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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 after-reckoning.

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 military.

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 features.

"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 flames."

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 guineas."

"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 key."

"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 answered:

"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 said:

"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 meat?"

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

"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 so?"

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 laughter.

"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 them."

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

"Do you still defy me, hussy?"

"Still."

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

"Or dies!"

"Or dies. Very well. I accept the challenge."