Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII

FACE TO FACE

Mehalah returned slowly to the house, her spirits oppressed with gloom. It was night without and within, before her face, and in her soul. The wind sighed and sobbed among the rushes and over the fen, in a disconsolate, despairing manner, and the breath of God within—the living soul—sighed and sobbed like His breath that blew over the wintry marsh without. Not a star looked down from His heaven above, and none looked up from His heaven below in the little confines of a human heart. Mehalah could scarce see her way in the fen, among the dykes and drains; she was as unable to find a path in the level of her life.

She reached Red Hall at last, and mounted the front stairs to the principal door. She would see Elijah now. It were better to speak with him and come to some understanding at once. It was intolerable to allow the present position to remain unexplained, and the future undetermined. She hesitated at the door. It was not without a struggle that she could open it and go in and face the man whose hospitality she was receiving and yet whom she abhorred. She knew that she was greatly indebted to him. He had saved her mother's life, he had secured from destruction a large amount of their property; yet she could not thank him. She resented his intrusion into their affairs, when anyone else would have been unobjectionable. She disliked him all the more because she knew she was heavily in his debt; it galled her almost past endurance to feel that she and her mother were then subsisting on his bounty.

"Come in, Glory!" shouted Elijah from within, as she halted at the door.

She entered. He was seated by the fire with his pipe in his hand; he had heard her step on the stairs, and had paused in his smoking, and had waited in a listening, expectant attitude.

He signed her to take a chair—her mother's chair—on the other side of the hearth. She paid no attention to the sign, but stood in the middle of the room, and unconsciously covered her eyes with her hands. Her pulses quivered in her temples. Her heart grew cold, and a faintness came over her.

"The light is not too strong to dazzle you," said Elijah; "put your hands down, I want to see your face."

She made an effort to retain them where they were, but could not; they fell.

"Sit down."

She shook her head.

" Sit down."

"I want to speak with you, Elijah, for a moment. I must speak with you." Her heart palpitated, her breast heaved. She could only utter short sentences.

"Sit down there!" he beckoned with the stalk of his pipe.

She still refused to obey. Her power was slipping from her. The exhaustion after the excitement she had gone through had affected even her stout will. She resolved to oppose him in this trifling matter, but knew that her resolution was infirm. She clung desperately to what remained to her of power.

"I will not listen to a word you say unless you sit down."

He paused, and looked at her; then he said, "Go to your mother!" and continued his smoking, with face averted.

"Elijah, I know what you have done, and are doings now for my mother."

He sprang from his seat, and strode up and down the room, turning and glowering at her, sucking at his pipe, and making it red and angry like his eyes in the firelight. He walked fast and noisily on the brick floor, with his high shoulders up and his head down. She watched him with painful apprehension; he reminded her of the mad brother pacing in the vault below. She could not speak to him whilst he persisted in this irritating, restless tramp. There was no help for it. She dropped into her mother's leather chair.

"There!" said he, and he flung a ring with some keys attached to it, into her lap, "Take them. They are yours now. The keys of everything in the house, except of—" he jerked his pipe towards the den beneath.

"I cannot take them," she said, and let them slide off her lap upon the floor.

" Pick them up!" he ordered.

"No," she said firmly, "I will not. Elijah, we must come to an understanding with each other."

"We already understand each other," he said, pausing in his walk. "We always did. I can read your heart. I know everything that passes there, just as if it was written in red letters on a page. I understand you, and there's nobody else in the world that can. I was made to read you, I heard a Baptist preacher say one day that God wrote a book, and then He created mankind to read it. You are a book, and God made me to read you. I can do it. That wants no scholarship, it comes by nature to me. Others can't. They might puzzle and rack their heads, they'd make nothing of you. But you are clear as light of day to me. You understand me?"

"I do not."

" You will not. You set your obstinate, wicked mind against understanding me. I heard a preacher once say—I went to chapel along of my mother when I was a boy; I goes nowhere now but to the Ray after you—What is God? It is that as makes a man, and keeps him alive, and gives him hopes of happiness, or plunges him in hell. Every man has his own God; for there is something different makes and mars each man. What do I want but you, Glory? It is you that can make and keep me alive, and you are my happiness or my hell.

"But," said he standing still again, and flourishing his hand and pipe, "as I was saying, I heard a preacher say once, that God made every man of a lump of clay and a drop of spittle, and that He made always two at a time. He couldn't help it. He has two hands and ain't right and left handed as we, but works with both, and then He casts about the men He has made, anywhere. Hasn't He made all things double? Have not you two hands and two feet and two eyes? Is there not a sun and a moon, are there not two poles to the earth, and two sexes, and day and night, and winter and summer? and"—he went up before Mehalah, and with a burst of passion—"and you and me?" Then he recommenced his pacing, but slower, and continued, "Wherever those two are that God made with His two hands, they must come together. It don't matter where they be, if one is in Mersea, and t'other is in Asia, or Africa, or China, or America, or London, it don't matter, soon or late, they must come together, and when they come together then they are in heaven. Now if a man takes some other left-handed figure—it was the left hand made woman—then it don't matter, he can't go against his destiny. He has taken the wrong woman, and he is not happy. He knows it all along, and he feels restless and craving in his soul, and if he does not find the proper one in this world when he goes out of it, he waits and wanders, till the proper one dies and begins to hunt about for her right-hand man. That is what makes ghosts to ramble. Ghosts are those that have married the wrong ones, wandering and waiting, and seeking for their right mates. Do you hear the piping and the crying at the windows of a winter night? That is the ghosts looking in and sobbing because they are out in the cold shivering till they meet their mates. But when they meet, then that is heaven. There's a heaven for everyone, but that is only once for all when the two doubles find each other, and if that be not in this life, why it is after. And there is a hell too, but that isn't reserved for all, and it does not last for ever and ever, but is only when one has taken the wrong mate and has found it out." He stopped. He had become very earnest and excited by what he had said. He came again over against Mehalah. "Glory!" he continued, "don't you see how the moon goes after the sun and cannot come to him? She is his proper mate and double, and the sun don't know, and won't have it, and so day and night, and winter and summer, and waxing and waning goes on and on. But that won't go on for ever. The sun will grow sad at heart, and wane for want of the moon some day, and then there will be a great flare and blaze and glory, and they will be in heaven. And now the two poles of the earth are apart, and so long as they keep apart, the world rolls on in misery and pain, and that is what makes earthquakes, and volcanoes, and great plagues—the poles are apart which ought to be together. But they are drawing gradually nearer each other. The seasons now are not what they used to be, and that is it. The poles are not where they were, they are straining to meet. And some day they will run into one, and that will be the end. I've heard say that in the Bible it is spoken that there'll be an end of this world. I could have known that without the Bible. The poles must come together some day, and be one. Glory!" he went on, "you and I are each other's doubles, you was made with God's left hand, and I with His right, at the same moment of time, and He cast you into the Ray, and me to Red Hall, There was not much space between, only some water and ooze and marsh, and we've been drawing and drawing nearer and closer for ever so long, and now you are here, under my roof. You can't help it. You cannot fight agin it. You was made for me and I for you, and you'll have a life of hell unless you take me now. I must be yours. You thought you'd resist and take George De Witt. It might have been. Suppose you had, and I had died years before you. You would have heard me crying at your window and beating at your door, and you would have felt me drawing and drawing of you, whether you chose or not, taking the heart away from your George, and bringing it to me. Then at last, you'd have died, and then, then, you'd have been mine, and you would have found our heaven after thirty, forty, fifty years of hell."

The terrible earnestness of the man imposed on Mehalah. He spoke what he believed. He gave utterance, in his rude fierce way, to what he felt. She, untaught, full of dim gropings after something higher, vaster, than the flat, narrow life she led, was startled.

"Heaven with you!" she cried, drawing back; "never! never!"

"Heaven with me, and with none but me. You can't get another heaven but in my arms, for you was made for me by God. I told you so, but you would not believe it. Try, if you like, to find it elsewhere. God didn't make you and George De Witt out of one lump. He couldn't have done it—You, Glory! strong, great, noble, with a will of iron, and that weak, helpless, vulgar lout, tied to his mother's apron. He couldn't have done it. He made, like enough, Phœbe Musset and George De Witt out of one piece, but you and me was moulded together at the same time, out of the same clay, and the same breath is in our hearts, and the same blood in our veins. You can't help it, it is so. You cannot, you shall not, escape me. Soon or late you must find your proper mate, soon or late you must seek your double, soon or late find your heaven."

He came now quietly and seated himself in his chair opposite Mehalah.

"What did you fare to say, Glory?" he asked. "I interrupted you." "I must thank you first for what you have done for my mother."

"I have done nothing for her," said Elijah sharply.

"You drew her out of the burning house. You saved her goods from the flames. You have sheltered her here."

"I have done nothing for her," said Elijah again. "Whatever I have done, I did for you. But for you she might have burned, and I would not have put out a finger to help her. What care I for her? She is naught to me. She wasn't destined for me; that was you. I saved her because she was your mother. I collected your things from the blazing house. I have taken you in. I take her in only as I might take in your shoe, or your cow, because it is yours. She is naught to me. I don't care if I never saw or heard her again."

He got up and went to the window, took a flask thence; then brought his gun from a corner, and began to polish the brass fittings with rag, having first put on the metal some of the vitriol from the bottle.

"Look at this," he said, dropping some of the acid on the tarnished brass. "Look how it frets and boils till it has scummed away the filth, and then the brass is bright as gold. That's like me. I'm fretted and fume with your opposition, and I dare say it is as well I get a little. But after a bit it will bring out the shining metal. You will see what I am. You don't like me now, because I'm not shapely and handsome as your George De Witt. But there is the gold metal underneath; he was but gilt pinchbeck—George De Witt!" he repeated. "That was a fancy of yours, that he was your mate! You could not have loved him a week after you'd known what he was. Marriage would have rubbed the plating off, and you would have scorned and cast him aside."

"Elijah!" said Mehalah, "I cannot bear this. I loved once, and I shall love for ever,—not you!—you—never," with gathering emphasis; "George, only George, none but George."

"More fool you," said Rebow sulkily. "Only I don't believe it. You say so to aggravate me, but you don't think it."

She did not care to pursue the subject. She had spoken out her heart, and was satisfied. "Well, what else had you to say? I didn't think you was one of the bread-and-butter curtsey-my-dears and thanky, sirs! That is a new feature in you, Glory! It is the first time I've had the taste of thanks from you on my tongue."

"You never gave me occasion before."

"No more I did," he answered. "You are right there. And I don't care for thanks now. I'd take them if I valued them, but I don't. I don't care to have them from you. I don't expect thanks from my body when I feed it, nor from my hands when I warm 'em at the fire; they belong to me, and I give 'em their due. What I do for you I do for myself, for the same reason. You belong to me."

"I must speak," said Mehalah. "This is more than I can endure. You say things of me, and to me, which I will not suffer. Do you mean to insult me? Have I ever given you the smallest reason to encourage you to assume this right?

"No. But it must be. You can't always go against fate."

"I do not believe in this fate, this destiny, of which you talk," said the girl, gathering up her strength, as her indignation swelled within her. "You have no right over me whatever. I have been brought here against my will, but at the same time I cannot do other than acknowledge your hospitality. Had you not given us a shelter, I know not whither we should have gone. I ask you to let us shelter here a little longer, but only a little longer, till I have found some situation where I can work, and support my mother. We must sell our little goods, our sheep and cow, and with the proceeds—"

"With the proceeds you will have to pay the rent of the Ray to Lady Day."

"You cannot be so ungenerous," gasped Mehalah, flashing wrathfully against him. "This undoes all your kindness in housing us. But if it must be, so be it. We will sell all, and pay you every penny; yes, and for our keep in this house, as long as we are forced to remain."

"Not so fast. Glory," said Elijah composedly. "There are various things to be considered first. You can't find a situation—no one would take you in along of an old bedridden mother."

"I can but try."

"Aye, try ; try by all means, and then come back to me. You have tried a deal of tricks to escape me, but you can't do it. You tried by borrowing money of George De Witt, you tried by going to that old palsied shipbuilder, you tried at Parson Tyll's, you tried, I don't know how at last, and you got the money; but yet you couldn't escape me. You tried to get George De Witt as your husband, to keep you from me in life, but it came to naught. He's gone out of the path that leads from you to me. You may heap up what you will, but the earth will open, and swallow all obstructions, and leave the way smooth and open. Did you ever see the old place—they call it the Devil's Walls—by Payne's? No, I dare say you don't know thereabouts. Well, I'll tell you how that spot lies waste, and covered with brambles and nettles now. The old lords D'Arcy thought to build a castle there. Then the Salcot creek ran up so far, and they could row and sail right up to their gates, were the mansion built. But it could not be. The masons built all day, and at night the earth sucked the walls in. They worked there a whole year, and they brought stones from Kent, and they poured in boulders, and they laid bricks, but it was all of no good, the earth drank in everything they put on it, as water. At last they gave it up, and they built instead on the hill where stands Barn Hall. It will be the same with you. You may build what you like, and where you like, it will go; it cannot stand, it will be swallowed up; you can only build on me."

"Elijah! I insist on your listening to me. I will not hear this."

"You will not? I do not care, you must. My will will drink in yours. But go on; say what you wish."

"I am going to propose this. Pay me a wage, and I will work here. I will attend to the house and the cows, and do anything you require of me. You have no servant, and you need one. You shall let me be your servant. I shall not be ashamed to be that, but I will not remain here unless my place be determined and recognised." "You shall be the mistress."

"I do not want, I do not choose to be anything else in this house but your hired servant. Pay me a wage, and I will remain till I can find some other situation; refuse, and, if I have to leave my mother, I will go out of this house to-night."

"If you leave your mother, I will throw her out."

"I would fetch her away. I would carry her in my arms. I will not stay here on any other terms."

"I will humour you. You shall be paid. I will give you five shillings a week. Is that enough?"

"More than enough, with my keep and that of my mother. I thank you now. In future speak of me to the men as their fellow-servant, and not as you did recently to Abraham as their mistress."

"I shall speak to them as I like. Am I to be controlled by you?"

"Then I will leave. I will carry my mother to the inn at Salcot, and rest there till I can find some other shelter."

"Now look here. Glory," said Elijah. He put his gun aside, and leaned his elbows on his knees, and faced her. "It is of no use your talking of running away from me. You may run, but I can draw you back. I sit here of a night brooding over my fire, I begin thinking of you. I think, I think, and then a spirit takes me as it were, and fills me with fierce will, to bring you here. I feel I have threads at every finger and threads to my knees and to my feet, all fast to you, and if I stir, I move you. I lift my finger, and you raise yours. I wave my hand up, and you throw up yours. You don't know it. I do. I know that I have but to rise up from my chair, and I lift you up wherever you may be, in your bed, in your grave, and then, if I draw in with my will, I wind up these threads, and you come, you come, from wheresoever you are, out of your bed in your smock, out of your grave in your shroud; doors are nothing, my will can burst them open; locks are naught, my will can wrench them, off; the screws in the coffin lid and five feet of earth are nothing, I could draw you through all. I could draw you over the ooze, and you would not be sucked in by it. I could draw you over the water, and you would not wet your foot. I could draw you through the marsh and you would not break a bulrush; look there—" he waved his arm towards the door. "That door would fly open, and there you would stand, like one dreaming, with your eyes wide open as they are now, with your cheek colourless as now, with your lips parted as now, helpless, unable to stir a finger, or utter a sound, against my will, and you would rush into my arms, and fall on my heart. I can do all that. I feel it. I know it. I have sat here and wanted to do it, but I have not. I would not have you come to me in that way, but come of your own free will. You must come to me one way or other. Look here!" he raised his hand, and involuntarily, unconsciously, she lifted hers.

"Pick up the keys."

She stooped and took them up.

"One day," he said, "you refused to take a piece of money that fell, when I bade you. Now you are more compliant. My will is gaining over yours. Your will is stout and rebellious, but it must bend and give way before mine. Go; I have done with you for the present."