The Witch’s Head

Book I

Chapter XVI

Madame’s Work

Rider Haggard

PRESENTLY the eastern sky began to be barred with rays of light, and Ernest knew that the dawn was near.

Rising with a sigh, he made his last preparations, inwardly determining that, if he was to die, he would die in a way befitting all English gentlemen. There should be no sign of his fears on his face when he looked at his adversary’s pistol.

Presently there came a soft knock at the door, and Mr. Alston entered with his shoes off. In his hand he held the case containing the two Smith & Wessons.

“We must be off presently,” he said. “I just heard Captain Justice go down. Look here, Kershaw, do you understand anything about these?” and he tapped the Smith & Wessons.

“Yes; I have often practised with a pair of old duelling pistols at home. I used to be a very fair shot with them.”

“That is lucky. Now take one of these revolvers; I want to give you a lesson, and accustom you to handle it.”

“No, I will not. It would not be fair to the other man. If I did, and killed him, I should feel like a murderer.”

“As you like; but I am going to tell you something, and give you a bit of advice. These revolvers are hair-triggered; I had the scears filed. When the word is given, bring the barrel of your pistol down till you get the sight well on to your antagonist, somewhere about his chest, then press the trigger, do not pull it, remember that. If you do as I tell you, he will never hear the report. Above all, do not lose your nerve; and don’t be sentimental and fire in the air, or any such nonsense, for that is a most futile proceeding, morally, and in every other way. Mark my words, if you do not kill him, he will kill you. He intends to kill you, and you are in the right. Now we must be going. Your luggage is in the hall, is it not?”

“All except this bag.”

“Very good; bring it down with you. My boy will bring it to the boat with my own. If you are not hit, you will do well to get out of this as soon as possible. I mean to make for Southampton as straight as I can. There is a vessel sailing for South Africa on Friday morning; I shall embark in her. We will settle what you are to do afterwards.”

“Yes,” said Ernest, with a smile, “there is no need to talk of that at present.”

Five minutes afterwards they met in the hall, and slipped quietly out through the door that always stood open all night for the accommodation of visitors addicted to late hours. Following the street that Captain Justice had pointed out, they descended to the beach, and, turning to the right, walked along it leisurely. The early morning air was very sweet, and all nature smiled dimly upon them as they went, for the sun was not yet up; but at that moment Ernest did not think much of the beauty of the morning. It all seemed like a frightful dream. At last they came to the deserted hut, looming large in the grey mist. By it stood two figures.

“They are there already,” said Mr. Alston.

As they approached, the two figures lifted their hats, a compliment which they returned. Then Mr. Alston went to Captain Justice, and fell into conversation with him, and together they paced off a certain distance on the sand, marking its limits with their walking sticks. Ernest noticed that it was about the length of a short cricket pitch.

“Shall we place them?” he heard Captain Justice say.

“Not just yet,” was the reply; “there is barely light enough.”

“Now, gentlemen,” said Mr. Alston presently, “I have prepared in duplicate a paper setting forth as fairly as I can the circumstances under which this unhappy affair has come about. I propose to read it to you, and to ask you all to sign it, as a protection to—to us all. I have brought a pen and a pocket ink-pot with me for that purpose.”

Nobody objected, so he read the paper. It was short, concise, and just, and they all signed it as it stood. Ernest’s hand shook a good deal as he did so.

“Come, that won’t do,” said Mr. Alston, encouragingly, as he pocketed one copy of the document after handing the other to Captain Justice. “Shake yourself together, man!”

But for all his brave words he looked the more nervous of the two.

“I wish to say,” began Ernest, addressing himself to all the other three, “that this quarrel is none of my seeking. I could not in honour give up the note the lady wrote to me. But I feel that this is a dreadful business; and if you,” addressing his cousin, “are ready to apologise for what you said about my mother, I am ready to do the same for attacking you.”

Mr. Hugh Kershaw smiled bitterly, and, turning, said something to his second. Ernest caught the words “white feather.”

“Mr. Hugh Kershaw refuses to offer any apology; he expects one,” was Captain Justice’s ready answer.

“Then if any blood is shed, on his head be it!” said Mr. Alston solemnly. “Come let us get it over.”

Each took his man and placed him by one of the sticks, and then handed him a revolver.

“Stand sideways, and remember what I told you,” whispered Mr. Alston.

“Are you ready, gentlemen?” asked Captain Justice presently.

There was no answer; but Ernest felt his heart stand still, and a mist gathered before his eyes. At that moment he heard a lark rise into the air near him and begin to sing. Unless he could get his sight back he felt that he was lost.

One:” The mist cleared away from his eyes; he saw his adversary’s pistol-barrel pointing steadily at him.

Two:” A ray broke from the rising sun, and caught a crystal pin Hugh Kershaw incautiously wore. Instinctively Ernest remembered Mr. Alston’s advice, and lowered the sight of his long barrel till it was dead on the crystal pin. Curiously enough, it reminded him at that moment of the eyes in the witch’s head at Dum’s Ness. His vital forces rose to the emergency, and his arm grew as steady as a rock. Then came a pause that seemed hours long.

Three:” There was a double report, and Ernest became aware of a commotion in his hair. Hugh Kershaw flung up his arms wildly, sprang a few inches off the ground, and fell backwards. Great God, it was over!

Ernest staggered a moment from the reaction, and then ran with the others towards his cousin—nay, towards what had been his cousin. He was lying on his back upon the sand, his wide-opened eyes staring up at the blue sky, as though to trace the flight of the spirit, his arms extended. The heavy revolver-ball had struck near the crystal pin, and then passed upwards through the throat and out at the base of the head, shattering the spinal column.

“He is dead,” said Captain Justice, solemnly.

Ernest wrung his hands.

“I have killed him,” he said—“I have killed my own cousin!”

“Young man,” said Mr. Alston, “do not stand there wringing your hands, but thank providence for your own escape. He was very near killing you, let me tell you. Is your head cut?”

Instinctively Ernest took off his hat, and as he did so some fragments of his curly hair fell to the ground. There was a neat hole through the felt, and a neat groove along his thick hair. His cousin had meant to kill him; and he was a good shot—so good that he thought that he could put a ball through Ernest’s head. But he forgot that a heavy American revolver, with forty grains of powder behind the ball, is apt to throw a trifle high.

They all stood silent and looked at the body; and the lark, that had been frightened by the noise, began to sing again.

“This will not do,” said Mr. Alston presently. “We had better move the body in there,” and he pointed to the deserted hut. “Captain Justice, what do you intend to do?”

“Give myself up to the authorities, I suppose,” was the gallant Captain’s scared answer.

“Very well. I don’t advise you to do that, but it you are determined to, there is no need for you to be in a hurry about it. You must give us time to get clear first.”

They lifted the corpse, reverently bore it into the deserted hut, and laid it on the floor. Ernest remained standing looking at the red stain where it had been. Presently they came out again, and Mr. Alston kicked some sand over the stain and hid it.

“Now,” he said, “we had better make an addition to those documents, to say how this came about.”

They all went back to the hut, and the addition was made, standing there by the body. When it came to Ernest’s turn to sign, he almost wished that his signature was the one missing from the foot of that ghastly postscriptum. Mr. Alston guessed his thoughts.

“The fortune of war,” he said, coolly. “Now, Captain Justice, we are going to catch the early boat, and we hope that you will not give yourself up before midday, if you can help it. The inquiry into the affair will not then be held before to-morrow; and by eleven to-morrow morning I hope to have seen the last of England for some years to come.”

The Captain was a good fellow at bottom, and had no wish to see others dragged into trouble.

“I shall certainly give myself up,” he said; “but I don’t see any reason to hurry about it. I don’t think that they can do much to me here. Poor Hugh! he can well afford to wait,” he added, with a sigh, glancing down at the figure that lay so still, with a coat thrown over the face. “I suppose that they will lock me up for six months—pleasant prospect! But I say, Mr. Kershaw, you had better keep clear; it will be more awkward for you. You see, he was your cousin, and by his death you become, unless I am mistaken, next heir to the title.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Ernest, vaguely.

Here it may be stated that Captain Justice found himself sadly mistaken. Instead of the six months he expected, he was arraigned for murder, and finally sentenced to a term of penal servitude. He received a pardon, however, after serving about a year of his time.

“Come, we must be off,” said Mr. Alston, “or we shall be late for the boat;” and, bowing to Captain Justice, he left the hut.

Ernest followed his example, and, when he had gone a few yards, glanced round at the hateful spot. There stood Captain Justice in the doorway of the hut, looking much depressed, and there, a few yards to the left, was the impress in the sand that marked where his cousin had fallen. He never saw either the man or the place again.

“Kershaw,” said Mr. Alston, “what do you propose doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you must think; remember, you are in an awkward fix. You know by English law duelling is murder; and now I come to think of it, I expect that this place is subject to the English law in criminal matters, or at least that the law is identical.”

“I think I had better give myself up, like Captain Justice.”

“Nonsense. You must hide away somewhere for a year or two till the row blows over.”

“Where am I to hide?”

“Have you any money, or can you get any?”

“Yes, I have nearly two hundred and fifty pounds on me now.”

“My word, that is fortunate! Well, now, what I have to suggest is, that you should assume a false name, and sail for South Africa with me. I am going up country on a shooting expedition, outside British territory, so there will be little fear of your being caught and extradited. Then, in a year or so, when the affair is forgotten, you can come back to England. What do you say to that?”

“I suppose I may as well go there as anywhere else. I shall be a marked man all my life, anyhow. What does it matter where I go?”

“Ah, you are down on your luck now; by-and-by you will cheer up again.”

Just then they met a fisherman, who gazed at them, wondering what the two gentlemen were doing out walking at that hour; but concluding that, after the mad fashion of Englishmen, they had been to bathe, he passed them with a civil “Bonjour.” Ernest coloured to the eyes under the scrutiny; he was beginning to feel the dreadful burden of his secret. Presently they reached the steamer, and found Mr. Alston’s little boy Roger, who, though he was only nine years old was as quick and self-reliant as many English lads of fourteen, waiting for them by the bridge.

“Oh, here you are, father; you have been walking so long that I thought you would miss the boat. I have brought the luggage down all right, and this gentleman’s too.”

“That’s right, my lad. Kershaw, do you go and take the tickets; I want to get rid of this;” and he tapped the revolver-case, that was concealed beneath his coat.

Ernest did so, and presently met Mr. Alston on the boat. A few minutes more and, to his intense relief, she cast off and stood out to sea. There were not very many passengers on board, and those there were, were too much taken up in making preparations to be sea-sick to take any notice of Ernest. Yet he could not shake himself free from the idea that everybody knew that he had just killed a man. His own self-consciousness was so intense that he saw his guilt on the faces of all he met. He gazed around him in awe, expecting every moment to be greeted as a murderer. Most people who have ever done anything they should not are acquainted with this sensation.

Overcome with this idea, he took refuge in his berth, nor did he emerge therefrom till the boat reached Weymouth. There both he and Mr. Alston bought some rough clothes, and, to a great extent, succeeded in disguising themselves; then made their way across country to Southampton in the same train, but in separate compartments. Reaching Southampton without let or hindrance, they agreed to take passages in the Union Company’s R.M.S. Moor, sailing on the following morning. Mr. Alston obtained a list of the passengers; fortunately there was no one among them whom he knew. For greater security, however, they took steerage passages, and booked themselves under assumed names. Ernest took his second Christian name, and figured on the passenger list as E. Beyton, while Mr. Alston and his boy assumed the name of James. They took their passages at different times, and feigned to be unknown to each other. These precautions they found to be doubly necessary, inasmuch as at Southampton Mr. Alston managed to get hold of a book on English criminal law, from which it appeared that the fact of the duel having been fought in Guernsey did not in the least clear them from the legal consequences of the act, as they had vaguely supposed would be the case, on the insufficient authority of Captain Justice’s statement.

At last the vessel sailed, and it was with a sigh of relief that Ernest saw his native shores fade from view. As they disappeared a fellow-passenger, valet to a gentleman going to the Cape for his health, politely offered him a paper to read. It was the Standard of that day’s date. He took it and glanced at the foreign intelligence. The first thing that caught his eye was the following paragraph, headed “A fatal Duel”:

“The town of St. Peter’s in Guernsey has been thrown into a state of consternation by the discovery of an English gentleman, who was this morning shot dead in a duel. Captain Justice, of the —— Hussars, who was the unfortunate gentleman’s second, has surrendered himself to the authorities. The other parties, who are at present unknown, have absconded. It is said that they have been traced to Weymouth; but there all trace of them has been lost. The cause of the duel is unknown, and in the present state of excitement it is difficult to obtain authentic information.”

By the pilot who left the vessel Ernest despatched two letters, one to Eva Ceswick, and the other—which contained a copy of the memoranda drawn up before and after the duel, and attested by Mr. Alston—to his uncle. To both he told the story of his misfortune, fully and fairly, imploring the former not to forget him and to wait for happier times, and asking the forgiveness of the latter for the trouble that he had brought upon himself and all belonging to him. Should they wish to write to him, he gave his address as Ernest Beyton, Post-office, Maritzburg.

The pilot-boat hoisted her brown sail with a huge white P. upon it and vanished into the night; and Ernest, feeling that he was a ruined man, and with the stain of blood upon his hands, crept to his bunk and wept like a child.

Yesterday he had been loved, prosperous, happy, with a bright career before him. To-day he was a nameless outcast, departing into exile, and his young life shadowed by a cloud in which he could see no break.

Well might he weep; it was a hard lesson.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book II - Chapter I - My Poor Eva

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