A Little Wizard - Part 8

Part 8

"Ay, and the clouds are low," Simon a.s.sented. "I never knew rain more sudden in my life, nor, surely, more untimely. There is many a man will be damp tonight and march the slower to-morrow. Heaven grant it hinders the malignants also!"

"The wind is westerly," Luke answered shrewdly. "I doubt it."

Simon shrugged his shoulders as sharing the doubt, and would have closed the door. But at that moment his wife, who had already risen from her seat, laid her hand on his arm. The hand trembled. The woman's eyes were glittering, her cheeks white. "Simon!" she said, peering into his face, and speaking in a tone of suppressed excitement, "what is it--this storm? Whom does it hinder? What does it matter? What was it you were saying about it?"

"What does it matter, and whom does it hinder?" the man answered fiercely. "It hinders the Lord's work, woman! It matters to all Christian men! It hinders guns and horses, men and wagons, that should be at Preston to-morrow to cut off the malignant Hamilton and his brood. In twelve hours, if this rain continues, the road to Preston will be a quagmire, and the Philistines will laugh at us. But we must rest content. It is the Lord's doing!"

"It is _not_ the Lord's doing!" she answered in a tone of surprising emotion. "It is not his doing! It is Satan's!"

"Tush!" said her husband, harshly; but he started nevertheless at her tone. "You rave, woman!"

[Ill.u.s.tration: "It is not the Lord's doing!"--Page 138.]

"I do not rave!" she answered, throwing up her arms wildly. "I tell you this tempest, that you talk of--I saw it raised! This hindrance--I saw it begotten! I--I, Simon Gridley! There is one here who can brew the storm and hush the whirlwind! There is one here beside whom your General is powerless!"

"Then he must have the devil's aid indeed!" Simon answered, with a grim chuckle. "But softly, wife, what is this?"

In rapid, hurried words, rendered weighty by the terror and belief which were in her, the woman detailed what she had seen the boy do, and how the storm, of which the heavens had given so little warning, had followed immediately thereon. She could not tell them all the bases of her belief; she dared not mention the gold vessels, or the strange scene under the yew-tree. But belief in such things is infectious. The mystery of the locked door was still a mystery unsolved and inexplicable. That they all knew; and nothing in the solitary life these people had led among the fells, nothing in the harsh, narrow creed they professed, or in their custom of literally applying the Scriptures to everyday events, was at odds with the conclusion that the child was possessed by an evil spirit. No one in that day was so bold as to doubt the existence of the black art. And if at the first glance this helpless child seemed the most unlikely of professors, the discovery that his powers were being used against the cause which they believed to be the cause of heaven, furnished a probability which enabled them to dispense with the other. The men looked in each other's faces uneasily. The light was waning, the corners of the room were full of shadows. Those who felt no terror felt wrath, which was near akin to it. For the woman, her eyes flickered with hatred; which was only more intense because it was held in check by abject fear.

At length Simon, whose bold and hardy spirit alone accepted the idea with any real reluctance, rose; they had long ago formed themselves into a council round the table.

"Hush!" he said, raising his hand. "The rain has stopped. What do you say to that?"

They listened and found that it was so. The eaves no longer dripped.

"If he is a wizard, he is a poor one," Simon continued, with a little contempt in his tone. "But if you will have it so, see here, we will watch him. There is a power greater than his, and in the strength of that I do not fear him."

The woman shuddered, while Luke, who was for immediate action, replied in a wild rhapsody, quoting the priests of Baal and the witch of Endor, the order of the law respecting magicians, and the fate of Magus. But Simon was firm; he was not to be moved, and in the end his proposal was accepted. The matter was thought so momentous, however, that it was decided to consult the Edgingtons next day, and bring them into the affair.

When all was settled Simon rose, and went to the door and threw it open. He knew that, within a circuit of a few miles from where he stood, thousands upon thousands of soldiers were at that moment lying under the bare heavens, without so much as a tree to cover them; and he had a soldier's feeling for their distresses. He saw with satisfaction, therefore, that though the clouds still hung low, in one quarter there was a rift in them, through which the full moon was shining out of the blue black of heaven. "It looks better," he said, as he came in again. "It will be fine to-morrow. And there is no great harm done yet."

But, to all appearance, more rain fell during the night, for when the household rose at daybreak, the hills were running with water, and every little streamlet was musical. A fine drizzle filled the air, and obscured even the nearer surface of the moor, while fog veiled the mountains and hung like a curtain before the distant prospects. The boy eating his porridge with the others, unconscious of the strange glances and suspicious shrinkings of which he was the object, looked through the window and wondered how he was to manage his counting, and whether it would be possible to tell horse from foot. From this his thoughts strayed to Frank. Frank must be suffering horribly in this weather, with no roof over him, and no cloak, and no sufficient food.

At the thought Jack felt his eyes fill with tears, tears which he would fain have hidden; but he found Simon's harsh glance upon him, and whichever way he looked he could not escape it. He grew hot; he changed color and trembled in his seat, and presently, feeling his position insufferable--for he longed to think, and could not do so under eyes which seemed to read his secrets--he rose suddenly, and sidled from the room. He went, as he supposed, unnoticed, and without a thought of evil seized his cap and left the house.

Never had the moor looked more desolate; more sad and dreary and grey-colored. Here and there a stone stood upright, peering boldly through the rain; and here and there, where the fell rose, a whirl of mist floated above the surface as the fog thickened and broke before a puff of wind. The child shivered as he looked about him; and an older heart might have quailed. But shiver or quail, he held on. He had a purpose, and he clung to it. He knew the way to the high road, which pa.s.sed over the moor half a league from the house, and he pressed on bravely towards it, thinking of his brother and the King, and the service he was about to perform, until, despite the rain, his puny frame glowed all over. The thoughts in his mind were childish enough, the ideas he entertained of men and things as shadowy and unreal as the fog about him. But the spirit and self-denial which supported him were as real as any which animated the greatest man who that day marched or fought for his cause.

Even the pa.s.sage of an army with horse and foot and great guns could not in such a district draw together any large number of spectators; and the boy, saved from immediate pursuit by the fog, found himself free to choose his position. Avoiding a group of countryfolk who had taken possession of a hillock which would otherwise have suited him well, he made for a second mound that rose a hundred paces farther on, and seemed also to overlook the road. Climbing to the top of this, he sat down in the damp bracken to wait for the troops.

A sutler or two pa.s.sed presently below him, some straggling hors.e.m.e.n, a few knots of yokels bent on satisfying their curiosity. But the day was four hours old before the measured tramp of hoofs and the murmur of many voices, the clang of steel, and hoa.r.s.e cries of command thrilled the child with the consciousness that the time was come.

Trembling with excitement, he peered over the edge of the mound. The rain had ceased for a while. There was some show of clearing in the air. The sun which had broken through the clouds struck full on the head of the column, as it came on slowly and majestically, in a frame of steaming mist; cuira.s.s and helmet, spur and scabbard, flashing and sparkling in the white glare.

These were the hors.e.m.e.n who had stemmed the pride of Rupert and shattered the Cavaliers. The boy looked and looked at them, looked until the last man--a grave sergeant with a book at his belt--had ridden by him. Then he remembered himself with a sigh, and quickly drawing out his cross, cut six nicks upon it, for the six troops of horse which had formed the column.

After these, three regiments of foot pa.s.sed; stern, war-worn men, muddy and travel-stained, in buff coats, and with long pikes trailing behind them. Then more troops of horse, whom he duly nicked, and then some tumbrils, which at first the boy took for guns, but afterwards perceived to be laden with ammunition. On all these the sun shone, not cheerfully but with a stern glare, which seemed confined to that part of the moor, so that they pa.s.sed before the boy in a vision as it were, and he notched them off in a dream. It was strange to stand so near these thousands of marching men, to hear the murmur of their mult.i.tudinous voices, and the tramp of their feet, and yet to be apart from them and unheeded by them. For they pa.s.sed in perfect order, no man stepping out of the ranks; so that at last the boy took courage and rose to his feet under their eyes.

When the tumbrils had pa.s.sed the sun went in, and three regiments of musketeers came up, marching on one another's heels, with the rain and storm gathering about them, and the men grumbling at the weather. The boy notched them off, and watching for the great guns (of which none had pa.s.sed), walked from end to end of his little platform, scanning the road. More than one of the men who plashed along beneath him noticed the strange figure of the boy moving against the sky.

For the fog, through which he loomed larger than life, distorted his gestures. He seemed at times to be cursing the men below him, and at times to be raising his hands to heaven in their behalf. The troopers who remarked his strange figure perched above them, looked on indifferently, neither heeding nor understanding. Not so all who had their eyes at that moment upon him. The watcher was also the watched; and presently, when the rain had set in steadily once more, and the mist had grown so thick that he despaired of finishing his count where he was, and thought of descending into the road, a sudden end was put to his calculations. Something rose up behind him and dashed him violently to the ground. Stunned and terrified, the child clung, even in his fall, to the precious cross; in a moment it was wrenched from him. He cried out wildly for help, but instantly a cloak was flung over his head, and blind, and breathless, he felt himself raised from the ground. Some one tied his hands at the wrists and his feet at the ankles; then he felt himself carried hastily off. He could scarcely breathe, he could not struggle, he could not see. He could not even guess what had happened to him.



For some distance he felt himself carried across a man's shoulder.

Then another man took him up and carried him on more briskly. His head hung down, the cloak covered his face tightly; he felt himself at times far on the way to suffocation. But, gagged and bound as he was, he could neither cry out nor help himself.

The shortest journey taken under such circ.u.mstances must needs seem endless, and so this one seemed to the child. He long remembered it; but at last it did come to an end, with all its misery and terror--things not to be described in words. His bearer stopped. He heard voices, and the hollow sound of steps on a stone floor. He was set on his feet, and the cloak roughly removed from his head. He looked about him dazed. To his intense surprise and astonishment he found himself standing in the middle of the kitchen at the farmhouse.

There was the settle; there was the table at which he had eaten his morning porridge!

For a moment the sight filled him with excess of joy. In the instant of recognition the familiar surroundings, the things and faces to which, meagre and harsh as they were, he had grown accustomed, brought blessed relief to the child's mind. He uttered Gridley's name with a sob of joy, and tried to move towards him. But his hands and feet were still bound, and he lost his balance and fell forward on the floor.

Simon Gridley, amid perfect silence, advanced and took him up and set him in a chair. The other five, four men and a woman, stood round the table looking at him. Each held a bible.

Between fright and perplexity, and the hurt of his fall, the boy began to cry. Still, no one spoke to him. He stopped crying.

Then at last the strange way they looked at him, the strange silence they kept, went to the boy's heart. He cried no longer, but he looked from one to the other, terrified by the fierce glare in their eyes.

"Gridley," he said faintly; "Gridley, what is it, please?"

The butler, at the sound of his voice, sank down pale and trembling on the meal chest. The woman shrank before his eye. But the four men met his look with stern, pitiless faces and set lips. It was Simon who spoke. "We have taken him in the act," he said, in a low, impa.s.sive voice. "What shall we do with him?"

"Ye shall make him to cease!" Luke answered, in the monotonous tone of one repeating a form. "He comes of an accursed brood, and he is in league with the father of curses, whose child he is! He would have bewitched the Lord General and his army with his enchantments. We have seen it with our eyes. What need have we of further evidence?"

But Simon Gridley thought otherwise. "Stand forward, woman," he said, disregarding his brother's last remark. "Say what you saw yesterday."

The woman, amid that strange silence, began to speak in a low voice.

The rain was still falling, and the eaves dripped outside. The cold light which found its way into the room showed her white to the lips.

But she told without faltering her tale of the storm which had fallen on the moor when the child rubbed the cross; and no one doubted it, any more than, to do her justice, she doubted it herself. For was she not confirmed by the presence of the cross itself, which lay in the middle of the table for all to see! They looked at it with horror, never doubting that the knots were devil's knots, that the wood of which it was formed came from no earthly tree.

Meantime the child, terrified by the stern, harsh faces and the glances of unintelligible abhorrence which met him wherever he looked, had no wit to understand the charge made against him. He knew only that the cross had something to do with it--that it was the cross at which they all looked; and he supposed from this that his brother was in danger. For his simple soul this was enough. He seemed to be in a dreadful dream. He cried and trembled, sobbing, while they spoke, like the child he was. But his mind was made up. He would be cut to pieces, but he would never let Frank's name pa.s.s his lips.

Hence, when one of the Edgingtons, who had met Master Matthew Hopkins, the great witch-finder, and would fain have probed the matter further with such skill as he fancied he had acquired, adjured him solemnly to speak and say where he got the cross, the child was silent; so obstinately silent that it was plain he could have told something if he would.

"He is mute of malice," Simon said.

"He is mute of the devil!" Luke answered fiercely. "What need of talk when we saw him with our own eyes rule the storm? And it rains still.

It rains, and will 'rain,' until his power is broken."

This monstrous idea seemed to his hearers in no way incredible. The belief in witchcraft and in demoniacal possession of every kind had reached its height in England about this time, when men's minds, released from the wholesome leading-strings of custom and the church, evinced a natural p.r.o.neness to run into all manner of extremes. Had the child been a woman, his fate had been sealed on the spot, the popular fancy attributing the black art to that s.e.x in particular. But the fact that he was a boy was so far abnormal, that it stuck in the throat of the Edgington who had spoken before. "Has he any mark upon him?" he asked.

[Ill.u.s.tration: He is mute of malice.--Page 156.]