Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 4
The rent-paying day was bright and breezy. The tide was up in the morning, and Mehalah and her mother in a boat with sail and jib and spritsail flew before a northeast wind down the Mersea Channel, and doubling Sunken Island, entered the creek which leads to Salcot and Virley, two villages divided only by a tidal stream, and connected by a bridge.
The water danced and sparkled, multitudes of birds were on the wing, now dipping in the wavelets, now rising and shaking off the glittering drops. A high sea-wall hid the reclaimed land on their left. Behind it rose the gaunt black structure of a windmill used for pumping the water out of the dykes in the marsh. It was working now, the great black arms revolving in the breeze, and the pump creaking as if the engine groaned remonstrances at being called to toil on such a bright day. A little further appeared a tiled roof above the wall.
"There is Red Hall," said Mehalah, as she ran the boat ashore and threw out the anchor. "I have brought the stool, mother," she added, and helped the old woman to land dry-footed. The sails were furled, and then Mehalah and her mother climbed the wall and descended into the pastures. These were of considerable extent, reclaimed saltings, but of so old a date that the brine was gone from the soil, and they furnished the best feed for cattle anywhere round. Several stagnant canals or ditches intersected the flat tract and broke it into islands, but they hung together by the thread of sea-wall, and the windmill drained the ditches into the sea.
In the midst of the pasture stood a tall red-brick house. There was not a tree near it. It rose from the flat like a tower. The basement consisted of cellars above ground, and there were arched entrances to these from the two ends. They were lighted by two small round windows about four feet from the ground. A flight of brick stairs built over an arch led from a paved platform to the door of the house, which stood some six feet above the level of the marsh. The house had perhaps been thus erected in view of a flood overleaping the walls, and converting the house for a while into an island, or as a preventive to the inhabitants against ague. The sea-walls had been so well kept that no tide had poured over them, and the vaults beneath served partly as cellars, and being extensive, were employed with the connivance of the owner as a storeplace for run spirits. The house was indeed very conveniently situated for contraband trade. A "fleet" or tidal creek on either side of the marsh allowed of approach or escape by the one when the other was watched. Nor was this all. The marsh itself was penetrated by three or four ramifications of the two main channels, to these the sea-wall accommodated itself instead of striking across them, and there was water-way across the whole marsh, so that if a boat were lifted over the bank on one side, it could be rowed across, again lifted, and enter the other channel, before a pursuing boat would have time to return to and double the spit of land. that divided the fleets. The windmill which stood on this spit was in no favour with the coastguard, for it was thought to act the double purpose of pump and observatory. The channel south of these marshes, called the Tollesbury Fleet, was so full of banks and islets as to be difficult to navigate, and more than once a revenue boat had got entangled and grounded there, when in pursuit of a smuggled cargo, which the officers had every reason to believe was at that time being landed on the Red Hall marshes, and carted into Salcot and Virley with the farmer's horses.
The house was built completely of brick, the windows were of moulded brick, mullions and drip stone, and the roof was of tile. How the name of Red Hall came to be given it, was obvious at a glance.
Round the house was a yard paved with brick, and a moat filled with rushes and weed. There were a few low outhouses, stable, cowsheds, bakehouse, forming a yard at the back, and into that descended the stair from the kitchen-door over a flying arch, like that in front.
Perhaps the principal impression produced by the aspect of Red Hall on the visitor was its solitariness. The horizon was bounded by sea-wall; only when the door was reached, which was on a level with the top of the mound, were the glittering expanse of sea, the creeks, and the woods on Mersea Island and the mainland visible. Mehalah and her mother had never been at Red Hall before, and though they were pretty familiar with the loneliness of the marshes, the utter isolation of this tall gaunt house impressed them. The thorntrees at the Ray gave their farm an aspect of snugness compared with this. From the Ray, village-church towers and cultivated acres were visible, but so long as they were in the pasture near the Hall, nothing was to be seen save a flat tract of grass land intersected with lines of bulrush, and bounded by a mound.
Several cows and horses were in the pasture, but no human being was visible. Mehalah and her mother hesitated before ascending the stair.
"This is the queerest place for a Christian to live in I ever saw," said the widow. "Look there, Mehalah, there is a date on the door, sixteen hundred and thirty-six. Go up and knock."
"Do you see that little window in the sea face of the house, mother?"
"Yes. There is none but it."
"I can tell you what that is for. It is to signal from with a light."
"I don't doubt it. Go on."
Mehalah slowly ascended the stair; it was without a balustrade. She struck against the door. The door was of strong plank thickly covered with nails, and the date of which the widow had spoken was made with nail-heads at the top.
Her knock met with no response, so she thrust the door open and entered, followed by her mother.
The room she stepped into was large and low. It was lighted by but one window to the south, fitted with lead lattice. The floor was of brick, for the cellarage was vaulted and supported a solid basement. There was no ceiling, and the oak rafters were black with age and smoke. The only ornaments decorating the walls were guns and pistols, some of curious foreign make.
The fire-place was large; on the oak lintel was cut deep the inscription: —
Mehalah had scarce time to notice all this, when a trap-door she had not observed in the floor flew up, and the head, then the shoulders, and finally the entire body, of Elijah Rebow emerged from the basement. Without taking notice of his tenants, he leisurely ran a stout iron bolt through a staple, making fast the trap at the top, then he did the same with a bolt at the bottom.
At the time, this conduct struck Mehalah as singular. It was as though Rebow were barring a door from within lest he should be broken in on from the cellar.
Elijah slowly drew a leather armchair over the trap-door, and seated himself in it. The hole through which he had ascended was near the fire-place, and now that he sat over it he occupied the ingle nook.
"Well, Glory!" said he suddenly, addressing Mehalah. "So you have not brought the rent. You have come with your old mother to blubber and beg compassion and delay. I know it all. It is of no use. Tears don't move me, I have no pity, and I grant no delay. I want my money. Every man does. He wants his money when it's due. I calculated on it, I've a debt which I shall wipe off with it, so there; now no excuses, I tell you they won't do. Sheer off."
"Master Rebow——" began the widow.
"You may save your speech," said Elijah, cutting her short. "Faugh! when I've been down there"—he pointed with his thumb towards the cellar—"I need a smoke." He drew forth a clay pipe and tobacco-box and leisurely filled the bowl. Whilst he was lighting his pipe at the hearth, where an old pile was smouldering, and emitting an odour like gunpowder, Mehalah drew a purse from her pocket and counted the amount of the rent on the table. Rebow did not observe her. He was engaged in making his pipe draw, and the table was behind the chair.
"Well!" said he, blowing a puff of smoke, and chuckling, "I fancy you are in a pretty predicament. Read that over the fire, cut yonder, do you see? ‘When I hold, I hold fast.’ I didn't cut that, but my fore-elders did, and we all do that. Why, George De Witt's mother thought to have had some pickings out of the marsh, she did, but my father got hold of it, and he held fast. He did not let go a penny; no, not a farthing. It is a family characteristic. It is a family pleasure. We take a pride in it. I don't care what it is, whether it is a bit of land, or a piece of coin, or a girl, it is all the same, and I think you'll find it is so with me. Eh! Glory! When I hold, I hold fast." He turned in his chair and leered at her.
"There, there," said she, "lay hold of your rent, and hold fast till death. We want none of it."
"What is that?" exclaimed Rebow, starting out of his seat. " What money is that?"
"The rent," said Mehalah; she stood erect beside the table in her haughty beauty, and laughed at the surprised and angry expression that clouded Rebow's countenance.
"I won't take it. You have stolen it."
"Master Rebow," put in the widow, "the money is yours; it is the rent, not a penny short."
"Where did you get the money?" he asked with a curse.
"You bid me bring the money on rent-day, and there it is," said Mehalah. "But now I will ask a question, and I insist on an answer."
"Oh! you insist, do you?"
"I insist on an answer," repeated the girl. "How did you come to think we were without money?"
"Suppose I don't choose to answer."
"If you don't——" she began, then hesitated.
"I will tell you," he said, sulkily. "Abraham Dowsing, your shepherd, isn't dumb, I believe. He talks, he does, and has pretty well spread the news all round the country how he was robbed of his money at the Rose."
"Abraham has never said anything of the sort. He denies that he was robbed."
"Then he says he is accused of being robbed, which is the same. I suppose the story is true."
"It is quite true, Master Rebow," answered the widow. "It was a terrible loss to us. We had sold all the sheep we could sell."
"Oh, a terrible loss, indeed!" scoffed the man. "You are so flush of money, that a loss of ten or fifteen, or may be twenty pounds is nought to you. You have your little store in one of those cupboards in every corner of the old house, and you put your hand in, and take out what you like. You call yourself poor, do you, and think nothing of a loss like this?"
"We are very poor," said the widow; "Heaven knows we have a hard battle to fight to make both ends meet, and to pay our rent."
"I don't believe it. You are telling me lies."
He took the coin, and counted it; his dark brow grew blacker; and he ground his teeth. Once he raised his wolfish eyes and glared on Mehalah. "That guinea is bad," he said, and he threw it on the floor.
"It rings like a good one," answered the girl, "pick it up and give it to me. I will let you have another in its place."
"Oh ho! your pocket is lined with guineas, is it? I will raise the rent of the Ray. I thought as much, the land is fatter than mine on this marsh. You get the place dirt cheap. I'll raise the rent ten pounds. I'll raise it twenty."
"Master Rebow!" pleaded the widow, "the Ray won't allow us to pay it."
"Do not put yourself out, mother," said Mehalah, "we have a lease of twenty-one years; and there are seven more years to run, before Rebow can do what he threatens."
"Oh, you are clever, you are. Glory! cursed clever. Now look here. Mistress Sharland, I'm going to have a rasher, and it's about dinner time, stop and bite with me; and that girl there, she shall bite too. You can't be back till evening, and you'll be perished with hunger."
"Thank you, master," answered the widow eagerly.
"And I'll give you a sup of the very primest brandy."
"Mother, we must return at once. The tide will ebb, and we shall not be able to get away."
"That's a lie," said Elijah angrily, "as you've got here, you can get away. There's plenty of water in the fleet, and will be for three hours. I knew you'd come and so I got some rashers all ready on the pan; there they be."
"You're very kind," observed the widow.
"A landlord is bound to give his tenantry a dinner on rent-day," said Rebow, with an ugly laugh which displayed his great teeth. "It's Michaelmas, but I have no goose. I keep plenty on the marshes. They do well here, and they pay well too."
"I will have a witness that I have paid the rent," said Mehalah. "Call one of your men."
"Go and call one yourself. I am going to fry the rashers."
"That guinea is still on the floor," said Mehalah.
"I have refused it. Pick it up, and give me another."
"I will not pick it up; and I will not give you another till you have convinced me that the coin is bad."
"Then let it lie."
"Where are your men?"
"I don't know, go and find them. They're at their dinner now. I dare say near the pump."
Mehalah left the house, but before she descended the steps, she looked over the flat. There was a sort of shed for cattle half a mile off, and she thought she saw someone moving there. She went at once in that direction.
Scarce was she gone when Elijah beckoned the widow to draw over a chair to the fire.
"You cook the wittles," said he; "I'm my own cook in general, but when a woman is here, why, I'm fain to let her take the job off my hands."
The old woman obeyed with as much activity as she was mistress of. Whilst thus engaged, Elijah walked to the door, opened it, and looked out.
"She's going as straight as a wild duck," he said, and laughed; "she is a damned fine girl. Listen to me, mistress, that daughter of yours, Glory, is too good-looking to be mewed up on the Ray. You should marry her, and then settle yourself comfortably down for the rest of your days in your son-in-law's house."
"Ah! Master Rebow, she is poor, she is, and now young men look out for money."
"You don't want a very young man for such as she. Why, she is as wild as a gipsy, and needs a firm hand to keep her. He that has hold of her should hold fast."
The widow shook her head. "We don't see many folks on the Ray. She will have to marry a fellow on the water."
"No, she won't," said Rebow angrily. "Damn her, she shall marry a farmer, who owns land and marshes, and saltings, and housen, and takes rents, and don't mind to drop some eight hundred pound on a bit of a farm that takes his fancy."
"Such men are not easy to be got."
"No, there you are right, mistress; but when you find one, why——" he drew his pipe over the inscription on the fire-place. "I'm the man, and now you hold me, hold fast."
"Aye, I. I like the girl. By God! I will have Glory, She was born for me. There is not another girl I have seen that I would give an oystershell for, but she—she—she makes my blood run like melted lead, and my heart here gnaws and burns in my breast like a fiery rat. I tell you I will have her, I will."
"If it only rested with me," moaned the widow.
"Look here," said Rebow. "Lay that pan on one side and follow me. I'll show you over the house." He caught her by the wrist, and dragged her from room to room, and up the stairs. When he had brought her back to the principal apartment in which they had been sitting, he chuckled with pride, "Ain't it a good house? It's twenty times better than the Ray, It is more comfortable, and there are more rooms. And all these marshes and meadows are mine, and I have also some cornfields in Virley, on the mainland. And then the Ray is mine, with the saltings and all thereon;—I bought it for eight hundred pounds." "We are very much honoured," said the widow, "but you do not consider how poor Mehalah is; she has nothing."
Elijah laughed. "Not so very poor neither, I fancy. You lost the price of your sheep, and yet you had money in store wherewith to pay the rent."
"Indeed, indeed we had not."
"Where then did you get the money?"
"It was lent us."
"Lent you, who by?" asked Elijah sharply.
"George De Witt was so good——"
Elijah uttered a horrible curse.
"Tell me," he said furiously, coming up close to the old woman and scowling at her—into her eyes. "Answer me without a lie; why, by what right did De Witt lend, or give you, the money? What claim had you on him?"
"Well, Elijah, I must tell you. Mehalah——"
"Here I am," said the girl throwing open the door. "Why am I the subject of your talk?" A couple of shepherds followed her.
"Look here," she said, counting the coin; "there is a guinea on the floor. Pick it up and try it, if it be good."
"That's all right," said one of the men, ringing the coin and then trying it between his teeth.
"This is the sum due for our half-year's rent," she went on. "Is it not so, Master Rebow? Is not this the sum in full?"
He sullenly gave an affirmative.
"You see that I pay this over to him. I don't want a written receipt. I pay before witnesses."
Rebow signed to the men to leave, and then with knitted brow collected the money and put it in his pocket. The widow went on with the frying of the bacon.
"Come along with me, mother, to the boat. We cannot stay to eat."
"You shall eat with me. You have come for the first time under my roof to-day, and you shall not go from under it without a bite."
"I have no appetite."
"But I have," said the widow testily. "I don't see why you are in such a hurry, Mehalah; and what is more, I don't see why you should behave so unpolitely to Master Rebow when he fares to be so civil." "Eat then, if you will, mother," said Mehalah; "but I cannot. I have no hunger;" after a pause, firmly, "I will not."
"Oh, you have a will indeed," remarked Rebow with a growl. " A will it would be a pleasure to break, and I'll do it."
The bacon was fried, and the widow proceeded to dish it up. There was a rack in the next room, as Elijah told her, with plates in it, and there were knives and forks in the drawer.
Whilst the old woman was getting the necessary articles, Rebow was silent, seated in his leather chair, his elbows on his knees, with the pipe in one hand, and his head turned on one side, watching Mehalah out of his fierce, crafty eyes. The girl had seated herself on a chair against the wall, as far away from him as possible. Her arms were folded over her breast, and her head was bent, to avoid encountering his glance. She was angry with her mother for staying to eat with the man whom she hated.
During this quiet—neither speaking—a curious grating noise reached her ear, and then a clank like that of a chain. She could not quite make out whence the noise came. It was some little while before it sufficiently attracted her attention to make her consider about it; and before she had formed any conclusion, her mother returned, and spread the table, and placed the meat on a dish.
"I'll go and fetch the liquor," said Rebow, and went away. Whilst he was absent, again the sound met the girl's ears. Neither she nor her mother had spoken, but now she said, "Listen, mother, what is that sound?"
The old woman stood still for a moment, and then proceeded with her task.
"It is nothing," she said indifferently, "the sound comes up from below the floor. I reckon Master Rebow has cows fastened there."
"By a chain," added Mehalah, and dismissed the matter from her mind; the explanation satisfied her.
Rebow returned the next moment with a bottle.
"This is prime spirit, this is," said he. "You can't drink water here, it gives the fever. You must add spirits to it to make it harmless." "You have no beautiful spring here, as we have on the Ray," observed the widow.
"Not likely to have," answered the surly landlord. "Now sit down and eat. Come, Glory."
She did not move.
"Come, Mehalah, draw up your chair," said her mother.
"I am not going to eat," she answered resolutely.
"You shall," shouted Elijah, rising impetuously, and thrusting his chair back. "You are insulting me in my own house if you refuse to eat with me."
"I have no appetite."
"You will not eat, I heard you say so. I know the devilry of your heart. You will not, but I will." In his rage he stamped on the trap-door that he had uncovered when removing the chair. Instantly a prolonged, hideous howl rose from the depths and rang through the room. Mistress Sharland started back aghast. Mehalah raised her head, and the colour left her cheek.
"Oh ho!" roared Elijah. "You will join in also, will you?" He drew the bolts passionately back.
"Look here," he cried to Mehalah. "Come here!"
Involuntarily she obeyed, and looked down. She saw into a vault feebly illuminated by daylight through one of the circular windows she had noticed on approaching the house. There she saw looking up, directly under the trap, a face so horrible in its dirt and madness that she recoiled.
"She won't eat, she won't bite with me," shouted Rebow, "then neither shall her mother eat, nor will I. You shall have the whole." He caught up the dish, and threw down the rashers. The man below snapped, and caught like a wild beast, and uttered a growl of satisfaction.
Rebow flung the door back into its place, and rebolted it. Then he placed his chair in its former position, and looked composedly from the widow to Mehalah and seemed to draw pleasure from their fear.
"My brother," he explained. "Been mad from a child. A good job for me, as he was the elder. Now I have him in keeping, and the land and the house and the money are mine. What I hold, I hold fast. Amen."