Bessie Costrell - Part 4

Part 4

"No--yer wouldn't. Nor I neither. But she'll treat half the parish if she gets the chance. I know many young fellers as go to the Spotted Deer just because they know she'll treat 'em, She's a-doin' of it now--there's lots of 'em. And allus changin' such a queer lot of money too--odd half-crowns--years and years old--King George the Third, sir. No--it's strange--very strange."

The two walked on into the darkness, still talking.

Meanwhile, inside the Spotted Deer Bessie Costrell was treating her hangers-on. She had drunk one gla.s.s of gin and water--it had made a beauty of her in the judgment of the tap-room, such a kindling had it given to her brown eyes and such a redness to her cheek. Bessie, in truth, had reached her moment of physical prime. The marvel was that there were no lovers in addition to the drinking and the extravagance.

But the worst of the village scandal-mongers knew of none. Since this new phase of character in her had developed, she would drink and make merry with any young fellow in the place, but it went no farther. She was _bonne camarade_ with all the world--no more. Perhaps at bottom some coolness of temperament protected her; n.o.body, at any rate, suspected that it had anything to do with Isaac, or that she cared a ha'porth for so lugubrious and hypocritical a husband.

She had showered drinks on all her friends, and had, moreover, chattered and screamed herself hoa.r.s.e, when the church-clock outside slowly struck eight. She started, changed countenance, and got up to pay at once.

"Why, there's another o' them half-crowns o' yourn, Bessie," said a consumptive-looking girl in a bedraggled hat and feathers, as Mrs.

Costrell handed her coin to the landlord. "Wheriver do yer get 'em?"

"If yer don't ask no questions, I won't tell yer no lies," said Bessie, with quick impudence. "Where did you get them hat and feathers?"

There was a coa.r.s.e laugh from the company. The girl in the hat reddened furiously, and she and Bessie--both of them in a quarrelsome state--began to bandy words.

Meanwhile the landlord was showing the coin to his a.s.sistant at the bar.

"Rum, ain't it? I niver seed one o' them pieces in the village afore this winter, an' I've been 'ere twenty-two year come April."

A decent-looking labourer, who did not often visit the Spotted Deer, was leaning over the bar and caught the words.

"Well, then, I 'ave," he said promptly. "I mind well as when I were a lad, sixteen year ago, my fayther borrered a bit o' money off John Bolderfield, to buy a cow with--an' there was 'arf of it in them 'arf-crowns."

Those standing near overheard. Bessie and the girl stopped quarrelling.

The landlord, startled, cast a sly eye in Bessie's direction. She came up to the bar.

"What's that yer sayin'?" she demanded. The man repeated his remark.

"Well, I dessay there was," said Bessie--"I dessay there was. I s'pose there's plenty of 'em. Where do I get 'em?--why, I get 'em at Bedford, of course, when I goes for my money."

She looked round defiantly. No one said anything; but everybody instinctively suspected a lie. The sudden silence was striking.

"Well, give me my change, will yer?" she said impatiently to the landlord. "I can't stan' here all night."

He gave it to her, and she went out showering reckless good-nights, to which there was little response. The door had no sooner closed upon her than every one in the tap-room pressed round the bar in a close gathering of heads and tongues.

Bessie ran across the green and began to climb the hill at a rapid pace.

Her thin woollen shawl blown back by the wind left her arms and bosom exposed. But the effects of the spirit in her veins prevented any sense of cold, though it was a bitter night.

Once or twice, as she toiled up the hill, she gave a loud sudden sob.

"Oh, my G.o.d!" she said to herself. "My G.o.d!"

When she was half-way up she met a neighbour.

"Have yer seen Isaac?" Bessie asked her, panting.

"'Ee's at the Club, arn't 'ee?" said the woman. "Well, they won't be up yet. Jim tolt me as Muster Perris"--Muster Perris was the vicar of Clinton Magna--"'ad got a strange gen'leman stayin' with 'im, and was goin' to take him into the Club to-night to speak to 'em. 'Ee's a bishop, they ses--someun from furrin parts."

Bessie threw her good-night and climbed on.

When she reached the cottage the lamp was flaming on the table and the fire was bright. Her lame boy had done all she had told him, and her miserable heart softened. She hurriedly put out some food for Isaac.

Then she lit a candle and went up to look at the children. They were all asleep in the room to the right of the stairs--the two little boys in one bed, the two little girls in the other, each pair huddled together against the cold, like dormice in a nest. Then she looked, conscience-stricken, at the untidiness of the room. She had bought the children a wonderful number of new clothes lately, and, the family being quite unused to such abundance, there was no place to keep them in. A new frock was flung down in a corner just as it had been taken off; the kitten was sleeping on Arthur's last new jacket; a smart hat with a bunch of poppies in it was lying about the floor; and under the iron beds could be seen a confusion of dusty boots, new and old. The children were naturally reckless, like their mother, and they had been getting used to new things. What excited them now, more than the acquisitions themselves, was that their mother had strictly forbidden them ever to show any of their new clothes to their father. If they did, she would beat them well, she said. That they understood; and life was thereby enriched, not only by new clothes but by a number of new emotions and terrors.

If Bessie noted the state of the room, she made no attempt to mend it.

She smoothed back the hair from the boys' foreheads with a violent, shaky hand, and kissed them all, especially Arthur. Then she went out and closed the door behind her.

Outside she stood a moment on the tiny landing--listening. Not a sound; but the cottage walls were thin. If any one came along the lane with heavy boots she must hear them. Very like he would be half an hour yet.

She ran down the stairs and shut the door at the bottom of them, opening into the kitchen. It had no key, or she would have locked it; and in her agitation, her state of clouded brain, she forgot the outer door altogether. Hurrying up again, she sat down on the topmost step, putting her candle on the boards beside her. The cupboard at the stair-head where John had left his money was close to her left hand.

As she sank into the att.i.tude of rest, her first instinct was to cry and bemoan herself. Deep in her woman's being great floods of tears were rising, and would fain have spent themselves. But she fought them down, rapidly pa.s.sing instead into a state of cold terror--terror of Isaac's step--terror of discovery--of the man in the public-house.

There was a mousehole in the skirting of the stairs close to the cupboard. She slipped in a finger, felt along an empty s.p.a.ce behind, and drew out a key.

It turned easily in the cupboard lock, and the two boxes stood revealed, standing apparently just as they stood when John left them. In hot haste Bessie dragged the treasure-box from under the other, starting at every sound in the process, at the thud the old wooden trunk made on the floor of the cupboard as its supporter was withdrawn, at the rustle of her own dress. All the boldness she had shown at the Spotted Deer had vanished.

She was now the mere trembling and guilty woman.

The lock on Bolderfield's box had been forced long before; it opened to her hand. A heap of sovereigns and half-sovereigns lay on one side, divided by a wooden part.i.tion from the few silver coins, crowns and half-crowns, still lying on the other. She counted both the gold and silver, losing her reckoning again and again, because of the sudden anguish of listening that would overtake her.

Thirty-six pounds on the one side, not much more than thirty shillings on the other. When John left it there had been fifty-one pounds in gold, and rather more than twenty pounds in silver, most of it in half-crowns.

Ah! she knew the figures well.

Did that man who had spoken to the landlord in the public-house suspect?

How strange they had all looked! What a silly fool she had been to change so much of the silver, instead of sticking to the gold! Yet she had thought the gold would be noticed more.

When was old John coming back? He had written once from Frampton to say that he was "laid up bad with the rheumatics," and was probably going into the Frampton Infirmary. That was in November. Since then nothing had been heard of him. John was no scholar. What if he died without coming back? There would be no trouble then, except--except with Isaac.

Her mind suddenly filled with wild visions--of herself marched through the village by Watson, as she had once seen him march a poacher who had mauled one of Mr. Forrest's keepers--of the towering walls of Frampton jail--of a visible physical shame which would kill her--drive her mad.

If, indeed, Isaac did not kill her before any one but he knew! He had been that cross and glum all these last weeks--never a bit of talk hardly--always snapping at her and the children. Yet he had never said a word to her about the drink--nor about the things she had bought. As to the "things" and the bills, she believed that he knew nothing--had noticed nothing. At home he was always smoking, sitting silent, with dim eyes, like a man in a dream--or reading his father's old books, "good books," which filled Bessie with a sense of dreariness unspeakable--or pondering his weekly paper.

But she believed he had begun to notice the drink. Drinking was universal in Clinton, though there was not much drunkenness. Teetotalers were unknown, and Isaac himself drank his beer freely, and a gla.s.s of spirits, like anybody else, on occasion. She had been used for years to fetch his beer from the public, and she had been careful. But there were signs----

Oh! if she could only think of some way of putting it back--this thirty odd pounds. She held her head between her hands, thinking and thinking.

Couldn't that little lawyer man to whom she went every month at Bedford, to fetch her legacy money--couldn't he lend it her, and keep her money till it was paid? She could make up a story, and give him something for himself to induce him to hold his tongue. She had thought of this often before, but never so urgently as now. She would take the carrier's cart to Bedford next day, while Isaac was at work, and try.

Yet all the time despair was at her heart. So hard to undo! Yet how easy it had been to take and to spend. She thought of that day in September, when she had got the news of her legacy--six shillings a week from an old aunt--her father's aunt, whose very existence she had forgotten. The wild delight of it! Isaac got sixteen shillings a week in wages--here was nearly half as much again. She was warned that it would come to an end in two years. But none the less it seemed to her a fortune--and all her life, before it came, mere hard pinching and endurance. She had always been one to spend where she could. Old John had often rated her for it. So had Isaac. But that was his money. This was hers, and he who, for religious reasons, had never made friends with or thought well of any of her family, instinctively disliked the money which had come from them, and made few inquiries into the spending of it.

Oh! the joy of those first visits to Frampton, when all the shops had seemed to be there for her, and she their natural mistress! How ready people had been to trust her in the village! How tempting it had been to brag and make a mystery! That old skinflint, Mrs. Moulsey, at "the shop," she had been all sugar and sweets _then_.

And a few weeks later--six, seven weeks later--about the beginning of October, these halcyon days had all come to an end. She owed what she could not pay--people had ceased to smile upon her--she was hara.s.sed, excited, worried out of her life.

Old familiar wonder of such a temperament! How can it be so easy to spend, so delightful to promise, and so unreasonably, so unjustly difficult, to pay?

She began to be mortally afraid of Isaac--of the effect of disclosures.

One night she was alone in the cottage, almost beside herself under the pressure of one or two claims she could not meet--one claim especially, that of a little jeweller, from whom she had bought a gold ring and a brooch at Frampton--when the thought of John's h.o.a.rd swept upon her--clutched her like something living and tyrannical, not to be shaken off.