Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 7
The post carriage from the Stewponey was one the like of which is never seen at the present day, although on the Continent, in places, some venerable survivals linger on to excite our astonishment and amusement.
It was a calash constructed to hold two persons only, with a hood something like that of a hansom, and glazed in front. It was perched on enormous wheels behind, those in front being disproportionately small. The body of the vehicle was swung on immense C springs. It was painted the colour of a marigold, the back being black.
This carriage was far from being incommodious. Although there was no third seat within, there was a bracket on which any such article as a reticule could be placed, but only retained if tied there. No box seat for a driver obstructed the view. Those within commanded a prospect of the scenery, interrupted only by the bobbing form of the post-boy. The powerful springs and the massive construction of the vehicle were of necessity at a period when the roads were unscientifically made and badly kept up.
Throughout the Middle Ages, and down to the beginning of the present century, stones of all kinds and sizes, picked up anywhere, off the fields, dug out of quarries, gathered from water-courses, were thrown over the highways, and thrust into ruts without an attempt being made to reduce their size. It is now considered a primary law that a roadway should be convex in structure, so that the water falling on it may run off at once and be carried away at the water table. No such law was then known. The traffic of horses in the middle wore away the centre, and the section of the road was concave, so that all the mud and water settled in the middle, and resolved the way into one great slough.
A journey over such roads was almost as bad as one along a torrent-bed. It consisted in an alternation between bouncing over boulders and dragging through mire. Nothing was more usual than the fracture of a spring, or the embedding of the wheels in a profound rut, from which the horses were powerless to lift the carriage.
In the neighbourhood of Kinver, where sandstone prevails, and the only alternative is conglomerate, there is no proper material for "metalling" roads. Nor does the river Stour brawl down from mountains, and roll hard pebbles along its bed.
Consequently, notwithstanding that the roads which met and crossed at the Stewponey were of first importance, one being the great artery of communication with Ireland, yet all were equally bad.
When the ruts in the highway became dangerous, then carriages and coaches were driven on the turf at the side, so long as that held together; but when that had been resolved into a quagmire, then the welted roadway had again to be resorted to as preferable.
On our macadamised and steam-rolled roads we spin along as if on ice. A hundred years ago travelling on the king's highway was slow, laborious, and painful. A short journey sufficed to resolve the lily-white human body into a purple and yellow mass of bruises.
For the first half-mile, to keep up appearances, the post-boy maintained a rapid pace by constant application of the whip, and by much objurgation; but as soon as the Stewponey and Stourton Castle were out of sight, he relaxed his energies, and the horses perfectly understood that no more violent exercise was required of them. Their master's carriage, its springs, its wheels, its axle were to be considered, and they subsided into their normal pace, one which a lusty man might have surpassed, by exerting himself, in walking.
"The moon is rising," said Luke Francis. "See, our honey-moon!"
If so—it presaged a cold and cheerless state.
Through the trees glimmered a sallow light. The sun was setting, and setting in torn and tattered cloud, but it diffused light sufficient to render the lesser orb wan and ghost-like. She appeared as lifeless as the bride.
Opposite to the rising moon was the sinking sun, like Hercules in his riven robe of Nessus, all shreds of blood and fire. His face was like that of the bridegroom, flushed with triumph and passion.
"I have been for five years seeking about to find a wife, and unable to get one," said he. "Dost know the reason?"
She evinced no interest in the matter. She neither spoke nor looked towards him.
"You will discover in good time. When we come to Shrewsbury, you will come to know my mother. She has a will. Have you one? I doubt it—so much the better. Your submission will cost no clash, give no pain. Come, wench, your hand—ay, and I will have more—a kiss."
Bladys recoiled from him, withdrew her hand as he extended his, and thrust hers behind her.
"Shy, are you?" he laughed. "Bah! we must have none such whimsy-whamsies now. I should have supposed that in a tavern every trace of shamefacedness had been laughed out of you. But women are made up of pretences. You are affecting that which by the nature of things you cannot have."
She offered no remark.
"Come, now, Bla, by heaven, I will have the hand that is mine."
He made an effort to secure it.
"Let go," said she hoarsely. It was the first word she had spoken.
He tried to kiss her.
The carriage lurched, and he was flung back.
"Do not touch me," she said, in the same unnatural voice.
"Ho, ho! Giving yourself high airs! That will never answer with me. I shall have a kiss."
He laid hold of her shoulders to twist her about.
"I will take them," said he. "One—two—twenty—a hundred. The more I shall take if you resist."
"God help me!" through her teeth.
"You fool!" mocked he. "Do you know with whom you try your petty opposition? No; but you shall learn that soon. Mark you, wench, it is best that you submit at once. Call not on God."
"Heaven has not helped me—I call on Hell." Then it was that a strange thing took place; something that made Luke Francis quail.
This was none other than the sudden apparition of a small, black, half-human figure, that emerged from the boot, as if in answer to the invocation of Bladys. It mounted the little shelf opposite, facing the travellers, blinked, drew up its gums, displaying white fangs, then uttered a low strange guttural growl. It looked at Bladys, and put forth a long arm, and spread forth a black hand.
Neither Francis nor Bladys had seen or heard anything of the Savoyard and his monkey. The sudden vision in the carriage before them turned their hearts to stone. They conceived that an evil spirit was before them.
Instantly recovering himself somewhat, Luke threw open the window on his side, and yelled to the post-boy, "For God's sake, stop! Stop!"
This was just after the carriage had reached a smooth piece of road, and the man had urged the horses to a fast trot. He now reined them in; but without waiting for the carriage to be brought to a standstill, Francis had flung himself out, and holding the open door, ran alongside, crying,
"Stop, boy! What is it? In the name of everything that is holy, what can it be?"
The postillion succeeded in arresting the horses. He descended from the saddle, and came round to where Luke stood.
Within, cowering in the extreme corner, was Bladys, her white face faintly discernible, like the moon, and her hands uplifted to shut out from her the sight of the imp that she had conjured up.
That imp was mouthing and jabbering. It stood up, reseated itself, drew up a chain, shook it, and dropped it tinkling again.
"It is a devil," said Francis.
"It is the monkey," laughed the post-boy. "Whoever would have supposed it had concealed itself here?"
"The Italian's Jacko, about which he raised such an outcry."
"A monkey! Is that all? Then I'll drive out the pestilent beast forthwith."
At once Luke put his hands to the creature, but the ape flew at him, bit, clawed, screamed, and Francis found some difficulty in disengaging himself. He cursed, and shook his hand, that bled—he had been bitten in the thumb, and the lappet of his holiday coat was torn.
A deep voice in his ear.
Francis started back as one electrified.
He saw surrounding him five men, masked, with swords at their sides and pistols in their hands. At once, aware that he had to do with highwaymen, he made a dash to enter the carriage and get possession of his firearms. But the man who had spoken thrust himself in the way, intercepting him.
"No," said he. "You have saved us trouble by leaving the coach without obliging us to stop it and invite you to descend. Deliver without ado and go on your way with the girl."
"I have nothing," said Francis, recovering self-possession, but speaking in surly mood.
"Nay, that will not avail with us. We know you."
"You know me? Who am I?"
The men laughed.
"Have you not been married to-day? Have you not got your wife's dower with you? Fifty pounds in gold and the rest in silver? You see we know all."
"That is what you know," said Luke, with something of relief in his tone, but also with a spice of mockery.
"What more would you have us know?"
"Oh, certainly, nothing more."
"You have the money with you in a leather wallet. Pardon me, Stewponey Bla, if I disturb you, and excuse the intrusion on you at such a time. I must obtain possession of that bag. Hold him, two of you, whilst I search the interior of the calash. And you, Number Nick, point the pistol to his ear, and if he make a movement, do not scruple to blow out his brains. Unless I am vastly mistaken, the bride will not cry her eyes out to lose him."
Luke bit his lips. But for the apparition of the ape, he would not have left the carriage. Had he been in his place, before the horses could have been arrested, he would have had time to get the pistols, and when the men came to the door, he would have shot two of them dead. That wretched monkey had been the means of delivering him over, unarmed, unable to offer the least resistance, into their hands.
"May I request you to step out?" said one of the highwaymen to Bladys.
He offered his hand.
At once she descended from the carriage, and stood in the road.
Francis looked around him. The carriage had been drawn up where the highway crossed a tract of sandy common strewn with whin bushes and dotted with birch-trees, the former black as blots, the latter silver-trunked and feather-headed. In the rear was a sombre belt of wood, probably Stourton Forest. The man who had handed out Bladys now entered the calash, and removed the pistols and the bag that contained the money.
"These," said he, handing the firearms to one his companions, "these barking irons are more like to render service to us than to the gentleman who has so kindly brought them here. Now, sir, unless the Captain has any more commands for you, when it pleases you to go forward we will not interfere with your will."
The sun had disappeared. A yellow halo hung over the place where he had set, and the moon had mounted above the mists, and displayed her orb lustrous as burnished silver. Every birch trunk stood out as a thread of moonlight.
"My Jacko! My Jacko!" called a voice, and up came the Savoyard, out of breath, "Where my Jacko? Me thought him with carriage. He clebber—me run!"
The man paid no attention to the masked foot-pads. Nothing concerned him save his ape. At his voice the creature that was cowering on the ground uttered a scream of recognition; it had arrived at the conclusion that it was safer with its master than elsewhere. It ran to him and leaped on his shoulder.
"Comrades," shouted the man who acted as leader of the band, "a wedding party this—and no dance. That should never be. I am sorry, my good sir, further to delay you, but such an occasion as this is not of nightly occurrence, and it is a maxim in life to seize opportunities as they pass—take a purse when you can, stop a coach when there is money in the mails, and foot it when there is a partner to be had. Here we have a smooth turf, as any parquet, a musician with his instrument, and the bonny bride herself with whom I shall do myself the honour of opening the ball. Run some one of you, and constrain Nan Norris to come. By Saturn, Mercury, and all the gods of Olympus! I would another carriage might arrive, that we were able to provide ourselves with a lady apiece."
Two men held Luke Francis by the arms, and one pointed a pistol at his head. He was incapable of resistance. He was constrained to look on, quivering with rage, gnawing his lips with vexation. Bladys mechanically obeyed the Captain, as he ordered her to come forward upon the turf. The Italian turned the wheel of his hurdy-gurdy, and fingered the short, bone keys.
Then the monkey, hearing the familiar strain, and supposing that it was expected to go through its wonted performance, somewhat reluctantly descended from its perch, and began to dance.
Presently up came the only disengaged highwayman, bringing with him a young woman. "Nan," called the Captain, "fall in as well." She stood opposite the man who had brought her, and so they danced in the moonlight on the sward—the two highwaymen, the maidens, and, as a fifth, the ape.
Thus they danced, to the grinding of the hurdy-gurdy, till suddenly Bladys of the Stewponey sank on the grass unconscious.