"Neats' tongues powder'd well, and jambons of the hog, With sausages and savoury knacks to set men's minds agog"—
cold capons, and pigeon pies. Close at hand was a clear cold spring, in which numerous flasks of wine were immersed. A few embers, too, had been lighted, on which carbonadoes of venison were prepared.
No great form or ceremony was observed at the entertainment. Sir John Finett and Sir Thomas Hoghton were in close attendance upon the monarch, and ministered to his wants; but several of the nobles and gentlemen stretched themselves on the sward, and addressed themselves to the viands set before them by the pages. None of the dames dismounted, and few could be prevailed upon to take any refreshment. Besides the flasks of wine, there were two barrels of ale in a small cart, drawn by a mule, both of which were broached. The whole scene was picturesque and pleasing, and well calculated to gratify one so fond of silvan sports as the monarch for whom it was provided.
In the midst of all this tranquillity and enjoyment an incident occurred which interrupted it as completely as if a thunder-storm had suddenly come on. Just when the mirth was at the highest, and when the flowing cup was at many a lip, a tremendous bellowing, followed by the crashing of branches, was heard in the adjoining thicket. All started to their feet at the appalling sound, and the King himself turned pale.
"What in Heaven's name can it be, Sir Richard?" he inquired. "It must be a drove of wild cattle," replied the baronet, trembling.
"Wild cattle!" ejaculated James, in great alarm; "and sae near us. Zounds! we shall be trampled and gored to death by these bulls of Basan. Sir Richard, ye are a fause traitor thus to endanger the safety o' your sovereign, and ye shall answer for it, if harm come o' it."
"I am unable to account for it, sire," stammered the frightened baronet. "I gave special directions to the prickers to drive the beasts away."
"Ye shouldna keep sic deevils i' your park, man," cried the monarch. "Eh! what's that?"
Amidst all this consternation and confusion the bellowing was redoubled, and the crashing of branches drew nearer and nearer, and Nicholas Assheton rushed forward with the King's horse, saying, "Mount, sire; mount, and away!"
But James was so much alarmed that his limbs refused to perform their office, and he was unable to put foot in the stirrup. Seeing his condition, Nicholas cried out, "Pardon, my liege; but at a moment of peril like the present, one must not stand on ceremony."
So saying, he took the King round the waist, and placed him on his steed.
At this juncture, a loud cry was heard, and a man in extremity of terror issued from the wood, and dashed towards the hollow. Close on his heels came the drove of wild cattle, and, just as he gained the very verge of the descent, the foremost of the herd overtook him, and lowering his curled head, caught him on the points of his horns, and threw him forwards to such a distance that he alighted with a heavy crash almost at the King's feet. Satisfied, apparently, with their vengeance, or alarmed by the numerous assemblage, the drove instantly turned tail and were pursued into the depths of the forest by the prickers.
Having recovered his composure, James bade some of the attendants raise the poor wretch, who was lying groaning upon the ground, evidently so much injured as to be unable to move without assistance. His garb was that of a forester, and his bulk—for he was stoutly and squarely built—had contributed, no doubt, to the severity of the fall. When he was lifted from the ground, Nicholas instantly recognised in his blackened and distorted features those of Christopher Demdike.
"What?" he exclaimed, rushing towards him. "Is it thou, villain?"
The sufferer only replied by a look of intense malignity.
"Eh! what—d'ye ken wha it is?" demanded James. "By my saul! I fear the puir fellow has maist of his banes broken."
"No great matter if they be," replied Nicholas, "and it may save the application of torture in case your Majesty desires to put any question to him. Chance has most strangely thrown into your hands one of the most heinous offenders in the kingdom, who has long escaped justice, but who will at length meet the punishment of his crimes. The villain is Christopher Demdike, son of the foul hag who perished in the flames on the summit of Pendle Hill, and captain of a band of robbers."
"What! is the knave a warlock and a riever?" demanded James, regarding Demdike with abhorrence, mingled with alarm.
"Both, sire," replied Nicholas, "and an assassin to boot. He is a diabolical villain."
"Let him be taken to Hoghton Tower, and kept in some strong and secure place till we have leisure to examine him," said James,—"and see that he be visited by some skilful chirurgeon, for we wadna hae him dee, and sae rob the woodie."
Demdike, who appeared to be in great agony, now forced himself to speak.
"I can make important disclosures to your Majesty," he said, in hoarse and broken tones, "if you will hear them. I am not the only offender who has escaped from justice," he added, glancing vindictively at Nicholas—"there is another, a notorious witch and murderess, who is still screened from justice. I can reveal her hiding-place."
"Your Majesty will not give heed to such a villain's fabrications?" said Nicholas.
"Are they fabrications, sir?" rejoined James, somewhat sharply. "We maun hear and judge. The snake, though scotched, will still bite, it seems. We hae hangit a Highland cateran without trial afore this, and we may be tempted to tak the law into our ain hands again. Bear the villain hence. See he be disposed of as already directed, and take good care he is strictly guarded. And now gie us a crossbow, Sir Richard Hoghton, and bid the prickers drive the deer afore us, for we wad try our skill as a marksman."
And while Demdike was placed on the litter of green boughs which had recently sustained a nobler burthen in the fallen hart, and in this sort was conveyed to Hoghton Tower, James rode with his retinue towards a long glade, where, receiving a crossbow from the huntsman, he took up a favourable position behind a large oak, and several herds of deer being driven before him, he selected his quarries, and deliberately took aim at them, contriving in the course of an hour to bring down four fat bucks, and to maim as many others, which were pulled down by the hounds. And with this slaughter he was content.
Sir Richard Hoghton then informed his Majesty that a huge boar, which, in sporting phrase, had left the sounder five years, had broken into the park the night before, and had been routing amongst the fern. The age and size of the animal were known by the print of the feet, the toes being round and thick, the edge of the hoof worn and blunt, the heel large, and the guards, or dew-claws, great and open, from all which appearances it was adjudged by the baronet to be "a great old boar, not to be refused."
James at once agreed to hunt him, and the hounds being taken away, six couples of magnificent mastiffs, of the Lancashire breed, were brought forward, and the monarch, under the guidance of Sir Richard Hoghton and the chief huntsman, repaired to an adjoining thicket, in which the boar fed and couched.
On arriving near his den, a boar-spear was given to the King, and the prickers advancing into the wood, presently afterwards reared the enormous brute. Sallying forth, and freaming furiously, he was instantly assailed by the mastiffs; but, notwithstanding the number of his assailants, he made light of them, shaking them from his bristly hide, crushing them beneath his horny feet, thrusting at them with his sharpened tusks, and committing terrible devastation among them.
Repeated charges were made upon the savage animal by James, but it was next to impossible to get a blow at him for some time; and when at length the monarch made the attempt, he struck too low, and hit him on the snout, upon which the infuriated boar, finding himself wounded, sprang towards the horse, and ripped him open with his tusks.
The noble charger instantly rolled over on his side, exposing the royal huntsman to the fury of his merciless assailant, whose tusks must have ploughed his flesh, if at this moment a young man had not ridden forward, and at the greatest personal risk approached the boar, and, striking straight downwards, cleft the heart of the fierce brute with his spear.
Meanwhile, the King, having been disengaged by the prickers from his wounded steed, which was instantly put out of its agony by the sword of the chief huntsman, looked for his deliverer, and, discovering him to be Richard Assheton, was loud in his expressions of gratitude.
"Faith! ye maun claim a boon at our hands," said James. "It maun never be said the King is ungrateful. What can we do for you, lad?"
"For myself nothing, sire," replied Richard.
"But for another meikle—is that what ye wad hae us infer?" cried the King, with a smile. "Aweel, the lassie shall hae strict justice done her; but for your ain sake we maun inquire into the matter. Meantime, wear this," he added, taking a magnificent sapphire ring from his finger, "and, if you should ever need our aid, send it to us as a token."
Richard took the gift, and knelt to kiss the hand so graciously extended to him.
By this time another horse had been provided for the monarch, and the enormous boar, with his feet upwards and tied together, was suspended upon a pole, and borne on the shoulders of four stout varlets as the grand trophy of the chase.
When the royal company issued from the wood a strike of nine was blown by the chief huntsman, and such of the cavalcade as still remained on the field being collected together, the party crossed the chase, and took the direction of Hoghton Tower.
CHAPTER IX.—THE BANQUET.
On the King's return to Hoghton Tower, orders were given by Sir Richard for the immediate service of the banquet; it being the hospitable baronet's desire that festivities should succeed each other so rapidly as to allow of no tedium.
The coup-d'oeil of the banquet hall on the monarch's entrance was magnificent. Panelled with black lustrous oak, and lighted by mullion windows, filled with stained glass and emblazoned with the armorial bearings of the family, the vast and lofty hall was hung with banners, and decorated with panoplies and trophies of the chase. Three long tables ran down it, each containing a hundred covers. At the lower end were stationed the heralds, the pursuivants, and a band of yeomen of the guard, with the royal badge, a demi-rose crowned, impaled with a demi-thistle, woven in gold on their doublets, and having fringed pole-axes over their shoulders. Behind them was a richly carved oak screen, concealing the passages leading to the buttery and kitchens, in which the clerk of the kitchen, the pantlers, and the yeomen of the cellar and ewery, were hurrying to and fro. Above the screen was a gallery, occupied by the trumpeters and minstrels; and over all was a noble rafter roof. The tables were profusely spread, and glittered with silver dishes of extraordinary size and splendour, as well as with flagons and goblets of the same material, and rare design. The guests, all of whom were assembled, were outnumbered by the prodigious array of serving-men, pages, and yeomen waiters in the yellow and red liveries of the Stuart.
Flourishes of trumpets announced the coming of the monarch, who was preceded by Sir Richard Hoghton, bearing a white wand, and ushered with much ceremony to his place. At the upper end of the hall was a raised floor, and on either side of it an oriel window, glowing with painted glass. On this dais the King's table was placed, underneath a canopy of state, embroidered with the royal arms, and bearing James's kindly motto, "Beati Pacifici." Seats were reserved at it for the Dukes of Buckingham and Richmond, the Earls of Pembroke and Nottingham, the Lords Howard of Effingham and Grey of Groby, Sir Gilbert Hoghton, and the Bishop of Chester. These constituted the favoured guests. Grace having been said by the bishop, the whole company took their seats, and the general stillness hitherto prevailing throughout the vast hall was broken instantaneously by the clatter of trenchers.
A famous feast it was, and worthy of commemoration. Masters Morris and Miller, the two cooks who contrived it, as well as the labourers for the ranges, for the pastries, for the boiled meats, and for the pullets, performed their respective parts to admiration. The result was all that could be desired. The fare was solid and substantial, consisting of dishes which could be cut and come to again. Amongst the roast meats were chines of beef, haunches of venison, gigots of mutton, fatted geese, capons, turkeys, and sucking pigs; amongst the boiled, pullets, lamb, and veal; but baked meats chiefly abounded, and amongst them were to be found red-deer pasty, hare-pie, gammon-of-bacon pie, and baked wild-boar. With the salads, which were nothing more than what would, now-a-days be termed "vegetables," were mixed all kinds of soused fish, arranged according to the sewer's directions—"the salads spread about the tables, the fricassees mixed with them, the boiled meats among the fricassees, roast meats amongst the boiled, baked meats amongst the roast, and carbonadoes amongst the baked." This was the first course merely. In the second were all kinds of game and wild-fowl, roast herons three in a dish, bitterns, cranes, bustards, curlews, dotterels, and pewits. Besides these there were lumbar pies, marrow pies, quince pies, artichoke pies, florentines, and innumerable other good things. Some dishes were specially reserved for the King's table, as a baked swan, a roast peacock, and the jowl of a sturgeon soused. These and a piece of roast beef formed the principal dishes.
The attendants at the royal table comprised such gentlemen as wore Sir Richard Hoghton's liveries, and amongst these, of course, were Nicholas Assheton and Sherborne. On seeing the former, the King immediately inquired about his deliverer, and on hearing he was at the lower tables, desired he might be sent for, and, as Richard soon afterwards appeared, having on his return from the chase changed his sombre apparel for gayer attire, James smiled graciously upon him, and more than once, as a mark of especial favour, took the wine-cup from his hands.
The King did ample justice to the good things before him, and especially to the beef, which he found so excellent, that the carver had to help him for the second time. Sir Richard Hoghton ventured to express his gratification that his Majesty found the meat good—"Indeed, it is generally admitted," he said, "that our Lancashire beef is well fed, and well flavoured."
"Weel flavoured!" exclaimed James, as he swallowed the last juicy morsel; "it is delicious! Finer beef nae man ever put teeth into, an I only wish a' my loving subjects had as gude a dinner as I hae this day eaten. What joint do ye ca' it, Sir Richard?" he asked, with eyes evidently twinkling with a premeditated jest. "This dish," replied the host, somewhat surprised "this, sire, is a loin of beef."
"A loin!" exclaimed James, taking the carving-knife from the sewer, who stood by, "by my faith that is not title honourable enough for joint sae worthy. It wants a dignity, and it shall hae it. Henceforth," he added, touching the meat with the flat of the long blade, as if placing the sword on the back of a knight expectant, "henceforth, it shall be SIR-LOIN, an see ye ca' it sae. Give me a cup of wine, Master Richard Assheton."
All the nobles at the table laughed loudly at the monarch's jest, and as it was soon past down to those at the lower table, the hall resounded with laughter, in which page and attendant of every degree joined, to the great satisfaction of the good-natured originator of the merriment.
"My dear dad and gossip appears in unwonted good spirits to-day," observed the Duke of Buckingham.
"An wi' gude reason, Steenie," replied the King, "for we dinna mind when we hae had better sport—always excepting the boar-hunt, when we should hae been rippit up by the cursed creature's tusks but for this braw laddie," he added, pointing to Richard. "Ye maun see what can be done for him, Steenie. We maun hae him at court."
"Your Majesty's wishes have only to be expressed to be fulfilled," replied Buckingham, somewhat drily.
"Were I the lad I wadna place ower meikle dependence on the Duke's promises," remarked Archie Armstrong, in a low tone, to Nicholas.
"Has your Majesty made any further inquiries about the girl suspected of witchcraft?" inquired Buckingham, renewing the conversation.
"Whist, Steenie, whist!" cried James. "Didna ye see her yoursel' this morning?" he added, in a low tone. "Ah! I recollect ye werena at the chase. Aweel, I hae conferred wi' her, an am sair perplexed i' the matter. She is a well-faur'd lassie as ony i' the realm, and answers decorously and doucely. Sooth to say, her looks and manners are mightily in her favour."
"Then you mean to dismiss the matter without further investigation?" observed Buckingham. "I always thought your Majesty delighted to exercise your sagacity in detecting the illusions practised by Satan and his worshippers."
"An sae we do," replied James. "But bend your bonnie head this way till we whisper in your ear. We hae a device for finding it a' out, which canna fail; and when you ken it you will applaud your dear dad's wisdom, and perfit maistery o' the haill science o' kingcraft."
"I would your Majesty would make me acquainted with this notable scheme," replied Buckingham, with ill-concealed contempt. "I might make it more certain of success."
"Na—na—we shanna let the cat out of the bag just yet," returned the King. "We mean it as a surprise to ye a'."
"Then, whatever be the result, it is certain to answer the effect intended," observed the Duke.
"Gae wa'! ye are ever sceptical, Steenie—ever misdoubting your ain dear dad and gossip," rejoined James; "but ye shall find we haena earned the title o' the British Solomon for naething."
Soon after this the King arose, and was ushered to his apartments by Sir Richard Hoghton with the same ceremony as had been observed on his entrance. He was followed by all the nobles; and Nicholas and the others, being released from their duties, repaired to the lower end of the hall to dine. The revel was now sufficiently boisterous; for, as the dames had departed at the same time as the monarch, all restraint was cast aside. The wine-cup flowed freely, and the rafters rang with laughter. Under ordinary circumstances Richard would have shrunk from such a scene; but he had now a part to play, and therefore essayed to laugh at each jest, and to appear as reckless as his neighbours. He was glad, however, when the signal for general dispersion was given; for though Sir Richard Hoghton was unwilling to stint his guests, he was fearful, if they sat too long over their wine, some disturbances might ensue; and indeed, when the revellers came forth and dispersed within the base court, their flushed cheeks, loud voices, and unsteady gait, showed that their potations had already been deep enough.
Meanwhile, quite as much mirth was taking place out of doors as had occurred within the banqueting-hall. As soon as the King sat down to dinner, according to promise the gates were thrown open, and the crowd outside admitted. The huge roast was then taken down, carved, and distributed among them; the only difficulty experienced being in regard to trenchers, and various and extraordinary were the contrivances resorted to to supply the deficiency. This circumstance, however, served to heighten the fun, and, as several casks of stout ale were broached at the same time, universal hilarity prevailed. Still, in the midst of so vast a concourse, many component parts of which had now began to experience the effects of the potent liquor, some little manifestation of disorder might naturally be expected; but all such was speedily quelled by the yeomen of the guard, and other officials appointed for the purpose, and, amidst the uproar and confusion, harmony generally prevailed.
While elbowing his way through the crowd, Nicholas felt his sleeve plucked, and turning, perceived Nance Redferne, who signed him to follow her, and there was something in her manner that left him no alternative but compliance. Nance passed on rapidly, and entered the doorway of a building, where it might be supposed they would be free from interruption.
"What do you want with me, Nance?" asked the squire, somewhat impatiently. "I must beg to observe that I cannot be troubled further on your account, and am greatly afraid aspersions may be thrown on my character, if I am seen talking with you."
"A few words wi' me winna injure your character, squire," rejoined Nance, "an it's on your account an naw on my own that ey ha' brought you here. Ey ha' important information to gie ye. What win yo say when ey tell yo that Jem Device, Elizabeth Device, an' her dowter Jennet are here—aw breedin mischief agen yo, Ruchot Assheton, and Alizon?"
"The devil!" ejaculated Nicholas.
"Eigh, yo'n find it the devil, ey con promise ye, onless their plans be frustrated," said Nance.
"That can be easily done," replied Nicholas. "I'll cause them to be arrested at once."
"Nah, nah—that canna be," rejoined Nance—"Yo mun bide your time."
"What! and allow such miscreants to go at large, and work any malice they please against me and my friends!" replied Nicholas. "Show me where they are, Nance, or I must make you a prisoner."
"Nah! yo winna do that, squire," she replied in a tone of good-humoured defiance. "Ye winna do it for two good reasons: first, becose yo'd be harming a freend who wants to sarve yo, and win do so, if yo'n let her; and secondly, becose if yo wur to raise a finger agen me, ey'd deprive yo of speech an motion. When the reet moment comes yo shan strike—boh it's nah come yet. The fruit is nah ripe eneugh to gather. Ey am os anxious os you con be, that the whole o' the Demdike brood should be swept away—an it shan be, if yo'n leave it to me."
"Well, I commit the matter entirely to you," said Nicholas. "Apparently, it cannot be in better hands. But are you aware that Christopher Demdike is a prisoner here in Hoghton Tower? He was taken this morning in the park."
"Ey knoa it," replied Nance; "an ey knoa also why he went there, an it wur my intention to ha' revealed his black design to yo. However, it has bin ordert differently. Boh in respect to t'others, wait till I gie yo the signal. They are disguised; boh even if ye see 'em, an recognise 'em, dunna let it appear till ey gie the word, or yo'n spoil aw."
"Your injunctions shall be obeyed implicitly, Nance," rejoined, Nicholas. "I have now perfect reliance upon you. But when shall I see you again?"
"That depends upon circumstances," she replied. "To-neet, may be—may be to-morrow neet. My plans maun be guided by those of others. Boh when next yo see me you win ha' to act."
And, without waiting an answer, she rushed out of the doorway, and, mingling with the crowd, was instantly lost to view; while Nicholas, full of the intelligence he had received, betook himself slowly to his lodgings.
Scarcely were they gone when a door, which had been standing ajar, near them, was opened wide, and disclosed the keen visage of Master Potts.
"Here's a pretty plot hatching—here's a nice discovery I have made!" soliloquised the attorney. "The whole Demdike family, with the exception of the old witch herself, whom I saw burnt on Pendle Hill, are at Hoghton Tower. This shall be made known to the King. I'll have Nicholas Assheton arrested at once, and the woman with him, whom I recognise as Nance Redferne. It will be a wonderful stroke, and will raise me highly in his Majesty's estimation. Yet stay! Will not this interfere with my other plans with Jennet? Let me reflect. I must go cautiously to work. Besides, if I cause Nicholas to be arrested, Nance will escape, and then I shall have no clue to the others. No—no; I must watch Nicholas closely, and take upon myself all the credit of the discovery. Perhaps through Jennet I may be able to detect their disguises. At all events, I will keep a sharp look-out. Affairs are now drawing to a close, and I have only, like a wary and experienced fowler, to lay my nets cleverly to catch the whole covey."
And with these ruminations, he likewise went forth into the base court.
The rest of the day was one round of festivity and enjoyment, in which all classes participated. There were trials of skill and strength, running, wrestling, and cudgeling-matches, with an infinite variety of country games and shows.
Towards five o'clock a rush-cart, decked with flowers and ribbons, and bestridden by men bearing garlands, was drawn up in front of the central building of the tower, in an open window of which sat James—a well-pleased spectator of the different pastimes going forward; and several lively dances were executed by a troop of male and female morris-dancers, accompanied by a tabor and pipe. But though this show was sufficiently attractive, it lacked the spirit of that performed at Whalley; while the character of Maid Marian, which then found so charming a representative in Alizon, was now personated by a man—and if Nicholas Assheton, who was amongst the bystanders, was not deceived, that man was Jem Device. Enraged by this discovery, the squire was about to seize the ruffian; but, calling to mind Nance's counsel, he refrained, and Jem (if it indeed were he) retired with a largess, bestowed by the royal hand as a reward for his uncouth gambols.
The rush-cart and morris-dancers having disappeared, another drollery was exhibited, called the "Fool and his Five Sons," the names of the hopeful offspring of the sapient sire being Pickle Herring, Blue Hose, Pepper Hose, Ginger Hose, and Jack Allspice. The humour of this piece, though not particularly refined, seemed to be appreciated by the audience generally, as well as by the monarch, who laughed heartily at its coarse buffoonery.
Next followed "The Plough and Sword Dance;" the principal actors being a number of grotesque figures armed with swords, some of whom were yoked to a plough, on which sat a piper, playing lustily while dragged along. The plough was guided by a man clothed in a bear-skin, with a fur cap on his head, and a long tail, like that of a lion, dangling behind him. In this hirsute personage, who was intended to represent the wood-demon, Hobthurst, Nicholas again detected Jem Device, and again was strongly tempted to disobey Nance's injunctions, and denounce him—the rather that he recognised in an attendant female, in a fantastic dress, the ruffian's mother, Elizabeth; but he once more desisted.
As soon as the mummers arrived in front of the King, the dance began. With their swords held upright, the party took hands and wheeled rapidly round the plough, keeping time to a merry measure played by the piper, who still maintained his seat. Suddenly the ring was enlarged to double its former size, each man extending his sword to his neighbour, who took hold of the point; after which an hexagonal figure was formed, all the blades being brought together. The swords were then quickly withdrawn, flashing like sunbeams, and a four square figure was presented, the dancers vaulting actively over each other's heads. Other variations succeeded, not necessary to be specified—and the sport concluded by a general clashing of swords, intended to represent a melee.
Meanwhile, Nicholas had been joined by Richard Assheton, and the latter was not long in detecting the two Devices through their disguises. On making this discovery he mentioned it to the squire, and was surprised to find him already aware of the circumstance, and not less astonished when he was advised to let them alone; the squire adding he was unable at that time to give his reasons for such counsel, but, being good and conclusive, Richard would be satisfied of their propriety hereafter. The young man, however, thought otherwise, and, notwithstanding his relative's attempts to dissuade him, announced his intention of causing the parties to be arrested at once; and with this design he went in search of an officer of the guard, that the capture might be effected without disturbance. But the throng was so close round the dancers that he could not pierce it, and being compelled to return and take another course, he got nearer to the mazy ring, and was unceremoniously pushed aside by the mummers. At this moment both his arms were forcibly grasped, and a deep voice on the right whispered in his ear—"Meddle not with us, and we will not meddle with you," while similar counsel was given him in other equally menacing tones, though in a different key, on the left. Richard would have shaken off his assailants, and seized them in his turn, but power to do so was wanting to him. For the moment he was deprived of speech and motion; but while thus situated he felt that the sapphire ring given him by the King was snatched from his finger by the first speaker, whom he knew to be Jem Device, while a fearful spell was muttered over him by Elizabeth.
As this occurred at the time when the rattling of the swords engaged the whole attention of the spectators, no one noticed what was going forward except Nicholas, and, before he could get up to the young man, the two miscreants were gone, nor could any one tell what had become of them.
"Have the wretches done you a mischief?" asked the squire, in a low tone, of Richard.
"They have stolen the King's ring, which I meant to use in Alizon's behalf," replied the young man, who by this time had recovered his speech.
"That is unlucky, indeed," said Nicholas. "But we can defeat any ill design they may intend, by acquainting Sir John Finett with the circumstance."
"Let them be," said a voice in his ear. "The time is not yet come." The squire did not look round, for he well knew that the caution proceeded from Nance Redferne.
And, accordingly, he observed to Richard—"Tarry awhile, and you will be amply avenged."
And with this assurance the young man was fain to be content.
Just then a trumpet was sounded, and a herald stationed on the summit of the broad flight of steps leading to the great hall, proclaimed in a loud voice that a tilting-match was about to take place between Archie Armstrong, jester to his most gracious Majesty, and Davy Droman, who filled the same honourable office to his Grace the Duke of Buckingham, and that a pair of gilt-heel'd chopines would be the reward of the successful combatant. This announcement was received with cheers, and preparations were instantly made for the mock tourney. A large circle being formed by the yeomen of the guard, with an alley leading to it on either side, the two combatants, mounted on gaudy-caparisoned hobby-horses, rode into the ring. Both were armed to the teeth, each having a dish-cover braced around him in lieu of a breastplate, a newly-scoured brass porringer on his head, a large pewter platter instead of a buckler, and a spit with a bung at the point, to prevent mischief, in place of a lance. The Duke's jester was an obese little fellow, and his appearance in this warlike gear was so eminently ridiculous, that it provoked roars of laughter, while Archie was scarcely less ridiculous. After curveting round the arena in imitation of knights of chivalry, and performing "their careers, their prankers, their false trots, their smooth ambles, and Canterbury paces," the two champions took up a position opposite each other, with difficulty, as it seemed, reining in their pawing chargers, and awaiting the signal of attack to be given by Sir John Finett, the judge of the tournament. This was not long delayed, and the "laissez aller" being pronounced, the preux chevaliers started forward with so much fury, and so little discretion, that meeting half-way with a tremendous shock, and butting against each other like two rams, both were thrown violently backwards, exhibiting, amid the shouts of the spectators, their heels, no longer hidden by the trappings of their steeds, kicking in the air. Encumbered as they were, some little time elapsed before they could regain their feet, and their lances having been removed in the mean time, by order of Sir John Finett, as being weapons of too dangerous a description for such truculent combatants, they attacked each other with their broad lathen daggers, dealing sounding blows upon helm, habergeon, and shield, but doing little personal mischief. The strife raged furiously for some time, and, as the champions appeared pretty well matched, it was not easy to say how it would terminate, when chance seemed to decide in favour of Davy Droman; for, in dealing a heavier blow than usual, Archie's dagger snapped in twain, leaving him at the mercy of his opponent. On this the doughty Davy, crowing lustily like chanticleer, called upon him to yield; but Archie was so wroth at his misadventure, that, instead of complying, he sprang forward, and with the hilt of his broken weapon dealt his elated opponent a severe blow on the side of the head, not only knocking off the porringer, but stretching him on the ground beside it. The punishment he had received was enough for poor Davy. He made no attempt to rise, and Archie, crowing in his turn, trampling upon the body of his prostrate foe, and then capering joyously round it, was declared the victor, and received the gilt chopines from the judge, amidst the laughter and acclamations of the beholders.
With this the public sports concluded; and, as evening was drawing on apace, such of the guests as were not invited to pass the night within the Tower, took their departure; while shortly afterwards, supper being served in the banqueting-hall on a scale of profusion and magnificence quite equal to the earlier repast, the King and the whole of his train sat down to it.
CHAPTER X.—EVENING ENTERTAINMENTS.
Other amusements were reserved for the evening. While revelry was again held in the great hall; while the tables groaned, for the third time since morning, with good cheer, and the ruby wine, which seemed to gush from inexhaustible fountains, mantled in the silver flagons; while seneschal, sewer, and pantler, with the yeomen of the buttery and kitchen, were again actively engaged in their vocations; while of the three hundred guests more than half, as if insatiate, again vied with each other in prowess with the trencher and the goblet; while in the words of old Taylor, the water poet, but who was no water-drinker—and who thus sang of the hospitality of the men of Manchester, in the early part of the seventeenth century—they had
"Roast, boil'd, bak'd, too, too much, white, claret, sack. Nothing they thought too heavy or too hot, Can follow'd can, and pot succeeded pot."
—during this time preparations were making for fresh entertainments out of doors.
The gardens at Hoghton Tower, though necessarily confined in space, owing to their situation on the brow of a hill, were beautifully laid out, and commanded from their balustred terraces magnificent views of the surrounding country. Below them lay the well-wooded park, skirted by the silvery Darwen, with the fair village of Walton-le-Dale immediately beyond it, the proud town of Preston further on, and the single-coned Nese Point rising majestically in the distance. The principal garden constituted a square, and was divided with mathematical precision, according to the formal taste of the time, into smaller squares, with a broad well-kept gravel walk at each angle. These plots were arranged in various figures and devices—such as the cinq-foil, the flower-de-luce, the trefoil, the lozenge, the fret, the diamond, the crossbow, and the oval—all very elaborate and intricate in design. Besides these knots, as they were termed, there were labyrinths, and clipped yew-tree walks, and that indispensable requisite to a garden at the period, a maze. In the centre was a grassy eminence, surmounted by a pavilion, in front of which spread a grass-plot of smoothest turf, ordinarily used as a bowling-green. At the lower end of this a temporary stage was erected, for the masque about to be represented before the King. Torches were kindled, and numerous lamps burned in the branches of the adjoining trees; but they were scarcely needed, for the moon being at the full, the glorious effulgence shed by her upon the scene rendered all other light pale and ineffectual.
After supper, at which the drinking was deeper than at dinner, the whole of the revellers repaired to the garden, full of frolic and merriment, and well-disposed for any diversion in store for them. The King was conducted to the bowling-green by his host, preceded by a crowd of attendants bearing odoriferous torches; but the royal gait being somewhat unsteady, the aid of Sir Gilbert Hoghton's arm was required to keep the monarch from stumbling. The rest of the bacchanalians followed, and, elated as they were, it will not be wondered that they put very little restraint upon themselves, but shouted, sang, danced, and indulged in all kinds of licence.
Opposite the stage prepared for the masquers a platform had been reared, in front of which was a chair for the King, with seats for the nobles and principal guests behind it. The sides were hung with curtains of crimson velvet fringed with gold; the roof decorated like a canopy; so that it had a very magnificent effect. James lolled back in his chair, and jested loudly and rather indecorously with the various personages as they took their places around him. In less than five minutes the whole of the green was filled with revellers, and great was the pushing and jostling, the laughing and screaming, that ensued among them. Silence was then enjoined by Sir John Finett, who had stationed himself on the steps of the stage, and at this command the assemblage became comparatively quiet, though now and then a half-suppressed titter or a smothered scream would break out. Amid this silence the King's voice could be distinctly heard, and his coarse jests reached the ears of all the astonished audience, provoking many a severe comment from the elders, and much secret laughter from the juniors.
The masque began. Two tutelar deities appeared on the stage. They were followed by a band of foresters clad in Lincoln green, with bows at their backs. The first deity wore a white linen tunic, with flesh-coloured hose and red buskins, and had a purple taffeta mantle over his shoulders. In his hand he held a palm branch, and a garland of the same leaves was woven round his brow. The second household god was a big brawny varlet, wild and shaggy in appearance, being clothed in the skins of beasts, with sandals of untanned cowhide. On his head was a garland of oak leaves; and from his neck hung a horn. He was armed with a hunting-spear and wood-knife, and attended by a large Lancashire mastiff. Advancing to the front of the stage, the foremost personage thus addressed the Monarch—
"This day—great King for government admired! Which these thy subjects have so much desired— Shall be kept holy in their heart's best treasure, And vow'd to JAMES as is this month to Caesar. And now the landlord of this ancient Tower, Thrice fortunate to see this happy hour, Whose trembling heart thy presence sets on fire, Unto this house—the heart of all our shire— Does bid thee cordial welcome, and would speak it In higher notes, but extreme joy doth break it. He makes his guests most welcome, in his eyes Love tears do sit, not he that shouts and cries. And we the antique guardians of this place,— I of this house—he of the fruitful chase,— Since the bold Hoghtons from this hill took name, Who with the stiff, unbridled Saxons came, And so have flourish'd in this fairer clime Successively from that to this our time, Still offering up to our immortal powers Sweet incense, wine, and odoriferous flowers; While sacred Vesta, in her virgin tire, With vows and wishes tends the hallow'd fire. Now seeing that thy Majesty is thus Greater than household deities like us, We render up to thy more powerful guard, This Tower. This knight is thine—he is thy ward, For by thy helping and auspicious hand, He and his home shall ever, ever stand And flourish, in despite of envious fate; And then live, like Augustus, fortunate. And long, long mayst thou live!—To which both men And guardian angels cry—"Amen! amen!"
James, who had demeaned himself critically during the delivery of the address, observed at its close to Sir Richard Hoghton, who was standing immediately behind his chair, "We cannot say meikle for the rhymes, which are but indifferently strung together, but the sentiments are leal and gude, and that is a' we care for."
On this the second tutelar divinity advanced, and throwing himself into an attitude, as if bewildered by the august presence in which he stood, exclaimed—
"Thou greatest of mortals!"—
And then stopped, as if utterly confounded.
The King looked at him for a moment, and then roared out—"Weel, gudeman, your commencement is pertinent and true enough; and though we be 'the greatest of mortals,' as ye style us, dinna fash yoursel' about our grandeur, but go on, as if we were nae better nor wiser than your ain simple sel'."
But, instead of encouraging the dumbfounded deity, this speech completely upset him. He hastily retreated; and, in trying to screen himself behind the huntsman, fell back from the stage, and his hound leapt after him. The incident, whether premeditated or not, amused the spectators much more than any speech he could have delivered, and the King joined heartily in the merriment.
Silence being again restored, the first divinity came forward once more, and spoke thus:—
'Dread lord! thy Majesty hath stricken dumb His weaker god-head; if to himself he come, Unto thy service straight he will commend These foresters, and charge them to attend Thy pleasure in this park, and show such sport; To the chief huntsman and thy princely court, As the small circle of this round affords, And be more ready than he was in words."
"Weel spoken, and to the purpose, gude fallow," cried James. "And we take this opportunity of assuring our worthy host, in the presence of his other guests, that we have never had better sport in park or forest than we have this day enjoyed—have never eaten better cheer, nor quaffed better wine than at his board—and, altogether, have never been more hospitably welcomed."
Sir Richard was overwhelmed by his Majesty's commendation.
"I have done nothing, my gracious liege," he said, "to merit such acknowledgment on your part, and the delight I experience is only tempered by my utter unworthiness."
"Hoot-toot! man," replied James, jocularly, "ye merit a vast deal mair than we hae said to you. But gude folk dinna always get their deserts. Ye ken that, Sir Richard. And now, hae ye not some ither drolleries in store for us?"
The baronet replied in the affirmative, and soon afterwards the stage was occupied by a new class of performers, and a drollery commenced which kept the audience in one continual roar of laughter so long as it lasted. And yet none of the parts had been studied, the actors entirely trusting to their own powers of comedy to carry it out. The principal character was the Cap Justice, enacted by Sir John Finett, who took occasion in the course of the performance to lampoon and satirise most of the eminent legal characters of the day, mimicking the voices and manner of the three justices—Crooke, Hoghton, and Doddridge—so admirably, that his hearers were wellnigh convulsed; and the three learned gentlemen, who sat near the King, though fully conscious of the ridicule applied to them, were obliged to laugh with the rest. But the unsparing satirist was not content with this, but went on, with most of the other attendants upon the King, and being intimately versed in court scandal, he directed his lash with telling effect. As a contrast to the malicious pleasantry of the Cap Justice, were the gambols and jests of Robin Goodfellow—a merry imp, who, if he led people into mischief, was always ready to get them out of it. Then there was a dance by Bill Huckler, old Crambo, and Tom o' Bedlam, the half-crazed individual already mentioned as being among the crowd in the base court. This was applauded to the echo, and consequently repeated. But the most diverting scene of all was that in which Jem Tospot and the three Doll Wangos appeared. Though given in the broadest vernacular of the county, and scarcely intelligible to the whole of the company, the dialogue of this part of the piece was so lifelike and natural, that every one recognised its truth; while the situations, arranged with the slightest effort, and on the spur of the moment, were extremely ludicrous. The scene was supposed to take place in a small Lancashire alehouse, where a jovial pedlar was carousing, and where, being visited by his three sweethearts—each of whom he privately declared to be the favourite—he had to reconcile their differences, and keep them all in good-humour. Familiar with the character in all its aspects, Nicholas played it to the life; and, to do them justice, Dames Baldwyn, Tetlow, and Nance Redferne, were but little if at all inferior to him. There was a reality in their jealous quarrelling that gave infinite zest to the performance.
"Saul o' my body!" exclaimed James, admiringly, "those are three braw women. Ane of them maun be sax feet if she is an inch, and weel made and weel favourt too. Zounds! Sir Richard, there's nae standing the spells o' your Lancashire Witches. High-born and low-born, they are a' alike. I wad their only witchcraft lay in their een. I should then hae the less fear of 'em. But have you aught mair? for it is growing late, and ye ken we hae something to do in that pavilion."
"Only a merry dance, my liege, in which a man will appear in a dendrological foliage of fronds," replied the baronet.
James laughed at the description, and soon afterwards a party of mummers, male and female, clad in various grotesque garbs, appeared on the stage. In the midst of them was the "dendrological man," enclosed in a framework of green boughs, like that borne by a modern Jack-in-the-green. A ring was formed by the mummers, and the round commenced to lively music.
While the mazy measure was proceeding, Nance Redferne, who had quitted the stage with Nicholas, and now stood close to him among the spectators, said in a low tone, "Look there!"
The squire glanced in the direction indicated, and to his surprise and terror, distinguished, among the crowd at a little distance, the figure of a Cistertian monk.
"He is invisible to every eye except our own," whispered Nance, "and is come to tell me it is time."
"Time for what?" demanded Nicholas.
"Time for you to seize those two accursed Devices, Jem and his mother," replied Nance. "They are both on yon boards. Jem is the man in the tree, and Elizabeth is the owd crone in the red kirtle and high-crowned hat. Yo win knoa her feaw feace when yo pluck off her mask."
"The monk is gone," cried Nicholas; "I have kept my eyes steadily fixed on him, and he has melted into air. What has he to do with the Devices?"
"He is their fate," returned Nance, "an ey ha' acted under his orders. Boh mount, an seize them. Ey win ge wi' ye."
Forcing his way through the crowd, Nicholas ran up the steps, and, followed by Nance, sprang upon the stage. His appearance occasioned considerable surprise; but as he was recognised by the spectators as the jolly Jem Tospot, who had so recently diverted them, and his companion as one of the three Doll Wangos, in anticipation of some more fun they received him with a round of applause. But without stopping to acknowledge it, or being for a moment diverted from his purpose, Nicholas seized the old crone, and, consigning her to Nance, caught hold of the leafy frame in which the man was encased, and pulled him from under it. But he began to think he had unkennelled the wrong fox, for the man, though a tall fellow, bore no resemblance to Jem Device; while, when the crone's mask was plucked off, she was found to be a comely young woman. Meanwhile, all around was in an uproar, and amidst a hurricane of hisses, yells, and other indications of displeasure from the spectators, several of the mummers demanded the meaning of such a strange and unwarrantable proceeding.
"They are a couple of witches," cried Nicholas; "this is Jem Device and his mother Elizabeth."
"My name is nother Jem nor Device," cried the man.
"Nor mine Elizabeth," screamed the woman.
"We know the Devices," cried two or three voices, "and these are none of 'em."
Nicholas was perplexed. The storm increased; threats accompanied the hisses; when luckily he espied a ring on the man's finger. He instantly seized his hand, and held it up to the general gaze.
"A proof!—a proof!" he cried. "This sapphire ring was given by the King to my cousin, Richard Assheton, this morning, and stolen from him by Jem Device."
"Examine their features again," said Nance Redferne, waving her hands over them. "Yo win aw knoa them now."
The woman's face instantly altered. Many years being added to it in a breath. The man changed equally. The utmost astonishment was evinced by all at the transformation, and the bystanders who had spoken before, now cried out loudly—"We know them perfectly now. They are the two Devices."
By this time an officer, attended by a party of halberdiers, had mounted the boards, and the two prisoners were delivered to their custody by Nicholas.
"Howd!" cried the man; "Ey win no longer deny my name. Ey am Jem Device, an this is my mother, Elizabeth. Boh a warse offender than either on us stonds afore yo. This woman is Nance Redferne, grandowter of the owd hag, Mother Chattox. Ey charge her wi' makin' wax images, an' stickin' pins in 'em, wi' intent to kill folk. Hoo wad ha' kilt me mysel', wi' her devilry, if ey hadna bin too strong for her—an' that's why hoo bears me malice, an' has betrayed me to Squoire Nicholas Assheton. Seize her, an' ca' me as a witness agen her."
And as Nance was secured, he laughed malignantly.
"Ey care not," replied Nance. "Ey am now revenged on you both."
While this impromptu performance took place, as much to the surprise of James as of any one else, and while he was desiring Sir Richard Hoghton to ascertain what it all meant—at the very moment that the two Devices and Nance removed from the stage, an usher approached the monarch, and said that Master Potts entreated a moment's audience of his majesty.
"Potts!" exclaimed James, somewhat confused. "Wha is he?—ah, yes! I recollect—a witch-finder. Weel, let him approach."
Accordingly, the next moment the little attorney, whose face was evidently charged with some tremendous intelligence, was ushered into the king's presence.
After a profound reverence, he said, "May it please your Majesty, I have something for your private ear."
"Aweel, then," replied James, "approach us mair closely. What hae ye got to say, sir? Aught mair anent these witches?"
"A great deal, sire," said Potts, in an impressive tone. "Something dreadful has happened—something terrible."
"Eh! what?" exclaimed James, looking alarmed. "What is it, man? Speak!"
"Murder? sire,—murder has been done," said Potts, in low thrilling accents.
"Murder!" exclaimed James, horror-stricken. "Tell us a' about it, and without more ado."
But Potts was still circumspect. With an air of deepest mystery, he approached his head as near as he dared to that of the monarch, and whispered in his ear.
"Can this be true?" cried James. "If sae—it's very shocking—very sad."
"It is too true, as your Majesty will find on investigation," replied Potts. "The little girl I told you of, Jennet Device, saw it done."
"Weel, weel, there is nae accounting for human frailty and wickedness," said James. "Let a' necessary steps be taken at once. We will consider what to do. But—d'ye hear, sir?—dinna let the bairn Jennet go. Haud her fast. D'ye mind that? Now go, and cause the guilty party to be put under arrest."
And on receiving this command Master Potts departed.
Scarcely was he gone than Nicholas Assheton came up to the railing of the platform, and, imploring his Majesty's forgiveness for the disturbance he had occasioned, explained that it had been owing to the seizure of the two Devices, who, for some wicked but unexplained purpose, had contrived to introduce themselves, under various disguises, into the Tower.
"Ye did right to arrest the miscreants, sir," said James. "But hae ye heard what has happened?"
"No, my liege," replied Nicholas, alarmed by the King's manner; "what is it?"
"Come nearer, and ye shall learn," replied James; "for we wadna hae it bruited abroad, though if true, as we canna doubt, it will be known soon enough."
And as the squire bent forward, he imparted some intelligence to him, which instantly changed the expression of the latter to one of mingled horror and rage.
"It is false, sire!" he cried. "I will answer for her innocence with my life. She could not do it. Your Majesty's patience is abused. It is Jennet who has done it—not she. But I will unravel the terrible mystery. You have the other two wretches prisoners, and can enforce the truth from them."
"We will essay to do so," replied James; "but we have also another prisoner."
"Christopher Demdike?" said Nicholas.
"Ay, Christopher Demdike," rejoined James. "But another besides him—Mistress Nutter. You stare, sir; but it is true. She is in yonder pavilion. We ken fu' weel wha assisted her flight, and wha concealed her. Maister Potts has told us a'. It is weel for you that your puir kinsman, Richard Assheton, did us sic gude service at the boar-hunt to-day. We shall not now be unmindful of it, even though he cannot send us the ring we gave him."
"It is here, sire," replied Nicholas. "It was stolen from him by the villain, Jem Device. The poor youth meant to use it for Alizon. I now deliver it to your Majesty as coming from him in her behalf."
"And we sae receive it," replied the monarch, brushing away the moisture that gathered thickly in his eyes.
At this moment a tall personage, wrapped in a cloak, who appeared to be an officer of the guard, approached the railing.
"I am come to inform your Majesty that Christopher Demdike has just died of his wounds," said this personage.
"And sae he has had a strae death, after a'!" rejoined James. "Weel, we are sorry for it."
"His portion will be eternal bale," observed the officer.
"How know you that, sir?" demanded the King, sharply. "You are not his judge."
"I witnessed his end, sire," replied the officer; "and no man who died as he died can be saved. The Fiend was beside him at the death-throes."
"Save us!" exclaimed James. "Ye dinna say so? God's santie! man, but this is grewsome, and gars the flesh creep on one's banes. Let his foul carcase be taen awa', and hangit on a gibbet on the hill where Malkin Tower aince stood, as a warning to a' sic heinous offenders."
As the King ceased speaking, Master Potts appeared out of breath, and greatly excited.
"She has escaped, sire!" he cried.
"Wha! Jennet!" exclaimed James. "If sae, we will tang you in her stead."
"No, sire—Alizon," replied Potts. "I can nowhere find her; nor—" and he hesitated.
"Weel—weel—it is nae great matter," replied James, as if relieved, and with a glance of satisfaction at Nicholas.
"I know where Alizon is, sire," said the officer.
"Indeed!" exclaimed James. "This fellow is strangely officious," he muttered to himself. "And where may she be, sir?" he added, aloud.
"I will produce her within a quarter of an hour in yonder pavilion," replied the officer, "and all that Master Potts has been unable to find."
"Your Majesty may trust him," observed Nicholas, who had attentively regarded the officer. "Depend upon it he will make good his words."
"You think so?" cried the King. "Then we will put him to the test. You will engage to confront Alizon with her mother?" he added, to the officer.
"I will, sire," replied the other. "But I shall require the assistance of a dozen men."
"Tak twenty, if you will," replied the King,—"I am impatient to see what you can do."
"In a quarter of a minute all shall be ready within the pavilion, sire," replied the officer. "You have seen one masque to-night;—but you shall now behold a different one—the masque of death."
And he disappeared.
Nicholas felt sure he would accomplish his task, for he had recognised in him the Cistertian monk.
"Where is Sir Richard Assheton of Middleton?" inquired the King.
"He left the Tower with his daughter Dorothy, immediately after the banquet," replied Nicholas.
"I am glad of it—right glad," replied the monarch; "the terrible intelligence can be the better broken to them. If it had come upon them suddenly, it might have been fatal—especially to the puir lassie. Let Sir Ralph Assheton of Whalley come to me—and Master Roger Nowell of Read."
"Your Majesty shall be obeyed," replied Sir Richard Hoghton.
The King then gave some instructions respecting the prisoners, and bade Master Potts have Jennet in readiness.
And now to see what terrible thing had happened.
Along the eastern terrace a youth and maiden were pacing slowly. They had stolen forth unperceived from the revel, and, passing through a door standing invitingly open, had entered the garden. Though overjoyed in each other's presence, the solemn beauty of the night, so powerful in its contrast to the riotous scene they had just quitted, profoundly impressed them. Above, were the deep serene heavens, lighted up by the starry host and their radiant queen—below, the immemorial woods, steeped in silvery mists arising from the stream flowing past them. All nature was hushed in holy rest. In opposition to the flood of soft light emanating from the lovely planet overhead, and which turned all it fell on, whether tree, or tower, or stream, to beauty, was the artificial glare caused by the torches near the pavilion; while the discordant sounds occasioned by the minstrels tuning their instruments, disturbed the repose. As they went on, however, these sounds were lost in the distance, and the glare of the torches was excluded by intervening trees. Then the moon looked down lovingly upon them, and the only music that reached their ears arose from the nightingales. After a pause, they walked on again, hand-in-hand, gazing at each other, at the glorious heavens, and drinking in the thrilling melody of the songsters of the grove.
At the angle of the terrace was a small arbour placed in the midst of a bosquet, and they sat down within it. Then, and not till then, did their thoughts find vent in words. Forgetting the sorrows they had endured, and the perils by which they were environed, they found in their deep mutual love a shield against the sharpest arrows of fate. In low gentle accents they breathed their passion, solemnly plighting their faith before all-seeing Heaven.
Poor souls! they were happy then—intensely happy. Alas! that their happiness should be so short; for those few moments of bliss, stolen from a waste of tears, were all that were allowed them. Inexorable fate still dogged their footsteps.
Amidst the bosquet stood a listener to their converse—a little girl with high shoulders and sharp features, on which diabolical malice was stamped. Two yellow eyes glistened through the leaves beside her, marking the presence of a cat. As the lovers breathed their vows, and indulged in hopes never to be realised, the wicked child grinned, clenched her hands, and, grudging them their short-lived happiness, seemed inclined to interrupt it. Some stronger motive, however, kept her quiet.
What are the pair talking of now?—She hears her own name mentioned by the maiden, who speaks of her with pity, almost with affection—pardons her for the mischief she has done her, and hopes Heaven will pardon her likewise. But she knows not the full extent of the girl's malignity, or even her gentle heart must have been roused to resentment.
The little girl, however, feels no compunction. Infernal malice has taken possession of her heart, and crushed every kindly feeling within it. She hates all those that compassionate her, and returns evil for good.
What are the lovers talking of now? Of their first meeting at Whalley Abbey, when one was May Queen, and by her beauty and simplicity won the other's heart, losing her own at the same time. A bright unclouded career seemed to lie before them then. Wofully had it darkened since. Alas! Alas!
The little girl smiles. She hopes they will go on. She likes to hear them talk thus. Past happiness is ever remembered with a pang by the wretched, and they were happy then. Go on—go on!
But they are silent for awhile, for they wish to dwell on that hopeful, that blissful season. And a nightingale, alighting on a bough above them, pours forth its sweet plaint, as if in response to their tender emotions. They praise the bird's song, and it suddenly ceases.
For the little girl, full of malevolence, stretches forth her hand, and it drops to the ground, as if stricken by a dart.
"Is thy heart broken, poor bird?" exclaimed the young man, taking up the hapless songster, yet warm and palpitating. "To die in the midst of thy song—'tis hard."
"Very hard!" replied the maiden, tearfully. "Its fate seems a type of our own."
The little girl laughed, but in a low tone, and to herself.
The pair then grew sad. This slight incident had touched them deeply, and their conversation took a melancholy turn. They spoke of the blights that had nipped their love in the bud—of the canker that had eaten into its heart—of the destiny that so relentlessly pursued them, threatening to separate them for ever.
The little girl laughed merrily.
Then they spoke of the grave—and of hope beyond the grave; and they spoke cheerfully.
The little girl could laugh no longer, for with her all beyond the grave was despair.
After that they spoke of the terrible power that Satan had lately obtained in that unhappy district, of the arts he had employed, and of the votaries he had won. Both prayed fervently that his snares might be circumvented, and his rule destroyed.
During this part of the discourse the cat swelled to the size of a tiger, and his eyes glowed like fiery coals. He made a motion as if he would spring forward, but the voice of prayer arrested him, and he shrank back to his former size.
"Poor Jennet is ensnared by the Fiend," murmured the maiden, "and will perish eternally. Would I could save her!"
"It cannot be," replied the young man. "She is beyond redemption."
The little girl gnashed her teeth with rage.
"But my mother—I do not now despair of her," said Alizon. "She has broken the bondage by which she was enchained, and, if she resists temptation to the last, I am assured will be saved."
"Heaven aid her!" exclaimed Richard.
Scarcely were the words uttered, than the cat disappeared.
"Why, Tib!—where are yo, Tib? Ey want yo!" cried the little girl in a low tone.
But the familiar did not respond to the call.
"Where con he ha' gone?" cried Jennet; "Tib! Tib!"
Still the cat came not.
"Then ey mun do the wark without him," pursued the little girl; "an ey win no longer delay it."
And with this she crept stealthily round the arbour, and, approaching the side where Richard sat, watched an opportunity of touching him unperceived.
As her finger came in contact with his frame, a pang like death shot through his heart, and he fell upon Alizon's shoulder.
"Are you ill?" she exclaimed, gazing at his pallid features, rendered ghastly white by the moonlight.
Richard could make no reply, and Alizon, becoming dreadfully alarmed, was about to fly for assistance, but the young man, by a great effort, detained her.
"Ey mun now run an tell Mester Potts, so that hoo may be found wi' him," muttered Jennet, creeping away.
Just then Richard recovered his speech, but his words were faintly uttered, and with difficulty.
"Alizon," he said, "I will not attempt to disguise my condition from you. I am dying. And my death will be attributed to you—for evil-minded persons have persuaded the King that you have bewitched me, and he will believe the charge now. Oh! if you would ease the pangs of death for me—if you would console my latest moments—leave me, and quit this place, before it be too late."
"Oh! Richard," she cried distractedly; "you ask more than I can perform. If you are indeed in such imminent danger, I will stay with you—will die with you."
"No! live for me—live—save yourself, Alizon," implored the young man. "Your danger is greater than mine. A dreadful death awaits you at the stake! Oh! mercy, mercy, heaven! Spare her—in pity spare her!—Have we not suffered enough? I can no more. Farewell for ever, Alizon—one kiss—the last."
And as their lips met, his strength utterly forsook him, and he fell backwards.
"One grave!" he murmured; "one grave, Alizon!"—And so, without a groan, he expired.
Alizon neither screamed nor swooned, but remained in a state of stupefaction, gazing at the body. As the moon fell upon the placid features, they looked as if locked in slumber.
There he lay—the young, the brave, the beautiful, the loving, the beloved. Fate had triumphed. Death had done his work; but he had only performed half his task.
"One grave—one grave—it was his last wish—it shall be so!" she cried, in frenzied tones, "I shall thus escape my enemies, and avoid the horrible and shameful death to which they would doom me."
And she snatched the dagger from the ill-fated youth's side.
"Now, fate, I defy thee!" she cried, with a fearful laugh.
One last look at that calm beautiful face—one kiss of the cold lips, which can no more return the endearment—and the dagger is pointed at her breast.
But she is withheld by an arm of iron, and the weapon falls from her grasp. She looks up. A tall figure, clothed in the mouldering habiliments of a Cistertian monk, stands beside her. She knows the vestments at once, for she has seen them before, hanging up in the closet adjoining her mother's chamber at Whalley Abbey—and the features of the ghostly monk seem familiar to her.
"Raise not thy hand against thyself," said the phantom, in a tone of awful reproof. "It is the Fiend prompts thee to do it. He would take advantage of thy misery to destroy thee."
"I took thee for the Fiend," replied Alizon, gazing at him with wonder rather than with terror. "Who art thou?"
"The enemy of thy enemies, and therefore thy friend," replied the monk. "I would have saved thy lover if I could, but his destiny was not to be averted. But, rest content, I will avenge him."
"I do not want vengeance—I want to be with him," she replied, frantically embracing the body.
"Thou wilt soon be with him," said the phantom, in tones of deep significance. "Arise, and come with me. Thy mother needs thy assistance."
"My mother!" exclaimed Alizon, clearing the blinding tresses from her brow. "Where is she?"
"Follow me, and I will bring thee to her," said the monk.
"And leave him? I cannot!" cried Alizon, gazing wildly at the body.
"You must. A soul is at stake, and will perish if you come not," said the monk. "He is at rest, and you will speedily rejoin him."
"With that assurance I will go," replied Alizon, with a last look at the object of her love. "One grave—lay us in one grave!"
"It shall be done according to your wish," said the monk.
And he glided on with noiseless footsteps.
Alizon followed him along the terrace.
Presently they came to a dark yew-tree walk, leading to a labyrinth, and tracking it swiftly, as well as the overarched and intricate path to which it conducted, they entered a grotto, whence a flight of steps descended to a subterranean passage, hewn out of the rock. Along this passage, which was of some extent, the monk proceeded, and Alizon followed him.
At last they came to another flight of steps, and here the monk stopped.
"We are now beneath the pavilion, where you will find your mother," he said. "Mount! the way is clear before you. I have other work to do."
Alizon obeyed; and, as she advanced, was surprised to find the monk gone. He had neither passed her nor ascended the steps, and must, therefore, have sunk into the earth.
CHAPTER XII.—THE LAST HOUR.
Within the pavilion sat Alice Nutter. She was clad in deep mourning, but her dress seemed disordered as if by hasty travel. Her looks were full of anguish and terror; her blanched tresses, once so dark and beautiful, hung dishevelled over her shoulders; and her thin hands were clasped in supplication. Her cheeks were ashy pale, but on her brow was a bright red mark, as if traced by a finger dipped in blood.
A lamp was burning on the table beside her. Near it was a skull, and near this emblem of mortality an hourglass, running fast.
The windows and doors of the building were closed, and it would seem the unhappy lady was a prisoner.
She had been brought there secretly that night, with what intent she knew not; but she felt sure it was with no friendly design towards herself. Early in the day three horsemen had arrived at her retreat in Pendle Forest, and without making any charge against her, or explaining whither they meant to take her, or indeed answering any inquiry, had brought her off with them, and, proceeding across the country, had arrived at a forester's hut on the outskirts of Hoghton Park. Here they tarried till evening, placing her in a room by herself, and keeping strict watch over her; and when the shadows of night fell, they conveyed her through the woods, and by a private entrance to the gardens of the Tower, and with equal secresy to the pavilion, where, setting a lamp before her, they left her to her meditations. All refused to answer her inquiries, but one of them, with a sinister smile, placed the hourglass and skull beside her.
Left alone, the wretched lady vainly sought some solution of the enigma—why she had been brought thither. She could not solve it; but she determined, if her capture had been made by any lawful authorities, to confess her guilt and submit to condign punishment.
Though the windows and doors were closed as before mentioned, sounds from without reached her, and she heard confused and tumultuous noises as if from a large assemblage. For what purpose were they met? Could it be for her execution? No—there were strains of music, and bursts of laughter. And yet she had heard that the burning of a witch was a spectacle in which the populace delighted—that they looked upon it as a show, like any other; and why should they not laugh, and have music at it? But could she be executed without trial, without judgment? She knew not. All she knew was she was guilty, and deserved to die. But when this idea took possession of her, the laughter sounded in her ears like the yells of demons, and the strains like the fearful harmonies she had heard at weird sabbaths.
All at once she recollected with indescribable terror, that on this very night the compact she had entered into with the Fiend expired. That at midnight, unless by her penitence and prayers she had worked out her salvation, he could claim her. She recollected also, and with increased uneasiness, that the man who had set the hourglass on the table, and who had regarded her with a sinister smile as he did so, had said it was eleven o'clock! Her last hour then had arrived—nay, was partly spent, and the moments were passing swiftly by.
The agony she endured at this thought was intense. She felt as if reason were forsaking her, and, but for her determined efforts to resist it, such a crisis might have occurred. But she knew that her eternal welfare depended upon the preservation of her mental balance, and she strove to maintain it, and in the end succeeded.
Her gaze was fixed intently on the hourglass. She saw the sand trickling silently but swiftly down, like a current of life-blood, which, when it ceased, life would cease with it. She saw the shining grains above insensibly diminishing in quantity, and, as if she could arrest her destiny by the act, she seized the glass, and would have turned it, but the folly of the proceeding arrested her, and she set it down again.
Then horrible thoughts came upon her, crushing her and overwhelming her, and she felt by anticipation all the torments she would speedily have to endure. Oceans of fire, in which miserable souls were for ever tossing, rolled before her. Yells, such as no human anguish can produce, smote her ears. Monsters of frightful form yawned to devour her. Fiends, armed with terrible implements of torture, such as the wildest imagination cannot paint, menaced her. All hell, and its horrors, was there, its dreadful gulf, its roaring furnaces, its rivers of molten metal, ever burning, yet never consuming its victims. A hot sulphureous atmosphere oppressed her, and a film of blood dimmed her sight.
She endeavoured to pray, but her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth. She looked about for her Bible, but it had been left behind when she was taken from her retreat. She had no safeguard—none.
Still the sand ran on.
New agonies assailed her. Hell was before her again, but in a new form, and with new torments. She closed her eyes. She shut her ears. But she saw it still, and heard its terrific yells.
Again she consults the hourglass. The sand is running on—ever diminishing.
New torments assail her. She thinks of all she loves most on earth—of her daughter! Oh! if Alizon were near her, she might pray for her—might scare away these frightful visions—might save her. She calls to her—but she answers not. No, she is utterly abandoned of God and man, and must perish eternally.
Again she consults the hourglass. One quarter of an hour is all that remains to her. Oh! that she could employ it in prayer! Oh! that she could kneel—or even weep!
A large mirror hangs against the wall, and she is drawn towards it by an irresistible impulse. She sees a figure within it—but she does not know herself. Can that cadaverous object, with the white hair, that seems newly-arisen from the grave, be she? It must be a phantom. No—she touches her cheek, and finds it is real. But, ah! what is this red brand upon her brow? It must be the seal of the demon. She tries to efface it—but it will not come out. On the contrary, it becomes redder and deeper.
Again she consults the glass. The sand is still running on. How many minutes remain to her?
"Ten!" cried a voice, replying to her mental inquiry.—"Ten!"
And, turning, she perceived her familiar standing beside her.
"Thy time is wellnigh out, Alice Nutter," he said. "In ten minutes my lord will claim thee."
"My compact with thy master is broken," she replied, summoning up all her resolution. "I have long ceased to use the power bestowed upon me; but, even if I had wished it, thou hast refused to serve me."
"I have refused to serve you, madam, because you have disobeyed the express injunctions of my master," replied the familiar; "but your apostasy does not free you from bondage. You have merely lost advantages which you might have enjoyed. If you chose to dismiss me I could not help it. Neither I nor my lord have been to blame. We have performed our part of the contract."
"Why am I brought hither?" demanded Mistress Nutter.
"I will tell you," replied the familiar. "You were brought here by order of the King. Your retreat was revealed to him by Master Potts, who learnt it from Jennet Device. The sapient sovereign intended to confront you with your daughter Alizon, who, like yourself, is accused of witchcraft; but he will be disappointed—for when he comes for you, you will be out of his reach—ha! ha!"
And he rubbed his hands at the jest.
"Alizon accused of witchcraft—say'st thou?" cried Mistress Nutter.
"Ay," replied the familiar. "She is suspected of bewitching Richard Assheton, who has been done to death by Jennet Device. For one so young, the little girl has certainly a rare turn for mischief. But no one will know the real author of the crime, and Alizon will suffer for it."
"Heaven will not suffer such iniquity," said the lady.
"As you have nothing to do with heaven, madam, it is needless to refer to it," said the familiar. "But it certainly is rather hard that one so young as Alizon should perish."
"Can you save her?" asked Mistress Nutter.
"Oh! yes, I could save her, but she will not let me," replied the familiar, with a grin.
"No—no—it is impossible," cried the wretched woman. "And I cannot help her."
"Perhaps you might," observed the tempter. "My master, whom you accuse of harshness, is ever willing to oblige you. You have a few minutes left—do you wish him to aid her? Command me, and I will obey you."
"This is some snare," thought Mistress Nutter; "I will resist it."
"You cannot be worse off than you are," remarked the familiar.
"I know not that," replied the lady. "What would'st thou do?"
"Whatever you command me, madam. I can, do nothing of my own accord. Shall I bring your daughter here? Say so, and it shall be done."
"No—thou would'st ensnare me," she replied. "I well know thou hast no power over her. Thou would'st place some phantasm before me. I would see her, but not through thy agency."
"She is here," cried Alizon, opening the door of a closet, and rushing towards her mother, who instantly locked her in her arms.
"Pray for me, my child," cried Mistress Nutter, mastering her emotion, "or I shall be snatched from you for ever. My moments are numbered. Pray—pray!"
Alizon fell on her knees, and prayed fervently.
"You waste your breath," cried the familiar, in a mocking tone. "Never till the brand shall disappear from her brow, and the writing, traced in her blood, shall vanish from this parchment, can she be saved. She is mine."
"Pray, Alizon, pray!" shrieked Mistress Nutter.
"I will tear her in pieces if she does not cease," cried the familiar, assuming a terrible shape, and menacing her with claws like those of a wild beast.
"Pray thou, mother!" cried Alizon.
"I cannot," replied the lady.
"I will kill her if she but makes the attempt," howled the demon.
"But try, mother, try!" cried Alizon.
The poor lady dropped on her knees, and raised her hands in humble supplication—"Heaven forgive me!" she exclaimed.
The demon seized the hourglass.
"The sand is out—her term has expired—she is mine!" he cried.
"Clasp thy arms tightly round me, my child. He cannot take me from thee," shrieked the agonised woman.
"Release her, Alizon, or I will slay thee likewise," roared the demon.
"Never," she replied; "thou canst not overcome me. Ha!" she added joyfully, "the brand has disappeared from her brow."
"And the writing from the parchment," howled the demon; "but I will have her notwithstanding."
And he plunged his claws into Alice Nutter's flesh. But her daughter held her fast.
"Oh! hold me, my child—hold me, or I am lost!" shrieked the lady.
"Be warned, and let her go, or thy life shall pay for her's," cried the demon.
"My life for her's, willingly," replied Alizon.
"Then take thy fate," rejoined the evil spirit.
And placing his hand upon her heart, it instantly ceased to beat.
"Mother, thou art saved—saved!" exclaimed Alizon, throwing out her arms.
And gazing at her for an instant with a seraphic look, she fell backwards, and expired.
"Thou art mine," roared the demon, seizing Mistress Nutter by the hair, and dragging her from her daughter's body, to which she clung desperately.
"Help!—help!" she cried.
"Thou mayst call, but thy cries will be unheeded," rejoined the familiar with mocking laughter.
"Thou liest, false fiend!" said Mistress Nutter. "Heaven will help me now."
And, as she spoke, the Cistertian monk stood before them.
"Hence!" he cried with an imperious gesture to the demon. "She is no longer in thy power. Hence!"
And with a howl of rage and disappointment the familiar vanished.
"Alice Nutter," continued the monk, "thy safety has been purchased at the price of thy daughter's life. But it is of little moment, for she could not live long. Her gentle heart was broken, and, when the demon stopped it for ever, he performed unintentionally a merciful act. She must rest in the same grave with him she loved so well during life. This tell to those who will come to thee anon. Thou art delivered from the yoke of Satan. Full expiation has been made. But earthly justice must be satisfied. Thou must pay the penalty for crimes committed in the flesh, but what thou sufferest here shall avail thee hereafter."
"I am content," she replied.
"Pass the rest of thy life in penitence and prayer," pursued the monk, "and let nothing divert thee from it; for, though free now, thou wilt be subject to evil influence and temptations to the last. Remember this."
"I will—I will," she rejoined.
"And now," he said, "kneel beside thy daughter's body and pray. I will return to thee ere many minutes be passed. One task more, and then my mission is ended."
CHAPTER XIII.—THE MASQUE OF DEATH.
Short time as he had to await, James was unable to control his impatience. At last he arose, and, completely sobered by the recent strange events, descended the steps of the platform, and walked on without assistance.
"Let the yeomen of the guard keep back the crowd," he said to an officer, "and let none follow me but Sir Ralph Assheton, Master Nicholas Assheton, and Master Roger Nowell. When I call, let the prisoners be brought forward."
"Your Majesty shall be obeyed," replied the baronet, giving the necessary directions.
James then moved slowly forward in the direction of the pavilion; and, as he went, called Nicholas Assheton to him.
"Wha was that officer?" he asked.
"Your pardon, my liege, but I cannot answer the question," replied Nicholas.
"And why not, sir?" demanded the monarch, sharply.
"For reasons I will hereafter render to your Majesty, and which I am persuaded you will find satisfactory," rejoined the squire.