Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 29
Elijah Rebow sank into a sullen fierce silence. He scarcely stirred from the house except to the forge, where he groped among the dead ashes for the iron ring, which, however, he never found. He sat in his hall, smoking, his elbows on the arms of his chair, his head sunk on his breast, with his dull eyes on the floor. He seemed brooding over something, which occupied all his thoughts, and he rarely spoke.
There had been little difficulty in getting rid of Timothy. He fingered a day or two about Salcot and Red Hall, but as he met with angry repulse from Rebow, and no encouragement from Mehalah, he abandoned the ground as unproductive. He was an idle, good-for-nothing young man, hating work, and when he was obliged to leave comfortable quarters at Wyvenhoe, hoped to settle himself into a similar position at Salcot. He was conceited, and fancied himself able to make conquests when he liked, and never for a moment doubted that his looks and address would have ingratiated him with Mehalah, and won him a lodgment in the house. He had been hovering about Phœbe Musset for some time, as she was thought to have money. Her parents had no other child, and the farm and shop would have suited him. When he met with a rebuff at Red Hall he betook himself to Mersea, and was much surprised to be received there with coldness where he had expected warmth. The reason was that George De Witt had returned, a sailor in the Royal Navy, covered with glory according to his own account, and Phœbe was more disposed to set her cap at him than flirt with the shore-loafer, Timothy Spark.
As Mehalah was crossing the farmyard one day, old Abraham Dowsing stopped her.
"I want to speak along of you," he said in his uncouth, abrupt manner. "What does the master mean by his goings on? I saw him to-day after his dinner sitting with the great knife in his hand. The door was open and I was at the bottom of the steps, and I looked up, and there he was making stabs with it into the air. Then he got up, and holding the knife behind him, he crept over towards your mother's leather-backed chair. I seed him feel at it, and when he did touch it, then there came a wild look over his face, and he out with the carving knife, quick as thought, and he clutched the back of the chair with his left, and dug the blade right into the leather, and it came through at the back. You look next time you go into the hall. I guess he's going as his brother did."
"Going out of his mind, Abraham?
"Yes, I reckon. What else does it all mean? It is either that, or there is something that deadly angers him."
He looked with a cunning covert glance at her.
"It is not that these matters concern me over much, but I don't want to change places in my old age. I'm comfortable enough here. I gets my wittles regular, and my swipes of ale. Take care of yourself, mistress. I've heard as how the master got somebody pressed when he was in the way,—there's a tale about it abroad. He won't stand that party about here much, and I wouldn't adwise the encouragement of him."
"George De Witt is my friend. He may come when he likes," said Mehalah gravely. "He and I have known one another since we were children, and my marriage need not destroy an old friendship."
"I mentioned no names," said the old man. "You can't say I did. One thing I be sure of. Whenever somebody comes here, the master knows it; he knows it by a sort of instinct, I fancy. I see him at the head of the steps looking out as though he could see, and biting at the air, just as a mad dog snaps at everything and nothing."
"There is George!" suddenly exclaimed Mehalah, as she saw the young sailor's figure rise on the sea-wall.
"And there is the master," muttered Abraham, pointing to Elijah, who appeared at his door, peering about, and holding his hand to his ear.
Mehalah hesitated a moment, and then went up the steps to him.
"Do you want to come down?" she asked; "shall I lead you?"
"Yes, help me." He clutched her hand by the wrist and came out and stood on the stair. Then he grasped her shoulder with the other hand, and he began to shake and twist her.
She could see into his heart as into clear water, to the ugly snags and creeping things at the bottom. She saw that the temptation had come on him to fling her down: but she saw also that it was immediately overcome. He knew she read his thoughts. "The height is not much," he muttered; "you might sprain an ankle but not break your neck. I will not hurt you; do not fear. Hurt you! Good God! I would not hurt you, not give you one moment's pain; I would bear hours of agony rather than make you suffer for one second. Rut what must be, must be! There is no way out of the marsh but over the dyke. There is no peace which is not won by a fight and wounds. Let me go back." He drew her in at the door, a ferocious expression flickered over his face, like phosphorescent illumination over dead fish.
"I cannot endure this longer. Mehalah! you are killing me. This is worse than the fire-juice in my eyes; you are drenching my heart and brain in vitriol, I feel it gnawing and stinging and blackening as it consumes a way to the inner core, leaving charred matter behind."
"What am I doing, to make you suffer?" she asked.
"You are doing all you can. I cannot, I will not endure that agony. Have you seen the coal heap in the forge, how the fire rages and glows within before the blast? Water is thrown on without quenching the fire, it only intensifies its heat. At last the black mass cracks on all sides and the white fury shoots out in spits and knives of flame. It is so with me. The fire is here." He smote his breast and then his brain. "It is raging, panting, whitening, intensifying, and at last it will break out on all sides. Who is blowing the fire into vehemence? It is you—you—you!"
He gathered himself up, like a crouching beast, as though to spring on her and strangle or tear her; but she stepped back beyond his spring.
"I give you no occasion for this," she said; "you speak and act like a madman."
"It is you who drive me to act and speak like one," he cried. "You are now mistress of yourself, you have money—as much as you want; now you will shake me off. Now you will desert the man who stood between you and your fool. You will go off with him and forget me. It shall not be." He clutched his hands into his sides, "It never shall be."
"I will not listen to this. I will not endure such words," she exclaimed. "Remain here and cool." Then she left the room, and, walking across the pasture to the landing-place, extended her hand with a smile to George. It was a relief to her to be away for a while from the gloom and savagery of the man to whom she was bound for life. In her simplicity and guilelessness she would not believe that there was any wrong in meeting the friend of her childhood, her almost brother. She needed some light on her sad life, and the light shone from him.
"My dear Glory," he said, "I am delighted to see you. What a colour there is in your cheeks! Has the prophet been in his frenzies again? I fear so. You must not allow it. You should not endure it."
"How can I help it, George? it is the man's nature to rave; he has it in his blood. I almost fear he will go mad like his poor brother."
"The sooner the better."
"Do not say that. You do not know how dreadful was the condition of that miserable wretch."
"I do say it, Glory, dearest! I say it, because the sooner you are freed from this tyranny and torture, the better for both of us."
"Glory, dear! is it true that you have been left a small fortune?"
"Yes, it is true. It seems that there is money in various securities, the savings of Charles Pettican's life, and they bring in something like three hundred pounds a year. Sometimes it may be less, sometimes perhaps more."
"And is this money absolutely your own?"
"You may do with it what you like?"
"Yes, altogether; even Elijah cannot touch it. I will give you all if you like, or as much as you like." "I would not touch it without you, Glory."
"Oh, George, George! to think how happy we might have been!"
"We may be. Glory."
"I do not see how that is possible. I have no more any hopes, but it is a great pleasure to me to see you and to hear you talk. I think of old days and old dreams of happiness."
"Why, Glory! with three hundred a year we might have lived as gentlefolks, doing nothing. We might have bought a little house and garden just anywhere, at the other end of England, in Scotland, or where you liked, away from all ugly sights and memories."
"I had no ugly memories in the old days," she said sorrowfully.
"I suppose not. But you have now. My Glory! how delightful it would be to cast all the horrible past away like a bad dream; all the past from when I was pressed into the service, to now—to drop it all out of memory as though it never had been, and to take up the story of life from that interruption."
"Oh, George!" She trembled and gave one great sob, that shook her.
"How we should live to one another, live in one another, and love one another! Why, Glory! we should not care for any others to come and disturb us, we should be so happy—"
She covered her face.
"On three hundred a year," he went on. "That is a beautiful sum. I suppose you need not live here on it: you might live where you liked on the money. It is not laid out on land in Wyvenhoe?
"You might take, let us suppose, a cottage by Plymouth Harbour. I have been there; it is a lovely spot, where you would see ships of all sorts sailing by; and just draw your money and live at ease."
"I suppose so."
"And nobody there would know you, whence you came, and what your history. They would not care to ask. That would be a new life, and in it all the past would be forgotten."
"Why do you talk like this to me, George? I cannot bear it. You raise pictures before me which never can exist. All I want is to live on here in my sorrow and difficulties, and just now and then to see you and talk to you, and thus to get refreshed and go back to my duties again with a lighter heart, and strengthened to bear my burden."
"I do not understand what you mean by duties," he said. "You have told me more than once that you have only formally taken Elijali Rebow as a husband, but that he is nothing to you in reality, you do not love him, and have no tie to bind you to him save the farce you went through with him in church."
"There is another," said Mehalah in a faint tone.
"What other? What other can there be? You do not look on him as your husband, do you?"
"No, I do not, and I never will."
"You do not even wear a wedding ring."
"He understood that he was to be regarded by you in no other light than as one who gave his name to you in consideration for some service."
"That was all."
"Then I cannot see that you are not free. You promised to be my wife, quite as solemnly as you have promised anything to Elijah, and you made your agreement with him on the supposition that I was dead. He knew he was deceiving you, and that I was alive to claim the fulfilment of your oath to me. He got your promise from you under false representations, and it cannot stand. You did not know how matters stood, or you would never have taken it."
"Through all, you say, you have held true to me."
"Indeed I have, George."
"Then Glory, my dearest, our course is quite clear. You are not bound to this man, but you are bound to me. Your tie to him is worthless and is snapped; your tie to me is strong and holds. I insist on the fulfilment, I have a right to do so. I must have you as my own. Come away with me. Come to any part of England, where you will, where we are not known, where our names have never been heard, and we will be properly married in a church, and live together happily the rest of our lives. As for your mother, she is failing fast. I will wait till her death, or we can take her away at once with us."
"Oh, George, George!" Mehalah's tones were those of one in acute pain. She flung herself on the ground at his feet, and clasped her hands on her brow.
He looked at her with some surprise: "This will be a change for the better. You will escape out of darkness into sunshine, and leave all your miseries in this hateful marsh behind your back."
"George! George!" she moaned.
"Elijah deserves not a thought," he went on, "He had behaved like a villain from beginning to end, and if he is served out now, no one will pity him."
"It is impossible, George!" exclaimed Mehalah, lifting herself on her knees and holding her knitted lingers against her heart. "It cannot be, George. It never can be. There is another tie that I cannot break."
"I must own it, though it steep me in shame. It was I, George, who blinded him; I in mad fear and anger mingled, not knowing what I did, poured the vitriol over his eye."
George De Witt drew back from her.
"Glory! how dreadful!"
"It is dreadful, but it was done without premeditation. He had me in his arms and told me what he had done to you"—she corrected herself—"what he pretended he had done to you, and then he tried to kiss me, and in a moment of loathing and effort to escape I did the deed. I did not know what was in the bottle, I did not know what I laid hold of."
"You are a dangerous person to deal with, Glory. I should be sorry to provoke you. I do not understand you."
"I suppose you do not," she said, with a sob; "but you must see this, George. I have blinded him and made him a helpless creature dependent on me. I did it, and I must atone for it. I brought him into this condition, and I must expiate what I did by helping him to bear the affliction."
"He exasperated you."
"Yes, but think what he is now, a wreck. I must tow the wreck into port. There is no help for it; I cannot leave him, I have brought this on myself, and I must bear it."
"Glory! what nonsense! You do not love me or you would at once come away with me, and leave him to his fate. He has richly deserved it."
"I not love you!" she cried. "Oh, George! how can you doubt that I do? I have suffered for you, dreamed of you, lived for you. My world without you is a world without a sun."
"Then come with me."
"I cannot do it. I have done that which binds me to Elijah. I must not leave him."
"You will not. Hark!" A burst of merry bells from West Mersea church tower swept over the water. "There is a wedding to-day yonder, and the bells are being pealed in honour of it. Did the bells peal when you were married?"
"They shall when you become mine. Not those Mersea bells, but some others where we are not known."
"It cannot, it cannot be. George! do not tempt and torture me. I must not leave Elijah. I have linked my fate to his by my own mad act, and that cannot be undone. Oh, George I if it had not been for that, I might have listened to you and followed you; for I am not, and never will be his; but now I cannot desert him in his darkness and despair. I could not be happy with you if I were to leave him."
"This is too bad of you," said the young man angrily. "You are to me an incomprehensible girl."
"Can we not live on as we are at present, true to each other, yet separated?"
"No, we cannot. It is not in nature. I will tell you what. Glory! If you do not come away with me and marry me, I will marry someone else. There are more fish in the sea than come out of it."
She rose to her feet and stood back, and looked at him with wide open eyes. "George, this is a cruel jest. It should not be uttered."
"It is no jest, but sober earnest," he answered sullenly. "Glory! I don't see why I should not marry as well as you."
"Oh, George! George! do not speak to me in this way. I have been true to you, and you have promised to be true to me."
"Conditionally," he interjected.
"You could not do it. You could not take another woman to your heart. George! you talk of impossibilities.
"Indeed! Do you think that another girl would not have me? If so, you are mistaken."
"You could not do it," she persisted. "If you were to, it would not be the George I knew and loved and lost, but another. The George I knew and loved and lost was true to me as I to him; he could no more take another to his heart than can I."
"But you have. Glory."
"I have not. Elijah sits nowhere near my heart."
"I do not believe it. If he did not, you would shake him off without another thought and follow me."
"Do you not see," she cried passionately, holding out both her palms, and trembling with her vehemence, "that I cannot? I, by my own act, have made him helpless, and would you have me desert him in his helplessness? I cannot do it. There is something in here, in my bosom, I know not what it is, but it will not let me. If I were to go against that I should never be at ease."
"You are not at ease now."
"That would be different. I have my sorrow now, but my distress then would be of another sort and utterly unendurable. I cannot explain myself. George! you ought to understand me. If I were to say these words to Elijah he would see through my heart at once, and all the thoughts in it would be visible to him as painted figures in a church window. To you they seem all broken and jumbled and meaningless." "I tell you again, Glory, I do not understand you. Perhaps it is as well that we should live apart. I hate to have a knot in my hands I can't untie. If Elijah understands you, keep to him. I shall look for a mate elsewhere."
"George!" she said plaintively. "You are angry and offended. I am sorry for it. I will do anything for you. True to you I must and will remain, but I will not leave Elijah and follow you. I could not do it."
"Very well then, I shall look for a wife elsewhere."
"You cannot do it." she said.
"Can I not?" echoed George De Witt with a laugh; "I rather believe there is a nice girl at Mersea who only wants to be asked to jump into my arms. It seems to me that I owe her reparation for your treatment of her once on my boat."
"Now, Glory! let us understand one another. If you will run off with me—and I see nothing but some silly sentiment to hinder you—then we will be married and live happily together on your little fortune and my pension and what I can pick up."
She shook her head.
"If you will not, why then, I shall go straight from here to Phœbe Musset, and ask her to be my wife; and you may take my word for it that in three weeks the bells that are now pealing from Mersea tower will be pealing again for us."
"You could not do it."
"Indeed I will. I shall go direct to her. My mother wishes it and I know that Phœbe is ready with her yes."
"You can take her, her, to your heart?"
"Delighted to do so."
"Then, George! I never knew you, I never understood you."
"I dare say not, no more than I can understand you. Once again, will you come with me?"
"You never loved me. I shall go to Phœbe and have done with Glory."
She lifted her hands to heaven, pressed them to her heart, and then ran with extended arms back to Red Hall, stumbling and recovering herself, and fluttering on, still with arms outstretched, like a wounded bird trying to rise but unable, seeking a covert where it may hide its head and die.