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CRISPIN

"Bla! run, take a jug of ale to Ravenhill," called the host down the cellar stairs. "He's come for his luncheon."

Bladys hastily wiped her eyes and mounted the steps, fetched what was required, and went into the guest-room, where Crispin, the bargeman, was pacing.

"I will not have it here. Outside," said he, "under the elm." And then went forth.

The girl followed.

Crispin Ravenhill was a tall man, with fair hair, yet were his eyes dark; they were large, velvety; and a gentle, iridescent light played, passing in waves through them. Unlike the men of his time, he was completely unshaven, and wore a long light beard and moustache.

He seated himself on a bench beneath one of those "Worcester weeds," as the small-leaf elm is termed; and as Bladys placed his bread and cheese on a table there, he looked attentively at her.

"You have been weeping," said he.

"I have cause, when about to be thrust from my home," she answered, in a muffled voice. She resented his remark, yet was unable to restrain an expression of the bitterness that worked within.

"And with whom will you leave home?" he asked.

"That the bowls decide, not I."

Then she turned to leave; but he caught her wrist. "You shall not go. Much depends on what now passes between us," said he.

"What passes between us is bread and cheese from me to thee, and seven-pence in return."

"If that be all, go your way," said he. "Yet no; you have tears in your heart as well as in your eyes. Sit down and let us speak familiarly together."

"I cannot sit down," answered she—for indeed it would have been indecorous for her to seat herself along with a customer. She might converse with him standing for half-an-hour with impunity, but to sit for one minute would compromise her character. Such was tavern etiquette.

"I pity you, my poor child, from the deep of my heart; in very deed I am full of pity."

There was a vibration in his rich, deep voice, a flutter of kindly light in his brown eyes that sent a thrill through the heart of Bladys. In a moment her eyes brimmed, and he was conscious of a quiver in the muscles of the wrist he grasped.

"They make sport of you. 'Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine,' was not spoken of lifeless objects, but of living jewels, of consecrated beings. They make sport of you to your shame, and to that of the entire place. But the place can take of itself—not so thou, poor child."

She did not speak.

"God help you," he continued. "A frail, white lily planted, springing out of a good soil,—and to be plucked up by the roots and transplanted, none can say whither."

Never hitherto had any one spoken to Bladys in this manner. There was something pedantic in his mode of speech, formed by contact with his uncle; but there was genuine sincerity in the tone of voice, real sympathy breaking out in flashes from his opalescent eyes.

The mother of Bladys had been a good but a hard woman, practical not imaginative, kind but unsympathetic; engrossed in her own grievances, she had been incapable of entering into the soul of her child, and showing motherly feeling for its inarticulate yearnings and vague shrinkings.

"This is none of your doing," proceeded Crispin. "To this you gave no consent."

Her lips moved. She could not speak.

"Nay," said he, "I need no words."

There was a mellowness, a gentleness in his tone and mode of speech that won the confidence of the girl. Hitherto he had not spoken to her except on ordinary matters, and she had seen nothing of his heart. In Nature, all is harmonious—the flower and its leaf are in one key. In a landscape are no jarring contrasts. It is so in human beings; look and voice and manner correspond with the inner nature; they are, in fact, its true expression. The stern and unsympathetic heart has its outward manifestations,—the harsh voice and the hard eye, and severity of line in figure and feature. The gross soul has an unctuous look, a sensual mouth, and a greasy voice. But the pitiful and sweet soul floods every channel of utterance with its waters of love. The kindly thought softens and lights up the eye, and gives to the vocal chords a wondrous vibration. However lacking in beauty and regularity the features may be, however shapeless the form, the inner charity transfigures all into a beauty that is felt rather than seen. "There is no fear in love," said the Apostle; the saying may be supplemented with this—neither is there ugliness where is Charity.

And now this solitary girl, solitary in the midst of turmoil, was for the first time in her life aware that she was in the presence of one who could understand her troubles, and who stretched forth to help her and sustain her in her recoil from the false position into which she had been thrust.

As Bladys declined to take a seat, Crispin stood up. He did not release her wrist. She made an effort to disengage herself, but it was not sincere, nor was it persistent, and he retained hold.

"Nay," said he, "I will not suffer you to escape till you have answered my questions. This may be the last time I ever have a word with you; consider that; and I must use the moment You stand at a turning-point in your life, and even so do I. Answer me, in the first place, how came this mad affair about?"

She hesitated and looked down

"Speak openly. Tell me everything about it."

"There is little to relate."

"Then relate that little."

"It is this. My father is about to marry again."

"I have heard as much."

"To Catherine Barry, and I must leave the house."

"Catherine!" said Crispin. "That name is given as my uncle would say as lucus a non lucendo, and as mons a non movendo. Excuse my speaking words of Latin. It comes to me from my schoolmaster and all-but father. I understand that you must leave. It cannot be other. Catherine Barry and you cannot be under one roof."

"And one evening when the gentlemen were at Stewponey drinking—then something my father said about it, and added that he supposed he must have me married, and so rid the house of me. But to do that he lacked money, as none would have a portionless girl."

"There he spake false."

"And then," proceeded Bladys, "the gentlemen being in drink, and ready for any frolic, swore there should be sweepstakes for me. They would each give something, and make the beginning of the fund, and my father should announce a game of bowls, each candidate for the prize to pay a guinea, and the whole to go to me and the winner. Then they sent a punch-bowl round the table, and some put in five and some three, and one even ten guineas, and so started the fund with forty-six guineas. After that my father considered he could not go back."

"And so sacrifices his child," said the young boatman between his teeth.

"My father is calling me," said Bladys hastily.

"I let you go on one condition only—that you return; and you shall return with an answer. Bla, if you will take me, say so. I am a poor man, with my boat only; but with God's help I will maintain you with honour. Take me, and I will snatch you away before this hideous scandal can take place, and you become the talk of the country."

Again the voice of the landlord called.

"I must run," said Bladys, changing colour.

"Then go, and return with an answer, Yes or No."

She left.

Whilst away, Crispin Ravenhill stood motionless, leaning against the table, with his arms folded and his dark eyes fixed on the ground. His contracted fingers alone showed that he was a prey to disturbing thoughts.

As he thus stood, a strong dark man came up, and brushed rudely against him. Crispin glanced at him with an expression of annoyance, and recognised the stranger, Luke Francis.

"You have much to say to that wench," said the latter.

"Whether I have or no concerns you not. Go your way, and for the future, when you pass a man, measure your distance more nicely."

"I shall go where I list, and those that stand in my way I shall thrust out of it."

"Those who jar against others must expect bruises."

Ravenhill threw his weight on the end of the table so as to tilt up the opposite end, and he then swung it round against the elbow of Francis, which it struck. The man thus hit sprang up with an exclamation of pain, and clapped his hand to the joint for a moment. Francis did not speak for a minute, but after that he flared out in rage—

"So you will try issue with me?"

"I have no further quarrel with you. You, having rudely thrust against me, have received a thrust in return. Our account is balanced."

"You are not afraid to provoke me?"

"Not in the smallest degree."

"Look at my arms."

Francis extended his hands, and then, indeed, Ravenhill observed how long the arms were; unduly so, out of proportion to his lower limbs; for when he lowered his hands they touched his knees. The stranger now bent his arms, and the muscles swelled like knotted cables. Then he laughed.

"There are few like me. I could take your head between my palms, and squeeze it as you would a Seville orange. Are you one that has entered for the bowling match?"

"I am not."

"I am sorry for that, for I would like to be pitted against you. Perhaps you will not deny me a cast at wrestling; that will give more spirit than a game at bowls."

Before Ravenhill was ready with an answer, the inn-keeper arrived, with Bladys following him.

"What is this?" he asked. "You, Crispin, stepping in and trying to forestall everyone? That's against all laws of gaming. Look here, Mr Francis. This boatman has been asking my wench to let him carry her off afore the match. That's unfair dealing all the world over. I say it can't be."

"And it shan't," said Luke Francis.

"It can't and it shan't," shouted the host. "Why, there's forty-six guineas paid down by the gentlemen, as'd be all forfeited without the match. They gave it on condition; and I reckon that we shall have a take nigh on twenty pounds, what with the gate and with the sale of liquor and the stakes. It'd be a flying in the face of Fortune. Besides which it'd not be honourable; and I pride myself—I haven't got so much to pride myself on, but I do on that—as I'm a straight, honourable man in all my dealings."

"I have paid my guinea. I demand my right to contest for the prize—and win—to take her off," said the stranger.

"And he—has he staked?" asked the host.

"No, he has not," retorted Francis. "He told me so himself."

"I have had the crier round the neighbourhood. All the world will be here. Am I to befool them? It cannot be."

Then Ravenhill stood forth.

"I have sought to save the poor girl from a cruel and wanton insult, your house of Stewponey from the acquisition of a bad name, our vicar from the commission of an act which he will repent in his sober moments, and the parish from a scandal."

"And I refuse your interference," said Cornelius.

"What does she decide?" asked the barge-man. But Bladys was too frightened to reply.

"I answer for her. I am responsible. If you want her," said the taverner, "put down your guinea like a man, and try your chance with the rest. We'll have no underhand dealings here."

"Stewponey Bla," said Crispin, "is it your desire that I should enter for you?"

She nodded. She could not speak.

"Then here is my guinea."

He cast the coin on the table.

"May God give her to me!" he added with suppressed emotion. "Would I could have won her any way but this."