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A PROTECTOR

Whether Bladys passed into unconsciousness wholly, or only trembled on the edge, that she knew not; nor how long she had been in the arms of Crispin—whether a moment, whether an eternity.

In the joy, delirium, insensibility succeeding each other, all sense of time was lost to Bladys. It was not that love had transported her into a new world, but it was love combined, interwoven with the certainty that she had reached the limit of her trials; that in him she had a guide out of the labyrinth and darkness into which she was cast, and from which unaided extrication was impossible. She was as one drowning, who frantically clings to the one object that can alone save him from being engulfed.

Whether she were awake or asleep, alive or dead, that she knew not, in the supreme ecstasy of consciousness that she was safe. She felt strong arms about her, a beating heart smiting against hers, and hot lips pressed against her cheek.

Returning to her senses, she was aware of the hag leaping and dancing, with a nimbleness for which she would not have credited her, waving the tally stick, that now smoked, then flamed, and screaming out a song, the words of which were unintelligible to her. Bladys turned her head on Crispin's arm, and looked at her; then the woman curtsied and said:

"The old staff is done for, and the old account is closed. We must begin the other."

Then throwing the end of the stick into the fire, she said:

"You think only of each other. I have to mind the cow," and she stumbled out of the tavern door.

By this time Bladys was sufficiently restored to disengage herself from the arms of Ravenhill, to stand back, to cover her face with her hands, and gasp for breath.

He took a step forward; she retreated.

"Bladys!" said he, "I know all. Nan Norris has told me everything."

"Not everything," she answered; "because she did not know all."

"She told me sufficient to let me understand that you have been cruelly deceived, and grossly ill-treated."

"Crispin," said Bladys, lowering her hands from her face, "that man Luke married a lump of ice only, without eyes wherewith to see, or ears to hear. I never swore to be his. What took place passed before me as a scene in a play, weighed on me as a nightmare. I solemnly assure you that I made to him no promise of love, honour, or obedience. I never said that I would take him for better or for worse. The service was gabbled over me as over a corpse, and I had as little active part therein as a corpse in the office for the dead. He did not give his true name; he concealed his profession. The utmost measure of my consent was to be taken to Shrewsbury with intent to be a servant in his house. I had made my resolve when at the Rock Tavern. When I went to Shrewsbury my mind was made up, and I placed the alternative to them, to take me as a serving-maid or to let me go."

"I understood as much from Nan."

"Before I left the Rock I said to Nan and her mother that no power on earth or under the earth would ever make me his wife; and that before I had learned what his profession was."

"Yes," said Crispin, with a smile, "that was not all you said to Nan."

"Not all!" echoed Bladys. Then a sudden flush came over her throat, cheeks, and temples, like an aurora.

"No," said Crispin, "that was not all. There was something more. You told Nan that he, Luke Hangman, had not won you; he had taken a base advantage over the man who should have been the victor, and would but for that have won the prize."

Bladys covered her face again. Then, with an effort, she raised her head, lowered her hands, and said:

"Crispin, it was my fault. It was I who spun the jack across the lawn so as to trip you up. It was through me that you fell, through me that you were stunned."

"And but for that I would have claimed you."

"Crispin, I did it not purposely. I was in a dream; I was beside myself; I was in the moon."

"It remains with you to undo what you did wrong on that day and give your heart to him who really won you."

"Crispin," she panted with labouring breath, "it has been yours throughout. If you will—"

He interrupted the words. He did not ask what she was about to say.

"If I will!" he shouted. "I have had but one thought, and that of you; but one despair, that I had lost you; entertained but one hate, and that against him who snatched you from me. I have now but one triumph, that now you are mine."

His breast heaved, his eyes darted lightnings.

"Bladys!" said he, "men will believe that you were his wife; if you come with me they will condemn you."

"Let them condemn. You know that I was not his wife."

"Bladys, we must away from this place. Here we could not be married. We must go where we are unknown. I can not say where it may be, but far from here."

"Crispin, I will go with you anywhere. I never did marry that man. It was all a hideous mockery, in which I took no willing, no consenting part."

Then he caught her in his arms and covered her face with kisses, till hands were laid upon him, and a voice sounded in his ears and bade him desist. He looked up in confusion, angry, and saw Holy Austin before him.

The old schoolmaster-knobbler gently but firmly separated his nephew from Bladys, and said:

"Crispin, your grandmother was a remarkable woman. She could not read, she knew little of the Scriptures, yet was a pious and God-fearing woman. But she had some strange notions about matters, such as have no warranty in Holy Writ, and this was one of her notions. She said to me when I was a little lad at her knee, i' feck, I had hard work afterwards to set what she told me aside for the truth as revealed. This is what she related to me of the beginning of mankind. She said that the Almighty had created the world, and had made the flowers of surpassing beauty, had painted the wings of the butterfly, and had given to the birds their melody. And He resolved to sum up in one creation all the perfections distributed among the other creatures; one to be the sovereignest of all. Then lo! He made Woman. And she was all that could be imagined of beauty and delicacy and grace. But He saw that she was frail. Then He said He would make a stick for her support,—and He proceeded to create Man."

The old man, with shrewdness, had given his nephew time to recover his composure, time also for the vapour of passion to rise from off his brain.

"So will I understand grandmother's story, uncle," said Ravenhill. "Here is my flower, and I will be her stay."

"My good Crispin," said the old man, "consider well how you set about it. In place of being the support to your flower, you will be the stick that will beat her down, break and cast her on the soil."

"How say you?"

"Bound to you she cannot be, so long as she is attached to Luke Onion."

"That was no marriage at all."

"That I know, perhaps better than you. Irregular and profane the proceeding was. Of that there can be no doubt! Nevertheless, in the eyes of everyone in Kinver and the neighbourhood she was married to that man. Until such a marriage be dissolved or proclaimed null, by lawful authority, she cannot be bound to you without such a sacrifice as you would have no right to ask of her. I ask you, nephew, if you took her to you, would you not defraud her of that which Luke Hangman could not deprive her of."

"What mean you?"

"Her good name."

Ravenhill stood motionless, absorbed in thought

"Look you, Crispin," proceeded the schoolmaster; "let it be granted that in our eyes the wedding in Stourton Chapel was nought—was in fact illegal—nevertheless you cannot take her to you as wife without an ill name attaching to her, and all respectable women will hold aloof from her. She will have no companions but the abandoned and godless. You love her?"

"Indeed, indeed I do!" answered the young man with fervour.

"Then respect her. A love that is without respect is most volatile. As certain dyes are fixed by salt, so is love made fast for life by reverence." Crispin looked up and would have spoken, but was checked by something that rose in his throat. "You are the stick to this fair lily. Very well. First let it be made clear to the whole world that the Stourton marriage was nought—and that can be established without a doubt—then in God's name marry her."

"You are right, uncle," said the young man; "I give you my hand. I promise to abide by your advice."

"That is well: the matter is not difficult. Already the churchwardens have presented a complaint against the vicar for his conduct in this very matter. The matter will be inquired into in the bishop's court, and what the result will be cannot be doubted."

"I thank you, uncle; but consider. Bladys has no adviser, no helper. She is here in a house that is not of good repute, among persons who are not seemly and suitable companions."

"Let not that concern you. I will be the temporary support. That is to say, Crispin, I will take charge of her, protect her, advise her; she shall come to no harm under my—I will not say roof, for I have none—under my rock. She shall live in the adjoining habitation to mine."

"I thank you with my whole heart," said Bladys, and held out her hand to the old man. "And now one proof of my putting entire confidence in you."

She produced the case of jewellery, and placed it in the hands of the schoolmaster. He opened it and viewed the contents with surprise.

"How came you by these?" he asked.

She informed him. Then she added:

"I desire to have them sold. To me they are valueless, but turned into money they may help—"

She looked at Ravenhill.

"Will you be wholly guided by me?" asked the Knobbler.

"Entirely."

"Then," said he; "we will first have the jewels, as they are, handed over to whomsoever it may be that represents the Crown. A person sentenced for higher petty treason forfeits everything to the Crown. It may be, however, that the right to them may not be established, as a woman's property goes to her husband, and his is not forfeited; or it may be that the Crown will waive its right. Let all be done above board."

"As you think fit."

"Then this is what I decide. Let Crispin depart at once for London with these jewels. What their worth is I do not pretend to guess. Let him there state the whole case for you, and abide by the result, whatever it may be."

Holy Austin considered a moment, and then handed the box to his nephew, said:

"Crispin, be off immediately. Now that Bladys is coming to me, it behoves you to be absent. As the Apostle advises, 'Avoid even the appearance of evil!'"

"I go, uncle. Farewell, Bla!"

In another minute he was gone.

Then entered Mother Norris, carrying a faggot for the fire. She looked first at Bladys, then at Austin, and, dropping the wood, burst into strident laughter.

"I left a young man here, and find an old one, and that Holy Austin!"

"I am come to take Stewponey Bla away with me to my rock," said the schoolmaster.

"I thank you with all my heart for the goodness you have shown me," said the girl. "But, indeed, Mother Norris, I must go. Tell Nan that I will not omit to thank her when I have the chance to see her."

Then Bladys pressed money on the old woman, who clutched it eagerly; and, after a few more words, she and the old schoolmaster departed.

"Did that woman know about the jewels?" asked the old man, when on the road at a distance from the tavern.

"She has not a suspicion."

"Well for you. Had Mother Norris known that you had such trinkets of value she would have murdered you in your bed to get possession of them."