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Read Traditions of Lancashire Volume II Part 56

Traditions of Lancashire is a web novel made by John Roby.
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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 pa.s.sers-by, rendering it a neighbourhood not overliked by those who had business that way after nightfall.

Gervase Buckley was pretty well a.s.sured 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 pa.s.sage, 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 s.p.a.ce 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 s.p.a.cious vault or crypt, supported by ma.s.sy pillars. He had often heard there existed many unexplored subterranean pa.s.sages 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.”

“Probably so.”

“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?”

“He did.”

“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 a.s.sured that a vast treasure is concealed hereabouts, hidden by the Knights of St John. ‘Tis beyond our una.s.sisted 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 s.p.a.ce:–

“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 rec.u.mbent victim, but as though it were some inward afflatus, hollow and sepulchral. The lips did not move, but the following reply was given:–

“There is.”

Even the guilty confederates started back in alarm at the success of their own experiment. All was, however, still–silent as before.

———-

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