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THE TALLY STICK

Bladys was at the Rock Tavern, along with Mother Norris. She had perceived at once, when fastened on by Mrs Onion, that the woman and her son would make an attempt to secure her, so as to get possession of the case of jewellery.

To escape from Shrewsbury as quickly as possible was her obvious course, and on her return to the Wool Pack, she at once engaged a post-boy and horses. To the old woman, she explained the urgency of the case; George Stracey's beast was to be left in the inn stable till called for. She discharged the account in full, and departed the same night. After her arrival at the Rock Tavern, her mind sank into inactivity. A sort of moral paralysis took possession of her, much as before the marriage. She was aware that she was brought into association with undesirable persons; that the old woman was vicious at heart, and a source of evil in her neighbourhood; and that the relation in which Nan stood to George Stracey was not respectable. She was, moreover, alive to the fact that the man was a notorious highwayman, and that the Rock Tavern was a meeting-place for bad characters. But whither could she go? She was without friends. The only house on which she had any claim was the Stewponey Inn, and to that she neither could nor would return.

It was characteristic of Bladys that she acted with resolution and without hesitation, so long as she saw a way before her. She did not always take that course which was recommended to her, but that which approved itself to her mind, and was consistent with her notions of right and wrong. But she was destitute of imagination, lacking in initiativeness. Under the circumstances, a weak character would have yielded to hysterics, and have fallen into a condition of depression stupefying to the mind.

With her this was not the case. Her will was at a standstill, and her faculties in abeyance. She was like one who is proceeding along a road, and arrives at a point where several ways diverge, and there is no sign-post. The wise traveller, instead of dashing along a road that may be wrong, tarries for the arrival of someone who can give him the desired direction. His force of mind and will are not gone from him, but brought to a condition of inaction and expectancy.

A girl with lively imagination would have had her head in a ferment with a thousand schemes of escape from the untoward predicament—schemes practicable and impracticable—jostling each other, overthrowing each other; and would have adopted that scheme which obtained the mastery over the others at the moment when a selection had to be made. But Bladys had not this tumid brain, full of the germs of ideas, and when she lost her way she stood still and waited. She had been roused from such a condition before, when in the Rock Tavern, by the advice of Mother Norris, who had given her a packet of poison wherewith to rid herself of the husband she did not love, so as to be able to surrender herself to the man whom she did.

Bladys had not for a moment entertained the thought of acting on this advice, but the words of the hag had suggested to her the possibility of working on the fears of her husband so as to induce him to relinquish his rights over her. A way out of the dilemma had been shown her; she took, not that pointed out, but a parallel course.

Now, again, she had come to an "impasse." She was associated with undesirable characters, and she saw no way of freeing herself from this association. She could not go back to her father without a sacrifice of her pride. But to remain in the Rock Tavern was also wounding to her self-respect. Nan had been more than kind to her. The girl's warm and tender heart had opened to Bladys. She was grateful for this kindness, and she was unwilling to do anything to wound poor Nan. She recognised good qualities in the girl; she saw that with other associations, and with a better bringing up, she would have been a good woman; but Bladys could not shut her eyes to what was bad, nor seem to condone her more than equivocal position.

What was she to do? Whither could she go? She could do nothing, go nowhere. So, seeing her helplessness, she sank into an impassive, waiting condition.

Nan showed herself but little at the Rock Tavern. She was much away, returning home at irregular intervals only. During Nan's absence, Bladys actively assisted in the work of the house, to relieve the old woman, and do something to repay the hospitality shown her.

Her nerves had been overstrung. The events that have been recorded followed each other with rapidity, and without a pause in which her jaded powers could be given time to recover themselves.

This, added to the consciousness of being in a false position, from which she saw no way of escape, helped to produce in Bladys a condition of semi-sleep, to deprive her of elasticity of mind and spirit.

When not at work for the house, she was not occupied with her thoughts. In another woman, the brain would have been in action. With her it stood still, like a clock of which the weights have run down. Nan, coming in, saw the condition in which she was, and divining that something was wrong, without being able to understand the difficulties of Bladys, misinterpreted her mood; and, after a whispered conference with her mother, she said—

"Wait, Bla! I know what aileth thee, and will send the doctor."

Then she whisked off.

There was nothing for Bladys to do in the house; not a person came to the tavern—it seemed to have no custom. Consequently, to be away from the objectionable cackle of the old woman, Bladys went to her bedroom.

A robin had lost its way, and was in the chamber. It fluttered from place to place, and perched, now on the cupboard, then on the top of an open door; anon it made a dash at the window, stunned itself momentarily, then rose, beat with its wings against the pane, abandoned the attempt, returned to its flitting about the room, to the cupboard, to the door, and once again to precipitate itself against the pane.

The door was open, a ready way of escape offered, yet the bird never essayed that. It directed all its efforts towards escape by the way that was impracticable, with the invariable result of being struck back by the glass.

It was much the same with Bladys; or rather it had been so. If her mind had risen, spread wings, and attempted to reach the light, it had smitten against an obstacle, and had fallen back stunned.

She watched the robin, and then opened the casement, to allow the bird to escape. As she did so she heard the strident tones of the old woman calling below for her to come down.

She obeyed, and descending the stair, saw Mother Norris in the kitchen, holding a stick towards her.

"See here, Stewponey Bla," said the beldame, "I have made your life tally with Luke Hangman. Would you have another tally? Then you must burn the first. Come to the hearth. Seat yourself on the farther side, on the stool of Beelzebub. Take the tally and consider it well. I am a witch—or know something of dealings with spirits—and I have more power than some will allow. Come now, you shall prove it Take this tally, and I swear to you that before you have burnt it, he whom you desire to see will appear. I will lead him to you. But you can begin no fresh tally with him until that with Luke Hangman is finished. See, wench, see! It is bound about with threads; and every bond must be snapped by fire, and as the last gives way, and the half-stick falls from its place, he—that other one, shall appear."

Bladys looked at Mrs Norris without understanding what she meant. To the mantelshelf on both sides of the fire were slung bundles of hazel rods, each eighteen inches in length. A hole drilled with a red hot skewer through the end of each allowed a string to be passed through, and to form a loop by which the rod was suspended. At this end of suspension, which was the handle, was a symbol, different in each. Four inches from the extremity a cut had been made diagonally from right to left, extending half-way through the stick, and the rod had then been split from the farther extremity to this cut. By this means, a half of each rod had been removed. Along the edges of the split were notches made by a knife.

Mistress Norris not only kept a tavern, but she did a small business in muffins, simnel, and short-cakes, that she baked; and as she and the majority of her customers were ignorant of the art of ciphering, their accounts were kept by means of tallies.

Each customer preserved the half-piece of his peculiar tally, and when he came for cake brought his piece of wood with him. This was applied to the portion preserved in the kitchen, and notches were cut in both, according to the muffins or cakes supplied. By means of the two portions of the stick, dealer and customer had corresponding accounts which could not be falsified.

In a drawer of the kitchen table Mother Norris kept tally sticks ready for use when the old were full, and the accounts settled, or when fresh customers arrived.

One of these she had drawn forth, and had bound it about with various scraps of thread and coloured wool.

The old woman thrust this stick into the girl's hand.

"Dost understand, wench? This is thy Staff of Life along with Luke Hangman. Of this thou must loosen every tie afore thou begin another staff with him of whom thou thinkest. You said once to me, 'I do not love Luke—I love another.'"

Bladys made no remark; only a flicker of sudden illumination came into her dreamy eyes.

"See," continued the crone. "Here I cut a notch." With the sharp knife that she had been whetting on the hearthstone she chipped a piece from the wood at the junction of the parts. "That is your father's promise to Luke. Here I cut another—that is his winning you; here a third—you take his hand; and again I nick it, there—you swear before God to be his, and his only."

"I did not swear," said Bladys gravely.

"And here I make another notch," continued the old woman. "This is where he puts the ring upon your hand."

"I have no ring. I plucked it off, and left it in Shrewsbury."

"And here I cut a gash to signify the blessing of the parson. 'What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.' Let see, but devils can do that; ay, and I likewise. And here is the registration of your marriage in the parish books. See—between this band and that next we have all these tally marks. Now we make way beyond. Here again I nick out a piece—it signifies that he has put his arms about you and called you his own."

"That he never did."

"And here," chipping again, "is the virginal kiss from your pretty lips—the seal of marriage."

"It was never sealed."

"And here again," continued the old woman, "he receives you into his house and makes it your home."

"I have left it"

"Take the tally. I know no more. You contradict me in all. Thrust the end into the fire till it is well kindled, then hold it upright before and let it burn as a taper. Let it burn on steadily, snapping band after band, and devouring tally mark after tally mark, and I swear unto you that when the last band breaks and the half-stick falls he will come."

Bladys, hardly understanding the old creature, obeyed her directions. She seated herself on a stool by the hearth, she accepted rather than took the rod thrust upon her, and following the instructions of the crone thrust the extremity among the red-hot ashes. Instantly the hazel stick burst into yellow flame. Bladys then withdrew it, and remained seated, holding the staff as if it had been a torch before her. A blue flame leaped and wavered at the end of the tally, then broke into a spurt of golden light. Snap! one of the bands gave way, and the glowing ring fell on the floor. The flame at the end of the rod gathered force, it ate its way down, nibbling at each notch with blue lips, then gulping at the portion of stick in which it was cut and proceeding to attack the next

"He is coming this way," said the hag. "Hist! hist!" She made a sign as if beckoning with her finger.

"It burns bravely," laughed the old woman. "By Goles! this is not such a wedding tally as needs much fire to loose it. There goes another band."

Bladys now became interested or amused, much as might a child, in what took place. She gave no heed to the words of Mrs Norris.

"Hush! I hear his step," laughed the hag. "As the husband retires the lover approaches."

"I have no husband," said Bladys.

"You have not done with him yet; not till the last bond is broken and the stick falls."

"I have never had one."

"That is purely!" The old woman fell a-cackling, and still she beckoned. "I am drawing him nearer. This tally will soon be broken; then you shall begin a new account."

The fire reached the last tie; it had swallowed the last notch. Pieces of charcoal fell off the consumed portion. Suddenly the final band flamed, and the two portions of the stick fell apart, and Bladys cast her handled piece on the hearth. At that moment the window was partially obscured by a passing figure.

Bladys started to her feet. The door opened, and a man stood on the threshold.

With a cry she reeled; she had recognised him, and would have fallen unconscious on the floor had she not been caught in the arms of Crispin Ravenhill.