A broad curtain, curiously embroidered, covered one end of the room, from behind which crept a page or henchman, in gay attire, his tunic glistening with his lord's device.
The serfs bowed with the most abject submission to this representative of their lord, who lived in the customary style of barbarous and feudal pomp, which the manners of their Norman invaders had rather contributed to increase than to diminish.
"Tell thy master," said their companion, "that some of the folk would speak with him, touching the matter by which they are in jeopardy."
Smoothing his locks and trimming down his garments, the boy departed. It was long or ere the audience was granted; in the meantime, they stood trembling and oppressed with an evil foreboding for the result, the known hasty and impetuous temper of the Saxon rendering it a matter of some doubt, and no small hazard, as to what might be the issue of their conference. Suddenly was heard the clanking of armour, and the tramp of nailed feet, announcing his approach; the heavy arras was uplifted, and Gamel the Thane stood before them. He was richly attired in a loose coat reaching down to his ankles; over this was a long robe, fastened over both shoulders and on the breast with a silver buckle. The edges were trimmed with gold and knots of flowers interwoven with pearls and rare stones. On his head he wore a coronet, or rim of gold, enriched with jewels; and his bushy hair and grizzled beard looked still more grim and forbidding beneath these glittering ornaments. His eyes were quick and piercing; his cheeks pale and slightly furrowed. A narrow and retreating mouth, firmly drawn in, showed the bent of his disposition to be fierce and choleric, and his wrath not easily turned aside. He was accompanied by his billmen, together with some half-dozen attendants, clad in shirts of chain mail and helmets fitting close to the head. These bore lances after the Norman fashion then prevailing over the ruder customs of their Saxon predecessors.
The more polished manners of the Norman's court had early pervaded the ranks of the nobles; and even the few hereditary Saxon chiefs left in possession of their ancient sovereignties, thought their domains cheaply purchased by this obsequious show of homage to their king.
The Thane's chief henchman occupied the post of honour, whilst a little footpage stood by his master's elbow.
The villains prostrated themselves.
"How now!—Where are the caitiffs I commanded of ye? I vow to the Virgin and St Chadde, your own necks shall swing from the tower in their stead, should ye fail in that which I require at your hands."
The trembling hearers were, afraid to answer—their lips quivered, and each tongue seemed to refuse its office. Gamel proceeded:——
"What! come ye to fawn and whine out my purpose? Now will I make your chastisement ten times hotter for this intent. Lodge these knaves, Nicholas, i' the further dungeon, till they be reprieved by the rogues who are yet at large and defying our power:—they hold it somewhat cheap, methinks, when they value it less than the pampering of their own wantonness and sport."
Nicholas was herald, bedellus, or chief crier, to the lord of the manor, his office being to make proclamations at the court and the cross, where the use of his capacious lungs was oft in request. He was hangman, too, upon occasion, being never so well pleased as when employed in the due chastisement of his master's lieges. He was, moreover, a man of infinite humour, generally consoling his dear unfortunates under their visitations by some coarse and galling jest.
"Now, Adam of Hunersfield, art thou at thy prayers already?—I'll shrive thee quick. Master, shall I give the rogues any victuals? They'll not keep else till hanging time;—best finish now—needless to waste provender."
"Give them the prison allowance. But, hark thee, no stripes, Nicholas," said the chief, well aware of his flagellant propensities.
"Eh!" replied he; "but black cake and dried beans don't mix well i' the stomach without riddling."
"Peace, sirrah!" replied the chieftain with a frown. Nicholas, though a licensed jester and in especial favour, knew there was a boundary beyond which he durst not pass; he became silent, therefore, at this command. The lamentations of the unwary hostages were loud but unavailing. Nicholas prepared his manacles, and was leading them from the chamber, when the page whispered in his master's ear.
"Stop," cried the Thane: "know ye aught of the boy who was a-watching yesternight?"
"We know nothing of the lad, as we hope for deliverance," said the terrified rustics.
"Bring in the woman!"
The command was followed by the entrance of Cicely. Leaning on her crutch, she bent lowly before the chief.
"Hast thou any suit or accusation to prefer against these men, as touching thy boy?"
"Oh, my lord!" said the dame, weeping, "I never aforetime knew him missing; and he has slept i' the Killer Dane, where the great battle was fought below the castle. He has watched i' the 'Thrutch,' where the black dog haunts from sunset till cock-crow. He has leapt over the fairies' ring and run through the old house at Gozlewood, and no harm has befallen him; but he is now ta'en from me,—cast out, maybe, into some noisome pit. The timbers and stones are leapt on to the hill again, but my boy is not there!"
She wept and wrung her withered hands.
"Hast thou any witness against these men?"
"Oh! my lord, they bribed me with their gifts that I should suffer the boy to watch; and I am poor, and I thought he wore a charmed life, and the little hoard would be a comfort and a stay in my old age."
"Thou hast done wickedly in this," said the lord. "Howbeit, I will keep them in the stocks; peradventure it may quicken the wits of their outdoor friends to find out the mover of these scurvy pranks. The post and timbers would not go up hill unless some knave had holpen to lift them."
Nicholas was departing to the indulgence of his favourite pastime, when a loud hubbub was heard without, and presently a fellow was pushed in by the pressure of the crowd upon his shoulders; but they drew back, on finding the immediate presence of their chief.
This man was accounted the most notorious idler in the neighbourhood, hight "Barnulf with the nose." His eyes looked red and swollen, and his senses had become muddled and obtuse with long steeping. Silence was immediately enforced, while the assembly anxiously awaited the interrogation of this intolerable coveter of barley-drink.
"Art thou again at thy freaks?" said the Thane, angrily: "thou hast soon forgotten the stocks and the whipping-post on Easter-day. It were well that Nicholas should refresh thy memory in this matter."
At this dreaded name the poor wretch fell on his face.
"Please ye, my lord," said he, hardly raising his head from the floor, "I am here but for a witness beliken. I am breeding of no broil, save an' my gossip o' yesternight drew me into a tussle with old Split-Feet and his company."
He groaned, but not without considerable effort, and his face puckered in a heap at the recollection.
"What!—the foul fiend helped thee to thy liquor, I trow?" said Gamel, hastily. "Think not to foist thy fooleries upon me. Should I find thee with a lie on thy tongue, the hide were as well off thy shoulders. To thy speech—quick, what sawest thou?"
"I will give it all, withouten a word but what the blessed saints would avouch," said the terrified supplicant, whose once fiery face was now blanched, or rather dyed of a dull and various blue.
"I was wending home from Merland, where I had been helping Dan the smith to his luckpenny, when as I took the path-road down yonder unlucky hill to the ford, not thinking of the de'il's workmen that had flown off with the church the night before, I was whistling, or, it mayhap, singing,—or—or—I am not just particular to know how it was, for the matter of it; but at any rate I was getting up, having tumbled down the steep almost nigh to the bottom, and I thought my eyes had strucken fire, for I saw lights frisking and frolicking up and down the hill. Then I sat down to watch, and, sure enough, such a puck-fisted rabble, without cloak or hosen, I never beheld—all hurry-scurry up the hill, and some of the like were on the gallop down again. They were shouting, and mocking, and laughing, like so many stark-mad fools at a May-feast. They strid twenty paces at a jump, with burdens that two of the best oxen about the manor had not shifted the length of my thumbnail. 'Tis some unlucky dream, said I, rubbing the corners of my eyes, and trying to pinch myself awake. Just then I saw a crowd of the busiest of 'em running up from the river, and making directly towards the steep bank below where I sat. They were hurrying a great log of timber, which they threw down close beside me, as if to rest ere they mounted. 'My friends,'—what should ail me to talk to 'em I cannot tell,—'My friends, but ye seem to have more work in your hands than wit in your noddles—ye might have spared yourselves the labour, I trow.' With that the whole rout turned upon me with a shout and a chattering that would have dumbfounded the shrillest tongue in the whole hundred—the mill-wheel was nothing to it. I would have escaped, but my feet were holden like as they had been i' the stocks. One, the foremost of the crew—I do think he had a long tail and gaping hoofs, but I was over frightened to see very clear—came with a mocking malicious grin, his tongue lolling out, and his eyes glaring and fiend-like.
"'Pray, good friend,' said he, pulling off a little black bonnet, 'be compassionate enough to help us with our load to the hill-top.' Now was I terrified beyond measure, insomuch that I made a desperate tug, whereby loosening myself, I ran like the wind, the wicked fiends following and roaring after me with loud and bitter curses. I jumped into the river, in my hurry having missed the ford, and I heard 'em still shouting, and, as I thought, pursuing me; but the Virgin and St Chadde were my helpers, for when Biddy opened the door in the morning, I lay there in a great swoon, with my head bruised, and a hole in my good grey cloak."
"And so thou comest here a-boasting of thy drunken discoveries," said the Thane. "Thou shalt wish thou hadst not gotten thee so soon from the fiend's clutches. A spice of old Nicholas' vocation may not be amiss; yet, by way of relish to thy tale"——
The agony of the culprit was loud and appalling, but the chief was inexorable, until his denunciations were interrupted by a stranger, who craved a short respite for the groaning supplicant.
He was meanly clad: a coarse cloak, stained and threadbare, was thrown open, showing a close habit of the most ordinary fabric; yet a natural and graceful bearing imparted a dignity even to his poor and worthless habiliments.
"I am a stranger, and sore oppressed with long travel. Penury and misfortune have been my lot, and I am driven from place to place without a home or a morsel of bread. Last night, long after the curfew, I came hither, but no hospitium or religious house being near, I sat down by the hill-side yonder, until morning should enable me to crave help for my hopeless journey. The morning had not dawned ere I awoke—a loud trampling, and a rush of many voices had broken in upon my slumbers. I beheld crowds of strange-looking men, laden with terrific burdens. They seemed to be eagerly and earnestly at work, under heavier loads than I thought mortal man could sustain; the whole space too, as far as the eye might carry, seemed alive with them, the flickering of their torches forming a scene of almost unimaginable splendour. Right before me were a number of these labourers, hauling up a heavy beam from the river; others were apparently crossing, laden with materials no less bulky and intractable. All were in motion, wriggling along like so many ants on a hillock. The party just before me stayed immediately below where I sat, watching their proceedings with no little curiosity and amazement. They threw down their load,—then pausing, appeared to view with some hesitation the steep bank above them. The foremost of the group now came softly towards me. Pulling off his bonnet, with a grave and beseeching aspect he craved help to accomplish the ascent. Not then dreaming of goblins and their deceitful glamour, I put my shoulder to the work with a right good will; and truly it were a marvel to watch the tough beam, how it seemed to obey the impulse. I worked with all the might I could muster, but it appeared as though little were needful; and in a trice we scrambled to the top, when the whole party scampered off, leaving me to follow or not, as I chose. I saw something tossed towards me, which glistened as it lay at my feet. Stooping, I found a silver ring, beauteously bedecked with one glowing crystal. Round the rim is formed a quaint legend, bearing a fair device, which some learned clerk may perchance decipher."
The stranger drew from his finger a massy ring. A little ferret-eyed monk, a transcriber of saints' legends and Saxon chronicles, was immediately called. He pronounced the writing heathenish, and of the Runic form. A sort of free translation may be given as follows:—
"The Norman shall tread on the Saxon's heel, And the stranger shall rule o'er England's weal; Through castle and hall, by night or by day The stranger shall thrive for ever and aye; But in Rached, above the rest, The stranger shall thrive best."
Gamel was troubled and perplexed. The words were prophetic, evidently pointing to his own and his country's fate, as well as to the destiny of the stranger. He knit his brows, and his very beard coiled upwards with the conflict. He appeared loth to allow of a supernatural agency in the affair, and yet the testimony and its witness were not to be gainsayed.
"I had not believed the tale, stranger, if this token had not confirmed thy speech:—verily thou hast a better witness than a fool's tongue to thy story. That ill-omened losel may depart. See thou fall not hastily into the like offence, else shalt thou smart from Childermas to All-hallowtide. Hence! to thy place." Barnulf awaited not further dismissal, glad to escape the scrutiny of Nicholas with a whole skin.
A loud shriek was heard from the court-yard.
"My boy!—Oh, my boy!" cried the almost frantic mother, as she rushed into the chamber, leading in Uctred. He had been discovered on removing some of the huge piles of timber again from the hill, where, under a curiously-supported covering of beams and other rude materials, he lay, seemingly asleep. The urchin looked as malicious and froward as ever, even when standing before his chief.
"And where hast thou been, my pretty bird?" said the old woman, as she began her vocabulary of signs. But the boy looked surly and would not answer to the signal: he drew down his black swarthy brows, looking eagerly and fiercely from behind their bushy curtains. Suddenly, and with a fearful yell, he sprang forward, snatching the ring which Gamel was then giving back to the stranger. With a wild and hideous laugh, which sent a shudder through the assembly, he drew it on his finger. At this moment the expression of his countenance began to change, and some of the bystanders, over whom fear had probably waved the wand of the enchanter, saw his form dilate, and his whole figure expand into almost gigantic proportions. A thick haze rolled through the apartment; then was heard a wild unearthly shout, and the vision had disappeared.
"Seize him!" cried Gamel.
The guards, trembling, prepared to execute his commands, but on gaining the outworks of the castle, no vestige remained of his appearance, save a slight whirlwind of dust, like a mist-wreath curling down the valley, which, to their terrified apprehensions, became the chariot of the departing demon. Nothing could shake this belief; and in after ages the boy was spoken of as a changeling, left by some fairy, whose appointed sojourn had been then accomplished, the means for his release being fulfilled. Old Cicely became nigh crazed with the loss of her son; but Gamel, seriously pondering on these events, sought counsel from the "Holy Church." It was therein resolved that the intended site should be removed, and the "unknown" by such removal appeased. The chapel of St Chadde was accordingly built on the hill-top, where the church now stands, and unto which the foundations had been so marvellously conveyed. One hundred and twenty-four steps were dug to accomplish the ascent, and enable the good people to go to prayers. Connected with these, the tradition still exists; and unto this day it is here observed, that "Strangers prosper in the town of Rochdale; but the natives are generally unfortunate in their undertakings."
"A pilgrim came from o'er the sea; Benedicite! benedicite! And he brought a ring to that proud ladye. His grave is wide, his grave is deep; On that bosom cold he shall quietly sleep: Benedicite!"
The following extract from the genealogical roll of the Bradshaighs is the principal source from whence this tale has originated:—
"Sir William Bradshaighe, second son to Sir John, was a great traveller and a souldger, and married to Mabell, daughter and sole heire of Hugh Norris de Haghe and Blackrode, and had issue," &c.
Of this Mabel is a story by tradition of undoubted verity, "that in Sir Wm. Bradshaghe absence (beinge 10 years away in the holy wars), she married a Welsh knight. Sir William, returning from the wars, came in a palmer's habitt amongst the poor to Haghe, who, when she saw and congetringe that he favoured her former husband, wept, for which the knight chastised her; at which Sir William went and made himself known to his tenants; in which space the knight fled, but neare to Newton Parke Sir William overtook him and sleu him. The said Dame Mabell was enjoined by her confessor to doe penances by going onest every week barefout and bare legged to a crosse ner Wigan from the Haghe, wilest she lived, and is called Mabb + to this day; and ther monument lyes in Wigan church, as you see them ther portry'd."
Sir William Bradshaigh was outlawed during the space of a year and a day for this offence; but he and his lady, it is said, lived happily together afterwards until their death. Their effigies on the tomb now exist but as rude and unshapely masses; time and whitewash, the two great destroyers of our monumental relics, having almost obliterated their form, the one by diminishing, and the other by adding to, their substance.
That Sir William was at the "Holy Wars," must, it is evident, be a corruption of the story, seeing he was born about the year 1280, ten years after the last of these unfortunate expeditions. The first croisade was undertaken by Peter the Hermit, 1095; a second, by Louis VII of France, 1145; a third, under Richard I of England, 1190; a fourth, under Philip II of France, 1204; a fifth, under Louis IX, against Egypt, 1248; and the last, under Louis IX., against Tunis, where he lost his life, 1270. Consequently, the perpetration of these "Holy" murders, which it is supposed were to the amount of two hundred millions of human beings, without the acquisition even of Jerusalem to the Church, must have ceased ere the birth of our "pilgrim." That he was at "the wars," however, is pretty certain, but they were nearer home. The machinations of that powerful noble, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, together with the disastrous campaign of Edward II. against the Scots, are sufficiently important events to account for the long absence of Sir William Bradshaigh, who is supposed to have been taken prisoner during these unhappy troubles.
Our engraving represents the cross as it exists at present. Some attention having been drawn to it of late, we may hope this interesting relic will be suffered to remain uninjured, and not be subjected any more to those levelling improvements for which this age is so distinguished.
In the borough of Wigan, near one of the four gates, called Standishgate—which gates are now removed, and their places occupied by some undignified-looking posts called "toll-bars"—stands a ruined stone cross; in appearance, by no means either interesting or remarkable: it would scarcely be noticed by a casual observer. Yet to this mean-looking memorial of our faith is attached an eventful story, at which
"The sad might laugh; the merry weep."
It is a tale of which our brief limits will only allow a rapid sketch. This we have thrown together in the dramatic and narrative form, a combination more calculated than any other, we believe, to awaken attention, and bring forth the subject before the mind with truth and distinctness.
One stormy night, in the autumn of the year 1324, mine host of the Merry Maypole, a tavern of great resort by the market-cross in the good borough of Wigan, was awakened from a laborious slumber. The door which opened into a low porch projecting from the thatch, was shaken with a vehemence that threatened some fearful catastrophe. Giles, no longer able to endure these thundering appeals to his hospitality, desired his wife to ascertain the cause of the disturbance.
"Gramercy! An' I be to unlatch for every graceless unthrift that chooses to pummel at Giles Dauber's wicket, I shall have but sorry bedding wi' an old husband."
"Old, quotha!—Old! I tell thee, dame, that I'm less by a good score of winters than Dan o' the higher Wient, when he wed old Simon's daughter.—Humph!—She was a merry and a buxom lass; but thou"—
How far this interesting dialogue between the tavern-keeper and his newly-wedded spouse might have extended it is impossible with any degree of accuracy to set forth, inasmuch as another loud and desperate lunge, extenuated to an inaudible mutter the testy rejoinder of "Giles o' the Maypole;" this being the cognomen by which he was more familiarly designated.
"Anan!" shouted he, "what the—— Save us!" he continued in a low whisper, crossing himself, "I had nigh slipped an ugly word over my tongue; and if it should be—Dame, I say, get up, and"—
"Nay, thou hast gotten thee two as nimble legs, by thine own reckoning, as any knave i' the borough. I shall e'en keep to my bed, goodman, though these guzzle-throats hammer till cock-crow.—They are at the right side of the door, I trow."
Now, mine host of the Merry Maypole having taken to himself that last and worst of all possible plagues for the remnant of his days, to wit, a young and somewhat handsome-looking wife, thought it no less meet than reasonable, and no less reasonable than a duty, at all times incumbent, that the before-named helpmate should, if need were, get out of bed and unlatch the wicket whenever good customers were astir; more particularly as the first Dame Dauber, having the fear of a short but tough cudgel upon her, did, at certain times and seasons, when there was the requisite occasion, leave her liege lord to the enjoyment of his warm and luxurious couch, and spread a table for the entertainment of many a night-betrayed traveller.
It was the first exigency of the kind, since the marriage of Giles Dauber to Madge Newsome of the Deercote, in which the discussion of a point so knotty and important had occurred. Giles dreamt not of the vast difference that exists in the nature and docility of divers women. He heard with a sort of incredulous surprise the first incipient grumblings in contravention of his authority; but when these had fairly shaped themselves into open defiance, he started agape with wonder. Recovering himself, with a stern and portentous silence, he jumped out of bed and drew on his doublet and hose. While thoughts of relentless import were brooding, he groped his way down the ladder that communicated with the lower apartment, for the purpose of ascertaining the quality and condition of the stranger. The latter still manifested a noisy impatience at being suffered, in so inhospitable a manner, to linger without. The night was rainy and tempestuous—Giles shivered to the backbone as he trod on the wheezing rushes strewed over the floor; they were yet damp and dirty, by reason of the many visitors who had that night loitered long at the Merry Maypole.
"Holloa, friend!—thy name?" shouted Giles, placing his hand on the latch.
"Open the door, for the love of mercy!" cried a strange voice. Giles drew back; he liked not this salutation—more, by token, from the adjurement being for the love of mercy, in lieu of an appeal to the tinkling angels that generally lined a traveller's pouch.
"Some sturdy beggar or mendicant friar," thought he, "that knocks at my door because the chantry gates are shut. I care not to open my door to every losel that knocks," cried he aloud. "Hence! I know thee not."
"Goodman, give me a night's lodging, and I will reward thee"—the door flew open at this intimation—"with a palmer's benison," continued the stranger, advancing towards the wan embers that yet flickered on the hearth. Had Giles awaited the finishing of this sentence ere the latch was loosened, some other and more hospitable roof had enjoyed the benefit of that night's adventure.
"Thanks are not over meet for a cool stomach," growled the disappointed tapster; whilst his guest roused the decaying faggots into a faint and unsteady blaze.
Giles surveyed the new-comer with no very sanguine prepossessions in his behalf. The figure that met his scrutiny was clad in a dark cloak. The hood, partly thrown back, showed a somewhat "frosty poll," though the vivacity of a wild and restless eye, peering from under his dark and luxuriant brow, would scarcely have betokened an age at which the coming winter of life usually scatters these chill warnings of its approach. His features were finely moulded. A weather-beaten cheek, mingling with a complexion evidently sallow, gave a rich autumnal hue to his visage: a slight furrow, extending from the outer angle of the nostril around each corner of a narrow and retreating mouth, gave a careless expression of scorn to the countenance when at rest; but, as he smiled, this sinister aspect disappeared, and the soft gleam of benevolence which succeeded looked the brighter from the portentous scowl that had just passed. His beard was grey, and of a most reverent equipment, well calculated to excite veneration and respect. He was above the middle size: his humble garb but ill concealed a majesty of deportment indicating a disposition rather to command than to solicit favours. He seated himself on a low stool, and honest Giles, whose courage did not feel sufficiently invigorated, in the presence of this proud palmer, to dare an open warfare, began hostilities covertly, in manner as follows:—
"What ails ye, to disturb honest folks i' their beds at these hours? You might ha' tarried in your last baiting-place—at any rate till the kye were astir. I wonder the guard let you pass at the gate. But since these evil days have o'ershadowed the land, every braggart has licence to do as he list; and the monks and the friars, with their whole crew of dubs and deputies, are the worst of all. Old Cliderhow here, the parson, thought to have waged war with his betters; but he was a slight matter mistaken: we whipt him up by the heels for his treason."
"Is Cliderhow alive?" inquired the stranger.
"Save us, pilgrim! where had you knowledge of the traitor?"
"Our good king Edward," continued the guest, apparently not attending to Giles's question in reply, "is still sorely beset with his enemies. Had a score of knaves such as Master Cliderhow been hanged long ago, his reign had been less burdensome both to prince and people."
"It's twelve years—ay, twelve," said Giles, reckoning the lapse on his fingers; "I know it by the great wind that beat down Master Markland's barn wall at the Meadows, since Cliderhow's sermon, inciting the whole parish to rebellion."
"I know it," replied the palmer: "he was in prison when I last knew of the matter."
"Ay, ay," returned Giles knowingly; "but threescore marks, disbursed discreetly to our good and loyal burgesses, made the doors as easy to open as my wicket—that is, at timely hours, ye understand."
"Is he at large?" inquired the other.
"They say he bides at Haigh," answered Boniface, "roistering it with that Welsh knight there, Sir Osmund Neville. I warrant Sir William's substance runs gaily down the old parson's throat."
Here the palmer threw the hood over his brows. Suddenly he arose: striding across the chamber with considerable speed, he twice repeated the name of Sir Osmund Neville in a subdued tone, but with a bitterness of spirit that ill accorded with the outward habit of meekness which he had assumed.
"Giles Dauber! what keeps ye so long there a-gossiping?" shouted a shrill voice from above. It was the vocal substitute of Mistress Dauber, who, resolutely determined not to budge at her husband's bidding, had, as she lay, listened, but to little purpose. Finding it was no everyday guest, she crept to the ladder-head and gave ear for a while; but soon discovering it to be an unthrifty sort of intercourse that was going on, not likely to bring either gain or good-will to the house, and fearing that Giles might fall into some snare from his ready-mouthed opinions regarding the unsettled temper and aspect of the time, she thought fit to break abruptly on the discourse ere it should lead to some dangerous or forbidden subject. He had, however, hit upon a favourite topic, in addition to which, he was now evidently loth to leave his guest ere he had learnt the nature of his errand to these parts. An "o'er-sea pilgrim," as they were generally styled, was too choice an arrival for a petty hostel—especially in those times, when newspapers and posts were not circulating daily and hourly through the land—to let slip an opportunity of inquiring about the king of Scotland, as Robert Bruce was then called, or about his majesty, the Sultan Solyman—two personages who were very frequently confounded with each other in mine host's political hemisphere, and whose realms formed the great pandemonium whence issued all that was dire and disastrous to plague and perplex unhappy England.
"To bed! to bed!—Thou art ready enough to rise when thou art not bidden. To bed, I say!" angrily shouted the disturbed Benedict.
"Hast thou a wife?" sternly inquired the pilgrim.
"A wife!—marry have I!" exclaimed Giles; "and here she comes."
Finding there was no likelihood of a speedy termination to this interview, our hostess of the Maypole conceived it to be a matter of duty that she should at least take her full share in the discussions and disclosures that might ensue. For this purpose she descended, making a deep acknowledgment to the generally supposed sanctity of the pilgrim's vocation. So much occupied, however, did he appear by other concernments that he scarcely noticed her approach, but continued to pass with hasty and irregular steps across the chamber.
"By what quality or appearance may Sir Osmund Neville be distinguished?" he abruptly inquired.
"A right goodly person, and a brave gentleman! He gave me a sousing kiss, and a pair of mittens to boot, the last choosing of knights to the parliament," said the Dame.
"Hold thy tongue, Madge!" angrily exclaimed Giles. "Good father, heed not a woman; they are caught by the lip and the fist, like my lord's trencher-man. This Sir Osmund is both lean and ill-favoured. I wonder what the Lady Mabel saw above his shoe to wed with an ugly toad spawned i' the Welsh marshes. Had ye seen her first husband, Sir William Bradshaigh—rest his soul! he was killed in the wars—you would have marvelled that she drunk the scum after the broth."
"Lady Mabel and Sir Osmund are now at Haigh?" cautiously inquired the palmer.
"You have business there, belike?" sharply interrogated the indefatigable host.
"I have slight matters that require my presence at the hall. Does the knight go much abroad, or keeps he close house?"
"Why, look ye, it is some three months or so since I smelt the fat from her ladyship's kitchen. Dan Hardseg smutted my face, and rubbed a platterful of barley-dough into my poll, the last peep I had through the buttery. I'll bide about my own hearth-flag whilst that limb o' the old spit is chief servitor. I do bethink me though, it is long sin' Sir Osmund was seen i' the borough. Belike he may have come at the knowledge of my misadventure, and careth not to meet the wrath of a patient man."
Here the malicious dame burst into a giddy laugh.
"Thee! why Sir Osmund knoweth not thy crop from thy crupper, nor careth he if thy whole carcase were crammed into the dumpling-bag. I'feck, it were a rare pastime to see Sir Osmund, the brave Welsh knight, give the gutter to Giles of the Merry Maypole."
Giles was speechless with dismay at this aggravating insult; but the dame continued:—
"I think, good stranger, the knight does keep house of late. Grim told me that last week he was a-sporting once only by way of the higher park; and he appears something more soured and moody than usual. If thou crave speech with him though, to-morrow being almonsday at the hall, the poor have free admission, and thou mayest have a sight of him there: peradventure, as thou art strange in these parts, it will be needful thou hadst a guide."
"And just ready for the job thyself, I'se warrant," bitterly snarled the exasperated husband. The storm, long threatening, was about to burst forth; but the palmer, with holy and beseeching words, soothed for awhile the angry disputants, at the same time intimating that a guide was unnecessary, the situation of the house being sufficiently obvious from whatever quarter he might direct his steps.
The stranger seemed not solicitous of repose, and Giles was too sulky to inquire his wants. The dame, however, drew a bundle of clean straw from a huge heap, and threw it beside the hearth. A coarse and heavy rug, over which was thrown a sheep-skin with the wool innermost, constituted a warm but homely couch. A horn cup filled with cider and a burnt barley-cake were next exhibited, of which the palmer made a healthful, if not a sumptuous repast. Giles growled off to the loft above; and the dame, caring little for the sequel of her husband's humours, soon found a resting-place by his side.
Morning shone brightly and cheerfully through the chinks and crevices of both door and lattice; but the pilgrim's couch was yet unsought. His vigils had been undisturbed, save when the baying of some vagrant and ill-disciplined dogs, or the lusty carol of some valiant yeoman, reeling home after a noisy debauch, startled him from a painfully-recurring thought, to which, however, the mind involuntarily turned when the interruption had ceased.
It was late ere Giles awoke. Breathless with expectation, he hastened below, anticipating a rich budget of news from his guest; but he had departed.
It was one of those fresh and glittering mornings which autumn alone can produce. Keen, pure, and exhilarating, the air seemed all buoyant and elastic, tinging the cheeks with ruddy health, and animating the whole frame with renewed vigour.
A slight hoar-frost yet lay on the thatched roofs. Calm and undisturbed, a gem-like brightness twinkled from every object; whilst the vapours that covered them looked not as the shroud, but rather as a pure mantle of eider, hiding the fair bosom to which it clung.
The pilgrim entered a narrow street leading to the postern or gate, called Standish-gate. In those days it was not, as now, a wide and free thoroughfare for man and beast. At the accustomed fairs, toll is, to this time, demanded on all cattle changing owners at the several outlets, where formerly stood four gates; to wit, Wall-gate, Hall-gate, Mill-gate, and Standish-gate. Each gate where the toll-bars now stand was once, in good sooth, a heavy barrier of stout beams, thickly studded with iron. Through the night they were generally bolted and guarded by a company of the mayor's halberdiers. An irregular wall encompassed the town, save on the eastern side, where the river Douglas seemed, in the eyes of the burghers, to constitute a sufficient defence, a low abbatis only screening its banks. The walls were covered, or rather uncovered, by a broad ditch: a bridge of rough-hewn planks, at three of the entrances before named, allowed a free communication with the suburbs, except during seasons of hostility, which unhappily were not rare in those days of rapine and rebellion. Before the Mill-gate a wider and more substantial structure, mounted on huge wooden props, facilitated a passage over the river. This edifice could be raised in cases of siege, effectually separating the inhabitants from their enemies.
The first beams of the sun began to peep through the angles of the wooden gable fronts, projecting nearly midway across the street, streaming athwart the frosty air, and giving a beautifully variegated and picturesque appearance to the grotesque vista bounded by the Standish-gate.
The stranger paused not; mounting the hill with an alertness and agility that scarcely seemed compatible with his age and appearance. On arriving at the gate, his garb was a sufficient passport, without the necessity of a challenge. Three or four of the guards were loitering and laughing on a couple of benches built in a sort of arched recess on each side of the gateway. As the pilgrim passed they became silent, bowing reverently as he pronounced the accustomed benison.
Outside the barriers, the road lay through an open and uninclosed country. It was a matter of but slight moment what line of direction the narrow and uneven pathways might describe, provided their termination was tolerably accurate; all traffic and intercourse, being necessarily limited, was mostly carried on through the medium of saddles and horse-furniture.
The most inaccessible part of a hill was the site generally chosen; the road ascending and descending in a meandering sort of zig-zig on its side. Rarely did our timid ancestors tempt the valley, often preferring a roundabout course over a line of hills, if by so doing the perils of the lower ground could be avoided.
The pilgrim followed a narrow and beaten track: it was bordered on each side by a deep ditch, nearly overgrown with weeds and brambles. He traversed the intricate windings of the road with considerable facility; but an hour had nearly elapsed ere he gained the brow of an eminence of no very conspicuous height, though it commanded a pretty extensive view of the country adjacent. From the east, a rich flood of glory blended the whole into one broad mass of light, melting away the beauteous frost-work, as the rays of morning dissipate the unreal visions that have their existence only in darkness and repose. Southward lay the borough, distinguishable only by the broad tower of All-Saints rising from the mist, as if baseless and suspended. A bell boomed heavily through the quiet atmosphere: its long and lingering echoes came on the pilgrim's soul like the voice of other years—of hopes and anticipations that had for ever departed.
Westward might be seen a curl of blue smoke from the newly-dignified priory at Upholland, recently invested with that honour through the grants and intercessions of Sir Robert de Holland, a proud knight in the train of Thomas Earl of Lancaster. It was northward that the pilgrim turned, with a look of more intense anxiety. The mansion of Haigh stood at the extremity of a broad slope, surmounted by shady woods, now fading into the warm and luxuriant tints of autumn. Dark and cumbrous turrets, projecting from the wings, grimly caught the first gleam of the morning; whilst a tower of considerable strength and elevation rose above what could only be surmised as the principal gateway. It was apparently designed to overlook the whole fabric, serving as a refuge to the besieged, and a stronghold in case of attack. Narrow loopholes might be traced, irregularly disposed in the heavy masonry; and at the summit stood a small turret resembling a large chair, from which, at stated occasions, waved the richly-emblazoned escutcheon of the Norris and the Bradshaigh. The staff was just visible, but unaccompanied by its glittering adjunct. It was this circumstance principally that seemed to engage the attention of the stranger. He broke into a loud and involuntary exclamation:—
"Sir William's birthday is forgotten!—That staff opened a rich blossom to the breeze ten years agone. It is the day—the very hour of Sir William's birth!"
He smote his forehead, scarcely able to contain the violence of his emotion.
"Let that day darken!—let it be cursed with storms and tempest!—let the shadows of death brood over it, and the teeming night bring tenfold horrors!—Yet how calm, how peacefully yonder sun approaches in his strength! Nature is the same—bright, joyous, and unchanging!—Man, man alone, is mutable—his days are full of mourning and bitterness!"
He bowed his head, crouching almost to the dust, in that overwhelming agony.
Suddenly he was aroused, and in a manner as unceremonious as unexpected. A smart blow on the back announced a somewhat uncourteous intruder, whilst a loud and discordant laugh struck shrilly on his ear. Starting, he beheld a figure of a low and unshapely stature, clothed in a light dress, fantastically wrought. A round cap, slouched in front, fitted closely to his head, from which depended what the wearer no doubt looked upon as a goodly aggregate of ornaments. These consisted of ear-tassels and rings of various dimensions, that jingled oddly as he twisted his head from side to side with a knowing and important grin. A pair of large leathern boots, slipped on for travelling purposes, with ample flaps turning down from the knee, formed the lower costume of this strange being. Round his neck he wore an iron collar: its import, whether in the shape of punishment or decoration, is at this time doubtful. A visage of more than ordinary size projected from between a pair of shoulders that nearly overlooked the lower rim of his cap. A sort of dubious leer was its predominant expression, heightened ever and anon by a broad laugh, the eldritch shout of which first announced itself to the ear of the pilgrim. Matted and shaggy, the twisted locks hung wildly about his brow, whilst a short and frizzled beard served as a scanty covering to his chin. A "Sheffield whittle" stuck in his baldric; and in a pouch was deposited the remnant of a magnificent pasty. From oft and over replenishment this receptacle gaped in a most unseemly manner, showing the shattered remains, the crumbling fragments, of many a huge mountain of crust.
With arms akimbo stood this prepossessing personage before the pilgrim, in all his native rudeness and disorder. The latter tightened his cloak about him, and withdrew some three or four paces from his companion.
"Nuncle," said the jester—for such was in fact his vocation—"I wonder for what property master keeps a fool?—I bethink me 'tis for his wit: more wit and less honesty, though." The palmer was silent.
"Art going to the hall?" continued he. "The fool is whipt there for being honest. Have a care, nuncle; if Sir Osmund catch thee, thou hadst as good bequeath thy bones to the Pope to make into saint's gear.—I'm very sad, nuncle!"
"Sad!" said the pilgrim; "in good troth, an' thou be sad, the cock of the hall yonder is but in sorry plight."
"'Tis more wholesome to cry to-day," said the dolorous knave, "knowing ye shall laugh to-morrow, than to laugh to-day, and to-morrow's dool somehow making your mirth asthmatic:
"Be merry to-morrow; to-day, to-day, Your belly-full fill of grief; When sorrow hath supp'd, go play, go play, For mirth I wot is brief.
"Ay, grandam, ye are wise; and an old woman's wit best becomes a fool:
"When sorrow hath supp'd, go play, go play, For mirth I wot is brief."
He drew out the last notes into one of those querulous cadences, much in vogue as an ad libitum on all fitting occasions: even the sad features of the pilgrim were provoked into a smile.
"Art bound for the hall?" again inquired the inquisitive hunchback.
"Yes, friend—whither else? Is it not almous-day, and thinkest thou the houseless and wandering pilgrim will not share of the largess?"
"Beggars and friars thrive—treason and corruption wed, and these be their children belike. Hast brought the Lady Mabel her old husband's bones from heathenrie?—her new one is like to leave her nought else, poor soul, for her comfort. She'll make her up a saint out o'them."
"If she has gotten another husband," said the pilgrim, "the old one's bones would have a rare chance of her worship."
The facetious impertinent here gave a sort of incredulous whistle. He eyed the palmer with a keen and scrutinising glance, but suddenly relapsing into his accustomed manner, he burst into a wild and portentous laugh.
"I tell thee, if Sir Osmund catch thee carrying so much as a thumb-nail of Sir William's carcase, he 'll wring thy neck as wry as the chapel weathercock. My lady goes nigh crazed with his ill humours. I warrant thee, Sir William's ghost gaily snuffs up the sport. I have watched him up and down the old stairs, and once i' the chapel; and he told me"—whispering close to the pilgrim's ear—"a great secret, nuncle!"
"Ay—what was that, Motley?"
"Why, said he, if so be Sir William comes home again, he'll find his wife has got a cuckoo in her nest." Here he burst from the stranger with a malicious shout, and descending a by-path, was soon lost amidst the intricacies of a deep wood, skirting the verge of an extensive forest.
The traveller's brow gathered a heavier gloom. With unconscious haste he soon gained a gentle ascent, which led by a narrow and deep path to the mansion. Nigh to the bridge over the moat stood a blacksmith's hovel, conveniently situated for all job-work emanating from the armoury and the kitchen, which at that time afforded full exercise for the musical propensities of Darby Grimshaw's great anvil. This hut was a general resort to all the idlers in the vicinity; Grim, as he was generally styled for the sake of abbreviation, discharging the office of "preses," or chief moderator, in all debates held therein. He was a shrewd fellow and a bold one. A humorous and inquisitive cunning lurked in the corner of his grey and restless eye. His curiosity was insatiable; and as a cross-questioner, when fairly at work, for worming out a secret he had not his fellow. His brain was a general deposit for odd scraps, and a reservoir in which flowed all stray news about the country. He was an abstract and chronicle of the time; and could tell you where the Earl of Lancaster mustered his forces, the day of their march, and the very purposes and projects of that turbulent noble. Even the secrets of my lady's bower did not elude the prying of this indefatigable artist; at any rate, he had the credit of knowing all that he assumed, which amounted very much to the same thing as though his knowledge were unlimited: a nod and a wink supplying the place of intelligence, when his wondering neophytes grew disagreeably minute in their inquiries.
Towards this abode did the pilgrim bend his steps. A thick smoke hovered about the thatch, that appeared very ingeniously adapted for the reception and nurture of any stray spark that might happen to find there a temporary lodgment. Several times had this Vulcan been burnt out, yet the materials were easily replaced; and again and again the hovel arose in all its pristine ugliness and disorder.
Darby was just kindling his fire: a merry-making overnight had trenched upon morning duties, and daylight found him still stretched on his pallet. Subsequent to this a noisy troop from the hall had roused him from a profound slumber.
"St George and the Virgin protect thee, honest friend!" said the pilgrim, as he stood by an opening, just then performing the functions of both door and chimney. Darby's perceptions being much impeded by the smoke, he hastily approached the door. His surprise manifested itself aloud, yet did he not forget a becoming reverence to the stranger, as he invited him into the only apartment, besides his workshop, of which the roof could boast. It served for parlour, bedchamber, and kitchen; where the presiding deity, Grim's helpmate, carried on her multifarious operations.
The officious housewife fetched a joint-stool, first clearing it from dust, whilst her husband added a billet to the heap. She was just preparing breakfast. A wooden porringer, filled to the brim with new milk, in which oatmeal was stirred, a rasher of salted mutton, and a large cake of coarse bread, comprised the delicacies of their morning repast. To this, however, was added a snatch of cold venison from the hall. "But this, you see," said the old woman, "is not of our own killing; St Gregory forbid!—it comes from Dan there, who has the care of the knight's buttery."
"Rot him for a churl!" said the smith; "Sir Osmund grudges every mouth about him; but"—and here he looked wondrous knowing—"he may happen to be ousted yet, if Earl Thomas should come by the worst in this cabal."
"Sir Osmund, I find, is no favourite with his neighbours."
"Hang him!" replied Grim, first looking cautiously into the shop; "there's not a man of us but would like to see him and his countrymen packed off to-morrow upon ass-panniers. They were spawned from the Welsh ditches to help that overgrown Earl against his master. If Sir William had been alive I had spoken out without fear. He was a loyal knight and a true—he ever served his country and his king. But I bethink me that peradventure ye may have heard of our late master's death, and who knows but ye bring some token, pilgrim, to his lady?"
"Thou hast shrewdly guessed—I bear the last message that Sir William sent to his lady; thinkest thou it may be delivered without the knight's privity?"
"Save thee, father! peril betides him who would hazard a message to my lady without her husband's leave."
"Is the Lady Mabel in health?—and the children?" inquired the stranger.
"Sorely did she grieve when tidings came of Sir William's death in the great battle; but sorer still rues she her wedding with Sir Osmund Neville. Poor soul! It would melt the nails out of a rusty horse-shoe to see how she moans herself, when she can steal privily to her chamber. They say the knight caught her weeping once over some token that belonged to Sir William, and he burnt it before her face, ill-treating her into the bargain."
"How came she to wed this churl?"
"Oh, it's a sorry history!"—The speaker paused, and it was at the pilgrim's entreaty that he thus continued:—
"Parson Cliderhow had his paw in the mischief. She was in a manner forced either to wed, or, in the end, to have found herself and her children with never a roof-tree above their heads."
"How?—Sir William did not leave her portionless?"
"I know not; but Sir Osmund had, or pretended he had, got a grant from the Earl of Lancaster for possession of all that belonged to Sir William, as a reward for his great services; and unless she wed him—why, you may guess what follows, when a lone woman is left in a wooer's clutches. I shall never forget their wedding-day; it should rather have been her burying, by the look on't. Her long veil was more like a winding-sheet than a bride's wimple."
During this recital the palmer drew his seat closer to the hearth. He leant him over his staff, absorbed in that conscious stupor which seems at once shut out from all connection with external objects, and yet intensely alive to their impressions. Suddenly he rose, tightened his sandals, and looking round, appeared as if about to depart.
"It is our late master's birthday," said the loquacious informant: "ten years ago there was free commons at the hall for man and beast. Now, save on almous-days, when some half-dozen doitering old bodies get a snatch at the broken meat, not a man of us thrusts his nose into the knight's buttery but by stealth. Sir William's banner has not been hoisted, as it was wont on this day, since he left, with fifty armed men in his train, to help the king, then hard pressed in the Scottish wars. Ye may get an alms among the poor to-day, but have an eye to the Welsh bowmen: these be the knight's privy guard, and hold not the quality of his guests in much respect."
Here the smith's angry garrulity was interrupted by Daniel Hardseg, a sort of deputy house-steward, whose duty it was to look after all business not immediately connecting itself with any other department in the household. He was prime executive in most of the out-door duty, and a particular crony at the hovel. His "Hilloa!" was terrific.
"Why, a murrain to thee, goodman Grim, thy fire is colder than my halidome; the sun is so high it puts it out, I reckon. Here have I two iron pots, a plate from my master's best greaves, and a pair of spurs that want piecing, and I'm like to tinker them as I list on a cold stithy. Get out, thou"—Here he became aware of an additional inmate to Grim's dwelling; and this discovery for a while checked the copious torrent of Dan's eloquence. Shortly, Darby drew him aside, and from their looks it might be gathered that some scheme was negotiating for the pilgrim's safe admission at the hall. To an entreaty, more strenuously urged on the part of our diplomatist, Dan replied, in a louder tone—
"Why, look thee, gossip, it were as much as my lugs were worth—but—I'll e'en try."
"We shall hear some news about Sir William, depend on't, an' thou get him a word with my lady."
"And what the better shall I be of that?—dead men make no porridge hot," simply retorted Dan.
"Go to," replied the other; "it's but setting Maude on the scent—I warrant thee, she'll sharpen her wits for the work. It will be a grievous pity should he depart, and whisper not his message to her ladyship. Maude's thin ears, as thou knowest, can catch a whisper, and thou wilt soon squeeze the secret out of her; then comes Darby's turn—by to-morrow, at the latest."
The news-doting artisan rubbed his dark fists with ecstacy. "Go, knave," said he; "thou art a teasing little varlet."
Here Grim seemed ready to hug his comrade in the extremity of his delight; but Dan was rather sullen, evidently ruminating on peril and mischance, wherein the tempter had no share, though participating in the profits of the adventure. Eventually, the stranger was placed under the patronage of Daniel Hardseg, who, to do him justice, was well affected towards the enterprise he had undertaken.
Passing by a low wall to the north-east of the mansion, they were soon hidden by a projecting terrace or platform, which, in cases of siege, could be converted into a sort of breastwork to cover the sallies of the besieged. At the salient angle of this curtain stood a small postern, to which Dan applied a heavy key, and beckoning to his companion, they ascended a narrow staircase. A succession of dark passages led to the great hall, from which a small arched doorway communicated by a private entrance to the chapel. As they passed the half-closed door, a gruff voice was heard reciting the appointed service for the day. Dan slept cautiously by, and motioned the stranger to tread softly. The latter paused, listening with a look of anxiety, and pressed his staff across his bosom;—soon, drawing his hood closer over his brow, he quickly followed the retreating footsteps of his companion.
"Praised be old Cliderhow's tough pipe!" said Dan, when fairly out of hearing. "Ha, ha!—sit down, sit down, good father," opening a half-door, as he laughed, and thrusting in the pilgrim; "nobody can hear aught besides, when he's fairly agoing."
The apartment into which this unceremonious conductor ushered his guest was Dan's store-room.
A most whimsical assemblage of materials were here huddled together. Pans, wooden bowls, and matters of meaner import, entered into close familiarity with broadswords and helmets; boots of home manufacture in their primitive clothing; saddles with their housings; knives, and brown bottles of coarse pottery, were intermingled with many a grim-looking weapon of bloodthirsty aspect. From the walls depended a heterogeneous mass of apparel—cloaks, hats, and body-gear of unimaginable shape and appearance. Dan was steward of the wardrobe, or furniture-keeper to most of the retainers and other idle appendages to the hall; and as, in those days, the sciences dependent on order and classification had not spread their beneficial influence through society at large, it frequently happened that more time was consumed in rummaging amidst this unexplored chaos than would have sufficed to transact the whole affair for which any article was required. A round stool in the middle of this "Thesaurus"—the only unoccupied place except the ceiling—was the throne of our friend, Dan Hardseg, when dispensing out his treasures with stately munificence;—on this scanty perch was the stranger duly installed, and favoured with a benignant and knowing wink from Dan as he departed.
Waiting for the return of his patron, the pilgrim was roused from a fit of reverie by the well-remembered greeting of the jester, Humphry Lathom, or "Daft Humpy," as he was mostly called.
"Eh, nuncle! But if Dan catch thee, he'll be sure to give thee a lift i' the stocks."
This strange creature cautiously opened the door, and was speedily engulfed in all that fearful accumulation of sloth and disorder. By his manner, it did not seem to be his first irruption into this vast magazine; whilst, from the cautious and fearful glances he from time to time cast through the door, it would appear that he had been detected in his expeditions, and in all probability punished for the offence. He was evidently in search of some object from amidst the various heaps of lumber he overthrew; an inarticulate mutter, accompanying every fresh attack, indicated impatience and disappointment. Suddenly he exclaimed, drawing forth a large roll, with ludicrous expressions of delight—
"I have thee, now! The buck's horns shall soon butt this great Welsh goat from his pen."
He opened the banner. It was the pennon of the Bradshaigh, thrown aside to rot in dust and decay.
"Don't tell Dan, nuncle, and thou shall see rare sport."
He said this with his usual familiarity of tone; but suddenly putting his mouth to the stranger's ear, he whispered. The words were inaudible, save to him for whom they were meant; and in an instant he darted from the spot, concealing the spoil amidst the folds of his apparel. Shortly afterwards Dan made his appearance. With wonder and dismay did he behold the ravages committed in his treasure-house—"confusion worse confounded."
"Beshrew me, but thou art a restless tenant. I did not tell thee to tumble my wardrobe into haycocks."
"I was long a-watching," said the pilgrim; "and, in good troth, I became over curious to know the capacity of thy sty. What tidings from my lady's chamber?"
"A plague on her husband's humours! Maude says it were as much as a Jew's thumb were worth to get thee privily to an audience, but she hath urged my lady to distribute the alms herself to-day; so betake thee to the kitchen; Maude will contrive thou shalt have some token of approach. St Anthony! but thou hast bestirred thee bravely; such another guest, and I might as well set fire to the whole budget. If thou be'st bent on such another rummage in the kitchen, the cook will whack thy pate with the spit, holy and hooded though it be."
Dan led the way to this arena of gigantic gastronomy. It was a vast and smoky den, such as could only exist in those days of feudal magnificence. An immense furnace was fed by huge blocks of wood, which the ravening flame seized and in a moment enveloped in its embrace. Forms, grisly and indistinct, flitted past this devouring blaze, by the sputtering and crackling of which, mingled with the hissing delicacies before it, and the shrill scream of the presiding fury, a stranger might be warned of his approach to this pandemonium some time ere its wonders were visible. The pilgrim seated himself in an accessible corner, anxiously awaiting the promised signal.
On a long stone bench lay heaps of broken meat, ready for distribution to the groups of mendicants who were now clamouring without the gate. From the low and ponderous rafters hung dried mutton, bacon, and deer's tongues, wreathed in curls of smoke, that might seem to render an introduction to the chimney unnecessary for completing their flavour.
It was not long ere a pert waiting-maid approached. She drew up her short linsey-woolsey garments from the contaminations beneath her feet. Raising her chin, she thus addressed the servitors:—
"My lady bids ye bring the dole quickly into the great hall—She attends to-day in person. When the bell rings," looking towards the pilgrim as she spoke, "my lady leaves her chamber."
Maude departed with the same supercilious deportment. The bell was immediately heard, and the stranger, making the best of his way into the hall, found the doors wide open, and an indiscriminate assemblage of supplicants, displaying to the best advantage a variety of modes and manifestations of distress, unhappily not confined to those unhallowed days of wretchedness and misrule. Their chief attention seemed to be directed towards a side wicket, in the upper part of which was a slide for the more convenient distribution of the accustomed largess, when the Lady Mabel did not superintend the apportioning of her beneficence.
It was soon whispered amongst the crowd that she, who had for a considerable time kept aloof from all intercourse, would that day distribute her own bounty.
The tinkling of the bell ceased, and suddenly the door flew open. Lady Mabel and her maidens entered. The crowd fell back as she approached. Of a commanding form and deportment, she seemed a being of some superior creation; whilst, with slow and majestic steps, she passed on to the upper division of the hall, where the dais raised her slightly above the multitude.
She was habited in deep mourning: her heavy train swept gracefully over the dark pavement; her veil, in cumbrous folds, reached almost to her feet, effectually concealing her face from the eyes of the spectators. A number of servitors, now entered, bearing the allotted viands, together with sundry articles of winter apparel. The upper table was filled, and a profound silence showed the awe and respect which her presence inspired. She raised her veil. Grief, long subdued, yet deep and irremediable, hung heavily on her pallid features, but their form and character was untouched by the destroyer. Not a ringlet was visible. Her brow, bare and unornamented, threw an air of severe grandeur on her whole countenance. Around the lip fell a deeper shade of sorrow; but sweet, inexpressibly sweet and touching, was the expression. Though the rose had faded, yet, lovelier in decay, it seemed to mingle more gracefully with the soft hues by which it was surrounded.
She waved her hand: singly the mendicants approached, proffering their simple tale of suffering and privation. To every one she administered comfort; consoling the wretched and reproving the careless; but each had a share of her bounty ere he withdrew.
The hall was nearly cleared; yet the palmer sat, as if still awaiting audience, behind a distant pillar, and deeply pondering, as it might seem, the transactions he had witnessed. The last of their suppliants had departed ere he rose, bending lowly as he approached. The eye of the noble dame suddenly became rivetted on him. She was leaning in front of her maidens, beside a richly-carved canopy of state, underneath which, on days of feudal hospitality and pomp, presided the master of the banquet. Behind, a long and richly-variegated window poured down a chequered halo of glory around her form. She seemed an angel of light, issuing from that fountain of splendour, and irradiating the whole group with her presence.
"Reverend pilgrim, thy behest?" She said this with a shudder of apprehension, as if dreading an answer to her inquiry. The pilgrim spoke not, but advanced.
The attendants drew aside. A silence, chill and unbroken as the grave, pervaded the assembly. He took from his vest a silver ring. The Lady Mabel grasped the well-known signet. With agony the most heartrending and intense she exclaimed—
"My husband's signet!—Where?—Whence came this pledge?—Speak!"
A pause ensued. It was one of those short ages of almost insupportable suspense, when the mind, wound up to the keenest susceptibility of endurance, seems vibrating on the verge of annihilation,—as if the next pulse would snap its connection with the world for ever.
"Lady," the pilgrim answered, in a low sepulchral tone, "it is a bequest from thy husband. It was his wife's last pledge—a seal of unchanging fidelity. He bade me seek his dame, and say, 'His last sigh was to her—his last wish to heaven.'"
Lady Mabel listened—every tone sunk like a barbed arrow to her heart. The voice resembled not that of her deceased husband, yet such was the deceptive influence arising from the painful irritation which her spirits had undergone, that, if reason had not forbidden, her fancy would have invested it with supernatural attributes—listening to it as though it were a voice from the tomb.
"For the love I bore and yet bear to his most honoured name, tell me—I conjure thee, tell me—his earthly resting-place. My last pilgrimage shall be thither. I will enshrine his hallowed relics, and they shall be a pledge of our union where we shall no more part."
The last words were spoken with a solemnity of expression awful and thrilling beyond the power of language to convey:
"What recks it, lady? thou hast gotten thee another," said the pilgrim.
"Another!—Oh name him not. Never, never!—most base, most cruel. He took advantage of my bereavement—a moment of weakness and maternal terror. By what long ages of suffering and wretchedness has it been repaid! Better I had beheld my babes wasting with hunger, than have mated with this unpitying husband for a home and a morsel of bread!"
A flush of proud scorn at her own weakness overspread her features. It was but momentary. She bade the attendants withdraw. Looking round for this purpose, she was aware, for the first time, of the hated presence of Roger de Cliderhow, watching, with considerable surprise, for the result of this unexpected interview. He departed with the retinue, leaving Lady Mabel and the pilgrim for a while unobserved.
"Thou art a holy and a heaven-destined man, yet surely thou hast been taught to share another's sorrows—to pour the oil of compassion over the wounds of the penitent and broken-hearted." The lady turned aside her head—she leaned over the chair for support, whilst one hand pressed her throbbing temples.
"Mabel Bradshaigh!" It was the voice of Sir William. She started as at a summons from the tomb. No other form was visible but that of the pilgrim bending over his staff. Her eye wandered wildly around the hall, as if she expected some phantom to start from its recesses. A richly-fretted screen, behind which the minstrels and lookers-on occasionally sat at the festival, stood at the lower end of the apartment. A slight rustling was heard; she was about to rush towards the spot, when the voice was again audible, and apparently at her side. Slowly the hood of the pilgrim was uplifted. He threw off his disguise; but oh, how changed was the once athletic form of Sir William Bradshaigh! With a wild and piercing shriek she flew towards the outstretched arms of her husband; but ere they met, a figure stepped between, barring their approach. It was the ungainly person of Sir Osmund Neville.
"Nay, nay, seek thy leman elsewhere, thou gay palmer. It were a brave honour, truly, to graft me with thy favours." With this brutish speech he was proceeding to lay hands on the lady, who stood stupefied in amaze, and bereft of power to offer the least resistance.
"To me this insult! I'll chase thee from thy lair!" exclaimed the incensed Sir William.
Roger de Cliderhow at this moment suddenly approached, and in great alarm. He whispered Sir Osmund.
"'Tis Sir William!—Thou hast no time for parley. If his coming get abroad we are undone. Call thy men hither, and let him be conveyed away privily. The dungeon will tell no tales. I'll summon them. If the servants get a whisper of the matter, I'll give out he is an impostor."
Fearful of encountering the glance of his injured lord, this worthy withdrew in great precipitation.
It was but the work of a moment. Sir Osmund had taken the precaution to prevent all egress, so that Sir William and his lady were, in fact, prisoners, at the mercy and discretion of a cruel and cowardly foe.
Sir William had thrown off his cloak and the remainder of his disguise. He now stood proudly erect before the supplanter, who was somewhat stunned by this unexpected issue.
"I defy thee to the combat; hast thou the grace to give me a weapon, or art thou as cowardly as thou art presuming?" tauntingly inquired Sir William.
"Impostor! wouldst have me believe every wish that folly genders? To the proof!" sullenly replied Sir Osmund.
"What says the Lady Mabel? Let her decide," returned the other.
"She!" cried the ingrate, with a contemptuous sneer; "her wits are so set upon it, that she would worship any ill-favoured lout that should call himself her husband."
"'Tis false! unblushing as thou art." The lightning kindled in the lady's eye as she spoke. Sir Osmund quailed beneath her glance.
"Am I mad?" she continued; "ay, if thy wish could have goaded me to it. Thou hast heaped on me tortures, indignities, cruel as thy relentless nature could devise; but I have been spared for this!" Her lips quivered. Shuddering, she spoke with amazing energy and distinctness. "I have repented, day and night, but they were unavailing tears. Oh, if I have wronged thee"—she covered her face with her hands—"it was not even in thought that I grew unfaithful to thy trust. My babes, in a moment of weakness I looked on them, smiling as they lay. I could not dash the cup from their lips ere they had well nigh tasted. I could not behold them so soon doomed to misery and want."
She made a convulsive effort to repress her sobs.
"Can years of suffering atone for my crime?"
She drew back as she continued, "I abhor, I loathe the very existence I am forced to prolong. The cloister alone can hide my wretchedness and my shame."
"I forgive thee: nay, shrink not from my embrace," cried the distracted Sir William; "I blame thee not in my regret. Pure, and as free from guilt as when first I knew thee, do I now receive thee to my arms."
Sir Osmund smiled in contempt; at the same time casting a furtive glance towards the side entrance, where, true to his word, Roger De Cliderhow had summoned a guard of Welsh bowmen, their master's accomplices in many a deed of violence and rapine.
Sir Osmund heard their approach. He cautiously undrew the bolts, and, pointing to his foe with a signal they but too well understood, the latter was immediately seized, and with such rapidity, that almost before Sir William was aware of their design, he found himself a prisoner and incapable of resistance.
"Traitor, thou wilt rue this foul despite! I here proclaim thee a craven knight and a dastard!" exclaimed Sir William.
"False pilgrim," growled his adversary, "didst think to foist thy fooleries upon me! The dungeon walls will give thee a patient hearing. Boast to them of thy descent, and when they acknowledge thee, so will I. Guards, to your duty."
Lady Mabel, with a loud and appalling shriek, fell senseless on the pavement.
In vain did Sir William endeavour to free himself from the rude grasp of his conductors. He was hurried along, nor did there appear the remotest possibility of escape. Just as they turned into a sort of corridor, leading to the passages more immediately connected with the place of their destination, they encountered Humphry Lathom. The same half-stupid, half-knavish expression of face was now lighted up by a grin of apparently inexplicable amazement.
"Eh, nuncle," said he, stroking his beard, "but you're in mighty grace. The Welshman always mounts his he-goats for guard on them he delighteth to honour." With one of his more than ordinarily elvish and malicious shouts he scampered past the enraged sentinels, and was heard rapidly ascending the steps of the great tower, beneath the massive foundations of which lay the dark and cheerless abode so unexpectedly destined for the reception of its owner.
Whilst these occurrences were passing within the walls Grim's curiosity was in prodigious exercise without. His anxiety increased in a compound ratio with the time elapsed, and inversely as the hope of intelligence was decreasing. Every spare moment his eye was directed towards the hall; but no tidings came, no scout, no messenger from the scene of action, from whom the slightest inkling of the result could be gathered. It seemed as though all intercourse had ceased, all transit and communication were cut off. It was mighty strange! some rare doings were afloat, no doubt, and not a soul would remember honest Grim in his thrall. He tied and untied his apron, beat the iron when it was cool, and let it cool when it was hot. "It will be noon presently." He looked at the sun; it seemed to have crept backward for the last half-hour: at any rate, he was morally certain that useful appendage to this great and troublesome world had stood still, if not retrograded. The mendicants were all gone—no tidings to be gained from them—matters were more than usually contrary and provoking—and if it had not been for some recent disgrace which his prying disposition had occasioned at the hall, he would long ago have satisfied himself by a personal inquiry into the present posture of affairs.
"Hope deferred" was just on the point of being attended with the usual consequences, when, taking another peep through a crevice, constructed for putting into effect a more efficient system of examination, he beheld a phenomenon as unlooked for as it was incomprehensible. He rubbed his eyes, strongly persuaded that some rigorous discipline was necessary. He pinched his fingers, shook himself—was he really awake? or—he took another peep, still it was there; nor crossings, ejaculations, nor other established contrivances had any effect. The vision that caused all this disturbance was the great banner of the Bradshaigh on the tower, curling full and stately in the breeze. Wonders and misfortunes rarely come unattended. Grim's appetite for the marvellous was now in danger of suffering as much from repletion as before from inanity, and he had just summoned his dame for a special council, when his ears were assailed by a furious ding-dong. Stroke upon stroke, huge, heavy, and unceasing, followed each other in rapid succession. It was the great bell, used only on occasions of emergency and importance, the hoarse tongue of which had been silent since the day of Sir William's departure. There was no time to waste in conjecture. Grim rushed from his dwelling. Convinced that some catastrophe was at hand, his intention was to climb the hill behind his little hovel, in order to reconnoitre the premises with greater facility. Sallying forth, he saw numbers of the peasantry on the same errand. All was bustle and inquiry; each giving his neighbour credit for the possession of some intelligence whereby the mystery might be unravelled.
"Sir William cannot have returned!" said one.
"No," replied another, "or the buck would soon butt the Welshman out of his stall."
"Ha, ha!" said a neighbouring gossip, "those horns are big enough," pointing to the device upon the banner—a buck passant.
As they drew nearer to the great gate the bell had ceased, when suddenly appeared, perched on a corner of the tower, the well-known form of "Daft Humpy." He threw up his cap, caught it, and whirled it round his head with every demonstration of joyous extravagance. "Hurrah!" shouted he, with a distinct and shrill enunciation, which might be heard to the very extremities of the crowd. "Hurrah for Sir William Bradshaigh!—he is come again!—hurrah, neighbours!—in, in!"
He ran round the battlements with unceasing vociferation. On hearing this news, numbers entered the gate pell-mell, carrying with them some who would fain have acted with more discretion, by watching the issue warily and out of harm's way. Of this class was our stout-fisted friend Darby Grim, who, though of a well-composed valour when fairly tested, was yet slow to move, and cared not to thrust his fingers uselessly into a broil.
The first party that entered was met by Humphry.
"Pick-axes and spades!" cried he, flourishing a stout staff. "To the dungeon!—come along, come along!" So far from accelerating their speed, this address seemed at once to suspend all further progress. They gazed at each other; none wist what to do, naturally not overburdened with confidence in the discretion of their guide. Suddenly checking himself, he stood as erect as the nature of his form would admit, before the astonished auditors.
"Ye lazy caterpillars! ye cowardly scum of humanity! if ye follow me not, I'll rouse the Welsh bull-dogs. Sir Osmund hath ta'en him to the dungeon, I tell ye; and who is there that will not lend a hand to the rescue of Sir William Bradshaigh?"
Grim was among the foremost of the invading army; on hearing this news, a latent spark enkindled his courage most opportunely into a blaze. Seizing a cudgel, he brandished it in front of his comrades, like one half-frantic, crying, "It is, it is; I have seen him this blessed day!—Hurrah for Sir William!"
"Hurrah!" shouted the crowd, whose courage, augmenting with their numbers, soon manifested itself in an immediate attack on the cell, whence they speedily extricated their lord. Intoxicated with joy, they vowed a summary vengeance on the discourteous knight who had so vilely entreated him.
Sir William's first care was for the rescue of his lady. She almost forgot her own sorrows on witnessing his joy when once more folding the children to his embrace. A short interval elapsed ere he sought his adversary; but he had fled, along with his unworthy followers. Such was the wrong Sir William had suffered, that his yet untamed spirit deemed it an offence too foul to be expiated by aught but the blood of his merciless foe. Armed, and with but few attendants, he hotly pursued him, and, as old chronicles tell, at a place called Newton, he overtook and slew him in single combat. Returning in safety, he lived happily with his lady to a good old age. They lie buried in the chancel of All Saints, Wigan, where, carved on the tomb, their effigies still exist, the rarest of the monumental antiquities in that ancient edifice.
The Lady Mabel's spirit had been too sorely wounded to recover its tranquillity. For the purpose of what was then deemed an expiation to her unintentional offence, she performed a weekly penance, going barefooted from Haigh to a place outside the walls at Wigan, where a stone cross was erected, which bears to this day the name of "MAB'S CROSS."
THE PRIOR OF BURSCOUGH.
"Quhere are ye boun, ye bold prior, With that ladye on your knee?" "I'm boun to the hills, I'm boun to the dales, I'm boun to the grey priory."
Old Ballad. M.S.
Of the once renowned priory of Burscough, only two pillars, belonging to the centre arch of the church, are now remaining. It is situated about two miles from Ormskirk, on the Preston road, in a level district of great compass renowned for its fertility. The extensive manor and living of Ormskirk formerly belonged to this priory. The charter of King Edward II., "reciting and confirming the grants of the donors," with a confirmation of the charter by which "the prior and convent of Burscough, and their successors for ever, shall have one market every week on Thursday, at their manor of Ormskirk, and likewise one fair every year, of five days' continuance," is still preserved in the office of the Duchy of Lancaster.
This religious house was founded for Black Canons by Robert Fitzhenry, Lord of Latham of Lathom, in the reign of Richard I. It was formerly the burial-place of the Earls of Derby; but many of the coffins have been removed to their vault in the church at Ormskirk, built by Edward, the third Earl, great grandson of Thomas, first Earl of Derby, who had the honour of crowning Henry VII. at Bosworth Field with the coronet torn from the brows of the slain tyrant.
The main fact of the following tradition may be found in the Calend. Rotulo. Patents, fol. 155, art. 13, containing the free pardon granted by Edward III. to the atrocious murderer of Michael de Poininges and Thomas le Clarke, after the rape he had committed on Margaret de la Bech.
At the Dissolution, this priory had a superior, five monks, and forty servants. The last prior was John Barton, who surrendered the living, and subscribed to the King's supremacy. He was surviving as late as the year 1553.
That curious structure, the church at Ormskirk, having two steeples, a tower and spire, contiguous to each other, is briefly glanced at in the tradition. This circumstance, according to some accounts, was occasioned by the removal of part of the bells from Burscough at the dissolution of the monasteries, when the existing spire steeple was found to be not sufficiently capacious. The tenor bell, said to have been the third bell, at Burscough, bears some apparent proof of its translation. Round the circle, below the ear, is the following inscription in black letter, except the initials of the founder:—
"J.S. * de Burscough * Armig. * et * e * vr. * me fecerunt in honorem Trinitatis * R.B. 1497."
About half-way down the bell is another date, 1576.
Where each asterisk is marked are the rose, portcullis, and fleur de lis. Beneath the inscription a neat border is cast, filled up in the centre with the rose, portcullis, and fleur de lis, repeated so as to occupy the whole circumference of the bell. We have been thus particular in our description, as it may not be uninteresting to pursue this inquiry, connected as it is with some important historical facts, not irrelevant to the subject.
The following remarks may preclude any further observations of our own:—
"The red rose is well known to have been the favourite emblem of the house of Lancaster, from whom Henry VII. was descended, and through whom he gloried in claiming his title to the throne.
"His mother, Margaret Countess of Richmond, then Countess of Derby, was sole daughter and heiress of the Duke of Somerset, who bore the portcullis as an heraldic distinction. This nobleman was descended from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Henry had a right to the honourable bearings of his royal ancestors. Hence the 'rose and portcullis' were favourite badges of this monarch, as peculiarly belonging to the house of Lancaster. The 'fleur de lis' is the emblem of France; and, independently of the arms of that kingdom being quartered at that time, and till very lately, with the royal arms of England, Henry had a right to assume this distinction also, as being the grandson of Sir Owen Tudor and Catherine of France, relict of Henry V.
"The first date, also 1497, refers to a very important period in history, as connected with the Derby family. Two short years before, the great, the brave Sir William Stanley, who, of his own power and interest, raised and brought 3000 horse and foot to the rescue of his prince, when his life, his honour, and his hopes of a throne were at stake; who contributed to his victory, and helped to crown him 'King' in the field; had, by that very sovereign, been sent to the block, merely on account of a doubtful and unguarded expression, reported by a rebel, a traitor, and an ungenerous friend. The unhappy monarch, learning too late the dire effects of groundless suspicion, paid a visit in the following year to his deeply-wounded stepfather, the brother of the dauntless hero whom he had so lately sacrificed.
"It is stated that the King arrived at Knowsley on or about the 24th June 1496, and then went to Lathom; whence, after remaining a month with his mother the Countess, and the Earl her husband, he returned to London.
"This brings us within one year of the date on the tenor bell, and I cannot help thinking that its emblems have some allusion to the royal visit to Knowsley and Lathom. It becomes, however, necessary to attempt to account for the second date, 1576, on the same bell. And here we can again only conjecture. It is not improbable that the original bell was injured; that, prior to breaking up, its inscription and emblems were carefully moulded, and a new one cast, with the old metal, in the year 1576, care being taken that a copy of the inscription, &c., should fill the same situation in the present bell, which the originals occupied in the former."
It may not be deemed irrelevant to mention here a tradition which exists relative to the visit of King Henry VII. at Lathom, particularly as it does not appear to be generally known.
After the execution of Sir William Stanley, when the King visited Lathom, the Earl, when his royal guest had viewed the whole house, conducted him up to the leads for a prospect of the country. The Earl's fool, who was among the company, observing the King draw near to the edge of the leads not guarded with a balustrade, stepped up to the Earl, and pointing down to the precipice, said, "Tom, remember Will." The King understood the meaning, and made all haste down stairs, and out of the house; and the fool long after seemed mightily concerned that his lord had not had courage to take that opportunity of avenging himself for the death of his brother.—Kennett's MSS. 1033. fol. 47.
It was on a still and sultry evening, about the close of summer, in the year of grace one thousand three hundred and forty-seven, that a solitary traveller was seen hastily descending, by a woodland path, into the gloomy thickets that surrounded the neighbouring priory of Burscough. The rain-drops were just pattering on the dark leaves above him, and the birds were fast hastening to some deeper shelter. The timid rabbit, as the stranger passed by, darted into its burrow, and many a quiet face gazed on him from beneath a pair of ragged antlers, peeping over the fences that guarded the demesne. Here and there a narrow glade opened beautifully into the woods, through which might be seen green lawns and pastures, with herds of dappled deer stealing silently to their covert. The low growl of the distant thunder seemed to come upon each living thing like the voice of some invisible spirit, subduing with its mysterious speech every power and faculty, with an authority superior to all human control.
The traveller hastened on. The pinnacles and stately turrets of the priory were just visible through the arched boughs, when, turning into a more sequestered path, he observed a female of a wild and uncouth aspect standing in the way. She showed no disposition to move as he approached, nor did she seem to notice his presence. He stopped, but sufficiently near to distinguish the motion of her lips. An unintelligible mutter accompanied it. She looked darkly towards the south, beckoning to the coming thunder, and pointing, as though she would guide its course, towards the grey walls of the priory.
She was dressed in a dark-coloured corset fitting close to the body, and a hood of the same materials. Her hair was a deep jet, and fantastically twisted about her face. She was of low stature, but not bowed by decrepitude or age. Her cheek was hollow, and her complexion swarthy, but her eye grew unnaturally bright, blazing out with a fierceness, intense as though the fire within were visible through these chinks and crevices of the soul's tenement.
Though the storm was rapidly approaching she still kept her place, unawed by the rude elements, and seeming to surfer but little inconvenience from the shower, now descending with great vigour. The path was narrow, and a thick underwood skirted the road, so that for the stranger to pass was impossible, unless his opponent chose to take up a more favourable position. But the sudden burst of a terrific thunder-clap, which seemed to roll in a continuous peal above them, made him less ceremonious on this head than the laws of gallantry might warrant. He drew nearer to the female, with the intention of seeking a passage on that side where the least disturbance would be given.
"Go not. 'Tis accursed!" said she, as if preparing to dispute the attempt.
"I am a stranger, and hastening for shelter. In troth, 'tis a narrow goit that will not let a drowning man through. Prythee, dame, let me not, in some wise, seem uncourteous. Yet"——
Here he attempted to pass; but she seized him, and with so powerful a grasp that for a moment his intention was foiled, so sudden and unexpected was the attack. Though of a stout and muscular shape, yet was he holden tightly, as if she were exulting in her strength. Either malice or madness had given her a vigour of body beyond that of her sex.
"Michael de Poininges!"
The stranger started at this recognition.
"I warn thee! Thinkest thou yon fiend will forward thy mission. Wilt thou tear the prey from the jaws of the famished and ravening wolf? Beware!"
Some score of years had elapsed since De Poininges was a visitor in these parts; and he was now upon some sacred mission to the Prior of Burscough, Thomas de Litherland, whose great power and reckless intrepidity of guilt had won for him a name of no common note, even in those ages of privileged injustice and oppression. No bosom but his own, at least in that neighbourhood, could have been privy to the business which brought him hither; and yet he found a woman casually crossing his path, whose knowledge of his errand was but too evident, and whose appearance and deportment might well excuse the suspicions he entertained as to her familiarity with the EVIL ONE.
"Go, poor beast! Thou art but fattened for the slaughter!" She said this, apparently addressing a stout buck that was sheltering in the thicket. De Poininges shuddered, as she looked on him askance, with some dubious meaning.
"I'll meet thee at supper-time."
This was said with a slow and solemn enunciation, as though some terrible warning was intended, yet durst he not question her further; and ere he could reply she had disappeared in the recesses of the forest.
The rain now poured down in torrents, and De Poininges was fain to hasten with all possible expedition towards the porter's gate.
The priory of Burscough had been founded the century preceding, for a brotherhood of Black Canons, by Robert Fitzhenry, Lord of Lathom. He endowed it with considerable property, emoluments, and alms, and, according to the weak superstition of the age, thought thereby to obtain pardon and rest for the souls of Henry the Second, John, Earl of Moreton, himself, his wife, and all his ancestors; at the same time wishing the kingdom of heaven to all persons who would increase the gifts, and consigning to the devil and his angels all who should impiously infringe on his bequests.
It was dedicated to St Nicholas, and a rude effigy of the saint was carved over the south porch of the chapel, with two or three naked children at his feet. The building was not large, but the architecture was chaste and beautiful, a noble specimen of the early Gothic, then superseding the ponderous forms and proportions of the Norman, or rather Saxon era. The arches were sharply pointed. The windows, narrow and lancet-shaped, were deeply recessed; the slender shafts of the columns were carried in clusters to a vast height, surmounted by pinnacles of rich and elegant tracery; these gave a light and airy character to the whole, highly significant of the buoyant feelings that accompanied so wonderful an escape from the heavy trammels of their predecessors.
Craving shelter, De Poininges was admitted without any question, as all travellers partook indiscriminately of the general bounty. The religious houses in those days were the constituted almonries of the rich and great; and through these overflowing channels, for the most part, proceeded their liberality and beneficence.
He was ushered into one of the locutories, or parlours, where, his business being with the prior, he was desired to wait until an audience could be granted.
Prior Thomas, from some cause or other not assigned, held himself at that season much estranged and secluded from his brethren. He had seldom been seen from his lodgings, except when performing his accustomed office in the church. He had not taken his place in the refectory of late, the duties of the day being performed by one of the elder canons.
De Poininges, after a short space, was summoned to the prior's chamber. In his progress, he passed the door of the refectory where the brethren were at supper. It was large and wainscoted, and furnished with an ample dresser. Cupboards were let into the wall, and windows opened into the kitchen, through which their meal was served.
One of the monks was reading the appointed service from a low pulpit or desk. The prior's seat was still vacant. Their way now led through the cloisters, and at the opposite side of the quadrangle a portal communicated by a long and dark passage with the prior's lodging. This was a sort of inferior castellated mansion, with a spacious hall, and a smaller dining-chamber immediately adjoining. At the end was a fair chapel or oratory. Ascending a flight of stone steps, they came to a low door. The conductor knocked, and De Poininges soon found himself in the presence of the proud Prior of Burscough. He wore a square cap of black stuff, after the fashion of his order. His cloak, or upper garment, was of the same colour, trimmed round the bottom with a double edging. He reposed on a couch, or oaken settle, and seemed, in some measure, either indisposed or unwilling to notice the homage he received. His figure was strong and muscular, his complexion dull, and almost swarthy. His lips were full, and his aspect rather coarse than sensual. His brows were high, and unusually arched; but his eyes were downcast, and seldom raised towards the speaker. In speech he was brief and interrogative, but impatient under a tardy or inefficient answer.
"Thy name, stranger?"
"Michael de Poininges."
"My business concerns you in private. I await your reverence's pleasure."
The prior motioned the attendants to withdraw.
"Proceed. Thy message?" He spoke this with precipitancy, at the same time abruptly changing his position.
"Mine errand is touching one Margaret de la Bech," said De Poininges, seating himself opposite to the prior; "and I am directed to crave your help for the clearing away of some loose suspicions regarding her concealment."
"Her concealment!" replied De Litherland, starting up angrily from the couch. "Her concealment! They who hide may find. I know not aught of the wench, save that she was mad, and drowned herself. But why not inquire of Sir Thomas? The maiden was not in my keeping." He paced the chamber haughtily, but with a disturbed and lurid aspect.
"Yet," replied the other, "it is well and currently reported, and witnesses there be who have already testified as to a fact, that some of your men were seen the night of her withdrawal lurking in her path, and that screams and other manifestations of the outrage then perpetrated were heard in this direction. Not that we deem any blemish can attach to your reverence in this matter. Still"—
"Why dost thou hesitate in thy speech?" said the prior, in a voice almost inarticulate with choler.
"I would say," answered De Poininges, "that it is our wish, and your duty, to search into this dark question, without favour or prejudice; and, further, we do reckon that the Prior of Burscough is not without the means to discover, and the power to punish, his offending vassals."
"And whose evil star guided thee hither with this insolent message?" inquired the prior, pale and trembling with rage.
"Those whom your reverence may not lightly contemn. I have here a warrant from the Council to procure all fitting help and suppliance for the bringing up the body of Margaret de la Bech, who is suspected of being detained in this neighbourhood, by persons hitherto unknown, against her own proper will and consent."
The prior paused for a space. A somewhat more placid expression and demeanour was the result.
"I am no stranger," said he, "to this idle and mischievous rumour. Means have been used to discover its likelihood or credibility, but we find it to be utterly false and unworthy of our notice. The inventor of these tales shall not long escape."
"Yet hath she been a-missing ever since," said De Poininges, warily; "and in vain hath search been made for the body. And furthermore, we have her own expressed apprehension, as it regards one she durst not name, and a perilous foreboding of the evil that awaited her. It is to this source, yet obscure, I must own, that our inquiries are to be directed."