A Little Wizard - Part 10

Part 10



If Duke Hamilton had suddenly appeared in the room and surrendered himself without terms--a thing beyond doubt unlikely to happen as long as that gallant gentleman had thirty thousand men at his back--those present could scarcely have looked more astonished. Not that they, or the majority of them at all events, doubted the existence of witchcraft. On the contrary; but anything less like the common idea of a witch than this helpless child it would have been difficult to conceive. Respect for their chief did indeed silence the laughter which the man's answer would otherwise have caused, but it could not still the murmur of amazement and ridicule, or the hum of indignation which rose to their lips.

"The man is mad!" cried one by the door, a person privileged.

"Silence!" Cromwell answered sharply. "And do you, sirrah," he continued to Simon, "explain yourself at once, or I will find means to lash sense into you. What has the boy done?"

Before Simon could answer Luke interposed. The enthusiast could restrain himself no longer.

"What has he done?" he cried. "He has sold himself to do evil and stint not. Why do our horses fail and the wheels of our chariots drive heavily, so that the work is not done, nor the task accomplished?

Because of the learning of the Egyptians which he has learned, and because of the witchcraft of Jezebel which he has practised, that the people may remain in bondage and our leader fall and rise not. Be warned, O Joshua, and hear reason, O deliverer! It rains, and will rain in the land until----"

"Tie up the knave's mouth, some one!" thundered Cromwell. "And do you," he continued, addressing Simon, "who seem to have some wit in your madness, answer me briefly, what has the child done?"

But Simon's answer was destined to be again interrupted; this time by the arrival of the officer in charge of the prisoners, who came in to learn whether the General would examine them in the house. Cromwell gave the order, and the men, two in number, were accordingly brought in and made to stand by the door. This caused a momentary delay and commotion; but, so great was the interest taken in the child, who had been by this time raised from the floor and relieved of his bonds, that scarcely any one turned to notice them. The moment the stir ceased, the General nodded to Simon.

"The boy has a spell," Gridley answered, getting speech at last. "He has a charm, and when he rubs it, it rains. He brought the rain yesterday, and brought it again to-day."

"Tush, man!" Cromwell said contemptuously. "You play with me."

"You do not believe me?"

"No, in faith I do not," the General answered darkly.

"Then here is the proof!" the fanatic cried, in a voice of triumph.

And he pointed to the wooden cross which lay on the table. "There is the charm! There, look at it, touch it, handle it; tell me what it is, if you can!"

"A child's toy," Cromwell answered scornfully, as he stepped forward and without hesitation took up the implement. "Well, man, I see it,"

he continued, turning it over in his hand. "What of it? Be brief with your madness, for I have larger fish to fry to-day. Be brief, I say."

"I will," the Puritan answered, undaunted. And therewith, beginning with the story of the strange evasion from the closet, he told the tale, so far as he knew it, of Jack's mysterious proceedings and powers. For a while, Cromwell listened or appeared to listen with half an ear only, his attention divided between the speaker and a map which the obsequious Pownall had placed on the table. But when Simon came to the boy's singular proceedings on the hillock above the road, and described, with some advantages which his imagination lent the narrative, the manner of the boy's behavior while the army pa.s.sed below him, Cromwell's att.i.tude underwent a sudden change. He closed the map with a quick gesture, and for a moment gazed full at the man from under his bushy eyebrows.

"Umph! And so you think that caused the storm, Master Numskull?" he rapped out, when Simon had come to an end. "Where is this cross?"

It had been pa.s.sed from hand to hand, but was at once brought back to him. "Here, Hodgson," he said sharply; "what do you make of it?"

The officer to whom he appealed turned the thing over and over in his hands, but could make nothing of it. Cromwell watched him with a sparkle in his eye, and at length s.n.a.t.c.hed it from him. "Chut!"

he said--but although he scolded, it was evident he was well pleased--"you are as big a fool as Master Numskull there! Didst never see a tally, man?"

"A tally, your excellency?"

"Ay, a tally, a tally, a tally!" replied his excellency, impatiently.

"A thing, I tell thee, that was known in this England of ours, and in the exchequer, when rogues were fewer and thy ancestors were hung without benefit of clergy! This is a tally if ever I saw one. To take an honest tally for a witch's broomstick? But softly! Said I an _honest_ tally?" he continued, looking suddenly about him, while his voice grew hard and stern. "Pownall! count those notches."

The officer obeyed. "There are twenty-three, your excellency," he said, when he had accomplished the task.

"And how many troops of horse have gone by to-day?"

"Twenty-three, your excellency," was the answer, given with military brevity.

A murmur of intelligence pa.s.sed round the circle of officers. The clue once found by Cromwell's sharp eye and strong common sense, the secret became an open one, patent to the dullest intellect. When further examination showed that the number of notches on the other arm of the cross corresponded with the number of foot regiments which had pa.s.sed that morning, even Simon Gridley began to understand that here was no question of the supernatural, but of some human agency equally hostile to the good cause. Only Luke Gridley remained unconvinced. "Bolts and bars could not hold him," he murmured, "nor----"

"We will come to that by-and-by," Cromwell answered. "Let the boy stand forward. Where is he?"

Some one thrust Jack forward into the middle of the room, where he stood exposed to the full brunt of Cromwell's formidable gaze. The shock through which the child had pa.s.sed had left him dazed and weak; his color came and went, his legs faltered under him, and he trembled perceptibly. But his heart was stout, and his breeding stood him in good stead at this crisis. Barely understanding what had pa.s.sed, or the steps by which his plan had been discovered, on one point he was still clear, steadfast, and resolute: and that was, that come what might, he would not betray his brother!

But for the moment Cromwell said nothing about that. The question he put to him took all present by surprise. "Who let you out of the closet, my lad?" he said, in a tone of rough good-nature.

"A man," the boy muttered, with dry lips.

"Was it one of the men in the house? No? Then how did the man get into the house? Tell us that."

Jack looked about him like a trapped animal. He did not know which questions he ought to answer and which he ought to refuse to answer.

Confused and terrified by the gaze of so many men and the possession of a secret, aware only that he must keep back his brother's name and hiding-place, the instinct of a drowning man led him to give up all else. After a moment's hesitation he muttered: "His wife," pointing to Simon, "went out in the middle of the night. She left the door open, and the man came in."

"Very good," Cromwell answered. "That is clear and explicit. And now, my man," he continued, turning suddenly upon Simon, who stood silent and confounded, "what do you say? More seems to go on in your house than you wot of. Let the woman stand out."

Gridley the butler, sitting doubled up on the meal chest, where his brothers figure sheltered him, almost fell forward with terror. He saw his crime on the point of being discovered, and all his craven soul was in alarm. Were attention once drawn to him, were he once challenged and bade to stand forth, he knew that no power could save him. In the absence of evidence he would infallibly betray himself.

The dreadful tremors, the sickening apprehension, which he had felt during the first part of his flight from Pattenhall, when he had the d.a.m.ning evidences of his crime upon him, returned upon him now, and bitterly, most bitterly, did he regret that he had ever given way to temptation.

He came near to swooning when he heard the woman called out, for he thought it a hundred chances to one that she would falter, and in a moment weave a rope for his neck. The sweat ran down his face as he strained his ears to catch--he dared not look--the first syllable of accusation.

But Mistress Gridley, though she had had scant notice of the occasion, was of a harder kind. Relieved of ghostly fears, her mind quickly regained its balance, and instinctively took refuge in the falseness which had become second nature. Her shrewdish face wore a flush as she came forward, and there was a flicker of secret fear in her eye. But the tone in which she denied that she had ever left her house on the night in question was even and composed, and "As for a man," she added scornfully, "what man is there within three miles of us?"

"The man who taught this lad to spy!" Cromwell retorted, swiftly and severely. "That man, woman! Do you know him?"

She could say No to that with a good conscience, and she did so.

Cromwell signed to her stand back. "Very well," he said, "then the boy shall tell us." He turned to Jack, and after glaring at him for a moment, cried in a loud voice: "Hark ye, sirrah! who gave you this cross? What is his name, and where is he?"

That voice, at which so many men had trembled and were to tremble, made the very marrow in Jack's bones quiver. That fierce red face with its fiery eyes seemed to grow before Jack's gaze until the child saw nothing else save that and a dancing haze which framed it. "Hark ye, sirrah!" He heard the words repeated again and again, and his soul melted within him for fear. But he remained dumb.

"Come!" Cromwell said grimly when he had thrice bidden him to speak in vain. "This is what I expected. But I will find a means to open your lips. Pownall, bid one of the guard bring a rope!"

A movement in the room seemed to indicate that the order caused emotion of some kind, and Captain Hodgson, a bluff North-countryman, high in the General's favor, stepped forward as if to interpose. But apparently he thought better of it, and in a moment a rope was brought. "Now," Cromwell thundered, "will you speak?"

But Jack, whose white face and straining eyes, as he stood alone in the middle of the kitchen, a child among men, were pitiful to behold, remained silent. Only one idea, and that was rather an instinct than a conscious determination, remained with him--to shelter Frank.

"Tie him up!" said Cromwell, in a hard voice. "Sergeant," he continued, "take two files and the boy outside, and if he does not speak in five minutes, string him up." No one spoke or interposed, and the child, half led and half carried by the burly sergeant, had almost reached the threshold, when a voice close by exclaimed suddenly: "Enough, you cowards! Shame on you! Let the child go!"

"Who spoke?" Cromwell cried, wheeling round from the map he was scanning.

"The man you want!" was the reckless answer. "Take him, and let the child go!"

There was a brief commotion at the door, which ended in one of the prisoners being thrust forward until he stood face to face with the General. "So, so!" said Cromwell, eyeing him with a frown. "Who are you?"