Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 2
IN THE CELLAR
The highways from Stafford and Wolverhampton to Kidderminster and the South, and that from Halesowen to Bridgenorth, cross each other at Kinver, and a bridge traverses the Stour, near Stourton Castle, once a royal residence, and one that was a favourite with King John. The great Irish Road from Bath and Bristol to Chester passed through Kinver, to the great emolument of the town and neighbourhood. At that time, Chester and its port, Park Gate, received the packets from Ireland.
An old soldier in the wars of Queen Anne, a native of the place, settled there when her wars were over, and, as was customary with old soldiers, set up an inn near the bridge, at the cross roads. He had been quartered at Estepona, in the south of Spain, and thence he had brought a Spanish wife. Partly in honour of her, chiefly in reminiscence of his old military days, he entitled his inn, "The Estepona Tavern." The Spanish name in English mouths became rapidly transformed into Stewponey. The spot was happily selected, and as the landlord had a managing wife, and provided excellent Spanish wine, which he imported himself, and with which he could supply the cellars of the gentry round, the inn grew in favour, and established its reputation as one of the best inns in Staffordshire.
The present landlord, Cornelius Rea, was a direct descendant of the founder of the house.
The Stewponey was resorted to by the gentry of the south of Staffordshire, Worcestershire, and Shropshire, on the approach of an election, to decide on the candidates to be proposed and elected.
It was also frequented by travellers on their way north, south, east, or west, who arrived at Kinver at ebb of day, and were disinclined to risk their persons and their purses by proceeding at night over the heaths of Kinver, through the forest of Stourton, and among the broken ground that was held to be a lurking-place for footpads and highway robbers.
Indeed, the neighbourhood for a century bore an evil name, and not without cause. Several and special facilities were here afforded to such as found profit and pleasure in preying on their fellow-men. As already intimated, at this point on the map of England, the territories appertaining to the counties that meet have gone through extraordinary dislocations. There are no natural boundaries, and those which are artificial are capricious. Nothing was more easy for one who desired to throw out his pursuers, armed with a warrant signed by the magistrate of one county, than to pass into the next, and if further pursued by legal process there, to step into a third.
A highwayman, at the beginning of the century in which we live, who honoured Kinver with residing in it, planted his habitation at the extreme verge of the county, divided from the next by a hollow way, and when the officers came to take him, he leaped the dyke, and mocked them with impunity from the farther side.
But this was not all. The geological structure of the country favoured them. Wherever a cliff, great or small, presented its escarpment, there the soft sandstone was scooped out into labyrinths of chambers, in which families dwelt, who in not a few instances were in league with the land pirates. The plunder could anywhere be safely and easily concealed, and the plunderers could pass through subterranean passages out of one county into another, and so elude pursuit.
The highwaymen belonged by no means to the lowest class. The gentlemen of the road comprised, for the most part, wastrels and gamesters of good blood, who thought it no dishonour to recover on the high-road what they had lost on the green table. Occasionally, but only occasionally, one was captured and hung, but the gang was not broken up, the gap was at once refilled. Of applicants there no lack, and the roads remained as insecure before. The facilities for escape at the confines of three counties, and in a country honeycombed with places of refuge, were too many, and the business was too profitable, to enable the sheriffs, during an entire century, to put an end to a condition of affairs which was at once a scandal and a nuisance.
The great canal planned and carried out by Telford runs from the Stour at Stewponey, and passes under a low bluff that is dug out into houses still in occupation. This canal follows the river Stour and connects the Severn, where navigable, with the Grand Trunk Canal, that links the Mersey with the Trent, and connects the St George's Channel with the German Ocean. At the Stewponey, it is joined by the Stourbridge canal. This point is accordingly a centre about which much water traffic gathers, and did gather to a far larger extent before the railroads carried away the bulk of the trade from the canals.
Cornelius Rea, landlord of the Stewponey Inn, was in his cellar, tapping a cask of ale.
He was a stout man, coarse in feature, yet handsome, with one of those vast paunches which caricaturists represent as not uncommon a century ago, but which we never encounter at present. We might suppose that these caricatures were extravagant had we not here and there preserved, as bequests from the past, mahogany dining-tables, with semi-circles cut out of them for the accommodation of the stomachs of stout diners.
The face of Cornelius was red and puffed. It looked peculiarly so, as he stooped at the spigot, by the light of a lamp held by his daughter Bladys. He was in his shirt sleeves, and wore a white nightcap on his head, a yellow, long-flapped waistcoat, and black, shabby knee-breeches.
Bladys was tall and slender—an unusual feature in the district, where women are thickset and short; she had inherited from her Spanish great-grandmother a pale face and dark hair and eyes. She held the light with a trembling hand, not above her head, lest she should set fire to the drapery of cobwebs that hung from the vault. What little daylight penetrated to the cellar fell from the entrance door, and lay pale on the steps that led down into it, in gradually reduced brilliancy, and left the rest of the cellar wholly unillumined.
"It's well up—prime!" said the host. "Fine October brew, this. One cask will never suffice 'em. I'll e'en tap another. Bush-sh-sh! It spits out like an angry cat. It smells good."
He heaved up his clumsy person.
"This stooping don't suit me at my time o' life, girl. What! has the ale spurted into and washed your face?"
"I say it has. Don't contradict me. Your cheeks are wet. I see them glitter. Why dost say 'No, father,' when I say Yes?"
Then all at once a sob broke from her heart.
The heavy man turned his red face and looked at his child. Instinctively she lowered the light.
"Hold up the lamp that I may see!"
She obeyed, but let her head sink on her bosom.
With an oath—he seasoned his every sentence with one—he thrust his hand under her chin, and forced her to raise her face.
"Turn your cheek, wench! What's the sense of this, eh?"
"O father! you put me to shame."
"I—by Ginger! How so?"
"By this bowling match, that is hateful to me—a dishonour; I am ashamed to be seen—and then to send round the crier!"
"Pshaw! Some wenches don't know when they are well off."
"Father! you disgrace me in all men's eyes,—on all lips."
"I! never a bit. It's an honour to any woman to be bowled for. 'Taint every wench can boast she's been an object of contest. My grandmother used to say that in Spain swords were often crossed before a woman could be wed, and that a lady never deemed herself properly married till blood had flowed on her account. Now folk will pay their shillings and half-crowns to see which is the best man. Bless you! There came round a caravan with a giraffe and a laughing hyena, and a roaring lion. Hundreds of people paid sixpence to see these beasts all the way from Africa. Just you think of that. A roaring lion, the king of beasts, only sixpence, let alone the giraffe and the hyena: and shilling and half-a-crown to see you. There's honour and glory, if you like it. I didn't think I'd have lived to see the day and feel such a father's pride, but I do—and I bless you for it. I bet you a spade guinea we shall take the money up in shovels."
"I do not wish it, father."
"I don't care a hanged highwayman whether you wish or not. It is as I choose. Who is the proper person to care and provide for his child but the father? I'm not going to be put off for any foolish girl's whimsies. All the take—every stiver—shall go to you as your portion. I have none other to make."
"I do not desire at all to be married."
"Here you cannot stay. You understand well that you and she as is to be your stepmother can't agree. As soon as you have cleared out, then in comes she; and as I powerfully want her in the house, the sooner you go the better. If you'd taken to her in a friendly and daughterly way, that would have been another matter; but as you have fixed your mind so dead against her there's no help for it. Go you must, and that to-night. And what is more, as a virtuous and respectable man, and a man with a conscience in my stomach, you shall go out respectably, and not be cut off with a shilling. None shall say that of me. I'm a man as does his duty in that station of life and situation as I finds myself in."
"I don't consider it respectable to be bowled for."
"Then I do. I am nigh on forty years older than you, and know the world. Which is most like to be right, you or I? If you leave my house, you leave it respectable."
"If you would suffer me to be alone, I would do nothing that is not respectable."
"Whither would you go? Who would take charge of you? In good sooth, until I put you into the arms of a husband I have no freedom, and unless I do that I am responsible."
Bladys set the lamp on the floor, sank on an empty barrel-horse, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed. The host uttered an oath.
"This angers me. Folly always doth that," said he. "I leave you to yourself whilst I go fetch another spigot, and if you're not in a proper frame of mind when I come back I'll wash your face with stale beer."
The taverner staggered away.
His daughter looked after him as he stumbled up the stair. Then she was left alone in the cellar. The lamp on the floor flickered uneasily in the descending current of air, and the folds of cobwebs waved, catching the light, then disappearing again. The air was impregnated with a savour of mildew and wine and ale. The floor was moist. Spilt liquor had been trodden over the tiles and left them wet and slimy.
Bladys had not been long an orphan. Her mother had died but a few months ago, after a lengthy and painful illness. She had been a shrewd, firm woman, an excellent manageress, who had kept order in the house and controlled her husband. Cornelius was a weak, vain man, and he allowed himself to be swayed by his customers, especially by those of the best class.
During the protracted illness of his wife he had shown attention to a woman of indifferent character, showy in dress, whom he had introduced into the inn to relieve his wife of her duties. This had caused painful scenes, much recrimination, and the sick woman had with difficulty persuaded her husband to send the woman away. Her last hours had been embittered by the thought that her child might have this worthless creature as her stepmother, and by the vexation of knowing that the fruits of her care, saving, and labour would go to enrich this person, whom she despised, yet hated.
Hardly was his wife dead before Cornelius showed plainly what were his intentions. It became a matter of jest at his table, of scandal in the village.
In talking with some of the gentle bucks and topers who frequented his house, Cornelius had had the indiscretion to comment on the difficulty he felt in disposing of his daughter before introducing his new wife to Stewponey; and the suggestion had been made in jest that he should have her bowled for, and give as her dower the money made on the occasion. He accepted the suggestion gravely, and then several chimed in to press him to carry it into execution.
Associating as Cornelius did with men coarse-minded and, whatever their social position, of no natural refinement, casting aside, when at his table, or about his fire, whatever polish they had, Rea was in no way superior to his companions. He was incapable of understanding what belonged to his duty as a father, and of treating with the delicacy due to her sex and situation the solitary girl who was dependent on him.
Bladys loved her father, without respecting him.
He would not allow his guests to address her in an unseemly manner, but his protection extended no further.
The girl was fully aware that she could not remain in the Stewponey after her father was married again. To do so, she must forfeit her self-respect and do a wrong to the memory of her mother.
The girl's pale and stately beauty of foreign cast had brought many admirers about her. Amongst others she had been subjected to the addresses of a certain Captain George Stracey, who occupied a small house in the parish, was in good society, and seemed possessed of means. But both she and her father were well aware that his addresses were not honourable. She had repelled him with icy frigidity, that was but an intensification of her ordinary demeanour to the guests.
Another who had been forward in his endeavours to win her regard was a man then lodging at the inn, who had been there a fortnight, and gave Luke Francis as his name. His home, he intimated, was at Shrewsbury, his profession something connected with the law. He was a fine man, with broad shoulders, a firm mouth, and high cheek-bones.
There was a third admirer, Crispin Ravenhill, a bargeman, owning his own boat on the canal. But although his admiration might be gathered from his deep earnest eyes, he never addressed a word to the girl to intimate it. He was a reserved man of nearly thirty, who associated with few of his fellows. It was held that the influence of his uncle, Holy Austin, who had reared him from boyhood, still surrounded him and restrained him from those vices which were lightly esteemed in that age and by the class of men to which he pertained.
There was yet another, Lewis Falcon, a young man of private means sufficient to free him from the obligation of working for his livelihood, and who spent his substance in drink, gambling, and dog-fighting.
Bladys looked at the cobwebs. Never had she seen a fly in the cellar, yet here they hung, dense, long, ghostly. And she—was not she enveloped in cobwebs? Whither could she escape? In what direction look? Where see light? She remained with her head between her hands till hope, expectation of release, died in her heart; her tears dried up; her agitation ceased. She had become as stone in her despair.