Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 25
Alas for Nan! There was little to be hoped for when her case came on for trial.
Bladys spoke to Holy Austin about her. The old man had heard from his nephew. The jewels were the property of Bladys. The Crown would not press its claim. Consequently she would have money by the sale, and her first desire was that whatever was necessary should be done for Nan Norris.
The old schoolmaster shook his head; a counsel had already been engaged, and had visited Nan in prison, and had concerted with her a line of defence. But the Knobbler was not sanguine.
It was with tears in her eyes that Bladys entered the prison at Stafford to visit her friend. She found Nan at the little window of her cell, looking up at the flying clouds. The sun shone in when a cloud was withdrawn from the disc, and then her pleasant countenance was glorified, and a smile and a dimple formed on lip and in cheek, as her changeful mood assumed a hopeful complexion, with the flash of light upon it Next moment a cloud drifted across the orb, and then, as Nan's face was overshadowed, its expression also became despondent. The tears filled her eyes as the rain filled the passing mass of vapour.
Her hands lay in her lap, but she could not keep them in repose. She plucked at her gown incessantly; then, as Bladys entered, she started up, ran to her, and in her impulsive way said:
"Bla, see this; my fingers have been picking at threads. That is ever a bad sign, mother says, and is a sure token of death."
There was something in the girl's handsome face that was inexpressibly engaging. The dark eye of old, twinkling with humour or melting with kindliness, had in it now a soft appealing gleam. Her dimpled cheek, ready to flush with passion, was now somewhat pale. The mobile lips that were always inclined to smile good-humouredly were now tremulous with sorrow. There was ever in the girl strength as well as good nature, and where her heart was engaged she could be tough as steel. And this strength did not desert her now. If the tears rose readily to Nan's eyes and the glow of anger to her cheek the mood quickly changed, and then there shone a rainbow in her eyes—a promise of fine weather.
Bladys did not dare to extend to the poor creature hopes that were almost certain to be blasted, and to represent her case as lighter than it really was. The girl frankly admitted that she had fired at and shot the constable. Her plea was that he was breaking into her habitation, and that she had a right to defend herself. She was making Meg-a-Fox Hole ready, as her mother thought of giving up the Rock Tavern and of removing thither. When the attack was made she was alarmed. She knew not who the assailants were. They might have been housebreakers, murderers. She defended herself and her goods as well as she was able. She had no more to say than that any girl under like provocation, in deadly fear for herself, would have been justified in defending herself. Such was the line of defence agreed upon; but Nan herself laughed over it to Bladys. It was not likely to be accepted. It was too well established that Nan and her mother were in league with the gang of highwaymen infesting the country. The Savoyard was able to give evidence to this effect, and further proof was not wanting.
There was no evidence that the Norris family purposed leaving the tavern; there was good proof that the series of caves called Meg-a-Fox Hole was used as a place of concealment for stolen goods, and it was ostensibly held by Mother Norris, who paid for it a trifling acknowledgment to the Lord of the Manor.
"O Bla! Bla!" sobbed Nan, clinging to her visitor, "I shall know the worst very soon. Come and see me afterwards. Do not forsake me. George, I know, can't come. He is having a bad time of it hiding about. I'd have been told if he had been nabbed. Well, they'll tire of hunting after him, and if he'll keep moving about from one ken to another for a week or two longer he may get off. Mother has been here to see me. Holy Austin brought her. I am sure it gave him trouble to persuade her. She is that terrible afraid of gaols and gallows and all that sort of thing, that she won't come near a court o' law or a prison. But, anyhow, she did come, and when she was here she made it bad for me. She was that inquisitive and curious, axing me a score of questions about—But there, I'll say nothing of that, even to you, my dear. Bla, sit here by me on my bed. I want to tell you something."
She took hold of the hand of Bladys, and began to stroke it. "I'm not, after all, so sorry that I am about to die."
"It is true. You do not know all; I will tell you. You remember when you was to be bowled for, when George said he would play, I began to hate you then. I was miserable. But I had a sort of tiff about it with George, and he gave up the notion: I think he was a bit afraid of me. Mother and I knew so much. We knew everything, and could blow the whole concern. If mother or I turned cat-in-the-pan, where would the Captain be? Where would—but I will name no names. He and the other gentlemen have been forced to trust us, and never, never have we acted dishonourable by 'em. George and I were woundy friendly. But he is of a changeable complexion and terribly humoursome. I've seen it coming on for some while, and very miserable it has made me. He's been getting tired of me, and my life has just been one running festering sore. It has been all pain and no happiness all through this. Whether he has set his fancy on some other doxie, I can't tell. He's been clever enough not to allow me to know, but he has not been for some time to me what he once was, and it is my conviction, Bla, that but for fear of offending me, and so making me ready to peach, he'd have shaken me off two months agone."
Nan sobbed convulsively. She squeezed the hand of Bladys and held it to her bosom, then kissed it.
"Well, it had come to this. I found him every day trying to undo one tie and then another that bound us together, and to me the misery was becoming more than I could bear. Bla, that is one reason why I am ready to die. To live on, deserted by him, to be nothing more to him, to know that his heart belonged to another, I could not bear it. O Bla!" she loosed her hold on Bladys, and flung herself on the bed with her face down and beat the counterpane with her hands, "I could not bear it. I would rather die than go through it."
Recovering herself, she sat up again and continued:
"But that is not all. There is worse behind. I should not have rested by day or by night. I'd have been ever looking who she was that had stolen him away from me. And then, if I had discovered—and from a jealous, resentful and wretched woman nothing of that kind can be hid for long—then, Bla, darling, I'd have become that wicked, I'd have killed her. Mother would have lent a hand, and been pleased to do so. Lor' bless y', she thinks no more of that sort of thing than of poisoning rats. She is a clever woman is mother, and knows the herbs, like any other wise woman. It has been in the family. Her mother was just the same. But there now, I'm off to something else, and time is flying. Bla! think of that. If I'd got out, and lived, and was unhappy with having lost George, I might have come to be a real wicked murderess. I would have done it with hate in my heart, and a wish for revenge.
"As to the poor chap I shot, by Goles, I bore him no malice; I could not see who it was, and I did my duty in shooting him. George bade me fire. I did it to save him. If I had not blazed at him, in another minute he'd have been in the cave, and all the others after him. There is just this comfort to me," she wiped her eyes, "that George can't think unkindly of me, though there have been brushes between us sometimes. One or other—it had come to that. He or I must go to feed the crows, so, of course, there was no choice for me. Now, look you here, and listen and attend to what I say. Mother, she'll be in a pretty take-on about me. She puts it all down to George, and I want you to do me a favour. It is the last in the world that you can."
"I will do anything that I can for you, dear Nan!"
"I know you will," with another gush of affection. "You are the only real friend I have, or ever have had—all but George, and he is not true. But for all that, I'm sorry not to say good-bye to him. No, Bla! I'm glad I am going; it is all for the best, and I feel that in my heart o' hearts. George will not forget that he escaped by means of me."
"But what is it that you desire me to do for you, Nan?"
"There now, I am wandering again. I am a fool, as George was never tired of telling me. I didn't like it then, but I dare be sworn he was right. It is just this—Do everything you can to find him."
"George, of course. There is no other he to me."
"That will be difficult if he is in hiding."
"I know it will be. Perhaps if all other means fail, you may learn about him from my mother; but find him, if you can, before she sees him. When you have discovered him, then"—she drew the ear of Bladys to her lips and whispered, "bid him never eat a bit of food or take a sup of drink from my mother. Do you understand? Tell him that from me. When I am swung, then I shall know nothing of how he goes on with other girls. I shan't mind, if he keeps one kind thought of Nan in his heart. Tell him," she whispered again, trembling with eagerness as she spoke, "tell him from me never to accept a bit or drop from mother. Hark! there they come! I know it is to take me into Court. God be wi' ye, Bla. Kiss me again. You will not forget my message? Give my love to George."