Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 21
Mrs. De Witt was not happy, taken all in all. There were moments indeed of conviviality when she boasted that she was now what she had always wanted to be, independent, and with none to care for but herself, "none of them bullet-headed, shark-bellied men to fuss and worrit about." But she laboured, like the moon, under the doom of passing through phases, and one of these was dark and despondent. As she lay in her bunk of a raw morning, and contemplated her toes in the grey light that fell through the hatches, she was forced to admit that her financial position was not established on a secure basis. It reposed on smelt, shrimps, dabs and eels, a fluctuating, an uncertain foundation. She strode about the island and the nearest villages on the mainland, with a basket on her arm, containing a half-pint measure, and a load of shrimps, or swung a stick in her hand from which depended slimy eels. She did a small trade at the farm-houses, and reaped some small retail profits. The farmers' wives were accustomed to see her in sunshine habited in scarlet more or less mottled with crimson, in storm wearing a long grey military great coat. In summer a flapping straw hat adorned her head; in winter a fur cap with a great knob at the top, and fur lappets over her ears. In compliment to her condition of mourner a big black bow was sewn to the summit of the knob, and she looked like a knight helmeted, bearing as crest a butterfly displayed, sable. It was seldom that she was dismissed from a farm-house without having disposed of a few shrimps, or some little fish; for if she were not given custom regularly, she took huff and would not call with her basket again, till an apology were offered, and she was entreated to return. The profits of the trade were not, however, considerable, and such as they were underwent reduction on all her rounds. She consumed the major part of them in her orbit at the Fountain, the Fox, the Leather Bottle or the Dog and Pheasant. In the bar of each of these ancient taverns, Mrs. De Witt was expected and greeted as cordially as at the farm-kitchen. There she was wont to uncasque, and ruffle out her white cap, and turn out her pockets to count her brass. There also this brass underwent considerable diminution. The consumption of her profits generally left Mrs. De Witt in a condition rather the worse than the better. She was a sinking fund that sucked in her capital. However cheery of face, and crisp of gathers, Mrs. De Witt may have started on her mercantile round, the close saw her thick of speech, leery of eye, festoony of walk, vague in her calculations, reckless of measurement with her little pewter half-pint, and generally crumpled in cap and garment. If she were still able to rattle a few coppers in her pocket when she stumbled up the ladder, toppled down into the hold, and tumbled into her bunk, she was happy. She was her own mistress, she had no helpless, foolish man, husband or son, to consider, and before whom to veil her indiscretions; she pulled up the ladder as soon as she was home; and, as she said, sat up for no one but herself.
She had not quite reconciled her smoking to her conscience, when she had a son to set a model of life to, before whom to posture as the ideal of womanhood and maternity; then when his foot was heard on the ladder she would slip her clay into the oven, and murmur something about a pinch out of her snuff-box having fallen on the stove, or about her having smoked her best gown as a preventive to moth. Now she smoked with composure, and turned over in her mind the various possibilities that lay before her. Should she bow to the hard necessity of leading about a tame man again, or should she remain in her present condition of absolute freedom? The five and twenty pounds had nearly disappeared, and she was not certain that she could live in comfort on her gains by the trade in shrimps and eels.
Mrs. De Witt was a moralist, and when nearly drunk religious. She was not a church-goer, but she was fond of convivial piety. Over her cups she had a great deal to say of her neighbours' moral shortcomings and of her own religious emotions. When in a state of liquor she was always satisfied that she was in a state of grace. In her sober hours she thought of nothing save how to make both ends meet. She mused on her future, and hovered in her choice, she feared that sooner or later she must make her election, to take a man or to do without one. The eagle can gaze on the sun without blinking, but Mrs. De Witt could not fix her eye on matrimony without the water coming into it. That was a step she would not take till driven to it by desperation. The Pandora's bottom was not all that could be wished, it was rotten. Mrs. De Witt saw that the repair of the Pandora was a matter she could not compass. When she let in water, Mrs. De Witt would admit a husband. Whilst a plank remained impervious to the tide, so would her breast to matrimonial dreams.
The spring tides came, and with them sea water oozing in at the rotted joints of the vessel. Mrs. De Witt was well aware of the presence of bilgewater in the bottom. Bilgewater has the faculty of insisting on cognisance being taken of its presence. Whenever she returned to the Pandora, the odour affected her with horror, for it assured her that her days of independence were numbered. But all at once a new light sprang up in the old lady's mind, she saw a middle course open to her; a way of maintaining a partial independence, on a certainty of subsistence.
She had not returned the call made her by her nephew Elijah Rebow. Half a year had elapsed, but that was no matter. Etiquette of high life does not rule the grades to which the Rebows and De Witts belonged. Why should not she keep house for her nephew? He was well off, and he was little at home; his house was large, she would have free scope in it for carrying on her own independent mode of life, and her keep would cost her nothing. That house had been her home. In it she had been born and nurtured. She had only left it to be incumbered with a husband and a son. Now she was free from these burdens, what more reasonable than that she should return? It was the natural asylum to which she must flee in her necessity.
It was true indeed that Rebow had taken in Mrs. Sharland and Glory, but what ties attached them to him equal to hers of flesh and blood? Was she not his aunt?
Now that Mrs. De Witt saw that it was clearly in her interest to disestablish the Sharlands and install herself in their place, she saw also, with equal clearness, that morality and religion impelled her to take this course. What was Elijah's connection with Glory? Was it not a public scandal, the talk of the neighbourhood? As aunt of Rebow was she not in duty bound to interfere, to act a John the Baptist in that Herod's court, and condemn the intimacy as improper?
Mrs. De Witt pulled herself up, morally as well as physically, and in habit also. That is, she was sitting on her military coat tails, and with a gathering sense of her apostleship of purity she shook them out, she drew in at the same time the strings of her apron and of her cap,tightened and lifted her bustle, so that the red military tails cocked in an audacious and defiant—if not in an apostolic and missionary manner. She ran her fingers through the flutings of her frills, to make them stand out and form a halo round her face, like the corolla of white round the golden centre of the daisy. Then she drank off a noggin of gin to give her courage, and away she started, up the companion, over the deck, and down the ladder, to row to Red Hall with her purpose hot in her heart.
After the disappearance of the madman, Mehalah had returned to the house and to her room. She said nothing next day of what she had seen. Elijah and his men had searched the marshes and found no trace of the man save the broken chain. That Rebow took back, and hung over his chimneypiece. He enquired in Salcot and Virley, but no one there had seen anything of the unfortunate creature. It was obvious that he had not gone inland. He had run outward, and when it was found that the punt was gone, the conclusion arrived at was that the madman had left the marshes in it.
Elijah rowed to Mersea, and made enquiries without eliciting any information. He went next to Bradwell on the south coast of the great Blackwater estuary, there his punt had been found, washed ashore; but no traces of the man were to be discovered. That he was drowned admitted of no doubt. Rebow satisfied himself that this was the case, and was content to be thus rid of an encumbrance. Mehalah's knowledge of the matter was unsuspected, and she was therefore not questioned. She did not feel any necessity for her to mention what she had seen. It could be of no possible advantage to anybody.
Her life became monotonous, but the monotone was one of gloom. She had lost every interest; she attended to her mother without heart; and omitted those little acts of tenderness which had been customary with her, or performed them, when her mother fretted at the omission, in a cold, perfunctory manner. Mrs. Sharland had been accustomed to be overruled by her daughter, but now Mehalah neither listened to nor combated her recommendations. She rarely spoke, but went through the routine of her work in a mechanical manner. Sometimes she spoke to her mother in a hard, sharp tone the old woman was unused to, and resented; but Mehalah ignored her resentment. She cared neither for her mother's love nor for her displeasure.
When she met the men about the farm, if they addressed her, she repelled them with rudeness, and if obliged to be present with them for some time, did not speak.
Neither had she a word for Rebow. She answered his questions with monosyllables, or not at all, and he had often to repeat them before she condescended to answer. He spoke at meal times, and attempted to draw her into conversation, but she either did not listen to him, was occupied with her own thoughts, or she would not appear to hear and be interested in what he said.
A morose expression clouded and disfigured her countenance, once so frank and genial. Joe remarked to Jim that she was growing like the master. Jim replied that folks who lived together mostly did resemble one another. He knew a collier who had a favourite bull-dog, and they were as alike in face as if they were twins.
Mehalah avoided Abraham; she rarely spoke to him, and when he attempted to open a conversation with her she withdrew abruptly. When all her work was done, she walked along the sea-wall to the spit of land, and, seating herself there, remained silent, brooding, with dull, heavy eyes looking out to sea at the passing sails or the foaming waves.
She did not think, she sat sunk in a dull torpor. She neither hoped anything nor recalled anything. As she had said to Elijah, she neither loved nor hated; she did not fear him or desire him. She disliked to be in his presence, but she would not fix her mind on him, and concern herself about him. Her self-respect was sick, and till that was recovered nothing could interest and revive her.
Mehalah was seated under the windmill when Mrs. De Witt drew to land. That lady was on her war-path, and on seeing the person whom she designed to attack and rout out of her shelter, she turned the beak of her boat directly upon her, and thrust ashore at Mehalah's feet.
The sight of Mrs. De Witt in her red coat roused the girl from her dream, and she rose wearily to her feet and turned to walk away.
"Glory!" shouted the fishwife after her. "Sackalive! I want to speak to you. Stop at once."
Mehalah paid no attention to the call, but walked on. Mrs. De Witt was incensed, and, after anchoring her boat, rushed after and overtook her.
"By cock!" exclaimed the lady, "here's manners! Didn't you hear me hollering to you to hold hard and heave to?" She laid her hand on Mehalah's shoulder. The girl shook it off.
"Sackalive!" cried Mrs. De Witt. "We are out of temper to-day. We have the meagrims. What is all this about? But I suppose you can't fare to look an honest woman in the face. The wicious eye will drop before the stare of wirtue!"
"What have you to say to me?" asked Mehalah moodily.
"Why, I want to speak along of you about what concerns you most of all. Now his father and his mother are dead, who's to look after Elijah's morals but me, his aunt? Now I can't stand these goings on. Glory! Here are you living in this out-of-the-way house with my nephew, who is not a married man, and folks talk. My family was always respectable, we kept ourselves up in the world. My husband's family I know nothing about. He was a low chap, and rose out of the mud, like the winkles. I took him up, and then I dropped him again; I was large and generous of heart when I was young—younger than I am now. I wouldn't do it again, it don't pay. The man will raise the woman, but the woman can't lift the man. He grovels in the mud he came out of. She may pick him out and wipe him clean a score of times, but when. she ain't looking, in he flops again. I have had my experience. Moses was a good-looking man, but he looked better raw than cooked, he ate tougher than he cut. He wasn't the husband that he seemed to promise as a bachelor. George was another; but he was an advance on Moses, he had a little of me in him. There was Rebow mixed with De Witt; he was a glass of half and half, rum and water. But this is neither here nor there. We are not talking of my family, but of you. I'm here for my nephew's welfare and for yours. Glory! you ain't in Red Hall for any good. Do you think my nephew can take in an old woman that is not worth sixpence to bait lines with, and feed her and find her in liquor for nothing! Everybody knows he's after you. He's been after you ever so long. Everybody knows that. He had a hankering after you when George was a galliwanting on the Ray. That's known to all the world. Well, you can't live in the house with him and folks not talk."
"Do you dare to believe—"
"Glory! I always make a point to believe the worst. I'm a religious person, and them as sets up to be religious always does that. It is part of their profession. When I buy fish of the men, I say at once, it stinks, I know it ain't fresh! when I take shrimps I say, they're a week out of the water, and they won't peel nicely. So I look upon you and everyone else, and then it's a wery pleasing surprise when I find that the stale fish turns out fresh. But it ain't often that happens. It may happen now and then, just as now and then a whale is washed up on Mersea Island. Now look you here. Glory! don't you believe that Elijah will marry you and make an honest woman of you. He won't do it. He don't think to do it. He never did intend it. He belongs to a better family than yours. You have gipsy blood in your veins, and he knows it; that's as bad as having king's evil or cancer. I made a mistake and looked below me. He won't do it. He knows that I made a mistake, he won't do the same. There's as much difference in human flesh as there is in that of flat-fish; some is that of soles, other is that of dabs; some is fresh and firm as that of small eels, other is coarse and greasy as that of conger. The Rebows belong to another lot from you altogether. Elijah knows it. He never thought to marry you. He couldn't do it."
Mehalah, stung even through the hard panoply of callousness in which she had encased herself, turned surlily on the woman.
"You lie! It is I who will not marry him."
"There's an Adam and Eve in every brown shrimp," said Mrs. De Witt sententiously; "and there's wigour and weakness in every human creature. It is possible that at a time when Eve is up in Elijah he may have proposed such a foolish thing as to marry you, and it is possible that, at a time when Adam was the master in you, you may have refused him. I don't deny it. But I do say that Elijah will never marry you in cold blood. And I'll tell you what—you won't stand out against him for long. He has too much of the Adam, and you too little for that. You may set up your pride and self-will against him, but you will give way in the end—your weakness will yield to his strongheadedness. What he purposes he will carry out; you cannot oppose Elijah; the Adam in his heart is too old and wigorous and heady."
Mehalah made no answer. Sunk in her dark thoughts she strode on, her arms folded over her heart, to still and crush it; her head bowed.
"Now, Glory!" pursued Mrs. De Witt; "I've a bit of a liking for you, after all, and I'm sorry for what I was forced to do about that five and twenty pounds. I tell you, I am sorry, but I couldn't help it. I couldn't starve, you know—I was a lone widow without a son to help me. As I said, I've a sort of a liking for you, for you was the girl my George—" Mehalah's breast heaved, she uttered an ill-suppressed cry, and then covered her face.
"My poor George," went on the old woman, aware that she had gained an advantage "He was wery fond of you. Sackalive! how he would love to talk of you to me his doting old mother, and scheme how you was to live in love together! That boy's heart was full of you, full as—" she cast about for a simile, "as a March sprat is full of oil. Now I know, my George—he was a good lad! and more like me in features than his father, but he hadn't the soul of a Rebow!—My George, I feel sure, couldn't rest in his grave, if he'd got one, knowing as how tongues were going about you, and hearing what wicked things was said of your character. A woman's good name is like new milk. If it once gets turned there's no sweetening it after, and I can tell you what. Glory! your name is not as fresh as it was; look to it before it is quite curdled and sour."
"I can do nothing! I can do nothing!" moaned the despairing girl.
"Look you here. Glory!" said Mrs. De Witt. "I'm the aunt of the party, and I must attend to his morals. I'll go in and see him and I'll manage matters. He's my nephew. I can do anything with him. Trust me with men, girl. I know 'em. They are like nettles. Grasp 'em and they are harmless; touch 'em trembling, and they sting you. They are like eels, try to hold them where you will and they wriggle away, but run a skewer through their gills and you have them."
"What are you here for, talking to my girl?" asked Rebow, suddenly coming from behind the house, which Mrs. De Witt had now reached.
"Sackalive!" exclaimed his aunt, "how you flustered me. We was just talking of you when you appeared. It is wonderful how true proverbs are; they are the Bible of those that don't read, a sort of scripture written in the air. But I want a talk along of you, Elijah, that is what I'm come after, I, your precious aunt, who loves you as the oyster loves his shell, and the crab its young that it cuddles." "What do you want with me?"
"Come, EHjah, let us go indoors. To tell you Gospel truth, I'm dry after my row and want a wet. As I wet I will talk. I've that to say to you that concerns you greatly."
"Follow me," he said surlily, and led the way up the steps. Mehalah turned back, but walked not to the point where she had been sitting before, lest she should be again disturbed on the return of Mrs. De Witt to her boat. She went instead to the gate at the bridge over the dyke, that led towards Salcot. There was no real road, only a track through the pasture land. She leaned her hands on the bar of the gate and laid her weary head on her hands. Outside the gate was a tillage field with green wheat in it glancing in the early summer air. Aloft the larks were spiring and carolling. In the ploughed soil of Mehalah's heart nothing had sprung up,—above it no glad thought soared and sang. Her head was paralysed and her heart was numb. The frost lay there, and the clods were as iron.
In the meantime Mrs. De Witt was in the hall with her nephew, endeavouring to melt him into geniality, but he remained morose and unimpressionable.
By slow approaches she drew towards the object of her visit.
"I have been very troubled, nephew, by the gossip that goes about."
"Have you?" asked he, "I thought you were impervious to trouble short of loss of grog."
"You know, Ehjah, that your character is precious to me. I wally it, for the honour of the family."
"What are you driving at?" he asked with an oath. "Speak out, and then take your slimy tongue off my premises."
"This is my old home, Elijah, the dear old place where I spent so many happy and innocent days."
"Well, you are not likely to spend any more of either sort here now. Say what you have to say, and begone."
"You fluster me, Elijah. When I have a glass of rare good stuff such as this, I like to sit over it, and talk, and sip, and relax." "I don't," he said; "I gulp it down and am off. Come, say your say and be quick about it. I have my affairs to attend to and can't sit here palavering with an old woman."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt, in rising wrath, "if I were young it would be different, if I were not a moral and religious character it would be different, if I were not a Rebow, but half gipsy, half boor, it would be different!"
"If you allude to Glory, with that sneer," said he, "I tell you, it would be different."
"I dare say!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt tossing her head. "Blood and kinship are all forgot."
"You forgot them fast enough when you ran after Moses De Witt."
"I did demean myself, I admit," said she; "but I have repented it since in dabs and sprats, and I don't intend to do it again. Listen to me, Elijah. Once for all, I want to know what you mean by keeping this girl Glory here?"
"You do, do you?—So do I. I wonder; she defies and hates me, yet I keep her. I keep her here, I can do no other. I would to God I could shake free of her and forget her, forget that I had ever seen her, but I can't do it. She and I are ordained for one another."
"Parcel of stuff!" exclaimed his aunt. "You send her packing, her and her old fool of a mother, and I will come and keep house for you."
"Pack Glory off!" echoed Elijah.
"Yes, break this wretched, degrading tie."
"I couldn't do it!" he said. "I tell you again, I would if I could. I know as well as if it were written in flames on the sky that no good can come of her being here, but for better for worse, for well or for woe, here we two are, and here we remain."
"You love her?"
"I love her and I hate her. I love her with every fibre and vein, and bone and nerve, but I hate her too, with my soul, because she does not love me, but hates me. I could take her to my heart and keep her there," his breast heaved and his dark eyes flared, "and kiss her on her mouth and squeeze the breath out of her, and cast her dead at my feet. Then perhaps I might be happy. I am now in hell; but were she not here, were I alone, and she elsewhere, it would be hell unendurable in its agonies, I should go mad like my brother. She must be mine, or my fate is the same as his."
"Are you going to marry her?"
"She will not marry me. Believe what I say. That girl. Glory, is the curse and ruin of me and of this house. I know it, and yet I cannot help it. She might have made me happy and built up my prosperity and family. Then I should have been a good and a glad man, a man altogether other from what I am now. But your son came in the way. He marred everything. Glory still thinks of him, it does not matter that he be gone. She will cling to him and keep from me. Yet she is destined for me. She never was for George. If he were to turn up—I don't say that it is possible or even probable, but suppose he were—she would fly to him. I might chain her up, but she'd break away. There is nothing for it," he pursued, dropping into a sullen mood. "We must battle it out between us. None can or must intervene; whoever attempts it shall be trampled under our feet. We must work out our own fate together; there is no help for it. I tell you, if I were born again, and I knew that this were before me, I'd fly to the Indies, to Africa, anywhere to be from her, so as never to see her, never to know of her, and then I might jog on through life in quiet, and some sort of happiness. But that is not possible. I have seen her. I have her here under my roof, but we are still apart as the poles. Go away, aunt, it is of no good your interfering. No one comes here, she and I must work the sum out between us. There's a fate over all and we cannot fight against it, but it falls on us and crushes us."
Mrs. De Witt was awed. She rose. She knew that her mission was fruitless, that there was no possibility of her gaining her point.
She opened the door, and started back before an apparition in carnation and white.
" Whom have we here?"
"Mrs. Charles Pettican, madam," said the apparition with a stately curtsey.
- Children find in the front paddles of the brown shrimp, when pulled out, two quaint little figures which they call Adam and Eve.