A GILDED BALCONY
MEHALAH was hurt and angry at her mother's conduct. She thought that she had not been fairly treated. Mrs. Sharland had not hinted the existence of a private store, and had allowed De Witt to lend her the money she wanted for meeting the rent. Glory regarded this conduct as hardly honest. On the plea of absolute inability to pay the rent, they had obtained a sum of money from the young fisherman. Then again, when Mrs. De Witt reclaimed the debt, Mehalah had been subjected to the humiliation of appealing to Mr. Pettican and being repulsed by Admonition. She had been further driven to sue a loan of the parson; she had not, indeed, asked him for the money, but that was only because he avoided giving her the chance.
"Charles said he had money in the bank, did he?" asked Mrs. Sharland.
"To think of that! My cousin has an account in the bank, and can write his cheques, and one can cash cheques signed Charles Pettican! That is something to be proud of, Mehalah."
"And you say he has a beautiful house, with a verandah. A real gilt balcony. Think of that! I couldn't sleep last night with dreaming of that house with its green shutters and a real balcony. I do believe that I shall die happy, if some day I may but see that there gilded — you said it was gilded — balcony. Charles Pettican with a balcony! What is the world coming to next! A real gilded balcony, and two figureheads looking over — there's an idea. Did you tell me there was a sofa in his sitting-room; and I think you said the dressing-table had a pink petticoat with gauze over it."
Mehalah let her mother meander on, without paying any attention to what she said.
"I don't think Mrs. De Witt had any notion how rich and distinguished my relatives are, when she came here asking for the money we owed George. I don't suppose we shall be troubled much now, when it is known that my cousin draws cheques, and the name of Charles Pettican is honoured at the bank."
"You forget we shall get no help from him."
"I do not forget it, Mehalah. I remember perfectly, how affably he spoke of me — his Liddy Vince — his pretty cousin."
"Mother," said Mehalah, interrupting this vain twaddle, "we should not have borrowed the money of George De Witt. That was the beginning of the mischief!"
"No, it was not; Abraham's carelessness was the beginning."
"But mother, I repeat it, you did wrong in not producing your hidden store instead of borrowing.
"I did not borrow. I never asked George De Witt for his money. He proposed to let us have it himself."
"You should have refused to take it, as you have the sum laid by."
"That is all very well, Mehalah, but when a generous offer is made me, why should I not accept it? Because there's still some milk of yesterday in the pan, do you decline to milk the cow to-day? I was glad of the opportunity of keeping my little savings untouched. Besides, I always thought George would make you his wife."
"I thought so, too," said Mehalah in a low tone, and her face became sad as before: she presently recovered herself and said, "Then, when Mrs. De Witt asked for her money, why did you not produce it, and free us of her insults and annoyance?"
"I did not want to pay with my money. And it has turned out well. If I had done as you say, we should not have obtained the valuable assistance of Charles Pettican."
"He did not assist us."
"He did as far as he was able. He as good as let us have the twenty pounds. That is something to be proud of — to be helped by a man whose name is honoured at the bank — at the Colchester Bank."
"But, mother, you have given me pain!"
"Pained you!" exclaimed Mrs. Sharland. "How could I?"
Her eyes opened wide. The girl saw it was of no use attempting to explain to her mother what had wounded her. It is idle to speak of scarlet to a man who is blind.
"I did it all for you," said Mrs. Sharland reproachfully. "I was thinking and caring only for you, Mehalah, from beginning to end, from first to last."
"Thinking and caring for me!" echoed Glory in surprise.
"Of course I was. I put those gold pieces away, one a quarter from the day you were born, till I had no more saving that I could put aside. I put them away for you. Nothing in the world would have made me touch the hoard, for it was your money, Mehalah — nothing but the direst need, and you will do me the justice to say that this was the case to-day. It would have been the worst that could have happened for you to-day had the money not been paid, for you would have sunk in the scale."
"Mother!" exclaimed Mehalah, intensely moved, "you did all this for me; you thought and cared for me— for me!"
The idea of her mother having ever done anything for her was too amazing for Mehalah to take it in at once. As long as she remembered anything she had worked for her mother, thought for her, and denied herself for her, without expecting any return, taking it as a matter of course that she should devote herself to her mother without the other making any acknowledgement.
And now the thought that she had been mistaken overwhelmed her. She dropped into her chair, buried her face in her arms, and burst into tears.
Mrs. Sharland looked at her with a puzzled face. She settled back in her chair, and turned back to the thoughts of Charles Pettican's gilt balcony, and petticoated dressing-table.
By degrees Mehalah recovered her composure, then she went up to her mother and kissed her passionately on the brow.
"Mother dear," she said in broken voice, "I never, never will desert you. Whatever happens, our lot shall be cast together."
She reared herself, and was firm of foot, erect of carriage, rough and imperious as of old.
"I must look after the sheep," she said. "Abraham's head is turned with the doings here to-day, and he has gone to the Rose to talk and drink it over. The moon is full, and we shall have a high tide."
Next moment Mrs. Sharland was alone.
The widow heaved a sigh. "There is no making heads or tails of that girl; I don't understand her a bit," she muttered.
"I do though," answered Elijah Rebow, at the door. "I want a word with you, mistress."
"I thought you had gone, Elijah, after the sale."
"No, I did not leave with the rest. I hung about in the marshes waiting a chance when I might speak with you by yourself."
"Come in, master, and sit down. Mehalah will not be back for an hour."
"I must have a word with you. Where has Glory been? I saw her go off t'other day in gay Sunday dress towards Fingringhoe. What did she go after?"
Mrs. Sharland raised herself proudly. "I have a cousin lives at Wyvenhoe, and we exchange civilities now and then. I can't go to him and he can't come to me, so Mehalah passes between us."
"What does she go there for?"
"My cousin, Mr. Charles Pettican — I dare say you have heard the name, it is a name that is honoured at the bank — " She paused and pursed up her lips.
"Go on — I have heard of him— an old shipbuilder."
"He has laid by a good deal of money, and is a free and liberal man with it. among his near relatives."
"Curse him," growled Elijah, "he let you have the money?"
"I sent Mehalah to my cousin Charles, to ask him to lend me a trifle, being for a moment inconvenienced," said Mrs. Sharland with stateliness.
"She — Glory — went cringing for money to an old shipbuilder!" exclaimed Rebow with fury in his face.
"She did not like doing so," answered the widow, "but I entreated her to put her prejudices in her pocket, and do as I wished. Charles is my cousin and some day, perhaps, there is no knowing," she winked, and nodded, and ruffled up in her pride. "We are his nearest of kin, and he is an old man, much older than I am. I am young compared to him, and he is half-paralysed."
"He gave the money without any difficulty or demur?" asked Elijah, his face flaming.
"He was most willing to help. He is a man of fortune, and has a gilt balcony before his house, and a real sofa in his sitting-room."
"So you are fawning on him, are you?" growled Elijah.
Mrs. Sharland was delighted with the opportunity of airing her rediscovered cousin. "Cousin Charles is not the man to see his relatives sold up stick and stock by such as Mrs. De Witt."
"You think if you can't pay me my rent, he will help you again?"
"If I feel a little behind-hand, Master Rebow, I shall not scruple sending Mehalah to him again."
"To what an extent can you count on his help?"
"To any amount," said the widow, too elated to care to limit her exaggeration.
"How is Mehalah? Is she more inclined to think of me?"
Mrs. Sharland shook her head.
"She don't love me?" said Elijah with a laugh.
"I fear not, Elijah."
"She won't be disposed to take up her quarters at Red Hall?"
"No, she won't," said he with a jerky laugh, "she won't till she is made to. She won't come to Red Hall till she can't help it. Damn that cousin! He stands in my path. I will go see him. There comes Mehalah. I must be off."