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A Matter of Money


[ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.] A Matter of Money BY WARWICK DEEPING. It was raining the heavy, -wind-driven rain <A a March day, and from the white cottage mi the high road above Sweynsford village two men, with sacks over their shoulders, were carrying furniture down the box-edged path to a cart outside the gate. A small crowd of children watched the process with solemn curiosil., oblivious to the slopping rain, the puddk and the mud. The two men ringed an oak chest over the tail board of the cart, and looked at each other as though not sorry that the work was at an end. "That's the lot, Frank, ain't it?" "I reckon so. Git back, will yer," and he swung himself up to the front of the cart. Within the cottage a tall girl of twenty was walking to and fro over the brick floor of the kitchen. She looked straight and clean, fresh in the face, angry and resentful about the eyes. The little placie had been almost stripped of its belongings. Only a table, two chairs, a few pots and pans, cheap ornaments and crockery, remained. Before the open grate an old woman rocked to and fro on a three-legged stool, her hands to her head, a darned shawl over her shoulders. She made a dismal whimpering as she swayed to and fro, the stoop of her back rounded with hopeless humiliation. "Oh dear, oh dear, what will the folks say of us. Have they gone, Crissy, are they go- ing t' leave us the chairs?" "They've gone, mother." "Oh dear, oh d-ear, they've taken the mangle, too. Dear Lord, what are we to live by? D It be terrible. Mr. Smith might have given me a chance." "He's a brute, mother." "It ain't Christian of him, and he a deacon, too." We'll come through, mother, don't you doubt it." "The Lord help us! If only Tom Hatherly were here." "Tom?" "Yes, my dear. He wouldn't have stood by and seen us beggared. But there, there, lie be a big man now, I guess. He's forgot us. This there war be a terrible affliction." "He spoke of his .regiment coming home," she said. "Three months ago, my dear, and not an- other letter to ye. The lad's plenty of girls to pick from, and him a soldier. Oh dear, oh dear, life be hard when the money's tight.' "Don't you fret, mother. I haven't the heart to think that the old home's going from you. We're not done with yet." Night came, and with it a few handfuls of sticks thrown on the fire under the great chimney. The cheap cotton curtains were drawn across the casement, the paraffin lamp lit, but no cloth spread on the kitchen table. "Come, mother, supper's ready." The invitation was more liberal than the food upon the table. Two cold potatoes, a piece of cheese, some cocoa, and a hunch of bread. "Oh dear, child, I can't touch the stuff." Criss coaxed her, the firelight making her face look warm and tender. "Come, now, come, just to please a girl." "I ain't no heart for it, child." "A cup of cocoa and some bread and .cheese. You won't sleep, mother; just eat a bit for my sake." Criss was clearing the table when they heard the garden gate open, and footsteps came slowly up the path. Someone knocked at the cottage door. Mother and daughter looked at each other doubtingly. They had suffered, so much in a single day that they shivered at the thought of further torture. "Who's there?" A man's voice answered them. "Only Mr. Willing." "Good evening, ladies," and the baker Crossed the threshold. He was a dapper man with an acute, thin face, genteel in manners, and thirty as to age. Criss Flemming had never flattered JMr. Willing with encourage- ment, even though he had long honoured her with his most prosperous attentions. Mrs. Flemming held up her hands. "Dear Ldrd, sir, you've caught us in a shameful pickle. Only a wooden chair for a friend! Who would have dreamt it!" The baker stared round him with an air of dramatic surprise. Two chairs and a table made no great show in the cottage kitchen. "Why, what's this; refurnishing, eh?" He looked at Criss and saw her bite her lip. The old lady tcok up the lament. "Oh, dear Lord, Mr. Willing. Mr. Smith has dropped on us, and take v all my choice stuff. The oak chest, and the clock, and the old Sheraty desk my husband had. All gone for a matter of a few blessed pounds." "What! Don't tell me, ma'am, that Mr. Smith has sent the bailiffs in?", "It's true," and the girl reddened at the shame of it. "You do astonish me. A prosperous man like Mr. Smith! And a deacon, too. Are you sure, Criss, there's no mistake?" "Does it look like a mistake," and she seemed ready to weep. "What does Mr. Smith claim against you?" "A matter of fifteen pounds." "Fifteen pounds!" and th-3 baker rubbed. Ills hands and frowned. "Yes, we've had a lot of stuff from him, and what with bad luck, and me being ill, and Miss Tinsley dying, who gave us all' her needlework and washing, We've been- getting, low." Mr. Willing rose suddenly, and stood took- ing sheepishly at the two women. "Something must be done," he observed, with a side glance at the daughter. The widow clutched at the vague sugges- tion, feeling disfurbed/as to tne reason of Air,- killing's departure. I "I'm sure, sir, we're in terrible trouble. We Ve been respectable folk, and its feard to ce sold up." ^Indeed, ma'am, you have my sympathy. There's my girl there, it ain't pleasant for lier to have all the neighbours peering and slibberlng." r o "Criss and I might have rf talk," and he made a genteel gesture with his hat towards- tne doOr, "it's a fine night—now." Mfg. Flemming beheld new possibilities. • t <7e a Criss, Mr. Willing," she*' said, 'young are betfe* than old 'uns, 1 sUppoge." meeting to the' 8ate) looking sleek and complacent, *r,e a man who warms to generous impulses.- e girl stood be$»icle him, gazing out in »i-- ?JFr tlw sombre and wind swept woods,- |Qg lristinct warning her whtit might be eom- ^a^ter gl»ncedhnai»1 asntirneatally ati.. tL> ,sorry, Grisly" he ft^id. »' sighed and did not-' afaawer him* "You know, I'm a friend. I can't see yon j suffering this way; it goes to a man's heart." 1 His eyes insinuated many truths, and he j IrJed to take her hand. j "Haven't you a kind word for me, Criss?" j "I don't know," and she stiffened against | the attack. I "I'm not a bad sort of man, eh, and I haven't looked at another girl since you came nineteen. Supposing I take this business en my shoulders, and see your mother comfort- able for life?" He stooped towards her, his hand touching her arm. "Just think," he said, "whether there is a man that can do better by you than Ernes- Willing." "You mean you are wanting to marry me," the said with a kind of sullen self-restraint. "I do, I love you, Criss." "Well?" "ril make you happy, and your mother shan't want in her old age. That's fair and straight in English, eh?" "It's fair enough," she confessed. "Will you have me, Criss?" "I'll think on it." "But you know!" "I'll think on it. Give me a night or two. rvp: had so much on me to-day," and she turned and left him standing at the gate. Mr. Ernest Willing was a very cocky litile peison, and the village folk inferred from the supreme sprigiitliness of his beaning that Mr. Willing's fortunes were in flower. All that week he threw out jaunty and com- placent hints, remarking that someone would be wearing a ring before long, and that he contemplated buying a pony and trap to suit a lady. The finger of gossip was pointed at Mrs. Flemmi ig's cottage. Somehow, Mr. Willing's generosity had been noised abroad, and vastly exaggerated. He had bought Mrs. Flernming's cottage, so folks said, and had settled it on her for life. As for the baker, he knew that he was sullenly envied by half the young fellows, in the village. ISiot a eonie- lie faea could be suown in the village than Criss Flernming's, and she was tail and the young fellows, in the village. Not a come- lie faea could be suown in the village than Criss Flemming's, and she was tail and straight as a well-grown c prtss. They, were restless and unhappy days for the girl herself. Her mother had set her heart on the scheme, and was for ever hymn- ing in Mr. Willing's praise. What a he ad he had for business, what afiablo- manners, what a kind and sympathetic way with him. Lucky would the girl be who won such a steady and prosperous husband, a young man whose ability had set him above the rough and tumble farming fellows who thought of nothing but their cabbage gardens and a gossip in the local pub. Criss Flemming wa* thinking all the while of Corporal Hatherly, sturdy Tom of her girl's pride, who Had thrashed one of the blacksmith s men in the meadow behind the forge because the fellow had spoken slightingly of her. The thought of marrying Ernest Willing frightened her, even though she recognised the man's good ipoints. The alliance would insure her mother | against sordid care, and no doubt the vil- lage women would eiwy her the match. Mr. Willing stood at tlio garden gate one evening with his arm about Criss Flernming's waist. "I'm a lucky man," he said complacently, as though it was generous of him to blink his own superior meriis. The girl hated herself for her sense of hypocrisy, but she had felt lonely and miser- able, tha victim of her,, ifiother's poverty. "You have been very kind," she confessed. "And what about the day, eh?" "What day?" Mr. Willing sniggered, oblivious to the fact that the girl revolted from him. "The day for the bell ringing. You must fix it up, you know; part of a lady's busi- ness." "Next August." "August! Can't be done. Say June, my dear." "Well, let it be June," and she tried, for her mother's sake, not to betray her bitter- ness to him. Criss Flernming's wedding dress was in the widow's hands, but the girl had no joy of the white silk and the lace. Mr. Willing had given her the money for the dress, and per- haps she hated it the more for that. There was mild enthusiasm among the neighbours. The women congratulated her, their bless- ings spiced with a dash of envy. Mr. Willing beamed behind his counter. Business was prosperous, and he felt the one man of the moment. Criss looked handsome in her new summer clothes. The baker had been gener- ous, though it was mainly a matter of vanity with him to let people see that he was to marry a pretty wife. It struck him at times that the girl seemed sullen and a little sad, but Mr Willing's conceit disposed of the ob- jection. Many women were moody and silent before marriage. No doubt Criss was taking her responsibility to heart, the responsibility of making—him—happy. June came with the grass deep in the mea- dows, and wild rO&8 in the hedgerows. It was one Tuesday evening when a sturdy, brown-faced man in khaki climbed out of the train at Aylsliam Junction, and taking his kit bag under his arm, marched off briskly twrough the town. To Corporal Hatherly the groen fields and hedgerows were sweet wiat the sweetness of an English June. His broiiii face beamed as he swung along the road, with the twilight deepening as the scarlet Ql the sunset turned to gold. Nearing Sweynsfyrd village, straggling up t the valley amid its woods, he took the path across the fields, climbing many a stile where be and Criss Flemming had loitered as bry and girL There was something sacred to thtt strong, war-tanned man in the peace of the place, and in the memories that met him at every meadow. He was wondering whether the girl had changed much in two year*, whether ske would be coy with him, half lik» a stranger. Corporal Hatherly met no one on the prrih ihat evening. He reached Sweynifoi(I itigli road without seeing tho faje of a friend. There, nearlv opposite the stile and backed I bj a larch wood, stdocl the Flemmings' cot- tage," its -white walls turned towards the smn- est. The rosea were in bloom over the i wooden porch, the sweet peas P-Outter in tho I little garden. Tom Hatherly saw that a light was burning in the kiich-n. He opened the gate noiselessly, stole wp.jtbP path, suid looked in through the leaded casement. By the table sat Criss Flemming's mother with a mass of white gauzy stuff across her knem. She was sewing busily, with her hftad bowed down, though Corporal Hatherly did net; realise the meaning of her work. He Mocked, lifted the latch, and sleponfl into, the kitchen, to see the widow's fttee flUFxretl sharply towards him. come back again." JfcSv Flemming gave a queer'$ry, dropped Re# work, nod stared at the figure in khaki wj the door. Tom put., hi; 'kit'd )Lhi,ro. ■mmi -;t»■ ihougii to .kiss hls& •' V. 'j id' be back 4ii-' ih«f^6M;:V flpMV- Mrs. Flemming blinked ff.t him, and arid ui) a hana "Tom Hatherly!" "Tilers. 1 came in too smMezi, cli? How's Criss?" and lu lookeJ rouad the familiar room, and smikd. The wido>\ woman sirove to recover her composure. picked up her work, but her Criss be very v,"0;.1, Tom." Her tone startled hii:i. I'm glad. Is she in?" "No, she be out: at Ayisham, shopping.' The soldier's eyed ü,,1 u. em solves curiously en the wnite li.^ss across the fid ( lady's knee. Ho had a whriiikn.g suspi'u u j that he was not v,: r, -i, and that AiiS j "That's a tine gown you're mai.i:;g." Yes, it be for Criss." "Criss!" her Tom Hatheily slcod to attention with a sharp stil'emng 01 He back and neck. "Criss's weudi..g dress?" "To be sure." "And who's tho girl to marry?" IINVI,Y, lii-is-si .v'iiibig, Tom, of course. But there, you heard nothing of it. You foreign folk are late with the news." Tom Hai orly looked at the white silk, his face almost the colour of Cess's dress. MIs. Flemming's needle worked with irritable briskness*, bha v. as inclined to quarrel with the corporal's return. "I reckon, then," and he gulped down liis humiliation, "1 reckon I'm not wauted much in your kiteh.n, Mrs. Flemming." iiy, To:ii, amiss wim it?" He turned aside, op -nirg and shutting his brown hands, and star big at the kit bag he had left by the cottage door. "Is the girl happy?" Mrs. Fleming's race simulated surprise. "Ernest Willing wdl make her a good hus- I band. He's a clever ieliow, and has a tidy bit of money." The soldier muttered something, and turned to the door. "Out of sight, out of mind," he said bitterly, "I'll go up to Peter Mason's to get bed. Tell Criss I hope she'll be happy." Mrs. Flemming gave a relieved look at his broad shoulders as they vanished through the door. "She'll be pleased to see you, Tom, some day soon," she called after him, "we're that busy we don't know which way to turn." Corporal Hatherly went, out to the darken- ing road like a man whose outlook upon life has been changed in the course of an hour. There was no little bitterness in the blow to him, a young fellow who had fought back many a temptation for the thought of a girl in an English village. He supposed that it had been a mora April fancy with Criss Flem- ming. She was young, and he could not blame her. But he hated the smug and genteel Mr. Willing from the very bottom of his sturdy heart. The soldier stopped at the stile where the path opened across the fields. He dropped his bag in the grass, climbed uF, and perched himself on the top rail like a man who was tired. Two young labourers went by in the dusk, and gave him good night, without re- cognising him as a friend. Corporal Hatherly felt that the times had changed. A spnse of isolation, of loneliness, made him wish that he had not come. Sitting with his head between his hands, he heard a footstep on the path behind him, and drew aside to ht a woman pass. Her foot wap on the- stair, before he recognised her. It was Criss Flemming, Mr. Willing's prospective wife. Criss She gave a sharp, startled cry, and stood looking at him over the stile. Corporal Hatherly's knees shook under him. He had not been prepared for so abrupt, a meeting. "Tom, is it you?" "Me, sure enough." "Have yon seen mother?" "Yes," and he hung his heud. "She's told you?" "I saw the dress." Criss Flemming looked at the man, and saw the dejected drooping of his shoulders. Her own heart was hurrying as though she had been frightened by a begging tramp in the dusk. All the old memories were awake within her. "Tom, what are you thinking of me?" "I'm hoping you may be happy, Criss." "Oh—Tom, I couldn't help myself. Mother was being sold up, and Ernest, well—he paid the money." Corporal Hatherly's figure straightened. "What's that? Sold up!" "Yes, by old Smith; we owed the hard man money, and he took our stuff. Ernest was kind to us-and I thonght-" I She broke down of a sudden, and began to sob. Tom Hatherly was over the stile like a young colt. He put his arm round her, and she did not hinder him. "There, Criss—girl, don't you take on. You should have written—I had the money on me, and I'd have done as well by you as Willing. And you're to marry him. I reckon I can t count." "You did not write to me, Tom." "I was ill," he answered. "Oh!"—and her bitterness increased, "if 1 had known. Why-" She hesitated, for his arm had tightened about her, and he was listening, his face pale and determined in the dusk of the night. "Someone's coming." "Where?" "Over the fields. Stand back here. They'll go by in the dark." Beside the stile stood a thick hedge that closed the garden of a deserted cottage. There was a gap where the gate had been. Tom Hatherly drew the girl through the 'gtip, darted for his bag, and returned to cover. Two men were coming along the path, their Toiees audible to the pair hiding in the gar- den. Criss stiffened and hold Tom Hatherly's hand. She recognised Mr. W illing's compla- cent tenor. "Ha—ha—ha," it was an old man's laugh, harsh and half suppressed. What they, call diplomacy,' Mr. Smsth, eh?" "A good joke, sir; faint heart never iron fair. lady. Fifteen pounds for a wife." "Well, it was a bargain, Willing, and onee of the funniest bargains a man ever asked me to make. I seized the old lady's furniture all right, eh, and then you stepped in liko a hero, saved the home, and had the young damsel falling on your breast. I've often 1 on a chuckle over the trick. I suppose I may at- tend at the wedding?" "We're sending you a card, sir," and fcoth men tittered. Behind the hedge Tdm Hatherly was hold ing Criss Flemming's hand. They stood very close to each other in the dark. The soldier felt the girl's fingers contract on his, heard. her hold her breath as Mr. Willing followed the deacon over the 'stile. v t "Did y-ou bear th0, Tom?" •I I the soldier grimly. '■! he's going to the cottage. the JMtie. V; ) "Wait a while, Criss," and his arm went round her with a more vigoroas suggestion of possession. I They saw Mr. Willing's figure outlined against the window, and heard him call to I Mrs. Flemming in the kitchen. Doubtless the old lady told him that he might meet her daughter in the meadows, for the baker turned and came back towards the stile. Deacon Smith had gone down the hill to- wards the village. The diplomat was alone under the wink of the all-wise stars. "Bide here, Criss," and Corporal Hatherly rjressed her arm. "What are you going to do, Tom?" "Just talk a little," and he smiled, and caught the approval on her face. Mr. Willing was over the stile when he drew up with a jerk, to find a man closing the path across the fields. "Good evening, sir, I hope you're well'" The baker's lip dropped; the nature oi the interference scared him. "What d'you want?" he asked. "Who is it?" "You call to mind Tom Hatherly." "Hatherly r Whú's he?" The corporal's brown face beamed with exultant grimness. "Don't you try bluff, Mr. Ernest Will- ing," he said, "yon know me, sir, and I know you. What about Deacon Smith taking Mrs. Flernming's furniture?" The baiter bristled, and made as though to pass. "You mind your own business," he began. "I'll mind it, and yours. Who tried to buy a wife for fifteen pounds?" "Confound you, what d'you mean! The SiWier laughed. "Mr. hmith was an obliging friend," he said sarcastically, "he forced the game for you by taking Mrs. Flemming's stuff." "You lie." "Lie, do I! I reckon I don't." Mr. Willing gave a scared glance at the militant figure, and made a step towards the stile. The aorporal's arms swung up from his square' shoulders. Will you take if standing?"' "Keep off, you blackguard." "Come> up with them." "Touch me, and I'll have the law of you, came the indignant squeal. A pair of brown fists came thudding about Mr. Willing's- head. He ducked, dodged, beat the air, and went down panting and whimper- ing on tho grass. Corporal Hatherly stood over him, seeing that the diplomat would not fight. "Don't hurt the poor thing, Tom." Mr. Willing sat up with sudden adroitness, to find Criss Flemming at the soldier's side. "Don't hurt the coward." "Coward and the baker scrambled to his feet. A curious- laugh came from the lips of his contemptuous bride- "so you paid fifteen pounds for me, Ernest Willing," she said. "Its a lie, an infernal lie." "Now that's good, Tom, ain't ft? Didn't we hear it from Mr. Smith's own lips." The diplomat glanced from one to the other, and made x brave effort to enlarge his shrunken pride. "I'll not argue the question," he srdd, dab- bing a bleeding nose. The scornful ones laughed. I reckon I owe you fifteen pounds, sir," eaid Corporal Hatherly, striking his pocket. But Mr. Ernest "Willing had disappeared over the stile.