Open main menu

AT THE ROCK FOOT

Erect, rigid, stood Mother Onion beside the corpse of her son extended at the foot of Holy Austin Rock. Her face was livid, strained and knotted in muscle with the cramp of excitement and resentment that held her soul. Her harsh features were strongly illumined by the setting sun. They seemed to be chiselled out of marble—an orange marble—not moulded in flesh, and chiselled by an unskilful workman. But her eyes gleamed with lightning flashes.

Luke Hangman lay extended his length at her feet, on his back, his arms outspread, and his mouth half-open. That he was dead could not for a moment be doubted, nor did his mother entertain a hope to the contrary.

There surged up in her heart a rage against Bladys, to whom she attributed his death, like the bore in the Severn—it rolled through her, invading every sense, flushing her every vein.

A ring of spectators had formed. Jarrock had come down from the rock holding Bladys by the arm to prevent her from attempting escape.

The inhabitants of the occupied prong of sandstone issued from their burrows. Scarce a denizen was left behind. Even a half-paralysed woman had scrambled from her bed, drawn herself to the verge of the cliff, and hung her head, benimbed with the frills of a great night-cap, over the edge, looking down on what took place below, unwilling to miss seeing and hearing whatever might occur. Children, unable to thrust themselves in between their elders, climbed portions of the rock to overtop them, or ensconced themselves high aloft in the forks of over-hanging Scotch pines. Holy Austin, who had been at a little distance, hurried up with two companions, with whom he had been in conversation. One was the Evening Lecturer and the other Squire Folliot. Seeing Bladys held by the executioner's assistant, he at once went to him, and demanded her release.

This gave fresh occasion for the excitement of the bereaved woman. With extended hand and outstretched finger she pointed to Bladys.

"See! See!" she shrieked; "that is the murderess. I give her in charge. I accuse her. She thrust my son, her husband, over the precipice. She killed him. Last week we burnt a woman at Shrewsbury for poisoning her husband. Now we shall have another execution."

Gasping for breath, she placed one hand on her bosom, whilst still indicating Bladys with the other.

"That woman at Shrewsbury we strangled at the stake before the flame touched her. But she, she shall burn and feel all the anguish of the fire. The law allows it. The law makes no provision for strangling. That is the pure grace of the executioner. It is as he wills it. He may let her dance in the fire if it pleases him. Abraham Jarrock will be the hangman now; and he will do as I say."

"Nay; reckon not on me," called Jarrock.

Now the old schoolmaster stood forward.

"Woman," said he, in authoritative tones, "your sorrow has perverted your reason. Satis eloquentiæ sapientiæ parum. We respect and we pity you. Let us now raise and bear away the dead man to Kinver, where an inquest will be held on his death."

"He shall not be removed. Here he lies, and here stand I. Here he stays till I am assured that she who killed him is to be conveyed to gaol. Where is a constable? Where is a Justice of Peace?"

"This is arrant folly," said Holy Austin. "But that you are to be commiserated, we would not endure it."

"Not endure it! It is truth. I will swear it. Where is a constable? Bring me a justice here, and I will take oath."

"Here is a magistrate—Squire Folliot."

"Let him draw nigh. Let him swear me!" screamed the frantic woman.

Then, as someone stooped to raise the body, she thrust him fiercely away.

"No! none shall touch him. As he goes to burial so shall the murderess go to the stake—earth to earth here," pointing to her son, "and ashes to ashes there," indicating Bladys. "I will throw myself down. I will clasp him with my arms. None shall separate us till I know that justice will be done him and me, and that this murderess will be conveyed to gaol."

Then an elderly, stout gentleman, in drab smalls and gaiters, thrust his way through the crowd.

"I am a magistrate, madam, and if you can show real cause against that young person, I shall not be slack in performing my duty. Has anyone a New Testament here?"

"I have one, sir," answered the Evening Lecturer, extending a book through the ring of spectators. Mr Folliot at once administered the oath.

The fierce, resentful woman rapidly proceeded with her declaration and denunciation.

"So help me God, I saw her when we came in, Abraham and I, into her cave. She stood in the farther doorway. And when Luke went to her, with both hands she thrust him over the edge down the cliff. I saw it with both eyes. So help me God, Amen."

"Now look here," said the justice, "this is a serious allegation. Where is this same Abraham you mention?"

"I am here, sir; Abraham Jarrock is my name."

"Come forward and take oath."

"I cannot swear to what she says."

"Take oath as to what you actually witnessed."

"I did not see the girl thrust him over. She went through the door and the master ran after her, and as he knew nothing of the precipice beyond, fell headlong down unaided. He was quite capable of doing so without assistance."

"You say that? You lie!" shrieked the woman. "You were not looking. I have sworn. Take her away; handcuff her! Carry her to prison. It was her husband she killed. She shall not end on the gallows, she shall be burned alive."

"Silence, woman," said the magistrate. "The assistant, Abraham Jarrock, contradicts your statement. There are other witnesses."

"I am one, your worship!" said Holy Austin, stepping through the ring and taking his place by the corpse over against the woman. "Hand me the book. I, also, have something to say, and I will speak before this assembly."

"Stay awhile," said the justice. "Whom have we here?"

Mr Folliot looked over the heads of the people, and saw a gentleman on horseback advancing, followed by several men, some bearing a hurdle on which lay a body, and two conducting a woman who was handcuffed.

The throng about the dead executioner and his mother loosened; its texture resolved itself into an open web. Attention was for a moment diverted by this new event, as yet not understood, but stimulating enquiry.

Then the magistrate called:

"Mr Homfray! Will you be good enough to come here? We shall be glad of your presence and assistance."

The gentleman addressed alighted from his horse, the constables attending him approached. Hasty questions were put, and as hastily answered. The party just arrived was the posse which had broken into Meg-a-Fox Hole, and it was conveying the dead constable to the village and Nan to the lock-up.

"Mr Homfray," said Justice Folliot, "I particularly desire your presence here. Will you kindly step forward?" Turning to Mother Onion he said, "There are now two magistrates present, and this charge of yours shall be impartially considered. But let me caution you, madam; you are not in a condition now to speak without a passion that clouds your vision. Be advised by me and say no more."

"I will speak. I am on my oath. I insist on being heard. I will repeat all again."

"I will briefly tell my brother magistrate what you have said, and what is the accusation you make."

"That girl yonder, as I hear, has killed a man," cried Mrs Onion, pointing to Nan, "and she is under arrest. Why should this other go free, when she has murdered my son? I insist, I will repeat my charge."

This she did with as great volubility and vehemence as before.

"Now it is my turn to speak," said Holy Austin. He kissed the book. "I am glad to have occasion, as there is much to be said which I desire should be heard by all."

"Speak on, Knobbler!" said Justice Folliot.

"It is my desire," said the old man, "to say a word touching the marriage. Mrs Onion declares that the case is one of petty treason—that the murder, if murder it be, was committed on the body of Luke Francis Onion by his lawful wife. Now, I deny that deceased was her husband. You are all aware that the father of Stewponey Bladys set her as a prize to be contended for at bowls. This match was got up at the instigation of some of the bloods and bucks of the neighbourhood. At that time Luke Francis Onion, the public executioner of the counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, was tarrying at the Stewponey Inn, not under his proper name, but under that of Francis. None suspected him to be the hangman, or none would have associated with him. This man won in the game of bowls, and claimed the prize. Unhappily, our vicar, perhaps over-persuaded by a gentleman I do not see here perhaps believing that as the Chapel of Stourton Castle is extra-parochial, any sort of ceremony may be performed there with impunity, even to the worship of Baal, was induced to give his aid. The scene in the Chapel was a scandal to religion. The House of God was invaded by a rabble of gentlemen-blackguards—"

"Come, come, Knobbler, I cannot allow this," said Folliot.

"I beg pardon, your worship; but unhappily, as you well know, our district harbours a number of gentlemen by birth and position who are the leaders in all that is degrading—in cock-fighting, Sabbath-breaking, cudgelling, dicing, swearing, and blasphemy. I will not say more of that outrage on religion, the pretended marriage, than that it lacks all those elements which go to make it legal. It is not registered in the parish books, there is no record of it, as there would have been had it been a proper and legal function. Our vicar probably was ashamed of his part in the affair, and did no more than he conceived himself engaged to do by a promise wrung from him by a certain person I will not name. I presume that a marriage performed without banns, or without licence, in an unauthorised place, and unrecorded in the register—one, moreover, in which the one party—the bride—refused to give any promise and consent—is no marriage in the sight of God or in the eye of the law. Consequently, the charge of petty treason breaks down.

"Now, as to the next point. There was no murder committed. That this gentlewoman should have suffered a terrible loss makes us all compassionate her. But the sense of commiseration is swallowed up in indignation when we hear her give false evidence, and swear to what is demonstrably a lie, in order that she may glut her hate upon the unhappy girl who has for too long been misunderstood, misrepresented, and misused. Interest magistratûs tueri bonos, animadvertere in ma/os.

"May it please your worships, one word further. Bladys of the Stewponey, whom this gentlewoman accuses of having thrust the deceased over the rock with both hands, was not where represented by Mrs Onion. She was not within reach of him when he fell. Outside the western door is a narrow shelf that led to a pigeonry. I had quitted the rock some ten minutes before the event of the fall of Luke Hangman, an event we all deplore. I had gone to the front of the rock and had met the Evening Lecturer, and with him walked on the heath, and lit upon Squire Folliot. We happened to speak of the presentation of our vicar to the bishop on account of his irregularities, and I then informed the Squire and the Lecturer that the young person who had been so irregularly married was taken under my protection and was in the Rock. I turned, as did also they, and I pointed to the opening from her dwelling, and at that moment we all three—that is to say, I, and I doubt not the gentlemen will say the same—saw her issue forth, and creep along the ledge till she was fully two arms' length from the doorway. Then we all three—that is to say, I—saw a man—who he was I knew not then, leap through the opening and fall down the cliff, carried over by his own weight. If she had touched him I should have seen it, but touch him she could not and did not. She was standing with both arms spread, clinging with her hands to the surface of the rock. This is what I have to say. The Rev. Mr Wittinslow, the Lecturer, and Squire Folliot will confirm my statement."

Mrs Onion was staggered, but she promptly rallied.

"I charge her," she said hoarsely, "I charge her with having robbed me of jewels worth over a thousand pounds."

"Hearken to me, madam," said Mr Folliot, gravely. "To my certain knowledge you have already perjured yourself. You have endeavoured to injure a perfectly innocent young girl. My own eyes have assured me of that. If my brother justice desires it, I am ready to be put on oath. No sooner does one monstrous charge break down than you trump up another, equally preposterous I doubt not. We are ready to believe that grief at the loss of your son has disturbed your mind, and that you are not responsible for what you say. But take care of yourself. You are now the only person menaced, for you have rendered yourself liable to a warrant issued against you for perjury; and, by Heaven, if we have another word on this matter of poor Stewponey, we will deal with you in such manner as you will not relish."

Turning aside, he muttered: "She is a malignant, wicked old cat!" Then to some of the men who stood by he said, curtly, "Remove the corpse."

Abraham Jarrock pushed to the foreground, and thrusting his sour face close to the stupefied mother, said sneeringly:

"Dost desire to know who killed the master? It was your own self. He had no fancy to go to the Rock. He had tasted quite sufficient of the sours of matrimony. He told me himself on the way that he should not bring back his wife, and that he went solely in order to humour you. So it was you who drove him to it, you who threw him down, you who broke his neck, you who have opened the way to me to become hangman-in-chief. I thank you for it. I shall ask for my appointment and shall get it. Go back to Shrewsbury, pack up your duds at the Gate House and sheer off."