Bessie Costrell - Part 7

Part 7

next year, I know, for I saw the old lady myself last Michaelmas twelve-month, an' she told me all about it, though I worn't to tell n.o.body meself. An' I didn't know Sophy wor gone. Ah, well! it's not much, but it's 'andy--it's 'andy."

"Six shillin's a week!" said Watson, raising his eyebrows. "It's a nice bit o' money while it la.s.sts, but I'd ha' thought Mrs. Costrell 'ad come into a deal more nor that."

"Oh, but she's sich a one to spend, is Bessie!" said John, anxiously.

"It's surprisin' 'ow the money runs. It's sixpence 'ere, an' sixpence there, allus dribblin', an' dribblin', out ov 'er. I've allus tole 'er as she'll end 'er days on the parish."

"Sixpences!" said Watson, with a laugh. "It's not sixpences as Mrs.

Costrell's 'ad the spendin' of this last month or two--it's _suverins_--an' plenty ov 'em. You may be sure you've got the wrong tale about the money, John; it wor a deal more nor you say."

John stood stock still at the word "sovereigns," his jaw dropping.

"_Suverins_," he said trembling; "suverins? Bessie ain't got no suverins. Isaac arns sixteen shillin' a week."

The colour was ebbing fast from his cheek and lips. Watson threw him a quick, professional glance, then rapidly consulted with himself. No; he decided to hold his tongue.

"Yo' _are_ reg'lar used up," he said, taking hold of the old fellow kindly by the arm. "Shall I walk yer up the hill?"

John withdrew himself.

"_Suverins!_" he repeated, in a low, hoa.r.s.e voice. "She ain't got 'em, I tell yer--she ain't got 'em!"

The last words rose to a sort of cry, and, without another word to Watson, the old man started at a feeble run, his head hanging.

Watson followed him, afraid lest he should drop in the road. Instead, John seemed to gather strength. He made straight for the hill, taking no heed whatever of two or three startled acquaintances who stopped and shouted to him. When the ground began to rise he stumbled again and again, but, by a marvel, did not fall, and his pace hardly slackened.

Watson had difficulty in keeping up with him.

But when the policeman reached his own cottage on the side of the road, he stopped, panting, and contented himself with looking after the mounting figure. As soon as it turned the corner of the Costrells'

lane, he went into his own house, said a word to his wife, and sat himself down at his own back door to await events--to ponder, also, a few conversations he had held that morning, with Mrs. Moulsey at "the shop," with Dawson, with Hall the butcher. Poor old John--poor old fellow!

When Bolderfield reached the paling in front of the Costrells' cottage, he paused a moment, holding for support to the half-open gate and struggling for breath. "I must keep my 'edd, I must," he was saying to himself piteously; "don' yer be a fool, John Borroful, don' yer be a fool!"

As he stood there, a child's face pushed the window-blind of the cottage aside, and the lame boy's large eyes looked Bolderfield up and down. Immediately after, the door opened, and all four children stood huddling behind each other on the threshold. They all looked shyly at the newcomer. They knew him, but in six months they had grown strange to him.

"Arthur, where's your mother?" said John, at last able to walk firmly up to the door.

"Don' know."

"When did yer see her"

"She wor 'ere gettin' us our tea," said another child; "but she didn't eat nothin'."

John impatiently pushed the children before him back into the kitchen.

"You 'old your tongues," he said, "an' stay 'ere."

And he made for the door in the kitchen wall. But Arthur caught hold of his coat tails and clung to them.

"Yer oughtn't to go up there--mother don't let any one go there."

John wrenched himself violently away.

"Oh, don't she! yo' take your 'ands away, yer little varmint, or I'll brain yer."

He raised his stick, threatening. The child, terrified, fell back, and John, opening the door, rushed up the stairs.

He was so terribly excited that his fumbling fingers could hardly find the ribbon round his neck. At last he drew it over his head, and made stupendous efforts to steady his hand sufficiently to put the key in the lock.

The children below heard a sharp cry directly the cupboard door was opened; then the frantic dragging of a box on to the stairs, the creak of hinges--a groan long and lingering--and then silence.

They clung together in terror, and the little girls began to cry. At last Arthur took courage and opened the door.

The old man was sitting on the top stair, supported sideways by the wall, his head hanging forward, and his hands dropping over his knees, in a dead faint.

At the sight all four children ran helter-skelter into the lane, shouting "Mammy! mammy!" in an anguish of fright. Their clamour was caught by the fierce north wind, which had begun to sweep the hill, and was borne along till it reached the ears of a woman who was sitting sewing in a cottage some fifty yards further up the lane. She stepped to her door, opened it and listened.

"It's at Bessie's," she said; "whativer's wrong wi' the childer?"

By this time Arthur had begun to run towards her. Darkness was falling rapidly, but she could distinguish his small figure against the snow, and his halting gait.

"What is it, Arthur?--what is it, lammie?"

"O Cousin Mary Anne! Cousin Mary Anne! It's Uncle John, an' 'ee's dead!"

She ran like the wind at the words, catching at the child's hand in the dark, and dragging him along with her.

"Where is he, Arthur?--don't take on, honey!"

The child hurried on with her, sobbing, and she was soon on the stairs beside the unconscious John.

Mary Anne looked with amazement at the cupboard and the open box. Then she laid the old man on the floor, her gentle face working with the effort to remember what the doctor had once told her of the best way of dealing with persons in a faint. She got water, and she sent Arthur to a neighbour for brandy.

"Where's your mother, child?" she asked, as she despatched him.

"Don' know," repeated the boy, stupidly.

"Oh, for goodness' sake, she's never at Dawson's again!" groaned Mary Anne to herself; "she wor there last night, an' the night afore that.

And her mother's brother lyin' like this in 'er house!"

He was so long in coming round that her ignorance began to fear the worst. But, just as she was telling the eldest girl to put on her hat and jacket and run for the doctor, poor John revived.

He struggled to a sitting posture, looked wildly at her and at the box.

As his eye caught the two sovereigns still lying at the bottom, he gave a cry of rage, and got upon his feet with a mighty effort.

"Where's Bessie, I tell yer? Where's the huzzy gone? I'll have the law on 'er! I'll make 'er give it up--by the Lord I will!"

"John, what is it? John, my dear!" cried Mary Anne, supporting him, and terrified lest he should pitch headlong down the stairs.

"Yo' 'elp me down," he said violently. "We'll find 'er--we'll wring it out ov 'er--the mean, thievin' vagabond! Changin' suverins, 'as she?