Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 22
THE LAST STRAW
Mehalah was lost to consciousness, leaning on the gate, her aching brow and leaden eyes in her hand. She did not hear the larks that sang above her, nor see the buttercups and daisies that smiled to her from below. By the gate was a willow covered with furry flower now ripe and shedding its golden pollen. The soft air scattered the delicate yellow dust over the girl's hair and neck and shoulders, a minute golden powder, but she noticed it not. The warm air played caressingly with some of her dark hair, and the sun brought out its copper glow—she was unaware of all.
A little blue butterfly flickered above her and lighted on her head, which lay so still that the insect had no fear.
Then a hand shook the gate.
"Gone to sleep, girl? " asked a female voice.
Mehalah looked up dreamily.
A young, handsome, and dashing lady before her, in white and carnation, a crimson feather in her hat, and carmine in her cheeks. Mehalah slowly recognised Admonition.
Mrs. Pettican looked curiously at her.
"Who are you?—Oh! I know, the girl Sharland!" and she laughed.
Mehalah put her hand to the latch to open the gate.
"You need not trouble," said Admonition: "I want nothing from you. I have heard of you. You are the young person," with an affected cough, "whom Master Rebow has taken to live with him, I think. You had the assurance once to come to my dear husband, and to pester him."
"He was kind to me," said Mehalah to herself.
"Oh, yes, he was very kind indeed. He did not know much of you then. Report had not made him familiar with your name."
Mehalah looked moodily at her. It was of no use pretending to misunderstand her. It was of no use resenting the insinuation. She sullenly bore the blow and suffered. "I have come here on your behalf," said Admonition, speaking to her across the gate. She had the gate half open, and kept it between them.
"You have nothing to do with me, or I with you," said Mehalah.
"Oh! nothing, I am respectable. I keep myself up, I look after my character!" sneered Mrs. Pettican. "Nevertheless I am here with an offer from my husband. He is ready to receive your mother into his house; I do not approve of this, but he is perverse and will have his way. He will take her in and provide for her."
Mehalah looked up. A load was being lifted from her heart. Were her mother taken in by Mr. Pettican, then she could leave, and leave for ever, Red Hall.
"Yes. He admits his relationship," said Admonition. "I would not, were I he, now that the name is—well—not so savoury as it was. But he is not particular. Men are not. I have been brought up, I am thankful to say, with very strict ideas, and have been formed in a school quite other from that of Mr. Pettican. However, as I was observing—you need not come near me—keep the gate between us, please."
"You were saying," anxiously repeated Mehalah, who had stepped forward in her eagerness.
"I was saying that Mr. Pettican will overlook a great deal, and will receive your mother into his house, and provide her with all that is necessary. But you—"
"I," repeated Mehalah, breathlessly.
"You must never, never set foot within my doors. I could not allow it. I am a person of respectability, I value proprieties. I could not allow my house to be spoken of as one which admitted"—with a contemptuous shrug.
Mehalah took no notice of the insult. She looked hard at Admonition, and said gravely, "You will shelter and care for my mother, on condition that I never go near her?"
"I may never see her, never speak to her, never kiss her again?"
"No, I could not suffer you to enter my respectable house."
"Not even if she were dying?" "My character would not allow of it. The respectability of my house must be maintained."
Mehalah thought for awhile.
"I cannot make up my mind at once," she said.
"It will be a great relief to you to get rid of your mother."
"I thought as much!" with a toss of the head and curl of the lip.
Mehalah did not give attention to these marks of contempt. Presently she asked, "And who will attend to my mother?"
"You!" exclaimed Glory, with a flash of her old indignation. "You, who neglect and illtreat the husband who lifted you out of the gutter! You who have not gratitude and generosity to the man to whom you owe your position and comforts! How would you treat a poor, helpless, aged woman trusting to your mercy unconditioned, when the man who bound you to him by most solemn and sacred promises is insulted, and neglected, and degraded by you? No, never. My mother shall never, never be left to you of all women in the world. Never, never, never!" she beat her hand on the gate. "Let me bear my burden, let it crush me, but she shall not be taken from me and die of neglect and cruel treatment. I can bear!" she raised herself with a poor effort of her old energy; "I will bear all for her. She once bore with me."
"Drab!" hissed Admonition, and she flung past her, shaking the gate furiously as she went by.
It was with carnation in her cheek as well as in her dress and hat that she appeared before Mrs. De Witt and Elijah Rebow.
Mrs. De Witt drew back to let Mrs. Pettican in.
"I think you was passing out," said the latter; "madam, your servant."
"Your servant, madam," from Mrs. De Witt, still lingering.
"Now then, one at a time. Aunt, go out and shut the door," said Rebow peremptorily, and the old woman was obliged to obey. "What has brought you here?" asked Elijah surlily.
Mrs. Pettican looked round, then drew nearer. "I think," she said, "you once advised me something, but I don't know how far your interest is the same as it was."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know whether you would be satisfied to get Mehalah Sharland off your hands now, or keep her here."
"She remains here, she never shall leave it."
"It is just this," said Admonition. " My husband has of late been plucking up a little courage, or showing obstinacy. My cousin Timothy—I don't know what to make of him—he is not what he was. He is always making some excuse or other to get away, and I find he goes to Mersea. He hasn't been as dutiful and amiable to me of late, as I have a right to expect, considering how I have found him in food and drink and tobacco, the best of all, and no stint. There's some game up between him and my husband, and I believe it is this, I know it is this. Charles is bent on getting Mrs. Sharland and her daughter, the latter especially, to come and live with him and take care of him. He dares to say I neglect him. He reckons on pitting that girl against me; he thinks that she would be more than a match for me."
"He thinks right," burst in Rebow with a laugh.
"I won't have her in the house. I don't mind taking in the old woman, but the daughter I will not admit."
"You are right. She'd master you and make you docile or drive you out," jeered Rebow.
"She shall not come. I have told her so. I will not be opposed and brow-beaten in my own house. I will not have the care of my husband wrested from me."
"Have you come here to tell me this?"
"I know that Charles and Timothy have put their heads together. They are both up in rebellion against me, and Timothy has walked over to Mersea to get a boat and row here to invite that girl to come with her mother to Wyvenhoe, and take up their abode with my husband. Charles promises if they will do so to provide for them and leave them everything in his will, so as to make them independent at my cost. When I got wind of this—I overheard the scheme by the merest accident—I got a gig and was driven over to Salcot, and the boy has put up the horse at the inn, and I walked on. I will stop this little game. The girl shall not come inside the house. If she puts in her little finger, her fist will follow, and I will be driven out, though I am the lawful wife of Charles Pettican. I don't know what Timothy means by aiding and abetting him in this. I will have it out with him, and that very soon. I want to know what are your views. I have been pretty plain with mine. You may help me or hinder me, but I hope I shall be able to keep my door locked against such as that girl, and if Timothy thinks to flirt along with her under my roof, and before my face, he is vastly mistaken. That husband of mine is deeper than I suspected, or he would not have come over Timothy and got him to aid him in this. But I see it all. Timothy thinks if the girl gets there, and is to have Charles's money, he will make up to her, marry her, and share the plunder. If that be his game he has left me out of his calculations. Timothy is a fool, or he would not have gone over from me to Charles. I'll have the matter out here——"
"Not in this room," said Elijah. "There's rows enough go on in here without your making another. Set your mind at rest: Glory does not leave this house. But I advise you to see your cousin, and, if possible, prevent him from making the proposal. If she hears it, she will be off to-morrow, and carry her mother with her; and then there may be trouble to you and me to get her back."
"She shall not come across my doorstep."
"I tell you if once she hears that the chance is given her, she will go, and not you nor a legion of such as you could keep her out. Go upstairs and go straight on till you come to a door. Go in there; it is the bedroom of Glory and her mother. Never mind the old fool—she is sick and in bed. You will find a small room or closet beyond, with a three-cornered window in it. Look out of that. It commands the whole bay, and you will see a boat if it approaches the Hall. There's Sunken Island and Cob Marsh between you and Mersea City. You will see a boat creep through one of the creeks of Cobb Marsh into Virley Flat, and that will be the boat with your cousin in it. If you come down then you will meet him as he lands." As soon as Admonition had rushed past Mehalah the girl walked away from the gate and ascended the sea-wall. She could obtain peace nowhere. She could hide nowhere, be nowhere without interruption. She saw Mrs. De Witt depart, and thought that now she could sit on the wall and remain unmolested. But again was she disturbed, this time by old Abraham. He was at the near landing-stage, just come from the Ray—the landing-place employed when tides were full. "Hark ye, mistress," said the shepherd. "I've had much on my tongue this many a day, but you haven't given me the chance to spit it out. I won't be put off any longer."
She did not answer or move away. The reaction after the momentary kindling of hope and burst of passion had set in, and she had relapsed into her now wonted mood.
"It is of no use, mistress, your going on as you are," continued the old man. "Wherever he is, the master speaks of you as no man ought to speak save of his wife; and all the world knows you are not that. What are you. then? You are in a false position, and that is one of your own making."
"You know it is not, Abraham."
"I know it is one you could step out of to-morrow if you chose," he said. "The master has offered you your right place. As long as you refuse to take it so long everybody will be turned against you, and you against everybody. You keep away from everybody because you shame to see them and be seen by them. I know you don't like the master, but that's no reason why you shouldn't take him. Beggars mustn't be choosers. He is not as young and handsome as George De Witt, but he is not such a fool, and he has his pockets well lined, which the other had not."
"It is of no use your saying this to me, Abraham," said Mehalah sadly.
"No, it is not," pursued the dogged old man. "Here you must stick as long as your mother lives, and she may live yet a score of years. Creaky gates last longest. Why, she ain't as old as I, and there's a score of years' work in me yet. How can you spend twenty years here along of the master, with all the world talking? It will shame you to your grave, or brazen you past respect. This state of things can't do good to anybody. You must take him, and set yourself right with the world, or go from here."
"I cannot get away. Would to heaven I could!"
"Then you must marry him. There is no escape from it, for your own sake, Why, girl," the shepherd went on, "if you was his wife you would have a lawful right and place here—this house, these marshes, these cattle would be yours. You would not be dependent on him for anything; you would hold them as a right. Now he can have you and your mother in prison at any time, for you are still his tenants and owe him rent for the Ray. But if you marry him, you cut away his power: he can't proceed against you and your mother for one penny. You would cancel the debt, do away with the obligation. If you was to marry him, and saw your way clear, I fancy you might go away at any time, and he would have no hold on you. Now he has you fast by this claim. And now your character is being ruined by association with him. There," continued the old man, "I doubt I never said so much afore; but I have known you since you was a girl, and I no more like to see you going to the bad than I like to see a field that has been well tilled allowed to be overrun with thistles, or a sheep lie down in the fen and die of rot that might have been saved with a little ointment stuck on in proper time."
Mehalah made no response.
"I dare say it stings," said Dowsing. "I've seen sheep jump with pain when the copperas comes against a raw; but that's better than to lie down and rot away without an effort, and without a word, as you are doing now." He gave her a nod, and went on his way.
Mehalah stepped into his boat and seated herself in her usual manner, with her head in her arms, and sank into her wonted torpor.
"Now, then, young woman!"
Again interrupted, again aroused. There was no rest for her that day.
"Jump on land, will you, young woman, and let this lass step into your boat and get ashore without having to go into the mud?"
"Timothy! that is Mehalah! " exclaimed Phœbe Musset. She was in the boat with Admonition's cousin. "I'd rather you carried me. I do not want to be obliged to her for anything."
Mehalah stepped from her boat upon the turf, and held out her hand mechanically to assist the girl.
"Don't hold out your hand to me!" screamed Phœbe. "I wouldn't touch it. Keep to yourself, if you please, and let me pass."
"Why, Phœbe!" exclaimed Timothy, "what is the matter? I have come here to see this girl."
"What!—to see Mehalah—or Glory, as you sailor and fisher fellows like to call her?"
"Then I'm ashamed to have come with you," said Phœbe, pouting. "You offered me a nice little row on the water, and the sun was so bright, and the air so warm, and you were so agreeable, that I ventured; but I would not have stepped into the boat had I known you were coming to visit another young woman, and she one of so smirched a character."
"Phœbe! For shame!"
"For shame!" repeated the girl, turning on Timothy. "For shame to you, to bring me here with you when you are visiting this——" She eyed Mehalah from head to foot with studied insolence, and sniffed. "I know her. A bad, spiteful cat! always running after fellows. She tried to wheedle poor George De Witt into marrying her. When he was lost, she burnt her house and flung herself on the mercy, into the arms, of Rebow. Now, I suppose, she is setting her red cap at you. Oh! where is the cap gone, eh?" turning to Mehalah as she skipped ashore.
Timothy was fastening the boat to that of Dowsing.
Mehalah's wrath was rising. She had endured much that day—more than she could well bear. The impertinence of this malicious girl was intolerable altogether. She turned away to leave her.
"Stop! stop!" shouted Timothy. "I have come here with a message to you. I have come here expressly to see you. I picked up Miss Musset on the way——"
"You picked me up just to amuse me till you found Glory!" screamed Phœbe. "Now you pitch me overboard, as that savage treated me once. I will not stand this. Timothy, come back this instant! Row me back to Mersea. I have not come here to be insulted. I will not speak another word with you unless you——"
"For heaven's sake," cried Timothy, tearing down the sea-wall and jumping into the boat. "come in, Phœbe, at once, or I shall be off and leave you!"
"What is the matter now?"
He had his knife out, and was hacking through the cord that attached his boat to Dowsing's. In another moment he was rowing as hard as he could down the creek.
Admonition appeared on the wall. Timothy had detected her crossing the marsh, and fled.
She turned in fury on Phœbe.
Mehalah withdrew to the windmill, away from their angry voices, and remained sitting by the sea till the shadows of evening fell.
Then she returned, a fixed determination in her face, which was harder and more moody than before.
She walked deliberately to the hall, opened the door, and stepped in. Elijah was there, crouched over the empty hearth, as though there was a fire on it. He looked up.
Her bosom heaved. She could not speak.
"You have something to say," he proceeded. "Won't the words come out? Do they stick?" His wild dark eye was on her.
"Elijah," she said, with burning brow and cheek, "I give up. I will marry you."
He gave a great shout and sprang up.
"Listen patiently to me," she said, with difficulty controlling her agitation. "I will marry you, and take your name, but only to save mine. That is all, I will neither love you, nor live with you, save as I do now. These are my terms. If you will take them, so be it. If not, we shall go on as before."
He laughed loudly, savagely.
"I told you, Glory, my own, own Glory, what must be. You would not come under my roof, but you came. You would not marry me—now you submit. You will not love me—you must and shall. Nothing can keep us apart. The poles are drawing together. Perhaps there may be a heaven for us both here. But I do not know. Anyhow the sum is nearer the end than it was. Glory, this day week you shall be my wife.