The Witch’s Head

Book III

Chapter XI

Home Again

Rider Haggard

IT WAS very peaceful, that life at Kesterwick, after all the fierce racket and excitement of the past years. Indeed, as day succeeded day, and brought nothing to disturb his darkness but the sound of Dorothy’s gentle voice, and the scent of flowers on the marshes when the wind blew towards the ocean, and the sharp strong odour of the sea when it set upon the land, Ernest could almost fancy that the past was nothing but a dream more or less ugly, and that this was a dream more or less pleasant, from which he should presently awake and find himself a boy again.

English villages change but little. Now and again a person dies, and pretty frequently some one is born; but, on the whole, the tide of time creeps on very imperceptibly, and though in the course of nature the entire population is changed every sixty years or so, nobody seems to realise that it is changing. There is so little in such places by which to mark the change. The same church-tower makes a landmark to the eye as it did centuries ago in the eyes of our ancestors, and the same clouds sweep across the same blue space above it. There are the same old houses, the same streams, and, above all, the same roads and lanes. If you could put one of our Saxon forefathers down in the neighbourhood of most of our country towns, he would have little difficulty in finding his way about. It is the men who change, not the places.

Still there were some few changes at Kesterwick. Here and there the sea had taken another bite of the cliff, notably on the north side of Dum’s Ness, out of which a large slice had gone, thus bringing the water considerably nearer to the house. Here and there a tree, too, had been cut down, or a cottage built, or a family changed its residence. For instance, Miss Florence Ceswick had suddenly shut up the Cottage, where she had remained ever since Eva’s marriage, seeing nothing of her sister or her sister’s husband, and had gone abroad—people said to Rome, to study art. For Florence had suddenly electrified the Kesterwick neighbourhood by appearing as an artist of tragic force and gruesome imagination. A large picture by her hand had been exhibited in the Royal Academy of the previous year, and, though the colouring was somewhat crude, and the drawing not faultless, it made a deserved sensation, and finally sold for a considerable sum.

This picture represented a promontory of land running out far into a stormy ocean. The sky above the sea was of an inky blackness, except where a fierce ray of light from the setting sun pierced it, and impinged upon the boiling waters which surged round the low cliff of the promontory. On the extreme edge of the cliff stood a tall and lovely woman. The wind caught the white robe she wore and pressed it against her, revealing the extraordinary beauty of her form, and, lifting her long fair locks, tossed them in wild confusion. She was bending forward, pointing with her right hand at the water, with such a look of ghastly agony upon her beautiful face and in the great grey eyes, that people of impressionable temperament were wont to declare it haunted their sleep for weeks. Down below her, just where the fierce ray lit up the heaving waters, gleamed a naked corpse. It was that of a young man, and was slowly sinking into the unfathomable darkness of the depths, turning round and round as it sank. The eyes and mouth were wide open, and the stare of the former appeared to be fixed upon those of the woman on the cliff. Lastly, over the corpse, in the storm-wreaths above, there hovered on steady wings a dim female figure, with its arm thrown across the face as though to hide it. In the catalogue this picture was called “The Lost Lover,” but speculation was rife as to what it meant.

Dorothy heard of it, and went to London to see it. The first thing that struck her about the work was the extraordinary contrast it presented to the commonplace canvases by which it was surrounded, of reapers, of little girls frisking with baa-lambs and nude young women musing profoundly on the edge of pools, as though they were trying to solve the great question—to wash or not to wash. But soon the horror of the picture laid hold upon her, and seemed to fascinate her, as it had so many others. Then she became aware that the faces were familiar to her, and suddenly it broke upon her mind that the sinking corpse was Ernest and the agonised woman, Eva. She examined the faces more attentively. There was no doubt about it. Florence, with consummate art, had changed the colouring of the hair and features, and even to a great extent altered the features themselves; but she had preserved the likeness perfectly, both upon the dead face of the murdered man, and in the horror-inspired eyes of his lover. The picture made her sick with fear—she could not tell why—and she hurried from Burlington House full of dread of the terrible mind that had conceived it.

There had been no intercourse between the two women since Eva’s marriage. Florence lived quite alone at the Cottage, and never went out anywhere; and if they met by any chance, they passed with a bow. But for all that, it was a relief to Dorothy to hear that she was not for some long time to see that stern face with its piercing brown eyes.

In Dum’s Ness itself there appeared to be no change at all. Except that Mr. Cardus had built a new orchid-house at the back—for as he grew older his mania for these flowers increased rather than diminished—the place was exactly the same. Even the arrangement of the sitting-room was unchanged, and on its familiar bracket rested the case which Jeremy had made to contain the witch’s head.

The people in the house to all appearance had changed as little as the house itself. Jeremy confided to Ernest that Doll had grown rather “tubby,” which was his elegant way of indicating that she had developed a very pretty figure, and that Grice (the old housekeeper) was as skinny as a flayed weasel, and had eyes like the point of a knife. Ernest maliciously repeated these sayings to the two ladies concerned, with the result that they were both furious. Then he retreated, and left them to settle it with Jeremy.

Old Atterleigh, too, was almost exactly the same, except that of late years his intellect seemed to have brightened a little. It was, however, difficult to make him understand that Ernest was blind, because the latter’s eyes looked all right. He retained some recollection of him, and brought him his notched stick to show him that, according to his (“Hard-riding Atterleigh’s”) calculation, his time of service with the devil, otherwise Mr. Cardus, would expire in a few months. Dorothy read what the old man wrote upon his slate, and repeated it to Ernest for, he being practically dumb and Ernest being blind, that was the only way in which they could communicate.

“And what will you do then?” asked Ernest. “You will be wretched without any writs to fill up. Who will look after the lost souls, I should like to know?”

The old man at once wrote vigorously on his slate:

“I shall go out hunting on the big black horse you brought with you; he will carry my weight.”

“I should advise you not to try,” said Ernest, laughing; “he does not like strange riders.” But the old man, at the mere thought of hunting, was striding up and down the room, clanking his spurs and waving his hunting-crop with his uninjured arm.

“Is your grandfather as much afraid of your uncle as ever, Doll?”

“Oh yes, I think so; and do you know, Ernest, I don’t quite like the way he looks at him sometimes.”

Ernest laughed. “I should think that the old boy is harmless enough,” he said.

“I hope so,” said Dorothy.

When first they came back to Dum’s Ness, Jeremy was at a great loss to know what to do with himself, and was haunted by the idea that Mr. Cardus would want him to resume that stool in his office which years before he had quitted to go in search of Ernest. A week or so after his arrival, however, his fears were set at rest very pleasantly. After breakfast, Mr. Cardus sent for him to come into his office.

“Well, Jeremy,” he said, letting his soft black eyes wander round that young gentleman’s gigantic form—for it was by now painfully large—not so much in height, for he was not six feet three—as in its great width, which made big men look like children beside him, and even dwarfed his old grandfather’s enormous frame—“well, Jeremy, and what do you think of doing? You’re too big for a lawyer; all your clients would be afraid of you.”

“I don’t know about being too big,” said Jeremy, solemnly, “but I know that I am too great an ass. Besides, I can’t afford several years to spend in being articled at my time of life.”

“Quite so. Then what do you propose doing?”

“I don’t know from Adam.”

“Well, how would you like to turn your sword to a plough-share, and become a farmer?”

“I think that would suit me first-rate. I have some capital laid by. Ernest and I made a little money out there.”

“No, I would not advise you to take a farm in that way; these are bad times. But I want a practical man to look after my land round here—salary £150. What do you say?”

“You are very kind; but I doubt if I can boss that coach; I don’t know anything of the work.”

“Oh, you will very soon learn; there is a capital bailiff; Stamp—you remember him—he will soon put you up to the ropes. So we will consider that settled.”

Thus it was that our friend Jeremy entered on a new walk in life, and one which suited him very well. In less than a year’s time he grew aggressively agricultural, and one never met him but what he had a handful of oats, or a carrot in his coat-tail pocket, which he was ready to swear were samples of the finest oats, carrot, or whatever the particular agricultural product might be, that ever had been, or were ever likely to be, grown.

The Witch’s Head - Contents    |     Book III - Chapter XII - How It All Came About

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