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Title: Bladys of the Stewponey
Author: Sabine Baring-Gould
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605161.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Bladys of the Stewponey
Sabine Baring-Gould

Chapter 1. OYEZ!

In a faded and patched blue coat, turned up with red, the bellman of
Kinver appeared in the one long street of that small place--if we call
it a town we flatter it, if we speak of it as a village we insult it--
and began to ring outside the New Inn.

A crowd rapidly assembled and before the crier had unfolded the paper
from which he proposed reading, an ape of a boy threw himself before
him, swinging a turnip by the stalk, assumed an air of pomposity and
ingenious caricature of the bellman, and shouted:

"O yes! O yes! O yes! Ladies and gents all, I gives notice that you,
none of you, ain't to believe a word Gaffer Edmed says. O no! O no! O

"Get along, you dratted jackanapes!" exclaimed the crier testily, and,
striking the youth in the small of his back with the bell handle, sent
him sprawling. Then, striding forward, he took position with a foot on
each side of the prostrate urchin, rang again, and called:

"O yes! O yes! O yes! This is to give notice that this 'ere evening,
at six o'clock, at Stewponey, there will be a grand champion match at
bowls on the green. The prize to be Bladys Rea, commonly called
Stewponey Bla. Admittance one shilling. 'Arf-a-crown inner ring, and
ticket admits to the 'oly function, by kind permission of the
proprietor, in the Chapel of Stourton Castle. At six o'clock per-cise.
No 'arf-price. Children and dogs not admitted."

From the door of the New Inn issued Thomas Hoole, the landlord, in his
shirt sleeves.

Thomas Hoole was a bit of a wag and a crumb of a poet. On the board
outside his tavern he had inscribed the following verses of his own

"Customers came, and I did trust 'em.

So I lost money, and also custom.

To lose them both did vex me sore.

So I resolved to trust no more.

Chalk may be used to any amount.

But chalk won't pay the malt account.

I'm determined to keep a first-rate tap

For ready money, but no strap.

Good-will to all is here intended

Thus, hoping none will be offended.

I remain, yours respectfully

One who's no fool.

i.e. Thomas Hoole."

"What's the meaning of this, Crier Edmed?" asked the landlord.

"Well," answered the bellman, rubbing his nose with the handle of the
bell and holding the same by the clapper, "I can't say exactly. My
instructions don't go so far. But I fancy the gentlefolk want a spree,
and Cornelius Rea at the inn is going to marry again, and wants be rid
of his daughter first. It's an ockard affair altogether, and not
altogether what it ort to be; and so it has been settled as a mutual
accommodation that there shall be a bowling match on the green--and
she's to go to the winner. That 's about it. O yes! O yes! O yes!"

Then the crier went forward clanging his bell, and as he progressed
more faces appeared at windows and figures at doors, and children
swarmed thicker in the street.

Phalanxes of boys formed before and behind, yelling.

"O yes! O yes! O yes! Stewponey Bla is for sale to the highest bidder.
Who'll stand another 'apenny and have her? Going, going for tuppence
three farthings."

Every now and again the crier made a rush at the boys in front, or
backed on those behind, and dispersed them momentarily with the handle
of his bell, or with a kick of his foot, and shouted.

"You vagabonds, you! I gave notice of no such thing. How can folk
attend to I and learn the truth when you're a hollerin' and a
scritchin' them lies! I said she was to be bowled for, and not put up
to auction."

"Wot's the difference?" asked an impudent boy.

"One's respectable, 'tother ain't," retorted the crier, who then
vigorously swung the bell, and shouted, "O yes! O yes! O yes!" whereat
the boys mockingly shouted, "O no! O no! O no!"

A woman who had been kneading bread, with her sleeves turned up and
her arms white with flour, crossed the street, came up to the landlord
of the New Inn, and accosted him:

"Wot's the meaning of this, I'd like to know?"

"The meaning is before your nose," answered Hoole.

"Where?" inquired the woman, applying her hand at once to the organ,
and leaving on it a patch of white.

"I mean," explained the landlord, "that anyone as knows Cornelius Rea
knows just about what this signifies."

"I know Cornelius for the matter of that," said the woman from the
kneading trough. "Drat my nose, there's sum'ut on it."

"'Tis pollen on your stamen, fair flower," said Hoole. "And if you'll
not take it amiss I'll just wipe your nose wi' my apron, and have it
off in a jiffy, and an honour it will be to the apron."

"Oh, Mister Hoole, you 're such a flatterer!" said the woman, fresh,
stout, matronly; then, "But for all--I don't understand."

"But I do," said the host. "Cornelius is going to be married to that
woman--you know whom I mean," with a contemptuous shrug of the
shoulder and a curl of the lip.

"I don't know as it's wuss than the goings-on as has been."

"But she's not been in the house; and he can't bring her in till he
has got Bladys out."

"But to put her up to be bowled for!"

"That's the doings of the gentlemen--a parcel of bucks and good-for-
noughts that frequent the tavern. He's not the man to say them nay. He
dussn't go contrary to them--they spend a lot o' money there."

"But who will go in for her?"

"Nay, that's more than I can say. She's a wonderful handsome girl."

"Can't see it," answered the woman.

"No--I always say that for good-looking faces you might go through the
three counties and not see one like your own. But, Mrs Fiddian, you're
spoiled by looking at your own charms in the glass--it incapacitates
you for seeing moderate beauty in another."

"Go along, Mr Hoole."

"How can I go along, when I am opposite you?"

"Come, ha' done with this nonsense. Who are they that have taken a
fancy to this white-faced mawken?"

"For one, there is Crispin Ravenhill."

"He can't take her--hasn't enough money."

"He has his barge."

"Wot's that? His uncle would have a word to say about that, I
calculate. Who else?"

"There is a stranger staying at the Stewponey that they call Luke

"What is his trade?"

"Don't know."

"Any others."

"There's Captain Stracey."

"He can't marry her--he's a gentleman; and what about Nan--has he
broke with her? What others?"

"Nibblers, only."

"Well, Mr Hoole, I must back to my bakery."

"And I sink back to darkness out of light."

Kinver village occupies a basin in the side of the great rocky ridge
that runs for many miles through the country and ends abruptly at the
edge, a bluff of sandstone crowned by earthworks, where, as tradition
says, King Wulfhere of Mercia had his camp. So far is sure, that the
church of Kinver is dedicated to his murdered sons, Wulfhad and
Ruffinus. The place of their martyrdom was at Stone, in Staffordshire;
but it is possible that their bodies were removed to Kinver.

As already said, the hamlet of Kinver consists mainly of one long
street, composed largely of inns, for a highway passes through it; but
also of habitations on the slope of the basin.

When the crier had reached the end of the street, he proceeded to
ascend a shoulder of hill till he reached a strip of deep red in the
sandstone, the colour of clotted blood. Here, according to tradition,
a woman was murdered by the Danes, who had ascended the Stour and
ravaged Shropshire. From the day of the crime the rock has been dyed

At this point the town crier paused and looked about him. The impudent
and aggravating boys fell back and pursued him no farther. A sudden
awe and dread of consequences came on them, and they desisted from
further annoyance. The reason for this will presently transpire.

Kinver parish occupies a peculiar position--it adjoins Shropshire and
Worcestershire, and is, in fact, wedged in between the main bulk of
Shropshire and an outlying islet in which is Halesowen. It is as
though the three counties had clashed at this point, and had resolved
their edges into broken fragments, tossed about with little regard to
their position.

Kinver takes its name from the Great Ridge, Cefn vawr, of sandstone
rock, 542 feet high, that rises as a ness above the plain of the
Stour. In that remote period, when the Severn straits divided Wales
from England, and the salt deposits were laid that supply brine at
Droitwich and in the Weaver Valley, then Kinver Edge stood up as a
fine bluff above the ruffling sea. At that time also, a singular
insulated sandstone rock that projects upwards as an immense tooth
near the roots of the headland stood detached in the water, amidst a
wreath of foam, and was haunted by seagulls, and its head whitened
with their deposits, whilst its crannies served as nesting-places.

This isolated rock of red sandstone, on and about which Scotch firs
have rooted themselves by the name of Holy Austin Rock; but whether at
any time it harboured an anchorite of the name of Augustine is a point
on which history and tradition are alike silent.

Towards this rock the bellman made his way.

Why so?

Was it for the purpose of summoning jackdaws to the bowling match?

Was it that he desired to hear the echoes answer him from the crag?

We shall see presently.

Although the local tradition is silent relative to a saintly denizen
of the rock, it is vocal relative to a tenancy of a different kind.
Once it was occupied by a giant and his wife, who with their nails had
scooped for themselves caves in the sandstone. The giantess was
comely. So thought another giant who lived at Enville.

Now in this sandstone district water is scarce, and the giant of
Austin Rock was wont daily to cross a shoulder of hill to a spring
some two hundred and fifty yards south of the Rock to fetch the water
required for his kitchen. The water oozed forth in a dribble, and the
amount required was considerable, for a giant's sup is a drunkard's
draught. Consequently he was some time absent. The Enville giant took
advantage of this absence to visit his wife. One, two, three. He
strode across country, popped his head in, kissed the lady, and
retired before her husband returned with the pitchers.

But one day he tarried a moment too long, and the Austin giant saw
him. Filled with jealous rage, he set down the pitchers, rushed to the
summit of the rock, and hurled a large block at the retreating
neighbour. The stone missed its aim; it fell and planted itself
upright, and for many generations bore the name of the Bolt Stone. In
1848 the farmer in whose field it stood blew it to pieces with

Mr Edmed, the crier, having reached the foot of Holy Austin Rock, rang
a peal and looked up. Instantly the rock was alive. As from a Stilton
cheese that is over-ripe the maggots tumble out, so from numerous
holes in the cliff emerged women and children. But on the ledge
nearest the summit they clustered the thickest.

When the crier saw that he had collected an audience, and that it was
attentive, he rang a second peal, and called,--

"O yes! O yes! This is to give notice that this 'ere evening at six
o'clock at the Stewponey, there is to be a grand champion match at
bowls on the bowling-green. An the prize is to be Bladys Rea, commonly
known as Stewponey Bla. Admittance one shilling. 'Arf-a-crown reserved
seats, and them tickets admit the bearer to the 'oly function, by kind
permission of the proprietor, in the Chapel of Stourton Castle. No
'arf-price. Children and dogs not admitted."

There were three stages of habitations on the rock. From out of the
topmost, behind the children, emerged a singular figure--that of an
old man in a long snuff-coloured coat, with drab breeches and blue
worsted stockings. A white cravat encircled his neck. In his hand he
carried a stick. This old man now began to descend the rock with
agility such as might not have been anticipated in one of his age.

"Here comes Holy Austin," whispered some boys who had followed the
crier at a distance. "Oh my! must we not be good, or we shall get

The man who approached was not called Austin at his baptism, nor was
Austin his surname; nor was the rock called after him, but rather he
after the rock; for, having come to inhabit one of the dwellings
excavated out of it, in which he kept a day school, the name that had
attached to the prong of sandstone adhered to him.

He was more than schoolmaster. He was knobbler at the Church of
Kinver--that is to say, it was his office to walk about during divine
service, and tap on the head any man or boy overtaken with sleep. The
wand of office was painted white, and had a blue knob at the end.

It may now be understood why the boys who had mimicked and surrounded
the bellman in the streets of Kinver kept distance and maintained a
sober demeanour. Before them was a man who was a schoolmaster, and
gave whacks during the week, and who was a knobbler, and could crack
their heads on the Sunday. In his double capacity he was a man greatly
to be respected and avoided by boys.

To a boy a soldier or a sailor is a joy; a policeman is an object of
derision; a ghost is viewed with scepticism; a devil is hardly
considered at all; but a schoolmaster is looked on, preferentially
from afar, as a concentration of all horrors, and when accentuated
with investiture with knobbledom, as something the quintessence of

"Repeat again. I didn't hear exactly," said Holy Austin.

The crier obeyed.

The old man lifted up his hands.

"We live in evil days, and I sore fear in an evil place, and the salt
that should have seasoned us has lost its savour. There have been no
banns called. There can have been no license obtained, seeing none
knows who will have the maiden."

"They say the chapel at Stourton is a peculiar," observed the bellman.

The old man shook his head. "This is the beginning of a bad story,"
said he, and sighed. "Whither will it lead? How and where will it

Chapter 2. IN THE CELLAR

The highways from Stafford and Wolverhampton to Kidderminster and the
South, and that from Halesowen to Bridgenorth, cross each other at
Kinver, and a bridge traverses the Stour, near Stourton Castle, once a
royal residence, and one that was a favourite with King John. The
great Irish Road from Bath and Bristol to Chester passed through
Kinver, to the great emolument of the town and neighbourhood. At that
time, Chester and its port, Park Gate, received the packets from

An old soldier in the wars of Queen Anne, a native of the place,
settled there when her wars were over, and, as was customary with old
soldiers, set up an inn near the bridge, at the cross roads. He had
been quartered at Estepona, in the south of Spain, and thence he had
brought a Spanish wife. Partly in honour of her, chiefly in
reminiscence of his old military days, he entitled his inn, "The
Estepona Tavern." The Spanish name in English mouths became rapidly
transformed into Stewponey. The spot was happily selected, and as the
landlord had a managing wife, and provided excellent Spanish wine,
which he imported himself, and with which he could supply the cellars
of the gentry round, the inn grew in favour, and established its
reputation as one of the best inns in Staffordshire.

The present landlord, Cornelius Rea, was a direct descendant of the
founder of the house.

The Stewponey was resorted to by the gentry of the south of
Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and Shropshire, on the approach of an
election, to decide on the candidates to be proposed and elected.

It was also frequented by travellers on their way north, south, east,
or west, who arrived at Kinver at ebb of day, and were disinclined to
risk their persons and their purses by proceeding at night over the
heaths of Kinver, through the forest of Stourton, and among the broken
ground that was held to be a lurking-place for footpads and highway

Indeed, the neighbourhood for a century bore an evil name, and not
without cause. Several and special facilities were here afforded to
such as found profit and pleasure in preying on their fellow-men. As
already intimated, at this point on the map of England, the
territories appertaining to the counties that meet have gone through
extraordinary dislocations. There are no natural boundaries, and those
which are artificial are capricious. Nothing was more easy for one who
desired to throw out his pursuers, armed with a warrant signed by the
magistrate of one county, than to pass into the next, and if further
pursued by legal process there, to step into a third.

A highwayman, at the beginning of the century in which we live, who
honoured Kinver with residing in it, planted his habitation at the
extreme verge of the county, divided from the next by a hollow way,
and when the officers came to take him, he leaped the dyke, and mocked
them with impunity from the farther side.

But this was not all. The geological structure of the country favoured
them. Wherever a cliff, great or small, presented its escarpment,
there the soft sandstone was scooped out into labyrinths of chambers,
in which families dwelt, who in not a few instances were in league
with the land pirates. The plunder could anywhere be safely and easily
concealed, and the plunderers could pass through subterranean passages
out of one county into another, and so elude pursuit.

The highwaymen belonged by no means to the lowest class. The gentlemen
of the road comprised, for the most part, wastrels and gamesters of
good blood, who thought it no dishonour to recover on the high-road
what they had lost on the green table. Occasionally, but only
occasionally, one was captured and hung, but the gang was not broken
up, the gap was at once refilled. Of applicants there no lack, and the
roads remained as insecure before. The facilities for escape at the
confines of three counties, and in a country honeycombed with places
of refuge, were too many, and the business was too profitable, to
enable the sheriffs, during an entire century, to put an end to a
condition of affairs which was at once a scandal and a nuisance.

The great canal planned and carried out by Telford runs from the Stour
at Stewponey, and passes under a low bluff that is dug out into houses
still in occupation. This canal follows the river Stour and connects
the Severn, where navigable, with the Grand Trunk Canal, that links
the Mersey with the Trent, and connects the St George's Channel with
the German Ocean. At the Stewponey, it is joined by the Stourbridge
canal. This point is accordingly a centre about which much water
traffic gathers, and did gather to a far larger extent before the
railroads carried away the bulk of the trade from the canals.

Cornelius Rea, landlord of the Stewponey Inn, was in his cellar,
tapping a cask of ale.

He was a stout man, coarse in feature, yet handsome, with one of those
vast paunches which caricaturists represent as not uncommon a century
ago, but which we never encounter at present. We might suppose that
these caricatures were extravagant had we not here and there
preserved, as bequests from the past, mahogany dining-tables, with
semi-circles cut out of them for the accommodation of the stomachs of
stout diners.

The face of Cornelius was red and puffed. It looked peculiarly so, as
he stooped at the spigot, by the light of a lamp held by his daughter
Bladys. He was in his shirt sleeves, and wore a white nightcap on his
head, a yellow, long-flapped waistcoat, and black, shabby knee-

Bladys was tall and slender--an unusual feature in the district, where
women are thickset and short; she had inherited from her Spanish
great-grandmother a pale face and dark hair and eyes. She held the
light with a trembling hand, not above her head, lest she should set
fire to the drapery of cobwebs that hung from the vault. What little
daylight penetrated to the cellar fell from the entrance door, and lay
pale on the steps that led down into it, in gradually reduced
brilliancy, and left the rest of the cellar wholly unillumined.

"It's well up--prime!" said the host. "Fine October brew, this. One
cask will never suffice 'em. I'll e'en tap another. Bush-sh-sh! It
spits out like an angry cat. It smells good."

He heaved up his clumsy person.

"This stooping don't suit me at my time o' life, girl. What! has the
ale spurted into and washed your face?"

"No, father."

"I say it has. Don't contradict me. Your cheeks are wet. I see them
glitter. Why dost say 'No, father,' when I say Yes?"

Then all at once a sob broke from her heart.

The heavy man turned his red face and looked at his child.
Instinctively she lowered the light.

"Hold up the lamp that I may see!"

She obeyed, but let her head sink on her bosom.

With an oath--he seasoned his every sentence with one--he thrust his
hand under her chin, and forced her to raise her face.

"Turn your cheek, wench! What's the sense of this, eh?"

"O father! you put me to shame."

"I--by Ginger! How so?"

"By this bowling match, that is hateful to me--a dishonour; I am
ashamed to be seen--and then to send round the crier!"

"Pshaw! Some wenches don't know when they are well off."

"Father! you disgrace me in all men's eyes,--on all lips."

"I! never a bit. It's an honour to any woman to be bowled for. 'Taint
every wench can boast she's been an object of contest. My grandmother
used to say that in Spain swords were often crossed before a woman
could be wed, and that a lady never deemed herself properly married
till blood had flowed on her account. Now folk will pay their
shillings and half-crowns to see which is the best man. Bless you!
There came round a caravan with a giraffe and a laughing hyena, and a
roaring lion. Hundreds of people paid sixpence to see these beasts all
the way from Africa. Just you think of that. A roaring lion, the king
of beasts, only sixpence, let alone the giraffe and the hyena: and
shilling and half-a-crown to see you. There's honour and glory, if you
like it. I didn't think I'd have lived to see the day and feel such a
father's pride, but I do--and I bless you for it. I bet you a spade
guinea we shall take the money up in shovels."

"I do not wish it, father."

"I don't care a hanged highwayman whether you wish or not. It is as I
choose. Who is the proper person to care and provide for his child but
the father? I'm not going to be put off for any foolish girl's
whimsies. All the take--every stiver--shall go to you as your portion.
I have none other to make."

"I do not desire at all to be married."

"Here you cannot stay. You understand well that you and she as is to
be your stepmother can't agree. As soon as you have cleared out, then
in comes she; and as I powerfully want her in the house, the sooner
you go the better. If you'd taken to her in a friendly and daughterly
way, that would have been another matter; but as you have fixed your
mind so dead against her there's no help for it. Go you must, and that
to-night. And what is more, as a virtuous and respectable man, and a
man with a conscience in my stomach, you shall go out respectably, and
not be cut off with a shilling. None shall say that of me. I'm a man
as does his duty in that station of life and situation as I finds
myself in."

"I don't consider it respectable to be bowled for."

"Then I do. I am nigh on forty years older than you, and know the
world. Which is most like to be right, you or I? If you leave my
house, you leave it respectable."

"If you would suffer me to be alone, I would do nothing that is not

"Whither would you go? Who would take charge of you? In good sooth,
until I put you into the arms of a husband I have no freedom, and
unless I do that I am responsible."

Bladys set the lamp on the floor, sank on an empty barrel-horse,
covered her face with her hands, and sobbed. The host uttered an oath.

"This angers me. Folly always doth that," said he. "I leave you to
yourself whilst I go fetch another spigot, and if you're not in a
proper frame of mind when I come back I'll wash your face with stale

The taverner staggered away.

His daughter looked after him as he stumbled up the stair. Then she
was left alone in the cellar. The lamp on the floor flickered uneasily
in the descending current of air, and the folds of cobwebs waved,
catching the light, then disappearing again. The air was impregnated
with a savour of mildew and wine and ale. The floor was moist. Spilt
liquor had been trodden over the tiles and left them wet and slimy.

Bladys had not been long an orphan. Her mother had died but a few
months ago, after a lengthy and painful illness. She had been a
shrewd, firm woman, an excellent manageress, who had kept order in the
house and controlled her husband. Cornelius was a weak, vain man, and
he allowed himself to be swayed by his customers, especially by those
of the best class.

During the protracted illness of his wife he had shown attention to a
woman of indifferent character, showy in dress, whom he had introduced
into the inn to relieve his wife of her duties. This had caused
painful scenes, much recrimination, and the sick woman had with
difficulty persuaded her husband to send the woman away. Her last
hours had been embittered by the thought that her child might have
this worthless creature as her stepmother, and by the vexation of
knowing that the fruits of her care, saving, and labour would go to
enrich this person, whom she despised, yet hated.

Hardly was his wife dead before Cornelius showed plainly what were his
intentions. It became a matter of jest at his table, of scandal in the

In talking with some of the gentle bucks and topers who frequented his
house, Cornelius had had the indiscretion to comment on the difficulty
he felt in disposing of his daughter before introducing his new wife
to Stewponey; and the suggestion had been made in jest that he should
have her bowled for, and give as her dower the money made on the
occasion. He accepted the suggestion gravely, and then several chimed
in to press him to carry it into execution.

Associating as Cornelius did with men coarse-minded and, whatever
their social position, of no natural refinement, casting aside, when
at his table, or about his fire, whatever polish they had, Rea was in
no way superior to his companions. He was incapable of understanding
what belonged to his duty as a father, and of treating with the
delicacy due to her sex and situation the solitary girl who was
dependent on him.

Bladys loved her father, without respecting him.

He would not allow his guests to address her in an unseemly manner,
but his protection extended no further.

The girl was fully aware that she could not remain in the Stewponey
after her father was married again. To do so, she must forfeit her
self-respect and do a wrong to the memory of her mother.

The girl's pale and stately beauty of foreign cast had brought many
admirers about her. Amongst others she had been subjected to the
addresses of a certain Captain George Stracey, who occupied a small
house in the parish, was in good society, and seemed possessed of
means. But both she and her father were well aware that his addresses
were not honourable. She had repelled him with icy frigidity, that was
but an intensification of her ordinary demeanour to the guests.

Another who had been forward in his endeavours to win her regard was a
man then lodging at the inn, who had been there a fortnight, and gave
Luke Francis as his name. His home, he intimated, was at Shrewsbury,
his profession something connected with the law. He was a fine man,
with broad shoulders, a firm mouth, and high cheek-bones.

There was a third admirer, Crispin Ravenhill, a bargeman, owning his
own boat on the canal. But although his admiration might be gathered
from his deep earnest eyes, he never addressed a word to the girl to
intimate it. He was a reserved man of nearly thirty, who associated
with few of his fellows. It was held that the influence of his uncle,
Holy Austin, who had reared him from boyhood, still surrounded him and
restrained him from those vices which were lightly esteemed in that
age and by the class of men to which he pertained.

There was yet another, Lewis Falcon, a young man of private means
sufficient to free him from the obligation of working for his
livelihood, and who spent his substance in drink, gambling, and dog-

Bladys looked at the cobwebs. Never had she seen a fly in the cellar,
yet here they hung, dense, long, ghostly. And she--was not she
enveloped in cobwebs? Whither could she escape? In what direction
look? Where see light? She remained with her head between her hands
till hope, expectation of release, died in her heart; her tears dried
up; her agitation ceased. She had become as stone in her despair.

Chapter 3. CRISPIN

"Bla! run, take a jug of ale to Ravenhill," called the host down the
cellar stairs. "He's come for his luncheon."

Bladys hastily wiped her eyes and mounted the steps, fetched what was
required, and went into the guest-room, where Crispin, the bargeman,
was pacing.

"I will not have it here. Outside," said he, "under the elm." And then
went forth.

The girl followed.

Crispin Ravenhill was a tall man, with fair hair, yet were his eyes
dark; they were large, velvety; and a gentle, iridescent light played,
passing in waves through them. Unlike the men of his time, he was
completely unshaven, and wore a long light beard and moustache.

He seated himself on a bench beneath one of those "Worcester weeds,"
as the small-leaf elm is termed; and as Bladys placed his bread and
cheese on a table there, he looked attentively at her.

"You have been weeping," said he.

"I have cause, when about to be thrust from my home," she answered, in
a muffled voice. She resented his remark, yet was unable to restrain
an expression of the bitterness that worked within.

"And with whom will you leave home?" he asked.

"That the bowls decide, not I."

Then she turned to leave; but he caught her wrist. "You shall not go.
Much depends on what now passes between us," said he.

"What passes between us is bread and cheese from me to thee, and
seven-pence in return."

"If that be all, go your way," said he. "Yet no; you have tears in
your heart as well as in your eyes. Sit down and let us speak
familiarly together."

"I cannot sit down," answered she--for indeed it would have been
indecorous for her to seat herself along with a customer. She might
converse with him standing for half-an-hour with impunity, but to sit
for one minute would compromise her character. Such was tavern

"I pity you, my poor child, from the deep of my heart; in very deed I
am full of pity."

There was a vibration in his rich, deep voice, a flutter of kindly
light in his brown eyes that sent a thrill through the heart of
Bladys. In a moment her eyes brimmed, and he was conscious of a quiver
in the muscles of the wrist he grasped.

"They make sport of you. 'Give not that which is holy unto dogs,
neither cast ye your pearls before swine,' was not spoken of lifeless
objects, but of living jewels, of consecrated beings. They make sport
of you to your shame, and to that of the entire place. But the place
can take of itself--not so thou, poor child."

She did not speak.

"God help you," he continued. "A frail, white lily planted, springing
out of a good soil,--and to be plucked up by the roots and
transplanted, none can say whither."

Never hitherto had any one spoken to Bladys in this manner. There was
something pedantic in his mode of speech, formed by contact with his
uncle; but there was genuine sincerity in the tone of voice, real
sympathy breaking out in flashes from his opalescent eyes.

The mother of Bladys had been a good but a hard woman, practical not
imaginative, kind but unsympathetic; engrossed in her own grievances,
she had been incapable of entering into the soul of her child, and
showing motherly feeling for its inarticulate yearnings and vague

"This is none of your doing," proceeded Crispin. "To this you gave no

Her lips moved. She could not speak.

"Nay," said he, "I need no words."

There was a mellowness, a gentleness in his tone and mode of speech
that won the confidence of the girl. Hitherto he had not spoken to her
except on ordinary matters, and she had seen nothing of his heart. In
Nature, all is harmonious--the flower and its leaf are in one key. In
a landscape are no jarring contrasts. It is so in human beings; look
and voice and manner correspond with the inner nature; they are, in
fact, its true expression. The stern and unsympathetic heart has its
outward manifestations,--the harsh voice and the hard eye, and
severity of line in figure and feature. The gross soul has an unctuous
look, a sensual mouth, and a greasy voice. But the pitiful and sweet
soul floods every channel of utterance with its waters of love. The
kindly thought softens and lights up the eye, and gives to the vocal
chords a wondrous vibration. However lacking in beauty and regularity
the features may be, however shapeless the form, the inner charity
transfigures all into a beauty that is felt rather than seen. "There
is no fear in love," said the Apostle; the saying may be supplemented
with this--neither is there ugliness where is Charity.

And now this solitary girl, solitary in the midst of turmoil, was for
the first time in her life aware that she was in the presence of one
who could understand her troubles, and who stretched forth to help her
and sustain her in her recoil from the false position into which she
had been thrust.

As Bladys declined to take a seat, Crispin stood up. He did not
release her wrist. She made an effort to disengage herself, but it was
not sincere, nor was it persistent, and he retained hold.

"Nay," said he, "I will not suffer you to escape till you have
answered my questions. This may be the last time I ever have a word
with you; consider that; and I must use the moment You stand at a
turning-point in your life, and even so do I. Answer me, in the first
place, how came this mad affair about?"

She hesitated and looked down

"Speak openly. Tell me everything about it."

"There is little to relate."

"Then relate that little."

"It is this. My father is about to marry again."

"I have heard as much."

"To Catherine Barry, and I must leave the house."

"Catherine!" said Crispin. "That name is given as my uncle would say
as lucus a non lucendo, and as mons a non movendo. Excuse my speaking
words of Latin. It comes to me from my schoolmaster and all-but
father. I understand that you must leave. It cannot be other.
Catherine Barry and you cannot be under one roof."

"And one evening when the gentlemen were at Stewponey drinking--then
something my father said about it, and added that he supposed he must
have me married, and so rid the house of me. But to do that he lacked
money, as none would have a portionless girl."

"There he spake false."

"And then," proceeded Bladys, "the gentlemen being in drink, and ready
for any frolic, swore there should be sweepstakes for me. They would
each give something, and make the beginning of the fund, and my father
should announce a game of bowls, each candidate for the prize to pay a
guinea, and the whole to go to me and the winner. Then they sent a
punch-bowl round the table, and some put in five and some three, and
one even ten guineas, and so started the fund with forty-six guineas.
After that my father considered he could not go back."

"And so sacrifices his child," said the young boatman between his

"My father is calling me," said Bladys hastily.

"I let you go on one condition only--that you return; and you shall
return with an answer. Bla, if you will take me, say so. I am a poor
man, with my boat only; but with God's help I will maintain you with
honour. Take me, and I will snatch you away before this hideous
scandal can take place, and you become the talk of the country."

Again the voice of the landlord called.

"I must run," said Bladys, changing colour.

"Then go, and return with an answer, Yes or No."

She left.

Whilst away, Crispin Ravenhill stood motionless, leaning against the
table, with his arms folded and his dark eyes fixed on the ground. His
contracted fingers alone showed that he was a prey to disturbing

As he thus stood, a strong dark man came up, and brushed rudely
against him. Crispin glanced at him with an expression of annoyance,
and recognised the stranger, Luke Francis.

"You have much to say to that wench," said the latter.

"Whether I have or no concerns you not. Go your way, and for the
future, when you pass a man, measure your distance more nicely."

"I shall go where I list, and those that stand in my way I shall
thrust out of it."

"Those who jar against others must expect bruises."

Ravenhill threw his weight on the end of the table so as to tilt up
the opposite end, and he then swung it round against the elbow of
Francis, which it struck. The man thus hit sprang up with an
exclamation of pain, and clapped his hand to the joint for a moment.
Francis did not speak for a minute, but after that he flared out in

"So you will try issue with me?"

"I have no further quarrel with you. You, having rudely thrust against
me, have received a thrust in return. Our account is balanced."

"You are not afraid to provoke me?"

"Not in the smallest degree."

"Look at my arms."

Francis extended his hands, and then, indeed, Ravenhill observed how
long the arms were; unduly so, out of proportion to his lower limbs;
for when he lowered his hands they touched his knees. The stranger now
bent his arms, and the muscles swelled like knotted cables. Then he

"There are few like me. I could take your head between my palms, and
squeeze it as you would a Seville orange. Are you one that has entered
for the bowling match?"

"I am not."

"I am sorry for that, for I would like to be pitted against you.
Perhaps you will not deny me a cast at wrestling; that will give more
spirit than a game at bowls."

Before Ravenhill was ready with an answer, the inn-keeper arrived,
with Bladys following him.

"What is this?" he asked. "You, Crispin, stepping in and trying to
forestall everyone? That's against all laws of gaming. Look here, Mr
Francis. This boatman has been asking my wench to let him carry her
off afore the match. That's unfair dealing all the world over. I say
it can't be."

"And it shan't," said Luke Francis.

"It can't and it shan't," shouted the host. "Why, there's forty-six
guineas paid down by the gentlemen, as'd be all forfeited without the
match. They gave it on condition; and I reckon that we shall have a
take nigh on twenty pounds, what with the gate and with the sale of
liquor and the stakes. It'd be a flying in the face of Fortune.
Besides which it'd not be honourable; and I pride myself--I haven't
got so much to pride myself on, but I do on that--as I'm a straight,
honourable man in all my dealings."

"I have paid my guinea. I demand my right to contest for the prize--
and win--to take her off," said the stranger.

"And he--has he staked?" asked the host.

"No, he has not," retorted Francis. "He told me so himself."

"I have had the crier round the neighbourhood. All the world will be
here. Am I to befool them? It cannot be."

Then Ravenhill stood forth.

"I have sought to save the poor girl from a cruel and wanton insult,
your house of Stewponey from the acquisition of a bad name, our vicar
from the commission of an act which he will repent in his sober
moments, and the parish from a scandal."

"And I refuse your interference," said Cornelius.

"What does she decide?" asked the barge-man. But Bladys was too
frightened to reply.

"I answer for her. I am responsible. If you want her," said the
taverner, "put down your guinea like a man, and try your chance with
the rest. We'll have no underhand dealings here."

"Stewponey Bla," said Crispin, "is it your desire that I should enter
for you?"

She nodded. She could not speak.

"Then here is my guinea."

He cast the coin on the table.

"May God give her to me!" he added with suppressed emotion. "Would I
could have won her any way but this."


The ancient bowling-green at the Stewponey remains in good condition
to the present day, although the once popular and excellent English
pastime of bowls has there, as elsewhere, fallen into desuetude.

In old England there was not a village, country house, without its
bowling-green. A century ago the game held its own steadily, and it is
within the last seventy or eighty years only that it has lost favour
and has been supplanted by croquet and lawn tennis.

A bowling-green was necessarily sixty yards in length and half that in
breadth, so that the space required was considerable. The rustic
bowler on the village green had to make allowance for the inequalities
of the ground, but the gentleman player used every precaution that his
green should be absolutely even, the grass unbroken by groundsel and
daisy, and smooth and short as velvet pile.

The bowling ground at the Stewponey, hedged about with small-leafed
elms, well elevated above the road and river, and consequently dry,
constituted a prime attraction to the inn, and the landlord spared no
pains to keep it in order. The sward might compare with that in any
nobleman's grounds. The bowls with which the game was played were not
precisely the same as those now manufactured. They had the shape of
flattened oranges, and were loaded with lead inserted in one side to
serve as bias, or tendency wards the end of the course to describe a
sweep. When delivered, the ball runs directly to its end, but as soon
as it reaches the point where the force that launched it is expended,
then it curls, carried by the weight of the lead, and turns in an arc.
And it is here, in the practical knowledge of the effect of the bias,
that the difficulty of the game consists, and the skill of the player
is exhibited.

Nor is this all. At the present day, all bowls are of a standard size
and regulation weight. But formerly it was not so. The bowls were
turned by the village carpenter, and little nicety was observed as to
the amount of lead inserted. Those on the village green, those on the
Squire's lawn, those on the alehouse ground, were not of necessity of
the same weight and size. Not only so, but among the bowls on the same
green there existed no exact uniformity. The bowls were numbered in
pairs, and the players either drew for their numbers, or, if
accustomed to meet for the game on the same turf, adhered to their
numbers, and so acquired perfect familiarity with the peculiarities of
their several bowls. When no game could be played with zest except for
money, whether cards, bowls, or pulling straws, there was ever a risk
of fraud; and to this the game under consideration lent itself with
peculiar facility, as it was an easy matter to tamper with the bias,
and so alter the character of the run of the ball.

Cornelius Rea was not disappointed in his anticipation that the
advertisement of the match would draw the entire neighbourhood
together at his inn. Indeed, all the neighbouring parishes had
decanted their male population into the grounds of the Stewponey,
whilst the road without was choked with women and children, and such
men as could not afford to pay for admission. Boys had climbed trees,
girls were thrusting their heads through gaps in thorn hedges, in
hopes of obtaining a view free of cost.

Will anyone say that what is here described is and was impossible?
That it is impossible at the close of the nineteenth century may be at
once admitted, but it was quite otherwise with the latter half of the
century that is gone. It is hard, almost impossible, for us to
conceive that things were witnessed by our grandfathers which seem to
us quite incredible. To disarm criticism, then, let me affirm that
just such a contest for a woman, as is here described, did take place,
and in the very same parish of Kinver, so late as within the first
twenty years of the century which our readers render illustrious by
living in it. On this occasion the woman entertained a decided and
tender preference for one of the competitors, and unhappily he proved
unsuccessful. Nevertheless, she loyally adhered to the compact entered
into before the game was played, and married the man who was victor,
and for whom she entertained no liking. An united and happy couple
they proved to be.

To their credit be it mentioned that no women entered the wicket of
the Stewponey; not that they were less interested in the contest than
the men, but that they were restrained by a sense of decorum.
Nevertheless, as already intimated, they congregated in the road in
such dense masses as to impede traffic, and run the risk of being
thrown down by the horses of some of the sporting squires who rode up
or drove in their buggies to see the unusual fun of a woman being
bowled for.

If they were debarred witnessing the game, they would have the
gratification of seeing the prize carried off to Stourton Chapel,
there to be married. If the women held back under some restraint, this
was not the case with certain men who should have been leaders of the
people--the parson, the doctor, and two magistrates. Of gentlemen
there were over a score, of parsons happily only one, but he--the
vicar of the parish.

The vicar of Kinver at this time was the Reverend Timothy Toogood--
red-faced, rheumy-eyed, dressed in the shabbiest clerical garb.

The vicar was miserably poor. He was overshadowed by the evening
lecturer, who received double the income of the other, without having
any further responsibility laid on him than to preach one sermon on
Sunday. Vicar and lecturer lived in perpetual feud, and, it must be
allowed, the former laid himself open to reproach by his indiscretions
and irregularities. The living hardly merited the name. It was more
deserving to be reckoned as a dying. The vicarage was a mean cottage.
The parishioners might have made their parson's position tolerable,
and have secured a respectable incumbent, had they consented to give
the lectureship to the vicar, but the latter was a nominee of the
Leathersellers' Company, and the villagers delighted to exhibit their
independence by appointing their own lecturer.

The main politics of the place consisted in controversy over the
merits or demerits of the two ecclesiastics, and in setting one
against the other. It is of no use denying the fact that poverty in
certain positions demoralises. A common workman can be poor and
straight as a whistle, but a man of some education and parts, and born
a gentleman, if in reduced circumstances, is tempted almost beyond
power of resistance to deflect from the straight course. Parson
Toogood, had he been in comfortable circumstances, would have been
respectable and have deserved respect. He was kind-hearted and
unselfish. But his distresses deprived him of self-esteem, and blunted
his moral perception. He saw one only chance of escape into a position
of ease, and that was by becoming the humble servant of the Squire,
not daring to oppose him lest he should lose his favour and the chance
of promotion to a fat living in his gift.

Some scruple did enter the mind of the vicar when it was announced to
him that he was expected to consecrate the union determined by a game
of bowls, but the scruple was laid at rest by the insistence of Squire
Stourton that unless he performed the sacred rite the couple would go
off without it, and he clenched the argument with a promise of five
guineas as fee.

Some scruple did enter the mind of the vicar, because it was
impossible to publish banns or provide a licence before the contest
decided who the man was who was to be united with Stewponey Bla, and
no time afterwards was available, as the marriage was to follow
immediately on the conclusion of the game. But this scruple yielded
under the consideration that the Stourton Castle chapel was a
peculiar, not under Episcopal jurisdiction, and that, therefore, as
his patron said, "My dear Toogood, you may do in it just what you
like; stand on your head if you will, and bless the happy pair with
your toes. No one can object."

Seeing that Squire Stourton was a magistrate, the vicar assumed he
ought to know the law, an assumption as great and hazardous as one
that pre-supposed that every vicar was acquainted with theology. When,
moreover, the Squire added, "My dear fellow, if you have any
hesitation in the matter, make yourself easy. I will call in the
lecturer," then every symptom of hesitation subsided.

"Make way for the umpire!" shouted the host, elbowing the crowd to the
right and left. "Parson Toogood is umpire. Room for his reverence!"

The garden was full to overflow with a coarse and noisy throng of men,
and the drawers had difficulty in supplying them with ale, so closely
were they packed and so thirsty were the constituent atoms. As if to
intimate to Bladys that retreat was impossible, the woman Catherine
Barry had been called in to direct and control the house for that day.
The host could not manage everything. Bladys was incapacitated by the
part she had to play. Assistance he was obliged to invoke. What more
reasonable than that he should summon her who was shortly to become
mistress in the house? But for all that, her presence was an outrage--
so the unhappy girl felt it.

The gentlemen who had paid their half-crowns occupied benches on three
sides of the bowling-green. Those who had paid but a shilling stood
behind them and in rear of the "footer," whence the players cast the

"Come up to the head," shouted one fellow to his mate. "I want to get
a good sight of Stewponey Bla, and find out from her face which is her
fancy man."

"I don't care a hang for her fancy--I want to follow the game."

"Well, you can see it finely from the top."

"Now, Roger," exclaimed another in the crush, "I'll thank you to keep
your elbows in. You've spilt my ale. Good luck; it's over your
mulberry cloth, and not over my new coat."

"What do you want ale for now?"

"How can I see till I've washed my eyes?"

"How many have paid up their stakes?"

"There's Tup Rivers."

"Tup Rivers! Well, that's comical. But I suppose he's aiming after the
fifty or sixty guineas he's heard the gentlefolk have subscribed. I
didn't think he was a marrying man."

"Lor' bless y'--any man would marry for fifty pounds."

"Has Lewis staked?"

"Ay ay, but he's too drunk to keep his legs. The Captain paid, but
won't play."

"Nan has been at him--that's it."

"That stranger chap--he's in it."

"Who is he?"

"Heaven above can answer better than I. Then they tell me Crispin the
bargeman has entered."

At that moment a shout and a groan. The interlocutors pressed up to
the head, where sat the umpire, to learn the occasion. Tup Rivers had
withdrawn, and was asking to have his guinea returned. He was a small
farmer. He shrank from a game in which he would have as his opponents
such men as Francis and Ravenhill.

"Then," said the man entitled Roger, "the game has thinned down
amazingly to two--that's sorry sport. But for seeing who wins the
prize I'd go away. Come, Matthew--a stranger against Kinver, What
odds? I'll lay on Kinver, for the honour of the old place."

To revert to the first couple who were in dialogue. "Look," said one,
"observe Stewponey Bla; she hangs her head, you can't see her face."

"Pshaw!" answered the man addressed. "What right has a publican's
daughter to be shamefaced? It don't belong to the profession--it's put
on for the occasion, take my word for it."

"Silence! They have begun."

A hush fell on the spectators. It was as intimated. Two competitors
had withdrawn at the last moment, and one was incapacitated. It had
been hoped that a sixth would enter before the game began, but none
had done so. The number was reduced to two. Precedence in entry
entitled to selection of bowls. The choice lay with Francis. Each was
to have four. The stranger chose the twos and fours. The odd numbers
were left to Crispin.

A hush fell on the spectators as Luke Francis cast the jack and set
the mark rightly enough beyond twenty-one yards from the footer.
Haying done this, he at once delivered his first bowl, that spun along
merrily to the right, slackened its pace as it neared the point of
distance required, then halted, turned and ran with a sweep towards
the jack and touched it. The ball was so brilliantly delivered and the
execution so admirable, that it was greeted with a shout of applause;
but a louder shout welcomed Crispin's success, as with a swift ball he
struck the bowl of his adversary from its place, and knocked it from
the green.

"Dead!" shouted the onlookers.

Francis played again, and this time came wide of the jack. Ravenhill
looked steadily at his goal, swung his arm twice and delivered the
bowl. It lagged, came to an apparent rest, and then twisted away from
the jack. The ball of Francis was not within standard distance, and
therefore did not count.

Again Francis delivered, and his bowl made a revolution and rested
within a few inches of the jack. Crispin paused, took deliberate
measure and made his cast. To his surprise the ball halted, turned
over, and rested without further activity. At once he walked the
length of the green, to where the balls lay, stooped, took up his
bowl, and strode before the umpire.

"Parson Toogood," said he, "look here! Did you ever see a bowl settle
with the bias upwards? I demand that this be seen into."

Several of the gentlemen sitting near rose and pressed round, the
spectators in the rear jumped the bench and crowded round.

The vicar took the bowl in question, "Fetch me Ravenhill's other,"
said he, and was at once obeyed.

The vicar weighed one against the other in his hands.

"I confess this one seems the lightest," he said, referring to the
bowl that had rested with the lead mark upwards.

"Hand it to the Squire," said Ravenhill, "let him investigate it

Mr Stourton took the bowl, and with his pocket-knife removed the plug
that closed the opening which usually contained the bias. The lead was

"The bowls are imperfect. There has been an accident to one," said
Parson Toogood. "The game must be begun afresh."

"There has been no accident," said Ravenhill. "There has been an
attempt to cheat."

"Do you charge me?" asked Luke Francis. "It was not in the interest of
any one else to defeat me. You, lodging in the house, had access to
the bowls."

Then rose an angry confused shout of "Cheat! cheat! The stranger is
caught cheating! To the duckpond with him! Kick him out!"

Francis raised himself to his full height, and in a loud voice
thundered, "I am no rogue. It has been a chance. Ravenhill has accused
me. I defy him. Let us fight it out. That is better sport than a game
at bowls."

This proposition instantly allayed the gathering wrath. Shouts arose
of "Ay! ay! Fair play! Fight the matter out!"

But the vicar in much agitation stood up, his red face becoming
mottled like soap.

"No!" cried he, "I'll be no party to a fight. A game of bowls is
harmless; but a fight--no, I cannot, dare not countenance that. If you
will, let them wrestle, but no pugilism. I will allow that."

"Then let us wrestle," said Luke.

The crowd shouted, "We are content, let them wrestle."

"Strip and prepare," said Luke to Crispin.

"I have desired this."

Chapter 5. THE JACK

Quickly the two men prepared for the struggle. They threw off their
coats and waistcoats, and then proceeded to remove their boots.

Usually a girdle was cast over the right shoulder of each wrestler,
and was buckled under the left arm; but this was done only when the
shirt was removed. On the present occasion both antagonists and
spectators were too impatient to tarry till suitable belts could be
procured, and the two men were therefore content to confront each
other as they were, the right hand of the one on the left side of the
other, and the left hand on his antagonist's right shoulder, looking
into each other's eyes, and with ears alert for the signal to begin.


Then they stood with contracted brows, set lips, swaying from side to
side, the muscles rippling under the skin in their exposed limbs.
Then, suddenly, they grappled.

From the first round, Crispin ascertained two things. In the first
place, his antagonist was comparatively inexperienced; in the next,
his boast of superior strength was justified. It was obvious to him
that the contest would be one in which in his opponent moderate skill
was combined with extraordinary force.

Crispin had not played often; only occasionally had he tried a fall
with a comrade, and he had never taken to the sport seriously.

The clutch of Luke Francis's hand on Crispin's shoulder told him that,
could his adversary get the other hand in the same position on his
other shoulder, Francis would be able to double him backwards and
throw him, or snap his spine. But if Luke was the most muscular in
arm, Crispin had superior agility, in that his legs were longer than
those of his opponent.

After the first round--that proved without result--they desisted, so
as to gather breath.

Then they made ready for a second bout.

For a minute, as before, the two opponents stood swaying, otherwise
motionless, and then by a sudden and simultaneous impulse, each
clasped the other round the waist.

Bladys sat near the head of the bowling-green, too frightened, too
bewildered to have eyes to see what went forward, or ears to hear the
comments that passed. She sat in a dream, but the dream was a

For some days she had been in a condition of nervous excitation, her
brain in a whirl. And now she was as one stupefied, unconscious of
what passed before, about her.

She had tortured her mind to discover some method to escape from the
predicament in which she was placed, and had found none. A hundred
years ago, young unmarried women were not the emancipated beings that
they are now. At present, a girl who is impatient of the restraints of
home, or desires a change from its monotony, can enter a post-office,
go behind a counter, or offer to be a cook, and be overwhelmed with
applications for her inefficient services. A century ago, the case was
wholly different. There were no situations open to women save those
that were menial, and such as entered service were either apprenticed
for three years, or hired at a statute fair for one. A twelvemonth was
then the shortest term of service, whereas now, should a girl dislike
her situation, not finding any eligible young men within attraction,
she can say, "I will go at the end of a month," and away she flits.

Moreover, a hundred years ago, servants were kept only in the houses
of the gentry and in farms. The tradesmen attended to their business,
and their wives looked after the house. At that time there was vast
competition for a place, whereas now the tables are reversed; there is
competition among mistresses for a servant.

And further still, discipline was then drawn tighter, and the children
dared not oppose their wishes to the will of their parents; least of
all, in such a matter as settlement in life.

What could Bladys do as matters then were? In some instances a girl
broke through the net, and eloped. But to elope it takes two; and the
offer of Crispin Ravenhill came too late for her to take advantage of
it. She had, moreover, no ambition to jump into any man's arms; her
sole desire was to escape from the many arms which were extended to
receive her.

She had not slept for several nights, nor had she been allowed any
repose during the day. Wounded to the quick in her self-respect--and
with her Spanish blood Bladys had inherited something of Spanish
pride--trembling at the threshold of an unknown future, aching at
being thrust from the home of her childhood, offended at the insult
offered to the memory of her mother, she had been brought by
exhaustion of physical and mental powers to a condition in which all
her faculties were at a standstill. Now, at the supreme moment that
determined her future, she was as one in a trance, in the very ecstacy
of despair. Her face was white, her brow beaded with drops of agony,
and her head declining on her bosom. Her hands, folded in her lap,
twitched convulsively.

Although she felt the vibration in her feet from the trampling of the
antagonists on the sward, yet she alone of all the crowd seemed
unconcerned as to the issue of the game. Now and then she raised her
head mechanically and looked at the writhing figures, but it was with
lack-lustre eyes, and she almost immediately let it fall again.

When the green had been cleared for the wrestling match, the jack had
been flung aside and had rested at the feet of Bladys; and in fact it
appeared as though she were more intent on trifling with this little
ball than in watching the conflict, for she had her toe on it and
played the jack forward and backward with it, now letting it run
almost beyond reach, then stretching her foot so as to recover it and
recommence her play. Had not those who surrounded her had all their
attention fixed on the struggling men, they would have observed and
commented on her behaviour as one that exhibited extraordinary
callousness. Yet callous she was not, only in that stunned mental and
moral condition in which only what is infinitely insignificant is
perceived, and the faculties are dead to everything of genuine

Already with a thud both men had gone down, and had gone down
together; but so uncertain was it which had cast the other that the
umpire declared it was a "dog-fall," and that the contest must be

A simple and elementary stratagem in wrestling is for the one to work
his right shoulder under the armpit of his opponent. By this means he
obtains enormous leverage, displaces the centre of gravity of his
antagonist, and is able to upset him. Crispin, relying on the
inexperience of Luke, attempted this trick, but the stratagem was so
obvious that Francis was prepared to resist it.

Before long the wrestling match altered its character, and degenerated
into a fight. Ravenhill in vain endeavoured to adhere to the laws of
the game, and in vain also did the umpire remonstrate. Francis knew or
cared nothing about regulations. All he sought was by all means to
master his adversary, and to bring him to the ground.

And although at first the spectators shouted their disapproval of
manifest violations of rule, yet when they saw that the blood of both
combatants was up, and that they were resolved on something more
serious than a wrestling match, they were quite prepared to encourage
the new direction taken, for to them the greater the violence employed
and the greater the danger to life and limb in those engaged, the more
acute was their pleasure, and the more interesting the sport.

If, according to regulation, either party break his hold--that is to
say, lets go, whilst the other retains his grip--the one so leaving go
is counted the loser; and his letting go is regarded as equivalent to
a fall. But to this rule Francis paid no attention.

When he suddenly disengaged his hands and laid hold of Ravenhill by
the arm to force them from him, the crowd shouted "Rule! rule!" but as
he paid no regard to the call, and the struggle became more intense,
they no longer protested, and allowed it to proceed in such manner as
suited the opponents, and suffered them to use such devices as they
chose for obtaining advantage one over the other.

Every now and then from the spectators rose a burst of applause, like
the roar of a wave clashing against a rock. Then ensued a hiss, like
the retreat of a wave over a shingly beach, caused by all together
drawing in their breath between their teeth.

At one moment the eyes were dazzled by a whirl of limbs, in the midst
of which one body was indistinguishable from another. Then followed a
pause--a pause in which all was a-quiver. And in that pause Luke was
seen with his hands one on each side of the temples of Crispin,
endeavouring to work his thumbs to his eye-sockets, so as to force out
the balls, or compel his adversary to give way, and let go his hold,
so as to save them. Crispin held Luke about the waist, and endeavoured
to give him "the click," which consists in drawing the opponent to the
chest, so as to force him to resist and drag backward, then to strike
his left leg with the right, and if he be pressing back at the moment,
he is prevented from recovering his balance, and reels over.

It was whilst attempting this well-known stratagem that Luke
disengaged his arms, and was working his thumbs to the eye-sockets of
the boatman, only prevented from effecting his purpose by the movement
of Ravenhill's head, and by his own uncertain footing.

At this moment, unconscious of what she was about, Bladys pressed the
jack with her toe, so as to flip it from her. It shot forward, and ran
under the feet of the combatants.

Crispin trod on it at the moment when he trusted to have his
antagonist off the ground; instead, he slipped, was upset, fell,
bringing Luke down upon him, and, in falling, he came with the back of
his head on the jack.

Francis instantly disengaged himself, sprang to his feet, and waved
his arms triumphantly. Ravenhill lay prostrate on his back, speechless
and unconscious, blood running between his lips. The crowd had not
noticed the incident of the jack. What they saw was the fall of
Crispin, with Luke above him, and that the stranger was the victor.

In a moment the bowling-green was inundated by men cheering, to get at
Francis, slap his back, and shake hands with him.

"Stand back!" shouted the vicar. "You will trample on the fallen man."

"Has he broke his back?"

"Or his head?"

"Never mind him. Come on! Parson, run for your surplice. There'll be a
double entertainment. A wedding first and a burying after."

"And a hanging as a finish-up withal, if he has been killed."

"That would be rare sport; but there's no chance of that. It's but
accidental homicide. More's the pity."

"I wouldn't ha' missed the sight for a crown."

"On to the chapel!"

Then the landlord bustled up to his daughter. "Bla," said he, panting
and swelling, "along with me. Luke Francis is your man. You're in
luck's way. The captain never meant aught but mischief, and Lewis is a
drunken sot. Hey! Wish you joy, Mr Francis."

The victor, breathless, hot and dishevelled, was reinvesting himself
in waistcoat and coat; then he drew on his boots, and adjusted his
cravat. He did not trouble himself about the prostrate man. But the
village surgeon was there, and he forced the crowd apart whilst he
examined him.

"How came the jack here?" he asked.

"The jack was kicked off the field. I did it myself," said a man who
stood by.

"The jack is here now, and, in falling on it, Ravenhill has been
injured," said the surgeon.

"Ay, I saw it spin over the turf, and he tripped on it," said a

"Never heed. This is doctor's business," shouted several.

"Come along! To Stourton chapel! Parson's on the way."

In another minute the bowling-green was deserted, save by the surgeon
kneeling over the insensible Crispin.

And the crowd, as it swept like a torrent out of the garden, along the
road, carried Stewponey Bla with it.

Chapter 6. A MAD WEDDING

Half-a-crown ticket-holders alone admitted. We shilling people remain
without. It is as well. The scene in the chapel cannot be edifying,
considering who they are that press in, fox-hunting, dog-fighting,
cocking, country gentry, some already half-tipsy, Lewis Falcon wholly
so; the parson a man of indifferent character; the marriage the result
of a fight.

Stourton Castle, once the favourite residence of King John, and
possessing a venerable history, built originally of red sandstone, had
been given a rakish modern aspect by a proprietor who conceived that
what was old must be bad, and whose taste was at the service of the
fashion of the day. He had delivered over this ancient structure to an
architect to modernise at the period when taste was at the lowest ebb
in England.

At one time the Castle had been surrounded by an extensive deer park,
in which were stately oaks of the growth of centuries. Card-playing,
dicing, toping, law-suits, had reduced the Squires of Stourton to the
cutting down of their oaks, and the selling them so as to pay with the
proceeds their debts of honour and of dishonour.

The second half of last century was a period when something more than
artistic taste had reached its lowest depth. Common morality and the
sense of decency were equally depraved. At the close of the
seventeenth century, moral corruption had been open and flagrant in
high quarters, but a religious leaven was in the land, and there was a
sturdy substance and inner core of virtue to be found among the middle
and lower classes, an hereditary, traditional respect for what was
good and true and honest.

But with the expulsion of the Non-jurors, those who were respectable
in life and learning were driven from the pulpits of the Church, and
their places were occupied by time-servers, by men of inferior moral,
mental, and social position. The relics of Puritanism had been too
narrow, too sour to influence the mass of mankind. Dissociating
themselves from all amusements, however harmless, condemning them as
evil, holding together in small acrid clusters, the Saints had done
nothing to check and moderate what was boisterous, and their very
extravagance of strictness made of their sons the most debauched and
shameless when freed from parental control. The decay which had begun
at the head under the last Stuarts worked slowly yet steadily
downwards: it attacked the heart of the community, and then sent
rottenness to the very roots, in the time of the last Georges.

In few parts of England was there more hard drinking, hard swearing,
law-breaking, and licentious living than in that portion of the
Midlands where the scene of our tale lies. There, as already
intimated, the convergence and dislocation at point of contact of
three counties afforded every opportunity for making light of the law.

Often a fat living rewarded a complaisant tutor who would marry the
discarded mistress of his patron; as often the best way to preferment
in the Church was for the clerk in orders to be a fellow-sot with the
man who presented to the cure of souls where spread his acres.

Had Parson Toogood lived near Lichfield, he would have been
respectable in conduct, and only forfeited his dignity by cringing and
spittle-licking to the Bishop, but as Lichfield was a long way off he
toadied his squire.

"Here they come!"

The crowd became agitated, compacted itself closer, broke out into
jocosity, and was broad in its mirth, noisy in its ejaculations.

Out through the doorway burst a couple of gentlemen in top-boots, one
Squire Stourton of Stourton Castle, and he in a claret coat, cracking
a whip, and shouting:

"Clear a road for the happy pair! Clear the way, or I'll cut you
across your faces."

"Clear the course, or be--to you all!" shouted George, commonly
designated Captain Stracey, who was armed with a silver-headed
walking-cane, with which he belaboured such as stood in the way.

"Come along to Stewponey and drink to their healths and happiness!"
roared the Squire.

Then forth issued Luke Francis and Bladys.

The latter walked as in a dream, her face colourless, her eyes glazed.
She paid no regard to the congratulations showered on her, nor
returned the salutations offered, nor did a particle of colour mount
to her cheek at the coarse sallies that flew about her. She walked
uncertainly, and unless Francis had guided her, she would have stepped
off the path and into a bush.

"No bells!" exclaimed the tipsy Lewis Falcon; "Odds boddikins! I don't
hold it a proper wedding without b--b--bells."

"Bells!" echoed Stourton. "Gad! We'll have the dinner-bell; well
thought on, Lewis. You take my whip and sweep a way among 'em, and
I'll fetch it in the twinkling of a marline-spike."

Then, surrendering the hunting-whip to the tipsy youth, he ran into
the Castle.

A minute had scarcely elapsed before he returned blowing a Saxhorn,
that he held in one hand, and clanging a bell with the other.

The people cheered. Falcon cracked his whip. A boy started out of the
crowd and twanged a Jews' harp; but not a sound of this feeble
instrument could be heard in the universal din.

Thus the procession moved, drifted, tumbled along, on the way to the
inn; some of those in it treading on the heels of the others, now
falling and being trodden on by those behind--laughter, screams,
oaths, jests, blasphemies, together with the clangour of the bell, the
braying of the horn, and the cracking of the whip, forming an
indescribable hubbub.

At the tavern door appeared the landlord, waving his cap in one hand,
flourishing a tankard of ale in the other, and spilling the contents
over those near. He had not attended his daughter to Stourton. He had
asked the Squire to act as his deputy and give her away. He knew that
eating and drinking would follow on the return of the rabble, and he
had to provide accordingly.

"Well, Bla!" shouted he to his daughter, with boisterous mirth, "I
wish you joy. It's right the parent should show the way to the child
that it should walk in; but, by George, you have distanced me, and
given me the go-by. I shan't be long after you."

Bladys looked up at him, but said nothing, neither was there
intelligence in her eyes. Even he was struck at her appearance, and
asked, in a low tone.

"Does aught ail thee, wench?"

She made no reply, and passed within.

"Come here, son Luke, as I must now entitle thee. And so you have
resolved to leave at once?"

"I must be off. My duty exacts my presence at Shrewsbury."

"A deed to be engrossed?"


"And you start to-night?"

"The day is closing in. Half-an-hour is the most I can allow. I must
sleep at Bridgenorth, that I may be in Shrewsbury in good time

The Stewponey was like to a hive into which a wasp has penetrated. The
open space in front was dense with people; the interior was packed
with them. The bowling-green, the yard, the stables, every portion of
ground belonging to it was swarming. People, unable to endure the
crush and heat within the house, worked their way out, and
simultaneously another stream was intent on forcing its way within,
where ale and spirits were thought to be obtainable without charge.
Outside the rabble was as in a dance. Men, women, dived in and out
amongst the rest in quest of friends and acquaintances. Knots were
formed, then dispersed when a drawer appeared bearing refreshment.
Then at once a rush ensued that upset him--or his supplies--amidst
curses and laughter and outcries.

Tobacco smoke curled in the air; tongues chattered. A boy who had
climbed an elm fell with the branch on which he had planted himself
and was saved from hurt by knocking down three women and a man, on
whose heads and shoulders he tumbled.

A Savoyard with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey arrived and formed a
nucleus around which the young congregated, and not the young only.
The sallies of the red-coated ape, its grimaces, produced general
mirth and some disturbance.

"Now then! Make room! Now then! Do you want to be run over?"

Clack! clack! went the whip of a post-boy, and a yellow-bodied
carriage was brought out of the yard, drawn by two horses, and mounted
by a boy in a yellow jacket, white hat, and breeches and top-boots.

When this appeared, for a while attention was diverted from the ape,
and the cluster that had formed round the hurdy-gurdy was broken up.

An avenue was opened with difficulty, to allow the horses to draw the
vehicle to the inn door.

Then a scream rang out ear-piercingly.

The ape had made a grip at a youth's head of hair as the lad revolved
to see the post-boy and carriage, and, what is more, with malicious
blinkings and with tenacity the creature retained its hold. The young
fellow clutched and struggled to free himself mad with terror. Some of
those standing by applauded the monkey and bade him pull harder.
Others attempted to release the boy by plucking at the chain attached
to the beast's collar.

Instantly the monkey set up his crest of hair, mouthed, growled, and
leaped at those who tweaked his chain. This scattered them like chaff
and some in their attempt to escape the monkey got under the legs of
the horses. The post-boy used his whip on the backs of such as came
within reach of his lash, and cast at them the most abusive
expletives. The chain had been wrenched from its hold. The monkey was
free, and the Savoyard, striving to forge his way after it, joined in
the hubbub, dominating the uproar by his shrill cries that Jacko was
loose, interlarded with oaths in Italian and entreaties in broken

The ape, conscious that it was free, with cunning dropped out of sight
to the ground, tucked up the chain, and dived in and out among the
feet and petticoats of the crowd, who sprang apart, as though the
earth had gaped, whenever they became aware of its proximity. Every
now and then it ran up the back of some shrieking individual to take a
look round, then jumped down again.

After the ape, as well as he was able to judge his direction, came the
Italian, crying out for his Jacko, now appealing to the beast's sense
of gratitude, then invoking the assistance of the crowd, then calling
down imprecations on all alike.

He was torn, distracted, by alarm lest he should lose his monkey and
by solicitude for his instrument, that was subjected to jolts and
crushing by the crowd.

None attended to the Italian; all were on the look-out to escape from
the hoofs of the post-horses, the wheels of the carriage, or the hands
of the ape. Then--none knew exactly when, not at all how--Jacko ceased
to provoke uneasiness. He was gone, whither none asked, where none
cared, glad to be relieved of menace from him.

The alarm of the rabble abated. They formed hedges, leaving an open
way for the travelling carriage, and the post-boy drew up before the
inn door. At the same moment the bride and bridegroom appeared in the
entrance--he triumphant, with a flame in his bold, dark eyes and a
flush on his cheeks, she white as death, impassive, inanimate, some
women said indifferent.

Cornelius followed, his bloated face gleaming as a poppy. In his hand
was a leather bag.

"By gad, it's heavy," said he, "and ought to be. A good take to-day.
Help you on with the housekeeping. All to-day's profits in silver and
about fifty in gold in a canvas bag to itself. It shan't be said my
daughter has left the Stewponey like a beggar. But, i' fecks, I don't
half like your leaving at this time of the evening, and with all this
money. The roads are not safe."

"Safe enough for me," said Luke.

"There have been highwaymen about. Not afraid?"

"I! I afraid of highwaymen!" scoffed Francis. "I should consider
rather that they would fear me."

"Ah! the law, the law! All well enough in a town, but no protection in
the country."

"I have a pair of loaded pistols in the chaise. If any man come to the
window without leave, I shall add a dab of lead to his already stupid

"You know best. Where is Captain Stracey?"

"Captain George!" shouted those near, but there was no answer.

"Haven't seen him since we left Stourton," said the Squire.

"We must start," said Luke, and the ostler opened the door of the
travelling carriage.

"By George," laughed Rea, and drew himself up, "my daughter's marriage
is like that of a lady--with a carriage and pair, and driving away for
a honeymoon."

"You haven't put the money bag on the pistols?" asked Francis.

"Not such an ass. The pistols are at top."

"Jacko! Who has seen, stole my Jacko?" cried the Savoyard, running

"Be hanged with your Jacko; stand back," said the landlord. "Now
then," to the post-boy. "Tom, off!"

The postillion cracked his whip, the horses pranced and dashed ahead.

Then from the spectators rose a cheer. It was repeated, again
repeated. The maids looked from the windows and waved kerchiefs and
aprons. The vicar, already in the tavern, smoking, stumbled to the
door, and waving his three-cornered hat in one hand and his clay pipe
in the other, shouted--

"It's a mad wedding, my masters."

"It is one of your making," said the evening lecturer, who was

"Ah! Brother Priest! and a merry one--because mine. If yours, 'twould
have been dull--deadly dull. My masters--it is a mad wedding."

Chapter 7. STAND! DELIVER!

The post carriage from the Stewponey was one the like of which is
never seen at the present day, although on the Continent, in places,
some venerable survivals linger on to excite our astonishment and

It was a calash constructed to hold two persons only, with a hood
something like that of a hansom, and glazed in front. It was perched
on enormous wheels behind, those in front being disproportionately
small. The body of the vehicle was swung on immense C springs. It was
painted the colour of a marigold, the back being black.

This carriage was far from being incommodious. Although there was no
third seat within, there was a bracket on which any such article as a
reticule could be placed, but only retained if tied there. No box seat
for a driver obstructed the view. Those within commanded a prospect of
the scenery, interrupted only by the bobbing form of the post-boy. The
powerful springs and the massive construction of the vehicle were of
necessity at a period when the roads were unscientifically made and
badly kept up.

Throughout the Middle Ages, and down to the beginning of the present
century, stones of all kinds and sizes, picked up anywhere, off the
fields, dug out of quarries, gathered from water-courses, were thrown
over the highways, and thrust into ruts without an attempt being made
to reduce their size. It is now considered a primary law that a
roadway should be convex in structure, so that the water falling on it
may run off at once and be carried away at the water table. No such
law was then known. The traffic of horses in the middle wore away the
centre, and the section of the road was concave, so that all the mud
and water settled in the middle, and resolved the way into one great

A journey over such roads was almost as bad as one along a torrent-
bed. It consisted in an alternation between bouncing over boulders and
dragging through mire. Nothing was more usual than the fracture of a
spring, or the embedding of the wheels in a profound rut, from which
the horses were powerless to lift the carriage.

In the neighbourhood of Kinver, where sandstone prevails, and the only
alternative is conglomerate, there is no proper material for
"metalling" roads. Nor does the river Stour brawl down from mountains,
and roll hard pebbles along its bed.

Consequently, notwithstanding that the roads which met and crossed at
the Stewponey were of first importance, one being the great artery of
communication with Ireland, yet all were equally bad.

When the ruts in the highway became dangerous, then carriages and
coaches were driven on the turf at the side, so long as that held
together; but when that had been resolved into a quagmire, then the
welted roadway had again to be resorted to as preferable.

On our macadamised and steam-rolled roads we spin along as if on ice.
A hundred years ago travelling on the king's highway was slow,
laborious, and painful. A short journey sufficed to resolve the lily-
white human body into a purple and yellow mass of bruises.

For the first half-mile, to keep up appearances, the post-boy
maintained a rapid pace by constant application of the whip, and by
much objurgation; but as soon as the Stewponey and Stourton Castle
were out of sight, he relaxed his energies, and the horses perfectly
understood that no more violent exercise was required of them. Their
master's carriage, its springs, its wheels, its axle were to be
considered, and they subsided into their normal pace, one which a
lusty man might have surpassed, by exerting himself, in walking.

"The moon is rising," said Luke Francis. "See, our honey-moon!"

If so--it presaged a cold and cheerless state.

Through the trees glimmered a sallow light. The sun was setting, and
setting in torn and tattered cloud, but it diffused light sufficient
to render the lesser orb wan and ghost-like. She appeared as lifeless
as the bride.

Opposite to the rising moon was the sinking sun, like Hercules in his
riven robe of Nessus, all shreds of blood and fire. His face was like
that of the bridegroom, flushed with triumph and passion.

"I have been for five years seeking about to find a wife, and unable
to get one," said he. "Dost know the reason?"

She evinced no interest in the matter. She neither spoke nor looked
towards him.

"You will discover in good time. When we come to Shrewsbury, you will
come to know my mother. She has a will. Have you one? I doubt it--so
much the better. Your submission will cost no clash, give no pain.
Come, wench, your hand--ay, and I will have more--a kiss."

Bladys recoiled from him, withdrew her hand as he extended his, and
thrust hers behind her.

"Shy, are you?" he laughed. "Bah! we must have none such whimsy-
whamsies now. I should have supposed that in a tavern every trace of
shamefacedness had been laughed out of you. But women are made up of
pretences. You are affecting that which by the nature of things you
cannot have."

She offered no remark.

"Come, now, Bla, by heaven, I will have the hand that is mine."

He made an effort to secure it.

"Let go," said she hoarsely. It was the first word she had spoken.

He tried to kiss her.

The carriage lurched, and he was flung back.

"Do not touch me," she said, in the same unnatural voice.

"Ho, ho! Giving yourself high airs! That will never answer with me. I
shall have a kiss."

He laid hold of her shoulders to twist her about.

"I will take them," said he. "One--two--twenty--a hundred. The more I
shall take if you resist."

"God help me!" through her teeth.

"You fool!" mocked he. "Do you know with whom you try your petty
opposition? No; but you shall learn that soon. Mark you, wench, it is
best that you submit at once. Call not on God."

"Heaven has not helped me--I call on Hell." Then it was that a strange
thing took place; something that made Luke Francis quail.

This was none other than the sudden apparition of a small, black,
half-human figure, that emerged from the boot, as if in answer to the
invocation of Bladys. It mounted the little shelf opposite, facing the
travellers, blinked, drew up its gums, displaying white fangs, then
uttered a low strange guttural growl. It looked at Bladys, and put
forth a long arm, and spread forth a black hand.

Neither Francis nor Bladys had seen or heard anything of the Savoyard
and his monkey. The sudden vision in the carriage before them turned
their hearts to stone. They conceived that an evil spirit was before

Instantly recovering himself somewhat, Luke threw open the window on
his side, and yelled to the post-boy, "For God's sake, stop! Stop!"

This was just after the carriage had reached a smooth piece of road,
and the man had urged the horses to a fast trot. He now reined them
in; but without waiting for the carriage to be brought to a
standstill, Francis had flung himself out, and holding the open door,
ran alongside, crying.

"Stop, boy! What is it? In the name of everything that is holy, what
can it be?"

The postillion succeeded in arresting the horses. He descended from
the saddle, and came round to where Luke stood.

Within, cowering in the extreme corner, was Bladys, her white face
faintly discernible, like the moon, and her hands uplifted to shut out
from her the sight of the imp that she had conjured up.

That imp was mouthing and jabbering. It stood up, reseated itself,
drew up a chain, shook it, and dropped it tinkling again.

"It is a devil," said Francis.

"It is the monkey," laughed the post-boy. "Whoever would have supposed
it had concealed itself here?"

"A monkey!"

"The Italian's Jacko, about which he raised such an outcry."

"A monkey! Is that all? Then I'll drive out the pestilent beast

At once Luke put his hands to the creature, but the ape flew at him,
bit, clawed, screamed, and Francis found some difficulty in
disengaging himself. He cursed, and shook his hand, that bled--he had
been bitten in the thumb, and the lappet of his holiday coat was torn.


A deep voice in his ear.

Francis started back as one electrified.

He saw surrounding him five men, masked, with swords at their sides
and pistols in their hands. At once, aware that he had to do with
highwaymen, he made a dash to enter the carriage and get possession of
his firearms. But the man who had spoken thrust himself in the way,
intercepting him.

"No," said he. "You have saved us trouble by leaving the coach without
obliging us to stop it and invite you to descend. Deliver without ado
and go on your way with the girl."

"I have nothing," said Francis, recovering self-possession, but
speaking in surly mood.

"Nay, that will not avail with us. We know you."

"You know me? Who am I?"

The men laughed.

"Have you not been married to-day? Have you not got your wife's dower
with you? Fifty pounds in gold and the rest in silver? You see we know

"That is what you know," said Luke, with something of relief in his
tone, but also with a spice of mockery.

"What more would you have us know?"

"Oh, certainly, nothing more."

"You have the money with you in a leather wallet. Pardon me, Stewponey
Bla, if I disturb you, and excuse the intrusion on you at such a time.
I must obtain possession of that bag. Hold him, two of you, whilst I
search the interior of the calash. And you, Number Nick, point the
pistol to his ear, and if he make a movement, do not scruple to blow
out his brains. Unless I am vastly mistaken, the bride will not cry
her eyes out to lose him."

Luke bit his lips. But for the apparition of the ape, he would not
have left the carriage. Had he been in his place, before the horses
could have been arrested, he would have had time to get the pistols,
and when the men came to the door, he would have shot two of them
dead. That wretched monkey had been the means of delivering him over,
unarmed, unable to offer the least resistance, into their hands.

"May I request you to step out?" said one of the highwaymen to Bladys.

He offered his hand.

At once she descended from the carriage, and stood in the road.

Francis looked around him. The carriage had been drawn up where the
highway crossed a tract of sandy common strewn with whin bushes and
dotted with birch-trees, the former black as blots, the latter silver-
trunked and feather-headed. In the rear was a sombre belt of wood,
probably Stourton Forest. The man who had handed out Bladys now
entered the calash, and removed the pistols and the bag that contained
the money.

"These," said he, handing the firearms to one his companions, "these
barking irons are more like to render service to us than to the
gentleman who has so kindly brought them here. Now, sir, unless the
Captain has any more commands for you, when it pleases you to go
forward we will not interfere with your will."

The sun had disappeared. A yellow halo hung over the place where he
had set, and the moon had mounted above the mists, and displayed her
orb lustrous as burnished silver. Every birch trunk stood out as a
thread of moonlight.

"My Jacko! My Jacko!" called a voice, and up came the Savoyard, out of
breath, "Where my Jacko? Me thought him with carriage. He clebber--me

The man paid no attention to the masked foot-pads. Nothing concerned
him save his ape. At his voice the creature that was cowering on the
ground uttered a scream of recognition; it had arrived at the
conclusion that it was safer with its master than elsewhere. It ran to
him and leaped on his shoulder.

"Comrades," shouted the man who acted as leader of the band, "a
wedding party this--and no dance. That should never be. I am sorry, my
good sir, further to delay you, but such an occasion as this is not of
nightly occurrence, and it is a maxim in life to seize opportunities
as they pass--take a purse when you can, stop a coach when there is
money in the mails, and foot it when there is a partner to be had.
Here we have a smooth turf, as any parquet, a musician with his
instrument, and the bonny bride herself with whom I shall do myself
the honour of opening the ball. Run some one of you, and constrain Nan
Norris to come. By Saturn, Mercury, and all the gods of Olympus! I
would another carriage might arrive, that we were able to provide
ourselves with a lady apiece."

Two men held Luke Francis by the arms, and one pointed a pistol at his
head. He was incapable of resistance. He was constrained to look on,
quivering with rage, gnawing his lips with vexation. Bladys
mechanically obeyed the Captain, as he ordered her to come forward
upon the turf. The Italian turned the wheel of his hurdy-gurdy, and
fingered the short, bone keys.

Then the monkey, hearing the familiar strain, and supposing that it
was expected to go through its wonted performance, somewhat
reluctantly descended from its perch, and began to dance.

Presently up came the only disengaged highwayman, bringing with him a
young woman. "Nan," called the Captain, "fall in as well." She stood
opposite the man who had brought her, and so they danced in the
moonlight on the sward--the two highwaymen, the maidens, and, as a
fifth, the ape.

Thus they danced, to the grinding of the hurdy-gurdy, till suddenly
Bladys of the Stewponey sank on the grass unconscious.


The highwaymen vanished as speedily as they had appeared. In the
chequered light and shade on the common, studded with clumps of whin,
birch, ridges and mounds of bramble, this was of easy execution. It
would have been so had they been alarmed. But there was now nothing to
alarm them--they disappeared because there was nothing more to be got
by staying. No sooner was Luke released than he ran to the prostrate
girl. Nan Norris also hastened to her assistance.

The Savoyard ceased turning the handle of his hurdy-gurdy. The monkey
desisted from its capers, and returned to its place on his shoulder.

The post-boy stood looking on, as stolid as his horses. In the grey
light from the sky--partly moonlight, partly the suffused illumination
of departed day--the face of Bladys was that of death.

"It is in the family," said the man by the horses. "Her aunt dropped
just like this, and died right away."

Nan, who knelt by her head, and was chafing her hands, said, "She may
be dead now."

"It is a faint," said Luke. "Help get her into the carriage. We must
drive forward, and that without delay."

"Drive forward with her in this condition!" exclaimed the girl. "It's

"Egad, were it not most prudent for me to conduct you both back to the
Stewponey?" observed the post-boy.

"To the Stewponey!" echoed Francis. "Never! What, and let all there
see, and laugh to see, that I have been robbed! I--I been robbed. On
my life, never!"

He stamped with rage.

"Hold your fool's tongue," he continued; "he wins who last laughs, and
i' faith they have not done with me yet. 'Twas the worst night's work
they ever accomplished when they stayed me. I shall not be balked of
my revenge." Then, turning on the girl, he asked, "Do you know--
doubtless you do that--who these footpads are? For one fetched you."

"One fetched me--yes; a man masked. But I have no keener eyes than
yourself to see through a patch of velvet. I warrant ye I was too
scared to disobey when he said, 'Come along with me, baggage.'"

"But you danced."

"So did she--Bla of the Stewponey. She is your wife now, I hear. So
did the ape. Ask her when she fetches to--and if she does not, then
inquire of the ape."

"I must hurry forwards. I cannot tarry here."

"Then go on, and leave her here."

"What--on this moor?"

"No, not so. Our cottage is hard by."

"Old Lydia Norris has a tavern nigh this," explained the post-boy,
"and Nan is her daughter."

Luke hesitated what to do. He was in the utmost perplexity. He could
not allow Bladys to remain longer unconscious on the grass in an open
common. He was impatient to be away from a spot where he had been
robbed and exposed to humiliation. He could not be certain whether his
wife were alive or only in a dead syncope. He had pressing duties that
necessitated his presence in Shrewsbury.

"Well, it shall be so, then," said he. "I will take her to your house.
You have cordials--brandy. We will give her some and see if that
revives her, and when she returns to her senses she shall continue the

Then he broke into curses against his misfortune at having been
waylaid, and at having been caught at the one moment when he was
incapacitated for defending himself and protecting his money.

"You will not recover her by oaths," said the girl. Then to the post-
boy, "Prithee, Tom, turn about the heads of the horses, and we will
remove her to the Rock."

There was obviously no better course to be taken. Francis acquiesced,
sullen and muttering threats. In a very few minutes the postillion
drew up where the road was dark, overshadowed by broad-leaved
sycamores, so that in spite of all the light of the sky it was there
pitch-black night.

On the left hand was a bank, above this bank a garden occupying as it
were a terrace above the highway. At the back of the garden a long,
low brick cottage. No light shone through the windows.

"Here we are," said Nan. "There is none within, save my old mother.
Folk don't come this way after nightfall; our customers are day
travellers, and of them only such as are footers. There are three
steps at first, then five, and you reach the garden."

"What are your orders for the chaise?" asked the driver. "Shall I

"Unharness, you fool!" answered Francis. "Do you not see that there
are no stables here? Nowhere that a horse could put his head in? Turn
the carriage about. In five minutes my wife will be better and able to
resume the journey. What art laughing at?" he inquired sharply,
turning on the young woman.

"By Goles, that was purely!" exclaimed Nan. "I was laughing to think
that we should have stables, mother and I. Odds boddikins! Whatever
should we do with horses?"

Bladys, still unconscious, was conveyed into the cottage. The building
was but one room deep, but had a face that showed it comprised three
chambers; these were in communication within. The house was
constructed against a bank, on the top of which grew sycamores. Wooden
shutters were before the windows.

When the door was opened, then it was seen that the tavern was
constructed against a face of rock, which served as inner wall, and
this face was dug into to form recesses for shelves, and pierced by a
door that probably gave access to the cellar.

A fire was seen burning on the hearth, and an old woman sat crouching
over it with hands extended, so that the flames threw gigantic shadows
on the walls and ceiling.

"What have you here?" croaked the crone. "Nan, I'll have no corpses
brought in. Anything but that. I have ever set my face against that. I
have no fancy to wear Onion's collar."

Luke Francis started, and looked inquiringly at the speaker.

"Mother," answered the daughter, "this is the Stewponey wench that was
married to-day, as you have heard tell. She is ill, in a faint--God
knows, perchance dead."

"I'll have no corpses here. They'll inquitch her in the house, and I
won't have it. I don't like the look and smell of crowners. They turns
my stomick."

Nan explained to Francis, "Mother is a bit hard of hearing, and she's
full of old woman's whimsy-whamsies. Don't you heed a word she says."

"Lay my wife by the fire, where she can have warmth. Is there a
surgeon near? She may need be let blood."

"I'll have no blood here," screamed Mistress Norris. "Gold--gold, if
you will, and welcome, but blood has no profit in it."

Nan helped to place Bladys on the tiled floor by the hearth. The red
glow of the turf and wood fire fell over her death-like face.

The mouth was partially open, and the teeth glinted in the firelight.
The eyelids were also ajar, and there was a glitter of the white of
the balls below the lids.

"Have they shot her or run her through?" called the hag. "I have
always said it was folly to shed blood." She leaned forward, and
peered at the insensible girl on the floor.

"She is in a faint, mother," said Nan, and took the beldame by the
shoulders, twisted her round, and said, "Look to the pot with the
taties and bacon boiling for supper, and don't speak another word."

"I don't want to have nothing to say to Onion," persisted the old

"Nor will you, mother. Hold your tongue. We must attend to the

"I won't have no corpses brought here. I hate 'em," said the hag,
stamping her foot on the hearth, and then beating with her clenched
fist on her knee. "There's the getting rid of them--that's the
difficulty. I always said, 'Keep off--'"

"Mother, mind the pot; it's boiling over."

At that moment the doorway was entered by the Savoyard, who pulled off
his hat, and, bowing, asked:

"Me here sleep? Take leetle place."

"Do you not see," said Nan Norris, irritably, "that we have the sick
woman to attend upon? We cannot receive you. Go your ways farther."

But the monkey had seen the fire. With a leap it reached the floor,
ran to the hearth, and jumped upon a stool opposite the old hostess,
seated itself and stretched out hands and feet, much as did she,
blinking and grinning with pleasure as it enjoyed the heat.

Mistress Norris saw the creature, and fell into an ecstasy of
laughter. Her thoughts were diverted from Bladys and riveted on the

Nan immediately saw the advantage, and signed to the Italian to take a
seat by the door.

"Ho, ho! my little Beelzebub!" croaked the hag, "not come for me yet,
have you? Rubbing your hands? Have you the soul of that pretty lady in
your pouch? Done your job to-day, Beelzebub? Well, well, well, we're
all friends together here."

Nan, kneeling beside Bladys, unlaced her stays, applied vinegar to her
temples, poured it over her throat. She endeavoured ineffectually to
force some drops of brandy into her mouth.

The Savoyard shut the door.

"Leave it open," ordered Nan sharply. "We require the fresh air."

Francis stood by in great unrest and impatience, looking into the face
of his inanimate wife. Suddenly Bladys drew a long inspiration, and
opened her eyes.

"There!" exclaimed Nan triumphantly, "I knew that she was not gone.
She will return to herself shortly. Sit up, my love! Sit up and let me
stay thee." Nan put her arms about the hardly conscious girl, and
lifted her to a sitting posture.

"Now," said she coaxingly, "take a drop of cordial. It will bring the
colour back into your dead lips."

Bladys looked around her with a puzzled expression. Now she fixed her
eyes on the young woman who was supporting her, then turned them
searchingly on Francis, but instantly averted them, caught sight of
the ape in so doing, as it made passes over the fire and grinned and
nodded its head at the old mother, who bobbed and laughed in response
from the farther side of the fire.

Bladys shivered, turned her head sharply away, and hid her face in
Nan's bosom. She trembled in every limb.

"Ho, ho! Beelzebub!" jested the old hostess, who had eyes, thoughts,
for nothing save the monkey; "we have always been prime friends,
always, and ever shall be, eh?" and she broke into a harsh cackle.

"Can you stand?" asked Nan of Bladys. "Don't mind that creature. It is
but a monkey in a red coat. I'll drive it forth out of the house if it
affright thee."

"Beelzebub!" laughed the old woman, thrusting a long brown arm through
the smoke, signing to the ape with one finger to demand attention.

"We may be returning the civility of this call shortly. There is no
telling. They have brought a corpse into the house--a corpse of a
young wench--and that may bring us everyone into the hands of Onion.
Onion! Whew!" She screamed with laughter. "That 's your master
waggoner as brings you consignments of souls, all bound with a hempen
halter. Eh, eh?"

Nan, with her arms about the waist of Bladys, had been endeavouring to
raise her, assisted by Francis; but something said or done disturbed
him to such an extent that his attention was drawn away from his wife,
and he allowed the entire burden to fall on the girl. She was strong
armed and lusty, and did not let go her hold. Nan now pressed more
brandy on Bladys, and persuaded her to swallow a few drops. A point of
crimson, like the bursting out of a sudden flame, came in her cheek,
but died again as quickly.

"Come now," urged Francis, "time presses. I shall not reach
Bridgenorth afore midnight, and there I must sleep, that I may be in
Shrewsbury to-morrow, and to-morrow in Shrewsbury I must be."

"The judges are going to Shrewsbury," said the old woman. "Beelzebub,
wilt accompany the gentleman? There'll be rare doings at Shrewsbury.
Tom Matthews--he is certain sure to be convicted; a good lad, but 'tis
a pity. It's a poor trade stealing sheep. Better be hung for cutting a
purse than taking a pelt. Ding dong bell! Ring the gallows-bell, and
Tom Matthews be the clapper! Eh, Beelzebub?"

Then the aged woman burst again into a hideous cackle, and laid her
shrivelled finger on the arm of the monkey.

Bladys shuddered, without understanding what was said, or to what the
allusion pointed.

"And further, Beelzebub. There is, they inform me, a sweet creature to
be tried for not loving her husband, and for setting her fancy upon
another; and she gave her husband a drop of nightshade that sent him
below. Ho, ho; if she had but consulted me, I could have better
advised her. They assure me that for this they will burn her."

The old woman rubbed her palms over the fire.

"I have never seen a woman at the stake. Ecod, I should prodigiously
like to see that. But this kind gentleman will not deny me such a
trifle if I ask him to take me with him. And she to be burnt alive!
That's pure. I should enjoy myself extravagantly."

"Stand up now," said Francis to his bride. "Try if you can walk to the
chaise. Positively we must press on. I have been delayed too

Entreaty, command, availed nothing. The limbs of the hardly conscious
and enfeebled girl would not support her. She dragged in his arms and
those of Nan, and would have sunk in a heap on the floor had they not
sustained her entire weight.

"Curses fall on it," swore Luke. "What the foul fiend is to be done? I
must go on my way. I cannot, I dare not, tarry. Most important matters
call me. She must and she shall come."

"She can not," said Nan firmly, "and I swear to your face she shall
not. If you attempt to take her along with you she will die in the
chaise, and when you reach Bridgenorth it will be along with a

"I'll have no corpses here," yelled the hag.

"Carry her to the carriage. Then they'll inquitch her in that, and
welcome; but not here. I won't have no crowning in my house; it goes
against my stomick!"

"I cannot leave her here," said Luke, stamping and taking a turn round
the room with his hand to his head. "Was there ever so fatal a
situation? Here am I robbed and my wife half dead, and I summoned
away. I must go. It is as much as my place is worth to be absent. I
have delayed over-long."

He came again before Bladys. "Make an effort to reach the carriage,"
he said.

She tried to speak, could not, and seemed rapidly relapsing into

"Zounds!" said Luke, "what is to be done? I cannot leave her here."

"Why not?" asked Nan, looking him level in the eyes. "Dost think we're
not honest folk? I trow we're every whit as honest as you. Go your
way; you've nought to fear. You've been robbed, and have nothing
further to lose on the main toby (highway). Trust her to me. I will
take care of her. You can come when you list, and fetch her away. But
if you try to remove her, by Goles! You'll have to use force, and I'll
try my nails on your face. I have heard of Bla of the Stewponey,
though I never knew her. The Stewponey is a great house, and ours is a
main little one. We have not lived vastly far apart. I have never
heard aught but good spoken of her. Go on your ways--to Shrewsbury if
you must. She shall be cared for, never mistrust it."

"If this must necessarily be so," said Luke; and still he was unable
to reconcile his mind to this alternative. "But--" he did not finish
the sentence.

"If this must necessarily be so--" said Nan; and gently laid Bladys
again on the floor, then went through the doorway, deliberately
removed the wooden shutter that closed the window, and let the light
from the room flow through it.

"Now," said she, "Tom and the horses are becoming impatient, and I
desire to shut the door."

"Beelzebub!" screamed the old woman. "The gentleman is going, and he
has not the civility to take me with him. But I'll go, nevertheless,
and thou also, little devil! Ay, sly fox, waiting for me?"

Chapter 9. NAN

Luke Francis had departed; and Nan Norris carried Bladys to bed, and
did all that lay in her power to soothe her overwrought nerves,
rightly judging that what she needed was not rousing, but the opposite

She sat by the bed till she saw that Bladys was asleep. Then she
descended the stairs, went outside the house, and put up the shutter.

The Savoyard lay by the expiring fire, and was snoring; the monkey,
coiled up in a ball in his bosom, was also asleep.

Satisfied with what she had done, Nan now opened the door to an
adjoining apartment in the length of the house, and shut that after
her. Next she unbolted an outer door, and in another minute the sound
was heard of the clatter of horse hoofs up the steps to the garden
from the road. Immediately following the sound came the horses that
had produced it. They passed in at the door, through the room, and
disappeared into a cellar behind, excavated out of the rock.

Five entered, and were followed by as many men wearing masks. The
leader threw off his and disclosed the face of George Stracey--the man
who had entered for the game of bowls that was to be played for
Bladys, but who had withdrawn.

"Give us a buss, wench!" said Stracey; "we've not done badly to-night,
but there was no occasion for our horses, as it happened."

"Hush!" said she; "make no noise. We have guests. Did you not mark
that the shutter was down?"

"Ay, or we should have stabled our beasts earlier. But you have closed
now, and that is the signal that our quarters are safe."

"Jacomo is here."

"There is nothing to be apprehended from him. He is our very good
servant, and anon does us an excellent turn."

"And Stewponey Bladys is above."

"Alive or dead?"

"Alive and asleep."

"Od's life! she looked like one dying. You baggage, you were jealous,
and would not let me contest for such a prize, or I might have won."

"No, George, I would not permit it."

"You jade! Come now, give us a wet of gin; we're cold with tarrying so
long in the falling dew, waiting for notice that all was safe."

"Step into the cellar. Nothing can be heard that is said there."

When morning broke, Stewponey Bla opened her eyes. Nan perceived with
delight that she was recovering; there was no longer a dazed look in
her eyes, a stony indifference in her face; some colour now flushed
her cheeks. Nan had shared her bed with Bladys, and when she rose she
addressed her companion in cheery fashion, and was answered rationally
and readily. Not only so, but Bladys exhibited a desire to know where
she was, and how she came to be there.

"My dear," said Nan, setting her arms akimbo, with a hand on each hip,
"you and your man, when you was married yesterday, were travelling to
Bridgenorth, and the rascally highwaymen stayed the carriage. Ah me!
What a sight of wickedness there is in the world! And that man of
yours turned out of the chaise, and emptied his pockets, and
surrendered all the blunt he had, mild as butter-milk, and shaking for
fear in his shoes." The girl broke into a merry laugh. "By dear Goles!
I dare be sworn it is sufficient to frighten any man to see about him
masked men; and you--you was also out of your senses. Yet they made
you dance with them on the heath. And some of those God-forsaken
knaves fetched me also to tread a measure. But I heed them not. I have
no gold to lose, nor silver either. They do no harm to the poor, they
address their courtesies to the rich alone. As for me, I can hold my
own in the face of them. And Toni, the post-boy, he took it all as a
matter of course. It isn't the first time Tom has been stopped, I'll
warrant ye."

Nan was a handsome girl, short, firmly knit, with high colour, dark
hair, and lustrous hazel eyes full of twinkle. As she spoke there was
a dash and fire in her manner that plainly said the wickedness of the
world did not vastly grieve her, that the world would have been but a
dull planet without some spice of wickedness in it, and that
highwaymen were not to her objects of utter abhorrence.

"It is well for you that you fainted. Captain Velvetface--"

"Who is Velvetface?"

"The Captain. You see all have black faces--but they are muffled in
crape, whereas he alone has a mask of velvet. Oh! a rare man is he!"
She flushed and her eyes gleamed. "He might have carried you off. I
know Velvetface. That is, I have heard tales told of him. They declare
that he loves gold dearly, but that he loves pretty girls more dearly
still than gold. Set a bag of yellow guineas before him, and beside it
a bright-eyed quean, and I know which he will choose. But you were
white and dead, like a figure of snow, and not to his taste. So he
chose the money bag. Poor fool," laughed Nan. "I dare swear you have
not kissed your husband, and now he has run away."

"He is gone?"

"Gone home to Shrewsbury. The talk is that he is in the law, and the
assizes are coming on. Bah!" She wiped one hand against the other. "I
would have no dealings with a lawyer. Such be spiders as weave the
webs that catch and throttle our boys. Ah, well! we're clear of Onion
this year. Tom Matthews is none of ours."

"What do you mean by Onion?"

"Onion? I thought every man, woman, and child knew of him."

"Who is he?"

"The hangman."

"Do you know him?"

"I know of him. That is enough. I' fecks--I pray God deliver me from
further acquaintance with him. He wears a mask, they say. I do not
know. I have never been at a hanging. He is an Onion, they tell, that
has brought tears into many eyes."

Then Nan departed.

When she had left the room Bladys rose. She was weak in body, but
composed in mind and clear in head. She was desirous of being alone,
for only when alone was she in condition to understand the events that
had taken place, and through which she had passed.

During the previous day her mind had been half-dead. She had seen,
heard, felt, what had transpired, without any corresponding emotion
within. A series of pictures had passed before her eyes, but they had
been to her without significance.

The distress and perplexity to which she had been subjected had
deprived her of sleep, and had so harassed her by day that she had
been thrown into a condition of nervous exhaustion, in which
everything was indifferent to her. She had been as a sleep-walker upon
the day when she was bowled for, won, and wedded. Her actions had been
those of an automaton.

It may be that a swoon is Nature's method of recuperation of the vital
powers, that it concentrates into a little space of time the
beneficial effects of a week of unintermittent slumber.

The long lapse into unconsciousness, followed by even sleep, had
restored the mental activity of Bladys. She was glad to be left alone,
that she might review what had taken place and orientate herself for
the future.

She dressed slowly, and then seated herself on a stool by the latticed
window, looking forth into the foliage of the sycamores, through which
the light twinkled, as the morning wind agitated the leaves.

Now she was able to summon before her every picture that had presented
itself to her eyes on the day before.

It was as the Witch of Endor calling up ghosts and quaking before the
apparitions that answered. The proceedings of the previous day
unrolled themselves before her in their proper sequence. She could
recall every incident, even the most minute and trifling; every word
that had been spoken, even the intonation of the voices that had
spoken them. But now, and now only, did she understand what these
pictures and utterances signified. As the melody in Baron Munchausen's
post-horn was frozen, and at the time it was sounded remained mute,
but afterwards, by the fire, became unsealed and the notes flowed in
their proper order and harmonic propriety, so was it now with the
recollection of the events of the day that was past. As Bladys sat at
the window looking at the twinkling foliage, she saw them not, but
instead contemplated a retrospect.

Her father had been impatient to be rid of her that he might bring
Catherine Barry into the house--one of whom she could not think
without a shudder as the element that embittered her mother's last
days, the cause of the acceleration of her end. Branded into her
convictions was the thought that it would not have been possible for
her to remain at the Stewponey when that woman entered it to assume
therein a position as mistress.

There was sufficiency of good feeling in her father's dull and
perverted heart to make him aware of this. But the manner in which he
sought to rid himself of his child was in itself an outrage, hardly
inferior to that of introducing Catherine Barry into her mother's
room. There was no other excuse for his conduct than the lame one of
weakness. And indeed more mischief is worked in the world by
feebleness than by vice. This impotence of will had led Cornelius Rea
into the scandal of setting his daughter as a prize to be gamed for,
and of thrusting her into the arms of a man of whom he knew nothing
and for whom she did not care.

She saw before her eyes the bowling-green. She was alone on it with
Crispin Ravenhill; she saw his soft eyes full of kindly light, heard
the tremor of his voice as he spake kindly to her, felt again the
throbbing of her heart in response. And she saw, further, the bowling-
green invaded by a great concourse of men; she saw the number of
competitors reduced to two, the jack cast, the bowls thrown; she heard
once more the controversy over the unbiassed ball, she saw the
wrestling men--everything up to the moment when she touched the jack
with her foot, set it rolling, and it tripped up Crispin Ravenhill.

Then she sprang to her feet with a cry of dismay, of anguish, of self-
reproach; she thrust the fingers of both hands through her dark hair
and drew them out as far as she could extend her hair, and stood thus,
as one struck to stone.

"What ails thee?" asked Nan, running up the stairs at her cry.

"Nan Norris," said Bladys hastily, "I must know what followed. I have
got so far. Listen to me." With feverish heat, with gleaming eyes, and
a flame burning in each cheek, she told the girl all that had taken
place--she spoke of the events as though reading them out of a book,
with breathless rapidity.

And then, when she reached the fall of Crispin, she broke off. Then,
after a pause, she said--

"I must know what has happened to him. Is he dead? Did I kill him?
Nan, Nan, I will myself go to Kinver and inquire."

"That you cannot, or you shall not do," said the warm-hearted girl.

"Nan, I shall die of self-reproach and dreadful expectations. I cannot
endure it. I must know. The thought is like a drop of fire that will
not out; it burns in--ever more inward. I must know the truth. I
rolled the jack. He tripped and fell--fell with his head on it. If I
had not touched the jack, he would not have gone down. He would have
been the conqueror, and I--I--" she withdrew her hands from her
streaming hair, and covered her face.

"Set your mind at ease," said Nan caressingly. "You'll get mazed with
thinking and with fancies. I'll myself run to Kinver, and you shall
hear all anon. Sit you down and think no more about it. Yet, this I
can tell you; I do not believe he can be dead, or some tidings would
have reached our place before now. Bad news goes about like

Nan was as good as her word. She threw a shawl over her head and went

During her absence Bladys sat at the window, looking into the
twinkling leaves, and with thoughts that twinkled--now flashing with
hope, now obscure with despair. She did not move from her place; she
did not stir a finger of her folded hands, only her lips moved as she
spoke with herself inaudibly.

The time passed without her being able to estimate how long it was.
Whether she had been sitting there for ten minutes, for ten years, for
an eternity, she could not have said. She was in one of those
trances--of which perhaps death may be one--in which time ceases to be
an element to be accounted with. She was roused by the hand of Nan on
her shoulder.

"Stewponey Bla! He is alive and recovering. He was stunned; nothing
worse. By Goles, though, there was something worse--he lost you by
that fall."

Bladys looked round at Nan, and said:

"I have something for your ear."

"What may that be?"

Nan threw herself on the floor at the feet of Bladys. She was hot and
tired with running, her hair dispersed, her eyes twinkling with
pleasure and with kindly thought. She folded her hands on the knee of
Bladys, and looked up into her white face.

"Nan, can you answer questions?"

"That depends on what the questions be."

"Nan, I will never, never be the wife of the man who has married me.
So help me God."

"Whew!" exclaimed Nan, "and where in all this is the question?"

"What now shall I do?"

"That," said Nan, "is what I cannot answer. You must take mother into
counsel; she has teeth to crack such nuts."


On the second day a red-headed, red-whiskered man arrived in a buggy,
drawn by a sandy horse with a straw-coloured mane and tail.

He had been commissioned by Luke Francis to fetch Bladys. Business
that was urgent prevented Francis from himself coming for her, but he
sent word that she might rely on his substitute to convey her to
Shrewsbury on the morrow, where he awaited her arrival with the
impatience of a lover.

A difficulty arose as to the disposal of the horse. As Nan said, they
had no accommodation at the Rock Tavern for beasts; but if the man
liked to turn out the horse in a paddock for the night, and himself
lie at the inn, they were able to accommodate him so far, as there was
a spare chamber.

To this he readily consented, as he desired to start at an early hour
on the morrow.

"What is your name?" inquired Nan.

"Abraham--Thomas Abraham," replied the man. The old woman over the
fire looked up and said:

"There was an Abraham Jarrock, a boy, and he had a red head, and his
father had a red head before him, and he came from Bewdley."

The man drew back out of the light, but the glittering eyes of the old
woman followed him.

"You're sure you're not Abraham Jarrock? He was a tiresome boy, and
had red hair."

"My name is Thomas Abraham."

"And yet you've a red head."

She turned and rubbed her dry palms over the fire. Presently she
looked round and asked:

"You come from Bewdley?"

"No, I do not, but from Shrewsbury."

"And yet you've a red head."

She again ruminated over the fire, rubbing her hands together. Then,
after awhile, reverted to the same topic.

"What was your father's head like?"

"Grey," answered the man impatiently.

"And yet yours is red. It may have been red before it turned grey. How
do you know that it was not red once?"

"I remember it only grey."

"It may have been red, and then you'd be a Jarrock, and come from

"Don't attend to mother, she has queer maggots in her brain," said

Next morning betimes Abraham had the buggy at the door, with the sandy
horse between the shafts, and was stroking its straw-coloured mane.

Bladys parted from Nan Norris with tears on both sides. The girl had
been kind to her, and although Abraham was commissioned to pay what
charges were for the entertainment of Bladys and his own lodging, yet
no money could discharge the debt of tenderness she owed to this warm-
hearted girl.

Bladys mounted beside the driver and started for Shrewsbury. She was
pale as heretofore, but otherwise was different in appearance from
what she had been on the day of her marriage. The look of vacuity, of
listlessness, of indifference was passed away. Now her lips were set,
as with firm resolve, and there was a covert glow in her eyes that
threatened at the least provocation to flash forth in lightnings.

Abraham found her indisposed for conversation; but he himself was
prone to talk, and he endeavoured ineffectually to engage her in
conversation. But his efforts were not pleasant: he was of a churlish
and acrid disposition, and his thoughts turned mainly in the direction
of abuse of every person above him in station, and of every
institution of his country. He abused the roads, the magistrates, the
tavern where he had lain over-night, and the hostess.

After this had gone on for some time he said, "After all, the old
woman was right. I am a Jarrock, my father had red hair, and I come
from Bewdley."

"Then why did you deny it?" asked Bladys.

"It is inconvenient to tell everything to everyone who asks."

"Why should it be inconvenient unless there be something that has to
be concealed?"

"Oh! you think everybody tells you his name and profession, do you?
There may be reasons why both have to be kept back--foolish prejudices
exist. You will understand that by-and-by."

"What do you mean by by-and-by?"

"When you reach Shrewsbury."

Bladys said nothing further; she was not concerned about so trifling a
matter as the real name of the man who drove her, and the colour of
his father's hair.

Jarrock growled his dissatisfaction at the uncommunicativeness of his
companion. He set her down in his black list as one of those against
whom he entertained a grievance.

Said he presently, "Have you travelled along this road afore?"


"Except when coming to be robbed. The master has told me of that. He
is in a take-on about it, and hardly knows what course to pursue. On
the one hand, if he disclose it, he may become an object of mockery,
but then he will secure the rogues who robbed him. But on the other,
he would rather bear his loss than expose himself. There is one
comfort to him. The rascals do not know whom they lightened of his

To this also Bladys said nothing.

After a while Abraham proceeded unabashed.

"It is time the net was drawn; it makes a man mad to see how they take
one and lay him by the heels, and wait, and do no more. Then into his
place steps another. There are gentlemen among them. The last taken
was one. You'll see him shortly."

"Is he at Shrewsbury?"

"My child, no--on the road to it; strung up, two years ago. We pass
the gallows."

Bladys shuddered.

"'Twas brought home in a curious way. The gentleman he robbed had been
in Wales and had shot an eagle, so he had a claw set in gold for a pin
to his cravat. When he was stayed in his carriage by foot-pads, one of
them clicked his pistol at his head, for he struggled hard, but the
pistol would not go off. Good for him. So the highwayman made free
with the gentleman's pin to pick the nipple of his piece, thinking it
choked, and forgot to return it. Two nights after, the squire who had
been stopped was at the Assembly Rooms at Wellington at a county ball
there, and in the country dance, who should be opposite him in the
set, but a gent with an eagle's claw set in gold in his cravat! He
seized him there, and no escape was possible. He was taken and tried
at the next assizes and--Look up. There is the gibbet, and there he

Bladys, in horror, raised her hands to screen from her eyes the
ghastly object suspended by the wayside; she averted her head, but
could not shut her ears to the croak of the crows that swarmed about
the gallows and sat on the cross-beam.

"What?" laughed Abraham. "Don't you like to see that? Well, that's
queer, and you're strangely made. When Adam Bell was slung by the neck
for shooting Squire--dang me if I recall the name--to obligate the
family they put the gallows where it could be seen from the
withdrawing-room windows. That was by special request of the ladies.
You--when you arrive at Shrewsbury--have a real treat awaiting you,
such as you have not a chance of seeing often."

He paused, expecting to be asked to explain. As, however, Bladys
exhibited no curiosity, he continued in a churlish tone:

"There's no pleasing some folks. If you give them simnel cake, they
will say they prefer mince pies; and if you offer them roast loin of
mutton, they'll say, 'We eat only furmity.' I'll tell you what to
expect. There is a woman going to be burnt at Shrewsbury--none of your
common sort, but a real gentlewoman. She was wed to a man she did not
love, and she loved another. She endeavoured to rid herself of the
husband, so as to go off with the lover, and she poisoned her goodman.
But it was discovered. That is what we call petty treason. Never heard
of that before? I'll explain it to you. If a woman destroys her
husband, or a servant murders his master, that is petty treason; a man
is hung and drawn for it, a woman is burned. The gentlewoman--she came
from a place called Nesscliffe--was tried the day before yesterday at
the assizes, and was found guilty, and condemned to be burned. There
will be a multitude of people from all round to see it. Pray heaven it
may be a fine day. That is not a sight you will have the luck to see
at Kinver," Abraham continued, regardless of the repugnance to hear
this talk manifested by Bladys:

"We have had women hanged. There is nothing out of the common way in
that. But petty treason does not occur as frequently as it might. As
to hanging--now, they do not leave women as they do men to swing till
they drop. We had a young woman hung here last assizes at Shrewsbury
for borrowing her mistress's gown and hat to go to the fair with her
fancy lad, and there happened to be a guinea missed as well. But she
was cut down after she was dead, and before she was cold. She had a
neck like a swan. There's more satisfaction in hanging one who has a
long neck, but there is more art in dealing with your bull necks. That
man we have just passed had no more throat than a toad. When he was
turned off, there was no getting him properly strangled, so there was
nothing for it but to jump on his shoulders."

"I entreat you to be still!" exclaimed Bladys. "If you will persist in
thus talking, I will leave the carriage."

The man turned about in his seat and stared at her, and burst into a
roar of laughter.

"Well! this is rare, and you his wife!"

Bladys did not speak, her lips turned white, and a shudder passed
through her at a thought which traversed her brain. Her eyes were
fixed on the flapping mane of the trotting horse. Abraham, sulky at
being unable to engage her in conversation, or to interest her in his
narratives, fell into silence.

Questions rose in the mind of Bladys as bubbles in fermenting wine,
yet not a word passed over her lips. At length the condition of
uncertainty in which she was became unendurable, and she said,
hesitatingly, in a low voice, without withdrawing her eyes from the
straw-coloured mane.

"Your name is not Thomas Abraham?"

"It is Abraham. My father was called Thomas. I might have called
myself Thomson, being an Englishman, or Ap Thomas had I been Welsh."

"You have another name?"

"Yes; I am Abraham Jarrock."

"And he--Luke Francis?"

"The Master?"

"Yes; the Master."

"What of him?"

"Has he also another name to Luke Francis?"

"These be his Christian names."

"I thought as much. And what is his surname?" The fellow hesitated.
Then he shrugged a shoulder, whipped the horse, and said.


Bladys made no remark.

A long pause followed. Then again she spoke. "You are his servant?"

"On no account. I am his assistant."

"In what trade?"

"That you shall learn presently. He laid it on me as an obligation to
keep silence. But be not concerned. When we reach Shrewsbury you shall
know all."

She said no more.

After awhile the day began to close. They were approaching their
destination. The road was no longer without traffic. They passed the
half-ruined Abbey, and here a crowd was assembled in an open space
before the west front of the stately church. It was watching the
proceedings of some workmen.

Abraham chuckled and, nudging Bladys, said, "Dost know what they are
about? Preparing for to-morrow. The woman will be burnt there--she I
told you of child, who married one man and loved another."

Then they crossed the "English Bridge" over the Severn, and saw the
town, with its walls and old houses, and church towers rising steeply
beyond the red river.

Abraham drew his hat down so as to conceal his face.

A drift of men in livery bearing white wands went by.

"There goes the sheriff attended by his javelin men: we must move
aside," said Jarrock; "he goes to inspect the place of execution."

The street was alive with people following the sheriff and his
retinue, or hanging round a ballad singer, or clustering together to
discuss some point of interest or controversy.

A woman was bawling out the information that she had for sale the last
confession of the murderess, price one penny, the whole set forth in

Then she chanted in a cracked voice:

"Come all you feeling-hearted Christians, wherever you may be.

Attention give to these few lines, and listen unto me.

It's of a cruel murder to you I will unfold;

The bare recital of the same will make your blood run cold.

Confined within a lonely cell with sorrow thus oppressed.

The very thought of what I've done deprives me of my rest.

Within this dark and gloomy cell in the county gaol I lie.

For murdering of my husband dear I am condemned to die!"

The clog in the street occasioned by the passage of the sheriff was
removed; Jarrock drove on. The street had ascended; now it descended
rapidly. The walls and machicolations of the Castle rose against the
evening sky, and the glow of departing daylight made the red walls
doubly red.

Abraham pointed to the town gate, below the Castle, a gate with a
chamber above it and over that, in a sort of tower, a large bell. At
the side of the gate was a door.

"Step down," said Jarrock; "your home is here--here in the Hangman's

Chapter 11. A WHITE DEVIL

A small nail-studded oak door opened into a dwelling-house by the side
of the gate, a dwelling which apparently extended over it. A flight of
five steps led to this door. In the doorway stood an old woman, tall,
with a black shawl drawn over her iron-grey hair. She had thin,
strongly-marked features, eyes set unduly near her nose, and these
hard, the irises like polished agates. Her lower jaw was strong,
prominent, and the mouth large and unfurnished with lips. As she held
a candle over her head in order to see Bladys, her own sharp ungainly
features were illumined.

She admitted the girl at once, and fastened the door behind her, then
proceeded to ascend the stairs before her to a chamber on an upper
floor, level with that above the gate with which it communicated. Then
she put the candle on the table and looked steadily at Bladys by its
light and that of a wood fire.

"You are white," said the woman.

"I am always white," said the girl.

"And cold?"

"Always cold unless angered--then, fire."

"I am the mother of Luke," said the old woman. "He is out at present,
but will be home shortly. You are hungry. I have spread the table.
Will you sup?"

Bladys seated herself.

"Yes," she said, composedly, "I can eat."

"Eat at once. I cannot say at what hour my son returns. This is his
busy time."

The old woman watched Bladys attentively as she ate, not without
marvel at her self-possession. She leaned one sharp elbow on the
table, and with her bony hand shaded her eyes whilst she studied the
new inmate of the Gate House.

"How old are you?" she inquired.

"I am one and twenty."

"Ah! you are not troubled with diffidence. You come from a tavern?"

"Where I have learned to hold at a distance such as are disposed to be

"You know to what house you have come?"

"I know."

"You know what is the name of my son?"

"I know."

"You know what is his trade?"

"I know."

"And that does not trouble you?"

"Oh! no."

"Have you any notion what my son is engaged upon now, that he is not
here to receive you?"

Then Bladys laid her knife on the table, and looked across the table
into the stony eyes of the woman, and said:

"He is planting the stake, and is heaping up the faggots, for the
burning of a woman to-morrow, who was married to a man against her
consent, and who put him away. And there is an iron hoop that is
affixed to that stake which is to surround her waist, and hold her
upright in the flames, and retain her lest she attempt to break away.
And your son is hammering in the staples that make the hoop fast."

Then she resumed her knife and continued to eat.

The old woman raised her eyebrows. A look of perplexity, like a film,
passed over her beady irises.

When Bladys had eaten, she stood up.

"You bid no blessing on your food," said Mrs Onion.

"No blessing can come on it in this house."

"And you have given no thanks after it."

"To whom?"

"To God."

"It is no gift of God, it is the meat of the hangman."

The old woman rose.

"I will show you to your chamber," she said. "But tell me. What think
you of my son Luke? He is a fine man, a handsome fellow."

Bladys made no reply. The woman repeated the question.

"What think you of Luke?"

"I think of him only as the hangman." Again the mother turned to stare
at her. "Come now, child, I am his mother, and yet you have not kissed

"No, I will not."

"And wherefore not?"

"Because you are the hangman's mother."

"But I am your mother now."

"My mother is dead."

The old woman laughed.

"You will kiss my son, my handsome son, readily enough."

"No, I will not."

"He will kiss you."

"That he shall not."

"You are my son's wife."

"I am his servant."

"You are right in that," sneered Mrs Onion. "She who is his wife is
his servant also."

"I did not say--his servant also. I am his servant, and that only."

"Come, now, this is arrant folly. I will show you to your room."

"That cannot be my room. It is the hangman's room. Give me a chamber
to myself as befits a servant."

"We shall soon see to this," exclaimed the mother, in concentrated
white rage. "What sort of woman are you that Luke has brought home?"

"He did not bring me hither. That did his assistant, Abraham Jarrock;
and he brings to this house one other than she whom your son married.
He was wed to a frightened girl, thrust forth from her father's house,
made an object of jest, the prize of a game at bowls. But that is not
the woman who comes here tonight"

"How so?"

"He did not win me, that did another."

"Oh--was it so?"

"And that other who won me, I love."

"Is it so?" jeered the mother.

"And to that other alone will I give myself."

"Hah! Take the candle; hold it on high, that I may look well into your

Bladys did as was desired. Elevating the light, she held it steadily,
so as to let her white cold face be flooded by it. The features were
set, the mouth firm, the eyes resolved.

"You are my son Luke's wife," said Mrs Onion; "that you cannot change.
That which is done, cannot be undone."

"He married me without giving his true name."

"Luke Francis is his name."

"He married me without telling his profession."

"That matters nought."

"I will never be his wife."

"Then why did you come to this house?"

"I had nowhere else whither I could go. I will be the hangman's
servant, but I will not be his wife."

"Pshaw!" said the old woman. "They have scared you like a child. They
have represented my son as a bugbear. He is a good man and reads his
Bible, and I am a religious woman. Why should he be worse than the
judge that condemns? than the jury who convict? than the men who make
the laws? He doth but execute what they order. His is the hand that
performeth what the head directeth. We are given free lodgings, and
are paid; and, moreover, we have a right to the clothing of such as
are sent to their death by the hands of Luke. If there be crime, must
it not be punished? And is he not worthy of esteem who executes the
decree upon the criminal? What would the world come unto save violence
and savagery if it were not that Justice stands forth to protect the
weak? My son is but the minister of Justice. What saith the Scripture?
'Wilt thou not be afraid of the power, do that which is good. For he
is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do evil, be
afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; he is the minister of
God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.' What are
you, to scorn what the Word of Scripture deemeth honourable?"

"I am content to be his servant," said Bladys. Mrs Onion had opened
the door to lead from the room; she shut it again with impatience, and
returned to the table and placed the candle upon it.

"This is perversity," she said. "His wife you are, to love, honour,
and obey; and his wife you shall be. He will know how to tame you, and
make you docile. You will fawn on the hand you now slight."

"I will never be other than a servant."

"Do you defy my son?"

"I do."

"You!" The woman broke into a discordant laugh. "You! You defy him! A
weak girl just out of the nursery, and wont to play with dolls! He has
strong hands and iron nerves."

"And I have a strong will, and a resolve of steel."

"He has the force and determination of a lion."

"A lion sleeps!"

"What of that?"

"And a sleeping lion is in the power of a child."

The old mother stepped back, and looked with startled and contracted
eyes at the cold, pale girl.

"His wife I shall never be. I will cook for you, scour for you, do
what you will about the house, and so earn the meat for my mouth. But
let him attempt to urge me, seek to kiss me, let him even venture to
address me as his wife, and the county of Shropshire may seek itself
another hangman."

"What mean you?"

"I will kill him."

The old woman uttered another of her harsh laughs. Her eyes seemed to
draw closer to her nose, as she riveted them with intenser stare on
the defiant girl. "Prithee, vixen, how wilt thou accomplish this
notable feat?"

"He will be in my power when he is asleep," said Bladys. "Jael, the
wife of Heber, drove a nail into the temple of Sisera as he slept, and
the prophetess said, 'Blessed be thou among women' for so doing."

"There are no hammer and nails here."

"I need them not."

Bladys put her hand to her hair, and drew forth a long steel pin. "If
this were to be thrust into his eye with good resolve, it would
penetrate to his brain. He would turn on his bed, cry out, and be dead
as Sisera."

Mrs Onion could not speak for a moment. Her blood turned to venom. Her
great mouth worked as though she were eating.

After a long pause she said:

"Do you know what is done to the murderess of her husband?"

"I do know."

"Come now, follow me a little way."

Mrs Onion led her from the room along a stone corridor in the
thickness of the city wall, lighted only by slots through which the
moon gleamed cold on the stone pavement.

"Hark! Hold your breath and listen."

Along the passage came a sobbing, intermittent succession of sounds,
now rising into a shriek, then dying away in moans, then broken in
spasmodic wails.

"Dost hear that?" asked the old woman. "It is the cry of her who is to
die to-morrow. Now I warrant she wishes she had let the old man live,
and not lusted to be free to follow the young lover. She thinks of the
fire that will consume her on the morrow."

"I will gladly welcome the flames. I will let them embrace me--but
never suffer the arms of the hangman to encircle me."

"You shall be watched night and day. I shall not close an eye."

"You cannot always remain waking."

"Then Abraham Jarrock will take my place."

"Abraham Jarrock will look another way whilst I help him to the place
of master out of that of assistant."

"You are a devil."

"I was an angel before I was married."

"Your pins and needles shall be taken from you."

They had returned to the illuminated chamber, and Mrs Onion had shut
the door.

"I have sharp scissors."

"They also shall be removed."

"I have but to snatch a log from the fire and cast the red ashes
about--the old boards are snuff dry, and the Gate House will be in
flames and consume you and your son."

"That you cannot do, for you shall not be left alone to work mischief.
I shall ever be with you by day, and at night you shall be behind bolt
and lock."

"There are other means," said Bladys. "Means that I have learned from
a wise woman. I have not been with her in vain."

She drew from her bosom a small packet in coarse brown paper, and from
it threw out some ash grey dust on the tablecloth.

"This," said she, "this is Drie. A little sprinkled over the bread,
mingled with the pepper, put with the evening caudle, along with the
nutmeg, and it will free me from whomsoever I desire to be free."

"Hark!" gasped Mrs Onion. "I hear Luke's hand on the door, his step on
the stair. If you will, for the time take yonder chamber. It is over
the gate. A servant had it, but she is gone."

"Is there a bolt within?"

"There is a bolt within and a lock without."

"Good, I will take that room."

The old woman thrust the girl through the doorway into the chamber
mentioned and indicated.

Bladys at once fastened the door on the inside. Then Mrs Onion turned
the key in the lock.

When she had done this she caught up the candle, ran out on the stone
landing, and closed the door behind her through which she had just

"Mother," asked Luke Francis, "has she arrived?"

"Yes, someone has come--"

"From Kinver?"

"Yes, from Kinver."

"Let me pass to embrace her."

The old woman stood in the way. Her son looked at her with surprise.

"How your hand shakes," said he. "You are spilling the tallow over
your dress, and over the floor. It is running over your hand."

"You cannot go in yet."

"Wherefore not? How your mouth works, mother! What ails thee? What is


"With her."

"Ay, with her. Do you know what you have brought to the Gate House?"

"Ay, I trust I do."

"No, you do not, Luke. She is not a wench, she is a white devil."


On the following morning, at a very early hour, Mrs Onion unlocked the
door into the room of Bladys, and knocked sharply. The girl
immediately withdrew the bolt and opened.

"Are you in the same mood as last night?" asked the hangman's mother.
"Perchance, then, with the journey you were off your reason."

"I am of the same purpose."

"Then," said the old woman, drawing her thin lips against her teeth,
"when I give you a command you will obey. Had you said, 'I am Luke's
wife,' then I would have answered, 'You are fatigued with travelling;
take your ease and repose this day through.' But as it pleases you to
be so humorous, then I must lay on you my injunction and expect you to
do as I bid. Therefore I say it is my pleasure that you attend me."

"I follow," said Bladys. "Whither?"

"To the Castle. The Foregate is connected with the Castle by a passage
in the wall that I showed you overnight."

"I follow and obey."

Thereupon the executioner's mother stepped forward and Bladys followed
after her dutifully.

The old woman led along the corridor of stone, stone-paved, and
ascending by steps. She mounted a stair of stone, thrust open a door
and entered a vaulted chamber in which stood the gaoler and his
assistant, as though awaiting her. The former was shaking a bunch of
keys, impatient at being delayed.

"She is less troublesome now--that is to say, she is less vociferous
in her cries," said the gaoler. "She has made a prodigious noise all
through the night. Nothing of that disturbs my sleep, but the other
prisoners complained. I have told them that she is to be removed at
nine o'clock, and they are vastly satisfied to learn it."

"Open the door," said the old mother.

The turnkey did as he was required, and both were admitted to the

Mrs Onion looked round. There was not much light entering through the
small window high up, and which looked north.

"She is gone from here. I do not see her!"

"Oh, she is yonder, assuredly enough. The creature is crouched between
the bed and the wall, in the corner. She thinks, poor fool, that she
can hide herself and that we shall overlook her."

Then kneeling on the bed, he plucked away the coverlet which the woman
had drawn over herself, when she had jammed herself into the cranny
where she hoped to find concealment. He laid his hand on her shoulder,
not unkindly, and remonstrated with her.

"Now, mistress, this is rank folly! Come forth as a reasonable
creature, and do not hug yourself with such notions as that you can

The miserable woman was frantic with terror. Her hair, that was
naturally a rich and lustrous chestnut, had fallen about her face and
shoulders, and was tangled, sodden, and had lost all its gloss.

"Come now," said the gaoler, "forth from this. You are behaving as a
witless child. Pluck up a little courage, and, as a brave woman, face
what has to be encountered."

Then she burst into a succession of shrieks.

"I will not die! I cannot die! I am young. I have but twenty-one
years. I have but just begun to taste the pleasures of life. I will
not die! You shall tear me limb from limb before I am drawn from this
place. And to burn! To burn! To burn!" She thrust her fingers through
her hair, then cast herself down on the pavement, and scrambled under
the bed, with her face to the floor.

"Help me to remove the pallet," said the turnkey. "She has but a mean
spirit. A gentlewoman should show more. She should blush to be such a

"Come forth!" ordered Mrs Onion. "You are crushing your gown, and it
takes half the worth out of it. It is appointed to all to die, to some
early, to others late."

With much difficulty the assistant and his master drew the wretched
creature forth, and brought her into the midst of the cell. She would
not, or could not, stand.

Her face was soiled with tears, and the stain of a carnation ribbon
had come off upon her wet fingers, and had been smeared on her cheeks,
that were themselves flaming with the fever that possessed her, flared
in her eyes, and distracted her brain.

"I cannot endure fire!" she pleaded in a broken voice between sobs;
"look at my finger. I have burnt it--but a small place. I held it to
the lamp to feel what fire was. I could not bear it for a second. It
made me mad. It was but a little place; it has not raised a blister.
How then can I endure that my whole body should burn?"

She gasped, turned her face about, sharply looking from one to the
other eagerly, for a token of reprieve. Her breath was hot as fire.

"It will begin at the soles of my feet; there, there, worst of all!
And then if a flame springs up to my eyes! They will bind my hands
that I cannot hold them up to save my face."

"See this now," said the executioner's mother; "you conceive of
matters far worse than they really are. There is, indeed, no
requirement that one who is sentenced for petty treason shall not
really burn alive, but we are God-fearing and kind-hearted people, and
my son is ready to strangle you before the fire takes hold on your

"He will strangle me! How--when--with what?"

"Be cheerful, and do not be alarmed without cause. He will loop a
stout twine round your throat and the stake. Then with a bit of stick
he will give a twist. He has a strong hand, and all will be over.
There was a case a few years ago when the executioner failed to do
this in time, and recoiled before the flames, so that the woman was
burnt alive and was long a-dying. But he was a sad blunderer. My son
is not like that. He never fails to do a good deed promptly and right

Then the unhappy prisoner shrieked: "I will not be throttled with a
string! I love my life. Life is sweet--it is sweet--and death is more
bitter than wormwood."

She covered her heated face and swung from side to side, moaning, the
gaoler and his assistant holding her, one on each side.

"Why did my mother force me to marry? I did not know him. I could not
care for him. I had no wish to be a wife, but she drove me to it; she
tortured me into it. Why do they not burn my mother instead of me? It
was her doing. I would never have done him any harm, but that they
forced me to be his wife. Why did he take me when he knew that I loved
Paul? My mother knew it. He was told it. I swear that I did not mean
to kill him. I swear that I purposed only to make him sleep whilst I
went away with Paul. I did not know that nightshade would kill him; I
thought it would make him sleepy. They will let me off when they know
that. I did not have a fair trial. I was not told what was against me.
I ask to be tried again. I am unjustly condemned. I will not die! No,
I will not die!"

She started to her feet, by a sudden, convulsive effort released
herself, and ran round the room, beating the walls with her hands;
then she made a rush at the door, but was intercepted by the under-

"Let me out!" she cried. "I will go to the judge, and tell him it was
a mistake. I did not purpose to kill him. It is he that commits murder
when he sentences me to death."

Again she fell into a paroxysm of grief.

Then Mrs Onion said to Bladys, "Lay hold on her, and force her to be
seated on the bed."

The girl obeyed. The power to resist further had left the prisoner
after her last desperate effort to escape. Assisted by the turnkey,
the girl succeeded in controlling her. She took hold of both her

"Hearken quietly to me," said Mrs Onion. "I have seen many women
suffer, but none have cut so poor a figure as yourself. In one half-
hour you must be conveyed through the streets. If you have any sense
of decency you will be ashamed to be seen as you are, with bedabbled
face, stained cheeks, and tangled hair. A woman desires to look her
best, even when going to her death. You are a gentlewoman, and should
set an example. As a person of fashion you should not appear in this
disordered state. Moreover, consider that every woman would wish to
awaken regard, pity. Such as you are now, you will provoke none;
people will protest, 'She is grumpish, and the world is well rid of
such baggage--let her burn.' But if you will permit me to comb your
hair, to wash your face, and to take off this habit, that is
altogether too smart and unsuitable, and draw over you one of plain
serge that is more seemly,--then it will wear another aspect. Folk
will look at you with approval, and mark that you are young and
pretty, and say that it is a prodigious pity that you were not also

"I cannot--I will not be burned!"

"That gown," said Mrs Onion, "is far too good to be thrust into the
fire. Waste is sinful, and you cannot go before your Maker with a
fresh crime on your soul. Moreover, it is my perquisite."

"I do not heed my gown. It is I--I--this tender flesh of mine. See how
thin the skin is on my throat. I cannot endure it. I feel the smallest
prick of a pin!"

Then someone rapped at the cell door. The gaoler opened, and the
chaplain appeared.

"My poor woman," said he, "I have come to direct your mind to things

"I will not be burnt!" shrieked the woman. "And they threaten to
throttle me. I will not be throttled and I will not be burnt. Why is
Paul not here? Why has he done nothing to deliver me? Why should I die
and not he?"

Then the tears streamed over her cheeks, and being unable to wipe her
eyes with her hands, she thrust her wet face against the bosom of

Thereupon said Mrs Onion to the chaplain.

"I must ask you, reverend sir, to withdraw a little while--we have to
unclothe her and re-cover her with a properer garment. We must wash
her face and turn up her hair."

Again the poor creature screamed and battled.

Mrs Onion lost patience.

"This passes all reason. Time is hastening on. Listen! Do you not
hear? There is the bell of St Mary's. There are people coming from all
quarters, and the execution cannot be stayed to please your humours."

The tolling of the great bell was audible above the hum of voices of
people crowding the street.

Awed by the sound, the solemn tone of the bell calling to prayers for
the soul of a dying woman, the poor creature desisted from her
fruitless efforts, and fell into a sullen lethargy; yet for how long
this would last there was no saying. Therefore Mrs Onion hastened to
divest her of the gown she wore, and to invest her in an ill-fitting,
shabby, darned dress that was of no value.

That accomplished, the chaplain was called in, and the rest withdrew.

When the executioner's mother and Bladys were alone in the stone
passage, then the old woman turned to her young companion, and said
with a sneer:

"Now you know what it is to commit petty treason. It is no play. Now
you have seen what is the agony of the expectation of death. You shall
see further the agony of death itself. What think you of petty

"I think, nay, I am confident," answered Bladys, "that I would gaily
endure the same condemnation, rather than be your son's wife. Woe
betide him if he venture to forget that I am a servant and no wife."
She smiled a frozen smile. "How like you this gown? Passingly? It is
the best that I have. It is that wherein I was wed. Do you covet the
gown? Then send your son Luke to kiss me, and it is yours by the same
title as that you now carry on your arm."


The old woman conveyed the gown she had taken from her who was to be
burnt into a closet where she kept a supply of old garments. Whilst
she was absent tears streamed over the pale cheeks of Bladys and a
shudder ran through her frame. But by the time Mrs Onion had disposed
of the spoil, and was able to return to her, all traces of emotion
were past; she was self-possessed as before.

"The cart is already at the Gate, and we must attend her," said the
executioner's mother. "I doubt not that we shall have trouble with the

An appealing look from the poor woman, and a clasp of the hand had
been given to Bladys, and had been answered by her. Instinct and not
reason had told the condemned murderess that there was one heart
present that pitied her, that bled for her.

The paroxysms of terror and struggle to be free were past; she had
subsided into a condition of stupefaction as the dreaded moment
arrived. Despair, like a sudden frost, had enchained all her
faculties. She suffered herself to be partly led, partly carried, from
the cell, through the Castle yard and gate, and to be lifted into the
cart that was to convey her to the spot where she was to die.

Manacles were about her wrists, and an end of the chain attached to
them was fastened to a portion of the side of the tumbril. It was
deemed advisable to secure her, against another outbreak of frenzied
effort to escape.

On her way down the stair of the Castle the unhappy woman held the
hand of Bladys. She would not let it go. When it became necessary, at
the moment of her being placed in the conveyance, to disengage her
hold, she became restive and stretched her arms beseechingly towards
Bladys; and yet, not a word had passed between them, and till that
morning neither had seen the other.

The chaplain walked by the side of the tumbril, addressing
exhortations as best he could; but few of his words were audible,
owing to the rattle of the wheels over the pavement, the effervescence
of the crowd, and strangely incongruous--the drone of a hurdy-gurdy.
The Savoyard had come to Shrewsbury, and regardless of everything
else, sought to gain a few coppers by the exhibition of his dancing
ape. His efforts to attract attention were in vain, the crowd had
other and more interesting matters to engage their eyes and thoughts.

The tumbril was guarded by the javelin men of the Sheriff who himself
followed in his coach. The miserable woman looked with staring, wild
eyes from side to side, and then into the face of Bladys, who sat
beside her in the straw. Then, drawing herself up so as to speak in
her ear, and to be heard above the noise, she said:

"There will be a reprieve--a pardon. Tell me there will. They will not
really burn me."

The hum of the populace was like the mutter of the sea after a storm,
when the rollers come in on the beach, but without a wind to propel
them. The hurdy-gurdy was no longer audible. It had been left behind.
St Mary's bell boomed, sending throbs of sound overhead that beat
against the walls of the house in one street, and came back muffled in

The street was thronged with people. Some houses had the blinds drawn
down and doors shut, and no signs of inhabitants showing. Others had
windows, doors, parapet crowded with people. Some lookers-on had awe-
stricken faces; others exhibited only curiosity. Few, apparently, had
any sympathy with the woman who had been untrue to her husband, and
had compassed his death, but some felt that the mode of execution was
barbarous. Already at the close of the eighteenth century the notion
had begun to be entertained that the punishment inflicted by the law
was cruel and disproportionate to the offence, and this feeling
manifested itself intermittently where were drawn blinds and closed

Eyes were directed upon Bladys, as well as on the condemned woman.
Some asked, "Who is that young female in the cart?"

To which answer was made, "We have been informed that the hangman has
been outside of the county to get himself a wife."

"Ah!" the querists would throw in, "he must needs go where he is
unknown, for no girl would have him who was aware of his trade."

Then another would remark, "Anyhow, she takes vastly kindly to the

"Not so. See how pale she is. Od's life, she might be going herself to

The tumbril arrived at the descent towards the Severn, and those
seated in it could see the narrow street, winding among black-timbered
and plastered houses, packed with people and the javelin men thrusting
and pushing their way with difficulty, so as to effect a clearance and
open a road for the cart.

The woman on her way to death was shivering, as though with frost in
the marrow of her bones, and her teeth chattered. Turning a ghastly
face on Bladys, she stammered, "There is the bridge; there is the--"
and with a shriek she threw herself upon the girl who was sitting with
her. "Save me! save me! and I will give you something worth your
pains. I will give it you; it shall be all your own."

The cry of the woman had produced a sudden lull in the voices. They
sank into stillness, only broken by the boom of the bell and the
clatter of the wheels over the cobblestones. Now, also, the voice of
the chaplain rose, as he recited a penitential psalm: "Wash me
throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For I
acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me!" When the
procession attained the bridge, then the poor woman looked towards the
water, and made a spasmodic effort to free herself, with a half-
articulate desire in her troubled mind to throw herself into the
river. A death by drowning were preferable to that in store for her.
But there were boats on the water, and men in the boats, stretching
their necks to have a sight of the convoy. Had she cast herself in,
she would have at once been fished out; moreover, she had been
fastened to the cart by the executioner, who had foreseen some such

Now there went by a rush of swifts screaming, pursuing one that had
robbed a nest, or had been faithless to her spouse. The bird that was
chased turned in the air and did battle with its pursuers, and the
posse of swifts, regardless of the human crowd below, dashed hither
and thither, but a little way above their heads, making a loud and
angry din, plucking out feathers from the bird they had combined to
punish, and attentive to their own concerns and the execution of their
own judgment only.

In front rose the magnificent, half-ruined minster; in our own days
nobly restored, to be one of the grandest churches in England. Hard
by--among the fragments of the conventual buildings--stands a solitary
pulpit of stone, of exquisite design. This was now occupied by a
strange figure; it was that of an old man in a patched coat, with a
rolling collar and a white cravat. He was gesticulating and
declaiming. This man was, in fact, Holy Austin, who had come from
Kinver, moved by inner wrath and zeal against injustice in the
execution of justice, seizing occasion to address the crowd.

A ring of people had formed round the pulpit, and listened with signs
of impatience to him, enduring his diversion of their attention with
as little tolerance as a similar crowd near the Castle had shown to
the Savoyard and his hurdy-gurdy. Now, as then, the appearance of the
principal personage in the tragedy drew away attention at once. Those
who had been facing the orator with one accord turned their backs and
made a rush to secure good positions near the stake. Rough men,
laughing, swearing, scrambled up the pulpit, as the steps were
blocked, thrust the speaker into the rear, and appropriated to
themselves the positions which commanded the stake. The circle of
constables surrounding the place of execution opened to allow the cart
to pass within, and in so doing disclosed the pile of faggots, and the
post rising above it, to which was attached a hoop that was to clasp
the waist of the victim and prevent her from sinking in shame and
anguish into the element that surged up from below.

A fire burning in an extemporised grate of iron bars and bricks near
the ground, composed of dry wood, blazed merrily, throwing up spirals
of flame and a light, pungent smoke. The purpose was obvious enough.
At this grate were to be kindled the brands by means of which the pyre
was to be lighted simultaneously in three places.

The poor victim, on seeing the flames and smelling the reek which blew
in her face, became again desperate, and writhed with such force that
it required four men to restrain her.

Her cries, and the sight of the struggle, sent a thrill of terrible
ecstasy through the spectators. Even the most callous shuddered. Some
turned sick and faint, and elbowed their way out of the crowd, unable
to endure more.

When the unhappy creature became visible, in the arms of the
executioners, who were by main force lifting her upon the pyre, and
when they saw the hoop being riveted about her, then all who witnessed
the proceedings uttered a gasp. Those who could see nothing made
frantic efforts to elevate themselves by leaping, standing on tiptoe,
or grappling such as were taller than themselves. One fond father
lifted his little child to his shoulder and believed he was giving him
a fine moral object-lesson.

And now the hangman slipped a cord about the neck of the condemned
woman and passed it round the stake. She endeavoured to get at it with
her hands, but they were fastened behind her back, then to bite it
asunder with her teeth, to slip her head under it--any way to free
herself from the stricture that was destined to throttle the life out
of her.

She gasped, "Stay! stay! I see someone waving his hand. He bears a

But the executioner's mother answered, "That is but a preacher who is
exhorting the people and bidding them take warning by your fate."

"There is a man getting out of a coach. He bears a reprieve."

"That is the sheriff, who comes to see that the sentence of the law be
duly carried out."

"Hush! I hear a voice crying! He is declaring that I am to go free."

"That is the chaplain reading the burial service." And the priest's
solemn tones rose in her ear:

"In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek for
succour, but of Thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased."

"One moment! One moment more! Let me say a word to her."

She signed with her head to Bladys. Then the latter stepped upon the
pile of faggots and drew close to the poor woman. She, with ashen
face, leaden lips, and starting eyes, turned to her and said, "I have
no hope now. It is nearly over. Put your hand into my bosom. They did
not find it when they stripped me of my gown. It is for you."

"What is it?"

"What I spoke of before. It is for you only. I cannot die with the
secret, and leave it to any one who may chance to find it. You alone
have had compassion. You alone pity me. I have none else to think for,
to care about. It is for you."

Then Bladys thrust her hand where desired and drew forth a small

"Put it away," sobbed the unhappy woman. "Let none else see it. Let
none else have it or any share of it. It is all for you." She panted.
Then in a hoarse voice said, "Wipe my face."

With her handkerchief Bladys dried the tears, the sweat of mortal
anguish which bathed the livid face.

And that whole vast concourse of sightseers kept silence. There was
absolute stillness.

The executioner who stood behind the stake had his hand on the
tourniquet and delayed. But there was a glitter in his eye, and he
signed to the girl with a movement of his head. Then it was that--
moved by intense pity--Bladys kissed the poor victim on the cheek.
Instantly a mighty roar, like the bursting of a dam, the invasion of a

Next moment Bladys was snatched from the pyre, plucked down, and
thrust back.

Still the roar continued, it swelled in volume, it grew to an ominous
thunder. It spurted into articulate cries of "Stone him! Cast him into
the fire! Smash the sheriff's carriage! Save her! It is not yet too

But it was too late! The woman was dead.

What the people were about was this:--That kiss given by Bladys to her
that was condemned to a horrible death was seen by the vast concourse;
and that sight had wrought an effect extraordinary, incredible,

Instantaneously it had unlocked and set free all the humanity that had
been sealed up in ten thousand hearts. It had struck a film from the
eyes of every man and woman present, and they saw plainly, for the
first time in their lives, that this execution, with its publicity,
its barbarity, was a worse crime than that committed by the woman
under sentence.

That pitiful kiss given on the pyre--given in welling-over human love
to the poor, broken victim--had let loose the Christian compassion
that had been in a death-trance for more than seventeen hundred years.
It had been proclaimed as a Divine law by Him who stooped and wrote in
the dust, when the sinful woman was brought before Him by her judges.
Christian prelates had not felt it stirring when they sent heretics to
the stake, nor Christian kings when they had condemned traitors to be
drawn and quartered, nor Christian legislators when they adjudicated
to the gallows the man who stole a sheep, and the maid who purloined
half-a-crown. The excitement, the emotion roused by the kiss of
Bladys, as is so generally the case with an unthinking crowd, took a
wrong direction. In an explosion of resentment, it vented itself
against the hangman who had strangled the woman, against his
assistants for igniting the pyre, against the sheriff who had
conducted the execution, against the constables who had endeavoured to
keep order. But there was more than a roar of human voices. Waves of
human beings swayed to and fro actuated by one passion of indignation.
They sent up a foam of brandished sticks and hands in agitation,
casting stones. There were seen men flying, wands wavering; there were
heard cries from such as fell and were trampled on, or were thrust
against the blazing pile, and were singed, by such as trod in the
oozing tar, or stumbled over the preparatory fire, or were jammed
between the wheels of the sheriff's carriage. Yet above all rang the
shrill cry of Holy Austin from the stone pulpit.

"My brothers, you do wrong. It is not the hangman who is in fault; he
but fulfils the duty for which he is paid. Nor is the sheriff to
blame; he sees to the execution of the laws. It is with the inhuman
criminal laws of England that the sin lies. They are a disgrace to a
Christian land; they are a stain on modern civilisation. You have
votes; you send your deputies to Parliament. Unite and insist on
this--that such barbarous enactments be swept away."

The kiss of Bladys and the words of Austin were not lost. They did not
arouse the multitude, and give direction to their indignation, in
vain. They produced their effect beyond Shrewsbury. They had a far
more extended effect.

In the same year, 1790, that this poor woman was burnt at Shrewsbury,
in the very next session of Parliament, this method of execution was
abolished, and the crime of petty treason was struck out of the

Chapter 14. A CHALLENGE

A mob in ebullition, traversed by currents in various directions--such
was the scene presented by the open space before the west front of the
Abbey Church.

One stream set towards the stake, where hung the strangled woman in
the midst of rising smoke and lambent flames. Another drove in pursuit
of the flying executioner and his assistants. A third made for the
bridge, to escape into the town from a tumult in which blood might,
and probably would, be shed, and which would entail an unpleasant

A stone had broken a window of the sheriff's carriage, but he had let
down the glass, projected his head, and was haranguing, threatening
the mob, and was calling on his javelin men to rally around him.
These, however, had been dispersed and no longer formed a homogeneous
body, and having lost cohesion, had lost with it all the little
courage they possessed.

On the bridge was a jam, caused by a horseman endeavouring to make way
through the mass of human beings encumbering it and constricted
between the parapets. He had been despatched to invoke the aid of the

The wind was from the east, and it drove the smoke over the bridge,
sickly with the odour of the singed and now burning garments of the
dead woman. Some of the rabble insensately began to tear the fire to
pieces, as though that would avail the poor creature. She was, in
fact, dead before the flame had leaped up and licked her face and
curled around her bowed frame. The attempts made to level the pyre
only served to scatter the blazing faggots, endangering those who
stood near, and such as were thrust into dangerous proximity by the
press of the crowd.

The javelin men, dispersed, were spun like teetotums in the swirl, and
gradually concentrated around the sheriff's carriage, although when
there too frightened to attend to his instructions, and too powerless
to execute them.

Mother Onion had clutched the wrist of Bladys, and now dragged her
towards the bridge. She had snatched the shawl from the latter, and
had thrown it over her own head with the object of concealing her

"They know me. They are angry with us all. They are mad, and might
injure me. You they do not know, and against you they bear no grudge.
Come! Be quick! I pray God no harm has befallen my son. The people
have lost their wits. It is all your doing. Why did you kiss her?
Before that they were prepared to relish the execution, as they have
done heretofore. Keep near me. Conceal me with your person as best you
may. What was that you took from her? Was it gold? She was rich. Do
not lag thus. We must press on; I am not safe. We must get home at
greatest speed. Od's-zounds! If they were to recognise me, there is no
telling, in their present humour, but they might cast me into the

As the old woman, grappling Bladys, worked her way over the bridge,
she rang changes on her alarm for herself, concern for her son, and
impatience to learn what that was which Bladys had taken at the last
moment from the woman on the pyre.

The stream set strongly across the bridge, but near the middle was
brought to a standstill by the rider, as already mentioned; and then
the old woman was driven against the parapet and nearly thrown down.

The pressure was relieved when the messenger had passed, and then the
current resumed its flow, now with increased rapidity, and it carried
Mother Onion and Bladys into the main street of Shrewsbury, at the
place where once stood the Western Gate, which had been demolished
before the date of this tale.

"Come aside, along this lane," said the executioner's mother. "We
shall stand less chance of being observed. I trust in Heaven that no
ill has come upon Luke. He was discharging his duty. He was acting the
good Samaritan. The law requires that the woman sentenced for petty
treason shall be burnt alive, but my son, as a humane man, and one
that fears God, and loves his neighbour, mitigates the penalty. He is
not required to do so. He does it because he has a good heart, and
those sentenced usually pay handsomely to be spared the greater pain
of burning. Why, then, should the people be incensed against him? What
did you take from her? I obtained nothing but an old gown that will
not fetch a guinea. She had none of her rings on her fingers, not even
the wedding ring. They belong to me by rights. Nicodemus, the gaoler,
has no wife, and I attend to the criminals. He is avaricious. Do you
think he removed the rings before I was called in? Or had she
concealed them in her bosom, and did she give them to you?"

Bladys made no reply.

As there was now no crush, and the lateral alley was clear of the
crowd, the old woman halted, and, tugging at her daughter-in-law's
wrist, said, impatiently, "I must be told. What did you get from her?"

"I do not know," answered Bladys coldly.

"But, look you, I must learn. She was rich. She had gold. She was a
jeweller's daughter."

"I took from her a small package, but I have not examined nor have I
opened it. Let that suffice."

"It shall not suffice. I must see the contents."

"Whatever the contents may be they are not for you."

"That's purely! Not for me! And mayhap there may be a hundred

"I do not think that it contains money. Mayhap it is but a commission;
perhaps a lock of hair; perhaps a message of love; perhaps a
confession of guilt. I have not looked, and I shall not look till I am
alone in my chamber with the door locked against intrusion."

"Lack-a-day! A saucy minx! But I shall insist on having a sight too;
and if you refuse Luke shall help me to it presently."

"Whatever it is," replied Bladys, in a dispassionate tone, "it is not
for you. She said to me, 'Take it; I give it to you alone. You only
have shown me kindness.' Whether it be a trust or a bequest--whatever
it be--it is to me sacred from prying eyes and impertinent curiosity."

"Hey-day!" The old woman was convulsed with rage. "Is this the manner
in which you address me? Impertinent curiosity, quotha! I warrant you,
it is a hundred guineas. That is Luke's fee. He has not been paid for
what he did--for strangling her instead of suffering her to burn
alive. It is his due. She promised it to him."

"I do not believe you. She made no such promise. But to set your mind
at rest," the girl put her hand to her bosom, "the parcel has no such
a feeling as if it contained gold."

"There may be notes."

"It feels to me as though it contained a letter, and therewith a small

"A key! Let me read the letter. A key to what?"

"That in no way concerns you."

"I will know."

Bladys turned herself about, looked the woman in the face, and

"My will is stronger than yours."

"We shall see."

Nothing further was said till the Gate House was reached, and then Mrs
Onion ascended the stairs before Bladys. At the landing she turned her
head over her shoulder and said:

"Are you his servant or his wife?"

"I have already informed you."

"Then," exclaimed the old woman, with a fierce leap in her manner,
"give up the package. As his wife you would have a right to it; for it
belongs to the executioner by customary right to have whatever the
criminal wears or carries about him or her at execution; but if you
are a servant, what you have and retain is stolen--it is a theft, for
which you can be charged. I pray to Heaven you may not come to pass
through Luke's hands to the gallows!"

"I will bear the risk."

Then Mrs Onion opened the door of the kitchen. Changing her tone, she

"It is our custom, after an execution, that the gaoler or the hangman,
one or the other, gives a supper to all who were engaged. It is not
this time the turn of Nicodemus. It falls to Luke." With a sneer, she
added: "Your master if you will. I pray the Lord that my son is safe.
If he has come to harm, it is your doing. Wherefore did you kiss that
sinful woman, and so rouse the mob upon us? Did you reckon they would
fall on Luke and tear him to pieces, and so set you free from him?"

She looked about her and muttered. Presently she proceeded:

"There are three turnkeys and Abraham Jarrock, Ap Rice, and my son
Luke. I have a round of beef ready, but there are other things to be
prepared. I count on you."

"I will help," answered Bladys

An hour later Abraham arrived out of breath and surly. He was eagerly
questioned by Mrs Onion.

"The master has had his scalp cut open by a stick, but the skull is
not broken. We slipped away, he and I. What became of Ap Rice I know
not. Luke and I went into the Abbey Church, and fast barred the door
behind us. The parson was within, and he assisted us. The fellows
without hammered at one door and then at another, trying to get at us.
God knows what they would have done had they reached us. One man was
shouting 'Hang them to the bell-ropes!' At last the vicar smuggled us
out by a small door at the east end, and you'd have laughed, for Luke
wore his cassock and looked like a parson. The vicar lent him his wig
to cover his cut scalp. He was taken to Surgeon Bett's to have his
head sewn up. No harm done. There he abides till night falls and he
can return without risk."

"Do you think," said Mrs Onion, "that Luke will have stomach for his

"Will he not! This is not only the gallows supper, but his wedding

"His wedding feast!" echoed the old woman.

"Well, my pretty mistress," said the assistant, turning to Bladys,
"how goes the honeymoon? Sweet, eh?"

"Sweet!" repeated Mrs Onion, and her bile overflowed. "What think you
to this, Abraham? She denies that she is his wife. She threatens that
she will burn down the Gate House if he do but touch her. Is it not

Mrs Onion turned to Bladys, her eyes contracting with malice. The girl
replied with coolness, "I said as much."

"And further, she protests that she will poison him--as did that woman
we burned to-day."

"Anything rather than be his wife," said Bladys.

"That is not all," pursued the hangman's mother. "She threatens that
when he sleeps she will drive her hairpin into his brain."

Then Abraham Jarrock set his hands to his side and broke into loud

"Dost count it a jest?" asked Mrs Onion angrily, "that he has brought
such a woman into this house?"

"I do laugh," answered Jarrock. "Be without concern. Madam, a woman
who brags--that is not the woman who will do the deed. Pshaw! The
doers are not the talkers."

When darkness had settled in, Luke Onion arrived. His cut scalp had
been patched, he was haggard, and in evil mood, answering his mother's
questions churlishly, and manifesting impatience at her expressions of
sympathy. He looked out of the corners of his eyes at Bladys, to
observe whether she was disposed to pity him in his battered
condition, but she vouchsafed him neither look nor word.

"Is the riot at an end?" asked Mrs Onion.

"The riot, ay! The disturbance not. The streets are full of people,
and the constables have been arresting, of course, the wrong folk,
letting the ringleaders run free."

"Luke," said his mother, "dost know how and by whom this riot was
stirred up?"

As her son made no reply, she went on--

"It was all her doing--she who has been a trouble since she entered
this house. It was she who stirred up the people against you. It is to
her you owe the shame, the disgrace of this day. It is to her you are
indebted for your cut head. And she has thieved as well. She has taken
from us that which is ours and not hers. Come, Luke, we have had
nought but unpleasantness since she entered the house. Let her
surrender what she took from the woman, and after that cast her out of
the house."

"Let her go?" laughed Luke sardonically. "Not I, indeed. That would be
rare jest--that I should be robbed of my money and wife together."

"She has taken gold of the woman."

"Whatever I received," said Bladys, "that I retain. I have had time to
look at what she gave me. Be assured, there is neither gold nor jewel
therein, only a scribble of a few words."

"What words."

"They are for me alone."

"You said there was a key."

"Yes; a small key."

"To what?"

"I cannot tell."

"Now, hark you," said Luke Onion. "Petty treason involves forfeiture.
If there be gold I take it as my fee--you cannot retain it"

"There was, as I said, no gold."

"Luke, send her away."

"Mother, set your mind at ease. She does not escape me. I am not one
to be opposed or frightened by a woman. As to threats, I laugh at

Then swinging himself about, he gripped Bladys with both hands,
holding her head as in a vice, and looking straight into her eyes, he

"Do you still defy me, hussy?"


"Is it to be a struggle between us until one buckles under?"

"Or dies!"

"Or dies. Very well. I accept the challenge."

Chapter 15. VASHTI

The day of an execution was one that gave satisfaction alike to
turnkey, hangman, and their assistants, for it was to them the
conclusion of a harvest reaped out of the unfortunate who had fallen
into their hands, and in the evening it was customary with them to
make merry over the plunder and to keep their harvest home.

No sooner was a prisoner sent to the Castle than a system of pillage
began, to which he and his relatives were subjected, and which did not
cease till he was discharged or executed.

Within the gaol, his comforts, almost his necessaries of life, had to
be bought of the head turnkey. A poor prisoner fared badly. He had a
miserable cell, where he was abandoned to filth and famine. The
discomforts of a recalcitrant prisoner were rendered daily more acute
till his resistance was broken, and he submitted to the exactions of
those who held him in control; till he allowed himself as a human
wreck to be boarded and pillaged until nothing was left on him that
was worth taking. He had to pay for his food, for his drink, for clean
bedding, for fuel, even for privacy. The gaoler was well aware that
the most intolerable annoyance to which he could subject those of a
better class was to crush them into a common day-room with the worst
criminals of the most degraded order, and to associate in one bedroom
the most unsuitable companions. Consequently he exacted a heavy fee
for the privilege of a separate apartment. Nor was it the gaoler alone
that preyed on the victim of Justice, so-called. A criminal condemned
to death was at the mercy of the hangman, who was to be bribed to
"turn him off" speedily, and who, unless satisfied, might prolong his
agony. The woman sentenced to death by fire had to buy the concession
of being strangled at the stake; the man who was to be hung purchased
with gold every inch of the drop.

Visitors out of curiosity could always buy permission to interview the
prisoner; relations--mother, wife, children--could obtain no parting
embrace without having fed the gaoler.

The system of flaying was not confined to the period of life; it was
continued after death, and that no longer metaphorically. In the case
of hanging, the executioner sold the rope at a guinea an inch, and
even took the skin off the dead man's back and chest, and vended it in
squares as charms that were eagerly purchased by the superstitious.
The hangman claimed the clothing of those sentenced to death as a
customary perquisite, in addition to the fee paid him by the County
for the execution. In the Orient the vultures swoop upon the dead, but
in the West, England not excepted, before the improvements due to the
exertions of Howard, the prisoner was a prey to human vultures from
the moment that he passed through the gates before his trial.

The supper given by Luke Onion and his fellow-vultures on the evening
ensuing the execution for petty treason was not lacking in
boisterousness, although not wholly as free as on former occasions.
The cuts and bruises received by Luke and his assistants somewhat
damped their hilarity, and the manifestation of popular indignation
had left on them a vague and uneasy suspicion that a revolution in the
method of treatment of criminals, and a modification of the barbarity
of medieval methods, was not improbable--and any such change would
menace their interests.

But although their spirits might have a brush of gloomy forecast, yet
this in no way affected their appetite, and least of all their thirst.

They ate ravenously and drank heavily, and were served by Mrs Onion
and Bladys.

The pain and agonies of his cut scalp made Luke silent, they gave a
feverish glitter to his eye, and brought hot rushes of blood into his
cheeks. His hand was unsteady, and he occasionally opened his lips to
speak, then checked himself. His silence was observed and interpreted
by the guests in their own fashion. Although linked together by common
interest, and common resistance to all improvement in the condition of
prisons and the treatment of prisoners, yet among themselves existed
much jealousy, spite, and rancour.

"How now, Luke Francis?" shouted Nicodemus, the gaoler. "What is the
truth in this tale that is in every mouth in Shrewsbury--that you fell
among thieves, who despoiled you of your raiment and left you half-

"And further," cast in Jarrock maliciously, "that they kissed your
wife and capered with her on the green, whilst you played the fiddle?"

"A lie!" said the hangman surlily.

"To be sure, it is a lie throughout," said Abraham. "We know the
master too well to believe that he would allow himself to be waylaid,
and to have his pockets turned inside out by highwaymen."

"I do not deny that footpads stopped the carriage," said Onion, in
confusion and anger.

"Nor that you were robbed?" asked Nicodemus.

"Nor that your wife was kissed?" inquired Jarrock.

"The tale I have heard," said the under-gaoler, "is that Mr Onion
showed no fight."

"It is true that I was robbed," said Luke, with flaming face. "I was
taken by surprise. I was with my wife. I had just left the altar,
where we had plighted our vows. Who, under such circumstances, would
not be liable to be thrown off his guard?"

"I could not have believed," said Nicodemus, "that Luke Francis Onion,
Executioner to the Counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, should
have suffered himself under any circumstances to be stayed by footpads
and not fire a pistol or brandish a cutlass in self-defence. You were
armed, I doubt not."

"I was caught before I had time to get at my pistols," said the
hangman, every muscle in his face and hands working with vexation and
shame. "Change the matter; this is distasteful to me."

"Distasteful it may be," pursued the gaoler. "Yet it is one that
concerns us all, for ours are sister callings. No marvel if the vulgar
mob rose to-day against the ministers of justice who were too
pusillanimous to defend themselves against open and notorious breakers
of the law."

"By heaven, I swear," roared Onion, "it shall not pass unpunished!
Caught I was, and robbed as well; I do not deny it. But I exult in the
fact--I exult in it for this reason--that these rascals have delivered
themselves into my hands. Rats may eat the meat strewn for them a
dozen times with impunity--but the thirteenth time it is mingled with
poison. These highwaymen have long been a terror in the land. Hitherto
they have baffled pursuit. They have escaped all officers sent to
apprehend them; and for a good reason, because none knew who they
were, so carefully did they cover their traces, so well-concealed
their runs, and so well-chosen their haunts."

"Well, and now?"

"And now I know where to find them, and can put my hand upon their

"You know them?"

"Ay! I know their ringleader, John Poulter, alias Baxter. You have
heard of him?"

"Ay! Who has not? What is his real name?"

"I have learned it. I know where he lives. But I should never have
discovered either had not my carriage been stayed. Had I not gone down
to Kinver parish and tarried a fortnight at the Stewponey, I should
not have known."

"Listen to this," jeered Nicodemus. "He sings two strains. First he
admits that he was stayed and robbed against his will; now he would
have it that the whole was a trap laid by him with vast ingenuity to
catch the rats. If you know who the captain is--what's his true name--
speak it; and we will believe you."

"I will not tell you," shouted Luke, in a fever of irritability. "I am
not singing two strains. The calash was stopped, and we were forced to
descend from it. I was plundered, I do not deny I that; nor do I
assert that it was premeditated and planned by myself. I will add that
the Captain danced a measure on the turf with her yonder." He
indicated Bladys with his thumb. "An Italian with a hurdy-gurdy was
constrained to play a tune. In the moonlight they danced; and as they
danced he held up his right hand, thinking to appear graceful in his
postures. Then I perceived that his forefinger was crooked, stiffened
into a pothook. I knew him by that, immediately; for I had played at
bowls on several evenings with one who had such a crooked finger at
the Stewponey, and then he had been unmasked. Thus I came to know who
he is, and what his right name. When I choose, which shall be soon, I
shall have him. All I tarry for is warrants made out in three
counties, so that he may not slip away over the border and escape us."

"Is he a gentleman, Luke?"

"Ay, he and the rest."

"Hurrah! mates. There will be meat on his bones!"

Ap Rice, the apprentice, willing to stand well with his master, said:

"Let him laugh who wins. It was worth the loss of a few crowns to be
able to take so great a thief."

"He is not yet taken," said Nicodemus.

"He will be by the heels in a week."

"Ah!" said Abraham, who delighted in girding at his superior, "if but
a few crowns had been taken, that would have been nothing, it would
have been repairable. But it is commonly reported that Captain Poulter
robbed the master of something he can never recover, do what he may."

"What may that be?" asked one of the turnkeys.

"If all that is told be true," said Jarrock, with a malicious smile on
his lips, "the Captain not only took a kiss from the bride, but stole
her heart away as well, and so effectually secured it, that now she
will not allow Luke Onion even to look into her eyes, even to wish for
a taste of her lips."

"Here comes the punch! the primest pine-apple rum," shouted the
hangman, as his mother and Bladys entered, bearing the steaming bowl.

Then one of the gaolers sang:

"Come all you old minstrels, wherever you be.
With comrades united in sweet harmony.
Whilst the clear crystal fountain thro' England shall roll.
Give me the Punch Ladle--I'll fathom the Bowl.

Let nothing but harmony reign in your breast;
Let comrade with comrade be ever at rest.
We'll toss off our bumper, together we'll troll.
Give me the Punch Ladle--I'll fathom the Bowl."

Then Jarrock, with an ugly sneer and a wink, and with finger pointed
first to Onion and then to Bladys, sang in a harsh tone--

"Our wives they may bluster as much as they please.
Let 'em scold, let 'em grumble, we'll sit at our ease.
To the ends of our pipes we'll apply a hot coal.
Give me the Punch Ladle--I'll fathom the Bowl."

"Drink the health of the bride!" shouted Nicodemus. "Come, mistress.
Take your place at table, and here's to your lord and master. Give the
lie to Jarrock's scandal. Here's to the bride!"

"Come on, mistress!" called Abraham. "If you will not sit by Luke, I
will make a place for you by myself. We spent some pleasant hours
together between Stourton and Shrewsbury."

"Sit down!" shouted all. "Luke, make her honour and obey if she cannot
love. Sit down. We are going to toast you."

Then all rose with a roar, and waved their glasses.

Bladys escaped through the doorway, into her room above the gate, and
bolted the door.

"Luke Onion, make her come," called Nicodemus. "She don't show you nor
us proper respect."

Onion, infuriated by the banter, galled by the words of Jarrock, stung
by the slight put upon him by Bladys, leapt to his feet, rushed to the
door, and, striking it with his feet and fists, bellowed:

"Come out instantly, I command you!"

All present became silent, holding their punch-glasses in hand, some
of which were filled, others extended to be supplied, and looked
towards the door expectantly.

No reply was vouchsafed to the command. The bolt was not withdrawn.
Again the hangman struck at it, and with an oath called:

"Come forth, or I'll break it open." Still no reply, no movement.

The men at the table tittered, nudged each other, and twinkled their
eyes at one another.

The head turnkey said:

"This is very like to that scene in the Scripture, where the King sent
for Vashti, and she would not come."

"Ay," said Jarrock, "but when Vashti refused to come, he took another
in her room. By Heaven! there is the rub. There be no Esther who will
have him. He has been five years questing a Vashti!"

This sally produced a burst of laughter, and roused Luke's anger to
madness. He became livid with rage, and, in the excitement, the
stitches that closed his wound gave way, and blood trickled down the
side of his face. He set his teeth, his eyes glared; he went to an
outer chamber, and returned with a crowbar.

With this he smote at the bedroom door.

"Come out," he roared. "I will beat in the panels; I will drag you
forth by the hair."

Then he belaboured the door with a fury that gathered at every blow.
Splinters came off and flew about the room.

Mother Onion hastened to her son, and endeavoured to pacify him, by
representations that the scene was not a seemly one to exhibit before
his guests; that she whom he summoned was unworthy of his anger, and
was best left to herself. But he would not hearken. His blood was
boiling, his brain on fire. He flung himself with his full weight
against the oak door; he drove the point of the bar in at the joint,
that he might work the hinges out of their sockets in the solid stone
into which they were soldered.

Then suddenly the alarm bell that hung above the gate rang out its
summons fast and vehement.

Instantly every glass was set down on the table. Onion lowered the bar
and fell back. A look of dismay spread over his face.

"She will rouse the town!"

"She will bring the mob on us again!"

"They will murder us all, this time!"

Then Nicodemus, in an agitated voice, said:

"Make her cease. Promise anything."

Luke leaned on his crowbar, panting for breath, his eyes flaring as
with summer lightnings.

Then Nicodemus himself went to the door, and called:

"Mrs Onion!"

Still the bell continued to peal.

Jarrock laughed and said:

"She will not respond to that name."

"Then how shall I call her? By--we must stay the bell."

Thereupon Abraham Jarrock took his place against the door and shouted:

"Stewponey Bladys! Name your own terms and you shall go free."

At once the bell ceased, and in the lull that ensued was heard a
hubbub of voices without.

"The people are gathering!" whispered Mother Onion.

"They will break in the door!" gasped Ap Rice.

Then Bladys said distinctly in reply:

"Let the head gaoler in the name of all swear to let me depart
untouched, not to suffer a finger to be laid upon me."

"I swear!" answered the turnkey.

At once the bolt was withdrawn, the door was thrown open, and Bladys
came forth, self-possessed and white as snow.

The men were standing at the table, some with their hands on it. Luke
made an attempt to strike at her with the crowbar, but Abraham fell
upon him, dashed him against the wall, and wrenched the weapon from
his hands.

"You fool!" he said, "will you give the mob an excuse for tearing us
to pieces?"

Then Nicodemus stood forward and said;

"Go your way; none shall molest you."

He stepped back to the table, took up his glass, raised it, and said:

"Here is to you! A brave wench! I honour you--but your place is not
here. Drink to her, lads."

His command was silently obeyed.

"Now," said he, "Mother Onion, attend her to the door. My lads, let
not that mad fellow touch her."

Mrs Onion grasped the shoulder of Bladys and thrust her before her
through the doorway and down the stone steps, opened the door of the
house, and with a push sent her into the street with such
precipitation as would have thrown her to the pavement had she not
been caught.

The street was filling. Windows were thrown open and heads appeared at
them. Cries were audible--more people were hurrying to the gate in
answer to the call of the bell.

"Stewponey Bla!" exclaimed a cheerful voice. Bladys found herself in
the arms of Nancy Norris.

Chapter 16. DRIE

In the obscurity, rendered doubly obscure by contrast with the lighted
room she had left, Bladys might not have recognised the person who
received her in her arms and with a kiss, but there was no mistaking
the fresh voice of Nan.

"So, we have got you!" exclaimed the latter. "We have found out about
you. But what is the meaning of that bell? Did you ring it? Folks are
running from all the town."

"Yes, Nan, I did sound it."

"What is the matter? Is there a fire anywhere?"

"There is no fire. I rang to oblige them to release me."

"Them! Whom dost mean? Then you are free?"

"Yes, I will never return to them."

"That is brave. Now that we have recovered you, we will carry you
away. It was cowardly of the fellow to take you to church and marry
you, without letting you know to whom and to what manner of man you
were wed."

"Let us go from this place; a crowd is collecting."

"It is so. By Goles! It is you who have summoned it, and they desire
to be told what is amiss. That is, they say, the fire-bell; and the
people think that some house burns."

There rose on all sides shouts, and a general clamour about the Gate.

The window of the chamber lately occupied by Bladys, that immediately
over the gate, was thrown open, and a man appeared at it--Nicodemus,
the turnkey.

"Good people of Shrewsbury," he called, "have no further concern.
There threatened to be a conflagration here, in the County
executioner's apartments, but the danger is past. The fire has been
extinguished. Return to your homes."

Then one in the throng shouted:

"If the Gate House had burnt, with the hangman and his dam, and with
the rest of you in it, we would have been well rid of the crew."

"Ay," vociferated another, "and not one of us would have put forth a
finger to save you."

"Mates," called a third, "what say you? Shall we kindle the fire
again, and stir it well, that this time it shall not go out?"

"Where's the good attempting it?" answered another, "when they can
escape into the Castle?"

"Here arrive the constables," said another.

"Come from hence," said Nan to Bladys; and linking her arm within that
of the girl from Stewponey, she forced a passage through the crowd.

"So you have deserted him. That is as it should be. I'd fancy Abraham
before him--and he is currish, and a hangman's assistant, and will be
head executioner some day. By Goles! When the gentlemen stayed the
carriage on the heath, had they known who was there, they would not
have contented themselves with taking his silver and kissing his

"That was not done," interrupted Bladys.

"What odds? They danced with you; and any wench would be proud to be
kissed by--by a gentleman of the road, and a captain to boot. But, as
I was saying, had they suspected who this Luke Francis was, then, I
protest, they would not have suffered him to run, but they would have
strung him to the first tree, and let him taste of the medicine he has
administered to so many good boys."

Nan continued working her way forward, drawing Bladys along with her.

"What do you think, now? My old mother is in Shrewsbury. She swore she
could not die happy without having seen a woman burnt, and she laid it
upon George Stracey to take her, as he had planned to drive me up to
the execution; and he was good enough to consent to take her also. So
we came all three together to Shrewsbury. He drove, and mother has
enjoyed herself vastly."

When they had reached a portion of the High Street that was clear she
turned to Bladys and said:

"And now tell me all about it. You compelled them to send you out?"

"Yes, with the tolling of the alarm bell. My chamber was over the
gate, and the rope was in my room. I had no other resource. I knew it
would draw together a crowd, and I was also confident that it would
frighten them into yielding to what I asked."

"And that was?"

"To be let go."

"You did bravely. And whither are you now going?"

"That is what I cannot say."

"Will you come with us to Kinver?"

"I have no longer a home there."

"Your father is not yet married."

"But he shortly will be; and he does not wish to have me there."

"You shall stay at the Rock Tavern till some chance arrives. George
will take you back with mother and me. There is room for all. He will
not refuse me that."

"I cannot go yet awhile. I have a commission to perform."

"For whom?"

"For the woman that was burnt. She laid an injunction on me."

"Will that hold you for long?"

"I cannot say. I have to go somewhere, and how far distant that place
is I know not."

"Whither must you go?"

"To Nesscliffe."

"I have heard tell of the place. That is where Wild Kynaston had his
cave. He was a mighty outlaw, long ago, but when--how many years are
gone by since then--that is past my saying. His horse fed in a meadow
under the rocks, and Wild Humphrey whistled, then his horse ran up the
stair in the rock into his cave, as nimble as a squirrel. There are
many stories told about that man."

"I never heard any of them. I am obliged to go to that place."

"Then I will desire George to drive us over to-morrow. Mother is a
morsel tired with the excitement of to-day and the long drive from the
Rock, and will be glad of a day's rest. George is certain to delight
in seeing where Wild Humphrey lay hid, and whence he rode forth to rob
travellers on the King's highway. Come with me. We are lodged at the
Wool Pack--mother, George, and I. We are now close to the tavern.
Mother is toasting her knees at the fire, laughing and crying; she has
enjoyed herself prodigiously. I cannot understand it. My heart jumped
towards you when you kissed the poor creature, and I felt then that I
would go through fire and water to serve you. But, mother--well, she
always was a strange cast of woman. I reckon there be others feel a
pleasure in these executions just as does she, or they would not have
come in from all the villages round. I've a knowledge some came from
Bridgenorth, and we--as you see--from farther still. You should have
seen how the road was covered with sightseers, walking, riding,
driving, all to witness the death of one poor weak woman. Holy Austin
was right. The sight of these things makes folks hard-hearted."

Quickly Nan conducted Bladys down an open passage, and through a door
into a small room, in which the atmosphere was charged with fumes of
tobacco and gin. A coal fire was burning in the grate, and before it,
crouched in the glow, sat the hostess of the Rock Tavern. To save her
holiday gown from being singed, she had turned it over her lap, and
then, because her red petticoat was also too precious to be allowed to
scorch, this also had been treated in like manner.

On the table stood a tumbler of spirits and water, and on the hob was
a short clay pipe.

The old woman took a sip at one, and then a whiff at the other. She
wore a white cap, the frills standing out as a halo about her withered
yellow face, that was inflamed with spirits and the heat of the fire.

She greeted Bladys with effusion, caught her hand, patted the back of
it, and then kissed her palm.

"Ha! ha! my pretty one, my mealy-face! You have seen a sight to-day.
Old as I am, I have never had the chance before. Have you used the
drie, as I taught you? No? When will you give it him? Have no fear.
There can be no danger to you. That woman who was executed to-day was
a sorry botcher. That was a bungle--giving her husband nightshade.
That came of her not applying to one of us knowing ones. You were
wiser. Go, my dear, and let him have a pinch in his pudding or his
posset. No one will ever discover that he came by his death by foul
means. If I had known who Luke Francis was he would never have left
the Rock Tavern without some of it down his throat. But there, there,
there," she patted the hand of Bladys again; "you have it, and will
make good use of it. They will not burn you. There is no doctor in the
world will be able to say that he who dies from drie has taken poison.
It causes a slow wasting away; and they think, fond fools, it is a

"Mother," said Nan, "Stewponey Bla is going to return to Stourton with

"Ho, ho!" laughed the old woman, and her eyes twinkled. "So you have
done it already. Oh, you fox, you will not admit it, even to me. You
wish to be well out of the way. But I do not hold by that. Return to
him, and when he becomes sick and faint, and loses colour and flesh
and appetite, call in a doctor. He can do nought, but it saves
appearances and turns aside suspicion. Not that they can prove
anything. That they never can. Above all, put away the last pinch of
the powder, lest it should be found. Yet, even if found, they would be
able to make nothing of it; drie is known only to us. It is a secret
among the knowing ones. I do not hold with your running away. Go back
to him! Go back, I say, at once."

"I cannot return," answered Bladys. "I have been thrust out of the
house. But, indeed, Mother Norris, you are in the wrong. I have given
him nothing."

"Then you are a fool. Where is my drie?"

At that moment the old woman's attention was diverted by the
apparition of the monkey. The door was ajar, and the hideous little
face was visible, together with one hairy hand, as it peered
cautiously in.

Mrs Norris crowed, chuckled, and clapped her hands.

"Beelzebub! Ha, ha! My little familiar in a red coat. You have
returned to me again, after an enjoyable day's work. Sit down here on
this stool at my feet, and warm thy numbed hands. Shall I teach thee
to smoke?"

Then the Savoyard entered. She turned to him and asked.

"Well, Jac'mo, have you brought me the ashes?"

The man nodded, and produced a soiled rag containing charcoal.

"That is right," said the old woman. "You scraped it off the charred

"Si! Si!"

"It is sovereign against Saint Anthony's fire," said the hag, looking
towards her daughter and Bladys, then back to the Italian. "Could you
procure me the twist with which she was strangled? I desired that."

The man explained in broken English that the string had been consumed.

"I am sorry for that. If I could have secured it, it is preservative
against the palsy, and I may be threatened with that--old people are."

Then, reverting to the topic left on the appearance at the door of the
monkey, she asked again.

"Where is the drie?"

"It is here untouched," answered Bladys.

The woman took it, then looked around her, and asked.

"Where is the Captain?"

"I have not seen him lately," answered Nan.

"He ought to be here. Where is he? Why is he not with you, Nan? What
business can he have in Shrewsbury, Nan? Nan, it is my belief that he
is growing cold. He would desert you, I am confident, but that he is

"Afraid of what?" asked Nan; and at once her lips quivered, and her
eyes filled.

"Afraid lest you should betray him."

"That, never!" answered the girl firmly.

"Well, well! we know so much; perhaps too much. Let him beware he does
not trifle with us. Give me the drie. It may serve for others, if it
has not been employed where intended at the first."


Out of the great Shropshire plain, south of Ellesmere, rises a
fragment of red sandstone which has for the most part been swept away
by the ancient Severn Sea.

This fragment must have been composed of harder rock than the rest of
the bed, and it stood up above the waves a sheer cliff on one side,
sloping rapidly into the water on the other. Now it is, as its name
implies, a Ness--in shape a nose--and at the end of last century was
clothed with heather and short grass, except only where precipitous,
and it rose above the woodland that constituted the Shropshire plain.

Some thirty or forty years ago it was planted with Scotch fir and
larch, and the precipitous face is largely screened by the growth of
pines and beech. Moreover, what was common land has been hedged about,
and padlocked gates deny freedom of passage over the preserve.

In the reign of Henry VII. there lived a certain Humphrey Kynaston at
Middle Castle, not far from Nesscliffe, and of this castle he was
Constable under the Crown. He sadly neglected his duties. He allowed
the fortress to fall into disrepair, almost into ruin. Finding himself
short of money, he took to highway robbery. The Wars of the Roses had
left an element of anarchy in the land, and every man deemed himself
at liberty to exercise his hand against his fellow, if that fellow
should be weaker than himself and have something covetable about him.

The story is told that one day he rode to the Manor House of the
Lloyds of Aston, and asked for a draught of wine. With ready
hospitality a silver bowl was produced brimming with the juice of the
grape. Humphrey, who was mounted, drained the goblet to the last drop,
then, striking spurs into his horse, he galloped away, carrying the
silver vessel with him.

His depredations became at length so notorious that he was decreed an
outlaw. Kynaston was now obliged to leave the dilapidated Castle of
Middle. He sought himself a place of refuge, and found it in the face
of the cliff at Ness. In this cliff, the base of which is reached by a
rapid ascent, and which shoots some seventy feet above the debris, he
cut a flight of steps along a projecting buttress till he reached the
main face, and into this he tunnelled. First he bored a doorway, then
he excavated chambers, one to serve as a stable for his horse, the
other as a habitation for himself. In the latter he formed a
fireplace, scooped in the living rock, with a chimney above it for the
escape of smoke. Beside his doorway he cut a window. The entrance was
closed by a stout door of oak, sustained by a couple of massive bars.

At the foot of the cliff, near the first step, is a trough dug out of
the rock, not to receive water, but corn for the horse, brought by
Kynaston's mother. This lady, on hearing of her son's outlawry, came
to reside in the neighbourhood, and every Saturday she left Ruyton,
where she lived, with a supply of provisions for her son and his
horse, sufficient to last through the week. Sunday was a day of civil

From his place of refuge in the face of the crag Humphrey carried on
his depredations. It was said of him, as of Robin Hood, that he preyed
only on the rich; but this fact, if fact it be, does not greatly tend
to qualify his misconduct, as one principal reason why he should not
plunder the poor would be that they had nothing of which to despoil
them. Another was, that it was to his interest to enlist the
sympathies of those living in close proximity, who might, if ill-
disposed, easily betray him.

Humphrey on one occasion had been marauding on the farther side of the
Severn, when the under-sheriff of the county, at the head of a posse,
obtaining wind thereof, rode out to arrest him. For this purpose he
placed his men in ambush beside Montford Bridge, and removed several
planks from the farther side of the structure. By this bridge Kynaston
was expected to return. In due course the outlaw appeared on the bank,
and unsuspiciously rode on to the bridge; whereupon the posse-
comitatus rose up and occupied the bridge end he had passed, cutting
off his retreat, and believed that they had him now securely
entrapped. But the outlaw spurred his horse, which leaped the gap, and
he escaped. The leap was measured, marked out on Knockin Heath, and
cut in the turf with his initials at each end.

Two or three years after his outlawry, Humphrey Kynaston was pardoned,
May 20th, 1493; and the pardon is still extant, in the possession of
Mr. Kynaston of Hardwick Hall, the representative of this venerable
and historic family.

The distance from Shrewsbury in a north-westerly direction is but
eight or nine miles, over the bridge of Montford, the scene of
Kynaston's exploit.

Shropshire is a county of distant views, and these of the noblest
description. From Nesscliffe a matchless prospect is obtained of the
Welsh mountains, rising up like a stormy sea tossed into waves to
receive the setting sun. To the south, starting out of the well-wooded
plains, shoot the two cones of Breidden, and farther away, in a blue
and vaporous distance, stretches the bank of the Long Mynd.

On the morning following the escape of Bladys from the Gate House,
George Stracey drove Nan Norris and her to Nesscliffe. He and Nan sat
in front, in the singular market-cart conveyance in which they had
made their journey to Shrewsbury. Behind were two seats, on one of
which was Bladys.

George Stracey was in boisterous spirits, but Nan was depressed, and
her eyes gave indications of tears having been shed plentifully during
the night. At a short distance from the foot of the sandy slope below
Nesscliffe was an old inn; and here Stracey put up the horse, and
ordered a meal to be prepared against his return from Kynaston's Cave.

Then all three started to climb the ascent, over heather and whin, and
reached the crag without impediment.

Bladys was not a little embarrassed by the presence of her companions.
Her errand was one that she could execute only when alone. Nan and
Stracey had exhibited some curiosity about it, and had plied her with
questions, to which she had given evasive answers; and she feared lest
they should keep too near her the whole time she was at Nesscliffe, or
so watch her as to prevent her discharge of the commission with the
secrecy she desired, and which had been imposed upon her.

The stair in the rock consisted of twenty-six steps, conducting to the
doorway that opened some sixteen feet above the base of the crag; and
this was wide enough to allow of one only mounting at a time, nor
could this be effected without some danger, as it was unprovided with
a hand-rail, and some of the steps were worn in the soft sandstone,
and were slimy with oozing water and algoid growths.

George Stracey led the way, and on reaching the door, extended a hand
to assist Nan to enter.

Immediately opposite was a pier, dividing the cavern into two
chambers; that on the left served formerly as the stable, and that on
the right, of ampler dimensions, was the habitation of the outlaw

In the dividing pier were cut two niches, presumably to contain lamps,
and between them his initials and the date 1564; not indeed in
Kynaston's own cutting, but inserted thirty years after his death,
which had occurred in 1534, and more than seventy years after his
occupancy of it.

Bladys entered last, and looked observantly about her. She at once
noticed the fireplace cut in the rock; and the light falling from
above on the hearth revealed a stone slab, on which fires had been
lighted in recent times, for it was heaped up with wood ashes, and the
charred ends of heather and whin lay around it.

After Nan and George Stracey had sufficiently examined the cave,
amidst laughter and allusions thrown out, which were comprehensible
between themselves, but which Bladys neither could nor cared to
understand, all re-descended the steps and returned to the tavern,
where, in the meantime, a table had been spread, ale had been drawn in
a tankard, and bacon and eggs had been fried.

As all three had good appetites, furnished by the long drive in the
fresh air, the meal was found acceptable, and would have passed off
without hitch but for one disturbing element.

This was the girl who served--a tall, comely lass, whose hair was cut
short and curled about the temples. This unusual feature gave piquancy
to her appearance, which her other attractions hardly deserved. She
possessed, however, a pair of dark eyes, which she used with effect,
though not on the two girls.

That George Stracey looked in her direction, and was as fully engaged
in observing her as in discussing his food, was not likely to escape
the observation of Nan, whose jealousy was aroused. Gradually she lost
zest in the meal, became silent, moody, and restless.

When, presently, Stracey addressed a compliment to the girl, "Od's
life! I can understand Wild Humphrey quartering himself here, if in
his days the wenches were half as good-looking as yourself," then Nan
was unable to control herself further, and Bladys fled from the room
to escape a pretty lover's quarrel.

The outbreak happened conveniently for Bladys, however painful to her,
feeling as she did for Nan, as it allowed her to execute her purpose
in coming to Nesscliffe, and that unnoticed by her companions.

She hastily retraced her steps to the cave, and on reaching the summit
of the stair, looked about her to assure herself that she was neither
observed nor pursued. Then she entered the cave, and shut the door
behind her. She now plucked from her bosom the folded paper she had
taken from the woman at her execution, opened it, and drew out a small
key. Then she read what was written on the sheet of paper. The words
were few, and not particularly explicit:

"Nesscliffe. In Kynaston's Cave. Underneath the hearthstone."

What was concealed there? Of that the paper gave no hint. Whatever it
might be, Bladys assured herself that it was the wish of the dying
woman that it should become her own. The last utterances of the poor
creature had been sufficiently plain. Each word had burned itself into
her memory. "It is for you. I cannot die with the secret. You have
been good to me. You alone have pitied me. I have no one else to whom
to give it. It is all for you!"

As Bladys studied the scrawl, she recalled the very intonation of the
woman's voice. She saw again her face, distorted with the agony of the
fear of death. She shuddered. The presence of that loving, guilty,
suffering, cruelly-tortured woman was there, haunting the cave. The
waft of her passion, the breath of her fear surrounded Bladys. She
smelt the savour of the fire. She saw the flicker of the dancing
flame. She heard the swelling roar of the voice of the multitude. She
felt on her lips the clammy cheek of the victim she had kissed. Her
brain reeled.

Recovering herself with an effort, she knelt at the hearth, and with
some scraps of half-consumed heather swept the ashes from it, and
disclosed the entire surface of the slab set in dust and ashes. It was
heavy, and she was unable to lift it.

She looked about her. Behind the door was one of the bars wherewith it
could be shut and fastened. She rose from her knees, fetched it, again
looked forth to see that her movements were unobserved, returned to
the hearth, thrust one end of the bar under the slab, and levered it
from its place.

Then she saw that it covered a hollow depression, cut in the
sandstone, into which a small box had been fitted, and was surrounded
and half-covered with sand and cinder. The box was of wood bound with
metal. It was light. She took it from its hiding-place, inserted the
key in the lock--that key which had been contained in the letter--the
lid yielded immediately, and by the light falling through the chimney,
Bladys saw it contained jewels--twinkling, iridescent--to her
inexperienced eyes, of unquestionable value. There were brooches,
necklets, rings of diamonds, of pearls, and of every kind of precious

Bladys at once recalled what had been told her--that the woman whose
these had been was the daughter of a jeweller. This was her collection
of precious ornaments, perhaps concealed in this place preparatory to
flight with her lover.

Bladys hastily re-fastened the case, breathless, frightened, fearful
of being seen. She replaced the hearthstone, and concealed the jewel
box about her person. Then, with beating heart and bounding bosom, she
returned to the door. Before descending, she looked attentively along
the way to the tavern. No one was there. Probably her departure had
been unobserved; or, if observed, had been welcomed as a relief by
those in angry altercation.

She hastened back to the inn, and found George Stracey outside,
helping to harness the horse into the conveyance. He was in a surly
mood. Nan was within. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes sparkled
with tears.

The storm had blown over, the quarrel was at an end, but it had left
both ruffled and too full of their own concerns to give heed to
Bladys, to ask where she had been, and wherefore she had left them.


The quarrel had left Stracey too out of humour, and Nan too unhappy
for either to speak, and they mounted the conveyance in silence.

After having proceeded a mile, however, George raised the hand that
held the whip, and pointed with the butt end over Nan at a house of
red sandstone that had been quarried out of Nesscliffe, standing in a
pleasant domain, well-timbered, and said:

"There, that's the mansion where she lived who poisoned her husband."

Neither of the girls made any observation. He continued:

"She was a jeweller's daughter, an orphan under the charge of an
uncle, and he was a pig-headed old guardian. He would not suffer her
to marry the young man to whom she was attached--it had been a liking
begun in childhood, and he was in the army in the Netherlands. He was
taken prisoner at Turcoing, and he did not get exchanged for some
years. Her uncle suppressed his letters, and persuaded his niece that
her lover had fallen. Then, whilst she was in despair, he so wrought
upon her as to induce her to marry the owner of that house I have
pointed out to you. He was a man of some family, and she of none; he
was old enough to be her father. She had inherited some money--how
much, I know not. After she was married the lover returned to England,
and then only did she discover that she had been deceived. He was a
soldier, and reckless, and persuaded her to run away with him; and she
poisoned the old man. I do not think that the lover had any part in
that; indeed, some say that she did not purpose doing more than giving
the old fellow a draught to make him ill and keep his chamber, or to
sleep, but she made the dose too strong. He slept never to wake again.
That is a pretty seat for a gentleman, and not such as a fellow would
care to leave, especially if he had a young, fresh, and pretty wife.

"Whether she was handsome or not, I cannot tell; we could not get near
enough to the stake to see. And with the fear of death--and such a
death--it was not likely that then she would look her best, eh, Nan?
There, do you mark yonder park palings? That is the limit of the
domain. They assured me at the tavern yonder that she had been a sweet
and well-disposed lady, and that none hereabouts gave credence that
she had purposed to kill her husband. Who will come into the estate
now is doubtful. The old man had no near relatives, and as to what was
hers there also is a doubt. The property of one who dies for petty
treason is confiscated to the State; but hers, doubtless, had been
joined to and disposed of by her husband, so the Crown could not lay
hands on it. It is well there were no children, for this sentence
carries with it corruption of blood. They tell me she had jewels which
were given her by her father, or left to her, but what became of them,
and who would claim them, none knew. If I knew where they were, and
could reach them--eh, Nan?"

"See now," exclaimed Nan, whose good humour had returned, "we have
quitted Nesscliffe, and have not been that Stewponey Bla was able to
do that for which we brought her hither. What was it, Bladys? Shall we
turn back?"

"On no account. I have accomplished my errand."

"It was an errand. To whom?"

"It was a commission."

"But when? How? I did not see you--"

"Do not concern yourself about me," said Bladys hastily. She was
embarrassed how to answer.

Then, as George Stracey drew up, and again raised his hand, she said

"I ought to have spoken before--but yet I could not. Indeed, I did not
know--not till this minute--not till the Captain pointed to the house
did I observe it--my brain has been too heated and disturbed to see
things. Never before have I noticed that Captain Stracey has a crooked

"He has had that for some years," said Nan. "He received a cut across
the joint, and it healed badly. What of that?"

"A vast deal," answered Bladys. "When Luke Hangman and I were stopped
by the highwaymen on the heath beyond Stourton, then, if you remember,
Nan, the leader of them made us foot it on the turf, and he danced as

"Right, so I recollect," answered the girl, and she touched her male
companion, who had drawn the reins and brought the horse to a

"What then?" inquired Stracey.

"There was moonlight mingled with daylight, for the sun had not long
set," continued Bladys, "and Luke Onion was able to observe
attentively not only what went forward, but those who partook in the

Stracey listened attentively, and an expression of uneasiness and
apprehension crept over his face.

"He noticed that the head man or Captain who danced had a crooked
forefinger on the right hand."

Both Nan and the driver started.

"And as Onion had been staying at the Stewponey ten days or a
fortnight he had played at bowls and also at cards with sundry
gentlemen of the neighbourhood, and he had made himself familiar with
the name and appearance of one of these, and that was a man with a
stiff and bowed forefinger."

"Go on," said Stracey. He turned in his seat and looked at the girl in
the back portion of the conveyance. His face was bleached, and the
hand that held the reins shook.

"He is so well assured that the highwayman who robbed him is none
other than this same gentleman--I need not be shy of naming him--Mr
George Stracey, that he has laid information against him and has
proceeded to obtain warrants in the three--nay, four--counties, so as
to make certain of being able to secure him."

Stracey uttered a terrible oath.

"Why did you not tell me this before? Why have you let me come to this
cursed place, and so lose a day?"

"I was quite uncertain that the matter touched you. He mentioned no
names except Baxter and Poulter. I may have entertained a half-fancy,
but nothing more. I had not noticed the crooked finger of the
highwayman that night; I was too greatly alarmed to notice anything.
It was but last night that Luke Onion declared what he had seen and
what he knew, and, further, what he proposed doing. And it was not
till a minute ago, when you lifted your hand, that I perceived what
ailed your forefinger on the hand that held the whip."

Stracey brought the lash across the back of the horse.

"May I die, Nan," said he, "but there is not a moment to be lost. I
wish we may be back in time. Curse it, I was mad to come on this
fool's errand to-day."

"Nay, George, but for this you would not have known what Luke Onion
had determined against you. You may thank her that she has shown you
the net before it has been drawn."

Then turning to Bladys, and allowing her to see how pale her face had
become, she said:

"I pray you tell us everything you can about this matter."

"There is nothing further to relate. Luke Hangman said he was
confident that the Captain with the bent forefinger who had stayed him
was none other than the redoubted Poulter, otherwise called Baxter,
who had been looked for so long and ineffectually; and that he now
believed this man would not escape his clutches. He did not mention
the name by which he was known in this neighbourhood, only that he
could swear to him because of the crooked forefinger."

For the rest of the journey the horse was driven as he had probably
never been pressed before. At intervals whispers passed between
Stracey and Nan Norris, which Bladys did not catch, nor, indeed, did
she attempt to overhear.

The face of each was grave, and every trace of recent disagreement had

Moreover, curiosity relative to the object of the journey of Bladys to
Nesscliffe had been effaced from their minds in their great concern
over the danger that directly menaced one of them, and indirectly the

The cart was driven through the streets of Shrewsbury at a furious
pace, and the beast, panting and blotched with foam, was drawn up at
the door of the Wool Pack.

Stracey swung himself out of the vehicle, and without regarding the
women or helping them to dismount, ran into the inn, and burst into
the room where sat the hostess of the Rock Tavern.

"Mother Norris!" said he, in a voice that quivered with emotion,
"there's damnable news come."

"Ay! ay! I know it."

"You do?"

"You are blown."

"Why did you not tell me this earlier? before I started for
Nesscliffe? I might have been halfway to Kinver by this time."

"That is fine talking. How could I tell you when he was not arrested
till three hours after you were gone?"

"Arrested? Who? What is your meaning?"

"What is my meaning?" repeated the hag; "why, this--that the
constables have taken him, and Beelzebub as well."

"Have arrested Jac'mo!" almost shrieked Stracey.

"Who else? They have taken him to the Castle, and the monkey with

"Oh, curse the monkey!" throwing himself into a chair, with an
expression of dejection, almost of despair on his face. "We are lost."

"He is certain to peach," said the beldame; "I made signs to him not
to understand a word of English addressed to him. He was in deadly
terror. They will do with him what they like."

"He will tell everything. Curse the day that we trusted him."

"He has been useful. As Z stands at the end of the alphabet, so doth
the gallows finish the life of such as you. Meet it bravely, Captain."

Stracey broke into imprecations.

"Not a moment is to be lost," said he; "Nan and I must return
immediately to Kinver, with a chaise and post-horses. We must get
there first."

"What will you do?"

"Clear out Meg-a-Fox Hole."

"And then?"

"Clear off myself."

"What am I to do?"

"Stewponey Bla shall drive you leisurely home to-morrow."

"As you will. It is late, and a drive in the cold night air would
bring on my cough. See, a coffin has just shot out from the fire--to
your feet, not to mine. It passed me--it lies smoking before you."

Stracey flung from the room to order the lightest available carriage,
with the best post-horses that could be procured, to be ready
immediately. To Nan he said in a low voice:

"You urge them on; I shall walk forward. You shall catch me up clear
of Shrewsbury."

He walked leisurely through the town, swinging a rattan, and crossed
the bridge; then passed the Abbey, without meeting with any
inconvenience. In fact, the Italian had as yet told nothing, and the
magistrates were profoundly ignorant that the redoubted Captain had
been staying in the town.

Nan urged on the ostlers, made promises of extra payment, and said:

"The poor gentleman has just learned that his mother is dying. She has
been suffering long from a consumption, and now has broke a blood
vessel. He has walked ahead, so impatient is he to reach his home. He
lives at Much Wenlock."

Every word was untrue, but it served the girl's purpose, and with
rapidity the chaise was got ready, and the postboys arrived duly
caparisoned in their jackets, breeches, and boots. Nan sprang in, and
the horses started at a trot.

Not until a quarter of an hour after the departure of Nan did the old
woman start from the lethargy into which she had fallen by the fire;
then lifting her hands, she uttered a cry of dismay.

"What ails you, mother?" asked Bladys.

"My dear," answered the old woman in great agitation, "have you money
with you?"

"Not one penny."

"Nor have I."

"Does this greatly matter?"

"It matters everything. In his haste Captain George has gone off and
forgotten to pay the inn account. They will come down on me. Pay we
must, or they will seize on our horse and cart, and we shall be
detained here. We have been three days here, and have eaten and drunk
of the best. There will be a charge of many pounds against us, and I
have nothing."

Bladys mused for a moment. She understood how serious the dilemma was.
Moreover, she was impatient to leave Shrewsbury.

Presently she stood up.

"Do not be uneasy, Mother Norris; I can find a way out of the
difficulty, and that speedily."


Luke Onion was sitting by the fire, his feet extended, and the soles
scarlet with the reflected glow as though he had been treading in
blood. No less red was his face. The expression was sinister.

A flame, the reflection of that which played above the coals, danced
in his eyes. His head was bound up, and the fever of his wound had
produced a twitching in his hands and feet that showed, in spite of
the position of repose he had assumed, that he was in a condition of
inner unrest.

Now and again, he bit his fingers, gnawing the nails; and then he
spread out his hands before the fire to screen his face.

To him entered his mother.

"Luke! News!"

"Well!" He did not turn his head. "Has the cat kittened?"

"Luke, we have been robbed."

"We always are being pillaged. Nicodemus is an arrant rogue."

"We have been robbed by that wench from Stewponey."

"How so? What of her?"

"Of her, nothing but what is evil. There has been a curse on us and a
blight on our affairs ever since you brought her here."

"What has she taken? My grandmother's salve box, with the Queen Anne
shilling on it?"

"Luke, rouse up. She has carried away all the jewellery of that woman
we burnt."

"There was none for her to take. Nicodemus secured the wedding ring
and guard."

"I tell you, Luke, that she has got jewellery to the value of many
hundreds of pounds."

"You have had an afternoon doze, and have been dreaming, mother."

"Luke, rouse up! I have seen them. She has already sold a brooch to
Purvis, the goldsmith, for sixteen guineas, and it is worth five times
that amount."

The hangman was now thoroughly roused. He sat up in his chair, put his
hands on the elbows, and turned himself about.

His mother approached the hearth, and said:

"I was in High Street, when I caught a glimpse of her as she went up
and down, looking into shop windows. I wondered what she sought, and I
watched her without allowing myself to be seen. She remained awhile in
front of Purvis's shop, first; put forth her hand as though to open
the door and enter, then changed her intent and walked on, still
observing the windows. After a while she came on the shop of Radstone,
and stayed there. She halted before no other window but that of a
jeweller; not before that of a milliner or a draper. But she did not
go in at Radstone's, although she seemed to have a mind to do so;
instead, she returned through the street to Purvis's. Then I was
certain that she intended to buy something or sell something, and,
either way, it astonished me. So I drew close, where I might see.
After she had entered, then, she stood with her back to the window,
and there was a light inside, by which the goldsmith had been
repairing some trinket. I saw her take a box from out of her pocket."

"What box?"

"None belonging to us. None I had ever seen before. She had a key and
unlocked it; but apart, so that she showed none of the contents. She
drew from it a glittering ornament. It was a diamond brooch. The
jeweller held it to the little lamp to examine it, and then he brought
it to the window that he might inspect it by the daylight, and assure
himself of the water of the stones; and he further tested them with a
diamond-cutter, to assure himself that they did not scratch, and so
were not of paste. I drew somewhat aside, but for all that I did not
remove my eyes from him and the little brooch. Presently he went back
to where she was stood, and I thrust myself nearer once more, and I
saw how that he was questioning her."

Then I opened the door and entered. He looked well content, and she
was startled, but speedily collected herself again, cold and hard as
she is--like a block of marble The man Purvis said at once to me that
he was glad I had arrived; he had been offered a diamond brooch, and
that it was his custom never to purchase jewellery from one with whom
he was unacquainted, lest he should be brought thereby into trouble.
He said that he did not question that whatever she had said was true--

"What had she said?"

"That I asked; and she repeated her words, looking at me straight in
the face."

"What said she?"

"She said that the woman that was burnt had given to her this brooch
as a present and as a remembrance of her. She had stood on the heap of
fuel at her side until the last moment, and the criminal had with her
last words committed this brooch to her. I had myself seen how that
Stewponey girl had taken something out of the bosom of the creature."

"Was it the box?"

"No, it was a letter."

"I do not comprehend how she came by the box."

"That matters not to us. It is my positive conviction that the box is
a jewel-case and contained more than the one brooch. Purvis asked her
whether she were your wife. She answered him: 'I am she that came to
Shrewsbury as such.' Then he turned to me and asked me if this was the
truth, and I assented. What else was I to do?"


"Then he offered her ten guineas for the brooch, but she hesitated
about receiving that sum. After that he came to sixteen, and would
advance nothing beyond. She made no offer to open the case and to show
whether it contained other jewellery, although Purvis inquired whether
she had many pieces to dispose of, for then he might consider if he
could make the sum up to eighteen. She answered curtly that she had
nothing more to sell to him. But it is my solemn belief that she has
got more in the case, and I think that the goldsmith was of the same
mind. I knew not what to say or do. What should I have done, Luke?"

"Go forward with your account. It matters not what has been done;
provision must be made as to what is to be done next."

"There you are right, Luke. Consider yourself in my position."

"I should not have acted thus. I should have laid my hand on the case
and brooch, and have said they were mine."

"I did not know what course to take. I was as one distraught. I
thought that had it come out before the goldsmith that the case
contained jewels of price, and that all had come from the woman that
was burnt for petty treason, then the Crown might have claimed it, and
we should have got nothing."

Luke considered.

"After all, it was as well. We must manage secretly--or in some other

"Then he handed her sixteen guineas, and without another word she

"And you?"

"I went with her and endeavoured to induce her to return to the Gate
House--not, God wot, that I desire to have her here again, save only
for so long till we have secured the case. I assured her that you were
ill. The blow on your head and the events of last night had brought
upon you a brain fever, and the surgeon who visited you despaired of
your life. But she paid no regard to my words. Whether she believed
them or not, I cannot say. She sought to shake me off, but I clung to
her skirt as a burr. I asked her how many pretty trinkets she had in
the case, but she gave me never a word in reply. Then she took her way
over the Welsh Bridge towards Skelton and walked fast; but I knew at
what she aimed, so I fell short of breath and halted and waited about
in corners, watching, hidden lest she should perceive me, and an hour
later, as it grew to dusk, she stole back into the town, and then I
slipped from my hiding-place and followed after. Whether she had the
case with her or whether she had gone to Glendower's Oak, and maybe
concealed it there, I could not say. I walked after her, unperceived,
and tracked her to the Wool Pack."

"She is at the Wool Pack?"

"She is. I learned there that she had been in the inn, staying with
kinsfolk or acquaintances, since she left us."

"And who might those kinsfolk be? Her father has not come here with
his wife; that would be too quick."

"At the Wool Pack there was a gentleman, a kind of Captain, whom they
named George, and he had with him an aged gentlewoman who smacked of
the witch, and of whom the folk at the inn were somewhat afraid; and
there was, further, a daughter--a forward wench, called Nan."

"What!" exclaimed Luke Onion, leaping to his feet. "They in
Shrewsbury! George Stracey! The very man whom I hope to hang! I will
have him seized immediately."

"It is too late; he is off."

"Off? Whither?"

"To Bridgenorth or Much Wenlock. He had news that his mother was sick
of a blood vessel that was broke, and that she was dying. So he called
out a chaise and post-horses, and he and the girl are off."

"Girl! What girl?"

"Not Bladys; the other."

"He has slipped through my fingers, by Lucifer! He is clever, but I
will have him yet. Mother, what has frightened him has been the arrest
of the Italian. No time is to be lost. We must after him to-morrow."

"But what about your wife?"

"Well considered. She shall first be secured. She is on the spot. I
will have a warrant out against her for deserting me, her husband. A
wife, if she leaves and will not return, can be brought home by the
constables. If we can get her here, then we can make the surrender of
the jewels and the case the price of her freedom. As to her threats,
they do not alarm me. She has set her mind to be free, and will
cheerfully give up the precious stones if that will insure her against

"The wench is in league with thieves and robbers. She went to that
Captain the moment she left us. It is possible enough that the jewels
have been gotten by some robbery of his, and she is attempting to pass
them for him, and that the story of obtaining them from that woman was
made up for the occasion."

"That also is likely. We must get her into our hands; and then leave
me to force her to surrender the jewels; in whatever way she came by
them, we must endeavour to get possession of them."

"For Heaven's sake, do not patch up a peace and bring her here again."

Luke laughed contemptuously.

"I have lived so long without a wife, that I can live a bachelor a
little longer. The taste of matrimony I have had has been one of
bitterness of wormwood. Get me my hat; I will take steps at once to
seize her."

But the necessary steps were not to be taken as easily nor as readily
as Luke anticipated.

The magistrate to whom he applied was at dinner, and would not be
disturbed till he had consumed his accustomed bottle of port, and then
was in too hilarious and confused a condition to be able at once to
bring his mind to bear on the matter presented to him; nor, when he
did comprehend it, was he disposed to grant the request of Onion
without sundry jokes and sallies that protracted the business till

When finally the hangman was furnished with the requisite powers, and
hastened to the Wool Pack, it was too late.

Bladys had flown. No sooner had she obtained the money she required,
than she had discharged the account at the tavern, and ordered a post-
horse for the conveyance left by Stracey at the inn, and had departed
from Shrewsbury, taking the old woman with her.

"It matters not," said Onion. "With one hand I will sweep together the
entire crew, and her with the rest."


Bladys was at the Rock Tavern, along with Mother Norris. She had
perceived at once, when fastened on by Mrs Onion, that the woman and
her son would make an attempt to secure her, so as to get possession
of the case of jewellery.

To escape from Shrewsbury as quickly as possible was her obvious
course, and on her return to the Wool Pack, she at once engaged a
post-boy and horses. To the old woman, she explained the urgency of
the case; George Stracey's beast was to be left in the inn stable till
called for. She discharged the account in full, and departed the same
night. After her arrival at the Rock Tavern, her mind sank into
inactivity. A sort of moral paralysis took possession of her, much as
before the marriage. She was aware that she was brought into
association with undesirable persons; that the old woman was vicious
at heart, and a source of evil in her neighbourhood; and that the
relation in which Nan stood to George Stracey was not respectable. She
was, moreover, alive to the fact that the man was a notorious
highwayman, and that the Rock Tavern was a meeting-place for bad
characters. But whither could she go? She was without friends. The
only house on which she had any claim was the Stewponey Inn, and to
that she neither could nor would return.

It was characteristic of Bladys that she acted with resolution and
without hesitation, so long as she saw a way before her. She did not
always take that course which was recommended to her, but that which
approved itself to her mind, and was consistent with her notions of
right and wrong. But she was destitute of imagination, lacking in
initiativeness. Under the circumstances, a weak character would have
yielded to hysterics, and have fallen into a condition of depression
stupefying to the mind.

With her this was not the case. Her will was at a standstill, and her
faculties in abeyance. She was like one who is proceeding along a
road, and arrives at a point where several ways diverge, and there is
no sign-post. The wise traveller, instead of dashing along a road that
may be wrong, tarries for the arrival of someone who can give him the
desired direction. His force of mind and will are not gone from him,
but brought to a condition of inaction and expectancy.

A girl with lively imagination would have had her head in a ferment
with a thousand schemes of escape from the untoward predicament--
schemes practicable and impracticable--jostling each other,
overthrowing each other; and would have adopted that scheme which
obtained the mastery over the others at the moment when a selection
had to be made. But Bladys had not this tumid brain, full of the germs
of ideas, and when she lost her way she stood still and waited. She
had been roused from such a condition before, when in the Rock Tavern,
by the advice of Mother Norris, who had given her a packet of poison
wherewith to rid herself of the husband she did not love, so as to be
able to surrender herself to the man whom she did.

Bladys had not for a moment entertained the thought of acting on this
advice, but the words of the hag had suggested to her the possibility
of working on the fears of her husband so as to induce him to
relinquish his rights over her. A way out of the dilemma had been
shown her; she took, not that pointed out, but a parallel course.

Now, again, she had come to an "impasse." She was associated with
undesirable characters, and she saw no way of freeing herself from
this association. She could not go back to her father without a
sacrifice of her pride. But to remain in the Rock Tavern was also
wounding to her self-respect. Nan had been more than kind to her. The
girl's warm and tender heart had opened to Bladys. She was grateful
for this kindness, and she was unwilling to do anything to wound poor
Nan. She recognised good qualities in the girl; she saw that with
other associations, and with a better bringing up, she would have been
a good woman; but Bladys could not shut her eyes to what was bad, nor
seem to condone her more than equivocal position.

What was she to do? Whither could she go? She could do nothing, go
nowhere. So, seeing her helplessness, she sank into an impassive,
waiting condition.

Nan showed herself but little at the Rock Tavern. She was much away,
returning home at irregular intervals only. During Nan's absence,
Bladys actively assisted in the work of the house, to relieve the old
woman, and do something to repay the hospitality shown her.

Her nerves had been overstrung. The events that have been recorded
followed each other with rapidity, and without a pause in which her
jaded powers could be given time to recover themselves.

This, added to the consciousness of being in a false position, from
which she saw no way of escape, helped to produce in Bladys a
condition of semi-sleep, to deprive her of elasticity of mind and

When not at work for the house, she was not occupied with her
thoughts. In another woman, the brain would have been in action. With
her it stood still, like a clock of which the weights have run down.
Nan, coming in, saw the condition in which she was, and divining that
something was wrong, without being able to understand the difficulties
of Bladys, misinterpreted her mood; and, after a whispered conference
with her mother, she said--

"Wait, Bla! I know what aileth thee, and will send the doctor."

Then she whisked off.

There was nothing for Bladys to do in the house; not a person came to
the tavern--it seemed to have no custom. Consequently, to be away from
the objectionable cackle of the old woman, Bladys went to her bedroom.

A robin had lost its way, and was in the chamber. It fluttered from
place to place, and perched, now on the cupboard, then on the top of
an open door; anon it made a dash at the window, stunned itself
momentarily, then rose, beat with its wings against the pane,
abandoned the attempt, returned to its flitting about the room, to the
cupboard, to the door, and once again to precipitate itself against
the pane.

The door was open, a ready way of escape offered, yet the bird never
essayed that. It directed all its efforts towards escape by the way
that was impracticable, with the invariable result of being struck
back by the glass.

It was much the same with Bladys; or rather it had been so. If her
mind had risen, spread wings, and attempted to reach the light, it had
smitten against an obstacle, and had fallen back stunned.

She watched the robin, and then opened the casement, to allow the bird
to escape. As she did so she heard the strident tones of the old woman
calling below for her to come down.

She obeyed, and descending the stair, saw Mother Norris in the
kitchen, holding a stick towards her.

"See here, Stewponey Bla," said the beldame, "I have made your life
tally with Luke Hangman. Would you have another tally? Then you must
burn the first. Come to the hearth. Seat yourself on the farther side,
on the stool of Beelzebub. Take the tally and consider it well. I am a
witch--or know something of dealings with spirits--and I have more
power than some will allow. Come now, you shall prove it Take this
tally, and I swear to you that before you have burnt it, he whom you
desire to see will appear. I will lead him to you. But you can begin
no fresh tally with him until that with Luke Hangman is finished. See,
wench, see! It is bound about with threads; and every bond must be
snapped by fire, and as the last gives way, and the half-stick falls
from its place, he--that other one, shall appear."

Bladys looked at Mrs Norris without understanding what she meant. To
the mantelshelf on both sides of the fire were slung bundles of hazel
rods, each eighteen inches in length. A hole drilled with a red hot
skewer through the end of each allowed a string to be passed through,
and to form a loop by which the rod was suspended. At this end of
suspension, which was the handle, was a symbol, different in each.
Four inches from the extremity a cut had been made diagonally from
right to left, extending half-way through the stick, and the rod had
then been split from the farther extremity to this cut. By this means,
a half of each rod had been removed. Along the edges of the split were
notches made by a knife.

Mistress Norris not only kept a tavern, but she did a small business
in muffins, simnel, and short-cakes, that she baked; and as she and
the majority of her customers were ignorant of the art of ciphering,
their accounts were kept by means of tallies.

Each customer preserved the half-piece of his peculiar tally, and when
he came for cake brought his piece of wood with him. This was applied
to the portion preserved in the kitchen, and notches were cut in both,
according to the muffins or cakes supplied. By means of the two
portions of the stick, dealer and customer had corresponding accounts
which could not be falsified.

In a drawer of the kitchen table Mother Norris kept tally sticks ready
for use when the old were full, and the accounts settled, or when
fresh customers arrived.

One of these she had drawn forth, and had bound it about with various
scraps of thread and coloured wool.

The old woman thrust this stick into the girl's hand.

"Dost understand, wench? This is thy Staff of Life along with Luke
Hangman. Of this thou must loosen every tie afore thou begin another
staff with him of whom thou thinkest. You said once to me, 'I do not
love Luke--I love another.'"

Bladys made no remark; only a flicker of sudden illumination came into
her dreamy eyes.

"See," continued the crone. "Here I cut a notch." With the sharp knife
that she had been whetting on the hearthstone she chipped a piece from
the wood at the junction of the parts. "That is your father's promise
to Luke. Here I cut another--that is his winning you; here a third--
you take his hand; and again I nick it, there--you swear before God to
be his, and his only."

"I did not swear," said Bladys gravely.

"And here I make another notch," continued the old woman. "This is
where he puts the ring upon your hand."

"I have no ring. I plucked it off, and left it in Shrewsbury."

"And here I cut a gash to signify the blessing of the parson. 'What
God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.' Let see, but
devils can do that; ay, and I likewise. And here is the registration
of your marriage in the parish books. See--between this band and that
next we have all these tally marks. Now we make way beyond. Here again
I nick out a piece--it signifies that he has put his arms about you
and called you his own."

"That he never did."

"And here," chipping again, "is the virginal kiss from your pretty
lips--the seal of marriage."

"It was never sealed."

"And here again," continued the old woman, "he receives you into his
house and makes it your home."

"I have left it."

"Take the tally. I know no more. You contradict me in all. Thrust the
end into the fire till it is well kindled, then hold it upright before
and let it burn as a taper. Let it burn on steadily, snapping band
after band, and devouring tally mark after tally mark, and I swear
unto you that when the last band breaks and the half-stick falls he
will come."

Bladys, hardly understanding the old creature, obeyed her directions.
She seated herself on a stool by the hearth, she accepted rather than
took the rod thrust upon her, and following the instructions of the
crone thrust the extremity among the red-hot ashes. Instantly the
hazel stick burst into yellow flame. Bladys then withdrew it, and
remained seated, holding the staff as if it had been a torch before
her. A blue flame leaped and wavered at the end of the tally, then
broke into a spurt of golden light. Snap! one of the bands gave way,
and the glowing ring fell on the floor. The flame at the end of the
rod gathered force, it ate its way down, nibbling at each notch with
blue lips, then gulping at the portion of stick in which it was cut
and proceeding to attack the next.

"He is coming this way," said the hag. "Hist! hist!" She made a sign
as if beckoning with her finger.

"It burns bravely," laughed the old woman. "By Goles! this is not such
a wedding tally as needs much fire to loose it. There goes another

Bladys now became interested or amused, much as might a child, in what
took place. She gave no heed to the words of Mrs Norris.

"Hush! I hear his step," laughed the hag. "As the husband retires the
lover approaches."

"I have no husband," said Bladys.

"You have not done with him yet; not till the last bond is broken and
the stick falls."

"I have never had one."

"That is purely!" The old woman fell a-cackling, and still she
beckoned. "I am drawing him nearer. This tally will soon be broken;
then you shall begin a new account."

The fire reached the last tie; it had swallowed the last notch. Pieces
of charcoal fell off the consumed portion. Suddenly the final band
flamed, and the two portions of the stick fell apart, and Bladys cast
her handled piece on the hearth. At that moment the window was
partially obscured by a passing figure.

Bladys started to her feet. The door opened, and a man stood on the

With a cry she reeled; she had recognised him, and would have fallen
unconscious on the floor had she not been caught in the arms of
Crispin Ravenhill.

Chapter 21. A PROTECTOR

Whether Bladys passed into unconsciousness wholly, or only trembled on
the edge, that she knew not; nor how long she had been in the arms of
Crispin--whether a moment, whether an eternity.

In the joy, delirium, insensibility succeeding each other, all sense
of time was lost to Bladys. It was not that love had transported her
into a new world, but it was love combined, interwoven with the
certainty that she had reached the limit of her trials; that in him
she had a guide out of the labyrinth and darkness into which she was
cast, and from which unaided extrication was impossible. She was as
one drowning, who frantically clings to the one object that can alone
save him from being engulfed.

Whether she were awake or asleep, alive or dead, that she knew not, in
the supreme ecstasy of consciousness that she was safe. She felt
strong arms about her, a beating heart smiting against hers, and hot
lips pressed against her cheek.

Returning to her senses, she was aware of the hag leaping and dancing,
with a nimbleness for which she would not have credited her, waving
the tally stick, that now smoked, then flamed, and screaming out a
song, the words of which were unintelligible to her. Bladys turned her
head on Crispin's arm, and looked at her; then the woman curtsied and

"The old staff is done for, and the old account is closed. We must
begin the other."

Then throwing the end of the stick into the fire, she said:

"You think only of each other. I have to mind the cow," and she
stumbled out of the tavern door.

By this time Bladys was sufficiently restored to disengage herself
from the arms of Ravenhill, to stand back, to cover her face with her
hands, and gasp for breath.

He took a step forward; she retreated.

"Bladys!" said he, "I know all. Nan Norris has told me everything."

"Not everything," she answered; "because she did not know all."

"She told me sufficient to let me understand that you have been
cruelly deceived, and grossly ill-treated."

"Crispin," said Bladys, lowering her hands from her face, "that man
Luke married a lump of ice only, without eyes wherewith to see, or
ears to hear. I never swore to be his. What took place passed before
me as a scene in a play, weighed on me as a nightmare. I solemnly
assure you that I made to him no promise of love, honour, or
obedience. I never said that I would take him for better or for worse.
The service was gabbled over me as over a corpse, and I had as little
active part therein as a corpse in the office for the dead. He did not
give his true name; he concealed his profession. The utmost measure of
my consent was to be taken to Shrewsbury with intent to be a servant
in his house. I had made my resolve when at the Rock Tavern. When I
went to Shrewsbury my mind was made up, and I placed the alternative
to them, to take me as a serving-maid or to let me go."

"I understood as much from Nan."

"Before I left the Rock I said to Nan and her mother that no power on
earth or under the earth would ever make me his wife; and that before
I had learned what his profession was."

"Yes," said Crispin, with a smile, "that was not all you said to Nan."

"Not all!" echoed Bladys. Then a sudden flush came over her throat,
cheeks, and temples, like an aurora.

"No," said Crispin, "that was not all. There was something more. You
told Nan that he, Luke Hangman, had not won you; he had taken a base
advantage over the man who should have been the victor, and would but
for that have won the prize."

Bladys covered her face again. Then, with an effort, she raised her
head, lowered her hands, and said:

"Crispin, it was my fault. It was I who spun the jack across the lawn
so as to trip you up. It was through me that you fell, through me that
you were stunned."

"And but for that I would have claimed you."

"Crispin, I did it not purposely. I was in a dream; I was beside
myself; I was in the moon."

"It remains with you to undo what you did wrong on that day and give
your heart to him who really won you."

"Crispin," she panted with labouring breath, "it has been yours
throughout. If you will--"

He interrupted the words. He did not ask what she was about to say.

"If I will!" he shouted. "I have had but one thought, and that of you;
but one despair, that I had lost you; entertained but one hate, and
that against him who snatched you from me. I have now but one triumph,
that now you are mine."

His breast heaved, his eyes darted lightnings.

"Bladys!" said he, "men will believe that you were his wife; if you
come with me they will condemn you."

"Let them condemn. You know that I was not his wife."

"Bladys, we must away from this place. Here we could not be married.
We must go where we are unknown. I can not say where it may be, but
far from here."

"Crispin, I will go with you anywhere. I never did marry that man. It
was all a hideous mockery, in which I took no willing, no consenting

Then he caught her in his arms and covered her face with kisses, till
hands were laid upon him, and a voice sounded in his ears and bade him
desist. He looked up in confusion, angry, and saw Holy Austin before

The old schoolmaster-knobbler gently but firmly separated his nephew
from Bladys, and said:

"Crispin, your grandmother was a remarkable woman. She could not read,
she knew little of the Scriptures, yet was a pious and God-fearing
woman. But she had some strange notions about matters, such as have no
warranty in Holy Writ, and this was one of her notions. She said to me
when I was a little lad at her knee, i' feck, I had hard work
afterwards to set what she told me aside for the truth as revealed.
This is what she related to me of the beginning of mankind. She said
that the Almighty had created the world, and had made the flowers of
surpassing beauty, had painted the wings of the butterfly, and had
given to the birds their melody. And He resolved to sum up in one
creation all the perfections distributed among the other creatures;
one to be the sovereignest of all. Then lo! He made Woman. And she was
all that could be imagined of beauty and delicacy and grace. But He
saw that she was frail. Then He said He would make a stick for her
support,--and He proceeded to create Man."

The old man, with shrewdness, had given his nephew time to recover his
composure, time also for the vapour of passion to rise from off his

"So will I understand grandmother's story, uncle," said Ravenhill.
"Here is my flower, and I will be her stay."

"My good Crispin," said the old man, "consider well how you set about
it. In place of being the support to your flower, you will be the
stick that will beat her down, break and cast her on the soil."

"How say you?"

"Bound to you she cannot be, so long as she is attached to Luke

"That was no marriage at all."

"That I know, perhaps better than you. Irregular and profane the
proceeding was. Of that there can be no doubt! Nevertheless, in the
eyes of everyone in Kinver and the neighbourhood she was married to
that man. Until such a marriage be dissolved or proclaimed null, by
lawful authority, she cannot be bound to you without such a sacrifice
as you would have no right to ask of her. I ask you, nephew, if you
took her to you, would you not defraud her of that which Luke Hangman
could not deprive her of."

"What mean you?"

"Her good name."

Ravenhill stood motionless, absorbed in thought

"Look you, Crispin," proceeded the schoolmaster; "let it be granted
that in our eyes the wedding in Stourton Chapel was nought--was in
fact illegal--nevertheless you cannot take her to you as wife without
an ill name attaching to her, and all respectable women will hold
aloof from her. She will have no companions but the abandoned and
godless. You love her?"

"Indeed, indeed I do!" answered the young man with fervour.

"Then respect her. A love that is without respect is most volatile. As
certain dyes are fixed by salt, so is love made fast for life by
reverence." Crispin looked up and would have spoken, but was checked
by something that rose in his throat. "You are the stick to this fair
lily. Very well. First let it be made clear to the whole world that
the Stourton marriage was nought--and that can be established without
a doubt--then in God's name marry her."

"You are right, uncle," said the young man; "I give you my hand. I
promise to abide by your advice."

"That is well: the matter is not difficult. Already the churchwardens
have presented a complaint against the vicar for his conduct in this
very matter. The matter will be inquired into in the bishop's court,
and what the result will be cannot be doubted."

"I thank you, uncle; but consider. Bladys has no adviser, no helper.
She is here in a house that is not of good repute, among persons who
are not seemly and suitable companions."

"Let not that concern you. I will be the temporary support. That is to
say, Crispin, I will take charge of her, protect her, advise her; she
shall come to no harm under my--I will not say roof, for I have none--
under my rock. She shall live in the adjoining habitation to mine."

"I thank you with my whole heart," said Bladys, and held out her hand
to the old man. "And now one proof of my putting entire confidence in

She produced the case of jewellery, and placed it in the hands of the
schoolmaster. He opened it and viewed the contents with surprise.

"How came you by these?" he asked.

She informed him. Then she added:

"I desire to have them sold. To me they are valueless, but turned into
money they may help--"

She looked at Ravenhill.

"Will you be wholly guided by me?" asked the Knobbler.


"Then," said he; "we will first have the jewels, as they are, handed
over to whomsoever it may be that represents the Crown. A person
sentenced for higher petty treason forfeits everything to the Crown.
It may be, however, that the right to them may not be established, as
a woman's property goes to her husband, and his is not forfeited; or
it may be that the Crown will waive its right. Let all be done above

"As you think fit."

"Then this is what I decide. Let Crispin depart at once for London
with these jewels. What their worth is I do not pretend to guess. Let
him there state the whole case for you, and abide by the result,
whatever it may be."

Holy Austin considered a moment, and then handed the box to his
nephew, said:

"Crispin, be off immediately. Now that Bladys is coming to me, it
behoves you to be absent. As the Apostle advises, 'Avoid even the
appearance of evil!'"

"I go, uncle. Farewell, Bla!"

In another minute he was gone.

Then entered Mother Norris, carrying a faggot for the fire. She looked
first at Bladys, then at Austin, and, dropping the wood, burst into
strident laughter.

"I left a young man here, and find an old one, and that Holy Austin!"

"I am come to take Stewponey Bla away with me to my rock," said the

"I thank you with all my heart for the goodness you have shown me,"
said the girl. "But, indeed, Mother Norris, I must go. Tell Nan that I
will not omit to thank her when I have the chance to see her."

Then Bladys pressed money on the old woman, who clutched it eagerly;
and, after a few more words, she and the old schoolmaster departed.

"Did that woman know about the jewels?" asked the old man, when on the
road at a distance from the tavern.

"She has not a suspicion."

"Well for you. Had Mother Norris known that you had such trinkets of
value she would have murdered you in your bed to get possession of


At the opening of this story something was said of the curious
isolated and inhabited rock, like a huge tooth, that bears the name of
Holy Austin.

This detached mass, rising some seventy feet high, stands on the slope
below the headland of Kinver Edge, of which at some remote period it
formed a buttress. It is honeycombed with dwellings, of which there
are ten, in three storeys; the topmost have their faces built up in
gables, but the chambers are all excavated in the rock. Originally
there was no such face of masonry, but the disintegration of the
screen of sandstone by weather and rough usage made it necessary to so
front it. The lowest storey or ground floor opens on the same face,
the east, and is almost on a level with the hillside, at all events at
one point; but the middle storey is reached by a track in the face of
the cliff, that falls away on the west in a manner so precipitous that
these cave dwellings are accessible only by the ledge. Of the ten
habitations, some of which have more than two rooms, only four are
occupied at the present time; three are void, and the rest have
crumbled into ruin.

As the old schoolmaster ascended the slope to reach his own dwelling,
which occupied the summit of the crag, he said to Bladys:

"Did you perceive that there was a stir in Kinver? Many persons were
in the street."

"I thought as much," answered the girl.

"There is great commotion in the place, for all the constables in the
neighbourhood, not in Staffordshire alone, but in the adjoining
portions of Shropshire and Worcestershire, have been called out.
Moreover, additional trustworthy men have been sworn in for the
occasion by the magistrates, who are stirring, and have, if I may so
express it, taken the field at length against the highwaymen who have
infested the country, and made travelling on the Irish road so
dangerous. Justitia pallida ir, as I may say, hath at length drawn
her sword."

Bladys started. She felt a flutter of alarm for Stracey, or rather,
for Nan Norris. The man himself was odious to her; insolent, with
vulgar affectation, and devoid of good qualities. But what touched him
touched also Nan; and to the latter Bladys was grateful and attached.

"If it had not been for this," said the old man, "you would not have
been suffered to traverse Kinver unquestioned. You would have been
catechised along the entire street. Now the good folk of Kinver are
exercised in mind about the raid; some favourably inclined towards
these scourges of the country, finding it to their interest in sundry
ways, and therefore scheming how they may throw impediments in the way
of the ministers of Justice. When I heard that the attempt was about
to be made, and also learned that you were at the Rock Tavern, I
thereupon resolved in my mind to go thither, and to move you thence
before it was visited. For you to have been found in that harbour of
thieves and footpads might, and probably would, have done injury to
your reputation."

"I thank you with all my heart."

"And now," continued the old fellow, "here shall be your home for
awhile. I cannot say with the Psalmist, 'your rest for ever'--for I
trust ere long another man will claim you and carry you elsewhere. We
make our nest in the rock as turtles, or as Samson in Etam. There is
no prospect of the constables visiting here, nor need we fear them
should they scrutinise us and our tenements. As Vacuus cantat coram
latrone viator, so does the honest man whistle unfluttered by the
approach of the officers of the law. All who occupy this crag partake
somewhat of the harmlessness and guilelessness of doves. We live by
labour of the hand or head."

He had mounted with the girl to the topmost platform, and here rose
the walled front of his habitation; adjoining it were other dwellings,
but they were unoccupied.

He opened the door of his house, and said:

"This is the place which I inhabit, solus de superbis, but I cannot
accommodate you, nor would you find it reposeful in this place; for it
is my school, where I instruct children in the rudiments of religion,
of English, and some of the ablest boys I even advance into Latin--
rudimentary, of course. They are not old enough, or capable enough, of
more than a smattering, or, to be more exact, of having the
foundations laid on which they may build later when opportunity
arrives. The children are here all day. Adjoining is a second house.
Therein you will find quiet."

He opened the door of the cave adjoining his own, and led Bladys

"You will see," said he, "that there is an advantage afforded here
that exists in none other dwelling in this rock."

He pushed forward, from one chamber excavated in the sandstone to
another deeper in the rock than the first, and to the girl's surprise
she saw that it had window and door in the face of the cliff opposed
to the entrance by which she had been admitted.

"You have a habitation that is a complete perforation of the rock.
From the one side you can enjoy the sight of the rising, from the
other that of the setting, sun. Only this caution must I enforce. See
you do not step forth unawares--for an unconsidered and inconsiderable
stride would take you out of this world into the next."

He opened the door in the western face, and led Bladys forth. He
showed her a narrow ledge that ran to the left only, along the face of
the precipice. The cliff rose sheer above, and fell away below, not
perpendicularly, but so as to overhang. By this means, any rubbish
cast out from the back door over the edge fell clear of the range of
dwellings below, as also of the path that led to them. No railing, no
protection of any sort, was provided along the verge.

"You can creep by the pathway to the left, if it please you, for some
distance," said the Knobbler; "it anciently led to where a former
occupant of this cottage kept pigeons. But the fall of a piece of the
cliff has destroyed the pigeonry--or has so in part. Since I have had
these two houses I have had no time to give to the keeping of birds--
such pigeon-holes as remain have been invaded by jackdaws, and the
track is broken and has become dangerous. I will inform you why this
tenement is no longer occupied. The former dweller therein--that is,
twenty years ago--had a little daughter of thirteen, whom he loved as
the apple of his eye. She was much distressed that the rock had
fallen, and had carried away the place where her pigeons had dwelt,
and this brooded on her mind. One night she took to sleep-walking, and
came in her night-shift along this very path. Something--a
premonition, or the draught of the open door--aroused her father, and
he came forth to see his child ascending where the ledge was broken,
all white in the moonlight. He could not go to her; he dared not
recall her; nay, not make a sound, lest it should waken her. One false
step, one loose stone that yielded, and his child would be
precipitated below, and he would take in his arms thereafter only a
corpse. So he stood, trembling, sick at heart, but lifting his soul to
God, that He would give His angels charge over her, lest she should
dash her foot against a stone. And He did preserve her. She reached
the summit, and there--there awoke, strained to the heart of her
father, whose hair next morning was found to have been blanched by his
great anxiety."

The old man pointed to the ascent made by the sleeping child, and
Bladys shuddered. Holy Austin went on:

"As I have my school in the other house, where also I sleep, I do what
little cooking I require in the habitation I now surrender to you. And
now I must depart, and leave you to make yourself acquainted with your
domain. I am concerned to see the result of this campaign against the
highwaymen and footpads."

Then, before he departed, he said:

"You will find here a bed. It is one that I have retained for Crispin
when he has been able to visit me. But, indeed, he has not much
leisure, being engaged on the canals. Nevertheless, now and again, on
a Sunday, he visits me, and is ever welcome. He is a good lad, and has
picked up some learning from me."

Then the old man departed.

Bladys was now all alone in her rock dwelling. She seated herself on a
stool to compose her thoughts. From the great anxiety that had
oppressed her she was at length relieved, and her thoughts began to
flow as if released by a thaw.

The good old man, whom, in spite of his pedantry, she liked and
reverenced, had come to her as an angel, delivering her from an
embarrassing situation. He had done more: he had saved her from
herself. She was now able to repose after the strain of mind and nerve
to which she had been subjected, and she could rest in hope of a happy
issue from her troubles, for Holy Austin was not the man to encourage
favourable expectations without good grounds. She leaned her head on
her hand, enjoying the repose.

Then, recovering herself, she looked around the chamber in which she
was. It was the innermost apartment, and was wholly scooped out of the
rock. The western face was but a screen of natural stone, perforated
artificially for window and door.

The rock was dry, as dry as are the walls built of quarried stone.
Indeed, the occupants of such habitations made no complaint of damp.
The only occasion on which moisture formed on their walls was when a
sudden change ensued from cold weather to a warm and damp wind from
the south-west. The ceiling was slightly arched, and that, as well as
the sides, was whitewashed. The floor was of the bare red rock,
somewhat uneven, as traffic between the doors had worn down the stone.

In the first room was a fireplace with chimney bored in the stone,
much resembling that in Kynaston's Cave. In the inner compartment or
room the window was small and glazed with bull's-eyes. It admitted
little light, so that the chamber was gloomy as a vault.

Bladys threw open the door, as the sun was in decline, to allow its
light to flood and warm the cave. She stepped out on the ledge.

A gentle breeze played with the light short hair on her brow, and
fanned her cheek, like a light hand caressing her and promising peace
to her troubled soul. The wind sang in a Scotch fir rooted in the red
cliff overhead. She looked up, and saw the dark green mass, sustained
on its red-gold stem, sway against the deep blue sky. The evening sun
was on the rock, and had turned it into a mass of solidified flame.

Jackdaws flew out of the rock and wheeled or darted about her,
uttering resentful cries addressed to her as a stranger. They were
knowing birds, and were familiar with the inhabitants of the rock, and
entertained a mistrust of the children who came there to be schooled;
they lived in unintermittent strife with the boys, whom they screamed
at and scolded whenever they approached. Now, in Bladys, they
perceived an entire stranger, and they expressed their disapproval of
her intrusion loudly and objurgatively. Was she expected by the saucy
birds to pay her footing with a piece of carrion or some crumbs of
bread? So Bladys supposed, amused, deafened by their anger and noise.

"Wait," said she; "I have nothing to cast to you now, but the first
opportunity that comes I will throw something to you."

Then she turned her face to re-enter the cave. At that same moment a
rush of wind drove against her--a draught sweeping through the rock
dwelling--and borne on it came voices, confused, menacing. She

She had taken a couple of steps within; she stood still; she recoiled
a step. Then, thrusting through the narrow doorway by which access to
the house was obtained, she saw Luke Onion, his mother, and Abraham

"There she is! Take her! The thief! The thief!" shrieked the old
woman; and the hangman, with both hands pushing his mother aside,
sprang forward to seize Bladys.

The girl, startled for a moment, was as one paralysed. But she
recovered herself and springing through the doorway, threw herself
with outspread arms against the rock, and worked her way along the
narrow track that led to the old pigeonry.

A little farther was the most ruinous and riskful portion of the path;
but she was resolved to attempt this rather than allow herself to be
taken. The sleep-walker had been sustained and carried safely to the
top of the cliff, why not she?

This thought formed quick as lightning flash, but was instantly
brushed away by what she saw, and which produced a spasm of horror.

Looking back at the doorway through which she had just had time to
escape, she saw Luke Francis leap through in pursuit, lose his
balance, with arms extended battling in the air, and he was
precipitated over the edge by the momentum, and disappeared without a

The jackdaws had been given their promised footing.

Chapter 23. MEG-A-FOX HOLE

Half-a-mile from Holy Austin Rock, in the scarp of Kinver Edge, the
cliff is precipitous, and has also been utilised from a remote age for
the habitation of man. The place is called Meg-a-Fox Hole, and
contains a series of caverns connected the one with the other, and
somewhat different in construction from the dwellings in Holy Austin

The face of the cliff is approached by a slope, partly natural, to a
large extent composed of the sand thrown out in the construction of
the caves, and of the refuse of the dwellers therein from immemorial
time. It is probable that an examination of this midden would yield
interesting results, and show in successive layers the relics of
succeeding races and civilisations that have occupied these troglodyte
habitations. This slope is now so much overgrown with masses of tree
and enormous hedges of bramble, that the lower portion of the cliff is
hidden, and the openings in it are effectually screened, so that the
passer-by at the foot of the hill might go before this range of
subterranean dwellings without a suspicion of their proximity. No main
road, nor even a parish way runs along the bottom; only a cart track
in bad condition, little frequented. The place, accordingly, was
sufficiently lonely and concealed to invite occupation by those who
broke the laws of the land.

Meg-a-Fox Hole is now completely ruinous. Its last tenant left it
thirty years ago. Since then it has been sorely disintegrated, in part
wantonly destroyed by the mischievous.

Accordingly, although the interior remains unaltered, the exterior has
been dismantled and defaced to such an extent as hardly to give an
idea of what its appearance was a century ago.

A single doorway cut in the rock gave access to a chain of caves that
ran parallel with the face of the cliff, the rock itself, reduced to
the thickness of about three feet, interposing between them and the
open air; and this face was pierced at intervals with small holes that
admitted light, and were so contrived as not to present the appearance
of windows. At the beginning of this century, when the cavern was
tenanted by a quiet, well-conducted working-man, occasion for
concealment was at an end, and he enlarged these openings considerably
and put wooden casements into the windows he cut. Since the
abandonment of the dwelling and the tearing out of the casements the
holes have been further enlarged, and portions of the screening wall
wantonly thrown down.

There were, there are still, five chambers. On the left of the portal
is an almost circular apartment, nine feet in diameter, opening out of
the entrance hall or vestibule, and which may have been used for fuel.
The vestibule itself is lighted by a small window on one side of the
doorway. From this hall an opening cut in the rock admits to the
series of chambers. The first is lighted by a very small hole, that
admits but a single ray. Beyond it is the roomy cavern that served as
kitchen, furnished with a fireplace scooped out of the screen of
living rock, and with a chimney that was carried up in such a manner
as to disperse the smoke that issued from it among the bushes. Beyond
this kitchen is an extensive hall with an apsidal termination. This
was formerly lighted by a mere slit, but it was also furnished with a
small door giving access to a narrow shelf that conducted to a flight
of steps cut in the face of the cliff, by means of which the downs of
Kinver Edge might be reached.

This portion of the habitation was materially altered by the last
occupant. He cut large openings in the wall and inserted good windows.
All now is in a piteous condition of wreck and ruin. This series of
caves has its walls inscribed with names of visitors and tenants. The
earliest dated one is that of H. Kindar, Scriptor, Londini, 1700, and
the next in antiquity is that of B. Knight, 1749, the great iron-
master who founded the family till recently represented by Sir
Frederick Winn Knight of Wolverley, on whose land the caverns were.
From the extremity of this chain of vaults, it is commonly believed
that a passage extends to the river Stour, two miles distant, and
animals are reported to have entered the tunnel at the extremity, and
to have re-appeared below Kinver Bridge, where there are fissures in
the red sandstone from which issue springs of water. That this
conception labours under the disadvantage of being almost impossible
does not affect the rustic mind. Impossible it almost certainly is,
for such a communication would require the tunnel to be carried
beneath the bed of the Stour. In reality the passage, now blocked to
prevent accidents, extends for half-a-mile to Drakeslowe, a cirque in
the sandstone rocks, which is riddled in every direction so as to
accommodate the rock to the purpose of human habitation. The dwellings
there are almost all in occupation at the present day, and are
preferred to those of masonry as warmer in winter and cooler in

At the foot of this amphitheatre of rock houses at Drakeslowe is a
modern School Chapel; and on a dark Sunday evening, a singular
spectacle is presented by the people emerging from their holes with
their lanterns, and descending the stages of the cliff in which they

We English love to take our holiday by running to the Continent, and
fondly imagine that we must cross the Channel to see strange sights
and enjoy scenes of beauty. It would be hard to find sweeter,
quainter, lovelier spots than may be reached very easily at the point
where Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire join.

Nan Norris was in Meg-a-Fox Hole with the door barred. She was on her
knees at the hearth chopping wood for the fire she had kindled, when
she was startled by a rap against the door, followed by the scratching
as of a cat, and a feeble whistle.

She stood up and listened. The raps were repeated, and a voice called,
"Nan, open, will you?"

"Who is there?" she asked, before proceeding to unbar.

"It is I, George Stracey. By Heaven, don't keep me waiting. Open at
once, curse your eyes."

Nan proceeded to draw the bars. They were massive irons that ran deep
into the rock on each side, and the removal of these was not to be
accomplished with speed.

He without became impatient.

"For goodness sake, Nan, bestir yourself. You take matters as
leisurely as if there were no danger."

Nan had now removed the lowest bar. There were three in all, and she
had previously slipped those above from their places. The door swung
open, and Stracey burst in. He was out of breath, and in great

"You confounded, double-confounded fool!" gasped he, when inside.
"What do you mean by keeping me without so long? Had you any one to
hide from me? Do you desire to have me swung?"

"George," replied the girl, "you yourself would have cast ugly words
at me had I opened too hastily without the sign; and you gave it
wrong--you whistled in place of mewing. Nay, I doubt not you would
have struck me with your hand, though, by Goles, I'd rather that than
have a lick of your rough tongue."

"You fool! don't stand there talking. Fasten up at once with all

He was panting, and white with heat and alarm.

"They are closing in on us," he said. "They have been to my house
already, and have ransacked it from attic to cellar; I had a shift to
escape. They have found nothing there, for we have all stowed away
here; but I am not confident that all is safe in this place. They will
go to the Rock Tavern--"

"Where they will find mother deaf and daft. They will get nothing out
of her, and find nothing there. The horses are away, and the cow in
the underground stable."

"Nan," said Stracey, as he assisted in replanting the bars, "have they
a chance of snuffing this lay, think you?"

"I cannot say, George. But they have hold of Jac'mo."

"Curse Jac'mo. Why was he told about it?"

"He was not told anything. But he is no fool. We held from his
knowledge all that we were able."

"If he knows, he will lead them here. They have him with them. Has he
heard of the underground passage to Drakeslowe?"

"No, George, certainly not. He has never set foot inside Meg-a-Fox
Hole; and of the passage none know but yourself and me, and those
other two, Hardlow and Kibworth, who are not taken, and who, even if
they were, would be torn to pieces before they would peach. You look
all a-mort, George."

"I have reason to be. I have had to run for it. Dowse the fire at
once, Nan. They mustn't see a glim, nor any reek reach their cursed
noses. Not a token must be given that any one is here, and by Moses,
they may pass, and miss it altogether."

He did not wait for the girl to do as directed; with his foot he
kicked the fuel apart, and spurned the smoking wood about the floor.

"Nan, we must send the blunt down the dolly. If the worst comes about,
I must slip down as well."

"And what of me, George?"

"You must stop the earth behind me. It is me they are after, and not
you. I'll not be nabbed here, if I can help it. Lend a hand, Nan, with
the case; it is confoundedly heavy."

He led into the darkest chamber, where, behind much rubbish heaped
against the rock, a chest was concealed. This he extracted from its
hiding-place, and with the girl's assistance, drew it into the
passage. At that moment a blow crashed against the door, and sent an
echo through every chamber.

A voice shouted after it.

"In the King's name--Open!"

Stracey put his finger to his lip and listened then signed to Nan to
be speedy with the money chest.

"Deuce take the horsenails (money), the load is heavy as lead. Drag
it, and brush the mark over with your foot, as you go along. Quick!
Not a minute must be lost. We must have this down the hole, and I will
go with it. I will build up, and you toss in the sand, and heap the
faggots over the place."

"O George! what is to become of me?"

"You fool! they cannot hurt you. When the blunt and I are gone, what
evidence have they got?"

"But, George! let me, I pray you, go along the passage and escape by
Drakeslowe with you."

"How can you?" He turned savagely on her with a foul oath. "One must
remain behind to cover up the entrance. That cannot be me. You are in
no danger."

They had drawn the money chest to the end of the last vault.

At the extremity of this lay a faggot on the ground, and beside it a
pile of faggots. Nan quickly removed the prostrate bundle and
disclosed a low opening in the rock, level with the floor, so small
that a man could enter it only on hands and knees, but within the
sides fell apart and the roof rose. On both sides of the entrance were
piled pieces of sandstone, by means of which the mouth could be
blocked from within; it was further provided that they should be
covered with sand. For this purpose a short-handled shovel was
secreted behind the stack of fuel. When the loose sand was thrown over
the choked mouth of the underground passage, it was effectually

Into this hole, which Stracey had called the "dolly," he thrust the
box of coin, which slid down by its own weight, as within the ground
fell rapidly.

Nan was trembling, and her brow was bedewed with sweat. Blows were
being rained on the door.

"It will engage them ten minutes to break it in," said Stracey in a
whisper; "and by that time this will be built and smothered with sand,
and I on my way underground to Drakeslowe."

"O George! I am afraid to stay."

He cursed her.

"Are you going to risk my precious life because of your fears?"

"If only I could escape as well."

"You can do so when you have covered up the mouth. Then go out at the
little door--they have not discovered that--and run up the red ladder.
What in the devil's name is that?"

A sound, different from that which came from the door, reached their
ears and alarmed them. Thud, thud, thud! A dead and muffled sound.

"Nan, run, whilst I build up."

With eager hands Stracey, who was down the hole, built up with stones
in order to close the opening of the passage.

Nan sprang back in quivering alarm.

"George! they have found the door too tough. One of them has a pick,
and with it he is digging through. Hark!"

A click; then a crash of broken glass.

"There! there!" gasped Nan; "he is widening the window. The rock wall
is thin just there. He cannot fail to dig his way in on us directly."

"Nan!" said Stracey, "my life depends on you. Here!" he handed a
pistol through the gap that remained unclosed; "take this barking iron
and shoot him through head or heart."

"O George!"

"My blood is on your head if you do not. If I am taken, then with my
last breath I will curse you, Nan."

"But George!"

"Nan, if you really love me, and have not set your fancy on another,
if you are true to me, as you have so often protested, prove it to me

She accepted the pistol, cocked it, and ran to the spot where she
could see the man, a constable, who was driving his pickaxe in at the
window, and ever and anon was shouting encouragingly to his fellows:

"We'll be on them in a minute. I can smell the fire already."

The opening was still too small to admit the passage of a human body,
but the man had wrenched out the framework and broken the glass, and
was rapidly enlarging the orifice.

"Cease; or I will fire!" cried the girl, presenting her weapon.

The constable stopped, and looked in. He replied in mocking words,
that to her were unintelligible. She could see his round head and big
body against the sky, but could distinguish no features.

"Desist; or I shoot."

"By heavens, a wench!" he said with a laugh.

She touched the trigger. The pistol exploded. Nan saw the man
straighten himself, remain stationary for a moment, then reel over.

A yell of dismay and rage rushed in at the opening--the cry of those
who were assaulting the cave--at the sight of their comrade, who fell
headlong with a bullet in his forehead.

"That will occupy them for some minutes," laughed Stracey. "Well done,
Nan; give me back my pistol."

"I have thrown it away."

"Let it lie. Close up; I am ready."

"George! Kiss me first. Kiss me before we part. It will be for ever.
And I know you will soon find someone else. I have killed that man."

"A plague on your sentiment!" answered Stracey, withdrawing his head,
without granting her request, and he jammed the last stone into its

Then Nan used the shovel with good effect, and in a few minutes had
buried the entrance under sand. Not content with this, she cut the
binding withy of the faggots, and strewed the contents over the spot.
Then she upset the stack upon the loose sticks, and proceeded to cut
or untie all their bonds, so that it would not be possible for those
who were in pursuit to remove them in bundles, but only piece-meal,
stick by stick.

This occupied Nan a considerable time, but she did not for a moment
turn her thoughts to her own safety till she had done everything in
her power, and in fulfilment of what she regarded as her duty, to
effectually disguise the place of Stracey's retreat.

The men outside had again got to work, and were redoubling their
efforts to effect an entrance. Of them, however, none would venture at
the window, lest he should be picked off in the same manner as his

The door was too strongly barred to be driven in; but by means of a
pick-axe the assailants were cutting through the sandstone outside so
as to disengage the frame of the door, and enable them to draw it

In a quarter of an hour this was effected. The heavy oak door, no
longer held in place by a rebate of stone, fell forward with a crash,
and the constables withdrew the now useless bars, and burst into the
cavern with a shout.

Nan had in the meantime shut and fastened the door of communication
with the inner chamber; this impediment could not detain them long,
but it would furnish her with sufficient time to effect her escape by
the postern, and to run up the ladder, cut in the face of the cliff,
which communicated with the top of the Edge and the open downs, over
which she might fly, and find concealment in nooks known only to a

To this door she sped. It was locked. She put her hands to her
temples. Her brain was whirling. Where was the key? She felt in her
pocket. She turned herself on all sides. Oh! where was the key?

Then with horror and despair she recalled where it was, and knew that
it was beyond her reach. George Stracey alone retained possession of
the key, so that he might obtain admission to Meg-a-Fox Hole whenever
he pleased. That key he ever carried about his person.

That key he had with him, when he bade her escape by the postern door.
Yet he had not given it her. She had not thought to ask for it. Had he
purposely carried it away with him and left her to her fate, knowing
that he could have saved her had he willed?

No! no! no! In her true generous heart she repelled this thought;
nevertheless a vein of gall broke in her heart as she allowed that he,
in his supreme solicitude about his own safety, had not given
sufficient thought to her to remember that he carried with him the
means of affording her the opportunity of escape.

Nan sank on the little rock-hewn bench, laid her face in her hands and

Next minute rude hands were on her, and she heard shouts of--"Where is
Stracey? What have you done with him?"

"He is not here," answered Nan, recovering composure.

"Who then shot Thomson?" was asked.

"I did that. Yonder lies the pistol on the floor."

"Secure her," said the magistrate, who had entered. "She has killed an
officer of the Crown whilst in discharge of his duty."

"By heaven!" exclaimed a constable, "it is well that Luke Hangman is
in Kinver, to measure her for the cravat."

Chapter 24. AT THE ROCK FOOT

Erect, rigid, stood Mother Onion beside the corpse of her son extended
at the foot of Holy Austin Rock. Her face was livid, strained and
knotted in muscle with the cramp of excitement and resentment that
held her soul. Her harsh features were strongly illumined by the
setting sun. They seemed to be chiselled out of marble--an orange
marble--not moulded in flesh, and chiselled by an unskilful workman.
But her eyes gleamed with lightning flashes.

Luke Hangman lay extended his length at her feet, on his back, his
arms outspread, and his mouth half-open. That he was dead could not
for a moment be doubted, nor did his mother entertain a hope to the

There surged up in her heart a rage against Bladys, to whom she
attributed his death, like the bore in the Severn--it rolled through
her, invading every sense, flushing her every vein.

A ring of spectators had formed. Jarrock had come down from the rock
holding Bladys by the arm to prevent her from attempting escape.

The inhabitants of the occupied prong of sandstone issued from their
burrows. Scarce a denizen was left behind. Even a half-paralysed woman
had scrambled from her bed, drawn herself to the verge of the cliff,
and hung her head, benimbed with the frills of a great night-cap, over
the edge, looking down on what took place below, unwilling to miss
seeing and hearing whatever might occur. Children, unable to thrust
themselves in between their elders, climbed portions of the rock to
overtop them, or ensconced themselves high aloft in the forks of over-
hanging Scotch pines. Holy Austin, who had been at a little distance,
hurried up with two companions, with whom he had been in conversation.
One was the Evening Lecturer and the other Squire Folliot. Seeing
Bladys held by the executioner's assistant, he at once went to him,
and demanded her release.

This gave fresh occasion for the excitement of the bereaved woman.
With extended hand and outstretched finger she pointed to Bladys.

"See! See!" she shrieked; "that is the murderess. I give her in
charge. I accuse her. She thrust my son, her husband, over the
precipice. She killed him. Last week we burnt a woman at Shrewsbury
for poisoning her husband. Now we shall have another execution."

Gasping for breath, she placed one hand on her bosom, whilst still
indicating Bladys with the other.

"That woman at Shrewsbury we strangled at the stake before the flame
touched her. But she, she shall burn and feel all the anguish of the
fire. The law allows it. The law makes no provision for strangling.
That is the pure grace of the executioner. It is as he wills it. He
may let her dance in the fire if it pleases him. Abraham Jarrock will
be the hangman now; and he will do as I say."

"Nay; reckon not on me," called Jarrock.

Now the old schoolmaster stood forward.

"Woman," said he, in authoritative tones, "your sorrow has perverted
your reason. Satis eloquenti sapienti parum. We respect and we pity
you. Let us now raise and bear away the dead man to Kinver, where an
inquest will be held on his death."

"He shall not be removed. Here he lies, and here stand I. Here he
stays till I am assured that she who killed him is to be conveyed to
gaol. Where is a constable? Where is a Justice of Peace?"

"This is arrant folly," said Holy Austin. "But that you are to be
commiserated, we would not endure it."

"Not endure it! It is truth. I will swear it. Where is a constable?
Bring me a justice here, and I will take oath."

"Here is a magistrate--Squire Folliot."

"Let him draw nigh. Let him swear me!" screamed the frantic woman.

Then, as someone stooped to raise the body, she thrust him fiercely

"No! none shall touch him. As he goes to burial so shall the murderess
go to the stake--earth to earth here," pointing to her son, "and ashes
to ashes there," indicating Bladys. "I will throw myself down. I will
clasp him with my arms. None shall separate us till I know that
justice will be done him and me, and that this murderess will be
conveyed to gaol."

Then an elderly, stout gentleman, in drab smalls and gaiters, thrust
his way through the crowd.

"I am a magistrate, madam, and if you can show real cause against that
young person, I shall not be slack in performing my duty. Has anyone a
New Testament here?"

"I have one, sir," answered the Evening Lecturer, extending a book
through the ring of spectators. Mr Folliot at once administered the

The fierce, resentful woman rapidly proceeded with her declaration and

"So help me God, I saw her when we came in, Abraham and I, into her
cave. She stood in the farther doorway. And when Luke went to her,
with both hands she thrust him over the edge down the cliff. I saw it
with both eyes. So help me God, Amen."

"Now look here," said the justice, "this is a serious allegation.
Where is this same Abraham you mention?"

"I am here, sir; Abraham Jarrock is my name."

"Come forward and take oath."

"I cannot swear to what she says."

"Take oath as to what you actually witnessed."

"I did not see the girl thrust him over. She went through the door and
the master ran after her, and as he knew nothing of the precipice
beyond, fell headlong down unaided. He was quite capable of doing so
without assistance."

"You say that? You lie!" shrieked the woman. "You were not looking. I
have sworn. Take her away; handcuff her! Carry her to prison. It was
her husband she killed. She shall not end on the gallows, she shall be
burned alive."

"Silence, woman," said the magistrate. "The assistant, Abraham
Jarrock, contradicts your statement. There are other witnesses."

"I am one, your worship!" said Holy Austin, stepping through the ring
and taking his place by the corpse over against the woman. "Hand me
the book. I, also, have something to say, and I will speak before this

"Stay awhile," said the justice. "Whom have we here?"

Mr Folliot looked over the heads of the people, and saw a gentleman on
horseback advancing, followed by several men, some bearing a hurdle on
which lay a body, and two conducting a woman who was handcuffed.

The throng about the dead executioner and his mother loosened; its
texture resolved itself into an open web. Attention was for a moment
diverted by this new event, as yet not understood, but stimulating

Then the magistrate called:

"Mr Homfray! Will you be good enough to come here? We shall be glad of
your presence and assistance."

The gentleman addressed alighted from his horse, the constables
attending him approached. Hasty questions were put, and as hastily
answered. The party just arrived was the posse which had broken into
Meg-a-Fox Hole, and it was conveying the dead constable to the village
and Nan to the lock-up.

"Mr Homfray," said Justice Folliot, "I particularly desire your
presence here. Will you kindly step forward?" Turning to Mother Onion
he said, "There are now two magistrates present, and this charge of
yours shall be impartially considered. But let me caution you, madam;
you are not in a condition now to speak without a passion that clouds
your vision. Be advised by me and say no more."

"I will speak. I am on my oath. I insist on being heard. I will repeat
all again."

"I will briefly tell my brother magistrate what you have said, and
what is the accusation you make."

"That girl yonder, as I hear, has killed a man," cried Mrs Onion,
pointing to Nan, "and she is under arrest. Why should this other go
free, when she has murdered my son? I insist, I will repeat my

This she did with as great volubility and vehemence as before.

"Now it is my turn to speak," said Holy Austin. He kissed the book. "I
am glad to have occasion, as there is much to be said which I desire
should be heard by all."

"Speak on, Knobbler!" said Justice Folliot.

"It is my desire," said the old man, "to say a word touching the
marriage. Mrs Onion declares that the case is one of petty treason--
that the murder, if murder it be, was committed on the body of Luke
Francis Onion by his lawful wife. Now, I deny that deceased was her
husband. You are all aware that the father of Stewponey Bladys set her
as a prize to be contended for at bowls. This match was got up at the
instigation of some of the bloods and bucks of the neighbourhood. At
that time Luke Francis Onion, the public executioner of the counties
of Shropshire and Staffordshire, was tarrying at the Stewponey Inn,
not under his proper name, but under that of Francis. None suspected
him to be the hangman, or none would have associated with him. This
man won in the game of bowls, and claimed the prize. Unhappily, our
vicar, perhaps over-persuaded by a gentleman I do not see here perhaps
believing that as the Chapel of Stourton Castle is extra-parochial,
any sort of ceremony may be performed there with impunity, even to the
worship of Baal, was induced to give his aid. The scene in the Chapel
was a scandal to religion. The House of God was invaded by a rabble of

"Come, come, Knobbler, I cannot allow this," said Folliot.

"I beg pardon, your worship; but unhappily, as you well know, our
district harbours a number of gentlemen by birth and position who are
the leaders in all that is degrading--in cock-fighting, Sabbath-
breaking, cudgelling, dicing, swearing, and blasphemy. I will not say
more of that outrage on religion, the pretended marriage, than that it
lacks all those elements which go to make it legal. It is not
registered in the parish books, there is no record of it, as there
would have been had it been a proper and legal function. Our vicar
probably was ashamed of his part in the affair, and did no more than
he conceived himself engaged to do by a promise wrung from him by a
certain person I will not name. I presume that a marriage performed
without banns, or without licence, in an unauthorised place, and
unrecorded in the register--one, moreover, in which the one party--the
bride--refused to give any promise and consent--is no marriage in the
sight of God or in the eye of the law. Consequently, the charge of
petty treason breaks down.

"Now, as to the next point. There was no murder committed. That this
gentlewoman should have suffered a terrible loss makes us all
compassionate her. But the sense of commiseration is swallowed up in
indignation when we hear her give false evidence, and swear to what is
demonstrably a lie, in order that she may glut her hate upon the
unhappy girl who has for too long been misunderstood, misrepresented,
and misused. Interest magistrats tueri bonos, animadvertere in ma/os.

"May it please your worships, one word further. Bladys of the
Stewponey, whom this gentlewoman accuses of having thrust the deceased
over the rock with both hands, was not where represented by Mrs Onion.
She was not within reach of him when he fell. Outside the western door
is a narrow shelf that led to a pigeonry. I had quitted the rock some
ten minutes before the event of the fall of Luke Hangman, an event we
all deplore. I had gone to the front of the rock and had met the
Evening Lecturer, and with him walked on the heath, and lit upon
Squire Folliot. We happened to speak of the presentation of our vicar
to the bishop on account of his irregularities, and I then informed
the Squire and the Lecturer that the young person who had been so
irregularly married was taken under my protection and was in the Rock.
I turned, as did also they, and I pointed to the opening from her
dwelling, and at that moment we all three--that is to say, I, and I
doubt not the gentlemen will say the same--saw her issue forth, and
creep along the ledge till she was fully two arms' length from the
doorway. Then we all three--that is to say, I--saw a man--who he was I
knew not then, leap through the opening and fall down the cliff,
carried over by his own weight. If she had touched him I should have
seen it, but touch him she could not and did not. She was standing
with both arms spread, clinging with her hands to the surface of the
rock. This is what I have to say. The Rev. Mr Wittinslow, the
Lecturer, and Squire Folliot will confirm my statement."

Mrs Onion was staggered, but she promptly rallied.

"I charge her," she said hoarsely, "I charge her with having robbed me
of jewels worth over a thousand pounds."

"Hearken to me, madam," said Mr Folliot, gravely. "To my certain
knowledge you have already perjured yourself. You have endeavoured to
injure a perfectly innocent young girl. My own eyes have assured me of
that. If my brother justice desires it, I am ready to be put on oath.
No sooner does one monstrous charge break down than you trump up
another, equally preposterous I doubt not. We are ready to believe
that grief at the loss of your son has disturbed your mind, and that
you are not responsible for what you say. But take care of yourself.
You are now the only person menaced, for you have rendered yourself
liable to a warrant issued against you for perjury; and, by Heaven, if
we have another word on this matter of poor Stewponey, we will deal
with you in such manner as you will not relish."

Turning aside, he muttered: "She is a malignant, wicked old cat!" Then
to some of the men who stood by he said, curtly, "Remove the corpse."

Abraham Jarrock pushed to the foreground, and thrusting his sour face
close to the stupefied mother, said sneeringly:

"Dost desire to know who killed the master? It was your own self. He
had no fancy to go to the Rock. He had tasted quite sufficient of the
sours of matrimony. He told me himself on the way that he should not
bring back his wife, and that he went solely in order to humour you.
So it was you who drove him to it, you who threw him down, you who
broke his neck, you who have opened the way to me to become hangman-
in-chief. I thank you for it. I shall ask for my appointment and shall
get it. Go back to Shrewsbury, pack up your duds at the Gate House and
sheer off."

Chapter 25. NAN, FAREWELL!

Alas for Nan! There was little to be hoped for when her case came on
for trial.

Bladys spoke to Holy Austin about her. The old man had heard from his
nephew. The jewels were the property of Bladys. The Crown would not
press its claim. Consequently she would have money by the sale, and
her first desire was that whatever was necessary should be done for
Nan Norris.

The old schoolmaster shook his head; a counsel had already been
engaged, and had visited Nan in prison, and had concerted with her a
line of defence. But the Knobbler was not sanguine.

It was with tears in her eyes that Bladys entered the prison at
Stafford to visit her friend. She found Nan at the little window of
her cell, looking up at the flying clouds. The sun shone in when a
cloud was withdrawn from the disc, and then her pleasant countenance
was glorified, and a smile and a dimple formed on lip and in cheek, as
her changeful mood assumed a hopeful complexion, with the flash of
light upon it Next moment a cloud drifted across the orb, and then, as
Nan's face was overshadowed, its expression also became despondent.
The tears filled her eyes as the rain filled the passing mass of

Her hands lay in her lap, but she could not keep them in repose. She
plucked at her gown incessantly; then, as Bladys entered, she started
up, ran to her, and in her impulsive way said:

"Bla, see this; my fingers have been picking at threads. That is ever
a bad sign, mother says, and is a sure token of death."

There was something in the girl's handsome face that was inexpressibly
engaging. The dark eye of old, twinkling with humour or melting with
kindliness, had in it now a soft appealing gleam. Her dimpled cheek,
ready to flush with passion, was now somewhat pale. The mobile lips
that were always inclined to smile good-humouredly were now tremulous
with sorrow. There was ever in the girl strength as well as good
nature, and where her heart was engaged she could be tough as steel.
And this strength did not desert her now. If the tears rose readily to
Nan's eyes and the glow of anger to her cheek the mood quickly
changed, and then there shone a rainbow in her eyes--a promise of fine

Bladys did not dare to extend to the poor creature hopes that were
almost certain to be blasted, and to represent her case as lighter
than it really was. The girl frankly admitted that she had fired at
and shot the constable. Her plea was that he was breaking into her
habitation, and that she had a right to defend herself. She was making
Meg-a-Fox Hole ready, as her mother thought of giving up the Rock
Tavern and of removing thither. When the attack was made she was
alarmed. She knew not who the assailants were. They might have been
housebreakers, murderers. She defended herself and her goods as well
as she was able. She had no more to say than that any girl under like
provocation, in deadly fear for herself, would have been justified in
defending herself. Such was the line of defence agreed upon; but Nan
herself laughed over it to Bladys. It was not likely to be accepted.
It was too well established that Nan and her mother were in league
with the gang of highwaymen infesting the country. The Savoyard was
able to give evidence to this effect, and further proof was not

There was no evidence that the Norris family purposed leaving the
tavern; there was good proof that the series of caves called Meg-a-Fox
Hole was used as a place of concealment for stolen goods, and it was
ostensibly held by Mother Norris, who paid for it a trifling
acknowledgment to the Lord of the Manor.

"O Bla! Bla!" sobbed Nan, clinging to her visitor, "I shall know the
worst very soon. Come and see me afterwards. Do not forsake me.
George, I know, can't come. He is having a bad time of it hiding
about. I'd have been told if he had been nabbed. Well, they'll tire of
hunting after him, and if he'll keep moving about from one ken to
another for a week or two longer he may get off. Mother has been here
to see me. Holy Austin brought her. I am sure it gave him trouble to
persuade her. She is that terrible afraid of gaols and gallows and all
that sort of thing, that she won't come near a court o' law or a
prison. But, anyhow, she did come, and when she was here she made it
bad for me. She was that inquisitive and curious, axing me a score of
questions about--But there, I'll say nothing of that, even to you, my
dear. Bla, sit here by me on my bed. I want to tell you something."

She took hold of the hand of Bladys, and began to stroke it. "I'm not,
after all, so sorry that I am about to die."

"O Nan!"

"It is true. You do not know all; I will tell you. You remember when
you was to be bowled for, when George said he would play, I began to
hate you then. I was miserable. But I had a sort of tiff about it with
George, and he gave up the notion: I think he was a bit afraid of me.
Mother and I knew so much. We knew everything, and could blow the
whole concern. If mother or I turned cat-in-the-pan, where would the
Captain be? Where would--but I will name no names. He and the other
gentlemen have been forced to trust us, and never, never have we acted
dishonourable by 'em. George and I were woundy friendly. But he is of
a changeable complexion and terribly humoursome. I've seen it coming
on for some while, and very miserable it has made me. He's been
getting tired of me, and my life has just been one running festering
sore. It has been all pain and no happiness all through this. Whether
he has set his fancy on some other doxie, I can't tell. He's been
clever enough not to allow me to know, but he has not been for some
time to me what he once was, and it is my conviction, Bla, that but
for fear of offending me, and so making me ready to peach, he'd have
shaken me off two months agone."

Nan sobbed convulsively. She squeezed the hand of Bladys and held it
to her bosom, then kissed it.

"Well, it had come to this. I found him every day trying to undo one
tie and then another that bound us together, and to me the misery was
becoming more than I could bear. Bla, that is one reason why I am
ready to die. To live on, deserted by him, to be nothing more to him,
to know that his heart belonged to another, I could not bear it. O
Bla!" she loosed her hold on Bladys, and flung herself on the bed with
her face down and beat the counterpane with her hands, "I could not
bear it. I would rather die than go through it."

Recovering herself, she sat up again and continued:

"But that is not all. There is worse behind. I should not have rested
by day or by night. I'd have been ever looking who she was that had
stolen him away from me. And then, if I had discovered--and from a
jealous, resentful and wretched woman nothing of that kind can be hid
for long--then, Bla, darling, I'd have become that wicked, I'd have
killed her. Mother would have lent a hand, and been pleased to do so.
Lor' bless y', she thinks no more of that sort of thing than of
poisoning rats. She is a clever woman is mother, and knows the herbs,
like any other wise woman. It has been in the family. Her mother was
just the same. But there now, I'm off to something else, and time is
flying. Bla! think of that. If I'd got out, and lived, and was unhappy
with having lost George, I might have come to be a real wicked
murderess. I would have done it with hate in my heart, and a wish for

"As to the poor chap I shot, by Goles, I bore him no malice; I could
not see who it was, and I did my duty in shooting him. George bade me
fire. I did it to save him. If I had not blazed at him, in another
minute he'd have been in the cave, and all the others after him. There
is just this comfort to me," she wiped her eyes, "that George can't
think unkindly of me, though there have been brushes between us
sometimes. One or other--it had come to that. He or I must go to feed
the crows, so, of course, there was no choice for me. Now, look you
here, and listen and attend to what I say. Mother, she'll be in a
pretty take-on about me. She puts it all down to George, and I want
you to do me a favour. It is the last in the world that you can."

"I will do anything that I can for you, dear Nan!"

"I know you will," with another gush of affection. "You are the only
real friend I have, or ever have had--all but George, and he is not
true. But for all that, I'm sorry not to say good-bye to him. No, Bla!
I'm glad I am going; it is all for the best, and I feel that in my
heart o' hearts. George will not forget that he escaped by means of

"But what is it that you desire me to do for you, Nan?"

"There now, I am wandering again. I am a fool, as George was never
tired of telling me. I didn't like it then, but I dare be sworn he was
right. It is just this--Do everything you can to find him."

"Whom, Nan?"

"George, of course. There is no other he to me."

"That will be difficult if he is in hiding."

"I know it will be. Perhaps if all other means fail, you may learn
about him from my mother; but find him, if you can, before she sees
him. When you have discovered him, then"--she drew the ear of Bladys
to her lips and whispered, "bid him never eat a bit of food or take a
sup of drink from my mother. Do you understand? Tell him that from me.
When I am swung, then I shall know nothing of how he goes on with
other girls. I shan't mind, if he keeps one kind thought of Nan in his
heart. Tell him," she whispered again, trembling with eagerness as she
spoke, "tell him from me never to accept a bit or drop from mother.
Hark! there they come! I know it is to take me into Court. God be wi'
ye, Bla. Kiss me again. You will not forget my message? Give my love
to George."

"Farewell, Nan!"


Mother Norris was sitting by the fire, smoking a short pipe, and
looking dreamily into the glow. A few days had sufficed to olden her
by as many years. The anxiety under which she had laboured when her
house had been searched, and her distress about Nan, had aged her
vastly. Her back was more bent, her face more haggard, her hair greyer
and more dishevelled, and her eyes more dazed.

She had seen her daughter. The assizes at Stafford had followed so
speedily after those at Shrewsbury that Nan's imprisonment had been
brief, and only a few weeks had intervened, no more, between the death
of the constable and her execution.

Now the old woman was full of concern for herself and her future. In
her old age, with her natural selfishness, she grieved for the loss of
her daughter mainly as it affected her own comfort. She was afraid
that she would be driven out of her old home. But even if allowed to
continue there, how could she conduct the business of the house
unassisted? To engage a helper when she was in such a feeble condition
was to put everything into the hands of the assistant. She sat
blinking and puffing over the embers, with one brown, lean hand on
each knee, endeavouring to discover some expedient for making the rest
of her life independent and comfortable, and could find none.

Then she was startled by a rap, followed by a scratching at the door.
She called in reply, and the door was partially opened. A face looked
in, peered into every corner, and then a body followed.

"Ah, George! My darling, my honey-man!" croaked the old woman. "Come
in; I am alone. You are safe here. But I've had them rumpling the
place up twice."

Stracey shut and bolted the door after him. If the events of the past
weeks had worn and oldened the woman, they had told with even greater
effect on the man. He was pale to ghastliness, had lost flesh, his
swagger had given way to nervousness, and his very garments had
partaken in his deterioration. They were soiled and ragged. He threw
himself into a chair by the hearth and cowered by the fire.

"It has come to this," said he, "that I'm pretty nigh done for. They
are stopping every earth, and I have had to run from one ken to
another, and have never known where I was safe. I've had to sleep in
ditches and under trees, been soaked by rains and shivered by frosts.
I haven't had a proper bite of food since I last saw you. By Heaven, I
must eat, and I'll throw myself on a doss (bed) to-night if I have to
swing for it. But I won't be caught; they are hunting in another
quarter now. I can't endure this much longer; I'll shift to Wales."

"Why have you come here?" said Mrs Norris, holding the pipe in her
hand, and eyeing him with a singular expression in her leathery face.
He was too weary, hungry, miserable, to observe of her countenance.

"Why have I come?" said he impatiently; "you have potatoes, bacon;
that is why. Bring me rye bread--anything. I am sick for want of
proper meat and sleep."

"I've no taters in the house, and not a bit of bacon for the last
fortnight. But I'll bring you a drop of cat-water (gin), and warm you
some porridge with onions."

"Anything that is hot. I'm starved. Am I safe here?"

"How can I say? This is a pot-house, and folk come in for a drop at
all hours. If they find the door locked and barred they'll smell
something, and go into Kinver and lay an information."

"Let me have the inner room. Then if anyone should enter you can keep
'em in the kitchen as usual; and they'll know nothing of my being
under this roof. But when I've eaten and warmed me at the fire I'll
just throw myself on the doss."

He went to the door of communication and looked into the dark and
unoccupied chamber.

"I'll not be in yonder, in cold and blackness, I've been a fortnight
and more without seeing or smelling a fire. I'm starving for warmth
and dryth, as I am for proper food. See--my clothing--rags they be;
you can almost wring the water out of them."

"I'll kindle the fire in yonder," said Mrs Norris; "and then if any
one comes to the door you can step in there. I can't refuse to open."

"I know that; I would not have come here but that I have nowhere else
whither I can run. Look at my hand, how it shakes. That is with cold
and fasting and being hounded about, and never sure whether I shan't
be nabbed, and in the end crapped."

"My fell (daughter) has been that," said the hostess, leaning over
Stracey and looking into his face with inquiry in her eyes.

He rubbed his hands together and extended them over the fire again,
but did not respond to the remark.

"Do you know that?" asked Mother Norris. "She's turned off and done
for. Last Tuesday it was. What I am to do without her I can't think. I
always reckoned that you'd make a tavern sign, but I never reckoned
that my Nan would be swung up. Captain, how came that about? I'd like
to know. You was with her in Meg-a-Fox Hole. Couldn't you have got her

"You hell-hag! I had as much as I could do to save myself."

"And the dust--what became of that? I know it was got away. How did
you manage to carry that away and leave my Nan behind? I know you got
off with the blunt, for they turned over everything in the cave and
did not find it."

"Yes, yes; I thrust it down the dolly!"

"Then why did you leave Nan behind? She was more to me than my share
of the dust. She ought not to have been lagged when you were there to
help her."

With an oath George Stracey turned on the old woman and bade her get
the fire lighted in the farther room and prepare food for him.

She said not another word, but hobbled into the adjoining apartment,
and remained there for some minutes. Presently she returned to take a
shovel-full of red-hot embers from the kitchen hearth, with which to
kindle the fire in the grate of the inner chamber. As she stopped and
with a hook drew the ashes into the shovel she leered up into the face
of the highwayman and said:

"Ah! Captain, honey! What are you thinking and grieving over? No more
games on the main toby (highway)? Or is it for Nan? Poor, poor Nan."

The man stamped and set his teeth.

"Have I not enough to worry me without you snapping at me?"

"Just so she used to sit, looking into the glow," continued the hag,
undeterred; "with her it was nought but George this and George that;
ay, ay, it was all George with her. I've seen her fret her heart out,
there on that stool, when she fancied you was ceasing to care for her,
and had took up with some other jorner."

"Get me something to eat. Don't you know I'm perished for food?"
exclaimed Stracey, with an impatient action of the hand that made the
woman wince, as she thought he was about to strike her.

She obeyed, her face wreathed with a smile more hideous than a scowl.

After a few minutes she returned, and said in a muffled voice,
"Everything is ready."

"Not more ready than am I," said the highwayman, rising stiffly.
"Zounds! I've had nothing baken and hot from the fire between my teeth
for many days; nought but raw turnips or a handful of dry corn."

He went into the adjoining room and threw the door back after him.

The chamber he entered was lighted by a dancing fire of sticks, in
joyful contrast to the dull red fire over which he had crouched in the
kitchen, and which had been reduced in volume by the red-hot embers
taken to supply the other grate.

Stracey had not left the kitchen many minutes before steps were heard
approaching; then a hand was laid on the latch and an attempt was made
to open the door.

"Who is there?" asked Mother Norris.

"Come--open. A public-house should never be fast shut," was the reply.

"Eh! but I am lone and old now."

"We will not harm you. Unbar."

"But who are you? There be more than one."

"Ay, to be sure there be. Crispin Ravenhill and Stewponey Bla. You're
not afraid of us?"

At the door of communication between the inner room and the kitchen,
appeared Stracey, signalling to the old woman. But she paid no
attention to him, and withdrew the bar.

"Come in, and welcome," she said. "There be so many wicked men about,
that I'm forced, when feeling timorsome of nights, to bolt my door.
What are you two about, wandering in the wind and rain and darkness?"

"We have made this journey to see you," answered the young man in the
doorway. "It has been the wish of Bladys, and I am but now returned
from London town."

"Come to the fire. Sit you down," said the hag.

"We shall not remain over ten minutes," said Crispin. "We must return
to the Rock and Kinver."

He strode to the hearth and stood there.

A strip of gold, the reflection from the fire in the farther
apartment, through the gap made by the door being ajar, was painted
from ceiling to floor, on the wall--a ribbon of flickering gold leaf.

The haste with which Mrs Norris had undone the front door, had
prevented Stracey from shutting that into the room where he was.

"You have a fire in yonder," said Ravenhill. "Is there anyone there?"

"No--no--no one," answered the old woman. "I have kindled a faggot, as
the night was damp and the room smelled mouldy, like a church vault."

Then Bladys took the hand of Mrs Norris, and said in a shaking voice:

"Mother, I have come to say a word to you about her whom we have
lost--whom I loved as well as you."

"Ay! ay!" replied the crone. "She was a good wench, and was very fond
of you. She loved me too, although I was rough with her at times. She
was my own flesh and blood, and although I say it, she was a good
wench; and I take it kindly of you to come and speak to me of her.
That's more than do some as ought to." Her tone suddenly altered. "She
would ha' done better to have dashed a kettle o' scalding water in a
face I could put a name to, than to have cast eyes of love on it."

"As you say," spoke Bladys in feeling tones, "she was good and true,
and we will remember her as such. I ever shall--to me she was loving."

"That's certain," exclaimed the old woman, casting a sidelong glance
at the door that was ajar. "And if right had been done by such as I
know of, she'd have been here to-night to welcome you, and would not
have got her head into a horse's nightcap."

She stooped over the fire, and put the miserable embers together and
muttered, "Somebody might have saved her had he chose."

"Do not entertain these notions," said Bladys. "What has happened is
past recall."

"True, but, Stewponey Bla, I saw my Nan before she died. Holy Austin
took me to her, or I never should have mustered up courage to go. She
was woundy shy of speaking to me, but I probed her well wi' questions,
and when she turned stiff and wouldn't give me a reply, then I sullied
the truth. Yes, yes, the cravat was but to her neck that should have
been fitted to the throat of another."

It was in vain for Bladys to get the old woman to speak of her
daughter in any other light. She harboured the conviction that a wrong
had been done to her and Nan, and was bitter in heart with resentment
against the offender, whom, however, she would not name. Bladys
accordingly turned to another matter.

"Mother," she said, "for all that Nan was to me, for the love that I
bore her, I wish to do something for you. I know that you are poor,
very poor, and now, in your old age, companion-less and helpless. It
is my wish and intention, along with Crispin, who--who will soon be my
husband, to do something for you."

"What can you do?" asked the old woman sharply.

"We will allow you a crown every week, on which you may be able to
obtain little comforts."

The old woman laughed.

"You must have the money before you can give it."

"We have it," answered Bladys. "I may tell you that we have come in
for a large sum of money--large, that is, for us."

"A large sum--When? How?" greedily queried the beldame. "Have you it
about you now? Show it me."

"No, Mother Norris, I have none of it about me now. Crispin is going
to expend it in barges on the canal. We shall have enough over with
which to assist you. You shall receive a crown every week, from Holy
Austin if we are away. And if at any time you should need more we
shall not refuse further help, for dear Nan's sake."

"I'd like to know how you came by that money," said the hag
meditatively. "Not from Holy Austin--he has none. Not from your
father--he wants it all for the dressing-up of his new jorner. Not
from Luke Hangman or his mother--for I've heard say that you never was
his wife, and so couldn't claim aught when he was dead."

"I have my secrets," said Bladys, with a smile, "even from you."

"There is one thing, further, and then we must be gone," said Crispin.
"Where is Captain Stracey?"

"Where is George Stracey?" repeated the old woman, slowly, musingly.
"Oh! you desire to know?"

"Yes, Bla does."

Then Bladys, standing near the hearth, saw in the streak of flickering
gold reflected on the wall before her, the shadow of a hand with a
crooked forefinger, making a sign of caution. With an exclamation of
astonishment she turned on her heels, and cried, "He is here!"

At the same moment Crispin sprang at the door and drove it open, and
saw Stracey standing with spanned pistol presented at him.

"Back!" shouted the highwayman, and snapped the lock. No discharge
followed; the priming was wet. With a curse Stracey turned the weapon
in his hand and said:

"Come on if you dare. I'll sell my life dearly."

"I have no desire to touch you, or to have anything to do with you,"
said Ravenhill coolly.

"Then why ask Mother Norris to betray me?"

"I asked her where you were, because she who is soon to become my wife
brings you a message from poor Nan."

Bladys advanced into the room.

"Captain," said she, "have no fears for yourself, no hurt will come to
you through us. Nan loved you too dearly for me not to wish you well.
For her sake I would screen you. But I can do nothing in that way. Nan
made me promise that I would give you a message from her--one I was to
communicate to no ear save yours."

"What is it?" he asked, sullenly and suspiciously.

"I must speak it to you alone. Crispin will leave the room, go into
the kitchen, and suffer us to be together for a moment."

Ravenhill withdrew and shut the door.

"Come, what is it?"

"It really is not much," answered Bladys; "only this. Nan said, 'Tell
George Stracey on no account to touch food or drink prepared for him
by my mother.'"

The man staggered back, turned livid, his eyes fell; he put his hand
through his hair and whispered--he could not speak--"It is too late!
Look!" and he pointed to an empty bowl on the table.

Then his paralysing terror instantly gave way, and in a transport of
fury and resentment he dashed past Bladys, tore open the door, and
would have fallen on Mother Norris and beaten out her brains with his
fists had not Ravenhill intervened and repelled him.

"She has poisoned me!" he yelled; the sweat bursting, almost spouting,
from his lips and brow. "I know it--I feel it. Why did I ever come

Unable to reach her he ran back into the room he had left, picked up
the pistol that had fallen from his hand in the first access of
horror, again cocked it, and once more attempted to discharge it, this
time aiming at the hag. Again the weapon refused to fire, and he threw
it at her, but missed.

"She has poisoned me--with her cursed drie," he gasped; then suddenly
turned and fled the house.

The old woman, hugging her knee, seated by the fire, broke into
convulsions of harsh laughter.

"Drie, is it! Accursed drie! Oh, Captain George--Captain Stracey--who
could have thought that he who has been the terror of travellers, has
defied the law and slipped the noose, should find his death in a
porridge bowl!"

"Come from this place," cried Ravenhill, drawing Bladys to him. "Leave
the miserable creature to herself. This is no place for you."

He led her from the Rock Tavern.

The rain had ceased, the clouds had parted, the stars shone clear.
Jupiter as a silver lamp stood above. From beyond the Stour sounded
soft and sweet the warble of a flute; a lad was practising outside his
cottage door.

"Bladys!" said Crispin, and he drew the shaking, trembling girl closer
to his side, "another month and then we leave Kinver, and put behind
us thoughts that are painful and the memory of many horrors, and in
the new home in which you will be known as Bladys Ravenhill a new and
happy story will begin, full of love and joy and peace, and the old
tale of Stewponey Bla, into which entered so much of distress, shame,
and sorrow, will be closed--ay, and forgotten."


In 1769 Susannah Lott was burned for the murder of her husband, at
Canterbury, and Benjamin Buss, her paramour, was hanged for
participation in the crime.

Catherine Hayes was burned alive in 1726. Her son, Billings, who had
assisted her in the murder of her husband, was hung. "An iron chain
was put round her body, with which she was fixed to a stake near the
gallows." On these occasions, when women were hanged for petty
treason, it was customary to strangle them, by means of a rope passed
round the neck, and pulled by the executioner, so that they were dead
before the flames reached the body. But this woman was literally burnt
alive: for the executioner letting go the rope sooner than usual, in
consequence of the flames reaching his hands, the fire burnt fiercely
round her, and the spectators beheld her pushing away the faggots,
while she rent the air with her cries and lamentations. Other faggots
were instantly thrown on her; but she survived amidst the flames for a
considerable time, and her body was not reduced perfectly to ashes in
less than three hours.--"Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate
Calendar." G. C. Pelham, June 1840.

"From a prison chaplain's MS. private prayer-book I copy, that in 1732
a woman was hanged, taken down while the body was warm, and then
burnt; and this is recorded as if the process were usual, and as if
women were not burnt alive then. J. HODGSON."

A poor girl of fifteen was burnt at Heavitree, near Exeter, on July
29, 1782, for poisoning her master, Richard Jarvis, with arsenic. A
broadside ballad was circulated among the crowd who witnessed the
execution, of which this is the last verse:--

"When to the fatal stake I come

And dissipate in flame.

Let all be warn'd by my sad doom.

To shun my sin and shame.

May I thus expiate my crime.

And whilst I undergo

The fiery trial here on earth.

Escape the flames below."

A woman was burnt at Winchester in 1783. A writer in "Notes and
Queries," June 1, 1850, says: "A gentleman lately deceased told me the
circumstances (of a case in 1789) minutely. I think that he had been
at the trial, but I know that he was at the execution, and saw the
wretched woman fixed to the stake, fire put to the faggots, and her
body burnt. But I know two persons still alive who were present at her
execution, and I endeavoured in 1848 to ascertain from one of them the
date of the event. I made a note of his answer, which was to this
effect: I can't recollect the year, but I remember the circumstance
well. It was about sixty-five years ago. I was there along with the
crowd. I sat on my father's shoulder, and saw them burn her... They
fixed her neck by a noose to the stake, and then set fire to the
faggots and burnt her."

This woman was Christiana Murphy, alias Budman, convicted of coining.
She was stood on a stool, and the stool was removed from under her
just before fire was put to the faggots.

A writer in "N. and Q.," August 10, 1850, says: "I will state a
circumstance that occurred to myself about 1788. Passing in a hackney
coach up the old Bailey to West Smithfield, I saw the unquenched
embers of a fire opposite Newgate. On my alighting, I asked the
coachman, 'What was that fire in the Old Bailey over which the wheel
of your coach passed?' 'Oh, sir,' he replied, 'they have been burning
a woman for murdering her husband.'"

A full account of the execution is in the "Gentleman's Magazine" for
13th March and 18th March 1789. "This is the execution at which I was
present," says another writer in "N. and Q." "Eight of the malefactors
suffered on the scaffold, then known as the New Drop. After they were
suspended, the woman, in a white dress, was brought out of Newgate
alone, and after some time spent in devotion, was hung on the
projecting arm of a low gibbet, fixed at a little distance from the
scaffold. After the lapse of a sufficient time to extinguish life,
faggots were piled around her, and over her head, so that the person
was completely covered. Fire was then set to the pile, and the woman
was consumed to ashes."

In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for June 21, 1786, is the account of the
burning of Phoebe Harris for counterfeiting the coin of the realm.

In Harrison's "Derby and Nottingham Journal," September 22, 1779, is
an account of another such sentence: "On Saturday, two persons were
capitally convicted at the Old Bailey of High Treason--viz., Isabella
Condon, for coining shillings in Coldbath Fields, and John Field, for
coining shillings in Nag's Head Yard, Bishopsgate Street. They will
receive sentence to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution the
woman to be burnt, and the man to be hanged."

From Angli Notitia, by Edward Chamberlain, LL.D., F.R.S., 1676. P.
44:--"Petit Treason is when a servant killeth his master or mistress,
or a wife killeth her husband. The punishment for a woman convicted of
high treason or petit treason is all one, and that is to be drawn and
burnt alive." P. 292:--"The Law allots the same punishment to a woman
that shall kill her husband as to a woman that shall kill her father
or master, and that is petit treason, to be burnt alive."

The Shrewsbury case was, I believe, the last in England. On May 10th,
1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett, in the House of Commons, called attention
to the then state of the law. He said that it had been his painful
office and duty in the previous year to attend the burning of a
female, he being at the time Sheriff of London; and he moved to bring
in a Bill to alter the law. He showed that the Sheriff who shrank from
executing the sentence of burning alive was liable to a prosecution,
but he thanked Heaven that there was not a man in England who would
carry such a sentence literally into execution. The executioner was
allowed to strangle the woman condemned to the stake, before flames
were applied; but such an act of humanity was a violation of the law,
subjecting executioner and Sheriff to penalties. The Act was passed 30
George III. C. 48.

It is a startling thought that in the time of our grandfathers such
atrocities could have been permitted by law. We move so rapidly now,
and the swing of the pendulum has been so greatly into the other
extreme, that we forget that little over a century has elapsed since
the last stake was kindled in England about the body of a wretched


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