Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 4
The ancient bowling-green at the Stewponey remains in good condition to the present day, although the once popular and excellent English pastime of bowls has there, as elsewhere, fallen into desuetude.
In old England there was not a village, country house, without its bowling-green. A century ago the game held its own steadily, and it is within the last seventy or eighty years only that it has lost favour and has been supplanted by croquet and lawn tennis.
A bowling-green was necessarily sixty yards in length and half that in breadth, so that the space required was considerable. The rustic bowler on the village green had to make allowance for the inequalities of the ground, but the gentleman player used every precaution that his green should be absolutely even, the grass unbroken by groundsel and daisy, and smooth and short as velvet pile.
The bowling ground at the Stewponey, hedged about with small-leafed elms, well elevated above the road and river, and consequently dry, constituted a prime attraction to the inn, and the landlord spared no pains to keep it in order. The sward might compare with that in any nobleman's grounds. The bowls with which the game was played were not precisely the same as those now manufactured. They had the shape of flattened oranges, and were loaded with lead inserted in one side to serve as bias, or tendency wards the end of the course to describe a sweep. When delivered, the ball runs directly to its end, but as soon as it reaches the point where the force that launched it is expended, then it curls, carried by the weight of the lead, and turns in an arc. And it is here, in the practical knowledge of the effect of the bias, that the difficulty of the game consists, and the skill of the player is exhibited.
Nor is this all. At the present day, all bowls are of a standard size and regulation weight. But formerly it was not so. The bowls were turned by the village carpenter, and little nicety was observed as to the amount of lead inserted. Those on the village green, those on the Squire's lawn, those on the alehouse ground, were not of necessity of the same weight and size. Not only so, but among the bowls on the same green there existed no exact uniformity. The bowls were numbered in pairs, and the players either drew for their numbers, or, if accustomed to meet for the game on the same turf, adhered to their numbers, and so acquired perfect familiarity with the peculiarities of their several bowls. When no game could be played with zest except for money, whether cards, bowls, or pulling straws, there was ever a risk of fraud; and to this the game under consideration lent itself with peculiar facility, as it was an easy matter to tamper with the bias, and so alter the character of the run of the ball.
Cornelius Rea was not disappointed in his anticipation that the advertisement of the match would draw the entire neighbourhood together at his inn. Indeed, all the neighbouring parishes had decanted their male population into the grounds of the Stewponey, whilst the road without was choked with women and children, and such men as could not afford to pay for admission. Boys had climbed trees, girls were thrusting their heads through gaps in thorn hedges, in hopes of obtaining a view free of cost.
Will anyone say that what is here described is and was impossible? That it is impossible at the close of the nineteenth century may be at once admitted, but it was quite otherwise with the latter half of the century that is gone. It is hard, almost impossible, for us to conceive that things were witnessed by our grandfathers which seem to us quite incredible. To disarm criticism, then, let me affirm that just such a contest for a woman, as is here described, did take place, and in the very same parish of Kinver, so late as within the first twenty years of the century which our readers render illustrious by living in it. On this occasion the woman entertained a decided and tender preference for one of the competitors, and unhappily he proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, she loyally adhered to the compact entered into before the game was played, and married the man who was victor, and for whom she entertained no liking. An united and happy couple they proved to be.
To their credit be it mentioned that no women entered the wicket of the Stewponey; not that they were less interested in the contest than the men, but that they were restrained by a sense of decorum. Nevertheless, as already intimated, they congregated in the road in such dense masses as to impede traffic, and run the risk of being thrown down by the horses of some of the sporting squires who rode up or drove in their buggies to see the unusual fun of a woman being bowled for.
If they were debarred witnessing the game, they would have the gratification of seeing the prize carried off to Stourton Chapel, there to be married. If the women held back under some restraint, this was not the case with certain men who should have been leaders of the people—the parson, the doctor, and two magistrates. Of gentlemen there were over a score, of parsons happily only one, but he—the vicar of the parish.
The vicar of Kinver at this time was the Reverend Timothy Toogood—red-faced, rheumy-eyed, dressed in the shabbiest clerical garb.
The vicar was miserably poor. He was overshadowed by the evening lecturer, who received double the income of the other, without having any further responsibility laid on him than to preach one sermon on Sunday. Vicar and lecturer lived in perpetual feud, and, it must be allowed, the former laid himself open to reproach by his indiscretions and irregularities. The living hardly merited the name. It was more deserving to be reckoned as a dying. The vicarage was a mean cottage. The parishioners might have made their parson's position tolerable, and have secured a respectable incumbent, had they consented to give the lectureship to the vicar, but the latter was a nominee of the Leathersellers' Company, and the villagers delighted to exhibit their independence by appointing their own lecturer.
The main politics of the place consisted in controversy over the merits or demerits of the two ecclesiastics, and in setting one against the other. It is of no use denying the fact that poverty in certain positions demoralises. A common workman can be poor and straight as a whistle, but a man of some education and parts, and born a gentleman, if in reduced circumstances, is tempted almost beyond power of resistance to deflect from the straight course. Parson Toogood, had he been in comfortable circumstances, would have been respectable and have deserved respect. He was kind-hearted and unselfish. But his distresses deprived him of self-esteem, and blunted his moral perception. He saw one only chance of escape into a position of ease, and that was by becoming the humble servant of the Squire, not daring to oppose him lest he should lose his favour and the chance of promotion to a fat living in his gift.
Some scruple did enter the mind of the vicar when it was announced to him that he was expected to consecrate the union determined by a game of bowls, but the scruple was laid at rest by the insistence of Squire Stourton that unless he performed the sacred rite the couple would go off without it, and he clenched the argument with a promise of five guineas as fee.
Some scruple did enter the mind of the vicar, because it was impossible to publish banns or provide a licence before the contest decided who the man was who was to be united with Stewponey Bla, and no time afterwards was available, as the marriage was to follow immediately on the conclusion of the game. But this scruple yielded under the consideration that the Stourton Castle chapel was a peculiar, not under Episcopal jurisdiction, and that, therefore, as his patron said, "My dear Toogood, you may do in it just what you like; stand on your head if you will, and bless the happy pair with your toes. No one can object."
Seeing that Squire Stourton was a magistrate, the vicar assumed he ought to know the law, an assumption as great and hazardous as one that pre-supposed that every vicar was acquainted with theology. When, moreover, the Squire added, "My dear fellow, if you have any hesitation in the matter, make yourself easy. I will call in the lecturer," then every symptom of hesitation subsided.
"Make way for the umpire!" shouted the host, elbowing the crowd to the right and left. "Parson Toogood is umpire. Room for his reverence!"
The garden was full to overflow with a coarse and noisy throng of men, and the drawers had difficulty in supplying them with ale, so closely were they packed and so thirsty were the constituent atoms. As if to intimate to Bladys that retreat was impossible, the woman Catherine Barry had been called in to direct and control the house for that day. The host could not manage everything. Bladys was incapacitated by the part she had to play. Assistance he was obliged to invoke. What more reasonable than that he should summon her who was shortly to become mistress in the house? But for all that, her presence was an outrage—so the unhappy girl felt it.
The gentlemen who had paid their half-crowns occupied benches on three sides of the bowling-green. Those who had paid but a shilling stood behind them and in rear of the "footer," whence the players cast the bowls.
"Come up to the head," shouted one fellow to his mate. "I want to get a good sight of Stewponey Bla, and find out from her face which is her fancy man."
"I don't care a hang for her fancy—I want to follow the game."
"Well, you can see it finely from the top."
"Now, Roger," exclaimed another in the crush, "I'll thank you to keep your elbows in. You've spilt my ale. Good luck; it's over your mulberry cloth, and not over my new coat."
"What do you want ale for now?"
"How can I see till I've washed my eyes?"
"How many have paid up their stakes?"
"There's Tup Rivers."
"Tup Rivers! Well, that's comical. But I suppose he's aiming after the fifty or sixty guineas he's heard the gentlefolk have subscribed. I didn't think he was a marrying man."
"Lor' bless y'—any man would marry for fifty pounds."
"Has Lewis staked?"
"Ay ay, but he's too drunk to keep his legs. The Captain paid, but won't play."
"Nan has been at him—that's it."
"That stranger chap—he's in it."
"Who is he?"
"Heaven above can answer better than I. Then they tell me Crispin the bargeman has entered."
At that moment a shout and a groan. The interlocutors pressed up to the head, where sat the umpire, to learn the occasion. Tup Rivers had withdrawn, and was asking to have his guinea returned. He was a small farmer. He shrank from a game in which he would have as his opponents such men as Francis and Ravenhill.
"Then," said the man entitled Roger, "the game has thinned down amazingly to two—that's sorry sport. But for seeing who wins the prize I'd go away. Come, Matthew—a stranger against Kinver, What odds? I'll lay on Kinver, for the honour of the old place."
To revert to the first couple who were in dialogue. "Look," said one, "observe Stewponey Bla; she hangs her head, you can't see her face."
"Pshaw!" answered the man addressed. "What right has a publican's daughter to be shamefaced? It don't belong to the profession—it's put on for the occasion, take my word for it."
"Silence! They have begun."
A hush fell on the spectators. It was as intimated. Two competitors had withdrawn at the last moment, and one was incapacitated. It had been hoped that a sixth would enter before the game began, but none had done so. The number was reduced to two. Precedence in entry entitled to selection of bowls. The choice lay with Francis. Each was to have four. The stranger chose the twos and fours. The odd numbers were left to Crispin.
A hush fell on the spectators as Luke Francis cast the jack and set the mark rightly enough beyond twenty-one yards from the footer. Haying done this, he at once delivered his first bowl, that spun along merrily to the right, slackened its pace as it neared the point of distance required, then halted, turned and ran with a sweep towards the jack and touched it. The ball was so brilliantly delivered and the execution so admirable, that it was greeted with a shout of applause; but a louder shout welcomed Crispin's success, as with a swift ball he struck the bowl of his adversary from its place, and knocked it from the green.
"Dead!" shouted the onlookers.
Francis played again, and this time came wide of the jack. Ravenhill looked steadily at his goal, swung his arm twice and delivered the bowl. It lagged, came to an apparent rest, and then twisted away from the jack. The ball of Francis was not within standard distance, and therefore did not count.
Again Francis delivered, and his bowl made a revolution and rested within a few inches of the jack. Crispin paused, took deliberate measure and made his cast. To his surprise the ball halted, turned over, and rested without further activity. At once he walked the length of the green, to where the balls lay, stooped, took up his bowl, and strode before the umpire.
"Parson Toogood," said he, "look here! Did you ever see a bowl settle with the bias upwards? I demand that this be seen into."
Several of the gentlemen sitting near rose and pressed round, the spectators in the rear jumped the bench and crowded round.
The vicar took the bowl in question, "Fetch me Ravenhill's other," said he, and was at once obeyed.
The vicar weighed one against the other in his hands.
"I confess this one seems the lightest," he said, referring to the bowl that had rested with the lead mark upwards.
"Hand it to the Squire," said Ravenhill, "let him investigate it further."
Mr Stourton took the bowl, and with his pocket-knife removed the plug that closed the opening which usually contained the bias. The lead was gone.
"The bowls are imperfect. There has been an accident to one," said Parson Toogood. "The game must be begun afresh."
"There has been no accident," said Ravenhill. "There has been an attempt to cheat."
"Do you charge me?" asked Luke Francis. "It was not in the interest of any one else to defeat me. You, lodging in the house, had access to the bowls."
Then rose an angry confused shout of "Cheat! cheat! The stranger is caught cheating! To the duckpond with him! Kick him out!"
Francis raised himself to his full height, and in a loud voice thundered, "I am no rogue. It has been a chance. Ravenhill has accused me. I defy him. Let us fight it out. That is better sport than a game at bowls."
This proposition instantly allayed the gathering wrath. Shouts arose of "Ay! ay! Fair play! Fight the matter out!"
But the vicar in much agitation stood up, his red face becoming mottled like soap.
"No!" cried he, "I'll be no party to a fight. A game of bowls is harmless; but a fight—no, I cannot, dare not countenance that. If you will, let them wrestle, but no pugilism. I will allow that."
"Then let us wrestle," said Luke.
The crowd shouted, "We are content, let them wrestle."
"Strip and prepare," said Luke to Crispin.
"I have desired this."