The oration concluded, biscuits and confectionery were, according to old observance, handed to such of the tenantry as chose to partake of them. The serving of the grace-cup, which ought to have formed part of the duties of Zachariah, had he been capable of office, fell to the share of the sexton. The bowl was kissed, first by Ranulph, with lips that trembled with emotion, and afterward by his surrounding friends; but no drop was tasted—a circumstance which did not escape Peter's observation. Proceeding to the tenantry, the first in order happened to be Farmer Toft. Peter presented the cup, and as Toft was about to drain a deep draught of the wine, Peter whispered in his ear, "Take my advice for once, Friend Toft, and don't let a bubble of the liquid pass your lips. For every drop of the wine you drain, Sir Piers will have one sin the less, and you a load the heavier on your conscience. Didst never hear of sin-swallowing? For what else was this custom adopted? Seest thou not the cup's brim hath not yet been moistened? Well, as you will—ha, ha!" And the sexton passed onwards.
His work being nearly completed, he looked around for Jack Palmer, whom he had remarked during the oration, but could nowhere discover him. Peter was about to place the flagon, now almost drained of its contents, upon its former resting-place, when Small took it from his hands.
"In poculi fundo residuum non relinque, admonisheth Pythagoras," said he, returning the empty cup to the sexton.
"My task here is ended," muttered Peter, "but not elsewhere. Foul weather or fine, thunder or rain, I must to the church."
Bequeathing his final instructions to certain of the household who were to form part of the procession, in case it set out, he opened the hall door, and, the pelting shower dashing heavily in his face, took his way up the avenue, screaming, as he strode along, the following congenial rhymes:
I ride alone—I ride by night Through the moonless air on a courser white! Over the dreaming earth I fly, Here and there—at my fantasy! My frame is withered, my visage old, My locks are frore, and my bones ice cold. The wolf will howl as I pass his lair, The ban-dog moan, and the screech-owl stare. For breath, at my coming, the sleeper strains, And the freezing current forsakes his veins! Vainly for pity the wretch may sue— Merciless Mara no prayers subdue! To his couch I flit— On his breast I sit! Astride! astride! astride! And one charm alone —A hollow stone!— Can scare me from his side!
A thousand antic shapes I take; The stoutest heart at my touch will quake. The miser dreams of a bag of gold, Or a ponderous chest on his bosom rolled. The drunkard groans 'neath a cask of wine; The reveller swelts 'neath a weighty chine. The recreant turns, by his foes assailed, To flee!—but his feet to the ground are nailed. The goatherd dreams of his mountain-tops, And, dizzily reeling, downward drops.
The murderer feels at his throat a knife, And gasps, as his victim gasped, for life! The thief recoils from the scorching brand; The mariner drowns in sight of land! Thus sinful man have I power to fray, Torture, and rack, but not to slay! But ever the couch of purity, With shuddering glance, I hurry by. Then mount! away! To horse! I say, To horse! astride! astride! The fire-drake shoots— The screech-owl hoots— As through the air I glide!
Methought I walked, about the mid of night, Into a churchyard.
WEBSTER: The White Devil.
Lights streamed through the chancel window as the sexton entered the churchyard, darkly defining all the ramified tracery of the noble Gothic arch, and illumining the gorgeous dyes of its richly-stained glass, profusely decorated with the armorial bearings of the founder of the fane, and the many alliances of his descendants. The sheen of their blazonry gleamed bright in the darkness, as if to herald to his last home another of the line whose achievements it displayed. Glowing colorings, checkered like rainbow tints, were shed upon the broken leaves of the adjoining yew-trees, and upon the rounded grassy tombs.
Opening the gate, as he looked in that direction, Peter became aware of a dark figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and covered with a slouched hat, standing at some distance, between the window and the tree, and so intervening as to receive the full influence of the stream of radiance which served to dilate its almost superhuman stature. The sexton stopped. The figure remained stationary. There was something singular both in the costume and situation of the person. Peter's curiosity was speedily aroused, and, familiar with every inch of the churchyard, he determined to take the nearest cut, and to ascertain to whom the mysterious cloak and hat belonged. Making his way over the undulating graves, and instinctively rounding the headstones that intercepted his path, he quickly drew near the object of his inquiry. From the moveless posture it maintained, the figure appeared to be unconscious of Peter's approach. To his eyes it seemed to expand as he advanced. He was now almost close upon it, when his progress was arrested by a violent grasp laid on his shoulder. He started, and uttered an exclamation of alarm. At this moment a vivid flash of lightning illumined the whole churchyard, and Peter then thought he beheld, at some distance from him, two other figures, bearing upon their shoulders a huge chest, or, it might be, a coffin. The garb of these figures, so far as it could be discerned through the drenching rain, was fantastical in the extreme. The foremost seemed to have a long white beard descending to his girdle. Little leisure, however, was allowed Peter for observation. The vision no sooner met his glance than it disappeared, and nothing was seen but the glimmering tombstones—nothing heard but the whistling wind and the heavily-descending shower. He rubbed his eyes. The muffled figure had vanished, and not a trace could be discovered of the mysterious coffin-bearers, if such they were.
"What have I seen?" mentally ejaculated Peter: "is this sorcery or treachery, or both? No body-snatchers would visit this place on a night like this, when the whole neighborhood is aroused. Can it be a vision I have seen? Pshaw! shall I juggle myself as I deceive these hinds? It was no bearded demon that I beheld, but the gipsy patrico, Balthazar. I knew him at once. But what meant that muffled figure; and whose arm could it have been that griped my shoulder? Ha! what if Lady Rookwood should have given orders for the removal of Susan's body? No, no; that cannot be. Besides, I have the keys of the vault; and there are hundreds now in the church who would permit no such desecration. I am perplexed to think what it can mean. But I will to the vault." Saying which, he hastened to the church porch, and after wringing the wet from his clothes, as a water-dog might shake the moisture from his curly hide, and doffing his broad felt hat, he entered the holy edifice. The interior seemed one blaze of light to the sexton, in his sudden transition from outer darkness. Some few persons were assembled, probably such as were engaged in the preparations; but there was one group which immediately caught his attention.
Near the communion-table stood three persons, habited in deep mourning, apparently occupied in examining the various monumental carvings that enriched the walls. Peter's office led him to that part of the church. About to descend into the vaults, to make the last preparations for the reception of the dead, with lantern in hand, keys, and a crowbar, he approached the party. Little attention was paid to the sexton's proceedings, till the harsh grating of the lock attracted their notice.
Peter started as he beheld the face of one of the three, and relaxing his hold upon the key, the strong bolt shot back in the lock. There was a whisper amongst the party. A light step was heard advancing towards him; and ere the sexton could sufficiently recover his surprise, or force open the door, a female figure stood by his side.
The keen, inquiring stare which Peter bestowed upon the countenance of the young lady so much abashed her, that she hesitated in her purpose of addressing him, and hastily retired.
"She here!" muttered Peter; "nay, then, I must no longer withhold the dreaded secret from Luke, or Ranulph may, indeed, wrest his possessions from him."
Reinforced by her companions, an elderly lady and a tall, handsome man, whose bearing and deportment bespoke him to be a soldier, the fair stranger again ventured towards Peter.
"You are the sexton," said she, addressing him in a voice sweet and musical.
"I am," returned Peter. It was harmony succeeded by dissonance.
"You, perhaps, can tell us, then," said the elderly lady, "whether the funeral is likely to take place to-night? We thought it possible that the storm might altogether prevent it."
"The storm is over, as nearly as maybe," replied Peter. "The body will soon be on its way. I am but now arrived from the hall."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the lady. "None of the family will be present, I suppose. Who is the chief mourner?"
"Young Sir Ranulph," answered the sexton. "There will be more of the family than were expected."
"Is Sir Ranulph returned?" asked the young lady, with great agitation of manner. "I thought he was abroad—that he was not expected. Are you sure you are rightly informed?"
"I parted with him at the hall not ten minutes since," replied Peter. "He returned from France to-night most unexpectedly."
"Oh, mother!" exclaimed the younger lady, "that this should be—that I should meet him here. Why did we come?—let us depart."
"Impossible!" replied her mother; "the storm forbids it. This man's information is so strange, I scarce can credit it. Are you sure you have asserted the truth?" said she, addressing Peter.
"I am not accustomed to be doubted," answered he. "Other things as strange have happened at the hall."
"What mean you?" asked the gentleman, noticing this last remark.
"You would not need to ask the question of me, had you been there, amongst the other guests," retorted Peter. "Odd things, I tell you, have been done there this night, and stranger things may occur before the morning."
"You are insolent, sirrah! I comprehend you not."
"Enough! I can comprehend you," replied Peter, significantly; "I know the count of the mourners invited to this ceremonial, and I am aware that there are three too many."
"Know you this saucy knave, mother?"
"I cannot call him to mind, though I fancy I have seen him before."
"My recollection serves me better, lady," interposed Peter. "I remember one who was once the proud heiress of Rookwood—ay, proud and beautiful. Then the house was filled with her gallant suitors. Swords were crossed for her. Hearts bled for her. Yet she favored none, until one hapless hour. Sir Reginald Rookwood had a daughter; Sir Reginald lost a daughter. Ha!—I see I am right. Well, he is dead and buried; and Reginald, his son, is dead likewise; and Piers is on his road hither; and you are the last, as in the course of nature you might have been the first. And, now that they are all gone, you do rightly to bury your grievances with them."
"Silence, sirrah!" exclaimed the gentleman, "or I will beat your brains out with your own spade."
"No; let him speak, Vavasour," said the lady, with an expression of anguish—"he has awakened thoughts of other days."
"I have done," said Peter, "and must to work. Will you descend with me, madam, into the sepulchre of your ancestry? All your family lie within—ay, and the Lady Eleanor, your mother, amongst the number."
Mrs. Mowbray signified her assent, and the party prepared to follow him.
The sexton held the lantern so as to throw its light upon the steps as they entered the gloomy receptacle of the departed. Eleanor half repented having ventured within its dreary limits, so much did the appearance of the yawning catacombs, surcharged with mortality, and, above all, the ghostly figure of the grim knight, affect her with dread, as she looked wistfully around. She required all the support her brother's arm could afford her; nor was Mrs. Mowbray altogether unmoved.
"And all the family are here interred, you say?" inquired the latter.
"All," replied the sexton.
"Where, then, lies Sir Reginald's younger brother?"
"Who?" exclaimed Peter, starting.
"What of him?"
"Nothing of moment. But I thought you could, perhaps, inform me. He died young."
"He did," replied Peter, in an altered tone—"very young; but not before he had lived to an old age of wretchedness. Do you know his story, madam?"
"I have heard it."
"From your father's lips?"
"From Sir Reginald Rookwood's—never. Call him not my father, sirrah; even here I will not have him named so to me."
"Your pardon, madam," returned the sexton. "Great cruelty was shown to the Lady Eleanor, and may well call forth implacable resentment in her child; yet methinks the wrong he did his brother Alan was the foulest stain with which Sir Reginald's black soul was dyed."
"With what particular wrong dost thou charge Sir Reginald?" demanded Major Mowbray. "What injury did he inflict upon his brother Alan?"
"He wronged his brother's honor," replied the sexton; "he robbed him of his wife, poisoned his existence, and hurried him to an untimely grave."
Eleanor shudderingly held back during this horrible narration, the hearing of which she would willingly have shunned, had it been possible.
"Can this be true?" asked the major.
"Too true, my son," replied Mrs. Mowbray, sorrowfully.
"And where lies the unfortunate Alan?" asked Major Mowbray.
"'Twixt two cross roads. Where else should the suicide lie?"
Evading any further question, Peter hastily traversed the vault, elevating the light so as to reveal the contents of each cell. One circumstance filled him with surprise and dismay—he could nowhere perceive the coffin of his daughter. In vain he peered into every catacomb—they were apparently undisturbed; and, with much internal marvelling and misgiving, Peter gave up the search. "That vision is now explained," muttered he; "the body is removed, but by whom? Death! can I doubt? It must be Lady Rookwood—who else can have any interest in its removal. She has acted boldly. But she shall yet have reason to repent her temerity." As he continued his search, his companions silently followed. Suddenly he stopped, and, signifying that all was finished, they not unwillingly quitted this abode of horror, leaving him behind them.
"It is a dreadful place," whispered Eleanor to her mother; "nor would I have visited it, had I conceived anything of its horrors. And that strange man! who or what is he?"
"Ay, who is he?" repeated Major Mowbray.
"I recollect him now," replied Mrs. Mowbray; "he is one who has ever been connected with the family. He had a daughter, whose beauty was her ruin: it is a sad tale; I cannot tell it now: you have heard enough of misery and guilt: but that may account for his bitterness of speech. He was a dependent upon my poor brother."
"Poor man!" replied Eleanor; "if he has been unfortunate, I pity him. I am sorry we have been into that dreadful place. I am very faint: and I tremble more than ever at the thought of meeting Ranulph Rookwood again. I can scarcely support myself—I am sure I shall not venture to look upon him."
"Had I dreamed of the likelihood of his attending the ceremony, rest assured, dear Eleanor, we should not have been here: but I was informed there was no possibility of his return. Compose yourself, my child. It will be a trying time to both of us; but it is now inevitable."
At this moment the bell began to toll. "The procession has started," said Peter, as he passed the Mowbrays. "That bell announces the setting out."
"See yonder persons hurrying to the door," exclaimed Eleanor, with eagerness, and trembling violently. "They are coming. Oh! I shall never be able to go through with it, dear mother."
Peter hastened to the church door, where he stationed himself, in company with a host of others, equally curious. Flickering lights in the distance, shining like stars through the trees, showed them that the procession was collecting in front of the hall. The rain had now entirely ceased; the thunder muttered from afar, and the lightning seemed only to lick the moisture from the trees. The bell continued to toll, and its loud booming awoke the drowsy echoes of the valley. On the sudden, a solitary, startling concussion of thunder was heard; and presently a man rushed down from the belfry, with the tidings that he had seen a ball of fire fall from a cloud right over the hall. Every ear was on the alert for the next sound; none was heard. It was the crisis of the storm. Still the funeral procession advanced not. The strong sheen of the torchlight was still visible from the bottom of the avenue, now disappearing, now brightly glimmering, as if the bearers were hurrying to and fro amongst the trees. It was evident that much confusion prevailed, and that some misadventure had occurred. Each man muttered to his neighbor, and few were there who had not in a measure surmised the cause of the delay. At this juncture, a person without his hat, breathless with haste and almost palsied with fright, rushed through the midst of them and, stumbling over the threshold, fell headlong into the church.
"What's the matter, Master Plant? What has happened? Tell us! Tell us!" exclaimed several voices simultaneously.
"Lord have mercy upon us!" cried Plant, gasping for utterance, and not attempting to raise himself. "It's horrible! dreadful! oh!—oh!"
"What has happened?" inquired Peter, approaching the fallen man.
"And dost thou need to ask, Peter Bradley? thou, who foretold it all? but I will not say what I think, though my tongue itches to tell thee the truth. Be satisfied, thy wizard's lore has served thee right—he is dead."
"Who? Ranulph Rookwood? Has anything befallen him, or the prisoner, Luke Bradley?" asked the sexton, with eagerness.
A scream here burst forth from one who was standing behind the group; and, in spite of the efforts of her mother to withhold her, Eleanor Mowbray rushed forward.
"Has aught happened to Sir Ranulph?" asked she.
"Noa—noa—not to Sir Ranulph—he be with the body."
"Heaven be thanked for that!" exclaimed Eleanor. And then, as if ashamed of her own vehemence, and, it might seem, apparent indifference to another's fate, she inquired who was hurt.
"It be poor neighbor Toft, that be killed by a thunderbolt, ma'am," replied Plant.
Exclamations of horror burst from all around.
No one was more surprised at this intelligence than the sexton. Like many other seers, he had not, in all probability, calculated upon the fulfilment of his predictions, and he now stared aghast at the extent of his own foreknowledge.
"I tell 'ee what, Master Peter," said Plant, shaking his bullet-head, "it be well for thee thou didn't live in my grandfather's time, or thou'dst ha' been ducked in a blanket; or may be burnt at the stake, like Ridley and Latimer, as we read on—but however that may be, ye shall hear how poor Toft's death came to pass, and nobody can tell 'ee better nor I, seeing I were near to him, poor fellow, at the time. Well, we thought as how the storm were all over—and had all got into order of march, and were just beginning to step up the avenue, the coffin-bearers pushing lustily along, and the torches shining grandly, when poor Simon Toft, who could never travel well in liquor in his life, reeled to one side, and staggering against the first huge lime-tree, sat himself down beneath it—thou knowest the tree I mean."
"The tree of fate," returned Peter. "I ought, methinks, to know it."
"Well, I were just stepping aside to pick him up, when all at once there comes such a crack of thunder, and, whizzing through the trees, flashed a great globe of red fire, so bright and dazzlin', it nearly blinded me; and when I opened my eyes, winkin' and waterin', I see'd that which blinded me more even than the flash—that which had just afore been poor Simon, but which was now a mass o' black smouldering ashes, clean consumed and destroyed—his clothes rent to a thousand tatters—the earth and stones tossed up, and scattered all about, and a great splinter of the tree lying beside him."
"Heaven's will be done!" said the sexton; "this is an awful judgment."
"And Sathan cast down; for this is a spice o' his handiwork," muttered Plant; adding, as he slunk away, "If ever Peter Bradley do come to the blanket, dang me if I don't lend a helpin' hand."
How like a silent stream, shaded by night, And gliding softly with our windy sighs, Moves the whole frame of this solemnity! Tears, sighs, and blacks, filling the simile! Whilst I, the only murmur in this grove Of death, thus hollowly break forth.
The Fatal Dowry.
Word being given that the funeral train was fast approaching, the church door was thrown open, and the assemblage divided in two lines, to allow it admission.
Meanwhile, a striking change had taken place, even in this brief period, in the appearance of the night. The sky, heretofore curtained with darkness, was now illumined by a serene, soft moon, which, floating in a watery halo, tinged with silvery radiance the edges of a few ghostly clouds that hurried along the deep and starlit skies. The suddenness of the change could not fail to excite surprise and admiration, mingled with regret that the procession had not been delayed until the present time.
Slowly and mournfully the train was seen to approach the churchyard, winding, two by two, with melancholy step, around the corner of the road. First came Dr. Small; then the mutes, with their sable panoply; next, the torch-bearers; next, those who sustained the coffin, bending beneath their ponderous burden, followed by Sir Ranulph and a long line of attendants, all plainly to be distinguished by the flashing torchlight. There was a slight halt at the gate, and the coffin changed supporters.
"Ill luck betide them!" ejaculated Peter; "could they find no other place except that to halt at? Must Sir Piers be gatekeeper till next Yule! No," added he, seeing what followed; "it will be poor Toft, after all."
Following close upon the coffin came a rude shell, containing, as Peter rightly conjectured, the miserable remains of Simon Toft, who had met his fate in the manner described by Plant. The bolt of death glanced from the tree which it first struck, and reduced the unfortunate farmer to a heap of dust. Universal consternation prevailed, and doubts were entertained as to what course should be pursued. It was judged best by Dr. Small to remove the remains at once to the charnel-house. Thus "unanointed, unaneled, with all his imperfections on his head," was poor Simon Toft, in one brief second, in the twinkling of an eye, plunged from the height of festivity to the darkness of the grave, and so horribly disfigured, that scarce a vestige of humanity was discernible in the mutilated mass that remained of him. Truly may we be said to walk in blindness, and amidst deep pitfalls.
The churchyard was thronged by the mournful train. The long array of dusky figures—the waving torchlight gleaming ruddily in the white moonshine—now glistening upon the sombre habiliments of the bearers, and on their shrouded load, now reflected upon the jagged branches of the yew-trees, or falling upon the ivied buttresses of the ancient church, constituted no unimpressive picture. Over all, like a lamp hung in the still sky, shone the moon, shedding a soothing, spiritual lustre over the scene.
The organ broke into a solemn strain as the coffin was borne along the mid-aisle—the mourners following, with reverent step, and slow. It was deposited near the mouth of the vault, the whole assemblage circling around it. Dr. Small proceeded with the performance of that magnificent service appointed for the burial of the dead, in a tone as remarkable for its sadness as for its force and fervor. There was a tear in every eye—a cloud on every brow.
Brightly illumined as was the whole building, there were still some recesses which, owing to the intervention of heavy pillars, were thrown into shade; and in one of these, supported by her mother and brother, stood Eleanor, a weeping witness of the scene. She beheld the coffin silently borne along; she saw one dark figure slowly following; she knew those pale features—oh, how pale they were! A year had wrought a fearful alteration; she could scarce credit what she beheld. He must, indeed, have suffered—deeply suffered; and her heart told her that his sorrows had been for her.
Many a wistful look, besides, was directed to the principal figure in this ceremonial, Ranulph Rookwood. He was a prey to unutterable anguish of soul; his heart bled inwardly for the father he had lost. Mechanically following the body down the aisle, he had taken his station near it, gazing with confused vision upon the bystanders; had listened, with a sad composure, to the expressive delivery of Small, until he read—"For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them."
"Verily!" exclaimed a deep voice; and Ranulph, looking round, met the eyes of Peter Bradley fixed full upon him. But it was evidently not the sexton who had spoken.
Small continued the service. He arrived at this verse: "Thou hast set our misdeeds before thee; and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance."
"Even so!" exclaimed the voice; and as Ranulph raised his eyes in the direction of the sound, he thought he saw a dark figure, muffled in a cloak, disappear behind one of the pillars. He bestowed, however, at the moment, little thought upon this incident. His heart melted within him; and leaning his face upon his hand, he wept aloud.
"Command yourself, I entreat of you, my dear Sir Ranulph," said Dr. Small, as soon as the service was finished, "and suffer this melancholy ceremonial to be completed." Saying which, he gently withdrew Ranulph from his support, and the coffin was lowered into the vault.
Ranulph remained for some time in the extremity of sorrow. When he in part recovered, the crowd had dispersed, and few persons were remaining within the church; yet near him stood three apparent loiterers. They advanced towards him. An exclamation of surprise and joy burst from his lips.
"Is it possible? Do I indeed behold you, Eleanor?"
No other word was spoken. They rushed into each other's arms. Oh! sad—sad is the lover's parting—no pang so keen; but if life hath a zest more exquisite than others—if felicity hath one drop more racy than the rest in her honeyed cup, it is the happiness enjoyed in such a union as the present. To say that he was as one raised from the depths of misery by some angel comforter, were a feeble comparison of the transport of Ranulph. To paint the thrilling delight of Eleanor—the trembling tenderness—the fond abandonment which vanquished all her maiden scruples, would be impossible. Reluctantly yielding—fearing, yet complying, her lips were sealed in one long, loving kiss, the sanctifying pledge of their tried affection.
"Eleanor, dear Eleanor," exclaimed Ranulph, "though I hold you within my arms—though each nerve within my frame assures me of your presence—though I look into those eyes, which seem fraught with greater endearment than ever I have known them wear—though I see and feel and know all this, so sudden, so unlooked for is the happiness, that I could almost doubt its reality. Say to what blessed circumstance I am indebted for this unlooked-for happiness."
"We are staying not far hence, with friends, dear Ranulph; and my mother, hearing of Sir Piers Rookwood's death, and wishing to bury all animosity with him, resolved to be present at the sad ceremony. We were told you could not be here."
"And would my presence have prevented your attendance, Eleanor?"
"Not that, dear Ranulph; but——"
At this moment the advance of Mrs. Mowbray offered an interruption to their further discourse.
"My son and I appear to be secondary in your regards, Sir Ranulph," said she, gravely.
"Sir Ranulph!" mentally echoed the young man. "What will she think when she knows that that title is not mine? I dread to tell her." He then added aloud, with a melancholy smile, "I crave your pardon, madam; the delight of a meeting so unexpected with your daughter must plead my apology."
"None is wanting, Sir Ranulph," said Major Mowbray. "I who have known what separation from my sister is, can readily excuse your feelings. But you look ill."
"I have, indeed, experienced much mental anxiety," said Ranulph, looking at Eleanor; "it is now past, and I would fain hope that a brighter day is dawning." His heart answered, 'twas but a hope.
"You were unlooked for here to-night, Sir Ranulph," said Mrs. Mowbray; "by us, at least: we were told you were abroad."
"You were rightly informed, madam," replied Ranulph. "I only arrived this evening from Bordeaux."
"I am glad you are returned. We are at present on a visit with your neighbors, the Davenhams, at Braybrook, and trust we shall see you there."
"I will ride over to-morrow," replied Ranulph; "there is much on which I would consult you all. I would have ventured to request the favor of your company at Rookwood, had the occasion been other than the present."
"And I would willingly have accepted your invitation," returned Mrs. Mowbray; "I should like to see the old house once more. During your father's lifetime I could not approach it. You are lord of broad lands, Sir Ranulph—a goodly inheritance."
"And a proud title, which you will grace well, I doubt not. The first, the noblest of our house, was he from whom you derive your name. You are the third Sir Ranulph; the first founded the house of Rookwood; the next advanced it; 'tis for you to raise its glory to its height."
"Alas! madam, I have no such thought."
"Wherefore not? you are young, wealthy, powerful. With such domains as those of Rookwood—with such a title as its lord can claim, naught should be too high for your aspirations."
"I aspire to nothing, madam, but your daughter's hand; and even that I will not venture to solicit until you are acquainted with——" And he hesitated.
"With what?" asked Mrs. Mowbray, in surprise.
"A singular, and to me most perplexing event has occurred to-night," replied Ranulph, "which may materially affect my future fortunes."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Mowbray. "Does it relate to your mother?"
"Excuse my answering the question now, madam," replied Ranulph; "you shall know all to-morrow."
"Ay, to-morrow, dear Ranulph," said Eleanor; "and whatever that morrow may bring forth, it will bring happiness to me, if you are bearer of the tidings."
"I shall expect your coming with impatience," said Mrs. Mowbray.
"And I," added Major Mowbray, who had listened thus far in silence, "would offer you my services in any way you think they would be useful. Command me as you think fitting."
"I thank you heartily," returned Ranulph. "To-morrow you shall learn all. Meanwhile, it shall be my business to investigate the truth or falsehood of the statement I have heard, ere I report it to you. Till then, farewell."
As they issued from the church it was gray dawn. Mrs. Mowbray's carriage stood at the door. The party entered it; and accompanied by Dr. Small, whom he found within in the vestry, Ranulph walked towards the hall, where a fresh surprise awaited him.
Black Will. Which is the place where we're to be concealed?
Green. This inner room.
Black Will. 'Tis well. The word is, "Now I take you."
Arden of Feversham.
Guarded by the two young farmers who had displayed so much address in seizing him, Luke, meanwhile, had been conveyed in safety to the small chamber in the eastern wing, destined by Mr. Coates to be his place of confinement for the night. The room, or rather closet, opening from another room, was extremely well adapted for the purpose, having no perceptible outlet; being defended, on either side, by thick partition walls of the hardest oak, and at the extremity by the solid masonry of the mansion. It was, in fact, a remnant of the building anterior to the first Sir Ranulph's day; and the narrow limits of Luke's cell had been erected long before the date of his earliest progenitor. Having seen their prisoner safely bestowed, the room was carefully examined, every board sounded, every crevice and corner peered into by the curious eye of the little lawyer; and nothing being found insecure, the light was removed, the door locked, the rustic constables dismissed, and a brace of pistols having been loaded and laid on the table, Mr. Coates pronounced himself thoroughly satisfied and quite comfortable.
Comfortable! Titus heaved a sigh as he echoed the word. He felt anything but comfortable. His heart was with the body all the while. He thought of the splendor of the funeral, the torches, the illumined church, his own dignified march down the aisle, and the effect he expected to produce amongst the bewildered rustics. He thought of all these things, and cursed Luke by all the saints in the calendar. The sight of the musty old apartment, hung round with faded arras, which, as he said, "smelt of nothing but rats and ghosts, and suchlike varmint," did not serve to inspirit him; and the proper equilibrium of his temper was not completely restored until the appearance of the butler, with all the requisites for the manufacture of punch, afforded him some prospective solace.
"And what are they about now, Tim?" asked Titus.
"All as jolly as can be," answered the domestic; "Dr. Small is just about to pronounce the funeral 'ration."
"Devil take it," ejaculated Titus, "there's another miss! Couldn't I just slip out, and hear that?"
"On no account," said Coates. "Consider, Sir Ranulph is there."
"Well, well," rejoined Titus, heaving a deep sigh, and squeezing a lemon; "are you sure this is biling water, Tim? You know, I'm mighty particular."
"Perfectly aware of it, sir."
"Ah, Tim, do you recollect the way I used to brew for poor Sir Piers, with a bunch of red currants at the bottom of the glass? And then to think that, after all, I should be left out of his funeral—it's the height of barbarity. Tim, this rum of yours is poor stuff—there's no punch worth the trouble of drinking, except whisky-punch. A glass of right potheen, straw-color, peat-flavor, ten degrees over proof, would be the only thing to drown my cares. Any such thing in the cellar? There used to be an odd bottle or so, Tim—in the left bin, near the door."
"I've a notion there be," returned Timothy. "I'll try the bin your honor mentions, and if I can lay hands upon a bottle you shall have it, you may depend."
The butler departed, and Titus, emulating Mr. Coates, who had already enveloped himself, like Juno at the approach of Ixion, in a cloud, proceeded to light his pipe.
Luke, meanwhile, had been left alone, without light. He had much to meditate upon, and with naught to check the current of his thoughts, he pensively revolved his present situation and future prospects. The future was gloomy enough—the present fraught with danger. And now that the fever of excitement was passed, he severely reproached himself for his precipitancy.
His mind, by degrees, assumed a more tranquil state; and, exhausted with his great previous fatigue, he threw himself upon the floor of his prison-house, and addressed himself to slumber. The noise he made induced Coates to enter the room, which he did with a pistol in each hand, followed by Titus with a pipe and candle; but finding all safe the sentinels retired.
"One may see, with half an eye, that you're not used to a feather-bed, my friend," said Titus, as the door was locked. "By the powers, he's a tall chap, anyhow—why his feet almost touch the door. I should say that room was a matter of six feet long, Mr. Coates."
"Exactly six feet, sir."
"Well, that's a good guess. Hang that ugly rascal, Tim; he's never brought the whisky. But I'll be even with him to-morrow. Couldn't you just see to the prisoner for ten minutes, Mr. Coates?"
"Not ten seconds. I shall report you, if you stir from your post."
Here the door was opened, and Tim entered with the whisky.
"Arrah! by my soul, Tim, and here you are at last—uncork it, man, and give us a thimbleful—blob! there goes the stopper—here's a glass"—smacking his lips—"whist, Tim, another drop—stuff like this will never hurt a body. Mr. Coates, try it—no—I thought you'd be a man of more taste."
"I must limit you to a certain quantity," replied Coates, "or you will not be fit to keep guard—another glass must be the extent of your allowance."
"Another glass! and do you think I'll submit to any such iniquitous proposition?"
"Beg pardon, gentlemen," said Tim, "but her ladyship desires me to tell you both, that she trusts you will keep the strictest watch upon the prisoner. I have the same message also from Sir Ranulph."
"Do you hear that?" said Coates.
"And what are they all about now, Tim?" groaned Titus.
"Just starting, sir," returned Tim; "and, indeed, I must not lose my time gossiping here, for I be wanted below. You must be pleased to take care of yourselves, gentlemen, for an hour or so, for there will be only a few women-kind left in the house. The storm's just over, and the men are all lighting their torches. Oh, it's a grand sight!" And off set Tim.
"Bad luck to myself, anyhow," ejaculated Titus; "this is more than I can bear—I've had enough of this watch and ward business—if the prisoner stirs, shoot him, if you think proper—I'll be back in an hour."
"I tell you what, Mr. Tyrconnel," said Coates, coolly taking up the pistol from the table, "I'm a man of few words, but those few are, I hope, to the purpose, and I'd have you to know if you stir from that chair, or attempt to leave the room, damme but I'll send a brace of bullets after you. I'm serious, I assure you." And he cocked the pistol.
By way of reply to this menace, Titus deliberately filled a stiff glass of whisky-and-water.
"That's your last glass," said the inexorable Coates.
To return once more to Luke. He slept uneasily for some short space, and was awakened by a sound which reached his dreaming ears and connected itself with the visions that slumber was weaving around him. It was some moments before he could distinctly remember where he was. He would not venture to sleep again, though he felt overwhelmed by drowsiness—there was a fixed pain at his heart, as if circulation were suspended. Changing his posture, he raised himself upon one arm; he then became aware of a scratching noise, somewhat similar to the sound he had heard in his dream, and perceived a light gleaming through a crevice in the oaken partition. His attention was immediately arrested, and placing his eye close to the chink, he distinctly saw a dark lantern burning, and by its light a man filing some implement of housebreaking. The light fell before the hard features of the man, with whose countenance Luke was familiar; and although only one person came within the scope of his view, Luke could make out, from a muttered conversation that was carried on, that he had a companion. The parties were near to him, and though speaking in a low tone, Luke's quick ear caught the following:
"What keeps Jack Palmer, I wonder?" said he of the file. "We're all ready for the fakement—pops primed—and I tell you what, Rob Rust, I've made my clasp-knife as sharp as a razor, and damme, if Lady Rookwood offers any resistance, I'll spoil her talking in future, I promise you."
Suppressed laughter from Rust followed this speech. That laugh made Luke's blood run cold within his veins.
"Harkee, Dick Wilder, you're a reg'lar out-and-outer, and stops at nothing, and curse me if I'd think any more of it than yourself. But Jack's as squeamish of bloodshed as young Miss that cries at her cut finger. It's the safer plan. Say what you will, nothing but that will stop a woman's tongue."
"I shall make short work with her ladyship to-night, anyhow. Hist! here Jack comes."
A footstep crossed in the room, and, presently afterwards, exclamations of surprise and smothered laughter were heard from the parties.
"Bravo, Jack! famous! that disguise would deceive the devil himself."
"And now, my lads," said the newcomer, "is all right?"
"Right and tight."
"Then off with your stamps, and on with your list slippers; not a word. Follow me, and, for your lives, don't move a step but as I direct you. The word must be, 'Sir Piers Rookwood calls.' We'll overhaul the swag here. This crack may make us all for life; and if you'll follow my directions implicitly, we'll do the trick in style. This slum must be our rendezvous when all's over; for hark ye, my lads, I'll not budge an inch till Luke Bradley be set free. He's an old friend, and I always stick by old friends. I'd do the same for one of you if you were in the same scrape, so, damn you, no flinching; besides, I owe that spider-shanked, snivelling split-cause Coates, who stands sentry, a grudge, and I'll pay him off, as Paul did the Ephesians. You may crop his ears, or slit his tongue as you would a magpie's, or any other chattering varmint; make him sign his own testament, or treat him with a touch of your Habeas Corpus Act, if you think proper, or give him a taste of blue plumb. One thing only I stipulate, that you don't hurt that fat, mutton-headed Broganeer, whatever he may say or do; he's a devilish good fellow. And now to business."
Saying which, they noiselessly departed. But carefully as the door was closed, Luke's ear could detect the sound. His blood boiled with indignation; and he experienced what all must have felt who have been similarly situated, with the will, but not the power, to assist another—a sensation almost approaching to torture. At this moment a distant scream burst upon his ears—another—he hesitated no longer. With all his force he thundered at the door.
"What do you want, rascal?" cried Coates, from without.
"There are robbers in the house."
"Thank you for the information. There is one I know of already."
"Fool, they are in Lady Rookwood's room. Run to her assistance."
"A likely story, and leave you here."
"Do you hear that scream?"
"Eh, what—what's that? I do hear something." Here Luke dashed with all his force against the door. It yielded to the blow, and he stood before the astonished attorney.
"Advance a footstep, villain," exclaimed Coates, presenting both his pistols, "and I lodge a brace of balls in your head."
"Listen to me," said Luke; "the robbers are in Lady Rookwood's chamber—they will plunder the place of everything—perhaps murder her. Fly to her assistance, I will accompany you—assist you—it is your only chance."
"My only chance—your only chance. Do you take me for a greenhorn? This is a poor subterfuge; could you not have vamped up something better? Get back to your own room, or I shall make no more of shooting you than I would of snuffing that candle."
"Be advised, sir," continued Luke. "There are three of them—give me a pistol, and fear nothing."
"Give you a pistol! Ha, ha!—to be its mark myself. You are an amusing rascal, I will say."
"Sir, I tell you not a moment is to be lost. Is life nothing? Lady Rookwood may be murdered."
"I tell you, once for all, it won't do. Go back to your room, or take the consequences."
"By the powers! but it shall do, anyhow," exclaimed Titus, flinging himself upon the attorney, and holding both his arms; "you've bullied me long enough. I'm sure the lad's in the right."
Luke snatched the pistols from the hands of Coates.
"Very well, Mr. Tyrconnel; very well, sir," cried the attorney, boiling with wrath, and spluttering out his words. "Extremely well, sir. You are not perhaps aware, sir, what you have done; but you will repent this, sir—repent, I say—repent was my word, Mr. Tyrconnel."
"Poh!—poh!" replied Titus. "I shall never repent a good-natured action."
"Follow me," cried Luke; "settle your disputes hereafter. Quick, or we shall be too late."
Coates bustled after him, and Titus, putting the neck of the forbidden whisky bottle to his lips, and gulping down a hasty mouthful, snatched up a rusty poker, and followed the party with more alacrity than might have been expected from so portly a personage.
Gibbet. Well, gentlemen, 'tis a fine night for our enterprise.
Hounslow. Dark as hell.
Bagshot. And blows like the devil.
Boniface. You'll have no creature to deal with but the ladies.
Gibbet. And I can assure you, friend, there's a great deal of address, and good manners, in robbing a lady. I am the most of a gentleman, that way, that ever travelled the road.
Accompanied by her son, Lady Rookwood, on quitting the chamber of the dead, returned to her own room. She then renewed all her arguments; had recourse to passionate supplications—to violent threats, but without effect. Ranulph maintained profound silence. Passion, as it ever doth, defeated its own ends; and Lady Rookwood, seeing the ill effect her anger would probably produce, gradually softened the asperity of her manner, and suffered him to depart.
Left to herself, and to the communings of her own troubled spirit, her fortitude, in a measure, forsook her, under the pressure of the difficulties by which she was environed. There was no plan she could devise—no scheme adopt, unattended with peril. She must act alone—with promptitude and secrecy. To win her son over was her chief desire, and that, at all hazards, she was resolved to do. But how? She knew of only one point on which he was vulnerable—his love for Eleanor Mowbray. By raising doubts in his mind, and placing fresh difficulties in his path, she might compel him to acquiesce in her machinations, as a necessary means of accomplishing his own object. This she hoped to effect. Still there was a depth of resolution in the placid stream of Ranulph's character which she had often noticed with apprehension. Aware of his firmness, she dreaded lest his sense of justice should be stronger than his passion.
As she wove these webs of darkness, fear, hitherto unknown, took possession of her soul. She listened to the howling of the wind—to the vibration of the rafters—to the thunder's roar, and to the hissing rain—till she, who never trembled at the thought of danger, became filled with vague uneasiness. Lights were ordered; and when her old attendant returned. Lady Rookwood fixed a look so wistful upon her, that Agnes ventured to address her.
"Bless you, my lady," said the ancient handmaiden, trembling, "you look very pale, and no wonder. I feel sick at heart, too. Oh! I shall be glad when they return from the church, and happier still when the morning dawns. I can't sleep a wink—can't close my eyes, but I think of him."
"Of Sir Piers, my lady; for though he's dead, I don't think he's gone."
"Why, my lady, the corruptible part of him's gone, sure enough. But the incorruptible, as Dr. Small calls it—the sperrit, my lady. It might be my fancy, your ladyship; but as I'm standing here, when I went back into the room just now for the lights, as I hope to live, I thought I saw Sir Piers in the room."
"You are crazed, Agnes."
"No, my lady, I'm not crazed; it was mere fancy, no doubt. Oh, it's a blessed thing to live with an easy conscience—a thrice blessed thing to die with an easy one, and that's what I never shall, I'm afeard. Poor Sir Piers! I'd mumble a prayer for him, if I durst."
"Leave me," said Lady Rookwood, impatiently.
And Agnes quitted the room.
"What if the dead can return?" thought Lady Rookwood. "All men doubt it, yet all men believe it. I would not believe it, were there not a creeping horror that overmasters me, when I think of the state beyond the grave—that intermediate state, for such it must be, when the body lieth mouldering in the ground, and the soul survives, to wander, unconfined, until the hour of doom. And doth the soul survive when disenthralled? Is it dependent on the body? Does it perish with the body? These are doubts I cannot resolve. But if I deemed there was no future state, this hand should at once liberate me from my own weaknesses—my fears—my life. There is but one path to acquire that knowledge, which, once taken, can never be retraced. I am content to live—while living, to be feared—it may be, hated; when dead, to be contemned—yet still remembered. Ha! what sound was that? A stifled scream! Agnes!—without there! She is full of fears. I am not free from them myself, but I will shake them off. This will divert their channel," continued she, drawing from her bosom the marriage certificate. "This will arouse the torpid current of my blood—'Piers Rookwood to Susan Bradley.' And by whom was it solemnized? The name is Checkley—Richard Checkley. Ha! I bethink me—a Papist priest—a recusant—who was for some time an inmate of the hall. I have heard of this man—he was afterwards imprisoned, but escaped—he is either dead or in a foreign land. No witnesses—'tis well! Methinks Sir Piers Rookwood did well to preserve this. It shall light his funeral pyre. Would he could now behold me, as I consume it!"
She held the paper in the direction of the candle; but, ere it could touch the flame, it dropped from her hand. As if her horrible wish had been granted, before her stood the figure of her husband! Lady Rookwood started not. No sign of trepidation or alarm, save the sudden stiffening of her form, was betrayed. Her bosom ceased to palpitate—her respiration stopped—her eyes were fixed upon the apparition.
The figure appeared to regard her sternly. It was at some little distance, within the shade cast by the lofty bedstead. Still she could distinctly discern it. There was no ocular deception; it was attired in the costume Sir Piers was wont to wear—a hunting dress. All that her son had told her rushed to her recollection. The phantom advanced. Its countenance was pale, and wore a gloomy frown.
"What would you destroy?" demanded the apparition, in a hollow tone.
"The evidence of——"
"With yourself, accursed woman?"
"With Susan Bradley."
"What's that I hear?" shouted the figure, in an altered tone. "Married to her! then Luke is legitimate, and heir to this estate!" Whereupon the apparition rushed to the table, and laid a very substantial grasp upon the document. "A marriage certificate!" ejaculated the spectre; "here's a piece of luck! It ain't often in our lottery life we draw a prize like this. One way or the other, it must turn up a few cool thousands."
"Restore that paper, villain," exclaimed Lady Rookwood, recovering all the audacity natural to her character the instant she discovered the earthly nature of the intruder—"restore it, or, by Heaven, you shall rue your temerity."
"Softly, softly," replied the pseudo-phantom, with one hand pushing back the lady, while the other conveyed the precious document to the custody of his nether man—"softly," said he, giving the buckskin pocket a slap—"two words to that, my lady. I know its value as well as yourself, and must make my market. The highest offer has me, your ladyship; he's but a poor auctioneer that knocks down his ware when only one bidder is present. Luke Bradley, or, as I find he now is, Sir Luke Rookwood, may come down more handsomely."
"Who are you, ruffian, and to what end is this masquerade assumed? If for the purpose of terrifying me into compliance with the schemes of that madman, Luke Bradley, whom I presume to be your confederate, your labor is misspent—your stolen disguise has no more weight with me than his forged claims."
"Forged claims! Egad, he must be a clever hand to have forged that certificate. Your ladyship, however, is in error. Sir Luke Rookwood is no associate of mine; I am his late father's friend. But I have no time to bandy talk. What money have you in the house? Be alive."
"You are a robber, then?"
"Not I. I'm a tax-gatherer—a collector of Rich-Rates—ha, ha! What plate have you got? Nay, don't be alarmed—take it quietly—these things can't be helped—better make up your mind to do it without more ado—much the best plan—no screaming, it may injure your lungs, and can alarm nobody. Your maids have done as much before—it's beneath your dignity to make so much noise. So, you will not heed me? As you will." Saying which, he deliberately cut the bell-cord, and drew out a brace of pistols at the same time.
"Agnes!" shrieked Lady Rookwood, now seriously alarmed.
"I must caution your ladyship to be silent," said the robber, who, as our readers will no doubt have already conjectured, was no other than the redoubted Jack Palmer. "Agnes is already disposed of," said he, cocking a pistol. "However like your deceased 'lord and master' I may appear, you will find you have got a very different spirit from that of Sir Piers to deal with. I am naturally the politest man breathing—have been accounted the best-bred man on the road by every lady whom I have had the honor of addressing; and I should be sorry to sully my well-earned reputation by anything like rudeness. I must use a little force, of the gentlest kind. Perhaps you will permit me to hand you to a chair. Bless me! what a wrist your ladyship has got. Excuse me if I hurt you, but you are so devilish strong. What ho! 'Sir Piers Rookwood calls—'"
"Ready," cried a voice.
"That's the word," rejoined another; "ready;" and immediately two men, their features entirely hidden by a shroud of black crape, accoutred in rough attire, and each armed with pistols, rushed into the room.
"Lend a hand," said Jack.
Even in this perilous extremity Lady Rookwood's courage did not desert her. Anticipating their purpose, ere her assailants could reach her she extricated herself from Palmer's grasp, and rushed upon the foremost so unexpectedly, that, before the man could seize her, she snatched a pistol from his hand, and presented it at the group with an aspect like that of a tigress at bay—her eye wandering from one to the other, as if selecting a mark.
There was a pause of a few seconds, in which the men glanced at the lady, and then at their leader. Jack looked blank.
"Hem!" said he, coolly; "this is something new—disarmed—defied by a petticoat. Hark ye, Rob Rust, the disgrace rests with you. Clear your character, by securing her at once. What! afraid of a woman?"
"A woman!" repeated Rust, in a surly tone; "devilish like a woman, indeed. Few men could do what she has done. Give the word, and I fire. As to seizing her, that's more than I'll engage to do."
"You are a coward," cried Jack. "I will steer clear of blood—if I can help it. Come, madam, surrender, like the more sensible part of your sex, at discretion. You will find resistance of no avail." And he stepped boldly towards her.
Lady Rookwood pulled the trigger. The pistol flashed in the pan. She flung away the useless weapon without a word.
"Ha, ha!" said Jack, as he leisurely stooped to pick up the pistol, and approached her ladyship; "the bullet is not yet cast that is to be my billet. Here," said he, dealing Rust a heavy thump upon the shoulder with the butt-end of the piece, "take back your snapper, and look you prick the touchhole, or your barking-iron will never bite for you. And now, madam, I must take the liberty of again handing you to a seat. Dick Wilder, the cord—quick. It distresses me to proceed to such lengths with your ladyship—but safe bind, safe find, as Mr. Coates would say."
"You will not bind me, ruffian."
"Your ladyship is very much mistaken—I have no alternative—your ladyship's wrist is far too dexterous to be at liberty. I must furthermore request of your ladyship to be less vociferous—you interrupt business, which should be transacted with silence and deliberation."
Lady Rookwood's rage and vexation at this indignity were beyond all bounds. Resistance, however, was useless, and she submitted in silence. The cord was passed tightly round her arms, when it flashed upon her recollection for the first time that Coates and Tyrconnel, who were in charge of her captive in the lower corridor, might be summoned to her assistance. This idea no sooner crossed her mind than she uttered a loud and prolonged scream.
"'Sdeath!" cried Jack; "civility is wasted here. Give me the gag, Rob."
"Better slit her squeaking-pipe at once," replied Rust, drawing his clasped knife; "she'll thwart everything."
"The gag, I say, not that."
"I can't find the gag," exclaimed Wilder, savagely. "Leave Rob Rust to manage her—he'll silence her, I warrant you, while you and I rummage the room."
"Ay, leave her to me," said the other miscreant. "Go about your business, and take no heed. Her hands are fast—she can't scratch. I'll do it with a single gash—send her to join her lord, whom she loved so well, before he's under ground. They'll have something to see when they come home from the master's funeral—their mistress cut and dry for another. Ho, ho!"
"Mercy, mercy!" shrieked Lady Rookwood.
"Ay, ay, I'll be merciful," said Rust, brandishing his knife before her eyes. "I'll not be long about it. Leave her to me—I'll give her a taste of Sir Sydney."
"No, no, Rust; no bloodshed," said Jack, authoritatively; "I'll find some other way to gag the jade."
At this moment a noise of rapid footsteps was heard within the passage.
"Assistance comes," screamed Lady Rookwood. "Help! help!"
"To the door!" cried Jack. The words were scarcely out of his mouth before Luke dashed into the room, followed by Coates and Tyrconnel.
Palmer and his companions levelled their pistols at the intruders, and the latter would have fired, but Jack's keen eye having discerned Luke amongst the foremost, checked further hostilities for the present. Lady Rookwood, meanwhile, finding herself free from restraint, rushed towards her deliverers, and crouched beneath Luke's protecting arms, which were extended, pistol in hand, over her head. Behind them stood Titus Tyrconnel, flourishing the poker, and Mr. Coates, who, upon the sight of so much warlike preparation, began somewhat to repent having rushed so precipitately into the lion's den.
"Luke Bradley!" exclaimed Palmer, stepping forward.
"Luke Bradley!" echoed Lady Rookwood, recoiling and staring into his face.
"Fear nothing, madam," cried Luke. "I am here to assist you—I will defend you with my life."
"You defend me!" exclaimed Lady Rookwood, doubtfully.
"Even I," cried Luke, "strange as it may sound."
"Holy powers protect me!" ejaculated Titus. "As I live, it is Sir Piers himself."
"Sir Piers!" echoed Coates, catching the infection of terror, as he perceived Palmer more distinctly. "What! is the dead come to life again? A ghost, a ghost!"
"By my soul," cried Titus, "it's the first ghost I ever heard of that committed a burglary in its own house, and on the night of the body's burial, too. But who the devil are these? maybe they're ghosts likewise."
"They are," said Palmer, in a hollow tone, mimicking the voice of Sir Piers, "attendant spirits. We are come for this woman; her time is out; so no more palavering, Titus. Lend a hand to take her to the churchyard, and be hanged to you."
"Upon my conscience, Mr. Coates," cried Titus, "it's either the devil, or Sir Piers. We'll be only in the way here. He's only just settling his old scores with his lady. I thought it would come to this long ago. We'd best beat a retreat."
Jack took advantage of the momentary confusion created by this incidental alarm at his disguise to direct Rust towards the door by which the new comers had entered; and, this being accomplished, he burst into a loud laugh.
"What! not know me?" cried he—"not know your old friend with a new face, Luke? Nor you, Titus? Nor you, who can see through a millstone, lawyer Coates, don't you recognize——"
"Jack Palmer, as I'm a sinner!" cried Titus. "Why, this beats Banaghan. Arrah! Jack, honey, what does this mean? Is it yourself I see in such company? You're not robbing in earnest?"
"Indeed but I am, friend Titus," exclaimed Jack; "and it is my own self you see. I just took the liberty of borrowing Sir Piers's old hunting-coat from the justice-room. You said my toggery wouldn't do for the funeral. I'm no other than plain Jack Palmer, after all."
"With half a dozen aliases at your back, I dare say," cried Coates. "I suspected you all along. All your praise of highwaymen was not lost upon me. No, no; I can see into a millstone, be it ever so thick."
"Well," replied Jack, "I'm sorry to see you here, friend Titus. Keep quiet, and you shall come to no harm. As to you, Luke Bradley, you have anticipated my intention by half an hour; I meant to set you free. For you, Mr. Coates, you may commit all future care of your affairs to your executors, administrators, and assigns. You will have no further need to trouble yourself with worldly concerns," added he, levelling a pistol at the attorney, who, however, shielded himself, in an agony of apprehension, behind Luke's person. "Stand aside, Luke."
"I stir not," replied Luke. "I thank you for your good intention, and will not injure you—that is, if you do not force me to do so. I am here to defend her ladyship."
"What's that you say?" returned Jack, in surprise—"defend her ladyship?"
"With my life," replied Luke. "Let me counsel you to depart."
"Are you mad? Defend her—Lady Rookwood—your enemy—who would hang you? Tut, tut! Stand aside, I say, Luke Bradley, or look to yourself."
"You had better consider well ere you proceed," said Luke. "You know me of old. I have taken odds as great, and not come off the vanquished."
"The odds are even," cried Titus, "if Mr. Coates will but show fight. I'll stand by you to the last, my dear boy. You're the right son of your father, though on the wrong side. Och! Jack Palmer, my jewel, no wonder you resemble Dick Turpin."
"You hear this?" cried Luke.
"Hot-headed fool!" muttered Jack.
"Why don't you shoot him on the spot?" said Wilder.
"And mar my own chance," thought Jack. "No, that will never do; his life is not to be thrown away. Be quiet," said he, in a whisper to Wilder; "I've another card to play, which shall serve us better than all the plunder here. No harm must come to that youngster; his life is worth thousands to us." Then, turning to Luke, he continued, "I'm loth to hurt you; yet what can I do? You must have the worst of it if we come to a pitched battle. I therefore advise you, as a friend, to draw off your forces. We are three to three, it is true; but two of your party are unarmed."
"Unarmed!" interrupted Titus. "Devil burn me! this iron shillelah shall convince you to the contrary, Jack, or any of your friends."
"Make ready then, my lads," cried Palmer.
"Stop a minute," exclaimed Coates. "This gets serious; it will end in homicide—in murder. We shall all have our throats cut to a certainty; and though these rascals will as certainly be hanged for it, that will be poor satisfaction to the sufferers. Had we not better refer the matter to arbitration?"
"I'm for fighting it out," said Titus, whisking the poker round his head like a flail in action. "My blood's up. Come on, Jack Palmer, I'm for you."
"I should vote for retreating," chattered the attorney, "if that cursed fellow had not placed a ne exeat at the door."
"Give the word, captain," cried Rust, impatiently.
"Ay, ay," echoed Wilder.
"A skilful general always parleys," said Jack. "A word in your ear, Luke, ere that be done which cannot be undone."
"You mean me no treachery?" returned Luke.
Jack made no answer, but uncocking his pistols, deposited them within his pockets.
"Shoot him as he advances," whispered Coates; "he is in your power now."
"Scoundrel!" replied Luke, "do you think me as base as yourself?"
"Hush, hush! for God's sake don't expose me," said Coates.
Lady Rookwood had apparently listened to this singular conference with sullen composure, though in reality she was racked with anxiety as to its results; and, now apprehending that Palmer was about to make an immediate disclosure to Luke, she accosted him as he passed her.
"Unbind me!" cried she, "and what you wish shall be yours—money—jewels——"
"Ha! may I depend?"
"I pledge my word."
Palmer untied the cord, and Lady Rookwood, approaching a table whereon stood the escritoire, touched a spring, and a secret drawer flew open.
"You do this of your own free will?" asked Luke. "Speak, if it be otherwise."
"I do," returned the lady, hastily.
Palmer's eyes glistened at the treasures exposed to his view.
"They are jewels of countless price. Take them, and rid me," she added in a whisper, "of him."
"Give them to me."
"They are yours freely on those terms."
"You hear that, Luke," cried he, aloud; "you hear it, Titus; this is no robbery. Mr. Coates—'Know all men by these presents'—I call you to witness, Lady Rookwood gives me these pretty things."
"I do," returned she; adding, in a whisper, "on the terms which I proposed."
"Must it be done at once?"
"Without an instant's delay."
"Before your own eyes?"
"I fear not to look on. Each moment is precious. He is off his guard now. You do it, you know, in self-defence."
"For the same cause."
"Yet he came here to aid you?"
"What of that?"
"He would have risked his life for yours?"
"I cannot pay back the obligation. He must die!"
"Will be useless then."
"Will not that suffice; why aim at life?"
"You trifle with me. You fear to do it."
"About it, then; you shall have more gold."
"I will about it," cried Jack, throwing the casket to Wilder, and seizing Lady Rookwood's hands. "I am no Italian bravo, madam—no assassin—no remorseless cut-throat. What are you—devil or woman—who ask me to do this? Luke Bradley, I say."
"Would you betray me?" cried Lady Rookwood.
"You have betrayed yourself, madam. Nay, nay, Luke, hands off. See, Lady Rookwood, how you would treat a friend. This strange fellow would blow out my brains for laying a finger upon your ladyship."
"I will suffer no injury to be done to her," said Luke; "release her."
"Your ladyship hears him," said Jack. "And you, Luke, shall learn the value set upon your generosity. You will not have her injured. This instant she has proposed, nay, paid for your assassination."
"How?" exclaimed Luke, recoiling.
"A lie, as black as hell," cried Lady Rookwood.
"A truth, as clear as heaven," retained Jack. "I will speedily convince you of the fact." Then, turning to Lady Rookwood, he whispered, "Shall I give him the marriage document?"
"Beware!" said Lady Rookwood.
"Do I avouch the truth, then?"
She was silent.
"I am answered," said Luke.
"Then leave her to her fate," cried Jack.
"No," replied Luke; "she is still a woman, and I will not abandon her to ruffianly violence. Set her free."
"You are a fool," said Jack.
"Hurrah, hurrah!" vociferated Coates, who had rushed to the window. "Rescue, rescue! they are returning from the church; I see the torchlight in the avenue; we are saved!"
"Hell and the devil!" cried Jack; "not an instant is to be lost. Alive, lads; bring off all the plunder you can; be handy!"
"Lady Rookwood, I bid you farewell," said Luke, in a tone in which scorn and sorrow were blended. "We shall meet again."
"We have not parted yet," returned she; "will you let this man pass? A thousand pounds for his life."
"Upon the nail?" asked Rust.
"By the living God, if any of you attempt to touch him, I will blow his brains out upon the spot, be he friend or foe," cried Jack. "Luke Bradley, we shall meet again. You shall hear from me."
"Lady Rookwood," said Luke, as he departed, "I shall not forget this night."
"Is all ready?" asked Palmer of his comrades.
"Stay!" cried Lady Rookwood, in a whisper to him. "What will purchase that document?"
"A thousand pounds?"
"It shall be doubled."
"I will turn it over."
"Resolve me now."
"You shall hear from me."
"In what manner?"
"I will find speedy means."
"Your name is Palmer?"
"Palmer is the name he goes by, your ladyship," replied Coates, "but it is the fashion with these rascals to have an alias."
"Ha! ha!" said Jack, thrusting the ramrod into his pistol-barrel, "are you there, Mr. Coates? Pay your wager, sir."
"The hundred we bet that you would take me if ever you had the chance."
"Take you!—it was Dick Turpin I betted to take."
"I am DICK TURPIN—that's my alias!" replied Jack.
"Dick Turpin! then I'll have a snap at you at all hazards," cried Coates, springing suddenly towards him.
"And I at you," said Turpin, discharging his pistol right in the face of the rash attorney; "there's a quittance in full."
Lay a garland on my hearse Of the dismal yew; Maidens, willow branches bear, Say I died true. My love was false, but I was firm From my hour of birth; Upon my buried body lie Lightly, gentle earth.
BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER.
A MORNING RIDE
I had a sister, who among the race Of gipsies was the fairest. Fair she was In gentle blood, and gesture to her beauty.
On quitting Lady Rookwood's chamber, Luke speeded along the gloomy corridor, descended the spiral stairs, and, swiftly traversing sundry other dark passages, issued from a door at the back of the house. Day was just beginning to break. His first object had been to furnish himself with means to expedite his flight; and, perceiving no one in the yard, he directed his hasty steps towards the stable. The door was fortunately unfastened; and, entering, he found a strong roan horse, which he knew, from description, had been his father's favorite hunter, and to the use of which he now considered himself fully entitled. The animal roused himself as he approached, shook his glossy coat, and neighed, as if he recognized the footsteps and voice.
"Thou art mistaken, old fellow," said Luke; "I am not he thou thinkest; nevertheless, I am glad thy instinct would have it so. If thou bearest my father's son as thou hast borne thy old master, o'er many a field for many a day, he need not fear the best mounted of his pursuers. Soho! come hither, Rook."
The noble steed turned at the call. Luke hastily saddled him, vaulted upon his back, and, disregarding every impediment in the shape of fence or ditch, shaped his course across the field towards the sexton's cottage, which he reached just as its owner was in the act of unlocking his door. Peter testified his delight and surprise at the escape of his grandson, by a greeting of chuckling laughter.
"How?—escaped!" exclaimed he. "Who has delivered you from the hands of the Moabites? Ha, ha! But why do I ask? Who could it have been but Jack Palmer?"
"My own hands have set me free," returned Luke. "I am indebted to no man for liberty; still less to him. But I cannot tarry here; each moment is precious. I came to request you to accompany me to the gipsy encampment. Will you go, or not?"
"And mount behind you?" replied Peter; "I like not the manner of conveyance."
"Farewell, then." And Luke turned to depart.
"Stay; that is Sir Piers's horse, old Rook. I care not if I do ride him."
"Quick, then; mount."
"I will not delay you a moment," rejoined the sexton, opening his door, and throwing his implements into the cottage. "Back, Mole; back, sir," cried he, as the dog rushed out to greet him. "Bring your steed nigh this stone, grandson Luke—there—a little nearer—all's right." And away they galloped.
The sexton's first inquiries were directed to ascertain how Luke had accomplished his escape; and, having satisfied himself in this particular, he was content to remain silent; musing, it might be, on the incidents detailed to him.
The road Luke chose was a rough, unfrequented lane, that skirted, for nearly a mile, the moss-grown palings of the park. It then diverged to the right, and seemed to bear towards a range of hills rising in the distance. High hedges impeded the view on either hand; but there were occasional gaps, affording glimpses of the tract of country through which he was riding. Meadows were seen steaming with heavy dews, intersected by a deep channelled stream, whose course was marked by a hanging cloud of vapor, as well as by a row of melancholy pollard-willows, that stood like stripped, shivering urchins by the river side. Other fields succeeded, yellow with golden grain, or bright with flowering clover—the autumnal crop—colored with every shade, from the light green of the turnip to the darker verdure of the bean, the various products of the teeming land. The whole was backed by round drowsy masses of trees.
Luke spoke not, nor abated his furious course, till the road began to climb a steep ascent. He then drew in the rein, and from the heights of the acclivity surveyed the plain over which he had passed.
It was a rich agricultural district, with little picturesque beauty, but much of true English endearing loveliness to recommend it. Such a quiet, pleasing landscape, in short, as one views, at such a season of the year, from every eminence in every county of our merry isle. The picture was made up of a tract of land filled with corn ripe for the sickle, or studded with sheaves of the same golden produce, enlivened with green meadows, so deeply luxuriant as to claim the scythe for the second time; each divided from the other by thick hedgerows, the uniformity of which was broken ever and anon by some towering elm, tall poplar, or wide-branching oak. Many old farmhouses, with their broad barns and crowded haystacks—forming little villages in themselves—ornamented the landscape at different points, and by their substantial look evidenced the fertility of the soil, and the thriving condition of its inhabitants. Some three miles distant might be seen the scattered hamlet of Rookwood; the dark russet thatch of its houses scarcely perceptible amidst the embrowned foliage of the surrounding timber. The site of the village was, however, pointed out by the square tower of the antique church, that crested the summit of the adjoining hill; and although the hall was entirely hidden from view, Luke readily traced out its locality amidst the depths of the dark grove in which it was embosomed.
This goodly prospect had other claims to attention in Luke's eyes besides its agricultural or pictorial merit. It was, or he deemed it was, his own. Far as his eye ranged, yea, even beyond the line of vision, the estates of Rookwood extended.
"Do you see that house below us in the valley?" asked Peter of his companion.
"I do," replied Luke; "a snug old house—a model of a farm. Everything looks comfortable and well to do about it. There are a dozen lusty haystacks, or thereabouts; and the great barn, with its roof yellowed like gold, looks built for a granary; and there are stables, kine-houses, orchards, dovecots, and fishponds, and an old circular garden, with wall-fruit in abundance. He should be a happy man, and a wealthy one, who dwells therein."
"He dwells therein no longer," returned Peter; "he died last night."
"How know you that? None are stirring in the house as yet."
"The owner of that house, Simon Toft," replied Peter, "was last night struck by a thunderbolt. He was one of the coffin-bearers at your father's funeral. They are sleeping within the house, you say. 'Tis well. Let them sleep on—they will awaken too soon, wake when they may—ha, ha!"
"Peace!" cried Luke; "you blight everything—even this smiling landscape you would turn to gloom. Does not this morn awaken a happier train of thoughts within your mind? With me it makes amends for want of sleep, effaces resentment, and banishes every black misgiving. 'Tis a joyous thing thus to scour the country at earliest dawn; to catch all the spirit and freshness of the morning; to be abroad before the lazy world is half awake; to make the most of a brief existence; and to have spent a day of keen enjoyment, almost before the day begins with some. I like to anticipate the rising of the glorious luminary; to watch every line of light changing, as at this moment, from shuddering gray to blushing rose! See how the heavens are dyed! Who would exchange yon gorgeous spectacle," continued he, pointing towards the east, and again urging his horse to full speed down the hill, endangering the sexton's seat, and threatening to impale him upon the crupper of the saddle—"who would exchange that sight, and the exhilarating feeling of this fresh morn, for a couch of eiderdown, and a headache in reversion?"
"I for one," returned the sexton, sharply, "would willingly exchange it for that, or any other couch, provided it rid me of this accursed crupper, which galls me sorely. Moderate your pace, grandson Luke, or I must throw myself off the horse in self-defence."
Luke slackened his charger's pace, in compliance with the sexton's wish.
"Ah! well," continued Peter, restored in a measure to comfort; "now I can contemplate the sunrise, which you laud, somewhat at mine ease. 'Tis a fine sight, I doubt not, to the eyes of youth; and, to the sanguine soul of him upon whom life itself is dawning, is, I dare say, inspiriting: but when the heyday of existence is past; when the blood flows sluggishly in the veins; when one has known the desolating storms which the brightest sunrise has preceded, the seared heart refuses to trust its false glitter; and, like the experienced sailor, sees oft in the brightest skies a forecast of the tempest. To such a one, there can be no new dawn of the heart; no sun can gild its cold and cheerless horizon; no breeze can revive pulses that have long since ceased to throb with any chance emotion. I am too old to feel freshness in this nipping air. It chills me more than the damps of night, to which I am accustomed. Night—midnight! is my season of delight. Nature is instinct then with secrets dark and dread. There is a language which he who sleepeth not, but will wake, and watch, may haply learn. Strange organs of speech hath the invisible world; strange language doth it talk; strange communion hold with him who would pry into its mysteries. It talks by bat and owl—by the grave-worm, and by each crawling thing—by the dust of graves, as well as by those that rot therein—but ever doth it discourse by night, and specially when the moon is at the full. 'Tis the lore I have then learned that makes that season dear to me. Like your cat, mine eye expands in darkness. I blink at the sunshine, like your owl."
"Cease this forbidding strain," returned Luke; "it sounds as harshly as your own screech-owl's cry. Let your thoughts take a more sprightly turn, more in unison with my own and the fair aspect of nature."
"Shall I direct them to the gipsies' camp, then?" said Peter, with a sneer. "Do your own thoughts tend thither?"
"You are not altogether in the wrong," replied Luke. "I was thinking of the gipsies' camp, and of one who dwells amongst its tents."
"I knew it," replied Peter. "Did you hope to deceive me by attributing all your joyousness of heart to the dawn? Your thoughts have been wandering all this while upon one who hath, I will engage, a pair of sloe-black eyes, an olive skin, and yet withal a clear one—'black, yet comely, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon'—a mesh of jetty hair, that hath entangled you in its network—ripe lips, and a cunning tongue—one of the plagues of Egypt.—Ha, ha!"
"You have guessed shrewdly," replied Luke; "I care not to own that my thoughts were so occupied."
"I was assured of it," replied the sexton. "And what may be the name of her towards whom your imagination was straying?"
"Sibila Perez," replied Luke. "Her father was a Spanish Gitano. She is known amongst her people by her mother's name of Lovel."
"She is beautiful, of course?"
"Ay, very beautiful!—but no matter! You shall judge of her charms anon."
"I will take your word for them," returned the sexton; "and you love her?"
"You are not married?" asked Peter, hastily.
"Not as yet," replied Luke; "but my faith is plighted."
"Heaven be praised! The mischief is not then irreparable. I would have you married—though not to a gipsy girl."
"And whom would you select?"
"One before whom Sybil's beauty would pale as stars at day's approach."
"There lives not such a one."
"Trust me there does. Eleanor Mowbray is lovely beyond parallel. I was merely speculating upon a possibility when I wished her yours—it is scarcely likely she would cast her eyes upon you."
"I shall not heed her neglect. Graced with my title, I doubt not, were it my pleasure to seek a bride amongst those of gentle blood, I should not find all indifferent to my suit."
"Possibly not. Yet what might weigh with others, would not weigh with her. There are qualities you lack which she has discovered in another."
"In Ranulph Rookwood."
"Is he her suitor?"
"I have reason to think so."
"And you would have me abandon my own betrothed love, to beguile from my brother his destined bride? That were to imitate the conduct of my grandsire, the terrible Sir Reginald, towards his brother Alan."
The sexton answered not, and Luke fancied he could perceive a quivering in the hands that grasped his body for support. There was a brief pause in their conversation.
"And who is Eleanor Mowbray?" asked Luke, breaking the silence.
"Your cousin. On the mother's side a Rookwood. 'Tis therefore I would urge your union with her. There is a prophecy relating to your house, which seems as though it would be fulfilled in your person and in hers:
When the stray Rook shall perch on the topmost bough, There shall be clamor and screaming, I trow; But of right, and of rule, of the ancient nest, The Rook that with Rook mates shall hold him possest."
"I place no faith in such fantasies," replied Luke; "and yet the lines bear strangely upon my present situation."
"Their application to yourself and Eleanor Mowbray is unquestionable," replied the sexton.
"It would seem so, indeed," rejoined Luke; and he again sank into abstraction, from which the sexton did not care to arouse him.
The aspect of the country had materially changed since their descent of the hill. In place of the richly-cultivated district which lay on the other side, a broad brown tract of waste land spread out before them, covered with scattered patches of gorse, stunted fern, and low brushwood, presenting an unvaried surface of unbaked turf. The shallow coat of sod was manifested by the stones that clattered under the horse's hoofs as he rapidly traversed the arid soil, clearing with ease to himself, though not without discomfort to the sexton, every gravelly trench, natural chasm, or other inequality of ground that occurred in his course. Clinging to his grandson with the tenacity of a bird of prey, Peter for some time kept his station in security; but, unluckily, at one dike rather wider than the rest, the horse, owing possibly to the mismanagement, intentional or otherwise, of Luke, swerved; and the sexton, dislodged from his "high estate," fell at the edge of the trench, and rolled incontinently to the bottom.
Luke drew in the rein to inquire if any bones were broken; and Peter presently upreared his dusty person from the abyss, and without condescending to make any reply, yet muttering curses, "not loud, but deep," accepted his grandson's proffered hand, and remounted.
While thus occupied, Luke fancied he heard a distant shout, and noting whence the sound proceeded—the same quarter by which he had approached the heath—he beheld a single horseman spurring in their direction at the top of his speed; and to judge from the rate at which he advanced, it was evident he was anything but indifferently mounted. Apprehensive of pursuit, Luke expedited the sexton's ascent; and that accomplished, without bestowing further regard upon the object of his solicitude, he resumed his headlong flight. He now thought it necessary to bestow more attention on his choice of road, and, perfectly acquainted with the heath, avoided all unnecessary hazardous passes. In spite of his knowledge of the ground, and the excellence of his horse, the stranger sensibly gained upon him. The danger, however, was no longer imminent.
"We are safe," cried Luke; "the limits of Hardchase are past. In a few seconds we shall enter Davenham Wood. I will turn the horse loose, and we will betake ourselves to flight amongst the trees. I will show you a place of concealment. He cannot follow us on horseback, and on foot I defy him."
"Stay," cried the sexton. "He is not in pursuit—he takes another course—he wheels to the right. By Heaven! it is the Fiend himself upon a black horse, come for Bow-legged Ben. See, he is there already."
The horseman had turned, as the sexton stated, careering towards a revolting object at some little distance on the right hand. It was a gibbet, with its grisly burden. He rode swiftly towards it, and, reining in his horse, took off his hat, bowing profoundly to the carcase that swung in the morning breeze. Just at that moment a gust of air catching the fleshless skeleton, its arms seemed to be waved in reply to the salutation. A solitary crow winged its flight over the horseman's head as he paused. After a moment's halt, he wheeled about, and again shouted to Luke, waving his hat.
"As I live," said the latter, "it is Jack Palmer."
"Dick Turpin, you mean," rejoined the sexton. "He has been paying his respects to a brother blade. Ha, ha! Dick will never have the honor of a gibbet; he is too tender of the knife. Did you mark the crow? But here he comes." And in another instant Turpin was by their side.
A GIPSY ENCAMPMENT
I see a column of slow-rising smoke O'ertop the lofty wood, that skirts the wild.
COWPER: The Task.
"The top of the morning to you, gem'men," said Turpin, as he rode up at an easy canter. "Did you not hear my halloo? I caught a glimpse of you on the hill yonder. I knew you both, two miles off; and so, having a word or two to say to you, Luke Bradley, before I leave this part of the country, I put Bess to it, and she soon brought me within hail. Bless her black skin," added he, affectionately patting his horse's neck, "there's not her match in these parts, or in any other; she wants no coaxing to do her work—no bleeders for her. I should have been up with you before this had I not taken a cross cut to look at poor Ben.
One night, when mounted on my mare. To Bagshot Heath I did repair, And saw Will Davies hanging there, Upon the gibbet bleak and bare, With a rustified, fustified, mustified air.
Excuse my singing. The sight of a gibbet always puts me in mind of the Golden Farmer. May I ask whither you are bound, comrades?"
"Comrades!" whispered the sexton to Luke; "you see he does not so easily forget his old friends."
"I have business that will not admit of delay," rejoined Luke; "and to speak plainly——"
"You want not my society," returned Turpin; "I guessed as much. Natural enough! You have got an inkling of your good fortune. You have found out you are a rich man's heir, not a poor wench's bastard. No offence; I'm a plain spoken man, as you will find, if you know it not already. I have no objection to your playing these fine tricks on others, though it won't answer your turn to do so with me."
"Sir!" exclaimed Luke, sharply.
"Sir to you," replied Turpin—"Sir Luke—as I suppose you would now choose to be addressed. I am aware of all. A nod is as good as a wink to me. Last night I learned the fact of Sir Piers's marriage from Lady Rookwood—ay, from her ladyship. You stare—and old Peter, there, opens his ogles now. She let it out by accident; and I am in possession of what can alone substantiate your father's first marriage, and establish your claims to the property."
"The devil!" cried the sexton; adding, in a whisper to Luke, "You had better not be precipitate in dropping so obliging an acquaintance."
"You are jesting," said Luke to Turpin.
"It is ill jesting before breakfast," returned Dick: "I am seldom in the mood for a joke so early. What if a certain marriage certificate had fallen into my hand?"
"A marriage certificate!" echoed Luke and the sexton simultaneously.
"The only existing proof of the union of Sir Piers Rookwood with Susan Bradley," continued Turpin. "What if I had stumbled upon such a document—nay more, if I knew where to direct you to it?"
"Peace!" cried Luke to his tormentor; and then addressing Turpin, "if what you say be true, my quest is at an end. All that I need, you appear to possess. Other proofs are secondary to this. I know with whom I have to deal. What do you demand for that certificate?"
"We will talk about the matter after breakfast," said Turpin. "I wish to treat with you as friend with friend. Meet me on those terms, and I am your man; reject my offer, and I turn my mare's head, and ride back to Rookwood. With me now rest all your hopes. I have dealt fairly with you, and I expect to be fairly dealt with in return. It were idle to say, now I have an opportunity, that I should not turn this luck to my account. I were a fool to do otherwise. You cannot expect it. And then I have Rust and Wilder to settle with. Though I have left them behind, they know my destination. We have been old associates. I like your spirit—I care not for your haughtiness; but I will not help you up the ladder to be kicked down myself. Now you understand me. Whither are you bound?"
"To Davenham Priory, the gipsy camp."
"The gipsies are your friends?"
"I am alone."
"You are safe."
"You pledge your word that all shall be on the square. You will not mention to one of that canting crew what I have told you?"
"With one exception, you may rely upon my secrecy."
"Whom do you except?"
"Bad! never trust a petticoat."
"I will answer for her with my life."
"And for your granddad there?"
"He will answer for himself," said Peter. "You need not fear treachery in me. Honor among thieves, you know."
"Or where else should you seek it?" rejoined Turpin; "for it has left all other classes of society. Your highwayman is your only man of honor. I will trust you both; and you shall find you may trust me. After breakfast, as I said before, we will bring the matter to a conclusion. Tip us your daddle, Sir Luke, and I am satisfied. You shall rule in Rookwood, I'll engage, ere a week be flown; and then—— But so much parleying is dull work; let's make the best of our way to breakfast."
And away they cantered.
A narrow bridle-road conducted them singly through the defiles of a thick wood. Their route lay in the shade, and the air felt chilly amidst the trees, the sun not having attained sufficient altitude to penetrate its depths, while overhead all was warmth and light. Quivering on the tops of the timber, the horizontal sunbeams created, in their refraction, brilliant prismatic colorings, and filled the air with motes like golden dust. Our horsemen heeded not the sunshine or the shade. Occupied each with his own train of thought, they silently rode on.
Davenham Wood, through which they urged their course, had, in the olden time, been a forest of some extent. It was then an appendage to the domains of Rookwood, but had passed from the hands of that family to those of a wealthy adjoining landowner and lawyer, Sir Edward Davenham, in the keeping of whose descendants it had ever after continued. A noble wood it was, and numbered many patriarchal trees. Ancient oaks, with broad, gnarled limbs, which the storms of five hundred years had vainly striven to uproot, and which were now sternly decaying; gigantic beech trees, with silvery stems shooting smoothly upwards, sustaining branches of such size, that each, dissevered, would in itself have formed a tree, populous with leaves, and variegated with rich autumnal tints; the sprightly sycamore, the dark chestnut, the weird wych-elm, the majestic elm itself, festooned with ivy, every variety of wood, dark, dense, and intricate, composed the forest through which they rode; and so multitudinous was the timber, so closely planted, so entirely filled up with a thick, matted vegetation, which had been allowed to collect beneath, that little view was afforded, had any been desired by the parties, into the labyrinth of the grove. Tree after tree, clad in the glowing livery of the season, was passed, and as rapidly succeeded by others. Occasionally a bough projected over their path, compelling the riders to incline their heads as they passed; but, heedless of such difficulties, they pressed on. Now the road grew lighter, and they became at once sensible of the genial influence of the sun. The transition was as agreeable as instantaneous. They had opened upon an extensive plantation of full-grown pines, whose tall, branchless stems grew up like a forest of masts, and freely admitted the pleasant sunshine. Beneath those trees, the soil was sandy and destitute of all undergrowth, though covered with brown, hair-like fibres and dry cones, shed by the pines. The agile squirrel, that freest denizen of the grove, starting from the ground as the horsemen galloped on, sprang up the nearest tree, and might be seen angrily gazing at the disturbers of his haunts, beating the branches with his fore feet, in expression of displeasure; the rabbit darted across their path; the jays flew screaming amongst the foliage; the blue cushat, scared at the clatter of the horses' hoofs, sped on swift wing into quarters secure from their approach; while the parti-colored pies, like curious village gossips, congregated to peer at the strangers, expressing their astonishment by loud and continuous chattering. Though so gentle of ascent as to be almost imperceptible, it was still evident that the path they were pursuing gradually mounted a hill-side; and when at length they reached an opening, the view disclosed the eminence they had insensibly won. Pausing for a moment upon the brow of the hill, Luke pointed to a stream that wound through the valley, and, tracing its course, indicated a particular spot amongst the trees. There was no appearance of a dwelling house—no cottage roof, no white canvas shed, to point out the tents of the wandering tribe whose abode they were seeking. The only circumstance betokening that it had once been the haunt of man were a few gray monastic ruins, scarce distinguishable from the stony barrier by which they were surrounded; and the sole evidence that it was still frequented by human beings was a thin column of pale blue smoke, that arose in curling wreaths from out the brake, the light-colored vapor beautifully contrasting with the green umbrage whence it issued.
"Our destination is yonder," exclaimed Luke, pointing in the direction of the vapor.
"I am glad to hear it," cried Turpin, "as well as to perceive there is some one awake. That smoke holds out a prospect of breakfast. No smoke without fire, as old Lady Scanmag said; and I'll wager a trifle that fire was not lighted for the fayter fellows to count their fingers by. We shall find three sticks, and a black pot with a kid seething in it, I'll engage. These gipsies have picked out a prettyish spot to quarter in—quite picturesque, as one may say—and but for that tell-tale smoke, which looks for all the world like a Dutch skipper blowing his morning cloud, no one need know of their vicinity. A pretty place, upon my soul."
The spot, in sooth, merited Turpin's eulogium. It was a little valley, in the midst of wooded hills, so secluded, that not a single habitation appeared in view. Clothed with timber to the very summits, excepting on the side where the party stood, which verged upon the declivity, these mountainous ridges presented a broken outline of foliage, variegated with tinted masses of bright orange, timber, and deepest green. Four hills hemmed in the valley. Here and there a gray slab of rock might be discerned amongst the wood, and a mountain-ash figured conspicuously upon a jutting crag immediately below them. Deep sunken in the ravine, and concealed in part from view by the wild herbage and dwarf shrubs, ran a range of precipitous rocks, severed, it would seem, by some diluvial convulsion, from the opposite mountain side, as a corresponding rift was there visible, in which the same dip of strata might be observed, together with certain ribbed cavities, matching huge bolts of rock which had once locked these stony walls together. Washing this cliff, swept a clear stream, well known and well regarded, as it waxed in width, by the honest brethren of the angle, who seldom, however, tracked it to its rise amongst these hills. The stream found its way into the valley through a chasm far to the left, and rushed thundering down the mountain side in a boiling cascade. The valley was approached in this direction from Rookwood by an unfrequented carriage-road, which Luke had, from prudential reasons, avoided. All seemed consecrated to silence—to solitude—to the hush of nature; yet this quiet scene was the chosen retreat of lawless depredators, and had erstwhile been the theatre of feudal oppression. We have said that no habitation was visible; that no dwelling tenanted by man could be seen; but following the spur of the furthest mountain hill, some traces of a stone wall might be discovered; and upon a natural platform of rock stood a stern square tower, which had once been the donjon of the castle, the lords of which had called the four hills their own. A watch-tower then had crowned each eminence, every vestige of which had, however, long since disappeared. Sequestered in the vale stood the Priory before alluded to—a Monastery of Gray Friars, of the Order of St. Francis—some of the venerable walls of which were still remaining; and if they had not reverted to the bat and the owl, as is wont to be the fate of such sacred structures, their cloistered shrines were devoted to beings whose natures partook, in some measure, of the instincts of those creatures of the night—a people whose deeds were of darkness, and whose eyes shunned the light. Here the gipsies had pitched their tent; and though the place was often, in part, deserted by the vagrant horde, yet certain of the tribe, who had grown into years—over whom Barbara Lovel held queenly sway—made it their haunt, and were suffered by the authorities of the neighborhood to remain unmolested—a lenient piece of policy, which, in our infinite regard for the weal of the tawny tribe, we recommend to the adoption of all other justices and knights of the shire.