Bessie Costrell - Part 3

Part 3

"You go back and tell John as I'll come when it's dark, an', if he's not a stupid, he won't want me to come afore."

Bessie understood and acquiesced. She ran back with her message to John.

At half-past eight, when it had grown almost dark, Isaac descended the hill. John opened the door to his knock.

"Good evenin', Isaac. Yer'll take it, will yer?"

"If you can't do nothin' better with it," said Isaac, unwillingly.

"But in gineral I'm not partial on keeping other folk's money."

John liked him all the better for his reluctance.

"It'll give yer no trouble," he said. "You lock it up, an' it'll be all safe. Now, will yer lend a hand?"

Isaac stepped to the door, looked up the lane, and saw that all was quiet. Then he came back, and the two men raised the box.

As they crossed the threshold, however, the door of the next cottage--which belonged to Watson, the policeman--opened suddenly.

John, in his excitement, was so startled that he almost dropped his end of the box.

"Why, Bolderfield," said Watson's cheery voice, "what have you got there? Do you want a hand?"

"No, I don't--thank yer kindly," said John in agitation. "An', if _you_ please, Muster Watson, don't yer say nothin' to n.o.body."

The burly policeman looked from John to Isaac, then at the box. John's h.o.a.rd was notorious, and the officer of the law understood.

"Lor' bless yer," he said, with a laugh, "I'm safe. Well, good evenin'

to yer, if I can't be of any a.s.sistance."

And he went off on his beat.

The two men carried the box up the hill. It was in itself a heavy, old-fashioned affair, strengthened and bottomed with iron. Isaac wondered whether the weight of it were due more to the box or to the money. But he said nothing. He had no idea how much John might have saved, and would not have asked him the direct question for the world.

John's own way of talking about his wealth was curiously contradictory.

His "money" was rarely out of his thoughts or speech, but no one had ever been privileged for many years now to see the inside of his box, except Eliza once; and no one but himself knew the exact amount of the h.o.a.rd. It delighted him that the village gossips should double or treble it. Their estimates only gave him the more ground for vague boasting, and he would not have said a word to put them right.

When they reached the Costrells' cottage, John's first care was to examine the cupboard. He saw that the large wooden chest filled with odds and ends of rubbish which already stood there was placed on the top of his own box. Then he tried the lock, and p.r.o.nounced it adequate; he didn't want to have Flack meddling round. Now, at the moment of parting with his treasure, he was seized with a sudden fever of secrecy. Bessie meanwhile hovered about the two men, full of excitement and loquacity. And the children, shut into the kitchen, wondered what could be the matter.

When all was done, Isaac locked the cupboard, and solemnly presented the key to John, who added it to the other round his neck. Then Bessie unlocked the kitchen, and sent the children flying, to help her with the supper. She was in her most bustling and vivacious mood, and she had never cooked the bloaters better or provided a more ample jug of beer. But John was silent and depressed.

He took leave at last with many sighs and lingerings. But he had not been gone half an hour, and Bessie and Isaac were just going to bed, when there was a knock at the door, and he reappeared.

"Let me lie down there," he said, pointing to a broken-down old sofa that ran under the window. "I'm lonesome somehow, an' I've told Louisa." His white hair and whiskers stood out wildly round his red face. He looked old and ill, and the sympathetic Bessie was sorry for him.

She made him a bed on the sofa, and he lay there all night, restless, and sighing heavily. He missed Eliza more than he had done yet, and was oppressed with a vague sense of unhappiness. Once, in the middle of the night when all was still, he stole upstairs in his stockinged feet and gently tried the cupboard door. It was quite safe, and he went down contented.

An hour or two later he was off, trudging to Frampton through the August dawn, with his bundle on his back.


Some five months pa.s.sed away.

One January night the Independent minister of Clinton Magna was pa.s.sing down the village street. Clinton lay robed in light snow, and "sparkling to the moon." The frozen pond beside the green, though it was nearly eight o'clock, was still alive with children, sliding and shouting. All around the gabled roofs stood laden and spotless. The woods behind the village, and those running along the top of the snowy hill, were meshed in a silvery mist which died into the moonlit blue, while in the fields the sharpness of the shadows thrown by the scattered trees made a marvel of black and white.

The minister, in spite of a fighting creed, possessed a measure of gentler susceptibilities, and the beauty of this basin in the chalk hills, this winter triumphant, these lights of home and fellowship in the cottage windows disputing the forlornness of the snow, crept into his soul. His mind travelled from the physical purity and hardness before him to the purity and hardness of the inner life--the purity that Christ blessed, the "hardness" that the Christian endures. And such thoughts brought him pleasure as he walked--the mystic's pleasure.

Suddenly he saw a woman cross the snowy green in front of him. She had come from the road leading to the hill, and her pace was hurried. Her shawl was m.u.f.fled round her head, but he recognised her, and his mood fell. She was the wife of Isaac Costrell, and she was hurrying to the Spotted Deer, a public-house which lay just beyond the village, on the road to the mill. Already several times that week had he seen her going in or coming out. Talk had begun to reach him, and he said to himself to-night as he saw her--that Isaac Costrell's wife was going to ruin.

The thought oppressed him, p.r.i.c.ked his pastoral conscience. Isaac was his right-hand man: dull to all the rest of the world, but not dull to the minister. With Mr. Drew sometimes he would break into talk of religion, and the man's dark eyes would lose their film. His big troubled self spoke with that accent of truth which lifts common talk and halting texts to poetry. The minister, himself more of a pessimist than his sermons showed, felt a deep regard for him. Could nothing be done to save Isaac's wife and Isaac? Not so long ago Bessie Costrell had been a decent woman, though a flighty and excitable one. Now some cause, unknown to the minister, had upset a wavering balance, and was undoing a life.

As he pa.s.sed the public-house a man came out, and through the open door Mr. Drew caught a momentary glimpse of the bar and the drinkers.

Bessie's handsome, reckless head stood out an instant in the bright light.

Then Drew saw that the man who had emerged was Watson the policeman.

They greeted each other cordially and walked on together. Watson also was a member of the minister's flock. Mr. Drew felt suddenly moved to unburden himself.

"That was Costrell's wife, Watson, wasn't it, poor thing?"

"Aye, it wor Mrs. Costrell," said Watson in the tone of concern natural to the respectable husband and father.

The minister sighed. "It's terrible the way she's gone downhill the last three months. I never pa.s.s almost but I see her going in there or coming out."

"No," said Watson, slowly, "no, it's bad. What I'd like to know," he added reflectively, "is where she gets the money from."

"Oh, she had a legacy, hadn't she, in August? It seems to have been a curse. She has been a changed woman ever since."

"Yes, she had a legacy," said Watson dubiously; "but I don't believe it was much. She talked big, of course, and made a lot o' fuss--she's that kind o' woman--just as she did about old John's money."

"Old John's money?--Ah! did any one ever know what became of that?"

"Well, there's many people thinks as Isaac has got it hid in the house somewhere, and there's others thinks he's put it in Bedford bank.

Edwards told me private he didn't know nothing about it at the post-office, an' Bessie told my wife as John had given Isaac the keepin'

of it till he come back again; but he'd knock her about, she said, if she let on what he'd done with it. That's the story she's allus had, and boastin', of course, dreadful, about John's trustin' them, and Isaac doin' all his business for him."

The minister reflected.--"And you say the legacy wasn't much?"

"Well, sir, I know some people over at Bedford where her aunt lived as left it her, and they were sure it wasn't a great deal; but you never know."

"And Isaac never said?"

"Bless yer, no, sir! He was never a great one for talking, wasn't Isaac; but you'd think now as he'd never learnt how. He'll set there in the Club of a night and never open his mouth to n.o.body."

"Perhaps he's fretting about his wife, Watson?"

"Well, I don't believe as he knows much about her goin's-on--not all, leastways. I've seen her wait till he was at his work or gone to the Club, and then run down the hill,--tearin'--with her hair flyin'--you'd think she'd gone silly. Oh, it's a bad business," said Watson, strongly, "an' uncommon bad business--all them young children too."

"I never saw her drunk, Watson."