LIKE A BAD PENNY
"FOR SHAME, Glory!" exclaimed De Witt when he had recovered from his surprise but not from his dismay."How could you do such a wicked and unwomanly act?"
"For shame, George!" answered Mehalah, gasping for breath. "You stood by all the while, and listened whilst that jay snapped and screamed at me, and tormented me to madness, without interposing a word."
"I am angry. Your behaviour has been that of a savage!" pursued George. Thoroughly roused. "I love you, Glory, you know I do. But this is beyond endurance."
"If you are not willing to right me, I must defend myself," said Mehalah; "and I will do it. I bore as long as I could bear, expecting every moment that you would silence her, and speak out, and say, 'Glory is mine, and I will not allow her to be affronted.' But not a step did you take, not a finger did you lift. I did not know, till all was over, what I had done. George, I know I am rough and violent; when these rages come over me, I am not to be trifled with."
"I hope they never may come over you when you have to do with me." Said De Witt sulkily.
"I hope not, George. Do not trifle with me, do not provoke me. I have the gipsy in me, but under control. All at once the old nature bursts loose, and then I do I know not what. I cannot waste my energy in words like some, and I cannot contend with such a girl as that with the tongue."
"What will folks say of this!"
"I do not care. They may talk. But now, George, let me warn you. That girl has been trifling with you."
"You are jealous."
"No, I am not. I am not one to harbour jealousy. Whom I believe, I believe with my entire soul. I know you too well to be jealous. I know as well that you could not be false to me in thought or in act as I know my tryth to you."
"Sheer off!" exclaimed George, looking over his shoulder. "Here comes the old woman."
The old woman appeared, scrambling on deck, her cap-frills bristling about her ears, like the feathers of an angry white cockatoo.
"What is all this? By jaggers! where is Phoebe Musset? What have you done with her?"
"Sheer off while you may," whispered De Witt. " The old woman is not to be faced when wexed no more than a hurricane. Strike sail and run before the wind."
"What have you done with the young woman? Where is she? Produce the corpse. I heard her as she shruck out."
"She insulted me," said Mehalah, still agitated by passion, "and I flung her overboard."
Mrs. De Witt rushed to the bulwarks, and saw the dripping damsel being carried from the Strand to her father' s house.
"You chucked her overboard!" exclaimed the old woman, and she caught up a swabbing-mob. " How dare you? She was my visitor; she came to sip my grog and eat my natives at my hospitable board, and you chucked her into the sea as though she were a picked cockleshell!"
"She insulted me," said Mehalah angrily.
"I will teach you to play the dog-fish among my herrings, to turn this blessed peaceful Pandora into a cage of bears!" cried Mrs. De Witt, charging with her mop.
Mehalah struck the weapon down, and put her foot on it.
"Take care!" she exclaimed, her voice trembling with passion. "In another moment you will have raised the devil in me again."
"He don't take much raising," vociferated Mrs. De Witt. "I will teach you to assault a genteel young female who comes a wisiting of me and my son in our own wessel. Do you think you are already mistress here? Does the Pandora belong to you? Am I to be chucked overboard along with every lass that wexes you? Am I of no account any more in the eyes of my son, that I suckled from my maternal bottle, and fed with egg and pap out of my own spoon?"
"For heaven' s sake," interrupted George, " sheer off, Mehalah. Mother is the dearest old lady in the world when she is sober. She will pacify presently."
"I will go, George," said Mehalah, panting with anger. "I will go, and I will never set foot in this boat again, till you and your mother have asked my pardon for this conduct; she for this outrage, you for having allowed me to receive insult, white-livered coward that you are."
She flung herself down the ladder, and waded ashore.
Mrs. De Witt's temper abated as speedily as it rose. She retired to her grog.
George was left to his own reflections. He saw Mehalah get into her boat and row away. He waved his cap to her, but she did not return the salute. George was placed in a difficult situation. It was incumbent on him to go to the house of the Mussets and enquire for Phoebe. He could do no less, so he descended the ladder and took his way thither.
Phoebe was not hurt. She was only frightened. She had been wet through, and was at once put to bed. Old Musset vowed he would take out a summons against the aggressor. Mrs. Musset wept in sympathy with her daughter, and then fell on De Witt for having permitted the assault to take place unopposed.
"How could I interfere?" he asked, desperate with his difficulties." It was up and over with before I was aware."
"My girl is not accustomed to associate with cannibals," said Mrs.Musset, drawing herself out like a telescope.
As George returned much crestfallen to the beach, now deserted for the night had come on, he was accosted by Elijah Rebow.
"George!" said the owner of Red Hall, laying a hand on his cousin's shoulder, "you ought not to be here."
"Where ought I to be, Elijah? It seems to me that I have been everywhere to-day where I ought not to be."
"You ought not to allow Glory to part from you in anger."
"How can I help it? You must allow her conduct was trying to the temper."
"She had great provocation. I wonder she did not kill that girl. She has a temper, has Mehalah, that does not stick at trifles; but she is generous and forgiving."
"She is so angry with me that I shall not be able to bring her back to good humour."
"Do you want to break with her, George? Do you want to be off with Glory and on with milk-face?"
"No, I do not."
"You are set on Glory still? You will cleave to her till naught but death shall you part, eh?"
"George! That other girl has good looks and money. Give up Mehalah, and hitch on to Phoebe. I know your mother will be best pleased if you do, and it will suit your interests well. Glory has not a penny, Phoebe has her pockets lined. Take my word for it you can have milk-face for the asking, and now is your opportunity for breaking with Glory if you have a mind to do so."
"But I have not, Elijah."
"What can Glory be to you, or you to Glory? She with her great heart, her stubborn will, her strong soul, and you — you — bah!"
"Elijah, say what you like, but I will hold to Glory till death us do part."
"Your hand on it. You swear that."
"Yes, I do. I want a wife who can row a boat, a splendid girl, the sight of whom lights up the whole heart."
"I tell you Glory is not one for you. No, she needs a man of other stamp than you to manage her."
"She shall be mine," said George; " I want no other."
"This is your fixed resolve?"
"My fixed resolve."
"You are acting contrary to your interests. You are unfit for Glory."
"What do you mean?"
"You let the girl row away, offended, angry, eating out her heart, and you show no sign that you desire reconciliation."
"I have though. I waved my hat to her, but she took no notice."
"Waved your hat!" repeated Rebow, with scorn. " You never will read that girl' s heart, and understand her moods. Oh you fool! you fool! Straining your arms after the unapproachable, unattainable star! If she were mine — " he stamped and clenched his fists.
"But she is not going to be yours, Elijah," said George with a careless laugh.
"No of course not," said Elijah, joining in the laugh. "She is yours till death you do part."
"Tell me, what have I done wrong?" asked De Witt.
"There — you come to me, after all, to interpret the writing for you. It is there, written in letters of fire, Mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin! Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting, and this night shall thy kingdom be taken from thee and given to — "
"Elijah, I do not understand this language. What ought I to do to regain Mehalah' s favour?"
"You must go after her. Do you not feel it in every fibre that you must, you mud-blood? Go after her at once. She is now at home, sitting alone, brooding over the offence, sore at your suffering her to be insulted without making remonstrance. Her pride will flame up as her passion dies away, and she will not let you speak to her another tender word. She will hate and despite you. I heard her call you a white-livered coward."
"She did, you need not repeat it. She will be sorry when she is cool."
"That is just it, George. Perhaps she is now in tears. But this mood will not last. To-morrow her pride will have returned in strength. Take Glory while she is between two moods, or lose her for ever. Go after her at once, George, ask her forgiveness, blame yourself and your mother, blame that figure-head miss, and she will forgive you frankly, at once."
"I believe you are right," said De Witt, musing.
"I know I am. I know all that passes in Mehalah's mind. I feel my own soul dance and taper to her pulses. If you had not been a fool, George, you would already have been after her. What are you staying for now?"
"My mother, what will she say?"
"Do you care for her more than for Glory? Once more I ask you, do you waver? Are you inclined to forsake Mehalah for milk-face?"
"I am not," said De Witt impatiently; " why do you go on with this I have said already that Glory is mine."
"Then make haste. An hour hence the Ray house will be closed, and the girl and her mother in bed."
"I will get my boat and row thither at once."
"You need not do that. I have my boat here, jump in. We will each take an oar, and I will land you on the Ray."
"You take a great interest in my affairs."
"I take a very great interest in them," said Rebow dryly.
"Lead the way, then."
Rebow walked forward, over the shingle towards his boat, then suddenly turned, and asked in a suppressed voice, " Do you know whither you are going?"
"To the Ray."
"To the Ray, of course. Is there anyone on the Hard?"
"Not a soul. Had I not better go to my mother before I start and say that I am going with you?"
"On no account. She will not allow you to go to the Ray."
De Witt was not disposed to dispute this.
" You are sure," asked Rebow again, "that there is no one on the Hard?"
"Not a soul."
"Then here goes!" Elijah Rebow thrust the boat out till she floated, sprang in and took his oar. De Witt was already oar in hand on his seat.
"The red curtain is over the window at the Leather Bottle," said George. " No signalling to-night; the schooner is in the offing."
"A red signal. It may mean more than you understand."
They rowed on.
Mehalah sat by the hearth, on the floor, in the farm-house at the Ray. Her mother was abed and asleep. The girl had cast aside the cap and thrown off her jersey. Her bare arms were folded on her lap; and the last flicker of the red embers fell on her exposed and heaving bosom.
Elijah Rebow on the Hard at Mersea had read accurately the workings and transitions in the girl's heart. She was aware that she had acted wrongly, that without adequate cause she had given way to an outburst of blind fury. Phoebe was altogether too worthless a creature for her jealousy, too weak to have been subjected to such treatment. Her anger against George had expired. It was true he had not rebuked Phoebe nor restrained his mother, but the reason was clear. He was too forbearing with women to off end them, however frivolous and intemperate they might be. He had relied on the greatness of his Glory's heart to stand above and disregard these petty storms.
She had thrown off her boots and stockings, and sat with her bare feet on the hearth. The feet moved nervously in rhythm to her thoughts She could not keep them still. Her dark eyes were fixed dreamily on the dying fire. They did not see the embers; they looked through the iron fireback, and the brick wall, over the water, into infinity.
She loved George. Her love for him was the one absorbing passion of her life. She loved her mother, but no one else — only her and George. She had no one else to love. She had mixed with no life, save the life of the flocks on the Ray, of the fishes and the seabirds. Her mind hungered for something more than the little space of the Ray could supply. Her soul had wings and sought to spread them and soar away, whither, however, she did not know.
She had met with De Witt. They had known each other for many years; she had no t seen enough of him to know him as he really was; she therefore loved him as she idealised him. To her, George de Witt was the ideal of all that was true and manly. She was noble herself, and her ideal was the perfection of nobility. She could not, she would not, suppose that George de Witt was less great than her fancy pictured.
The thought of life with him filled her with exultation. She could leap up, like the whooper swan, spread her silver wings, and shout her song of rapture and of defiance, like a trumpet.
Nevertheless she was ready to wait patiently the realisation of her dream. She was in no hurry. She knew that she could not live in the same house or boat with George's mother. She could not leave her own ailing mother, wholly dependent on herself. Mehalah contentedly tarried for what the future would unfold, with that steady confidence in the future that youth so generally enjoys.
The last embers went out, and all was dark within. No sound was audible, save the ticking of the clock, and the sigh of the wind about the eaves and in the thorntrees. Mehalah dreamed on with her eyes open, still gazing into space. The grey night sky and the stars looked in at the window at her.
Suddenly, as she thus sat, an inexpressible distress came over her, a feeling as though George were in danger, and were crying to her for help. She raised herself on the floor, and drew her feet under her, and leaning her chin on her fingers, listened. The wind moaned under the door, everything else was hushed.
Her fear came over her like an ague fit. She wiped her forehead; there were cold drops beading it. She turned faint at heart; her pulse stood still. Her soul seemed straining, drawn as by invisible attraction, and agonised because the gross body restrained it. She felt assured that she was wanted. She must not remain there.
She hastily drew on her jersey and boots; she slipped out of the house, unloosed her punt, and shot over the water to Mersea. The fleet was silent, but as she flew into the open channel she could hear the distant throb of oars on rowlocks, away in the dark, out seaward. She heard the screech of an owl about the stacks of a farm near the waterside. As she sped past the Leather Bottle she caught muffled catches of the nautical songs trolled by the topers within .
She met no boat, she saw no one. She ran her punt on the beach and walked to the Pandora, now far above the water. The ladder was still down; therefore George was not within. "Who goes there?" asked the voice of Mrs. De Witt. "Is that you, George? Are you coming home at last Where have you been all this while?" Mehalah drew back. His mother knew not where he was.
The cool air and the exercise had in the meantime dissipated Mehalah's fear. She argued with herself that George was in the tavern, behind the red curtain, remaining away from his mother's abusive tongue as long as he might. His boat lay on the Hard. She saw it, with the oars in it. He was therefore not on the water; he was on land, and on land he was safe. He wore the medal about his neck, against his heart.
She rowed back to the Ray, more easy in her mind, and anchored her punt. She returned cautiously over the saltings, picking her way by the starlight, leaping or avoiding the runnels and pools, now devoid of water, hut deep in mud most adhesive and unfathomable.
She felt a little uneasy lest her mother should have awoke during her absence, and missed her daughter. She entered the house softly and stole to her mother' s room. The old woman was wrapt in sleep, and breathing peacefully.
Mehalah drew off her boots, and seated herself again by the hearth. She was not sleepy. She would reason with herself, and account for the sensation that had affected her.
It was strange. No sooner was she in her place by the hearth again than the same distress came over her. It was as though a black cloud had swept over her sky and blotted out every light, as though she were left drifting without a rudder and without a compass in an unknown sea.
Oppressed by this horror, she lifted her eyes to the window, to see a star, to see a little light of any sort. What she saw there turned her to stone.
At the window, obscuring the star's rays, was the black figure of a man. She saw only the shape of the head, and arms, and hands spread out against the panes. The figure stood looking in at her.
Her eyes filmed over, and her head swam.
She heard the casement struck, and the team of the lead and tinkle of broken glass on the brick floor, and then something fell at her feet with a metallic click.
When she recovered herself, the figure was gone, but the wind piped and blew chill through the rent lattice.
How many minutes passed before she recovered herself sufficiently to rise and light a candle she never knew, nor did it matter. When she had obtained a light she stooped with it and, groped upon the floor.
Mrs. Sharland was awakened by a piercing scream.
She sprang from her bed and rushed into the adjoining room. There stood Mehalah, in the light of the broken candle lying melting and flaring on the floor, her hair fallen about her shoulders, her face the hue of death, her lips bloodless, her eyes distended with terror, gazing on the medal of Paracelsus, which she held in her hand, the sea-water dripping from the wet riband wound about her fingers.
"Mother! Mother! He is drowned. I have seen him. He came and returned me this."
Then she fell senseless on the floor, with the medal held to her heart.