BLACK OR GOLD
WHEN De Witt drove up to the "City" with Phoebe Musset, the first person he saw on the beach was the last person that, under present circumstances, he wished to see — Mehalah Sharland. Phoebe perceived her at once, and rejoiced at the opportunity that offered to profit by it.
Phoebe Musset intended some day to marry. She would have liked a well-to-do young farmer, but there happened to be no man of this kind available. There were, indeed, at Peldon four bachelor brothers of the name of Marriage, but they were grown grey in celibacy and not disposed to change their lot. One of the principal Mersea farmers was named Wise, and had a son of age, but he was an idiot. The rest were afflicted with only daughters — afflicted from Phoebe's point of view, blessed from their own. There was a widower, but to take a widower was like buying a broken-kneed horse.
George was comfortably off. He owned some oyster pans and gardens, and had a fishing smack.
But he was not a catch. There were, however, no catches to be angled, trawled or dredged for.
As she approached the "City," she saw Glory surrounded by young boatmen, eager to get a word from her lips or a glance from her eyes. Phoebe's heart swelled with triumph at the thought that it lay in her power to wound her rival and exhibit her own superiority, before the eyes of all assembled on the beach.
De Witt descended and helped her to alight, then made his way to Mehalah. Glory put out both hands to him and smiled. Her smile, which was rare, was sweet; it lighted up and transformed a face somewhat stern and dark.
"Where have you been, George?"
"I have been driving that girl yonder, what's-her-name, to Waldegraves."
"What, Phoebe Musset? I did not know you could drive."
"I can do more than row a boat and catch crabs, Glory."
"What induced you to drive her?"
"I was driven into doing so. You see, Glory, a fellow is not always his own master. Circumstances are sometimes stronger than his best purposes, and like a mass of seaweed arrest his oar and perhaps upset his boat."
"Why, bless the boy!" exclaimed Mehalah, "What are all these excuses for? I am not jealous."
"But I am," said Phoebe. "You have forgotten your promise."
"To show me the hull in which you and your mother live, the Pandora I think you call her."
"Did I promise?"
"Yes you did, when we were together at the Decoy under the willows. I told you I wished greatly to be introduced to the interior and see how you lived." Turning to Mehalah, "George and I have been to the Decoy. He was most good-natured, and explained the whole contrivance to me, and — illustrated it. We had a very pleasant little trot together, had we not, George?"
"Oh! This is what's-her-name, is it?" said Mehalah with an amused look. She was neither angry nor jealous. She despised Phoebe too heartily to be either, though she perceived what the girl was about, and saw through all her affectation.
"If I made the promise, I must keep it," said George, "but it is strange I should not remember having made it."
"I dare say you forget a great many things that were said and done at the Decoy, but," with a little affected sigh, "I do not, and I never shall, I fear."
George De Witt looked uncomfortable and awkward. "Will not another day do as well?"
"No, it will not, George," said Phoebe petulantly.
De Witt turned to Mehalah, and said, "Come along with us Glory! My mother will be glad to see you."
"Oh! don't trouble yourself, Miss Sharland — or Master Sharland, which is it?" — staring first at the short petticoats, and then at the cap and jersey.
"Come, Glory," repeated De Witt, and looked so uncomfortable that Mehalah readily complied with his request.
"I can give you oysters and ale, natives, you have never tasted better."
"No ale for me, George," said Phoebe. "It is getting on for five o'clock when I take a dish of tea."
"Tea!" echoed De Witt, "I have no such dainty on board. I can give you rum or brandy, if you prefer either to ale. Mother always has a glass of grog about this time; the cockles of her heart require it, she says."
"You must give me your arm, George; you know I have sprained my ankle."
De Witt looked at Mehalah and then at Phoebe, who gave him such a tender, entreating glance that he was unable to refuse his arm. She leaned heavily on it, and drew very close to his side; then, turning her head over her shoulder, with a toss of the chin, she said, "Come along, Mehalah!"
Glory's brow began to darken. She was displeased. George also turned and he signed to her to join him.
"Do you know, Glory, what mother did the other night when I failed to turn up — that night you fetched me concerning the money that was stolen? She was vexed at my being out late. I left the Ray as soon as all was settled, and I got home across the fields as quickly as I could, but was not here till after eleven. Mother had pulled up the ladder, but before that she tarred the vessel all round, and she stuck a pail of sea water atop of the place where the ladder goes. I laid hold of the rope that hangs there, and then souse over me came the water. I would not be beat, so I tried to climb the side, and got covered with tar."
"You got in, however?"
"No. I did not. I went to the public-house, and laid the night there."
"I would have gone through tar, water, and fire," said Glory vehemently. "I would not have been beat."
"I have no doubt about it, you would," observed George, "but you forget there might be worse things behind. An old woman after a stiff glass of grog, when her monkey is up, is better left to sleep off her liquor and her displeasure before encountered."
"You will run into plenty of messes if you go after Mehalah at night," put in Phoebe with a saucy laugh.
"Glory," said De Witt, "come on the other side of Phoebe and give her your arm. She is lame. She has hurt her foot, and we are coming now to the mud."
"Oh, I cannot think of troubling Mehalah," said Phoebe sharply; "you do not mind my leaning my whole weight on you, I know, George. You did not mind it at the Decoy."
"Here is the ladder," said De Witt; "step on my foot and then you will not dirty your shoe-leather in the mud."
"Do you keep the ladder down day and night?" asked Glory.
"No. It is always hauled up directly I come home. We are as safe in the Pandora as you are at the Ray."
Phoebe jumped on deck. Mehalah followed without asking for, or expecting, assistance.
The vessel was an old collier, which George's father had bought, when no longer seaworthy, for a few pounds. He had run her up on the Hard, dismasted her, and converted her into a dwelling. In it George had been born and reared. "There is one advantage in living in a house such as this," said De Witt; "we pay neither tax, nor tithe, nor rate."
"Is that you?" asked a loud hard voice, and a head enveloped in a huge mob cap appeared from the companion ladder. "What are you doing there, galliwanting with girls all day? Come down to me and let's have it out."
"Mother is touchy," said George in a subdued voice; "she gets a little rough and knotty at times, but she is a rare woman for melting and untying speedily."
"Come here, George!" cried the rare woman.
"I am coming, mother." He showed the two girls the ladder; Mrs. De Witt had disappeared. "Go down into the fore-cabin, then straight on. Turn your face to the ladder as you descend." Phoebe was awe-struck by the appearance of Mrs. De Witt. However, at a sign from George she went down, and was followed by Mehalah. They passed through the small fore-cabin where was George's bunk, into the main cabin which served as kitchen, parlour, and bedroom to Mrs. De Witt. A table occupied the centre, and at the end was an iron cooking stove. Everything was clean, tidy and comfortable. On a shelf at the side stood the chairs. Mrs. De Witt whisked one down.
"Your servant," said she to Phoebe, with more amiability than the girl anticipated. "Yours too, Glory," curtly to Mehalah.
Mrs. De Witt was not favourable to her son's attachment to Glory. She was an imperious, strong-minded woman, a despot in her own house, and she had no wish to see that house invaded by a daughter-in-law as strong of will and iron-headed as herself. She wished to see George mated to a girl whom she could browbeat and manage as she browbeat and managed her son. George's indecision of character was due in measure to his bringing up by such a mother. He had been cuffed and yelled at from infancy. His intimacy with the maternal lap had been contracted head downwards, and was connected with a stinging sensation at the rear. Self-assertion had been beaten or bawled out of him. She was not a bad, but a despotic, woman. She liked to have her own way, and she obtained it, first with her husband, and then with her son, and the ease with which she had mastered and maintained the sovereignty had done her as much harm as them.
She was a good-hearted woman at bottom, but then that bottom where the good heart lay was never to be found with an anchor, but lay across the course as a shoal where deep water was desired. Her son knew perfectly where it was not, but never where it was. Mrs. De Witt in face somewhat resembled her nephew, Elijah Rebow, but she was his senior by ten years. She had the same hawk-like nose and dark eyes, but was without the wolfish jaw. Nor had she the eager intelligence that spoke out of Elijah's features. Hers were hard and coarse and unillumined with mind.
When she saw Phoebe enter her cabin she was both surprised and gratified. A fair, feeble, bread-and-butter Miss was just the daughter she fancied. She would be able to convert such a girl very speedily into a domestic drudge and a recipient of her abuse. Men make themselves, but women are made, and the making of women, thought Mrs. De Witt, should be in the hands of women; men botched them because they let them take their own way.
Mrs. De Witt never forgave her parents for having bequeathed her no money; she could not excuse Elijah for having taken all they left, without considering her. She was a saving woman, and spent little money on her personal adornment. "What coin I drop," she would say, "I drop in rum, and smuggled rum is cheap."
The vessel to which she acted as captain, steward, and cook, was named the Pandora. The vicar was wont to remark that it was a Pandora's box full of all guests, but minus gentle Zephyr.
"Will you take a chair?" she said obsequiously to Phoebe placing one for her, after having first breathed on the seat and wiped it with her sleeve. Then turning to Mehalah, she asked roughly, "Well, Glory! how is that old fool, your mother?"
"Better than your manners," replied Mehalah.
"I am glad you are come, Glory," said Mrs. De Witt. "I want to have it out with you. What do you mean by coming here of a night, and carrying off my son when he ought to be under his blankets in his bunk? I won't have it. Such conduct is not decent. What do you think of that?" she asked, seating herself on the other side of the table, and addressing Phoebe, but leaving Mehalah standing. "What do you think of a girl asking my lad to go off for a row with her all in the dark, and the devil knows whither they went, and the mischief they were after. It is not respectable, is it?"
"George should not have gone when she asked him," said the girl.
"Dear sackalive! she twists him round her little finger. But I will have my boy respectable, I can promise you. I combed his head wall for him when he came home, I did by cock! He shall not do the thing again."
"Look here, mother," remonstrated George; "wash our dirty linen in private."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt. "That is strange doctrine! Why, who would know we wore any linen at all next our skin unless we exposed it when washed over the side of the wessel? Now you come here. I have a bone to pick along with you, George!"
To stare him full in the eyes she sat on the table, and put her feet on the chair.
"What has become of the money? I have been to the box and there are twenty pounds gone out of it, all in gold. Now I want to know what you have done with it. Where is the money? Fork it out, or I will turn all your pockets inside out, and find and retake it. You want no money, not you. I provide you with tobacco. Twenty pounds, and all in gold. I was like a shrimp in scalding water when I went to the box to-day and found the money gone. I turned that red you might have said it was erysipelas. I shruck out that they might have heard me at the City. Turn your pockets out at once."
George was cowed by his mother.
"I'll take the carving knife to you!" said the woman, "if you do not hand me over the cash at once."
"Oh don't, pray don't hurt him!" cried Phoebe, interposing her arm, and beginning to cry.
"Dear sackalive!" exclaimed Mrs. De Witt, "I am not aiming at his witals, but at his pockets. Where is the money?"
"I have had it," said Mehalah, stepping forward and standing between De Witt and his mother. "George has behaved generously by us. You have heard how we were robbed of our money. We could not have paid our rent for the Ray had not George let us have twenty pounds. He shall not lose it."
"You had it, you! — you!" cried Mrs. De Witt in wild and fierce astonishment. "Give it up to me at once."
"I cannot do so. I paid the money to-day to Rebow, our landlord."
"Elijah gets everything. My father left me without a shilling, and now he gets my hard-won earnings also."
"It seems to me, mistress, that the earnings belong to George, and surely he has a right to do with them what he will," said Mehalah coldly.
"That is your opinion, is it? It is not mine." Then she mused: "Twenty pounds is a fortune. One may do a great deal with such a sum as that. Mehalah; twenty pounds is twenty pounds whatever you may say; and it must be repaid. "
"It shall be."
"As soon as I can earn the money."
Mrs. De Witt's eye now rested on Phoebe, and she assumed a milder manner. Her mood was variable as the colour of the sea. She said: "I have to maintain order in the wessel. You will stay and have something to eat?"
"Thank you; your son has already promised us some oysters, — that is, promised me."
"Come on deck," said George. "We have them there, and mother shall brew the liquor below."
The mother grunted a surly acquiescence.
When the three had re-ascended the ladder, the sun was setting. The mouth of the Blackwater glittered like gold leaf fluttered by the breath. The tide had begun to flow, and already the water had surrounded the Pandora. Phoebe and Mehalah would have to return by boat, or be carried by De Witt.
The two girls stood side by side. The contrast between them was striking, and the young man noticed it. Mehalah was tall, lithe, and firm as a young pine, erect in her bearing, with every muscle well developed, firm of flesh, her skin a rich ripe apricot, and her eyes gloomy, but full of fire. Her hair, rich to profusion, was black, yet with coppery hues in it when seen with a side light. It was simply done up in a knot, neatly not elaborately. Her navy-blue jersey and skirt, the scarlet of her cap and kerchief, and of a petticoat that appeared below the skirt, made her a rich combination of colour, suitable to a sunny clime rather than to the misty bleak east coast. Phoebe was colourless beside her, a faded picture, faint in outline. Her complexion was delicate as the rose, her frame slender, her contour undulating and weak. She was the pattern of a trim English village maiden, with the beauty of youth, and the sweetness of ripening womanhood, sans sense, sans passion, sans character, sans everything — pretty vacuity. She seemed to feel her own inferiority beside the gorgeous Mehalah, and to be angry at it. She took off her bonnet, and the wind played with her yellow curls, and the setting sun spun them into a halo of gold about her delicate face. "Loose your hair, Mehalah," said the spiteful girl.
"I want to see how it will look in the sun."
"Do so, Glory!" begged George. "How shining Phoebe's locks are. One might melt and coin them into guineas."
Mehalah pulled out a pin, and let her hair fall, a flood of warm black with red gleams in it. It reached her waist, and the wind scattered it about her like a veil.
"Black or gold, which do you most admire, George?" asked Phoebe.
"That is not a fair question to put to me," said De Witt in reply; but he put his fingers through the dark tresses of Mehalah, and raised them to his lips. Phoebe bit her tongue.
"George," she said sharply. "See the sun is in my hair. I am in glory. That is better than being so only in name."
"But your glory is short-lived, Phoebe; the sun will be set in a minute, and then it is no more."
"And hers," she said spitefully, "hers — you imply — endures eternally. I will go home."
"Do not be angry, Phoebe; there cannot be thunder in such a golden cloud. There can be nothing worse than a rainbow."
"What have you got there about your neck, George?" she asked, pacified by the compliment.
"Yes, and something, at the end of it — a locket containing a tuft of black horsehair.
"No, there is not."
"How happy we were at the Decoy, but then we were alone, and that makes all the difference."
George did not answer. Mehalah's hot blood began to fire her cheek.
"Tell me what you have got attached to that riband; if you love me, tell me, George. We girls are always inquisitive."
"A keepsake, Phoebe."
"A keepsake! Then I must see it." She snatched at the riband where it showed above De Witt's blue jersey.
"I noticed it before, when you were so attentive at the Decoy."
Mehalah interposed her arm, and placing her open hand on George's breast, thrust him out of the reach of the insolent flirt.
"How dare you behave thus!" she exclaimed.
"Oh dear!" cried Phoebe, "I see it all. Your keepsake. How sentimental! Oh, George! I shall die of laughing."
She went into pretended convulsions of merriment. "I cannot help it this is really too ridiculous."
Mehalah was trembling with anger. Her gipsy blood was in flame.
Phoebe stepped up to her, and holding her delicate fingers beside the strong hand of Mehalah, whispered, "Look at these little fingers. They will pluck your love out of your rude clutch." She saw that she was stinging her rival past endurance. She went on aloud, casting a saucy side glance at De Witt, "I should like to add my contribution to the trifle that is collecting for you since you lost your money. I suppose there is a brief. Off with the red cap and pass it round. Here is a crown."
Mehalah's passion overpowered her. She caught up the girl, and flung her into the sea. Then she staggered back and panted for breath.
A cry of dismay came from De Witt. He rushed to the side.
"Stay!" said Mehalah, restraining him with one hand and pressing the other to her heart. "She will not drown."
The water was not deep. Several fisher lads had already sprung to the rescue, and Phoebe was drawn limp and dripping towards the shore Mehalah stooped, picked up the girl's straw hat and slung it after her.
A low laugh burst from someone riding in a boat under the side of the vessel.
"Well done, Glory! You served the pretty vixen right. I love you for it."
She knew the voice. It was that of Rebow. He must have heard, perhaps seen all.