Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 3
THE SEVEN WHISTLERS
The examination of old Abraham before George De Witt did not lead to any satisfactory result. The young man was unable to throw light on the mystery. He had not been with the shepherd all the while since the sale of the sheep; nor had he seen the money. Abraham had indeed told him the sum for which he had parted with the flock, and in so doing had chinked the bag significantly. George thought it was impossible for the shot and pennypieces that had been found in the pouch to have produced the metallic sound he had heard. Abraham had informed him of the sale in Colchester. Then they had separated, and the shepherd had left the town before De Witt.
The young man had overtaken him at the public-house called the Red Lion at Abberton, half-way between Colchester and his destination. He was drinking a mug of beer with some seafaring men; and they proceeded thence together. But at the Rose, another tavern a few miles further, they had stopped for a glass and something to eat. But even there De Witt had not been with the old man all the while, for the landlord had called him out to look at a contrivance he had in his punt for putting a false keel on her; with a bar, after a fashion he had seen among the South Sea Islanders when he was a sailor.
The discussion of this daring innovation had lasted some time, and when De Witt returned to the tavern, he found Abraham dozing, if not fast asleep, with his head on the table, and his money bag in his hand.
"It is clear enough," said the widow, "that the money was stolen either at the Lion or at the Rose."
"I brought the money safe here," said Abraham sullenly. "It is of no use your asking questions, and troubling my head about what I did here and there. I was at the Woolpack at Colchester, at the Lion at Abberton, and lastly at the Rose. But I tell you I brought the money here all safe, and laid it there on that table every penny."
" How can you be sure of that, Abraham?"
"I say I know it."
"But Abraham, what grounds have you for such assurance? Did you count the money at the Rose?"
"I don't care what you may ask or say. I brought the money here. If you have lost it, or it has been bewitched since then, I am not to blame."
"Abraham, it must have been stolen on the road. There was no one here to take the money."
"That is nothing to me. I say I laid the money all right there!" He pointed to the table. "You may go, Abraham," said Mehalah.
"Do you charge me with taking the money?" the old man asked with moody temper.
"Of course not," answered the girl. "We did not suspect you for one moment."
"Then whom do you lay it on?"
"We suspect someone whom you met at one of the taverns."
"I tell you," he said with an oath, " I brought the money here."
"You cannot prove it," said De Witt; "if you have any reasons for saying this, let us hear them."
"I have no reasons," answered the shepherd, "but I know the truth all the same. I never have reasons, I do not want to have them, when I know a fact."
"Did you shake the bag and make the money chink on the way?"
"I will not answer any more questions. If you suspect me to be the thief, say so to my face, and don't go ferriting and trapping to ketch me, and then go and lay it on me before a magistrate."
"You had better go, Abraham. No one disputes your perfect honesty," said Mehalah.
"But I will not go, if anyone suspects me."
"We do not suspect you."
"Then why do you ask questions? Who asks questions who don't want to lay a wickedness on one?"
"Go off to bed, Abraham," said Widow Sharland. "We have met with a dreadful loss, and the Almighty knows how we are to come out of it."
The old man went forth grumbling imprecations on himself if he answered any more questions.
"Well," asked Mehalah of De Witt, when the shepherd was gone, "what do you think has become of the money?"
"I suppose he was robbed at one of the taverns. I see no other possible way of accounting for the loss. The bag was not touched on the table from the moment Abraham set it down till you opened it."
"No. My mother was here all the time. There was no one else in the room but Elijah Rebow."
"He is out of the question," said De Witt. "Besides, my mother never left her seat whilst he was here. Did you, mother?"
The old woman shook her head.
"What are we to do?" she asked; "we have no money now for the rent; and that must be paid next Thursday."
"Have you none at all?"
"None but a trifle which we need for purchases against the winter. There was more in the bag than was needed for the rent, and how we shall struggle through the winter without it, heaven alone can tell."
"You have no more sheep to sell?"
"None but ewes, which cannot be parted with."
"Nor a cow?"
"It would be impossible for us to spare her."
"Then I will lend you the money," said George. "I have something laid by, and you shall have what you need for the rent out of it. Mehalah will repay me some day."
"I will, George! I will!" said the girl vehemently, and her eyes filled. She took the two hands of her lover in her own, and looked him full in the face. Her eyes expressed the depth of her gratitude which her tongue could not utter.
"Now that is settled," said De Witt, "let us talk of something else."
"Come along, George," said Mehalah, hastily interrupting him. "If you want to be put across on Fresh Marsh, you must not stay talking here any longer."
"All right. Glory! I am ready to go with you, anywhere, to the world's end."
As she drew him outside, she whispered, "I was afraid of your speaking about the two shots to-night. I do not wish my mother to hear of that; it would alarm her."
"But I want to talk to you about them," said De Witt. "Have you any notion who it was that fired at us?"
"Have you?" asked Mehalah, evading an answer.
"I have a sort of a notion."
"So have I. As I was going down the Rhyn to fetch you, I was stopped by Elijah Rebow."
"Well, what did he want?"
"He wanted me to take some curlew he had shot; but that was not all, he tried to prevent my going on. He said that I ought not to be on the water at night alone."
"He was right. He knew a thing or two."
"He did not like my going to Mersea—to you."
"I dare say not. He knew what was in the wind."
"What do you mean, George?"
"He tried to prevent your going on?"
"Yes, he did, more than once."
"Then he is in it. I don't like Elijah, but I did not think so badly of him as that."
"What do you mean, George?"
As they talked they walked down the meadow to the saltings. They were obliged to go slowly and cautiously. The tide had fallen rapidly, and left the pools brimming. Every runnel was full of water racing out with the rush of a mill stream. "You see. Glory, the new captain of the coastguard has been giving a deal of trouble lately. He has noticed the single-flashing from the Leather Bottle at the city, and has guessed or found out the key; so he has been down there flashing false signals with a lanthorn. By this means he has brought some of the smugglers very neatly into traps he has laid for them. They are as mad as devils, they swear he is taking an unfair advantage of them, and that they will have his life for it. That is what I have heard whispered; and I hear a great many things."
"Oh, George ! have you not warned him?"
"I! my dear Glory! what can I do? He knows he is in danger as well as I. It is a battle between them, and it don't do for a third party to step between. That is what we have done to-night, and near got knocked over for doing it. Captain Macpherson is about, night and day. There never was a fellow more wideawake, at least not on this station. What do you think he did the other day? A vessel came in, and he overhauled her, but found nothing; he sought for some barrels drawn along attached behind her, below water level, but couldn't find them. As he was leaving, he just looked up at the tackling. "Halloo!" said he to the captain, "your cordage is begun to untwist, suppose I have your old ropes and give you new?" He sent a man aloft, and all the ropes were made of twisted tobacco. Now, as you may suppose, the smugglers don't much like such a man." "But, George, he would hardly go about at night with a lanthorn in his boat."
"That is what he does—only it is a dark lanthorn, and with it he flashes his signals. That is what makes the men so mad. It is not my doctrine to shoot a man who does his duty. If a man is a smuggler, let him do his duty as one. If he is a coastguard, let him do his duty by the revenue."
"But, George! if he were out watching for smugglers, he would not have carried his light openly."
"He might have thought all was safe in the Rhyn."
"Then again," pursued Mehalah, "I spoke, and there was a second shot after that."
" Whoever was there waiting for the captain may have thought you were a boy. I do not believe the shot was at you, but at me."
"But I held the light up. It would have been seen that I was a woman."
"Not a bit. All seen would be your cap and jersey, which are such as sailor boys wear."
Mehalah shook her head thoughtfully and somewhat doubtfully, and paced by the side of De Witt. She did not speak for some time. She was not satisfied with his explanation, but she could not state her reasons for dissatisfaction.
Presently she said, "Do you think that it was Rebow who fired?"
"No, of course I do not. He knew you were out, and with a light; and he knows your voice."
"But you said he was in the plot."
"I said that I supposed he knew about it; he knew that there were men out in punts waiting for the captain, he probably knew that there was some fellow lurking in the Rhyn; but I did not say that he would shoot the captain. I do not for a moment suppose he would. He is not greatly affected by his vigilance. He gets something out of the trade, but not enough to be of importance to him. A man of his means would not think it worth his while to shoot an officer."
"Then you conjecture that he warned me, and went home."
"That is most likely, I would have done the same; nay more, I would not have let you go on, if I knew there were fellows about this night with guns on the look out. He did not dare to speak plainly what he knew, but he gave you a broad hint, and his best advice, and I admire and respect him for it."
"You and Rebow are cousins?"
"His father's sister is my mother. The land and money all went to Elijah's father, who is now dead, and is now in Elijah's hands. My mother got nothing. The family were angry with her for marrying off the land on to the water. But you see at Red Hall she had lived, so to speak, half in and half out of the sea; she took to one element as readily as to the other."
"I can trace little resemblance in your features, but something in your voice."
"Now, Glory!" said the young man, "here is the boat. How fast the tide ebbs here! She is already dry, and we must shove her down over the grass and mud till she floats. You step in; I will run her along."
The wind had risen, and was wailing over the marshes, sighing among the harsh herbage, the sea-lavender, sovereign wood, and wild asparagus. Not a cloud was visible. The sky was absolutely unblurred and thick besprint with stars. Jupiter burned in the south, and cast a streak of silver over the ebbing waters.
The young people stood silent by each other for a moment, and their hearts beat fast. Other matters had broken in on and troubled the pleasant current of their love; but now the thought of these was swept aside, and their hearts rose and stretched towards each other. They had known each other for many years, and the friendship of childhood had insensibly ripened in their hearts to love.
"I have not properly thanked you, George, for the promise of help in our trouble."
"Nor I, Mehalah, for the medal you have given me."
"Promise me, George, to wear it ever. It saved your life to-night, I doubt not."
"What! Does it save from death?"
"From sudden death," answered Mehalah. I told you so before, in the boat."
"I forgot about it. Glory." "I will tell you now all about it, my friend. The charm belonged to my mother's mother. She, as I dare say you have heard, was a gipsy. My grandfather fell in love with her and married her. He was a well-to-do man, owning a bit of land of his own; but he would go to law with a neighbour and lost it, and it went to the lawyer. Well, my grandmother brought the charm with her, and it has been in the family ever since. It had been in the gipsy family of my grandmother time out of mind, and was lent about when any of the men went on dangerous missions. No one who wears it can die a sudden death from violence—that is"—Mehalah qualified the assertion, "on land."
"It does not preserve one on the water then?" said George, with an incredulous laugh.
"I won't say that. It surely did so to-night. It saves from shot and stab."
"Not from drowning?"
"I think not."
"I must get a child's caul, and then I shall be immortal."
"Don't joke, George," said Mehalah gravely. "What I say is true."
"Glory! " said De Witt, "I always thought you looked like a gipsy with your dark skin and large brown eyes, and now from your own lips comes the confession that you are one."
"There is none of the blood in my mother," said she; "she is like an ordinary Christian. I fancy it jumps a generation."
"Well, then, you dear gipsy, here is my hand. Tell my fortune."
"I cannot do that. But I have given you a gipsy charm against evil men and accidents."
Out of the clear heaven were heard plaintive whistles, loud, high up, inexpressibly weird and sad, "Ewe! ewe! ewe!" They burst shrilly on the ears, then became fainter, then burst forth again, then faded away. It was as though spirits were passing in the heavens wailing about a brother sprite that had flickered into nothingness.
"The curlew are in flight. What is the matter, Mehalah?" The girl was shivering.
"Are you cold!"
"George! those are the Seven Whistlers."
"They are the long-beaked curlew going south."
"They are the Seven Whistlers, and they mean death or deathlike woe. For God's sake, George"—she threw her arms round him—"swear, swear to me, never to lay aside the medal I have given you, but to wear it night and day."
"There! Glory, I swear it."