You are hereRaven’s Castle
Raven’s Castle is a cluster of rocks on the moors about 6 miles north of Slaidburn and close to the Lancashire border with Yorkshire. John Roby in his ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ (1872) set the following folk tale amongst these rocks.
"He bargained with two ruffians strong,Which were of furious mood,That they should take these children young,And slay them in a wood.
"Away then went these pretty babes,Rejoycing at that tide,Rejoycing with a merry minde,They should on cock-horse ride."
—The Children in the Wood.
Situated amid the wild and high moorlands, at whose feet hath stood for ages the royal and ducal capital of the county palatine of Lancaster, once rose a strong border defence called Raven Castle. Its site only remains. This noble and castellated fortress now lies an almost undistinguishable heap on the barren moor; the sheep browse above it, and the herdsman makes his pillow where warriors and dames once met in chivalric pomp, and the chieftain held his feudal and barbaric court.
The point on which it stood is nearly on the line of separation between the counties of York and Lancaster. From the southern declivity of the hill on the Yorkshire side springs one of the rills which fall into the Hodder, a well-known stream, held in great respect by those ambulatory gentlemen whose love of society and amusing recreations leads them to lay in a stock of patience for life in the pursuit of piscatory delights.
This mountainous tract forms part of the forest of Bowland, once ranged by numerous herds of deer, and is still under the jurisdiction of a master-forester, or bow-bearer, called Parker, which office has been held for centuries by a family of that name.
It was in the broad and still moonlight of a spring morning, in the year 16—, that two horsemen were ascending by a steep and difficult pass through the Trough of Bolland, along the hills and almost pathless wilds of the forest. They were apparently of that dubious class called "Knights of the Post,"—highway-men, deer-stealers, or cattle-harriers; all and every of which occupations they occasionally followed.
As they passed by the edge of a steep ravine, from which hung a few stunted oaks projecting over the gulf, the foremost rider—for the path admitted them not abreast—turned sharply round on his saddle.
"Again!—Didst thou not see it, Michael?" inquired he, in great alarm.
"Nothing, Anthony, as I do follow thee in this honest trade;—nothing, I tell thee, save thine ugly face in this clear moonshine. Prythee, make more speed, and thou wilt have the fewer wry mouths to answer for. Thou art fool enough to make a man forswear honesty, and rid him of his conscience for life. Beshrew me! thou hast got a troublesome tenant; either less roguery, or fewer qualms; depend on 't, thou canst not keep friends with both."
"I'll go no farther. Old Hildebrand finds some foul business on his hands, that he would fain thrust into our fingers. A bad business quits best at the beginning; if once we get to the middle, we might as well go on, or we may be like old Dick, who swam half-way through the mill-pond, and then, being faint-hearted, swam back again."
"Look thee now, thou art a precious ass:—thou wouldst be a wit without brains, and a rogue, ay, a very wicked and unconditional rogue, without courage. Tut, that same cowardly rogue, of all unparalleled villains, is verily the worst. Your liquorish cat, skulking and scared with a windle-straw, is always the biggest thief, and has the cruellest paws, for all her demure looks and her plausible condescensions."
"I don't care for thy jeers, Michael."
"What!—hast brought thy purpose to an anchor already? 'Tis well. I shall on to Raven Castle with all speed, if it were only to inform one Hildebrand Wentworth of this sudden qualm. Likewise I may, peradventure, remember to tell him of another little qualm thou wast taken with, once upon a time, at the sight of a score of his fat beeves; a little bit of choice roguery played off upon him by honest Anthony of the tender conscience! Look to it, comrade, he shall know of this before thou canst convey thy cowardly carcase out of his clutches. An' it be thou goest forward—mum!—backward! Ha! have I caught thee, my pretty bird?"
At the conclusion of this speech, with the malice of a fiend urging on his hesitating victim to the commission of some loathed act of folly and of crime, the speaker lashed on his companion's beast, and they were soon past the steepest part of the ascent, on their way to Raven Castle. Its present occupier, whom, it appears, they had befriended beforetime, in the way of their several callings, had sent for them in haste, requiring their aid, it might seem, in some business relative to their profession.
For an hour or two they travelled on as fast as the nature of their track would permit. Day was just brightening in the east, when, emerging from a more than usually intricate path, they pushed through a thick archway of boughs. Suddenly a bare knoll presented itself, sloping towards a narrow rivulet; beyond, a dark and well-fortified mansion stood before them,—here and there, a turret-shaped chamber, lifting its mural crown above the rest, rose clear and erect against a glowing sky, now rapidly displacing the grey hues of the morning. The narrow battlements rose up, sharp and distinct, but black as their own grim recesses, in solemn contrast with the bright and rolling masses from behind, breaking into all the gorgeous tints that betoken a heavy and lurid atmosphere.
They crossed a narrow bridge, and the clattering of their horses' hoofs were soon heard in the courtyard of the castle.
"So, masters, if it had not pleased your betters to have built hostels and roosting-places on the road, I might have been snug in my blanket some hours ago may be."
The personage who thus accosted them was dressed in a plain leathern cap and doublet, with a pair of stout hose that would not have disgraced a burgher of the first magnitude; his short and frizzled beard was curiously twirled and pointed, we may suppose after the fashion of those regions; and his manner and appearance was that of some confidential menial belonging to the establishment. His whole demeanour had in it an air of impertinent authority; his little sharp eyes twinkled in all the plenitude of power, and peered in the faces of the travellers as they alighted to render him an unwilling salutation.
"We have made the best of our road, Master Geoffery, since we left our quarters in Netherdale. But, in troth, it's a weary way, and a drouthy one into the bargain: I have not wet even the tip of this poor beast's nose since we started."
"Go to; an' the beasts be cared for, thine own muzzle may take its chance of a swill. Willy, see to the horses. Now for business. Master has been waiting for you these three hours: make what excuse you may. Heigh-ho! my old skull will leak out my brains soon with these upsittings."
Taking a small lamp from a recess, he commanded the strangers to follow. A wide staircase led to the gallery, from whence a number of low doors communicated with the chambers or dormitories. Entering a passage from an obscure corner, they ascended a winding stair. The huge and terrific spars of the intruders struck with a shrill clank on the narrow steps, mingled with the grumblings of Master Geoffery Hardpiece; a continual muttering was heard from the latter, by way of running accompaniment to the directions which, ever and anon, he found it needful to set forth.
"There—an ass, a very ass!—keep thy face from the wall, I tell thee, and lift up thy great leathern hoofs."
Then came another series of murmurings, mingled with confused and rambling sentences.
"This stair is like old Giles's horn, it's long a-winding. Now,—thy spurs, is it? Aroynt thee, knave, thou art like to frighten the children with their clattering. They are up, and ready for their trip. Alice will stitch a pillow to your pummels, and they'll ride bravely, the pretty dears. Stop there, I tell ye; I'll just say that you wait his pleasure, and return."
Old Hardpiece tapped gently at a small door; it was opened hastily; and a few moments only elapsed ere Master Geoffery's cunning face was cautiously extended out of the narrow opening. He beckoned to his companions, and at once ushered them into a low chamber. A lamp, half extinguished, stood on the floor; the walls were nearly bare, and streaked in various colours by the moisture filtering from the roof; a curiously-carved oak-table, and two or three stone benches comprised the furniture of the apartment; a few rusty swords, with two large pistols nearly falling from their holsters, hung from the wall. In one corner, reposing in decayed dignity, were seen some halberds, with several unmatched pairs of mildewed boots; near to the window, or rather loop-hole, heaped up in dust and disorder, lay a score or two of rusty helmets, their grim appurtenances mostly broken and disjointed.
Pacing to and fro in this audience-chamber appeared a figure of about the middle size, attired in a loose open garment. His head was nearly bald; a few thin locks only hung from the lower part of his poll; and yet his age was not so far advanced as the scanty covering of his forehead might seem to intimate. He paused not as they entered; but during the greater part of the succeeding interview persevered in the same restless and abrupt gait, as though repose were anguish, and it was only by a continued change of position that he could soothe the rising perturbation of his spirit.
"Is this your haste, when my commands are most urgent?"
He turned sharply upon them as he spoke: his eyes grew wild and keen; but at times a heaviness and languor, as if from long watching, seemed to oppress them.
"We could not"—Michael was stammering out an apology, when thus interrupted:—
"Enough! I know what thou wouldst say. Let thy comrade remain below. Geoffery, conduct him to the refectory; Michael abides here. Haste, and let refreshments be prepared."
What was the purport of the conversation that ensued may be surmised from the following history.
Old Hardpiece, grumbling the greater part of the way, led his companion through a labyrinth of stairs and passages to a small room, where a huge flagon of ale, with cold beef and other substantial articles for breakfast, were about being displayed. Anthony, nothing loth, threw aside his cap, and unbraced his girdle, for the more capacious disposal of such savoury and delicious viands. A heavy pull at the tankard again brought out Master Geoffery's deep-mouthed oratory. Anthony's tongue grew more nimble as his appetite waxed less vigorous; he asked many questions about the business which required their presence at Raven Castle in such haste.
"The orphan children of Sir Henry Fairfax are to be conveyed to some place of concealment for a short period. Master says he has had intimation of a design on the part of the late Sir Henry's friends to seize them perforce. Which act of violence Hildebrand Wentworth, being left as their sole guardian, will make all haste to prevent."
"The children of the late Sir Harry Fairfax who was killed in the wars?" inquired Anthony.
"Ay, ay. Poor things! since their mother drowned herself"——
Old Hardpiece here looked round, as though fearing some intrusion. He continued in an undertone—
"Goody Shelton says she walks in the forest; and that her wraith so frightened Humphrey's horse that it would not budge a straw's breadth, just beside the great oak in the Broad Holm, before you get into the forest on the other side towards Slaidburn."
Anthony was, at this precise moment, cramming the last visible remains of a goose-pie into the same place where he had before deposited half the good things on the table, anointing his beard with their savoury outskirts,—when suddenly his chin dropped, his face assumed a sort of neutral tinge, and his whole form appeared to grow stiff with terror. He made several efforts to speak; but the following words only could be distinguished:—
"I was sure it would be a ghost!"
"What!—a ghost!—Where!" anxiously inquired Geoffery.
"Just by the great oak in the Broad Holm, on the other side of the forest."
"What was it like?"
"I cannot tell; and Michael pretended he did not see it!"
"Thou canst surely show the appearance it put on."
"Something, as it might be, like unto a woman, crossed our path twice, and within a stone's throw. O Master Geoffery, we be dead men!"
Another groan here interrupted their discourse. Master Hardpiece muttered some unintelligible prayers, putting on a face of great solemnity. Several minutes elapsed, while the following exclamations rapidly succeeded each other:—
"A ghost!—save us!—a very ghost! I'll not to Slaidburn again without help. Another draught, Anthony; a stiffener to thy courage, mayhap. It's now daylight, though," said he, looking through the casement, "and most of us fear only what may be felt, in the day-time at any rate."
Anthony took the cup, and, apparently without being aware, drank off the contents. He was much invigorated by the draught which seemed to invest him with new courage; partly from the recollection that a long daylight would intervene between the beginning and the end of his journey, and partly because of the sudden rush of spirits to his brain. He arose, and assuming a posture more erect, planted his cap in a becoming attitude, whilst Geoffery was putting aside the empty vessels into a sort of large wooden chalice, for the purpose of a more convenient removal.
Light footsteps were now heard bounding along the passage, and the door was suddenly burst open by two rosy-cheeked children; the elder a boy of some four or five years' growth, and his sister scarcely a twelvemonth younger.
"Master Geoffery, Master Geoffery," lisped one laughing urchin, "hide me; there is Alice—she'll not let me go. We are to ride on two great horses; and I shall have a sword, and sister Julia a coach."
Here nurse Alice made her appearance. She had been weeping: tears and entreaties were vain. She asked permission to accompany them; but with a frown Hildebrand Wentworth had chidden her from his presence. Since the loss of her mother, and almost from the time that news had arrived of their father's death, which happened a little while before the birth of Julia, she had borne a mother's part to her little charge; and had it been allowed her, she would gladly have served them without reward.
Fearful of leaving them, she had followed hastily into the room. With a searching glance she eyed the stranger for a while; then suddenly turning to the children, she addressed them with great seriousness and affection.
"Harry, you have not repeated your prayer this morning. Do you think God will take care of you to-day, if you ask Him not?"
Here the rebuked boy grew silent; and with a suffused face, ran to his nurse. Whilst in her lap, he poured out his morning orison. It was a simple but affecting request. Julia knelt also; and Alice, laying a hand on each, blessed the children.
"God of their fathers, I commit them to Thy care!"
She could say no more; loud sobs checked her utterance; but leaning over these little ones, she convulsively clasped them in her embrace.
Old Hardpiece grew unusually busy about matters of no importance, and the hard-featured trooper was seen to brush his brows, as though some unpleasant suspicions had crossed his brain. He raised his arm as he gazed on the children, muttering as he clenched his hand—
"If he dare!"—He then carelessly examined his sword, returning it quickly into its sheath, as the weeping Alice drew away the children to her own apartment. Old Geoffery now grew more talkative. Leaning his chin upon his hand, and his elbow on the table, he thus proceeded:—
"It's four long years come St Barnabas since Sir Harry's death; and my lady, rest her soul! went melancholy soon after. Everything was bequeathed in trust to my master, Hildebrand Wentworth, a great friend of Sir Harry's, and his secretary or purse-bearer, I forget which—no matter—all the property, I say, was left in trust for Sir Harry's wife and children. Hildebrand brought a will from Sir Harry to this effect, and poor Lady Fairfax never looked up afterwards. She moped about, and would see nobody, and then it was they said she was out of her wits. It was not long before her head-gear and mantle were found by the river-side just below the old bridge you crossed—but her body never."
Here the entrance of Michael cut short the old man's discourse.
"Belike thou hast not lacked a cup of warm sack, and a whey-posset with my master in the west turret," scoffingly cried Master Geoffery. Michael looked surly as he replied—
"Old Gabergeon, let us have a draught of thy best, a stirrup-cup. Breakfast I have settled with above stairs."
"Marry take your swill, Mr Saucypate," tartly replied Geoffery. "And so, because you have eaten and drunk with my master, it is 'old Gabergeon;' else had it been good Master Hardpiece, or 'if you will, Master Geoffery!' Out upon such carrion, say I, that think themselves live meat when they are but fly-blown."
"Old Geoffery," said Michael, coolly, "we'll settle our rank at a more convenient opportunity. Just now I'll thank thee for the flagon."
"It's in the cupboard," growled Hardpiece. "Verily these arms would tingle. But I am old, and that same Michael but a sorry brute—no beating would mend him. An ass of most vicious propensities; he will bite forwards and kick backwards. Friends get the benefit of his teeth, and foes the favour of his heels."
Thus did the old man console himself for the rudeness he could not restrain. It was not long ere a summons hurried them to the courtyard. They found their beasts equipped and ready to depart; Harry and Julia looking joyously on, vastly diverted with the horses' accoutrements. Hildebrand stood by the gateway, looking moody and anxious for their departure; Alice, full of sorrow, attended with some refreshments which were stowed into the wallet. The journey was but short, and an hour's ride that fine morning, Michael said, would bring them to their destination. Hildebrand forbade him to mention the place where he wished to conceal the children, lest it should be known to their iniquitous relatives. Each horseman, with a child mounted before him, slowly passed the outer court, at the entrance of which Alice disappeared. The iron tramp of the steeds rang shrilly from underneath the arched gateway; Hildebrand stood by the platform; he bade them good speed. Anthony passed first; Michael checked his horse for a moment, when Hildebrand took the hand of the boy, and pressed it; but one portentous look, as at the recognition of some sinister purpose, passed between Michael and the old man, unobserved by his colleague. Hildebrand raised his hand above his mouth, and slowly whispered—
"Remember!—the gulf underneath the waterfall."
The horsemen departed. Passing the bridge they were just rising over the green slope when the children recognised Alice upon her mistress's palfrey. They screamed out loudly to her; but she was riding in a contrary direction, and soon passed out of their sight.
The narrow glades of the forest suddenly encompassed them. The morning was pretty far advanced; the merry birds twittered in their dun covert, brushing the dewdrops from the boughs with their restless wings. The thrush and blackbird poured forth a more melancholy note; whilst the timid rabbit, scared from his morning's meal, rushed by and sought his burrow. The wood grew thicker, and the sunbeams that shot previously in broad slopes across their path soon became as lines of intensely-chequered light piercing the grim shadows beneath. The trees, too, put on a more sombre character; and the sward appeared choked with rank and noxious weeds. It seemed a path rarely trod, and only to be recognised by occasional openings through the underwood.
They travelled for some hours. Michael had taken the lead, and Anthony with his prattling charge rode carelessly on. Looking round, the latter suddenly checked his horse. A momentary alarm overspread his features as he cried—
"Michael, you have surely mistaken the path: an hour's ride should have brought us to the end of our journey, and our beasts have been footing it on since morning."
"Heed not, comrade; thou wilt soon find we have the right track before us. We shall be through the wood presently."
"Why, this is the road to Ingleton, if I mistake not; I hear the roar of the Greta."
"Right—we shall be on our road to the old castle shortly."
They travelled on more silently than before, until the brawling of the torrent they had heard for some time increased with rapid intensity. The road now widening, Anthony spurred on his beast by the side of his companion, who slackened his pace to afford an opportunity for further parley.
"Whither are we bound?" inquired Anthony.
"Where the children will be well cared for."
A dubious expression of countenance, which Anthony but too well understood, accompanied these words; and villain was expressed by indications too unequivocal to be easily mistaken through every change and inflection of his visage. Anthony, though not of the most unsullied reputation, and probably habituated to crimes at which humanity might shudder, pressed the little victim closer to his breast. The prattle of the babe had won his heart: and the morning scene with Alice had softened his spirit so that he could have wept when he thought of the remorseless nature of his comrade, to whose care the children were entrusted.
The roar of the torrent grew louder. Suddenly they entered upon a sort of irregular amphitheatre—woods rising above each other to the very summit of the hills by which they were surrounded. A swollen waterfall was visible, below which a bare and flattened trunk, whose boughs had apparently been but just lopped, was thrown across the torrent. A ruined keep or donjon was seen above a line of dark firs, crowning the summit of a steep crag that rose abruptly from the river.
"This is our halfway-house," said Michael, pointing to the grim fortress: "the children are tired, and have need of refreshment. Tarry here with the horses whilst I carry them over the bridge."
"We have refreshments in the wallet—what need we to loiter yonder?" replied Anthony, eyeing the other with an expression of distrust.
"The children want rest," said Michael, "and we shall there find shelter from the heat."
"If rest be needful," was the reply, "surely this dry sward and these overhanging leaves will afford both rest and shelter."
"The children are in my keeping," said Michael, fiercely, "and I am not to account with thee for my proceedings. Alight, and give me the child."
"I will not!—Michael, I have watched thee, and I know that thou art a villain. Ay, draw, I have weapons too, comrade."
Fast and furious grew the combat, during which the terrified children made the woods echo with their shrieks. The result was not long doubtful. Michael soon proved himself the better swordsman; and his antagonist, stumbling from fatigue, broke his own weapon in the fall. Defenceless and exposed, the uplifted sword of his adversary was raised for his destruction, when suddenly the arm of the ruffian was arrested, the weapon snatched from his grasp, and a female figure habited in a dark and coarse vestment stood between the combatants. Her brow was bare, and her dark full eye beamed on them with a look of pity and of anger. Her naturally pale cheek was flushed; but it betrayed not the agitation she endured. Erect and unbending she stood before them, and the quailing miscreant crouched at her feet.
"Away to thy master!—thy blood, too worthless even for thine own steel"——
She hurled away the weapon as she spoke.
Burning with revenge at his late defeat, Anthony flew after the falling brand: seizing it, he renewed the attack. Michael fled towards the bridge. With the bound of a bereaved tiger Anthony sprung upon his prey. Just where the root of the trunk rested on the bank they closed, after a desperate lunge parried by the unprotected arm of Michael. It was disabled—but he still clung to his enemy. Anthony strove to disengage himself; but the other, aware that life or death depended on the issue of that struggle, hung on him with a convulsive tightness that rendered the advantage he had gained of no avail. The sword was useless. Anthony threw it into the boiling gulf at his feet. Both hands being now free, whilst one arm of his opponent hung powerless and bleeding at his side, he had greatly the advantage. He wrenched the other arm of Michael from its hold, lifted him from his narrow footing-place, and with a malignant shout of triumph shook him over the abyss. One startling plunge, and the wretch sank in the rolling waters. An agonising yell, and but one, escaped him, as he hung quivering over that yawning portal to eternity; the next cry was choked by the seethe of the boiling foam. The waves whirled him round for a moment like some huge leviathan tossing its prey. He sank into its gorge, and the insatiate gulf swallowed him up for ever. Anthony drew back. He turned from the horrid scene, with some yet lingering tokens of compunction, in the expectation of rejoining his companions; but in vain—the babes and his deliverer had disappeared!
Hildebrand Wentworth had passed the remainder of that day in his own chamber. It was a dark lone room, leading out of the turret we have before described. Often had he ascended the narrow stair communicating with the parapet, and often had he watched the dark woods beneath the distant mountain. It was the road taken by his guilty emissaries; and, whether on the look-out for signals or for their return, he repeated his visits until the blue mists were gathering on the horizon, and day—another day!—had passed into the bosom of eternity. It was an hour of holiness and peace, but heavy and disturbed was the current of his thoughts. He sat near a projecting angle of the turret, his head bent over the parapet. A female voice was heard beneath, chanting monotonously a low and melancholy psalm. Soon the following words were distinguished:—
"Dark as the bounding watersWhen storm clouds o'er them roll,The face of Zion's daughtersReveals the troubled soul."
Hildebrand drew his breath, as if labouring under some violent emotion. His whole frame was agitated. His lip grew pale as she went on with a voice of exultation—
"But joy is sown in sadness,And hope with anxious fears;Yon clouds shall break in gladness.And doubts dissolve in tears."
Fiends increase their torments at the sight of heaven! Hildebrand threw back his cloak,—with one clenched hand he struck his forehead, and with a loud groan he rushed from the spot. He sought rest in the gloom and solitude of his chamber; but hours passed on, during which the conscience-stricken culprit endured the horrors of accumulated guilt. Sometimes he opened the casement, gazing on the dark heavens, until he thought they were peopled, and he held converse with unseen and terrible things. Inarticulate murmurs broke from his lips. A few words might occasionally be distinguished—"Murder!—An old man too—The children—they are at rest!" A gleam of pleasure passed over his haggard features.
"I am now"—looking round—"now master of all."
"All?" breathed a low voice in the chamber.
The cringing wretch was speechless. Sense almost forsook him: horror fastened on his spirit, while he turned his eyes, as if by some resistless constraint, towards the place from whence the voice had issued. Near his couch was a curiously-wrought cabinet inlaid with ivory and gems of the most costly workmanship. An heir-loom of the house, it was highly valued, and tradition reports that it was one of those spoils on which our forefathers cast a longing glance in the wars of the Holy Sepulchre. Be this as it may, every document of value connected with the family was here deposited. By virtue of the power given to him from the dying Sir Henry, though ostensibly for the benefit of his lady and her infant offspring, Hildebrand guarded the trust with a jealous eye. No one had access to it but himself, nor did he permit any other person than old Geoffery, the house-steward, to visit his chamber.
Before this cabinet stood a figure enveloped in a dark robe. Pale, deadly pale, were the features, though scarcely discernible in their form and outline. The lamp burnt dimly; but with the quickened apprehension of guilt he recognised the wan resemblance of Lady Fairfax!
A cry of exhausted anguish escaped him, and he fell senseless on the floor.
Morning had risen, casting its bright and cheerful rays into the chamber, ere Hildebrand Wentworth awoke. Consciousness but slowly returned, and the events of the preceding hours came like shadows upon his soul. He stamped thrice, and immediately the vapid countenance of Geoffery Hardpiece was before him.
"Come hither, Hardpiece. I am wondrous heavy and ill at ease."
"Why, master, your bed has not been disturbed these two nights.—How should there be anything but an aching head, and complaining bones, when"——
Hildebrand cast a hasty and confused glance towards the couch as he replied—
"I have matters of moment just now that weigh heavily on my spirit. I cannot"——
Here was a short pause; he continued, with a slow and tremulous accent—
"I hope the children are safe."
"Why, master," said Geoffery, "you have sent them out of harm's way, I hope; but—I know not what ails me—an uneasy night of it I have had about them."
"What hast thou seen?" eagerly demanded Hildebrand.
"Seen! I have seen nothing, but I have been haunted at all quarters by a vast crowd of vexatious busy dreams—about cut-throats and murderers."
"Who says murderer?—I will have thee in the stocks."
Hildebrand attempted to lay hold on him as he spoke; but, accustomed to these outbreaks of temper, Master Hardpiece merely stepped on one side, still maintaining his usual forward and self-sufficient demeanour.
"Mr Hildebrand Wentworth, when an old servant"——
"Peace!" interrupted his master,—"I am chafed beyond endurance." He struck his forehead violently, but suddenly recollecting himself, he seized Geoffery by the arm.
"What sawest thou last night, knave?"
"Only dreams, master—but"——
"Say on—what makes thee hesitate?"
"A messenger arrived last night."
"A messenger!—from whence?" eagerly demanded Hildebrand.
"Unluckily," said Geoffery, "it was shortly after you had retired for the night; I durst not then trouble you with the message. Marry, it's not the sort of news one likes to be in a hurry to tell."
"Go on, varlet."
"Why," continued the provoking simpleton, looking as if he had to reveal unpleasant tidings, and drawing back as he spoke, "the bearer is in the train of some herald or pursuivant, come from o'er sea to our court, about exchange of prisoners and the like. This man has a message from Sir Henry Fairfax."
"He lies! I'll have his tongue bored!" furiously cried Hildebrand.
"Nay, but listen: he says Sir Henry, whom we all thought dead, is now alive, and a prisoner in some ugly old German fortress."
During this recital the astonished Hildebrand clenched his hands, with a look of awful and impotent rage. Hardpiece continued—
"This coxcomb says he was sent specially by Sir Henry to obtain from you some papers of great moment, which will ensure his immediate release. He bears Sir Henry's signet, and the knave hath no lack of assurance."
"Has this fellow had any communication with the menials, Geoffery?—or hast thou done me the service to keep him and his message to thyself?" anxiously inquired Hildebrand.
"Why, as touching that, Alice, somehow or other,—for these women are always looking to anybody's business but their own,—wormed out his message in part, before I was aware of her drift."
"Alice!—Again has that viper crossed my path?—Bid the messenger attend."
When Geoffery returned he was followed by a short, muscular-looking personage, attired in a foreign garb. A military cloak, and slouched hat, garnished with a broad band and feather, gave him altogether an air of importance which his bare exterior had not sustained. On entering he made a slight obeisance. Hildebrand watched his bearing, as if he would have searched him to the heart's core. Not in the least disconcerted, the soldier threw himself on a seat. Preliminaries were waived by this unceremonious guest, who, speaking evidently in a foreign accent, began the interrogatory as follows:—
"You were the private secretary of Sir Henry Fairfax?"
"I was," briefly replied Hildebrand.
"Know you this signet?"
"I do," again he sullenly answered.
"It was given into my keeping," said the stranger, "as a token whereby Hildebrand Wentworth should, in the due exercise of his fealty and trust, commit to my charge certain documents that shall immediately be set forth. But first, and briefly, it may be needful to relate the manner in which Sir Henry recovered after your departure. On the day following the skirmish, wherein Sir Henry was supposed to be mortally wounded, he gave unto you, as his most valued and bosom friend, those solemn credentials, by which, as a dying man, he invested you with full powers to proceed to England, as the sole guardian and protector of his beloved wife and their infant offspring. The goods and effects of which he died the possessor were vested in your name, I believe, in trust for her benefit and the surviving children. I think I am right in this? In case of her death, though, I believe the property became yours."
"Such was the nature of the wound that his physicians believed a few hours only could intervene before his dissolution. He urged your immediate departure. Shortly afterwards the whole camp equipage, together with the sick and wounded, fell into the hands of his enemies. Driven off to a considerable distance up the Rhine at full speed, and without any other comforts or necessaries than what his captors could supply, his wounds bleeding afresh, and every limb racked with pain, to the astonishment of all he speedily recovered; and from that time he has remained a close prisoner in the fortress. Not receiving any tidings from his native shores, he knows not his loss. Yesternight only I heard of Lady Fairfax's most lamentable decease. In a cartel lately arrived for negotiating an exchange of prisoners, Sir Henry sends by me, secretly, as one of the envoys, a requisition for the papers I have before mentioned. His name, by some mistake, perhaps, not being included in the lists for exchange, has induced him so to act. The credentials, which he will thus be enabled through me to present, will doubtless accomplish his release, and restore him to his family and to his home. They are papers of great moment, and will set forth claims which cannot be overlooked; and I have most minute and special instructions to get them laid before the council."
"Where are these precious documents deposited?" said Hildebrand.
"An Eastern cabinet of choice and costly workmanship, containing other records of great value, stands in Sir Henry's private chamber." The envoy looked round, and his eyes rested on the cabinet. "The outer doors being opened, there are seen two ranges of drawers, with their separate mountings and compartments, each containing materials of greater or less moment. Sir Henry was minute in his directions, lest his lady might be bsent; and the innermost secrets of this goodly tabernacle not being known, save to themselves, the object of my visit might be retarded. With the permission of Hildebrand Wentworth, I will describe minutely where he may find this deposit."
Hildebrand slightly moved his head, and the speaker continued—
"From Sir Henry's description, and the tracings which he drew on the floor of his cell, I should conceive that this room contains the object of our search. I will recount the memoranda that I made, lest memory should be unfaithful. When the third cover is unclosed, in the lowest part of the recess on the right hand, beneath a sliding panel, is a spring, on touching which the whole flies back, and discovers a rare device, beautifully wrought in arabesque relief. So far, in all likelihood, you being his confidential secretary, have beheld?"
"I have seen this cunning work thou speakest of. What more?"
"Embellishing the four corners thereof is the likeness of a hand, curiously chased in silver; the second joint on the third finger of the lowest of them, on the left, being pressed, the whole picture, by marvellous sleight and artifice, riseth up, revealing the treasure of which I am in search."
"Hath Sir Henry sent no written message, that we may know his will in this matter?" inquired Hildebrand.
"It is strictly forbidden to a prisoner," replied the other, "to use tablets; but my knowledge of the secret is a sufficient safeguard against imposture."
"Retire: I will begin the search with all speed. But hold thyself in readiness for immediate departure. Thou wilt not have the worse thrift for a hasty dismissal."
The stranger withdrew, accompanied by Hardpiece. Hildebrand listened to their retreating footsteps; when, like unto one possessed, he stamped, and tore his thin grey locks, and cursed—audibly and bitterly cursed—his destiny.
"Hast thou escaped?—when the draught danced and bubbled over my parched lips. Fate—fortune, whatever thou art, I would curse thee!"
As he spoke, he lifted up one clenched hand towards heaven, laden with imprecation. And why did not that power, whose vengeance he visibly defied, launch a bolt against the impious?—Why not reader him, in that very act, a monument of just and righteous retribution?—"Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do right?" is a master-key that unlocks the mysteries and ministrations of Divine Providence, however complicated in their nature and obscure in their design.
As the hoary sinner withdrew his hand, suddenly the muscles of his face relaxed; a ray of hope had irradiated his spirit—a gleam of delight passed over his pale features. He grew calm, and with a firm step he strode across the apartment. He approached the cabinet.
"Thou shalt not escape me now!"—As he said this, he threw open the doors. Hildebrand had often searched this depository, but the place of concealment pointed out by the stranger had hitherto escaped his notice. He soon detected the stratagem—the lid flew back; but the papers of which he was in search were gone!
The spirit of mischief was again foiled, but his evil genius did not forsake him. He sat down, and, for purposes of the blackest malignity, forged a series of evidences—a development of plans and proceedings that would at once have branded Sir Henry as a coward and a traitor. These letters he sealed up, and calling for the messenger, committed the packet into his hands.
"You have Sir Henry's orders to lay these before the king?" said Hildebrand.
"I have," replied the envoy.
"Then hasten to court, and so good speed. Stay—when you meet Sir Henry Fairfax, offer him an old man's sympathy and condolence. Break the matter to him tenderly—and when he returns—I say no more. Away, thy mission hath need of despatch."
The soldier made a slight inclination of the head as he departed.
Hildebrand Wentworth sat down to reap the fruits of his villany—a harvest of his own planting. The full fruition of it he now seemed ready to enjoy; but days and weeks passed by, and still found him feverish and anxious. The fate of the children—whether the work of destruction had or had not been accomplished—was still to him a matter of uncertainty. He had often sent in search of the ruffians, but they had not been seen at their usual haunts. Guilt whispered that all was not complete. Restless and oppressed by undefined and terrible apprehensions, he resolved to end his doubts, and, if possible, procure an interview. He expected to obtain some clue to their procedings by a visit to the tower.
It was not far from the close of a bright summer's day when he gained the rude bridge below the waterfall. He shuddered as he looked on the narrow trunk and the ever-tossing gulf beneath. The blackness of darkness was upon his spirit, and he ran as if some demon had pursued him, climbing with almost breathless haste the steep and winding staircase that gave access from the bridge to the ruined fortress above.
From the platform a narrow ledge of rock led to the ditch, now dry, and nearly filled with fragments from the ruins. He passed the tottering arch of the portcullis;—long weeds choked up the entrance, waving drearily as the light breeze went over them. Hildebrand heard not the moan of the coming blast. Evening approached, and the thousand shadows haunted him,—grim spectres that crossed his path, crowding upon him with anger and menace. From a ruined doorway he ascended a narrow stair, and had penetrated far into the interior of that part of the castle which, in some measure, remained entire, when, for the first time, he seemed startled into a consciousness of his situation. It was an appalling scene of solitude and decay. The realities, to which he almost instantaneously awoke, might have awed a less guilty spirit than that which inhabited the bosom of Hildebrand Wentworth. A long gallery, supported by huge pillars, terminated in the distance by a long and narrow oriel. On each side, broken but richly-variegated windows threw down a many-tinted light, which, oppressed by the dark and caverned arches, gave a strange and mysterious character to the grotesque reflections hovering on the floor. Narrow streams of light flitted across the dense vapours, visible only in their gleam. Involuntarily did Hildebrand pass on: impelled as if by some unseen but resistless power, he durst not retrace his footsteps. His tread was slow and fearful, as he traversed the long and dreary vista. Every sense was now in full exercise;—his faculties becoming more acute by the extremity of terror he endured. His ear caught the slightest sound—his eye, the least motion that glimmered across his path. Sometimes a terrific shape seemed to glide past: he brushed the cold and clammy damps from his brow, and it vanished.
Suddenly a door opened at the extremity of the gallery, and a faint light streamed from the crevice. Voices—children's voices—were heard in the chamber. He rushed onward. Rage, frantic and uncontrolled, possessed him, as he beheld the babes, the intended victims of his avarice, in all the bloom of health and innocence, unconscious of danger, bounding through the apartment, together with their nurse and protector, Alice! Goaded by his insatiate tormentor, he drew a poniard from his vest, and rushed on the unoffending objects of his hate. Alice shrieked; she attempted to throw herself between them and their foe, but was too far off to accomplish her purpose. His arm was too sure, and his stroke too sudden. But ere the steel could pierce his victims it was arrested. He looked round, and a female figure, loosely enveloped in a dark cloak, had rescued them from death. It was the same form that had before interposed between them and the fangs of their remorseless enemy. Loosened by the sudden spring, her garment flew aside. Hildebrand gazed silently, but with a look of horror, too wild and intense to be portrayed. He seemed to recognise the intruder—his lips moved rapidly while he spoke.
"Thee!—whom the waves had swallowed! Have the waters given up their dead?"—he faintly exclaimed, almost gasping for utterance.
"Monster! canst thou look upon this form," she cried, "and not wither at the sight? But I have done," she meekly continued: "Heaven hath yet a blessing for the innocent;—but thy cup of iniquity is full. Thy doom is at hand. I have trusted Thee, O my Father; and I trust Thee still!"
It was the much injured and persecuted wife of Sir Henry Fairfax who now stood before the abashed miscreant.
"Away!" she cried; "to Heaven I leave my vengeance and thy crime. Hence—to thy home! Thine, did I say? Soon, monster, shall thou be chased from thy lair, and the wronged victim regain his right."
Hildebrand, awed and confounded, retraced his path, brooding over some more cunning stratagem to ensure his prey. He had passed the bridge, and, on attempting to remount his steed, his attention was directed to a cloud of dust, and a pale flash of arms in the evening light. Two horsemen drew nigh—their steeds studded with gouts of foam, and in an instant one of them alighted before the traitor. It was Sir Henry Fairfax! "Have I caught thee?" cried the knight.—"What mischief art thou here a-perpetrating?—Seize that villain!"
In a moment, Hildebrand was denied all chance of escape.
"Thy machinations are defeated—thy villanies revealed, and vengeance demands a hasty recompense."
Hildebrand prostrated himself on the ground in the most abject humiliation, and besought mercy.
"I will not harm thee, wretch," exclaimed the gallant knight: "to a higher power I leave the work of retribution. The ministers of justice await thee at my castle. I came hither first to seek my wife!—Lead the way; thou shalt be witness to our meeting—wife, children, all. Our bliss will to thee be misery that the most refined tortures could not inflict. On—on."
Hildebrand, with imbecile agony, grasped at the very stones for succour. He then rushed towards the bridge, and, ere his purpose could be anticipated, with one wild yell, precipitated himself into the waters!
A few lines will suffice by way of explanation to this unlooked-for termination of their sufferings.
When Lady Fairfax fled from the castle, in order to elude his search,—for Hildebrand had the audacity to threaten by force to make her his wife,—she threw off her cloak and head-dress, laying them on the river's brink that it might appear as though she had accomplished her own destruction. To the care of the faithful Alice she had committed her children, and likewise the secret of her concealment. Alice was in continual correspondence with her unfortunate mistress; and great was the joy and exultation with which she communicated the arrival of a messenger from her lord, whom she had long mourned as dead. Providentially, no interview took place between Hildebrand and the stranger on the night of his arrival; and sufficient time intervened to enable Lady Fairfax to make a desperate attempt, in the hope of gaining possession of the papers for which he had been sent. She well knew Hildebrand would not relinquish the possession of credentials that might ensure his lord's return. It was Lady Fairfax who had alarmed him the same night by her appearance in his chamber. She hoped to have found him asleep; but was enabled to get possession of the writings through his timidity and surprise. With these she met the envoy, as he was returning from the castle. Disclosing all the tortuous and daring villany of Hildebrand, she committed the real documents to his care, instructing him at the same time to lay before her sovereign the narrative of her wrongs. Soon was the captivity of Sir Henry terminated; and joy, heightened by recollection of the past, and chastened by the severity of their misfortunes, attended them through the remainder of their earthly career.