The Witch’s Head

Book I

Chapter IV

Boys Together

Rider Haggard

JEREMY kept his word. On the appointed day he appeared ready, as he expressed it, to “tackle that bloke Halford.” What is more, he appeared with his hair cut, a decent suit of clothes on, and wonder of wonders, his hands properly washed, for all of which he was rewarded by finding that the “tackling” was not such a fearful business as he had anticipated. It was, moreover, of an intermittent nature, for the lads found plenty of time to indulge in every sort of manly exercise together. In winter they would roam all over the wide marsh-lands in search of snipe and wild ducks, which Ernest missed and Jeremy brought down with unerring aim, and in summer they would swim, or fish, and bird-nest to their hearts’ content. In this way they contrived to combine the absorption of a little learning with that of a really extended knowledge of animal life and a large quantity of health and spirits.

They were happy years, those, for both the lads, and to Jeremy, when he compared them to his life as it had been before Ernest came, they seemed perfectly heavenly. For whether it was that he had improved in his manners since then, or that Ernest stood as a buffer between him and Mr. Cardus, it certainly happened that he came into collision with him far less often. Indeed, it seemed to Jeremy that the old gentleman (it was the fashion to call Mr. Cardus old, though he was in reality only middle-aged) was more tolerant of him than formerly, though he knew that he would never be a favourite.

As for Ernest, everybody loved the boy, and then, as afterwards, he was a great favourite with women, who would one and all do anything he asked. It was a wonder that he did not get spoiled by it all; but he did not. It was not possible to know Ernest Kershaw at any period of his life without taking a fancy to him, he was so eminently and unaffectedly a gentleman, and so completely free from any sort of swagger. Always ready to do a kindness and never forgetting one done, generous with his possessions to such an extent that he seemed to have a vague idea that they were the common property of his friends and himself, possessing that greatest of gifts, a sympathetic mind, and true as steel, no wonder that he was always popular both with men and women.

Ernest grew into a handsome lad, too, as soon as he began to get his height, with a shapely form, a beautiful pair of eyes, and an indescribable appearance of manliness and spirit. But the greatest charm of his face was always its quick intelligence and unvarying kindliness.

As for Jeremy, he did not change much; he simply expanded very largely. Year by year his form assumed more and more enormous proportions, and his strength grew more and more abnormal. As for his mind, it did not grow with the same rapidity, and was loth to admit a new idea; but once it was in, it never came out again.

He had a ruling passion, too, this dull giant, and that was his intense affection and admiration for Ernest. It was an affection that grew with his growth till it became a part of himself, increasing with the increasing years, till at last it was nearly pathetic in its entirety. It was but rarely that he parted from Ernest, except, indeed, on those occasions when Ernest chose to go abroad to pursue his study of foreign languages, of which he was rather fond. Then, and then only, Jeremy would strike. He disliked parting with Ernest much, but he objected—being intensely insular—to cohabit with foreigners yet more, so on these occasions, and these only, for a while they separated.

So the years wore on till, when they were eighteen, Mr. Cardus, after his sudden fashion, announced his intention of sending them both to Cambridge. Ernest always remembered it, for it was on that very day that he first made the acquaintance of Florence Ceswick. He had just issued from his uncle’s presence, and was seeking Dolly, to communicate the intelligence to her, when he suddenly blundered in upon old Miss Ceswick, and with her a young lady. This young lady, to whom Miss Ceswick introduced him as her niece, at once attracted his attention. On being introduced the girl, who was about his own age, touched his outstretched palm with her slender fingers, throwing on him at the same moment so sharp a look from her brown eyes that he afterwards declared to Jeremy that it seemed to go right through him. She was a remarkable-looking girl. The hair, which curled profusely over a shapely head, was, like the eyes, brown; the complexion olive, the features were small, and the lips full, curving over a beautiful set of teeth. In person she was rather short, but squarely built, and at her early age her figure was perfectly formed. Indeed, she might to all appearances have been much older than she was. There was little of the typical girl about her. While he was still observing her, his uncle came into the room, and was duly introduced by the old lady to her niece, who had, she said, come to share her loneliness.

“How do you like Kesterwick, Miss Florence?” asked Mr. Cardus, with his usual courtly smile.

“It is much what I expected—a little duller, perhaps,” she answered composedly.

“Ah, perhaps you have been accustomed to a gayer spot.”

“Yes, till my mother died we lived at Brighton; there is plenty of life there. Not that we could mix in it, we were too poor; but at any rate we could watch it.”

“Do you like life, Miss Florence?”

“Yes, we only live such a short time. I should like,” she went on, throwing her head back, and half-closing her eyes, “to see as much as I can, and to exhaust every emotion.”

“Perhaps, Miss Florence, you would find some of them rather unpleasant,” answered Mr. Cardus, with a smile.

“Possibly, but it is better to travel through a bad country than to grow in a good one.”

Mr. Cardus smiled again: the girl interested him rather.

“Do you know, Miss Ceswick,” he said, changing the subject, and addressing the stately old lady, who was sitting smoothing her laces, and looking rather aghast at her niece’s utterances, “that this young gentleman is going to college, and Jeremy, too?”

“Indeed,” said Miss Ceswick; “I hope that you will do great things there, Ernest.”

While Ernest was disclaiming any intentions of the sort, Miss Florence cut in again, raising her eyes from a deep contemplation of that young gentleman’s long shanks, which were writhing under her keen glance, and twisting themselves serpent-wise round the legs of the chair.

“I did not know,” she said, “that they took boys at college.”

Then they took their leave, and Ernest stigmatised her to Dorothy as a “beast.”

But she was at least attractive in her own peculiar fashion, and during the next year or two he became rather intimate with her.

So Ernest and Jeremy went up to Cambridge, but did not set the place on fire, nor were the voices of tutors loud in their praise. Jeremy, it is true, rowed one year in the ’Varsity Race, and performed prodigies of strength, and so covered himself with a sort of glory, which, personally, being of a modest mind, he did not particularly appreciate. Ernest did not even do that. But, by hook or by crook, at the termination of their collegiate career, they took some sort of degree, and then departed from the shores of the Cam, on which they had spent many a jovial day—Jeremy to return to Kesterwick, and Ernest to pay several visits to college friends in town and elsewhere.

Thus ended the first little round of their days.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book I - Chapter V - Eva’s Promise

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