Rural Insurance by Clotilde Graves
The Story of a Wayside Halt
Exhausted by the effort involved in keeping the
thermometer of the closing day of August at an
altitude intolerable to the human kind and irksome to the
brute, a large, red-hot sun was languidly sinking beyond
an extensive belt of dusky-brown elms fringing the western
boundary of a seventy acre expanse of stubbles diagonally
traversed by a parish right-of-way leading from the
village of Bensley to the village of Dorton Ware. A knee-deep
crop of grasses, flattened by the passage of the harvest
wains, clothed this strip of everyman's land, and a
narrow footpath divided the grass down the middle, as a
parting divides hair.
A snorting sound, which, accompanied by a terrific clatter
of old iron and the crunching of road-mendings, had been
steadily growing from distant to near, and from loud to
deafening, now reached a pitch of utter indescribability;
and as a large splay-wheeled, tall-funneled, plowing engine
rolled off the Bensley highroad and lumbered in upon the
right-of-way, the powerful bouquet of hot lubricating oil
nullified all other smells, and the atmosphere became opaque
to the point of solidity. As the dust began to settle it was
possible to observe that attached to the locomotive was a
square, solid, wooden van, the movable residence of the
stoker, the engineer, and an apprentice; that a Powler cultivator,
a fearsome piece of mechanism, apparently composed
of second-hand anchors, chain-cables, and motor driving-wheels,
was coupled to the back of the van, and that a bright
green water-cart brought up the rear. Upon the rotund
barrel of this water-cart rode a boy.
The plowing-engine came to a standstill, the boy got
down from the water-cart and uncoupled the locomotive
from the living-van. During the operations, though the boy
received many verbal buffets from both his superiors, it
was curiously noticeable that the engineer and stoker, while
plainly egging one another on to wreak physical retribution
upon the body of the neophyte, studiously refrained
from personally administering it.
"Hook off, can't ye, hook off!" commanded the engineer.
"A 'ead like a dumpling, that boy 'as!" he commented
to the stoker, as Billy wrought like a grimy goblin at the
"A clout on the side of it 'ud do 'im good!" pronounced
the stoker, who was as thin and saturnine as the engineer
was stout and good-humored. "Boys need correction."
"I'll allow you're right," said the engineer. "But it
ain't my business to 'it Billy for 's own good. Bein' own
brother to 'is sister's 'usband—it's plainly your place
to give 'im wot for if 'e 'appens to need it."
The stoker grunted and the clock belonging to the Anglo-Norman
church tower of the village struck six. Both the
engineer and his subordinate wiped their dewy foreheads
with their blackened hands, and simultaneously thought of
"Us bein' goin' up to Bensley for a bit, me an' George,"
said the engineer, "an' supposin' Farmer Shrubb should
come worritin' along this way and ask where us are, what
be you a-going to tell 'im, Billy boy?"
"The truth, I 'ope," said the stoker, with a vicious look
in an eye which was naturally small and artificially bilious.
"Ah, but wot is the truth to be, this time?" queried the
engineer. "Let's git it settled before we go. As far as
I'm consarned, the answer Billy's to give in regards to my
question o' my whereabouts is: 'Anywhere but in the tap o'
the Red Cow.'"
"And everythink but decently drunk," retorted the stoker.
"That's about it," assented the unsuspecting engineer.
The stoker laughed truculently, and Billy ventured upon
a faint echo of the jeering cachinnation. The grin died from
the boy's face, however, as the engineer promptly relieved
a dawning sense of injury by cuffing him upon one side of
the head, while the stoker wrung the ear upon the other.
"Ow, hoo," wailed Billy, stanching his flowing tears in
the ample sleeve of his coat, "Ow, hoo, hoo!"
"Stop that blubberin', you," commanded the stoker,
who possessed a delicate ear, "and make th' fire an' git th'
tea ready against Alfred and me gits back. You hear me?"
"Yes, plaize," whimpered Billy.
"An' mind you warms up the cold bacon pie," added the
"And don't you forget to knock in the top of that tin o'
salmon," added the engineer, "an' set it on to stew a bit.
An' don't you git pickin' the loaf wi' they mucky black
fingers o' yours, Billy, my lad, or you'll suffer for it when
I comes home."
"Yes, plaize," gasped Billy, bravely swallowing the recurrent
hiccough of grief. "An' plaize where be I to build
"The fire," mused the engineer. He looked at the crimson
ball of the sun, now drowning in a lake of ruddy vapors
behind the belt of elms; he nodded appreciatively at the
palely glimmering evening star and pointed to a spot some
yards ahead. "Build it there, Billy," he commanded briefly.
The stoker hitched his thumbs in his blackened leather
waist-strap and spat toward the rear of the van. "You
build the fire nigh th' hedge there," he ordered, "so as us
can sit wi' our faces to'rds yon bit o' quick an' hev th' van
to back of us, an' git a bit o' comfort outside four walls fur
once. D' ye hear, boy?"
"Yes, George," quavered Billy.
The sleepy eye of the engineer had a red spark in it that
might have jumped out of his own engine-furnace as he
turned upon the acquiescent Billy. "Didn't you catch
wot I said to you just now, my lad?" he inquired with ill-boding
"Yes, Alfred," gasped the alarmed Billy.
"If the boy doesn't mind me," came from the stoker,
who was thoroughly roused, "and if I don't find a blazin'
good fire, an' victuals welding hot, ready just in the place
I've pointed out to 'im, when I've 'ad my pipe and my
glass at the 'Red Cow,' I'll——" A palpably artificial
fit of coughing prevented further utterance.
"You'll strap 'im within an inch of 'is life, I dursay,"
hinted the engineer. "You pipe what George says, Billy?"
he continued, as Billy applied his right and left coat cuffs to
his eyes in rapid succession. "He's give you his promise,
and now I give you mine. If I don't find a roarin'
good fire and the rest to match, just where I've said
they're to be when I come back from where I've said
"You'll wallop 'im a fair treat, I lays you will," said the
stoker, revealing a discolored set of teeth in a gratified
smile. "We'll bide by wot the boy does then," he added.
"Knowin' that wot 'e gits from either of us, he'll earn.
An' your road is my road, Alfred, leastways as far as the
The engineer and the stoker walked off amicably side by
side. The sun sank to a mere blot of red fire behind the
elms, and crowds of shrilly-cheering gnats rose out of the
dry edges and swooped upon the passive victim, Billy,
who sat on the steps of the living van with his knuckles in
"Neither of 'em can't kill me, 'cos the one what did it
'ud 'ave to be 'ung," he reflected, and this thought gave
consolation. He unhooked a rusty red brazier from the
back of the living van, and dumping it well into the hedge at
the spot indicated by the stoker, filled it with dry grass,
rotten sticks, coals out of the engine bunker, and lumps
of oily cotton waste. Then he struck and applied a match,
saw the flame leap and roar amongst the combustibles,
filled the stoker's squat tea-kettle with water from the green
barrel, put in a generous handful of Tarawakee tea, and,
innocent of refinements in tea-making, set it on to boil.
"George is more spitefuller nor wot Alfred is," Billy
Beesley murmured, as the kettle sent forth its first faint
shrill note. Then he added with a poignant afterthought,
"But Alfred is a bigger man than wot George be."
The stimulus of this reflection aided cerebration. Possessed
by an original idea, Billy rubbed the receptacle containing
it, and his mouth widened in an astonished grin.
A supplementary brazier, temporarily invalided by reason
of a hole in the bottom, hung at the back of the living-van.
The engineer possessed a kettle of his own. Active as a
monkey, the small figure in the flapping coat and the baggy
trousers sped hither and thither. Two hearths were established,
two fires blazed, two tea-kettles chirped. Close
beside the stoker's brazier a bacon pie in a brown earthen
dish nestled to catch the warmth, a tin of Canadian salmon,
which Billy had neglected to open, leaned affectionately
against the other. Suddenly the engineer's kettle boiled
over, and as Billy hurried to snatch it from the coals, the
salmon-tin exploded with an awe-inspiring bang, and oily
fragments of fish rained from the bounteous skies.
"He'll say I did it a purpose, Alfred will!" the aggrieved
boy wailed, as he collected and restored to the battered tin
as much of its late contents as might be recovered. While
on all fours searching for bits which might have escaped
him, and diluting the gravy which yet remained in the tin
with salt drops of foreboding, a scorching sensation in the
region of the back brought his head round. Then he yelled
in earnest, for the roaring flame from the other brazier had
set the quickset hedge, inflammable with drought, burning
as fiercely as the naphtha torch of a fair-booth, while
a black patch, widening every moment, was spreading through
the dry, white grasses under the clumsy wheels of the living-van,
whose brown painted sides were beginning to blister
and char, as Billy, rendered intrepid by desperation, grabbed
the broken furnace-rake handle, usually employed as a poker,
and beat frantically at the encroaching fire. As he beat
he yelled, and stamped fiercely upon those creeping yellow
tongues. There was fire from side to side of the field pathway
now, the straggling hedge on both sides was crackling
gaily. And realizing the unconquerable nature of the
disaster, Billy dropped the broken furnace-rake, uttered
the short, sharp squeal of the ferret-pressed rabbit, and took
to his heels, leaving a very creditable imitation of a prairie
conflagration behind him.
It was quite dark by the time the engineer and his subordinate
returned from the "Red Cow," and their wavering
progress along the field pathway was rendered more
difficult, after the first hundred yards or so, by the unaccountable
absence of the hedge. It was a singularly oppressive
night, a brooding pall of hot blackness hung above their
heads, clouds of particularly acrid and smothering dust
arose at every shuffle of their heavy boots, even the earth
they trod seemed glowing with heat, and they remarked
on the phenomenon to one another.
"It's thunder weather, that's wot it be," said the engineer,
mopping his face. "I'm like my old mother, I feel
it coming long before it's 'ere. Phew!"
"Uncommon strong smell o' roast apples there is about
'ere," commented the stoker, sniffing.
"That beer we 'ad must 'ave bin uncommon strong,"
said the engineer in a low, uneasy voice. "I seem to see
three fires ahead of us, that's what I do."
"One whopping big one to the left, one little one farther
on, right plumb ahead, and another small one lower down
on my right 'and. I see 'em as well as you," confirmed
the stoker in troubled accents. "And that's how that
young nipper thinks to get off a licking from one of us——"
"By obeying both," said the engineer, quickening his
pace indignantly. "This is Board School, this is. Well,
you'll learn 'im to be clever, you will."
"You won't leave a whole bone in his dirty little carcase
once you're started," said the stoker confidently.
By this time they were well upon the scene of the disaster.
Before their dazed and horrified eyes rose the incandescent
shell of what had been, for eight months past, their movable
home, and a crawling crisping rustle came from the
pile of ashes that represented the joint property of two men
and one boy.
"Pinch me, Alfred," said the stoker, after an interval of
"Don't ask me," said the engineer, in a weak voice, "I
'aven't the power to kill a flea."
"There ain't one left living to kill," retorted the stoker,
as he contemplated the smoking wreck. "There was
'undreds in that van, too," he added as an afterthought.
"Burned up the old cabin!" moaned the engineer, "an'
my Sunday rig-out in my locker, an' my Post Office Savings
Bank book sewed up in the pillar o' my bunk, along o'
my last week's wages what I 'adn't paid in."
"I shouldn't wonder if Government 'ung on to they
savings o' yourn," said the stoker, shaking his head.
"It's a pity, but you'd invested yours as I 'ave mine,"
"In public 'ouses?" retorted the engineer.
"Some of it 'as went that way," the stoker admitted, "but
for three weeks past I've denied myself to put a bit into a
concern as I think is going to prove a paying thing."
"Owch!" exclaimed the engineer, who had been restlessly
pacing in the velvety darkness round the still glowing wreck
of the living-van.
"Don't you believe wot I've told you?" demanded the
"You don't always lie, George," said the engineer, gently.
"Wot made me shout out like that just now," he explained,
"was treading on something queer, down by the near side
wheels. Somethink brittle that cracked like rotten sticks
under my 'eel, an' then I slid on something round an'
squashy. An' the smell like roast apples, what I noticed
before, is stronger than ever."
"'Ave you a match about you?" asked the stoker eagerly.
"One," said the engineer, delicately withdrawing a solitary
"kindler" from the bottom of his waistcoat pocket.
The stoker received the match, and struck it on his trousers.
A blue glimmer resulted, a faint s-s-s! followed, and the match
"On'y a glim," said the stoker in a satisfied tone, "but it
showed me as I've made my money. An' made it easy, too."
"'Ow much 'ave you pulled orf, then?" asked the
"Double the value," replied the stoker, smiling broadly
through the darkness, "of the property what I've lost in this
"That 'ud bring you in about eighteenpence," retorted
the engineer bitterly.
The stoker laughed pleasantly.
"Wot do you say to three pun' seventeen?" he demanded.
"Better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick," said
the engineer. "Wot did you say was the concern you
The stoker felt in the darkness for his superior's arm,
grasped it, and putting his mouth close to where he thought
his ear ought to be, said loudly:
"Look 'ere, mate," began the engineer, hotly, "if you're
trying a joke on me——"
"It ain't no joke," responded the stoker cheerfully. "Leastways
not for the boy, it ain't. But Lord! when I think 'ow
near I come to lettin' the policy fall through." He chuckled.
"It's three weeks gone since I took it out," he said contentedly,
"an' paid three weeks' money in advance, an' at threepence
a week, that makes ninepence, an' the thought o' them
nine half-pints I might 'ave 'ad out o' money 'as drove me
'arf wild with thirst, over an' over. I should 'ave 'ad to
pay again come Monday, if only 'e 'ad 'ave lived."
"If only 'e 'ad lived—" repeated the engineer in a strange
far-away tone, "Oo's 'e?" he asked eagerly.
"You know old Abey Turner as keeps the little sweet-an'-tobaccer
shop over to Dorton Ware?" pursued the stoker.
"Old Abey is a agint for the Popular Thrifty Life Insurance
"I know 'e is," confirmed the engineer.
"Abey 'as bin at me over an' over again to insure my life,"
explained the stoker, "but I told 'im as I didn't 'old with
laying out good money wot wouldn't never come 'ome to
roost-like, until I was dead. Then Abey leans over the
counter an' ketches me by the neck 'andkerchief an' says,
'Think of the worst life you know, an' 'ave a bit on that.'
Naturally, talkin' o' bad lives, you're the first chap whose
name comes into my 'ead."
"Me!" ejaculated the engineer, starting.
"But it wasn't wickedness old Abey meaned," continued
the stoker, "only un'ealthiness in general. Somebody wot
wasn't likely to live long, that's the sort o' man or woman
'e wanted me to insure. 'A child'll do,' says 'e, smiling,
an' tells me 'ow a large family may be made a source of
blessing to parents 'oo are wise enough to insure in the
Popular Thrifty. Then it comes into my mind all of a
sudden as 'ow Billy 'ud do a treat, an' I names 'im to Old
Abey. 'That young shaver!' calls out old Abey, disgusted
like. 'Why, 'e's as 'ard as nails. Wot's likely to 'appen
to 'im?' 'If you was to see the 'andling 'e gets when my
mate is in 'is tantrums,' I says to old Abey, 'you'd put
your bit o' money on 'im cheerful an' willin'.' 'Is Alfred
Evans such a savage in 'is drink?' says old Abey, quite
"I'll surprise 'im!" muttered the engineer, "when I
The stoker continued: "So the long an' the short is,
I insured Billy, an' Billy's dead!"
"You don't really think so?" cried the engineer, in
"I don't think," said the stoker, in a hard, high tone, "I
knows 'e is."
"Not—burned with the van!" gasped the engineer.
"Burned to cinders," said the stoker comfortably. "'Ow
about that smell o' roasting you kep' a sniffing as we came
along, an' wot were it if not cooked boy? Wot was it your
foot crashed into when you called out awhile back? 'Is
ribs, 'im being overdone to a crisp. Wot was it you slipped
"Stop!" shuddered the engineer. "'Old 'ard! I can't
"I can," said the stoker, following his comrade as he
gingerly withdrew from the immediate scene of the tragedy.
"I could if it was twice as much."
"It will be that to me!" sighed the engineer, seating himself
upon the parish boundary stone, over which he had
stumbled in his retreat, and sentimentally gazing at the
star-jewelled skies. "Twice three pound is six, an' twice
seventeen bob is one-fourteen. Seven pounds fourteen is
wot that pore boy's crool end 'as dropped into my pocket,
and I'd 'ad those best clothes ever since I got married;
an' there was only eight an' fourpence in the piller o' the
The engineer stopped short, not for lack of words, but
because the stoker was clutching him tightly by the windpipe.
"You don't durst dare to tell me," the frenzied mechanic
shouted, "as wot you went an' insured Billy too?"
"That's just wot I 'ave done," replied the half-strangled
engineer. Then as the dismayed stoker's arms dropped
helplessly by his side, he added, "you ought to be grateful,
George, you 'ad no 'and in it. I couldn't 'ave
enjoyed the money properly, not if you'd 'ad to be 'ung
for the boy's murder. That's wot I said to old Abey
two weeks back, when I told 'im as 'ow Billy's life went
more in danger than anyone else's what I could think of,
through your being such a brutal, violent-tempered, dangerous
"An' wot did that old snake in the grass say to that
bloomin' lie?" demanded the stoker savagely.
"'E said life was a uncertain thing for all," sniggered
the engineer, gently. "An' I'd better 'ave a bit on
the event an' turn sorrow into joy, as the saying is. So
I give Abey a shillin', bein' two weeks in advance, an'
the Company sent me the policy, an' 'ere I am in for the
"Like wot I am, an' with clean 'ands for both of us,"
said the stoker in a tone of cheerful self-congratulation.
"I 'aven't laid a finger on that boy, not since I insured 'im."
"Nor I ave'n't," said the engineer. "It's wonderful
how I've bin able to keep my temper since I 'ad the policy
to take care of at the same time."
"Same with me," said the stoker happily. "Why, wot's
wrong?" he added, for a tragic cry had broken from the
"Mate," he stammered tremulously, "where did you
keep your policy?"
"Meanin' the bit o' blue-printed paper I 'ad from the
Popular Thrifty? Wot do you want to know for?"
snapped the stoker suspiciously.
"It just come into my 'ead to arsk," said the engineer,
in faltering accents.
"In my little locker in the van, since you're so curious,"
said the stoker grudgingly.
"I 'ad mine stitched up in the piller o' my bunk with
my Post Office Savin's book," said the engineer in the deep,
hollow voice of a funeral bell. "An' it's burned to hashes,
an' so is yours!"
"Then it's nineteen to one the company won't pay up,"
said the stoker after an appalled silence.
"Ten 'underd to one," groaned the engineer.
Another blank silence was broken by the stoker's saying,
with a savage oath:
"I wish that boy was alive, I do."
"I know your feeling," agreed the engineer sympathetically.
"It 'ud be a comfort to you to kick 'im—or any-think
else weak and small wot didn't durst to kick back."
"If I was to give you a bounce on the jor," inquired the
stoker, breathing heavily, "should you 'ave the courage
to land me another?"
The engineer promptly hit out in the darkness, and arrived
safe home on the stoker's chin. With a tiger-like roar of
fury, the stoker charged, and on the engineer's dodging
conjecturally aside, fell heavily over the parish boundary-stone.
He rose, foaming, and a pitched battle ensued,
in which the combatants saw nothing but the brilliant showers
of stars evoked by an occasional head-blow, and the general
advisability of homicide. Toward dawn fatigue overcame
them. The stoker lay down and declined to get up
again and the engineer even while traveling on all fours in
search of him, lost consciousness in slumber.
A yellow glare in the east heralded the rising of the orb
of day, as the figures of an aged man and a ragged boy moved
from the shelter of the belt of elms that screened the village
of Dorton Ware, and proceeded along the right-of-way.
"It's burned, right enough, Billy, my boy," said the
old man, shading his bleared eyes with his horny hand as
he gazed at the blackened skeleton of the living-van. "An'
all considered, you can't be called to blame."
"If you'd bin asleep inside the van when that theer blaze
got started," said old Abey, rebukingly, as he hobbled along
by the boy's side, "you wouldn't be whistlin' 'My Own
Bluebell' now; your pore widowed mother, what lives in
that theer little cottage o' mine at Porberry End—and
'om I persuaded to insure you in the Popular Thrifty—would
'ave 'ad a bit o' money comin' in 'andy for 'er Michaelmas
rent, an' one or two other people would be a penny o' th'
right side, likewise." He paused, and shading his bleared
eyes under his gnarled hand, looked steadfastly at two huddled,
motionless, grimy figures, lying in the charred grass
beside the pathway. "Dang my old eyes!" he cried. "'Tis
George an' Alfred—Alfred an' George—snatched away
i' their drink an' neither of 'em insured. I'll lay a farden.
Here's a judgment on their lives, what wouldn't listen
to Old Abey an' put into the Popular Thrifty. Here's
a waste of opportunity—here's——"
Old Abey's voice quavered and broke off suddenly as
the corpse of the engineer, opening a pair of hideously blood-shot
eyes, inquired ferociously what in thunder he meant
by making such a blamed row, while the body of the stoker
rolled over, yawned, revealing a split lip, and sat up staring.
"We—we thought you was dead, mates," faltered Old
Abey. "Didn't us, Billy?"
"At first I did," Billy admitted, "an' then I——"
"Then you wot?" repeated the engineer, bending his
brows sternly above a nose swollen to twice its usual size.
"Out with it!" snarled the stoker, whose lip was painful.
"I was afraid as it couldn't be true," stuttered Billy.
The stoker exchanged a look with the engineer.
"The van's burnt, an' we've both lost our property,
to say nothin' of our prospects, mate," he said with a sardonic
sneer, "but one comfort's left us, Billy's alive!"
A little later the plowing engine with its consort was
at work under the hot September sky. As the Powler cultivator
traveled to and fro, ripping up the stubbles, the boy
who sat on the iron seat and manipulated the guiding-wheel,
snivelled gently, realizing that the brief but welcome interval
of icy aloofness on the part of his superiors had passed,
never to return; and that the injunction of the Prophet would
thenceforth be scrupulously obeyed.