IN NEW QUARTERS
WHEN the boat reached the landing place for Red Hall, Mrs. Sharland was found to have been so overcome with terror, and numbed with frost, as to be unable to walk. Elijah was obliged to carry her out of the boat upon the seawall, and then with the assistance of Mehalah she was conveyed to the house in their arms. Neither spoke. He indicated with his chin to Mehalah to carry her up the steps into the hall.
A red fire was glowing and painting the walls. The great room was warm, and Mrs. Sharland battled out of her blankets as soon as she became aware that she was under cover
"Take me to bed," she said; "my legs are frozen. I can't go a step. Oh! is the toad-jug saved?"
"I will carry her now," said Elijah. "You light a candle, Glory, and follow me."
He took the old woman over his shoulder, and led the way up the stairs. Mehalah followed with a light she had kindled at the hearth. He conducted into a bed-room, comfortably furnished, with white curtains to the windows, and a low tester bed in the corner .
"Light the fire," he ordered, and Mehalah applied the candle to the straw and chips in the grate. Presently the flames were dancing up the chimney, and making the whole chamber glow. The old woman was laid on the bed.
"This looks comfortable," said she; "just as if you was prepared for us."
"I was prepared for you. Everything was ready. Glory knows that I have been expecting you and her. I told her she must come, sooner or later."
Mehalah could not speak. She was stunned. She, whose will had been unfettered, now discovered herself a captive under the thraldom of a will more ungovernable than her own. All her thoughts that she could collect must be about her mother. She must think of herself when she had more leisure.
"There," said Elijah, indicating a door, "there is another little room for you and your mother to put away what you like. If you want anything, come downstairs."
He went heavily down the stairs and out at the door. Mehalah looked from the window, and saw him on his way to the boat. He was going back to the Ray. She could still see a red cloud hanging over her burnt home. Her mother lay quiet, evidently pleased at having got into such comfortable quarters, and exhausted with her alarm.
Mehalah was standing in the same place when the boats arrived bringing portions of their goods to Red Hall. She heard the voices of Rebow and other men below. She opened the door and listened. He was giving them something to eat and drink. Abraham Dowsing was there. She could distinguish his voice.
"If I hadn't turned you out, you'd have been burnt," said Rebow.
"A good job for mistress we saved the cowhouse," answered Abraham, with sulky unwillingness to admit that he was indebted to Elijah for anything.
"Don't you think you owe me your life?" asked Rebow.
"The cowhouse didn't burn."
"No. But it would have, had not we been there to keep the flames off," observed one of the men.
"Good job for mistress I wasn't burnt. I don't know how she'd got along without me."
"It did not matter particularly to yourself then, Abby?"
"Don't know as it did. A man must die some time."
Presently Abraham asked, "How came you to be there?"
"Master sent Jim out with me in the big boat after ducks, and he was in the punt," answered one of the men. "He bade us lie by at the mouth of the Rhyn, while he went on to drive the birds our way. He was not long away — not above an hour — when we saw the Ray house afire, and heard him shouting to us to come on, so we rowed as hard as hard, and by the time we landed he had broken open the door, and got the old lady out. We helped as best we might, and saved a deal of things."
"They ain't worth much," said Abraham. "There's nothing in the house worth five pound. The cow was the only thing would pay for saving. and she was safe. I slept in the loft over her."
"The life of your mistress was worth something, I hope Abby."
"Don't know that. Not to me, anyhow. She's not mistress; it is Mehalah that orders, and does everything. I don't reckon an old woman's life is worth a crown, not to nobody but herself, may be; but that is her concern not mine. She was an ailing anguish body. Why!" exclaimed Abraham banging his can of ale on the table, "when you've saved an old woman who is nought but a trouble to everybody as does with her, of what wally is it? They might have paid you to let her alone, but not to lug her out of the fire. Now, Mehalah, she was another sort. But you didn't save her."
"Where was she? She was not in the house."
"How am I to know? I don't spy after her. Others may," he gave a sly, covert look at Elijah, "I don't. But I reckon she was out on the saltings watching for the sheep-stealers."
"Have you had sheep-stealers on the Ray?"
"Aye! we have."
"Did you watch for them at night?"
"I!" with a grunt. "They were not my sheep. No, thank you. Let them that wallys the sheep watch 'em. I do what I'm paid to, and I don't do more."
Mehalah closed the door again, and returned to the window. She did not leave her station till dawn, except to attend to the fire. When day began to break, she seated herself on a stool by the bed, and, her head on the mattress, fell asleep, and slept for a n hour or two, uneasily.
When she awoke the house was quiet . She went downstairs with reluctance, and found no one stirring, but the fire made up, a kettle boiling over it, the table spread with everything she could desire for breakfast. Elijah, Abraham and the other men were gone. There was a canister with tea on the board. Mehalah made her mother some, and took it up to her. The old woman was awake, and drank the tea with eagerness.
"I don't think I can get out of bed to-day, Mehalah!" she said. The cold has got into the marrow of my bones. I must lie abed till the thaw comes to them."
"Mother, how long are we going to remain here?"
"It is wery comfortable, I am sure."
"I cannot, I will not, remain here."
"Where can we go?"
Mehalah put both her hands to her brow. She could not answer this question. Were she alone, she could get a situation in a farmhouse, perhaps; but with a sick mother dependent on her, this was not possible.
"Where else can we go?" again asked Mrs. Sharland; then in a repining voice, "If Master Rebow houses us for a while, it is very good of him. Where is the money to pay for rebuilding the farmhouse? Do you think my cousin, Charles Pettican — "
"No, no," exclaimed Mehalah, "not a word about him."
"He promised most handsomely," said Mrs. Sharland.
" He can do nothing, mother — I will not ask him."
"He wouldn't miss a few pounds for running up a wooden cottage."
"I will not go to him again."
"He would take us in on a visit for a while, when we are forced to leave Red Hall."
"You think we shall not be obliged to remain here?"
"It is very good of Master Rebow to house us for a bit, but I doubt we can't stick as fixtures. I only wish we could. Stay here a bit we must. We have nowhere else to go to, except to my cousin Charles."
It was a relief to Mehalah to hear her mother speak of their stay in Red Hall as only temporary. She could not endure to contemplate the possibility of its being permanent. She formed a hope that she would be able to find work somewhere, and hire a small cottage; she was strong enough to do as much as a man.
Everything that had been rescued from the fire on the Ray was brought to Red Hall, even the cow, which was driven round by land, a matter of eleven miles. The old clock arrived, and was set up in the large room below. An old cypress chest, or 'spruce hutch' as Mrs. Sharland called it, covered with curious shallow carvings picked out with burnt umber, representing a hawking party, that contained her best clothes, and was a security against moth, was conveyed into her bedroom. It weighed half a ton.
By degrees most of her property was brought to the house, and the small oak parlour was furnished with it. Her high-back armchair of leather was placed in the hall by the great fireplace that bore the inscription, "When I hold, I hold fast." The satisfaction of Mrs. Sharland at finding herself surrounded by her goods was extreme. She did not leave her bed, but she insisted on her daughter bringing her up everything that could be carried, that she might turn it about, and inspect it minutely and rejoice over what was uninjured, and bewail what had suffered.
Mehalah saw nothing of Elijah Rebow all day. He was several times in the house. Directly her foot sounded on the stairs, however, he disappeared. But she saw and felt that he was considering her; his care to recover all the little treasures and property on the Ray evinced this; and in the house he provided everything she could need; he placed meat on the table in the hall for her dinner, and had boiled potatoes over the fire. Her mother ate heartily, and was loud in expressions of satisfaction at the comfort that surrounded them.
"I hope, Mehalah, we shan't have to leave this in a hurry."
Glory did not answer.
Towards evening Abraham Dowsing arrived with the cow. The girl heard the low, and ran down and threw her arms round the neck of the beast. There was a back stair leading to the kitchen and yard, by which she could descend without entering the hall, and by this means she avoided Elijah who, she was aware, was there.
He came to the top of the steps after she had descended, and looked into the yard where she was. Mehalah at once desisted from lavishing her tenderness on the animal.
Abraham stood sulkily by.
"I've had a long bout," he said.
"I dare say you have, Abraham," she answered.
"I want something to eat and drink. I haven't bit nought since morning."
Mehalah put her hand to her mouth and checked her tongue, as she was about to tell him to go indoors and get some supper. She had now nothing to give the old man. She lived on the bounty of Rebow.
"I cannot go without my wittles," persisted Abraham. "Now I want to know where my wittles are to come from. I paid four-pence at the Rose for some bread and cheese, and you owes me that."
"There is the money," said Mehalah, producing the coin.
"Ah! that is wery well. But where am I to get my wittles now? Am I your servant or ain't I? If I am, — where's my wittles?"
"Come here, Abraham," said Elijah, from the kitchen door. "There is bread and cold potatoes and meat here. You shall have your supper, and you can sleep in the loft."
"Look here, master," pursued the sullen old man, "I want to know further where I'm to look for my wages."
"To me," said Rebow. "I take you on."
"Where am I to work?"
"Here, or on the Ray, looking after the sheep."
"The sheep are not yours, they are hers," — pointing to Mehalah with his thumb.
"The Ray and Red Hall are one concern," answered Rebow. "You look to me as your master, and to her as your mistress," then he entered and slammed the door.
Abraham shrugged his shoulders. He leered at Mehalah, who had put her hands to her forehead.
"When are you going to church? Eh, mistress? I thought it was coming to this. But I don't care so long as I get my wittles and wage."
Abraham went slowly into the cattle-house with the cow. Mehalah remained rooted to the spot, pressing her brow.
This was more than she could endure. She ran up the steps to speak to Rebow while her heart was full. She dashed through the kitchen and into the hall. He was not there. As she ran on, she tripped and almost fell; and recovered herself with horror. She had nearly precipitated herself through the trap into the vault beneath. The door was thrown back, and her foot had caught it. Faugh! an odour rose from the cellar as from the lair of a wild beast. She looked in. There was the maniac racing up and down in the den, fastened by his chain, jabbering and uttering incoherent cries. He was almost naked, covered with filthy rags, and his hair hung over his face so that she could distinguish no features by the dim light that strayed down from the trap, and from the horn lanthorn that Elijah had placed on the steps. Rebow had a pitchfork, and he was tossing fresh straw to his brother, and raking out the sodden and crushed litter of the wretched man.
Mehalah could not bear the sight; she withdrew. She opened the front door, and descended by the long flight of steps over the arch. Then she saw that a shutter covered the circular window that in summer lighted the den of the maniac. This was now closed to shut out the cold of winter. There was a door. As she looked, Rebow opened it from within, and appeared, raking out the litter and the gnawed bones, the relics of his brother's repasts. He did not notice her, or he pretended not to do so , and she shrank back. Her wish to speak with him had gone from her. It was clear to her that he was resolved that she should stay at Red Hall. She was equally determined not to do so. But how to get away and remove her mother was more than she could discover.
She left the house and the garden around it, and walked through the meadow till she reached the sea wall. She ascended that, and went along it to the spot where the Red Hall marsh divided the Tollesbury Fleet from the Virley and Salcott Creeks.
Then she threw herself beneath the windmill, the mill that pumped the water out of the dykes, and worked day and night whenever there was wind to move the sails. The mill was now at work. The wings rushed round, and the pump painfully creaked, and after every stroke sent a dash of water into the sea over the wall. She looked out to sea; it was leaden grey, ruffled with angry waves, and the mews screamed and dipped in them. The Bradwell shore looked grey and bleak and desolate; there was not a sail in the offing. The fancy took her to sit and wait, and if she saw a ship pass to take it as a good omen, a promise of escape from her present perplexity.
She sat and waited. The sea darkened to a more sullen tint. The mews were no longer visible. Mersea with its trees and church tower disappeared. Bradwell coast loomed black as pitch against the last lingering light of day. Not a sail appeared.
Far away, out to sea, as the darkness deepened, gleamed a light. It gleamed a moment, then grew dim and disappeared in the blackness. A minute, and then it waxed, but waned again, and once more all was night. So on, in wearisome iteration. What she saw was the revolving Swin, light fifteen miles from land, a floating Pharos. She thought of Elijah's words, she thought of the horrible iterations in the barrow on the hill, the embracing and fighting, loving and hating, till one should conquer of the twin but rival powers.