Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 20
The cry roused Mehalah, as a step into cold water is a shock bringing a somnambulist instantly to full consciousness.
In a minute she was outside the house, looking for the person whose appeal had struck her ear. She saw the wooden shutter that had closed the window of the madman's den broken, hanging by one hinge. Two bleached, ghostly hands were stretched through the bars, clutching and opening.
At his door, above the steps, stood Elijah.
"Hah! Glory!" he said, "has the crazed fool's shout brought you down?"
She was stepping towards the window, Rebow ran down before her.
"Go in!" he shouted to his brother. "Curse you, you fool! breaking the shutter and yelling out, scaring the whole house." He had a whip, a great carter's whip in his hand, and he smacked it. The hands disappeared instantly.
"Bring me a hammer and nails," ordered Rebow. "You will find them in the window of the hall."
Mehalah obeyed. Rebow patched up the shutter temporarily. There were iron bars to the window. The wooden cover had a small hole in it to admit a little light. During the summer the shutter was removed. It was used to exclude the winter cold.
"Why did he call me?" asked Mehalah.
"He did not."
"I heard his cry. He called me thrice, 'Glory! Glory! Glory!'"
"He was asking for his victuals," said Rebow, with a laugh. "Look you here, Glory! I have been alone in this house so long, and have thought of you, and brooded on you, and had none to speak to about you. At last I took to teaching my brother your name. I wouldn't give him his food till he said it. I taught him like a parrot. I made him speak your name, as you make a dog sit up and beg for a bit of bread. I've been about on the road all day, on account of your perversity and wilfulness, and so forgot to give my brother his food. But I don't care. He had no right to smash the shutter and yell out the way he has. I'll punish him for it. I'll lay into him with the whip, so as he shall not forget. He'll be quieter in future."
"Do not," said Mehalah. "It is a shame; it is wicked to treat a poor afflicted wretch thus."
"Oh! you are turned advocate, are you? You take the side of a madman against the sane. That is like a perverse creature such as you. What has he done for you, that you should try to save his back?" "No mercy is to be looked for at your hands," said Mehalah sullenly.
"Look you here. Glory! the moon is full, and that always makes him madder. I have to keep him short of food, and strap his shoulders, or he would tear the walls down in his fury."
"Let me attend to him?" asked Mehalah.
"You'd be afraid of him."
"I should pity him," said the girl." He and I are both wretched, both your victims, both prisoners, wearing your chains."
"You have no chains round you, Glory."
"Have I not? I have, invisible, may be, but firmer, colder, more given to rust into and rub the flesh than those carried by that poor captive. I have tried to break away, but I cannot. You draw me back."
"I told you I could. I have threads to every finger, and I can move you as I will. I can bring you into my arms."
"That—never," said Mehalah gloomily and leisurely.
"You think not?"
"I am sure not. You may boast of your power over me. You have a power over me, but that power has its limits. I submit now, but only for my mother's sake. Were she not dependent wholly on me, were she dead, I would defy you and be free, free as the gull yonder."
Elijah put his hand inside his door, drew out his gun, and in a moment the gull was seen to fall.
"She is not dead," said Mehalah, with a gleam of triumph in her sad face.
"No, but winged. The wretch will flutter along disabled. She will try to rise, and each effort will give her mortal agony, and grind the splintered bones together and make the blood bleed away. She will skim a little while above the water, but at length will fall into the waves and be washed ashore dead."
"Yes," said Mehalah; "you will not kill, but wound—wound to the quick."
"That is about it. Glory!"
"Let me repeat my request," she said; "allow me to attend to your brother. I must have someone, something, to pity and minister to." "You can minister to me."
"So I do."
"And you can pity me."
"Pity you!" with scorn.
"Aye. I am to be pitied, for here am I doing all I can to win the heart of a perverse and stubborn girl, and I meet with nothing but contempt and hate. I am to be pitied. I am a man; I love you, and am defied and repulsed, and fled from as though I had the pestilence, and my house were a plague hospital."
"Will you let me attend to your brother?"
"No, I will not."
The shutter was dashed off its hinges, flung out into the yard, and the two ghastly hands were again seen strained through the bars. Again there rang out in the gathering night the piteous cry, "Glory! Glory! Glory! "
"By God! you hound," yelled Elijah, and he raised his whip to bring it down in its all cutting force on the white wrists.
"I cannot bear it. I will not endure it!" cried Mehalah, and she arrested the blow. She caught the stick and wrenched it out of the hand of Rebow before he could recover from his surprise, and broke it over her knee and flung it into the dyke that encircled the yard. There was, however, no passion in her face, she acted deliberately, and her brown cheek remained unflushed. "I take his cry as an appeal to me, and I will protect him from your brutality."
"You are civil," sneered Elijah. "What are you in this house? A servant, you say. Then you should speak and act as one. No, Glory! you know you are not, and cannot be, a servant. You shall be its mistress. I forgive you what you have done, for you are asserting your place and authority. Only do not cry out and protest if in future I speak to the workmen of you as the mistress."
A hard expression settled on Mehalah's brow and eyes. She turned away.
"Are you going? Have you not a parting word, mistress?"
"Go!" she said, in a tone unlike that usual with her. "I care for nothing. I feel for no one. I am without a heart. Do what you will with that brother of yours. I am indifferent to him and to his fate. Everything in the world is all one to me now. If you had let me think for the poor creature and feed him, and attend to him, I might have become reconciled to being here; I could at least have comforted my soul with the thought that I was ministering to the welfare of one unhappy wretch and lightening his lot. But now," she shrugged her shoulders. "Now everything is all one to me. I can laugh," she did so, harshly. "There is nothing in the world that I care for now, except my mother, and I do not know that I care very much for her now. I feel as if I had no heart, or that mine were frozen in my bosom."
"You do not care now for your mother!" exclaimed Rebow. "Then leave her here to my tender mercy, and go out into the world and seek your fortune. Go on the tramp like your gispy ancestry."
"Leave my mother to your mercy!" echoed Mehalah. "To the mercy of you, who could cut your poor crazed brother over the fingers with a great horsewhip! To you, who have stung and stabbed at my self-respect till it is stupefied; who have treated me, whom you profess to love, as I would not treat a marsh briar. Never. Though my heart may be stunned or dead, yet I have sufficient instinct to stand by and protect her who brought me into the world and nursed me, when I was helpless. As for you, I do not hate you any more than I love you. You are nothing to me but a coarse, ill-conditioned dog. I will beat you off with a hedge-stake if you approach me nearer than I choose. If you keep your distance and keep to yourself, you will not occupy a corner of my thoughts. I take my course, you take yours." She walked moodily away and regained her room.
Mrs. Sharland began at once a string of queries. She wanted to know who had cried out and alarmed them, what Mehalah had been saying to Rebow, whether she had come to her senses at last, how long she was going to sulk, and so on. Mehalah answered her shortly and rudely; that the cry had come from the madman, that he meant nothing by it, he had been taught to yell thus when he wanted food, that he had been neglected by his brother and was distressed; as for her mother's other questions, she passed them by without remark, and brushing in front of the old woman, went into the inner chamber.
"Mehalah!" called Mrs. Sharland. "I will not have you glouting in there any longer. Come out."
The girl paid no attention to her. She leaned her head against the wall and put her hands to her ears. Her mother's voice irritated her. She wanted quiet.
"This is too much of a good thing," said the old woman, going in after her. "Come away, Mehalah, you have your work to do, and it must be done."
"You are right," answered the girl in a hard tone, "I am a servant, and I will do my work. I will go down at once." She knitted her brows, and set her teeth. Her complexion was dull and dead. Her hair was in disorder, and fell about her shoulders. She twisted it up carelessly, and tied it round her head with George's handkerchief.
When she returned, her mother was in bed, and half asleep. Mehalah went to the window, the window that looked towards the Ray, and drawing the curtains behind her, remained there, her head sunk, but her eyes never wavering from the point where her home had been when she was happy, her heart free, and her self-respect unmangled. So passed hour after hour. There was full moon, but the sky was covered with clouds white as curd, scudding before a north-west wind. The moon was dulled but hardly obscured every now and then, and next moment glared out in naked brilliancy.
Everything in the house was hushed. Elijah had gone to bed. Mehalah had heard his heavy tread on the stair, and the bang of his door as he shut it; it had roused her, she turned her head, and her face grew harder in the cold moonlight. Then she looked back towards the Ray.
Her mother was asleep. The starlings and sparrows who had worked their way under the eaves, and were building nests between the ceiling and the tiles, stirred uneasily; they were cold and hungry and could not sleep. Anyone not knowing what stirred would have supposed that mice were holding revel in the attics. There yonder on the marsh was something very white, like paper, flapping and flashing in the moonlight. What could it be? It moved a little way, then blew up and fell and flapped again. Was it a sheet of paper? If so how came it not to be swept away by the rushing wind. No, it was no sheet of paper. Mehalah's curiosity was roused. She opened the window and looked out. At the same moment it rose, fluttered nearer, eddied up, and fell again. A cloud drifted over the moon and made the marsh grey, and in the shadow the restless object was lost, the flash of white was blotted over. When the moon gleamed out again, she saw it once more. It did not move. The wind tore by, and shook the casement in her hand, but did not lift and blow away that white object. Then there was a lull. The air was still for a moment. At that moment the white object moved again, rose once more and fluttered up, it was flying, it was nearing,—it fell on the roof of the bakehouse under the window. Now Mehalah saw what this was. It was the wounded gull, the bird Rebow had shot.
The miserable creature was struggling with a broken wing, and with distilling blood, to escape to sea, to die, and drop into the dark, tossing, foaming waves, to lose itself in infinity. It could not expire on the land, it must seek its native element, the untamed, unconfined sea; it could not give forth its soul on the trampled, reclaimed, hedged-in earth.
Was it not so with Glory? Could her free soul rest where she now was? Could it endure for ever this tyranny of confinement within impalpable walls? She who had lived, free as a bird, to be blown here and there by every impulse, when every impulse was fresh and pure as the unpolluted breath of God that rushes over the ocean. Was she not wounded by the same hand that had brought down the white mew? There she was fluttering, rising a little, again falling, her heart dim with tears, her life's vigour bleeding away, the white of her bosom smeared with soil that adhered, as she draggled in the mire, into which he had cast her. Whither was she tending? She turned her face out to sea—it lay stretched before her ink-black. Red Hall and its marshes were to her a prison, and freedom was beyond its sea-wall.
She was startled by a sound as of bricks falling. She listened without curiosity. The sound recurred again, and was followed after a while by a grating noise, and then a rattle as of iron thrown down. She heard nothing further for a few minutes, and sank back into her dull dream, and watching of the poor mew, that now beat its wings on the roof, and then slid off and disappeared. Was it dead now? It did not matter. Mehalah could not care greatly for a bird. But presently from out of the shadow of the bake-house floated a few white feathers. The gull was still wending its way on, with unerring instinct, towards the rolling sea. Just then Mehalah heard a thud, as though some heavy body had fallen, accompanied by a short clank of metal. She would have paid it no further attention had she not been roused by seeing the madman striding and then jumping, with the chain wound round one arm. He looked up at the moon, his matted hair was over his face, and Mehalah could not distinguish the features. He ran across the yard, and then leaped the dyke and went off at long bounds, like a kangaroo, over the pasture towards the seawall.
Mehalah drew back. What should she do? Should she rouse Elijah, and tell him that his brother had wrenched off the grating of his window and worked his way out, and was now at large in the glare of moon on the marshes, leaping and rejoicing in his freedom? No, she would not. Let the poor creature taste of liberty, inhale the fresh, pure air, caper and race about under no canopy but that of God's making. She would not curtail his time of freedom by an hour. He would suffer severely for his evasion on the morrow, when Elijah would call out his men, and they would hunt the poor wretch down like a wild beast. She could see Rebow stand over him with his great dog-whip, and strike him without mercy. She rouse Rebow! She reconsign the maniac to his dark dungeon, with its dank floor and stifling atmosphere! The gull was forgotten now; its little strivings overlooked in anxiety for the mightier strivings of the human sufferer. Yet all these three were bound together by a common tie! Each was straining for the infinite, and for escape from thraldom; one with a broken wing, one with a broken brain, one with a broken heart. There was the wounded bird flapping and edging its way outwards to the salt sea. There was the dazed brain driving the wretched man in mad gambols along the wall to the open water. There was the bruised soul of the miserable girl yearning for something, she knew not what, wide, deep, eternal, unlimited, as the all-embracing ocean. In that the bird, the man, the maid sought freedom, rest, recovery.
She could not go to bed and leave the poor maniac thus wandering unwatched. She would go out and follow him, and see that no harm came to him.
She took off her shoes, shut the window. Her mother was sleeping soundly. She undid the door and descended the stairs. They creaked beneath her steps, but Rebow, who had slept through the noise made by his brother in effecting his escape, was not awakened by her footfall. She unlocked the back door, closed it, and stole forth.
As she passed the bakehouse she lit on the wounded bird. In a spasm of sympathy she bent and took it up. It made a frantic effort to escape, and uttered its wild, harsh screams; but she folded her hands over the wings and held the bird to her bosom and went on. The blood from the broken bone and torn flesh wetted her hand, and dried on it like glue. She heeded it not, but walked forward. By the raw moonlight she saw the madman on the wall. He had thrown down his chain. He heeded it not now. There had been sufficient intelligence or cunning in his brain to bid him deaden its clanking when making his escape from the house.
He sprang into the air and waved his arms; his wild hair blew about in the wind, it looked like seaweed tangles. Then he sat down. Mehalah did not venture on the wall, but crept along in the marsh. He had got a stone, and was beating at his chain with it upon the stone casing of the wall on the sea face. He worked at it patiently for an hour, and at last broke one of the links. He waved the chain above his head with a shout, and flung it behind him into the marsh. He ran on. Mehalah stole after him. He never looked back, always forwards or upwards. Sometimes he danced and shouted and sang snatches to the moon when it flared out from behind a cloud. Once, when at a bend of the wall, his shadow was cast before him, he cowered back from it, jabbering, and putting his hands supplicatingly towards it; then he slipped down the bank, laughed, and ran across the marsh, with his shadow behind him, and thought in his bewildered brain that he had cunningly eluded and escaped the figure that stood before him to stop him. He reached the mill that worked the pump. He must have remembered it: it was mixed up somehow with the confused recollections in his brain, for it did not seem to startle or frighten him. He scarcely noticed it, but, uttering a howl, a wild, triumphant shout, sprang upon a duck punt hauled up on the wail. It was Elijah's punt, left there occasionally, quite as often as at the landing near the house, a small, flat-bottomed boat, painted white, with a pair of white, muffled oars in it.
In a moment, before Mehalah had considered what to do, or whether she could do anything, he had run the punt down into the water, and had seated himself in it, and taken the oars and struck out to sea, out towards the open, towards the unbounded horizon.
He rowed a little way, not very far, and then stood up. He could not apparently endure to face the land the place of long confinement, he must turn and look out to sea.
Mehalah stood on the sea-wall. The waves were lapping at her feet. The tide had turned. It flowed at midnight, and midnight was just past. She had forgotten the gull she bore, in her alarm, for the man; she opened her arms, and the bird fluttered down and fell into the water.
The moon was now swimming in a clear space of sky free of cloudfloes. In that great light the man was distinctly visible, standing, waving his arms in the white punt, drifting, not rapidly, but steadily outwards. In that great light went out also, on the same cold, dark water, the dying bird, that now stirred not a wing.
Mehalah watched motionless, with a yearning in her heart that she could not understand, her arms extended towards that boundless expanse towards which the man and the bird were being borne, and into which they were fading. He was singing! Some old, childish lay of days that were happy, before the shadow fell.
There stood Glory, looking, indistinctly longing, till her eyes were filled with tears. She looked on through the watery veil, but saw nothing. When she wiped it away she saw nothing. She watched till the day broke, but she saw nothing more.