Bessie Costrell - Part 8

Part 8

We'll soon know about that--yo' 'elp me down, I tell yer."

And, with her a.s.sistance, he hobbled down the stairs, hardly able to stand. Mary Anne's eyes were starting out of her head with fear and agitation, and the children were staring at the old man as he came tottering into the kitchen, when a sound at the outer door made them all turn.

The door opened, and Bessie appeared on the threshold.

At sight of her John seemed to lose his senses. He rushed at her, threatening, imploring, reviling--while Mary Anne could only cling to his arms and coat, lest he should attempt some bodily mischief.

Bessie closed the door, leant against it, and folded her arms. She was white and haggard, but perfectly cool. In this moment of excitement it struck neither John nor Mary Anne--nor, indeed, herself--that her manner, with its brutality, and its poorly feigned surprise, was the most revealing element in the situation.

"What's all this about yer money?" she said, staring John in the face.

"What do I know about yer money? 'Ow dare yer say such things? I 'aven't anythin' to do with it, an' never 'ad."

He raved at her, in reply, about the position in which he had found the box--on the top of its fellow instead of underneath, where he had placed it--about the broken lock, the sovereigns she had been changing, and the things Watson had said of her--winding up with a peremptory demand for his money.

"Yo' gi' me my money back," he said, holding out a shaking hand. "Yer can't 'ave spent it all--'tain't possible--an' yer ain't chucked it out o' winder. Yer've got it somewhere 'idden, an' I'll get it out o' you if I die for 't!"

Bessie surveyed him steadily. She had not even flinched at the mention of the sovereigns.

"What yer 'aven't got, yer can't give," she said. "I don' know nothin'

about it, an' I've tole yer. There's plenty o' bad people in the world--beside me. Somebody came in o' nights, I suppose, an' picked the lock--there's many as 'ud think nothin' of it. And it 'ud be easy done--we all sleeps 'ard."

"Bessie!" cried Mary Anne, outraged by something in her tone, "aren't yer sorry for 'im?"

She pointed to the haggard and trembling man.

Bessie turned to her reluctantly. "Aye, I'm sorry," she said sullenly.

"But he shouldn't fly out at yer without 'earin' a word. 'Ow should I know anythin' about his money? 'Ee locked it up hisself, an' tuk the keys."

"An' them suverins," roared John, rattling his stick on the floor; "where did yer get them suverins?"

"I got 'em from old Sophy Clarke--leastways, from Sophy Clarke's lawyer. And it ain't no business o' yourn."

At this John fell into a frenzy, shouting at her in inarticulate pa.s.sion, calling her liar and thief.

She fronted it with perfect composure. Her fine eyes blazed, but otherwise her face might have been a waxen mask. With her, in this scene, was all the tragic dignity; with him, the weakness and vulgarity.

At last the little widow caught her by the arm, and drew her from the door.

"Let me take 'im to my place," she pleaded: "it's no good talkin' while 'ee's like 'ee is--not a bit o' good. John--John, dear! you come along wi' me. Shall I get Saunders to come an' speak to yer?"

A gleam of sudden hope shot into the old man's face. He had not thought of Saunders; but Saunders had a head; he might unravel this accursed thing.

"Aye!" he said, lurching forward, "let's find Saunders--coom along--let's find Saunders."

Mary Anne guided him through the door, Bessie standing aside. As the widow pa.s.sed, she touched Bessie piteously.

"Oh, Bessie, yer _didn't_ do it--say yer didn't!"

Bessie looked at her dry-eyed and contemptuous. Something in the speaker's emotion seemed to madden her.

"Don't yer be a fool, Mary Anne--that's all!" she said scornfully, and Mary Anne fled from her.

When the door had closed upon them Bessie came up to the fire, her teeth chattering. She sank down in front of it, spreading out her hands. The children silently crowded up to her; first she pushed them away, then she caught at the child nearest to her, pressed its fair head against her, then again roughly put it aside. She was accustomed to chatter with them, scold them and slap them; but to-night they were uneasily dumb. They looked at her with round eyes; and at last their looks annoyed her. She told them to go to bed, and they slunk away, gaping at the open box on the stairs, and huddling together overhead, all on one bed, in the bitter cold, to whisper to each other. Isaac was a stern parent; Bessie a capricious one; and the children, though they could be riotous enough by themselves, were nervous and easily cowed at home.

Bessie, left alone, sat silently over the fire, her thin lips tight-set. She would deny everything--_everything_. Let them find out what they could. Who could prove what was in John's box when he left it? Who could prove she hadn't got those half-crowns in change somewhere?

The reflection of the day had only filled her with a pa.s.sionate and fierce regret. _Why_ had she not followed her first impulse and thrown it all on Timothy?--told the story to Isaac while she was still bleeding from his son's violence? It had been her only chance, and out of pure stupidness she had lost it. To have grasped it might at least have made him take her part, if it had forced him to give up Timothy.

And who would have listened to Timothy's tales?

She sickened at the thought of her own folly, beating her knee with her clenched fist. For, to tell the tale now would only be to make her doubly vile in Isaac's eyes. He would not believe her--no one would believe her. What motive could she plead for her twenty-four hours of silence, she knowing that John was coming back immediately? Isaac would only hate her for throwing it on Timothy.

Then again, the memory of the half-crowns, and the village talk--and Watson--would close upon her, putting her in a cold sweat.

When would Isaac come? Who would tell him? As she looked forward to the effect upon him, all her muscles stiffened. If he drove her to it, aye, she _would_ tell him--she didn't care a ha'porth, she vowed. If he must have it, let him. But as the name of Isaac, the thought of Isaac, hovered in her brain, she must needs brush away wild tears.

That morning, for the first time for months, he had been so kind to her and the children, so chatty and cheerful.

Distant steps along the lane! She sprang to her feet, ran into the back kitchen, tied on her ap.r.o.n, hastily filled an earthenware bowl with water from the pump, and, carrying it back to the front kitchen, began to wash up the tea-things, making a busy household clatter as she slid them into the bowl.

A confused sound of feet approached the house, and there was a knock.

"Come in," said Bessie.

Three figures appeared, the huge form of Saunders the smith in front, John and Mary Anne Waller behind.

Saunders took off his cap politely. The sight of his bald head, his double chin, his mouth with its queer twitch, which made him seem as though perpetually about to laugh, if he had not perpetually thought better of it, filled Bessie with angry excitement. She barely nodded to him, in reply to his greeting.

"May we come in, Mrs. Costrell?" Saunders inquired, in his most deliberate voice.

"If yer want to," said Bessie, shortly, taking out a cup and drying it.

Saunders drew in the other two and shut the door.

"Sit down, John. Sit down, Mrs. Waller."

John did as he was told. Dishevelled and hopeless misery spoke in his stained face, his straggling hair, his shirt burst open at the neck and showing his wrinkled throat. But he fixed his eyes pa.s.sionately on Saunders, thirsting for every word.

"Well, Mrs. Costrell," said Saunders, settling himself comfortably, "you'll be free to confess, won't yer, this is an oogly business--a very oogly business? Now, will yer let us ask yer a question or two?"

"I dessay," said Bessie, polishing her cup.

"Well, then--to begin reg'lar, Mrs. Costrell--yo' agree, don't yer, as Muster Bolderfield put his money in your upstairs cupboard?"

"I agree as he put his box there"--said Bessie, sharply.

John broke into inarticulate and abusive clamour. Bessie turned upon him.

"'Ow did any of us know what yer'd got in your box? Did yer ever show it to me, or Mary Anne there, or any livin' soul in Clinton? Did yer?"