"Urge me not again: not all the inducements I trust that even thou couldest offer would make me forget my fealty! No more—I hear thee not. The tempter I know hath too many allies within the citadel—worldly vanities and unsubdued affections—to suffer me to parley with the traitors and listen to their unholy suggestions. Again I say, I hear thee not."
Finding it was in vain, he forbore to persecute her further; and after having merely tasted of the cordial, and partaken of a slight refreshment, he listlessly inquired if the term of his imprisonment would soon expire.
"Tarry here for a season, until the heat and energy of the pursuit be overpast, or at least abated. We could not find a more fitting place of concealment."
"Being straitened for moneys until we can obtain succour from our friends, I cannot reward your hospitality as I would desire; but if we are brought forth and delivered safely from this thrall, thy father's house shall not be forgotten."
"We will not touch the least of all thy gifts," said the maiden: "forbid that we sold our succour to the distressed, though it were to the most cruel and bitter of our enemies!"
A sudden thought excited this noble-hearted female. She cautiously approached her companion, who, having discontinued his perambulations, had seated himself in a corner, awaiting the termination of their interview. Knowing that he had generally a hoard of moneys about his person—for covetousness was ever his besetting sin—she ventured to solicit a loan, either for herself or the stranger, judging that Egerton's escape would be much impeded, if, as he had just confessed, his finances were hardly sufficient for his ordinary expenditure.
"And so I must give my blood and my groats to nourish thy sweethearts, wench," said the surly money-lender. "I have saved this prelatist and malignant from his adversaries, and now"——He considered a while, muttering his thoughts and arguments to himself with a most confused and volatile impetuosity of ratiocination. In a short time he seemed to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion through all this obscurity, and drew out a handful of coin, of some low denomination, apparently by the sound, and placed it in the hands of his fair suitor.
"There—there—one, two, three. Never mind, wench; I could have counted 'em once with the best clerkman i' the parish; and for the matter of that, I've told 'em oft enough, though,—but the count always seems to slip from me. It is all I have, save the price of my life; and I would not part with that for a world's worth; for what should it profit me, when with it I had bought my grave?"
Marian immediately transferred the long-hoarded treasure into the hands of the cavalier.
"Thanks; yea, better than these, for they were a poor recompense, my peerless maiden. I scruple not to receive this loan at thine hands, because it is part of the means thou dost employ for my escape. Yet doubt not of my willingness and ability to repay thee tenfold. Thou wilt not deny me this silly suit."
As he said this, he, with the greatest gallantry and devotedness, kissed the hand held forth to supply his exigency. He was accompanying the movement with some fair and courtly speech when a loud and terrible cry startled him. It was more like the howl of some ravenous beast than any sound which human organs ever uttered. Curses followed—horrible, untold—the suggestion of fiends in their bitterness and malignity. Then came the cry, or rather shriek—
"Lost! lost!" at irregular intervals.
The cavalier and his companion were much alarmed by this unexpected occurrence. They doubted not that the foul fiend was before them, bodily, in the form of this poor maniac. After a short interval of silence, he cried, approaching them fiercely—
"Ye have sold me, soul and body, to the wicked one. May curses long and heavy light on ye! The coin! the coin! Oh, that accursed thing! I have bought thy grave, stranger; and my day of hope is past!"
The latter part of the speech was uttered in a tone of such deep and heartrending misery that pity arose in place of terror in the bosom of his auditors. Marian ventured to address him, hoping she might assuage or dissipate the fearful hallucination under which he laboured.
"There is yet hope for the repenting sinner. The hour of life is the hour of grace: for that, and that only, is life prolonged. Turn to Him from whom thou hast backslidden, nor add unto thy crime by wilfully rejecting the free offers of His mercy."
"Mercy!—Life!" Here he laughed outright. "Hearest thou not my tormentor?—Life!—I am dead, wench; and my grave is waiting for me, dug by these accursed fingers. That grave I digged for thee is now mine. Unwittingly have I bought it, and the coin is in thy purse!"
It seems the poor maniac, in replacing the mysterious coin to which, from some cause or other, he attached such importance, had unthinkingly added it to the common hoard, and in this manner conveyed it to the stranger, whose grave he persisted he had bought by this transfer; and nothing could shake his belief in so marvellous a conclusion.
The cavalier attempted to comfort him; and in order to make the delusion subservient to the removal of its terrors, he offered to restore the coin, or even the whole of what he had received, that the simple gravedigger might be certain he had it in possession.
"'Tis needless; the token, once from my grasp and in the fingers of another whose grave I have digged, would never change my doom by its return. Keep what thou hast; and may it serve thee more faithfully than it hath served me! But remember—let me say it while my senses hold together, for I feel the blast coming that shall scatter them to the four winds—remember, if thou part therefrom, as I have done, to some doomed one, thou shalt go to the grave in his stead. But a charmed life is thine as long as it is in thy possession. Away—leave me—the master will be here presently for his own. Leave me, I say; for when the fiend cometh, he'll not tarry. But be sure you make fast the door, lest I escape, and mischief happen, should I get abroad."
"Stephen!" said Marian, "slight not the mercy of thy God, nor dishonour His name, by hearkening to the suggestions of the enemy. His arm is not shortened, nor His ear heavy."
"I know it; but when the fiend came, and found the house swept and garnished, did he not take unto himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and was not the latter end of that man worse than the first?"
"Yet," said Marian, "would he have been delivered if he had cried out to the strong man armed."
"But he would hear no refutation, persisting in the thought that his crime was unpardonable, since he had relapsed after the devil was cast out." During the present paroxysm, it was in vain to thwart him further; indeed their stay was attended with some hazard, of which, it seems, he felt aware, inasmuch as he drove them forth without ceremony. Availing themselves of his suggestion they bolted the door on the outside, thus preventing any further mischief. Here was a perplexing and unforeseen dilemma; and how to dispose of the cavalier was a question of no slight importance. At present the only alternative was to convey him to his fellow-traveller, Chisenhall, who, comfortably established in his narrow loft, was quite unconscious of the events that were passing so near him.
As they left the cemetery they heard the groans and cries of the unfortunate victim, suffering, as he imagined, from the resistless power of his tormentor.
Early, with the early dawn, Marian again sought the dwelling of Gilgal Snape. She earnestly entreated him that he would make all speed to the chapel—again exercising his peculiar gift in "binding the strong man armed," or, in other words, dispossessing the demoniac.
The benevolent divine instantly accompanied her, and forthwith proceeded to the relief of the possessed. Howls and shrieks accosted him as he ascended the stair.
"I must be alone," said he; "no earthly witness may be nigh. Strong in faith, by the grace that is given me, I doubt not that this also thou wilt vouchsafe to thine unworthy dust,"—he raised his eyes toward Heaven;—"yet should I fail, He will not let me be overcome, nor fall into the snare of the wicked one; for I know, and am assured, that this trial shall turn out to the furtherance of His glory!"
Marian left him at the entrance. But, with the minister's appearance in the chamber, the agony of the deluded sufferer seemed to quicken, as if the sight of him who was the herald of mercy only added fresh fuel to his torments. Marian was fain to depart; her ears almost stunned with the cries and howlings of the demoniac. She withdrew in great agitation, her knees almost sinking under their burden. Hardly conscious of the removal, she reached her own chamber, where, covering her face with both hands, she wept bitterly. This outburst of tears relieved her; though she still suffered from the recent excitement. Her former resolutions were strengthened by the terrible example she had just witnessed; and the backsliding impenitent she looked upon as a watchlight to warn her from the rocks whereon he had made shipwreck.
Some hours passed on, but no tidings came from the "abbey." She often looked out across the path, and towards the stile which led to the ruins; but all was undisturbed. The sun shining down, bright and unclouded, all was harmony and peace—"all, save the spirit of man, was divine"—all fulfilling their Maker's ordinances, and his behest.
The sun was creeping down towards the dark low tower of the chapel; and Marian was still at the door, gazing out anxiously for intelligence. She saw a figure mounting the stile. It was—she could not be mistaken—it was the reverend and easily-recognised form of Gilgal Snape. She ran down the path to meet him; and she could not help noticing that he looked more sedate than usual, appearing harassed and disquieted, betraying more obviously the approach of age and infirmities.
"Have you wrestled with the adversary and prevailed?" inquired she, anxiously.
"I have had a fearful and a perilous struggle. The fight was long; but, by the sword of the Spirit, I have prevailed."
"Has the backslider been brought again to the fold?"
"He hath, I trust, been found of the Good Shepherd; and he now sleepeth in Abraham's bosom!"
"Dead! Hath the grave so soon demanded its prey?"
"I left him not until the spirit was rendered unto Him who gave it. He entreated me sore that I would not leave him until I had watched his dismissal from the body."
"Then do I know of a surety that the evil spirit was cast out, and the lost one restored."
"There was joy in heaven over a repentant sinner this day. When the dark foe was vanquished, his spirit came again as a little child, and the leprosy of his sin was healed. Verily, the evil one, ere he was overthrown, did utter many strange words touching things to come, and our present perplexities. There seemed to be a spirit of divination within him which did prophesy. Marian," continued the divine, with a scrutinising look, "he did tell of thy dealing with our enemies, and that thou dost even now nourish and conceal those of whom we are in search."
"If thine enemy hunger"——But Marian was hastily interrupted in her plea.
"But of the secrets which, by virtue of mine office and godly vocation, men do entrust to my safe keeping, I may not use, even to the hurt of our enemies and the welfare of the Church, yet buffeted by Satan in the wilderness. Nevertheless, I was sore troubled that thou, even thou, shouldest harbour and abet these wicked men, who have broken the covenant and plucked up the seed of the kingdom. Truly, I wot not where the afflicted Church shall find succour when her foes be they of her own household."
"I knew not that they were enemies when first they sought our habitation. They had eaten and drunken at our board, and the"——
"These sons of Belial found favour in thy sight, even the chief captain of the king's host. I would not accuse or blame thee rashly; but verily thou hast not judged wisely in this matter, for now must they depart, inasmuch as I cannot use, even to the advantage of our just cause, the knowledge I have gained; nor wilt thou render them up, I trow; but mark me, the avenger of blood is behind them, and though the city of refuge be nigh, they shall not escape!——Yet there be other marvels this wicked one did set forth," said the minister, with a searching eye directed to the maiden. "One of these uncircumcised Philistines did woo thee for his bride. What answer gavest thou?"
"Such answer as becometh one who seeketh not fellowship with the works of darkness."
"'Tis well. Now lead me to this Joab the son of Zeruiah, this captain of the king's host; for I have a message unto him also."
Following the astonished and trembling maiden, the divine, fraught with some weighty commission, was admitted into the temporary concealment of the fugitives. It was a narrow and inconvenient loft above one of the outbuildings—the roof so low that it was only in some places the upright figure of the minister might be sustained. The light penetrated through an aperture in the roof, showing the guests within seated, and enjoying a frugal, but sufficient repast.
"I am one of few words," said the divine, "and so much the rather as that I now stand in the presence of mine enemies. What sayest thou, Prince Rupert, the persecutor of God's heritage, who didst not stay thine hand from the slaughter even of them that were taken captive? What sayest thou that the word should not go forth to kill and slay, even as thou didst smite and not spare, but didst destroy utterly them who, when beleaguered by thine armies in Bolton, were delivered into thine hand?"
"Ha!" said the Prince; "thou—a cockatrice to betray me!"
"She hath not betrayed thee. Yonder poor and afflicted sinner, when in bondage unto Satan, led captive by him at his will, did reveal it by the spirit of prophecy that was in him. But we take not advantage of this to thine hurt; we may not use the devil's works for the building up and welfare of the Church, even though she were mightily holpen thereby. But listen: thou hast wooed this maiden to be the wife of thy bosom. In the dark roll of destiny it is written—so spake the unclean spirit—that if thou shouldest wed, a son springing from thy loins shall sit upon the throne of this unhappy realm. He shall govern the people righteously, every one under his own vine and his own fig-tree, none daring to make them afraid. Surely it would not be a vain and an evil thing should the maiden be——Yet—this is my temptation. Get thee behind me, Satan. May the thought and the folly of my heart be forgiven me! No! proud and cruel persecutor, this maiden is a pearl of rare price which thou shalt not win—a chosen one who hath had grace given unto her above measure, even above that vouchsafed unto me. I do loathe and abhor myself for the iniquity of my heart, and the unsubdued carnality of my spirit."
"Your Highness had need of great meekness and patience to endure this grievous outpouring," said Chisenhall to the silent and bewildered Prince. "Shall I thrust him through, and make sure of his fidelity?"
"Hurt him not," said his Highness to this effectual admonisher unto secrecy. "And what if I should not wed?" continued he, addressing the divine, and at the same time looking tenderly on the damsel.
"To this point too was the prophecy accordant. The sceptre shall nevertheless be given to one of thy race; thy sister's son shall carry down the line of kings to this people; and the Lord's work shall still prosper. Now, daughter of many prayers—for I have yearned over thee with more than a father's love—choose thee without constraint this day. Thou hearest the words of this prophecy: wilt thou be the mother of kings, or the lowly and despised follower of God's heritage?"
"I will not grasp the bubble of ambition. It bursts—a hollow vapour when possessed. Let me choose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than obtain all the treasures of Egypt. But tempt me not again, for my soul cleaveth to the dust—flesh and blood shrink from the trial!"
She sobbed aloud, and threw herself on the old man's neck, who scarcely refrained from joining in her tears.
"Thou hast come forth as gold from the furnace—thou hast kept the faith, and holden fast thy profession," said the divine, with a glance of triumph. Marian held out her hand to the Prince, who grasped it with fervour. She seemed more like to some holy and heavenward thing than a denizen of this polluted earth—more like a type of the confessors and martyrs of the primitive church than a disciple of our own, nurtured in the lap of carnal security, with little show of either zeal or devotion.
"Your Highness must depart—but whither?" said she, with an anxious and inquiring glance directed to the minister.
"Take no thought for their safety; thy constancy hath earned their deliverance. My safe-conduct will carry them unharmed beyond the reach of their enemies; but let them not return. It is at their own peril if they be found again harboured in this vicinage, and their blood be on their own heads!"
They departed, and the subsequent history of the gallant Rupert is well known. He joined the king at Oxford, and helped him to retrieve his defeat at Newbury, bringing off his artillery left at Dunnington Castle in the very face of the enemy. At the decisive Battle of Naseby we find him performing feats of extraordinary valour; but, as before, his headlong and precipitate fury led him into the usual error; and though the loss of the battle was not to be attributed entirely to his imprudence, yet a little more caution would have altered materially the results of that memorable conflict. Harassed and dispirited, he threw himself with the remainder of his troops into Bristol, intending to defend it to the last extremity; but even here his constitutional fortitude and valour seemed to forsake him: a poorer defence was not made by any town during the whole war, and the general expectations were extremely disappointed. No sooner had the Parliamentary forces entered the lines by storm, than the Prince capitulated, and surrendered the place to General Fairfax. A few days before, he had written a letter to the King, in which he undertook to defend it for four months, if no mutiny obliged him to surrender it. Charles, who was forming schemes and collecting forces for the relief of the city, was astonished at so unexpected an event, which was little less fatal to his cause than the defeat at Naseby. Full of indignation, he instantly recalled all Prince Rupert's commissions, and sent him a pass to go beyond sea.
Several years afterwards we find him in command of a squadron of ships, entrusted to him by Charles II, when an exile in Normandy. Admiral Blake received orders from the Parliament to pursue him. Rupert, being much inferior in force, took shelter in Kinsale, and escaping thence, fled toward the coast of Portugal. Blake pursued and chased him into the Tagus, where he intended to attack him; but the King of Portugal, moved by the favour which throughout Europe attended the royal cause, refused Blake admission, and aided the Prince in making his escape. Having lost the greater part of his fleet off the coast of Spain, he made sail towards the West Indies; but his brother, Prince Maurice, was there shipwrecked in a hurricane. Everywhere his squadron subsisted by privateering, sometimes on English, sometimes on Spanish, vessels. Rupert at last returned to France, where he disposed of the remnants of his fleet, together with his prizes.
He was never married; peradventure the remembrance of the noble and heroic maiden marred his wiving; he cared not for the presence of those courtly dames by whom he was surrounded, though a soldier, and a brave one. By one of his race the crown of these realms was inherited; and the same line is yet perpetuated in the person of our gracious monarch, whom God preserve! The sister of Rupert, Princess Sophia, by marriage with the Elector of Hanover, became the mother of George I.; and thus was that singular prediction of the supposed demoniac strangely and happily verified. Of Marian little remains to be told; the lives of the virtuous and well-doing furnish little matter for the historian; their deeds are not of this world; the bright page of their history is unfolded only in the next.
"Is there no exorcist Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes? Is't real that I see?" —SHAKESPEARE.
Clegg Hall, about two miles N.E. from Rochdale, is still celebrated for the freaks and visitations of a supernatural guest, called "Clegg-Hall Boggart."
So desultory and various are the accounts we have heard, and many of them so vague and unintelligible, that it has been a work of much difficulty to weave them into one continuous narrative, and to shape them into a plot sufficiently interesting for our purpose. The name and character of "Noman" are still the subject of many an absurd and marvellous story among the country chroniclers in that region.
Dr Whitaker says it is "the only estate within the parish which still continues in the local family name." On this site was the old house built by Bernulf de Clegg and Quenilda his wife as early as the reign of Stephen. Not a vestige of it remains. The present comparatively modern erection was built by Theophilus Ashton of Rochdale, a lawyer, and one of the Ashtons of Little Clegg, about the year 1620.
Stubley Hall, mentioned in our tale, was built by Robert Holt in the reign of Henry VIII. The decay of our native woods had then occasioned a pretty general disuse of timber for the framework of dwelling-houses belonging to this class of our domestic architecture. Dr Whitaker says—"It is the first specimen in the parish of a stone or brick hall-house of the second order—that is, with a centre and two wings only. Long before the Holts, appear at this place a Nicholas and a John de Stubley, in the years 1322 and 1332; then follow in succession John, Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher Holt; from whom descended, though not in a direct line, Robert Holt of Castleton and Stubley, whose daughter, Dorothy, married in the year 1649, John Entwisle of Foxholes. Robert, who built Stubley, and who was grandson of Christopher Holt before mentioned, was a justice of the peace in the year 1528. In an old visitation of Lancashire by Thomas Tong, Norroy, 30 Hen. VIII., is this singular entry:—"Robarde Holte of Stubley, hase mar. an ould woman, by whom he hase none issewe, and therefore he wolde not have her name entryed." Yet it appears he had a daughter, Mary, who married Charles Holt, her cousin, descended from the first Robert. Her grandson was the Robert Holt, father to Dorothy Entwisle before-named, at whose marriage the events took place which, if the following tradition is to be credited, were the forerunners of a more strange and unexpected development.
In the year 1640, nine years before the date of our story, Robert Holt abandoned Stubley for the warmer and more fertile situation of Castleton, about a mile south from Rochdale. It was so named from the castellum de Recedham, wherein dwelt Gamel, the Saxon Thane; which place and personage are described in our first series of Traditions. Castleton was principally abbey-land belonging to the house of Stanlaw. Part of this township, the hamlet of Marland or Mereland, was, at the dissolution of monasteries, granted to the Radcliffs of Langley, and sold by Henry Radcliff to Charles Holt, who married his cousin, Mary Holt of Stubley, and was grandfather to Robert, who left Stubley for this place, which we have noticed above.
Stubley, with its neighbourhood, was always noted for good ale. From its situation, exposed to all the rigours of that hilly region, the climate was reckoned so cold as to require that their daily beverage should be of sufficient strength to counteract its effects. That habits of intemperance would be contracted from the constant use of such stimuli may easily be inferred. The following letter from Nicholas Stratford, Bishop of Chester, to James Holt of Castleton, son of Robert Holt before-named, is but too melancholy a confirmation of this inference.
The original is in the possession of the Rev. J. Clowes of Broughton Hall:—
"SIR,—Your request in behalf of Mr Halliwell was easily granted; for I am myself inclined to give the best encouragement I can to the poor curates, as long as they continue diligent in the discharge of their duty. But I have now, Sir, a request to make to you, which I heartily pray you may as readily grant me; and that is, that you will for the future abandon and abhor the sottish vice of drunkenness, which (if common fame be not a great liar) you are much addicted to. I beseech you, Sir, frequently and seriously to consider the many dismal fruits and consequences of this sin, even in this world—how destructive it is to all your most valuable concerns and interests; how it blasts your reputation, destroys your health, and will (if continued) bring you to a speedy and untimely death: and, which is infinitely more dreadful, will exclude you from the kingdom of heaven, and expose you to that everlasting fire where you will not be able to obtain so much as one drop of water to cool your tongue. I have not leisure to proceed in this argum^t, nor is it needful that I should, because you yourself can enlarge upon it without my ... I assure you, S^r, this advice now given you proceeds from sincere love and my earnest desire to promote your happiness both in this world and the next; and I hope you will be pleased so to accept from,
"S^r, "Your affectionate friend "and humble servant, "N. CESTRIENS.
"CHESTER, Nov. 1699."
Clegg Hall, after many changes of occupants, is now in part used as a country alehouse; other portions are inhabited by the labouring classes who find employment in that populous and manufacturing district. It is the properpty of Joseph Fenton, Esq., of Bamford Hall, by purchase from John Entwisle, Esq., the present possessor of Foxholes, in that neighbourhood.
To Clegg Hall, or rather what was once the site of that ancient house, tradition points through the dim vista of past ages as the scene of an unnatural and cruel tragedy. Not that this picturesque and stately pile, with its gable and zigzag terminations, the subject of our present engraving, was the very place where the murder was perpetrated; but a low, dark, and wooden-walled tenement, such as our forefathers were wont to construct in times anterior to the Tudor ages. The present building, with its little porch, quaint and grotesque, its balustrade and balcony above, and the points and pediments on the four sides, are evidently the coinage of some more modern brain—peradventure in King James's days. Not unlike the character of that learned monarch and of his times, half-classical, half-barbarous, it combines the puerilities of each, without the power and grandeur of the one, or the rich and chivalric magnificence of the other; and might remind the beholder of some gaunt warrior of the Middle Ages, with lance, and armour, and "ladye-love," stalking forth, clad in the Roman toga or the stately garb of the senator. The building, the subject of our tale, has neither the gorgeous extravagance of the Gothic nor the severe and stern utility of the Roman architecture. Little bits of columns, dwarf-like, and frittered down into mere extremities, give the porch very much the appearance of a child's plaything, or a Dutch toy stuck to its side.
It has the very air and attitude—the pedantic formalities—of the time when it was built. Not so the house on whose ruins it was erected; the square, low, dark mansion, constructed of wood, heavy and gigantic, shaped like the hull of some great ship, the ribs and timbers being first fixed, and the interstices afterwards filled with a compost of clay and chopped straw, to keep out the weather. Of such rude and primitive architecture were the dwellings of the English gentry in former ages: such was the house built by Bernulf and Quenilda Clegg, in the reign of Stephen, the supposed scene of that horrible deed which gave rise to the stories yet extant relating to "Clegg-Hall Boggart." Popular story is not precise, generally, as to facts and dates. The exact time when this occurrence took place we know not; but it is more than probable that some dark transaction of this nature was here perpetrated. The prevailing tradition warrants our belief. However fanciful and extravagant the filling up of the picture, common rumour still preserves untouched the general outline. It is said that, sometime about the thirteenth or fourteenth century, a wicked uncle destroyed the lawful heirs of this goodly possession—two orphan children that were left to his care—by throwing them over a balcony into the moat, that he might seize on the inheritance. Such is the story which, to this day, retains its hold on the popular mind; and ever after, it is said, the house was the reputed haunt of a troubled and angry spirit, until means were taken for its removal, or rather its expulsion. But upon the inhuman deed itself we shall not dilate, inasmuch as the period is too remote, and the events are too vague, for our purpose.
The house built by Bernulf Clegg had passed, with many alterations and renewals, into the possession of the Ashtons of Little Clegg. About the year 1620 the present edifice was built by Theophilus Ashton; and thirty years had scarcely elapsed from its erection to the date of our story. Though the original dwelling had, with one or two exceptions, been pulled down, yet symptoms of "the boggart" were still manifest in the occasional visitations and annoyances to which the inmates were subject.
The hues of evening were spread out, like a rich tapestry, above and behind the long unpicturesque line of hills, the lower acclivities of Blackstonedge, opposite to the stately mansion of Clegg Hall. The square squat tower of Rochdale Church peered out from the dark trees, high on its dim eyrie, in the distance, towards the south-west, below which a wan hazy smoke indicated the site of that thriving and populous town. To the right, the heavy blue ridge of mountains, bearing the appropriate name of Blackstonedge, had not yet put on its cold, grey, neutral tint; but the mass appeared to rise abruptly from the green enclosures stretching to its base, in strong and beautiful contrast of colour, such as painters love to express on the mimic canvas. It was a lovely evening in October; one of Nature's parting smiles, ere she envelops herself in the horrors and the gloom of winter. So soft and balmy was the season that the wild flowers lingered longer than usual in the woods and copses where they dwelt. In the gardens some of the spring blossoms had already unfolded. The wallflowers and polyanthuses had looked out again, unhesitatingly, on the genial sky—deprived, by sophistication and culture, of the instincts necessary to their preservation: the wild untutored denizens of the field and the quiet woods rarely betray such lack of presentiment. But such are everywhere the results of civilisation; which, however beneficial to society in the aggregate, gives its objects altogether an artificial character, and, by depriving them of their natural and proper instincts, renders them helpless when single and unaided; while it makes them more dependent upon each other, and on the factitious wants, the offspring of those very habits and conditions into which they are thrown.
On the hollow trunk of a decrepit ash the ivy was blossoming profusely, gathering its support from the frail prop which it was fated to destroy. The insects were humming and frolicking about on their tiny wings, taking their last enjoyment of their little day, ere they gave place to the ephemera of the next.
"How merry and jocund every life-gifted thing looks forth on this our festival. It might be Nature holding high jubilee in honour of Holt's daughter on her wedding-night!"
Thus spake Nicholas Haworth to his sister Alice, as they stepped forth from the hall porch, and stayed for a moment by this aged trunk to admire the scene that was fast losing its glory and its brightness. They were bidden to the marriage-supper at Stubley, where a masqued ball was to be given after the nuptials of Dorothy Holt, the daughter of its possessor, with Entwisle, the heir of Foxholes.
"It may be holiday and gladness too; but I feel it not," said Alice pensively, as she leaned on her brother's arm, while they turned into a narrow lane overarched by irregular groups of beech and sycamore trees.
"Heed not such idle fancies," said her brother. "And so, because, forsooth, an impudent beggar-man predicts some strange event that must shortly befall thee, the apprehension doth cast its shadow ere it come, and thou art ready to conjure up some grim spectre in the gloom it hath created. But, in good sooth, here comes the wizard himself who hath raised these melancholic and evil humours."
"I never pass him without a shudder," said she, at the same time cringing closely to her protector.
This awful personage was one of an ancient class, now probably extinct; a sort of privileged order, supplying, or rather usurping, the place of the mendicant friars of former days. Their vocation was not of an unprofitable kind, inasmuch as alms were commonly rendered, though more from fear than favour. Woe betide the unlucky housewife who withheld her dole, her modicum of meal or money to these sturdy applicants! Mischief from some invisible hand was sure to follow, and the cause was laid to her lack of charity.
The being, the subject of these remarks, had been for many months a periodical visitor at the Hall, where he went by the name of "Noman." It is not a little remarkable that tradition should here point out an adventure something analogous to that of Ulysses with the Cyclop as once happening to this obscure individual, and that his escape was owing to the same absurd equivoque by which the Grecian chief escaped from his tormentor. Our tale, however, hath reference to weightier matters, and the brief space we possess permits no further digression. This aged but hale and sturdy beggar wore a grey frieze coat or cloak loosely about his person. Long blue stocking gaiters, well patched and darned, came over his knee, while his doublet and hosen, or body-gear, were fastened together by the primitive attachment of wooden skewers—a contrivance now obsolete, being superseded by others more elegant and seemly. A woollen cap or bonnet, of unparalleled form and dimensions, was disposed upon his head, hiding the upper part of his face, and almost covering a pair of bushy grey eyebrows, that, in their turn, crouched over a quick and vagrant eye, little the worse for the wear of probably some sixty years. A grizzled reddish beard hung upon his breast; and his aspect altogether was forbidding, almost ferocious. A well-plenished satchel was on his shoulder; and he walked slowly and erect, as though little disposed to make way for his betters in the narrow path, where they must inevitably meet. When they came nearer he stood still in the middle of the road, as though inclined to dispute their passage. His tall and well-proportioned figure, apparent even beneath these grotesque habiliments, stood out before them in bold relief against the red and burning sky, where an opening in the lane admitted all the glow and fervour of the western sunset. His strange, wayward, and even mysterious character was no bar to his admittance into the mansions of the gentry through a wide circuit of country, where his familiarities were tolerated, or perhaps connived at, even by many whose gifts he received more as a right than as an obligation.
He looked steadfastly on them as they approached, but without the slightest show either of respect or good-will.
"Prithee, stand a little on one side, that we may pass by without fear of offence," said Nicholas Haworth, good-humouredly.
"And whither away, young master and my dainty miss?" was the reply, in his usual easy and familiar address, such as might have suited one of rank and condition.
Haworth, little disturbed thereat, said with a careless smile,—"Troth, thou hast not been so long away but thou mightest have heard of the wedding-feast to-night, and, peradventure, been foremost for the crumbs of the banquet."
"I know well there's mumming and foolery a-going on yonder; and I suppose ye join the merry-making, as they call it?"
"Ay, that do we; and so, prithee, begone."
"And your masks will ne'er be the wiser for't, I trow," said the beggar, looking curiously upon them from beneath his penthouse lids.
"But that I could laugh at his impertinence, Alice, I would even now chide him soundly, and send his pitiful carcase to the stocks for this presumption. Hark thee, I do offer good counsel when I warn thee to shift thyself, and that speedily, ere I use the readiest means for thy removal."
"Gramercy, brave ruffler; but I must e'en gi'e ye the path; an' so pass on to the masking, my Lord Essex and his maiden queen."
He said this with a cunning look and a chuckle of self-gratulation at the knowledge he had somehow or other acquired of the parts they were intended to enact.
"Foul fa' thy busy tongue, where foundest thou this news? I've a month's mind to change my part, Alice, but that there's neither leisure nor opportunity, and they lack our presence at the nuptials."
"How came he by this knowledge, and the fashion of our masks?" inquired Alice from her brother. "Truly, I could join belief with those who say that he obtained it not through the ordinary channels open to our frail and fallible intellects."
Mistress Alice, "the gentle Alice," was reckoned fair and well-favoured. Strongly tinctured with romance, her superstition was continually fed by the stories then current in relation to her own dwelling, and by the generally-received opinions about witches and other supernatural things which yet lingered, loth to depart from these remote limits of civilisation.
"Clegg-Hall Boggart" was the type of a notion too general to be disbelieved; yet were the inmates, in all probability, less intimately acquainted with the freaks and disturbances attendant thereon than every gossip in the neighbourhood; for, as it frequently happens, tales and marvels, for the most part originating through roguery, and the pranks of servants and retainers, were less likely to come to the ears of the master and his family than those of persons less interested, but more likely to assist in their propagation. The vagrant and erratic movements of "Noman" were, somehow or another, connected with the marvellous adventures and appearances in the "boggart chamber." At the Hall, this discarded room, being part of the old house yet remaining, was the one which he was permitted to occupy during his stay; and his appearance was generally the signal of a visit from their supernatural guest. To be sure, the strange sights he beheld rested on his testimony alone; but his word was never questioned, and his coming was of equal potency with the magician's wand in raising the ghost.
"We shall have some news from our troublesome guest, I suppose, in the morning," said Alice to her brother, as they went slowly on: "I know not the cause; but yonder vagrant seems to waken our ancient companion from his slumbers, either by sympathy or antipathy, I trow."
"For the most part they be idle tales," said he; "though I doubt not, in former days, the place was infested by some unquiet spirit. But this good house of ours hath modern stuff too strong upon it. The smell of antiquity alone hath a savour delicate enough for your musty ghost."
Alice pressed his arm slightly as an admonition, at the same time gently chiding his unbelief. Thus beguiling the way with pleasant discourse, they drew nigh to the old house at Stubley, little more than a mile distant from their own dwelling.
Though now resident in his more modern, sheltered, and convenient mansion of Castleton, Holt determined that his daughter's wedding should be solemnised in the ancient halls, where Robert Bath, vicar of Rochdale, who was presented to the living on his marriage with a niece of Archbishop Laud, was invited to perform the ceremony;—"A man," says Dr Whitaker, "of very different principles from his patron; for he complied with all changes but the last, and retained his benefice till August 24, 1662, when he went out on the Bartholomew Act, and retired to a small house at Deepleach Hill, near Rochdale, where he frequently preached to a crowded auditory."
As they came nigh, lights were already glancing between the mullions of the great hall window, then richly ornamented with painted glass. The guests were loitering about the walks and terraces in the little garden-plots, which in that bleak and chilly region were scantily furnished. In the hall, fitted up with flowers and green holly-wreaths for the occasion, the father of the bride and his intended son-in-law were pacing to and fro in loving discourse; the latter pranked out in a costly pair of "petticoat breeches," pink and white, of the newest fashion, reaching only to the knee. These were ornamented with ribands and laces at the two extremities, below which silk stockings, glistering like silver, and immense pink shoe-roses, completed his nether costume. A silken doublet and waistcoat of rich embroidery, over which was a turned-down shirt-collar of point-lace, surmounted the whole.
His friends and officials were busily employed in arranging matters for the occasion, distributing the wedding-favours, and preparing for the entertainments and festivities that were to follow.
Holt and his son-in-law were exempt from duty, save that of welcoming those that were bidden, upon their arrival.
Before an oaken screen, beautifully carved with arabesque ornaments and armorial bearings, there was a narrow table, covered with a white cloth, and on it the prayer-book, open at the marriage formulary. Four stools were placed for those more immediately interested in the ceremony. Rosemary and bay-leaves, gilt and dipped in scented water, were scattered about the marriage-altar in love-knots and many fanciful and ingenious devices. A bride-cup rested upon it, in which lay a sprig of gilded rosemary—a relic or semblance of the ancient hymeneal torch. Huge tables, groaning with garniture for the approaching feast, were laid round the apartment—room being left in the central floor for all who chose to mingle in the games and dances that were expected after supper.
The company were now assembled, and the ceremony about to commence. The bride, clothed in white, with a veil of costly workmanship thrown over her, was led in by her maidens and a train of friends. The bridegroom taking her hand, they stood before the altar, and the brief but indissoluble knot was tied. The kiss being given, the happy husband led away his partner into the parlour or guest chamber, followed by many of those who had witnessed the ceremony. Alice and her brother were amongst them; and the bride, perceiving their entrance, drew the hand of the maiden within hers, and retained her for a short season by her side.
The feast was begun; those who were for the mask took but a hasty refreshment, being anxious to proceed into the 'tiring rooms, there to array for the more interesting part of the night's revel. In due time issued forth from their crowded bowers lords and ladies gay, buffoons, morris-dancers, and the like; gypsies, fortune-tellers, and a medley of giddy mummers, into the hall, where the more sedate or more sensual were still carousing after the feast.
"Room for the masks!" was the general cry; and the musicians, each after his kind, did pierce and vex the air with such a medley of disquieting sounds that the talkers were fain to cease, and the dancers to fall to in good earnest. Alice and her brother were disguised as the cunning beggar had predicted—to wit, as the virgin queen and her unfortunate lover. Masks were often dropping in, so that the hall and adjoining chambers were fully occupied, resounding in wild echoes with noise and revelry.
Loud and long was the merriment, increasing even until the roofs rung with the din, and the revellers themselves grew weary of the tumult.
Alice was standing by the oaken screen during a temporary cessation on her part from the labours incident to royalty, when there came from behind it a tawny Moor, wearing a rich shawl turban, with a beard of comely aspect. His arms were bare and hung with massive bracelets, and he wore a tight jacket of crimson and gold. His figure was tall and commanding; but his face was concealed by a visor of black crape, which hindered not his speech from being clearly apprehended, though the sound came forth in a muffled tone, as if feigned for the occasion. Immediately there followed an Arabic or Turkish doctor, clad in a long dark robe, and his head surmounted by a four-cornered fur cap. In one hand he held a glass phial, and a box under his left arm. Of an erect and majestic stature, he stood for a moment apparently surveying the scene ere he mingled in the busy crowd. His face also was covered with black crape, and through the "eyelet-holes" a bright and burning glance shot forth, hardly repressed by the shadow from his disguise. Alice, being unattended, shunned these unknown intruders, and mingled again with a merry group who were pelting one another with comfits and candied almonds. The stately Elizabeth beckoned to her maidens; but they merely curtsied to their royal mistress, without discontinuing their boisterous hilarity. Indeed, the mumming hitherto had been more in dress than manners, so little restraint had their outward disguise occasioned, or their behaviour been altered thereby. The two late comers, however, produced a change. It appeared that their business was to enact a play or cunning device for the amusement of the company who, regarding them with a curious eye, one by one left off their several sports to gaze upon the strangers.
The rest were generally known to each other; but whispers and inquiries now went round, from which it appeared that the new visitants were strictly concealed, and their presence unexpected.
"Now, o' my faith," said Harry Cheetham, whose skill in dancing and drollery had been conspicuous throughout the evening, "yon barbarians be come from the Grand Turk, with his kerchief, recruiting for the seraglio."
"Out upon thee!" said a jingling Morisco, enacted by young Hellawell of Pike House; "the Grand Signior loveth not maidens such as ours for his pavilion. They be too frosty to melt, even in Afric's sunny clime." This was said with a malicious glance at Alice, whose queen-like dignity and haughty bearing had kept many an ardent admirer at bay through the evening.
"Sure the master of the feast hath withheld this precious delectation until now," said Essex; "for they, doubtless, be of his providing."
"And give promise of more novel but less savoury entertainment," said Hamer of Hamer. But Holt either knew them not, or his look of surprise, not unmixed with curiosity and expectation, showed that he was playing the masker too, without other disguise than his own proper features—the kind hospitable face of an honest north-country squire, ruddy with health and conviviality.
At the farther end of the hall the bride and her bride-maidens were standing, with the bridegroom at her side, whispering soft gallantries in her ear. The strangers, on their entrance, rendered neither token nor obeisance, as courtesy required, to the bride and her train, but followed Alice, who had joined her brother in the merry crowd, now watching the motions of these unexpected visitants. They approached with stately and solemn steps; and, without once deigning to notice the rest of the company, the gaudy Moor bowed himself in a most dignified salaam before the queen. Alice, apparently with some trepidation at being thus singled out from the rest, clung to her brother, she hardly knew why.
"My sublime master, emperor of the world, lord of the sun, and ruler of the seven celestial configurations, sendeth his slave unto the most high and mighty Queen—whose beauty, as a girdle, doth encompass the whole earth—with greeting."
"And who is he?" said Alice, timidly enough.
"The Sultan Ibrahim, lord of the seven golden towers, the emerald islands, and ruler over an hundred nations. He bade his slave kiss the hem of his mistress's garment, and beseech her to put her foot on the neck of his bondsman, her slave's slave, and accept his gift."
"And who is this thy companion?" said Alice, growing bolder, while the company were gradually gathering round them.
"This, whom your unworthy slave hath brought, most gracious Queen, is the renowned Doctor Aboulfahrez, high conjuror to the Khan of Tartary, and physician to the Great Mogul. He doth drive hence all pains and diseases whatsoever, and will cure your great majesty of any disorder of the spirit, by reason of charms or love-philtres heretofore administered."
With a slight bend of his illustrious person, as though the high conjuror to the Khan of Tartary, and physician to the Great Mogul, thought himself too nearly on an equality with her "high mightinesse" the Queen, the learned doctor for the first time broke silence—
"Will it please the Queen's grace to command an ensample of mine art?"
"We must first be assured unto what purpose. Hast thou not heard," said Alice, with increasing confidence, "that it is treason to put forth strange or unlawful devices before the Queen?"
The stranger bowed. "But your grace hath traitors in those fair eyes which do prompt treason if they practise none."
This gallant speech was much applauded by the company, and relieved Alice from the necessity of a speedy and suitable answer; for she began to be somewhat perplexed by the address of these bold admirers.
"Look at this precious phial, the incomparable elixir, the pabulum of life, the grand arcanum, the supernaculum, the mother and regenerator of nature, the source and the womb of all existence, past, present, and to come!" The learned doctor paused, more from want of breath than from scarcity of epithets wherewith to blazon forth the great virtues of his discovery. Soon, however, he breathed again through the mouth-slit in his mask, and blew on the phial, when lo! a vapour issued from within, curling in long-drawn wreaths down the side, in a manner most wonderful to behold.
This trick roused the admiration of his audience, but he made a sign that they should be still, as their breath and acclamations might disturb the process. He now thrust one finger into the vapour, when it appeared to wind round his hand; then, letting the bottle drop, it fell, suspended from the finger by this novel and extraordinary chain—the vapour seeming to be the link by which it hung. This unexpected feat repressed the noisy burst of applause which might have been the result of a less wonderful device. Every one looked anxiously and uneasily at his neighbour, and at the renowned Doctor Aboulfahrez, not feeling comfortable, perhaps, or even safe, in the presence of so exalted a personage. But new wonders were at hand. The mysterious visitor uttered some cabalistic words, and lo! flames burst forth from the magic phial, to the additional wonder and dismay of the beholders.
"When the Queen's grace doth will it, this box shall be opened; but it will behove her to be discreet in what may follow, lest the charm be evaded."
The Moorish slave was silent during this procedure, standing with arms folded, as though he had been one of the mutes of his master's harem, rather than ambassador to his "ladye love." With the assent of Alice, the Doctor took in one hand the casket, which he cautiously unlocked. The lid flew open by a secret spring, and a peacock of surprising beauty and glittering plumage rose out of the box, imitating the motions of the real bird to admiration. The mimic thing, being placed on the floor, flapped its wings, and unfolded its tail with all the pride and precision of the original.
"Beshrew me!" said Holt, approaching nearer to the performer, "but thou hast been bred to the black art, I think. Some o' ye have catered excellently for our pastime." But who it was none could ascertain, each giving his neighbour credit secretly for the construction of these dainty devices. Yet new wonders were about to follow, when the bride and bridegroom, though wedded to each other's company, came forward to see the spectacle. Not a guest was missing. Even those most pleasantly occupied at the tables left their sack and canary, their spices and confections. The musicians, too, and the menials, seemed to have forgotten their several duties, and stood gaping and marvelling at the show. Suddenly there flew open a little door in the breast of the automaton bird, and out jumped a fair white pigeon, which, after having performed many surprising feats, in its turn became the parent of another progeny—to wit, a beautiful singing bird, or nightingale, which warbled so sweetly, fluttering its wings with all the ecstacy of that divine creature, that the listeners were nearly beside themselves with ravishment and admiration. The nightingale now opened, and a little humming-bird of most surprising brilliancy hopped forth, and jumping up to the Queen, held out its beak, having a label therein, apparently beseeching her to accept the offering. She stooped down to receive the billet, which she hastily unfolded. What effect was visible on her countenance we cannot pretend to say, inasmuch as the mask precluded observation; but there was an evident tremor in her frame. She seemed to be overpowered with surprise, and held out the note as though for the moment incapable of deciding whether to accept it or no. Then with a sudden effort she crumpled it together, and thrust it behind her stomacher. Wonder sat silent and watchful on the face of every beholder. The actors in this strange drama had replaced the automata in the box again, closing its lid. The Moor had made his salaam, the Doctor his obeisance, disappearing behind the screen from which they had so mysteriously come forth. But at their departure a train of fire followed upon their track, and a lambent flame played curiously upon the wooden crockets for a few seconds, and then disappeared.
Now was there a Babel of tongues unloosed, at first by sudden impulses and whispers, then breaking forth by degrees into a loud and continuous din of voices, all at once seeking to satisfy their inquiries touching this strange and unexpected visit. Their host was mightily pestered and besieged with questions and congratulations on the subject, which he has promptly and peremptorily disclaimed, attempting to fix the hatching of the plot upon the astonished bridegroom. But even he would not father the conceit; and, in the end, it began to be surmised that these were indeed what their appearance betokened, or something worse, which cast a sudden gloom on the whole assembly. Some sallied out of the door to watch, and others blamed the master for not seizing and detaining these emissaries of Satan. Alice was closely questioned as to the communication she had received; but she replied, evasively perhaps, that it was only one of the usual stale conceits appropriate to the masque.
Nothing more was heard or seen of them; and it was now high time they should accompany the bridegroom to his own dwelling at Foxholes—a goodly house situate on a pretty knoll near the town of Rochdale, and about two miles distant from Stubley.
Now was there mustering and hurrying to depart. An unwieldy coach was drawn up, into which the bride and her female attendants were forthwith introduced, the bridegroom and his company going on foot. On arriving at Foxholes, the needful ceremonies were performed. Throwing the stocking, a custom then universally practised, was not omitted; which agreeable ceremony was performed as follows:—
The female friends and relations conducted the bride to her chamber, and the men the bridegroom. The latter then took the bride's stockings, and the females those of the bridegroom. Sitting at the bottom of the bed, the stockings were thrown over their heads. When one of the "hurlers" hit the owner, it was deemed an omen that the party would shortly be married. Meanwhile the posset was got ready, and given to the newly-married couple.
It was past midnight, yet Alice sat, solitary and watchful, at her little casement. One fair white arm supported her cheek, and she was gazing listlessly on the silver clouds as they floated in liquid brightness across the full round disc of the moon, then high in the meridian. Her thoughts were not on the scene she beheld. The mellow sound of the waterfalls, the murmur from the river, came on with the breeze, rising and falling like the deep pathos of some wild and mysterious music. Memory, that busy enchanter, was at work; and the scenes she had lately witnessed, so full of disquietude and mystery, mingled with the returning tide of past and almost forgotten emotions. We have said that the prevailing bent or bias of her disposition was that of romance; and this idol of the imagination, this love of strange and enervating excitement, had not been repressed by the occurrences of the last few hours; on the contrary, she felt as though some wondrous event was impending—some adventure which she alone should achieve—some power that her own arm should contend with and subdue.
She took the billet from her bosom; the moonlight alone fell upon it; but the words were so indeliby fixed upon her imagination that she fancied she could trace every word on that mystic tablet.
"To-morrow, at midnight, in the haunted chamber! If thou hast courage, tarry there a while. Its occupant will protect thee."—['Wherefore am I so bent on this adventure? To visit the beggar in his lair!' thought she; and again she threw her eyes on the billet.] "Peril threatens thine house, which thy coming can alone prevent. Shouldest thou reveal but one word of this warning, thy life, and those dear to thee, will be the forfeit. From thine unknown monitor,
The guest in the boggart-chamber was Noman, to whom it had been allotted, and though he told of terrible sights and harrowing disclosures, he seemed to brave them all with unflinching hardihood, and even exulted in their repetition. To remain an hour or two with such a companion was in itself a sufficiently novel adventure; but that harm could come from such a source scarcely entered her imagination. A feeling of irrepressible curiosity stimulated her, and prevailed over every other consideration. It was not like spending the time alone; this certainly would have been a formidable condition to have annexed. Besides, would it not be a wicked and a wanton thing to shrink from difficulty or danger when the welfare and even life of one so dear as her brother, peradventure, depended on her compliance. Another feeling, too, more complicated, and a little more selfish it might be, was the hidden cause to which her inclinations might be traced.
"Mine unknown monitor!" she repeated the words, and a thousand strange and wayward fancies rose to her recollection. Often had she seen, when least expecting it, a stranger, who, in whatsoever place they met, preserved a silence respectful but mysterious. She had seen him in the places of public resort, in the solitary woods, and in the highways; but his reserve and secrecy were unbroken. When she inquired, not an individual knew him; and though his form and features were indelibly traced on her memory, she could never recall them without an effort, which, whether it was attended with more of pain than of pleasure, we will not venture to declare. Once or twice she had fancied, when awaking in the dead stillness of the night, that an invisible something was near and gazing upon her; but this feeling was soon forgotten, though often revived whenever she was more than usually sensitive or excited. The figure of the Moor was wonderfully similar to the form of the mysterious unknown. But the secret was now, at any rate, to be divulged; and a few hours would put her into possession of the key to unlock this curious cabinet. So thought Alice, and her own secret chambers of imagery were strangely distempered thereby. Was she beloved by one of a higher order of beings, a denizen of the invisible world, who tracked her every footstep, and hovered about her unseen? She had heard that such things were, and that they held intercourse with some favoured mortals—unlimited duration, and a nature more exalted, subject to no change, being vouchsafed to the chosen ones. The exploits at Stubley seemed to favour this hypothesis, and Alice fell into a delicious reverie, as we have seen, well prepared for the belief and reception of any stray marvels that might fall out by the way.
Looking upon the moat which lay stagnant and unruffled beneath the quiet gaze of the moon, she thought that a living form emerged from the bushes on the opposite bank;—she could not be mistaken, it was her unknown lover. Breathless she awaited the result; but the shadows again closed around him, and she saw him not again. Bewildered, agitated, and alarmed, the day was springing faintly in the dim east when her eyelids lay heavy in the dew of their repose.
Morning was high and far risen in the clear blue atmosphere, but its first and balmy freshness was passed when Alice left her chamber. She looked paler and more languid than she was wont, and her brother rallied her playfully on the consequences of last night's dissipation; but her thoughts were otherwise engrossed, and she replied carelessly and with an air of abstraction far different from her usual playful and unrestrained spirit. The mind was absorbed, restricted to one sole avenue of thought: all other impressions ceased to communicate their impulse. Her brother departed soon afterwards to his morning avocations; but Alice sat in the porch. She looked out on the hills with a vacant, but not unwistful eye. Their slopes were dotted with many a fair white dwelling, but the rigour of cultivation had not extended so far up their barren heathery sides as now; yet many a bright paddock, green amid the dark waste, and the little homestead, the nucleus of some subsequent and valuable inheritance, proclaimed the unceasing toil, the primeval curse, and the sweat of the brow, that was here also.
To enjoy the warmth and freshness of the morning, Alice had removed her spinning-wheel into the porch. Here she was engaged in the primitive and good old fashion of preparing yarn for the wants of the household—an occupation not then perfected into the system to which it is now degraded. The wives and daughters of the wealthiest would not then disdain to fabricate material for the household linen, carrying us far back into simpler, if not happier times, when Homer sung, and kings' daughters found a similar employment.
Alice was humming in unison with her wheel, her thoughts more free from the very circumstance that her body was the subject of this mechanical exercise.
"Good morrow, Mistress Alice!" said a sonorous voice at the entrance. Turning suddenly, she espied the athletic beggar standing erect, with his staff and satchel, on one side of the porch.
"Ha' ye an awmous to-day, lady?" He doffed his cap and held it forth, more with the air of one bestowing a favour than soliciting one.
"Thou hast been i' the kitchen, I warrant," said Alice, "by the breadth of thy satchel."
"An' what the worse are ye for that?" replied the saucy mendicant; "your hounds and puppies would lick up the leavings, if I did not."
"Go to," said Alice, impatiently; "thou dost presume too far to escape correction. Begone!"
"This air, I reckon—ay, this blessed air—is as free unto my use as thine," said Noman, sullenly, and without showing any symptoms of obedience.
"My brother shall know of thine insolence, and the menials shall drive thee forth."
"Thy brother!—tell him, pretty maiden, that though he is a lawyer, and his uncle, he who built this house to boot, he hath little left in this misgoverned realm but to deal out injustice. Other folks' money sticks i' their skirts that have precious little o' their own, I wis."
"I know not the nature of thine allusions, nor care I to bandy weapons with such an adversary."
"Hark ye, lady! it was to solder down as pretty a piece of roguery as one would wish to leave to one's heirs that Theophilus Ashton, thine uncle, thy mother's brother, now deceased, went to London when he had builded this house."
"Roguery!—mine uncle Ashton! Darest thou?"——
"Ay, the same. The spoils of my patrimony built this goodly dwelling, and the battle of Marston Moor gave thy brother wherewith to buy the remainder of the inheritance. I was made a beggar by my loyalty, he a rich man by his treason."
"What means this foul charge?" said Alice, astounded by the audacity of this accusation.
"But fear not. Had it not been for thee and another—whose well-being is bound up in thine own—long ago would this goodly heritage have been spoiled; for—revenge is sweeter even than possession; so good-morrow, Mistress Alice."
"What, then, is thy business with me?"
"Wentest thou not from the masque with thy pretty love-billet behind thy stomacher?"
"Insolent vagrant, this folly shall not go unpunished!"
"Hold, wench! provoke not an"——he paused for one second, but in that brief space there came a change over his spirit, which in a moment was subdued as though by some over-mastering effort—"an impotent old man." His voice softened, and there was a touch even of pathos in the expression. "To-night—fail not—I, ay even I, will protect thee. Fear not; thy welfare hangs on that issue!"
Saying this, with an air of dignity far superior to his usual bluntness and even rudeness of address, he slowly departed. Thoughts crowded, like a honey swarm, to this hive of mystery, nor could she throw off the impression which clung to her. She had been warned against revealing this communication, but at one time she felt resolved to make her brother acquainted with the whole, and to claim his protection; but then came the warning, or rather threat, of some hidden mischief that must inevitably follow the disclosure. "Surely, in her own home, she might venture to walk unattended. The beggar she had known for some time in his periodical visits; and though she felt an unaccountable timidity in his presence, yet she certainly was minded to make an experiment of the adventure; but"——And in this happy state of doubt and fluctuation she remained until eventide, when a calm bright moon, as it again rose over the hill, saw Alice at the casement of her own chamber, looking thoughtfully, anxiously, down where the dark surface of the stagnant moat wore a bright star on its bosom. The scene, the soft and tender influence which it possessed—the hour, soothing and elevating the mind, freed from the harassing and petty cares of existence—to a romantic and imaginative disposition these were all favourable to its effects—the development of that ethereal spirit of our nature, that enchanter whose wand conjures up the busy world within, creating all things according to his own pleasure, and investing them with every attribute at his will. She felt her fears give way, and her resolution was taken: the die was cast, and she committed herself to the result. What share the handsome, dark, and melancholy-looking stranger had in this decision she did not pause to inquire, nor indeed could she have much if any suspicion of the secret influence he excited. There was danger, and this danger could only be averted by her interference: what might be curiosity was at any rate her duty; and she, feeling mightily like some devoted heroine, would not shrink from the trial. When once brought to a decision she felt a load taken from her breast; she breathed more freely, and her tread was more vigorous and elastic. She left her chamber with a lofty mien, and the gentle Alice felt more like the proud mistress of an empire than the inhabitant of a little country dwelling when she re-entered the parlour: yet there was a restless glance from her eye which ever and anon would start aside from visible objects and wander about, apparently without aim or discrimination. Her brother was busied, happily, with domestic duties, too much engaged to notice any unusual disturbance in her demeanour, and Alice employed her time to little profit until she heard the appointed signal for rest. As they bade the usual "good-night," her heart smote her: she looked on the unconscious, unsuspecting aspect of her brother, and the whole secret of her heart was on her tongue: it did not escape her lips; but the tear stood in her eye; and as she closed the door it sounded like the signal of some long separation—as though the portal had for ever closed upon her.
Wrapped in a dark mantle, with cap and hood, the maiden stepped forth from her little closet about midnight. She bore a silver lamp that waved softly in the night-wind as she went with a noiseless, timid step through the passages to the haunted chamber. The room wherein the beggar slept was somewhat detached from the rest of the dormitories. A low gallery led by a narrow corridor to a flight of some two or three steps into this room, now used for the stowage of lumber. It was said to have been one of the apartments in the old house, forming a sort of peduncle to the new, not then removed, like a remnant of the shell sticking to the skirts of the new-fledged bird. This adjunct, the beggar's dwelling, is now gone. An ancient doorcase with a grotesque carving disclosed the entrance. She paused before it, not without a secret apprehension of what might be going on within. For the first time she felt the novelty, not to say imprudence, of her situation, and the unfeminine nature of her exploit. She was just hesitating whether or not to return when she heard the door slowly open; a tall, gaunt, figure looked out, which she immediately recognised to be that of the mendicant. Somewhat reassured, and her courage strengthened by his appearance, she did not attempt to retreat, but stood silent for a space, and seemingly not a little abashed; yet the purity of her motives, as far as known to herself, soon recurred to her aid, and her proud and somewhat haughty spirit immediately roused its energies when she had to cope with difficulty and danger.
"I come to thy den, old man, that I may unriddle thy dark sayings."
"Or rather," replied he, slowly and emphatically, "that thou mayest unriddle that pretty love-billet thou hast read."
"I am here in my brother's house, and surely I have both the right and the power to walk forth unquestioned or unsuspected of an intrigue or assignation," replied she, quick and tender on the point whereon her own suspicions were disagreeably awakened.
"Come in, lady," said he, "and thou shall be safe from any suspicions but thine own."
Alice entered, and the door was closed and bolted. Her feelings were those of uneasiness, not unmixed with alarm. Before her stood the athletic form of the mendicant; she was at some distance from the rest of the family—none caring to have their biding-place in the immediate vicinity of the haunted chamber—in the power, it might be, of this strange and anomalous being. A miserable pallet lay on the floor in one corner, and the room was nearly filled with useless lumber and the remains of ancient materials from the old apartments. Probably it was from this circumstance that the ghosts had their fancies for this room, haunting the relics of the past, and lingering around their former reminiscences. The light she held gleamed athwart the face of her companion, and his features were strangely significant of some concealed purpose.
"Whom do we meet in this place?" she inquired.
"Prithee, wait; thou wilt see anon. But let me counsel thee to remain silent; what thou seest note, but make no reply. Be not afraid, for no harm shall befall thee. But let me warn thee, maiden, that thou shrink not from the trial."
He now slowly retired, and she watched his receding figure until it was hidden behind a huge oaken bedstead in the corner. But he returned not, and Alice felt terrified at being so unexpectedly left alone. She called out to him, but there was no answer; she sought for some outlet, but no trace was visible whereby he could have departed from the chamber. As she was stooping down, suddenly the light was blown out, and she felt herself seized by invisible hands.
"Be silent for thy life," said a strange whisper in her ear. She was hurried on through vaults and passages; the cold damp air struck chilly on her, and she felt as though descending into some unknown depths, beneath the very foundations of her own dwelling. Darkness was still about their steps; but she was borne along, at a swift pace, by persons evidently accustomed to this subterraneous line of communication.
"No harm shall happen thee," said the same whisper in her ear as before. Suddenly a vivid light flashed out from an aperture or window, and she heard a groaning or rumbling and the clank of chains; but this was passed, and a pale dull light showed a low vaulted chamber, into which Alice was conveyed. An iron lamp hung from the ceiling in what seemed to have been one of the cellars of the old house, though she was unaware beforetime of such a dangerous proximity. The door was closed upon her, and again she was left alone. So confused and agitated was she for a while that she felt unable to survey the objects that encompassed her. By degrees, however, she regained sufficient fortitude to make the examination. Her astonishment was extreme when she beheld, ranged round the vault, coffers full of coin—heaps of surprising magnitude exposed, the least of which would have been a king's ransom; fair and glistering too, apparently fresh from the hands of some cunning artificer. Her curiosity in some measure getting the better of her fears, she ventured to touch one of these tempting heaps—not being sure but that her night visions were answerable for the illusion. She laid her hand on a hoard of bright nobles. Another and another succeeded, yet each coffer held some fresh denomination of coin. There were moneys of various nations, even to the Spanish pistole and Turkish bezant. Such exhaustless wealth it had never yet entered into her imagination to conceive—the very idea was too boundless even for fancy to present. "Surely," thought she, "I am in some fairy palace, where the combined wealth of every clime is accumulated; and the king of the genii, or some old and ugly ogre, has certes fallen in love with me, and means to present it for my dowry." Smiling at this thought, even in the midst of her apprehensions—for the blow which severed her from her friends was too stunning to be felt immediately in all its rigour—she stood as one almost transported with admiration and surprise. Yet her situation was far from being either enviable or pleasant, though in the midst of a treasure-house of wealth that would have made an emperor the richest of his race. No solution that she could invent would at all solve the problem—no key of interpretation would fit these intricate movements. Here she stood, a prisoner perhaps, with the other treasures in the vault; and assuredly the miser, whosoever he might be, had shown great taste and judgment too in the selection. But the crisis was at hand. The door opened, and she heard a footstep behind her. A form stood before her whom she immediately recognised and perhaps expected. The mysterious stranger was in her presence. With a respectful obeisance he folded his hands on his bosom, but he spoke not.
"What wouldst thou? and why this outrage?" inquired she.
The intruder pointed to the surrounding treasures, then to himself: by which she understood (so quickly interpretated is the mute eloquence of passion) that he was in love with her, and devoted them all exclusively to her service. But what answer she gave, permit me, gentle reader, for a season to detain; for truly it is an event of so marvellous a nature whereon our tradition now disporteth itself, that, like an epicure hindering the final disposal of some delicate mouthful, of which, when gulped, he feeleth no more the savour, so we would, in like manner, courteous reader, do thee this excellent service, in order that the sweetness of expectation may be prolonged thereby; and the solution, like a kernal in the shell, not be crushed by being too suddenly cracked.
Turn we now to the inmates at the hall, where, as may easily be understood, there was a mighty stir and commotion when morning brought the appointed hour, and Mistress Alice came not to the breakfast meal. Her brother was at his wits' end when the forenoon passed, and still there were no tidings. Messengers were sent far and near, and no place was left untried where it was thought intelligence might be gained. She was not to be found, nor any trace discovered of her departure.
Nicholas was returning from Foxholes, Stubley, and Pike House. Passing, in a disconsolate mood, through the gate leading from the lane to his own porch, he met Noman, apparently departing. The beggar, seeing his approach, assumed his usual stiff and inflexible attitude, pausing ere he passed. A vague surmise, for which he could not account, prompted the suspicions of Nicholas Haworth towards this unimportant personage.
"What is thy business to-day abroad?" he inquired hastily.
"A word in thine ear, master," said the beggar.
"Say on, then; and grant that it may have an inkling of my sister!"
"She hath departed."
"That I know. But whither?"
"Ask the little devilkins I saw yesternight. I have told ye oft o' the sights and terrible things that have visited me i' the boggart chamber, and that the ghost begged hard for a victim."
"What! thou dost not surely suppose he hath borne away my sister?"
"I have said it!" replied the mendicant, with an air of mystery.
"We'll have the place exorcised, and the spirit laid; and thou"—said Nicholas, pausing—"have a care that we hale thee not before the justice for practising with forbidden and devilish devices."
"I cry thee mercy, Master Haworth; but for what good deed am I to suffer? I have brought luck to thine house hitherto, and what mischief yon ghost hath wrought is none o' my doing. If thou wilt, I can rid thee of his presence, and that speedily, even if 'twere Beelzebub himself."
"But will thy conjurations bring back my sister?" said the wondering, yet half-credulous squire.
"That is more than I can tell. But, to prove that I am not in league with thine enemy, I will cast him out."
"Hath Alice been strangled, or in anywise hurt, by this wicked spirit?"
"Nay," said the beggar solemnly, "I guess not; but I heard him pass by, and the chains did rattle fearfully through mine ears, until I heard them at her bed-chamber. He may have spirited her away to fairy-land for aught I know; and yet she lives!"
"Save us, merciful Disposer of our lot!" said Nicholas, much moved to sorrow at this strange recital, yet in somewise comforted by the assurance it contained. "We are none of us safe from his visitations, now they are extended hitherto. I dreamt not of danger beforetime, though I have heard sounds, and seen unaccountable things; yet I imagined that in the old chamber only he had power to work mischief; and, even there, I did disbelieve much of thy story, as it respected his freaks and the nature and manner of his visits. The rumblings that I fancied at times in the dead of night were in the end disregarded and almost forgotten."
"I too have heard the like, but I knew it was the spirit, and"——
"Beware, old man; for I do verily suspect thee as an abettor of these unlawful practices."
"And so the reward for my testimony is like to end in a lying accusation and a prison!"
"Canst thou win her back by driving from me this evil spirit?"
"I can lay the ghost, I tell thee, if thou wilt; but as for the other, peradventure it lieth not within the compass or power of mortal man to accomplish."
"What thou canst, let it be done without delay, for I would fain behold a sight so wonderful; yet will I first take precaution to put thee in durance until it be accomplished; perchance it may quicken thee to this good work; and I do bethink me too, thou knowest more than thou wouldest fain acknowledge of this evil dealing toward my sister."
The beggar sought not to escape; he knew it would be in vain, for the menials had surrounded them; and he was conveyed to the kitchen until he should be ready for the important duties he had to perform. To-morrow was appointed for the trial, but fearful was the night that intervened—rattling of chains, falling of heavy weights, loud rumblings, as though a coach-and-six were driving about the premises; these, intermingled with shrieks and howlings, were not confined to the old room, where the beggar lodged as heretofore, but were heard and felt through the whole house. It seemed as though his presence had hitherto confined them to the locality we have named, and that they had burst their bounds on his departure. Little rest had the household on that fearful night, and the morning was welcome to many who had been terrified so that they scarcely expected to see the light of another sun.
With the earliest dawn Nicholas Haworth hied him to the kitchen, where the beggar, a close prisoner, was comfortably nestled on his couch.
"What ho!" said the squire, "thou canst sleep when others be waking. Thy friends have been seeking thee through the night, mayhap. There have been more shaking limbs than hungry stomachs, I trow."
"I know of naught that should keep me waking; my conscience made no echo to the knocking without; and so good-morrow, Master Nicholas."
There came one at this moment running in almost breathless, to say that the cart-horses were all harnessed and yoked ready in the stable by invisible hands, and that no one durst take them from their stalls. On the heels of this messenger came another, who shouted out that the bull, a lusty and well-thriven brute, was quietly perched, in most bull-like gravity, upon the hay-mow. It being impossible, or contrary to the ordinary law of gravitation, that he could have thus transported himself, what other than demon hands could or durst have lifted so ponderous and obstinate a beast into the place? In short, such were the strange and out-of-the-way frolics that had been committed, that Satan and all his company seemed to have been let loose upon the household on this memorable night.
"Thou shalt rid us of these pests, or by the head of St Nicholas," said his namesake, "the hangman shall singe thy beard for a fumigation."
"Let me go, and the spirit shall not trouble thee."
"Nay, gaffer, thou dost not escape me thus; my sister, we have yet no tidings of her, and, it may be, those followers or familiars of thine can help me to that knowledge."
"I tell thee I'll lay the ghost while the holly's green, or mire in Dearnly Clough, should it so please thee, Master Nicholas; but I must first be locked up for a space in the haunted chamber alone. Keep watch at both door and loophole, if thou see fit; but I gi'e thee my word that I'll not escape."
"Agreed," said Haworth; "but it shall not avail thee, thou crafty fox, for we will watch, and that right diligently; unless the de'il fly away with thee, thou shalt not escape us."
The bargain was made, and Noman was speedily conducted to the chamber. Sentinels were posted at the door, and round the outside, to prevent either entrance or exit.
A long hour had nigh elapsed, and the watchers were grown weary. Some thought he had gone off in a chariot of smoke through the roof, or in a whirlwind of infernal brimstone; while others, not a few, were out of doors gazing steadfastly up towards the chimneys, expecting to see him perched there, like a daw or starling, ready for flight. But when the hour was fulfilled, the beggar lifted up the latch, and walked forth alone, without let or molestation.
"Whither away, Sir Grey-back?" said Nicholas, "and wherefore in such haste? We have a word or so ere thou depart. Art thou prepared?"
"Ay, if it so please thee."
"And when dost thou begin thine exorcism?"
"Now, if so be that thou have courage. But I warn thee of danger therefrom. If thou persist, verily in this chamber shall it be done."
"Then return, we will follow—as many as have courage, that is," said Nicholas Haworth, looking round and observing that his attendants, with pale faces and mewling stomachs, did manifest a wondrous inquietude, and a sudden eagerness to depart. Yet were there some whose curiosity got the better of their fears, and who followed, or rather hung upon their master's skirts, into the chamber, which, even in the broad and cheerful daylight, looked a gloomy and comfortless and unhallowed place. Noman commanded that silence should be kept, that not even a whisper should breathe from other lips than his own. He drew a line with his crutch upon the floor, and forbade that any should attempt to pass this imaginary demarcation. The auditors were all agape, and but that the door was fastened, some would doubtless have gone back, repenting of their temerity.
After several unmeaning mummeries and incantations, the chamber appeared to grow darker, and a low rumbling noise was heard, as from some subterraneous explosion.
"Dominus vobiscum," said the necromancer; and a train of fire leapt suddenly across the room. A groan of irrepressible terror ran through the company; but the exorcist, with a look of reprehension for their disobedience, betook himself again to his ejaculations. Retiring backwards a few paces to a corner of the room, he gave three audible knocks upon the floor, which, to the astonishment and dismay of the assembly, were distinctly repeated, apparently from beneath. Thrice was this ceremony gone through, and thrice three times was the same answer returned.
"Restless spirit," said the conjuror, solemnly, and in a voice and manner little accordant with those of an obscure and unlearned beggar; "why art thou disquieted, and what is the price of thy departure?"
No answer was given, though the question was repeated. The adjurer appeared, for one moment, fairly at a nonplus.
"By thine everlasting doom, I conjure thee, answer me!" Still there was no reply. "Thou shalt not evade me thus," said he, indignant at the slight which was put upon his spells. He drew a little ebony box from his bosom, and on opening it smoke issued therefrom, like the smell of frankincense. With this fumigation he used many uncouth and horrible words, hard names, and so forth, which probably had no existence save in the teeming issue of his own brain. During this operation groans were heard, at first low and indistinct, then loud and vehement; soon they broke into a yell, so shrill and piercing that several of the hearers absolutely tried, through horror and desperation, to burst the door; but this was secure, and their egress prevented thereby.
"Now answer me what thou wouldst have, and tell me the terms of thy departure hence."
A low murmur was heard. The beggar listened with great attention.
"This wandering ghost avoucheth," said he, after all was silent, "that there be two of them, and that they rest not until they have taken possession of this house, and driven the inhabitants therefrom."
"Hard law this," said Nicholas Haworth; "but, for all their racket, I shan't budge."
"Then must they have a sacrifice for the wrong done when they were i' the body; being slain, as they say, by their guardian, a wicked uncle, that he might possess the inheritance."
Again he made question, looking all the while as though talking to something that was present and visible before him.
"What would ye for your sacrifice, evil and hateful things? for I know, in very deed, that ye are not the innocent and heavenly babes whose spirits are now in glory, but devilish creatures who have been permitted to walk here unmolested, for the wickedness that hath been done. Again, I say that your unwillingness sufficeth not, for ye shall be driven hence this blessed day."
Another shriek announced their apprehension at this threat, and again there was a murmuring as before.
"He sayeth," cried the exorcist, after listening a while, "they must have a living body sacrificed, and in four quarters it must be laid; then shall these wicked spirits not return hither until what is severed be joined together. With this hard condition we must be content."
"Then, by 'r lady's grace, if none else there be, thou shalt be the holocaust for thy pains," said Nicholas, "for I think we need not any other. What say ye, shall not this wizard be the sacrifice, and we then rid the world of a batch of evil things at once?" He looked with a cruel eye upon the mendicant; for he judged that his sister had, in some way or another, fallen a victim to his devilish plots; and he would have thought it little harm to have poured out his blood on the spot. The beggar seemed aware of his danger, but with a loud and peremptory tone he cried—
"There needeth not so costly an oblation. Bring hither the first brute animal ye behold, any one of you, on crossing the threshold of the porch."
A messenger was accordingly sent, who returned with a barn-door fowl in his hand, a well-fed chanticleer, whose crow that morning had awakened his cackling dames for the last time.
With great solemnity the conjuror went forth from the chamber, and in the courtyard the fowl was named "John;" sponsors standing in due form, as at an ordinary baptism. Then the bird was dismembered, or rather divided into four parts, according to the directions they had received. These were afterwards disposed of as follows:—one was buried at Little Clegg, in a field close by, another under one of the hearth-flags in the hall, another at the Beil Bridge, by the river which runs past Belfield, and the remaining quarter under the barn-floor. Nicholas continued to look on with a curious eye until the ceremony was concluded, when, after a brief pause, he inquired—
"Have there been no tidings yet from Alice? Can thine art not disclose to me whither she be gone?"
"The maiden lives," said the beggar doggedly.
"Thou knowest of her hiding, then?" said her brother sharply, and with a cunning glance directed towards the speaker.
"The spirit said so," replied Noman, as though wishful to evade or to shrink from the question.
"And what else?" inquired the other; "for by my halidome thou stirrest not hence until she be forthcoming, alive or dead! I verily suspect—nay, more, I charge thee with forcibly detaining her against her own privity or consent."
The beggar looked steadily upon him, not a whit either moved or abashed at this bold accusation.
"Peradventure thou speakest without heed and unadvisedly. I tell thee again, thou wouldest have been driven hence ere now had it not been for others whom that spirit must obey."
"Who art thou?" said the perplexed inquirer; "for thou art either worse or better than thou seemest."
"Once the rightful heir, now a beggar, in these domains, wrested from me by rapine and the harpy fangs of injustice misnamed law. Theophilus Ashton, from whom ye took your share of the inheritance when death dislodged it from his gripe, won it himself most foully from my ancestors;—and have I not a right to hate thee?"
"And so thy vengeance hath fallen upon a defenceless woman?"
"Nay, I said not so; but if I had so minded I might have been glutted with vengeance, ay, to my heart's core. Hark thee. Secrets I have learned that will bind the hidden things of darkness, and bow them to my behest. The unseen powers and operations of nature have been open to my gaze. Long ago my converse and companionship were with the learned doctors and sages of the East. In Spain I have walked in the palace of the Moorish kings, the Alhambra at Grenada; and in Arabia I have learned the mystic cabala, and worshipped in the temple of the holy prophet!"
"And yet thou comest a beggar to my door! Truly thy spells have profited thee little."
The beggar smiled scornfully. "Riches inexhaustible, unlimited are mine; while nature is unveiled at my command."
"Thou speakest riddles, old man; or thou dost hug the very spectres of thy brain, which men call madness."
"I am not mad; save it be madness that I have not hurled thee from this thy misgotten heritage. A power of mighty and all prevading energy hath hindered me, and, it may be, rescued thee from destruction."
"Unto what unknown intercessor do I owe this forbearance?"
"Love!" said the mendicant, with an expression of withering and baneful scorn; "a silly hankering for a puling girl."
"And is it so strange, so hard and incapable of belief, that in a frosty but vigorous age, the sap should be fresh though the outward trunk look withered and without verdure?"
Nicholas shuddered. A harrowing suspicion crossed him that his beloved sister had fallen a victim to the lawless passions of this hoary delinquent.
"Thou dost judge wrongfully," said the beggar; "she appertaineth not to me. 'Tis long since I have drunk of that maddening cup, a woman's love. Would that another had not taken its intoxicating draught."
"Thou but triflest with me," said Haworth; "let the maiden go, or beware my vengeance."
"Thy vengeance! Weak, impotent man! what canst thou do? Thy threats I hold lighter than the breath that makes them; thy cajolments I value less than these; and thy rewards—why, the uttermost wealth that thou couldst boast would weigh but as a feather against the riches at my disposal."
"Then give her back at my request."
"I tell thee she is not mine, nor in my charge."
"But thou knowest of her detention, and where she is concealed."
"What if I do? will that help thee to the discovery?"
"Point out the place, or conduct me thither, and"——
The mendicant here burst forth into a laugh so tantalising and malicious that Nicholas, though silent, grew pale with choler.
"Am I a fool?" said the exorcist; "an everyday fool? a simpleton of such a dastardly condition that thou shouldest think to whine me from my purpose? Never."
Scarcely was the word spoken when a loud and awful explosion shook the building to its foundations. Horror and consternation were seen upon the hitherto composed features of the beggar. He grasped his crutch, and with a yell of unutterable anguish he cried, "Ruined—betrayed! May the fiends follow ye for this mischance!"
He threw himself almost headlong down the steps, and ran with rapid strides through the yard, followed by Nicholas, who seemed in a stupor of astonishment at these mysterious events.
Passing round to the other side of the house, he saw a smoke rising in a dense unbroken column from an outbuilding beyond the moat, towards which Noman was speedily advancing. Suddenly he slackened his pace. He paused, seemingly undecided whither to proceed. He then turned sharply round and made his way into the kitchen, passing up a staircase into the haunted chamber, still followed by Nicholas Haworth, and not a few who were lookers-on, hoping to ascertain the cause of this alarm.