Bessie Costrell - Part 2

Part 2

Saunders said it was a Jew's interest he was asking--because there was security--but he wasn't going to accept a farthing less than his shilling a pound for three months--not he! So they might take it or leave it. And Mrs. Moulsey got hers from the Building Society, and Sam Field made shift to go without. And John Bolderfield was three pounds poorer that quarter than he need have been--all along of Saunders. And now Saunders was talking "agen him" like this--blast him!

"Oh, an' then he went on," pursued Bessie with gusto, "about your bein'

too ignorant to put it in the post-office. 'Ee said you'd think Edwards would go an' spend it" (Edwards was the post-master), "an' then he laughed fit to split 'imself. Yer couldn't see more nor the length of your own nose, he said--it was edication _you_ wanted. As for 'im, 'ee said, 'ee'd have kep' it for you if you'd asked him, but you'd been like a bear with a sore 'ead, 'ee said, ever since Mrs. Moulsey's affair--so 'ee didn't suppose you would."

"Well, 'ee's about right there," said John, grimly; "ee's talkin' sense for onst when 'ee says that. I'd dig a hole in the hill and bury it sooner nor I'd trust it to 'im--I would, by----" he swore vigorously.

"A thieving set of magpies is all them Saunders--cadgin' 'ere and cadgin' there."

He spoke with fierce contempt, the tacit hatred of years leaping to sight. Bessie's bright brown eyes looked at him with sympathy.

"It was just his na.s.sty spite," she said. "He knew _'ee_ could never ha' done it--not what you've done--out o' your wages. Not unless 'ee got Sally to tie 'im to the dresser with ropes so as 'ee couldn't go a-near the Spotted Deer no more!"

She laughed like a merry child at her own witticism, and John relished it too, though he was not in a laughing mood.

"Why," continued Bessie with enthusiasm, "it was Muster Drew as said to me the other afternoon, as we was walkin' 'ome from the churchyard, says 'ee, 'Mrs. Costrell, I call it splendid what John's done--I _do_,'

'ee says. 'A labourer on fifteen shillin's a week--why, it's an example to the county,' 'ee says. ''Ee ought to be showed.'"

John's face relaxed. The temper and obstinacy in the eyes began to yield to the weak complacency which was their more normal expression.

There was silence for a minute or two. Bessie sat with her hands on her lap and her face turned towards the open door. Beyond the cherry-red phloxes outside it the ground fell rapidly to the village, rising again beyond the houses to a great stubble field, newly shorn.

Gleaners were already in the field, their bent figures casting sharp shadows on the golden upland, and the field itself stretched upwards to a great wood that lay folded round the top of a spreading hill. To the left, beyond the hill, a wide plain travelled into the sunset, its level s.p.a.ces cut by the scrawled elms and hedgerows of the nearer landscape. The beauty of it all--the beauty of an English midland--was of a modest and measured sort, depending chiefly on bounties of sun and air, on the delicacies of gentle curves and the pleasant intermingling of wood and cornfield, of light s.p.a.ces with dark, of solid earth and luminous sky.

Such as it was, however, neither Bessie nor John spared it a moment's attention. Bessie was thinking a hundred busy thoughts. John, on the other hand, had begun to consider her with an excited scrutiny. She was a handsome woman, as she sat in the doorway with her fine brown head turned to the light. But John naturally was not thinking of that.

He was in the throes of decision.

"Look 'ere, Bessie," he said suddenly; "what 'ud you say if I wor to ask Isaac an' you to take care on it?"

Bessie started slightly. Then she looked frankly round at him. She had very keen, lively eyes, and a bright red-brown colour on thin cheeks. The village applied to her the epithet which John's thoughts had applied to Muster Hill's widow. They said she was "caselty," which means flighty, haphazard, excitable; but she was popular, nevertheless, and had many friends.

It was, of course, her own settled opinion that her uncle ought to leave that box with her and Isaac; and it had wounded her vanity, and her affection besides, that John had never yet made any such proposal, though she knew--as, indeed, the village knew--that he was perplexed as to what to do with his h.o.a.rd. But she had never dared to suggest that he should leave it with her, out of fear of Eliza Bolderfield. Bessie was well aware that Eliza thought ill of her, and would dissuade John from any such arrangement if she could. And so formidable was Eliza--a woman of the hardest and sourest virtue--when she chose, that Bessie was afraid of her, even on her deathbed, though generally ready enough to quarrel with other people. Nevertheless, Bessie had always felt that it would be a crying shame and slight if she and Isaac did not have the guardianship of the money. She thirsted, perhaps, to make an impression upon public opinion in the village, which, as she instinctively realised, held her cheaply. And then, of course, there was the secret thought of John's death, and what might come of it.

John had always loudly proclaimed that he meant to spend his money, and not leave it behind him. But the instinct of saving, once formed, is strong. John, too, might die sooner than he thought--and she and Isaac had children.

She had come up, indeed, that afternoon, haunted by a pa.s.sionate desire to get the money into her hands; yet the mere sordidness of "expectations" counted for less in the matter than one would suppose.

Vanity, a vague wish to ingratiate herself with her uncle, to avoid a slight--these were, on the whole, her strongest motives. At any rate, when he had once asked her the momentous question, she knew well what to say to him.

"Well, if you arst me," she said hastily, "of course _we_ think as it's only nateral you should leave it with Isaac an' me, as is your own kith and kin. But we wasn't goin' to say nothin'; we didn't want to be pushin' of ourselves forward."

John rose to his feet. He was in his shirt-sleeves, which were rolled up. He pulled them down, put on his coat, an air of crisis on his fat face.

"Where 'ud you put it?" he said.

"Yer know that cupboard by the top of the stairs? It 'ud stand there easy. And the cupboard's got a good lock to it; but we'd 'ave it seen to, to make sure."

She looked up at him eagerly. She longed to feel herself trusted and important. Her self-love was too often mortified in these respects.

John fumbled round his neck for the bit of black cord on which he kept two keys--the key of his room while he was away and the key of the box itself.

"Well, let's get done with it," he said. "I'm off to-morrer mornin', six o'clock. You go and get Isaac to come down."

"I'll run," said Bessie, catching up her shawl and throwing it over her head. "He wor just finishin' his tea."

And she whirled out of the cottage, running up the steep road behind it as fast as she could. John was vaguely displeased by her excitement; but the die was cast. He went to make his arrangements.

Bessie ran till she was out of breath. When she reached her own house, a cottage in a side lane above the Bolderfields' cottage and overlooking it from the back, she found her husband sitting with his pipe at the open door and reading his newspaper. Three out of her own four children were playing in the lane, otherwise there was no one about.

Isaac greeted her with a nod and slight lightening of the eyes, which, however, hardly disturbed the habitual sombreness of the face. He was a dark, finely featured man, with grizzled hair, carrying himself with an air of sleepy melancholy. He was much older than his wife, and was a prominent leader in the little Independent chapel of the village.

His melancholy could give way on occasion to fits of violent temper.

For instance, he had been almost beside himself when Bessie, who had leanings to the Establishment, as providing a far more crowded and entertaining place of resort on Sundays than her husband's chapel, had rashly proposed to have the youngest baby christened in church. Other Independents did it freely--why not she? But Isaac had been nearly mad with wrath, and Bessie had fled upstairs from him, with her baby, and bolted the bedroom door in bodily terror. Otherwise, he was a most docile husband--in the neighbours' opinion, docile to absurdity. He complained of nothing, and took notice of little. Bessie's untidy ways left him indifferent; his main interest was in a kind of religious dreaming, and in an Independent paper to which he occasionally wrote a letter. He was a gardener at a small house on the hill, and had rather more education than most of his fellows in the village. For the rest, he was fond of his children, and, in his heart of hearts, exceedingly proud of his wife, her liveliness and her good looks. She had been a remarkably pretty girl when he married her, some eight years after his first wife's death, and there was a great difference of age between them. His two elder children by his first marriage had long since left home. The girl was in service. It troubled him to think of the boy, who had fallen into bad ways early. Bessie's children were all small, and she herself still young, though over thirty.

When Bessie came up to him, she looked round to see that no one could hear. Then she stooped and told him her errand in a panting whisper.

He must go down and fetch the box at once. She had promised John Borrofull that they would stand by him. They were his own flesh and blood--and the cupboard had a capital lock--and there wasn't no fear of it at all.

Isaac listened to her at first with amazement, then sulkily. She had talked to him often certainly about John's money, but it had made little impression on his dreamer's sense. And now her demand struck him disagreeably.

He didn't want the worrit of other people's money, he said. Let them as owned it keep it; filthy lucre was a snare to all as had to do with it; and it would only bring a mischief to have it in the house.

After a few more of these objections, Bessie lost her temper. She broke into a torrent of angry arguments and reproaches, mainly turning, it seemed, upon a recent visit to the house of Isaac's eldest son. The drunken ne'er-do-weel had given Bessie much to put up with. Oh yes!--_she_ was to be plagued out of her life by Isaac's belongings, and he wouldn't do a pin's worth for her. Just let him see next time, that was all.

Isaac smoked vigorously through it all. But she was hammering on a sore point.

"Oh, it's just like yer!" Bessie flung at him at last in desperation.

"You're allus the same--a mean-spirited feller, stannin' in your children's way! 'Ow do _you_ know who old John's going to leave his money to? 'Ow do _you_ know as he wouldn't leave it to _them_ poor innercents"--she waved her hand tragically towards the children playing in the road--"if we was just a bit nice and friendly with him now 'ee's gettin' old? But you don't care, not you!--one 'ud think yer were made o' money--an' that little un there not got the right use of his legs!"

She pointed, half crying, to the second boy, who had already shown signs of hip disease.

Isaac still smoked, but he was troubled in his mind. A vague presentiment held him, but the pressure brought to bear upon him was strong.

"I tell yer the lock isn't a good 'un!" he said, suddenly removing his pipe.

Bessie stopped instantly in the middle of another tirade. She was leaning against the door, arms akimbo, eyes alternately wet and flaming.

"Then, if it isn't," she said, with a triumphant change of tone, "I'll soon get Flack to see to it--it's n.o.bbut a step. I'll run up after supper."

Flack was the village carpenter.

"An' there's mother's old box as takes up the cupboard," continued Isaac gruffly.

Bessie burst out laughing.

"Oh! yer old silly," she said. "As if they couldn't stand one top o'

the t'other. Now, do just go, Isaac--there's a lovey! 'Ee's waitin'

for yer. Whatever did make yer so contrairy? Of course I didn't mean nothin' I said--an' I don't mind Timothy, nor nothin'."

Still he did not move.

"Then I s'pose yer want everybody in the village to know?" he said with sarcasm.

Bessie was taken aback.

"No--I--don't--" she said undecidedly--"I don't know what yer mean."