Michael spent the remaining hours of darkness in tossing and rumination; but in the end the gratifying alternative between wealth and poverty brought his deliberations to a close. He determined to follow the advice and directions of the stranger. There could be no harm in it. He only intended to inquire how such wealth might be possessed; but if in any way diabolical or wicked, he would not need to have anything further to do in the matter. Thus reasoning, and thus predetermined how to act, our self-deluded stitcher of seams bent his way, on the following forenoon, to a solitary place near the river, where he intended to perform the mighty incantation. Yet, when he tried to begin, his stomach felt wondrous heavy and oppressed. He trembled from head to foot, and sat down for some time to recruit his courage. The words of the stranger emboldened him.
"'Quite an ordinary business,'" said he; and Mike went to work with his lesson, which he had been conning as he went. Scarcely was the last word of this impious incantation uttered, when a roaring clap of thunder burst above him, and the arch enemy of mankind stood before the panic-stricken tailor.
"Why hast thou summoned me hither?" said the infernal monarch, in a voice like the rushing wind or the roar of the coming tempest. But Michael could not speak before the fiend.
"Answer me—and truly," said the demon. This miserable fraction of a man now fell on his knees, and in a most piteous accent exclaimed—
"Oh! oh! mercy. I did not—I—want—nothing!"
"Base, audacious slave! Thou art telling me an untruth, and thou knowest it. Show me thy business instantly, or I will carry thee off to my dominions without further ado."
At this threat the miserable mortal prostrated himself, a tardy confession being wrung from him.
"Oh! pardon. Thou knowest my poverty and my distress. I want riches, and—and"——
"Good!" said the demon, with a horrible smile. "'Tis what ye are ever hankering after. Every child of Adam doth cry with insatiate thirst, 'Give—give!' But hark thee! 'tis thine own fault if thou art not rich, and that speedily. I will grant thee three wishes: use them as thou wilt."
Now the rogue was glad when he heard this gracious speech, and in the fulness of his joy exclaimed—
"Bodikins! but I know what my first wish will be; and I'se not want other two."
"How knowest thou that?" said the demon, with a look of contumely and scorn so wild and withering that Michael started back in great terror.
"Before this favour is granted though," continued the fiend, "there is a small matter by way of preliminary to be settled."
"What is that?" inquired the trembling novice with increasing disquietude and alarm.
"A contract must be signed, and delivered too."
"A contract! Dear me; and for what?"
"For form's sake merely; no more, I do assure thee—a slight acknowledgment for the vast benefits I am bound to confer. To wit, that at the end of seven years thou wilt bear me company."
"Me!" cried the terrified wretch; "nay, then, keep thy gifts to thyself; I'll none o' them on this condition."
"Wretched fool!" roared the infuriate fiend; at the sound of which the culprit fairly tumbled backward. "Sign this contract, or thou shalt accompany me instantly. Ay, this very minute: for know, that every one who calls on me is delivered into my power; and think thyself well dealt with when I offer thee an alternative. Thou hast the chance of wealth, honour, and prosperity if thou sign this bond. If thou do not, I will have thee whether or no—that's all. What sayest thou?" and the apostate angel spread forth his dark wings, and seemed as though ready to pounce upon his unresisting victim.
In a twinkling, Michael decided that it would be much better to sign the bond and have the possession of riches, with seven years to enjoy them in, than be dragged off to the burning pit immediately, without any previous enjoyment whatsoever. Besides, in that seven years who knew what might turn up in his favour.
"I consent," said he; and the arch-enemy produced his bond. A drop of blood, squeezed from the hand of his victim, was the medium of this fearful transfer; and instantly on its execution another clap of thunder announced the departure of Satan with the price of another soul in his grasp.
Michael was now alone. He could hardly persuade himself that he had not been dreaming. He looked at his finger, where a slight wound was still visible, from which a drop of blood still hung—a terrible confirmation of his fears.
Returning home, sad and solitary, he attempted to mount to his usual place, but even this exertion was more than he could accomplish. One black and burning thought tormented him, and he sat down by his own cheerless hearth, more cheerless than he had ever felt before. Matty was preparing dinner; but it was a meagre and homely fare—a little oaten bread, and one spare collop which had been given her by a neighbour. Scanty as was the meal, it was better than the humble viands which sometimes supplied their board. Matty knew not the real cause of her husband's dumps, supposing it to be the usual workings of remorse, if not repentance, to which Mike was subject whenever his pocket was empty and the burning spark in his throat unquenched. She invited him to partake, but he could not eat. He sat with eyes half-shut, fixed on the perishing embers, and replied not to the remonstrances of his dame.
"Why, Mike, I say," cried the kind-hearted woman, "what ails thee? Cheer up, man, and finish thy collop. Thou mayest fret about it as thou likes, but thou cannot undo a bad stitch by wishing. If it will make thee better for time to come, though, I'll not grumble. Come, come, goodman, if one collop winna content thee, I wish we'd two, that's all."
Scarce was the last word from her lips, when lo! a savoury and smoking rasher was laid on the table by some invisible hand. Michael was roused from his lethargy by this unlucky wish. Darting a terrified look on the morsel, he cried out—
"Woman, woman! what hast thou done? I wish thou wert far enough for thy pains."
Immediately she disappeared—whisked off by the same invisible hands; but whither he could not tell.
"Oh me—oh me!" cried the afflicted tailor at this double mishap; "what shall I do now? I shall assuredly starve; and yet I've one wish left. Humph, I'd better be wary in making it though. Best take time to consider, lest I throw this needlessly after the rest."
Mike could not make up his mind as to what he would have, nor indeed could he bend down his thoughts steadfastly to any subject. He was in a continual flutter. His brain was in a whirl. He looked round for some relief. The house was in sad disorder, and he thought on his absent wife.
"Dear me," thought he, as he fetched a scrap of wood to the fire, "I wish Matty were here;" and his wife was immediately at his side.
Mike, now grown desperate, revealed to her the fearful cause of these disasters, and the utter failure of any beneficial results from the three wishes.
"We be just as we were," said he, "save that I've sold mysel', body and soul, to the Evil One!"
Here he began to weep and lament very sore; and his wife was so much overcome at the recital that she was nigh speechless through the anguish she endured.
At length her tears began to lose their bitterness.
"It's no use greetin' at this gait," said she; "hie thee to the parson, Michael, an' see if he canna quit thee o' this bond."
"Verily," said the poor tailor, with a piteous sigh, "that would be leapin' out o' t' gutter into t' ditch. I should be burnt for a he-witch an' a limb o' the de'il. I've yet seven years' respite from torment, an' that would be to throw even these precious morsels away. E'en let's tarry as we are, an' make the best on't. This comes of idleness and drink; but if ever I put foot across Giles's doorstone again, I wish—nay, it's no use wishing now, I've had enough o' sich thriftless work for a bit. But I'll be sober an' mind my work, and spend nothing idly, an' who knows but some plan or another may be hit on to escape."
Now his disconsolate wife was much rejoiced at this determination, and could not help saying—
"Who knows? perhaps it was for good, Mike, that this distress happened thee."
He shook his head; but his resolution was made, and he adhered to it in spite of the sneers and temptations of his former associates, who often tried to lead him on to the same vicious courses again. He had received a warning that he never forgot. The memory of it stuck to him night and day; and he would as soon have thought of thrusting his hand into the glowing coals as have entered Giles Chatburn's hovel again. He was truly an altered man, but his wife was the first to feel benefited by the change. He had plenty of work, and money came in apace. The house was cleaned and garnished. There was abundance of victuals, and a jug of their own brewing. He rarely stirred out but to wait upon his customers, and then he came home as soon as the job was completed. But there was an appearance of melancholy and dejection continually about him. He looked wan and dispirited. Time was rapidly passing by, and the last of the seven years was now ebbing away.
One night, as they were sitting a while after supper, he fetched a heavy sigh.
"It is but a short time I have to live," said he.
"Nay," said the dame, let's hope that Heaven will not let thee fall a prey to His enemy and ours. Besides thou hast gotten nothing from him for thy bargain. It cannot be expected, therefore, that the old deceiver can claim any recompense."
Mike shook his head, and looked incredulous.
"Sure as there's wind i' Meg's entry he'll come for his own. I've been considering that I'd best go to the old man that lives in the cave by Sally. He'll maybe give me some advice how to act when the time comes."
This suggestion met with his wife's approval; and the next morning our disconsolate hero was on his way to the "hermit" of the cave. The holy recluse had been long famed through that region for his kindness and attention to the wants of those who sought help and counsel; and Michael thought no harm could come of it, even though he might be unable to circumvent the designs of the arch-enemy.
His dwelling was by the river-side, in a little hut, the back of which, the goodman's oratory, was scooped out in a circular form from the bank.
"Holy father," said the tailor, on entering the cell, "I crave thy benison."
The anchorite, who was on his knees before a crucifix, did not speak until he had finished his devotions. He then rose and pronounced the usual benedictory welcome.
"So far all is well," thought Mike; "I've got one blow at the devil anyhow."
The holy father was very old, but he was hale and active. His white silky beard almost touched his girdle, and his sharp though rheumy eyes peered inquisitively on the person of his guest.
"What is thine errand, my son?" inquired the recluse.
"I have fallen into a grievous temptation, and would crave your succour and advice."
"Heaven wills it oft, my son, that we fall into divers extremities to humble us, and to show the folly and weakness of our hearts. What is thy trouble and thy petition?"
"Alas!" said the other, weeping, "I have been face to face with the father of lies, and I have suffered much damage therefrom."
"Thou hast not been tampering with forbidden arts, I hope?"
"Truly, that have I, and to my soul's cost, I fear," said the tailor, with a groan of heartrending despair.
"Thy sin is great, my son; but so likewise is the remedy. Heaven willeth not a sinner's death, if he turn again to Him with repentance and contrition of spirit. I trust thou hast not trifled with thy soul's welfare by taking and using any of the gifts whereby the old serpent layeth hold on the souls of men?"
"Verily, nay; but he frightened me into the signing of a terrible bond, wherein I promised, that after seven years were past and gone I would be his!"
"Thy danger is terrible indeed. But he gave thee some equivalent for the bargain? thou didst not sell thyself for nought?" said the hermit, fixing his eye sternly on the trembling penitent; "and now, when thou hast wasted the price of thy condemnation, thou comest for help; and thou wouldest even play at cheatery with the devil!"
"Nay, most reverend father," said Michael, wiping his eyes; "never a gift have I had from the foul fiend, save a bacon collop, and that was cast out untouched." And with that he told of the manner in which he was inveigled, and the scurvy trick which the deceiver had played him.
"Verily, there is hope," said the holy man, after musing a while; "yet is it a perilous case, and only to be overcome by prayer and fasting. If thou seek help sincerely, I doubt not that a way will be made for thine escape. Listen;—it is never permitted that the enemy of our race should reap the full benefit of the advantage which otherwise his superior duplicity and intelligence would enable him to obtain. There was never yet bond or bargain made by him, but, in one way or another, it might be set aside, and the foul fiend discomfited. It may be difficult, I own; and advice is not easily rendered in this matter: but trust in the power of the All-powerful, and thou shalt not be overcome. Wisdom, I doubt not, shall be vouchsafed in this extremity, if thou apply anxiously and earnestly for it, seeking deliverance, and repenting of thy great wickedness which thou hast committed."
With these and many other gracious words did the benevolent enthusiast encourage this doomed mortal; and though heavy and disconsolate enough, he returned more light-hearted than he came.
The time now drew near. The very week—the day—the hour, was come; and when the sun should have climbed to the meridian Michael knew that he would have to face the cunning foe who had beguiled him. His wife would have tarried; but he peremptorily forbade. He would not be disturbed in his intercessions. All that morning, without intermission, he supplicated for wisdom and strength in the ensuing conflict. He had retired to a little chamber at one end of the house, and here he secured himself to prevent intrusion.
Noon was scarcely come when, true to the engagement, a loud thunder-clap announced the approach and presence of this terrific being.
"I am glad to find," said he, "that thou art ready."
"I am not ready," replied the trembling victim.
"How!" roared the sable chief, with a voice that shook the whole house, like the passage of an earthquake; "dost thou deny the pledge? darest thou gainsay this bond?"
"True enough," replied the debtor, "I signed that contract; but it was won from me by fraud and dishonest pretences."
"Base, equivocating slave! how darest thou mock me thus? Thou hadst thy wishes; the conditions have been fulfilled, ay, to the letter."
"I fear me," again said the victim, who felt his courage wonderfully supported, "that thou knewest I should never be a pin the richer or better for thy gifts; and thine aim was but to flatter and to cheat. It is not in thy power, I do verily believe, to grant me riches or any great thing that I might wish; so thou didst prompt, and, in a manner, force me to those vain wishes, unthinkingly, by which I have been beguiled."
"Dost thou doubt, then, my ability in this matter? Know that thy most unbounded wishes would have been accomplished, else I release thee from this bond."
"I say, and will vouch for 't, that all thy promises are lying cheats, and that thou couldst not give me a beggarly bodle, if thou wert to lay down thy two horns for it; so I demand my bond, according to thy pledge."
"To show thee that I can keep this bond, even conformably to the terms of my own offer just now, and thy pitiful carcase to boot, I'll e'en grant thee another wish, that thou mayest be satisfied thou art past all hope of redemption. Said I not, that if I could not fulfil any wish of thine, even to the compass of all possible things, and the riches of this great globe itself, I would release thee from this bond?"
"Yea," said Michael, with an eager assent.
"Then wish once more; and mind that it be no beggarly desire. Wish to the very summit of wealth, or the topmost pinnacle of thy ambition, for it shall be given thee."
"Then," said the tailor hastily, as though fearful the word would not come forth quick enough from his lips, "I wish thou wert riding back again to thy quarters on yonder dun horse, and never be able to plague me again, or any other poor wretch whom thou hast gotten into thy clutches."
The demon gave a roar loud enough to be heard to the very antipodes, and away went he, riveted to the back of this very dun horse, which Michael had seen through the window grazing quietly in the lane, little suspecting the sort of jockey that was destined to bestride him. The tailor ran to the door to watch his departure, almost beside himself for joy at this happy riddance. Dancing and capering into the kitchen, where his wife was almost dying through terror, he related, as soon as he was able, the marvellous story of his deliverance.
He relapsed not into his former courses, but lived happily to a good old age, leaving behind him at his death good store of this world's gear, which, as he had no children, was divided amongst his poorer relatives. One of them having purchased the house where the tailor dwelt, set up the trade of a tapster therein, having for his sign "The Dule upo' Dun;" which to this day attests the truth of our tradition, and the excellence of "mine host's" cheer.
"Adieu, fond love; farewell, you wanton powers; I'm free again. Thou dull disease of bloud and idle hours, Bewitching pain, Fly to fools that sigh away their time: My nobler love to heaven doth climb; And there behold beauty still young, That time can ne'er corrupt, nor death destroy; Immortal sweetness by fair angels sung, And honoured by eternity and joy: There lies my love, thither my hopes aspire; Fond loves decline, this heavenly love grows higher."
—BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER.
This ruined chapel—"abbey" it is generally styled—is about a mile distant from St Helen's. Little remains now but the belfry, with its luxuriant covering of dark ivy, still preserving it from destruction. More than half a century ago, some ruffian hand nearly severed the stem from the root, but happily without material injury, the incision being incomplete. The burial-ground, formerly open, is now enclosed by a stone wall; and on the south side is a stone cross with three steps. The whole area has a reputation of great sanctity; many of those who die in the Romish faith, even beyond the immediate neighbourhood, being brought hither for interment.
There are no records, that we can find, of its foundation; but it may be suspected that the place was dedicated to St Thomas; for close by is a well of that name, unto which extraordinary virtues are ascribed.
The chapel was but small; not more than twelve yards in length, and about three in width; the tower scarcely eight yards high. Its insignificance probably may account for the obscurity in which its origin is involved.
It fell into disuse after the Dissolution; and its final ruin took place during the civil wars of Charles I.
Autumn was lingering over the yellow woods. The leaves, fluttering on their shrivelled stems, seemed ready to fall with every breath. Dark and heavy was the dull atmosphere—a melancholy stillness that seemed to pervade and surround every object—a deceitful calm, forerunner of the wild and wintry storms about to desolate and to destroy even these flickering emblems of decay. At times a low murmur would break forth, dying away through the deep woods, like some spirit of past ages wakening from her slumber, or the breath of hoary Time sighing through the ruin he had created.
There is something indescribably solemn and affecting in the first touches and emblems of the year that has "fallen into the sear and yellow leaf." Like the eventide of life, it is a season when the gay and glittering promises of another spring are past; when the fervour and the maturity of summer are ended; when cold and monotonous days creep on; and we look with another eye, and other perceptions, on all that surrounds us. Yet there is a feeling of gladness and of hope mingling with our regrets in the one case, which cannot exist in the other. Autumn, though succeeded by the darkness and dreariness of winter, is but the womb of another spring. That bright season will be renewed; our own, never!
Perhaps it might be feelings akin to these which arrested the footsteps of an individual, who, though little past the spring-tide and youthful ardour of his existence, was yet not disinclined to anticipate another period characterised by the autumnal tokens of decay visible on every object around him.
He stood by the deserted chapel of Windleshaw. Time had then but just begun to show the first traces of his power. The building was yet uninjured, save the interior, which was completely despoiled, the walls grey with lichen, and hoary with the damps of age. The ivy was twining round the belfry, but its thin arms then embraced only a small portion of the exterior. A single yew-tree threw its dark and gloomy shade over the adjacent tombs; the long rank herbage bending over them, and dripping heavily with the moist atmosphere. An ancient cross stood in the graveyard, of a date probably anterior to that of the main building. A relic or commemoration, it might be, of some holy man who had there ministered to the semi-barbarous hordes, aboriginal converts to the Catholic faith.
It was in the autumn of the year 1644. Wars and tumults were abroad, and Lancashire drained the cup of bitterness even to the dregs. The infatuated king was tottering on his throne; even the throne itself was nigh overturned in the general conflict. A short time before the date of our story, the Earl of Derby and Prince Rupert, having brought the siege of Bolton and Liverpool to a satisfactory issue—shortly after the gallant defence of the Countess at Lathom House—were then reposing from their toils at that fortress. The prince, remotely allied to the noble dame, lay there with his train; and was treated not only with the respect and consideration due to his rank, but likewise with a feeling of gratitude for his timely succour to the distressed lady and her brave defenders. After a short stay, the prince marched to York, which was closely besieged by the Earl of Manchester and Sir Thomas Fairfax, and as vigorously and obstinately defended by the Marquis of Newcastle. On the approach of Prince Rupert, the Parliamentary generals raised the siege, and, drawing off their forces to Marston Moor, offered battle to the Royalists. Here the prince, whose martial disposition was not sufficiently tempered with prudence, unfortunately accepted the enemy's challenge, and obscured the lustre of his former victories by sustaining a total overthrow, thereby putting the king's cause into great jeopardy. The following extract from the "Perfect Diurnall" of the 9th of July 1644, will show the estimation in which this great victory was held by the Parliament, and the extent and importance of the results:—
"This day Captain Stewart came from the Leaguer at York with a letter of the whole state of the late fight and routing of Prince Rupert, sent by the three generals to the Parliament. The effect whereof was this:—'That, understanding Prince Rupert was marching against them with 20,000 men, horse and foot, the whole army arose from the siege, and marched to Long Marston Moor, four or five miles from York; and the prince, having notice of it, passed with his army the byway of Burrow Bridge; that they could not hinder his passage to York, whereupon our army marched to Todcaster, to prevent his going southward; but before the van was within a mile of Todcaster, it was advertised that the prince was in the rear in Marston Moor, with an addition of 6000 of the Earl of Newcastle's forces, and was possessed of the best places of advantage both for ground and wind. The right wing of our horse was commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax, which consisted of his whole cavalry and three regiments of the Scots horse; next unto them was drawn up the right wing of the foot, consisting of the Lord Fairfax and his foot and two brigades of the Scots foot for a reserve: and so the whole armies put into a battalia. The battle being begun, at the first some of our horse were put into disorder; but, rallying again, we fell on with our whole body, killed and took their chief officers, and took most part of their standards and colours, 25 pieces of ordnance, near 130 barrels of powder, 10,000 arms, two waggons of carbines and pistols, killed 3000, and 1500 prisoners taken.'"
Prince Rupert with great precipitation drew off the remains of his army, and retired into Lancashire. In a few days York was surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, and the garrison marched out with all the honours of war. Fairfax, occupying the city, established his government through the county, and sent 1000 horse into Lancashire to join with the Parliamentary forces in that quarter, and attend the motions of Prince Rupert. The Scottish army marched northwards after their victory, in order to join the Earl of Calendar, who was advancing with 10,000 additional forces; and likewise to reduce the town of Newcastle, which they took by storm. The Earl of Manchester, with Cromwell,—to whom the fame of this great victory was chiefly ascribed, and who was wounded in the action,—returned to the eastern association in order to recruit his army.
Such were some of the fruits of this important victory, and such the aspect of affairs at the time when our narrative commences;—the fortunes and persons of the Royalists, or malignants as they were called by the opposite party, being in great jeopardy, especially in the northern counties.
The individual before-named was loitering about in the cemetery of the chapel, where the bodies of many of the faithful who die in the arms of the mother church are still deposited, under the impression or expectancy that their clay shall imbibe the odour of sanctity thereby. The stranger, for such he appeared, was muscular and well-formed. His height was not above, but rather below, the middle size. A bright full eye gave an ardour to his look not at all diminished by the general cast and expression of his features, which betokened a brave and manly spirit, scorning subterfuge and disguise, and almost disdaining the temporary concealment he was forced to adopt. A wide cloak was wrapped about his person, surmounted by a slouched high-crowned hat, with a rose in front, by way of decoration. His boots, ornamented with huge projecting tops, were turned down just below the calf of the leg, above which his breeches terminated in stuffed rolls, or fringes, after the fashion of the time. A light sword hung loosely from his belt; and a pair of pistols, beautifully inlaid, were exhibited in front. Despite of his somewhat grotesque habiliments, there was an air of dignity, perhaps haughtiness, in his manner, which belied the character of his present disguise. He walked slowly on, apparently in deep meditation, till, on turning round the angle of the tower, he was somewhat startled from his reverie on beholding an open grave, at a short distance, just about to be completed. Clods of heavy clay were at short intervals thrown out by the workman, concealed from observation by the depth to which he had laboured. After a moment's pause, the cavalier cautiously approached the brink, and beheld a strange-looking being, with sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, busily engaged in this interesting and useful avocation.
"Good speed, friend!" said the stranger, addressing the emissary of death within. The grim official raised his head for a moment, to observe who it was that accosted him; but without vouchsafing a reply, he again resumed his work, throwing out the clods with redoubled energy, to the great annoyance of the inquirer.
"Whose grave is this?" he asked again, perseveringly, determined to provoke him to an answer.
"The first fool's that asks!" shouted the man from below, without ceasing from his repulsive toil.
"Nay, friend; ye do not dig for a man ere he be dead in this pitiful country of thine?"
"And why not? there's many a head on a man's nape to-day that will be on his knees to-morrow!"
"Then do ye rig folks out with graves here upon trust?"
"Nay," said the malicious-looking replicant, holding up a long lean phalanx of bony fingers; "pay to-day, trust to-morrow, as t' old lad at the tavern says."
"What! is thy trade so dainty of subjects? Are men become weary o' dying of late, that ye must need make tombs for the living? I'll have thee to the justice, sirrah, for wicked malice aforethought, and misprision."
Here this hideous ghoul burst forth with a laugh so fearful and portentous that even the cavalier was startled by its peculiarly fierce and almost unearthly expression. The mouth drawn to one side, the wide flat forehead, projecting cheek-bones, and pointed chin, sufficiently characterised him as labouring under that sort of imbecility not seldom unmixed with a tact and shrewdness that seem to be characteristic of this species of disease and deformity. He set one foot on the mattock, ceasing from his labours whilst he cried out, winking significantly with half-shut eyes—
"When the owl hoots, and the crow cries caw, I can tell a maiden from a jackdaw."
Here he began whistling and humming by turns, with the most consummate and provoking indifference. The stranger was evidently disconcerted by this unexpected mode of address, apparently meditating a retreat, from where even victory would have been a poor triumph. He was turning away, when a drop of blood fell on his hand! This disastrous omen, with the grave yawning before him—the narrow dwelling, which, according to the prediction of the artificer, was preparing for his reception—discomposed the cavalier exceedingly, and, in all likelihood, rendered him the more easily susceptible to subsequent impressions.
"Art boun' for Knowsley?" inquired the hunchbacked sexton.
"Peradventure I may have an errand thither; but I am a wayfaring man, and have business with the commissioners in these parts." There was a tone of conscious evasion in this reply which did not pass unheeded by the inquirer.
"If thou goest in at the door," said he, "mind thee doesn't come out feet foremost, good master wayfarer!" He quickly changed his tone to more of seriousness than before. "Thou art not safe. Hie thee to Lathom."
"'Tis beleaguered again. The earl being away at his kingdom of Man, the hornets are buzzing about his nest. There seems now no resting-place, as aforetime, for unlucky travellers."
"For who?" shouted the sexton, climbing out of his grave with surprising agility. He fixed his eyes on the cavalier, as though it were the aspect of recognition. He then hummed the following distich, a favourite troll amongst the republican party at that period:—
"The battle was foughten; the prince ran away. Did ever ye see sic' a race, well-a-day?"
The stranger, turning from his tormentor, was about to depart; but he was not destined to rid himself so readily from the intruder.
"And so being shut out from Lathom, thou be'st a cockhorse for Knowsley. Tush! a blind pedlar, ambling on a nag, might know thee while he was a-winking."
"Know me!" said the cavalier;—"why—whom thinkest thou that I be? Truly there be more gowks in our good dukedom of Lancaster than either goshawks or hen-sparrows. I am one of little note, and my name not worth the spelling." He assumed an air of great carelessness and indifference, not unmingled with a haughty glance or two, whilst he spoke; but the persevering impertinent would not be withstood. Another laugh escaped him, shrill and portentous as before, and he approached nearer, inquiring in a half-whisper—
"Where's thine uncle?"
"Whom meanest thou?"
"He waits for thee at Oxford, man; but he may wait while his porridge cools, I trow: and so good den."
The cunning knave was marching off with his mattock, when the cavalier, recovering from his surprise, quickly seized him by the higher shoulder.
"Stay, knave; thou shalt tarry here a while, until thou and I are better acquainted. Another step, and this muzzle shall help thee on thine errand."
"And who'll pay the messenger?" said the undaunted and ready-witted rogue, not in the least intimidated by the threat, and the mouth of a huge pistol at his breast. "Put it by—put it by, friend, and I'll answer thee; but while that bull-dog is unmuzzled thou shalt get never a word from Steenie Ellison."
"Thou knowest of some plot a-hatching," said the stranger, putting aside the weapon. Another drop fell on his hand.
"I know not," said the sexton, doggedly.
"Thy meaning, then?" returned the stranger, with great vehemence; "for, o' my life, thou stirrest not until thou hast explained the nature of these allusions."
With a shrill cry and a fleet footstep the other bounded away from his interrogator like some swift hound, and was out of sight instantly. Retreating with some precipitation, the cavalier bent his steps from the graveyard towards a little hostelrie close by, where it appears he had taken up his abode for a few days along with a companion, whose sole use and business on their journey seemed to be that of protecting a huge pair of saddle-bags and other equipments for their travel, under a mulberry-coloured cloak of more than ordinary dimensions. They had journeyed from Preston thitherwards; their intended route being for Knowsley, and so forward to the coast. Whether their motive for so long a stay at this obscure and homely tavern could be traced to the bright eyes and beautiful image of mine host's daughter—a luminary round which they were fluttering to their own destruction—or that they merely sought concealment, it were difficult to guess. The ostensible object of their journey was to take shipping for Ireland, being bound thither on some commercial enterprise, for the furtherance of which they expected to pass unmolested, being men of peaceable pursuits, who left the trade of fighting to those that hoped to thrive thereby. Such was the general tenor of their converse; but there were some who suspected that the widely-extolled beauty of Marian might have some remote connection with the continuance of these guests; and their long stay at the inn was regarded with a jealous eye. So well known was the beauteous Marian, "the fair maid of Windleshaw," that the present residence of the cavaliers, if such they were, was the worst that could have been chosen for concealment; inasmuch as her fame drew many customers to the tap who otherwise would have eschewed so humble a halting-place as that of Nathan Sumner.
Thoughtful, and with a show of vexation upon his features, the stranger entered the house, where breakfast was already prepared, and awaiting his return. In the same chamber were the tapster and his dame; for privacy was not compatible either with "mine host's" means or inclination.
"We have been watching for thee, Egerton," said his companion. "Didst thou meet with a bundle of provender in the graveyard that thy stomach did not warn thee to breakfast?"
"Prithee heed it not," was the reply; "I care little thus early for thy confections. Besides, I have been beset by a knave, whose vocation verily remindeth man of his latter end. I've been bandying discourse with the sexton yonder, as I believe."
"Heh! mercy on us! Ye have seen Steenie, belike," said the dame, lifting up one hand from her knee, which had been reposing there as a protection from the fervid advances of a glowing fire before which she sat.
"Truly, I do suspect this trafficker in ready-made tombs to be none other," said Egerton.
"An' howkin' at a grave?"
"Ay! and with right good will, too."
"Then look well to your steps, Sir Stranger, that ye fall not into't; for Stephen never yet made grave that lacked a tenant ere long."
"'Tis strange!" said the cavalier, anxiously. "Do ye dig graves here by anticipation? or"——
"He scents death like a carrion crow, I tell ye; an' if he but digs a grave, somebody or other always contrives to tumble in; an' mostly they 'at first see him busy with the job. He's ca'd here 'the live man's sexton.'"
The cavalier sat down before a well-covered stool, on which was spread a homely but plentiful breakfast of eggs, cheese, rashers of bacon, a flagon of ale, and a huge pile of oat-cake; but he did not fall to with the appetite or relish of a hungry man.
"Let me reckon," said the host, beginning to muster up his arithmetic. "There was"——
"Nathan Sumner, I say; thou'rt al'ays out wi' thy motty if a body speaks. Doesn't the beer want tunning, and thou'rt leesing there o' thy haunches; at thy whys and thy wise speeches. Let me alone wi' the gentles, and get thee to the galkeer. Besides, you see that he knoweth not how to disport himsel' afore people of condition—saving your presence, masters," said the power predominant, as her husband meekly retreated from the despotic and iron rule of his helpmate.
"Peradventure he doth himself provide tenants for his own graves," said the cavalier, thoughtfully; "but I'll split the knave's chowl, if he dare"——
"You know not him whom you thus accuse," said a soft musical voice from an inner chamber. "I know those who would not see him with his foot in a new-made grave for the best rent-roll in Christendom!"
The speaker, as she came forward, bent a glance of reproof towards the stranger.
"And wherefore, my bonny maiden?" inquired he.
"Does he not scent the dying like a raven? When once his eye is upon them they shall not escape. There be some that have seen their last o' this green earth, and the sky, and yonder bright hills. I trust the destroying angel will pass by this house!"
"By'r lady," replied the other hastily, "the varlet, when I asked whose lodging it should be, answered, mine! holding forth his long skinny paw that I might pay him for the job."
The maiden listened with a look of terror. She grew pale and almost ghastly; wiping her brow with the corner of her apron, as though in great agitation and perplexity.
There was usually a warm and healthy blush upon her cheek, but it waned suddenly into the dim hue of apprehension, as she replied in a low whisper—
"Ye must not go hence; and yet"——She hesitated, and appeared as though deeply revolving some secret source of both anxiety and alarm.
The cavalier was silent too, but the result of his deliberations was of a nature precisely opposite to that of his fair opponent.
"Our beasts being ready, Chisenhall," said he to his companion, "we will depart while the day holds on favourable. We may have worse weather, and still worse quarters, should we tarry here till noontide, as we purposed. But"—and here he looked earnestly at the maiden—"we shall come again, I trust, when they that seek our lives be laid low."
She put one hand on his arm, speaking not aloud, but with great earnestness—
"Go not; and your lives peradventure shall be given you for a prey. There is a godly man hereabout, unto whom I will have recourse; and he shall guide you in this perplexity."
"We be men having little time to spare, and less inclination—higlers too, into the bargain," replied he, with a dubious glance toward his friend Chisenhall, who was just despatching the last visible relics of a repast in which he had taken a more than equal share of the duty; "we are not careful to tarry, or to resort unto such ghostly counsel. We would rather listen to the lips of those whose least word we covet more than the preaching of either priest or Puritan; but the time is now come when we must eschew even such blessed and holy"——
"There's a time for all things," said Chisenhall hastily, and as soon as his mouth was at rest from the solid contents with which he had been successfully, and almost uninterruptedly, occupied for the last half-hour; wishful, also, to abate the impression which his companion's indiscreet intimation of dislike to psalm-singers and Puritans might have produced. "There is a time to buy and to sell, and to get gain; a time to marry, and a time to be merry and be glad:" here he used a sort of whining snuffle, which frustrated his attempts at neutralising the sarcasms of his friend. "Being in haste," he continued, "we may not profit by thy discourse; but commend ourselves to his prayers until our return, which, God willing, we may safely accomplish in a se'nnight at the farthest."
"If ye depart, I will not answer for your safe keeping."
"And if we stay, my pretty maiden, I am fearful we shall be in safe keeping." An ambiguous smile curled his lip, which she fully understood. Indeed, her manner and appearance were so much superior to her station, that no lady of the best and gentlest blood might have comported herself more excellently before these gay, though disguised cavaliers. There was a natural expression of dignity and high feeling in her demeanour, as if rank and noble breeding were enclosed in so humble a shrine, visible indeed, but still through the medium of a homely but bewitching grace and simplicity. This, in part, might be the consequence of an early residence at Lathom, where, in a few years, she had risen, from a station among the lower domestics to a confidential place about the person of the countess. Here she excited no small share of admiration; and it was partly to avoid the fervid advances of some vivacious gallants that she resolved on quitting so exposed and dangerous a position; the more especially as the lowering aspect of the times, and the uncertain termination of the coming struggle, might have left her without a protector, and at the mercy of the lawless ruffians who were not wanting on either side. Retiring home without regret, she had imbibed, from the ministrations of a zealous and conscientious advocate of the republican party, a relish for the doctrines and self-denying exercises of the Puritans, with whom she usually associated in their religious assemblies.
"Do ye purpose, then, for Knowsley to-day?" she inquired, after a short silence.
"Yea; unless our present dilemma, and the obstruction thereby, turn aside the current of our intent."
"Pray Heaven it may!" said the maiden, with great fervour; "for I do fear me that some who are not of a godly sort are abiding there—even they with whom righteous and well-ordered men should not consort withal."
"Heed not. Being of them who are not righteous overmuch, we can bear unharmed the scoffs of prelatists and self-seekers."
"There be others," replied she; but the appearance of the dame, who had been overlooking the operations of her helpmate, interrupted the communication. The horses, too, were at the door, led forth by a lubberly serving-lad; and they seemed eager to depart, pawing, as though scarcely enduring a momentary restraint. The cavalier, after giving some order about the beasts, would have bidden farewell to the maiden in private; but she had departed unperceived. He was evidently chagrined, lingering long in the house, in hopes of her reappearance, but in vain. He was forced to depart without the anticipated interview.
Out of sight and hearing, the cavaliers began to converse more freely.
"Right fain I am," said Egerton, "of our escape from yonder house; for I began to fear me we were known, or, at any rate, suspected by one, if not more, of our good friends behind."
"By one fair friend, peradventure," said Chisenhall drily; "but, on the word of a soldier, I may be known, and little care I, save that it may be dangerous to be found in my company. In the last siege yonder, at Lathom, I have beaten off more rogues than flies from my trencher; and I would we had but had room and fair play at York; we would have given your"——
"Hold; no names; remember that I am plain Master Egerton: there may be lurkers in these tall hedges; so, both in-doors and out, I am—what mine appearance doth betoken."
"Well, Master Egerton, good wot, though a better man than myself, which few be now-a-days, for these strait-haired Roundheads do thin us like coppice-trees, and leave but here and there one to shoot at. I would the noble lord had been within his good fortress yonder, I think it would have been too hot to handle, with cold fingers, by the host of Old Nick, or Parliament, I care not which."
"It was partly at my suggesting that he retired to his island of Man. There were heart-burnings and jealousies amongst the courtiers on his account, which were but too readily given ear unto by the king."
"Grant it may not be for our hurt as well as his own. I had no notion that these wasps would have been so soon again at the honeycomb. Could we and our bands have made entry, we would have shown them some of the old match-work, and given them a psalm to sing that they would not readily have forgotten. As it is, we are just wanderers and vagabonds, without e'er a house or a homestead to hide us in, should our friends be driven from Knowsley, and our way be blocked up to the coast. What is worse, too, our supplies are nigh exhausted, and our exchequer as empty as the king's. I would we had not tarried here so long, waiting for advices, as thou didst say, Master Egerton; but which advices, I do verily think, were from a lady's lip; and the next tall fellow, with a long face and a fusee, may tuck us under his sleeve, and carry us to his quarters, like a brace of springed woodcocks."
"Fear not, Chisenhall. We will make directly for the coast, and to-morrow, if we have luck, be under weigh for Ireland. If, as I do trust, we get our levies thence, down with the Rump and the Roundheads, say I, and so"——
"We are not bound for Knowsley, then?"
"No, believe me, I have a better nose than to thrust it into the trap, after the foretokenings we have had. The knave who elbowed me i' the graveyard, as well as the maiden yonder, warned us of some danger at Knowsley, where, I do verily suspect, the rogues are in ambush, waiting for us; but we will give them the slip, and away for bonny Waterford."
The morning was yet raw and misty. A dense fog was coming on, which every minute became more heavy and impervious to the sight. Objects might be heard, long ere they were seen. The rime hung like a frost-work from branch and spray, showing many a fantastic festoon, wreathed by powers and contrivances more wonderful than those by which our vain and presumptuous race are endowed. The little birds looked out from their covers, and chirped merrily on, to while away the hours till bedtime. The rooks cawed from their citadel—to venture abroad was out of the question, lest the rogues should be surprised in some act of depredation, and suffer damage thereby. So chill and searching was the atmosphere that the travellers wrapped their cloaks closely about their haunches, to defend themselves from its attacks. They were scarcely a mile or two on their road when, passing slowly between the high coppice on either hand, Egerton stayed his horse, listening; whilst thus engaged, another blood-drop fell on his hand.
"There be foes behind us," said he, softly. His practised and ever-watchful ear had detected the coming footsteps before his friend.
"'Tis a fortunate screen this same quiet mist, and so let us away to cover." Without more ado he leaped through a gap in the fence, followed by his companion; and they lay concealed effectually from the view of any one who might be passing on the road. They were not so far from the main path but that the footsteps of their pursuers could be heard, and voices too, in loud and earnest discourse. The latter kept their horses at a very deliberate pace, as if passing forward at some uncertainty.
"I say again, heed it as we may, this mist will be the salvation of our runaways. After having dogged them to such good purpose from Lathom, it will be a sorry deed should they escape under this unlucky envelope."
"Tush, faint heart—thinkest thou these enemies of the faith shall triumph, and our own devices come to nought? Nay, verily, for the wicked are as stubble, and the ungodly as they whom the fire devoureth."
"But I would rather have a brisk wind than all thy vapours, thy quiddities, and quotations. Yet am I glad they have not ta'en the turn to Knowsley."
"Which way soever they turn, either to the right hand or to the left, we have them in the net, and snares and pitfalls shall devour them."
The remainder of this comfortable assurance was inaudible, and the cavaliers congratulated themselves on their providential escape.
"How stand ye for Knowsley now, Sir Captain?" said Chisenhall.
"Why, of a surety, friend, there be many reasons why we may pray for a safe passport from this unhappy land; but it seemeth as though our purposes were to be for ever crossed. Towards Knowsley, now, it doth appear that we must proceed, our haven and hiding-place; these rogues having got wind that we did not intend to pass by thither, we must countermine the enemy, or rather double upon their route."
"But how shall we be enabled to proceed?"
"Forward to the right," said Egerton, "and we shall be sure to hit our mark, if I mistake not the bearing. 'Tis, I believe, scarcely two miles hence; and under this friendly cover we cannot be observed, though we should mistake our way."
Changing their course, they now attempted, at all hazards, a running chase along and across hedges and enclosures, in the supposed direction of their retreat. After a somewhat perilous journey for at least an hour in this thick mist, without discovering any object by which they could ascertain their relative situation, Chisenhall at length espied something like a dark square tower before them.
"Plague, pestilence, and all the saints! why if yonder be not that same old ugly grim tower dodging us!" He rubbed his eyes, hardly satisfied that his morning indulgences were ended.
"We are fairly on our way for the grave again, sure enough," said Egerton; "or it may be as thou sayest, the graveyard itself is following us." He tried to rally into a smile, but was unable to disport himself in this wise, and it became needful that some way should be hit upon for their extrication, and that speedily. Occupied in earnest discourse, they were not aware of the presence of a third person until a thin squeaking voice accosted them from behind.
"Back again so soon?—wi' the de'il at your crupper too!"
"Foul fa' thee, thou screech-owl," said Egerton, starting back at that ill-omened sound; "we shall ne'er be rid o' this pestilence!" He attempted to spring aside from the object of his abhorrence; but in a moment his horse was holden by the bridle with almost more than human strength; and the malicious creature set up an exulting and triumphant laugh that was anything but agreeable in their present evil condition.
"Let go—or, by thy master's hoofs, I will send thee to him in the twinkling of a trigger!" said Egerton, drawing forth his pistol.
"Hoo, hoo!" shouted his tormentor, mocking and making faces, with an expression of fiendish delight—"thee 'ill be first though, nunky."
Egerton pointed the weapon; but his horse, goaded in all probability by the strange being beside him, made a sudden spring, and, as ill-luck would have it, stumbled and fell, both horse and rider sprawling in the dust. The cause of this foul accident scampered off with great activity: Chisenhall dismounted, extricating his friend from the trappings. He was bleeding profusely from the nostrils, and appeared insensible. Judging it the wisest plan, though at the risk of their captivity, to procure help, he galloped away to the tavern for assistance.
Much to the surprise of the family was Chisenhall's reappearance, but no time was lost in useless explanations; the host and his daughter immediately proceeded to the spot, with means and appliances for Egerton's removal and recovery; but to their astonishment and dismay the body was removed. His horse was grazing quietly on the herbage, yet there was no trace of Egerton's disappearance. Chisenhall was almost beside himself with distress and consternation; but Marian, though much concerned, seemed to possess some clue to this enigma.
"Steenie, thou sayest, was the cause of this untoward disaster?"
"Ay; that cursed fiend. I wish all his"——
"Nay, nay, friend, thou speakest like to the foolish ones, vain and impious men, whose mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. We had best return; I will think on this matter, and ere the morrow we may have tidings of thy friend; but"——Here she looked significantly aside as she spoke, but not in her father's hearing. "Keep snug here in thy quarters, friend; for since ye left there came divers of the people to inquire, and as He would have it, from me only. Ye be sons of Belial, they said, and cavaliers withal. But ye have eaten and drunken in our dwelling, and though red with the blood of the saints, I cannot deliver you into the hand of your pursuers."
Chisenhall reluctantly complied, having no other resource, and judging it best not to stir abroad, as it might be compromising the safety of both parties, without leading to any beneficial result.
The horses were unharnessed and turned out to graze, whilst Chisenhall was disposed of in an upper chamber above one of the outhouses. His anxiety for his friend allowed him but little rest, and often he was on the point of issuing forth in quest of intelligence; but happily prudence prevented him from sacrificing his own and another's life to a vain and fruitless impatience.
During Chisenhall's concealment Marian was by no means in the same state of idleness and inactivity. She threw on her hood and kerchief; and a clean white apron, girt about her waist, fully displayed the symmetry of her form. Her cloak was adjusted but with little regard to outward show; and an hour was scarcely past ere she sallied forth, as she was often wont, to the dwelling of Gilgal Snape, a person of great note as a preacher and leader of the faithful in these parts. He was, in truth, a worthy and zealous man, sincerely devoted to the cause he espoused, and the service of his Maker—one widely distinguished from the hypocrites and fanatics of that turbulent era, which, like our own, produced, though in a more exaggerated form, from the stimulus then abroad, the same rank and noxious weeds of hypocrisy and superstition; for man, like a mathematical problem, circumstances and conditions being the same, brings out, invariably, the same results. No form of worship, however ludicrous or revolting, but hath its advocates and supporters; and there is nothing which the proud mind and unsubdued heart of man will not put forth, when that heart is made the hot-bed of unholy and unsanctified feelings—all monstrous and polluted things ripening, even beneath the warm and blessed sun that revives and beautifies all else by its splendour.
Gilgal had, however, his figments and his fancies, inseparable perchance from the times and dispositions by which they were engendered. When men, awaking as from a dream, shaking off the deep slumber of bigotry, but not intolerance, through the medium of their yet unpractised sense saw "men as trees walking," regarding trivial and unimportant objects as paramount and essential, while others, whose nature was vital and supreme, were hardly discerned, or at best but slightly noticed or understood;—when minds long tinctured by superstition brought the whole of their previous habits and instincts to bear upon the newly-awakened energies that were heaving and convulsing the moral fabric of society, and the ground of preconceived notions and opinions on which they stood, they could hardly be persuaded that the kingdom of heaven "cometh not by observation;" that special miracles, and visible manifestations of divine favour, were not again to be vouchsafed to the "elect;" and that their faith and prayers were not sufficient to remove mountains, and to conquer and subdue every obstacle. There was more pride in these expectations than they were willing to allow, or even to suspect; and in many it was the very pride and "naughtiness of their hearts;" whilst in others it was but the operation of remaining ignorance, unsubdued lusts, and unsanctified affections.
Gilgal was famous in his day for dealing with "spiritual wickedness in high places." The "prince of the power of the air" was subject unto him. In other words, it was said of him that he had cast out devils and healed the possessed. When others failed, Gilgal had wrestled and prevailed. One of the first-fruits of this outpouring of his soul was "Steenie Ellison," who, from his childhood, was subject to periodical and violent affections of the body—contortions that gave him, in the eyes of many, an appearance of one possessed. Stephen had a considerable share of cunning, a sort of knavish sagacity and ready impertinence, peculiar to most of his kind. He was an orphan, early left to the care of chance or charity, and being a follower of bell-ringers, grave-diggers, and the like, assumed a sort of semi-official attitude at all funerals, weddings, and merry-makings in the neighbourhood. He was generally suspected of holding intercourse with the powers of evil, and when suffering from disease, the unclean spirit whom he had offended was supposed to be afflicting him, having entered into his body to buffet and torment him for his contumacy and disobedience. So partial was he to the art and occupation of grave-making, that he was observed at times to hew out a habitation for the dead ere a tenant was provided. It was always remarked, nevertheless, that the narrow house failed not ere long to receive an inhabitant; and this apprehension considerably heightened the terror with which he was regarded, and rendered him celebrated throughout the country by the name of "the live man's sexton."
But the worthy minister being much moved with compassion towards this child of Satan, his bowels yearned for him, that he might cast out the unclean spirit, and deliver him from his spiritual bondage. He accordingly girded himself to the work, and a great name did he get throughout the land by this mighty achievement, for the possessed became docile as a little child before him, and was subsequently a sort of erratic follower of the party unto which Gilgal was allied; but he would at times forsake the assemblies of the faithful, when, it is said, the dark spirit of divination again came over him, and he would wander among the tombs, showing symptoms of a disordered intellect, though not of the same violent character as before.
Towards the dwelling of Gilgal Snape did Marian direct her steps; it was but a short mile from her own. Often had she been a visitant to the house, where she imbibed the doctrines and instructions of this sincere and zealous confessor of the faith. She frequently mingled in the devotions that were there offered up; but her piety was of a more moderate and amiable cast—less violent and ascetic, not unmixed with love and pity for her enemies and the persecutors of the truth.
Her object in this visit was not so much to partake of the crumbs from the good man's spiritual banquet, as to gain some intelligence through him respecting Egerton's disappearance. She recognised the individuals who were in pursuit of him to be scouts from the republican leaders, with whom the divine was in constant communication. Of the real rank of Egerton she was still ignorant; but she more than suspected his disguise, and scarcely hesitated to conclude, from the anxiety shown for his apprehension, that he was of no little importance in the estimation of his opponents.
Musing and much troubled, by reason of many conflicting emotions, she took no note of the lapse of time until her arrival at the habitation of this devout minister of the word. It was built in a sequestered glen, by a narrow brook near to a couple of black, shapeless, scraggy firs, whose long lean arms were extended over the roof. A low porch guarded the door, in which dairy utensils and implements of husbandry were usually placed. The short casement windows were rendered still more gloomy, and in places screened from light, by the creeping woodbine throwing its luxuriant and unrestricted foliage about their deep recesses. A little wicket admitted the visitor into the court, on each side of which was a homely garden, where nothing ornamental was suffered to intrude or encroach upon the space devoted to objects of usefulness rather than indulgence.
Marian lifted up the latch, entering upon the precincts of this hallowed abode. She passed on, through the large cold cheerless apartment generally called the house; turning thence towards a little chamber, used as an oratory, she heard a loud voice within. She tapped first upon the door, which she slowly opened, and beheld the good man with the sacred volume spread out before him. He raised his eyes for a moment as she entered, but refrained not from his exercise, nor altered in the least the strenuous tone of his orisons.
"And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and smote Eglon, the King of Moab, so that he died. Thus perish the ungodly and the oppressor, even as Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal, on whom the Almighty rendered the curse of Jotham his brother, and all his wickedness that he had committed, and all the evil of the men of Shechem did God return upon their own heads." Here he raised his eyes, closing the book with a devout aspiration of compliance to the will of Heaven. "I have sought counsel," he continued, "and been much comforted thereby. The wicked shall be utterly cut off, and the ungodly man shall fall by the sword. We may not spare, nor have pity, as Saul spared Agag, whom Samuel hewed in pieces; for the land is cursed for their sakes!"
"Hath Steenie yet returned from vain idols, and the abominations he hath committed?" inquired the maiden.
"He doth yet hunger after the flesh-pots of Egypt; but my bowels yearn towards him, even as my first-born. I do sorrow lest he be finally entangled in the snares of the evil one."
"Knowest thou where he abideth, or if he doth attend the outpouring of the word hereabout?"
"Verily, nay," said the divine; "but I have heard from Sarah and Reuben Heathcote that he hath been seen in the house of ungodly self-seekers, and notorious Papists and malignants, even with our enemies at Garswood. He hath likewise been found resorting unto that high place of papistry, Windleshaw, of late; despising—yea, reviling—the warnings and godly exhortations of the Reverend Master Haydock, who did purpose within himself to win, peradventure it might be to afflict with stripes, this lost one from the fold, that he might bring him back. But he hath sorely buffeted and evil-entreated this diligent shepherd with many grievous indignities; such as tying him unto a gate, and vexing him with sundry of Satan's devices. Yet we would fain hope that he is a chosen vessel, though now defiled by the adversary. He will return, peradventure, as heretofore, when the day of his visitation is past." The good man did, indeed, yearn over this erring sinner, and lifting up his voice he wept aloud.
"There came two men to our habitation, where they abode certain days," said Marian.
"And they departed this morning," said the minister, sharply; "knowest thou that these be enemies of our faith, and contemners of the word?"
"I knew them not," she replied, "save that I suspected them as such, ere they departed."
"Thou wouldest not have them taken with thee in the house, and in that thou judgedst wisely; for I care not that a maiden's thoughts were so soon disposed for deeds like these, which be fitter for iron hearts and brazen hands. Though Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, slew Sisera in her tent, and Rahab the harlot received the spies in peace; yet thou didst, I doubt not, point out the way by which they went to the spies sent by the council of the holy state, to follow after these sons of Belial, and deliver them into their hands."
"I know not the path they took," said Marian, evasively.
"Heed not, for the men shall be delivered unto us; even now are they pursued, and, I doubt not, overtaken. Which way soever they turn, their steps are holden, and a snare is laid for their feet; for they shall surely die!" The preacher lifted up his eyes in righteous indignation. They have made themselves drunk with the blood of the saints."
"Will not their lives be given them for a prey?" inquired Marian, apparently in great alarm.
"I have sought counsel, I tell thee; and the Philistine and the Canaanite shall be destroyed utterly from the land."
"I fear me they be other than I had imagined," returned the maiden weeping; "yet still, and I trust I shall be forgiven, I could not betray them who have abided with us, and eaten of our bread."
"Thou knowest them not, wench," said Gilgal; "and 'tis perhaps well thou shouldest not." Here he looked fiercely from under his brows, as though he would have pierced the very inmost recesses of her soul. "Beware," continued he, "for thou art comely, and these men do use devilish and subtle devices to allure and to betray."
Marian was silent. A swollen tear, the overflowing of an overwhelmed and oppressed heart, slowly wandered down her cheek. It was the very crisis of the conflict; and the old man forbore to break the bruised reed. She seemed uneasy and anxious to depart; but he hindered her for a space.
"Wilt thou not, as thou art wont, approach with me to the footstool of Him who doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men?"
Marian felt the rebuke, though it was so finely tempered, and administered so tenderly. She was one of his earlier converts, and his love for her was that of a spiritual parent. Bending the knee, she covered her burning cheeks, and poured out her heart with him in fervour and sincerity. Whether both of them had precisely the same object in view as the end of their supplications, or whether the maiden's fears and inclinations might not lead her to offer up a sincere petition for the safety of others besides those of the household, we will not take upon ourselves to determine; but on leaving the dwelling of Gilgal Snape a suppressed sigh and an involuntary whisper escaped her—"He may yet be spared." She raised her eyes in thankfulness, and a gleam of hope, but not of happiness, irradiated her heart; for she now felt that a great gulf separated them for ever.
She had ascertained by her converse with the Puritan, who was well informed in all matters connected with his party, that they were yet unacquainted as to the ulterior proceedings of the strangers; and it seemed probable, from this circumstance alone, that at any rate Egerton had not fallen into their hands. Her next object was to find out "Steenie," and to elicit from him the knowledge of the stranger's fate; for unless this mischievous personage had in some wild erratic freak or another conveyed him off, she could not tell what mishap could have befallen him. Despite of her prejudices and the true bent of her disposition, which, though it partook not of the furious and headlong intolerance of the times, was yet sufficiently imbued with the spirit of her sect, the cavalier had won so unsuspectingly upon her kindness that she started as though she would have escaped from her own thoughts, when she felt the deep and agonising shudder which crossed her at the bare possibility that he might fall into the hands of the avenger of blood. At a glance she saw the fearful involutions and the almost inextricable toils by which the fugitives were encompassed. Unaided, she was well aware that their attempts would be fruitless. She knew not the intentions of the crazy sexton on this point. The wayward and apparently capricious movements of this strange compound of Puritanism and Papistry were too dangerous and uncertain to allow any hope for ultimate safety under his management. Whether or not he had a hand in Egerton's removal was still a matter of conjecture. She felt, in addition to this uncertainty, no slight degree of awe and apprehension in her approaches to this solitary being; and a sort of undefined notion that, however modified and controlled by circumstances, yet his communications with the world of spirits were still in operation, imparting to his converse and communion with his fellow-men a strange and dubious character, which even strangers did not fail to perceive, and to shrink from contact with a being of such doubtful qualities. His predictions and dark sayings were often quoted, and much more importance was attached to them than their real and obvious meaning should have warranted. They derived greater credence, perhaps, from their usually vague and ambiguous character suiting any accident and condition, according to the fancy of the hearer, however remotely allied in their meaning and application. Whatsoever might be the event, there was little difficulty in shaping out an appropriate or equivalent prediction; and it did seem at times sufficiently marvellous that few occurrences should take place which could not be traced to some dark foretokening enveloped in one or other of these mystical revelations. Events happen to ourselves that do occasionally, and not unfrequently, rush back upon our minds with unaccountable and almost appalling force, as though, however novel in reality, they were but facts and feelings with which we had long ago been familiar, yet in what manner we are unable to determine. It might seem that they had suddenly, and for a moment, started forth from the Lethe which divides our present existence from some past state of being; that a sudden light had flashed from the portals of oblivion, too rapid or too dazzling, perhaps, to be apprehended or defined.
As she returned the shadows of evening were coming on dim and softly over the quiet glades and dewy meadows. The noisy rooks, having lately ventured forth, were cawing cheerily on their homeward flight, "beguiling the way with pleasant intercourse." The lesser birds were flitting towards the bushes; and through the lingering mist-wreath, floating still and tranquilly on the moist meadows, came forth at times a solitary twitter, as though the lark had alighted softly and joyously on her nest. The glow and the brightness of evening were gone when Marian passed the threshold of her home, uncertain yet as to the fate of Egerton and the course she should pursue. She allayed, as well as she was able, the fretfulness and impatience of Chisenhall, entreating that he would remain quiet until the morrow, after which it was possible that something would transpire with regard to his friend. The irresistible conclusion, that by venturing forth he would compromise the safety of all parties, alone rendered him tractable, and prevented the consequences of any rash exposure.
Too much occupied in resolves and plans for to-morrow's enterprise, the maiden on retiring to her chamber felt no inclination for repose, and her little couch was left vacant. It was a low room within the thatch, into which a narrow window, projecting from the roof, admitted the clear mellow radiance of the moon, now shining uninterruptedly from above. So lovely and inviting was the aspect of the night, that, after a long and anxious train of thought, she resolved to enjoy the calm and delicious atmosphere, free and unconfined, hoping to feel its invigorating effects upon her exhausted spirits.
It might be within a short half-hour of midnight when she tripped lightly down the stairs, and was soon across the stile which led to the deserted chapel of Windleshaw. Attracted by the beauty and the reviving freshness of all around her, fearing no evil and conscious of no alarm, she proceeded, wandering without aim or purpose into the quiet cemetery.
In the dark shadow of the building she walked on, fearless and alone. Her bosom had been hitherto the abode of happiness and peace. To the stranger's appearance might be attributed the source of her present disquiet. She would have breathed after communion with heavenly things, but earthly objects mingled in her aspirations; charity, peradventure, for those of another creed, and anxiety for another's fate. But she was not satisfied that this was the sole cause of her unhappiness; and the pang of separation, too, came like a barbed arrow into her soul. She felt alarmed, amazed at the sudden change. She feared that her weak and wandering heart was going back to the world, and resting for support on its frail and perishing interests. Tossed and buffeted with temptation, she still passed on; when, turning the angle of the grey tower, she emerged again into the clear, unbroken moonlight—the little hillocks and upright gravestones alone disturbing the broad and level beam. She was startled from her reverie by dull and heavy sounds near her, as though a pickaxe were employed by invisible hands in disturbing the ground close to where she stood. She paused a moment and listened; the blows were still falling, and she felt the ground vibrating beneath her feet. A sudden thought crossed her—it might be "Steenie," even at this untimely hour, plying his accustomed vocation. He had been retarded probably by the accidents of the day; and the occasion being urgent, according to his own anticipations, had led him to labour so late for its completion. It was doubtless the grave which had been so mysteriously assigned to the lot of Egerton. A cold tremor crept upon her; she remembered the denunciation and the uncertain fate of the victim. Even now he might be hastening to his final account, and this horrid ghoul might be scenting the dissolution of the body that he was preparing to entomb.
"Graciously forbid it, Heaven!" she inwardly ejaculated, approaching the grave; but so softly, that her footsteps were not heard by the invisible workman, who was deep in the abyss of his own creating. The blows had ceased, and the mattock was now in requisition. Shovelfuls of earth were thrown out; thick and heavy clods were hurled forth in rapid succession. The scene would have driven back many a timid girl; and even some stout hearts and fierce stomachs would have shrunk from the trial. She was within range, and almost within the grasp, of a being whose evil dispositions were known and acknowledged—a being whose mysterious connection with intelligences of an unfriendly nature was universally admitted. A grave, dug in secret, peradventure during some baneful and preternatural process, yawned before her. Midnight, too, was nigh; and she was not devoid of apprehension—that inherent dread of the invisible things of darkness universally bound up with our feeble and fallen nature. Since the day of his first estrangement, man never, even in imagination or apprehension, approaches the dark and shadowy threshold of a world unseen without terror, lest some supernatural communication should break forth; it seems a feeling coeval with the curse on our first parents, when they heard "the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden, and were afraid." This apprehension still clings to us; but, though surrounded in light, as well as in darkness, by a world of disembodied spirits, whose attributes and capacities are inconceivably superior to our own, our nature is so material, and our very essence so engrossed and identified with earth, that it is only when the startling realities of their existence become manifest in those visible emblems of their nature—darkness and death—that we shrink back in horror, lest our very being should suffer contact with spiritual and eternal things.
Concealed from view, Marian stood still at a very short distance from the grave. Steenie was humming a plaintive ditty, or rather dirge; for it partook of a double character, something between an alehouse roundelay and a funeral chant.
She soon perceived that each spadeful, as it was thrown out, was accompanied by a separate distich, the meaning of which she could distinctly gather from some uncouth and barbarous rhymes—the remnants, probably, of a more superstitious age—almost cabalistic in their form and acceptation. The following may serve as a specimen, though we have taken the precaution to render them a little more intelligible:—
"Howk, hack, and dig spade; Tenant ne'er grumbled that grave was ill made."
Then came a heavy spadeful of earth again from the narrow house. Another shovelful produced the following doggerel:—
"Housen, and castles, and kings decay; But the biggins we big last till doomus-day."
Some more coarse and less intelligible jargon followed, which it is not needful that we repeat. Again he threw forth a burden of more than ordinary bulk, resting from his labours during the following more elaborate ditty:—
"Dark and dreary though it be, Thou shalt all its terrors dree: Dungeon dark, where none complain, Nor 'scape to tell its woe and pain."
Again he bent him to his task, and again the earth went rolling forth, accompanied by something like the following verse:—
"Though I dig for him that be living yet, O'er this narrow gulf he shall never get; The mouth gapes wide that 'Enough' ne'er cries; Each clod that I fling on his bosom lies; In darkness and coldness it rests on thee, With the last stroke that falls thy doom shall be!"
With increasing energy did he work on, as though to accelerate the fate of his victim. Marian felt herself on the brink of the tomb, and its icy touch was perceptible through every part of her frame.
The mystic chant was again audible, and more distinct than before—
"The charm is wound, and this stroke shall be The last, when it falls, of his destiny; Save he sell to another his birthright here, Then the buyer shall buy both grave and bier."
Uttering this malediction, he scrambled out of the grave, and suddenly stood before the astonished maiden, who shuddered as she beheld the unshapely outline of a form which she instantly recognised.
He did not seem a whit surprised or startled, though he could not have been aware previously that a listener was nigh.
"What ho, wench!" said he; "art watching for a husband?" His sharp shrill voice grated on her ear like the cry of the screech-owl.
"I came to meet thee!" said she firmly. He broke forth into a loud laugh at this reply, more terrible than the most violent expression of hate or malignity. No wonder, in those ages, that it was supposed to be the operation of some demon, animate in his form, controlling and exercising the bodily functions to his own malignant designs.
"Where is he whom I seek?" inquired the maiden.
"Ask the clods of the valley, and the dust unto which man departs!" he replied, pointing significantly to the gulf at his feet.
"Nay," said Marian, apparently to humour the fantastical turn of his ideas; "thou knowest if he sell that grave to another, he shall escape, and the doom shall be foregone."
"Ay, lassie; but there be no fools now-a-days, I wot, to buy a man's grave over his head for the sake of a bargain!"
"I warrant thee now, Steenie, but thou hast hidden him hereabout." She said this in as careless and indifferent a tone as she could well assume.
"I am but a-keeping of him safe till his time comes. Neither priest nor Presbyterian shall cheat me out of him. He's mine as sure as that grave gives not back its prey."
"He is living, I trow?"
"Good wot, I reckon so; but living men may die; and this pick never, for man or woman, opened a mouth that was left to gape long without victuals."
"Thou wouldst not harm him?"
"I'd not hurt the hair on a midge-tail, though it stung me. But his doom was shown me yesternight," said he, lowering his voice to a whisper; "and I would have him laid here in consecration, that the devil get not his bones to pick, for neither priest nor Puritan can bless the ground now-a-days like unto this."
Whether the cause of his anxiety was really a wish to provide a hallowed resting-place for the cavalier, or this pretence was merely to cover some ulterior purposes of his own, the maiden was left without a clue to form any plausible conjecture. She had heard sufficient, however, to ascertain that he was in some way or another accessory to the disappearance of Egerton, and that in all likelihood he knew the retreat of the unfortunate captive.
A woman's wits are proverbially sharpened by exigencies, and Marian was not slow in obeying their impulse.
"Where art thou abiding? I would fain speak with thee to-morrow touching thy condition, for thou hast been much estranged from us of late."
He pointed to the ivied belfry, where a grated loophole formed a dark cross on the wall.
"A man may sleep if the wind will let him; but such fearsome visions I have had of late, that I ha' been just nigh 'reft o' my wits. Wilt be a queen or a queen-mother, Marian? Something spake to me after this fashion; but I was weary with watching. The spirit passed from me, and I comprehended him not."
She was silent, apprehensive that his wits were at present too bewildered for her purpose, being always subject to aberration under any peculiar excitement of either mind or body.
"I will visit thee yonder to-morrow," said Marian.
"Me!" he shouted, in a tone of surprise. "Bless thy pretty face, Marian, I have bolted him in. He is but waiting for his dismissal."
Again he pointed to the grave.
"Tush," said Marian; "he will not, maybe, get his passport thither so soon, unless, indeed, thou shouldst starve him to death."
"Starve him! Nay, by"——He stopped just as he was on the point of uttering some well-remembered but long quiescent oath.
"I thought not of that before, Marian: he will want some food. Ay—ay, bless thy little heart, I did not think on 't. But for thee, Marian, I should ha' kept him there, and he might ha' starved outright; though he will not need it long, I trow, poor fool!" said he, with a sigh, ludicrous enough under other circumstances, but now invested with all the solemnity of a supernatural disclosure.
"I will away for victuals," said Marian: "stay here until I return." A short time only elapsed ere she came again, laden with provisions and other restoratives, judging that the captive stood in need of some refreshment.
Stephen was waiting for her in a deep and solemn fit of abstraction before the low door leading to a staircase at the foot of the tower. He spoke not until she stood beside him.
"My brain, Marian—Oh! my brain. Here, here!" Seizing her hand, he pressed it hurriedly over his brow, which was hot, almost scorching. The blood beat rapidly through his throbbing temples. Fearful lest the approaching hallucination might prevent her benevolent designs, she soothed and coaxed him to lead the way, which had the desired effect; muttering as he went on, at times unintelligibly, at others speaking with peculiar emphasis and vehemence.
"The foul fiend came again, though he was cast out; and I—I yielded. He promised me gold, if I would dig for 't. And I digg'd, and digg'd; but it always shaped itself into a grave—another's grave—and I never found any. Yea, once. Look thee, wench," said he, pulling out a bright Jacobus from his belt, and holding it in the beam that shot through a loophole of the ascent. "Yes; this—this! the devil brought it that tempted me. No, no; I sold my own grave for 't. Would it were mine again: I had been where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest. Nay; there will be no rest for me. I am an apostate—a castaway—the devil that seduced me hath said it again and again—for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness, and the noisome pit for ever! But as long, look thee, as I keep this gold, I die not. No! though twice ten thousand were on my track; for I sold my grave to a doomed one; nor, till I buy another with the same piece of gold, shall death and hell prevail against me. So sayeth the fiend."
Marian felt actually as though in the presence of the Evil One, so completely had the frenzy of this poor deluded idiot developed itself in this short interval. Some violent paroxysm was evidently approaching; and her object was, if possible, to procure the liberation of Egerton before her guide should be rendered either unwilling or incapable. He suddenly assumed a more calm and consistent demeanour, while, to her great joy, she heard him climbing the stair. She followed as closely as the darkness would permit, and heard him pause after ascending a few steps. Then a bolt was withdrawn, her hand was seized, and she was led hastily through the aperture. It was the entrance to a small chamber in the tower, lighted by the grating before named, through which the moonlight came softly, like a wizard stream, into the apartment.
By this light she saw something coiled up in a corner, like a human form in the attitude of repose. It was the prisoner Egerton, fast asleep. Nature, worn out with suffering, was unconsciously enjoying for a season the bliss of oblivion. He heard not the intruders, until Marian gently touched him, when, starting up, he cried—
"Is mine hour come? so soon! I thought"—
"Here be victuals; thy grave's not ready yet," said the maniac.
Soon the soft voice of the maiden fell calmly and quietly on his bosom: and in that hour Egerton felt how noble, how self-denying, was the spirit guiding the hand that ministered to him in the hour of danger and distress. Her disinterestedness was now manifest. Of another creed, and fully aware, perhaps, that he had been one of the most zealous persecutors of those who aforetime were hunted like the wild roe upon the mountains; he found that she had knowledge of him, generally, as belonging to the Royalist party, though not individually as to his rank and character.
If she had set herself to win his favour by draughts and love-philtres, she could not have compassed her design more effectually. His impetuous nature was alike impatient of restraint either in love or in war; but in the latter instance the flame had burnt so rapidly that it was nigh extinguished. This maiden being renowned through the whole neighbourhood for her beauty, as well as the natural and engaging simplicity and gentleness of her manners, appertaining to one of high birth, nurtured in courts, rather than in so humble a station, the cavalier had beforetime looked on her with a favourable glance, but not with eyes at which the god Hymen would have lighted his torch. Now, so strange and wayward is that capricious passion which men call love, that when beset with dangers, his life in jeopardy, and threatened with death on every hand, he seemed to cling even to this lowly one as though his soul were bound to hers. Love, that mighty leveller, for a season threw down every barrier—the pride of birth, and the rank and sphere which were his birthright—nor did a licentious thought find a resting-place in his bosom. Young and ardent, he had spoken to her beforetime, though not explicitly, on the subject; and Marian, knowing none other but that he was a wayfaring man, of little note—so he represented himself—regarded his handsome person, his kindness, and his attentions, with still less appearance of disfavour.
"Thou shouldest be mine, Marian," said he, "were I"——
"Never!" she replied, interrupting him; but a sudden heaving of the breast showed the anguish that one hopeless word cost her.
Stephen was in the chamber, still hurrying to and fro, too fully absorbed in his own abstractions to understand or attend to what was passing.
"And wherefore?" inquired the cavalier, with some surprise.
"Wherefore? Ask your own nature and condition; your pride of station, which I have but lately known; your better reason, why; and see if it were either wise or fitting that one like yourself—though of your precise condition I am yet ignorant—should wive with the daughter of a poor but honest tapster. Suffer this plainness; I might be your bauble to-day, and your chain to-morrow."
"Thou dost wrong me!" said the cavalier; and he took her hand tenderly, almost unresistingly, for a moment. "I would wear thee as my heart's best jewel, and inlay thee in its shrine. It is but fitting that the life thou hast preserved should be rendered unto thee."
"Nay, sir," said she, withdrawing her hand, "my pride forbids it; ay, pride! equal, if not superior to your own. I would not be the wife of a prince on these terms; nor on any other. 'Be not unequally yoked.' Will not this wholesome precept hold even in a carnal and worldly sense? I would not endure the feeling of inferiority, even from a husband. 'Twould but be servitude the more galling, because I could neither persuade myself into an equality, nor rid me of the chain."
"Thou dost reason wondrously, maiden. 'Tis an easy conquest, when neither passion nor affection oppose our judgment; when the feelings are too cold to kindle even at the spark which the Deity himself hath lighted for our solace and our blessing in this valley of tears."
"Mine!—Oh! say not they are too cold, too slow to kindle. They are too easily roused, too ardent, too soon bent before an earthly idol; but"—here she laid her hand on his arm—"but the right hand must be cut off, the right eye plucked out. I would not again be their slave, under the tyranny and dominion of these elements of our fallen nature, for all the pomps and vanities which they would purchase. There be mightier obstacles than those of expediency, as thou dost well imagine, to thy suit; but these are neither coldness nor indifference." Here her voice faltered with emotion, and her heart rose, rebelling against her own inflexible purpose, in that keen, that overwhelming anguish of the spirit. She soon regained her composure, as she uttered firmly: "They are—my altar and my faith!"
Egerton felt as though a sudden stroke had separated them for ever—as though it were the last look of some beloved thing just wrenched from his grasp. This very feeling, had none other prompted, made him more anxious for its recovery; and he would have urged his suit with all the energy of a reckless desperation, but the maiden firmly resisted.