"Ay, just as you and I, who are of the third and fourth generation, may be punished for the sins of our fathers," rejoined Nicholas. "You have Scripture against you, Dick. The only thing I see in favour of your argument is, the instance you allege of Alizon. She does not look like a witch, certainly; but there is no saying. She may be only the more dangerous for her rare beauty, and apparent innocence!"
"I would answer for her truth with my life," cried Richard, quickly. "It is impossible to look at her countenance, in which candour and purity shine forth, and doubt her goodness."
"She hath cast her spells over you, Dick, that is certain," rejoined Nicholas, laughing; "but to be serious. Alizon, I admit, is an exception to the rest of the family, but that only strengthens the general rule. Did you ever remark the strange look they all—save the fair maid in question—have about the eyes?"
Richard answered in the negative.
"It is very singular, and I wonder you have not noticed it," pursued Nicholas; "but the question of reputed witchcraft in Mother Demdike has some chance of being speedily settled; for Master Potts, the little London lawyer, who goes with us to Pendle Forest to-morrow, is about to have her arrested and examined before a magistrate."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Richard, "this must be prevented."
"Why so?" exclaimed Nicholas, in surprise.
"Because the prejudice existing against her is sure to convict and destroy her," replied Richard. "Her great age, infirmities, and poverty, will be proofs against her. How can she, or any old enfeebled creature like her, whose decrepitude and misery should move compassion rather than excite fear—how can such a person defend herself against charges easily made, and impossible to refute? I do not deny the possibility of witchcraft, even in our own days, though I think it of very unlikely occurrence; but I would determinately resist giving credit to any tales told by the superstitious vulgar, who, naturally prone to cruelty, have so many motives for revenging imaginary wrongs. It is placing a dreadful weapon in their hands, of which they have cunning enough to know the use, but neither mercy nor justice enough to restrain them from using it. Better let one guilty person escape, than many innocent perish. So many undefined charges have been brought against Mother Demdike, that at last they have fixed a stigma on her name, and made her an object of dread and suspicion. She is endowed with mysterious power, which would have no effect if not believed in; and now must be burned because she is called a witch, and is doting and vain enough to accept the title."
"There is something in a witch difficult, nay, almost impossible to describe," said Nicholas, "but you cannot be mistaken about her. By her general ill course of life, by repeated acts of mischief, and by threats, followed by the consequences menaced, she becomes known. There is much mystery in the matter, not permitted human knowledge entirely to penetrate; but, as we know from the Scriptures that the sin of witchcraft did exist, and as we have no evidence that it has ceased, so it is fair to conclude, that there may be practisers of the dark offence in our own days, and such I hold to be Mother Demdike and Mother Chattox. Rival potentates in evil, they contend which shall do most mischief, but it must be admitted the former bears away the bell."
"If all the ill attributed to her were really caused by her machinations, this might be correct," replied Richard, "but it only shows her to be more calumniated than the other. In a word, cousin Nicholas, I look upon them as two poor old creatures, who, persuaded they really possess the supernatural power accorded to them by the vulgar, strive to act up to their parts, and are mainly assisted in doing so by the credulity and fears of their audience."
"Admitting the blind credulity of the multitude," said Nicholas, "and their proneness to discern the hand of the witch in the most trifling accidents; admitting also, their readiness to accuse any old crone unlucky enough to offend them of sorcery; I still believe that there are actual practisers of the black art, who, for a brief term of power, have entered into a league with Satan, worship him and attend his sabbaths, and have a familiar, in the shape of a cat, dog, toad, or mole, to obey their behests, transform themselves into various shapes—as a hound, horse, or hare,—raise storms of wind or hail, maim cattle, bewitch and slay human beings, and ride whither they will on broomsticks. But, holding the contrary opinion, you will not, I apprehend, aid Master Potts in his quest of witches."
"I will not," rejoined Richard. "On the contrary, I will oppose him. But enough of this. Let us go forth."
And they quitted the church together.
As they issued into the churchyard, they found the principal arbours occupied by the morris-dancers, Robin Hood and his troop, Doctor Ormerod and Sir Ralph having retired to the vicarage-house.
Many merry groups were scattered about, talking, laughing, and singing; but two persons, seemingly objects of suspicion and alarm, and shunned by every one who crossed their path, were advancing slowly towards the three crosses of Paullinus, which stood in a line, not far from the church-porch. They were females, one about five-and-twenty, very comely, and habited in smart holiday attire, put on with considerable rustic coquetry, so as to display a very neat foot and ankle, and with plenty of ribands in her fine chestnut hair. The other was a very different person, far advanced in years, bent almost double, palsy-stricken, her arms and limbs shaking, her head nodding, her chin wagging, her snowy locks hanging about her wrinkled visage, her brows and upper lip frore, and her eyes almost sightless, the pupils being cased with a thin white film. Her dress, of antiquated make and faded stuff, had been once deep red in colour, and her old black hat was high-crowned and broad-brimmed. She partly aided herself in walking with a crutch-handled stick, and partly leaned upon her younger companion for support.
"Why, there is one of the old women we have just been speaking of—Mother Chattox," said Richard, pointing them out, "and with her, her grand-daughter, pretty Nan Redferne."
"So it is," cried Nicholas, "what makes the old hag here, I marvel! I will go question her."
So saying, he strode quickly towards her.
"How now, Mother Chattox!" he cried. "What mischief is afoot? What makes the darkness-loving owl abroad in the glare of day? What brings the grisly she-wolf from her forest lair? Back to thy den, old witch! Ar't crazed, as well as blind and palsied, that thou knowest not that this is a merry-making, and not a devil's sabbath? Back to thy hut, I say! These sacred precincts are no place for thee."
"Who is it speaks to me?" demanded the old hag, halting, and fixing her glazed eyes upon him.
"One thou hast much injured," replied Nicholas. "One into whose house thou hast brought quick-wasting sickness and death by thy infernal arts. One thou hast good reason to fear; for learn, to thy confusion, thou damned and murtherous witch, it is Nicholas, brother to thy victim, Richard Assheton of Downham, who speaks to thee."
"I know none I have reason to fear," replied Mother Chattox; "especially thee, Nicholas Assheton. Thy brother was no victim of mine. Thou wert the gainer by his death, not I. Why should I slay him?"
"I will tell thee why, old hag," cried Nicholas; "he was inflamed by the beauty of thy grand-daughter Nancy here, and it was to please Tom Redferne, her sweetheart then, but her spouse since, that thou bewitchedst him to death."
"That reason will not avail thee, Nicholas," rejoined Mother Chattox, with a derisive laugh. "If I had any hand in his death, it was to serve and pleasure thee, and that all men shall know, if I am questioned on the subject—ha! ha! Take me to the crosses, Nance."
"Thou shalt not 'scape thus, thou murtherous hag," cried Nicholas, furiously.
"Nay, let her go her way," said Richard, who had drawn near during the colloquy. "No good will come of meddling with her."
"Who's that?" asked Mother Chattox, quickly.
"Master Richard Assheton, o' Middleton," whispered Nan Redferne.
"Another of these accursed Asshetons," cried Mother Chattox. "A plague seize them!"
"Boh he's weel-favourt an kindly," remarked her grand-daughter.
"Well-favoured or not, kindly or cruel, I hate them all," cried Mother Chattox. "To the crosses, I say!"
But Nicholas placed himself in their path.
"Is it to pray to Beelzebub, thy master, that thou wouldst go to the crosses?" he asked.
"Out of my way, pestilent fool!" cried the hag.
"Thou shalt not stir till I have had an answer," rejoined Nicholas. "They say those are Runic obelisks, and not Christian crosses, and that the carvings upon them have a magical signification. The first, it is averred, is written o'er with deadly curses, and the forms in which they are traced, as serpentine, triangular, or round, indicate and rule their swift or slow effect. The second bears charms against diseases, storms, and lightning. And on the third is inscribed a verse which will render him who can read it rightly, invisible to mortal view. Thou shouldst be learned in such lore, old Pythoness. Is it so?"
The hag's chin wagged fearfully, and her frame trembled with passion, but she spoke not.
"Have you been in the church, old woman?" interposed Richard.
"Ay, wherefore?" she rejoined.
"Some one has placed a cypress wreath on Abbot Paslew's grave. Was it you?" he asked.
"What! hast thou found it?" cried the hag. "It shall bring thee rare luck, lad—rare luck. Now let me pass."
"Not yet," cried Nicholas, forcibly grasping her withered arm.
The hag uttered a scream of rage.
"Let me go, Nicholas Assheton," she shrieked, "or thou shalt rue it. Cramps and aches shall wring and rack thy flesh and bones; fever shall consume thee; ague shake thee—shake thee—ha!"
And Nicholas recoiled, appalled by her fearful gestures.
"You carry your malignity too far, old woman," said Richard severely.
"And thou darest tell me so," cried the hag. "Set me before him, Nance, that I may curse him," she added, raising her palsied arm.
"Nah, nah—yo'n cursed ower much already, grandmother," cried Nan Redferne, endeavouring to drag her away. But the old woman resisted.
"I will teach him to cross my path," she vociferated, in accents shrill and jarring as the cry of the goat-sucker.
"Handsome he is, it may be, now, but he shall not be so long. The bloom shall fade from his cheek, the fire be extinguished in his eyes, the strength depart from his limbs. Sorrow shall be her portion who loves him—sorrow and shame!"
"Horrible!" exclaimed Richard, endeavouring to exclude the voice of the crone, which pierced his ears like some sharp instrument.
"Ha! ha! you fear me now," she cried. "By this, and this, the spell shall work," she added, describing a circle in the air with her stick, then crossing it twice, and finally scattering over him a handful of grave dust, snatched from an adjoining hillock.
"Now lead me quickly to the smaller cross, Nance," she added, in a low tone.
Her grand-daughter complied, with a glance of deep commiseration at Richard, who remained stupefied at the ominous proceeding.
"Ah! this must indeed be a witch!" he cried, recovering from the momentary shock.
"So you are convinced at last," rejoined Nicholas. "I can take breath now the old hell-cat is gone. But she shall not escape us. Keep an eye upon her, while I see if Simon Sparshot, the beadle, be within the churchyard, and if so he shall take her into custody, and lock her in the cage."
With this, he ran towards the throng, shouting lustily for the beadle. Presently a big, burly fellow, in a scarlet doublet, laced with gold, a black velvet cap trimmed with red ribands, yellow hose, and shoes with great roses in them, and bearing a long silver-headed staff, answered the summons, and upon being told why his services were required, immediately roared out at the top of a stentorian voice, "A witch, lads!—a witch!"
All was astir in an instant. Robin Hood and his merry men, with the morris-dancers, rushed out of their bowers, and the whole churchyard was in agitation. Above the din was heard the loud voice of Simon Sparshot, still shouting, "A witch!—witch!—Mother Chattox!"
"Where—where?" demanded several voices.
"Yonder," replied Nicholas, pointing to the further cross.
A general movement took place in that direction, the crowd being headed by the squire and the beadle, but when they came up, they found only Nan Redferne standing behind the obelisk.
"Where the devil is the old witch gone, Dick?" cried Nicholas, in dismay.
"I thought I saw her standing there with her grand-daughter," replied Richard; "but in truth I did not watch very closely."
"Search for her—search for her," cried Nicholas.
But neither behind the crosses, nor behind any monument, nor in any hole or corner, nor on the other side of the churchyard wall, nor at the back of the little hermitage or chapel, though all were quickly examined, could the old hag be found.
On being questioned, Nan Redferne refused to say aught concerning her grandmother's flight or place of concealment.
"I begin to think there is some truth in that strange legend of the cross," said Nicholas. "Notwithstanding her blindness, the old hag must have managed to read the magic verse upon it, and so have rendered herself invisible. But we have got the young witch safe."
"Yeigh, squoire!" responded Sparshot, who had seized hold of Nance—"hoo be safe enough."
"Nan Redferne is no witch," said Richard Assheton, authoritatively.
"Neaw witch, Mester Ruchot!" cried the beadle in amazement.
"No more than any of these lasses around us," said Richard. "Release her, Sparshot."
"I forbid him to do so, till she has been examined," cried a sharp voice. And the next moment Master Potts was seen pushing his way through the crowd. "So you have found a witch, my masters. I heard your shouts, and hurried on as fast as I could. Just in time, Master Nicholas—just in time," he added, rubbing his hands gleefully.
"Lemme go, Simon," besought Nance.
"Neaw, neaw, lass, that munnot be," rejoined Sparshot.
"Help—save me, Master Richard!" cried the young woman.
By this time the crowd had gathered round her, yelling, hooting, and shaking their hands at her, as if about to tear her in pieces; but Richard Assheton planted himself resolutely before her, and pushed back the foremost of them.
"Remove her instantly to the Abbey, Sparshot," he cried, "and let her be kept in safe custody till Sir Ralph has time to examine her. Will that content you, masters?"
"Neaw—neaw," responded several rough voices; "swim her!—swim her!"
"Quite right, my worthy friends, quite right," said Potts. "Primo, let us make sure she is a witch—secundo, let us take her to the Abbey."
"There can be no doubt as to her being a witch, Master Potts," rejoined Nicholas; "her old grand-dame, Mother Chattox, has just vanished from our sight."
"Has Mother Chattox been here?" cried Potts, opening his round eyes to their widest extent.
"Not many minutes since," replied Nicholas. "In fact, she may be here still for aught I know."
"Here!—where?" cried Potts, looking round.
"You won't discover her for all your quickness," replied Nicholas. "She has rendered herself invisible, by reciting the magical verses inscribed on that cross."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the attorney, closely examining the mysterious inscriptions. "What strange, uncouth characters! I can make neither head nor tail, unless it be the devil's tail, of them."
At this moment a whoop was raised by Jem Device, who, having taken his little sister home, had returned to the sports on the green, and now formed part of the assemblage in the churchyard. Between the rival witch potentates, Mothers Demdike and Chattox, it has already been said a deadly enmity existed, and the feud was carried on with equal animosity by their descendants; and though Jem himself came under the same suspicion as Nan Redferne, that circumstance created no tie of interest between them, but the contrary, and he was the most active of her assailants. He had set up the above-mentioned cry from observing a large rat running along the side of the wall.
"Theere hoo goes," whooped Jem, "t'owd witch, i' th' shape ov a rotten!—loo-loo-loo!"
Half the crowd started in pursuit of the animal, and twenty sticks were thrown at it, but a stone cast by Jem stayed its progress, and it was instantly despatched. It did not change, however, as was expected by the credulous hinds, into an old woman, and they gave vent to their disappointment and rage in renewed threats against Nan Redferne. The dead rat was hurled at her by Jem, but missing its mark, it hit Master Potts on the head, and nearly knocked him off the cross, upon which he had mounted to obtain a better view of the proceedings. Irritated by this circumstance, as well as by the failure of the experiment, the little attorney jumped down and fell to kicking the unfortunate rat, after which, his fury being somewhat appeased, he turned to Nance, who had sunk for support against the pedestal, and said to her—"If you will tell us what has become of the old witch your grandmother, and undertake to bear witness against her, you shall be set free."
"Ey'n tell ye nowt, mon," replied Nance, doggedly. "Put me to onny trial ye like, ye shanna get a word fro me."
"That remains to be seen," retorted Potts, "but I apprehend we shall make you speak, and pretty plainly too, before we've done with you.—You hear what this perverse and wrong-headed young witch declares, masters," he shouted, again clambering upon the cross. "I have offered her liberty, on condition of disclosing to us the manner of her diabolical old relative's evasion, and she rejects it."
An angry roar followed, mixed with cries from Jem Device, of "swim her!—swim her!"
"You had better tell them what you know, Nance," said Richard, in a low tone, "or I shall have difficulty in preserving you from their fury."
"Ey darena, Master Richard," she replied, shaking her head; and then she added firmly, "Ey winna."
Finding it useless to reason with her, and fearing also that the infuriated crowd might attempt to put their threats into execution, Richard turned to his cousin Nicholas, and said: "We must get her away, or violence will be done."
"She does not deserve your compassion, Dick," replied Nicholas; "she is only a few degrees better than the old hag who has escaped. Sparshot here tells me she is noted for her skill in modelling clay figures."
"Yeigh, that hoo be," replied the broad-faced beadle; "hoo's unaccountable cliver ot that sort o' wark. A clay figger os big os a six months' barn, fashiont i' th' likeness o' Farmer Grimble o' Briercliffe lawnd, os died last month, war seen i' her cottage, an monny others besoide. Amongst 'em a moddle o' your lamented brother, Squoire Ruchot Assheton o' Downham, wi' t' yeod pood off, and th' 'eart pieret thro' an' thro' wi' pins and needles."
"Ye lien i' your teeth, Simon Sparshot!" cried Nance; regarding him furiously.
"If the head were off, Simon, I don't see how the likeness to my poor brother could well be recognised," said Nicholas, with a half smile. "But let her be put to some mild trial—weighed against the church Bible."
"Be it so," replied Potts, jumping down; "but if that fail, we must have recourse to stronger measures. Take notice that, with all her fright, she has not been able to shed a tear, not a single tear—a clear witch—a clear witch!"
"Ey'd scorn to weep fo t' like o' yo!" cried Nance, disdainfully, having now completely recovered her natural audacity.
"We'll soon break your spirit, young woman, I can promise you," rejoined Potts.
As soon as it was known what was about to occur, the whole crowd moved towards the church porch, Nan Redferne walking between Richard Assheton and the beadle, who kept hold of her arm to prevent any attempt at escape; and by the time they reached the appointed place, Ben Baggiley, the baker, who had been despatched for the purpose, appeared with an enormous pair of wooden scales, while Sampson Harrop, the clerk, having visited the pulpit, came forth with the church Bible, an immense volume, bound in black, with great silver clasps.
"Come, that's a good big Bible at all events," cried Potts, eyeing it with satisfaction. "It looks like my honourable and singular good Lord Chief-Justice Sir Edward Coke's learned 'Institutes of the Laws of England,' only that that great legal tome is generally bound in calf—law calf, as we say."
"Large as the book is, it will scarce prove heavy enough to weigh down the witch, I opine," observed Nicholas, with a smile.
"We shall see, sir," replied Potts. "We shall see."
By this time, the scales having been affixed to a hook in the porch by Baggiley, the sacred volume was placed on one side, and Nance set down by the beadle on the other. The result of the experiment was precisely what might have been anticipated—the moment the young woman took her place in the balance, it sank down to the ground, while the other kicked the beam.
"I hope you are satisfied now, Master Potts," cried Richard Assheton. "By your own trial her innocence is approved."
"Your pardon, Master Richard, this is Squire Nicholas's trial, not mine," replied Potts. "I am for the ordeal of swimming. How say you, masters! Shall we be content with this doubtful experiment?"
"Neaw—neaw," responded Jem Device, who acted as spokesman to the crowd, "swim her—swim her!"
"I knew you would have it so," said Potts, approvingly. "Where is a fitting place for the trial?"
"Th' Abbey pool is nah fur off," replied Jem, "or ye con tay her to th' Calder."
"The river, by all means—nothing like a running stream," said Potts. "Let cords be procured to bind her."
"Run fo 'em quickly, Ben," said Jem to Baggiley, who was very zealous in the cause.
"Oh!" groaned Nance, again losing courage, and glancing piteously at Richard.
"No outrage like this shall be perpetrated," cried the young man, firmly; "I call upon you, cousin Nicholas, to help me. Go into the church," he added, thrusting Nance backward, and presenting his sword at the breast of Jem Device, who attempted to follow her, and who retired muttering threats and curses; "I will run the first man through the body who attempts to pass."
As Nan Redferne made good her retreat, and shut the church-door after her, Master Potts, pale with rage, cried out to Richard, "You have aided the escape of a desperate and notorious offender—actually in custody, sir, and have rendered yourself liable to indictment for it, sir, with consequences of fine and imprisonment, sir:—heavy fine and long imprisonment, sir. Do you mark me, Master Richard?"
"I will answer the consequences of my act to those empowered to question it, sir," replied Richard, sternly.
"Well, sir, I have given you notice," rejoined Potts, "due notice. We shall hear what Sir Ralph will say to the matter, and Master Roger Nowell, and—"
"You forget me, good Master Potts," interrupted Nicholas, laughingly; "I entirely disapprove of it. It is a most flagrant breach of duty. Nevertheless, I am glad the poor wench has got off."
"She is safe within the church," said Potts, "and I command Master Richard, in the king's name, to let us pass. Beadle! Sharpshot, Sparshot, or whatever be your confounded name do your duty, sirrah. Enter the church, and bring forth the witch."
"Ey darna, mester," replied Simon; "young mester Ruchot ud slit mey weasand os soon os look ot meh."
Richard put an end to further altercation, by stepping back quickly, locking the door, and then taking out the key, and putting it into his pocket.
"She is quite safe now," he cried, with a smile at the discomfited lawyer.
"Is there no other door?" inquired Potts of the beadle, in a low tone.
"Yeigh, theere be one ot t'other soide," replied Sparshot, "boh it be locked, ey reckon, an maybe hoo'n getten out that way."
"Quick, quick, and let's see," cried Potts; "justice must not be thwarted in this shameful manner."
While the greater part of the crowd set off after Potts and the beadle, Richard Assheton, anxious to know what had become of the fugitive, and determined not to abandon her while any danger existed, unlocked the church-door, and entered the holy structure, followed by Nicholas. On looking around, Nance was nowhere to be seen, neither did she answer to his repeated calls, and Richard concluded she must have escaped, when all at once a loud exulting shout was heard without, leaving no doubt that the poor young woman had again fallen into the hands of her captors. The next moment a sharp, piercing scream in a female key confirmed the supposition. On hearing this cry, Richard instantly flew to the opposite door, through which Nance must have passed, but on trying it he found it fastened outside; and filled with sudden misgiving, for he now recollected leaving the key in the other door, he called to Nicholas to come with him, and hurried back to it. His apprehensions were verified; the door was locked. At first Nicholas was inclined to laugh at the trick played them; but a single look from Richard checked his tendency to merriment, and he followed his young relative, who had sprung to a window looking upon that part of the churchyard whence the shouts came, and flung it open. Richard's egress, however, was prevented by an iron bar, and he called out loudly and fiercely to the beadle, whom he saw standing in the midst of the crowd, to unlock the door.
"Have a little patience, good Master Richard," replied Potts, turning up his provoking little visage, now charged with triumphant malice. "You shall come out presently. We are busy just now—engaged in binding the witch, as you see. Both keys are safely in my pocket, and I will send you one of them when we start for the river, good Master Richard. We lawyers are not to be overreached you see—ha! ha!"
"You shall repent this conduct when I do get out," cried Richard, furiously. "Sparshot, I command you to bring the key instantly."
But, encouraged by the attorney, the beadle affected not to hear Richard's angry vociferations, and the others were unable to aid the young man, if they had been so disposed, and all were too much interested in what was going forward to run off to the vicarage, and acquaint Sir Ralph with the circumstances in which his relatives were placed, even though enjoined to do so.
On being set free by Richard, Nance had flown quickly through the church, and passed out at the side door, and was making good her retreat at the back of the edifice, when her flying figure was descried by Jem Device, who, failing in his first attempt, had run round that way, fancying he should catch her.
He instantly dashed after her with all the fury of a bloodhound, and, being possessed of remarkable activity, speedily overtook her, and, heedless of her threats and entreaties, secured her.
"Lemme go, Jem," she cried, "an ey win do thee a good turn one o' these days, when theaw may chonce to be i' th' same strait os me." But seeing him inexorable, she added, "My granddame shan rack thy boans sorely, lad, for this."
Jem replied by a coarse laugh of defiance, and, dragging her along, delivered her to Master Potts and the beadle, who were then hurrying to the other door of the church. To prevent interruption, the cunning attorney, having ascertained that the two Asshetons were inside, instantly gave orders to have both doors locked, and the injunctions being promptly obeyed, he took possession of the keys himself, chuckling at the success of the stratagem. "A fair reprisal," he muttered; "this young milksop shall find he is no match for a skilful lawyer like me. Now, the cords—the cords!"
It was at the sight of the bonds, which were quickly brought by Baggiley, that Nance uttered the piercing cry that had roused Richard's indignation. Feeling secure of his prisoner, and now no longer apprehensive of interruption, Master Potts was in no hurry to conclude the arrangements, but rather prolonged them to exasperate Richard. Little consideration was shown the unfortunate captive. The new shoes and stockings of which she had been so vain a short time before, were torn from her feet and limbs by the rude hands of the remorseless Jem and the beadle, and bent down by the main force of these two strong men, her thumbs and great toes were tightly bound together, crosswise, by the cords. The churchyard rang with her shrieks, and, with his blood boiling with indignation at the sight, Richard redoubled his exertions to burst through the window and fly to her assistance. But though Nicholas now lent his powerful aid to the task, their combined efforts to obtain liberation were unavailing; and with rage almost amounting to frenzy, Richard beheld the poor young woman borne shrieking away by her captors. Nor was Nicholas much less incensed, and he swore a deep oath when he did get at liberty that Master Potts should pay dearly for his rascally conduct.
CHAPTER VI.—THE ORDEAL BY SWIMMING.
Bound hand and foot in the painful posture before described, roughly and insolently handled on all sides, in peril of her life from the frightful ordeal to which she was about to be subjected, the miserable captive was borne along on the shoulders of Jem Device and Sparshot, her long, fine chestnut hair trailing upon the ground, her white shoulders exposed to the insolent gaze of the crowd, and her trim holiday attire torn to rags by the rough treatment she had experienced. Nance Redferne, it has been said, was a very comely young woman; but neither her beauty, her youth, nor her sex, had any effect upon the ferocious crowd, who were too much accustomed to such brutal and debasing exhibitions, to feel any thing but savage delight in the spectacle of a fellow-creature so scandalously treated and tormented, and the only excuse to be offered for their barbarity, is the firm belief they entertained that they were dealing with a witch. And when even in our own day so many revolting scenes are enacted to gratify the brutal passions of the mob, while prize-fights are tolerated, and wretched animals goaded on to tear each other in pieces, it is not to be wondered at that, in times of less enlightenment and refinement, greater cruelties should be practised. Indeed, it may be well to consider how far we have really advanced in civilisation since then; for until cruelty, whether to man or beast, be wholly banished from our sports, we cannot justly reproach our ancestors, or congratulate ourselves on our improvement.
Nance's cries of distress were only answered by jeers, and renewed insults, and wearied out at length, the poor creature ceased struggling and shrieking, the dogged resolution she had before exhibited again coming to her aid.
But her fortitude was to be yet more severely tested. Revealed by the disorder of her habiliments, and contrasting strongly with the extreme whiteness of her skin, a dun-coloured mole was discovered upon her breast. It was pointed out to Potts by Jem Device, who declared it to be a witch-mark, and the spot where her familiar drained her blood.
"This is one of the 'good helps' to the discovery of a witch, pointed out by our sovereign lord the king," said the attorney, narrowly examining the spot. "'The one,' saith our wise prince, 'is the finding of their mark, and the trying the insensibleness thereof. The other is their fleeting on the water.' The water-ordeal will come presently, but the insensibility of the mark might be at once attested."
"Yeigh, that con soon be tried," cried Jem, with a savage laugh.
And taking a pin from his sleeve, the ruffian plunged it deeply into the poor creature's flesh. Nance winced, but she set her teeth hardly, and repressed the cry that must otherwise have been wrung from her.
"A clear witch!" cried Jem, drawing forth the pin; "not a drop o' blood flows, an hoo feels nowt!"
"Feel nowt?" rejoined Nance, between her ground teeth. "May ye ha a pang os sharp i' your cancart eart, ye villain."
After this barbarous test, the crowd, confirmed by it in their notions of Nan's guiltiness, hurried on, their numbers increasing as they proceeded along the main street of the village leading towards the river; all the villagers left at home rushing forth on hearing a witch was about to be swum, and when they came within a bow-shot of the stream, Sparshot called to Baggiley to lay hold of Nance, while he himself, accompanied by several of the crowd, ran over the bridge, the part he had to enact requiring him to be on the other side of the water.
Meantime, the main party turned down a little footpath protected by a gate on the left, which led between garden hedges to the grassy banks of the Calder, and in taking this course they passed by the cottage of Elizabeth Device. Hearing the shouts of the rabble, little Jennet, who had been in no very happy frame of mind since she had been brought home, came forth, and seeing her brother, called out to him, in her usual sharp tones, "What's the matter, Jem? Who han ye gotten there?"
"A witch," replied Jem, gruffly. "Nance Redferne, Mother Chattox's grand-daughter. Come an see her swum i' th' Calder."
Jennet readily complied, for her curiosity was aroused, and she shared in the family feelings of dislike to Mother Chattox and her descendants.
"Is this Nance Redferne?" she cried, keeping close to her brother, "Ey'm glad yo'n caught her at last. How dun ye find yersel, Nance?"
"Ill at ease, Jennet," replied Nance, with a bitter look; "boh it ill becomes ye to jeer me, lass, seein' yo're a born witch yoursel."
"Aha!" cried Potts, looking at the little girl, "So this is a born witch—eh, Nance?"
"A born an' bred witch," rejoined Nance; "jist as her brother Jem here is a wizard. They're the gran-childer o' Mother Demdike o' Pendle, the greatest witch i' these parts, an childer o' Bess Device, who's nah much better. Ask me to witness agen 'em, that's aw."
"Howd thy tongue, woman, or ey'n drown thee," muttered Jem, in a tone of deep menace.
"Ye canna, mon, if ey'm the witch ye ca' me," rejoined Nance. "Jennet's turn'll come os weel os mine, one o' these days. Mark my words."
"Efore that ey shan see ye burned, ye faggot," cried Jennet, almost fiercely.
"Ye'n gotten the fiend's mark o' your sleeve," cried Nance. "Ey see it written i' letters ov blood."
"That's where our cat scratted me," replied Jennet, hiding her arm quickly.
"Good!—very good!" observed Potts, rubbing his hands. "'Who but witches can be proof against witches?' saith our sagacious sovereign. I shall make something of this girl. She seems a remarkably quick child—remarkably quick—ha, ha!"
By this time, the party having gained the broad flat mead through which the Calder flowed, took their way quickly towards its banks, the spot selected for the ordeal lying about fifty yards above the weir, where the current, ordinarily rapid, was checked by the dam, offering a smooth surface, with considerable depth of water. If soft natural beauties could have subdued the hearts of those engaged in this cruel and wicked experiment, never was scene better calculated for the purpose than that under contemplation. Through a lovely green valley meandered the Calder, now winding round some verdant knoll, now washing the base of lofty heights feathered with timber to their very summits, now lost amid thick woods, and only discernible at intervals by a glimmer amongst the trees. Immediately in front of the assemblage rose Whalley Nab, its steep sides and brow partially covered with timber, with green patches in the uplands where sheep and cattle fed. Just below the spot where the crowd were collected, the stream, here of some width, passed over the weir, and swept in a foaming cascade over the huge stones supporting the dam, giving the rushing current the semblance and almost the beauty of a natural waterfall. Below this the stream ran brawling on in a wider, but shallower channel, making pleasant music as it went, and leaving many dry beds of sand and gravel in the midst; while a hundred yards lower down, it was crossed by the arches of the bridge. Further still, a row of tall cypresses lined the bank of the river, and screened that part of the Abbey, converted into a residence by the Asshetons; and after this came the ruins of the refectory, the cloisters, the dormitory, the conventual church, and other parts of the venerable structure, overshadowed by noble lime-trees and elms. Lovelier or more peaceful scene could not be imagined. The green meads, the bright clear stream, with its white foaming weir, the woody heights reflected in the glassy waters, the picturesque old bridge, and the dark grey ruins beyond it, all might have engaged the attention and melted the heart. Then the hour, when evening was coming on, and when each beautiful object, deriving new beauty from the medium through which it was viewed, exercised a softening influence, and awakened kindly emotions. To most the scene was familiar, and therefore could have no charm of novelty. To Potts, however, it was altogether new; but he was susceptible of few gentle impressions, and neither the tender beauty of the evening, nor the wooing loveliness of the spot, awakened any responsive emotion in his breast. He was dead to every thing except the ruthless experiment about to be made.
Almost at the same time that Jem Device and his party reached the near bank of the stream, the beadle and the others appeared on the opposite side. Little was said, but instant preparations were made for the ordeal. Two long coils of rope having been brought by Baggiley, one of them was made fast to the right arm of the victim, and the other to the left; and this done, Jem Device, shouting to Sparshot to look out, flung one coil of rope across the river, where it was caught with much dexterity by the beadle. The assemblage then spread out on the bank, while Jem, taking the poor young woman in his arms, who neither spoke nor struggled, but held her breath tightly, approached the river.
"Dunna drown her, Jem," said Jennet, who had turned very pale.
"Be quiet, wench," rejoined Jem, gruffly.
And without bestowing further attention upon her, he let down his burden carefully into the water; and this achieved, he called out to the beadle, who drew her slowly towards him, while Jem guided her with the other rope.
The crowd watched the experiment for a few moments in profound silence, but as the poor young woman, who had now reached the centre of the stream, still floated, being supported either by the tension of the cords, or by her woollen apparel, a loud shout was raised that she could not sink, and was, therefore, an undeniable witch.
"Steady, lads—steady a moment," cried Potts, enchanted with the success of the experiment; "leave her where she is, that her buoyancy may be fully attested. You know, masters," he cried, with a loud voice, "the meaning of this water ordeal. Our sovereign lord and master the king, in his wisdom, hath graciously vouchsafed to explain the matter thus: 'Water,' he saith, 'shall refuse to receive them (meaning witches, of course) in her bosom, that have shaken off their sacred water of baptism, and wilfully refused the benefit thereof.' It is manifest, you see, that this diabolical young woman hath renounced her baptism, for the water rejecteth her. Non potest mergi, as Pliny saith. She floats like a cork, or as if the clear water of the Calder had suddenly become like the slab, salt waves of the Dead Sea, in which, nothing can sink. You behold the marvel with your own eyes, my masters."
"Ay, ay!" rejoined Baggiley and several others.
"Hoo be a witch fo sartin," cried Jem Device. But as he spoke, chancing slightly to slacken the rope, the tension of which maintained the equilibrium of the body, the poor woman instantly sank.
A groan, as much of disappointment as sympathy, broke from the spectators, but none attempted to aid her; and on seeing her sink, Jem abandoned the rope altogether.
But assistance was at hand. Two persons rushed quickly and furiously to the spot. They were Richard and Nicholas Assheton. The iron bar had at length yielded to their efforts, and the first use they made of their freedom was to hurry to the river. A glance showed them what had occurred, and the younger Assheton, unhesitatingly plunging into the water, seized the rope dropped by Jem, and calling to the beadle to let go his hold, dragged forth the poor half-drowned young woman, and placed her on the bank, hewing asunder the cords that bound her hands and feet with his sword. But though still sensible, Nance was so much exhausted by the shock she had undergone, and her muscles were so severely strained by the painful and unnatural posture to which she had been compelled, that she was wholly unable to move. Her thumbs were blackened and swollen, and the cords had cut into the flesh, while blood trickled down from the puncture in her breast. Fixing a look of inexpressible gratitude upon her preserver, she made an effort to speak, but the exertion was too great; violent hysterical sobbing came on, and her senses soon after forsook her. Richard called loudly for assistance, and the sentiments of the most humane part of the crowd having undergone a change since the failure of the ordeal, some females came forward, and took steps for her restoration. Sensibility having returned, a cloak was wrapped around her, and she was conveyed to a neighbouring cottage and put to bed, where her stiffened limbs were chafed and warm drinks administered, and it began to be hoped that no serious consequences would ensue.
Meanwhile, a catastrophe had wellnigh occurred in another quarter. With eyes flashing with fury, Nicholas Assheton pushed aside the crowd, and made his way to the bank whereon Master Potts stood. Not liking his looks, the little attorney would have taken to his heels, but finding escape impossible, he called upon Baggiley to protect him. But he was instantly in the forcible gripe of the squire, who shouted, "I'll teach you, mongrel hound, to play tricks with gentlemen."
"Master Nicholas," cried the terrified and half-strangled attorney, "my very good sir, I entreat you to let me alone. This is a breach of the king's peace, sir. Assault and battery, under aggravated circumstances, and punishable with ignominious corporal penalties, besides fine and imprisonment, sir. I take you to witness the assault, Master Baggiley. I shall bring my ac—ac—ah—o—o—oh!"
"Then you shall have something to bring your ac—ac—action for, rascal," cried Nicholas. And, seizing the attorney by the nape of the neck with one hand, and the hind wings of his doublet with the other, he cast him to a considerable distance into the river, where he fell with a tremendous splash.
"He is no wizard, at all events," laughed Nicholas, as Potts went down like a lump of lead.
But the attorney was not born to be drowned; at least, at this period of his career. On rising to the surface, a few seconds after his immersion, he roared lustily for help, but would infallibly have been carried over the weir, if Jem Device had not flung him the rope now disengaged from Nance Redferne, and which he succeeded in catching. In this way he was dragged out; and as he crept up the bank, with the wet pouring from his apparel, which now clung tightly to his lathy limbs, he was greeted by the jeers of Nicholas.
"How like you the water-ordeal—eh, Master Attorney? No occasion for a second trial, I think. If Jem Device had known his own interest, he would have left you to fatten the Calder eels; but he will find it out in time."
"You will find it out too, Master Nicholas," rejoined Potts, clapping on his wet cap. "Take me to the Dragon quickly, good fellow," he added, to Jem Device, "and I will recompense thee for thy pains, as well as for the service thou hast just rendered me. I shall have rheumatism in my joints, pains in my loins, and rheum in my head, oh dear—oh dear!"
"In which case you will not be able to pay Mother Demdike your purposed visit to-morrow," jeered Nicholas. "You forgot you were to arrest her, and bring her before a magistrate."
"Thy arm, good fellow, thy arm!" said Potts, to Jem Device.
"To the fiend wi' thee," cried Jem, shaking him off roughly. "The squoire is reet. Wouldee had let thee drown."
"What, have you changed your mind already, Jem?" cried Nicholas, in a taunting tone. "You'll have your grandmother's thanks for the service you've rendered her, lad—ha! ha!"
"Fo' t' matter o' two pins ey'd pitch him again," growled Jem, eyeing the attorney askance.
"No, no, Jem," observed Nicholas, "things must take their course. What's done is done. But if Master Potts be wise, he'll take himself out of court without delay."
"You'll be glad to get me out of court one of these days, squire," muttered Potts, "and so will you too, Master James Device.—A day of reckoning will come for both—heavy reckoning. Ugh! ugh!" he added, shivering, "how my teeth chatter!"
"Make what haste you can to the Dragon," cried the good-natured squire; "get your clothes dried, and bid John Lawe brew you a pottle of strong sack, swallow it scalding hot, and you'll never look behind you."
"Nor before me either," retorted Potts, "Scalding sack! This bloodthirsty squire has a new design upon my life!"
"Ey'n go wi' ye to th' Dragon, mester," said Baggiley; "lean o' me."
"Thanke'e friend," replied Potts, taking his arm. "A word at parting, Master Nicholas. This is not the only discovery of witchcraft I've made. I've another case, somewhat nearer home. Ha! ha!"
With this, he hobbled off in the direction of the alehouse, his steps being traceable along the dusty road like the course of a watering-cart.
"Ey'n go efter him," growled Jem.
"No you won't, lad," rejoined Nicholas, "and if you'll take my advice, you'll get out of Whalley as fast as you can. You will be safer on the heath of Pendle than here, when Sir Ralph and Master Roger Nowell come to know what has taken place. And mind this, sirrah—the hounds will be out in the forest to-morrow. D'ye heed?"
Jem growled something in reply, and, seizing his little sister's hand, strode off with her towards his mother's dwelling, uttering not a word by the way.
Having seen Nance Redferne conveyed to the cottage, as before mentioned, Richard Assheton, regardless of the wet state of his own apparel, now joined his cousin, the squire, and they walked to the Abbey together, conversing on what had taken place, while the crowd dispersed, some returning to the bowers in the churchyard, and others to the green, their merriment in nowise damped by the recent occurrences, which they looked upon as part of the day's sport. As some of them passed by, laughing, singing, and dancing, Richard Assheton remarked, "I can scarcely believe these to be the same people I so lately saw in the churchyard. They then seemed totally devoid of humanity."
"Pshaw! they are humane enough," rejoined Nicholas; "but you cannot expect them to show mercy to a witch, any more than to a wolf, or other savage and devouring beast."
"But the means taken to prove her guilt were as absurd as iniquitous," said Richard, "and savour of the barbarous ages. If she had perished, all concerned in the trial would have been guilty of murder."
"But no judge would condemn them," returned Nicholas; "and they have the highest authority in the realm to uphold them. As to leniency to witches, in a general way, I would show none. Traitors alike to God and man, and bond slaves of Satan, they are out of the pale of Christian charity."
"No criminal, however great, is out of the pale of Christian charity," replied Richard; "but such scenes as we have just witnessed are a disgrace to humanity, and a mockery of justice. In seeking to discover and punish one offence, a greater is committed. Suppose this poor young woman really guilty—what then? Our laws are made for protection, as well as punishment of wrong. She should he arraigned, convicted, and condemned before punishment."
"Our laws admit of torture, Richard," observed Nicholas.
"True," said the young man, with a shudder, "and it is another relic of a ruthless age. But torture is only allowed under the eye of the law, and can be inflicted by none but its sworn servants. But, supposing this poor young woman innocent of the crime imputed to her, which I really believe her to be, how, then, will you excuse the atrocities to which she has been subjected?"
"I do not believe her innocent," rejoined Nicholas; "her relationship to a notorious witch, and her fabrication of clay images, make her justly suspected."
"Then let her be examined by a magistrate," said Richard; "but, even then, woe betide her! When I think that Alizon Device is liable to the same atrocious treatment, in consequence of her relationship to Mother Demdike, I can scarce contain my indignation."
"It is unlucky for her, indeed," rejoined Nicholas; "but of all Nance's assailants the most infuriated was Alizon's brother, Jem Device."
"I saw it," cried Richard—an uneasy expression passing over his countenance. "Would she could be removed from that family!"
"To what purpose?" demanded Nicholas, quickly. "Her family are more likely to be removed from her if Master Potts stay in the neighbourhood."
"Poor girl!" exclaimed Richard.
And he fell into a reverie which was not broken till they reached the Abbey.
To return to Jem Device. On reaching the cottage, the ruffian flung himself into a chair, and for a time seemed lost in reflection. At last he looked up, and said gruffly to Jennet, who stood watching him, "See if mother be come whoam?"
"Eigh, eigh, ey'm here, Jem," said Elizabeth Device, opening the inner door and coming forth. "So, ye ha been swimmin' Nance Redferne, lad, eh! Ey'm glad on it—ha! ha!"
Jem gave her a significant look, upon which she motioned Jennet to withdraw, and the injunction being complied with, though with evident reluctance, by the little girl, she closed the door upon her.
"Now, Jem, what hast got to say to me, lad, eh?" demanded Elizabeth, stepping up to him.
"Neaw great deal, mother," he replied; "boh ey keawnsel ye to look weel efter yersel. We're aw i' dawnger."
"Ey knoas it, lad, ey knoas it," replied Elizabeth; "boh fo my own pert ey'm nah afeerd. They darna touch me; an' if they dun, ey con defend mysel reet weel. Here's a letter to thy gran-mother," she added, giving him a sealed packet. "Take care on it."
"Fro Mistress Nutter, ey suppose?" asked Jem.
"Eigh, who else should it be from?" rejoined Elizabeth. "Your gran-mother win' ha' enough to do to neet, an so win yo, too, Jem, lettin alone the walk fro here to Malkin Tower."
"Weel, gi' me mey supper, an ey'n set out," rejoined Jem. "So ye ha' seen Mistress Nutter?"
"Ey found her i' th' Abbey garden," replied Elizabeth, "an we had some tawk together, abowt th' boundary line o' th' Rough Lee estates, and other matters."
And, as she spoke, she set a cold pasty, with oat cakes, cheese, and butter, before her son, and next proceeded to draw him a jug of ale.
"What other matters dun you mean, mother?" inquired Jem, attacking the pasty. "War it owt relatin' to that little Lunnon lawyer, Mester Potts?"
"Theawst hit it, Jem," replied Elizabeth, seating herself near him. "That Potts means to visit thy gran-mother to morrow."
"Weel!" said Jem, grimly.
"An arrest her," pursued Elizabeth.
"Easily said," laughed Jem, scornfully, "boh neaw quite so easily done."
"Nah quite, Jem," responded Elizabeth, joining in the laugh. "'Specially when th' owd dame's prepared, as she win be now."
"Potts may set out 'o that journey, boh he winna come back again," remarked Jem, in a sombre tone.
"Wait till yo'n seen your gran-mother efore ye do owt, lad," said Elizabeth.
"Ay, wait," added a voice.
"What's that?" demanded Jem, laving down his knife and fork.
Elizabeth did not answer in words, but her significant looks were quite response enough for her son.
"Os ye win, mother," he said in an altered tone. After a pause, employed in eating, he added, "Did Mistress Nutter put onny questions to ye about Alizon?"
"More nor enough, lad," replied Elizabeth; "fo what had ey to tell her? She praised her beauty, an said how unlike she wur to Jennet an thee, lad—ha! ha!—An wondert how ey cum to ha such a dowter, an monny other things besoide. An what could ey say to it aw, except—"
"Except what, mother?" interrupted Jem.
"Except that she wur my child just os much os Jennet an thee!"
"Humph!" exclaimed Jem.
"Humph!" echoed the voice that had previously spoken.
Jem looked at his mother, and took a long pull at the ale-jug.
"Any more messages to Malkin Tower?" he asked, getting up.
"Neaw—mother will onderstond," replied Elizabeth. "Bid her be on her guard, fo' the enemy is abroad."
"Meanin' Potts?" said Jem.
"Meaning Potts," answered the voice.
"There are strange echoes here," said Jem, looking round suspiciously.
At this moment, Tib came from under a piece of furniture, where he had apparently been lying, and rubbed himself familiarly against his legs.
"Ey needna be afeerd o' owt happenin to ye, mother," said Jem, patting the cat's back. "Tib win tay care on yo."
"Eigh, eigh," replied Elizabeth, bending down to pat him, "he's a trusty cat." But the ill-tempered animal would not be propitiated, but erected his back, and menaced her with his claws.
"Yo han offended him, mother," said Jem. "One word efore ey start. Are ye quite sure Potts didna owerhear your conversation wi' Mistress Nutter?"
"Why d'ye ask, Jem?" she replied.
"Fro' summat the knave threw out to Squoire Nicholas just now," rejoined Jem. "He said he'd another case o' witchcraft nearer whoam. Whot could he mean?"
"Whot, indeed?" cried Elizabeth, quickly.
"Look at Tib," exclaimed her son.
As he spoke, the cat sprang towards the inner door, and scratched violently against it.
Elizabeth immediately raised the latch, and found Jennet behind it, with a face like scarlet.
"Yo'n been listenin, ye young eavesdropper," cried Elizabeth, boxing her ears soundly; "take that fo' your pains—an that."
"Touch me again, an Mester Potts shan knoa aw ey'n heer'd," said the little girl, repressing her tears.
Elizabeth regarded her angrily; but the looks of the child were so spiteful, that she did not dare to strike her. She glanced too at Tib; but the uncertain cat was now rubbing himself in the most friendly manner against Jennet.
"Yo shan pay for this, lass, presently," said Elizabeth.
"Best nah provoke me, mother," rejoined Jennet in a determined tone; "if ye dun, aw secrets shan out. Ey knoa why Jem's goin' to Malkin-Tower to-neet—an why yo're afeerd o' Mester Potts."
"Howd thy tongue or ey'n choke thee, little pest," cried her mother, fiercely.
Jennet replied with a mocking laugh, while Tib rubbed against her more fondly than ever.
"Let her alone," interposed Jem. "An now ey mun be off. So, fare ye weel, mother,—an yo, too, Jennet." And with this, he put on his cap, seized his cudgel, and quitted the cottage.
CHAPTER VII.—THE RUINED CONVENTUAL CHURCH.
Beneath a wild cherry-tree, planted by chance in the Abbey gardens, and of such remarkable size that it almost rivalled the elms and lime trees surrounding it, and when in bloom resembled an enormous garland, stood two young maidens, both of rare beauty, though in totally different styles;—the one being fair-haired and blue-eyed, with a snowy skin tinged with delicate bloom, like that of roses seen through milk, to borrow a simile from old Anacreon; while the other far eclipsed her in the brilliancy of her complexion, the dark splendour of her eyes, and the luxuriance of her jetty tresses, which, unbound and knotted with ribands, flowed down almost to the ground. In age, there was little disparity between them, though perhaps the dark-haired girl might be a year nearer twenty than the other, and somewhat more of seriousness, though not much, sat upon her lovely countenance than on the other's laughing features. Different were they too, in degree, and here social position was infinitely in favour of the fairer girl, but no one would have judged it so if not previously acquainted with their history. Indeed, it was rather the one having least title to be proud (if any one has such title) who now seemed to look up to her companion with mingled admiration and regard; the latter being enthralled at the moment by the rich notes of a thrush poured from a neighbouring lime-tree.
Pleasant was the garden where the two girls stood, shaded by great trees, laid out in exquisite parterres, with knots and figures, quaint flower-beds, shorn trees and hedges, covered alleys and arbours, terraces and mounds, in the taste of the time, and above all an admirably kept bowling-green. It was bounded on the one hand by the ruined chapter-house and vestry of the old monastic structure, and on the other by the stately pile of buildings formerly making part of the Abbot's lodging, in which the long gallery was situated, some of its windows looking upon the bowling-green, and then kept in excellent condition, but now roofless and desolate. Behind them, on the right, half hidden by trees, lay the desecrated and despoiled conventual church. Reared at such cost, and with so much magnificence, by thirteen abbots—the great work having been commenced, as heretofore stated, by Robert de Topcliffe, in 1330, and only completed in all its details by John Paslew; this splendid structure, surpassing, according to Whitaker, "many cathedrals in extent," was now abandoned to the slow ravages of decay. Would it had never encountered worse enemy! But some half century later, the hand of man was called in to accelerate its destruction, and it was then almost entirely rased to the ground. At the period in question though partially unroofed, and with some of the walls destroyed, it was still beautiful and picturesque—more picturesque, indeed than in the days of its pride and splendour. The tower with its lofty crocketed spire was still standing, though the latter was cracked and tottering, and the jackdaws roosted within its windows and belfry. Two ranges of broken columns told of the bygone glories of the aisles; and the beautiful side chapels having escaped injury better than other parts of the fabric, remained in tolerable preservation. But the choir and high altar were stripped of all their rich carving and ornaments, and the rain descended through the open rood-loft upon the now grass-grown graves of the abbots in the presbytery. Here and there the ramified mullions still retained their wealth of painted glass, and the grand eastern window shone gorgeously as of yore. All else was neglect and ruin. Briers and turf usurped the place of the marble pavement; many of the pillars were festooned with ivy; and, in some places, the shattered walls were covered with creepers, and trees had taken root in the crevices of the masonry. Beautiful at all times were these magnificent ruins; but never so beautiful as when seen by the witching light of the moon—the hour, according to the best authority, when all ruins should be viewed—when the long lines of broken pillars, the mouldering arches, and the still glowing panes over the altar, had a magical effect.
In front of the maidens stood a square tower, part of the defences of the religious establishment, erected by Abbot Lyndelay, in the reign of Edward III., but disused and decaying. It was sustained by high and richly groined arches, crossing the swift mill-race, and faced the river. A path led through the ruined chapter-house to the spacious cloister quadrangle, once used as a cemetery for the monks, but now converted into a kitchen garden, its broad area being planted out, and fruit-trees trained against the hoary walls. Little of the old refectory was left, except the dilapidated stairs once conducting to the gallery where the brethren were wont to take their meals, but the inner wall still served to enclose the garden on that side. Of the dormitory, formerly constituting the eastern angle of the cloisters, the shell was still left, and it was used partly as a grange, partly as a shed for cattle, the farm-yard and tenements lying on this side.
Thus it will be seen that the garden and grounds, filling up the ruins of Whalley Abbey, offered abundant points of picturesque attraction, all of which—with the exception of the ruined conventual church—had been visited by the two girls. They had tracked the labyrinths of passages, scaled the broken staircases, crept into the roofless and neglected chambers, peered timorously into the black and yawning vaults, and now, having finished their investigations, had paused for awhile, previous to extending their ramble to the church, beneath the wild cherry-tree to listen to the warbling of the birds.
"You should hear the nightingales at Middleton, Alizon," observed Dorothy Assheton, breaking silence; "they sing even more exquisitely than yon thrush. You must come and see me. I should like to show you the old house and gardens, though they are very different from these, and we have no ancient monastic ruins to ornament them. Still, they are very beautiful; and, as I find you are fond of flowers, I will show you some I have reared myself, for I am something of a gardener, Alizon. Promise you will come."
"I wish I dared promise it," replied Alizon.
"And why not, then?" cried Dorothy. "What should prevent you? Do you know, Alizon, what I should like better than all? You are so amiable, and so good, and so—so very pretty; nay, don't blush—there is no one by to hear me—you are so charming altogether, that I should like you to come and live with me. You shall be my handmaiden if you will."
"I should desire nothing better, sweet young lady," replied Alizon; "but—"
"But what?" cried Dorothy. "You have only your own consent to obtain."
"Alas! I have," replied Alizon.
"How can that be!" cried Dorothy, with a disappointed look. "It is not likely your mother will stand in the way of your advancement, and you have not, I suppose, any other tie? Nay, forgive me if I appear too inquisitive. My curiosity only proceeds from the interest I take in you."
"I know it—I feel it, dear, kind young lady," replied Alizon, with the colour again mounting her cheeks. "I have no tie in the world except my family. But I am persuaded my mother will never allow me to quit her, however great the advantage might be to me."
"Well, though sorry, I am scarcely surprised at it," said Dorothy. "She must love you too dearly to part with you."
"I wish I could think so," sighed Alizon. "Proud of me in some sort, though with little reason, she may be, but love me, most assuredly, she does not. Nay more, I am persuaded she would be glad to be freed from my presence, which is an evident restraint and annoyance to her, were it not for some motive stronger than natural affection that binds her to me."
"Now, in good sooth, you amaze me, Alizon!" cried Dorothy. "What possible motive can it be, if not of affection?"
"Of interest, I think," replied Alizon. "I speak to you without reserve, dear young lady, for the sympathy you have shown me deserves and demands confidence on my part, and there are none with whom I can freely converse, so that every emotion has been locked up in my own bosom. My mother fancies I shall one day be of use to her, and therefore keeps me with her. Hints to this effect she has thrown out, when indulging in the uncontrollable fits of passion to which she is liable. And yet I have no just reason to complain; for though she has shown me little maternal tenderness, and repelled all exhibition of affection on my part, she has treated me very differently from her other children, and with much greater consideration. I can make slight boast of education, but the best the village could afford has been given me; and I have derived much religious culture from good Doctor Ormerod. The kind ladies of the vicarage proposed, as you have done, that I should live with them, but my mother forbade it; enjoining me, on the peril of incurring her displeasure, not to leave her, and reminding me of all the benefits I have received from her, and of the necessity of making an adequate return. And, ungrateful indeed I should be, if I did not comply; for, though her manner is harsh and cold to me, she has never ill-used me, as she has done her favourite child, my little sister Jennet, but has always allowed me a separate chamber, where I can retire when I please, to read, or meditate, or pray. For, alas! dear young lady, I dare not pray before my mother. Be not shocked at what I tell you, but I cannot hide it. My poor mother denies herself the consolation of religion—never addresses herself to Heaven in prayer—never opens the book of Life and Truth—never enters church. In her own mistaken way she has brought up poor little Jennet, who has been taught to make a scoff at religious truths and ordinances, and has never been suffered to keep holy the Sabbath-day. Happy and thankful am I, that no such evil lessons have been taught me, but rather, that I have profited by the sad example. In my own secret chamber I have prayed, daily and nightly, for both—prayed that their hearts might be turned. Often have I besought my mother to let me take Jennet to church, but she never would consent. And in that poor misguided child, dear young lady, there is a strange mixture of good and ill. Afflicted with personal deformity, and delicate in health, the mind perhaps sympathising with the body, she is wayward and uncertain in temper, but sensitive and keenly alive to kindness, and with a shrewdness beyond her years. At the risk of offending my mother, for I felt confident I was acting rightly, I have endeavoured to instil religious principles into her heart, and to inspire her with a love of truth. Sometimes she has listened to me; and I have observed strange struggles in her nature, as if the good were obtaining mastery of the evil principle, and I have striven the more to convince her, and win her over, but never with entire success, for my efforts have been overcome by pernicious counsels, and sceptical sneers. Oh, dear young lady, what would I not do to be the instrument of her salvation!"
"You pain me much by this relation, Alizon," said Dorothy Assheton, who had listened with profound attention, "and I now wish more ardently than ever to take you from such a family."
"I cannot leave them, dear young lady," replied Alizon; "for I feel I may be of infinite service—especially to Jennet—by staying with them. Where there is a soul to be saved, especially the soul of one dear as a sister, no sacrifice can be too great to make—no price too heavy to pay. By the blessing of Heaven I hope to save her! And that is the great tie that binds me to a home, only so in name."
"I will not oppose your virtuous intentions, dear Alizon," replied Dorothy; "but I must now mention a circumstance in connexion with your mother, of which you are perhaps in ignorance, but which it is right you should know, and therefore no false delicacy on my part shall restrain me from mentioning it. Your grandmother, Old Demdike, is in very ill depute in Pendle, and is stigmatised by the common folk, and even by others, as a witch. Your mother, too, shares in the opprobrium attaching to her."
"I dreaded this," replied Alizon, turning deadly pale, and trembling violently, "I feared you had heard the terrible report. But oh, believe it not! My poor mother is erring enough, but she is not so bad as that. Oh, believe it not!"
"I will not believe it," said Dorothy, "since she is blessed with such a daughter as you. But what I fear is that you—you so kind, so good, so beautiful—may come under the same ban."
"I must run this risk also, in the good work I have appointed myself," replied Alizon. "If I am ill thought of by men, I shall have the approval of my own conscience to uphold me. Whatever betide, and whatever be said, do not you think ill of me, dear young lady."
"Fear it not," returned Dorothy, earnestly.
While thus conversing, they gradually strayed away from the cherry-tree, and taking a winding path leading in that direction, entered the conventual church, about the middle of the south aisle. After gazing with wonder and delight at the still majestic pillars, that, like ghosts of the departed brethren, seemed to protest against the desolation around them, they took their way along the nave, through broken arches, and over prostrate fragments of stone, to the eastern extremity of the fane, and having admired the light shafts and clerestory windows of the choir, as well as the magnificent painted glass over the altar, they stopped before an arched doorway on the right, with two Gothic niches, in one of which was a small stone statue of Saint Agnes with her lamb, and in the other a similar representation of Saint Margaret, crowned, and piercing the dragon with a cross. Both were sculptures of much merit, and it was wonderful they had escaped destruction. The door was closed, but it easily opened when tried by Dorothy, and they found themselves in a small but beautiful chapel. What struck them chiefly in it was a magnificent monument of white marble, enriched with numerous small shields, painted and gilt, supporting two recumbent figures, representing Henry de Lacy, one of the founders of the Abbey, and his consort. The knight was cased in plate armour, covered with a surcoat, emblazoned with his arms, and his feet resting upon a hound. This superb monument was wholly uninjured, the painting and gilding being still fresh and bright. Behind it a flag had been removed, discovering a flight of steep stone steps, leading to a vault, or other subterranean chamber.
After looking round this chapel, Dorothy remarked, "There is something else that has just occurred to me. When a child, a strange dark tale was told me, to the effect that the last ill-fated Abbot of Whalley laid his dying curse upon your grandmother, then an infant, predicting that she should be a witch, and the mother of witches."
"I have heard the dread tradition, too," rejoined Alizon; "but I cannot, will not, believe it. An all-benign Power will never sanction such terrible imprecations."
"Far be it from me to affirm the contrary," replied Dorothy; "but it is undoubted that some families have been, and are, under the influence of an inevitable fatality. In one respect, connected also with the same unfortunate prelate, I might instance our own family. Abbot Paslew is said to be unlucky to us even in his grave. If such a curse, as I have described, hangs over the head of your family, all your efforts to remove it will be ineffectual."
"I trust not," said Alizon. "Oh! dear young lady, you have now penetrated the secret of my heart. The mystery of my life is laid open to you. Disguise it as I may, I cannot but believe my mother to be under some baneful influence. Her unholy life, her strange actions, all impress me with the idea. And there is the same tendency in Jennet."
"You have a brother, have you not?" inquired Dorothy.
"I have," returned Alizon, slightly colouring; "but I see little of him, for he lives near my grandmother, in Pendle Forest, and always avoids me in his rare visits here. You will think it strange when I tell you I have never beheld my grandmother Demdike."
"I am glad to hear it," exclaimed Dorothy.
"I have never even been to Pendle," pursued Alizon, "though Jennet and my mother go there frequently. At one time I much wished to see my aged relative, and pressed my mother to take me with her; but she refused, and now I have no desire to go."
"Strange!" exclaimed Dorothy. "Every thing you tell me strengthens the idea I conceived, the moment I saw you, and which my brother also entertained, that you are not the daughter of Elizabeth Device."
"Did your brother think this?" cried Alizon, eagerly. But she immediately cast down her eyes.
"He did," replied Dorothy, not noticing her confusion. "'It is impossible,' he said, 'that that lovely girl can be sprung from'—but I will not wound you by adding the rest."
"I cannot disown my kindred," said Alizon. "Still, I must confess that some notions of the sort have crossed me, arising, probably, from my mother's extraordinary treatment, and from many other circumstances, which, though trifling in themselves, were not without weight in leading me to the conclusion. Hitherto I have treated it only as a passing fancy, but if you and Master Richard Assheton"—and her voice slightly faltered as she pronounced the name—"think so, it may warrant me in more seriously considering the matter."
"Do consider it most seriously, dear Alizon," cried Dorothy. "I have made up my mind, and Richard has made up his mind, too, that you are not Mother Demdike's grand-daughter, nor Elizabeth Device's daughter, nor Jennet's sister—nor any relation of theirs. We are sure of it, and we will have you of our mind."
The fair and animated speaker could not help noticing the blushes that mantled Alizon's cheeks as she spoke, but she attributed them to other than the true cause. Nor did she mend the matter as she proceeded.
"I am sure you are well born, Alizon," she said, "and so it will be found in the end. And Richard thinks so, too, for he said so to me; and Richard is my oracle, Alizon."
In spite of herself Alizon's eyes sparkled with pleasure; but she speedily checked the emotion.
"I must not indulge the dream," she said, with a sigh.
"Why not?" cried Dorothy. "I will have strict inquiries made as to your history."
"I cannot consent to it," replied Alizon. "I cannot leave one who, if she be not my parent, has stood to me in that relation. Neither can I have her brought into trouble on my account. What will she think of me, if she learns I have indulged such a notion? She will say, and with truth, that I am the most ungrateful of human beings, as well as the most unnatural of children. No, dear young lady, it must not be. These fancies are brilliant, but fallacious, and, like bubbles, burst as soon as formed."
"I admire your sentiments, though I do not admit the justice of your reasoning," rejoined Dorothy. "It is not on your own account merely, though that is much, that the secret of your birth—if there be one—ought to be cleared up; but, for the sake of those with whom you may be connected. There may be a mother, like mine, weeping for you as lost—a brother, like Richard, mourning you as dead. Think of the sad hearts your restoration will make joyful. As to Elizabeth Device, no consideration should be shown her. If she has stolen you from your parents, as I suspect, she deserves no pity."
"All this is mere surmise, dear young lady," replied Alizon.
At this juncture they were startled, by seeing an old woman come from behind the monument and plant herself before them. Both uttered a cry, and would have fled, but a gesture from the crone detained them. Very old was she, and of strange and sinister aspect, almost blind, bent double, with frosted brows and chin, and shaking with palsy.
"Stay where you are," cried the hag, in an imperious tone. "I want to speak to you. Come nearer to me, my pretty wheans; nearer—nearer."
And as they complied, drawn towards her by an impulse they could not resist, the old woman caught hold of Alizon's arm, and said with a chuckle. "So you are the wench they call Alizon Device, eh!"
"Ay," replied Alizon, trembling like a dove in the talons of a hawk.
"Do you know who I am?" cried the hag, grasping her yet more tightly. "Do you know who I am, I say? If not, I will tell you. I am Mother Chattox of Pendle Forest, the rival of Mother Demdike, and the enemy of all her accursed brood. Now, do you know me, wench? Men call me witch. Whether I am so or not, I have some power, as they and you shall find. Mother Demdike has often defied me—often injured me, but I will have my revenge upon her—ha! ha!"
"Let me go," cried Alizon, greatly terrified.
"I will run and bring assistance," cried Dorothy. And she flew to the door, but it resisted her attempts to open it.
"Come back," screamed the hag. "You strive in vain. The door is fast shut—fast shut. Come back, I say. Who are you?" she added, as the maid drew near, ready to sink with terror. "Your voice is an Assheton's voice. I know you now. You are Dorothy Assheton—whey-skinned, blue-eyed Dorothy. Listen to me, Dorothy. I owe your family a grudge, and, if you provoke me, I will pay it off in part on you. Stir not, as you value your life."
The poor girl did not dare to move, and Alizon remained as if fascinated by the terrible old woman.
"I will tell you what has happened, Dorothy," pursued Mother Chattox. "I came hither to Whalley on business of my own; meddling with no one; harming no one. Tread upon the adder and it will bite; and, when molested, I bite like the adder. Your cousin, Nick Assheton, came in my way, called me 'witch,' and menaced me. I cursed him—ha! ha! And then your brother, Richard—"
"What of him, in Heaven's name?" almost shrieked Alizon.
"How's this?" exclaimed Mother Chattox, placing her hand on the beating heart of the girl.
"What of Richard Assheton?" repeated Alizon.
"You love him, I feel you do, wench," cried the old crone with fierce exultation.
"Release me, wicked woman," cried Alizon.
"Wicked, am I? ha! ha!" rejoined Mother Chattox, chuckling maliciously, "because, forsooth, I read thy heart, and betray its secrets. Wicked, eh! I tell thee wench again, Richard Assheton is lord and master here. Every pulse in thy bosom beats for him—for him alone. But beware of his love. Beware of it, I say. It shall bring thee ruin and despair."
"For pity's sake, release me," implored Alizon.
"Not yet," replied the inexorable old woman, "not yet. My tale is not half told. My curse fell on Richard's head, as it did on Nicholas's. And then the hell-hounds thought to catch me; but they were at fault. I tricked them nicely—ha! ha! However, they took my Nance—my pretty Nance—they seized her, bound her, bore her to the Calder—and there swam her. Curses light on them all!—all!—but chief on him who did it!"
"Who was he?" inquired Alizon, tremblingly.
"Jem Device," replied the old woman—"it was he who bound her—he who plunged her in the river, he who swam her. But I will pinch and plague him for it, I will strew his couch with nettles, and all wholesome food shall be poison to him. His blood shall be as water, and his flesh shrink from his bones. He shall waste away slowly—slowly—slowly—till he drops like a skeleton into the grave ready digged for him. All connected with him shall feel my fury. I would kill thee now, if thou wert aught of his."
"Aught of his! What mean you, old woman?" demanded Alizon.
"Why, this," rejoined Mother Chattox, "and let the knowledge work in thee, to the confusion of Bess Device. Thou art not her daughter."
"It is as I thought," cried Dorothy Assheton, roused by the intelligence from her terror.
"I tell thee not this secret to pleasure thee," continued Mother Chattox, "but to confound Elizabeth Device. I have no other motive. She hath provoked my vengeance, and she shall feel it. Thou art not her child, I say. The secret of thy birth is known to me, but the time is not yet come for its disclosure. It shall out, one day, to the confusion of those who offend me. When thou goest home tell thy reputed mother what I have said, and mark how she takes the information. Ha! who comes here?"
The hag's last exclamation was occasioned by the sudden appearance of Mistress Nutter, who opened the door of the chapel, and, staring in astonishment at the group, came quickly forward.
"What makes you here, Mother Chattox?" she cried.
"I came here to avoid pursuit," replied the old hag, with a cowed manner, and in accents sounding strangely submissive after her late infuriated tone.
"What have you been saying to these girls?" demanded Mistress Nutter, authoritatively.
"Ask them," the hag replied.
"She declares that Alizon is not the daughter of Elizabeth Device," cried Dorothy Assheton.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mistress Nutter quickly, and as if a spring of extraordinary interest had been suddenly touched. "What reason hast thou for this assertion?"
"No good reason," replied the old woman evasively, yet with evident apprehension of her questioner.
"Good reason or bad, I will have it," cried Mistress Nutter.
"What you, too, take an interest in the wench, like the rest!" returned Mother Chattox. "Is she so very winning?"
"That is no answer to my question," said the lady. "Whose child is she?"
"Ask Bess Device, or Mother Demdike," replied Mother Chattox; "they know more about the matter than me."
"I will have thee speak, and to the purpose," cried the lady, angrily.
"Many an one has lost a child who would gladly have it back again," said the old hag, mysteriously.
"Who has lost one?" asked Mistress Nutter.
"Nay, it passeth me to tell," replied the old woman with affected ignorance. "Question those who stole her. I have set you on the track. If you fail in pursuing it, come to me. You know where to find me."
"You shall not go thus," said Mistress Nutter. "I will have a direct answer now."
And as she spoke she waved her hands twice or thrice over the old woman. In doing this her figure seemed to dilate, and her countenance underwent a marked and fearful change. All her beauty vanished, her eyes blazed, and terror sat on her wrinkled brow. The hag, on the contrary, crouched lower down, and seemed to dwindle less than her ordinary size. Writhing as from heavy blows, and with a mixture of malice and fear in her countenance, she cried, "Were I to speak, you would not thank me. Let me go."
"Answer," vociferated Mistress Nutter, disregarding the caution, and speaking in a sharp piercing voice, strangely contrasting with her ordinary utterance. "Answer, I say, or I will beat thee to the dust."
And she continued her gestures, while the sufferings of the old hag evidently increased, and she crouched nearer and nearer to the ground, moaning out the words, "Do not force me to speak. You will repent it!—you will repent it!"
"Do not torment her thus, madam," cried Alizon, who with Dorothy looked at the strange scene with mingled apprehension and wonderment. "Much as I desire to know the secret of my birth, I would not obtain it thus."
As she uttered these words, the old woman contrived to shuffle off, and disappeared behind the tomb.
"Why did you interpose, Alizon," cried Mistress Nutter, somewhat angrily, and dropping her hands. "You broke the power I had over her. I would have compelled her to speak."
"I thank you, gracious lady, for your consideration," replied Alizon, gratefully; "but the sight was too painful."
"What has become of her—where is she gone?" cried Dorothy, peeping behind the tomb. "She has crept into this vault, I suppose."
"Do not trouble yourelf about her more, Dorothy," said Mistress Nutter, resuming her wonted voice and wonted looks. "Let us return to the house. Thus much is ascertained, Alizon, that you are no child of your supposed parent. Wait a little, and the rest shall be found out for you. And, meantime, be assured that I take strong interest in you."
"That we all do," added Dorothy.
"Thank you! thank you!" exclaimed Alizon, almost overpowered.
With this they went forth, and, traversing the shafted aisle, quitted the conventual church, and took their way along the alley leading to the garden.
"Say not a word at present to Elizabeth Device of the information you have obtained, Alizon," observed Mistress Nutter. "I have reasons for this counsel, which I will afterwards explain to you. And do you keep silence on the subject, Dorothy."
"May I not tell Richard?" said the young lady.
"Not Richard—not any one," returned Mistress Nutter, "or you may seriously affect Alizon's prospects."
"You have cautioned me in time," cried Dorothy, "for here comes my brother with our cousin Nicholas."
And as she spoke a turn in the alley showed Richard and Nicholas Assheton advancing towards them.
A strange revolution had been produced in Alizon's feelings by the events of the last half hour. The opinions expressed by Dorothy Assheton, as to her birth, had been singularly confirmed by Mother Chattox; but could reliance be placed on the old woman's assertions? Might they not have been made with mischievous intent? And was it not possible, nay, probable, that, in her place of concealment behind the tomb, the vindictive hag had overheard the previous conversation with Dorothy, and based her own declaration upon it? All these suggestions occurred to Alizon, but the previous idea having once gained admission to her breast, soon established itself firmly there, in spite of doubts and misgivings, and began to mix itself up with new thoughts and wishes, with which other persons were connected; for she could not help fancying she might be well-born, and if so the vast distance heretofore existing between her and Richard Assheton might be greatly diminished, if not altogether removed. So rapid is the progress of thought, that only a few minutes were required for this long train of reflections to pass through her mind, and it was merely put to flight by the approach of the main object of her thoughts.
On joining the party, Richard Assheton saw plainly that something had happened; but as both his sister and Alizon laboured under evident embarrassment, he abstained from making inquiries as to its cause for the present, hoping a better opportunity of doing so would occur, and the conversation was kept up by Nicholas Assheton, who described, in his wonted lively manner, the encounter with Mother Chattox and Nance Redferne, the swimming of the latter, and the trickery and punishment of Potts. During the recital Mistress Nutter often glanced uneasily at the two girls, but neither of them offered any interruption until Nicholas had finished, when Dorothy, taking her brother's hand, said, with a look of affectionate admiration, "You acted like yourself, dear Richard."
Alizon did not venture to give utterance to the same sentiment, but her looks plainly expressed it.
"I only wish you had punished that cruel James Device, as well as saved poor Nance," added Dorothy.
"Hush!" exclaimed Richard, glancing at Alizon.
"You need not be afraid of hurting her feelings," cried the young lady. "She does not mind him now."
"What do you mean, Dorothy?" cried Richard, in surprise.
"Oh, nothing—nothing," she replied, hastily.
"Perhaps you will explain," said Richard to Alizon.
"Indeed I cannot," she answered in confusion.
"You would have laughed to see Potts creep out of the river," said Nicholas, turning to Dorothy; "he looked just like a drowned rat—ha!—ha!"
"You have made a bitter enemy of him, Nicholas," observed Mistress Nutter; "so look well to yourself."
"I heed him not," rejoined the squire; "he knows me now too well to meddle with me again, and I shall take good care how I put myself in his power. One thing I may mention, to show the impotent malice of the knave. Just as he was setting off, he said, 'This is not the only discovery of witchcraft I have made to-day. I have another case nearer home.' What could he mean?"
"I know not," replied Mistress Nutter, a shade of disquietude passing over her countenance. "But he is quite capable of bringing the charge against you or any of us."
"He is so," said Nicholas. "After what has occurred, I wonder whether he will go over to Rough Lee to-morrow?"
"Very likely not," replied Mistress Nutter, "and in that case Master Roger Nowell must provide some other person competent to examine the boundary-line of the properties on his behalf."
"Then you are confident of the adjudication being in your favour?" said Nicholas.
"Quite so," replied Mistress Nutter, with a self-satisfied smile.
"The result, I hope, may justify your expectation," said Nicholas; "but it is right to tell you, that Sir Ralph, in consenting to postpone his decision, has only done so out of consideration to you. If the division of the properties be as represented by him, Master Nowell will unquestionably obtain an award in his favour."
"Under such circumstances he may," said Mistress Nutter; "but you will find the contrary turn out to be the fact. I will show you a plan I have had lately prepared, and you can then judge for yourself."
While thus conversing, the party passed through a door in the high stone wall dividing the garden from the court, and proceeded towards the principal entrance of the mansion. Built out of the ruins of the Abbey, which had served as a very convenient quarry for the construction of this edifice, as well as for Portfield, the house was large and irregular, planned chiefly with the view of embodying part of the old abbot's lodging, and consisting of a wide front, with two wings, one of which looked into the court, and the other, comprehending the long gallery, into the garden. The old north-east gate of the Abbey, with its lofty archway and embattled walls, served as an entrance to the great court-yard, and at its wicket ordinarily stood Ned Huddlestone, the porter, though he was absent on the present occasion, being occupied with the May-day festivities. Immediately opposite the gateway sprang a flight of stone steps, with a double landing-place and a broad balustrade of the same material, on the lowest pillar of which was placed a large escutcheon sculptured with the arms of the family—argent, a mullet sable—with a rebus on the name—an ash on a tun. The great door to which these steps conducted stood wide open, and before it, on the upper landing-place, were collected Lady Assheton, Mistress Braddyll, Mistress Nicholas Assheton, and some other dames, laughing and conversing together. Some long-eared spaniels, favourites of the lady of the house, were chasing each other up and down the steps, disturbing the slumbers of a couple of fine blood-hounds in the court-yard; or persecuting the proud peafowl that strutted about to display their gorgeous plumage to the spectators.
On seeing the party approach, Lady Assheton came down to meet them.
"You have been long absent," she said to Dorothy; "but I suppose you have been exploring the ruins?"
"Yes, we have not left a hole or corner unvisited," was the reply.
"That is right," said Lady Assheton. "I knew you would make a good guide, Dorothy. Of course you have often seen the old conventual church before, Alizon?"
"I am ashamed to say I have not, your ladyship," she replied.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Lady Assheton; "and yet you have lived all your life in the village?"
"Quite true, your ladyship," answered Alizon; "but these ruins have been prohibited to me."
"Not by us," said Lady Assheton; "they are open to every one."
"I was forbidden to visit them by my mother," said Alizon. And for the first time the word "mother" seemed strange to her.
Lady Assheton looked surprised, but made no remark, and mounting the steps, led the way to a spacious though not very lofty chamber, with huge uncovered rafters, and a floor of polished oak. Over a great fireplace at one side, furnished with immense andirons, hung a noble pair of antlers, and similar trophies of the chase were affixed to other parts of the walls. Here and there were likewise hung rusty skull-caps, breastplates, two-handed and single-handed swords, maces, halberts, and arquebusses, with chain-shirts, buff-jerkins, matchlocks, and other warlike implements, amongst which were several shields painted with the arms of the Asshetons and their alliances. High-backed chairs of gilt leather were ranged against the walls, and ebony cabinets inlaid with ivory were set between them at intervals, supporting rare specimens of glass and earthenware. Opposite the fireplace, stood a large clock, curiously painted and decorated with emblematical devices, with the signs of the zodiac, and provided with movable figures to strike the hours on a bell; while from the centre of the roof hung a great chandelier of stag's horn.
Lady Assheton did not tarry long within the entrance hall, for such it was, but conducted her guests through an arched doorway on the right into the long gallery. One hundred and fifty feet in length, and proportionately wide and lofty, this vast chamber had undergone little change since its original construction by the old owners of the Abbey. Panelled and floored with lustrous oak, and hung in some parts with antique tapestry, representing scriptural subjects, one side was pierced with lofty pointed windows, looking out upon the garden, while the southern extremity boasted a magnificent window, with heavy stone mullions, though of more recent workmanship than the framework, commanding Whalley Nab and the river. The furniture of the apartment was grand but gloomy, and consisted of antique chairs and tables belonging to the Abbey. Some curious ecclesiastical sculptures, wood carvings, and saintly images, were placed at intervals near the walls, and on the upper panels were hung a row of family portraits.
Quitting the rest of the company, and proceeding to the southern window, Dorothy invited Alizon and her brother to place themselves beside her on the cushioned seats of the deep embrasure. Little conversation, however, ensued; Alizon's heart being too full for utterance, and recent occurrences engrossing Dorothy's thoughts, to the exclusion of every thing else. Having made one or two unsuccessful efforts to engage them in talk, Richard likewise lapsed into silence, and gazed out on the lovely scenery before him. The evening has been described as beautiful; and the swift Calder, as it hurried by, was tinged with rays of the declining sun, whilst the woody heights of Whalley Nab were steeped in the same rosy light. But the view failed to interest Richard in his present mood, and after a brief survey, he stole a look at Alizon, and was surprised to find her in tears.
"What saddening thoughts cross you, fair girl?" he inquired, with deep interest.
"I can hardly account for my sudden despondency," she replied; "but I have heard that great happiness is the precursor of dejection, and the saying I suppose must be true, for I have been happier to-day than I ever was before in my life. But the feeling of sadness is now past," she added, smiling.
"I am glad of it," said Richard. "May I not know what has occurred to you?"
"Not at present," interposed Dorothy; "but I am sure you will be pleased when you are made acquainted with the circumstance. I would tell you now if I might."