CHAPTER II.—THE PENITENT’S RETREAT.
Nicholas and Sherborne returned by a different road from that taken by the others, and loitered so much by the way that they did not arrive at the manor-house until the prisoner and his escort had set out. Probably this was designed, as Nicholas seemed relieved when he learnt they were gone. Having entered the house with his brother-in-law, and conducted him to an apartment opening out of the hall, usually occupied by Mistress Assheton, and where, in fact, they found that amiable lady employed at her embroidery, he left Sherborne with her, and, making some excuse for his own hasty retreat, betook himself to another part of the house.
Mounting the principal staircase, which was of dark oak, with richly-carved railing, he turned into a gallery communicating with the sleeping apartments, and, after proceeding more than half-way down it, halted before a door, which he unlocked, and entered a spacious but evidently disused chamber, hung round with faded tapestry, and containing a large gloomy-looking bedstead. Securing the door carefully after him, Nicholas raised the hangings in one corner of the room, and pressing against a spring, a sliding panel flew open. A screen was placed within, so as to hide from view the inmate of the secret chamber, and Nicholas, having coughed slightly, to announce his presence, and received an answer in a low, melancholy female voice, stepped through the aperture, and stood within a small closet.
It was tenanted by a lady, whose features and figure bore the strongest marks of affliction. Her person was so attenuated that she looked little more than a skeleton—her fingers were long and thin—her cheeks hollow and deathly pale—her eyes lustreless and deep sunken in their sockets—and her hair, once jetty as the raven’s wing, prematurely blanched. Such was the profound gloom stamped upon her countenance, that it was impossible to look upon her without compassion; while, in spite of her wo-begone looks, there was a noble character about her that elevated the feeling into deep interest, blended with respect. She was kneeling beside a small desk, with an open Bible laid upon it, which she was intently studying when the squire appeared.
“Here is a terrible text for you, Nicholas,” she said, regarding him, mournfully. “Listen to it, and judge of its effect on me. Thus it is written in Deuteronomy:—’There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.’ A witch, Nicholas—do you mark the word? And yet more particular is the next verse, wherein it is said;—’Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.’ And then cometh the denunciation of divine anger against such offenders in these awful words:—’For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: