Bearnshaw Tower and Lady Sybil
The 17th century Bearnshaw Tower (or Bernshaw Tower) is said to have collapsed in the 1860’s when its foundations were dug away by people hunting for hidden treasure. This pele tower though is best known for its association with a witch, Lady Sybil, who’s story below appeared in ‘Lancashire Legends’ (1873) by John Harland & T T Wilkinson.
Bernshaw Tower, formerly a small fortified house, is now in ruins, little else than the foundations being visible above the surface. It stood: in one of the many beautiful ravines branching off from the great gorge of Cliviger, about five miles from Burnley, and not far from the noted Eagle’s Crag. Its last owner, and heiress, was celebrated for her wealth and beauty: she was intellectual beyond most of her sex, and frequently visited the Eagle’s Crag in order to study nature and admire the varied aspects of the surrounding country. On these occasions she often felt a strong desire to possess supernatural powers; and, in an unguarded moment, was induced to sell her soul to the devil in order that she might be able to join in the nightly revelries of the then famous Lancashire Witches. The bond was duly attested with her blood, and her utmost wishes were at all times fulfilled.
Hapton Tower was then occupied by a junior branch of the Towneley family, and “Lord William” had long been a suitor for the hand of “Lady Sybil” of Bernshaw Tower, but his proposals were constantly rejected. In despair he had recourse to a famous Lancashire witch, one Mother Helston, and after using many spells and incantations, she promised him success on the next All-Hallow’s Eve. On that day he went out hunting, according to her directions, when, on nearing Eagle’s Crag, he started a milk-white doe, and his dogs immediately gave chase. They scoured the country for many miles, and, at last, when the hounds were nearly exhausted, they again approached the Crag. A strange hound then joined them, which Lord William knew full well. It was the familiar of Mother Helston, which had been sent to capture Lady Sybil, who had assumed the disguise of the white doe. On passing the Crag, Lord William’s horse had well-nigh thrown its rider down the fearful abyss; but just as the doe was making for the next precipice, the strange hound seized her by the throat and held her fast, until Lord William threw an enchanted silken leash around her neck, and led her in triumph to Hapton Tower. During the night the Tower was shaken as by an earthquake, and in the morning the captured doe appeared as the fair heiress of Bernshaw. Counter-spells were adopted — her powers of witchcraft were suspended and soon Lord William had the happiness to lead his newly-wedded bride to his ancestral home. Within a year, however, she had renewed her diabolical practices, and whilst enjoying a frolic in Cliviger Mill, under the form of a beautiful white cat, she had one paw cut off by the manservant, Robin, who had been set to watch by Giles Robinson, the miller. Next morning Lady Sybil was found at home in bed, pale and exhausted, but Robin’s presence at the Tower, with a lady’s hand, soon dispelled the mystery of her sudden indisposition. The owner of the hand, with its costly signet ring, was soon detected, and many angry expostulations from her husband followed. By means of some diabolical process the hand was restored to Lady Sybil’s arm; but a red mark round the wrist bore witness to the sharpness of Robin’s whittle. A reconciliation with her offended husband was afterwards effected; but her bodily strength gave way, and her health rapidly declined. On the approach of death the services of the neighbouring clergy were requested, and by their assistance the devil’s bond was cancelled. Lady Sybil soon died in peace, but Bernshaw Tower was ever after deserted. As Mr Roby truly observes, popular tradition “still alleges that her grave was dug where the dark Eagle Crag shoots out its cold, bare peak into the sky; and on the eve of All-Hallows, the hound and the milk-white doe meet on the crag a spectre huntsman in full chase. The belated peasant crosses himself at the sound, as he remembers the fate of the Witch of Bernshaw Tower.”
Originally owned by the Lomax family, the tower did pass into the hands of the Towneley family of Towneley, though this was probably through a sale, not through a member of the family marrying a witch. It was at one time in the possession of Lady Emily Gordon Lennox (nee Towneley), wife of Alexander Francis Charles Gordon-Lennox (1825 – 1892) whom she married in 1863.
Harland and Wilkinson above refer to John Roby’s ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ (1872) who’s version of the Bernshaw Tower follows. ‘On the verge of the Castle Clough, a deep and winding dingle, once shaded with venerable oaks, are the small remains of the Castle of Hapton, the seat of its ancient lords, and, till the erection of Hapton Tower, the occasional residence of the De la Leghs and Townleys. Hapton Tower is now destroyed to its foundation. It was a large square building, and about a hundred years ago presented the remains of three cylindrical towers with conical basements. It also appears to have had two principal entrances opposite to each other, with a thorough lobby between, and seems not to have been built in the usual form,–that of a quadrangle. It was erected about the year 1510, and was inhabited until 1667. The family-name of the nobleman–for such he appears to have been–of whom the following story is told, we have no means of ascertaining. That he was an occasional resident or visitor at the Tower is but surmise. During the period of these dark transactions we find that the mansion was inhabited by Jane Assheton, relict of Richard Townley, who died in the year 1637. Whoever he might be, the following horrible event, arising out of this superstition, attaches to his memory. Whether it can be attributed to the operations of a mind just bordering on insanity, and highly wrought upon by existing delusions,–or must be classed amongst the proofs, so abundantly furnished by all believers in the reality of witchcraft and demoniacal possession, our readers must determine as we unfold the tale.
Lord William had seen, and had openly vowed to win, the proud maiden of Bernshaw Tower. He did win her, but he did not woo her. A dark and appalling secret was connected with their union, which we shall briefly develop.
Lady Sibyl, “the proud maiden of Bernshaw,” was from her youth the creature of impulse and imagination–a child of nature and romance. She roved unchecked through the green valleys and among the glens and moorlands of her native hills; every nook and streamlet was associated with some hidden thought “too deep for tears,” until Nature became her god,–the hills and fastnesses, the trackless wilds and mountains, her companions. With them alone she held communion; and as she watched the soft shadows and the white clouds take their quiet path upon the hills, she beheld in them the symbols of her own ideas,–the images and reflections,–the hidden world within her made visible. She felt no sympathy with the realities–the commonplaces of life; her thoughts were too aspiring for earth, yet found not their resting-place in heaven! It was no grovelling, degrading superstition which actuated her: she sighed for powers above her species,–she aspired to hold intercourse with beings of a superior nature. She would gaze for hours in wild delirium on the blue sky and starry vault, and wish she were freed from the base encumbrances of earth, that she might shine out among those glorious intelligences in regions without a shadow or a cloud. Imagination was her solace and her curse; she flew to it for relief as the drunkard to his cup, sparkling and intoxicating for a while, but its dregs were bitterness and despair. Soon her world of imagination began to quicken; and, as the wind came sighing through her dark ringlets, or rustling over the dry grass and heather bushes at her side, she thought a spirit spoke, or a celestial messenger crossed her path. The unholy rites of the witches were familiar to her ear, but she spurned their vulgar and low ambition; she panted for communion with beings more exalted–demigods and immortals, of whom she had heard as having been translated to those happier skies, forming the glorious constellations she beheld. Sometimes fancies wild and horrible assaulted her; she then shut herself for days in her own chamber, and was heard as though in converse with invisible things. When freed from this hallucination, agony was marked on her brow, and her cheek was more than usually pale and collapsed. She would then wander forth again:–the mountain-breeze reanimated her spirits, and imagination again became pleasant unto her. She heard the wild swans winging their way above her, and she thought of the wild hunters and the spectre-horseman: the short wail of the curlew, the call of the moor-cock and plover, was the voice of her beloved. To her all nature wore a charmed life: earth and sky were but creatures formed for her use, and the ministers of her pleasure.
The Tower of Bernshaw was a small fortified house in the pass over the hills from Burnley to Todmorden. It stood within a short distance from the Eagle Crag; and the Lady Sibyl would often climb to the utmost verge of that overhanging peak, looking from its dizzy height until her soul expanded, and her thoughts took their flight through those dim regions where the eye could not penetrate.
One evening she had lingered longer than usual: she felt unwilling to depart–to meet again the dull and wearisome realities of life—the petty cares that interest and animate mankind. She loathed her own form and her own species:–earth was too narrow for her desire, and she almost longed to burst its barriers. In the deep agony of her spirit she cried aloud–
“Would that my path, like yon clouds, were on the wind, and my dwelling-place in their bosom!”
A soft breeze came suddenly towards her, rustling the dry heath as it swept along. The grass bent beneath its footsteps, and it seemed to die away in articulate murmurs at her feet. Terror crept upon her, her bosom thrilled, and her whole frame was pervaded by some subtle and mysterious influence.
“Who art thou?” she whispered, as though to some invisible agent. She listened, but there was no reply; the same soft wind suddenly arose, and crept to her bosom.
“Who art thou?” she inquired again, but in a louder tone. The breeze again flapped its wings, mantling upwards from where it lay, as if nestled on her breast. It mounted lightly to her cheek, but it felt hot–almost scorching–when the maiden cried out as before. It fluttered on her ear, and she thought there came a whisper–
“I am thy good spirit.”
“Oh, tell me,” she cried with vehemence: “show me who thou art!”–a mist curled round her, and a lambent flame, like the soft lightning of a summer’s night, shot from it. She saw a form, glorious but indistinct, and the flashes grew paler every moment.
“Leave me not,” she cried; “I will be thine!”
Then the cloud passed away, and a being stood before her, mightier and more stately than the sons of men. A burning fillet was on his brow, and his eyes glowed with an ever-restless flame.
“Maiden, I come at thy wish. Speak!–what is thy desire.”
“Let thought be motion;–let my will only be the boundary of my power,” said she, nothing daunted; for her mind had become too familiar with invisible fancies, and her ambition too boundless to feel either awe or alarm. Immediately she felt as though she were sweeping through the trackless air,–she heard the rush of mighty wings cleaving the sky,–she thought the whole world lay at her feet, and the kingdoms of the earth moved on like a mighty pageant. Then did the vision change. Objects began to waver and grow dim, as if passing through a mist; and she found herself again upon that lonely crag, and her conductor at her side. He grasped her hand: she felt his burning touch, and a sudden smart as though she were stung–a drop of blood hung on her finger. He unbound the burning fillet, and she saw as though it were a glimpse of that unquenchable, unconsuming flame that devoured him. He took the blood and wrote upon her brow. The agony was intense, and a faint shriek escaped her. He spoke, but the sound rang in her ears like the knell of
hopes for ever departed.
For words of such presumptuous blasphemy, tradition must be voiceless. The demon looked upwards; but, as if blasted by some withering sight, his eyes were suddenly withdrawn.
What homage was exacted, let no one seek to know.
After a pause, the deceiver again addressed her; and his form changed as he spoke.
“One day in the year alone thou shalt be subject to mischance. It is the feast of All-Hallows, when the witches meet to renew their vows. On this night thou must be as they, and must join their company. Still thou mayest hide thyself under any form thou shalt choose; but it shall abide upon thee until midnight. Till then thy spells are powerless. On no other day shall harm befall thee.”
The maiden felt her pride dilate:–her weak and common nature she thought was no longer a degradation; she seemed as though she could bound through infinite space. Already was she invested with the attributes of immateriality, when she awoke!–and in her own chamber, whither the servants had conveyed her from the crag an hour before, having found her asleep, or in a swoon, upon the verge of the precipice. She looked at her hand; the sharp wound was there, and she felt her brow tingle as if to remind her of that irrevocable pledge.
Lord William sued in vain to the maid of Bernshaw Tower. She repulsed him with scorn and contumely. He vowed that he would win her, though the powers of darkness withstood the attempt. To accomplish this impious purpose, he sought Mause, the witch’s dwelling. It was a dreary hut, built in a rocky cleft, shunned by all as the abode of wicked and malignant spirits, which the dame kept and nursed as familiars, for the fulfilment of her malicious will.
The night was dark and heavy when Lord William tied his steed to a rude gate that guarded the entrance to the witch’s den. He raised the latch, but there was no light within.
“Holloa!” cried the courageous intruder; but all was dark and silent as before. Just as he was about to depart he thought he heard a rustling near him, and presently the croaking voice of the hag close at his ear.
“Lord William,” said she, “thou art a bold man to come hither after nightfall.”
He felt something startled, but he swerved not from his purpose.
“Can’st help me to a bride, Mother Helston?” cried he, in a firm voice; “for I feel mightily constrained to wed!”
“Is the doomed maiden of Bernshaw a bride fit for Lord William’s bosom?” said the invisible sorceress.
“Give me some charm to win her consent,–I care not for the rest.”
“Charm!” replied the beldame, with a screech that made Lord William start back. “Spells have I none that can bind her. I would she were in my power; but she hath spell for spell. Nought would avail thee, for she is beyond my reach; her power would baffle mine?”
“Is she too tainted with the iniquity that is abroad?”
“I tell thee yea; and my spirit must bow to hers. Wouldst wed her now–fond, feeble-hearted mortal?”
Lord William was silent; but the beautiful form of the maiden seemed to pass before him, and he loved her with such overmastering vehemence that if Satan himself had stood in the gap he would not have shrunk from his purpose.
“Mause Helston,” said the lover, “if thou wilt help me at this bout, I will not draw back. I dare wed her though she were twice the thing thou fearest. Tell me how her spell works,–I will countervail it,— I will break that accursed charm, and she shall be my bride!”
For a while there was no reply; but he heard a muttering as though some consultation were going on.
“Listen, Lord William,” she spoke aloud. “Ay, thou wilt listen to thine own jeopardy! Once in the year–’tis on the night of All-Hallows—she may be overcome. But it is a perilous attempt!”
“I care not. Point out the way, and I will ride it rough-shod!”
The beldame arose from her couch, and struck a light. Ere they separated the morning dawned high above the grey hills. Many rites and incantations were performed, of which we forbear the disgusting recital. The instructions he received were never divulged; the secrets of that night were never known; but an altered man was Lord William when he came back to Hapton Tower.
On All-Hallows’ day, with a numerous train, he went forth a-hunting. His hounds were the fleetest from Calder to Calder; and his horns the shrillest through the wide forests of Accrington and Rossendale. But on that morning a strange hound joined the pack that outstripped them all.
“Blow,” cried Lord William, “till the loud echoes ring, and the fleet hounds o’ertake yon grizzled mongrel.”
Both horses and dogs were driven to their utmost speed, but the strange hound still kept ahead. Over moor and fell they still rushed on, the hounds in full cry, though as yet guided only by the scent, the object of their pursuit not being visible. Suddenly a white doe was seen, distant a few yards only, and bounding away from them at full speed. She might have risen out of the ground, so immediate was her appearance. On they went in full view, but the deer was swift, and she seemed to wind and double with great dexterity. Her bearing was evidently towards the steep crags on the east. They passed the Tower of Bernshaw, and were fast approaching the verge of that tremendous precipice, the “Eagle Crag.” Horse and rider must inevitably perish if they follow. But Lord William slackened not in the pursuit; and the deer flew straight as an arrow to its mark,–the very point where the crag jutted out over the gulf below. The huntsmen drew back in terror; the dogs were still in chase, though at some distance behind;–Lord William only and the strange hound were close upon her track. Beyond the crag nothing was visible but cloud and sky, showing the fearful height and abruptness of the descent. One moment, and the gulf must be shot:–his brain felt dizzy, but his heart was resolute.
“Mause, my wench,” said he, “my neck or thine!–Hie thee; if she’s over, we are lost!”
Lord William’s steed followed in the hound’s footsteps to a hair. The deer was almost within her last spring, when the hound, with a loud yell, doubled her, scarcely a yard’s breadth from the long bare neb of that fearful peak, and she turned with inconceivable speed so near the verge that Lord William, in wheeling round, heard a fragment of rock, loosened by the stroke from his horse’s hoof, roll down the precipice with a frightful crash. The sudden whirl had nearly brought him to the ground, but he recovered his position with great adroitness. A loud shriek announced the capture. The cruel hound held the deer by the throat, and they were struggling together on the green earth. With threats and curses he lashed away the ferocious beast, who growled fiercely at being driven from her prey. With looks of sullenness and menace, she scampered off, leaving Lord William to secure the victim. He drew a silken noose from his saddle-bow, and threw it over the pantingdeer, who followed quietly on to his dwelling at Hapton Tower.
At midnight there was heard a wild and unearthly shriek from the high turret, so pitiful and shrill that the inmates awoke in great alarm. The loud roar of the wind came on like a thunder-clap. The tempest flapped its wings, and its giant arms rocked the turret like a cradle. At this hour Lord William, with a wild and haggard eye, left his chamber. The last stroke of the midnight bell trembled on his ear as he entered the western tower. A maiden sat there, a silken noose was about her head, and she sobbed loud and heavily. She wrung her white hands at his approach.
“Thy spells have been o’ermastered. Henceforth I renounce these unholy rites; I would not pass nights of horror and days of dread any longer. Maiden, thou art in my power. Unless thou wilt be mine,–renouncing thine impious vows,–for ever shunning thy detested arts,–breaking that accursed chain the enemy has wound about thee,–I will deliver thee up to thy tormentors, and those that seek thy destruction. This done, and thou art free.”
The maiden threw her snake-like glance upon him.
“Alas!” she cried, “I am not free. This magic noose! remove it, and my promise shall be without constraint.”
“Nay, thou arch-deceiver,–deceiver of thine own self, and plotter of thine own ruin,–I would save thee from thy doom. Promise, renounce, and for ever forswear thy vows. The priest will absolve thee; it must be done ere I unbind that chain.”
“I promise,” said the maiden, after a deep and unbroken silence. “I have not been happy since I knew their power. I may yet worship this fair earth and yon boundless sky. This heart would be void without an object and a possession!”
She shed no tear until the holy man, with awful and solemn denunciations, exorcised the unclean spirit to whom she was bound. He
admonished her, as a repentant wanderer from the flock, to shun the perils of presumption, reminding her that HE, of whom it is written that He was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be _tempted_ of the devil,–HE who won for us the victory in that conflict, taught _us_ in praying to say, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” She was rebaptized as one newly born, and committed again to the keeping of the Holy Church. Shortly afterwards were united at the altar Lord William and Lady Sibyl. He accompanied her to Bernshaw Tower, their future residence,–becoming, in right of his wife, the sole possessor of those domains.
Twelve months were nigh come and gone, and the feast of All-Hallows was again at hand. Lord William’s bride sat in her lonely bower, but her face was pale, and her eyes red with weeping. The tempter had been there; and she had not sought for protection against his snares. That night she was expected to renew her allegiance to the prince of darkness. Those fearful rites must now bind her for ever to his will. Such appeared to be her infatuation that it led her to imagine she was yet his by right of purchase, without being fully conscious of the impiety of that thought. His own power had been promised to her: true, she must die; but might she not, a spirit like himself, rove from world to world without restraint? She thought–so perilously rapid was her relapse and her delusion–that his form had again passed before her, beautiful as before his transgression!–“The Son of the Morning!” arrayed in the majesty which he had before the world was,–ere heaven’s Ruler had hurled him from his throne. Her mental vision was perverted. Light and darkness, good and evil, were no longer distinguished. Perhaps it was a dream; but the imagination had becomed diseased, and she distinguished not its inward operations from outward impressions on the sense. Her husband was kind, and loved her with a lover’s fondness, but she could not return his affection. He saw her unhappy, and he administered comfort; but the source of her misery was in himself, and she sighed to be free?
“Free!”–she started; the voice was an echo to her thought. It appeared to be in the chamber, but she saw no living form. She had vowed to renounce the devil and all his works in her rebaptism, before she was led to the altar, and how could she face her husband?
“He shall not know of our compact.”
These words seemed to be whispered in her ear. She turned aside; but saw nothing save the glow of sunset through the lattice, and a wavering light upon the floor.
“I would spare him this misery,” she sighed. “Conceal but the secret from him, and I am again thine!”
Suddenly the well-known form of her familiar was at her side.
The following day was All-Hallows-e’en, and her allegiance must be renewed in the great assembly of his subjects held on that fearful night.
It was in the year 1632, a period well known in history as having led to the apprehension of a considerable number of persons accused of witchcraft. The depositions of these miserable creatures were taken before Richard Shuttleworth and John Starkie, two of his Majesty’s justices of the peace, on the 10th of February 1633; and they were committed to Lancaster Castle for trial.
Seventeen of them were found guilty, on evidence suspicious enough under ordinary circumstances, but not at all to be wondered at, if we consider the feeling and excitement then abroad. Some of the deluded victims themselves confessed their crime, giving minute and connected statementsof their meetings, and the transactions which then took place. Justices of the peace, judges, and the highest dignitaries of the realm, firmly believed in these reputed sorceries. Even the great Sir Thomas Brown, author of the book intended as an exposure of “Vulgar Errors,” gave his testimony to the truth and reality of those diabolical delusions. But we have little need to wonder at the superstition of past ages, when we look at the folly and credulity of our own.
It may, perhaps, be pleasing to learn that the judge who presided at the trial respited the convicts, and reported their case to the king in council. They were next remitted to Chester, where Bishop Bridgeman, certifying his opinion of the matter, four of the accused—Margaret Johnson, Frances Dickisson, Mary Spencer, and the wife of one Hargreaves–were sent to London and examined, first by the king’s physicians, and afterwards by Charles I. in person. “A stranger scene can scarcely be perceived,” says the historian of Whalley; “and it is not easy to imagine whether the untaught manners, rude dialect, and uncouth appearance of these poor foresters would more astonish the king; or his dignity of person and manners, together with the splendid scene by which they were surrounded, would overwhelm them.”
The story made so much noise that plays were written on the subject, and enacted. One of them is entitled, “The late Lancashire Witches, a well-received Comedy, lately acted at the Globe on the Bank-side, by the King’s Majesty’s Actors. Written by Thomas Haywood and Richard Broom. _Aut prodesse solent, aut delectare_, 1634.”
But our element is tradition, especially as illustrating ancient manners and superstitions; we therefore give the sequel of our tale as tradition hath preserved it.
Giles Dickisson, the merry miller at the Mill Clough, had so taken to heart his wife’s dishonesty that, as we have before observed, he grew fretful and morose. His mill he vowed was infested with a whole legion of these “hell-cats,” as they were called; for in this shape they presented themselves to the affrighted eyes of the miserable yoke-fellow, as he fancied himself, to a limb of Satan. The yells and screeches he heard o’nights from these witches and warlocks were unbearable; and once or twice, when late at the mill, both he and Robin had received some palpable tokens of their presence. Scratches and bloody marks were plainly visible, and every hour brought with it some new source of annoyance or alarm.
One morning Giles showed himself with a disconsolate face before Lord William at the Tower; he could bear his condition no longer.
“T’other night,” said he, “the witches set me astride o’ t’ riggin’ o’ my own house. It was a bitter cold time, an’ I was nearly perished when I wakened. I am weary of my life, and will flit; for this country, the deil, I do think, holds in his own special keeping!”
Then Robin stept forward, offering to take the mill on his master’s quittance. He cared not, he said, for all the witch-women in the parish. He had “fettled” one of them, and, by his Maker’s help, he hoped fairly to drive them off the field. The bargain was struck, and Robin that day entered into possession.
By a strange coincidence, this transaction happened on the eve of All-Hallows before mentioned; and Lord William requested that Robin would on that night keep watch. His courage, he said, would help him through; and if he could rid the mill of them, the Baron promised him a year’s rent, and a good largess besides. Robin was fain of the offer, and prepared himself for the strife, determined, if possible, to eject these ugly vermin from the premises.
On this same night, soon after sunset, the lady of Bernshaw Tower went forth, leaving her lord in a deep sleep, the effect, as it was supposed, of her own spells. Ere she departed, every symbol or token of grace was laid aside;–her rosary was unbound. She drew a glove from her hand, and in it was the bridle ring, which she threw from her,–when the flame of the lamp suddenly expired. It was in her little toilet-chamber, where she had paused, that she might pursue her meditations undisturbed. Her allegiance must be renewed, and revoked no more; but her pride, that darling sin for which she raised her soul, must first suffer. On that night she must be guided by the same laws, and subjected to the same degrading influence, as her fellow-subjects. At least once a year this condition must be fulfilled:–all rank and distinction being lost, the vassals were alike equal in subordination to their chief. On this night, too, the rights of initiation were usually administered.
The time drew nigh, and the Lady Sibyl, intending to conceal the glove with the sacred symbol, passed her hand on the table where it had lain–but it was gone!
In a vast hollow, nearly surrounded by crags and precipices, bare and inaccessible, the meeting was assembled, and the lady of the Tower was to be restored to their communion. Gliding like a shadow, came in the wife of Lord William,–pale, and her tresses dishevelled, she seemed the victim either of disease or insanity.
Under a tottering and blasted pine sat their chief, in a human form; his stature lofty and commanding, he appeared as a ruler even in this narrow sphere of his dominion. Yet he looked round with a glance of mockery and scorn. He was fallen, and he felt degraded; but his aim was to mar the glorious image of his Maker, and trample it beneath his feet.
A crowd of miserable and deluded beings came at the beck of their chief, each accompanied by her familiar. But the lady of Bernshaw came alone. Her act of renouncement had deprived her of this privilege.
The mandate having been proclaimed, and the preliminary rites to this fearful act of reprobation performed, the assembly waited for the concluding act–the cruel and appalling trial: one touch of his finger was to pass upon her brow,–the impress, the mark of the beast,–the sign that was to snatch her from the reach of mercy! Her spirit shuddered;–nature shrank from the unholy contact. Once more she looked towards that heaven she was about to forfeit,–and for ever!
“For ever!”–the words rang in her ears; their sound was like the knell of her everlasting hope. She started aside, as though she felt a horrid and scorching breath upon her cheek, as though she already felt their unutterable import in the abysses of woe!
Conscience, long slumbering, seemed to awake; she was seized with the anguish of despair! It seemed as though judgment were passed, and she was doomed to wander like some rayless orb in the blackness of darkness for ever. One fearful undefined form of terror was before her; one consciousness of offence ever present; all idea of past and future absorbed in one ever-during NOW, she felt that her misery was too heavy to sustain. A groan escaped her lips, but it was an appeal to that power for deliverance, who is not slow to hear, “nor impotent to save.” Suddenly she was roused from some deep and overpowering hallucination; the promises of unlimited gratification to every wish prevailed no more, the tempter’s charm was broken. All was changed; the whole scene seemed to vanish; and that form, which once appeared to her like an angel of light, fell prostrate, writhing away in terrific and tortuous folds on the hissing earth. The crowd scattered with a fearful yell;–she heard a rush of wings, and a loud and dissonant scream,–and the “Bride of Bernshaw” fell senseless to the ground.
We leave the conscience-stricken victim whilst we relate the result of Robin’s watch-night at the mill.
He lay awake until midnight, but there was no disturbance; nothing was heard but the plash of the mill-stream, and the dripping ooze from the rocks. His old enemies, no doubt, were intimidated, and he was about commencing a snug nap on the idea–when, lo! there came a great rush of wind. He heard it booming on from a vast distance, until it seemed to sweep over the building in one wide resistless torrent that might have levelled the stoutest edifice;–yet was the mill unharmed by the attack. Then came shrieks and yells, mingled with the most horrid imprecations. Swift as thought, there rushed upon him a prodigious company of cats, bats, and all manner of hideous things, that scratched and pinched him, as he afterwards declared, until his flesh verily “reeked” again. Maddened by the torment, he began to lay about him lustily with a long whittle which he carried for domestic purposes. They gave back at so unexpected a reception. Taking courage thereby, Robin followed, and they fled, helter-skelter, like a routed army. Through loop-holes and windows went the obscene crew, with such hideous screeches as startled the whole neighbourhood. He gave one last desperate lunge as a parting remembrance, and felt that his weapon had made a hit. Something fell on the floor, but the light was extinguished in the scuffle, and in vain he attempted to grope out this trophy of his valour.
“I’ve sliced off a leg or a wing,” thought he, “and I may lay hold on it in the morning.”
All was now quiet, and Robin, to his great comfort, was left without further molestation.
Morning dawned bright and cheerful on the grey battlements of Bernshaw Tower; the sun came out joyously over the hills; but Lord William walked forth with an anxious and gloomy countenance. His wife had feigned illness, and the old nurse had tended her through the night in a separate chamber. This was the story he had learnt on finding her absent when he awoke. Early presenting himself at the door, he was refused admission. She was ill–very ill. The lady was fallen asleep, and might not be disturbed: such was the answer he received. Rising over the hill, he now saw the gaunt ungainly form of Robin, his new tenant, approaching in great haste with a bundle under his arm.
“What news from the mill, my stout warrior of the north?” said Lord William.
“I think I payed one on ’em, your worship,” said Robin, taking the bundle in his hand. “Not a cat said mew when they felt my whittle.
Marry, I spoilt their catterwauling: I’ve cut a rare shive!”
“How didst fare last night with thy wenches?” inquired the other.
“I’ve mended their manners for a while, I guess. As I peeped about betimes this morning, I found–a paw! If cats are bred with hands and gowden rings on their fingers, they shall e’en ha’ sporting-room i’ the mill! No bad luck, methinks.”
Robin uncovered the prize, and drew out a bleeding hand, mangled at the wrist, and blackened as if by fire; one finger decorated with a ring, which Lord William too plainly recognised. He seized the terrific pledge, and, with a look betokening some deadly purpose, hastened to his wife’s chamber. He demanded admittance in too peremptory a tone for denial. His features were still, not a ripple marked the disturbance beneath. He stood with a calm and tranquil brow by her bed-side; but she read a fearful message in his eye.
“Fair lady, how farest thou?–I do fear me thou art ill!”
“She’s sick, and in great danger. You may not disturb her, my lord,” said the nurse, attempting to prevent his too near approach;–“I pray you depart; your presence afflicts her sorely.”
“Ay, and so it does,” said Lord William, with a strange and hideous
laugh. “I pray thee, lady, let me play the doctor,–hold out thy hand.”
The lady was still silent. She turned away her head. His glance was too withering to endure.
“Nay, then, I must constrain thee, dame.”
She drew out her hand, which Lord William seized with a violent and convulsive grasp.
“I fear me ’tis a sickness unto death; small hope of amendment here. Give me the other; perchance I may find there more comfort.”
“Oh, my husband, I cannot;–I am–I have no strength.”
“Why, thou art grown peevish with thy distemper. Since ’tis so, I must e’en force thy stubborn will.”
“Alas! I cannot.”
“If not thy hand, show me thy wrist!–I have here a match to it, methinks. O earth–earth–hide me in thy womb!–let the darkness blot me out and this blasting testimony for ever!–Accursed hag, what hast thou done?”
He seized her by the hair.
“What hast thou promised the fiend? Tell me,–or”–
“I have, oh, I fear I have,–consented to the compact!”
“How far doth it bind thee?”
“My soul–my better part!”
“Thy better part?–thy worse! A loathsome ulcer, reeking with the stench from the pit! Better have given thy body to the stake, than have let in one unhallowed desire upon thy soul. How far does thy contract reach?”
“All interest I can claim. His part that created it I could not give, not being mine to yield.”
“Lost! lost! Thou hast, indeed, sold thyself to perdition! I’ll purge this earth of witchery;–I’ll make their carcases my weapon’s sheath;–hence inglorious scabbard!” He flung away the sheath. Twining her dark hair about his fingers–“Die!–impious, polluted wretch! This blessed earth loathes thee,–the grave’s holy sanctuary will cast thee out! Yon glorious sun would smite thee should I refrain!”
He raised his sword–a gleam of triumph seemed to flash from her eye, as though she were eager for the blow; but the descending weapon was stayed, and by no timid hand.
Lord William turned, yet he saw not the cause of its restraint. The lady alone seemed to be aware of some unseen intruder, and her eye darkened with apprehension. Suddenly she sprang from the couch; a shriek from no human agency escaped her, and the spirit seemed to have passed from its abode.
Lord William threw himself on her pale and inanimate form.
“Farewell!” he cried: “I had thought thee honest!–Nay, lost spirit, I must not say farewell!”
He gazed on his once-loved bride with a look of such unutterable tenderness that the heart’s deep gush burst from his eyes, and he wept in that almost unendurable anguish. The sight was too harrowing to sustain. He was about to withdraw, when a convulsive tremor passed across her features–a trembling like the undulation of the breeze rippling the smooth bosom of the lake; a sigh seemed to labour heavily from her breast; her eyes opened; but as though yet struggling under the influence of some terrific dream, she cried–
“Oh, save me–save me!” She looked upwards: it was as if the light of heaven had suddenly shone in upon her benighted soul.
“Lost, saidst thou, accursed fiend?–Never until his power shall yield to thine!”
Yet she shuddered, as though the appalling shadow were still upon her spirit.–“Nay, ’twas but a dream.”
“Dreams!” cried Lord William, recovering from a look of speechless amazement. “Thy dreams are more akin to truth than ever were thy waking reveries.”
“Nay, my Lord, look not so unkindly on me–I will tell thee all. I dreamt that I was possessed, and this body was the dwelling of a demon. It was permitted as a punishment for my transgressions; for I had sought communion with the fiend. I was the companion of witches–foul and abominable shapes;–a beastly crew, with whom I was doomed to associate. Hellish rites and deeds, too horrible to name, were perpetrated. As a witness of my degradation, methought my right hand was withered. I feel it still! Yet–surely ’twas a dream!”
She raised her hand, gazing earnestly on it, which, to Lord William’s amazement, appeared whole as before, save a slight mark round the wrist, but the ring was not there.
“What can this betide?” said the trembling sufferer. She looked suspiciously on this apparent confirmation of her guilt, and then upon
her husband. “Oh, tell me that I did but dream!”
But Lord William spoke not.
“I know it all now!” she said, with a heavy sob. “My crime is punished; and I loathe my own form, for it is polluted. Yet the whole has passed but as some horrible dream–and I am free! This tabernacle is cleansed; no more shall it be defiled; for to Thee do I render up my trust.”
A mild radiance had displaced the wild and unnatural lustre of her eye, as she looked up to the mercy she invoked, and was forgiven.
Her spirit was permitted but a brief sojourn in this region of sorrow. Ere another sun, her head hung lifeless on Lord William’s bosom;–he had pressed her to his heart in token of forgiveness; but he held only the cold and clammy shrine–the idol had departed!
According to the popular solution of this fearful mystery, a demon or familiar had reanimated her form while she lay senseless at the sudden and unlooked-for dissolution of the witches’ assembly. In this shape the imp had joined the rendezvous at the mill, and fleeing from the effects of Robin’s valour, maliciously hoped that Lord William would execute a swift vengeance on his erring bride. But his hand was stayed by another and more merciful power, and the demon was cast out.
The ring and glove were not found. It was said that Mause Helston had taken them as a gage of fealty, and dying about the same period, was denied the rites of Christian burial. Hence may have arisen the belief which tradition has preserved respecting the Lady Sibyl.
Popular superstition still alleges that her grave was dug where the dark “Eagle Crag” shoots out its cold bare peak into the sky. Often, it is said, on the eve of All-Hallows, do the hound and the milk-white doe meet on the crag–a spectre huntsman in full chase. The belated peasant crosses himself at the sound as he remembers the fate of “The Witch of Bernshaw Tower.”