Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1880)/Chapter 27

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Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1880) by Sabine Baring-Gould
The Return of the Lost

MEHALAH was clasped in the arms of George De Witt.

"Who is there?" shouted Elijah, staggering forward with his great pincers raised ready to strike. George drew the girl out of the way, and let the angry man burst out of the door, beating the air with his iron tool. He put his arm round her, and led her from the house. She could only look up at him as at one risen from the dead. He led her towards the sea-wall, looking behind him at the blind man, rushing about, and smiting recklessly in his jealousy and fury, hitting bushes, rails, walls, anything in hopes of smiting down the man whose name he had heard, and whom he knew had come back to break in on and ruin his hopes.

George De Witt walked lamely; he had a somewhat stiff leg; otherwise he seemed well.

"How manly you have grown!" exclaimed Mehalah, holding him at arms' length, and contemplating him with pride.

"And you, Glory, have become more womanly; but in all else are the same."

"Where have you been, George?"

"At sea, Glory, and smelt powder. I have been a sailor in His Majesty's Royal Navy, in the Duke of Clarence, and I am pensioned off, because of my leg."

"Have you been wounded?"

"Not exactly. A cannon-ball, as we were loading, struck me on the shin and bruised the bone, so that I have been invalided with swellings and ulcerations. I ain't fit for active service, but I'm not exactly a cripple."

"But, George! when did this take place? I do not understand. After your escape?"

"Escape, Glory? I have had no escape."

"From confinement in Red Hall," she added.

"I do not know what you are talking about."

Mehalah passed her hand over her face.

"George! I thought that Elijah had made you drunk and then put you in his cellar, chained there till you went mad."

"Who told you such a tale?"

"Elijah himself."

"Elijah is a rascal. I have enough cause against him without that."

"Then tell me about yourself. I am bewildered. How came you to disappear?"

"Let us walk to the spit by the windmill, and I will tell you all."

He did not speak again till they had reached the spot.

"We will sit down, Glory; I suffer still somewhat from my leg. Now I will tell you the whole story. You remember the evening when we quarrelled. You had behaved rather roughly to Phoebe Musset."

"I remember it only too well, George."

"After you had left, I went to the Mussets' house to inquire after Phoebe, who had been well soused in the sea by you; and on my return I fell in with Elijah Rebow. He took me to task for not having gone after you and patched up our little difference. He persuaded me to let him row me in his boat to the Ray. He said he was going there after ducks or something of that sort. We made for the Rhyn. We had scarcely entered the channel when a lugger full of men ran across our bows and had us fast in a jiffy. I was overpowered and taken by the men into their boat."

"Who were they, George?" asked Mehalah breathlessly.

"They were some of the crew of the Salamander, a war schooner then lying in the offing, come to press me into the service with Captain Macpherson, who had been on the coast guard, but was appointed to the command. I was carried off as many another man has been, without my consent, and made to serve H is Majesty on compulsion."

"But, George! how about your medal that I gave you? That was returned to me the same night."

"I suppose it was," he replied coolly. "As I was taken, Elijah said to me, 'Have you no token to send back to Glory?' I bade him tell you how I was impressed, and how I would return to you whenever the war was over and I was paid off. I had nothing by me save your medal, and I told him to give it to you with my love."

Mehalah moaned.

"I have a notion," commented George, "that Rebow was somehow privy to my being 'pressed; he went out that afternoon to the Salamander in his cutter, and had a private talk with Captain Macpherson. Now I fancy, though I can't prove it, that he schemed with the captain how he should catch me. He is deep enough to do such a dirty trick."

Mehalah's head sank on her knees, and she sobbed aloud.

"And now, Glory, dearest!" he went on, "the rascal has got you to marry him, I am told. Why did you not wait for me? You must have soon forgotten your promise."

"I thought you were dead," she gasped.

"So did my mother. I do not understand. Elijah knew better."

"He allowed us all to suppose you were drowned in one of the fleets."

"It is very hard," said George, "for a fellow to return from the wars to reclaim his girl, and to find her no longer his. It is a great blow to me, Glory. I did so love and admire you."

She could only sway to and fro in her distress.

"It is very disappointing to a chap," said George, putting a quid in his cheek. "When he has calculated on getting a nice girl as his wife, and in battle and storm has had the thoughts of her to cheer and encourage him; when he has some prize-money in his pocket, and hopes to spend it on her � well, it is hard."

"George," said she between her sobs, "why did you return the medal? I gave it you, and you swore never to part with it. You should not have sent it to me."

"Did I really swear that, Glory?" he answered; "if so, I had forgotten. You see I was so set upon and flustered that night. I did not rightly consider things as they should have been considered. I had nothing else to send you that would serve as a token. I knew when you saw that, you would make sure Elijah's story was true, and my promise would be sacred � I have kept it. I have returned to you, Glory, and if you were not married I should make you my wife. I love you still, as I always did love you. I've seen a sight of fine girls since I left Mersea but I'm darned if I have seen a finer anywhere, than you, Glory. The more I look at you now, the more I feel inclined to wring that old prophet's neck. You are too good for such a chap as he; you should have waited for me. You had promised, and might have had patience. I have seen the world since I left Mersea, and I know more of it than I did. I suppose you thought that as I was gone to Davy Jones's locker, you must catch whom you could."

"George!" exclaimed Mehalah, "do not speak to me thus. You are only talking in this way to try me, because you resent my marriage. I gave you my heart and I will remain true to you."

"This is very fine and sentimental, Glory," said George. "I've smelt powder and I know the colour of blood. I know what sentiment is worth; it is blank cartridge firing; it breaks no bones, but it makes a noise and a flash. I don't see how you can call it keeping true to me when you marry another man for his money."

"You are determined to drive me mad," exclaimed Mehalah. "No, George. I married to save my self-respect. I was forced by that man, to lodge under his roof. He smoked my mother and me out of our house as if we were foxes. My character, my name were tarnished; there was nothing for it but for me to marry him. I took his name, but I am not, and never shall be, more to him than his wife in the register of the parish. I never undertook to love him."

"That is a queer state of things," said George. "Dashed if, in all my experience of life and of girls, I came across anything similar, and I have seen something. I've been to the West Indies. I've seen white girls, and yellow girls, and brown girls, and copper-coloured girls, and black ones � black as rotted seaweed. They are all much of a muchness, but this beats my experience. You are not like others."

"So he says; he and I are alone in the world, and alone can understand one another. Do you understand me, George?"

"I'm blessed if I do."

She was silent. She did not like his tone: there was an insincerity, a priggishness about it which jarred with her reality and depth of feeling. But she could not analyse what offended her. She thought he was angry with her, and had assumed a taunting air to cover his mortification.

She drew the medal from her bosom.

"George!" she said vehemently, "take the pledge again. I believe it saved you once, and it may save you again. It is a token to you that my heart is the same."

He took it and suspended it round his neck.

"I will keep it for your sake," he said.

"Keep it better than you did before."

"Certainly I will. I shall value it inexpressibly."

"George!" she went on, trembling in all her limbs, and rising to her feet. "I will love � love � love you and you only, eternally. I swore to be true to you, and I have been true. Swear again to me the same."

"Certainly. I shall always love you, Glory! I'm damned if it is possible for a fellow not to, you are so handsome with those flashing eyes and glowing cheeks. A fellow must be made of ice not to love you."

"Be true to me, as I to you."

"To be sure I will, Glory!" and added in an undertone, "rum sort of truth hers, to go and marry another chap."

"What is that you say, George?"

"Take care, Glory!" exclaimed the sailor; "here comes the old prophet with a pair of tongs over his shoulder, staggering along the wall towards us. I had better sheer off. He don't look amiable. Good-bye, Glory!"

"Oh, George! I must see you again."

"I will come again. You will see me often enough. Sailors can no more keep away from handsome girls than bees from clover."

"George, George!"

Elijah came up, his face black with passion.

"Mehalah!" he roared, as he swung his iron pincers.

She caught his wrist and disarmed him.

"I could bite you, and tear your flesh with my teeth," he raged. "All was so peaceful and beautiful, and then he came from the dead and broke it into shivers. Where are you?" He put out his hands to grasp her.

"Do not touch me!" she cried, loathing in her voice. "With my whole soul I abhor you, you base coward. You lied to me about George, a hateful lie that made me mad, and yet the reality is almost as bad � it is worse. He is alive and free and I am bound hand and foot, to you."