Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

WHERE IS HE?

If there had been excitement on the Hard at Mersea on the preceding day when the schooner anchored off it, therewas more this morning. The war-vessel had departed no one knew whither, and nobody cared. The bay was full of whiting; the waters were alive with them, and the gulls were flickering over the surface, watching, seeing, plunging. The fishermen were getting their boats afloat, and all appliances ready for making harvest of that fish which is most delicious when fresh from the water, most flat when out of it a few hours.

Down the side of the Pandora tumbled Mrs. De Witt, her nose sharper than usual, but her cap more flabby. She wore a soldier's jacket, bought secondhand at Colchester. Her face was of a warm complexion, tinctured with rum and wrath. She charged into the midst of the fishermen, asking in a loud imperative tone for her son.

To think that after the lesson delivered him last week, the boy should have played truant again! The world was coming to a pretty pass. The last trumpet might sound for aught Mrs. De Witt cared, and involve mankind in ruin, for mankind was past "worriting" about.

George had defied her, and the nautical population of the "City" had aided and abetted him in his revolt.

"This is what comes of galiwanting," said Mrs. De Witt; "first he galiwants Mehalah, and then Phœbe. No good ever came of it. I'd pass a law, were I king, against it, but that smuggling in love would go on as free under it as smuggling in spirits. Young folks nowadays is grown that wexing and wicious—— Where is my George?" suddenly laying hold of Jim Morell.

The old sailor jumped as if he had been caught by a revenue officer.

"Bless my life, Mistress! You did give me a turn. What is it you want? A pinch of snuff?"

"I want my George," said the excited mother. "Where is he skulking to?"

"How should I know?" asked Morell; "he is big enough to look after himself."

"He is among you," said Mrs. De Witt; "I know you have had him along with a party of you at the Leather Bottle yonder. You men get together, and goad the young on into rebellion against their parents."

"I know nothing about George. I have not even seen him."

"I've knitted his guernseys and patched his breeches these twenty years, and now he turns about and deserts me."

"Tom!" shouted Morell to a young fisherman, "have you seen George De Witt this morning?"

"No, I have not, Jim."

"Oh, you young fellows!" exclaimed the old lady, loosing her hold on the elder sailor, and charging among and scattering the young boatmen. "Where is my boy? What have you done with him that he did not come home last night, and is nowhere wisible?"

"He went to the Mussets' last evening. Mistress. We have not set eyes on him since."

"Oh! he went there, did he? Galiwanting again!" She turned about and rushed over the shingle towards the grocery, hardware, drapery, and general store.

Before entering that realm of respectability, Mrs. De Witt assumed an air of consequence and gravity.

She reduced her temper under control, and with an effort called up an urbane smile on her hard features when saluting Mrs. Musset, who stood behind the counter.

"Can I serve you with anything, ma'am?" asked the mother of Phœbe, with cold self-possession.

"I want my George."

"We don't keep him in stock."

"He was here last night."

"Do you suppose we kept him here the night? Are you determined to insult us, madam? You have been drinking, and have forgot yourself and where you are. We wish to see no more of your son. My Phœbe is not accustomed to demean herself by association with cannibals. It is unfortunate that she should have stepped beyond her sphere yesterday, but she has learned a lesson by it which will be invaluable for the future. I do not know, I do not care, whether the misconduct was that of your son or of your daughter-in-law. Birds of a feather flock together, and lambs don't consort with wolves. I beg, madam, that it be an understood matter between the families that, except in the way of business, as tobacco, sugar, currants, or calico, intimacy must cease."

"Oh, indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt, the colour mottling her cheek. "You mean to insinuate that our social grades are so wery different."

"Providence, madam, has made distinctions in human beings as in currants. Some are all fruit, and some half gravel."

"You forget," said Mrs. De Witt, " that I was a Rebow—a Rebow of Red Hall. It was thence I inherit the blood in my weins and the bridge of my nose."

"And that was pretty much all you did inherit from them," observed Mrs. Musset. "Much value they must be to you, as you have nothing else to boast of."

"Oh, indeed. Mistress Musset!"

"Indeed, Mistress De Witt!" with a profound curtsey.

Mrs. De Witt attempted an imitation, but having been uninstructed in deportment as a child, and inexperienced in riper years, she got her limbs entangled, and when she had arrived at a sitting posture was unable to extricate herself with ease.

In attempting to recover her erect position she precipitated herself against a treacle barrel and upset it. A gush of black saccharine matter spread over the floor.

"Where is my son?" shouted Mrs. De Witt, her temper having broken control.

"You shall pay for the golden syrup," said Mrs. Musset.

"Golden syrup!" jeered Mrs. De Witt, "common treacle, the cleanings of the niggers' feet that tread out the sugar-cane."

"It shall be put down to you!" cried the mistress of the store, defying her customer across the black river. "I will have a summons out against you for the syrup."

"And I will have a search-warrant for my son."

"I have not got him. I should be ashamed to keep him under my respectable roof."

"What is this disturbance about?" asked Mr. Musset, coming into the shop with his pipe.

"I want my son," cried the incensed mother. "He has not been seen since he came here last night. What have you done to him?"

"He is not here, Mistress. He only remained a few minutes to enquire after Phœbe, and then he left. We have not seen him since. Go to the Leather Bottle; you will probably find him there."

The advice was reasonable; and having discharged a parting shot at Mrs. Musset, the bereaved mother departed and took her way to the quaint old inn by the waterside, entitled the Leather Bottle.

Mrs. De Witt pushed the door open and strode in. No one was there save the host, Isaac Mead. He knew nothing of George's whereabouts. He had not seen him or heard him spoken of. Mrs. De Witt having entered, felt it incumbent on her to take something for the good of the house.

The host sat opposite her at the table.

"Where can he be?" asked Mrs. De Witt. "The boy cannot be lost."

"Have you searched everywhere?"

"I have asked the lads; they either know nothing, or won't tell. I have been to the Mussets'. They pretend they have not seen him since last night."

"Perhaps he rowed off somewhere."

"His boat is on the Hard."

"Do not bother your head about him," said the host with confidence; "he will turn up. Mark my words. I say he will certainly turn up, perhaps not when you want him, or where you expect him, but he assuredly will reappear. I have had seven sons, and they got scattered all over the world, but they have all turned up one after another; and," he added sententiously, "the world is bigger than Mersea. It is nothing to be away for twelve or fourteen hours. Lads take no account of time, they do not walue it any more than they walue good looks. We older folks do; we hold to that which is slipping from us. When we was children, we thought we could deal with time as with the sprats. We draw in all and throw what we can't consume away. At last we find we have spoiled our fishing, and we must use larger meshes in our net. I will tell you another thing. Mistress," continued the host, who delighted to moralise, "time is like a clock, when young it goes slow, and when old it gallops. When you and I was little, we thought a day as long as now we find a year. As we grew older years went faster; and the older we wax the greater the speed with which time spins by; till at last it passes with a whisk and a flash, and that is eternity."

"He cannot be drowned," said Mrs. De Witt. "That would be too ridiculous."

"It would, just about." After a moment's consideration Isaac added, "I heard that Elijah Rebow was on the Hard last night, maybe your George is gone off with him."

"Not likely, Isaac. I and Elijah are not on good terms. My father left me nothing. Elijah took all after his parents, and I did not get a penny."

"You know we have war with foreigners," observed the publican. "Now I observe that everything in this world goes by contraries. When there's peace abroad, there is strife at home, and vice versa. There was a man-of-war in the bay yesterday. I should not wonder if that put it into George's head to be a man-of-peace on land. When you want to estimate a person's opinions, first ask what other folks are saying round him, and take the clean contrary, and you hit the bull's-eye. If you see anything like to draw a man in one direction, look the opposite way, and you will find him. There was pretty strong intimation of war yesterday with the foreigners, then you may be dead certain he took a peaceful turn in his perwerse vein, and went to patch up old quarrels with Elijah."

"It is possible," said Mrs. De Witt. "I will row to Red Hall and find out."

"Have another glass before you go," said the landlord. "Never hurry about anything. If George be at his cousin's he will turn up in time. There is more got by waiting than by worrying."

"But perhaps he is not there."

"Then he is elsewhere."

"He may be drowned."

"He will turn up. Drowned or not, he will turn up. I never knew boys to fail. If he were a girl it would be different. You see it is so when they drown, A boy floats face upwards, and a girl with her face down. It is so also in life. If a girl strays from home, she goes to the bottom like a plummet, but a boy on the contrary goes up like a cork."

Mrs. De Witt so far took Isaac Mead's advice that she waited at her home till afternoon. But as George did not return, she became seriously uneasy, not so much for him as for herself. She did not for a moment allow that any harm had befallen him, but she imagined this absence to be a formal defiance of her authority. Such a revolt was not to be overlooked. In Mrs. De Witt's opinion no man was able to stand alone, he must fall under female government or go to the dogs. Deliberate bachelors were, in her estimation, God-forsaken beings, always in scrapes, past redemption. She had ruled her husband, and he had submitted with a meekness that ought to have inherited the earth. George had been always docile. She had bored docility into him with her tongue, and hammered it into him with her fist.

The idea came suddenly on her,—What if he had gone to the war schooner and enlisted? but was dismissed as speedily as impossible. Tales of ill-treatment in the Navy were rife among the shoremen. The pay was too small to entice a youth who owned a vessel, a billyboy, and oyster pans. He might do well in his trade, he must fare miserably in the Navy. Captain MacPherson had indeed invited George and others to follow him, but not one had volunteered.

She determined at last, in her impatience, to visit Red Hall, and for that purpose she got into the boat. Mrs. De Witt was able to row as well as a man. She did not start for Red Hall without reluctance. She had not been there since her marriage, kept away by her resentment. Elijah had made no overtures to her for reconciliation, had never invited her to revisit her native place, and her pride prevented her from making first advances. She had been cut off by her father, the family had kept aloof from her, and this had rankled in her heart. True, Elijah's father and mother were dead, and he was not mixed up in the first contentions; but he had inherited money which she considered ought to have fallen to her.

She was, however, anxious to see the old place again. Her young life there had not been happy; quite the reverse, for her father had been brutal, and her mother Calvinistic and sour. Yet Red Hall was, after all, her old home; its marshes were the first landscape on which her eyes had opened, its daisies had made her first necklaces, its bulrushes her first whips, its sea-wall the boundary of her childish world. It was a yearning for a wider, less level world, which had driven her in a rash moment into the arms of Moses De Witt.

The tide was out, so Mrs. De Witt was obliged to land at the point near the windmill. She walked thence on the sea-wall. She knew that wall well, fragrant with sovereign wood in summer, and rank with sea spinach. The aster blooming time was past, and the violet petals had fallen off, leaving only the yellow centres.

There, before her, like a stranded ark, was the old red house, unaltered, lonely, without a bush or tree to screen it.

The cattle stood browsing in the pasture as of old. In the marsh was a pond, a flight of wild fowl was wheeling round it, as in the autumns long ago. There was the little creek where her punt had lain, the punt in which she had been sometimes sent to Mersea to buy groceries for her mother.

The hard crust about the heart of Mrs. De Witt began to break, and the warm feeling within to ooze through. Gentler sentiments began to prevail. She would not take her son by the ears and bang his head, if she should find him at Red Hall. She would forgive him in a Christian spirit, and grant his dismissal with an innocuous curse.

She walked straight into the house. Elijah was crouched in his leather chair, with his head on one side, asleep. She stood over him and contemplated his unattractive face in silence, till he suddenly started, and exclaimed, "Who is here? Who is this?" Next moment he had recognised his visitor.

"So you are come, Aunt. You have not honoured me before. Will you have some whisky?"

"Thank you, Elijah, thank you. I am dry with rowing. But how come you to be asleep at this time of day? Were you out after ducks last night?"

"No, I was not out, I lay abed. I went to bed early."

"Elijah, where is my son?"

He started, and looked at her suspiciously.

"How am I to know?"

"I cannot find him anywhere," said the mother. "I fear the boy has levanted. I may have been a little rough with him, but it was for his good. You cannot clean a deck with whiting, you must take holystone to the boards, and it is so with children. If you are not hard, you get off no edges; if you want to polish them, you must be gritty yourself. I doubt the boy is off."

"What makes you think so?"

"I have not seen him. Nobody at Mersea has seen him. Have you?"

"Not since last night."

"You saw him then?"

"Yes, he was on the beach going to Mehalah."

"Galiwanting!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt. "Oh, what wickedness comes of galiwanting!" Then, recovering herself, " But how could he get there? His boat was left on the Hard!"

"I suppose he went by land. He said something to that effect. You see the tide would have been out if he purposed to stay some time."

"But what should make him go to the Ray? He had seen Mehalah on his boat."

"He said there had been a quarrel, and he was bent on making it up. Go and look for him on the Ray. If he is not back on your boat already, you will find him, or hear of him, there."

"Oh, the worries to parents that come of galiwanting!" moaned Mrs. De Witt, "none who have not experienced can tell. Do not stay me, Elijah. Dear sackalive; I must go home. I dare say the boy is now on the Pandora, trying to look innocent." She rubbed her hands, and her eyes glistened. "By cock!" she exclaimed, "I would not be he." She was out of the room, without a farewell to her nephew, down the steps, away over the fiat to the seawall and her boat, her heart palpitating with anger.

It was late in the afternoon before Mrs. De Witt got back to Mersea. She ascended her ladder and unlocked the hatches. She looked about her. No George was on deck. She returned to the shore and renewed her enquiries. He had not been seen. No doubt he was still galivanting at the Ray. The uncertainty became unendurable. She jumped into her boat once more, and rowed to the island inhabited by Glory and her mother.

With her nose high in the air, her cap-frills quivering, she stepped out of the skiff. She had donned her military coat, to add to her imposing and threatening aspect.

The door of the house was open. She stood still and listened. She did not hear George's voice. She waited; she saw Mehalah moving in the room. Once the girl looked at her, but there was neither recognition nor lustre in her eyes. Mrs. De Witt made a motion towards her, but Glory did not move to meet her in return.

As she stepped over the threshold, Mrs. Sharland, who was seated by the fire, turned and observed her. The widow rose at once with a look of distress in her face, and advanced towards her, holding out her hand.

"Where is George?" asked Mrs. De Witt, ignoring the outstretched palm, in a hard, impatient tone.

"George!" echoed Mehalah, standing still, "George is dead."

"What nonsense!" said Mrs. De Witt, catching the girl by the shoulder and shaking her.

"I saw him. He is dead." She quivered like an aspen. The blood had ebbed behind her brown skin. Her eyes looked in Mrs. De Witt's face with a flash of agony in them.

"He came and looked in at the window at me, and cast me back the keepsake I had given him, and which he swore not to part with while life lasted."

"Dear sackalive!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt; "the girl is dreaming or demented. What is the meaning of all this, Mistress Sharland?"

"Last night," explained the widow," as Mehalah was sitting here in the dark, someone came to the window, stove it in—look how the lead is torn, and the glass fallen out—and cast at the feet of Mehalah a medal she had given George on Thursday. She thinks," added the old woman in a subdued tone, "that what she saw was his spirit."

Mrs. De Witt was awed. She was not a woman without superstition, but she was not one to allow a supernatural intervention till all possible prosaic explanations had been exhausted.

"Is this Gospel truth?" she asked.

"It is true," answered the widow.

"Did you see the face, Glory? Are you sure that what you saw was George?"

"I did not see the face. I saw only the figure. But it was George. It could have been no other. He alone had the medal, and he brought it back to me."

"You see," explained the widow Sharland, "the coin was an heirloom; it might not go out of the family."

"I see it all," exclaimed Mrs. De Witt. "Galiwanting again! He came to return the keepsake to Mehalah, because he wanted to break with her and take on with another."

"No, never!" exclaimed Mehalah vehemently. "He could not do it. He was as true to me as I am to him. . He could not do it. He came to tell me that all was over."

"Dear sackalive!" said Mrs. De Witt, "you don't know men as I do. You have had no more experience of them than you have of kangaroos. I will not believe he is dead."

"He is dead," Mehalah burst forth with fierce vehemence. "He is drowned, he is not false. He is dead, he is dead."

"I know better," said Mrs. De Witt in a low tone to herself as she bit her thumb. "That boy is galiwanting somewhere; the only question to me is Where. By cock I I'd give a penny to know."