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It was a bright autumnal evening, and I had carelessly flung the reins upon my horse's neck, whilst wrapped in perturbed and interrupted reveries, I traversed the wild and almost interminable sands on the north-west coast of England. On my left, a succession of low sand-hills, drifted by the partial and unsteady blast, skirted the horizon,– their summits marked, in an undulating and scarce broken outline, upon the red and lowering sky. Behind them, I could hear the vast and busy waters rolling onwards like the voice of the coming tempest.—Here and there some rude and solitary hut rose above the red hillocks, bare and unprotected. Not having any object at hand of known dimensions from which to estimate their real magnitude, my eye sometimes exaggerated these forms upon my mind into almost gigantic proportions. As twilight advanced the deception increased, and starting occasionally from a keen and lacerating thought, I beheld some huge and turreted fortress, or pile of misshapen battlements rising from beyond the hills, like the grim castles of romance, or the air-built edifices of fairy land. Night was fast closing in upon me. I was alone, out of the beaten track, and a perfect stranger in this deserted and thinly peopled region.
The road, if such it might be called, threading the mazes through an infinite accumulation of low hills, and consisting of a loose and even shifting bed of dry sand, grew every yard more and more perplexed, and I soon found that I had only the superior sagacity of my steed on which to depend for safety, and eventual extrication from this perilous labyrinth. Had it been broad day-light, there appeared no object by which I could have directed my course, -no mark by which I might have ascertained whether or not my path was in a right line or a circle. I seemed to be rambling through an interminable succession of wide amphitheatres, formed by the sand hills, every one bearing so great a resemblance to its neighbour that I could not recognize any decided features whereon to found a distinct impression of their individuality. Night now came on heavy and dark. Not a star was visible. I seemed to have passed the habitations of men; whichever way I turned not a light was perceptible,--all token of fellowship with my kind had vanished, no sound save the heavy plunge of my horse's feet, and the hollow moan of the sea broke the unvarying stillness that oppressed me. I was by this time perfectly roused from my lethargy, and painfully conscious of the perils by which I was surrounded.
The wind rustled amongst the dry bent and rushes thinly scattered through my track, and I gazed, expecting some horrible form to start from the grim void, when suddenly a distant shout came on the blast;-I listened, -again it was audible, and evidently more distinct, at the same time indicating a nearer and more rapid approach. Presently the voice seemed to rise over a low hill to my left, in the direction of the sea, and appeared to descend with surprising rapidity immediately opposite to where I stood My blood froze-an icy chill crept over me as the words rung in my ear• Murder ! murder !'- It was not like any sound partaking of humanity, but an unearthly, and if I may so express it, a sepulchral scream, like a voice from the grave, or what might be imagined arising from some vault,
as the chasm opened, and the grim tenants shrieked horribly from their rolling sleep. The voice was now rapidly approaching,--the same appalling word, but in deeper and more terrific accents. I silently committed myself to the protection of heaven, and awaited the fearful moment when this terrible visitant should pass by. I felt a degree of comparative composure from the assurance that I was in the keeping of a Power whose greatness can only be exceeded by his willingness and capacity to save. Yet, it was a condition of intense agony, an anticipation that almost prevented the free exercise of the bodily functions. I appeared to labour for breath, my brain throbbed wildly, in rapid and irregular pulses. Vivid corruscations flashed across my eyes from the rush of the vital fluids in that direction. They still, however, continued fixed on the spot from whence the sound seemed to issue, now too evidently advancing towards the precise situation in which I stood. Still no form was perceptible betokening any connexion with this supernatural visitant, for such I felt confident it was, nor voice, nor motion, save the yell of murder repeated in pauses of short but uncertain duration.
The invisible phantom still approached, and the space between us was, as I now conceived, diminished to a very short distance. I clung closer to my steed; nature, recoiling from the contact, prompted me instinctively to attach myself to any thing that had life. I felt a temporary relief even from the presence of this poor animal, who I could distinctly perceive shuddering yet fixed to the spot, apparently unable to resist the influence of some terrible fascination that bound him.
The voice was now within a very few paces of me,-the horrible moment was at hand. Alone I had to cope with the Evil ONE. Perchance the doomed victim of some diabolical agency. Almost in my ear the stunning yell now rushed, and I felt the clammy breath of the grave creep across my face. The vision rose, apparently ascended from the very place whereon I stood, and the cry came with more intense agony the higher it proceeded, more sharp and vehement was the shriek of murder. Emboldened by its apparent recession, or inspired by some higher intelligence with addi tional courage, I summoned up sufficient energy to cry out with a loud voice, · Where in the name of - Scarcely had I uttered the last word when a loud rushing cleft the air, and a stunning crash followed, as of some heavy body falling at my feet. The horse burst from his bonds, galloping off at full speed. I stood alone. Whether it was the stupor arising from excess of terror, or something more akin to courage, by which I was impelled, I cannot now determine, but in this appalling extremity I approached the object of my fears. I bent to the ground. I stretched out my hand, and my finger rested on the cold and clammy features of a corpse! I well remember a deep groan bursting from my lips. Nature had attained to the extremity of endurance. I felt a sudden return of blood to the heart, and fell beside my ghastly companion, as helpless, and probably as insensible.
I have no means of ascertaining the duration of this torpor, but with returning recollection I again put out my hand, and again it rested on the cold and almost naked carcase beside me. I felt roused by the touch, and, starting on my feet, the moon at this instant emerged from a dark pile of clouds, streaming full on the features of a blood-stained carcase, pale and distorted as if by some horrible death. Terror prompted me to fly. I ran as if the wind had lent me its wings, not daring to look back lest the grisly form I had just left should be in pnrsuit.
I fled to a considerable distance, the moon just enabling me to follow the beaten track which, to my great relief, brought me suddenly at the turn of a high bank, within sight of a huge fire, gleaming fiercely from the narrow window belonging to a hedge alehouse. Bursts of hilarity broke from the interior. The voice of revelry and glee came upon my ear, and I started like one just waking from some hideous dream. It was as if I had heard the dead laugh in their cold cerements. The boisterous roar of their mirth made me shudder, as I stept across the threshold, and by the astonishment and alarm visible in the countenances of the guests, my appearance seemed to present something as terrible to their apprehensions. Probably from the pallid hue and wildness of my features, marked with an expression of horror I tried in vain to subdue, they imagined I had either seen a ghost or came there for the purpose of imparting some disastrous and unwelcome intelligence. Every eye became intently fixed upon me, as I took my seat by a vacant table, and I heard whisperings, with suspicious glances occasionally directed towards the place where I sat. The company now beginning to get the better of their consternation, were evidently not pleased at so unseasonable an interruption of their mirth. I made an effort to speak, and with difficulty succeeded in making them comprehend the cause of my alarm, at the same time carefully concealing the supernatural incidents that accompanied the discovery. I requested their assistance in removing the body, promising, if possible, to conduct them to the very spot where the wretched victim was thrown. They stared at each other during this dreadful announcement, and at the conclusion I found every onegiving his neighbour credit for the requisite portion of courage, but at the same time declining to participate in the peril of the undertaking.
Gilbert, ye tow'd me ye stood i' the kirk-yard with your shoon-bottoms upmost, to look for the wench ye were to wed through the windows,—Ise sure 'at ye'll make no bawk at a bogle.'
Luk thee, Jem, I connot face the dead, but I winna show my back to a live fist, the best an' biggest i' a' the country side. Wilt smell my laddy?'
Gilbert, mortified at the proposed test of his prowess, raised his clenched hand in a half-threatening attitude, and a serious quarrel might have commenced, had not a sudden stop been put to the belligerents by an interesting girl stepping before me, and modestly inquiring where I had left the corpse, offering at the same time to accompany me herself, if these puissant cowards could not muster sufficient courage. • Shame on ye, Will, she cried, directing her speech to a young man who sat in the shadow of the projecting chimney, “ye did'nt use to be o'erfaced man, by a hard word or two; Ise going, follow that dare !' Saying this she took down a huge horn lanthorn, somewhat dilapidated in the outworks, and the semi-transparent material burnt in various hieroglyphical devices, causing a most unprofitable privation of light. A bonnet and cloak was drawn hastily on, when, surrendering the creaking vessel into my care, she paused for a moment, to examine the state of the weather ere she felt herself in readiness to depart. During these ominous preparations, a smart sailor-like looking man, whose fear of incurring his mistress's displeasure had probably overcome his reluctance to the encounter, stepped between me and the girl, and, taking her arm, crustily told me if I could lead the way he was prepared to follow. Rather an intricate undertaking for a stranger, who scarcely recollected whether his way lay right or left after crossing the very threshold. Thus admirably capacitated for a guide, I agreed to make the attempt, being determined to spare no pains in the pursuit. Company breeds
courage. Several of the guests finding how matters stood, and that the encounter was not likely to be made single-handed, volunteered their attendance; so that I found some five or six stout fellows in my train, ere I had proceeded a dozen paces. The vanguard consisted of myself and the two lovers, the rest crept close in the rear, and in as broad a rank as the nature of the ground would permit. Luckily, I soon found the jutting bank, round which I had turned on my first view of the blazing interior I had just left. We marched onwards in silence, if I except an occasional whisper from one of the rearmost individuals, talking to his more fortunate neighbour in front, when he found his courage on the wane. Following for some time what appeared to be the marks of recent footsteps, I hoped, yet almost feared every moment, that I might stumble on the cold corpse of which we were in search. Suddenly I was alarmed by a person in the rear crying out that he saw something approaching us from his right, at the same time making a desperate attempt to take up a more advantageous position in front. This produced a universal uproar, each fighting for precedence, and each as thoroughly determined not to be the last. Finding that remonstrance had not the least chance of producing the desired effect, I turned aside in the direction to which the alarmist pointed, and the next minute I was overjoyed to find my recreant steed, quietly searching amongst the tufted moss and rushes for his supper. My companions knew not what to make of this fresh discovery. Some of them I believe eyed him with deep suspicion, and more than one glance was directed to his hoofs to see if they were not cloven. Order, however, being re-established, we again set forward with what proved a very useful addition to our train. We travelled in this manner to a considerable distance, and I was hesitating whether or not to give up the search when I was again aware of the peculiar snort by which my horse had on a former occasion manifested his terror. With difficulty I got him forward a few paces, when he stood still, his head drawn back as if from some object that lay in his path. My blood grew cold. I knew the cause of his terror, and bidding one of the attendants to secure the bridle, I proceeded onwards a few paces, followed by the maiden and her lover, who, to give him his due, showed a tolerable share of courage, at least, in the presence of his mistress. I immediately recognised the spot, and there unmoved, lay the bloody carcase. The girl started back when she beheld the grim and ghastly features, horribly drawn together, and convulsed in their last agony. We raised the body from its cold bed, throwing it across the horse, though not without a determined opposition on the part of the animal, who seemed extremely loth to receive his burden. After covering it with a cloak, we made the best of our way back to the tavern, followed in silence by the affrighted helpmates of our journey. On arriving at the house, I found the only vacant apartment wherein I could deposit my charge, was a narrow loft over the outhouse, the entrance to which was both steep and dangerous. With the assistance of my two friends, it was, however, safely deposited on a miserable pallet, and covered with a tattered blanket. When returned I found the guest-room deserted; the old woman to whom the tavern belonged, the mother of my female companion, was hastily removing the drinking utensils, and preparing for an immediate decamp to the only apartment above stairs fitted up as a bed-chamber. She kindly offered me the use of it for the night, but this piece of self deprivation I could
not allow; and, throwing my coat over a narrow bench, I drew it near the fire, determining to snatch what little repose I could without robbing the good woman and her daughter of their night's comfort.
It was now past midnight, but sleep was out of the question, as I lay ruminating on the events of the few past hours. The inexplicable fate of the murdered wretch, so mysteriously committed to my care, was manifestly, as I thought, an imperative call to the discovery of some foul and horrible crime. Providence had, from wise, but inscrutable motives, made use of the supernatural in its revelation of the deed, and I, apparently, was chosen as the agent for the accomplishment of its designs. A higher tone of feeling seemed to pervade my faculties, -a strength of mind to which I had hitherto been a stranger. My spirit seemed strung to the pitch of some mighty enterprize, and I resolved, when day returned, that the necessary steps should be taken; determining to compass sea and land, ere I relaxed in the pursuit.
So absorbed was I in my project, that I scarcely heard the storm which had so long threatened, now bursting forth, until one wild gust that seemed to rush by as if it would have swept the dwelling from its foundation, put an end to these air-built anticipations. I watched the rattling casements, expecting every moment they would give way, and the bending thatch be rent from its hold. Involuntarily I arose and approached the window. It was pitchy dark, but the roar of the sea, groaning under the terrific sweep the tempest, was truly awful. Never had I heard so terrible a conflict,-nature seemed approaching to her doom,—the insatiable demons of anarchy and ruin, let loose uncontrolled upon the wide elements, urging a resistless war on the defenceless and impotent objects beneath their power. I knew not how soon I might be compelled to quit my unstable shelter. The very earth shook, and I expected every gust would rase the frail tenement to its foundations. The eddying and unequal pressing of the wind had heaped a huge sand drift against the walls, which probably contributed, in some measure, to their support. Vast accumulations of gravel and earthy matter were driven about, and tossed with frightful impetuosity against the casement, so that I almost anticipated a living inhumation; the cottage ere morning rendered invisible under a heap of rubbish, the debris of earth and ocean. The next blast, however, swept away the greater portion of the loose deposit, and made room for a fresh torrent that poured upon the quaking roof, like the rush of a heavy sea over a ship's bulwarks.
I was not doomed to be left companionless in the midst of my alarms. The old woman, accompanied by her daughter, too much terrified to remain alone, came down from their hiding-place, which being closer to the thatch, was more exposed to the fierce beat of the tempest. A light was struck, and the dying embers once more kindled into a blaze. The old woman, whom I could not but regard with emotions of awe and curiosity, sat crooning over the flame, her withered hands half covering her furrowed cheeks,-a starting gleam occasionally lighting upon her grey and wasted locks, that hung matted in wild elf-knots about her temples. Often she would turn her head, as the wind came hurrying on, and the loud rush of the tempest went past her dwelling; she seemed to gaze upon it as though it were peopled, and she beheld the sightless couriers of the blasť careering in the storm; then,with a mutter and a groan, she again partially covered her face, rocking to and fro to the chant of some wild but unintelligible ditty. Her daughter sat nearly motionless, hearkening to every