The Witch's Head/Book I/Chapter XII
While Ernest was wooing and Eva doubting, Time, whose interest in earthly affairs is that of the sickle in the growing crop, went on his way as usual.
The end of August came, as it has come so many thousand times since this globe gave its first turn in space, as it will come for many thousand times more, till at last, its appointed course run out, the world darkens, quivers, and grows still; and, behold! Ernest was still wooing, Eva still doubting.
One evening—it was a very beautiful evening—this pair were walking together on the seashore. Whether they met by appointment or by accident does not matter; they did meet, and there they were, strolling along together, as fully charged with intense feeling as a thunder-cloud with electricity and almost as quiet. The storm had not yet burst.
To listen to the talk of these two, they might have met for the first time yesterday. It was chiefly about the weather.
Presently, in the course of their wanderings, they came to a little sailing-boat drawn up upon the beach—not far up, however, just out of the reach of the waves. By this boat, in an attitude of intense contemplation, there stood an ancient mariner. His hands were in his pockets, his pipe was in his mouth, his eyes were fixed upon the deep. Apparently he did not notice their approach till they were within two yards of him. Then he turned, “dashed” himself, and asked the lady, with a pull of his grizzled forelock, if she would not take a sail.
Ernest looked surprised.
“How's the wind?” he asked.
“Straight on shore, sir; will turn with the turn of the tide, sir, and bring you back.”
“Will you come for a bit of a sail, Eva?”
“O no, thank you. I must be getting home; it is seven o'clock.”
“There is no hurry for you to get home. Your aunt and Florence have gone to tea with the Smythes.”
“Indeed, I cannot come; I could not think of such a thing.”
Her words were unequivocal, but the ancient mariner put a strange interpretation upon them. First he hauled up the little sail, and then, placing his brown hands against the stern of the boat, he rested his weight upon them, and caused her to travel far enough into the waves to float her bow.
“I am not coming, indeed.”
“I will not come, Ernest.”
“Come,” said Ernest, quietly holding out his hand to help her in.
She took it and got in. Ernest and the mariner gave a strong shove, and as the light boat took the water the former leaped in, and at the same second a puff of wind caught the sail, and took them ten yards out or more.
“Why, the sailor is left behind!” said Eva.
“Ernest gave a twist to the tiller to get the boat's head straight off shore, and then leisurely looked round. The mariner was standing as they had found him, his hands in his pockets, his pipe in his mouth, his eyes fixed upon the deep.
“He doesn't seem to mind it,” he said, meditatively.
“Yes, but I do; you must go back and fetch him.”
Thus appealed to, Ernest went through some violent manoeuvres with the tiller, without producing any marked effect on the course of the boat, which by this time had got out of the shelter of the cliff, and was bowling along merrily.
“Wait till we get clear of the draught from the cliff, and I will bring her round.”
But when at last they were clear from the draught of the cliff, and he slowly got her head round, lo and behold, the mariner had vanished!
“How unfortunate!” said Ernest, getting her head towards the open sea again; “he has probably gone to his tea.” Eva tried hard to get angry, but somehow she could not: she only succeeded in laughing.
“If I thought that you had done this on purpose, I would never come out with you again.”
Ernest looked horrified. “On purpose!” he said; and the subject dropped.
They were sitting side by side in the stern-sheets of the boat, and the sun was just dipping all red-hot into the ocean. Under the lee of the cliff there were cool shadows; before them was a path of glory that led to a golden gate. The air was very sweet, and for those two all the world was lovely; there was no sorrow on the earth, there were no storms upon the sea.
Eva took off her hat, and let the sweet breeze play upon her brow. Then she leaned over the side, and, dipping her hand into the cool water, watched the little track it made.
“Do you know I am going away?”
The hand was withdrawn with a start.
“Going away! when?”
“The day after to-morrow; to Guernsey first, then to France.”
“And when are you coming back again?”
“I think that depends upon you, Eva.”
The hand went back into the water. They were a mile or more from the shore now. Ernest manipulated the sail and tiller so as to sail slowly parallel with the coast-line. Then he spoke again.
“Eva, for God's sake look at me!”
There was something in his voice that forced her to obey. She took her hand out of the water and turned her eyes on to his face. It was pale, and the lips were quivering.
“I love you,” he said, in a low, choked voice.
She grew angry. “Why did you bring me here? I will go home. This is nonsense; you are nothing but a boy!”
There are moments in life when the human face is capable of conveying a more intense and vivid impression than any words, when it seems to speak to the very soul in a language of its own. And so it was with Ernest now; he made no answer to her reproaches, but, if that were possible, his features grew paler yet, and his eyes, shining like stars, fixed themselves upon her, and drew her to him. What they said she and he knew alone, nor could any words convey it, for the tongue in which they talked is not spoken in this world.
A moment still she wavered, fighting against the sweet mastery of his will with all her woman's strength, and then—O Heaven! it was done, and his arms were round about her, her head upon his breast, and her voice was lost in sobs and broken words of love.
O, radiant-winged hour of more than mortal joy; the hearts which you have touched will know when their time comes that they have not been quite in vain!
And so they sat, those two, quite silent, for there seemed to be no need for speech; words could not convey half they had to say. Indeed, to tell the honest truth, their lips were, for the most part, otherwise employed.
Meanwhile the sun went down, and the sweet moon arose over the quiet sea, and turned their little ship to silver. Eva gently disengaged herself from his arms, and half rose to look at it; she had never thought it half so beautiful before. Ernest looked at it too. It is a way that lovers have.
“Do you know the lines?” he said; “I think I can say them:
“'With a swifter motion, Out upon the ocean, Heaven above and round us, and you along with me: Heaven around and o'er us, Floating on for ever, upon the flowing sea.'”
“Go on,” she said, softly.
“'What time is it, dear, now? We are in the year now Of the New Creation, one million, two, or three; But where are we now, love? We are, as I trow, love, In the Heaven of Heavens, upon the Crystal Sea.'”
“That is how I hope it may be with us, dear,” she said, taking his hand, as the last words passed his lips.
“Are you happy now?” he asked her.
“Yes, Ernest, I am happy indeed. I do not think that I shall ever be so happy again; certainly I never was so happy before. Do you know, dear, I wish to tell you so, that you may see how mean I have been; I have fought so hard against my love for you.”
He looked pained. “Why?” he asked.
“I will tell you quite truly, Ernest—because you are so young. I was ashamed to fall in love with a boy, and yet you see, dear, you have been too strong for me.”
“Why, there is no difference in our ages!”
“Ah, Ernest, but I am a woman, and ever so much older than you. We age so much quicker, you know. I feel about old enough to be your mother,” she said, with a pretty assumption of dignity.
“And I feel quite old enough to be your lover,” he replied, impertinently.
“So it seems. But, Ernest, if three months ago anybody had told me that I should be in love to-day with a boy of twenty-one, I would not have believed them. Dear, I have given you all my heart; you will not betray me, will you? You know very young men are apt to change their minds.”
He flushed a little as he answered, feeling that it was tiresome to have the unlucky fact that he was only twenty-one so persistently thrust before him.
“Then they are young men who have not had the honour of winning your affections. A man who has once loved you could never forget you. Indeed, it is more likely that you will forget me; you will have plenty of temptation to do so.”
She saw that she had vexed him. “Don't be angry, dear; but you see the position is a very difficult one, and, if I could not be quite sure of you, it would be intolerable.”
“My darling, you may be as sure of me as woman can be of man; but don't begin your doubts over again. They are settled now. Let us be quite happy just this one evening. No doubt there are plenty coming when we shall not be able.”
So they kissed each other and sailed on—homeward, alas! for it was getting late—and were perfectly happy.
Presently they drew near the shore, and there, at the identical spot where they had left him, stood the ancient mariner. His hands were in his pockets, his pipe was in his mouth, his eyes were fixed upon the deep.
Ernest grounded the little boat skilfully enough, and, jumping over the bow, he and the mariner pulled it up. Then Eva got out, and as she did so she thought, in the moonlight, that she noticed something resembling a twinkle in the latter's ancient eye. She felt confused—there is nothing so confusing as a guilty conscience—and, to cover her confusion, plunged into conversation while Ernest was finding some money to pay for the boat.
“Do you often let boats?” she asked.
“No, miss, only to Mr. Ernest in a general way” (so that wicked Ernest had set a trap to catch her).
“O, then, I suppose you go out fishing?”
“No, miss, only for rikkration, like.”
“Then what do you do?”—she was getting curious on the point.
“Times I does nothing; times I stands on the beach and sees things; times I runs cheeses, miss.”
“Yes, miss, Dutch ones.”
“He means that he brings cargoes of Dutch cheeses to Harwich.”
“Oh!” said Eva.
Ernest paid the man, and they turned to go. She had not gone many yards when she felt a heavy hand laid upon her shoulder. Turning round in astonishment, she perceived the mariner.
“I say, miss,” he said, in a hoarse whisper.
“Niver you eat the rind of a Dutch cheese! I says it as knows.”
Eva did not forget his advice.