Buckley Hall Prison now stands on the site of the original mansion house named Buckley Hall from which it no doubt gets its name. Buckley Hall which dated from at least the early 17th century was eventually modified and opened as an orphanage in 1887 after the previous owner died. The building was demolished in 1947 and the prison that replaced it was opened in 1966. There is a strange tale associated with Buckley Hall and Blackstone Edge which was published in Traditions of Lancashire, Volume 2 by John Roby (1872) and entitled ‘Mother Red Cap or the Rosicrucians’. This story appears below in two parts.
PART THE FIRST.
In the wild and mountainous region of East Lancashire, at the foot of the long line of hills called Blackstonedge, and not far from the town of Rochdale, stood one of those old grim-looking mansions, the abode of our Saxon ancestors; a quiet, sheltered nest, where ages and generations had alike passed by. The wave of time had produced no change; the name and the inheritance were the same, and seemingly destined to continue unaltered by the mutations, the common lot of all that man labours to perpetuate. This state of things existed at the date of our story; now, alas! the race of its former possessors is extinct, their name only remains a relic of things that were—their former mansion standing as if in mockery, amidst the hum of wheels, and in melancholy contrast with the toil and animation of this manufacturing, money-getting district.
Buckley Hall, to which we allude, is still an object of interest to the antiquary and the lover of romance, telling of days that are for ever departed, when the lords of these paternal acres were the occupants, not impoverishers, of the soil from unrecorded ages—constituting a tribe, a race of sturdy yeomanry attached to their country and to the lands on which they dwelt. But they are nigh extinct—other habits and other pursuits have prevailed. Profuse hospitality and rude benevolence have given place to habits of business as they are called, and to a more calculating and enterprising disposition. The most ancient families have become absorbed or overwhelmed by the mighty progress of this new element, this outpouring of wealth as from some unseen source; and in many instances their names only are recognised in these old and rickety mansions, now the habitation of the mechanic and the plebeian.
Many of these dwellings remain—a melancholy contrast to the trim erections, the symbols of a new race, along with new habits and forms of existence, sufficiently testifying to the folly and the vain expectations of those who toil and labour hard for a long lease with posterity.
This mansion, like the rest of our ancestral dwellings of the better sort, was built of wood, on a stone basement. The outside structure curiously vandyked in a zigzag fashion with wooden partitions, the interstices were filled with wicker-work, plastered with well-tempered clay, to which chopped straw imparted additional tenacity. When newly embellished, looking like the pattern, black and white, of some discreet magpie perched on the wooden pinnacles terminating each gable, or hopping saucily about the porch—that never-failing adjunct to these homely dwellings. Here, on a well-scoured bench, the master of the house would sit in converse with his family or his guests, enjoying the fresh and cheering breeze, without being fully exposed to its effects. The porch was universally adopted as a protection to the large flagged hall called the “house-part,” which otherwise might have been seriously incommoded by the inclement atmosphere of these bleak districts. On one side of the hall, containing the great fireplace, was the “guest parlour.” Here the best bed was usually fixed; and here, too, all great “occasions” took place. Births, christenings, burials—all emanated from, or were accomplished in, this family chamber. Every member was there transmitted from the cradle to the grave. The low wide oaken stairs, to the first bending of which an active individual might have leaped without any such superfluous media. The naked gallery, with its little quaint doors on each side, hatched in the usual fashion, this opening into the store-room, that into the servants’ lodging, another into the closet where the choicest confections were kept. Opposite were the bed-chambers, and at the extremity of the gallery a ladder generally pointed the way to a loft, where, amongst heaps of winter stores, dried roots, and other vegetables, probably reposed one or two of the male servants on a straw mattress, well fortified from cold by an enormous quilt.
Our description will apply with little variation to all. We love these deserted mansion-houses that speak of the olden time, its good cheer and its rude but pleasant intercourse; times and seasons that are for ever gone, though we crave pardon for indulging in what may perhaps find little favour in the eyes of this generation, whose hopes and desires are to the future, who say the past is but the childhood of our existence: it is gone, and shall not return. But there are yet some who love to linger on the remnants, the ruins of a former state, who look at these time-honoured relics but as links that bring them into closer communion with bygone ages, and would fain live in the twilight of other years rather than the meridian splendour of the present. But we must not be seduced any further by these reflections; our present business concerns the legend whose strange title stands at the head of this article.
In one of the upper chambers at Buckley Hall before named, and not long ago, was an iron ring fixed to a strong staple in the wall; and to this ring a fearful story is still attached. The legend, as it is often told, is one of those wild improbable fictions, based on facts distorted and embellished to suit the taste of the listener or the fancy of the narrator. It will be our task to make out from these imaginative materials a narrative divested as much as possible of the marvellous, but at the same time retaining so much as will interest and excite the reader and lover of legendary lore.
It was in one of those genial, mellow, autumnal evenings—so dear to all who can feel their influence, and so rare a luxury to the inhabitants of this weeping climate—when all living things wear the hue and warmth of the glowing atmosphere in which they are enveloped, that two lovers were sauntering by the rivulet, a “wimpling burn” that, rising among the bare and barren moorlands of this uncultivated region, runs past Buckley Hall into the valley of the Roch.
It was near the close of the sixteenth century, in the days of good Queen Bess, yet their apparel was somewhat homely even for this era of stuffed doublets and trunk-hose. Such unseemly fashions had hardly travelled into these secluded districts; and the plain, stout, woollen jacket of their forefathers, and the ruffs, tippets, stays, and stomachers of their grandmothers, formed the ordinary wear of the belles and beaux of the province.
Fardingales, or hooped petticoats, we are happy to say, for the sake of our heroine, were unknown.
“Be of good cheer,” said the lover; “there be troubles enow, believe me, without building them up out of our own silly fears—like boys with their snow hobgoblins, terrible enough in the twilight of fancy, but a gleam of sunshine will melt and dissipate them. Thou art sad to-night without reason. Imaginary fears are the worst to cope withal; having nor shape nor substance, we cannot combat with them. ‘Tis hard, indeed, fighting with shadows.”
“I cannot smile to-night, Gervase; there’s a mountain here—a foreboding of some deadly sort. I might as soon lift ‘Robin Hood’s Bed’ yonder as remove it.”
“No more of this, my dearest Grace; at least not now. Let us enjoy this bright and sunny landscape. How sharply cut are those crags yonder on the sky. Blackstonedge looks almost within a stride, or at least a good stone’s-throw. Thou knowest the old legend of Robin Hood; how that he made yonder rocks his dormitory, and by way of amusement pitched or quoited huge stones at a mark on the hill just above us, being some four or five miles from his station. It is still visible along with several stones lying near, and which are evidently from the same rock as that on which it is said he slept.”
“I’ve heard such silly tales often. Nurse had many of these old stories wherewith to beguile us o’ winter nights. She used to tell, too, about Eleanor Byron, who loved a fay or elf, and went to meet him at the fairies’ chapel away yonder where the Spodden gushes through its rocky cleft,—’tis a fearful story,—and how she was delivered from the spell. I sometimes think on’t till my very flesh creeps, and I could almost fancy that such an invisible thing is about me.”
With such converse did they beguile their evening walk, ever and anon making the subject bend to the burden of their own sweet ditty of mutual unchanging love!
Grace Ashton was the only daughter of a wealthy yeoman, one of the gentry of that district, residing at Clegg Hall, a mile or two distant. Its dark low gables and quiet smoke might easily be distinguished from where they stood. It was said that the Cleggs, its original owners, had been beggared and dispossessed by vexatious and fraudulent lawsuits; and the Ashtons had achieved their purpose by dishonesty and chicane. However this might be, busy rumour gave currency and credit to the tale, though probably it had none other foundation than the idle and malevolent gossip of the envious and the unthinking.
They had toiled up a narrow pathway on the right of a woody ravine, where the stream had evidently formed itself a passage through the loose strata in its course. The brook was heard, though hidden by the tangled underwood, and they stopped to listen. Soothing but melancholy was the sound. Even the birds seemed to chirp there in a sad and pensive twitter, not unnoticed by the lovers, though each kept the gloomy and fanciful apprehensions untold.
Soon they gained the summit of a round heathery knoll, whence an extensive prospect rewarded their ascent. The squat, square tower of Rochdale Church might be seen above the dark trees nestling under its grey walls. The town was almost hidden by a glowing canopy of smoke gleaming in the bright sunset—towards the north the bare bleak hills, undulating in sterile loneliness, and associating only with images of barrenness and desolation. Easterly, a long, level burst of light swept across meadow, wood, and pasture; green slopes dotted with bright homesteads, to the very base apparently of, though at some distance from, Blackstonedge, now of the deepest, the most intense blue. Such a daring contrast of colour gave a force and depth to the landscape, which, had it been portrayed, would, to critical eyes perhaps, have outraged the modesty of Nature.
The sky was already growing cold and grey above the ridge opposed to the burning brightness of the western horizon, and Grace Ashton pointed out the beautiful but fleeting hues of the landscape around them. Her companion, however, was engrossed by another object. Before them was an eminence marking the horizon to the north-west, though not more than a good bowshot from where they stood. Between this and their present standing was a little grassy hollow, through which the brook we have described trickled rather than ran, amidst moss and rushes, rendering the ground swampy and unsafe. On this hill stood “Robin Hood’s coit-stones;” and on the largest, called the “marking-stone,” a wild-looking and haggard figure was crouched. Her garments, worn and tattered, were of a dingy red; and her cap, or coiffure as it was then called, was of the same colour. Her head was bent forward beyond the knee, as though she were listening towards the ground, or was expecting the approach of the individuals who now came suddenly, and to themselves unexpectedly, in view. Her figure, in the glow of that rich autumnal sky, looked of the deepest crimson, and of a bloody and portentous aspect.
“What strange apparition is yonder,” said Gervase Buckley, “on the hill-top there before us? Beshrew me, Grace, but it hath an evil and a rancorous look.”
But Grace, along with a short scream of surprise, betrayed, too, her recognition of the object, and clung with such evident terror to her companion that he turned from the object of his inquiries to gaze on his mistress.
“What!” said he, “hath yonder unknown such power? Methinks it hath moved thee strangely. Speak, Grace; can that hideous appearance in any way be linked with our destiny?”
“I am ignorant as thou. But its coming, as I have heard, always forebodes disaster to our house. Hast not heard of a Red Woman that sometimes haunts this neighbourhood? I never saw her until now, but I’ve heard strange and fearful stories of her appearing some years ago, and blighting the corn, poisoning the cattle, with many other diabolical witcheries. She is best known by the name of ‘Mother Red-Cap.'”
“I’ve heard of this same witch in my boyhood. But what should we fear? She is flesh and blood like ourselves; and, in spite of the prevailing belief, I could never suppose power would be granted to some, generally the most wicked and the most worthless, which from the rest of mankind is capriciously withholden.”
“Hush, Gervase; thou knowest not how far the arch-enemy of mankind may be permitted to afflict bodily our guilty race. I could tell thee such tales of yonder creature as would stagger even the most stubborn of unbelievers.”
“I will speak to her, nevertheless. Tarry here, I prithee, Grace. It were best I should go alone.”
“Oh, do not—do not! None have sight of her, as I’ve heard, but mischief follows. What disaster, then, may we not expect from her evil tongue? I shudder at the anticipation. Stay here. I will not be left; and I cannot cross this dangerous swamp.”
Buckley was, however, bent on the adventure. His natural curiosity, inflamed by forbidden longing after the occult and the mysterious, to which he was too prone, even though sceptical as to their existence, rendered him proof against his mistress’ entreaties.
Probably from situation, or rather, it might be, the distance was judged greater than in reality it proved, but the form before them looked preternaturally enlarged, and as she raised her head her arms were flung out high above it like withered and wasted branches on each side.
Trembling in every limb, Grace clung to her lover, and it was after long persuasion that she suffered him to lift her over the morass, and was dragged unwillingly up the hill. As though she were the victim of some terrible fascination, her eyes were constantly riveted on the object. A raven wheeled round them, every moment narrowing the circle of its flight, and the malicious bird looked eager for mischief.
As they approached nearer to the summit, this ill-omened thing, after having brushed so close that they felt the very breath from its wings, alighted beside the Red Woman, who hardly seemed to notice, though well aware of their proximity.
They paused when several paces distant, and she rose up suddenly, extending both arms, apparently to warn them from a nearer approach. Her skinny lips, rapidly moving to and fro, and her dark withered, bony, and cadaverous features, gave her more the appearance of a living mummy or a resurrection from the charnel-house than aught instinct with the common attributes of humanity.
Buckley was for a moment daunted. The form was so unlike anything he had ever seen. He was almost persuaded of the possibility that it might be some animated corpse doomed to wander forth either for punishment or expiation. Her lips still moved. A wild glassy eye was fixed upon them, and as she yet stood with extended arms, Gervase, almost wrought to desperation, cried out—
“Who art thou? Thy business here?”
A hollow sound, hardly like the tones of a human voice, answered in a slow and solemn adjuration—
“Beware, rash fools! None approach the Red Woman but to their undoing.”
“I know no hindrance to my free course in this domain. By whose authority am I forbidden?” said he, taking courage.
“Away—mine errand is not to thee unless provoked.”
“Unto whom is thy message?”
“To thy leman—thy ladye-love, whom thou wilt cherish to thine hurt. Leave her, ay, though both hearts break in the separation.”
“I will not.”
“Then be partaker of the wrath that is just ready to burst upon her doomed house.”
“I told thee,” said Grace, “she is the herald of misfortune! What woe does she denounce? What cruel judgment hast thou invoked upon our race?” cried she to this grim messenger of evil.
“Evil will—evil must! I will cling to ye till your last sustenance be dried up, and your inheritance be taken from ye.”
“Her fate be mine,” said Buckley, indignantly. “Her good or evil fortune I will share.”
“Be it so. Thou hast made thy choice, and henceforth thou canst not complain.”
She stretched out her two hands, one towards Clegg Hall, the abode of the maiden, and the other towards Buckley, her lover’s paternal roof, from which a blue curl of smoke was just visible over the rising grounds beneath them.
“A doom and a curse to each,” she muttered. “Your names shall depart, and your lands to the alien and the stranger. Your honours shall be trodden in the dust, and your hearths laid waste, and your habitations forsaken.”
In this fearful strain she continued until Buckley cried out—
“Cease thy mumbling, witch. I’ll have thee dealt with in such wise thy tongue shall find another use.”
Turning upon him a look of scorn, she seemed to grow fiercer in her maledictions.
“Proud minion,” she cried, “thou shall die childless and a beggar!”
The cunning raven flapped his great heavy wings and seemed to croak an assent. He then hopped on his mistress’ shoulder, and apparently whispered in her ear.
“Sayest thou so?” said the witch. “Then give it to me, Ralph.”
The bird held out his beak, and out popped a plain gold ring.
“Give this to thy mother, Dame Buckley. Say ’tis long since they parted company; and ask if she knows or remembers aught of the Red Woman. Away!”
She threw the ring towards them. Both stooped to pick it up. They examined it curiously for a short space.
“‘Tis a wedding-ring,” said Buckley, “but not to wed bride of mine. Where was this”——
He stopped short in his inquiry, for lifting up his eyes he found the donor was gone!
Neither of them saw the least trace of her departure. The stone whereon she sat was again vacant. All was silent, undisturbed, save the night breeze that came sighing over the hill, moaning and whistling through the withered bent and rushes at their feet.
The shadows of evening were now creeping softly around them, and the valley below was already wrapped in mist. The air felt very chill. They shuddered, but it was in silence. This fearful vision, for such it now appeared to have been, filled them with unspeakable dread.
Gervase yet held the ring in his hand. He would have thrown it from him, but Grace Ashton forbade.
“Do her bidding in this matter,” said she. “Give it thy mother, and ask counsel of the sage and the discreet. There is some fearful mystery—some evil impending, or my apprehensions are strangely misled.”
They returned, but he was more disturbed than he cared to acknowledge. He felt as though some spell had been cast upon him, and cowed his hitherto undaunted spirit.
They again wound down beside the rivulet into the meadows below, where the mist alone pointed out the course of the stream. The bat and the beetle crossed their path. Evil things only were abroad. All they saw and felt seemed to be ominous of the future. As they passed through a little wicket to the hall-porch, Nicholas Buckley the father met them.
“Why, how now, loiterers? The cushat and the curlew have left the hill, and yet ye are abroad. ‘Tis time the maiden were at home and looking after the household.”
“We’ve been hindered, good sir. We will just get speech of our dame, and then away home with the gentle Grace. Half-an-hour’s good speeding will see her safe.”
“Ay—belike,” said the old man. “Lovers and loiterers make mickle haste to part. Our dame is with the maids and the milkpans i’ the dairy.”
The elder Buckley was a hale hearty yeoman, of a ruddy and cheerful countenance. A few wrinkles were puckered below the eyes; the rest of his face was sleek and comfortably disposed. A beard, once thick and glossy, was grown grey and thin, curling up short and stunted round his portly chin. Two bright twinkling eyes gave note of a stirring and restless temper—too sanguine, maybe, for success in the great and busy world, and not fitted either by education or disposition for its suspicions or its frauds. Yet he had the reputation of a clever merchant. Rochdale, even at that early period, was a well-known mart for the buyers and sellers of woollen stuffs and friezes. Many of the most wealthy merchants, too, indulged in foreign speculations and adventures, and amongst these the name of Nicholas Buckley was not the least conspicuous.
They passed on to the dairy, where Dame Eleanor scolded the maids and skimmed the cream at the same moment, by way of economy in time.
“What look ye for here?” was her first inquiry, for truly her temper was of a hasty and searching nature; somewhat prone, as well, to cavilling and dispute, requiring much of her husband’s placidity to furnish oil for the turbulent waters of her disposition.
“Thou wert better at thy father’s desk than idling after thine unthrifty pleasures: to-morrow, maybe, sauntering among the hills with hound and horn, beating up with all the rabble in the parish.”
“Nay, mother, chide not: I was never made for merchandise and barter—the price of fleeces in Tod Lane, and the broad ells at Manchester market.”
“And why not?” said the dame, sharply; “haven’t I been the prop and stay of the house?
Haven’t I made bargains and ventures when thou hast been idling in hall and bower with love-ditties and ladies’ purfles?”
She was now moved to sudden choler, and Gervase did not dare to thwart her further—letting the passion spend itself by its own efforts, as he knew it were vain to check its torrent.
Now Dame Eleanor Buckley was of a sharp and florid countenance—short-necked and broad-shouldered, her nose and chin almost hiding a pair of thin severe lips, the two prominences being close neighbours, especially in anger. In truth she guided, or rather managed, the whole circle of affairs; aiding and counselling the speculations of her husband, who had happily been content with the produce and profit of his paternal acres, had not his helpmate, who inherited this mercantile spirit from her family, urged her partner to such unwonted lust and craving for gain.
A huge bundle of keys hung at her girdle, which, when more than usually excited, did make a most discordant jingle to the tune that was a-going. Indeed, the height and violence of her passion might be pretty well guessed at by this index to its strength.
When the storm had in some degree subsided, Gervase held up the ring.
“What’s that, silly one? A wedding-ring!”
She grew almost pale with wrath. “How darest thou?—thee!—a ring!—to wed ere thou hast a home for thy pretty one. Ye may go beg, for here ye shall not tarry. Go to the next buckle-beggar! A pretty wedding truly! When thou hast learned how to keep her honestly ’twill be time enough to wed. But thou hast not earned a doit to put beside her dower, and all our ready moneys, and more, be in trade; though, for the matter o’ that, the pulling would be no great business either. But I tell thee again, thy father shall not portion an idler like thyself and pinch his trade. Marry, ’tis enough to do, what with grievous sums lost in shipwrecks, and the time we have now to wait our returns from o’er sea.”
She went on at this rate for a considerable space, pausing at last, more for lack of breath than subject-matter of discourse.
“Mother,” said he, when fairly run down; “’tis not a purchase—’tis a gift.”
“By some one sillier than thyself, I warrant.”
“I know not for that; I had it from a stranger.”
“Stranger still,” she replied sharply, chuckling at her own conceit.
“Look at it, mother. Know you such a one?”
The dame eyed it with no favour, but she turned it over with a curious look, at the same time lifting her eyes now and then towards the ceiling, as some train of recollection was awakening in her mind.
“Where gat ye this?” said Dame Eleanor, in a subdued but still querulous tone.
“On the hill-top yonder.”
“Treasure-trove belongs to Sir John Byron. The lord of the manor claims all from the finders.”
“It was a gift.”
“Humph. Hast met gold-finders on the hills, or demons or genii that guard hidden treasure?”
“We’ve seen the Red Woman!”
Had a sudden thunder-clap burst over them, she could not have been more startled. She stood speechless, and seemingly incapable of reply. Holding the ring in one hand, her eyes were intently fixed upon it.
“What is it that troubles you?” said Gervase. “Yon strange woman bade me give you the ring, and ask if so be that you remembered her.”
The dame looked up, her quick and saucy petulance exchanged for a subdued and melancholy air.
“Remember thee! thou foul witch? ay long, long years have passed; I thought thy persecutions at an end; thy prediction was nigh forgotten. It was my wedding-ring, Gervase!”
“More marvellous still.”
“Peace, and I’ll tell thee. Grace Ashton, come forward. I know thine ears are itching for the news. Well, well, it was when thou wast but a boy, Gervase, and I remember an evening just like this. I was standing by the draw-well yonder, looking, I now bethink me, at the dovecot, where I suspected thieves; and in a humour somewhat of the sharpest, I trow. By-and-by comes, what I thought, an impudent beggar-woman for an alms. Her dress was red and tattered, with a high red cap to match. I chided her it might be somewhat harshly, and I shall not soon forget the malicious look she put on. ‘I ask not, I need not thy benison,’ she said; ‘I would have befriended thee, but I now curse thee altogether:’ and stretching out her shrivelled arm, dry and bare, she shook it, threatening me with vengeance. Suddenly, or ere I was aware, she seized my left hand, drew off my wedding-ring; breathing upon it and mumbling a spell, she held it as though for me to take back, but with such a fiendish look of delight that I hesitated. All on a sudden I remembered to have heard my grandmother say that should a witch or warlock get your wedding-ring, and have time to mutter over it a certain charm, so long as that ring is above ground so long misery and misfortune do afflict the owner. Lucky it was I knew of this, for instead of replacing it I threw it into the well, being the nearest hiding-place. And happy for me and thee it was so near; for, would you believe, though hardly a minute’s space in my hand, the black heifer died, the red cow cast her calf, and a large venture of merchandise was wrecked in a fearful gale off the gulf. I had no sooner thrown it into the well than the witch looked more diabolical than ever. ‘It will come again, dame,’ said she, ‘and then look to it;’ and with this threat she departed. But what am I doing? If it be the ring, which I doubt not, I’ve had it o’er long in my keeping. Even now disaster may be a-brewing; and is there not a richly-freighted ship on its passage with silks and spices? I’ll put it out of her reach this time anyhow. No! I’ll hide it where never a witch in Christendom shall poke it out.”
Dame Eleanor went to the little burn below. Stooping, she scooped a hole in the gravel under water; there she laid the ring, and covered it over with stones.
“Thou’rt always after some of thy megrims, dame,” said the elder Buckley, who had been watching her from the porch. “Some spell or counter-charm, I’se warrant.”
With a look of great contempt for the incredulity of her spouse, she replied—
“Ay, goodman, sit there and scoff your fill. If’t hadn’t been for my care and endeavours you had been penniless ere now. But so it is, I may slave night and day, I reckon. The whole roof-tree, as a body may say, is on my shoulders, and what thanks? More hisses than thanks, more knocks than fair words.”
Never so well pleased as when opportunity was afforded for grumbling, the dame addressed herself again to her evening avocations.
Pondering deeply what should be the issue of these things, Gervase set out with Grace Ashton to her house at Clegg Hall, a good mile distant. Evening had closed in—a chill wind blew from the hills. The west had lost its splendour, but a pure transparent brightness filled its place, across which the dark wavy outline of the high moorlands rested in deep unvarying shadow. In these bright depths a still brighter star hung, pure and of a diamond-like lustre, the precursor, the herald of a blazing host just rising into view.
As they walked on, it may well be supposed that the strange occurrences of the last few hours were the engrossing theme of their discourse.
“My mother is a little too superstitious, I am aware,” said Gervase; “but what I have witnessed to-night has rendered me something more credulous on this head than aforetime.”
“I don’t half like this neighbourhood,” said his companion, looking round. “It hath an ill name, and I could almost fancy the Red Woman again, just yonder in our path.”
She looked wistfully; it was only the mist creeping lazily on with the stream.
They were now ascending the hill towards Beil or Belfield, where the Knights Templars had formerly an establishment. Not a vestage now remains, though at that period a ruinous tower covered with ivy, a gateway, and an arch, existed as relics of their former grandeur.
“Here lived the Lady Eleanor Byron,” said Grace, pointing to the old hall close by, and as though an unpleasant recollection had crossed her. She shuddered as they passed by the grim archway beneath the tower. Whether it was fancy or reality she knew not, but as she looked curiously through its ivied tracery she thought the Red Woman was peering out maliciously upon them. She shrank aside, and pointed to the spot; but there was nothing visible save the dark and crumbling ruins, from which their steps were echoed with a dull and sullen sound.
The night wind sighed round the grey battlements, and from its hidden recesses came moans and whispers—at least so it seemed to their heated imaginations.
“Let us hasten hence,” said Grace; “I like not this lonely spot. There was always a fear and a mystery about it. The tale of the invisible sylphid and Eleanor Byron’s elfish lover haunts me whenever I pass by, and I feel as though something was near, observing and influencing every movement and every thought.”
“Come, come, adone I pray. Let not fear o’ermaster reason, else we shall see bogles in every bush.”
Above the gateway, in the little square tower now pulled down, was a loophole, nearly concealed by climbing shrubs, which rendered it easy for a person within to look out without being observed. As they passed a low humming din was heard. Then a rude ditty trolled from some not unskilful performer. The lovers stayed to listen, when a dark figure issued out of the gateway singing—
“The bat haunts the tower,
And the redbreast the bower,
And the merry little sparrow by the chimney hops,
Good e’en, hoots master owl,
To-whoo, to-whoo, his troll,
Sing heigho, swing the can with”——
“What, thee, Tim! Is that thy stupid face?” said Gervase, breaking in upon his ditty, and right glad to be delivered from supernatural fears, though the object of them proved only this strolling minstrel. “Thou might as well kill us outright as frighten us to death.”
He that stood before them was one of those wandering musicians that haunt fairs and merry-makings, wakes, and such like pastimes; playing the fiddle and jewtrump too at weddings and alehouses; in short, any sort of idleness never came amiss to these representatives of the old Troubadours. A tight oval cap covered his shaggy poll; he was clad in a coarse doublet or jerkin slashed in the fashion of the time, while his nether integuments were fastened in the primitive mode by a wooden skewer. He could conjure too, and play antics to set the folks agape; but as to his honesty, it was of that dubious sort that few cared to have it in trust. He was apt at these alehouse ditties—many of them his own invention. He knew all the choicest ballads too, so that his vocation was much akin to the jogleurs or jongleurs of more ancient times, when Richard of the Lion’s Heart and other renowned monarchs disdained not “the gentle craft of poesie.”
Wherever was a feast, let it be a wedding or a funeral, Tim, like the harpies of old, scented the meat, and some of his many vocations were generally in request.
This important functionary now stood whistling and singing by turns with the most admired unconcern.
“What’s thy business here?” cried Gervase, approaching him.
“The maid was fair, and the maid was coy,
But the lover left, and the maid said ‘Why?’
Sing O the green willow!”
“Answerest thou me with thy trumpery ditties? I’ll have thee put i’ the stocks, sirrah.”
“Oh, ha’ mercy, master! there’s naught amiss ‘at I know. I’m but takin’ roost here wi’ the owls an’ jackdaws a bit, maybe for want o’ better lyin’.”
“It were hard to have a better knack at lying than thou hast already. Hast gotten the weather into thy lodgings? When didst flit to thy new quarters?”
“Th’ hay-mow at Clegg is ower savoured wi’ the new crop, an’ I want fresh air for my studies.”
“Now art thou lying”——
“Like a lover to his sweetheart,” said Tim, interrupting him, and finishing the sentence.
“Peace, knave! There’s some mischief i’ the wind. Thou’rt after no good, I trow.”
“What te dickons do I ail here? Is’t aught ‘at a man can lift off but stone wa’s an’ ivy-boughs? Marry, my little poke man ha’ summut else to thrive on nor these.”
“There’s been great outcry about poultry an’ other farmyard appendances amissing of late, besides eggs and such like dainties enow to furnish pancakes and fritters for the whole parish. Hast gotten company in thy den above there?”
“Jacks an’ ouzles, if ye like, Master Gervase. Clim’ up, clim’ up, lad, an there’ll be a prial on us. Ha, ha! What! our little sweetheart there would liefer t’ be gangin.’ Weel, weel, ’tis natural, as a body may say—
“One is good, and two is good,
But three’s no company.”
“Answer me quick, thou rogue. Is there any other but thyself yonder above?”
“When I’m there I’m not here, an’ when I’m here”——
“Sirrah, I’ll flog the wind out o’ thy worthless carcase. Hast any pilfering companions about thee? I do smell a savoury refection—victuals are cooking, or my nose belies its office.”
“Fair speech, friend, wins a quiet answer; a soft word and a smooth tongue all the world over. What for mayn’t I sup as well as my betters?”
“As well?—better belike. There’s no such savour in our hall at eventide, nor in the best kitchen in the parish.”
“It’s not my fau’t, is’t?”
“By’r lady, there’s somebody in the chamber there. I saw the leaves fluttering from the loophole. Villain, who bears thee company?”
“Daft, daft. What fool would turn into roost wi’ me? Clean gone crazy, sure as I’m livin’.”
“Nay, nay, there’s some plot here—some mischief hatching. I’ll see, or”——
He was just going to make the attempt; but Tim withstood him, and in a peremptory manner barred the way.
“How! am I barred by thee, and to my face?”
“It’s no business o’ thine, Master Gervase. What’s hatching there concerns not thee. Keep back, I say, or”——
“Ha! Thou jingle-pated rascal, stand off, or I’ll wring thy neck round as I would a Jackdaw.”
“Do not, do not, Gervase!” said Grace Ashton, fearful of some unlucky strife. “Let us begone. We are too late already, and ’tis no business of ours.”
“What! and be o’erfoughten by this scurvy lack-wit. Once more, who is there above?”
“An’ what if I shouldn’t tell thee?”
“I’ll baste thy carcase to a mummy; I’ll make thee tender for the hounds.”
“Another word to that, master, an’ it’s a bargain.”
“Let me pass.”
“Not without my company.”
He whistled, and in a moment Gervase felt himself pinioned from behind. Looking round, he saw two stout fellows with their faces covered; and any other possibility of recognition was impracticable in the heavy twilight.
“Who’s i’ t’ stocks now?” cried the malicious rogue, laughing.
“Unhand me, or ye’ll rue that ever ye wrought this outrage.”
“Nay, nay, that were a pretty stave, when we’ve gotten the bird, to open the trap,” said Tim.
Gervase immediately saw that another party had seized Grace Ashton. He raved and stamped until his maledictions were put an end to by an effectual gag, and he did not doubt but she had suffered the same treatment, for a short sharp scream only was heard. Being immediately blindfolded, he could only surmise that her usage was of a similar nature.
He was so stupefied with surprise that for a short period he was hardly sensible to their further proceedings. When able to reflect, he found himself pinioned, and in a sitting posture.
A damp chill was on his forehead. He had been dragged downwards, and, from the motion, steps were the medium of descent. A door or two had been raised or opened, a narrow passage previously traversed, and a short time only elapsed from the cool freshness of the evening air to the damp and stifling atmosphere that he now breathed. What could be the cause of his seizure he was quite incompetent to guess. He could not recollect that he had either pique or grudge on his hands; and what should be the result he only bewildered and wearied himself by striving to anticipate.
It was surely a dream. He heard a voice of ravishing sweetness; such pure and silvery tones, that aught earthly could have produced it was out of the question; it was like the swell of some Æolian lyre—words, too, modifying and enhancing that liquid harmony. It was a hymn,
but in a foreign tongue. He soon recognised the evening hymn to the Virgin—
“Mater amata, intemerata,
ora, ora, pro nobis.”
So sweetly did the music melt into his soul, that he quite forgot his thrall, and every sense was attuned to the melody. When the sound ceased he made an effort to get free. He loosened his hands, and immediately tore off the bandage from his eyes. A few seconds elapsed, when he saw a light streaming through a crevice. Looking through, he saw a taper burning before a little shrine, where two females in white raiment, closely veiled, were kneeling.
The celebration of such rites, at that time strictly prohibited, sufficiently accounted for their concealment, and plainly intimated that the parties were not of the Reformed faith.
By the light which penetrated his cell from this source he saw it was furnished with a stone bench, and a narrow flight of steps in one corner communicated with a trap-door above.
The old mansion at Belfield, contiguous to these ruins, once belonging to the Knights of St John, had been for some years untenanted, and, as often happens to the lot of deserted houses, strange noises, sights, and other manifestations of ghostly occupants were heard and seen by passers-by, rendering it a neighbourhood not overliked by those who had business that way after nightfall.
Gervase Buckley was pretty well assured that he had been conveyed into some concealed subterranean chamber, but for what purpose he could not comprehend. He was not easily intimidated; and though in a somewhat sorry plight, he now felt little apprehension on the score of supernatural visitations: but his seizure did not hold out an immunity as regards corporeal disturbers. He had not long to indulge these premonitory reflections ere a door was opened. A figure, completely enveloped in a black cloak, on which a red cross was conspicuously emblazoned, stood before him. He carried a torch, and Gervase saw a short naked sword glittering in his belt.
“Follow me,” said the intruder; and, without further parley, pointed to where another door was concealed in the pavement. This being opened, Gervase beheld, not without serious apprehension, a flight of steps evidently communicating with a lower dungeon. His conductor pointed to the descent, and it would have been useless folly to disobey. A damp and almost suffocating odour prevailed, as though from some long-pent-up atmosphere, which did not give the prisoner any increasing relish or affection for the enterprise. He looked at his conductor, whose face and person were yet covered. Had he been a familiar of the Holy Inquisition, he could not have been more careful of concealment. Gervase looked now and then with a wistful glance towards his companion’s weapon. Being himself unarmed, it would have been madness to attempt escape. He merely inquired in his descent—
“Whence this outrage? I am unarmed, defenceless.” But there was no reply. The guide, with an inclination of the head, pointed with his torch to the gulf his victim was about to enter. There was little use in disputation where the opposite party had so decided an advantage, and he thought it best to abide the issue without further impediment. He accordingly descended a few steps. His conductor fastened the door overhead, and they soon arrived at the bottom, at a low arched passage, where his guide dashed his flambeau against the wall, and it was immediately extinguished.
Gervase was left once more in doubt and darkness. There was little space for explanation.
He felt himself seized by an invisible hand, hurried unresistingly on, till, without any preparation, a blaze of light burst upon him.
It was for a moment too overpowering to enable him to distinguish objects with any certainty. Soon, however, he saw a tolerably spacious vault or crypt, supported by massy pillars. He had often heard there existed many unexplored subterranean passages reaching to an incredible distance, made originally by the Knights Templars for their private use. One of these, it was said, extended even to the chantry just then dissolved at Milnrow, more than a mile distant. Many strange stories he had been told of these warrior monks. But centuries had elapsed since their suppression. For a moment he almost believed they were permitted to reappear, doomed at stated periods to re-enact their unhallowed orgies, their cruelties, and their crimes. The chamber was lighted by three or four torches, their lurid unsteady life giving an ever-varying character to the surrounding objects.
Opposite the entrance was a stone bench, occupied by several figures attired in a similar manner to his conductor. An individual in the centre wore in addition a belt covered by some cabalistic devices. The scene was sufficiently inexplicable, and not at all elucidated by the following interrogation:—
“Thou hast been cited to our tribunal,” said the chief inquisitor.
“I know ye not,” said Gervase, with great firmness, though hardly aware of the position he occupied.
“Why hast thou not obeyed our summons?”
“I have not heard of any such; nor in good sooth should I have been careful to obey had your mandate been delivered.”
“Croix Rouge,” said the interrogator, “has this delinquent been cited?”
The person he addressed arose, bowed, and presented a written answer.
“I have here,” continued the chief, “sufficient proof that our summons hath been conveyed to thee, and that hitherto thine answer hath been contumaciously withheld. What sayest thou?”
“I have yet to learn, firstly,” said Gervase, with more indignation than prudence, “by what authority you would compel me to appear; and secondly, how and in what form such mandate had been sent?”
“Bethink thee, is our answer to the last: the first will be manifested in due time. We might indeed leave thee ignorant as to what we require, but pity for thy youth and inexperience forbids. Clegg Hall is, thou knowest, along with the estate, now unlawfully holden by the Ashtons.”
“I know that sundry Popish recusants, plotting the overthrow of our most gracious Queen, do say that other and more legitimate rights are in abeyance only; but the present owners are too well fortified to be dispossessed by hearsay.”
“In the porch at Clegg thou wast accosted not long ago by a mendicant who solicited an alms.”
“Did he not hold out to thee the sign of the Rosy Cross, the token of our all-powerful fraternity of Rosicrucians?”
“I do remember such a signal; and furthermore, I drove him forth as an impostor and a pretender to forbidden arts.”
“He showed thee the sign, and bade thee follow?”
“And why was our summons disobeyed?”
“Because I have yet to learn what authority you possess either for my summons or detention.”
“The brotherhood of the Red Cross are not disobeyed with impunity.”
“I have heard of such a fraternity—as well too that they be idle cheats and lying impostors.”
“We challenge not belief without sufficient testimony to the truth of our mission. In pity to man’s infirmity this indulgence is permitted. We unfold the hidden operations, the very arcana of Nature, whom we unclothe as it were to her very nakedness. Our doctrines thereby carry credence even to the most impious and unbelieving. Ere we command thy submission, it is permitted to behold some manifestation of our power. By means derived from the hidden essences of Nature, the first principles which renovate and govern all things, the very elements of which they consist, we arrive at the incorporeal essence called spirit, holding converse with it undebased, uninfluenced by the intervention of matter. Thus we converse in spirit with those that be absent, even though they were a thousand leagues apart.”
“And what has this jargon to do with my being despatched hither?”
“Listen, and reply not; the purport will be vouchsafed to thee anon. We can compel the spirits even of the absent to come at our bidding by subtle spells that none have power to disobey. We too can renew and invigorate life, and by the universal solvent bring about the renovation of all things—renovation and decay being the two antagonist principles, as light and darkness. As we can make darkness light, and light darkness at our pleasure, so can we from decay bring forth life, and the contrary. Seest thou this dead body?”
A black curtain he had not hitherto observed was thrown aside, and he beheld the features of Grace Ashton, or he was strangely deceived. She was lying on a little couch, death visibly imprinted on her collapsed and sunken features.
“Murderers! I will have ye dealt with for this outrage.” Maddened almost to frenzy, he would have rushed towards her, but he was firmly holden by a power superior to his own.
“She is now in the first region of departed spirits,” said the chief. “We have power to compel answer to our interrogatories. Listen, perverse mortal. We are well assured that a vast treasure is concealed hereabouts, hidden by the Knights of St John. ‘Tis beyond our unassisted power to discover. We have asked counsel of one whom we dare not disobey, and she it is hath commanded that we cite thee and Grace Ashton to the tribunal of the Rosy Cross. This corporeal substance now before us, by reason of its intimate union with the spirit, purged from the dross of mortality, will answer any question that may be propounded, and will utter many strange and infallible prophecies. It will solve doubtful questions, and discourse of things past, present, and to come, seeing that she is now in spirit where all knowledge is perfect, and hath her eyes and understanding cleared from the gross film of our corruption. But as spirit only hath power over those of its own nature by the law of universal sympathy, so she answers but to those by whom she is bidden that are of the same temperament and affinity, which is shown by your affiance and love towards each other.”
The prisoner heard this mystic harangue with a vacant and fixed expression, as though his mind were wandering, and he hardly understood the profundity of the discourse. Every feeling was absorbed in the conviction that some horrid incantation had for ever deprived him of his beloved. Then he fancied some imposition had been practised upon him. Being prevented from a closer examination, at length he felt some relief in the idea that the form he beheld might possibly be a counterfeit. He knew not what to say, and the speaker apparently waited his reply. Finding he was still silent, the former continued after a brief space:—
“Our questions to this purport must necessarily be propounded by thee. Art thou prepared?”
“Say on,” said Gervase, determined to try the issue, however repugnant to his thoughts.
Two of them now arose and stood at each end of the couch. The superior first made the sign of the cross. He then drew a book from his girdle, and read therein a Latin exorcism against the intrusion of evil spirits into the body, commanding those only of a heavenly and benign influence to attend. He lighted a taper compounded of many strange ingredients emitting a fragrant odour, and as the smoke curled heavily about him, flickering and indistinct, he looked like some necromancer about to perform his diabolical rites.
The occupant of that miserable couch lay still as death.
“The first question,” cried out the chief; and he looked towards the prisoner, who was now suffered to approach within a few paces of the bed.
“Is there treasure in this place?”
Gervase tried to repeat the question, but his tongue clave to his mouth. For the first time probably in his life he felt the sensation of horrible, undefined, uncontrollable fear—that fear of the unknown and supernatural, that shrinking from spiritual intercourse even with those we have loved best. It seemed as though he were in communion with the invisible world—that awful, incomprehensible state of existence; and with beings whose power and essence are yet unknown, armed, in imagination, with attributes of terror and of vengeance.
With a desperate effort, however, he repeated the question. Breathless, and with intense agony, he awaited the response. It came! A voice, not from the lips of the recumbent victim, but as though it were some inward afflatus, hollow and sepulchral. The lips did not move, but the following reply was given:—
Even the guilty confederates started back in alarm at the success of their own experiment. All was, however, still—silent as before.
Taking courage, the next question was put in like manner.
“In what direction?”
“Under the main pillar of the south-eastern corner of the vault.”
After another pause, the following questions were asked:—
“How may we obtain the treasure sought?”
“By diligence and perseverance.”
“At what time?”
“When the moon hath trine to Mercury in the house of Saturn.”
“Is it guarded?”
“By a power that shall crush you unless propitiated.”
“Show us in what manner.”
“I may not; my lips are sealed. That power is superior to mine; the rest is hidden from me.”
The treasure-seekers were silent, as though disappointed at this unexpected reply. Another attempt was, however, made.
“Shall we prosper in our undertaking?”
“My time is nigh spent. I beseech you that I may depart, for I am in great torment.”
“Thou shall not, until thou answer.”
But this admonition was from another source, and in a different direction. The obscurity and smoke from the torches made it impossible to judge with any certainty whence the interruption proceeded.
Gervase started and turned round. It might be fancy, but he was confident the features of the Red Woman were present to his apprehension. Horrors were accumulating. Even the united brotherhood seemed to tremble as though in the presence of some being of whom they stood in awe. They awaited her approach in silence.
“Fool! Did I not warn thee to do my bidding only? And thou art hankering again, pampering thy cruel lust for gold. How darest thou question the maiden for this intent? Hence, and thank thy stars thou art not even now sent howling to thy doom!”
This terrible and mysterious woman came forward in great anger, and the Rosicrucian brotherhood were thereby in great alarm. “The maid is mine—begone!” said she, pointing the way.
Like slaves under their master’s frown, they crouched before this fearful personification of their unhallowed and forbidden practices, and departed.
“Gervase Buckley,” she cried, “thou art betrothed to the heiress of yon wide possessions.”
“I am,” said he, roused either to courage or desperation, even in the presence of a being whose power he felt conscious was not derived from one common source with his own.
“Dost thou confirm thy troth?”
“I do; in life and in death she is mine.”
“Pledge thyself, body and soul, to her.”
“I am hers whilst I live, body and soul. Nothing but death shall part us.”
“On thy soul’s hope thou wilt fulfil this pledge!”
“I will.” Gervase looked wistfully towards his beloved. The inanimate form was yet pale and still; but a vague hope possessed him that the witch would again quicken her.
“‘Tis enough. But it must be sealed with blood!”
He felt her clammy hand on his arm, and a sharp pain as though from a puncture. He quickly withdrew it, and a blood-drop fell on the floor.
“Thou art mine—for ever!”
A loud yell rang through the vaults, and Gervase felt as though the doom of the lost spirits were his—that a whole troop of fiery demons had assailed him, and that he was borne away to the pit of torment. Happily his recollection forsook him, and he became unconscious of future suffering.
PART THE SECOND.
Morning rose bright and ruddy above the hills. The elder Buckley was up and stirring betimes. Agreeably to his usual practice, he had retired early to bed, leaving the household cares and duties to his helpmate. He was sitting in the porch when his dame, with a disturbed and portentous aspect, accosted him:—
“I know not what hath come to the lad.”
“Gervase—what of him?” said Nicholas, carelessly.
“He came home very late yesternight. But he did not speak, and he looked so wan and woe-begone that I verily thought he had seen a ghost or some uncanny thing yonder on his road home. I’ve just now been to rouse him, but he will not answer. Prithee go and get speech of him, good or bad. I think i’ my heart the lad’s bewitched.”
Nicholas Buckley was a man of few words, especially in the presence of his helpmate, so he merely groaned out an incredulous wonder, and went off as he was bidden. He saw Gervase evidently under the influence of some stupefying spell. His eyes were open, but he noticed neither the question nor the person who accosted him. There was something so horrible and mysterious in his whole appearance that the good man felt alarmed, and went back to his dame with all possible expedition. What could have happened? They guessed, and made a thousand odd surmises, improbable enough the greater part, but all merging in the prevailing bugbear of the day—witchcraft, which was resorted to as a satisfactory explanation under every possible difficulty. Had his malady any connection with the unexpected appearance of the Red Woman and the ring? It was safe buried, however, and that was a comfort. But after all, her thoughts always involuntarily recurred to this unpleasant subject. She could not shake off her suspicions, and there was little use in attempting further measures unless she could fight the Evil One with his own weapons. To this end, she began to cast about for some cunning wizard who might countervail the plots of this malicious witch.
Now at this period, Dr Dee, celebrated for his extraordinary revelations respecting the world of spirits, had been promoted by Queen Elizabeth (a firm believer in astrology and other recondite pursuits) to the wardenship of the Collegiate Church at Manchester. His fame had spread far and wide. He had not long been returned from his mission to the Emperor Rodolph at Prague, and his intercourse with invisible things was as firmly believed as the common occurrences of the day, and as well authenticated.
The character of Dee has both been underrated and misunderstood. By most, if not all, he has been looked upon merely as a visionary and an enthusiast—credulous and ambitious, without the power, though he had sufficient will, to compass the most mischievous designs. But under these outward weaknesses and superstitions, tinctured and modified by the prevailing belief in supernatural interferences, there was a bold and vigorous mind, frustrated, it is true, by circumstances which he could not control. Dee aimed at the entire change and subjugation of affairs, ecclesiastical and political, to the dominion of an unseen power—a theocracy or millennium—himself the sole medium of communication, the high priest and lawgiver. To this end he sought the alliance and support of foreign potentates; and his diary, published by Casaubon, the original of which is in the British Museum, is a remarkable and curious detail of the intrigues resorted to for this purpose. His mission to the Emperor Rodolph, offering him the sceptre of universal dominion, is told with great minuteness; and there is little doubt that Elizabeth herself did not disdain to converse and consult with him on this extraordinary project. Her visits to his house at Mortlake are well known. He had been consulted as to a favourable day for her coronation, and received many splendid promises of preferment that were never realised. At length, disappointed and hopeless as to the success of his once daring expectations, he settled down to the only piece of preferment within his reach—to wit, the wardenship of the Collegiate Church of Manchester, where he arrived with his family in the beginning of February 1596. His advice and assistance were much resorted to, and particularly in cases of supposed witchcraft and demoniacal possession—articles of unshaken belief at that period with all but speculatists and optimists, the Sadducees of their day and generation. His chief colleague throughout his former revelations had been one Edward Kelly, born at Worcester, where he practised as an apothecary. In his diary Dee says they were brought together by the ministration of the angel Uriel. He was called Kelly the Seer. This faculty of “seeing” by means of a magic crystal not being possessed by the Doctor, he was obliged to have recourse to Kelly, who had, or pretended to have, this rare faculty. Afterwards, however, he found out that Kelly had deceived him; those spirits which ministered at his bidding not being messengers from the Deity, as he once supposed, but lying spirits sent to deceive and to betray.
Kelly was an undoubted impostor, though evidently himself a believer in magic and the black art. Addicted to diabolical and mischievous practices, he was a fearful ensample of those deluders given up to their own inventions to believe the very lies wherewith they attempted to deceive.
He was a great treasure-hunter and invoker of demons, and it is said would not scruple to have recourse to the most disgusting brutalities for the gratification of his avarice and debauchery. In Weaver’s Funereal Monuments, it is recorded that Kelly, in company with one Paul Waring, went to the churchyard of Walton-le-Dale, near Preston, where a person was interred at that time supposed to have hidden a large sum of money, and who had died without disclosing the secret. They entered precisely at midnight, the grave having been pointed out to them the preceding day. They dug down to the coffin, opened it, and exorcised the spirit of the deceased, until the body rose from the grave and stood upright before them. Having satisfied their inquiries, it is said that many strange predictions were uttered concerning divers persons in the neighbourhood, which were literally and remarkably fulfilled.
At the date of our legend Kelly had been parted from the Doctor for a considerable time. The Doctor having found out his proneness to these evil courses, Kelly bore no good-will to his former patron and associate.
We have not space, or it would be an interesting inquiry, as connected with the superstitions of our ancestors, to trace the character and career of these individuals—men once famous amongst their contemporaries, forming part of the history of those times, and exerting a permanent influence immediately on the national character, and remotely on that of a future and indefinite period.
Dame Eleanor Buckley was morally certain, firstly, that her son was witched; and secondly, that no time should be lost in procuring relief. Nicholas therefore took horse for Manchester that very forenoon, with the intention of consulting the learned Doctor above-named on his son’s malady. Ere he left, however, there came tidings that Grace Ashton had not returned home, and was supposed to have tarried at Buckley for the night.
Trembling at this unexpected news, the dame once more applied to her son. He was still wide awake on the couch, in the same position, and apparently unconscious of her presence. In great anxiety she conjured him to say if he knew what had befallen Grace Ashton.
“She is dead!” was his reply, in a voice strangely altered from his usual careless and happy tone. Nothing further, however, could be drawn from him, but shortly after there came one with additional tidings.
“Inquiry has been set on foot,” said the messenger, “and Tim, well known at wakes and merry-makings, doth come forward with evidence which justifies a suspicion that is abroad—to wit, that she has met death by some unfair dealing; and further, he scruples not to throw out dark and mysterious hints that implicate your son as being privy to her disappearance.”
At this unlooked-for intelligence the mother’s fortitude gave way. Tribulation and anguish had indeed set in upon them like a flood. The ring, so unaccountably brought back by the Red Woman, was beyond doubt the cause of all their misfortunes—its reappearance, as she anticipated, being the harbinger of misery. What should be the next arrow from her quiver she trembled to forebode. But in the midst of this fever of doubt and apprehension one hope sustained her, and that was the result of her husband’s mission to Dr Dee, who would doubtless find out the nature of the spell, and relieve them from its curse.
Let us follow the traveller to Dee’s lodgings in the Deanery, where at that time this renowned astrologer was located. Nicholas Buckley found him sitting in a small dismal-looking study, where he was introduced with little show either of formality or hesitation. The Doctor was now old, and his sharp, keen, grey eyes had suffered greatly by reason of rheum and much study. Pale, but of a pleasant countenance, his manner, if not so grave and sedate as became one of his deep and learned research, yet displaying a vigour and vivacity the sure intimation of that quenchless ardour, the usual concomitant of all who are destined to eminence, or to any conspicuous part in the age on which they are thrown;—not idle worthless weeds on the strand of time, but landmarks or beacons in the ocean of life, to warn or to direct.
He was short in stature, and somewhat thin. A rusty black velvet cap, without ornament, surmounted his forehead, from which a few straggling grey hairs crept forth, rivalling his pale, thoughtful brow in whiteness.
He sat in a curiously embossed chair, with a brown-black leathern cushion, beside an oaken table or tressel, groaning under the weight of many ponderous volumes of all hues and subjects. Divers and occult were the tractates there displayed, and unintelligible save to the initiated. Alchemy was just then his favourite research, and he was vainly endeavouring to master the jargon under which its worthlessness and folly were concealed.
Nicholas Buckley related his mishap, and, as far as he was able, the circumstances connected with it. The Doctor then erected a horoscope for the hour. After consulting this, he said—
“I will undertake for thee, if so be that my poor abilities, hitherto sorely neglected, and I may say despised, can bring thee any succour. Indeed the land groans by reason of the sin of witchcraft—a noisome plague now infesting this afflicted realm, and a grievous scandal to the members and ministers of our Reformed Church. The ring is of a surety bewitched, and by one more powerful and wicked than thou canst possibly imagine. I tell thee plainly, that unless the charm be broken, the recovery of the young man were vain—nay, in all likelihood, thine own ruin will be the result.”
The merchant groaned audibly at this doleful news. He thought upon his merchandise and his adventures o’er sea—his treasures and his argosies, committed to the tender mercies of the deep; and he recounted them in brief.
“Cannot these be rescued from such disaster?” inquired he dolefully.
“I know not yet,” was the reply. “Saturn, that hath his location here, governing these expected treasures, now beholds the seventh house of the figure I have just erected with a quartile aspect. They be evil tokens, but as regards this same Mother Red-Cap or the Red Woman, who hath doubtless brought you into grievous trouble, I know her. Nay, look not incredulous. How, it is not needful to inquire. Suffice it that she hath great power, through from a different source from mine. She is of the Rosicrucian order, one of the sisters, of which there are five throughout Europe and Asia. They have intercourse with spirits, communicating too with each other, though at never so great a distance, by means of this mystical agency. She hath been here, ay, even in the very place where thou sittest.”
The visitor started from his chair.
“And I am not ignorant of her devices. She is of a papistical breed; and the recusant priests, if I mistake not, are at the working of some diabolical plot; it may be against the life and government of our gracious Queen! They would employ the devil himself, if need were, to compass their intent. She hath travelled much, and doubtless hath learned marvellous secrets from the Moors and Arabian doctors. It is, however, little to the purpose at present that we continue this discourse. What more properly concerns thee is how to get rid of this grievous visitation, which, unless removed, will of a surety fall out to thine undoing. By prayer and fasting much may be accomplished, together with the use of all lawful means for thy release.”
“Alas!” said Buckley, “I fear me there is little hope of a favourable issue, and I may not be delivered from this wicked one!”
“Be of good heart; we will set to work presently, and, if it be possible, counterplot this cunning witch. But to this end it is needful that I visit the young man, peradventure we may gather tidings of her. I know not any impediment to my journey this very day. Ay! even so,” said he, poring over some unimaginable diagrams. “Good! there is a marvellous proper aspect for our enterprise thirty minutes after midnight. Thou hast doubtless taken horse with thy servant hither. I will take his place and bear thee company.”
The Doctor was soon equipped for travel, much to the comfort of the afflicted applicant, who was like to have taken his departure with a sorry heart, and in great disquietude. On their arrival at Buckley, Dee would needs see the patient instantly. No change had taken place since morning, and he still refused any sustenance that might be offered. The Doctor examined him narrowly, but refrained from pronouncing on his case.
It was now evening. The sun shot a languid and fitful ray athwart the vapours gathering to receive him, and its light shone on the full couch of the invalid. The astrologer was sitting apart, in profound meditation. Dame Eleanor suddenly roused him.
“He has just asked for the Red Woman,” said she, “and I heard him bemoaning himself, saying that he is betrothed to her, and that she will come ere long to claim his pledge. Hark, he mutters again!”
Dee immediately went to the bedside.
“I did not kill her,” said the victim, shuddering. He dashed the cold sweat from his forehead with some violence. He then started up. “Is she come?” said he in a low, hollow voice, and he sat up in the attitude of intense expectation. “Not yet, not yet,” he uttered with great rapidity, and sank down again as though exhausted.
A stormy and lowering sky now gathered above the sun’s track, and the chamber suddenly grew dark. The inmates looked as though expecting some terrific, some visible manifestation of their tormentor. Dee looked out through the window. There was nothing worthy of remark, save an angry heap of clouds, rolling and twisting together—the sure forerunner of a tempest.
“The whole country is astir,” said Dame Eleanor. “They are seeking for the body of Grace Ashton in pits and secret places. Woe is me that I should live to see the day;—the poor lad there is loaden with curses, and fearful threatenings are uttered against us. We are verily in jeopardy of our lives.”
Hereat she fell a-weeping, and truly it was piteous to behold.
“We must first get an answer from him,” said the Doctor, “ere measures can be devised for his recovery.”
“‘Tis said there will be a warrant for his apprehension on the morrow,” said the elder Buckley.
“There is some terrible perplexing mystery, if not knavery, in this matter,” said Dee; “and I have been thinking—nay, I more than suspect—that rascal Kelly hath a hand in it. He is ever hankering after forbidden arts, and many have fallen the innocent victims to his diabolical intrigues. He hath become a great adept of late, too, as I am told, in this Rosicrucian philosophy; and if we have here a clue to our labyrinth, depend on it we’ll get to the end speedily. To spite and frustrate that juggling cheat I will spare neither pains nor study; though of a surety we only use lawful and appointed means. Prayers and exorcisms must be resorted to, and help craved from a higher source than theirs.”
At length the forms and usages generally resorted to on such occasions were entered upon. Loud and fervent were the responses, continuing even to a late hour, but without producing any change.
The wind, hitherto rushing only in short fierce gusts through the valley, now gathered in loud heavy lunges against the corner of the house, almost extinguishing the solitary light on the table near to which Dee sat; the casements rattled, and the whole fabric shook as they passed by. At length there came a lull, fearful in its very silence, as though the elements were gathering strength for one mighty onslaught. On it came like an overwhelming surge, and for a moment threatened them with immediate destruction. Dust, pebbles, and dead branches were flung on the window, as though bursting through, to the great terror of the inmates. Again it drew back, and there was stillness so immediate, it was even more appalling than the loudest assaults of the tempest. The household, too, were silent. Even Dee was evidently disturbed, and as though in expectation of some extraordinary occurrence.
A sharp quick tapping was heart at the casement.
“What is that?” was the general inquiry. Gervase evidently heard it too, and was apparently listening.
Dee arose. He went slowly towards the window, as if carefully scrutinising what might present itself. He put his face nearly close to the glass, and manifestly beheld some object which caused him to draw back. His forehead became puckered by intense emotion, either from surprise or alarm. He put one finger on his brow, as though taking counsel from his own thoughts, deliberating for a moment what course to pursue. At length, much to the astonishment of his companions, he opened the latch of the casement, when, with a dismal croak, a raven came hopping in. With outstretched wings he jumped down on the floor, and would have gone direct to the bed, but the Doctor caught him, and by main force held him back.
Fluttering and screaming, the bird made every effort to escape, but not before Dee was aware of a label tied round his neck. This he quickly detached; after which the winged messenger flew back through the open window, either having finished his errand, or not liking his entertainment. Dee opened the billet—a bit of parchment—and out dropped the ring! In the envelope was a mystical scroll, encompassed with magic emblems, wherein was written the following doggerel, either in blood or coloured so as to represent it:—
“By this ring a charm is wound,
Rolling darkly round and round,
Ne’er beginning—ending never;
Woe betide this house for ever!
Thou art mine through life—in death
I’ll receive thy latest breath.
Plighted is thy vow to me,
Mine thy doom, thy destiny,
Sealed with blood; this endless token,
Like the spell, shall ne’er be broken.”
Alarm was but too legible on the Doctor’s brow. He was evidently taken by surprise. He read it aloud, while fearful groans responded from the victim.
“‘Tis a case of grievous perplexity,” said he, “and I am sore distraught. If he have sworn his very soul to her, as this rhyme doth seem to intimate, I am miserably afflicted for his case. Doubtless ’tis some snare which hath unwillingly been thrown about him. Nevertheless, I will diligently and warily address myself to the task, and Heaven grant us a safe deliverance. Yet I freely own there is both danger and extremity in the attempt. She will doubtless appear and claim the fulfilment of his pledge. But I must cope with her alone; none else may witness the conflict. It is not the first time that I have battled with the powers of darkness.”
“But what motive hath she for this persecution? it is not surely out of sheer malice,” said the dame, weeping.
“Belike not,” replied Dee thoughtfully. “It doth savour of those incantations whereof I oft read in diverse tractates, whereby she expects to gain advantage or deliverance if she sacrifice another victim to the demon whereunto she hath sold herself. Indeed, we hear of some whose tenure of life can only be renewed by the yearly substitution of another; and it is to this possible danger that our feeble efforts must be directed. But I trust in aid stronger than the united hosts of the Prince of Darkness. This very night, I doubt not, will come the final struggle.”
The wind was now still, but ever and anon bursts of hail hurtled on the window. Thunder growled in the distance, waxing louder and louder, until its roar might have appalled the stoutest heart.
With many anxious wishes and admonitions the distressed parents left the Doctor to himself.
He took from his pocket an hour-glass, a Bible, and a Latin translation from the Arabic, being a treatise on witches, genii, demons, and the like, together with their symbols, method of invocation, and many other subjects equally useful. Intent on his studies, he hardly looked aside save for the purpose of turning the glass, when he immediately became absorbed as before.
Now and then he cast a glance towards the bed. His patient lay perfectly quiet, but the Doctor fancied he was listening.
About midnight he heard a groan; he shut his book, and, looking aside, beheld the terrible eye and aspect of the Red Woman glaring fiercely upon him. She had in all likelihood been concealed somewhere within hearing; for a closet-door, on one side of the chamber, stood open as though she had just issued from it.
With great presence of mind he adjured her that she should declare her errand.
“I am here on my master’s business; mine errand concerns not thee,” was the reply. Her terrible eyes glanced, as she spoke, towards the bed where the unfortunate Gervase Buckley lay writhing as though in torment.
“By what compact or agreement is he thine, foul sorceress? Knowest thou not that there are bounds beyond which ye cannot prevail?”
“He hath sworn—the compact is sealed with blood, and must be fulfilled. I am here to claim mine own; and it is at thy peril thou prevent me.”
“I fear thee not, but am prepared to withstand thee and all thy works.”
“Beware! There’s a black drop in thine own cup,” said she. “Thou thyself hast sought counsel by forbidden arts, and I can crush thee in a moment.”
Dee looked as though vanquished on the sudden. He was not altogether clear from this charge, having, though at Kelly’s instigation, been led somewhat farther than was advisable into practices which in his heart he condemned. He, however, now felt convinced that Kelly had some hand in the business, knowing, too, that he would associate with the most wicked and abandoned, if so be that he might compass his greedy and unhallowed desire.
“Depart whilst thou may,” she continued. “I warn thee. Yonder inheritance is mine, though the silly damsel they have lost be the reputed heir. Aforetime I have told thee. Wronged of our rights, I have sold myself—ay, body and soul—for revenge! By unjust persecutions we have been proscribed, those of the true faith have been forced to fly, and even our lands and our patrimony given to yon graceless heretics.”
“But why persecute this unoffending house?—they have not done thee wrong.”
“It is commanded—the doom must be fulfilled. One condition only was appointed. A hard task, to wit—but what cannot power and ingenuity compass?—’When one shall pledge himself thine and for ever, then the inheritance thou seekest is thine also, which none shall take from thee. But he too must be rendered up to me.’ This was the doom! ‘Tis fulfilled. He hath pledged himself body and soul, and that ring, if need be, is witness to his troth.”
“Is Grace Ashton living or dead?” inquired Dee, with a firm and penetrating glance.
“When he hath surrendered to his pledge it shall be told thee.”
“Wicked sorceress,” said the Doctor, rising in great anger, “he shall not be thy victim; thine arts shall be countervailed. The powers of darkness are not, in the end, permitted to prevail, though for a time their devices seem to prosper. Listen, and answer me truly, or I will compel thee in such wise that thou darest not disobey. Was there none other condition to thy bond?”
The weird woman here broke forth into a laugh so wild and scornful that the arch-fiend himself could hardly have surpassed it in malice.
“Fret not thyself,” she said, “and I will tell thee. Know, then, I am scathless from all harm until that feeble ring shall be able to bind me; none other bonds may prevail.”
“This ring bind thee?”
“Even so; and as a blade of grass I could rend it! Judge, then, of my safety. Fire, air, and water—all the elements—cannot have the power to hurt me; I hold a charmed life. The price is paid!”
Dee looked curiously round the little thin ring which he held, and indeed it were hopeless to suppose so frail a fetter could restrain her.
“Thou hast told me the truth?”
“I have—on my hope of prospering in this pursuit of our patrimony.”
“And what is thy purpose with the lad?”
“I have need of him. He is my hostage to him whom I serve.”
“Thou wilt not take him by force!”
“I will not. He will follow whithersoever I lead. He has neither will nor power to disobey.”
“Grant a little space, I prithee. ‘Tis a doleful doom for one so young.”
“To-morrow my time hath expired. Either he or I must be surrendered to”——Here she pointed downwards.
“Agreed. To-morrow at this hour. We will be prepared.”
The witch unwillingly departed as she came. The closet-door was shut as with a violent gust of wind, after which Dee sat pondering deeply on the matter, but unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion. He never suspected for one moment what in this evil and matter-of-fact generation would have occurred even to the most credulous—to wit, that either insanity or fanaticism, aided by fortuitous events, if we may so speak, was the cause of this delusion, at least to the unhappy woman now the object of Dee’s most abstruse speculations. His thoughts, however, would often recur to his quondam associate, Kelly, and, if in the neighbourhood, which he suspected, an interview with him might possibly be of use, and afford some clue to guide their proceedings.
Committing himself to a short repose, he determined to make diligent search for this mischievous individual—having comforted in some measure the unhappy couple below stairs, who were in a state of great apprehension lest their son had already fallen a victim, and were ready to give up all for lost.
Early on the ensuing day the Doctor bent his steps towards Clegg Hall, whence the old family of that name had been dispossessed, and from whom that mysterious individual, the Red Woman, claimed descent.
The air was fresh and bracing after the night’s tempest. Traces of its fury, however, were plainly visible. Huge trees had been swept down, as though some giant hand had crushed them. Rising the hill towards Belfield, he stayed a moment to look round him. There was something in the loneliness and desertion of the spot that was congenial to his thoughts. The rooks cawed round their ancient inheritance, but all was ruin and disorder. His curiosity was excited; he had sufficient local knowledge to remember it was once an establishment of the Knights of St John some centuries before, and he remembered too, that according to vulgar tradition, great riches were buried somewhere in the vaults. A thought struck him that it was not an unlikely spot for the operations of Master Kelly. Impressed with this idea, a notion was soon engendered that his errand need not carry him farther. He drew near to the ivied archway beneath the tower. The mavis whistled for its mate, and the sparrow chirped amongst the foliage. All else was silent and apparently deserted. He entered the gateway. Inside, on the right hand, was a narrow flight of steps, and, impelled by curiosity, he clambered, though with some difficulty, into a dilapidated chamber above. Here the loopholes were covered with ivy, but it was unroofed, and the floor was strewn with rubbish, the accumulation of ages. Through a narrow breach at one corner he saw what had once been a concealed passage, evidently piercing the immense thickness of the walls, and leading probably to some secret chambers not ordinarily in use. He now heard voices below, and taking advantage thereby, crept into the passage, probably expecting to gather some news by listening to the visitors if they approached. Two of these ascended the broken steps, and every word was audible from his place of concealment. He instantly recognised the voice of Kelly. The other was a stranger.
“Ah, ah! old Mother Red-Cap, I tell thee, says we can never get the treasure. By this good spade, and a willing arm to wit, the gold is mine ere two hours older,” said Kelly.
“I am terribly afeard o’ these same boggarts,” replied his companion. “T’owd an—’ll come sure enough among us, sure as my name’s Tim, some time or another.”
“Never fear, nunkey; thee knows what a lump I’ve promised thee; an’ as for the old one, trust me for that; I can lay him in the Red Sea at any time. Haven’t I and that old silly Doctor, who pretends, forsooth, to have conscience qualms when there’s aught to be gotten, though as fond o’ the stuff as any of us—haven’t we, I say, by conjurations and fumigations, raised and laid a whole legion o’ them? Why, man, I’m as well acquainted with the kingdom of Beelzebub, and his ministers to boot, as I am with my own.”
“Don’t make sich an ugly talk about ’em, prithee, good sir. I thought I heard some’at there i’ the passage, an’ I think i’ my heart I darna face ’em again for a’ th’ gowd i’ th’ monk’s cellar.”
“Tush, fool! If we get hold on ‘t now it shall be ours, and none o’ the rest of our brethren o’ the Red Cross need share, thee knows. But thou be’st but newly dubbed an’ hardly initiated yet in our sublime mysteries. Nevertheless, I will be indifferent honest too, and for thy great services to us and to our cause I do promise thee a largess when it comes to our fingers—that is to say, one-fifth to thee, and one-fifth to me; the other three shares do go to the general treasure-house of the community, of which I take half.”
“A goodly portion, marry—but I’d liefer ‘t not gang ony farther.”
“Villain! thou art bent on treachery; if thou draw back I’ll ha’ thee hanged or otherwise punished for what thou hast done. Remember, knave, thou art in my power.”
The guilty victim groaned piteously, but he was irretrievably entangled. The toils had been spread by a master-hand. He saw the gulf to which he was hurried, but could not extricate himself.
“Yonder women, plague take ’em,” said Tim; “what’s up now? I know this owd witch who’s sold hersel’ to—to—Blackface I’m afeard, is th’ owner o’ many a good rood o’ land hereabout, an’ t’owd Ha’ too, wi’ its ‘purtenances. But she’s brought fro’ Spain or Italy, as I be tou’d, a main lot o’ these same priest gear; an’ they’re lurkin’ hereabout like, loike rabbits in a warren, till she can get rid o’ these Ashtons. Mony a year long past I’ve seen her prowling about, but she never could get her ends greadly till now.”
“By my help she shall,” said Kelly; “it’s a bargain between us. She’s brought her grandchildren too, who left England in their youth, being educated in a convent o’er seas. They’re just ready to drop into possession.”
“But poor Grace Ashton; she’s gi’en me mony a dish of hot porritch an’ bannocks. She shauna be hurt if I can help it.”
“Fool!—the wench must be provided for. Look thee—if she get away, she’ll spoil all. When dead, young Buckley must be charged with the murder.”
“Weel, weel; but I’ll ha’ nought more to do wi ‘t. E’en tak’ your own fling—I’ll wash my hands on’t altogether, an’ so”——
“I want help, thou chicken-faced varlet—come, budge—to thy work; we may have helpers to t
the booty, if time be lost.”
“Mercy on us!” said Tim, in great dolour, “I wish I had ne’er had aught to do wi’ treasure-hunting an’ sich-like occupation. If ever I get rid of this job, if I don’t stick to my old trade, hang me up to dry.”
“Hold thy peace, carrion! and remember, should a whisper even escape thee, I will have thee hanged in good earnest.”
“Ay, ay; just like Satan ‘ticing to iniquity, an’ then, biggest rogue al’ays turns retriever.”
“None o’ thy pretences: thou hast as liquorish a longing after the gold as any miser in the parish, and when the broad pieces and the silver nobles jingle in thy fob, thoul’t forget thy qualms, and thank me into the bargain. Now to work. Let me see, what did the sleeping beauty say? Humph—’Under the main pillar at the south-east corner.’ Good. Nay, man, don’t light up yet. Let us get fairly underground first, for fear of accidents.”
To the great alarm of Dr Dee, who heard every word, these two worthies came straight towards the opening. He drew on one side at a venture. Luckily it proved the right one; they proceeded up the passage in the opposite direction. He heard them groping at the further end. A trap-door was evidently raised, and he was pretty well convinced they had found the way to the vaults; probably it had been blocked up for ages until recently, and in all likelihood Tim had pointed it out, as well as the notion that treasure was concealed somewhere in these labyrinths.
How to make this discovery in some way subservient to his mission was the next consideration; and with a firm conviction, generally the forerunner of success, he determined to employ some bold stratagem for their detection. They were now fairly in the trap, and he hoped to make sure of the vermin. For this end he cautiously felt his way to the opposite extremity of the passage, where he found the floor emitted a hollow sound. This was assuredly the entrance; but he tried in vain—it resisted every effort. Here, however, he determined to keep watch and seize them if possible on their egress, trusting to his good fortune or his courage for help in any emergency that might ensue. At times he laid his ear to the ground, but nothing was audible as to their operations below. This convinced him they were at a considerable distance from the entry, but he felt assured that ere long they must emerge from their den, when, taken by surprise, he should have little difficulty in securing the first that came forth, keeping fast the door until he had made sure of his captive.
He watched patiently for some time, when all on a sudden he heard a rumbling subterraneous noise, and he plainly felt the ground tremble under his feet. A loud shriek was heard below, and presently footsteps approaching the entrance. He had scarcely time to draw aside ere the door was burst open, and some one rushed forth. The Doctor seized him by the throat, and ere he had recovered from his consternation, dragged him out of the passage.
“Villain! what is it ye are plotting here about? Confess, or I’ll have thee dealt with after thy deserts.”
“Oh!—I’ll—tell—all—I will”—sobbed out the delinquent, gasping with terror. Tim, for it was none other, fell on his knees crying for mercy. “Whoever thou art,” continued he, “come and help—help for one that’s fa’n under a heavy calamity. Bad though he be, we maunna let him perish for lack o’ lookin’ after.”
“Hast got a light, knave?”
“I’ll run an’ fetch one.”
“Nay, nay; we part not company until better acquainted. Is there not a candle below?”
“Alas! ’tis put out—and—oh! I’d forgotten; here’s t’ match-box i’ my pocket.”
He drew forth the requisite materials, and they were soon equipped, exploring the concealed chambers we have before described. With difficulty they now found their way, by reason of the dust arising from the recent catastrophe. Dee followed cautiously on, keeping a wary eye on his leader lest some deceit or stratagem should be intended.
They now approached a heap of ruins almost choking the entrance to the larger vault. He thought groans issued from beneath.
“He’s not dead yet,” said Tim. “Here, here, good sir; help me to shift this stone first.”
They set to work in good earnest, and, with no little difficulty and delay, at length succeeded in releasing the unfortunate treasure-hunter. Eager to possess the supposed riches, they had incautiously undermined one of the main supports of the roof, and Kelly was buried under the ruins. Fortunately he lay in the hollow he had made, otherwise nothing but a miracle could have saved him from immediate death. He was terribly bruised, nevertheless, and presented a pitiable spectacle. Bleeding and sore wounded, he was hardly sensible as they bore him out into the fresh air. Apparently unable to move, they laid him on the ground until help could be obtained. In a while he recovered.
“Thou art verily incorrigible,” said the Doctor to his former associate. “Where is the maiden ye have so cruelly conveyed away?”
But Kelly was dogged, and would not answer.
“I have heard and know all,” continued Dee; “so that, unless thou wilt confess, assuredly I will have thee lodged in the next jail on accusation of the murder. Thy diabolical practices will sooner or later bring thee to punishment.”
“Promise not to molest me,” said Kelly, who feared nothing but the strong arm of the law, so utterly was he given over to a reprobate mind, even to commit iniquity with greediness.
“What! and let thee forth to compass other and maybe more heinous mischief! I promise nothing, save that thou be prevented from such pursuits. Thou hast entered into covenant with the woman whom it is our purpose in due time to deliver up to the secular arm. You think to compass your mutual ends by this compact; but be assured your schemes shall be frustrated, and that speedily.”
At this Kelly again fell into a sulky mood, maimed and helpless though he was; and revenge, dark and deadly, distorted his visage.
Tim here stepped forward.
“I do repent me of this iniquity, an’ if ever I’m catched meddling wi’ sich tickle gear again, I’ll gie ye leave to hang me up without judge or jury.”
“The best proof of repentance is restitution,” said the Doctor. “Knowest thou aught of the maiden?”
“I’ll find her, if ye can keep that noisome wizard frae hurting me. He swears that if I tell, e’en by nods, winks, or otherwise, he’ll send me to —— in a whirlwind.”
“I will give thee my pledge, not a hair of thy head shall be damaged.”
“He has the key in his pocket.”
“What of that?”
“It’s the key to the old house door yonder, an’ she’s either there or but lately fetched away.”
The Doctor proceeded, though not without opposition, to the search. The key was soon produced, and accompanied by the repentant ballad-monger, he approached the mansion, which, as we have before noticed, was near at hand, apparently untenanted.
“Yonder knave, I think, cannot escape,” said Dee.
“No, no,” said his conductor, “unless some’at fetches him; he’s too well hampered for that. His legs are aw smashed wi’ that downfa’.”
They entered a little court almost choked up with leaves and long grass. The door was unlocked, and a desolate scene presented itself. The hall was covered with damp and mildew—all was rotting in ruin and decay. Tim led the way up-stairs. The same appearances were still manifest. The dark shadow of death seemed to brood there—an interminable silence. They entered a small closet, nearly dark; and here, on a miserable pallet, lay the form of Grace Ashton, now, alas! pale and haggard. She seemed altogether unconscious of their presence. The horrible events of the preceding night had brought on mental as well as bodily disease. It was the practice of these treasure-seekers either to raise up a dead body for the desired information, or to throw the living into such a state of mental hallucination that they should answer dark and difficult questions whilst in that condition. It not unfrequently happened, however, that the unfortunate victims to these horrid rites either lost their lives or their reason during the experiment.
We will not pursue the recital in the present case: suffice it to say, that Grace Ashton was immediately removed and placed under the care of her friends; the Doctor went back to Kelly for further disclosures, but what was his surprise to find that by some means or another he had escaped. He now lost no time in returning to Buckley, communicating the painful, though in some degree welcome, intelligence that Grace Ashton had been rescued from her persecutors.
It was now time to adopt measures for their reception of the witch, who would doubtless not fail in her appointment.
Dee was yet in doubt as to the issue, and he thought it needful to acquaint them with the only method by which the spell could be broken. How it were possible that the ring should ever bind her was a mystery that at present he could not solve. Dame Eleanor listened very attentively, then sharply replied—
“I have heard o’ this charm aforetime, or——By’r lady, but I have it!”
She almost capered for joy.
We will not, however, anticipate the result, but entreat our readers to suspend their guesses, and again accompany us to the chamber where lay the heir of Buckley, still grievously tormented.
Midnight again approached. Dee was sitting at the table, apparently in deep study. He had examined the closet, and found it communicated by another passage to an outer door; and it was through this that the Red Woman had contrived to enter without being observed. The learned Doctor was evidently awaiting her approach with no little anxiety. Once or twice he fancied some one tapped at the casement, but it was only the wind rushing by in stormy gusts, increasing in strength and frequency as the time drew nigh.
Hark! was not that a distant shriek? It might be the creaking of the boughs and the old yew-tree by the door, thought Dee; and again, in a while, he relapsed into a profound reverie. Another! He heard the jarring of rusty hinges; a heavy step; and—the Red Woman stood beside him; but with such a malevolent aspect that he was somewhat startled and uneasy at her presence.
“I am beguiled of my prey!—mocked—thwarted. But beware, old man; thy meddling may prove dangerous. I will possess the inheritance, though every earthly power withstood me! That boy is mine. He hath sworn it—sealed it with his heart’s blood—and I demand the pledge.” The victim groaned. “Hearest thou that response? ‘Tis an assent. He is mine in spite of your stratagems.”
This was probably but the raving of a disordered intellect, but Dee was too deeply imbued with the superstitions of the age to suppose for a moment that it was not a case of undisguised witchcraft, or that this wicked hag was not invested with sufficient power to execute whatever either anger or caprice might suggest.
“What is thy will with the wretched victim thou hast ensnared?” he inquired.
“I have told thee.”
“Thou wilt not convey him away bodily to his tormentors?”
“Unless they have a victim the inheritance may not be mine.” She said this with such a fiendish malice that made even the exorcist tremble. His presence of mind, however, did not forsake him.
“The ring—I remember—there was a condition in the bond. In all such compacts there is ever a loophole for escape.”
“None that thou canst creep through,” she said, with a look of scorn.
“It is not permitted that the children of men be tempted above measure.”
“When that ring shall have strength to bind me, and not till then. All other bonds I rend asunder. Even adamant were as flaming tow.”
“Here is a ring of stout iron,” said Dee, pointing to an iron ring fixed by a stout staple in the wall. “I think it would try thy boasted strength.”
“I could break it as the feeble reed.”
The Doctor shook his head incredulously.
“Try me. Thou shall find it no empty boast.”
She seemed proud that her words should be put to the test; and even proposed that her arms should be pinioned, and her body fastened with stout cords to the iron ring which had been prepared for this purpose.
“Thou shalt soon find which is the strongest,” said she, exultingly. “I have broken bonds ere now to which these are but as a thread.”
She looked confident of success, and surveyed the whole proceeding with a look of unutterable scorn.
“Now do thy worst, thou wicked one,” said Dee, when he had finished.
But lo! a shriek that might have wakened the dead. She was unable to extricate herself, being held in spite of the most desperate efforts to escape. With a loud yell she cried out—
“Thou hast played me false, demon!”
“‘Tis not thy demon,” said Dee; “it is I that have circumvented thee. In that iron ring is concealed the charmed one, wrought out by a cunning smith to this intent—to wit, the deliverance of a persecuted house.”
The Red Woman now appeared shorn of her strength. Her charms and her delusions were dispelled. She sank into the condition of a hopeless, wretched maniac, and was for some time closely confined to this chamber.
Buckley, recovering soon after, was united to Grace Ashton, who, it is confidently asserted, and perhaps believed, was restored to immediate health when the charm was broken.