Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 25
IN THE DARKNESS
Day by day Elijah Rebow lay, or sat, in the darkened oak parlour with his eyes bandaged, a prey to wrath, pain, despair. The vitriol from the broken vial had got into his eyes, and there was reason to fear had blinded them.
He was obliged to have the burning balls kept from the light, but he raged under the obligation. He wanted to see, he could not be patient under restraint. He could ill understand that in all things he might not have his way, even in such a matter as this. He chafed also at having been conquered by Glory. That she should have defied and beaten him, and beaten him in such a crushing manner, cut his pride to the quick.
None knew how the accident had occurred save himself and Mehalah. To the doctor he had merely said that in getting the vitriol bottle from the shelf, it had fallen and broken on his forehead.
Mrs. Sharland remained in as complete ignorance of the truth as the rest, and her lamentations and commiserations, poured on Elijah and her daughter, angered him and humiliated her. Mehalah had suffered in mind agonies equal in acuteness to those endured in body by Elijah.
Horror and hatred of herself predominated. She had destroyed, by one outburst of passion, the eyesight of a man, and wrecked his life. What henceforth for thirty or forty years could life be to Rebow?—to one who could not endure existence without activity? She had rendered him in a moment helpless as a babe, and dependent on herself for everything. She must attend to his every want, and manage the farm and his business for him. By a stroke, their relative positions were reversed. The wedding night had produced a revolution in their places of which she could not have dreamed. She felt at once the burden of the responsibilities that came upon her. She was called upon by those on the farm to order and provide for everything connected with it. She had to think for the farm, and think for the master into whose position she had forced her way.
She hated herself for her rash act. She hated the man whom she had mutilated, but more herself. If by what she had done she had in one sense made herself master, in another she had cast herself into bondage. By the terrible injury she had inflicted on Rebow she had morally bound herself to him for life to repair that injury by self-devotion. Had it been possible for her to love him, even to like him, this would have been light to her, with her feminine instinct, but as it was not possible, the slavery would be inexpressibly painful.
Love will hallow and lighten the most repulsive labours, the most extreme self-sacrifice, but when there is no love, only abhorrence, labour and self-sacrifice crush mentally and morally. She must bear the most fierce and insulting reproaches without an attempt to escape them, she had in part deserved them. These she could and would endure, but his caresses!—no! however deeply she might have sinned against him, however overflowing her pity for his helpless condition might be, she could not tolerate affection from the man who by his own confession merited her profound loathing. He had taken an unoffending man, and had imprisoned him and blinded his reason by cruelty; it seemed to her as if Providence had used her hand to exact a just retribution on Rebow by condemning him to an equally miserable condition. The recompense was justly meted, but would that it had been dealt by another hand!
In one particular she was blameless, and able to excuse herself. She had acted without intent to do bodily harm, and in ignorance of the weapon she had used. She had been carried away by the instinct of self-preservation, and had taken up what was readiest at hand, without a wish to do more than emancipate herself from the grasp of the man she detested. He had brought the consequences on his own eyes by his own act.
But though she quite recognised that he had done this, and that he richly deserved the consequences, yet she could not relieve her conscience from the gnawings of self-reproach, from the scalding blush of shame at having executed a savage, unwomanly vengeance on the man who had wronged her. Had her victim been a woman and a rival, she would perhaps have gloried in her act; but the female mind is perverse in its twists and complexion, and it will tingle with pain for having hurt a man, however little that man may be loved, when it would plume itself for having done the same to a woman who has been a friend. A woman must think and act rightly towards a man, but can do neither towards one of her own sex.
Mehalah's bosom was a prey to conflicting emotions. She pitied Elijah, and she pitied George. Her deep pity for George forced her to hate his torturer, and grudge him no suffering to expiate his offence. When she thought of what George De Witt must have endured in the vault, of his privations there, of the gradual darkening and disturbance of his faculties, and then of how Elijah had stepped between him and her, and spoiled their mutual dream of happiness, and ruined both their lives, the hot blood boiled in her heart, and she felt that she could deal Rebow the stroke again, deliberately, knowing what the result must be, as a retributive act. But when she heard him, as now, pacing the oak parlour, and in his blindness striking against the walls, her pity for him mounted and overlapped her wrath. Moreover, she was perplexed about the story of George's imprisonment. There was something in it she could not reconcile with what she knew. Elijah had confessed that on the night of George's disappearance he had enticed the young man to Red Hall, made him drunk or drugged him, and then chained him in the vault, in the place of his own brother who had died. It was Rebow and not De Witt who, that same night, had appeared at her window, driven in the glass and flung the medal at her feet. But was this possible? She knew at what hour George had left the Mussets' shop, and she knew about the time when the medal had been cast on the floor before her. It was almost incredible that so much had taken place in the interval. It was no easy row between Red Hall and the Ray, to be accomplished in half an hour.
Surely, also, had George De Witt been imprisoned below, he could have found some means to make himself heard, to communicate with the men about the farm, in the absence of Rebow. Would a few months in that dark, damp cell derange the faculties of a sane man?
Mehalah lifted the trap and went down. The vault was a cellar not below the soil, but with floor level with the marsh outside, or only slightly beneath. It had a door fastened from within by a bolt, but also provided with a lock; and there was the circular window already described. The shutter had not been replaced, and the sunlight entered, and made the den less gloomy and horrible than Mehalah had conceived it to be. She found the staple to which the chain had been attached, away from the door and the window. It was obvious how the maniac had got loose. The chain had been attached to the staple by a padlock. Elijah sometimes unlocked this, when he was cleaning the straw from the cell and supplying fresh litter. He had carelessly turned the key in the lock, and left it unfastened. The madman had found this out after Rebow was gone, and had taken advantage of the circumstance to break out at the window. The chain and padlock, with the key in it, were now hung over the fireplace in the hall, mocking the inscription below, "When I take hold, I hold fast."
Mehalah seated herself in the window of the hall, and took up some needlework. Elijah was still pacing the parlour and beating against the opposite walls, muttering curses when he struck the oak panels. Presently she heard him groping along the walls for the door, and stumbling over chairs. He turned the handle and entered the hall.
He stood before her in the doorway of the darkened chamber, with extended quivering hands, his head bowed, his eyes covered with a thick bandage. He wore his red plush waistcoat and long brown coat. His dark hair was ruffled and stood up like rushes over a choked drain. He turned his head aside and listened. Mehalah held her breath.
"You are there," he said. "Although you try to hide from me, I know you are there and watching me. I am in the dark, but I can see. I can see you always and everywhere, with your eyes—great angry brown eyes—on me, and your hand lifted to strike me into endless night."
Mehalah did not speak. Why should she? She could say nothing that could do either any good.
"Have you put the hot fire to your tongue and scorched it out as you have put it to my eyes?" he asked. "Can't you speak? Must I sit alone in darkness, or tramp alone up and down in black hell, feeling the flames dance in my eye-sockets, but not seeing them, and have no one to speak to, no one to touch, no one to kick, and beat and curse? Go out and fetch me a dog that I may torture it to death and laugh over the sport. I must do something, I cannot tramp, tramp, and strike my head and shoulders against the walls till I am bruised and cut, with no one to speak to, or speak to me. By heaven! it is bad enough in Grimshoe with two in the shiphold mangling each other, but there is excitement and sport in that. It is worse in that wooden hold yonder, for there I am all alone."
He stopped speaking, and began to feel round the room. He came to the chimney and put his fingers into the letters of the inscription. "Ha!" he muttered, "When I lay hold, I hold fast. I laid hold of you, Mehalah, but I have not let go yet, though I have burned my fingers."
This was the first time he had called her by her Christian name. She was surprised.
"Mehalah!" he repeated, "Mehalah!" and then laughed bitterly to himself. "You are no more my Glory. There is no Glory here for me; unless, in pity for what a ruin you have made, you take me to your heart and love me. If you will do that I will pardon all, I will not give a thought to my eyes. I can still see you standing in the midst of the fire, unhurt like a daughter of God. I do not care. I shall always see you there, and when the fire goes out and only black ashes remain, I shall see you there shining like a lamp in the night, always the same. I do not care how many years may pass, how old you may wax, whether you may become bent and broken with infirmities, I shall always see my Glory with her rich black shining hair, her large brown eyes, and form as elastic and straight as a pine-tree. I shall see the blue jersey and the red cap and scarlet skirt." He raised his hands and wrung them in the air above his head: "What do I care for other sights? These long flat marshes have nothing beautiful in them. The sea is not here what it is on other coasts, foaming, colour-shifting like a peacock's neck; here it is of one tone and grey, and never tosses in waves, but creeps in like a thief over the shallow mud-flat, and babbles like a dotard over the mean shells and clots of weed on our strand. There is nothing worth seeing here. I do not heed being blinded, so long as I can see you, and that not you nor all your vitriol can extinguish. Heat skewers white hot in the fire, and drive them in at the eye-sockets through all obstruction into the brain, and then, perhaps, you will blind me to that vision. Nothing less can do it. Pity me and love me, and I forgive all."
He crept past the chimneypiece and was close to the window. He touched Mehalah with one hand, and in a moment had her fast with both.
"I cannot love you," she said, "but I pity you from the depth of my soul, and I shall never forgive myself for what I have done."
"Look here!" he snatched his bandages away and cast them down. "This is what you have done. I have hold of you, but I cannot see you with my eyes. I am looking into a bed of wadding, of white fleeces with red ochre smears in them, rank dirty old fleeces unscoured—that is all I see. I suppose it is the window and the sunshine. I feel the heat of the rays; I cannot see them save as streaks of wool."
"Elijah! " exclaimed the girl, "let me bandage your eyes again. You were ordered to keep all light excluded."
"Bah! I know well enough that my eyesight is gone. I know what you have done for me. Do you think that a few days in darkness can mend them? I know better. Vitriol will eat away iron, and the eyes are softer than iron. You knew that when you poured it on them." "I never intended to do you the harm," said Mehalah passionately, and burst into tears. He listened to her sobbing with pleasure.
"You are sorry for me?"
"I am more than sorry. I am crushed with shame and grief for what I have done."
"You will love me now, Mehalah."
She shook her head and one of her tears fell on his hand; he raised his hand and put it to his eyes; then sighed. "I thought one such drop would have restored them whole as before. It would, had there been sweetness in it, but it was all bitter. There was only anger with self and no love for me. I must bide on in blackness." He put his hands on each side of her head, twisted his thumbs resting on her cheek-bones, and her unrestrained tears ran over them.
He stood quite still.
"This is the best medicine I could get," he said; "better nor all doctor's messes. To listen to your heart flowing over, to feel your warm tears trickle, does me good. In spite of everything, Glory! I must love you, and yet, Mehalah! I have every cause to hate you. I have made you, who were nothing, my wife, mistress of my house and estate, with a property and position above everyone else in Salcot and Virley, equal to any of the proud yeomen's wives on Mersea Isle. I have made a home for your mother, and in return you have plunged me in eternal night, and deny me your love."
"Let us not recriminate," said Mehalah through her tears, "or I should have enough to charge you with. I never sought to be your wife. You drove me into the position in spite of my aversion to it; in spite of all my efforts to escape. You have wounded me in a cruel and cowardly manner past forgiveness. You have ruined my life and all my prospects of happiness. George——"
He shook her furiously.
"I will not listen to that name," he said through his teeth.
"You could bear to hold him in chains there below," she answered.
"You said. Let us not recriminate, and you pour a torrent of recriminations over me," he gasped. "If I have wronged you, you have redressed all with one vial of vitriol in the eyes, where man is most sensitive. With that fire-juice you purged away all the past wrongs, I expiated in that liquid flame all the evil I had done you. You don't know what I have suffered. You have had no such experience of pain as to imagine the tortures I have undergone. If the anguish were all, it would be enough atonement; but it is not all. There is the future before me, a future of night. I shall have to trust to someone to do everything for me, to be eyes, and hands, and feet to me. Whom can I trust? How do I know that I shall not be deserted, and left to die in my darkness, a prey to ravenous men? If you loved me, then I could lean on you and be at peace. But you do not love me, and you will leave me when it suits your pleasure."
"No, Elijah," said Mehalah sadly; "that I never will do. I have robbed you of your sight. I did it unwittingly, in self-defence, perhaps also in anger at knowing how cruelly, wickedly,cowardly you had behaved to me and to another whom I loved."
"Whom you love still!" with a cry of rage.
"One whom I loved," repeated Mehalah sadly;" and I must atone for my mad act as far as lies in my power. I will stay by you. I will never forsake you."
"Listen to me, Mehalah," said Elijah, with concentrated vehemence; "you know what was said—that the person you loved went out in a boat and was lost. The body was never found. Should the man turn up again?"
"That is impossible."
"I don't care for impossibilities. I live now in a dream-world where there is no line drawn between the possible and the impossible. Should he reappear, what then?"
"Still I would remain at my post of duty," said the girl, humouring his fancy.
"The post of duty, not of love," he muttered.
"I said duty," she replied; "I will never leave that."
His thumbs twitched on her cheek-bones and worked their way to the corners of her eyes; she sharply withdrew her head.
He laughed. "You thought I was going to gouge your eyes out with my thumbnails," he said, "that I was going to repay you in kind. No, I was not; but should the dead return to life and reclaim you, I may do it. You cannot, you shall not escape me. You and I, and I and you, must sink or swim together. Say again, Mehalah, that you will stand by me."
"I promise it you, Elijah, I promise it you here solemnly, before God." She sank on her knees. "I have brought you unwittingly into darkness, and in that darkness I will hold to you and will cherish you."
"Ha!" he shouted. "At the altar you refused to swear that. To love, cherish, and obey is what the parson tried to make you say; but all you swore to was to obey, you denied the other, and now yon take oath to cherish. The Wheel of Fate is turning, and you will come in time to love where you began to obey and went on to cherish."