A Little Wizard - Part 1

Part 1

A Little Wizard.

by Stanley J. Weyman.



When the agent of General Skippon, to whom the estate of Pattenhall by Ripon fell, as part of his reward after the battle of Naseby, went down to take possession, he found a little boy sitting on a heap of stones a few paces from the entrance gate. The old house (which has since been pulled down) lay a quarter of a mile from the road and somewhat in a hollow; but its many cas.e.m.e.nts, blushing and sparkling in the glow of the evening sun, caught the rider's eye, and led him into the comfortable belief that he had reached his destination. He had come from Ripon, however, and the village lies on the farther side of the house from that town; consequently he had seen no one whom he could question, and he hailed the boy's presence with relief, checking his horse, and calling to him to know if this was Pattenhall.

The lad crouching on the stones, and nervously plucking the gra.s.s beside him, looked up at the four stern men sitting squarely in their saddles. But he did not answer. He might have been deaf.

"Come!" Agent Hoby said, repeating his question roughly. "You have got a tongue, my lad. Is this old squire Patten's?"

The boy shook his head mutely. He looked about twelve years old.

"Is it farther on?"

"Yes, farther on," the lad muttered, scarcely moving his lips.


Still keeping his eyes, which were large and brown, on his questioner, the boy pointed towards the tower of the church, a quarter of a mile away.

The agent stifled an exclamation, such as in other times would have been an oath. "Umph! I thought we were there!" he muttered. "However, it is but a step. Come up, mare."

The boy watched the four riders plod on along the road until the trees, which were in the full glory of their summer foliage, and almost met across the dusty way, hid them from his eyes. Then he rose, and shaking his fist with pa.s.sionate vehemence in the direction in which they had gone, turned towards the gateway as if he would go up to the house. Before he had taken three steps, however, he changed his mind, and coming slowly back to the heap of stones, sat down in the same place and posture as before. The movement to retreat and the return were alike characteristic. In frame the boy was altogether childish, being puny and slight, and somewhat stunted; but his small face, browned by wind and sun, expressed both will and sensibility. As he sat waiting for the travellers to return, there was a sparkle, and not of tears only, in his eyes. His mouth took an ugly shape, and his small hand found and clutched one of the stones on which he sat.

Agent Hoby had never been more astonished in his life than when he returned hot and angry and found him still there. It was the last thing he had expected. "You little villain!" he cried, shortening his whip in his hand, and spurring his horse on to the strip of turf, which then, as now, bordered the road--"how dare you tell lies to the Commons' Commissioners?"

[Ill.u.s.tration: He turned and rode in.--Page 9.]

There was a slender gap in the wall behind the heap of stones, and the lad fell back into this, still clutching his missile in his hand. "I told no lies!" he said, looking defiantly at the angry man. "You asked me for Squire Patten, and I sent you to him--to the churchyard!"

One of the men behind Hoby chuckled grimly; and Hoby himself, who had ridden with Cromwell at Naseby, and looked the Robber Prince in the eyes, held his hand. "You little whelp!" he said, half in anger and half in admiration. "It is easy to see what brood you come of! I have half a mind to lash your back for you! Be off to your mammy, and bid her whip you! My hand is too heavy."

With that, taking no further notice of the boy, he turned and rode in through the gate. The aspect of the house, the quality of the herbage, the size of the timber, the lack of stock, all claimed at once his agent's eye, and rendered it easy for him to forget the incident. He grumbled at the sagacity of the Roundhead troopers, who had lain a night at Pattenhall before Marston Moor, and swept it as bare as a board. He had a grunt of sympathy to spare for Squire Patten, who, sore wounded in the same fight, had ridden home to die three days later. He gave a thought even to young Patten, who had forfeited the last chance of saving his sequestrated estate by breaking his parole, and again appearing in arms against the Parliament. But of the lad crawling slowly along the path behind him he thought nothing. And the boy, young as he was, felt this and resented it.

When the party presently reached the house, and the few servants who remained came out obsequiously to receive them, the boy felt his loneliness and sudden insignificance still more keenly. He saw stirrups held, and heard terms of honor pa.s.sing; and he crept away to the hayloft to give vent to the tears he was too proud to shed in public. Safe in this refuge, he flung himself down on the hay and showed himself all child; now sobbing as if his heart was broken, and now clenching his little fists and beating the air in impotent pa.s.sion.

The solitude to which he was left showed that he had good cause for his grief. No one asked for him, no one sought him, who had lately been the most important person in the place. The loft grew dark, the windows changed to mere patches of grey in the midst of blackness. At any other time, and under any other circ.u.mstances, the child would have been afraid to remain there alone. But grief and indignation swallow up fear, and in the darkness he called on his dead father and mother, and felt them nearer than in the day. Young as he was, the child could remember a time when his absence for half an hour would have set the house by the ears, and started a dozen pairs of legs in search of him; when loving voices, silent now forever, would have cried his name through yard and paddock, and a score of servants, whom death and dearth had not yet scattered, would have rushed to gratify his smallest need.

No wonder that at the thought of those days, and of the loving care and gentle hands which had guarded him from hour to hour, the solitary child crouching in the hay and darkness cried long and pa.s.sionately.

He knew little of the quarrel between King and Commons, and nothing of Laud or Strafford, Pym or Hampden, Ship-money or the New Model. But he could suffer. He was old enough to remember and feel, and compare past things with present; and understanding that today his father's house was pa.s.sing into the hands of strangers, he experienced all the terror and anguish which a sense of homelessness combined with helplessness can inflict. Lonely and neglected he had been for some time now; but he had felt his loneliness little (comparatively speaking) until to-day.

Agent Hoby had finished his supper. Stretching his legs before the empty hearth in the att.i.tude of one who had done a day's work, he was in the act of admonishing Gridley the butler on his duty to his new master, when he became aware of a slight movement in the direction of the door. The panelled walls of the parlor in which he sat swallowed up the light, and the candles stood in his way. He had to raise one above his head and peer below it before he could make out anything.

When he did, and the face of the lad he had seen by the gate grew as it were out of the panel, his first feeling was one of alarm. He started and muttered an exclamation, thinking that he saw amiss; and that either the October he had drunk was stronger than ordinary, or there was something uncanny in the house. When a second look, however, persuaded him that the boy was there in the flesh, he gave way to anger.

"Gridley!" he said, knitting his brows, "who is this, and how does he come to be here? Is he one of your brats, man?"

"One of mine?" the butler answered stupidly.

"Ay, one of yours! Or how comes he to be here?" the agent answered querulously, sitting forward with a hand on each arm of his chair, and frowning at the boy, who returned his gaze with interest.

The butler looked at the lad as if he were considering him in some new light, and hesitated before he answered. "It is the young master," he said at last.

"The young what?" the agent exclaimed, leaning still farther forward, and putting into the words as much surprise as possible.

"It is the young master," Gridley repeated sullenly. "And he is here in season, for I want to know what I am to do with him."

"Do you mean that he is a Patten?" Hoby muttered, staring at the lad as if he were bewitched.

"To be sure," Gridley answered, looking also at the boy.

"But your master had only one son? Those were my instructions."

"Two," said the butler. "Master Francis--"

"Who is with Duke Hamilton in Scotland, and if caught in arms in England will hang," rejoined the agent, sternly. "Well?"

"And this one."

Hoby glared at the boy as if he would eat him. To find that the estate, which he had considered free from embarra.s.sing claims, was burdened with a child, annoyed him beyond measure. The warrants under which he acted overrode, of course, all rights and all privileges; in the eye of the law the boy before him had no more to do with the old house and the wide acres than the meanest peasant who had a hovel on the land. But the agent was a humane man, and in his way a just one; and though he had been well content to ignore the malignant young reprobate whom he had hitherto considered the only claimant, he was vexed to find there was another, more innocent and more helpless.

"He must have relations," he said at last, after rubbing his closely cropped head with an air of much perplexity. "He must go to them."

"He has none alive that I know of," the butler answered stolidly. He was a high-shouldered, fat-faced man, with sly eyes.

"There are no other Pattens?" quoth Hoby.

"Not so much as an old maid."

"Then he must go to his mother's people."

"She was Cornish," Gridley answered, with a slight grin. "Her family were out with Sir Ralph Hopton, and are now in Holland, I hear."

Repulsed on all sides, the agent rose from his chair. "Well, bring him to me in the morning," he said irritably, "and I will see what can be done. His matter can wait. For yourself, however, make up your mind, my man; go or stay as you please. But if you stay it can only be upon my conditions. You understand that?" he added with some asperity.

Gridley a.s.sented with a corresponding smack of sullenness in his tone, and taking the hint, bore off the boy to bed. Soon the few lights, which still shone in the great house that had so quietly changed masters, died out one by one; until all lay black and silent, except one small room, low-ceiled, musty, and dark-panelled, which lay to the right of the hall, but a step or two below its level. This room was the butler's pantry and sleeping-chamber. The plate which had once glittered on its shelves, the silver flagons and Sheffield cups, the spice bowls and sugar-basins, were gone, devoted these five years past to the melting-pot and the Royal cause. The club and blunderbuss which should have guarded them remained, however, in their slings beside the bed; along with some show of dingy pewter and dingier blackjacks, and as many empty bottles as served at once to litter the gloomy little dungeon and prove that the old squire's cellar was not yet empty.

In the midst of this disorder, and in no way incommoded by the close atmosphere of the room, which reeked of beer and stale liquors, the butler sat thinking far into the night. On the table beside him, which had been cleared to make room for it, lay an open Bible; but as he never consulted its pages or even looked towards it, we may a.s.sume that it lay there rather for show than use, and possibly had been arranged for the express purpose of catching the eye of Master Hoby should he push his inquiries as far as this apartment.

Heedless or forgetful of it, Gridley now sat staring into vacancy, with a dark expression on his face. Now and again he bit his finger-nails as if some problem of more than ordinary importance occupied his thoughts. His aspect too was changed in sympathy with the dark hours of the night. Tear and antic.i.p.ation, greed and cunning, peered from behind the mask of sly composure which he had worn in the parlor. He had now the air of a man who would and dare not, and then again who would not shrink at risks. At last he rose with his mind made up, and creeping to the door secured it. With a stealthy glance round, he next extinguished the light, plunging the room into darkness. After that he was still to be heard shuffling about for some time, but of his actions or the business on which he was bent nothing could be known for certain. Only once a rich ringing sound as of metal on metal surprised the silence, and hanging on the air--for an eternity as it seemed to his alarmed ear--died reluctantly in the hollows of the pewter flagons on the shelf. It was nothing, it was the merest tinkle, it could scarcely have awakened the suspicions of the most critical listener. But the man who made the sound and heard the sound was a coward with an evil conscience; and for a full minute after the last echo had whispered itself away, he crouched on the floor, with the cold dew on his brow and his hand shaking. After that, silence.

Little Jack Patten, awaking suddenly as the first glimmer of dawn entered his room, found the butler standing by his side. The boy would have cried out, not knowing him in the half light, but Gridley muttered his name, and enjoining silence with a finger on his lip, sat down on the pallet by the lad's side.