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CHAPTER XVIII

IN A COBWEB

A month passed. Mrs. Sharland recovered, as far as recovery was possible to one of her age and enfeebled constitution, much shaken by the events of the night that saw the destruction of her home and the abrasion of the ear and tail of her biscuit-china poodle. After remaining in bed for more than a week, Mehalah almost by force obliged her to get up and descend. When once she had taken this step and found that her leather high-backed chair was before the fire in the hall, she showed no further desire to spend her days upstairs. Her life resumed the old course it had run at the Ray, but she sat more by the fire, and did less in the house than formerly. She devolved most of the domestic work on her daughter. That she had declined in strength of late was obvious. Old people will go on from year to year without any visible alteration, till some shock, or change in their surroundings takes place, when they drop perceptibly a stage, and from that moment declension becomes rapid.

Mrs. Sharland was unmistakably contented with her position at Red Hall. She enjoyed comforts which were not hers at the Ray. She saw more people, some gossip reached her ears. There was a village, Salcot, within two miles, and the small talk of a village will overflow its bounds, and dribble into every house in its neighbourhood. Every little parish throws up its coarse crop of vulgar tittle-tattle, on which the inhabitants feed, and which is exactly adapted to their mental digestion. Human characters as well as skins are subject to parasitic attacks, but human beings are the vermin which burrow their heads into, and blow themselves out on the blood of moral life. There are certain creatures which will lie shrivelled upon their backs, and endure flood and frost and burning sun, without its killing them, with suspended animation, till the animal on which they feed chances to come that way, when they leap into activity and voracity at once, Mrs. Sharland had been laid aside on the Ray, without neighbours, and therefore without matter of interest and objects of attack. She was now within leaping, lancing, and sucking distance of fresh life, and she rejoiced in renewed vigour, not of body, but of mind, if mind that can be called which has neither thought nor instinct, but only a certain gravitation which sets the tongue in motion. The brain of the rustic is as unlike the brain of the man of culture as the maggot is unlike the butterfly; the one is the larva of the other. They feed, live, move in different spheres; one chews cabbage, the other sips honey; one crawls on the earth, the other flies above it; one is clumsy in all its motions, the other agile; one is carnal, the other is spiritual. And yet—wondrous thought! the one is the parent of the other.

Mehalah had a great deal to do, and that work of a sort she had not been much engaged on at the Ray. No female hand had been employed at Red Hall since the death of Elijah's mother, and everything was accordingly falling out of repair and into disorder. She saw nothing of Rebow except at meals, and not always then, for he was often away with beasts at market, or at sales making purchases. The rich marshes of Red Hall were unrivalled for the grazing of cattle and the rearing of young stock.

As Mehalah was well occupied, her mind was taken off from herself, and she was for a while satisfied with her position. Rebow had not spoken to her in the manner she so disliked, and she had small occasion to speak with the men. Her mother, on the contrary, seized every occasion to entangle them in talk, or to initiate a conversation with Rebow. He maintained a surly deference towards her, and condescended at times to answer her queries and allow himself to be drawn into talk by the old woman. When that was the case, Mehalah found excuse to leave the room and engage herself in the kitchen or among the cows.

Abraham Dowsing saw much less of her than formerly. The old man, with all his sulky humour and selfish greed, had got a liking for the girl. He was much at the Ray, but often about Red Hall, where he got his food.

If he went after the sheep for the day, Mehalah provided him with "baggings," provision during his absence.

Lambing time was at hand, when he would be away for some weeks, returning only occasionally. Mehalah noticed that the shepherd hesitated each time he received his food, as though he desired to speak to her, but put off the occasion. At last, one day at the beginning of February, when he was about to depart for the Ray, and would be absent some days, he said to her in a low dissatisfied tone, "I suppose, when I come back after the lambing, you'll have been to church with him."

"What do you mean?"

"What do I mean?" repeated Abraham. "I mean what I say. I ain't one of those that says one thing and means another. Nobody can accuse me of that."

"I do not understand you, Abraham."

"There's none so dull as them that won't take," he pursued. "I don't hold, myself, that much good comes of going to church with a man, except this, that you fasten him, and he can't cast you off when he's tired of you."

Mehalah flushed up.

"Abraham," she said angrily, "I will not allow you to speak thus to me. I understand you now, and wish I did not."

"Oh! you do take at last! That's well. I'd act on it if I was you. A man, you see, don't make no odds of taking up with a girl, and then when he's had a bit of her tongue and temper, he thinks he'd as lief be without her, and pick up another. He'd ring a whole change on the bells, he would, if it warn't for churches. That is my doctrine. Churches was built, and parsons were made, for tying up of men, and the girls are fools who let the men make up to them, and don't seize the opportunity to tie them."

"Abraham, enough of this."

"It is no odds to me. I don't care so long as I has my wittles and my wage. Only I'd rather see you mistress here than another. I'd get my wittles more regular and better, because you know me and my likings, and a new one wouldn't. That's all. Every man for himself, is my doctrine."

"I forbid this for once and all. I am servant on wage here just as you are; I am that, and I shall never be anything else."

"Oh, there you think different from most folks. You don't think according to your interests; and mistress, let me tell you, you don't talk as does the master."

He went away mumbling something about it being no concern of his, and if some people did not know how to eat their bread and butter when they had it in their hands it was no odds to him.

Mehalah was hurt and incensed. She went to her mother.

"Mother," she said, "when will you be able to move? I shall look out for a situation elsewhere."

"What, my dear child! Move from here, where I am so comfortable I You cannot. Elijah won't hear of it. He told me so. He told me you was to remain here, and I should spend the rest of my days here in quiet. It is a very pleasant place, and more in the world than was the Ray. I am better off here than I was there. Now we get everything for nothing; we don't lay out a penny, and you get wage beside."

"Mother, Abraham has been speaking to me. He has hinted, what I do not like, that I ought to marry Elijah—"

"So you ought," said the widow. "Elijah, I am sure, is willing. It is what he has been wishing and hoping for all along, but you have been so stubborn and set against him. After all he has done for us you might yield a bit."

"I will never marry him."

"Don't say that. You will do anything to secure a comfortable home for me. It may not be long that I may have to trouble you,—I know you look on me as a trouble, I know that but for me you would feel free, and go away into the world. You think me a burden on you, because I can do nothing; you are young and lusty. But I bore with you, Mehalah, when you was young and feeble, and I laid by for you money that would have been very acceptable to me, and bought me many little comforts that I forbore, to save for you—" The old woman with low cunning had discovered the thread to touch, to move her daughter.

"Say no more, say not another word, mother," exclaimed Mehalah. "You know that I never, never will forsake you, that you are more to me a thousand times than my own life. But there is one thing I never will do for you. I will never marry Elijah."

"I am afraid, Mehalah, that folks will talk."

"I fear so too, but they have no occasion. I will show them that. I will find a situation elsewhere."

"You shall not, Mehalah!"

"I must, mother."

She thought for some time what she should do, and then put on her bonnet, and walked into Salcot. She had not been into the village since her arrival at Red Hall.

Salcot is a small village of old cottages at the head of a creek that opens out of the Blackwater. It has a church with a handsome tower built of flints, but with no chancel. Within a bowshot, across the creek, connected with it by a bridge, is Virley church, a small hunchbacked edifice in the last stages of dilapidation, in a graveyard unhedged, unwalled; the church is scrambled over by ivy, with lattice windows bulged in by the violence of the gales, and a bellcot leaning on one side like a drunkard. Near this decaying church is a gabled farm, and this and a cottage form Virley village. The principal population congregates at Salcot, across the wooden bridge, and consisted—a hundred years ago—of labourers, and men more or less engaged in the contraband trade. Every house had its shed and stable, where was a donkey and cart, to be let on occasion to carry smuggled goods inland. At the end of the village stands a low tavern, the Rising Sun, a mass of gables; part of it, the tavern drinking-room, is only one storey high, but the rest is a jumble of roofs and lean-to buildings, chimneys, and ovens, a miracle of picturesqueness. Mehalah walked into the bar, and found there the landlady alone.

"I have come here, mistress," she said abruptly, "in search of work. I am strong and handy, and will do as much as a man. I will serve you faithfully and well if you will engage me. I have an infirm mother who must be lodged somewhere, so I ask for small wage."

"Who are you? Where do you come from?" asked the landlady eyeing her with surprise.

"My name is Mehalah Sharland. I lived on the Ray till the house was burned down. Since then I have been at Red Hall."

"Oh!" exclaimed the woman, her countenance falling. "You are the young woman, are you, that I heard tell of?"

"I am the young woman now in service there but wanting to go and work elsewhere."

"I've heard tell of you," said the landlady dryly

"What have you heard of me?

The woman looked knowingly at her, and smiled.

"Pray what does Master Rebow say to your leaving him? You and he have fallen out, have you?" said the hostess knowingly. "You'll come together all the faster for it. There's nothing like a good breeze for running a cargo in."

"Can you give me work?"

"I dursn't do it."

"Have you need of anyone now?"

"Well," with a cough, "if Master Rebow were agreeable, I might find such a girl as you wery handy about the house. I've lost the last girl I had; she's took with the small-pox. You could have her bed, and her work, and her wage, and welcome. But unless the master gave his consent," she began to dust the table, "I dursn't do it."

"Is he your landlord?"

"No, he is not."

"Then why need you doubt about taking me?"

"Because Rebow wouldn't allow of it."

"He could not stop me. I am not engaged to him for any time."

"I dursn't do it. How long have you been with Rebow?"

"A little more than a month."

"You've never gone against him, perhaps. If you had, you wouldn't ask me the reason why I dursn't stand in his way."

Mehalah considered. She had opposed Elijah from the very beginning.

"There's no one would dare to do it," continued the landlady. "If you want to get from Master Rebow, you must go farther inland; but I doubt if you'll escape him. However," and she tossed her head, "you only want to make him fast. If a girl gives way at once, she's cheap."

"You mistake me, you altogether mistake me," said Mehalah indignantly. "I will not remain in his house any longer; I must and I will go elsewhere."

"If Elijah Rebow was to take the purse out of my pocket, or the bed from under me, if he was to take my daughter from my side. I dursn't say nay. If you think to escape against the will of the master, you are mistaken."

"I shall."

"Look here," said the landlady; "take my advice and go back and be mum. I won't say another word with you, lest I get into trouble." She turned and left the bar.

Mehalah went out, more determined than ever to break away from Red Hall, whether her mother desired it or not.

She crossed the creaking rude wooden bridge to Virley. The churchyard and the farmyard seemed all one. The pigs were rooting at the graves. A cow was lying in the porch. An old willow drooped over a stagnant pool beneath the chancel window. Shed roof-tiles and willow leaves lay mouldering together on the edge of the pond. The church of timber and brick, put up anyhow on older stone foundations, had warped and cracked; the windows leaned, fungus growths sprouted about the bases of the timbers. Every rib showed in the roof as on the side of a horse led to the knackers.

The farm was but little more prosperous in appearance than the church. Patched windows and broken railings showed a state of decline. Mehalah walked into the yard, where she saw a man carrying a pitchfork.

"Who is the master here?" she asked.

"I am."

"Is there a mistress?"

" Yes. What have you to say to her?"

Mehalah told her story as she had told it to the landlady of the Rising Sun. "I will work for my keep and that of my mother, and work harder than any man on your farm."

"Where do you come from?"

"Red Hall."

"Oh!" said the farmer, with a whistle, "Rebow's girl, eh?"

"I am working for him now."

"Working for him, come now, that's fine."

"I am working for him," repeated Mehalah with clouding brow.

"And you want to come here. You think my missus would let you, do you? Now tell me, what put you on to coming to me? Has Elijah picked a quarrel with me, that he sends you here? Does he want occasion against me? Do you think I want to run any risks with my barns and my cattle and my life? No, thank you. I dursn't do it."

"Tell me, where can I find work?

"You must go out of the reach of Rebow's arm, if you find it."

"You won't give me any?"

He shook his head. "For my life, I dursn't do it." He laughed and put out his hand to chuck her under the chin, she struck his fingers up with her fist. "There ain't a better judge of beasts in all the marshes than Rebow, nor in horse-flesh neither. You ain't a bad bit of meat neither. I approve his taste."

Mehalah wrenched the pitchfork out of his hand. Her eyes flamed. She would have struck him; but was suddenly assailed from behind by the farmer's wife.

"Now then, hussy, what are you up to?"

The girl could not answer; her anger choked the words in her throat.

"She's that wench of Rebow's, you know," said the farmer. "I guess it is cat and dog in that house."

"Get you gone," shouted the woman; "go out of my premises, hussy! I don't want my place to be frequented by such as you. Get you gone at once, or I will loose the mastiff."

Mehalah retired with bowed head, and her arms folded on her bosom. She halted on the bridge, and kicked fragments of frozen earth and gravel into the water. A woman going by looked at her.

"Where is the parson?" asked Mehalah.

"Yonder; you go over the marsh by the hill with the windmill on it, and you come to a road, you'll find a blacksmith's shop, and you must ask there. He's the curate, there's no rector hereabouts. They keep away because of the ague."

Mehalah crossed the fen indicated, passed beside the windmill and the blacksmith's shop, and found the cottage occupied by the curate, a poor man, married to a woman of a low class, with a family of fourteen children, packed in the house wherever they could be stowed away. The curate was a crushed man, his ideas stunned in his head by the uproar in which he dwelt. His old scholarship remained to him in his brain like fossils in the chalk, to be picked out, dead morsels. There was nothing living in the petrified white matter that filled his skull.

Mehalah knocked at the door. The parson opened it, and admitted her into his kitchen. As soon as the wife heard a female voice, she rushed out of the back kitchen with her arms covered with soap suds, and stood in the doorway. A little-minded woman, she lived on her jealousy, and would never allow her husband to speak with another woman if she could help it.

"What do you want, my dear?" asked the curate.

"Ahem!" coughed the wife. "Dear, indeed! Pray, who are you, miss?" Mehalah explained that she sought work, and hoped that the parson would be able to recommend her.

"You don't, you don't—" faltered he.

"You don't suppose I'd take you on here," said the parson's wife. "You're too young by twenty years. I don't approve of young women; they don't make good servants. I like a staid matronly person of forty to fifty, that one can trust, and won't be gadding after boys or—" she shook her suds at her husband. "But I don't at present want any servant. We are full."

"We don't keep any," said the pastor.

"Edward! don't demean us; we do keep servants—occasionally. You know we do, Edward. Mrs. Cutts comes in to scour out and clean up of a Saturday. You forget that. We pay her ninepence."

"Who are you, my dear—I mean, young woman?" asked the curate.

"Yes, who are you?" said his better half. "We must know more of you before we can recommend you among our friends. Our friends are very select, and keep quite a better sort of servants; they don't pick up anybody, they take so to speak the cream, the very purest quality."

Mehalah gave the required information. Mrs. Rabbit bridled and blew bubbles. The Reverend Mr. Rabbit became depressed, yet made an effort to be confidential. "You'd better—you'd better marry him," he hinted, "It would be a satisfaction on all sides."

"What is that? What did you say, Edward? No whisperings in my house, if you please. My house is respectable, I hope, though it mayn't be a lordly mansion. I do drive a conweyance," she said. "I hire the blacksmith's donkey-cart when I go out to make my calls, and drop my cards. So I leave you to infer if I'm not respectable. And Miss—Miss—Miss"—with a giggle and a curtsey, "when may I have the felicity of calling on you at Red Hall, and of learning how respectable that establishment has become? There's room for improvement," she said, tossing her nose.

At that moment a rush, a roar, an avalanche down the narrow stairs, steep as a ladder. In a heap came the whole fourteen, the oldest foremost, the youngest in the rear. "We've got him, we're going to drown him."

"What is it?" feebly enquired the father, putting his hands to his ears.

"We'll hold him to the fire and pop his little eyes."

"No, they're too small."

"Into the water-butt with him!"

A yell.

"He's bitten me. Drown him!"

"What is it?" shouted the mother.

"A bat. Tommy found him in the roof. We're going to put him in the butt, and see if he can swim."

The whole torrent swept and swirled round Mehalah, and carried her to the front door.

The curate stole out after her.

"My good girl," he whispered, "botch it up. Marry, Most marriages hereabouts are botches."

"Edward!" shouted Mrs. Rabbit, "come in, no sneaking outside after lasses. Come back at once. Always wanting a last word with suspicious characters."

"Marry!" was the pastor's last word, as he was drawn back by two soapy hands applied to his coat tails, and the door was slammed.

Mehalah walked away fast from the yelping throng of children congregated about the water-butt, watching the struggles of the expiring bat. She took the road before her, and saw that it led to Peldon, the leaning tower of which stood on a hill that had formed the northern horizon from the Ray. There was a nice farm by the roadside, and she went there, and was met with excuses. The time was not one when a girl could be engaged. There was no work to be done in the winter. The early spring was coming on, she urged, and she would labour in the fields like a man. Then the sick mother was mentioned as an insuperable objection. "We can't have any old weakly person here on the premises," said the farmer's wife. "You see if she was to die, you've no money, and we should be put to the expense of the burying; anyhow there'd be the inconvenience of a corpse in the house."

Mehalah went on; and now a hope dawned in her. Another two miles would bring her to the Rose, the old inn that stood not far from the Strood. There she was known, and there she was sure, if possible, she would be accommodated and given work.

She walked forward with raised head, the dark cloud that had brooded on her brow began to rise, the bands about her heart that had been contracting gave way a little. There was the inn, an old-fashioned house, with a vine scrambling over the red tile roof, and an ancient standard sign before the door, on the green, bearing a rose, painted the size of a gigantic turnip.

Mehalah walked into the bar. The merry landlord and his wife greeted her with delight, with many shakes of the hands, and much condolence over the disasters that had befallen her and her mother.

"Well, my dear," said the landlady, confidentially, "you're well out of it, if you come here. To be sure we'll take you in, and I dare say we'll find you work; bring your mother also. It ain't right for a handsome wench like you to be living all along of a lone man in his farm. Folks talk. They have talked, and said a deal of things. But you come here. What day may we expect you?"

"I must bring my mother by water. The tide will not suit for a week. It must be by day, my mother cannot come in the boat if there be much rain; and we shall not be able to come—at least there will be a difficulty in getting away—should Rebow be at home. Expect us some day when the weather is favourable and there be an afternoon tide."

"You will be sure to come?"

"Sure"