He was soon by the side of the beacon. The stones were still standing as they had been reared by Paslew, and on looking at them he was astonished to find the hollow within them filled with dry furze, brushwood, and fagots, as if in readiness for another signal. In passing round the circle, his surprise was still further increased by discovering a torch, and not far from it, in one of the interstices of the stones, a dark lantern, in which, on removing the shade, he found a candle burning. It was now clear the beacon was to be kindled that night, though for what end he could not conjecture, and equally clear that he was brought thither to fire it. He put back the lantern into its place, took up the torch, and held himself in readiness.
Half an hour elapsed, and nothing occurred. During this interval it had become dark. A curtain of clouds was drawn over the moon and stars.
Suddenly, a hurtling noise was heard in the air, and it seemed to the watcher as if a troop of witches were alighting at a distance from him.
A loud hubbub of voices ensued—then there was a trampling of feet, accompanied by discordant strains of music—after which a momentary silence ensued, and a harsh voice asked—
“Why are we brought hither?”
“It is not for a sabbath,” shouted another voice, “for there is neither fire nor caldron.”
“Mother Demdike would not summon us without good reason,” cried a third. “We shall learn presently what we have to do.”
“The more mischief the better,” rejoined another voice.
“Ay, mischief! mischief! mischief!” echoed the rest of the crew.
“You shall have enough of it to content you,” rejoined Mother Demdike. “I have called you hither to be present at a sacrifice.”
Hideous screams of laughter followed this announcement, and the voice that had spoken first asked—
“A sacrifice of whom?”
“An unbaptised babe, stolen from its sleeping mother’s breast,” rejoined another. “Mother Demdike has often played that trick before—ho! ho!”
“Peace!” thundered the hag—“It is no babe I am about to kill, but a full-grown maid—ay, and one of rarest beauty, too. What think ye of Alizon Device?”
“Thy grand-daughter!” cried several voices, in surprise.
“Alice Nutter’s daughter—for such she is,” rejoined the hag. “I have held her captive in Malkin Tower, and have subjected her to every trial and temptation I could devise, but I have failed in shaking her courage, or in winning her over to our master. All the horrors of the vault have been tried upon her in vain. Even the last terrible ordeal, which no one has hitherto sustained, proved ineffectual. She went through it unmoved.”
“Heaven be praised!” murmured Richard.
“It seems I have no power over her soul” pursued the hag; “but I have over her body, and she shall die here, and by my hand. But mind me, not a drop of blood must fall to the ground.”