THE LIBRARY OF CLASSICAL HISTORICAL FICTION
Blow the dust off the pages of history: The 1873 Press is pleased to bring you thousands of lost treasures from the golden age of historical fiction, from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.
For as long as novels have been written, readers have thrilled to delve into the past through the pages of fiction. Usually appearing as serials in scores of publications, these tales were the popular entertainment of their time, much as television is today, crafted to lift their audience above their ordinary existence with exotic locales, heroic deeds, and driving narrative. Hundreds of authors, many of them still household names, learned their craft by mixing documented events, period details, and liberal measures of imagination. Napoleon and Josephine, Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, Dick Turpin (the greatest highwayman of all time) — these and countless others, and the events that they shaped, emerged from history as full-blooded characters in stories of intrigue, crime, passion, and adventure, with motley supporting casts including swashbucklers, cavaliers, courtesans, dutiful servants and dedicated ministers.
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Now you can treasure your own copies of these long-lost works. Join us in relishing the stories of the exciting lives and struggles of famous, infamous, and barely remembered men and women.
Welcome to unforgettable reading.
William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) was among the most popular novelists of the Victorian era. A brilliant student, he intended to join his father's prominent law firm until his ambition turned to publishing and literature — in particular the genre of historical fiction. His first novel, Sir John Chiverton, was published in 1826. After traveling in Europe in 1830, Ainsworth returned to England and began work on Rookwood (1834), based largely on the life of the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin. This "Newgate" novel (referring to the prison) enjoyed extraordinary success and launched the author into London's highest social and literary circles. Strikingly handsome and rather dandified, Ainsworth counted Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and William Wordsworth among his many friends.
A tireless writer and editor, Ainsworth produced thirty-nine novels, and directed and owned a succession of prominent literary journals, including Bentley's Miscellany, Ainsworth's Magazine, and the New Monthly Magazine. His historical novels, noted for their accuracy and pageantry, were usually first published in serial form, many of them illustrated by George Cruikshank and "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne), both outstanding 19th century illustrators. Ainsworth took great care in reproducing historical settings, and his vigorous and pleasing style is punctuated with broad, farcical humor. His works give readers a true taste of the pleasures and conventions of the Victorian novel, and they will reward and satisfy those who seek an intimate look into England's past.
Published in three volumes anonymously in 1834 and under the author's name in many succeeding editions, Ainsworth's second novel was a great literary and commercial success that catapulted its author into celebrity. Ostensibly based on the criminal career of the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739), some critics have said that the story probably owes as much to the life of John (Swift Dick) Nevison. Ainsworth's thrilling account of Turpin's famous ride to York on his mare Black Bess is probably the greatest example of Ainsworth's skill both as a writer and as a writer of fiction—not only is it exciting but also pure invention, drawing, as the author acknowledged, on Yorkshire oral tradition. The novel is a glorious part of the romantic vision of the highwayman, as portrayed so often in ballads, poems, novels, and, of course, in films.
Read what the critics had to say about Rookwood
This is one of the most spirited and romantic of "the season's" production. Full of life and fire, it excites the reader and carries him onward — much as the true heroine of the tale, the mare Black Bess, does the true hero of it, the ROBBER TURPIN — with mingled sensations of terror and delight. It is a wild story, told with exceeding skill, and wrought up to the highest pitch of which so singular a subject is capable. The book is an excellent one, and the author may take a high station among the romance authors of our time. — New Monthly Magazine.
Will have a RUN in the true Turpian style. — Fraser's Magazine.
This story never flags. — Quarterly Review.
Possesses great variety of talent. — Literary Gazette.
Exhibits great power and strong interest. — Morning Post.
Will be extensively read and admired. — Courier.
Will interest and amuse readers of every class. — New Sporting Magazine.
"By the powers! But it shall do, anyhow … You've bullied me long enough."
A Romance By
W. HARRISON AINSWORTH
Illustrated by Pierre le Touche
First Published 1834
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by 1873 Press, New York.
1873 Press and colophon are trademarks of Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Book Design by Ericka O'Rourke, Elm Design
BOOK I.—THE WEDDING RING
The Skeleton Hand
Sir Reginald Rookwood
Sir Piers Rookwood
An Irish Adventure
An English Adventurer
The Chamber of Death
BOOK II.—THE SEXTON
The Funeral Oration
BOOK III.—THE GIPSY
A Morning Ride
A Gipsy Encampment
St. Cyprian's Cell
BOOK IV.—THE RIDE TO YORK
The Rendezvous at Kilburn
The Hue and Cry
The Short Pipe
The York Stage
A Road-side Inn
The Phantom Steed
BOOK V.—THE OATH
The Hut on Thorne Waste
The Dower of Sybil
"By the powers! But it shall do, anyhow … You've bullied me long enough."
"Sir Reginald passed his rapier through his brother's body"
"An Individual known at the hall as Jack Palmer."
"Disobey me, and your blood be upon your own head."
"By heaven! It is the fiend himself upon a Black Horse."
"Thunders of Applause."
"I am Sir Luke Rookwood."
"Bess charged and cleared the lower part of the mouldering priory walls."
"And art thou gone, Bess!"
"Luke drew in the rein beneath one of the largest of the trees."
THE WEDDING RING
It has been observed, and I am apt to believe it is an observation which will generally be found true, that before a terrible truth comes to light, there are certain murmuring whispers fly before it, and prepare the minds of men for the reception of the truth itself.
Case of the Count Saint Geran
WITHIN a sepulchral vault, and at midnight, two persons were seated. The chamber was of singular construction and considerable extent. The roof was of solid stone masonry, and rose in a wide semicircular arch to the height of about seventeen feet, measured from the centre of the ceiling to the ground floor, while the sides were divided by slight partition-walls into ranges of low narrow catacombs. The entrance to each cavity was surmounted by an obtusely-pointed arch, resting upon slender granite pillars; and the intervening space was filled up with a variety of tablets, escutcheons, shields, and inscriptions, recording the titles and heraldic honours of the departed. There were no doors to the niches; and within might be seen piles of coffins, packed one upon another, till the floor groaned with the weight of lead.
Against one of the pillars, upon a hook, hung a rack of tattered, time-out-of-mind hatchments; and in the centre of the tomb might be seen the effigies of Sir Ranulph de Rokewode, the builder of the mausoleum, and the founder of the race who slept within its walls. This statue, wrought in black marble, differed from most monumental carved-work, in that its posture was erect and life-like. Sir Ranulph was represented as sheathed in a complete suit of mail, decorated with his emblazoned and gilded surcoat, his arm leaning upon the pommel of a weighty curtal-axe. The attitude was that of stern repose. A conically-formed helmet rested upon the brow; the beaver was raised, and revealed harsh but commanding features. The golden spur of knighthood was fixed upon the heel; and at the feet, enshrined in a costly sarcophagus of marble, dug from the same quarry as the statue, rested the mortal remains of one of "the sternest knights to his mortal foe that ever put speare in the rest."
Streaming in a wavering line upon the roof, the sickly flame of the candle partially fell upon the human figures before alluded to, throwing them into darkest relief, and casting their opaque and fantastical shadows along the ground. An old coffin upon a bier, we have said, served the mysterious twain for a seat. Between them stood a bottle and a glass, evidences that whatever might be the ulterior object of their stealthy communion, the immediate comfort of the creature had not been altogether overlooked.
At the feet of one of the personages were laid a mattock, a horn lantern (from which the candle had been removed), a crowbar, and a bunch of keys. Near to these implements of a vocation which the reader will readily surmise, rested a strange superannuated terrier with a wiry back and frosted muzzle; a head minus an ear, and a leg wanting a paw. His master, for such we shall suppose him, was an old man with a lofty forehead, covered with a singularly shaped nightcap, and clothed, as to his lower limbs, with tight, ribbed, grey worsted hose, ascending externally, after a bygone fashion, considerably above the knee. The old man's elbow rested upon the handle of his spade, his wrist supported his chin, and his grey glassy eyes, glimmering like marsh-meteors in the candle-light, were fixed upon his companion with a glance of searching scrutiny.
The object of his investigation, a much more youthful and interesting person, seemed lost in reverie, and alike insensible to time, place, and the object of the meeting. With both hands grasped round the barrel of a fowling-piece, and his face leaning upon the same support, the features were entirely concealed from view; the light, too, being to the back, and shedding its rays over, rather than upon his person, aided his disguise. Yet, even thus imperfectly defined, the outline of the head, and the proportions of the figure, were eminently striking and symmetrical.
Attired in a rough forester's costume, of the mode of 1737, and of the roughest texture and rudest make, his wild garb would have determined his rank as sufficiently humble in the scale of society, had not a certain loftiness of manner, and bold, though reckless deportment, argued pretensions on the part of the wearer to a more elevated station in life, and contradicted, in a great measure, the impression produced by the homely appearance of his habiliments. A cap of shaggy brown fur, fancifully, but not ungracefully fashioned, covered his head, from beneath which, dropping, in natural clusters, over his neck and shoulders, a cloud of raven hair escaped.
Subsequently, when his face was more fully revealed, it proved to be that of a young man, of dark aspect, and grave, melancholy expression of countenance, approaching even to the stern, when at rest; though sufficiently animated and earnest when engaged in conversation, or otherwise excited. His features were regular, delicately formed, and might be characterised as singularly handsome, were it not for a want of roundness in the contour of the face which gave the lineaments a thin, worn look, totally distinct, however, from haggardness or emaciation. The nose was delicate and fine; the nostril especially so; the upper lip was short, curling, graceful, and haughtily expressive. As to complexion, his skin had a truly Spanish warmth and intensity of colouring. His figure, when raised, was tall and masculine, and though slight, exhibited great personal vigour.
We will now turn to his companion, the old man with the great grey glittering eyes. Peter Bradley, of Rookwood (comitatû Ebor), where he had exercised the vocation of sexton for the best part of a life already drawn out to the full span ordinarily allotted to mortality, was an odd caricature of humanity. His figure was lean, and almost as lank as a skeleton. His bald head reminded one of a bleached skull, allowing for the overhanging and hoary brows. Deep-seated, and sunken within their sockets, his grey orbs gleamed with intolerable lustre. Few could endure his gaze and, aware of his power, Peter seldom failed to exercise it. He had likewise another habit, which, as it savoured of insanity, made him an object of commiseration with some, while it rendered him yet more obnoxious to others. The habit we allude to, was the indulgence of wild screaming laughter at times when all merriment should be checked; and when the exhibition of levity must proceed from utter disregard of human grief and suffering, or from mental alienation.
Wearied with the prolonged silence, Peter at length condescended to speak. His voice was harsh and grating as a rusty hinge.
"Another glass?" said he, pouring out a modicum of the pale fluid.
His companion shook his head.
"It will keep out the cold," continued the sexton, pressing the liquid upon him; "and you, who are not so much accustomed as I am to the damps of a vault, may suffer from them. Besides," added he, sneeringly, "it will give you courage."
His companion answered not. But the flash in his eye resented the implied reproach.
"Nay, never stare at me so hard, Luke," continued the sexton; "I doubt neither your courage nor your firmness. But if you won't drink, I will. Here's to the rest eternal of Sir Piers Rookwood! You'll say amen to that pledge, or you are neither grandson of mine, nor offspring of his loins."
"Why should I reverence his memory," answered Luke bitterly, refusing the proffered potion, "who showed no fatherly love for me? He disowned me in life: in death I disown him. Sir Piers Rookwood was no father of mine."
"He was as certainly your father, as Susan Bradley, your mother, was my daughter," rejoined the sexton.
"And surely," cried Luke, impetuously, "you need not boast of the connection! 'Tis not for you, old man, to couple their names together—to exult in your daughter's disgrace and your own dishonour. Shame! shame! Speak not of them in the same breath, if you would not have me invoke curses on the dead! I have no reverence (whatever you may have) for the seducer—for the murderer of my mother."
"You have choice store of epithets, in sooth, good grandson," rejoined Peter, with a chuckling laugh. "Sir Piers a murderer!"
"Tush!" exclaimed Luke, indignantly, "affect not ignorance. You have better knowledge than I have of the truth or falsehood of the dark tale that has gone abroad respecting my mother's fate; and unless report has belied you foully, had substantial reasons for keeping sealed lips on the occasion. But to change this painful subject," added he, with a sudden alteration of manner, "at what hour did Sir Piers Rockwood die?"
"On Thursday last, in the night-time. The exact hour I know not," replied the sexton.
"Of what ailment?"
"Neither do I know that. His end was sudden, yet not without a warning sign."
"What warning?" enquired Luke.
"Neither more nor less than the death-omen of the house. You look astonished. Is it possible you have never heard of the ominous Lime-Tree, and the Fatal Bough? Why, 'tis a common tale hereabouts, and has been for centuries. Any old crone would tell it you. Peradventure, you have seen the old avenue of lime-trees leading to the hall, nearly a quarter of a mile in length, and as noble a row of timber as any in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Well, there is one tree—the last on the left hand before you come to the clock-house—larger than all the rest—a huge piece of timber, with broad spreading branches, and of I know not what girth in the trunk. That tree is, in some mysterious manner, connected with the family of Rookwood, and immediately previous to the death of one of that line, a branch is sure to be shed from the parent stem, prognosticating his doom. But you shall hear the legend." And in a strange sepulchral tone, not inappropriate, however, to his subject, Peter chanted the following ballad:
THE LEGEND OF THE LIME-TREE
Amid the grove o'er-arched above with lime-trees old and tall
(The avenue that leads into the Rookwoods' ancient hall),
High o'er the rest its towering crest one tree rears to the sky,
And wide out-flings, like mighty wings, its arms umbrageously.
Seven yards its base would scarce embrace—a goodly tree, I ween,
With silver bark and foliage dark, of melancholy green;
And mid its boughs two ravens house, and build from year to year,
Their black brood hatch—their black brood watch—then screaming disappear.
In that old tree when playfully the summer breezes sigh,
Its leaves are stirred, and there is heard a low and plaintive cry;
And when in shrieks the storm blast speaks its reverend boughs among,
Sad wailing moans, like human groans, the concert harsh prolong.
But whether gale, or calm prevail, or threatening cloud hath fled,
By hand of Fate, predestinate, a limb that tree will shed:
A verdant bough—untouched, I trow, by axe or tempest's breath—
To Rookwood's head an omen dread of fast-approaching death.
Some think that tree instinct must be with preternatural power,
Like 'larum bell Death's note to knell at Fate's appointed hour;
While some avow that on its bough are fearful traces seen,
Red as the stains from human veins commingling with the green.
Others, again, there are maintain that on the shattered bark
A print is made, where fiends have laid their scathing talons dark;
That, ere it falls, the raven calls thrice from that wizard bough;
And that each cry doth signify what space the Fates allow.
In olden days, the legend says, as grim Sir Ranulph view'd
A wretched hag her footsteps drag beneath his lordly wood,
His blood-hounds twain he called amain, and straightway gave her chase;
Was never seen in forest green, so fierce, so fleet a race!
With eyes of flame to Ranulph came each red and ruthless hound,
While mangled, torn—a sight forlorn!—the hag lay on the ground
E'en where she lay was turned the clay, and limb and reeking bone
Within the earth, with ribald mirth, by Ranulph grim were thrown.
And while as yet the soil was wet with that poor witch's gore,
A lime-tree stake did Ranulph take, and pierced her bosom's core
And, strange to tell, what next befel!—that branch at once took root,
And richly fed, within its bed, strong suckers forth did shoot.
From year to year fresh boughs appear—it waxes huge in size;
And with wild glee, this prodigy Sir Ranulph grim espies,
One day, when he, beneath that tree, reclined in joy and pride,
A branch was found upon the ground—the next, Sir Ranulph died.
And from that hour a fatal power has ruled that Wizard Tree,
To Ranulph's line a warning sign of doom and destiny:
For when a bough is found, I trow, beneath its shade to lie,
Ere suns shall rise thrice in the skies a Rookwood sure shall die.
"And such an omen preceded Sir Piers's demise?" said Luke, who had listened with some attention to his grandsire's song.
"Unquestionably," replied the sexton. "Not longer ago than Tuesday morning, I happened to be sauntering down the avenue I have just described. I know not what took me thither at that early hour, but I wandered leisurely on till I came nigh the Wizard Lime-Tree. Great Heaven! what a surprise awaited me! a huge branch lay right across the path. It had evidently just fallen; for the leaves were green and unwithered; the sap still oozed from the splintered wood; and there was neither trace of knife nor hatchet on the bark. I looked up among the boughs to mark the spot from whence it had been torn by the hand of Fate—for no human hand had done it—and saw the pair of ancestral ravens perched amid the foliage, and croaking as those carrion fowl are wont to do when they scent a carcase afar off. Just then a livelier sound saluted my ears. The cheering cry of a pack of hounds resounded from the courts, and the great gates being thrown open, out issued Sir Piers, attended by a troop of his roystering companions, all on horseback, and all making the welkin ring with their vociferations. Sir Piers laughed as loudly as the rest, but his mirth was speedily checked. No sooner had his horse (old Rook, his favourite steed, who never swerved at stake or pale before) set eyes upon this accursed branch, than he started as if the fiend stood before him, and, rearing backwards, flung his rider from the saddle. At this moment, with loud screams, the wizard ravens took flight. Sir Piers was somewhat hurt by the fall, but he was more frightened than hurt; and though he tried to put a bold face on the matter, it was plain that his efforts to recover himself were fruitless. Dr. Titus Tyrconnel and that wild fellow Jack Palmer (who has lately come to the hall, and of whom you know something) tried to rally him. But it would not do. He broke up the day's sport, and returned dejectedly to the hall. Before departing, however, he addressed a word to me, in private, respecting you; and pointed, with a melancholy shake of the head, to the fatal branch. 'It is my death-warrant,' said he, gloomily. And so it proved; two days afterwards his doom was accomplished."
"And do you place faith in this idle legend?" asked Luke, with affected indifference, although it was evident, from his manner, that he himself was not so entirely free from a superstitious feeling of credulity as he would have it appear.
"Certes," replied the sexton. "I were more difficult to be convinced than the unbelieving disciple else. Thrice hath it occurred to my own knowledge, and ever with the same result: firstly, with Sir Reginald; secondly, with thy own mother; and lastly, as I have just told thee, with Sir Piers."
"I thought you said, even now, that this death-omen, if such it be, was always confined to the immediate family of Rookwood, and not to mere inmates of the mansion."
"To the heads only of that house, be they male or female."
"Then how could it apply to my mother? Was she of that house? Was she a wife?"
"Who shall say she was not?" rejoined the sexton.
"Who shall say she was so?" cried Luke, repeating the words with indignant emphasis—"who will avouch that?"
A smile, cold as wintry sunbeam, played upon the sexton's rigid lips.
"I will bear this no longer," cried Luke; "anger me not, or look to yourself. In a word, have you anything to tell me respecting her? if not, let me be gone."
"I have. But I will not be hurried by a boy like you," replied Peter, doggedly. "Go, if you will, and take the consequences. My lips are sealed for ever, and I have much to say—much that it behoves you to know."
"Be brief, then. When you sought me out this morning, in my retreat with the gipsy gang at Davenham Wood, you bade me meet you in the porch of Rookwood Church at midnight. I was true to my appointment."
"And I will keep my promise," replied the sexton. "Draw closer, that I may whisper in thine ear. Of every Rookwood who lies around us—and all that ever bore the name, except Sir Piers himself (who lies in state at the hall), are here—not one—mark what I say—not one male branch of the house but has been suspected—"
"Of murder!" returned the sexton, in a hissing whisper.
"Murder!" echoed Luke, recoiling.
"There is one dark stain—one foul blot on all. Blood—blood hath been spilt."
"Ay, and such blood! theirs was no common crime. Even murder hath its degrees. Theirs was of the first class."
"Their wives!—you cannot mean that?"
"Ay, their wives!—I do. You have heard it then. Ha! ha! 'tis a trick they had. Did you ever hear the old saying:
No mate ever brook would
A Rook of the Rookwood!
A merry saying it is, and true. No woman ever stood in a Rookwood's way but she was speedily removed—that's certain. They had all, save poor Sir Piers, the knack of stopping a troublesome woman's tongue, and practised it to perfection. A rare art, eh?"
"What have the misdeeds of his ancestry to do with Sir Piers," muttered Luke, "much less with my mother?"
"Everything. If he could not rid himself of his wife and she is a match for the devil himself, the mistress might be more readily set aside."
"Have you absolute knowledge of aught?" asked Luke, his voice tremulous with emotion.
"Nay, I but hinted."
"Such hints are worse than open speech. Let me know the worst. Did he kill her?" And Luke glared at the sexton as if he would have penetrated his secret soul.
But Peter was not easily fathomed. His cold, bright eye returned Luke's gaze steadfastly, as he answered, composedly:
"I have said all I know."
"But not all you think."
"Thoughts should not always find utterance, else we might often endanger our own safety and that of others."
"An idle subterfuge—and, from you, worse than idle. I will have an answer, yea or nay. Was it poison—was it steel?"
"No, it is not enough. When? where?"
"In her sleep—in her bed."
"Why, that was natural."
A wrinkling smile crossed the sexton's brow.
"What means that horrible gleam of laughter?" exclaimed Luke, grasping the shoulder of the man of graves with such force as nearly to annihilate him. "Speak, or I will strangle you. She died, you say, in her sleep?"
"She did so," replied the sexton, shaking off Luke's hold.
"And was it to tell me that I had a mother's murder to avenge, that you brought me to the tomb of her destroyer—when he is beyond the reach of my vengeance?"
Luke exhibited so much frantic violence of manner and gesture, that the sexton entertained some little apprehension that his intellects were unsettled by the shock of the intelligence. It was, therefore, in what he intended for a soothing tone that he attempted to solicit his grandson's attention.
"I will hear nothing more," interrupted Luke, and the vaulted chamber rang with his passionate lamentations. "Am I the sport of this mocking fiend?" cried he, "to whom my agony is derision—my despair a source of enjoyment—beneath whose withering glance my spirit shrinks—who with half-expressed insinuations, tortures my soul, awakening fancies that goad me on to dark and desperate deeds? Dead mother! upon thee I call. If in thy grave thou canst hear the cry of thy most wretched son, yearning to avenge thee—answer me, if thou hast the power. Let me have some token of the truth or falsity of these wild suppositions, that I may wrestle against this demon. But no," added he, in accents of despair, "no ear listens to me, save his to whom my wretchedness is food for mockery."
"Could the dead hear thee, thy mother might do so," returned the sexton. "She lies within this space."
Luke staggered back, as if struck by a sudden shot. He spoke not, but fell with a violent shock against a pile of coffins, at which he caught for support.
"What have I done?" he exclaimed, recoiling.
A thundering crash resounded through the vault. One of the coffins, dislodged from its position by his fall, tumbled to the ground, and, alighting upon its side, split asunder.
"Great Heavens! what is this?" cried Luke, as a dead body, clothed in all the hideous apparel of the tomb, rolled forth to his feet.
"It is your mother's corpse," answered the sexton, coldly; "I brought you hither to behold it. But you have anticipated my intentions."
"This my mother?" shrieked Luke, dropping upon his knees by the body, and seizing one of its chilly hands, as it lay upon the floor, with the face upwards.
The sexton took the candle from the sconce.
"Can this be death?" shouted Luke. "Impossible! Oh, God! she stirs—she moves. The light!—quick. I see her stir! This is dreadful!"
"Do not deceive yourself," said the sexton, in a tone which betrayed more emotion than was his wont. " 'Tis the bewilderment of fancy. She will never stir again."
And he shaded the candle with his hand, so as to throw the light full upon the face of the corpse. It was motionless as that of an image carved in stone. No trace of corruption was visible upon the rigid, yet exquisite tracery of its features. A profuse cloud of raven hair, escaped from its swathements in the fall, hung like a dark veil over the bosom and person of the dead, and presented a startling contrast to the waxlike hue of the skin and the pallid cereclothes. Flesh still adhered to the hand, though it mouldered into dust within the grip of Luke, as he pressed the fingers to his lips. The shroud was disposed like night-gear about her person, and from without its folds a few withered flowers had fallen. A strong aromatic odour, of a pungent nature, was diffused around; giving evidence that the art by which the ancient Egyptians endeavoured to rescue their kindred from decomposition had been resorted to, to preserve the fleeting charms of the unfortunate Susan Bradley.
A pause of awful silence succeeded, broken only by the convulsive respiration of Luke. The sexton stood by, apparently an indifferent spectator of the scene of horror. His eye wandered from the dead to the living, and gleamed with a peculiar and indefinable expression, half apathy, half abstraction. For one single instant, as he scrutinised the features of his daughter, his brow, contracted by anger, immediately afterwards was elevated in scorn. But otherwise you would have sought in vain to read the purport of that cold, insensible glance, which dwelt for a brief space on the face of the mother, and settled eventually upon her son. At length the withered flowers attracted his attention. He stooped to pick up one of them.
"Faded as the hand that gathered ye—as the bosom on which ye were strewn!" he murmured. "No sweet smell left—but—faugh!" Holding the dry leaves to the flame of the candle, they were instantly ignited, and the momentary brilliance played like a smile upon the features of the dead. Peter observed the effect. "Such was thy life," he exclaimed; "a brief, bright sparkle, followed by dark, utter extinction!"
Saying which, he flung the expiring ashes of the floweret from his hand.
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THE SKELETON HAND
THE sexton's waning candle now warned him of the progress of time, and having completed his arrangements, he addressed himself to Luke, intimating his intention of departing. But receiving no answer, and remarking no signs of life about his grandson, he began to be apprehensive that he had fallen into a swoon. Drawing near to Luke, he took him gently by the arm. Thus disturbed, Luke groaned aloud.
"I am glad to find you can breathe, if it be only after that melancholy fashion," said the sexton; "but come, I have wasted time enough already. You must indulge your grief elsewhere."
"Leave me," sighed Luke.
"What, here? It were as much as my office is worth. You can return some other night. But go you must now—at least, if you take on thus. I never calculated upon a scene like this, or it had been long ere I brought you hither. So come away; yet, stay;—but first lend me a land to replace the body in the coffin."
"Touch it not," exclaimed Luke; "she shall not rest another hour within these accursed walls. I will bear her hence myself." And, sobbing hysterically, he relapsed into his former insensibility.
"Poh! this is worse than midsummer madness," said Peter; "the lad is crazed with grief, and all about a mother who has been four-and-twenty years in her grave. I will e'en put her out of the way myself."
Saying which, he proceeded, as noiselessly as possible, to raise the corpse in his arms, and deposited it softly within its former tenement. Carefully as he executed his task, he could not accomplish it without occasioning a slight accident to the fragile frame. Insensible as he was, Luke had not relinquished the hold he maintained of his mother's hand. And when Peter lifted the body, the ligaments connecting the hand with the arm were suddenly snapped asunder. It would appear afterwards, that this joint had been tampered with, and partially dislocated. Without, however, entering into further particulars in this place, it may be sufficient to observe that the hand, detached from the socket at the wrist, remained within the gripe of Luke; while, ignorant of the mischief he had occasioned, the sexton continued his labours unconsciously, until the noise, which he of necessity made in stamping with his heel upon the plank, recalled his grandson to sensibility. The first thing that the latter perceived, upon collecting his faculties, were the skeleton fingers twined within his own.
"What have you done with the body? Why have you left this with me?" demanded he.
"It was not my intention to have done so," answered the sexton, suspending his occupation. "I have just made fast the lid, but it is easily undone. You had better restore it."
"Never," returned Luke, staring at the bony fragment.
"Pshaw! of what advantage is a dead hand? 'Tis an unlucky keepsake, and will lead to mischief. The only use I ever heard of such a thing being turned to, was in the case of Bowlegged Ben, who was hanged in irons for murder, on Harchase Heath, on the York Road, and whose hand was cut off at the wrist the first night to make a Hand of Glory, or Dead Man's Candle. Hast never heard what the old song says? "And without waiting his grandson's response, Peter broke into the following wild strain:
THE HAND OF GLORY1
From the corse that hangs on the roadside tree
(A murderer's corse it needs must be),
Sever the right hand carefully:
Sever the hand that the deed hath done,
Ere the flesh that clings to the bones be gone;
In its dry veins must blood be none.
Those ghastly fingers white and cold,
Within a winding-sheet enfold;
Count the mystic count of seven:
Name the Governors of Heaven.2
Then in earthen vessel place them,
And with dragon-wort encase them,
Bleach them in the noonday sun,
Till the marrow melt and run,
Till the flesh is pale and wan,
As a moon-ensilvered cloud,
As an unpolluted shroud.
Next within their chill embrace
The dead man's Awful Candle place;
Of murderer's fat must that candle be
(You may scoop it beneath the roadside tree),
Of wax, and of Lapland sisame.
Its wick must be twisted of hair of the dead,
By the crow and her brood on the wild waste shed.
Wherever that terrible light shall burn
Vainly the sleeper may toss and turn;
His leaden lids shall he ne'er unclose
So long as that magical taper glows.
Life and treasure shall he command
Who knoweth the charm of the Glorious Hand!
But of black cat's gall let him aye have care,
And of screech-owl's venomous blood beware!
"Peace!" thundered Luke, extending his mother's hand towards the sexton. "What seest thou?"
"I see something shine. Hold it nigher the light. Ha! that is strange, truly. How came that ring there?"
"Ask of Sir Piers! ask of her husband!" shouted Luke, with a wild burst of exulting laughter. "Ha! ha! ha! 'tis a wedding-ring! And look! the finger is bent. It must have been placed upon it in her lifetime. There is no deception in this—no trickery—ha!"
"It would seem not; the sinew must have been contracted in life. The tendons are pulled down so tightly, that the ring could not be withdrawn without breaking the finger."
"You are sure that coffin contains her body?"
"As sure as I am that this carcase is my own."
"The hand—'tis hers. Can any doubt exist?"
"Wherefore should it? It was broken from the arm by accident within this moment. I noticed not the occurrence, but it must have been so."
"Then it follows that she was wedded, and I am not—"
"Illegitimate. For your sake I am glad of it."
"My heart will burst. Oh! could I but establish the fact of this marriage, her wrongs would indeed be avenged."
"Listen to me, Luke," said the sexton, solemnly. "I told you, when I appointed this midnight interview, I had a secret to communicate. That secret is now revealed—that secret was your mother's marriage."
"And it was known to you during her lifetime?"
"It was. But I was sworn to secrecy."
"You have proofs then?"
"I have nothing beyond Sir Piers's word—and he is silent now."
"By whom was the ceremony performed?"
"By a Romish priest—a Jesuit—one Father Checkley, at that time an inmate of the hall; for Sir Piers, though he afterwards abjured it, at that time professed the Catholic faith; and this Checkley officiated as his confessor and counsellor; as the partner of his pleasures, and the prompter of his iniquities. He was your father's evil genius."
"Is he still alive?"
"I know not. After your mother's death he left the hall. I have said he was a Jesuit, and I may add, that he was mixed up in dark political intrigues, in which your father was too feeble a character to take much share. But though too weak to guide, he was a pliant instrument, and this Checkley knew. He moulded him according to his wishes. I cannot tell you what was the nature of their plots. Suffice it, they were such as, if discovered, would have involved your father in ruin. He was saved, however, by his wife."
"And her reward—" groaned Luke.
"Was death," replied Peter, coldly. "What Jesuit ever forgave a wrong—real or imaginary? Your mother, I ought to have said, was a Protestant. Hence, there was a difference of religious opinion—(the worst of differences that can exist between husband and wife). Cheekley vowed her destruction, and he kept his vow. He was enamoured of her beauty. But while he burnt with adulterous desire, he was consumed by fiercest hate—contending, and yet strangely-reconcilable passions—as you may have reason, hereafter, to discover."
"Go on," said Luke, grinding his teeth.
"I have done," returned Peter. "From that hour your father's love for his supposed mistress, and unacknowledged wife, declined; and with his waning love declined her health. I will not waste words in describing the catastrophe that awaited her union. It will be enough to say, she was found one morning a corpse within her bed. Whatever suspicions were attached to Sir Piers were quieted by Checkley, who distributed gold, largely and discreetly. The body was embalmed by Barbara Lovel, the Gipsy Queen."
"My foster-mother!" exclaimed Luke, in a tone of extreme astonishment.
"Ay," replied Peter, "from her you may learn all particulars. You have now seen what remains of your mother. You are in possession of the secret of your birth. The path is before you, and if you would arrive at honour you must pursue it steadily, turning neither to the right nor to the left. Opposition you will meet at each step. But fresh lights may be thrown upon this difficult case. It is in vain to hope for Checkley's evidence, even should the caitiff priest be living. He is himself too deeply implicated—ha!"
Peter stopped, for at this moment the flame of the candle suddenly expired, and the speakers were left in total darkness. Something like a groan followed the conclusion of the sexton's discourse. It was evident that it proceeded not from his grandson, as an exclamation burst from him at the same instant. Luke stretched out his arm. A cold hand seemed to press against his own, communicating a chill like death to his frame.
"Who is between us?" he ejaculated.
"The devil!" cried the sexton, leaping from the coffin-lid with an agility that did him honour. "Is aught between us?"
"I will discharge my gun. Its flash will light us."
"Do so," hastily rejoined Peter. "But not in this direction."
"Get behind me," cried Luke. And he pulled the trigger!
A blaze of vivid light illumined the darkness. Still nothing was visible, save the warrior figure, which was seen for a moment, and then vanished like a ghost. The buckshot rattled against the further end of the vault.
"Let us go hence," ejaculated the sexton, who had rushed to the door, and thrown it wide open. "Mole! Mole!" cried he, and the dog sprang after him.
"I could have sworn I felt something," said Luke; "whence issued that groan?"
"Ask not whence," replied Peter. "Reach me my mattock, and spade, and the lantern; they are behind you. And stay, it were better to bring away the bottle."
"Take them, and leave me here."
"Alone in the vault—no, no, Luke, I have not told you half I know concerning that mystic statue. It is said to move—to walk—to raise its axe—be warned, I pray."
"Leave me, or abide, if you will, my coming, in the church. If there is aught that may be revealed to my ear alone, I will not shrink from it, though the dead themselves should arise to proclaim the mystery. It may be—but—go—there are your tools." And he shut the door, with a jar that shook the sexton's frame.
Peter, after some muttered murmurings at the hardihood and madness, as he termed it, of his grandson, disposed his lanky limbs to repose, upon a cushioned bench without the communion railing. As the pale moonlight fell upon his gaunt and cadaverous visage, he looked like some unholy thing suddenly annihilated by the presiding influence of that sacred spot. Mole crouched himself in a ring at his master's feet. Peter had not dozed many minutes, when he was aroused by Luke's return. The latter was very pale, and the damp stood in big drops upon his brow.
"Have you made fast the door?" enquired the sexton.
"Here is the key."
"What have you seen?" he next demanded.
Luke made no answer. At that moment the church clock struck two, breaking the stillness with an iron clang. Luke raised his eyes. A ray of moonlight, streaming obliquely through the painted window, fell upon the gilt lettering of a black mural entablature. The lower part of the inscription was in the shade, but the emblazonment, and the words:
Orate pro anima Reginaldi Rookwood equitis aurati
were clear and distinct. Luke trembled, he knew not why, as the sexton pointed to it.
"You have heard of the handwriting upon the wall," said Peter. "Look there!—'His Kingdom hath been taken from him.' Ha, ha! Listen to me. Of all thy monster race—of all the race of Rookwood I should say—no demon ever stalked the earth more terrible than him whose tablet you now behold. By him a brother was betrayed; by him a brother's wife was dishonoured. Love, honour, friendship, were with him as words. He regarded no ties; he defied and set at nought all human laws and obligations—and yet he was religious, or esteemed so—received the viaticum, and died full of years and honours, hugging salvation to his sinful heart. And after death he has yon lying epitaph to record his virtues. His virtues! ha, ha! Ask him who preaches to the kneeling throng gathering within this holy place what shall be the murderer's portion—and he will answer—Death! And yet Sir Reginald was long-lived. The awful question, 'Cain, where is thy brother?' broke not his tranquil slumbers. Luke, I have told you much—but not all. You know not, as yet—nor shall you know your destiny; but you shall be the avenger of infamy and blood. I have a sacred charge committed to my keeping, which, hereafter, I may delegate to you. You shall be Sir Luke Rookwood, but the conditions it must be mine to propose."
"No more," said Luke; "my brain reels. I am faint. Let us quit this place, and get into the fresh air." And striding past his grandsire he traversed the aisles with hasty steps. Peter was not slow to follow. The key was applied, and they emerged into the churchyard. The grassy mounds were bathed in the moonbeams, and the two yew-trees, throwing their black, jagged shadows over the grave hills, looked like evil spirits brooding over the repose of the righteous.
The sexton noticed the deathly paleness of Luke's countenance, but he fancied it might proceed from the tinge of the sallow moonlight.
"I will be with you at your cottage ere daybreak," said Luke. And turning an angle of the church, he disappeared from view.
"So," exclaimed Peter, gazing after him, "the train is laid; the spark has been applied; the explosion will soon follow. The hour is fast approaching when I shall behold this accursed house shaken to dust, and when my long-delayed vengeance will be gratified. In that hope I am content to drag on the brief remnant of my days. Meanwhile, I must not omit the stimulant. In a short time I may not require it." Draining the bottle to the last drop, he flung it from him, and commenced chanting, in a high key and cracked voice, a wild ditty.
Shouldering his spade, and whistling to his dog, the sexton quitted the churchyard.
Peter had not been gone many seconds, when a dark figure, muffled in a wide black mantle, emerged from among the tombs surrounding the church; gazed after him for a few seconds, and then, with a menacing gesture, retreated behind the ivied buttresses of the grey old pile.
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LUKE'S first impulse had been to free himself from the restraint imposed by his grandsire's society. He longed to commune with himself. Leaping the small boundary wall, which defended the churchyard from a deep green lane, he hurried along in a direction contrary to that taken by the sexton, making the best of his way until he arrived at a gap in the high-banked hazel hedge, which over-hung the road. Heedless of the impediments thrown in his way by the undergrowth of a rough ring fence, he struck through the opening that presented itself, and, climbing over the moss-grown paling, trod presently upon the elastic sward of Rookwood Park.
A few minutes' rapid walking brought him to the summit of a rising ground crowned with aged oaks, and, as he passed beneath their broad shadows, his troubled spirit, soothed by the quietude of the scene, in part resumed its serenity.
Luke yielded to the gentle influence of the time and hour. The stillness of the spot allayed the irritation of his frame, and the dewy chillness cooled the fever of his brow. Leaning for support against the gnarled trunk of one of the trees, he gave himself up to contemplation. The events of the last hour—of his whole existence—passed in rapid review before him. The thought of the wayward, vagabond life he had led; of the wild adventures of his youth; of all he had been; of all he had done; of all he had endured—crowded his mind; and then, like the passing of a cloud flitting across the autumnal moon, and occasionally obscuring the smiling landscape before him, his soul was shadowed by the remembrances of the awful revelations of the last hour, and the fearful knowledge he had acquired of his mother's fate—of his father's guilt.
The eminence on which he stood was one of the highest points of the park, and commanded a view of the hall, which might be a quarter of a mile distant, discernible through a broken vista of trees, its whitened walls glimmering in the moonlight; and its tall chimney spiring far from out the round masses of wood in which it lay embosomed. The ground gradually sloped in that direction, occasionally rising into swells, studded with magnificent timber—dipping into smooth dells, or stretching out into level glades, until it suddenly sank into a deep declivity, that formed an effectual division, without the intervention of a haw-haw, or other barrier, between the chase and the home-park.
A slender stream strayed through this ravine, having found its way thither from a small reservoir, hidden in the higher plantations to the left; and further on, in the open ground, and in a line with the hall, though, of course, much below the level of the building, assisted by many local springs, and restrained by a variety of natural and artificial embankments, this brook spread out into an expansive sheet of water. Crossed by a rustic bridge, the only communication between the parks, the pool found its outlet into the meads below; and even at that distance, and in that still hour, you might almost catch the sound of the brawling waters, as they dashed down the weir in a foaming cascade; while, far away, in the spreading valley, the serpentine meanderings of the slender current might be traced, glittering like silvery threads in the moonshine. The mild beams of the queen of night, then in her meridian, trembled upon the topmost branches of the tall timber, quivering like diamond spray upon the outer foliage; and, penetrating through the interstices of the trees, fell upon the light wreaths of vapour, then beginning to arise from the surface of the pool, steeping them in misty splendour, and lending to this part of the picture a character of dreamy and unearthly beauty.
All else was in unison. No sound interrupted the silence of Luke's solitude, except the hooting of a large grey owl, that, scared at his approach, or in search of prey, winged its spectral flight in continuous and mazy circles round his head, uttering at each wheel its startling whoop; or a deep distant bay, that ever and anon boomed upon the ear, proceeding from a pack of hounds kennelled in a shed adjoining the pool before mentioned, but which was shrouded from view by the rising mist. No living objects presented themselves, save a herd of deer, crouched in a covert of brown fern beneath the shadow of a few stunted trees, immediately below the point of land on which Luke stood; and although their branching antlers could scarcely be detected from the ramifications of the wood itself, they escaped not his practised ken.
"How often," murmured Luke, "in years gone by, have I traversed these moonlit glades, and wandered amidst these woodlands, on nights heavenly as this—ay, and to some purpose, as yon thinned herd might testify! Every dingle, every dell, every rising brow, every bosky vale and shelving covert, have been as familiar to my track as to that of the fleetest and freest of their number: scarce a tree amidst the thickest of yon outstretching forest with which I cannot claim acquaintance; 'tis long since I have seen them. By heavens! 'tis beautiful! and it is all my own! Can I forget that it was here I first emancipated myself from thraldom? Can I forget the boundless feeling of delight that danced within my veins when I first threw off the yoke of servitude, and roved unshackled, unrestrained, amidst these woods? The wild intoxicating bliss still tingles to my heart. And they are all my own—my own! Softly, what have we there?"
Luke's attention was arrested by an object which could not fail to interest him, sportsman as he was. A snorting bray was heard, and a lordly stag stalked slowly and majestically from out the copse. Luke watched the actions of the noble animal with great interest, drawing back into the shade. A hundred yards, or thereabouts, might be between him and the buck. It was within range of ball. Luke mechanically grasped his gun; yet his hand had scarcely raised the piece half-way to his shoulder, when he dropped it again to its rest.
"What am I about to do?" he mentally ejaculated. "Why, for mere pastime, should I take away yon noble creature's life, when his carcase would be utterly useless to me? Yet such is the force of habit, that 1 can scarce resist the impulse that tempted me to fire; and I have known the time, and that not long since, when I should have shown no such self-control."
Unconscious of the danger it had escaped, the animal moved forward with the same stately step. Suddenly it stopped, with ears pricked, as if some sound had smote them. At that instant the click of a gun-lock was heard, at a little distance to the right. The piece had missed fire. An instantaneous report from another gun succeeded; and, with a bound high in air, the buck fell upon his back, struggling in the agonies of death. Luke had at once divined the cause; he was aware that poachers were at hand. He fancied that he knew the parties; nor was he deceived in his conjecture. Two figures issued instantly from a covert on the right, and making to the spot, the first who reached it put an end to the animal's struggles by plunging a knife into its throat. The affrighted herd took to their heels, and were seen darting swiftly down the chase.
One of the twain, meantime, was occupied in feeling for the deer's fat, when he was approached by the other, who pointed in the direction of the house. The former raised himself from his kneeling posture, and both appeared to listen attentively. Luke fancied he heard a slight sound in the distance; whatever the noise proceeded from, it was evident the deer-stealers were alarmed. They laid hold of the buck, and, dragging it along, concealed the carcase among the tall fern; they then retreated, halting for an instant to deliberate, within a few yards of Luke, who was concealed from their view by the trunk of the tree, behind which he had ensconced his person. They were so near, that he lost not a word of their muttered conference.
"The game's spoiled this time, Rob Rust, anyhow," growled one, in an angry tone; "the hawks are upon us, and we must leave this brave buck to take care of himself. Curse him!—who'd a'thought of Hugh Badger's quitting his bed to-night? Respect for his late master might have kept him quiet the night before the funeral. But look out, lad. Dost see 'em?"
"Ay, thanks to old Oliver—yonder they are," returned the other. "One—two—three—and a muzzled bouser to boot. There's Hugh at the head on 'em. Shall we stand and show fight? I have half a mind for it."
"No, no," replied the first speaker; "that will never do, Rob—no fighting. Why run the risk of being grabb'd for a haunch of venison? Had Luke Bradley or Jack Palmer been with us, it might have been another affair. As it is, it won't pay. Besides, we've that to do at the hall to-morrow night that may make men of us for the rest of our nat'ral lives. We've pledged ourselves to Jack Palmer, and we can't be off in honour. It won't do to be snabbled in the nick of it. So let's make for the prad in the lane. Keep in the shade as much as you can. Come along, my hearty." And away the two worthies scampered down the hill-side.
"Shall I follow," thought Luke, "and run the risk of falling into the keeper's hand, just at this crisis, too? No, but if I am found here, I shall be taken for one of the gang. Something must be done—ha!—devil take them, here they are already."
Further time was not allowed him for reflection. A hoarse baying was heard, followed by a loud cry from the keepers. The dog had scented out the game; and, as secrecy was no longer necessary, his muzzle had been removed. To rush forth now were certain betrayal; to remain was almost equally assured detection; and, doubting whether he should obtain credence if he delivered himself over in that garb and armed, Luke at once rejected the idea. Just then it flashed across his recollection that his gun had remained unloaded, and he applied himself eagerly to repair this negligence, when he heard the dog in full cry, making swiftly in his direction. He threw himself upon the ground, where the fern was thickest; but this seemed insufficient to baffle the sagacity of the hound—the animal had got his scent, and was baying close at hand. The keepers were drawing nigh. Luke gave himself up for lost. The dog, however, stopped where the two poachers had halted, and was there completely at fault: snuffing the ground, he bayed, wheeled round, and then set off with renewed barking upon their track. Hugh Badger and his comrades loitered an instant at the same place, looked warily round, and then, as Luke conjectured, followed the course taken by the hound.
Swift as thought, Luke arose, and keeping as much as possible under cover of the trees, started in a cross line for the lane. Rapid as was his flight, it was not without a witness: one of the keeper's assistants, who had lagged behind, gave the view-halloa in a loud voice. Luke pressed forward with redoubled energy, endeavouring to gain the shelter of the plantation, and this he could readily have accomplished, had no impediment been in his way. But his rage and vexation were boundless, when he heard the keeper's cry echoed by shouts immediately below him, and the tongue of the hound resounding in the hollow. He turned sharply round, steering a middle course, and still aiming at the fence. It was evident, from the cheers of his pursuers, that he was in full view, and he heard them encouraging and directing the dog.
Luke had gained the park palings, along which he rushed, in the vain quest of some practicable point of egress, for the fence was higher in this part of the park than elsewhere, owing to the inequality of the ground. He had cast away his gun as useless. But even without that encumbrance, he dared not hazard the delay of climbing the palings. At this juncture a deep breathing was heard close behind him. He threw a glance over his shoulder. Within a few yards was a ferocious bloodhound, with whose savage nature Luke was well acquainted; the breed, some of which he had already seen, having been maintained at the hall ever since the days of grim old Sir Ranulph. The eyes of the hound were glaring, blood-red; his tongue was hanging out, and a row of keen white fangs were displayed, like the teeth of a shark. There was a growl—a leap—and the dog was close upon him.
Luke's courage was undoubted. But his heart failed him as he heard the roar of the remorseless brute, and felt that he could not avoid an encounter with the animal. His resolution was instantly taken: he stopped short with such suddenness, that the dog, when in the act of springing, flew past him with great violence, and the time, momentary as it was, occupied by the animal in recovering himself, enabled Luke to drop on his knee, and to place one arm, like a buckler, before his face, while he held the other in readiness to grapple his adversary. Uttering a fierce yell, the hound returned to the charge, darting at Luke, who received the assault without flinching; and in spite of a severe laceration of the arm, he seized his foe by the throat, and hurling him upon the ground, jumped with all his force upon his belly. There was a yell of agony—the contest was ended, and Luke was at liberty to pursue his flight unmolested.
Brief as had been the interval required for this combat, it had been sufficient to bring the pursuers within sight of the fugitive. Hugh Badger, who from the acclivity had witnessed the fate of his favourite, with a loud oath discharged the contents of his gun at the head of its destroyer. It was fortunate for Luke, that at this instant he stumbled over the root of a tree—the shot rattled in the leaves as he fell, and the keeper, concluding that he had at least winged his bird, descended more leisurely towards him. As he lay upon the ground, Luke felt that he was wounded; whether by the teeth of the dog, from a stray shot, or from bruises inflicted by the fall, he could not determine. But smarting with pain, he resolved to wreak his vengeance upon the first person who approached him. He vowed not to be taken with life—to strangle any who should lay hands upon him. At that moment he felt a pressure at his breast. It was the dead hand of his mother!
Luke shuddered. The fire of revenge quenched. He mentally cancelled his rash oath; yet he could not bring himself to surrender at discretion, and without further effort. The keeper and his assistants were approaching the spot where he lay, and searching for his body. Hugh Badger was foremost, and within a yard of him.
"Confound the rascal," cried Hugh, "he's not half killed; he seems to breathe."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth ere the speaker was dashed backwards, and lay sprawling upon the sod. Suddenly and unexpectedly, as an Indian chief might rush upon his foes, Luke arose, dashing himself with great violence against Hugh, who happened to stand in his way, and before the startled assistants, who were either too much taken by surprise, or unwilling to draw a trigger, could in any way lay hands upon him, exerting all the remarkable activity which he possessed, he caught hold of a projecting branch of a tree, and swung himself, at a single bound, fairly over the paling.
Hugh Badger was shortly on his legs, swearing lustily at his defeat. Directing his men to skirt alongside the fence, and make for a particular part of the plantation which he named, and snatching a loaded fowling-piece from one of them, he clambered over the pales, and guided by the crashing branches, and other sounds conveyed to his quick ear, he was speedily upon Luke's track.
The plantation through which the chase now took place was not, as might be supposed, a continuation of the ring fence which Luke had originally crossed, on his entrance into the park, though girded by the same line of paling, but, in reality, a close pheasant preserve, occupying the banks of a ravine, which, after a deep and tortuous course, terminated in the declivity heretofore described as forming the park boundary. Luke plunged into the heart of this defile, fighting his way downwards, in the direction of the brook. His progress was impeded by a thick undergrowth of brier, and other matted vegetation, as well as by the entanglements thrown in his way by the taller bushes of thorn and hazel, the entwined and elastic branches of which, in their recoil, galled and fretted him, by inflicting smart blows on his face and hands. This was a hardship he usually little regarded. But, upon the present occasion it had the effect, by irritating his temper, of increasing the thirst of vengeance raging in his bosom.
Through the depths of the ravine welled the shallow stream before alluded to, and Hugh Badger had no sooner reached its sedgy margin than he lost all trace of the fugitive. He looked cautiously round, listened intently, and inclined his ear to catch the faintest echo. All was still: not a branch shook, not a leaf rustled. Hugh looked aghast. He had made sure of getting a glimpse, and, perhaps, a stray shot at the "poaching rascal," as he termed him, "in the open space, which he was sure the fellow was aiming to reach; and now, all at once he had disappeared, like a will-o'-the-wisp, or a boggart of the clough." However, he could not be far off, and Hugh endeavoured to obtain some clue to guide him in his quest. He was not long in detecting recent marks deeply indented in the mud on the opposite bank. Hugh leaped thither at once. Further on, some rushes were trodden down, and there were other indications of the course the fugitive had taken.
"Hark forward!" shouted Hugh, in the joy of his heart at this discovery; and, like a well-trained dog, he followed up, with alacrity, the scent he had opened. The brook presented still fewer impediments to expedition than the thick copse, and the keeper pursued the wanderings of the petty current, occasionally splashing into the stream. Here and there, the print of a foot on the sod satisfied him he was in the right path. At length he became aware, from the crumbling soil, that the object of his pursuit had scaled the bank, and he forthwith moderated his pace. Halting, he perceived what he took to be a face peeping at him from behind a knot of alders that over-hung the steep and shelving bank immediately above him. His gun was instantly at his shoulder.
"Come down, you infernal deer-stealing scoundrel," cried Hugh, "or I'll blow you to shivers."
No answer was returned: expostulation was vain; and fearful of placing himself at a disadvantage if he attempted to scale the bank, Hugh fired without further parley. The sharp discharge rolled in echoes down the ravine, and a pheasant, scared at the sound, answered the challenge from a neighbouring tree. Hugh was an unerring marksman, and on this occasion his aim had been steadily taken. The result was not precisely such as he had anticipated. A fur cap, shaken by the shot from the bough on which it hung, came rolling down the bank, proclaiming the ruse that had been practised upon the keeper. Little time was allowed him for reflection. Before he could reload, he felt himself collared by the iron arm of Luke.
Hugh Badger was a man of great personal strength—square-set, bandy-legged, with a prodigious width of chest, and a frame like a Hercules, and energetic as was Luke's assault, he maintained his ground without flinching. The struggle was desperate. Luke was of slighter proportion, though exceeding the keeper in stature by the head and shoulders. This superiority availed him little. It was rather a disadvantage in the conflict that ensued. The grip fastened upon Hugh's throat was like that of a clenched vice. But Luke might as well have grappled the neck of a bull, as that of the stalwart keeper. Defending himself with his hobnail boots, with which he inflicted several severe blows upon Luke's shins, and struggling vehemently, Hugh succeeded in extricating himself from his throttling grasp; he then closed with his foe, and they were locked together like a couple of bears at play. Straining, tugging, and practising every sleight and stratagem coming within the scope of feet, knees, and thighs—now tripping, now jerking, now advancing, now retreating, they continued the strife, but all with doubtful result. Victory, at length, seemed to declare itself in favour of the sturdy keeper. Aware of his opponent's strength, it was Luke's chief endeavour to keep his lower limbs disengaged, and to trust more to skill than force for ultimate success. To prevent this was Hugh's grand object. Guarding himself against every feint, he ultimately succeeded in firmly grappling his agile assailant, Luke's spine was almost broken by the shock, when he suddenly gave way; and, without losing his balance, drew his adversary forward, kicking his right leg from under him. With a crash like that of an uprooted oak, Hugh fell, with his foe upon him, into the bed of the rivulet.
Not a word had been spoken during the conflict. A convulsive groan burst from Hugh's hardy breast. His hand sought his girdle, but in vain; his knife was gone. Gazing upwards, his dancing vision encountered the glimmer of the blade. The weapon had dropped from its case in the fall. Luke brandished it before his eyes.
"Villain!" gasped Hugh, ineffectually struggling to free himself, "you will not murder me?" And his efforts to release himself became desperate.
"No," answered Luke, flinging the uplifted knife into the brook. "I will not do that, though thou hast twice aimed at my life to-night. But I will silence thee, at all events." Saying which, he dealt the keeper a blow on the head that terminated all further resistance on his part.
Leaving the inert mass to choke up the current, with whose waters the blood, oozing from the wound, began to commingle, Luke prepared to depart. His perils were not yet past. Guided by the firing, the report of which alarmed them, the keeper's assistants hastened in the direction of the sound, presenting themselves directly in the path Luke was about to take. He had either to retrace his steps, or face a double enemy. His election was made at once. He turned and fled.
For an instant the men tarried with their bleeding companion. They then dragged him from the brook, and with loud oaths followed in pursuit.
Threading, for a second time, the bosky labyrinth, Luke sought the source of the stream. This was precisely the course his enemies would have desired him to pursue; and when they beheld him take it, they felt confident of his capture.
The sides of the hollow became more and more abrupt as they advanced, though they were less covered with brushwood. The fugitive made no attempt to climb the bank, but still pressed forward. The road was tortuous, and wound round a jutting point of rock. Now he was a fair mark—no, he had swept swiftly by, and was out of sight before a gun could be raised. They reached the same point. He was still before them, but his race was nearly run. Steep, slippery rocks, shelving down to the edges of a small, deep pool of water, the source of the stream, formed an apparently insurmountable barrier in that direction. Rooted (Heaven knows how!) in some reft or fissure of the rock, grew a wild ash, throwing out a few boughs over the solitary pool; this was all the support Luke could hope for, should he attempt to scale the rock. The rock was sheer—the pool deep—yet still he hurried on. He reached the muddy embankment; mounted its sides; and seemed to hesitate. The keepers were now within a hundred yards of him. Both guns were discharged. And, sudden as the reports, with a dead splashless plunge, like a diving otter, the fugitive dropped into the water.
The pursuers were at the brink. They gazed at the pool. A few bubbles floated upon its surface, and burst. The water was slightly discoloured with sand. No ruddier stain crimsoned the tide; no figure rested on the naked rock; no hand clung to the motionless tree.
"Devil take the rascal," growled one; "I hope he har'n't escaped us, after all."
"Noa, noa, he be fast enough, never fear," rejoined the other; "sticking like a snig at the bottom o' the pond; and dang him he deserves it, for he's slipp'd out of our fingers like a snig often enough to-night. But come let's be stumping, and give poor Hugh Badger a helping hand."
Whereupon they returned to the assistance of the wounded and discomfited keeper.
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ROOKWOOD PLACE was a fine, old, irregular pile, of considerable size, presenting a rich, picturesque outline, with its innumerable gable ends, its fantastical coigns, and tall crest of twisted chimneys. There was no uniformity of style about the building, yet the general effect was pleasing and beautiful. Its very irregularity constituted a charm. Nothing except convenience had been consulted in its construction: additions had from time to time been made to it, but everything dropped into its proper place, and, without apparent effort or design, grew into an ornament, and heightened the beauty of the whole. It was, in short, one of those glorious manorial houses, that sometimes unexpectedly greet us in our wanderings, and gladden us like the discovery of a hidden treasure.
Some such ancestral hall we have occasionally encountered, in unlooked for quarters, in our native county of Lancaster, or in its smiling sister shire; and never without feelings of intense delight, rejoicing to behold the freshness of its antiquity, and the greenness of its old age. For, be it observed in passing, a Cheshire or Lancashire hall, time-honoured though it be, with its often renovated black and white squares, fancifully filled up with trefoils and quatrefoils, rosettes, and other figures, seems to bear its years so lightly, that its age, so far from detracting from its beauty, only lends it a grace; and the same mansion, to all outward appearance, fresh and perfect as it existed in the days of Good Queen Bess, may be seen in admirable preservation in the days of the youthful Victoria.
Such is Bramall—such Moreton, and many another we might instance; the former of these houses may, perhaps, be instanced as the best specimen of its class (and its class, in our opinion, is the best) to be met with in Cheshire, considered with reference either to the finished decoration of its exterior, rich in the chequered colouring we have alluded to, preserved with a care and neatness almost Dutch, or to the consistent taste exhibited by its possessor in the restoration and maintenance of all its original beauty within doors. As an illustration of old English hospitality (that real, hearty hospitality for which the squirearchy of this country was once so famous—ah! why have they bartered it for other customs less substantially English?) it may be mentioned, that a road conducted the passenger directly through the great hall of this house, literally "of entertainment," where, if he listed, strong ale, and other refreshments awaited his acceptance, and courted his stay. Well might old King, the Cheshire historian, in the pride of his honest heart, exclaim, "I know divers men, who are but farmers, that in their housekeeping may compare with a lord or baron, in some countries beyond the seas;—yea, although I named a higher degree, I were able to justify it." We have no such "golden farmers" in these degenerate days!
The mansion was originally built by Sir Ranulph de Rookwood (or, as it was then written, Rokewode), the first of the name, a stout Yorkist, who flourished in the reign of Edward IV, and received the fair domain and broad lands upon which the edifice was raised, from his sovereign, in reward for good service; retiring thither in the decline of life, at the close of the Wars of the Roses, to sequestrate himself from scenes of strife, and to consult his spiritual weal in the erection and endowment of the neighbouring church. It was of mixed architecture, and combined the peculiarities of each successive era. Retaining some of the sterner features of earlier days, the period ere yet the embattled manor-house peculiar to the reigns of the later Henries had been merged in the graceful and peaceable hall, the residence of the Rookwoods had early anticipated the gentler characteristics of a later day, though it could boast little of that exuberance of external ornament, luxuriance of design, and prodigality of beauty, which, under the sway of the Virgin Queen, distinguished the residence of the wealthier English landowner; and rendered the hall of Elizabeth, properly so called, the pride and boast of our domestic architecture.
The site selected by Sir Ranulph for his habitation had been already occupied by a vast fabric of oak, which he in part removed, though some vestiges might still be traced of that ancient pile. A massive edifice succeeded with gate and tower, court and moat complete, substantial enough one would have thought to have endured for centuries. But even this ponderous structure grew into disuse, and Sir Ranulph's successors, remodelling, repairing, almost rebuilding the whole mansion, in in the end so metamorphosed its aspect, that at last little of its original and distinctive character remained. Still, as we said before, it was a fine old house; though some changes had taken place for the worse, which could not be readily pardoned by the eye of taste; as, for instance, the deep embayed windows had dwindled into modernised casements, of lighter construction; the wide porch, with its flight of steps leading to the great hall of entrance, had yielded to a narrow door; and the broad, quadrangular court was succeeded by a gravel drive. Yet despite of all these changes, the house of the Rookwoods, for an old house (and, after all, what is like an old house?), was no undesirable, or uncongenial abode for any worshipful country gentleman "who had a great estate."
The hall was situated near the base of a gently declining hill, terminating a noble avenue of limes, and partially embosomed in an immemorial wood of the same timber, which had given its name to the family that dwelt among its rook-haunted shades. Descending the avenue, at the point of access afforded by a road that wound down the hillside towards a village distant about half a mile, as you advanced, the eye was first arrested by a singular octagonal turret of brick, of more recent construction than the house; and in all probability occupying the place where the bartizan'd gateway stood of yore. This tower rose to a height corresponding with the roof of the mansion; and was embellished on the side facing the house with a flamingly gilt dial, peering, like an impudent observer, at all that passed within doors. Two apartments, which it contained, were appropriated to the house-porter. Despoiled of its martial honours, the gateway still displayed the achievements of the family—the rook and the fatal branch—carved in granite, which had resisted the storms of two centuries, though stained green with moss, and mapped over with lichens. To the left, overgrown with ivy, and peeping from out a tuft of trees, appeared the hoary summit of a dovecot indicating the near neighbourhood of an ancient barn, contemporary with the earliest dwelling-house; and of a little world of offices and out-buildings buried in the thickness of the foliage. To the right was the garden—the pleasaunce of the place—formal, precise, old-fashioned, artificial, yet exquisite!
This was a garden! There might be seen the stately terraces such as Watteau, and our own Wilson, in his earlier works, painted—the trim alleys exhibiting all the triumphs of Topiarian art, the gayest of parterres and greenest of lawns, with its admonitory sun-dial, its marble basin in—the centre, its fountain, and conched water-god, the quaint summer-house, surmounted with its gilt vane, the statue, glimmering from out its covert of leaves, the cool cascade, the urns, the bowers, and a hundred luxuries beside, suggested and contrived by Art to render Nature most enjoyable, and to enhance the recreative delights of home-out-of-doors (for such a garden should be), with least sacrifice of in-door comfort and convenience.
All these delights might once have been enjoyed. But at the time of which we write, this fair garden was for the most part a waste. Ill kept, and unregarded, the gay parterres were disfigured with weeds; the grass grew on the gravel walk; several of the urns were overthrown; the hour upon the dial was untold; the fountain was choked up, and the smooth-shaven lawn only rescued, it would seem, from the general fate, that it might answer the purpose of a bowling-green, as the implements of that game, scattered about, plainly testified.
Diverging from the garden to the house, we have before remarked that the more ancient and characteristic features of the place had been, for the most part, destroyed; less by the hand of time than to suit the tastes of different proprietors. This, however, was not so observable in the eastern wing, which overlooked the garden. Here might be discerned many indications of its antiquity. The strength and solidity of the walls, which had not been, as elsewhere, masked with brickwork; the low, Tudor arches; the mullioned bars of the windows—all attested its age.
This wing was occupied by an upper and lower gallery, communicating with suits of chambers, for the most part deserted, excepting one or two, which were used as dormitories; and another little room on the ground-floor, with an oriel window opening upon the lawn, and commanding the prospect beyond—a favourite resort of the late Sir Piers. The interior was curious for its honeycomb ceiling, deeply moulded in plaster, with the arms and alliances of the Rookwoods. In the centre was the royal blazon of Elizabeth, who had once honoured the hall with a visit during a progress, and whose cipher E. R. was also displayed upon the immense plate of iron which formed the fire-grate.
To return, for a moment, to the garden, which we linger about as a bee around a flower. Below the lawn there was another terrace, edged by a low balustrade of stone, commanding a lovely view of park, water, and woodland. High-hanging woods waved in the foreground, and an extensive sweep of flat champaign country, stretched out to meet a line of blue, hazy hills bounding the distant horizon.
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SIR REGINALD ROOKWOOD
FROM the house to its inhabitants, the transition is natural. Besides the connection between them, there were many points of resemblance; many family features in common; there was the same melancholy grandeur, the same character of romance, the same fantastical display. Nor were the secret passages, peculiar to the one, wanting to the history of the other. Both had their mysteries. One blot there was in the otherwise proud escutcheon of the Rookwoods, that dimmed its splendour, and made pale its pretensions: their sun was eclipsed in blood from its rising to its meridian; and so it seemed would be its setting. This foul reproach attached to all the race; none escaped it. Traditional rumours were handed down from father to son, throughout the county, and, like all other rumours, had taken to themselves wings, and flown abroad: their crimes became a by-word. How was it they escaped punishment? How came they to evade the hand of justice? Proof was ever wanting; justice was ever baffled. They were a stern and stiff-necked people, of indomitable pride and resolution, with, for the most part, force of character sufficient to enable them to breast difficulties and dangers that would have overwhelmed ordinary individuals. No quality is so advantageous to its possessor as firmness; and the determined energy of the Rookwoods bore them harmless through a sea of troubles. Besides, they were wealthy; lavish even to profusion; and gold will do much, if skilfully administered. Yet, despite all this, a dark ominous cloud settled over their house, and men wondered when the vengeance of Heaven, so long delayed, would fall, and consume it.
Possessed of considerable landed property, once extending over nearly half the West Riding of Yorkshire, the family increased in power and importance for an uninterrupted series of years, until the outbreak of that intestine discord which ended in the civil wars, when the espousal of the royalist party, with sword and substance, by Sir Ralph Rookwood, the then lord of the mansion (a dissolute, depraved personage, who, however, had been made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Charles I), ended in his own destruction at Naseby, and the wreck of much of his property; a loss, which the gratitude of Charles II, on his restoration, did not fail to make good to Sir Ralph's youthful heir, Reginald.
Sir Ranulph Rookwood left two sons, Reginald and Alan. The fate of the latter was buried in obscurity. It was even a mystery to his family. He was, it was said, a youth of much promise, and of gentle manners; who, having made an imprudent match, from jealousy, or some other motive, deserted his wife, and fled his country. Various reasons were assigned for his conduct. Amongst others, it was stated that the object of Alan's jealous suspicions was his elder brother, Reginald; and that it was the discovery of his wife's infidelity in this quarter, which occasioned his sudden disappearance with his infant daughter. Some said he died abroad. Others, that he had appeared again for a brief space at the hall. But all now concurred in a belief of his decease. Of his child nothing was known. His inconstant wife, after enduring for some years the agonies of remorse, abandoned by Sir Reginald, and neglected by her own relatives, put an end to her existence by poison. This is all that could be gathered of the story, or the misfortunes of Alan Rookwood.
The young Sir Reginald had attended Charles, in the character of page, during his exile; and if he could not requite the devotion of the son, by absolutely reinstating the fallen fortunes of the father, the monarch could at least accord him the fostering influence of his favour and countenance; and bestow upon him certain lucrative situations in his household, as an earnest of his good-will. And thus much he did. Remarkable for his personal attractions in youth, it is not to be wondered at, that we should find the name of Reginald Rookwood recorded in the scandalous chronicles of the day, as belonging to a cavalier of infinite address and discretion, matchless wit, and marvellous pleasantry; and eminent beyond his peers for his successes with some of the most distinguished beauties who ornamented that brilliant and voluptuous Court.
A career of elegant dissipation ended in matrimony. His first match was unpropitious. Foiled in his attempts upon the chastity of a lady of great beauty and high honour, he was rash enough to marry her; rash, we say, for from that fatal hour all became as darkness; the curtain fell upon the comedy of his life, to rise to tragic horrors. When passion subsided, repentance awoke, and he became anxious for deliverance from the fetters he had so heedlessly imposed on himself, and on his unfortunate dame.
The hapless lady of Sir Reginald was a fair and fragile creature, floating in the eddying current of existence, and hurried to destruction as the summer gossamer is swept away by the rude breeze, and lost for ever. So beautiful, so gentle was she, that if,
Sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty's self,
it would have been difficult to say whether the charm of softness, and sweetness, was more to be admired than her faultless personal attractions. But when a tinge of melancholy came saddening and shading the once smooth and smiling brow; when tears dimmed the blue beauty of those deep and tender eyes; when hot, hectic flushes supplied the place of healthful bloom, and despair took possession of her heart, then was it seen what was the charm of Lady Rookwood, if charm that could be called, which was a saddening sight to see, and melted the beholder's soul within him. All acknowledged, that exquisite as she had been before, the sad, sweet lady was now more exquisite still.
Seven moons had waned and flown—seven bitter, tearful moons—and each day Lady Rookwood's situation claimed more soothing attention at the hand of her lord. About this time his wife's brother, whom he hated, returned from the Dutch wars. Struck with his sister's altered appearance, he readily divined the cause; indeed, all tongues were eager to proclaim it to him. Passionately attached to her, Lionel Vavasour implored an explanation of the cause of his sister's griefs. The bewildered lady answered evasively, attributing her woebegone looks to any other cause than her husband's cruelty; and pressing her brother, as he valued her peace, her affection, never to allude to the subject again. The fiery youth departed. He next sought out his brother-in-law and taxed him sharply with his inhumanity, adding threats to his upbraidings. Sir Reginald listened silently and calmly. When the other had finished, with a sarcastic obeisance, he replied, "Sir, I am much beholden for the trouble you have taken in your sister's behalf. But when she entrusted herself to my keeping, she relinquished, I conceive, all claim on your guardianship: however, I thank you, for the trouble you have taken; but, for your own sake, I would venture to caution you against a repetition of interference like the present."
"And I, sir, caution you. See that you give heed to my words, or, by the Heaven above us, I will enforce attention to them."
"You will find me, sir, as prompt at all times to defend my conduct, as I am unalterable in my purposes. Your sister is my wife. What more would you have? Were she a harlot, you should have her back and welcome. The fool is virtuous. Devise some scheme, and take her with you hence—so you rid me of her I am content."
"Rookwood, you are a villain." And Vavasour spat upon his brother's cheek.
Sir Reginald's eyes blazed. His sword started from its scabbard. "Defend yourself," he exclaimed, furiously attacking Vavasour. Pass after pass was exchanged. Fierce thrusts were made and parried. Feint and appeal, the most desperate and dexterous, were resorted to. Their swords glanced like lightning flashes. In the struggle, the blades became entangled. There was a moment's cessation. Each glanced at the other with deadly, inextinguishable hate. Both were admirable masters of the art of defence. Both were so brimful of wrath as to be regardless of consequences. They tore back their weapons. Vavasour's blade shivered. He was at the mercy of his adversary—an adversary who knew no mercy. Sir Reginald passed his rapier through his brother's body. The hilt struck against his ribs.
Sir Reginald's ire was kindled, not extinguished, by the deed he had done. Like the tiger, he had tasted blood—like the tiger he thirsted for more. He sought his home. He was greeted by his wife. Terrified by his looks, she yet summoned courage sufficient to approach him. She embraced his arm—she clasped his hand. Sir Reginald smiled. His smile was cutting as his dagger's edge.
"What ails you, sweetheart?" said he.
"I know not; your smile frightens me."
"My smile frightens you—fool! be thankful that I frown not."
"Oh! do not frown. Be gentle, my Reginald, as you were when first I knew you. Smile not so coldly, but as you did then, that I may, for one instant, dream you love me."
"Silly wench! There—I do smile."
"That smile chills me—freezes me. Oh, Reginald! could you but know what I have endured this morning on your account. My brother Lionel has been here."
"Nay, look not so. He insisted on knowing the reason of my altered appearance."
"And no doubt you made him acquainted with the cause. You told him your version of the story."
"Not a word, as I hope to live."
"By my truth, no."
"A lie, I say. He avouched it to me himself."
"Impossible! He could not—would not disobey me.
Sir Reginald laughed bitterly.
"He would not, I am sure, give utterance to any scandal," continued Lady Rookwood. "You say this but to try me, do you not?—ha! what is this? Your hand is bloody. You have not harmed him? He is safe? Whose blood is this?"
"Your brother spat upon my cheek. I have washed out the stain," replied Sir Reginald, coldly.
"Then it is his," shrieked Lady Rookwood, pressing her hands shudderingly before her eyes. "Is he dead—dead?"
Sir Reginald turned away.
"Stay," she cried, exerting her feeble strength to retain him, and becoming white as ashes, "abide and hear me. You have killed me, I feel, by your unkindness. I have striven against it, but it would not avail. I am sinking fast—dying. I, who loved you, only you; yea, one beside—my brother, and you have slain him. Your hands are dripping in his blood, and I have kissed them—have clasped them. And now," continued she, with an energy that shook Sir Reginald, "I hate you—I abhor you—I renounce you—for ever! May my dying words ring in your ears on your deathbed, for that hour will come. You cannot shun that. Then think of him! think of me!"
"Away!" interrupted Sir Reginald, endeavouring to shake her off.
"I will not away! I will cling to you—will curse you. My unborn child shall live to curse you—to requite you—to visit my wrongs on you and yours. Weak as I am, you shall not cast me off. You shall learn to fear even me."
"I fear nothing living, much less a frantic woman."
"Fear the dead then."
"Hence! or by the God above us—"
There was a struggle—a blow—and the wretched lady sank, shrieking, upon the floor. Convulsions seized her. A mother's pains succeeded fierce and fast. She spoke no more, but died within the hour, giving birth to a female child.
Eleanor Rookwood became her father's idol—her father's bane. All the love he had to bestow was centred in her. She returned it not. She fled from his caresses. With all her mother's beauty, she had all her father's pride. Sir Reginald's every thought was for his daughter—for her aggrandisement. In vain. She seemed only to endure him, and while his affection waxed stronger, and entwined itself round her alone, she withered beneath his embraces as the shrub withers in the clasping folds of the parasite plant. She grew towards womanhood. Suitors thronged around her—gentle and noble ones. Sir Reginald watched them with a jealous eye. He was wealthy, powerful, high in royal favour;—and could make his own election. He did so. For the first time, Eleanor promised obedience to his wishes. They accorded with her own humour. The day was appointed. It came. But with it came not the bride. She had fled, with the humblest and meanest of the pretenders to her hand—with one upon whom Sir Reginald supposed she had not deigned to cast her eyes. He endeavoured to forget her, and, to all outward seeming, was successful in the effort. But he felt that the curse was upon him, the undying flame scorched his heart. Once and once only they met again, in France, whither she had wandered. It was a dread encounter—terrible to both; but most so to Sir Reginald. He spoke not of her afterwards.
Shortly after the death of his first wife, Sir Reginald had made proposals to a dowager of distinction, with a handsome jointure, one of his early attachments, and was, without scruple, accepted. The power of the family might then be said to be at its zenith; and but for certain untoward circumstances, and the growing influence of his enemies, Sir Reginald would have been elevated to the peerage. Like most reformed spendthrifts, he had become proportionately avaricious, and his mind seemed engrossed in accumulating wealth. In the meantime, his second wife followed her predecessor; dying, it was said, of vexation and disappointment.
The propensity to matrimony, always a distinguishing characteristic of the Rookwoods, largely displayed itself in Sir Reginald. Another dame followed—equally rich, younger, and far more beautiful than her immediate predecessor. She was a prodigious flirt, and soon set her husband at defiance. Sir Reginald did not condescend to expostulate. It was not his way. He effectually prevented any recurrence of her indiscretion. She was removed, and with her expired Sir Reginald's waning popularity. So strong was the expression of odium against him, that he thought it prudent to retire to his mansion in the country, and there altogether seclude himself. One anomaly in Sir Reginald's otherwise utterly selfish character was uncompromising devotion to the house of Stuart; and shortly after the abdication of James II, he followed that monarch to St. Germains, having previously mixed largely in secret political intrigues; and only returned from the French Court to lay his bones with those of his ancestry in the family vault at Rookwood.
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"Sir Reginald passed his rapier through his brother's body."
SIR PIERS ROOKWOOD
SIR Reginald died, leaving issue three children, a daughter, the before-mentioned Eleanor (who, entirely discountenanced by the family, had been seemingly forgotten by all but her father), and two sons by his third wife. Reginald, the eldest, whose military taste had early procured him the command of a company of horse, and whose politics did not coalesce with those of his sire, fell, during his father's lifetime, at Killiecrankie, under the banners of William. Piers, therefore, the second son, succeeded to the title.
A very different character, in many respects, from his father and brother, holding in supreme dislike Courts and courtiers, party warfare, political intrigue, and all the subtleties of Jesuitical diplomacy; neither having any inordinate relish for camps or campaigns; Sir Piers Rookwood yet displayed in early life one family propensity—viz., unremitting devotion to the sex. Among his other mistresses was the unfortunate Susan Bradley, to whom by some he was supposed to have been clandestinely united. In early youth, as has been stated, Sir Piers professed the faith of Rome, but shortly after the death of his beautiful mistress (or wife, as it might be), having quarrelled with his father's confessor, Checkley, he publicly abjured his heresies. Sir Piers subsequently allied himself to Maud, only daughter of Sir Thomas D'Aubeny, the last of a line as proud and intolerant as his own. The tables were then turned. Lady Rookwood usurped sovereign sway over her lord, and Sir Piers, a cipher in his own house, scarce master of himself, much less of his dame, endured an existence so miserable, that he was often heard to regret in his cups, that he had not inherited, with the estate of his forefathers, the family secret of shaking off the matrimonal yoke, when found to press too hardly.
At the onset, Sir Piers struggled to burst his bondage. But in vain—he was fast fettered; and only bruised himself, like the caged lark, against the bars of his prison-house. Abandoning all further effort at emancipation, he gave himself up to the usual resource of a weak mind, debauchery; and drank so deeply to drown his cares, that, in the end, his hale constitution yielded to his excesses. It was even said, that remorse at his abandonment of the faith of his fathers had some share in his misery; and that his old spiritual, and if report spoke truly, sinful adviser, Father Checkley, had visited him secretly at the hall. Sir Piers was observed to shudder whenever the priest's name was mentioned.
Sir Piers Rookwood was a good-humoured man in the main, had little of the old family leaven about him, and was esteemed by his associates. Of late, however, his temper became soured, and his friends deserted him; for, between his domestic annoyances, remorseful feelings, and the inroads already made upon his constitution by constant inebriety, he grew so desperate and insane in his revels, and committed such fearful extravagances, that even his boon companions shrank from his orgies. Fearful were the scenes between him and Lady Rookwood upon these occasions—appalling to the witnesses, dreadful to themselves. And it was, perhaps, their frequent recurrence, that more than anything else, banished all decent society from the hall.
At the time of Sir Piers's decease, which brings us down to the date of our story, his son and successor, Ranulph, was absent on his travels. Shortly after the completion of his academical education, he had departed to make the tour of the Continent, and had been absent rather better than a year. He had quitted his father in displeasure, and was destined never again to see his face while living. The last intelligence received of young Rookwood was from Bordeaux, whence it was thought he had departed for the Pyrenees. A special messenger had been despatched in search of him, with tidings of the melancholy event. But, as it was deemed improbable by Lady Rookwood that her son could return within any reasonable space, she gave directions for the accomplishment of the funeral rites of her husband on the sixth night after his decease (it being the custom of the Rookwoods ever to inter their dead at midnight), entrusting their solemnisation entirely to the care of one of Sir Piers's hangers-on (Dr. Titus Tyrconnel), for which she was greatly scandalised in the neighbourhood.
Ranulph Rookwood was a youth of goodly promise. The stock from which he sprang would on neither side warrant such conclusion. But it sometimes happens that from the darkest elements are compounded the brightest and subtlest substances; and so it occurred in this instance. Fair, frank, and free—generous, open, unsuspicious—he seemed the very opposite of all his race—their antagonising principle. Capriciously indulgent, his father had allowed him ample means, neither curbing nor restraining his expenditure; acceding at one moment to every inclination; and the next irresolutely opposing it. It was impossible, therefore, for him, in such a state of things, to act decidedly, without incurring his father's displeasure; and the only measure he resolved upon, which was to absent himself for a time, was conjectured to have brought about the result he had endeavoured to avoid. Other reasons, however, there were, which secretly influenced him, which it will be our business in due time to detail.
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THE time of the sad ceremonial drew nigh. The hurrying of the domestics to and fro; the multifarious arrangements for the night; the distribution of the melancholy trappings, and the discussion of the "funeral baked meats," furnished abundant occupation within doors. Without, there was a constant stream of the tenantry, thronging down the avenue, mixed with an occasional horseman, once or twice intercepted by a large lumbering carriage, bringing friends of the deceased, some really anxious to pay the last tribute of regard, but the majority attracted by the anticipated spectacle of a funeral by torchlight. There were others, indeed, to whom it was not matter of choice; who were compelled, by a vassal tenure of their lands, held of the house of Rookwood, to lend a shoulder to the coffin, and a hand to the torch, on the burial of its lord. Of these there was a plentiful muster collected in the hall; they were to be marshalled by Peter Bradley, who was deemed to be well skilled in the proceedings, having been present at two solemnities of the kind. That mysterious personage, however, had not made his appearance—to the great dismay of the assemblage. Scouts were sent in search of him, but they returned with the intelligence that the door of his habitation was fastened, and its inmate apparently absent. No other tidings of the truant sexton could be obtained.
It was a sultry August evening. No breeze was stirring in the garden; no cool dews refreshed the parched and heated earth; yet from the languishing flowers rich sweets exhaled. The plash of a fountain fell pleasantly upon the ear, conveying in its sound a sense of freshness to the fervid air; while deep and drowsy murmurs hummed heavily beneath the trees, making the twilight slumberously musical. The westering sun, which had filled the atmosphere with flame throughout the day, was now wildly setting; and, as he sank behind the hall, its varied and picturesque tracery became each instant more darkly and distinctly defined against the crimson sky.
At this juncture a little gate, communicating with the chase, was thrown open, and a young man entered the garden, passing through the shrubbery, and hurrying rapidly forward till he arrived at a vista opening upon the house. The spot at which the stranger halted was marked by a little basin, scantily supplied with water, streaming from a lion's kingly jaws. His dress was travel-soiled, and dusty; and his whole appearance betokened great exhaustion, from heat and fatigue. Seating himself upon an adjoining bench, he threw off his riding cap, and unclasped his collar, displaying a finely-turned head and neck; and a countenance which, besides its beauty, had that rare nobility of feature which seldom falls to the lot of the aristocrat, but is never seen in one of an inferior order. A restless disquietude of manner showed that he was suffering from over-excitement of the mind, as well as from bodily exertion. His look was wild and hurried; his black ringlets were dashed heedlessly over a pallid, lofty brow, upon which care was prematurely written, while his large melancholy eyes were bent, with a look almost of agony, upon the house before him.
After a short pause, and as if struggling against violent emotions, and some overwhelming remembrance, the youth arose, and plunged his hand into the basin, applying the moist element to his burning brow. Apparently becoming more calm, he bent his steps towards the hall, when two figures suddenly issuing from an adjoining copse, arrested his progress; neither saw him. Muttering a hurried farewell, one of the figures disappeared within the shrubbery, and the other, confronting the stranger, displayed the harsh features and gaunt form of Peter Bradley. Had Peter encountered the dead Sir Piers in corporeal form, he could not have manifested more surprise than he exhibited, for an instant or two, as he shrunk back from the stranger's path.
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AN IRISH ADVENTURER
AN hour or two prior to the incident just narrated, in a small cosy apartment of the hall, nominally devoted to justiciary business by its late owner, but, in reality, used as a sanctum, snuggery, or smoking-room, a singular trio were assembled, fraught with the ulterior purpose of attending the obsequies of their deceased patron and friend, though immediately occupied in the discussion of a magnum of excellent claret, the bouquet of which perfumed the air, like the fragrance of a bed of violets.
This little room had been poor Sir Piers's favourite retreat. It was, in fact, the only room in the house that he could call his own; and thither would he often, with his pipe and punch, beguile the flagging hours, secure from interruption. A snug, old-fashioned apartment it was; wainscoted with rich black oak; with a fine old cabinet of the same material, and a line or two of crazy, worm-eaten book-shelves, laden with sundry dusty, unconsulted law tomes, and a slight sprinkling of the elder divines, equally neglected. The only book, indeed, Sir Piers ever read, was the "Anatomie of Melancholy," and he merely studied Burton because the quaint, racy style of the learned old hypochondriac suited his humour at seasons, and gave a zest to his sorrows, such as the olives lent to his wine.
Four portraits adorned the walls; those of Sir Reginald Rookwood and his wives. The ladies were attired in the flowing drapery of Charles the Second's day, the snow of their radiant bosoms being somewhat sullied by over exposure, and the vermeil tinting of their cheeks darkened by the fumes of tobacco. There was a shepherdess, with her taper crook, whose large, languishing eyes, ripe pouting lips, ready to melt into kisses, and air of voluptuous abandonment, scarcely suited the innocent simplicity of her costume. She was portrayed tending a flock of downy sheep, with azure ribands round their necks, accompanied by one of those invaluable little dogs, whose length of ear, and silkiness of skin, evinced him perfect in his breeding, but whose large-eyed indifference to his charge, proved him to be as much out of character with his situation, as the refined and luxuriant charms of his mistress were out of keeping with her artless attire. This was Sir Piers's mother, the third wife, a beautiful woman, answering to the notion of one who had been somewhat of a flirt in her day. Next to her was a magnificent dame, with the throat and arm of a Juno, and a superb bust (the bust was, then, what the bustle is now—a paramount attraction—whether the modification be an improvement, we leave to the consideration of the lovers of the beautiful)—this was the dowager. Lastly, there was the lovely, and ill-fated Eleanor. Every gentle grace belonging to this unfortunate lady had been stamped in undying beauty on the canvas by the hand of Lely, breathing a spell on the picture, almost as powerful as that which had dwelt around the exquisite original. Over the high carved mantelpiece was suspended a portrait of Sir Reginald. It had been painted in early youth; the features were beautiful, disdainful—with a fierceness breaking through the courtly air. The eyes were very fine, black as midnight, and piercing as those of Cæsar Borgia, in Raphael's wonderful picture of the fratricide duke, in the Borghese Palace at Rome. They seemed to fascinate the gazer—to rivet his glances—to follow him whithersoever he went—and to search into his soul, as did the dark orbs of Sir Reginald in his lifetime. It was the work likewise of Lely, and had all the fidelity and graceful refinement of that great master; nor was the haughty countenance of Sir Reginald unworthy the patrician painter.
No portrait of Sir Piers was to be met with. But in lieu thereof, depending from a pair of buck's horns, hung the worthy knight's stained scarlet coat (the same in which he had ridden forth, with the intent to hunt, on the eventful occasion detailed by Peter Bradley), his velvet cap, his buck-handled whip, and the residue of his equipment for the chase. This attire was reviewed with melancholy interest and unaffected emotion by the company, as reminding them forcibly of the departed, of which it seemed a portion.
The party consisted of the vicar of Rookwood, Dr. Polyphemus Polycarp Small, Dr. Titus Tyrconnel, an emigrant, and empirical professor of medicine, from the sister isle, whose convivial habits had first introduced him to the hall, and afterwards retained him there, and Mr. Codicil Coates, clerk of the peace, attorney-at-law, bailiff, and receiver. We were wrong in saying that Tyrconnel was retained. He was an impudent, intrusive fellow, whom, having once gained a footing in the house, it was impossible to dislodge. He cared for no insult; perceived no slight; and professed, in her presence, the profoundest respect for Lady Rookwood: in short, he was ever ready to do anything but depart.
Sir Piers was one of those people who cannot dine alone. He disliked a solitary repast almost as much as a tête-à-tête with his lady. He would have been recognised at once as the true Amphitryon, had anyone been hardy enough to play the part of Jupiter. Ever ready to give a dinner, he found a difficulty arise, not usually experienced on such occasions—there was no one upon whom to bestow it. He had the best of wine; kept an excellent table; was himself no niggard host; but his own merits, and those of his cuisine were forgotten in the invariable pendant to the feast; and the best of wine lost its flavour when the last bottle found its way to the guest's head. Dine alone Sir Piers would not. And as his old friends forsook him, he plunged lower in his search of society; collecting within his house a class of persons whom no one would have expected to meet at the hall, nor even its owner have chosen for his companions, had any choice remained to him. He did not endure this state of things without much outward show of discontent. "Anything for a quiet life," was his constant saying; and, like the generality of people with whom those words form a favourite maxim, he led the most uneasy life imaginable. Endurance, to excite commiseration, must be uncomplaining—an axiom the aggrieved of the gentle sex should remember. Sir Piers endured, but he grumbled lustily, and was on all hands voted a bore; domestic grievances, especially if the husband be the plaintiff, being the most intolerable of all mentionable miseries.
No wonder that his friends deserted him; still there was Titus Tyrconnel; his ears and lips were ever open to pathos and to punch; so Titus kept his station. Immediately after her husband's demise, it had been Lady Rookwood's intention to clear the house of all the "vermin," so she expressed herself, that had so long infested it; and forcibly to eject Titus, and one or two other intruders of the same class. But in consequence of certain hints received from Mr. Coates, who represented the absolute necessity of complying with Sir Piers's testamentary instructions, which were particular in that respect, she thought proper to defer her intentions until after the ceremonial of interment should be completed, and, in the meantime, strange to say, committed its arrangement to Titus Tyrconnel; who, ever ready to accommodate, accepted, nothing loth, the charge, and acquitted himself admirably well in his undertaking: especially, as he said, "in the aiting and drinking department—the most essential part of it all." He kept open house—open dining-room—open cellar; resolved that his patron's funeral should emulate as much as possible an Irish burial on a grand, scale, "the finest sight," in his opinion, "in the whole world."
Inflated with the importance of his office, inflamed with heat, sat Titus, like a "robustious periwig-pated" alderman after a civic feast. The natural rubicundity of his countenance was darkened to a deep purple tint, like that of a full-blown peony, while his ludicrous dignity was augmented by a shining suit of sables, in which his portly person was invested.
The first magnum had been discussed in solemn silence; the cloud, however, which hung over the conclave, disappeared under the genial influence of "another and a better" bottle, and gave place to a denser vapour, occasioned by the introduction of the pipe and its accompaniments.
Ensconced in a comfortable old chair (it is not every old chair that is comfortable), with pipe in mouth, and in full unbuttoned ease, his bushy cauliflower wig laid aside, by reason of the heat, reposed Dr. Small. Small, indeed, was somewhat of a misnomer, as applied to the worthy doctor, who, besides being no diminutive specimen of his kind, entertained no insignificant opinion of himself. His height was certainly not remarkable; but his width of shoulder—his sesquipedality of stomach—and obesity of calf—these were unique! Of his origin we know nothing; but presume he must, in some way or other, have been connected with the numerous family of "the Smalls," who, according to Christopher North, form the predominant portion of mankind.
In appearance, the doctor was short-necked and puffy, with a sodden, pasty face, wherein were set eyes, whose obliquity of vision was, in some measure, redeemed by their expression of humour. He was accounted a man of parts and erudition, and had obtained high honours at his university. Rigidly orthodox, he abominated the very names of Papists and Jacobite; amongst which heretical herd he classed his companion, Dr. Titus Tyrconnel—Ireland being with him synonymous with superstition and Catholicism—and every Irishman rebellious and schismatical. On this head he was inclined to be disputatious. His prejudices did not prevent him from passing the claret, nor from laughing as heartily as a plethoric asthma and sense of the decorum due to the occasion would permit, at the quips and quirks of the Irishman, who, he admitted, notwithstanding his heresies, was a pleasant fellow in the main. And when, in addition to the flattery, a pipe had been insinuated by the officious Titus, at the precise moment that Small yearned for his afternoon's solace, yet scrupled to ask for it; when the door had been made fast, and the first whiff exhaled, all his misgivings vanished, and he surrendered himself to the soft seduction. In this elysian state we find him.
"Ah! you may say that, Dr. Small," said Titus, in answer to some observation of the vicar, "that's a most original apophthegm. We all of us hould our lives by a third. Och! many's the sudden finale I have seen. Many's the fine fellow's heels tripped up unawares, when least expected. Death hangs over our heads by a single hair, as your reverence says, precisely like the sword of Dan Maclise,1 the flatterer of Dinnish what-do-you-call-him, ready to fall at a moment's notice, or no notice at all—eh?—Mr. Coates. And that brings me back again to Sir Piers—poor gentleman—ah! we shan't soon see the like of him again!"
"Poor Sir Piers!" said Mr. Coates, a small man, in a scratch wig, with a face red and round as an apple, and almost as diminutive. "It is to be regretted that his over conviviality should so much have hastened his lamented demise."
"Conviviality!" replied Titus; "no such thing—it was apoplexy—extravasation of sarum."
"Extra vase-ation of rum-and-water, you mean," replied Coates, who, like all his tribe, rejoiced in a quibble.
"The squire's ailment," continued Titus, "was a sanguineous effusion, as we call it—positive determination of blood to the head, occasioned by a low way he got into, just before his attack—a confirmed case of hypochondriasis, as that ould book Sir Piers was so fond of terms the blue devils. He neglected the bottle, which, in a man who has been a hard drinker all his life, is a bad sign. The lowering system never answers—never. Doctor, I'll just trouble you"—for Small, in a fit of absence, had omitted to pass the bottle, though not to help himself. "Had he stuck to this"—holding up a glass ruby bright—"the elixir vitæ—the grand panacea—he might have been hale and hearty at this present moment, and as well as any of us. But he wouldn't be advised. To my thinking, as that was the case, he'd have been all the better for a little of your reverence's sperretual advice; and his conscience having been relieved, by confession and absolution, he might have opened a fresh account with an aisy heart and clane breast."
"I trust, sir," said Small, gravely withdrawing his pipe from his lips, "that Sir Piers Rookwood addressed himself to a higher source than a sinning creature of clay like himself for remission of his sins; but, if there was any load of secret guilt that might have weighed heavy upon his conscience, it is to be regretted that he refused the last offices of the Church, and died incommunicate. I was denied all admittance to his chamber."
"Exactly my case," said Mr. Coates, pettishly. "I was refused entrance, though my business was of the utmost importance—certain dispositions—special bequests—matters connected with his sister—for though the estate is entailed, yet still there are charges—you understand me—very strange to refuse to see me. Some people may regret it—may live to regret it, I say—that's all. I've just sent up a package to Lady Rookwood, which was not to be delivered until after Sir Piers's death. Odd circumstance that—been in my custody a long while—some reason to think Sir Piers meant to alter his will—ought to have seen me—sad neglect!"
"More's the pity. But it was none of poor Sir Piers's doing!" replied Titus; "he had no will of his own, poor fellow, during his life, and the devil a will was he likely to have after his death. It was all Lady Rookwood's doing," added he, in a whisper. "I, his medical adviser and confidential friend, was ordered out of the room; and, although I knew it was as much as his life was worth to leave him for a moment in that state, I was forced to comply: and, would you believe it, as I left the room, I heard high words. Yes, doctor, as I hope to be saved, words of anger from her at that awful juncture."
The latter part of this speech was uttered in a low tone, and very mysterious manner. The speakers drew so closely together that the bowls of their pipes formed a common centre, whence the stems radiated. A momentary silence ensued, during which each man puffed for very life. Small next knocked the ashes from his tube, and began to replenish it, coughing significantly. Mr. Coates expelled a thin, curling stream of vapour from a minute orifice in the corner of his almost invisible mouth, and arched his eyebrows, in a singular manner, as if he dared not trust the expression of his thoughts to any other feature. Titus shook his huge head, and, upon the strength of a bumper which he swallowed, mustered resolution enough to unburden his bosom.
"By my sowl," said he, mysteriously, "I've seen enough lately to frighten any quiet gentleman out of his senses. I'll not get a wink of sleep, I fear, for a week to come. There must have been something dreadful upon Sir Piers's mind; sure—nay, there's no use in mincing the matter with you—in a word, then, some crime too deep to be divulged."
"Crime," echoed Coates and Small, in a breath.
"Ay, crime!" repeated Titus. "Whist! not so loud, lest anyone should overhear us. Poor Sir Piers, he's dead now. I'm sure you both loved him as I did; and pity and pardon him if he was guilty; for certain am I that no soul ever took its flight more heavily laden than did that of our poor friend. Och! it was a terrible ending. But you shall hear how he died, and judge for yourselves."
"When I returned to his room, after Lady Rookwood's departure, I found him quite delirious. I knew death was not far off then. One minute he was in the chase, cheering on the hounds. 'Halloo! tallyho!' cried he; 'who clears that fence?—who swims that stream?' The next, he was drinking, carousing, and hurraing, at the head of his table, 'Hip! hip! hip!'—as mad, and wild, and frantic as ever he used to be when wine had got the better of him; and then all of a sudden, in the midst of his shouting, he stopped, exclaiming, 'What! here again?—who let her in?—the door is fast—I locked it myself. Devil! why did you open it?—you have betrayed me—she will poison me—and I cannot resist. Ha! another! Who—who is that?—her face is white—her hair hangs about her shoulders. Is she alive again? Susan! Susan! why that look? You loved me well—too well. You will not drag me to perdition! You will not appear against me! No, no, no—it is not in your nature—you whom I doted on, whom I loved—whom I—but I repented—I sorrowed—I prayed—prayed! Oh! oh! no prayers would avail. Pray for me, Susan—for ever! Your intercession may avail. It is not too late. I will do justice to all. Bring me pen and ink—paper—I will confess—he shall have all. Where is my sister? I would speak with her—would tell her—tell her. Call Alan Rookwood—I shall die before I can tell it.'
"'Come hither,' said he to me. 'There is a dark, dreadful secret on my mind—it must forth. Tell my sister—no, my senses swim—Susan is near me—fury is in her eyes—avenging fury—keep her off. What is this white mass in my arms? what do I hold? is it the corpse by my side, as it lay that long, long night? It is—it is. Cold, stiff, stirless as then. White—horribly white—as when the moon, that would not set, showed all its ghastliness. Ah! it moves, embraces me, stifles, suffocates me. Help! remove the pillow. I cannot breathe—I choke—oh!' And now I am coming to the strangest part of my story—and, strange as it may sound, every word is as true as the Holy Gospel."
"Ahem!" coughed Small.
"Well, at this moment—this terrible moment—what should I hear but a tap against the wainscot. Holy Virgin! how it startled me. My heart leapt to my mouth in an instant, and then went thump, thump, against my ribs. But I said nothing, though you may be sure I kept my ears wide open—and then presently I heard the tap repeated somewhat louder, and shortly afterwards a third—I should still have said nothing, but Sir Piers heard the knock, and raised himself at the summons, as if it had been the last trumpet. 'Come in,' cried he, in a dying voice, and Heaven forgive me if I confess that I expected a certain person, whose company one would rather dispense with upon such an occasion, to step in. However, though it wasn't the ould gentleman, it was somebody near akin to him; for a door I had never seen, and never even dreamed of, opened in the wall, and in stepped Peter Bradley—aye, you may well stare, gentlemen; but it was Peter looking as stiff as a crowbar, and as blue as a mattock."
"Well, he walked straight up to the bed of the dying man, and bent his great, diabolical grey eyes upon him—laughing all the while—yes, laughing—you know the cursed grin he has. To proceed. 'You have called me,' said he to Sir Piers; 'I am here. What would you with me?'—'We are not alone,' groaned the dying man. 'Leave us, Mr. Tyrconnel—leave me for five minutes—only five, mark me'—'I'll go,' thinks I, 'but I shall never see you again alive.' And true enough it was—I never did see him again with breath in his body.
"Without more ado, I left him, and I had scarcely reached the corridor when I heard the door bolted behind me. I then stopped to listen; and I'm sure you'll not blame me when I say I clapped my eye to the keyhole; for I suspected something wrong. But, Heaven save us! that crafty gravedigger had taken his precautions too well. I could neither see nor hear anything, except, after a few minutes, a wild unearthly screech. And then the door was thrown open, and I, not expecting it, was precipitated head foremost into the room, to the great damage of my nose. When I got up, Peter had vanished, I suppose, as he came; and there was poor Sir Piers leaning back upon the pillow, with his hands stretched out as if in supplication; his eyes unclosed and staring; and his limbs stark and stiff!"
A profound silence succeeded Dr. Tyrconnel's narrative. Mr. Coates would not venture upon a remark. Dr. Small seemed, for some minutes, lost in painful reflection; at length he spoke. "You have described a shocking scene, Mr. Tyrconnel, and in a manner that convinces me of its fidelity. But I trust you will excuse me, as a friend of the late Sir Piers, in requesting you to maintain silence in future on the subject. Its repetition can be productive of no good, and may do infinite harm, by giving currency to unpleasant reports, and harrowing the feelings of the survivors. Everyone acquainted with Sir Piers's history must be aware, as I dare say you are already, of an occurrence which cast a shade over his early life, blighted his character, and endangered his personal safety. It was a dreadful accusation. But I believe, nay, I am sure, it was unfounded. Dark suspicions attach to a Romish priest of the name of Checkley. He, I believe, is also beyond the reach of human justice. Erring, Sir Piers was undoubtedly. But I trust he was more weak than sinful. I have reason to think he was the tool of others, especially of the wretch I have named. And it is easy to perceive how that incomprehensible lunatic, Peter Bradley, has obtained an ascendancy over him. His daughter, you are aware, was Sir Piers's mistress. Our friend is now gone, and with him let us bury his offences, and the remembrance of them. That his soul was heavily laden, would appear from your account of his last moments; yet I fervently trust that his repentance was sincere, in which case there is hope of forgiveness for him. 'At what time so ever a sinner shall repent him of his sins, from the bottom of his heart, I will blot out all his wickedness out of my remembrance, saith the Lord.' God's mercy is greater than man's sins. And there is hope of salvation even for Sir Piers."
"I trust so, indeed," said Titus, with emotion; "and as to repeating a syllable of what I have just said, devil a word more will I utter on the subject. My lips shall be shut and sealed, as close as one of Mr. Coates's bonds, for ever and a day: but I thought it just right to make you acquainted with the circumstances. And now, having dismissed the bad for ever, I am ready to speak of Sir Piers's good qualities, and not few they were. What was there becoming a gentleman that he couldn't do, I'd like to know? Couldn't he hunt as well as ever a one in the county? and hadn't he as good a pack of hounds? Couldn't he shoot as well, and fish as well, and drink as well, or better—only he couldn't carry his wine, which was his misfortune, not his fault. And wasn't he always ready to ask a friend to dinner with him, and didn't he give him a good dinner when he came, barring the cross-cups afterwards? And hadn't he everything agreeable about him, except his wife, which was a great drawback? And with all his peculiarities and humours, wasn't he as kind-hearted a man as needs be? and an Irishman at the core? And so, if he weren't dead, I'd say long life to him. But as he is, there's peace to his memory!"
At this juncture a knocking was heard at the door, which someone without had vainly tried to open. Titus rose to unclose it, ushering in an individual known at the hall as Jack Palmer.
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AN ENGLISH ADVENTURER
JACK PALMER was a good-humoured, good-looking man, with immense bushy, red whiskers, a freckled, florid complexion, and sandy hair, rather inclined to scantiness towards the scalp of the head, which garnished the nape of his neck with a ruff of crisp little curls, like the ring on a monk's shaven crown. Notwithstanding this tendency to baldness, Jack could not be more than thirty, though his looks were some five years in advance. His face was one of those inexplicable countenances, which appear to be proper to a peculiar class of men—a regular Newmarket physiognomy—compounded chiefly of cunning and assurance; not low cunning, nor vulgar assurance, but crafty sporting subtlety, careless as to results, indifferent to obstacles, ever on the alert for the main chance, game and turf all over, eager, yet easy, keen, yet quiet. He was somewhat showily dressed, in such wise that he looked half like a fine gentleman of that day, half like a jockey of our own. His nether man appeared in well-fitting, well-worn buckskins, and boots with tops, not unconscious of the saddle; while the airy extravagance of his broad-skirted, sky-blue riding coat, the richness of his vest (the pockets of which were beautifully exuberant, according to the mode of 1737), the smart luxuriance of his shirt-frill, and a certain curious taste in the size and style of his buttons, proclaimed that, in his own esteem at least, his person did not appear altogether unworthy of decoration; nor, in justice to Jack, can we allow that he was in error. He was a model of a man for five feet ten; square, compact, capitally built in every particular, excepting that his legs were slightly imbowed, which defect probably arose from his being almost constantly on horseback; a sort of exercise in which Jack greatly delighted, and was accounted a superb rider. It was, indeed, his daring horsemanship, upon one particular occasion, when he had outstripped a whole field, that had procured him the honour of an invitation to Rookwood. Who he was, or whence he came, was a question not easily answered—Jack, himself, evading all solution to the enquiry. Sir Piers never troubled his head about the matter; he was a "d—d good fellow—rode devilish well, and stood on no sort of ceremony"; that was enough for him. Nobody else knew anything about him, save that he was a capital judge of horseflesh, kept a famous black mare, and attended every hunt in the West Riding—that he could sing a good song, was a choice companion, and could drink three bottles without feeling the worse for them.
Sensible of the indecorum that might attach to his appearance, Doctor Small had hastily laid down his pipe, and arranged his wig. But when he saw who was the intruder, with a grunt of defiance he resumed his occupation, without returning the bow of the latter, or bestowing further notice upon him. Nothing discomposed at the churchman's displeasure, Jack greeted Titus cordially, and carelessly saluting Mr. Coates, threw himself into a chair. He next filled a tumbler of claret, and drained it at a draught.
"Have you ridden far, Jack?" asked Titus, noticing the dusty state of Palmer's azure attire.
"Some dozen miles," replied Palmer; "and that, on such a sultry afternoon as the present, makes one feel thirstyish. I'm as dry as a sandbed. Famous wine this—beautiful tipple—better than all your red fustian. Ah, how poor Sir Piers used to like it! Well, that's all over—a glass like this might do him good in his present quarters! I'm afraid I'm intruding. But the fact is, I wanted a little information about the order of the procession, and missing you below, came hither in search of you. You're to be chief mourner, I suppose, Titus—rehearsing your part, eh?"
"Come, come, Jack, no joking," replied Titus; "the subject's too serious. I am to be chief mourner—and I expect you to be a mourner—and everybody else to be mourners. We must all mourn at the proper time. There'll be a power of people at the church."
"There are a power of people here already," returned Jack, "if they all attend."
"And they all will attend, or what is the eating and drinking to go for? I shan't leave a soul in the house."
"Excepting one," said Jack, slyly. "She won't attend, I think."
"Ay, excepting one—Lady Rookwood and her abigail. All the rest go with me, and form part of the procession. You go too."
"Of course. What time do you start?"
"Twelve precisely. As the clock strikes, we set out—all in a line, and a long line we'll make. I'm waiting for that ould coffin-faced rascal, Peter Bradley, to arrange the order."
"How long will it all occupy, think you?" asked Jack, carelessly.
"That I can't say," returned Titus; "possibly an hour, more or less. But we shall start to the minute—that is, if we can get all together, so don't be out of the way. And hark ye, Jack, you must contrive to change your toggery. That sky-blue coat won't do. It's not the thing at all, at all."
"Never fear that," replied Palmer. "But who were those in the carriages?"
"Is it the last carriage you mean? Squire Forester and his sons. They're dining with the other gentlefolk, in the great room upstairs, to be out of the way. Oh, we'll have a grand berrin'. And by Saint Patrick! I must be looking after it."
"Stay a minute," said Jack; "let's have a cool bottle first. They are all taking care of themselves below, and Peter Bradley has not made his appearance, so you need be in no hurry. I'll go with you presently. Shall I ring for the claret?"
"By all means," replied Titus.
Jack accordingly arose; and a butler answering the summons, a long-necked bottle was soon placed before them.
"You heard of the affray last night, I presume," said Jack, renewing the conversation.
"With the poachers? To be sure I did. Wasn't I called in to examine Hugh Badger's wounds the first thing this morning; and a deep cut there was, just over the eye, besides other bruises."
"Is the wound dangerous?" enquired Palmer.
"Not exactly mortal, if you mean that," replied the Irishman; "dangerous, certainly."
"Humph!" exclaimed Jack; "they'd a pretty hardish bout of it, I understand. Anything been heard of the body?"
"What body?" enquired Small, who was half dozing.
"The body of the drowned poacher," replied Jack; "they were off to search for it this morning."
"Found it—not they!" exclaimed Titus. "Ha, ha!—I can't help laughing, for the life and sowl of me; a capital trick he played 'em—capital—ha, ha! What do you think the fellow did? Ha, ha!—after leading 'em the devil's dance, all round the park, killing a hound as savage as a wolf, and breaking Hugh Badger's head, which is as hard and thick as a butcher's block, what does the fellow do but dive into a pool, with a great rock hanging over it, and make his way to the other side, through a subterranean cavern, which nobody knew anything about, till they came to drag it, thinking him snugly drowned all the while—ha, ha!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" chorused Jack; "bravo! he's a lad of the right sort—ha, ha!"
"He! who?" enquired the attorney.
"Why, the poacher, to be sure," replied Jack; "who else were we talking about?"
"Beg pardon," returned Coates; "I thought you might have heard some intelligence. We've got an eye upon him. We know who it was."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Jack; "and who was it?"
"A fellow known by the name of Luke Bradley."
"Zounds!" cried Titus; "you don't say it was he? Murder in Irish! that bates everything; why, he was Sir Piers's—"
"Natural son," replied the attorney; "he has not been heard of for some time—shockingly incorrigible rascal—impossible to do anything with him."
"You don't say so," observed Jack. "I've heard Sir Piers speak of the lad; and, by his account, he's as fine a fellow as ever crossed tit's back; only a little wildish and unreasonable, as the best of us may be; wants breaking, that's all. Your skittish colt makes the best horse, and so would he. To speak the truth, I'm glad he escaped."
"So am I," rejoined Titus; "for, in the first place, I've a foolish partiality for poachers, and am sorry when any of 'em come to hurt; and, in the second, I'd be mightily displeased if any ill had happened to one of Sir Piers's flesh and blood, as this young chap appears to be."
"Appears to be!" repeated Palmer; "there's no appearing in the case, I take it. This Bradley's an undoubted offshoot of the old squire. His mother was a servant-maid at the hall, I rather think. You, sir," continued he, addressing Coates, "perhaps can inform us of the real facts of the case."
"She was something better than a servant," replied the attorney, with a slight cough and a knowing wink. "I remember her quite well, though I was but a boy then; a lovely creature, and so taking, I don't wonder that Sir Piers was smitten with her. He was mad after the women in those days, and pretty Sue Bradley above all others. She lived with him quite like his lady."
"So I've heard," returned Jack; "and she remained with him till her death. Let me see, wasn't there something rather odd in the way in which she died, rather suddenish and unexpected—a noise made about it at the time, eh?"
"Not that I ever heard," replied Coates, shaking his head, and appearing to be afflicted with an instantaneous ignorance; while Titus affected not to hear the remark, but occupied himself with his wine-glass. Small snored audibly. "I was too young, then, to pay any attention to idle rumours," continued Coates. "It's a long time ago. May I ask the reason of your enquiry?"
"Nothing further than simple curiosity," replied Jack, enjoying the consternation of his companions. "It is, as you say, a long while since. But it's singular how those sort of things are remembered. One would think people had something else to do than talk of one's private affairs for ever. For my part, I despise such tattle. But there are persons in the neighbourhood who still say it was an awkward business. Amongst others, I've heard that this very Luke Bradley talks in pretty plain terms about it."
"Does he, indeed?" said Coates. "So much the worse for him. Let me once lay hands upon him, and I'll put a gag in his mouth that shall spoil his talking in future."
"That's precisely the point I desire to arrive at," replied Jack; "and I advise you by all means to accomplish that, for the sake of the family. Nobody likes his friends to be talked about. So I'd settle the matter amicably, were I you. Just let the fellow go his way, he won't return here again in a hurry, I'll be bound. As to clapping him in quod, he might prattle—turn stag."
"Turn stag!" replied Coates, "what the deuce is that? In my opinion he has 'turned stag' already. At all events, he'll pay deer for his night's sport, you may depend upon it. What signifies it what he says? Let me lay hands upon him, that's all."
"Well, well," said Jack, "no offence. I only meant to offer a suggestion. I thought the family, young Sir Ranulph, I mean, mightn't like the story to be revived. As to Lady Rookwood, she don't, I suppose, care much about idle reports. Indeed, if I've been rightly informed, she bears this youngster no particular good-will to begin with, and has tried hard to get him out of the country. But, as you say, what does it signify what he says, he can only talk. Sir Piers is dead and gone."
"Humph!" muttered Coates, peevishly.
"But it does seem a little hard, that a lad should swing for killing a bit of venison in his own father's park."
"Which he'd a nat'ral right to do," cried Titus.
"He had no natural right to bruise, violently assault, and endanger the life of his father's, or anybody else's, gamekeeper," retorted Coates. "I tell you, sir, he's committed a capital offence, and if he's taken—"
"No chance of that, I hope," interrupted Jack.
"That's a wish I can't help wishing myself," said Titus: "on my conscience, these poachers are fine boys, when all's said and done."
"The finest of all boys," exclaimed Jack, with a kindred enthusiasm, "are those birds of the night, and minions of the moon, whom we call, most unjustly, poachers. They are, after all, only professional sportsmen, making a business of what we make a pleasure; a nightly pursuit of what is to us a daily relaxation; there's the main distinction. As to the rest, it's all in idea; they merely thin an overstocked park, as you would reduce a plethoric patient, doctor; or as you would work a moneyed client, if you got him into Chancery, Mister Attorney. And then how much more scientifically and systematically they set to work than we amateurs do; how noiselessly they bag a hare, smoke a pheasant, or knock a buck down with an air-gun; how independent are they of any licence, except that of a good eye, and a swift pair of legs; how unnecessary is it for them to ask permission to shoot over Mr. So-and-So's grounds, or my Lord That's preserves; they are free of every cover, and indifferent to any alteration in the game laws. I've some thoughts, when everything else fails, of taking to poaching myself. In my opinion, a poacher's a highly respectable character. What say you, Mr. Coates?" turning very gravely to that gentleman.
"Such a question, sir," replied Coates, bridling up, "scarcely deserves a serious answer. I make no doubt you will next maintain that a highwayman is a gentleman."
"Most undoubtedly," replied Palmer, in the same grave tone, which might have passed for banter, had Jack ever bantered. "I'll maintain and prove it. I don't see how he can be otherwise. It is as necessary for a man to be a gentleman before he can turn highwayman, as it is for a doctor to have his diploma, or an attorney his certificate. Some of the finest gentlemen of their day, as Captains Lovelace, Hind, Hannum, and Dudley, were eminent on the road, and they set the fashion. Ever since their day a real highwayman would consider himself disgraced, if he did not conduct himself in every way like a gentleman. Of course, there are pretenders in this line, as in everything else. But these are only exceptions, and prove the rule.
"What are the distinguishing characteristics of a fine gentleman?—perfect knowledge of the world—perfect independence of character—notoriety—command of cash—and inordinate success with the women. You grant all these premises. First, then, it is part of a highwayman's business to be thoroughly acquainted with the world. He is the easiest and pleasantest fellow going. There is Tom King, for example: he is the handsomest man about town, and the best-bred fellow on the road. Then whose inclinations are so uncontrolled as the highwayman's, so long as the mopuses last? who produces so great an effect by so few words?—'Stand and deliver,' is sure to arrest attention. Everyone is captivated by an address so taking. As to money, he wins a purge of a hundred guineas as easily as you would the same sum from a faro table. And wherein lies the difference? only in the name of the game. Who so little need of a banker as he? all he has to apprehend is a check—all he has to draw is a trigger. As to the women, they dote upon him: not even your redcoat is so successful. Look at a highwayman mounted on his flying steed, with his pistols in his holsters, and his mask upon his face. What can be a more gallant sight? the clatter of the horse's heels is like music to his ear—he is in full quest—he shouts to the fugitive horseman to stay—the other flies all the faster—what chase can be half so exciting as that? Suppose he overtakes his prey, which ten to one he will, how readily his summons to deliver is obeyed; how satisfactory is the appropriation of a lusty purse or a corpulent pocket-book—getting the brush is nothing to it. How tranquilly he departs, takes off his hat to his accommodating acquaintance, wishes him a pleasant journey, and disappears across the heath! England, sir, has reason to be proud of her highwaymen! They are peculiar to her clime, and are as much before the brigand of Italy, the contrabandist of Spain, or the cut-purse of France—as her sailors are before all the rest of the world. The day will never come, I hope, when we shall degenerate into the footpad, and lose our night errantry. Even the French borrow from us—they have only one highwayman of eminence, and he learnt and practised his art in England."
"And who was he, may I ask?" said Coates.
"Claude Du-Val," replied Jack; "and though a Frenchman, he was a deuced fine fellow in his way—quite a tip-top macaroni—he could skip and twirl like a figurant, warble like an opera singer, and play the flageolet better than any man of his day—he always carried a flute in his pocket, along with his snappers. And then his dress—it was quite beautiful to see how smartly he was rigg'd out, all velvet and lace; and even with his vizard on his face, the ladies used to cry out to see him. Then he took a purse with the air and grace of a receiver-general. All the women adored him—and that, bless their pretty faces, was the best proof of his gentility. I wish he'd not been a Mounseer. The women never mistake. They can always discover the true gentleman, and they were all of every degree, from the countess to the kitchen-maid, over head and ears in love with him."
"But he was taken, I suppose?" asked Coates.
"Ay," responded Jack, "the women were his undoing as they've been many a brave fellow's before, and will be again." Touched by which reflection, Jack became for once in his life sentimental, and sighed. "Poor Du-Val! he was seized at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandos Street by the bailiff of Westminster when dead drunk, his liquor having been drugged by his dells—and was shortly afterwards hanged at Tyburn."
"It was a thousand pities," said Mr. Coates, with a sneer, "that so fine a gentleman should come to so ignominious an end!"
"Quite the contrary," returned Jack. "As his biographer, Doctor Pope, properly remarks, 'Who is there worthy of the name of man, that would not prefer such a death before a mean, solitary, inglorious life?' By-the-by, Titus, as we're upon the subject, if you like I'll sing you a song about highwaymen?"
"I should like it of all things," replied Titus, who entertained a very favourable opinion of Jack's vocal powers, and was by no means an indifferent performer; "only let it be in a minor key."
Jack required no further encouragement, but, disregarding the hints and looks of Coates, sang with much unction the following ballad to a good old tune, then very popular—the merit of which "nobody can deny."
A CHAPTER OF HIGHWAYMEN
Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay JEMMY HIND!1
Which nobody can deny.
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all
For lute, coranto, and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, CLAUDE DU-VAL!2
Which nobody can deny.
And Tobygloak never a coach could rob,
Could lighten a pocket, or empty a fob,
With a neater hand than old mob, OLD MOB!3
Which nobody can deny.
Nor did housebreaker ever harder deal knocks
On the stubborn lid of a good strong box,
Than that prince of good fellows, TOM COX, TOM COX!4
Which nobody can deny.
A blither fellow on broad highway,
Did never with oath bid traveller stay,
Than devil-may-care WILL HALLOWAY!5
Which nobody can deny.
And in roguery nought could exceed the tricks
Of GETTINGS and GREY, and the five or six,
Who trod in the steps of bold NEDDY WICKS!6
Which nobody can deny.
Nor could any so handily break a lock
As SHEPPARD, who stood on the Newgate dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him "his flock"!7
Which nobody can deny.
Nor did highwayman ever before possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as DICK TURPIN'S Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which nobody can deny.
"A capital song by the powers!" cried Titus, as Jack's ditty came to a close. "But your English robbers are nothing at all, compared with our Tories8 and Rapparees—nothing at all. They were the raal gentlemen—they were the boys to cut a throat asily."
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Jack, in disgust, "the gentlemen I speak of never maltreated anyone, except in self-defence."
"Maybe not," replied Titus; "I'll not dispute the point—but these Rapparees were true brothers of the blade, and gentlemen every inch. I'll just sing you a song I made about them myself. But meanwhile don't let's forget the bottle—talking's dry work—my service to you, doctor!" added he, winking at the somnolent Small. And, tossing off his glass, Titus delivered himself with much joviality of a ballad.
"Bravissimo!" cried Jack, drumming upon the table when he had finished.
"Well," said Coates, "we've had enough about the Irish highwaymen, in all conscience. But there's a rascal on our side of the Channel, whom you have only incidentally mentioned, and who makes more noise than them all put together."
"Who's that?" asked Jack, with some curiosity.
"Dick Turpin," replied the attorney: "he seems to me quite as worthy of mention as any of the Hinds, the Du-Vals, or the O'Hanlons, you have either of you enumerated."
"I did not think of him," replied Palmer, smiling; "though if I had, he scarcely deserves to be ranked with those illustrious heroes."
"Gads bobs!" cried Titus; "they tell me Turpin keeps the best nag in the United Kingdom, and can ride faster and further in a day than any other man in a week."
"So I've heard," said Palmer, with a glance of satisfaction. "I should like to try a run with him. I warrant me, I'd not be far behind."
"I should like to get a peep at him," quoth Titus.
"So should I," added Coates. "Vastly!"
"You may both of you be gratified, gentlemen," said Palmer. "Talking of Dick Turpin, they say, is like speaking of the devil, he's at your elbow ere the word's well out of your mouth. He may be within hearing at this moment, for anything we know to the contrary."
"Body o' me!" ejaculated Coates, "you don't say so. Turpin in Yorkshire! I thought he confined his exploits to the neighbourhood of the metropolis, and made Epping Forest his headquarters."
"So he did," replied Jack, "but the cave is all up now. The whole of the Great North Road, from Tottenham Cross to York Gates, comes within Dick's present range; and Saint Nicholas only knows in which part of it he is most likely to be found. He shifts his quarters as often and as readily as a Tartar; and he who looks for him, may chance to catch a Tartar—ha!—ha!"
"It's a disgrace to the country that such a rascal should remain unhanged," returned Coates, peevishly. "Government ought to look to it. Is the whole kingdom to be kept in a state of agitation by a single highwayman?—Sir Robert Walpole should take the affair into his own hands."
"Fudge!" exclaimed Jack, emptying his glass.
"I have already addressed a letter to the editor of the Common Sense on the subject," said Coates, "in which I have spoken my mind pretty plainly: and I repeat, it is perfectly disgraceful that such a rascal should be suffered to remain at large."
"You don't happen to have that letter by you, I suppose," said Jack, "or I should beg the favour to hear it?—I am not acquainted with the newspaper to which you allude;—I read Fog's Journal."
"So I thought," replied Coates, with a sneer; "that's the reason you are so easily mystified. But luckily I have the paper in my pocket; and you are quite welcome to my opinions. Here it is," added he, drawing forth a newspaper. "I shall waive my preliminary remarks and come to the point at once."
"By all means," said Jack.
"'I thank God,"' began Coates, in an authoritative tone, "'that I was born in a country that hath formerly emulated the Romans in their public spirit; as is evident from their conquests abroad, and their struggles for liberty at home."'
"What has all this got to do with Turpin?" interposed Jack.
"You will hear," replied the attorney—"no interruptions, if you please. 'But this noble principle,"' continued he, with great emphasis, "'though not utterly lost, I cannot think at present so active as it ought to be in a nation so jealous of her liberty."'
"Good!" exclaimed Jack. "There is more than 'common sense' in that observation, Mr. Coates."
"'My suspicion,"' proceeded Coates, "'is founded on a late instance. I mean the flagrant, undisturbed success of the notorious TURPIN, who hath robb'd in a manner scarce ever known before for several years, and is grown so insolent and impudent as to threaten particular persons, and become openly dangerous to the lives as well as fortunes of the people of England."'
"Better and better," shouted Jack, laughing immoderately. "Pray go on, sir."
"'That a fellow,"' continued Coates, "'who is known to be a thief by the whole kingdom, shall for so long a time continue to rob us, and not only rob us, but make a jest of us."'
"Ha—ha—ha—capital! Excuse me, sir," roared Jack, laughing till the tears ran down his checks—"pray, pray, go on."
"I see nothing to laugh at," replied Coates, somewhat offended; "however, I will conclude my letter, since I have begun it—'not only rob us, but make a jest of us, shall defy the laws, and laugh at justice, argues a want of public spirit, which should make every particular member of the community sensible of the public calamity, and ambitious of the honour of extirpating such a notorious highwayman from society, since he owes his long successes to no other cause than his immoderate impudence, and the sloth and pusillanimity of those who ought to bring him to justice.' I will not deny," continued Coates, "that, professing myself, as I do, to be a staunch new Whig, I had not some covert political object in penning this epistle.9 Nevertheless, setting aside my principles—"
"Right," observed Jack; "you Whigs, new or old, always set aside your principles."
"Setting aside any political feeling I may entertain," continued Coates, disregarding the interruption, "I repeat, I am ambitious of extirpating this modern Cacus—this Autolycus of the eighteenth century."
"And what course do you mean to pursue?" asked Jack, "for I suppose you do not expect to catch this 'ought-to-lick-us,' as you call him, by a line in the newspapers."
"I am in the habit of keeping my own counsel, sir," replied Coates, pettishly; "and to be plain with you, I hope to finger all the reward myself."
"Oons, is there a reward offered for Turpin's apprehension?" asked Titus.
"No less than two hundred pounds," answered Coates, "and that's no trifle, as you will both admit. Have you not seen the King's proclamation, Mr. Palmer?"
"Not I," replied Jack, with affected indifference.
"Nor I," added Titus, with some appearance of curiosity; "do you happen to have that by you too?"
"I always carry it about with me," replied Coates, "that I may refer to it in case of emergency. My father, Christopher, or Kit Coates, as he was familiarly called, was a celebrated thief-taker. He apprehended Spicket, and Child, and half a dozen others, and always kept their descriptions in his pocket. I endeavour to tread in my worthy father's footsteps. I hope to signalise myself by capturing a highwayman. By-the-by," added he, surveying Jack more narrowly, "it occurs to me that Turpin must be rather like you, Mr. Palmer?"
"Like me," said Jack, regarding Coates askance; "like me—how am I to understand you, sir, eh?"
"No offence; none whatever, sir. Ah! stay, you won't object to my comparing the description. That can do no harm. Nobody would take you for a highwayman—nobody whatever—ha! ha! Singular resemblance—he—he! These things do happen sometimes: not very often though. But here is Turpin's description in the Gazette, June 28th, A.D. 1737: 'It having been represented to the King that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday, the 4th of May last, rob on His Majesty's highway Vavasour Mowbray, Esq., Major of the 2nd troop of Horse Grenadiers' (that Major Mowbray, by-the-by, is a nephew of the late Sir Piers, and cousin of the present baronet), 'and commit other notorious felonies and robberies near London, His Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices and a reward of two hundred pounds to any person or persons who shall discover him, so as he may be apprehended and convicted."'
"Odsbodikins!" exclaimed Titus, "a noble reward! I should like to lay hands upon Turpin," added he, slapping Palmer's shoulder: "I wish he were in your place at this moment, Jack."
"Thank you!" replied Palmer, shifting his chair.
"'Turpin,"' continued Coates, "'was born at Thacksted, in Essex; is about thirty'—you, sir, I believe, are about thirty?" added he, addressing Palmer.
"Thereabouts," said Jack, bluffy. "But what has my age to do with that of Turpin?"
"Nothing—nothing at all," answered Coates—"suffer me, however, to proceed?—'Is by trade a butcher'—you, sir, I believe, never had any dealings in that line?"
"I have some notion how to dispose of a troublesome calf,' returned Jack. "But Turpin, though described as a butcher is, I understand, a lineal descendant of a great French archbishop of the same name."
"Who wrote the chronicles of that royal robber Charlemagne; I know him," replied Coates—"a terrible liar!—The modern Turpin 'is about five feet nine inches high'—exactly your height, sir—exactly!"
"I am five feet ten," answered Jack, standing bolt upright.
"You have an inch then in your favour," returned the unperturbed attorney, deliberately proceeding with his examination—"'he has a brown complexion, marked with the smallpox.'"
"My complexion is florid—my face without a seam," quoth Jack.
"Those whiskers would conceal anything," replied Coates, with a grin. "Nobody wears whiskers nowadays, except a highwayman."
"Sir!" said Jack, sternly. "You are personal."
"I don't mean to be so," replied Coates; "but you must allow the description tallies with your own in a remarkable manner. Hear me out, however—'his cheek-bones are broad—his face is thinner towards the bottom—his visage short—pretty upright—and broad about the shoulders.' Now I appeal to Mr. Tyrconnel if all this does not sound like a portrait of yourself."
"Don't appeal to me," said Titus, hastily, "upon such a delicate point. I can't say that I approve of a gentleman being likened to a highwayman. But if ever there was a highwayman I'd wish to resemble, it's either Redmond O'Hanlon or Richard Turpin; and may the devil burn me if I know which of the two is the greater rascal!"
"Well, Mr. Palmer," said Coates, "I repeat, I mean no offence. Likenesses are unaccountable. I am said to be like my Lord North; whether I am or not, the Lord knows. But if ever I meet with Turpin I shall bear you in mind—he—he! Ah! if ever I should have the good luck to stumble upon him, I've a plan for his capture which couldn't fail. Only let me get a glimpse of him, that's all. You shall see how I'll dispose of him."
"Well, sir, we shall see," observed Palmer. "And for your own sake, I wish you may never be nearer to him than you are at this moment. With his friends, they say Dick Turpin can be as gentle as a lamb; with his foes, especially with a limb of the law like yourself, he's been found but an ugly customer. I once saw him, as I told you, at Newmarket, where he was collared by two constable culls, one on each side. Shaking off one, and dealing the other a blow in the face with his heavy-handled whip, he stuck spurs into his mare, and though the whole field gave chase, he distanced them all, easily."
"And how came you not to try your pace with him, if you were there, as you boasted a short time ago?" asked Coates.
"So I did, and stuck closer to him than anyone else. We were neck and neck. I was the only person who could have delivered him to the hands of justice, if I'd felt inclined."
"Zounds!" cried Coates; "if I had a similar opportunity it should be neck or nothing. Either he or I should reach the scragging-post first. I'd take him, dead or alive."
"You take Turpin!" cried Jack, with a sneer.
"I'd engage to do it," replied Coates. "I'll bet you a hundred guineas I take him, if I ever have the same chance."
"Done!" exclaimed Jack, rapping the table at the same time, so that the glasses danced upon it.
"That's right," cried Titus. "I'll go your halves."
"What's the matter—what's the matter?" exclaimed Small, awakened from his doze.
"Only a trifling bet about a highwayman," replied Titus.
"A highwayman!" echoed Small. "Eh! what? there are none in the house, I hope."
"I hope not," answered Coates. "But this gentleman has taken up the defence of the notorious Dick Turpin in so singular a manner, that—"
"The less said about that rascal the better," returned Small.
"So I think," replied Jack. "The fact is as you say, sir."
Further discourse was cut short by the sudden opening of the door, followed by the abrupt entrance of a tall, slender young man, who hastily advanced towards the table, around which the company were seated. His appearance excited the utmost astonishment in the whole group: curiosity was exhibited in every countenance—the magnum remained poised midway in the hand of Palmer—Doctor Small scorched his hand in the bowl of his pipe; and Mr. Coates was almost choked, by swallowing an inordinate whiff of vapour.
"Young Sir Ranulph!" ejaculated he, so soon as the syncope would permit him.
"Sir Ranulph here?" echoed Palmer, rising.
"Angels and ministers!" exclaimed Small.
"Odsbodikins!" cried Titus, with a theatrical start; "this is more than I expected."
"Gentlemen," said Ranulph, "do not let my unexpected arrival here discompose you. Doctor Small, you will excuse the manner of my greeting; and you, Mr. Coates. One of the present party, I believe, was my father's medical attendant, Doctor Tyrconnel."
"I had that honour," replied the Irishman, bowing profoundly—"I am Doctor Tyrconnel, Sir Ranulph, at your service."
"When, and at what hour, did my father breathe his last, sir?" enquired Ranulph.
"Poor Sir Piers," answered Titus, again bowing, "departed this life on Thurday last."
"The hour?—the precise minute?" asked Ranulph, eagerly.
"Troth, Sir Ranulph, as nearly as I can recollect, it might be a few minutes before midnight."
"The very hour!" exclaimed Ranulph, striding towards the window. His steps were arrested as his eye fell upon the attire of his father, which, as we have before noticed, hung at that end of the room. A slight shudder passed over his frame. There was a momentary pause, during which Ranulph continued gazing intently at the apparel. "The very dress too!" muttered he; then turning to the assembly, who were watching his movements with surprise, "Doctor," said he, addressing Small, "I have something for your private ear. Gentlemen, will you spare us the room for a few minutes?"
"On my conscience," said Tyrconnel to Jack Palmer, as they quitted the sanctum, "a mighty fine boy is this young Sir Ranulph!—and a chip of the ould block!—he'll be as good a fellow as his father."
"No doubt," replied Palmer, shutting the door. "But what the devil brought him back, just in the nick of it?"
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"An individual known at the hall as Jack Palmer."
THERE is nothing, I trust, my dear young friend, and quondam pupil," said Doctor Small, as the door was closed, "that weighs upon your mind, beyond the sorrow naturally incident to an affliction, severe as the present. Forgive my apprehensions if I am wrong. You know the affectionate interest I have ever felt for you—an interest which, I assure you, is nowise diminished, and which will excuse my urging you to unburden your mind to me; assuring yourself, that whatever may be your disclosure, you will have my sincere sympathy and commiseration. I may be better able to advise you, should counsel be necessary, than others, from my knowledge of your character and temperament. I would not anticipate evil, and am, perhaps, unnecessarily apprehensive. But I own, I am startled at the incoherence of your expressions, coupled with your sudden and almost mysterious appearance at this distressing conjuncture. Answer me: has your return been the result of mere accident? is it to be considered one of those singular circumstances which almost look like fate, and baffle our comprehension? or were you nearer home than we expected, and received the news of your father's demise through some channel unknown to us? Satisfy my curiosity, I beg of you, upon this point."
"Your curiosity, my dear sir," replied Ranulph gravely and sadly, "will not be decreased, when I tell you, that my return has neither been the work of chance (for I came, fully anticipating the dread event, which I find realised), nor has it been occasioned by an intelligence derived from yourself, or others. It was only, indeed, upon my arrival here that I received full confirmation of my apprehensions. I had another, a more terrible summons to return."
"What summons? you perplex me!" exclaimed Small, gazing with some misgiving into the face of his young friend.
"I am myself perplexed—sorely perplexed," returned Ranulph. "I have much to relate; but I pray you bear with me to the end. I have that on my mind which, like guilt, must be revealed."
"Speak, then, fearlessly to me," said Small affectionately pressing Ranulph's hand; "and assure yourself, beforehand, of my sympathy."
"It will be necessary," said Ranulph, "to preface my narrative by some slight allusion to certain painful events (and yet I know not why I should call them painful, excepting in their consequences) which influenced my conduct in my final interview between my father and myself—an interview which occasioned my departure for the Continent—and which was of a character so dreadful, that I would not even revert to it, were it not a necessary preliminary to the circumstance I am about to detail."
"When I left Oxford, I passed a few weeks alone, in London. A college friend, whom I accidentally met, introduced me, during a promenade in St. James's Park, to some acquaintances of his own, who were taking an airing in the Mall at the same time—a family whose name was Mowbray, consisting of a widow lady, her son, and daughter. This introduction was made in compliance with my own request. I had been struck by the singular beauty of the younger lady, whose countenance had a peculiar and inexpressible charm to me, from its marked resemblance to the portrait of the Lady Eleanor Rookwood, whose charms, and unhappy fate, I have so often dwelt upon and deplored. The picture is there," continued Ranulph, pointing to it: "look at it, and you have the fair creature I speak of before you; the colour of the hair—the tenderness of the eyes. No—the expression is not so sad, except when—but no matter! I recognised her features at once.
"It struck me, that upon the mention of my name, the party betrayed some surprise, especially the elder lady. For my own part, I was so attracted by the beauty of the daughter, the effect of which upon me seemed rather the fulfilment of a predestined event, originating in the strange fascination which the family portrait had wrought in my heart, than the operation of what is called 'love at first sight,' that I was insensible to the agitation of the mother. In vain I endeavoured to rally myself; my efforts at conversation were fruitless; I could not talk—all I could do was silently to yield to the soft witchery of those tender eyes; my admiration increasing each instant that I gazed upon them.
"I accompanied them home. Attracted as by some irresistible spell, I could not tear myself away; so that, although I fancied I could perceive symptoms of displeasure in the looks of both the mother and the son, yet, regardless of consequences, I ventured, uninvited, to enter the house. In order to shake off the restraint which I felt my society imposed, I found it absolutely necessary to divest myself of bashfulness, and to exert such conversational powers as I possessed. I succeeded so well that the discourse soon became lively and animated; and what chiefly delighted me was, that she, for whose sake I had committed my present rudeness, became radiant with smiles. I had been all eagerness to seek for some explanation of the resemblance to which I have just alluded, and the fitting moment had, I conceived, arrived. I called attention to a peculiar expression in the features of Miss Mowbray, and then instanced the likeness that subsisted between her and my ancestress. 'It is the more singular,' I said, turning to her mother, 'because there could have been no affinity, that I am aware of, between them, and yet the likeness is really surprising.'—'It is not so singular as you imagine,' answered Mrs. Mowbray; 'there is a close affinity. That Lady Rookwood was my mother. Eleanor Mowbray does resemble her ill-fated ancestress.'
"Words cannot paint my astonishment. I gazed at Mrs. Mowbray, considering whether I had not misconstrued her speech—whether I had not so shaped the sounds, as to suit my own quick and passionate conceptions. But no! I read in her calm, collected countenance—in the downcast glance, and sudden sadness of Eleanor, as well as in the changed and haughty demeanour of the brother, that I had heard her rightly. Eleanor Mowbray was my cousin—the descendant of that hapless creature whose image I had almost worshipped.
"Recovering from my surprise, I addressed Mrs. Mowbray, endeavouring to excuse my ignorance of our relationship, on the plea that I had not been given to understand that such had been the name of the gentleman she had espoused. 'Nor was it,' answered she, 'the name he bore at Rookwood; circumstances forbade it then. From the hour I quitted that house until this moment, excepting one interview with my—with Sir Reginald Rookwood—I have seen none of my family—have held no communication with them. My brothers have been strangers to me; the very name of Rookwood has been unheard, unknown; nor would you have been admitted here, had not accident occasioned it.' I ventured now to interrupt her, and to express a hope that she would suffer an acquaintance to be kept up, which had so fortunately commenced, and which might most probably bring about an entire reconciliation between the families. I was so earnest in my expostulations, my whole soul being in them, that she inclined a more friendly ear to me. Eleanor, too, smiled encouragement. Love lent me eloquence; and, at length, as a token of my success, and her own relenting, Mrs. Mowbray held forth her hand: I clasped it eagerly. It was the happiest moment of my life.
"I will not trouble you with any lengthened description of Eleanor Mowbray. I hope, at some period or other, you may still be enabled to see her, and judge for yourself; for though adverse circumstances have hitherto conspired to separate us, the time for a renewal of our acquaintance is approaching, I trust, for I am not yet altogether without hope. But thus much I may be allowed to say, that her rare endowments of person were only equalled by the graces of her mind.
"Educated abroad, she had all the vivacity of our livelier neighbours, combined with every solid qualification which we claim as more essentially our own. Her light and frolic manner was French, certainly; but her gentle, sincere heart was as surely English. The foreign accent that dwelt upon her tongue communicated an inexpressible charm even to the language which she spoke.
"I will not dwell too long upon this theme. I feel ashamed of my own prolixity. And yet I am sure you will pardon it. Ah, those bright, brief days! too quickly were they fled! I could expatiate upon each minute—recall each word—revive each look. It may not be. I must hasten on. Darker themes await me.
"My love made rapid progress—I became each hour more enamoured of my new-found cousin. My whole time was passed near her; indeed, I could scarcely exist in absence from her side. Short, however, was destined to be my indulgence in this blissful state. One happy week was its extent. I received a peremptory summons from my father to return home.
"Immediately upon commencing this acquaintance, I had written to my father, explaining every particular attending it. This I should have done of my own free will, but I was urged to it by Mrs. Mowbray. Unaccustomed to disguise, I had expatiated upon the beauty of Eleanor, and in such terms, I fear, that I excited some uneasiness in his breast. His letter was laconic. He made no allusion to the subject upon which I had expatiated when writing to him. He commanded me to return.
"The bitter hour was at hand. I could not hesitate to comply. Without my father's sanction, I was assured Mrs. Mowbray would not permit any continuance of my acquaintance. Of Eleanor's inclinations I fancied I had some assurance; but without her mother's consent, to whose will she was devoted, I felt, had I even been inclined to urge it, that my suit was hopeless. The letter which I had received from my father made me more than doubt whether I should not find him utterly adverse to my wishes. Agonised, therefore, with a thousand apprehensions, I presented myself on the morning of my departure. It was then I made the declaration of my passion to Eleanor; it was then that every hope was confirmed, every apprehension realised. I received from her lips a confirmation of my fondest wishes; yet were those hopes blighted in the bud, when I heard, at the same time, that their consummation was dependent on the will of two others, whose assenting voices, she feared, could never be obtained. From Mrs. Mowbray I received a more decided reply. All her haughtiness was aroused. Her farewell words assured me, that it was indifferent to her whether we met again as relatives or as strangers. Then it was that the native tenderness of Eleanor displayed itself, in an outbreak of feeling peculiar to a heart keenly sympathetic as hers. She saw my suffering—the reserve natural to her sex gave way—she flung herself into my arms—and so we parted.
"With a heavy foreboding I returned to Rookwood, and, oppressed with the gloomiest anticipations, endeavoured to prepare myself for the worst. I arrived. My reception was such as I had calculated upon; and, to increase my distress, my parents had been at variance. I will not pain you and myself with any recital of their disagreement. My mother had espoused my cause, chiefly, I fear, with the view of thwarting my poor father's inclinations. He was in a terrible mood, exasperated by the fiery stimulants he had swallowed, which had not, indeed, drowned his reason, but roused and inflamed every dormant emotion to violence. He was as one insane. It was evening when I arrived. I would willingly have postponed the interview till the morrow. It could not be. He insisted upon seeing me.
"My mother was present. You know the restraint she usually had over my father, and how she maintained it. On this occasion she had none. He questioned me as to every particular; probed my secret soul; dragged forth every latent feeling, and then thundered out his own determination that Eleanor never should be bride of mine; nor would he receive, under his roof, her mother, the discountenanced daughter of his father. I endeavoured to remonstrate with him. He was deaf to my entreaties. My mother added sharp and stinging words to my expostulations. 'I had her consent,' she said; 'what more was needed? The lands were entailed. I should at no distant period be their master, and might then please myself.' This I mention, in order to give you my father's strange answer.
"'Have a care, madam,' replied he, 'and bridle your tongue; they are entailed, 'tis true, but I need not ask his consent to cut off that entail. Let him dare to disobey me in this particular, and I will so divert the channel of my wealth, that no drop shall reach him. I will—but why threaten?—let him do it, and approve the consequences.'
"On the morrow I renewed my importunities with no better success. We were alone.
"'Ranulph,' said he, 'you waste time in seeking to change my resolution. It is unalterable. I have many motives which influence me; they are inexplicable, but imperative. Eleanor Mowbray never can be yours. Forget her as speedily as may be, and I pledge myself, upon whomsoever else your choice may fix, I will offer no obstacle.'
"'But why,' exclaimed I, with vehemence, 'do you object to one whom you have never beheld? At least, consent to see her.'
"'Never!' he replied. 'The tie is sundered, and cannot be reunited; my father bound me by an oath never to meet in friendship with my sister; I will not break my vow. I will not violate its conditions, even in the second degree. We never can meet again. An idle prophecy which I have heard has said, "that when a Rookwood shall marry a Rookwood the end of the house draweth nigh." That I regard not. It may have no meaning, or it may have much. To me it imports nothing further than that if you wed Eleanor, every acre I possess shall depart from you. And assure yourself this is no idle threat. I can, and will do it. My curse shall be your sole inheritance.'
"I could not avoid making some reply, representing to him how unjustifiable such a procedure was to me, in a case where the happiness of my life was at stake; and how inconsistent it was with the charitable precepts of our faith, to allow feelings of resentment to influence his conduct. My remonstrances, as in the preceding meeting, were ineffectual. The more I spoke, the more intemperate he grew. I therefore desisted. But not before he had ordered me to quit the house. I did not leave the neighbourhood, but saw him again on the same evening.
"Our last interview took place in the garden. I then told him that I had determined to go abroad for two years, at the expiration of which period I proposed returning to England; trusting that his resolution might then be changed, and that he would listen to my request, for the fulfilment of which I could never cease to hope. Time, I hoped, might befriend me. He approved of my plan of travelling, requesting me not to see Eleanor before I set out; adding, in a melancholy tone—'We may never meet again, Ranulph, in this life; in that case, farewell for ever. Indulge no vain hopes. Eleanor never can be yours, but upon one condition, and to that you would never consent!'—'Propose it!' I cried; 'there is no condition I could not accede to.'—'Rash boy!' he replied; 'you know not what you say; that pledge you would never fulfil, were I to propose it to you; but no—should I survive till you return, you shall learn it then—and now, farewell'—'Speak now, I beseech you!' I exclaimed; 'anything, everything—what you will!'—'Say no more,' replied he, walking towards the house; 'when you return we will renew this subject; farewell—perhaps for ever.' His words were prophetic—that parting was for ever. I remained in the garden till nightfall. I saw my mother, but he came not again. I quitted England without beholding Eleanor."
"Did you not acquaint her by letter with what had occurred, and your consequent intentions?" asked Small.
"I did," replied Ranulph; "but I received no reply. My earliest enquiries will be directed to ascertain whether the family are still in London. It will be a question for our consideration, whether I am not justified in departing from my father's expressed wishes, or whether I should violate his commands in so doing."
"We will discuss that point hereafter," replied Small; adding, as he noticed the growing paleness of his companion, "you are too much exhausted to proceed—you had better defer the remainder of your story to a future period."
"No," replied Ranulph, swallowing a glass of water; "I am exhausted, yet I cannot rest—my blood is in a fever, which nothing will allay. I shall feel more easy when I have made the present communication. I am approaching the sequel of my narrative. You are now in possession of the story of my love—of the motive of my departure. You shall learn what was the occasion of my return.
"I had wandered from city to city during my term of exile—consumed by hopeless passion—with little that could amuse me, though surrounded by a thousand objects of interest to others, and only rendering life endurable by severest study, or most active exertion. My steps conducted me to Bordeaux; —there I made a long halt, enchanted by the beauty of the neighbouring scenery. My fancy was smitten by the situation of a villa on the banks of the Garonne, within a few leagues of the city. It was an old château, with fine gardens bordering the blue waters of the river, and commanding a multitude of enchanting prospects. The house, which had in part gone to decay, was inhabited by an aged couple, who had formerly been servants to an English family, the members of which had thus provided for them on their return to their own country. I enquired the name. Conceive my astonishment to find that this château had been the residence of the Mowbrays. This intelligence decided me at once—I took up my abode in the house; and a new and unexpected source of solace and delight was opened to me. I traced the paths she had traced; occupied the room she had occupied; tended the flowers she had tended; and, on the golden summer evenings, would watch the rapid waters, tinged with all the glorious hues of sunset, sweeping past my feet, and think how she had watched them. Her presence seemed to pervade the place. I was now comparatively happy, and anxious to remain unmolested, wrote home that I was leaving Bordeaux for the Pyrenees, on my way to Spain."
"That account arrived," observed Small.
"One night," continued Ranulph—"'tis now the sixth since the occurrence I am about to relate—I was seated in a bower that overlooked the river. It had been a lovely evening—so lovely, that I lingered there, wrapped in the heavenly contemplation of its beauties. I watched each rosy tint reflected upon the surface of the rapid stream—now fading into yellow— now shining silvery white. I noted the mystic mingling of twilight with darkness—of night with day, till the bright current on a sudden became a black mass of waters. I could scarcely discern a leaf—all was darkness—when lo! another change! The moon was up—a flood of light deluged all around—the stream was dancing again in reflected radiance, and I still lingering at its brink.
"I had been musing for some moments, with my head resting upon my hand, when, happening to raise my eyes, I beheld a figure immediately before me. I was astonished at the sight, for I had perceived no one approach—had heard no footstep advance towards me, and was satisfied that no one besides myself could be in the garden. The presence of the figure inspired me with an undefinable awe! and, I can scarce tell why, but a thrilling presentiment convinced me that it was a supernatural visitant. Without motion—without life—without substance, it seemed; yet still the outward character of life was there. I started to my feet. God! what did I behold? The face was turned to me—my father's face! And what an aspect—what a look! Time can never efface that terrible expression; it is graven upon my memory—I cannot describe it. It was not anger—it was not pain: it was as if an eternity of woe were stamped upon its features. It was too dreadful to behold. I would fain have averted my gaze—my eyes were fascinated—fixed—I could not withdraw them from the ghastly countenance. I shrank from it, yet stirred not—I could not move a limb. Noiselessly gliding towards me the apparition approached. I could not retreat. It stood obstinately beside me. I became as one half dead. The phantom shook its head with the deepest despair; and as the word 'Return!' sounded hollowly in my ears, it gradually melted from my view. I cannot tell how I recovered from the swoon into which I fell, but daybreak saw me on my way to England. I am here. On that night—at the same hour, my father died."
"It was, after all, then, a supernatural summons that you received?" said Small.
"Undoubtedly," replied Ranulph.
"Humph!—the coincidence, I own, is sufficiently curious," returned Small, musingly; "but it would not be difficult, I think, to discover satisfactory explanation of the delusion."
"There was no delusion," replied Ranulph, coldly; "the figure was as palpable as your own. Can I doubt, when I behold this result? Could any deceit have been practised upon me, at that distance?—the precise time, moreover, agreeing. Did not the phantom bid me return?—I have returned—he is dead. I have gazed upon a being of another world. To doubt were impious, after that look."
"Whatever my opinions may be, my dear young friend," returned Small gravely, "I will suspend them for the present. You are still greatly excited. Let me advise you to seek some repose."
"I am easier," replied Ranulph; "but you are right, I will endeavour to snatch a little rest. Something within tells me all is not yet accomplished. What remains?—I shudder to think of it. I will rejoin you at midnight. I shall myself attend the solemnity. Adieu!"
Ranulph quitted the room. Small sighingly shook his head, and having lighted his pipe, was presently buried in a profundity of smoke and metaphysical speculation.
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THE progress of our narrative demands our presence in another apartment of the hall—a large, lonesome chamber, situate in the eastern wing of the house, already described as the most ancient part of the building—the sombre appearance of which was greatly increased by the dingy discoloured tapestry that clothed its walls; the record of the patience and industry of a certain Dame Dorothy Rookwood, who flourished some centuries ago, and whose skilful needle had illustrated the slaughter of the Innocents, with a severity of gusto, and sanguinary minuteness of detail, truly surprising in a lady so amiable as she was represented to have been. Grim-visaged Herod glared from the ghostly woof, with his shadowy legions executing their murderous purposes, grouped like a troop of Sabbath-dancing witches around him.
Mysterious twilight, admitted through the deep, dark, mullioned windows, revealed the antique furniture of the room, which still boasted a sort of mildewed splendour, more imposing, perhaps, than its original gaudy magnificence; and showed the lofty hangings, and tall, hearse-like canopy of a bedstead, once a couch of state, but now destined for the repose of Lady Rookwood. The stiff crimson hangings were embroidered in gold, with the arms and cipher of Elizabeth, from whom the apartment, having once been occupied by that sovereign, obtained the name of the "Queen's room."
The sole tenant of this chamber was a female, in whose countenance, if time and strong emotion had written strange defeatures, they had not obliterated its striking beauty and classical grandeur of expression. It was a face majestical and severe. Pride was stamped in all its lines; and though each passion was, by turns, developed, it was evident that all were subordinate to the sin by which the angels fell. The contour of her face was formed in the purest Grecian mould, and might have been a model for Medea; so well did the gloomy grandeur of the brow, the severe chiselling of the lip, the rounded beauty of the throat, and the faultless symmetry of her full form, accord with the beau ideal of antique perfection. Shaded by smooth folds of raven hair, which still maintained its jetty die, her lofty forehead would have been displayed to the greatest advantage, had it not been at this moment knit and deformed, by excess of passion, if that passion can be said to deform which only calls forth strong and vehement expression. Her figure, which wanted only height to give it dignity, was arrayed in the garb of widowhood; and if she exhibited none of the desolation of heart, which such a bereavement might have been expected to awaken, she was evidently a prey to feelings scarcely less harrowing. At the particular time of which we speak, Lady Rookwood, for she it was, was occupied in the investigation of the contents of an escritoire. Examining the papers which it contained with great deliberation, she threw each aside, as soon as she had satisfied herself of its purport, until she arrived at a little package, carefully tied up with black riband, and scaled. This, Lady Rookwood hastily broke open, and drew forth a small miniature. It was that of a female, young and beautiful, rudely, yet faithfully executed—faithfully, we say, for there was an air of sweetness and simplicity—and, in short, a look of reality and nature about the picture (it is seldom, indeed, that we mistake a likeness, even if we are unacquainted with the original), that attested the artist's fidelity. The face was as radiant with smiles as a bright day with sunbeams. The portrait was set in gold, and behind it was looped a lock of the darkest and finest hair. Underneath the miniature was written, in Sir Piers's hand, the words,"Lady Rookwood". A slip of folded paper was also attached to it.
Lady Rookwood scornfully scrutinised the features for a few moments, and then unfolded the paper, at the sight of which she started, and turned pale. "Thank God!" she cried, "this is in my possession—while I hold this, we are safe. Were it not better to destroy this evidence at once? No, no, not now— it shall not part from me. I will abide Ranulph's return. This document will give me a power over him such as I could never otherwise obtain." Placing the marriage certificate, for such it was, within her breast, and laying the miniature upon the table, she next proceeded, deliberately, to arrange the disordered contents of the box.
All outward traces of emotion had, ere this, become so subdued in Lady Rookwood, that although she had, only a few moments previously, exhibited the extremity of passionate indignation, she now, apparently without effort, resumed entire composure, and might have been supposed to be engaged in a matter of little interest to herself. It was a dread calm, which they who knew her would have trembled to behold. "From these letters I gather," exclaimed she, "that their wretched offspring knows not of his fortune. So far well. There is no channel whence he can derive information, and my first care shall be to prevent his obtaining any clue to the secret of his birth. I am directed to provide for him—ha! ha! I will provide—a grave! There will I bury him and his secret. My son's security and my own wrong demand it. I must choose surer hands—the work must not be half done, as heretofore. And now, I bethink me, he is in the neighbourhood, connected with a gang of poachers—'tis as I could wish it."
At this moment a knock at the chamber door broke upon her meditations. "Agnes, is it you?" demanded Lady Rookwood.
Thus summoned, the old attendant entered the room.
"Why are my orders disobeyed?" asked the lady, in a severe tone of voice. "Did I not say, when you delivered me this package from Mr. Coates, which he himself wished to present, that I would not be disturbed?"
"You did, my lady, but—"
"Speak out," said Lady Rookwood, somewhat more mildly, perceiving, from Agnes's manner, that she had something of importance to communicate. "What is it brings you hither?"
"I am sorry," returned Agnes, "to disturb your ladyship, but—but—"
"But what?" interrupted Lady Rookwood impatiently.
"I could not help it, my lady—he would have me come; he said he was resolved to see your ladyship, whether you would or not."
"Would see me, ha! is it so? I guess his errand, and its object—he had some suspicion. No, that cannot be; he would not dare to tamper with these seals. Agnes, I will not see him."
"But he swears, my lady, that he will not leave the house without seeing you—he would have forced his way into your presence, if I had not consented to announce him."
"Insolent!" exclaimed Lady Rookwood, with a glance of indignation;"force his way! I promise you he shall not display an equal anxiety to repeat the visit. Tell Mr. Coates I will see him."
"Mr. Coates! Mercy on us, my lady, it's not he. He'd never have intruded upon you unask'd. No such thing. He knows his place too well. No, no; it's not Mr. Coates—"
"If not he, who is it?"
"Luke Bradley; your ladyship knows whom I mean."
"Yes, my lady; and looking so fierce and strange, I was quite frightened to see him. He looked so like his—his—"
"His father, you would say. Speak out."
"No, my lady, his grandfather—old Sir Reginald. He's the very image of him. But had not your ladyship better ring the alarm bell? and when he comes in, I'll run and fetch the servants—he's dangerous, I'm sure."
"I have no fears of him. He will see me, you say—"
"Ay, will," exclaimed Luke, as he threw open the door, and shut it forcibly after him, striding towards Lady Rookwood, "nor abide longer delay."
It was an instant or two ere Lady Rookwood, thus taken by surprise, could command speech. She fixed her eyes, with a look of keen and angry enquiry upon the bold intruder, who, nothing daunted, confronted her glances with a gaze as stern and steadfast as her own.
"Who are you, and what seek you?" exclaimed Lady Rookwood, after a brief pause, and, in spite of herself, her voice sounded tremulously. "What would you have, that you venture to appear before me at this season, and in this fashion?"
"I might have chosen a fitter opportunity," returned Luke, "were it needed. My business will not brook delay—you must be pleased to overlook this intrusion on your privacy, at a season of sorrow, like the present. As to the fashion of my visit, you must be content to excuse that. I cannot help myself. I may amend hereafter. Who I am, you are able, I doubt not, to divine. What I seek, you shall hear, when this old woman has left the room, unless you would have a witness to a declaration that concerns you as nearly as myself."
An indefinite feeling of apprehension had, from the first instant of Luke's entrance, crossed Lady Rookwood's mind. She, however, answered with some calmness:
"What you can have to say, is of small moment to me—nor does it signify who may hear it. It shall not, however, be said that Lady Rookwood feared to be alone, even though she endangered her life."
"I am no assassin," replied Luke, "nor have sought the destruction of my deadliest foe—though 'twere but retributive justice to have done so."
Lady Rookwood started.
"Nay, you need not fear me," replied Luke; "my revenge will be otherwise accomplished."
"Go," said Lady Rookwood to Agnes—"yet—stay without, in the antechamber."
"My lady," said Agnes, scarcely able to articulate, "shall I—"
"Hear me, Lady Rookwood," interrupted Luke. "I repeat, I intend you no injury. My object here is solely to obtain a private conference. You have no reason for denying me this request. I will not abuse your patience. Mine is no idle mission. Say you refuse me, and I will at once depart. I will find other means of communicating with you—less direct, and therefore less desirable. Make your election. But we must be alone—undisturbed. Summon your household—let them lay hands upon me, and I will proclaim aloud what you would gladly hide, even from yourself."
"Leave us, Agnes," said Lady Rookwood. "I have no fear of this man. I can deal with him myself, should I see occasion."
"Agnes," said Luke, in a stern, deep whisper, arresting the ancient handmaiden as she passed him, "stir not from the door till I come forth. Have you forgotten your former mistress!—my mother? Have you forgotten Barbara Lovel, and that night?"
"In Heaven's name, hush!" replied Agnes, with a shudder.
"Let that be fresh in your memory. Move not a footstep, whatever you may hear," added he, in the same tone as before.
"I will not—I will not." And Agnes departed.
Luke felt some wavering in his resolution when he found himself alone with the lady, whose calm, collected, yet haughty demeanour, as she resumed her seat, prepared for his communication, could not fail to inspire him with a certain degree of awe. Not unconscious of her advantage, nor slow to profit by it, Lady Rookwood remained perfectly silent, with her eyes steadily fixed upon his face, while his embarrassment momentarily increased. Summoning, at length, courage sufficient to address her, and ashamed of his want of nerve, he thus broke forth:
"When I entered this room, you asked my name and object. As to the first, I answer to the same designation as your ladyship. I have long borne my mother's name. I now claim my father's. My object is, the restitution of my rights."
"Soh!—it; is as I suspected," thought Lady Rookwood, involuntarily casting her large eyes down. "Do I hear you rightly?" exclaimed she, aloud; "your name is—"
"Sir Luke Rookwood. As my father's elder born; by right of his right to that title."
If a glance could have slain him, Luke had fallen lifeless at the lady's feet. With a smile of ineffable disdain she replied, "I know not why I hesitate to resent this indignity, even for an instant. But I would see how far your audacity will carry you. The name you bear is Bradley?"
"In ignorance I have done so," replied Luke. "I am the son of her whose maiden name was Bradley. She was—"
"'Tis false—I will not hear it—she was not," cried Lady Rookwood, her vehemence getting the master of her prudence.
"Your ladyship anticipates my meaning," returned Luke. "Susan Bradley was the first wife of Sir Piers Rookwood."
"His minion—his mistress if you will; nought else. Is it new to you, that a village wench, who lends herself to shame, should be beguiled by such shallow pretences? That she was so duped, I doubt not. But it is too late now to complain, and I would counsel you not to repeat your idle boast. It will serve no other purpose, trust me, than to blazon forth your own, your mother's dishonour."
"Lady Rookwood," sternly answered Luke, "my mother's fame is as free from dishonour as your own. I repeat, she was the first wife of Sir Piers; and that I, her child, am first in the inheritance; nay, sole heir to the estates and title of Rookwood, to the exclusion of your son. Ponder upon that intelligence. Men say they fear you, as a thing of ill. I fear you not. There have been days when the Rookwoods held their dames in subjection. Discern you nought of that in me?"
Once or twice during this speech Lady Rookwood's glances had wandered towards the bell-cord, as if about to summon aid; but the intention was abandoned almost as soon as formed, probably from apprehension of the consequences of any such attempt. She was not without alarm as to the result of the interview, and was considering how she could bring it to a termination without endangering herself; and, if possible, secure the person of Luke, when the latter, turning sharply round upon her, and, drawing a pistol, exclaimed:
"Whither?" asked she, in alarm.
"To the chamber of death!"
"Why there? what would you do? Villain! I will not trust my life with you. I will not follow you."
"Hesitate not, as you value your life. Do ought to alarm the house, and I fire. Your safety depends upon yourself. I would see my father's body, ere it be laid in the grave. I will not leave you here."
"Go," said Lady Rookwood; "if that be all, I pledge myself you shall not be interrupted."
"I will not take your pledge; your presence shall be my surety. By my mother's unavenged memory, if you play me false, though all your satellites stand around you, you die upon the spot! Obey me, and you are safe. Our way leads to the room by the private staircase—we shall pass unobserved—you see I know the road. The room, by your own command, is vacant, save of the dead. We shall, therefore, be alone. This done, I depart. You will then be free to act. Disobey me, and your blood be upon your own head."
"Lead on," said Lady Rookwood, pressing towards the antechamber.
"The door I mean is there," pointing to another part of the room—"that panel—"
"Ha! how know you that?"
"No matter; follow."
Luke touched a spring, and the panel flying open, disclosed a dim recess, into which he entered; and, seizing Lady Rookwood's hand, dragged her after him.
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THE CHAMBER OF DEATH
THE recess upon which the panel opened had been a small oratory, and, though entirely disused, still retained its cushions and its crucifix. There were two other entrances to this place of prayer, the one communicating with a further bedchamber, the other leading to the gallery. Through the latter, after closing the aperture, without relinquishing his grasp, Luke passed.
It was growing rapidly dark, and at the brightest seasons this gloomy corridor was but imperfectly lighted from narrow, painted, and wire-protected windows that looked into the old quadrangular court-yard below; and as they issued from the oratory a dazzling flash of lightning (a storm having suddenly arisen) momentarily illumined the whole length of the passage, disclosing the retreating figure of a man, wrapped in a large sable cloak, at the other extremity of the gallery. Lady Rookwood uttered an outcry for assistance; but the man, whoever he might be, disappeared in the instantaneously succeeding gloom, leaving her in doubt whether or not her situation had been perceived. Luke had seen this dark figure at the same instant; and, not without apprehensions lest his plans should be defeated, he griped Lady Rookwood's arm still more strictly, and placing the muzzle of the pistol to her breast hurried her rapidly forwards.
All was now in total obscurity; the countenance of neither could be perceived as they trod the dark passage; but Luke's unrelaxed grasp indicated no change in his purposes, nor did the slow, dignified march of the lady betray any apprehension on her part. Descending a spiral staircase, which led from the gallery to a lower story, their way now lay beneath the entrance-hall, a means of communication little used. Their tread sounded hollowly on the flagged floor; no other sound was heard. Mounting a staircase, similar to the one they had just descended, they arrived at another passage. A few paces brought them to a door. Luke turned the handle, and they stood within the chamber of the dead.
The room which contained the remains of poor Sir Piers was arrayed in all that mockery of state, which, vainly attempting to deride death, is itself a bitter derision of the living. It was the one devoted to the principal meals of the day; a strange choice, but convenience had dictated its adoption by those with whom this part of the ceremonial had originated, and long custom had rendered its usage, for this purpose, almost prescriptive. This room, which was of some size, had originally formed part of the great hall, from which it was divided by a thick screen of black lustrously varnished oak, enriched with fanciful figures carved in bold relief. The walls were panelled with the same embrowned material, and sustained sundry portraits of the members of the family, in every possible costume, from the steely gear of Sir Ranulph, down to the flowing attire of Sir Reginald. Most of the race were ranged around the room; and, seen in the yellow light shed upon their features by the flambeaux, they looked like an array of stern and silent witnesses, gazing upon their departed descendant. The sides of the chamber were hung with black cloth, and upon a bier in the middle of the room rested the body. Broad escutcheons, decked out in glowing colours, pompously set forth the heraldic honours of the departed. Tall lights burnt at the head and feet, and fragrant perfumes diffused their odours from silver censers.
The entrance of Luke and his unwilling companion had been abrupt. The transition from darkness to the glare of light was almost blinding, and they had advanced far into the room ere Lady Rookwood perceived a man, whom she took to be one of the mutes, leaning over the bier. The coffin lid was entirely removed, and the person, whose back was towards them, appeared to be wrapt in mournful contemplation of the sad spectacle before him. Suddenly bursting from Luke's hold, Lady Rookwood rushed forward with a scream, and touched the man's shoulder. He started at the summons, and disclosed the features of her son!
Rapidly as her own act, Luke followed. He levelled a pistol at her head, but his hand dropped to his side, as he encountered the glance of Ranulph. All three seemed paralysed by surprise. Ranulph, in astonishment, extended his arm to his mother, who, placing one arm over his shoulder, pointed with the other to Luke; the latter stared sternly and enquiringly at both—yet none spoke.
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"Disobey me, and your blood be upon your own head."
WITH that quickness of perception, which at once supplies information on such an emergency, Luke instantly conjectured who was before him. Startled as he was, he yet retained his composure, abiding the result with his arms folded upon his breast.
"Seize him," cried Lady Rookwood, as soon as she could command her speech.
"He rushes on his death if he stirs," exclaimed Luke, pointing his pistol.
"Bethink you where you are, villain," cried Ranulph; "you are entrapped in your own toils. Submit yourself to our mercy—resistance is vain, and I will not secure your safety, while it will aggravate your offence. Surrender yourself—"
"Never!" answered Luke. "Know you whom you ask to yield?"
"How should I?" answered Ranulph.
"By that instinct which tells me who you are. Ask Lady Rookwood—she can inform you, if she will."
"Parley not with him—seize him," cried Lady Rookwood. "He is a robber, a murderer, who has assailed my life."
"Beware," said Luke to Ranulph, who was preparing to obey his mother's commands; "I am no robber—no murderer. Do not make me a fratricide."
"Fratricide!" echoed Ranulph.
"Heed him not," ejaculated Lady Rookwood. "It is false—he dares not harm thee for his soul. I will call assistance."
"Hold, mother!" exclaimed Ranulph, detaining Lady Rookwood; "this man may be what he represents himself. Before we proceed to extremities I would question him. I would not have mentioned it in your hearing could it have been avoided, but my father had another son."
Lady Rookwood frowned. She would have checked him, but Luke rejoined:
"You have spoken the truth; he had a son—I am he. I—"
"Be silent, I command you," said Lady Rookwood.
"Death!" cried Luke, in a loud voice. "Why should I be silent at your bidding—at yours—who regard no laws, human or divine; who pursue your own fell purposes, without fear of God or man? Waste not your frowns on me—I heed them not. Do you think I am like a tame hound, to be cowed to silence? I will speak. Ranulph Rookwood, the name you bear is mine, and by a right as good as is your own. From his loins, who lies a corpse before us, I sprang. No brand of shame is on my birth. I am your father's son—his first-born—your elder brother. Hear me!" cried he, rushing to the bier. "By this body, I swear that I have avouched the truth—and though to me the dead Sir Piers Rookwood hath never been what a father should be to a son—though I have never known his smile, felt his caresses, or received his blessing, yet now be all forgiven, forgotten." And he cast himself with frantic violence upon the coffin.
It is difficult to describe the feelings with which Ranulph heard Luke's avowal. Amazement and dread predominated. Unable to stir, he stood gazing on in silence. Not so, Lady Rookwood. The moment for action was arrived. Addressing her son in a low tone, she said, "Your prey is within your power. Secure him."
"Wherefore?" rejoined Ranulph: "if he be my brother, shall I raise my hand against him?"
"Wherefore not?" returned Lady Rookwood.
"'Twere an accursed deed," replied Ranulph. "The mystery is resolved. 'Twas for this that I was summoned home."
"Ha! what say you? summoned! by whom?"
"Your father?" echoed Lady Rookwood, in great surprise.
"Ay, my dead father! He has appeared to me since his decease."
"Ranulph, you rave—you are distracted with grief—with astonishment."
"No, mother; but I will not struggle against my destiny."
"Pshaw! your destiny is Rookwood, its manors, its land, its rent-roll, and its title; nor shall you yield it to a baseborn churl like this. Let him prove his rights. Let the law adjudge them to him, and we will yield—but not till then. I tell thee he has not the right, nor can he maintain it. He is a deluded dreamer, who, having heard some idle tale of his birth, believes it, because it chimes with his wishes. I treated him with the scorn he deserved. I would have driven him from my presence, but he was armed, as you see, and forced me hither, perhaps to murder me; a deed he might have accomplished, had it not been for your intervention. His life is already forfeit, for an attempt of the same sort last night. Why else came he hither? for what else did he drag me to this spot? Let him answer that!"
"I will answer it," replied Luke, raising himself from the bier. His face was of an ashy paleness, and ghastly as the corpse over which he leaned. "I had a deed to do, which I wished you to witness. It was a wild conception. But the means by which I have acquired the information of my rights were wild. Ranulph, we are both the slaves of fate. You have received your summons hither—I have had mine. Your father's ghost called you; my mother's spectral hand beckoned me. Both are arrived. One thing more remains, and my mission is completed." Saying which, he drew forth the skeleton hand; and having first taken the wedding-ring from the finger, he placed the withered limb upon the left breast of his father's body. "Rest there," he cried, "for ever."
"Will you suffer that?" said Lady Rookwood, tauntingly, to her son.
"No," replied Ranulph; "such profanation of the dead shall not be endured, were he ten times my brother. Stand aside," added he, advancing towards the bier, and motioning Luke away. "Withdraw your hand from my father's body, and remove what you have placed upon it."
"I will neither remove it, nor suffer it to be removed," returned Luke. "'Twas for that purpose I came hither.'Twas to that hand he was united in life, in death he shall not be divided from it."
"Such irreverence shall not be," exclaimed Ranulph, seizing Luke with one hand, and snatching at the cereclothes with the other. "Remove it, or by Heaven—"
"Leave go your hold," said Luke, in a voice of thunder; "you strive in vain."
Ranulph ineffectually attempted to push him backwards; and shaking away the grasp that was fixed upon his collar, seized his brother's wrist, so as to prevent the accomplishment of his purpose. In this unnatural and indecorous strife, the corpse of their father was reft of its covering, and the hand discovered lying upon the pallid breast.
And as if the wanton impiety of their conduct called forth an immediate rebuke, even from the dead, a frown seemed to pass over Sir Piers's features, as their angry glances fell in that direction. This startling effect was occasioned by the approach of Lady Rookwood, whose shadow, falling over the brow and visage of the deceased, produced the appearance we have described. Simultaneously quitting each other, with a deep sense of shame, mingled with remorse, both remained, their eyes fixed upon the dead, whose repose they had violated.
Folding the graveclothes decently over the body, Luke prepared to depart.
"Hold!" cried Lady Rookwood; "you go not hence."
"My brother Ranulph will not oppose my departure," returned Luke; "who else shall prevent it?"
"That will I," cried a sharp voice behind him; and, ere he could turn to ascertain from whom the exclamation proceeded, Luke felt himself grappled by two nervous assailants, who, snatching the pistol from his hold, fast pinioned his arms. This was scarcely the work of a moment, and he was a prisoner before he could offer any resistance. A strong smile of exultation evinced Lady Rookwood's satisfaction.
"Bravo, my lads, bravo!" cried Coates, stepping forward, for he it was under whose skilful superintendence the seizure had been effected: "famously managed; my father, the thief-taker's runners couldn't have done it better—hand me that pistol—loaded, I see—slugs, no doubt—oh, he's a precious rascal—search him—turn his pockets inside out while I speak to her ladyship." Saying which, the brisk attorney, enchanted with the feat he had performed, approached Lady Rookwood with a profound bow, and an amazing smirk of self-satisfaction. "Just in time to prevent mischief," said he; "hope your ladyship does not suffer any inconvenience from the alarm—beg pardon, annoyance I meant to say—which this horrible outrage must have occasioned; excessively disagreeable this sort of thing to a lady any time, but at a period like this more than usually provoking. However, we have the villain safe enough. Very lucky I happened to be in the way. Perhaps your ladyship would like to know how I discovered—"
"Not now," replied Lady Rookwood, checking the volubility of the man of law. "I thank you, Mr. Coates, for the service you have rendered me; you will now add materially to the obligation by removing the prisoner with all convenient despatch."
"Certainly, if your ladyship wishes it. Shall I detain him a close prisoner in the hall for the night, or remove him at once to the lock-up house in the village?"
"Where you please, so you do it quickly," replied Lady Rookwood, noticing, with great uneasiness, the agitated manner of her son, and apprehensive lest, in the presence of so many witnesses, he might say or do something prejudicial to their interests. Nor were her fears groundless. As Coates was about to return to the prisoner, he was arrested by the voice of Ranulph, commanding him to stay.
"Mr. Coates," said he, "however appearances may be against this man, he is no robber—you must, therefore, release him."
"Eh day, what's that? release him, Sir Ranulph?"
"Yes, sir; I tell you he came here neither with the intent to rob nor to offer violence."
"That is false, Ranulph," replied Lady Rookwood. "I was dragged hither by him, at the peril of my life. He is Mr. Coates's prisoner on another charge."
"Unquestionably, your ladyship is perfectly right; I have a warrant against him for assaulting Hugh Badger, the keeper, and for other misdemeanours."
"I will myself be responsible for his appearance to that charge," replied Ranulph. "Now, sir, at once release him."
"At your peril!" exclaimed Lady Rookwood.
"Well, really," muttered the astonished attorney, "this is the most perplexing proceeding I ever witnessed."
"Ranulph," said Lady Rookwood, sternly, to her son, "beware how you thwart me!"
"Yes, Sir Ranulph, let me venture to advise you, as a friend, not to thwart her ladyship," whispered the attorney; "indeed, she is in the right." But, seeing his advice unheeded, Coates withdrew to a little distance.
"I will not see injustice done to my father's son," replied Ranulph, in a low tone. "Why would you detain him?"
"Why?" returned she, "our safety demands it—our honour."
"Our honour demands his instant liberation; each moment he remains in those bonds sullies its purity. I will free him myself from his fetters."
"And brave my curse, foolish boy? You incurred your miserable father's anathema for a lighter cause than this. Our honour cries aloud for his destruction. Have I not been injured in the nicest point a woman can be injured? Shall I lend my name to mockery and scorn, by base acknowledgment of such deceit, or will you? Where would be my honour, then, stripped of my fair estates—my son—myself—beggars—dependent on the bounty of an upstart? Does honour ask you to bear this? It is a phantom sense of honour, unsubstantial as your father's shade, of which you just now spoke, that would prompt you to do otherwise."
"Do not evoke his awful spirit, mother," cried Ranulph, with a shudder; "do not arouse his wrath."
"Do not arouse my wrath," returned Lady Rookwood. "I am the more to be feared. Think of Eleanor Mowbray; the bar between your nuptials is removed. Would you raise up a greater impediment?"
"Enough, mother, more than enough. You have decided, though not convinced me. Detain him within the house, if you will, until the morrow; in the meantime, I will consider over my line of conduct."
"Is this, then, your resolve?"
"It is. Mr. Coates," said Ranulph, calling the attorney, who had been an inquisitive spectator, though, luckily, not an auditor of this interview, "unbind the prisoner, and bring him hither."
"Is it your ladyship's pleasure?" asked Mr. Coates, who regretted exceedingly that he could not please both parties.
Lady Rookwood signified her assent by a slight gesture in the affirmative.
"Your bidding shall be done, Sir Ranulph," said Coates, bowing and departing.
"Sir Ranulph!" echoed Lady Rookwood, with strong emphasis; "marked you that?"
"Body o' me," muttered the attorney, "this is the most extraordinary family to be sure. Make way, gentlemen, if you please," added he, pushing through the crowd, towards the prisoner.
Having described what took place between Lady Rookwood and her son in one part of the room, we must now briefly narrate some incidental occurrences in the other. The alarm of a robber having been taken, spread with great celerity through the house, and almost all its inmates rushed into the room, including Doctor Small, Titus Tyreonnel, and Jack Palmer.
"Odsbodikins! are you there, honey?" said Titus, who discovered his ally; "the bird's caught, you see."
"Caught be d—d," replied Jack, bluffly; "so I see; all his own fault; infernal folly to come here, at such a time as this. However, it can't be helped now; he must make the best of it. And as to that sneaking, gimlet-eyed, parchment-skinned quill-driver, if I don't serve him out for his officiousness, one of these days, my name's not Jack Palmer."
"Och! cushlamaeree! did I ever; why, what the devil's the boy to you, Jack? Fair play's a jewel, and surely Mr. Coates only did his duty. I'm sorry he's captured, for his relationship to Sir Piers, and because I think he'll be tucked up for his pains; and, moreover, I could forgive the poaching; but as to the breaking into a house, on such an occasion as this, och! it's a plaguey bad look. I'm afraid he's worse than I thought him."
A group of the tenantry, many of whom were in a state of intoxication, had, in the meantime, formed themselves round the prisoner. Whatever might be the nature of his thoughts, no apprehension was visible in Luke's countenance. He stood erect amidst the assemblage, his tall form towering above them all, and his eyes fixed upon the movements of Lady Rookwood and her son. He had perceived the anguish of the latter, and the vehemence of the former, attributing both to their real causes. The taunts and jeers, threats and insolent enquiries, of the hinds who thronged round him, passed unheeded; yet one voice in his ear, sharp as the sting of a serpent, made him start. It was that of the sexton.
"You have done well," said Peter, "have you not? Your fetters are, I hope, to your liking. Well! a wilful man must have his own way, and perhaps the next time you will be content to follow my advice. You must now free yourself, the best way you can, from these Moabites, and I promise you it will be no easy matter. Ha! ha!"
Peter withdrew into the crowd; and Luke, vainly endeavouring to discover his retreating figure, caught the eye of Jack Palmer fixed upon himself, with a peculiar and very significant expression.
At this moment Mr. Coates made his appearance.
"Bring forward the prisoner," said the man of law to his two assistants; and Luke was accordingly hurried along, Mr. Coates using his best efforts to keep back the crowd. It was during the pressure that Luke heard a voice whisper in his ear, "Never fear, all's right"; and turning his head he became aware of the propinquity of Jack Palmer. The latter elevated his eyebrows with a gesture of silence, and Luke passed on as if nothing had occurred. He was presently confronted with Lady Rookwood and her son; and, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr. Coates, seconded by some few others, the crowd grew dense around them.
"Remove his fetters," said Ranulph. And his manacles were removed.
"You will consent to remain here a prisoner until tomorrow."
"I consent to nothing," replied Luke; "I am in your hands."
"He does not deserve your clemency, Sir Ranulph," interposed Coates.
"Let him take his own course," said Lady Rookwood; "he will reap the benefit of it anon."
"Will you pledge yourself not to depart?" asked Ranulph.
"Of course," cried the attorney; "to be sure he will. Ha, ha!"
"No," returned Luke haughtily, "I will not—and you will detain me at your proper peril."
"Better and better," exclaimed the attorney. "This is the highest joke I ever heard."
"I shall detain you, then, in custody, until proper enquiries can be made," said Ranulph. "To your care, Mr. Coates, and to that of Mr. Tyrconnel, whom I must request to lend you his assistance, I commit the charge; and I must further request, that you will show him every attention which his situation will permit. Remove him. We have a sacred duty to the dead to fulfil, to which even justice to the living must give way. Disperse this crowd, and let instant preparations be made for the completion of the ceremonial. You understand me, sir."
"Ranulph Rookwood," said Luke, sternly, as he departed, "you have another—a more sacred office, to perform. Fulfil your duty to your father's son."
"Away with him," cried Lady Rookwood. "I am out of all patience with this trifling. Follow me to my chamber," added she to her son, passing towards the door. The concourse of spectators, who had listened to this extraordinary scene in astonishment, made way for her instantly, and she left the room, accompanied by Ranulph. The prisoner was led out by the other door.
"Botheration!" cried Titus to Mr. Coates, as they followed in the wake, "why did he choose out me? I'll lose the funeral entirely by his arrangement."
"That you will," replied Palmer. "Shall I be your deputy?"
"No, no," returned Coates. "I will have no other than Mr. Tyrconnel. It was Sir Ranulph's express wish."
"That's the devil of it," returned Titus; "and I, who was to have been chief mourner, and have made all the preparations, am to be omitted. I wish Sir Ranulph had stayed till tomorrow—what could bring him here, to spoil all?—it's cursedly provoking!"
"Cursed provoking!" echoed Jack.
"But then there's no help, so I must make the best of it," returned the good-humoured Irishman.
"Body o' me," said Coates, "there's something in all this that I can't fathom. As to keeping the prisoner here, that's all moonshine. But I suppose we shall know the whole drift of it to-morrow."
"Ay," replied Jack, with a meaning smile, "to-morrow!"
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Duchess. Thou art very plain.
Bosola. My trade is to flatter the dead—not the living—I am a tomb-maker.
THE night was wild and stormy. The day had been sultry, with a lurid, metallic-looking sky, hanging like a vast galvanic plate over the face of nature. As evening drew on, everything betokened the coming tempest. Unerring indications of the approach were noted by the weather-wise at the hall. The swallow was seen to skim the surface of the pool so closely, that he ruffled its placid mirror as he passed; and then, sharply darting round and round, with twittering scream, he winged his rapid flight to his clay-built home beneath the barn eaves. The kine that had herded to the margin of the water, and sought, by splashing, to relieve themselves from the keen persecution of their myriad insect tormentors, wended stallwards, undriven, and deeply lowing. The deer, that at twilight had trooped thither also for refreshment, suddenly, "with expanded nostrils, snuffed the air," and bounded off to their coverts, amidst the sheltering fernbrake. The rooks, "obstreperous of wing, in crowds combined," cawed in a way that, as plainly as words could have done, bespoke their apprehension; and were seen, some hovering and beating the air with flapping pinion, others shooting upwards in mid space, as if to reconnoitre the weather; while others, again, were croaking to their mates, in loud discordant tone, from the highest branches of the lime-trees; all, seemingly, as anxious and as busy as mariners before a gale of wind.
At sunset, the hazy vapours, which had obscured the horizon throughout the day, rose up in spiral volumes, like smoke from a burning forest, and, becoming gradually condensed, assumed the form of huge, billowy masses, which, reflecting the sun's light, changed, as the sinking orb declined, from purple to flame colour, and thence to ashy, angry grey. Night rushed onwards, like a sable steed. There was a dead calm. The stillness was undisturbed, save by an intermittent, sighing wind, which, hollow as a murmur from the grave, died as it rose. At once the grey clouds turned to an inky blackness. A single, sharp, intensely vivid flash shot from the bosom of the rack, sheer downwards, and struck the earth with a report like that of a piece of ordnance. In ten minutes it was dunnest night, and a rattling thunderstorm.
The progress of the storm was watched with infinite apprehension by the crowd of tenantry assembled in the great hall; and loud and frequent were the ejaculations uttered, as each succeeding peal burst over their heads. There was, however, one amongst the assemblage who seemed to enjoy the uproar. A kindred excitement appeared to blaze in his glances, as he looked upon the storm without. This was Peter Bradley. He stood close by the window, and shaded not his eyes, even before the fiercest flashes. A grin of unnatural exhilaration played upon his features, and he seemed to exult in, and to court, the tempestuous horrors, which affected the most hardy amongst his companions with consternation, and made all shrink trembling into the recesses of the room. Peter's conduct was not unobserved, nor his reputation for unholy dealing forgotten. To some he was almost as much an object of dread as the storm itself.
"Didst ever see the like o' that?" said farmer Burtenshaw (one of the guests, whose round, honest face, good wine had recently empurpled, but fear had now mottled white), addressing a neighbour. "Didst ever hear of any man that were a Christian laughing in the very face o' a thunderstorm, with the lightnin' fit to put out his eyes, and the rattle above ready to break the drums o' his ears? I always thought Peter Bradley was not exactly what he ought to be, and now I am sure on it."
"For my part, I think, neighbour Burtenshaw," returned the other, "that this great burst of weather's all of his raising, for in all my born days I never see'd such a hurly-burly, and hope never to see the like of it again. I've heard my grandfather tell of folk as could command wind and rain; and, mayhap, Peter may have the power—we all know he can do more nor any other man."
"We know, at all events," replied Burtenshaw, "that he lives like no other man; that he spends night after night by himself in that dreary churchyard; that he keeps no living thing, except an old terrier dog, in his crazy cottage; and that he never asks a body into his house from one year's end to another. I've never crossed his threshold these twenty years. But," continued he, mysteriously, "I happened to pass the house one dark, dismal night, and there what dost think I see'd through the window?"
"What—what didst see?"
"Peter Bradley sitting with a great book open on his knees; it were a Bible, I think, and he crying like a child."
"Art sure o' that?"
"The tears were falling fast upon the leaves," returned Burtenshaw; "but when I knocked at the door, he hastily shut up the book, and ordered me to be gone, in a surly tone, as if he were ashamed of being caught in the fact."
"I thought no tear had ever dropped from his eye," said the other. "Why, he laughed when his daughter Susan went off at the hall; and when she died, folks said he received hush-money to say nought about it. That were a bad business anyhow; and now that his grandson Luke be taken in the fact of housebreaking, he minds it no more, not he, than if nothing had happened."
"Don't be too sure of that," replied Burtenshaw; "he may be scheming summat all this time. Well, I've known Peter Bradley now these two-and-fifty years, and, excepting that one night, I never saw any good about him, and never heard of nobody who could tell who he be, or where he do come from."
"One thing's certain at least," replied the other farmer—"he were never born at Rookwood. How he came here the devil only knows. Save us! what a crash!—this storm be all of his raising, I tell 'ee."
"He be—what he certainly will be," interposed another speaker, in a louder tone, and with less of apprehension in his manner than his comrade, probably from his nerves being better fortified with strong liquor. "Dost thou think, Sammul Plant, as how Providence would entrust the like o' him with the command of the elements? No—no, it's rank blasphemy to suppose such a thing, and I've too much of the true Catholic and apostate Church about me, to stand by and hear that said."
"Maybe, then, he gets his power from the Prince of Darkness," replied Plant; "no man else could go on as he does—only look at him. He seems to be watching for the thunderbowt."
"I wish he may catch it, then," returned the other.
"That's an evil wish, Simon Toft, and thou mayst repent it."
"Not I!" replied Toft; "it would be a good clearance to the neighbourhood to get rid o' the old croaking curmudgeon."
Whether or not Peter overheard the conversation we pretend not to say, but at that moment a blaze of lightning showed him staring fiercely at the group.
"As I live, he's overheard you, Simon," exclaimed Plant. "I wouldn't be in your skin for a trifle."
"Nor I," added Burtenshaw.
"Let him overhear me," answered Toft; "who cares? he shall hear summat worth listening to. I'm not afraid o' him or his arts, were they as black as Beelzebuth's own; and to show you I'm not, I'll go and have a crack with him on the spot."
"Thou'rt a fool for thy pains, if thou dost, friend Toft," returned Plant, "that's all I can say."
"Be advised by me, and stay here," seconded Burtenshaw—endeavouring to hold him back.
But Toft would not be advised. Staggering up to Peter, he laid a hard grasp upon his shoulder, and, thus forcibly soliciting his attention, burst into a loud horse-laugh.
But Peter was, or affected to be, too much occupied to look at him.
"What dost see, man, that thou starest so?"
"It comes, it comes—the rain—the rain—a torrent—a deluge—ha, ha! Blessed is the corpse the rain rains on. Sir Piers may be drenched through his leaden covering by such a downfall as that—splash, splash—fire and water and thunder, all together—is not that fine?—ha, ha! The heavens will weep for him, though friends shed not a tear. When did a great man's heir feel sympathy for his sire's decease? When did his widow mourn? When doth any man regret his fellow? Never! He rejoiceth—he maketh glad in his inmost heart—he cannot help it—it is nature. We all pray for—we all delight in each other's destruction. We were created to do so; or why else should we act thus? I never wept for any man's death, but I have often laughed. Natural sympathy!—out on the phrase. The distant heavens—the senseless trees—the impenetrable stones—shall regret you more than man—shall bewail your death with more sincerity. Ay, 'tis well—rain on—splash, splash; it will cool the hell-fever. Down, down—buckets and pails—ha, ha!"
There was a pause, during which the sexton, almost exhausted by the frenzy in which he had suffered himself to be involved, seemed insensible to all around him.
"I tell you what," said Burtenshaw to Plant; "I have always thought there was more in Peter Bradley nor appears on the outside. He is not what he seems to be, take my word on it. Lord love you! do you think a man such as he pretends to be could talk in that sort of way—about nat'ral simpering?—no such thing."
When Peter recovered, his insane merriment broke out afresh, having only acquired fury by the pause.
"Look out, look out," cried he; "hark to the thunder—list to the rain. Marked ye that flash—marked ye the clock-house—and the bird upon the roof? 'tis the rook—the great bird of the house, that hath borne away the soul of the departed. There, there—can you not see it? it sits and croaks through storm and rain, and never heeds at all—and wherefore should it heed? See, it flaps its broad black wings—it croaks—ha! ha! It comes—it comes."
And driven, it might be, by the terror of the storm, from more secure quarters, a bird, at this instant, was dashed against the window, and fell to the ground.
"That's a call," continued Peter; "it will be over soon, and we must set out. The dead will not need to tarry. Look at that trail of fire along the avenue; dost see yon line of sparkles, like a rocket's tail? That's the path the corpse will take. St. Hermes's flickering fire, Robin Goodfellow's dancing light, or the blue flame of the corpse-candle, which I saw flitting to the churchyard last week, was not so pretty a sight—ha, ha!"
"But if thou didst see a corpse-candle, as thou call'st thy pale blue flame," said Toft, "whose death doth it betoken?—eh!"
"Thy own," returned Peter, sharply.
"Mine! thou lying old cheat—dost dare to say that to my face? Why, I'm as hale and hearty as ever a man in the house. Dost think there's no life and vigour in this arm, thou drivelling old dotard?"
Upon which, Toft seized Peter by the throat, with an energy that, but for the timely intervention of the company, who rushed to his assistance, the prophet might himself have anticipated the doom he prognosticated.
Released from the grasp of Toft, who was held back by the bystanders, Peter again broke forth into his eltrich laugh; and staring right into the face of his adversary, with eyes glistening, and hands uplifted, as if in the act of calling down an imprecation on his head, he screamed, in a shrill and discordant voice, "Soh! you will not take my warning? you revile me—you flout me! 'Tis well! your fate shall prove a warning to all unbelievers—they shall remember this night, though you will not. Fool! fool!—your doom has long been sealed! I saw your wraith choose out its last lodgment on Halloween; I know the spot. Your grave is dug already—ha, ha!" And, with renewed laughter, Peter rushed out of the room.
"Did I not caution thee not to provoke him, friend Toft?" said Plant; "it's ill playing with edge tools; but don't let him fly off in that tantrum—one of ye go after him."
"That will I," replied Burtenshaw; and he departed in search of the sexton.
"I'd advise thee to make it up with Peter so soon as thou canst, neighbour," continued Plant; "he's a bad friend, but a worse enemy."
"Why, what harm can he do me?" returned Toft, who, however, was not without some misgivings. "If I must die, I can't help it—I shall go none the sooner for him, even if he speak the truth, which I don't think he do; and if I must, I shan't go unprepared—only I think as how, if it pleased Providence, I could have wished to keep my old missis company some few years longer and see those bits of lasses of mine grow up into women, and respectably provided for. But His will be done. I shan't leave 'em quite penniless, and there's one eye at least, I'm sure, won't be dry at my departure." Here the stout heart of Toft gave way, and he shed some few "natural tears"; which, however, he speedily brushed away. "I tell you what, neighbours," continued he; "I think we may all as well be thinking of going to our own homes, for, to my mind, we shall never reach the churchyard to-night."
"That you never will," exclaimed a voice behind him; and Toft turning round, again met the glance of Peter.
"Come, come, Master Peter," cried the good-natured farmer, "this be ugly jesting—ax pardon for my share of it—sorry for what I did—so give us thy hand, man, and think no more about it."
Peter extended his claw, and the parties were, apparently, once more upon terms of friendship.
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THE FUNERAL ORATION
A SUPPLY of spirits was here introduced; lights were brought at the same time, and placed upon a long oak table. The party gathering round it, ill-humour was speedily dissipated, and even the storm disregarded, in the copious libations that ensued. At this juncture, a loiterer appeared in the hall. His movements were unnoticed by all excepting the sexton, who watched his proceedings with some curiosity. The person walked to the window, appearing, so far as could be discovered, to eye the storm with great impatience. He then paced the hall rapidly backwards and forwards, and Peter fancied he could detect sounds of disappointment, in his muttered exclamations. Again he returned to the window, as if to ascertain the probable duration of the shower. It was a hopeless endeavour; all was pitch dark without; the lightning was now only seen at long intervals, but the rain still audibly descended in torrents. Apparently, seeing the impossibility of controlling the elements, the person approached the table.
"What think you of the night, Mr. Palmer?" asked the sexton of Jack, for he was the anxious investigator of the weather.
"Don't know—can't say—set in, I think—cursed unlucky—for the funeral, I mean—we shall be drowned if we go."
"And drunk if we stay," rejoined Peter. "But never fear, it will hold up, depend upon it, long before we can start. Where have they put the prisoner?" asked he, with a sudden change of manner.
"I know the room, but can't describe it; it's two or three doors down the lower corridor of the eastern gallery."
"Good. Who are on guard?"
"Titus Tyrconnel, and that swivel-eyed quill-driver, Coates."
"Come, come, Master Peter," roared Toft, "let's have a stave. Give us one of your old snatches. No corpse-candles, or that sort of thing. Something lively—something jolly—ha, ha!"
"A good move," shouted Jack. "A lively song from you—Lillibullero from a death's head—ha, ha!"
"My songs are all of a sort," returned Peter; "I am seldom asked to sing a second time. However, you are welcome to the merriest I have." And preparing himself, like certain other accomplished vocalists, with a few preliminary hems and haws, he struck forth the following doleful ditty:
THE OLD OAK COFFIN
In a churchyard, upon the sward, a coffin there was laid,
And leaning stood, beside the wood, a sexton on his spade.
A coffin old and black it was, and fashioned curiously,
With quaint device of carved oak, in hideous fantasie.
For here was wrought the sculptured thought of a tormented face,
With serpents lithe that round it writhe, in folded strict embrace.
Grim visages of grinning fiends were at each corner set,
And emblematic scrolls, mort-heads, and bones together met.
"Ah, well-a-day!" that sexton grey unto himself did cry,
"Beneath that lid much lieth hid—much awful mysterie.
It is an ancient coffin from the abbey that stood here;
Perchance it holds an abbot's bones, perchance those of a frere.
"In digging deep, where monks do sleep, beneath yon cloister shrined
That coffin old, within the mould, it was my chance to find;
The costly carvings of the lid I scraped full carefully,
In hope to get at name or date, yet nothing could I see.
"With pick and spade I've plied my trade for sixty years and more,
Yet never found, beneath the ground, shell strange as that before;
Full many coffins have I seen—have seen them deep or flat,
Fantastical in fashion—none fantastical as that."
And saying so, with heavy blow, the lid he shattered wide,
And, pale with fright, a ghastly sight that sexton grey espied;
A miserable sight it was, that loathsome corpse to see,
The last, last, dreary, darksome stage of fall'n humanity.
Though all was gone, save reeky bone, a green and grisly heap,
With scarce a trace of fleshly face, strange posture did it keep.
The hands were clench'd, the teeth were wrench'd, as if the wretch had risen,
E'en after death had ta'en his breath, to strive and burst his prison.
The neck was bent, the nails were rent, no limb or joint was straight
Together glued, with blood imbued, black and coagulate.
And, as the sexton stooped him down to lift the coffin plank,
His fingers were defiled all o'er with slimy substance dank.
"Ah, well-a-day!" that sexton grey unto himself did cry,
"Full well I see how Fate's decree foredoomed this wretch to die;
A living man, a breathing man, within the coffin thrust,
Alack! alack! the agony ere he returned to dust."
A vision drear did then appear unto that sexton's eyes;
Like that poor wight before him straight he in a coffin lies.
He lieth in a trance within that coffin close and fast;
Yet though he sleepeth now, he feels he shall awake at last.
The coffin then, by reverend men, is borne with footsteps slow,
Where tapers shine before the shrine, where breathes the requiem low;
And for the dead the prayer is said, for the soul that is not flown—
Then all is drown'd in hollow sound, the earth is o'er him thrown!
He draweth breath—he wakes from death to life more horrible;
To agony! such agony! no living tongue may tell.
Die! die he must, that wretched one! he struggles—strives in vain;
No more heaven's light, nor sunshine bright, shall he behold again.
"Gramercy, Lord!" the sexton roar'd, awakening suddenly,
"If this be dream, yet doth it seem most dreadful so to die.
Oh, cast my body in the sea! or hurl it on the shore!
But nail me not in coffin fast—no grave will I dig more."
It was not difficult to discover the effect produced by this song, in the lengthened faces of the greater part of the audience. Jack Palmer, however, laughed loud and long.
"Bravo, bravo!" cried he; "that suits my humour exactly. I can't abide the thoughts of a coffin. No deal box for me."
"A gibbet might, perhaps, serve your turn as well," muttered the sexton; adding aloud, "I am now entitled to call upon you;—a song!—a song!"
"Ay, a song, Mr. Palmer, a song," reiterated the hinds. "Yours will be the right kind of thing."
"Say no more," replied Jack. "I'll give you a chant composed upon Dick Turpin, the highwayman. It's no great shakes, to be sure, but it's the best I have." And, with a knowing wink at the sexton, he commenced in the true nasal whine the following strain:
ONE FOOT IN THE STIRRUP;
Or, Turpin's First Fling
"One foot in the stirrup, one hand in the rein,
And the noose be my portion, or freedom I'll gain!
Oh! give me a seat in my saddle once more,
And these bloodhounds shall find that the chase is not o'er!"
Thus muttered Dick Turpin, who found, while he slept,
That the Philistines old on his slumbers had crept;
Had entrapped him as puss on her form you'd ensnare,
And that gone were his snappers—and gone was his mare.
How Dick had been captured is readily told,
The pursuit had been hot, though the night had been cold:
So at daybreak, exhausted, he sought brief repose
Mid the thick of a cornfield, away from his foes.
But in vain was his caution—in vain did his steed,
Ever watchful and wakeful in moments of need,
With lip and with hoof on her master's check press—
He slept on, nor heeded the warning of Bess.
"Zounds! gem'men!" cried Turpin, "you've found me at fault,
And the highflying highwayman's come to a halt;
You have turned up a trump (for I weigh well my weight),
And the forty is yours, though the halter's my fate.
Well, come on't what will, you shall own when all's past,
That Dick Turpin, the Dauntless, was game to the last.
But, before we go further, I'll hold you a bet,
That one foot in my stirrup you won't let me set.
"A hundred to one is the odds I will stand,
A hundred to one is the odds you command;
Here's a handful of goldfinches ready to fly!
May I venture a foot in my stirrup to try?"
As he carelessly spoke, Dick directed a glance
At his courser, and motioned her slyly askance:
You might tell by the singular toss of her head,
And the prick of her ears, that his meaning she read.
With derision at first was Dick's wager received,
And his error at starting as yet unretrieved;
But when from his pocket the shiners he drew,
And offered to "make up the hundred to two,"
There were havers in plenty, and each whispered each,
The same thing, though varied in figure of speech,
"Let the fool act his folly—the stirrup of Bess!
He has put his foot in it already we guess!"
Bess was brought to her master—Dick steadfastly gazed
At the eye of his mare, then his foot quick upraised:
His toe touched the stirrup, his hand grasped the rein—
He was safe on the back of his courser again!
As the clarion, fray-sounding and shrill, was the neigh
Of Black Bess, as she answered his cry hark-away!"
"Beset me, ye bloodhounds! in rear and in van;
My foot's in the stirrup, now catch me who can?"
There was riding and gibing mid rabble and rout,
And the old woods re-echoed the Philistines' shout!
There was hurling and whirling o'er brake and o'er brier,
But the course of Dick Turpin was swift as heaven's fire.
Whipping, spurring, and straining, would nothing avail,
Dick laughed at their curses, and scoffed at their wail;
"My foot's in the stirrup!"—thus rang his last cry;
"Bess had answered my call; now her mettle we'll try!"
Uproarious applause followed Jack's song, when the joviality of the mourners was interrupted by a summons to attend in the state room. Silence was at once completely restored; and, in the best order they could assume, they followed their leader, Peter Bradley. Jack Palmer was amongst the last to enter, and remained a not incurious spectator of a by no means common scene.
Preparations had been made to give due solemnity to the ceremonial. The leaden coffin was fastened down, and enclosed in an outer case of oak, upon the lid of which stood a richly-chased massive silver flagon, filled with burnt claret, called the grace-cup. All the lights were removed, save two lofty wax flambeaux, which were placed to the back, and threw a lurid glare upon the group immediately about the body, consisting of Ranulph Rookwood and some other friends of the deceased. Doctor Small stood in front of the bier; and, under the directions of Peter Bradley, the tenantry and household were formed into a wide half-moon across the chamber. There was a hush of expectation, as Doctor Small looked gravely round; and even Jack Palmer, who was as little likely as any man to yield to an impression of the kind, felt himself moved by the scene.
The very orthodox Small, as is well known to our readers, held everything savouring of the superstitions of the Scarlet Lady in supreme abomination; and, entertaining such opinions, it can scarcely be supposed that a funeral oration would find much favour in his eyes, accompanied, as it was, with the accessories of censer, candle, and cup; all evidently derived from that period when, under the three-crowned pontiff's sway, the shaven priest pronounced his benediction o'er the dead, and released the penitent's soul from purgatorial flames, while he heavily muleted the price of his redemption from the possessions of his successor.
Small resented the idea of treading in such steps, as an insult to himself and his cloth. Was he, the intolerant of Papistry, to tolerate this? Was he, who could not endure the odour of Catholicism, to have his nostrils thus polluted—his garments thus defiled by actual contact with it? It was not to be thought of: and he had formally signified his declination to Mr. Coates, when a little conversation with that gentleman, and certain weighty considerations therein held forth (the advowson of the church of Rookwood residing with the family), and represented by him, as well as the placing in juxtaposition of penalties to be incurred by refusal, that the scruples of Small gave way; and, with the best grace he could muster, very reluctantly promised compliance.
With these feelings, it will be readily conceived that the doctor was not in the best possible frame of mind for the delivery of his exhortation. His temper had been ruffled by a variety of petty annoyances, amongst the greatest of which was the condition to which the good cheer had reduced his clerk, Zachariah Trundletext, whose reeling eye, pendulous position, and open mouth, proclaimed him absolutely incapable of office. Zachariah was, in consequence, dismissed, and Small commenced his discourse unsupported. But as our recording it would not probably conduce to the amusement of our readers, whatever it might to their edification, we shall pass it over with very brief mention. Suffice it to say, that the oration was so thickly interstrewn with lengthy quotations from the fathers—Chrysostomus, Hieronimus, Ambrosius, Basilius, Bernardus, and the rest, with whose recondite Latinity, notwithstanding the clashing of their opinions with his own, the doctor was intimately acquainted, and which he moreover delighted to quote—that his auditors were absolutely mystified and perplexed, and probably not without design. Countenances of such amazement were turned towards him, that Small, who had a keen sense of the ludicrous, could scarcely forbear smiling as he proceeded; and if we could suspect so grave a personage of waggery, we should almost think that, by way of retaliation, he had palmed some abstruse monkish epicedium upon his astounded auditors.
The oration concluded, biscuits and confectionery were, according to old observance, handed to such of the tenantry as chose to partake of them. The serving of the grace-cup, which ought to have formed part of the duties of Zachariah, had he been capable of office, fell to the share of the sexton. The bowl was kissed, first by Ranulph, with lips that trembled with emotion, and afterwards by his surrounding friends; but no drop was tasted—a circumstance which did not escape Peter's observation. Proceeding to the tenantry, the first in order happened to be farmer Toft. Peter presented the cup, and as Toft was about to drain a deep draught of the wine, Peter whispered in his ear, "Take my advice for once, friend Toft, and don't let a bubble of the liquid pass your lips. For every drop of the wine you drain Sir Piers will have one sin the less, and you a load the heavier on your conscience. Didst never hear of sin swallowing? For what else was this custom adopted? Seest thou not the cup's brim hath not yet been moistened? Well, as you will—ha, ha!" And the sexton passed onwards.
His work being nearly completed, he looked around for Jack Palmer, whom he had remarked during the oration, but could nowhere discover him. Peter was about to place the flagon, now almost drained of its contents, upon its former resting-place, when Small took it from his hands.
"'In poculi fundo residuum non relinque,' admonisheth Pythagoras," said he, returning the cup drained of its contents to the sexton.
"My task here is ended," muttered Peter, "but not elsewhere. Foul weather or fine, thunder or rain, I must to the church."
Bequeathing his final instructions to certain of the household who were to form part of the procession, in case it set out, he opened the hall door, and, the pelting shower dashing heavily in his face, took his way up the avenue.
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LIGHTS streamed through the chancel window as the sexton entered the churchyard, darkly defining all the ramified tracery of the noble Gothic arch, and illumining the gorgeous dyes of its richly-stained glass, profusely decorated with the armorial bearings of the founder of the fane, and the many alliances of his descendants. The sheen of their blazonry gleamed bright in the darkness, as if to herald to his last home another of the line whose achievements it displayed. Glowing colourings, checkered like rainbow tints, were shed upon the broken leaves of the adjoining yew-trees, and upon the rounded grassy tombs.
Opening the gate, as he looked in that direction, Peter became aware of a dark figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and covered with a slouched hat, standing at some distance, between the window and the tree, and so intervening as to receive the full influence of the stream of radiance which served to dilate its almost superhuman stature. The sexton stopped. The figure remained stationary. There was something singular both in the costume and situation of the person. Peter's curiosity was speedily aroused, and, familiar with every inch of the churchyard, he determined to take the nearest cut, and to ascertain to whom the mysterious cloak and hat belonged. Making his way over the undulating graves, and instinctively rounding the headstones that intercepted his path, he quickly drew near the object of his enquiry. From the moveless posture it maintained, the figure appeared to be unconscious of Peter's approach. To his eyes it seemed to expand as he advanced. He was now almost close upon it, when his progress was arrested by a violent grasp laid on his shoulder. He started, and uttered an exclamation of alarm. At this moment a vivid flash of lightning illumined the whole churchyard, and Peter then thought he beheld, at some distance from him, two other figures, bearing upon their shoulders a huge chest, or, it might be, a coffin. The garb of these figures, so far as it could be discerned through the drenching rain, was fantastical in the extreme. The foremost seemed to have a long white beard descending to his girdle. Little leisure, however, was allowed Peter for observation. The vision no sooner met his glance than it disappeared, and nothing was seen but the glimmering tombstones—nothing heard but the whistling wind and the heavily-descending shower. He rubbed his eyes. The muffled figure had vanished, and not a trace could be discovered of the mysterious coffin-bearers, if such they were.
"What have I seen?" mentally ejaculated Peter: "is this sorcery or treachery, or both? No body-snatchers would visit this place on a night like this, when the whole neighbourhood is aroused. Can it be a vision I have seen. Pshaw! shall I juggle myself as I deceive these hinds? It was no bearded demon that I beheld, but the gipsy patrico, Balthazar. I knew him at once. But what meant that muffled figure; and whose arm could it have been that griped my shoulder? Ha! what if Lady Rookwood should have given orders for the removal of Susan's body. No, no; that cannot be. Besides, I have the keys of the vault; and there are hundreds now in the church who would permit no such desecration. I am perplexed to think what it can mean. But I will to the vault." Saying which, he hastened to the church porch, and after wringing the wet from his clothes, as a water-dog might shake the moisture from his curly hide, and doffing his broad felt hat, he entered the holy edifice. The interior seemed one blaze of light to the sexton, in his sudden transition from outer darkness. Some few persons were assembled, probably such as were engaged in the preparations; but there was one group which immediately attracted his attention.
Near the communion-table stood three persons, habited in deep mourning, apparently occupied in examining the various monumental carvings that enriched the walls. Peter's office led him to that part of the church. About to descend into the vaults, to make the last preparations for the reception of the dead, with lantern in hand, keys, and a crowbar, he approached the party. Little attention was paid to the sexton's proceedings, till the harsh grating of the lock attracted their notice.
Peter started as he beheld the face of one of the three, and relaxing his hold upon the key, the strong bolt shot back in the lock. There was a whisper amongst the party. A light step was heard advancing towards him; and ere the sexton could sufficiently recover his surprise, or force open the door, a female figure stood by his side.
The keen, enquiring stare which Peter bestowed upon the countenance of the young lady so much abashed her, that she hesitated in her purpose of addressing him, and hastily retired.
"She here," muttered Peter; "nay, then, I must no longer withhold the dreaded secret from Luke, or Ranulph may indeed wrest his possessions from him."
Reinforced by her companions, an elderly lady and a tall handsome man, whose bearing and deportment bespoke him to be a soldier, the fair stranger again ventured towards Peter.
"You are the sexton," said she, addressing him in a voice sweet and musical.
"I am," returned Peter. It was harmony succeeded by dissonance.
"You, perhaps, can tell us, then," said the elderly lady, "whether the funeral is likely to take place to-night? we thought it possible that the storm might altogether prevent it."
"The storm is over, as nearly as may be," replied Peter. "The body will soon be on its way. I am but now arrived from the hall."
"Indeed!" exclaimed the lady. "None of the family will be present, I suppose. Who is the chief mourner?"
"Young Sir Ranulph!" answered the sexton. "There will be more of the family than were expected."
"Is Sir Ranulph returned?" asked the young lady, with great agitation of manner. "I thought he was abroad; that he was not expected. Are you sure you are rightly informed?"
"I parted with him at the hall not ten minutes since," replied Peter. "He returned from France to-night most unexpectedly."
"Oh, mother!" exclaimed the younger lady, "that this should be—that I should meet him here. Why did we come?—let us depart."
"Impossible," replied her mother; "the storm forbids it. This man's information is so strange I scarce can credit it. Are you sure you have asserted the truth?" said she, addressing Peter.
"I am not accustomed to be doubted," answered he. "Other things as strange have happened at the hall."
"What mean you?" asked the gentleman, noticing this last remark.
"You would not need to ask the question of me, had you been there, amongst the other guests," retorted Peter. "Odd things, I tell you, have been done there this night, and stranger things may occur before the morning."
"You are insolent, sirrah. I comprehend you not."
"Enough! I can comprehend you," replied Peter, significantly; "I know the count of the mourners invited to this ceremonial, and I am aware that there are three too many."
"Know you this saucy knave, mother?"
"I cannot call him to mind, though I fancy I have seen him before."
"My recollection serves me better, lady," interposed Peter. "I remember one, who was once the proud heiress of Rookwood—ay, proud and beautiful. Then the house was filled with her gallant suitors. Swords were crossed for her. Hearts bled for her. Yet she favoured none, until one hapless hour. Sir Reginald Rookwood had a daughter; Sir Reginald lost a daughter. Ha!—I see I am right. Well, he is dead and buried; and Reginald, his son, is dead likewise; and Piers is on his road hither; and you are the last, as in the course of nature you might have been the first. And, now that they are all gone, you do rightly to bury your grievances with them."
"Silence, sirrah," exclaimed the gentleman, "or I will beat your brains out with your own spade."
"No; let him speak, Vavasour," said the lady, with an expression of anguish—"he has awakened thoughts of other days."
"I have done," said Peter, "and must to work. Will you descend with me, madam, into the sepulchre of your ancestry? All your family lie within—ay, and the Lady Eleanor, your mother, amongst the number."
Mrs. Mowbray signified her assent, and the party prepared to follow him.
The sexton held the lantern, so as to throw its light upon the steps as they entered the gloomy receptacle of the departed. Eleanor half repented having ventured within its dreary limits, so much did the appearance of the yawning catacombs, surcharged with mortality, and, above all, the ghostly figure of the grim knight, affect her with dread, as she looked wistfully around. She required all the support her brother's arm could afford her; nor was Mrs. Mowbray altogether unmoved.
"And all the family are here interred, you say?" enquired the latter.
"All," replied the sexton.
"Where, then, lies Sir Reginald's younger brother?"
"Who?" exclaimed Peter, starting.
"What of him?"
"Nothing of moment. But I thought you could, perhaps, inform me. He died young."
"He did," replied Peter, in an altered tone—"very young; but not before he had lived to an old age of wretchedness. Do you know his story, madam?"
"I have heard it."
"From your father's lips?"
"From Sir Reginald Rookwood's—never. Call him not my father, sirrah; even here I will not have him named so to me."
"Your pardon, madam," returned the sexton. "Great cruelty was shown to the Lady Eleanor, and may well call forth implacable resentment in her child; yet methinks the wrong he did his brother Alan was the foulest stain with which Sir Reginald's black soul was dyed."
"With what particular wrong dost thou charge Sir Reginald?" demanded Major Mowbray. "What injury did he inflict upon his brother Alan?"
"He wronged his brother's honour," replied the sexton; "he robbed him of his wife, poisoned his existence, and hurried him to an untimely grave."
Eleanor shudderingly held back during this horrible narration, the hearing of which she would willingly have shunned, had it been possible.
"Can this be true?" asked the major.
"Too true, my son," replied Mrs. Mowbray, sorrowfully.
"And where lies the unfortunate Alan?" asked Major Mowbray.
"'Twixt two crossroads. Where else should the suicide lie?"
Evading any further question, Peter hastily traversed the vault, elevating the light, so as to reveal the contents of each cell. One circumstance filled him with surprise and dismay—he could nowhere perceive the coffin of his daughter. In vain he peered into every catacomb—they were apparently undisturbed; and, with much internal marvelling and misgiving, Peter gave up the search. "That vision is now explained," muttered he; "the body is removed, but by whom? Death! can I doubt? It must be Lady Rookwood—who else can have any interest in its removal. She has acted boldly. But she shall yet have reason to repent her temerity." As he continued his search, his companions silently followed. Suddenly he stopped, and, signifying that all was finished, they not unwillingly quitted this abode of horror, leaving him behind them.
"It is a dreadful place," whispered Eleanor to her mother; "nor would I have visited it, had I conceived anything of its horrors. And that strange man! who or what is he?"
"Ay, who is he?" repeated Major Mowbray.
"I recollect him now," replied Mrs. Mowbray; "he is one who has ever been connected with the family. He had a daughter, whose beauty was her ruin: it is a sad tale; I cannot tell it now: you have heard enough of misery and guilt: but that may account for his bitterness of speech. He was a dependant upon my poor brother."
"Poor man!" replied Eleanor; "if he has been unfortunate, I pity him. I am sorry we have been into that dreadful place. I am very faint: and I tremble more than ever at the thought of meeting Ranulph Rookwood again. I can scarcely support myself—I am sure I shall not venture to look upon him."
"Had I dreamed of the likelihood of his attending the ceremony, rest assured, dear Eleanor, we should not have been here: but I was informed there was no possibility of his return. Compose yourself, my child. It will be a trying time to both of us; but it is now inevitable."
At this moment, the bell began to toll. "The procession has started," said Peter, as he passed the Mowbrays. "That bell announces the setting out."
"See yonder persons hurrying to the door," exclaimed Eleanor, with eagerness, and trembling violently. "They are coming. Oh! I shall never be able to go through with it, dear mother."
Peter hastened to the church door, where he stationed himself, in company with a host of others equally curious. Flickering lights in the distance, shining like stars through the trees, showed them that the procession was collecting in front of the hall. The rain had now entirely ceased; the thunder muttered from afar, and the lightning seemed only to lick the moisture from the trees. The bell continued to toll, and its loud booming awoke the drowsy echoes of the valley. On the sudden, a solitary, startling concussion of thunder was heard; and presently a man rushed down from the belfry, with the tidings that he had seen a ball of fire fall from a cloud right over the hall. Every car was on the alert for the next sound: none was heard. It was the crisis of the storm. Still the funeral procession advanced not. The strong sheen of the torchlight was still visible from the bottom of the avenue, now disappearing, now brightly glimmering, as if the bearers were hurrying to and fro amongst the trees. It was evident that much confusion prevailed, and that some misadventure had occurred. Each man muttered to his neighbour, and few were there who had not in a measure surmised the cause of the delay. At this juncture, a person without his hat, breathless with haste, and almost palsied with fright, rushed through the midst of them, and, stumbling over the threshold, fell headlong into the church.
"What's the matter, Master Plant? What has happened? Tell us! Tell us!" exclaimed several voices simultaneously.
"Lord have mercy upon us!" cried Plant, gasping for utterance, and not attempting to raise himself. "It's horrible! dreadful! oh!—oh!"
"What has happened?" enquired Peter, approaching the fallen man.
"And dost thou need to ask, Peter Bradley? thou, who foretold it all? but I will not say what I think, though my tongue itches to tell thee the truth. Be satisfied, thy wizard's lore has served thee right—he is dead."
"Who? Ranulph Rookwood! Has anything befallen him, or the prisoner, Luke Bradley?" asked the sexton, with eagerness.
A scream here burst forth from one who was standing behind the group; and, in spite of the efforts of her mother to withhold her, Eleanor Mowbray rushed forward.
"Has aught happened to Sir Ranulph?" asked she.
"Noa—noa—not Sir Ranulph—he be with the body."
"Heaven be thanked for that!" exclaimed Eleanor. And then, as ashamed of her own vehemence, and, it might seem, apparent indifference to another's fate, she enquired who was hurt?
"It be poor neighbour Toft, that be killed by a thunderbolt, ma'am," replied Plant.
Exclamations of horror burst from all around.
No one was more surprised at this intelligence than the sexton. Like many other seers, he had not, in all probability, calculated upon the fulfilment of his predictions, and he now stared aghast at the extent of his own foreknowledge.
"I tell'ee what, Master Peter," said Plant, shaking his bullet-head; "it be well for thee thou didn't live in my grandfather's time, or thou'dst ha' been ducked in a blanket; or may be burnt at the stake, like Ridley and Latimer, as we read on—but however that may be, ye shall hear how poor Toft's death came to pass, and nobody can tell'ee better nor I, seeing I were near to him, poor fellow, at the time. Well, we thought as how the storm were all over—and had all got into order of march, and were just beginning to step up the avenue, the coffin-bearers pushing lustily along, and the torches shining grandly, when poor Simon Toft, who could never travel well in liquor in his life, reeled to one side, and staggering against the first huge lime-tree, sat himself down beneath it—thou knowest the tree I mean."
"The tree of fate," returned Peter. "I ought, methinks, to know it."
"Well, I were just stepping aside, to pick him up, when all at once there comes such a crack of thunder, and, whizzing through the trees, flashed a great globe of red fire, so bright and dazzlin', it nearly blinded me; and when I opened my eyes, winkin' and waterin', I see'd that which blinded me more even than the flash—that which had just afore been poor Simon, but which was now a mass o' black smouldering ashes, clean consumed and destroyed—his clothes rent to a thousand tatters—the earth and stones tossed up, and scattered all about, and a great splinter of the tree lying beside him."
"God's will be done," said the sexton; "this is an awful judgment."
"And Sathan cast down; for this is a spice o' his handiwork," muttered Plant; adding, as he slunk away, "If ever Peter Bradley do come to the blanket, dang me if I don't lend a helpin' hand."
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WORD being given that the funeral train was fast approaching, the church door was thrown open, and the assemblage divided in two lines, to allow it admission.
Meanwhile, a striking change had taken place, even in this brief period, in the appearance of the night. The sky, heretofore curtained with darkness, was now illumined by a serene, soft moon, which, floating in a watery halo, tinged with silvery radiance the edges of a few ghostly clouds that hurried along the deep and starlit skies. The suddenness of the change could not fail to excite surprise and admiration, mingled with regret that the procession had not been delayed until the present time.
Slowly and mournfully the train was seen to approach the churchyard, winding, two by two, with melancholy step, around the corner of the road. First came Doctor Small; then the mutes, with their sable panoply; next, the torchbearers; next, those who sustained the coffin, bending beneath their ponderous burden, followed by Sir Ranulph, and a long line of attendants, all plainly to be distinguished by the flashing torchlight. There was a slight halt at the gate, and the coffin changed supporters.
"Ill luck betide them!" ejaculated Peter; "could they find no other place except that to halt at? Must Sir Piers be gatekeeper till next Yule? No," added he, seeing what followed; "it will be poor Toft, after all."
Following close upon the coffin came a rude shell, containing, as Peter rightly conjectured, the miserable remains of Simon Toft, who had met his fate in the manner described by Plant. The bolt of death glanced from the tree which it first struck, and reduced the unfortunate farmer to a heap of dust. Universal consternation prevailed, and doubts were entertained as to what course should be pursued. It was judged best by Doctor Small to remove the remains at once to the charnel-house. Thus, "unanointed, unaneled, with all his imperfections on his head," was poor Simon Toft, in one brief second, in the twinkling of an eye, plunged from the height of festivity to the darkness of the grave, and so horribly disfigured, that scarce a vestige of humanity was discernible in the mutilated mass that remained of him. Truly may we be said to walk in blindness, and amidst deep pitfalls!
The churchyard was thronged by the mournful train. The long array of dusky figures—the waving torchlight, gleaming ruddily in the white moonshine—now glistening upon the sombre habiliments of the bearers, and on their shrouded load, now reflected upon the jagged branches of the yew-trees, or falling upon the ivied buttresses of the ancient church, constituted no unimpressive picture. Over all, like a lamp hung in the still sky, shone the moon, shedding a soothing, spiritual lustre over the scene.
The organ broke into a solemn strain, as the coffin was borne along the mid-aisle—the mourners following, with reverent step, and slow. It was deposited near the mouth of the vault, the whole assemblage circling around it. Doctor Small proceeded with the performance of that magnificent service appointed for the burial of the dead, in a tone as remarkable for its sadness, as for its force and fervour. There was a tear in every eye—a cloud on every brow.
Brightly illumined as was the whole building, there were still some recesses which, owing to the intervention of heavy pillars, were thrown into shade; and in one of these, supported by her mother and brother, stood Eleanor, a weeping witness of the scene. She beheld the coffin silently borne along; she saw one dark figure slowly following; she knew those pale features—oh, how pale they were! A year had wrought a fearful alteration; she could scarce credit what she beheld. He must, indeed, have suffered—deeply suffered; and her heart told her that his sorrows had been for her.
Many a wistful look, besides, was directed to the principal figure in this ceremonial, Ranulph Rookwood. He was a prey to unutterable anguish of soul; his heart bled inwardly for the father he had lost. Mechanically following the body down the aisle, he had taken his station near it, gazing with confused vision upon the bystanders; had listened, with a sad composure, to the expressive delivery of Small, until he read—"For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them."
"Verily!" exclaimed a deep voice; and Ranulph looking round, met the eyes of Peter Bradley fixed full upon him. But it was evidently not the sexton who had spoken.
Small continued the service. He arrived at this verse: "Thou hast set our misdeeds before thee; and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance."
"Even so!" exclaimed the voice; and as Ranulph raised his eyes in the direction of the sound, he thought he saw a dark figure, muffled in a cloak, disappear behind one of the pillars. He bestowed, however, at the moment, little thought upon this incident. His heart melted within him; and leaning his face upon his hand, he wept aloud.
"Command yourself, I entreat of you, my dear Sir Ranulph," said Doctor Small, as soon as the service was finished, "and suffer this melancholy ceremonial to be completed." Saying which, he gently withdrew Ranulph from his support, and the coffin was lowered into the vault.
Ranulph remained for some time in the extremity of sorrow. When he in part recovered, the crowd had dispersed, and few persons were remaining within the church; yet near him stood three apparent loiterers. They advanced towards him. An exclamation of surprise and joy burst from his lips.
"Is it possible? Do I indeed behold you, Eleanor?"
No other word was spoken. They rushed into each other's arms. Oh! sad—sad is the lover's parting—no pang so keen; but if life hath a zest more exquisite than others—if felicity hath one drop more racy than the rest in her honeyed cup, it is the happiness enjoyed in such an union as the present. To say that he was as one raised from the depths of misery, by some angel comforter, were a feeble comparison of the transport of Ranulph. To paint the thrilling delight of Eleanor—the trembling tenderness—the fond abandonment which vanquished all her maiden scruples, would be impossible. Reluctantly yielding—fearing, yet complying, her lips were sealed in one long, loving kiss, the sanctifying pledge of their tried affection.
"Eleanor, dear Eleanor," exclaimed Ranulph, "though I hold you within my arms—though each nerve within my frame assures me of your presence—though I look into those eyes, which seem fraught with greater endearment than ever I have known them wear—though I see and feel, and know all this, so sudden, so unlooked for is the happiness, that I could almost doubt its reality. Say to what blessed circumstance am I indebted for this unlooked-for happiness."
"We are staying not far hence, with friends, dear Ranulph; and my mother, hearing of Sir Piers Rookwood's death, and wishing to bury all animosity with him, resolved to be present at the sad ceremony. We were told you could not be here."
"And would my presence have prevented your attendance, Eleanor?"
"Not that, dear Ranulph; but—"
At this moment the advance of Mrs. Mowbray offered an interruption to their further discourse.
"My son and I appear to be secondary in your regards, Sir Ranulph," said she, gravely.
"Sir Ranulph!" mentally echoed the young man. "What will she think, when she knows that that title is not mine? I dread to tell her." He then added aloud, with a melancholy smile, "I crave your pardon, madam; the delight of a meeting so unexpected with your daughter must plead my apology."
"None is wanting, Sir Ranulph," said Major Mowbray. "I, who have known what separation from my sister is, can readily excuse your feelings. But you look ill."
"I have, indeed, experienced much mental anxiety," said Ranulph, looking at Eleanor; "it is now past, and I would fain hope that a brighter day is dawning." His heart answered, 'twas but a hope.
"You were unlooked for here to-night, Sir Ranulph," said Mrs. Mowbray; "by us, at least: we were told you were abroad."
"You were rightly informed, madam," replied Ranulph. "I only arrived this evening from Bordeaux."
"I am glad you are returned. We are at present on a visit with your neighbours the Davenhams, at Braybrook, and trust we shall see you there."
"I will ride over to-morrow," replied Ranulph; "there is much on which I would consult you all. I would have ventured to request the favour of your company at Rookwood, had the occasion been other than the present."
"And I would willingly have accepted your invitation," returned Mrs. Mowbray; "I should like to see the old house once more. During your father's lifetime I could not approach it. You are lord of broad lands, Sir Ranulph—a goodly inheritance."
"And a proud title, which you will grace well, I doubt not. The first, the noblest of our house, was he from whom you derive your name. You are the third Sir Ranulph; the first founded the house of Rookwood; the next advanced it; 'tis for you to raise its glory to its height."
"Alas! madam, I have no such thought."
"Wherefore not? you are young, wealthy, powerful. With such domains as those of Rookwood—with such a title as its lord can claim, nought should be too high for your aspirations."
"I aspire to nothing, madam, but your daughter's hand; and even that I will not venture to solicit until you are acquainted with—" And he hesitated.
"With what?" asked Mrs. Mowbray, in surprise.
"A singular, and to me most perplexing event has occurred to-night," replied Ranulph, "which may materially affect my future fortunes."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Mowbray. "Does it relate to your mother?"
"Excuse my answering the question now, madam," replied Ranulph; "you shall know all to-morrow."
"Ay, to-morrow, dear Ranulph," said Eleanor; "and whatever that morrow may bring forth, it will bring happiness to me, if you are bearer of the tidings."
"I shall expect your coming with impatience," said Mrs. Mowbray.
"And I," added Major Mowbray, who had listened thus far in silence, "would offer you my services in any way you think they would be useful. Command me as you think fitting."
"I thank you heartily," returned Ranulph. "To-morrow you shall learn all. Meanwhile, it shall be my business to investigate the truth or falsehood of the statement I have heard, ere I report it to you. Till then, farewell!"
As they issued from the church it was grey dawn. Mrs. Mowbray's carriage stood at the door. The party entered it; and accompanied by Doctor Small, whom he found within in the vestry, Ranulph walked towards the hall, where a fresh surprise awaited him.
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GUARDED by the two young farmers who had displayed so much address in seizing him, Luke, meanwhile, had been conveyed in safety to the small chamber in the eastern wing, destined, by Mr. Coates, to be his place of confinement for the night. The room, or rather closet, opening from another room, was extremely well adapted for the purpose, having no perceptible outlet; being defended, on either side, by thick partition walls of the hardest oak, and at the extremity by the solid masonry of the mansion. It was, in fact, a remnant of the building anterior to the first Sir Ranulph's day; and the narrow limits of Luke's cell had been erected long before the date of his earliest progenitor. Having seen their prisoner safely bestowed, the room was carefully examined, every board sounded, every crevice and corner peered into by the curious eye of the little lawyer; and nothing being found insecure, the light was removed, the door locked, the rustic constables dismissed, and a brace of pistols having been loaded, and laid on the table, Mr. Coates pronounced himself thoroughly satisfied and quite comfortable.
"Comfortable!" Titus heaved a sigh, as he echoed the word. He felt anything but comfortable. His heart was with the body all the while. He thought of the splendour of the funeral, the torches, the illumined church, his own dignified march down the aisle, and the effect he expected to produce amongst the bewildered rustics. He thought of all these things, and cursed Luke by all the saints in the calendar. The sight of the musty old apartment, hung round with faded arras, which, as he said, "smelt of nothing but rats and ghosts, and such like varmint," did not serve to inspirit him; and the proper equilibrium of his temper was not completely restored until the appearance of the butler, with all the requisites for the manufacture of punch, afforded him some prospective solace.
"And what are they about now, Tim?" asked Titus.
"All as jolly as can be," answered the domestic; "Doctor Small is just about to pronounce the funeral 'ration."
"Devil take it," ejaculated Titus, "there's another miss. Couldn't I just slip out, and hear that?"
"On no account," said Coates. "Consider, Sir Ranulph is there."
"Well, well," rejoined Titus, heaving a deep sigh, and squeezing a lemon; "are you sure this is biling water, Tim? You know, I'm mighty particular."
"Perfectly aware of it, sir."
"Ah, Tim, do you recollect the way I used to brew for poor Sir Piers, with a bunch of red currants at the bottom of the glass? And then to think that, after all, I should be left out of his funeral—it's the height of barbarity. Tim, this rum of yours is poor stuff—there's no punch worth the trouble of drinking, except whisky punch. A glass of right potheen, straw-colour, peat-flavour, ten degrees over proof, would be the only thing to drown my cares. Any such thing in the cellar? There used to be an odd bottle or so, Tim—in the left bin, near the door."
"I've a notion there be," returned Timothy. "I'll try the bin your honour mentions, and if I can lay hands upon a bottle you shall have it, you may depend."
The butler departed, and Titus, emulating Mr. Coates, who had already enveloped himself, like Juno at the approach of Ixion, in a cloud, proceeded to light his pipe.
Luke, meanwhile, had been left alone, without light. He had much to meditate upon, and with nought to check the current of his thoughts, he pensively revolved his present situation and future prospects. The future was gloomy enough—the present fraught with danger. And now that the fever of excitement was passed, he severely reproached himself for his precipitancy.
His mind, by degrees, assumed a more tranquil state; and, exhausted with his great previous fatigue, he threw himself upon the floor of his prison-house, and addressed himself to slumber. The noise he made induced Coates to enter the room, which he did with a pistol in each hand, followed by Titus, with a pipe and candle; but finding all safe the sentinels retired.
"One may see, with half an eye, that you're not used to a feather-bed, my friend," said Titus, as the door was locked. "By the powers, he's a tall chap, anyhow—why, his feet almost touch the door. I should say that room was a matter of six feet long, Mr. Coates."
"Exactly six feet, sir."
"Well, that's a good guess. Curse that ugly rascal, Tim; he's never brought the whisky. But I'll be even with him to-morrow. Couldn't you just see to the prisoner for ten minutes, Mr. Coates?"
"Not ten seconds. I shall report you, if you stir from your post."
Here the door was opened, and Tim entered with the whisky.
"Arrah! by my soul, Tim, and here you are at last—uncork it, man, and give us a thimbleful—blob! there goes the stopper—here's a glass"—smacking his lips—"whist, Tim, another drop—stuff like this will never hurt a body. Mr. Coates, try it—no—I thought you'd be a man of more taste."
"I must limit you to a certain quantity," replied Coates, "or you will not be fit to keep guard—another glass must be the extent of your allowance."
"Another glass! and do you think I'll submit to any such iniquitous proposition?"
"Beg pardon, gentlemen," said Tim; "but her ladyship desires me to tell you both, that she trusts you will keep the strictest watch upon the prisoner. I have the same message also from Sir Ranulph."
"Do you hear that?" said Coates.
"And what are they all about now, Tim?" groaned Titus.
"Just starting, sir," returned Tim; "and, indeed, I must not lose my time gossiping here, for I be wanted below. You must be pleased to take care of yourselves, gentlemen, for an hour or so, for there will be only a few women-kind left in the house. The storm's just over, and the men are all lighting their torches. Oh, it's a grand sight!" And off set Tim.
"Bad luck to myself, anyhow," ejaculated Titus; "this is more than I can bear—I've had enough of this watch and ward business—if the prisoner stirs, shoot him, if you think proper—I'll be back in an hour."
"I tell you what, Mr. Tyrconnel," said Coates, coolly, taking up the pistol from the table, "I'm a man of few words, but those few are, I hope, to the purpose, and I'd have you to know, if you stir from that chair, or attempt to leave the room, dammee but I'll send a brace of bullets after you. I'm serious, I assure you." Saying which, he cocked the pistol.
By way of reply to this menace, Titus deliberately filled a stiff glass of whisky and water.
"That's your last glass," said the inexorable Coates.
To return once more to Luke. He slept uneasily for some short space, and was awakened by a sound which reached his dreaming ears, and connected itself with the visions that slumber was weaving around him. It was some moments before he could distinctly remember where he was. He would not venture to sleep again, though he felt overwhelmed by drowsiness—there was a fixed pain at his heart, as if circulation were suspended. Changing his posture, he raised himself upon one arm; he then became aware of a scratching noise, somewhat similar to the sound he had heard in his dream, and perceived a light gleaming through a crevice in the oaken partition. His attention was immediately arrested, and placing his eye close to the chink, distinctly saw a dark lantern burning; and by its light, a man filing some implement of house-breaking. The light fell before the hard features of the man, with whose countenance Luke was familiar; and although only one person came within the scope of his view, Luke could make out, from a muttered conversation that was carried on, that he had a companion. The parties were near to him, and though speaking in a low tone, Luke's quick ear caught the following:
"What keeps Jack Palmer, I wonder?" said he of the file. "We're all ready for the fakement—pops primed—and I tell you what, Rob Rust, I've made my clasp-knife as sharp as a razor, and dammee, if Lady Rookwood offers any resistance, I'll spoil her talking in future, I promise you."
Suppressed laughter, from Rust, followed this speech. That laugh made Luke's blood run cold within his veins.
"Harkee, Dick Wilder, you're a reg'lar out-and-outer, and stops at nothing, and curse me if I'd think any more of it than yourself. But Jack's as squeamish of bloodshed as young miss that cries at her cut finger. It's the safer plan. Say what you will, nothing but that will stop a woman's tongue."
"I shall make short work with her ladyship to-night, anyhow. Hist! here Jack comes."
A footstep crossed in the room, and, presently afterwards, exclamations of surprise and smothered laughter were heard from the parties.
"Bravo, Jack! famous! That disguise would deceive the devil himself."
"And now, my lads," said the newcomer, "is all right?"
"Right and tight."
"Then off with your stamps, and on with your list slippers; not a word. Follow me, and for your lives, don't move a step, but as I direct you. The word must be, 'Sir Piers Rookwood calls.' We'll overhaul the swag here, when the speak is spoken over. This crack may make us all for life; and if you'll follow my directions implicitly, we'll do the trick in style. This slum must be our rendezvous, when all's over; for hark ye, my lads, I'll not budge an inch till Luke Bradley be set free. He's an old friend, and I always stick by old friends. I'd do the same for one of you if you were in the same scrape, so damn you, no flinching; besides, I owe that spider-shank'd, snivelling split-cause Coates, who stands sentry, a grudge, and I'll pay him off, as Paul did the Ephesians. You may crop his ears, or slit his tongue as you would a magpie's, or any other chattering varmint; make him sign his own testament, or treat him with a touch of your Habeas Corpus Act, if you think proper, or give him a taste of blue plumb. One thing only I stipulate, that you don't hurt that fat, mutton-headed Broganeer, whatever he may say or do; he's a devilish good fellow. And now to business."
Saying which, they noiselessly departed. But carefully as the door was closed, Luke's ear could detect the sound. His blood boiled with indignation; and he experienced what all must have felt, who have been similarly situated, with the will, but not the power, to assist another—a sensation almost approaching to torture. At this moment a distant scream burst upon his ears—another—he hesitated no longer. With all his force, he thundered at the door.
"What do you want, rascal?" cried Coates, from without.
"There are robbers in the house."
"Thank you for the information. There is one I know of already."
"Fool, they are in Lady Rookwood's room; run to her assistance."
"A likely story, and leave you here."
"Do you hear that scream?"
"Eh, what—what's that? I do hear something."
Here Luke dashed with all his force against the door. It yielded to the blow, and he stood before the astonished attorney.
"Advance a footstep, villain," exclaimed Coates, presenting both his pistols, "and I lodge a brace of balls in your head."
"Listen to me," said Luke; "the robbers are in Lady Rookwood's chamber—they will plunder the place of everything—perhaps murder her. Fly to her assistance, I will accompany you—assist you—it is your only chance."
"My only chance—your only chance. Do you take me for a greenhorn? This is a poor subterfuge; could you not have vamped up something better? Get back to your own room, or I shall make no more of shooting you than I would of snuffing that candle."
"Be advised, sir," continued Luke. "There are three of them—give me a pistol, and fear nothing."
"Give you a pistol! Ha, ha!—to be its mark myself. You are an amusing rascal, I will say."
"Sir, I tell you not a moment is to be lost. Is life nothing? Lady Rookwood may be murdered."
"I tell you, once for all, it won't do. Go back to your room, or take the consequences."
"By the powers! but it shall do, anyhow," exclaimed Titus, flinging himself upon the attorney, and holding both his arms; "you've bullied me long enough. I'm sure the lad's in the right."
Luke snatched the pistols from the hands of Coates.
"Very well, Mr. Tyrconnel; very well, sir," cried the attorney, boiling with wrath, and spluttering out his words. "Extremely well, sir; you are not perhaps aware, sir, what you have done; but you will repent this, sir—repent, I say—repent was my word, Mr. Tyrconnel."
"Repent be d—d," replied Titus. "I shall never repent a good-natured action."
"Follow me," cried Luke; "settle your disputes hereafter. Quick, or we shall be too late."
Coates bustled after him, and Titus, putting the neck of the forbidden whisky bottle to his lips, and gulping down a hasty mouthful, snatched up a rusty poker, and followed the party with more alacrity than might have been expected from so portly a personage.
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ACCOMPANIED by her son, Lady Rookwood, on quitting the chamber of the dead, returned to her own room. She then renewed all her arguments; had recourse to passionate supplications—to violent threats; but without effect. Ranulph maintained profound silence. Passion, as it ever doth, defeated its own ends; and Lady Rookwood, seeing the ill effect her anger would probably produce, gradually softened the asperity of her manner, and suffered him to depart.
Left to herself, and to the communings of her own troubled spirit, her fortitude, in a measure, forsook her, under the pressure of the difficulties by which she was environed. There was no plan she could devise—no scheme adopt, unattended with peril. She must act alone—with promptitude, and secrecy. To win her son over was her chief desire, and that, at all hazards, she was resolved to do. But how? She knew of only one point on which he was vulnerable—his love for Eleanor Mowbray. By raising doubts in his mind, and placing fresh difficulties in his path, she might compel him to acquiesce in her machinations, as a necessary means of accomplishing his own object. This she hoped to effect. Still there was a depth of resolution in the placid stream of Ranulph's character, which she had often noticed with apprehension. Aware of his firmness, she dreaded lost his sense of justice should be stronger than his passion.
As she wove these webs of darkness, fear, hitherto unknown, took possession of her soul. She listened to the howling of the wind—to the vibration of the rafters—to the thunder's roar, and to the hissing rain; till she, who never trembled at the thought of danger, became filled with vague uneasiness. Lights were ordered; and when her old attendant returned, Lady Rookwood fixed a look so wistful upon her, that Agnes ventured to address her.
"Bless you, my lady," said the ancient handmaiden, trembling, "you look very pale, and no wonder. I feel sick at heart, too. Oh! I shall be glad when they return from the church, and happier still when the morning dawns. I can't sleep a wink—can't close my eyes, but I think of him."
"Of Sir Piers, my lady; for though he's dead, I don't think he's gone."
"Why, my lady, the corruptible part of him's gone, sure enough. But the incorruptible, as Doctor Small calls it—the sperrit, my lady. It might be my fancy, your ladyship; but as I'm standing here, when I went back into the room just now for the lights, as I hope to live, I thought I saw Sir Piers in the room."
"You are crazed, Agnes."
"No, my lady, I'm not crazed; it was mere fancy, no doubt. Oh, it's a blessed thing to live with an easy conscience—a thrice blessed thing to die with an easy one, and that's what I never shall, I'm afeard. Poor Sir Piers! I'd mumble a prayer for him, if I durst."
"Leave me," said Lady Rookwood, impatiently.
And Agnes quitted the room.
"What if the dead can return?" thought Lady Rookwood.
"All men doubt it, yet all men believe it. I would not believe it, were there not a creeping horror that overmasters me, when I think of the state beyond the grave—that intermediate state, for such it must be, betwixt heaven or hell, when the body lieth mouldering in the ground, and the soul survives, to wander, unconfined, until the hour of doom. And doth the soul survive when disenthralled? Is it dependent on the body? Does it perish with the body? These are doubts I cannot resolve. But if I deemed there was no future state, this hand should at once liberate me from my own weaknesses—my fears—my life. There is but one path to acquire that knowledge, which once taken can never be retraced.
"I am content to live—while living, to be feared—it may be hated; when dead, to be contemned—yet still remembered. Ha! what sound was that? A stifled scream! Agnes!—without there! She is full of fears. I am not free from them myself, but I will shake them off. This will divert their channel," continued she, drawing from her bosom the marriage certificate. "This will arouse the torpid current of my blood—'Piers Rookwood to Susan Bradley.' And by whom was it solemnised? The name is Checkley—Richard Checkley. Ha! I bethink me—a Papist priest—a recusant—who was for some time an inmate of the hall. I have heard of this man—he was afterwards imprisoned, but escaped—he is either dead, or in a foreign land. No witnesses—'tis well! Methinks Sir Piers Rookwood did well to preserve this. It shall light his funeral pyre. Would he could now behold me, as I consume it!"
She held the paper in the direction of the candle; but, ere it could touch the flame, it dropped from her hand. As if her horrible wish had been granted, before her stood the figure of her husband! Lady Rookwood started not. No sign of trepidation or alarm, save the sudden stiffening of her form was betrayed. Her bosom ceased to palpitate—her respiration stopped—her eyes were fixed upon the apparition.
The figure appeared to regard her sternly. It was at some little distance, within the shade cast by the lofty bedstead. Still she could distinctly discern it. There was no ocular deception; it was attired in the costume Sir Piers was wont to wear—a hunting dress. All that her son had told her rushed to her recollection. The phantom advanced. Its countenance was pale, and wore a gloomy frown.
"What would you destroy?" demanded the apparition, in a hollow tone.
"The evidence of—"
"With yourself, accursed woman?"
"With Susan Bradley."
"Blood and thunder!" shouted the figure, in an altered tone. "Married to her! then Luke is legitimate, and heir to this estate!" Whereupon the apparition rushed to the table, and laid a very substantial grasp upon the document. "A marriage certificate!" ejaculated the spectre; "here's a piece of luck! It ain't often in our lottery life we draw a prize like this. One way or the other, it must turn up a few cool thousands."
"Restore that paper, villain," exclaimed Lady Rookwood, recovering all the audacity natural to her character, the instant she discovered the earthly nature of the intruder; "restore it, or, by Heaven, you shall rue your temerity."
"Softly, softly," replied the pseudo-phantom, with one hand pushing back the lady, while the other conveyed the precious document to the custody of his nether man—"softly," said he, giving the buckskin pocket a slap—"two words to that, my lady. I know its value as well as yourself, and must make my market. The highest offer has me, your ladyship; he's but a poor auctioneer that knocks down his ware when only one bidder is present. Luke Bradley, or, as I find he now is, Sir Luke Rookwood, may come down more handsomely."
"Who are you, ruffian, and to what end is this masquerade assumed? If for the purpose of terrifying me into compliance with the schemes of that madman, Luke Bradley, whom I presume to be your confederate, your labour is misspent—your stolen disguise has no more weight with me than his forged claims."
"Forged claims. Egad, he must be a clever man to have forged that certificate. Your ladyship, however, is in error. Sir Luke Rookwood is no associate of mine; I am his late father's friend. But I have no time to bandy talk. What money have you in the house? Be alive."
"You are a robber, then?"
"Not I. I'm a tax-gatherer—a collector of Rich-Rates—ha! ha! What plate have you got? Nay, don't be alarmed—take it quietly—these things can't be helped—better make up your mind to it without more ado—much the best plan—no screaming, it may injure your lungs, and can alarm nobody. Your maids have done as much before—it's beneath your dignity to make so much noise. So, you will not heed me? As you will." Saying which, he deliberately cut the bell-cord, and drew out a brace of pistols at the same time.
"Agnes!" shrieked Lady Rookwood, now seriously alarmed.
"I must caution your ladyship to be silent," said the robber, who, as our readers will no doubt have already conjectured, was no other than the redoubted Jack Palmer. "Agnes is already disposed of," said he, cocking a pistol. "However like your deceased 'lord and master,' I may appear, you will find that you have got a very different spirit from that of Sir Piers to deal with. I am naturally the politest man breathing—have been accounted the best-bred man on the road, by every lady whom I have had the honour of addressing; and I should be sorry to sully my well-earned reputation by anything like rudeness. I must use a little force, of the gentlest kind. Perhaps, you will permit me to hand you to a chair. Bless me! what a wrist your ladyship has got. Excuse me, if I hurt you, but you are so devilish strong. What ho! 'Sir Piers Rookwood calls—'"
"Ready," cried a voice.
"That's the word," rejoined another; "ready," and immediately two men, their features entirely hidden by a shroud of black crape, accoutred in rough attire, and each armed with pistols, rushed into the room.
"Lend a hand," said Jack.
Even in this perilous extremity, Lady Rookwood's courage did not desert her. Anticipating their purpose, ere her assailants could reach her, she extricated herself from Palmer's grasp, and rushed upon the foremost so unexpectedly, that, before the man could seize her, she snatched a pistol from his hand, and presented it at the group with an aspect like that of a tigress at bay—her eye wandering from one to the other, as if selecting a mark.
There was a pause of a few seconds, in which the men glanced at the lady, and then at their leader. Jack looked blank.
"Hem!" said he, coolly; "this is something new—disarmed—defied by a petticoat. Hark ye, Rob Rust; the disgrace rests with you. Clear your character, by securing her at once. What! afraid of a woman?"
"A woman!" repeated Rust, in a surly tone; "devilish like a woman, indeed. Few men could do what she has done. Give the word, and I fire. As to seizing her, that's more than I'll engage to do."
"Then damn you for a coward," said Jack. "I will steer clear of blood—if I can help it. Come, madam, surrender, like the more sensible part of your sex, at discretion. You will find resistance of no avail." And he stepped boldly towards her.
Lady Rookwood pulled the trigger. The pistol flashed in the pan. She flung away the useless weapon, without a word.
"Ha, ha!" said Jack, as he leisurely stooped to pick up the pistol, and approached her ladyship; "the bullet is not yet cast that is to be my billet. Here," added he, dealing Rust a heavy thump upon the shoulder with the butt-end of the piece, "take back your snapper, and look you prick the touch-hole, or your barking-iron will never bite for you. And now, madam, I must take the liberty of again handing you to a seat. Dick Wilder, the cord—quick. It distresses me to proceed to such lengths with your ladyship—but safe bind, safe find, as Mr. Coates would say."
"You will not bind me, ruffian."
"Your ladyship is very much mistaken—I have no alternative—your ladyship's wrist is far too dexterous to be at liberty. I must furthermore request of your ladyship to be less vociferous—you interrupt business, which should be transacted with silence and deliberation."
Lady Rookwood's rage and vexation at this indignity were beyond all bounds. Resistance, however, was useless, and she submitted in silence. The cord was passed tightly round her arms, when it flashed upon her recollection, for the first time, that Coates and, Tyrconnel, who were in charge of her captive in the lower corridor, might be summoned to her assistance. This idea no sooner crossed her mind than she uttered a loud and prolonged scream.
"Damnation!" cried Jack; "civility is wasted here. Give me the gag, Rob!"
"Better slit her squeaking-pipe at once," replied Rust, drawing his clasped knife; "she'll thwart everything."
"The gag, I say, not that."
"I can't find the gag," exclaimed Wilder, savagely. "Leave Rob Rust to manage her—he'll silence her, I warrant you, while you and I rummage the room."
"Ay, leave her to me," said the other miscreant. "Go about your business, and take no heed. Her hands are fast—she can't scratch—I'll do it with a single gash—send her to join her lord, whom she loved so well, before he's under ground. They'll have something to see when they come home from the master's funeral—their mistress cut and dry for another. Ho, ho!"
"Mercy, mercy!" shrieked Lady Rookwood.
"Ay, ay, I'll be merciful," said Rust, brandishing his knife before her eyes. "I'll not be long about it. Leave her to me—I'll give her a taste of Sir Sydney."
"No, no, Rust; no bloodshed," said Jack, authoritatively; "I'll find some other way to gag the jade."
At this moment, a noise of rapid footsteps was heard within the passage.
"Assistance comes," screamed Lady Rookwood. "Help! help!"
"To the door," cried Jack. The words were scarcely out of his mouth before Luke dashed into the room, followed by Coates and Tyrconnel.
Palmer and his companions levelled their pistols at the intruders, and the latter would have fired, but Jack's keen eye having discerned Luke amongst the foremost, checked further hostilities for the present. Lady Rookwood, meanwhile, finding herself free from restraint, rushed towards her deliverers, and crouched beneath Luke's protecting arms, which were extended, pistol in hand, over her head. Behind them stood Titus Tyrconnel, flourishing the poker, and Mr. Coates, who, upon the sight of so much warlike preparation, began somewhat to repent having rushed so precipitately into the lion's den.
"Luke Bradley!" exclaimed Palmer, stepping forward.
"Luke Bradley!" echoed Lady Rookwood, recoiling and staring into his face.
"Fear nothing, madam," cried Luke. "I am here to assist you—I will defend you with my life."
"You defend me!" exclaimed Lady Rookwood, doubtfully.
"Even I," cried Luke, "strange as it may sound."
"Holy powers protect me!" ejaculated Titus. "As I live, it is Sir Piers himself."
"Sir Piers!" echoed Coates, catching the infection of terror, as he perceived Palmer more distinctly. "What! is the dead come to life again? A ghost, a ghost!"
"By my soul," cried Titus, "it's the first ghost I ever heard of that committed a burglary in its own house, and on the night of the body's burial, too. But who the devil are these? maybe they're ghosts likewise."
"They are," said Palmer, in a hollow tone, mimicking the voice of Sir Piers, "attendant spirits. We are come for this woman; her time is out; so no more palavering, Titus. Lend a hand to take her to the churchyard, and be d—d to you."
"Upon my conscience, Mr. Coates," cried Titus, "it's either the devil, or Sir Piers. We'll be only in the way here. He's only just settling his old scores with his lady. I thought it would come to this long ago. We'd best beat a retreat."
Jack took advantage of this momentary confusion created by this incidental alarm at his disguise to direct Rust towards the door by which the newcomers had entered; and, this being accomplished, he burst into a loud laugh.
"What! not know me?" cried he—"not know your old friend with a new face, Luke? Nor you, Titus? Nor you, who can see through a millstone, lawyer Coates, don't you recognise—"
"Jack Palmer, as I'm a sinner!" cried Titus. "Why this beats Banaghan. Arrah! Jack, honey, what does this mean? Is it yourself I see in such company? You're not robbing in earnest?"
"Indeed but I am, friend Titus," exclaimed Jack; "and it is my own self you see. I just took the liberty of borrowing Sir Piers's old hunting-coat from the justice-room. You said my toggery wouldn't do for the funeral. I'm no other than plain Jack Palmer, after all."
"With half-a-dozen aliases at your back, I dare say," cried Coates. "I suspected you all along. All your praise of highwaymen was not lost upon me. No, no; I can see into a millstone, be it ever so thick."
"Well," replied Jack, "I'm sorry to see you here, friend Titus. Keep quiet, and you shall come to no harm. As to you, Luke Bradley, you have anticipated my intention by half an hour; I meant to set you free. For you, Mr. Coates, you may commit all future care of your affairs to your executors, administrators, and assigns. You will have no further need to trouble yourself with worldly concerns," added he, levelling a pistol at the attorney, who, however, shielded himself, in an agony of apprehension, behind Luke's person. "Stand aside, Luke."
"I stir not," replied Luke. "I thank you for your good intention, and will not injure you—that is, if you do not force me to do so. I am here to defend her ladyship."
"What's that you say?" returned Jack, in surprise—"defend her ladyship?"
"With my life," replied Luke. "Let me counsel you to depart."
"Are you mad? Defend her!—Lady Rookwood—your enemy—who would hang you? Tut, tut! Stand aside, I say, Luke Bradley, or look to yourself."
"You had better consider well ere you proceed," said Luke. "You know me of old. I have taken odds as great, and not come off the vanquished."
"The odds are even," cried Titus, "if Mr. Coates will but show fight. I'll stand by you to the last, my dear joy. You're the right son of your father, though on the wrong side. Och! Jack Palmer, my jewel, no wonder you resemble Dick Turpin."
"You hear this?" cried Luke.
"Hot-headed fool!" muttered Jack.
"Why don't you shoot him on the spot?" said Wilder.
"And mar my own chance," thought Jack. "No, that will never do; his life is not to be thrown away. Be quiet," said he, in a whisper to Wilder; "I've another card to play, which shall serve us better than all the plunder here. No harm must come to that youngster; his life is worth thousands to us." Then, turning to Luke, he continued, "I'm loth to hurt you; yet what can I do? You must have the worst of it if we come to a pitched battle. I therefore advise you, as a friend, to draw off your forces. We are three to three, it is true; but two of your party are unarmed."
"Unarmed!" interrupted Titus. "Devil burn me! this iron shillelah shall convince you to the contrary, Jack, or any of your friends."
"Make ready then, my lads," cried Palmer.
"Stop a minute," exclaimed Coates; "this gets serious; it will end in homicide—in murder. We shall all have our throats cut to a certainty; and though these rascals will as certainly be hanged for it, that will be poor satisfaction to the sufferers. Had we not better refer the matter to arbitration?"
"I'm fighting it out," said Titus, whisking the poker round his head, like a flail in action. "My blood's up. Come on, Jack Palmer, I'm for you."
"I should vote for retreating," chattered the attorney, "if that cursed fellow had not placed a ne exeat at the door."
"Give the word, captain," cried Rust, impatiently.
"Ay, ay," echoed Wilder.
"A skilful general always parleys," said Jack. "A word in your ear, Luke, ere that be done which cannot be undone."
"You mean me no treachery?" returned Luke.
Jack made no answer, but uncocking his pistols, deposited them within his pockets.
"Shoot him as he advances," whispered Coates; "he is in your power now."
"Scoundrel!" replied Luke, "do you think me as base as yourself?"
"Hush, hush! for God's sake don't expose me," said Coates.
Lady Rookwood had apparently listened to this singular conference with sullen composure, though in reality she was racked with anxiety as to its results; and, now apprehending that Palmer was about to make an immediate disclosure to Luke, she accosted him as he passed her.
"Unbind me!" cried she, "and what you wish shall be yours—money—jewels—"
"Ha! may I depend?"
"I pledge my word."
Palmer untied the cord, and Lady Rookwood, approaching a table whereon stood the escritoir, touched a spring and a secret drawer flew open.
"You do this of your own free will?" asked Luke. "Speak, if it be otherwise."
"I do," returned the lady, hastily.
Palmer's eyes glistened at the treasures exposed to his view.
"They are jewels of countless price. Take them, and rid me," she added, in a whisper, "of him."
"Give them to me."
"They are yours, freely on those terms."
"You hear that, Luke," cried he, aloud; "you hear it, Titus; this is no robbery. Mr. Coates—'Know all men by these presents'—I call you to witness, Lady Rookwood gives me these pretty things."
"I do," returned she; adding, in a whisper, "on the terms which I proposed."
"Must it be done at once?"
"Without an instant's delay."
"Before your own eyes?"
"I fear not to look on. Each moment is precious. He is off his guard now. You do it, you know, in self-defence."
"For the same cause."
"Yet he came here to aid you?"
"What of that?"
"He would have risked his life for yours?"
"I cannot pay back the obligation. He must die!"
"Will be useless then."
"Will not that suffice; why aim at life?"
"You trifle with me. You fear to do it."
"About it, then; you shall have more gold."
"I will about it," cried Jack, throwing the casket to Wilder, and seizing Lady Rookwood's hands. "I am no Italian bravo, madam—no assassin—no remorseless cut-throat. What are you—devil or woman—who ask me to do this? Luke Bradley, I say."
"Would you betray me?" cried Lady Rookwood.
"You have betrayed yourself, madam. Nay, nay, Luke, hands off. See, Lady Rookwood, how you would treat a friend. This strange fellow would blow out my brains for laying a finger upon your ladyship."
"I will suffer no injury to be done to her," said Luke; "release her."
"Your ladyship hears him," said Jack. "And you, Luke, shall learn the value set upon your generosity. You will not have her injured. This instant she has proposed, nay, paid for your assassination."
"How?" exclaimed Luke, recoiling.
"A lie, as black as hell," cried Lady Rookwood.
"A truth, as clear as heaven," returned Jack. "I will speedily convince you of the fact." Then turning to Lady Rookwood, he whispered, "Shall I give him the marriage document?"
"Beware!" said Lady Rookwood.
"Do I avouch the truth, then?"
She was silent.
"I am answered," said Luke.
"Then leave her to her fate," cried Jack.
"No," replied Luke; "she is still a woman, and I will not abandon her to ruffianly violence. Set her free."
"You are a fool," said Jack.
"Hurrah, hurrah!" vociferated Coates, who had rushed to the window. "Rescue, rescue! they are returning from the church; I see the torchlight in the avenue; we are saved!"
"Hell and the devil!" cried Jack; "not an instant is to be lost. Alive, lads; bring off all the plunder you can; be handy!"
"Lady Rookwood, I, bid you farewell," said Luke, in a tone in which scorn and sorrow were blended. "We shall meet again."
"We have not parted yet," returned she; "will you let this man pass? A thousand pounds for his life."
"Upon the nail?" asked Rust.
"By the living God, if any of you attempt to touch him, I will blow his brains out upon the spot, be he friend or foe," cried Jack. "Luke Bradley, we shall meet again. You shall hear from me."
"Lady Rookwood," said Luke, as he departed, "I shall not forget this night."
"Is all ready?" asked Palmer of his comrades.
"Stay," said Lady Rookwood, in a whisper to him. "What will purchase that document?"
"A thousand pounds?"
"It shall be doubled."
"I will turn it over."
"Resolve me now."
"You shall hear from me."
"In what manner?"
"I will find speedy means."
"Your name is Palmer?"
"Palmer is the name he goes by, your ladyship," replied Coates; "but it is a fashion with these rascals to have an alias."
"Ha! ha!" said Jack, thrusting the ramrod into his pistol-barrel, as if to ascertain there was a ball within it; "are you there, Mr. Coates? Pay your wager, sir."
"The hundred we bet that you would take me if ever you had the chance."
"Take you!—it was Dick Turpin I betted to take."
"I am DICK TURPIN—that's my alias!" replied Jack.
"Dick Turpin! then I'll have a snap at you at all hazards," cried Coates, springing suddenly towards him.
"And I at you," said Turpin, discharging his pistol right in the face of the rash attorney; "there's a quittance in full."
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Lay a garland on my hearse
Of the dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches bear,
Say I died true.
My love was false, but I was firm
From my hour of birth;
Upon my buried body lie
Lightly, gentle earth—
BEAMOUNT and FLETCHER
A MORNING RIDE
ON quitting Lady Rookwood's chamber, Luke speeded along the gloomy corridor, descended the spiral stairs, and, swiftly traversing sundry other dark passages, issued from a door at the back of the house. Day was just beginning to break. His first object had been to furnish himself with means to expedite his flight; and, perceiving no one in the yard, he directed his hasty steps towards the stable. The door was fortunately unfastened; and, entering, he found a strong roan horse, which he knew, from description, had been his father's favourite hunter, and to the use of which he now considered himself fully entitled. The animal roused himself as he approached, shook his glossy coat, and neighed, as if he recognised the footsteps and voice.
"Thou art mistaken, old fellow," said Luke; "I am not he thou thinkest; nevertheless, I am glad thy instinct would have it so. If thou bearest my father's son as thou hast borne thy old master, o'er many a field for many a day, he need not fear the best mounted of his pursuers. Soho! come hither, Rook."
The noble steed turned at the call. Luke hastily saddled him, vaulted upon his back, and, disregarding every impediment in the shape of fence or ditch, shaped his course across the field towards the sexton's cottage, which he reached just as its owner was in the act of unlocking his door. Peter testified his delight and surprise at the escape of his grandson, by a greeting of chuckling laughter.
"How?—escaped!" exclaimed he. "Who has delivered you from the hands of the Moabites? Ha, ha! But why do I ask? Who could it have been but Jack Palmer?"
"My own hands have set me free," returned Luke. "I am indebted to no man for liberty; still less to him. But I cannot tarry here; each moment is precious. I came to request you to accompany me to the gipsy encampment. Will you go, or not?"
"And mount behind you?" replied Peter; "I like not the manner of conveyance."
"Farewell, then." And Luke turned to depart.
"Stay; that is Sir Piers's horse, old Rook. I care not if I do ride him."
"Quick then; mount."
"I will not delay you a moment," rejoined the sexton, opening his door, and throwing his implements into the cottage. "Back, Mole; back, sir," cried he, as the dog rushed out to greet him. "Bring your steed nigh this stone, grandson Luke—there—a little nearer—all's right." And away they galloped.
The sexton's first enquiries were directed to ascertain how Luke had accomplished his escape; and, having satisfied himself in this particular, he was content to remain silent; musing, it might be, on the incidents detailed to him.
The road Luke chose was a rough unfrequented lane, that skirted, for nearly a mile, the moss-grown palings of the park. It then diverged to the right, and seemed to bear towards a range of hills rising in the distance. High hedges impeded the view on either hand; but there were occasional gaps, affording glimpses of the tract of country through which he was riding. Meadows were seen steaming with heavy dews, intersected by a deep channelled stream, whose course was marked by a hanging cloud of vapour, as well as by a row of melancholy pollard-willows, that stood like stripped, shivering urchins by the river side. Other fields succeeded, yellow with golden grain, or bright with flowering clover (the autumnal crop), coloured with every shade, from the light green of the turnip to the darker verdure of the bean, the various products of the teeming land. The whole was backed by round drowsy masses of trees.
Luke spoke not, nor abated his furious course, till the road began to climb a steep ascent. He then drew in the rein, and from the heights of the acclivity surveyed the plain over which he had passed.
It was a rich agricultural district, with little picturesque beauty, but much of true English endearing loveliness to recommend it. Such a quiet, pleasing landscape, in short, as one views, at such a season of the year, from every eminence in every county of our merry isle. The picture was made up of a tract of land, filled with corn ripe for the sickle, or studded with sheaves of the same golden produce, enlivened with green meadows, so deeply luxuriant as to claim the scythe for the second time; each divided from the other by thick hedgerows, the uniformity of which were broken ever and anon by some towering elm, tall poplar, or wide-branching oak. Many old farmhouses, with their broad barns and crowded haystacks (forming little villages in themselves), ornamented the landscape at different points, and by their substantial look evidenced the fertility of the soil, and the thriving condition of its inhabitants. Some three miles distant might be seen the scattered hamlet of Rookwood; the dark russet thatch of its houses scarcely perceptible amid the embrowned foliage of the surrounding timber. The site of the village was, however, pointed out by the square tower of the antique church, that crested the summit of the adjoining hill; and although the hall was entirely hidden from view, Luke readily traced out its locality amidst the depths of the dark grove in which it was embosomed.
This goodly prospect had other claims to attention in Luke's eye besides its agricultural or pictorial merit. It was, or he deemed it was, his own. Far as his eye ranged, yea, even beyond the line of vision, the estates of Rookwood extended.
"Do you see that house below us in the valley?" asked Peter of his companion.
"I do," replied Luke; "a snug old house—a model of a farm. Everything looks comfortable and well to do about it. There are a dozen lusty haystacks, or thereabouts; and the great barn, with its roof yellowed like gold, looks built for a granary; and there are stables, kine-houses, orchards, dovecots, and fish ponds, and an old circular garden, with wall-fruit in abundance. He should be a happy man, and a wealthy one, who dwells therein."
"He dwells therein no longer," returned Peter; "he died last night."
"How know you that? None are stirring in the house as yet."
"The owner of that house, Simon Toft," replied Peter, "was last night struck by a thunderbolt. He was one of the coffin-bearers at your father's funeral. They are sleeping within the house, you say. 'Tis well. Let them sleep on—they will awaken too soon, wake when they may—ha, ha!"
"Peace," cried Luke; "you blight everything—even this smiling landscape you would turn to gloom. Does not this morn awaken a happier train of thoughts within your mind? With me it makes amends for want of sleep, effaces resentment, and banishes every black misgiving. 'Tis a joyous thing, thus to scour the country at earliest dawn; to catch all the spirit and freshness of the morning; to be abroad before the lazy world is half awake; to make the most of brief existence; and to have spent a day of keen enjoyment, almost before the day begins with some. I like to anticipate the rising of the glorious luminary; to watch every line of light changing, as at this moment, from shuddering grey to blushing rose! See how the heavens are dyed! Who would exchange yon gorgeous spectacle," continued he, pointing towards the east, and again urging his horse to full speed down the hill, endangering the sexton's seat, and threatening to impale him upon the crupper of the saddle—"who would exchange that sight, and the exhilarating feeling of this fresh morn, for a couch of eider-down, and a headache in reversion?"
"I for one," returned the sexton, sharply, "would willingly exchange it for that, or any other couch, provided it rid me of this accursed crupper, which galls me sorely. Moderate your pace, grandson Luke, or I must throw myself off the horse in self-defence."
Luke slackened his charger's pace, in compliance with the sexton's wish.
"Ah! well," continued Peter, restored in a measure to comfort; "now I can contemplate the sunrise, which you laud, somewhat at mine ease. 'Tis a fine sight, I doubt not, to the eyes of youth; and, to the sanguine soul of him upon whom life itself is dawning, is, I dare say, inspiriting; but when the heyday of existence is past; when the blood flows sluggishly in the veins; when one has known the desolating storms which the brightest sunrise has preceded, the seared heart refuses to trust its false glitter; and, like the experienced sailor, sees oft in the brightest sky a forecast of the tempest. To such a one, there can be no new dawn of the heart; no sun can gild its cold and cheerless horizon; no breeze can revive pulses that have long since ceased to throb with any chance emotion. I am too old to feel freshness in this nipping air. It chills me more than the damps of nights, to which I am accustomed. Night—midnight! is my season of delight. Nature is instinct then with secrets dark and dread. There is a language which he who sleepeth not, but will wake, and watch, may haply learn. Strange organs of speech hath the invisible world; strange language doth it talk; strange communion hold with him who would pry into its mysteries. It talks by bat and owl—by the grave-worm, and by each crawling thing—by the dust of graves, as well as by those that rot therein—but ever doth it discourse by night, and specially when the moon is at the full. 'Tis the lore I have then learnt that makes that season dear to me. Like your cat, mine eye expands in darkness. I blink at the sunshine, like your owl."
"Cease this forbidding strain," returned Luke; "it sounds as harshly as your own screech-owl's cry. Let your thoughts take a more sprightly turn, more in unison with my own and the fair aspect of nature."
"Shall I direct them to the gipsies' camp, then?" said Peter with a sneer. "Do your own thoughts tend thither?"
"You are not altogether in the wrong," replied Luke. "I was thinking of the gipsies' camp, and of one who dwells amongst its tents."
"I knew it," replied Peter. "Did you hope to deceive me, by attributing all your joyousness of heart to the dawn? Your thoughts have been wandering all this while upon one who hath, I will engage, a pair of sloe-black eyes, an olive skin, and yet withal a clear one—'black, yet comely, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon'—a mesh of jetty hair, that hath entangled you in its network—ripe lips, and a cunning tongue—one of the plagues of Egypt. Ha, ha!"
"You have guessed shrewdly," replied Luke; "I care not to own that my thoughts were so occupied."
"I was assured of it," replied the sexton, "And what may be the name of her towards whom your imagination was straying?"
"Sibila Perez," replied Luke. "Her father was a Spanish Gitano. She is known amongst her people by her mother's name of Lovel."
"She is beautiful, of course?"
"Ay, very beautiful!—but no matter! You shall judge of her charms anon."
"I will take your word for them," returned the sexton; "and you love her?"
"You are not married?" asked Peter, hastily.
"Not as yet," replied Luke; "but my faith is plighted."
"Heaven be praised! The mischief is not then irreparable. I would have you married—though not to a gipsy girl."
"And whom would you select?"
"One before whom Sybil's beauty would pale as stars at day's approach."
"There lives not such a one."
"Trust me there does. Eleanor Mowbray is lovely beyond parallel. I was merely speculating upon a possibility, when I wished her yours—it is scarcely likely she would cast her eyes upon you."
"I shall not heed her neglect. Graced with my title, I doubt not, were it my pleasure to seek a bride amongst those of gentle blood, I should not find all indifferent to my suit."
"Possibly not. Yet what might weigh with others, would not weigh with her. There are qualities you lack which she has discovered in another."
"In Ranulph Rookwood."
"Is he her suitor?"
"I have reason to think so."
"And you would have me abandon my own betrothed love, to beguile from my brother his destined bride? That were to imitate the conduct of my grandsire, the terrible Sir Reginald, towards his brother Alan."
The sexton answered not, and Luke fancied he could perceive a quivering in the hands that grasped his body for support. There was a brief pause in their conversation.
"And who is Eleanor Mowbray?" asked Luke, breaking the silence.
"Your cousin. On the mother's side a Rookwood. 'Tis therefore I would urge your union with her. There is a prophecy relating to your house, which seems as though it would be fulfilled in your person and in hers:
"When the stray Rook shall perch on the topmost bough,
There shall be clamour and screaming, I trow;
But of right, and of rule, of the ancient nest,
The Rook that with Rook mates shall hold him possest."
"I place no faith in such fantasies," replied Luke; "and yet the lines bear strangely upon my present situation."
"Their application to yourself and Eleanor Mowbray is unquestionable," replied the sexton.
"It would seem so indeed," rejoined Luke; and he again sank into abstraction, from which the sexton did not care to arouse him.
The aspect of the country had materially changed since their descent of the hill. In place of the richly-cultivated district which lay on the other side, a broad brown tract of waste land spread out before them, covered with scattered patches of gorse, stunted fern, and low brushwood, presenting an unvaried surface of unbaked turf. The shallow coat of sod was manifested by the stones that clattered under the horse's hoofs as he rapidly traversed the arid soil, clearing with ease to himself, though not without discomfort to the sexton, every gravelly trench, natural chasm, or other inequality of ground that occurred in his course. Clinging to his grandson with the tenacity of a bird of prey, Peter for some time kept his station in security; but, unluckily, at one dike rather wider than the rest, the horse, owing possibly to the mismanagement, intentional or otherwise, of Luke, swerved, and the sexton, dislodged from his "high estate," fell at the edge of the trench, and rolled incontinently to the bottom.
Luke drew in the rein to enquire if any bones were broken; and Peter presently upreared his dusty person from the abyss, and without condescending to make any reply, yet muttering curses, "not loud, but deep," accepted his grandson's proffered hand, and remounted.
While thus occupied, Luke fancied he heard a distant shout, and noting whence the sound proceeded—the same quarter by which he had approached the heath—he beheld a single horseman, spurring in their direction, at the top of his speed; and to judge from the rate at which he advanced, it was evident he was anything but indifferently mounted. Apprehensive of pursuit, Luke expedited the sexton's ascent; and that accomplished, without bestowing further regard upon the object of his solicitude, he resumed his headlong flight. He now thought it necessary to bestow more attention to his choice of road, and, perfectly acquainted with the heath, avoided all unnecessary hazardous passes. In spite of his knowledge of the ground, and the excellence of his horse, the stranger sensibly gained upon him. The danger, however, was no longer imminent.
"We are safe," cried Luke; "the limits of Hardchase are past. In a few seconds we shall enter Davenham Wood. I will turn the horse loose, and we will betake ourselves to flight amongst the trees. I will show you a place of concealment. He cannot follow us on horseback, and on foot I defy him."
"Stay," cried the sexton. "He is not in pursuit—he takes another course—he wheels to the right. By Heaven! it is the Fiend himself upon a black horse, come for Bow-legged Ben. See, he is there already."
The horseman had turned, as the sexton stated, careering towards a revolting object, at some little distance on the right hand. It was a gibbet, with its grisly burden. He rode swiftly towards it, and, reining in his horse, took off his hat, bowing profoundly to the carcase that swung in the morning breeze. Just at that moment a gust of air catching the fleshless skeleton, its arms seemed to be waved in reply to the salutation. A solitary crow winged its flight over the horseman's head as he paused. After a moment's halt, he wheeled about, and again shouted to Luke, waving his hat.
"As I live," said the latter, "it is jack Palmer."
"Dick Turpin, you mean," rejoined the sexton. "He has been paying his respects to a brother blade. Ha, ha! Dick will never have the honour of a gibbet; he is too tender of the knife. Did you mark the crow? But here he comes." And in another instant Turpin was by their side.
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A GIPSY ENCAMPMENT
THE top of the morning to you, gem'men," said Turpin, as he rode up at an easy canter. "Did you not hear my halloo? I caught a glimpse of you on the hill yonder. I knew you both, two miles off; and so, having a word or two to say to you, Luke Bradley, before I leave this part of the country, I put Bess to it, and she soon brought me within hail. Bless her black skin," added he, affectionately patting his horse's neck, "there's not her match in these parts, or in any other; she wants no coaxing to do her work—no bleeders for her. I should have been up with you before this had I not taken a cross cut to look at poor Ben.
"One night, when mounted on my mare,
To Bagshot Heath I did repair,
And saw Will Davies hanging there,
Upon the gibbet bleak and bare,
With a rustified, fustified, mustified air.
Excuse my singing. The sight of a gibbet always puts me in mind of the Golden Farmer. May I ask whither you are bound, comrades?"
"Comrades!" whispered the sexton to Luke; "you see he does not so easily forget his old friends."
"I have business that will not admit of delay," rejoined Luke; "and, to speak plainly—"
"You want not my society," returned Turpin; "I thought as much. Natural enough! You have got an inkling of your good fortune. You have found out you are a rich man's heir, not a poor wench's bastard. No offence, I'm a plain-spoken man, as you will find, if you know it not already. I have no objection to your playing these fine tricks on others, though it won't answer your turn to do so with me."
"Sir!" exclaimed Luke, sharply.
"Sir to you," replied Turpin. "Sir Luke—as I suppose you would now choose to be addressed. I am aware of all. A nod is as good as a wink to me. Last night I learnt the fact of Sir Piers's marriage from Lady Rookwood—ay, from her ladyship. You stare—and old Peter, there, opens his ogles now. She let it out by accident; and I am in possession of what can alone substantiate your father's first marriage, and establish your claims to the property."
"The devil!" cried the sexton; adding, in a whisper to Luke, "You had better not be precipitate in dropping so obliging an acquaintance."
"You are jesting," said Luke to Turpin.
"It is ill jesting before breakfast," returned Dick: "I am seldom in the mood for a joke so early. What if a certain marriage certificate had fallen into my hand?"
"A marriage certificate!" echoed Luke and the sexton simultaneously.
"The only existing proof of the union of Sir Piers Rookwood with Susan Bradley," continued Turpin. "What if I had stumbled upon such a document—nay, more, if I knew where to direct you to it?"
"Peace!" cried Luke to his tormentor; and then addressing Turpin, "If what you say be true, my quest is at an end. All that I need, you appear to possess. Other proofs are secondary to this. I know with whom I have to deal. What do you demand for that certificate?"
"We will talk about the matter after breakfast," said Turpin. "I wish to treat with you as friend with friend. Meet me on those terms, and I am your man; reject my offer, and I turn my mare's head, and ride back to Rookwood. With me now rests all your hopes. I have dealt fairly with you, and I expect to be fairly dealt with in return. It were idle to say, now I have an opportunity, that I should not turn this luck to my account. I were a fool to do otherwise. You cannot expect it. And then I have Rust and Wilder to settle with. Though I have left them behind, they know my destination. We have been old associates. I like your spirit—I care not for your haughtiness; but I will not help you up the ladder to be kicked down myself. Now you understand me. Whither are you bound?"
"To Davenham Priory, the gipsy camp."
"The gipsies are your friends?"
"I am alone."
"You are safe."
"You pledge your word that all shall be on the square? You will not mention to one of that canting crew what I have told you?"
"With one exception, you may rely upon my secrecy."
"Whom do you except?"
"Bad! never trust a petticoat."
"I will answer for her with my life."
"And for your granddad there?"
"He will answer for himself," said Peter. "You need not fear treachery in me. Honour among thieves, you know."
"Or where else should you seek it?" rejoined Turpin; "for it has left all other classes of society. Your highwayman is your only man of honour. I will trust you both; and you shall find you may trust me. After breakfast, as I said before, we will bring the matter to a conclusion. Tip us your daddle, Sir Luke, and I am satisfied. You shall rule in Rookwood, I'll engage, ere a week be flown; and then—but so much parleying is dull work; let's make the best of our way to breakfast."
And away they cantered.
A narrow bridle-path conducted them singly through the defiles of a thick wood. Their route lay in the shade, and the air felt chilly amidst the trees, the sun not having attained sufficient altitude to penetrate its depths, while overhead all was warmth and light. Quivering on the tops of the timber, the horizontal sunbeams created, in their refraction, brilliant prismatic colourings, and filled the air with motes like golden dust. Our horsemen needed not the sunshine or the shade. Occupied each with his own train of thought, they silently rode on.
Davenham Wood, through which they urged their course, had, in the olden time, been a forest of some extent. It was then an appendage to the domains of Rookwood, but had passed from the hands of that family to those of a wealthy adjoining landowner and lawyer, Sir Edward Davenham, in the keeping of whose descendants it had ever after continued.
A noble wood it was, and numbered many patriarchal trees. Ancient oaks, with broad gnarled limbs, which the storms of five hundred years had vainly striven to uproot, and which were now sternly decaying; gigantic beech-trees, with silvery stems shooting smoothly upwards, sustaining branches of such size, that each, dissevered, would in itself have formed a tree, populous with leaves, and variegated with rich autumnal tints; the sprightly sycamore, the dark chestnut, the weird wych-elm, the majestic elm itself, festooned with ivy, every variety of wood, dark, dense, and intricate, composed the forest through which they rode; and so multitudinous was the timber, so closely planted, so entirely filled up with a thick matted vegetation, which had been allowed to collect beneath, that little view was afforded, had any been desired by the parties, into the labyrinth of the grove.
Tree after tree, clad in the glowing livery of the season, was passed, and as rapidly succeeded by others. Occasionally a bough projected over their path, compelling the riders to incline their heads as they passed; but, heedless of such difficulties, they pressed on. Now the road grew lighter, and they became at once sensible of the genial influence of the sun. The transition was as agreeable as instantaneous. They had opened upon an extensive plantation of full-grown pines, whose tall, branchless stems, grew up like a forest of masts, and freely admitted the pleasant sunshine. Beneath those trees, the soil was sandy and destitute of all undergrowth, though covered with brown, hair-like fibres and dry cones, shed by the pines. The agile squirrel, that freest denizen of the grove, starting from the ground as the horsemen galloped on, sprang up the nearest tree, and might be seen angrily gazing at the disturbers of his haunts, beating the branches with his fore-feet, in expression of displeasure; the rabbit darted across their path; the jays flew screaming amongst the foliage; the blue cushat, scared at the clatter of the horses' hoofs, sped on swift wing into quarters secure from their approach; while the particoloured pies, like curious village gossips, congregated to peer at the strangers, expressing their astonishment by loud and continuous chattering.
Though so gentle of ascent as to be almost imperceptible, it was still evident that the path they were pursuing gradually mounted a hill-side; and when at length they reached an opening, the view disclosed the eminence they had insensibly won. Pausing for a moment upon the brow of the hill, Luke pointed to a stream that wound through the valley, and, tracing its course, indicated a particular spot amongst the trees. There was no appearance of a dwelling-house—no cottage roof, no white canvas shed, to point out the tents of the wandering tribe whose abode they were seeking. The only circumstance betokening that it had once been the haunt of man, were a few grey monastic ruins, scarce distinguishable from the stony barrier by which they were surrounded; and the sole evidence that it was still frequented by human beings was a thin column of pale blue smoke, that arose in curling wreaths from out the brake, the light-coloured vapour beautifully contrasting with the green umbrage whence it issued.
"Our destination is yonder," exclaimed Luke, pointing in the direction of the vapour.
"I am glad to hear it," cried Turpin, "as well as to perceive there is someone awake. That smoke holds out a prospect of breakfast. No smoke without fire, as old Lady Scanmag said; and I'll wager a trifle that fire was not lighted for the fayter fellows to count their fingers by. We shall find three sticks, and a black pot with a kid seething in it, I'll engage. These gipsies have picked out a prettyish spot to quarter in—quite picturesque, as one may say—and but for that tell-tale smoke, which looks for all the world like a Dutch skipper blowing his morning cloud, no one need know of their vicinity. A pretty place, upon my soul."
The spot, in sooth, merited Turpin's eulogium. It was a little valley, in the midst of wooded hills, so secluded, that not a single habitation appeared in view. Clothed with timber to the very summits, excepting on the side where the party stood, which verged upon the declivity, these mountainous ridges presented a broken outline of foliage, variegated with tinted masses of bright orange, umber, and deepest green. Four hills hemmed in the valley. Here and there, a grey slab of rock might be discerned amongst the wood, and a mountain-ash figured conspicuously upon a jutting crag immediately below them. Deep sunken in the ravine, and concealed in part from view by the wild herbage and dwarf shrubs, ran a range of precipitous rocks, severed, it would seem, by some diluvial convulsion, from the opposite mountain side, as a corresponding rift was there visible, in which the same dip of strata might be observed, together with certain ribbed cavities, matching huge bolts of rocks which had once locked these stony walls together.
Washing this cliff, swept a clear stream, well known and well regarded, as it waxed in width, by the honest brethren of the angle, who seldom, however, tracked it to its rise amongst these hills. The stream found its way into the valley through a chasm far to the left, and rushed thundering down the mountain side in a boiling cascade. The valley was approached in this direction from Rookwood by an unfrequented carriage-road, which Luke had, from prudential reasons, avoided. All seemed consecrated to silence—to solitude—to the hush of nature; yet this quiet scene was the chosen retreat of lawless depredators, and had erstwhile been the theatre of feudal oppression.
We have said that no habitation was visible; that no dwelling tenanted by man could be seen; but following the spur of the furthest mountain hill, some traces of a stone wall might be discovered; and upon a natural platform of rock, stood a stern square tower, which had once been the donjon of the castle, the lords of which had called the four hills their own. A watch-tower then had crowned each eminence, every vestige of which had, however, long since disappeared. Sequestered in the vale, stood the Priory before alluded to (a Monastery of Grey Friars, of the Order of St. Francis), some of the venerable walls of which were still remaining; and if they had not reverted to the bat and owl, as is wont to be the fate of such sacred structures, their cloistered shrines were devoted to beings whose nature partook, in some measure, of the instincts of those creatures of the night—a people whose deeds were of darkness, and whose eyes shunned the light. Here the gipsies had pitched their tent; and though the place was often, in part, deserted by the vagrant horde, yet certain of the tribe, who had grown into years (over whom Barbara Lovel held queenly sway), made it their haunt, and were suffered, by the authorities of the neighbourhood, to remain unmolested—a lenient piece of policy, which, in our infinite regard for the weal of the tawny tribe, we recommend to the adoption of all other justices and knights of the shire.
Bidding his grandsire have regard to his seat, Luke leaped a high bank; and, followed by Turpin, began to descend the hill. Peter, however, took care to provide for himself. The descent was so perilous, and the footing so insecure, that he chose rather to trust to such conveyance as nature had furnished him with, than to hazard his neck by any false step of the horse. He contrived, therefore, to slide off from behind, shaping his own course in a more secure direction.
He who has wandered amidst the Alps must have often had occasion to witness the wonderful surefootedness of that mountain pilot, the mule. He must have remarked how, with tenacious hoof, he will claw the rock, and drag himself from one impending fragment to another, with perfect security to his rider; how he will breast the roaring currents of air, and stand unshrinking at the verge of almost unfathomable ravines. But it is not so with the horse: fleet on the plain, careful over rugged ground, he is timid and uncertain on the hill-side, and the risk incurred by Luke and Turpin, in their descent of the almost perpendicular sides of the cliff, was tremendous. Peter watched them in their descent with some admiration, and with much contempt.
"He will break his neck, of a surety," said he; "but what matters it? As well now as hereafter."
So saying, he approached the verge of the precipice, where he could see them more distinctly.
The passage along which Luke rode had never before been traversed by horse's hoof. Cut in the rock, it presented a steep zig-zag path amongst the cliffs, without any defence for the foot traveller, except such as was afforded by a casual clinging shrub, and no protection whatever existed for a horseman; the possibility of anyone attempting the passage not having, in all probability, entered into the calculation of those who framed it. Added to this, the steps were of such unequal heights, and withal so narrow, that the danger was proportionately increased.
"Ten thousand devils!" cried Turpin, staring downwards; "is this the best road you have got?"
"You will find one more easy," replied Luke, "if you ride for a quarter of a mile down the wood, and then return by the brook side. You will meet me at the priory."
"No," answered the highwayman, boldly; "if you go, I go too. It shall never be said that Dick Turpin was afraid to follow where another would lead. Proceed."
Luke gave his horse the bridle, and the animal slowly and steadily commenced the descent, fixing his fore-legs upon the steps, and drawing his hinder limbs carefully after him. Here it was that the lightness and steadiness of Turpin's mare was completely shown. No Alpine mule could have borne its rider with more apparent ease and safety. Turpin encouraged her by hand and word; but she needed it not. The sexton saw them, and, tracking their giddy descent, he became more interested than he anticipated. His attention was suddenly drawn towards Luke.
"He is gone," cried Peter. "He falls—he sinks—my plans are all defeated—the last link is snapped. No," added he, recovering his wonted composure, "his end is not so fated."
Rook had missed his footing. He rolled stumbling down the precipice a few yards. Luke's fate seemed inevitable. His feet were entangled in the stirrup, he could not free himself. A birch-tree, growing in a chink of the precipice, arrested his further fall. But for this timely aid all had been over. Here Luke was enabled to extricate himself from the stirrup and to regain his feet; seizing the bridle, he dragged his faulty steed back again to the road.
"You have had a narrow escape, by Jove," said Turpin, who had been thunderstruck by the whole proceeding. "Those big cattle are always clumsy; devilish lucky it's no worse."
It was now comparatively smooth travelling; but they had not as yet reached the valley, and it seemed to be Luke's object to take a circuitous path. This was so evident, that Turpin could not help commenting upon it.
Luke evaded the question. "The crag is steep there," said he; "besides, to tell you the truth, I want to surprise them."
"Ho, ho!" laughed Dick. "Surprise them, eh? What a pity the birch-tree was in the way; you would have done it properly then. Egad, here's another surprise."
Dick's last exclamation was caused by his having suddenly come upon a wide gully in the rock, through which dashed a headlong torrent, crossed by a single plank.
"You must be mad to have taken this road," cried Turpin, gazing down into the roaring depths in which the waterfall raged, and measuring the distance of the pass with his eye. "So, so, Bess!—Ay, look at it, wench. Curse me, Luke, if I think your horse will do it, and, therefore, turn him loose."
But Dick might as well have bidden the cataract to flow backwards. Luke struck his heels into his horse's sides. The steed galloped to the brink, snorted, and refused the leap.
"I told you so—he can't do it," said Turpin. "Well, if you are obstinate, a wilful man must have his way. Stand aside, while I try it for you." Patting Bess, he put her to a gallop. She cleared the gulf bravely, landing her rider safely upon the opposite rock.
"Now then," cried Turpin, from the other side of the chasm.
Luke again urged his steed. Encouraged by what he had seen, this time the horse sprang across without hesitation. The next instant they were in the valley.
For some time they rode along the banks of the stream in silence. A sound at length caught the quick ears of the highwayman.
"Hist!" cried he; "some one sings. Do you hear it?"
"I do," replied Luke, the blood rushing to his cheeks.
"And could give a guess at the singer, no doubt," said Turpin, with a knowing look. "Was it to hear yon woodlark that you nearly broke your own neck, and put mine in jeopardy?"
"Prithee be silent," whispered Luke.
"I am dumb," replied Turpin; "I like a sweet voice as well as another."
Clear as the note of a bird, yet melancholy as the distant dole of the vesper-bell, arose the sound of that sweet voice from the wood. A fragment of a Spanish gipsy song it warbled; Luke knew it well.
The tender trembling of a guitar was heard in accompaniment of the ravishing melodist.
The song ceased.
"Where is the bird?" asked Turpin.
"Move on in silence, and you shall see," said Luke; and, keeping upon the turf, so that his horse's tread became inaudible, he presently arrived at a spot where, through the boughs, the object of his investigation could plainly be distinguished, though he himself was concealed from view.
Upon a platform of rock, rising to the height of the trees, nearly perpendicularly from the river's bed, appeared the figure of the gipsy maid. Her footstep rested on the extreme edge of the abrupt cliff, at whose base the water boiled in a deep whirlpool, and the bounding chamois could not have been more lightly poised. One small hand rested upon her guitar, the other pressed her brow. Braided hair, of the jettiest die and sleekest texture, was twined around her brow, in endless twisted folds.
And so exuberant was this rarest feminine ornament, that, after encompassing her brow, it was passed behind, and hung down in long thick plaits almost to her feet. Sparkling, as the sunbeams that played upon her dark yet radiant features, were the large, black, oriental eyes of the maiden, and shaded with lashes long and silken. Hers was a Moorish countenance, in which the magnificence of the eyes eclipses the face, be it ever so beautiful (an effect to be observed in many of the paintings of Murillo), and the lovely contour is scarcely noticed in the gaze which those long, languid, luminous orbs attract. Sybil's features were exquisite, yet you looked only at her eyes—they were the lodestars of her countenance. Her costume was singular, and partook, like herself, of other climes. Like the Andalusian dame, her choice of colour inclined towards black, as the material of most of her dress was of that sombre hue. A bodice of embroidered velvet restrained her delicate bosom's swell; a rich girdle, from which depended a silver chain, sustaining a short poniard, bound her waist; around her slender throat was twined a costly kerchief; and the rest of her dress was calculated to display her slight, yet faultless, figure to the fullest advantage.
Unconscious that she was the object of regard, she raised her guitar, and essayed to touch the chords. She struck a few notes, and resumed her romance.
Her song died away. Her hand was needed to brush off the tears that were gathering in her large dark eyes. At once her attitude was changed. The hare could not have started more suddenly from her form. She heard accents well known concluding the melody.
It was her lover's voice. She caught the sound at once, and, starting, as the roe would arouse herself at the hunter's approach, bounded down the crag, and ere he had finished the refrain, was by his side.
Flinging the bridle to Turpin, Luke sprang to her, and caught her in his arms. Disengaging herself from his ardent embrace, Sybil drew back, abashed at the sight of the highwayman.
"Heed him not," said Luke; "it is a friend."
"He is welcome here then," replied Sybil. "But where have you tarried so long, dear Luke?" continued she, as they walked to a little distance from the highwayman. "What hath detained you? The hours have passed wearily since you departed. You bring good news?"
"Good news, my girl; so good, that I falter even in the telling of it. You shall know all anon. And see, our friend yonder grows impatient. Are there any stirring? We must bestow a meal upon him, and that forthwith: he is one of those who brook not much delay."
"I came not to spoil a love meeting," said Turpin, who had good-humouredly witnessed the scene; "but, in sober seriousness, if there is a stray capon to be met with in the land of Egypt, I shall be glad to make his acquaintance. Methinks I scent a stew afar off."
"Follow me," said Sybil; "your wants shall be supplied."
"Stay," said Luke; "there is one other of our party, whose coming we must abide."
"He is here," said Sybil, observing the sexton at a distance. "Who is that old man?"
"My grandsire, Peter Bradley."
"Is that Peter Bradley?" asked Sybil.
"Ay, you may well ask whether that old dried-up otomy, who ought to grin in a glass case for folks to stare at, be kith and kin of such a bang-up cove as your fancy man, Luke," said Turpin, laughing—"but i'faith he is."
"Though he is your grandsire, Luke," said Sybil, "I like him not. His glance resembles that of the Evil Eye."
And, in fact, the look which Peter fixed upon her was such as the rattlesnake casts upon its victim, and Sybil felt like a poor fluttering bird under the fascination of that venomous reptile. She could not remove her eyes from his, though she trembled as she gazed. We have said that Peter's orbs were like those of the toad. Age had not dimmed their brilliancy. In his harsh features you could only read bitter scorn or withering hate; but in his eyes resided a magnetic influence of attraction or repulsion. Sybil underwent the former feeling in a disagreeable degree. She was drawn to him as by the motion of a whirlpool, and involuntarily clung to her lover.
"It is the Evil Eye, dear Luke."
"Tut, tut, dear Sybil; I tell you it is my grandsire."
"The girl says rightly, however," rejoined Turpin; "Peter has a confounded ugly look about the ogles, and stares enough to put a modest wench out of countenance. Come, come, my old earth-worm, crawl along, we have waited for you long enough. Is this the first time you have seen a pretty lass, eh?"
"It is the first time I have seen one so beautiful," said Peter; "and I crave her pardon if my freedom has offended her. I wonder not at your enchantment, grandson Luke, now I behold the object of it. But there is one piece of counsel I would give to this fair maid. The next time she trusts you from her sight, I would advise her to await you at the hill-top, otherwise the chances are shrewdly against your reaching the ground with neck unbroken."
There was something, notwithstanding the satirical manner in which Peter delivered this speech, calculated to make a more favourable impression upon Sybil than his previous conduct had inspired her with; and, having ascertained from Luke to what his speech referred, she extended her hand to him, yet not without a shudder, as it was enclosed in his skinny grasp. It was like the fingers of Venus in the grasp of a skeleton.
"This is a little hand," said Peter, "and I have some skill myself in palmistry. Shall I peruse its lines?"
"Not now, in the devil's name!" said Turpin, stamping impatiently. "We shall have Old Ruffin himself amongst us presently, if Peter Bradley grows gallant."
Leading their horses, the party took their way through the trees. A few minutes' walking brought them in sight of the gipsy encampment, the spot selected for which might be termed the Eden of the valley. It was a small green plain, smooth as a well-shorn lawn, kept ever verdant (save in such places as the frequent fires had scorched its surface) by the flowing stream that rushed past it, and surrounded by an amphitheatre of wooded hills. Here might be seen the canvas tent with its patches of varied colouring; the rude-fashioned hut of primitive construction; the kettle slung
Between two poles, upon a stick transverse
the tethered beasts of burden, the horses, asses, dogs, carts, caravans, wains, blocks, and other movables and immovables belonging to the wandering tribe. Glimmering through the trees, at the extremity of the plain, appeared the ivy-mantled walls of Davenham Priory. Though much had gone to decay, enough remained to recall the pristine state of this once majestic pile, and the long, though broken line of Saxon arches, that still marked the cloister wall; the piers that yet supported the dormitory; the enormous horse-shoe arch that spanned the court; and, above all, the great marigold, or circular window, which terminated the chapel, and which, though now despoiled of its painted honours, retained, like the skeleton leaf, its fibrous intricacies entire—all eloquently spoke of the glories of the past, while they awakened reverence and admiration for the still-enduring beauty of the present.
Towards these ruins Sybil conducted the party.
"Do you dwell therein?" asked Peter, pointing towards the priory.
"That is my dwelling," said Sybil.
"It is one I should covet more than a modern mansion," returned the sexton.
"I love those old walls better than any house that was ever fashioned," replied Sybil.
As they entered the Prior's Close, as it was called, several swarthy figures made their appearance from the tents. Many a greeting was bestowed upon Luke, in the wild jargon of the tribe. At length an uncouth dwarfish figure, with a shock head of black hair, hopped towards them. He seemed to acknowledge Luke as his master.
"What ho! Grasshopper," said Luke, "take these horses, and see that they lack neither dressing nor provender."
"And hark ye, Grasshopper," added Turpin, "I give you a special charge about this mare. Neither dress nor feed her till I see both done myself. Just walk her for ten minutes, and if you have a glass of ale in the place, let her sip it."
"Your bidding shall be done," chirped the human insect, as he fluttered away with his charges.
A motley assemblage of tawny-skinned varlets, dark-eyed women and children, whose dusky limbs betrayed their lineage, in strange costume, and of wild deportment, checked the path, muttering welcome upon welcome into the ear of Luke as he passed. As it was evident he was in no mood for converse, Sybil, who seemed to exercise considerable authority over the crew, with a word dispersed them, and they herded back to their respective habitations.
A low door admitted Luke and his companions into what had once been the garden, in which some old moss-encrusted apple-and walnut-trees were still standing, bearing a look of antiquity almost as venerable as that of the adjoining fabric.
Another open door gave them entrance to a spacious chamber, formerly the eating-room, or refectory of the holy brotherhood; and a goodly room it had been, though now its slender lanceolated windows were stuffed with hay, to keep out the air. Large holes told where huge oaken rafters had once crossed the roof, and a yawning aperture marked the place where a cheering fire had formerly blazed. As regarded this latter spot, the good old custom was not, even now, totally abrogated. An iron plate, covered with crackling wood, sustained a ponderous black caldron, the rich steam from which gratefully affected the olfactory organs of the highwayman.
"That augurs well," said he, rubbing his hands.
"Still hungering after the fleshpots of Egypt," said the sexton, with a ghastly smile.
"We will see what that kettle contains," said Luke.
"Handassah—Grace!" exclaimed Sybil, calling.
Her summons was answered by two maidens, habited, not unbecomingly, in gipsy gear.
"Bring the best our larder can furnish," said Sybil, "and use despatch. You have appetites to provide for, sharpened by a long ride in the open air."
"And by a night's fasting," said Luke, "and solitary confinement to boot."
"And a night of business," added Turpin—"and plaguing, perplexing business into the bargain."
"And the night of a funeral, too," doled Peter; "and that funeral a father's. Let us have breakfast speedily, by all means. We have rare appetites."
An old oaken table (it might have been the self-same upon which the holy friars had broken their morning fast) stood in the middle of the room. The ample board soon groaned beneath the weight of the savoury caldron, the unctuous contents of which proved to be a couple of dismembered pheasants an equal proportion of poultry, great gouts of ham, mushrooms, onions, and other piquant condiments, so satisfactory to Dick Turpin, that, upon tasting a mouthful, he absolutely shed tears of delight. The dish was indeed the triumph of gipsy cookery; and so sedulously did Dick apply himself to his mess, and so complete was his abstraction, that he perceived not that he was left alone. It was only when about to wash down the last drumstick of the last fowl with a can of excellent ale that he made this discovery.
"What! all gone? And Peter Bradley, too? What the devil does this mean?" mused he. "I must not muddle my brain with any more Pharaoh, though I have feasted like a King of Egypt. That will never do. Caution, Dick, caution. Suppose I shift yon brick from the wall, and place this precious document beneath it. Pshaw! Luke would never play me false. And now for Bess! Bless her black skin! she'll wonder where I've been so long. It's not my way to leave her to shift for herself, though she can do that on a pinch."
Soliloquising thus, he arose and walked towards the door.
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"By Heaven! It is the fiend himself upon a black horse."
BENEATH a mouldering wall, whither they had strayed, to be free from interruption, and upon a carpet of the greenest moss, sat Sybil and her lover.
With eager curiosity she listened to his tale. He recounted all that had befallen him since his departure. He told her of the awful revelations of the tomb; of the ring that, like a talisman, had conjured up a thousand brilliant prospects; of his subsequent perils; his escapes; his rencontre with Lady Rookwood; his visit to his father's body; and his meeting with his brother. All this she heard with a cheek now flushed with expectation, now made pale with apprehension; with palpitating bosom, and suppressed breath. But when taking a softer tone, love, affection, happiness, inspired the theme, and Luke sought to paint the bliss that should be theirs in his new estate; when he would throw his fortune into her lap, his titles at her feet, and bid her wear them with him; when, with ennobled hand and unchanged heart, he would fulfil the troth plighted in his outcast days; in lieu of tender, grateful acquiescence, the features of Sybil became overcast, the soft smile faded away, and, as spring sunshine is succeeded by the sudden shower, the light that dwelt in her sunny orbs grew dim with tears.
"Why—why is this, dear Sybil?" said Luke, gazing upon her in astonishment, not unmingled with displeasure. "To what am I to attribute these tears? You do not, surely, regret my good fortune?"
"Not on your own account, dear Luke," returned she, sadly. "The tears I shed were for myself—the first, the only tears that I have ever shed for such cause; and," added she, raising her head like a flower surcharged with moisture, "they shall be the last."
"This is inexplicable, dear Sybil. Why should you lament for yourself, if not for me? Does not the sunshine of prosperity that now shines upon me gild you with the same beam? Did I not even now affirm that the day that saw me enter the hall of my forefathers should dawn upon our espousals?"
"True; but the sun that shines upon you, to me wears a threatening aspect. The day of those espousals will never dawn. You cannot make me the lady of Rookwood."
"What do I hear?" exclaimed Luke, surprised at this avowal of his mistress, sadly and deliberately delivered. "Not wed you! And wherefore not? Is it the rank I have acquired, or hope to acquire, that displeases you? Speak, that I may waste no further time in thus pursuing the shadows of happiness, while the reality fleets from me."
"And are they shadows; and is this the reality, dear Luke? Question your secret soul, and you will find it otherwise. You could not forego your triumph; it is not likely. You have dwelt too much upon the proud title which will be yours to yield it to another, when it may be won so easily. And, above all, when your mother's reputation, and your own stained name, may be cleared by one word, breathed aloud, would you fail to utter it? No, dear Luke, I read your heart; you would not."
"And if I could not forego this, wherefore is it that you refuse to be a sharer in my triumph? Why will you render my honours valueless when I have acquired them? You love me not."
"Not love you, Luke?"
"Approve it, then."
"I do approve it. Bear witness the sacrifice I am about to make of all my hopes, at the shrine of my idolatry to you. Bear witness the agony of this hour. Bear witness the horror of the avowal, that I never can be yours. As Luke Bradley, I would joyfully—oh, how joyfully!—have been your bride. As Sir Luke Rookwood"—and she shuddered as she pronounced the name—"I never can be so."
"Then, by Heaven! Luke Bradley will I remain. But wherefore—wherefore not as Sir Luke Rookwood?"
"Because," replied Sybil, with reluctance—"because I am no longer your equal. The gipsy's low-born daughter is no mate for Sir Luke Rookwood. Love cannot blind me, dear Luke. It cannot make me other than I am; it cannot exalt me in my own esteem, nor in that of the world, with which you, alas! too soon will mingle, and which will regard even me as—no matter what!—it shall not scorn me as your bride. I will not bring shame and reproach upon you. Oh! if, for me, dear Luke, the proud ones of the earth were to treat you with contumely, this heart would break with agony. For myself, I have pride sufficient—perchance too much. Perchance 'tis pride that actuates me now. I know not. But for you I am all weakness. As you were heretofore, I would have been to you the tenderest and truest wife that ever breathed; as you are now—"
"Hear me, Sybil."
"Hear me out, dear Luke. One other motive there is that determines my present conduct, which, were all else surmounted, would in itself suffice. Ask me not what that is. I cannot explain it. For your own sake, I implore you, be satisfied with my refusal."
"What a destiny is mine!" exclaimed Luke, striking his forehead with his clenched hand. "No choice is left me. Either way I destroy my own happiness. On the one hand stands love—on the other ambition; yet neither will conjoin."
"Pursue, then, ambition," said Sybil, energetically, "if you can hesitate. Forget that I have ever existed; forget you have ever loved; forget that such a passion dwells within the human heart, and you may still be happy, though you are great."
"And do you deem," replied Luke, with frantic impatience, "that I can accomplish this; that I can forget that I have loved you; that I can forget you? Cost what it will, the effort shall be made. Yet by our former love, I charge you tell me what has wrought this change in you? Why do you now refuse me?"
"I have said you are Sir Luke Rookwood," returned Sybil, with painful emotion. "Does that name import nothing?"
"Imports it aught of ill?"
"To me, everything of ill. It is a fated house. Its line are all predestined."
"To what?" demanded Luke.
"To murder!" replied Sybil, with solemn emphasis. "To the murder of their wives. Forgive me, Luke, if I have dared to utter this. Yourself compelled me to it."
Amazement, horror, wrath, kept Luke silent for a few moments. Starting to his feet, he cried:
"And can you suspect me of a crime so foul? Think you, because I shall assume the name, that I shall put on the nature likewise of my race? Do you believe me capable of aught so horrible?"
"Oh, no, I believe it not. I am sure you would not do it. Your soul would reject with horror such a deed. But if Fate should guide your hand, if the avenging spirit of your murdered ancestress should point the steel, you could not shun it then."
"In Heaven's name! to what do you allude?"
"To a tradition of your house," replied Sybil. "Listen to me, and you shall hear the legend." And with a pathos that produced a thrilling effect upon Luke, she sang the following ballad:
THE LEGEND OF THE LADY OF ROOKWOOD
Grim Ranulph home hath at midnight come, from the long Wars of the Roses,
And the squire, who waits at his ancient gates, a secret dark discloses;
To that varlet's words no response accords his lord, but his visage stern
Grows ghastly white in the wan moonlight, and his eyes like the lean wolf's burn.
To his lady's bower, at that lonesome hour, unannounced, is Sir Ranulph gone;
Through the dim corridor, through the hidden door, he glides—she is all alone!
Full of holy zeal doth his young dame kneel at the meek Madonna's feet,
Her hands are pressed on her gentle breast, and upturned is he aspect sweet.
Beats Ranulph's heart with a joyful start, as he looks on her guiltles face;
And the raging fire of his jealous ire is subdued by the words of grace;
His own name shares her murmured prayers—more freely can he breathe;
But ah! that look! Why doth he pluck his poniard from its sheath?
On a footstool thrown lies a costly gown of saye and of minevere
(A mantle fair for the dainty wear of a migniard cavalier),
And on it flung, to a bracelet hung, a picture meets his eye;
"By my father's head," grim Ranulph said, false wife, thy end draws nigh."
From off its chain hath the fierce knight ta'en that fond and fatal pledge;
His dark eyes blaze, no word he says, thrice gleams his dagger's edge!
Her blood it drinks, and, as she sinks, his victim hears his cry,
"For kiss impure of paramour, adult'ress, dost thou die!"
Silent he stood, with hands embrued in gore, and glance of flame,
As thus her plaint, in accents faint, made his ill-fated dame:
"Kind Heaven can tell, that all too well, I've loved thee, cruel lord;
But now with hate commensurate, assassin, thou'rt abhorred.
"I've loved thee long, through doubt and wrong; I've loved thee and no other;
And my love was pure for my paramour, for alas! he was my brother!
The Red, Red Rose, on thy banner glows, on his pennon gleams the White,
And the bitter feud, that ye both have rued, forbids ye to unite.
"My bower he sought, what time he thought thy jealous vassals slept,
Of joy we dreamed, and never deemed that watch those vassals kept.
An hour flew by, too speedily!—that picture was his boon:
Ah! little thrift to me that gift: he left me all too soon!
"Wo worth the hour! dark fates did lower, when our hands were first united,
For my heart's firm truth, 'mid tears and ruth, with death hast thou requited:
In prayer sincere, full many a year of my wretched life I've spent;
But to hell's control would I give my soul, to work thy chastisement!"
These wild words said, low drooped her head, and Ranulph's life-blood froze,
For the earth did gape, as an awful shape from out its depths arose:
"Thy prayer is heard, Hell hath concurred," cried the fiend, "thy soul is mine!
Like fate may dread each dame shall wed with Ranulph or his line!"
Within the tomb to await her doom is that hapless lady sleeping,
And another bride by Ranulph's side through the livelong night is weeping.
This dame declines—a third repines, and fades, like the rest away;
Her lot she rues, whom a Rookwood woos—cursed is her Wedding Day!
"And this is the legend of my ancestress?" said Luke, as Sybil's strains were ended.
"It is," replied she.
"An idle tale," observed Luke, moodily.
"Not so," answered Sybil. "Has not the curse of blood clung to all your line? Has it not attached to your father—to Sir Reginald—Sir Ralph—Sir Ranulph—to all? Which of them has escaped it? And when I tell you this, dear Luke; when I find you bear the name of this accursed race, can you wonder if I shudder at adding to the list of the victims of that ruthless spirit, and that I tremble for you? I would die for you willingly—but not by your hand. I would not that my blood, which I would now pour out for you as freely as water, should rise up in judgment against you. For myself I have no fears—for you, a thousand. My mother, upon her deathbed, told me I should never be yours. I believed her not, for I was happy then. She said that we never should be united; or, if united—"
"What, in Heaven's name?"
"That you would be my destroyer; that your love should turn to hatred; that you would slay me. How could I credit her words then? How can I doubt them now, when I find you are a Rookwood? And think not, dear Luke, that I am ruled by selfish fears in this resolution. To renounce you may cost me my life; but the deed will be my own. You may call me superstitious, credulous; I have been nurtured in credulity. It is the faith of my fathers. There are those, methinks, who have an insight into futurity; and such boding words have been spoken, that, be they true or false, I will not risk their fulfilment in my person. I may be credulous; I may be weak; I may be erring; but I am steadfast in this. Bid me perish at your feet, and I will do it. I will not be your Fate. I will not be the wretched instrument of your perdition. I will love, worship, watch, serve, perish for you—but I will not wed you."
Exhausted by the vehemence of her emotion, she would have sunk upon the ground, had not Luke caught her in his arms. Pressing her to his bosom, he renewed his passionate protestations. Every argument was unavailing. Sybil appeared inflexible.
"You love me as you have ever loved me?" said she, at length.
"A thousand-fold more fervently," replied Luke; "put it to the test."
"How if I dared to do so? Consider well: I may ask too much."
"Name it. If it be not to surrender you, by my mother's body I will obey you."
"I would propose an oath."
"A solemn, binding oath, that, if you wed me not, you will not wed another. Ha! do you start? Have I appalled you?"
"I start? I will take it. Hear me—by—"
"Hold!" exclaimed a voice behind them. "Do not forswear yourself." And immediately afterwards the sexton made his appearance. There was a malignant smile upon his countenance. The lovers started at the ominous interruption.
"Begone!" cried Luke.
"Take not that oath," said Peter, "and I leave you. Remember the counsel I gave you on our way hither."
"What counsel did he give you, Luke?" enquired Sybil, eagerly, of her lover.
"We spoke of you, fond girl," replied Peter. "I cautioned him against the match. I knew not your sentiments, or I had spared myself the trouble. You have judged wisely. Were he to wed you, ill would come of it. But he must wed another."
"MUST!" cried Sybil, her eyes absolutely emitting sparkles of indignation from their night-like depths; and, unsheathing as she spoke the short poniard which she wore at her girdle, she rushed towards Peter, raising her hand to strike.
"Must wed another! And dare you counsel this?"
"Put up your dagger, fair maiden," said Peter, calmly. "Had I been younger, your eyes might have had more terrors for me than your weapon; as it is, I am proof against both. You would not strike an old man like myself, and of your lover's kin?"
Sybil's uplifted hand fell to her side.
"'Tis true," continued the sexton, "I dared to give him this advice; and when you have heard me out, you will not, I am persuaded, think me so unreasonable as, at first, I may appear to be. I have been an unseen listener to your converse; not that I desire to pry into your secrets, far from it; I overheard you by accident. I applaud your resolution; but if you are inclined to sacrifice all for your lover's weal, do not let the work be incomplete. Bind him not by oaths which he will regard as spiders' webs, to be burst through at pleasure. You see, as well as I do, that he is bent on being lord of Rookwood; and, in truth, to an aspiring mind, such a desire is natural, is praiseworthy. It will be pleasant, as well as honourable, to efface the stain cast upon his birth. It will be an act of filial duty in him to restore his mother's good name; and I, her father, laud his anxiety on that score; though, to speak truth, fair maid, I am not so rigid as your nice moralists in my view of human nature, and can allow a latitude to love, which their nicer scruples will not admit. It will be a proud thing to triumph over his implacable foe; and this he may accomplish—"
"Without marriage," interrupted Sybil, angrily.
"True," returned Peter; "yet not maintain it. May win it, but not wear it. You have said truly, the house of Rookwood is a fated house; and it hath been said likewise, that if he wed not one of his own kindred—that if Rook mate not with Rook, his possessions shall pass away from his hands. Listen to this prophetic quatrain:
"When the stray Rook shall perch on the topmost bough,
There shall be clamour and screeching, I trow,
But of right to, and rule of the ancient nest,
The Rook that with Rook mates shall hold him possest.
You hear what these quaint rhymes say. Luke is doubtless the stray Rook, and a fledgling hath flown hither from a distant country. He must take her to his mate, or relinquish her and 'the ancient nest' to his brother. For my own part, I disregard such sayings. I have little faith in prophecy and divination. I know not what Eleanor Mowbray, for so she is called, can have to do with the tenure of the estates of Rookwood. But if Luke Rookwood, after he has lorded it for a while in splendour, be cast forth again in rags and wretchedness, let him not blame his grandsire for his own want of caution."
"Luke, I implore you, tell me," said Sybil, who had listened, horror-stricken, to the sexton, shuddering, as it were, beneath the chilly influence of his malevolent glance, "is this true? Does fate depend upon Eleanor Mowbray? Who is she? What has she to do with Rookwood? Have you seen her? Do you love her?"
"I have never seen her," replied Luke.
"Thank Heaven for that!" cried Sybil. "Then you love her not?"
"How were that possible?" returned Luke. "Do I not say I have not seen her?"
"Who is she, then?"
"This old man tells me she is my cousin. She is betrothed to my brother, Ranulph."
"How?" ejaculated Sybil. "And would you snatch his betrothed from your brother's arms? Would you do him this grievous wrong? Is it not enough that you must wrest from him that which he hath long deemed his own? And if he has falsely deemed it so, it will not make his loss the less bitter. If you do thus wrong your brother, do not look for happiness; do not look for respect; for neither will be your portion. Even this stony-hearted old man shrinks aghast at such a deed. His snake-like eyes are buried on the ground. See, I have moved even him."
And in truth Peter did appear, for an instant, strangely moved.
"'Tis nothing," returned he, mastering his emotion by strong effort. "What is all this to me? I never had a brother. I never had aught—wife, child, or relative—that loved me. And I love not the world, nor the things of the world, nor those that inhabit the world. But I know what sways the world and its inhabitants; and that is SELF! AND SELF-INTEREST! Let Luke reflect on this. The key to Rookwood is Eleanor Mowbray. The hand that grasps hers, grasps those lands: thus saith the prophecy."
"It is a lying prophecy."
"It was uttered by one of your race."
"By Barbara Lovel," said Peter, with a sneer of triumph.
"Heed him not," exclaimed Luke, as Sybil recoiled at this intelligence. "I am yours."
"Not mine! not mine!" shrieked she; "but oh! not hers!"
"Whither go you?" cried Luke, as Sybil, half bewildered, tore herself from him.
"To Barbara Lovel."
"I will go with you."
"No! let me go alone. I have much to ask her; yet tarry not with this old man, dear Luke, or close your cars to his crafty talk. Avoid him. Oh, I am sick at heart. Follow me not: I implore you, follow me not."
And with distracted air she darted amongst the mouldering cloisters, leaving Luke stupefied with anguish and surprise. The sexton maintained a stern and stoical composure.
"She is a woman, after all," muttered he; "all her high-flown resolves melt like snow in the sunshine, at the thought of a rival. I congratulate you, grandson Luke; you are free from your fetters."
"Free!" echoed Luke. "Quit my sight; I loathe to look upon you. You have broken the truest heart that ever beat in woman's bosom."
"Tut, tut," returned Peter; "it is not broken yet. Wait till we hear what old Barbara has got to say; and, meanwhile, we must arrange with Dick Turpin the price of that certificate. The knave knows its value well. Come, be a man. This is worse than womanish."
And at length he succeeded, half by force and half by persuasion, in dragging Luke away with him.
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LIKE a dove escaped from the talons of the falcon, Sybil fled from the clutches of the sexton. Her brain was in a whirl, her blood on fire. She had no distinct perception of external objects; no definite notion of what she herself was about to do, and glided more like a flitting spirit than a living woman along the ruined ambulatory. Her hair had fallen in disorder over her face. She stayed not to adjust it, but tossed aside the blinding locks with frantic impatience. She felt as one may feel who tries to strain his nerves, shattered by illness, to the endurance of some dreadful, yet necessary pain.
Sybil loved her granddame, old Barbara; but it was with a love tempered by fear. Barbara was not a person to inspire esteem or to claim affection. She was regarded by the wild tribe which she ruled as their queen-elect, with some such feeling of inexplicable awe as is entertained by the African slave for the Obeah woman. They acknowledged her power, unhesitatingly obeyed her commands, and shrank with terror from her anathema, which was indeed seldom pronounced; but when uttered, was considered as doom. Her tribe she looked upon as her flock, and stretched her maternal hand over all, ready alike to cherish or chastise; and having already survived a generation, that which succeeded, having from infancy imbibed a superstitious veneration for the "cunning woman," as she was called, the sentiment could never be wholly effaced.
Winding her way, she knew not how, through roofless halls, over disjointed fragments of fallen pillars, Sybil reached a flight of steps. A door, studded with iron nails, stayed her progress; it was an old strong oaken frame, surmounted by a Gothic arch, in the keystone of which leered one of those grotesque demoniacal faces with which the fathers of the Church delighted to adorn their shrines. Sybil looked up—her glance encountered the fantastical visage. It recalled the features of the sexton, and seemed to mock her—to revile her. Her fortitude at once deserted her. Her fingers were upon the handle of the door. She hesitated; she even drew back, with the intention of departing, for she felt then that she dared not face Barbara. It was too late—she had moved the handle. A deep voice from within called to her by name. She dared not disobey that call—she entered.
The room in which Sybil found herself was the only entire apartment now existing in the priory. It had survived the ravages of time; it had escaped the devastation of man, whose ravages outstrip those of time. Octagonal, lofty, yet narrow, you saw at once that it formed the interior of a turret. It was lighted by a small oriel window commanding a lovely view of the scenery around, and panelled with oak, richly wrought in ribs and groins; and from overhead depended a moulded ceiling of honeycomb plaster-work. This room had something, even now, in the days of its desecration, of monastic beauty about it. Where the odour of sanctity had breathed forth, the fumes of idolatry prevailed; but imagination, ever on the wing, flew back to that period (and a tradition to that effect warranted the supposition) when, perchance, it had been the sanctuary and the privacy of the prior's self.
Wrapped in a cloak composed of the skins of various animals, upon a low pallet, covered with stained scarlet cloth, sat Barbara. Around her head was coiffed, in folds like those of an Asiatic turban, a rich, though faded shawl, and her waist was encircled with the magic zodiacal zone—proper to the sorceress—the Mago Cineo of the Cingara (whence the name of Zingaro, according to Monçada), which Barbara had brought from Spain. From her ears depended long golden drops, of curious antique fashioning; and upon her withered fingers, which looked like a coil of lizards, were hooped a multitude of silver rings, of the purest and simplest manufacture. They seemed almost of massive unwrought metal. Her skin was yellow as the body of a toad; corrugated as its back. She might have been steeped in saffron from her finger-tips, the nails of which were of the same hue, to such portions of her neck as were visible, and which was puckered up like the throat of a turtle. To look at her, one might have thought the embalmer had experimented her art upon herself. So dead, so bloodless, so blackened seemed the flesh, where flesh remained, leather could scarce be tougher than her skin. She seemed like an animated mummy. A frame, so tanned, appeared calculated to endure for ages; and, perhaps, might have done so. But alas! the soul cannot be embalmed. No oil can re-illumine that precious lamp! And that Barbara's vital spark was fast waning, was evident, from her heavy, bloodshot eyes, once of a swimming black, and lengthy as a witch's, which were now sinister and sunken.
The atmosphere of the room was as strongly impregnated as a museum with volatile odours, emitted from the stores of drugs with which the shelves were loaded, as well as from various stuffed specimens of birds and wild animals. Barbara's only living companion was a monstrous owl, which, perched over the old gipsy's head, hissed a token of recognition as Sybil advanced. From a hook, placed in the plaster roof, was suspended a globe of crystal glass, about the size and shape of a large gourd, filled with a pure pellucid liquid, in which a small snake, the Egyptian aspic, described perpetual gyrations.
Dim were the eyes of Barbara, yet not altogether sightless. The troubled demeanour of her grandchild struck her as she entered. She felt the hot drops upon her hand as Sybil stooped to kiss it; she heard her vainly-stifled sobs.
"What ails you, child?" said Barbara, in a voice that rattled in her throat, and hollow as the articulation of a phantom. "Have you heard tidings of Luke Bradley? Has any ill befallen him? I told you thou wouldst either hear of him or see him this morning. He is not returned, I see. What have you heard?"
"He is returned," replied Sybil, faintly; "and no ill hath happened to him."
"He is returned, and you are here," echoed Barbara. "No ill hath happened to him, thou sayest—am I to understand there is ill to you?"
Sybil answered not. She could not answer.
"I see, I see," said Barbara, more gently, her head and hand shaking with paralytic affection: "a quarrel, a lovers' quarrel. Old as I am, I have not forgotten my feelings as a girl. What woman ever does, if she be woman? and you, like your poor mother, are a true-hearted wench. She loved her husband, as a husband should be loved, Sybil; and though she loved me well, she loved him better, as was right. Ah! it was a bitter day when she left me for Spain; for though, to one of our wandering race, all countries are alike, yet the soil of our birth is dear to us, and the presence of our kindred dearer. Well, well, I will not think of that. She is gone. Nay, take it not so to heart, wench. Luke has a hasty temper. 'Tis not the first time I have told you so. He will not bear rebuke, and you have questioned him too shrewdly touching his absence. Is it not so? Heed it not. Trust me, you will have him seek your forgiveness ere the shadows shorten 'neath the noontide sun."
"Alas! alas!" said Sybil, sadly, "this is no lovers' quarrel, which may, at once, be forgotten and forgiven—would it were so!"
"What is it then?" asked Barbara; and without waiting Sybil's answer, she continued, with vehemence, "has he wronged you? Tell me girl, in what way? Speak, that I may avenge you, if your wrong requires revenge. Are you blood of mine, and think I will not do this for you, girl? None of the blood of Barbara Lovel were ever unrevenged. When Richard Cooper stabbed my first-born, Francis, he fled to Flanders to escape my wrath. But he did not escape it. I pursued him thither. I hunted him out; drove him back to his own country, and brought him to the gallows. It took a power of gold. What matter? Revenge is dearer than gold. And as it was with Richard Cooper, so shall it be with Luke Bradley. I will catch him, though he run. I will trip him, though he leap. I will reach him, though he flee afar. I will drag him hither by the hair of his head," added she, with a livid smile, and clutching at the air with her hands, as if in the act of pulling some one towards her. "He shall wed you within the hour, if you will have it, or if your honour need that it should be so. My power is not departed from me. My people are yet at my command. I am still their queen, and woe to him that offendeth me!"
"Mother! mother!" cried Sybil, affrighted at the storm she had unwittingly aroused, "he has not injured me. 'Tis I alone who am to blame, not Luke."
"You speak in mysteries," said Barbara.
"Sir Piers Rookwood is dead."
"Dead!" echoed Barbara, letting fall her hazel rod. "Sir Piers dead!"
"And Luke Bradley—"
"Is his successor."
"Who told you that?" asked Barbara, with increased astonishment.
"Luke himself. All is disclosed." And Sybil hastily recounted Luke's adventures. "He is now Sir Luke Rookwood."
"This is news, in truth," said Barbara; "yet not news to weep for. You should rejoice, not lament. Well, well; I foresaw it. I shall live to see all accomplished; to see my Agatha's child ennobled; to see her wedded; ay, to see her well wedded."
"I can endow you, and I will do it. You shall bring your husband not alone beauty, you shall bring him wealth."
"My Agatha's daughter shall be Lady Rookwood."
"Never! It cannot be."
"What cannot be?"
"The match you now propose."
"What mean you, silly wench? Ha! I perceive the meaning of those tears. The truth flashes upon me. He has discarded you."
"No, by the Heaven of Heavens, he is still the same—unaltered in affection."
"If so, your tears are out of place."
"Mother, it is not fitting that I, a gipsy born, should wed with him."
"Not fitting! Ha! and you my child! Not fitting! Get up, or I will spurn you. Not fitting! This from you to me! I tell you it is fitting; you shall have a dower as ample as that of any lady in the land. Not fitting! Do you say so, because you think that he derives himself from a proud and ancient line—ancient and proud—ha, ha! I tell you, girl, that for his one ancestor I can number twenty; for the years in which his lineage hath flourished, my race can boast centuries, and was a people—a kingdom!—ere the land in which he dwells was known. What! if by the curse of Heaven we were driven forth, the curse of hell rests upon his house."
"I know it," said Sybil; "a dreadful curse, which, if I wed him, will alight on me."
"No; not on you; you shall avoid that curse. I know a means to satisfy the avenger. Leave that to me."
"I dare not, as it never can be; yet, tell me—you saw the body of Luke's ill-fated mother. Was she poisoned? Nay, you may speak. Sir Piers's death releases you from your oath. How died she?"
"By strangulation," said the old gipsy, raising her palsied hand to her throat.
"Oh!" cried Sybil, gasping with horror. "Was there a ring upon her finger when you embalmed the body?"
"A ring—a wedding-ring! The finger was crookened. Listen, girl. I could have told Luke the secret of his birth long ago, but the oath imposed by Sir Piers sealed fast my lips. His mother was wedded to Sir Piers; his mother was murdered by Sir Piers. Luke was intrusted to my care by his father. I have brought him up with you. I have affianced you together; and I shall live to see you united. He is now Sir Luke. He is your husband."
"Do not deceive yourself, mother," said Sybil, with a fearful earnestness. "He is not yet Sir Luke Rookwood; would he had no claim to be so! The fortune that has hitherto been so propitious may yet desert him. Bethink you of a prophecy you uttered."
"A prophecy? Ha!"
And with slow enunciation Sybil pronounced the mystic words which she had heard repeated by the sexton.
As she spoke, a gloom, like that of a thundercloud, began to gather over the brow of the old gipsy. The orbs of her sunken eyes expanded, and wrath supplied her frame with vigour. She arose.
"Who told you that?" cried Barbara.
"Luke's grandsire, Peter Bradley."
"How learnt he it?" said Barbara. "It was to one who hath long been in his grave I told it; so long ago, it had passed from my memory. 'Tis strange! old Sir Reginald had a brother, I know. But there is no other of the house."
"There is a cousin, Eleanor Mowbray."
"Ha! I see; a daughter of that Eleanor Rookwood who fled from her father's roof. Fool, fool. Am I caught in my own toils? These words were words of truth and power, and compel the future and 'the will be' as with chains of brass. They must be fulfilled, yet not by Ranulph. He shall never wed Eleanor."
"Whom then shall she wed?"
"His elder brother."
"Mother!" shrieked Sybil. "Do you say so? Oh! recall your words."
"I may not; it is spoken. Luke shall wed her."
"Oh God, support me!" exclaimed Sybil.
"Silly wench, be firm. It must be as I say. He shall wed her—yet shall he wed her not. The nuptial torch shall be quenched as soon as lighted; the curse of the avenger shall fall—yet not on thee."
"Mother," said Sybil, "if sin must fall upon some innocent head, let it be on mine—not upon hers. I love him. I would gladly die for him. She is young—unoffending—perhaps happy. Oh! do not let her perish."
"Peace I say!" cried Barbara, "and mark me. This is your birthday. Eighteen summers have flown over your young head—eighty winters have sown their snows on mine. You have yet to learn. Years have brought wrinkles—they have brought wisdom likewise. To struggle with Fate, I tell you, is to wrestle with Omnipotence. We may foresee, but not avert our destiny. What will be, shall be. This is your eighteenth birthday, Sybil: it is a day of fate to you; in it occurs your planetary hour—an hour of good or ill, according to your actions. I have cast your horoscope. I have watched your natal star; it is under the baneful influence of Scorpion, and fiery Saturn sheds his lurid glance upon it. Let me see your hand. The line of life is drawn out distinct and clear—it runs—ha! what means that intersection? Beware—beware, my Sybil. Act as I tell you, and you are safe. I will make another trial, by the crystal bowl. Attend."
Muttering some strange words, sounding like a spell, Barbara, with the bifurcate hazel staff which she used as a divining-rod, described a circle upon the floor. Within this circle she drew other lines, from angle to angle, forming seven triangles, the basis of which constituted the sides of a septilateral figure. This figure she studied intently for a few moments. She then raised her wand and touched the owl with it. The bird unfolded its wings and arose in flight; then slowly circled round the pendulous globe. Each time it drew nearer, until at length it touched the glassy bowl with its flapping pinions.
"Enough!" ejaculated Barbara. And at another motion from her rod the bird stayed its flight and returned to its perch.
Barbara arose. She struck the globe with her staff. The pure lymph became instantly tinged with crimson, as if blood had been commingled with it. The little serpent could be seen within, coiled up and knotted, as in the struggles of death.
"Again I say, beware!" ejaculated Barbara, solemnly. "This is ominous of ill."
Sybil had sunk, from faintness, on the pallet. A knock was heard at the door.
"Who is without?" cried Barbara.
"'Tis I, Balthazar," replied a voice.
"Thou mayest enter," answered Barbara; and an old man with a long beard, white as snow, reaching to his girdle, and a costume which might be said to resemble the raiment of a Jewish high priest, made his appearance. This venerable personage was no other than the patrico (from Pattercove), or hierophant of the canting crew.
"I come to tell you that there are strangers—ladies—within the priory," said the patrico, gravely. "I have searched for you in vain," continued he, addressing Sybil; "the younger of them seems to need your assistance."
"Whence come they?" exclaimed Barbara.
"They have ridden, I understand, from Rookwood," answered the patrico. "They were on their way to Davenham, when they were prevented."
"From Rookwood?" echoed Sybil. "Their names—did you hear their names?"
"Mowbray is the name of both; they are a mother and a daughter; the younger is called—"
"Eleanor?" asked Sybil, with an acute foreboding of calamity.
"Eleanor is the name, assuredly," replied the patrico, somewhat surprised. "I heard the elder, whom I guess to be her mother, so address her."
"Gracious God! She here!" exclaimed Sybil.
"Here! Eleanor Mowbray here," cried Barbara; "within my power. Not a moment is to be lost. Balthazar, hasten round the tents—not a man must leave his place—above all, Luke Bradley. See that these Mowbrays are detained within the abbey. Let the bell be sounded. Quick, quick; leave this wench to me; she is not well. I have much to do. Away with thee, man, and let me know when thou hast done it." And as Balthazar departed on his mission, with a glance of triumph in her eyes, Barbara exclaimed, "Soh, no sooner hath the thought possessed me, than the means of accomplishment appear. It shall be done at once. I will tie the knot. I will untie, and then retie it. This weak wench must be nerved to the task," added she, regarding the senseless form of Sybil. "Here is that will stimulate her," opening the cupboard, and taking a small phial; "this will fortify her; and this," continued she, with a ghastly smile, laying her hand upon another vessel, "this shall remove her rival when all is fulfilled; this liquid shall constrain her lover to be her titled, landed husband. Ha, ha!"
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IN consequence of some few words which the sexton let fall, in the presence of the attendants, during breakfast, more perhaps by design than accident, it was speedily rumoured throughout the camp that the redoubted Richard Turpin was for the time its inmate. This intelligence produced some such sensation as is experienced by the inhabitants of a petty town on the sudden arrival of a prince of the blood, a commander-in-chief, or other illustrious and distinguished personage, whose fame has been vaunted abroad amongst his fellow-men by Rumour, "and her thousand tongues"; and who, like our highwayman, has rendered himself sufficiently notorious to be an object of admiration and emulation amongst his contemporaries.
All started up at the news. The upright man, the chief of the crew, arose from his chair, donned his gown of state, a very ancient brocade dressing-gown, filched, most probably, from the wardrobe of some strolling player, grasped his baton of office, a stout oaken truncheon, and sallied forth. The ruffler, who found his representative in a very magnificently equipped, and by no means ill-favoured knave, whose chin was decorated with a beard as lengthy and as black as Sultan Mahmoud's, together with the dexterous hooker, issued forth from the hovel which they termed their boozing ken, eager to catch a glimpse of the prince of the high-tobygloaks. The limping palliard tore the bandages from his mock wounds, shouldered his crutch, and trudged hastily after them. The whip-jack unbuckled his strap, threw away his timber leg, and "leapt exulting, like the bounding roe." "With such a sail in sight," he said, "he must heave to, like the rest." The dummerar, whose tongue had been cut out by the Algerines, suddenly found the use of it, and made the welkin ring with his shouts. Wonderful were the miracles Dick's advent wrought. The lame became suddenly active, the blind saw, the dumb spoke; nay, if truth must be told, absolutely gave utterance to "most vernacular execrations." Morts, autem morts, walking morts, dells, doxies, kinching morts, and their coes, with all the shades and grades of the canting crew, were assembled. There were, to use the words of Brome—
—Stark, errant, downright beggars. Ay,
Without equivocation, statute beggars,
Couchant and passant, guardant, rampant beggars;
Current and vagrant, stockant, whippant beggars!1
Each sunburnt varlet started from his shed; each dusky dame, with her brown, half-naked urchins, followed at his heels; each "ripe young maiden, with the glossy eye," lingered but to sleek her raven tresses, and to arrange her straw bonnet, and then overtook the others; each wrinkled beldame hobbled as quickly after as her stiffened joints would permit; while the ancient patrico, the priest of the crew (who joined the couples together by the hedge-side, "with the nice custom of dead horse between"2) brought up the rear, all bent on one grand object, that of having a peep at the "foremost man of all this prigging world!"
Dick Turpin, at the period of which we treat, was in the zenith of his reputation. His deeds were full blown; his exploits were in every man's mouth; and a heavy price was set upon his head. That he should show himself thus openly, where he might be so easily betrayed, excited no little surprise amongst the craftiest of the crew, and augured an excess of temerity on his part. Rash daring was the main feature of Turpin's character. Like our great Nelson, he knew fear only by name; and when he thus trusted himself into the hands of strangers, confident in himself and in his own resources, he felt perfectly easy as to the result. He relied also in the continuance of his good fortune, which had as yet never deserted him. Possessed of the belief that his hour was not yet come, he cared little or nothing for any risk he might incur; and though he might, undoubtedly, have some presentiment of the probable termination of his career, he never suffered it to militate against his present enjoyment, which proved that he was no despicable philosopher.
Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say we regret) is now altogether extinct.
Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du-Val, the Bayard of the road—le filou sans peur et sans reproche—but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree.
It were a subject well worthy of enquiry, to trace this decline and fall of the empire of the tobymen to its remoter causes; to ascertain the why and the wherefore, that—with so many half-pay captains; so many poor curates; so many lieutenants, of both services, without hopes of promotion; so many penny-a-liners and fashionable novelists; so many damned dramatists, and damning critics; so many Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviewers; so many detrimental brothers and younger sons; when there are horses to be hired, pistols to be borrowed, purses to be taken, and mails are as plentiful as partridges—it were worth serious investigation, we repeat, to ascertain why, with the best material imaginable for a new race of highwaymen, we have none, not so much as an amateur.
Why do not some of these choice spirits quit the salons of Pall-Mall, and take to the road? the air of the heath is more bracing and wholesome, we should conceive, than that of any "hell" whatever, and the chances of success incomparably greater. We throw out this hint, without a doubt of seeing it followed up. Probably the solution of our enquiry may be, that the supply is greater than the demand; that, in the present state of things, embryo highwaymen way be more abundant than purses; and then, have we not the horse-patrol? With such an admirably-organised system of conservation, it is vain to anticipate a change. The highwaymen, we fear, like their Irish brothers, the Rapparees, went out with the Tories. They were averse to reform, and eschewed emancipation.
Lest anyone should think we have overrated the pleasures of the highwayman's existence, they shall hear what "the right villanous" Jack Hall, a celebrated tobyman of his day, has got to say on the subject. "His life (the highwayman's) has, generally, the most mirth and the least care in it of any man's breathing, and all he deals for is clear profit: he has that point of good conscience, that he always sells as he buys, a good pennyworth, which is something rare, since he trades with so small a stock. The fence3 and he are like the devil and the doctor, they live by one another; and, like traitors, 'tis best to keep each other's counsel.
"He has this point of honesty, that he never robs the house he frequents" (Turpin had the same scruples respecting the Hall of Rookwood in Sir Piers's lifetime); "and perhaps pays his debts better than some others, for he holds it below the dignity of his employment to commit so ungenteel a crime as insolvency, and loves to pay nobly. He has another quality, not much amiss, that he takes no more than he has occasion for" (Jack, we think, was a little mistaken here); "which he verifies this way; he craves no more while that lasts. He is a less nuisance in a commonwealth than a miser, because the money he engrosses all circulates again, which the other hoards as though 'twere only to be found again at the Day of Judgment.
"He is the tithe-pig of his family, which the gallows, instead of the parson, claims as its due. He has reason enough to be bold in his undertakings, for, though all the world threaten him, he stands in fear of but one man in it, and that's the hangman; and with him, too, he is generally in fee: however, I cannot affirm he is so valiant that he dares look any man in the face, for in that point he is now and then a little modest. Newgate may be said to be his country house, where he frequently lives so many months in the year, and he is not so much concerned to be carried thither for a small matter, if 'twere only for the benefit of renewing his acquaintance there. He holds a petit larceny as light as a nun does auricular confession, though the priest has a more compassionate character than the hang-man. Every man in this community is esteemed according to his particular quality, of which there are several degrees, though it is contrary often to public government; for here a man shall be valued purely for his merit, and rise by it too, though it be but to a halter, in which there is a great deal of glory in dying like a hero, and making a decent figure in the cart to the two last staves of the fifty-first psalm."4
This, we repeat, is the plain statement of a practical man, and again we throw out the hint for adoption. All we regret is, that we are now degenerated from the grand tobyman to the cracksman and the sneak, about whom there are no redeeming features. How much lower the next generation of thieves will dive it boots not to conjecture.
"Cervantes laughed Spain's chivalry away," sang Byron; and if Gay did not extinguish the failing flame of our night erranty (unlike the "Robbers" of Schiller, which is said to have inflamed the Saxon youth with an irrepressible mania for brigandage), the "Beggar's Opera" helped not to fan the dying fire. That laugh was fatal, as laughs generally are. Macheath gave the highwayman his coup de grâce.
The last of this race (for we must persist in maintaining that he was the last), Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a lustre that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse's retreating heels. Unequalled in the command of his steed, the most singular feat that the whole race of the annals of horsemanship has to record, and of which we may have more to say hereafter, was achieved by him. So perfect was his jockeyship, so clever his management of the animal he mounted, so intimately acquainted was he with every cross-road in the neighbourhood of the metropolis (a book of which he constructed, and carried constantly about his person), as well as with many other parts of England, particularly the counties of Chester, York, and Lancaster, that he outstripped every pursuer, and baffled all attempts at capture. His reckless daring, his restless rapidity (for so suddenly did he change his ground, and renew his attacks in other quarters, that he seemed to be endowed with ubiquity), his bravery, his resolution, and, above all, his generosity, won for him a high reputation amongst his compatriots, and even elicited applauses from those upon whom he levied his contributions.
Beyond dispute he ruled as master of the road. His hands were, as yet, unstained with blood; he was ever prompt to check the disposition to outrage, and to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the commission of violence by his associates. Of late, since he had possessed himself of his favourite mare, Black Bess, his robberies had been perpetrated with a suddenness of succession, and at distances so apparently impracticable, that the idea of all having been executed by one man, was rejected as an impossibility; and the only way of reconciling the description of the horse and rider, which tallied in each instance, was the supposition, that these attacks were performed by confederates similarly mounted and similarly accoutred.
There was, in all this, as much of the "famœ sacra fames" as of the "auri"; of the hungering after distinction, as well as of the appetite of gain. Enamoured of his vocation, Turpin delighted to hear himself designated as the Flying Highwayman; and it was with rapturous triumph that he found his single-handed feats attributed to a band of marauders. But this state of things could not long endure; his secret was blown; the vigilance of the police was aroused; he was tracked to his haunts; and after a number of hair-breadth 'scapes, which he only affected by miracle, or by the aid of his wonder-working mare, he reluctantly quitted the healthy hills of Bagshot, the Pampas plains of Hounslow (over which, like an archetype of the galloping Sir Francis Head, he had so often scoured), the gorsy commons of Highgate, Hampstead, and Finchley, the marshy fields of Battersea, almost all of which he had been known to visit in a single night, and, leaving these beaten tracks to the occupation of younger and less practised hands, he bequeathed to them, at the same time, his own reversionary interest in the gibbets thereupon erected, and betook himself to the country.
After a journey of more or less success, our adventurer found himself at Rookwood, whither he had been invited after a grand field-day by its hospitable and by no means inquisitive owner. Breach of faith and good fellowship formed no part of Turpin's character; he had his lights as well as his shades; and as long as Sir Piers lived, his purse and coffers would have been free from molestation, except "so far," Dick said, "as a cog or two of dice went. My dice, you know, are longs for odd and even, a bale of bar'd cinque deuces," a pattern of which he always carried with him; beyond this, excepting a take-in at a steeplechase, Rookwood church being the mark, a "do" at a leap, or some such trifle to which the most scrupulous could not raise an objection, Dick was all fair and above board. But when poor Sir Piers had "put on his wooden surtout," to use Dick's own expressive metaphor, his conscientious scruples evaporated into thin air. Lady Rookwood was nothing to him; there was excellent booty to be appropriated. He began to look about for hands; and having accidentally encountered his old comrades, Rust and Wilder, they were let into the business, which was imperfectly accomplished in the manner heretofore described.
To return from this digression. When Turpin presented himself at the threshold of the door, on his way to enquire after his mare, to his astonishment he found it closely invested. A cheering shout from the tawny throng, succeeded by a general clapping of hands, and attended by a buzzing susurration of applause, such as welcomes the entrance of a popular actor upon the stage, greeted the appearance of the highwayman. At the first sight of the crowd he was a little startled, and involuntarily sought for his pistols. But the demonstrations of admiration were too unequivocal to be for a moment mistaken; his hand was drawn from his pocket to raise his hat from his brow.
Thunders of applause.
Turpin's external man, we have before said, was singularly prepossessing. It was especially so in the eyes of the sex (fair we certainly cannot say upon the present occasion), amongst whom not a single dissentient voice was to be heard. All concurred in thinking him a fine fellow; could plainly read his high courage in his bearing; his good breeding in his débonnaire deportment; and his manly beauty in his extravagant red whiskers. Dick saw the effect that he produced. He was at home in a moment. Your true highwayman has ever a passion for effect. This does not desert him at the gallows; it rises superior to death itself, and has been known to influence the manner of his dangling from the gibbet! To hear some one cry, "There goes a proper handsome man," saith our previously quoted authority, Jack Hall, "somewhat ameliorates the terrible thoughts of the meagre tyrant death; and to go in a dirty shirt, were enough to save the hangman a labour, and make a man die with grief and shame at being in that deplorable condition." With a gracious smile of condescension, like a popular orator—with a look of blarney like that of O'Connell, and of assurance like that of Hume—he surveyed the male portion of the spectators, tipped a knowing wink at the prettiest brunettes he could select, and finally cut a sort of fling with his well-booted legs that brought down another peal of rapturous applause.
"A rank scamp!"5 cried the upright man; and this exclamation, however equivocal it may sound, was intended, on his part, to be highly complimentary.
"I believe ye," returned the ruffler, stroking his chin—"one may see that he's no half swell by the care with which he cultivates the best gifts of nature, his whiskers. He's a rank jib."6
"Togged out to the ruffian, no doubt," said the palliard, who was incomparably the shabbiest rascal in the corps. "Though a needy mizzler mysel, I likes to see a cove vot's vell dressed. Jist twig his swell kickseys and pipes;7 if they ain't the thing, I'm done. Lame Harry can't dance better nor he—no, nor Jerry Juniper neither."
"I'm dumbfounded," roared the dummerar, "if he can't patter romany8 as vel as the best on us! He looks like a rum 'un."
"And a rum 'un he be, take my word for it," returned the whip-jack, or sham sailor. "Look at his rigging—see how he flashes his sticks9—those are the tools to rake a tree-decker. He's as clever a craft as I've seen this many a day, or I'm no judge."
The women were equally enchanted—equally eloquent in the expression of their admiration.
"What ogles!" cried a mort.
"What pins!" said an autem mort or married woman.
"Sharp as needles," said a dark-eyed dell, who had encountered one of the free and frolicsome glances which our highwayman distributed so liberally amongst the petticoats.
It was at this crisis Dick took off his hat. Cæsar betrayed his baldness.
"A thousand pities!" cried the men, compassionating his thinly covered skull, and twisting their own ringlets, glossy and luxuriant, though unconscious of Macassar. "A thousand pities that so fine a fellow should have a sconce like a cocoa-nut!"
"But then his red whiskers," rejoined the women, tired of the uniformity of thick black heads of hair; "what a warmth of colouring they impart to his face, and then only look how beautifully bushy they make his cheeks appear!"
La Fosseuse and the court of the Queen of Navarre were not more smitten with the Sieur de Croix's jolly pair of whiskers.
The hawk's eye of Turpin ranged over the whole assemblage. Amidst that throng of dark faces there was not one familiar to him.
Before him stood the upright man, Zoroaster (so was he called), a sturdy, stalwart rogue, whose superior strength and stature (as has not unfrequently been the case in the infancy of governments that have risen to more importance than is likely to be the case with that of Lesser Egypt) had been the means of his elevation to his present dignified position. Zoroaster literally fought his way upwards, and had at first to maintain his situation by the strong arm; but he now was enabled to repose upon his hard-won laurels, to smoke "the calumet of peace," and quaff his tipple with impunity.
For one of gipsy blood, he presented an unusually jovial, liquor-loving countenance; his eye was mirthful; his lip moist, as if from oft potations; his cheek mellow as an Orleans plum, which fruit, in colour and texture, it mightily resembled. Strange to say, also, for one of that lithe race, his person was heavy and hebetudinous; the consequence, no doubt, of habitual intemperance. Like Cribb, he waxed obese upon the championship. There was a kind of mock state in his carriage, as he placed himself before Turpin, and with his left hand twisted up the tail of his dressing-gown, while the right thrust his truncheon into his hip, which was infinitely diverting to the highwayman.
Turpin's attention, however, was chiefly directed towards his neighbour, the ruffler, in whom he recognised a famous impostor of the day, with whose history he was sufficiently well acquainted to be able at once to identify the individual. We have before stated, that a magnificent coal-black beard decorated the chin of this worthy; but this was not all—his costume was in perfect keeping with his beard, and consisted of a very theatrical-looking tunic, upon the breast of which was embroidered, in golden wire, the Maltese cross; while over his shoulders were thrown the ample folds of a cloak of Tyrian hue. To his side was girt a long and doughty sword, which he termed, in his knightly phrase, Excalibur; and upon his profuse hair rested a hat as broad in the brim as a Spanish sombrero.
Exaggerated as this description may appear, we can assure our readers that it is not overdrawn; and that a counterpart of the sketch we have given of the ruffler certainly "strutted his hour" upon the stage of human life, and that the very ancient and discriminating city of Canterbury (to which be all honour) was his theatre of action. His history is so far curious, that it exemplifies, more strongly than a thousand discourses could do, how prone we are to be governed by appearances, and how easily we may be made the dupes of a plausible impostor. Be it remembered, however, that we treat of the eighteenth century, before the march of intellect had commenced; we are much too knowing to be similarly practised upon in these enlightened times. But we will let the knight of Malta, for such was the title assumed by the ruffler, tell his own story in his own way hereafter; contenting ourselves with the moral precepts we have already deduced from it.
Next to the knight of Malta stood the whip-jack, habited in his sailor gear—striped shirt and dirty canvas trousers; and adjoining him was the palliard, a loathsome tatterdemalion, his dress one heap of rags, and his discoloured skin one mass of artificial leprosy and imposthumes.
As Turpin's eye shifted from one to another of these figures, he chanced upon an individual who had been long endeavouring to arrest his attention. This personage was completely in the background. All that Dick could discern of him was a brown curly head of hair, carelessly arranged in the modern mode; a handsome, impudent, sun-freckled face, with one eye closed, and the other occupied by a broken bottle-neck, through which, as a substitute for a lorgnette, the individual reconnoitred him. A cocked hat was placed in a very dégagée manner under his arm, and he held an ebony cane in his hand, very much in the style of a "fassionable," as the French have it, of the present day. This glimpse was sufficient to satisfy Turpin. He recognised in this whimsical personage an acquaintance.
Jerry Juniper was what the classical Captain Grose would designate a "gentleman with three outs"; and, although he was not entirely without wit, nor, his associates avouched, without money, nor, certainly, in his own opinion, had that been asked, without manners; yet was he assuredly without shoes, without stockings, without shirt. This latter deficiency was made up by a voluminous cravat, tied with proportionately large bows. A jaunty pair of yellow breeches, somewhat faded; a waistcoat of silver brocade, richly embroidered, somewhat tarnished and lack-lustre; a murrey-coloured velvet coat, somewhat chafed, completed the costume of this beggar Brummell, this mendicant maccaroni!
Jerry Juniper was a character well known at the time, as a constant frequenter of all races, fairs, regattas, ship-launches, bull-baits, and prize-fights, all of which he attended, and to which he transported himself with an expedition little less remarkable than that of Turpin. You met him at Epsom, at Ascot, at Newmarket, at Doncaster, at the Roodee of Chester, at the Curragh of Kildare. The most remote as well as the most adjacent meeting attracted him. The cockpit was his constant haunt, and in more senses than one was he a leg. No opera-dancer could be more agile, more nimble; scarcely, indeed, more graceful, than was Jerry, with his shoeless and stockingless feet; and the manner in which he executed a pirouette, or a pas, before a line of carriages, seldom failed to procure him "golden opinions from all sorts of dames."
With the ladies, it must be owned, Jerry was rather upon too easy terms; but then, perhaps, the ladies were upon too easy terms with Jerry; and if a bright-eyed fair one condescended to jest with him, what marvel if he should sometimes slightly transgress the laws of decorum. These aberrations, however, were trifling; altogether he was so well known, and knew everybody else so well, that he seldom committed himself; and, singular to say, could on occasions even be serious. In addition to his other faculties, no one cut a sly joke, or trolled a merry ditty, better than Jerry. His peculiarities, in short, were on the pleasant side, and he was a general favourite in consequence.
No sooner did Jerry perceive that he was recognised, than, after kissing his hand, with the air of a petit-maître, to the highwayman, he strove to edge his way through the crowd. All his efforts were fruitless; and, tired of a situation in the rear rank, so inconsistent, he conceived, with his own importance, he had recourse to an expedient often practised with success in harlequinades, and not unfrequently in real life, where a flying leap is occasionally taken over our heads. He ran back a few yards to give himself an impetus, returned, and, placing his hands upon the shoulders of a stalwart vagabond near to him, threw a summerset upon the broad cap of a palliard, who was so jammed in the midst that he could not have stirred to avoid the shock; thence, without pausing, he vaulted forwards, and dropped lightly upon the ground in front of Zoroaster, and immediately before the highwayman.
Dick laughed immoderately at Jerry's manœuvre. He shook his old chum cordially by the hand, saying in a whisper, "What the devil brings you here, Jerry?"
"I might retort, and ask you that question, Captain Turpin," replied Jerry, sotto voce. "It is odd to see me here, certainly—quite out of my element—lost amongst this canaille—this canting crew—all the fault of a pair of gipsy eyes, bright as a diamond, dark as a sloe. You comprehend—a little affair, ha! Liable to these things. Bring your ear closer, my boy; be upon your guard—keep a sharp look-out—there's a devil of a reward upon your head—I won't answer for all these rascals."
"Thank you for the hint, Jerry," replied Dick, in the same tone. "I calculated my chances pretty nicely when I came here. But if I should perceive any symptoms of foul play—any attempt to snitch or nose, amongst this pack of pedlars—I have a friend or two at hand, who won't be silent upon the occasion. Rest assured I shall have my eye upon the gnarling scoundrels. I won't be sold for nothing."
"Trust you for that," returned Juniper, with a wink. "Stay," added he; "a thought strikes me. I have a scheme in petto which may, perhaps, afford you some fun, and will, at all events, insure your safety during your stay."
"What is it?" asked Dick.
"Just amuse yourself with a flirtation for a moment or two with that pretty damsel, who has been casting her ogles at you for the last five minutes without success, while I effect a masterstroke."
And, as Turpin, nothing loth, followed his advice, Jerry addressed himself to Zoroaster. After a little conference, accompanied by that worthy and the knight of Malta, the trio stepped forward from the line, and approached Dick, when Juniper, assuming some such attitude as our admirable Jones, the comedian, is wont to display, delivered himself of the following address. Turpin listened with the gravity of one of the distinguished persons alluded to, at the commencement of the present chapter, upon their receiving the freedom of a city at the hands of a mayor and corporation. Thus spoke Jerry:
"Highest of High Tobymen! rummest of Rum Padders, and most scampish of Scampsmen! We, in the name of Barbara, our most tawny queen; in the name of Zoroaster, our Upright Man, Dimber Damber, or Olli Campolli, by all which titles his excellency is distinguished; in our own respective names, as High Pads and Low Pads, Rum Gills and Queer Gills, Patricos, Palliards, Priggers, Whip-Jacks, and Jarkmen, from the Arch Rogue to the Needy Mizzler, fully sensible of the honour you have conferred upon us in gracing Stop-Hole Abbey with your presence; and conceiving that we can in no way evince our sense of your condescension so entirely as by offering you the freedom of our crew, together with the privileges of an Upright Man,10 which you may be aware are considerable, and by creating you an honorary member of the Vagrant Club, which we have recently established; and in so doing, we would fain express the sentiments of gratification and pride which we experience in enrolling among our members one who has extended the glory of roguery so widely over the land, and who has kicked up such a dust upon the highways of England, as most effectually to blind the natives—one, who is in himself a legion—of highwaymen! Awaiting, with respectful deference, the acquiescence of Captain Richard Turpin, we beg to tender him the freedom of our crew."
"Really, gentlemen," said Turpin, who did not exactly see the drift of this harangue, "you do me a vast deal of honour. I am quite at a loss to conceive how I can possibly have merited so much attention at your hands; and, indeed, I feel myself so unworthy—" Here Dick received an expressive wink from Juniper, and therefore thought it prudent to alter his expression. "Could I suppose myself at all deserving of so much distinction," continued the modest speaker, "I should at once accept your very obliging offer; but—"
"None so worthy," said the upright man.
"Can't hear of a refusal," said the knight of Malta.
"Refusal—impossible!" reiterated Juniper.
"No: no refusal," exclaimed a chorus of voices. "Dick Turpin must be one of us. He shall be our dimber damber."
"Well, gentlemen, since you are so pressing," replied Turpin, "even so be it. I will be your dimber damber."
"Bravo! bravo!" cried the mob, not "of gentlemen."
"About it pals at once," said the knight of Malta, flourishing Excalibur. "By St. Thomas à Becket, we'll have as fine a scene as I myself ever furnished to the Canterbury lieges."
"About what?" asked Dick.
"Your matriculation," replied Jerry. "There are certain forms to be gone through, with an oath to be taken, merely a trifle. We'll have a jolly boose when all's over. Come bing avast, my merry pals; to the green, to the green: a Turpin! a Turpin! a new brother!"
"A Turpin! a Turpin! a new brother!" echoed the crew.
"I've brought you through," said Jerry, taking advantage of the uproar that ensued to whisper to his chum, "none of them will dare to lift a finger against you now. They are all your friends for life."
"Nevertheless," returned Turpin, "I should be glad to know what has become of Bess."
"If it's your prancer you are wanting," chirped a fluttering creature whom Turpin recognised as Luke's groom, Grasshopper, "I gave her a fresh loaf and a stoup of stingo, as you bade me, and there she be, under yon tree, as quiet as a lamb."
"I see her," replied Turpin; "just tighten her girths, Grasshopper, and bring her after me, and thou shalt have wherewithal to chirp over thy cups at supper."
Away bounded the elfin dwarf to execute his behest.
A loud shout now rent the skies, and presently afterwards was heard the vile scraping of a fiddle, accompanied by the tattoo of a drum. Approaching Turpin, a host of gipsies elevated the highwayman upon their shoulders, and in this way he was carried to the centre of the green, where the long oaken table, which had once served the Franciscans for refection, was now destined for the stage of the pageant.
Upon this table three drums were placed; and Turpin was requested to seat himself on the central one. A solemn prelude, more unearthly than the incantation in the Freyschütz, was played by the orchestra of the band, conducted by the Paganini of the place, who elicited the most marvellous notes from his shell. A couple of shawms11 emitted sepulchral sounds, while the hollow rolling of the drum broke ever and anon upon the ear. The effect was prodigiously fine. During this overture the patrico and the upright man had ascended the rostrum, each taking their places; the former on the right hand of Turpin, the latter upon his left. Below them stood the knight of Malta, with Excalibur drawn in his hand, and gleaming in the sunshine. On the whole, Dick was amused with what he saw, and with the novel situation in which he found himself placed. Around the table were congregated a compact mass of heads; so compact, indeed, that they looked like one creature—an Argus, with each eye upturned upon the highwayman. The idea struck Turpin that the restless mass of parti-coloured shreds and patches, of vivid hues and varied tintings, singularly, though accidentally disposed to produce such an effect, resembled an immense tigermoth, or it might be a Turkey carpet, spread out upon the grass!
The scene was a joyous one. It was a brilliant sunshiny morning. Freshened and purified by the storm of the preceding night, the air breathed a balm upon the nerves and senses of the robber. The wooded hills were glittering in light; the brook was flowing swiftly past the edge of the verdant slope, glancing like a wreathed snake in the sunshine—its "quiet song" lost in the rude harmony of the mummers, as were the thousand
twitterings of the rejoicing birds; the rocks bared their bosoms to the sun, or were buried in deep-cast gloom; the shadows of the pillars and arches of the old walls of the priory were projected afar, while the rose-like ramifications of the magnificent marigold window were traced, as if by a pencil, upon the verdant tablet of the sod.
The overture was finished. With the appearance of the principal figures in this strange picture, the reader is already familiar. It remains only to give him some idea of the patrico. Imagine, then, an old superannuated goat, reared upon its hind-legs, and clad in a white sheet, disposed in folds like those of a simar about its limbs, and you will have some idea of Balthazar, the patrico. This resemblance to the animal before mentioned, was rendered the more striking by his huge hanging goat-like under-lip, his lengthy white beard, and a sort of cap, covering his head, which was ornamented with a pair of horns, such as are to be seen in Michael Angelo's tremendous statue of Moses. Balthazar, besides being the patrico of the tribe, was its principal professor of divination, and had been the long-tried and faithful minister of Barbara Lovel, from whose secret instructions he was supposed to have derived much of his magical skill.
Placing a pair of spectacles upon his "prognosticating nose," and unrolling a vellum skin, upon which strange characters were written, Balthazar, turning to Turpin, thus commenced, in a solemn voice:
"Thou who wouldst our brother be,
Say how we shall enter thee?
Name the name that thou wilt bear
Ere our livery thou wear."
"I see no reason why I should alter my designation," replied the noviciate; "but as popes change their titles on their creation, there can be no objection to a scampsman following so excellent an example. Let me be known as the Night Hawk."
"The Night Hawk—good," returned the hierophant, proceeding to register the name upon the parchment. "Kneel down," continued he.
After some hesitation, Turpin complied.
"You must repeat the 'salamon,' or oath of our creed, after my dictation," said the patrico; and Turpin, signifying his assent by a nod, Balthazar propounded the following abjuration:
OATH OF THE CANTING CREW
I, Crank-Cuffin, swear to be
True to this fraternity;
That I will in all obey
Rule and order of the lay.
Never blow the gab, or squeak;
Never snitch to bum or beak;
But religiously maintain
Authority of those who reign
Over Stop-Hole Abbey Green,
Be they tawny king, or queen.
In their cause alone will fight;
Think what they think, wrong or right;
Serve them truly, and no other,
And be faithful to my brother;
Suffer none, from far or near,
With their rights to interfere;
No strange Abram, ruffler crack,
Hooker of another pack,
Rogue or rascal, frater, maunderer,
Irish toyle, or other wanderer;
No dimber damber, angler, dancer,
Prig or cackler, prig of prancer;
No swigman, swaddler, clapperdudgeon
Cadge-gloak, curtal, or curmudgeon;
No whip-jack, palliard, patrico;
No jarkman, be he high or low;
No dummerar, or romany;
No member of "the Family";
No ballad-basket, bouncing buffer,
Nor any other, will I suffer;
But stall-off now and for ever,
All outliers whatsoever:
And as I keep to the fore-gone,
So may help me Salamon!12
"So help me Salamon!" repeated Turpin, with emphasis.
"Zoroaster," said the patrico to the upright man, "do thy part of this ceremonial."
Zoroaster obeyed; and, taking Excalibur from the knight of Malta, bestowed a hearty thwack with the blade upon the shoulders of the kneeling highwayman, assisting him afterwards to arise.
The inauguration was complete.
"Well," exclaimed Dick, "I'm glad it's all over. My leg feels a little stiffish. I'm not much given to kneeling. I must dance it off"; saying which, he began to shuffle upon the boards. "I tell you what," continued he, "most reverend patrico, that same 'salmon' of yours has a cursed long tail. I could scarce swallow it all, and it's strange if it don't give me an indigestion. As to you, sage Zory, from the dexterity with which you flourish your sword, I should say you had practised at Court. His Majesty could scarce do the thing better, when, slapping some fat alderman upon the shoulders, he bids him arise Sir Richard. And now, pals," added he, glancing round, "as I am one of you, let's have a boose together ere I depart, for I don't think my stay will be long in the land of Egypt."
This suggestion of Turpin was so entirely consonant to the wishes of the assemblage, that it met with universal approbation; and upon a sign from Zoroaster, some of his followers departed in search of supplies for the carousal. Zoroaster leaped from the table, and his example was followed by Turpin, and more leisurely by the patrico.
It was rather early in the day for a drinking bout. But the canting crew were not remarkably particular. The chairs were removed, and the jingling of glasses announced the arrival of the preliminaries of the matutine symposion. Poles, canvas, and cords, were next brought; and in almost as short space of time as one scene is substituted for another in a theatrical representation, a tent was erected. Benches, stools, and chairs, appeared with equal celerity, and the interior soon presented
an appearance like that of a booth at a fair. A keg of brandy was broached, and the health of the new brother quaffed in brimmers.
Our highwayman returned thanks. Zoroaster was in the chair, the knight of Malta acting as croupier. A second toast was proposed—the tawny queen. This was drunk with a like enthusiasm, and with a like allowance of the potent spirit; but as bumpers of brandy are not to be repeated with impunity, it became evident to the president of the board that he must not repeat his toasts quite so expeditiously. To create a temporary diversion, therefore, he called for a song.
The dulcet notes of the fiddle now broke through the clamour; and, in answer to the call, Jerry Juniper volunteered the following:
JERRY JUNIPER'S CHANT
In a box13 of the stone jug14 I was born,
Of a hempen widow15 the kid forlorn,
And my father, as I've heard say,
Was a merchant of capers16 gay,
Who cut his last fling with great applause,
17 Nix my doll pals, fake away.
Who cut his last fling with great applause,18
To the tune of a "hearty choke with caper sauce."
The knucks in quod19 did my schoolmen play,
And put me up to the time of day;
Until at last there was none so knowing,
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
Until at last there was none so knowing,
No such sneaksman20 or buzgloak21 going.
Fogles22 and fawnies23 soon went their way,
To the spout24 with the sneezers25 in grand array.
No dummy hunter26 had forks27 so fly;
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
No dummy hunter had forks so fly,
No knuckler28 so deftly could fake a cly,29
No slour'd hoxter30 my snipes31 could stay,
None knap a reader32 like me in the lay.
Soon then I mounted in swell-street high.
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
Soon then I mounted in swell-street high,
And sported my flashiest toggery,33
Firmly resolved I would make my hay,
While Mercury's star shed a single ray;
And ne'er was there seen such a dashing prig,34
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
And ne'er was there seen such a dashing prig,
With my strummel faked in the newest twig.35
With my fawnies famms,36 and my onions gay,37
My thimble of ridge,38 and my driz kemesa;39
All my togs were so niblike40 and splash,
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
All my togs were so niblike and splash,
Readily the queer screens I then could smash;41
But my nuttiest blowen,42 one fine day,
To the beaks43 did her fancy man betray,
And thus was I bowled out at last.44
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
And thus was I bowled out at last,
And into the jug for a lag was cast;45
But I slipped my darbies46 one morn in May,
And gave to the dubsman47 a holiday.
And here I am, pals, merry and free,
A regular rollocking romany.48
Nix my doll pals, fake away.
Much laughter and applause rewarded Jerry's attempt to please; and though the meaning of his chant, even with the aid of the numerous notes appended to it, may not be quite obvious to our readers, we can assure them that it was perfectly intelligible to the canting crew. Jerry was now entitled to a call; and happening, at the moment, to meet the fine dark eyes of a sentimental gipsy, one of that better class of mendicants who wandered about the country with a guitar at his back, his election fell upon him. The youth, without prelude, struck up a
Merry maid, merry maid, wilt thou wander with me?
We will roam through the forest, the meadow, and lea;
We will haunt the sunny bowers, and when day begins to flee,
Our couch shall be the ferny brake, our canopy the tree.
Merry maid, merry maid, come and wander with me!
No life like the gipsy's, so joyous and free!
Merry maid, merry maid, though a roving life be ours,
We will laugh away the laughing and quickly fleeting hours;
Our hearts are free, as is the free and open sky above,
And we know what tamer souls know not, how lovers ought to love.
Merry maid, merry maid, come and wander with me!
No life like the gipsy's, so joyous and free!
Zoroaster now removed the pipe from his upright lips to intimate his intention of proposing a toast.
An universal knocking of knuckles by the knucklers50 was followed by profound silence. The sage spoke:
"The city of Canterbury, pals," said he; "and may it never want a knight of Malta."
The toast was pledged with much laughter, and in many bumpers.
The knight, upon whom all eyes were turned, rose, "with stately bearing and majestic motion," to return thanks.
"I return you an infinitude of thanks, brother pals," said he, glancing round the assemblage; and bowing to the president, "and to you, most upright Zory, for the honour you have done me in associating my name with that city. Believe me, I sincerely appreciate the compliment, and echo the sentiment from the bottom of my soul, I trust it never will want a knight of Malta. In return for your consideration, but a poor one you will say, you shall have a ditty, which I composed upon the occasion of my pilgrimage to that city, and which I have thought proper to name after myself."
THE KNIGHT OF MALTA
A Canterbury Tale
Come list to me, and you shall have, without a hem or haw, sirs,
A Canterbury pilgrimage, much better than old Chaucer's.
'Tis of a hoax I once played off, upon that city clever,
The memory of which, I hope, will stick to it for ever.
With my coal-black beard, and purple cloak,
jack-boots, and broad-brimmed castor,
Hey-ho! for the knight of Malta!
To execute my purpose, in the first place, you must know, sirs,
My locks I let hang down my neck—my beard and whiskers grow, sirs;
A purple cloak I next clapped on, a sword tagged to my side, sirs,
And mounted on a charger black, I to the town did ride, sirs,
With my coal-black beard, etc.
Two pages were there by my side, upon two little ponies,
Decked out in scarlet uniform, as spruce as maccaronis;
Caparisoned my charger was, as grandly as his master,
And o'er my long and curly locks I wore a broad-brimmed castor.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
The people all flocked forth, amazed to see a man so hairy,
Oh! such a sight had ne'er before been seen in Canterbury!
My flowing robe, my flowing beard, my horse with flowing mane, sirs!
They stared—the days of chivalry, they thought, were come again, sirs.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
I told them a long rigmarole romance, that did not halt a
Jot, that they beheld in me a real knight of Malta!
Tom à Becket had I sworn I was, that saint and martyr hallowed,
I doubt not just as readily the bait they would have swallowed.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
I rode about, and speechified, and everybody gullied,
The tavern-keepers diddled, and the magistracy bullied:
Like puppets were the townsfolk led in that show they call a raree;
The Gotham sages were a joke to those of Canterbury.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
The theatre I next engaged, where I addressed the crowd, sirs,
And on retrenchment, and reform, I spouted long and loud, sirs,
On tithes, and on taxation, I enlarged with skill and zeal, sirs,
Who so able as a Malta knight, the malt tax to repeal, sirs.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
As a candidate I then stepped forth to represent their city,
And my non-election to that place was certainly a pity;
For surely I the fittest was, and very proper, very,
To represent the wisdom and the wit of Canterbury.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
At the trial of some smugglers next, one thing I rather queer did,
And the justices upon the bench I literally bearded;
For I swore that I some casks did see, though proved as clear as day, sirs,
That I happened at the time to be some fifty miles away, sirs.
With my coal-black beard, etc.
This last assertion, I must own, was somewhat of a blunder,
And for perjury indicted they compelled me to knock under;
To my prosperous career this slight error put a stop, sirs,
And thus crossed, the knight of Malta was at length obliged to hop, sirs.
With his coal-black beard, and purple cloak,
jack-boots, and broad-brimmed castor,
Good-bye to the knight of Malta.
The knight sat down amidst the general plaudits of the company.
The party, meanwhile, had been increased by the arrival of Luke and the sexton. The former, who was in no mood for revelry, refused to comply with his grandsire's solicitation to enter, and remained sullenly at the door, with his arms folded, and his eyes fixed upon Turpin, whose movements he commanded through the canvas aperture. The sexton walked up to Dick, who was seated at the post of honour, and, clapping him upon the shoulder, congratulated him upon the comfortable position in which he found him.
"Ha, ha! Are you there, my old death's head on a mop stick?" said Turpin, with a laugh. "Ain't we merry mumpers, eh? Keeping it up in style. Sit down, old Noah—make yourself comfortable, Methusalem."
"What say you to a drop of as fine Nantz as you ever tasted in your life, old cove?" said Zoroaster.
"I have no sort of objection to it," returned Peter, "provided you will all pledge my toast."
"That I will, were it Old Ruffin himself," shouted Turpin.
"Here's to the three-legg'd mare," cried Peter. "To the tree that bears fruit all the year round, and yet has neither bark nor branch. You won't refuse that toast, Captain Turpin?"
"Not I," answered Dick; "I owe the gallows no grudge. If, as Jerry's song says, I must have a hearty choke and caper sauce for my breakfast one of these fine mornings, it shall never be said that I fell to my meal without appetite, or neglected saying grace before it. Gentlemen, here's Peter Bradley's toast, 'The scragging post—the three-legg'd mare,' with three times three."
Appropriate as this sentiment was, it did not appear to be so inviting to the party as might have been anticipated, and the shouts soon died away.
"They like not the thoughts of the gallows," said Turpin to Peter. "More fools they. A mere bugbear to frighten children, believe me; and never yet alarmed a brave man. The gallows, pshaw! One can but die once, and what signifies it how, so that it be over quickly. I think no more of the last leap into eternity than clearing a five-barred gate. A rope's-end for it! So let us be merry, and make the most of our time, and that's true philosophy. I know you can throw off a rum chant," added he, turning to Peter. "I heard you sing last night at the hall. Troll us a stave, my antediluvian file, and, in the meantime, tip me a gage of fogus,51 Jerry; and if that's a bowl of huckle-my-butt52 you are brewing, Sir William," added he, addressing the knight of Malta, "you may send me a jorum at your convenience."
Jerry handed the highwayman a pipe, together with a tumbler of the beverage which the knight had prepared, which he pronounced excellent; and while the huge bowl was passed round to the company, a prelude of shawms announced that Peter was ready to break into song.
Accordingly, after the symphony was ended, accompanied at intervals by a single instrument, Peter began his melody, in a key so high, that the utmost exertion of the shawm-blower failed to approach its altitudes. The burden of his minstrelsy was—
The mandrake grows 'neath the gallows-tree,
And rank and green are its leaves to see;
Green and rank, as the grass that waves
Over the unctuous earth of graves;
And though all around it be bleak and bare,
Freely the mandrake flourisheth there.
Dread is the curse of mandragora!
At the foot of the gibbet the mandrake springs,
Just where the creaking carcase swings;
Some have thought it engendered
From the fat that drops from the bones of the dead;
Some have thought it a human thing;
But this is a vain imagining.
Dread is the curse of mandragora!
A charnel leaf doth the mandrake wear,
A charnel fruit doth the mandrake bear;
Yet none like the mandrake hath such great power,
Such virtue resides not in herb or flower;
Aconite, hemlock, or moonshade, I ween,
None hath a poison so subtle and keen.
Dread is the curse of mandragora!
And whether the mandrake be create
Flesh with the flower incorporate,
I know not; yet, if from the earth 'tis rent,
Shrieks and groans from the root are sent;
Shrieks and groans, and a sweat like gore
Oozes and drops from the clammy core.
Dread is the curse of mandragora.
Whoso gathereth the mandrake shall surely die;
Blood for blood is his destiny.
Some who have plucked it have died with groans,
Like to the mandrake's expiring moans;
Some have died raving, and some beside—
With penitent prayers—but all have died.
Jesu! save us by night and day!
From the terrible death of mandragora!
"A queer chant that," said Zoroaster, coughing loudly, in token of disapprobation.
"Not much to my taste," quoth the knight of Malta. "We like something more sprightly in Canterbury."
"Nor to mine," added Jerry; "don't think it's likely to have an encore. 'Pon my soul, Dick, you must give us something yourself, or we shall never cry Euthanasy at the Triple Tree."
"With all my heart," replied Turpin. "You shall have—but what do I see, my friend Sir Luke? Devil take my tongue, Luke Bradley, I mean. What, ho! Luke—nay, nay, man, no shrinking—stand forward; I've a word or two to say to you. We must have a hob-a-nob glass together, for old acquaintance, sake. Nay, no airs, man; dammee you're not a lord yet, nor a baronet either, though I do hold your title in my pocket; never look glum at me. It won't pay. I'm one of the canting crew now; no man shall sneer at me with impunity, eh, Zory? Ha, ha! Here's a glass of Nantz; we'll have a bottle of black strap when you are master of your own. Make ready there, you gut-scrapers, you shawm-shavers; I'll put your lungs in play for you presently. In the meantime—charge, pals, charge—a toast, a toast! Health and prosperity to Sir Luke Rookwood! I see you are surprised—this, gem'men, is Sir Luke Rookwood, somewhile Luke Bradley, heir to the house of that name, not ten miles distant from this. Say, shall we not drink a bumper to his health?"
Astonishment prevailed amongst the crew. Luke himself had been taken by surprise. When Turpin discovered him at the door of the tent, and summoned him to appear, he reluctantly complied with the request; but when, in a half-bantering vein, Dick began to rally him upon his pretensions, he would most gladly have retreated, had it been in his power. It was then too late. He felt he must stand the ordeal. Every eye was fixed upon him with a look of enquiry.
Zoroaster took his everlasting pipe from his mouth.
"This ain't true, surely?" asked the perplexed Magus.
"He has said it," replied Luke, "I may not deny it."
This was sufficient. There was a wild hubbub of delight amongst the crew, for Luke was a favourite with all.
"Sir Luke Rookwood!" cried Jerry Juniper, who liked a title as much as Tommy Moore is said to dote upon a lord. "Upon my soul I sincerely congratulate you; devilish fortunate fellow. Always cursed unlucky myself. I could never find out my own father, unless it were one Monsieur des Capriolles, a French dancing-master, and he never left anything behind him that I could hear of, except a broken kit and a hempen widow. Sir Luke Rookwood, we shall do ourselves the pleasure of drinking your health and prosperity."
Fresh bumpers, and immense cheering.
Silence being in a measure restored, Zoroaster claimed Turpin's promise of a song.
"True, true," replied Dick; 'I have not forgotten it. Stand to your bows, my hearties."
THE GAME OF HIGH TOBY
Now Oliver54 puts his black nightcap on,
And every star its glim55 is hiding,
And forth to the heath is the scampsman56 gone,
His matchless cherry-black57 prancer riding;
Merrily over the common he flies,
Fast and free as the rush of rocket,
His crape-covered vizard drawn over his eyes,
His tol58 by his side, and his pops59 in his pocket.
Then who can name
So merry a game,
As the game of all games—high toby?60
The traveller hears him, away! away!
Over the wide, wide heath he scurries;
He heeds not the thunderbolt summons to stay,
But ever the faster and faster he hurries.
But what daisy-cutter can match that black tit?
He is caught—he must "stand and deliver";
Then out with the dummy,61 and off with the bit,62
Oh! the game of high toby for ever!
Then who can name
So merry a game,
As the game of all games—high toby?
Believe me, there is not a game, my brave boys,
To compare with the game of high toby;
No rapture can equal the tobyman's joys,
To blue devils, blue plumbs63 give the go-by;
And what if, at length, boys, he come to the crap!64
Even rack punch had some bitter in it,
For the mare-with-three-legs,65boys,
I care not a rap,
'Twill be over in less than a minute!
Then hip, hurrah!
Fling care away!
Hurrah for the game of high toby!
"And now, pals," said Dick, who began to feel the influence of these morning cups, "I vote that we adjourn. Believe me I shall always bear in mind that I am a brother of your band. Sir Luke and I must have a little chat together ere I take my leave. Adieu!"
And taking Luke by the arm, he walked out of the tent. Peter Bradley rose, and followed them.
At the door they found the dwarfish Grasshopper, with Black Bess. Rewarding the urchin for his trouble, and slipping the bridle of his mare over his hand, Turpin continued his walk over the green. For a few minutes he seemed to be lost in rumination.
"I tell you what, Sir Luke," said he; "I should like to do a generous thing, and make you a present of this bit of paper. But one ought not to throw away one's luck, you know—there is a tide in the affairs of thieves, as the player coves say, which must be taken at the flood, or else—no matter! Your old dad, Sir Piers (God help him!), had the gingerbread, that I know; he was, as we say, a regular rhino-cerical cull. You won't feel a few thousands, especially at starting; and besides, there are two others, Rust and Wilder, who row in the same boat with me, and must therefore come in for their share of the reg'lars. All this considered, you can't complain, I think, if I ask five thousand for it. That old harridan, Lady Rookwood, offered me nearly as much."
"I will not talk to you of fairness," said Luke; "I will not say that document belongs of right to me. It fell by accident into your hands. Having possessed yourself of it, I blame you not that you dispose of it to the best advantage. I must, perforce, agree to your terms."
"Oh, no," replied Dick, "it's quite optional; Lady Rookwood will give as much, and make no mouths about it. Soho, lass! What makes Bess prick her ears in that fashion?—Ha! carriage-wheels in the distance! that jade knows the sound as well as I do. I'll just see what it's like!—you will have ten minutes for reflection. Who knows if I may not have come in for a good thing here?"
At that instant a carriage passed the angle of a rock some three hundred yards distant, and was seen slowly ascending the hillside. Eager as a hawk after his quarry, Turpin dashed after it.
In vain the sexton, whom he nearly overthrew in his career, called after him to halt. He sped like a bolt from the bow.
"May the devil break his neck!" cried Peter, as he saw him dash through the brook; "could he not let them alone?"
"This must not be," said Luke; "know you whose carriage it is?"
"It is a shrine that holds the jewel that should be dearest in your eyes," returned Peter; "haste, and arrest the spoiler's hand."
"Whom do you mean?" asked Luke.
"Eleanor Mowbray," replied Peter. "She is there. To the rescue—away."
"Eleanor Mowbray!" echoed Luke—"and Sybil!—"
At this instant a pistol-shot was heard.
"Will you let murder be done, and upon your cousin?" cried Peter, with a bitter look. "You are not what I took you for."
Luke answered not, but, swift as the hound freed from the leash, darted in the direction of the carriage.
| Contents |
"Thunders of Applause."
THE course of our tale returns now to Eleanor Mowbray. After she had parted from Ranulph Rookwood, and had watched him disappear beneath the arches of the church porch, her heart sank, and, drawing herself back within the carriage, she became a prey to the most poignant affliction. In vain she endeavoured to shake off this feeling of desolation. It would not be. Despair had taken possession of her; the magic fabric of delight melted away, or only gleamed to tantalise, at an unreachable distance. A presentiment that Ranulph would never be hers had taken root in her imagination, and overshadowed all the rest.
While Eleanor pursued this train of reflection, the time insensibly wore away, until the sudden stoppage of the carriage aroused the party from their meditation. Major Mowbray perceived that the occasion of the halt was the rapid advance of a horseman, who was nearing them at full speed. The appearance of the rider was somewhat singular, and might have created some uneasiness as to the nature of his approach, had not the major immediately recognised a friend; he was, nevertheless, greatly surprised to see him, and turned to Mrs. Mowbray to inform her that Father Ambrose, to his infinite astonishment, was coming to meet them, and appeared, from his manner, to be the bearer of unwelcome tidings.
Father Ambrose was, perhaps, the only being whom Eleanor disliked. She had felt an unaccountable antipathy towards him, which she could neither extirpate nor control, during their long and close intimacy. It may be necessary to mention that her religious culture had been in accordance with the tenets of the Romish Church, in whose faith (the faith of her ancestry) her mother had continued; and that Father Ambrose, with whom she had first become acquainted during the residence of the family near Bordeaux, was her ghostly adviser and confessor. An Englishman by birth, he had been appointed pastor to the diocese in which they dwelt, and was, consequently, a frequent visitor, almost a constant inmate, of the château; yet, though duty and respect would have prompted her to regard the father with affection, Eleanor could never conquer the feelings of dislike and distrust which she had at first entertained towards him; a dislike which was increased by the strange control in which he seemed to hold her mother, who regarded him with a veneration approaching to infatuation.
It was, therefore, with satisfaction that she bade him adieu. He had, however, followed his friends to England under a feigned name (as, being a recusant Romish priest, and supposed to have been engaged in certain Jesuitical plots, his return to his own country was attended with considerable risk), and had now remained domesticated with them for some months. That he had been in some way, early in life, connected with a branch of the house of Rookwood, Eleanor was aware (she fancied he might have been engaged in political intrigue with Sir Reginald, which would have well accorded with his ardent, ambitious temperament), and the knowledge of this circumstance made her doubly apprehensive lest the nature of his present communication should have reference to her lover, towards whose cause the father had never been favourable, and respecting whose situation he might have made some discovery, which she feared he might use to Ranulph's disadvantage.
Wrapped in a long black cloak, with a broad-brimmed hat drawn closely over his brows, it was impossible to distinguish further of the priest's figure and features beyond the circumstance of his height, which was remarkable, until he had reached the carriage-window, when, raising his hat, he disclosed a head that Titian might have painted, and which, arising from the dark drapery, looked not unlike the visage of some grave and saturnine Venetian. There was a venerable expanse of forehead, thinly scattered with hair, towering over black penthouse-like brows, which, in their turn, shadowed keen penetrating eyes; the temples were hollow, and blue veins might be traced beneath the sallow skin; the cheek-bones were high, and there was something in the face that spoke of self-mortification; while the thin livid lips closely compressed, and the austere and sinister expression of his countenance, showed that his self-abasement, if he had ever practised it, had scarcely prostrated the demon of pride, whose dominion might still be traced in the lines and furrows of his haughty physiognomy. The father looked at Mrs. Mowbray, and then glanced suspiciously at Eleanor. The former appeared to understand him.
"You would say a word to me in private," said Mrs. Mowbray; "shall I descend?"
The priest bowed assent.
"It is not to you alone that my mission extends," said he, gravely; "you are all in part concerned; your son had better alight with you."
"Instantly," replied the major. "If you will give your horse in charge to the postilion, we will attend you at once."
With a feeling of renewed apprehension, connected, she knew not why, with Ranulph, Eleanor beheld her relatives descend from the carriage; and, in the hope of gaining some clue from their gestures to the subject of their conversation, she watched their motions as narrowly as her situation permitted. From the earnest manner of the priest, and the interest his narrative seemed to excite in his hearers, it was evident that his communication was of importance.
Presently, accompanied by Father Ambrose, Mrs. Mowbray returned to the carriage, while the major, mounting the priest's horse, after bidding a hasty adieu to his sister, adding, with a look that belied the consolation intended to be conveyed by his words, that "all was well," but without staying to offer her any explanation of the cause of his sudden departure, rode back the way they had just traversed, and in the direction of Rookwood. Bereft of the only person to whom she could have applied for information, though dying with curiosity and anxiety to know the meaning of this singular interview, and of the sudden change of plans which she felt so intimately concerned herself, Eleanor was constrained to preserve silence, as, after their entrance into the carriage, her mother again seemed lost in painful reflection, and heeded her not; and the father, drawing from his pocket a small volume, appeared intently occupied in its perusal.
"Dear mother," said Eleanor, at length, turning to Mrs. Mowbray, "my brother is gone—"
"To Rookwood," said Mrs. Mowbray, in a tone calculated to check further enquiry; but Eleanor was too anxious to notice it.
"And wherefore, mother?" said she. "May I not be informed?"
"Not as yet, my child—not as yet," replied Mrs. Mowbray. "You will learn all sufficiently early."
The priest raised his cat-like eyes from the book to watch the effect of this speech, and dropped them instantly, as Eleanor turned towards him. She had been about to appeal to him, but having witnessed this look, she relinquished her scarce-formed purpose, and endeavoured to divert her tristful thoughts by gazing through the glimmering medium of her tears upon the soothing aspect of external nature—that aspect which, in sunshine or in storm, has ever relief in store for a heart embittered by the stony coldness of the world.
The road, meanwhile, led them through a long woody valley, and was now climbing the sides of a steep hill. They were soon in the vicinity of the priory, and of the gipsies' encampment. The priest leaned forward, and whispered something in Mrs. Mowbray's car, who looked towards the ruined shrine, part of the mouldering walls being visible from the road.
At this moment the clatter of a horse's hoofs and the sound of a loud voice commanding the postilion, in a menacing tone, to stop, accompanied by a volley of imprecations, interrupted the conference, and bespoke the approach of an unwelcome intruder, and one whom all, too truly, feared would not be readily dismissed. The postilion did his best to rid them of the assailant. Perceiving a masked horseman behind him, approaching at a furious rate, he had little doubt as to his intentions, and Turpin, for it was our highwayman, soon made his doubts certainties. He halloo'd to him to stop; but the fellow paid no attention to his command, and disregarded even the pistol which he saw, in a casual glimpse over his near side, presented at his person. Clapping spurs into his horse's flanks, he sought succour in flight. Turpin was by his side in an instant. As the highwayman endeavoured to catch his reins, the lad suddenly wheeled the carriage right upon him, and but for the dexterity of Turpin, and the clever conduct of his mare, would inevitably have crushed him against the roadside. As it was, his left leg was slightly grazed. Irritated at this, Turpin fired over the man's head, and with the butt-end of the pistol felled him from his seat. Startled by the sound, and no longer under the governance of their rider, the horses rushed with frantic violence towards a ditch, that bounded the other side of the highway, down which the carriage was precipitated, and at once overturned. Turpin's first act, after he had ascertained that no mischief had been occasioned to those within, beyond the alarm incident to the shock, was to compel the postilion, who had by this time gained his legs, to release the horses from their traces. This done, with the best grace he could assume and, adjusting his mask, he opened the carriage, and proceeded to liberate the captives.
"Beg pardon, ma'am," said he, so soon as he had released Mrs. Mowbray; "excessively sorry, upon my soul, to have been the cause of so much unnecessary alarm to you—all the fault, I assure you, of that rascal of a postilion; had the fellow only pulled up when I commanded him, this botheration might have been avoided. You will remember that, when you pay him—all his fault, I assure you, ma'am."
Receiving no reply, he proceeded to extricate Eleanor, with whose beauty the inflammable highwayman was instantly smitten. Leaving the father to shift for himself, he turned to address some observation of coarse gallantry to her: but she eluded his grasp, and flew to her mother's side.
"It is useless, sir," said Mrs. Mowbray, as Turpin drew near them, "to affect ignorance of your intentions. You have already occasioned us serious alarm; much delay and inconvenience. I trust, therefore, that beyond our purses, to which, though scantily supplied, you are welcome, we shall sustain no molestation. You seem to have less of the ruffian about you than the rest of your lawless race, and are not, I should hope destitute of common humanity."
"Common humanity!" replied Turpin: "bless you, ma'am, I'm the most humane creature breathing—would not hurt a fly, much less a lady. Incivility was never laid to my charge. This business may be managed in a few seconds; and as soon as we have settled the matter, I'll lend your stupid jack-boy a hand to put the horses to the carriage again, and get the wheels out of the ditch. You have a banker, ma'am, I suppose in town—perhaps in the country; but I don't like country bankers; besides, I want a little ready cash in Rumville—beg pardon, ma'am, London I mean. My ears have been so stunned with those Romany patterers, I almost think in flash. Just draw me a cheque; I've pen and ink always ready: a cheque for fifty pounds, ma'am—only fifty. What's your banker's name? I've blank cheques of all the best houses in my pocket; that and a kiss from the pretty lips of that cherry-cheek'd maid," winking to Eleanor, "will fully content me. You see you have neither an exorbitant nor uncivil personage to deal with."
Eleanor shrank closer towards her mother. Exhausted by previous agitation of the night, greatly frightened by the shock which she had just sustained, and still more alarmed by the words and gestures of the highwayman, she felt that she was momentarily in danger of fainting, and with difficulty prevented herself from falling. The priest, who had succeeded in freeing himself from the carriage, now placed himself between Turpin and the ladies.
"Be satisfied, misguided man," said the father, in a stern voice, offering a purse, which Mrs. Mowbray hastily extended towards him, "with the crime you have already committed, and seek not to peril your soul by deeper guilt; be content with the plunder you now obtain, and depart; for, by my holy calling, I affirm to you, that if you advance one footstep toward the further molestation of these ladies, it shall be at the hazard of your life."
"Bravo!" exclaimed Turpin. "Now this is what I like; who would have thought the old autem-bawler had so much pluck in him? Sir, I commend you for your courage, but you are mistaken. I am the quietest man breathing, and never harm a human being; in proof of which, only look at your rascal of a postilion, whom any one of my friends would have sent posthaste to the devil for half the trouble he gave me. Easy as I am, I never choose to be balked in my humours. I must have the fifty and the buss, and then I'm off, as soon as you like; and I may as well have the kiss while the old lady signs the cheque, and then we shall have the seal as well as the signature. Poh—poh—no nonsense! Many a pretty lass has thought it an honour to be kissed by Turpin."
Eleanor recoiled with deepest disgust, as she saw the highwayman thrust aside the useless opposition of the priest, and approach her. He had removed his mask; his face, flushed with insolent triumph, was turned towards her. Despite the loathing which curdled the blood within her veins, she could not avert her eyes. He drew near her; she uttered a shrill scream. At that moment a powerful grasp was laid upon Turpin's shoulder; he turned and beheld Luke.
"Save me! save me!" cried Eleanor, addressing the newcomer.
"Damnation!" said the highwayman. "What has brought you here? one would think you were turned assistant to all distressed damsels. Quit your hold, or, by God above us, you will repent it."
"Fool!" exclaimed Luke, "talk thus to one who heeds you." And as he spoke he hurled Turpin backwards with so much force that, staggering a few yards, the highwayman fell to the ground.
The priest stood like one stunned with surprise at Luke's sudden appearance and subsequent daring action.
Luke, meanwhile, approached Eleanor. He gazed upon her with curiosity mixed with admiration, for his heart told him she was very fair. A death-like paleness had spread over her cheeks; yet still, despite the want of colour, she looked exquisitely beautiful, and her large blue eyes eloquently thanked her deliverer for her rescue. The words she wanted were supplied by Mrs. Mowbray, who thanked him in appropriate terms, when they were interrupted by Turpin, who had by this time picked himself up, and was drawing near them. His countenance wore a fierce expression.
"I tell you what," said he, "Luke Bradley, or Luke Rookwood, or whatever else you may call yourself, you have taken a damned unfair advantage of me in this matter, and deserve nothing better at my hands than that I should call you to instant account for it—and curse me! if I don't too."
"Luke Bradley!" interrupted Mrs. Mowbray—"are you that individual?"
"I have been so called, madam," replied Luke.
"Father Ambrose, is this the person of whom you spoke?" eagerly asked the lady.
"So I conclude," returned the priest, evasively.
"Did he not call you Luke Rookwood?" eagerly demanded Eleanor. "Is that also your name?"
"Rookwood is my name, fair cousin," replied Luke, "if I may venture to call you so."
"And Ranulph Rookwood is—"
"I never heard he had a brother," rejoined Eleanor, with some agitation. "How can that be?"
"I am his brother, nevertheless," replied Luke, moodily—"his ELDER BROTHER!"
Eleanor turned to her mother and the priest with a look of imploring anguish: she saw a confirmation of the truth of this statement in their glances. No contradiction was offered by either to his statement; both, indeed, appeared in some mysterious manner prepared for it. This, then, was the dreaded secret. This was the cause of her brother's sudden departure. The truth flashed with lightning swiftness across her brain.
Chagrined and mortified, Luke remarked that glance of enquiry. His pride was hurt at the preference thus naturally shown towards his brother. He had been struck, deeply struck, with her beauty. He acknowledged the truth of Peter's words. Eleanor's loveliness was without parallel. He had seen nought so fair, and the instant he beheld her—he felt that for her alone could he cancel his vows to Sybil. The spirit of rivalry and jealousy was instantly aroused by Eleanor's exclamations.
"His elder brother!" echoed Eleanor, dwelling upon his words, and addressing Luke—"then you must be—but no, you are not, you cannot be—it is Ranulph's title—it is not yours—you are not—"
"I am Sir Luke Rookwood," replied Luke, proudly.
Ere the words were uttered Eleanor had fainted.
"Assistance is at hand, madam, if you will accept it, and follow me," said Luke, raising the insensible girl in his arms, and bearing her down the hill towards the encampment, whither he was followed by Mrs. Mowbray and the priest, between whom, glances had been exchanged. Turpin, who, as it may be supposed, had not been an incurious observer of the scene passing, burst into his usual loud laugh on seeing Luke bear away his lovely burden.
"Cousin! Ha, ha!" said he. "So the wench is his cousin. Damme, I half suspect he has fallen in love with his new-found cousin; and if so, Miss Sybil, or I'm mistaken, will look as yellow as a guinea. If that little Spanish devil gets it into her pretty jealous pate that he is about to bring home a new mistress, we shall have a tragedy scene in the twinkling of a bed-post. However, I sha'n't lose sight of Sir Luke until I have settled my accounts with him. Hark ye, boy," continued he, addressing the postilion, "remain where you are; you won't be wanted yet awhile, I imagine. There's a guinea for you, to drink Dick Turpin's health."
Upon which he mounted his mare, and walked her easily down the hill.
"And so that be Dick Turpin, folks talk so much about," soliloquised the lad, looked curiously after him; "well, he's as civil-speaking a chap as need be, blow my boots if he ain't! and if I'd had a notion it were he, I'd have pulled up at first call, without more ado. Nothing like experience—I shall know better another time," added he, pocketing the douceur.
Rushing swiftly down the hill, Luke tarried at the river's brink, to sprinkle some of the cool element upon the pale brow of Eleanor. As he held her in his arms, thoughts which he fain would have stifled in their birth took possession of his heart. "Would she were mine!" murmured he. "Yet no! the wish is unworthy." But that wish returned unbidden.
Eleanor opened her eyes. She was still too weak to walk without support, and Luke, raising her once more in his arms, and motioning Mrs. Mowbray to follow, crossed the brook by means of stepping-stones, and conducted his charge along a by-path towards the priory, so as to avoid meeting with the crew assembled upon the green.
They had gained one of the roofless halls, when he encountered Balthazar. Astonished at the sight of the party, the patrico was about to address the priest as an acquaintance, when his more orthodox brother raised his finger to his lips, in token of caution. The action passed unobserved.
"Hie thee to Sybil," said Luke to the patrico. "Bid her haste hither. Say that this maiden—that Miss Mowbray is here, and requires her aid. Fly! I will bear her to the refectory."
As Balthazar passed the priest, he pointed with a significant glance towards a chasm in the wall, which seemed to be an opening to some subterraneous chamber. The father again made a gesture of silence, and Balthazar hastened upon his mission.