Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV

NEW YEAR'S EVE

No more sheep were stolen; but then the moon was filling her horns, and a robbery could not be committed without chance of detection. But though nothing further had been taken, Mehalah was uneasy. Some evilly-disposed person had visited the Ray and plundered her and her mother of four ewes; others, or the same, might attempt the house, in the hopes of finding money there. The auction had shown people that Mistress Sharland was not without money.

On New Year's Eve Mehalah went to Colchester to make some purchases for the New Year. The kalends of January and not the Nativity of Christ is the great winter festival among the Essex peasantry on the coast. They never think of wishing one another a Happy Christmas, but only a Merry New Year. No yule log is burnt, no mummers dance, no wassail bowl is consumed at Christmas, but each man who can afford it deems himself bound to riot and revel, to booze and sing, to wake the death of the old year, and baptise the new with libations of brandy or ale.

When Mehalah returned, she brought with her a new lock and key for the house-door. There had been once a lock there, but it had been broken many years ago, and had never been repaired. On the Ray no lock was needed, it had been supposed. Mehalah was of a different opinion now. The short day had closed some time ago; she had seen it die over Bradwell from Abberton Hill, but the full moon was rising, and she knew her way over the marshes, she could thread the tangle easily by moonlight. She reached the Ray, threw open the door, and strode in. Her mother was by the fire, with her head on the table. Mehalah 's heart stood still for a moment, and then her face flushed. The smell of spirits in the close room, the attitude of her mother, the stupefied eyes which opened on her, and then closed again without recognition, convinced her that her mother had been drinking.

Mehalah was angry as well as distressed. This was a new trouble, one to which she was quite unaccustomed. She knew that her mother had taken a little rum-and-water against her ague, and she had not grudged it her. But of late there had been something more than this. Since Rebow had supplied Mrs. Sharland with spirits, the old woman had been unable to resist the temptation of going to her keg whenever she felt lonely or depressed. Mehalah had insisted on her mother receiving no more from Elijah Rebow, but she was by no means certain that the widow had complied with her desire. The sight of her mother in this condition angered Mehalah, for she was sure now that a fresh supply had been obtained, and was secreted somewhere. She was angry with her mother for deceiving her and with Rebow for tempting the old woman and laying her under an obligation to him. She was angry with herself for not having watched her mother more closely, and explored the places of concealment which abounded in the old house.

She stood over her mother for some moments with folded arms and bowed head, her brows knit, and a gloomy light in her eyes. Then she shook her roughly and spoke harshly to her.

"Mother! answer me. You have received more from Rebow?"

"It was very kind, very kind indeed," stuttered the old woman. "Capital for ague shivers and rheumatic pains in the bones."

"Has Elijah been here again?"

"He's wery civil; he knows what suits old bones."

"Has he brought you another keg?"

"It is stowed away," said the widow drowsily. "Quite comfortable. Go to bed, Mehalah; it's time to get up."

The girl drew back in disgust and wrath. Elijah was making her own mother despicable in her eyes. She was quite resolved what to do. She thrust open the door to the cellar, and behind a heap of faggots found a fresh keg, evidently recently brought, and quite full. She drew it forth into the front room and held it up.

"Mother!" she shouted.

"I am here, Mehalah. The ague isn't on me yet."

"Do you see this little cask? It is full, quite full."

"Don't do that, child, you may drop it."

"I shall dash it to pieces," said the girl, and she flung it with her whole force on the bricks. A stave was broken: the precious liquor spurted out. Some flew into the fire and flashed into blue flame up the chimney. In a moment the floor was swimming, and the thirsty bricks were sucking in the spirit. The old woman was too besotted with drink to understand what was done. Mehalah's bosom heaved with passion and excitement.

"I have done with that," she said; "I said that I would, and I have kept my word. Never, never shall my poor mother be like this again. He did it." She knit her hands, and a fire flickered in her eyes, like that of the burning spirit in the chimney.

"Now come to bed, mother." She drew or carried the old woman out of the room, undressed her, and put her in bed. Mrs. Sharland made no resistance. She submitted drowsily, and her head was no sooner on the pillow than she fell asleep.

Mehalah returned to the front room. She got out some tools and set herself to work at once to fasten on the lock. She was accustomed to doing all sorts of things herself; she could roughly carpenter, she had often patched her boat. The old farmhouse was in a decayed condition and needed much mending, and for several years she had done what was required to it. To put on a lock was a trifle; but the old nails that had fastened the former lock remained in the wood, and had to be punched out, and the keyhole was not quite in the right place when the lock was first put on, and had to be altered. At length the lock was fast, a strong lock, strong for such a worm-eaten door.

Mehalah went to her mother's room and looked at the old woman. She slept heavily, unlike her usual sleep, which would be broken at once by the entry of her daughter with a light.

Mehalah returned to the kitchen and seated herself at the hearth. How long had this keg of spirits been in the house? She had paid no attention to the introduction of spirits since George's death, her mind had been occupied with other matters. Her mother and Rebow had taken advantage of this. How was it that Rebow came to the house when she was away? He never came when she was present, at least not since the night when the money was stolen; but she was sure that he visited her mother during her absence, from little things let drop by the old woman.

How did he manage to time his visits so as not to meet her? She would find out when he was last at the Ray Farm. She sprang up, and went out of the door, unlocking it to let herself go forth; and she called Abraham. There was no answer. The old man was already turned into his loft over the cowhouse, and asleep.

She called him again, but with equal want of success. Not a thunderbolt falling on the thorns beside the house would rouse him. Mehalah knew that, and went back to her seat by the fire, relocking the door. "I will ask him in the morning. He must know."

She drew off her shoes, and put her bare feet on the warm hearth. She was without her guernsey and cap, for she did not wear them when she went to Colchester.

She fell, as was her wont, to thinking. Since the death of George, she had been accustomed to sit thus over the fire, after her mother had retired. She was not thinking of him now, she was thinking of Elijah. His words, his strange, mad, fierce words, came back to her. Was there a destiny shaping her life against her will, and forcing her into his arms? She shuddered at the thought. To hate and love, and love and hate, year out, year in, that was what they were fated to do, according to him. That he was drawn towards her by some attractive power exercised against her will, she knew full well, but she would not allow that he exercised the least attraction on her. Yet she did feel that there was some sort of spell upon her. Hate him as she did and would, she knew that she could not altogether escape him, she had an instinctive consciousness that she was held by him, she did not understand how, in his hands. Perhaps it was her destiny to hate and fight him; for how long? Love him she never could, she never would. There was an assurance in his manner and tone which impressed her against her better judgment. He spoke as though it were but a matter of time before she yielded herself wholly to him, and came under his roof and joined her lot with his, for life and for death. What right had he to assume this? What grounds had he for this confidence? None but a blind, dogged conviction in his own mind that destiny had ordained them for each other. Then she thought of the story of Grim's Hoe, of the two who loved and hated, embraced and fought eternally therein, those two destined from their mother's womb to be together in life and death, with twin souls and bodies, who had they lived in love might have rested in death, but as they fought must fight on. There they were, in the old hollow womb of the ship down in the earth in darkness, loving one another as brothers, fighting each other as rivals; the conflict lasting till one shall master the other, a thing that never can be, for both were born with equal strength, and equal purpose, and equal stubbornness of will. The fumes of the spilled spirits hung in the air, and stimulated Mehalah's brain. Instead of stupefying, they quickened her mind into activity. Her heart beat. She felt as if she were in the ship hold watching the eternal conflict, and as if she must take a part with one or the other; as if her so doing would determine the victory. But which should she will to conquer, when each was the counterpart of the other? She could not bear this thought, she could not endure the fumes of the spirit, it suffocated her. She sprang up. The full moon was glaring in at the window from a cloudless sky.

She opened the door. The air was cold, but there was little wind. She could see on the south-east horizon, at the highest point of the island, the great Hoe crowned with black pines.

The moon was at full. The old warriors were now hewing at one another, and the dim, frightened captive maid looked on with her hands on her heart, her great eyes gleaming like glow-worms in the decaying ship hold. Ha! at each sword stroke the sparks flashed. Ha! the cut flesh glimmered like phosphorescent fish, and the blood ran like blue fire. Was the story true? Could anyone hear the warriors shout and smite, who chose to listen at the full of the moon? The distance to Grim's Hoe was not over two miles. Mehalah thought she must go there and listen with her own ears. She would go.

Once more she returned to her mother's room, and saw that Mrs. Sharland was asleep. Then she drew on her shoes, her guernsey, and her red cap, went out, locked the door, and put the key in her pocket.

"Who went there?" She started. She thought she saw something—someone, move; but then laughed. The moon was so bright that it cast her shadow on the wall, distinct and black as if it were a palpable body. She stood still, listened, and looked round. She could see the stretch of the saltings as distinctly as if it were day, only that the shadows were inky black, not purple as by sunlight. Not a sound was to be heard.

"I will go," she said, and she strode off towards the causeway.

The path over the marshes was perfectly distinct. She walked fast, the earth crackled under her feet, the frost was keen. Her eyes rose ever and anon to Grim's Hoe. The pines on it did not stir, they stood like mourners above a grave.

The Mersea channel gleamed like a belt of silver, not a ripple was on the water on the west side of the causeway, and but slight flapping wavelets, driven by the north-east wind, played with the tangles on the piles on the other side of the Strood.

She reached the island of Mersea by the causeway, now dry, and began to ascend the hill. Once she turned and looked back. She could see the Ray rising above the marshes, bathed in moonlight, patched with coal black shadows cast by the ancient thorntrees and the farm buildings.

Before her rose the great barrow, partly overgrown with shrubs, but bare, on the north-west towards the Strood. It was a bell-shaped mound rising some thirty feet above the surface of the ground. She paused a moment at the foot and listened. Not a sound. She must then climb the tumulus, and lie on the top between the pines, and lay her ear to the ground. She stepped boldly up the little path trodden by children and sheep, and in a few moments was at the top. She stopped to breathe, to look up at the wan white moon that gazed down on her, and then she cast herself on the ground, with her face to the north-west.

What was that? A fir cone fell beside her. There was no sound. Hist! a stoat ran past and disappeared in a hole. Then she heard screams. A poor rabbit was attacked and its blood sucked. She lifted her head, and then laid it on the ground again. Her eyes were fixed on the distance.

What was that? In a moment she was on her feet.

What was that red spot over the marshes, on the Ray, among the trees? What was that leaping, dancing, lambent tongue, shooting up and recoiling? What was that white rising cloud above the thorns?

Before she knew where she was, Mehalah was flying down the hill towards the Strood, the dead Danish warriors forgotten in the agony of her fear. As she ran on, her eyes never left the Ray, and she saw the red light grow in intensity and spread in body. The farm was on fire. The house was on fire, and her mother was in a dead sleep within—locked in—and the key was in her pocket.

O God! what had she done? Why had she gone? Had not the spilled spirits caught fire and set the house in flames? Why had she locked her mother in? a thing never done before. Mehalah ran, terror, horror, anguish at her heart. She did not look at her path, she took it instinctively, she did not heed the rude bridges, she dashed across them, and one broke under her hasty foot, and fell away after she had passed. The flames were climbing higher. She could see them devouring the wooden tarred walls. Then came a great burst of fire, and a rushing upwards of blazing sparks. The roof had fallen in. A pillar of blue and golden light stood up and illumined the whole Ray. The thorntrees looked now like wondrous, finely-ramified, golden seaweeds in a dim blue sea. Mehalah would not pause to look at anything, she saw only flames leaping and raging where was her home, where lay her mother. How could she reach the place before the house was a wreck, and her dear mother was buried beneath the burned timbers of the roof, and the hot broken tiles?

She was there at last, before the great blaze; she could see that some one or two men were present.

"My mother, my mother!" she gasped, and fell on her knees.

"Be still. Glory, she is safe, no thanks to you."

Mehalah lost consciousness for a few moments. The revulsion of feeling was so great as to overcome her. When she recovered, she was still unable for some time to gather all her faculties together, rise, look round, and note what had taken place.

The whole farmhouse was on fire, every wall was flaming, and part of the roof had fallen in. If once the house were to catch fire it was certain to go like tinder. A spout of flame came out of her mother's bedroom window. The fire glowed and roared in the old kitchen sitting-room.

"Where is my mother?" asked Mehalah abruptly.

"She is all safe," answered Abraham Dowsing, who was dragging some saved bedding out of reach of the sparks. "She is in the boat."

"The cow?" asked Mehalah.

"She is all right also. The fire has not caught the stable."

" Who got my mother out?"

"I did, Glory!" answered Elijah Rebow. "You owe her life to me. Why were you not here? Fighting your destiny, I suppose."

Several articles were scattered about under the trees. The Sharlands had not many valuables; such as they had seemed to have been saved.

"Where is my mother? Lead me to her."

"She is in the boat, Glory!" said Rebow. "Come with me. The fire must burn itself out. There is nothing further, to be done; we must put your mother at once under shelter. There is a cruel frost, and she will suffer."

"Where is she? What have you done with her?" again asked Mehalah, still hardly collected and conscious of what she said.

"She is safe in my boat, well wrapped up. Come with me. You shall see her. Abraham and my man shall stay and watch till the fire dies out, and see that no further harm is done, and then follow in your boat."

"Where are you going?"

"I am going to place your mother under cover, at once, or the cold will kill her. Come on, Glory!"

Elijah led the way down the steep gravelly slope to the Rhyn. There floated his boat—his large two-oared boat, and in the stern half lay, half crouched, Mrs. Sharland, amidst blankets and bedding.

"Joseph!" shouted Elijah to one of the men by the fire, "follow us as soon as you can, and bring Abraham Dowsing with you. We will fetch away the traps to-morrow."

Mrs. Sharland was wailing and wringing her hands. "Oh, Mehalah! this is dreadful! too dreadful!"

"Step in and take the oar," said Elijah impatiently. "We must get off, and house the old woman as soon as possible, or she will be death-struck."

The flames were reflected in the water about the boat, it seemed to float in fire.

"Take the oar!" ordered Elijah gruffly.

Mehalah obeyed mechanically. He thrust the boat off, and cast himself in.

No word was spoken for some time. Mehalah's eyes were fixed on her burning home, with despair. Her brain was numb, her heart oppressed. Mrs. Sharland wailed and wept, and uttered loud reproaches against Mehalah, which the girl heard not. She was stunned, and could not take in the situation.

The boat shot past the head of the Ray.

There stood the low broad bulk of the Burnt Hill. Mehalah roused herself.

Elijah looked over his shoulder and laughed.

"Up Salcot Fleet!" he said shortly.

"What!" suddenly exclaimed Mehalah, as a pang shot through her heart. "Whither are we going?"

"To Red Hall," answered Elijah.

"I will not go there!" exclaimed the girl in a tone of despair, as she drew her hands sharply from the oar, and the boat swung round.

"Take the oar again," ordered Elijah. "Where else can your mother go? You must think of her. She cannot be left to die of cold on the marshes this night."

A groan escaped Mehalah's breast. She resumed the oar. "Hold hard!" shouted Elijah after a row of half an hour. He sprang into the water, and drew the boat ashore.

"Give your mother a hand and help her to land," he said peremptorily. Mehalah obeyed without a word.

Rebow caught the girl by both hands as she stepped on shore.

"Welcome, Glory! welcome to Red Hall! The New Year sees you under the roof where you shall rule as mistress; your destiny is mightier than your will."