Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 1
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 no!"
"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 composition:—
- "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 Francis."
"What is his trade?"
"There's Captain Stracey."
"He can't marry her—he's a gentleman; and what about Nan—has he broke with her? What others?"
"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 blood-red.
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.
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 gunpowder.
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 whacks."
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 awfulness.
"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 end?"