The Story of Jael/Chapter VI
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Chapter VI: On the 'Cordelia'
|Chapter VII: In an Eating-House→|
In the raw morning light, cold, wet, haggard, Jael crept down the beach at Brightlingsea. The tide had flowed and reached its full height, now it was on the turn, and the Cordelia would go out with it.
The rain had ceased, the thunderstorm had passed away and left a wet, chill world behind it. The wind was cold, or seemed so to the girl who had been exposed to it all night, crouched under the railway bridge. She had eaten nothing for many hours.
‘Hold hard, there you are,’ said Jeremiah. ‘I knew you would come. Get into the boat and I will row you aboard.
A few men stood about, they looked at Jael.
‘What, Jael, you going a sea-faring?’ asked one.
‘Ay! Going to see the sights of London,’ answered Jeremiah, ‘under my protection. Here, Jael, be alive; put your foot there, and sit in the bows.’
In another moment they were afloat, launched—to go whither?
On reaching the Cordelia she was helped up the side.
‘There, Jael,’ said Jeremiah. ‘Slip into the fo’castle crib and lie quiet till we’re off.’
The forecastle did not form a cabin, but a covered space so low that though one might sit up in it, to stand up in it was not possible. It was a convenient place to stow goods away, as it was sheltered from the wind and from the wash of the waves. Jerry threw in a couple of sacks and bade the girl lie on them.
‘Oh, Jerry!’ she pleaded. ‘Give me something to eat. I have had nothing for a day and a half.’
Then he brought her some bread and cheese.
‘We shall be off,’ he said, ‘in half a jiffy, and then you have said Good-bye to your old life and How-do-you-do to the new one.’
It was as he said. The anchor was raised, the little vessel swung over on her side, Jael heard the pleasant swash of the water parted by the bows, and through the opening of the forecastle saw the grey, dull landscape change. The Martello towers passed before the opening, and the shingly beach with the breakers on it, then the vessel strained and went over steeply, and Jael saw nothing but sky, morning clouds kindled pink and amber and gold from the rising sun.
She lay quietly on her sacks, resting her cheek in her hand, looking out, but only imperfectly seeing the changing view, for her mind was otherwise occupied. A feeling of alarm crept over her. She had taken a step impossible to retrace. She was leaving her home and her father, and her girlhood, and was seeking a new home, and new associations, and—she knew not what lay before her. Hitherto she had been sustained by sense of wrong done her, wrath against the odious woman who had supplanted her, resentment against her father for his indifference to her happiness; but now a reaction set in, and her breast was full of quiverings, fear and incipient remorse and painful suspense.
Tom May, a coarse sailor, who did not bear a good character, came and looked in, and cut a rude joke, that brought the colour to her brow, and then the tears into her eyes. She did not answer him but turned and looked away from the opening to the planks. Then May went off. She knew he was gone, for more light filled the low cabin when he did not stop the hatch with his body, and she reverted to her former position, and again, with dreamy eyes looked out. Swash! The water rushed up the bows and fell over the deck, raining down before the cabin entrance. Some of the water ran in, some of the drops were carried on to her lips, and were salt, but there were other drops as salt on her cheeks that fell from her lashes, and came from another sea, a deep sea within, that tossed and foamed, and threw up brine, and filled her heart with bitterness.
Then Jeremiah Mustard came to the entrance and crept in a little way, kneeling on one knee, stooping, and holding the sides of the hatch.
‘How are you, Jael? You do not mind the sea?’
‘Glad to be away from Mrs Bagg, eh? Glad to have turned your back on wretchedness and set your face towards prosperity, eh?’
‘I don’t know that I am glad,’ she said simply, then raised her face from her hand, and laid her hands folded on the planks. Her right cheek was crimson as a carnation, through the pressure of her hand, but the other was very pale. ‘I am not glad, I am not happy at all. I do not feel as if I were sailing out of shadow into sun, but as if my boat were dipping and would never come up on another wave.’
‘That is because you haven’t had your proper victuals,’ explained Jeremiah. ‘It is always so, when the meals ain’t regular.’
She made no answer to this, neither consenting to the interpretation, not disputing it, but she drew her hand across her cheek.
‘Has the sea water been in?’ asked Jerry.
‘Yes—there’s been a good deal of salt water here,’ she meant in her eyes, but he did not understand her; ‘and,’ she went on sadly, ‘I think I shall be better when there has been more.’ Then suddenly she drew herself up from her posture of lying on the sacks in the low cabin, to her knees and so faced him. The light was behind him, brilliant, for the sun was rising, and the clouds were dazzling as they had been when heaven opened in the lightning flash last night. He was between her and the sky, cloud and light and sun, and she could not see his face distinctly for the brightness behind him. His arms were extended clasping the sides of the door, and he was on one knee, the other foot was within the little cabin.
She knelt before him, she clasped her hands and laid them on her bosom.
‘Jerry,’ she said, ‘you mean fairly, truly, honestly by me?’
‘My dear Jael,’ he replied, ‘of course I do. You must trust me.’
‘Trust you,’ she said; ‘I have no one else to trust. I loved my father, and he has turned against me; he does not love me. He wishes I had been smothered as a babe by Mrs Bagg. He told me so. He was angry with her because she had not killed me, when my dear mother died, and I was left helpless.’ Her voice quivered with emotion, her notes were deep, almost masculine, in their hoarseness, the hoarseness of intense emotion.
She recovered herself a little, and, still kneeling to him, looking at him with great eyes full of entreaty, and with the mark of her hand crimson on her right cheek, so that every finger was printed as with blood, she said, ‘Jerry, my mother died, my father hates me. I have no home, I have no one to look to, no one to trust, no one to love, no one to hold by—but you.’
‘Well,’ said he, ‘that’s right.’
‘What! Right that I should be all alone? No, Jerry, I am driven from home because of you. I pray you be just, be true to me. I have but you.’ Then she fell forward, with her hands outstretched on the planks before him, and her fingers touched his foot, her head sank between her arms, on the floor, and she burst into a storm of tears.
‘It’s want of victuals,’ said Jerry. ‘I’ll see if there’s a bit of cold pie.’ Then he got up, and went away, and left her lying thus, with face and arms on the deck. ‘For,’ said he, ‘I can’t bear women’s tears.’ Then a great wave rushed up and spouted over the bows, and swept the forecastle and swirled in at the lurch and washed over her prostrate head and extended arms and hands.
Presently Jeremiah returned.
‘There you are,’ said he. ‘Here’s veal pie and a cold potato, and in this bottle you’ll find rum and water ready mixed and not too strong of water. You creep further in, and shut the trap, and amuse yourself with what I’ve brought. Take my word for it, Jael, after you’ve got the better of that pie and come to an understanding with the bottle, by that time the world will look a different colour to you than it does at this minute; and what is more, by and by we’ll be out of this nasty sea, and under the lea of the Kent coast and be running into the Thames. If you’d prefer to be below in the cabin, come along, but the chaps are free-tongued, and you mightn’t like it.’
‘I will stay here,’ said Jael, in a tone of indifference, and then, with sudden vehemence, ‘Jerry! you mean me fair. You will not be false with me.’ She paused. ‘Oh, Jerry! if after I have trusted you, and come away from my home with you, were you to be untrue, I would—I would—’ she gasped for breath.
‘What would you do?’
Then her momentary energy gave way, she sank forward, with her clenched hands on the boards, and said, ‘I do not know—I do not know.’
‘There,’ said Jeremiah, ‘let me close the hatch; you go further back, and the water will not come in; you can go to sleep and pass the time in pleasant dreams.’ Then he drew the hatch together and shut her in.
‘I thought her a beauty once,’ he said, ‘but she looks as if all the beauty had been washed out of her this morning.’