"May I guess?" said Richard.
"I don't know," rejoined Dorothy, who was dying to tell him. "May he?"
"Oh no, no!" cried Alizon.
"You are very perverse," said Richard, with a look of disappointment. "There can be no harm in guessing; and you can please yourself as to giving an answer. I fancy, then, that Alizon has made some discovery."
"Relative to her parentage?" pursued Richard.
"She has found out she is not Elizabeth Device's daughter?" said Richard.
"Some witch must have told you this," exclaimed Dorothy.
"Have I indeed guessed rightly?" cried Richard, with an eagerness that startled his sister. "Do not keep me in suspense. Speak plainly."
"How am I to answer him, Alizon?" said Dorothy.
"Nay, do not appeal to me, dear young lady," she answered, blushing.
"I have gone too far to retreat," rejoined Dorothy, "and therefore, despite Mistress Nutter's interdiction, the truth shall out. You have guessed shrewdly, Richard. A discovery has been made—a very great discovery. Alizon is not the daughter of Elizabeth Device."
"The intelligence delights me, though it scarcely surprises me," cried Richard, gazing with heartfelt pleasure at the blushing girl; "for I was sure of the fact from the first. Nothing so good and charming as Alizon could spring from so foul a source. How and by what means you have derived this information, as well as whose daughter you are, I shall wait patiently to learn. Enough for me you are not the sister of James Device—enough you are not the grandchild of Mother Demdike."
"You know all I know, in knowing thus much," replied Alizon, timidly. "And secrecy has been enjoined by Mistress Nutter, in order that the rest may be found out. But oh! should the hopes I have—perhaps too hastily—indulged, prove fallacious—"
"They cannot be fallacious, Alizon," interrupted Richard, eagerly. "On that score rest easy. Your connexion with that wretched family is for ever broken. But I can see the necessity of caution, and shall observe it. And so Mistress Nutter takes an interest in you?"
"The strongest," replied Dorothy; "but see! she comes this way."
But we must now go back for a short space.
While Mistress Nutter and Nicholas were seated at a table examining a plan of the Rough Lee estates, the latter was greatly astonished to see the door open and give admittance to Master Potts, who he fancied snugly lying between a couple of blankets, at the Dragon. The attorney was clad in a riding-dress, which he had exchanged for his wet habiliments, and was accompanied by Sir Ralph Assheton and Master Roger Nowell. On seeing Nicholas, he instantly stepped up to him.
"Aha! squire," he cried, "you did not expect to see me again so soon, eh! A pottle of hot sack put my blood into circulation, and having, luckily, a change of raiment in my valise, I am all right again. Not so easily got rid of, you see!"
"So it appears," replied Nicholas, laughing.
"We have a trifling account to settle together, sir," said the attorney, putting on a serious look.
"Whenever you please, sir," replied Nicholas, good-humouredly, tapping the hilt of his sword.
"Not in that way," cried Potts, darting quickly back. "I never fight with those weapons—never. Our dispute must be settled in a court of law, sir—in a court of law. You understand, Master Nicholas?"
"There is a shrewd maxim, Master Potts, that he who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client," observed Nicholas, drily. "Would it not be better to stick to the defence of others, rather than practise in your own behalf?"
"You have expressed my opinion, Master Nicholas," observed Roger Nowell; "and I hope Master Potts will not commence any action on his own account till he has finished my business."
"Assuredly not, sir, since you desire it," replied the attorney, obsequiously. "But my motives must not be mistaken. I have a clear case of assault and battery against Master Nicholas Assheton, or I may proceed against him criminally for an attempt on my life."
"Have you given him no provocation, sir?" demanded Sir Ralph, sternly.
"No provocation can justify the treatment I have experienced, Sir Ralph," replied Potts. "However, to show I am a man of peace, and harbour no resentment, however just grounds I may have for such a feeling, I am willing to make up the matter with Master Nicholas, provided—"
"He offers you a handsome consideration, eh?" said the squire.
"Provided he offers me a handsome apology—such as a gentleman may accept," rejoined Potts, consequentially.
"And which he will not refuse, I am sure," said Sir Ralph, glancing at his cousin.
"I should certainly be sorry to have drowned you," said the squire—"very sorry."
"Enough—enough—I am content," cried Potts, holding out his hand, which Nicholas grasped with an energy that brought tears into the little man's eyes.
"I am glad the matter is amicably adjusted," observed Roger Nowell, "for I suspect both parties have been to blame. And I must now request you, Master Potts, to forego your search, and inquiries after witches, till such time as you have settled this question of the boundary line for me. One matter at a time, my good sir."
"But, Master Nowell," cried Potts, "my much esteemed and singular good client—"
"I will have no nay," interrupted Nowell, peremptorily.
"Hum!" muttered Potts; "I shall lose the best chance of distinction ever thrown in my way."
"I care not," said Nowell.
"Just as you came up, Master Nowell," observed Nicholas, "I was examining a plan of the disputed estates in Pendle Forest. It differs from yours, and, if correct, certainly substantiates Mistress Nutter's claim."
"I have mine with me," replied Nowell, producing a plan, and opening it. "We can compare the two, if you please. The line runs thus:—From the foot of Pendle Hill, beginning with Barley Booth, the boundary is marked by a stone wall, as far as certain fields in the occupation of John Ogden. Is it not so?"
"It is," replied Nicholas, comparing the statement with the other plan.
"It then runs on in a northerly direction," pursued Nowell, "towards Burst Clough, and here the landmarks are certain stones placed in the moor, one hundred yards apart, and giving me twenty acres of this land, and Mistress Nutter ten."
"On the contrary," replied Nicholas. "This plan gives Mistress Nutter twenty acres, and you ten."
"Then the plan is wrong," cried Nowell, sharply.
"It has been carefully prepared," said Mistress Nutter, who had approached the table.
"No matter; it is wrong, I say," cried Nowell, angrily.
"You see where the landmarks are placed, Master Nowell," said Nicholas, pointing to the measurement. "I merely go by them."
"The landmarks are improperly placed in that plan," cried Nowell.
"I will examine them myself to-morrow," said Potts, taking out a large memorandum-hook; "there cannot be an error of ten acres—ten perches—or ten feet, possibly, but acres—pshaw!"
"Laugh as you please; but go on," said Mrs. Nutter.
"Well, then," pursued Nicholas, "the line approaches the bank of a rivulet, called Moss Brook—a rare place for woodcocks and snipes that Moss Brook, I may remark—the land on the left consisting of five acres of waste land, marked by a sheepfold, and two posts set up in a line with it, belonging to Mistress Nutter."
"To Mistress Nutter!" exclaimed Nowell, indignantly. "To me, you mean."
"It is here set down to Mistress Nutter," said Nicholas.
"Then it is set down wrongfully," cried Nowell. "That plan is altogether incorrect."
"On which side of the field does the rivulet flow?" inquired Potts.
"On the right," replied Nicholas.
"On the left," cried Nowell.
"There must be some extraordinary mistake," said Potts. "I shall make a note of that, and examine it to-morrow.—N.B. Waste land—sheepfold— rivulet called Moss Brook, flowing on the left."
"On the right," cried Mistress Nutter.
"That remains to be seen," rejoined Potts, "I have made the entry as on the left."
"Go on, Master Nicholas," said Nowell, "I should like to see how many other errors that plan contains."
"Passing the rivulet," pursued the squire, "we come to a footpath leading to the limestone quarry, about which there can be no mistake. Then by Cat Gallows Wood and Swallow Hole; and then by another path to Worston Moor, skirting a hut in the occupation of James Device—ha! ha! Master Jem, are you here? I thought you dwelt with your grandmother at Malkin Tower—excuse me, Master Nowell, but one must relieve the dulness of this plan by an exclamation or so—and here being waste land again, the landmarks are certain stones set at intervals towards Hook Cliff, and giving Mistress Nutter two-thirds of the whole moor, and Master Roger Nowell one-third."
"False again," cried Nowell, furiously. "The two-thirds are mine, the one-third Mistress Nutter's."
"Somebody must be very wrong," cried Nicholas.
"Very wrong indeed," added Potts; "and I suspect that that somebody is—"
"Master Nowell," said Mistress Nutter.
"Mistress Nutter," cried Master Nowell.
"Both are wrong and both right, according to your own showing," said Nicholas, laughing.
"To-morrow will decide the question," said Potts.
"Better wait till then," interposed Sir Ralph. "Take both plans with you, and you will then ascertain which is correct."
"Agreed," cried Nowell. "Here is mine."
"And here is mine," said Mistress Nutter. "I will abide by the investigation."
"And Master Potts and I will verify the statements," said Nicholas.
"We will, sir," replied the attorney, putting his memorandum book in his pocket. "We will."
The plans were then delivered to the custody of Sir Ralph, who promised to hand them over to Potts and Nicholas on the morrow.
The party then separated; Mistress Nutter shaping her course towards the window where Alizon and the two other young people were seated, while Potts, plucking the squire's sleeve, said, with a very mysterious look, that he desired a word with him in private. Wondering what could be the nature of the communication the attorney desired to make, Nicholas withdrew with him into a corner, and Nowell, who saw them retire, and could not help watching them with some curiosity, remarked that the squire's hilarious countenance fell as he listened to the attorney, while, on the contrary, the features of the latter gleamed with malicious satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Mistress Nutter approached Alizon, and beckoning her towards her, they quitted the room together. As the young girl went forth, she cast a wistful look at Dorothy and her brother.
"You think with me, that that lovely girl is well born?" said Dorothy, as Alizon disappeared.
"It were heresy to doubt it," answered Richard.
"Shall I tell you another secret?" she continued, regarding him fixedly—"if, indeed, it be a secret, for you must be sadly wanting in discernment if you have not found it out ere this. She loves you."
"Dorothy!" exclaimed Richard.
"I am sure of it," she rejoined. "But I would not tell you this, if I were not quite equally sure that you love her in return."
"On my faith, Dorothy, you give yourself credit for wonderful penetration," cried Richard.
"Not a whit more than I am entitled to," she answered. "Nay, it will not do to attempt concealment with me. If I had not been certain of the matter before, your manner now would convince me. I am very glad of it. She will make a charming sister, and I shall he very fond of her."
"How you do run on, madcap!" cried her brother, trying to look displeased, but totally failing in assuming the expression.
"Stranger things have come to pass," said Dorothy; "and one reads in story-hooks of young nobles marrying village maidens in spite of parental opposition. I dare say you will get nobody's consent to the marriage but mine, Richard."
"I dare say not," he replied, rather blankly.
"That is, if she should not turn out to be somebody's daughter," pursued Dorothy; "somebody, I mean, quite as great as the heir of Middleton, which I make no doubt she will."
"I hope she may," replied Richard.
"Why, you don't mean to say you wouldn't marry her if she didn't!" cried Dorothy. "I'm ashamed of you, Richard."
"It would remove all opposition, at all events," said her brother.
"So it would," said Dorothy; "and now I'll tell you another notion of mine, Richard. Somehow or other, it has come into my head that Alizon is the daughter of—whom do you think?"
"Whom!" he cried.
"Guess," she rejoined.
"I can't," he exclaimed, impatiently.
"Well, then, I'll tell you without more ado," she answered. "Mind, it's only my notion, and I've no precise grounds for it. But, in my opinion, she's the daughter of the lady who has just left the room."
"Of Mistress Nutter!" ejaculated Richard, starting. "What makes you think so?"
"The extraordinary and otherwise unaccountable interest she takes in her," replied Dorothy. "And, if you recollect, Mistress Nutter had an infant daughter who was lost in a strange manner."
"I thought the child died," replied Richard; "but it may be as you say. I hope it is so."
"Time will show," said Dorothy; "but I have made up my mind about the matter."
At this moment Nicholas Assheton came up to them, looking grave and uneasy.
"What has happened?" asked Richard, anxiously.
"I have just received some very unpleasant intelligence," replied Nicholas. "I told you of a menace uttered by that confounded Potts, on quitting me after his ducking. He has now spoken out plainly, and declares he overheard part of a conversation between Mistress Nutter and Elizabeth Device, which took place in the ruins of the convent church this morning, and he is satisfied that—"
"Well!" cried Richard, breathlessly.
"That Mistress Nutter is a witch, and in league with witches," continued Nicholas.
"Ha!" exclaimed Richard, turning deathly pale.
"I suspect the rascal has invented the charge," said Nicholas; "but he is quite unscrupulous enough to make it; and, if made, it will be fatal to our relative's reputation, if not to her life."
"It is false, I am sure of it," cried Richard, torn by conflicting emotions.
"Would I could think so!" cried Dorothy, suddenly recollecting Mistress Nutter's strange demeanour in the little chapel, and the unaccountable influence she seemed to exercise over the old crone. "But something has occurred to-day that leads me to a contrary conviction."
"What is it? Speak!" cried Richard.
"Not now—not now," replied Dorothy.
"Whatever suspicions you may entertain, keep silence, or you will destroy Mistress Nutter," said Nicholas.
"Fear me not," rejoined Dorothy. "Oh, Alizon!" she murmured, "that this unhappy question should arise at such a moment."
"Do you indeed believe the charge, Dorothy?" asked Richard, in a low voice.
"I do," she answered in the same tone. "If Alizon be her daughter, she can never be your wife."
"How?" cried Richard.
"Never—never!" repeated Dorothy, emphatically. "The daughter of a witch, be that witch named Elizabeth Device or Alice Nutter, is no mate for you."
"You prejudge Mistress Nutter, Dorothy," he cried.
"Alas! Richard. I have too good reason for what I say," she answered, sadly.
Richard uttered an exclamation of despair. And on the instant the lively sounds of tabor and pipe, mixed with the jingling of bells, arose from the court-yard, and presently afterwards an attendant entered to announce that the May-day revellers were without, and directions were given by Sir Ralph that they should be shown into the great banqueting-hall below the gallery, which had been prepared for their reception.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE REVELATION.
On quitting the long gallery, Mistress Nutter and Alizon ascended a wide staircase, and, traversing a corridor, came to an antique, tapestried chamber, richly but cumbrously furnished, having a carved oak bedstead with sombre hangings, a few high-backed chairs of the same material, and a massive wardrobe, with shrine-work atop, and two finely sculptured figures, of the size of life, in the habits of Cistertian monks, placed as supporters at either extremity. At one side of the bed the tapestry was drawn aside, showing the entrance to a closet or inner room, and opposite it there was a great yawning fireplace, with a lofty mantelpiece and chimney projecting beyond the walls. The windows were narrow, and darkened by heavy transom bars and small diamond panes while the view without, looking upon Whalley Nab, was obstructed by the contiguity of a tall cypress, whose funereal branches added to the general gloom. The room was one of those formerly allotted to their guests by the hospitable abbots, and had undergone little change since their time, except in regard to furniture; and even that appeared old and faded now. What with the gloomy arras, the shrouded bedstead, and the Gothic wardrobe with its mysterious figures, the chamber had a grim, ghostly air, and so the young girl thought on entering it.
"I have brought you hither, Alizon," said Mistress Nutter, motioning her to a seat, "that we may converse without chance of interruption, for I have much to say. On first seeing you to-day, your appearance, so superior to the rest of the May-day mummers, struck me forcibly, and I resolved to question Elizabeth Device about you. Accordingly I bade her join me in the Abbey gardens. She did so, and had not long left me when I accidentally met you and the others in the Lacy Chapel. When questioned, Elizabeth affected great surprise, and denied positively that there was any foundation for the idea that you were other than her child; but, notwithstanding her asseverations, I could see from her confused manner that there was more in the notion than she chose to admit, and I determined to have recourse to other means of arriving at the truth, little expecting my suspicions would be so soon confirmed by Mother Chattox. To my interrogation of that old woman, you were yourself a party, and I am now rejoiced that you interfered to prevent me from prosecuting my inquiries to the utmost. There was one present from whom the secret of your birth must be strictly kept—at least, for awhile—and my impatience carried me too far."
"I only obeyed a natural impulse, madam," said Alizon; "but I am at a loss to conceive what claim I can possibly have to the consideration you show me."
"Listen to me, and you shall learn," replied Mistress Nutter. "It is a sad tale, and its recital will tear open old wounds, but it must not be withheld on that account. I do not ask you to bury the secrets I am about to impart in the recesses of your bosom. You will do so when you learn them, without my telling you. When little more than your age I was wedded; but not to him I would have chosen if choice had been permitted me. The union I need scarcely say was unhappy—most unhappy—though my discomforts were scrupulously concealed, and I was looked upon as a devoted wife, and my husband as a model of conjugal affection. But this was merely the surface—internally all was strife and misery. Erelong my dislike of my husband increased to absolute hate, while on his part, though he still regarded me with as much passion as heretofore, he became frantically jealous—and above all of Edward Braddyll of Portfield, who, as his bosom friend, and my distant relative, was a frequent visiter at the house. To relate the numerous exhibitions of jealousy that occurred would answer little purpose, and it will be enough to say that not a word or look passed between Edward and myself but was misconstrued. I took care never to be alone with our guest—nor to give any just ground for suspicion—but my caution availed nothing. An easy remedy would have been to forbid Edward the house, but this my husband's pride rejected. He preferred to endure the jealous torment occasioned by the presence of his wife's fancied lover, and inflict needless anguish on her, rather than brook the jeers of a few indifferent acquaintances. The same feeling made him desire to keep up an apparent good understanding with me; and so far I seconded his views, for I shared in his pride, if in nothing else. Our quarrels were all in private, when no eye could see us—no ear listen."
"Yours is a melancholy history, madam," remarked Alizon, in a tone of profound interest.
"You will think so ere I have done," returned the lady, sadly. "The only person in my confidence, and aware of my secret sorrows, was Elizabeth Device, who with her husband, John Device, then lived at Rough Lee. Serving me in the quality of tire-woman and personal attendant, she could not be kept in ignorance of what took place, and the poor soul offered me all the sympathy in her power. Much was it needed, for I had no other sympathy. After awhile, I know not from what cause, unless from some imprudence on the part of Edward Braddyll, who was wild and reckless, my husband conceived worse suspicions than ever of me, and began to treat me with such harshness and cruelty, that, unable longer to endure his violence, I appealed to my father. But he was of a stern and arbitrary nature, and, having forced me into the match, would not listen to my complaints, but bade me submit. 'It was my duty to do so,' he said, and he added some cutting expressions to the effect that I deserved the treatment I experienced, and dismissed me. Driven to desperation, I sought counsel and assistance from one I should most have avoided—from Edward Braddyll—and he proposed flight from my husband's roof—flight with him."
"But you were saved, madam?" cried Alizon, greatly shocked by the narration. "You were saved?"
"Hear me out," rejoined Mistress Nutter. "Outraged as my feelings were, and loathsome as my husband was to me, I spurned the base proposal, and instantly quitted my false friend. Nor would I have seen him more, if permitted; but that secret interview with him was my first and last;—for it had been witnessed by my husband."
"Ha!" exclaimed Alizon.
"Concealed behind the arras, Richard Nutter heard enough to confirm his worst suspicions," pursued the lady; "but he did not hear my justification. He saw Edward Braddyll at my feet—he heard him urge me to fly—but he did not wait to learn if I consented, and, looking upon me as guilty, left his hiding-place to take measures for frustrating the plan, he supposed concerted between us. That night I was made prisoner in my room, and endured treatment the most inhuman. But a proposal was made by my husband, that promised some alleviation of my suffering. Henceforth we were to meet only in public, when a semblance of affection was to be maintained on both sides. This was done, he said, to save my character, and preserve his own name unspotted in the eyes of others, however tarnished it might be in his own. I willingly consented to the arrangement; and thus for a brief space I became tranquil, if not happy. But another and severer trial awaited me."
"Alas, madam!" exclaimed Alizon, sympathisingly.
"My cup of sorrow, I thought, was full," pursued Mistress Nutter; "but the drop was wanting to make it overflow. It came soon enough. Amidst my griefs I expected to be a mother, and with that thought how many fond and cheering anticipations mingled! In my child I hoped to find a balm for my woes: in its smiles and innocent endearments a compensation for the harshness and injustice I had experienced. How little did I foresee that it was to be a new instrument of torture to me; and that I should be cruelly robbed of the only blessing ever vouchsafed me!"
"Did the child die, madam?" asked Alizon.
"You shall hear," replied Mistress Nutter. "A daughter was born to me. I was made happy by its birth. A new existence, bright and unclouded, seemed dawning upon me; but it was like a sunburst on a stormy day. Some two months before this event Elizabeth Device had given birth to a daughter, and she now took my child under her fostering care; for weakness prevented me from affording it the support it is a mother's blessed privilege to bestow. She seemed as fond of it as myself; and never was babe more calculated to win love than my little Millicent. Oh! how shall I go on? The retrospect I am compelled to take is frightful, but I cannot shun it. The foul and false suspicions entertained by my husband began to settle on the child. He would not believe it to be his own. With violent oaths and threats he first announced his odious suspicions to Elizabeth Device, and she, full of terror, communicated them to me. The tidings filled me with inexpressible alarm; for I knew, if the dread idea had once taken possession of him, it would never be removed, while what he threatened would be executed. I would have fled at once with my poor babe if I had known where to go; but I had no place of shelter. It would be in vain to seek refuge with my father; and I had no other relative or friend whom I could trust. Where then should I fly? At last I bethought me of a retreat, and arranged a plan of escape with Elizabeth Device. Vain were my precautions. On that very night, I was startled from slumber by a sudden cry from the nurse, who was seated by the fire, with the child on her knees. It was long past midnight, and all the household were at rest. Two persons had entered the room. One was my ruthless husband, Richard Nutter; the other was John Device, a powerful ruffianly fellow, who planted himself near the door.
"Marching quickly towards Elizabeth, who had arisen on seeing him, my husband snatched the child from her before I could seize it, and with a violent blow on the chest felled me to the ground, where I lay helpless, speechless. With reeling senses I heard Elizabeth cry out that it was her own child, and call upon her husband to save it. Richard Nutter paused, but re-assured by a laugh of disbelief from his ruffianly follower, he told Elizabeth the pitiful excuse would not avail to save the brat. And then I saw a weapon gleam—there was a feeble piteous cry—a cry that might have moved a demon—but it did not move him. With wicked words and blood-imbrued hands he cast the body on the fire. The horrid sight was too much for me, and I became senseless."
"A dreadful tale, indeed, madam!" cried Alizon, frozen with horror.
"The crime was hidden—hidden from the eyes of men, but mark the retribution that followed," said Mistress Nutter; her eyes sparkling with vindictive joy. "Of the two murderers both perished miserably. John Device was drowned in a moss-pool. Richard Nutter's end was terrible, sharpened by the pangs of remorse, and marked by frightful suffering. But another dark event preceded his death, which may have laid a crime the more on his already heavily-burdened soul. Edward Braddyll, the object of his jealousy and hate, suddenly sickened of a malady so strange and fearful, that all who saw him affirmed it the result of witchcraft. None thought of my husband's agency in the dark affair except myself; but knowing he had held many secret conferences about the time with Mother Chattox, I more than suspected him. The sick man died; and from that hour Richard Nutter knew no rest. Ever on horseback, or fiercely carousing, he sought in vain to stifle remorse. Visions scared him by night, and vague fears pursued him by day. He would start at shadows, and talk wildly. To me his whole demeanour was altered; and he strove by every means in his power to win my love. But he could not give me back the treasure he had taken. He could not bring to life my murdered babe. Like his victim, he fell ill on a sudden, and of a strange and terrible sickness. I saw he could not recover, and therefore tended him carefully. He died; and I shed no tear."
"Alas!" exclaimed Alizon, "though guilty, I cannot but compassionate him."
"You are right to do so, Alizon," said Mistress Nutter, rising, while the young girl rose too; "for he was your father."
"My father!" she exclaimed, in amazement. "Then you are my mother?"
"I am—I am," replied Mistress Nutter, straining her to her bosom. "Oh, my child!—my dear child!" she cried. "The voice of nature from the first pleaded eloquently in your behalf, and I should have been deaf to all impulses of affection if I had not listened to the call. I now trace in every feature the lineaments of the babe I thought lost for ever. All is clear to me. The exclamation of Elizabeth Device, which, like my ruthless husband, I looked upon as an artifice to save the infant's life, I now find to be the truth. Her child perished instead of mine. How or why she exchanged the infants on that night remains to be explained, but that she did so is certain; while that she should afterwards conceal the circumstance is easily comprehended, from a natural dread of her own husband as well as of mine. It is possible that from some cause she may still deny the truth, but I can make it her interest to speak plainly. The main difficulty will lie in my public acknowledgment of you. But, at whatever cost, it shall be made."
"Oh! consider it well;" said Alizon, "I will be your daughter in love—in duty—in all but name. But sully not my poor father's honour, which even at the peril of his soul he sought to maintain! How can I be owned as your daughter without involving the discovery of this tragic history?"
"You are right, Alizon," rejoined Mistress Nutter, thoughtfully. "It will bring the dark deed to light. But you shall never return to Elizabeth Device. You shall go with me to Rough Lee, and take up your abode in the house where I was once so wretched—but where I shall now be full of happiness with you. You shall see the dark spots on the hearth, which I took to be your blood."
"If not mine, it was blood spilt by my father," said Alizon, with a shudder.
Was it fancy, or did a low groan break upon her ear? It must be imaginary, for Mistress Nutter seemed unconscious of the dismal sound. It was now growing rapidly dark, and the more distant objects in the room were wrapped in obscurity; but Alizon's gaze rested on the two monkish figures supporting the wardrobe.
"Look there, mother," she said to Mistress Nutter.
"Where?" cried the lady, turning round quickly, "Ah! I see. You alarm yourself needlessly, my child. Those are only carved figures of two brethren of the Abbey. They are said, I know not with what truth—to be statues of John Paslew and Borlace Alvetham."
"I thought they stirred," said Alizon.
"It was mere fancy," replied Mistress Nutter. "Calm yourself, sweet child. Let us think of other things—of our newly discovered relationship. Henceforth, to me you are Millicent Nutter; though to others you must still be Alizon Device. My sweet Millicent," she cried, embracing her again and again. "Ah, little—little did I think to see you more!"
Alizon's fears were speedily chased away.
"Forgive me, dear mother," she cried, "if I have failed to express the full delight I experience in my restitution to you. The shock of your sad tale at first deadened my joy, while the suddenness of the information respecting myself so overwhelmed me, that like one chancing upon a hidden treasure, and gazing at it confounded, I was unable to credit my own good fortune. Even now I am quite bewildered; and no wonder, for many thoughts, each of different import, throng upon me. Independently of the pleasure and natural pride I must feel in being acknowledged by you as a daughter, it is a source of the deepest satisfaction to me to know that I am not, in any way, connected with Elizabeth Device—not from her humble station—for poverty weighs little with me in comparison with virtue and goodness—but from her sinfulness. You know the dark offence laid to her charge?"
"I do," replied Mistress Nutter, in a low deep tone, "but I do not believe it."
"Nor I," returned Alizon. "Still, she acts as if she were the wicked thing she is called; avoids all religious offices; shuns all places of worship; and derides the Holy Scriptures. Oh, mother! you will comprehend the frequent conflict of feelings I must have endured. You will understand my horror when I have sometimes thought myself the daughter of a witch."
"Why did you not leave her if you thought so?" said Mistress Nutter, frowning.
"I could not leave her," replied Alizon, "for I then thought her my mother."
Mistress Nutter fell upon her daughter's neck, and wept aloud. "You have an excellent heart, my child," she said at length, checking her emotion.
"I have nothing to complain of in Elizabeth Device, dear mother," she replied. "What she denied herself, she did not refuse me; and though I have necessarily many and great deficiencies, you will find in me, I trust, no evil principles. And, oh! shall we not strive to rescue that poor benighted creature from the pit? We may yet save her."
"It is too late," replied Mistress Nutter in a sombre tone.
"It cannot be too late," said Alizon, confidently. "She cannot be beyond redemption. But even if she should prove intractable, poor little Jennet may be preserved. She is yet a child, with some good—though, alas! much evil, also—in her nature. Let our united efforts be exerted in this good work, and we must succeed. The weeds extirpated, the flowers will spring up freely, and bloom in beauty."
"I can have nothing to do with her," said Mistress Nutter, in a freezing tone—"nor must you."
"Oh! say not so, mother," cried Alizon. "You rob me of half the happiness I feel in being restored to you. When I was Jennets sister, I devoted myself to the task of reclaiming her. I hoped to be her guardian angel—to step between her and the assaults of evil—and I cannot, will not, now abandon her. If no longer my sister, she is still dear to me. And recollect that I owe a deep debt of gratitude to her mother—a debt I can never pay."
"How so?" cried Mistress Nutter. "You owe her nothing—but the contrary."
"I owe her a life," said Alizon. "Was not her infant's blood poured out for mine! And shall I not save the child left her, if I can?"
"I shall not oppose your inclinations," replied Mistress Nutter, with reluctant assent; "but Elizabeth, I suspect, will thank you little for your interference."
"Not now, perhaps," returned Alizon; "but a time will come when she will do so."
While this conversation took place, it had been rapidly growing dark, and the gloom at length increased so much, that the speakers could scarcely see each other's faces. The sudden and portentous darkness was accounted for by a vivid flash of lightning, followed by a low growl of thunder rumbling over Whalley Nab. The mother and daughter drew close together, and Mistress Nutter passed her arm round Alizon's neck.
The storm came quickly on, with forked and dangerous lightning, and loud claps of thunder threatening mischief. Presently, all its fury seemed collected over the Abbey. The red flashes hissed, and the peals of thunder rolled overhead. But other terrors were added to Alizon's natural dread of the elemental warfare. Again she fancied the two monkish figures, which had before excited her alarm, moved, and even shook their arms menacingly at her. At first she attributed this wild idea to her overwrought imagination, and strove to convince herself of its fallacy by keeping her eyes steadily fixed upon them. But each succeeding flash only served to confirm her superstitious apprehensions.
Another circumstance contributed to heighten her alarm. Scared most probably by the storm, a large white owl fluttered down the chimney, and after wheeling twice or thrice round the chamber, settled upon the bed, hooting, puffing, ruffling its feathers, and glaring at her with eyes that glowed like fiery coals.
Mistress Nutter seemed little moved by the storm, though she kept a profound silence, but when Alizon gazed in her face, she was frightened by its expression, which reminded her of the terrible aspect she had worn at the interview with Mother Chattox.
All at once Mistress Nutter arose, and, rapid as the lightning playing around her and revealing her movements, made several passes, with extended hands, over her daughter; and on this the latter instantly fell back, as if fainting, though still retaining her consciousness; and, what was stranger still, though her eyes were closed, her power of sight remained.
In this condition she fancied invisible forms were moving about her. Strange sounds seemed to salute her ears, like the gibbering of ghosts, and she thought she felt the flapping of unseen wings around her.
All at once her attention was drawn—she knew not why—towards the closet, and from out it she fancied she saw issue the tall dark figure of a man. She was sure she saw him; for her imagination could not body forth features charged with such a fiendish expression, or eyes of such unearthly lustre. He was clothed in black, but the fashion of his raiments was unlike aught she had ever seen. His stature was gigantic, and a pale phosphoric light enshrouded him. As he advanced, forked lightnings shot into the room, and the thunder split overhead. The owl hooted fearfully, quitted its perch, and flew off by the way it had entered the chamber.
The Dark Shape came on. It stood beside Mistress Nutter, and she prostrated herself before it. The gestures of the figure were angry and imperious—those of Mistress Nutter supplicating. Their converse was drowned by the rattling of the storm. At last the figure pointed to Alizon, and the word "midnight" broke in tones louder than the thunder from its lips. All consciousness then forsook her.
How long she continued in this state she knew not, but the touch of a finger applied to her brow seemed to recall her suddenly to animation. She heaved a deep sigh, and looked around. A wondrous change had occurred. The storm had passed off, and the moon was shining brightly over the top of the cypress-tree, flooding the chamber with its gentle radiance, while her mother was bending over her with looks of tenderest affection.
"You are better now, sweet child," said Mistress Nutter. "You were overcome by the storm. It was sudden and terrible."
"Terrible, indeed!" replied Alizon, imperfectly recalling what had passed. "But it was not alone the storm that frightened me. This chamber has been invaded by evil beings. Methought I beheld a dark figure come from out yon closet, and stand before you."
"You have been thrown into a state of stupor by the influence of the electric fluid," replied Mistress Nutter, "and while in that condition visions have passed through your brain. That is all, my child."
"Oh! I hope so," said Alizon.
"Such ecstasies are of frequent occurrence," replied Mistress Nutter. "But, since you are quite recovered, we will descend to Lady Assheton, who may wonder at our absence. You will share this room with me to-night, my child; for, as I have already said, you cannot return to Elizabeth Device. I will make all needful explanations to Lady Assheton, and will see Elizabeth in the morning—perhaps to-night. Reassure yourself, sweet child. There is nothing to fear."
"I trust not, mother," replied Alizon. "But it would ease my mind to look into that closet."
"Do so, then, by all means," replied Mistress Nutter with a forced smile.
Alizon peeped timorously into the little room, which was lighted up by the moon's rays. There was a faded white habit, like the robe of a Cistertian monk, hanging in one corner, and beneath it an old chest. Alizon would fain have opened the chest, but Mistress Nutter called out to her impatiently, "You will discover nothing, I am sure. Come, let us go down-stairs."
And they quitted the room together.
CHAPTER IX.—THE TWO PORTRAITS IN THE BANQUETING-HALL.
The banqueting-hall lay immediately under the long gallery, corresponding with it in all but height; and though in this respect it fell somewhat short of the magnificent upper room, it was quite lofty enough to admit of a gallery of its own for spectators and minstrels. Great pains had been taken in decorating the hall for the occasion. Between the forest of stags' horns that branched from the gallery rails were hung rich carpets, intermixed with garlands of flowers, and banners painted with the arms of the Assheton family, were suspended from the corners. Over the fireplace, where, despite the advanced season, a pile of turf and wood was burning, were hung two panoplies of arms, and above them, on a bracket, was set a complete suit of mail, once belonging to Richard Assheton, the first possessor of the mansion. On the opposite wall hung two remarkable portraits—the one representing a religious votaress in a loose robe of black, with wide sleeves, holding a rosary and missal in her hand, and having her brow and neck entirely concealed by the wimple, in which her head and shoulders were enveloped. Such of her features as could be seen were of extraordinary loveliness, though of a voluptuous character, the eyes being dark and languishing, and shaded by long lashes, and the lips carnation-hued and full. This was the fair votaress, Isole de Heton, who brought such scandal on the Abbey in the reign of Henry VI. The other portrait was that of an abbot, in the white gown and scapulary of the Cistertian order. The countenance was proud and stern, but tinctured with melancholy. In a small shield at one corner the arms were blazoned—argent, a fess between three mullets, sable, pierced of the field, a crescent for difference—proving it to be the portrait of John Paslew. Both pictures had been found in the abbot's lodgings, when taken possession of by Richard Assheton, but they owed their present position to his descendant, Sir Ralph, who discovering them in an out-of-the-way closet, where they had been cast aside, and struck with their extraordinary merit, hung them up as above stated.
The long oaken table, usually standing in the middle of the hall, had been removed to one side, to allow free scope for dancing and other pastimes, but it was still devoted to hospitable uses, being covered with trenchers and drinking-cups, and spread for a substantial repast. Near it stood two carvers, with aprons round their waists, brandishing long knives, while other yeomen of the kitchen and cellar were at hand to keep the trenchers well supplied, and the cups filled with strong ale, or bragget, as might suit the taste of the guests. Nor were these the only festive preparations. The upper part of the hall was reserved for Sir Ralph's immediate friends, and here, on a slightly raised elevation, stood a cross table, spread for a goodly supper, the snowy napery being ornamented with wreaths and ropes of flowers, and shining with costly vessels. At the lower end of the room, beneath the gallery, which it served to support, was a Gothic screen, embellishing an open armoury, which made a grand display of silver plates and flagons. Through one of the doorways contrived in this screen, the May-day revellers were ushered into the hall by old Adam Whitworth, the white-headed steward.
"I pray you be seated, good masters, and you, too, comely dames," said Adam, leading them to the table, and assigning each a place with his wand. "Fall to, and spare not, for it is my honoured master's desire you should sup well. You will find that venison pasty worth a trial, and the baked red deer in the centre of the table is a noble dish. The fellow to it was served at Sir Ralph's own table at dinner, and was pronounced excellent. I pray you try it, masters.—Here, Ned Scargill, mind your office, good fellow, and break me that deer. And you, Paul Pimlot, exercise your craft on the venison pasty."
And as trencher after trencher was rapidly filled by the two carvers, who demeaned themselves in their task like men acquainted with the powers of rustic appetite, the old steward addressed himself to the dames.
"What can I do for you, fair mistresses?" he said. "Here be sack possets, junkets and cream, for such as like them—French puffs and Italian puddings, right good, I warrant you, and especially admired by my honourable good lady. Indeed, I am not sure she hath not lent a hand herself in their preparation. Then here be fritters in the court fashion, made with curds of sack posset, eggs and ale, and seasoned with nutmeg and pepper. You will taste them, I am sure, for they are favourites with our sovereign lady, the queen. Here, Gregory, Dickon—bestir yourselves, knaves, and pour forth a cup of sack for each of these dames. As you drink, mistresses, neglect not the health of our honourable good master Sir Ralph, and his lady. It is well—it is well. I will convey to them both your dutiful good wishes. But I must see all your wants supplied. Good Dame Openshaw, you have nought before you. Be prevailed upon to taste these dropt raisins or a fond pudding. And you, too, sweet Dame Tetlow. Squire Nicholas gave me special caution to take care of you, but the injunction was unneeded, as I should have done so without it.—Another cup of canary to Dame Tetlow, Gregory. Fill to the brim, knave—to the very brim. To the health of Squire Nicholas," he added in a low tone, as he handed the brimming goblet to the blushing dame; "and be sure and tell him, if he questions you, that I obeyed his behests to the best of my ability. I pray you taste this pippin jelly, dame. It is as red as rubies, but not so red as your lips, or some leach of almonds, which, lily-white though it be, is not to be compared with the teeth that shall touch it."
"Odd's heart! mester steward, yo mun ha' larnt that protty speech fro' th' squoire himself," replied Dame Tetlow, laughing.
"It may be the recollection of something said to me by him, brought to mind by your presence," replied Adam Whitworth, gallantly. "If I can serve you in aught else, sign to me, dame.—Now, knaves, fill the cups—ale or bragget, at your pleasure, masters. Drink and stint not, and you will the better please your liberal entertainer and my honoured master."
Thus exhorted, the guests set seriously to work to fulfil the hospitable intentions of the provider of the feast. Cups flowed fast and freely, and erelong little was left of the venison pasty but the outer crust, and nothing more than a few fragments of the baked red deer. The lighter articles then came in for a share of attention, and salmon from the Ribble, jack, trout, and eels from the Hodder and Calder, boiled, broiled, stewed, and pickled, and of delicious flavour, were discussed with infinite relish. Puddings and pastry were left to more delicate stomachs—the solids only being in request with the men. Hitherto, the demolition of the viands had given sufficient employment, but now the edge of appetite beginning to be dulled, tongues were unloosed, and much merriment prevailed. More than eighty in number, the guests were dispersed without any regard to order, and thus the chief actors in the revel were scattered promiscuously about the table, diversifying it with their gay costumes. Robin Hood sat between two pretty female morris-dancers, whose partners had got to the other end of the table; while Ned Huddlestone, the representative of Friar Tuck, was equally fortunate, having a buxom dame on either side of him, towards whom he distributed his favours with singular impartiality. As porter to the Abbey, Ned made himself at home; and, next to Adam Whitworth, was perhaps the most important personage present, continually roaring for ale, and pledging the damsels around him. From the way he went on, it seemed highly probable he would be under the table before supper was over; but Ned Huddlestone, like the burly priest whose gown he wore, had a stout bullet head, proof against all assaults of liquor; and the copious draughts he swallowed, instead of subduing him, only tended to make him more uproarious. Blessed also with lusty lungs, his shouts of laughter made the roof ring again. But if the strong liquor failed to make due impression upon him, the like cannot be said of Jack Roby, who, it will be remembered, took the part of the Fool, and who, having drunk overmuch, mistook the hobby-horse for a real steed, and in an effort to bestride it, fell head-foremost on the floor, and, being found incapable of rising, was carried out to an adjoining room, and laid on a bench. This, however, was the only case of excess; for though the Sherwood foresters emptied their cups often enough to heighten their mirth, none of them seemed the worse for what they drank. Lawrence Blackrod, Mr. Parker's keeper, had fortunately got next to his old flame, Sukey Worseley; while Phil Rawson, the forester, who enacted Will Scarlet, and Nancy Holt, between whom an equally tender feeling subsisted, had likewise got together. A little beyond them sat the gentleman usher and parish clerk, Sampson Harrop, who, piquing himself on his good manners, drank very sparingly, and was content to sup on sweetmeats and a bowl of fleetings, as curds separated from whey are termed in this district. Tom the piper, and his companion the taborer, ate for the next week, but were somewhat more sparing in the matter of drink, their services as minstrels being required later on. Thus the various guests enjoyed themselves according to their bent, and universal hilarity prevailed. It would be strange indeed if it had been otherwise; for what with the good cheer, and the bright eyes around them, the rustics had attained a point of felicity not likely to be surpassed. Of the numerous assemblage more than half were of the fairer sex; and of these the greater portion were young and good-looking, while in the case of the morris-dancers, their natural charms were heightened by their fanciful attire.
Before supper was half over, it became so dark that it was found necessary to illuminate the great lamp suspended from the centre of the roof, while other lights were set on the board, and two flaming torches placed in sockets on either side of the chimney-piece. Scarcely was this accomplished when the storm came on, much to the surprise of the weatherwise, who had not calculated upon such an occurrence, not having seen any indications whatever of it in the heavens. But all were too comfortably sheltered, and too well employed, to pay much attention to what was going on without; and, unless when a flash of lightning more than usually vivid dazzled the gaze, or a peal of thunder more appalling than the rest broke overhead, no alarm was expressed, even by the women. To be sure, a little pretty trepidation was now and then evinced by the younger damsels; but even this was only done with the view of exacting attention on the part of their swains, and never failed in effect. The thunder-storm, therefore, instead of putting a stop to the general enjoyment, only tended to increase it. However the last peal was loud enough to silence the most uproarious. The women turned pale, and the men looked at each other anxiously, listening to hear if any damage had been done. But, as nothing transpired, their spirits revived. A few minutes afterwards word was brought that the Conventual Church had been struck by a thunderbolt, but this was not regarded as a very serious disaster. The bearer of the intelligence was little Jennet, who said she had been caught in the ruins by the storm, and after being dreadfully frightened by the lightning, had seen a bolt strike the steeple, and heard some stones rattle down, after which she ran away. No one thought of inquiring what she had been doing there at the time, but room was made for her at the supper-table next to Sampson Harrop, while the good steward, patting her on the head, filled her a cup of canary with his own hand, and gave her some cates to eat.
"Ey dunna see Alizon" observed the little girl, looking round the table, after she had drunk the wine.
"Your sister is not here, Jennet," replied Adam Whitworth, with a smile. "She is too great a lady for us now. Since she came up with her ladyship from the green she has been treated quite like one of the guests, and has been walking about the garden and ruins all the afternoon with young Mistress Dorothy, who has taken quite a fancy to her. Indeed, for the matter of that, all the ladies seem to have taken a fancy to her, and she is now closeted with Mistress Nutter in her own room."
This was gall and wormwood to Jennet.
"She'll be hard to please when she goes home again, after playing the fine dame here," pursued the steward.
"Then ey hope she'll never come home again," rejoined Jennet; spitefully, "fo' we dunna want fine dames i' our poor cottage."
"For my part I do not wonder Alizon pleases the gentle folks," observed Sampson Harrop, "since such pains have been taken with her manners and education; and I must say she does great credit to her instructor, who, for reasons unnecessary to mention, shall be nameless. I wish I could say the same for you, Jennet; but though you're not deficient in ability, you've no perseverance or pleasure in study."
"Ey knoa os much os ey care to knoa," replied Jennet, "an more than yo con teach me, Mester Harrop. Why is Alizon always to be thrown i' my teeth?"
"Because she's the best model you can have," rejoined Sampson. "Ah! if I'd my own way wi' ye, lass, I'd mend your temper and manners. But you come of an ill stock, ye saucy hussy."
"Ey come fro' th' same stock as Alizon, onny how," said Jennet.
"Unluckily that cannot be denied," replied Sampson; "but you're as different from her as light from darkness."
Jennet eyed him bitterly, and then rose from the table.
"Ey'n go," she said.
"No—no; sit down," interposed the good-natured steward. "The dancing and pastimes will begin presently, and you will see your sister. She will come down with the ladies."
"That's the very reason she wishes to go," said Sampson Harrop. "The spiteful little creature cannot bear to see her sister better treated than herself. Go your ways, then. It is the best thing you can do. Alizon would blush to see you here."
"Then ey'n een stay an vex her," replied Jennet, sharply; "boh ey winna sit near yo onny longer, Mester Sampson Harrop, who ca' yersel gentleman usher, boh who are nah gentleman at aw, nor owt like it, boh merely parish clerk an schoolmester, an a poor schoolmester to boot. Eyn go an sit by Sukey Worseley an Nancy Holt, whom ey see yonder."
"You've found your match, Master Harrop," said the steward, laughing, as the little girl walked away.
"I should account it a disgrace to bandy words with the like of her, Adam," rejoined the clerk, angrily; "but I'm greatly out in my reckoning, if she does not make a second Mother Demdike, and worse could not well befall her."
Jennet's society could have been very well dispensed with by her two friends, but she would not be shaken off. On the contrary, finding herself in the way, she only determined the more pertinaciously to remain, and began to exercise all her powers of teasing, which have been described as considerable, and which on this occasion proved eminently successful. And the worst of it was, there was no crushing the plaguy little insect; any effort made to catch her only resulting in an escape on her part, and a new charge on some undefended quarter, with sharper stinging and more intolerable buzzing than ever.
Out of all patience, Sukey Worseley at length exclaimed, "Ey should loike to see ye swum, crosswise, i' th' Calder, Jennet, as Nance Redferne war this efternoon."
"May be ye would, Sukey," replied the little girl, "boh eym nah so likely to be tried that way as yourself, lass; an if ey war swum ey should sink, while yo, wi' your broad back and shouthers, would be sure to float, an then yo'd be counted a witch."
"Heed her not, Sukey," said Blackrod, unable to resist a laugh, though the poor girl was greatly discomfited by this personal allusion; "ye may ha' a broad back o' our own, an the broader the better to my mind, boh mey word on't ye'll never be ta'en fo a witch. Yo're far too comely."
This assurance was a balm to poor Sukey's wounded spirit, and she replied with a well-pleased smile, "Ey hope ey dunna look like one, Lorry."
"Not a bit, lass," said Blackrod, lifting a huge ale-cup to his lips. "Your health, sweetheart."
"What think ye then o' Nance Redferne?" observed Jennet. "Is she neaw comely?—ay, comelier far than fat, fubsy Sukey here—or than Nancy Holt, wi' her yallo hure an frecklet feace—an yet ye ca' her a witch."
"Ey ca' thee one, theaw feaw little whean—an the dowter—an grandowter o' one—an that's more," cried Nancy. "Freckles i' your own feace, ye mismannert minx."
"Ne'er heed her, Nance," said Phil Rawson, putting his arm round the angry damsel's waist, and drawing her gently down. "Every one to his taste, an freckles an yellow hure are so to mine. So dunna fret about it, an spoil your protty lips wi' pouting. Better ha' freckles o' your feace than spots o' your heart, loike that ill-favort little hussy."
"Dunna offend her, Phil," said Nancy Holt, noticing with alarm the malignant look fixed upon her lover by Jennet. "She's dawngerous."
"Firrups tak her!" replied Phil Eawson. "Boh who the dole's that? Ey didna notice him efore, an he's neaw one o' our party."
The latter observation was occasioned by the entrance of a tall personage, in the garb of a Cistertian monk, who issued from one of the doorways in the screen, and glided towards the upper table, attracting general attention and misgiving as he proceeded. His countenance was cadaverous, his lips livid, and his eyes black and deep sunken in their sockets, with a bistre-coloured circle around them. His frame was meagre and bony. What remained of hair on his head was raven black, but either he was bald on the crown, or carried his attention to costume so far as to adopt the priestly tonsure. His forehead was lofty and sallow, and seemed stamped, like his features, with profound gloom. His garments were faded and mouldering, and materially contributed to his ghostly appearance.
"Who is it?" cried Sukey and Nance together.
But no one could answer the question.
"He dusna look loike a bein' o' this warld," observed Blackrod, gaping with alarm, for the stout keeper was easily assailable on the side of superstition; "an there is a mowdy air about him, that gies one the shivers to see. Ey've often heer'd say the Abbey is haanted; an that pale-feaced chap looks like one o' th' owd monks risen fro' his grave to join our revel."
"An see, he looks this way," cried Phil Rawson.
"What flaming een! they mey the very flesh crawl o' one's booans."
"Is it a ghost, Lorry?" said Sukey, drawing nearer to the stalwart keeper.
"By th' maskins, lass, ey conna tell," replied Blackrod; "boh whotever it be, ey'll protect ye."
"Tak care o' me, Phil," ejaculated Nancy Holt, pressing close to her lover's side.
"Eigh, that I win," rejoined the forester.
"Ey dunna care for ghosts so long as yo are near me, Phil," said Nancy, tenderly.
"Then ey'n never leave ye, Nance," replied Phil.
"Ghost or not," said Jennet, who had been occupied in regarding the new-comer attentively, "ey'n go an speak to it. Ey'm nah afeerd, if yo are."
"Eigh do, Jennet, that's a brave little lass," said Blackrod, glad to be rid of her in any way.
"Stay!" cried Adam Whitworth, coming up at the moment, and overhearing what was said—"you must not go near the gentleman. I will not have him molested, or even spoken with, till Sir Ralph appears."
Meanwhile, the stranger, without returning the glances fixed upon him, or deigning to notice any of the company, pursued his way, and sat down in a chair at the upper table.
But his entrance had been witnessed by others besides the rustic guests and servitors. Nicholas and Richard Assheton chanced to be in the gallery at the time, and, greatly struck by the singularity of his appearance, immediately descended to make inquiries respecting him. As they appeared below, the old steward advanced to meet them.
"Who the devil have you got there, Adam?" asked the squire.
"It passeth me almost to tell you, Master Nicholas," replied the steward; "and, not knowing whether the gentleman be invited or not, I am fain to wait Sir Ralph's pleasure in regard to him."
"Have you no notion who he is?" inquired Richard.
"All I know about him may be soon told, Master Richard," replied Adam. "He is a stranger in these parts, and hath very recently taken up his abode in Wiswall Hall, which has been abandoned of late years, as you know, and suffered to go to decay. Some few months ago an aged couple from Colne, named Hewit, took possession of part of the hall, and were suffered to remain there, though old Katty Hewit, or Mould-heels, as she is familiarly termed by the common folk, is in no very good repute hereabouts, and was driven, it is said from Colne, owing to her practices as a witch. Be that as it may, soon after these Hewits were settled at Wiswall, comes this stranger, and fixes himself in another part of the hall. How he lives no one can tell, but it is said he rambles all night long, like a troubled spirit, about the deserted rooms, attended by Mother Mould-heels; while in the daytime he is never seen."
"Can he be of sound mind?" asked Richard.
"Hardly so, I should think, Master Richard," replied the steward. "As to who he may be there are many opinions; and some aver he is Francis Paslew, grandson of Francis, brother to the abbot, and being a Jesuit priest, for you know the Paslews have all strictly adhered to the old faith—and that is why they have fled the country and abandoned their residence—he is obliged to keep himself concealed."
"If such be the case, he must be crazed indeed to venture here," observed Nicholas; "and yet I am half inclined to credit the report. Look at him, Dick. He is the very image of the old abbot."
"Yon portrait might have been painted for him," said Richard, gazing at the picture on the wall, and from it to the monk as he spoke; "the very same garb, too."
"There is an old monastic robe up-stairs, in the closet adjoining the room occupied by Mistress Nutter," observed the steward, "said to be the garment in which Abbot Paslew suffered death. Some stains are upon it, supposed to be the blood of the wizard Demdike, who perished in an extraordinary manner on the same day."
"I have seen it," cried Nicholas, "and the monk's habit looks precisely like it, and, if my eyes deceive me not, is stained in the same manner."
"I see the spots plainly on the breast," cried Richard. "How can he have procured the robe?"
"Heaven only knows," replied the old steward. "It is a very strange occurrence."
"I will go question him," said Richard.
So saying, he proceeded to the upper table, accompanied by Nicholas. As they drew near, the stranger arose, and fixed a grim look upon Richard, who was a little in advance.
"It is the abbot's ghost!" cried Nicholas, stopping, and detaining his cousin. "You shall not address it."
During the contention that ensued, the monk glided towards a side-door at the upper end of the hall, and passed through it. So general was the consternation, that no one attempted to stay him, nor would any one follow to see whither he went. Released, at length, from the strong grasp of the squire, Richard rushed forth, and not returning, Nicholas, after the lapse of a few minutes, went in search of him, but came back presently, and told the old steward he could neither find him nor the monk.
"Master Richard will be back anon, I dare say, Adam," he remarked; "if not, I will make further search for him; but you had better not mention this mysterious occurrence to Sir Ralph, at all events not until the festivities are over, and the ladies have retired. It might disturb them. I fear the appearance of this monk bodes no good to our family; and what makes it worse is, it is not the first ill omen that has befallen us to-day, Master Richard was unlucky enough to stand on Abbot Paslew's grave!"
"Mercy on us! that was unlucky indeed!" cried Adam, in great trepidation. "Poor dear young gentleman! Bid him take especial care of himself, good Master Nicholas. I noticed just now, that yon fearsome monk regarded him more attentively than you. Bid him be careful, I conjure you, sir. But here comes my honoured master and his guests. Here, Gregory, Dickon, bestir yourselves, knaves; and serve supper at the upper table in a trice."
Any apprehensions Nicholas might entertain for Richard were at this moment relieved, for as Sir Ralph and his guests came in at one door, the young man entered by another. He looked deathly pale. Nicholas put his finger to his lips in token of silence—a gesture which the other signified that he understood.
Sir Ralph and his guests having taken their places at the table, an excellent and plentiful repast was speedily set before them, and if they did not do quite such ample justice to it as the hungry rustics at the lower board had done to the good things provided for them, the cook could not reasonably complain. No allusion whatever being made to the recent strange occurrence, the cheerfulness of the company was uninterrupted; but the noise in the lower part of the hall had in a great measure subsided, partly out of respect to the host, and partly in consequence of the alarm occasioned by the supposed supernatural visitation. Richard continued silent and preoccupied, and neither ate nor drank; but Nicholas appearing to think his courage would be best sustained by an extra allowance of clary and sack, applied himself frequently to the goblet with that view, and erelong his spirits improved so wonderfully, and his natural boldness was so much increased, that he was ready to confront Abbot Paslew, or any other abbot of them all, wherever they might chance to cross him. In this enterprising frame of mind he drew Richard aside, and questioned him as to what had taken place in his pursuit of the mysterious monk.
"You overtook him, Dick, of course?" he said, "and put it to him roundly why he came hither, where neither ghosts nor Jesuit priests, whichever he may be, are wanted. What answered he, eh? Would I had been there to interrogate him! He should have declared how he became possessed of that old moth-eaten, blood-stained, monkish gown, or I would have unfrocked him, even if he had proved to be a skeleton. But I interrupt you. You have not told me what occurred at the interview?"
"There was no interview," replied Richard, gravely.
"No interview!" echoed Nicholas. "S'blood, man!—but I must be careful, for Doctor Ormerod and Parson Dewhurst are within hearing, and may lecture me on the wantonness and profanity of swearing. By Saint Gregory de Northbury!—no, that's an oath too, and, what is worse, a Popish oath. By—I have several tremendous imprecations at my tongue's end, but they shall not out. It is a sinful propensity, and must be controlled. In a word, then, you let him escape, Dick?"
"If you were so anxious to stay him, I wonder you came not with me," replied Richard; "but you now hold very different language from what you used when I quitted the hall."
"Ah, true—right—Dick," replied Nicholas; "my sentiments have undergone a wonderful change since then. I now regret having stopped you. By my troth! if I meet that confounded monk again, he shall give a good account of himself, I promise him. But what said he to you, Dick? Make an end of your story."
"I have not begun it yet," replied Richard. "But pay attention, and you shall hear what occurred. When I rushed forth, the monk had already gained the entrance-hall. No one was within it at the time, all the serving-men being busied here with the feasting. I summoned him to stay, but he answered not, and, still grimly regarding me, glided towards the outer door, which (I know not by what chance) stood open, and passing through it, closed it upon me. This delayed me a moment; and when I got out, he had already descended the steps, and was moving towards the garden. It was bright moonlight, so I could see him distinctly. And mark this, Nicholas—the two great blood-hounds were running about at large in the court-yard, but they slunk off, as if alarmed at his appearance. The monk had now gained the garden, and was shaping his course swiftly towards the ruined Conventual Church. Determined to overtake him, I quickened my pace; but he gained the old fane before me, and threaded the broken aisles with noiseless celerity. In the choir he paused and confronted me. When within a few yards of him, I paused, arrested by his fixed and terrible gaze. Nicholas, his look froze my blood. I would have spoken, but I could not. My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth for very fear. Before I could shake off this apprehension the figure raised its hand menacingly thrice, and passed into the Lacy Chapel. As soon as he was gone my courage returned, and I followed. The little chapel was brilliantly illuminated by the moon; but it was empty. I could only see the white monument of Sir Henry de Lacy glistening in the pale radiance."
"I must take a cup of wine after this horrific relation," said Nicholas, replenishing his goblet. "It has chilled my blood, as the monk's icy gaze froze yours. Body o' me! but this is strange indeed. Another oath. Lord help me!—I shall never get rid of the infernal—I mean, the evil habit. Will you not pledge me, Dick?"
The young man shook his head.
"You are wrong," pursued Nicholas,—"decidedly wrong. Wine gladdeneth the heart of man, and restoreth courage. A short while ago I was downcast as you, melancholy as an owl, and timorous as a kid, but now I am resolute as an eagle, stout of heart, and cheerful of spirit; and all owing to a cup of wine. Try the remedy, Dick, and get rid of your gloom. You look like a death's-head at a festival. What if you have stumbled on an ill-omened grave! What if you have been banned by a witch! What if you have stood face to face with the devil—or a ghost! Heed them not! Drink, and set care at defiance. And, not to gainsay my own counsel, I shall fill my cup again. For, in good sooth, this is rare clary, Dick; and, talking of wine, you should taste some of the wonderful Rhenish found in the abbot's cellar by our ancestor, Richard Assheton—a century old if it be a day, and yet cordial and corroborative as ever. Those monks were lusty tipplers, Dick. I sometimes wish I had been an abbot myself. I should have made a rare father confessor—especially to a pretty penitent. Here, Gregory, hie thee to the master cellarer, and bid him fill me a goblet of the old Rhenish—the wine from the abbot's cellar. Thou understandest—or, stay, better bring the flask. I have a profound respect for the venerable bottle, and would pay my devoirs to it. Hie away, good fellow!"
"You will drink too much if you go on thus," remarked Richard.
"Not a drop," rejoined Nicholas. "I am blithe as a lark, and would keep so. That is why I drink. But to return to our ghosts. Since this place must be haunted, I would it were visited by spirits of a livelier kind than old Paslew. There is Isole de Heton, for instance. The fair votaress would be the sort of ghost for me. I would not turn my back on her, but face her manfully. Look at her picture, Dick. Was ever countenance sweeter than hers—lips more tempting, or eyes more melting! Is she not adorable? Zounds!" he exclaimed, suddenly pausing, and staring at the portrait—"Would you believe it, Dick? The fair Isole winked at me—I'll swear she did. I mean—I will venture to affirm upon oath, if required, that she winked."
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Richard. "The fumes of the wine have mounted to your brain, and disordered it."
"No such thing," cried Nicholas, regarding the picture as steadily as he could—"she's leering at me now. By the Queen of Paphos! another wink. Nay, if you doubt me, watch her well yourself. A pleasant adventure this—ha!—ha!"
"A truce to this drunken foolery," cried Richard, moving away.
"Drunken! s'death! recall that epithet, Dick," cried Nicholas, angrily. "I am no more drunk than yourself, you dog. I can walk as steadily, and see as plainly, as you; and I will maintain it at the point of the sword, that the eyes of that picture have lovingly regarded me; nay, that they follow me now."
"A common delusion with a portrait," said Richard; "they appear to follow me."
"But they do not wink at you as they do at me," said Nicholas, "neither do the lips break into smiles, and display the pearly teeth beneath them, as occurs in my case. Grim old abbots frown on you, but fair, though frail, votaresses smile on me. I am the favoured mortal, Dick."
"Were it as you represent, Nicholas," replied Richard, gravely, "I should say, indeed, that some evil principle was at work to lure you through your passions to perdition. But I know they are all fancies engendered by your heated brain, which in your calmer moments you will discard, as I discard them now. If I have any weight with you, I counsel you to drink no more, or you will commit some mad foolery, of which you will be ashamed hereafter. The discreeter course would be to retire altogether; and for this you have ample excuse, as you will have to arise betimes to-morrow, to set out for Pendle Forest with Master Potts."
"Retire!" exclaimed Nicholas, bursting into a loud, contemptuous laugh. "I like thy counsel, lad. Yes, I will retire when I have finished the old monastic Rhenish which Gregory is bringing me. I will retire when I have danced the Morisco with the May Queen—the Cushion Dance with Dame Tetlow—and the Brawl with the lovely Isole de Heton. Another wink, Dick. By our Lady! she assents to my proposition. When I have done all this, and somewhat more, it will be time to think of retiring. But I have the night before me, Dick—not to be spent in drowsy unconsciousness, as thou recommendest, but in active, pleasurable enjoyment. No man requires less sleep than I do. Ordinarily, I 'retire,' as thou termest it, at ten, and rise with the sun. In summer I am abroad soon after three, and mend that if thou canst, Dick. To-night I shall seek my couch about midnight, and yet I'll warrant me I shall be the first stirring in the Abbey; and, in any case, I shall be in the saddle before thee."
"It may be," replied Richard; "but it was to preserve you from extravagance to-night that I volunteered advice, which, from my knowledge of your character, I might as well have withheld. But let me caution you on another point. Dance with Dame Tetlow, or any other dame you please—dance with the fair Isole de Heton, if you can prevail upon her to descend from her frame and give you her hand; but I object—most decidedly object—to your dancing with Alizon Device."
"Why so?" cried Nicholas; "why should I not dance with whom I please? And what right hast thou to forbid me Alizon? Troth, lad, art thou so ignorant of human nature as not to know that forbidden fruit is the sweetest. It hath ever been so since the fall. I am now only the more bent upon dancing with the prohibited damsel. But I would fain know the principle on which thou erectest thyself into her guardian. Is it because she fainted when thy sword was crossed with that hot-headed fool, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, that thou flatterest thyself she is in love with thee? Be not too sure of it, Dick. Many a timid wench has swooned at the sight of a naked weapon, without being enamoured of the swordsman. The fainting proves nothing. But grant she loves thee—what then! An end must speedily come of it; so better finish at once, before she be entangled in a mesh from which she cannot be extricated without danger. For hark thee, Dick, whatever thou mayst think, I am not so far gone that I know not what I say, neither is my vision so much obscured that I see not some matters plainly enough, and I understand thee and Alizon well, and see through you both. This matter must go no further. It has gone too far already. After to-night you must see her no more. I am serious in this—serious inter pocula, if such a thing can be. It is necessary to observe caution, for reasons that will at once occur to thee. Thou canst not wed this girl—then why trifle with her till her heart be broken."
"Broken it shall never be by me!" cried Richard.
"But I tell you it will be broken, if you do not desist at once," rejoined Nicholas. "I was but jesting when I said I would rob you of her in the Morisco, though it would be charity to both, and spare you many a pang hereafter, were I to put my threat into execution. However, I have a soft heart where aught of love is concerned, and, having pointed out the risk you will incur, I shall leave you to follow your own devices. But, for Alizon's sake, stop in time."
"You now speak soberly and sensibly enough, Nicholas," replied Richard, "and I thank you heartily for your counsel; and if I do not follow it by withdrawing at once from a pursuit which may appear to you hopeless, if not dangerous, you will, I hope, give me credit for being actuated by worthy motives. I will at once, and frankly admit, that I love Alizon; and loving her, you may rest assured I would sacrifice my life a thousand times rather than endanger her happiness. But there is a point in her history, with which if you were acquainted, it might alter your view of the case; but this is not the season for its disclosure, neither, I am bound to say, does the circumstance so materially alter the apparent posture of affairs as to remove all difficulty. On the contrary, it leaves an insurmountable obstacle behind it."
"Are you wise, then, in going on?" asked Nicholas.
"I know not," answered Richard, "but I feel as if I were the sport of fate. Uncertain whither to turn for the best, I leave the disposition of my course to chance. But, alas!" he added, sadly, "all seems to point out that this meeting with Alizon will be my last."
"Well, cheer up, lad," said Nicholas. "These afflictions are hard to bear, it is true; but somehow they are got over. Just as if your horse should fling you in the midst of a hedge when you are making a flying leap, you get scratched and bruised, but you scramble out, and in a day or two are on your legs again. Love breaks no bones, that's one comfort. When at your age, I was desperately in love, not with Mistress Nicholas Assheton—Heaven help the fond soul! but with—never mind with whom; but it was not a very prudent match, and so, in my worldly wisdom, I was obliged to cry off. A sad business it was. I thought I should have died of it, and I made quite sure that the devoted girl would die first, in which case we were to occupy the same grave. But I was not driven to such a dire extremity, for before I had kept house a week, Jack Walker, the keeper of Downham, made his appearance in my room, and after telling me of the mischief done by a pair of otters in the Ribble, finding me in a very desponding state, ventured to inquire if I had heard the news. Expecting to hear of the death of the girl, I prepared myself for an outburst of grief, and resolved to give immediate directions for a double funeral, when he informed me—what do you think, Dick?—that she was going to be married to himself. I recovered at once, and immediately went out to hunt the otters, and rare sport we had. But here comes Gregory with the famous old Rhenish. Better take a cup, Dick; this is the best cure for the heartache, and for all other aches and grievances. Ah! glorious stuff—miraculous wine!" he added, smacking his lips with extraordinary satisfaction after a deep draught; "those worthy fathers were excellent judges. I have a great reverence for them. But where can Alizon be all this while? Supper is wellnigh over, and the dancing and pastimes will commence anon, and yet she comes not."
"She is here," cried Richard.
And as he spoke Mistress Nutter and Alizon entered the hall.
Richard endeavoured to read in the young girl's countenance some intimation of what had passed between her and Mistress Nutter, but he only remarked that she was paler than before, and had traces of anxiety about her. Mistress Nutter also looked gloomy and thoughtful, and there was nothing in the manner or deportment of either to lead to the conclusion, that a discovery of relationship between them had taken place. As Alizon moved on, her eyes met those of Richard—but the look was intercepted by Mistress Nutter, who instantly called off her daughter's attention to herself; and, while the young man hesitated to join them, his sister came quickly up to him, and drew him away in another direction. Left to himself, Nicholas tossed off another cup of the miraculous Rhenish, which improved in flavour as he discussed it, and then, placing a chair opposite the portrait of Isole de Heton, filled a bumper, and, uttering the name of the fair votaress, drained it to her. This time he was quite certain he received a significant glance in return, and no one being near to contradict him, he went on indulging the idea of an amorous understanding between himself and the picture, till he had finished the bottle, and obtained as many ogles as he swallowed draughts of wine, upon which he arose and staggered off in search of Dame Tetlow.
Meanwhile, Mistress Nutter having made her excuses to Lady Assheton for not attending the supper, walked down the hall with her daughter, until such time as the dancing and pastimes should commence. As will be readily supposed under the circumstances, this part of the entertainment was distasteful to both of them; but it could not be avoided without entering into explanations, which Mistress Nutter was unwilling to make, and she, therefore, counselled her daughter to act in all respects as if she were still Alizon Device, and in no way connected with her.
"I shall take an early opportunity of announcing my intention to adopt you," she said, "and then you can act differently. Meantime, keep near me as much as you can. Say little to Dorothy or Richard Assheton, and prepare to retire early; for this noisy and riotous assemblage is not much to my taste, and I care not how soon I quit it."
Alizon assented to what was said, and stole a timid glance towards Richard and Dorothy; but the latter, who alone perceived it, instantly averted her head, in such way as to make it evident she wished to shun her regards. Slight as it was, this circumstance occasioned Alizon much pain, for she could not conceive how she had offended her new-made friend, and it was some relief to encounter a party of acquaintances who had risen from the lower table at her approach, though they did not presume to address her while she was with Mistress Nutter, but waited respectfully at a little distance. Alizon, however, flew towards them.
"Ah, Susan!—ah, Nancy!" she cried taking the hand of each—"how glad I am to see you here; and you too, Lawrence Blackrod—and you, Phil Rawson—and you, also, good Master Harrop. How happy you all look!"
"An wi' good reason, sweet Alizon," replied Blackrod. "Boh we began to be afeerd we'd lost ye, an that wad ha' bin a sore mishap—to lose our May Queen—an th' prettiest May Queen os ever dawnced i' this ha', or i' onny other ha' i' Lonkyshiar."
"We ha drunk your health, sweet Alizon," added Phil—"an wishin' ye may be os happy os ye desarve, wi' the mon o' your heart, if onny sich lucky chap there be."
"Thank you—thank you both," replied Alizon, blushing; "and in return I cannot wish you better fortune, Philip, than to be united to the good girl near you, for I know her kindly disposition so well, that I am sure she will make you happy."
"Ey'm satisfied on't myself," replied Rawson; "an ey hope ere long she'll be missus o' a little cot i' Bowland Forest, an that yo'll pay us a visit, Alizon, an see an judge fo' yourself how happy we be. Nance win make a rare forester's wife."
"Not a bit better than my Sukey," cried Lawrence Blackrod. "Ye shanna get th' start o' me, Phil, fo' by th' mess! the very same day os sees yo wedded to Nancy Holt shan find me united to Sukey Worseley. An so Alizon win ha' two cottages i' Bowland Forest to visit i'stead o' one."
"And well pleased I shall be to visit them both," she rejoined. At this moment Mistress Nutter came up.
"My good friends," she said, "as you appear to take so much interest in Alizon, you may be glad to learn that it is my intention to adopt her as a daughter, having no child of my own; and, though her position henceforth will be very different from what it has been, I am sure she will never forget her old friends."
"Never, indeed, never!" cried Alizon, earnestly.
"This is good news, indeed," cried Sampson Harrop, joyfully, while the others joined in his exclamation. "We all rejoice in Alizon's good fortune, and think she richly deserves it. For my own part, I was always sure she would have rare luck, but I did not expect such luck as this."
"What's to become o' me?" cried Jennet, coming from behind a chair, where she had hitherto concealed herself.
"I will always take care of you," replied Alizon, stooping, and kissing her.
"Do not promise more than you may be able to perform, Alizon," observed Mistress Nutter, coldly, and regarding the little girl with a look of disgust; "an ill-favour'd little creature, with the Demdike eyes."
"And as ill-tempered as she is ill-favoured," rejoined Sampson Harrop; "and, though she cannot help being ugly, she might help being malicious."
Jennet gave him a bitter look.
"You do her injustice, Master Harrop," said Alizon. "Poor little Jennet is quick-tempered, but not malevolent."
"Ey con hate weel if ey conna love," replied Jennet, "an con recollect injuries if ey forget kindnesses.—Boh dunna trouble yourself about me, sister. Ey dunna envy ye your luck. Ey dunna want to be adopted by a grand-dame. Ey'm content os ey am. Boh are na ye gettin' on rayther too fast, lass? Mother's consent has to be axed, ey suppose, efore ye leave her."
"There is little fear of her refusal," observed Mistress Nutter.
"Ey dunna knoa that," rejoined Jennet. "If she were to refuse, it wadna surprise me."
"Nothing spiteful she could do would surprise me," remarked Harrop. "But how are you likely to know what your mother will think and do, you forward little hussy?"
"Ey judge fro circumstances," replied the little girl. "Mother has often said she conna weel spare Alizon. An mayhap Mistress Nutter may knoa, that she con be very obstinate when she tays a whim into her head."
"I do know it," replied Mistress Nutter; "and, from my experience of her temper in former days, I should be loath to have you near me, who seem to inherit her obstinacy."
"Wi' sich misgivings ey wonder ye wish to tak Alizon, madam," said Jennet; "fo she's os much o' her mother about her os me, onny she dunna choose to show it."
"Peace, thou mischievous urchin," cried Mistress Nutter, losing all patience.
"Shall I take her away?" said Harrop—seizing her hand.
"Ay, do," said Mistress Nutter.
"No, no, let her stay!" cried Alizon, quickly; "I shall be miserable if she goes."
"Oh, ey'm quite ready to go," said Jennet, "fo ey care little fo sich seets os this—boh efore ey leave ey wad fain say a few words to Mester Potts, whom ey see yonder."
"What can you want with him, Jennet," cried Alizon, in surprise.
"Onny to tell him what brother Jem is gone to Pendle fo to-neet," replied the little girl, with a significant and malicious look at Mistress Nutter.
"Ha!" muttered the lady. "There is more malice in this little wasp than I thought. But I must rob it of its sting."
And while thus communing with herself, she fixed a searching look on Jennet, and then raising her hand quickly, waved it in her face.
"Oh!" cried the little girl, falling suddenly backwards.
"What's the matter?" demanded Alizon, flying to her.
"Ey dunna reetly knoa," replied Jennet.
"She's seized with a sudden faintness," said Harrop. "Better she should go home then at once. I'll find somebody to take her."
"Neaw, neaw, ey'n sit down here," said Jennet; "ey shan be better soon."
"Come along, Alizon," said Mistress Nutter, apparently unconcerned at the circumstance.
Having confided the little girl, who was now recovered from the shock, to the care of Nancy Holt, Alizon followed her mother.
At this moment Sir Ralph, who had quitted the supper-table, clapped his hands loudly, thus giving the signal to the minstrels, who, having repaired to the gallery, now struck up a merry tune, and instantly the whole hall was in motion. Snatching up his wand Sampson Harrop hurried after Alizon, beseeching her to return with him, and join a procession about to be formed by the revellers, and of course, as May Queen, and the most important personage in it, she could not refuse. Very short space sufficed the morris-dancers to find their partners; Robin Hood and the foresters got into their places; the hobby-horse curveted and capered; Friar Tuck resumed his drolleries; and even Jack Roby was so far recovered as to be able to get on his legs, though he could not walk very steadily. Marshalled by the gentleman-usher, and headed by Robin Hood and the May Queen, the procession marched round the hall, the minstrels playing merrily the while, and then drew up before the upper table, where a brief oration was pronounced by Sir Ralph. A shout that made the rafters ring again followed the address, after which a couranto was called for by the host, who, taking Mistress Nicholas Assheton by the hand, led her into the body of the hall, whither he was speedily followed by the other guests, who had found partners in like manner.
Before relating how the ball was opened a word must be bestowed upon Mistress Nicholas Assheton, whom I have neglected nearly as much as she was neglected by her unworthy spouse, and I therefore hasten to repair the injustice by declaring that she was a very amiable and very charming woman, and danced delightfully. And recollect, ladies, these were dancing days—I mean days when knowledge of figures as well as skill was required, more than twenty forgotten dances being in vogue, the very names of which may surprise you as I recapitulate them. There was the Passamezzo, a great favourite with Queen Elizabeth, who used to foot it merrily, when, as you are told by Gray—
"The great Lord-keeper led the brawls, And seals and maces danced before him!"
the grave Pavane, likewise a favourite with the Virgin Queen, and which I should like to see supersede the eternal polka at Almack's and elsewhere, and in which—
"Five was the number of the music's feet Which still the dance did with live paces meet;"
the Couranto, with its "current traverses," "sliding passages," and solemn tune, wherein, according to Sir John Davies—
—"that dancer greatest praise hath won Who with best order can all order shun;"
the Lavolta, also delineated by the same knowing hand—
"Where arm in arm two dancers are entwined, And whirl themselves with strict embracements bound, their feet an anapest do sound."
Is not this very much like a waltz? Yes, ladies, you have been dancing the lavolta of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries without being aware of it. But there was another waltz still older, called the Sauteuse, which I suspect answered to your favourite polka. Then there were brawls, galliards, paspys, sarabands, country-dances of various figures, cushion dances (another dance I long to see revived), kissing dances, and rounds, any of which are better than the objectionable polka. Thus you will see that there was infinite variety at least at the period under consideration, and that you have rather retrograded than advanced in the saltatory art. But to return to the ball.
Mistress Nicholas Assheton, I have said, excelled in the graceful accomplishment of dancing, and that was probably the reason why she had been selected for the couranto by Sir Ralph, who knew the value of a good partner. By many persons she was accounted the handsomest woman in the room, and in dignity of carriage she was certainly unrivalled. This was precisely what Sir Ralph required, and having executed a few "current traverses and sliding passages" with her, with a gravity and stateliness worthy of Sir Christopher Hatton himself, when graced by the hand of his sovereign mistress, he conducted her, amid the hushed admiration of the beholders, to a seat. Still the dance continued with unabated spirit; all those engaged in it running up and down, or "turning and winding with unlooked-for change." Alizon's hand had been claimed by Richard Assheton, and next to the stately host and his dignified partner, they came in for the largest share of admiration and attention; and if the untutored girl fell short of the accomplished dame in precision and skill, she made up for the want of them in natural grace and freedom of movement, for the display of which the couranto, with its frequent and impromptu changes, afforded ample opportunity. Even Sir Ralph was struck with her extreme gracefulness, and pointed her out to Mistress Nicholas, who, unenvying and amiable, joined heartily in his praises. Overhearing what was said, Mrs. Nutter thought it a fitting opportunity to announce her intention of adopting the young girl; and though Sir Ralph seemed a good deal surprised at the suddenness of the declaration, he raised no objection to the plan; but, on the contrary, applauded it. But another person, by no means disposed to regard it in an equally favourable light became acquainted with the intelligence at the same time. This was Master Potts, who instantly set his wits at work to discover its import. Ever on the alert, his little eyes, sharp as needles, had detected Jennet amongst the rustic company, and he now made his way towards her, resolved, by dint of cross-questioning and otherwise, to extract all the information he possibly could from her.
The dance over, Richard and his partner wandered towards a more retired part of the hall.
"Why does your sister shun me?" inquired Alizon, with a look of great distress. "What can I have done to offend her? Whenever I regard her she averts her head, and as I approached her just now, she moved away, making it evident she designed to avoid me. If I could think myself in any way different from what I was this morning, when she treated me with such unbounded confidence and kindness, or accuse myself of any offence towards her, even in thought, I could understand it; but as it is, her present coldness appears inexplicable and unreasonable, and gives me great pain. I would not forfeit her regard for worlds, and therefore beseech you to tell me what I have done amiss, that I may endeavour to repair it."
"You have done nothing—nothing whatever, sweet girl," replied Richard. "It is only caprice on Dorothy's part, and except that it distresses you, her conduct, which you justly call 'unreasonable,' does not deserve a moment's serious consideration."
"Oh no! you cannot deceive me thus," cried Alizon. "She is too kind—too well-judging, to be capricious. Something must have occurred to make her change her opinion of me, though what it is I cannot conjecture. I have gained much to-day—more than I had any right to expect; but if I have forfeited the good opinion of your sister, the loss of her friendship will counterbalance all the rest."
"But you have not lost it, Alizon," replied Richard, earnestly. "Dorothy has got some strange notions into her head, which only require to be combated. She does not like Mistress Nutter, and is piqued and displeased by the extraordinary interest which that lady displays towards you. That is all."
"But why should she not like Mistress Nutter?" inquired Alizon.
"Nay, there is no accounting for fancies," returned Richard, with a faint smile. "I do not attempt to defend her, but simply offer the only excuse in my power for her conduct."
"I am concerned to hear it," said Alizon, sadly, "because henceforth I shall be so intimately connected with Mistress Nutter, that this estrangement, which I hoped arose only from some trivial cause, and merely required a little explanation to be set aside, may become widened and lasting. Owing every thing to Mistress Nutter, I must espouse her cause; and if your sister likes her not, she likes me not in consequence, and therefore we must continue divided. But surely her dislike is of very recent date, and cannot have any strong hold upon her; for when she and Mistress Nutter met this morning, a very different feeling seemed to animate her."
"So, indeed, it did," replied Richard, visibly embarrassed and distressed. "And since you have made me acquainted with the new tie and interests you have formed, I can only regret alluding to the circumstance."
"That you may not misunderstand me," said Alizon, "I will explain the extent of my obligations to Mistress Nutter, and then you will perceive how much I am bounden to her. Childless herself, greatly interested in me, and feeling for my unfortunate situation, with infinite goodness of heart she has declared her intention of removing me from all chance of baneful influence, from the family with whom I have been heretofore connected, by adopting me as her daughter."