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A CROOKED FINGER

The quarrel had left Stracey too out of humour, and Nan too unhappy for either to speak, and they mounted the conveyance in silence.

After having proceeded a mile, however, George raised the hand that held the whip, and pointed with the butt end over Nan at a house of red sandstone that had been quarried out of Nesscliffe, standing in a pleasant domain, well-timbered, and said:

"There, that's the mansion where she lived who poisoned her husband."

Neither of the girls made any observation. He continued:

"She was a jeweller's daughter, an orphan under the charge of an uncle, and he was a pig-headed old guardian. He would not suffer her to marry the young man to whom she was attached—it had been a liking begun in childhood, and he was in the army in the Netherlands. He was taken prisoner at Turcoing, and he did not get exchanged for some years. Her uncle suppressed his letters, and persuaded his niece that her lover had fallen. Then, whilst she was in despair, he so wrought upon her as to induce her to marry the owner of that house I have pointed out to you. He was a man of some family, and she of none; he was old enough to be her father. She had inherited some money—how much, I know not. After she was married the lover returned to England, and then only did she discover that she had been deceived. He was a soldier, and reckless, and persuaded her to run away with him; and she poisoned the old man. I do not think that the lover had any part in that; indeed, some say that she did not purpose doing more than giving the old fellow a draught to make him ill and keep his chamber, or to sleep, but she made the dose too strong. He slept never to wake again. That is a pretty seat for a gentleman, and not such as a fellow would care to leave, especially if he had a young, fresh, and pretty wife.

"Whether she was handsome or not, I cannot tell; we could not get near enough to the stake to see. And with the fear of death—and such a death—it was not likely that then she would look her best, eh, Nan? There, do you mark yonder park palings? That is the limit of the domain. They assured me at the tavern yonder that she had been a sweet and well-disposed lady, and that none hereabouts gave credence that she had purposed to kill her husband. Who will come into the estate now is doubtful. The old man had no near relatives, and as to what was hers there also is a doubt. The property of one who dies for petty treason is confiscated to the State; but hers, doubtless, had been joined to and disposed of by her husband, so the Crown could not lay hands on it. It is well there were no children, for this sentence carries with it corruption of blood. They tell me she had jewels which were given her by her father, or left to her, but what became of them, and who would claim them, none knew. If I knew where they were, and could reach them—eh, Nan?"

"See now," exclaimed Nan, whose good humour had returned, "we have quitted Nesscliffe, and have not been that Stewponey Bla was able to do that for which we brought her hither. What was it, Bladys? Shall we turn back?"

"On no account. I have accomplished my errand."

"It was an errand. To whom?"

"It was a commission."

"But when? How? I did not see you—"

"Do not concern yourself about me," said Bladys hastily. She was embarrassed how to answer.

Then, as George Stracey drew up, and again raised his hand, she said hastily:

"I ought to have spoken before—but yet I could not. Indeed, I did not know—not till this minute—not till the Captain pointed to the house did I observe it—my brain has been too heated and disturbed to see things. Never before have I noticed that Captain Stracey has a crooked forefinger."

"He has had that for some years," said Nan. "He received a cut across the joint, and it healed badly. What of that?"

"A vast deal," answered Bladys. "When Luke Hangman and I were stopped by the highwaymen on the heath beyond Stourton, then, if you remember, Nan, the leader of them made us foot it on the turf, and he danced as well."

"Right, so I recollect," answered the girl, and she touched her male companion, who had drawn the reins and brought the horse to a standstill.

"What then?" inquired Stracey.

"There was moonlight mingled with daylight, for the sun had not long set," continued Bladys, "and Luke Onion was able to observe attentively not only what went forward, but those who partook in the affair."

Stracey listened attentively, and an expression of uneasiness and apprehension crept over his face.

"He noticed that the head man or Captain who danced had a crooked forefinger on the right hand."

Both Nan and the driver started.

"And as Onion had been staying at the Stewponey ten days or a fortnight he had played at bowls and also at cards with sundry gentlemen of the neighbourhood, and he had made himself familiar with the name and appearance of one of these, and that was a man with a stiff and bowed forefinger."

"Go on," said Stracey. He turned in his seat and looked at the girl in the back portion of the conveyance. His face was bleached, and the hand that held the reins shook.

"He is so well assured that the highwayman who robbed him is none other than this same gentleman—I need not be shy of naming him—Mr George Stracey, that he has laid information against him and has proceeded to obtain warrants in the three—nay, four—counties, so as to make certain of being able to secure him."

Stracey uttered a terrible oath.

"Why did you not tell me this before? Why have you let me come to this cursed place, and so lose a day?"

"I was quite uncertain that the matter touched you. He mentioned no names except Baxter and Poulter. I may have entertained a half-fancy, but nothing more. I had not noticed the crooked finger of the highwayman that night; I was too greatly alarmed to notice anything. It was but last night that Luke Onion declared what he had seen and what he knew, and, further, what he proposed doing. And it was not till a minute ago, when you lifted your hand, that I perceived what ailed your forefinger on the hand that held the whip."

Stracey brought the lash across the back of the horse.

"May I die, Nan," said he, "but there is not a moment to be lost. I wish we may be back in time. Curse it, I was mad to come on this fool's errand to-day."

"Nay, George, but for this you would not have known what Luke Onion had determined against you. You may thank her that she has shown you the net before it has been drawn."

Then turning to Bladys, and allowing her to see how pale her face had become, she said:

"I pray you tell us everything you can about this matter."

"There is nothing further to relate. Luke Hangman said he was confident that the Captain with the bent forefinger who had stayed him was none other than the redoubted Poulter, otherwise called Baxter, who had been looked for so long and ineffectually; and that he now believed this man would not escape his clutches. He did not mention the name by which he was known in this neighbourhood, only that he could swear to him because of the crooked forefinger."

For the rest of the journey the horse was driven as he had probably never been pressed before. At intervals whispers passed between Stracey and Nan Norris, which Bladys did not catch, nor, indeed, did she attempt to overhear.

The face of each was grave, and every trace of recent disagreement had vanished.

Moreover, curiosity relative to the object of the journey of Bladys to Nesscliffe had been effaced from their minds in their great concern over the danger that directly menaced one of them, and indirectly the other.

The cart was driven through the streets of Shrewsbury at a furious pace, and the beast, panting and blotched with foam, was drawn up at the door of the Wool Pack.

Stracey swung himself out of the vehicle, and without regarding the women or helping them to dismount, ran into the inn, and burst into the room where sat the hostess of the Rock Tavern.

"Mother Norris!" said he, in a voice that quivered with emotion, "there's damnable news come."

"Ay! ay! I know it."

"You do?"

"You are blown."

"Why did you not tell me this earlier? before I started for Nesscliffe? I might have been halfway to Kinver by this time."

"That is fine talking. How could I tell you when he was not arrested till three hours after you were gone?"

"Arrested? Who? What is your meaning?"

"What is my meaning?" repeated the hag; "why, this—that the constables have taken him, and Beelzebub as well."

"Have arrested Jac'mo!" almost shrieked Stracey.

"Who else? They have taken him to the Castle, and the monkey with him."

"Oh, curse the monkey!" throwing himself into a chair, with an expression of dejection, almost of despair on his face. "We are lost."

"He is certain to peach," said the beldame; "I made signs to him not to understand a word of English addressed to him. He was in deadly terror. They will do with him what they like."

"He will tell everything. Curse the day that we trusted him."

"He has been useful. As Z stands at the end of the alphabet, so doth the gallows finish the life of such as you. Meet it bravely, Captain."

Stracey broke into imprecations.

"Not a moment is to be lost," said he; "Nan and I must return immediately to Kinver, with a chaise and post-horses. We must get there first."

"What will you do?"

"Clear out Meg-a-Fox Hole."

"And then?"

"Clear off myself."

"What am I to do?"

"Stewponey Bla shall drive you leisurely home to-morrow."

"As you will. It is late, and a drive in the cold night air would bring on my cough. See, a coffin has just shot out from the fire—to your feet, not to mine. It passed me—it lies smoking before you."

Stracey flung from the room to order the lightest available carriage, with the best post-horses that could be procured, to be ready immediately. To Nan he said in a low voice:

"You urge them on; I shall walk forward. You shall catch me up clear of Shrewsbury."

He walked leisurely through the town, swinging a rattan, and crossed the bridge; then passed the Abbey, without meeting with any inconvenience. In fact, the Italian had as yet told nothing, and the magistrates were profoundly ignorant that the redoubted Captain had been staying in the town.

Nan urged on the ostlers, made promises of extra payment, and said:

"The poor gentleman has just learned that his mother is dying. She has been suffering long from a consumption, and now has broke a blood vessel. He has walked ahead, so impatient is he to reach his home. He lives at Much Wenlock."

Every word was untrue, but it served the girl's purpose, and with rapidity the chaise was got ready, and the postboys arrived duly caparisoned in their jackets, breeches, and boots. Nan sprang in, and the horses started at a trot.

Not until a quarter of an hour after the departure of Nan did the old woman start from the lethargy into which she had fallen by the fire; then lifting her hands, she uttered a cry of dismay.

"What ails you, mother?" asked Bladys.

"My dear," answered the old woman in great agitation, "have you money with you?"

"Not one penny."

"Nor have I."

"Does this greatly matter?"

"It matters everything. In his haste Captain George has gone off and forgotten to pay the inn account. They will come down on me. Pay we must, or they will seize on our horse and cart, and we shall be detained here. We have been three days here, and have eaten and drunk of the best. There will be a charge of many pounds against us, and I have nothing."

Bladys mused for a moment. She understood how serious the dilemma was. Moreover, she was impatient to leave Shrewsbury.

Presently she stood up.

"Do not be uneasy, Mother Norris; I can find a way out of the difficulty, and that speedily."