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commune with himself. Leaping the small boundary-wall, which defended the churchyard from a deep green lane, he hurried along in a direction contrary to that taken by the sexton, making the best of his way until he arrived at a gap in the high-banked hazel hedge, which overhung the road. Heedless of the impediments thrown in his way by the undergrowth of a rough ring fence, he struck through the opening that presented itself, and climbing over the moss-grown paling, trod presently upon the elastic sward of Rookwood Park.
A few minutes' rapid walking brought him to the summit of a rising ground crowned with aged oaks, and, as he passed beneath their broad shadows, his troubled spirit, soothed by the quietude of the scene, in part resumed its serenity.
Luke yielded to the gentle influence of the time and hour. The stillness of the spot allayed the irritation of his frame, and the dewy chilness cooled the fever of his brow. Leaning for support against the gnarled trunk of one of the trees, he gave himself up to contemplation. The events of the last hour—of his whole existence— passed in rapid review before him. The thought of the wayward, vagabond life he had led; of the wild adventures of his youth ; of all he had been; of all he had done ; of all he had endured— crowded his mind; and then, like the passing of a cloud flitting across the autumnal moon, and occasionally obscuring the smiling landscape before him, his soul was shadowed by the remembrance of the awful revelations of the last hour, and the fearful knowledge he had acquired of his mother's fate— of his father's guilt.
The eminence on which he stood was one of the highest points of the park, and commanded a view of the hall, which might be a quarter of a mile distant, discernible through a broken vista of trees, its whitened walls glimmering in the moonlight; and its tall chimney spiring far from out the round masses of wood in which it lay embosomed. The ground gradually sloped in that direction, occasionally rising into swells, studded with magnificent timber—dipping into smooth dells, or stretching out into level glades, until it suddenly sank into a deep declivity, that formed an effectual division, without the intervention of a haw-haw, or other barrier, between the chase and the home-park. A slender stream strayed through this ravine, having found its way thither from a small reservoir,
hidden in the higher plantations to the left; and further on, in the open ground, and in a line with the hall, though, of course, much below the level of the building, assisted by many local springs, and restrained by a variety of natural and artificial embankments, this brook spread out into an expansive sheet of water. Crossed by a rustic bridge, the only communication between the parks, the pool found its outlet into the meads below; and even at that distance, and in that still hour, you might almost catch the sound of the brawling waters, as they dashed down the weir in a foaming cascade ; while far away, in the spreading valley, the serpentine meanderings of the slender current might be traced, glittering like silvery threads in the moonshine. The mild beams of the queen of night, then in her meridian, trembled upon the topmast branches of the tall timber, quivering like diamond spray upon the outer foliage;
and penetrating through the interstices of the trees, fell upon the light wreaths of vapour, then beginning to arise from the surface of the pool, steeping them in misty splendour, and lending to this part of the picture a character of dreamy and unearthly beauty.
All else was in unison. No sound interrupted the silence of Luke's solitude, except the hooting of a large grey owl, that, scared at his approach, or in search of prey, winged its spectral flight in continuous and mazy circles round his head, uttering at each wheel its startling whoop; or a deep distant bay, that ever and anon boomed upon the ear, proceeding from a pack of hounds kennelled in a shed adjoining the pool before mentioned, but which was shrouded from view by the rising mist. No living objects presented themselves, save a herd of deer, crouched in a covert of brown fern beneath the shadow of a few stunted trees, immediately below the point of land on which Luke stood ; and although their branching antlers could scarcely be detected from the ramifications of the wood itself, they escaped not his practised ken.
“How often,” murmured Luke, “in years gone by, have I traversed these moonlit glades, and wandered amidst these woodlands, on nights heavenly as this — ay, and to some purpose, as yon thinned herd might testify! Every dingle, every dell, every rising brow, every bosky vale and shelving covert, have been as familiar to my track as to that of the fleetest and freest of their number : scarce a tree amidst the thickest of yon outstretching forest, with which I cannot claim acquaintance ; ’t is long since I have seen them.- By heavens ! 't is beautiful !
- and it is all my own! Can I forget that it was here I first emancipated myself from thraldom? Can I forget the boundless feeling of delight that danced within my veins when I first threw off the yoke of servitude, and roved unshackled, unrestrained, amidst these woods ? — The wild intoxicating bliss still tingles to my heart. And they are all my own—my own! Softly, what have we there?”
Luke's attention was arrested by an object which could not fail to interest him, sportsman as he was. A snorting bray was heard, and a lordly stag stalked slowly and majestically from out the copse. Luke watched the actions of the noble animal with great interest, drawing back into the shade. A hundred yards, or thereabouts, might be between him and the buck. It was within range of ball. Luke mechanically grasped his gun; yet his hand had scarcely raised the piece half way to his shoulder, when he dropped it again to its rest.
" What am I about to do?” he mentally ejaculated. “Why, for mere pastime, should I take away yon noble creature's life, when his carcass would be utterly useless to me ? Yet such is the force of habit, that I can scarce resist the impulse that tempted me to fire ; and I have known the time, and that not long since, when I should have shown no such self-control.”
Unconscious of the danger it had escaped, the animal moved forward with the same stately step. Suddenly it stopped, with ears pricked, as if some sound had smote them. At that instant the click of a gun-lock was heard, at a little distance to the right.
The piece had missed fire. An instantaneous report from another gun succeeded ; and, with a bound high in air, the buck fell upon his back, struggling in the agonies of death. Luke had at once divined the cause ; he was aware that poachers were at hand. He fancied that he knew the parties ; nor was he deceived in his conjecture. Two figures issued instantly from a covert on the right, and making to the spot, the first who reached it, put an end to the animal's struggles by plunging a knife into its throat. The affrighted herd took to their heels, and were seen darting swiftly down the chase.
One of the twain, meantime, was occupied in feeling for the deer's fat, when he was approached by the other, who pointed
in the direction of the house. The former raised himself from his kneeling posture, and both appeared to listen attentively. Luke fancied he heard a slight sound in the distance ; whatever the noise proceeded from, it was evident the deer-stealers were alarmed. They laid hold of the buck, and, dragging it along, concealed the carcass among the tall fern; they then retreated, halting for an instant to deliberate, within a few yards of Luke, who was concealed from their view by the trunk of the tree, behind which he had ensconced his person. They were so near, that he lost not a word of their muttered conference.
“ The game's spoiled this time, Rob Rust, any how,” growled one, in an angry tone; - the hawks are upon us, and we must leave this brave buck to take care of himself. Curse him, who'd a'thought of Hugh Badger's quitting his bed tonight? Respect for his late master might have kept him quiet the night before the funeral. But look out, lad — dost see 'em ?"
“Ay, thanks to old Oliver — yonder they are,” returned the other"
two-three-- and a muzzled bouser to boot. There's Hugh at the head on 'em —shall we stand and show fight ? --I have half a mind for it.” No, no,” replied the first speaker ;
o that will never do, Rob, no fighting — why run the risk of being grabb’d for a haunch of venison ? Had Luke Bradley or Jack Palmer been with us, it might have been another affair. As it is, it wo’n't pay.
Besides we've that to do at the hall to-morrow night, that may make men of us for the rest of our nat'ral lives. We've pledged ourselves to Jack Palmer— and we can't be off in honour. It wo'n't do to be snabbled in the nick of it. So let's make for the prad, in the lane. Keep in the shade as much as you can. Come along, my hearty.” And away the two worthies scampered down the hill-side.
“Shall I follow," thought Luke," and run the risk of falling into the keeper's hand just at this crisis, too? No, but if I am found here, I shall be taken for one of the gang. Something must be done — ha ! - devil take them, here they are already."
Further time was not allowed him for reflection. A hoarse baying was heard, followed by a loud cry from the keepers. The dog had scented out the game; and, as secrecy was no longer necessary, his muzzle had been removed. To rush forth now were certain betrayal; to remain was almost equally assured detection ; and, doubting whether he should obtain credence if he delivered himself over in that garb and armed, Luke at once rejected the idea. Just then it flashed across his recollection that his gun had remained unloaded, and he applied himself eagerly to repair this negligence, when he heard the dog in full cry, making swiftly in his direction. He threw himself upon the ground, where the fern was thickest; but this seemed insufficient to baffle the sagacity of the hound
- the animal had got his scent, and was baying close at hand. The 'keepers were drawing nigh. Luke gave himself up for lost. The dog, however, stopped where the two poachers had halted, and was there completely at fault: snuffing the ground, he .bayed, wheeled round, and then set off with renewed barking upon their track. Hugh Badger and his comrades loitered an instant at the same place, looked warily round, and then, as Luke conjectured, followed the course taken by the hound.
Swift as thought, Luke arose, and keeping as much as possible under cover of the trees, started in a cross line for the lane. Rapid as was his flight, it was not without a witness: one of the keeper's assistants, who had lagged behind, gave the view-holloa in a loud voice. Luke pressed forward with redoubled energy, endeavouring to gain the shelter of the plantation, and this he could readily have accomplished, had no impediment been in his way. But his rage and vexation were boundless, when he heard the keeper's cry echoed by shouts immediately below him, and the tongue of the hound resounding in the hollow. He turned sharply round, steering a middle course, and still aiming at the fence. It was evident, from the cheers of his pursuers, that he was in full view, and he heard them encouraging and directing the dog.
Luke had gained the park palings, along which he rushed, in the vain quest of some practicable point of egress, for the fence was higher in this part of the park than elsewhere, owing to the inequality of the ground. He had cast away his gun as useless. But even without that incumbrance, he dared not hazard the delay of climbing the palings. At this juncture a deep breathing was heard close behind him. He threw a glance over his shoulder. Within a few yards was a ferocious blood-hound, with whose savage nature Luke was well ac.