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deception, for the ground continued so rapidly to sink, as made it obvious there was a deep dell, or ravine of some kind, between him and the object of his search. Taking every precaution to preserve his footing, he continued to descend until he reached the bottom of a very steep and narrow glen, through which winded a small rivulet, whose course was then almost choked with snow. He now found himself embarrassed among the ruins of cottages, whose black gables, rendered more distinguishable by the contrast with the whitened surface from which they rose, were still standing ; the side-walls had long since given way to time, and, piled in shapeless heaps, and covered with snow, offered frequent and embarrassing obstacles to our traveller's progress. Still, however, he persevered, crossed the rivulet, not without some trouble, and at length, by exertions which became both painful and perilous, ascended its opposite and very rugged bank, until he came on a level with the building from which the gleam proceeded.
It was difficult, especially by so imperfect a light, to discover the nature of this edifice; but it seemed a square building of small size, the upper part of which was totally ruinous. It had, perhaps, been the abode, in former times, of some lesser proprietor, or a place of strength and concealment, in case of need, for one of greater importance. But only the lower vault remained, the arch of which formed the roof in the present state of the building. Brown first approached the place from whence the light proceeded, which was a long narrow slit or loophole, such as usually are to be found in old castles. Impelled by curiosity to reconnoitre the interior of this strange place before he entered, Brown gazed in at this aperture. A scene of greater desolation could not well be imagined. There was a fire upon the floor, the smoke of which, after circling through the apartment, escaped by a hole broken in the arch above. The walls, seen by this smoky light, had the rude and waste appearance of a ruin of three centuries old at least. A cask or two, with some broken boxes and packages, lay about the place in confusion. But the inmates chiefly occupied Brown's attention. Upon a lair composed of straw, with a blanket stretched over it, lay a figure, so still, that, except that it was not dressed in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Brown would have concluded it to be a corpse. On a steadier view he perceived it was only on the point of becoming so,
for he heard one or two of these low, deep, and hard-drawn
Wasted, weary, wherefore stay,
Hark! the mass is singing.
From thee doff thy mortal weed,
Hark! the knell is ringing.
Fear not snow-drift driving fast,
That shall ne'er know waking.
Haste thee, haste thee, to be gone,
Day is near the breaking
The songstress paused, and was answered by one or two deep and hollow groans, that seemed to proceed from the very agony of the mortal strife. “It will not be,” she muttered to herself—“He cannot pass away with that on his mind-it tethers him here
• Heaven cannot abide it,
I must open the door ;” and, rising, she faced towards the door of the apartment, observing heedfully not to turn back her head, and, withdrawing a bolt or two (for, notwithstanding
i Note IV. Gipsy Superstitions
the miserable appearance of the place, the door was cautiously secured), she lifted the latch, saying,
Open lock-end strife,
Come death, and pass life. Brown, who had by this time moved from his post, stood before her as she opened the door. She stepped back a pace, and he entered, instantly recognising, but with no comfortable sensation, the same gipsy woman whom he had met in Bewcastle. She also knew him at once, and her attitude, figure, and the anxiety of her countenance, assumed the appearance of the well-disposed ogress of a fairy tale, warning a stranger not to enter the dangerous castle of her husband. The first words she spoke (holding up her hands in a reproving manner) were, “Said I not to ye, Make not, meddle not ?- Beware of the redding straik !1 you are come to no house o' fairstrae death.” So saying, she raised the lamp, and turned its light on the dying man, whose rude and harsh features were now convulsed with the last agony. A roll of linen about his head was stained with blood, which had soaked also through the blankets and the straw. It was, indeed, under no natural disease that the wretch was suffering. Brown started back from this horrible object, and, turning to the gipsy, exclaimed, “Wretched woman, who has done this ?”
“They that were permitted,” answered Meg Merrilies, while she scanned with a close and keen glance the features of the expiring man.—“He has had a sair struggle, but it's passing- I kenn'd he would pass when you came in.—That was the death-ruckle—he's dead."
Sounds were now heard at a distance, as of voices. “They are coming,” said she to Brown ; "you are a dead man if ye had as mony lives as hairs." Brown eagerly looked round for some weapon of defence. There was none near. He then rushed to the door, with the intention of plunging among the trees, and making his escape by flight, from what he now esteemed a den of murderers, but Merrilies held him with a masculine grasp. “Here,” she said, “here—be still and you are safe-stir not, whatever you see or hear, and nothing shall befall you."
1 The redding straik, namely, a blow received by a peacemaker who interferes betwixt two combatants, to red or separate them, is proverbially said to be the most dangerous blow a man can receive.
Brown, in these desperate circumstances, remembered this woman's intimation formerly, and thought he had no chance of safety but in obeying her. She caused him to couch down among a parcel of straw on the opposite side of the apartment from the corpse, covered him carefully, and flung over him two or three old sacks which lay about the place. Anxious to observe what was to happen, Brown arranged, as softly as he could, the means of peeping from under the coverings by which he was hidden, and awaited with a throbbing heart the issue of this strange and most unpleasant adventure. The old gipsy, in the meantime, set about arranging the dead body, composing its limbs, and straightening the arms by its side. “Best to do this,” she muttered, “ere he stiffen.” She placed on the dead man's breast a trencher, with salt sprinkled upon it, set one candle at the head, and another at the feet of the body, and lighted both. Then she resumed her song, and awaited the approach of those whose voices had been heard without.
Brown was a soldier, and a brave one; but he was also a man, and at this moment his fears mastered his courage so completely that the cold drops burst out from every pore. The idea of being dragged out of his miserable concealment by wretches, whose trade was that of midnight murder, without weapons or the slightest means of defence, except entreaties, which would be only their sport, and cries for help, which could never reach other ear than their own-his safety entrusted to the precarious compassion of a being associated with these felons, and whose trade of rapine and imposture must have hardened her against every human feeling--the bitterness of his emotions almost choked him. He endeavoured to read in her withered and dark countenance, as the lamp threw its light upon her features, something that promised those feelings of compassion, which females, even in their most degraded state, can seldom altogether smother. There was no such touch of humanity about this woman. The interest, whatever it was, that determined her in his favour, arose not from the impulse of compassion, but from some internal, and probably capricious, association of feelings, to which he had no clew. It rested, perhaps, on a fancied likeness, such as Lady Macbeth found to her father in the sleeping monarch. Such were the reflections that passed in rapid succession through Brown's mind, as he gazed from his hiding-place upon this extraordinary personage. Meantime the gang did not get aprech, and he was almost prompted to resume ts orica intention of arterpting an escape from the hut, and ceased internas bis ora irresolution, which had consented to his being cocped up where he had neither room for resistanse cor szo!
Meg Merrlies seemed esay on the watch. She bent her ear to every sound that isted round the old walls. Then she turned again to the dead body, and found something new to arrange or alter in its pos.con " He's a bonoy corpse," she muttered to herse'i, “and Feel worth the streaking."And in this dismal occupation she appeared to feel a sort of professional pleasure, ertering slowly into all the minutiz, as if with the skill and feelings of a connoisseur. A long dark coloured sea-cloak, which she dragged out of a corner. was disposed for a pail. The face she left bare, after closing the mouth and eyes, and arranged the capes of the cloak so as to hide the bloody bardages, and give the body, as she muttered, “a mair decent appearance."
At once three or four men, equally ruffians in appearance and dress, rushed into the hut. “ Jieg, ye limb of Satan, bow dare you leave the door open ?" was the first salutation of the party.
"And wha ever heard of a door being barred when a man was in the dead-thraw?-how d’ye think the spirit was to get awa through bolts and bars like thae ?"
“Is he dead, then?” said one who went to the side of the couch to look at the body.
“Ay, ay-dead enough,” said another—"but here's what shall give him a rousing lykewake.” So saying, he fetched a keg of spirits from a corner, while Meg hastened to display pipes and tobacco. From the activity with which she undertook the task, Brown conceived good hope of her fidelity towards her guest. It was obvious that she wished to engage the ruffians in their debauch, to prevent the discovery which might take place if, by accident, any of them should approach too nearly the place of Brown's concealment.