Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 10
Woman is the natural enemy of woman. When one woman is over thirty or plain, and the other is young or beautiful, the enmity on one side is implacable and unqualified by mercy. A woman can be heroically self-sacrificing and behave with magnificent generosity towards man, but not towards one of her own sex. She is like the pillar that accompanied the Israelites and confounded the Egyptians; she is cloud and darkness to these, but light and fire to those. She will remorselessly pursue, and vindictively torment a sister who offends by having a better profile and less age. No act of submission will blunt her spite, no deed of kindness sponge up her venom. There is but one unpardonable sin in the sight of Heaven; there are two in the eyes of a middle-aged woman, youth and beauty. She is unconscious of fatigue in the pursuit, and without compunction in the treatment of the member of her sex who has sinned against her in one particular orother. The eternal laws of justice, the elementary principles of virtue, are set aside as inappropriate to the world of women. Generosity, charity, pity are unknown quantities in the feminine equation. As the Roman tyrant wished that mankind had but one neck which he might hack through, so woman would like that womankind had but one nose which she might put out of joint. Every woman is a kill-joy to every other woman, a discord in the universal harmony. Her ideal world is that of the bees, in which there is but one queen, and all other shes are stung to death. Eve was the only woman who tasted of happiness unalloyed, because in Eden she had no sisters.
The iron maid of Nuremberg was sweet and smiling externally, but a touch revealed the interior bristling with spikes, and the victim thrust into her embrace was only released a corpse to drop into an oubliette. All women are Nuremberg maidens, with more or fewer spikes, discovered perhaps by husbands, unsuspected by the rest of men, but known to all other women, who are scarred from their embraces.
Mehalah knew that no leniency was to be looked for in Mrs. De Witt. She thought that lady exceptionally rigorous and exacting; she thought so because she knew nothing of the world. Her mother spent her breath in repinings that could not help, and in hopes which must be frustrated. The extremity of the danger roused Mehalah from her dreams. There was no pity to be expected from the creditor, and there was no means that she could see of defraying the debt. She considered and tried to find some road out of the difficulty, but could discover none. Now more than ever did she need the advice, if not the help, of him who was gone. There was nothing on the farm that could be sold without leaving them destitute of means of carrying it on and defraying the next half-year's rent. The cow, the ewes, her boat, were necessary to them. The furniture in the house was of little value, and it was impossible for her to transport it to Colchester for sale.
She sat thinking of the situation one evening over the fire opposite her mother, without uttering a word. Her hands with her knitting needles lay in her lap; she could not work, she was too fully engrossed in the cares which pressed on her.
Presently her mother roused her from her reverie, by saying, "There is no help for it, Mehalah, you must go to Wyvenhoe, and find out my cousin, Charles Pettican. He is my only relative left;—at least as far as I know, and him I have not seen for fifteen or sixteen years. I do not even know if he be yet alive. We haven't had a chance of meeting. I go nowhere, I am imprisoned on this island, and he is cut off from us by the river Colne. I see no way out of our trouble but that of borrowing money from him. He was a kind-hearted lively fellow when young, but what he is now that he is old I cannot tell. You must go and try what you can do with him. He is well off, and would not miss twenty pounds more than twenty pence."
Mehalah greatly disliked the idea of going to a stranger, to one who, though a connection, was quite unknown to her, and begging a loan of him. It galled her pride and wounded her independence. It lowered her in her own eyes. She would rather have worked her fingers to the bone than so stoop, but no work of hers could raise twenty pounds in a week. The thought was altogether so intolerable to her, that she fought against it as long as she could. She would herself cheerfully have gone out of her home and left the farm rather than do this, but she was obliged to consider her mother. She yielded at last most reluctantly; and with tears of mortification filling her eyes, and her cheeks burning with shame, she threw aside her customary costume, and dressed herself in dark blue cloth gown, white kerchief, and a bonnet, and took her way to Wyvenhoe. She had to walk some seven miles. Her road led her to the top of high ground overlooking the mouth of the Colne.
The blue water was dotted with sails. Beyond the river on a height rose from above trees the lofty tower of Brightlingsea. Up a winding creek she looked, and at the head could distinguish the grey priory of St. Osyth, then the seat of the Earl of Rochford, at the entrance to a noble park. She descended the hill, and by a ferry crossed the river to the village of Wyvenhoe.
On her walk she had mused over what she should say to Mr. Charles Pettican, without coming to any determination. Her mother had let fall some hints that her cousin had once been her fond admirer, but that they had been parted by cruel parents. Mrs. Sharland's reminiscences were rather vague, and not much reliance could be placed on them; however, Mehalah hoped there might be some truth in this, and that old recollections might be stirred in the breast of Mr. Pettican, and stimulate him to generosity. The river was full of boats, and on the landing were a number of people. "We're lively to-day," said the ferryman who put her over, "the regatta is on. It is late this season, but what with one thing and another, we couldn't have it earlier no way."
"Will Mr. Pettican be there?"
"Lor bless you, no," answered the man, "that's impossible."
Glory asked her way to the house of her mother's cousin. He was, or rather had been, a shipbuilder. He occupied a little compact wooden house, painted white, on the outskirts of the village. It was a cheerful place. The shutters were after the French fashion, external, and painted emerald green. The roof was tiled and looked very red, as though red ochred every morning by the housemaid after she had pipeclayed the walls. Over the door of the house was a balcony with elaborate iron balustrades gilt; against these leaned two figureheads, females, with very pink and white complexions, and no expression in their faces.
There was a sanded path led from the gate to the door, and there were two green patches of turf, one on each side of it. In the centre of that on the left was another figurehead—a Medusa with flying serpent locks, but with a face as passionless and ordinary as that of a milliner's block. In the midst of the other plot rose a mast. On this day, when all Wyvenhoe was en fête, a flag ought properly to be flying from the mast. Every other in the village and on the water was adorned with its bunting, but that of Mr. Pettican alone ignored the festival.
As Mehalah ascended the walk, a gull with its wings clipped uttered a fierce scream, and rushing across the garden with outspread pinions, dashed at her foot with his sharp beak, and then falling back, threw out his breast, elevated his bill and broke into a long succession of discordant yells, whoops, and gulps.
At the same moment one pane in the window on the right of the door opened, a little dry face peered through and nodded.
"If you're going to knock, don't. Come in, and make no noise about it. It's very kind. She's out."
The gull made a second assault at Mehalah's foot.
"Kick him," said the face; "don't fear you will hurt him. He is as good as a watch dog. Open the door, and when you are in the hall turn to the right-hand."
Then the pane was slammed to, and Mehalah turned the handle of the front door. She found herself in a narrow passage with a flight of very steep stairs before her, and a door on each hand. Over each of these on a bracket stood a ship fully rigged, with all her sail on.
She entered the room on the right as directed, and found herself in a little parlour with very white walls, and portraits of ships, some in worsted work on canvas, others painted in oils, others again in water-colours, covering the walls.
In the window, half sat, half reclined, an old man, with a scrubby grey head, a pair of very lively eyes, but with a trembling feeble mouth.
He wore very high shirt-collars, exceedingly stiff, and thick folds of black silk round his neck. His blue coat had a high black velvet collar. The little man seemed to draw his head in between his blinkers and beneath his coat-collar, and lose his face in his cravat, then at will to project his head from them, as though he were a tortoise retiring into or emerging from his shell.
As Glory came in, the little wizened face was scarce perceptible, save that the bright eyes peeped and twinkled at her from somewhere in a chaos of black velvet, blue cloth, white linen, and black silk; then all at once the head shot forward, and a cheery voice said, "I can't rise to meet you, Mary," he made at the same time a salutation with his hand, "or I would throw myself at your feet. Glad to see you. How are you, Lizzy, my dear."
"My name is neither Mary nor Lizzy, but Mehalah."
"Let it be Methuselah or Melchisedek, or what you like, it is all one to me. I don't care for the name you give a wine when it is good, I drink it and smack my lips, whether you call it Port, or Tarragona, or Roussillon; and I don't bother about a girl's name. If she is sweet and sunny, and bright and pretty as"—he made a little bow and a great flourish of his hand as a salute—"as you are, I see her and listen to her, and admire her."
"I have told you it don't matter. I never yet met with a girl's name that wasn't pretty, except one, and I thought that pretty once."
"Why do you not like it?"
The little man looked out of the window, along the walls, then turned his head round and sighed. "Never mind. Do you see that figurehead out there? It belonged to a wessel I built; she was called the Medusa. Bad luck attended her. She was always fouling other wessels. She ran down a Frenchman once, but that was no matter, and she did the same by a Dutchman. Well, at last she got such a character that I was forced to change her head and her name, but then she fared worse than before. Changing their names don't always mend wessels and women. Well!" with another sigh, "we will leave unpleasant topics, and laugh and be jolly while we may. You haven't told me how you are. This is very kind of you to drop in on me. It is like old times; my halcyon days, as I think they call 'em. I haven't had such a wisit since," he waved towards his flagstaff, "since I lowered my flag."
"But, sir," said Mehalah, "you must let me explain my purpose in coming here; and to do that, I must tell you who I am, and whence I come."
"I don't want to hear it. I don't care a bit about it. Be jolly and gather the rosebuds while you may. She ain't out for long, and we must be joyful at such opportunities as are afforded us. I know as well as you do why you have come. You have come in the goodness of your female heart to cheer a poor crippled wretch like me."
"I did not know you were a cripple, sir!"
"You didn't? Give me my crutches. Look at this." He placed his crutches under his arms, swung himself dexterously off his chair, and stumped round the room, dragging his lower limbs behind him, as though they did not belong to him. They were lifeless. When he returned to his seat he threw himself down. "Now, Jemima, put up my legs on that chair. I can't stir them myself. I couldn't raise them an inch if you was to promise me a kiss for my pains. There, thank ye; now sit down and be jolly."
"Sir," said Mehalah, "you remember my mother. Mistress Sharland?"
"What! Liddy Vince, pretty cousin Liddy! I should think I did remember her. Why, it is only the other day that she married."
"I am her daughter, and my age is nineteen."
"I haven't seen her for—well, never mind how many years. Years don't tell on a man as they do on a woman; they mellow him, but wither her. So you are her daughter, are you? Stand round there by my feet where I can see you."
He drew his head down among his clothes and peered at her from between his tall white collars. "You are an uncommon fine girl," he said, when his observation was completed, "but not a bit like Liddy. You are more like her mother—she was the deuce of a splendid woman, such eyes, such hair—but she was a——" he hesitated, his courtesy forbade his saying what rose to the tongue.
"A gipsy;" Mehalah supplied the words.
"Well, she was, but she couldn't help it, you know. But that is not what I was about to say. I intended to observe that she was a—little before my time. She was old when I knew her, but I've heard what a beauty she was, and her eyes always remained large and noble, and her hair luxuriant. But women don't improve with age as does good port, and as do men. Well, now, tell me your name."
"A regular Essex marshland name. I hope I shall remember it. But I have to carry so many names of nice-looking girls in my head, and of ships I have built, that they run one another down, and I cannot be sure to recall them. My memory is not going. Don't suppose that. Why, bless your dear heart, I can remember everything your mother and I said to one another when we were sweet upon each other. That don't look like a failing memory, does it? But, you see, as we go on in life, every day brings something more to remember, and so this head gets choke full. A babe a year old has some three hundred and sixty-five things to recollect, that is if he remembers only one thing per diem, and a man of fifty has over eighteen million of things stuffed away in this little warehouse," tapping his head; "so he has to rummage and rout before he can find the particular article he wants. His memory don't go with age, but gets overchoked. Now, to change the topic, why haven't you been to see me before?"
"Sir! I could not. I did not know you, and you live a long way from the Ray. Mother cannot walk so far."
"And I can't neither, but not from age but from accident. So your mother can't walk a matter of seven miles. Dear me! How women do deteriorate either with age or with marriage! I could; I would think nothing of it but for my accident. Now tell me what has brought you here, Mehalaleel?"
"I have come," answered Mehalah, looking down, "because driven by necessity to apply to you, as our only relative."
"Bless my soul! Want my help! How? I wish I could as easily apply for yours. My dear girl, I am past help. I've hauled down my flag. All is up with me. I'm drawn up on the mud and put to auction. They are breaking me up. Tell your mother so. Tell her that time was—but let bygones be bygones. How is she looking? Are the roses altogether faded?"
"She is very feeble and suffering. She is greatly afflicted with ague."
"She had it as a girl. One day as I was courting her and whispering pretty things in her ear, she was going to blush and smile, when all at once the fit of shivers came on her, and she could do naught but chatter her teeth and turn green and stream with cold sweat. So she is very feeble, is she?"
"She is weak and ailing."
"Women never do improve, like men, by ripening," said Mr. Pettican. "Girls are angels up to one and twenty, some a little bit later, but after that they deteriorate and become old cats. They are roses up to marriage and after that are hips, with hard red skins outside and choke and roughness within. Men are quite the reverse. They are louts to twenty-five, as unformed in body as young colts, and in mind as young owls; after that they begin to ripen, and the older they get the better they grow. A man is like a medlar, only worth eating when rotten. A young man is raw and hard and indigestible, but a man of forty is full of juice and sweetness. Now don't tell your mother what I have said about old women."
"I will not."
"Sit ye down, sit ye down, and be jolly. Don't stand. It does not fare to be comfortable."
"Sir, I must mention the object of this visit."
"All in good time. But first let us be jolly. Give me some fun, I haven't had any since—since," he pointed sadly to his flagless staff and shook his head. "It is all up with me, save when a stray gleam of liveliness and mirth shoots athwart my gloomy sky. But that is rarely the case now."
"Thank you, sir," said Mehalah, taking a chair. "Now to the point."
"First be jolly. I have enough of mouths drawn down at the corners—but never mind now. Begone dull care, thou canker. Come! I should like your mother to know all about me. You will tell her how young I am looking. You will say that I would be sure to come tripping over to see her but for my accident."
"I will tell her how I have seen you."
"You needn't dwell on the crutches; but she knows, she has heard of that affliction of mine, it was the talk of the county, thousands of tender hearts beat in sympathy with me. My accident is one of long standing. I won't say when it happened. I have not a good head for dates, but anyhow it was not quite last year, or the year before that. It has told on me. I look older than I really am, and yet I am hearty and well. I have such an appetite. Just pull me up, dear, in the chair, and I will tell you what I eat. I had a rasher of bacon and a chop for breakfast, and a pewter of homebrewed beer; that don't look like a failing digestion, does it? And I shall eat,—Lord bless you! You would laugh to see me at my dinner, I eat like a ploughboy. That is not like the decay of old age attacking the witals, is it, my pretty? Now listen to me, and I will tell you all about it. Do you chance to notice here and there a little grey in my hair? Just as though a few grains of salt had dropped among black pepper? They come of care, dearest, not of years. I never had a grizzled hair on my head till—till I struck my colours. Now I'll tell you all about it, and you tell your mother. She will pity me. One day in my yard I stumbled over a round of timber and fell on my back on it, and hurt my spine, and I've been a cripple ever since. It is a sad pity—such a fine, strapping, manly fellow as I, in the prime of age, to be laid by like an old condemned wessel! Well! here I have had to lie in my window, looking out, and not seeing much to interest me. But the girls of Wyvenhoe, bless their kind hearts,—they are angels up to one and twenty—used to come to the window, and wish me a good day, and ask after my health, and have pleasant little gossips, and be altogether jolly. Next, whenever they could, some one or two would bring her knitting or needlework, and come in, and sit here and spend an hour or so, talking, laughing and making fun. That was pleasant, wasn't it? It is wonderful what a lot those dear girls had to say for themselves; they became quite confidential with me, and told me all their love affairs, and how matters stood, and who their sweethearts were. It was worth while being ill and laid on one's back to enjoy such society. Whenever I was dull and wanted some chat, I sent my man to hoist the flag, and the next girl that went by, ‘Ah!’ said she, ‘there's that poor fellow would like my society,’ and in she came and sat talking with me as long as she was able. Then sometimes I had a dish of tea brought in, or some cakes, or fruit. It was a pleasant time. I wish it were to come over all again. Tell your mother all this. I was quite the pet of all the kind-hearted young folks in Wyvenhoe. Now that is over. I'll tell you about it." He sighed and passed a shaking hand over his bright, twinkling eyes. "You must explain it all to your mother—Liddy that was. You see, I don't forget her name. Now tell me yours again; it is gone from me."
"Mehalah." "I'll write it down in my note-book and then I shall remember it. My memory is overstocked, and it takes me a deal of time to find in it what I want. But your mother's name don't get buried but lies at hand on the top. You'll tell her so. Now about my troubles. There was one damsel, who was called Admonition; and she was very particularly pleasant and attentive to me, and many a little teasing and joking I had with her about her name. She was the girl fullest of fun, she regularly brimmed over with it, and it ran down her sides. She was a milliner, and had to work for her living. She had no relations and no money of her own. It is curious what a lot of cousins she has now, mostly in the seafaring line, and all young. Then she was always ready for a chat. She would bring her needlework and sit with me by the hour. I thought it vastly pleasant, and how much more pleasant it would be if she were always by my side to keep me laughing and chirpy. I must tell you that I go down some degrees when alone,—not that my spirits fail me with age,—it is constitutional. I was so as a boy.—Bless me! it seems to me only the other day when I was a romping lout of a lad—I'm crisp and crackly like seaweed in an East wind when I am in female society, that is, female society up to one and twenty—but I'm like the same seaweed in a Sou'wester when I'm alone. One day the flag was flying, but no visitor came except Admonition. It was the day of the Regatta. She said, and the tears came into her eyes, that she was a lone girl, with no one to accompany her, so she had come to sit with me. She tried to cheer up and laugh, but she felt her loneliness so that my heart was touched, and I proposed and we were married." There ensued a long pause. Mr. Pettican looked out of the window. "I had a queer sort of premonitory feeling when I said, 'I take thee Admonition to my wedded wife,' but it was too late then to retract. Now the flag that has braved a thousand breezes is down. It has not flown since that day."
"Where is Mrs. Pettican now?" asked Mehalah.
"At the Regatta," answered the cripple. "You'll tell your mother how I am situated. She will drop a tear for poor Charlie. I will tell you what, Me——" he looked at his note-book, "Mehalah; men fancy all girls sultana raisins, but when they bite them they get very hard pips between their teeth. There's a Methodist preacher here has been haranguing on conversion, and persuading Admonition that she is a new creature. I know she is. She was converted on the day of the marriage ceremony; but the conversion was not something to boast of. Matrimony with women is what jibbing is with ships; they go through a movement of staggering and then away they start off on a tack clean contrary to the course they were sailing before. Marriage, Mehalah, is like Devonshire cream; it is very rich and tasty, but it develops a deal of bile. Look here, my pretty!" In a moment he was off his chair, stumping in hiscrutches round the room, dragging his paralysed limbs after him. He returned to his chair. "Put up my legs, dear," he begged; then said, "That is the state of my case; my better half is Admonition, the poor paralysed, helpless, dead half is me."
He did not speak for some moments, but brushed his eyes with his feeble hand. At last he said, "I've unburdened my soul. Tell your mother. Now go ahead, and let me know what you want."
Mehalah told Mr. Pettican the circumstances. She said that her mother wanted a loan of fifteen or twenty pounds. If she could not procure the sum, she would have her cow taken from her, then they would be unable to pay the rent next Lady Day, and be without milk for the winter. They would be turned out of the little farm on which her mother had lived so long, in quiet and contentment, and this would go far to break. her mother's heart. She told him candidly that the loan could only be repaid in.
The old man listened patiently, only passing his hand in an agitated manner across his face several times.
"I wish I could help you," he said, when she had done; "I have money. I have laid by some. There is plenty in the box and more at the bank, but I can't get at it,"
"Before I struck my colours, Mehalah, I did what I liked with my money; on market days my man went into Colchester, and I always gave him a little sum to lay out in presents for my kind visitors. Bless you; a very trifle pleased them. It is different now. I don't spend a penny myself. The money is spent for me. I don't keep the key of my cashbox. Admonition has it."
"Then," said Mehalah, rising from her seat, "all is over with us. My mother, your cousin, will in her old age be cast destitute into the world. But, if you really wish to help her, be a man, use your authority, and do what you choose with your own."
"Bless me!" exclaimed Mr. Pettican, touching his brow with his trembling hand, "I will be a man. Am I not a man? If I don't exert my authority, people will say I am in my dotage. I—I—in my flower and cream of my age—in the dotage! Go, Me——" he looked in his notebook, "Mehalah, fetch me my cashbox, it is in the bedroom cupboard upstairs, on the right, over this. Bring the box down. Stay, though! Before you come down just feel in my wife's old dress pocket. She may have forgotten to take her keys width her to the Regatta. It is just possible."
"I cannot do that."
"Well, no, perhaps you had better not. Do you happen to have a bunch of keys with you?"
"Well, never mind. Bring me the case. I will be a man. I will show the world I am not in my dotage. I will be of the masculine gender, dative case, if it pleases me, and Admonition may lump it if she don't like it."
Mehalah obeyed. She found the box, which was of iron, brought it downstairs, and placed it on the table by Mr. Pettican. "I've been turning the matter over in my mind," said he, "and I see a very happy way out of it without a row. Give me the poker. You will find a cold chisel in that drawer.
"I will tell you my idea. Whilst I am left here all alone, burglars have broken into the house, knowing my helpless condition, and have ransacked the place, found my cashbox and broken it open." He chuckled and rubbed his hands. "I shall be able accurately to describe the ruffians. One has a black moustache, and the other a red beard, and they look like foreigners and speak a Dutch jargon." He put the chisel to the lid, and struck at it with the poker, starting the hinges by the blow.
At that moment the door was flung wide, and in swam a dashing young woman in very gay colours, on the arm of a yachtsman.
"Charles!" she cried, "what are you after?" then turning abruptly on Mehalah, "And pray what are you doing here, in my house?" Mr. Pettican's head, which had been craned forward in eagerness over the box, retreated amidst the collar and cravat, and almost disappeared.
"Who are you?" she asked of Mehalah, with an insulting air. "Out of this house with you at once!"
"My dear Monie!" pleaded Mr. Pettican, lifting his shaking hands into an attitude of prayer.
"No 'My dears' and 'Monies' to me," said the wife. "I want to know what you are after with my cashbox? Ho, ho! trying to prize it open and squander my little sums laid aside for household expenses on—Heaven knows whom."
"Mr. Pettican is my mother's cousin" said Mehalah.
"Cousin, indeed! never heard Mr. Pettican speak of you. Cousins are sure to turn up when money is wanted."
"Mr. Pettican," said Mehalah, refusing to notice the insolent woman, "be a man and let me have the money you promised."
"I should like to be a man, oh! I wish I were a man! But I can't, I can't indeed, dear. I haven't been myself since I hauled down my flag."
"Charles, hold out your hand, and invite my cousin Timothy to dinner. He has kindly consented to stay a fortnight with us."
"Timothy!" echoed Mr. Pettican, "I did not know you had such a cousin."
"Do you think you know anything of my relations?" exclaimed Admonition; "I should hope not, they are a little above your sphere. There are lots more cousins!"
The poor little man sat shrinking behind his blinkers, peering piteously now at Mehalah, and then at his wife.
"Be a man," said Mehalah, grasping him by both hands. "Save us from ruin."
"Can't do it. Pretty, can't. I have struck my colours."