Bessie Costrell - Part 11

Part 11

Her miserable eyes travelled over his face, seeking, as it were, for some promise, however faint, of future help and succour, however distant.

Apparently she saw none, for her own look flamed to fresh defiance.

"I didn't spend it. Saunders wor lyin'."

"'Ow did yer get them half-crowns?"

"I got 'em at Bedford. Mr. Grimstone give 'em me."

Isaac looked at her hard, his shame burning into his heart. This was how she had got her money for the gin. Of course, she had lied to him the night before, in her account of her fall, and of that mark on her forehead, which still showed, a red disfigurement, under the hair she had drawn across it. The sight of it, of her, began to excite in him a quick loathing. He was at bottom a man of violent pa.s.sions, and, in the presence of evil-doing so flagrant, so cruel--of a household ruin so complete--his religion failed him.

"When was it as yer opened that box fust?" he asked her again, scorning her denials.

She burst into a rage of tears, lifting her ap.r.o.n to her eyes, and flinging names at him that he scarcely heard.

There was a little cold tea in a cup close to him that Bessie had forgotten. He stretched out his hand, and took a mouthful, moistening his dry lips and throat.

"Yer'll go to prison for this," he said, jerking it out as he put the cup down.

He saw her shiver. Her nerve was failing her. The convulsive sobs continued, but she ceased to abuse him. He wondered when he should be able to get it out of her. He himself could no more have wept than iron and fire weep.

"Are yer goin' to tell me when yer took that money, and 'ow yer spent it? 'Cos if yer don't, I shall go to Watson."

Even in her abas.e.m.e.nt it struck her as shameful, unnatural, that he, her husband, should say this. Her remorse returned upon her heart, like a tide driven back. She answered him not a word.

He put his silver watch on the table.

"I'll give yer two minutes," he said.

There was silence in the cottage except for the choking, hysterical sounds she could not master. Then he took up his hat again, and went out into the snow, which was by now falling fast.

She remained helpless and sobbing, unconscious of the pa.s.sage of time, one hand playing incessantly with a child's comforter that lay beside her on the table, the other wiping away the crowding tears. But her mind worked feverishly all the time, and gradually she fought herself free of this weeping, which clutched her against her will.

Isaac was away for an hour. When he came back, he closed the door carefully, and, walking to the table, threw down his hat upon it. His face under its ruddy brown had suffered some radical, disintegrating change.

"They've traced yer," he said hoa.r.s.ely; "they've got it up to twenty-six pound, an' more. Most on it 'ere in Clinton--some on it, Muster Miles, o' Frampton, 'ull swear to. Watson 'ull go over to Frampton, for the warrant--to-morrer."

The news shook her from head to foot. She stared at him wildly--speechless.

"But that's not 'arf," he went on--"not near 'arf. Do yer 'ear? What did yer do with the rest? I'll not answer for keepin' my 'ands off yer if yer won't tell."

In his trance of rage and agony, he was incapable of pity. He had small need to threaten her with blows--every word stabbed.

But her turn had come to strike back. She raised her head; she measured her news against his; and she did it with a kind of exultation.

"Then I _will_ tell yer--an' I 'ope it 'ull do yer good. _I_ took thirty-one pound o' Bolderfield's money then--but it warn't me took the rest. Some one else tuk it, an' I stood by an' saw 'im. When I tried to stop 'im--look 'ere."

She raised her hand, nodding, and pointing to the wound on her brow.

Isaac leant heavily on the table. A horrible suspicion swept through him. Had she wronged him in a yet blacker way? He bent over her, breathing fast--ready to strike.

"Who was it?"

She laughed. "Well, it wor _Timothy_, then--yur precious--beautiful son--Timothy!"

He fell back.

"Yo're lyin'," he cried; "yer want to throw it off on some one. How cud Timothy 'ave 'ad anythin' to do with John's money? Timothy's not been near the place this three months."

"Not till night," she said, mocking him. "I'll grant yer--not till night. But it _do_ 'appen, as night Timothy took forty-one pound o' John Borroful's money out o' that box, an got off--clean. I'm sorry if yer don't like it--but I can't 'elp that; yo'

listen 'ere."

And, lifting a quivering finger, she told her tale at last, all the beginning of it confused and almost unintelligible, but the scene with Timothy vivid, swift, convincing--a direct impression from the ugly, immediate fact.

He listened, his face lying on his arms. It was true, all true. She might have taken more and Timothy less; no doubt she was making it out as bad as she could for Timothy. But it lay between them--his wife and his son--it lay between them.

"An' I 'eard yer coming," she ended; "an' I thought I'd tell yer--an' I wor frightened about the 'arf-crowns--people 'ad been talkin' so at Dawson's--an' I didn't see no way out--an'--an'----"

She ceased, her hand plucking again at the comforter, her throat working.

He, too, thought of the loving words he had said to her, and the memory of them only made his misery the more fierce.

"An' there ain't no way out," he said violently, raising his head.

"Yer'll be took before the magistrates next week, an' the a.s.sizes 'ull be in February, an' yer'll get six months--if yer don't get more."

She got up from her chair as though physically goaded by the words.

"I'll not go to jail," she said under her breath. "I'll not----"

A sound of scorn broke from Isaac.

"Yo' should ha' thought o' that," he said. "Yo' should ha' thought o'

that. An' what you've been sayin' about Timothy don't make it a 'aporth the better--not for _yo'_! Yo' led _'im_ into it too--if it 'adn't been for yo', 'ee'd never ha' _seen_ the cursed stuff. Yo've dragged 'im down worse nor 'ee were--an' yerself--an' the childer--an'

me. An' the drink, an' the lyin'!--it turns a man's stomach to think on it. An' I've been livin' with yer--these twelve years. I wish to the Lord I'd never seen yer--as the children 'ad never been born!

They'll be known all their life now--as 'avin' 'ad sich a woman for their mother!"

A demon of pa.s.sion possessed him more and more. He looked at her with murderous eyes, his hand on the table working.

For his world, too, lay in ruins about him. Through many hard-working and virtuous years he had counted among the righteous men of the village--the men whom the Almighty must needs reckon to the good whenever the score of Clinton Magna had to be made up. And this pre-eminence had come to be part of the habitual furniture of life and thought. To be suddenly stripped of it--to be not only disgraced by his wife, to be thrust down himself among the low and sinful herd--this thought made another man of him; made him wicked, as it were, perforce.

For who that heard the story would ever believe that he was not the partner of her crime? Had he not eaten and drunk of it; were not he and his children now clothed by it?

Bessie did not answer him or look at him. At any other moment she would have been afraid of him; now she feared nothing but the image in her own mind--herself led along the village street, enclosed in that hateful building, cut off from all pleasure, all free moving and willing--alone and despised--her children taken from her.

Suddenly she walked into the back kitchen and opened the door leading to the garden.

Outside everything lay swathed in white, and a snowstorm was drifting over the deep cup of land which held the village. A dull, melancholy moonlight seemed to be somewhere behind the snow curtain, for the m.u.f.fled shapes of the houses below and the long sweep of the hill were visible through the dark, and the objects in the little garden itself were almost distinct. There, in the centre, rose the round, stone edging of the well, the copious well, sunk deep into the chalk, for which Bessie's neighbours envied her, whence her good nature let them draw freely at any time of drought. On either side of it the gnarled stems of old fruit-trees and the bare sticks of winter kail made black scratches and blots upon the white.

Bessie looked out, leaning against the doorway, and heedless of the wind that drove upon her. Down below there was a light in Watson's cottage, and a few lights from the main street beyond pierced the darkness. The Spotted Deer must be at that moment full of people, all talking of her and Isaac. Her eye came hastily back to the snow-shrouded well and dwelt upon it.