The Witch’s Head

Book II

Chapter IX

Ernest’s Love-Letter

Rider Haggard

CHEER AFTER CHEER rose from the Englishmen around, and angry curses from the Dutchmen, as Jeremy turned to look at the senseless carcase of the giant. But, even as he turned, exhausted Nature gave out, and he fell fainting into Ernest’s arms.

Then did selected individuals of his fellow-countrymen come forward and bear him reverently to a restaurant called the “European,” where the proprietor—himself an old Eton fellow—met him, and washed and clothed and restored him, and vowed with tears in his eyes that he, Jeremy, should live at his expense for as long as he liked—ay, even if he chose to drink nothing meaner than champagne all day long; for thus it is that Englishmen greet one who ministers to that deepest rooted of all their feelings—national pride. When at length he had been brought to, and refreshed with a tumblerful of dry Monopole, and wonderingly shaken Ernest by the hand, the enthusiasm of the crowd outside burst its bounds. They poured into the restaurant, and, seizing Jeremy and the chair whereon he sat, they bore him in triumph round the market-square to the tune of “God save the Queen.” This was a proceeding that would have ended in provoking a riot had not an aide-de-camp from his Excellency the Special Commissioner, who sent in a message begging that they would desist, succeeded in persuading them to return to the restaurant. Here they all dined, and forced Jeremy to drink a good deal more dry Monopole than was good for him, with the result that for the first and last time in his life he was persuaded into making an after-dinner speech. As far as it was reported it ran something like this:

“Dear friends” (cheers) “and Englishmen” (renewed cheers)—pause—“all making great fuss about nothing” (cheers and shouts of “No, no!”). “Fight the Dutchman again to-morrow—very big, but soft as putty—anybody fight him” (frantic cheering). “Glad I wasn’t thrashed, as you all seem so pleased; ’spose you don’t like the Dutchman. ’Fraid he hurt himself over my shoulder. Wonder what he did it for? Sit down now. Dear friends, dear old Ernest—been looking for you for long while;” and he turned his glassy eye on to Ernest, who cheered frantically, under the impression that Jeremy had just said something very much to the point. “Sit down now” (“No, no; go on”). “Can’t go on—quite pumped—very thirsty, too.” (“Give him some more champagne; open a fresh case”). “Wish Eva and Doll were here, don’t you?” (loud cheers). “Gemman” (cheers)—“no, not gemman—friends” (louder cheers)—“no, not gemman—friends—English brothers” (yet louder cheers), “I give you a toast. Eva and Doll: you all know ’em and love ’em, or if you don’t you would, you see, if you did, you know.” (Frantic outburst of cheering, during which Jeremy tries to resume his seat, but gracefully drops on to the floor, and begins singing “Auld lang syne” under the table; whereupon the whole company rise, and with the exception of Ernest and a jovial member of the Special Commissioner’s staff, who get upon the table to lead the chorus, join hands and sing that beautiful old song with all the solemnity of intoxication. After which they drink more champagne, and jointly and severally swear eternal friendship, especially Ernest and the member of his Excellency’s staff, who shake hands and bless each other, till the warmth of their emotions proves too much for them, and they weep in chorus there upon the table.)

For the rest, Ernest had some vague recollection of helping to drive his newly-found friend home in a wheelbarrow that would persist in upsetting in every “sluit” or ditch, especially if it had running water in it; and that was about all he did remember.

In the morning he woke up, or rather first became conscious of pain in his head, in a little double-bedded room attached to the hotel. On the pillow of the bed opposite to him lay Jeremy’s battered face.

For a while Ernest could make nothing of all this. Why was Jeremy there? Where were they? Everything turned round and seemed phantasmagorial; the only real, substantial thing was that awful pain in the head. But presently things began to come back to him, and the sight of Jeremy’s bruised face recalled the fight, and the fight recalled the dinner, and the dinner brought back a vague recollection of Jeremy’s speech and of something he had said about Eva. What could it have been? Ah, Eva! Perhaps, Jeremy knew something about her; perhaps he had brought the letter that had been so long in coming. O, how his heart went out towards her. But how came Jeremy there in bed before him? how came he to be in South Africa at all.

At that moment his reflections were interrupted by the entry of Mazooku, bearing the coffee which it is the national habit in South Africa to drink early in the morning.

The martial-looking Zulu—who seemed curiously out of place carrying cups of coffee—seeing that his master was awake, saluted him with the customary “Koos,” lifting one of the cups of coffee to give emphasis to the word, and nearly upsetting it in the effort.

“Mazooku,” said Ernest, severely, “how did we get here?”

The substance of the retainer’s explanation was as follows: When the moon was getting low—vanishing, indeed, behind the “horned house” yonder (the Dutch church with pinnacles on it), it occurred to him, waiting on the verandah, that his master must be weary; and as most had departed from the “dance” in the “tin house” (restaurant), evidently made happy by the “twala” (drink), he entered into the tin house to look for him, and found him overcome by sleep under the table, lying next to the “Lion-who-threw-oxen-over-his-shoulder” (i.e. Jeremy), so overcome by sleep, indeed, that it was quite impossible to conduct him to the waggon. This being so, he (Mazooku) considered what was his duty under the circumstances, and he came to the accurate conclusion that the best thing to do was to put them in the white man’s bed, since he knew that his master did not love the floor to lie on. Accordingly, having discovered that this was a room of beds, he and another Zulu entered, but were perplexed to find the beds already occupied by two white men, who had lain down to rest with their clothes on. But, under all these circumstances, he and the other Zulu, considering that their first thought should be towards their own master, had taken the liberty of lifting up the two white men, who were slumbering profoundly after the “dance,” by the head and by the heels, and putting them out in the sweet cool air of the night. Having thus “made a place,” they then conveyed first Ernest, and next, in consideration of his undoubted greatness, they ventured to take the “Lion-who, &c.,” himself, and put him in the other. He was a very great man, the “Lion,” and his art of throwing greater men over his shoulder could only be attributed to witchcraft. He himself (Mazooku) had tried it on that morning with a Basuto with whom he had a slight difference of opinion, but the result had not been all that could be desired, inasmuch as the Basuto had kicked him in the stomach, and forced him to drop him.

Ernest laughed as heartily as his headache would allow at this story, and in doing so woke up Jeremy, who at once clapped his hands to his head and looked round; whereupon Mazooku, having saluted the awakened “Lion-who, &c.,” with much fervour, and spilled a considerable quantity of hot coffee over him in doing so, took his departure abashed, and at length the two friends were left alone. Thereupon, rising from their respective pallets, they took a step in all the glory of their undress uniform into the middle of the little room, and, after the manner of Englishmen, shook hands and called each other “old fellow.” Then they went back to bed and began to converse.

“I say, old fellow, what on earth brought you out here?”

“Well, you see, I came out to look you up. You did not write any letters, and they began to get anxious about you at home, so I packed up my duds and started. Your uncle stands unlimited tin, so I am travelling like a prince in a waggon of my own. I heard of you down in Maritzburg, and guessed that I had best make for Pretoria; and here I am and there you are, and I am devilish glad to see you again, old chap! By Jove, what a head I have! But, I say, why didn’t you write? Doll half broke her heart about it, so did your uncle, only he would not say so.”

“I did write. I wrote from Secocoeni’s country, but I suppose the letter did not fetch,” answered Ernest, feeling very guilty. “The fact is, old fellow, I had not the heart to write much; I have been so confoundedly down on my luck ever since that duel business.”

“Ah!” interposed Jeremy, “that shot was a credit to you. I didn’t think you could have done it.”

“A credit! I’ll tell you what, it is an awful thing to kill a man like that, I often see his face as he fell, at night in my sleep.”

“I was merely looking at it as a shot,” replied Jeremy, innocently. “I don’t trouble myself with moral considerations, which are topsy-turvy things; and, considered as a shot at twenty paces and under trying circumstances, it was a credit to you.”

“Then you see, Jeremy, there was another thing, you know—about—about Eva. Well, I wrote to her, and she has never answered my letter, unless,” with a gleam of hope, “you have brought an answer.”

Jeremy shook his aching head.

“Ah! no such luck. Well, it put me off, and that’s the fact. Since she has chucked me up, I don’t care twopence about anything. I don’t say but what she is right; I daresay that I am not worth sticking to. She can do much better elsewhere;” and Ernest groaned, and thought that his head was very bad indeed. “But there it is. I hadn’t the heart to write any more letters, and I was too proud to write again to her. Confound her! let her go! I am not going to grovel to any woman under heaven, no, not even to her!” and he kicked the bedclothes viciously.

“I haven’t learned much Zulu yet,” replied Jeremy, sententiously; “but I know two words—‘hamba gachlé.’”

“Well, what of them?” said Ernest, testily.

“They mean, I am told, ‘take it easy,’ or ‘look before you leap,’ or ‘never jump to conclusions,’ or ‘don’t be in a confounded hurry’; very fine mottoes, I think.”

“Of course they are; but what have they got to do with Eva?”

“Well, just this: I said I had got no letter; I never said——“

“What?” shouted Ernest.

“Hamba gachlé,” replied Jeremy the imperturbable, gazing at Ernest out of his blackened eyes. “I never said that I had not got a message.”

Ernest sprang clean out of the little truckle-bed, shaking with excitement. “What is it, man?”

“Just this. She told me to tell you that ‘she loved you dearly.’”

Slowly Ernest sat down on the bed again, and, throwing a blanket over his head and shoulders, remarked, in a tone befitting a sheeted ghost:

“The devil she did! Why couldn’t you say so before?”

Then he got up again and commenced walking, blanket and all, up and down the room with long strides, and knocking over the water-jug in his excitement.

“Hamba gachlé,” again remarked Jeremy, rising and picking up the water-jug. “How are we going to get any more water? I’ll tell you all about it.”

And he did, including the story of Mr. Plowden’s shaking, at which Ernest chuckled fiercely.

“I wish I had been there to kick him,” he remarked parenthetically.

“I did that too; I kicked him hard,” put in Jeremy; at which Ernest chuckled again.

“I can’t make it all out,” said Ernest, at length, “but I will go home at once.”

“You can’t do that, old fellow. Your respected uncle, Sir Hugh, will have you run in.”

“Ah, I forgot! Well, I will write to her to-day.”

“That’s better; now let’s dress. My head is rather clearer. By George, though, I am stiff! It is no joke fighting a giant.”

But Ernest answered not a word. He was already, after his quick-brained fashion, employed in concocting his letter to Eva.

In the course of the morning he drafted it. It, or rather part of it with which we need concern ourselves, ran thus:

“Such then, my dearest Eva, was the state of my mind towards you. I thought—God forgive me for the treason!—that perhaps you were, as so many women are, a fair-weather lover, and that now that I am in trouble you wished to slip the cable. If that was so, I felt that it was not for me to remonstrate. I wrote to you, and I knew that the letter came safely to your hands. You did not answer it, and I could only come to one conclusion. Hence my own silence. And to be plain I do not at this moment quite understand why you have never written. But Jeremy has brought me your message, and with that I must be content; for no doubt you have reasons which are satisfactory to yourself, and if that is so, no doubt, too, they would be equally satisfactory to me if I only knew them. You see, my dearest love, the fact is that I trust and believe in you utterly and entirely. What is right and true, what is loyal and sincere to me and to yourself—those are the things that you will do. Jeremy tells me a rather amusing story about the new clergyman who has come to Kesterwick, and who is, it appears, an aspirant for your hand. Well, Eva, I am sufficiently conceited not to be jealous; although I am in the unlucky position of an absent man, and worse still, an absent man under a cloud, I do not believe that he will cut me out. But on the day that you can put your hand on your heart, and look me straight in the eyes, and tell me, on your honour as a lady, that you love this or any other man better than you do me, on that day I shall be ready to resign you to him. But till that day comes—and there is something which tells me that it is as impossible for it to come as for the mountain-range I look on as I write to move towards the town and bury it—I am free from jealousy, for I know that it is impossible that you should be faithless to your love.

“Oh, my sweet, the troth we plighted was not for days, or years, or times—it was for ever. I believe that nothing can dissolve it, and that Death himself will be powerless against it. I believe that with each new and progressive existence it will re-arise as surely as the flowers in spring, only, unlike them, more fragrant and beautiful than before. Sometimes I think that it has already existed through countless ages. Strange thoughts come into a man’s mind out there on the great veld, riding alone hour after hour, and day after day, through sunlight and through moonlight, till the spirit of nature broods upon him, and he begins to learn the rudiments of truth. Some day I shall tell them all to you. Not that I have ever been quite alone, for I can say honestly that you have always been at my side since I left you; there has been no hour of the day or night when you have not been in my thoughts, and I believe that, till death blots out my senses, no such hour will ever come.

“Day by day, too, my love has grown stronger even in its despair. Day by day it has taken shape and form and colour, and become more and more a living thing, more and more an entity, as distinct as soul and body, and yet as inextricably blended and woven into the substance of each. If ever a woman was beloved, you are that woman, Eva Ceswick; if ever a man’s life, present and to come, lay in a woman’s hands, my life lies in yours. It is a germ which you can cast away or destroy, or which you can nourish till it bursts into bloom, and bears fruit beautiful beyond imagining. You are my fate, my other part. With you my destiny is intertwined, and you can mould it as you will. There is no height to which I cannot rise by your side; there is no depth to which I may not sink without you.

“And now, what does all this lead up to? Will you make a sacrifice for me, who am ready to give up all my life to you—no, who have already given it? That sacrifice is this: I want you to come out here and marry me; for, as you know, circumstances prevent me from returning to you. If you will come, I will meet you at the Cape, and marry you there. Ah, surely you will come! As for money, I have plenty from home, and can make as much more as we shall want here, so that need be no obstacle. It is long to wait for your answer—three months—but I hope that the faith that will, as the Bible tells us, enable people to move mountains—and my faith in you is as great as that—will also enable me to bear the suspense, and in the end prove its own reward.”

Ernest read selected portions of this exalted composition to Mr. Alston and Jeremy. Both listened in solemn silence, and at the conclusion Jeremy scratched his head and remarked that it was deep enough to “fetch” any girl, though for his part he did not quite understand it. Mr. Alston relit his pipe, and for a while said nothing; but to himself he thought that it was a remarkable letter for so young a man to have written, and revealed a curious turn of mind. One remark he did make, however, and that was rather a rude one:

“The girl won’t understand what you are driving at, Master Ernest; she will think that you have gone off your head in these savage parts. All you say may or may not be true—on that point I express no opinion; but to write such things to a woman is to throw your pearls before swine. You should ask her about her bonnets, my boy, and tell her what sort of dresses she should bring out, and that the air is good for the complexion. She would come then.”

Here Ernest fired up.

“You are beastly cynical, Alston, and you should not speak of Miss Ceswick like that to me. Bonnets, indeed!”

“All right, my lad—all right. Time will show. Ah, you boys! you go building up your ideals of ivory and gold and fine linen, only to find them one day turned into the commonest of clay, draped in the dirtiest of rags. Well, well, it is the way of the world; but you take my advice Ernest; burn that letter, and go in for an Intombi. It is not too late yet, and there is no mistake about the sort of clay of which a Kafir girl is made.”

Here Ernest stamped out of the room in a passion.

“Too cock-sure, wanted cooling down a little,” remarked Mr. Alston to Jeremy; “should never be cock-sure where a woman is concerned; women are fond of playing dirty tricks, and saying they could not help it. I know them; for, though you mightn’t think it, I was once young myself. Come on; let us find him, and go for a walk.”

They found Ernest sitting on the box of the waggon, which was outspanned, together with Jeremy’s, just outside the town, and looking rather sulky.

“Come on, Ernest,” said Mr. Alston, apologetically; “I will throw no more mud at your ideal. In the course of the last thirty years I have seen so many fall to pieces of their own accord that I could not help warning you. But perhaps they make them of better stuff in England than we do in these parts.”

Ernest descended and soon forgot his pique. It was but rarely that he bore malice for more than half an hour. As they walked along one of the by-streets they met the young fellow who had acted as second to Jeremy in the big fight of the previous day. He informed them that he had just been to inquire how the giant was. It appeared that he had received an injury to the spine, the effect of Jeremy’s “lift,” from which there was little hope of his recovery. He was not, however, in much pain. This intelligence distressed Jeremy not a little. He had earnestly desired to thrash the giant, but he had felt no wish to injure him. With his usual promptitude he announced his intention of going to see his fallen enemy.

“You are likely to meet with a warm reception if you do,” said Mr. Alston.

“I’ll risk it. I should like to tell him that I am sorry.”

“Very good; come along—that is the house.”

The injured man had been carried to the house of a relative just outside the town, a white thatched building that had been built five-and-thirty years before, when the site of Pretoria was a plain, inhabited only by quaggas, eland, and vilderbeeste. In front of the door was a grove of orange-trees, which smelled sweet and looked golden with hanging fruit.

The house itself was a small white building, with a double-swinging door, like those used in stables in this country. The top half of the door was open, and over the lower portion of it leaned a Boer, a rough-looking customer, smoking a huge pipe.

“’Dagh, Oom’” (Good-day, uncle), said Mr. Alston, stretching out his hand.

The other looked at him suspiciously, and then held out a damp paw to each in turn, at the same time opening the door. As Ernest passed the threshold he noticed that the clay flooring was studded with peach-stones well trodden into its substance to prevent wear and tear from passing feet. The door opened into a fair-sized room with whitewashed walls called the “sit-kamé” or sitting-room, and furnished with a settee, a table, and several chairs seated with “rimpi,” or strips of hide. On the biggest of these chairs sat a woman of large size, the mother of the family. She did not rise on their entry, but without speaking held out a limp hand, which Mr. Alston and the others took, addressing her affectionately as “tanta,” or aunt. Then they shook hands with six or seven girls and young men, the latter sitting about in an aimless sort of way, the former clearing off the remains of the family meal, which had consisted of huge bones of boiled fresh beef. So fresh was it, indeed, that on the floor by the side of the table lay the gory head and skin of a newly-killed ox, from which the beef had been cut. Ernest, noticing this, wondered at the super-human strength of stomach that could take its food under such circumstances.

The preliminary ceremony of hand-shaking having been got through, Mr. Alston, who spoke Dutch perfectly, explained the object of their visit. The faces of the Dutchmen darkened as he did so, and the men scowled at Jeremy with hatred not unmingled with terror. When he had done, the oldest man said that he would ask his cousin if he would see them, adding, however, that he was so ill that he did not think it likely. Raising a curtain, which served as a door, he passed from the sitting-room into the bedroom, or “slaap-kamé.”

Presently he returned and beckoned to the Englishmen to enter. They passed into a small chamber about ten feet square, which was hermetically sealed from air, after the fashion of these people in cases of any illness. On a large bed that blocked up most of the room, and on which it was the usual habit of the master of the house and his wife to sleep in their clothes, lay the fallen giant. So much as could be seen of his face was a mass of hideous bruises, and one of his hands, which lay on the bed, was in splints; the chief injury, however, was to his back, and from this he could never expect to recover. By his side sat his little wife, who had on the previous day urged the thrashing of the Hottentot. She glared fiercely at Jeremy, but said nothing. On catching sight of his victor, the giant turned his face to the wall and asked what he wanted.

“I have come,” said Jeremy, Mr. Alston interpreting for him, “to say that I am sorry that you are injured so much; that I wanted to beat you, but had no idea that I should hurt you so. I know that the trick of throwing a man as I threw you is dangerous, and I only used it as a last resource, and because you would have killed me if I had not.”

The Boer muttered something in reply about its being very bitter to be beaten by such a little man.

It was evident to Ernest that the man’s pride was utterly broken. He had believed himself the strongest man, white or black, in Africa, and now an English lad had thrown him over his shoulder like a plaything.

Jeremy next said that he hoped that he bore no malice, and would shake hands.

The giant hesitated a little, then stretched out his uninjured hand, which Jeremy shook.

“Englishman,” he said, “you are a wonderful man, and you will grow stronger yet. You have made a baby of me for life, and turned my heart to a baby’s too. Perhaps one day some man will do the same for you. Till then you can never know what I feel. They will give you the Hottentot outside. No, you must take him; you won him in fair fight. He is a good driver, though he is so small. Now go.”

The sight was a painful one, and they were not sorry to get away from it. Outside they found one of the young Boers waiting with the Hottentot boy, whom he insisted in handing over to Jeremy.

Any scruples the latter had about accepting him were overcome by the look of intense satisfaction on the features of the poor wretch himself when he learnt that he was to be handed over.

His name was “Aasvögel” (vulture), and he made Jeremy an excellent and most faithful servant.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book II - Chapter X - A Way of Escape

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