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THE CROOKED FINGER AGAIN

Mother Norris was sitting by the fire, smoking a short pipe, and looking dreamily into the glow. A few days had sufficed to olden her by as many years. The anxiety under which she had laboured when her house had been searched, and her distress about Nan, had aged her vastly. Her back was more bent, her face more haggard, her hair greyer and more dishevelled, and her eyes more dazed.

She had seen her daughter. The assizes at Stafford had followed so speedily after those at Shrewsbury that Nan's imprisonment had been brief, and only a few weeks had intervened, no more, between the death of the constable and her execution.

Now the old woman was full of concern for herself and her future. In her old age, with her natural selfishness, she grieved for the loss of her daughter mainly as it affected her own comfort. She was afraid that she would be driven out of her old home. But even if allowed to continue there, how could she conduct the business of the house unassisted? To engage a helper when she was in such a feeble condition was to put everything into the hands of the assistant. She sat blinking and puffing over the embers, with one brown, lean hand on each knee, endeavouring to discover some expedient for making the rest of her life independent and comfortable, and could find none.

Then she was startled by a rap, followed by a scratching at the door. She called in reply, and the door was partially opened. A face looked in, peered into every corner, and then a body followed.

"Ah, George! My darling, my honey-man!" croaked the old woman. "Come in; I am alone. You are safe here. But I've had them rumpling the place up twice."

Stracey shut and bolted the door after him. If the events of the past weeks had worn and oldened the woman, they had told with even greater effect on the man. He was pale to ghastliness, had lost flesh, his swagger had given way to nervousness, and his very garments had partaken in his deterioration. They were soiled and ragged. He threw himself into a chair by the hearth and cowered by the fire.

"It has come to this," said he, "that I'm pretty nigh done for. They are stopping every earth, and I have had to run from one ken to another, and have never known where I was safe. I've had to sleep in ditches and under trees, been soaked by rains and shivered by frosts. I haven't had a proper bite of food since I last saw you. By Heaven, I must eat, and I'll throw myself on a doss (bed) to-night if I have to swing for it. But I won't be caught; they are hunting in another quarter now. I can't endure this much longer; I'll shift to Wales."

"Why have you come here?" said Mrs Norris, holding the pipe in her hand, and eyeing him with a singular expression in her leathery face. He was too weary, hungry, miserable, to observe of her countenance.

"Why have I come?" said he impatiently; "you have potatoes, bacon; that is why. Bring me rye bread—anything. I am sick for want of proper meat and sleep."

"I've no taters in the house, and not a bit of bacon for the last fortnight. But I'll bring you a drop of cat-water (gin), and warm you some porridge with onions."

"Anything that is hot. I'm starved. Am I safe here?"

"How can I say? This is a pot-house, and folk come in for a drop at all hours. If they find the door locked and barred they'll smell something, and go into Kinver and lay an information."

"Let me have the inner room. Then if anyone should enter you can keep 'em in the kitchen as usual; and they'll know nothing of my being under this roof. But when I've eaten and warmed me at the fire I'll just throw myself on the doss."

He went to the door of communication and looked into the dark and unoccupied chamber.

"I'll not be in yonder, in cold and blackness, I've been a fortnight and more without seeing or smelling a fire. I'm starving for warmth and dryth, as I am for proper food. See—my clothing—rags they be; you can almost wring the water out of them."

"I'll kindle the fire in yonder," said Mrs Norris; "and then if any one comes to the door you can step in there. I can't refuse to open."

"I know that; I would not have come here but that I have nowhere else whither I can run. Look at my hand, how it shakes. That is with cold and fasting and being hounded about, and never sure whether I shan't be nabbed, and in the end crapped."

"My fell (daughter) has been that," said the hostess, leaning over Stracey and looking into his face with inquiry in her eyes.

He rubbed his hands together and extended them over the fire again, but did not respond to the remark.

"Do you know that?" asked Mother Norris. "She's turned off and done for. Last Tuesday it was. What I am to do without her I can't think. I always reckoned that you'd make a tavern sign, but I never reckoned that my Nan would be swung up. Captain, how came that about? I'd like to know. You was with her in Meg-a-Fox Hole. Couldn't you have got her off?"

"You hell-hag! I had as much as I could do to save myself."

"And the dust—what became of that? I know it was got away. How did you manage to carry that away and leave my Nan behind? I know you got off with the blunt, for they turned over everything in the cave and did not find it."

"Yes, yes; I thrust it down the dolly!"

"Then why did you leave Nan behind? She was more to me than my share of the dust. She ought not to have been lagged when you were there to help her."

With an oath George Stracey turned on the old woman and bade her get the fire lighted in the farther room and prepare food for him.

She said not another word, but hobbled into the adjoining apartment, and remained there for some minutes. Presently she returned to take a shovel-full of red-hot embers from the kitchen hearth, with which to kindle the fire in the grate of the inner chamber. As she stopped and with a hook drew the ashes into the shovel she leered up into the face of the highwayman and said:

"Ah! Captain, honey! What are you thinking and grieving over? No more games on the main toby (highway)? Or is it for Nan? Poor, poor Nan."

The man stamped and set his teeth.

"Have I not enough to worry me without you snapping at me?"

"Just so she used to sit, looking into the glow," continued the hag, undeterred; "with her it was nought but George this and George that; ay, ay, it was all George with her. I've seen her fret her heart out, there on that stool, when she fancied you was ceasing to care for her, and had took up with some other jorner."

"Get me something to eat. Don't you know I'm perished for food?" exclaimed Stracey, with an impatient action of the hand that made the woman wince, as she thought he was about to strike her.

She obeyed, her face wreathed with a smile more hideous than a scowl.

After a few minutes she returned, and said in a muffled voice, "Everything is ready."

"Not more ready than am I," said the highwayman, rising stiffly. "Zounds! I've had nothing baken and hot from the fire between my teeth for many days; nought but raw turnips or a handful of dry corn."

He went into the adjoining room and threw the door back after him.

The chamber he entered was lighted by a dancing fire of sticks, in joyful contrast to the dull red fire over which he had crouched in the kitchen, and which had been reduced in volume by the red-hot embers taken to supply the other grate.

Stracey had not left the kitchen many minutes before steps were heard approaching; then a hand was laid on the latch and an attempt was made to open the door.

"Who is there?" asked Mother Norris.

"Come—open. A public-house should never be fast shut," was the reply.

"Eh! but I am lone and old now."

"We will not harm you. Unbar."

"But who are you? There be more than one."

"Ay, to be sure there be. Crispin Ravenhill and Stewponey Bla. You're not afraid of us?"

At the door of communication between the inner room and the kitchen, appeared Stracey, signalling to the old woman. But she paid no attention to him, and withdrew the bar.

"Come in, and welcome," she said. "There be so many wicked men about, that I'm forced, when feeling timorsome of nights, to bolt my door. What are you two about, wandering in the wind and rain and darkness?"

"We have made this journey to see you," answered the young man in the doorway. "It has been the wish of Bladys, and I am but now returned from London town."

"Come to the fire. Sit you down," said the hag.

"We shall not remain over ten minutes," said Crispin. "We must return to the Rock and Kinver."

He strode to the hearth and stood there.

A strip of gold, the reflection from the fire in the farther apartment, through the gap made by the door being ajar, was painted from ceiling to floor, on the wall—a ribbon of flickering gold leaf.

The haste with which Mrs Norris had undone the front door, had prevented Stracey from shutting that into the room where he was.

"You have a fire in yonder," said Ravenhill. "Is there anyone there?"

"No—no—no one," answered the old woman. "I have kindled a faggot, as the night was damp and the room smelled mouldy, like a church vault."

Then Bladys took the hand of Mrs Norris, and said in a shaking voice:

"Mother, I have come to say a word to you about her whom we have lost—whom I loved as well as you."

"Ay! ay!" replied the crone. "She was a good wench, and was very fond of you. She loved me too, although I was rough with her at times. She was my own flesh and blood, and although I say it, she was a good wench; and I take it kindly of you to come and speak to me of her. That's more than do some as ought to." Her tone suddenly altered. "She would ha' done better to have dashed a kettle o' scalding water in a face I could put a name to, than to have cast eyes of love on it."

"As you say," spoke Bladys in feeling tones, "she was good and true, and we will remember her as such. I ever shall—to me she was loving."

"That's certain," exclaimed the old woman, casting a sidelong glance at the door that was ajar. "And if right had been done by such as I know of, she'd have been here to-night to welcome you, and would not have got her head into a horse's nightcap."

She stooped over the fire, and put the miserable embers together and muttered, "Somebody might have saved her had he chose."

"Do not entertain these notions," said Bladys. "What has happened is past recall."

"True, but, Stewponey Bla, I saw my Nan before she died. Holy Austin took me to her, or I never should have mustered up courage to go. She was woundy shy of speaking to me, but I probed her well wi' questions, and when she turned stiff and wouldn't give me a reply, then I sullied the truth. Yes, yes, the cravat was but to her neck that should have been fitted to the throat of another."

It was in vain for Bladys to get the old woman to speak of her daughter in any other light. She harboured the conviction that a wrong had been done to her and Nan, and was bitter in heart with resentment against the offender, whom, however, she would not name. Bladys accordingly turned to another matter.

"Mother," she said, "for all that Nan was to me, for the love that I bore her, I wish to do something for you. I know that you are poor, very poor, and now, in your old age, companion-less and helpless. It is my wish and intention, along with Crispin, who—who will soon be my husband, to do something for you."

"What can you do?" asked the old woman sharply.

"We will allow you a crown every week, on which you may be able to obtain little comforts."

The old woman laughed.

"You must have the money before you can give it."

"We have it," answered Bladys. "I may tell you that we have come in for a large sum of money—large, that is, for us."

"A large sum—When? How?" greedily queried the beldame. "Have you it about you now? Show it me."

"No, Mother Norris, I have none of it about me now. Crispin is going to expend it in barges on the canal. We shall have enough over with which to assist you. You shall receive a crown every week, from Holy Austin if we are away. And if at any time you should need more we shall not refuse further help, for dear Nan's sake."

"I'd like to know how you came by that money," said the hag meditatively. "Not from Holy Austin—he has none. Not from your father—he wants it all for the dressing-up of his new jorner. Not from Luke Hangman or his mother—for I've heard say that you never was his wife, and so couldn't claim aught when he was dead."

"I have my secrets," said Bladys, with a smile, "even from you."

"There is one thing, further, and then we must be gone," said Crispin. "Where is Captain Stracey?"

"Where is George Stracey?" repeated the old woman, slowly, musingly. "Oh! you desire to know?"

"Yes, Bla does."

Then Bladys, standing near the hearth, saw in the streak of flickering gold reflected on the wall before her, the shadow of a hand with a crooked forefinger, making a sign of caution. With an exclamation of astonishment she turned on her heels, and cried, "He is here!"

At the same moment Crispin sprang at the door and drove it open, and saw Stracey standing with spanned pistol presented at him.

"Back!" shouted the highwayman, and snapped the lock. No discharge followed; the priming was wet. With a curse Stracey turned the weapon in his hand and said:

"Come on if you dare. I'll sell my life dearly."

"I have no desire to touch you, or to have anything to do with you," said Ravenhill coolly.

"Then why ask Mother Norris to betray me?"

"I asked her where you were, because she who is soon to become my wife brings you a message from poor Nan."

Bladys advanced into the room.

"Captain," said she, "have no fears for yourself, no hurt will come to you through us. Nan loved you too dearly for me not to wish you well. For her sake I would screen you. But I can do nothing in that way. Nan made me promise that I would give you a message from her—one I was to communicate to no ear save yours."

"What is it?" he asked, sullenly and suspiciously.

"I must speak it to you alone. Crispin will leave the room, go into the kitchen, and suffer us to be together for a moment."

Ravenhill withdrew and shut the door.

"Come, what is it?"

"It really is not much," answered Bladys; "only this. Nan said, 'Tell George Stracey on no account to touch food or drink prepared for him by my mother.'"

The man staggered back, turned livid, his eyes fell; he put his hand through his hair and whispered—he could not speak—"It is too late! Look!" and he pointed to an empty bowl on the table.

Then his paralysing terror instantly gave way, and in a transport of fury and resentment he dashed past Bladys, tore open the door, and would have fallen on Mother Norris and beaten out her brains with his fists had not Ravenhill intervened and repelled him.

"She has poisoned me!" he yelled; the sweat bursting, almost spouting, from his lips and brow. "I know it—I feel it. Why did I ever come here?"

Unable to reach her he ran back into the room he had left, picked up the pistol that had fallen from his hand in the first access of horror, again cocked it, and once more attempted to discharge it, this time aiming at the hag. Again the weapon refused to fire, and he threw it at her, but missed.

"She has poisoned me—with her cursed drie," he gasped; then suddenly turned and fled the house.

The old woman, hugging her knee, seated by the fire, broke into convulsions of harsh laughter.

"Drie, is it! Accursed drie! Oh, Captain George—Captain Stracey—who could have thought that he who has been the terror of travellers, has defied the law and slipped the noose, should find his death in a porridge bowl!"

"Come from this place," cried Ravenhill, drawing Bladys to him. "Leave the miserable creature to herself. This is no place for you."

He led her from the Rock Tavern.

The rain had ceased, the clouds had parted, the stars shone clear. Jupiter as a silver lamp stood above. From beyond the Stour sounded soft and sweet the warble of a flute; a lad was practising outside his cottage door.

"Bladys!" said Crispin, and he drew the shaking, trembling girl closer to his side, "another month and then we leave Kinver, and put behind us thoughts that are painful and the memory of many horrors, and in the new home in which you will be known as Bladys Ravenhill a new and happy story will begin, full of love and joy and peace, and the old tale of Stewponey Bla, into which entered so much of distress, shame, and sorrow, will be closed—ay, and forgotten."