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THE ROCK TAVERN

The highwaymen vanished as speedily as they had appeared. In the chequered light and shade on the common, studded with clumps of whin, birch, ridges and mounds of bramble, this was of easy execution. It would have been so had they been alarmed. But there was now nothing to alarm them—they disappeared because there was nothing more to be got by staying. No sooner was Luke released than he ran to the prostrate girl. Nan Norris also hastened to her assistance.

The Savoyard ceased turning the handle of his hurdy-gurdy. The monkey desisted from its capers, and returned to its place on his shoulder.

The post-boy stood looking on, as stolid as his horses. In the grey light from the sky—partly moonlight, partly the suffused illumination of departed day—the face of Bladys was that of death.

"It is in the family," said the man by the horses. "Her aunt dropped just like this, and died right away."

Nan, who knelt by her head, and was chafing her hands, said, "She may be dead now."

"It is a faint," said Luke. "Help get her into the carriage. We must drive forward, and that without delay."

"Drive forward with her in this condition!" exclaimed the girl. "It's murder."

"Egad, were it not most prudent for me to conduct you both back to the Stewponey?" observed the post-boy.

"To the Stewponey!" echoed Francis. "Never! What, and let all there see, and laugh to see, that I have been robbed! I—I been robbed. On my life, never!"

He stamped with rage.

"Hold your fool's tongue," he continued; "he wins who last laughs, and i' faith they have not done with me yet. 'Twas the worst night's work they ever accomplished when they stayed me. I shall not be balked of my revenge." Then, turning on the girl, he asked, "Do you know—doubtless you do that—who these footpads are? For one fetched you."

"One fetched me—yes; a man masked. But I have no keener eyes than yourself to see through a patch of velvet. I warrant ye I was too scared to disobey when he said, 'Come along with me, baggage.'"

"But you danced."

"So did she—Bla of the Stewponey. She is your wife now, I hear. So did the ape. Ask her when she fetches to—and if she does not, then inquire of the ape."

"I must hurry forwards. I cannot tarry here."

"Then go on, and leave her here."

"What—on this moor?"

"No, not so. Our cottage is hard by."

"Old Lydia Norris has a tavern nigh this," explained the post-boy, "and Nan is her daughter."

Luke hesitated what to do. He was in the utmost perplexity. He could not allow Bladys to remain longer unconscious on the grass in an open common. He was impatient to be away from a spot where he had been robbed and exposed to humiliation. He could not be certain whether his wife were alive or only in a dead syncope. He had pressing duties that necessitated his presence in Shrewsbury.

"Well, it shall be so, then," said he. "I will take her to your house. You have cordials—brandy. We will give her some and see if that revives her, and when she returns to her senses she shall continue the journey."

Then he broke into curses against his misfortune at having been waylaid, and at having been caught at the one moment when he was incapacitated for defending himself and protecting his money.

"You will not recover her by oaths," said the girl. Then to the post-boy, "Prithee, Tom, turn about the heads of the horses, and we will remove her to the Rock."

There was obviously no better course to be taken. Francis acquiesced, sullen and muttering threats. In a very few minutes the postillion drew up where the road was dark, overshadowed by broad-leaved sycamores, so that in spite of all the light of the sky it was there pitch-black night.

On the left hand was a bank, above this bank a garden occupying as it were a terrace above the highway. At the back of the garden a long, low brick cottage. No light shone through the windows.

"Here we are," said Nan. "There is none within, save my old mother. Folk don't come this way after nightfall; our customers are day travellers, and of them only such as are footers. There are three steps at first, then five, and you reach the garden."

"What are your orders for the chaise?" asked the driver. "Shall I unharness?"

"Unharness, you fool!" answered Francis. "Do you not see that there are no stables here? Nowhere that a horse could put his head in? Turn the carriage about. In five minutes my wife will be better and able to resume the journey. What art laughing at?" he inquired sharply, turning on the young woman.

"By Goles, that was purely!" exclaimed Nan. "I was laughing to think that we should have stables, mother and I. Odds boddikins! Whatever should we do with horses?"

Bladys, still unconscious, was conveyed into the cottage. The building was but one room deep, but had a face that showed it comprised three chambers; these were in communication within. The house was constructed against a bank, on the top of which grew sycamores. Wooden shutters were before the windows.

When the door was opened, then it was seen that the tavern was constructed against a face of rock, which served as inner wall, and this face was dug into to form recesses for shelves, and pierced by a door that probably gave access to the cellar.

A fire was seen burning on the hearth, and an old woman sat crouching over it with hands extended, so that the flames threw gigantic shadows on the walls and ceiling.

"What have you here?" croaked the crone. "Nan, I'll have no corpses brought in. Anything but that. I have ever set my face against that. I have no fancy to wear Onion's collar."

Luke Francis started, and looked inquiringly at the speaker.

"Mother," answered the daughter, "this is the Stewponey wench that was married to-day, as you have heard tell. She is ill, in a faint—God knows, perchance dead."

"I'll have no corpses here. They'll inquitch her in the house, and I won't have it. I don't like the look and smell of crowners. They turns my stomick."

Nan explained to Francis, "Mother is a bit hard of hearing, and she's full of old woman's whimsy-whamsies. Don't you heed a word she says."

"Lay my wife by the fire, where she can have warmth. Is there a surgeon near? She may need be let blood."

"I'll have no blood here," screamed Mistress Norris. "Gold—gold, if you will, and welcome, but blood has no profit in it."

Nan helped to place Bladys on the tiled floor by the hearth. The red glow of the turf and wood fire fell over her death-like face.

The mouth was partially open, and the teeth glinted in the firelight. The eyelids were also ajar, and there was a glitter of the white of the balls below the lids.

"Have they shot her or run her through?" called the hag. "I have always said it was folly to shed blood." She leaned forward, and peered at the insensible girl on the floor.

"She is in a faint, mother," said Nan, and took the beldame by the shoulders, twisted her round, and said, "Look to the pot with the taties and bacon boiling for supper, and don't speak another word."

"I don't want to have nothing to say to Onion," persisted the old woman.

"Nor will you, mother. Hold your tongue. We must attend to the guests."

"I won't have no corpses brought here. I hate 'em," said the hag, stamping her foot on the hearth, and then beating with her clenched fist on her knee. "There's the getting rid of them—that's the difficulty. I always said, 'Keep off—'"

"Mother, mind the pot; it's boiling over."

At that moment the doorway was entered by the Savoyard, who pulled off his hat, and, bowing, asked:

"Me here sleep? Take leetle place."

"Do you not see," said Nan Norris, irritably, "that we have the sick woman to attend upon? We cannot receive you. Go your ways farther."

But the monkey had seen the fire. With a leap it reached the floor, ran to the hearth, and jumped upon a stool opposite the old hostess, seated itself and stretched out hands and feet, much as did she, blinking and grinning with pleasure as it enjoyed the heat.

Mistress Norris saw the creature, and fell into an ecstasy of laughter. Her thoughts were diverted from Bladys and riveted on the monkey.

Nan immediately saw the advantage, and signed to the Italian to take a seat by the door.

"Ho, ho! my little Beelzebub!" croaked the hag, "not come for me yet, have you? Rubbing your hands? Have you the soul of that pretty lady in your pouch? Done your job to-day, Beelzebub? Well, well, well, we're all friends together here."

Nan, kneeling beside Bladys, unlaced her stays, applied vinegar to her temples, poured it over her throat. She endeavoured ineffectually to force some drops of brandy into her mouth.

The Savoyard shut the door.

"Leave it open," ordered Nan sharply. "We require the fresh air."

Francis stood by in great unrest and impatience, looking into the face of his inanimate wife. Suddenly Bladys drew a long inspiration, and opened her eyes.

"There!" exclaimed Nan triumphantly, "I knew that she was not gone. She will return to herself shortly. Sit up, my love! Sit up and let me stay thee." Nan put her arms about the hardly conscious girl, and lifted her to a sitting posture.

"Now," said she coaxingly, "take a drop of cordial. It will bring the colour back into your dead lips."

Bladys looked around her with a puzzled expression. Now she fixed her eyes on the young woman who was supporting her, then turned them searchingly on Francis, but instantly averted them, caught sight of the ape in so doing, as it made passes over the fire and grinned and nodded its head at the old mother, who bobbed and laughed in response from the farther side of the fire.

Bladys shivered, turned her head sharply away, and hid her face in Nan's bosom. She trembled in every limb.

"Ho, ho! Beelzebub!" jested the old hostess, who had eyes, thoughts, for nothing save the monkey; "we have always been prime friends, always, and ever shall be, eh?" and she broke into a harsh cackle.

"Can you stand?" asked Nan of Bladys. "Don't mind that creature. It is but a monkey in a red coat. I'll drive it forth out of the house if it affright thee."

"Beelzebub!" laughed the old woman, thrusting a long brown arm through the smoke, signing to the ape with one finger to demand attention.

"We may be returning the civility of this call shortly. There is no telling. They have brought a corpse into the house—a corpse of a young wench—and that may bring us everyone into the hands of Onion. Onion! Whew!" She screamed with laughter. "That 's your master waggoner as brings you consignments of souls, all bound with a hempen halter. Eh, eh?"

Nan, with her arms about the waist of Bladys, had been endeavouring to raise her, assisted by Francis; but something said or done disturbed him to such an extent that his attention was drawn away from his wife, and he allowed the entire burden to fall on the girl. She was strong armed and lusty, and did not let go her hold. Nan now pressed more brandy on Bladys, and persuaded her to swallow a few drops. A point of crimson, like the bursting out of a sudden flame, came in her cheek, but died again as quickly.

"Come now," urged Francis, "time presses. I shall not reach Bridgenorth afore midnight, and there I must sleep, that I may be in Shrewsbury to-morrow, and to-morrow in Shrewsbury I must be."

"The judges are going to Shrewsbury," said the old woman. "Beelzebub, wilt accompany the gentleman? There'll be rare doings at Shrewsbury. Tom Matthews—he is certain sure to be convicted; a good lad, but 'tis a pity. It's a poor trade stealing sheep. Better be hung for cutting a purse than taking a pelt. Ding dong bell! Ring the gallows-bell, and Tom Matthews be the clapper! Eh, Beelzebub?"

Then the aged woman burst again into a hideous cackle, and laid her shrivelled finger on the arm of the monkey.

Bladys shuddered, without understanding what was said, or to what the allusion pointed.

"And further, Beelzebub. There is, they inform me, a sweet creature to be tried for not loving her husband, and for setting her fancy upon another; and she gave her husband a drop of nightshade that sent him below. Ho, ho; if she had but consulted me, I could have better advised her. They assure me that for this they will burn her."

The old woman rubbed her palms over the fire.

"I have never seen a woman at the stake. Ecod, I should prodigiously like to see that. But this kind gentleman will not deny me such a trifle if I ask him to take me with him. And she to be burnt alive! That's pure. I should enjoy myself extravagantly."

"Stand up now," said Francis to his bride. "Try if you can walk to the chaise. Positively we must press on. I have been delayed too considerably."

Entreaty, command, availed nothing. The limbs of the hardly conscious and enfeebled girl would not support her. She dragged in his arms and those of Nan, and would have sunk in a heap on the floor had they not sustained her entire weight.

"Curses fall on it," swore Luke. "What the foul fiend is to be done? I must go on my way. I cannot, I dare not, tarry. Most important matters call me. She must and she shall come."

"She can not," said Nan firmly, "and I swear to your face she shall not. If you attempt to take her along with you she will die in the chaise, and when you reach Bridgenorth it will be along with a corpse."

"I'll have no corpses here," yelled the hag.

"Carry her to the carriage. Then they'll inquitch her in that, and welcome; but not here. I won't have no crowning in my house; it goes against my stomick!"

"I cannot leave her here," said Luke, stamping and taking a turn round the room with his hand to his head. "Was there ever so fatal a situation? Here am I robbed and my wife half dead, and I summoned away. I must go. It is as much as my place is worth to be absent. I have delayed over-long."

He came again before Bladys. "Make an effort to reach the carriage," he said.

She tried to speak, could not, and seemed rapidly relapsing into insensibility.

"Zounds!" said Luke, "what is to be done? I cannot leave her here."

"Why not?" asked Nan, looking him level in the eyes. "Dost think we're not honest folk? I trow we're every whit as honest as you. Go your way; you've nought to fear. You've been robbed, and have nothing further to lose on the main toby (highway). Trust her to me. I will take care of her. You can come when you list, and fetch her away. But if you try to remove her, by Goles! You'll have to use force, and I'll try my nails on your face. I have heard of Bla of the Stewponey, though I never knew her. The Stewponey is a great house, and ours is a main little one. We have not lived vastly far apart. I have never heard aught but good spoken of her. Go on your ways—to Shrewsbury if you must. She shall be cared for, never mistrust it."

"If this must necessarily be so," said Luke; and still he was unable to reconcile his mind to this alternative. "But—" he did not finish the sentence.

"If this must necessarily be so—" said Nan; and gently laid Bladys again on the floor, then went through the doorway, deliberately removed the wooden shutter that closed the window, and let the light from the room flow through it.

"Now," said she, "Tom and the horses are becoming impatient, and I desire to shut the door."

"Beelzebub!" screamed the old woman. "The gentleman is going, and he has not the civility to take me with him. But I'll go, nevertheless, and thou also, little devil! Ay, sly fox, waiting for me?"