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NAN

Luke Francis had departed; and Nan Norris carried Bladys to bed, and did all that lay in her power to soothe her overwrought nerves, rightly judging that what she needed was not rousing, but the opposite treatment.

She sat by the bed till she saw that Bladys was asleep. Then she descended the stairs, went outside the house, and put up the shutter.

The Savoyard lay by the expiring fire, and was snoring; the monkey, coiled up in a ball in his bosom, was also asleep.

Satisfied with what she had done, Nan now opened the door to an adjoining apartment in the length of the house, and shut that after her. Next she unbolted an outer door, and in another minute the sound was heard of the clatter of horse hoofs up the steps to the garden from the road. Immediately following the sound came the horses that had produced it. They passed in at the door, through the room, and disappeared into a cellar behind, excavated out of the rock.

Five entered, and were followed by as many men wearing masks. The leader threw off his and disclosed the face of George Stracey—the man who had entered for the game of bowls that was to be played for Bladys, but who had withdrawn.

"Give us a buss, wench!" said Stracey; "we've not done badly to-night, but there was no occasion for our horses, as it happened."

"Hush!" said she; "make no noise. We have guests. Did you not mark that the shutter was down?"

"Ay, or we should have stabled our beasts earlier. But you have closed now, and that is the signal that our quarters are safe."

"Jacomo is here."

"There is nothing to be apprehended from him. He is our very good servant, and anon does us an excellent turn."

"And Stewponey Bladys is above."

"Alive or dead?"

"Alive and asleep."

"Od's life! she looked like one dying. You baggage, you were jealous, and would not let me contest for such a prize, or I might have won."

"No, George, I would not permit it."

"You jade! Come now, give us a wet of gin; we're cold with tarrying so long in the falling dew, waiting for notice that all was safe."

"Step into the cellar. Nothing can be heard that is said there."

When morning broke, Stewponey Bla opened her eyes. Nan perceived with delight that she was recovering; there was no longer a dazed look in her eyes, a stony indifference in her face; some colour now flushed her cheeks. Nan had shared her bed with Bladys, and when she rose she addressed her companion in cheery fashion, and was answered rationally and readily. Not only so, but Bladys exhibited a desire to know where she was, and how she came to be there.

"My dear," said Nan, setting her arms akimbo, with a hand on each hip, "you and your man, when you was married yesterday, were travelling to Bridgenorth, and the rascally highwaymen stayed the carriage. Ah me! What a sight of wickedness there is in the world! And that man of yours turned out of the chaise, and emptied his pockets, and surrendered all the blunt he had, mild as butter-milk, and shaking for fear in his shoes." The girl broke into a merry laugh. "By dear Goles! I dare be sworn it is sufficient to frighten any man to see about him masked men; and you—you was also out of your senses. Yet they made you dance with them on the heath. And some of those God-forsaken knaves fetched me also to tread a measure. But I heed them not. I have no gold to lose, nor silver either. They do no harm to the poor, they address their courtesies to the rich alone. As for me, I can hold my own in the face of them. And Toni, the post-boy, he took it all as a matter of course. It isn't the first time Tom has been stopped, I'll warrant ye."

Nan was a handsome girl, short, firmly knit, with high colour, dark hair, and lustrous hazel eyes full of twinkle. As she spoke there was a dash and fire in her manner that plainly said the wickedness of the world did not vastly grieve her, that the world would have been but a dull planet without some spice of wickedness in it, and that highwaymen were not to her objects of utter abhorrence.

"It is well for you that you fainted. Captain Velvetface—"

"Who is Velvetface?"

"The Captain. You see all have black faces—but they are muffled in crape, whereas he alone has a mask of velvet. Oh! a rare man is he!" She flushed and her eyes gleamed. "He might have carried you off. I know Velvetface. That is, I have heard tales told of him. They declare that he loves gold dearly, but that he loves pretty girls more dearly still than gold. Set a bag of yellow guineas before him, and beside it a bright-eyed quean, and I know which he will choose. But you were white and dead, like a figure of snow, and not to his taste. So he chose the money bag. Poor fool," laughed Nan. "I dare swear you have not kissed your husband, and now he has run away."

"He is gone?"

"Gone home to Shrewsbury. The talk is that he is in the law, and the assizes are coming on. Bah!" She wiped one hand against the other. "I would have no dealings with a lawyer. Such be spiders as weave the webs that catch and throttle our boys. Ah, well! we're clear of Onion this year. Tom Matthews is none of ours."

"What do you mean by Onion?"

"Onion? I thought every man, woman, and child knew of him."

"Who is he?"

"The hangman."

"Do you know him?"

"I know of him. That is enough. I' fecks—I pray God deliver me from further acquaintance with him. He wears a mask, they say. I do not know. I have never been at a hanging. He is an Onion, they tell, that has brought tears into many eyes."

Then Nan departed.

When she had left the room Bladys rose. She was weak in body, but composed in mind and clear in head. She was desirous of being alone, for only when alone was she in condition to understand the events that had taken place, and through which she had passed.

During the previous day her mind had been half-dead. She had seen, heard, felt, what had transpired, without any corresponding emotion within. A series of pictures had passed before her eyes, but they had been to her without significance.

The distress and perplexity to which she had been subjected had deprived her of sleep, and had so harassed her by day that she had been thrown into a condition of nervous exhaustion, in which everything was indifferent to her. She had been as a sleep-walker upon the day when she was bowled for, won, and wedded. Her actions had been those of an automaton.

It may be that a swoon is Nature's method of recuperation of the vital powers, that it concentrates into a little space of time the beneficial effects of a week of unintermittent slumber.

The long lapse into unconsciousness, followed by even sleep, had restored the mental activity of Bladys. She was glad to be left alone, that she might review what had taken place and orientate herself for the future.

She dressed slowly, and then seated herself on a stool by the latticed window, looking forth into the foliage of the sycamores, through which the light twinkled, as the morning wind agitated the leaves.

Now she was able to summon before her every picture that had presented itself to her eyes on the day before.

It was as the Witch of Endor calling up ghosts and quaking before the apparitions that answered. The proceedings of the previous day unrolled themselves before her in their proper sequence. She could recall every incident, even the most minute and trifling; every word that had been spoken, even the intonation of the voices that had spoken them. But now, and now only, did she understand what these pictures and utterances signified. As the melody in Baron Munchausen's post-horn was frozen, and at the time it was sounded remained mute, but afterwards, by the fire, became unsealed and the notes flowed in their proper order and harmonic propriety, so was it now with the recollection of the events of the day that was past. As Bladys sat at the window looking at the twinkling foliage, she saw them not, but instead contemplated a retrospect.

Her father had been impatient to be rid of her that he might bring Catherine Barry into the house—one of whom she could not think without a shudder as the element that embittered her mother's last days, the cause of the acceleration of her end. Branded into her convictions was the thought that it would not have been possible for her to remain at the Stewponey when that woman entered it to assume therein a position as mistress.

There was sufficiency of good feeling in her father's dull and perverted heart to make him aware of this. But the manner in which he sought to rid himself of his child was in itself an outrage, hardly inferior to that of introducing Catherine Barry into her mother's room. There was no other excuse for his conduct than the lame one of weakness. And indeed more mischief is worked in the world by feebleness than by vice. This impotence of will had led Cornelius Rea into the scandal of setting his daughter as a prize to be gamed for, and of thrusting her into the arms of a man of whom he knew nothing and for whom she did not care.

She saw before her eyes the bowling-green. She was alone on it with Crispin Ravenhill; she saw his soft eyes full of kindly light, heard the tremor of his voice as he spake kindly to her, felt again the throbbing of her heart in response. And she saw, further, the bowling-green invaded by a great concourse of men; she saw the number of competitors reduced to two, the jack cast, the bowls thrown; she heard once more the controversy over the unbiassed ball, she saw the wrestling men—everything up to the moment when she touched the jack with her foot, set it rolling, and it tripped up Crispin Ravenhill.

Then she sprang to her feet with a cry of dismay, of anguish, of self-reproach; she thrust the fingers of both hands through her dark hair and drew them out as far as she could extend her hair, and stood thus, as one struck to stone.

"What ails thee?" asked Nan, running up the stairs at her cry.

"Nan Norris," said Bladys hastily, "I must know what followed. I have got so far. Listen to me." With feverish heat, with gleaming eyes, and a flame burning in each cheek, she told the girl all that had taken place—she spoke of the events as though reading them out of a book, with breathless rapidity.

And then, when she reached the fall of Crispin, she broke off. Then, after a pause, she said—

"I must know what has happened to him. Is he dead? Did I kill him? Nan, Nan, I will myself go to Kinver and inquire."

"That you cannot, or you shall not do," said the warm-hearted girl.

"Nan, I shall die of self-reproach and dreadful expectations. I cannot endure it. I must know. The thought is like a drop of fire that will not out; it burns in—ever more inward. I must know the truth. I rolled the jack. He tripped and fell—fell with his head on it. If I had not touched the jack, he would not have gone down. He would have been the conqueror, and I—I—" she withdrew her hands from her streaming hair, and covered her face.

"Set your mind at ease," said Nan caressingly. "You'll get mazed with thinking and with fancies. I'll myself run to Kinver, and you shall hear all anon. Sit you down and think no more about it. Yet, this I can tell you; I do not believe he can be dead, or some tidings would have reached our place before now. Bad news goes about like squirrels."

Nan was as good as her word. She threw a shawl over her head and went forth.

During her absence Bladys sat at the window, looking into the twinkling leaves, and with thoughts that twinkled—now flashing with hope, now obscure with despair. She did not move from her place; she did not stir a finger of her folded hands, only her lips moved as she spoke with herself inaudibly.

The time passed without her being able to estimate how long it was. Whether she had been sitting there for ten minutes, for ten years, for an eternity, she could not have said. She was in one of those trances—of which perhaps death may be one—in which time ceases to be an element to be accounted with. She was roused by the hand of Nan on her shoulder.

"Stewponey Bla! He is alive and recovering. He was stunned; nothing worse. By Goles, though, there was something worse—he lost you by that fall."

Bladys looked round at Nan, and said:

"I have something for your ear."

"What may that be?"

Nan threw herself on the floor at the feet of Bladys. She was hot and tired with running, her hair dispersed, her eyes twinkling with pleasure and with kindly thought. She folded her hands on the knee of Bladys, and looked up into her white face.

"Nan, can you answer questions?"

"That depends on what the questions be."

"Nan, I will never, never be the wife of the man who has married me. So help me God."

"Whew!" exclaimed Nan, "and where in all this is the question?"

"What now shall I do?"

"That," said Nan, "is what I cannot answer. You must take mother into counsel; she has teeth to crack such nuts."