Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 30
TO WEDDING BELLS
She ran on. Red Hall was before her. The sun had set, and scarlet, amber, and amethyst were the tints of the sky, blotted by the great bulk of the old house standing up alone against the horizon.
She ran on. and the wedding bells of Mersea steeple chanted joyously in the summer evening air, and the notes flew over the flats like melodious wildfowl.
She ran up the steps, in at the door of the hall, where sat Elijah with his finger feeling the inscription on the chimneypiece, with the red light glaring through the western window on his forehead, staining it crimson.
She cast herself at his feet; she placed her elbows on his knees, and laid her head upon them. Dimly he saw the scarlet cap like a broken poppy droop and fall before him, he put out his hand and it rested upon it.
She had come to him, to the only heart that was constant, that was not to be shaken and moved from its anchorage; to the only soul that answered to her own, to the only mind that read her thoughts. The George of her fancy, the ideal of truth and steadfastness, was dissolved, and had disappeared leaving a mean vulgar object behind from which she shrank. To him whom she had hated, with whom she had fought and against whom she had stiffened her back, she now flew as her only support, her only anchorage.
She could not speak, her thoughts chased through her head in wild disorder like the clouds when there are cross currents in the sky.
Now and then a spasmodic sob broke from her and shook her.
"What is the matter, Mehalah? Where have you been?"
She did not answer. She could not. She was choking. Perhaps she did not hear him, or hearing did not understand the import of his words.
She saw only the falling to pieces into dust of an idol. Better had George died, and she had lived on looking upon him as her ideal of manhood, noble, straightforward, truthful, constant. She would have been content to drudge on in her weary life at Red Hall and would have borne Elijah's humours and her mother's fretfulness, without a hope herself, if only she might still have maintained intact her image of all that was honourable and steadfast. She could not bear the revulsion of feeling. She was like a religionist who, on lifting the purple veil of the sanctuary, has found his God, before whom he had offered libations and prayers, to be some grovelling beast.
"Where have you been?" again asked Elijah, placing his hands on her shoulders.
She raised her head, and gasped for breath; she essayed to speak but could not.
"Why do you not answer me?" he asked, not with fierceness in his tone, but with iron resolve.
"Mehalah!" he said firmly, solemnly "There have passed many days since George De Witt returned, and since Charles Pettican's bequest has rendered you independent of me. I have waited, and wanted to hold you, as I hold you now, firmly, fast in my strong hands. You feel them on your shoulders. They shall never let go. Now that I hold I shall hold fast. Mehalah! we have old scores to wipe out. Days and weeks of blind agony in me; hours, days of horrible internal torture whilst George De Witt has been here. I hold you now and all must now be made square between us."
She tried to raise her hands, but he held her shoulders so tightly she could not move them.
"Elijah!" she said, "do with me what you will. It is all one to me."
"Where have you been? with whom have you been?"
" I have been with him."
" I knew it. You shall never be with him again."
She sighed. She knew that he spoke truly. Never could she see him again, in the old light; she never could meet him again on the old footing "Mehalah!" he went on, and his hands shook, and shook her; "I have loved you; but now I hate and love you at the same time. You have caused me to suffer tortures, the like of which I could not suppose it possible any man could have endured, and have lived. You little knew and less cared what I endured in my eyes when they were burnt out. You little know and less care what I have endured in my soul since George De Witt has been back."
"Elijah," she said, raising her heavy head, "let me speak. George——"
"No, never," he interrupted, "never shall you utter his name again." He covered her mouth with his hand.
"No, I could not bear it," he went on. "Mehalah! your heart has never been mine, and I will not endure to be longer without it. Could you come to my breast and let my arms lap round you and our hearts beat against each other's bosom, and glue your lips to mine? No, no," he answered himself. "Not now, I cannot expect it. He has stood in my path, he has risen out of the waters to part us. Whilst we are on the earth we cannot be united, because he intercepts the current which runs from my heart to yours, and from yours to mine. Although he might be far away, a thousand miles distant, yet the tide of your affection would set to him. The moon they tell us is some hundreds of thousands of miles from the ocean, and yet the water throbs and rises, and falls and retreats responsive to the impulse of the moon, because moon and earth are both in one sphere. As long as you and he are together in one orb, there is no peace for me, your love will never flow to me and dance and sparkle about me. I must look elsewhere for peace, elsewhere for union, without which there is no peace. Lift up your head, Mehalah! Why is it resting thus heavily on my knee? I do not know what has come over you. Yes——" he said suddenly, in a louder tone, "Yes I do know what it is. It is the shadow of the cloud, the scent before the rain. You have crept to me, you have cast yourself at my feet, you have leaned your head on my knee, you lift your arms to my heart, for the consummation is at hand, Mehalah! Do you understand me?" "Yes."
"Yes. We two understand each other, and none others can. Now, Mehalah! Glory! you shall not escape me. Glory! will you kiss me?"
He put his hand to her head, and felt it shaken in the negative.
"No. I did not suppose you would. You would kiss George, but not me; but you never shall belong to another but me. Hold up your face. Glory!"
He lifted it with one hand, and peered at it through the haze that ever attended him.
"Glory!" he said. "Will you swear to me, if I let you go one minute, that you will place yourself here, at my feet, in my hands, as you lie now?"
"It is dark, is it not? I can see nothing, not your flaming cap. I will let you go. I can trust your lightest word. Go and kindle me a candle." He relaxed his grasp, and she staggered to her feet, and dully, in a dream obeyed. There was a candle on the chimneypiece, she took it to the hearth in the kitchen and lighted it there. The charwoman was gone.
"Go upstairs," he said. "There has been no sound in the house this hour. Go and kiss your mother and come back."
She obeyed again, and crept lifelessly up the stairs; in another moment he heard a low long muffled wail.
He listened. She did not return.
"Mehalah!" he called.
He waited a minute and then called again.
She came down bearing the light. He did not see, but the candle glittered in tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Come to your place," he ordered. "Remember you swore."
She threw herself at his feet.
"My mother! my mother!"
"She is dead," said Elijah. "I knew it. I heard her feebly cry for you, an hour ago, and I crept upstairs, and I listened by her bed, and held my hand to her heart till it ceased."
Mehalah did not speak, her frame shook with emotion. He took the candle, raised her face with his hand under the chin and held the light close to it.
"I cannot see much," he said; "I can see scarce anything of the dear face, of the great brown eyes I loved so well; I can see only something flame there. That is the cap." He took it off and passed his hand through her rich hair. "I can see, I think I can see, the flicker of the candle flame in the eyes. I can see the mouth, that mouth I have never touched, but I see it only as a red evening cloud across the sky."
"Let me go!" she wailed. "My mother! my mother!"
"We will go together to her," he answered; "stay one moment."
He put down the candle, and once more laid his hand on her head, and now he pressed it back with his left hand. Did she see in the dull eyes a gathering moisture, the rising of a tide? A tear ran down each of his rugged cheeks. Then he suddenly rose, and he struck her full in the forehead with his iron fist, heavy as a sledge hammer. She dropped in a heap on the floor.
"Glory! my own, own Glory!" he cried, and listened.
There was no answer.
"Glory! my love! my pride! my second self! my double!"
He caught her up, and she hung across his knee. He held his ear to her mouth and hearkened.
"Oh, Glory! my own! my own!"
He stretched his hand above the mantelpiece and plucked down the chain and padlock; he secured the key. Then he cast the chain over his arm and drew the inanimate girl to him and held her in his firm grasp, and lifted her over his shoulder, and felt his way out at the door and down the steps.
No one was in the yard. No one on the pasture.
The sun had set some time, but there was blood and fire on the horizon, clouds seamed with flame, and streaks of burning crimson.
He cautiously descended the stairs, and crossing the yard, made his way over the pasture to the landing place. He knew the path well. He could have trod it in the darkest night without error. He came to the sea-wall, and there he laid Mehalah, whilst he groped for his boat, and unloosed the rope that attached it to the shore.
He returned, and took up the still unconscious girl.
He felt her feeble breath on his cheek as he carried her, but he did not see the spot of returning colour in her face. He was eager, and hasty. He knew no delay, but pressed on. He carried her into the boat and took his oars and began to row, with her lying in the bottom.
The tide was running out. His instinct guided him.
The bells of Mersea tower were dancing a merry peal.
The windows of the Leather Bottle were lighted up, and the topers were drinking prosperity to the married pair.
George De Witt was making his way to the Mussets, little conscious that Mehalah was lying in a boat, stunned, and being carried out seaward.
Presently Elijah felt sure by the fresher breeze and increased motion that he was out of the fleet in deep water. Then he quietly shipped his oars.
He lifted Mehalah, and drew her into his arms and laid her against his heart.
"My Glory! my own dearest! my only one!" he moaned. "I could not help it. You would have left me had I not done this. There was no other way out of the tangle, there was no other path into the light. Glory! we were created for each other, but a perverse fortune has separated your heart from mine here. We shall meet and unite in another world. We must do so, we were born for each other. Glory! Glory!"
She stirred and opened her eyes, and drew a long breath.
"Are you waking. Glory?" he asked. "Hark, hark! the marriage bells are ringing, ringing, ringing, for you and me. Now Glory! now only is our marriage! now only, locked together, shall we find rest."
He took the iron chain, and wound it round her and him, tying them together tight, and then he fastened the padlock and flung the key into the sea.
"Once I turned the key in the lock carelessly, and he who was bound by this chain escaped. I have fastened it firmly now, it will not fall apart for all eternity. Now Glory! Now we are bound together for everlasting."
"Do you hear me?" he asked. "It is well. Glory! one kiss?"
He put down his hand into the bottom of the boat, and drew out the plug, and tossed it overboard.At once the cold sea-water rushed in and overflowed his feet.
"Glory!" he cried, and he folded her to his heart, and fastened his lips fiercely, ravenously to hers.
He felt her heart throb, faintly indeed, but really.
Merrily pealed the musical bells. Cans of ale had been supplied the ringers, and they dashed the ropes about in a fever of intoxication and sympathy. Joy to the wedded pair! Long life and close union and happiness without end! The topers at the Leather Bottle brimmed their pewter mugs and drank the toast with three cheers.
The water boiled up, through the plughole, and the boat sank deeper. Life was beginning to return to Mehalah, but she neither saw nor knew aught. Her eyes were open and turned seaward, to the far away horizon, and Elijah relaxed his hold one instant.
"Elijah!" she suddenly exclaimed, "How cold!"
"Glory! Glory! It is fire! We are one!"
The bells pealed over the rolling sea—no boat was on it, only a sea-mew skimming and crying.
Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury, England.