When Annie Blair realized that her butter money was about to melt in the hands of an unwelcome visitor to Richvale, the end of what was planned to be a perfect day came with dramatic suddenness.
R. E. BREACH
THE Richvale Ladies’ Curling Club were giving a Hard Times Dance in the town hall, to raise money to pay off certain indebtednesses incurred during the winter in entertaining rival organizations from neighboring towns. Garish hand-
bills hung in every store window, giving details of the entertainment, and ending with this solemn warning, addressed to all persons
who might be interested, as to rigid conventions of dress:
White Collars Barred Safety Pins Welcome Dudes will be Fined.
Mrs. Annie Blair, flaxen-haired and twenty-one, read a purple poster that hung in the window of Pryce’s butcher shop. “That would just suit me,” she thought, looking down at her shabby coat. “Pm ready for that dance right now.” Then with a toss of her yellow head: “No use being a piker. Pd better get busy with the butter.”
Tied to an iron ring in the boardwalk behind her, dozed Nellie, her old white mare, harnessed to a light buggy. A wooden box held pound prints of butter, wrapped in thin white paper stamped with her name, for Annie was proud of her wares. She could get a better price for her butter than any womar. in the district, although she had been a farmer’s wife for little more than a year.
As she bent to untie the halter rope from the ring, a tall girl came out of the butcher shop, with a parcel under her arm
“Hello, Mrs. Blair.
I was hoping you would come to-day. Can you spare us four pounds extra? We want it for sandwiches for the dance to-night.”
It was Mrs. Don Proctor, who, as secretary of the Curling Club, was charged with all the details of the evening’s entertainment.
Annie wrapped up the butter in clean newspaper and dropped the money into the bottom of her thin little purse. She liked Mrs. Proctor, who was just her own age, and very friendly.
“How is Mr. Blair getting on?”
“Much better, thanks. Doctor hopes to have him on his feet for the spring work. Do you need any butter for yourself, Mrs. Proctor?”
“You might leave me a couple of pounds. Can you stay for the dance?”
“I’d like to, but I must get home as soon as I can. Jim worries if I’m late. And I have to see Mr. Imrie at the bank, when I get rid of the butter.”
“If you care to stay, come and have supper with us. Better ’phone Mr. Blair and tell him you’re staying. He won’t mind if he knows where you are. Well, goodbye!” Annie looked wistfully after the alert figure in the smart gray frock, the neat shoes, the silk stockings. “I suppose she can go into the store and order anything she wants. I’m too shabby to go to Proctor’s. But if Jim gets better and we have a good crop this year, I guess he’ll buy me just as nice a dress as hers.”
Then she decided that she was envious. “I’m a piker, all right. And she asked me to supper, too. I don’t suppose she noticed my old dress anyway, or cared about it, if she did. Gid-ap, Nellie!”
At this moment a large car came round the corner, and Nellie, who had been young before the day of the automobile and still disapproved of them in her old age, began to stand on her hind legs and walk backward. Annie chirruped, and slapped the broad white back with the flat of the reins, but in vain. The buggy cramped dangerously. Mr. Pryce came out of his shop and seized the agitated female by the bit.
“Your mare will have to get used to that car, Mrs. Blair,” he said. “The people that run it are new neighbors of yours. They bought Pap Bigelow’s section, right next to you, this morning.”
“You don’t say!” said Annie. “Jim was wishing the other day he could afford a quarter of it. But land sake, let’s pay for what we have now, say I.”
“Those folks give ten thousand dollars for it—a good price for unimproved land. They gave Pap a wad of bonds that would choke a cow.”
“I thought Mr. Bigelow wanted cash.”
“The bonds are as good as cash any day, Mrs. Blair. Victory bonds, mostly hundreds; unregistered, couponbearing bonds.” The butcher rolled the words unctuously over his tongue. “Pap’s just carried them across to the bank to put in his safety deposit box. I never saw such a pile of securities. Could do with a few of them myself.” “So could I,” said Annie. “Thanks for your help.”
For the next two hours Annie went from house to house of the village, distributing butter to her customers. Her little purse swelled more and more as the box at her feet emptied. But her progress was slow, for at every house she must go in and chat with her patrons. Everybody was talking about the dance and asking her advice about costumes.
“My John swears he will not go to a dance without a collar,” said one jolly matron, “even if they fine him ten dollars. He hates these freak dances. Now, I think they are great fun. How do you like my dress?”
She held up a frock made of sacking, trimmed with odds and ends of bright-colored cloth, with a red, white, and blue cushion rope for a girdle.
“It’s just fine, Mrs. Rowe,” said Annie. “I’m sure you’ll get the first prize. It looks like hard times all right. Where did you get such a large piece of sacking?” “It came wrapped round our baby buggy, in one big piece. It had ‘John Rowe, Baby Carriage, Richvale,’ stamped on it, but John made me cut off that piece. How’ll I fix the hem?"
“I’d fringe it out,” advised Annie. “You ough't to see Jennie Gates’ dress. She made it of newspapers and if she
gets through the evening without splitting it, she deserves a special prize. Now I must be getting on.”
Her last customer satisfied, she turned to the bank. With her butter money for the day, she had just thirty dollars. There was to be a sale of farm machinery the next day and Mr. Imrie had promised to bid in a
plough for her husband. Of course the
banker might arrange for the payments himself, but that wasn’t Jim’s way of doing business. Mr. Imrie had been a good friend to them. He and his wife had come to see Jim when he was so sick, and she had given them a
But her interest in the dance had delayed her too long. The bank was just closing. Mr. Imrie had gone into the country, the teller told her; Mrs. Imrie had gone with him. He wouldn’t be back before nine o’clock. Annie hesitated. She could ask the teller to give the money to his manager, but she was a little awed by this polished
youth. Besides, it wasn’t really bank business. She decided to wait. And she did want to get a look at that dance. She walked across to Proctor’s General Store and phoned to her husband.
“ ’S all right, honey,” said Jim. “Stay and have a good time. I’ll be fine until you get back. But be sure and see Imrie. I don’t want him to be payin’ out money for us. Go’bye.”
THE upper story of
the town hall was
arranged for dances,
amateur and professional drama, moving pictures and the business of the electorate. A bare, smooth-walled room, with a tiny stage framed in by a creaky drop-curtain, painted with advertising plaques. The floor was girdled by rows of straight-backed kitchen chairs. At the rear was a tin-lined cubicle for the motion picture machine, now crammed with dish-pans of sandwiches, sacks of lump sugar, jars of thick
cream, and cakes; and cakes; and cakes.
The Supper Committee was sorting out dishes and counting spoons. The Decoration Committee was breathlessly hanging the last streamers of the Club’s colors to the walls. The Music Committee, or, more truthfully, the Music Committee’s husbands, was wrestling with the wiring of the radio which was to transmit dance music from Calgary. At the rear of the hall, the first celebrants, clad in damaged overalls and workshirts, hung sheepishly together and longed for company to give countenance to their destitute array.
But with the full rush of the crowd, constraint vanished. Rags and tatters, outlandish costumes or substitutes for costumes, a masque of prosperity playing at poverty. At a black-draped table on the stage sat the judge, clad in sable robes, wearing the skull-cap of judgment. Luckless wights who dared to flaunt a respectable coat, a white collar or a Masonic ring, were haled before him and fined according to the enormity of the offence. The Curling Club’s coffers swelled. At regular intervals, the radio pealed like a bell, filling the hall with the sound of fiddles and pianos played a hundred miles away. Shuffling feet kept time.
The Grand March—the contest for the prizes—ragged motley walking two by two. Annie stood on a chair the better to see into the crowded circle. Mrs. Rowe in her sacking, Jennie Gates in her newspapers, prosperous and staid folk in their oldest garments. A tumult of applause, Gargantuan laughter, a new figure leading the march. Wee Willie Boyce, the village cut-up, in a barrel, and apparently nothing else. His lean naked shanks protrude from the bottom of the barrel, his impudent boyish face grins above its topmost hoop. Give him the prize—well done, Willie! Famine or Pestilence could show no worse.
Willie received the prize, and instantly his feet are swept from under him. He is rolled in his barrel from one end of the hall to the other. The barrel collapses against the stove and Willie crawls from under the ruin of his staves. He rolls down his trousers over his chilly knees, and taking modest refuge behind the smokers at the door, draws on his shoes and stockings.
Mrs. Proctor spoke at Annie’s elbow: “There is a light in the bank. Mr. Imrie is back.”
ANNIE ran lightly down the long stairs and crossed the road to the bank. Above the half-blinds of the main office she saw a dim light shining. Mr. Imrie was in his office She would give him the money and start for home. The moon was falling. It would soon be very dark.
Two cars stood before the bank, hulks in the shadows. One was Mr. Imrie’s car, splashed with the mud of the spring roads; the other, low, heavy, powerful, she did not know. She noticed the cars because she hoped the heavier machine would not be going her way and frighten Nellie. But having once looked, she felt there was something rather unusual about the strange car. It halted her to a more careful examination. There were neither license plates nor maker’s name on the machine.
“Isn’t it the way?” she mused. “The folks who run the biggest cars are the last to pay for their licenses.”
She went round to the side door of the bank and knocked. Padding footsteps answered. The door opened a crack.
Annie said: “I want to see Mr. Imrie,” and pushed against the door. It stalled as though about to close, then opened.
She walked through the little hall into the main office, behind the high desks and the frosted glass, and the heavy iron grille of the teller’s cage. It wasn’t Mr. Imrie who had opened the door, for she saw him sitting very quietly in a chair. He did not speak to her. He was pale, and she thought suddenly, “he is ill.”
He was talking to a tall man in dark clothes. A black shadow lay across this man’s eyes. Annie’s legs shook under her. The shadow was a mask. She turned quickly, but the man who had opened the door was behind her, and pushed her ahead. His face, too, was masked. He called out to his tall companion:
“It’s only a girl.”
“Couldn’t you keep her out?”
“She shoved in unexpectedly. Then I couldn’t close the door in her face. She’d be sure to start something.’”
“All right. Leave her here. She can’t do any harm.”
Mr. Imrie sat quietly in his chair, his knees crossed, his hands folded upon each other. He did not look at Annie, but at the dark door of the vault. Annie leaned against a desk and stared wide-eyed and dumb. She was numbed by this sudden transition from lights and music and gay harlequinade, to these grim shadows through which gleamed the dark outline of that great mummer, Death.
“You will gain nothing by forcing me to open the vault,” said Mr. Imrie, as though resuming an ordinary business conversation. “The money is in the safe, which has a time lock. You will have some difficulty in forcing that.”
“I could blow your safe all right, but just now we are pressed for time. It’s your safety deposit boxes I’d like to investigate. You have a large sum in negotiable bonds.”
Mr. Imrie frowned. “I wonder who is telling business secrets outside the bank.” “Don’t blame your clerks, friend, when your depositors shout their affairs from every corner. Why, man, one has only to stand on this street for ten minutes, to know more about your bank affairs than you do yourself. I know that Bigelow received ten thousand dollars’ worth of bonds and deposited them in his safety deposit this afternoon. I have only ten minutes to spare to get them, and thanks to your lady friend here, we have wasted nearly half that time.”
“I suppose you are the men who robbed the post office at Venture Bluffs last night.”
“We might be; anyway, we work the same way. Wires cut, dark night, inconspicuous car, everybody busy elsewhere. So you realize we have no more time for argument. Put your gat against his ear, Jock. Now, Mr. Manager, open the vault, and I’ll attend to Pap’s bonds.”
“Shoot,” said Mr. Imrie, “and be damned to you!”
Annie put her hands over her ears to shut out the sound of the shot. The silence pressed against her ear-drums, tingling for the expected shock. The masked man laughed.
“You win the first trick,” he said. “A dead banker would mean no bonds and a long chase. But you’re going to open that vault.”
He crossed to where Annie hung over the desk, and led her into the open space where Mr. Imrie sat.
A knife-edge of pain ran up Annie’s arm, and shot flaming darts through side and breast. Tears streamed from her eyes, waves of blackness swept her brain. But she did not scream. Instead she bit fiercely with her sharp white teeth into the dirty palm that pressed against her mouth. The man dropped his hand, sucked the wound, and struck her across the face. His companion laughed.
“Twist her arm again. I’ll twist it off her, Imrie, if you don’t open the vault.”
Annie moaned again, her writhing body held down across the desk. Mr. Imrie unfolded his hands.
“Let her alone. I’ll open the vault.”
She saw him, through blurry mists of unshed tears, on his knees before the black steel, twirling the polished dial. The door swung heavily open. Mr. Imrie sat down again in his chair. He looked at her kindly.
“Don’t cry. But why on earth did you choose this unfortunate time to come, Mrs. Blair?”
Annie’s breath came in little gusts. “I wouldn’t have come at all, Mr. Imrie,” she sobbed, hugging her throbbing arm, “but Jim was so anxious for me to give you this money-—” Her teeth clicked shut.
“Kind of Jim,” said the man at the vault door. “Hand it over to me. I’ll take better care of it than him. That all you got?”
“Honest, every cent.”
“I’ll twist your arm again, if you’re lying.”
“All I’ve got.”
“Cigar money, anyway,” he said pocketing the little roll of bills. He tossed the empty purse back to her. “How you coming, Bo?”
“Fine, boy, fine. Another three minutes.”
There were sounds of rasping metal, the sharp smell of seared paint. Annie looked at the empty purse in her hand. All she had. Hot anger dried the tears in her eyes. Pap Bigelow could better spare his ten thousand dollars than she her thirty. Did these men—too vicious and lazy to work as she and Jim worked, hopefully and honestly for clean money—did they know how hard it was to earn thirty dollars making butter? Or how hard it was to make deep clean furrows with a wornout plough? Or care if Mr. Imrie lost his job, maybe, and he so kind to Jim?
She turned her angry eyes on the bandits.
The man in the vault, she could see his bent back against the rows of safety deposit boxes; and the man at the door, one eye on Mr. Imrie and herself, one hand clutching the ugly bit of blue steel, and the other half of him, greedy, callous half of him, intent on the loot piling steadily in the black satchel. He was six feet from her, standing just outside the vault entrance, his feet resting on a strip of meshed rubber matting. She clenched her fists tightly to steady the throbbing of her heart.
“I’m going to faint,” she murmured, swaying slightly.
“Lady’s goin’ to flop,” said the man at the door. “What’ll we do about it?”
“Let her flop.”
“Pal says to go ahead, lady. Here’s a nice mat to fall on—soft—”
Annie wavered to the floor. She knelt before the mat, her flaxen hair resting on the dark rubber, her hands folded •under her chin.
Mr. Imrie, looking down at the drooping figure, saw the little hard brown fingers creep out slowly, noiselessly, and curl, like hooks of steel, into the open mesh of the mat. The girl’s body tensed, held, and leaped back like the release of a catapult. All the strength and courage and endurance that go to the making of so many pounds of yellow butter were in that desperate jerk. The long flexible mat snapped into the air like a whip thong. The man at the door pitched head-long into the vault on his fellow’s back, and both men rolled sprawling.
Annie’s hot face was pressed tightly against the cold steel of the vault door. She must never let go. She must hold it fast. Her thirty dollars—it was so hard to earn thirty dollars.
“Come away, Mrs. Blair. Let go. It’s all right, dear child.” Mr. Imrie was gently pulling her away from the door. “The rascals are safe enough now. The vault is locked. Sit here, while I get the constable.”
MR. IMRIE was opening the vault again, but he was no longer alone. A crowd of tatterdemalions attended him. Keen-faced men in overalls, Pat Mahoney, the constable, his hard, brick-red face incongruous above the ragged night-shirt he wore over his second-best suit, Pap Bigelow, pulling his long ragged mustache, little shrewd eyes twinkling.
The lock clicked, and Mahoney spoke. “Stand out o’ line of the crack when she opens, boys. Hi, you, inside the vault, throw out your shooting-irons. We got you covered.”
A moment’s silence, then a clatter on the floor.
“Come out now, one by one, and keep your hands above your ears!”
Annie could not see all this clearly for the tears that would come welling into her eyes. Why should she cry now? There was nothing to fear, and she did hate a crying woman. If only they would not talk to her, stop shaking her hand, and saying what a quick-witted, brave girl she was, and how proud Jim ought to be! If she could only get to Jim, and put her head down on his shoulder and cry for just five minutes, until her nerve returned, then she could laugh as these men were doing, drinking in the excitement of the night, watching Pap Bigelow count his rescued treasure.
“All here, Mr. Imrie,” said Pap, “and I’ll keep this little black bag as a souvenir, unless the court wants it for a clue.”
His kindly bleared eyes fell on Annie, and he took the last crisp rustling paper off his pile.
“Here’s a hundred, and it’s for you, Mrs. Blair. I always did like ’em spunky,” he explained to the approving circle.
A man brought the orange-colored card of the Canadian Bankers Association, with its staring black-lettered “Reward” for Annie to read
“You ought to get something from this,” he said.
“I’ll see that she gets a hearing,” said Mr. Imrie. “Now one of you boys get Mrs. Blair’s horse, and we’ll see her safely on her way. I’m sure she’s feeling a bit upset.”
Annie, her knees like water, wavered after the retiring retinue, escorting Pat Mahoney and his prisoners. Just like men to make a game of serious business, forgetting the real issue. Leave it to a woman then, to miss no detail; leave it to Annie, being all woman, to notice the omission. She caught at the ragged coat-tails of the escort.
“He’s still got my money,” she panted. “Oh, Mr. Imrie, get my thirty dollars off of him!”
Nellie, inspired by lights and shouts of weaving figures, moved elephantine limbs in a clumsy gallop, scattering the cold spring mud. But the west wind, harbinger of coming warmth and growth, pressed softly against Annie’s face. She shook the reins happily, a queen in her chariot, returning from the rout of her enemies. Hard times? No, indeed! Not when courage and hope and nimble wit and strong young arms combine against it. She drove away into the soft dark night. The ragged figures sent a parting cheer after her. In the deserted dance-hall, the radio still patiently emitted its brightest strains for the unheeding revellers. In the kitchen of Hop Ling’s Elite Restaurant the unwatched coffee boiled over.