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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 wife."

"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 consumption."

"Mother," said Nan, "Stewponey Bla is going to return to Stourton with us."

"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 stake?"

"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."

"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."