Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 1

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MEHALAH

A STORY OF THE SALT MARSH


CHAPTER I
THE RAY

Between the mouths of the Blackwater and the Colne, on the east coast of Essex, lies an extensive marshy tract veined and freckled in every part with water. It is a wide waste of debatable ground contested by sea and land, subject to incessant incursions from the former, but stubbornly maintained by the latter. At high tide the appearance is that of a vast surface of moss or Sargasso weed floating on the sea, with rents and patches of shining water traversing and dappling it in all directions. The creeks, some of considerable length and breadth, extend many miles inland, and are arteries whence branches out a fibrous tissue of smaller channels, flushed with water twice in the twenty-four hours. At noon-tides, and especially at the equinoxes, the sea asserts its royalty over this vast region, and overflows the whole, leaving standing out of the flood only the long island of Mersea, and the lesser islet, called the Ray. This latter is a hill of gravel rising from the heart of the Marshes, crowned with ancient thorntrees, and possessing, what is denied the mainland, an unfailing spring of purest water. At ebb, the Ray can only be reached from the old Roman causeway, called the Strood, over which runs the road from Colchester to Mersea Isle, connecting formerly the city of the Trinobantes with the station of the Count of the Saxon shore. But even at ebb, the Ray is not approachable by land unless the sun or east wind has parched the ooze into brick; and then the way is long, tedious and tortuous, among bitter pools and over shining creeks. It was perhaps because this ridge of high ground was so inaccessible, so well protected by nature, that the ancient inhabitants had erected on it a rath, or fortified camp of wooden logs, which left its name to the place long after the timber defences had rotted away.

A more desolate region can scarce be conceived, and yet it is not without beauty. In summer, the thrift mantles the marches with shot satin, passing through all gradations of tint from maiden's blush to lily white. Thereafter a purple glow steals over the waste, as the sea lavender bursts into flower, and simultaneously every creek and pool is royally fringed with sea aster. A little later the glass-wort, that shot up green and transparent as emerald glass in the early spring, turns to every tinge of carmine.

When all vegetation ceases to live, and goes to sleep, the marshes are alive and wakeful with countless wild fowl. At all times they are haunted with sea mews and roysten crows, in winter they teem with wild duck and grey geese. The stately heron loves to wade in the pools, occasionally the whooper swan sounds his loud trumpet, and flashes a white reflection in the still blue waters of the fleets. The plaintive pipe of the curlew is familiar to those who frequent these marshes, and the barking of the brent geese as they return from their northern breeding places is heard in November.

At the close of the eighteenth century there stood on the Ray a small farmhouse built of tarred wreckage timber, and roofed with red pan-tiles. The twisted thorntrees about it afforded some, but slight, shelter. Under the little cliff of gravel was a good beach, termed a "hard."

On an evening towards the close of September, a man stood in this farmhouse by the hearth, on which burnt a piece of wreckwood, opposite an old woman, who crouched shivering with ague in a chair on the other side. He was a strongly built man of about thirty-five, wearing fisherman's boots, a brown coat and a red plush waistcoat. His hair was black, raked over his brow. His cheekbones were high; his eyes dark, eager, intelligent, but fierce in expression. His nose was aquiline, and would have given a certain nobility to his countenance, had not his huge jaws and heavy chin contributed an animal cast to his face. He leaned on his duck-gun, and glared from under his pent-house brows and thatch of black hair at a girl who stood behind, leaning on the back of her mother's chair, and who returned his stare with a look of defiance from her brown eyes.

The girl might have been taken for a sailor boy, as she leaned over the chairback, but for the profusion of her black hair. She wore a blue knitted guernsey covering body and arms, and across the breast, woven in red wool, was the name of the vessel, Gloriana. The guernsey had been knitted for one of the crew of a ship of this name, but had come into the girl's possession. On her head she wore the scarlet woven cap of a boatman.

The one-pane window at the side of the fireplace faced the west, and the evening sun lit her brown gipsy face, burnt in her large eyes, and made coppery lights in her dark hair.

The old woman was shivering with the ague, and shook the chair on which her daughter leaned; every now and then she raised a white faltering hand to wipe the drops of cold sweat away that hung on her eyebrows like rain on thatching.

"I did not catch the chill here," she said. "I ketched it more than thirty years ago when I was on Mersea Isle, and it has stuck in my marrow ever since. But there is no ague on the Ray. This is the healthiest place in the world, Mehalah has never caught the ague on it. I do not wish ever to leave it, and to lay my bones elsewhere."

"Then you will have to pay your rent punctually," said the man in a dry tone, not looking at her, but at her daughter.

"Please the Lord so we shall, as we ever have done," answered the woman; "but when the chill comes on me——"

"Oh, curse the chill," interrupted the man; "who cares for that except perhaps Glory yonder, who has to work for both of you. Is it so, Glory?"

The girl thus addressed did not answer, but folded her arms on the chairback, and leaned her chin upon them. She seemed at that moment like a wary cat watching a threatening dog, and ready at a moment to show her claws and show desperate battle, not out of malice, but in self-defence.

"Why, but for you sitting there, sweating and jabbering, Glory would not be bound to this lone islet, but would go out and see the world, and taste life. She grows here like a mushroom, she does not live. Is it not so, Glory?"

The girl's face was no longer lit by the declining sun, which had glided further north-west, but the flames of the driftwood flickered in her large eyes that met those of the man, and the cap was still illuminated by the evening glow, a scarlet blaze against the indigo gloom.

"Have you lost your tongue, Glory?" asked the man, impatiently striking the bricks with the butt end of his gun.

"Why do you not speak, Mehalah?" said the mother, turning her wan wet face aside, to catch a glimpse of her daughter.

"I've answered him fifty times," said the girl.

"No," protested the old woman feebly, "you have not spoken a word to Master Rebow."

"By God, she is right," broke in the man. "The little devil has a tongue in each eye, and she has been telling me with each a thousand times that she hates me. Eh, Glory?"

The girl rose erect, set her teeth, and turned her face aside, and looked out at the little window on the decaying light.

Rebow laughed aloud.

"She hated me before, and now she hates me worse, because I have become her landlord. I have bought the Ray for eight hundred pounds. The Ray is mine, I tell you. Mistress Sharland, you will henceforth have to pay me the rent. I am your landlord, and Michaelmas is next week."

"The rent shall be paid, Elijah!" said the widow.

"The Ray is mine," pursued Rebow, swelling with pride. "I have bought it with my own money—eight hundred pounds. I could stubb up the trees if I would. I could cart muck into the well and choke it if I would. I could pull down the stables and break them up for firewood if I chose. All here is mine, the Ray, the marshes, and the saltings,[1] the creeks, the fleets, the farm. That is mine," said he, striking the wall with his gun, "and that is mine," dashing the butt end against the hearth; "and you are mine, and Glory is mine."

"That never," said the girl stepping forward, and confronting him with dauntless eye and firm lips and folded arms.

"Eh! Gloriana! have I roused you?" exclaimed Elijah Rebow, with a flash of exultation in his fierce eyes. "I said that the house and the marshes, and the saltings are mine, I have bought them. And your mother and you are mine."

"Never," repeated the girl.

"But I say yes."

"We are your tenants, Elijah," observed the widow, nervously interposing. "Do not let Mehalah anger you. She has been reared here in solitude, and she does not know the ways of men. She means nothing by her manner."

"I do," said the girl, "and he knows it."

"She is a headlong child," pursued the old woman, "and when she fares to say or do a thing, there is no staying tongue or hand. Do not mind her, master."

The man paid no heed to the woman's words, but fixed his attention on the girl. Neither spoke. It was as though a war of wills was proclaimed and begun. He sought to beat down her defences with the force of his resolve flung at her from his dark eyes, and she parried it dauntlessly with her pride.

"By God!" he said at last, "I have never seen anywhere else a girl of your sort. There is none elsewhere. I like you."

"I knew it," said the mother with feeble triumph in her palsied voice, "She is a right good girl at heart, true as steel, and as tough in fibre."

"I have bought the house and the pasture, and the marshes and the saltings," said Elijah sulkily, "and all that thereon is. You are mine, Glory! You cannot escape me. Give me your hand." She remained motionless, with folded arms. He laid his heavy palm on her shoulder.

"Give me your hand, and mine is light; I will help you. Let me lay it on you and it will crush you. Escape it you cannot. This way or that. My hand will clasp or crush."

She did not stir.

"The wild fowl that fly here are mine, the fish that swim in the fleets are mine," he went on; "I can shoot and net them."

"So can I, and so can anyone," said the girl haughtily.

"Let them try it on," said Elijah; "I am not one to be trifled with, as the world well knows. I will bear no poaching here. I have bought the Ray, and the fish are mine, and the fowl are mine, and you are mine also. Let him touch who dares."

"The wild fowl are free for any man to shoot, the fish are free for any man to net," said the girl scornfully.

"That is not my doctrine," answered Elijah. "What is on my soil and in my waters is mine, I may do with them what I will, and so also all that lives on my estate is mine." Returning with doggedness to his point, "As you live in my house and on my land, you are mine."

"Mother," said the girl, "give him notice, and quit the Ray."

"I could not do it, Mehalah," answered the woman. "I've lived all my life on the marshes, and I cannot quit them. But this is a healthy spot, and not like the marshes of Dairy House where once we were, and where I ketched the chill!"

"You cannot go till you have paid me the rent," said Rebow.

"That," answered Mehalah, "we will do assuredly."

"So you promise, Glory!" said Rebow. "But should you fail to do it, I could take every stick here:—That chair in which your mother shivers, those dishes yonder, the bed you sleep in, the sprucehutch[2] in which you keep your clothes. I could pluck the clock, the heart of the house, out of it. I could tear that defiant red cap off your head. I could drive you both out without a cover into the whistling east wind and biting frost." "I tell you, we can and we will pay."

"But should you not be able at any time, I warn you what to expect. I've a fancy for that jersey you wear with 'Gloriana' right across the breast. I'll pull it off and draw it on myself." He ground his teeth. "I will have it, if only to wrap me in, in my grave. I will cross my arms over it, as you do now, and set my teeth, and not a devil in hell shall tear it off me."

"I tell you we will pay."

"Let me alone, let me talk. This is better than money. I will rip the tiling off the roof and fling it down between the rafters, if you refuse to stir; I will cast it at your mother and you, Glory. The red cap will not protect your skull from a tile, will it? And yet you say, I am not your master. You do not belong to me, as do the marshes and the saltings, and the wild duck."

"I tell you we will pay," repeated the girl passionately, as she wrenched her shoulder from his iron grip.

"You don't belong to me!" jeered Elijah. Then slapping the arm of the widow's chair, and pointing over his shoulder at Mehalah, he said scornfully: "She says she does not belong to me, as though she believed it. But she does, and you do, and so does the chair, and the log that smoulders on the hearth, and the very hearth itself, with its heat, the hungry ever-devouring belly of the house. I've bought the Ray and all that is on it for eight hundred pounds. I saw it on the paper, it stands in writing and may not be broke through. Lawyers' scripture binds and looses as Bible scripture. I will stick to my rights, to every thread and breath of them. She is mine."

"But, Elijah, be reasonable," said the widow, lifting her hand appealingly. The fit of ague was passing away. "We are in a Christian land. We are not slaves to be bought and sold like cattle."

"If you cannot pay the rent, I can take everything from you. I can throw you out of this chair down on those bricks. I can take the crock and all the meat in it. I can take the bed on which you sleep. I can take the clothes off your back." Turning suddenly round on the girl he glared, "I will rip the jersey off her, and wear it till I rot. I will pull the red cap off her head and lay it on my heart to keep it warm. None shall say me nay. Tell me, mistress, what are you, what is she, without house and bed and clothing? I will take her gun, I will swamp her boat. I will trample down your garden. I will drive you both down with my dogs upon the saltings at the spring tide, at the full of moon. You shall not shelter here, on my island, if you will not pay. I tell you, I have bought the Ray. I gave for it eight hundred pounds."

"But Elijah," protested the old woman, "do not be so angry. We are sure to pay."

"We will pay him, mother, and then he cannot open his mouth against us." At that moment the door flew open, and two men entered, one young, the other old.

"There is the money," said the girl, as the latter laid a canvas bag on the table.

"We've sold the sheep—at least Abraham has," said the young man joyously, as he held out his hand. "Sold them well, too, Glory!"

The girl's entire face was transformed. The cloud that had hung over it cleared, the hard eyes softened, and a kindly light beamed from them. The set lips became flexible and smiled. Elijah noted the change, and his brow grew darker, his eye more threatening.

Mehalah strode forward, and held out her hand to clasp that offered her. Elijah swung his musket suddenly about, and unless she had hastily recoiled, the barrel would have struck, perhaps broken, her wrist.

"You refused my hand," he said, "although you are mine. I bought the Ray for eight hundred pounds." Then turning to the young man with sullenness, he asked, "George De Witt, what brings you here?"

"Why cousin, I've a right to be here as well as you."

"No, you have not. I have bought the Ray, and no man sets foot on this island against my will."

The young man laughed good-humouredly.

"You won't keep me off your property then, Elijah, so long as Glory is here?"

Elijah made a motion as though he would speak angrily, but restrained himself with an effort. He said nothing, but his eyes followed every movement of Mehalah Sharland. She turned to him with an exultant splendour in her face, and pointing to the canvas bag on the table, said, "There is the money. Will you take the rent at once, or wait till it is due?"

"It is not due till next Thursday."

"We do not pay for a few weeks. Three weeks' grace we have been hitherto allowed."

"I give no grace."

"Then take your money at once."

"I will not touch it till it is due. I will take it next Thursday. You will bring it me then to Red Hall."

"Is the boat all right where I left her?" asked the young man.

"Yes, George!" answered the girl, "she is on the hard where you anchored her this morning. What have you been getting in Colchester to-day?"

"I have bought some groceries for mother," he said, "and there is a present with me for you. But that I will not give up till by and by. You will help me to thrust the boat off, will you not, Glory?"

"She is afloat now. However, I will come presently, I must give Abraham first his supper."

"Thank ye," said the old man. "George De Witt and me stopped at the Rose and had a bite. I must go at once after the cows. You'll excuse me." He went out.

"Will you stay and sup with us, George?" asked the widow. "There is something in the pot will be ready directly."

"Thank you all the same," he replied, "I want to be back as soon as I can, the night will be dark; besides, you and Glory have company." Then turning to Rebow, he added:

"So you have bought the Ray?"

"I have."

"Then Glory and her mother are your tenants."

"They are mine."

"I hope they will find you an easy landlord."

"I reckon they will not," said Elijah shortly.

"Come along, Glory!" he called, abandoning the topic and the uncongenial speaker, and turning to the girl, "Help me with my boat."

"Don't be gone for long, Mehalah!" said her mother. "I shall be back directly."

Elijah Rebow kept his mouth closed. His face was as though cast in iron, but a living fire smouldered within and broke out through the eye-sockets, as lava will lie hard and cold, a rocky crust with a fiery fluid core within that at intervals glares out at fissures. He did not utter a word, but watched Glory go out with De Witt, and then a grim smile curdled his rugged cheeks. He seated himself opposite the widow, and spread his great hands over the fire. He was pondering. The shadow of his strongly featured face and expanded hands was cast on the opposite wall; as the flame flickered, the shadow hands seemed to open and shut, to stretch and grasp.

The gold had died out of the sky and only a pearly twilight crept in at the window, the evening heaven seen through the pane was soft and cool in tone as the tints of the Glaucus gull. The old woman remained silent. She was afraid of the new landlord. She had long known him, longer known of him, she had never liked him, and she liked less to have him now in a place of power over her.

Presently Rebow rose, slowly, from his seat, and laying aside his gun said, "I too have brought a present, but not for Glory. She must know nothing of this, it is for you. I put the keg outside the door under the whitethorn. I knew a drop of spirits was good for the ague. We get spirits cheap, or I would not give you any." He was unable to do a gracious act without marring its merit by an ungracious word. "I will fetch it in. May it comfort you in the chills!"

He went out and returned with a little keg under his arm. "Where is it to go?" he asked.

"Oh, Master Rebow! this is good of you, and I am thankful. My ague does pull me down sorely."

"Damn your ague, who cares about it!" he said surlily. "Where is the keg to go?"

"Let me roll it in," said the old woman, jumping up. "There are better cellars and storeplaces here than anywhere between this and Tiptree Heath."

"Saving mine at Red Hall, and those at Salcot Rising Sun," interjected the man.

"You see, Rebow, in times gone by, a great many smuggled goods were stowed away here; but much does not come this way now," with a sigh.

"It goes to Red Hall instead," said Rebow. "Ah! if you were there, your life would be a merry one. There! take the keg. I have had trouble enough bringing it here. You stow it away where you like, yourself; and draw me a glass, I am dry."

He flung himself in the chair again, and let the old woman take up and hug the keg, and carry it off to some secure hiding-place where in days gone by many much larger barrels of brandy and wine had been stored away. She soon returned.

"I have not tapped this," she said. "The liquor will be muddy. I have drawn a little from the other that you gave me."

Elijah took the glass and tossed it off. He was chuckling to himself.

"You will say a word for me to Glory."

"Rely on me, Elijah. None has been so good to me as you. None has given me anything for my chill but you. But Mehalah will find it out, I reckon; she suspects already."

He paid no heed to her words.

"So she is not mine, nor the house, nor the marshes, nor the saltings, nor the fish and fowl!" he muttered derisively to himself.

"I paid eight hundred pounds for the Ray and all that therein is," he continued, "let alone what I paid the lawyer." He rubbed his hands. Then he rose again, and took his gun.

"I'm off," he said, and strode to the door.

At the same moment Mehalah appeared at it, her face clear and smiling. She looked handsomer than ever.

"Well!" snarled Rebow, arresting her, "what did he give you?"

"That is no concern of yours," answered the girl, and she tried to pass. He put his fowling piece across the door and barred the way.

"What did he give you?" he asked in his dogged manner.

"I might refuse to answer," she said carelessly, "but I do not mind your knowing; the whole Ray and Mersea, and the whole world may know. This!" She produced an Indian red silk kerchief, which she flung over her shoulders and knotted under her chin. With her rich complexion, hazel eyes, dark hair and scarlet cap, lit by the red fire flames, she looked a gipsy, and splendid in her beauty. Rebow dropped his gun, thrust her aside with a sort of mad fury, and flung himself out of the door.

"He is gone at last!" said the girl with a gay laugh.

Rebow put his head in again. His lips were drawn back and his white teeth glistened.

"You will pay the rent next Thursday. I give no grace."

Then he was gone.

  1. A salting is land occasionally flooded, otherwise serving as pasturage. A marsh is a reclaimed salting, enclosed within a sea-wall.
  2. Cypress-chest.