Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 14
ON THE BURNT HILL
It was Christmas Eve. A hard frost had set in. The leaves which had hung on the thorn trees on the Ray rained off and were whirled away by the wind and scattered over the rising and falling waters in the Rhyn. On the saltings were many pools, filled from below, through crab burrows, from the channels; when the tide mounted, the water squirted up through these passages and brimmed the pools, and when the tide fell, it was sucked down through them as if running out of a colander. Now a thin film of ice was formed about the edges of these pondlets, and the marsh herbs that dipped in them were encased in crystal. The wild geese and ducks came in multitudes, and dappled the water of Mersea channel.
"There's four gone," said Abraham Dowsing in a sulky voice to Mehalah.
"Four ewes, to be sure; of what else have we more than one?"
"Where are they?"
"That is what I should like to know. Two went yesterday, but I said nothing about it, as I thought they might be found, or that I hadn't counted aright; but there's two more missing to-day."
"What can have become of them?"
"It's no use asking me. Is it like I should know?"
"But this is most extraordinary. They must have wandered off the saltings, on to the causeway, and so got away."
"That is likely, ain't it," said Abraham. " It is like the ways of sheep, to scatter, and two or three to go off and away from all the flock. I'll believe that when sheep change their nature."
"They must have fallen into a pool and been drowned."
"Then I should find their carcases; but I haven't. Perhaps there has been a spring tide at the wrong time of the year and overflowed and drowned them. That's likely, isn't it?"
"But, Abraham, they must be found."
"Then you must find 'em yourself."
"Where can they be?"
"I've told you it is no use asking me."
"Can they have been stolen?"
"I reckon that is just about it."
"Stolen!" exclaimed Mehalah, her blood flashing to her face and darkening cheek and brow. "Do you mean to tell me that some scoundrel has been here in the night, and carried off four of our ewes?"
Abraham shrugged his shoulders; "Mud tells tales at times."
Mehalah trembled with anger.
"Some boat was here last night, and night afore, and the keel marks remain. I saw them, and I saw footprints of sheep too, near them."
"The tide is up, and you can't see. Near the Burnt Hill."
"Abraham, this is not to be borne." "Who is to help it?"
"I will. I will watch." She stamped her foot fiercely on the red glasswort; "I will kill the cowardly sneaking thief who comes here to rob the widow and the orphan."
"You must see him first," said Abraham, " and sheep-stealers don't generally let themselves be seen."
"A man who steals sheep can be hung for it."
"I'll catch him," she laughed, "and the gallows will be set up on the Burnt Hill, and then he shall dangle till his bones drop away into the ooze."
"You must catch him first," said the shepherd, and shrugged his shoulders again.
Mehalah strode up and down in the marsh, her brows knit, and the veins swollen on her temples. She breathed fast and her blood sang in her ears. To be robbed in this cowardly manner! The thought was maddening. Hitherto she and her mother had deemed themselves perfectly safe on the Ray: nothing had ever been taken from them; the ooze and the sea water walled them in. The Ray was a trap from which there was no escape save by boat. It was said that once a deserter found his way into Mersea Isle and lingered about the marshes for many days. He dared not return by the causeway, thinking it would be watched and he would be secured, and he had no money wherewith to bribe a boatman to put him across elsewhere. One evening he lit on a farmer with a spade over his shoulder going to the sea-wall to block a rent against an expected tide. He fell on the man from behind, wrenched away his spade and cut his head open with it, then turned out his pockets in search of coin, but found none. The man was taken. He could not escape, and was hung on the marshes where the murder was done, by the mouth of the Pyefleet.
If Mersea was a trap, how much more so the Ray! The Sharlands had not even a lock to their door. No one was ever seen on the island after dark save those who dwelt there, for the hill was surrounded on all sides, save where girt by the sea, by a labyrinth of creeks and pools. A robber there would be like a fly in a cobweb, to be caught at once. The sheep were allowed to ramble all over the marsh and saltings, they could thread their way; and it was only when the moon was full or new, and the wind in the south-east, that the shepherd drove them into fold till the waters subsided. There were times—such as the coincidence of a peculiar wind with an equinoctial tide—when to leave the sheep on the marsh would be to ensure their being drowned. This was so well known, that precaution was always taken against the occasion.
The sense of being treated unjustly, of being cruelly wronged, of advantage being taken of their feebleness, filled Mehalah's heart with bitterness, with rage. An over-mastering desire for revenge came upon her. She, a girl, would defend her property, and chastise the man who injured her. She gave up all thought of obtaining the assistance of Abraham, if it ever entered her mind. The old man was too slow in his movements, and dull of sight and hearing, to be of use. As likely as not, moreover, he would refuse to risk himself on the saltings at night, to expose himself to the ague damp or the bullet. What could he, a feeble old loon, do against a sturdy sheep-stealer?
"Whom do you suspect?" asked Glory abruptly.
He drew up his shoulders.
"Come, tell me."
"An empty belly."
"Abraham! one man cannot have taken four sheep for himself."
There was nothing to be got out of the dogged rustic. Mehalah waited till evening, then she wrapped a cloak round her, put her pistol in her belt, and walked through the marsh to the point indicated by the shepherd as the Burnt Hill.
Through all the low flat coast land of this region, above the saltings, or pasture overflowed by high tides occasionally, are scattered at irregular intervals large broad circular mounds of clay burned to brick red, interspersed with particles of charcoal. A few fragments of bone are found in them, relics of the meals of those who raised these heaps, but they cover no urns, and enclose no cists, they contain no skeletons. They were never intended as funeral monuments, and are quite different from the hoes or barrows which stand on high land, and which were burial mounds. The burnt or red hills are always situate at high-water mark; near them, below the surface of the vegetable deposit, are multitudes of oyster shells. Near them also are sometimes found, sunk in the marsh, polished chert weapons. Who raised these mounds? For what purpose were they reared? These are questions that cannot be answered satisfactorily. One thing is certain. An immense amount of wood must have been consumed to burn such a mass of clay, and the country must then have been more overgrown with timber than at present. Many of the mounds are now enclosed in fields by sea-walls which hold out the tide, the plough has been drawn over them, and the spade has scattered them over the surface, colouring a whole field brick red, and making it rich for the production of corn. There is no better manure than a red hill.
But why were these mounds so laboriously raised? The tradition of the marsh-dwellers is that they were platforms for huts, the earth burned as a prevention to ague. It is curious that in the marshy regions of Central Africa the natives adopt a precisely similar method for their protection from miasma. But why men dwelt in such numbers on the saltings remains undetermined. Whether they lived there to burn the glasswort for nitre, or to steam the sea water for salt, or to take charge of oyster grounds, is uncertain. Fragments, very broken, of pottery are found in these heaps, scattered throughout them, but not a specimen of a perfect vessel. The burnt hills are built up on the old shingle of the shore, with no intervening line of vegetable matter, the growth of the marsh has been later and has risen about their bases and has partly buried them.
Glory reached the Burnt Hill, and stood on it. A cold east wind wailed over the waste; a white fog like curd lay on the water and the surface of the saltings, clinging to the surface and rising scarce above three feet from it. Here and there it lifted itself in a vaporous column, and moved along in the wind like a white spectral woman, nodding her head and waving her arms cumbered with wet drapery. Above, the sky was clear, and a fine crescent moon sparkled in it without quenching the keenness of the stars. Cassiopeia was glorious in her chair, Orion burned sideways over Mersea Isle. No red gleam was visible to-night from the tavern window at the City, the veil of fog hung over it and curtained it off. To the north-west was a silvery glow at the horizon, then there rose a pure ray as of returning daylight, it was answered by a throb in the north-east, then it broke into two rays, and again united and spread, and suddenly was withdrawn. Mehalah had often seen the Aurora, and she knew that the signals portended increased cold or bad weather.
She seated herself on the mound, and drew her cloak about her more closely, the damp cold bit into her flesh; she knew she was safe from ague on the burnt earth.
Her anger subsided, not that she resented the wrong the less, but that her mind had passed to other contemplations. She was thinking of George, of her dead hopes, of the blankness of the future before her. A little sunlight had fallen on her sad and monotonous life, but it had been withdrawn, and had left her with nothing to live for, save her mother. Her heart had begun to expand as a flower, and a frost had fallen on it, and blackened its petals. She brooded now on the past. She wished for nothing in the future. She had no care for the present. It was all one to her what befell her, so long as her mother were cared for. She had no one else to love. She was without a friend. She would resent an injury, and fight an enemy. George might have introduced her into a new world of gentleness, and pity, and love. Now the door to that world was shut for ever, and she must beat her way through a world of hard realities, where every man's hand was lifted against his brother, and where was hate and resentment, and exacting of the uttermost farthing. She had gone forth seeking help, and except from George, had found none. Mrs. De Witt, Phoebe Musset, Admonition, such were the women she had met; and the men were selfish as Parson Tyll, fools as Charles Pettican, surly as Abraham Dowsing, or brutal as Elijah Rebow.
Hark!—She caught the dip of an oar.
She drew in her breath and raised her head. Then she saw a boat shoot out of the mist, white and ghostlike as the mist forms that stalked over the water, and in the boat a man.
There he was! The sheep-stealer, come once more to rob her mother and herself. At once her furious passion boiled up in her veins. She saw before her the man who had wronged her; she thought nothing of her own weakness beside his strength, of there being no one within call to come to her aid, should his arm be stouter than hers. She sprang to her feet with a shout, such as an Indian might utter on leaping on his foe, and rushed to the water's edge, just as the man had landed, and had her hands at his throat in a moment.
"You coward, you thief!" she cried, shaking him savagely.
In an instant a pair of stronger hands had wrenched her hands away and pinioned them.
"By heaven! you wild cat, what are you flying at me like that for? What has brought you here at this time of night?"
Mehalah was abashed. Her rage sank. She had mistaken her man. This was no sheep-stealer. She could not speak, so great was her agitation. She writhed to free herself, but writhed in vain. Elijah laughed at her attempts.
"What are you here for?" he asked again. "Can you not answer my question?"
"Someone has been stealing our ewes," she said.
"And you took me for the thief," said Rebow. "Much obliged for the compliment. Me—the owner of Red Hall, and the man that purchased the Ray, the farm house, and the marshes and the saltings and all that thereon is for eight hundred pounds, to be taken and hanged for sheep-lifting! A likely story, Glory. You must manage better another time."
"What brings you here?" asked Mehalah sullenly, angry with herself and with him.
"That is the question I asked of you, and you return it. I will tell you. I am out duck-shooting, but the mist lies so thick on the water, and eats into the marrow of the bones. I could see no ducks, and I was freezing in my punt; so I have come to lie with my gun on the Burnt Hill awhile till the fog clears, as it will in an hour, when I shall return."
"Were you here yesterday night?"
"No, I was not; I was up Tottcsbury creek and got a dozen pair of wild duck. Will you have some? I have a pair or two in the punt."
"I have refused them before, and I refuse them again."
"Why do you ask me if I were here yesternight?"
"Because then two sheep were taken. Were you here the night before?"
"No, I was then on Abbots' Hall marshes. Do you suspect me still of sheep-stealing?" he asked scoffingly.
"I do not, but I thought had you been here you might have seen some signs of the villains who have robbed us."
"Come here, Glory! out of the fog on to the Burnt Hill."
"I am going home."
"You are not, till I have said what I have to say. Come out of the ague damps."
"I am going home, now."
He held her by both wrists. She was strong, but her strength was nothing to his. She made no great effort to get away. If he chose to speak to her, she would listen to him. If she struggled in his grasp, it would make him think she feared him. She would not allow him to suppose himself of such importance to her. If he insulted her, she had her pistol, and she would not scruple to defend herself.
He drew her to the top of the mount; there they were clear of the mist, which lay like snow below and round them, covering the morass and the water. The clear cut crescent moon hung over a clump of pines on Mersea. Rebow looked at it, then waved an arm in the direction.
"Do you see Grim's Hoe yonder?—That great barrow with the Scotch pines on top? Do you know how it comes there? Have you heard the tale?"
Mehalah was silent.
"I will tell you, for I often think of it, and so will you when you have been told the tale. In the old times when the Danes came here, they wintered on Mersea Isle, and in the summer they cruised all along the coast, burning and plundering and murdering. There were two chiefs to them, brothers, who loved one another; they were twins, born the same hour, and they had but one heart and soul; what one willed that willed the other, what one desired that the other desired also. One spring they sailed up the creek to St. Osyth's, and there they took Osyth and killed her. She had a sister, very beautiful, and she fell to the lot of the brothers. They brought her back to Mersea, and then each would have her for his own. So the brothers fell out whose she should be, and all their love turned to jealousy, and their brotherhood to enmity, and it came about that they fought with their long swords who should have the maid. They fought, and smote, and hacked one another till their armour was broken, and their flesh was cut off, and their blood flowed away, and by nightfall they were both dead. Thereupon the Danes drew their ship up to the top of the hill just above the Strood, and they placed the maid in the hold with a dead brother on either side of her, in his tattered harness, sword in hand, and they heaped a mountain over them and buried them all, the living and the dead together."
Rebow paused, and pointed to the moon hung over the hoe.
"When the new moon appears, the flesh grows on their bones, and the blood stanches, and the wounds close, and breath comes back behind their ribs. When the moon is full they rise in the ship's hold and fall on one another, and if you listen at full moon on the hoe you can hear the brothers fighting below in the heart of the barrow. You hear them curse and cry out, and you hear the clash of their swords. But when the moon wanes the sounds grow fainter, their armour falls to bits, their flesh drops away, the blood oozes out of all the hacked veins, and at last all is still. Then, when there is no moon, you can hear the maid mourning and sobbing: you can hear her quite distinctly till the new moon reappears, and then she is hushed, for the brothers are recovering for a new fight. This will go on month after month, year after year, till one conquers the other and wins the maid; but that will never be, for the brothers are of the same age, and equally strong, and equally resolute."
"Why have you told me this?" asked Mehalah.
"Why have I told you this, Glory?" repeated Rebow; "because you and I are like those brothers, only they began with love and ended with fighting, and you and I begin with fighting and must and shall end with love. I love you. Glory, and yet, at times, I almost hate you."
"And I," broke in Mehalah, " hate you with my whole heart, and never, never can love you."
"You have a strong spirit, so have I," said Elijah; "I like to hear you speak thus. For long you have let me see that you have hated me: you have fought me hard, but you shall love me yet. We must fight. Glory; it is our destiny. We were made for one another, to love and fight, and fight and love, till one has conquered or killed the other. How can you live at the Ray, and I at Red Hall, apart? You know, you feel it, that we must be together to love and fight, and fight and love, till death. What is the use of your struggling against what must come about? As soon as ever I saw you I knew that you were ordained for me from the moment you were born. You grew up and ripened for me, for me, and no one else. You thought you loved George De Witt. I hated you for loving him. He was not worthy of you, a poor, foolish, frightened sop. You would have taken him and turned him inside out and torn him to pieces, in a week, disgusted with the fellow that made calf-love to you, when you had sounded his soul and found a bottom as soon as the lead went out of your hand. You thought George De Witt would belong to you. It could not be. You cannot oppose your destiny. A strong soul like yours must not mate but with a strong soul like mine. Till I saw you I hated women, poor, thin-headed, hollow-souled toys. When I saw you I saw the only woman who could be mine, and I knew, as the pointers yonder know the polestar, that you were destined to me. You hate me because you know this as well as I do. You know that there is no man on earth who can be yours save me, but you will play and fight with your destiny. Sooner or later you must bend to it. Sooner or later you must give way. You thought of George De Witt, and he is swept out of your path. You may fancy any other man, and he will go this way or that, and nothing will prosper till you set your face in the direction whither your destiny points. You can take no other than me however much you may desire it. You need me and I need you. You may hate me and go on hating me and fighting me to the last, but you cannot escape me."
"Elijah," said Mehalah, "escape you I will. Since I have known you, you have been mixed up with all the ills that have come upon us, I do not know how; but I seem to feel that you are like an evil wind or a blighting cloud passing over my life. I would look up and laugh, but I cannot, I turn hard, and hate the world—only because you are in it. It would be another world without you."
"Why do you turn hard and hate the world? Because you are on a wrong road, you are battling against your destiny. All goes across with you, because you are across your proper path. Why do you hate me? Because you feel in your soul that you must sooner or later be mine, and your haughty will rebels against having your future determined for you. Yet I know it. The time is at hand when you will take me for better, for worse, for all life. We cannot live a moment the one without the other. If I were to die you would die too, you would rage and writhe against death, but it would come. I know it. Our lives are bound up together in one bundle, and the knife that cuts one string cuts the other also. Our souls are twins to love and to hate, to fondle and fight, till death us do part! Till death us do part " repeated Rebow scornfully. "Death can no more part us than life. We will live together and we will die together, and moulder away in one another's arms. The worm that gnaws me shall gnaw you. I think of you night and day. I cannot help it: it is my fate. I knew it was so the moment I saw you. I came here. I cannot keep away till you come to me to Red Hall."
"I shall never go there again," said Mehalah sullenly.
"Not before New Year?"
He laughed. "She would swear to it, and yet at the New Year she will be there. And she will take me and be mine. For me she must and will love. It is her fate; she cannot oppose that for ever. For me she would even give up George De Witt."
"George De Witt is dead."
"I say, were it to come to this, George or Elijah, one or the other, you would fly to Elijah and cast George off."
"Let me go. I will have no more of this mad babble," said Mehalah, Wrenching her hands out of his grasp. She would not run away. She was too proud. She folded her arms on her breast and confronted him.
"Hark!" she said, "the Christmas bells."
Faint and far off could be heard the merry pealing of the Colchester bells. The wind had shifted.
"Peace on earth and good will to men," muttered Elijah; "but to them that fight against their destiny fury and hate."
"Go back, Elijah, and speak to me no more on this matter. I will not hear you again. I have but endured it now."
"This is Christmas Eve," said Rebow. "In eight days is the New Year, and then you will be in Red Hall, Glory!"
"Listen to me, Elijah," exclaimed Mehalah passionately. "If you find me there, then you may hope to see your other fond dream fulfilled. Destiny will have been too strong for me."
"May we not meet again!"
"We shall. It cannot be helped. I feel it coming. You may fight against it; you cannot escape. Destiny must fulfil itself. We must fight and love, and love and fight in life, in death, and through eternity, like the old warriors in Grim's Hoe."
"Till this day sen'night."