Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 17
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 freedom.
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 himself.
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 stone.
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.