Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 5
There was commotion on the beach at Mersea City.
A man-of-war, a schooner, lay off the entrance to the Blackwater, and was signalling with bunting to the coastguard ship, permanently anchored off the island, which was replying. War had been declared with France some time, but as yet had not interfered with the smuggling trade, which was carried on with the Low Countries. Cruisers in the Channel had made it precarious work along the South Coast, and this had rather stimulated the activity of contraband traffic on the East. It was therefore with no little uneasiness that a warship was observed standing off the Mersea flats. Why was she there? Was a man-of-war to cruise about the mouth of the Colne and Blackwater continually? What was the purport of the correspondence carried on between the schooner and the coastguard? Such were the queries put about among those gathered on the shingle.
They were not long left in doubt, for a boat manned by coastguards left the revenue vessel and ran ashore; the captain sprang out, and went up the beach to his cottage, followed by a couple of the crew. The eager islanders crowded round the remainder, and asked the news.
The captain was appointed to the command of the schooner, the Salamander, which had come from the Downs under the charge of the first lieutenant, to pick him up. The destiny of the Salamander was, of course, unknown.
Captain Macpherson was a keen, canny Scot, small and dapper; as he pushed through the cluster of men in fishing jerseys and wading boots he gave them a nod and a word, "You ought to be serving your country instead of robbing her, ye loons. Why don't you volunteer like men, there's more money to be made by prizes than by running spirits."
"That won't do, captain," said Jim Morrell, an old fisherman. "We know better than that. There's the oysters."
"Oysters!" exclaimed the captain; "there'll be no time for eating oysters now, and no money to pay for them neither. Come along with me, some of you shore crabs. I promise you better sport than sneaking about the creeks. We'll have at Johnny Crapaud with gun and cutlass."
Then he entered his cottage, which was near the shore, to say farewell to his wife.
"If there's mischief to be done, that chap will do it," was the general observation, when his back was turned.
Attention was all at once distracted by a young woman in a tall taxcart who was endeavouring to urge her horse along the road, but the animal, conscious of having an inexperienced hand on the rein, backed, and jibbed, and played a number of tricks, to her great dismay.
"Oh, do please some of you men lead him along. I dare say he will go if his head be turned east, but he is frightened by seeing so many of you."
"Where are you going, Phœbe?" asked old Morrell.
"I'm only going to Waldegraves," she answered. 'Oh, bother the creature! there he goes again!" as the horse danced impatiently, and swung round.
"De Witt!" she cried in an imploring tone, "do hold his head. It is a shame of you men not to help a poor girl."
George at once went to the rescue.
"Lead him on, De Witt, please, till we are away from the beach."
The young man good-naturedly held the bit, and the horse obeyed without attempting resistance.
"There's a donkey on the lawn by Elm Tree Cottage," said the girl; "she brays whenever a horse passes, and I'm mortal afeared lest she scare this beast, and he runs away with me. If he do so, I can't hold him in, my wrists are so weak."
"Why, Phœbe," said De Witt, "what are you driving for? Waldegraves is not more than a mile and a half off, and you might have walked the distance well enough."
"I've sprained my ankle, and I can't walk. I must go to Waldegraves, I have a message there to my aunt, so Isaac Mead lent me the horse."
"If you can't drive, you may do worse than sprain your ankle, you may break your neck." "That is what I am afraid of, George. The boy was to have driven me, but he is so excited, I suppose, about the man-of-war coming in, that he has run off. There! take care!"
"Can't you go on now?" asked De Witt, letting go the bridle. Immediately the horse began to jib and rear.
"You are lugging at his mouth fit to break his jaw, Phœbe. No wonder the beast won't go."
"Am I, George? It is the fright. I don't understand the horse. O dear! O dear! I shall never get to Waldegraves by myself."
"Let the horse go, but don't job his mouth in that way."
"There he is turning round. He will go home again. O George! save me."
"You are pulling him round, of course he will turn if you drag at the rein."
"I don't understand horses," burst forth Phœbe, and she threw the reins down. "George, there's a good, dear fellow, jump in beside me. There's room for two, quite cosy. Drive me to Waldegraves. I shall never forget your goodness." She put her two hands together, and looked piteously in the young man's face.
Phœbe Musset was a very good-looking girl, fair with bright blue eyes, and yellow hair, much more delicately made than most of the girls in the place. Moreover, she dressed above them. She was a village coquette, accustomed to being made much of, and of showing her caprices. Her father owned the store at the city where groceries and drapery were sold, and was esteemed a well-to-do man. He farmed a little land. Phœbe was his only child, and she was allowed to do pretty much as she liked. Her father and mother were hard-working people, but Phœbe's small hands were ever unsoiled, for they were ever unemployed. She neither milked the cows nor weighed the sugar. She liked indeed to be in the shop, to gossip with anyone who came in, and perhaps the only goods she condescended to sell was tobacco to the young sailors, from whom she might calculate on a word of flattery and a lovelorn look. She was always well and becomingly dressed. Now, in a chip bonnet trimmed with blue riband, and tied under the chin, with a white lace-edged kerchief over her shoulders, covering her bosom, she was irresistible. So at least De Witt found her, for he was obliged to climb the gig, seat himself beside her, and assume the reins.
"I am not much of a steersman in a craft like this," said George laughing, "but my hand is stronger than yours, and I can save you from wreck."
Phœbe looked slyly round, and her great blue eyes peeped timidly up in the fisherman's face. "Thank you so much, George. I shall never, never forget your great kindness."
"There's nothing in it," said the blunt fisherman; "I'd do the same for any girl."
"I know how polite you are," continued Phœbe; then putting her hand on the reins, "I don't think you need drive quite so fast, George; I don't want to get the horse hot, or Isaac will scold."
"A jog trot like this will hurt no horse."
"Perhaps you want to get back. I am sorry I have taken you away. Of course you have pressing business. No doubt you want to get to the Ray," A little twinkling sly look up accompanied this speech. De Witt waxed red.
"I'm in no hurry, myself," he said.
"How delightful, George! nor am I."
The young man could not resist stealing a glance at the little figure beside him, so neat, so trim, so fresh. He was a humble fellow, and never dreamed himself to be on a level with such a refined damsel. Glory was the girl for him, rough and ready, who could row a boat and wade in the mud. He loved Glory. She was a sturdy girl, a splendid girl, he said to himself. Phœbe was altogether different, she belonged to another sphere, he could but look and admire—and worship perhaps. She dazzled him, but he could not love her. She was none of his sort, he said to himself.
"A penny for your thoughts!" said Phœbe roguishly. He coloured, "I know what you were thinking of. You were thinking of me."
De Witt's colour deepened. "I was sure it was so. Now I insist on knowing what you were thinking of me."
"Why" answered George with a clumsy effort at gallantry, "I thought what a beauty you were." "Oh, George, not when compared with Mehalah." De Witt fidgeted in his seat.
"Mehalah is quite of another kind, you see, Miss."
"I'm no miss, if you please. Call me Phœbe. It is snugger."
"She's more——" he puzzled his head for an explanation of his meaning. "She is more boaty than you are——"
"Than you are," with hesitation, "Phœbe."
"I know;—strides about like a man, smokes and swears, and chews tobacco."
"No, no, you mistake me, M——."
"You mistake me, Phœbe."
"I have often wondered, George, what attracted you to Mehalah. To be sure, it will be a very convenient thing for you to have a wife who can swab the deck, and tar the boat and calk her. But then I should have fancied a man would have liked something different from a—sort of a man-woman—a Jack Tar or Ben Brace in petticoats, to sit by his fireside, and to take to his heart. But of course it is not for me to speak on such matters, only I somehow can't help thinking about you, George, and it worries me so, I lie awake at nights, and wonder and wonder, whether you will be happy. She has the temper of a tom cat, I'm told. She blazes up like gunpowder."
De Witt fidgeted yet more uneasily. He did not like this conversation.
"Then she is half a gipsy. So you mayn't be troubled with her long. She'll keep with you as long as she likes, and then up with her pack, on with her wading boots. Yo heave hoy! and away she goes."
De Witt, in his irritation, gave the horse a stinging switch across the flank, and he started forward. A little white hand was laid, not now on the reins, but on his hand.
"I'm so sorry, George, my friend; after your kindness, I have teased you unmercifully, but I can't help it. When I think of Mehalah in her wading boots and jersey and cap, it makes me laugh—and yet when I think of her and you together, I'm ashamed to say I feel as if I could cry. George!" she suddenly ejaculated. "Yes, Miss!"
"Phœbe, not Miss, please."
"I wasn't going to say Miss."
"What were you going to say?"
"Why, mate, yes, mate! I get into the habit of it at sea," he apologised.
"I like it. Call me mate. We are on a cruise together, now, you and I, and I trust myself entirely in your hands, captain."
"What was it you fared to ask, mate, when you called ‘George’?"
"Oh, this. The wind is cold, and I want my cloak and hood, they are down somewhere behind the seat in the cart. If I take the reins will you lean over and get them?"
"You won't upset the trap?"
"No." He brought up the cloak and adjusted it round Phœbe's shoulders, and drew the hood over her bonnet, she would have it to cover her head.
"Doesn't it make me a fright?" she asked, looking into his face.
"Nothing can do that," he answered readily.
"Well, push it back again, I feel as if it made me one, and that is as bad. There now. Thank you, mate! Take the reins again."
"Halloo! we are in the wrong road. We have turned towards the Strood."
"Dear me! so we have. That is the horse's doing. I let him go where he liked, and he went down the turn. I did not notice it. All I thought of was holding up his head lest he should stumble."
De Witt endeavoured to turn the horse.
"Oh, don't, don't attempt it!" exclaimed Phœbe. "The lane is so narrow, that we shall be upset. Better drive on, and round by the Barrow Farm, there is not half-a-mile difference."
"A good mile, mate. However, if you wish it."
"I do wish it. This is a pleasant drive, is it not, George?
"Very pleasant," he said, and to himself added, " too pleasant." So they chatted on till they reached the farm called Waldegraves, and there Phœbe alighted.
"I shall not be long," she said, at the door, turning and giving him a look which might mean a great deal or nothing, according to the character of the woman who cast it.
When she came up she said, "There, George, I cut my business as short as possible. Now what do you say to showing me the Decoy? I have never seen it, but I have heard a great deal of it, and I cannot understand how it is contrived."
"It is close here," said De Witt.
"I know it is, the little stream in this dip feeds it. Will you show me the Decoy?"
"But your foot—Phœbe. You have sprained your ankle."
"If I may lean on your arm I think I can limp down there. It is not very far."
"And then what about the horse?"
"Oh! the boy here will hold it, or put it up in the stable. Run and call him, George."
"I could drive you down there, I think, at least within a few yards of the place, and if we take the boy he can hold the horse by the gate."
"I had rather hobble down on your arm, George."
"Then come along, mate."
The Decoy was a sheet of water covering perhaps an acre and a half in the midst of a wood. The clay that had been dug out for its construction had been heaped up, forming a little hill crowned by a group of willows. No one who has seen this ill-used tree in its mutilated condition, cut down to a stump which bristles with fresh withes, has any idea what a stately and beautiful tree it is when allowed to grow naturally. The old untrimmed willow is one of the noblest of our native trees. It may be seen thus in well-timbered parts of Suffolk and occasionally in Essex. The pond was fringed with rushes, except at the horns, where the nets and screens stood for the trapping of the birds. From the mound above the distant sea was visible, through a gap in the old elm trees that stood below the pool. In that gap was visible the war-schooner, lying as near shore as possible. George De Witt stood looking at it. The sea was glittering like silver, and the hull of the vessel was dark against the shining belt. A boat with a sail was approaching her.
"That is curious," observed George. "I could swear to yon boat. I know her red sail. She belongs to my cousin Elijah Rebow. But he can have nought to do with the schooner."
Phœbe was impatient with anything save herself attracting the attention of the young fisherman. She drew him from the mound, and made him explain to her the use of the rush-platted screens, the arched and funnel-shaped net, and the manner in which the decoy ducks were trained to lead the wild birds to their destruction.
"They are very silly birds to be led like that," said she.
"They little dream whither and to what they are being drawn," said De Witt.
"I suppose some little ducks are dreadfully enticing," said Phœbe, with a saucy look and a twinkle of the blue eyes. "Look here, George, my bonnet-strings are untied, and my hands are quite unable to manage a bow, unless I am before a glass. Do you think you could tie them for me?"
"Put up your chin, then," said De Witt with a sigh. He knew he was a victim; he was going against his conscience. He tried to think of Mehalah, but could not with those blue eyes looking so confidingly into his. He put his finger under her chin and raised it. He was looking full into that sweet saucy face.
"What sort of a knot? I can tie only sailor's knots."
"Oh, George! something like a true lover's knot."
Was it possible to resist, with those damask cheeks, those red lips, and those pleading eyes so close, so completely in his power? George did not resist. He stooped and kissed the wicked lips, and cheeks, and eyes.
Phœbe drew away her face at once, and hid it. He took her arm and led her away. She turned her head from him, and did not speak.
He felt that the little figure at his side was shaken with some hysterical movement, and felt frightened.
"I have offended you, I am very sorry. I could not help it. Your lips did tempt me so; and you looked up at me just as if you were saying, 'Kiss me!' I could not help it. You are crying. I have offended you."
"No, I am laughing. Oh, George! Oh, George!"
They walked back to the farm without speaking. De Witt was ashamed of himself, yet felt he was under a spell which he could not break. A rough fisher lad flattered by a girl he had looked on as his superior, and beyond his approach, now found himself the object of her advances; the situation was more than his rude virtue could withstand. He knew that this was a short dream of delight, which would pass, and leave no substance, but whilst under the charm of the dream, he could not cry out nor move a finger to arouse himself to real life.
Neither spoke for a few minutes. But, at last, George De Witt turned, and looking with a puzzled face at Phœbe Musset said, "You asked me on our way to Waldegraves what I was thinking about, and offered me a penny for my thoughts. Now I wonder what you are lost in a brown study about, and I will give you four farthings for what is passing in your little golden head."
"You must not ask me, George—dear George."
"Oh, mate, you must tell me."
"I dare not. I shall be so ashamed."
"Then look aside when you speak."
"No, I can't do that. I must look you full in the face; and do you look me in the face too. George, I was thinking—Why did you not come and talk to me, before you went courting that gipsy girl, Mehalah. Are you not sorry now that you are tied to her?
His eyes fell. He could not speak.