Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 16
IN NEW QUARTERS
When the boat reached the landing place for Red Hall, Mrs. Sharland was found to have been so overcome with terror, and numbed with frost, as to be unable to walk. She moaned under her blankets, but made no effort to rise. Elijah was obliged to carry her out of the boat upon the sea-wall, and then with the assistance of Mehalah she was conveyed to the house in their arms. Neither spoke, and Mrs. Sharland's lamentations over various articles she had prized, and which she feared were lost or destroyed, remained unattended to.
The old woman was wrapped up from the cold in a blanket that enfolded her entire person and head, and she kept working an aperture for her face, whilst being carried, not so much to obtain air, as to give vent to queries.
"My green bombazine,—where is it?"
The folds of the blanket closed over the face. The fingers worked at them, till they had made a gap.
"Is the toad-jug saved?" at the same time a point of a nose and a thin finger emerged from the wraps.
"There was a dozen of Lowestoft soup-dishes!" A jerk as she was being lifted over a rail sent her head and shoulders deeper into the blanket, and it was some minutes before she had grubbed a hole for herself again.
"The warming-pan! I can't go to bed unless I have the sheets aired."
A spring across a dyke buried the old woman again "in woollen." She emerged only as the house was reached to exclaim "My rum!"
"You've come where there's lots of that," said Elijah, and he indicated with his chin to Mehalah to carry her up the steps into the hall.
A red fire was glowing and painting the walls. The great room was warm, and Mrs. Sharland battled out of her envelopes as soon as she became aware that she was under cover.
"Take me to bed," she said; "my legs are frozen. I can't go a step. Oh! is the toad-jug saved?" "I will carry her now," said Elijah. "You light a candle, Glory, and follow me."
He took the old woman over his shoulder, and led the way up the stairs. Mehalah followed with a light she had kindled at the hearth. He conducted into a bedroom, comfortably furnished, with white curtains to the windows, and a low tester bed in the corner.
"Light the fire," he ordered, and Mehalah applied the candle to the straw and chips in the grate. Presently the flames were dancing up the chimney, and making the whole chamber glow. The old woman was laid on the bed.
"This looks comfortable," said she; "just as if you was prepared for us."
"I was prepared for you. Everything was ready. Glory knows that I have been expecting you and her. I told her she must come, sooner or later. Sooner or later the same roof must cover both, as sooner or later the same grave will hold us both. She would fight me, and would not come to me, but her destiny is stronger than her will. My will is the destiny of her life. It shapes and directs it."
Mehalah did not speak. She could not speak. She was stunned. A belt of iron bound her heart and restrained its free bounds, a weight of lead crushed her brain and killed its independence of action. She, who had been hitherto a law to herself, whose will had been unfettered, now discovered herself a captive under the thraldom of a will mightier, or more ungovernable, than her own. She had no time or power to think how to escape, and free herself from the situation in which she was placed. All her thoughts that she could collect must be about her mother. She must think of herself when she had more leisure. But though she could not think of herself, she could feel that she was conquered, and a captive, and that escape would not be easy.
"There," said Elijah, indicating a door, "there is another little room for you and your mother to put away what you like. If you want anything, come downstairs."
Elijah went heavily down the stairs and out at the door. Mehalah looked from the window, and saw him on his way to the boat. He was going back to the Ray. She could still see a red cloud hanging over her burnt home. The tears rose in her heart at the sight, but would not well out at her eyes. She stood and looked long at the dying fire, drawing the window curtain behind her to screen from her the light of the room. Her mother lay quiet, evidently pleased at having got into such comfortable quarters, and exhausted with her alarm. By degrees she dozed off into unconsciousness of her loss and of her situation, and Mehalah remained at the window looking moodily over the fens and the water, at the ruby spark that marked her old home.
She was standing in the same place when the boats arrived, bringing portions of their goods to Red Hall. She heard the voices of Rebow and other men below. She opened the door and listened. He was giving them something to eat and drink. Abraham Dowsing was there. She could distinguish his voice.
"If I hadn't turned you out, you'd have been burnt," said Rebow.
"A good job for mistress we saved the cowhouse," answered Abraham, with sulky unwillingness to admit that he was indebted to Elijah for anything.
"Don't you think you owe me your life?" asked Rebow.
"The cowhouse didn't burn."
"No. But it would have, had not we been there to keep the flames off," observed one of the men.
"Good job for mistress I wasn't burnt. I don't know how she'd got along without me."
"It did not matter particularly to yourself then, Abby?"
"Don't know as it did. A man must die some time, and I've always heard as smothering is a nice quiet sort of death—better than being racked with cramps and tormented with rheumatics and shivered into the pithole with agues." After a pause Abraham's voice was heard to add, "Besides, I should have woke, myself, with the fire and smoke."
"Not you. And if you had, what could you have done to save the old woman? She'd have been burnt to a cinder before you woke."
"That's mistress' matter, not mine," answered Dowsing.
"You could not have got the things out of the house." "They are not mine," retorted Abraham angrily. "You are not going to make a merit to me of saving what are the belongings of other folk?"
"They belong to your mistress."
"Well, so they do, that is, they don't belong to me; so none of your boasting to me, as if I owed you anything." This ungracious remark, but one not unnatural for a rude peasant jealous lest an obligation should place him in a position of disadvantage, was followed by silence, during which the party ate.
Presently Abraham asked, "How came you to be there?"
"Master sent Jim out with me in the big boat after ducks, and he was in the punt," answered one of the men. " He bade us lie by at the mouth of the Rhyn, while he went on to drive the birds our way; there was a lot, and we thought to pepper into a whole flight. He was not long away—not above an hour—when we saw the Ray house afire, and heard him shouting to us to come on, so we rowed as hard as hard, and by the time we landed he had broke open the door, and got the old lady out. We helped as best we might, and saved a deal of things."
"They ain't worth much," said Abraham. "There's nothing in the house worth five pound,—take the whole lot. The cow was the only thing would pay for saving, and she was safe. I slept in the loft over her."
"The life of your mistress was worth something, I hope, Abby."
"Don't know that. Not to me, anyhow. She's not mistress; it is Mehaiah that orders, and does everything. I don't reckon an old woman's life is worth a crown, not to nobody but herself, may be; but that is her concern, not mine. She was an ailing aguish body. Why!" exclaimed Abraham, banging his can of ale on the table, "when you've saved an old woman who is nought but a trouble to everybody as does with her, of what wally is it? They might have paid you to let her alone, but not to lug her out of the fire. Now, Mehaiah, she was another sort. But you didn't save her."
"Where was she? She was not in the house." "How am I to know? I don't spy after her. Others may," he gave a sly, covert look at Elijah; "I don't. But I reckon she was out on the saltings watching for the sheep-stealers."
"Have you had sheep-stealers on the Ray?"
"Aye, we have."
"Did you watch for them at night?"
"I!" with a grunt. "They were not my sheep. No, thank you. Let them that wallys the sheep watch 'em. I do what I'm paid to do, and I don't do more."
Mehalah did not listen to the whole of this conversation. She had satisfied herself that Abraham was there, and had heard how Rebow and his men came to be on the spot when the fire broke out; she then closed the door again, and returned to the window. She did not leave her station till dawn, except to attend to the fire, to make it up from the heap stacked by the side of the chimneypiece. When day began to break, she seated herself on a stool by the bed, and laying her head on the mattress. fell asleep, and slept for an hour or two, uneasily, troubled by dreams and the discomfort of her position.
When she awoke the house was quiet. She went downstairs, with reluctance, and found no one stirring, but the fire made up and a kettle boiling over it, the table spread with everything she could desire for breakfast. Elijah, Abraham, and the other men were gone. There was a canister with tea on the board. Mehalah made her mother some, and took it up to her.
The old woman was awake, and drank the tea with eagerness.
"I don't think I can get out of bed to-day, Mehalah!" she said. "I feel my limbs all of an ache; the cold has got into the marrow of my bones, and I feel as if the frost were splitting them, as at times it will split pipes. I must lie abed till the thaw comes to them."
"Can you eat anything?"
"I think I can."
"Mother, how long are we going to remain here?"
"It is wery comfortable, I am sure."
"But we cannot stay in this house."
"Where else can we go?" "I will get into service somewhere."
"You cannot leave me. Where shall I go? I cannot leave my bed, and I don't think the frost will get out of my bones for a week or more."
"I cannot, I will not, remain here."
"Where can we go?"
Mehalah put both her hands to her brow. She could not answer this question. Were she alone, she could get a situation in a farmhouse, perhaps; but with a sick mother dependent on her, this was not possible. No farmer would take them both in for the sake of her services.
"Where else can we go?" again asked Mrs. Sharland; then in a repining voice, "If Master Rebow houses us for a while, it is very good of him, and we must be thankful, for we have no chance of shelter elsewhere. Where is the money to pay for rebuilding the farmhouse? Do you think my cousin, Charles Pettican—"
"No, no," exclaimed Mehalah, "not a word about him."
"He spoke up and promised most handsomely," said Mrs. Sharland.
"He can do nothing, mother; I will not ask him."
"A man that has a gilded balcony to his house wouldn't miss a few pounds for running up a wooden cottage."
"I will not go to him again."
"My dear child," said Mrs. Sharland, "I don't doubt he would take us in on a visit for a while, when we are forced to leave Red Hall."
"You think we shall not be obliged to remain here?"
"I don't see how we can. It is very good of Master Rebow to house us for a bit, but I doubt we can't stick as fixtures. I only wish we could. Anyhow stay here a bit we must. We have nowhere else to go to, except to my cousin Charles."
Mehalah knew what this alternative was worth. It was a relief to her to hear her mother speak of their stay in Red Hall as only temporary. She could not endure to contemplate the possibility of its being permanent. She formed a hope that she would be able to find work somewhere, and hire a small cottage; she was strong enough to do as much as a man.
During the day, everything that had been rescued from the fire on the Ray was brought to Red Hall, even the cow, which was driven round by land, a matter of eleven miles. The old clock arrived, and was set up in the large room below, an old cypress chest or "spruce hutch" as Mrs. Sharland called it, covered with curious shallow carvings picked out with burnt umber, representing a hawking party, that contained her best clothes, and was a security against moth, was conveyed into her bedroom. It weighed half a ton. The old Lowestoft dishes she valued were placed in the rack in the hall along with the ware that belonged to Elijah. The toad-jug, a white jug with a painted and glazed figure of a toad squatting inside it in the neck, was also brought to Red Hall, so even were two biscuit-china poodles with shaven posteriors and with manes and tufted tails, that had stood on the chimneypiece at the Ray. The warming-pan of brass with a stamped portrait of H.M. George I. on it was likewise transported to Red Hall, and hung up in the little oak-panelled parlour behind the entrance hall generally occupied by Rebow.
By degrees most of the property of Mrs. Sharland was brought to the house, and the small oak parlour was furnished with it. Her arm-chair of leather with high back was placed in the hall by the great fire-place that bore the inscription, "When I hold, I hold fast." There were also some things belonging specially to Glory that had been saved, and these were put in the oak parlour. The satisfaction of Mrs. Sharland at finding herself surrounded by her goods was extreme. She did not leave her bed, but she insisted on her daughter bringing her up everything that could be carried, that she might turn it about, and inspect it minutely and rejoice over what was uninjured, and bewail what had suffered. One of the poodles had lost an ear and part of its tail. The old woman cried and grumbled and scolded about this injury, as though it were on a level with the destruction of the house. She would see the men Jim and Joe who had brought it from the Ray in the boat; she catechised them minutely, she insisted on knowing which had brought the dog out of the burning house, where it had been placed till removal, and fretted, till they promised to examine the spot beneath the thorntree where the china brute had spent the night, and also the bottom of the boat, for the missing tail tuft and ear tip.
"You know," she said, "if I boil them in milk with the dog, I can get them to stick on."
Among certain persons, the mind is destitute of perspective, and consequently magnifies trifles and disregards great evils. Mrs. Sharland had a mind thus constituted. She harped all day on the battered biscuit-china dog, because it was placed on the mantelpiece of her bedroom, and was under her eyes whenever she turned her head that way. The farmhouse was almost forgotten in her distress about the tail; her flaming home formed but a red background to the mutilated white poodle.
Mehalah saw nothing of Elijah Rebow all day. He was several times in the house; directly her foot sounded on the stairs, however, he disappeared. But she saw and felt that he was considering her; his care to recover all the little treasures and property on the Ray evinced this; and in the house he provided everything she could need; he placed meat on the table in the hall for her dinner, and had boiled potatoes over the fire. They were set ready for her, she had only to take them out. Her mother ate heartily, and was loud in expressions of satisfaction at the comfort that surrounded them.
"I hope, Mehalah, we shan't have to leave this in a hurry."
Glory did not answer.
Towards evening Abraham Dowsing arrived with the cow. The girl heard the low, and ran down—she could not help it—and threw her arms round the neck of the beast. There was a back stair leading to the kitchen and yard, by which she could descend without entering the hall, and by this means she avoided Elijah, who, she was aware, was there.
Elijah, however, came to the top of the steps after she had descended, and looked into the yard where she was. Mehalah at once desisted from lavishing her tenderness on the animal.
Abraham stood sulkily by.
"I've had a long bout," he said. "I dare say you have, Abraham," she answered.
"I want something to eat and drink, I haven't bit nought since morning. There's nothing but ashes on the Ray now, and they are red-hot. You don't expect me to fill my belly on them."
Mehalah put her hand to her mouth and checked her tongue, as she was about to tell him to go indoors and get some supper. She had now nothing to give the old man. She lived on the bounty of Rebow.
"I cannot go without my wittles," persisted Abraham. "Now I want to know where my wittles are to come from. I paid fourpence at the Rose for some bread and cheese, and you owes me that."
"There is the money," said Mehalah, producing the coin.
"Ah! that is wery well. But where am I to get my wittles now? Am I your servant or ain't I? If I am,—where's my wittles?"
"Come here, Abraham," said Elijah, from the kitchen door. "There is bread and cold potatoes and meat here. You shall have your supper, and you can sleep in the loft."
"Look here, master," pursued the sullen old man, "I want to know further where I'm to look for my wages."
"To me," said Rebow. "I take you on."
"Where am I to work?"
"Here, or on the Ray, looking after the sheep."
"The sheep are not yours, they are hers,"—pointing to Mehalah with his thumb.
"The Ray and Red Hall are one concern," answered Rebow. "You look to me as your master, and to her as your mistress;" then he entered and slammed the door.
Abraham shrugged his shoulders. He leered at Mehalah, who had put her hands to her forehead.
"When are you going to church? Eh, mistress? I thought it was coming to this. But I don't care so long as I gets my wittles and wage."
Abraham went slowly into the cattlehouse with the cow. Mehalah remained rooted to the spot, pressing her brow.
This was more than she could endure. She ran up the steps, she would speak to Rebow while her heart was full. She dashed through the kitchen and into the hall. He was not there. As she ran on, she tripped and almost fell; and recovered herself with horror. She had almost precipitated herself through the trap into the vault beneath. The door was thrown back, her foot had caught this. Faugh! an odour rose from the cellar as from the lair of a wild beast. She looked in, there was the maniac racing up and down in the den fastened by his chain, jabbering and uttering incoherent cries. He was almost naked, covered with filthy rags, and his hair hung over his face so that she could distinguish no features by the dim light that strayed down from the trap, and from the horn lanthorn that Elijah had placed on the steps. Rebow had a pitchfork, and he was tossing fresh straw to his brother, and raking out the sodden and crushed litter of the wretched man.
Mehalah could not bear the sight; she withdrew. She needed a little while by herself to consider what was best to be done, to think of what had taken place. She opened the front door, and descended by the long flight of steps over the arch. Then she saw that a shutter covered the circular window that in summer lighted the den of the maniac. This was now closed to shut out the cold of winter. There was a door. As she looked, Rebow opened it from within, and appeared, raking out the litter and the gnawed bones, the relics of his brother's repasts. He did not notice her, or he pretended not to do so, and she shrank back. Her wish to speak with him had gone from her. She was not equal to an interview till she had been alone for a while, and had gathered up her strength. An interview with him must be a contest. It was clear to her that he was resolved that she should stay at Red Hall. She was equally determined not to do so. But how to get away and remove her mother was more than she could discover.
She left the house and the garden round it, and walked through the meadow till she reached the sea-wall. She ascended that, and went along it to the spot where the Red Hall marsh divided the Tollesbury Fleet from the Virley and Salcot Creeks.
Then she threw herself beneath the windmill, the mill that pumped the water out of the dykes, and worked day and night whenever there was wind to move the sails. The mill was now at work. The wings rushed round, and the pump painfully creaked, and after every stroke sent a dash of water into the sea over the wall.
Mehalah hoped that here, away from her mother and Rebow, and the sights and sounds of Red Hall, she might be able to think. But it was not so. Her numbed head was unable to form any plans. She looked out at sea, it was leaden grey, ruffled with angry waves, and the mews screamed and dipped in them. The sky overhead was overcast. The Bradwell shore looked grey and bleak and desolate; there was not a sail in the offing. The fancy took her to sit and wait, and if she saw a ship pass to take it as a good omen, a promise of escape from her present perplexity.
She sat and waited. The sea darkened to a more sullen tint. The mews were no longer visible. Mersea with its trees and church tower disappeared. Bradwell coast loomed black as pitch against the last lingering light of day. Not a sail appeared.
Far away, out to sea, as the darkness deepened, gleamed a light. It gleamed a moment, then grew dim and disappeared in the blackness. A minute, and then it waxed, but waned again, and once more all was night. So on, in wearisome iteration. What she saw was the revolving Swin light fifteen miles from land, a floating Pharos. She thought of Elijah's words, she thought of the horrible iterations in the barrow on the hill, the embracing and fighting, embracing and fighting, loving and hating, loving and hating, till one should conquer of the twin but rival powers.