William Ainsworth.

Guy Fawkes: or, The Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance





As a portion of the crowd passed over the old bridge across the Irwell connecting Manchester with Salford, on which stood an ancient chapel erected by Thomas de Booth, in the reign of Edward the Third, and recently converted into a prison for recusants, they perceived the prophetess, Elizabeth Orton, seated upon the stone steps of the desecrated structure, earnestly perusing the missal given her by Father Woodroofe. A mob speedily collected round her; but, unconscious seemingly of their presence, the poor woman turned over leaf after leaf, and pursued her studies. Her hood was thrown back, and discovered her bare and withered neck, over which her dishevelled hair streamed in long sable elf-locks. Irritated by her indifference, several of the by-standers, who had questioned her as to the nature of her studies, began to mock and jeer her, and endeavoured, by plucking her robe, and casting little pebbles at her, to attract her attention. Roused at length by these annoyances, she arose; and fixing her large black eyes menacingly upon them, was about to stalk away, when they surrounded and detained her.

Speak to us, Bess, cried several voices. Prophesy prophesy.

I will speak to you, replied the poor woman, shaking her hand at them, I will prophesy to you. And mark me, though ye believe not, my words shall not fall to the ground.

A miracle! a miracle! shouted the by-standers. Bess Orton, who has been silent for twenty years, has found her tongue at last.

I have seen a vision, and dreamed a dream, continued the prophetess. As I lay in my cell last night, meditating upon the forlorn state of our religion, and of its professors, methought nineteen shadowy figures stood before me ay, nineteen for I counted them thrice and when I questioned them as to their coming, for my tongue at first clove to the roof of my mouth, and my lips refused their office, one of them answered, in a voice which yet rings in my ears, 'We are the chosen deliverers of our fallen and persecuted church. To us is intrusted the rebuilding of her temples, to our hands is committed the destruction of our enemies. The work will be done in darkness and in secret, with toil and travail, but it will at length be made manifest; and when the hour is arrived, our vengeance will be terrible and exterminating.' With these words, they vanished from my sight. Ah! she exclaimed, suddenly starting, and passing her hand across her brow, as if to clear her sight, it was no dream no vision. I see one of them now.

Where? where? cried several voices.

The prophetess answered by extending her skinny arm towards some object immediately before her.

All eyes were instantly turned in the same direction, when they beheld a Spanish soldier for such his garb proclaimed him standing at a few paces' distance from them. He was wrapped in an ample cloak, with a broad-leaved steeple-crowned hat, decorated with a single green feather, pulled over his brows, and wore a polished-steel brigandine, trunk hose, and buff boots drawn up to the knees.

His arms consisted of a brace of petronels thrust into his belt, whence a long rapier depended. His features were dark as bronze, and well-formed, though strongly marked, and had an expression of settled sternness. His eyes were grey and penetrating, and shaded by thick beetle-brows; and his physiognomy was completed by a black peaked beard. His person was tall and erect, and his deportment soldier-like and commanding. Perceiving he had become an object of notice, the stranger cast a compassionate look at the prophetess, who still remained gazing fixedly at him, and throwing her a few pieces of money, strode away.

Watching his retreating figure till it disappeared from view, the crazed woman tossed her arms wildly in the air, and cried, in a voice of exultation, Did I not speak the truth? did I not tell you I had seen him? He is the deliverer of our church, and is come to avenge the righteous blood which hath been this day shed.

Peace, woman, and fly while there is yet time, cried the young man who had been designated as Humphrey Chetham. The pursuivant and his myrmidons are in search of you.

Then they need not go far to find me, replied the prophetess. I will tell them what I told these people, that the day of bloody retribution is at hand, that the avenger is arrived. I have seen him twice, once in my cave, and once again here, even where you stand.

If you do not keep silence and fly, my poor creature, rejoined Humphrey Chetham, you will have to endure what you suffered years ago, stripes, and perhaps torture. Be warned by me ah! it is too late. He is approaching.

Let him come, replied Elizabeth Orton, I am ready for him.

Can none of you force her away? cried Humphrey Chetham, appealing to the crowd; I will reward you.

I will not stir from this spot, rejoined the prophetess, obstinately; I will testify to the truth.

The kind-hearted young merchant, finding any further attempt to preserve her fruitless, drew aside.

By this time, the pursuivant and his attendants had come up. Seize her! cried the former, and let her be placed within this prison till I have reported her to the commissioners. If you will confess to me, woman, he added in a whisper to her, that you have harboured a priest, and will guide us to his hiding-place, you shall be set free.

I know of no priests but those you have murdered, returned the prophetess, in a loud voice, but I will tell you something that you wot not of. The avenger of blood is at hand. I have seen him. All here have seen him. And you shall see him but not now not now.

What is the meaning of this raving? demanded the pursuivant.

Pay no heed to her talk, interposed Humphrey Chetham; she is a poor crazed being, who knows not what she says. I will be surety for her inoffensive conduct.

You must give me surety for yourself, sir, replied the pursuivant. I have just learnt that you were last night at Ordsall Hall, the seat of that 'dangerous temporiser,' for so he is designated in my warrant, Sir William Radcliffe. And if report speaks truly, you are not altogether insensible to the charms of his fair daughter, Viviana.

What is this to thee, thou malapert knave? cried Humphrey Chetham, reddening, partly from anger, partly, it might be, from another emotion.

Much, as you shall presently find, good Master Wolf-in-sheep's-clothing, retorted the pursuivant; if you prove not a rank Papist at heart, then do I not know a true man from a false.

This angry conference was cut short by a piercing scream from the prophetess. Breaking from the grasp of her captors, who were about to force her into the prison, she sprang with a single bound upon the parapet of the bridge; and utterly regardless of her dangerous position, turned, and faced the soldiers, who were struck mute with astonishment.

Tremble! she cried, in a loud voice, "tremble, ye evil-doers! Ye who have despoiled the house of God, have broken his altars, scattered his incense, slain his priests. Tremble, I say. The avenger is arrived. The bolt is in his hand. It shall strike king, lords, commons, all! These are my last words, take them to heart.

Drag her off! roared the pursuivant, furiously.

Use care use gentleness, if ye are men! cried Humphrey Chetham.

Think not you can detain me! cried the prophetess. Avaunt, and tremble!

So saying she flung herself from the parapet.

The height from which she fell was about fifty feet. Dashed into the air like jets from a fountain by the weight and force of the descending body, the water instantly closed over her. But she rose to the surface of the stream, about twenty yards below the bridge.

She may yet be saved, cried Humphrey Chetham, who with the by-standers had hurried to the side of the bridge.

You will only preserve her for the gallows, observed the pursuivant.

Your malice shall not prevent my making the attempt, replied the young merchant. Ha! assistance is at hand.

The exclamation was occasioned by the sudden appearance of the soldier in the Spanish dress, who rushed towards the left bank of the river, which was here, as elsewhere, formed of red sandstone rock, and following the course of the current, awaited the next appearance of the drowning woman. It did not occur till she had been carried a considerable distance down the stream, when the soldier, swiftly divesting himself of his cloak, plunged into the water, and dragged her ashore.

Follow me, cried the pursuivant to his attendants. I will not lose my prey.

But before he gained the bank of the river, the soldier and his charge had disappeared, nor could he detect any traces of them.

CHAPTER II.
ORDSALL CAVE

After rescuing the unfortunate prophetess from a watery grave in the manner just related, the soldier snatched up his cloak, and, taking his dripping burthen in his arms, hurried swiftly along the bank of the river, until he came to a large cleft in the rock, into which he crept, taking the prophetess with him, and thus eluded observation. In this retreat he continued upwards of two hours, during which time the poor creature, to whom he paid every attention that circumstances would admit, had so far recovered as to be able to speak. But it was evident that the shock had been too much for her, and that she was sinking fast. She was so faint that she could scarcely move; but she expressed a strong desire to reach her cell before she breathed her last. Having described its situation as accurately as she could to the soldier who before he ventured forth peeped out to reconnoitre he again raised her in his arms, and by her direction struck into a narrow lane skirting the bank of the river.

Pursuing this road for about half a mile, he arrived at the foot of a small knoll, covered by a clump of magnificent beech-trees, and still acting under the guidance of the dying woman, whose voice grew more feeble each instant, he mounted it, and from its summit took a rapid survey of the surrounding country. On the opposite bank of the river stood an old hall, while further on, at some distance, he could perceive through the trees the gables and chimneys of another ancient mansion.

Raise me up, said Elizabeth Orton, as he lingered on this spot for a moment. In that old house, which you see yonder, Hulme Hall, I was born. I would willingly take one look at it before I die.

And the other hall, which I discern through the trees, is Ordsall, is it not? inquired the soldier.

It is, replied the prophetess. And now let us make what haste we can. We have not far to go; and I feel I shall not last long.

Descending the eminence, and again entering the lane, which here made a turn, the soldier approached a grassy space, walled in on either side by steep sandstone rocks. At the further extremity of the enclosure, after a moment's search, by the direction of his companion, he found, artfully concealed by overhanging brushwood, the mouth of a small cave. He crept into the excavation, and found it about six feet high, and of considerable depth. The roof was ornamented with Runic characters and other grotesque and half-effaced inscriptions, while the sides were embellished with Gothic tracery, amid which the letters I.H.S., carved in ancient church text, could be easily distinguished. Tradition assigned the cell to the priests of Odin, but it was evident that worshippers at other and holier altars had more recently made it their retreat. Its present occupant had furnished it with a straw pallet, and a small wooden crucifix fixed in a recess in the wall. Gently depositing her upon the pallet, the soldier took a seat beside her on a stone slab at the foot of the bed. He next, at her request, as the cave was rendered almost wholly dark by the overhanging trees, struck a light, and set fire to a candle placed within a lantern.

After a few moments passed in prayer, the recluse begged him to give her the crucifix that she might clasp it to her breast. This done, she became more composed, and prepared to meet her end. Suddenly, as if something had again disturbed her, she opened wide her glazing eyes, and starting up with a dying effort, stretched out her hands.

I see him before them! she cried. They examine him they adjudge him! Ah! he is now in a dungeon! See, the torturers advance! He is placed on the rack once twice thrice they turn the levers! His joints snap in their sockets his sinews crack! Mercy! he confesses! He is led to execution. I see him ascend the scaffold!

Whom do you behold? inquired the soldier, listening to her in astonishment.

His face is hidden from me, replied the prophetess; but his figure is not unlike your own. Ha! I hear the executioner pronounce his name. How are you called?

Guy Fawkes, replied the soldier.

It is the name I heard, rejoined Elizabeth Orton.

And, sinking backward, she expired.

Guy Fawkes gazed at her for some time, till he felt assured that the last spark of life had fled. He then turned away, and placing his hand upon his chin, became lost in deep reflection.

CHAPTER III.
ORDSALL HALL

Soon after sunset, on the evening of the events previously related, the inmates of Ordsall Hall were disturbed and alarmed (for in those times of trouble any casual disturbance at night was sufficient to occasion alarm to a Catholic family) by a loud clamour for admittance from some one stationed at the farther side of the moat, then, as now, surrounding that ancient manorial residence. The drawbridge being raised, no apprehension was entertained of an attempt at forcible entrance on the part of the intruder, who, so far as he could be discerned in the deepening twilight, rendered yet more obscure by the shade of the trees under which he stood, appeared to be a solitary horseman. Still, for fear of a surprise, it was judged prudent by those inside the hall to turn a deaf ear to the summons; nor was it until it had been more than once repeated in a peremptory tone, that any attention was paid to it. The outer gate was then cautiously opened by an old steward, and a couple of serving-men, armed with pikes and swords, who demanded the stranger's business, and were answered that he desired to speak with Sir William Radcliffe. The steward rejoined that his master was not at home, having set out the day before for Chester: but that even if he were, he would take upon himself to affirm that no audience would be given, on any pretence whatever, to a stranger at such an unseasonable hour. To this the other replied, in a haughty and commanding voice, that he was neither a stranger to Sir William Radcliffe, nor ignorant of the necessity of caution, though in this instance it was altogether superfluous; and as, notwithstanding the steward's assertion to the contrary, he was fully persuaded his master was at home, he insisted upon being conducted to him without further parley, as his business would not brook delay. In vain the steward declared he had spoken the truth. The stranger evidently disbelieved him; but, as he could obtain no more satisfactory answer to his interrogations, he suddenly shifted his ground, and inquired whether Sir William's daughter, Mistress Viviana, was likewise absent from home.

Before I reply to the question, I must know by whom and wherefore it is put? returned the steward, evasively.

Trouble not yourself further, friend, but deliver this letter to her," rejoined the horseman, flinging a packet across the moat. It is addressed to her father, but there is no reason why she should not be acquainted with its contents.

Take it up, Olin Birtwissel, cried the steward, eyeing the packet which had fallen at his feet suspiciously; take it up, I say, and hold it to the light, that I may consider it well before I carry it to our young mistress. I have heard of strange treacheries practised by such means, and care not to meddle with it.

Neither do I, good Master Heydocke, replied Birtwissel. I would not touch it for a twelvemonth's wages. It may burst, and spoil my good looks, and so ruin my fortunes with the damsels. But here is Jeff Gellibronde, who, having no beauty to lose, and being, moreover, afraid of nothing, will pick it up for you.

Speak for yourself, Olin, rejoined Gellibronde, in a surly tone. I have no more fancy for a shattered limb, or a scorched face, than my neighbours.

Dolts! cried the stranger, who had listened to these observations with angry impatience, if you will not convey my packet, which has nothing more dangerous about it than an ordinary letter, to your mistress, at least acquaint her that Mr. Robert Catesby, of Ashby St. Legers, is without, and craves an instant speech with her.

Mr. Catesby! exclaimed the steward, in astonishment. If it be indeed your worship, why did you not declare yourself at once?

I may have as good reason for caution as yourself, Master Heydocke," returned Catesby, laughing.

True, rejoined the steward; but, methinks it is somewhat strange to find your worship here, when I am aware that my master expected to meet you, and certain other honourable gentlemen that you wot of, at a place in a clean opposite direction, Holywell, in Flintshire.

The cause of my presence, since you desire to be certified of the matter, is simply this, replied Catesby, urging his steed towards the edge of the moat, while the steward advanced to meet him on the opposite bank, so that a few yards only lay between them; I came round by Manchester, he continued, in a lower tone, to see if any assistance could be rendered to the unfortunate fathers Woodroofe and Forshawe; but found on my arrival this morning that I was too late, as they had just been executed.

Heaven have mercy on their souls! ejaculated Heydocke, shuddering, and crossing himself. Yours was a pious mission, Mr. Catesby. Would it had been availing!

I would so, too, with all my soul! rejoined the other, fervently; but fate ordained it otherwise. While I was in the town, I accidentally learnt from one, who informed me he had just parted with him, that your master was at home; and, fearing he might not be able to attend the meeting at Holywell, I resolved to proceed hither at nightfall, when my visit was not likely to be observed; having motives, which you may readily conjecture, for preserving the strictest secrecy on the occasion. The letter was prepared in case I should fail in meeting with him. And now that I have satisfied your scruples, good master steward, if Sir William be really within, I pray you lead me to him forthwith. If not, your young mistress may serve my turn, for I have that to say which it imports one or other of them to know.

In regard to my master, replied the steward, he departed yesterday for Chester, on his way to join the pilgrimage to St. Winifred's Well, as I have already assured your worship. And whoever informed you to the contrary, spoke falsely. But I will convey your letter and message to my young mistress, and on learning her pleasure as to receiving you, will instantly return and report it. These are dangerous times, your worship; dangerous times. A good Catholic knows not whom to trust, there are so many spoilers abroad.

How, sirrah! cried Catesby, angrily, do you apply that observation to me?

Far be it from me, answered Heydocke, respectfully, to apply any observation that may sound offensive to your worship, whom I know to be a most worthy gentleman, and as free from heresy, as any in the kingdom. I was merely endeavouring to account for what may appear my over-caution in detaining you where you are, till I learn my lady's pleasure. It is a rule in this house not to lower the drawbridge without orders after sunset; and I dare not, for my place, disobey it. Young Mr. Humphrey Chetham, of Crumpsall, was detained in the like manner no later than last night; and he is a visitor, he added, in a significant tone, who is not altogether unwelcome to my mistress ahem! But duty is no respecter of persons; and in my master's absence my duty is to protect his household. Your worship will pardon me.

I will pardon anything but your loquacity and tediousness, rejoined Catesby, impatiently. About your errand quickly.

I am gone, your worship, returned the steward, disappearing with his companions.

Throwing the bridle over his horse's neck, and allowing him to drink his fill from the water of the moat, and afterwards to pluck a few mouthfuls of the long grass that fringed its brink, Catesby abandoned himself to reflection. In a few moments, as the steward did not return, he raised his eyes, and fixed them upon the ancient habitation before him, ancient, indeed, it was not at this time, having been in a great measure rebuilt by its possessor, Sir William Radcliffe, during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth, in the rich and picturesque style of that period. Little could be distinguished of its projecting and retiring wings, its walls decorated with black and white chequer-work, the characteristic of the class of architecture to which it belonged, or of its magnificent embayed windows filled with stained glass; but the outline of its heavy roof, with its numerous gables, and groups of tall and elaborately-ornamented chimneys, might be distinctly traced in strong relief against the warm and still-glowing western sky.