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A SECOND FLIGHT

Luke Onion was sitting by the fire, his feet extended, and the soles scarlet with the reflected glow as though he had been treading in blood. No less red was his face. The expression was sinister.

A flame, the reflection of that which played above the coals, danced in his eyes. His head was bound up, and the fever of his wound had produced a twitching in his hands and feet that showed, in spite of the position of repose he had assumed, that he was in a condition of inner unrest.

Now and again, he bit his fingers, gnawing the nails; and then he spread out his hands before the fire to screen his face.

To him entered his mother.

"Luke! News!"

"Well!" He did not turn his head. "Has the cat kittened?"

"Luke, we have been robbed."

"We always are being pillaged. Nicodemus is an arrant rogue."

"We have been robbed by that wench from Stewponey."

"How so? What of her?"

"Of her, nothing but what is evil. There has been a curse on us and a blight on our affairs ever since you brought her here."

"What has she taken? My grandmother's salve box, with the Queen Anne shilling on it?"

"Luke, rouse up. She has carried away all the jewellery of that woman we burnt."

"There was none for her to take. Nicodemus secured the wedding ring and guard."

"I tell you, Luke, that she has got jewellery to the value of many hundreds of pounds."

"You have had an afternoon doze, and have been dreaming, mother."

"Luke, rouse up! I have seen them. She has already sold a brooch to Purvis, the goldsmith, for sixteen guineas, and it is worth five times that amount."

The hangman was now thoroughly roused. He sat up in his chair, put his hands on the elbows, and turned himself about.

His mother approached the hearth, and said:

"I was in High Street, when I caught a glimpse of her as she went up and down, looking into shop windows. I wondered what she sought, and I watched her without allowing myself to be seen. She remained awhile in front of Purvis's shop, first; put forth her hand as though to open the door and enter, then changed her intent and walked on, still observing the windows. After a while she came on the shop of Radstone, and stayed there. She halted before no other window but that of a jeweller; not before that of a milliner or a draper. But she did not go in at Radstone's, although she seemed to have a mind to do so; instead, she returned through the street to Purvis's. Then I was certain that she intended to buy something or sell something, and, either way, it astonished me. So I drew close, where I might see. After she had entered, then, she stood with her back to the window, and there was a light inside, by which the goldsmith had been repairing some trinket. I saw her take a box from out of her pocket."

"What box?"

"None belonging to us. None I had ever seen before. She had a key and unlocked it; but apart, so that she showed none of the contents. She drew from it a glittering ornament. It was a diamond brooch. The jeweller held it to the little lamp to examine it, and then he brought it to the window that he might inspect it by the daylight, and assure himself of the water of the stones; and he further tested them with a diamond-cutter, to assure himself that they did not scratch, and so were not of paste. I drew somewhat aside, but for all that I did not remove my eyes from him and the little brooch. Presently he went back to where she was stood, and I thrust myself nearer once more, and I saw how that he was questioning her.

Then I opened the door and entered. He looked well content, and she was startled, but speedily collected herself again, cold and hard as she is—like a block of marble The man Purvis said at once to me that he was glad I had arrived; he had been offered a diamond brooch, and that it was his custom never to purchase jewellery from one with whom he was unacquainted, lest he should be brought thereby into trouble. He said that he did not question that whatever she had said was true—"

"What had she said?"

"That I asked; and she repeated her words, looking at me straight in the face."

"What said she?"

"She said that the woman that was burnt had given to her this brooch as a present and as a remembrance of her. She had stood on the heap of fuel at her side until the last moment, and the criminal had with her last words committed this brooch to her. I had myself seen how that Stewponey girl had taken something out of the bosom of the creature."

"Was it the box?"

"No, it was a letter."

"I do not comprehend how she came by the box."

"That matters not to us. It is my positive conviction that the box is a jewel-case and contained more than the one brooch. Purvis asked her whether she were your wife. She answered him: 'I am she that came to Shrewsbury as such.' Then he turned to me and asked me if this was the truth, and I assented. What else was I to do?"

"Proceed."

"Then he offered her ten guineas for the brooch, but she hesitated about receiving that sum. After that he came to sixteen, and would advance nothing beyond. She made no offer to open the case and to show whether it contained other jewellery, although Purvis inquired whether she had many pieces to dispose of, for then he might consider if he could make the sum up to eighteen. She answered curtly that she had nothing more to sell to him. But it is my solemn belief that she has got more in the case, and I think that the goldsmith was of the same mind. I knew not what to say or do. What should I have done, Luke?"

"Go forward with your account. It matters not what has been done; provision must be made as to what is to be done next."

"There you are right, Luke. Consider yourself in my position."

"I should not have acted thus. I should have laid my hand on the case and brooch, and have said they were mine."

"I did not know what course to take. I was as one distraught. I thought that had it come out before the goldsmith that the case contained jewels of price, and that all had come from the woman that was burnt for petty treason, then the Crown might have claimed it, and we should have got nothing."

Luke considered.

"After all, it was as well. We must manage secretly—or in some other way."

"Then he handed her sixteen guineas, and without another word she left."

"And you?"

"I went with her and endeavoured to induce her to return to the Gate House—not, God wot, that I desire to have her here again, save only for so long till we have secured the case. I assured her that you were ill. The blow on your head and the events of last night had brought upon you a brain fever, and the surgeon who visited you despaired of your life. But she paid no regard to my words. Whether she believed them or not, I cannot say. She sought to shake me off, but I clung to her skirt as a burr. I asked her how many pretty trinkets she had in the case, but she gave me never a word in reply. Then she took her way over the Welsh Bridge towards Skelton and walked fast; but I knew at what she aimed, so I fell short of breath and halted and waited about in corners, watching, hidden lest she should perceive me, and an hour later, as it grew to dusk, she stole back into the town, and then I slipped from my hiding-place and followed after. Whether she had the case with her or whether she had gone to Glendower's Oak, and maybe concealed it there, I could not say. I walked after her, unperceived, and tracked her to the Wool Pack."

"She is at the Wool Pack?"

"She is. I learned there that she had been in the inn, staying with kinsfolk or acquaintances, since she left us."

"And who might those kinsfolk be? Her father has not come here with his wife; that would be too quick."

"At the Wool Pack there was a gentleman, a kind of Captain, whom they named George, and he had with him an aged gentlewoman who smacked of the witch, and of whom the folk at the inn were somewhat afraid; and there was, further, a daughter—a forward wench, called Nan."

"What!" exclaimed Luke Onion, leaping to his feet. "They in Shrewsbury! George Stracey! The very man whom I hope to hang! I will have him seized immediately."

"It is too late; he is off."

"Off? Whither?"

"To Bridgenorth or Much Wenlock. He had news that his mother was sick of a blood vessel that was broke, and that she was dying. So he called out a chaise and post-horses, and he and the girl are off."

"Girl! What girl?"

"Not Bladys; the other."

"He has slipped through my fingers, by Lucifer! He is clever, but I will have him yet. Mother, what has frightened him has been the arrest of the Italian. No time is to be lost. We must after him to-morrow."

"But what about your wife?"

"Well considered. She shall first be secured. She is on the spot. I will have a warrant out against her for deserting me, her husband. A wife, if she leaves and will not return, can be brought home by the constables. If we can get her here, then we can make the surrender of the jewels and the case the price of her freedom. As to her threats, they do not alarm me. She has set her mind to be free, and will cheerfully give up the precious stones if that will insure her against pursuit."

"The wench is in league with thieves and robbers. She went to that Captain the moment she left us. It is possible enough that the jewels have been gotten by some robbery of his, and she is attempting to pass them for him, and that the story of obtaining them from that woman was made up for the occasion."

"That also is likely. We must get her into our hands; and then leave me to force her to surrender the jewels; in whatever way she came by them, we must endeavour to get possession of them."

"For Heaven's sake, do not patch up a peace and bring her here again."

Luke laughed contemptuously.

"I have lived so long without a wife, that I can live a bachelor a little longer. The taste of matrimony I have had has been one of bitterness of wormwood. Get me my hat; I will take steps at once to seize her."

But the necessary steps were not to be taken as easily nor as readily as Luke anticipated.

The magistrate to whom he applied was at dinner, and would not be disturbed till he had consumed his accustomed bottle of port, and then was in too hilarious and confused a condition to be able at once to bring his mind to bear on the matter presented to him; nor, when he did comprehend it, was he disposed to grant the request of Onion without sundry jokes and sallies that protracted the business till late.

When finally the hangman was furnished with the requisite powers, and hastened to the Wool Pack, it was too late.

Bladys had flown. No sooner had she obtained the money she required, than she had discharged the account at the tavern, and ordered a post-horse for the conveyance left by Stracey at the inn, and had departed from Shrewsbury, taking the old woman with her.

"It matters not," said Onion. "With one hand I will sweep together the entire crew, and her with the rest."