Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 19
Mehalah's heart was lighter now than it had been for many a week. She had secured her object. She could be out of the toils of Rebow, away from his hateful presence.
She had worked hard and conscientiously at Red Hall, and felt that she had to some extent cancelled the obligation he had laid on her. Her proud spirit, lately crushed, began to arise; her head was lifted instead of being bowed.
Rebow remarked the change in her, and was satisfied either that she had reconciled herself to her position, or that she meditated something which he did not understand.
Mrs. Sharland did not share in her daughter's exultation. She grumbled and protested. She was very comfortable at Red Hall, she was sure Elijah had been exceedingly kind to them. They had wanted nothing. The house was much better than the old ramshackle Ray, and their position in it superior to any they could aspire to at the Rose. This was a hint to Mehalah, but the girl refused to take it. As for Elijah, what was there to object to in him? He was well off, very well off, a prosperous man, who spent nothing on himself, and turned over a great deal of money in the year. He was not very young, but he was a man who had seen the world and was in his prime of strength and intelligence. Mrs. Sharland thought that they could not do better than settle at the Red Hall and make it their home for life, and that Mehalah should put her foolish fancies in her pocket and make the best of what offered.
But Mehalah's determination bore down all opposition.
St. Valentine's Day shone bright with a promise of spring. The grey owls were beginning to build in the hayrick, the catkins were timidly swelling on the nut bushes; in the ooze the glasswort shot up like little spikes of vitriol-green glass. A soft air full of wooing swept over the flats. The sun was hot.
The tide flowed at noon, and Elijah was absent.
Mehalah, deaf to her mother's remonstrances, removed some of their needful articles to the boat, and at last led her mother, well wrapped up, to the skiff.
When the girl had cast loose, and was rowing on the sparkling water, her heart danced and twinkled with the wavelets; there was a return of spring to her weary spirit, and the good and generous seeds in her uncultivated soul swelled and promised to shoot. She was proud to think that she had carried her point, that in spite of Rebow, she had established her freedom, that her will had proved its power of resistance. She even sang as she rowed, she,—whose song had been hushed since the disappearance of George. She had not forgotten him, and cast away her grief at his loss, but the recoil from the bondage and moral depression of Red Hall filled her with transient exultation and joyousness.
The row was long.
"O mother!" she said, as she passed under the Ray hill, "I must indeed run up and look at the place. I cannot go by."
"Do as you will," said Mrs. Sharland. " I cannot control you. I don't pretend to. My wishes and my feelings are nothing to you."
Mehalah did not notice this peevish remark, she was accustomed to her mother's fretfulness. She threw the little anchor on the gravel at the "hard," and jumped on shore. She ascended the hill and stood by the scorched black patch which marked her old home. The house had burned to the last stick, leaving two brick chimneys standing gauntly alone. There was the old hearth at which she had so often crouched, bare, cold, and open. A few bricks had been blown from the top of the chimney, but otherwise it was intact.
As she stood looking sadly on the relics, Abraham Dowsing came up.
"What are you doing here?"
"I have come away from Red Hall, Abraham," she said gaily, "I do not think I have been so happy for many a day."
"When are you going back?"
"Who then is to prepare me my wittles ? " he asked sullenly. "I ain't going to be put off with anything."
"I do not know, Abraham."
"But I must know. Now go back again, and don't do what's wrong and foolish. You ought to be there, and mistress there too. Then all will run smooth, and I'll get my wittles as I like them."
"You need not speak of that, Abraham, I shall never return to Red Hall. I have quitted it and I hope have seen the last of the hateful house and its still more hateful master."
"I wonder," mused the shepherd, "whether I could arrange with Rebow to get my wittles from the Rose"
"That is where I am going to." "Oh!" his face lightened, "then I don't mind. Do what you think best." His face darkened again. "But I doubt whether the master will keep me on when you have left. I reckon he only takes me because of you; he thinks you wouldn't like it, if I was to be turned adrift. No. You had better go back to Red Hall. Make yourself as comfortable as you can. That's my doctrine."
Presently the old man asked, "I say, does the master know you have left?"
"Are you sure?"
"I never told him."
"Did your mother know you had made up your mind to leave?"
"Yes, I told her so a week ago."
"And you suppose she has kept her mouth shut? She couldn't do it."
"If Elijah had suspected we were going to-day," said Mehalah, "I do not think he would have left home; he would have endeavoured to prevent me."
"Perhaps. But he's deep."
"Good day, Abraham!" She waved him a farewell with a smile. She knew, and made allowance for the humours of the old man. In a moment she was again by her mother, at the oar, and speeding with the flowing tide up the Rhyn to the "hard" at its head belonging to the Rose Inn.
"Have you brought the toad-jug with you, Mehalah?"
"Nor the china dogs?"
"It is of no use, I will not live at the Rose. I will not get out of the boat. I must have all my property about me."
"I will fetch the other things away. When you are housed safely, then I shall not care. I will go back and bring away all our goods."
"You are so rough. I won't let anyone handle the china but myself. Last time the poodles were moved, you know one lost a ear and a bit of its tail. There is no one fit to touch such things but me. Those rough-handed fellows, Jim and Joe, what do they know of the value of those dogs? You will promise me, Mehalah, to be gentle with them. Put them in the foot of a pair of stockings and wrap the legs round them, and then perhaps they will travel. I wouldn't have them lose any more of their precious persons,—no, not for worlds,—not for worlds."
"I will take heed, mother."
"And mind and stuff my old nightcap,—the dirty one, I mean—and my bedsocks into the toad-jug, then it won't break. You'll promise me that, won't you? If that were injured, I'd as soon die as see it."
"I will use the utmost precaution with it."
"Then there are the soup plates, of Lowestoft. I had them of my father, and he had them of his grandmother; there's a dozen of them, and not a chip or a crack. True beauties as ever you saw, I think you'd best put them in the folds of some of my linen. Put them between the sheets, wide apart, in the spruce hutch."
"All right, mother; now hold hard, here we are."
The boat grated on the bottom, and then it was drawn up by a firm hand. Mehalah looked round and started. Elijah and two other men were there. Ehjah had stepped into the water, and pulled the boat ashore.
"Here we are. Glory!" he said, "waiting ready for you. The sheriff's officer with his warrant, all ready. You haven't kept us waiting long."
"What is that? What is that?" screamed Mrs. Sharland.
"Step out. Glory! step out, mistress!" said Elijah.
"What is the meaning of this?" asked Mehalah, a cloud suddenly darkening her sky and quenching the joy of her heart.
"I've a warrant against you, madam," said the man who stood by Rebow. "Please to read it." He held it out.
"What is this?" screamed Mrs. Sharland, rising in the boat and staggering forwards. Mehalah helped her on shore.
"This is what it is," answered Rebow. "You and Glory there are my tenants for the Ray. The farm is mine, with the marshes and the saltings. I gave eight hundred pounds for it. You've burnt down my premises, between you, you and Glory there. You've robbed me of a hundred or two hundred pounds' worth of property with your or carelessness. Now, I want to know, how is it you have not built up my farmhouse again?"
"I cannot do it. I haven't the money!" wailed Mrs. Sharland. "I am sure, Master Rebow, there was nothing but pure accident in the fire. I never thought——"
"Pure accident!" scoffed Elijah. "Do you call that pure accident, soaking the whole chamber in spirits, with a fire burning on the hearth, and dashing the cask staves here and there, on the fire and off it."
Mehalah looked at him.
"Ah, ha! Glory! You think I don't know it. You think I didn't see you! Why, I was at the window. I saw you do it. Tell me, mother, did not Glory smash the keg I had just given you?"
"I believe she did, Elijah! I am very sorry. I did my best to stop her, but she is a perverse, rebellious girl. You must forgive her, she intended no harm."
"If you saw me do it, why did you let the house catch fire?" asked Mehalah, looking hard at Rebow's face.
"Could I help it?" he asked in reply. "There you sat by the hearth, and no harm came of it. At last you went out, and locked and double-locked the door. I went down to my boat. I tell you, I was uneasy, and I looked back, and I saw by the light in the room that the spirit had caught. I ran back and tried to get in. The floor was flaming."
"The floor was of brick," said Mehalah.
"The door was fast locked. You know best why you locked it. It never was fastened before that night. You screwed on the lock, then you went out of the place yourself, leaving the room on fire, and fastened the door that none might get in."
"A lie!" exclaimed the girl.
"Is it a lie ? I don't think it. I can't cipher out your doings any other way. I tried to break open the door, but you had put too stout a fastening on. Then I burst open the window, and when the wind got in, it made the fire rage worse. So I ran and shouted to my men in the big boat, and I got a balk and I stove the door in, and then it was too late to do more than save your mother and her goods. As for you, you left her and them to burn together; you wanted to be off and free of her. I know you."
"Oh, Master Rebow! I know I'm a burden to her, but she would not do that!" put in Mrs. Sharland.
"Why did you watch me?" asked Mehalah, and then regretted that she had put the question.
"You see," said Elijah, turning to the officer, "she didn't think anyone was near to give evidence against her."
"Here I am," said Mehalah, "put me in prison, do with me what you will. I am innocent of all intent to burn the farm."
"I could hang you for it," laughed Elijah. "That pretty neck where the red handkerchief hangs so jauntily would not look well with a hemp rope round it. You'd dangle on the Ray, where the house stood. You'd have a black cap then pulled over those dark eyes and brown skin, not a red one, not a red one, Glory!" He rubbed his hands.
"I have no warrant against you," said the bailiff to Mehalah. "You stand charged with nothing. The warrant is against your mother."
"Against me? What will you do with me?" cried the old woman.
"You must go to prison if you cannot build the house up again, and restore it as good as it was to the landlord. He can't be at a loss by your neglect."
"I cannot do it. I have not the money."
"Then you must go to prison till you get it."
Mrs. Sharland sank on the gravel. She wept and wrung her hands. This was worse than the burning of the house, worse even than the lesion of the ear and tail of the poodle.
"I won't go. I can't go!" she sobbed. "I've the ague so bad. I suffer from rheumatism in all my bones. Let me alone," she pleaded, "and I promise I'll go to bed and never get out of it again."
"You'll suffer in prison, I can promise you," said Elijah exultingly. "You'll have no bed to crawl into, unless you can pay for it; you'll have no blankets to wrap round you in the cold frosty night, if you can't pay for them; you'll have no fire to shiver by when there is ice on the ponds, if you haven't money to pay for it. The frost in your bones will make you shriek and jabber in prison."
"I have no money. I gave the last to pay off Mrs. De Witt," wailed the wretched woman. "But there are the sheep,"
"They go to pay your rent up to Lady Day, aye, and till Michaelmas. I haven't had notice yet that you are about to quit. You can't give up the farm without, and I will exact every penny of my rent."
"Then I am at your mercy," sobbed Mrs. Sharland. She turned to Mehalah and pleaded, " Haven't you a word to say, to save me?"
The girl was silent. What could she say?
"Come along, madam, it is of no use. The warrant is here, and come along you must."
"I will not go to prison. I will not. I shall die of cold and ague and rheumatics there. My bones will burst like water-pipes, and I'll shiver the teeth out of my jaws and the nails off my fingers and toes. I won't go!" she screamed. "You must carry me, I can't walk. I'm a dying old woman."
"Would you like to go back to Red Hall?" asked Elijah gravely.
"Oh! Master Rebow, if I might! I could shiver in comfort."
"You and Glory! You and Glory!" He looked from one to the other. "I don't take back one without the other."
"Take me back!" wailed Mrs. Sharland. "I know you won't be so cruel as to send me to prison. Let me go back to my arm-chair; Mehalah! promise him everything."
"I will promise him nothing," she said gloomily. "If ever I hated this man, I hate him now."
"Then she must go to prison," growled Rebow. " Now look you here, Glory! I don't ask much. I only ask you to go back with your mother, and work for me as you have worked hitherto. I do not say a word about anything else. You thought to escape me. You cannot. I have told you all along that it is impossible. As for the future, let the future determine. I wish to let you take your own course. I will not say another word about my wishes; till you come to me, of your own accord, and say that you will be mine. There! I promise you that. I will not force you any further; but I will not allow you to leave my house. There you must remain till you come to me and bid me take you, till you come and give yourself freely into my hands. Do you hear me. Glory?"
"Mehalah, save me," pleaded Mrs. Sharland. "Do what you can to save me from prison. Did I not lay by for you when I was a widow and needy? And will you refuse me this?
"One thing or another," said Rebow. "Either your mother rots in prison, with no escape possible till she goes out to her grave in a pauper's shell, or you and she return at once to Red Hall, on the same conditions as you have been there hitherto, on the conditions you proposed yourself."
"Let us go back," said Mrs. Sharland. "Help me into the boat. He couldn't have spoken more fair. You see, Mehalah, the Ray house is a great loss to him, and he gave eight hundred pounds for it."
"And the marshes, and the saltings, and for you and Glory, and all things," put in Rebow.
Mehalah held out her arms. Her head swam: she stood as though balancing herself on a high wall. Then she clasped her hands over her forehead, and burst into a storm of tears.
"Jim!" said Elijah, "get the old doll into the stern, and you row her back to Red Hall. Take her under your arm and chuck her in anyhow."
He looked at the convulsed girl with an ugly smile of triumph.
"Give me the warrant, bailiff!" He took the paper, held it under Mehalah's eyes and tore it to pieces, and scattered them over the water.
"Shove off, Jim. Row the old bundle back quick. Glory and I are going to drive home."
Mehalah looked up, with a gasp as though stung.
"Yes, Glory! To-day is Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day it is, I have my little gig here. It accommodates two beautifully. I am going to take you up by my side, and drive you home, home, to your home and mine, Glory, in it; and all along the road, here at the Rose where the horse is standing, at Peldon, at Salcot and Virley,—all along the road,—at the parson's, at the Rising Sun, at Farmer Goppin's,—everywhere I'll let them see that I'm out a-junketing to-day along with my Valentine."
All power of resistance was gone from Mehalah. The landlady at the Rose looked at her with pitying eyes, as she was helped up into the gig.
"I thought you was coming to us," said the woman.
"You thought wrong," answered Elijah with a boisterous laugh. "Glory is coming back to me. We've had a bit of a tiff, but have made it up. Haven't we, Glory?"
The girl's head fell in shame on her bosom. She could not speak, but the tears rolled out of her eyes and streaked the "Gloriana" on her breast.
He did not say a word to her as he drove home; but he stopped wherever she had halted a few days before. At Peldon farm he drew up, and struck at the door. He asked if there was a bullock there to be sold. The woman came into the garden with him.
"Out a Valentining along with my lass," he said, indicating Mehalah with his whip over his shoulder.
He arrested his horse at the parson's cottage, and shouted till the door opened, and Mr. Rabbit appeared, with Mrs. Rabbit behind his back, peeping over his shoulder.
"I say," roared Rebow, "one of those cursed brats of yours has been on my marshes plaguing my cows, and has run two of them lame. Let him try it on again, let him put his foot on my ground, and I'll cut it off, and send him limping home."
He stopped at the Rising Sun and called for spirits, and offered some to Mehalah. She turned aside her head in disgust; he drove up to Virley Hall farm, and into the yard, and called forth Farmer Goppin and his wife.
"I tell you," he said, "one of my cattle has been straying, I don't suppose she has done damage; she got into this here yard, I'm told. You turned her out. I'm a man of few words, but I thank ye. I am carrying; her home before she is pounded." And then he drove straight to Red Hall.
Mehalah descended, crushed, broken, no more herself, the bold haughty girl of the Ray. She crept upstairs, took off her red cap and tore it with her hands and teeth. Her liberty was for ever gone from her.
Her mother was in their common bedroom, the boat had returned before the cart, for the way by water was the shortest, and tide had favoured. The old woman babbled about her grievances, and rejoiced at Rebow's magnanimity. She was busy replacing all the little articles that had been carried away, and were now brought back.
Mehalah could not endure the thrumming of her talk, and she hid herself in a corner of the little inner apartment, an empty room lighted by a small triangular window. There she crouched in the corner, on the ground, with her head on her knees and her hands in her hair behind. She sat there motionless. The fountain of her tears was dried up. The hectic flames burned in her cheeks, but all the rest of her face was deadly in its pallor. She could not think, she could not feel. She had experienced but one such another period of agony, that when the medal was restored and she knew that George was lost to her. That moment was sweet to this. That was one of pure pain, this of pain and humiliation, of crushed pride, of honour trampled and dragged in the dirt. Her self-respect had had its death-wound, and she sat and let her heart bleed away. Once or twice she put her hand on the floor. She thought that that must have been flooded with blood and tears, as if, when she took her hand up, it must be steeped red. It was not so.
But the soul has its ichor as well as the heart, and when it is cut deep into it also drains away, and is left empty, pulseless, pallid. Mrs. Sharland came in and spoke to her daughter, but got no answer. Mehalah looked up at her, but there was no expression in her eyes, she did not hear, or if she heard, did not understand what was said to her. The old woman went away muttering.
The evening fell, and Mehalah still sat crouched in her corner. The golden triangle which had stood on the wall opposite her had moved to her side, turned to silver, and now was but a nebulous patch on the white plaster. With the death of the day some abatement came to Mehalah's distress. She moved her cramped limbs. She rose to her knees, and fixed her eyes on the sky that glimmered grey through the triangular window. A star was hanging there. She saw it, and looked at it long, it shone through her eyes and down into the dark abyss in her soul. By little her ideas began to shape themselves; recollections of the past formed over that despairing gulf; she could not think of the present; she had not the power or the will to look into the future.
A year had passed since, on such an evening as this, looking on that star, she had stood with George de Witt on the Ray beneath the thorntrees, and he had gaily called her his Valentine, and given her in jest a picture of the Goddess of Liberty as proclaimed in Paris, wearing the bonnet rouge. She a goddess! She who was now so weak. Her power was gone. Liberty! She had none. She was a slave.
She drew herself up on her knees, and strained her united fingers, with the palms outward, towards that glittering star, and moaned, "My Valentine! My George, my George!"
Suddenly, as if in answer to that wail from her wounded heart, there came a crash, and then loud, pealing, agonising, a cry from below out of the depths, and yet in the air about—"Glory! Glory! Glory!"