Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 13
THE FLAG FLIES
A month after the interrupted auction, Elijah Rebow appeared one day before Mr. Pettican's door at Wyvenhoe. The gull was screaming and flying at his feet. His stick beat a loud summons on the door, but the noise within was too considerable for the notices of a visitor to be heard and responded to.
Elijah remained grimly patient outside, with a sardonic smile on his face, and amused himself with tormenting the gull.
Presently the door flew open, and a dashing young woman flung out, with cherry-coloured ribands in her bonnet, and cherry colour in her cheeks.
"All right, Monie?" asked a voice from the balcony, and then Elijah was aware of a young man in a blue guernsey and a straw hat lounging over the balustrade, between the figureheads, smoking a pipe.
"He has learned his place at last," answered Admonition; "I never saw him so audacious before. Come along, Timothy." The young man disappeared, and presently emerged at the door. At the same time a little withered face was visible at the window, with a dab of putty, as it seemed, in the middle of it, but which was probably a nose flattened against the glass. Two little fists were also apparent shaken violently, and a shrill voice screamed imprecations and vowed vengeance behind the panes, utterly disregarded by Admonition and Timothy, who stared at Elijah, and then struck down the gravelled path without troubling themselves to ask his business.
The door was left open, and Elijah entered, but stood on the threshold, and looked after the pair as they turned out of the garden-gate, and took the Colchester road, laughing and talking, and Admonition tossing her saucy head, in the direction of the face at the window, and then taking the sailor's arm.
A wonderful transformation had taken place in Mrs. Pettican's exterior as well as in her manner since her marriage.
She had been a soft demure little body with melting blue eyes and rich brown hair very smoothly laid on either side of her brow—a modest brow with guilelessness written on it—and the simplest little curls beside her round cheeks. She wore only black, in memory of a never-to-be-forgotten mother, and a neat white cap and apron. If she allowed herself a little colour, it was only a flower in her bosom. Poor Charles Pettican! How often he had supplied that flower!
"I can't pick one myself, Admonition," he had said; "you go into my garden and pluck a rose."
"But you must give it me," she had invariably said on such occasions, with a shy eye just lifted, and then dropped again.
And of course Mr. Pettican had presented the flower with a compliment, and an allusion to her cheek, which had always deepened the modest flush in it.
Now Admonition affected bright colours—cherry was her favourite. She who had formerly dressed below her position, now dressed above it; she was this day flashing through Wyvenhoe in a straw broad-brimmed hat with crimson bows, lined with crimson, and in a white dress adorned with carnation knots, and a red handkerchief over the shoulders worn bare in the house. There was no doubt about it, that Admonition looked very well thus attired, better even than in her black.
Her hair was now frizzled over her brow, and she wore a mass of curls about her neck, confined in the house by a carnation riband. The soft eyes were now marvellously hard when directed upon the husband, and only retained their velvet for Timothy. The cheek now blushed at nothing, but flamed at the least opposition.
"I married one woman and got another," said Charles Pettican to himself many times a day. "I can't make it out at all. Marriage to a woman is, I suppose, much like a hot bath to a baby; it brings out all the bad humours in the blood. Young girls are as alike as flour and plaster of Paris, and yet it is not till you begin to be the making of them that you find the difference. Some make into bread, but others make into stone."
When Elijah Rebow entered the little parlour, he found Mr. Pettican nearly choked with passion. He was ripping at his cravat to get it off, and obtain air. His face was nearly purple. He took no notice of his visitor for a few moments, but continued shaking his fist at the window, and then dragging at his neckcloth.
Being unable to turn himself about, the unfortunate man nearly strangled himself in his inability to unwind his cravat. This increased his anger, and he screamed and choked convulsively.
"You will smother yourself soon," observed Elijah dryly, and going up to Mr. Pettican, he loosened the neckcloth.
The cripple lay back and panted. Presently he was sufficiently recovered to project his head towards Rebow, and ask him what he wanted, and who he was.
Elijah told him his name. Charles Pettican did not pay attention to him; his mind was engrossed by other matters.
"Come here," said he, " here, beside me. Do you see them?"
"See what?" asked Elijah in return, gruffly, as Pettican caught his arm, and drew him down, and pointed out of the window.
"There they are. Isn't it wexing to the last degree of madness?"
"Do you mean your daughter and her sweetheart?"
"Daughter!" echoed the cripple. "Daughter! I wish she was. No, she's my wife. I don't mean her."
"What do you mean then?"
"Why, my crutches. Don't you see them?"
"No, I do not," answered Rebow looking round the room.
"They are not here," said Pettican. " Admonition flew out upon me, because I wouldn't draw more money from the bank, and she took away my crutches, to confine me till I came into her whimsies. There they are. They are flying at the mast-head. She got that cousin of hers to hoist them. She knows I can't reach them, that here I must lie till somebody fetches them down for me. You should have heard how they laughed, those cousins as they call themselves, as my crutches went aloft. Oh! it was fun to them, and they could giggle and cut jokes about me sitting here, flattening my nose at the pane, and seeing my crutches hoisted. They might as well have robbed me of my legs—better, for they are of no use, and my crutches are. Fetch me them down."
Elijah consented, chuckling to himself at the distress of the unfortunate shipbuilder. He speedily ran the crutches down, and returned them to Pettican.
"Turning me into fun before the whole town!" growled Pettican. "exposing my infirmity to all the world! It was my wife did it. Admonition urged on her precious cousin Timothy to it. He did fare to be ashamed, but she laughed him into it, just as Eve jeered Adam into eating the apple. She has turned off my servant too, and here am I left alone and helpless in the house all day,whilst she is dancing off to Colchester market with her beau—cousin indeed! What do you think, master?—I don't know your name."
"Elijah Rebow, of Red Hall."
"What do you think, Master Rebow? That cousin has been staying here a month, a whole calendar month. He has been given the best room, and there have been junketings without number; they have ate all the oysters out of my pan, and drank up all my old stout, and broken the necks of half the whisky bottles in my cellar, and smoked out all my havannahs. I have a few boxes, and indulge myself occasionally in a good cigar, they come costly. Well, will you believe me? Admonition routs out all my boxes, and gives her beau a havannah twice a day or more often, as he likes, and I haven't had one between my lips since he came inside my doors. That lot of old Scotch whisky I had down from Dundee is all drunk out. Before I married her. Admonition would touch nothing but water, and tea very weak, only coloured with the leaf; now she sucks stout and rum punch and whisky like a fish. It is a wonder to me she don't smoke too." The cripple tucked his recovered crutches under his arms, rolled himself off his chair, and stumped vehemently half a dozen times round the room. He returned at length, out of breath, and very hot, to his chair, into which he cast himself.
"Put up my legs, please," he begged of Elijah. "There!" he said, "I have worked off my excitement a little. Now go into the hall and look in the box under the stairs, there you will find an Union Jack. Run it up to the top of the mast. I don't care. I will defy her. When that girl who came here the other day—I forget her name—sees the flag flying she will come and help me. If Admonition has cousins, so have I, and mine are real cousins. I doubt but those of Admonition are nothing of the sort. If that girl——"
"What girl?" asked Rebow gloomily, as he folded his arms across his breast, and scowled at Charles Pettican.
"I don't know her name, but it is written down. I have it in my note-book—Ah! Mehalah Sharland. She is my cousin, her mother is my cousin. I'll tell you what I will do, master. But before I say another word, you go up for me into the best bedroom—the blue room, and chuck that fellow's things out of the window over the balcony, and let the gull have the pecking and tearing of them to pieces. I know he has his best jacket on his back; more's the pity. I should like the gull to have the clawing and the beaking of that, but he can make a tidy mess of his other traps; and will do it."
"Glory——" began Elijah.
"Ah! you are right there," said Pettican. "It will be glory to have routed cousin Timothy out of the house; and if the flag flies, my cousin—I forget her name—Oh! I see, Mehalah—will come here and bring her mother, and before Master Timothy returns with Admonition from market—they are going to have a shilling's worth on a merry-go-round, I heard them scheme it—my cousins will be in possession, and cousin Timothy must content himself with the balcony, or cruise off."
"Glory——or Mehalah, as you call her."
"I'll not listen to another word, till you have chucked that fellow's traps overboard. There's a portmantle of his up there, chuck that over with the rest, and let the gull have the opening and examination of the contents."
There was nothing for it but compliance, if Elijah wished to speak on the object of his visit. The old man was in an excited condition which would not allow him to compose his mind till his caprices were attended to, and his orders carried out. Rebow accordingly went upstairs and emptied the room of all evidences of its having been occupied. There was a discharge of boots, brush, clothes, pipes, into the garden, at which Pettican rubbed his hands and clucked like a fowl.
Rebow returned to the parlour, and the old shipbuilder was profuse in his thanks. "Now," said he, "run the flag up. You haven't done that yet. Then come and have a glass of spirits. There is some of the whisky left, not many bottles, but there is some, and not locked up, for Admonition thought she had me safe when she hoisted my crutches up the mast-head. Go now and let the bunting float as of old in my halcyon days." This was also done; the wind took, unfurled, and flapped the Union Jack, and the old man crowed with delight, and swung his arms.
"That is right. I haven't seen it fly for many months; not since I was married. Now that girl, I forget her name, oh! I have it here—Mehalah—will see it, and come to the rescue. Do you know her?
"That ain't her name. Her name is—is—Mehalah."
"We call her Glory. She is the girl. I know her," he laughed and his eyes glittered. He set his teeth.
Charles Pettican looked at him, and thought he had never seen a more forbidding countenance. He was frightened, and asked hastily, "Who are you?"
"I am Elijah Rebow, of Red Hall."
"I don't know you or the place."
"I am in Salcot and Virley. You know it by name."
"Oh! perhaps I do. My memory is not what it once was. I get so put out by my wife's whimsies that I can't collect my faculties all at once. I think I may have heard of you, but I haven't met you before." "I am the landlord of Glory—Mehalah, you call her. The Ray, which is their farm, belongs to me, with all the marshes and the saltings, and all that thereon is. I bought it for eight hundred pounds. Glory and her mother are mine."
"I don't understand you."
"I bought the land, and the farm, and them, a job lot, for eight hundred pounds."
"I remember the girl—I forget her name, but I have it here, written down——"
"No, not that, Mehalah. I wish you wouldn't call her what she is not, because it confuses me; and I have had a deal to confuse me lately. Marriage does rummage a man's hold up so. Mehalah came here a few weeks back to ask me to lend her some money, as her mother could not pay the rent. Her mother is my cousin, Liddy Vince that was; I used to call her ‘Pretty Liddy,’ or Lydia Languish, after a character in a play, because of her ague, and because she sort of languished of love for me. And I don't deny it, I was sweet on her once, but the ague shivers stood in the way of our love waxing wery hot."
"You lent her the money."
"I—I——" hesitated Mr. Pettican. "You see how I am circumstanced, my wife——"
"You lent her the money. Mistress Sharland told me so."
"She did!" exclaimed Pettican in surprise.
"Yes, she did. Now I want to know, will you do that again? I am landlord. I bought the Ray for eight hundred pounds, and I don't want to drop my money without a return. You understand that. A man doesn't want to give his gold away, and be whined out of getting interest for it by an old shivering, chattering woman, and flouted out of it by a devil of a girl." His hands clenched fiercely.
"Of course, of course," said the cripple. "I understand you. You think those two can't manage the farm, and were better out of it."
"I want to be sure of my money," said Elijah, knitting his dark brows, and fixing his eyes intently on Pettican. "I quite understand," said the latter; and tapping his forehead, he added, "I am a man of business still. I am not so old as all that, whatever Admonition may say."
"Now what I want to know," pursued Elijah, "is this—for how long are you going to pay your cousin's rent? For how long is that Glory to come to me and defy me, and throw the money down before me?"
"I don't quite take you," said Pettican.
"How many times will you pay their rent?" asked Rebow.
"Well!" said the cripple, passing his hand over his face. "I don't want them to stay at your farm at all. I want them to come here and take care of me. I cannot defend myself. If I try to be a man—that girl, I forget her name, you confuse me about it—told me to be a man, and I will be a man, if she will back me up. I have been a man somewhat, have I not, master, in chucking cousin Timothy's traps to the gull?—that I call manly. You will see the girl—Mehalah—I have the name now. I will keep my note-book open at the place. Mehalah, Mehalah, Mehalah, Mehalah."
"I want to know——" broke in Elijah.
"Let me repeat the name ten times, and then I shall not forget it again." Pettican did so. " You called her something else. Perhaps we are not speaking of the same person."
"Yes, we are. I call her Glory. I am accustomed to that name. Tell me what you want with her."
"I want her and her mother to come and live with me, and take care of me, and then I can be a man, and make head against the wind that is now blowing in my teeth. Shall you see them?"
"Then pray make a point of seeing the girl or her mother, in case she should not notice the flag, and say that I wish them to come here at once; at once it must be, or I shall never have courage to play the man again, not as I have to-day. They did put my monkey up by removing my crutches and hoisting them to the mast-head, leaving me all by myself and helpless here. I should wish Mehalah to be here before Admonition and her beau return. They won't be back till late. There's a horsemanship at Colchester as well as a merry-go-round, and they are going to both, and perhaps to the theatre after that. There'll be junketings and racketings, and I—poor I—left here with no one to attend to me, and my crutches at the mast-head. You will tell the girl and her mother that I expect their help, and I will be a man, that I will. It would be something to boast of, would it not, if Timothy were to return and find his room occupied and his baggage picked to rags, and if Admonition were to discover that I have cousins as well as she?"
"You are bent on this?"
"I rely on you. You will see them and tell them to come to me, and I will provide for them whilst I am alive, and afterwards—when I am no more—we won't talk or think of such an eventuality. It isn't pleasant to contemplate, and may not happen for many years. I am not so old as you might think. My infirmity is due to accident; and my digestion is, or rather was, first-rate. I could eat and drink anything before I was married. Now I am condemned to see others eat and drink what I have laid in for my own consumption, and I am put off with the drumstick of the fowl, or the poorest swipes of ale, whilst the others toss off my stout—bottled stout. I will not endure this any longer. Tell that girl—I forget her name—and her mother that they must come to me."
"But suppose they will not come."
"They will, I know they will. The female heart is tender and sympathetic, and compassionates misery. My suffering will induce them to come. If that will not, why then the prospects of being comfortably off and free from cares will make them come. I have plenty of money. I won't tell you, I have not told Admonition, how much. I have money in the Colchester Bank. I have South Sea shares, and insurances, and mortgages, and I shall not let Admonition have more money than I can help, as it all goes on cousin Timothy, and whirligigs and horsemanships, or regattas, and red ribands, and what not; none is spent on me. No, no. The Sharlands shall have my money. They are my cousins. I have cousins as well as Admonition. I will be a man and show that I have courage too. But I have another inducement that will be sure to bring them."
"What is that?"
"I have observed," said Pettican, with a hiccuppy giggle, "that just as tom-cats will range all over the country in search of other tom-cats, just for the pleasure of clawing them and tearing out their hair, so women will hunt the whole country-side for other women, if there be a chance of fighting them. Tell my cousin Liddy that Admonition is game, she has teeth, and tongue, and nails, and sets up her back in a corner, and likes a scrimmage above everything, and my word for it, Liddy—unless the ague has taken the female nature out of her—will be here before nightfall to try her teeth, and tongue, and nails on Admonition. It is said that if on a May morning you rub your eyes with cuckoo spittle, you see things invisible before, the fairies in the hoes dancing and feasting, swimming in eggshells on the water to bore holes in ships' sides, milking the cows before the maids come with the pail, and stealing the honey from the hives. Well, marriage does much the same sort of thing to a man as salving his eyes in cuckoo spittle; it affords him a vision of a world undreamt of before; it gives him an insight into what is going on in the female world, and the workings and brewings and the mischief in women's hearts. Tell Liddy Sharland about my Admonition, and she will be here, with all her guns run out and ready charged, before nightfall."
Rebow shook his head. "Mistress Sharland and Glory won't come."
"Don't say so. They must, or I shall be undone. I cannot live as I have, tyrannised over, insulted, trampled on by Admonition and her cousin. I will no longer endure it. The flag is flying. I have proclaimed my independence and defiance. But, as you see, I am unable to live alone. If Liddy and her daughter will not come to me, I shall be driven to do something desperate. My life has become intolerable; I will bear with Admonition no longer."
"What will you do?" asked Elijah with a sneer. "I tell you, I do not care. I am reckless, I will even fire the house, and burn it over their heads." "What good would that do?"
"What good would it do?" repeated Pettican. "It would no longer be a shelter for Admonition and that beau Timothy. I am not going to be trifled with, I have endured too much. I Will be a man. I shouldn't mind a bit smoking them out of this snug lair."
"And what about yourself?"
"Oh, as for me, I could go to the Blue Anchor, and put up there for the rest of my days. I think I could be happy in a tavern, happier than here, and I should have the satisfaction of thinking I had shaken the weevils out of the biscuit."
Elijah started, and strode up and down the room, with head bent, and his eyes fixed on the floor. His hands were clenched and rigid at his side.
"You will tell Liddy," said the cripple, watching him.
"Smoke them out! Ha! ha! that is a fine idea!" burst forth from Elijah, with a laugh.
"You will tell Liddy," repeated Charles Pettican. "You must, you know, or I am lost. If Admonition were to return with Timothy at her heels, and were to find the flag flying, and me alone——" he passed his agitated hand over his face, and his lips trembled.
"I see," said Rebow. "You would then cease to be a man."
It was late when Admonition and her cousin returned from the market. It was so dark that they did not see the flag. But as Admonition put her hand on the gate it was grasped.
"Stop," said Elijah. "A word with you."
"Who are you?" asked Mrs. Pettican in alarm, and Timothy swaggered forward to her defence.
"Never mind who I am. I have waited here some hours to warn you. Was there a girl, a handsome girl, a glorious girl, here to see that man, your husband, a month ago? You need not answer. I know there was. She is his cousin. He lent her money."
"No, he did not. I stopped that, didn't I, Tim?"
"He lent her money. You think you stopped that, but you did not. He let her have the money, twenty pounds, how I know not. She had his money, and she will have more, all, unless you keep a sharp watch on him." "Tim! do you hear this?" asked Admonition.
"He will send for his cousin to live in the house with him, and to support him against you."
"Oh, oh! That's fine, isn't it, Tim?"
"If they come, your reign is at an end. That girl, Glory, has a head of iron and the heart of a lion. No one can stand against her but one. There is only one in all the world has dared to conquer her, and he will do it yet. Don't you think you will be able to lift a little finger against her will. She will be too strong for you and a hundred of your Timothys."
Admonition laughed. "My little mannikin daren't do it. He is under my thumb."
"The flag is flying," sneered Elijah.
At that moment the faint light of evening broke through the clouds and Admonition saw the Union Jack at the mast-head.
"He is right. There is audacity! Run, Tim, haul it down, and bring it me. It shall go into the kitchen fire to boil the water for a glass of grog."