Guy Fawkes: or, The Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance
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Before this transfer could be effected, the pursuivant and his attendants had begun to ford the stream. The former had witnessed the accident that had befallen the soldier from a short distance; and, while he affected to deplore it, internally congratulated himself on his prudence and foresight. But he was by no means so well satisfied when he saw how it served to benefit the fugitives.
“That unlucky beast!” he exclaimed. “Some fiend must have prompted me to bring her out of the stable. Would she had drowned herself instead of poor Dickon Duckesbury, whom she hath sent to feed the fishes! With her aid, Miss Radcliffe will doubtless escape. No matter. If I secure Father Oldcorne, and that black-visaged trooper in the Spanish garb, who, I'll be sworn, is a secret intelligencer of the pope, if not of the devil, I shall be well contented. I'll hang them both on a gibbet higher than Haman's.”
And muttering other threats to the same effect, he picked his way to the opposite shore. Long before he reached it, the fugitives had disappeared; but on climbing the bank, he beheld them galloping swiftly across a well-wooded district steeped in moonlight, and spread out before his view, and inflamed by the sight he shouted to his attendants, and once more started in pursuit.
Cheered by the fortunate incident above related, which, in presenting her with her own steed in a manner so surprising and unexpected, seemed almost to give her assurance of deliverance, Viviana, inspirited by the exercise, felt her strength and spirits rapidly revive. At her side rode Guy Fawkes, who ever and anon cast an anxious look behind, to ascertain the distance of their pursuers, but suffered no exclamation to escape his lips. Indeed, throughout the whole affair, he maintained the reserve belonging to his sombre and taciturn character, and neither questioned Humphrey Chetham as to where he was leading them, nor proposed any deviation from the route he had apparently chosen. To such remarks as were addressed to him, Fawkes answered in monosyllables; and it was only when occasion required, that he volunteered any observation or advice. He seemed to surrender himself to chance. And perhaps, if his bosom could have been examined, it would have been found that he considered himself a mere puppet in the hands of destiny.
In other and calmer seasons, he might have dwelt with rapture on the beautiful and varied country through which they were speeding, and which from every knoll they mounted, every slope they descended, every glade they threaded, intricacy pierced, or tangled dell tracked, presented new and increasing attractions. This charming district, since formed into a park by the Traffords, from whom it derives its present designation, was at this time, – though part of the domain of that ancient family, – wholly unenclosed. Old Trafford Hall lies (for it is still in existence,) more than a mile nearer to Manchester, a little to the east of Ordsall Hall; but the modern residence of the family is situated in the midst of the lovely region through which the fugitives were riding.
But, though the charms of the scene, heightened by the gentle medium through which they were viewed, produced little effect upon the iron nature of Guy Fawkes, they were not without influence on his companions, especially Viviana.Soothed by the stillness of all around her, she almost forgot her danger; and surrendering herself to the dreamy enjoyment generally experienced in contemplating such a scene at such an hour, suffered her gaze to wander over the fair woody landscape before her, till it was lost in the distant moonlit wolds.
From the train of thought naturally awakened by this spectacle, she was roused by the shouts of the pursuers; and, glancing timorously behind her, beheld them hurrying swiftly along the valley they had just quitted. From the rapidity with which they were advancing, it was evident they were gaining upon them, and she was about to urge her courser to greater speed, when Humphrey Chetham laid his hand upon the rein to check her.
“Reserve yourself till we gain the brow of this hill,” he remarked; “and then put Zayda to her mettle. We are not far from our destination.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Viviana. “Where is it?”
“I will show it to you presently,” he answered.
Arrived at the summit of the high ground, which they had been for some time gradually ascending, the young merchant pointed out a vast boggy tract, about two miles off, in the vale beneath them.
“That is our destination,” he said.
“Did I not hold it impossible you could trifle with me at such a time as this, I should say you were jesting,” rejoined Viviana. “The place you indicate, unless I mistake you, is Chat Moss, the largest and most dangerous marsh in Lancashire.”
“You do not mistake me, neither am I jesting, Viviana,” replied the young merchant, gravely. “Chat Moss is the mark at which I aim.”
“If we are to cross it, we shall need a Will-o'-the-wisp to guide us, and some friendly elf to make firm the ground beneath our steeds," rejoined Viviana, in a slightly-sarcastic tone.
“Trust to me and you shall traverse it in safety,” resumed Humphrey Chetham.
“I would sooner trust myself to the pursuivant and his band, than venture upon its treacherous surface,” she replied.
“How is this, young sir?” interposed Guy Fawkes, sternly. “Is it from heedlessness or rashness that you are about to expose us to this new danger? – which, if Viviana judges correctly, and my own experience of such places inclines me to think she does so, – is greater than that which now besets us.”
“If there is any danger I shall be the first to encounter it, for I propose to act as your guide,” returned Humphrey Chetham, in an offended tone. “But the treacherous character of the marsh constitutes our safety. I am acquainted with a narrow path across it, from which the deviation of a foot will bring certain death. If our pursuers attempt to follow us their destruction is inevitable. Viviana may rest assured I would not needlessly expose so dear a life as hers. But it is our best chance of safety.”
“Humphrey Chetham is in the right,” observed the priest. “I have heard of the path he describes; and if he can guide us along it, we shall effectually baffle our enemies.”
“I cry you mercy, sir,” said Viviana. “I did not apprehend your meaning. But I now thankfully resign myself to your care.”
“Forward, then,” cried the young merchant. And they dashed swiftly down the declivity.
Chat Moss, towards which they were hastening, though now drained, in part cultivated, and traversed by the busiest and most-frequented railroad in England, or the world, was, within the recollection of many of the youngest of the present generation, a dreary and almost impassable waste. Surveyed from the heights of Dunham, whence the writer has often gazed upon it, envying the plover her wing to skim over its broad expanse, it presented with its black boggy soil, striped like a motley garment, with patches of grey, tawny, and dunnish red, a singular and mysterious appearance. Conjecture fixes this morass as the site of a vast forest, whose immemorial and Druid-haunted groves were burnt by the Roman invaders; and seeks to account for its present condition by supposing that the charred trees – still frequently found within its depths – being left where the conflagration had placed them, had choked up its brooks and springs, and so reduced it to a general swamp. Drayton, however, in the following lines from the Faerie Land, places its origin as far back as the Deluge: —
But the former hypothesis appears the more probable. A curious description of Chat Moss, as it appeared at the time of this history, is furnished by Camden, who terms it, “a swampy tract of great extent, a considerable part of which was carried off in the last age by swollen rivers with great danger, whereby the rivers were infected, and great quantities of fish died. Instead thereof is now a valley watered by a small stream; and many trees were discovered thrown down, and lying flat, so that one may suppose when the ground lay neglected, and the waste water of brooks was not drained off into the open valleys, or their courses stopped by neglect or desolation, all the lower grounds were turned into swamps, (which we call mosses,) or into pools. If this was the case, no wonder so many trees are found covered, and, as it were, buried in such places all over England, but especially here. For the roots being loosened by too excessive wet, they must necessarily fall down and sink in so soft a soil. The people hereabouts search for them with poles and spits, and after marking the place, dig them up and use them for firing, for they are like torches, equally fit to burn and to give light, which is probably owing to the bituminous earth that surrounds them, whence the common people suppose them firs, though C?sar denies that there were such trees in Britain.”
But, though vast masses of the bog had been carried off by the Irwell and the Mersey, as related by Camden, the general appearance of the waste, – with the exception of the valley and the small stream, – was much the same as it continued to our own time. Its surface was more broken and irregular, and black gaping chasms and pits filled with water and slime as dark-coloured as the turf whence it flowed, pointed out the spots where the swollen and heaving swamp had burst its bondage. Narrow paths, known only to the poor turf-cutters and other labourers who dwelt upon its borders, and gathered fuel with poles and spits in the manner above described, intersected it at various points. But as they led in many cases to dangerous and deep gulfs, to dismal quagmires and fathomless pits; and, moreover, as the slightest departure from the proper track would have whelmed the traveller in an oozy bed, from which, as from a quicksand, he would have vainly striven to extricate himself, – it was never crossed without a guide, except by those familiar with its perilous courses. One painful circumstance connected with the history of Chat Moss remains to be recorded – namely, that the attempt made to cultivate it by the great historian Roscoe, – an attempt since carried out, as has already been shown, with complete success, – ended in a result ruinous to the fortunes of that highly-gifted person, who, up to the period of this luckless undertaking, was as prosperous as he was meritorious.
By this time the fugitives had approached the confines of the marsh. An accident, however, had just occurred, which nearly proved fatal to Viviana, and, owing to the delay it occasioned, brought their pursuers into dangerous proximity with them. In fording the Irwell, which, from its devious course, they were again compelled to cross, about a quarter of a mile below Barton, her horse missed its footing, and precipitated her into the rapid current. In another instant she would have been borne away, if Guy Fawkes had not flung himself into the water, and seized her before she sank. Her affrighted steed, having got out of its depth, began to swim off, and it required the utmost exertion on the part of Humphrey Chetham, embarrassed as he was by the priest, to secure it. In a few minutes all was set to rights, and Viviana was once more placed on the saddle, without having sustained further inconvenience than was occasioned by her dripping apparel. But those few minutes, as has been just stated, sufficed to bring the pursuivant and his men close upon them; and as they scrambled up the opposite bank, the plunging and shouting behind them told that the latter had entered the stream.
“Yonder is Baysnape,” exclaimed Humphrey Chetham, calling Viviana's attention to a ridge of high ground on the borders of the waste. “Below it lies the path by which I propose to enter the moss. We shall speedily be out of the reach of our enemies.”
“The marsh at least will hide us,” answered Viviana, with a shudder. “It is a terrible alternative.”
“Fear nothing, dear daughter,” observed the priest. “The saints, who have thus marvellously protected us, will continue to watch over us to the end, and will make the path over yon perilous waste as safe as the ground on which we tread.”
“I like not the appearance of the sky,” observed Guy Fawkes, looking uneasily upwards. “Before we reach the spot you have pointed out, the moon will be obscured. Will it be safe to traverse the moss in the dark?”
“It is our only chance,” replied the young merchant, speaking in a low tone, that his answer might not reach Viviana's ears; “and after all, the darkness may be serviceable. Our pursuers are so near, that if it were less gloomy, they might hit upon the right track. It will be a risk to us to proceed, but certain destruction to those who follow. And now let us make what haste we can. Every moment is precious.”
The dreary and fast darkening waste had now opened upon them in all its horrors. Far as the gaze could reach appeared an immense expanse, flat almost as the surface of the ocean, and unmarked, so far as could be discerned in that doubtful light, by any trace of human footstep or habitation. It was a stern and sombre prospect, and calculated to inspire terror in the stoutest bosom. What effect it produced on Viviana may be easily conjectured. But her nature was brave and enduring, and, though she trembled so violently as scarcely to be able to keep her seat, she gave no utterance to her fears. They were now skirting that part of the morass since denominated, from the unfortunate speculation previously alluded to, “Roscoe's Improvements.” This tract was the worst and most dangerous portion of the whole moss. Soft, slabby, and unsubstantial, its treacherous beds scarcely offered secure footing to the heron that alighted on them. The ground shook beneath the fugitives as they hurried past the edge of the groaning and quivering marsh. The plover, scared from its nest, uttered its peculiar and plaintive cry; the bittern shrieked; other night-fowl poured forth their doleful notes; and the bull-frog added its deep croak to the ominous concert. Behind them came the thundering tramp and loud shouts of their pursuers. Guy Fawkes had judged correctly. Before they reached Baysnape the moon had withdrawn behind a rack of clouds, and it had become profoundly dark. Arrived at this point, Humphrey Chetham called to them to turn off to the right.
“Follow singly,” he said, “and do not swerve a hair's breadth from the path. The slightest deviation will be fatal. Do you, sir,” he added to the priest, “mount behind Guy Fawkes, and let Viviana come next after me. If I should miss my way, do not stir for your life.”
The transfer effected, the fugitives turned off to the right, and proceeded at a cautious pace along a narrow and shaking path. The ground trembled so much beneath them, and their horses' feet sank so deeply in the plashy bog, that Viviana demanded, in a tone of some uneasiness, if he was sure he had taken the right course?
“If I had not,” replied Humphrey Chetham, “we should ere this have found our way to the bottom of the morass.”
As he spoke, a floundering plunge, accompanied by a horrible and quickly-stifled cry, told that one of their pursuers had perished in endeavouring to follow them.
“The poor wretch is gone to his account,” observed Viviana, in a tone of commiseration. “Have a care! – have a care, lest you share the same fate.”
“If I can save you, I care not what becomes of me,” replied the young merchant. “Since I can never hope to possess you, life has become valueless in my eyes.”
“Quicken your pace,” shouted Guy Fawkes, who brought up the rear. “Our pursuers have discovered the track, and are making towards us.”
“Let them do so,” replied the young merchant. “They can do us no farther injury.”
“That is false!” cried the voice of a soldier from behind. And, as the words were uttered, a shot was fired, which, though aimed against Chetham, took effect upon his steed. The animal staggered, and his rider had only time to slide from his back when he reeled off the path, and was ingulfed in the marsh.
Hearing the plunge of the steed, the man fancied he had hit his mark, and hallooed in an exulting voice to his companions. But his triumph was of short duration. A ball from the petronel of Guy Fawkes pierced his brain, and dropping from his saddle, he sank, together with his horse, which he dragged along with him into the quagmire.
“Waste no more shot,” cried Humphrey Chetham; “the swamp will fight our battles for us. Though I grieve for the loss of my horse, I may be better able to guide you on foot.”
With this, he seized Viviana's bridle, and drew her steed along at a quick pace, but with the greatest caution. As they proceeded, a light like that of a lantern was seen to rise from the earth, and approach them.
“Heaven be praised!” exclaimed Viviana: “some one has heard us, and is hastening to our assistance.”
“Not so,” replied Humphrey Chetham. “The light you behold is an ignis fatuus. Were you to trust yourself to its delusive gleam, it would lead you to the most dangerous parts of the moss.”
And, as if to exhibit its real character, the little flame, which hitherto had burnt as brightly and steadily as a wax-candle, suddenly appeared to dilate, and assuming a purple tinge, emitted a shower of sparks, and then flitted rapidly over the plain.
“Woe to him that follows it!” cried Humphrey Chetham.
“It has a strange unearthly look,” observed Viviana, crossing herself. “I have much difficulty in persuading myself it is not the work of some malignant sprite.”
“It is only an exhalation of the marsh,” replied Chetham. “But, see! others are at hand.”
Their approach, indeed, seemed to have disturbed all the weird children of the waste. Lights were seen trooping towards them in every direction; sometimes stopping, sometimes rising in the air, now contracting, now expanding, and when within a few yards of the travellers, retreating with inconceivable swiftness.
“It is a marvellous and incomprehensible spectacle,” remarked Viviana.
“The common folk hereabouts affirm that these Jack-o'-lanterns, as they term them, always appear in greater numbers when some direful catastrophe is about to take place,” rejoined the young merchant.
“Heaven avert it from us,” ejaculated Viviana.
“It is an idle superstition,” returned Chetham. “But we must now keep silence,” he continued, lowering his voice, and stopping near the charred stump of a tree, left, it would seem, as a mark. “The road turns here; and, unless our pursuers know it, we shall now quit them for ever. We must not let a sound betray the course we are about to take.”
Having turned this dangerous corner in safety, and conducted his companions as noiselessly as possible for a few yards along the cross path, which being much narrower was consequently more perilous than the first, Humphrey Chetham stood still, and, imposing silence upon the others, listened to the approach of their pursuers. His prediction was speedily and terribly verified. Hearing the movement in advance, but unable to discover the course taken by the fugitives, the unfortunate soldiers, fearful of losing their prey, quickened their pace, in the expectation of instantly overtaking them. They were fatally undeceived. Four only of their number, besides their leader, remained, – two having perished in the manner heretofore described. The first of these, disregarding the caution of his comrade, laughingly urged his horse into a gallop, and, on passing the mark, sunk as if by magic, and before he could utter a single warning cry, into the depths of the morass. His disappearance was so instantaneous, that the next in order, though he heard the sullen plunge, was unable to draw in the rein, and was likewise ingulfed. A third followed; and a fourth, in his efforts to avoid their fate, backed his steed over the slippery edge of the path. Only one now remained. It was the pursuivant, who, with the prudence that characterized all his proceedings, had followed in the rear. He was so dreadfully frightened, that, adding his shrieks to those of his attendants, he shouted to the fugitives, imploring assistance in the most piteous terms, and promising never again to molest them, if they would guide him to a place of safety. But his cries were wholly unheeded; and he perhaps endured in those few minutes of agony as much suffering as he had inflicted on the numerous victims of his barbarity. It was indeed an appalling moment. Three of the wretched men had not yet sunk, but were floundering about in the swamp, and shrieking for help. The horses, as much terrified as their riders, added their piercing cries to the half-suffocated yells. And, as if to make the scene more ghastly, myriads of dancing lights flitted towards them, and throwing an unearthly glimmer over this part of the morass, fully revealed their struggling figures. Moved by compassion for the poor wretches, Viviana implored Humphrey Chetham to assist them, and, finding him immovable, she appealed to Guy Fawkes.
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