The Witch's Head/Book II/Chapter IV
Two months or so after Ernest's flight there came a letter from him to Mr. Cardus in answer to the one sent by his uncle. He thanked his uncle warmly for his kindness, and more especially for not joining in the hue and cry against him. As regarded money, he hoped to be able to make a living for himself, but if he wanted any he would draw. The letter, which was short, ended thus:
“Thank Doll and Jeremy for their letters. I would answer them, but I am too down on my luck to write much; writing stirs up so many painful memories, and makes me think of all the dear folks at home more than is good for me. The fact is, my dear uncle, what between one thing and another, I never was so miserable in my life, and as for loneliness, I never knew what it meant before. Sometimes I wish that my cousin had hit me instead of my hitting him, and that I was dead and buried, clean out of the way. Alston, who was my second in that unhappy affair, and with whom I am going up-country shooting, has been most kind to me, and has introduced me to a good many people here. They are very hospitable—everybody is hospitable in a colony; but somehow a hundred new faces cannot make up for one old one, and I should think old Atterleigh a cheerful companion beside the best of them. What is more, I feel myself an impostor intruding myself on them under an assumed name. Good-bye, my dear uncle. It would be difficult for me to explain how grateful I am for your goodness to me. Love to dear Doll and Jeremy.
“Ever your affectionate nephew, “E. K.”
All the party at Dum's Ness were much touched by this letter, more especially Dorothy, who could not bear to think of Ernest all alone out there in that strange far-off land. Her tender little heart grew alive with love and sorrow as she lay awake at night and thought of him travelling over the great African plains. She got all the books that were to be had about South Africa and read them, so that she might be the better able to follow his life in her thoughts. One day when Florence came to see her she read her part of Ernest's letter, and when she had finished she was astonished to see a tear in her visitor's keen eyes. She liked Florence the better for that tear. Could she have seen the conflict that was raging in the fierce heart of the woman before her, she would have started from her as though she had been a poisonous snake. The letter touched Florence—touched her to the quick. The tale of Ernest's loneliness almost overcame her resolution, for she alone knew why he was so utterly lonely, and what it was that crushed him. Had Ernest alone been concerned, it is probable that she would then and there have thrown up her cruel game; but he was not alone concerned. There was her sister who had robbed her of her lover—her sister whose loveliness was a standing affront to her as her sweetness was a standing reproach. She was sorry for Ernest, and would have been glad to make him happier, but as that could only be done by foregoing revenge upon her sister, Ernest must continue to suffer. And after all why should he not suffer? she argued. Did not she suffer?
When Florence got home she told Eva about the letter from her love, but she said nothing of his evident distress. He was making friends, he expected great pleasure from his shooting—altogether he was getting on well.
Eva listened, hardened her heart, and went out district visiting with Mr. Plowden.
Time went on, and no letters came from Ernest. One month, two months, six months passed, and there was no intelligence of him. Dorothy grew very anxious, and so did Mr. Cardus, but they did not speak of the matter much except to remark that the reason no doubt was that he was away on his shooting excursion.
Jeremy also, in his slow way, grew intensely preoccupied with the fact that they never heard from Ernest now, and that life was consequently a blank. He sat upon the stool in his uncle's outer office and made pretence to copy deeds and drafts, but in reality he occupied his time in assiduously polishing his nails and thinking. As for the deeds and drafts, he gave them to his grandfather to copy. “It kept the old gentleman employed,” he would explain to Dorothy, “and from indulging in bad thoughts about the devil.”
But it was one night out duck-shooting that his great inspiration came. It was a bitter night, a night on which no sane creature except Jeremy would ever have dreamed of going to shoot ducks or anything else. The marshes were partially frozen, and a fierce east wind was blowing across them; but utterly regardless of the cold, there sat Jeremy under the ice of a dike bank, listening for the sound of the ducks' wings as they passed to their feeding-grounds, and occasionally getting a shot at them as they crossed the moon above him. There were not many ducks, and the solitude and silence were inductive to contemplation. Ernest did not write. Was he dead? Not probable, or they would have heard of it. Where was he, then? Impossible to say, impossible to discover. Was it impossible? “Swish, swish, bang!“ and down came a mallard at his feet. A quick shot, that! Yes, it was impossible; they had no means of inquiry here. The inquiry, if any, must be made, on the other side of the water. But who was to make it? Ah! an idea struck him. Why should not he, Jeremy, make that inquiry? Why should he not go to South Africa and look for Ernest? A flight of duck passed over his head unheeded. What did he care for duck? He had solved the problem which had been troubling him all these months. He would go to South Africa and look for Ernest. If Mr. Cardus would not give him the money, he would work his way out. Anyhow he would go. He could bear the suspense no longer.
Jeremy rose in the new-found strength of his purpose, and gathering up the slain—there were only three—whistled to his retriever, and made his way back to Dum's Ness.
He found Mr. Cardus and Dorothy by the fire in the sitting-room. “Hard-riding Atterleigh” was there too, in his place in the inglenook, a riding-whip in his ink-stained hand, with which he was tapping his top-boot. They turned as he entered, except his grandfather, who did not hear him.
“What sport have you had, Jeremy?” asked his sister, with a sad little smile. Her face had grown very sad of late.
“Three ducks,” he answered shortly, advancing his powerful form out of the shadows into the firelight. “I came home just as they were beginning to fly.”
“You found it cold, I suppose?” said Mr. Cardus, absently. They had been talking of Ernest, and he was still thinking of him.
“No, I did not think of the cold. I came home because I had an idea.”
Both his hearers looked up surprised. Ideas were not very common to Jeremy, or if they were he kept them to himself.
“Well, Jeremy?” said Dorothy, inquiringly.
“Well, it is this. I cannot stand it about Ernest any longer and I am going to look for him. If you won't give me the money,” he went on, addressing Mr. Cardus almost fiercely, “I will work my way out. It is no credit to me,” he added; “I lead a dog's life while I don't know where he is.”
Dorothy flushed a pale pink with pleasure. Rising, she went up to her great strong brother, and standing on tip-toe, managed to kiss him on the chin.
“That is like you, Jeremy dear,” she said softly.
Mr. Cardus looked up too, and after his fashion let his eyes wander round Jeremy before he spoke.
“You shall have as much money as you like, Jeremy,” he said presently; “and if you bring Ernest back safe, I will leave you twenty thousand pounds;” and he struck his hand down upon his knee, an evidence of excitement which it was unusual for him to display.
“I don't want your twenty thousand pounds—I want Ernest,” answered the young man, gruffly.
“No. I know you don't, my lad; I know you don't. But find him and keep him safe, and you shall have it. Money is not to be sneezed at, let me tell you. I say keep him, for I forgot you cannot bring him back till this accursed business has blown over. When will you go?”
“By the next mail, of course. They leave every Friday; I will not waste a day. To-day is Saturday; I will sail next Friday.”
“That is right; you shall go at once. I will give you a cheque for five hundred pounds to-morrow, and mind, Jeremy, you are not to spare money. If he has gone to the Zambesi, you must follow him. Never think of the money; I will think of that.”
Jeremy soon made his preparations. They consisted chiefly of trifles. He was to leave Dum's Ness early on the Thursday. On the Wednesday afternoon it occurred to him that he might as well tell Eva Ceswick that he was going in search of Ernest, and ask if she had any message. Jeremy was the only person, or thought that he was the only person, in the secret of Ernest's affection for Eva. Ernest had asked him to keep it secret, and he had kept it secret as the dead, never breathing a word of it, even to his sister.
It was about five o'clock on a windy March afternoon when he set out for the Cottage. On the edge of the hamlet of Kesterwick, some three hundred yards from the cliff, stood two or three little hovels, turning their naked faces to the full fury of the sea-blast. He was drawing near to these when he came to a stile which gave passage over a sod wall that ran to the edge of the cliff, marking the limits of the village common. As he approached the stile the wind brought him the sound of voices—a man's and a woman's—engaged apparently in angry dispute on the farther side of the wall. Instead of getting over the stile, he stepped to the right and looked over the wall, and saw the new clergyman, Mr. Plowden, standing with his back towards him, and, apparently very much against her will, holding Eva Ceswick by the hand. Jeremy was too far off to overhear his words, but from his voice it was clear that Plowden was talking in an excited, masterful tone. Just then Eva turned her head a little, and he did hear what she said, her voice being so much clearer:
“No, Mr. Plowden, no! Let go my hand. Ah! why will you not take an answer?”
Just at that moment she succeeded in wrenching her imprisoned hand from his strong grasp, and without waiting for any more words, set off towards Kesterwick almost at a run.
Jeremy was a man of slow mind, though when once his mind was made up, it was of a singularly determined nature. At first he did not quite take in the full significance of the scene, but when he did a great red flush spread over his honest face, and the big grey eyes sparkled dangerously. Presently Mr. Plowden turned and saw him. Jeremy noticed that the “sign of the cross” was remarkably visible on his forehead, and that his face wore an expression by no means pleasant to behold—anything but a Christian, in short.
“Hullo!” he said to Jeremy; “what are you doing there?”
Before answering, Jeremy put his hand on the top of the sod wall, and vaulting over, walked straight up to the clergyman.
“I was watching you,” he said, looking him straight in the eyes.
“Indeed!—an honourable employment: eavesdropping I think it is generally called.”
Whatever had passed between Mr. Plowden and Eva Ceswick, it had clearly not improved the former's temper.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I say.”
“Well, Mr. Plowden, I may as well tell you what I mean; I am not good at talking, but I know that I shall be able to make you understand. I saw you just now assaulting Miss Ceswick.”
“It is a lie!”
“That is not a gentlemanlike word, Mr. Plowden, but as you are not a gentleman I will overlook it.” Jeremy, after the dangerous fashion of the Anglo-Saxon race, always got wonderfully cool as a row thickened. “I repeat that I saw you holding her, notwithstanding her struggles to get away.”
“And what is that to you, confound you!” said Mr. Plowden, shaking with fury, and raising a thick stick he held in his hand in a suggestive manner.
“Don't lose your temper, and you shall hear. Miss Eva Ceswick is engaged to my friend Ernest Kershaw, or something very like it, and, as he is not here to look after his own interests, I must look after them for him.”
“Ah, yes,” answered Mr. Plowden, with a ghastly smile, “I have heard of that. The murderer, you mean.”
“I recommend you, Mr. Plowden, in your own interest, to be a little more careful in your terms.”
“And supposing that there has been something between your—your friend——”
“Much better term, Mr. Plowden.”
“And Miss Eva Ceswick, what, I should like to know, is there to prevent her having changed her mind?”
Jeremy laughed aloud, it must be admitted rather insolently, and in a way calculated to irritate people of meeker mind than Mr. Plowden.
“To any one, Mr. Plowden, who has the privilege of your acquaintance, and who also knows Ernest Kershaw, your question would seem absurd. You see, there are some people between whom there can be no comparison. It is not possible that, after caring for Ernest, any woman could care for you;” and Jeremy laughed again.
Mr. Plowden's thick lips turned quite pale, the veinous cross upon his forehead throbbed until Jeremy thought that it would burst, and his eyes shone with the concentrated light of hate. His vanity was his weakest point. He controlled himself with an effort, however; though if there had been any deadly weapon at hand it might have gone hard with Jeremy.
“Perhaps you will explain the meaning of your interference and your insolence, and let me go on?”
“Oh, with pleasure,” answered Jeremy, with refreshing cheerfulness. “It is just this: if I catch you at any such tricks again, you shall suffer for it. One can't thrash a clergyman, and one can't fight him, because he won't fight; but look here, one can shake him, for that leaves no marks; and if you go on with these games, so sure as my name is Jeremy Jones, I will shake your teeth down your throat! Good-night!” and Jeremy turned to go.
It is not wise to turn one's back upon an infuriated animal and at that moment Mr. Plowden was nothing more. Even as he turned, Jeremy remembered this, and gave himself a slew to one side. It was fortunate for him that he did so, for at that moment Mr. Plowden's heavy blackthorn stick, directed downwards with all the strength of Mr. Plowden's powerful arm, passed within a few inches of his head, out of which, had he not turned, it would have probably knocked the brains. As it was, it struck the ground with such force that the jar sent it flying out of its owner's hands.
“Ah, you would!” was Jeremy's reflection as he sprang at his assailant.
Now Mr. Plowden was a very powerful man, but he was no match for Jeremy, who in after days came to be known as the strongest man in the east of England, and so was destined to find him out. Once Jeremy got a grip of him—for his respect for the Church prevented him from trying to knock him down—he seemed to crumple up like a piece of paper in his iron grasp. Jeremy could easily have thrown him, but he would not; he had his own ends in view. So he just held the Reverend James tight enough to prevent him from doing him any serious injury, and let him struggle frantically till he thought he was sufficiently exhausted for his purpose. Then Jeremy suddenly gave him a violent twist, got behind him, and set to work with a will to fulfil his promise of a shaking. O, what a shake that was! First of all he shook him backwards and forwards for Ernest's sake, then he alternated the motion and shook him from side to side for his own sake, and finally he shook him every possible way for the sake of Eva Ceswick.
It was a wonderful sight to see the great burly clergyman, his hat off, his white tie undone, and his coat-tails waving like streamers, bounding and gambolling on the breezy cliffs, his head, legs, and arms jerking in every possible direction, like those of a galvanised frog; while behind him, his legs slightly apart to get a better grip of the ground, and his teeth firmly clinched, Jeremy shook away with the fixity of Fate.
At last, getting exhausted, he stopped, and holding Mr. Plowden still, gave him a drop-kick—only one. But Jeremy's leg was very strong, and he always wore thick boots, and the result was startling. Mr. Plowden rose some inches off the ground, and went on his face into a furze-bush.
“He will hardly like to show that honourable wound,” reflected Jeremy, as he wiped the perspiration from his brow with every sign of satisfaction.
He went and picked his fallen enemy out of the bush, where he had nearly fainted, smoothed his clothes, tied the white tie as nearly as he could, and put the wide hat on the dishevelled hair. Then he sat him down on the furze to recover himself.
“Good-night, Mr. Plowden, good-night. Next time you wish to hit a man with a big stick, do not wait till his back is turned. Ah, I daresay your head aches. I should advise you to go home and have a nice sleep.”
And Jeremy departed on his way, filled with a fearful joy.
When he reached the Cottage, he found everything in a state of confusion. Miss Ceswick, it appeared, had been suddenly taken very seriously ill; indeed, it was feared that she had got a stroke of apoplexy. He managed, however, to send up a message to Eva to say that he wished to speak to her for a minute. Presently she came down, crying.
“O, my poor aunt is so dreadfully ill,” she said. “We think that she is dying!”
Jeremy offered some awkward condolences, and indeed was much distressed. He liked old Miss Ceswick.
“I am going to South Africa to-morrow, Miss Eva,” he said.
She started violently, and blushed up to her hair.
“Going to South Africa! What for?”
“I am going to look for Ernest. We are afraid that something must have happened to him.”
“O, don't say that!” she said. “Perhaps he has—amusements which prevent his writing.”
“I may as well tell you that I saw something of what passed between you and Mr. Plowden.”
Again Eva blushed.
“Mr. Plowden was very rude,” she said.
“So I thought; but I think that he is sorry for it now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I nearly shook his ugly head off for him.”
“O, how could you?” Eva asked, severely; but there was no severity on her face.
Just then Florence's voice was heard calling imperatively.
“I must go,” said Eva.
“Have you any message for Ernest, if I find him?”
“I know all about it,” said Jeremy, considerately turning his head.
“O no, I have no message—that is—O, tell him that I love him dearly!” and she turned and fled upstairs.