THE LAST STRAW
MEHALAH was lost to consciousness, leaning on the gate , her aching brow and leaden eyes in her hand. She did not hear the larks that sang above her, nor saw the buttercups and daisies that smiled to her from below. The warm air played caressingly with some of her dark hair, and the sun brought out its copper glow — she was unaware of all.
A little blue butterfly flickered above her and lighted on her head, it lay so still that the insect had no fear.
Then a hand shook the gate.
"Gone to sleep, girl?" asked a female voice.
Mehalah looked up dreamily.
A young, handsome, and dashing lady was before her, in white and carnation, a crimson feather in her hat, and carmine in her cheeks Mehalah slowly recognised Admonition.
Mrs. Pettican looked curiously at her.
"Who are you? — Oh! I know, the girl Sharland!" and she laughed.
Mehalah put her hand to the latch to open the gate.
"You need not trouble," said Admonition; "I want nothing from you. I have heard of you. You are the young person," with an affected cough, "whom Master Rebow has taken to live with him I think. You had the assurance once to come to my dear husband, and to pester him."
"He was kind to me," said Mehalah to herself.
"Oh yes, he was very kind indeed. He did not know much of you then. Report had not made him familiar with your name."
Mehalah looked moodily at her. It was of no use resenting the insinuation.
"I have come here on your behalf," said Admonition, speaking to her across the gate. She had the gate half open, and kept it between them.
"You have nothing to do with me, or I with you," said Mehalah.
"Oh! nothing. I am respectable. I keep myself up. I look after my character!" sneered Mrs. Pettican. "Nevertheless I am here with an offer from my husband. He is ready to receive your mother into his house; I do not approve of this, but he is perverse and will have his way."
Mehalah looked up. A load was being lifted from her heart. Were her mother taken in by Mr. Pettican, then she could leave, and leave for ever, Red Hall.
"Yes. He admits his relationship," said Admonition. "I would not, were I he, now that the name is — well — not so savoury as it was. But he is not particular. I have been brought up with very strict ideas. I was saying that Mr. Pettican will receive your mother into his house, and provide her with all that is necessary. But you — "
"I," repeated Mehalah, breathlessly.
"You must never, never set foot within my doors. I could not allow it. I am a person of respectability, and I value proprieties. I could not allow my house to be spoken of as one which admitted — " with a contemptuous shrug.
Mehalah looked hard at Admonition, and said gravely, "You will shelter and care for my mother, on condition that I never go near her."
"I may never see her, never speak to her, never kiss her again?"
"No. I could not suffer you to enter my respectable house."
Mehalah though for a while.
"I cannot make up my mind at once," she said.
"It will be a great relief to you to get rid of your mother."
"I thought as much!" with a toss of the head, and curl of the lip.
Mehalah did not give attention to these marks of contempt. Presently she asked, "And who will attend to my mother?"
"You!" exclaimed Glory, with a flash of her old indignation. "You, who neglect and ill treat the husband who lifted you out of the gutter. How would you treat a poor, helpless, aged woman when the man who bound you to him by most solemn and sacred promises is insulted, and neglected, and degraded by you? No, never. My mother shall never be left to you of all women in the world. Let me bear my burden, let it crush me, but she shall not be taken from me and die of neglect and cruel treatment. I can bear" — she raised herself with a poor effort of her old energy — "I will bear all for her. She once bore with me."
"Drab!" hissed Admonition, and she flung past her, shaking the gate furiously as she went by.
It was with carnation in her cheek as well as in her dress and hat that she appeared before Mrs. De Witt and Elijah Rebow.
Mrs. De Witt drew back to let Mrs. Pettican in.
"I think you was passing out," said the latter. "Madam, your servant."
"Your servant, madam," from Mrs. De Witt, still lingering.
"Now then, one at a time. Aunt, go out and shut the door," said Rebow peremptorily, and the old woman was obliged to obey.
"What has brought you here?" asked Elijah surlily.
Mrs. Pettican looked round, then drew nearer. "I think," she said, "you once advised me something, but — I don't know how far your interest is the same as it was."
"What do you mean!"
"I don't know whether you would be satisfied to get Mehalah Sharland off your hands now, or keep her here."
"She remains here."
"It is just this," said Admonition. "My husband has of late been plucking up a little courage. My cousin Timothy is not what he was. He is always making some excuse or other to get away, and I find he goes to Mersea. He hasn't been as dutiful and amiable to me of late, as I have a right to expect, considering how I have found him in food and drink and tobacco. There's some game up between him and my husband. Charles is bent on getting Mrs. Sharland and her daughter to come and live with him and take care of him. He dares to say I neglect him. He thinks that she would be more than a match for me."
"He thinks right," burst in Rebow with a laugh.
"I won't have her in the house. I don't mind taking in the old woman, but the daughter I will not admit."
"You are right. She'd master you and make you docile or drive you out," jeered Rebow.
"She shall not come. I have told her so. I will not be opposed and brow-beaten in my own house. I will not have the care of my husband wrested from me."
"Have you come here to tell me this?"
"I know that Charles and Timothy have put their heads together. They are both up in rebellion against me. Timothy has walked over to Mersea to get a boat and row here to invite that girl to come with her mother to Wyvenhoe. Charles promises to provide for them and leave them everything in his will, so as to make them independent at my cost. When I got wind of this I got a gig and was driven over to Salcott. The girl shall not come inside the house. If she puts in her little finger, her fist will follow, and I will be driven out, though I am the lawful wife of Charles Pettican. I want to know what are your views. I have been pretty plain with mine. You may help me or hinder me. That husband of mine is deeper than I suspected. Timothy thinks if the girl gets there, and is to have Charles' money, he will make up to her, marry her, and share the plunder. If that be his game he has left me out of his calculations. Timothy is a fool, or he would not have gone over from me to Charles. I'll have the matter out here — "
"Not in this room," said Elijah. "There's rows enough go on in here without your making another. I advise you to see your cousin, and prevent him from making the proposal. If she hears it, she will be off to-morrow, and carry her mother with her; and then there may be trouble to you and me to get her back."
"She shall not come across my doorstep."
"I tell you if once she hears that the chance is given her, she will go, and not you nor a legion of such as you could keep her out. Go upstairs and straight on till you come to a door. Go in there; it is the bedroom of Glory and her mother. Never mind the old fool — she is sick and in bed. You will find a small room or closet beyond, with a three-cornered window in it. Look out of that. It commands the whole bay, and you will see a boat, if it approaches the Hall. There's Sunken island and Cobb marsh between you and Mersea City. You will see a boat creep through one of the creeks of Cobb marsh into Virley flat, and that will be the boat with your cousin in it. If you come down then you will meet him as he lands. "
As soon as Admonition had rushed past Mehalah the girl walked away from the gate and ascended the sea-wall. She saw Mrs. De Witt depart, and thought that now she could sit on the wall and remain unmolested. But again was she disturbed, this time by old Abraham. He was at the near landing-stage, just come from the Ray — the landing-place employed when tides were full.
"Hark ye, mistress," said the shepherd. "I've had much on my tongue this many a day, but you haven't given me the chance to spit it out. I won't be put off any longer."
She did not answer or move away.
"It is of no use, mistress, your going on as you are," continued the old man. "Wherever he is, the master speaks of you as no man ought to speak save of his wife; and all the world knows you are not that. What are you, then? You are in a false position, and that is one of your own making."
"You know it is not, Abraham."
"I know it is one you could step out of to-morrow if you chose," he said. "The master has offered you your right place. You keep away from everybody because you shame to see them and be seen by them. I know you don't like the master, but that's no reason why you shouldn't take him. He is not as young and handsome as George De Witt, but he is not such a fool, and he has his pockets well lined, which the other had not."
"It is of no use your saying this to me, Abraham," said Mehalah sadly.
"No, it is not," pursued the dogged old man. "Here you must stick as long as your mother lives, and she may live yet a score of years. Creaky gates last longest. Why, she ain't as old as I, and there's a score of years' work in me yet. How can you spend twenty years here along of the master, with all the world talking? It will shame you to your grave, or brazen you past respect. This state of things can't do good to anybody. You must take him, and set yourself right with world, or go from here."
"I cannot get away. Would to heaven I could!"
"Then you must marry him. Why, girl," the shepherd went on, "if you was his wife you would have a lawful right and place here — this house, these marshes, these cattle would be yours. You would not be dependent on him for anything; you would hold them as a right."
Mehalah made no response. He gave her a nod, and went on his way.
She stepped into his boat and seated herself in her usual manner, with her head in her arms, and sank into her wonted torpor.
"Now, then, young woman!"
Again interrupted, again aroused. There was no rest for her that day.
"Jump on land, will you, young woman, and let this lass step into your boat and get ashore without having to go into the mud."
"Timothy! that is Mehalah!" exclaimed Phoebe Musset. She was in the boat with Admonition's cousin. "I'd rather you carried me. I do not want to be obliged to her for anything."
Mehalah stepped from her boat upon the turf, and held out her hand mechanically to assist the girl.
"Don't hold out your hand to me!" screamed Phoebe. "I wouldn't touch it. Keep to yourself, if you please, and let me pass."
"Why, Phoebe!" exclaimed Timothy, " what is the matter? I have come here to see this girl."
"What! — to see Mehalah?"
"Then I'm ashamed to have come with you," said Phoebe, pouting. "You offered me a nice little row on the water, but I would not have stepped into the boat had I known you were coming to visit another young woman, and she one of so smirched a character."
"Phoebe! For shame!"
"For shame!" repeated the girl turning on Timothy. "For shame to you, to bring me here with you when you are visiting this — " She eyed Mehalah from head to foot with studied insolence, and sniffed. "I know her. A bad, spiteful cat! always running after fellows. She tried to wheedle poor George De Witt into marrying her. When he was lost, she burnt her house and flung herself on the mercy of Rebow. Now, I suppose, she is setting her red cap at you. Oh! where is the cap gone, eh?" turning to Mehalah as she skipped ashore.
Timothy was fastening the boat to that of Dowsing's.
Mehalah's wrath was rising. The impertinence of this malicious girl was intolerable altogether. She turned away to leave her.
"Stop! stop!" shouted Timothy. "I have come here expressly to see you. I picked up Miss Musset on the way."
"You picked me up just to amuse you till you found Glory!" screamed Phoebe. "Now you pitch me overboard, as that savage treated me once. I will not stand this. Timothy, come back this instant! Row me back to Mersea. I have not come here to be insulted. I will not speak another word with you unless you — "
"For heaven's sake," cried Timothy, tearing down the sea-wall and jumping into the boat, "come in, Phoebe, at once, or I shall be off and leave you!"
"What is the matter now?"
He had his knife out, and was hacking through the cord that attached his boat to Dowsing's. In another moment he was rowing, as hard as he could, down the creek.
Admonition appeared on the wall. Timothy had detected her crossing the marsh, and fled.
She turned in fury on Phoebe.
Mehalah withdrew to the windmill, away from their angry voices, and remained sitting by the sea till the shadows of evening fell.
Then she returned, a fixed determination in her face, which was harder and more moody than before.
She walked deliberately to the hall, opened the door, and stepped in. Elijah was there, crouched over the empty hearth, as though there was a fire on it. He looked up.
Her bosom heaved. She could not speak.
"You have something to say," he proceeded. "Won't the words come out? Do they stick?" His wild dark eye was on her.
"Elijah," she said, with burning brow and cheek, "I give up. I will marry you."
He gave a great shout and sprang up.
"Listen patiently to me," she said, with difficulty controlling her agitation. "I will marry you, and take your name, but only to save mine. That is all. I will neither love you, nor live with you, save as I do now. These are my terms. If you will take them, so be it. If not, we shall go on as before."
He laughed loudly, savagely.
"I told you, Glory, my own, own Glory, what must be. You would not come under my roof, but you came. You would not marry me — now you submit. You will not love me — you must and shall. Nothing can keep us apart. The poles are drawing together. Perhaps there may be a heaven for us both here. But I do not know. This day week you shall be my wife."