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were complete, its rooms and galleries unimpaired,--nothing altered since the days of its earliest possessors: now, there is hardly a vestige left of its internal arrangement, the mere shell remains. Shame on the memory of the "dull destroyer," who, to build a new house, so wantonly defaced this interesting relique of our forefathers!
Turn we from the melancholy scene, to contemplate the mansion, as it stood under its third possessor, in the reign of King Henry VIII.
The fire was burning merrily in the great hall of Herstmonceux; and its blaze, as it played over the weaponcovered walls, and oaken ceiling of the noble room, was pleasant enough to the inmates, though it was the last evening in April; for the night was cold and stormy, and as the wind swept through the empty courts, and shook the oriel of the hall, its mournful noise seemed like the wail of the guardian spirit of the family, portending some coming woe.
Yet little recked the young lord Dacre, and his merry companions, of the storm without. They sat round the fire in the centre of the hall, and constantly quaffed copious draughts of sack or "maloisie" from the vessels which stood at hand. It was a late hour for those days; the clock of the castle had already tolled nine, and symptoms of the approach of "the drowsie god" were already appearing in the melancholy silence, which at length began to prevail. The songs, which, during the evening, had made the roof ring again, had long ago died away, and all seemed disposed for rest: not so lord Dacre. "How now, gallants!" said he, "is our evening to end thus ? Are we, like saintly monks, to seek our chambers now, in order to be only half asleep, at the midnight service? Rouse ye, my drowsy companions; bestir thyself, George Roidon! "
The party addressed betrayed, by his sudden start, an advanced stage of somnolency; he replied however, " Nay then, Lord Dacre, confess that thou, too, wast weary enough after to-day's expedition; i' faith, mine eyes close of themselves; what want you with us to-night?"
"O! any thing is better than going to bed; by 'r ladye, my wants are small, but I would not lie tossing on my couch, and hearing the wind howl along the walls, like the wailing of a ghost. I shall not go."
"What then will ye do, Lord Dacre?" said John Mantell, another of his boon companions; "wilt go and help Friar John to sing the requiem for thy father's soul? The seven years have not yet expired."*
“Or to take care of the hundred candles which burn constantly by his tomb?" added a third friend.
"No, good faith," said Lord Dacre;+" and yet have I lit on a device whereby to pass this weary night; a happier idea has occurred to me. What think ye, gentles, of hunting a stag in the park of Sir Nicholas Pelham, my neighbour of Laughton? Under such a brave stormy sky, we might find sport for a night, I trow; the moon, dark as she is, will give us light enough."
"A Dacre! A Dacre!" cried John Mantell; "by the rood, a most gallant thought! What think ye?" turning to the others.
"Why," said George Roidon, "that I will e'en give up my turret chamber for it; such sport likes me well."
And such indeed was the general opinion; the three gentlemen completely shook off sleep; and some yeomen,
* Thomas de Fynes, second lord Dacre, left a priest twelve marks yearly for seven years, to sing mass constantly for his soul.
† It must be observed, that, according to Stow, lord Dacre was urged on to this frolic by his companions.
who were sitting at a humble distance, near the batteries, at the bottom of the hall, seemed equally well pleased. In truth, such misconduct was but too common among the gallants of the day.
"Well," said lord Dacre," since this gear likes you well, bid some servants prepare to follow us; and, not to alarm my fair consort, I will seek her and say some business calls me forth to-night, the nature of it need I not to impart."
He then left the hall, and prepared to seek the lady Eleanor, his youthful bride. He passed through the three state chambers, which lie beyond the great hall, and thence into the chapel, a small but lofty edifice, reaching to the upper story of the castle. It might have been his fancy, or the wine he had so largely drunk, but, sooth to say, as the moon shone against the image of our lady in one of the painted windows, that holy brow seemed to wear a frown; nay more, it is said that the phantom of his father beckoned with warning hand from the gloom of the building, as if to deter him from his ill-advised project. The young baron was startled, it is true; but he resolved to dismiss all dismal thoughts, and hastily leaving the chapel, passed into the private apartments of the family.
His wife was there, bending over one of Caxton's earliest works, which she closed, on perceiving her unlettered lord.
"Marvel not, dearest," Lord Dacre began, "that I desert thee to-night; my business will detain me but this short space; on the morrow I will return to thy sweet company."
"O! go not to-night," said the lady of Herstmonceux, imploringly; "hark! Thomas, how the wind is howling
around the castle, and the sky is gloomy and drear; they say spirits ride the blast such nights as these. Stay, and I will read thee the legend of the blessed Saint Catharine; this book contains right goodly histories."
O! little reck I of thy clerkly skill, fair Eleanor," he said; “ I, an unlettered wight, will fearlessly encounter the spirits thou spakest of; and now, adieu!"
Stay, stay, dearest," said she, "go not to-night”— "And wherefore not this night?" interrupted lord Dacre.
"O! I have had an evil foreboding long since for thee, that on this last night of April, some great evil should befal thee; and I dreamed, too, that"—
Nay," he replied, "a truce to thy forebodings; thou shalt tell me thy dream to-morrow, my business is urgent, I must go."
"Tell me then, at least," said lady Dacre," what business hast thou, Thomas, to call thee forth this troubled night?"
"O! it is of no very great importance," he answered, rather hastily; "but it is late, I must away."
"The saints preserve thee, dearest!" said she,
much I fear thou wilt not return in peace."
Lord Dacre's heart smote him; but he affected a careless look, and with a smile, took his leave. Not caring, however, to return through the chapel, he passed by a different route to the hall, where he found his three companions, the aforesaid yeomen, and two other gentlemen, who had not been in the hall, by name Cheney and Isley-the sight of their preparations dispelled every qualm from the mind of the young nobleman.
They quickly left the hall, and passed through the quadrangle to the principal entrance. As Dacre passed
under the vaulted gateway, a large dog howled piteously at his feet.
"What ails thee, Oscar?" said he, " dost want to go with me to-night?"
The dog, however, took no farther notice of the greeting than by planting himself between his master and the gates; Lord Dacre was again evidently daunted.
"What! my Lord," said Roidon, "dost fear the howling of a dog? Nay, nay!" He prevailed, and the party, with several servants, sallied forth into the dark night. Passing over the draw-bridge, they found the night better than might have been anticipated. The wind, though very high, was not cold; and the moon, constantly looking through the broken masses of storm clouds, afforded sufficient light for their purpose. Dacre, though gentlemen of that age were no great admirers of scenery, could not help being struck by the night view.
"I' faith, Cheney," he said, "a limner's skill might make somewhat of this. Mark how the castle windows glimmer through the darkness, and the hundred tapers by my father's tomb make the church a very ' chambre ardente.' See too the pale moon, how it shows those dark hills, and bare woods."
This rather poetic sally met no sympathy in the breasts of his companions; and they fared on almost in silence, till the limits of the park, and then proceeded to the wide-spread demesne of Laughton, having sent round their servants another way. Lord Dacre, whose conscience whispered that he was engaged in no honourable venture, could not quite shake off the impression, which the omens he had seen in his castle, had made on his mind; it was the age of superstition, and men's minds then were differently strung.