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CASTLE FOREGATE

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 Bewdley."

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

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?"

"Never."

"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 blunt."

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 hangs."

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,

"Onion."

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 rhyme.

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 house!"