"No, no—it never can be too late!" cried Alizon. "It is not even too late for you."
"Thou know'st not what thou talk'st about, foolish wench," rejoined the hag. "Our master would tear us instantly in pieces if but a thought of penitence, as thou callest it, crossed our minds. We are both doomed to an eternity of torture. But thy mother will go first—ay, first. If she had yielded thee up to-night, another term would have been allowed her; but as I hold thee instead, the benefit of the sacrifice will be mine. But, hist! what was that? The youth again! Alice Nutter must have given him some potent counter-charm."
"He comes to deliver me," cried Alizon. "Richard!"
And she arose, and would have flown to the window, but Mother Demdike waved her staff over her, and rooted her to the ground.
"Stay there till I require thee," chuckled the hag, moving, with ponderous footsteps, to the door.
After parleying with Richard, as already related, Mother Demdike suddenly returned to Alizon, and, restoring her to sensibility, placed her hideous face close to her, breathing upon her, and uttering these words, "Be thine eyes blinded and thy brain confused, so that thou mayst not know him when thou seest him, but think him another."
The spell took instant effect. Alizon staggered towards the table, Richard was summoned, and on his appearance the scene took place which has already been detailed, and which ended in his losing the talisman, and being ejected from the tower.
Alizon had been rendered invisible by the old witch, and was afterwards dragged into the arched recess by her, where, snatching the piece of gold from the young girl's neck, she exclaimed triumphantly—
"Now I defy thee, Alice Nutter. Thou canst never recover thy child. The offering shall be made to-night, and another year be added to my long term."
Alizon groaned deeply, but, at a gesture from the hag, she became motionless and speechless.
A dusky indistinctly-seen figure hovered near the entrance of the embrasure. Mother Demdike beckoned it to her.
"Convey this girl to the vault, and watch over her," she said. "I will descend anon."
Upon this the shadowy arms enveloped Alizon, the trapdoor flew open, and the figure disappeared with its inanimate burthen.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE TWO FAMILIARS.
After seeing Richard depart on his perilous mission to Malkin Tower, Mistress Nutter retired to her own chamber, and held long and anxious self-communion. The course of her thoughts may be gathered from the terrible revelations made by Mother Demdike to Alizon. A prey to the most agonising emotions, it may be questioned if she could have endured greater torment if her heart had been consumed by living fire, as in the punishment assigned to the damned in the fabled halls of Eblis. For the first time remorse assailed her, and she felt compunction for the evil she had committed. The whole of her dark career passed in review before her. The long catalogue of her crimes unfolded itself like a scroll of flame, and at its foot were written in blazing characters the awful words, JUDGMENT AND CONDEMNATION! There was no escape—none! Hell, with its unquenchable fires and unimaginable horrors, yawned to receive her; and she felt, with anguish and self-reproach not to be described, how wretched a bargain she had made, and how dearly the brief gratification of her evil passions had been purchased at the cost of an eternity of woe and torture.
This change of feeling had been produced by her newly-awakened affection for her daughter, long supposed dead, and now restored to her, only to be snatched away again in a manner which added to the sharpness of the loss. She saw herself the sport of a juggling fiend, whose aim was to win over her daughter's soul through her instrumentality, and she resolved, if possible, to defeat his purposes. This, she was aware, could only be accomplished by her own destruction, but even this dread alternative she was prepared to embrace. Alizon's sinless nature and devotion to herself had so wrought upon her, that, though she had at first resisted the better impulses kindled within her bosom, in the end they completely overmastered her.
Was it, she asked herself, too late to repent? Was there no way of breaking her compact? She remembered to have read of a young man who had signed away his own soul, being restored to heaven by the intercession of the great reformer of the church, Martin Luther. But, on the other hand, she had heard of many others, who, on the slightest manifestation of penitence, had been rent in pieces by the Fiend. Still the idea recurred to her. Might not her daughter, armed with perfect purity and holiness, with a soul free from stain as an unspotted mirror; might not she, who had avouched herself ready to risk all for her—for she had overheard her declaration to Richard;—might not she be able to work out her salvation? Would confession of her sins and voluntary submission to earthly justice save her? Alas!—no. She was without hope. She had an inexorable master to deal with, who would grant her no grace, except upon conditions she would not assent to.
She would have thrown herself on her knees, but they refused to bend. She would have prayed, but the words turned to blasphemies. She would have wept, but the fountains of tears were dry. The witch could never weep.
Then came despair and frenzy, and, like furies, lashed her with whips of scorpions, goading her with the memory of her abominations and idolatries, and her infinite and varied iniquities. They showed her, as in a swiftly-fleeting vision, all who had suffered wrong by her, or whom her malice had afflicted in body or estate. They mocked her with a glimpse of the paradise she had forfeited. She saw her daughter in a beatified state about to enter its golden portals, and would have clung to her robes in the hope of being carried in with her, but she was driven away by an angel with a flaming sword, who cried out, "Thou hast abjured heaven, and heaven rejects thee. Satan's brand is upon thy brow and, unless it be effaced, thou canst never enter here. Down to Tophet, thou witch!" Then she implored her daughter to touch her brow with the tip of her finger; and, as the latter was about to comply, a dark demoniacal shape suddenly rose, and, seizing her by the hair, plunged with her down—down—millions of miles—till she beheld a world of fire appear beneath her, consisting of a multitude of volcanoes, roaring and raging like furnaces, boiling over with redhot lava, and casting forth huge burning stones. In each of these beds of fire thousands upon thousands of sufferers were writhing, and their groans and lamentations arose in one frightful, incessant wail, too terrible for human hearing.
Over this place of torment the demon held her suspended. She shrieked aloud in her agony, and, shaking off the oppression, rejoiced to find the vision had been caused by her own distempered imagination.
Meanwhile, the storm, which had obstructed Richard as he climbed the hill, had come on, though Mistress Nutter had not noticed it; but now a loud peal of thunder shook the room, and rousing herself she walked to the window. The sight she beheld increased her alarm. Heavy thunder-clouds rested upon the hill-side, and seemed ready to discharge their artillery upon the course which she knew must be taken by the young man.
The chamber in which she stood, it has been said, was large and gloomy, with a wainscoting of dark oak. On one of the panels was painted a picture of herself in her days of youth, innocence, and beauty; and on another, a portrait of her unfortunate husband, who appeared a handsome young man, with a stern countenance, attired in a black velvet doublet and cloak, of the fashion of Elizabeth's day. Between these paintings stood a carved oak bedstead, with a high tester and dark heavy drapery, opposite which was a wide window, occupying almost the whole length of the room, but darkened by thick bars and glass, crowded with armorial bearings, or otherwise deeply dyed. The high mantelpiece and its carvings have been previously described, as well as the bloody hearthstone, where the tragical incident occurred connected with Alizon's early history.
As Mistress Nutter returned to the fireplace, a plaintive cry arose from it, and starting—for the sound revived terrible memories within her breast—she beheld the ineffaceable stains upon the flag traced out by blue phosphoric fire, while above them hovered the shape of a bleeding infant. Horror-stricken, she averted her gaze, but it encountered another object, equally appalling—her husband's portrait; or rather, it would seem, a phantom in its place; for the eyes, lighted up by infernal fire, glared at her from beneath the frowning and contracted brows, while the hand significantly pointed to the hearthstone, on which the sanguinary stains had now formed themselves into the fatal word "VENGEANCE!"
In a few minutes the fiery characters died away, and the portrait resumed its wonted expression; but ere Mistress Nutter had recovered from her terror the back of the fireplace opened, and a tall swarthy man stepped out from it. As he appeared, a flash of lightning illumined the chamber, and revealed his fiendish countenance. On seeing him, the lady immediately regained her courage, and addressed him in a haughty and commanding tone—
"Why this intrusion? I did not summon thee, and do not require thee."
"You are mistaken, madam," he replied; "you had never more occasion for me than at this moment; and, so far from intruding upon you, I have avoided coming near you, even though enjoined to do so by my lord. He is perfectly aware of the change which has just taken place in your opinions, and the anxiety you now feel to break the contract you have entered into with him, and which he has scrupulously fulfilled on his part; but he wishes you distinctly to understand, that he has no intention of abandoning his claims upon you, but will most assuredly enforce them at the proper time. I need not remind you that your term draws to a close, and ere many months must expire; but means of extending it have been offered you, if you choose to avail yourself of them."
"I have no such intention," replied Mistress Nutter, in a decided tone.
"So be it, madam," replied the other; "but you will not preserve your daughter, who is in the hands of a tried and faithful servant of my lord, and what you hesitate to do that servant will perform, and so reap the benefit of the sacrifice."
"Not so," rejoined Mistress Nutter.
"I say yea," retorted the familiar.
"Thou art my slave, I command thee to bring Alizon hither at once."
The familiar shook his head.
"Thou refusest!" cried Mistress Nutter, menacingly.
"Knows't thou not I have the means of chastising thee?"
"You had, madam," replied the other; "but the moment a thought of penitence crossed your breast, the power you were invested with departed. My lord, however, is willing to give you an hour of grace, when, if you voluntarily renew your oaths to him, he will accept them, and place me at your disposal once more; but if you still continue obstinate—"
"He will abandon me," interrupted Mistress Nutter; "I knew it. Fool that I was to trust one who, from the beginning, has been a deceiver."
"You have a short memory, and but little gratitude, madam and seem entirely to forget the important favour conferred upon you last night. At your solicitation, the boundaries of your property were changed, and large slips of land filched from another, to be given to you. But if you fail in your duty, you cannot expect this to continue. The boundary marks will be set up in their old places, and the land restored to its rightful owner."
"I expected as much," observed Mistress Nutter, disdainfully.
"Thus all our pains will be thrown away," pursued the familiar; "and though you may make light of the labour, it is no easy task to change the face of a whole country—to turn streams from their course, move bogs, transplant trees, and shift houses, all of which has been done, and will now have to be undone, because of your inconstancy. I, myself, have been obliged to act as many parts as a poor player to please you, and now you dismiss me at a moment's notice, as if I had played them indifferently, whereas the most fastidious audience would have been ravished with my performance. This morning I was the reeve of the forest, and as such obliged to assume the shape of a rascally attorney. I felt it a degradation, I assure you. Nor was I better pleased when you compelled me to put on the likeness of old Roger Nowell; for, whatever you may think, I am not so entirely destitute of personal vanity as to prefer either of their figures to my own. However, I showed no disinclination to oblige you. You are strangely unreasonable to-day. Is it my lord's fault if your desire of vengeance expires in its fruition—if, when you have accomplished an object, you no longer care for it? You ask for revenge—for power. You have them, and cast them aside like childish baubles!"
"Thy lord is an arch deceiver," rejoined Mistress Nutter; "and cannot perform his promises. They are empty delusions—profitless, unsubstantial as shadows. His power prevails not against any thing holy, as I myself have just now experienced. His money turns to withered leaves; his treasures are dust and ashes. Strong only is he in power of mischief, and even his mischief, like curses, recoils on those who use it. His vengeance is no true vengeance, for it troubles the conscience, and engenders remorse; whereas the servant of heaven heaps coals of fire on the head of his adversary by kindness, and satisfies his own heart."
"You should have thought of all this before you vowed yourself to him," said the familiar; "it is too late to reflect now."
"Perchance not," rejoined Mistress Nutter.
"Beware!" thundered the demon, with a terrible gesture; "any overt act of disobedience, and your limbs shall be scattered over this chamber."
"If I do not dare thee to it, it is not because I fear thee," replied Mistress Nutter, in no way dismayed by the threat. "Thou canst not control my tongue. Thou speakest of the services rendered by thy lord, and I repeat they are like his promises, naught. Show me the witch he has enriched. Of what profit is her worship of the false deity—of what avail the sacrifices she makes at his foul altars? It is ever the same spilling of blood, ever the same working of mischief. The wheels Of crime roll on like the car of the Indian idol, crushing all before them. Doth thy master ever help his servants in their need? Doth he not ever abandon them when they are no longer useful, and can win him no more proselytes? Miserable servants—miserable master! Look at the murtherous Demdike and the malignant Chattox, and examine the means whereby they have prolonged their baleful career. Enormities of all kinds committed, and all their families devoted to the Fiend—all wizards or witches! Look at them, I say. What profit to them is their long service? Are they rich? Are they in possession of unfading youth and beauty? Are they splendidly lodged? Have they all they desire? No!—the one dwells in a solitary turret, and the other in a wretched hovel; and both are miserable creatures, living only on the dole wrung by threats from terrified peasants, and capable of no gratification but such as results from practices of malice."
"Is that nothing?" asked the familiar. "To them it is every thing. They care neither for splendid mansions, nor wealth, nor youth, nor beauty. If they did, they could have them all. They care only for the dread and mysterious power they possess, to be able to fascinate with a glance, to transfix by a gesture, to inflict strange ailments by a word, and to kill by a curse. This is the privilege they seek, and this privilege they enjoy."
"And what is the end of it all?" demanded Mistress Nutter, sternly. "Erelong, they will be unable to furnish victims to their insatiate master, who will then abandon them. Their bodies will go to the hangman, and their souls to endless bale!"
The familiar laughed as if a good joke had been repeated to him, and rubbed his hands gleefully.
"Very true," he said; "very true. You have stated the case exactly, madam. Such will certainly be the course of events. But what of that? The old hags will have enjoyed a long term—much longer than might have been anticipated. Mother Demdike, however, as I have intimated, will extend hers, and it is fortunate for her she is enabled to do so, as it would otherwise expire an hour after midnight, and could not be renewed."
"Thou liest!" cried Mistress Nutter—"liest like thy lord, who is the father of lies. My innocent child can never be offered up at his impious shrine. I have no fear for her. Neither he, nor Mother Demdike, nor any of the accursed sisterhood, can harm her. Her goodness will cover her like armour, which no evil can penetrate. Let him wreak his vengeance, if he will, on me. Let him treat me as a slave who has cast off his yoke. Let him abridge the scanty time allotted me, and bear me hence to his burning kingdom; but injure my child, he cannot—shall not!"
"Go to Malkin Tower at midnight, and thou wilt see," replied the familiar, with a mocking laugh.
"I will go there, but it shall be to deliver her," rejoined Mistress Nutter. "And now get thee gone! I need thee no more."
"Be not deceived, proud woman," said the familiar. "Once dismissed, I may not be recalled, while thou wilt be wholly unable to defend thyself against thy enemies."
"I care not," she rejoined; "begone!"
The familiar stepped back, and, stamping upon the hearthstone, it sank like a trapdoor, and he disappeared beneath it, a flash of lightning playing round his dusky figure.
Notwithstanding her vaunted resolution, and the boldness with which she had comported herself before the familiar, Mistress Nutter now completely gave way, and for awhile abandoned herself to despair. Aroused at length by the absolute necessity of action, she again walked to the window and looked forth. The storm still raged furiously without—so furiously, indeed, that it would be madness to brave it, now that she was deprived of her power, and reduced to the ordinary level of humanity. Its very violence, however, assured her it must soon cease, and she would then set out for Malkin Tower. But what chance had she now in a struggle with the old hag, with all the energies of hell at her command?—what hope was there of her being able to effect her daughter's liberation? No matter, however desperate, the attempt should be made. Meanwhile, it would be necessary so see what was going on below, and ascertain whether Blackadder had returned with Parson Holden. With this view, she descended to the hall, where she found Nicholas Assheton fast asleep in a great arm-chair, and rocked rather than disturbed by the loud concussions of thunder. The squire was, no doubt, overcome by the fatigues of the day, or it might be by the potency of the wine he had swallowed, for an empty flask stood on the table beside him. Mistress Nutter did not awaken him, but proceeded to the chamber where she had left Nowell and Potts prisoners, both of whom rose on her entrance.
"Be seated, gentlemen, I pray you," she said, courteously. "I am come to see if you need any thing; for when this fearful storm abates, I am going forth for a short time."
"Indeed, madam," replied Potts. "For myself I require nothing further; but perhaps another bottle of wine might be agreeable to my honoured and singular good client."
"Speak for yourself, sir," cried Roger Nowell, sharply.
"You shall have it," interposed Mistress Nutter. "I shall be glad of a word with you before I go, Master Nowell. I am sorry this dispute has arisen between us."
"Humph!" exclaimed the magistrate.
"Very sorry," pursued Mistress Nutter; "and I wish to make every reparation in my power."
"Reparation, madam!" cried Nowell. "Give back the land you have stolen from me—restore the boundary lines—sign the deed in Sir Ralph's possession—that is the only reparation you can make."
"I will," replied Mistress Nutter.
"You will!" exclaimed Nowell. "Then the fellow did not deceive us, Master Potts."
"Has any one been with you?" asked the lady, uneasily.
"Ay, the reeve of the forest," replied Nowell. "He told us you would be with us presently, and would make fair offers to us."
"And he told us also why you would make them, madam," added Potts, in an insolent and menacing tone; "he told us you would make a merit of doing what you could not help—that your power had gone from you—that your works of darkness would be destroyed—and that, in a word, you were abandoned by the devil, your master."
"He deceived you," replied Mistress Nutter. "I have made you the offer out of pure good-will, and you can reject it or not, as you please. All I stipulate, if you do accept it, is, that you pledge me your word not to bring any charge of witchcraft against me."
"Do not give the pledge," whispered a voice in the ear of the magistrate.
"Did you speak?" he said, turning to Potts.
"No, sir," replied the attorney, in a low tone; "but I thought you cautioned me against—"
"Hush!" interrupted Nowell; "it must be the reeve. We cannot comply with your request, madam," he added, aloud.
"Certainly not," said Potts. "We can make no bargain with an avowed witch. We should gain nothing by it; on the contrary, we should be losers, for we have the positive assurance of a gentleman whom we believe to be upon terms of intimacy with a certain black gentleman of your acquaintance, madam, that the latter has given you up entirely, and that law and justice may, therefore, take their course. We protest against our unlawful detention; but we give ourselves small concern about it, as Sir Ralph Assheton, who will be advised of our situation by Parson Holden, will speedily come to our liberation."
"Yes, we are now quite easy on that score, madam," added Nowell; "and to-morrow we shall have the pleasure of escorting you to Lancaster Castle."
"And your trial will come on at the next assizes, about the middle of August," said Potts, "You have only four months to run."
"That is indeed my term," muttered the lady. "I shall not tarry to listen to your taunts," she added, aloud. "You may possibly regret rejecting my proposal."
So saying, she quitted the room.
As she returned to the hall, Nicholas awoke.
"What a devil of a storm!" he exclaimed, stretching himself and rubbing his eyes. "Zounds! that flash of lightning was enough to blind me, and the thunder wellnigh splits one's ears."
"Yet you have slept through louder peals, Nicholas," said Mistress Nutter, coming up to him. "Richard has not returned from his mission, and I must go myself to Malkin Tower. In my absence, I must entrust you with the defence of my house."
"I am willing to undertake it," replied Nicholas, "provided no witchcraft be used."
"Nay, you need not fear that," said the lady, with a forced smile.
"Well, then, leave it to me," said the squire; "but you will not set out till the storm is over?"
"I must," replied Mistress Nutter; "there seems no likelihood of its cessation, and each moment is fraught with peril to Alizon. If aught happens to me, Nicholas—if I should—whatever mischance may befall me—promise me you will stand by her."
The squire gave the required promise.
"Enough, I hold you to your word," said Mistress Nutter. "Take this parchment. It is a deed of gift, assigning this mansion and all my estates to her. Under certain circumstances you will produce it."
"What circumstances? I am at a loss to understand you, madam," said the squire.
"Do not question me further, but take especial care of the deed, and produce it, as I have said, at the fitting moment. You will know when that arrives. Ha! I am wanted."
The latter exclamation had been occasioned by the appearance of an old woman at the further end of the hall, beckoning to her. On seeing her, Mistress Nutter immediately quitted the squire, and followed her into a small chamber opening from this part of the hall, and into which she retreated.
"What brings you here, Mother Chattox?" exclaimed the lady, closing the door.
"Can you not guess?" replied the hag. "I am come to help you, not for any love I bear you, but to avenge myself on old Demdike. Do not interrupt me. My familiar, Fancy, has told me all. I know how you are circumstanced. I know Alizon is in old Demdike's clutches, and you are unable to extricate her. But I can, and will; because if the hateful old hag fails in offering up her sacrifice before the first hour of day, her term will be out, and I shall be rid of her, and reign in her stead. To-morrow she will be on her way to Lancaster Castle. Ha! ha! The dungeon is prepared for her—the stake driven into the ground—the fagots heaped around it. The torch has only to be lighted. Ho! Ho!"
"Shall we go to Malkin Tower?" asked Mistress Nutter, shuddering.
"No; to the summit of Pendle Hill," rejoined Mother Chattox; "for there the girl will be taken, and there only can we secure her. But first we must proceed to my hut, and make some preparations. I have three scalps and eight teeth, taken from a grave in Goldshaw churchyard this very day. We can make a charm with them."
"You must prepare it alone," said Mistress Nutter; "I can have nought to do with it."
"True—true—I had forgotten," cried the hag, with a chuckling laugh—"you are no longer one of us. Well, then, I will do it alone. But come with me. You will not object to mount upon my broomstick. It is the only safe conveyance in this storm of the devil's raising. Come—away!"
And she threw open the window and sprang forth, followed by Mistress Nutter.
Through the murky air, and borne as if on the wings of the wind, two dark forms are flying swiftly. Over the tops of the tempest-shaken trees they go, and as they gain the skirts of the thicket an oak beneath is shivered by a thunderbolt. They hear the fearful crash, and see the splinters fly far and wide; and the foremost of the two, who, with her skinny arm extended, seems to direct their course, utters a wild scream of laughter, while a raven, speeding on broad black wing before them, croaks hoarsely. Now the torrent rages below, and they see its white waters tumbling over a ledge of rock; now they pass over the brow of a hill; now skim over a dreary waste and dangerous morass. Fearful it is to behold those two flying figures, as the lightning shows them, bestriding their fantastical steed; the one an old hag with hideous lineaments and distorted person, and the other a proud dame, still beautiful, though no longer young, pale as death, and her loose jetty hair streaming like a meteor in the breeze.
The ride is over, and they alight near the door of a solitary hovel. The raven has preceded them, and, perched on the chimney top, flies down it as they enter, and greets them with hoarse croaking. The inside of the hut corresponds with its miserable exterior, consisting only of two rooms, in one of which is a wretched pallet; in the other are a couple of large chests, a crazy table, a bench, a three-legged stool, and a spinning-wheel. A caldron is suspended above a peat fire, smouldering on the hearth. There is only one window, and a thick curtain is drawn across it, to secure the inmate of the hut from prying eyes.
Mother Chattox closes and bars the door, and, motioning Mistress Nutter to seat herself upon the stool, kneels down near the hearth, and blows the turf into a flame, the raven helping her, by flapping his big black wings, and uttering a variety of strange sounds, as the sparks fly about. Heaping on more turf, and shifting the caldron, so that it may receive the full influence of the flame, the hag proceeds to one of the chests, and takes out sundry small matters, which she places one by one with great care on the table. The raven has now fixed his great talons on her shoulder, and chuckles and croaks in her ear as she pursues her occupation. Suddenly a piece of bone attracts his attention, and darting out his beak, he seizes it, and hops away.
"Give me that scalp, thou mischievous imp!" cries the hag, "I need it for the charm I am about to prepare. Give it me, I say!"
But the raven still held it fast, and hopped here and there so nimbly that she was unable to catch him. At length, when he had exhausted her patience, he alighted on Mistress Nutter's shoulder, and dropped it into her lap. Engrossed by her own painful thoughts, the lady had paid no attention to what was passing, and she shuddered as she took up the fragment of mortality, and placed it upon the table. A few tufts of hair, the texture of which showed they had belonged to a female, still adhered to the scalp. Mistress Nutter regarded it fixedly, and with an interest for which she could not account.
After sharply chiding the raven, Mother Chattox put forth her hand to grasp the prize she had been robbed of, when Mistress Nutter checked her by observing, "You said you got this scalp from Goldshaw churchyard. Know you ought concerning it?"
"Ay, a good deal," replied the old woman, chuckling. "It comes from a grave near the yew-tree, and not far from Abbot Cliderhow's cross. Old Zachariah Worms, the sexton, digged it up for me. That yellow skull had once a fair face attached to it, and those few dull tufts were once bright flowing tresses. She who owned them died young; but, young as she was, she survived all her beauty. Hollow cheeks and hollow eyes, wasted flesh, and cruel cough, were hers—and she pined and pined away. Folks said she was forespoken, and that I had done it. I, forsooth! She had never done me harm. You know whether I was rightly accused, madam."
"Take it away," cried Mistress Nutter, hurriedly, and as if struggling against some overmastering feeling. "I cannot bear to look at it. I wanted not this horrible reminder of my crimes."
"This was the reason, then, why Ralph stole the scalp from me," muttered the hag, as she threw it, together with some other matters, into the caldron. "He wanted to show you his sagacity. I might have guessed as much."
"I will go into the other room while you make your preparations," said Mistress Nutter, rising; "the sight of them disturbs me. You can summon me when you are ready."
"I will, madam," replied the old hag, "and you must control your impatience, for the spell requires time for its confection."
Mistress Nutter made no reply, but, walking into the inner room, closed the door, and threw herself upon the pallet. Here, despite her anxiety, sleep stole upon her, and though her dreams were troubled, she did not awake till Mother Chattox stood beside her.
"Have I slept long?" she inquired.
"More than three hours," replied the hag.
"Three hours!" exclaimed Mistress Nutter. "Why did you not wake me before? You would have saved me from terrible dreams. We are not too late?"
"No, no," replied Mother Chattox; "there is plenty of time. Come into the other room. All is ready."
As Mistress Nutter followed the old hag into the adjoining room, a strong odour, arising from a chafing-dish, in which herbs, roots, and other ingredients were burning, assailed her, and, versed in all weird ceremonials, she knew that a powerful suffumigation had been made, though with what intent she had yet to learn. The scanty furniture had been cleared away, and a circle was described on the clay floor by skulls and bones, alternated by dried toads, adders, and other reptiles. In the midst of this magical circle, the caldron, which had been brought from the chimney, was placed, and, the lid being removed, a thick vapour arose from it. Mistress Nutter looked around for the raven, but the bird was nowhere to be seen, nor did any other living thing appear to be present beside themselves.
Taking the lady's hand, Mother Chattox drew her into the circle, and began to mutter a spell; after which, still maintaining her hold of her companion, she bade her look into the caldron, and declare what she saw.
"I see nothing," replied the lady, after she had gazed upon the bubbling waters for a few moments. "Ah! yes—I discern certain figures, but they are confused by the steam, and broken by the agitation of the water."
"Caldron—cease boiling! and smoke—disperse!" cried Mother Chattox, stamping her foot. "Now, can you see more plainly?"
"I can," replied Mistress Nutter; "I behold the subterranean chamber beneath Malkin Tower, with its nine ponderous columns, its altar in the midst of them, its demon image, and the well with waters black as Lethe beside it."
"The water within the caldron came from that well," said Mother Chattox, with a chuckling laugh; "my familiar risked his liberty to bring it, but he succeeded. Ha! ha! My precious Fancy, thou art the best of servants, and shalt have my best blood to reward thee to-morrow—thou shalt, my sweetheart, my chuck, my dandyprat. But hie thee back to Malkin Tower, and contrive that this lady may hear, as well as see, all that passes. Away!"
Mistress Nutter concluded that the injunction would be obeyed; but, as the familiar was invisible to her, she could not detect his departure.
"Do you see no one within the dungeon?" inquired Mother Chattox.
"Ah! yes," exclaimed the lady; "I have at last discovered Alizon. She was behind one of the pillars. A little girl is with her. It is Jennet Device, and, from the spiteful looks of the latter, I judge she is mocking her. Oh! what malice lurks in the breast of that hateful child! She is a true descendant of Mother Demdike. But Alizon—sweet, patient Alizon—she seems to bear all her taunts with a meekness and resignation enough to move the hardest heart. I would weep for her if I could. And now Jennet shakes her hand at her, and leaves her. She is alone. What will she do now? Has she no thoughts of escape? Oh, yes! She looks about her distractedly—runs round the vault—tries the door of every cell: they are all bolted and barred—there is no outlet—none!"
"What next?" inquired the hag.
"She shrieks aloud," rejoined Mistress Nutter, "and the cry thrills through every fibre in my frame. She calls upon me for aid—upon me, her mother, and little thinks I hear her, and am unable to help her. Oh! it is horrible. Take me to her, good Chattox—take me to her, I implore you!"
"Impossible!" replied the hag: "you must await the fitting time. If you cannot control yourself, I shall remove the caldron."
"Oh! no, no," cried the distracted lady. "I will be calm. Ah! what is this I see?" she added, belying her former words by sudden vehemence, while rage and astonishment were depicted upon her countenance. "What infernal delusion is practised upon my child! This is monstrous— intolerable. Oh! that I could undeceive her—could warn her of the snare!"
"What is the nature of the delusion?" asked Mother Chattox, with some curiosity. "I am so blind I cannot see the figures on the water."
"It is an evil spirit in my likeness," replied Mistress Nutter.
"In your likeness!" exclaimed the hag. "A cunning device—and worthy of old Demdike—ho! ho!"
"I can scarce bear to look on," cried Mistress Nutter; "but I must, though it tears my heart in pieces to witness such cruelty. The poor girl has rushed to her false parent—has thrown her arms around her, and is weeping on her shoulder. Oh! it is a maddening sight. But it is nothing to what follows. The temptress, with the subtlety of the old serpent, is pouring lies into her ear, telling her they both are captives, and both will perish unless she consents to purchase their deliverance at the price of her soul, and she offers her a bond to sign—such a bond as, alas! thou and I, Chattox, have signed. But Alizon rejects it with horror, and gazes at her false mother as if she suspected the delusion. But the temptress is not to be beaten thus. She renews her entreaties, casts herself on the ground, and clasps my child's knees in humblest supplication. Oh! that Alizon would place her foot upon her neck and crush her. But it is not so the good act. She raises her, and tells her she will willingly die for her; but her soul was given to her by her Creator, and must be returned to him. Oh! that I had thought of this."
"And what answer makes the spirit?" asked the witch.
"It laughs derisively," replied Mistress Nutter; "and proceeds to use all those sophistical arguments, which we have so often heard, to pervert her mind, and overthrow her principles. But Alizon is proof against them all. Religion and virtue support her, and make her more than a match for her opponent. Equally vain are the spirit's attempts to seduce her by the offer of a life of sinful enjoyment. She rejects it with angry scorn. Failing in argument and entreaty, the spirit now endeavours to work upon her fears, and paints, in appalling colours, the tortures she will have to endure, contrasting them with the delight she is voluntarily abandoning, with the lover she might espouse, with the high worldly position she might fill. 'What are worldly joys and honours compared with those of heaven!' exclaims Alizon; 'I would not exchange them.' The spirit then, in a vision, shows her her lover, Richard, and asks her if she can resist his entreaties. The trial is very sore, as she gazes on that beloved form, seeming, by its passionate gestures, to implore her to assent, but she is firm, and the vision disappears. The ordeal is now over. Alizon has triumphed over all their arts. The spirit in my likeness resumes its fiendish shape, and, with a dreadful menace against the poor girl, vanishes from her sight."
"Mother Demdike has not done with her yet," observed Chattox.
"You are right," replied Mistress Nutter. "The old hag descends the staircase leading to the vault, and approaches the miserable captive. With her there are no supplications—no arguments; but commands and terrible threats. She is as unsuccessful as her envoy. Alizon has gained courage and defies her."
"Ha! does she so?" exclaimed Mother Chattox. "I am glad of it."
"The solid floor resounds with the stamping of the enraged witch," pursued Mistress Nutter. "She tells Alizon she will take her to Pendle Hill at midnight, and there offer her up as a sacrifice to the Fiend. My child replies that she trusts for her deliverance to Heaven—that her body may be destroyed—that her soul cannot be harmed. Scarcely are the words uttered than a terrible clangour is heard. The walls of the dungeon seem breaking down, and the ponderous columns reel. The demon statue rises on its throne, and a stream of flame issues from its brow. The doors of the cells burst open, and with the clanking of chains, and other dismal noises, skeleton shapes stalk forth, from them, each with a pale blue light above its head. Monstrous beasts, like tiger-cats, with rough black skins and flaming eyes, are moving about, and looking as if they would spring upon the captive. Two gravestones are now pushed aside, and from the cold earth arise the forms of Blackburn, the robber, and his paramour, the dissolute Isole de Heton. She joins the grisly throng now approaching the distracted girl, who falls insensible to the ground."
"Can you see aught more?" asked the hag, as Mistress Nutter still bent eagerly over the caldron.
"No; the whole chamber is buried in darkness," replied the lady; "I can see nothing of my poor child. What will become of her?"
"I will question Fancy," replied the hag, throwing some fresh ingredients into the chafing-dish; and, as the smoke arose, she vociferated, "Come hither, Fancy; I want thee, my fondling, my sweet. Come quickly! ha! thou art here."
The familiar was still invisible to Mistress Nutter, but a slight sound made her aware of his presence.
"And now, my sweet Fancy," pursued the hag, "tell us, if thou canst, what will be done with Alizon, and what course we must pursue to free her from old Demdike?"
"At present she is in a state of insensibility," replied a harsh voice, "and she will be kept in that condition till she is conveyed to the summit of Pendle Hill. I have already told you it is useless to attempt to take her from Malkin Tower. It is too well guarded. Your only chance will be to interrupt the sacrifice."
"But how, my sweet Fancy? how, my little darling?" inquired the hag.
"It is a perplexing question," replied the voice; "for, by showing you how to obtain possession of the girl, I disobey my lord."
"Ay, but you serve me—you please me, my pretty Fancy," cried the hag. "You shall quaff your fill of blood on the morrow, if you do this for me. I want to get rid of my old enemy—to catch her in her own toils—to send her to a dungeon—to burn her—ha! ha! You must help me, my little sweetheart."
"I will do all I can," replied the voice; "but Mother Demdike is cunning and powerful, and high in favour with my lord. You must have mortal aid as well as mine. The officers of justice must be there to seize her at the moment when the victim is snatched from her, or she will baffle all your schemes."
"And how shall we accomplish this?" asked Mother Chattox.
"I will tell you," said Mistress Nutter to the hag. "Let him put on the form of Richard Assheton, and in that guise hasten to Rough Lee, where he will find the young man's cousin, Nicholas, to whom he must make known the dreadful deed about to be enacted on Pendle Hill. Nicholas will at once engage to interrupt it. He can arm himself with the weapons of justice by taking with him Roger Nowell, the magistrate, and his myrmidon, Potts, the attorney, both of whom are detained prisoners in the house by my orders."
"The scheme promises well, and shall be adopted," replied the hag; "but suppose Richard himself should appear first on the scene. Dost know where he is, my sweet Fancy?"
"When I last saw him," replied the voice, "he was lying senseless on the ground, at the foot of Malkin Tower, having been precipitated from the doorway by Mother Demdike. You need apprehend no interference from him."
"It is well," replied Mother Chattox. "Then take his form, my pet, though it is not half as handsome as thy own."
"A black skin and goat-like limbs are to thy taste, I know," replied the familiar, with a laugh.
"Let me look upon him before he goes, that I may be sure the likeness is exact," said Mistress Nutter.
"Thou hearest, Fancy! Become visible to her," cried the hag.
And as she spoke, a figure in all respects resembling Richard stood before them.
"What think you of him? Will he do?" said Mother Chattox.
"Ay," replied the lady; "and now send him off at once. There is no time to lose."
"I shall be there in the twinkling of an eye," said the familiar; "but I own I like not the task."
"There is no help for it, my sweet Fancy," cried the hag. "I cannot forego my triumph over old Demdike. Now, away with thee, and when thou hast executed thy mission, return and tell us how thou hast sped in the matter."
The familiar promised obedience to her commands, and disappeared.
CHAPTER XIV.—HOW ROUGH LEE WAS AGAIN BESIEGED.
Parson Holden, it will be remembered, left Rough Lee, charged by Potts with a message to Sir Ralph Assheton, informing him of his detention and that of Roger Nowell, by Mistress Nutter, and imploring him to come to their assistance without delay. Congratulating himself on his escape, but apprehensive of pursuit, the worthy rector, who, as a keen huntsman, was extremely well mounted, made the best of his way, and had already passed the gloomy gorge through which Pendle Water swept, had climbed the hill beyond it, and was crossing the moor now alone lying between him and Goldshaw, when he heard a shout behind him, and, turning at the sound, beheld Blackadder and another mounted serving-man issuing from a thicket, and spurring furiously after him. Relying upon the speed of his horse, he disregarded their cries, and accelerated his pace; but, in spite of this, his pursuers gained upon him rapidly.
While debating the question of resistance or surrender, the rector descried Bess Whitaker coming towards him from the opposite direction—a circumstance that greatly rejoiced him; for, aware of her strength and courage, he felt sure he could place as much dependence upon her in this emergency as on any man in the county. Bess was riding a stout, rough-looking nag, apparently well able to sustain her weight, and carried the redoubtable horsewhip with her.
On the other hand, Holden had been recognised by Bess, who came up just as he was overtaken and seized by his assailants, one of whom caught hold of his cassock, and tore it from his back, while the other, seizing hold of his bridle, endeavoured, in spite of his efforts to the contrary, to turn his horse round. Many oaths, threats, and blows were exchanged during the scuffle, which no doubt would have terminated in the rector's defeat, and his compulsory return to Rough Lee, had it not been for the opportune arrival of Bess, who, swearing as lustily as the serving-men, and brandishing the horsewhip, dashed into the scene of action, and, with a few well-applied cuts, liberated the divine. Enraged at her interference, and smarting from the application of the whip, Blackadder drew a petronel from his girdle, and levelled it at her head; but, ere he could discharge it, the weapon was stricken from his grasp, and a second blow on the head from the but-end of the whip felled him from his horse. Seeing the fate of his companion, the other serving-man fled, leaving Bess mistress of the field.
The rector thanked her heartily for the service she had rendered him, and complimented her on her prowess.
"Ey'n neaw dun mitch to boast on i' leatherin' them two seawr-feaced rapscallions," said Bess, with becoming modesty. "Simon Blackadder an ey ha' had mony a tussle together efore this, fo he's a feaw tempert felly, an canna drink abowt fightin', boh he has awlus found me more nor his match. Boh save us, your reverence, what were the ill-favort gullions ridin' after ye for? Firrups tak 'em! they didna mean to rob ye, surely?"
"Their object was to make me prisoner, and carry me back to Rough Lee, Bess," replied Holden. "They wished to prevent my going to Whalley, whither I am bound, to procure help from Sir Ralph Assheton to liberate Master Roger Nowell and his attorney, who are forcibly detained by Mistress Nutter."
"Yo may spare yer horse an yersel the jorney, then, reverend sir," replied Bess; "for yo'n foind Sir Tummus Metcawfe, wi' some twanty or throtty followers, armed wi' bills, hawberts, petronels, and calivers, at Goldshaw, an they win go wi' ye at wanst, ey'm sartin. Ey heerd sum o' t' chaps say os ow Sir Tummus is goin' to tak' possession o' Mistress Robinson's house, Raydale Ha', i' Wensley Dale, boh nah doubt he'n go furst wi' yer rev'rence, 'specially as he bears Mistress Nutter a grudge."
"At all events, I will ask him," said Holden. "Are he and his followers lodged at your house, Bess?"
"Yeigh," replied the hostess, "some on 'en are i' th' house, some i' th' barn, an some i' th' stables. The place is awtogether owerrun wi' 'em. Ey wur so moydert an wurrotit wi' their ca'in an bawlin fo' ele an drink, that ey swore they shouldna ha' another drawp wi' my consent; an, to be os good os my word, ey clapt key o' t' cellar i' my pocket, an leavin' our Margit to answer 'em, ey set out os yo see, intendin' to go os far as t' mill, an comfort poor deeavely Ruchot Baldwyn in his trouble."
"A most praiseworthy resolution, Bess," said the rector; "but what is to be done with this fellow?" he added, pointing to Blackadder, who, though badly hurt, was trying to creep towards the petronel, which was lying at a little distance from him on the ground.
Perceiving his intention, Bess quickly dismounted, and possessing herself of the weapon, stepped aside, and slipping off one of the bands that confined the hose on her well-shaped leg, grasped the wounded man by the shoulders, and with great expedition tied his hands behind his back. She then lifted him up with as much ease as if he had been an infant, and set him upon his horse, with his face towards the tail. This done, she gave the bridle to the rector, and handing him the petronel at the same time, told him to take care of his prisoner, for she must pursue her journey. And with this, in spite of his renewed entreaties that she would go back with him, she sprang on her horse and rode off.
On arriving at Goldshaw with his prisoner, the rector at once proceeded to the hostel, in front of which he found several of the villagers assembled, attracted by the numerous company within doors, whose shouts and laughter could be heard at a considerable distance. Holden's appearance with Blackadder occasioned considerable surprise, and all eagerly gathered round him to learn what had occurred; but, without satisfying their curiosity, beyond telling them he had been attacked by the prisoner, he left him in their custody and entered the house, where he found all the benches in the principal room occupied by a crew of half-drunken roysterers, with flagons of ale before them; for, after Bess's departure with the key, they had broken into the cellar, and, broaching a cask, helped themselves to its contents. Various weapons were scattered about the tables or reared against the walls, and the whole scene looked like a carouse by a band of marauders. Little respect was shown the rector, and he was saluted by many a ribald jest as he pushed his way towards the inner room.
Sir Thomas was drinking with a couple of desperadoes, whose long rapiers and tarnished military equipments seemed to announce that they had, at some time or other, belonged to the army, though their ruffianly looks and braggadocio air and discourse, strongly seasoned with oaths and slang, made it evident that they were now little better than Alsatian bullies. They had, in fact, been hired by Sir Thomas for the expedition on which he was bent, as he could find no one in the country upon whom he could so well count as on them. Eyeing the rector fiercely, as he intruded upon their privacy, they glanced at their leader to ask whether they should turn him out; but, receiving no encouragement for such rudeness, they contented themselves with scowling at him from beneath their bent brows, twisting up their shaggy mustaches, and trifling with the hilts of their rapiers. Holden opened his business at once; and as soon as Sir Thomas heard it, he sprang to his feet, and, swearing a great oath, declared he would storm Rough Lee, and burn it to the ground, if Mistress Nutter did not set the two captives free.
"As to the audacious witch herself, I will carry her off, in spite of the devil, her master!" he cried. "How say you, Captain Gauntlet—and you too, Captain Storks, is not this an expedition to your tastes—ha?"
The two worthies appealed to responded joyously, that it was so; and it was then agreed that Blackadder should be brought in and interrogated, as some important information might be obtained from him. Upon this, Captain Gauntlet left the room to fetch him, and presently afterwards returned dragging in the prisoner, who looked dogged and angry, by the shoulders.
"Harkye, fellow," said Sir Thomas, sternly, "if you do not answer the questions I shall put to you, truly and satisfactorily, I will have you taken out into the yard, and shot like a dog. Thus much premised, I shall proceed with my examination. Master Roger Nowell and Master Thomas Potts, you are aware, are unlawfully detained prisoners by Mistress Alice Nutter. Now I have been called upon by the reverend gentleman here to undertake their liberation, but, before doing so, I desire to know from you what defensive and offensive preparations your mistress has made, and whether you judge it likely she will attempt to hold out her house against us?"
"Most assuredly she will," replied Blackadder, "and against twice your force. Rough Lee is as strong as a castle; and as those within it are well-armed, vigilant, and of good courage, there is little fear of its capture. If your worship should propose terms to my mistress for the release of her prisoners, she may possibly assent to them; but if you approach her in hostile fashion, and demand their liberation, I am well assured she will resist you, and well assured, also, she will resist you effectually."
"I shall approach her in no other sort than that of an enemy," rejoined Sir Thomas; "but thou art over confident, knave. Unless thy mistress have a legion of devils at her back, and they hold us in check, we will force a way into her dwelling. Fire and fury! dost presume to laugh at me, fellow? Take him hence, and let him be soundly cudgeled for his insolence, Gauntlet."
"Pardon me, your worship," cried Blackadder, "I only smiled at the strange notions you entertain of my mistress."
"Why, dost mean to deny that she is a witch?" demanded Metcalfe.
"Nay, if your worship will have it so, it is not for me to contradict you," replied Blackadder.
"But I ask thee is she not a servant of Satan?—dost thou not know it?—canst thou not prove it?" cried the knight. "Shall we put him to the torture to make him confess?"
"Ay, tie his thumbs together till the blood burst forth, Sir Thomas," said Gauntlet.
"Or hang him up to yon beam by the heels," suggested Captain Storks.
"On no account," interposed Holden. "I did not bring him hither to be dealt with in this way, and I will not permit it. If torture is to be administered it must be by the hands of justice, into which I require him to be delivered; and then, if he can testify aught against his mistress, he will be made to do it."
"Torture shall never wring a word from me, whether wrongfully or rightfully applied," said Blackadder, doggedly; "though I could tell much if I chose. Now give heed to me, Sir Thomas. You will never take Rough Lee, still less its mistress, without my help."
"What are thy terms, knave?" exclaimed the knight, pondering upon the offer. "And take heed thou triflest not with me, or I will have thee flogged within an inch of thy life, in spite of parson or justice. What are thy terms, I repeat?"
"They are for your worship's ear alone," replied Blackadder.
"Beware what you do, Sir Thomas," interposed Holden. "I hold it my duty to tell you, you are compromising justice in listening to the base proposals of this man, who, while offering to betray his mistress, will assuredly deceive you. You will equally deceive him in feigning to agree to terms which you cannot fulfil."
"Cannot fulfil!" ejaculated the knight, highly offended; "I would have you to know, sir, that Sir Thomas Metcalfe's word is his bond, and that whatsoever he promises he will fulfil in spite of the devil! Body o' me! but for the respect I owe your cloth, I would give you a very different answer, reverend sir. But since you have chosen to thrust yourself unasked into the affair, I take leave to say that I will hear this knave's proposals, and judge for myself of the expediency of acceding to them. I must pray you therefore, to withdraw. Nay, if you will not go hence peaceably, you shall perforce. Take him away, gentlemen."
Thus enjoined, the Alsatian captains took each an arm of the rector, and forced him out of the room, leaving Sir Thomas alone with the prisoner. Greatly incensed at the treatment he had experienced, Holden instantly quitted the house, hastened to the rectory, which adjoined the church, and having given some messages to his household, rode off to Whalley, with the intention of acquainting Sir Ralph Assheton with all that had occurred.
Sir Thomas Metcalfe remained closeted with the prisoner for a few minutes, and then coming forth, issued orders that all should get ready to start for Rough Lee without delay; whereupon each man emptied his flagon, pocketed the dice he had been cogging, pushed aside the shuffle-board, left the loggats on the clay floor of the barn, and, grasping his weapon—halbert or caliver, as it might be—prepared to attend his leader. Sir Thomas did not relate, even to the Alsatian captains, what had passed between him and Blackadder; but it did not appear that he placed entire confidence in the latter; for though he caused his hands to be unbound, and allowed him in consideration of his wounded state to ride, he secretly directed Gauntlet and Storks to keep near him, and shoot him through the head if he attempted to escape. Both these personages were provided with horses as well as their leader, but all the rest of the party were on foot. Metcalfe made some inquiries after the rector, but finding he was gone, he did not concern himself further about him. Before starting, the knight, who, with all his recklessness, had a certain sense of honesty, called the girl who had been left in charge of the hostel by Bess, and gave her a sum amply sufficient to cover all the excesses of his men, adding a handsome gratuity to herself.
The first part of the journey was accomplished without mischance, and the party bade fair to arrive at the end of it in safety; but as they entered the gorge, at the extremity of which Rough Lee was situated, a terrific storm burst upon them, compelling them to seek shelter in the mill, from which they were luckily not far distant at the time. The house was completely deserted, but they were well able to shift for themselves, and not over scrupulous in the manner of doing so; and as the remains of the funeral feast were not removed from the table, some of the company sat down to them, while others found their way to the cellar.
The storm was of long continuance, much longer than was agreeable to Sir Thomas, and he paced the room to and fro impatiently, ever and anon walking to the window or door, to see whether it had in any degree abated, and was constantly doomed to disappointment. Instead of diminishing, it increased in violence, and it was now impossible to quit the house with safety. The lightning blazed, the thunder rattled among the overhanging rocks, and the swollen stream of Pendle Water roared at their feet. Blackadder was left under the care of the two Alsatians, but while they had shielded their eyes from the glare of the lightning, he threw open the window, and, springing through it, made good his retreat. In such a storm it was in vain to follow him, even if they had dared to attempt it.
In vain Sir Thomas Metcalfe fumed and fretted—in vain he heaped curses upon the bullies for their negligence—in vain he hurled menaces after the fugitive: the former paid little heed to his imprecations, and the latter was beyond his reach. The notion began to gain ground amongst the rest of the troop that the storm was the work of witchcraft, and occasioned general consternation. Even the knight's anger yielded to superstitious fear, and as a terrific explosion shook the rafters overhead, and threatened to bring them down upon him, he fell on his knees, and essayed, with unaccustomed lips, to murmur a prayer. But he was interrupted; for amid the deep silence succeeding the awful crash, a mocking laugh was heard, and the villainous countenance of Blackadder, rendered doubly hideous by the white lightning, was seen at the casement. The sight restored Sir Thomas at once. Drawing his sword he flew to the window, but before he could reach it Blackadder was gone. The next flash showed what had befallen him. In stepping backwards, he tumbled into the mill-race; and the current, increased in depth and force by the deluging rain, instantly swept him away.
Half an hour after this, the violence of the storm had perceptibly diminished, and Sir Thomas and his companions began to hope that their speedy release was at hand. Latterly the knight had abandoned all idea of attacking Rough Lee, but with the prospect of fair weather his courage returned, and he once more resolved to attempt it. He was moving about among his followers, striving to dispel their fears, and persuade them that the tempest was only the result of natural causes, when the door was suddenly thrown open, giving entrance to Bess Whitaker, who bore the miller in her arms. She stared on seeing the party assembled, and knit her brows, but said nothing till she had deposited Baldwyn in a seat, when she observed to Sir Thomas, that he seemed to have little scruple in taking possession of a house in its owner's absence. The knight excused himself for the intrusion by saying, he had been compelled by the storm to take refuge there with his followers—a plea readily admitted by Baldwyn, who was now able to speak for himself; and the miller next explained that he had been to Rough Lee, and after many perilous adventures, into the particulars of which he did not enter, had been brought away by Bess, who had carried him home. That home he now felt would be a lonely and insecure one unless she would consent to occupy it with him; and Bess, on being thus appealed to, affirmed that the only motive that would induce her to consent to such an arrangement would be her desire to protect him from his mischievous neighbours. While they were thus discoursing, Old Mitton, who it appeared had followed them, arrived wellnigh exhausted, and Baldwyn went in search of some refreshment for him.
By this time the storm had sufficiently cleared off to allow the others to take their departure; and though the miller and Bess would fain have dissuaded the knight from the enterprise, he was not to be turned aside, but, bidding his men attend him, set forth. The rain had ceased, but it was still very dark. Under cover of the gloom, however, they thought they could approach the house unobserved, and obtain an entrance before Mistress Nutter could be aware of their arrival. In this expectation they pursued their way in silence, and soon stood before the gates. These were fastened, but as no one appeared to be on the watch, Sir Thomas, in a low tone, ordered some of his men to scale the walls, with the intention of following himself; but scarcely had a head risen above the level of the brickwork than the flash of an arquebuss was seen, and the man jumped backwards, luckily just in time to avoid the bullet that whistled over him. An alarm was then instantly given, voices were heard in the garden, mingled with the furious barking of hounds. A bell was rung from the upper part of the house, and lights appeared at the windows.
Meanwhile, some of the men, less alarmed than their comrade, contrived to scramble over the wall, and were soon engaged hand to hand with those on the opposite side. But not alone had they to contend with adversaries like themselves. The stag-hounds, which had done so much execution during the first attack upon the house by Roger Nowell, raged amongst them like so many lions, rending their limbs, and seizing their throats. To free themselves from these formidable antagonists was their first business, and by dint of thrust from pike, cut from sword, and ball from caliver, they succeeded in slaughtering two of them, and driving the others, badly wounded, and savagely howling, away. In doing this, however, they themselves had sustained considerable injury. Three of their number were lying on the ground, in no condition, from their broken heads, or shattered limbs, for renewing the combat.
Thus, so far as the siege had gone, success seemed to declare itself rather for the defenders than the assailants, when a new impulse was given to the latter, by the bursting open of the gates, and the sudden influx of Sir Thomas Metcalfe and the rest of his troop. The knight was closely followed by the Alsatian captains, who, with tremendous oaths in their mouths, and slashing blades in their hands, declared they would make minced meat of any one opposing their progress. Sir Thomas was equally truculent in expression and ferocious in tone, and as the whole party laid about them right and left, they speedily routed the defenders of the garden, and drove them towards the house. Flushed by their success, the besiegers shouted loudly, and Sir Thomas roared out, that ere many minutes Nowell and Potts should be set free, and Alice Nutter captured. But before he could reach the main door, Nicholas Assheton, well armed, and attended by some dozen men, presented himself at it. These were instantly joined by the retreating party, and the whole offered a formidable array of opponents, quite sufficient to check the progress of the besiegers. Two or three of the men near Nicholas carried torches, and their light revealed the numbers on both sides.
"What! is it you, Sir Thomas Metcalfe?" cried the squire. "Do you commit such outrages as this—do you break into habitations like a robber, rifle them, and murder their inmates? Explain yourself, sir, or I will treat you as I would a common plunderer; shoot you through the head, or hang you to the first tree if I take you."
"Zounds and fury!" rejoined Metcalfe. "Do you dare to liken me to a common robber and murderer? Take care you do not experience the same fate as that with which you threaten me, with this difference only, that the hangman—the common hangman of Lancaster—shall serve your turn. I am come hither to arrest a notorious witch, and to release two gentlemen who are unlawfully detained prisoners by her; and if you do not instantly deliver her up to me, and produce the two individuals in question, Master Roger Nowell and Master Potts, I will force my way into the house, and all injury done to those who oppose me will rest on your head."
"The two gentlemen you have named are perfectly safe and contented in their quarters," replied Nicholas; "and as to the foul and false aspersions you have thrown out against Mistress Nutter, I cast them back in your teeth. Your purpose in coming hither is to redress some private wrong. How is it you have such a rout with you? How is it I behold two notorious bravos by your side—men who have stood in the pillory, and undergone other ignominious punishment for their offences? You cannot answer, and their oaths and threats go for nothing. I now tell you, Sir Thomas, if you do not instantly withdraw your men, and quit these premises, grievous consequences will ensue to you and them."
"I will hear no more," cried Sir Thomas, infuriated to the last degree. "Follow me into the house, and spare none who oppose you."
"You are not in yet," cried Nicholas.
And as he spoke a row of pikes bristled around him, holding the knight at bay, while a hook was fixed in the doublet of each of the Alsatian captains, and they were plucked forward and dragged into the house. This done, Nicholas and his men quickly retreated, and the door was closed and barred upon the enraged and discomfited knight.
CHAPTER XV.—THE PHANTOM MONK.
Many hours had passed by, and night had come on—a night profoundly dark. Richard was still lying where he had fallen at the foot of Malkin Tower; for though he had regained his sensibility, he was so bruised and shaken as to be wholly unable to move. His limbs, stiffened and powerless, refused their office, and, after each unsuccessful effort, he sank back with a groan.
His sole hope was that Mistress Nutter, alarmed by his prolonged absence, might come to her daughter's assistance, and so discover his forlorn situation; but as time flew by, and nothing occurred, he gave himself up for lost.
On a sudden the gloom was dispersed, and a silvery light shed over the scene. The moon had broken through a rack of clouds, and illumined the tall mysterious tower, and the dreary waste around it. With the light a ghostly figure near him became visible to Richard, which under other circumstances would have excited terror in his breast, but which now only filled him with wonder. It was that of a Cistertian monk; the vestments were old and faded, the visage white and corpse-like. Richard at once recognised the phantom he had seen in the banquet-hall at the Abbey, and had afterwards so rashly followed to the conventual church. It touched him with its icy fingers, and a dullness like death shot through his heart.
"Why dost thou trouble me thus, unhappy spirit?" said the young man. "Leave me, I adjure thee, and let me die in peace!"
"Thou wilt not die yet, Richard Assheton," returned the phantom; "and my intention is not to trouble thee, but to serve thee. Without my aid thou wouldst perish where thou liest, but I will raise thee up, and set thee on thy way."
"Wilt thou help me to liberate Alizon?" demanded Richard.
"Do not concern thyself further about her," replied the phantom; "she must pass through an ordeal with which nothing human may interfere. If she escape it you will meet again. If not, it were better thou shouldst be in thy grave than see her. Take this phial. Drink thou the liquid it contains, and thy strength will return to thee."
"How do I know thou art not sent hither by Mother Demdike to tempt me?" demanded Richard, doubtfully. "I have already fallen into her snares," he added, with a groan.
"I am Mother Demdike's enemy, and the appointed instrument of her punishment," replied the monk, in a tone that did not admit of question. "Drink, and fear nothing."
Richard obeyed, and the next moment sprang to his feet.
"Thou hast indeed restored me!" he cried. "I would fain reach the secret entrance to the tower."
"Attempt it not, I charge thee!" cried the phantom; "but depart instantly for Pendle Hill."
"Wherefore should I go thither?" demanded Richard.
"Thou wilt learn anon," returned the monk. "I cannot tell thee more now. Dismount at the foot of the hill, and proceed to the beacon. Thou know'st it?"
"I do," replied Richard. "There a fire was lighted which was meant to set all England in a blaze."
"And which led many good men to destruction," said the monk, in a tone of indescribable sadness. "Alas! for him who kindled it. The offence is not yet worked out. But depart without more delay; and look not back."
As Richard hastened towards the spot where he had left Merlin, he fancied he was followed by the phantom; but, obedient to the injunction he received, he did not turn his head. As he mounted the horse, who neighed cheerily as he drew near, he found he was right in supposing the monk to be behind him, for he heard his voice calling out, "Linger not by the way. To the beacon!—to the beacon!"
Thus exhorted, the young man dashed off, and, to his great surprise, found Merlin as fresh as if he had undergone no fatigue during the day. It would almost seem, from his spirit, that he had partaken of the same wondrous elixir which had revived his master. Down the hill he plunged, regardless of the steep descent, and soon entered the thicket where the storm had fallen upon them, and where so many acts of witchcraft were performed. Now, neither accident nor obstacle occurred to check the headlong pace of the animal, though the stones rattled after him as he struck them with his flying hoof. The moonlight quivered on the branches of the trees, and on the tender spray, and all looked as tranquil and beautiful as it had so lately been gloomy and disturbed. The wood was passed, and the last and steepest descent cleared. The little bridge was at hand, and beneath was Pendle Water, rushing over its rocky bed, and glittering like silver in the moon's rays. But here Richard had wellnigh received a check. A party of armed men, it proved, occupied the road leading to Rough Lee, about a bow-shot from the bridge, and as soon as they perceived he was taking the opposite course, with the apparent intention of avoiding them, they shouted to him to stay. This shout made Richard aware of their presence, for he had not before observed them, as they were concealed by the intervention of some small trees; but though surprised at the circumstance, and not without apprehension that they might be there with a hostile design to Mistress Nutter, he did not slacken his pace. A horseman, who appeared to be their leader, rode after him for a short distance, but finding pursuit futile, he desisted, pouring forth a volley of oaths and threats, in a voice that proclaimed him as Sir Thomas Metcalfe. This discovery confirmed Richard in his supposition that mischief was intended Mistress Nutter; but even this conviction, strengthened by his antipathy to Metcalfe, was not sufficiently strong to induce him to stop. Promising himself to return on the morrow, and settle accounts with the insolent knight, he speeded on, and, passing the mill, tracked the rocky gorge above it, and began to mount another hill. Despite the ascent, Merlin never slackened his pace, but, though his master would have restrained him, held on as before. But the brow of the hill attained, Richard compelled him to a brief halt.
By this time the sky was comparatively clear, but small clouds were sailing across the heavens, and at one moment the moon would be obscured by them, and the next, burst forth with sudden effulgence. These alternations produced corresponding effects on the broad, brown, heathy plain extending below, and fantastic shadows were cast upon it, which it needed not Richard's heated imagination to liken to evil beings flying past. The wind, too, lay in the direction of the north end of Pendle Hill, whither Richard was about to shape his course, and the shadows consequently trooped off towards that quarter. The vast mass of Pendle rose in gloomy majesty before him, being thrown into shade, except at its crown, where a flood of radiance rested.
Like an eagle swooping upon his prey, Richard descended into the valley, and like a stag pursued by the huntsman he speeded across it. Neither dyke, morass, nor stone wall checked him, or made him turn aside; and almost as fast as the clouds hurrying above him, and their shadows travelling at his feet, did he reach the base of Pendle Hill.
Making up to a shed, which, though empty, luckily contained a wisp or two of hay, he turned Merlin into it, and commenced the ascent of the hill on foot. After attaining a considerable elevation, he looked down from the giddy heights upon the valley he had just traversed. A few huts, forming the little village of Barley, lay sleeping in the moonlight beneath him, while further off could be just discerned Goldshaw, with its embowered church. A line of thin vapour marked the course of Pendle Water, and thicker mists hovered over the mosses. The shadows were still passing over the plain.
Pressing on, Richard soon came among the rocks protruding from the higher part of the hill, and as the path was here not more than a foot wide, rarely taken except by the sheep and their guardians, it was necessary to proceed with the utmost caution, as a single false step would have been fatal. After some toil, and not without considerable risk, he reached the summit of the hill.
As he bounded over the springy turf, and inhaled the pure air of that exalted region, his spirits revived, and new elasticity was communicated to his limbs. He shaped his course near the edge of the hill, so that the extensive view it commanded was fully displayed. But his eye rested on the mountainous range on the opposite side of the valley, where Malkin Tower was situated. Even in broad day the accursed structure would have been invisible, as it stood on the further side of the hill, overlooking Barrowford and Colne; but Richard knew its position well, and while his gaze was fixed upon the point, he saw a star shoot down from the heavens and apparently alight near the spot. The circumstance alarmed him, for he could not help thinking it ominous of ill to Alizon.
Nothing, however, followed to increase his misgivings, and erelong he came in sight of the beacon. The ground had been gradually rising, and if he had proceeded a few hundred yards further, a vast panorama would have opened upon him, comprising a large part of Lancashire on the one hand, and on the other an equally extensive portion of Yorkshire. Forest and fell, black moor and bright stream, old castle and stately hall, would have then been laid before him as in a map. But other thoughts engrossed him, and he went straight on. As far as he could discern he was alone on the hill top; and the silence and solitude, coupled with the ill report of the place, which at this hour was said to be often visited by foul hags, for the performance of their unhallowed rites, awakened superstitious fears in his breast.
He was soon by the side of the beacon. The stones were still standing as they had been reared by Paslew, and on looking at them he was astonished to find the hollow within them filled with dry furze, brushwood, and fagots, as if in readiness for another signal. In passing round the circle, his surprise was still further increased by discovering a torch, and not far from it, in one of the interstices of the stones, a dark lantern, in which, on removing the shade, he found a candle burning. It was now clear the beacon was to be kindled that night, though for what end he could not conjecture, and equally clear that he was brought thither to fire it. He put back the lantern into its place, took up the torch, and held himself in readiness.
Half an hour elapsed, and nothing occurred. During this interval it had become dark. A curtain of clouds was drawn over the moon and stars.
Suddenly, a hurtling noise was heard in the air, and it seemed to the watcher as if a troop of witches were alighting at a distance from him.
A loud hubbub of voices ensued—then there was a trampling of feet, accompanied by discordant strains of music—after which a momentary silence ensued, and a harsh voice asked—
"Why are we brought hither?"
"It is not for a sabbath," shouted another voice, "for there is neither fire nor caldron."
"Mother Demdike would not summon us without good reason," cried a third. "We shall learn presently what we have to do."
"The more mischief the better," rejoined another voice.
"Ay, mischief! mischief! mischief!" echoed the rest of the crew.
"You shall have enough of it to content you," rejoined Mother Demdike. "I have called you hither to be present at a sacrifice."
Hideous screams of laughter followed this announcement, and the voice that had spoken first asked—
"A sacrifice of whom?"
"An unbaptised babe, stolen from its sleeping mother's breast," rejoined another. "Mother Demdike has often played that trick before—ho! ho!"
"Peace!" thundered the hag—"It is no babe I am about to kill, but a full-grown maid—ay, and one of rarest beauty, too. What think ye of Alizon Device?"
"Thy grand-daughter!" cried several voices, in surprise.
"Alice Nutter's daughter—for such she is," rejoined the hag. "I have held her captive in Malkin Tower, and have subjected her to every trial and temptation I could devise, but I have failed in shaking her courage, or in winning her over to our master. All the horrors of the vault have been tried upon her in vain. Even the last terrible ordeal, which no one has hitherto sustained, proved ineffectual. She went through it unmoved."
"Heaven be praised!" murmured Richard.
"It seems I have no power over her soul" pursued the hag; "but I have over her body, and she shall die here, and by my hand. But mind me, not a drop of blood must fall to the ground."
"Have no fear," cried several voices, "we will catch it in our palms and quaff it."
"Hast thou thy knife, Mould-heels?" asked Mother Demdike.
"Ay," replied the other, "it is long and sharp, and will do thy business well. Thy grandson, Jem Device, notched it by killing swine, and my goodman ground it only yesterday. Take it."
"I will plunge it to her heart!" cried Mother Demdike, with an infernal laugh. "And now I will tell you why we have neither fire nor caldron. On questioning the ebon image in the vault as to the place where the sacrifice should be made, I received for answer that it must be here, and in darkness. No human eye but our own must behold it. We are safe on this score, for no one is likely to come hither at this hour. No fire must be kindled, or the sacrifice will result in destruction to us all. Ye have heard, and understand?"
"We do," replied several husky voices.
"And so do I," said Richard, taking hold of the dark lantern.
"And now for the girl," cried Mother Demdike.
CHAPTER XVI.—ONE O'CLOCK!
Mistress Nutter and Mother Chattox were still at the hut, impatiently awaiting the return of Fancy. But nearly an hour elapsed before he appeared.
"What has detained thee so long?" demanded the hag, sharply, as he stood before them.
"You shall hear, mistress," replied Fancy: "I have had a busy time of it, I assure you, and thought I should never accomplish my errand. On arriving at Rough Lee, I found the place invested by Sir Thomas Metcalfe and a host of armed men, who had been sent thither by Parson Holden, for the joint purpose of arresting you, madam," addressing Mistress Nutter, "and liberating Nowell and Potts. The knight was in a great fume; for, in spite of the force brought against it, the house had been stoutly defended by Nicholas Assheton, who had worsted the besieging party, and captured two Alsatian captains, hangers on of Sir Thomas. Appearing in the character of an enemy, I was immediately surrounded by Metcalfe and his men, who swore they would cut my throat unless I undertook to procure the liberation of the two bravos in question, as well as that of Nowell and Potts. I told them I was come for the express purpose of setting free the two last-named gentlemen; but, with respect to the former, I had no instructions, and they must arrange the matter with Master Nicholas himself. Upon this Sir Thomas became exceedingly wroth and insolent, and proceeded to such lengths that I resolved to chastise him, and in so doing performed a feat which will tend greatly to exalt Richard's character for courage and strength."
"Let us hear it, my doughty champion," cried Mother Chattox.
"While Metcalfe was pouring forth his rage, and menacing me with uplifted hand," pursued the familiar, "I seized him by the throat, dragged him from his horse, and in spite of the efforts of his men, whose blows fell upon me thick as hail, and quite as harmlessly, I bore him through the garden to the back of the house, where my shouts soon brought Nicholas and others to my assistance, and after delivering my captive to them, I dismounted. The squire, you will imagine, was astonished to see me, and greatly applauded my prowess. I replied, with the modesty becoming my assumed character, that I had done nothing, and, in reality, the feat was nothing to me; but I told him I had something of the utmost importance to communicate, and which could not be delayed a moment; whereupon he led me to a small room adjoining the hall, while the crestfallen knight was left to vent his rage and mortification on the grooms to whose custody he was committed."
"You acted your part to perfection," said Mistress Nutter.
"Ay, trust my sweet Fancy for that," said the hag—"there is no familiar like him—none whatever."
"Your praises make me blush," rejoined Fancy. "But to proceed. I fulfilled your instructions to the letter, and excited Nicholas's horror and indignation by the tale I told him. I laughed in my sleeve all the while, but I maintained a very different countenance with him. He thought me full of anguish and despair. He questioned me as to my proceedings at Malkin Tower, and I amazed him with the description of a fearful storm I had encountered—of my interview with old Demdike, and her atrocious treatment of Alizon—to all of which he listened with profound interest. Richard himself could not have moved him more—perhaps not so much. As soon as I had finished, he vowed he would rescue Alizon from the murtherous hag, and prevent the latter from committing further mischief; and bidding me come with him, we repaired to the room in which Nowell and Potts were confined. We found them both fast asleep in their chairs; but Nicholas quickly awakened them, and some explanations ensued, which did not at first appear very clear and satisfactory to either magistrate or attorney, but in the end they agreed to accompany us on the expedition, Master Potts declaring it would compensate him for all his mischances if he could arrest Mother Demdike."
"I hope he may have his wish," said Mother Chattox.
"Ay, but he declared that his next step should be to arrest you, mistress," observed Fancy, with a laugh.
"Arrest me!" cried the hag. "Marry, let him touch me, if he dares. My term is not out yet, and, with thee to defend me, my brave Fancy, I have no fear."
"Right!" replied the familiar; "but to go on with my story. Sir Thomas Metcalfe was next brought forward; and after some warm altercation, peace was at length established between him and the squire, and hands were shaken all round. Wine was then called for by Nicholas, who, at the same time, directed that the two Alsatian captains should be brought up from the cellar, where they had been placed for safety. The first part of the order was obeyed, but the second was found impracticable, inasmuch as the two heroes had found their way to the inner cellar, and had emptied so many flasks that they were utterly incapable of moving. While the wine was being discussed, an unexpected arrival took place."
"An arrival!—of whom?" inquired Mistress Nutter, eagerly.
"Sir Ralph Assheton and a large party," replied Fancy. "Parson Holden, it seems, not content with sending Sir Thomas and his rout to the aid of his friends, had proceeded for the same purpose to Whalley, and the result was the appearance of the new party. A brief explanation from Nicholas and myself served to put Sir Ralph in possession of all that had occurred, and he declared his readiness to accompany the expedition to Pendle Hill, and to take all his followers with him. Sir Thomas Metcalfe expressed an equally strong desire to go with him, and of course it was acceded to. I am bound to tell you, madam," added Fancy to Mistress Nutter, "that your conduct is viewed in a most suspicious light by every one of these persons, except Nicholas, who made an effort to defend you."
"I care not what happens to me, if I succeed in rescuing my child," said the lady. "But have they set out on the expedition?"
"By this time, no doubt they have," replied Fancy. "I got off by saying I would ride on to Pendle Hill, and, stationing myself on its summit, give them a signal when they should advance upon their prey. And now, good mistress, I pray you dismiss me. I want to cast off this shape, which I find an incumbrance, and resume my own. I will return when it is time for you to set out."
The hag waved her hand, and the familiar was gone.
Half an hour elapsed, and he returned not. Mistress Nutter became fearfully impatient. Three-quarters, and even the old hag was uneasy. An hour, and he stood before them—dwarfish, fiendish, monstrous.
"It is time," he said, in a harsh voice; but the tones were music in the wretched mother's ears.
"Come, then," she cried, rushing wildly forth.
"Ay, ay, I come," replied the hag, following her. "Not so fast. You cannot go without me."
"Nor either of you without me," added Fancy. "Here, good mistress, is your broomstick."
"Away for Pendle Hill!" screamed the hag.
"Ay, for Pendle Hill!" echoed Fancy.
And there was a whirling of dark figures through the air as before.
Presently they alighted on the summit of Pendle Hill, which seemed to be wrapped in a dense cloud, for Mistress Nutter could scarcely see a yard before her. Fancy's eyes, however, were powerful enough to penetrate the gloom, for stepping back a few yards, he said—
"The expedition is at the foot of the hill, where they have made a halt. We must wait a few moments, till I can ascertain what they mean to do. Ah! I see. They are dividing into three parties. One detachment, headed by Nicholas Assheton, with whom are Potts and Nowell, is about to make the ascent from the spot where they now stand; another, commanded by Sir Ralph Assheton, is moving towards the but-end of the hill; and the third, headed by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, is proceeding to the right. These are goodly preparations—ha! ha! But, what do I behold? The first detachment have a prisoner with them. It is Jem Device, whom they have captured on the way, I suppose. I can tell from the rascal's looks that he is planning an escape. Patience, madam, I must see how he executes his design. There is no hurry. They are all scrambling up the hill-sides. Some one slips, and rolls down, and bruises himself severely against the loose stones. Ho! ho! it is Master Potts. He is picked up by James Device, who takes him on his shoulders. What means the knave by such attention? We shall see anon. They continue to fight their way upward, and have now reached the narrow path among the rocks. Take heed, or your necks will be broken. Ho! ho! Well done, Jem,—bravo! lad. Thy scheme is out now—ho! ho!"
"What has he done?" asked Mother Chattox.
"Run off with the attorney—with Master Potts," replied Fancy; "disappeared in the gloom, so that it is impossible Nicholas can follow him—ho! ho!"
"But my child!—where is my child?" cried Mistress Nutter, in agitated impatience.
"Come with me, and I will lead you to her," replied Fancy, taking her hand; "and do you keep close to us, mistress," he added to Mother Chattox.
Moving quickly along the heathy plain, they soon reached a small dry hollow, about a hundred paces from the beacon, in the midst of which, as in a grave, was deposited the inanimate form of Alizon. When the spot was indicated to her by Fancy, the miserable mother flew to it, and, with indescribable delight, clasped her child to her breast. But the next moment, a new fear seized her, for the limbs were stiff and cold, and the heart had apparently ceased to beat.
"She is dead!" exclaimed Mistress Nutter, frantically.
"No; she is only in a magical trance," said Fancy; "my mistress can instantly revive her."
"Prithee do so, then, good Chattox," implored the lady.
"Better defer it till we have taken her hence," rejoined the hag.
"Oh! no, now—now! Let me be assured she lives!" cried Mistress Nutter.
Mother Chattox reluctantly assented, and, touching Alizon with her skinny finger, first upon the heart and then upon the brow, the poor girl began to show symptoms of life.
"My child—my child!" cried Mistress Nutter, straining her to her breast; "I am come to save thee!"
"You will scarce succeed, if you tarry here longer," said Fancy. "Away!"
"Ay, come away!" shrieked the hag, seizing Alizon's arm.
"Where are you about to take her?" asked Mistress Nutter.
"To my hut," replied Mother Chattox.
"No, no—she shall not go there," returned the lady.
"And wherefore not?" screamed the hag. "She is mine now, and I say she shall go."
"Right, mistress," said Fancy; "and leave the lady here if she objects to accompany her. But be quick."
"You shall not take her from me!" shrieked Mistress Nutter, holding her daughter fast. "I see through your diabolical purpose. You have the same dark design as Mother Demdike, and would sacrifice her; but she shall not go with you, neither will I."
"Tut!" exclaimed the hag, "you have lost your senses on a sudden. I do not want your daughter. But come away, or Mother Demdike will surprise us."
"Do not trifle with her longer," whispered Fancy to the hag; "drag the girl away, or you will lose her. A few moments, and it will be too late."
Mother Chattox made an attempt to obey him, but Mistress Nutter resisted her.
"Curses on her!" she muttered, "she is too strong for me. Do thou help me," she added, appealing to Fancy.
"I cannot," he replied; "I have done all I dare to help you. You must accomplish the rest yourself."
"But, my sweet imp, recollect—"
"I recollect I have a master," interrupted the familiar.
"And a mistress, too," cried the hag; "and she will chastise thee if thou art disobedient. I command thee to carry off this girl."
"I have already told you I dare not, and I now say I will not," replied Fancy.
"Will not!" shrieked the hag. "Thou shalt smart for this. I will bury thee in the heart of this mountain, and make thee labour within it like a gnome. I will set thee to count the sands on the river's bed, and the leaves on the forest trees. Thou shalt know neither rest nor respite."
"Ho! ho! ho!" laughed Fancy, mockingly.
"Dost deride me?" cried the hag. "I will do it, thou saucy jackanapes. For the last time, wilt obey me?"
"No," replied Fancy, "and for this reason—your term is out. It expired at midnight."
"It is false!" shrieked the hag, in accents of mixed terror and rage. "I have months to run, and will renew it."
"Before midnight, you might have done so; but it is now too late—your reign is over," rejoined Fancy. "Farewell, sweet mistress. We shall meet once again, though scarcely under such pleasant circumstances as heretofore."
"It cannot be, my darling Fancy; thou art jesting with me," whimpered the hag; "thou wouldst not delude thy doating mistress thus."
"I have done with thee, foul hag," rejoined the familiar, "and am right glad my service is ended. I could have saved thee, but would not, and delayed my return for that very purpose. Thy soul was forfeited when I came back to thy hut."
"Then curses on thee for thy treachery," cried the hag, "and on thy master, who deceived me in the bond he placed before me."
The familiar laughed hoarsely.
"But what of Mother Demdike?" pursued the hag. "Hast thou no comfort for me? Tell me her hour is likewise come, and I will forgive thee. But do not let her triumph over me."
The familiar made no answer, but, laughing derisively, stamped upon the ground, and it opened to receive him.
"Alizon!" cried Mistress Nutter, who in the mean time had vainly endeavoured to rouse her daughter to full consciousness, "fly with me, my child. The enemy is at hand."
"What enemy?" asked Alizon, faintly. "I have so many, that I know not whom you mean."
"But this is the worst of all—this is Mother Demdike," cried Mistress Nutter. "She would take your life. If we can but conceal ourselves for a short while, we are safe."
"I am too weak to move," said Alizon; "besides, I dare not trust you. I have been deceived already. You may be an evil spirit in the likeness of my mother."
"Oh! no, I am indeed your own—own mother," rejoined Mistress Nutter. "Ask this old woman if it is not so."
"She is a witch herself," replied Alizon. "I will not trust either of you. You are both in league with Mother Demdike."
"We are in league to save thee from her, foolish wench!" cried Mother Chattox, "but thy perverseness will defeat all our schemes."
"Since you will not fly, my child," cried Mistress Nutter, "kneel down, and pray earnestly for deliverance. Pray, while there is yet time."
As she spoke, a growl like thunder was heard in the air, and the earth trembled beneath their feet.
"Nay, now I am sure you are my mother!" cried Alizon, flinging herself into Mistress Nutter's arms; "and I will go with you."
But before they could move, several dusky figures were seen rushing towards them.
"Be on your guard!" cried Mother Chattox; "here comes old Demdike with her troop. I will aid you all I can."
"Down on your knees!" exclaimed Mistress Nutter.
Alizon obeyed, but ere a word could pass her lips, the infuriated hag, attended by her beldame band, stood beside them.
"Ha! who is here?" she cried. "Let me see who dares interrupt my mystic rites."
And raising her hand, the black cloud hanging over the hill was rent asunder, and the moon shone down upon them, revealing the old witch, armed with the sacrificial knife, her limbs shaking with fury, and her eyes flashing with preternatural light. It revealed, also, her weird attendants, as well as the group before her, consisting of the kneeling figure of Alizon, protected by the outstretched arms of her mother, and further defended by Mother Chattox, who planted herself in front of them.
Mother Demdike eyed the group for a moment as if she would, annihilate them.
"Out of my way, Chattox!" she vociferated—"out of my way, or I will drive my knife to thy heart." And as her old antagonist maintained her ground, she unhesitatingly advanced upon her, smote her with the weapon, and, as she fell to the ground, stepped over her bleeding body.
"Now what dost thou here, Alice Nutter?" she cried, menacing her with the reeking blade.
"I am come for my child, whom thou hast stolen from me," replied the lady.
"Thou art come to witness her slaughter," replied the witch, fiercely. "Begone, or I will serve thee as I have just served old Chattox."
"I am not sped yet," cried the wounded hag; "I shall live to see thee bound hand and foot by the officers of justice, and, certain thou wilt perish miserably, I shall die content."
"Spit out thy last drops of venom, black viper," rejoined Mother Demdike; "when I have done with the others, I will return and finish thee. Alice Nutter, thou knowest it is vain to struggle with me. Give me up the girl."
"Wilt thou accept my life for hers?" said Mistress Nutter.
"Of what account would thy life be to me?" rejoined Mother Demdike, disdainfully. "If it would profit me to take it, I would do so without thy consent, but I am about to make an oblation to our master, and thou art his already. Snatch her child from her—we waste time," she added, to her attendants.
And immediately the weird crew rushed forward, and in spite of the miserable mother's efforts tore Alizon from her.
"I told you it was in vain to contend with me," said Mother Demdike.
"Oh, that I could call down heaven's vengeance upon thy accursed head!" cried Mistress Nutter; "but I am forsaken alike of God and man, and shall die despairing."
"Rave on, thou wilt have ample leisure," replied the hag. "And now bring the girl this way," she added to the beldames; "the sacrifice must be made near the beacon."
And as Alizon was borne away, Mistress Nutter uttered a cry of anguish.
"Do not stay here," said Mother Chattox, raising herself with difficulty. "Go after her; you may yet save your daughter."