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THE JACK

Quickly the two men prepared for the struggle. They threw off their coats and waistcoats, and then proceeded to remove their boots.

Usually a girdle was cast over the right shoulder of each wrestler, and was buckled under the left arm; but this was done only when the shirt was removed. On the present occasion both antagonists and spectators were too impatient to tarry till suitable belts could be procured, and the two men were therefore content to confront each other as they were, the right hand of the one on the left side of the other, and the left hand on his antagonist's right shoulder, looking into each other's eyes, and with ears alert for the signal to begin.

One—two—three!

Then they stood with contracted brows, set lips, swaying from side to side, the muscles rippling under the skin in their exposed limbs. Then, suddenly, they grappled.

From the first round, Crispin ascertained two things. In the first place, his antagonist was comparatively inexperienced; in the next, his boast of superior strength was justified. It was obvious to him that the contest would be one in which in his opponent moderate skill was combined with extraordinary force.

Crispin had not played often; only occasionally had he tried a fall with a comrade, and he had never taken to the sport seriously.

The clutch of Luke Francis's hand on Crispin's shoulder told him that, could his adversary get the other hand in the same position on his other shoulder, Francis would be able to double him backwards and throw him, or snap his spine. But if Luke was the most muscular in arm, Crispin had superior agility, in that his legs were longer than those of his opponent.

After the first round—that proved without result—they desisted, so as to gather breath.

Then they made ready for a second bout.

For a minute, as before, the two opponents stood swaying, otherwise motionless, and then by a sudden and simultaneous impulse, each clasped the other round the waist.

Bladys sat near the head of the bowling-green, too frightened, too bewildered to have eyes to see what went forward, or ears to hear the comments that passed. She sat in a dream, but the dream was a nightmare.

For some days she had been in a condition of nervous excitation, her brain in a whirl. And now she was as one stupefied, unconscious of what passed before, about her.

She had tortured her mind to discover some method to escape from the predicament in which she was placed, and had found none. A hundred years ago, young unmarried women were not the emancipated beings that they are now. At present, a girl who is impatient of the restraints of home, or desires a change from its monotony, can enter a post-office, go behind a counter, or offer to be a cook, and be overwhelmed with applications for her inefficient services. A century ago, the case was wholly different. There were no situations open to women save those that were menial, and such as entered service were either apprenticed for three years, or hired at a statute fair for one. A twelvemonth was then the shortest term of service, whereas now, should a girl dislike her situation, not finding any eligible young men within attraction, she can say, "I will go at the end of a month," and away she flits.

Moreover, a hundred years ago, servants were kept only in the houses of the gentry and in farms. The tradesmen attended to their business, and their wives looked after the house. At that time there was vast competition for a place, whereas now the tables are reversed; there is competition among mistresses for a servant.

And further still, discipline was then drawn tighter, and the children dared not oppose their wishes to the will of their parents; least of all, in such a matter as settlement in life.

What could Bladys do as matters then were? In some instances a girl broke through the net, and eloped. But to elope it takes two; and the offer of Crispin Ravenhill came too late for her to take advantage of it. She had, moreover, no ambition to jump into any man's arms; her sole desire was to escape from the many arms which were extended to receive her.

She had not slept for several nights, nor had she been allowed any repose during the day. Wounded to the quick in her self-respect—and with her Spanish blood Bladys had inherited something of Spanish pride—trembling at the threshold of an unknown future, aching at being thrust from the home of her childhood, offended at the insult offered to the memory of her mother, she had been brought by exhaustion of physical and mental powers to a condition in which all her faculties were at a standstill. Now, at the supreme moment that determined her future, she was as one in a trance, in the very ecstacy of despair. Her face was white, her brow beaded with drops of agony, and her head declining on her bosom. Her hands, folded in her lap, twitched convulsively.

Although she felt the vibration in her feet from the trampling of the antagonists on the sward, yet she alone of all the crowd seemed unconcerned as to the issue of the game. Now and then she raised her head mechanically and looked at the writhing figures, but it was with lack-lustre eyes, and she almost immediately let it fall again.

When the green had been cleared for the wrestling match, the jack had been flung aside and had rested at the feet of Bladys; and in fact it appeared as though she were more intent on trifling with this little ball than in watching the conflict, for she had her toe on it and played the jack forward and backward with it, now letting it run almost beyond reach, then stretching her foot so as to recover it and recommence her play. Had not those who surrounded her had all their attention fixed on the struggling men, they would have observed and commented on her behaviour as one that exhibited extraordinary callousness. Yet callous she was not, only in that stunned mental and moral condition in which only what is infinitely insignificant is perceived, and the faculties are dead to everything of genuine importance.

Already with a thud both men had gone down, and had gone down together; but so uncertain was it which had cast the other that the umpire declared it was a "dog-fall," and that the contest must be recommenced.

A simple and elementary stratagem in wrestling is for the one to work his right shoulder under the armpit of his opponent. By this means he obtains enormous leverage, displaces the centre of gravity of his antagonist, and is able to upset him. Crispin, relying on the inexperience of Luke, attempted this trick, but the stratagem was so obvious that Francis was prepared to resist it.

Before long the wrestling match altered its character, and degenerated into a fight. Ravenhill in vain endeavoured to adhere to the laws of the game, and in vain also did the umpire remonstrate. Francis knew or cared nothing about regulations. All he sought was by all means to master his adversary, and to bring him to the ground.

And although at first the spectators shouted their disapproval of manifest violations of rule, yet when they saw that the blood of both combatants was up, and that they were resolved on something more serious than a wrestling match, they were quite prepared to encourage the new direction taken, for to them the greater the violence employed and the greater the danger to life and limb in those engaged, the more acute was their pleasure, and the more interesting the sport.

If, according to regulation, either party break his hold—that is to say, lets go, whilst the other retains his grip—the one so leaving go is counted the loser; and his letting go is regarded as equivalent to a fall. But to this rule Francis paid no attention.

When he suddenly disengaged his hands and laid hold of Ravenhill by the arm to force them from him, the crowd shouted "Rule! rule!" but as he paid no regard to the call, and the struggle became more intense, they no longer protested, and allowed it to proceed in such manner as suited the opponents, and suffered them to use such devices as they chose for obtaining advantage one over the other.

Every now and then from the spectators rose a burst of applause, like the roar of a wave clashing against a rock. Then ensued a hiss, like the retreat of a wave over a shingly beach, caused by all together drawing in their breath between their teeth.

At one moment the eyes were dazzled by a whirl of limbs, in the midst of which one body was indistinguishable from another. Then followed a pause—a pause in which all was a-quiver. And in that pause Luke was seen with his hands one on each side of the temples of Crispin, endeavouring to work his thumbs to his eye-sockets, so as to force out the balls, or compel his adversary to give way, and let go his hold, so as to save them. Crispin held Luke about the waist, and endeavoured to give him "the click," which consists in drawing the opponent to the chest, so as to force him to resist and drag backward, then to strike his left leg with the right, and if he be pressing back at the moment, he is prevented from recovering his balance, and reels over.

It was whilst attempting this well-known stratagem that Luke disengaged his arms, and was working his thumbs to the eye-sockets of the boatman, only prevented from effecting his purpose by the movement of Ravenhill's head, and by his own uncertain footing.

At this moment, unconscious of what she was about, Bladys pressed the jack with her toe, so as to flip it from her. It shot forward, and ran under the feet of the combatants.

Crispin trod on it at the moment when he trusted to have his antagonist off the ground; instead, he slipped, was upset, fell, bringing Luke down upon him, and, in falling, he came with the back of his head on the jack.

Francis instantly disengaged himself, sprang to his feet, and waved his arms triumphantly. Ravenhill lay prostrate on his back, speechless and unconscious, blood running between his lips. The crowd had not noticed the incident of the jack. What they saw was the fall of Crispin, with Luke above him, and that the stranger was the victor.

In a moment the bowling-green was inundated by men cheering, to get at Francis, slap his back, and shake hands with him.

"Stand back!" shouted the vicar. "You will trample on the fallen man."

"Has he broke his back?"

"Or his head?"

"Never mind him. Come on! Parson, run for your surplice. There'll be a double entertainment. A wedding first and a burying after."

"And a hanging as a finish-up withal, if he has been killed."

"That would be rare sport; but there's no chance of that. It's but accidental homicide. More's the pity."

"I wouldn't ha' missed the sight for a crown."

"On to the chapel!"

Then the landlord bustled up to his daughter. "Bla," said he, panting and swelling, "along with me. Luke Francis is your man. You're in luck's way. The captain never meant aught but mischief, and Lewis is a drunken sot. Hey! Wish you joy, Mr Francis."

The victor, breathless, hot and dishevelled, was reinvesting himself in waistcoat and coat; then he drew on his boots, and adjusted his cravat. He did not trouble himself about the prostrate man. But the village surgeon was there, and he forced the crowd apart whilst he examined him.

"How came the jack here?" he asked.

"The jack was kicked off the field. I did it myself," said a man who stood by.

"The jack is here now, and, in falling on it, Ravenhill has been injured," said the surgeon.

"Ay, I saw it spin over the turf, and he tripped on it," said a second.

"Never heed. This is doctor's business," shouted several.

"Come along! To Stourton chapel! Parson's on the way."

In another minute the bowling-green was deserted, save by the surgeon kneeling over the insensible Crispin.

And the crowd, as it swept like a torrent out of the garden, along the road, carried Stewponey Bla with it.