Atterleigh” sitting in the dark in the inglenook. But the bustle in the room had attracted him, and already, before they were gone, he had projected his large head covered with the tangled grey locks, and begun to stare about. Presently his eyes fell upon the crystal orbs, and then, to him, the orbs appeared to cease their wanderings and rest upon his eyes. For awhile the two heads stared at each other thus—the golden head without a body in the box, and the grey head that, thrust out as it were from the ingle-wall, seemed to have no body either. They stared and stared, till at last the golden head got the mastery of the grey head, and the old man crept from his corner, crept down the room till he was almost beneath the baleful eyes, and nodded, nodded, nodded at them.
And they, too, seemed to nod, nod, nod at him. Then he retreated backwards as slowly as he had come, nodding all the while, till he came to where the broken assegai lay upon the table, and, taking it, thrust it up his sleeve. As he did so, the ray of light faded and the fiery eyes went out. It was as though the thick white lids and long eyelashes had dropped over them.
None of the other four returned to the sitting-room that night.
When he had recovered from his fright, Jeremy went into his little room, the same in which he used to stuff birds as a boy, and busied himself with his farm accounts. Mr. Cardus, Dorothy, and Ernest walked about together in the balmy moonlight, for, very shortly after the twilight had departed, the great harvest-moon came up and flooded the world with light. Mr. Cardus was in a talkative, excited mood that night. He talked about his affairs, which he had now finally wound up, and about Mary Atterleigh, mentioning little tricks of manner and voice which were reproduced in Dorothy. He talked too about Ernest's and Dorothy's marriage, and said what a comfort it was to him. Finally, about ten o'clock, he said that he was tired and going to bed.
“God bless you, my dears; sleep well! Good-night,” he said. “We will settle about that new orchid-house to-morrow. Good-night, good-night.”
Shortly afterwards Dorothy and Ernest also went to bed, reaching their room by a back entrance, for they neither of them felt inclined to come under the fire of the crystal eyes again, and soon they were asleep in each other's arms.
The minutes stole on one by one through the dead silence of the night, bearing their records with them to the archives of the past. Eleven o'clock came and fled away; midnight came too, and swept across the world. Everywhere—on land, sky, and sea—there was silence, nothing but silence sleeping in the moonlight.
Hark! Oh, heavens, what was that!
One fearful, heartrending yell of agony, ringing all through the ancient house, rattling the casements, shaking the armour against the panelled walls, pulsing and throbbing in horrible notes out into the night, echoing and dying far away over the sea! Then silence again, silence sleeping in the moonlight.
They sprang from their beds, did every living soul beneath that roof, and rushed in their night-gear, men and women together, into the sitting-room. The crystal eyes seemed to be awake again, for the moon was up and played upon them, causing them now and then to flash out in gleams of opalescent light.
Somebody lit a candle, somebody missed Mr. Cardus; surely he could never have slept through that! Yes, he had slept through it. They ran and tumbled, a confused mass of white, into the room where he lay. He was there sure enough, and he slept very sound, with a red gash in his throat, from which the blood fell in heavy drops, down, down to the ground.
They stood aghast, and as they stood, from the courtyard outside there came a sound of galloping hoofs. They knew the sound of the galloping; it was that of Ernest's great black stallion!
A mile or more away out on the marshes, just before you come to the well-known quicksands, which have, tradition says, swallowed so many unfortunates, and which shudder palpably at times and are unpleasant to look on, stands a lock-house, inhabited by one solitary man, who has charge of the sluice. On this very night it is necessary for him to open his sluice-gates at a particular moment, and now he stands awaiting that propitious time. He is an ancient mariner; his hands are in his pockets, his pipe is in his mouth, his eyes are fixed upon the sea. We have met him before. Suddenly he hears the sound of a powerful horse galloping furiously. He turns, and his hair begins to rise upon his head, for this is what he sees in the bright moonlight:
Fast, fast towards him thunders a great coal-black horse, snorting with mingled rage and terror, and on its bare back there sits a man with a grip of iron—an old man, for his grey locks stream out behind him—who waves above his head the fragment of a spear.
On they come. Before them is the wide sluice; if they are mortal, they will turn or plunge into it. No; the great black horse gathers himself, and springs into the air.
By heaven, he has cleared it! No horse ever took that leap before, or will again. On at whirlwind speed towards the shuddering quicksand two hundred yards away!
Splash! Horse and man are in it, making the moist mass shake and tremble for twenty yards round. The bright moonlight shows it all. The horse shrieks in fear and agony, as only a horse can; the man on his back waves the spear.
The horse vanishes, the man vanishes; the spear glitters an instant longer in the moonlight, and then vanishes too. They have all vanished for ever.
They have all vanished, and again the perfect silence sleeps in the moonlight.
“Bust me!” says the ancient one, aloud, and shaking with a mortal dread; “bust me, I have stood still and seed many a queer thing, but I never seed a thing like that!” Then he turned and fled fast as his old legs would carry him, forgetful of Dutch cheeses and of sluice-gates, forgetful of everything except that demon horse and man.
Thus ended “Hard-riding Atterleigh's” maddest gallop, and thus, too, ended the story of Mr. Cardus and his revenge.