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Author Topic: RURAL INSURANCE The Story of a Wayside Halt By CLOTILDE GRAVES  (Read 511 times)

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RURAL INSURANCE
The Story of a Wayside Halt
By CLOTILDE GRAVES


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.
Romans 10:9-10
"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."

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