William Ainsworth.

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





Though much gone to decay, grievously neglected, and divided into three separate dwelling-houses, Ordsall Hall still retains much of its original character and beauty; and viewed at the magic hour above described, when the changes produced by the lapse of years cannot be detected, it presents much the same striking appearance that it offered to the gaze of Catesby. Situated on the north bank of the Irwell, which supplies the moat with a constant stream of fresh water, it commands on the south-west a beautiful view of the winding course of the river, here almost forming an island, of Trafford Park and its hall, of the woody uplands beyond it, and of the distant hills of Cheshire. The mansion itself is an irregular quadrangle, covering a considerable tract of ground. The gardens, once exquisitely laid out in the formal taste of Elizabeth's days, are also enclosed by the moat, surrounding (except in the intervals where it is filled up) a space of some acres in extent. At the period of this history, it was approached on the north-east by a noble avenue of sycamores, leading to within a short distance of its gates.

As Catesby surveyed this stately structure, and pondered upon the wealth and power of its owner, his meditations thus found vent in words: "If I could but link Radcliffe to our cause, or win the hand of his fair daughter, and so bind him to me, the great attempt could not fail. She has refused me once. No matter. I will persevere till she yields. With Father Oldcorne to back my suit, I am assured of success. She is necessary to my purpose, and shall be mine.

Descended from an ancient Northamptonshire family, and numbering among his ancestry the well-known minister of the same name who flourished in the reign of Richard the Third, Robert Catesby, at this time about forty, had in his youth led a wild and dissolute life; and though bred in the faith of Rome, he had for some years abandoned its worship. In 1580, when the Jesuits, Campion and Persons, visited England, he was reconciled to the church he had quitted, and thenceforth became as zealous a supporter and promoter of its doctrines as he had heretofore been their bitter opponent. He was now actively engaged in all the Popish plots of the period, and was even supposed to be connected with those designs of a darker dye which were set on foot for Elizabeth's destruction, with Somerville's conspiracy, with that of Arden and Throckmorton, the latter of whom was his uncle on the maternal side, with the plots of Bury and Savage, of Ballard, and of Babington. After the execution of the unfortunate Queen of Scots, he devoted himself to what was termed the Spanish faction, and endeavoured carry out the schemes of a party, who, distrusting the vague promises of James, were anxious to secure the succession to a Catholic, the Infanta of Spain, or the Duke of Parma. On the insurrection of the Earl of Essex, he took part with that ill-fated nobleman; and, though he escaped condign punishment for the offence, he was imprisoned and heavily fined.

From this time his career ran in darker channels.

Hunger-starved for innovation, as he is finely described by Camden, imbued with the fiercest religious fanaticism, eloquent, wily, resolute, able alike to delude the powerful and intimidate the weak, he possessed all the ingredients of a conspirator. Associating with men like himself, of desperate character and broken fortunes, he was ever on the look out for some means of retrieving his own condition, and redressing the wrongs of his church. Well informed of the actual state of James's sentiments, when, on that monarch's accession, confident hopes were entertained by the Romanists of greater toleration for their religion, Catesby was the first to point out their mistake, and to foretel the season of terrible persecution that was at hand. On this persecution he grounded his hopes hopes, never realized, for the sufferers, amid all the grievances they endured, remained constant in their fidelity to the throne of exciting a general insurrection among the Catholics.

Disappointed in this expectation, disappointed, also, in his hopes of Spain, of France, and of aid from Rome, he fell back upon himself, and resolved upon the execution of a dark and dreadful project which he had long conceived, and which he could execute almost single-handed, without aid from foreign powers, and without the co-operation of his own party. The nature of this project, which, if it succeeded, would, he imagined, accomplish all or more than his wildest dreams of ambition or fanaticism had ever conceived, it will be the business of this history to develope. Without going further into detail at present, it may be mentioned that the success of the plot depended so entirely on its secrecy, and so well aware was its contriver of the extraordinary system of espionage carried on by the Earl of Salisbury and the Privy Council, that for some time he scarcely dared to trust it out of his keeping. At length, after much deliberation, he communicated it to five others, all of whom were bound to silence by an oath of unusual solemnity; and as it was necessary to the complete success of the conspiracy that its outbreak should be instantaneously followed by a rise on the part of the Catholics, he darkly hinted that a plan was on foot for their deliverance from the yoke of their oppressors, and counselled them to hold themselves in readiness to fly to arms at a moment's notice. But here again he failed. Few were disposed to listen to him; and of those who did, the majority returned for answer, that their part was endurance, and that the only arms which Christians could use against lawful powers in their severity were prayers and tears.

Among the Popish party of that period, as in our own time, were ranked many of the oldest and most illustrious families in the kingdom, families not less remarkable for their zeal for their religion than, as has before been observed, for their loyalty; a loyalty afterwards approved in the disastrous reign of James the Second by their firm adherence to what they considered the indefeasible right of inheritance. Plots, indeed, were constantly hatched throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and James, by persons professing the religion of Rome; but in these the mass of the Catholics had no share. And even in the seasons of the bitterest persecution, when every fresh act of treason, perpetrated by some lawless and disaffected individual, was visited with additional rigour on their heads, when the scaffold reeked with their blood, and the stake smoked with their ashes, when their quarters were blackening on the gates and market-crosses of every city in the realm, when their hearths were invaded, their religion proscribed, and the very name of Papist had become a by-word, even in those terrible seasons, as in the season under consideration, they remained constant in their fidelity to the crown.

From the troubled elements at work, some fierce and turbulent spirits were sure to arise, some gloomy fanatics who, having brooded over their wrongs, real or imaginary, till they had lost all scruples of conscience, hesitated at no means of procuring redress. But it would be unjust to hold up such persons as representatives of the whole body of Catholics. Among the conspirators themselves there were redeeming shades. All were not actuated by the same atrocious motives. Mixed feelings induced Catesby to adopt the measure. Not so Guy Fawkes, who had already been leagued with the design. One idea alone ruled him. A soldier of fortune, but a stern religious enthusiast, he supposed himself chosen by Heaven for the redemption of his Church, and cared not what happened to himself, provided he accomplished his (as he conceived) holy design.

In considering the causes which produced the conspiracy about to be related, and in separating the disaffected party of the Papists from the temperate, due weight must be given to the influence of the priesthood. Of the Romish clergy there were two classes the secular priests, and the Jesuits and missionaries. While the former, like the more moderate of the laity, would have been well-contented with toleration for their religion, the latter breathed nothing but revenge, and desired the utter subversion of the existing government, temporal as well as ecclesiastical. Men, for the most part, of high intellectual powers, of untiring energy, and unconquerable fortitude, they were enabled by their zeal and ability to make many proselytes. By their means, secret correspondence was carried on with the different courts of Europe; and they were not without hope that, taking advantage of some favourable crisis, they should yet restore their church to its former supremacy. To these persons, who held as a maxim, Qui religionem Catholicam deserit regnandi jus omne amisit," Catesby and his associates proved ready and devoted agents. Through their instrumentality, they hoped to accomplish the great work of their restoration. To Father Garnet, the provincial of the English Jesuits, of whom it will be necessary to speak more fully hereafter, the plot had been revealed by Catesby under the seal of confession; and, though it subsequently became a question whether he was justified in withholding a secret of such importance to the state, it is sufficient for the present purpose to say that he did withhold it. For the treasonable practices of the Jesuits and their faction some palliation may perhaps be found in the unrelenting persecution to which they were subjected; but if any excuse can be admitted for them, what opinion must be formed of the conduct of their temperate brethren? Surely, while the one is condemned, admiration may be mingled with the sympathy which must be felt for the unmerited sufferings of the other!

From the foregoing statement, it will be readily inferred that Sir William Radcliffe, a devout Catholic, and a man of large possessions, though somewhat reduced by the heavy fines imposed upon him as a recusant, must have appeared an object of importance to the conspirators; nor will it be wondered at, that every means were used to gain him to their cause. Acting, however, upon the principles that swayed the well-disposed of his party, the knight resisted all these overtures, and refused to take any share in proceedings from which his conscience and loyalty alike revolted. Baffled, but not defeated, Catesby returned to the charge on a new point of assault. Himself a widower (or supposed to be so), he solicited the hand of the lovely Viviana Radcliffe, Sir William's only child, and the sole heiress of his possessions. But his suit in this quarter was, also, unsuccessful. The knight rejected the proposal, alleging that his daughter had no inclination to any alliance, inasmuch as she entertained serious thoughts of avowing herself to heaven. Thus foiled, Catesby ostensibly relinquished his design.

Shortly before the commencement of this history, a pilgrimage to Saint Winifred's Well, in Flintshire, was undertaken by Father Garnet, the provincial of the Jesuits before mentioned, in company with several distinguished Catholic personages of both sexes, and to this ceremonial Sir William and his daughter were urgently bidden. The invitation was declined on the part of Viviana, but accepted by the knight, who, though unwilling to leave home at a period of so much danger, or to commit his daughter to any care but his own, even for so short a space, felt it to be his duty to give countenance by his presence to the ceremonial.

Accordingly, he departed for Chester on the previous day, as stated by the steward. And, though Catesby professed ignorance on the subject, and even affirmed he had heard to the contrary, it may be doubted whether he was not secretly informed of the circumstance, and whether his arrival, at this particular conjuncture, was not preconcerted.

Thus much in explanation of what is to follow. The course of Catesby's reflections was cut short by the return of the steward, who, informing him that he had his mistress's commands to admit him, immediately lowered the drawbridge for that purpose. Dismounting, and committing his steed to one of the serving-men, who advanced to take it, Catesby followed his conductor through a stone gateway, and crossing the garden, was ushered into a spacious and lofty hall, furnished with a long massy oak table, at the upper end of which was a raised dais. At one side of the chamber yawned a huge arched fire-place, garnished with enormous andirons, on which smouldered a fire composed of mixed turf and wood. Above the chimney-piece hung a suit of chain-armour, with the battle-axe, helmet, and gauntlets of Sir John Radcliffe, the first possessor of Ordsall, who flourished in the reign of Edward the First: on the right, masking the entrance, stood a magnificent screen of carved oak.

Traversing this hall, Heydocke led the way to another large apartment; and placing lights on a Gothic-shaped table, offered a seat to the new-comer, and departed. The room in which Catesby was left was termed the star-chamber a name retained to this day from the circumstance of its ceiling being moulded and painted to resemble the heavenly vault when studded with the luminaries of night. It was terminated by a deeply-embayed window filled with stained glass of the most gorgeous colours. The walls, in some places, were hung with arras, in others, wainscoted with dark lustrous oak, embellished with scrolls, ciphers, and fanciful designs. The mantel-piece was of the same solid material, curiously carved, and of extraordinary size. It was adorned with the armorial bearings of the family two bends engrailed, and in chief a label of three, and other devices and inscriptions. The hearth was considerably raised above the level of the floor, and there was a peculiarity in the construction of the massive wooden pillars flanking it, that attracted the attention of Catesby, who rose with the intention of examining them more narrowly, when he was interrupted by the entrance of the lady of the mansion.

Advancing at a slow and dignified pace, Viviana Radcliffe courteously but gravely saluted her guest; and, without offering him her hand, motioned him to a chair, while she seated herself at a little distance. Catesby had seen her twice before; and whether the circumstances under which they now met might have caused some change in her demeanour he could not tell, but he thought her singularly altered. A year ago, she had been a lively, laughing girl of seventeen, with a bright brown skin, dark flowing tresses, and eyes as black and radiant as those of a gipsy. She was now a grave, collected woman, infinitely more beautiful, but wholly changed in character. Her complexion had become a clear, transparent white, and set off to great advantage her large, luminous eyes, and jetty brows. Her figure was tall and majestic; her features regular, delicately formed, and of the rarest and proudest class of beauty. She was attired in a dress of black wrought velvet, entirely without ornament except the rosary at her girdle, with a small ebony crucifix attached to it. She wore a close-fitting cap, likewise of black velvet, edged with pearls, beneath which her raven tresses were gathered in such a manner as to display most becomingly the smooth and snowy expanse of her forehead. The gravity of her manner, not less than her charms of person, seem to have struck Catesby mute. He gazed on her in silent admiration for a brief space, utterly forgetful of the object of his visit, and the part he intended to play. During this pause, she maintained the most perfect composure, and fixing her dark eyes full upon him, appeared to await the moment when he might choose to open the conversation.

Notwithstanding his age, and the dissolute and distracted life he had led, Catesby was still good-looking enough to have produced a favourable impression upon any woman easily captivated by manly beauty. The very expression of his marked and peculiar physiognomy, in some degree an index to his character, was sufficient to rivet attention; and the mysterious interest generally inspired by his presence was not diminished on further acquaintance with him. Though somewhat stern in their expression, his features were strikingly handsome, cast in an oval mould, and clothed with the pointed beard and trimmed mustaches invariably met with in the portraits of Vandyck. His frame was strongly built, but well proportioned, and seemed capable of enduring the greatest fatigue. His dress was that of an ordinary gentleman of the period, and consisted of a doublet of quilted silk, of sober colour and stout texture; large trunk-hose swelling out at the hips; and buff boots, armed with spurs with immense rowels. He wore a high and stiffly-starched ruff round his throat; and his apparel was completed by a short cloak of brown cloth, lined with silk of a similar colour. His arms were rapier and poniard, and his high-crowned plumed hat, of the peculiar form then in vogue, and looped on the leer-side" with a diamond clasp, was thrown upon the table.

Some little time having elapsed, during which he made no effort to address her, Viviana broke silence.

I understood you desired to speak with me on a matter of urgency, Mr. Catesby, she remarked.

I did so, he replied, as if aroused from a reverie; and I can only excuse my absence of mind and ill manners, on the plea that the contemplation of your charms has driven all other matter out of my head.

Mr. Catesby, returned Viviana, rising, if the purpose of your visit be merely to pay unmerited compliments, I must at once put an end to it.

I have only obeyed the impulse of my heart, resumed the other, passionately, and uttered what involuntarily rose to my lips. But, he added, checking himself, I will not offend you with my admiration. If you have read my letter to your father, you will not require to be informed of the object of my visit.

I have not read it, replied Viviana, returning him the packet with the seal unbroken. I can give no opinion on any matter of difficulty. And I have no desire to know any secret with which my father might not desire me to be acquainted.

Are we overheard? inquired Catesby, glancing suspiciously at the fire-place.

By no one whom you would care to overhear us, returned the maiden.

Then it is as I supposed, rejoined Catesby. Father Oldcorne is concealed behind that mantel-piece?

Viviana smiled an affirmative.

Let him come forth, I pray you, returned Catesby. What I have to say concerns him as much as yourself or your father; and I would gladly have his voice in the matter.

You shall have it, my son, replied a reverend personage, clad in a priestly garb, stepping from out one side of the mantel-piece, which flew suddenly open, disclosing a recess curiously contrived in the thickness of the wall. You shall have it, said Father Oldcorne, for he it was, approaching and extending his arms over him. Accept my blessing and my welcome.

Catesby received the benediction with bowed head and bended knee.

And now, continued the priest, what has the bravest soldier of our church to declare to its lowliest servant?

Catesby then briefly explained, as he had before done to the steward, why he had taken Manchester in his route to North Wales; and, after lamenting his inability to render any assistance to the unfortunate priests, he went on to state that he had accidentally learnt, from a few words let fall by the pursuivant to his attendant, that a warrant had been sent by the Earl of Salisbury for Sir William Radcliffe's arrest.

My father's arrest! exclaimed Viviana, trembling violently. What what is laid to his charge?

Felony, rejoined Catesby, sternly "felony, without benefit of clergy for so it is accounted by the present execrable laws of our land, in harbouring a Jesuit priest. If he is convicted of the offence, his punishment will be death death on the gibbet, accompanied by indignities worse than those shown to a common felon.

Holy Virgin! ejaculated Father Oldcorne, lifting up his hands, and raising his eyes to heaven.

From what I gathered, the officers will visit this house to-night," continued Catesby.

Our Lady be praised, they will not find him! cried Viviana, who had been thrown into an agony of distress. What is to be done in this frightful emergency, holy father? she added, turning to the priest, with a supplicating look.

Heaven only knows, dear daughter, replied Oldcorne. You had better appeal for counsel to one who is more able to afford it than I am, Mr. Catesby. Well aware of the crafty devices of our enemies, and having often eluded their snares himself, he may enable you to escape them. My own course is clear. I shall quit this roof at once, deeply and bitterly regretting that by entering it, I have placed those whom I hold so dear, and from whom I have experienced so much kindness, in such fearful jeopardy.