Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 11
A WHITE DEVIL
A small nail-studded oak door opened into a dwelling-house by the side of the gate, a dwelling which apparently extended over it. A flight of five steps led to this door. In the doorway stood an old woman, tall, with a black shawl drawn over her iron-grey hair. She had thin, strongly-marked features, eyes set unduly near her nose, and these hard, the irises like polished agates. Her lower jaw was strong, prominent, and the mouth large and unfurnished with lips. As she held a candle over her head in order to see Bladys, her own sharp ungainly features were illumined.
She admitted the girl at once, and fastened the door behind her, then proceeded to ascend the stairs before her to a chamber on an upper floor, level with that above the gate with which it communicated. Then she put the candle on the table and looked steadily at Bladys by its light and that of a wood fire.
"You are white," said the woman.
"I am always white," said the girl.
"Always cold unless angered—then, fire."
"I am the mother of Luke," said the old woman. "He is out at present, but will be home shortly. You are hungry. I have spread the table. Will you sup?"
Bladys seated herself.
"Yes," she said, composedly, "I can eat."
"Eat at once. I cannot say at what hour my son returns. This is his busy time."
The old woman watched Bladys attentively as she ate, not without marvel at her self-possession. She leaned one sharp elbow on the table, and with her bony hand shaded her eyes whilst she studied the new inmate of the Gate House.
"How old are you?" she inquired.
"I am one and twenty."
"Ah! you are not troubled with diffidence. You come from a tavern?"
"Where I have learned to hold at a distance such as are disposed to be forward."
"You know to what house you have come?"
"You know what is the name of my son?"
"You know what is his trade?"
"And that does not trouble you?"
"Have you any notion what my son is engaged upon now, that he is not here to receive you?"
Then Bladys laid her knife on the table, and looked across the table into the stony eyes of the woman, and said:
"He is planting the stake, and is heaping up the faggots, for the burning of a woman to-morrow, who was married to a man against her consent, and who put him away. And there is an iron hoop that is affixed to that stake which is to surround her waist, and hold her upright in the flames, and retain her lest she attempt to break away. And your son is hammering in the staples that make the hoop fast."
Then she resumed her knife and continued to eat.
The old woman raised her eyebrows. A look of perplexity, like a film, passed over her beady irises.
When Bladys had eaten, she stood up.
"You bid no blessing on your food," said Mrs Onion.
"No blessing can come on it in this house."
"And you have given no thanks after it."
"It is no gift of God, it is the meat of the hangman."
The old woman rose.
"I will show you to your chamber," she said. "But tell me. What think you of my son Luke? He is a fine man, a handsome fellow."
Bladys made no reply. The woman repeated the question.
"What think you of Luke?"
"I think of him only as the hangman." Again the mother turned to stare at her. "Come now, child, I am his mother, and yet you have not kissed me."
"No, I will not."
"And wherefore not?"
"Because you are the hangman's mother."
"But I am your mother now."
"My mother is dead."
The old woman laughed.
"You will kiss my son, my handsome son, readily enough."
"No, I will not."
"He will kiss you."
"That he shall not."
"You are my son's wife."
"I am his servant."
"You are right in that," sneered Mrs Onion. "She who is his wife is his servant also."
"I did not say—his servant also. I am his servant, and that only."
"Come, now, this is arrant folly. I will show you to your room."
"That cannot be my room. It is the hangman's room. Give me a chamber to myself as befits a servant."
"We shall soon see to this," exclaimed the mother, in concentrated white rage. "What sort of woman are you that Luke has brought home?"
"He did not bring me hither. That did his assistant, Abraham Jarrock; and he brings to this house one other than she whom your son married. He was wed to a frightened girl, thrust forth from her father's house, made an object of jest, the prize of a game at bowls. But that is not the woman who comes here tonight"
"He did not win me, that did another."
"Oh—was it so?"
"And that other who won me, I love."
"Is it so?" jeered the mother.
"And to that other alone will I give myself."
"Hah! Take the candle; hold it on high, that I may look well into your face."
Bladys did as was desired. Elevating the light, she held it steadily, so as to let her white cold face be flooded by it. The features were set, the mouth firm, the eyes resolved.
"You are my son Luke's wife," said Mrs Onion; "that you cannot change. That which is done, cannot be undone."
"He married me without giving his true name."
"Luke Francis is his name."
"He married me without telling his profession."
"That matters nought."
"I will never be his wife."
"Then why did you come to this house?"
"I had nowhere else whither I could go. I will be the hangman's servant, but I will not be his wife."
"Pshaw!" said the old woman. "They have scared you like a child. They have represented my son as a bugbear. He is a good man and reads his Bible, and I am a religious woman. Why should he be worse than the judge that condemns? than the jury who convict? than the men who make the laws? He doth but execute what they order. His is the hand that performeth what the head directeth. We are given free lodgings, and are paid; and, moreover, we have a right to the clothing of such as are sent to their death by the hands of Luke. If there be crime, must it not be punished? And is he not worthy of esteem who executes the decree upon the criminal? What would the world come unto save violence and savagery if it were not that Justice stands forth to protect the weak? My son is but the minister of Justice. What saith the Scripture? 'Wilt thou not be afraid of the power, do that which is good. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.' What are you, to scorn what the Word of Scripture deemeth honourable?"
"I am content to be his servant," said Bladys. Mrs Onion had opened the door to lead from the room; she shut it again with impatience, and returned to the table and placed the candle upon it.
"This is perversity," she said. "His wife you are, to love, honour, and obey; and his wife you shall be. He will know how to tame you, and make you docile. You will fawn on the hand you now slight."
"I will never be other than a servant."
"Do you defy my son?"
"You!" The woman broke into a discordant laugh. "You! You defy him! A weak girl just out of the nursery, and wont to play with dolls! He has strong hands and iron nerves."
"And I have a strong will, and a resolve of steel."
"He has the force and determination of a lion."
"A lion sleeps!"
"What of that?"
"And a sleeping lion is in the power of a child."
The old mother stepped back, and looked with startled and contracted eyes at the cold, pale girl.
"His wife I shall never be. I will cook for you, scour for you, do what you will about the house, and so earn the meat for my mouth. But let him attempt to urge me, seek to kiss me, let him even venture to address me as his wife, and the county of Shropshire may seek itself another hangman."
"What mean you?"
"I will kill him."
The old woman uttered another of her harsh laughs. Her eyes seemed to draw closer to her nose, as she riveted them with intenser stare on the defiant girl. "Prithee, vixen, how wilt thou accomplish this notable feat?"
"He will be in my power when he is asleep," said Bladys. "Jael, the wife of Heber, drove a nail into the temple of Sisera as he slept, and the prophetess said, 'Blessed be thou among women' for so doing."
"There are no hammer and nails here."
"I need them not."
Bladys put her hand to her hair, and drew forth a long steel pin. "If this were to be thrust into his eye with good resolve, it would penetrate to his brain. He would turn on his bed, cry out, and be dead as Sisera."
Mrs Onion could not speak for a moment. Her blood turned to venom. Her great mouth worked as though she were eating.
After a long pause she said:
"Do you know what is done to the murderess of her husband?"
"I do know."
"Come now, follow me a little way."
Mrs Onion led her from the room along a stone corridor in the thickness of the city wall, lighted only by slots through which the moon gleamed cold on the stone pavement.
"Hark! Hold your breath and listen."
Along the passage came a sobbing, intermittent succession of sounds, now rising into a shriek, then dying away in moans, then broken in spasmodic wails.
"Dost hear that?" asked the old woman. "It is the cry of her who is to die to-morrow. Now I warrant she wishes she had let the old man live, and not lusted to be free to follow the young lover. She thinks of the fire that will consume her on the morrow."
"I will gladly welcome the flames. I will let them embrace me—but never suffer the arms of the hangman to encircle me."
"You shall be watched night and day. I shall not close an eye."
"You cannot always remain waking."
"Then Abraham Jarrock will take my place."
"Abraham Jarrock will look another way whilst I help him to the place of master out of that of assistant."
"You are a devil."
"I was an angel before I was married."
"Your pins and needles shall be taken from you."
They had returned to the illuminated chamber, and Mrs Onion had shut the door.
"I have sharp scissors."
"They also shall be removed."
"I have but to snatch a log from the fire and cast the red ashes about—the old boards are snuff dry, and the Gate House will be in flames and consume you and your son."
"That you cannot do, for you shall not be left alone to work mischief. I shall ever be with you by day, and at night you shall be behind bolt and lock."
"There are other means," said Bladys. "Means that I have learned from a wise woman. I have not been with her in vain."
She drew from her bosom a small packet in coarse brown paper, and from it threw out some ash grey dust on the tablecloth.
"This," said she, "this is Drie. A little sprinkled over the bread, mingled with the pepper, put with the evening caudle, along with the nutmeg, and it will free me from whomsoever I desire to be free."
"Hark!" gasped Mrs Onion. "I hear Luke's hand on the door, his step on the stair. If you will, for the time take yonder chamber. It is over the gate. A servant had it, but she is gone."
"Is there a bolt within?"
"There is a bolt within and a lock without."
"Good, I will take that room."
The old woman thrust the girl through the doorway into the chamber mentioned and indicated.
Bladys at once fastened the door on the inside. Then Mrs Onion turned the key in the lock.
When she had done this she caught up the candle, ran out on the stone landing, and closed the door behind her through which she had just passed.
"Mother," asked Luke Francis, "has she arrived?"
"Yes, someone has come—"
"Yes, from Kinver."
"Let me pass to embrace her."
The old woman stood in the way. Her son looked at her with surprise.
"How your hand shakes," said he. "You are spilling the tallow over your dress, and over the floor. It is running over your hand."
"You cannot go in yet."
"Wherefore not? How your mouth works, mother! What ails thee? What is amiss?"
"Ay, with her. Do you know what you have brought to the Gate House?"
"Ay, I trust I do."
"No, you do not, Luke. She is not a wench, she is a white devil."