"Father," said Katherine, "you will take me to our home again. I will be all to you once more; and to my mother, now that he is safe."
One kiss from the gallant earl, and the high-minded, though low-born, maiden stepped into the boat. One wave of the hand, when the morning mist interposed its white veil, and parted them for ever;—yet not before old Grimes, taking a last survey of the vessel, was quite sure he saw the magician of the casket looking at him over the ship's side. In all probability his fancy had not deceived him; the affair of the casket, though supposed by the fisherman to be altogether of a supernatural nature, was, in all likelihood, a means of supplying the earl with money and information to aid his escape.
The subsequent history of this unfortunate but misguided chieftain, whose daring and audacious bravery was worthy of a better cause and a more disinterested master, is but too well known.
The vessel, being ill equipped and hardly sea-worthy, was pursued—the earl taken, and an ignominious death gave to the world assurance of a traitor.
THE MAID'S STRATAGEM;
THE CAPTIVE LOVER.
"Let me alone with him. If I do not gull him into a nayword, and make him a common recreation, do not think I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed."
The following tale is perhaps the most apocryphal in our series. There has been considerable difficulty in fixing its locality: and, indeed, we are hardly sure that the names, dates, and places we have hit upon, will answer to the facts in every particular. We have done our best to verify it, and have succeeded, we trust, in the attempt, more to our reader's satisfaction than our own.
"There be more fools than farthingales, and more braggarts than beards, in this good land of ours. A bald-faced impertinent! it should cost the grand inquisitor a month's hard study to invent a punishment for him. This pretty morsel! Hark thee, wench; I'll render his love-billet to thine ear. Listen and be discreet.
"'If my sighs could waft the soft cargo of their love to thy bosom, I would freight the vessel with my tears, and her sails should be zephyr's wings, and her oars love's fiercest darts. If I could tell but the lightest part of mine agony, your heart, though it were adamant, would melt in the furnace of my speech, and your torture should not abate till one kind glance had irradiated the bosom of your most unhappy, and most wretched of lovers,
"Now for the post scriptum. If thy sighs be as long as thine ears,——help the furnace they are blown through. Again.
"'If one ray of compassion lurks in your bosom, lady, let those radiant fingers illuminate your pen, touching one little word by way of answer to this love-billet, though it were but as a rope thrown out in this overwhelming ocean of love to keep from sinking your unhappy slave. These from my dwelling at ——.'
"O' my troth, answer thou shalt have, and that quickly, on thy fool's pate. Dost think, Marian, it were not a deed worth trying, to quell this noisome brute with a tough cudgel?"
"It were too good for him," replied the maid; "but if you will trust the rather to my conceits, lady, we will make this buzzard spin. He shall dance so rare a coarnto[v] for our pastime; beshrew me, but I would not miss the sport for my best holiday favours."
But we leave the beauteous Kate and her mischief-loving maiden, to plot and machinate against the unsuspecting lover. It behoveth us, moreover, to be absent for a somewhat grave and weighty reason, to wit, that when women are a-plotting, another and a more renowned personage—the beau ideal of whose dress and personal appearance, according to the testimony of a reverend divine, consists of a black coat and blue breeches—generally contrives to be present, as was by that learned dignitary umquhile set forth in a well-known ditty, of which the veracity is only equalled by the elegance and propriety of the subject, and the classical dignity of its composition.
Leaving them, though in somewhat dangerous company, we just glance at the lover, whose epistle to the proud maiden proved so galling to her humours.
Master Anthony Hardcastle was the only son of a substantial yeoman of good repute long resident in ——. Dying he left him, when scarcely at man's estate, the benefit of a good name, besides a rich store of substance, in the shape of broad pieces, together with lands and livings. The sudden acquisition of so much loose wealth to one whose utmost limit of spending money aforetime had been a penny at Easter and a groat at Michaelmas, did seem like the first breaking forth of a mighty torrent, pent up for past ages, forming its own wild and wilful channel, in despite of all bounds and impediments. His education had been none of the most liberal or extensive; and, astonished at his own aggrandisement, he found himself at once elevated into an object of importance ere he could estimate his own relative insignificance in the great world around him. Thus he became an easy prey to the hordes of idlers and braggarts with whom he associated. He had been to town, kept company with some of the leading cut-and-thrust bullies of the day; but Nature had denied him the headstrong boldness, the desperate recklessness of disposition, requisite for this amiable occupation. His infirmity had consequently often led him to play the coward. At the same time it probably was the means of restraining him from many of those evils into which his lavish and simple disposition might have been enticed, and he was now settling down quietly in the character of a good-natured, well-furnished simpleton. Fond of dress and a gaudy outside, he aimed at ladies' hearts through the medium of silken cloaks and ponderous shoe-buckles;—designing to conquer not a few of the fair dames with whom he associated. But, alas! the perversity of woman had hitherto rendered his efforts unavailing; still an overweening opinion of his own pretensions to their favour prevented him from giving up the pursuit, every succeeding mishap in no wise hindering him from following the allurements of the next fair object that fluttered across his path. He had heard of the wit and beauty of Kate Anderton, only daughter to Justice Anderton of Lostock Hall, a bluff and honest squire who spent his mornings in the chase and his evenings in the revel incident thereto; a man well looked upon by his less distinguished neighbours, being of a benevolent disposition, and much given to hospitality. Kate's disposition was fiery and impetuous, but tempered withal so pleasantly by the sweetness of a naturally tender and affectionate spirit, that you loved her the better for these sharp and wayward ingredients, which prevented that sweetness from cloying.
Master Anthony, hearing of this goodly maiden, found himself, after secretly beholding her, moved to the exploit of winning and wearing in his bosom so precious a gem, which many a high-flown gallant had essayed to appropriate. He began the siege by consulting the most approved oracles and authorities of the time for the construction of love-billets. The cut and fashion of the paper, too, were matters of deep and anxious consideration. Folded and perfumed, the missile was despatched, and the result was such as we have just seen.
Upon this memorable day, it then drawing on towards eventide, Anthony, full of solicitude and musing on the fate of his billet, was spreading himself out, like a newly-feathered peacock, in the trim garden behind his dwelling. A richly-embroidered Genoa silk waistcoat and amber-coloured velvet coat glittered in the declining sun, like the church weathercock perched just above him at a short distance from the house.
The mansion of Squire Anderton lay a few miles off; yet there had been sufficient time for the return of his trusty valet, who was the bearer of this love-billet. Several times had he paced the long straight gravel walk stretching from the terrace to the Chinese temple, and as often had he mounted the terrace itself to look out for the well-known figure of Hodge, ere the hind was descried through a cloud of hot dust, urging on his steed to the extremity of a short but laborious trot. Needless were it to dwell upon the anxiety and foreboding with which he awaited the nearer approach of this leaden-heeled Mercury. To lovers the detail would be unnecessary, and to others description would fail to convey our meaning.
"I ha't, measter."
"What hast thou brought, Hodge?"
"Quick—quick, fellow. Canst not give it me?"
"Ay, i' fackens; but where is it?"
Great was the consternation depicted in the flat and vapid face of the boor as he fumbled in his pocket, turned out the lining, and groped down incontinently "five fathom deep," into his nether appendages; but still no letter was forthcoming.
"She gi'ed me one, though; an' where it is——I'se sure it waur here, an'——Bodikins if those de'ilments hanna twitched it out o' my——Thoose gigglin' wenches i' th' buttery took it when I waur but putting my nose to the mug the last time, for a lift i' the stirrup."
Terrible was the wrath and disapprobation evinced by Master Anthony at this disaster. He had nigh despoiled the curls of his new wig, which were become twisted and awry with choler.
Patiently to endure was the business of Hodge; and his master's fury having "sweeled" down into the socket, a few hasty flashes just glimmered out from the ignited mass, ere it was extinguished.
"But thou hadst a letter—dolt—ass!"
"Ay, master, as sure as I am virtuous and well-favoured."
"Then is the lady kindly affected towards my suit? But oh, thou gull—thou dunderpate—thou losel knave, to lose one line moved by her sweet fingers. Get in; I'll not defile my rapier with beating of thee. Thanks to the lady thou hast just left; her condescension so affecteth my softer nature that I could not speak an angry word without weeping. March, rascal, and come not into my presence until thou art bidden, lest I make a thrust at thee with my weapon. O Katherine! my life—my love,—'my polar star, my axle; where all desire, all thought, all passions turn, and have their consequence!'"
Anthony had picked up this scrap from the players, with whom he had smoked, and committed the usual delinquencies, not peculiar to that age of folly and licentiousness.
"I'll go dream of thee where there be a bank of flowers. Here let me lose myself in a delirium of sweets."
Choosing a fair position, he squatted down upon a ripe strawberry bed, and great was the dismay with which he beheld the entire ruin of his best puce-coloured breeches. So sudden was the dissipation of his complacency, that he determined to beat Hodge forthwith; to which thrifty employment we commend him, whilst we address ourselves to the further development of our story.
Near to the lower extremity of the village dwelt a maiden whose bloom had been wasted, and whose matchless hopes were always frustrated ere their accomplishment. Many a simpering look had she cast towards the goodly raiment of Master Anthony, and some incipient notion was entertained that the indweller at the big house was not averse to a peep, now and then, more tender than usual, at the window of Mrs Bridget Allport. When a boy, Anthony had been a sort of spoiled pet of the maiden, who was then opening into bloom, and the bud of promise breaking forth in all its pride and loveliness. While Anthony's legs were getting rounder, and his face and figure more plump and capacious, the person of Mistress Bridget was, alas! proceeding, unluckily, in a manner quite the reverse. Anthony's love had not quickened into fruition with his growth: but the lady kept a quick and wary eye upon his movements, and many a pang had his flattering favours caused in her too susceptible heart.
Distantly related to the family, she sometimes visited Lostock Hall; and at the period when our narrative begins she was located therein.
Kate had long been aware of her likings and mishaps, and was no stranger to her predilection for Master Anthony Hardcastle.
The first overt act of mischief resulting from the plots of Kate and her maid was a smart tap at the door of Mistress Bridget, her bed-chamber, where she was indulging in reverie and romance; but the day being hot, she had fallen asleep, and was dreaming of "hearts, darts, and love's fires." She started from this mockery of bliss at the summons.
"Prithee, Marian, what is it?"
"A billet from—I don't care to tell who!"
"A billet, sayest thou?—eh!—who can it be? What! It is—go away, my good Marian; I cannot—oh! when will my poor heart——'Waft a cargo of love to thy bosom.' 'Melt in the furnace.' Dear, delightful passion! How pure! Just like mine own, I declare. 'Harder than adamant.' Nay, thou wrongest me. Prithee, Marian, who—where is he?"
"A trusty messenger is below." She dropped a handsome curtsy.
"Give me my tablets and my writing-stool. O Marian! little did I think of this yesterday. When I was telling thee of—of—oh, I am distraught!"
She commenced a score of times ere something in the shape of a communication could be despatched.
"There—there; let it be conveyed quick. Nay, I will see him myself. Lead me to him, girl. I will say how—and yet, this may look too bold and unmaidenly. Take it, good girl, and say—what thou thinkest best."
Lightly did the laughing maiden trip through the great hall into the buttery, where Hodge was ambushed along with a huge pie, fast lessening under his inspection. Her intention was not to have given him the billet, but she was suddenly alarmed at the approach of Mistress Bridget. Fearful lest the deception might be discovered, she hastily gave Hodge the precious deposit, trusting to some favourable opportunity when she might extract the letter from his pouch. An occasion shortly occurred, and Hodge was despatched, as we have seen, billetless, and unconscious of his loss.
The lover was sore puzzled how to proceed. It was possible—nay, more than probable—that the message might have appointed a meeting; or twenty other matters, which he was utterly unable to conjecture, woman's brain being so fertile in expedients; and if he obeyed not her injunctions it might be construed amiss, and unavoidably prove detrimental to his suit. Should he send back the messenger? She would perhaps laugh at him for his pains; and he was too much afraid of her caprice to peril his adventure on this issue. A happy thought crossed his brain; he capered about his little chamber; and could hardly govern himself as the brilliant conception blazed forth on his imagination. This bright phantasy was to be embodied in the shape of a serenade. It would be more in the romantic way of making love—would stimulate her passions—powerfully enlist her feelings in his favour, and doubtless bring on something like an appointment, or a permission, at any rate, to use a freer intercourse.
"To-morrow night," said he, rubbing his hands and stroking his soft round chin, for be it understood, gentle reader, the youth was of a tender and fair complexion, with little beard, save a slight blush on his upper lip. He was not ill-favoured, but there was altogether something boyish and effeminate throughout his appearance, which seemed not of the hue to win a lady's love. He could twang the guitar, and had at times made scraps of verse, which he trolled to many a damsel's ear, but to little purpose hitherto.
On the morrow he watched the sun creep lazily up the sky, and more lazily down again. The old dial seemed equally dilatory and unwilling to move. He had sorted out his best and most ardent love sonnet, and strummed as many jangling tunes as would have served a company of morris-dancers and pipers for a May festival. Twilight came on apace. The moon was fast mounting to her zenith. No chance of its being dark; so much the better—it would enable the lovers to distinguish each other the more easily.
Hodge had long been ready, and the steeds duly caparisoned. At length, reckoning that his arrival would take place about the time the lady had retired to her chamber, he set forth, accompanied by his trusty esquire. The road lay for some distance over a long high tract of moorland, while beautifully did the bright stars appear to shoot up from the black, bleak, level horizon. The moon seemed to smile suspiciously upon them, and even Hodge grew eloquent beneath her glance.
"It's brave riding to-night, master; one might see to pick up a tester if 'twere but i' the way. Well, I does like moonlight, ever since Margery came a-living at the parson's."
"Peace, sirrah!" Anthony was conning inwardly, and humming the soft ditty by which he proposed to excite his mistress' ear. "I think thou art mine evil destiny, doomed everlastingly to be my plague and annoyance."
"Body o' me, but you're grown woundily humoursome of a sudden," muttered the other at the lower end of his voice. "I waur but saying as how Margery"——
Hodge here received another interruption. A stray ass, turned out to browse on the common, seemingly actuated thereto by sympathy or proximity of either man or beast, burst into one of those hysterical, though exquisite cadences, which defy all imitation, and at the same time produce an extraordinary and irresistible effect on the animal economy.
"That is all along of thy prating," said the meditative lover, when the "strain" was concluded. "It bodes no good; and I'd as lief see a magpie, and hear a screech-owl, as one of those silly beasts. The salutation of an ass by night is ever held a sound of ill-omen; and lo! there be two of ye, reckoning thine own ugly voice."
"Then may two bode good, if one bode ill, as the maids say of the magpies," replied the indefatigable attendant.
"I'll cudgel thine infirmity out o' thee. Hold thy tongue! Hadst thou not been left me by my father, a precious bequest, I had sent thee a packing, long ere thou hadst worn a badge in my service."
The rest of their journey was accomplished in comparative silence, until a short ascent brought them to a steep ridge, down which the road wound into the valley. It was a scene of rich and varied beauty, now lighted by a bright summer moon. A narrow thread of light might be seen twining through the ground below them, broken at short intervals, then abruptly gliding into the mist which hung upon the horizon. Lights were yet twinkling about, where toil or festivity held on their career unmitigated. A mile or two beyond the hill they were now preparing to descend lay a dark wood, extending to the shallow margin of the adjacent brook. Above this rose the square low tower of Lostock Hall; clusters of long chimneys, irregularly marked out in the broad moonlight, showed one curl of smoke only, just perceptible above the dark trees, intimating that some of the indwellers were yet awake. Ere long a bypath brought them round to a fence of low brushwood, where a little wicket communicated with the gardens and offices behind.
"Here stay with the beasts until I return," said Anthony, deliberately untying the cover wherein reposed his musical accompaniment.
"And how long may we kick our heels and snuff the hungry wind for supper, master?"
"Until my business be accomplished," was the reply.
Master Anthony commenced tuning, which aroused the inquiries of several well-ordered and decently-disposed rooks who were not given to disturb their neighbours at untimely hours, and were just at the soundest part of their night's nap.
"These villainous bipeds do fearfully exorbitate mine ear," said the agonised musician. "'Tis not in the power of aught human to harmonise the strings."
The clamour increased with every effort, until the whole community were in an uproar, driving the incensed wooer fairly off the field. Trusting that he should be able to eke out the tune in spite of these interruptions, he hastened immediately to his destination. He crossed a narrow bridge and passed through a gap into the garden, taking his station on one side of the house, where he commenced a low prelude by way of ascertaining if the lady were within hearing, and likewise the situation of her chamber. To his inexpressible delight a window, nearly opposite the tree under which he stood, was gently opened, and he could distinguish a figure in white moving gently behind the drapery. He now determined to try the full power of his instrument, and warbled, with no inconsiderable share of skill and pathos, the following ditty:—
"Fair as the moonbeam, Bright as the running stream, Sparkling, yet cold; In Love's tiny fingers A shaft yet there lingers,
"And he creeps to thy bosom, and smiles, lady. Soon his soft wings will cherish A flame round thine heart, And ere it may perish Thy peace shall depart.
Oh listen, listen, lady gay; Love doth not always sue; The brightest flame will oft decay, The fondest lover rue, lady! The fondest lover rue, lady!"
At the conclusion he saw a hand, presently an arm, stretched out through the casement. Something fell from it, which glistened with a snowy whiteness in the clear moonlight. He ran to seize the treasure—a scrap of paper neatly folded—which, after a thankful and comely obeisance towards the window, he deposited in his bosom. The casement was suddenly closed. The lover, eager to read his billet, made all imaginable haste to regain the road, where, mounting his steed, he arrived in a brief space, almost breathless with anticipation and impatience, at his own door. The contents of the despatch were quickly revealed in manner following:—
"I know thine impatience; but faith must have its test. Send a message to my father; win his consent to thy suit; but as thou holdest my favour in thine esteem come not near the house thyself ere one month have elapsed. Ask not why; 'tis sufficient that I have willed it. Shouldst thou not obey, I renounce thee for ever.
"This shall be the test of thy fidelity.
He kissed the writing again and again; he skipped round the chamber like unto one demented; and when the old housekeeper, who was in a sore ill-temper at being deprived of her accustomed allowance of rest, came in to know his intentions about supper, he bade her go dream of love and give supper to the hogs.
The morning found Anthony early at his studies. A letter, painfully elaborated, was despatched in due form "To Master Roger Anderton, these;" and the lover began to ruminate on his good fortune. The terms were hard, to be sure, and the time was long; but women, and other like superior intelligences, will not bear to be thwarted; at least, so thought Master Anthony Hardcastle, as he threw his taper legs over the opposite chair, screwing his forbearance to the test.
The same day an answer was received, briefly as follows:—
"Though thy person and qualifications be unknown to me, yet have I not been ignorant of the respect and esteem which thy father enjoyed. Shouldst thou win my daughter's favour, thou shall not lack my consent, if thou art as deserving as he whose substance thou hast inherited."
Leaving to Anthony the irksome task of minuting down the roll of time for one unlucky month, turn we to another personage with whom it is high time the reader should be acquainted. At Turton Tower, a few miles distant, dwelt a cavalier of high birth, whose pedigree was somewhat longer than his rent-roll. To this proud patrician Kate's father had long borne a bitter grudge, arising out of some sporting quarrel, and omitted no opportunity by which to manifest his resentment. Dying recently, he had left an only son, then upon his travels, heir to the inheritance and the feud with Anderton.
Shortly after his return, Kate, being on a visit in the neighbourhood, saw him; and as nothing is more likely to excite love than the beholding of some forbidden object, unwittingly, in the first instance, she began to sigh; and with each sigh came such a warm gush of feeling from the heart as did not fail to create a crowd of sensations altogether new and unaccountable. On his part the feeling was not less ardent, though less inexplicable, at least to himself, and a few more glances fixed them desperately and unalterably in love. Hopeless though it might be, yet did the lovers find a sad and mournful solace in their regrets, the only sentiment they could indulge. They had met, and in vows of secrecy had often pledged unintermitting attachment.
Love at times had prompted some stratagem to accomplish their union, for which the capricious and unforgiving disposition of the old gentleman seemed to afford a fair excuse. It is a most ingenious and subtle equivocator that same idle boy, and hath ever at hand palliatives, and even justifications, in respect to all crimes done and committed for the aiding and comforting of his sworn lieges. And thus it fell out, Kate's wits were now at work to make Anthony's suit in some way or another subservient to this object. Once committed to a purpose of such duplicity, no wonder that contrivances and plots not altogether justifiable should ensue; and Kate's natural archness and vivacity, coupled with the mischievous temper of her maid, gave their proceedings a more ludicrous character than the dignity of the passion would otherwise have allowed.
The month was nigh spent when Hodge one morning entered the chamber of his master, who sat there dribbling away the time over a treatise on archery.
"How now, sirrah?"
"Please ye, master, Mistress Kate is to be wed on the feast of St Crispin; an' I'm a-thinking I've no body-gear fitting for my occupation."
"Married, sayest thou?—to whom?"
"Nay, master, an' ye know not, more's the pity if it be not to your honour."
"To me, sayest thou?"
"They ha' so settled it, belike; and I thought, if it would please ye, to order me new boots and a coat for the wedding."
"Peace!—where gattest thou the news?"
"At the smithy. I was but just getting the mare shoed, and a tooth hammered into the garden rake."
"It is wondrous strange!" replied Anthony, musing; "but women are of a subtle and unsearchable temper. She did appoint me a month's abstinence. Sure enough, the feast thou hast named happeneth on the very day of my release. She hath devised this plot for my surprise! Excellent!—and so the rumour hath gotten abroad? Now, o' my troth, but I like her the better for't. Go to; a new suit, with yellow trimmings, and hose of the like colour, shall be thine: thou shalt be chief servitor, too, at my wedding."
Anthony seemed raving wild with delight. He resolved that the jade should know of his intelligence, and he would attack the citadel by a counterplot of a most rare and excellent device. To this end he resolved on going to the hall the night preceding his appointment; in the meantime diligently maturing his scheme for the surprise and delight of the cunning maiden.
With the evening of an unusually long and tedious day, whose minutes had been spun to hours, and these hours into ages, did Master Anthony Hardcastle, accompanied by his servant, set forth on this perilous exploit. Upon a rich and comely suit, consisting of a light blue embroidered vest, and a rich coat of peach-coloured velvet, with bag-wig and ruffles, was thrown a dark cloak, partly intended as a disguise, and partly to screen his gay habiliments from dust and pollution.
They passed slowly on for an hour or two, dropping down to the little wicket as aforetime, above which the crows were again ready with the usual inquiries. The squires being left with the steeds, Master Anthony once more scrambled over the garden hedge, and sustained his person in a becoming attitude against the pear-tree whence he had so successfully attacked and carried the citadel on his former visit. He now beheld, with wonder, lights dancing about in the house, frisking and frolicking through the long casements like so many jack-o'-lanterns. Indeed, the greater part of the mansion seemed all a-blaze, and of an appalling and suspicious brightness. Sounds, moreover, of mirth and revelry approached his ear. He would instantly have proceeded to ascertain the cause of this inauspicious merry-making had not Kate's injunction kept him aloof. The noise of minstrelsy was now heard—symptoms of the marriage-feast and the banquet. More than once he suspected some witchery, some delusion of the enemy to beguile him by enchantments. However, he resolved to be quiet; and, for the purpose of a more extended vision, he climbed, or rather stepped into, the low huge fork of the tree. From this tower of observation he kept a wary eye, more particularly towards the window whence the billet was thrown, expecting to behold some token of his mistress's presence. But this chamber seemed to be the dullest and darkest in the whole house; not a ray was visible. It seemed shut out, impervious to the gladness which irradiated the bosom of its neighbours.
A white cur now came snarling about the bushes; then, cautiously smelling his way to the tree, suddenly set up a yell so deafening and continuous that he roused some of the revellers within. Two men staggered from the house, evidently a little the worse in their articulation by reason of the potations they had taken.
"Quiet, Vick! Hang thy neck, what's a matter? Eh! the pear-tree? It's the thief again—and before the fruit's ripe. Bodikins! but we'll catch thee now, 'r lady. We'll have a thong out of his hide; split me, if we ha'n't!"
The men approached as cautiously as their condition would permit; while Anthony, overhearing the latter part of their dialogue, sat somewhat insecurely on his perch.
"Dan, get th' big cudgel out o' t' barn. I see a some'at black like, an' fearsome, i' th' tree."
Probably they had imbibed courage with their liquor, otherwise the black "somewhat" in the tree might have indisposed them for this daring attack.
"I'll have a blow at it, be't mon or devil, hang me."
Anthony pulled his cloak tightly about him; and while the weapon was providing he entertained serious thoughts of surrendering at discretion; but the effect which this premature disclosure might have on his mistress's determination towards him retarded the discovery; and he was not without hope of eluding the drunken valour of the brutes.
"Now gie't me, Dan—Tol de rol—
'An' back and sides go bare, go bare.'"
Approaching to the attack, Barnaby brandished his cudgel to the time and tune of this celebrated alehouse ditty. The concluding flourish brought the weapon waving within a very concise distance of the goodly person of Master Anthony Hardcastle.
"Murder!—Villains!" cried the terrified lover, unable to endure the menacing aspect of this fearful invader; "I'm Master Anthony, ye sots, ye unthrifts—your master, is to be; and I—I'll have ye i' the stocks for this."
"Bodikins and blunderkins? hear'st him, Dan? Why, thou lying lackpenny, I'll soon whack the corruption out o' thee. Master Anthony, indeed! he be another guess sort of thing to thee, I trow. Thee be'st hankering after the good things hereabout; but I'll spoil thy liquorish tooth for tasting. Come, unkennel, vermin!"
"I am Master Anthony, friend, as safe as my mother bore me. If thou lackest knowledge, go ask Hodge with the horses at the back gate."
"Then what be'st thou for i' the pear-tree? Na, na; Master Anthony is gone home a great whiles back. He's to marry young mistress i' the morn, an' we're getting drunk by participation. There's for thee! I talks like ou'd Daniel the schoolmaster."
Sorely discomposed with the infliction of this vile contumely, Anthony was forced to descend. Nothing, however, would convince the clowns of their mistake. He showed them his glossy raiment; but their intellects were too confused for so nice a discrimination; they consequently resolved to hold him in durance until the morrow, when their master would bring him to account for this invasion of his territory. But who shall depict the horror and consternation of the unhappy lover, on finding them seriously bent on his incarceration in a filthy den, used heretofore as a receptacle for scraps and lumber, near the stables. Remonstrance, entreaty, threats, solicitations, were equally unavailing. He demanded an audience with the justice.
"Thee'll get it soon enough, I warrant thee. And thee may think well o' the stocks; but th' pillory is no more than I'll be bound for. The last we catched, Jem Sludge, we belaboured in such fashion as I verily think he waur more like a midden' nor a man when he got his neck out o' th' collar. Come along—it's not to th' gallows, this bout, my pretty bird. Lend him a whack behind, Dan, if he do not mend his pace."
A rude blow was here administered to the unfortunate captive. He cried out lustily for help; but the inquirers from the hall made merry at his captivity, rejoicing that the thief was now safely in the trap.
On the following morning, the eventful day of his daughter's bridal, the justice rose earlier than he was wont. His features wore a tinge of anxiety as he paced the room with sharp and irregular footsteps. Suddenly he was disturbed by approaching voices, and a sort of suppressed bustle along the passage. On opening the door he saw Daniel and his doughty companion, Barnaby, whose red eyes and hollow cheeks betokened their too familiar indulgence in past festivities.
"We've catched him at last, master."
"Who? What dost stand agape for?"
"Why, a rogue 'at was robbing the gardens."
"A murrain light on both of ye! I cannot be chaffed with such like matters now."
"But your worship," cautiously spake Dan, "he be the most comical thing you ever clapped eyes on. He says he be Master Anthony, your worship's new son that is to be to-day."
"How sayest thou? I think thy wits are the worse for bibbing o' yesternight."
"Nay, your worship's grace, but we'll e'en fetch him. He's pranked out gaily; and a gay bird he be for your honour's cage."
Two or three domestics now entered, leading in their prisoner. His woe-begone looks were angrily bent on his conductors. He shook off their grasp, approaching the owner of the mansion where he had been so evil-entreated. His hair, released from its bonds, dangled in primaeval disorder above his shoulders. His goodly raiment, no longer hidden, was rumpled and soiled, like the finery of a stage wardrobe. Indeed, the Squire guessed he was one of the village players that had been foraging for his supper after a scanty benefit.
"How now, braggart? What evil occupation brings thee about my house? What unlucky hankering, sirrah, brings thee, I say, a-robbing of my grounds and poultry-yards? Methinks thou hast but a sorry employment for thy gingerbread coat."
"I came, sir, to wed your daughter," replied Anthony, simpering, and with great modesty.
"My daughter!" cried Anderton, in a voice of thunder; "and pray may I inquire to whom I am beholden for this favour?"
"To Master Anthony Hardcastle," said the lover, drawing himself up proudly, and casting a glance of triumph and defiance at his tormentors.
"Whew!" cried the other; "why, Master Anthony is no more like thee, thou tod-pate, than thou to St George or the dragon of Wantley. A rare device, truly—a cunning plot—a stage-trick to set the mob agape! Why, thou puny-legged Tamburlane!—thou ghost of an Alexander!—how darest thou confront me thus? Now, i' lady, but I've a month's mind to belabour the truth out o' thee with a weapon something tough and crabbed i' the tasting."
Anthony's face lengthened inordinately at this unexpected rebuke, and a latent whimper quivered about the corners of his pale and pursy mouth. Sobs and protestations were useless; there seemed a base conspiracy to rob him even of his name and identity. He vowed, that the period of his proscription being past, Kate was hourly expecting him, and his appearance overnight was but to execute a little stratagem for her surprise. This explanation but served to aggravate; and in vain did he solicit an interview with the lady, promising to abide by her decision.
"Why, look thee," said the justice; "Anthony Hardcastle, whom thy lying tongue and figure most woefully defame, hath been our guest oftentimes during the past month, and truly his gallant bearing and disposition have well won my consent. No marvel at my daughter's love! But thou!—had she stooped from her high bearing to such carrion, I'd have wrung your necks round with less compunction than those of two base-bred kestrils."
Anthony was dumb with astonishment. The whole transaction had the aspect of some indistinct and troubled dream, or rather some delusion of the arch-enemy to entangle and perplex him. At this moment tripped in the pert maiden, whose share in the machinations we before intimated. She looked on the bewildered lover with a sly and equivocal glance. Craving permission to speak, she said—
"'Tis even so, your worship; this interloper is none other than the very person he represents; and here come those who will give the riddle its proper answer."
Immediately came in the blushing Kate, led in by a tall and comely gentleman, whom her father recognised as the real Anthony.
"We come but to crave your blessing," said this personage, bending gracefully on his knee, whilst Kate seized the hand of her parent.
"Forgive this deceit:" she looked imploringly at the old man, who seemed too astonished to reply: "it was but to win my father's knowledge and esteem for the man to whom my vows are for ever plighted."
"Nay, start not," said the bridegroom; "I but borrowed this ill-used gentleman's name, as I knew none other mode of access to your presence than the disguise that his suit afforded; and from him I now crave forgiveness."
"And I knew," said Kate, glancing round towards the real Anthony, "that the man of my choice would be yours, could I but contrive you should hold a fair judgment between them, as you now do this day."
A reconciliation was the result; but ere a "little month was old" were seen at the same altar, and with the same object, Master Anthony Hardcastle and Mistress Bridget Allport.
 Vide Baines's Lancashire, vol. i. p. 78.
 Vide Baines's Lancashire, vol. ii. p. 504.
THE SKULL HOUSE.
"That skull had a tongue in't that could sing once." —Hamlet.
Wardley Hall, in the manor of Worsley, is an ancient building about seven miles west from Manchester. It was an old seat of the Downes family, and afterwards of Lord Barrymore. A human skull was formerly shown here, beside the staircase, which the occupiers would not permit to be removed. This grim fixture, it was said, being much averse to any change of place or position, never failed to punish the individual severely who should dare to lay hands on it. If removed or buried, it was sure to return, so that in the end each succeeding tenant was fain to endure its presence, rather than be subject to the terrors and annoyances consequent upon its removal. Its place was a square aperture in the wall; nor would it suffer this opening to be glazed, or otherwise filled up, without creating some disturbance. It seemed as if those rayless sockets loved to look abroad, peradventure on the scenes of its former enjoyments and reminiscences. It was almost bleached white by exposure to the weather, and many curious persons have made a pilgrimage there even in late years. Several young men from Manchester once going on this errand, one of them, unobserved of his fellows, thought he would ascertain the truth of the stories he had heard. For this purpose he privately removed the skull to another situation, and left it to find its way back again. The night but one following, such a storm arose about the house, that many trees were blown down, the roofs were unthatched, and the tenants, finding out the cause, as they supposed, replaced the skull, when these terrific disturbances ceased.
The occurrences detailed more fully in the following pages are usually assigned as the origin of this strange superstition.
"I wonder what that hair-brained brother of mine can be doing. No fresh brawl, I hope," said Maria Downes to her cousin Eleanor, as they sat, mopish and disquieted enough, in a gloomy chamber of the old hall at Worsley.
"I hope not, too," replied Eleanor; and there was another long and oppressive silence.
It was in the dusk of a chill, damp November evening. The fire shot forth a sharp uncertain glimmer, and the dim walls threw back the illumination.
"I know not why," said Maria, "but my spirits are very sad, and everything I see looks mistrustful and foreboding!"
So thought her cousin; but she did not speak. Her heart was too full, and a tear started in her eye.
"Would that Harry had eschewed the frivolities and dissipations of yonder ungodly city; that he had stayed with us here, in safe and happy seclusion. I have hardly known pleasure since he went."
Eleanor's bosom again responded to the note of agony that was wrung from her cousin, and she turned her head to hide what she had too plainly betrayed.
"Since that unhappy fray in which peradventure an innocent and unoffending victim was the result of Harry's intemperance, the bloody offence hath been upon my soul—heavier, I do fear, than upon his own. But unless he repent, and turn aside from his sinful courses, there will, there must, come a fearful recompense!"
"Do not sentence him unheard," said Eleanor; but her words were quivering and indistinct. "It was in his own defence, maybe, however bitterly the tidings were dropped into your ear. Sure I am," said she, more firmly, "that Harry was too kind, too gentle, to slay the innocent, and in cold blood!"
"Nay, Eleanor, excuse him not. It may be that the foul deed was done through excess of wine, the fiery heat of debauch, and amid the beastly orgies of intemperance; but is he the less criminal? I tell thee nay; for he hath added crime to crime, and drawn down, perchance, a double punishment. He is my brother, and thou knowest, if possible, I would palliate his offence; but hath it not been told, and the very air of yon polluted city was rife and reeking with the deed, that Harry Downes, the best-beloved of his father, and the child of many hopes, did wantonly, and unprovoked, rush forth hot and intemperate from the stews. Drawing his sword, did he not swear—ay, by that Heaven he insulted and defied, that he would kill the first man he met, and—oh, horror!—was not that fearful oath fulfilled?"
Eleanor had covered her face with her hands—a convulsive sob shook her frame; but though her heart was on the rack, she uttered no complaint. Maria, inflexible, and, as some might think, rigid, in those principles of virtue wherein she had been educated, yet sorrowed deeply for her cousin, who from a child had been her brother Harry's playmate, and the proofs of mutual affection had been too powerful, too early, and too long continued, to be ever effaced. Timid as the frighted fawn, and tender as the wild flower that scarce bent beneath her step, she lay, a bruised reed; the stem that supported her was broken. Her fondest, her only hopes were withered, and the desolating blast of disappointment had passed upon her earliest affections. Her little bark, freighted with all a woman's care and tenderness, lay shivered with the stroke, disabled and a wreck!
Just as the short and murky twilight was expiring, and other lights were substituted, there came a loud summons at the outer gate, where a strong barrier was built across the moat. The females started, as though rendered more than usually apprehensive that evil tidings were at hand. But they were, in some measure, relieved on hearing that it was only Jem Hazleden, the carrier from Manchester, who had brought a wooden box on one of his pack-horses, which said box had come all the way from London by "Antony's" waggon. Maria thought it might be some package or present from her brother, who had been a year or two in town, taking terms; but a considerable period had now passed since tidings were sent from him. She looked wistfully at the box, a clumsy, ill-favoured thing, without the least symptom of any pleasant communication from such a source; so different from the trim packages that were wont to arrive, containing, maybe, the newest London chintz, or a piece of real brocade, or Flanders lace of the rarest workmanship.
"No good lurks in that ugly envelope," thought she; and, stooping down, she examined the direction minutely. It was a quaint crabbed hand—not her brother's, that was certain; and the discovery made her more anxious and uneasy. She turned it over and over, but no clue could be found, no index to the contents. It would have been easy, methinks, to have satisfied herself on this head, but she really felt almost afraid to open it, and yet——At any rate, she would put it off till the morrow. She was so nervous and out of spirits that she positively had not courage to open a dirty wooden box, tied round with a bit of hempen cord, and fastened with a few rusty nails. She ordered it to be removed to her bed-chamber, and morning, perchance, would dissipate these idle but unpleasant feelings. She went to bed, but could not sleep; the wind and rain beat so heavily against the casement, and the recent excitement kept her restless and awake. She tried various expedients to soothe and subdue her agitation, but without effect. The rain had ceased to patter on the windows, but the wind blew more fiercely and in more violent gusts than before. The sky was clearing, and a huge Apennine of clouds was now visible as she lay, on which the moonbeams were basking gloriously. Suddenly a ray glided like a spirit into the chamber, and disappeared. Her eyes were at that moment directed towards the mysterious box which lay opposite, and her very hair moved with horror and consternation; for in that brief interval of light she thought she saw the lid open, and a grisly head glare out hideously from beneath. Every hair seemed to grow sensitive, and every pore to be exquisitely endued with feeling. Her heart throbbed violently, and her brain grew dizzy. Another moonbeam irradiated the chamber. She was still gazing on the box; but whether the foregoing impression was merely hallucinatory, an illusion of the feverish and excited sense, she knew not, for the box was there, undisturbed, grim, silent, and mysterious as before. Yet she could not withdraw her eyes from it. There is a fascination in terror. She could hardly resist a horrible desire, or rather impulse, to leap forth, and hasten towards it. Her brow felt cold and clammy; her eyes grew dim, and as though motes of fire were rushing by; but ere she could summon help she fell back senseless on her pillow.
Morning was far advanced ere she felt any returning recollection. At first a confused and dream-like sensation came upon her. Looking wildly round, her eyes rested on the box, and the whole interval came suddenly to her memory. She shuddered at the retrospect; but she was determined, whether it had been fancy or not, to keep the secret within her own breast, though more undetermined than ever to break open the fearful cause of her disturbance. Yet she durst not seek repose another night with such a companion. Her apprehensions were not easily allayed, however disposed she might be to treat them as trivial and unfounded.
"Will you not open yonder package that came last night?" inquired Eleanor, as they were sitting down to breakfast. Maria shuddered, as though something loathsome had crossed her. She shook off the reptile thought, which had all the character of some crawling and offensive thing as it passed her bosom.
"I have not—that is, I—I have not yet ordered it to be undone."
"And why?" said Eleanor, now raising her soft blue eyes with an expression of wonder and curiosity on her cousin. "It did not use to be thus when there came one of these couriers from town."
"'Tis not from Harry Downes; and—I care not just now to have the trouble on't, being jaded and out of spirits."
"I will relieve you of the trouble presently, if you will permit me," said Eleanor, who was not without a secret hope, notwithstanding Maria's assertion, that it was a message of gladness from Harry, with the customary present for his sister, and perhaps a token of kindness for herself.
"Stay!" said Maria, laying her hand on Eleanor as she rose, whilst with a solemn and startling tone she cried, "Not yet!" She sat down; Eleanor, pale and trembling, sat down too; but her cousin was silent, evidently unwilling to resume the topic.
"To-morrow," said she, when urged; but all further converse on the subject was suspended.
Maria, as the day closed and the evening drew on apace, gave orders that the box should be removed into a vacant outbuilding until morning, when, she said, it might be opened in her presence, as it probably contained some articles that she expected, but of which she was not just then in need.
"It's an ugly cumbersome thing," said Dick, as he lugged the wearisome box to its destination. "I wonder what for mistress dunna break it open. Heigho!"
Here he put down his burden, giving it a lusty kick for sheer wantonness and malice.
"What is't sent here for, think'st 'ou?" said Betty the housemaid, who had followed Dick for a bit of gossip and a sort of incipient liking which had not yet issued on his part into any overt acts of courtship and declaration. It was nigh dark, "the light that lovers choose;" and Betty, having disposed herself to the best advantage, awaited the reply of Dick with becoming modesty.
"How do I know the nature o' women's fancies? It would be far easier to know why there's a change o' wind or weather than the meaning o' their tricks and humours."
"I know not what thee has to complain on," said Betty. "They behaven better to thee nor thou deserves."
"Hoity, toity, mistress; dunna be cross, wench. Come, gie's a buss an' so"——
"Keep thy jobbernowl to thysel'," said the indignant Betty, when she had made sure of this favour. "Thy great leather paws are liker for Becky Pinnington's red neck nor mine," continued she, bridling up, and giving vent to some long-suppressed jealousy.
"Lorjus days; but thou's mighty quarrelsome and peevish; I ne'er touch'd Becky's neck, nor nought belongin' to her."
"Hush," said Betty, withdrawing herself from the approaches of her admirer. "Some'at knocks!"
Dick hastened to the door, supposing that somebody was dodging them.
"'Tis somethin' i' that box!" said Betty; and they listened in the last extremity of terror. Again there was a low dull knock, which evidently came from the box, and the wooers were certain that the old one was inside. In great alarm they rushed forth, and at the kitchen-chimney corner Dick and his companion were seen with blanched lips and staring eyes, almost speechless with affright.
Next morning the story was bruited forth, with amendments and additions, according to the fancy of the speaker, so that, in the end, the first promulgers could hardly recognise their own. The grim-looking despatch was now the object of such terror that scarcely one of them durst go into the place where it stood. It was not long ere Maria Downes became acquainted with the circumstance, and she thought it was high time these imaginary terrors should be put an end to. She felt ashamed that she had given way to her own apprehensions on the subject, which doubtless were, in part, the occasion of the reports she heard, by the seeming mystery that was observed in her manner and conduct. She determined that the box should be opened forthwith. It was daylight, be it remembered, when this resolution was made, and consequently she felt sufficiently courageous to make the attempt.
But there was not one amongst the domestics who durst accompany her on this bold errand—an attack, they conceived, on the very den of some evil spirit, who would inevitably rush forth and destroy them.
Alone, therefore, and armed with the necessary implements, was she obliged to go forth to the adventure.
The terrified menials saw her depart; and some felt certain she would never come back alive; others did not feel satisfied as to their own safety, should their mistress be the victim. All was terror and distress; pale and anxious faces huddled together, and every eye prying into his neighbour's for some ground of hope or confidence. Some thought they heard the strokes—dull, heavy blows—breaking through the awful stillness which they almost felt. These intimations ceased: and a full half-hour had intervened; an age of suspended horror, when—just as their apprehensions were on the point of leading them on to some desperate measures for relieving the suspense which was almost beyond endurance—to their great joy, their mistress returned; who, though appearing much agitated, spoke to them rather hastily, and with an attempt to smile at their alarm.
"Yonder box," said she, passing by, "is like to shame your silly fears. Some wag hath sent ye a truss of straw—for a scrubbing wisp, maybe." But there was, in the hurried and unusual hilarity of her speech, something so forced and out of character, that it did not escape even the notice of her domestics. Some, however, went immediately to the place, and after much hesitation lifted up the lid, when lo! a bundle of straw was the reward of their curiosity. By degrees they began to rummage farther into the contents; but the whole interior was filled with this rare and curious commodity. They could hardly believe their eyes; and Dick, especially, shook his head, and looked as though he knew or suspected more than he durst tell; a common expedient with those whose mountain hath brought forth something very like the product of this gigantic mystery.
Dick was the most dissatisfied with the result, feeling himself much chagrined at so unlooked-for a termination to his wonderful story, and he kept poking into and turning about the straw with great sullenness and pertinacity. His labours were not altogether without success.
"Look! here's other guess stuff than my lady's bed straw," said he, at the same time holding up a lock of it for the inspection of his companions. They looked and there was evidently a clot of blood! This was a sufficient confirmation of their surmises; and Dick, though alarmed as well as the rest, felt his sagacity and adroitness wonderfully confirmed amongst his fellows. They retired, firmly convinced that some horrible mystery was attached thereto, which all their guessing could not find out.
At night, as Dick was odding about, he felt fidgety and restless. He peeped forth at times towards the outhouse where the box was lying, and as he passed he could not refrain from casting a glance from the corner of his eye through the half-closed door. The bloody clot he had seen dwelt upon his imagination; it haunted him like a spectre. He went to bed before the usual hour, but could not sleep; he tossed and groaned, but the drowsy god would not be propitiated. The snoring of a servant in the next bed, too, proved anything but anodyne or oblivion to his cares. He could not sleep, do what he would. Having pinched his unfortunate companion till he was tired, but with no other success than a loud snort, and generally a louder snore than ever, in the end, Dick, rendered desperate, jumped out of bed, and walked, or rather staggered across the floor. He looked through the window. It was light, but the sky was overcast, though objects below might readily be distinguished. The outhouse where the box lay was in full view; and as he was looking out listlessly for a few minutes he saw a female figure bearing a light, who was gliding down stealthily, as he thought, in the yard below. She entered the building, and Dick could hardly breathe, he was so terrified. He watched until his eyes ached before she came out again, when he saw plainly it was his mistress. She bore something beneath her arm; and as Dick's curiosity was now sufficiently roused to overcome all fear of consequences, he stole quickly down-stairs, and by a short route got sufficiently on her track to watch her proceedings unobserved. He followed into the garden. She paused, for the first time, under a huge sycamore tree in the fence, and laid down her burden. She drew something from beneath her cloak, and, as he thought, began to dig. When this operation was completed she hastily threw in the burden, and filled up the hole again; after which, with a rapid step, she came back to the house. Dick was completely bewildered. He hesitated whether or not to examine immediately into the nature of the deposit which his mistress seemed so desirous to conceal; but as he had no light, and his courage was not then screwed up to the attempt, he satisfied himself at present with observing the situation, intending to take some other opportunity to explore this hidden treasure. That his mistress's visit had some connection with the contents of the mysterious box was now certain, and whatever she had concealed was part of its contents, a conclusion equally inevitable; but that she should be so wishful to hide it, was a problem not easy to be explained without examination. Was it money? The clotted blood forbade this surmise. A horrible suspicion crossed him; but it was too horrible for Dick to indulge.
Wondering and guessing, he retraced his steps, and morning dawned on his still sleepless eyelids.
Some weeks passed by, but he found none other opportunity for examination. Somebody or something was always in the way, and he seemed destined to remain ignorant of all that he was so anxious to ascertain.
After the arrival of the box Maria Downes never mentioned her brother unless he was alluded to; and even then she waived the subject as soon as possible, whenever it happened to be incidentally mentioned. Eleanor saw there was an evident reluctance to converse on these matters; and, however she might feel grieved at the change, in the end she forbore inquiry.
One morning her cousin entered the breakfast-room, where Eleanor was awaiting her arrival. Her face was pale—almost deathly—and her lips livid and quivering. Her eyes were swollen, starting out, and distended with a wild and appalling expression.
She beckoned Eleanor to follow; silently she obeyed, but with a deadly and heart-sickening apprehension. Something fearful, as connected with the fate of her cousin Harry, was doubtless the cause of this unusual proceeding. Maria led the way up the staircase, and on coming to the landing, she pointed to a square opening in the wall, like unto the loophole of a turret-stair. Here she saw something dark obstructing the free passage of the light, which, on a closer examination, presented the frightful outline of a human skull! Part of the flesh and hairy scalp were visible, but the whole was one dark and disgusting mass of deformity. She started back, with a look of inquiry, towards her cousin. Hideous surmises crowded upon her while she beheld the features of Maria Downes convulsed with some untold agony.
"Oh, speak—speak to me!" cried Eleanor, and she threw her arms about her cousin's neck, sobbing aloud in the full burst of her emotion. Maria wept too. The rising of the gush relieved her, and she spoke. Every word went as with a burning arrow to Eleanor's heart.
"I have hidden it until now; but—but Heaven has ordained it. His offence was rank—most foul—and his disgrace—a brother's disgrace—hangs on me. That skull is Harry's! Believe it as thou wilt, but the truth is no less true. The box, sent by some unknown hand, I opened alone, when I beheld the ghastly, gory features of him who was once our pride, and ought to have been our protection. My courage seemed to rise with the occasion. I concealed it with all speed until another opportunity, when I buried this terrible memorial—for ever, as I hoped, from the gaze and knowledge of the world. I thought to hide this foul stain upon our house; to conceal it, if possible, from every eye; but the grave gives back her dead! The charnal gapes! That ghastly head hath burst its cold tabernacle, and risen from the dust, without hands, unto its former gazing-place. Thou knowest, Eleanor, with what delight, when a child, he was accustomed to climb up to that little eyelet-hole, gazing out thereat for hours, and playing many odd and fantastic tricks through this loophole of observation."
Eleanor could not speak; she stood the image of unutterable despair.
"In that dreadful package," continued Maria, "this writing was sent:—'Thy brother has at length paid the forfeit of his crimes. The wages of sin is death! and his head is before thee. Heaven hath avenged the innocent blood he hath shed. Last night, in the lusty vigour of a drunken debauch, passing aver London Bridge, he encounters another brawl, wherein, having run at the watchman with his rapier, one blow of the bill which they carry severed thy brother's head from his trunk. The latter was cast over the parapet into the river. The head only remained, which an eye-witness, if not a friend, hath sent to thee!"
Eleanor fell senseless to the ground, whence her cousin conveyed her to the bed from which she never rose.
The skull was removed, secretly at first, by Maria herself; but invariably it returned. No human power could drive it thence. It hath been riven in pieces, burnt, and otherwise destroyed; but ever on the subsequent day it is seen filling its wonted place. Yet was it always observed that sore vengeance lighted on its persecutors. One who hacked it in pieces was seized with such horrible torments in his limbs that it seemed as though he might be undergoing the same process. Sometimes, if only displaced, a fearful storm would arise, so loud and terrible, that the very elements themselves seemed to become the ministers of its wrath.
Nor would this wilful piece of mortality allow of the little aperture being walled up; for it remains there still, whitened and bleached by the weather, looking forth from those rayless sockets upon the scenes which when living they had once beheld.
Maria Downes was the only survivor of the family. Her brother's death and deplorable end so preyed on her spirits that she rejected all offers of marriage. The estate passed into other hands, and another name owns the inheritance.
THE SPECTRE HORSEMAN.
"Are you a man? Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that Which might appal the devil."
This beacon stands on a conical hill, at an elevation of 1545 feet from the level of the sea. An immense pile of wood was raised here when the alarm of the French invasion prevailed, at the beginning of the present century.
Rivington Hall was for many ages the seat of one of the Pilkingtons, of which family Fuller says—"The Pilkingtons were gentlemen of repute in this shire before the Conquest;" and the chief of them, then sought for after espousing the cause of Harold, was fain to disguise himself as a mower; in allusion to which the man and scythe was taken as their crest. James Pilkington, a descendant, and Master of St John's, Cambridge, was one of the six divines appointed to correct the Book of Common Prayer; for which and other services he was in 1560 created Bishop of Durham. After the suppression of the great northern rebellion in 1569, headed by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, he claimed the lands and goods of the rebels attainted in his bishopric. In support of this claim he brought an action against the queen for a recovery of the forfeited estates; and though his royal mistress was accustomed to speak of unfrocking bishops, the reverend divine prosecuted his suit with so much vigour and success that nothing but the interposition of Parliament prevented the defendant from being beaten in her own courts.
The present erection, the scene of our story, was built in the year 1732, by Mr Andrews, the owner of Rivington Hall, whose family have for many generations—with, perhaps, one interruption only—had it in possession.
The evening was still and sultry. The clear and glowing daylight was gone, exchanged for the dull, hazy, and depressing atmosphere of a summer's night. The cricket chirped in the walls, and the beetle hummed his drowsy song, wheeling his lumbering and lazy flight over the shorn meadows.
It was about harvest-time—the latter end of August. The moors were clothed in their annual suit of gay and thickly-clustered blossoms, but their bloom and freshness was now faded. Here and there a sad foretokening of dingy brown pervaded the once glowing brilliancy of their dye, like a suit of tarnished finery on some withering and dilapidated beau.
A party of sportsmen had that day taken an unusually wide range upon the moors, stretching out in wild and desolate grandeur through the very centre of the county, near the foot of which stands the populous neighbourhood of Bolton-le-Moors. Rivington Pike, an irregularly conical hill rising like a huge watch-tower from these giant masses of irreclaimable waste, is a conspicuous and well-known object, crowned by a stone edifice for the convenience of rest and shelter to those whom curiosity urges to the fatigue and peril of the ascent. The view from this elevated spot, should the day be favourable, certainly repays the adventurer; but not unfrequently an envious mist or a passing shower will render these efforts unavailing, to scan the wide creation—or rather but a circlet of that creation—from an insignificant hillock, scarcely an atom in the heap of created matter, that is itself but as a grain of dust in the vast space through which it rolls. But to our tale, or rather, it may be, to our task—for the author is now sitting in his study, with the twilight of as dull, hazy, and oppressive an atmosphere about him as beset our adventurous sportsmen at the close of their campaign; enervating and almost paralysing thought; the veriest foe of "soaring fantasy," which the mere accident of weather will prevent from rising into the region where she can reign without control, her prerogative unquestioned and unlimited.
The party to whom we have just referred consisted of three individuals, with their servants, biped and quadruped, from whom their masters derived the requisite assistance during their useful and arduous exploits—the results being conspicuous in the death of some dozen or two of silly grouse or red game, with which these hills are tolerably well supplied during the season. But alas! we are not sportsmen ourselves, and bitterly do we lament that we are unable to describe the desperate conflict, and the mighty issues of that memorable day; the hopes, fears, and fire-escapes of the whole party: the consumption of powder, and the waste of flint, or the comparative merits of Moll and Rover, we shall not attempt to set forth in our "veritable prose," lest we draw down the wrath of some disappointed fowler upon us for meddling with matters about which we are so lamentably ignorant, and we are afraid to say, in some measure, wilfully deficient. To the spoils, when obtained, it may be that we are less indifferent; and we hail, with favourable reminiscences and anticipations, the return of another 12th of August—an era which we would earnestly and affectionately beseech our friends to remember likewise, for purposes too interesting in the history of our domestic arrangements to allow them willingly to forget.
But the August in which our narrative opens was many years ago—though not precisely in the olden time—when the belief in old-world fancies and delights was not in danger of being blazed out by "diffusions of useful knowledge," which "useful" knowledge consists in dissipating some of our most pleasant dreams, our fondest and most cherished remembrances. We are afraid a writer of "Traditions" must be looked upon with inconceivable scorn by those worthies whose aim is to throw open the portals of Truth to the multitude; or, as the phrase goes, she is to be made plain to the "meanest capacity." For our own parts, we were never enamoured with that same despotic, hard-favoured, cross-grained goddess, Truth: she "commendeth not" to our fancy; nor in reality is she half so worthy of their homage as her ardent and enthusiastic worshippers imagine. We are more than ever inclined to believe that imagination is the great source of our pleasures; and in consequence we look not with an eye of favour on those who would persuade us that our little hoard of enjoyment is counterfeit, not being the sterling coin of sovereign and "immutable truth."
Little did we imagine or anticipate that we should be so deviously betrayed from our subject. We never had the temerity to speak of ourselves before. Thoughts, wishes, and opinions were studiously concealed; and if we have been led unwarily and unintentionally from the subject in this our concluding effort, that very circumstance alone is a sufficient warranty against a repetition of the offence.
The day was fast closing when the party had surmounted the last hill on their return to the valley. For the sake of proximity, they had spent the previous night in a little way-side tavern at the foot of the descent; and they now looked down towards the place of their destination, still some weary miles distant—their prospect partly interrupted by the huge hill called the Pike, of which we have before spoken. From the elevation whereon they now stood the ascent was but short to the summit of the beacon, though somewhat abrupt and difficult of access. When they had gained the ridge overlooking the valley, with the flat and fertile tract of low lands stretching out into the dark and apparently interminable vista towards the coast, the elder of the sportsmen exclaimed—
"Now, Mortimer, mayhap you have never seen a storm in our wilds; but, if my judgment err not, this happy event is in a very auspicious train for accomplishment."
The speaker looked towards the south, where the grim clouds were already accumulated, evidently pouring out a copious blessing in their progress. From the direction of the wind they too were threatened with a speedy participation.
"These summer storms always make for the hills," continued he; "and, looking yonder, I apprehend that we are precisely in the very line of its path."
"I do like to watch the gathering of a storm, Pilkington," replied Mortimer. "Surely the outpouring vials of its wrath must be terrifically sublime in these regions. I would not miss so glorious a sight for the world."
"In a snug shelter maybe at our hostelrie below, with a mug of the right barley-bree buzzing at our elbow—oat-cake and cheese conformable thereto."
"Nay, here; with the sky opening above our heads, and the broad earth reeking and weltering under the wide grasp of the tempest. See! how the crooked lightning darts between the coiled clouds, like a swift messenger from yon dark treasure-house of wrath!"
This was said by a third individual, named Norton, a young man who lived in the neighbourhood; a friend and former school-fellow of the preceding speakers—only one of whom, Mortimer, resided in a distant county, and was on a visit with Norton for the first time.
"Like a train of gunpowder, perhaps, thou meanest, Norton?" said the less enthusiastic Pilkington, whose residence, too, was but a few miles distant; "and, furthermore, I warn ye all, that unless we can house, and that right speedily, we shall have the storm about our heads, and maybe lose our way if the mist comes on, or get soused over head and ears in some bog-trap. We'll climb yonder hill, Norton, whence we may survey the broil and commotion from our 'watch-tower in the skies,' under a tidy roof and a dry skin. Thou mayest tarry here an thou wilt, and offer thyself a sacrifice on these altars of Jupiter Pluvius."
The whole party—dogs, helps, and servants—were soon sheltered in the little square tower upon the summit, and the predictions of the elder and more experienced of them were soon verified. Almost on the entrance of the last of the group came down the deluge in one broad sheet, an "even-down pour," so loud and terrible, accompanied by a burst of hail, that they were threatened with an immediate invasion of their citadel through several crevices in both roof and windows.
A peal of thunder, loud, long, and appalling, shook their shelter to its base. The very foundations of the hill seemed to rock with the concussion. Their lofty tabernacle hung suspended in the very bosom of the clouds, big with their forky terrors. The lightning began to hiss and quiver, and the sky to open its wide jaws above them, as though to devour its prey. The roar and rattle of the wind and hail, mingled with the crash and roll of the contending elements, made the stoutest of them tremble, and silenced several loud tongues that were generally the foremost in jest and banter.
"Well, Norton," said Pilkington, "I reckon you are not in the mind to try a berth abroad in this rude atmosphere during such an angry and merciless disposition of your deity. 'Tis a melee, I imagine, to your heart's content."
"Norton is hearkening to these rude tongues that do speak so lustily!" said Mortimer. "He can, peradventure, interpret their mystic voice."
Norton was in the attitude of intense and earnest expectation or inquiry; his head slightly turned and depressed on one side, the opposite ear raised, so as to catch the most distinct impressions of sound. His eyes might have been listening too, yet his vision was absorbed, and apparently withdrawn from surrounding objects. He was standing near the window, and the workings of his countenance betrayed a strange and marvellous expression of wonder and anxiety.
It grew still darker, and the rain came down in torrents. The thunder-cloud, as though attracted by the height of their situation, kept hovering over the hill, and often seemed to coil round, and wrap them in its terrific bosom. Night, they knew, was about setting in, but they were still unable to issue forth without imminent danger. The thick cloud by which they were enveloped would have rendered it a hazardous attempt to proceed under any circumstances.
"We are in excellent condition for a night's lodging in our good fortalice," said Pilkington: "it hath stood many a close siege from the elements, and will abide a stouter brush before it yields."
"But surely the storm is too violent to continue. I hope we may venture out ere it be long," said Mortimer, anxiously.
"Maybe the clouds will either be driven off or disperse. Should a breeze spring up from the west, which is not unusual after such a turbulent condition of the atmosphere, it will clear us rapidly from these lumbering masses of almost impregnable vapour. I think Norton is still in close communion with the elements. I can yet see his outline by the window. I thought the last flash lighted on his visage as though it would tarry there a while ere it departed!"
The servants were huddled in a corner by the door, sitting on the ground, with the dogs between their legs; the timid animals, terrified exceedingly at every thunder-peal, and shivering, as though from cold and distress. Suddenly one of them began to growl; and a short, sharp bark from another, with eyes and ears turned towards the entrance, seemed to announce the approach of an intruder.
The brutes now stuffed their officious noses in the crevice beneath the door, but immediately withdrew them, evidently in great terror, as they slunk back, trembling and dismayed, to the opposite side of the chamber, where they crouched, as if to screen themselves from correction.
"What ails the cowards?" exclaimed Norton, who had apparently observed their proceedings by the scanty light that was yet left.
"They are witch'd, I think," said one of the men; "or they've seen, or haply smelt, a boggart."
"'Tis o'er soon for such like gear; they stir not abroad before the bats and owls be gone to bed," said another.
"Ay! your common everyday sort o' breein' darena' show their bits o' wizen cheeks by daylight; but there be some 'at will abroad at all hours, without fear o' being laid by the parson. The 'Spectre Horseman' I think they ca' him. I've heard my granam tell as how it feared neither sunshine nor shade, but"——
Here the speaker's voice failed him, every eye and ear being turned towards the entrance. There seemed to come a sound from without, as though a horse were urged to the utmost of its speed, his clattering hoofs driven to the very threshold, and there he paused, awaiting some communication from those within.
"Nought living or breathing," cried Mortimer, "could come that bent. Perch'd as we are on this tall steep summit, 'tis not possible for"——
"Hush!" said Norton. "I verily think 'tis some adventure which I must achieve. What if I should turn giant-killer; this invisible steed being sent for mine especial use, whereon I may ride, like Amadis or Sir Lancelot, or any other knight or knave o' the pack, delivering damsels, slaying dragons and old wicked magicians, by virtue of this good right arm alone."
"Thou art a strange enthusiast, Norton," said Pilkington. "Thy love of the marvellous will sooner or later thrust thee into some ridiculous or perilous scrape, from which not all thy boasted prowess can deliver thee unshent."
"Hark!" said one of the servants in a whisper. Is not that a knock?"
The loud uproar of the elements had suddenly abated, and the sound, from whatever source it might arise, was distinctly audible to the whole group. A dull hollow blow seemed to vibrate round the walls, as if they had been struck with some heavy instrument. They seemed to breathe the very atmosphere of terror. A strange feeling, portentous and unaccountable, pervaded every bosom. The quadrupeds too crept behind their masters for protection. Fear, like other strong and unreasonable impulses, rapidly becomes infectious. In all likelihood, the mere mention of the Spectre Horseman, together with their novel and somewhat dangerous situation, had disposed their minds for the reception of any stray marvels, however ridiculous or improbable. Yet this impression could not extend to the trembling brutes, evidently under the influence of alarm, and from a similar source.
Another blow was heard, louder than before. Those who were nearest crept farther from the entrance; but Norton, as though bent on some wild exploit, approached the door. He raised the latch, and, as it swung slowly back, most of the party beheld a figure on horseback, motionless before the opening. From the height they occupied this mysterious visitor was depicted in a clear bold outline against a mass of red angry-looking clouds, towards the south-east, on the edge of which hung the broad disc of the moon breaking through "Alps" of clouds, her calm sweet glance fast dissipating the wrath that yet lowered on the brow of Heaven. The intruder wore a dark-coloured vestment; a low-crowned hat surmounted his figure. His steed was black and heavily built. Probably, from the position whence he was seen, both horse and rider looked almost gigantic. Not a word was spoken. The stranger stood apparently immovable, like some huge equestrian statue, in the dim and mystic twilight.
Norton's two friends were evidently astonished and alarmed, but he scarcely evinced any surprise; some superior and unknown source of excitement overpowered the fear he might otherwise have felt. Silence continued for a few moments, the strange figure remaining perfectly still. Pilkington approached nearer to his friend, who was yet standing near the threshold, gazing intently on the vision before him. He whispered a few words over Norton's shoulder.
"Knowest thou this stranger, Norton?"
"Yes," he replied with great earnestness and solemnity; "years have gone by since I saw him. Thou never knewest mine uncle; but that is he, or one sense hath turned traitor to the rest. This very night, twelve years ago—it was just before I left home for school"——His voice now became inaudible to his friend, who observed him, after a gaze of inquiry on the stranger, suddenly disappear through the opening. The door was immediately closed by a loud and violent gust. Flying open again with the rebound, the figure of Norton was seen rapidly descending the hill towards the south-east, preceded by the mysterious horseman. The light was too feeble for enabling them to ascertain the course they took; but it seemed probable that Norton was away over the hills with the unknown messenger. Their first impulse was to follow; but the impossibility of overtaking the fugitives, and the near approach of night, would have rendered it a vain and probably a perilous attempt. Looking anxiously down the dark ravine where Norton had so strangely disappeared, Pilkington was startled by a voice from behind; turning, he saw it was the man who had previously dropped those mysterious hints about the "Spectre Horseman," which now vividly recurred to his memory and imagination.
"Master," said this personage, respectfully touching his cap, "you had better not follow."
"Follow!" said Pilkington, as though bewildered; and the words were but the echo of his thoughts; "follow!—I cannot—yet why should we not make the attempt?"
"Step in, if you please, sir. I should not like to speak of it here." He said this hurriedly, in a tone of deep anxiety and apprehension, looking wistfully around and over the dark hills, fearful, apparently, that others were listening. Pilkington obeyed, but with reluctance. The door was cautiously latched; and to prevent the wind, which now began to rise in louder gusts, from bursting this crazy barrier, a heavy stone was laid to the threshold.
"It is—let me see"—said Martin, counting the lapse upon his fingers; "ay,—ten—eleven—'tis twelve years ago, on this very night, St Bartlemy's Eve, my father, a hale old man at that time of day, some'at given, though, to hunting and fowling a bit o' moonlights—and a fine penny he made on't, for many a week, selling the birds at Manchester. Well, as I was saying;—one evening before dusk—the sun had but just cooled his chin i' the water away yonder—he trudged off wi' the dogs, Crab and Pincher—two as cunning brutes as ever ran afore a tail. They might ha' known the errand they were going on, sneakin' about wi' such hang-dog looks, which they always took care to put on when t' ould man began to get ready for a night's foraging. They would follow at his heels, almost on their bellies, for fear o' being seen by the Squire's men; but when fairly astart for the game, they could show as much breeding as the best-trained pointer i' the parish. I am getting sadly wide o' my story, your honour; but I used to like the cubs dearly, and many a time I have played with 'em when I wasn't a bit bigger than themselves. They came to a sad end, sir, like most other rogues and thieves besides, and"——
"But we are not getting an inch nearer the end of the story all this time," said Pilkington.
"True, your honour; but I'll piece to it presently. I was a great lubberly lad, I know, and tented the cattle then upon the moors. Well, on this same night, as I was saying, my mother and the rest were gone to bed, my father was upon the hills, and I was watching at home, thinkin' maybe of the next Michaelmas fair, and many a fine bit of fun thereby. The fire was gone out, but I had lighted a scrap of candle, which sweeled sadly down, I remember, in the socket. Well, just as I was getting sleepy I heard a scratch, and then a whine at the door. 'What's to do now,' thinks I, 'that the dogs are here again so soon?' an' without more ado, I lifted the latch, when, sure enough, it was them, dirty draggled beasts, they might ha' bin possed through a slutch-pit. 'Where's yere master?' says I;—the things took no heed to me, but began licking themselves, an' tidying their nasty carcases, till the house verily reek'd again. 'So, friends,' says I, 'if ye're for that gait, you may as well take a turn i' the yard,' an' without more ado, I bundled 'em off, with a sound kick into the bargain. Well, you see, I hearkened till my ears crack'd for my father's foot; but I heard nought except the crickets, and the little brook that runs behind the house, for everything was so still I could have heard a mouse stir. I opened the door, and looked out, I think, into as clear and mellow a night as ever gazed down from the sky upon our quiet hills. Then I went to the gate, and looked up the road which takes you into the little glen by a short path, away up to the high meadows; but I could neither see him, nor hear any likelihood of his coming. I could ha' told his footstep amongst a thousand, and his cough, too, for that matter. I felt myself growing all of a shake, an' the very hairs seemed crawling over my head; a pea might have knocked me down, and, for the life of me, I durst not venture farther—it was something so strange that the dogs should come back without their master—I was sure some mischief had happened to him. All at once it jumped into my head that he had stuck fast in some of these bogs or mosses, and the rascal curs had left him there instead of their own pitiful carcases; but that my father should be so forefoughten as to let himself be nabbed in one of these bog-traps I could hardly believe. Yet the dogs—ay, there was the mischief—and the lurching ne'er-do-weels coming back in such dismal pickle. I went back to the house, for I durst not stay abroad; and yet, when I was indoors, I could not bide there neither; so I walked up and down the house-flags, like as I waur dazed. I durst not go to bed; so there I was, and for a couple of hours too, in a roarin' pickle, that I would not be steeped in again for a' the moorgates between here and Chorley."
"Go on;—we've no loitering time now," said Pilkington; "thy story sticks fast, I fear, like thy father i' the bog."
"Why, I was but rincing the evil thoughts out of my mind, as it were, for they come about me like a honey-swarm at the thoughts on't; and I don't just like their company at present, it minds me o' the time when this plaguy chance befell my father."