The Story of Jael/Chapter III
|←Chapter II: A Pair of Jays||The Story of Jael by
Chapter III: A Jael-Oress
|Chapter IV: On the Bridge→|
Jael went on the railway bridge, climbed to the rail and sat on it, swinging her feet, and looking round at her father’s cottage. Jerry had risked it—he had gone in to see old Tapp, and ask for the ginger pot, and Jael, and the gull, and the sovereigns. The tide was rushing away below, through the tarred posts of the bridge, swirling and sweeping along with it strands of sea-tangle.
‘Hah!’ exclaimed Jael, ‘there goes a shepherd’s purse?’ as she saw a black seaweed pouch drive by. ‘If Jerry gets the money we shall want purses into which to put it.’
In the broad estuary of the Colne was the little vessel that had recently passed through the swing bridge; its sail was spread, and it was speeding out with the rapidly ebbing tide. Down Mersea Fleet, the channel opposite, another boat was coming, also with wings spread, also straw laden; both were on their way to town with their loads, to supply some of the many mews of the metropolis.
‘See!’ exclaimed Jael, ‘there’s yonder boat coming this way, and the boat that has gone through the bridge is going from just the opposite direction, and they will both sail out together with the tide and wind into the blue deep sea, and take their course together—just like Jerry and me. Why!’ she suddenly exclaimed, ‘what is the meaning of that? Here comes Jerry, jumping and running as if father had touched him with the red-hot poker. Jerry! what is it? Stay!—where are you going? What has father said?’
The young man, looking hot, angry, and agitated, came up. ‘It is no use,’ he swore. ‘Confound it! What an ass I was to go, and what a fool you were to advise me. I shall enlist; it is of no use staying here. Good-bye, Jael—when I’m gone, you will think of me.’
Not another word of farewell—he was off, over the bridge, running, and, having reached the further side, leaped the light rail that divided the line from the marsh, and went across it, in the direction of his own home. Jael had descended from the rail on which she had been sitting; she stood with her hands behind her, holding it, looking after young Mustard, her feet planted together on one of the sleepers of the line.
The colour rose and dyed her brown cheek a rich apricot, and then went. What was the meaning of Jerry running away?
Then she heard her father calling her, but was too preoccupied by her thoughts to attend and answer. She was roused by his hand roughly grasping her shoulder.
‘Come! come in, you girl; come in at once,’ and he dragged her by sheer force to his cottage. When there, he shut the dcor.
‘It has come to this,’ said he; ‘you send lovers to me with the impertinence to ask for you—and such lovers too.’
Jael folded her arms.
‘Only one, father.’
‘And isn’t that one enough? A boy of twenty, or one-and-twenty, without a trade, a good-for-naught! And pray how long has this been going on?’
‘What! What? This love-making, without axing of my leave, and just picking up the worst fish in the whole net.’
‘Jerry and I have been friends many months. I love him, and am going to marry him, and then we’re going shares with Tom May in the Cordelia.’
‘Oh, indeed! All is settled, is it?’
‘It takes three to settle such a matter as that. Do you suppose I’m going to give you to that whipper-snapper?—a lad who never did enough honest work to earn his bread, a lad without a father—’
‘Well, and I am without a mother.’
‘That’s a different matter altogether. He’s a good-for-nothing chap, and I won’t have it.’
‘Every one is against him,’ said Jael; ‘every one has something hard, and unkind, and unjust to say of him; but you know he was head boy in the school.’
‘Oh, yes, and that spoiled him for hard work. Look at his hands, they are soft as a girl’s. I tell you he don’t like work. He likes to be in the ‘Anchor,’ smoking and drinking, and—’ with concentrated wrath—‘it’s the likes of he as can go all round the globe and see niggers, and rub them and see if it be burnt cork or not, and I am forced to stay at home. Talk of slaves, do you?—get along.’
‘I thought, father,’ said Jael, ‘that if I married Jeremiah he’d be useful to you. He might attend to the bridge, and pilot the trains over, and allow you sometimes to get away.’
‘Indeed! bring him into my little cabin, would you? Let him take some of my work! I’d see him hanged first, for I never could trust that chap. He’d let engine and train run into the Fleet. If that happened, on whom would the blame lie but on me? I won’t hear of it. That’s flat, flat as turbot.’
‘But, father, I love him, and I care for no one else, and I want him. Besides, we have arranged about the Cordelia. If he is not to have me, I think I should let him have some of the money out of the pot, to start him in life, to make up to him for the disappointment.’
‘Do you!’ roared old Tapp. ‘Lord! what did Clementina mean with leaving me saddled with such an incumbrance. Hold your tongue, you make me mad. I shall strike you if you say more. Jeremiah!—all Brightlingsea knows he is an idle fellow, with no good in him, never sticks regularly to one trade. He’s drove an engine; he’s been at sea——what do you mean, trying to interrupt me. I know what I’ll do—I’ll go to Fingrinhoe after Mrs Bagg. She shall be a mother to you; she shall comb your hair; she shall put you in traces and set blinkers over your eyes, that you look straight afore you at the road where your best interests lie, and don’t be peering all about you at the boys. I’ll pull on my best coat—let’s see, there won’t be a train till 5.35—and I’ll go to Fingrinhoe and propose to Mrs Bagg, and come and be a mother to you.’
‘Father, you do not mean it!’ Jael’s veins swelled.
‘Ay, I do; I’ll go at once. Get your room ready, she shall share it with you, and see how she likes the situation, and the whipping and the driving of such a colt as you. I’ll have you broken in, I will.’
‘Father, if you do that I shall run away.’
‘Will you? Where will you run to? See here, Jael. Did you ever know boys play at dobb-nuts; Two does it; each has a chestnut with a string through it, and one strikes at the other nut, and if he splits it he conquers. I take it your head and mine are set against each other, and we’ll see which cracks first, which proves hardest. Dobb-nuts it is! I pity your skull, I do, for my head is hard, uncommon hard.’
Mr Shamgar Tapp put on his best coat, and went down to the water’s edge, where he got into a boat; and at once took off his coat again and laid it in the bows. Then he began to row.
‘Drat the girl!’ he said. ‘What do I know of the management of girls, that Providence should have given me one, and left me to manage her? Providence might just as well have dropped an elephant down my chimney, and told me to rear that, and given me no instructions what victuals to give it, or what diseases it was troubled with, and when and how it might become dangerous. But there—I won’t think of that Jael any more. I’ll change the subject. When I think of her taking up with that loafer, Jeremiah Mustard, it makes my blood boil. Talking of boiling too,’ he pulled long strokes, ‘talking of boiling, don’t I know by experience that a black kettle takes half the time to bring to the boil as does a polished tin one? Don’t it, so to speak, suck in the heat? Very well. What is the human reason and experience given to a man for if he ain’t to apply his experience and exercise his reason. Don’t tell me that African niggers are by nature black. Why, bless me! if a nigger were by nature black, and was to sit down on the burning desert he’d begin to boil at once, and the steam come out of his nose. He’d take in the heat and suffer from it twice as fast as if he were white. It’s with niggers as with kettles. I don’t believe, I won’t believe, that there is one law of nature for kettles, and another for human beings—get along.’
Presently his boat touched the land, and he drew it up the slope from the shore to Fingrinhoe, where was the cottage now occupied by the widow Bagg. Mr Tapp came in.
‘Do, Mrs Bagg, do?’ He took a seat. ‘How do you feel yourself?’
Mrs Bagg was a fine woman of about forty-five, fresh for her age, with an aquiline nose, fine dark eyes, her hair, parted on one side, was drawn over to the other; a tidy woman, who kept her cottage scrupulously clean, and her person scrupulously neat. Folks said she had a temper, but tidy women, and good housewives generally have tempers, there is energy, go, in them; they have no patience with slovenly people, and work half done.
‘Mrs Bagg,’ said Tapp, ‘I’ve come to call you to task. Why didn’t you smother it?’
‘The baby—my Jael. It is nigh on eighteen years ago you were in my house, and was almost a mother to that creature. You never considered my wishes, you never had a spark of human feeling and neighbourly consideration for me. You might as well have gone and sown tares in my field, or thrown a firebrand in at my window, or let loose a hyæna in my kitchen. It was your duty to have smothered it.’
‘But, Master Tapp, I did not think—’
‘No. In course you did not think. Women never do think. If you’d have thought you’d have known how in convenient it would have been to me with a she-baby yowling for its meat, and I called away to open the bridge, or to leave it alone, after it could toddle, with the lamp on the table burning, and the fire in the grate blazing, and me off closing the bridge over the Fleet. No, you never thought, not you.’
‘But, master Tapp, surely—’
‘You never asked me my opinion. You treated me as if I were a cipher in the house, as if that baby was everything, and I must have no will of my own, no wishes concerning it, no chance for myself. I did not think you was that unfeeling and ungenerous—but so you acted, and it has left me as tangled as twine.’
‘I couldn’t do it, you know, Master Tapp.’
‘In course you couldn’t,’ he said sarcastically; ‘just you come over and see the consequence. There’s that girl grown up, and tearing over the marshes after the young men. What am I to do? What can I do? She is that daring and audacious, that she defies me. You should have smothered her when she was born. You’d have done it if you’d had any Christian and womanly feelings in your bosom, Mrs Bagg.’
That lady was so disconcerted at the sudden and unexpected attack that she was incapable of defending herself. She looked about her, and for lack of something else to say, asked, ‘Will you have a cup of tea, Master Tapp?’
‘I don’t mind if I do,’ he replied. ‘It’ll soothe the inflammation I feel within me. Ah! Mistress Bagg, did you ever reckon on changing your name?’
‘Well, master,’ answered the widow, ‘I can’t say I have never thought on it, because the men press it so on me. The offers I’ve had since my dear man died would dress a potato field; but I put them from me—I waited for better offers.’
‘Now, see this,’ said Shamgar, ‘I change my shirt once a week, so there’s washing to do. And I wear a hole in the foot of my worsted socks once a week, so there’s darning to do. And I like my victuals hot and reg’lar, so there’s cooking to do—a chop or a steak on Sundays, and a bit of pudding and gravy on Tuesday. Then with these sewing-machines come in all one’s coats and trousers and waistcoats go to pieces at the seams.’
‘I know they do,’ said Mrs Bagg.
‘How do you know?’ asked Shamgar. ‘Have you been overhauling my chest of drawers?’
‘I was speaking promiscuous,’ explained the widow, ‘of work done by sewing machines. You see they don’t knot the ends of the thread.’
‘I don’t know nor care how it comes about, but I know my garments are ever giving way at the seams and letting in air—and it’s a windy place is Gull-Fleet Bridge. So there’s tailoring to be done. And then, and above all, there’s that Jael, that girl, to be kept under, and held in tight, and taught her duties, and made to stay at home, and held from the boys, and so,’ said Mr Tapp, ‘there’s also Jaeloring to be done.’
‘There must be,’ agreed Mrs Bagg.
‘Now, if she goes off, I’ll want someone to manage for me, and if she don’t go off, still I want someone. So if you please, you can come and try it, and I’ll see what you’re like, and there’s no saying—more wonderful things have happened—but you may come in the end to changing your name. That depends, you see, mistress, on how you get on with the washing, and the mending, and the cooking, and the tailoring, and the Jaeloring.’
‘I don’t mind, I’m no ways particular,’ said Mrs Bagg. ‘I’ll come and try it.’
‘Very well,’ said Mr Tapp. ‘Then I’ll wait here whilst you put your few things together, and I’ll row you back. That girl wants looking after continually and regularly as Gull-Fleet Bridge.’