THE MATRIMONIAL HAZARD
Awkward predicament of a Lothario who insured a woman against marriage and then tried to marry her
WILL R. BIRD
ANGEL’S ARM is a huddled fishing settlement on the northwest coast of Newfoundland. It has the same smells of fish and nets and motor boats as a
hundred other coves, the same shrill clamor of gulls and gannets when the day is fine and grizzled harbor seals are showing themselves near land. Its population is much the same as that of other coast villages wind-burned, hard-fisted men, and strong, enduring women.
The buildings look the same, weathered and persistent, holding hard to the slopes of the cove. Some boast painted doors and window frames, some are brightened with boxes of flowers. Only one exhibits a glaring signboard yellow lett ers on dark green.
‘‘Edison Samson Skinner. All Kinds Insurance."
Edison Skinner was the only man at Angel’s Arm. except the storekee|gt;er and parson, who did not eam his living on the water, the only one who claimed to be as educated as they were. He had attended for one year a business school in Boston and was regard«! with awe by many of his cronies, especially Adam Hittle. Edison was a lean and angular jx-rsonage with pale-blue eyes and long narrow features whose weakness was flowered shirts with (X)inted collars.
Selling insurance at Angel’s Arm yielded a precarious livelihood, and if Edison had not inherited a tidy amount from a*i aunt who died in Boston after being married three times he would not have been able to carry on for fifteen variable years after he had gathered the creamemdash;or to borrow from Captain Simon.
The borrowing saw him through another year, but the depression was getting deeper. Pulpwlt;xxl cutters to the south who had promised to insure with him had been laid olf and sent home, and Edison got no premiums. Then some of the fishing men decided against insuring their boats and so increased his difficulties. The only certainty in the oiling was grim and dour Captain Simon. The money he had loaned to Edison was due on the first day of August, and Edison knew he would arrive on that date, firm and merciless.
Five more days. Edison sat in his doorway and gazed fixedly at the straggled houses banking the hill while his mind labored with his problems. He gazed at the low,
squat house next to his and slightly in the rear, which looked as if it were a most modest alxxle and trying to get a back seat in the village. It was the home of Adam Hittle. a little, bow-legged widower who looked as shy and retiring as his small house.
"RAR DOWN the slope a broad person appeared emdash;a female wearing a multicolored shawl and bright-red cap, a woman of such stout proportions that walking uphill caused her obvious effort. Edison regarded her somberly, frowning and muttering.
“You talkin’ to yourself?” A husky voice upset all meditations, and Adam Hittle stood beside him. “I’ve heard that’s a sign a body’s losin’ balance.”
“Hello,” said Edison weakly. "Nice night.” He had borrowed flour and baking powder from Adam earlier in the week and felt that he had to be diplomatic.
"Not so bad." said the little man. "Sell any insurance?”
Edison shifted wearily. “Not a cent," he groaned.
"And you got to pay Captain Simon?” Adam had long been a confidential friend.
Edison nodded. Three houses below, the stout figure appeared again.
"Is her insured?” Adam pointed.
"Hannah Belle?” Edison shook his head. “Nobody could insure her."
"Scads of money her has. Edison. Scads of it.”
"I know.” said Edison mournfully, “and she always will have. She won’t insure because she couldn’t get the insurance money before she died.”
There was a heavy silence, and dusk settled quietly over the Arm so that the voices of children playing on the wharves came to them clearly.
“Two hundred and fifty you borrowed, weren’t it? It’s a pile of money.” Adam was sympathetic. "You’ll have to raise twenty-five for him no matter if it drags your keel."
"But.” said Edison jxñgnantly. “I haven’t twenty-five cents to my name.”
"Phew!” whistled Adam. "That’s bad. won’erful bad.”
There were gritting sounds on the gravel path, the wheeze of heavy breathing, and the stout figure in the bright shawl passed by them. Edison leaned backward in the murk of his doorway, but Adam could not escape.
“ ’Night,” he said tersely.
"Oh. that you. Adam? Good night. Isn’t the sky lovely?” Hannah Belle paused. "I feel I have to go to the top of the hill on an evening like this. Y'ou feel neareremdash;”
“Too bad you ain’t built up there.”
“No, I’d sooner live down near the wharves and see the boats as they come in. It makes me thrill every timeemdash;” “ ’Night,” said Adam. “I got bread bakin’.”
He ducked from sight around the corner of the house, and after a short wait the bulky figure turned and went on.
Some minutes later Adarr.’s head and shoulders appeared cautiously above his porch rail.
“All right.” came Edison’s voice. “She’s gone.”
“Ain’t she a stunner?” Adam shook his head as he came back to his station. “Her would part with her money come she could git a man to pile that talk to. Her’s hankered to marrv moren ordinaryemdash;jest because she can’t. Ain’t never been a chap look at heremdash;her’s too heavy-beamed to ’tract any eye.”
Edison nodded abstractedly.
“A pity there ain’t some kind of insurance you kin sell her that she might collect on.”
“Sa-av. Adam!” Edison rose suddenly from his chair. “You’ve give me a grand idea. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
AN HOUR LATER Edison withdrew a sheet from his - typewriter and studied it carefully. He attached an imitation seal and adorned the paper with a ribbon, then did a shambling dance and went to bed.
In the morning he put on the least frayed of his flowered shirts and went to call on Hannah Belle. Balloonlike in a freshly-ironed apron, she admitted him with reluctance.
“I’m busy this mornin’. I got a roomer cornin’.”
Hannah Belle, on occasion, let her front room, for there were no hotel accommodations at the Arm.
“But it won’t take long,” explained Edison eagerly. “And I got a new proposition.”
“Insurance, you mean?”
“Not any kind you know about. This here’s the Matrimonial Ten-Payment Hazard.”
“An’ what’s that?”
•“A non-marrying risk we insure. You insure against getting married. The policy’s sound as a whaleboat.” Hannah Belle had dropped her broom and taken a seat. “You only make ten payments, the ten years, and if you ain’t married by then you get paid one thousand dollars cash.”
“You sure? One thousand dollars?”
“Absolutely.” Edison was vastly encouraged. “This here’s an insurance that’s kept private for select customers. We don’t offer it to everybody.”
“What’s the rates?” Hannah Belle was fairly quivering.
“One dollar for each year you’re old. That’s what they set and it’s fair enough. The older you are the bigger risk the company takes.”
“I’m thirty-five,” said Hannah Belle slowly. “You’re agreein’, if I pay that for ten years and ain’t married, to give me a thousand dollars?”
“That’s right,” said Edison. “I’ll read you the policy if you like.”
“No need.” interrupted Hannah Belle. “I’ll take your word on it, Edison. You’ll keep this business private?”
“Sure thing, I will. That’s our style. And we just insure them that the agent certifies. You sign there and pay the—”
But Hannah Belle had gone for pen and ink and money. She signed the paper and counted out new crinkly bills.
“There now, that’s did,” she said. “I wish you’d told me about it before.”
“It’s a delicate matter,” explained Edison, “and we never go till we’re quite sure of the customer. Another thing”—he felt it would be clever to leave her feeling cheered—“it often changes the luck when they insure.”
“You mean the ones git married?”
“That’s it,” assured Edison. “It seems to change things for them.”
“I had a dream that way once,” said Hannah Belle. “There was a man, and such a fine looker, with wavy hair and—”
“I’ll come some time,” broke in Edison, “and hear it all, but now I’m due over at the cove. Good morning.”
He made a detour back to his house and there counted and re-counted the money, and re-read his copy of the policy he had given her. Well, for ten years . . .
CAPTAIN SIMON had earned his money slowly and through years of hard days. He was a dour individual and he sat in Edison’s kitchen and glowered at the few bills on the table until he seemed doubly soured.
“Today’s the first,” he rumbled, “and nothin' w'as said about a part payment, least of all one that small.”
“I know,” said Edison, perspiring, “but times are so tough, and I’m willing to pay the interest. You’re getting a good return.”
“That’s for me to say,” grated Captain Simon, “and I’m tellin’ you I’ll have all that’s due or you settle with a lawyer.”
“But listen,” implored Edison. He had not imagined that the captain would be so hard, “I—I’ve got money coming.” “When?”
“Why, right away. Most any time. There’s some due—”
"Set your day!" The captain’s fist crashed on the table.
"N-next month." It had to be done. Edison was desperately driven.
"Draw up a new note, then, for thirty days—to be paid in full.”
Edison w'rote shakily, but the amounts and time were stated correctly; there was nothing else he could do.
When the captain had gone he stared at the chair that had held the bulky body and at his wan. ghastly features reflected from the wall mirror. He felt that a gigantic, overwhelming force was rolling him toward a horrible precipice. Somehow, in some way, he must raise money; he must, at any cost, satisfy Captain Simon.
There was a step outside and he started violently, but it was only Adam.
“What’s the matter?” asked the little man. "You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Captain Simon was here and he wouldn’t take that money. I’ve got to have the two hundred and fifty in thirty days or he’s handing the note to a law'yer.”
“Pink codfish !” Adam rubbed his hands nervously. “He’s a terrible man. What arc you plannin’ to do?”
“Let him take all I got, by law. What else can I do?" Edison was now thoroughly despondent.
"Mow'd you git that money you offered him?”
Recklessly, Edison explained the scheme he had concocted —
his “Matrimonial Hazard.”
“That’s an easy bunch of money every year,” said Adam, “but what arc you plannin’ to do when the ten years is up?” Edison’s long face grew duller. "I was going to marry her.” “Marry Hannah Belle!"
Edison nodded. "After ten years, if there wasn’t any other way out.”
“You take won’erful chances,” said Adam with awe. “But now' everything’s going to smash.” Edison’s shoulders sagged. "I’ll be lucky if I ain’t jailed. ’
“Great . . . hold on, Edison.” The little man was very anxious. “Listen, if you was goin’ to do it anyhow, w'hy don’t you marry her now? You’d be safe from the captain then.”
“But—-Hannah Belle? She’s so heavy and talks.....”
“You ain’t aimin’ to hold her on your knee all the time?”
“But she’s terrible big, and her tongue never stops.”
“But you could be away a sight gettin’ insurance. You've got the best chance at it, and let me tell you. Edison, a married man’s got to put up w'ith somethin’. They all do. You git started courtin’. Hannah Belle’d never think of that premium she paid come she were gettin’ married —and you kin laugh at the captain.”
“All right,” said Edison miserably. “I don't see any other w'ay out. But I never thought I’d come to this.”
EDISON MADE HIS first advances that evening.
Hannah Belle was tending her tub of roses and he paused to admire them.
“I’ve read somewhere,” he announced carefully, “that it’s the kind-hearted persons that care most about ilow'ers.” Edison had made his speech ready before leaving his house.
“Mister Stimmons thinks they’re nice," admitted Hannah Belle.
“Stimmons? Who’s he?"
‘The roomer I've got. He's holidayin', and he's a clear gentleman. He said the same thing you did about the kind that likes flowers."
Edison grew slightly heated.
, "I don’t know where he’d get that,” he said sharply. Then he remembered his position. "You have nice flowers in the window.”
"You could come in and see them,” said Hannah Belle, "only Mister Stimmons rests after his meals and I don't want to disturb him.”
"He must be an invalid.” Edison wanted to sneer.
“My, no. He’s a big business man. What did you want?”
“I just wanted to be friendly.” Edison called on his courage. “I’ve been thinking we should be more that way."
“When did you start thinking that?” Her voice was tart.
“Last night. I've begun to feel it’s wrong to live alone.”
"I’ve always wondered,” Hannah Belle interrupted each time, “that you didn’t marry and earn a livin’ like other folk. You must be fair starvin’ yourself to git oh now.”
Edison wriggled. “A man don’t have to have sea boils and do bone labor to prove he’s making a living. When the depression’s over I’ll—”
“You think it will be soon?”
“Sure,” said Edison sagely. "The law of supply and demand—”
"I’m wonderful glad you think that way. Mister Stimmons thinks like you do, and lie’s in big business.”
“Fish?” asked Edison sarcastically.
“Stocks and bonds—them kind of investments.”
: "It’s them,” offered Edison, "that made the depression.”
"You’re jealous, that's all. I've got to go in now and tell him it's time for us to go up the hill. He wanted me to show him the Gull Rocks at sundown.”
“He ought to know all about gulling,” flung Edison, and left.
Adam was waiting to heajresults and he soon had information.
“He’s a stock agent,” Edison finished bitterly. “One of them sharks that can smell money, and he’ll get every dollar.”
"You ought to warn her.” Adam was startled.
“But she wouldn’t listen to a word,” explained Edison.
“It's the way you tacked to port.” said Adam. “She’s a terrible talker, but l had my 'sperience with Emma Rose. Don’t let her git goin’. With your learnin’, you ought to do better.”
They looked out of the window and 9aw the stranger with Hannah Belle. He was tall and sleek, in clothes of extreme cut and pattern. They could hear him speaking in low, suave tones.
THE NEXT EVENING Edison watched his chance and got Hannah Belle to go for a boat ride. He pretended a desire to hear about her dream, and she talked so earnestly that he hardly knew where he was going and grounded at the head of the cove. Her instructions about getting it oil were so forceful that he was thankful when they were back at the wharf.
The following night he was frustrated; the stranger had taken Hannah Belle on a picnic to another cove.
“Don’t mind him,” advised Adam, who came with the dusk each night. “You keep at it and you’ll git anchor way anyhow. You shut your eyes to her size. You’ll never git on if you keep thinkin’ how much she weighs.”
“But it’s her talk, too. She says so much, and as if she could make me do it.”
“That can’t hurt none. You’ll git used to her tongue in time, jest like a nor’easter. What you want to do to shorten things is kiss her.”
“She’d think I’m crazy," resisted Edison. "I never did.”
Adam bobbed in his seat like a wizened old sea bird,
“That’s jest ityou never did. Do it, and
she’d be so tickled she’d talk right. I was married fourteen years to Emma Rose and it all come through me kissin’ her on a bet.” “All right.” There was no enthusiasm in Edison’s voice, but the terrible threat of Captain Simon was on one side of him and Hannah Belle on the other. He felt that Adam should know best and resolved blindly to follow instructions.
The next evening he arrived early at Hannah Belle’s house, while Adam helped by luring Stimmons out of the way with enquiries about investments.
“My,” said Hannah Belle, “you look in misery. You got boils?”
“No,” said Edison, and could get no further.
“Then you must have sour stomach or bad liver?”
“Anyhow,” Edison steeled his resolve, “I never seen you looking prettier.”
“You tryin’ to use fish-oil talk with me, and right after that insurance business.” Hannah Belle was suspicious.
“I—I mean right,” stammered Edison. “I’m in earnest.”
“Speakin’ of beauty, Mister Stimmons is fond of things same as I am. I showed him them crayon pictures I made with that set I got by mail order to the States, and he says I should be an artist.”
“Was he talking any more about stocks?” Edison changed the subject.
“He’s told me all about them” informed Hannah Belle, “and he’s goin’ to invest my money for me when he goes back.”
Edison writhed inwardly. He started to warn her, then realized the futility of his advice.
“Don’t you remember,” he pleaded, “how you’n me was friends at school?”
"That so?” retorted Hannah Belle. “All I recall is how you and them Point boys spread slime on the rocks to see me slip down.”
“It was them,” protested Edison. “I never did.”
“Well, you never offered to go home with me in your life.”
"I never had the pluck.”
“There,” Hannah Belle sprang up. “I’ve most forgot to put the kettle to boil. Mister Stimmons always likes a fresh cup of tea when he comes in. I’ll git fresh water, too.” A roofed passageway led to the well. It was dark as a cavem, and Edison, desperate with his failures, determined to try his luck at embracing Hannah Belle.
He tip-toed out to meet her coming back, and was careful to close the door behind him so as to keep out all lamplight. The windlass of the well ceased creaking and then there were steps in the passageway.
“Hannah Belle,” he called in a husky whisper. “I—I want to kiss you.”
There was a scraping of shoes as if in withdrawal and he sprang forward and made a wild clutch. His arms encircled someone, but even as he tried valiantly to plant a hearty kiss he sensed that something was weirdly wrong. The figure was not that of Hannah Bells.
“Let go !” rasped a voice. “Hear me, you fool? This is Mister Stimmons.”
His world had crashed. What a frightful joke! His emotions a chaos, Edison was jolted by a sharp élbow connecting with his chin, and on the instant his temper rose. He struck back—a furious swing that landed fairly on some part of the Stimmon’s visage.
“Help!” shrilled Hannah Belle. “Don’t hurt him—help!” And Edison, hearing her cries, put his weight into every effort.
A fist grazed his cheeks and he was jarred by the force of his own righthander finding a solid target. His left landed as well, and the tall Mister Stimmons went down with a crash and lay groaning, using frightful language.
“Oh!” wailed Hannah Belle. “Mercy on me!”
Edison reached behind him and found the door, and the next moment w'as outside the cottage. He got home without Adam seeing him, went in and got into bed without striking a light. Everything had gone wrong.
Continued on page 39
Continued From page 14
ADAM CAME IN while he was eating TV. breakfast, and the little man was very excited.
“Heard the news? Stimmons is out of it. She run him out last night.”
“Run him out?” Edison had new hope. “What happened?”
“Had a scuffle down there, didn’t he? There’s all kinds of rumors but most say he had a fight with you. And after Hannah Belle got him in on the sofa she saw some letters that had dropped out of his pocket and sort of scanned one—-and there it was from his wife. That dude was married all the time. She can’t git stopped talkin’ about him.”
“But she’ll be mad with me,” said Edison. “I couldn’t get on very good, and I—I started that mixup.” He chilled at the thought of starting all over again. Then, dolefully, he explained his failure to kiss Hannah Belle while seated with her in her kitchen.
“There’s only one thing I kin do,” said Adam, “and I hate to do it, but you been hard pushed by Captain Simon. I’ve had so much ’sperience that I’ll go down and talk*to Hannah Belle for you. I’ll tell her how bashful you been.”
“Here’s that thirty-five dollars she give me. Take it back and tell her anything you like,” broke in Edison, “as long as you get her so I can have money to pay that note.”
“But you like her some, don’t you?” Adam regarded him critically. “You hadn’t ought to be entirely after her money. That don’t seem fair an’ above board.”
“Like her!” Edison shuddered. “She’s a tub of lard, a dressed-up jellyfish. But you go ahead.”
Adam went, and Edison rose and resign-
edly washed his breakfast dishes. He got a scribbler with a map of Newfoundland on the back. With a pencil he marked the outport places he would visit in search of insurance, and planned two trips that would take more than a month. Then he watched for Adam.
The little bow-legged man did not appear. Ten o’clock, and eleven o’clock, and noon. Then his familiar brown sweater coat hove in view, but he was walking very slowly as if his feet were reluctant to travel. Edison was filled with alarm.
He could not wait till Adam reached the house, but went out to meet him.
“If you’ve been and made her some foolish promises,” he began, “I won’t go on with it, that’s all.”
Adam stood and gazed at him, his mouth working strangely.
“Don’t you worry none,” he managed at last. “There’s nothing I’ve promised about you.”
“What’s happened, then?” Edison sensed that something enormous had taken place.
“She’s goin’ to marry me.”
“Going to marry you ! You?’
“Me,” repeated Adam solemnly. “Me.” “You asked her to marry you?”
Adam moistened his lips with his tongue. “I don’t think it. I didn’t know I did. but it happened somehow. I kissed her first thing, right when she was in a rockin ’-chair, like I told you was your chance, and she got hold of me. I don’t know how it was, but like I said, I’ve had ’sperience with wimmen. Then I couldn’t stop her, and we talked— that is, she did, and I answered—and it was deeper water all the time till it had come noon and she had everything set.” Adam looked dazedly over the Arm.
“But I thought you’d never get married again?”
“I’ve always had that feelin’, Edison, but somehow she changed my mind. I had dinner with her, too, and my land, it’s great to have her cookin’. She’s got me hooked all right, but I can’t say as I’m sorry.” He looked at Edison, then turned away again. “I offered her that money back and then we thought that you’d need it pretty bad, and I kept it, and here it is.”
Edison counted the thirty-five dollars.
"That’s not so bad,” he said, and a certain elation was on him. “Honestly, Adam, I’m glad she got you. I’ll drop in now and then for a meal, and you two won’t mind lending me enough to cover that note. I’ll go down right now and ask her.”
Adam wiggled on one bow leg and kept looking away.
“I wouldn’t go if I was you,” he managed finally. "She’s got a wonderful temper when she’s after you, and when we got to talkin’ I couldn’t do no resistin’.”
“What do you mean?” asked Edison harshly. “What did you tell her?”
“She got talkin’ about you tryin’ to court her, and afore I knew what she was doin’ she found out why you’d been after her. Captain Simon an’ all, and I ’splained best I could that you never really meant that Matrimony Hazard. But she—well, she—” Adam’s voice failed him.
“She what?” Edison could feel a tremor in his knees.
“She said that you’d know more about that Matrimony Hazard afore she were finished.”
There was a long silence as they stood together in the sunlight. Then a big motor boat came to the wharf.
“That’s for Stimmons,” said Adam, anxious for something to say that would relieve the situation. “They’re takin’ him to catch the mail boat to St. John’s.”
Edison looked at the money in his hand, and down at Hannah Belle’s cottage, then turned to his house.
“Go down and ask them to wait,” he said in a choked voice. “I guess I better go with him.”