Mehalah: a story of the salt marshes (1920)/Chapter 9
A month passed, and no tidings whatever of George De Witt had reached his mother or Mehalah. The former constantly expected news of her son. She would not believe in his death, and was encouraged in her opinion by Isaac Mead. But Mehalah had never entertained hope; she did not look for news, she knew that George was drowned.
His body had not been found. His disappearance had been altogether mysterious. Mrs. De Witt used every effort to trace him, but failed. From the moment the door of the Mussets had closed upon him, no one had seen him. With the closing of that door the record of his life had closed. He had passed as completely beyond pursuit as though he had passed through the gate of death.
There was but one possible way of accounting for his disappearance, and it was that at which public opinion arrived. He had gone round by the Strood from Mersea to reach the Ray, which was on that side accessible, but with difficulty, and occasionally only, by land, had lost his way among the saltmarshes in the night, had fallen into one of the myriad creeks that traverse this desolate region, and had been engulfed in the ooze. The sea will give up her dead after a storm and with the tide, but the slime of the marshes never.
Mehalah made no attempt to account for the disappearance of George; it was sufficient for her that he was lost to her for ever. But his mother made enquiries when selling shrimps along the Colchester road, and on the island. He had nowhere been seen. He had not visited the Rose.
It was Elijah Rebow who finally brought Mrs. De Witt to admit that her son was entirely lost to her.
He visited her in November. She was surprised and pleased to see him. Since the disappearance of George, Mrs. De Witt had taken more vigorously than before to grog. Her feelings needed solace, and she found it in her glass. Perhaps the presence of George had acted as a restraint on his mother. She had not wished him to suppose her a habitual tippler. Her libations had been performed when he was away, or under the excuse of stomachics. On the subject of her internal arrangements, discomforts, and requirements, Mrs. De Witt had afforded her son information more copious than interesting. Her digestion sympathised with all the convulsions then shaking Europe. Revolutions were brought about there by the most ordinary edibles, and were always to be reduced by spirituous drinkables.
The topic of her internal economy, when introduced by Mrs. De Witt, always prefaced a resolve to try a drop of cordial. Now that George was gone, Mrs. De Witt brooded over her loss at home, stirring her glass as if it were the mud of the marshes and she hoped to turn George up out of the syrup of the dissolving sugar.
Mrs. De Witt had laid aside her red coat, as inappropriate to her forlorn condition. The month of October had seen a sad deterioration in the mistress of the Pandora. Her funds had been fast ebbing. The bread-winner was gone, and the rum-drinker had obtained fresh excuse for deep potations. There were fish in the sea to be caught, but he that had netted them was now under the mud. Things could not go on thus for ever.
Mrs. De Witt was musing despondingly over her desperate position, when Elijah appeared above the hatchway and descended to the cabin.
Mrs. De Witt had stuck a black bow in her mob cap, as a symbol of her woe. She hardly needed to hang out the flag, for her whole face and figure betokened distress. It cannot be said that her maternal bowels yearned after her son out of love for him so much as out of solicitude for herself. She naturally grieved for her "poor boy," but her grief for him was largely tinctured with anxiety for her own future. How should she live? On what subsist? She had her husband's old hull as a home, and a fishing smack, and a rowing boat. There was some money in the box, but not much. "There's been no wasteful outlay over a burying," said Mrs. De Witt. "That is a good job."
But, as already said, Mrs. De Witt only yielded reluctantly to the opinion that her boy was drowned. She held resolutely in public to this view for reasons she confided to herself over her rum. "It is no use dropping a pint of money in dragging for the body, and burying it when you've got it. To my notion that is laying out five pound to have the satisfaction of spending another five. George was a gentleman," she said with pride. "If he was to go from his pore mother, he went as cheap from her as a lad could do it."
Another reason why she refused to believe in his death was characteristic of the illogicality of her sex. This she announced to Rebow. "You have it in a nutshell. How can the poor boy be drowned? For, if so, what is to become of me, and I a widow?"
"Mrs. De Witt," said Rebow, helping himself to some rum, "you may as well make your mind easy on this point. If George be not dead where can he be?"
"That I do not take on myself to say."
"He is nowhere on Mersea, is he?"
"He did not go along the Colchester road beyond the Strood?"
"No, or I should have heard of him.
"Moreover, he told me he purposed going to the Ray."
"To be sure he did."
"And he never reached the Ray."
"No, for certain."
"Then it is obvious he must have been lost between Mersea and the Ray."
"There is something in what you say Elijah; there is what we may term argument in it."
"There was a reason why he should go to the Ray."
"I suppose there was."
"He had quarrelled with Glory, and desired to make it up that night."
"I know there had been a squall."
"Then do not flatter yourself with false hopes. George is gone past recall; you and Glory must give him up for ever."
Mrs. De Witt shook her head, wiped her eyes with the frill of her cap, looked sorrowfully into her glass and said, "Pore me!"
"You are poor indeed," said Elijah, " but how poor I suspect rather than know. What have you got to live upon?"
"That is just it," answered Mrs. De Witt; "my head has been like the Swin light, a-rewolving and a-rewolving. But there is this difference, the Swin rewolves first light and then dark alternately, whereas in my head there has been naught rewolving but warious degrees of darkness."
"What do you propose doing?"
"Well, I have an idea." Mrs. De Witt hitched her chair nearer to her nephew, and breathed her idea and her spirit together into his ear. "I think I shall marry." "You—!"
"Yes, I. Why not? There is the billyboy running to waste, rotting for want of use, crying out for a master to take her out fishing. There are as many fisherboys on shore as there are sharks in the ocean, ready to snap me up were I flung to them. I have felt them. They have been a-nibbling round me already. Consider, Elijah! there is the Pandora, good as a palace for a home, and the billyboy and the boat, and the nets, and the oyster garden, and then there is my experience to be thrown in gratis, and above all," she raised herself, "there is my person."
Rebow laughed contemptuously.
"What have these boys of their own?" asked Mrs. De Witt, laying down the proposition with her spoon. "They have nothing, no more than the sea-cobs. They have naught to do but swoop down on whatever they can see, sprats, smelt, mullet, whiting, dabs, and when there is naught else, winkles. Their thoughts do not rise that proudly to me, and I must stoop to them. I tell you what, Elijah, if I was to be raffled for, at a shilling a ticket, there would be that run among the boys for me, that I could make a fortune. But I won't demean myself to that. I shall choose the stoutest and healthiest among them, and I can send him out fishing, and he can earn me money, as did George, and so I shall be able to enjoy ease, if not opulence."
"But suppose the lads decline the honour."
"I should like to see the impertinence of the lad that did," said Mrs. De Witt firmly. "I have had experience with men, and I know them in and out that familiarly that I could find my way about their brains or heart, as you would about your marshes, in the dark. No, Elijah, the question is not will they have me, but whether I will be bothered with any more of the creatures. I will not unless I can help it. I will not unless the worst comes to the worst. But a woman must live, Elijah."
"How much have you got for current expenses?"
"Only a few pounds."
"There are five and twenty pounds owed you by the Sharlands. You are not going to let them have it as a present?"
"No, certain, I am not." "Do you expect to get it by waiting for it?"
"To tell you the truth, Elijah, I hadn't given that five and twenty pounds a thought. I will go over to the Ray and claim the money."
"You will not get it."
"I must have it."
"They cannot possibly pay."
"But they shall pay. I want and will have my money."
"Mehalah will pretend that George gave her the money."
"No, she will not. She acknowledged the debt to me before George's face. She promised repayment as soon as she had sufficient."
"If you do not seize on their goods, or some of them, you will never see the colour of the coin again."
"I must and will have it."
"Then follow my advice. Put in an execution. I will lend you my men. All you have to do is to give notice on this island when the sale is to be, get together sufficient to bid and buy, and you have your money. You must have an auction."
"Can I do so, Elijah?"
"Of course you can. Go over to the Ray at once and demand your money. If they decline to pay, allow them a week's grace, more if you like. I'll go with you, when the sale is to take place, and perhaps bid. We will have a Dutch auction."
"By cock! I'll do it. I will go there right on end."
At once, with her natural impetuosity, the old woman started. Before departing, however, to heighten her importance, and give authority and sternness to her appearance, she donned her red coat. In token of mourning she wrapped a black rag round her left arm. Over her cap she put a broad-brimmed battered straw hat, in front of which she affixed with a hair-pin the large black bow that had figured on her cap. Thus arrayed she entered her boat and rowed to the Ray.
The demand for the money filled Mrs. Sharland with dismay. It was a demand as unexpected as it was embarrassing. She and Mehalah were absolutely without the means of discharging the debt. They had, indeed, a few pounds by them, which had been intended to serve to carry them through the winter, and these they offered Mrs. De Witt, but she refused to receive a portion on account when she wanted the whole of the debt.
Mrs. Sharland entreated delay till spring, but Mrs. De Witt was inexorable. She would allow no longer than a week. She departed, declaring that she would sell them up, unless the five and twenty pounds were produced.
Since the death or disappearance of George De Witt, Mehalah had gone about her usual work in a mechanical manner. She was in mourning also. But she did not exhibit it by a black bow on her cap or a sable rag round her arm, like the mother of the lost lad. She still wore her red cap, crimson kerchief and blue jersey. But the lustre was gone from her eyes, the bloom from her cheek, animation from her lips. There was no spring in her step, no lightness in her tone. The cow was milked as regularly as usual, and foddered as attentively as before. The house was kept as scrupulously clean, Mrs. Sharland ministered to with the same assiduity, but the imperiousness of Mehalah's nature had gone. The widow found to her astonishment that she was allowed to direct what was to be done, and that her daughter submitted without an objection.
It is the way with strong natures to allow their griefs no expression, to hide their sorrows and mask their wounds. Glory did not speak of George. She did not weep. She made no lamentation over his loss; more wonderful still in her mother's eyes, she uttered no reproaches against anyone for it. A weak nature always exhausts its troubles in reproaches of others; a strong one eats out its own heart. Mehalah listened with a dull ear to her mother's murmurs, and made no response. Mrs. Sharland set her down as unfeeling. A feeble querulous woman like her was quite unable to measure the depth of her daughter's heart, and understand its working. The result was that she read them wrong, and took false soundings.
When her mother was in bed and asleep, then Mehalah sat at the hearth, or leaned at the window looking at the stars, hour by hour, immovable, uttering no sound, not building castles in the clouds, not weaving any schemes for her future, not hoping for anything, not imagining anything, but exhaling her pain. As the turned earth after the plough may be seen in a sudden frost to smoke, so was it with that wounded heart, it smoked, gave up its fever heat, and in silence and solitude cooled. There was something, which yet was no thing, to which her weary soul stretched, in dim unconsciousness. There was a communing without words, even without the thoughts which form into words, with that Unseen which is yet so surely felt. It was the spirit—that infinite essence so mysteriously enclosed within bounds, in strange contradiction to its nature, asserting its nature and yearning for Infinity.
The human heart in suffering is like the parched soil in summer; when its sky is overcast and it cannot see beyond the cloud that lies low over it, then it must harbour its heat, and gape with fever. But, should a rent appear in the earth-born vaporous veil, through which it can look into unfathomable space, at once it radiates the ardour that consumes it, casts off the fever that consumes it, and drinks in, and is slaked by, the dew of heaven.