Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 7

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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 smoke that darkened my eyes and bewildered my brain. I could not see, I could not think. I did not know, till all was over, what I had done, George! I know I am rough and violent, when these rages come over me; I am not to be trifled with."

"I hope they never may come over you when you have to do with me," said De Witt sulkily.

"I hope not, George. Do not trifle with me, do not provoke me. I have the gipsy in me, but under control. All at once the old nature bursts loose, and then I do I know not what. I cannot waste my energy in words like some, and I cannot contend with such a girl as that with the tongue."

"What will folks say of this?"

"I do not care. They may talk. But now, George, let me warn you. That girl has been trifling with you, and you have been too blind and foolish to see her game and keep her at arm's length."

"You are jealous because I speak to another girl besides you."

"No, I am not. I am not one to harbour jealousy. Whom I trust I trust with my whole heart. Whom I believe I believe with my entire soul. I know you too well to be jealous. I know as well that you could not be false to me in thought or in act as I know my truth to you. I cannot doubt you, for had I thought it possible that you would give me occasion to doubt, I could not have loved you."

"Sheer off!" exclaimed George, looking over his shoulder. "Here comes the old woman."

The old woman appeared, scrambhng on deck, her cap-frills bristling about her ears, like the feathers of an angry white cockatoo.

" What is all this? By jaggers! where is Phœbe Musset? What have you done with her? Where have you put her? What were those screams about?"

"Sheer off while you may," whispered De Witt; "the old woman is not to be faced when wexed no more than a hurricane. Strike sail, and run before the wind."

"What have you done with the young woman? Where is she? Produce the corpse. I heard her as she shruck out." "She insulted me," said Mehalah, still agitated by passion, "and I flung her overboard."

Mrs. De Witt rushed to the bulwarks, and saw the dripping damsel being carried—she could not walk—from the Strand to her father's house.

"You chucked her overboard!" exclaimed the old woman, and she caught up a swabbing-mop. "How dare you? She was my visitor; she came to sip my grog and eat my natives at my hospitable board, and you chucked her into the sea as though she were a picked cockleshell!"

"She insulted me," said Mehalah angrily.

I will teach you to play the dog-fish among my herrings, to turn this blessed peaceful Pandora into a cage of bears!" cried Mrs. De Witt, charging with her mop.

Mehalah struck the weapon down, and put her foot on it.

"Take care!" she exclaimed, her voice trembling with passion. "In another moment you will have raised the devil in me again."

"He don't take much raising," vociferated Mrs. De Witt. "I will teach you to assault a genteel young female who comes a-wisiting of me and my son in our own wessel. Do you think you are already mistress here? Does the Pandora belong to you? Am I to be chucked overboard along with every lass that wexes you ? Am I of no account any more in the eyes of my son, that I suckled from my maternal bottle, and fed with egg and pap out of my own spoon?"

"For Heaven's sake," interrupted George, "sheer off, Mehalah. Mother is the dearest old lady in the world when she is sober. She is a Pacific Ocean when not vexed with storms. She will pacify presently."

"I will go, George," said Mehalah, panting with anger, her veins swollen, her eye sparkling, and her lip quivering; "I will go, and I will never set foot in this boat again, till you and your mother have asked my pardon for this conduct; she for this outrage, you for having allowed me to receive insult, white-livered coward that you are."

She flung herself down the ladder, and waded ashore. Mrs. De Witt's temper abated as speedily as it rose. She retired to her grog. She set feet downwards on the scene; the last of her stalwart form to disappear was the glowing countenance set in white rays . George was left to his own reflections. He saw Mehalah get into her boat and row away. He waved his cap to her, but she did not return the salute. She was offended grievously. George was placed in a difficult situation. The girl to whom he was betrothed was angry, and had declared her determination not to tread the planks of the Pandora again, and the girl who had made advances to him, and whom his mother would have favoured, had been ejected unceremoniously from it, and perhaps injured, at all events irretrievably offended.

It was incumbent on him to go to the house of the Mussets and enquire for Phœbe. He could do no less; so he descended the ladder and took his way thither.

Phœbe was not hurt, she was only frightened. She had been wet through, and was at once put to bed. She cried a great deal, and old Musset vowed he would take out a summons against the aggressor. Mrs. Musset wept in sympathy with her daughter, and then fell on De Witt for having permitted the assault to take place unopposed.

"How could I interfere?" he asked, desperate with his difficulties. "It was up and over with her before I was aware."

"My girl is not accustomed to associate with cannibals," said Mrs. Musset, drawing herself out like a telescope. As George returned much crestfallen to the beach, now deserted, for the night had come on, he was accosted by Elijah Rebow.

"George!" said the owner of Red Hall, laying a hand on his cousin's shoulder, "you ought not to be here."

"Where ought I to be, Elijah ? It seems to me that I have been everywhere to-day where I ought not to be. I am left in a hopeless muddle."

"You ought not to allow Glory to part from you in anger."

"How can I help it? I am sorry enough for the quarrel, but you must allow her conduct was trying to the temper."

"She had great provocation. I wonder she did not kill that girl. She has a temper, has Mehalah, that does not stick at trifles ; but she is generous and forgiving." "She is so angry with me that I doubt I shall not be able to bring her back to good humour."

"I doubt so, too, unless you go the right way to work with her; and that is not what you are doing now."

"Why, what ought I to do, Elijah?"

"Do you want to break with her, George? Do you want to be off with Glory and on with milk-face?"

"No, I do not."

"You are set on Glory still? You will cleave to her till naught but death shall you part, eh?"

"Naught else."

"George! That other girl has good looks and money. Give up Mehalah, and hitch on to Phœbe. I know your mother will be best pleased if you do, and it will suit your interests well. Glory has not a penny, Phœbe has her pockets lined. Take my word for it you can have milk-face for the asking, and now is your opportunity for breaking with Glory if you have a mind to do so."

"But I have not, Elijah."

"What can Glory be to you, or you to Glory? She with her great heart, her stubborn will, her strong soul, and you—you—bah!"

"Elijah, say what you like, but I will hold to Glory till death us do part."

"Your hand on it. You swear that."

"Yes, I do. I want a wife who can row a boat, a splendid girl, the sight of whom lights up the whole heart."

"I tell you Glory is not one for you. See how passionate she is, she blazes up in a moment, and then she is one to shiver you if you offend her. No, she needs a man of other stamp than you to manage her,"

"She shall be mine," said George: "I want no other."

"This is your fixed resolve?"

"My fixed resolve."

"For better for worse?"

"For better for worse, till death us do part."

"Till death you do part," Elijah jerked out a laugh. "George, if you are not the biggest fool I have set eyes on for many a day, I am much mistaken."

"Why so?"

"Because you are acting contrary to your interests, You are unfit for Glory, you do not now, you never will, understand her."

"What do you mean?"

"You let the girl row away, offended, angry, eating out her heart, and you show no sign that you desire reconcilation."

"I have though. I waved my hat to her, but she took no notice."

"Waved your hat!" repeated Rebow, with suppressed scorn. "You never will read that girl's heart, and understand her moods. Oh, you fool! you fool! straining your arms after the unapproachable, unattainable, star! If she were mine—" he stamped and clenched his fists.

"But she is not going to be yours, Elijah," said George with a careless laugh.

"No, of course not," said Elijah, joining in the laugh. "She is yours till death you do part."

"Tell me, what have I done wrong?" asked De Witt.

"There—you come to me, after all, to interpret the writing for you. It is there, written in letters of fire, Mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin! Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting, and this night shall thy kingdom be taken from thee and given to—"

"Elijah, I do not understand this language. What ought I to do to regain Mehalah's favour?"

"You must go after her. Do you not feel it in every fibre, that you must, you mud-blood? Go after her at once. She is now at home, sitting alone, brooding over the offence, sore at your suffering her to be insulted without making remonstrance. Her wrong will grow into a mountain in her heart unless it be rooted up to-night. Her pride will flame up as her passion dies away, and she will not let you speak to her another tender word. She will hate and despise you. The little crack will split into a wide chasm. I heard her call 3"ou a white-livered coward."

"She did; you need not repeat it. She will be sorry when she is cool."

"That is just it, George. As soon as passion abates, her generous heart will turn to self-reproach, and she will be angry with herself for what she has done. She will accuse herself with having been violent, with having acted unworthily of her dignity, with having grown in too great a heat about a worthless doll. She will be vexed with herself, ashamed of herself, unable in the twilight of her temper to excuse herself. Perhaps she is now in tears. But this mood will not last. To-morrow her pride will have returned in strength, she will think over her wrongs and harden herself in stubbornness; she will know that the world condemns her, and she will retire into herself in defiance of the world. Look up at the sky. Do you see, there is Charles' Wain, and there is Cassiopæa's Chair. There the Serpent and there the Swan. I can see every figure plain, but your landsman rarely can. So I can see every constellation in the dark heaven of Mehalah's soul, but you cannot. You would be wrecked if you were to sail by it. Now, George, take Glory while she is between two moods, or lose her for ever. Go after her at once, George, ask her forgiveness, blame yourself and your mother, blame that figure-head miss, and she will forgive you frankly, at once. She will fall on your neck and ask your pardon for what she has done."

"I believe you are right," said De Witt, musing.

"I know I am. As I have been working in my forge, I have watched the flame on the hearth dance and waver to the clinking of the hammer. There was something in the flame, I know not what, which made it wince or flare, as the blows fell hard or soft. So there are things in Nature respond to each other without your knowing why it is, and in what their sympathy consists. So I know all that passes in Mehalah's mind. I feel my own soul dance and taper to her pulses. If you had not been a fool, George, you would already have been after her. What are you staying for now?"

"My mother; what will she say?"

"Do you care for her more than for Glory? If you think of her now, you lose Glory for ever. Once more I ask you, do you waver? Are you inclined to forsake Mehalah for milk-face?"

"I am not," said De Witt impatiently; "why do you go on with this? I have said already that Glory is mine."

"Unless death you do part."

"Till death us do part, is what I said." "Then make haste. An hour hence the Ray house will be closed, and the girl and her mother in bed."

"I will get my boat and row thither at once."

"You need not do that. I have my boat here; jump in. We will each take an oar, and I will land you on the Ray."

"You take a great interest in my affairs."

"I take a very great interest in them," said Rebow dryly.

"Lead the way, then."

"Follow me."

Rebow walked forward, over the shingle towards his boat, then suddenly turned, and asked in a suppressed voice. "Do you know whither you are going?"

"To the Ray."

"To the Ray, of course. Is there anyone on the Hard?"

"Not a soul. Had I not better go to my mother before I start and say that I am going with you?"

"On no account. She will not allow you to go to the Ray. You know she will not."

De Witt was not disposed to dispute this.

"You are sure," asked Rebow again, "that there is no one on the Hard. No one sees you enter my boat. No one sees you push off with me. No one sees whither we go."

"Not a soul."

"Then here goes!" Elijah Rebow thrust the boat out till she floated, sprang in and took his oar. De Witt was already oar in hand on his seat.

"The red curtain is over the window at the Leather Bottle," said George. "No signalling to-night, the schooner is in the offing."

"A red signal. It may mean more than you understand."

They rowed on.

"Is there a hand on that crimson pane," asked Rebow in a low tone, "with the fingers dipped in fire, writing?"

"Not that I can see."

"Nor do you see the writing, Mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin."

"You jest, Elijah!"

"A strange jest. Perhaps the writing is in the vulgar tongue, thou art weighed and found wanting, feeble fool, and thy kingdom is taken from thee, and given to ME."

Mehalah sat by the hearth, on the floor, in the farmhouse at the Ray. Her mother was abed and asleep. The girl had cast aside the cap and thrown off her jersey. Her bare arms were folded on her lap; and the last flicker of the red embers fell on her exposed and heaving bosom.

Elijah Rebow on the Hard at Mersea had read accurately the workings and transitions in the girl's heart. Precisely that was taking place which he had described. The tempest of passion had roared by, and now a tide of self-reproach rose and overflowed her soul. She was aware that she had acted wrongly, that without adequate cause she had given way to an outburst of blind fury. Phœbe was altogether too worthless a creature for her jealousy, too weak to have been subjected to such treatment. Her anger against George had expired. He did well to be indignant with her. It was true he had not rebuked Phœbe nor restrained his mother, but the reason was clear. He was too forbearing with women to offend them, however frivolous and intemperate they might be. He had relied on the greatness of his Glory's heart to stand above and disregard these petty storms.

She had thrown off her boots and stockings, and sat with her bare feet on the hearth. The feet moved nervously in rhythm to her thoughts. She could not keep them still. Her trouble was great. Tears were not on her cheeks; in this alone was Elijah mistaken. Her dark eyes were fixed dreamily on the dying fire—they were like the marsh-pools with the will-o'-the-wisp in each. They did not see the embers, they looked through the iron fireback, and the brick wall, over the saltings, over the water, into infinity.

She loved George. Her love for him was the one absorbing passion of her life. She loved her mother, but no one else—only her and George. She had no one else to love. She was without relations. She had been brought up without playfellows on that almost inaccessible islet, only occasionally visiting Mersea, and then only for an hour. She had seen and known nothing of the world save the world of morass. She had mixed with no life, save the life of the flocks on the Ray, of the fishes and the seabirds. Her mind hungered for something more than the little space of the Ray could supply. Her soul had wings and sought to spread them and soar away, whither, however, she did not know. She had a dim prevision of something better than the sordid round of common cares which made up the life she knew.

With a heart large and full of generous impulses, she had spent her girlhood without a recognition of its powers. She felt that there was a voice within which talked in a tongue other from that which struck her ears each day, but what that language was, and what the meaning of that voice, she did not know. She had met with De Witt. Indeed they had known each other, so far as meeting at rare intervals went, for many years; she had not seen enough of him to know him as he really was, she therefore loved him as she idealised him. The great cretaceous sea was full of dissolved silex penetrating the waters, seeking to condense and solidify. But there was nothing in the ocean then save twigs of weed and chips of shells, and about them that hardest of all elements drew together and grew to adamant. The soul of Mehalah was some such vague sea full of ununderstood, unestimated elements, seeking their several centres for precipitation, and for want of better, condensing about straws. To her, George De Witt was the ideal of all that was true and manly. She was noble herself, and her ideal was the perfection of nobility. She was rude indeed, and the image of her worship was rough hewn, but still with the outline and carriage of a hero. She could not, she would not, suppose that George De Witt was less great than her fancy pictured.

The thought of life with him filled her with exultation. She could leap up, like the whooper swan, spread her silver wings, and shout her song of rapture and of defiance, like a trumpet. He would open to her the gates into that mysterious world into which she now only peeped, he would solve for her the perplexities of her troubled soul, he would lead her to the light which would illumine her eager mind.

Nevertheless she was ready to wait patiently the realisation of her dream. She was in no hurry. She knew that she could not live in the same house or boat with George's mother. She could not leave her own ailing mother, wholly dependent on herself. Mehalah contentedly tarried for what the future would unfold, with that steady confidence in the future that youth so generally enjoys.

The last embers went out, and all was dark within. No sound was audible, save the ticking of the clock, and the sigh of the wind about the eaves and in the thorntrees. Mehalah did not stir. She dreamed on with her eyes open, still gazing into space, but now with no marsh fires in the dark orbs. The grey night sky and the stars looked in at the window at her.

Suddenly, as she thus sat, an inexpressible distress came over her, a feeling as though George were in danger, and were crying to her for help. She raised herself on the floor, and drew her feet under her, and leaning her chin on her fingers listened. The wind moaned under the door; everything else was hushed.

Her fear came over her like an ague fit. She wiped her forehead, there were cold drops beading it. She turned faint at heart; her pulse stood still. Her soul seemed straining, drawn as by invisible attraction, and agonised because the gross body restrained it. She felt assured that she was wanted. She must not remain there. She sprang to her feet and sped to the door, unbolted it and went forth. The sky was cloudless, thick strewn with stars. Jupiter glowed over Mersea Isle. A red gleam was visible, far away at the "City." It shone from the tavern window, a coloured star set in ebony. She went within again. The fire was out. Perhaps this was the vulgar cause of the strange sensation. She must shake it off. She went to her room and threw herself on the bed. Again, as though an icy wave washed over her, lying on a frozen shore, came that awful fear, and then, again, that tension of her soul to be free, to fly somewhere, away from the Ray, but whither she could not tell.

Where was George? Was he at home? Was he safe? She tried in vain to comfort herself with the thought that he ran no danger, that he was protected by her talisman. She felt that without an answer to these questions she could not rest, that her night would be a fever dream.

She hastily drew on her jersey and boots; she slipped out of the house, unloosed her punt, and shot over the water to Mersea. The fleet was silent, but as she flew into the open channel she could hear the distant throb of oars on rowlocks, away in the dark, out seaward. She heard the screech of an owl about the stacks of a farm near the waterside. She caught as she sped past the Leather Bottle muffled catches of the nautical songs trolled by the topers within.

She met no boat, she saw no one. She ran her punt on the beach and walked to the Pandora, now far above the water. The ladder was still down; therefore George was not within. "Who goes there?" asked the voice of Mrs. De Witt, "Is that you, George? Are you coming home at last? Where have you been all this while?"

Mehalah drew back. George was not only not there, but his mother knew not where he was.

The cool air and the exercise had in the meantime dissipated Mehalah's fear. She argued with, herself that George was in the tavern, behind the red curtain, remaining away from his mother's abusive tongue as long as he might. His boat lay on the Hard. She saw it, with the oars in it. He was therefore not on the water; he was on land, and on land he was safe. He wore the medal about his neck, against his heart.

How glad and thankful she was that she had given him the precious charm that guarded from all danger save drowning.

She rowed back to the Ray, more easy in her mind, and anchored her punt. She returned cautiously over the saltings, picking her way by the starlight, leaping or avoiding the runnels and pools, now devoid of water, but deep in mud most adhesive and unfathomable.

She felt a little uneasy lest her mother should have awoke during her absence and missed her daughter. She entered the house softly; the door was without a lock, and merely hasped, and stole to her mother's room. The old woman was wrapt in sleep, and breathing peacefully.

Mehalah drew off her boots, and seated herself again by the hearth. She was not sleepy. She would reason with herself, and account for the sensation that had affected her.

Hark! she heard someone speak. She listened attentively with a flutter at her heart. It was her mother. She stole back on tiptoe to her. The old woman was dreaming, and talking in her sleep. She had her hands out of bed together, and parted them and waved them. "No, Mehalah, no! Not George! not George! " She gave em-phasis with her hand, then suddenly grasped her daughter's wrist, "But Elijah!" Next moment her grasp relaxed, and she slept calmly, apparently dreamlessly again.

Mehalah went back.

It was strange. No sooner was she in her place by the hearth again than the same distress came over her. It was as though a black cloud had swept over her sky and blotted out every light, so that neither sun, nor moon, nor star appeared, as though she were left drifting without a rudder and without a compass in an unknown sea, under murky night with only the phosphorescent flash of the waves about, not illumining the way but intensifying its horror. It was as though she found herself suddenly in some vault, in utter, rayless blackness, knowing neither how she came there nor whether there was a way out.

Oppressed by this horror, she lifted her eyes to the win-dow, to see a star, to see a little light of any sort. What she there saw turned her to stone.

At the window, obscuring the star's rays, was the black figure of a man. She could not see the face, she saw only the shape of the head, and arms, and hands spread out against the panes. The figure stood looking in and at her. Her eyes filmed over, and her head swam.

She heard the casement struck, and the tear of the lead and tinkle of broken glass on the brick floor, and then something fell at her feet with a metallic click.

When she recovered herself, the figure was gone, but the wind piped and blew chill through the rent lattice.

How many minutes passed before she recovered herself sufficiently to rise and light a candle she never knew, nor did it matter. When she had obtained a light she stooped with it, and groped upon the floor.

* * * * *

Mrs. Sharland was awakened by a piercing scream.

She sprang from her bed and rushed into the adjoining room. There stood Mehalah, in the light of the broken candle lying melting and flaring on the floor, her hair fallen about her shoulders, her face the hue of death, her lips bloodless, her eyes distended with terror, gazing on the medal of Paracelsus, which she held in her hand, the seawater dripping from the wet riband wound about her fingers.

"Mother! Mother! He is drowned. I have seen him. He came and returned me this."

Then she fell senseless on the floor, with the medal held to her heart.