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 appointed task.

"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 beer.

"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 stoker.

"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 fire?"

"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 politeness.

"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 I'm a-goin'——"

"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 'Red Cow.'"

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 his eyes.

"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 appalled silence.

"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," he added.

"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 stoker haughtily.

"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 went out.

"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 engineer.

"Double the value," replied the stoker, smiling broadly through the darkness, "of the property what I've lost in this here conflagration."

"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 invested in?"

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:

"A boy."

"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 Company——"

"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 surprised——"

"I'll surprise 'im!" muttered the engineer, "when I meets 'im!"

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 shocked accents.

"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 on——?"

"Stop!" shuddered the engineer. "'Old 'ard! I can't bear it."

"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 bunk, an——"

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 man."

"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 money."

"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 engineer.

"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."

Billy whistled.

"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.