"He did not tarry away for good and all, I reckon?"
"You shall hear, sir, if you but gie me a taste o' the flask; for I feel just like to go into a swoon, or some tantrum or another."
Martin took a strong pull at the bottle, and, thus refreshed, he resumed his story.
"Well, you see as how I waited, and my mind was like as it might ha' been set on a pismire hillock, I waur so uneasy. The dogs, too, began to howl pitifully at the door, so I let the poor things in for a bit o' company. I had not waken'd mother; for I kept thinking I'd wait a while longer, and a while longer, as I never in all my life liked to bring bad news. Well, it might be about two or three hours I went on at that gait, an' just as I was pondering as to whether I should go up-stairs or not, I heard something come with a quick step through the gate and up the flags to the door. It was not like father's foot, neither; it was so terrible sharp and hasty. I felt as if I'd been strucken of a heap. My knees shook an' dither'd as if I'd had the ague. Up goes the latch; for I could not stir—I was holden fast to the floor. The door bangs open in a fearfu' hurry, and in comes my father, as though 'Legion' had been at his heels. He looked pale, and almost fleered out of his wits, so I made sure he had seen the bogle that my granam used to frighten us with. 'Father, father,' says I, as soon as I could speak, 'what's happened? ha' ye seen it?' He did not say a word, but sat down in the big rocking-chair by t' hob-end, when he tilted his head back, and began swingin' back'ard and for'ard, moaning all the while as if he waur in great trouble. I looked at him, as well as I could, for I had lighted a whole candle a while before. I sat down, too, and not another word could I say. But, my conscience! what a racket the dogs made when they saw him! They jumped, and frisked, and almost cried for joy, as though they had gi'en him up for lost, and were desperately fain, poor things, at his return. The first word he spoke was to these dummies; for they whined, wriggled, and wagged their tails, and licked his fingers, enough to have drawn words from a stone wa'. 'Ay, ay, ye sneaking rascals,' said he, 'ye left me wi' yere tails down low enough, and as fast as your legs could lilt ye off, when I was forefoughten wi''——Here he looked round, with a face so dismal and disturbed that I verily think I should not forget it if I waur at my last shrift. Taking this opportunity, as I may say, I ventured a word or so. The old man gave me another of those terrible looks before he spoke—'Eh, me!' said he, 'my days are but few now, I reckon. I've seen the'——He stopped and looked round again; then he said, almost in a whisper—'I've seen him, Martin!' 'I thought so,' says I. 'I've seen the ould one, I believe,' says he; 'an' that's more nor I'll like to do again, or thee either. We've done wi' our night-work now, an' the dogs may just go where they can get an honest bellyful.' You may be sure I was sadly fear'd. I durst not ask him how it happened that he should have snappered upon old Sootypaws; but in a while he saved me the speerin', and, as well as I can think, this was the account of his misadventure:—
"'I was goin' up by the Pike,' said he, 'and a brave shower of moonlight there was, weltering on the side of the hill, when, just as I got behind it there in the shadow, I thought I saw somethin' big and black standing among a little clump of gorses afore me. I felt started a somehow, but I rubb'd my forehead and eyes, and looked again. It did not shift, so I thought I might as well make the best o' the matter, an' went for'ard without altering my speed. Well, what should I see when I got nearer, but a great spanking black horse, and a littleish man upon it, who seemed just waiting till I came up. I stood still when I got within a yard or two, expecting he would speak first, for I thought as how it might be some poor body belike that had lost his way in crossing the moors. But he did not say a word, which I thought mighty uncouth and uncivil. So making my best speech for the once, though fearful it was some fellow watching to waylay me, I asked him civilly how he did, and so on. Then I asked if he waur in want of a guide over the hills any way. The thing here set up a great rollickin' horse laugh, that frightened my father worse than anything he said; but he durst not turn back for fear he might follow, and happen to catch him as he ran, so he stood still, dithering like a top all the while.
"'Canst show me the road to the Two Lads?' he ask'd, as soon as he had gotten his laugh out.
"'That can I,' says my father, 'as well as anybody i' the parish.' 'On with thee, then,' says the devilkin, 'and don't mind picking your way, friend, for my horse can tread a bog without wetting a hair of his foot.' My father walked on, but the dogs kept a wary eye towards the stranger, he thought, and hung their tails, an' slunk behind, like as they were mightily afeard on him. But it wasn't long afore my father began to wonder within himself what this unlikely thing could want there at the Two Lads, which, as you know, is scarcely two miles off yonder, and on the highest and ugliest part of the whole commoning; a place, too, which is always said to have a bad name sticking to it. He durst not ask him his business though, and they went on without speaking, until the Two Lads were just peeping out before them into the clear soft moonlight. 'There they are,' said my father; 'and now I'll bid your honour good-night.' 'Stay,' said his companion: 'I may want you a little while yet, so budge on, if you please.' Somehow my father felt as though he durst not refuse, and however loth to such company, he trudged away till they came together to the spot. 'Now,' says the little gentleman, 'lift up that big heap of stones there, and I'll tell you what to do with them.' 'Sir,' says my father, 'you are in jest, belike.' 'Not a bit of it,' replied the other; 'see, 'tis easy as flying.' Wi' that he leaps off his horse, and at one stroke of his switch, up they went, jump, jump, jump, like a batch of crows from a corn-field. The dogs set up a fearful howl, and, without once turning to see what was behind them, set off helter-skelter through bog and bush for the nearest, and left my father to himself with the foul fiend. All at once it popped into his head the tales he had once heard about the 'Spectre Horseman,' that was said to ramble about these hills, sometimes in the air, sometimes on the ground, like the dark clouds and their shadows upon the soft grass, without ever a footprint. My poor father could have wished the ground to gape and swallow him, he said, he was so frightened. Where the stones had been there was a great hole gaping, like one of the mouths of the bottomless pit, and try how he would, he could not turn away his eyes from it. 'That's the place,' said this fearful thing; but my father was ready to cower down with terror. He could not speak, but he thought he saw a great long black arm thrust out of the hole. 'Take what he gives thee,' says Blackface, 'and make haste.' But he might as well have spoken to the whins and gorses, for the chance of being obeyed. 'Take it!' said this ill-tongued limb of Old Harry, in a voice like thunder. But my father could not stir, and then there waur shrieks, yells, and moans, and such noises as he had never heard. The creature looked angry, and full of venom as a toad. 'I shall miss my time,' said he; and with that he began to listen, for there came the sound of footsteps on the dark heather, and then the ugly thing did laugh for very gladness. 'Go, fool,' he cried, 'here comes one better than thee;' and with that he lent my father a kick that might have sent him across the valley, at a moderate calculation, had he not remembered an old witch charm which he mumbled as he fell. How long he lay there, and what happened the while, he did not know, but when he awoke, he saw the heap was in its place again, the moon looking down bright and beautiful as ever, as if she thought nothing particular had taken place. He could hardly persuade himself that he had not dreamed an ugly dream, until he remembered the spot, and how he had been enticed, or rather forced there against his will. You may be sure he made the best of his way home again, where he came in the condition I have just told you. Not many days after we heard that a gentleman of no mean condition, that lived not many miles off—I have forgotten his name—and who was supposed to be crossing the hills on that very night, was lost. He never appeared afterwards. It was generally thought he was swallowed up in some bog, but my father always believed that he had fallen into the clutches of that Evil One, from whom he himself had escaped but with the skin of his teeth. From that time to his dying day was he never known to ramble on the moors again; an altered man he became, sure enough, and our big Bible, with the pictures in it, was brushed fro' the dust. He might be seen with the book upon his knee at the doorstone on a summer's night, and the third bench from the Squire's pew at Blackrod church never missed a tenant till my father was laid quietly down in the churchyard."
During this recital there had been a close and almost breathless attention. As he concluded a buzz of agitation pervaded the group; not a word was spoken for a little while until Pilkington exclaimed, slowly passing one hand over his brow—
"A marvellous delivery, which I might have been disposed to treat like other marvels, had not our own senses in some measure left with us a show of truth, or probability at least, about the adventure, which, for my own part, I find it difficult to throw off. Exaggerated and full of improbabilities, I admit, yet the story hath some substratum of truth, no doubt by which it is supported. What it is, would be difficult to ascertain, but the mystery or misapprehension, whatever it be, shall be cleared up, and that speedily."
"Doubtless," said Mortimer; "but first let us return to our lodging. Marvels, being in the inverse ratio to truth, always appear greatest at a distance; and when the explanation comes, we may perhaps smile at our present embarrassment. The riddle is easy when solved."
"True; but how is that to be accomplished?"
"Let us return to our quarters; we may perhaps find that our companion has arrived there before us."
Pilkington shook his head incredulously. Indeed the whole affair had made a much greater impression upon him than he was willing to allow, even to himself.
The moon lighted them on their path as they took the nearest route to their temporary sojourn. Many a cautious glance was cast behind, and many a dark stone or bush—many a grotesque shadow—assumed the form they feared to encounter. They arrived at their dwelling without molestation, but—Norton was not there!
"Here is foul play somewhere," said Mortimer thoughtfully. "Think you, Pilkington, that we could find out our way in this quiet moonshine to that same 'Two Lads' which Martin pointed out? I fancy the louts we have about us durst not venture thither. Indeed I think it may be prudent to go unattended on several accounts."
"That is my opinion," said Pilkington; "and as for poking out the way, I can do that readily. I cannot rest without making the attempt, at any rate."
"Let us not create any alarm, but steal quietly off when we have refreshed ourselves," said Mortimer; "we need not tell them of our intent."
"It were best," replied Pilkington, "that we give these knaves a caution first that they bruit not forth the adventure at present, or until we have more exact information as to the nature of the proceedings it may be needful to adopt."
It was not long ere they commenced their journey, traversing the hill-path in the requisite direction. By day, the pillars are easily seen from some parts of the valley below, and Pilkington had frequently passed them in crossing the moors. A pretty accurate notion of their bearing was thus formed from the point whence they started.
The greater part of the way was trodden in silence. The rivulets were swollen with the heavy rains, and great care was necessary to attain their object in safety. The path was not devoid of danger at any time, by reason of the spongy and uncertain nature of the bogs, accumulated masses of spumous unhealthy vegetation, showing patches of bright green verdure, holding water often to an unknown depth, and sometimes proving fatal to those who dare to venture upon this deceitful and perilous surface. By using great caution, and carefully ascertaining the nature of the ground before them, they passed on, without further inconvenience than that of wading through bogs and ditches, climbing stone-walls and embankments, aided by the uninterrupted light of a blazing harvest-moon.
They had now accomplished the most fatiguing part of the ascent, the dark heathery crown of the mountain, whereon the moonbeams lay so beautiful, as though nature were one vast region of universal silence, for ever unbroken and undisturbed. It was like gazing on a statue—there was the semblance of life, but all was silent and motionless, the very stillness startling like a spectre.
Soon they had passed through the creaking heather-bushes on the summit, when they saw two rude pillars peeping up from the dark line of the horizon before them. A sensation, not unallied to fear, passed with a sudden thrill across the deep, unseen sources of feeling—the sealed fountains of the spirit. They felt as though entering on mysterious or forbidden ground. The hour—the circumstances which led to their present situation—their companion's recent and unaccountable disappearance, and the prevalent superstitions connected with this solitary spot—all contributed to their present alarms with a force and poignancy unusual, and even appalling. They almost expected the "Spectre Horseman" to rush by, or to rise up suddenly before them, and forbid their further progress into his domains.
"I am not prone to pay much heed either to marvels or superstitions, and yet"——said Mortimer, again pausing after a long silence.
"Why," said Pilkington, "the very air feels rank with mystery. Whatever may be the cause, I never felt more i' the mood for an hour of devotion in my life."
"We may both have need for the exercise ere we depart hence, or my thoughts misgive me," replied Mortimer.
"It may be the mystery connected with our expedition which operates in its own nature upon the mind," said Pilkington. "I feel, as it were, every faculty impressed with some fearful and indissoluble spell. An atmosphere, impervious, and almost impalpable, seems to oppress the spirit. Surely we are on the trail of some demon, and his subtle influence is about us."
"Ah!" said Mortimer, starting aside with a shudder, as though a serpent stung him.
"Heardest thou aught, Mortimer?"
"I thought there was a rushing past my ear."
"I heard it too," replied Pilkington, in a low and agitated tone; "but I heard more, Mortimer. A voice, methought, distinct as thine own, swept by: 'Go not,' was faintly uttered. I am sure I heard the words."
"This place affects me strangely," said Mortimer; "but I will not go back, though the very jaws of the pit were to interpose."
Suddenly a mist gathered about them, not an unusual circumstance in these mountain regions, but a sufficiently portentous one to fasten strongly upon their imaginations, already predisposed to invest every appearance, however trivial, or according to the common course of events, with supernatural terrors. A gust of wind soon curled the vapour into clouds, which swept rapidly on; sometimes with the moonlight through their shattered rifts, then dark and impervious, shutting out the whole hemisphere, and wrapping them as with a cloak. Still they kept on their way, slowly, but in the direction, as near as they could ascertain, towards the place where they hoped to find some clue to their search. They felt convinced, though neither of them could state the nature of their convictions, that the mystery would here terminate.
The wind came on now in heavier and more continuous gusts, like the distant rumble of the ocean. They fancied other sounds were audible in the blast; yells and howlings that seemed to approach nearer with every successive impulse. A sound, like the rush of wings, brushed past them, and, instinctively, they grasped each other by the arm. A moan was distinctly heard; then another, louder and more terrible. A cry of agony succeeded, then a shriek, so loud and appalling that a cry of horror involuntarily burst from their lips.
"Save us, Father of Mercy!"
It was the cry of faith; a look fixed upon Him "who is not slow to hear, nor impotent to save." The cloud rolled suddenly away, unfolding, as though for the disclosure of some mighty pageant. They saw before them, and within a very few paces, the dark, heavy pillars, looking more black and hideous in the garish light by which they were seen. A cloud or mist seemed to have rolled, as suddenly, from their mental vision; a weight was removed from their apprehensions. They felt as though scarcely acting, previously, as free agents, but impelled by some unseen power, to which every faculty and every thought was in thraldom.
Beside one of the heaps lay a figure, prostrate and motionless. It was the death-like form of Norton! He was, to all appearance, lifeless, with hands clenched, and his whole attitude betokening some recently desperate and painful struggle. They tried to arouse him, and a cordial with which they moistened his lips produced some slight symptoms of returning consciousness; but the spark disappeared with the breath that fanned it. The safest plan was evidently to attempt his removal. With as little delay as possible they bore him gently between them; and as the first streak of daylight was dawning over the hills, they had the satisfaction to see him safely disposed of in their little hostelrie, whither a surgeon was speedily summoned from the adjacent village. He was yet insensible, but life was not extinct; the medical attendant pronouncing him in great jeopardy, from some violent struggle and exertion, both of body and mind. Rest, and the most careful attention, were absolutely necessary, lest, with returning consciousness, reason should be disturbed, and the mind remain bewildered from the agitation previously undergone.
For several weeks this unfortunate victim, as they supposed, to his own vague and supernatural terrors, lay without showing the slightest symptom of recognition. Groans and incoherent murmurs, after long intervals of silence, proclaimed that life was yet lingering on the threshold of the tabernacle, unwilling for her flight. A cry of terror would sometimes break forth, and his whole frame become violently convulsed, while he seemed to exhaust himself in struggles to escape.
We will not prolong the recital, nor is it needful to relate how the first light glimpse broke through the clouds that had so long veiled his spirit. Fearful were the first awakenings of the soul. Like the last dread summons, it was not an awakening from oblivion. Every faculty wore the dark impress of terror, though he remained apparently unconscious of the interval that had passed.
Pilkington and his friend were unremitting in their attentions. The issue was long doubtful; but in the end he recovered from the dread hallucination under which he laboured.
With restored health, he disclosed, to them only, the events which had occurred in the brief interval of their separation.
"I think I before told you," said he, reluctantly commencing the narrative, "that the figure who appeared so mysteriously at the door of our temporary shelter on the hill wore the very image of my uncle, whom you never knew, Pilkington. You may conceive that my surprise was excessive, though I cannot say that I felt so; but it will, in some measure, account for my apparent rashness and eager determination to follow, when I inform you that it was just twelve years previously, on that self-same night, the eve of St Bartlemy, when his unaccountable disappearance on these moors, of which I have before spoken, threw consternation and distress into the hitherto peaceful and happy community with which he was associated. I need not recount the family disasters and disagreements which his mysterious absence has originated. No trace was left of his disappearance; nor could his body ever be discovered. The night prior to our excursion I saw him; but it was in a dream. This circumstance, together with the place and the very time, twelve years since his departure, was the cause of my apparent thoughtfulness and abstraction prior to the appearance of our mysterious visitor. I felt an apathy; and, at the same time, a load upon my spirits for which I could not account. I remember that I was scarcely alarmed, or even surprised, when he presented himself; and that I felt as though I had been waiting for his arrival—more under the bewildering influence of a dream than the sober conceptions of waking truth. I made no doubt but that the mystery would now be elucidated. I followed the retreating horseman, who, I saw, beckoned me forward, and occasionally seemed to chide my tardiness and want of speed. I could not hear his voice, but I thought he pronounced my name. He descended the hill with considerable haste, and it was with difficulty that I could now keep him in sight. Fully bent on the discovery, I resolved, if possible, let the consequence be what it might, that I would follow. The storm had suddenly abated, and the clouds were rolling off in broken masses through the calm ether, from which the moon crept out, by whose aid I hoped to keep in view the object of my pursuit.
"The path he now took led up the ascent on the opposite hill. I clambered up with some difficulty, but the flying horseman before me seemed to accomplish the work without either hesitation or inconvenience. He waited for me when he had surmounted the steepest part of the acclivity, and I grew more and more convinced that it was my uncle's form, as I had seen him in my boyhood. Memory was sufficiently tenacious on this head; and knowing the great need, as it concerned family affairs, that his fate should be clearly ascertained, I braved all hazards, and still followed this mysterious conductor. I do not recollect I felt any apprehension that I was following a supernatural guide; or that it might possibly be a phantom who was luring me on to misery and destruction. The mild, benevolent aspect of my relative was before me, and I could not associate an idea of danger with the guide and protector of my youth.
"As I gained the brow of the hill I saw the dark form of the horseman dilated upon the wide, bare, uninterrupted horizon, in almost gigantic proportions. It might be the distance that caused this illusion, but the huge black horse appeared to wax in magnitude with every step, and to become more fiend-like and terrible. Still I followed, and ere long I beheld the two pillars unto which our course was evidently tending. They seemed to rise up from the earth like huge giants waiting for their prey. My guide, whom I had previously attempted to overtake, stood still when he reached them, awaiting my approach. With feelings strangely akin to those of an ill-fated victim, urged by some resistless fascination into the very jaws of his destroyer, I drew nearer to the object of my hopes and apprehensions. I recognised the very dress my uncle wore on ordinary occasions, and the strong square-built form that in my childhood I was accustomed to view with a parental regard. Yet was I disquieted with alarm and agitation. Horrible images rushed upon my brain. I seemed to be the sport and prey of some power I could not withstand—a power that apparently might wield my very faculties at his will, and had already taken the reins of self-government into his own keeping. I began to fancy that it was some terrible vision by which I was harassed; and I well remember it was the precise feeling that haunts us in our dreams when a horrible doom is approaching from which apparently there is no escape; and yet we feel as though assured some way will be opened for our deliverance. While we endure all the horrors of our situation, we know of a surety that our miseries shall soon terminate. Yet a cloud was gathering upon my soul, and objects assumed another hue seen through its wild and chaotic elements. With all the vagueness and uncertainty of a dream, I felt that I was awake!
"'Dost thou know me?' said the mysterious inquirer, in a tone which I immediately recognised. Still there was an awful and thrilling emphasis in the expression which alarmed me more than before.
"'I know you,' I replied, 'as the friend and guardian of my youth; but—to what end am I called hither, and why are you thus?'
"'My path is hidden!' said he, in a voice terrible and foreboding.
"'Tell me, where have you been? Is this your habitation? unless'—shuddering, I added in a low but energetic tone—'unless you are some evil one that hath ta'en his semblance to lure me to my hurt.'
"'When the moon rides o'er the blue south 'tis midnight; I will then reveal what thou hast desired, and the purpose of my coming.'
"'Art thou really he whose form thou bearest? Answer truly, as thou dost hope for my stay.'
"'I am!' he replied, in a tone so like that of my uncle that I was now satisfied his very form was before me. Conjecture was vain as to the motives that prompted this long and extraordinary concealment.
"'Promise, Norton, that thou wilt tarry here until my return!'
"'I will; but give me some pledge, some proof that thy being is real; that thou comest not as a phantom to delude my hopes.'
"He stretched out his hand. I again felt the warm pressure of my earliest friend, whom I had so long mourned as dead. I would have embraced him, but he shrunk back, and I saw the black steed again preparing and impatient to depart.
"'Remember,' said he, in a hollow voice, 'at midnight I will return.'
"I leaned against the stone, determined to await the arrival of my mysterious relative, who would, I was convinced, on his return satisfactorily elucidate his proceedings. Occupied with vain surmises and reflections, time passed on almost unperceived; and ere I was aware the black steed was at my side. The rider suddenly dismounted. I drew back, instinctively, as he approached; for I saw, in the still clear light of the unclouded moon, his countenance hideously distorted and almost demoniacal in its expression.
"'Thou art mine!' said he, laying one hand upon my shoulder; 'and thou shall know too soon my terrible secret.' He came nearer; I felt his breath upon my face; it was hot and even scorching; I was unable to resist; he clung round me like a serpent; his eyes shot livid fire, and his lips—hideous, detestable thought—his lips met mine! His whole spirit seemed diffusing itself throughout my frame. I thought my body was destined to be the habitation of some accursed fiend—that I was undergoing the horrid process of demoniacal possession! Though gasping, almost suffocating, for I could not disengage myself from his deadly fangs, I exerted my utmost strength. One cry was to Heaven, but it was the last; the soul seemed to have exhausted herself with the effort. All subsequent and sensible impressions vanished; and I remember nothing save horrible incoherent dreams, wherein I was the sport and prey of demons, or my own body the dwelling-place of some ever-restless and malicious fiend! From the long night of insensibility that ensued I would be thankful that reason has awaked without injury; and though fearful beyond the common lot of mortals has been my destiny, yet I would render homage to that Power whose might rescued me from the very grasp of the Evil One!"
The listeners were appalled, horror-struck beyond measure, at this fearful narrative. Its mysteries they could not solve by any reference to the usual course of natural events; no key that nature holds would unlock this dark and diabolical mystery. To his dying day Norton firmly believed that his uncle's body was the abode of some foul spirit, permitted to sojourn upon earth only on the fearful condition that he should effect his entrance, at stated periods, into a living human frame, whose proper occupant he might be able to dispossess for this horrible purpose. Many circumstances would seem to corroborate this belief. The adventure of the old poacher, in particular, happening precisely on the night of his uncle's disappearance, led Norton to conclude that the foul fiend was obliged to renew his habitation upon every twelfth return of the holy festival of St Bartholomew. That a solution so inconsistent with our belief in the constant care and control of an all-wise and an all-powerful Providence was incorrect, we need not be at any pains to prove in this era of widely-disseminated knowledge and intelligence. Still, a mystery, inscrutable under the ordinary operations of nature, appears to hang over the whole proceeding, and though a legend only, yet the events bear a wonderful semblance and affinity to truth, even in their wildest details.
It is said that the "Spectre Horseman" appeared no more, and that having failed in fulfilling the terms by which his existence upon earth was, from time to time, permitted and prolonged, he was driven to his own place, where he must abide for ever the doom of those kindred and accursed spirits whose aim it is continually to seduce and to destroy.
 The Two Lads are heaps of loose stones, about ten or twelve feet in height, set up, as the story goes, to commemorate the death of two shepherd boys, who were found on the spot after a long search, missing their way during a heavy fall of snow. The tale is most probably incorrect; these mural monuments have been gradually accumulated by the passers-by;—a custom handed down from the most remote ages, and still observed as an act of religious worship in the East. There is little doubt but they are remnants yet lingering amongst us of the "altars upon every high hill," once dedicated to Baal, or Bel, the great object of Carthaginian or Phoenician worship, from which our Druidical rites were probably derived.
MOTHER RED-CAP; OR, THE ROSICRUCIANS.
A LEGEND OF THE NORTH.
PART THE FIRST.
In the wild and mountainous region of East Lancashire, at the foot of the long line of hills called Blackstonedge, and not far from the town of Rochdale, stood one of those old grim-looking mansions, the abode of our Saxon ancestors; a quiet, sheltered nest, where ages and generations had alike passed by. The wave of time had produced no change; the name and the inheritance were the same, and seemingly destined to continue unaltered by the mutations, the common lot of all that man labours to perpetuate. This state of things existed at the date of our story; now, alas! the race of its former possessors is extinct, their name only remains a relic of things that were—their former mansion standing, as if in mockery, amidst the hum of wheels, and in melancholy contrast with the toil and animation of this manufacturing, money-getting district.
Buckley Hall, to which we allude, is still an object of interest to the antiquary and the lover of romance, telling of days that are for ever departed, when the lords of these paternal acres were the occupants, not impoverishers, of the soil from unrecorded ages—constituting a tribe, a race of sturdy yeomanry attached to their country and to the lands on which they dwelt. But they are nigh extinct—other habits and other pursuits have prevailed. Profuse hospitality and rude benevolence have given place to habits of business as they are called, and to a more calculating and enterprising disposition. The most ancient families have become absorbed or overwhelmed by the mighty progress of this new element, this outpouring of wealth as from some unseen source; and in many instances their names only are recognised in these old and rickety mansions, now the habitation of the mechanic and the plebeian.
Many of these dwellings remain—a melancholy contrast to the trim erections, the symbols of a new race, along with new habits and forms of existence, sufficiently testifying to the folly and the vain expectations of those who toil and labour hard for a long lease with posterity.
This mansion, like the rest of our ancestral dwellings of the better sort, was built of wood, on a stone basement. The outside structure curiously vandyked in a zigzag fashion with wooden partitions, the interstices were filled with wicker-work, plastered with well-tempered clay, to which chopped straw imparted additional tenacity. When newly embellished, looking like the pattern, black and white, of some discreet magpie perched on the wooden pinnacles terminating each gable, or hopping saucily about the porch—that never-failing adjunct to these homely dwellings. Here, on a well-scoured bench, the master of the house would sit in converse with his family or his guests, enjoying the fresh and cheering breeze, without being fully exposed to its effects. The porch was universally adopted as a protection to the large flagged hall called the "house-part," which otherwise might have been seriously incommoded by the inclement atmosphere of these bleak districts. On one side of the hall, containing the great fireplace, was the "guest parlour." Here the best bed was usually fixed; and here, too, all great "occasions" took place. Births, christenings, burials—all emanated from, or were accomplished in, this family chamber. Every member was there transmitted from the cradle to the grave. The low wide oaken stairs, to the first bending of which an active individual might have leaped without any such superfluous media. The naked gallery, with its little quaint doors on each side, hatched in the usual fashion, this opening into the store-room, that into the servants' lodging, another into the closet where the choicest confections were kept. Opposite were the bed-chambers, and at the extremity of the gallery a ladder generally pointed the way to a loft, where, amongst heaps of winter stores, dried roots, and other vegetables, probably reposed one or two of the male servants on a straw mattress, well fortified from cold by an enormous quilt.
Our description will apply with little variation to all. We love these deserted mansion-houses that speak of the olden time, its good cheer and its rude but pleasant intercourse; times and seasons that are for ever gone, though we crave pardon for indulging in what may perhaps find little favour in the eyes of this generation, whose hopes and desires are to the future, who say the past is but the childhood of our existence: it is gone, and shall not return. But there are yet some who love to linger on the remnants, the ruins of a former state, who look at these time-honoured relics but as links that bring them into closer communion with bygone ages, and would fain live in the twilight of other years rather than the meridian splendour of the present. But we must not be seduced any further by these reflections; our present business concerns the legend whose strange title stands at the head of this article.
In one of the upper chambers at Buckley Hall before named, and not long ago, was an iron ring fixed to a strong staple in the wall; and to this ring a fearful story is still attached. The legend, as it is often told, is one of those wild improbable fictions, based on facts distorted and embellished to suit the taste of the listener or the fancy of the narrator. It will be our task to make out from these imaginative materials a narrative divested as much as possible of the marvellous, but at the same time retaining so much as will interest and excite the reader and lover of legendary lore.
It was in one of those genial, mellow, autumnal evenings—so dear to all who can feel their influence, and so rare a luxury to the inhabitants of this weeping climate—when all living things wear the hue and warmth of the glowing atmosphere in which they are enveloped, that two lovers were sauntering by the rivulet, a "wimpling burn" that, rising among the bare and barren moorlands of this uncultivated region, runs past Buckley Hall into the valley of the Roch.
It was near the close of the sixteenth century, in the days of good Queen Bess, yet their apparel was somewhat homely even for this era of stuffed doublets and trunk-hose. Such unseemly fashions had hardly travelled into these secluded districts; and the plain, stout, woollen jacket of their forefathers, and the ruffs, tippets, stays, and stomachers of their grandmothers, formed the ordinary wear of the belles and beaux of the province. Fardingales, or hooped petticoats, we are happy to say, for the sake of our heroine, were unknown.
"Be of good cheer," said the lover; "there be troubles enow, believe me, without building them up out of our own silly fears—like boys with their snow hobgoblins, terrible enough in the twilight of fancy, but a gleam of sunshine will melt and dissipate them. Thou art sad to-night without reason. Imaginary fears are the worst to cope withal; having nor shape nor substance, we cannot combat with them. 'Tis hard, indeed, fighting with shadows."
"I cannot smile to-night, Gervase; there's a mountain here—a foreboding of some deadly sort. I might as soon lift 'Robin Hood's Bed' yonder as remove it."
"No more of this, my dearest Grace; at least not now. Let us enjoy this bright and sunny landscape. How sharply cut are those crags yonder on the sky. Blackstonedge looks almost within a stride, or at least a good stone's-throw. Thou knowest the old legend of Robin Hood; how that he made yonder rocks his dormitory, and by way of amusement pitched or quoited huge stones at a mark on the hill just above us, being some four or five miles from his station. It is still visible along with several stones lying near, and which are evidently from the same rock as that on which it is said he slept."
"I've heard such silly tales often. Nurse had many of these old stories wherewith to beguile us o' winter nights. She used to tell, too, about Eleanor Byron, who loved a fay or elf, and went to meet him at the fairies' chapel away yonder where the Spodden gushes through its rocky cleft,—'tis a fearful story,—and how she was delivered from the spell. I sometimes think on't till my very flesh creeps, and I could almost fancy that such an invisible thing is about me."
With such converse did they beguile their evening walk, ever and anon making the subject bend to the burden of their own sweet ditty of mutual unchanging love!
Grace Ashton was the only daughter of a wealthy yeoman, one of the gentry of that district, residing at Clegg Hall, a mile or two distant. Its dark low gables and quiet smoke might easily be distinguished from where they stood. It was said that the Cleggs, its original owners, had been beggared and dispossessed by vexatious and fraudulent lawsuits; and the Ashtons had achieved their purpose by dishonesty and chicane. However this might be, busy rumour gave currency and credit to the tale, though probably it had none other foundation than the idle and malevolent gossip of the envious and the unthinking.
They had toiled up a narrow pathway on the right of a woody ravine, where the stream had evidently formed itself a passage through the loose strata in its course. The brook was heard, though hidden by the tangled underwood, and they stopped to listen. Soothing but melancholy was the sound. Even the birds seemed to chirp there in a sad and pensive twitter, not unnoticed by the lovers, though each kept the gloomy and fanciful apprehensions untold.
Soon they gained the summit of a round heathery knoll, whence an extensive prospect rewarded their ascent. The squat, square tower of Rochdale Church might be seen above the dark trees nestling under its grey walls. The town was almost hidden by a glowing canopy of smoke gleaming in the bright sunset—towards the north the bare bleak hills, undulating in sterile loneliness, and associating only with images of barrenness and desolation. Easterly, a long, level burst of light swept across meadow, wood, and pasture; green slopes dotted with bright homesteads, to the very base apparently of, though at some distance from, Blackstonedge, now of the deepest, the most intense blue. Such a daring contrast of colour gave a force and depth to the landscape, which, had it been portrayed, would, to critical eyes perhaps, have outraged the modesty of Nature.
The sky was already growing cold and grey above the ridge opposed to the burning brightness of the western horizon, and Grace Ashton pointed out the beautiful but fleeting hues of the landscape around them. Her companion, however, was engrossed by another object. Before them was an eminence marking the horizon to the north-west, though not more than a good bowshot from where they stood. Between this and their present standing was a little grassy hollow, through which the brook we have described trickled rather than ran, amidst moss and rushes, rendering the ground swampy and unsafe. On this hill stood "Robin Hood's coit-stones;" and on the largest, called the "marking-stone," a wild-looking and haggard figure was crouched. Her garments, worn and tattered, were of a dingy red; and her cap, or coiffure as it was then called, was of the same colour. Her head was bent forward beyond the knee, as though she were listening towards the ground, or was expecting the approach of the individuals who now came suddenly, and to themselves unexpectedly, in view. Her figure, in the glow of that rich autumnal sky, looked of the deepest crimson, and of a bloody and portentous aspect.
"What strange apparition is yonder," said Gervase Buckley, "on the hill-top there before us? Beshrew me, Grace, but it hath an evil and a rancorous look."
But Grace, along with a short scream of surprise, betrayed, too, her recognition of the object, and clung with such evident terror to her companion that he turned from the object of his inquiries to gaze on his mistress.
"What!" said he, "hath yonder unknown such power? Methinks it hath moved thee strangely. Speak, Grace; can that hideous appearance in any way be linked with our destiny?"
"I am ignorant as thou. But its coming, as I have heard, always forebodes disaster to our house. Hast not heard of a Red Woman that sometimes haunts this neighbourhood? I never saw her until now, but I've heard strange and fearful stories of her appearing some years ago, and blighting the corn, poisoning the cattle, with many other diabolical witcheries. She is best known by the name of 'Mother Red-Cap.'"
"I've heard of this same witch in my boyhood. But what should we fear? She is flesh and blood like ourselves; and, in spite of the prevailing belief, I could never suppose power would be granted to some, generally the most wicked and the most worthless, which from the rest of mankind is capriciously withholden."
"Hush, Gervase; thou knowest not how far the arch-enemy of mankind may be permitted to afflict bodily our guilty race. I could tell thee such tales of yonder creature as would stagger even the most stubborn of unbelievers."
"I will speak to her, nevertheless. Tarry here, I prithee, Grace. It were best I should go alone."
"Oh, do not—do not! None have sight of her, as I've heard, but mischief follows. What disaster, then, may we not expect from her evil tongue? I shudder at the anticipation. Stay here. I will not be left; and I cannot cross this dangerous swamp."
Buckley was, however, bent on the adventure. His natural curiosity, inflamed by forbidden longing after the occult and the mysterious, to which he was too prone, even though sceptical as to their existence, rendered him proof against his mistress' entreaties.
Probably from situation, or rather, it might be, the distance was judged greater than in reality it proved, but the form before them looked preternaturally enlarged, and as she raised her head her arms were flung out high above it like withered and wasted branches on each side. Trembling in every limb, Grace clung to her lover, and it was after long persuasion that she suffered him to lift her over the morass, and was dragged unwillingly up the hill. As though she were the victim of some terrible fascination, her eyes were constantly riveted on the object. A raven wheeled round them, every moment narrowing the circle of its flight, and the malicious bird looked eager for mischief.
As they approached nearer to the summit, this ill-omened thing, after having brushed so close that they felt the very breath from its wings, alighted beside the Red Woman, who hardly seemed to notice, though well aware of their proximity.
They paused when several paces distant, and she rose up suddenly, extending both arms, apparently to warn them from a nearer approach. Her skinny lips, rapidly moving to and fro, and her dark withered, bony, and cadaverous features, gave her more the appearance of a living mummy or a resurrection from the charnel-house than aught instinct with the common attributes of humanity.
Buckley was for a moment daunted. The form was so unlike anything he had ever seen. He was almost persuaded of the possibility that it might be some animated corpse doomed to wander forth either for punishment or expiation. Her lips still moved. A wild glassy eye was fixed upon them, and as she yet stood with extended arms, Gervase, almost wrought to desperation, cried out—
"Who art thou? Thy business here?"
A hollow sound, hardly like the tones of a human voice, answered in a slow and solemn adjuration—
"Beware, rash fools! None approach the Red Woman but to their undoing."
"I know no hindrance to my free course in this domain. By whose authority am I forbidden?" said he, taking courage.
"Away—mine errand is not to thee unless provoked."
"Unto whom is thy message?"
"To thy leman—thy ladye-love, whom thou wilt cherish to thine hurt. Leave her, ay, though both hearts break in the separation."
"I will not."
"Then be partaker of the wrath that is just ready to burst upon her doomed house."
"I told thee," said Grace, "she is the herald of misfortune! What woe does she denounce? What cruel judgment hast thou invoked upon our race?" cried she to this grim messenger of evil.
"Evil will—evil must! I will cling to ye till your last sustenance be dried up, and your inheritance be taken from ye."
"Her fate be mine," said Buckley, indignantly. "Her good or evil fortune I will share."
"Be it so. Thou hast made thy choice, and henceforth thou canst not complain."
She stretched out her two hands, one towards Clegg Hall, the abode of the maiden, and the other towards Buckley, her lover's paternal roof, from which a blue curl of smoke was just visible over the rising grounds beneath them.
"A doom and a curse to each," she muttered. "Your names shall depart, and your lands to the alien and the stranger. Your honours shall be trodden in the dust, and your hearths laid waste, and your habitations forsaken."
In this fearful strain she continued until Buckley cried out—
"Cease thy mumbling, witch. I'll have thee dealt with in such wise thy tongue shall find another use."
Turning upon him a look of scorn, she seemed to grow fiercer in her maledictions.
"Proud minion," she cried, "thou shall die childless and a beggar!"
The cunning raven flapped his great heavy wings and seemed to croak an assent. He then hopped on his mistress' shoulder, and apparently whispered in her ear.
"Sayest thou so?" said the witch. "Then give it to me, Ralph."
The bird held out his beak, and out popped a plain gold ring.
"Give this to thy mother, Dame Buckley. Say 'tis long since they parted company; and ask if she knows or remembers aught of the Red Woman. Away!"
She threw the ring towards them. Both stooped to pick it up. They examined it curiously for a short space.
"'Tis a wedding-ring," said Buckley, "but not to wed bride of mine. Where was this"——
He stopped short in his inquiry, for lifting up his eyes he found the donor was gone!
Neither of them saw the least trace of her departure. The stone whereon she sat was again vacant. All was silent, undisturbed, save the night breeze that came sighing over the hill, moaning and whistling through the withered bent and rushes at their feet.
The shadows of evening were now creeping softly around them, and the valley below was already wrapped in mist. The air felt very chill. They shuddered, but it was in silence. This fearful vision, for such it now appeared to have been, filled them with unspeakable dread.
Gervase yet held the ring in his hand. He would have thrown it from him, but Grace Ashton forbade.
"Do her bidding in this matter," said she. "Give it thy mother, and ask counsel of the sage and the discreet. There is some fearful mystery—some evil impending, or my apprehensions are strangely misled."
They returned, but he was more disturbed than he cared to acknowledge. He felt as though some spell had been cast upon him, and cowed his hitherto undaunted spirit.
They again wound down beside the rivulet into the meadows below, where the mist alone pointed out the course of the stream. The bat and the beetle crossed their path. Evil things only were abroad. All they saw and felt seemed to be ominous of the future. As they passed through a little wicket to the hall-porch, Nicholas Buckley the father met them.
"Why, how now, loiterers? The cushat and the curlew have left the hill, and yet ye are abroad. 'Tis time the maiden were at home and looking after the household."
"We've been hindered, good sir. We will just get speech of our dame, and then away home with the gentle Grace. Half-an-hour's good speeding will see her safe."
"Ay—belike," said the old man. "Lovers and loiterers make mickle haste to part. Our dame is with the maids and the milkpans i' the dairy."
The elder Buckley was a hale hearty yeoman, of a ruddy and cheerful countenance. A few wrinkles were puckered below the eyes; the rest of his face was sleek and comfortably disposed. A beard, once thick and glossy, was grown grey and thin, curling up short and stunted round his portly chin. Two bright twinkling eyes gave note of a stirring and restless temper—too sanguine, maybe, for success in the great and busy world, and not fitted either by education or disposition for its suspicions or its frauds. Yet he had the reputation of a clever merchant. Rochdale, even at that early period, was a well-known mart for the buyers and sellers of woollen stuffs and friezes. Many of the most wealthy merchants, too, indulged in foreign speculations and adventures, and amongst these the name of Nicholas Buckley was not the least conspicuous.
They passed on to the dairy, where Dame Eleanor scolded the maids and skimmed the cream at the same moment, by way of economy in time.
"What look ye for here?" was her first inquiry, for truly her temper was of a hasty and searching nature; somewhat prone, as well, to cavilling and dispute, requiring much of her husband's placidity to furnish oil for the turbulent waters of her disposition.
"Thou wert better at thy father's desk than idling after thine unthrifty pleasures: to-morrow, maybe, sauntering among the hills with hound and horn, beating up with all the rabble in the parish."
"Nay, mother, chide not: I was never made for merchandise and barter—the price of fleeces in Tod Lane, and the broad ells at Manchester market."
"And why not?" said the dame, sharply; "haven't I been the prop and stay of the house? Haven't I made bargains and ventures when thou hast been idling in hall and bower with love-ditties and ladies' purfles?"
She was now moved to sudden choler, and Gervase did not dare to thwart her further—letting the passion spend itself by its own efforts, as he knew it were vain to check its torrent.
Now Dame Eleanor Buckley was of a sharp and florid countenance—short-necked and broad-shouldered, her nose and chin almost hiding a pair of thin severe lips, the two prominences being close neighbours, especially in anger. In truth she guided, or rather managed, the whole circle of affairs; aiding and counselling the speculations of her husband, who had happily been content with the produce and profit of his paternal acres, had not his helpmate, who inherited this mercantile spirit from her family, urged her partner to such unwonted lust and craving for gain.
A huge bundle of keys hung at her girdle, which, when more than usually excited, did make a most discordant jingle to the tune that was a-going. Indeed, the height and violence of her passion might be pretty well guessed at by this index to its strength.
When the storm had in some degree subsided, Gervase held up the ring.
"What's that, silly one? A wedding-ring!"
She grew almost pale with wrath. "How darest thou?—thee!—a ring!—to wed ere thou hast a home for thy pretty one. Ye may go beg, for here ye shall not tarry. Go to the next buckle-beggar! A pretty wedding truly! When thou hast learned how to keep her honestly 'twill be time enough to wed. But thou hast not earned a doit to put beside her dower, and all our ready moneys, and more, be in trade; though, for the matter o' that, the pulling would be no great business either. But I tell thee again, thy father shall not portion an idler like thyself and pinch his trade. Marry, 'tis enough to do, what with grievous sums lost in shipwrecks, and the time we have now to wait our returns from o'er sea."
She went on at this rate for a considerable space, pausing at last, more for lack of breath than subject-matter of discourse.
"Mother," said he, when fairly run down; "'tis not a purchase—'tis a gift."
"By some one sillier than thyself, I warrant."
"I know not for that; I had it from a stranger."
"Stranger still," she replied sharply, chuckling at her own conceit.
"Look at it, mother. Know you such a one?"
The dame eyed it with no favour, but she turned it over with a curious look, at the same time lifting her eyes now and then towards the ceiling, as some train of recollection was awakening in her mind.
"Where gat ye this?" said Dame Eleanor, in a subdued but still querulous tone.
"On the hill-top yonder."
"Treasure-trove belongs to Sir John Byron. The lord of the manor claims all from the finders."
"It was a gift."
"Humph. Hast met gold-finders on the hills, or demons or genii that guard hidden treasure?"
"We've seen the Red Woman!"
Had a sudden thunder-clap burst over them, she could not have been more startled. She stood speechless, and seemingly incapable of reply. Holding the ring in one hand, her eyes were intently fixed upon it.
"What is it that troubles you?" said Gervase. "Yon strange woman bade me give you the ring, and ask if so be that you remembered her."
The dame looked up, her quick and saucy petulance exchanged for a subdued and melancholy air.
"Remember thee! thou foul witch? ay long, long years have passed; I thought thy persecutions at an end; thy prediction was nigh forgotten. It was my wedding-ring, Gervase!"
"More marvellous still."
"Peace, and I'll tell thee. Grace Ashton, come forward. I know thine ears are itching for the news. Well, well, it was when thou wast but a boy, Gervase, and I remember an evening just like this. I was standing by the draw-well yonder, looking, I now bethink me, at the dovecot, where I suspected thieves; and in a humour somewhat of the sharpest, I trow. By-and-by comes, what I thought, an impudent beggar-woman for an alms. Her dress was red and tattered, with a high red cap to match. I chided her it might be somewhat harshly, and I shall not soon forget the malicious look she put on. 'I ask not, I need not thy benison,' she said; 'I would have befriended thee, but I now curse thee altogether:' and stretching out her shrivelled arm, dry and bare, she shook it, threatening me with vengeance. Suddenly, or ere I was aware, she seized my left hand, drew off my wedding-ring; breathing upon it and mumbling a spell, she held it as though for me to take back, but with such a fiendish look of delight that I hesitated. All on a sudden I remembered to have heard my grandmother say that should a witch or warlock get your wedding-ring, and have time to mutter over it a certain charm, so long as that ring is above ground so long misery and misfortune do afflict the owner. Lucky it was I knew of this, for instead of replacing it I threw it into the well, being the nearest hiding-place. And happy for me and thee it was so near; for, would you believe, though hardly a minute's space in my hand, the black heifer died, the red cow cast her calf, and a large venture of merchandise was wrecked in a fearful gale off the gulf. I had no sooner thrown it into the well than the witch looked more diabolical than ever. 'It will come again, dame,' said she, 'and then look to it;' and with this threat she departed. But what am I doing? If it be the ring, which I doubt not, I've had it o'er long in my keeping. Even now disaster may be a-brewing; and is there not a richly-freighted ship on its passage with silks and spices? I'll put it out of her reach this time anyhow. No! I'll hide it where never a witch in Christendom shall poke it out."
Dame Eleanor went to the little burn below. Stooping, she scooped a hole in the gravel under water; there she laid the ring, and covered it over with stones.
"Thou'rt always after some of thy megrims, dame," said the elder Buckley, who had been watching her from the porch. "Some spell or counter-charm, I'se warrant."
With a look of great contempt for the incredulity of her spouse, she replied—
"Ay, goodman, sit there and scoff your fill. If't hadn't been for my care and endeavours you had been penniless ere now. But so it is, I may slave night and day, I reckon. The whole roof-tree, as a body may say, is on my shoulders, and what thanks? More hisses than thanks, more knocks than fair words."
Never so well pleased as when opportunity was afforded for grumbling, the dame addressed herself again to her evening avocations.
Pondering deeply what should be the issue of these things, Gervase set out with Grace Ashton to her house at Clegg Hall, a good mile distant. Evening had closed in—a chill wind blew from the hills. The west had lost its splendour, but a pure transparent brightness filled its place, across which the dark wavy outline of the high moorlands rested in deep unvarying shadow. In these bright depths a still brighter star hung, pure and of a diamond-like lustre, the precursor, the herald of a blazing host just rising into view.
As they walked on, it may well be supposed that the strange occurrences of the last few hours were the engrossing theme of their discourse.
"My mother is a little too superstitious, I am aware," said Gervase; "but what I have witnessed to-night has rendered me something more credulous on this head than aforetime."
"I don't half like this neighbourhood," said his companion, looking round. "It hath an ill name, and I could almost fancy the Red Woman again, just yonder in our path."
She looked wistfully; it was only the mist creeping lazily on with the stream.
They were now ascending the hill towards Beil or Belfield, where the Knights Templars had formerly an establishment. Not a vestage now remains, though at that period a ruinous tower covered with ivy, a gateway, and an arch, existed as relics of their former grandeur.
"Here lived the Lady Eleanor Byron," said Grace, pointing to the old hall close by, and as though an unpleasant recollection had crossed her. She shuddered as they passed by the grim archway beneath the tower. Whether it was fancy or reality she knew not, but as she looked curiously through its ivied tracery she thought the Red Woman was peering out maliciously upon them. She shrank aside, and pointed to the spot; but there was nothing visible save the dark and crumbling ruins, from which their steps were echoed with a dull and sullen sound.
The night wind sighed round the grey battlements, and from its hidden recesses came moans and whispers—at least so it seemed to their heated imaginations.
"Let us hasten hence," said Grace; "I like not this lonely spot. There was always a fear and a mystery about it. The tale of the invisible sylphid and Eleanor Byron's elfish lover haunts me whenever I pass by, and I feel as though something was near, observing and influencing every movement and every thought."
"Come, come, a-done I pray. Let not fear o'ermaster reason, else we shall see bogles in every bush."
Above the gateway, in the little square tower now pulled down, was a loophole, nearly concealed by climbing shrubs, which rendered it easy for a person within to look out without being observed. As they passed a low humming din was heard. Then a rude ditty trolled from some not unskilful performer. The lovers stayed to listen, when a dark figure issued out of the gateway singing—
"The bat haunts the tower, And the redbreast the bower, And the merry little sparrow by the chimney hops, Good e'en, hoots master owl, To-whoo, to-whoo, his troll, Sing heigho, swing the can with"——
"What, thee, Tim! Is that thy stupid face?" said Gervase, breaking in upon his ditty, and right glad to be delivered from supernatural fears, though the object of them proved only this strolling minstrel. "Thou might as well kill us outright as frighten us to death."
He that stood before them was one of those wandering musicians that haunt fairs and merry-makings, wakes, and such like pastimes; playing the fiddle and jewtrump too at weddings and alehouses; in short, any sort of idleness never came amiss to these representatives of the old Troubadours. A tight oval cap covered his shaggy poll; he was clad in a coarse doublet or jerkin slashed in the fashion of the time, while his nether integuments were fastened in the primitive mode by a wooden skewer. He could conjure too, and play antics to set the folks agape; but as to his honesty, it was of that dubious sort that few cared to have it in trust. He was apt at these alehouse ditties—many of them his own invention. He knew all the choicest ballads too, so that his vocation was much akin to the jogleurs or jongleurs of more ancient times, when Richard of the Lion's Heart and other renowned monarchs disdained not "the gentle craft of poesie."
Wherever was a feast, let it be a wedding or a funeral, Tim, like the harpies of old, scented the meat, and some of his many vocations were generally in request.
This important functionary now stood whistling and singing by turns with the most admired unconcern.
"What's thy business here?" cried Gervase, approaching him.
"The maid was fair, and the maid was coy, But the lover left, and the maid said 'Why?' Sing O the green willow!"
"Answerest thou me with thy trumpery ditties? I'll have thee put i' the stocks, sirrah."
"Oh, ha' mercy, master! there's naught amiss 'at I know. I'm but takin' roost here wi' the owls an' jackdaws a bit, maybe for want o' better lyin'."
"It were hard to have a better knack at lying than thou hast already. Hast gotten the weather into thy lodgings? When didst flit to thy new quarters?"
"Th' hay-mow at Clegg is ower savoured wi' the new crop, an' I want fresh air for my studies."
"Now art thou lying"——
"Like a lover to his sweetheart," said Tim, interrupting him, and finishing the sentence.
"Peace, knave! There's some mischief i' the wind. Thou'rt after no good, I trow."
"What te dickons do I ail here? Is't aught 'at a man can lift off but stone wa's an' ivy-boughs? Marry, my little poke man ha' summut else to thrive on nor these."
"There's been great outcry about poultry an' other farmyard appendances amissing of late, besides eggs and such like dainties enow to furnish pancakes and fritters for the whole parish. Hast gotten company in thy den above there?"
"Jacks an' ouzles, if ye like, Master Gervase. Clim' up, clim' up, lad, an there'll be a prial on us. Ha, ha! What! our little sweetheart there would liefer t' be gangin.' Weel, weel, 'tis natural, as a body may say—
"One is good, and two is good, But three's no company."
"Answer me quick, thou rogue. Is there any other but thyself yonder above?"
"When I'm there I'm not here, an' when I'm here"——
"Sirrah, I'll flog the wind out o' thy worthless carcase. Hast any pilfering companions about thee? I do smell a savoury refection—victuals are cooking, or my nose belies its office."
"Fair speech, friend, wins a quiet answer; a soft word and a smooth tongue all the world over. What for mayn't I sup as well as my betters?"
"As well?—better belike. There's no such savour in our hall at eventide, nor in the best kitchen in the parish."
"It's not my fau't, is't?"
"By'r lady, there's somebody in the chamber there. I saw the leaves fluttering from the loophole. Villain, who bears thee company?"
"Daft, daft. What fool would turn into roost wi' me? Clean gone crazy, sure as I'm livin'."
"Nay, nay, there's some plot here—some mischief hatching. I'll see, or"——
He was just going to make the attempt; but Tim withstood him, and in a peremptory manner barred the way.
"How! am I barred by thee, and to my face?"
"It's no business o' thine, Master Gervase. What's hatching there concerns not thee. Keep back, I say, or"——
"Ha! Thou jingle-pated rascal, stand off, or I'll wring thy neck round as I would a Jackdaw."
"Do not, do not, Gervase!" said Grace Ashton, fearful of some unlucky strife. "Let us begone. We are too late already, and 'tis no business of ours."
"What! and be o'erfoughten by this scurvy lack-wit. Once more, who is there above?"
"An' what if I shouldn't tell thee?"
"I'll baste thy carcase to a mummy; I'll make thee tender for the hounds."
"Another word to that, master, an' it's a bargain."
"Let me pass."
"Not without my company."
He whistled, and in a moment Gervase felt himself pinioned from behind. Looking round, he saw two stout fellows with their faces covered; and any other possibility of recognition was impracticable in the heavy twilight.
"Who's i' t' stocks now?" cried the malicious rogue, laughing.
"Unhand me, or ye'll rue that ever ye wrought this outrage."
"Nay, nay, that were a pretty stave, when we've gotten the bird, to open the trap," said Tim.
Gervase immediately saw that another party had seized Grace Ashton. He raved and stamped until his maledictions were put an end to by an effectual gag, and he did not doubt but she had suffered the same treatment, for a short sharp scream only was heard. Being immediately blindfolded, he could only surmise that her usage was of a similar nature.
He was so stupefied with surprise that for a short period he was hardly sensible to their further proceedings. When able to reflect, he found himself pinioned, and in a sitting posture. A damp chill was on his forehead. He had been dragged downwards, and, from the motion, steps were the medium of descent. A door or two had been raised or opened, a narrow passage previously traversed, and a short time only elapsed from the cool freshness of the evening air to the damp and stifling atmosphere that he now breathed. What could be the cause of his seizure he was quite incompetent to guess. He could not recollect that he had either pique or grudge on his hands; and what should be the result he only bewildered and wearied himself by striving to anticipate.
It was surely a dream. He heard a voice of ravishing sweetness; such pure and silvery tones, that aught earthly could have produced it was out of the question; it was like the swell of some AEolian lyre—words, too, modifying and enhancing that liquid harmony. It was a hymn, but in a foreign tongue. He soon recognised the evening hymn to the Virgin—
"Mater amata, intemerata, Ora, ora, pro nobis."
So sweetly did the music melt into his soul, that he quite forgot his thrall, and every sense was attuned to the melody. When the sound ceased he made an effort to get free. He loosened his hands, and immediately tore off the bandage from his eyes. A few seconds elapsed, when he saw a light streaming through a crevice. Looking through, he saw a taper burning before a little shrine, where two females in white raiment, closely veiled, were kneeling.
The celebration of such rites, at that time strictly prohibited, sufficiently accounted for their concealment, and plainly intimated that the parties were not of the Reformed faith.
By the light which penetrated his cell from this source he saw it was furnished with a stone bench, and a narrow flight of steps in one corner communicated with a trap-door above.
The old mansion at Belfield, contiguous to these ruins, once belonging to the Knights of St John, had been for some years untenanted, and, as often happens to the lot of deserted houses, strange noises, sights, and other manifestations of ghostly occupants were heard and seen by passers-by, rendering it a neighbourhood not overliked by those who had business that way after nightfall.
Gervase Buckley was pretty well assured that he had been conveyed into some concealed subterranean chamber, but for what purpose he could not comprehend. He was not easily intimidated; and though in a somewhat sorry plight, he now felt little apprehension on the score of supernatural visitations: but his seizure did not hold out an immunity as regards corporeal disturbers. He had not long to indulge these premonitory reflections ere a door was opened. A figure, completely enveloped in a black cloak, on which a red cross was conspicuously emblazoned, stood before him. He carried a torch, and Gervase saw a short naked sword glittering in his belt.
"Follow me," said the intruder; and, without further parley, pointed to where another door was concealed in the pavement. This being opened, Gervase beheld, not without serious apprehension, a flight of steps evidently communicating with a lower dungeon. His conductor pointed to the descent, and it would have been useless folly to disobey. A damp and almost suffocating odour prevailed, as though from some long-pent-up atmosphere, which did not give the prisoner any increasing relish or affection for the enterprise. He looked at his conductor, whose face and person were yet covered. Had he been a familiar of the Holy Inquisition, he could not have been more careful of concealment. Gervase looked now and then with a wistful glance towards his companion's weapon. Being himself unarmed, it would have been madness to attempt escape. He merely inquired in his descent—
"Whence this outrage? I am unarmed, defenceless." But there was no reply. The guide, with an inclination of the head, pointed with his torch to the gulf his victim was about to enter. There was little use in disputation where the opposite party had so decided an advantage, and he thought it best to abide the issue without further impediment. He accordingly descended a few steps. His conductor fastened the door overhead, and they soon arrived at the bottom, at a low arched passage, where his guide dashed his flambeau against the wall, and it was immediately extinguished.
Gervase was left once more in doubt and darkness. There was little space for explanation. He felt himself seized by an invisible hand, hurried unresistingly on, till, without any preparation, a blaze of light burst upon him.
It was for a moment too overpowering to enable him to distinguish objects with any certainty. Soon, however, he saw a tolerably spacious vault or crypt, supported by massy pillars. He had often heard there existed many unexplored subterranean passages reaching to an incredible distance, made originally by the Knights Templars for their private use. One of these, it was said, extended even to the chantry just then dissolved at Milnrow, more than a mile distant. Many strange stories he had been told of these warrior monks. But centuries had elapsed since their suppression. For a moment he almost believed they were permitted to reappear, doomed at stated periods to re-enact their unhallowed orgies, their cruelties, and their crimes. The chamber was lighted by three or four torches, their lurid unsteady life giving an ever-varying character to the surrounding objects.
Opposite the entrance was a stone bench, occupied by several figures attired in a similar manner to his conductor. An individual in the centre wore in addition a belt covered by some cabalistic devices. The scene was sufficiently inexplicable, and not at all elucidated by the following interrogation:—
"Thou hast been cited to our tribunal," said the chief inquisitor.
"I know ye not," said Gervase, with great firmness, though hardly aware of the position he occupied.
"Why hast thou not obeyed our summons?"
"I have not heard of any such; nor in good sooth should I have been careful to obey had your mandate been delivered."
"Croix Rouge," said the interrogator, "has this delinquent been cited?"
The person he addressed arose, bowed, and presented a written answer.
"I have here," continued the chief, "sufficient proof that our summons hath been conveyed to thee, and that hitherto thine answer hath been contumaciously withheld. What sayest thou?"
"I have yet to learn, firstly," said Gervase, with more indignation than prudence, "by what authority you would compel me to appear; and secondly, how and in what form such mandate had been sent?"
"Bethink thee, is our answer to the last: the first will be manifested in due time. We might indeed leave thee ignorant as to what we require, but pity for thy youth and inexperience forbids. Clegg Hall is, thou knowest, along with the estate, now unlawfully holden by the Ashtons."
"I know that sundry Popish recusants, plotting the overthrow of our most gracious Queen, do say that other and more legitimate rights are in abeyance only; but the present owners are too well fortified to be dispossessed by hearsay."
"In the porch at Clegg thou wast accosted not long ago by a mendicant who solicited an alms."
"Did he not hold out to thee the sign of the Rosy Cross, the token of our all-powerful fraternity of Rosicrucians?"
"I do remember such a signal; and furthermore, I drove him forth as an impostor and a pretender to forbidden arts."
"He showed thee the sign, and bade thee follow?"
"And why was our summons disobeyed?"
"Because I have yet to learn what authority you possess either for my summons or detention."
"The brotherhood of the Red Cross are not disobeyed with impunity."
"I have heard of such a fraternity—as well too that they be idle cheats and lying impostors."
"We challenge not belief without sufficient testimony to the truth of our mission. In pity to man's infirmity this indulgence is permitted. We unfold the hidden operations, the very arcana of Nature, whom we unclothe as it were to her very nakedness. Our doctrines thereby carry credence even to the most impious and unbelieving. Ere we command thy submission, it is permitted to behold some manifestation of our power. By means derived from the hidden essences of Nature, the first principles which renovate and govern all things, the very elements of which they consist, we arrive at the incorporeal essence called spirit, holding converse with it undebased, uninfluenced by the intervention of matter. Thus we converse in spirit with those that be absent, even though they were a thousand leagues apart."
"And what has this jargon to do with my being despatched hither?"
"Listen, and reply not; the purport will be vouchsafed to thee anon. We can compel the spirits even of the absent to come at our bidding by subtle spells that none have power to disobey. We too can renew and invigorate life, and by the universal solvent bring about the renovation of all things—renovation and decay being the two antagonist principles, as light and darkness. As we can make darkness light, and light darkness at our pleasure, so can we from decay bring forth life, and the contrary. Seest thou this dead body?"
A black curtain he had not hitherto observed was thrown aside, and he beheld the features of Grace Ashton, or he was strangely deceived. She was lying on a little couch, death visibly imprinted on her collapsed and sunken features.
"Murderers! I will have ye dealt with for this outrage." Maddened almost to frenzy, he would have rushed towards her, but he was firmly holden by a power superior to his own.
"She is now in the first region of departed spirits," said the chief. "We have power to compel answer to our interrogatories. Listen, perverse mortal. We are well assured that a vast treasure is concealed hereabouts, hidden by the Knights of St John. 'Tis beyond our unassisted power to discover. We have asked counsel of one whom we dare not disobey, and she it is hath commanded that we cite thee and Grace Ashton to the tribunal of the Rosy Cross. This corporeal substance now before us, by reason of its intimate union with the spirit, purged from the dross of mortality, will answer any question that may be propounded, and will utter many strange and infallible prophecies. It will solve doubtful questions, and discourse of things past, present, and to come, seeing that she is now in spirit where all knowledge is perfect, and hath her eyes and understanding cleared from the gross film of our corruption. But as spirit only hath power over those of its own nature by the law of universal sympathy, so she answers but to those by whom she is bidden that are of the same temperament and affinity, which is shown by your affiance and love towards each other."
The prisoner heard this mystic harangue with a vacant and fixed expression, as though his mind were wandering, and he hardly understood the profundity of the discourse. Every feeling was absorbed in the conviction that some horrid incantation had for ever deprived him of his beloved. Then he fancied some imposition had been practised upon him. Being prevented from a closer examination, at length he felt some relief in the idea that the form he beheld might possibly be a counterfeit. He knew not what to say, and the speaker apparently waited his reply. Finding he was still silent, the former continued after a brief space:—
"Our questions to this purport must necessarily be propounded by thee. Art thou prepared?"
"Say on," said Gervase, determined to try the issue, however repugnant to his thoughts.
Two of them now arose and stood at each end of the couch. The superior first made the sign of the cross. He then drew a book from his girdle, and read therein a Latin exorcism against the intrusion of evil spirits into the body, commanding those only of a heavenly and benign influence to attend. He lighted a taper compounded of many strange ingredients emitting a fragrant odour, and as the smoke curled heavily about him, flickering and indistinct, he looked like some necromancer about to perform his diabolical rites.
The occupant of that miserable couch lay still as death.
"The first question," cried out the chief; and he looked towards the prisoner, who was now suffered to approach within a few paces of the bed.
"Is there treasure in this place?"
Gervase tried to repeat the question, but his tongue clave to his mouth. For the first time probably in his life he felt the sensation of horrible, undefined, uncontrollable fear—that fear of the unknown and supernatural, that shrinking from spiritual intercourse even with those we have loved best. It seemed as though he were in communion with the invisible world—that awful, incomprehensible state of existence; and with beings whose power and essence are yet unknown, armed, in imagination, with attributes of terror and of vengeance.
With a desperate effort, however, he repeated the question. Breathless, and with intense agony, he awaited the response. It came! A voice, not from the lips of the recumbent victim, but as though it were some inward afflatus, hollow and sepulchral. The lips did not move, but the following reply was given:—
Even the guilty confederates started back in alarm at the success of their own experiment. All was, however, still—silent as before.
Taking courage, the next question was put in like manner.
"In what direction?"
"Under the main pillar of the south-eastern corner of the vault."
After another pause, the following questions were asked:—
"How may we obtain the treasure sought?"
"By diligence and perseverance."
"At what time?"
"When the moon hath trine to Mercury in the house of Saturn."
"Is it guarded?"
"By a power that shall crush you unless propitiated."
"Show us in what manner."
"I may not; my lips are sealed. That power is superior to mine; the rest is hidden from me."
The treasure-seekers were silent, as though disappointed at this unexpected reply. Another attempt was, however, made.
"Shall we prosper in our undertaking?"
"My time is nigh spent. I beseech you that I may depart, for I am in great torment."
"Thou shall not, until thou answer."
But this admonition was from another source, and in a different direction. The obscurity and smoke from the torches made it impossible to judge with any certainty whence the interruption proceeded.
Gervase started and turned round. It might be fancy, but he was confident the features of the Red Woman were present to his apprehension. Horrors were accumulating. Even the united brotherhood seemed to tremble as though in the presence of some being of whom they stood in awe. They awaited her approach in silence.
"Fool! Did I not warn thee to do my bidding only? And thou art hankering again, pampering thy cruel lust for gold. How darest thou question the maiden for this intent? Hence, and thank thy stars thou art not even now sent howling to thy doom!"
This terrible and mysterious woman came forward in great anger, and the Rosicrucian brotherhood were thereby in great alarm. "The maid is mine—begone!" said she, pointing the way.
Like slaves under their master's frown, they crouched before this fearful personification of their unhallowed and forbidden practices, and departed.
"Gervase Buckley," she cried, "thou art betrothed to the heiress of yon wide possessions."
"I am," said he, roused either to courage or desperation, even in the presence of a being whose power he felt conscious was not derived from one common source with his own.
"Dost thou confirm thy troth?"
"I do; in life and in death she is mine."
"Pledge thyself, body and soul, to her."
"I am hers whilst I live, body and soul. Nothing but death shall part us."
"On thy soul's hope thou wilt fulfil this pledge!"
"I will." Gervase looked wistfully towards his beloved. The inanimate form was yet pale and still; but a vague hope possessed him that the witch would again quicken her.
"'Tis enough. But it must be sealed with blood!"
He felt her clammy hand on his arm, and a sharp pain as though from a puncture. He quickly withdrew it, and a blood-drop fell on the floor.
"Thou art mine—for ever!"
A loud yell rang through the vaults, and Gervase felt as though the doom of the lost spirits were his—that a whole troop of fiery demons had assailed him, and that he was borne away to the pit of torment. Happily his recollection forsook him, and he became unconscious of future suffering.
PART THE SECOND.
Morning rose bright and ruddy above the hills. The elder Buckley was up and stirring betimes. Agreeably to his usual practice, he had retired early to bed, leaving the household cares and duties to his helpmate. He was sitting in the porch when his dame, with a disturbed and portentous aspect, accosted him:—
"I know not what hath come to the lad."
"Gervase—what of him?" said Nicholas, carelessly.
"He came home very late yesternight. But he did not speak, and he looked so wan and woe-begone that I verily thought he had seen a ghost or some uncanny thing yonder on his road home. I've just now been to rouse him, but he will not answer. Prithee go and get speech of him, good or bad. I think i' my heart the lad's bewitched."
Nicholas Buckley was a man of few words, especially in the presence of his helpmate, so he merely groaned out an incredulous wonder, and went off as he was bidden. He saw Gervase evidently under the influence of some stupefying spell. His eyes were open, but he noticed neither the question nor the person who accosted him. There was something so horrible and mysterious in his whole appearance that the good man felt alarmed, and went back to his dame with all possible expedition. What could have happened? They guessed, and made a thousand odd surmises, improbable enough the greater part, but all merging in the prevailing bugbear of the day—witchcraft, which was resorted to as a satisfactory explanation under every possible difficulty. Had his malady any connection with the unexpected appearance of the Red Woman and the ring? It was safe buried, however, and that was a comfort. But after all, her thoughts always involuntarily recurred to this unpleasant subject. She could not shake off her suspicions, and there was little use in attempting further measures unless she could fight the Evil One with his own weapons. To this end, she began to cast about for some cunning wizard who might countervail the plots of this malicious witch.
Now at this period, Dr Dee, celebrated for his extraordinary revelations respecting the world of spirits, had been promoted by Queen Elizabeth (a firm believer in astrology and other recondite pursuits) to the wardenship of the Collegiate Church at Manchester. His fame had spread far and wide. He had not long been returned from his mission to the Emperor Rodolph at Prague, and his intercourse with invisible things was as firmly believed as the common occurrences of the day, and as well authenticated.
The character of Dee has both been underrated and misunderstood. By most, if not all, he has been looked upon merely as a visionary and an enthusiast—credulous and ambitious, without the power, though he had sufficient will, to compass the most mischievous designs. But under these outward weaknesses and superstitions, tinctured and modified by the prevailing belief in supernatural interferences, there was a bold and vigorous mind, frustrated, it is true, by circumstances which he could not control. Dee aimed at the entire change and subjugation of affairs, ecclesiastical and political, to the dominion of an unseen power—a theocracy or millennium—himself the sole medium of communication, the high priest and lawgiver. To this end he sought the alliance and support of foreign potentates; and his diary, published by Casaubon, the original of which is in the British Museum, is a remarkable and curious detail of the intrigues resorted to for this purpose. His mission to the Emperor Rodolph, offering him the sceptre of universal dominion, is told with great minuteness; and there is little doubt that Elizabeth herself did not disdain to converse and consult with him on this extraordinary project. Her visits to his house at Mortlake are well known. He had been consulted as to a favourable day for her coronation, and received many splendid promises of preferment that were never realised. At length, disappointed and hopeless as to the success of his once daring expectations, he settled down to the only piece of preferment within his reach—to wit, the wardenship of the Collegiate Church of Manchester, where he arrived with his family in the beginning of February 1596. His advice and assistance were much resorted to, and particularly in cases of supposed witchcraft and demoniacal possession—articles of unshaken belief at that period with all but speculatists and optimists, the Sadducees of their day and generation. His chief colleague throughout his former revelations had been one Edward Kelly, born at Worcester, where he practised as an apothecary. In his diary Dee says they were brought together by the ministration of the angel Uriel. He was called Kelly the Seer. This faculty of "seeing" by means of a magic crystal not being possessed by the Doctor, he was obliged to have recourse to Kelly, who had, or pretended to have, this rare faculty. Afterwards, however, he found out that Kelly had deceived him; those spirits which ministered at his bidding not being messengers from the Deity, as he once supposed, but lying spirits sent to deceive and to betray.
Kelly was an undoubted impostor, though evidently himself a believer in magic and the black art. Addicted to diabolical and mischievous practices, he was a fearful ensample of those deluders given up to their own inventions to believe the very lies wherewith they attempted to deceive.
He was a great treasure-hunter and invoker of demons, and it is said would not scruple to have recourse to the most disgusting brutalities for the gratification of his avarice and debauchery. In Weaver's Funereal Monuments, it is recorded that Kelly, in company with one Paul Waring, went to the churchyard of Walton-le-Dale, near Preston, where a person was interred at that time supposed to have hidden a large sum of money, and who had died without disclosing the secret. They entered precisely at midnight, the grave having been pointed out to them the preceding day. They dug down to the coffin, opened it, and exorcised the spirit of the deceased, until the body rose from the grave and stood upright before them. Having satisfied their inquiries, it is said that many strange predictions were uttered concerning divers persons in the neighbourhood, which were literally and remarkably fulfilled.