“I would not,” replied the wretched lady. “But have you heard from her—have you seen her? Tell me, is she well and happy?”
“She is well, and would be happy, were it not for her anxiety about you,” replied Nicholas, evasively. “But for her sake—mine—your own—I must urge you to seek some other place of refuge to night, for if you are discovered here you will bring ruin on us all.”
“I will no longer debate the point,” replied Mistress Nutter. “Where shall I go?”
“There is one place of absolute security, but I do not like to mention it,” replied Nicholas. “Yet still, as it will only be necessary to remain for a day or two, till the search is over, when you can return here, it cannot much matter.”
“Where is it?” asked Mistress Nutter.
“Malkin Tower,” answered the squire, with some hesitation.
“I will never go to that accursed place,” cried the lady. “Send me hence when you will—now, or at midnight—and let me seek shelter on the bleak fells or on the desolate moors, but bid me not go there!”
“And yet it is the best and safest place for you,” returned Nicholas, somewhat testily; “and for this reason, that, being reputed to be haunted, no one will venture to molest you. As to Mother Demdike, I suppose you are not afraid of her ghost; and if the evil beings you apprehend were able or inclined to do you mischief, they would not wait till you got there to execute their purpose.”
“True,” said Mistress Nutter, “I was wrong to hesitate. I will go.”
“You will be as safe there as here—ay, and safer,” rejoined Nicholas, “or I would not urge the retreat upon you. I am about to ride over to Middleton this morning to see your daughter and Richard Assheton, and shall sleep at Whalley, so that I shall not be able to accompany you to the tower to-night; but old Crouch the huntsman shall be in waiting for you, as soon as it grows dusk, in the summer-house, with which, as you know, the secret staircase connected with this room communicates, and he shall have a horse in readiness to take you, together with such matters as you may require, to the place of refuge. Heaven guard you, madam!”
“Amen!” responded the lady.
“And now farewell!” said Nicholas. “I shall hope to see you back again ere many days be gone, when your quietude will not again be disturbed.”
So saying, he stepped back, and, passing through the panel, closed it after him.
CHAPTER III.—MIDDLETON HALL.
Middleton Hall, the residence of Sir Richard Assheton, was a large quadrangular structure, built entirely of timber, and painted externally in black and white checker-work, fanciful and varied in design, in the style peculiar to the better class of Tudor houses in South Lancashire and Cheshire. Surrounded by a deep moat, supplied by a neighbouring stream, and crossed by four drawbridges, each faced by a gateway,