Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 12
A GILDED BALCONY
Mehalah was hurt and angry at her mother's conduct. She thought that she had not been fairly treated. When the loss sustained presumably by Abraham Dowsing's carelessness had been discovered, Mrs. Sharland had not hinted the existence of a private store, and had allowed De Witt to lend her the money she wanted for meeting the rent. Glory regarded this conduct as hardly honest. It jarred, at all events, with her sense of what was honourable. On the plea of absolute inability to pay the rent, they had obtained five and twenty pounds from the young fisherman. Then again, when Mrs. De Witt reclaimed the debt, Mehalah had been subjected to the humiliation of appealing to Mr. Pettican and being repulsed by Admonition. She had been further driven to sue a loan of the parson; she had not, indeed, asked him for the money, but that was only because he avoided, intentionally or not she could not say, giving her the chance. She had gone with the intention of begging, and his manner, and the accidental discovery that the sale was already taking place, had alone prevented her from undergoing the shame of asking and being refused.
She did not like to charge her mother with having behaved dishonourably, for she felt instinctively that her mother's views and hers were not coincident. Her brow was clouded, and an unpleasant gleam flickered in her eyes. She resisted the treatment she had been subjected to as unnecessary. It was only justifiable in an extreme emergency, and no such emergency had existed. Her mother would rather sacrifice her daughter's self-respect than break in on the little hoard.
"Charles said he had money in the bank, did he?" asked Mrs. Sharland.
"To think of that! My cousin has an account in the bank, and can write his cheques, and one can cash cheques signed Charles Pettican! That is something to be proud of, Mehalah."
"And you say he has a beautiful house, with a verandah, A real gilt balcony. Think of that! And Charles is my cousin, the cousin of your own mother. There's something to think of, there. I couldn't sleep last night with dreaming of that house with its green shutters and a real balcony. I do believe that I shall die happy, if some day I may but see that there gilded—you said it was gilded— balcony. Charles Pettican with a balcony! What is the world coming to next! A real gilded balcony, and two figureheads looking over—there's an idea! Did you tell me there was a sofa in his sitting-room; and I think you said the dressing-table had a pink petticoat with gauze over it. Just think of that. I might have been Mrs. Charles Pettican, if all had gone well, and things had been as they should have, and then I should have had a petticoat to my dressing-table and a balcony afore my window. I am glad you went, it was like the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and seeing all his glory, and now you've come back into your own land, and filled me with your tidings."
Mehalah let her mother meander on, without paying any attention to what she said. Mrs. Sharland had risen some stages in her self-importance since she had heard how prosperous in a pecuniary sense her relation was. It shed a sort of glory on her when she thought that, had fate ruled it so, she might have shared with him this splendour, instead of being poor and lonely on the desolate Ray. Mrs. Sharland would have loved a gossip, but never got a chance of talking to anyone with a similar partiality. Had she married Mr. Charles Pettican she would have been in the vortex of a maelstrom of tittle-tattle. It was something to puff her up to think that if matters had taken another turn this would have been her position in Wyvenhoe.
"I don't think Mrs. De Witt had any notion how rich and distinguished my relatives are, when she came here asking for her five and twenty pounds. I'll take my oath on it, she has no cousin with a balcony and a sofa. I don't suppose we shall be troubled much now, when it is known that my cousin draws cheques, and that the name of Charles Pettican is honoured at the bank."
"You forget we got, and shall get, no help from him."
"I do not forget it, Mehalah. I remember perfectly how affably he spoke of me—his Liddy Vince, his pretty cousin. I do not forget how ready he was to lend the money. Twenty pounds! if you had asked fifty, he'd have given it you as readily. He was about to break open his cashbox, as he hadn't the key by him, and would have given me the money I wanted, had not a person who is no relation of mine interposed. That comes of designing women stepping in between near relatives. Charles Pettican is my cousin, and he is not ashamed to acknowledge it; why should he? I have always maintained myself respectable, and always shall."
"Mother," said Mehalah, interrupting this watery wash of vain twaddle, "you should not have borrowed the money of George De Witt. That was the beginning of the mischief?"
"Beginning of what mischief?"
"The beginning of our trouble."
"No, it was not; Abraham's carelessness was the beginning."
"But, mother, I repeat it, you did wrong in not producing your hidden store instead of borrowing."
"I did not borrow. I never asked George De Witt for his money; he proposed to let us have it himself."
"That is indeed true; but you should have at once refused to take it, and said it was unnecessary for us to be indebted to him, as you had the sum sufficient laid by."
"That is all very well, Mehalah, but when a generous offer is made me, why should I not accept it? Because there's still some milk of yesterday in the pan, do you decline to milk the cow to-day? I was glad of the opportunity of keeping my little savings untouched. Besides, I always thought George would make you his wife."
"I thought so too," said Mehalah in a low tone, and her face became sad and blank as before; she went off into a dream, but presently recovered herself and said, "Then, when Mrs. De Witt asked for her money, why did you not produce it, and free us of her insults and annoyance?"
"I did not want to part with my money. And it has turned out well. If I had done as you say, we should not have revived old acquaintance, and obtained the valuable assistance of Charles Pettican."
"He did not assist us."
"He did as far as he was able. He would have given us the money, had not untoward circumstances intervened. He as good as let us have the twenty pounds. That is something to be proud of—to be helped by a man whose name is honoured at the bank—at the Colchester Bank."
"But, mother, you have given me inexpressible pain!"
"Pained you!" exclaimed Mrs, Sharland. "How could I?"
Her eyes opened wide. Mehalah looked at her. They had such different souls, that the girl saw it was of no use attempting to explain to her mother what had wounded her; her sensations belonged to a sense of which her mother was deprived. It is idle to speak of scarlet to a man who is blind.
"I did it all for you," said Mrs. Sharland reproachfully, "I was thinking and caring only for you, Mehalah, from beginning to end, from first to last."
"Thinking and caring for me!" echoed Glory in surprise.
"Of course I was. I put those gold pieces away, one a quarter from the day you were born, till I had no more savings that I could put aside. I put them away for you. I thought that when I was gone and buried, you should have this little sum to begin the world upon, and you would not say that your mother died and left you nothing. Nothing in the world would have made me touch the hoard, for it was your money, Mehalah—nothing but the direst need, and you will do me the justice to say that this was the case to-day. It would have been the worst that could have happened for you to-day had the money not been paid, for you would have sunk in the scale."
"Mother!" exclaimed Mehalah, intensely moved, "you did all this for me; you thought and cared for me—for me!"
The idea of her mother having ever done anything for her, ever having thought of her, apart from herself, of having provided for her independently of herself, was too strange and too amazing for Mehalah to take it in at once. As long as she remembered anything she had worked for her mother, thought for her, and denied herself for her, without expecting any return, taking it as a matter of course that she should devote herself to her mother without the other making any acknowledgment.
And now the thought that she had been mistaken, that her mother had really cared for and provided for her, overwhelmed her. She had not wept when she thought that George De Witt was lost to her, but now she dropped into her chair, buried her face in her arms, and burst into a storm of sobs and tears.
Mrs. Sharland looked at her with a puzzled face. She never had understood Mehalah, and she was content to be in the dark as to what was passing in her breast now. She settled back in her chair, and turned back to the thoughts of Charles Pettican's gilt balcony and petticoated dressing-table . By degrees Mehalah recovered her composure, then she went up to her mother and kissed her passionately on the brow.
"Mother dear," she said in a broken voice, "I never, never will desert you. Whatever happens, our lot shall be cast together."
Then she reared herself, and in a moment was firm of foot, erect of carriage, rough and imperious as of old.
"I must look after the sheep on the saltings," she said. "Abraham's head is turned with the doings here to-day, and he has gone to the Rose to talk and drink it over. The moon is full, and we shall have a high tide."
Next moment Mrs. Sharland was alone.
The widow heaved a sigh. "There is no making heads or tails of that girl, I don't understand her a bit," she muttered.
"I do though," answered Elijah Rebow at the door. "I want a word with you, mistress."
"I thought you had gone, Elijah, after the sale."
"No, I did not leave with the rest. I hung about in the marshes, waiting a chance when I might speak with you by yourself. I can't speak before Glory; she flies out."
"Come in, master, and sit down. Mehalah is gone down to the saltings, and will not be back for an hour."
"I must have a word with you. Where has Glory been? I saw her go off t'other day in gay Sunday dress towards Fingringhoe. What did she go after?"
Mrs. Sharland raised herself proudly. "I have a cousin lives at Wyvenhoe, and we exchange civilities now and then. I can't go to him and he can't come to me, so Mehalah passes between us."
"What does she go there for?"
"My cousin, Mr. Charles Pettican—I dare say you have heard the name, it is a name that is honoured at the bank——" she paused and pursed up her lips. "Go on, I have heard of him, an old shipbuilder."
"He made his fortune in shipbuilding," said Mrs. Sharland. "He has laid by a good deal of money, and is a free and liberal man with it, among his near relatives."
"Curse him," growled Elijah, "he let you have the money?
"I sent Mehalah to my cousin Charles, to ask him to lend me a trifle, being for a moment inconvenienced," said Mrs. Sharland with stateliness.
"She—Glory—went cringing for money to an old shipbuilder!" exclaimed Rebow with fury in his face.
"She did not like doing so," answered the widow, "but I entreated her to put her prejudices in her pocket, and do as I wished. You see. Master Rebow, this was not like asking strangers. Charles is my cousin, my nearest living relative, and some day, perhaps, there is no knowing——" she winked, and nodded, and ruffled up in her pride. "We are his nearest of kin, and he is an old man, much older than I am. I am young compared to him, and he is half-paralysed."
"He gave the money without any difficulty or demur?" asked Elijah, his face flaming.
"He was most willing, anxious, I may say, to help. You see. Master Rebow, he is well off, and has no other relatives. He is a man of fortune, and has a gilt balcony before his house, and a real sofa in his sitting-room. His name is engraved on brass on a plate on the door, it commands respect and receives honour at the Colchester Bank."
"So you are fawning on him, are you?" growled Elijah.
"He has real oil-paintings on his walls. There's some in water-colours, and some in worsted work, but I make no count of them, but real oils, you know; there's something to think of in that. A man don't break out into oil unless he has money in the bank at command."
Mrs. Sharland was delighted with the opportunity of airing her re-discovered cousin, and exalting his splendour before someone other than her daughter.
"A valance all round his bed—there's luxury!" said the widow, "and that bed a whole tester. As for his dressing-table, it wears a better petticoat than I, pink calico that looks like silk, and over it gauze, just like a lady at an assembly ball, a real quality lady. My cousin is not one to see his Liddy—he calls me his pretty cousin Liddy—my name before I was married was Vince, but instead of Sharland it might have been Pettican, if all had been as it ought. I say cousin Charles is not the man to see his relatives sold up stick and stock by such as Mrs. DeWitt."
"You think if you can't pay me my rent, he will help you again?
"If I feel I little behind-hand. Master Rebow, I shall not scruple sending Mehalah to him again. Charles is a man of kind and generous heart, and it is touching how he clings to his own flesh and blood. He has taken a great affection for Mehalah. He calls her niece, and wants her to look on him as an uncle, but you know that is not the real relationship. He was my mother's only brother's son, so we was first cousins, and he can only be a cousin of some sort to Mehalah, can he?"
"Oh, curse your cousinships!" broke in Elijah angrily. "To what an extent can you count on his help?"
"To any amount," said the widow, too elated to care to limit her exaggeration.
"How is Mehalah? Is she more inclined to think of me?"
Mrs. Sharland shook her head.
"She don't love me?" said Elijah with a laugh.
"I fear not, Elijah."
"She won't be disposed to take up her quarters at Red Hall?"
Mrs. Sharland sighed a negative.
"Nor to bear with me near her all day."
"No, she won't," said he with a jerky laugh, "she won't till she is made to. She won't come to Red Hall till she can't help it. She won't live with me till I force her to it. Damn that cousin! He stands in my path, I will go see him. There comes Mehalah, back from the saltings. I must be off."
"My cousin is a man of importance," observed Mrs. Sharland, bridling up at Elijah's slighting remark. "He is not accustomed to be cursed. Men with names that the bank honours, and who have gilded balconies over their doors, don't like it, they don't deserve it."