Fogg then ordered the varlets to bring on the prisoner; but as Jem obstinately refused to move, they were under the necessity of taking him on their shoulders, and transporting him in this manner to the stables, where he was placed on a horse, as directed by the squire.
CHAPTER II.—THE PENITENT'S RETREAT.
Nicholas and Sherborne returned by a different road from that taken by the others, and loitered so much by the way that they did not arrive at the manor-house until the prisoner and his escort had set out. Probably this was designed, as Nicholas seemed relieved when he learnt they were gone. Having entered the house with his brother-in-law, and conducted him to an apartment opening out of the hall, usually occupied by Mistress Assheton, and where, in fact, they found that amiable lady employed at her embroidery, he left Sherborne with her, and, making some excuse for his own hasty retreat, betook himself to another part of the house.
Mounting the principal staircase, which was of dark oak, with richly-carved railing, he turned into a gallery communicating with the sleeping apartments, and, after proceeding more than half-way down it, halted before a door, which he unlocked, and entered a spacious but evidently disused chamber, hung round with faded tapestry, and containing a large gloomy-looking bedstead. Securing the door carefully after him, Nicholas raised the hangings in one corner of the room, and pressing against a spring, a sliding panel flew open. A screen was placed within, so as to hide from view the inmate of the secret chamber, and Nicholas, having coughed slightly, to announce his presence, and received an answer in a low, melancholy female voice, stepped through the aperture, and stood within a small closet.
It was tenanted by a lady, whose features and figure bore the strongest marks of affliction. Her person was so attenuated that she looked little more than a skeleton—her fingers were long and thin—her cheeks hollow and deathly pale—her eyes lustreless and deep sunken in their sockets—and her hair, once jetty as the raven's wing, prematurely blanched. Such was the profound gloom stamped upon her countenance, that it was impossible to look upon her without compassion; while, in spite of her wo-begone looks, there was a noble character about her that elevated the feeling into deep interest, blended with respect. She was kneeling beside a small desk, with an open Bible laid upon it, which she was intently studying when the squire appeared.
"Here is a terrible text for you, Nicholas," she said, regarding him, mournfully. "Listen to it, and judge of its effect on me. Thus it is written in Deuteronomy:—'There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.' A witch, Nicholas—do you mark the word? And yet more particular is the next verse, wherein it is said;—'Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.' And then cometh the denunciation of divine anger against such offenders in these awful words:—'For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations, the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.' Again, it is said in Leviticus, that 'the Lord setteth his face against such, to cut them off.' And in Exodus, the law is expressly laid down thus—'THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A WITCH TO LIVE.' There is no escape for her, you see. By the divine command she must perish, and human justice must; carry out the decree. Nicholas, I am one of the offenders thus denounced, thus condemned. I have practised witchcraft, consulted with familiar spirits, and done other abominations in the sight of Heaven; and I ought to pay the full penalty of my offences."
"Do not, I beseech you, madam," replied the squire, "continue to take this view of your case. However you have sinned, you have made amends by the depth and sincerity of your repentance. Your days and nights—for you allow yourself only such rest as nature forces on you, and take even that most unwillingly—are passed in constant prayer. Your abstinence is severer than any anchoress ever practised, for I am sure for the last month you have not taken as much food altogether as I consume in a day; while, not content with this, you perform acts of penance that afflict me beyond measure to think upon, and which I have striven in vain to induce you to forego. There will be no occasion to deliver yourself up to justice, madam; for, if you go on thus, and do not deal with yourself a little more mildly, your accounts with this world will be speedily settled."
"And I should rejoice to think so, Nicholas," replied Mistress Nutter, "if I had any hope in the world to come. But, alas! I have none. I cannot, by any act of penitence and contrition, expiate my offences. My soul is darkened by despair. I know I ought to give myself up—that Heaven and man alike require my life, and I cannot reconcile myself to avoiding my just doom."
"It is the Evil One who puts these thoughts into your head," replied Nicholas, "and who fills your heart with promptings of despair, that he may again obtain the mastery over it. But take a calmer and more consolatory view of your condition. Human justice may require a public sacrifice as an example, but Heaven, will be satisfied with contrition in secret."
"I trust so," replied the lady, vainly striving to draw comfort from his words. "Oh, Nicholas! you do not know the temptations I am exposed to in this chamber—the difficulty I experience in keeping my thoughts fixed on one object—the distractions I undergo—the mental obscurations—the faintings of spirit—the bodily prostration—the terrors, the inconceivable terrors, that assail me. Sometimes I wish my spirit would flee away, and be at rest. Rest! there is none for me—none in the grave—none beyond the grave—and therefore I am afraid of death, and still more of the judgment after death! Man might inflict all the tortures he could devise upon this poor frame. I would bear them all with patience, with delight, if I thought they would purchase me immunity hereafter! But with the dread conviction, the almost certainty, that it will be otherwise, I can only look to the final consummation with despair!"
"Again I tell you these suggestions are evil," said Nicholas. "The Son of God, who sacrificed himself for man, and by whose atonement all mankind hope for salvation, has assured us that the greatest sinner who repents shall be forgiven, and, indeed, is more acceptable in the eyes of Heaven than him who has never erred. Far be it from me to attempt to exculpate you in your own eyes, or extenuate your former criminality. You have sinned deeply, so deeply that you may well shrink aghast from the contemplation of your past life—may well recoil in abhorrence from yourself—and may fitly devote yourself to constant prayer and acts of penitence. But having cast off your iniquity, and sincerely repented, I bid you hope—I bid you place a confident reliance in the clemency of an all-merciful power."
"You give me much comfort, Nicholas," said the lady, "and if tears of blood can wash away my sin they shall be shed; but much as you know of my wickedness, even you cannot conceive its extent. In my madness, for it was nothing else, I cast off all hopes of heaven, renounced my Redeemer, was baptised by the demon, and entered into a compact by which—I shudder to speak it—my soul was surrendered to him."
"You placed yourself in fearful jeopardy, no doubt," rejoined Nicholas; "but you have broken the contract in time, and an all righteous judge will not permit the penalty of the bond to be exacted. Seeing your penitence, Satan has relinquished all claim to your soul."
"I do not think it," replied the lady. "He will contest the point to the last, and it is only at the last that it will be decided."
As she spoke, a sound like mocking laughter reached the ears of Nicholas.
"Did you hear that?" demanded Mistress Nutter, in accents of wildest terror. "He is ever on the watch. I knew it—I knew it."
Clasping her hands together, and fixing her looks on high she then addressed the most fervent supplications to Heaven for deliverance from evil, and erelong her troubled countenance began to resume its former serenity, proving that the surest balm for a "mind diseased" is prayer. Her example had been followed by Nicholas, who, greatly alarmed, had dropped upon his knees likewise, and now arose with somewhat more composure in his demeanour and aspect.
"I am sorry I do not bring you good news, madam," he said; "but Jem Device has been arrested this morning, and as the fellow is greatly exasperated against me, he threatens to betray your retreat to the officers; and though he is, probably, unacquainted with it notwithstanding his boasting, still he may cause search to be made, and, therefore, I think you had better be removed to some other hiding-place."
"Deliver me up without more ado, I pray you, Nicholas," said the lady.
"You know my resolution on that point, madam," he replied, "and, therefore, it is idle to attempt to shake it. For your daughter's sake, if not for your own, I will save you, in spite of yourself. You would not fix a brand for ever on Alizon's name; you would not destroy her?"
"I would not," replied the wretched lady. "But have you heard from her—have you seen her? Tell me, is she well and happy?"
"She is well, and would be happy, were it not for her anxiety about you," replied Nicholas, evasively. "But for her sake—mine—your own—I must urge you to seek some other place of refuge to night, for if you are discovered here you will bring ruin on us all."
"I will no longer debate the point," replied Mistress Nutter. "Where shall I go?"
"There is one place of absolute security, but I do not like to mention it," replied Nicholas. "Yet still, as it will only be necessary to remain for a day or two, till the search is over, when you can return here, it cannot much matter."
"Where is it?" asked Mistress Nutter.
"Malkin Tower," answered the squire, with some hesitation.
"I will never go to that accursed place," cried the lady. "Send me hence when you will—now, or at midnight—and let me seek shelter on the bleak fells or on the desolate moors, but bid me not go there!"
"And yet it is the best and safest place for you," returned Nicholas, somewhat testily; "and for this reason, that, being reputed to be haunted, no one will venture to molest you. As to Mother Demdike, I suppose you are not afraid of her ghost; and if the evil beings you apprehend were able or inclined to do you mischief, they would not wait till you got there to execute their purpose."
"True," said Mistress Nutter, "I was wrong to hesitate. I will go."
"You will be as safe there as here—ay, and safer," rejoined Nicholas, "or I would not urge the retreat upon you. I am about to ride over to Middleton this morning to see your daughter and Richard Assheton, and shall sleep at Whalley, so that I shall not be able to accompany you to the tower to-night; but old Crouch the huntsman shall be in waiting for you, as soon as it grows dusk, in the summer-house, with which, as you know, the secret staircase connected with this room communicates, and he shall have a horse in readiness to take you, together with such matters as you may require, to the place of refuge. Heaven guard you, madam!"
"Amen!" responded the lady.
"And now farewell!" said Nicholas. "I shall hope to see you back again ere many days be gone, when your quietude will not again be disturbed."
So saying, he stepped back, and, passing through the panel, closed it after him.
CHAPTER III.—MIDDLETON HALL.
Middleton Hall, the residence of Sir Richard Assheton, was a large quadrangular structure, built entirely of timber, and painted externally in black and white checker-work, fanciful and varied in design, in the style peculiar to the better class of Tudor houses in South Lancashire and Cheshire. Surrounded by a deep moat, supplied by a neighbouring stream, and crossed by four drawbridges, each faced by a gateway, this vast pile of building was divided into two spacious courts, one of which contained the stables, barns, and offices, while the other was reserved for the family and the guests by whom the hospitable mansion was almost constantly crowded. In the last-mentioned part of the house was a great gallery, with deeply embayed windows filled with painted glass, a floor of polished oak, walls of the same dark lustrous material, hung with portraits of stiff beauties, some in ruff and farthingale, and some in a costume of an earlier period among whom was Margaret Barton, who brought the manor of Middleton into the family; frowning warriors, beginning with Sir Ralph Assheton, knight-marshal of England in the reign of Edward IV., and surnamed "the black of Assheton-under-line," the founder of the house, and husband of Margaret Barton before mentioned, and ending with Sir Richard Assheton, grandfather of the present owner of the mansion, and one of the heroes of Flodden; grave lawyers, or graver divines—a likeness running through all, and showing they belonged to one line—a huge carved mantelpiece, massive tables of walnut or oak, and black and shining as ebony, set round with high-backed chairs. Here, also, above stairs, there were long corridors looking out through lattices upon the court, and communicating with the almost countless dormitories; while, on the floor beneath, corresponding passages led to all the principal chambers, and terminated in the grand entrance hall, the roof of which being open and intersected by enormous rafters, and crooks of oak, like the ribs of some "tall ammiral," was thought from this circumstance, as well as from its form, to resemble "a ship turned upside down." The lower beams were elaborately carved and ornamented with gilded bosses and sculptured images, sustaining shields emblazoned with the armorial bearings of the Asshetons. As many as three hundred matchlocks, in good and serviceable condition, were ranged round the entrance-hall, besides corselets, Almayne rivets, steel caps, and other accoutrements; this stand of arms having been collected by Sir Richard's predecessor, during the military muster made in the country in 1574, when he had raised and equipped a troop of horse for Queen Elizabeth. Outside the mansion was a garden, charmingly laid out in parterres and walks, and not only carried to the edge of the moat, but continued beyond it till it reached a high knoll crowned with beech-trees. A crest of tall twisted chimneys, a high roof with quaintly carved gables, surmounted by many gilt vanes, may serve to complete the picture of Middleton Hall.
On a lovely summer evening, two young persons of opposite sexes were seated on a bench placed at the foot of one of the largest and most umbrageous of the beech-trees crowning the pleasant eminence before mentioned; and though differing in aspect and character, the one being excessively fair, with tresses as light and fleecy as the clouds above them, and eyes as blue and tender as the skies—and the other distinguished by great manly beauty, though in a totally different style; still there was a sufficiently strong likeness between them, to proclaim them brother and sister. Profound melancholy pervaded the countenance of the young man, whose handsome brow was clouded by care—while the girl, though sad, seemed so only from sympathy.
They were conversing together in deep and earnest tones, showing how greatly they were interested; and, as they proceeded, many an involuntary sigh was heaved by Richard Assheton, while a tear, more than once, dimmed the brightness of his sister's eyes, and her hand sought by its gentle pressure to re-assure him.
They were talking of Alizon, of her peculiar and distressing situation, and of the young man's hopeless love for her. She was the general theme of their discourse, for Richard's sole comfort was in pouring forth his griefs into his sister's willing ear; but new causes of anxiety had been given them by Nicholas, who had arrived that afternoon, bringing intelligence of James Device's capture, and of his threats against Mistress Nutter. The squire had only just departed, having succeeded in the twofold object of his visit—which was, firstly, to borrow three hundred pounds from his cousin—and, secondly, to induce him to attend the meeting at Hoghton Tower. With the first request Richard willingly complied, and he assented, though with some reluctance, to the second, provided nothing of serious moment should occur in the interim. Nicholas tried to rally him on his despondency, endeavouring to convince him all would come right in time, and that his misgivings were causeless; but his arguments were ineffectual, and he was soon compelled to desist. The squire would fain also have seen Alizon, but, understanding she always remained secluded in her chamber till eventide, he did not press the point. Richard urged him to stay over the night, alleging the length of the ride, and the speedy approach of evening, as inducements to him to remain; but on this score the squire was resolute—and having carefully secured the large sum of money he had obtained beneath his doublet, he mounted his favourite steed, Robin, who seemed as fresh as if he had not achieved upwards of thirty miles that morning, and rode off.
Richard watched him cross the drawbridge, and take the road towards Rochdale, and, after exchanging a farewell wave of the hand with him, returned to the hall and sought out his sister.
Dorothy was easily persuaded to take a turn in the garden with her brother, and during their walk he confided to her all he had heard from Nicholas. Her alarm at Jem Device's threat was much greater than his own; and, though she entertained a strong and unconquerable aversion to Mistress Nutter, and could not be brought to believe in the sincerity of her penitence, still, for Alizon's sake, she dreaded lest any harm should befall her, and more particularly desired to avoid the disgrace which would be inflicted by a public execution. Alizon she was sure would not survive such a catastrophe, and therefore, at all risks, it must be averted.
Richard did not share, to the same extent, in her apprehensions, because he had been assured by Nicholas that Mistress Nutter would be removed to a place of perfect security, and because he was disposed, with the squire, to regard the prisoner's threats as mere ravings of impotent malice. Still he could not help feeling great uneasiness. Vague fears, too, beset him, which he found it in vain to shake off, but he did not communicate them to his sister, as he knew the terrifying effect they would have upon her timid nature; and he, therefore, kept the mental anguish he endured to himself, hoping erelong it would diminish in intensity. But in this he was deceived, for, instead of abating, his gloom and depression momently increased.
Almost unconsciously, Richard and his sister had quitted the garden, proceeding with slow and melancholy steps to the beech-crowned knoll. The seat they had chosen was a favourite one with Alizon, and she came thither on most evenings, either accompanied by Dorothy or alone. Here it was that Richard had more than once passionately besought her to become his bride, receiving on both occasions a same meek yet firm refusal. To Dorothy also, who pleaded her brother's cause with all the eloquence and fervour of which she was mistress, Alizon replied that her affections were fixed upon Richard; but that, while her mother lived, and needed her constant prayers, they must not be withheld; and that, looking upon any earthly passion as a criminal interference with this paramount duty, she did not dare to indulge it. Dorothy represented to her that the sacrifice was greater than she was called upon to make, that her health was visibly declining, and that she might fall a victim to her over-zeal; but Alizon was deaf to her remonstrances, as she had been to the entreaties of Richard.
With hearts less burthened, the contemplation of the scene before them could not have failed to give delight to Richard and his sister, and, even amid the adverse circumstances under which it was viewed, its beauty and tranquillity produced a soothing influence.
Evening was gradually stealing on, and all the exquisite tints marking that delightful hour, were spreading over the landscape. The sun was setting gorgeously, and a flood of radiance fell upon the old mansion beneath them, and upon the grey and venerable church, situated on a hill adjoining it. The sounds were all in unison with the hour, and the lowing of cattle, the voices of the husbandmen returning from their work, mingled with the cawing of the rooks newly alighted on the high trees near the church, told them that bird, man, and beast were seeking their home for the night. But though Richard's eye dwelt upon the fair garden beneath him, embracing all its terraces, green slopes, and trim pastures; though it fell upon the moat belting the hall like a glittering zone; though it rested upon the church tower; and, roaming over the park beyond it, finally settled upon the range of hills bounding the horizon, which have not inaptly been termed the English Apennines; though he saw all these things, he thought not of them, neither was he conscious of the sounds that met his ear, and which all spoke of rest from labour, and peace. Darker and deeper grew his melancholy. He began to persuade himself he was not long for this world; and, while gazing upon the beautiful prospect before him, was perhaps looking upon it for the last time.
For some minutes Dorothy watched him anxiously, and at last receiving no answer to her questions, and alarmed by the expression of his countenance, she flung her arms round his neck, and burst into tears. It was now Richard's turn to console her, and he inquired with much anxiety as to the cause of this sudden outburst of grief.
"You yourself are the cause of it, dear Richard," replied Dorothy, regarding him with brimming eyes; "I cannot bear to see you so unhappy. If you suffer this melancholy to grow upon you, it will affect both mind and body. Just now your countenance wore an expression most distressing to look upon. Try to smile, dear Richard, if only to cheer me, or else I shall grow as sad as you. Ah, me! I have known the day, and not long since either, when on a pleasant summer evening like this you would propose a stroll into the park with me; and, when there, would trip along the glades as fleetly as a deer, and defy me to catch you. But you always took care I should, though—ha! ha! Come, there is a little attempt at a smile. That's something. You look more like yourself now. How happy we used to be in those days, to be sure!—and how merry! You would make the courts ring with your blithe laughter, and wellnigh kill me with your jests. If love is to make one mope like an owl, and sigh like the wind through a half-shut casement; if it is to cause one to lose one's rosy complexion and gay spirit, and forget how to dance and sing—take no pleasure in hawking and hunting, or any kind of sport—walk about with eyes fixed upon the ground, muttering, and with disordered attire—if it is to make one silent when one should be talkative, grave when one should be gay, heedless when one should listen—if it is to do all this, defend me from the tender passion! I hope I shall never fall in love."
"I hope you never will, dear Dorothy," replied Richard, pressing her hand affectionately, "if your love is to be attended with such unhappy results as mine. I know not how it is, but I feel unusually despondent this evening, and am haunted by a thousand dismal fancies. But I will do my best to dismiss them, and with your help no doubt I shall succeed."
"There!—there was a smile in earnest!" cried Dorothy, brightening up. "Oh, Richard! I am quite happy now. And after all I do not see why you should take such a gloomy view of things. I have no doubt there is a great deal, a very great deal, of happiness in store for you and Alizon—I must couple her name with yours, or you will not allow it to be happiness—if you can only be brought to think so. I am quite sure of it; and you shall see how nicely I can make the matter out. As thus. Mistress Nutter is certain to die soon—such a wicked woman cannot live long. Don't be angry with me for calling her wicked, Richard; but you know I never can forget her unhallowed proceedings in the convent church at Whalley, where I was so nearly becoming a witch myself. Well, as I was saying, she cannot live long, and when she goes—and Heaven grant it may be soon!—Alizon, no doubt, will mourn for her though I shall not, and after a decent interval—then, Richard, then she will no longer say you nay, but will make you happy as your wife. Nay, do not look so sad again, dear brother. I thought I should make you quite cheerful by the picture I was drawing."
"It is because I fear it will never be realized that I am sad, Dorothy," replied Richard. "My own anticipations are the opposite of yours, and paint Alizon sinking into an early grave before her mother; while as to myself, if such be the case, I shall not long survive her."
"Nay, now you will make me weep again," cried Dorothy, her tears flowing afresh. "But I will not allow you to indulge such gloomy ideas, Richard. If I seriously thought Mistress Nutter likely to occasion all this fresh mischief, I would cause her to be delivered up to justice, and hanged out of the way. You may look cross at me, but I would. What is an old witch like her, compared with two young handsome persons, dying for love of each other, and yet not able to marry on her account?"
"Dorothy, Dorothy, you must put some restraint on your tongue," said Richard; "you give it sadly too much licence. You forget it is the wish of the unhappy lady you refer to, to expiate her offences at the stake, and that it is only out of consideration to her daughter that she has been induced to remain in concealment. What will be the issue of it all, I dare scarcely conjecture. Wo to her, I fear! Wo to Alizon! Wo to me!"
"Alas! Richard, that you should link yourself to her fate!" exclaimed Dorothy, half mournfully, half reproachfully.
"I cannot help it," he replied. "It is my destiny—a deplorable destiny, if you will—but not to be avoided. That Mistress Nutter will escape the consequences of her crimes, I can scarcely believe. Her penitence is profound and sincere, and that is a great consolation; for I trust she will not perish, body and soul. I should wish her to have some spiritual assistance, but this Nicholas will not for the present permit, alleging that no churchman would consent to screen her from justice when he became aware, as he must by her confession, of the nature and magnitude of her offences. This may be true; but when the wretches who have been leagued with her in iniquity are disposed of, the reason will no longer exist, and I will see that she is cared for. But, apart from her mother, I have another source of anxiety respecting Alizon. It is this: orders have been this day given for the arrest of Elizabeth Device and her daughter, Jennet, and Alizon will be the chief witness against them. This will be a great trouble to her."
"Undoubtedly," rejoined Dorothy, with much concern. "But can it not be avoided?"
"I fear not," said Richard, "and I blamed Nicholas much for his precipitancy in giving the order; but he replied he had been held up latterly as a favourer of witches, and must endeavour to redeem his character by a display of severity. Were it not for Alizon, I should rejoice that the noxious brood should at last be utterly exterminated."
"And so should I, in good sooth," responded Dorothy. "As to Elizabeth Device, she is bad enough for any thing, and capable of almost any mischief: but she is nothing to Jennet, who, I am persuaded, would become a second Mother Demdike if her career were not cut short. You have seen the child, and know what an ill-favoured, deformed little creature she is, with round high shoulders, eyes set strangely in her face, and such a malicious expression—oh! I shudder to think of it."
And she covered her face with her hands, as if to shut out some unpleasant object.
"Poor, predestined child of sin, branded by nature from her birth, and charged with wicked passions, as the snake with venom, I cannot but pity her!" exclaimed Richard. "Compassion is entirely thrown away," he added, with a sudden change of manner, and as if trying to shake off a weakness. "The poisonous fruit must, however, be nipped in the bud. Better she should perish now, even though comparatively guiltless, than hereafter with a soul stained with crime, like her mother."
As he concluded, he put his hand quickly to his side, for a sharp and sudden pang shot through his heart; and so acute was the pain, that, after struggling against it for a moment, he groaned deeply, and would have fallen, if his sister, greatly alarmed, and with difficulty repressing a scream, had not lent him support.
Neither of them were aware of the presence of a little girl, who had approached the place where they were sitting, with footsteps so light that the grass scarcely seemed to bend beneath them, and who, ensconcing herself behind the tree, drank in their discourse with eager ears. She was attended by a large black cat, who, climbing the tree, placed himself on a bough above her.
During the latter part of the conversation, and when it turned upon the arrest of Jennet and her mother, the expression of the child's countenance, malicious enough to begin with, became desperately malignant, and she was only restrained by certain signs from the cat, which appeared to be intelligible to her, from some act of mischief. At last even this failed, and before the animal could descend and check her, she crept round the bole of the tree, so as to bring herself close to Richard, and muttering a spell, made one or two passes behind his back, touched him with the point of her finger, but so lightly that he was unconscious of the pressure, and then hastily retreated with the cat, who glared furiously at her from his flaming orbs.
It was at the moment she touched him that Richard felt as if an arrow were quivering in his heart.
Poor Dorothy's alarm was so great that she could not even scream for assistance, and she feared, if she quitted her brother, he would expire before her return; but the agony, though great, was speedily over, and as the spasm ceased, he looked up, and, with a faint smile, strove to re-assure her.
"Do not be alarmed," he said; "it is nothing—a momentary faintness—that is all."
But the damp upon his brow, and the deathly hue of his cheek, contradicted the assertion, and showed how much he had endured. "It was more than momentary faintness, dear Richard," replied Dorothy. "It was a frightful seizure—so frightful that I almost feared; but no matter—you know I am easily alarmed. Thank God! here is some colour coming into your cheeks. You are better now, I see. Lean upon me, and let us return to the house."
"I can walk unassisted," said Richard, rising with an effort.
"Do not despise my feeble aid," replied Dorothy, taking his arm under her own. "You will be quite well soon."
"I am quite well now," said Richard, halting after he had advanced a few paces, "The attack is altogether passed. Do you not see Alizon coming towards us? Not a word of this sudden seizure to her. Do you mind, Dorothy?"
Alizon was soon close behind them, and though, in obedience to Richard's injunctions, no allusion was made to his recent illness, she at once perceived he was suffering greatly, and with much solicitude inquired into the cause. Richard avoided giving a direct answer, and, immediately entering upon Nicholas's visit, tried to divert her attention from himself.
So great a change had been wrought in Alizon's appearance and manner during the last few weeks, that she could scarcely be recognised. Still beautiful as ever, her beauty had lost its earthly character, and had become in the highest degree spiritualised and refined. Humility of deportment and resignation of look, blended with an expression of religious fervour, gave her the appearance of one of the early martyrs. Unremitting ardour in the pursuance of her devotional exercises by day, and long vigils at night, had worn down her frame, and robbed it of some of its grace and fulness of outline; but this attenuation had a charm of its own, and gave a touching interest to her figure, which was wanting before. If her check was thinner and paler, her eyes looked larger and brighter, and more akin to the stars in splendour; and if she appeared less childlike, less joyous, less free from care, the want of these qualities was more than counterbalanced by increased gentleness, resignation, and serenity.
Deeply interested in all Richard told her of her mother, she was greatly concerned to hear of the intended arrest of Elizabeth and Jennet Device, especially the latter. For this unhappy and misguided child she had once entertained the affection of a sister, and it could not but be a source of grief to her to reflect upon her probable fate.
Little more passed between them, for Richard, feeling his strength again fail him, was anxious to reach the house, and Dorothy was quite unequal to conversation. They parted at the door, and as Alizon, after taking leave of her friends, turned to continue her walk in the garden, Richard staggered into the entrance-hall, and sank upon a chair.
Alizon desired to be alone, for she did not wish to have a witness to the grief that overpowered her, and which, when she had gained a retired part of the garden, where she supposed herself free from all observation, found relief in a flood of tears.
For some minutes she was a prey to violent and irrepressible emotion, and had scarcely regained a show of composure, when she heard herself addressed, as she thought, in the voice of the very child whose unlucky fate she was deploring. Looking round in surprise, and seeing no one, she began to think fancy must have cheated her, when a low malicious laugh, arising from a shrubbery near her, convinced her that Jennet was hidden there. And the next moment the little girl stepped from out the trees.
Alizon's first impulse was to catch the child in her arms, and press her to her bosom; but there was something in Jennet's look that deterred her, and so embarrassed her, that she was unable to bestow upon her the ordinary greeting of affection, or even approach her.
Jennet seemed to enjoy her confusion, and laughed spitefully.
"Yo dunna seem ower glad to see me, sister Alizon," said Jennet, at length.
"Sister Alizon!" There was something in the term that now jarred upon the young girl's ears, but she strove to conquer the feeling, as unworthy of her.
"She was once my sister," she thought, "and shall be so still. I will save her, if it be possible." "Jennet," she added aloud, "I know not what chance brings you here, and though I may not give you the welcome you expect, I am rejoiced to see you, because I may be the means of serving you. Do not be alarmed at what I am going to tell you. The danger I hope is passed, or at all events may be avoided. Your liberty is threatened, and at the very moment I see you here I was lamenting your supposed condition as a prisoner."
Jennet laughed louder and more spitefully than before, and looked so like a little fury that Alizon's blood ran cold at the sight of it.
"Ey knoa it aw, sister Alizon," she cried, "an that is why ey ha cum'd here. Brother Jem is a pris'ner i' Whalley Abbey. Mother is a pris'ner theere, too. An ey should ha kept em company, if Tib hadna brought me off. Now, listen to me, Alizon, fo' this is my bus'ness wi' yo. Yo mun get mother an Jem out to-neet—eigh, to-neet. Yo con do it, if yo win. An onless yo do—boh ey winna threaten till ey get yer answer."
"How am I to set them free?" asked Alizon, greatly alarmed.
"Yo need only say the word to young Ruchot Assheton, an the job's done," replied Jennet.
"I refuse—positively refuse to do so!" rejoined Alizon, indignantly.
"Varry weel," cried Jennet, with a look of concentrated malice and fury; "then tak the consequences. They win be ta'en to Lonkester Castle, an lose their lives theere. Bo ye shan go, too—ay, an be brunt os a witch—a witch—d'ye mark, wench? eh!"
"I defy your malice!" cried Alizon.
"Defy me!" screamed Jennet. "What, ho! Tib!"
And at the call the huge black cat sprang from out the shrubbery.
"Tear her flesh from her bones!" cried the little girl, pointing to Alizon, and stamping furiously on the ground.
Tib erected his back, and glared like a tiger, but he seemed unwilling or unable to obey the order.
Alizon, who had completely recovered her courage, regarded him fixedly, and apparently without terror.
"Whoy dusna seize her, an tear her i' pieces?" cried the infuriated child.
"He dares not—he has no power over me," said Alizon. "Oh, Jennet! cast him off. Your wicked agent appears to befriend you now, but he will lead you to certain destruction. Come with me, and I will save you."
"Off!" cried Jennet, repelling her with furious gestures. "Off! ey winna ge wi' ye. Ey winna be saved, os yo term it. Ey hate yo more than ever, an wad strike yo dead at my feet, if ey could. Boh as ey conna do it, ey win find some other means o' injurin' ye. Soh look to yersel, proud ledy—look to yersel? Ey ha already smitten you in a place where ye win feel it sore, an ey win repeat the blow. Ey now leave yo, boh we shan meet again. Come along, Tib!"
So saying, she sprang into the shrubbery, followed by the cat, leaving Alizon appalled by her frightful malignity.
CHAPTER IV.—THE GORGE OF CLIVIGER.
The sun had already set as Nicholas Assheton reached Todmorden, then a very small village indeed, and alighting at a little inn near the church, found the ale so good, and so many boon companions assembled to discuss it, that he would fain have tarried with them for an hour or so; but prudence, for once, getting the better of inclination, and suggesting that he had fifteen or sixteen miles still to ride, over a rough and lonely road, part of which lay through the gorge of Cliviger, a long and solitary pass among the English Apennines, and, moreover, had a large sum of money about him, he tore himself away by a great effort.
On quitting the smiling valley of Todmorden, and drawing near the dangerous defile before mentioned, some misgivings crossed him, and he almost reproached himself with foolhardiness in venturing within it at such an hour, and wholly unattended. Several recent cases of robbery, some of them attended by murder, had occurred within the pass; and these now occurred so forcibly to the squire, that he was half inclined to ride back to Todmorden, and engage two or three of the topers he had left at the inn to serve him as an escort as far as Burnley, but he dismissed the idea almost as soon as formed, and, casting one look at the green and woody slopes around him, struck spurs into Robin, and dashed into the gorge.
On the right towered a precipice, on the bare crest of which stood a heap of stones piled like a column—the remains, probably, of a cairn. On this commanding point Nicholas perceived a female figure, dilated to gigantic proportions against the sky, who, as far as he could distinguish, seemed watching him, and making signs to him, apparently to go back; but he paid little regard to them, and soon afterwards lost sight of her.
Precipitous and almost inaccessible rocks, of every variety of form and hue; some springing perpendicularly up like the spire of a church, others running along in broken ridges, or presenting the appearance of high embattled walls; here riven into deep gullies, there opening into wild savage glens, fit spots for robber ambuscade; now presenting a fair smooth surface, now jagged, shattered, shelving, roughened with brushwood; sometimes bleached and hoary, as in the case of the pinnacled crag called the White Kirk; sometimes green with moss or grey with lichen; sometimes, though but rarely, shaded with timber, as in the approach to the cavern named the Earl's Bower; but generally bold and naked, and sombre in tint as the colours employed by the savage Rosa. Such were the distinguishing features of the gorge of Cliviger when Nicholas traversed it. Now the high embankments and mighty arches of a railway fill up its recesses and span its gullies; the roar of the engine is heard where the cry of the bird of prey alone resounded; and clouds of steam usurp the place of the mist-wreaths on its crags.
Formerly, the high cliffs abounded with hawks; the rocks echoed with their yells and screeches, and the spots adjoining their nests resembled, in the words of the historian of the district, Whitaker, "little charnel-houses for the bones of game." Formerly, also, on some inaccessible point built the rock-eagle, and reared its brood from year to year. The gaunt wolf had once ravaged the glens, and the sly fox and fierce cat-a-mountain still harboured within them. Nor were those the only objects of dread. The superstitious declared the gorge was haunted by a frightful, hirsute demon, yclept Hobthurst.
The general savage character of the ravine was relieved by some spots of exquisite beauty, where the traveller might have lingered with delight, if apprehension of assault from robber, or visit from Hobthurst, had not urged him on. Numberless waterfalls, gushing from fissures in the hills, coursed down their seamy sides, looking like threads of silver as they sprang from point to point. One of the most beautiful of these cascades, issuing from a gully in the rocks near the cavern called the Earl's Bower, fell, in rainy seasons, in one unbroken sheet of a hundred and fifty feet. Through the midst of the gorge ran a swift and brawling stream, known by the appellation of the Calder; but it must not be confounded with the river flowing past Whalley Abbey. The course of this impetuous current was not always restrained within its rocky channel, and when swollen by heavy rains, it would frequently invade the narrow causeway running beside it, and, spreading over the whole width of the gorge, render the road almost impassable.
Through this rocky and sombre defile, and by the side of the brawling Calder, which dashed swiftly past him, Nicholas took his way. The hawks were yelling overhead; the rooks were cawing on the topmost branches of some tall timber, on which they built; a raven was croaking lustily in the wood; and a pair of eagles were soaring in the still glowing sky.
By-and-by, the glen contracted, and a wall of steep rocks on either side hemmed the shuddering traveller in. Instinctively, he struck spurs into his horse, and accelerated his pace.
The narrow glen expands, the precipices fall further back, and the traveller breathes more freely. Still, he does not relax his speed, for his imagination has been at work in the gloom, peopling his path with lurking robbers or grinning boggarts. He begins to fear he shall lose his gold, and execrates his folly for incurring such heedless risk. But it is too late now to turn back.
It grows rapidly dusk, and objects became less and less distinct, assuming fantastical and fearful forms. A blasted tree, clinging to a rock, and thrusting a bare branch across the road, looks to the squire like a bandit; and a white owl bursting from a bush, scares him as if it had been Hobthurst himself. However, in spite of these and other alarms, for which he is indebted to excited fancy, he hurries on, and is proceeding at a thundering pace, when all at once his horse comes to a stop, arrested by a tall female figure, resembling that seen near the mountain cairn at the entrance of the gorge.
Nicholas's blood ran cold, for though in this case he could not apprehend plunder, he was fearful of personal injury, for he believed the woman to be a witch. Mustering up courage, however, he forced Robin to proceed.
If his progress was meant to be barred, a better spot for the purpose could not have been selected. A narrow road, scarcely two feet in width, ran round the ledge of a tremendous crag, jutting so far into the glen that it almost met the steep barrier of rocks opposite it. Between these precipitous crags dashed the river in a foaming cascade, nearly twelve feet in height, and the steep narrow causeway winding beside it, as above described, was rendered excessively slippery and dangerous from the constant cloud of spray arising from the fall.
At the highest and narrowest point of the ledge, and occupying nearly the whole of its space, with an overhanging rock on one side of her, and a roaring torrent on the other, stood the tall woman, determined apparently, from her attitude and deportment, to oppose the squire's further progress. As Nicholas advanced, he became convinced that it was the same person he had seen near the cairn; but, when her features grew distinguishable, he found to his surprise that it was Nance Redferne.
"Halloa! Nance," he cried. "What are you doing here, lass, eh?"
"Cum to warn ye, squoire," she replied; "yo once did me a sarvice, an ey hanna forgetten it. That's why I watched ye fro' the cairn cliffs, an motioned ye to ge back. Boh ye didna onderstand my signs, or wouldna heed 'em, so ey be cum'd here to stay ye. Yo're i' dawnger, ey tell ye."
"In danger of what, my good woman?" demanded the squire uneasily.
"O' bein' robbed, and plundered o' your gowd," replied Nance; "there are five men waitin' to set upon ye a mile further on, at the Bowder Stoans."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Nicholas; "they will get little for their pains. I have no money about me."
"Dunna think to deceive me, squoire," rejoined Nance; "ey knoa yo ha borrowed three hundert punds i' gowd fro' yung Ruchot Assheton; an os surely os ye ha it aw under your jerkin, so surely win yo lose it, if yo dunna turn back, or ge on without me keepin' ye company."
"I have no objection on earth to your company, Nance," replied the squire; "quite the contrary. But how the devil should these rascals expect me? And, above all, how should they conjecture I should come so well provided? For, sooth to say, such is not ordinarily the case with me."
"Ey knoa it weel, squoire," replied Nance, with a laugh; boh they ha received sartin information o' your movements."
"There is only one person who could give them such information," cried Nicholas; "but I cannot, will not suspect him."
"If yor're thinkin' o' Lawrence Fogg, yo're na far wide o' th' mark, squoire," replied Nance.
"What! Fogg leagued with robbers—impossible!" exclaimed Nicholas.
"Neaw, it's nah so unpossible os aw that," returned Nance; "yo 'n stare when ey tell yo he has robbed yo mony a time without your being aware on it. Yo were onwise enough to send him round to your friends to borrow money for yo."
"True, so I was. But, luckily, no one would lend me any," said Nicholas.
"There yo're wrong, squoire—fo' unluckily they aw did," replied Nance, with a scarcely-suppressed laugh. "Roger Nowell gied him one hundred; Tummus Whitaker of Holme, another; Ruchot Parker o' Browsholme, another. An more i' th' same way."
"And the rascal pocketed it all, and never brought me back one farthing," cried Nicholas, in a transport of rage. "I'll have him hanged—pshaw! hanging's too good for him. To deceive me, his friend, his benefactor, his patron, in such a manner; to dwell in my house, eat at my table, drink my wine, wear my habiliments, ride my horses, hunt with my hounds! Has the dog no conscience?"
"Varry little, ey'm afear'd," replied Nance.
"And the worst of it is," continued the squire—new lights breaking upon him, "I shall be liable for all the sums he has received. He was my confidential agent, and the lenders will come upon me. It must be six or seven hundred pounds that he has obtained in this nefarious way. Zounds! I shall go mad."
"Yo wur to blame fo' trustin him, squoire," rejoined Nance. "Yo ought to ha' made proper inquiries about him at first, an then yo'd ha' found out what sort o' chap he wur. Boh now ey'n tell ye. Lawrence Fogg is chief o' a band o' robbers, an aw the black an villanous deeds done of late i' this place, ha' been parpetrated by his men. A poor gentleman wur murdert by 'em i' this varry spot th' week efore last, an his body cast into t' river. Fogg, of course, had no hont in the fow deed, boh he would na ha interfered to prevent it if he had bin here, fo' he never scrupled shedding blood. An if he had bin content wi' robbin' yo, squoire, ey wadna ha betrayed him; boh when he proposed to cut your throttle, bekose, os he said, dead men tell neaw teles, ey could howd out nah longer, an resolved to gi' yo warnin."
"What a monstrous and unheard-of villain!" cried the squire. "But is he one of the ambuscade?"
Nance replied in the affirmative.
"Then, by heaven! I will confront him—I will hew him down," pursued Nicholas, griping the hilt of his sword.
"Neaw use, ey tell ye—yo'n be overpowert an kilt," said Nance. "Tak me wi' yo, an ey'n carry yo safely through em aw; boh ge alone, or yo'n ne'er see Downham again. An now it's reet ey should tell ye who Lawrence Fogg really is."
"What new wonder is in store for me?" cried Nicholas. "Who is he?"
"Maybe yo ha heerd tell that Mother Demdike had a son and a dowter," replied Nance; "the dowter bein', of course, Elizabeth Device; and the son, Christopher Demdike, being supposed to be dead. Howsomever, this is not the case, for Lawrence Fogg is he."
"I guessed as much when you began," cried Nicholas. "He has a cursedly bad look about the eyes—a damned Demdike physiognomy. What an infernal villain the fellow must be! without a jot of natural feeling. Why, he has this very day assisted at his nephew's capture, and caused his own sister to be arrested. Oh, I have been properly duped! To lodge a son of that infernal hag in my house—feed him, clothe him, make him my friend—take him, the viper! to my bosom! I have been rightly served. But he shall hang!—he shall hang! That is some consolation, though slight. But how do you know all this, Nance?"
"Dunna ax me," she replied. "Whatever ey ha' been to Christopher Demdike, ey bear him neaw love now; fo', as ey ha towd yo, he is a black-hearted murtherin' villain. Boh lemme get up behind yo, an ey'n bring yo through scatheless. An to-morrow yo may arrest the whole band at Malkin Tower."
"Malkin Tower!" exclaimed the squire, in fresh surprise. "What, have these robbers taken up their quarters there? This accounts for all the strange sights said to have been seen there of late, and which I treated as mere fables. But, ah! a terrible thought crosses me. What have I done? Mistress Nutter will be there to-night. And I have sent her. Death and destruction! she will fall into their hands. I must go there at once. I cannot take any assistance with me. That would betray the poor lady."
"If yo'n trust me, ey'n help yo through the difficulty," replied Nance.
"Get up then quickly, lass, since it must be so," rejoined Nicholas.
With this he moved forward, and giving her his hand, she was instantly seated behind him upon Robin, who seemed no way incommoded by his double burthen, but dashed down the further side of the causeway, in answer to a sharp application of the spur. Passing her arms round the squire's waist, Nance maintained her seat well; and in this way they rattled along, heedless of the increasing difficulties of the road, or the fast-gathering gloom.
The mile was quickly passed, and Nance whispered in the squire's ear that they were approaching the Boulder Stones. Presently they came to a narrow glen, half-filled with huge rocky fragments, detached from the toppling precipices on either side, and forming an admirable place of ambuscade. One rock, larger than the rest, completely commanded the pass, and, as the squire advanced, a thundering voice from it called to him to stay; and the injunction being disregarded, the barrel of a gun was protruded from the bushes covering its brow, and a shot fired at him. Though well aimed, the ball struck the ground beneath his horse's feet, and Nicholas continued his way unmoved, while the faulty marksman jumped down the crag. At the same time four other men started from their places of concealment behind the stones, and, levelling their calivers at the fugitives, fired. The sharp discharges echoed along the gorge, and the shots rattled against the rocks, but none of them took effect, and Nicholas might have gone on without further hindrance; but, despite Nance's remonstrances, who urged him to go on, he pulled up to await the coming of the person who had first challenged him. Scarcely an instant elapsed before he was beside the squire, and presented a petronel at his head. Notwithstanding the gloom, Nicholas recognised him.
"Ah! is it thou, accursed traitor?" cried Nicholas. "I could scarcely believe in thy villainy, but now I am convinced."
"The jade you have got behind you has told you who I am, I see," replied Fogg. "I will settle with her anon. But this will save further explanations with you!"
And he discharged the petronel full at the squire. But the ball rebounded, as if his doublet had been quilted. It was in fact lined with gold. On seeing the squire unhurt, the robber captain uttered an exclamation of rage and astonishment.
"You are mistaken, you see, perfidious villain," cried Nicholas. "You have yet to render an account of all the wrongs you have done me, but meantime you shall not pass unpunished."
And as he spoke, he snatched the petronel from Fogg, and with the but-end dealt him a tremendous blow on the head, felling him to the ground.
By this time the other robbers had descended from the rocks, and, seeing the fall of their leader, rushed forward to avenge him, but Nicholas did not tarry for any further encounter; but, fully satisfied with what he had done, struck spurs into Robin, and galloped off. For a few minutes he could hear the shouts of the men, but they soon afterwards died away.
Little more than half the ravine had been traversed when the rencounter above described took place; but, though the road was still difficult and dangerous, and rendered doubly so by the obscurity, no further hindrance occurred till just as Nicholas was quitting the gloomy intricacies of the gorge, and approaching the more open country beyond it. At this point Robin fell, throwing both him and Nance, and when the animal rose again he was found to be so much injured that it was impossible to mount him. There was no resource but to proceed to Burnley, which was still three or four miles distant, on foot.
In this dilemma, Nance volunteered to provide the squire with another steed, but he resolutely refused the offer.
"No, no—none of your broomsticks for me," he cried; "no devil's horses—I don't know where they may carry me. My own legs must serve me now. I'll just take poor Robin out of the road, and then trudge off for Burnley as fast as I can."
With this, he led the horse to a small green mead skirting the stream, and taking off his saddle and bridle, and depositing them carefully under a tree, he patted the animal on the neck, promising to return for him on the morrow, and then set off at a brisk pace, with Nance walking beside him. They had not gone far, however, when the clattering of hoofs was heard behind them, and it was evident that several horsemen were rapidly approaching. Nance stopped, listened for a moment, and then declaring that it was Demdike and his band in pursuit, seized the squire's arm and drew him out of the road, and under the shelter of some bushes of hazel. The robber captain could only have been stunned, it appeared; and, as soon as he had recovered from the effects of the blow, had mounted his horse, which was concealed, with those of his men, behind the rocks, and started after the fugitives. Such was the construction put upon the matter by Nance, and the event proved it correct. A loud shout from the horsemen, and a sudden halt, proclaimed that poor Robin had been discovered; and this circumstance seemed to give great satisfaction to Demdike, who loudly declared that they were now sure of overtaking the runaways.
"They cannot be far off," he cried; "but they will most likely attempt to hide themselves, so look well about you."
So saying, he rode on, and it was evident from the noise, that the men implicitly obeyed his injunctions. Nothing, however, was found, and ere many minutes Demdike came up, and glancing at the hazels, behind which the fugitives were hidden, he discharged a petronel into the largest tree, but as no movement followed the report, he said—
"I thought I saw something move here, but I suppose I was mistaken. No doubt they have got on further than we expected, or have retired into some of the cloughs, in which case it will be useless to search for them. However, we will make sure of them in this way. Two of you shall form an ambuscade near Holme and two further on within half a mile of Burnley, and shall remain on the watch till dawn, so that you will be sure to capture them, and when taken, make away with them without hesitation. Unless my skull had been of the strongest, that butcherly squire would have cracked it, so he shall have no grace from me; and as to that treacherous witch, Nance Redferne, she deserves death at our hands, and she shall have her deserts. I have long suspected her, and, indeed, was a fool to trust one of the vile Chattox brood, who are all my natural enemies—but no matter, I shall have my revenge."
The men having promised compliance with their captain's command, he went on—
"As to myself," he said, "I shall go forthwith, and as fast as my horse can carry me, to Malkin Tower, and I will tell you why. It is not that I dislike the game we are upon, but I have better to play just now. Tom Shaw, the cock-master at Downham, who is in my pay, rode over to Whalley this afternoon, to bring me word that a certain lady, who has long been concealed in the Manor-house, will be taken to Malkin Tower to-night. The intelligence is certain, for he had obtained it from Old Crouch, the huntsman, who is to escort her. Thus, Mistress Nutter, for you all know whom I mean, will fall naturally into our hands, and we can wring any sums of money we like out of her; for though she has abandoned her property to her daughter, Alizon, she can no doubt have as much as she wants, and I will take care she asks for plenty, or I will try the effect of some of those instruments of torture which I was lucky enough to find in the dungeons of Malkin Tower, and which were used for a like purpose by my predecessor, Blackburn, the freebooter. Are you content, my lads?"
"Ay, ay, Captain Demdike," they replied.
Upon this the whole party set forward, and were speedily out of hearing. As soon as they thought it prudent to come forth, the squire and Nance emerged from their place of shelter.
"What is to be done?" exclaimed the former, who was almost in a state of distraction. "The villain has announced his intention of going to Malkin Tower, and Mistress Nutter will assuredly fall into his hands. Oh! that I could stop him, or get there before him!"
"Yo shan, if yo like to ride wi' me," said Nance.
"But how—in what way?" asked Nicholas.
"Leave that to me," replied Nance, breaking off a long branch of hazel. "Tak howld o' this," she cried.
The squire obeyed, and was instantly carried off his legs, and whisked through the air at a prodigious rate.
He felt giddy and confused, but did not dare to leave go, lest he should be dashed in pieces, while Nance's wild laughter rang in his ears.
Over the bleached and perpendicular crag—startling the eagle from his eyry—over the yawning gully with the torrent roaring beneath him—over the sharp ridges of the hill—over Townley park—over Burnley steeple—over the wide valley beyond, he went—until at last, bewildered, out of breath, and like one in a dream, he alighted on a brown, bare, heathy expanse, and within a hundred yards of a tall, circular stone structure, which he knew to be Malkin Tower.
CHAPTER V.—THE END OF MALKIN TOWER.
The shades of night had fallen on Downham manor-house, and with an aching heart, and a strong presentiment of ill, Mistress Nutter prepared to quit the little chamber which had sheltered her for more than two months, and where she would willingly have breathed her latest sigh, if it had been so permitted her. Closing the Bible she had been reading, she placed the sacred volume under her arm, and taking up a small bundle, containing her slender preparations for travel, extinguished the taper, and then descending by a secret staircase, passed through a door, fashioned externally like a cupboard, and entered a summer-house, where she found old Crouch awaiting her.
A few whispered words only passed between her and the huntsman, and informing her that the horses were in waiting at the back of the garden, he took the bundle from her, and would fain have relieved her also of the Bible, but she would not part with it, and pressing it more closely to her bosom, said she was quite ready to attend him.
It was a beautiful, starlight night; the air soft and balmy, and laden with the perfume of the flowers. A nightingale was singing plaintively in an adjoining tree, and presently came a response equally tender from another part of the grove. Mistress Nutter could not choose but listen, and the melody so touched her that she was half suffocated by repressed emotion, for, alas! the relief of tears was denied her.
Motioning her somewhat impatiently to come on, Crouch struck into a sombre alley, edged by clipped yew-trees, and terminating in a plantation, through which a winding path led to the foot of the hill whereon the mansion was situated. By daylight this was a beautiful walk, affording exquisite glimpses through the trees of the surrounding scenery, and commanding a noble view of Pendle Hill, the dominant point in the prospect. But even now to the poor lady, so long immured in her cell-like chamber, and deprived of many of nature's choicest blessings, it appeared delightful. The fresh air, redolent of new-mown hay, fanned her pale cheek and feverish brow, and allayed her agitation and excitement. The perfect stillness, broken only by the lowing of the cattle in the adjoining pastures, by the drowsy hum of the dor-fly, or the rippling of the beck in the valley, further calmed her; and the soothing influence was completed by a contemplation of the serene heavens, wherein were seen the starry host, with the thin bright crescent of the new moon in the midst of them, diffusing a pearly light around her. One blot alone appeared in the otherwise smiling sky, and this was a great, ugly, black cloud lowering over the summit of Pendle Hill.
Mistress Nutter noticed the portentous cloud, and noticed also its shadow on the hill, which might have been cast by the Fiend himself, so like was it to a demoniacal shape with outstretched wings; but, though shuddering at the idea it suggested, she would not suffer it to obtain possession of her mind, but resolutely fixed her attention on other and more pleasing objects.
By this time they had reached the foot of the hill, and a gate admitted them to a road running by the side of Downham beck. Here they found the horses in charge of a man in the dark red livery of Nicholas Assheton, and who was no other than Tom Shaw, the rascally cock-master. Delivering the bridles to Crouch, the knave hastily strode away, but he lingered at a little distance to see the lady mount; and then leaping the hedge, struck through the plantation towards the hall, chinking the money in his pockets as he went, and thinking how cleverly he had earned it. But he did not go unpunished; for it is a satisfaction to record that, in walking through the woods, he was caught in a gin placed there by Crouch, which held him fast in its iron teeth till morning, when he was discovered by one of the under-keepers while going his rounds, in a deplorable condition, and lamed for life.
Meanwhile, unconscious either of the manner in which she had been betrayed, or of the punishment awaiting her betrayer, Mistress Nutter followed her conductor in silence. For a while the road continued by the side of the brook, and then quitting it, commenced a long and tedious ascent, running between high banks fringed with trees. The overhanging boughs rendered it so dark that Mistress Nutter could scarcely distinguish the old huntsman, though he was not many yards in advance of her, but she heard the tramp of his horse, and that was enough.
All at once, where the boughs were thickest, and the road darkest, she perceived a small fiery object on the bank, and in her alarm called out to the huntsman, who, looking back for a moment, laughed, and told her not to be uneasy, for it was only a glow-worm. Ashamed of her idle fears she rode on, but had not proceeded far, when, looking again at the bank, she saw it studded with the same lights. This time she did not call out or scream, but gazed steadily at the twinkling fires, hoping to get the better of her fears. Her alarm, however, rose to absolute terror, as she beheld the glow-worms—if glow-worms they were—twist together and form themselves into a flaming brand, such as she had seen in her vision, grasped by the angel who had driven her from the gates of Paradise.
Averting her gaze, she would have hastened on, but a hand suddenly laid upon her bridle, held back her horse; and she then perceived a tall dark man, mounted on a sable steed, riding beside her. The supernatural character of the horseman was manifest, inasmuch as no sound was caused by the tread of his steed, nor did he appear to be visible to Crouch when the latter looked back. Mistress Nutter maintained her seat with difficulty. She well knew who was her companion.
"Soh, Alice Nutter," said the horseman at length, in a low deep tone, "you have chosen to shut yourself up in a narrow cell, like a recluse, for more than two months, denying yourself all sort of enjoyment, practising severest abstinence, and passing your whole time in useless prayer—ay, useless, for if you were to pray from now till doomsday—come when it will, a thousand years hence, or to-morrow—it will not save you. When you signed that bond to my master, sentence was recorded against you, and no power can recall it. Why, then, these unavailing lamentations? Why utter prayers which are rejected, and supplications which are scorned? Shake off this weakness, Alice, and be yourself again. Once you had pride enough, and a little of it would now be of service to you. You would then see the folly of this abject conduct—humbling yourself to the dust only to be spurned, and suing for mercy only to be derided. Pray as loud and as long as you will, the ears of Heaven will remain ever deaf to you."
"I hope otherwise," rejoined the lady, meekly.
"Do not deceive yourself," replied the horseman. "The term granted you by your compact will not be abridged, but it is your own fault if it be not extended. Your daughter is destroying herself in the vain hope of saving you. Her prayers are unavailing as your own, and recoil from the Judgment Throne unheard. The youth upon whom her affections are fixed is stricken with a deadly ailment. It is in your power to save them both."
Mistress Nutter groaned deeply.
"It is in your power, I say, to save them," continued the horseman, "by returning to your allegiance to your master. He will forgive your disobedience if you prove yourself zealous in his service; will restore you to your former worldly position; avenge you of your enemies; and accomplish all you may desire with respect to your daughter."
"He cannot do it," replied Mistress Nutter.
"Cannot!" echoed the horseman. "Try him! For many years I have served you as familiar; and you have never set me the task I have failed to execute. I am ready to become your servant again, and to offer you a yet larger range of control. Put no limits to your desires or ambition. If you are tired of this narrow sphere, take a wider. Look abroad. But do not shut yourself up in a narrow cell, and persuade yourself you are accomplishing your ultimate deliverance, when you are only wasting precious time, which might be more advantageously and far more agreeably employed. While laughing at your folly, my master deplores it; and he has, therefore, sent me as to one for whom notwithstanding all derelictions from duty, he has still a regard, with an offer of full forgiveness, provided you return to him at once, and renew your covenant, proving your sincerity by casting from you the book you hold under your arm."
"Your snares are not laid subtle enough to catch me," replied Mistress Nutter. "I will never part with this holy volume, which is my present safeguard, and on which I build my hopes of salvation—hopes which your very proposals have revived in my breast; for I am well assured your master would not make them if he felt confident of his power over me. No; I defy him and you, and I command you in Heaven's name to get hence, and to tempt me no longer."
As the words were uttered, with a howl of rage and mortification, like the roar of a wild beast, the dark horseman and his steed vanished. Alarmed by the sound, Crouch stopped, and questioned the lady as to its cause; but receiving no satisfactory explanation from her, he bade her ride quickly on, affirming it must be the boggart of the clough.
Soon after this they again came upon Downham beck, and were about to cross it, when their purpose was arrested by a joyous barking, and the next moment Grip came up. The dog, it appeared, had been shut up in the stable, his company not being desired on the expedition; but contriving in some way or other to get out, he had scented his master's course, and in the end overtaken him. Crouch did not know whether to be angry or pleased, and at first gave utterance to an oath, and raised his whip to chastise him, but almost instantly the latter feeling predominated, and he welcomed the faithful animal with a few kind words.
"Ey suppose theaw thowt ey couldna do without thee, Grip," he said, "and mayhap theaw'rt reet."
They are now across the beck, and speeding over the wide brown waste. The huntsman warily shapes his course so as to avoid any limestone-quarries or turf-pits. He points out a jack-o'-lantern dancing merrily on the surface of a dangerous morass, and tells a dismal tale of a traveller lured into it by the delusive light, and swallowed up.
Mistress Nutter pays little heed to him, but ever and anon looks back, as if in dread of some one behind her. But no one is visible, and she only sees the great black cloud still hovering over Pendle Hill.
On—on—they go; their horses' hoofs now splashing through the wet sod, now beating upon the firm but elastic turf. A merry ride it would be if their errand were different, and their hearts free from care. The air is fresh and reviving, and the rapid motion exhilarating. The stars shine out, and the crescent moon is still glittering in the heavens, but the black cloud hangs motionless on Pendle Hill.
Now and then some bird of night flies past them, and they hear the whooping of the owl, and see him skimming like a ghost over the waste. Then more fen fires arise, showing that other treacherous quagmires are at hand; but Crouch skirts them safely. Now the bull-frog croaks in the marsh, and a deep booming tells of a bittern passing by. They see the mighty bird above them, with his wide heavy wings and long neck. Grip howls at him, but is instantly checked by his master, and they gallop on.
They are now by the side of Pendle Water, and within sight of Rough Lee. What tumultuous thoughts agitate the lady's breast! The ground she tramples on was once her own; the woods by the river side were planted by her; the mansion before her once owned her as mistress, and now she dares not approach it. Nor does she desire to do so, for the sight of it brings back terrible recollections, and fills her again with despair.
They are now close upon it, and it appears dark, silent, and deserted. How different from what it was of yore in her husband's days—the husband she had foully slain! Speed on, old huntsman!—lash your panting horse, or the remorseful lady will far outstrip you, for she rides as if the avenging furies were at her heels.
She is rattling over the bridge, and Crouch, toiling after her, and with Grip toiling after him, shouts to her to moderate her pace. She looks back, and beholds the grim old house frowning full upon her, and hurries on. Huntsman and dog are left behind for awhile, but the steep ascent soon compels her to slacken speed, and they come up, Crouch swearing lustily, and Grip, with his tongue out of his mouth, limping as if foot-sore.
The road now leads through a thicket. The horses stumble frequently, for the stones are loose, and the footing consequently uncertain. Crouch has a fall, and ere he can remount the lady is gone. It is useless to hurry after her, and he is proceeding slowly, when Grip, who is a little in advance, growls fiercely, and looks back at his master, as if to intimate that danger is at hand. The huntsman presses on, but he is too late, if, indeed, he could at any time have rendered effectual assistance. A clearing in the thicket shows him the lady dismounted, and surrounded by several wild-looking men armed with calivers. Part of the band bear her shrieking off, and the rest fire at him, but without effect, and then chase him as far as the steepest part of the hill, down which he dashes, followed by Grip. Arrived at the bottom, he pauses to listen if he is pursued, and hearing nothing further to alarm him, debates with himself what is best to be done; and, not liking to alarm the village, for that would be to betray Mistress Nutter, he gets off his horse, ties him to a tree, and with Grip close at his heels, commences the ascent of the hill by a different road from that he had previously taken.
Meanwhile, Mistress Nutter's captors dragged her forcibly towards the tower. Their arms and appearance left her no doubt they were depredators, and she sought to convince them she had neither money nor valuables in her possession. They laughed at her assertions, but made no other reply. Her sole consolation was, that they did not seek to deprive her of her Bible.
On reaching the tower, a signal was given by one of the foremost of the band, and the steps being lowered from the high doorway, she was compelled to ascend them, and being pushed along a short passage, obscured by a piece of thick tapestry, but which was drawn aside as she advanced, she found herself in a circular chamber, in the midst of which was a massive table covered with flasks and drinking-cups, and stained with wine. From the roof, which was crossed by great black beams of oak, was suspended a lamp with three burners, whose light showed that the walls were garnished with petronels, rapiers, poniards, and other murderous weapons; besides these there were hung from pegs long riding-cloaks, sombreros, vizards, and other robber accoutrements, including a variety of disguises, from the clown's frieze jerkin to the gentleman's velvet doublet, ready to be assumed on an emergency. Here and there was an open valise, or a pair of saddle-bags with their contents strewn about the floor, and on a bench were a dice-box and shuffle-board, showing, with the flasks and goblets on the table, how the occupants of the tower passed their time.
A steep ladder-like flight of steps led to the upper chamber, and down these, at the very moment of Mistress Nutter's entrance, descended a stalwart personage, who eyed her fiercely as he leapt upon the floor. There was something in the man's truculent physiognomy, and strange and oblique vision, that reminded her of Mother Demdike.
"Welcome to Malkin Tower, madam," said the robber with a grin, and doffing his cap with affected courtesy. "We have met before, but it is many years ago, and I dare say you have forgotten me. You will guess who I am when I tell you my mother occupied this tower before me."
Finding Mistress Nutter made no remark, he went on.
"I am Christopher Demdike, madam—Captain Demdike, I should say. The brave fellows who have brought you hither are part of my band, and till lately Northumberland and the borders of Scotland used to be our scene of action; but chancing to hear of my worthy old mother's death, I thought we could not do better than take possession of her stronghold, which devolved upon me by right of inheritance. Since our arrival here we have kept ourselves very quiet, and the country folk, taking us for spirits or demons, never approach our hiding-place; while, as all our depredations are confined to distant parts, our retreat has never been suspected."
"This concerns me little," observed Mistress Nutter, coldly.
"Pardon me, madam, it concerns you much, as you will learn anon. But be seated, I pray you," he said, with mock civility. "I am keeping you standing all this while."
But as the lady declined the attention, he went on.
"I was fortunate enough, on first coming back to this part of the country, to pick up an acquaintance with your relative, Nicholas Assheton, who invited me to stay with him at Downham, and was so well pleased with my society that he could not endure to part with me."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mistress Nutter, "are you the person he called Lawrence Fogg?"
"The same," replied Demdike; "and no doubt you would hear a good report of me, madam. Well, it suited my purpose to stay; for I was very hospitably entertained by the squire, who, except being rather too much addicted to lectures and psalm-singing, is as pleasant a host as one could desire; besides which, he was obliging enough to employ me to borrow money for him, and what I got, I kept, you may be sure."
"I would willingly be spared the details of your knavery," said Mistress Nutter, somewhat impatiently.
"I am coming to an end," rejoined Demdike, "and then, perhaps, you may wish I had prolonged them. All the squire's secrets were committed to me, and I was fully aware of your concealment in the hall, but I could never ascertain precisely where you were lodged. I meant to carry you off, and only awaited the opportunity which has presented itself to-night."
"If you think to obtain money from me, you will find yourself mistaken," said Mistress Nutter. "I have parted with all my possessions."
"But to whom, madam?" cried Demdike, with a sinister smile—"to your daughter. And I am sure she is too gentle, too tender-hearted, to allow you to suffer when she can relieve you. You must get us a good round sum from her or you will be detained here long. The dungeons are dark and unwholesome, and my band are apt to be harsh in their treatment of captives. They have found in the vaults some instruments of torture belonging to old Blackburn, the freebooter, the efficacy of which in an obstinate case I fear they might be inclined to try. You now begin to see the drift of my discourse, madam, and understand the sort of men you have to deal with—barbarous fellows, madam—inhuman dogs!"
And he laughed coarsely at his own jocularity.
"It may put an end to this discussion," said Mistress Nutter firmly, "if I declare that no torture shall induce me to make any such demand from my daughter."
"You think, perhaps, I am jesting with you, madam," rejoined Demdike.
"Oh! no, I believe you capable of any atrocity," replied the lady. "You do not, either in feature or deeds, belie your parentage."
"Ah! say you so, madam?" cried Demdike. "You have a sharp tongue, I find. Courtesy is thrown away upon you. What, ho! lads—Kenyon and Lowton, take the lady down to the vaults, and there let her have an hour for solitary reflection. She may change her mind in that time."
"Do not think it," cried Mistress Nutter, resolutely.
"If you continue obstinate, we will find means to move you," rejoined Demdike, in a taunting tone. "But what has she got beneath her arm? Give me the book. What's this?—a Bible! A witch with a Bible! It should be a grimoire. Ha! ha!"
"Give it me back, I implore of you," shrieked the lady. "I shall be destroyed, soul and body, if I have it not with me."
"What! you are afraid the devil may carry you off without it—ho! ho!" roared Demdike. "Well, that would not suit my purpose at present. Here, take it—and now off with her, lads, without more ado!"
And as he spoke, a trapdoor was opened by one of the robbers, disclosing a flight of steps leading to the subterranean chambers, down which the miserable lady was dragged.
Presently the two men re-appeared with a grim smile on their ruffianly countenances, and, as they closed the trapdoor, one of them observed to the captain that they had chained her to a pillar, by removing the band from the great skeleton, and passing it round her body.
"You have done well, lads," replied Demdike, approvingly; "and now go all of you and scour the hill-top, and return in an hour, and we will decide upon what is to be done with this woman."
The two men then joined the rest of their comrades outside, and the whole troop descended the steps, which were afterwards drawn up by Demdike. This done, the robber captain returned to the circular chamber, and for some time paced to and fro, revolving his dark schemes. He then paused, and placing his ear near the trapdoor, listened, but as no sound reached him, he sat down at the table, and soon grew so much absorbed as to be unconscious that a dark figure was creeping stealthily down the narrow staircase behind him.
"I cannot get rid of Nicholas Assheton," he exclaimed at length. "I somehow fancy we shall meet again; and yet all should be over with him by this time."
"Look round!" thundered a voice behind him. "Nicholas Assheton is not to be got rid of so easily."
At this unexpected summons, Demdike started to his feet, and recoiled aghast, as he saw what he took to be the ghost of the murdered squire standing before him. A second look, however, convinced him that it was no phantom he beheld, but a living man, armed for vengeance, and determined upon it.
"Get a weapon, villain," cried Nicholas, in tones of concentrated fury. "I do not wish to take unfair advantage, even of thee."
Without a word of reply, Demdike snatched a sword from the wall, and the next moment was engaged in deadly strife with the squire. They were well matched, for both were powerful men, both expert in the use of their weapons, and the combat might have been protracted and of doubtful issue but for the irresistible fury of Nicholas, who assaulted his adversary with such vigour and determination that he speedily drove him against the wall, where the latter made an attempt to seize a petronel hanging beside him, but his purpose being divined, he received a thrust through the arm, and, dropping his blade, lay at the squire's mercy.
Nicholas shortened his sword, but forbore to strike. Seizing his enemy by the throat, he hurled him to the ground, and, planting his knee on his chest, called out, "What, ho, Nance!"
"Nance!" exclaimed Demdike,—"then it was that mischievous jade who brought you here."
"Ay," replied the squire, as the young woman came quickly down the steps,—"and I refused her aid in the conflict because I felt certain of mastering thee, and because I would not take odds even against such a treacherous villain as thou art."
"Better dispatch him, squire," said Nance; "he may do yo a mischief yet."
"No—no," replied Nicholas, "he is unworthy of a gentleman's sword. Besides, I have sworn to hang him, and I will keep my word. Go down into the vaults and liberate Mistress Nutter, while I bind him, for we must take him with us. To-morrow, he shall lie in Lancaster Castle with his kinsfolk."
"That remains to be seen," muttered Demdike.
"Be on your guard, squire," cried Nance, as she lifted a small lamp, and raised the trapdoor.
With this caution, she descended to the vaults, while Nicholas looked about for a thong, and perceiving a rope dangling down the wall near him, he seized it, drawing it with some force towards him.
A sudden sound reached his ears—clang! clang! He had rung the alarm-bell violently.
Clang! clang! clang! Would it never stop?
Taking advantage of his surprise and consternation, Demdike got from under him, sprang to his feet, and rushing to the doorway, instantly let fall the steps, roaring out,—
"Treason! to the rescue, my men! to the rescue!"
His cries were immediately answered from without, and it was evident from the tumult that the whole of the band were hurrying to his assistance.
Not a moment was to be lost by the squire. Plunging through the trapdoor, he closed it after him, and bolted it underneath at the very moment the robbers entered the chamber. Demdike's rage at finding him gone was increased, when all the combined efforts of his men failed in forcing open the trapdoor.
"Take hatchets and hew it open!" he cried; "we must have them. I have heard there is a secret outlet below, and though I have never been able to discover it, it may be known to Nance. I will go outside, and watch. If you hear me whistle, come forth instantly."
And, rushing forth, he was making the circuit, of the tower, and examining some bushes at its base, when his throat was suddenly seized by a dog, and before he could even utter an exclamation, much less sound his whistle, or use his arms, he was grappled by the old huntsman, and dragged off to a considerable distance, the dog still clinging to his throat.
Meanwhile, Nicholas had hurried down into the vaults, where he found Nance sustaining Mistress Nutter, who was half fainting, and hastily explaining what had occurred, she consigned the lady to him, and then led the way through the central range of pillars, and past the ebon image, until she approached the wall, when, holding up the lamp, she revealed a black marble slab between the statues of Blackburn and Isole. Pressing against it, the slab moved on one side, and disclosed a flight of steps.
"Go up there," cried Nance to the squire, "and when ye get to th' top, yo'n find another stoan, wi' a nob in it. Yo canna miss it. Go on."
"But you!" cried the squire. "Will you not come with us?"
"Ey'n come presently," replied Nance, with a strange smile. "Ey ha summat to do first. That cunning fox Demdike has set a trap fo' himsel an aw his followers,—and it's fo' me to ketch 'em. Wait fo' me about a hundert yorts fro' th' tower. Nah nearer—yo onderstand?"
Nicholas did not very clearly understand, but concluding Nance had some hidden meaning in what she said, he resolved unhesitatingly to obey her. Having got clear of the tower, as directed, with Mistress Nutter, he ran on with her to some distance, when what was his surprise to find Crouch and Grip keeping watch over the prostrate robber chief. A few words from the huntsman sufficed to explain how this had come about, but they were scarcely uttered when Nance rushed up in breathless haste, crying out—"Off! further off! as yo value your lives!"
Seeing from her manner that delay would be dangerous, Nicholas and Crouch laid hold of the prisoner and bore him away between them, while Nance assisted Mistress Nutter along.
They had not gone far when a rumbling sound like that preceding an earthquake was heard.
All looked back towards Malkin Tower. The structure was seen to rock—flames burst from the earth—and with a tremendous explosion heard for miles ground, and which shook the ground even where Nicholas and the others stood, the whole of the unhallowed fabric, from base to summit, was blown into the air, some of the stones being projected to an extraordinary distance.
A mine charged with gunpowder, it appeared, had been laid beneath its vaults by Demdike, with a view to its destruction at some future period, and this circumstance being known to Nance, she had fired the train.
Not one of the robbers within the tower escaped. The bodies of all were found next day, crushed, burned, or frightfully mutilated.
CHAPTER VI.—HOGHTON TOWER.
About a month after the occurrence last described, and early on a fine morning in August, Nicholas Assheton and Richard Sherborne rode forth together from the proud town of Preston. Both were gaily attired in doublets and hose of yellow velvet, slashed with white silk, with mantles to match, the latter being somewhat conspicuously embroidered on the shoulder with a wild bull worked in gold, and underneath it the motto, "Malgre le Tort." Followed at a respectful distance by four mounted attendants, the two gentlemen had crossed the bridge over the Ribble, and were wending their way along the banks of a tributary stream, the Darwen, within a short distance of the charming village of Walton-le-Dale, when they perceived a horseman advancing slowly towards them, whom they instantly hailed as Richard Assheton, and pushing forward, were soon beside him. Both were much shocked by the young man's haggard looks, and inquired anxiously as to his health, but Richard bade them, with a melancholy smile, not be uneasy, for all would be well with him erelong.
"All will be over with you, lad, if you don't mind; and that's, perhaps, what you mean," replied Nicholas; "but as soon as the royal festivities at Hoghton are over, I'll set about your cure; and, what's more, I'll accomplish it—for I know where the seat of the disease lies better than Dr. Morphew, your family physician at Middleton. 'Tis near the heart, Dick—near the heart. Ha! I see I have touched you, lad. But, beshrew me, you are very strangely attired—in a suit of sable velvet, with a black Spanish hat and feather, for a festival! You look as if going to a funeral I am fearful his Majesty may take it amiss. Why not wear the livery of our house?"
"Nay, if it comes to that," rejoined Richard, "why do not you and Sherborne wear it, instead of flaunting like daws in borrowed plumage? I scarce know you in your strange garb, and certainly should not take you for an Assheton, or aught pertaining to our family, from your gaudy colours and the strange badge on your shoulder."
"I don't wonder at it, Dick," said Nicholas; "I scarce know myself; and though the clothes I wear are well made enough, they seem to sit awkwardly on me, and trouble me as much as the shirt of Nessus did Hercules of old. For the nonce I am Sir Richard Hoghton's retainer. I must own I was angry with myself when I saw Sir Ralph Assheton with his long train of gentlemen, all in murrey-coloured cloaks and doublets, at Myerscough Lodge, while I, his cousin, was habited like one of another house. And when I would have excused my apparent defection to Sir Ralph, he answered coldly, 'It was better as it was, for he could scarcely have found room for me among his friends.'"
"Do not fret yourself, Nicholas," rejoined Sherborne; "Sir Ralph cannot reasonably take offence at a mere piece of good-nature on your part. But this does not explain why Richard affects a colour so sombre."
"I am the retainer of one whose livery is sombre," replied the young man, with a ghastly smile. "But enough of this," he added, endeavouring to assume a livelier air; "I suppose you are on the way to Hoghton Tower. I thought to reach Preston before you were up, but I might have recollected you are no lag-a-bed, Nicholas, not even after hard drinking overnight, as witness your feats at Whalley. To be frank with you, I feared being led into like excesses, and so preferred passing the night at the quiet little inn at Walton-le-Dale, to coming on to you at the Castle at Preston, which I knew would be full of noisy roysterers."
"Full it was, even to overflowing," replied the squire; "but you should have come, Dick, for, by my troth! we had a right merry night of it. Stephen Hamerton, of Hellyfield Peel, with his wife, and her sister, sweet Mistress Doll Lister, supped with us; and we had music, dancing, and singing, and abundance of good cheer. Nouns! Dick, Doll Lister is a delightful lass, and if you can only get Alizon out of your head, would be just the wife for you. She sings like an angel, has the most captivating sigh-and-die-away manner, and the prettiest rounded figure ever bodice kept in. Were I in your place I should know where to choose. But you will see her at Hoghton to-day, for she is to be at the banquet and masque."
"Your description does not tempt me," said Richard; "I have no taste for sigh-and-die-away damsels. Dorothy Lister, however, is accounted fair enough; but, were she fascinating as Venus herself, in my present mood I should not regard her."
"I' faith, lad, I pity you, if such be the case," shrugging his shoulders, more in contempt than compassion.
"Waste not your sympathy upon me," replied Richard; "but, tell me, how went the show at Preston yesterday?"
"Excellently well, and much to his Majesty's satisfaction," answered the squire. "Proud Preston never was so proud before, and never with such good reason; for if the people be poor, according to the proverb, they take good care to hide their poverty. Bombards were fired from the bridge, and the church bells rang loud enough to crack the steeple, and bring it down about the ears of the deafened lieges. The houses were hung with carpets and arras; the streets strewn ankle deep with sand and sawdust; the cross in the market-place was bedecked with garlands of flowers like a May-pole; and the conduit near it ran wine. At noon there was more firing; and, amidst flourishes of trumpets, rolling of drums, squeaking of fifes, and prodigious shouting, bonnie King Jamie came to the cross, where a speech was made him by Master Breares, the Recorder; after which the corporation presented his Majesty with a huge silver bowl, in token of their love and loyalty. The King seemed highly pleased with the gift, and observed to the Duke of Buckingham, loud enough to be heard by the bystanders, who reported his speech to me, 'God's santie! it's a braw bicker, Steenie, and might serve for a christening-cup, if we had need of siccan a vessel, which, Heaven be praised, we ha'e na!' After this there was a grand banquet in the town-hall; and when the heat of the day was over the King left with his train for Hoghton Tower, visiting the alum mines on the way thither. We are bidden to breakfast by Sir Richard, so we must push on, Dick, for his Majesty is an early riser, like myself. We are to have rare sport to-day. Hunting in the morning, a banquet, and, as I have already intimated, a masque at night, in which Sir George Goring and Sir John Finett will play, and in which I have been solicited to take the drolling part of Jem Tospot—nay, laugh not, Dick, Sherborne says I shall play it to the life—as well as to find some mirthful dame to enact the companion part of Doll Wango. I have spoken with two or three on the subject, and fancy one of them will oblige me. There is another matter on which I am engaged. I am to present a petition to his Majesty from a great number of the lower orders in this county, praying they may be allowed to take their diversions, as of old accustomed, after divine service on Sundays; and, though I am the last man to desire any violation of the Sabbath, being somewhat puritanically inclined as they now phrase it, yet I cannot think any harm can ensue from lawful recreation and honest exercise. Still, I would any one were chosen to present the petition rather than myself."