Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II

THE RHYN

"Mother," said Mehalah, "are you better now?"

"Yes, the fit is off me, but I am left terribly weak."

"Mother, will you give me the medal?"

"What? Your grandmother's charm? You cannot want it!"

"It brings luck, and saves from sudden death. I wish to give it to George."

"No, Mehalah! This will not do. You must keep it yourself."

"It is mine, is it not?"

"No, child; it is promised you, but it is not yours yet. You shall have it some future day."

"I want it at once, that I may give it to George. He has made me a present of this red kerchief for my neck, and he has given me many another remembrance, but I have made him no return. I have nothing that I can give him save that medal. Let me have it."

"It must not go out of the family, Mehalah."

"It will not. You know what is between George and me."

The old woman hesitated and excused herself, but was so much in the habit of yielding to her daughter, that she was unable to maintain her opposition. She submitted reluctantly, and crept out of the room to fetch the article demanded of her.

When she returned, she found Mehalah standing before the fire with her back to the embers, and her hands knitted behind her, looking at the floor, lost in thought.

"There is it," grumbled the old woman. "But I don't like to part with it; and it must not go out of the family. Keep it yourself, Mehalah, and give it away to none."

The girl took the coin. It was a large silver token, the size of a crown, bearing on the face a figure of Mars in armour, with shield and brandished sword, between the zodiacal signs of the Ram and the Scorpion.

The reverse was gilt, and represented a square divided into five-and-twenty smaller squares, each containing a number, so that the sum in each row, taken either vertically or horizontally, was sixty-five. The medal was undoubtedly foreign. Theophrastus Paracelsus, in his Archidoxa, published in the year 1572, describes some such talisman, gives instructions for its casting, and says: "This seal or token gives him who carries it about him strength and security and victory in all battles, protection in all perils. It enables him to overcome his enemies and counteract their plots."

The medal held by the girl belonged to the sixteenth century. Neither she nor her mother had ever heard of Paracelsus, and knew nothing of his Archidoxa. The figures on the face passed their comprehension. The mystery of the square on the reverse had never been discovered by them. They knew only that the token was a charm, and that family tradition held it to secure the wearer against sudden death by violence.

A hole was drilled through the piece, and a strong silver ring inserted. A broad silk riband of faded blue passed through the ring, so that the medal might be worn about the neck. For a few moments Mehalah studied the mysterious figures by the fire-light, then flung the riband round her neck, and hid the coin and its perplexing symbols in her bosom.

"I must light a candle," she said; then she stopped by the table on her way across the room, and took up the glass upon it. "Mother," she said sharply; "who has been drinking here?"

The old woman pretended not to hear the question, and began to poke the fire.

"Mother, has Elijah Rebow been drinking spirits out of this glass?"

"To be sure, Mehalah, he did just take a drop."

"Whence did he get it?"

"Don't you think it probable that such a man as he, out much on the marshes, should carry a bottle about with him? Most men go provided against the chill who can afford to do so."

"Mother," said the girl impatiently, "you are deceiving me. I know he got the spirits here, and that you have had them here for some time. I insist on being told how you came by them."

The old woman made feeble and futile attempts to evade answering her daughter directly; but was at last forced to confess that on two occasions, of which this evening was one, Elijah Rebow had brought her a small keg of rum.

"You do not grudge it me, Mehalah, do you? It does me good when I am low after my fits."

"I do not grudge it you," answered the girl; "but I do not choose you should receive favours from that man. He has to-day been threatening us, and yet secretly he is making you presents. Why does he come here? She looked full in her mother's face. "Why does he give you these spirits? He, a man who never did a good action but asked a return in fourfold measure. I promise you, mother, if he brings here any more, that I will stave in the cask and let the liquor you so value waste away."

The widow made piteous protest, but her daughter remained firm.

"Now," said the girl, "this point is settled between us. Be sure I will not go back from my word. I will in nothing be behoven to the man I abhor. Now let me count the money." She caught up the bag, then put it down again. She lit a candle at the hearth, drew her chair to the table, seated herself at it, untied the string knotted about the neck of the pouch, and poured the contents upon the board. She sprang to her feet with a cry; she stood as though petrified, with one hand to her head, the other holding the bag. Her eyes, wide open with dismay, were fixed on the little heap she had emptied on the table—a heap of shot, great and small, some pennypieces, and a few bullets.

"What is the matter with you, Mehalah? What has happened?"

The girl was speechless. The old woman moved to the table and looked.

"What is this, Mehalah?"

"Look here! Lead, not gold."

"There has been a mistake," said the widow, nervously; "call Abraham; he has given you the wrong sack."

"There has been no mistake. This is the right bag. He had no other. We have been robbed."

The old woman was about to put her hand on the heap, but Mehalah arrested it.

"Do not touch anything here," she said; "let all remain as it is till I bring Abraham. I must ascertain who has robbed us."

She leaned her elbows on the table; she plaited her fingers over her brow, and sat thinking. What could have become of the money? Where could it have been withdrawn? Who could have been the thief?

Abraham Dowsing, the shepherd, was a simple, surly old man, honest but not intelligent, selfish but trustworthy. He was a fair specimen of the East Saxon peasant, a man of small reasoning power, moving like a machine, very slow, muddy in mind, only slightly advanced in the scale of beings above the dumb beasts; with instinct just awaking into intelligence, but not sufficiently awake to know its powers; more unhappy and helpless than the brute, for instinct is exhausted in the transformation process; not happy as a man, for he is encumbered with the new gift, not illumined and assisted by it. He is distrustful of its power, inapt to appreciate it, detesting the exercise of it.

On the fidelity of Abraham Dowsing, Mehalah felt assured she might rely. He was guiltless of the abstraction. She relied on him to sell the sheep to the best advantage, for, like everyone of low mental organisation, he was grasping and keen to drive a bargain. But when he had the money she knew that less confidence could be reposed on him. He could think of but one thing at a time, and if he fell into company, his mind would be occupied by his jug of beer, his bread and cheese, or his companion. He would not have attention at command for anything beside.

The rustic brain has neither agility nor flexibility. It cannot shift its focus nor change its point of sight. The educated mind will peer through a needlehole in a sheet of paper, and see through it the entire horizon and all the sky. The uncultured mind perceives nothing but a hole, a hole everywhere without bottom, to be recoiled from, not sounded. When the oyster spat falls on mud in a tidal estuary, it gets buried in mud deeper with every tide, two films each twenty-four hours, and becomes a fossil if it becomes anything. Mind in the rustic is like oyster spat, unformed, the protoplasm of mind but not mind itself, daily, annually deeper buried in the mud of coarse routine. It never thinks, it scarce lives, and dies in unconsciousness that it ever possessed life.

Mehalah sat considering, her mother by her, with anxious eyes fastened on her daughter's face.

The money must have been abstracted either in Colchester or on the way home. The old man had said that he stopped and tarried at the Rose Inn on the way. Had the theft been there committed? Who had been his associates in that tavern?

"Mother," said Mehalah suddenly, "has the canvas bag been on the table untouched since Abraham brought it here?"

"To be sure it has."

"You have been in the room, in your seat all the while?"

"Of course I have. There was no one here but Rebow. You do not suspect him, do you?

Mehalah shook her head.

"No, I have no reason to do so. You were here all the while?"

"Yes."

Mehalah dropped her brow again on her hands. What was to be done? It was in vain to question Abraham. His thick and addled brain would baffle enquiry. Like a savage, the peasant when questioned will equivocate, and rather than speak the truth invent a lie from a dim fear lest the truth should hurt him. The lie is to him what his shell is to the snail, his place of natural refuge; he retreats to it not only from danger, but from observation.

He does not desire to mislead the querist, but to baffle observation. He accumulates deception, equivocation, falsehood about him just as he allows dirt to clot his person, for his own warmth and comfort, not to offend others.

The girl stood up.

"Mother, I must go after George De Witt at once. He was with Abraham on the road home, and he will tell us the truth. It is of no use questioning the old man, he will grow suspicious, and think we are accusing him. The tide is at flood, I shall be able to catch George on the Mersea hard."

"Take the lanthorn with you."

"I will. The evening is becoming dark, and there will be ebb as I come back. I must land in the saltings."

Mehalah unhung a lanthorn from the ceiling and kindled a candle end in it, at the light upon the table. She opened the drawer of the table and took out a pistol. She looked at the priming, and then thrust it through a leather belt she wore under her guernsey.

On that coast, haunted by smugglers and other lawless characters, a girl might well go armed. By the roadside to Colchester where cross-ways met, was growing an oak that had been planted as an acorn in the mouth of a pirate of Rowhedge, not many years before, who had there been hung in chains for men murdered and maids carried off. Nearly every man carried a gun in hopes of bringing home wild fowl, and when Mehalah was in her boat, she usually took her gun with her for the same purpose. But men bore firearms not only for the sake of bringing home game; self-protection demanded it.

At this period, the mouth of the Blackwater was a great centre of the smuggling trade; the number and intricacy of the channels made it a safe harbour for those who lived on contraband traffic. It was easy for those who knew the creeks to elude the revenue boats, and every farm and tavern was ready to give cellarage to run goods and harbour to smugglers.

Between Mersea and the Blackwater were several flat holms or islands, some under water at high-tides, others only just standing above it, and between these the winding waterways formed a labyrinth in which it was easy to evade pursuit and entangle the pursuers. The traffic was therefore here carried on with an audacity and openness scarce paralleled elsewhere. Although there was a coastguard station at the mouth of the estuary, on Mersea "Hard," yet goods were run even in open day under the very eyes of the revenue men. Each public-house on the island and on the mainland near a creek obtained its entire supply of wine and spirits from contraband vessels. Whether the coastguard were bought to shut their eyes or were baffled by the adroitness of the smugglers, cannot be said, but certain it was, that the taverns found no difficulty in obtaining their supplies as often and as abundant as they desired.

The villages of Virley and Salcot were the chief landing-places, and there horses and donkeys were kept in large numbers for the conveyance of the spirits, wine, tobacco and silk to Tiptree Heath, the scene of Boadicsea's great battle with the legions of Suetonius, which was the emporium of the trade. There a constant fair or auction of contraband articles went on, and thence they were distributed to Maldon, Colchester, Chelmsford, and even London. Tiptree Heath was a permanent camping ground of gipsies, and squatters ran up there rude hovels; these were all engaged in the distribution of the goods brought from the sea.

But though the taverns were able to supply themselves with illicit spirits, unchecked, the coastguard were ready to arrest and detain run goods not destined for their cellars. Deeds of violence were not rare, and many a revenue officer fell a victim to his zeal. On Sunken Island off Mersea, the story went, that a whole boat's crew were found with their throats cut; they were transported thence to the churchyard, there buried, and their boat turned keel upwards over them.

The gipsies were thought to pursue over-conscientious and successful officers on the mainland, and remove them with a bullet should they escape the smugglers on the water.

The whole population of this region was more or less mixed up with, and interested in, this illicit traffic, and with defiance of the officers of the law, from the parson who allowed his nag and cart to be taken from his stable at night, left unbolted for the purpose, and received a keg now and then as repayment, to the vagabonds who dealt at the door far inland in silks and tobacco obtained free of duty on the coast.

What was rare elsewhere was by no means uncommon here, gipsies intermarried with the people, and settled on the coast. The life of adventure, danger, and impermanence was sufficiently attractive to them to induce them to abandon for it their roving habits; perhaps the difference of life was not so marked as to make the change distasteful. Thus a strain of wild, restless, law-defying gipsy blood entered the veins of the Essex marshland populations, and galvanised into new life the sluggish and slimy liquid that trickled through the East Saxon arteries. Adventurers from the Low Countries, from France, even from Italy and Spain—originally smugglers, settled on the coast, generally as publicans, in league with the owners of the contraband vessels, married and left issue. There were neither landed gentry nor resident incumbents in this district, to civilise and restrain. The land was held by yeomen farmers, and by squatters who had seized on and enclosed waste land, no man saying them nay. At the revocation of the Edict of Nantes a large number of Huguenot French families had settled in the "Hundreds" and the marshes, and for full a century in several of the churches divine service was performed alternately in French and English. To the energy of these colonists perhaps are due the long-extended sea-walls enclosing vast tracts of pasture from the tide.

Those Huguenots not only infused their Gallic blood into the veins of the people, but also their Puritanic bitterness and Calvinistic partiality for Old Testament names. Thus the most frequent Christian names met with are those of patriarchs, prophets and Judaic kings, and the sire-names are foreign, often greatly corrupted.

Yet, in spite of this infusion of strange ichor from all sides, the agricultural peasant on the land remains unaltered, stamped out of the old unleavened dough of Saxon stolidity, forming a class apart from that of the farmers and that of the seamen, in intelligence, temperament, and gravitation. All he has derived from the French element which has washed about him has been a nasal twang in his pronunciation of English. Yet his dogged adherence to one letter, which was jeopardised by the Gallic invasion, has reacted, and imposed on the invaders, and the v is universally replaced on the Essex coast by a w.

In the plaster and oak cottages away from the sea, by stagnant pools, the hatching places of clouds of mosquitoes, whence rises with the night the haunting spirit of tertian ague, the hag that rides on, and takes the life out of the sturdiest men and women, and shakes and wastes the vital nerves of the children, live the old East Saxon slow moving, never thinking, day labourers. In the tarred wreck-timber cabins by the sea just above the reach of the tide, beside the shingle beach, swarms a yeasty, turbulent race of mixed-breeds, engaged in the fishery and in the contraband trade.

Mehalah went to the boat. It was floating. She placed the lanthorn in the bows, cast loose, and began to row. She would need the light on her return, perhaps, as with the falling tide she would be unable to reach the landing-place under the farmhouse, and be forced to anchor at the end of the island, and walk home across the saltings. To cross these without a light on a dark night is not safe even to one knowing the lie of the land.

A little light still lingered in the sky. There was a yellow grey glow in the west over the Bradwell shore. Its fringe of trees, and old barn chapel standing across the walls of the buried city Othona, stood sombre against the light, as though dabbed in pitch on a faded golden ground. The water was still, as no wind was blowing, and it reflected the sky and the stars that stole out, with such distinctness that the boat seemed to be swimming in the sky, among black tatters of clouds, these being the streaks of land that broke the horizon and the reflection.

Gulls were screaming, and the curlew uttered their mournful cry. Mehalah rowed swiftly down the Rhyn, as the channel was called that divided the Ray from the mainland, and that led to the "hard" by the Rose inn, and formed the highway by which it drew its supplies, and from which every farm in the parish of Peldon carried its casks of strong liquor. To the west extended a vast marsh from which the tide was excluded by a dyke many miles in length. Against the northern horizon rose the hill of Wigborough crowned by a church and a great tumulus, and some trees that served as landmarks to the vessels entering the Blackwater. In ancient days the hill had been a beacon station, and it was reconverted to this purpose in time of war. A man was placed by order of Government in the tower, to light a cresset on the summit, in answer to a similar beacon at Mersea, in the event of a hostile fleet being seen in the offing.

Now and then the boat—it was a fiat-bottomed punt—hissed among the asters, as Mehalah shot over tracts usually dry, but now submerged; she skirted next a bed of bulrushes. These reeds are only patient of occasional flushes with salt water, and where they grow it is at the opening of a land drain, or mark a fresh spring. Suddenly as she was cutting the flood, the punt was jarred and arrested. She looked round. A boat was across her bows. It had shot out of the rushes and stopped her.

"Whither are you going. Glory?"

The voice was that of Elijah Rebow, the last man Mehalah wished to meet at night, when alone on the water.

"That is my affair, not yours," she answered. "I am in haste; let me pass."

" I will not. I will not be treated like this. Glory. I have shot you a couple of curlew, and here they are."

He flung the birds into her boat. Mehalah threw them back again.

"Let it be an understood thing between us, Elijah, that we will accept none of your presents. You have brought my mother a keg of rum, and I have sworn to beat in the head of the next you give her. She will take nothing from you."

"There you are mistaken. Glory; she will take as much as I will give her. You mean that you will not. I understand your pride. Glory! and I love you for it."

"I care nothing for your love or your hate. We are naught to each other."

"Yes, we are, I am your landlord. We shall see how that sentiment of yours will stand next Thursday."

"What do you mean?" asked Mehalah hastily.

"What do I mean? Why, I suppose I am intelligible enough in what I say for you to understand me without explanation. When you come to pay the rent to me next Thursday, you will not be able to say we are naught to each other. Why! you will have to pay me for every privilege of life you enjoy, for the house you occupy, for the marshes that feed your cow and swell its udder with milk, for the saltings on which your sheep fatten and grow their wool."

The brave girl's heart failed for a moment. She had not the money. What would Elijah say and do when he discovered that she and her mother were defaulters? However, she put a bold face on the matter now, and thrusting off the boat with her oar, she said impatiently, "You are causing me to waste precious time. I must be back before the water is out of the fleets."

"Whither are you going?" again asked Rebow, and again he drove his boat athwart her bows. "It is not safe for a young girl like you to be about on the water after nightfall with ruffians of all sorts poaching on my saltings and up and down my creeks."

"I am going to Mersea City," said Mehalah.

"You are going to George De Witt."

"What if I am? That is no concern of yours.'

"He is my cousin."

"I wish he were a cousin very far removed from you."

"Oh Glory! you are jesting." He caught the side of the punt with his hand, for she made an effort to push past him. "I shall not detain you long. Take these curlew. They are plump birds; your mother will relish them. Take them, and be damned to your pride. I shot them for you."

"I will not have them, Elijah."

"Then I will not either," and he flung the dead birds into the water.

She seized the opportunity, and dipping her oars in the tide, strained at them, and shot away. She heard him curse, for his boat had grounded and he could not follow.

She laughed in reply.

In twenty minutes Mehalah ran her punt on Mersea beach. Here a little above high-water mark stood a cluster of wooden houses and an old inn, pretentiously called the "City," a hive of smugglers. On the shore, somewhat east, and away from the city, lay a dismasted vessel, fastened upright by chains, the keel sunk in the shingle. She had been carried to this point at spring flood and stranded, and was touched, not lifted by the ordinary tides. Mehalah's punt, drawing no draught, floated under the side of this vessel, and she caught the ladder by which access was obtained to the deck.

"Who is there?" asked George De Witt, looking over the side.

"I am come after you, George," answered Mehalah.

"Why, Glory! what is the matter?"

"There is something very serious the matter. You must come back with me at once to the Ray."

"Is your mother ill?"

"Worse than that."

"Dead?"

"No, no! nothing of that sort. She is all right. But I cannot explain the circumstances now. Come at once and with me."

"I will get the boat out directly."

"Never mind the boat. Come in the punt with me. You cannot return by water to-night. The ebb will prevent that. You will be obliged to go round by the Strood. Tell your mother not to expect you."

"But what is the matter. Glory?"

"I will tell you when we are afloat."

"I shall be back directly, but I do not know how the old woman will take it." He swung himself down into the cabin and, announced to his mother that he was going to the Ray, and would return on foot by the Strood.

A gurgle of objurgations rose from the hatchway, and followed the young man as he made his escape.

"I wouldn't have done it for another," said he; "the old lady is put out, and will not forgive me. It will be bad walking by the Strood, Glory! Can't you put me across to the Fresh Marsh?

"If there is water enough I will do so. Be quick now. There is no time to spare."

He came down the ladder and stepped into the punt.

"Give me the oars, Glory. You sit in the stern and take the lanthorn."

"It is in the bows."

"I know that. But can you not understand, Glory, that when I am rowing, I like to see you? Hold the lanthorn so that I may get a peep of your face now and then."

"Do not be foolish, George," said Mehalah. However, she did as he asked, and the yellow dull light fell on her face, red handkerchief and cap.

"You look like a witch," laughed De Witt.

"I will steer; row as hard as you can, George," said the girl; then abruptly she exclaimed, "I have something for you. Take it now, and look at it afterwards."

She drew the medal from her bosom, and passing the riband over her head, leaned forward, and tossed the loop across his shoulders.

"Don't upset the boat. Glory! Sit still; a punt is an unsteady vessel, and won't bear dancing in. What is it that you have given me?"

"A keepsake."

"I shall always keep it. Glory, for the sake of the girl I love best in the world. Now tell me; am I to row up Mersea channel or the Rhyn?"

"There is water enough in the Rhyn, though we shall not be able to reach our hard. You row on, and do not trouble yourself about the direction; I will steer. We shall land on the Saltings. That is why I have brought the lanthorn with me."

"What are you doing with the light?" "I must put it behind me. With the blaze in my eyes I cannot see where to steer," She did as she said.

"Now tell me. Glory, what you have hung round my neck."

"It is a medal, George."

"Whatever it be, it comes from you, and is worth more than gold."

"It is worth a great deal. It is a certain charm."

"Indeed!"

"It preserves him who wears it from death by violence." At the word a flash shot out of the rushes, and a bullet whizzed past the stern.

George De Witt paused on his oars, startled, confounded.

"The bullet was meant for you or me," said Mehalah in a low voice. "Had the lanthorn been in the bows and not in the stern it would have struck you."

Then she sprang up and held the lanthorn aloft, above her head.

"Coward, whoever you are, skulking in the reeds. Show a light, if you are a man. Show a light as I do, and give me a mark in return."

"For heaven's sake, Glory, put out the candle," exclaimed De Witt in agitation.

"Coward! show a light, that I may have a shot at you," she cried again, without noticing what George said. In his alarm for her and for himself, he raised his oar and dashed the lanthorn out of her hand. If fell, and went out in the water.

Mehalah drew her pistol from her belt, and cocked it. She was standing, without trembling, immovable in the punt, her eye fixed unflinching on the reeds.

"George," she said, "dip the oars. " Don't let her float away."

He hesitated.

Presently a slight click was audible, then a feeble flash, as from flint struck with steel in the pitch blackness of the shore.

Then a small red spark burned steadily.

Not a sound, save the ripple of the retreating tide.

Mehalah's pistol was levelled at the spark. She fired, and the spark disappeared. She and George held their breath.

"I have hit," she said. "Now run the punt in where the light was visible."

"No, Glory; this will not do. I am not going to run you and myself into fresh danger." He struck out.

"George, you are rowing away! Give me the oars. I will find out who it was that fired at us."

"This is foolhardiness," he said, but obeyed. A couple of strokes ran the punt among the reeds. Nothing was to be seen or heard. The night was dark on the water, it was black as ink among the rushes. Several times De Witt stayed his hand and listened, but there was not a sound save the gurgle of the water, and the song of the night wind among the tassels and harsh leaves of the bulrushes.

"She is aground," said De Witt.

"We must back into the channel, and push on to the Ray," said Mehalah.

The young man jumped into the water among the roots of the reeds, and drew the punt out till she floated; then he stepped in and resumed the oars.

"Hist!" whispered De Witt.

Both heard the click of a lock.

"Down!" he whispered, and threw himself in the bottom of the punt.

Another flash, report, and a bullet struck and splintered the bulwark.

De Witt rose, resumed the oars, and rowed lustily.

Mehalah had not stirred. She had remained erect in the stern and never flinched.

"Coward!" she cried in a voice full of wrath and scorn, "I defy you to death, be you who you may!"