"But how?" cried Mistress Nutter, distractedly. "I have no power now."
As she spoke a dusky form rose up beside her. It was her familiar.
"Will you return to your duty if I help you in this extremity?" he said.
"Ay, do, do!" cried Mother Chattox. "Anything to avenge yourself upon that murtherous hag."
"Peace!" cried the familiar, spurning her with his cloven foot.
"I do not want vengeance," said Mistress Nutter; "I only want to save my child."
"Then you consent on that condition?" said the familiar.
"No!" replied Mistress Nutter, firmly. "I now perceive I am not utterly lost, since you try to regain me. I have renounced thy master, and will make no new bargain with him. Get hence, tempter!"
"Think not to escape us," cried the familiar; "no penitence—no absolution can save thee. Thy name is written on the judgment scroll, and cannot be effaced. I would have aided thee, but, since my offer is rejected, I leave thee."
"You will not let him go!" screamed Mother Chattox. "Oh that the chance were mine!"
"Be silent, or I will beat thy brains out!" said the familiar. "Once more, am I dismissed?"
"Ay, for ever!" replied Mistress Nutter.
And as the familiar disappeared, she flew to the spot where her child had been taken.
About twenty paces from the beacon, a circle had again been formed by the unhallowed crew, in the midst of which stood Mother Demdike, with the gory knife in her hand, muttering spells and incantations, and performing mystical ceremonials.
Every now and then her companions joined in these rites, and chanted a song couched in a wild, unintelligible jargon. Beside the witch knelt Alizon, with her hands tied behind her back, so that she could not raise them in supplication; her hair unbound, and cast loosely over her person, and a thick bandage fastened over her eyes and mouth.
The initiatory ceremonies over, the old hag approached her victim, when Mistress Nutter forced herself through the circle, and cast herself at her feet.
"Spare her!" she cried, clinging to her knees; "it shall be well for thee if thou dost so."
"Again interrupted!" cried the witch, furiously. "This time I will show thee no mercy. Take thy fate, meddlesome woman!"
And she raised the knife, but ere the weapon could descend, it was seized by Mistress Nutter, and wrested from her grasp. In another instant, Alizon's arms were liberated, and the bandage removed from her eyes.
"Now it is my turn to threaten. I have thee in my power, infernal hag!" cried Mistress Nutter, holding the knife to the witch's throat, and clasping her daughter with the other arm. "Wilt let us go?"
"No!" replied Mother Demdike, springing nimbly backwards. "You shall both die. I will soon disarm thee."
And making one or two passes with her hands, Mistress Nutter dropped the weapon, and instantly became fixed and motionless, with her daughter, equally rigid, in her arms. They looked as if suddenly turned to marble.
"Now to complete the ceremonial," cried Mother Demdike, picking up the knife.
And then she began to mutter an impious address preparatory to the sacrifice, when a loud clangour was heard like the stroke of a hammer upon a bell.
"What was that?" exclaimed the witch, in alarm.
"Were there a clock here, I should say it had struck one," replied Mould-heels.
"It must be our master's timepiece," said another witch.
"One o'clock!" exclaimed Mother Demdike, who appeared stupefied with fear, "and the sacrifice not made—then I am lost!"
A derisive laugh reached her ears. It proceeded from Mother Chattox, who had contrived to raise herself to her feet, and, tottering forward, now passed through the appalled circle.
"Ay, thy term is out—thy soul is forfeited like mine—ha! ha!" And she fell to the ground.
"Perhaps it may not be too late," cried Mother Demdike, grasping the knife, and rushing towards Alizon.
But at this moment a bright flame shot up from the beacon.
Astonishment and terror seized the hag, and she uttered a loud cry, which was echoed by the rest of the crew.
The flame mounted higher and higher, and burnt each moment more brightly, illumining the whole summit of the hill. By its light could be seen a band of men, some of whom were on horseback, speeding towards the place of meeting.
Scared by the sight, the witches fled, but were turned by another band advancing from the opposite quarter. They then made towards the spot where their broomsticks were deposited, but ere they could reach it, a third party gained the summit of the hill at this precise point, and immediately started in pursuit of them.
Meanwhile, a young man issuing from behind the beacon, flew towards Mistress Nutter and her daughter. The moment the flame burst forth, the spell cast over them by Mother Demdike was broken, and motion and speech restored.
"Alizon!" exclaimed the young man, as he came up, "your trials are over. You are safe."
"Oh, Richard!" she replied, falling into his arms, "have we been preserved by you?"
"I am a mere instrument in the hands of Heaven," he replied.
Mother Demdike made no attempt at flight with the rest of the witches, but remained for a few moments absorbed in contemplation of the flaming beacon. Her hand still grasped the murderous weapon she had raised against Alizon, but it had dropped to her side when the fire burst forth. At length she turned fiercely to Richard, and demanded—
"Was it thou who kindled the beacon?"
"It was!" replied the young man.
"And who bade thee do it—who brought thee hither?" pursued the witch.
"An enemy of thine, old woman!" replied Richard, "His vengeance has been slow in coming, but it has arrived at last."
"But who is he? I see him not!" rejoined Mother Demdike.
"You will see him before yon flame expires," said Richard. "I should have come to your assistance sooner, Alizon," he continued, turning to her, "but I was forbidden. And I knew I should best ensure your safety by compliance with the injunctions I had received."
"Some guardian spirit must have interposed to preserve us," replied Alizon; "for such only could have successfully combated with the evil beings from whom we have been delivered."
"Thy spirit is unable to preserve thee now!" cried Mother Demdike, aiming a deadly blow at her with the knife. But, fortunately, the attempt was foreseen by Richard, who caught her arm, and wrested the weapon from her.
"Curses on thee, Richard Assheton!" cried the infuriated hag,—"and on thee too, Alizon Device, I cannot work ye the immediate ill I wish. I cannot make ye loathsome in one another's eyes. I cannot maim your limbs, or blight your beauty. I cannot deliver you over to devilish possession. But I can bequeath you a legacy of hate. What I say will come to pass. Thou, Alizon, wilt never wed Richard Assheton—never! Vainly shall ye struggle with your destiny—vainly indulge hopes of happiness. Misery and despair, and an early grave, are in store for both of you. He shall be to you your worst enemy, and you shall be to him destruction. Think of the witch's prediction and tremble, and may her deadliest curse rest upon your heads."
"Oh, Richard!" exclaimed Alizon, who would have sunk to the ground if he had not sustained her. "Why did you not prevent this terrible malediction?"
"He could not," replied Mother Demdike, with a laugh of exultation; "it shall work, and thy doom shall be accomplished. And now to make an end of old Chattox, and then they may take me where they please."
And she was approaching her old enemy with the intention of putting her threat into execution, when James Device, who appeared to start from the ground, rushed swiftly towards her.
"What art thou doing here, Jem?" cried the hag, regarding him with angry surprise. "Dost thou not see we are surrounded by enemies. I cannot escape them—but thou art young and active. Away with thee!"
"Not without yo, granny," replied Jem. "Ey ha' run os fast os ey could to help yo. Stick fast howld on me," he added, snatching her up in his arms, "an ey'n bring yo clear off yet."
And he set off at a rapid pace with his burthen, Richard being too much occupied with Alizon to oppose him.
CHAPTER XVII.—HOW THE BEACON FIRE WAS EXTINGUISHED.
Soon after this, Nicholas Assheton, attended by two or three men, came up, and asked whither the old witch had flown.
Mistress Nutter pointed out the course taken by the fugitive, who had run towards the northern extremity of the hill, down the sides of which he had already plunged.
"She has been carried off by her grandson, Jem Device," said Mistress Nutter; "be quick, or you will lose her."
"Ay, be quick—be quick!" added Mother Chattox. "Yonder they went, to the back of the beacon."
Casting a look at the wretched speaker, and finding she was too grievously wounded to be able to move, Nicholas bestowed no further thought upon her, but set off with his companions in the direction pointed out. He speedily arrived at the edge of the hill, and, looking down it, sought in vain for any appearance of the fugitives. The sides were here steep and shelving, and some hundred yards lower down were broken into ridges, behind one of which it was possible the old witch and her grandson might be concealed; so, without a moment's hesitation, the squire descended, and began to search about in the hollows, scrambling over the loose stones, or sliding down for some paces with the uncertain boggy soil, when he fancied he heard a plaintive cry. He looked around, but could see no one. The whole side of the mountain was lighted up by the fire from the beacon, which, instead of diminishing, burnt with increased ardour, so that every object was as easily to be discerned as in the day-time; but, notwithstanding this, he could not detect whence the sound proceeded. It was repeated, but more faintly than before, and Nicholas almost persuaded himself it was the voice of Potts calling for help. Motioning to his followers, who were engaged in the search like himself, to keep still, the squire listened intently, and again caught the sound, being this time convinced it arose from the ground. Was it possible the unfortunate attorney had been buried alive? Or had he been thrust into some hole, and a stone placed over it, which he found it impossible to remove? The latter idea seemed the more probable, and Nicholas was guided by a feeble repetition of the noise towards a large fragment of rock, which, on examination, had evidently been rolled from a point immediately over the mouth of a hollow. The squire instantly set himself to work to dislodge the ponderous stone, and, aided by two of his men, who lent their broad shoulders to the task, quickly accomplished his object, disclosing what appeared to be the mouth of a cavernous recess. From out of this, as soon as the stone was removed, popped the head of Master Potts, and Nicholas, bidding him be of good cheer, laid hold of him to draw him forth, as he seemed to have some difficulty in extricating himself, when the attorney cried out—
"Do not pull so hard, squire! That accursed Jem Device has got hold of my legs. Not so hard, sir, I entreat."
"Bid him let go," said Nicholas, unable to refrain from laughing, "or we will unearth him from his badger's hole."
"He pays no heed to what I say to him," cried Potts. "Oh, dear! oh, dear! he is dragging me down again!"
And, as he spoke, the attorney, notwithstanding all Nicholas's efforts to restrain him, was pulled down into the hole. The squire was at a loss what to do, and was considering whether he should resort to the tedious process of digging him out, when a scrambling noise was heard, and the captive's head once more appeared above ground.
"Are you coming out now?" asked Nicholas.
"Alas, no!" replied the attorney, "unless you will make terms with the rascal. He declares he will strangle me, if you do not promise to set him and his grandmother free."
"Is Mother Demdike with him?" asked Nicholas.
"To be sure," replied Potts; "and we are as badly off for room as three foxes in a hole."
"And there is no other outlet said the squire?"
"I conclude not," replied the attorney. "I groped about like a mole when I was first thrust into the cavern by Jem Device, but I could find no means of exit. The entrance was blocked up by the great stone which you had some difficulty in moving, but which Jem could shift at will; for he pushed it aside in a moment, and brought it back to its place, when he returned just now with the old hag; but probably that was effected by witchcraft."
"Most likely," said Nicholas, "But for your being in it, we would stop up this hole, and bury the two wretches alive."
"Get me out first, good Master Nicholas, I implore of you, and then do what you please," cried Potts. "Jem is tugging at my legs as if he would pull them off."
"We will try who is strongest," said Nicholas, again seizing hold of Potts by the shoulders.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! I can't bear it—let go!" shrieked the attorney. "I shall be stretched to twice my natural length. My joints are starting from their sockets, my legs are coming off—oh! oh!"
"Lend a hand here, one of you," cried Nicholas to the men; "we'll have him out, whatever be the consequence."
"But I won't come!" roared Potts. "You have no right to use me thus. Torture! oh! oh! my loins are ruptured—my back is breaking—I am a dead man.—The hag has got hold of my right leg, while Jem is tugging with all his force at the left."
"Pull away!" cried Nicholas; "he is coming."
"My legs are off," yelled Potts, as he was plucked suddenly forth, with a jerk that threw the squire and his assistants on their backs. "I shall never be able to walk more. No, Heaven be praised!" he added, looking down on his lower limbs, "I have only lost my boots."
"Never mind it, then," cried Nicholas; "but thank your stars you are above ground once more. Hark'ee, Jem!" he continued, shouting down the hole; "If you don't come forth at once, and bring Mother Demdike with you, we'll close up the mouth of this hole in such a way that you sha'n't require another grave. D'ye hear?"
"Yeigh," replied Jem, his voice coming hoarsely and hollowly up like the accents of a ghost. "Am ey to go free if ey comply?"
"Certainly not," replied the squire. "You have a choice between this hole and the hangman's cord at Lancaster, that is all. In either case you will die by suffocation. But be quick—we have wasted time enough already with you."
"Then if that's aw yo'll do fo' me, squire, eyn e'en stay wheere ey am," rejoined Jem.
"Very well," replied Nicholas. "Here, my man, stop up this hole with earth and stones. Master Potts, you will lend a hand to the task."
"Readily, sir," replied the attorney, "though I shall lose the pleasure I had anticipated of seeing that old carrion crow roasted alive."
"Stay a bit, squoire," roared Jem, as preparations were actively made for carrying Nicholas's orders into execution. "Stay a bit, an ey'n cum owt, an bring t' owd woman wi' me."
"I thought you'd change your mind," replied Nicholas, laughing. "Be upon your guard," he added, in a low tone to the others, "and seize him the moment he appears."
But Jem evidently found it no easy matter to perform his promise, for stifled shrieks and other noises proclaimed that a desperate struggle was going on between him and his grandmother.
"Aha!" exclaimed Nicholas, placing his ear to the hole. "The old hag is unwilling to come forth, and spits and scratches like a cat-a-mountain, while Jem gripes her like a terrier. It is a hard tussle between them, but he is getting the better of it, and is pushing her forth. Now look out."
And as he spoke, Mother Demdike's terrible head protruded from the ground, and, despite of the execrations she poured forth upon her enemies, she was instantly seized by them, drawn out of the cavern, and secured. While the men were thus engaged, and while Nicholas's attention was for an instant diverted, Jem bounded forth as suddenly as a wolf from his lair, and, dashing aside all opposition, plunged down the hill.
"It is useless to pursue him," said Nicholas. "He will not escape. The whole country will be roused by the beacon fire, and hue and cry shall be made after him."
"Right!" exclaimed Potts; "and now let some one creep into that cavern, and bring out my boots, and then I shall be in a better condition to attend you."
The request being complied with, and the attorney being once more equipped for walking, the party climbed the hill-side, and, bringing Mother Demdike with them, shaped their course towards the beacon.
And now to see what had taken place in the interim.
Scarcely had the squire quitted Mistress Nutter than Sir Ralph Assheton rode up to her.
"Why do you loiter here, madam?" he said, in a stern tone, somewhat tempered by sorrow. "I have held back to give you an opportunity of escape. The hill is invested by your enemies. On that side Roger Nowell is advancing, and on this Sir Thomas Metcalfe and his followers. You may possibly effect a retreat in the opposite direction, but not a moment must be lost."
"I will go with you," said Alizon.
"No, no," interposed Richard. "You have not strength for the effort, and will only retard her."
"I thank you for your devotion, my child," said Mistress Nutter, with a look of grateful tenderness; "but it is unneeded. I have no intention of flying. I shall surrender myself into the hands of justice."
"Do not mistake the matter, madam," said Sir Ralph, "and delude yourself with the notion that either your rank or wealth will screen you from punishment. Your guilt is too clearly established to allow you a chance of escape, and, though I myself am acting wrongfully in counselling flight to you, I am led to do so from the friendship once subsisting between us, and the relationship which, unfortunately, I cannot destroy."
"It is you who are mistaken, not I, Sir Ralph," replied Mistress Nutter. "I have no thought of turning aside the sword of justice, but shall court its sharpest edge, hoping by a full avowal of my offences, in some degree to atone for them. My only regret is, that I shall leave my child unprotected, and that my fate will bring dishonour upon her."
"Oh, think not of me, dear mother!" cried Alizon, "but persist unhesitatingly in the course you have laid down. Far rather would I see you act thus—far rather hear the sentiments you have uttered, even though they may be attended by the saddest, consequences, than behold you in your former proud position, and impenitent. Think not of me, then. Or, rather, think only how I rejoice that your eyes are at length opened, and that you have cast off the bonds of iniquity. I can now pray for you with the full hope that my intercessions will prevail, and in parting with you in this world shall be sustained by the conviction that we shall meet in eternal happiness hereafter."
Mistress Nutter threw her arms about her daughter's neck, and they mingled their tears together, Sir Ralph Assheton was much moved.
"It is a pity she should fall into their hands," he observed to Richard.
"I know not how to advise," replied the latter, greatly troubled.
"Ah! it is too late," exclaimed the knight; "here come Nowell and Metcalfe. The poor lady's firmness will be severely tested."
The next moment the magistrate and the knight came up, with such of their attendants as were not engaged in pursuing the witches, several of whom had already been captured. On seeing Mistress Nutter, Sir Thomas Metcalfe sprang from his horse, and would have seized her, but Sir Ralph interposed, saying "She has surrendered herself to me. I will be answerable for her safe custody."
"Your pardon, Sir Ralph," observed Nowell; "the arrest must be formally made, and by a constable. Sparshot, execute your warrant."
Upon this, the official, leaping from his horse, displayed his staff and a piece of parchment to Mistress Nutter, telling her she was his prisoner.
The lady bowed her head.
"Shan ey tee her hands, yer warship?" demanded the constable of the magistrate.
"On no account, fellow," interposed Sir Ralph. "I will have no indignity offered her. I have already said I will be responsible for her."
"You will recollect she is arrested for witchcraft, Sir Ralph," observed Nowell.
"She shall answer to the charges brought against her. I pledge myself to that," replied Sir Ralph.
"And by a full confession," said Mistress Nutter. "You may pledge yourself to that also, Sir Ralph."
"She avows her guilt," cried Nowell. "I take you all to witness it."
"I shall not forget it," said Sir Thomas Metcalfe.
"Nor I—nor I!" cried Sparshot, and two or three others of the attendants.
"This girl is my prisoner," said Sir Thomas Metcalfe, dismounting, and advancing towards Alizon, "She is a witch, as well as the rest."
"It is false," cried Richard! "and if you attempt to lay hands upon her I will strike you to the earth."
"'Sdeath!" exclaimed Metcalfe, drawing his sword, "I will not let this insolence pass unpunished. I have other affronts to chastise. Stand aside, or I will cut your throat."
"Hold, Sir Thomas," cried Sir Ralph Assheton, authoritatively. "Settle your quarrels hereafter, if you have any to adjust; but I will have no fighting now. Alizon is no witch. You are well aware that she was about to be impiously and cruelly sacrificed by Mother Demdike, and her rescue was the main object of our coming hither."
"Still suspicion attaches to her," said Metcalfe; "whether she be the daughter of Elizabeth Device or Alice Nutter, she comes of a bad stock, and I protest against her being allowed to go free. However, if you are resolved upon it, I have nothing more to say. I shall find other time and place to adjust my differences with Master Richard Assheton."
"When you please, sir," replied the young man, sternly.
"And I will answer for the propriety of the course I have pursued," said Sir Ralph; "but here comes Nicholas with Mother Demdike."
"Demdike taken! I am glad of it," cried Mother Chattox, slightly raising herself as she spoke. "Kill her, or she will 'scape you."
When Nicholas came up with the old hag, both Sir Ralph Assheton and Roger Nowell put several questions to her, but she refused to answer their interrogations; and, horrified by her blasphemies and imprecations, they caused her to be removed to a short distance, while a consultation was held as to the course to be pursued.
"We have made half a dozen of these miscreants prisoners," said Roger Nowell, "and the whole of them had better be taken to Whalley, where they can be safely confined in the old dungeons of the Abbey, and after their examination on the morrow can be removed to Lancaster Castle."
"Be it so," replied Sir Ralph; "but must yon unfortunate lady," he added, pointing to Mistress Nutter, "be taken with them?"
"Assuredly," replied Nowell. "We can make no distinction among such offenders; or, if there are any degrees in guilt, hers is of the highest class."
"You had better take leave of your daughter," said Sir Ralph to Mistress Nutter.
"I thank you for the hint," replied the lady. "Farewell, dear Alizon," she added, straining her to her bosom. "We must part for some time. Once more before I quit this world, in which I have played so wicked a part, I would fain look upon you—fain bless you, if I have the power—but this must be at the last, when my trials are wellnigh over, and when all is about to close upon me!"
"Oh! must it be thus?" exclaimed Alizon, in a voice half suffocated by emotion.
"It must," replied her mother. "Do not attempt to shake my resolution, my sweet child—do not weep for me. Amidst all the terrors that surround me, I am happier now than I have been for years. I shall strive to work out my redemption by prayers."
"And you will succeed!" cried Alizon.
"Not so!" shrieked Mother Demdike; "the Fiend will have his own. She is bound to him by a compact which nought can annul."
"I should like to see the instrument," said Potts. "I might give a legal opinion upon it. Perhaps it might be avoided; and in any case its production in court would have an admirable effect. I think I see the counsel examining it, and hear the judges calling for it to be placed before them. His infernal Majesty's signature must be a curiosity in its way. Our gracious and sagacious monarch would delight in it."
"Peace!" exclaimed Nicholas; "and take care," he cried, "that no further interruptions are offered by that infernal hag. Have you done, madam?" he added to Mistress Nutter, who still remained with her daughter folded in her arms.
"Not yet," replied the lady. "Oh! what happiness I have thrown away! What anguish—what remorse brought upon myself by the evil life I have led! As I gaze on this fair face, and think it might long, long have brightened my dark and desolate life with its sunshine—as I think upon all this, my fortitude wellnigh deserts me, and I have need of support from on high to carry me through my trial. But I fear it will be denied me. Nicholas Assheton, you have the deed of the gift of Rough Lee in your possession. Henceforth Alizon is mistress of the mansion and domains."
"Provided always they are not forfeited to the crown, which I apprehend will be the case," suggested Potts.
"I will take care she is put in possession of them," said Nicholas.
"As to you, Richard," continued Mistress Nutter, "the time may come when your devotion to my daughter may be rewarded and I could not bestow a greater boon upon you than by giving you her hand. It may be well I should give my consent now, and, if no other obstacle should arise to the union, may she be yours, and happiness I am sure will attend you!"
Overpowered by conflicting emotions, Alizon hid her face in her mother's bosom, and Richard, who was almost equally overcome, was about to reply, when Mother Demdike broke upon them.
"They will never be united!" she screamed. "Never! I have said it, and my words will come true. Think'st thou a witch like thee can bless an union, Alice Nutter? Thy blessings are curses, thy wishes disappointments and despair. Thriftless love shall be Alizon's, and the grave shall be her bridal bed. The witch's daughter shall share the witch's fate."
These boding words produced a terrible effect upon the hearers.
"Heed her not, my sweet child—she speaks falsely," said Mistress Nutter, endeavouring to re-assure her daughter; but the tone in which the words were uttered showed that she herself was greatly alarmed.
"I have cursed them both, and I will curse them again," yelled Mother Demdike.
"Away with the old screech-owl," cried Nicholas. "Take her to the beacon, and, if she continues troublesome, hurl her into the flame."
And, notwithstanding the hag's struggles and imprecations, she was removed.
"Whatever may betide, Alizon," cried Richard, "my life shall be devoted to you; and, if you should not be mine, I will have no other bride. With your permission, madam," he added, to Mistress Nutter, "I will take your daughter to Middleton, where she will find companionship and solace, I trust, in the attentions of my sister, who has the strongest affection for her."
"I could wish nothing better," replied the lady, "and now to put an end to this harrowing scene. Farewell, my child. Take her, Richard, take her!" she cried, as she disengaged herself from the relaxing embrace of her daughter. "Now, Master Nowell, I am ready."
"It is well, madam," he replied. "You will join the other prisoners, and we will set forth."
But at this juncture a terrific shriek was heard, which drew all eyes towards the beacon.
When Mother Demdike had been removed, in accordance with the squire's directions, her conduct became more violent and outrageous than ever, and those who had charge of her threatened, if she did not desist, to carry out the full instructions they had received, and cast her into the flames. The old hag defied and incensed them to such a degree by her violence and blasphemies, that they carried her to the very edge of the fire.
At this moment the figure of a monk, in mouldering white habiliments, came from behind the beacon, and stood beside the old hag. He slowly raised his hood, and disclosed features that looked like those of the dead.
"Thy hour is come, accursed woman!" cried the phantom, in thrilling accents. "Thy term on earth is ended, and thou shalt be delivered to unquenchable fire. The curse of Paslew is fulfilled upon thee, and will be fulfilled upon all thy viperous brood."
"Art thou the abbot's shade?" demanded the hag.
"I am thy implacable enemy," replied the phantom. "Thy judgment and thy punishment are committed to me. To the flames with her!"
Such was the awe inspired by the monk, and such the authority of his tones and gesture, that the command was unhesitatingly obeyed, and the witch was cast, shrieking, into the fire.
She was instantly swallowed up as in a gulf of flame, which raged, and roared, and shot up in a hundred lambent points, as if exulting in its prey.
The wretched creature was seen for a moment to rise up in it in extremity of anguish, with arms extended, and uttering a dreadful yell, but the flames wreathed round her, and she sank for ever.
When those who had assisted at this fearful execution looked around for the mysterious being who had commanded it, they could nowhere behold him.
Then was heard a laugh of gratified hate—such a laugh as only a demon, or one bound to a demon, can utter—and the appalled listeners looked around, and beheld Mother Chattox standing behind them.
"My rival is gone!" cried the hag. "I have seen the last of her. She is burnt—ah! ah!"
Further triumph was not allowed her. With one accord, and as if prompted by an irresistible impulse, the men rushed upon her, seized her, and cast her into the fire.
Her wild laughter was heard for a moment above the roaring of the flames, and then ceased altogether.
Again the flame shot high in air, again roared and raged, again broke into a multitude of lambent points, after which it suddenly expired.
All was darkness on the summit of Pendle Hill.
And in silence and in gloom scarcely more profound than that Weighing in every breast, the melancholy troop pursued its way to Whalley.
END OF THE SECOND BOOK.
BOOK THE THIRD.
CHAPTER I.—DOWNHAM MANOR-HOUSE.
On a lovely morning, about the middle of July, in the same year as the events previously narrated, Nicholas Assheton, always astir with the lark, issued from his own dwelling, and sauntered across the smooth lawn in front of it. The green eminence on which he stood was sheltered on the right by a grove of sycamores, forming the boundary of the park, and sloped down into a valley threaded by a small clear stream, whose murmuring, as it danced over its pebbly bed, distinctly reached his ear in the stillness of early day. On the left, partly in the valley, and partly on the side of the acclivity on which the hall was situated, nestled the little village whose inhabitants owned Nicholas as lord; and, to judge from their habitations, they had reason to rejoice in their master; for certainly there was a cheerful air about Downham which the neighbouring hamlets, especially those in Pendle Forest, sadly wanted.
On the left of the mansion, and only separated from it by the garden walls, stood the church, a venerable structure, dating back to a period more remote even than Whalley Abbey. From the churchyard a view, almost similar to that enjoyed by the squire, was obtained, though partially interrupted by the thick rounded foliage of a large tree growing beneath it; and many a traveller who came that way lingered within the hallowed precincts to contemplate the prospect. At the foot of the hill was a small stone bridge crossing the stream.
Across the road, and scarce thirty paces from the church-gate, stood a little alehouse, whose comfortable fireside nook and good liquors were not disdained by the squire. In fact, to his shame be it spoken, he was quite as often to be found there of an evening as at the hall. This had more particularly been the case since the house was tenanted by Richard Baldwyn, who having given up the mill at Rough Lee, and taken to wife Bess Whitaker of Goldshaw Booth, had removed with her to Downham, where he now flourished under the special protection of the squire. Bess had lost none of her old habits of command, and it must be confessed that poor Richard played a very secondary part in the establishment. Nicholas, as may be supposed, was permitted considerable licence by her, but even he had limits, which she took good care he should not exceed.
The Downham domains were well cultivated; the line of demarcation between them and the heathy wastes adjoining, being clearly traced out, and you had only to follow the course of the brook to see at a glance where the purlieus of the forest ended, and where Nicholas Assheton's property commenced: the one being a dreary moor, with here and there a thicket upon it, but more frequently a dangerous morass, covered with sulphur-coloured moss; and the other consisting of green meadows, bordered in most instances by magnificent timber. The contrast, however, was not without its charm; and while the sterile wastes set off the fair and fertile fields around them, and enhanced their beauty, they offered a wide, uninterrupted expanse, over which the eye could range at will.
On the further side of the valley, and immediately opposite the lawn whereon Nicholas stood, the ground gradually arose, until it reached the foot of Pendle Hill, which here assuming its most majestic aspect, constituted the grand and peculiar feature of the scene. Nowhere could the lordly eminence be seen to the same advantage as from this point, and Nicholas contemplated it with feelings of rapture, which no familiarity could diminish. The sun shone brightly upon its rounded summit, and upon its seamy sides, revealing all its rifts and ridges; adding depth of tint to its dusky soil, laid bare in places by the winter torrents; lending new beauty to its purple heath, and making its grey sod glow as with fire. So exhilarating was the prospect, that Nicholas felt half tempted to cross the valley and scale the hill before breaking his fast; but other feelings checked him, and he turned towards the right. Here, beyond a paddock and some outbuildings, lay the park, small in extent, but beautifully diversified, well stocked with deer, and boasting much noble timber. In the midst was an exquisite knoll, which, besides commanding a fine view of Pendle Hill, Downham, and all the adjacent country, brought within its scope, on the one hand, the ancient castle of Clithero and the heights overlooking Whalley; and, on the other, the lovely and extensive vale through which the Ribble wandered. This, also, was a favourite point of view with the squire, and he had some idea of walking towards it, when he was arrested by a person who came from the house, and who shouted to him, hoarsely but blithely, to stay.
The new-comer was a man of middle age, with a skin almost as tawny as a gipsy's, a hooked nose, black beetling brows, and eyes so strangely set in his head, that they communicated a sinister expression to his countenance. He possessed a burly frame, square, and somewhat heavy, though not so much so as to impede his activity. In deportment and stature, though not in feature, he resembled the squire himself; and the likeness was heightened by his habiliments being part of Nicholas's old wardrobe, the doublet and hose, and even the green hat and boots, being those in which Nicholas made his first appearance in this history. The personage who thus condescended to be fed and clothed at the squire's expense, and who filled a situation something between guest and menial, without receiving the precise attention of the one or the wages of the other, but who made himself so useful to Nicholas that he could not dispense with him—neither, perhaps would he have been shaken off, even if it had been desired—was named Lawrence Fogg, an entire stranger to the country, whom Nicholas had picked up at Colne, and whom he had invited to Downham for a few weeks' hunting, and had never been able to get rid of him since.
Lawrence Fogg liked his quarters immensely, and determined to remain in them; and as a means to so desirable an end, he studied all the squire's weak points and peculiarities, and these not being very difficult to be understood, he soon mastered them, and mastered the squire into the bargain, but without allowing his success to become manifest. Nicholas was delighted to find one with tastes so congenial to his own, who was so willing to hunt or fish with him—who could train a hawk as well as Phil Royle, the falconer—diet a fighting-cock as well as Tom Shaw, the cock-master—enter a hound better than Charlie Crouch, the old huntsman—shoot with the long-bow further than any one except himself, and was willing to toss off a pot with him, or sing a merry stave whenever he felt inclined. Such a companion was invaluable, and Nicholas congratulated himself upon the discovery, especially when he found Lawrence Fogg not unwilling to undertake some delicate commissions for him, which he could not well execute himself, and which he was unwilling should reach Mistress Assheton's ears. These were managed with equal adroitness and caution. About the same time, too, Nicholas finding money scarce, and, not liking to borrow it in person, delegated Fogg, and sent him round to his friends to ask for a loan; but, in this instance, the mission was attended with very indifferent success, for not one of them would lend him so small a sum as thirty pounds, all averring they stood in need of it quite as much as himself. Though somewhat inconvenienced by their refusal, Nicholas bore the disappointment with his customary equanimity, and made merry with his friend as if nothing had happened. Fogg showed an equal accommodating spirit in all religious observances, and, though much against his inclination, attended morning discourses and lectures with his patron, and even made an attempt at psalm-singing; but on one occasion, missing the tune and coming in with a bacchanalian chorus, he was severely rebuked by the minister, and enjoined to keep silence in future. Such was the friendly relation subsisting between the parties when they met together on the lawn on the morning in question.
"Well, Fogg," cried Nicholas, after exchanging salutations with his friend, "what say you to hunting the otter in the Ribble after breakfast? 'Tis a rare day for the sport, and the hounds are in excellent order. There is an old dam and her litter whom we must kill, for she has been playing the very devil with the fish for a space of more than two miles; and if we let her off for another week, we shall have neither salmon, trout, nor umber, as all will have passed down the maws of her voracious brood."
"And that would be a pity, in good sooth, squire," replied Fogg; "for there are no fish like those of the Ribble. Nothing I should prefer to the sport you promise; but I thought you had other business for me to-day? Another attempt to borrow money—eh?"
"Ay, from my cousin, Dick Assheton," rejoined Nicholas; "he will lend me the thirty pounds, I am quite sure. But you had better defer the visit till to-morrow, when his father, Sir Richard, will be at Whalley, and when you can have him to yourself. Dick will not say you nay, depend on't; he is too good a fellow for that. A murrain on those close-fisted curmudgeons, Roger Nowell, Nicholas Townley, and Tom Whitaker. They ought to be delighted to oblige me."
"But they declare they have no money," said Fogg.
"No money!—pshaw!" exclaimed Nicholas; "an idle excuse. They have chests full. Would I had all Roger Nowell's gold, I should not require another supply for years. But, 'sdeath! I will not trouble myself for a paltry thirty pounds."
"If I might venture to suggest, squire, while you are about it, I would ask for a hundred pounds, or even two or three hundred," said Fogg. "Your friends will think all the better of you, and feel more satisfied you intend to repay them."
"Do you think so!" cried Nicholas. "Then, by Plutus, it shall be three hundred pounds—three hundred at interest. Dick will have to borrow the amount to lend it to me; but, no matter, he will easily obtain it. Harkye, Fogg, while you are at Middleton, endeavour to ascertain whether any thing has been arranged about the marriage of a certain young lady to a certain young gentleman. I am curious to know the precise state of affairs in that quarter."
"I will arrive at the truth, if possible, squire," replied Fogg; "but I should scarcely think Sir Richard would assent to his son's union with the daughter of a notorious witch."
"Sir Richard's son is scarcely likely to ask Sir Richard's consent," said Nicholas; "and as to Mistress Nutter, though heavy charges have been brought against her, nothing has been proved, for you know she escaped, or rather was rescued, on her way to Lancaster Castle."
"I am fully aware of it, squire," replied Fogg; "and I more than suspect a worthy friend of mine had a hand in her deliverance and could tell where to find her if needful. But that is neither here nor there. The lady is quite innocent, I dare say. Indeed, I am quite sure of it, since you espouse her cause so warmly. But the world is malicious, and strange things are reported of her."
"Heed not the world, Fogg," rejoined Nicholas. "The world speaks well of no man, be his deserts what they may. The world says that I waste my estate in wine, women, and horseflesh—that I spend time in pleasures which might be profitably employed—that I neglect my wife, forget my religious observances, am on horseback when I should be afoot, at the alehouse when I should be at home, at a marriage when I should be at a funeral, shooting when I should be keeping my books—in short, it has not a good word to say for me. And as for thee, Fogg, it says thou art an idle, good-for-nothing fellow; or, if thou art good for aught, it is only for something that leads to evil. It says thou drinkest prodigiously, liest confoundedly, and swearest most profanely; that thou art ever more ready to go to the alehouse than to church, and that none of the girls can 'scape thee. Nay, the slanderers even go so far as to assert thou wouldst not hesitate to say, 'Stand and deliver!' to a true man on the highway. That is what the world says of thee. But, hang it! never look chapfallen, man. Let us go to the stables, and then we will in to breakfast; after which we will proceed to the Ribble, and spear the old otter."
A fine old manorial residence was Downham, and beautifully situated, as has been shown, on a woody eminence to the north of Pendle Hill. It was of great antiquity, and first came into the possession of the Assheton family in 1558. Considerable additions had been made to it by its present owner, Nicholas, and the outlay necessarily required, combined with his lavish expenditure, had contributed to embarrass him. The stables were large, and full of horses; the kennels on the same scale, and equally well supplied with hounds; and there was a princely retinue of servants in the yard—grooms, keepers, falconers, huntsmen, and their assistants—to say nothing of their fellows within doors. In short, if it had been your fortune to accompany the squire and his friend round the premises—if you had walked through the stables and counted the horses—if you had viewed the kennels and examined the various hounds—the great Lancashire dogs, tall, shaggy, and heavy, a race now extinct; the Worcestershire hounds, then also in much repute; the greyhounds, the harriers, the beagles, the lurchers, and, lastly, the verminers, or, as we should call them, the terriers,—if you had seen all these, you would not have wondered that money was scarce with him. Still further would your surprise at such a consequence have diminished if you had gone on to the falconry, and seen on the perches the goshawk and her tercel, the sparrowhawk and her musket, under the care of the ostringer; and further on the falcon-gentle, the gerfalcon, the lanner, the merlin, and the hobby, all of which were attended to by the head falconer. It would have done you good to hear Nicholas inquiring from his men if they had "set out their birds that morning, and weathered them;" if they had mummy powder in readiness, then esteemed a sovereign remedy; if the lures, hoods, jesses, buets, and all other needful furniture, were in good order; and if the meat were sweet and wholesome. You might next have followed him to the pens where the fighting cocks were kept, and where you would have found another source of expense in the cock-master, Tom Shaw—a knave who not only got high wages from his master, but understood so well the dieting of his birds that he could make them win or lose a battle as he thought proper. Here, again, Nicholas had much to say, and was in raptures with one cock, which he told Fogg he would back to any amount, utterly unconscious of a significant look that passed between his friend and the cock-master.
"Look at him," cried the squire; "how proud and erect he stands! His head is as small as that of a sparrowhawk, his eye large and quick, his body thick, his leg strong in the beam, and his spurs long, rough, and sharp. That is the bird for me. I will take him over to the cockpit at Prescot next week, and match him against any bird Sir John Talbot, or my cousin Braddyll, can bring."
"And yo'n win, squoire," replied the cock-master; "ey ha' been feedin' him these five weeks, so he'll be i' rare condition then, and winna fail yo. Yo may lay what yo loike upon him," he added, with a sly wink at Fogg.
"You may win the thirty pounds you want," observed the latter, in a low tone to the squire.
"Or, mayhap, lose it," replied Nicholas. "I shall not risk so much, unless I get the three hundred from Dick Assheton. I have been unlucky of late. You beat me constantly at tables now, Fogg, and when I first knew you this was not wont to be the case. Nay, never make any excuses, man; you cannot help it. Let us in to breakfast."
With this, he proceeded towards the house, followed by Fogg and a couple of large Lancashire hounds, and, entering at the back of the premises, made his way through the scullery into the kitchen. Here there were plentiful evidences of the hospitality, not to say profusion, reigning throughout the mansion. An open door showed a larder stocked with all kinds of provisions, and before the fire joints of meat and poultry were roasting. Pies were baking in the oven; and over the flames, in the chimney, was suspended a black pot large enough for a witch's caldron. The cook was busied in preparing for the gridiron some freshly-caught trout, intended for the squire's own breakfast; and a kitchen-maid was toasting oatcakes, of which there was a large supply in the bread-flake depending from the ceiling.
Casting a look around, and exchanging a few words with the cook, Nicholas moved on, still followed by Fogg and the hounds, and, tracking a long stone passage, entered the great hall. Here the same disorder and irregularity prevailed as in his own character and conduct. All was litter and confusion. Around the walls were hung breastplates and buff-coats, morions, shields, and two-handed swords; but they were half hidden by fishing-nets, fowling-nets, dogs' collars, saddles and bridles, housings, cross-bows, long-bows, quivers, baldricks, horns, spears, guns, and every other implement then used in the sports of the river or the field. The floor was in an equal state of disorder. The rushes were filled with half-gnawed bones, brought thither by the hounds; and in one corner, on a mat, was a favourite spaniel and her whelps. The squire however was, happily, insensible to the condition of the chamber, and looked around it with an air of satisfaction, as if he thought it the perfection of comfort.
A table was spread for breakfast, near a window looking out upon the lawn, and two covers only were laid, for Mistress Nicholas Assheton did not make her appearance at this early hour. And now was exhibited one of those strange contradictions of which the squire's character was composed. Kneeling down by the side of the table, and without noticing the mocking expression of Fogg's countenance as he followed his example, Nicholas prayed loudly and fervently for upwards of ten minutes, after which he arose and gave a shout which proved that his lungs were unimpaired, and not only roused the whole house, but set all the dogs barking.
Presently a couple of serving-men answered this lusty summons, and the table was covered with good and substantial dishes, which he and his companion attacked with a vigour such as only the most valiant trencherman can display. Already has it been remarked that a breakfast at the period in question resembled a modern dinner; and better proof could not have been afforded of the correctness of the description than the meal under discussion, which comprised fish, flesh, and fowl, boiled, broiled, and roast, together with strong ale and sack. After an hour thus agreeably employed, and while they were still seated, though breakfast had pretty nearly come to an end, a serving-man entered, announcing Master Richard Sherborne of Dunnow. The squire instantly sprang to his feet, and hastened to welcome his brother-in-law.
"Ah! good-day to you, Dick," he cried, shaking him heartily by the hand; "what happy chance brings you here so early? But first sit down and eat—eat, and talk afterwards. Here, Roger, Harry, bring another platter and napkin, and let us have more broiled trout and a cold capon, a pasty, or whatever you can find in the larder. Try some of this gammon meanwhile, Dick. It will help down a can of ale. And now what brings thee hither, lad? Pressing business, no doubt. Thou mayest speak before Fogg. I have no secrets from him. He is my second self."
"I have no secrets to divulge, Nicholas," replied Sherborne, "and I will tell you at once what I am come about. Have you heard that the King is about to visit Hoghton Tower in August?"
"No; this is news to me," replied Nicholas; "does your business relate to his visit?"
"It does," replied Sherborne. "Last night a messenger came to me from Sir Richard Hoghton, entreating me to move you to do him the favour and courtesy to attend him at the King's coming, and wear his livery."
"I wear his livery!" exclaimed Nicholas, indignantly. "'Sdeath! what do you take me for, cousin Dick?"
"For a right good fellow, who I am sure will comply with his friend's request, especially when he finds there is no sort of degradation in it," replied Sherborne. "Why, I shall wear Sir Richard's cloth, and so will several others of our friends. There will be rare doings at Hoghton—masquings, mummings, and all sorts of revels, besides hunting, shooting, racing, wrestling, and the devil knows what. You may feast and carouse to your heart's content. The Dukes of Buckingham and Richmond will be there, and the Earls of Nottingham and Pembroke, and Sir Gilbert Hoghton, the King's great favourite, who married the Duchess of Buckingham's sister. Besides these, you will have all the beauty of Lancashire. I would not miss the sight for thirty pounds."
"Thirty pounds!" echoed Nicholas, as if struck with a sudden thought. "Do you think Sir Thomas Hoghton would lend me that sum if I consent to wear his cloth, and attend him?"
"I have no doubt of it," replied Sherborne; "and if he won't, I will."
"Then I will put my pride in my pocket, and go," said Nicholas. "And now, Dick, dispatch your breakfast as quickly as you can, and then I will take you to the Ribble, and show you some sport with an otter."
Sherborne was not long in concluding his repast, and having received an otter spear from the squire, who had already provided himself and Fogg with like weapons, all three adjourned to the kennels, where they found the old huntsman, Charlie Crouch, awaiting them, attended by four stout varlets, armed with forked staves, meant for the double purpose of beating the river's banks, and striking the poor beast they were about to hunt, and each man having a couple of hounds, well entered for the chase, in leash. Old Crouch was a thin, grey-bearded fellow, but possessed of a tough, muscular frame, which served him quite as well in the long run as the younger, and apparently more vigorous, limbs of his assistants. His cheek was hale, and his eye still bright and quick, and a certain fierceness was imparted to his countenance by a large aquiline nose. He was attired in a greasy leathern jerkin, tight hose of the same material, and had a bugle suspended from his neck, and a sharp hunting-knife thrust into his girdle. In his hand he bore a spear like his master, and was followed by a grey old lurcher, who, though wanting an ear and an eye, and disfigured by sundry scars on throat and back, was hardy, untiring, and sagacious. This ancient dog was called Grip, from his tenacity in holding any thing he set his teeth upon, and he and Crouch were inseparable.
Great was the clamour occasioned by the squire's appearance in the yard. The coupled hounds gave tongue at once, and sang out most melodiously, and all the other dogs within the kennels, or roaming at will about the yard, joined the concert. After much swearing, cracking of whips, and yelping consequent upon the cracking, silence was in some degree restored, and a consultation was then held between Nicholas and Crouch as to where their steps should first be bent. The old huntsman was for drawing the river near a place called Bean Hill Wood, as the trees thereabouts, growing close to the water's edge, it was pretty certain the otter would have her couch amid the roots of some of them. This was objected to by one of the varlets, who declared that the beast lodged in a hollow tree, standing on a bank nearly a mile higher up the stream, and close by the point of junction between Swanside Beck and the Ribble. He was certain of the fact, he avouched, because he had noticed her marks on the moist grass near the tree.
"Hoo goes theere to fish, mon?" cried Crouch, "for it is the natur o' the wary varmint to feed at a distance fro' her lodgin; boh ey'm sure we shan leet on her among the roots o' them big trees o'erhanging th' river near Bean Hill Wood, an if the squire 'll tay my advice, he'n go theere first."
"I put myself entirely under your guidance, Crouch," said Nicholas.
"An yo'n be aw reet, sir," replied the huntsman; "we'n beat the bonks weel, an two o' these chaps shan go up the stream, an two down, one o' one side, and one o' t'other; an i' that manner hoo canna escape us, fo' Grip can swim an dive os weel as onny otter i' aw Englondshiar, an he'n be efter her an her litter the moment they tak to t' wotur. Some folk, os maybe yo ha' seen, squoire, tak howd on a cord by both eends, an droppin it into t' river, draw it slowly along, so that they can tell by th' jerk when th' otter touches it; boh this is an onsartin method, an is nowt like Grip's plan, for wherever yo see him swimmin, t'other beast yo may be sure is nah far ahead."
"A brave dog, but confoundedly ugly!" exclaimed the squire, regarding the old one-eared, one-eyed lurcher with mingled admiration and disgust; "and now, that all is arranged, let us be off."
Accordingly they quitted the court-yard, and, shaping their course in the direction indicated by the huntsman, entered the park, and proceeded along a glade, checkered by the early sunbeams. Here the noise they made in their progress speedily disturbed a herd of deer browsing beneath the trees, and, as the dappled foresters darted off to a thicker covert, great difficulty was experienced by the varlets in restraining the hounds, who struggled eagerly to follow them, and made the welkin resound with their baying.
"Yonder is a tall fellow," cried Nicholas, pointing out a noble buck to Crouch; "I must kill him next week, for I want to send a haunch of venison to Middleton, and another to Whalley Abbey for Sir Ralph."
"Better hunt him, squoire," said Crouch; "he will gi' ye good sport."
Soon after this they attained an eminence, where a charming sweep of country opened upon them, including the finest part of Ribblesdale, with its richly-wooded plains, and the swift and beautiful river from which it derived its name. The view was enchanting, and the squire and his companions paused for a moment to contemplate it, and then, stepping gleefully forward, made their way over the elastic turf towards a small thicket skirting the park. All were in high spirits, for the freshness and beauty of the morning had not been without effect, and the squire's tongue kept pace with his legs as he strode briskly along; but as they entered the thicket in question, and caught sight of the river through the trees, the old huntsman enjoined silence, and he was obliged to put a check upon his loquacity.
When within a bowshot from the water, the party came to a halt, and two of the men were directed by Crouch to cross the stream at different points, and then commence beating the banks, while the other two were ordered to pursue a like course, but to keep on the near side of the river. The hounds were next uncoupled, and the men set off to execute the orders they had received, and soon afterwards the crashing of branches, and the splashing of water, accompanied by the deep baying of the hounds, told they were at work.
Meanwhile, Nicholas and the others had not remained idle. As the varlets struck off in different directions, they went straight on, and forcing their way through the brushwood, came to a high bank overlooking the Ribble, on the top of which grew three or four large trees, whose roots, laid bare on the further side by the swollen currents of winter, formed a convenient resting-place for the fish-loving creature they hoped to surprise. Receiving a hint from Crouch to make for the central tree, Nicholas grasped his spear, and sprang forward; but, quick as he was, he was too late, though he saw enough to convince him that the crafty old huntsman had been correct in his judgment; for a dark, slimy object dropped from out the roots of the tree beneath him, and glided into the water as swiftly and as noiselessly as if its skin had been oiled. A few bubbles rose to the surface of the water, but these were all the indications marking the course of the wondrous diver.
But other eyes, sharper than those of Nicholas, were on the watch, and the old huntsman shouted out, "There hoo goes, Grip—efter her, lad, efter her!" The words were scarcely uttered when the dog sprang from the top of the bank and sank under the water. For some seconds no trace could be observed of either animal, and then the shaggy nose of the lurcher was seen nearly fifty yards higher up the river, and after sniffing around for a moment, and fixing his single eye on his master, who was standing on the bank, and encouraging him with his voice and gesture, he dived again.
"Station yourselves on the bank, fifty paces apart," cried Crouch; "run, run, or yo'n be too late, an' strike os quick os leet if yo've a chance. Stay wheere you are, squoire," he added, to Nicholas. "Yo canna be better placed."
All was now animation and excitement. Perceiving from the noise that the otter had been found, the four varlets hastened towards the scene of action, and, by their shouts and the clatter of their staves, contributed greatly to its spirit. Two were on one side of the stream, and two on the other, and up to this moment the hounds were similarly separated; but now most of them had taken to the water, some swimming about, others standing up to the middle in the shallower part of the current, watching with keen gaze for the appearance of their anticipated victim.
Having descended the bank, Nicholas had so placed himself among the huge twisted roots of the tree, that if the otter, alarmed by the presence of so many foes, and unable to escape either up or down the river, should return to her couch, he made certain of striking her. At first there seemed little chance of such an occurrence, for Fogg, who had gone a hundred yards higher up, suddenly dashed into the stream, and, plunging his spear into the mud, cried out that he had hit the beast; but the next moment, when he drew the weapon forth, and exhibited a large rat which he had transfixed, his mistake excited much merriment.
Old Crouch, meantime, did not suffer his attention to be drawn from his dog. Every now and then he saw him come to the surface to breathe, but as he kept within a short distance, though rising at different points, the old huntsman felt certain the otter had not got away, and, having the utmost reliance upon Grip's perseverance and sagacity, he felt confident he would bring the quarry to him if the thing were possible. The varlets kept up an incessant clatter, beating the water with their staves, and casting large stones into it, while the hounds bayed furiously, so that the poor fugitive was turned on whichever side she attempted a retreat.
While this was going on, Nicholas was cautioned by the huntsman to look out, and scarcely had the admonition reached him than the sleek shining body of the otter emerged from the water, and wreathed itself among the roots. The squire instantly dealt a blow which he expected to prove fatal, but his mortification was excessive when he found he had driven the spear-head so deeply into the tree that he could scarcely disengage it, while an almost noiseless plunge told that his prey had escaped. Almost at the same moment that the poor hunted beast had sought its old lodging, the untiring lurcher had appeared at the edge of the bank, and, as the former again went down, he dived likewise.
Secretly laughing at the squire's failure, the old huntsman prepared to take advantage of a similar opportunity if it should present itself, and with this view ensconced himself behind a pollard willow, which stood close beside the stream, and whence he could watch closely all that passed, without being exposed to view. The prudence of the step was soon manifest. After the lapse of a few seconds, during which neither dog nor otter had risen to breathe, a slight, very slight, undulation was perceptible on the surface of the water. Crouch's grasp tightened upon his staff—he waited another moment—then dashed forward, struck down his spear, and raised it aloft, with the poor otter transfixed and writhing upon its point.
Loudly and exultingly did the old man shout at his triumph, and loudly were his vociferations answered by the others. All flew to the spot where he was standing, and the hounds, gathering round him, yelled furiously at the otter, and showed every disposition to tear her in pieces, if they could get at her. Kicking the noisiest and fiercest of them out of the way, Crouch approached the river's brink, and lowered the spear-head till it came within reach of his favourite Grip, who had not yet come out of the water, but stood within his depth, with his one red eye fixed on the enemy he had so hotly pursued, and fully expecting his reward. It now came; his sharp teeth instantly met in the otter's throat, and when Crouch swung them both in the air, he still maintained his hold, showing how well he deserved his name, nor could he be disengaged until long after the sufferings of the tortured animal had ceased.
To say that Nicholas was neither chagrined at his ill success, nor jealous of the old huntsman's superior skill, would be to affirm an untruth; but he put the best face he could upon the matter, and praised Grip very highly, alleging that the whole merit of the hunt rested with him. Old Crouch let him go on, and when he had done, quietly observed that the otter they had destroyed was not the one they came in search of, as they had seen nothing of her litter; and that, most likely, the beast that had done so much mischief had her lodging in the hollow tree near the Swanside Beck, as described by the varlet, and he wished to know whether the squire would like to go and hunt her. Nicholas replied that he was quite willing to do so, and hoped he should have better luck on the second occasion; and with this they set forward again, taking their way along the side of the stream, beating the banks as they went, but without rousing any thing beyond an occasional water-rat, which was killed almost as soon as found by Grip.
Somehow or other, without any one being aware what led to it the conversation fell upon the two old witches, Mothers Demdike and Chattox, and the strange manner in which their career had terminated on the summit of Pendle Hill—if, indeed it could be said to have terminated, when their spirits were reported to haunt the spot, and might be seen, it was asserted, at midnight, flitting round the beacon, and shrieking dismally. The restless shades were pursued, it was added, by the figure of a monk in white mouldering robes, supposed to be the ghost of Paslew. It was difficult to understand how these apparitions could be witnessed, since no one, even for a reward, could be prevailed upon to ascend Pendle Hill after nightfall; but the shepherds affirmed they had seen them from below, and that was testimony sufficient to shake the most sceptical. One singular circumstance was mentioned, which must not be passed by without notice; and this was, that when the cinders of the extinct beacon-fire came to be examined, no remains whatever of the two hags could be discovered, though the ashes were carefully sifted, and it was quite certain that the flames had expired long before their bodies could be consumed. The explanation attempted for this marvel was, that Satan had carried them off while yet living, to finish their combustion in a still more fiery region.
Mention of Mother Demdike naturally led to her grandson, Jem Device, who, having escaped in a remarkable manner on the night in question, notwithstanding the hue and cry made after him, had not, as yet, been captured, though he had been occasionally seen at night, and under peculiar circumstances, by various individuals, and amongst others by old Crouch, who, however, declared he had been unable to lay hands upon him.
Allusion was then made to Mistress Nutter, whereupon it was observed that the squire changed the conversation quickly; while sundry sly winks and shrugs were exchanged among the varlets of the kennel, seeming to intimate that they knew more about the matter than they cared to admit. Nothing more, however, was elicited than that the escort conducting her to Lancaster Castle, together with the other witches, after their examination before the magistrates at Whalley, and committal, had been attacked, while it was passing through a woody defile in Bowland Forest, by a party of men in the garb of foresters, and the lady set free. Nor had she been heard of since. What made this rescue the more extraordinary was, that none of the other witches were liberated at the same time, but some of them who seemed disposed to take advantage of the favourable interposition, and endeavoured to get away, were brought back by the foresters to the officers of justice; thus clearly proving that the attempt was solely made on Mistress Nutter's account, and must have been undertaken by her friends. Nothing, it was asserted, could equal the rage and mortification of Roger Nowell and Potts, on learning that their chief prey had thus escaped them; and by their directions, for more than a week, the strictest search was made for the fugitive throughout the neighbourhood, but without effect—no clue could be discovered to her retreat. Suspicion naturally fell upon the two Asshetons, Nicholas and Richard, and Roger Nowell roundly taxed them with contriving and executing the enterprise in person; while Potts told them they were guilty of misprision of felony, and threatened them with imprisonment for life, forfeiture of goods and of rents, for the offence; but as the charge could not be proved against them, notwithstanding all the efforts of the magistrate and attorney, it fell to the ground; and Master Potts, full of chagrin at this unexpected and vexatious termination of the affair, returned to London, and settled himself in his chambers in Chancery Lane. His duties, however, as clerk of the court, would necessarily call him to Lancaster in August, when the assizes commenced, and when he would assist at the trials of such of the witches as were still in durance.
From Mother Demdike it was natural that the conversation should turn to her weird retreat, Malkin Tower; and Richard Sherborne expressed his surprise that the unhallowed structure should be suffered to remain standing after her removal. Nicholas said he was equally anxious with his brother-in-law for its demolition, but it was not so easily to be accomplished as it might appear; for the deserted structure was in such ill repute with the common folk, as well as every one else, that no one dared approach it, even in the daytime. A boggart, it was said, had taken possession of its vaults, and scared away all who ventured near it; sometimes showing himself in one frightful shape, and sometimes in another; now as a monstrous goat, now as an equally monstrous cat, uttering fearful cries, glaring with fiery eyes from out of the windows, or appearing in all his terror on the summit of the tower. Moreover, the haunted structure was frequently lighted up at dead of night, strains of unearthly music were heard resounding from it, and wild figures were seen flitting past the windows, as if engaged in dancing and revelry; so that it appeared that no alteration for the better had taken place there, and that things were still quite as improperly conducted now, as they had been in the time of Mother Demdike, or in those of her predecessors, Isole de Heton and Blackburn, the robber. The common opinion was, that Satan and all his imps had taken up their abode in the tower, and, as they liked their quarters, led a jolly life there, dancing and drinking all night long, it would be useless at present to give them notice to quit, still less to attempt to pull down the house about their ears. Richard Sherborne heard this wondrous relation in silence, but with a look of incredulity; and when it was done he winked slily at his brother-in-law. A strange expression, half comical, half suspicious, might also have been observed on Fogg's countenance; and he narrowly watched the squire as the latter spoke.
"But with the disappearance of the malignant old hags who had so long infested the neighbourhood, had all mischief and calamity ceased, or were people as much afflicted as heretofore? Were there, in short, so many cases of witchcraft, real or supposed?" This was the question next addressed by Sherborne to Nicholas. The squire answered decidedly there were not. Since the burning of the two old beldames, and the imprisonment of the others, the whole district of Pendle had improved. All those who had been smitten with strange illnesses had recovered; and the inhabitants of the little village of Sabden, who had experienced the fullest effects of their malignity, were entirely free from sickness. And not only had they and their families suddenly regained health and strength, but all belonging to them had undergone a similar beneficial change. The kine that had lost their milk now yielded it abundantly; the lame horse halted no longer; the murrain ceased among the sheep; the pigs that had grown lean amidst abundance fattened rapidly; and though the farrows that had perished during the evil ascendency of the witches could not be brought back again, their place promised speedily to be supplied by others. The corn blighted early in the year had sprung forth anew, and the trees nipped in the bud were laden with fruit. In short, all was as fair and as flourishing as it had recently been the reverse. Amongst others, John Law, the pedlar, who had been deprived of the use of his limbs by the damnable arts of Mother Demdike, had marvellously recovered on the very night of her destruction, and was now as strong and as active as ever. "Such happy results having followed the removal of the witches, it was to be hoped," Sherborne said, "that the riddance would be complete, and that none of the obnoxious brood would be left to inflict future miseries on their fellows. This could not be the case so long as James Device was allowed to go at large; nor while his mother, Elizabeth Device, a notorious witch, was suffered to escape with impunity. There was also Jennet, Elizabeth's daughter, a mischievous and ill-favoured little creature, who inherited all the ill qualities of her parents. These were the spawn of the old snake, and, until they were entirely exterminated, there could be no security against a recurrence of the evil. Again, there was Nance Redferne, old Chattox's grand-daughter, a comely woman enough, but a reputed witch, and an undoubted fabricator of clay images. She was still at liberty, though she ought to be with the rest in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle. It was useless to allege that with the destruction of the old hags all danger had ceased. Common prudence would keep the others quiet now; but the moment the storm passed over, they would resume their atrocious practices, and all would be as bad as ever. No, no! the tree must be utterly uprooted, or it would inevitably burst forth anew."
With these opinions Nicholas generally concurred; but he expressed some sympathy for Nance Redferne, whom he thought far too good-looking to be as wicked and malicious as represented. But however that might be, and however much he might desire to get rid of the family of the Devices, he feared such a step might be attended with danger to Alizon, and that she might in some way or other be implicated with them. This last remark he addressed in an under-tone to his brother-in-law. Sherborne did not at first feel any apprehension on that score, but, on reflection, he admitted that Nicholas was perhaps right; and though Alizon was now the recognised daughter of Mistress Nutter, yet her long and intimate connection with the Device family might operate to her prejudice, while her near relationship to an avowed witch would not tend to remove the unfavourable impression. Sherborne then went on to speak in the most rapturous terms of the beauty and goodness of the young girl who formed the subject of their conversation, and declared he was not in the least surprised that Richard Assheton was so much in love with her. And yet, he added, a most extraordinary change had taken place in her since the dreadful night on Pendle Hill, when her mother's guilt had been proclaimed, and when her arrest had taken place as an offender of the darkest dye. Alizon, he said, had lost none of her beauty, but her light and joyous expression of countenance had been supplanted by a look of profound sadness, which nothing could remove. Gentle and meek in her deportment, she seemed to look upon herself as under a ban, and as if she were unfit to associate with the rest of the world. In vain Richard Assheton and his sister endeavoured to remove this impression by the tenderest assiduities; in vain they sought to induce her to enter into amusements consistent with her years; she declined all society but their own, and passed the greater part of her time in prayer. Sherborne had seen her so engaged, and the expression of her countenance, he declared, was seraphic.
On the extreme verge of a high bank situated at the point of junction between Swanside Beck and the Ribble, stood an old, decayed oak. Little of the once mighty tree beyond the gnarled trunk was left, and this was completely hollow; while there was a great rift near the bottom through which a man might easily creep, and, when once in, stand erect without inconvenience. Beneath the bank the river was deep and still, forming a pool, where the largest and fattest fish were to be met with. In addition to this, the spot was extremely secluded, being rarely visited by the angler on account of the thick copse by which it was surrounded and which extended along the back, from the point of confluence between the lesser and the larger stream, to Downham mill, nearly half a mile distant.
The sides of the Ribble were here, as elsewhere, beautifully wooded, and as the clear stream winded along through banks of every diversity of shape and character, and covered by forest trees of every description, and of the most luxuriant growth, the effect was enchanting; the more so, that the sun, having now risen high in the heavens, poured down a flood of summer heat and radiance, that rendered these cool shades inexpressibly delightful. Pleasant was it, as the huntsmen leaped from stone to stone, to listen to the sound of the waters rushing past them. Pleasant as they sprang upon some green holm or fairy islet, standing in the midst of the stream, and dividing its lucid waters, to suffer the eye to follow the course of the rapid current, and to see it here sparkling in the bright sunshine, there plunged in shade by the overhanging trees—now fringed with osiers and rushes, now embanked with smoothest sward of emerald green; anon defended by steep rocks, sometimes bold and bare, but more frequently clothed with timber; then sinking down by one of those sudden but exquisite transitions, which nature alone dares display, from this savage and sombre character into the softest and gentlest expression; every where varied, yet every where beautiful.
Through such scenes of silvan loveliness had the huntsmen passed on their way to the hollow oak, and they had ample leisure to enjoy them, because the squire and his brother-in-law being engaged in conversation, as before related, made frequent pauses, and, during these, the others halted likewise; and even the hounds, glad of a respite, stood still, or amused themselves by splashing about amid the shallows without any definite object unless of cooling themselves. Then, as the leaders once more moved forward, arose the cheering shout, the loud deep bay, the clattering of staves, the crashing of branches, and all the other inspiriting noises accompanying the progress of the hunt. But for some minutes these had again ceased, and as Nicholas and Sherborne lingered beneath the shade of a wide-spread beech-tree growing on a sandy hillock near the stream, and seemed deeply interested in their talk—as well they might, for it related to Alizon—the whole troop, including Fogg, held respectfully aloof, and awaited their pleasure to go on.
The signal to move was, at length, given by the squire, who saw they were now not more than a hundred yards from the bank on which stood the hollow tree they were anxious to reach. As the river here made a turn, and swept round the point in question, forming, owing to this detention, the deep pool previously mentioned, the bank almost faced them, and, as nothing intervened, they could almost look into the rift near the base of the tree, forming, they supposed, the entrance to the otter's couch. But, though this was easily distinguished, no traces of the predatory animal could be seen; and though many sharp eyes were fixed upon the spot during the prolonged discourse of the two gentlemen, nothing had occurred to attract their attention, and to prove that the object of their quest was really there.
After some little consultation between the squire and Crouch, it was agreed that the former should alone force his way to the tree, while the others were to station themselves with the hounds at various points of the stream, above and below the bank, so that, if the otter and her litter escaped their first assailant, they should infallibly perish by the hands of some of the others. This being agreed upon, the plan was instantly put into execution—two of the varlets remaining where they were—two going higher up; while Sherborne and Fogg stationed themselves on great stones in the middle of the stream, whence they could command all around them, and Crouch, wading on with Grip, planted himself at the entrance of Swanside Beck into the Ribble.
Meanwhile, the squire having scaled the bank, entered the thick covert encircling it, and, not without some damage to his face and hands from the numerous thorns and brambles growing amongst it, forced his way upwards until he reached the bare space surrounding the hollow tree; and this attained, his first business was to ascertain that all was in readiness below before commencing the attack. A glance showed him on one side old Crouch standing up to his middle in the beck, grasping his long otter spear, and with Grip beating the water in front of him in anxious expectation of employment; and in front Fogg, Sherborne, and two of the varlets, with their hounds so disposed that they could immediately advance upon the otter if it plunged into the river, while its passage up or down would be stopped by their comrades. All this he discerned at a glance; and comprehending from a sign made him by the old huntsman that he should not delay, he advanced towards the tree, and was about to plunge his spear into the hole, hoping to transfix one at least of its occupants, when he was startled by hearing a deep voice apparently issue from the hollows of the timber, bidding him "Beware!"
Nicholas recoiled aghast, for he thought it might be Hobthurst, or the demon of the wood, who thus bespoke him.
"What accursed thing addresses me?" he said, standing on his guard. "What is it? Speak!"
"Get hence, Nicholas Assheton," replied the voice; "an' meddle not wi' them os meddles not wi' thee."
"Aha!" exclaimed the squire, recovering courage, for he thought this did not sound like the language of a demon. "I am known am I? Why should I go hence, and at whose bidding?"
"Ask neaw questions, mon, boh ge," replied the voice, "or it shan be warse fo' thee. Ey am the boggart o' th' clough, an' if theaw bringst me out, ey'n tear thee i' pieces wi' my claws, an' cast thee into t' Ribble, so that thine own hounts shan eat thee up."
"Ha! say'st thou so, master boggart," cried Nicholas. "For a spirit, thou usest the vernacular of the county fairly enough. But before trying whether thy hide be proof against mortal weapons I command thee to come forth and declare thyself, that I may judge what manner of thing thou art."
"Thoud'st best lem me be, ey tell thee," replied the boggart gruffly.
"Ah! methinks I should know those accents," exclaimed the squire; "they marvellously resemble the voice of an offender who has too long evaded justice, and whom I have now fairly entrapped. Jem Device, thou art known, lad, and if thou dost not surrender at discretion, I will strike my spear through this rotten tree, and spit thee as I would the beast I came in quest of."
"An' which yo wad more easily than me," retorted Jem. And suddenly springing from the hole at the foot of the tree, he passed between the squire's legs with great promptitude, and flinging him face foremost upon the ground, crawled to the edge of the bank, and thence dropped into the deep pool below.
The plunge roused all the spectators, who, though they had heard what had passed, and had seen the squire upset in the manner described, had been so much astounded that they could render no assistance; but they now, one and all, bestirred themselves actively to seize the diver when he should rise to the surface. But though every eye was on the look-out, and every arm raised; though the hounds were as eager as their masters, and yelling fiercely, swam round the pool, ready to pounce upon the swimmer as upon a duck, all were disappointed; for, even after a longer interval than their patience could brook, he did not appear.
By this time, Nicholas had regained his legs, and, infuriated by his discomfiture, approached the edge of the bank, and peering down below, hoped to detect the fugitive immediately beneath him, resolved to show him no mercy when he caught him. But he was equally at fault with the others, and after more than five minutes spent in ineffectual search, he ordered Crouch to send Grip into the pool.
The old keeper replied that the dog was not used to this kind of chase, and might not display his usual skill in it; but as the squire would take no nay, he was obliged to consent, and the other hounds were called off lest they should puzzle him. Twice did the shrewd lurcher swim round the pool, sniffing the air, after which he approached the shore, and scented close to the bank; still it was evident he could detect nothing, and Nicholas began to despair, when the dog suddenly dived. Expectation was then raised to the utmost, and all were on the watch again, Nicholas leaning over the edge of the bank with his spear in hand, prepared to strike; but the dog was so long in reappearing, that all had given him up for lost, and his master was giving utterance to ejaculations of grief and rage, and vowing vengeance against the warlock, when Grip's grisly head was once more seen above the surface of the water, and this time he had a piece of blue serge in his jaws, proving that he had had hold of the raiments of the fugitive, and that therefore the latter could not be far off, but had most probably got into some hole beneath the bank.
No sooner was this notion suggested than it was acted on by the old huntsman and Fogg, and, wading forward, they pricked the bank with their spears at various points below the level of the water. All at once Fogg fell forward. His spear had entered a hole, and had penetrated so deeply that he had lost his balance. But though, soused over head and ears, he had made a successful hit, for the next moment Jem Device appeared above the water, and ere he could dive again his throat was seized by Grip, and while struggling to free himself from the fangs of the tenacious animal, he was laid hold of by Crouch, and the varlets rushing forward to the latter's assistance, the ruffian was captured.
Some difficulty was experienced in rescuing the captive from the jaws of the hounds, who, infuriated by his struggles, and perhaps mistaking him for some strange beast of chase, made their sharp teeth meet in various parts of his person, rending his garments from his limbs, and would no doubt have rent the flesh also, if they had been permitted. At length, after much fighting and struggling, mingled with yells and vociferations, Jem was borne ashore, and flung on the ground, where he presented a wretched spectacle; bleeding, half-drowned, and covered with slime acquired during his occupation of the hole in the bank. But though unable to offer further resistance, his spirit was not quelled, and his eye glared terribly at his captors. Fearing they might have further trouble with him when he recovered from his present exhausted condition, Crouch had his hands bound tightly together with one of the dog leashes, and then would fain have questioned him as to how he managed to breathe in a hole below the level of the water; but Jem refused to satisfy his curiosity, and returned only a sullen rejoinder to any questions addressed to him, until the squire, who had crossed the river at some stepping-stones lower down, came up, and the ruffian then inquired, in a half-menacing tone, what he meant to do with him?
"What do I mean to do with you?" cried Nicholas. "I will tell you, lad. I shall send you at once to Whalley to be examined before the magistrates; and, as the proofs are pretty clear against you, you will be forwarded without any material delay to Lancaster Castle."
"An yo winna rescue me by the way, os yo ha dun a sartin notorious witch an murtheress!" replied Jem, fiercely. "Tak heed whot yo dun, squoire. If ey speak at aw, ey shan speak out, and to some purpose, ey'n warrant ye. If ey ge to Lonkester Castle, ey winna ge alone. Wan o' yer friends shan ge wi' me."
"Cursed villain! I guess thy meaning," replied Nicholas; "but thy vindictive purposes will be frustrated. No credence will be attached to thy false charges; while, as to the lady thou aimest at, she is luckily beyond reach of thy malice."
"Dunna be too sure o' that, squoire," replied Jem. "Ey con put t' officers o' jestis os surely on her track os owd Crouch could set these hounds on an otter. Lay yer account on it, ey winna dee unavenged."
"Heed him not," interposed Sherborne, seeing that the squire was shaken by his threat, and taking him apart; "it will not do to let such a villain escape. He can do you no injury, and as to Mistress Nutter, if you know where she is, it will be easy to give her a hint to get out of the way."
"I don't know that," replied Nicholas, thoughtfully.
"If ey might be so bowd os offer my advice, squoire," said old Crouch, advancing towards his master, "ey'd tee a heavy stoan round the felly's throttle, an chuck him into t' poo', an' he'n tell no teles fo' all his bragging."
"That would silence him effectually, no doubt, Crouch," replied Nicholas, laughing; "but a dog's death is too good for him, and besides I am pretty sure his destiny is not drowning. No, no—at all risks he shall go to Whalley. Harkee, Fogg," he added, beckoning that worthy to him, "I commit the conduct and custody of the prisoner to you. Clap him on a horse, get on another yourself, take these four varlets with you, and deliver him into the hands of Sir Ralph Assheton, who will relieve you of all further trouble and responsibility. But you may add this to the baronet from me," he continued, in an under-tone. "I recommend him to place under immediate arrest Elizabeth Device, the prisoner's mother, and her daughter Jennet. You understand, Fogg—eh?"
"Perfectly," returned the other, with a somewhat singular look; "and your instructions shall be fulfilled to the letter. Have you any thing more to commit to me?"
"Only this," said Nicholas; "you may tell Sir Ralph that I propose to sleep at the Abbey to-night. I shall ride over to Middleton in the course of the day, to confer with Dick Assheton upon what has just occurred, and get the money from him—the three hundred pounds, you understand—and when my errand is done, I will turn bridle towards Whalley. I shall return by Todmorden, and through the gorge of Cliviger. You may as well tarry for me at the Abbey, for Sir Ralph will be glad of thy company, and we can return together to Downham to-morrow."
As the squire thus spoke, he noticed a singular sparkle in Fogg's ill-set eyes; but he thought nothing of it at the time, though it subsequently occurred to his recollection.
Meanwhile, the prisoner, finding no grace likely to be shown him, shouted out to the squire, that if he were set free, he would make certain important disclosures to him respecting Fogg, who was not what he represented himself; but Nicholas treated the offer with disdain; and the individual mainly interested in the matter, who appeared highly incensed by Jem's malignity, cut a short peg by way of gag, and, thrusting it into the ruffian's mouth, effectually checked any more revelations on his part.