A Little Wizard - Part 5

Part 5

He scrambled eagerly to his feet, and tapped softly. "Gridley!" he whispered, "Gridley! Is that you?"

No one answered, but the bearer of the light seemed to pause in the middle of the floor as if struck by a sudden thought. Then Jack heard the bolts of the outer door withdrawn, and even in his closet felt a rush of cold air. Some one was going out!

"Gridley! Gridley!" he cried desperately. "Let me out, will you?

Please let me out."

But Gridley, if Gridley it was, took no heed. The light disappeared, and Jack heard the door close as softly as it had been opened.

He sat down, whimpering and wondering. The use of candles was so uncommon in that house that he could not remember to have once seen one lighted, though he knew that a lanthorn hung behind the kitchen door. Who then was this who used them, and went in and out by night with a foot fall which scarcely broke the stillness? The lad felt his hair move and his skin creep as he crouched trembling in the darkness.

Then, on a sudden, he heard the door creak afresh and the footstep return--the same stealthy, cautious footstep, it seemed to him, which he had heard before. But this time there was no light.

None the less was he sure that some one was now standing in the middle of the floor, within a yard or two of his place of confinement. His ears, strained to the utmost, caught the sound of hurried breathing close to him, and besides he had that ill-defined sense of another's presence which we are all apt to feel. Terrified as he was, he still clung desperately to the idea that it was Gridley, and he called the man's name again, his voice shaking with fear. To his surprise he this time got an answer.

"Hush!" some one muttered in the darkness. "Who is that?"

"It is I--Jack," the boy cried joyfully "Please to let me out."

"Where are you?"

"I am locked in the closet by the fireplace, Gridley."

"Hush! Is the key in the door?"

"I think so!" Jack answered desperately. "Oh, please, please let me out."

There was the sound of a hand being pa.s.sed over the door, as if some one unacquainted with it, and uncertain on which side it opened, were groping for the fastening. It seemed an age to the boy before the key grated suddenly in the lock and the door yielded, and he felt the cold air rush in. For a moment he still hung back.

"Is it you, Gridley?" he whispered timidly, putting out his hand and trying to pierce the darkness, which was scarcely less dense in the kitchen than in the closet.

"No, it is I--Frank!" his brother's voice answered. And thereon a hand seized him roughly by the shoulder and drew him out. "I must have food--food!" the voice hissed in his ear. "Don't waste a moment, lad, but tell me where it is kept. The woman is outside digging among the trees--heaven knows on what witch's errand! She may return at any moment. Where is the food kept?"

The harsh, fierce note in his brother's voice did more than any words to persuade the boy of the necessity of haste. Collecting his senses as well as he could, he answered, "Will oatmeal do, Frank?"

"Better than nothing," was the answer. "Where is the tub? Lead me to it."

Jack felt his way to the chest, and found it; to his joy it was still unfastened. His brother rapidly took out several handfuls and thrust them into his pouch. "Have you no cheese, oatcake, nothing else, lad?"

he muttered.

Jack remembered the sc.r.a.ps of cheese and cake which he still carried in the bosom of his jacket, and gave them into the other's hand. "Now I am off," Frank muttered on the instant. "I can do with this until to-morrow night. If the woman finds me here I must do her a mischief, and I do not want to. So good-night, lad!"

He glided hurriedly away, leaving the child standing in the middle of the floor. Jack heard him go, and heard the door open and shut; and still stood listening, wondering whether it was all a dream, or his brother had really been and was gone. a.s.sured at length that he had had to do with reality, he wondered what course he ought to take himself. He had no mind to go back to his former prison, in comparison with which his hard bed upstairs seemed the height of comfort; and so he presently crept to the closet door, and turned the key, and then felt his way up to his room. Gridley was not there, but this troubled him little. He threw off his clothes in a hurry, and in a moment was in bed, where he lay listening with all his ears. He heard Mistress Gridley come back, and detected the sound of the key as she turned it in the outer door. He trembled lest she should come up to look for him, but nothing of the kind happened; and while he still listened, the fatigues of the day proved too much for him and he fell asleep.

It was broad day, and the sun had been up for hours, and the house astir as many, when he awoke in his bed and found three people gazing at him. Instinctively at sight of their faces he began to cry, expecting a blow, or to be roughly plucked up and upbraided for his laziness. But no blow came, nor did either of the three persons who looked at him with eyes of such astonishment and perplexity offer to touch him.

"You are sure that the door was really locked?" one of the men was saying when he awoke.

"Am I sure that you stand there?" the woman answered tartly. "Am I one to make a mistake of that kind?"

Simon Gridley shook his head. "I remember now," he muttered, "that I tried the door myself. It was locked sure enough."

"And it was locked this morning," Mistress Gridley added.

Luke's eyes, always wild, glittered with excitement. It was difficult to believe that he saw or could see anything except helplessness in the child who quaked and shrank before them: but so it was. "There are those whom locks will not bind, but they shall be bound on the Great Day!" he said in a hollow voice; "of such it is written, 'These sholl ye make to cease from the earth!'"

"Tut tut!" Simon answered sternly. "This is folly. What does the lad say himself? Who let him out?"

"Ay, who let you out, you imp of Satan?" the woman cried fiercely.

But the boy discerned that, with all her fierceness, panic and terror possessed her; and it was this evidence of an evil conscience which inspired him to answer as he did, "A woman came down stairs with a light in a lanthorn," he said.

The men stared and waited for more, but the woman recoiled with a pale face. "You little liar!" she cried hoa.r.s.ely. "What woman? What woman is there here?"

The boy shook his head. "I did not see her face," he said, "but she came down with a lanthorn."

Mistress Gridley gasped. The boy knew something, but she could not tell how much. And then beyond this doubt lay the mystery, which was as much of a mystery to her as to the others, how he came to be here instead of in the locked cupboard.

"Bring the lanthorn!" Simon Gridley exclaimed on a sudden. "We can see if it has been lately used, at any rate; and so far test his story."

His wife went for it. When she returned with it, it was empty. "There is no candle in it," she said sullenly. "The boy is a liar."

Simon took it from her hand and thrust his nose into the opening.

"Softly, woman," he said. "It has been used within the week. Come, boy," he continued sharply, "who opened the door for you?"

"I saw no one," the child answered with tears. "There was a woman with a lanthorn. But I saw no one when the door was opened!"

Simon glared at him impatiently, and raised his hand as if he were minded to try if a little correction would not render his account more intelligible; but Luke, breaking in with one of his fierce rhapsodies, called off his brother's attention, and the three, without further questioning, went downstairs to discuss the matter there. Simon alone, however, was able to do so with any degree of coolness and judgment; for though the woman did not altogether agree with Luke's interpretation, or find his gloomy fancies convincing, she had more substantial reasons than either of the others for fearing and hating the child: and no more notion than they had how he had contrived to free himself from the closet in which she had placed him. That riddle she could not read; and the longer she considered it, the darker grew her thoughts and suspicions, until nothing, not even Luke's sombre theory, seemed too strange or too improbable for belief. Conscience makes not only cowards of us all, but the most credulous of cowards.

Jack would scarcely have escaped further examination but for the return of the butler; who brought such news as not only broke up the family council, but caused the bearer to be taken back into fellowship. The main road westward to c.l.i.theroe and Preston crossed the moor not far from the house. He came to say that the advanced guard of the Parliamentary army was even then pa.s.sing along it. Simon and Luke, with the Edgingtons, who arrived at the moment, hurried off on the instant to a sight than which none could be better calculated to fill their stern b.r.e.a.s.t.s with joy. This left Mistress Gridley and the butler together, and they had so much to say to one another that the boy, stealing timidly downstairs, found himself ignored, and, seizing the opportunity, slipped out on his own account at the back of the house. Taking every precaution he could think of to avoid notice, he pa.s.sed through the yew-trees, and reached the mouth of the rift in safety.

Here he waited a little, sitting on the ground, and presently Frank came to him. "Are you quite sure you are not followed, lad?" he said, glancing warily round.

Jack replied that he was, and brought out a little food which he had managed to secrete. Then he told his brother what he had heard about the march of Cromwell's army. "They say the main body will pa.s.s to-morrow," he added.

"Preston way, do you say?"


Frank's face grew dark and thoughtful. "If he is in strength he will take them by surprise," he muttered. "What does he number, I wonder?

Has he got only Ashton and the western Presbyterians, or is his southern army with him? If I knew, I would get across the moors at all risks, and take the news. But it would not do to go with wolf in one's mouth, and be called a fool and a croaker for pay!"

"They talk of twenty-five thousand men pa.s.sing to-morrow," Jack said.

"If that be true, and the Duke be marching, as he was marching three days back, with his head a score of miles from his tail, he will be cut in two as surely as he lives!" Frank cried with an oath. He started up and began to pace the hollow, three steps this way and three that, while Jack watched him eagerly. Four-and-twenty hours of skulking had not improved the fugitive's appearance. He was hatless and had lost his sword. His face was caked with dust and sweat, his clothes were frayed and stained with blood. He had torn off part of one sleeve to bind his head, and this, with his unshaven chin and haggard eyes, contributed to his wild and desperate appearance.

Yet the boy looked at him with pure admiration. The lad felt himself a man by reason of the share he had in his perils. The younger brother longed to help the elder. "You can see the road from the lower moor,"

he said eagerly; "that is no more than a mile from here. Could you not go there and see them pa.s.s, Frank, and then go to the Duke?"

"Could I see them pa.s.s in these clothes?" Frank answered, with a bitter smile. "True, I am not much like a cavalier, but I am not much like a Parliament man either! I should have the cry raised on me before I was a mile across the moor."