Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 27
THE RETURN OF THE LOST
Mehalah was clasped in the arms of George De Witt.
"Who is there? Where is he?" shouted Elijah, staggering forward with his great pincers raised ready to strike.
George drew the girl out of the way, and let the angry man burst out of the door and pass, beating the air with his iron tool. He put his arm round her, and led her from the house. She could not speak, she could only look up at him as at one risen from the dead. He led her towards the sea-wall, looking behind him at the figure of the blind man, rushing about, and smiting recklessly in his jealousy and fury, and hitting bushes, rails, walls, anything in hopes of smiting down the man whose name he had heard, and who he knew had come back to break in on and ruin his hopes.
George De Witt walked lamely, he had a somewhat stiff leg; otherwise he seemed well.
"How manly you have grown!" exclaimed Mehalah, holding him at arms' length, and contemplating him with pride.
"And you. Glory, have become more womanly; but in all else are the same."
"Where have you been, George?"
"At sea, Glory, and smelt powder. I have been a sailor in His Majesty's Royal Navy, in the Duke of Clarence, and I am pensioned off, because of my leg."
"Have you been wounded?"
"Not exactly. A cannon-ball, as we were loading, struck me on the shin and bruised the bone, so that I have been invalided with swellings and ulcerations. I ain't fit for active service, but I'm not exactly a cripple."
"But George! when did this take place? I do not understand. After your escape?"
"Escape, Glory? I have had no escape."
"From confinement in Red Hall," she added.
"I never was confined there. I do not know what you are talking about."
Mehalah passed her hand over her face.
"George! I thought that Elijah had made you drunk and then put you in his cellar, chained there till you went mad."
"There is not a word of truth in this," said De Witt. "Who told you such a tale?"
"Elijah is a rascal. I have enough cause against him without that."
"Then tell me about yourself. I am bewildered. How came you to disappear? "Let us walk together to the spit by the wind-mill, and I will tell you all."
They turned the way he said, and he did not speak again till they had reached the spot.
"We will sit down. Glory; I suffer still somewhat from my leg, so that I am always glad to rest. Now I will tell you the whole story. You remember the evening when we quarrelled? You had behaved rather roughly to Phœbe Musset."
"I remember it only too well, George."
"After you had left, I went to the Mussets' house to enquire after Phœbe, who had been well soused in the sea by you; and on my return I fell in with Elijah Rebow. He took me to task for not having gone after you and patched up our little difference. He said that a quarrel should never be allowed to cool, but mended while hot. He persuaded me to let him row me in his boat to the Ray. He said he was going there after ducks or something of that sort, I do not remember exactly. I agreed, and got into his punt with him, and we made for the Rhyn. We had scarcely entered the channel when a lugger full of men ran across our bows and had us fast in a jiffy. I was overpowered before I knew where I was, and taken by the men in their boat."
"Who were they, George?" asked Mehalah, breathlessly.
"They were some of the crew of the Salamander, a war schooner then lying in the offing, come to press me into the service with Captain Macpherson, who had been on the coast-guard, but was appointed to the command. I was carried off as many another man has been, without my consent, and made to serve His Majesty on compulsion."
"But, George! how about your medal that I gave you? That was returned to me the same night."
"I suppose it was," he replied coolly. "As I was taken, Elijah said to me, 'Have you no token to send back to Glory?' I bade him tell you how I was impressed, and how I would return to you whenever the war was over and I was paid off; but he asked for some token, that you might believe him. Well, Glory! I had nothing by me save your medal, and I handed it to him and told him to give it to you with my love." Mehalah wrung her hands and moaned.
"I have a notion," continued George, "that Rebow was somehow privy to my being pressed; for he went out that afternoon to the Salamander in his cutter, and had a private talk with Captain Macpherson, who was short of men. Now I fancy, though I can't prove it, that he schemed with the captain how he should catch me, and that Elijah with set purpose took me into the trap set for me. He is deep enough to do such a dirty trick."
Mehalah's head sank on her knees, and she sobbed aloud.
"And now, Glory, dearest!" he went on, "the rascal has got you to marry him, I am told. How could you take him? Why did you not wait for me? You were promised to me, and we looked on one another as soon to be husband and wife. You must have soon forgotten your promise."
"I thought you were dead," she gasped.
"So did my mother. I do not understand. Elijah knew better."
"But he told no one. He allowed us all to suppose you were drowned in one of the fleets."
"It is very hard," said George, "for a fellow to return from the wars to reclaim his girl, and to find her no longer his. It is a great blow to me. Glory! I did so love and admire you."
She could only sway to and fro in her distress.
"It is very disappointing to a chap," said George, putting a quid in his cheek. "When he has calculated on getting a nice girl as his wife, and in battle and storm has had thoughts of her to cheer and encourage him; when he has some prize-money in his pocket, and hopes to spend it on her—well, it is hard."
"George," said she between her sobs, "why did you return the medal? I gave it you, and you swore never to part with it. You should not have sent it to me."
"Did I really swear that. Glory?" he answered. "If so, I had forgotten. You see I was so set upon and flustered that night, I did not rightly consider things as they should have been considered." He stopped. "Well?" asked Mehalah, eagerly.
"Don't catch me up, Glory. I only stopped to turn the quid. As I was about to say, I did not remember what I had promised. I had nothing else to send you that would serve as a token. The medal was an article about which there could be no mistake. I knew when you saw that you would make sure Elijah's story was true, and my promise would be sacred—I have kept it. I have returned to you. Glory, and if you were not married I should make you my wife. I love you still, as I always did love you. I have seen a sight of fine girls since I left Mersea. There's more fish in the sea than come out of it; but I'm darned if I have seen a finer anywhere, or more to my liking than you. Glory. You were my first love and the sight of you brings back pleasant memories. The more I look at, you now, the more I feel inclined to wring that old prophet's neck. You are too good for such a chap as he; you should have waited for me. You had promised, and might have had patience. But, Lord bless me! how the girls do run after the men! Glory! I have seen the world since I left Mersea, and I know more of it than I did. I suppose you thought that as I was gone to Davy Jones's locker you must catch whom you could."
"George! " exclaimed Mehalah, "do not speak to me thus. I cannot bear it. I know you are only talking in this way to try me, and because you resent my marriage. I promised once to be true to you. I gave you my heart, and I have remained, and I will remain, true to you; my heart is yours, and I can never recover it and give it to another."
"This is very fine and sentimental. Glory," said George; "I've smelt powder and I know the colour of blood. I've seen the world, and know what sentiment is worth; it is blank cartridge firing; it breaks no bones, but it makes a noise and a flash. I don't see how you can call it keeping true to me when you marry another man for his money."
"You are determined to drive me mad," exclaimed Mehalah. "Have mercy on me, my own George, my only George! I have loved and suffered for you. God can see into my heart, and knows how deeply it has been cut, and how profusely it has bled for you. You must spare me. I have thought of you. I have lived only in a dream of you. The world without you has been dead and blank. I have not had a moment of real joy since your disappearance; it seems to me as though a century of torment had drawn its slow course since then. No, George! I have married for nothing but to save my self-respect. I was forced by that man, whom I will not name now, so hateful and horrible to me is the thought of him—I was forced by him from my home on the Ray to lodge under his roof. He smoked my mother and me out of our house as if we were foxes. When he had me secure he drew a magician's circle roumd me, and I could not break through it. My character, my name were tarnished, there was nothing for it but for me to marry him. I did so, but I did so under stipulations. I took his name, but I am not, and never shall be, more to him than his wife in the register of the parish. I have never loved him—I never undertook to love him."
"This is a queer state of things," said George. "Dashed if, in all my experience of life and of girls, I came across anything similar, and I have seen something. I have not spent all my days in Mersea. I've been to the West Indies. I've seen white girls, and yellow girls, and brown girls, and copper-coloured girls, and black ones—black as rotted seaweed. I have—they are all much of a muchness, but this beats my experience. You are not like others."
"So he says; he and I are alone in the world, and alone can understand one another. Do you understand me, George?"
"I'm blessed if I do."
She was silent. She was very unhappy. She did not like his tone: there was an insincerity, a priggishness about it which jarred with her reality and depth of feeling. But she could not analyse what offended her. She thought he was angry with her, and had assumed a taunting air to cover his mortification. She drew the medal from her bosom.
"George! dear, dear George!" she said vehemently. "take the pledge again, I give it you with my whole heart once more. I believe it saved you once, it may save you again. At all events, it is a token to you that my heart is the same, that I care for and love none but you in the whole wide world."
He took it and suspended it round his neck.
"I will keep it for your sake," he said; "you may be sure it will be treasured by me."
"Keep it better than you did before."
"Certainly I will. I shall value it inexpressibly."
"George!" she went on, trembling in all her limbs, and rising to her feet. "George! my first and only love! as I give it you back now, I make you the same promise that I made you before. I will love—love—love you and you only, eternally. I swore then to be true to you, and I have been true. Swear again to me the same."
"Certainly. I shall always love you, Glory! I'm damned if it is possible for a fellow not to, you are so handsome with those flashing eyes and glowing cheeks. A fellow must be made of ice not to love you."
"Be true to me, as I to you,"
"To be sure I will, Glory!" and added in an undertone, "rum sort of truth hers, to go and marry another chap."
"What is that you say, George?"
"Take care. Glory!" exclaimed the sailor; "here comes the old prophet with a pair of tongs over his shoulder, staggering along the wall towards us. I had better sheer off. He don't look amiable. Good-bye, Glory!"
"Oh, George! I must see you again."
"I will come again. You will see me often enough. Sailors can no more keep away from handsome girls than bees from clover."
Elijah came up, his face black with passion.
"Mehalah!" he roared, as he swung his iron pincers.
She caught his wrist and disarmed him.
"I could bite you, and tear your flesh with my teeth," he raged. "All was so peaceful and beautiful, and then he came from the dead and broke it into shivers. Where are you?" He put out his hands to grasp her.
"Do not touch me!" she cried, loathing in her voice.
"With my whole soul I abhor you, you base coward You lied to me about George, a hateful lie that made me mad, and yet the reality is almost as bad—it is worse. He is alive and free, and I am bound, bound hand and foot, to you."