The Witch’s Head

Book I

Chapter V

Eva’s Promise

Rider Haggard

WHEN, on leaving Cambridge, Jeremy got back to Dum’s Ness, Mr. Cardus received him with his usual semi-contemptuous coldness, a mental attitude that often nearly drove the young fellow wild with mortification. Not that Mr. Cardus really felt any contempt for him now—he had lost all that years ago, when the boy had been so anxious to go and “earn his bread;” but he could never forgive him for being the son of his father, or conquer his inherent dislike to him. On the other hand, he certainly did not allow this to interfere with his treatment of the lad; if anything, indeed, it made him more careful. What he spent upon Ernest, the same sum he spent on Jeremy, pound for pound; but there was this difference about it—the money he spent on Ernest he gave from love, and that on Jeremy from a sense of duty.

Now, Jeremy knew all this well enough, and it made him very anxious to earn his own living, and become independent of Mr. Cardus. But it was one thing to be anxious to earn your own living, and quite another to do it, as many a poor wretch knows to his cost, and when Jeremy set his slow brain to consider how he should go about the task it quite failed to supply him with any feasible idea. Yet he did not want much; Jeremy was not of an ambitious temperament. If he could earn enough to keep a cottage over his head, and find himself in food and clothes, and powder and shot, he would be perfectly content. Indeed, there were to be only two sine qua nons in his ideal occupation: it must admit of a considerable amount of outdoor exercise, and be of such a nature as would permit him to see plenty of Ernest. Without more or less of Ernest’s company, life would not, he considered, be worth living.

For a week or more after his arrival home these perplexing reflections simmered incessantly inside Jeremy’s head, till at length, feeling that they were getting too much for him, he determined to consult his sister, which, as she had three times his brains, he would have done well to think of before.

Dolly fixed her steady blue eyes upon him and listened to his tale in silence.

“And so you see, Doll”—he always called her Doll—he ended up, “I’m in a regular fix. I don’t know what I’m fit for, unless it’s to row a boat, or let myself out to bad shots to kill their game for them. You see I must stick on to Ernest; I don’t feel somehow as though I could get along without him; if it wasn’t for that I’d emigrate. I should be just the chap to cut down big trees in Vancouver’s Island or brand bullocks,” he added meditatively.

“You are a great goose, Jeremy,” was his sister’s comment.

He looked up, not in any way disputing her statement, but merely for further information.

“You are a great goose, I say. What do you suppose that I have been doing all these three years and more that you have been rowing boats and wasting time up at college. I have been thinking, Jeremy.”

“Yes, and so have I, but there is no good in thinking.”

“No, not if you stop there; but I’ve been acting too. I’ve spoken to Reginald, and made a plan, and he has accepted my plan.”

“You always were clever, Doll; you’ve got all the brains and I’ve got all the size;” and he surveyed as much as he could see of himself ruefully.

“You don’t ask what I have arranged,” she said, sharply, for in alluding to her want of stature Jeremy had touched a sore point.

“I am waiting for you to tell me.”

“Well, you are to be articled to Reginald.”

“O Lord!” groaned Jeremy, “I don’t like that at all.”

“Be quiet till I have told you. You are to be articled to Reginald, and he is to pay you an allowance of a hundred a year while you are articled, so that if you don’t like it you needn’t live here.”

“But I don’t like the business, Doll; I hate it; it is a beastly business; it’s a devil’s business.”

“I should like to know what right you have to talk like that, Mr. Knowall! Let me tell you that many better men than you are content to earn their living by lawyer’s work. I suppose that a man can be honest as a lawyer as well as in any other trade.”

Jeremy shook his head doubtfully. “It’s blood-sucking,” he said energetically.

“Then you must suck blood,” she answered, with decision. “Look here, Jeremy, don’t be pig-headed and upset all my plans. If you fall out with Reginald over this, he won’t do anything else for you. He doesn’t like you, you know, and would be only too glad to pick a quarrel with you if he could do it with a clear conscience, and then where would you be, I should like to know?”

Jeremy was unable to form an opinion as to where he would be, so she went on:

“You must take it for the present, at any rate. Then there is another thing to think of. Ernest is to go to the bar, and unless you become a lawyer, if anything happened to Reginald, there will be nobody to give him a start, and I’m told that is everything at the bar.”

This last Jeremy admitted to be a weighty argument.

“It is a precious queer sort of lawyer I shall make,” he said, sadly, “about as good as grandfather yonder, I’m thinking. By the way, how has he been getting on?”

“O, just as usual—write, write, write all day. He thinks that he is working out his time. He has got a new stick now, on which he has nicked all the months and years that have to run before he has done—little nicks for the months and big nicks for the years. There are eight or ten big ones left now. Every month he cuts out a nick. It is very dreadful. You know he thinks that Reginald is the devil, and he hates him, too. The other day, when he had no writing to do in the office, I found him drawing pictures of him with horns and tail, such awful pictures, and I think Reginald always looks like that to him. Then sometimes he wants to go out riding, especially at night. Only last week they found him putting a bridle on to the grey mare—the one that Reginald sometimes rides, you know. When did you say that Ernest was coming back?” she said, after a pause.

“Why, Doll, I told you—next Monday week.”

Her face fell a little. “O, I thought you said Saturday.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“O, only about getting his room ready.”

“Why, it is ready; I looked in yesterday.”

“Nonsense! you know nothing about it,” she answered, colouring. “Come, I wish you would go out; I want to count the linen, and you are in the way.”

Thus adjured, Jeremy removed his large form from the table on which he had been sitting, and whistling to Nails, now a very ancient and preternaturally wise dog, set off for a walk. He had mooned along some little way, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ground, reflecting on the unpleasant fate in store for him as an articled clerk, continually under the glance of Mr. Cardus’s roving eyes, when suddenly he became aware that two ladies were standing on the edge of the cliff within a dozen yards of him. He would have turned and fled, for Jeremy had a marked dislike to ladies’ society, and a strong opinion, which, however, he never expressed, that women were the root of all evil; but, thinking that he had been seen, he feared that retreat would appear rude. In one of the young ladies, for they were young, he recognised Miss Florence Ceswick, who to all appearance had not changed in the least since, some years ago, she came with her aunt to call on Dorothy. There were the same brown hair, curling as profusely as ever, the same keen brown eyes and ripe lips, the same small features and resolute expression of face. Her square figure had indeed developed a little. In her tight-fitting dress it looked almost handsome, and somehow its very squareness, that most women would have considered a defect, contributed to the air of power and unchanging purpose that would have made Florence Ceswick remarkable among a hundred handsomer women.

“How do you do?” said Florence, in her sharp manner. “You look as though you were walking in your sleep.”

Before Jeremy could find a reply to this remark, the other young lady, who had been looking intently over the edge of the cliff, turned round and struck him dumb. In his limited experience he had never seen such a beautiful woman before.

She was a head and shoulders taller than her sister, so tall indeed that only her own natural grace could save her from looking awkward. Like her sister she was a brunette, only of a much more pronounced type. Her waving hair was black, and so were her beautiful eyes and the long lashes that curled over them. The complexion was a clear olive, the lips were like coral, and the teeth small and regular. Every advantage that Nature can lavish on a woman she had endowed her with in abundance, including radiant health and spirits. To these charms must be added that sweet and kindly look which sometimes finds a home on the faces of good women, a soft voice, a quick intelligence, and an utter absence of conceit or self-consciousness, and the reader will get some idea of what Eva Ceswick was like in the first flush of her beauty.

“Let me introduce my sister Eva, Mr. Jones.”

But Mr. Jones was for the moment paralysed; he could not even take off his hat.

“Well,” said Florence, presently, “she is not Medusa; there is no need for you to turn into stone.”

This woke him up—indeed, occasionally, Florence had an ugly trick of waking people up, and he took off his hat, which was as usual a dirty one, and muttered something inaudible. As for Eva, she blushed, and with ready wit said that Mr. Jones was no doubt astonished at the filthy state of her dress (as a matter of fact, Jeremy could not have sworn that she had one on at all, much less to its condition). “The fact is,” she went on, “I have been lying flat on the grass and looking over the edge of the cliff.”

“What at?”

“Why, the bones.”

The spot on which they were standing was part of the ancient graveyard of Titheburgh Abbey, and as the sea encroached year by year, multitudes of the bones of the long-dead inhabitants of Kesterwick were washed out of their quiet graves and strewed upon the beach and unequal surfaces of the cliff.

“Look,” she said, kneeling down, an example that he followed. About six feet below them, which was the depth at which the corpses had been originally laid, could be seen fragments of lead and rotting wood projecting from the surface of the cliff, and, what was a more ghastly sight, eight inches or more of the leg-bones of a man, off which the feet had been washed away. On a ledge in the sandy cliff, about twenty-five feet from the top and sixty or so from the bottom, there lay quite a collection of human remains of all sorts and sizes, conspicuous among them being the bones which had composed the feet that belonged to the projecting shanks.

“Isn’t it dreadful?” said Eva, gazing down with a species of fascination: “just fancy coming to that! Look at that little baby’s skull just by the big one. Perhaps that is the mother’s. And what is that buried in the sand?”

As much of the object to which she pointed as was visible looked like an old cannon-ball, but Jeremy soon came to a different conclusion.

“It is a bit of lead coffin,” he said.

“Oh, I should like to get down there and find out what is in it. Can’t you get down?”

Jeremy shook his head. “I’ve done it as a boy,” he said, “when I was very light; but it is no good my trying now; the sand would give with me, and I should go to the bottom.”

He was willing to do most things to oblige this lovely creature, but Jeremy was above all things practical, and did not see the use of breaking his neck for nothing.

“Well,” she said, “you certainly are rather heavy.”

“Fifteen stone,” he said, mournfully.

“But I am not ten; I think I could get down.”

“You’d better not try without a rope.”

Just then their conversation was interrupted by Florence’s clear voice:

“When you two people have quite finished staring at those disgusting bones, perhaps, Eva, you will come to lunch. If you only knew how silly you look, sprawling there like two Turks going to be bastinadoed, perhaps you would get up.”

This was too much for Eva; she got up at once, and Jeremy followed suit.

“Why could you not let us examine our bones in peace, Florence?” said her sister, jokingly.

“Because you are really too idiotic. You see, Mr. Jones, anything that is old and fusty, and has to do with old fogies who are dead and gone centuries ago, has the greatest charms for my sister. She would like to go home and make stories about those bones: whose they were, and what they did, and all the rest of it. She calls it imagination; I call it fudge.”

Eva flushed up, but said nothing; evidently she was not accustomed to answer her elder sister, and presently they parted to go their separate ways.

“What a great oaf that Jeremy is!” said Florence to her sister on their homeward way.

“I did not think him an oaf at all,” she replied, warmly; “I thought him very nice.”

Florence shrugged her square shoulders. “Well, of course, if you like a giant with as much brain as an owl, there is nothing more to be said. You should see Ernest; he is nice, if you like.”

“You seem very fond of Ernest.”

“Yes, I am,” was the reply; “and I hope that when he comes you won’t poach on my manor.”

“You need not be afraid,” answered Eva, smiling; “I promise to leave your Ernest alone.”

“Then that is a bargain,” said Florence, sharply. “Mind that you keep to your word.”

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book I - Chapter VI - Jeremy Falls in Love

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