Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 26
THE FORGING OF THE RING
Mrs. Sharland was failing. The excitement of the marriage had roused her to activity, but when that was over she relapsed, her energy evaporated, and she took to her bed with the avowed intention of not leaving it again, except for a christening in the family, till carried to her grave. She did not understand Mehalah, she fretted because the arrangements after the eventful day remained the same as before; her daughter shared her room and kept as much away from Elijah as was possible, showed him none of the love of a wife to her husband, and was distressed when spoken to by her new name.
"You are either Mistress Rebow or you are not," said the old woman peevishly to her daughter one night, in their room, "and if you are not, then I don't understand what the ceremony in the church was for. You treat Elijah Rebow as coldly and indifferently as if he were naught to you but master, and you to him were still hired servant. I don't understand your goings on."
"He and I understand each other, that is enough," answered Mehalah. "I have married him for his name and for nothing else. In no other light will I regard him than as a master: I told him when I agreed to go to church with him that I would be his no further than the promise to obey went; I take his name to save mine—that is all. He is not my husband, and never shall be, in any other way. I will serve him and serve him devotedly, but not give him my love. That I cannot give. I gave my heart away once for all, and it has not been restored to me."
"That is all nonsense," said Mrs. Sharland. "Didn't I love Charles Pettican, and weren't we nigh coming to a declaration, only a fit of the ague shivers cut it short? I married your father, and loved him truly as a good wife and not as a hired servant, for all that."
"Elijah and I understand each other," answered Mehalah. "I suppose there is something of truth in what he says over and over again, that he and I are different from others, and that there's none can understand us but our two selves."
"Then you are made for one another."
"So he says, but I will not believe it. No. That cannot be. Some have peace and happiness drop into their lap; others have to fight their way to it, and that is our fate. But that we shall find it in each other, that I never will admit. In George——" she covered her eyes, and left her sentence unfinished.
The charge of Mrs. Sharland was, to some extent, unjust. Mehalah did attend to Elijah with as much care and as assiduously as she was able, considering the amount of work which had devolved upon her. Her mother was ill and in bed, Elijah helpless. She had to see after and direct everything about the farm and house, beside ministering to the two invalids. Consequently she was unable to devote much time to Elijah, but whenever she had a few moments of relief from work she devoted them to him. She took her needlework either to him in the oak parlour, or brought him into the hall. She had now somewhat lightened her labours by engaging a charwoman, and was therefore more able than before to be with Rebow and her mother. Each complained if left long alone, and she had much difficulty in portioning her time between them. She tried, but tried in vain, to induce her mother to make an effort and come downstairs, so that she might sit with both at once; this would save her from distraction between two exacting and conflicting claims, and some restraint would be placed on the intercourse between Rebow and herself by the presence in the room of a third party.
Elijah was not entirely blinded, he was plunged not in darkness but in mist. He could see objects hazily, when near; he could distinguish figures, but not faces, when within a few yards of him, but nothing distant. The wall and a black cloud on the horizon were equally remote to his vision.
He wandered about, with a stick, and visited his cattle sheds and workmen; or sat under the south wall of his house in the sun. The pump was there, and to it Mehalah sometimes came. He listened for her step. He could distinguish her tread from that of the charwoman. He took no notice of this woman, though she came up to him occasionally and said a few commiserating words.
The men thought that he was gentler in his affliction than he had been before. He did not curse them, as had been his wont. He asked about the cattle, and the farm, and went his way. Mehalah also noticed that he was less fierce; she was able also to attribute this softening to its right cause, to her own influence. He was, to some extent, happy, because she was often with him, sought him instead of shunning him, spoke to him kindly, instead of rebuffing him when he addressed her, and let him know and feel that she thought of him, and was endeavouring to make him comfortable in his great deprivation.
As he sat in the sun and looked up at the bright orb, which he saw only as a nebulous mass of light, she was ever present before his inward eye, she in her pride and beauty. He did not think; he sat hour by hour, simply looking at her—at the image ever before him, and listening for her step or voice. An expression of almost content stole across his strongly marked features, but was occasionally blurred and broken by an uneasy, eager, enquiring look, as if he were peering and hearkening for something which he dreaded. In fact, he was not satisfied that George De Witt would never reappear. Had he been set at rest on this point, he could have been happy.
Mehalah was touched by his patience, his forgiveness of the irreparable wrong she had done him. He had said that if she loved him he would pardon all. He was ready to do this at a less price; though he craved for her love, he was contented, at least for the present, with her solicitude. He had been accustomed to open hostility and undisguised antipathy. Now that he met with consideration and tenderness from her, he became docile, and a transformation began to be operated in his nature. Love him, she could not, but she felt that but for what he had done to George, she could regard him without repugnance. Pity might ripen into friendship. Into a deeper and more rich feeling it never could, for he had barred the way to this possibility by his dealing with De Witt.
She ventured occasionally to approach the subject, but it always produced such agitation in the manner of Rebow that she was obliged to desist from seeking explanation of the particulars which perplexed her. The slightest allusion to George De Witt troubled the master of Red Hall, made his face darken, and brought on an access of his old violence, from which he did not recover for a day or two.
Mrs. De Witt came to see him.
"Lawk a day!" she said; "what a job to find you in this predicament!"
He turned his whitened eyes on her, with a nervous twitch in the muscles and a tremour of the lips. "Well! What news?"
"News!" echoed the lady; "dear sackalive! who'd expect to find news in Mersea? you might as well drag for oysters in a horsepond."
He was satisfied, and let her talk on without attending to her.
A few days later, he called the charwoman to him as she was going to the pump.
"What is your name?"
"Susan Underwood. I'm a married woman, with three small children, and another on its way."
He fumbled in his pocket, and took out a crown.
"Any news?—from Mersea, I mean."
"I don't come from Mersea. Thank your honour all the same."
"But if there were news there it would get to Virley or Salcot, or wherever you live." "It would be, sure. I did hear," she said, "that Farmer Pooley has been a-wisiting a little more nor he ought at Widow Siggars's cottage, her as has a handsome daughter, and so, they do say,has Farmer Pudney; and the other day they met there, and was so mad each to find the other, that the one up with his hunting whip and the other with his Bible and knocked each other down, and each had to be carried home on a shutter."
"Go and tell those tales to the old woman upstairs. I have no patience to listen to them. That's the sort of garbage women feed on, as maggots on rotten meat."
"But it is true."
"Who cares whether true or not? It is all the same to me. Has anyone arrived at Mersea?"
"Not yet, sir, but they do say that the parson's wife has expectations."
"Go back to the kitchen," growled Elijah, and relapsed into his dream.
A few minutes after, Mehalah came out, and seated herself on the bench beside him. She was knitting. He put out his hand and felt her, and smiled. He raised his hand to her head.
"Glory! when you wear the red cap in the sun I know it, I see a scarlet light like a poppy, and it pleases me. Let me hold the ball, then I can feel every stitch you take with your fingers."
She put the wool gently into his palm; and began to talk to him concerning the farm. He listened, and spoke in a tone and with a manner different from his habit formerly.
Presently his hand stole up the thread, and he caught her fingers and drew her hand down on her lap. Her first impulse was to snatch it away, but she conquered it, and let him feel over her hand without a movement of dislike.
"You have not yet a ring," he said; "you have no gold wedding circle like other married women."
"Our union is unlike all others," she said.
"That is true; but you must wear my ring. I shall not be happy till you do. I shall think you will cast me off unless I can feel the ring that has no ending round your finger. Where is the link with which I married you?" "I have it here," she said; "I have not cast it off, and I shall not cast you off. I have fastened it by a string and carry it in my bosom."
He seemed pleased. "You wear it for my sake?"
"I wear it," she replied, truthfully, "because I took a solemn oath on that day, and I will not go from it. What I undertook that I will fulfil, neither more nor less. What I did not promise I will not do, what I did undertake that I will execute."
"And you bear the ring in your bosom——"
"As a reminder to me of my promise. I will not be false to myself or to you. Do not press me further. You know what to expect and what not to expect. If I could love you I would; but I cannot. I did not promise that then and I will not promise it now, for I know the performance is out of my power."
"You must wear the wedding ring on your finger."
"I cannot wear this link, it is too large."
"I will get you a gold ring, such as other women wear."
"No. I cannot wear a lie; the gold ring belongs to the perfect marriage, to the union of hearts. It befits not ours."
"You are right," he said, and sighed. He still held her hand; she made a slight effort to withdraw it, but he clasped the hand the tighter.
"Let me touch and hold you, Glory," he said. "Remember I can no more see you, except mistily. You must allow me some compensation. I know what you are now, sitting here in the sun, with your hair full of rich coppery gleams, and your eyes full of light and darkness at once, and your cheek like a ripe apricot. I know what you are, splendid, noble, as no other girl in the whole world; but you have shut my eyes, that I may not see you, so allow me, at least, to feel you." He paused. Then he went on: "You are right, our union is unlike any other, as you and I are different from all others in the world. The married life of some is smooth and shining and rustless like the gold, but ours is quite contrary, it is rough and dark and full of blisters and canker. It may be different some day——" he turned his dim eyes enquiringly at her, "but not now, not now. Nevertheless as the ring is without an end so is our union. Give me the link of iron, Glory, and come with me to the forge. I will beat out a bit of the metal into a ring, one small enough and light enough for you to wear."
He got up, and holding her hand, bade her lead him to the forge.
Near the bakehouse was a small smithy, fitted up with all necessary appliances. Rebow was a skilful workman at the anvil, and shod his own horses, and made all that was needed in iron for the house and farm.
Mehalah conducted him to the shop, and brought fire from the kitchen for the forge, she worked the bellows and blew the fire into size and strength, whilst Elijah raked the coals together.
"Where is the link. Glory?" he asked, and went up to her. He put his hand to her neck, before she did, and drew out of her bosom something.
"That is not the link, Elijah," she said; "it is my medal—the medal that——"
He uttered a fierce cry, and wrenching it off, dashed it on the ground. He would have stamped on it had he been able to see it.
Mehalah 's cheek flushed, but she said nothing. She saw where the coin had rolled. She stooped, picked it up, impressed a kiss upon it, and hid it once more in her bosom.
"Here is the iron link," she said; he took it from her sullenly.
The flame gleamed up blue above the wetted coal, and glared out white through the crevices in the clot, as the bellows panted, and Rebow drew the coals together or broke into the glaring mass with an iron rod.
"I heard a preacher once take as his text," said he, "Our God is a consuming fire; and he told all in the chapel that this was writ in Scripture and therefore must be true to the letter, for God wrote it Himself, and He knew what He was better than any man. He said that fire warms and illumines at a distance, but if you come too close it dazzles and burns up. And he told us it was so with God. You can't keep too far off of Him to be comfortable and safe; the nearer you get, the worse it is for you; and to my thinking that is Hell, when you get sucked into the very core of he fire in the heart of God. You must be consumed because you are not divine, fire alone can live in fire; most folks are clay and water, and they are good enough, they get light and warmth, but when they die they burn up like this dock of coke. But there are other folk, like you and me. Glory ! who are made of fire and clay; it takes but a word or a thought to make us roar and blaze and glow like this furnace. There is passion in us—and that is a spark of the divine. I do not care what the passion be, love or hate, or jealousy or anger, if it be hot and red and consuming so that it melts and burns all that opposes it, that fiery passion is of God and will live, live on for ever, in the central heart and furnace, which is God. When you and I die. Glory! and are sucked into the great fiery whirlpool, we shall not be burnt up altogether, but intensified. If I love you with fiery passion here I shall love you with fiery passion ten thousand times hotter hereafter; my passion will turn to glaring white heat, and never go out for all everlasting, for it will be burning, blazing in God who is eternal. If you hate me, you will be whirled in, and your fury fanned and raked into a fiery frenzy which will rage on for ages on ages, and cannot go out, for it will be burning in the everlasting furnace of God. If I love, and you hate with infinite intensity for an infinity of time—that is Hell. But if you love and I love, our love grows hotter and blazes and roars and spurts into one tongue, cloven like the tongues at Pentecost, twain yet one, and that is Heaven. My love eating into yours and encircling it, and yours into mine, and neither containing nor consuming the other, but going on in growing intensity of fiery fury of love from everlasting to everlasting, that is Heaven of Heavens."
He was heating the link, held between the teeth of long shanked pincers, and then withdrawing it, and forging it on the anvil as he spoke.
"Glory!" he said; "tell me, you do not hate me?"
"Glory!" he repeated, and laid hammer and pincers on the anvil, and leaned his head towards her, as she shrank into the dark corner by the bellows. "Glory! tell me, you do not hate me."
"Elijah," she said, "I must be candid with you. When I think of what, by your own confession, you have done to him whom I loved more than all the world——"
He raised his hammer and brought it down on the link, cutting it in half, and sending one fiery half across the smithy.
"When I think of what you have done to him, I feel that I do hate you, and that I have every cause and right to hate you. I could forgive everything else. I have turned over in my mind all that you have done to me, the cruel way in which you worked till you had brought me within your power, the heartless way in which you got my good name to be evil spoken of, and drove me out of self-defence to take your hand before the altar of God. I have thought of all this, and I feel that my act—unintentional though it was—yet my act, which has blinded you, has expiated all those offences. You have wronged me, and I have wronged you. I have ruined your life, but you have also ruined mine. We are quits so far. You have my frank forgiveness. I blot out all the past, as far as it concerns me, from my memory. It shall no more rankle in my heart. You have shown me a generous forgiveness of my misdeed, and I would imitate you. But what you did to George is not to be expiated. You sinned against him more terribly, more wickedly than against me, and he alone can pardon you. That I cannot forgive; and for that crime I must still hate you."
He stood trembling—a strange weakness came over him—he was not angry, savage, morose; he seemed a prey to fear and uncertainty.
"Tell me, tell me truly. Glory! Does that alone prevent you from loving me? Had I never done what I said I had done, could you love me?"
"I do not say that," she replied. "As I have told you before, I gave my heart once for all to George De Witt. I never could love you with my fresh full heart, as a woman should love her husband, but I feel that I could like you as a friend. I do pity you. God knows how bitterly I have suffered from remorse for what I did unwittingly, and how sincere I am in my repentance and desire to deal tenderly and truly by you, Elijah. I feel sometimes as if I could like you; I do acknowledge that you and I stand apart from others, and alone can understand each other; but then that great crime of your life against George rises up before me and drives back my rising compassion."
Rebow worked again at the link, beating out the fragment into a wire, and cutting it again. He was thinking whilst he wrought.
"Sooner or later," he muttered at last, "all will out."
He worked with difficulty, and slowly, as he could not see, and was obliged to feel the iron, and cool it repeatedly to ascertain whether it was as he desired it.
"Look here, Glory!" he said, "when iron is taken from the smelting furnace it is crystalline and brittle; there is no thread and texture in it, but we burn it and beat it, and as we work we beat our stubborn purpose into the metal, and it is the will of the smith which goes through his arm and hammer into the iron and converts it to steel; he drives his will into the metal, and that becomes the fibre in it. You don't find it so in nature. The human soul must part with something and transfuse it into the inanimate iron, and there it will lie and last, for the will of man is divine and eternal. It is much the same with all with which we have to do. I have spent time and labour over you, and thought and purpose have been consumed in making you my wife; they are none of them lost, they are all in you, they have become fibres in your soul. You may not be aware of it, but there they all are. The more one thinks and labours for the other the more he ingrafts himself in the nature of the other. I have heard of sound men having their healthy blood drawn off and injected into the veins of the sick, and restoring them thus to activity and health. We are always doing this with our wills, injecting their fire into the hearts of others, and so by degrees transfusing their natures. You are pouring yourself into me, and I into you, whether we know it or not, till in time we are alike in colour and tone and temperature."
He had worked the piece of steel into a rude ring, not very cumbrous, and he bade Mehalah try it on her finger. It was too small. He easily enlarged it, and then got a file to smooth off the roughnesses. "I had rather you wore this than a ring of gold," he said, "for there is part of my soul in this iron. I have made it in spite of my blindness, because I had the will to do so. The whole metal is full of my purpose, which tinctures it as wine stains water; and with it goes my resolve that you shall be mine altogether in heart and soul, in love as well as in pity, for now and for all eternity. You will wear that on your finger, the finger that has a nerve leading from the heart. Stretch out your hand, Glory, and let me put it on. Stretch out your hand over the hearth, above the fire; our God is a consuming fire, and this is His proper altar."
He stood on one side of the furnace, she on the other; the angry red coals glowed below, and a hot smoke rose from them.
She extended her hand to him, and he grasped it with the left above the fire, and held the steel ring in his right.
"Glory!" he said in a tremulous voice. "At the altar in the church you swore to obey me. In the hall you knelt and swore to cherish me; here, over the fire, the figure of our God, as I put the iron ring on, swear to me also to love me."
She did not answer. She stood as though frozen to ice; with her eyes on the door of the smithy, where stood a figure—the figure of a man.
Suddenly she uttered a piercing cry. "George! my George! my George!" and withdrew her hand from the grasp of Elijah. The iron ring fell from his fingers into the red fire below and was lost.