Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 23
Half-a-mile from Holy Austin Rock, in the scarp of Kinver Edge, the cliff is precipitous, and has also been utilised from a remote age for the habitation of man. The place is called Meg-a-Fox Hole, and contains a series of caverns connected the one with the other, and somewhat different in construction from the dwellings in Holy Austin Rock.
The face of the cliff is approached by a slope, partly natural, to a large extent composed of the sand thrown out in the construction of the caves, and of the refuse of the dwellers therein from immemorial time. It is probable that an examination of this midden would yield interesting results, and show in successive layers the relics of succeeding races and civilisations that have occupied these troglodyte habitations. This slope is now so much overgrown with masses of tree and enormous hedges of bramble, that the lower portion of the cliff is hidden, and the openings in it are effectually screened, so that the passer-by at the foot of the hill might go before this range of subterranean dwellings without a suspicion of their proximity. No main road, nor even a parish way runs along the bottom; only a cart track in bad condition, little frequented. The place, accordingly, was sufficiently lonely and concealed to invite occupation by those who broke the laws of the land.
Meg-a-Fox Hole is now completely ruinous. Its last tenant left it thirty years ago. Since then it has been sorely disintegrated, in part wantonly destroyed by the mischievous.
Accordingly, although the interior remains unaltered, the exterior has been dismantled and defaced to such an extent as hardly to give an idea of what its appearance was a century ago.
A single doorway cut in the rock gave access to a chain of caves that ran parallel with the face of the cliff, the rock itself, reduced to the thickness of about three feet, interposing between them and the open air; and this face was pierced at intervals with small holes that admitted light, and were so contrived as not to present the appearance of windows. At the beginning of this century, when the cavern was tenanted by a quiet, well-conducted working-man, occasion for concealment was at an end, and he enlarged these openings considerably and put wooden casements into the windows he cut. Since the abandonment of the dwelling and the tearing out of the casements the holes have been further enlarged, and portions of the screening wall wantonly thrown down.
There were, there are still, five chambers. On the left of the portal is an almost circular apartment, nine feet in diameter, opening out of the entrance hall or vestibule, and which may have been used for fuel. The vestibule itself is lighted by a small window on one side of the doorway. From this hall an opening cut in the rock admits to the series of chambers. The first is lighted by a very small hole, that admits but a single ray. Beyond it is the roomy cavern that served as kitchen, furnished with a fireplace scooped out of the screen of living rock, and with a chimney that was carried up in such a manner as to disperse the smoke that issued from it among the bushes. Beyond this kitchen is an extensive hall with an apsidal termination. This was formerly lighted by a mere slit, but it was also furnished with a small door giving access to a narrow shelf that conducted to a flight of steps cut in the face of the cliff, by means of which the downs of Kinver Edge might be reached.
This portion of the habitation was materially altered by the last occupant. He cut large openings in the wall and inserted good windows. All now is in a piteous condition of wreck and ruin. This series of caves has its walls inscribed with names of visitors and tenants. The earliest dated one is that of H. Kindar, Scriptor, Londini, 1700, and the next in antiquity is that of B. Knight, 1749, the great iron-master who founded the family till recently represented by Sir Frederick Winn Knight of Wolverley, on whose land the caverns were. From the extremity of this chain of vaults, it is commonly believed that a passage extends to the river Stour, two miles distant, and animals are reported to have entered the tunnel at the extremity, and to have re-appeared below Kinver Bridge, where there are fissures in the red sandstone from which issue springs of water. That this conception labours under the disadvantage of being almost impossible does not affect the rustic mind. Impossible it almost certainly is, for such a communication would require the tunnel to be carried beneath the bed of the Stour. In reality the passage, now blocked to prevent accidents, extends for half-a-mile to Drakeslowe, a cirque in the sandstone rocks, which is riddled in every direction so as to accommodate the rock to the purpose of human habitation. The dwellings there are almost all in occupation at the present day, and are preferred to those of masonry as warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
At the foot of this amphitheatre of rock houses at Drakeslowe is a modern School Chapel; and on a dark Sunday evening, a singular spectacle is presented by the people emerging from their holes with their lanterns, and descending the stages of the cliff in which they dwell.
We English love to take our holiday by running to the Continent, and fondly imagine that we must cross the Channel to see strange sights and enjoy scenes of beauty. It would be hard to find sweeter, quainter, lovelier spots than may be reached very easily at the point where Shropshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire join.
Nan Norris was in Meg-a-Fox Hole with the door barred. She was on her knees at the hearth chopping wood for the fire she had kindled, when she was startled by a rap against the door, followed by the scratching as of a cat, and a feeble whistle.
She stood up and listened. The raps were repeated, and a voice called, "Nan, open, will you?"
"Who is there?" she asked, before proceeding to unbar.
"It is I, George Stracey. By Heaven, don't keep me waiting. Open at once, curse your eyes."
Nan proceeded to draw the bars. They were massive irons that ran deep into the rock on each side, and the removal of these was not to be accomplished with speed.
He without became impatient.
"For goodness sake, Nan, bestir yourself. You take matters as leisurely as if there were no danger."
Nan had now removed the lowest bar. There were three in all, and she had previously slipped those above from their places. The door swung open, and Stracey burst in. He was out of breath, and in great agitation.
"You confounded, double-confounded fool!" gasped he, when inside. "What do you mean by keeping me without so long? Had you any one to hide from me? Do you desire to have me swung?"
"George," replied the girl, "you yourself would have cast ugly words at me had I opened too hastily without the sign; and you gave it wrong—you whistled in place of mewing. Nay, I doubt not you would have struck me with your hand, though, by Goles, I'd rather that than have a lick of your rough tongue."
"You fool! don't stand there talking. Fasten up at once with all bars."
He was panting, and white with heat and alarm.
"They are closing in on us," he said. "They have been to my house already, and have ransacked it from attic to cellar; I had a shift to escape. They have found nothing there, for we have all stowed away here; but I am not confident that all is safe in this place. They will go to the Rock Tavern—"
"Where they will find mother deaf and daft. They will get nothing out of her, and find nothing there. The horses are away, and the cow in the underground stable."
"Nan," said Stracey, as he assisted in replanting the bars, "have they a chance of snuffing this lay, think you?"
"I cannot say, George. But they have hold of Jac'mo."
"Curse Jac'mo. Why was he told about it?"
"He was not told anything. But he is no fool. We held from his knowledge all that we were able."
"If he knows, he will lead them here. They have him with them. Has he heard of the underground passage to Drakeslowe?"
"No, George, certainly not. He has never set foot inside Meg-a-Fox Hole; and of the passage none know but yourself and me, and those other two, Hardlow and Kibworth, who are not taken, and who, even if they were, would be torn to pieces before they would peach. You look all a-mort, George."
"I have reason to be. I have had to run for it. Dowse the fire at once, Nan. They mustn't see a glim, nor any reek reach their cursed noses. Not a token must be given that any one is here, and by Moses, they may pass, and miss it altogether."
He did not wait for the girl to do as directed; with his foot he kicked the fuel apart, and spurned the smoking wood about the floor.
"Nan, we must send the blunt down the dolly. If the worst comes about, I must slip down as well."
"And what of me, George?"
"You must stop the earth behind me. It is me they are after, and not you. I'll not be nabbed here, if I can help it. Lend a hand, Nan, with the case; it is confoundedly heavy."
He led into the darkest chamber, where, behind much rubbish heaped against the rock, a chest was concealed. This he extracted from its hiding-place, and with the girl's assistance, drew it into the passage. At that moment a blow crashed against the door, and sent an echo through every chamber.
A voice shouted after it.
"In the King's name—Open!"
Stracey put his finger to his lip and listened then signed to Nan to be speedy with the money chest.
"Deuce take the horsenails (money), the load is heavy as lead. Drag it, and brush the mark over with your foot, as you go along. Quick! Not a minute must be lost. We must have this down the hole, and I will go with it. I will build up, and you toss in the sand, and heap the faggots over the place."
"O George! what is to become of me?"
"You fool! they cannot hurt you. When the blunt and I are gone, what evidence have they got?"
"But, George! let me, I pray you, go along the passage and escape by Drakeslowe with you."
"How can you?" He turned savagely on her with a foul oath. "One must remain behind to cover up the entrance. That cannot be me. You are in no danger."
They had drawn the money chest to the end of the last vault.
At the extremity of this lay a faggot on the ground, and beside it a pile of faggots. Nan quickly removed the prostrate bundle and disclosed a low opening in the rock, level with the floor, so small that a man could enter it only on hands and knees, but within the sides fell apart and the roof rose. On both sides of the entrance were piled pieces of sandstone, by means of which the mouth could be blocked from within; it was further provided that they should be covered with sand. For this purpose a short-handled shovel was secreted behind the stack of fuel. When the loose sand was thrown over the choked mouth of the underground passage, it was effectually hidden.
Into this hole, which Stracey had called the "dolly," he thrust the box of coin, which slid down by its own weight, as within the ground fell rapidly.
Nan was trembling, and her brow was bedewed with sweat. Blows were being rained on the door.
"It will engage them ten minutes to break it in," said Stracey in a whisper; "and by that time this will be built and smothered with sand, and I on my way underground to Drakeslowe."
"O George! I am afraid to stay."
He cursed her.
"Are you going to risk my precious life because of your fears?"
"If only I could escape as well."
"You can do so when you have covered up the mouth. Then go out at the little door—they have not discovered that—and run up the red ladder. What in the devil's name is that?"
A sound, different from that which came from the door, reached their ears and alarmed them. Thud, thud, thud! A dead and muffled sound.
"Nan, run, whilst I build up."
With eager hands Stracey, who was down the hole, built up with stones in order to close the opening of the passage.
Nan sprang back in quivering alarm.
"George! they have found the door too tough. One of them has a pick, and with it he is digging through. Hark!"
A click; then a crash of broken glass.
"There! there!" gasped Nan; "he is widening the window. The rock wall is thin just there. He cannot fail to dig his way in on us directly."
"Nan!" said Stracey, "my life depends on you. Here!" he handed a pistol through the gap that remained unclosed; "take this barking iron and shoot him through head or heart."
"My blood is on your head if you do not. If I am taken, then with my last breath I will curse you, Nan."
"Nan, if you really love me, and have not set your fancy on another, if you are true to me, as you have so often protested, prove it to me now."
She accepted the pistol, cocked it, and ran to the spot where she could see the man, a constable, who was driving his pickaxe in at the window, and ever and anon was shouting encouragingly to his fellows:
"We'll be on them in a minute. I can smell the fire already."
The opening was still too small to admit the passage of a human body, but the man had wrenched out the framework and broken the glass, and was rapidly enlarging the orifice.
"Cease; or I will fire!" cried the girl, presenting her weapon.
The constable stopped, and looked in. He replied in mocking words, that to her were unintelligible. She could see his round head and big body against the sky, but could distinguish no features.
"Desist; or I shoot."
"By heavens, a wench!" he said with a laugh.
She touched the trigger. The pistol exploded. Nan saw the man straighten himself, remain stationary for a moment, then reel over.
A yell of dismay and rage rushed in at the opening—the cry of those who were assaulting the cave—at the sight of their comrade, who fell headlong with a bullet in his forehead.
"That will occupy them for some minutes," laughed Stracey. "Well done, Nan; give me back my pistol."
"I have thrown it away."
"Let it lie. Close up; I am ready."
"George! Kiss me first. Kiss me before we part. It will be for ever. And I know you will soon find someone else. I have killed that man."
"A plague on your sentiment!" answered Stracey, withdrawing his head, without granting her request, and he jammed the last stone into its place.
Then Nan used the shovel with good effect, and in a few minutes had buried the entrance under sand. Not content with this, she cut the binding withy of the faggots, and strewed the contents over the spot. Then she upset the stack upon the loose sticks, and proceeded to cut or untie all their bonds, so that it would not be possible for those who were in pursuit to remove them in bundles, but only piece-meal, stick by stick.
This occupied Nan a considerable time, but she did not for a moment turn her thoughts to her own safety till she had done everything in her power, and in fulfilment of what she regarded as her duty, to effectually disguise the place of Stracey's retreat.
The men outside had again got to work, and were redoubling their efforts to effect an entrance. Of them, however, none would venture at the window, lest he should be picked off in the same manner as his fellow.
The door was too strongly barred to be driven in; but by means of a pick-axe the assailants were cutting through the sandstone outside so as to disengage the frame of the door, and enable them to draw it outwards.
In a quarter of an hour this was effected. The heavy oak door, no longer held in place by a rebate of stone, fell forward with a crash, and the constables withdrew the now useless bars, and burst into the cavern with a shout.
Nan had in the meantime shut and fastened the door of communication with the inner chamber; this impediment could not detain them long, but it would furnish her with sufficient time to effect her escape by the postern, and to run up the ladder, cut in the face of the cliff, which communicated with the top of the Edge and the open downs, over which she might fly, and find concealment in nooks known only to a few.
To this door she sped. It was locked. She put her hands to her temples. Her brain was whirling. Where was the key? She felt in her pocket. She turned herself on all sides. Oh! where was the key?
Then with horror and despair she recalled where it was, and knew that it was beyond her reach. George Stracey alone retained possession of the key, so that he might obtain admission to Meg-a-Fox Hole whenever he pleased. That key he ever carried about his person.
That key he had with him, when he bade her escape by the postern door. Yet he had not given it her. She had not thought to ask for it. Had he purposely carried it away with him and left her to her fate, knowing that he could have saved her had he willed?
No! no! no! In her true generous heart she repelled this thought; nevertheless a vein of gall broke in her heart as she allowed that he, in his supreme solicitude about his own safety, had not given sufficient thought to her to remember that he carried with him the means of affording her the opportunity of escape
Nan sank on the little rock-hewn bench, laid her face in her hands and wept.
Next minute rude hands were on her, and she heard shouts of—"Where is Stracey? What have you done with him?"
"He is not here," answered Nan, recovering composure.
"Who then shot Thomson?" was asked.
"I did that. Yonder lies the pistol on the floor."
"Secure her," said the magistrate, who had entered. "She has killed an officer of the Crown whilst in discharge of his duty."
"By heaven!" exclaimed a constable, "it is well that Luke Hangman is in Kinver, to measure her for the cravat."