Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI

BLACK OR GOLD

When De Witt drove up to the "City" with Phœbe Musset, the first person he saw on the beach was the last person that, under present circumstances, he wished to see—Mehalah Sharland. Phœbe perceived her at once, and rejoiced at the opportunity that offered to profit by it.

For a long time Phœbe had been envious of the reputation as a beauty possessed by Mehalah. Her energy, determination and courage made her highly esteemed among the fishermen, and the expressions of admiration lavished on her handsome face and generous character had roused all the venom in Phœbe's nature. She desired to reign as queen paramount of beauty, and, like Elizabeth, could endure no rival. George De Witt was the best built and most pleasant faced of all the Mersea youths, and he had hitherto held aloof from her and paid his homage to the rival queen. This had awakened Phœbe's jealousy. She had no real regard, no warm affection for the young fisherman; she thought him handsome, and was glad to flirt with him, but he had made no serious impression on her heart, for Phœbe had not a heart on which any deep impression could be made. She had laid herself out to attract and entangle him from love of power, and desire to humble Mehalah. She did not know whether any actual engagement existed between George and Glory, probably she did not care. If there were, so much the better, it would render her victory more piquant and complete.

She would trifle with the young man for a few weeks or a month, till he had broken with her rival, and then she would keep him or cast him off as suited her caprice. By taking him up, she would sting other admirers into more fiery pursuit, blow the smouldering embers into flaming jealousy, and thus flatter her vanity and assure her supremacy. The social laws of rural life are the same as those in higher walks, but unglossed and undisguised. In the realm of nature it is the female who pursues and captures, not captivates, the male. As in Eden, so in this degenerate paradise, it is Eve who walks Adam, at first in wide, then in gradually contracting circles, about the forbidden tree, till she has brought him to take the unwholesome morsel. The male bird blazes in gorgeous plumage and swims alone on the glassy pool, but the sky is speckled with sombre feathered females who disturb his repose, drive him into a corner and force him to divide his worms, and drudge for them in collecting twigs and dabbing mud about their nest. The male glow-worm browses on the dewy blades by his moony lamp; it is the lack-light female that buzzes about him, coming out of obscurity, obscure herself, flattering and fettering him and extinguishing his lamp.

Where culture prevails, the sexes change their habits with ostentation, but remain the same in proclivities behind disguise. The male is supposed to pursue the female he seeks as his mate, to hover round her; and she is supposed to coyly retire, and start from his advances. But her modesty is as unreal as the nolo episcopari of a simoniacal bishop-elect. Bashfulness is a product of education, a mask made by art. The cultured damsel hunts not openly, but like a poacher, in the dark. Eve put off modesty when she put on fig-leaves; in the simplicity of the country, her daughters walk without either. The female gives chase to the male as a matter of course, as systematically and unblushingly in rustic life, as in the other grades of brute existence. The mother adorns her daughter for the war-path with paint and feathers, and sends her forth with a blessing and a smile to fulfil the first duty of woman, and the meed of praise is hers when she returns with a masculine heart, yet hot and mangled, at her belt.

The Early Church set apart one day in seven for rest; the Christian pagans set it apart for the exercise of the man hunt. The Stuart bishops published a book on Sunday amusements, and allowed of Sabbath hunting. They followed, and did not lead opinion. It is the coursing day of days when marriage-wanting maids are in full cry and scent of all marriageable men.

A village girl who does not walk about her boy is an outlaw to the commonwealth, a renegade to her sex. A lover is held to be of as much necessity as an umbrella, a maiden must not go out without either. If she cannot attract one by her charms, she must retain him with a fee. Rural morality moreover allows her to change the beau on her arm as often as the riband in her cap, but not to be seen about, at least on Sunday, devoid of either.

Phœbe Musset intended some day to marry, but had not made up her mind whom to choose, and when to alter her condition. She would have kiked a well-to-do young farmer, but there happened to be no man of this kind available. There were, indeed, at Peldon four bachelor brothers of the name of Marriage, but they were grown grey in celibacy and not disposed to change their lot. One of the principal Mersea farmers was named Wise, and had a son of age, but he was an idiot. The rest were afflicted with only daughters—afflicted from Phœbe's point of view, blessed from their own. There was a widower, but to take a widower was like buying a broken-kneed horse.

George was comfortably off. He owned some oyster pans and gardens, and had a fishing smack.

But he was not a catch. There were, however, no catches to be angled, trawled or dredged for. Phœbe did not trouble herself greatly about the future. Her father and mother would, perhaps, not be best pleased were she to marry off the land, but the wishes of her parents were of no weight with Phœbe, who was determined to suit her own fancy.

As she approached the "City," she saw Glory surrounded by young boatmen, eager to get a word from her lips or a glance from her eyes. Phœbe's heart contracted with spite, but next moment swelled with triumph at the thought that it lay in her power to wound her rival and exhibit her own superiority, before the eyes of all assembled on the beach.

"There is the boy from the Leather Bottle, George," said she, " he shall take the horse."

De Witt descended and helped her to alight, then directly, to her great indignation, made his way to Mehalah. Glory put out both hands to him and smiled. Her smile, which was rare, was sweet; it lighted up and transformed a face somewhat stern and dark.

"Where have you been, George?"

"I have been driving that girl yonder, what's-her-name, to Waldegraves."

"What, Phœbe Musset? I did not know you could drive."

"I can do more than row a boat and catch crabs, Glory."

" What induced you to drive her?"

"I could not help myself, I was driven into doing so. You see. Glory, a fellow is not always his own master.Circumstances are sometimes stronger than his best purposes, and like a mass of seaweed arrest his oar and perhaps upset his boat."

"Why, bless the boy!" exclaimed Mehalah. "What are all these excuses for? I am not jealous." "But I am," said Phœbe, who had come up, "George, you are very ungallant to desert me. You have forgotten your promise, moreover."

"What promise?"

"There! what promise you say, as if your head were a riddle and everything put in except clots of clay and pebbles fell through. Mehalah has stuck in the wires, and poor little I have been sifted out."

"But what did I promise?"

"To show me the hull in which you and your mother live, the Pandora I think you call her,"

"Did I promise?"

"Yes, you did, when we were together at the Decoy under the willows. I told you I wished greatly to be introduced to the interior and see how you lived," Turning to Mehalah, "George and I have been to the Decoy. He was most good-natured, and explained the whole contrivance to me, and—and illustrated it. We had a very pleasant little trot together, had we not, George?"

"Oh! this is what's-her-name, is it?" said Mehalah in a low tone with an amused look. She was neither angry nor jealous, she despised Phœbe too heartily to be either, though with feminine instinct she perceived what the girl was about, and saw through all her affectation.

"If I made the promise, I must of course keep it," said George, "but it is strange I should not remember having made it."

"I dare say you forget a great many things that were said and done at the Decoy, but," with a little affected sigh, "I do not, I never shall, I fear."

George De Witt looked uncomfortable and awkward. "Will not another day do as well?"

"No, it will not, George," said Phœbe petulantly. "I know you have no engagement, you said so when you volunteered to drive me to Waldegraves."

De Witt turned to Mehalah, and said, "Come along with us. Glory! my mother will be glad to see you."

"Oh! don't trouble yourself. Miss Sharland—or Master Sharland, which is it?"—staring first at the short petti-coats, and then at the cap and jersey.

"Come, Glory," repeated De Witt, and looked so comfortable that Mehalah readily complied with his request.

"I can give you oysters and ale, natives, you have never tasted better."

"No ale for me, George," said Phœbe. "It is getting on for five o'clock when I take a dish of tea."

"Tea!" echoed De Witt, "I have no such dainty on board. But I can give you rum or brandy, if you prefer either to ale. Mother always has a glass of grog about this time; the cockles of her heart require it, she says."

"You must give me your arm, George, you know I have sprained my ankle. I really cannot walk unsupported."

De Witt looked at Mehalah and then at Phœbe, who gave him such a tender, entreating glance that he was unable to refuse his arm. She leaned heavily on it, and drew very close to his side; then, turning her head over her shoulder, with a toss of the chin, she said, "Come along, Mehalah!"

Glory's brow began to darken. She was displeased. George also turned and nodded to the girl, who walked in the rear with her head down. He signed to her to join him.

"Do you know, Glory, what mother did the other night when I failed to turn up—that night you fetched me concerning the money that was stolen? She was vexed at my being out late, and not abed at eleven. As you know, I could not be so. I left the Ray as soon as all was settled, and as you put me across to the Fresh Marsh, I got home across the pasture and the fields as quickly as I could, but was not here till after eleven. Mother was angry, she had pulled up the ladder, but before that she tarred the vessel all round, and she stuck a pail of sea water atop of the place where the ladder goes. Well, then, I came home and found the ladder gone, so I laid hold of the rope that hangs there, and then souse over me came the water. I saw mother was vexed, and wanted to serve me out for being late; however, I would not be beat, so I tried to climb the side, and got covered with tar."

"You got in, however?"

"No, I did not, I went to the public-house, and laid the night there." "I would have gone through tar, water, and fire," said Glory vehemently. "I would not have been beat."

"I have no doubt about it, you would," observed George, "but you forget there might be worse things behind. An old woman after a stiff glass of grog, when, her monkey is up, is better left to sleep off her liquor and her displeasure before encountered."

"I would not tell the story," said Mehalah; "it does you no credit."

"This is too bad of you, Glory! You ran me foul of her, and now reproach me for my steering."

"You will run into plenty of messes if you go after Mehalah at night," put in Phœbe with a saucy laugh.

"Glory! " said De Witt, "come on the other side of Phœbe and give her your arm. She is lame. She has hurt her foot, and we are coming now to the mud."

"Oh, I cannot think of troubling Mehalah," said Phœbe sharply; "you do not mind my leaning my whole weight on you, I know, George. You did not mind it at the Decoy."

"Here is the ladder," said De Witt; "step on my foot and then you will not dirty your shoe-leather in the mud. Don't think you will hurt me; A light feather like you will be unfelt."

"Do you keep the ladder down day and night?" asked Glory.

"No. It is always hauled up directly I come home. Only that one night did mother draw it up without me. We are as safe in the Pandora as you are at the Ray."

"And there is this in the situation which is like," said Phœbe, pertly, "that neither can entice robbers, and need securing, as neither has anything to lose."

"I beg your pardon," answered George, "there are my savings on board. My mother sleeps soundly, so she will not turn in till the ladder is up. That is the same as locking the door on land. If you have money in the till—"

"There always is money there, plenty of it too."

"I have no doubt about it, Phœbe. Under these circumstances you do not go to bed and leave your door open.

"I should think not. You go first up the ladder, I will follow. Mehalah can stop and paddle in her native mud, or come after us as suits her best." Turning her head to Glory she said, "Two are company, three are none." Then to the young man, "George, give me your hand to help me on deck, you forget your manners. I fear the Decoy is where you have left and lost them."

She jumped on deck. Mehalah followed without asking for or expecting assistance.

The vessel was an old collier, which George's father had bought when no longer seaworthy for a few pounds. He had run her up on the Hard, dismasted her, and converted her into a dwelling. In it George had been born and reared. "There is one advantage in living in a house such as this," said De Witt; "we pay neither tax, nor tithe, nor rate."

"Is that you?" asked a loud hard voice, and a head enveloped in a huge mob cap appeared from the companion ladder. "What are you doing there, gallivanting with girls all day? Come down to me and let's have it out."

"Mother is touchy," said George in a subdued voice; "she gets a little rough and knotty at times, but she is a rare woman for melting and untying speedily."

"Come here, George!" cried the rare woman.

"I am coming, mother." He showed the two girls the ladder; Mrs. De Witt had disappeared. Go down into the fore cabin, then straight on. Turn your face to the ladder as you descend." Phœbe hesitated. She was awestruck by the voice and appearance of Mrs. De Witt. However, at a sign from George she went down, and was followed by Mehalah. Bending her head, she passed through the small fore-cabin where was George's bunk, into the main cabin, which served as kitchen, parlour, and bedroom to Mrs. De Witt, A table occupied the centre, and at the end was an iron cooking stove. Everything was clean, tidy, and comfortable. On a shelf at the side stood the chairs. Mrs. De Witt whisked one down.

"Your servant," said she to Phœbe, with more amiability than the girl anticipated. " Yours too, Glory," curtly to Mehalah.

Mrs. De Witt was not favourable to her son's attachment to Glory. She was an imperious, strong-minded woman, a despot in her own house, and she had no wish to see that house invaded by a daughter-in-law as strong of will and iron-headed as herself. She wished to see George mated to a girl whom she could browbeat and manage as she browbeat and managed her son. George's indecision of character was due in measure to his bringing up by such a mother. He had been cuffed and yelled at from infancy. His intimacy with the maternal lap had been contracted head downwards, and was connected with a stinging sensation at the rear. Self-assertion had been beat or bawled out of him. She was not a bad, but a despotic woman. She liked to have her own way, and she obtained it, first with her husband, and then with her son, and the ease with which she had mastered and maintained the sovereignty had done her as much harm as them.

If a beggar be put on horseback he will ride to the devil, and a woman in command will proceed to unsex herself. She was a good-hearted woman at bottom, but then that bottom where the good heart lay was never to be found with an anchor, but lay across the course as a shoal where deep water was desired. Her son knew perfectly where it was not, but never where it was. Mrs. De Witt in face somewhat resembled her nephew, Elijah Rebow, but she was his senior by ten years. She had the same hawk-like nose and dark eyes, but was without the wolfish jaw. Nor had she the eager intelligence that spoke out of Elijah's features. Hers were hard and coarse and unillumined with mind.

When she saw Phœbe enter her cabin she was both surprised and gratified. A fair, feeble, bread-and-butter Miss, such as she held the girl to be, was just the daughter she fancied. Were she to come to the Pandora with whims and graces, the month of honey with George would assume the taste of vinegar with her, and would end in the new daughter's absolute submission. She would be able to convert such a girl very speedily into a domestic drudge and a recipient of her abuse. Men make themselves, but women are made, and the making of women, thought Mrs. De Witt, should be in the hands of women; men botched them, because they let them take their own way.

Mrs. De Witt never forgave her parents for having bequeathed her no money; she could not excuse Elijah for having taken all they left, without considering her. She found a satisfaction in discharging her wrongs on others. She was a saving woman, and spent little money on her personal adornment. "What coin I drop," she was wont to say, "I drop in rum, and smuggled rum is cheap."

But though an article is cheap, a great consumption of it may cause the item to be a serious one; and it was so with Mrs. De Witt.

The vessel to which she acted as captain, steward, and cook, was named the Pandora. The vicar was wont to remark that it was a "Pandora's" box full of all gusts but minus gentle Zephyr.

"Will you take a chair?" she said obsequiously to Phœbe, placing the chair for her, after having first breathed on the seat and wiped it with her sleeve. Then turning to Mehalah, she asked roughly, "Well, Glory! how is that old fool, your mother?"

"Better than your manners," replied Mehalah.

" I am glad you are come. Glory," said Mrs. De Witt, "I want to have it out with you. What do you mean by coming here of a night, and carrying off my son when he ought to be under his blankets in his bunk? I won't have it. He shall keep proper hours. Such conduct is not decent. What do you think of that?" she asked, seating herself on the other side of the table, and addressing Phœbe, but leaving Mehalah standing. "What do you think of a girl coming here after nightfall, and asking my lad to go off for a row with her all in the dark, and the devil knows whither they went, and the mischief they were after. It is not respectable, is it?"

"George should not have gone when she asked him," said the girl.

"Dear sackalive! she twists him round her little finger. He no more dare deny her anything than he dare defy me. But I will have my boy respectable, I can promise you. I combed his head well for him when he came home, I did by cock! He shall not do the thing again."

"Look here, mother," remonstrated George; "wash cur dirty linen in private."

"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt. "That is strange doctrine! Why, who would know we wore any linen at all next our skin, unless we exposed it when washed over the side of the wessel? Now you come here. I have a bone to pick along with you, George!"

To be on a level with her son, and stare him full in the eyes, a way she had with everyone she assailed, she sat on the table, and put her feet on the chair.

"What has become of the money? I have been to the box, and there are twenty pounds gone out of it, all in gold. I haven't took it, so you must have. Now I want to know what you have done with it. I will have it out. I endure no evasions. Where is the money? Fork it out, or I will turn all your pockets inside out, and find and retake it. You want no money, not you. I provide you with tobacco. Where is the money? Twenty pounds, and all in gold. I was like a shrimp in scalding water when I went to the box to-day and found the money gone. I turned that red you might have said it was erysipelas. I shruck out that they might have heard me at the City. Turn your pockets out at once."

George looked abashed; he was cowed by his mother. "I'll take the carving-knife to you!" said the woman, "if you do not hand me over the cash at once."

"Oh, don't, pray don't hurt him! " cried Phœbe, interposing her arm, and beginning to cry.

"Dear sackalive!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt, "I am not aiming at his witals, but at his pockets. Where is the money?"

"I have had it," said Mehalah, stepping forward and standing between De Witt and his mother. "George has behaved generously, nobly by us. You have heard how we were robbed of our money. We could not have paid our rent for the Ray had not George let us have twenty pounds. He shall not lose it."

"You had it, you!—you!" cried Mrs. De Witt in wild and fierce astonishment. "Give it up to me at once."

"I cannot do so. The greater part is gone. I paid the money to-day to Rebow, our landlord."

"Elijah has it! Elijah gets everything. My father left me without a shilling, and now he gets my hard-won earnings also." "It seems to me, mistress, that the earnings belong to George, and surely he has a right to do with them what he will," said Mehalah coldly.

"That is your opinion, is it? It is not mine." Then she mused: "Twenty pounds is a fortune. One may do a great deal with such a sum as that, Mehalah; twenty pounds is twenty pounds whatever you may say; and it must be repaid."

"It shall be."

" When?"

" As soon as I can earn the money."

Mrs. De Witt's eyes now rested on Phœbe, and she assumed a milder manner. Her mood was variable as the colour of the sea; "I'm obliged to be peremptory at times," she said; "I have to maintain order in the wessel. You will stay and have something to eat?"

"Thank you; your son has aheady promised us some oysters,—that is, promised me."

"Come on deck," said George. "We will have them there and mother shall brew the liquor below."

The mother grunted a surly acquiescence.

When the three had reascended the ladder, the sun was setting. The mouth of the Blackwater glittered like gold leaf fluttered by the breath. The tide had begun to flow, and already the water had surrounded the Pandora. Phœbe and Mehalah would have to return by boat, or be carried by De Witt.

The two girls stood side by side. The contrast between them was striking, and the young man noticed it. Mehalah was tall, lithe, and firm as a young pine, erect in her bearing, with every muscle well developed, firm of flesh, her skin a rich ripe apricot, and her eyes, now that the sun was in them, like volcanic craters, gloomy, but full of fire. Her hair, rich to profusion, was black, yet with coppery hues in it when seen with a side fight. It was simply done up in a knot, neatly not elaborately. Her navy-blue jersey and skirt, the scarlet of her cap and kerchief, and of a petticoat that appeared below the skirt, made her a rich combination of colour, suitable to a sunny clime rather than to the misty bleak east coast. Phœbe was colourless beside her, a faded picture, faint in outline. Her complexion was delicate as the rose, her frame slender, her contour undulating and weak. She was the pattern of a trim English village maiden, with the beauty of youth, and the sweetness of ripening womanhood, sans sense, sans passion, sans character, sans everything—pretty vacuity. She seemed to feel her own inferiority beside the gorgeous Mehalah, and to be angry at it. She took off her bonnet, and the wind played with her yellow curls, and the setting sun spun them into a halo of gold about her delicate face.

"Loose your hair, Mehalah," said the spiteful girl.

"What for?"

"I want to see how it will look in the sun."

"Do so. Glory!" begged George. "How shining Phœbe's locks are! One might melt and coin them into guineas."

Mehalah pulled out a pin, and let her hair fall, a flood of warm black with red gleams in it. It reached her waist, and the wind scattered it about her like a veil.

If Phœbe's hair resembled a spring fleecy cloud gilded by the sun, buoyant in the soft warm air, that of Mehalah was like an angry thunder shower with a promise of sunshine gleaming through the rain,

"Black or gold, which do you most admire, George?" asked the saucy girl.

"That is not a fair question to put to me," said De Witt in reply; but he put his fingers through the dark tresses of Mehalah, and raised them to his lips. Phœbe bit her tongue.

"George," she said sharply. "See the sun is in my hair. I am in glory. That is better than being so only in name."

"But your glory is short-lived, Phœbe; the sun will be set in a minute, and then it is no more."

"And hers," she said spitefully, "hers—you imply—endures eternally. I will go home."

"Do not be angry, Phœbe, there cannot be thunder in such a golden cloud. There can be nothing worse than a rainbow."

"What have you got there about your neck, George?" she asked, pacified by the compliment. "A riband."

"Yes, and something at the end of it—a locket containing a tuft of black horsehair."

"No, there is not."

"Call me 'mate,' as you did when we were at the Decoy. How happy we were there, but then we were alone, that makes all the difference."

George did not answer. Mehalah's hot blood began to fire her dark cheek.

"Tell me what you have got attached to that riband; if you love me, tell me, George. We girls are always inquisitive."

"A keepsake, Phœbe."

"A keepsake! Then I must see it." She snatched at the riband where it showed above De Witt's blue jersey.

"I noticed it before, when you were so attentive at the Decoy."

Mehalah interposed her arm, and placing her open hand on George's breast, thrust him out of the reach of the insolent flirt.

"For shame of you, how dare you behave thus!" she exclaimed.

"Oh dear!" cried Phœbe, "I see it all. Your keepsake. How sentimental! Oh, George! I shall die of laughing."

She went into pretended convulsions of merriment. "I cannot help it, this is really too ridiculous."

Mehalah was trembling with anger. Her gipsy blood was in flame. There is a flagrant spirit in such veins which soon bursts into an explosion of fire.

Phœbe stepped up to her, and holding her delicate fingers beside the strong hand of Mehalah, whispered, "Look at these little fingers. They will pluck your love out of your rude clutch," She saw that she was stinging her rival past endurance. She went on aloud, casting a saucy side glance at De Witt, "I should like to add my contribution to the trifle that is collecting for you since you lost your money. I suppose there is a brief. Off with the red cap and pass it round. Here is a crown." The insult was unendurable. Mehalah's passion overpowered her. In a moment she had caught up the girl, and without considering what she was doing, she flung her into the sea. Then she staggered back and panted for breath.

A cry of dismay from De Witt. He rushed to the side.

"Stay!" said Mehalah, restraining him with one hand and pressing the other to her heart. "She will not drown."

The water was not deep. Several fisherlads had already sprung to the rescue, and Phœbe was drawn limp and dripping towards the shore. Mehalah stooped, picked up the girl's straw hat, and slung it after her.

A low laugh burst from someone riding in a boat under the side of the vessel.

"Well done, Glory! You served the pretty vixen right. I love you for it."

She knew the voice. It was that of Rebow. He must have heard, perhaps seen all.


CHAPTER VII

LIKE A BAD PENNY

"For shame. Glory!" exclaimed De Witt when he had recovered from his surprise but not from his dismay. "How could you do such a wicked and unwomanly act?"

"For shame, George!" answered Mehalah, gasping for breath. "You stood by all the while, and listened whilst that jay snapped and screamed at me, and tormented me to madness, without interposing a word."

"I am angry. Your behaviour has been that of a savage!" pursued George, thoroughly roused. "I love you, Glory, you know I do. But this is beyond endurance."

"If you are not prepared, or willing to right me, I must defend myself," said Mehalah; "and I will do it. I bore as long as I could bear, expecting every moment that you would silence her, and speak out, and say, 'Glory is mine, and I will not allow her to be affronted.' But not a step did you take, not a finger did you lift; and then, at last, the fire in my heart burst forth and sent up a