Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 22
HOLY AUSTIN ROCK
At the opening of this story something was said of the curious isolated and inhabited rock, like a huge tooth, that bears the name of Holy Austin.
This detached mass, rising some seventy feet high, stands on the slope below the headland of Kinver Edge, of which at some remote period it formed a buttress. It is honeycombed with dwellings, of which there are ten, in three storeys; the topmost have their faces built up in gables, but the chambers are all excavated in the rock. Originally there was no such face of masonry, but the disintegration of the screen of sandstone by weather and rough usage made it necessary to so front it. The lowest storey or ground floor opens on the same face, the east, and is almost on a level with the hillside, at all events at one point; but the middle storey is reached by a track in the face of the cliff, that falls away on the west in a manner so precipitous that these cave dwellings are accessible only by the ledge. Of the ten habitations, some of which have more than two rooms, only four are occupied at the present time; three are void, and the rest have crumbled into ruin.
As the old schoolmaster ascended the slope to reach his own dwelling, which occupied the summit of the crag, he said to Bladys:
"Did you perceive that there was a stir in Kinver? Many persons were in the street."
"I thought as much," answered the girl.
"There is great commotion in the place, for all the constables in the neighbourhood, not in Staffordshire alone, but in the adjoining portions of Shropshire and Worcestershire, have been called out. Moreover, additional trustworthy men have been sworn in for the occasion by the magistrates, who are stirring, and have, if I may so express it, taken the field at length against the highwaymen who have infested the country, and made travelling on the Irish road so dangerous. Justitia pallida irâ, as I may say, hath at length drawn her sword."
Bladys started. She felt a flutter of alarm for Stracey, or rather, for Nan Norris. The man himself was odious to her; insolent, with vulgar affectation, and devoid of good qualities. But what touched him touched also Nan; and to the latter Bladys was grateful and attached.
"If it had not been for this," said the old man, "you would not have been suffered to traverse Kinver unquestioned. You would have been catechised along the entire street. Now the good folk of Kinver are exercised in mind about the raid; some favourably inclined towards these scourges of the country, finding it to their interest in sundry ways, and therefore scheming how they may throw impediments in the way of the ministers of Justice. When I heard that the attempt was about to be made, and also learned that you were at the Rock Tavern, I thereupon resolved in my mind to go thither, and to move you thence before it was visited. For you to have been found in that harbour of thieves and footpads might, and probably would, have done injury to your reputation."
"I thank you with all my heart."
"And now," continued the old fellow, "here shall be your home for awhile. I cannot say with the Psalmist, 'your rest for ever'—for I trust ere long another man will claim you and carry you elsewhere. We make our nest in the rock as turtles, or as Samson in Etam. There is no prospect of the constables visiting here, nor need we fear them should they scrutinise us and our tenements. As Vacuus cantat coram latrone viator, so does the honest man whistle unfluttered by the approach of the officers of the law. All who occupy this crag partake somewhat of the harmlessness and guilelessness of doves. We live by labour of the hand or head."
He had mounted with the girl to the topmost platform, and here rose the walled front of his habitation; adjoining it were other dwellings, but they were unoccupied.
He opened the door of his house, and said:
"This is the place which I inhabit, solus de superbis, but I cannot accommodate you, nor would you find it reposeful in this place; for it is my school, where I instruct children in the rudiments of religion, of English, and some of the ablest boys I even advance into Latin—rudimentary, of course. They are not old enough, or capable enough, of more than a smattering, or, to be more exact, of having the foundations laid on which they may build later when opportunity arrives. The children are here all day. Adjoining is a second house. Therein you will find quiet."
He opened the door of the cave adjoining his own, and led Bladys inside.
"You will see," said he, "that there is an advantage afforded here that exists in none other dwelling in this rock."
He pushed forward, from one chamber excavated in the sandstone to another deeper in the rock than the first, and to the girl's surprise she saw that it had window and door in the face of the cliff opposed to the entrance by which she had been admitted.
"You have a habitation that is a complete perforation of the rock. From the one side you can enjoy the sight of the rising, from the other that of the setting, sun. Only this caution must I enforce. See you do not step forth unawares—for an unconsidered and inconsiderable stride would take you out of this world into the next."
He opened the door in the western face, and led Bladys forth. He showed her a narrow ledge that ran to the left only, along the face of the precipice. The cliff rose sheer above, and fell away below, not perpendicularly, but so as to overhang. By this means, any rubbish cast out from the back door over the edge fell clear of the range of dwellings below, as also of the path that led to them. No railing, no protection of any sort, was provided along the verge.
"You can creep by the pathway to the left, if it please you, for some distance," said the Knobbler; "it anciently led to where a former occupant of this cottage kept pigeons. But the fall of a piece of the cliff has destroyed the pigeonry—or has so in part. Since I have had these two houses I have had no time to give to the keeping of birds—such pigeon-holes as remain have been invaded by jackdaws, and the track is broken and has become dangerous. I will inform you why this tenement is no longer occupied. The former dweller therein—that is, twenty years ago—had a little daughter of thirteen, whom he loved as the apple of his eye. She was much distressed that the rock had fallen, and had carried away the place where her pigeons had dwelt, and this brooded on her mind. One night she took to sleep-walking, and came in her night-shift along this very path. Something—a premonition, or the draught of the open door—aroused her father, and he came forth to see his child ascending where the ledge was broken, all white in the moonlight. He could not go to her; he dared not recall her; nay, not make a sound, lest it should waken her. One false step, one loose stone that yielded, and his child would be precipitated below, and he would take in his arms thereafter only a corpse. So he stood, trembling, sick at heart, but lifting his soul to God, that He would give His angels charge over her, lest she should dash her foot against a stone. And He did preserve her. She reached the summit, and there—there awoke, strained to the heart of her father, whose hair next morning was found to have been blanched by his great anxiety."
The old man pointed to the ascent made by the sleeping child, and Bladys shuddered. Holy Austin went on:
"As I have my school in the other house, where also I sleep, I do what little cooking I require in the habitation I now surrender to you. And now I must depart, and leave you to make yourself acquainted with your domain. I am concerned to see the result of this campaign against the highwaymen and footpads."
Then, before he departed, he said:
"You will find here a bed. It is one that I have retained for Crispin when he has been able to visit me. But, indeed, he has not much leisure, being engaged on the canals. Nevertheless, now and again, on a Sunday, he visits me, and is ever welcome. He is a good lad, and has picked up some learning from me."
Then the old man departed.
Bladys was now all alone in her rock dwelling. She seated herself on a stool to compose her thoughts. From the great anxiety that had oppressed her she was at length relieved, and her thoughts began to flow as if released by a thaw.
The good old man, whom, in spite of his pedantry, she liked and reverenced, had come to her as an angel, delivering her from an embarrassing situation. He had done more: he had saved her from herself. She was now able to repose after the strain of mind and nerve to which she had been subjected, and she could rest in hope of a happy issue from her troubles, for Holy Austin was not the man to encourage favourable expectations without good grounds. She leaned her head on her hand, enjoying the repose.
Then, recovering herself, she looked around the chamber in which she was. It was the innermost apartment, and was wholly scooped out of the rock. The western face was but a screen of natural stone, perforated artificially for window and door.
The rock was dry, as dry as are the walls built of quarried stone. Indeed, the occupants of such habitations made no complaint of damp. The only occasion on which moisture formed on their walls was when a sudden change ensued from cold weather to a warm and damp wind from the south-west. The ceiling was slightly arched, and that, as well as the sides, was whitewashed. The floor was of the bare red rock, somewhat uneven, as traffic between the doors had worn down the stone.
In the first room was a fireplace with chimney bored in the stone, much resembling that in Kynaston's Cave. In the inner compartment or room the window was small and glazed with bull's-eyes. It admitted little light, so that the chamber was gloomy as a vault.
Bladys threw open the door, as the sun was in decline, to allow its light to flood and warm the cave. She stepped out on the ledge.
A gentle breeze played with the light short hair on her brow, and fanned her cheek, like a light hand caressing her and promising peace to her troubled soul. The wind sang in a Scotch fir rooted in the red cliff overhead. She looked up, and saw the dark green mass, sustained on its red-gold stem, sway against the deep blue sky. The evening sun was on the rock, and had turned it into a mass of solidified flame.
Jackdaws flew out of the rock and wheeled or darted about her, uttering resentful cries addressed to her as a stranger. They were knowing birds, and were familiar with the inhabitants of the rock, and entertained a mistrust of the children who came there to be schooled; they lived in unintermittent strife with the boys, whom they screamed at and scolded whenever they approached. Now, in Bladys, they perceived an entire stranger, and they expressed their disapproval of her intrusion loudly and objurgatively. Was she expected by the saucy birds to pay her footing with a piece of carrion or some crumbs of bread? So Bladys supposed, amused, deafened by their anger and noise.
"Wait," said she; "I have nothing to cast to you now, but the first opportunity that comes I will throw something to you."
Then she turned her face to re-enter the cave. At that same moment a rush of wind drove against her—a draught sweeping through the rock dwelling—and borne on it came voices, confused, menacing. She started.
She had taken a couple of steps within; she stood still; she recoiled a step. Then, thrusting through the narrow doorway by which access to the house was obtained, she saw Luke Onion, his mother, and Abraham Jarrock.
"There she is! Take her! The thief! The thief!" shrieked the old woman; and the hangman, with both hands pushing his mother aside, sprang forward to seize Bladys.
The girl, startled for a moment, was as one paralysed. But she recovered herself and springing through the doorway, threw herself with outspread arms against the rock, and worked her way along the narrow track that led to the old pigeonry.
A little farther was the most ruinous and riskful portion of the path; but she was resolved to attempt this rather than allow herself to be taken. The sleep-walker had been sustained and carried safely to the top of the cliff, why not she?
This thought formed quick as lightning flash, but was instantly brushed away by what she saw, and which produced a spasm of horror.
Looking back at the doorway through which she had just had time to escape, she saw Luke Francis leap through in pursuit, lose his balance, with arms extended battling in the air, and he was precipitated over the edge by the momentum, and disappeared without a cry.
The jackdaws had been given their promised footing.