"Lives Reginald Front-de-Boeuf," said a broken and shrill voice close by his bedside, "to say there is that which he dares not!"
The evil conscience and the shaken nerves of Front-de-Boeuf heard, in this strange interruption to his soliloquy, the voice of one of those demons, who, as the superstition of the times believed, beset the beds of dying men to distract their thoughts, and turn them from the meditations which concerned their eternal welfare. He shuddered and drew himself together; but, instantly summoning up his wonted resolution, he exclaimed, "Who is there? — what art thou, that darest to echo my words in a tone like that of the night-raven? — Come before my couch that I may see thee."
"I am thine evil angel, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf," replied the voice.
"Let me behold thee then in thy bodily shape, if thou be'st indeed a fiend," replied the dying knight; "think not that I will blench from thee. — By the eternal dungeon, could I but grapple with these horrors that hover round me, as I have done with mortal dangers, heaven or hell should never say that I shrunk from the conflict!"
"Think on thy sins, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf," said the almost unearthly voice, "on rebellion, on rapine, on murder! — Who stirred up the licentious John to war against his grey-headed father — against his generous brother?"
"Be thou fiend, priest, or devil," replied Front-de-Boeuf, "thou liest in thy throat! — Not I stirred John to rebellion — not I alone — there were fifty knights and barons, the flower of the midland counties — better men never laid lance in rest — And must I answer for the fault done by fifty? — False fiend, I defy thee! Depart, and haunt my couch no more — let me die in peace if thou be mortal — if thou be a demon, thy time is not yet come."
"In peace thou shalt NOT die," repeated the voice; "even in death shalt thou think on thy murders — on the groans which this castle has echoed — on the blood that is engrained in its floors!"
"Thou canst not shake me by thy petty malice," answered Front-de-Boeuf, with a ghastly and constrained laugh. "The infidel Jew — it was merit with heaven to deal with him as I did, else wherefore are men canonized who dip their hands in the blood of Saracens? — The Saxon porkers, whom I have slain, they were the foes of my country, and of my lineage, and of my liege lord. — Ho! ho! thou seest there is no crevice in my coat of plate — Art thou fled? — art thou silenced?"
"No, foul parricide!" replied the voice; "think of thy father! — think of his death! — think of his banquet-room flooded with his gore, and that poured forth by the hand of a son!"
"Ha!" answered the Baron, after a long pause, "an thou knowest that, thou art indeed the author of evil, and as omniscient as the monks call thee! — That secret I deemed locked in my own breast, and in that of one besides — the temptress, the partaker of my guilt. — Go, leave me, fiend! and seek the Saxon witch Ulrica, who alone could tell thee what she and I alone witnessed. — Go, I say, to her, who washed the wounds, and straighted the corpse, and gave to the slain man the outward show of one parted in time and in the course of nature — Go to her, she was my temptress, the foul provoker, the more foul rewarder, of the deed — let her, as well as I, taste of the tortures which anticipate hell!"
"She already tastes them," said Ulrica, stepping before the couch of Front-de-Boeuf; "she hath long drunken of this cup, and its bitterness is now sweetened to see that thou dost partake it. — Grind not thy teeth, Front-de-Boeuf — roll not thine eyes — clench not thine hand, nor shake it at me with that gesture of menace! — The hand which, like that of thy renowned ancestor who gained thy name, could have broken with one stroke the skull of a mountain-bull, is now unnerved and powerless as mine own!"
"Vile murderous hag!" replied Front-de-Boeuf; "detestable screech-owl! it is then thou who art come to exult over the ruins thou hast assisted to lay low?"
"Ay, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf," answered she, "it is Ulrica! — it is the daughter of the murdered Torquil Wolfganger! — it is the sister of his slaughtered sons! — it is she who demands of thee, and of thy father's house, father and kindred, name and fame — all that she has lost by the name of Front-de-Boeuf! — Think of my wrongs, Front-de-Boeuf, and answer me if I speak not truth. Thou hast been my evil angel, and I will be thine — I will dog thee till the very instant of dissolution!"
"Detestable fury!" exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf, "that moment shalt thou never witness — Ho! Giles, Clement, and Eustace! Saint Maur, and Stephen! seize this damned witch, and hurl her from the battlements headlong — she has betrayed us to the Saxon! — Ho! Saint Maur! Clement! false-hearted, knaves, where tarry ye?"
"Call on them again, valiant Baron," said the hag, with a smile of grisly mockery; "summon thy vassals around thee, doom them that loiter to the scourge and the dungeon — But know, mighty chief," she continued, suddenly changing her tone, "thou shalt have neither answer, nor aid, nor obedience at their hands. — Listen to these horrid sounds," for the din of the recommenced assault and defence now rung fearfully loud from the battlements of the castle; "in that war-cry is the downfall of thy house — The blood-cemented fabric of Front-de-Boeuf's power totters to the foundation, and before the foes he most despised! — The Saxon, Reginald! — the scorned Saxon assails thy walls! — Why liest thou here, like a worn-out hind, when the Saxon storms thy place of strength?"
"Gods and fiends!" exclaimed the wounded knight; "O, for one moment's strength, to drag myself to the 'melee', and perish as becomes my name!"
"Think not of it, valiant warrior!" replied she; "thou shalt die no soldier's death, but perish like the fox in his den, when the peasants have set fire to the cover around it."
"Hateful hag! thou liest!" exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf; "my followers bear them bravely — my walls are strong and high — my comrades in arms fear not a whole host of Saxons, were they headed by Hengist and Horsa! — The war-cry of the Templar and of the Free Companions rises high over the conflict! And by mine honour, when we kindle the blazing beacon, for joy of our defence, it shall consume thee, body and bones; and I shall live to hear thou art gone from earthly fires to those of that hell, which never sent forth an incarnate fiend more utterly diabolical!"
"Hold thy belief," replied Ulrica, "till the proof reach thee — But, no!" she said, interrupting herself, "thou shalt know, even now, the doom, which all thy power, strength, and courage, is unable to avoid, though it is prepared for thee by this feeble band. Markest thou the smouldering and suffocating vapour which already eddies in sable folds through the chamber? — Didst thou think it was but the darkening of thy bursting eyes — the difficulty of thy cumbered breathing? — No! Front-de-Boeuf, there is another cause — Rememberest thou the magazine of fuel that is stored beneath these apartments?"
"Woman!" he exclaimed with fury, "thou hast not set fire to it? — By heaven, thou hast, and the castle is in flames!"
"They are fast rising at least," said Ulrica, with frightful composure; "and a signal shall soon wave to warn the besiegers to press hard upon those who would extinguish them. — Farewell, Front-de-Boeuf! — May Mista, Skogula, and Zernebock, gods of the ancient Saxons — fiends, as the priests now call them — supply the place of comforters at your dying bed, which Ulrica now relinquishes! — But know, if it will give thee comfort to know it, that Ulrica is bound to the same dark coast with thyself, the companion of thy punishment as the companion of thy guilt. — And now, parricide, farewell for ever! — May each stone of this vaulted roof find a tongue to echo that title into thine ear!"
So saying, she left the apartment; and Front-de-Boeuf could hear the crash of the ponderous key, as she locked and double-locked the door behind her, thus cutting off the most slender chance of escape. In the extremity of agony he shouted upon his servants and allies — "Stephen and Saint Maur! — Clement and Giles! — I burn here unaided! — To the rescue — to the rescue, brave Bois-Guilbert, valiant De Bracy! — It is Front-de-Boeuf who calls! — It is your master, ye traitor squires! — Your ally — your brother in arms, ye perjured and faithless knights! — all the curses due to traitors upon your recreant heads, do you abandon me to perish thus miserably! — They hear me not — they cannot hear me — my voice is lost in the din of battle. — The smoke rolls thicker and thicker — the fire has caught upon the floor below — O, for one drought of the air of heaven, were it to be purchased by instant annihilation!" And in the mad frenzy of despair, the wretch now shouted with the shouts of the fighters, now muttered curses on himself, on mankind, and on Heaven itself. — "The red fire flashes through the thick smoke!" he exclaimed; "the demon marches against me under the banner of his own element — Foul spirit, avoid! — I go not with thee without my comrades — all, all are thine, that garrison these walls — Thinkest thou Front-de-Boeuf will be singled out to go alone? — No — the infidel Templar — the licentious De Bracy — Ulrica, the foul murdering strumpet — the men who aided my enterprises — the dog Saxons and accursed Jews, who are my prisoners — all, all shall attend me — a goodly fellowship as ever took the downward road — Ha, ha, ha!" and he laughed in his frenzy till the vaulted roof rang again. "Who laughed there?" exclaimed Front-de-Boeuf, in altered mood, for the noise of the conflict did not prevent the echoes of his own mad laughter from returning upon his ear — "who laughed there? — Ulrica, was it thou? — Speak, witch, and I forgive thee — for, only thou or the fiend of hell himself could have laughed at such a moment. Avaunt — avaunt! — -"
But it were impious to trace any farther the picture of the blasphemer and parricide's deathbed.