Page images
[blocks in formation]



**Out of my door, you witch! you hag, you bagage! you polecat, you runnion." SHAKSPEARE.

It was on a dark and gusty night of autumn, during the latter years of Oliver Cromwell's protectorate, that a black covered cart, drawn by two horses of the same sable hue, emerged from the umbrageous recesses of Ashdown forest, which, at that period, nearly extended to the northern extremity of Sussex. It was attended by two armed men, one of whom kept close to the horse's heads, while his companion, who was about a hundred paces in advance, and was provided with a dark lantern, occasionally directed its narrow stream of light upon the tufts of scattered trees and underwood into which the outskirts of the forest were broken up, earnestly fixed his eye upon them for a minute, and then exclaiming, "All safe!" instantly concealed his light and walked on, when the vehicle advanced to the position which he had quitted. From the darkness of its hue, and its rolling silently over the soft grass, it could neither be seen nor heard, unless by any person who should happen to be in its immediate course, a circumstance little likely in that unfrequented tract of country, and at the hour of midnight. Such, however, was the hazardous nature of their enterprise, that its conductors did not for a moment relax in their precautions, not only peering around them in all directions, as far as their timid light could steal into the darkness, but frequently stopping to listen. Nothing, however, was to be seen but the trunks of the trees, which, as they caught the faint glare of the lantern, seemed to be stepping forward out of the dense gloom that enshrouded them; and nothing was to be heard but the hoarse rustling of the wind, as it came by fits to agitate the boughs above them, and died away into a distant moaning as it swept the forest behind. Winning their way in this slow and suspicious manner, without a syllable being uttered except the occasional "all safe!" of the leader, they had reached the last glade that bordered upon the open country, when a low whistle was heard ahead of them, and the foremost of the two men halting, and brandishing the weapon with which he was provided, exclaimed in a loud whisper"Who's there?"- "A friend!" was the reply. "What's the word?" continued the first speaker. "Boscobel!" answered the second, and at the same moment a man disclosing himself from a clump of underwood, exclaimed, "You are late, Whittaker. I have been whistling a duet with the wind this half hour, when I might have heard the popping of corks, and have emptied a flagon or two of Gascoigne wine. Who is that with the cart- - Nat Culpepper?"

[ocr errors]

"Ay, ay, Sir John; that's Nat Culpepper, sure enough, and a steady old file he is. You may advance with the cart, Nat; it's only Sir John. And as to our being late, I am an old soldier, and after so many night alarms as we have had, while engaged in this ticklish service, you would

nardly wish me to hurry forward, when it was your own orders that I should be careful in acting the scout."


"Right, old Truepenny!" cried Sir John; "don't I know you for a sly fox in an ambush, and a fearless dasher in an onset? But you have had no alarms to-night, my doughty sergeant; the black ghost has not again crossed your path, and you have heard no Scriptural ejaculations muttered from the bushes ?"

"No, Sir John, we have started nothing as we came along but a mottled stag, who dashed away from us as fast as four legs could carry him; and we have seen nothing blacker than the night, which is pitchy enough even for us, who care not how dark it is while we are playing this secret game of neck or nothing."

"Noa, noa, Sir John," cried Culpepper, who had now come up with the cart, and who seemed by his accent to be a north countryman, "I be pratty certain we sha' not see her to-night."

"See her!" exclaimed Sir John; "you have made up your mind, then, that 'twas a woman whom we have more than once so strangely encountered in our secret expeditions?"

"Twere a woman's voice, I'll take my Bible oath," cried Culpepper; "and I seed a bit of her black petticoat as she scudded away among the trees into the thick of the forest. Dang it! d'ye think I don't know a woman from a will-o'-the-wisp ?"

"I marked the figure myself, clearly enough," continued Sir John, "and but that the sound of a pistol might have endangered a discovery of our enterprise, and brought all our necks into jeopardy, I would have tried whether the mumbling old Jezebel was as difficult to reach with powder and ball, as with our three pair of legs, which she so easily and so unaccountably distanced. However, I am prepared for her now; I have a cross-bow here, which will bring down its bird without blabbling; and be it hag or hobgoblin, witch or wizard, ghost or gossip, spy or spectre, the devil or the devil's dam, if I can but catch a glimpse of it, I'll have a shot at its hide, and try whether it be made of flesh or flummery."

"As to ghosts or goblins," cried Sergeant Whittaker, "they'll find they have got the wrong sow by the ear, if they think to frighten e'er a one of us; but if it's a spy, we have a right to put him to death by the laws of war; and I vote for doing so, for if we have not his blood, he will have


"She wo' not venture to show hersel," said Culpepper, "now we be just upon the open fields."

"According to the old adage," replied Sir John, "we should not crow till we are fairly out of the wood; so we may as well move on as fast as we can, and make for Brambletye House."

"Anathema, maranatha! A curse light upon it, and upon all its sacrilegious inmates!" ejaculated a sepulchral voice, which seemed to be that of a female, and to proceed from a tangled cluster of underwood immediately upon their right.

"A murrain seize the pestilent jade!" cried Sir John; "there she is again!" and he instinctively discharged his cross-bow into the brake, whence the sound had appeared to issue. The arrow rattled among the branches, where there was a momentary silence, after which the same hollow and impressive voice ejaculated - Ave Maria! Blessed be our lady of Ashurst! The arrow of the ungodly shall be turned aside."

Whittaker ran towards the spot with his lantern, directing its light full upon the bushes; and Sir John having drawn his rapier, followed close upon his heels, when, as they approached, a tall thin figure in black, apparently wearing the garb of a woman, was dimly visible, flitting from the covert towards another thicket at a little distance. Animated by the

glimpse he had obtained, the impetuous Sir John hurried past his compan. on, and had just seen the figure glide, as he thought, into the brake before him, when he was suddenly left in total darkness; Whittaker, in the ardour of his pursuit, having stumbled over a root, and extinguished the light. Guided, however, by what he had already noticed, Sir John leaped fearlessly into the very midst of the tufted underwood, which he imagined the mysterious female to have entered, laying about him vigorously with his rapier, and cursing with no less vehemence the bow that had missed its object, the apparition that defied all their efforts for its apprehension, and the clumsy rascal who had lost the light at the very moment when it might have led to a discovery. After committing fearful devastation among the boughs and branches, he acceded to the request of Whittaker, who had now come up, that they should listen for a while in silence, as they might perhaps hear the sound of retreating footsteps. They did so, but all was silent as the grave. "Curse her," cried Sir John, " I never heard her footfall when I was close upon her track, and it is not likely we should distinguish it when she has had time to make for the forest."

A parley was now held, and as it was deemed useless to make any farther attempts at discovery, surrounded as they were by total darkness, and on the immediate edge of a trackless forest, they were unwillingly compelled to rejoin Culpepper and the cart, both declaring that they would rather it should prove to be a supernatural visitant, or even a witch, than any lurking spy, who might have seen or heard enough to compromise their own safety, as well as the success of their perilous undertaking.

"She cannot know whither we are bound, at all events," exclaimed Sir John," and she has dogged us no further than the opening of the forest."

"But you mentioned Brambletye House," said Whittaker," and she instantly fired off her usual curses upon its walls, and all within them."

"Did I ?" inquired Sir John; "a pize upon me! I was a fool for my pains; but we must go the quicker to work, and surprise the enemy, to prevent a surprise upon ourselves; and as for this Jack-o-lantern's jade, since we cannot catch her, she may e'en go hang herself like Alderman Hoyle, though I must confess I should like to have given her a wipe of my whinyard. Never fear, my brave boys; we are engaged in a good cause, with good men and true, to back us; so a fico for the lurking old beldame in black, and hey for Brambletye House!"

"Better name no names, Sir John," observed Whittaker, "for the witch may still be within earshot, and your voice is rather of the loudest, considering the nature of our business."

"Odso! that's true: body o' me! I forgot that; Culpepper, you dog, you are the cleverest fellow of us all, for you don't speak a word. Let us all move forward; another ten minutes will bring us to Bram adzooks! you know where we are going to!"

At the suggestion of Whittaker, Culpepper moved on first with the cart, Whittaker himself followed at the distance of a hundred paces, and Sir John, having again charged his cross-bow, brought up the rear, by which arrangement they hoped the better to discover and defeat any attempts that might be made to follow and track their footsteps. Nothing further, however, occurred to justify their precautions: they advanced without interruption, neither hearing a sound, nor discovering a living object, until they reached a high wall, which stretched away on either side as far as the gloom of the night would allow it to be discerned. At this moment the clouds being partially dispersed in the distant horizon before them, the faint light of the moon, then in her first quarter, threw into dark relief against the sky a lofty and massive building which stood within the wall we have mentioned, and exhibited at its opposite extremity two lofty towers, whose bell

shaped roofs and gilt vanes caught the pale beam for a moment, and were again involved in gloom by the closing of the clouds.

"A pest upon thee, mistress pale-face!" exclaimed Sir John, looking up towards the moon; "I will hire Waller and Milton, Roundheads as they are, to write sonnets to thee all the year through, so thou wilt but hide thy tinsel to-night, and leave the towers of Brambletye in the dark. We want no candles in the sky, when a light the more may make us wear a head the less. Gramercy, dame! I thank thee for pulling that black nightcap over thy face, and, prythee, let us finish our job, while thou art taking thy nap. Čome, Culpepper, unbar the cart, and let us to work while the darkness holds."-So saying, he blew the same low whistle which he had previously sounded. It was answered from within, and after a short interval, a voice was heard inquiring the pass-word. "Boscobel!" cried Sir John, when heavy bolts were drawn back, and a low arched door being opened in the wall, two men appeared, whom Sir John addressed by the names of Waynfleet and Parson Charnley, both of whom inquired whether all was right.

"Is all safe at Brambletye ?" asked Sir John. -"Are all the household asleep and snoring, and all the lights put out?”

"All, except our own lanterns," was the reply.

"Well, then," resumed Sir John, "all has gone right with us, except that we have again encountered the ghost in sables, and unfortunately you were not with us, parson, or we would incontinently have laid the black rogue in the Red Sea."

God be good unto us!" ejaculated the chaplain, "did it pronounce a blessing or a ban?"


"It sounded rather like a malison than a benediction," replied Sir John, "inasmuch as it cursed the house of Brambletye and all within it, for which gave the utterer a shot of my cross-bow, and would fain have stopped its mouth with my rapier; but it seems to have the hide and the hoofs of the foul fiend, as well as his colour; for it 'scaped scot-free from arrow and rapier, and took to its heels, with the silence and speed of a hare upon a mossdown."

"It is an inauspicious occurrence, and full of evil omen," replied the chaplain. "I predicted this before you set out; for it is the fifth day of the moon, upon which no undertaking prospers. You must surely recollect, Sir John, what Virgil says upon this very subject:


"Ipse dies alios alio dedit ordine Luna
Felices, operum. Quintam fuge."

[ocr errors]

Virgil was an old woman, and you are another," replied Sir John, angrily. "What the dickens! are we in our first or second childhood, that we are to listen to such nursery nonsense, or be frightened at a mad woman, or an old scarecrow dressed up in black?"

"But if it should prove to be a spy," observed Waynfleet; "which, from its constantly beleaguering you in your night expeditions, seems to be the more probable surmise, would it not be madness, Sir John, to proceed, and had we not better abandon the enterprise, before we are too far committed to recede with safety?"

"Certainly, certainly," ejaculated the chaplain, “and, I believe, we are all of the same opinion."


"All?" exclaimed Whittaker indignantly. "speak for yourself, master parson, and for any other dunghill cocks that are like you; but as for me, Jack Whittaker's no flincher. I will stand or fall with Sir John till the business is seen fairly out, and so I warrant will honest Nat Culpepper for he's no parson, he never talks nonsense, and understands no Latin."

« PreviousContinue »