Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 11
A DUTCH AUCTION
Mehalah returned sadly to the Ray. The hope that had centred in help from Wyvenhoe had been extinguished.
Her mother was greatly disappointed at the ill-success of the application, but flattered at her cousin's recollection of her.
"If it had not been for that woman's coming in when she did, we should have had the money," said Mrs. Sharland. "What a pity she did not remain away a little longer! Charles is very well disposed, and would help us if he could pluck up courage to defy his wife. Suppose you try again, Mehalah, some other day, and choose your time well."
"I will not go there again, mother."
"If we do get turned out of this place we might settle at Wyvenhoe, and then choose our opportunity."
"Mother, the man is completely under his wife's thumb. There is no help to be found there."
"Then, Mehalah, the only chance that remains is to get the money from the Mersea parson."
"He cannot help us."
"There is no harm trying."
The day on which Mrs. De Witt had threatened to come had passed, without her appearing. True it had blown great guns, and there had been storms of rain. Mrs. Sharland hoped that the danger was over. The primitive inhabitants of the marshes had dwelt on piles, she built on straws. Some people do not realise a danger till it is on them and they cannot avert it. Mrs. Sharland was one of these. She liked her grievance, and loved to moan over it; if she had not a real one she invented one, just as children celebrate funerals over dolls. She had been so accustomed to lament over toy troubles that when a real trouble threatened she was unable to measure its gravity.
She was a limp and characterless woman. Mehalah had inherited the rich red blood of her grandparents, and Mrs. Sharland had assimilated only the water, and this flowed feebly through her pale veins. Her nature was parasitic. She could not live on her own root, but must adhere to a character stronger than herself. She had hung on and smothered her husband, and now she dragged at her daughter. Mehalah must stand upright or Mrs. Sharland would crush her to the ground. There are women like articles of furniture that will "wobble" unless a penny or a wedge of wood be put under their feet. Mrs. Sharland was always crying out for some trifle to steady her.
Mehalah did not share her mother's anticipations that the danger had passed with the day, that Mrs. De Witt's purpose had given way to kinder thoughts; she was quite sure that she would prove relentless and push matters to extremities. It was this certainty which drove her to act once more on her mother's suggestion, and go to the Mersea Rectory, to endeavour to borrow the sum of money needed to relieve them from immediate danger.
She found the parson in his garden without his coat, which hung on the hedge, making a potato pie for the winter.
He was on all fours packing the tubers in straw. His boots and gaiters were clogged with clay.
"Hallo!" he exclaimed as Mehalah came up. "You are the girl they call Glory? Look here. I want you to see my kidneys. Did you ever see the like, come clean out of the ground without canker? Would you like a peck? I'll give them you. Boil beautiful."
"I want to speak with you, sir."
"Speak then by all means, and don't mind me. I must attend to my kidneys. A fine day like this is not to be wasted at this time of the year. Go on. There is an ashtop for you. I don't care for the potato as a potato. It don't boil all to flour as I like. You can have a few if you like. Now go on."
Down went his head again, and was buried in a nest of straw. Mehalah waited. She did not care to address his back and legs, the only part of his person visible.
"You can't be too careful with potatoes," said the parson, presently emerging, very red in the face, and with a pat of clay on his nose. "You must make them comfortable for the winter. Do to others as you would they should do to you. Keep them well from frost, and they will boil beautiful all the winter through. Go on with your story. I am listening," and in went the head again.
Mehalah lost heart. She could not begin thus.
"Pah! how I sweat," exclaimed the parson, again emerging. "The sun beats down on my back, and the black waistcoat draws the heat. And we are in November. This won't last. Have you your potatoes in. Glory?"
"We have only a few on the Ray."
"You ought to have more. Potatoes like a light soil well drained. You have gravel, and with some good cow-dung or sheep-manure, which is better still, with your fall, they ought to do primely. I'll give you seed. It is all nonsense, as they do here, planting small whole potatoes. Take a good strong tuber, and cut it up with an eye in each piece; then you get a better plant than if you keep the little half-grown potatoes for seed. However, I'm wasting time. I'll be back in a moment. I must fetch another basket load. Go on with your story all the same: I can hear you. I shall only be in the shed behind the Rectory."
Parson Tyll was a curate of one parish across the Strood and of the two on the island. The rector was non-resident, on the plea of the unsalubrity of the spot. He had held the rectory of one parish and the vicarage of the other thirty years, and during that period had visited his cures twice, once to read himself in, and on the other occasion to exact some tithes denied him.
"All right," said Mr. Tyll, returning from the back premises, staggering under a crate full of roots. "Go on, I am listening. Pick up those kidneys which have rolled out. Curse it, I hate their falling and getting bruised; they won't keep. There now, you never saw finer potatoes in your life than these. My soil here is the same as yours on the Ray. Don't plant too close, and not in ridges. I'll tell you what I do. I put mine in five feet apart and make heaps round each. I don't hold by ridges. Hillocks is my doctrine. Go on, I am listening. Here, lend me a hand, and chuck me in the potatoes as I want them. You can talk all the same."
Parson Tyll crept into his heap and seated himself on his haunches. "Chuck away, but not too roughly. They mustn't be bruised. Now go on, I can stack the tubers and listen all the same."
"Sir," said Mehalah, out of heart at her reception, "we are in great trouble and difficulty."
"I have no doubt of it; none in the world. You don't grow enough potatoes. Now look at my kidneys. They are the most prolific potatoes I know. I introduced them, and they go by my name. You may ask for them anywhere as Tyll's kidneys. Go on, I am listening."
"We owe Mrs. De Witt a matter of five and twenty pounds," began Mehalah, red with shame; "and how to pay her we do not know."
"Nor I," said, the parson. "You have tried to go on without potatoes, and you can't do it. Others have tried and failed. You should keep geese on the saltings, and fowls. Fowls ought to thrive on a sandy soil, but then you have no corn land, that makes a difference. Potatoes, however, especially my kidneys, ought to be a treasure to you. Take my advice, be good, grow potatoes. Go on, I am listening. Chuck me some more. How is the stock in the basket? Does it want replenishing? Look here, my lass, go to the coach-house and bring me some more. There is a heap in the corner; on the left; those on the right are ashtops. They go in a separate pie. You can talk as you go; I shall be here and harkening."
Mehalah went sullenly to the place where the precious roots were stored, and brought him a basketful.
"By the way," said the parson, peeping out of his mole-hill at her, "it strikes' me you ought not to be here now. Is there not a sale on your farm to-day?"
"A sale, sir!"
"A sale, to be sure, Mrs. De Witt has carried off my clerk to act as auctioneer, or he would be helping me now with my potatoes. She has been round to several of the farmers to invite them to attend and bid, and they have gone to see if they can pick up some ewes or a cow cheap."
Mehalah staggered. Was this possible?
"Go on with your story; I'm listening," continued the parson, diving back into his burrow, so that only the less honourable extremity of his vertebral column was visible. "Talk of potatoes. There's not one to come up to Tyll's kidneys. Go on, I am all attention! Chuck me some more potatoes."
But Mehalah was gone, and was making the best of her way back.
Parson Tyll was right. This fine November day was that which it had struck Mrs. De Witt was most suitable for the sale, that would produce the money.
Mehalah had not long left the Strood before a strange procession began to cross the Marshes.
Mrs. De Witt sat aloft in a tax-cart borrowed of Isaac Mead, the publican, by the side of his boy, who drove. Behind, very uncomfortably, much in the attitude of a pair of scissors, sat the clerk, folded nearly double in the bottom of the cart; his head reclined on Mrs. De Witt's back and the seat of the vehicle, his legs hung over the board at the back, and swung about like those of a calf being carried to market or to the butcher's. Mrs. De Witt wore her red coat, and a clean washed or stiffly starched cap. She led the way. The road over the Marshes was bad, full of holes, and greasy. A recent tide had corrupted the clay into strong brown glue.
The farmers and others who followed to attend the sale had put up their gigs and carts at the cottage of the Strood keeper, and pursued their way on foot. But Mrs. De Witt was above such feebleness of nerve. She had engaged the trap for the day, and would take her money's worth out of it. The boy had protested at the Strood that the cart of his master could not go over the marshes, that Isaac Mead had not supposed it possible that it would be taken over so horrible and perilous a road. Mrs. De Witt thereupon brought her large blue gingham umbrella down on the lad's back, and vowed she would open him like an oyster with her pocket-knife unless he obeyed her. She looked quite capable of fulfilling her threat, and he submitted.
The cart jerked from side to side The clerk's head struck Mrs. De Witt several sharp blows in the small of her back. She turned sharply round, pegged at him with the umbrella, and bade him mind his manners.
"Let me get out. I can't bear this, ma'am," pleaded the man.
"It becomes you to ride to the door as the officer of justice," answered she. "If I can ride, so can you. Lie quiet," and she banged at him with the umbrella again.
At that moment there came a jolt of a more violent description than before, and Mrs. De Witt was suddenly precipitated over the splash-board, and, after a battle in the air, on the back of the prostrate horse, with her feet, hands and umbrella, she went into a mud hole. The horse was down, but the knees of the clerk were up far above his head. He struggled to rise, but was unable, and could only bellow for assistance.
Mrs. De Witt picked herself up and assisted the boy in bringing the horse to his feet again. Then she coolly pinned up her gown to her knees, and strode forward. The costume was not so shocking to her native modesty as might have been supposed, nor did it scandalise the farmers, for it was that adopted by the collectors of winkles on the flats. The appearance presented by Mrs. De Witt was, however, grotesque. In the mud her legs had sunk to the knees, and they looked as though she wore a pair of highly polished Hessian boots. The skirt and the red coat gave her a curious nondescript military cut, as half Highlander. Though she walked, she would not allow the clerk to dismount. She whacked at the pendant legs when they rose and protested, and bade the fellow lie still; he was all right, and it was only proper that he, the functionary on the occasion, should arrive in state, instead of on his own shanks.
"If you get up on the seat you'll be bobbed off like a pea on a drum. Lie in the bottom of the cart and be peaceful, as is your profession," said Mrs. De Witt, with a dig of the umbrella over the side.
They formed a curious assemblage. There were the four brothers Marriage, of Peldon, not one of whom had taken a wife. Once, indeed, the youngest, Herbert, had formed matrimonial schemes; but on his ventilating the subject had been fallen on by his three brothers and three unmarried sisters who kept house for them, as though he had hinted the introduction of a cask of gunpowder into the cellars. He had been scolded and lectured, and taunted, as the apostate, the profligate, the prodigal, who was bent on the ruin of the family, the dissipation of the accumulated capital of years of labour, the introducer of discord into a united household. And yet the household was only united in theory, in fact the brothers were always fighting and swearing at one another about the order of the work to be executed on the farm, and the sisters quarrelled over the household routine.
There was Joshua Pudney, of Smith's Hall, who loved his bottle and neglected his farm, who grew more thistles than wheat, and kept more hunters than cows, a jolly fat red-faced man with white hair, always in top boots. Along with him was Nathaniel Pooley, who combined preaching with farming, was noted for sharp practice in money matters, and for not always coming out of pecuniary transactions with clean hands. Pudney cursed and Pooley blessed, yet the labourers were wont to say that Pudney's curses broke no bones, but Pooley's blessings did them out of many a shilling. Pudney let wheat litter in his stubble, and bid the gleaners go in and be damned, when he threw the gate open to them. Pooley raked the harvest field over thrice, and then opened the gleaning with an invocation to Providence to bless the widow, the fatherless, and the poor who gathered in his fields.
Farmer Wise was a gaunt, close-shaven man, always very neatly dressed, a great snuff-taker. He was a politician, and affected to be a Whig, whilst all the rest of his class were Tories. He was argumentative, combative, and cantankerous, a close, careful man, and reported a miser.
A dealer, riding a black pony, a wonderful little creature that scampered along at a flying trot, came up and slackened rein. Pie was a stout man in a very battered hat, with shabby coat; a merry man, and a good judge of cattle.
The proceedings of the day were, perhaps, hardly in accordance with strict English law, but then English law was precisely like Gospel precepts, made for other folk. On the Essex marshes people did not trouble themselves much about the legality of their proceedings; they took the law into their own hands. If the law suited them they used it, if not they did without it. But, legally or not legally, they got what they wanted. It was altogether inconvenient and expensive for the recovery of a small debt to apply to a solicitor and a magistrate, and the usual custom was, therefore, to do the thing cheaply and easily through the clerk of the parish constituted auctioneer for the occasion, and the goods of the defaulter were sold by him to an extemporised assembly of purchasers on any day that suited the general convenience. The clerk so far submitted to legal restrictions that he did not run goods up but down; he began with an absurdly high figure, instead of one preposterously low.
When the cart and its contents and followers arrived at the Ray, the horse was taken out, and the vehicle was run against a rick of hay, into which the shafts were deeply thrust, so as to keep the cart upright, that it might serve as a rostrum for the auctioneer.
"We'll go and take stock first," said the clerk; "we've to raise twenty-five pounds for the debt and twenty shillings my costs. What is there to sell?"
"Wait a bit, gaffer," said the cattle jobber; "you're a trifle too quick. The old lady must demand the money first."
"I'm agoing to do so, Mr. Mellonie," said Mrs. De Witt; "you teach your grandmother to shell shrimps." Then, looking round on about twenty persons who had assembled, she said, "Follow me. Stay! here comes more. Oh! it is Elijah Rebow and his men come to see fair play. Come by water have you, Elijah? We are not going to sell anything of yours, you needn't fear."
She shouldered her umbrella like an oar, and strode to the house door. Mrs. Sharland was there, white and trembling.
"Have you got my money?" asked Mrs. De Witt.
"Oh, mistress," exclaimed the unfortunate widow, "do have pity and patience. Mehalah has just gone to get it."
"Gone to get it?" echoed Mrs. De Witt. "Why, where in the name of wonder does she expect to get it?"
"She has gone to Parson Tyll to borrow it."
"Then she won't get it," said the drover. "There's no money to be wrung out of empty breeches pockets."
"Let me into the house," said Mrs. De Witt. "Let us all see what you have got. There's a clock. Drag it out, and stick it up under the tree near the cart. That is worth a few pounds. And take that chair."
"It is my chair. I sit in it, and I have the ague so bad."
"Take the chair," persisted Mrs, De Witt, and Rebow's men carried it forth. "There's some good plates there. Is there a complete set?"
"There are only six."
"That is better than none. Out with them. What have you got in the corner cupboard?"
"Nothing but trifles."
"We'll sell the cupboard and the dresser. You can't move the dresser, Elijah. We'll carry it in our heads. Look at it," she said to the clerk; "see you don't forget to put that up. Now shall we go into the bedrooms, or go next to the cowhouse?"
"Leave the bedroom," said Mellonie, "you can't sell the bed from under the old woman."
"I can though, if I don't raise enough," said Mrs. De Witt. "I've slept on a plank many a time."
"Oh dear! Oh dear!" moaned the widow Sharland; "I wish Mehalah had returned; perhaps she has the money."
"No chance of that, mistress," said Rebow. "You are sold up and done for past escape now. What will you do next, you and that girl Glory, I'd like to know?"
"I think she will get the money," persisted the widow.
Elijah turned from her with a sneer.
"Outside with you," shouted Mrs. De Witt. "The sale is going to begin."
The men—there were no women present except Mrs. De Witt—quickly evacuated the house and pushed into the stable and cowhouse.
There was no horse, and only one cow. The sheep were on the saltings. There was no cart, and very few tools of any sort. The little farm was solely a sheep farm, there was not an acre of tillage land attached to it.
The clerk climbed up into the cart.
"Stop, stop, for Heaven's sake!" gasped Mehalah dashing up. "What is this! Why have we not been warned?"
"Oh, yes! forewarned indeed, and get rid of the things," growled Mrs. De Witt. "But I did tell you what I should do, and precious good-natured I was to do it."
Mehalah darted past her into the house.
"Tell me, tell me!" cried the excited mother, "have you the money?" "No. The parson could not let me have it."
"Hark! they have begun the sale. What is it they are crying now?"
"The clock, mother. Oh, this is dreadful."
"They will sell the cow too," said the widow.
"Certain to do so."
"There! I hear the dresser's put up. Who has bought the clock?"
"Oh, never mind, that matters nothing. We are ruined."
"Oh dear, dear!" moaned Mrs. Sharland, "that it should come to this! But I suppose I must, I must indeed. Run, Mehalah, run quick and unrip the belt of my green gown. Quick, fetch it me."
The girl hastily obeyed. The old woman got her knife, and with trembling hand cut away the lining in several parts of the body. Shining sovereigns came out.
"There are twenty here," she said with a sigh, "and we have seven over of what George let us have. Give the wretches the money."
"Mother, mother!" exclaimed Mehalah. "How could you borrow! How could you send me—!"
"Never mind, I did not want to use my little store till every chance had failed. Run out and pay the money."
Mehalah darted from the door.
The clerk was selling the cow. "Going for twenty-five pounds. What? no one bid, going for twenty-five pounds, and dirt cheap at the money; all silent! Well, I never, and such a cow! Going for twenty-three—"
"Stop!" shouted Mehalah. "Here is Mrs. De Witt's money, twenty-five pounds."
"Damnation!" roared Elijah, "where did you get it?"
"Our savings," answered Mehalah, and turned her back on him.