At the date of our legend Kelly had been parted from the Doctor for a considerable time. The Doctor having found out his proneness to these evil courses, Kelly bore no good-will to his former patron and associate.
We have not space, or it would be an interesting inquiry, as connected with the superstitions of our ancestors, to trace the character and career of these individuals—men once famous amongst their contemporaries, forming part of the history of those times, and exerting a permanent influence immediately on the national character, and remotely on that of a future and indefinite period.
Dame Eleanor Buckley was morally certain, firstly, that her son was witched; and secondly, that no time should be lost in procuring relief. Nicholas therefore took horse for Manchester that very forenoon, with the intention of consulting the learned Doctor above-named on his son's malady. Ere he left, however, there came tidings that Grace Ashton had not returned home, and was supposed to have tarried at Buckley for the night.
Trembling at this unexpected news, the dame once more applied to her son. He was still wide awake on the couch, in the same position, and apparently unconscious of her presence. In great anxiety she conjured him to say if he knew what had befallen Grace Ashton.
"She is dead!" was his reply, in a voice strangely altered from his usual careless and happy tone. Nothing further, however, could be drawn from him, but shortly after there came one with additional tidings.
"Inquiry has been set on foot," said the messenger, "and Tim, well known at wakes and merry-makings, doth come forward with evidence which justifies a suspicion that is abroad—to wit, that she has met death by some unfair dealing; and further, he scruples not to throw out dark and mysterious hints that implicate your son as being privy to her disappearance."
At this unlooked-for intelligence the mother's fortitude gave way. Tribulation and anguish had indeed set in upon them like a flood. The ring, so unaccountably brought back by the Red Woman, was beyond doubt the cause of all their misfortunes—its reappearance, as she anticipated, being the harbinger of misery. What should be the next arrow from her quiver she trembled to forebode. But in the midst of this fever of doubt and apprehension one hope sustained her, and that was the result of her husband's mission to Dr Dee, who would doubtless find out the nature of the spell, and relieve them from its curse.
Let us follow the traveller to Dee's lodgings in the Deanery, where at that time this renowned astrologer was located. Nicholas Buckley found him sitting in a small dismal-looking study, where he was introduced with little show either of formality or hesitation. The Doctor was now old, and his sharp, keen, grey eyes had suffered greatly by reason of rheum and much study. Pale, but of a pleasant countenance, his manner, if not so grave and sedate as became one of his deep and learned research, yet displaying a vigour and vivacity the sure intimation of that quenchless ardour, the usual concomitant of all who are destined to eminence, or to any conspicuous part in the age on which they are thrown;—not idle worthless weeds on the strand of time, but landmarks or beacons in the ocean of life, to warn or to direct.
He was short in stature, and somewhat thin. A rusty black velvet cap, without ornament, surmounted his forehead, from which a few straggling grey hairs crept forth, rivalling his pale, thoughtful brow in whiteness.
He sat in a curiously embossed chair, with a brown-black leathern cushion, beside an oaken table or tressel, groaning under the weight of many ponderous volumes of all hues and subjects. Divers and occult were the tractates there displayed, and unintelligible save to the initiated. Alchemy was just then his favourite research, and he was vainly endeavouring to master the jargon under which its worthlessness and folly were concealed.
Nicholas Buckley related his mishap, and, as far as he was able, the circumstances connected with it. The Doctor then erected a horoscope for the hour. After consulting this, he said—
"I will undertake for thee, if so be that my poor abilities, hitherto sorely neglected, and I may say despised, can bring thee any succour. Indeed the land groans by reason of the sin of witchcraft—a noisome plague now infesting this afflicted realm, and a grievous scandal to the members and ministers of our Reformed Church. The ring is of a surety bewitched, and by one more powerful and wicked than thou canst possibly imagine. I tell thee plainly, that unless the charm be broken, the recovery of the young man were vain—nay, in all likelihood, thine own ruin will be the result."
The merchant groaned audibly at this doleful news. He thought upon his merchandise and his adventures o'er sea—his treasures and his argosies, committed to the tender mercies of the deep; and he recounted them in brief.
"Cannot these be rescued from such disaster?" inquired he dolefully.
"I know not yet," was the reply. "Saturn, that hath his location here, governing these expected treasures, now beholds the seventh house of the figure I have just erected with a quartile aspect. They be evil tokens, but as regards this same Mother Red-Cap or the Red Woman, who hath doubtless brought you into grievous trouble, I know her. Nay, look not incredulous. How, it is not needful to inquire. Suffice it that she hath great power, through from a different source from mine. She is of the Rosicrucian order, one of the sisters, of which there are five throughout Europe and Asia. They have intercourse with spirits, communicating too with each other, though at never so great a distance, by means of this mystical agency. She hath been here, ay, even in the very place where thou sittest."
The visitor started from his chair.
"And I am not ignorant of her devices. She is of a papistical breed; and the recusant priests, if I mistake not, are at the working of some diabolical plot; it may be against the life and government of our gracious Queen! They would employ the devil himself, if need were, to compass their intent. She hath travelled much, and doubtless hath learned marvellous secrets from the Moors and Arabian doctors. It is, however, little to the purpose at present that we continue this discourse. What more properly concerns thee is how to get rid of this grievous visitation, which, unless removed, will of a surety fall out to thine undoing. By prayer and fasting much may be accomplished, together with the use of all lawful means for thy release."
"Alas!" said Buckley, "I fear me there is little hope of a favourable issue, and I may not be delivered from this wicked one!"
"Be of good heart; we will set to work presently, and, if it be possible, counterplot this cunning witch. But to this end it is needful that I visit the young man, peradventure we may gather tidings of her. I know not any impediment to my journey this very day. Ay! even so," said he, poring over some unimaginable diagrams. "Good! there is a marvellous proper aspect for our enterprise thirty minutes after midnight. Thou hast doubtless taken horse with thy servant hither. I will take his place and bear thee company."
The Doctor was soon equipped for travel, much to the comfort of the afflicted applicant, who was like to have taken his departure with a sorry heart, and in great disquietude. On their arrival at Buckley, Dee would needs see the patient instantly. No change had taken place since morning, and he still refused any sustenance that might be offered. The Doctor examined him narrowly, but refrained from pronouncing on his case.
It was now evening. The sun shot a languid and fitful ray athwart the vapours gathering to receive him, and its light shone on the full couch of the invalid. The astrologer was sitting apart, in profound meditation. Dame Eleanor suddenly roused him.
"He has just asked for the Red Woman," said she, "and I heard him bemoaning himself, saying that he is betrothed to her, and that she will come ere long to claim his pledge. Hark, he mutters again!"
Dee immediately went to the bedside.
"I did not kill her," said the victim, shuddering. He dashed the cold sweat from his forehead with some violence. He then started up. "Is she come?" said he in a low, hollow voice, and he sat up in the attitude of intense expectation. "Not yet, not yet," he uttered with great rapidity, and sank down again as though exhausted.
A stormy and lowering sky now gathered above the sun's track, and the chamber suddenly grew dark. The inmates looked as though expecting some terrific, some visible manifestation of their tormentor. Dee looked out through the window. There was nothing worthy of remark, save an angry heap of clouds, rolling and twisting together—the sure forerunner of a tempest.
"The whole country is astir," said Dame Eleanor. "They are seeking for the body of Grace Ashton in pits and secret places. Woe is me that I should live to see the day;—the poor lad there is loaden with curses, and fearful threatenings are uttered against us. We are verily in jeopardy of our lives."
Hereat she fell a-weeping, and truly it was piteous to behold.
"We must first get an answer from him," said the Doctor, "ere measures can be devised for his recovery."
"'Tis said there will be a warrant for his apprehension on the morrow," said the elder Buckley.
"There is some terrible perplexing mystery, if not knavery, in this matter," said Dee; "and I have been thinking—nay, I more than suspect—that rascal Kelly hath a hand in it. He is ever hankering after forbidden arts, and many have fallen the innocent victims to his diabolical intrigues. He hath become a great adept of late, too, as I am told, in this Rosicrucian philosophy; and if we have here a clue to our labyrinth, depend on it we'll get to the end speedily. To spite and frustrate that juggling cheat I will spare neither pains nor study; though of a surety we only use lawful and appointed means. Prayers and exorcisms must be resorted to, and help craved from a higher source than theirs."
At length the forms and usages generally resorted to on such occasions were entered upon. Loud and fervent were the responses, continuing even to a late hour, but without producing any change.
The wind, hitherto rushing only in short fierce gusts through the valley, now gathered in loud heavy lunges against the corner of the house, almost extinguishing the solitary light on the table near to which Dee sat; the casements rattled, and the whole fabric shook as they passed by. At length there came a lull, fearful in its very silence, as though the elements were gathering strength for one mighty onslaught. On it came like an overwhelming surge, and for a moment threatened them with immediate destruction. Dust, pebbles, and dead branches were flung on the window, as though bursting through, to the great terror of the inmates. Again it drew back, and there was stillness so immediate, it was even more appalling than the loudest assaults of the tempest. The household, too, were silent. Even Dee was evidently disturbed, and as though in expectation of some extraordinary occurrence.
A sharp quick tapping was heart at the casement.
"What is that?" was the general inquiry. Gervase evidently heard it too, and was apparently listening.
Dee arose. He went slowly towards the window, as if carefully scrutinising what might present itself. He put his face nearly close to the glass, and manifestly beheld some object which caused him to draw back. His forehead became puckered by intense emotion, either from surprise or alarm. He put one finger on his brow, as though taking counsel from his own thoughts, deliberating for a moment what course to pursue. At length, much to the astonishment of his companions, he opened the latch of the casement, when, with a dismal croak, a raven came hopping in. With outstretched wings he jumped down on the floor, and would have gone direct to the bed, but the Doctor caught him, and by main force held him back.
Fluttering and screaming, the bird made every effort to escape, but not before Dee was aware of a label tied round his neck. This he quickly detached; after which the winged messenger flew back through the open window, either having finished his errand, or not liking his entertainment. Dee opened the billet—a bit of parchment—and out dropped the ring! In the envelope was a mystical scroll, encompassed with magic emblems, wherein was written the following doggerel, either in blood or coloured so as to represent it:—
"By this ring a charm is wound, Rolling darkly round and round, Ne'er beginning—ending never; Woe betide this house for ever! Thou art mine through life—in death I'll receive thy latest breath. Plighted is thy vow to me, Mine thy doom, thy destiny, Sealed with blood; this endless token, Like the spell, shall ne'er be broken."
Alarm was but too legible on the Doctor's brow. He was evidently taken by surprise. He read it aloud, while fearful groans responded from the victim.
"'Tis a case of grievous perplexity," said he, "and I am sore distraught. If he have sworn his very soul to her, as this rhyme doth seem to intimate, I am miserably afflicted for his case. Doubtless 'tis some snare which hath unwillingly been thrown about him. Nevertheless, I will diligently and warily address myself to the task, and Heaven grant us a safe deliverance. Yet I freely own there is both danger and extremity in the attempt. She will doubtless appear and claim the fulfilment of his pledge. But I must cope with her alone; none else may witness the conflict. It is not the first time that I have battled with the powers of darkness."
"But what motive hath she for this persecution? it is not surely out of sheer malice," said the dame, weeping.
"Belike not," replied Dee thoughtfully. "It doth savour of those incantations whereof I oft read in diverse tractates, whereby she expects to gain advantage or deliverance if she sacrifice another victim to the demon whereunto she hath sold herself. Indeed, we hear of some whose tenure of life can only be renewed by the yearly substitution of another; and it is to this possible danger that our feeble efforts must be directed. But I trust in aid stronger than the united hosts of the Prince of Darkness. This very night, I doubt not, will come the final struggle."
The wind was now still, but ever and anon bursts of hail hurtled on the window. Thunder growled in the distance, waxing louder and louder, until its roar might have appalled the stoutest heart.
With many anxious wishes and admonitions the distressed parents left the Doctor to himself.
He took from his pocket an hour-glass, a Bible, and a Latin translation from the Arabic, being a treatise on witches, genii, demons, and the like, together with their symbols, method of invocation, and many other subjects equally useful. Intent on his studies, he hardly looked aside save for the purpose of turning the glass, when he immediately became absorbed as before.
Now and then he cast a glance towards the bed. His patient lay perfectly quiet, but the Doctor fancied he was listening.
About midnight he heard a groan; he shut his book, and, looking aside, beheld the terrible eye and aspect of the Red Woman glaring fiercely upon him. She had in all likelihood been concealed somewhere within hearing; for a closet-door, on one side of the chamber, stood open as though she had just issued from it.
With great presence of mind he adjured her that she should declare her errand.
"I am here on my master's business; mine errand concerns not thee," was the reply. Her terrible eyes glanced, as she spoke, towards the bed where the unfortunate Gervase Buckley lay writhing as though in torment.
"By what compact or agreement is he thine, foul sorceress? Knowest thou not that there are bounds beyond which ye cannot prevail?"
"He hath sworn—the compact is sealed with blood, and must be fulfilled. I am here to claim mine own; and it is at thy peril thou prevent me."
"I fear thee not, but am prepared to withstand thee and all thy works."
"Beware! There's a black drop in thine own cup," said she. "Thou thyself hast sought counsel by forbidden arts, and I can crush thee in a moment."
Dee looked as though vanquished on the sudden. He was not altogether clear from this charge, having, though at Kelly's instigation, been led somewhat farther than was advisable into practices which in his heart he condemned. He, however, now felt convinced that Kelly had some hand in the business, knowing, too, that he would associate with the most wicked and abandoned, if so be that he might compass his greedy and unhallowed desire.
"Depart whilst thou may," she continued. "I warn thee. Yonder inheritance is mine, though the silly damsel they have lost be the reputed heir. Aforetime I have told thee. Wronged of our rights, I have sold myself—ay, body and soul—for revenge! By unjust persecutions we have been proscribed, those of the true faith have been forced to fly, and even our lands and our patrimony given to yon graceless heretics."
"But why persecute this unoffending house?—they have not done thee wrong."
"It is commanded—the doom must be fulfilled. One condition only was appointed. A hard task, to wit—but what cannot power and ingenuity compass?—'When one shall pledge himself thine and for ever, then the inheritance thou seekest is thine also, which none shall take from thee. But he too must be rendered up to me.' This was the doom! 'Tis fulfilled. He hath pledged himself body and soul, and that ring, if need be, is witness to his troth."
"Is Grace Ashton living or dead?" inquired Dee, with a firm and penetrating glance.
"When he hath surrendered to his pledge it shall be told thee."
"Wicked sorceress," said the Doctor, rising in great anger, "he shall not be thy victim; thine arts shall be countervailed. The powers of darkness are not, in the end, permitted to prevail, though for a time their devices seem to prosper. Listen, and answer me truly, or I will compel thee in such wise that thou darest not disobey. Was there none other condition to thy bond?"
The weird woman here broke forth into a laugh so wild and scornful that the arch-fiend himself could hardly have surpassed it in malice.
"Fret not thyself," she said, "and I will tell thee. Know, then, I am scathless from all harm until that feeble ring shall be able to bind me; none other bonds may prevail."
"This ring bind thee?"
"Even so; and as a blade of grass I could rend it! Judge, then, of my safety. Fire, air, and water—all the elements—cannot have the power to hurt me; I hold a charmed life. The price is paid!"
Dee looked curiously round the little thin ring which he held, and indeed it were hopeless to suppose so frail a fetter could restrain her.
"Thou hast told me the truth?"
"I have—on my hope of prospering in this pursuit of our patrimony."
"And what is thy purpose with the lad?"
"I have need of him. He is my hostage to him whom I serve."
"Thou wilt not take him by force!"
"I will not. He will follow whithersoever I lead. He has neither will nor power to disobey."
"Grant a little space, I prithee. 'Tis a doleful doom for one so young."
"To-morrow my time hath expired. Either he or I must be surrendered to"——Here she pointed downwards.
"Agreed. To-morrow at this hour. We will be prepared."
The witch unwillingly departed as she came. The closet-door was shut as with a violent gust of wind, after which Dee sat pondering deeply on the matter, but unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion. He never suspected for one moment what in this evil and matter-of-fact generation would have occurred even to the most credulous—to wit, that either insanity or fanaticism, aided by fortuitous events, if we may so speak, was the cause of this delusion, at least to the unhappy woman now the object of Dee's most abstruse speculations. His thoughts, however, would often recur to his quondam associate, Kelly, and, if in the neighbourhood, which he suspected, an interview with him might possibly be of use, and afford some clue to guide their proceedings.
Committing himself to a short repose, he determined to make diligent search for this mischievous individual—having comforted in some measure the unhappy couple below stairs, who were in a state of great apprehension lest their son had already fallen a victim, and were ready to give up all for lost.
Early on the ensuing day the Doctor bent his steps towards Clegg Hall, whence the old family of that name had been dispossessed, and from whom that mysterious individual, the Red Woman, claimed descent.
The air was fresh and bracing after the night's tempest. Traces of its fury, however, were plainly visible. Huge trees had been swept down, as though some giant hand had crushed them. Rising the hill towards Belfield, he stayed a moment to look round him. There was something in the loneliness and desertion of the spot that was congenial to his thoughts. The rooks cawed round their ancient inheritance, but all was ruin and disorder. His curiosity was excited; he had sufficient local knowledge to remember it was once an establishment of the Knights of St John some centuries before, and he remembered too, that according to vulgar tradition, great riches were buried somewhere in the vaults. A thought struck him that it was not an unlikely spot for the operations of Master Kelly. Impressed with this idea, a notion was soon engendered that his errand need not carry him farther. He drew near to the ivied archway beneath the tower. The mavis whistled for its mate, and the sparrow chirped amongst the foliage. All else was silent and apparently deserted. He entered the gateway. Inside, on the right hand, was a narrow flight of steps, and, impelled by curiosity, he clambered, though with some difficulty, into a dilapidated chamber above. Here the loopholes were covered with ivy, but it was unroofed, and the floor was strewn with rubbish, the accumulation of ages. Through a narrow breach at one corner he saw what had once been a concealed passage, evidently piercing the immense thickness of the walls, and leading probably to some secret chambers not ordinarily in use. He now heard voices below, and taking advantage thereby, crept into the passage, probably expecting to gather some news by listening to the visitors if they approached. Two of these ascended the broken steps, and every word was audible from his place of concealment. He instantly recognised the voice of Kelly. The other was a stranger.
"Ah, ah! old Mother Red-Cap, I tell thee, says we can never get the treasure. By this good spade, and a willing arm to wit, the gold is mine ere two hours older," said Kelly.
"I am terribly afeard o' these same boggarts," replied his companion. "T'owd an—'ll come sure enough among us, sure as my name's Tim, some time or another."
"Never fear, nunkey; thee knows what a lump I've promised thee; an' as for the old one, trust me for that; I can lay him in the Red Sea at any time. Haven't I and that old silly Doctor, who pretends, forsooth, to have conscience qualms when there's aught to be gotten, though as fond o' the stuff as any of us—haven't we, I say, by conjurations and fumigations, raised and laid a whole legion o' them? Why, man, I'm as well acquainted with the kingdom of Beelzebub, and his ministers to boot, as I am with my own."
"Don't make sich an ugly talk about 'em, prithee, good sir. I thought I heard some'at there i' the passage, an' I think i' my heart I darna face 'em again for a' th' gowd i' th' monk's cellar."
"Tush, fool! If we get hold on 't now it shall be ours, and none o' the rest of our brethren o' the Red Cross need share, thee knows. But thou be'st but newly dubbed an' hardly initiated yet in our sublime mysteries. Nevertheless, I will be indifferent honest too, and for thy great services to us and to our cause I do promise thee a largess when it comes to our fingers—that is to say, one-fifth to thee, and one-fifth to me; the other three shares do go to the general treasure-house of the community, of which I take half."
"A goodly portion, marry—but I'd liefer 't not gang ony farther."
"Villain! thou art bent on treachery; if thou draw back I'll ha' thee hanged or otherwise punished for what thou hast done. Remember, knave, thou art in my power."
The guilty victim groaned piteously, but he was irretrievably entangled. The toils had been spread by a master-hand. He saw the gulf to which he was hurried, but could not extricate himself.
"Yonder women, plague take 'em," said Tim; "what's up now? I know this owd witch who's sold hersel' to—to—Blackface I'm afeard, is th' owner o' many a good rood o' land hereabout, an' t'owd Ha' too, wi' its 'purtenances. But she's brought fro' Spain or Italy, as I be tou'd, a main lot o' these same priest gear; an' they're lurkin' hereabout like, loike rabbits in a warren, till she can get rid o' these Ashtons. Mony a year long past I've seen her prowling about, but she never could get her ends greadly till now."
"By my help she shall," said Kelly; "it's a bargain between us. She's brought her grandchildren too, who left England in their youth, being educated in a convent o'er seas. They're just ready to drop into possession."
"But poor Grace Ashton; she's gi'en me mony a dish of hot porritch an' bannocks. She shauna be hurt if I can help it."
"Fool!—the wench must be provided for. Look thee—if she get away, she'll spoil all. When dead, young Buckley must be charged with the murder."
"Weel, weel; but I'll ha' nought more to do wi 't. E'en tak' your own fling—I'll wash my hands on't altogether, an' so"——
"I want help, thou chicken-faced varlet—come, budge—to thy work; we may have helpers to the booty, if time be lost."
"Mercy on us!" said Tim, in great dolour, "I wish I had ne'er had aught to do wi' treasure-hunting an' sich-like occupation. If ever I get rid of this job, if I don't stick to my old trade, hang me up to dry."
"Hold thy peace, carrion! and remember, should a whisper even escape thee, I will have thee hanged in good earnest."
"Ay, ay; just like Satan 'ticing to iniquity, an' then, biggest rogue al'ays turns retriever."
"None o' thy pretences: thou hast as liquorish a longing after the gold as any miser in the parish, and when the broad pieces and the silver nobles jingle in thy fob, thoul't forget thy qualms, and thank me into the bargain. Now to work. Let me see, what did the sleeping beauty say? Humph—'Under the main pillar at the south-east corner.' Good. Nay, man, don't light up yet. Let us get fairly underground first, for fear of accidents."
To the great alarm of Dr Dee, who heard every word, these two worthies came straight towards the opening. He drew on one side at a venture. Luckily it proved the right one; they proceeded up the passage in the opposite direction. He heard them groping at the further end. A trap-door was evidently raised, and he was pretty well convinced they had found the way to the vaults; probably it had been blocked up for ages until recently, and in all likelihood Tim had pointed it out, as well as the notion that treasure was concealed somewhere in these labyrinths.
How to make this discovery in some way subservient to his mission was the next consideration; and with a firm conviction, generally the forerunner of success, he determined to employ some bold stratagem for their detection. They were now fairly in the trap, and he hoped to make sure of the vermin. For this end he cautiously felt his way to the opposite extremity of the passage, where he found the floor emitted a hollow sound. This was assuredly the entrance; but he tried in vain—it resisted every effort. Here, however, he determined to keep watch and seize them if possible on their egress, trusting to his good fortune or his courage for help in any emergency that might ensue. At times he laid his ear to the ground, but nothing was audible as to their operations below. This convinced him they were at a considerable distance from the entry, but he felt assured that ere long they must emerge from their den, when, taken by surprise, he should have little difficulty in securing the first that came forth, keeping fast the door until he had made sure of his captive.
He watched patiently for some time, when all on a sudden he heard a rumbling subterraneous noise, and he plainly felt the ground tremble under his feet. A loud shriek was heard below, and presently footsteps approaching the entrance. He had scarcely time to draw aside ere the door was burst open, and some one rushed forth. The Doctor seized him by the throat, and ere he had recovered from his consternation, dragged him out of the passage.
"Villain! what is it ye are plotting here about? Confess, or I'll have thee dealt with after thy deserts."
"Oh!—I'll—tell—all—I will"—sobbed out the delinquent, gasping with terror. Tim, for it was none other, fell on his knees crying for mercy. "Whoever thou art," continued he, "come and help—help for one that's fa'n under a heavy calamity. Bad though he be, we maunna let him perish for lack o' lookin' after."
"Hast got a light, knave?"
"I'll run an' fetch one."
"Nay, nay; we part not company until better acquainted. Is there not a candle below?"
"Alas! 'tis put out—and—oh! I'd forgotten; here's t' match-box i' my pocket."
He drew forth the requisite materials, and they were soon equipped, exploring the concealed chambers we have before described. With difficulty they now found their way, by reason of the dust arising from the recent catastrophe. Dee followed cautiously on, keeping a wary eye on his leader lest some deceit or stratagem should be intended.
They now approached a heap of ruins almost choking the entrance to the larger vault. He thought groans issued from beneath.
"He's not dead yet," said Tim. "Here, here, good sir; help me to shift this stone first."
They set to work in good earnest, and, with no little difficulty and delay, at length succeeded in releasing the unfortunate treasure-hunter. Eager to possess the supposed riches, they had incautiously undermined one of the main supports of the roof, and Kelly was buried under the ruins. Fortunately he lay in the hollow he had made, otherwise nothing but a miracle could have saved him from immediate death. He was terribly bruised, nevertheless, and presented a pitiable spectacle. Bleeding and sore wounded, he was hardly sensible as they bore him out into the fresh air. Apparently unable to move, they laid him on the ground until help could be obtained. In a while he recovered.
"Thou art verily incorrigible," said the Doctor to his former associate. "Where is the maiden ye have so cruelly conveyed away?"
But Kelly was dogged, and would not answer.
"I have heard and know all," continued Dee; "so that, unless thou wilt confess, assuredly I will have thee lodged in the next jail on accusation of the murder. Thy diabolical practices will sooner or later bring thee to punishment."
"Promise not to molest me," said Kelly, who feared nothing but the strong arm of the law, so utterly was he given over to a reprobate mind, even to commit iniquity with greediness.
"What! and let thee forth to compass other and maybe more heinous mischief! I promise nothing, save that thou be prevented from such pursuits. Thou hast entered into covenant with the woman whom it is our purpose in due time to deliver up to the secular arm. You think to compass your mutual ends by this compact; but be assured your schemes shall be frustrated, and that speedily."
At this Kelly again fell into a sulky mood, maimed and helpless though he was; and revenge, dark and deadly, distorted his visage.
Tim here stepped forward.
"I do repent me of this iniquity, an' if ever I'm catched meddling wi' sich tickle gear again, I'll gie ye leave to hang me up without judge or jury."
"The best proof of repentance is restitution," said the Doctor. "Knowest thou aught of the maiden?"
"I'll find her, if ye can keep that noisome wizard frae hurting me. He swears that if I tell, e'en by nods, winks, or otherwise, he'll send me to —— in a whirlwind."
"I will give thee my pledge, not a hair of thy head shall be damaged."
"He has the key in his pocket."
"What of that?"
"It's the key to the old house door yonder, an' she's either there or but lately fetched away."
The Doctor proceeded, though not without opposition, to the search. The key was soon produced, and accompanied by the repentant ballad-monger, he approached the mansion, which, as we have before noticed, was near at hand, apparently untenanted.
"Yonder knave, I think, cannot escape," said Dee.
"No, no," said his conductor, "unless some'at fetches him; he's too well hampered for that. His legs are aw smashed wi' that downfa'."
They entered a little court almost choked up with leaves and long grass. The door was unlocked, and a desolate scene presented itself. The hall was covered with damp and mildew—all was rotting in ruin and decay. Tim led the way up-stairs. The same appearances were still manifest. The dark shadow of death seemed to brood there—an interminable silence. They entered a small closet, nearly dark; and here, on a miserable pallet, lay the form of Grace Ashton, now, alas! pale and haggard. She seemed altogether unconscious of their presence. The horrible events of the preceding night had brought on mental as well as bodily disease. It was the practice of these treasure-seekers either to raise up a dead body for the desired information, or to throw the living into such a state of mental hallucination that they should answer dark and difficult questions whilst in that condition. It not unfrequently happened, however, that the unfortunate victims to these horrid rites either lost their lives or their reason during the experiment.
We will not pursue the recital in the present case: suffice it to say, that Grace Ashton was immediately removed and placed under the care of her friends; the Doctor went back to Kelly for further disclosures, but what was his surprise to find that by some means or another he had escaped. He now lost no time in returning to Buckley, communicating the painful, though in some degree welcome, intelligence that Grace Ashton had been rescued from her persecutors.
It was now time to adopt measures for their reception of the witch, who would doubtless not fail in her appointment.
Dee was yet in doubt as to the issue, and he thought it needful to acquaint them with the only method by which the spell could be broken. How it were possible that the ring should ever bind her was a mystery that at present he could not solve. Dame Eleanor listened very attentively, then sharply replied—
"I have heard o' this charm aforetime, or——By'r lady, but I have it!"
She almost capered for joy.
We will not, however, anticipate the result, but entreat our readers to suspend their guesses, and again accompany us to the chamber where lay the heir of Buckley, still grievously tormented.
Midnight again approached. Dee was sitting at the table, apparently in deep study. He had examined the closet, and found it communicated by another passage to an outer door; and it was through this that the Red Woman had contrived to enter without being observed. The learned Doctor was evidently awaiting her approach with no little anxiety. Once or twice he fancied some one tapped at the casement, but it was only the wind rushing by in stormy gusts, increasing in strength and frequency as the time drew nigh.
Hark! was not that a distant shriek? It might be the creaking of the boughs and the old yew-tree by the door, thought Dee; and again, in a while, he relapsed into a profound reverie. Another! He heard the jarring of rusty hinges; a heavy step; and—the Red Woman stood beside him; but with such a malevolent aspect that he was somewhat startled and uneasy at her presence.
"I am beguiled of my prey!—mocked—thwarted. But beware, old man; thy meddling may prove dangerous. I will possess the inheritance, though every earthly power withstood me! That boy is mine. He hath sworn it—sealed it with his heart's blood—and I demand the pledge." The victim groaned. "Hearest thou that response? 'Tis an assent. He is mine in spite of your stratagems."
This was probably but the raving of a disordered intellect, but Dee was too deeply imbued with the superstitions of the age to suppose for a moment that it was not a case of undisguised witchcraft, or that this wicked hag was not invested with sufficient power to execute whatever either anger or caprice might suggest.
"What is thy will with the wretched victim thou hast ensnared?" he inquired.
"I have told thee."
"Thou wilt not convey him away bodily to his tormentors?"
"Unless they have a victim the inheritance may not be mine." She said this with such a fiendish malice that made even the exorcist tremble. His presence of mind, however, did not forsake him.
"The ring—I remember—there was a condition in the bond. In all such compacts there is ever a loophole for escape."
"None that thou canst creep through," she said, with a look of scorn.
"It is not permitted that the children of men be tempted above measure."
"When that ring shall have strength to bind me, and not till then. All other bonds I rend asunder. Even adamant were as flaming tow."
"Here is a ring of stout iron," said Dee, pointing to an iron ring fixed by a stout staple in the wall. "I think it would try thy boasted strength."
"I could break it as the feeble reed."
The Doctor shook his head incredulously.
"Try me. Thou shall find it no empty boast."
She seemed proud that her words should be put to the test; and even proposed that her arms should be pinioned, and her body fastened with stout cords to the iron ring which had been prepared for this purpose.
"Thou shalt soon find which is the strongest," said she, exultingly. "I have broken bonds ere now to which these are but as a thread."
She looked confident of success, and surveyed the whole proceeding with a look of unutterable scorn.
"Now do thy worst, thou wicked one," said Dee, when he had finished.
But lo! a shriek that might have wakened the dead. She was unable to extricate herself, being held in spite of the most desperate efforts to escape. With a loud yell she cried out—
"Thou hast played me false, demon!"
"'Tis not thy demon," said Dee; "it is I that have circumvented thee. In that iron ring is concealed the charmed one, wrought out by a cunning smith to this intent—to wit, the deliverance of a persecuted house."
The Red Woman now appeared shorn of her strength. Her charms and her delusions were dispelled. She sank into the condition of a hopeless, wretched maniac, and was for some time closely confined to this chamber.
Buckley, recovering soon after, was united to Grace Ashton, who, it is confidently asserted, and perhaps believed, was restored to immediate health when the charm was broken.
 Within the last few years, since this story was written, the old house itself has been levelled with the ground.
 In the 39th of Eliz. Sir John Biron held the manor of Rochdale, subsequently held by the Ramsays; but in the 13th of Charles I. it was reconveyed. The Biron family is more ancient than the Conquest. Gospatrick held lands of Ernais de Buron in the county of York, as appears by Domesday Book. Sir Nicholas Byron distinguished himself in the civil wars of Charles I.; and in consequence of his zeal in the royal cause the manor of Rochdale was sequestered. After the Restoration it reverted to the Byrons. Sir John, during these troubles, was made a peer, by the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale. In 1823 the late Lord Byron sold the manor, after having been in possession of the family for nearly three centuries.
OR, THE SKELETON'S BRIDE.
"This will hardly keep body and soul together," said Conrad Bergmann, as he eyed with a dissatisfied countenance some score of dingy kreutzers thrust into his palm by a "patron of early genius,"—one of those individuals who take great merit to themselves by just keeping their victims in that enviable position between life and death, between absolute starvation and hopeless, abject poverty, which effectually represses all efforts to excel, controls and quenches all but longings after immortality—who just fan the flame to let it smoke and quiver in the socket, but sedulously prevent it rising to any degree of steadiness and brilliance.
Conrad that morning had taken home a picture, his sole occupation for two months, and this patron, a dealer in the "fine arts," dwelling in the good, quiet city of Mannheim, had given him a sum equivalent to thirty-six shillings sterling for his labour. Peradventure, it was not in the highest style of art; but what Schwartzen Baren or Weisse Rosse—Black Bears, White Horses, Spread Eagles, and the like, the meanest, worst-painted signs in the city—would not have commanded a higher price?
In fact, Conrad had just genius enough to make himself miserable—to wit, by aspiring after those honours it was impossible to attain, keeping him thereby in a constant fret and disappointment, instead of being content with his station, or striving for objects within his reach. Could he have drudged on as some dauber of sign-posts, or taken to useful employment, he might doubtless have earned a comfortable sustenance. He had, however, like many another child of genius, a soul above such vulgarities; yearning after the ideal and the vain; having too much genius for himself and too little for the world; suspended in a sort of Mahomet's coffin between earth and heaven—contemned, rejected, by "gods, men, and columns."
Conrad Bergmann was about two-and-twenty, of good figure and well-proportioned features, complexion fair, bright bluish-grey eyes, whiskers well matched with a pale, poetical, it might be sickly hue of countenance, and an expression more inclining to melancholy than persons of such mean condition have a right to assume. His father had brought him up to a trade—an honest thriving business—to wit, that of knopfmacher (button-maker). But Conrad, the youngest, and his mother's favourite, happened to be indulged with more idle time than the rest, which, for the most part, was laudably expended in scrawling sundry hideous representations—all manner of things on walls and wainscots. Persevering in this occupation he was forthwith pronounced a genius. About the age of fifteen, Conrad saw a huge "St Christopher," by a native artist, and straightway his destiny was fixed. He struggled on for some years with little success save being pronounced by the gossips "marvellously clever." His performances wanted that careful and elaborate course of study indispensable even to the most exalted genius. They were not only glaring, tawdry, and ill-drawn, but worse conceived; flashy, crude accumulations of colour only rendering their defects more apparent. He was in a great measure self-taught. His impetuous, ardent imagination could not endure the labour requisite to form an artist. He would fain have read ere he had learned to spell; and the result might easily have been foretold.
His father died, and the family were but scantily provided for. Conrad was now forced to make, out a livelihood by what was previously an amusement, not having "a trade in his fingers;" and he toiled on, selling his productions for the veriest trifle. He had now no leisure for improvement in the first elements of his art.
"Better starve or beg, better be errand-boy or lackey, than waste my talents on such an ungrateful world. I'll turn conjurer—fire-eater—mountebank; set the fools agape at fairs and pastimes. Anything rather than killing—starving by inches. Why, the criminals at hard labour in the fortress have less work and better fare. I wish—I wish"——
"What dost wish, honest youth?" said a tall, heavy-eyed, beetle-browed, swarthy personage, who poked his face round from behind, close to that of the unfortunate artist, with great freedom and familiarity.
"I wish thou hadst better manners, or wast i' the stocks, where every prying impertinent should be," replied Conrad, being in no very placable humour with his morning's work. The stranger laughed, not at all abashed by this ill-mannered, testy rebuke, replying good-humouredly—
"Ah, ah! master canvas-spoiler. Wherefore so hasty this morning? My legs befit not the gyves any more than thine own. But many a man thrusts his favours where they be more rare than welcome. I would do thee a service."
"'Tis the hangman's, then, for that seems the only favour that befits my condition."
"Thou art cynical, bitter at thy disappointment. Let us discourse together hard by. A flask of good Rhenish will soften and assuage thy humours. A drop of kirchenwasser, too, might not be taken amiss this chill morning."
Nothing loth, Conrad followed the stranger, and they were soon imbibing some excellent vin du pays in a neighbouring tavern.
"Conrad Bergmann," began the stranger. "Ay, thou art surprised; but I know more than thy name. Wilt that I do thee a good office?"
"Not the least objection, friend, if the price be within reach. Nothing pay, nothing have, I reckon."
"The price? Nothing. At least nothing thou need care for. Thou art thirsting for fame, riches; for the honours of this world; for—for—the hand—the heart of thy beloved."
Amongst the rest of Conrad's calamities he had the misfortune to be in love.
"Thou art mighty fluent with thy guesses," replied he, not at all relishing these unpleasant truths; "and what if I am doomed to pine after the good I can never attain? I will bear my miseries, if not without repining, at least without thy pity;" and he arose to depart.
"All that thou pinest after is thine. All!" said the stranger.
"Mine! By what process?—whose the gift? Ha, ha!" and he drained the brimming glass, waiting a solution of his interrogatory.
"I will be thy instructor. Behold the renowned Doctor Gabriel Ras Mousa, who hath studied all arts and sciences in the world, who hath unveiled Nature in her most secret operations, and can make her submissive as a menial to his will. In a period incredibly short I engage to make thee the most renowned painter in Christendom."
"And the time requisite to perform this?"
"One month! Ay, by the wand of Hermes, in one month, under my teaching, shalt thou have thy desire. I watched thy bargain with the dealer yonder, and have had pity on thy youth and misfortunes."
"Humph—compassion! And the price?" again inquired Conrad, with an anxious yet somewhat dubious expression of tone.
"The price? Once every month shalt thou paint me a picture."
"Is that all?"
Now Conrad began to indulge some pleasant fancies. Dreams of hope and ambition hovered about him; but he soon grew gloomy and desponding as heretofore. He waxed incredulous.
"One month? Nothing less than a miracle! The time is too short. Impossible!"
"That is my business. I have both the will and the power. Is it a bargain?"
Conrad again drained the cup, and things looked brighter. He felt invigorated. His courage came afresh, and he answered firmly—
"Give me thy hand."
"O mein Herr—not so hard. Thy grip is like a smithy vice."
"Beg pardon of thy tender extremities. To-morrow then, at this hour, we begin." Immediately after which intimation the stranger departed.
Conrad returned to his own dwelling. He felt restless, uneasy. Apprehensions of coming evil haunted him. Night was tenfold more appalling. Horrid visions kept him in continual alarm.
He arose feverish and unrefreshed. Yesterday's bargain did not appear so pleasant in his eyes; but fear gave way apace, and ere the appointed hour he was in his little workroom, where the mysterious instructor found him in anxious expectation. He drew the requisite materials from under his cloak, a well-primed canvas already prepared. The pallet was covered, and Conrad sat down to obey his master's directions.
"What shall be our subject?" inquired the pupil.
"A head. Proceed."
"Yes. But follow my instructions implicitly."
Conrad chalked out the outline. It was feebly, incorrectly drawn: but the stranger took his crayon, and by a few spirited touches gave life, vigour, and expression to the whole. Conrad was in despair.
"Oh that it were in my power to have done this!" he cried, putting one hand on his brow, and looking at the picture as though he would have devoured it.
"Now for colour," said the stranger; and he carefully directed his pupil how to lay in the ground, to mingle and contrast the different tints, in a manner so far superior to his former process, that Conrad soon began to feel a glow of enthusiasm. His fervour increased, the latent spark of genius was kindled. In short, the unknown seemed to have imbued him with some hitherto unfelt attributes—invested him either with new powers, or awakened his hitherto dormant faculties. As before, by a few touches, the crude, spiritless mass became living and breathing under the master's hand. Not many hours elapsed ere a pretty head, respectably executed, appeared on the canvas. Conrad was in high spirits.
He felt a new sense, a new faculty, as it were, created within him. He worked industriously. Every hour seemed to condense the labour and experience of years. He made prodigious advances. His master came daily at the same time, and at length his term of instruction drew to a close. The last morning of the month arrived; and Conrad, unknown to his neighbours, had attained to the highest rank in his profession. His paintings, all executed under the immediate superintendence of the stranger, were splendid specimens of art.
* * * * *
In the year ——, all Paris was moved with the extraordinary performances of a young artist, whose portraits were the most wonderful, and his miniatures the most exquisite, that eyes ever beheld. They looked absolutely as though endowed with life—real flesh and blood to all appearance; and happy were those who could get a painting from his hand. The price was enormous, and the marvellous facility with which they were despatched was not the least extraordinary part of the business. There was a mystery, too, about him, provokingly delightful, especially to the female portion of the community. In place of living in a gay and fashionable part of the city, his lodging was in a miserable garret, overlooking one of the gloomiest streets of the metropolis. His manners, too, were forbidding and reserved. Instead of exhibiting the natural buoyancy of his years, he looked careworn and dejected; nor was he ever known to smile.
After a period whispers got abroad that several of his female subjects came to strange and untimely deaths. They were seized with some dangerous malady, accompanied by frightful delusions. In general they fancied themselves possessed. Wailings, shrieks, and horrible blasphemies proceeded from the lips of the sufferers. These reports were doubtless exaggerated, the marvellous being a prodigiously accumulative and inventive faculty; yet enough remained, apparently authentic, to justify the most unfavourable suspicions.
About this time a young Italian lady of a noble house arrived on a visit to her brother in the suite of the Florentine embassy. This princely dame, possessed of great wealth and beauty, was not long unprovided with lovers; one especially, a handsome official in the royal household, De Vessey by name, and as gallant a cavalier as ever lady looked upon. But her term of absence being nigh expired, the lovers were in great perplexity; and nothing seemed so likely to contribute to their comfort during such unavoidable separation as a miniature portrait of each from the hands of this inimitable painter. Leonora sat first, and the lover was in raptures. Hour by hour he watched the progress of his work in a little gloomy chamber, where the artist, like some automaton fixture, was always found in the same place, occupied too as it might seem without intermission.
"The gaze of that strange painter distresses me inexpressibly," said Leonora to her companion, as they went for the last time to his apartment. "I have borne it hitherto without a murmur, but words cannot describe the reluctance with which I endure his glance; yet while I feel as though my very soul abhorred it, it penetrates—nay, drinks up and withers my spirit. Though I shrink from it, some influence or fascination, call it as thou wilt, prevents escape; I cannot turn away my eyes from his terrible gaze."
"Thou art fanciful, my love," said De Vessey; "the near prospect of our parting makes thee apt to indulge these gloomy impressions. Be of good cheer; nothing shall harm thee in my presence. 'Tis the last sitting; put on a well-favoured aspect, I beseech thee. Remember, this portraiture will be my only solace during the long long hours of thine absence."
As they entered the artist's chamber, the picture lay before him, which he seemed to contemplate with such absorbing intensity that he was hardly aware of their entrance. He did not weep, but grief and pity were strangely mingled in his glance. It was but for a moment; he quickly resumed his usual attitude and expression. Whether the previous conversation had made her lover liable to take the tone and character of her own thoughts, we know not; but for the first time he fancied Leonora's apprehensions were not entirely without excuse. He looked on the artist, and it excited almost a thrill of apprehension. But speedily chiding himself for these untoward fancies, he felt that little was apparent either in look or manner but what the painter's peculiar and unexampled genius might sufficiently explain.
Suddenly his attention was riveted on the lady. He saw her lips quiver and turn pale as though she would have swooned. In a moment he was at her side. The support seemed to re-animate the fainting maiden, her head drooping on his shoulder. Almost gasping for utterance, she whispered, "Take me hence, I want breath—air, air!" De Vessey lifted her in his arms and bore her forth into the open doorway. Trembling, shuddering, and looking round, the first words she uttered were—
"We are watched—by some unseen being in yonder chamber, I am persuaded. Didst not mark an antique, dismal-looking ebony cabinet immediately behind the painter?"
"I did, and admired its exquisite workmanship, as though wrought by some cunning hand."
"As I fixed my eyes on those little traceries, it might be fancy, but methought I saw the bright flash of a human eye gazing on me."
"Oh! my Leonora, indulge not these gloomy impressions. Throw off thy wayward fancies. 'Tis but the reflex image the mind mistakes for outward realities. When disordered she discerns not the substance from the shadow. Thou art well-nigh recovered. Come, come, let us in. To-day is the last of our task; prithee take courage and return."
"On one condition only; if thou take the chair first, and note well an open scroll to the right where those fawns and satyrs are carved."
"Agreed. And now shake off thy fears, my love."
De Vessey led her again to the apartment, and as though without consideration sat down, his face directly towards the cabinet. He fixed his eyes thereon a few seconds only, when Leonora saw him start up suddenly with a troubled aspect and grasp the hilt of his sword. Then turning to the painter he said, sternly—
"So!—We have intruders here, I trow."
"Intruders? None!" was the artist's reply, without betraying either surprise or alarm.
"That we'll see presently," said the cavalier, hastening to the cabinet; which, with hearty good-will, he essayed to open.
"Why this outrage?" inquired the painter, colouring with a hectic flush.
"Because 'tis my good pleasure," was the haughty reply. The door resisted his utmost efforts. "Doubtless held by some one within. Open, or by this good sword I'll make a passage through both door and carcase."
The hinges slowly gave way, the folding-doors swung open, and displayed a grinning skeleton.
"Ah! what lodger is this?"
"Mine art requires it," said the painter, with a ghastly smile; but in that smile was an expression so fearful, yet mysterious, that even De Vessey quailed before it. Another miniature portrait, a precise copy of the one in hand, hung from the neck of the skeleton.
Leonora, with a loud shriek, covered her face; but the lover, though far from satisfied himself, strove to assure his mistress, and besought her not to indulge any apprehension.
"You are disturbed, lady," said the artist. "'Tis but a harmless piece of earth, a mouldering fabric of dust, a thing, a form we must all one day assume. But to-morrow, to-morrow, if you will, we resume our work."
Leonora, relieved by the intimation, gladly consented, fain for a while to escape from this terrible chamber.
"Nought living was there, of a truth," said the cavalier, in evident perplexity, as they regained their coach. "But I saw plain enough, or imagination played me the prank, a semblance of a bright and flashing eye on the spot pointed out. Something incomprehensible hangs about the whole!"
Leonora agreed in this conclusion, expressing a fear lest harm should happen to themselves thereby. They were not ignorant of the whispers afloat, but hitherto treated them either with ridicule or indifference. Suspicion, however, once awake, mystery once apprehended, every circumstance, even the most trivial, is seized upon, the mind bending all to one grand object which haunts and excites the imagination.
Having left his companion at her brother's dwelling, De Vessey came to his own, moody and dispirited. A vague sense of some grievous but impending misfortune hung heavily upon him. Night brought no mitigation of his fears. Spectres, skeletons, and demon-painters haunted his slumbers. He awoke in greater torment than ever. The duplicate portrait was brought to his remembrance with a vividness, an intensity so appalling, that he almost expected to behold the skeleton wearer at his bedside.
Involved in a labyrinth of inextricable surmises, and not knowing what course to pursue, he arose early, and walked forth without aim or design towards the church of Notre Dame.
The red sun was just bursting through a thick atmosphere of mist, illuminating its two dark western towers, which looked even more gloomy under a bright and glowing sky, like melancholy in immediate contrast with hilarity and joy.
He passed the Morgue, or dead-house, where bodies found in the Seine are exposed, in order that they may be owned or recognised. Impelled by curiosity, he entered. One space alone was occupied. He could not surely be deceived when he saw the body of the unfortunate painter! Those features were too well remembered to be mistaken. Here was new ground for conjecture, fresh wonder and perplexity. He left this melancholy exhibition and entered the cathedral. Mass was celebrating at one of the altars. De Vessey joined in adoration, strolling away afterwards towards the vaults: one of them was open. From some vague, unaccountable impulse, he thus accosted the sexton:—
"Whose grave is this, friend?"
"The only remaining descendant of the Barons Montargis."
"I have some knowledge of that noble gentlewoman; she was just about to be married. What might be the nature of her malady?"
"Why, verily there be as many guesses as opinions. The doctors were all at fault, and, 'tis said, even now in great dispute. The king's physician tried hard to save her. Old Frere Jeronymo, the confessor, will have it she was possessed; but all his fumigations, exorcisms, paters, and holy water could not cast out the foul fiend. She died raving mad!"
"A miserable portion for one so young and high-born. Was there no visible cause?"
"Cause!—Ay, marry; if common gossip be not an arrant jade. Her portrait had been taken by that same limner who, they say, has been taught in the devil's school, and can despatch a likeness with the twirl of his brush."
"And what of that?" cried De Vessey, in an agony of impatience.
"Why, the same fate has happened to several of our city dames. That is all."
"What has happened?"
"They have gone mad, and either felt or fancied some demon had gotten them in keeping. For my part, I pretend not to a knowledge of the matter. But you seem strangely moved, methinks."
The cavalier was nigh choking with emotion. Sick at heart, and with a fearful presentiment of impending evil, he turned suddenly away.
His next visit, as may be supposed, was to his mistress. He found her in great agitation. The portrait had been sent home the preceding night, and completely finished, lay before her—an exquisite—nay, marvellous—specimen of art. She was gazing on her own radiant counterpart as he entered. They both agreed that something more than ordinary ran through the whole proceedings, though unable to comprehend their meaning. De Vessey related his discovery in the Morgue, but not his subsequent interview with the sexton.
Ere night, Leonora was seized with a strange and frightful disease. Symptoms of insanity were soon developed. She uttered fearful cries; calling on the painter in language wild and incoherent, but of terrific import.
The lover was at his wits' end. He vowed to spare no efforts to save her, though scarcely knowing what course to pursue, or in what quarter to apply for help.
His first care was to seek the dwelling of a certain renowned doctor, a German, whose extraordinary cures and mode of treatment had won for him great wealth and reputation. Though by some accounted a quack and impostor, nevertheless De Vessey hoped, as a last resource, so cunning a physician might be able to point at once to the source and cure of this occult malady.
Doctor Herman Sichel lived in one of those high, antique, dreary-looking habitations, now pulled down, situate in the Rue d'Enfer. A common staircase conducted to several suites of apartments, tenanted by various occupants, and at the very summit dwelt this exalted personage.
A pull at the ponderous bell-handle gave notice of De Vessey's approach, when, after due deliberation, it might seem, and a long trial to the impatient querent, a little wicket was cautiously slid back, behind a grating in the door. A face, partially exhibited, demanded his errand.
"Thy master, knave!"
"He is in the very entrails of a sublime study. Not for my beard, grey though it be, dare I break in upon him."
"Mine errand is urgent," said De Vessey; "and, look thee, say a noble cavalier hath great need of succour at his hands."
"Grammercy, Sir Cavalier, and hath not everybody an errand of like moment?—thy business, peradventure, less urgent than fifty others whose suit I have denied this blessed day. I tell thee, my master may not be disturbed!"
De Vessey held up a coin temptingly before the grating. It would not go through, and the crusty Cerberus gently undid a marvellous array of chains, bars, and other ingenious devices, opening a slit wide enough for its insertion.
"Wider! thou trusty keeper," said the artful suitor outside. "I cannot fly through a key-hole!"
A hand was carefully protruded. The cavalier, espying his opportunity, thrust first his sword, afterwards himself, through the aperture, in spite of curses and entreaties from the greedy porter. He was immediately within a dark entrance or vestibule; the astonished and angry menial venting his wrath in no measured phrases on the intruder. De Vessey, in a peremptory tone, demanded to be led forthwith into the doctor's presence. The old man delayed for a while, almost speechless from several causes. His breath was nigh spent. Wrath on the one hand, fear of his master's displeasure on the other, kept him, like antagonistic forces, perpetually midway between both.
"Lead the way, knave, or, by the beard of St Louis, I'll seek him through the house! Quick! thou hast legs; if not, speak! Mine errand is urgent, and will not wait."
A stout and determined cavalier, with a strong gripe, and a sword none of the shortest, was not to be trifled with; and, after many expostulations, warnings, threats, had failed of their effect, he at length doggedly consented.
"Thou wilt give me the coin, then, Sir Cavalier?"
"Ay, when thou hast earned it. Away!"
Passing through a narrow passage, lighted from above, his conductor paused before a curiously-carved oaken door, at which three taps announced a message.
"Now enter, and pray for us both a safe deliverance. But, prithee, tell him it was not my fault thou hast gotten admission."
The door slowly opened, as though without an effort, and De Vessey was immediately in the presence of the physician, evidently to the surprise of the learned doctor himself, who angrily demanded his business and the ground of his intrusion.
"Mine hour is not yet come, young man. Wherefore shouldst thou, either by stratagem or force, thrust thyself, unbidden, into our presence?"
"To buy or beg thine aid, if it be possible. The case admits not of delay. I crave thy pardon, most reverend doctor, if that content thee; and, rest assured, no largess, no reward shall be too great, if thou restore one, I fear me, beyond earthly aid."
"Thus am I ever solicited," replied the sage, with a portentous scowl. He was clad in a gown of dark stuff, with slippers to match; his poll surmounted by a small black velvet skull-cap, from which his white, intensely white, hair escaped in great profusion. His visage was not swarthy, but of a leaden, pale complexion, where little could be discerned of the wondrous misrocosm within. Books, and manuscripts of ancient form and character, emblazoned in quaint and mystic devices, lay open on a long oak table, on which rested one elbow of the wise man; the other was thrown over an arm of the high-backed chair whereon he sat. The room contained plenty of litter in the shape of phials, boxes, and other strange furniture. A cupola furnace was just heated, the doctor apparently concocting some subtle compound.
"I am expected to wrest these helpless mortals even from the ravening jaws of the grave! My skill never tried until beyond other aid!"
"But this disorder is of a sudden emergency. A lady of high birth and lineage, a few hours since, was seized with a raging frenzy."
"A female, then?"
"Ay, and of such sweet temper and excellent parts, there be none to match with her, body or mind, in Christendom."
"When did this malady attack her?"
"Almost immediately after a portrait, made by the celebrated painter, was finished. Of him thou hast doubtless heard."
"The painter—ay! There be more than thou have rued his skill. Young man, thy pretty one is lost!"
"Lost? Oh, say not so! I will give thee thine utmost desire—riches—wealth thou hast never possessed, if thou restore her!"
"She is beyond my skill. Hast visited him since?"
"I have seen him. She is the last victim, if such be her fate. This very morning, betimes, I saw his body in the Morgue."
"They have found him, then?" said the doctor, sharply. "Yet our bodies are but exuviae. When cast off, this thinking, sentient principle within has another tabernacle assigned to it, until the great consummation of all things. But these are fables, idle tales, to the unlearned. Nevertheless, I pity thy cruel fate, and, if aid can be afforded, will call another to thine help. Hence! Thou shalt hear from me anon."
"And without loss of time; for every moment, methinks, our succour may come too late."
"I will forthwith seek out one whom I have heretofore taken knowledge of. Every science has its votaries—its adepts; and this evil case hath its remedy only by those skilled in arts called, however falsely, supernatural. Even now there be intelligences around us which the corporeal eye seeth not, nor can see, unless purged from the dross, the fumes of mortality. Some, peradventure, by long and patient study, have arrived on the very borders, the confines that separate visible from invisible things, and become, as it were, the medium of intercourse for mortals, who are by this means mightily aided in matters beyond ordinary research. Put thine ear to this shell. Mark its voice, like the sound of many waters. Are not these the invisible source, the essence of its being? Has not everything in like manner, even the most inanimate, a tongue, a language, peculiar to itself—a soul, a spirit, pervading its form, which moulds and fashions every substance according to its own nature? Now, this voice thou canst not interpret, being unskilled—knowing not the languages peculiar to every form and modification of matter; else would this beautiful type of the ever-rolling sea discourse marvellously to thine ear. But thou hast not the key to unclose its mystic tongue; hence, like any other unknown speech, 'tis but a confused jumble of unmeaning sound. I have little more knowledge than thyself, but there be those who can interpret. Vain man—presumptuous, ignorant—scoffs at knowledge beyond his reach, and thinks his own dim, nay, darkened reason, glimmering as in a dungeon, the narrow horizon that circumscribes his vision, the utmost boundary of all knowledge and existence, while beyond lies the infinite and unknown, utterly transcending his capacity and comprehension."
De Vessey drank up every word of this harangue; and something akin to hope rose in his bosom as he withdrew.
"Thou wilt have a message ere nightfall. An awful trial awaits thee ere the spell can be countervailed."
The cavalier withdrew, suffering many wistful remarks from the old doorkeeper, who marvelled greatly at the interview so graciously conceded by his master; while at the same time holding out his palm for the promised largess.
De Vessey waited impatiently at his own dwelling for the expected message. Evening drew on, dark and stormy. The wind roared along the narrow streets in sharp and irregular gusts; while, pacing his chamber in an agony of suspense, he fancied every sound betokened the approaching communication. At length, when expectation was almost weary, a louder rumbling was heard; a coach drew up at the door; a hasty knock, and a heavy tramp; then footsteps ascending the staircase. The door opened, and two gens-d'armes entered.
"We have authority and instructions for the arrest of one Sigismund de Vessey, on a charge of murder, made this day by deposition before the Mayor and Prefecture of the Ville de Paris. The individual so named, we apprehend, is before us."
"The same; though assuredly there is some mistake. Of whose death am I accused?"
"Of one Conrad Bergmann, a painter, whose body, last night thrown into the Seine, was to-day exposed in the Morgue. The rest will be explained anon."
"But an engagement—one, too, of a most important nature—demands my presence."
"No discretion is allowed us in this matter. The carriage waits."
However reluctant, De Vessey was forced to obey. Though confident of a speedy release, this arrest at so important a juncture was provoking enough. Leonora's recovery might probably depend on his exertions for the next few hours, which were now suddenly wrested from him.
Leaving word that he would shortly return, the cavalier stept into the vehicle, which immediately drove off.
In a little space the coach stopped, and De Vessey was invited to alight. He was led up a narrow staircase; a door flew open. He entered. Could it be; surely imagination betrayed his senses! He could scarcely believe himself once more in the apartment of the painter! Yet there was no mistaking what he saw. The ebony cabinet, the easel, table, chair—all left as he saw them yesterday. But the living occupants were strangely diverse. Two or three functionaries of the civil power; and in one corner a black cloth, spread on the floor, concealed some unknown object. The whole was lighted by a feeble lamp from the ceiling. A dusky haze from the damp, foggy atmosphere rendered objects ill-defined, indistinct, almost terrific to an excited imagination. In addition to the usual articles of furniture was a desk, with writing materials, at which one of the officers of justice appeared dictating something to his secretary.
On De Vessey's entrance, the scribe made some minute preparatory to his examination, which commenced as follows:—
"Sigismund de Vessey?"
"Being accused upon oath before us of murder, thou art brought hither to confront thine accusers, and to answer this heinous charge. First, let the body be produced."
The cloth was removed, and De Vessey beheld the corpse lying on a mattress.
"Knowest thou this body?"
"I do," said the cavalier, firmly.
"When was he seen by thee alive, the last time?"
"Yesterday, about noon."
"In this chamber."
"Yes, but not living."
"Dead, sayest thou?"
"This morning in the Morgue."
"I have not. But pray to what purport this examination?"
"This will appear presently. When taken out of the river marks were found upon the throat, as though from strangulation. Knowest thou aught of these?"
"I do not," said the accused, indignantly.
This answer being written down, the examination was resumed.
"We have testimony that the unfortunate victim and thyself were seen together about midnight; and, further, a short but violent struggle was heard, and a heavy plunge; afterwards an individual, with whom thou art identified, was seen departing in great haste, and entering the house well known as thy residence in the Rue de" ——
"A most foul and wicked fabrication, for purposes of which as yet I am ignorant. Of such charges I hardly need affirm that I am innocent."
"Let the accuser stand forth."
To the surprise and horror of De Vessey there appeared from a recess the German doctor, Hermann Sichel, who, without flinching, recapitulated the foregoing accusation. Moreover, he swore in the most positive terms to his identity, and that not a doubt rested on his mind but De Vessey was the murderer.
"In this very apartment," said the witness, "he, De Vessey, drew his sword upon the painter yesterday, doubtless either from grudge or jealousy; being enamoured of a fair Italian dame, Leonora da Rimini."
"Most abominable of liars!" said the accused, eyeing him with a furious look. "How darest thou to my face bring this foul accusation. Thou shalt answer for it with thy blood!"
"Hear him! What need of further testimony? His own betrays him," said the doctor, with unblushing effrontery.
"We have other witness thou wilt not dare to gainsay," said the presiding officer. "This learned person is amply corroborated by evidence that must effectually silence all denial. He hath referred us to her who was present, Leonora da Rimini."
"Leonora! what, my own—my betrothed? She my accuser?"
"Spare thy speech and listen. We could not bring the maiden hither, insomuch as the nature of her malady admits not of removal: but her evidence and accusation are duly attested, taken at her own request, not many hours ago. The substance of her deposition is as follows:—A confession to her of thine intention to murder Conrad Bergmann, the artist aforesaid, being jealous of his attentions; and furthermore, in the agony of guilt, thou didst confess in her presence, having first strangled, and afterwards thrown him into the river, hoping thereby to conceal thy crime; then forcing her to swear she would keep the matter secret, and threatening her life in case it were divulged. This outrage, and this alone, hath nigh driven her frantic; her life being in jeopardy from thy violence. What sayest thou, Sigismund de Vessey?"
"A lie, most foul and audacious, trumped up by that impostor! Leonora? Impossible. I would not believe though it were from her own lips. Some demon hath possessed her. This disorder is more than common madness."
He looked around. The whole was like the phantasma of some terrible dream. Bewildered, and hardly knowing what course to pursue, in vain he attempted to shake the testimony of the hoary villain before him; and having at present none other means of rebutting the accusation, he was ordered into close custody until the morrow.
Utterly unprepared with evidence, he knew not where to apply. That he was the victim of some foul plot so far appeared certain; but for what purpose, and at whose instigation, was inexplicable.
Ere an hour had elapsed De Vessey found himself in one of the cells of a public dungeon, with ample leisure to form plans for proving his innocence. He determined early on the morrow to acquaint his friends, and employ a celebrated advocate to expose this villainous doctor, who no doubt had designs either on his purse or person.
In a while the prisoner fell asleep from fatigue and exhaustion. He was awakened by a sudden glare across his eyelids. At first, imagining he was under the influence of some extravagant dream, he made little effort to arouse himself. A figure stood beside the couch, a lamp lifted above his head. A friar's cowl concealed his features; his person, too, was enveloped in a coarse garment, with a huge rosary at his girdle.
"Mortal, awake and listen," said the unknown visitor. "Art weary of life, or does this present world content thee?"
"Who art thou?" said De Vessey, scarcely raising himself from the pallet.
"I am thy friend, thy deliverer, an' thou wilt."
"Thanks!" said the knight, springing from his recumbent posture.
"Stay!" replied the intruder; "there be conditions ere thou pass hence. Miserable offspring of Adam, ye still cling to your prison and your clay. Wherefore shrink from the separation, afraid to shake off your bonds, your loathsome carcase, and spring forth at once to life? Art thou prepared to fulfil one—but one condition for thy release?"
"Name it. Manifest my innocence; and if it be gold, thou shalt have thy desire. No hired advocate e'er yet held such a fee."
"Keep thy gold for baser uses; it buyeth not my benefits. But remember, thy life is not worth a week's purchase, neither is thy mistress's, forsooth, shouldest thou be witless enough to refuse. An ignominious death, a base exit for thyself—for her, madness and a speedy grave. One fate awaits ye both. Life and health, if thou consent, are yours."
"Thou speakest riddles. It were vain trying to comprehend their import. Name thy conditions. Aught that honour may purchase will I give."
The stranger threw back his cowl, displaying the features of the renowned Doctor Hermann Sichel. A gleam of lurid intelligence lighted his grim grey eyes, that might betoken either insanity or excitement.
Without reflecting for one moment on the hazard or imprudence of his conduct, De Vessey immediately rushed forward, grappled with his adversary, and threw him.
"Now will I have deadly vengeance, fiend! Take that!" said he, drawing forth a concealed poniard and thrusting with all his might. Scorn puckered the features of the pretended monk. The weapon's point was driven back, refusing to enter, as though his enemy held a charmed existence.
"Put back thy weapon; thou wilt have need of it elsewhere, silly one."
De Vessey was confounded at this unlooked-for result. His foe seemed invulnerable, and he slunk back.
"I forgive thee, poor fool! Put it back, I say. There—there; now to work—time hastens, and there is little space for parley."
"What is thy will?"
"Thy welfare, thy life: listen. Yonder unhappy wretch I have loaden with benefits, rescued from poverty, disgrace; lifted him to the pinnacle of his ambition—the highest rank in art. Base ingrate, he threatened to betray, to denounce, and I crushed the reptile. He is now what thou shalt be shortly unless my power be put forth for thy rescue. Not all the united efforts of man can deliver thee. Beyond earthly aid, thou diest the death of a dog!"
"Why dost thou accuse me of a crime, knowing that I am innocent?"
"To drive thee, helpless, into my power. Think not to escape save on one condition."
"Name it," said De Vessey.
"Self-preservation is the great, the paramount law of our nature; the most powerful impulse implanted in our being. All, all obey this impulse; and who can control or forbid its operation? Will not the most timid, the most scrupulous, if no alternative be afforded, slay the adversary who seeks his life; and does not the law both of earth and heaven hold him guiltless? Thou art now denounced. Innocent, thy life must be sacrificed. Thou diest, or another; there is no choice."
"But shall I murder the innocent?"
"And suppose it be. What thinkest thou? Two persons, equally guiltless, one of them must die. Self-preservation will prompt instinctively to action. Does not the drowning man cling to his companions; nay, rescue himself at the expense of another's life?"
De Vessey felt bewildered, if not convinced. Need we wonder if he yielded. Life or death; honour, disgrace. His mistress restored; his innocence proved. Life, with him, had scarcely been tasted. A glorious career awaited him; his lady-love smiling through the bright vista of the future; and——The tempter prevailed!
But who must be the victim? The appalling truth was not then disclosed. De Vessey promised to obey.
"But remember, no power, not even flight, can screen thee from my vengeance shouldst break thy vow. Take warning by the painter; the poor fool but hesitated, and his doom was swift as it was sure. Take this cowl and friar's garment; I was admitted by the jailer for thy shrift. The lamp will guide thee. Be bold, and fear not. I will remain; to-morrow they will find out their mistake, but I have other means of escape."
"And Leonora. How shall she be recovered?"
"That is a work of peril, and will need thine utmost vigilance. Rememberest thou the skeleton?"
"In the ebony cabinet?" inquired the cavalier, with a cold shudder.
"He hath her portrait, and will not lightly be persuaded to give his prey. Every month I am bound to furnish him a bride! My own life pays the forfeit of omission. Leonora is the next victim, unless thou prevail, betrothed to that grisly type of death!"
"Oh, horrible! Mine the bride of a loathsome skeleton! Of an atomy! A fiend! Monster, I will denounce thee. I care not for my own life. Of what worth if torn from hers. Wretch, give back my bride or"——
"Spare these transports. I am now thine only friend. Thou art now cut off from thy kin, shunned by mankind. To whom, then, wilt thou turn for help? Mine thou art for ever!"
De Vessey gasped for utterance.
"Nevertheless," continued his tormentor, "I will direct and help thee in this matter also. But 'tis a fearful venture. Hast thou courage?"
"If to rescue her, aught that human arm can achieve shall be done."
"He holds the portrait, I tell thee, with a steady gripe. Those skeleton fingers will be hard to unloose."
"I will break them or perish. This good"——
"Touch them not for thy life. Death, sure but lingering, awaits whomsoever they fasten upon. Take this key. It will admit thee to the apartment. To-night the deed must be accomplished, or to-morrow the maiden is beyond succour."
"And how is this charmed picture to be wrested from him?"
"An ebony wand lies at his feet; he will obey its touch. But whatsoever thou seest, be nothing daunted, nor let any silly terror scare thee from thy purpose. Now to thy task. But keep these marvels to thyself. If thou whisper—ay, to the winds—our compact, thou art not safe."
Soon De Vessey, enveloped in his disguise, found egress without difficulty. Once outside the prison, he hurried on, scarcely giving himself time for reflection.
The night was dark and stormy. Torches, distributed about the streets, rocked and swung to and fro in their sockets, the flames, with a strange and flickering glare, giving an unnatural distorted appearance to objects within reach; and to some solitary individual, at this late hour hurrying alone, the grim aspect of a demon or a spectre to the disturbed imagination of the lover. His courage, at times on the point of deserting him, revived when he remembered that another's life, dearer than his own, depended on his exertions. The streets, almost deserted, swam with continually accumulating torrents; but he felt not that terrible tempest; the turmoil, the conflict within, was louder than the roar and tumult of outward elements.