A Little Wizard - Part 9

Part 9

The woman replied, almost in a whisper, that he had a black mole on his left shoulder.

"Is it a common mark?"

She shook her head without speaking.

Luke waited for no more. "This is folly!" he cried wildly. "What need have we of signs? We have seen. Bolts and bars will not hold him, nor will water receive him."

"That is to be seen!" Edgington answered quickly. "There is a pool below. Let us make trial of him there, Master Gridley. If the lad sinks, well and good. If he will not sink, well and good also. We shall know what to do with him."

Simon nodded sternly. "Good," he said; "let it be so."

But this the boy had still the sense to understand. A vision of the dark bog pool sullenly lipping the rocks which fringed its sh.o.r.es flashed before his childish eyes. In a second the full horror of the fate which threatened him burst upon him, and those eyes grew large with terror. The color left his face. He tried to rise, he tried to frame the word Gridley, he tried to ask for mercy. He could not. Fear had deprived him of the power of speech, and he could only look. But his look was one to melt the heart of any save a fanatic.

Gridley the butler was no fanatic, and though he was a bad man he was not inhuman. Something in the boy's piteous look went straight to his heart. He alone of those present, though he never doubted the existence of witchcraft, doubted the boy's guilt, for he alone had known him all his life, and could see nothing unfamiliar in him. He remembered him a baby, prattling and crawling, and playing like any other baby; and despite himself--for there was nothing n.o.ble or brave in the man--he stepped forward and interposed between Simon and his victim.

"I have known the child all his life," he said hoa.r.s.ely. "He has been as other children, Simon."

His brother looked at him coldly. "Is he as other children to-day?" he said, and he pointed to the cross on the table.

The butler, thus challenged, made as if he would take up the talisman.

But at the last moment, when his hand was near it, his heart failed him. He doubted, he was a coward, and he drew back. "He was always as other children," he muttered again, hopelessly, helplessly. "I have known him from his birth."

"Very well," Simon answered, with pitiless logic. "We shall see presently if he is as other children now. The water will show."

He stepped towards the boy as he spoke, but Jack saw him coming, and reading his fate in the grim, unrelenting looks which everywhere met his eyes, screamed loudly. The child was fast bound, and could not fly, but bound as he was he managed to fling himself on the floor, and lay there screaming. Simon plucked him up roughly, and looked round for something to m.u.f.fle his cries. "The cloak!" he said hurriedly--the noise discomposed him. "The cloak!"

Luke went to fetch it from the dresser on which it had been laid, but before he could bring it, the boy on a sudden stopped screaming, and stiffened himself in Simon's arms. "I will tell," he cried wildly.

"Let me go! Let me go, and I will tell."

The man was astonished, as were they all. But he set the boy back in the chair, and took his hands off him, and stood waiting, with a stern light in his eyes, to hear this devil's tale.

For a moment the boy lay huddled up and panting, with his lips apart, and the sweat on his flushed brow. He had said--with the man's hands, on him and the black water before his eyes--that he would tell. But as he crouched there, getting his breath, and looking from one to another like a frightened animal, thoughts of his brother whom he must betray, thoughts of devotion and love, all childish but all living, surged through his brain. The men and the woman waited, some sternly curious, and some in fear; but the boy remained dumb. He had conquered his terror. He was learning that what men suffer for others is no suffering.

Simon lost patience at last. "Speak!" he cried, "or to the water!"

The boy eyed him trembling, but remained silent. "Give him a little more time," said one of the other men.

"Ay, hurry him not," said Luke.

"He has had time enough," Simon retorted. "He is but playing with us."

Yet he left him a little longer, while all stood round and looked, greedy to hear with their own ears one of those strange confessions of witchcraft, which, whether they had their origin in delusion or in some interested motive, were not uncommon in the England of that day.

But the child, though his breath came quick and fast, and his heart throbbed like the heart of a little bird, and he feared unspeakably, remained obstinately silent.

"Enough!" Simon cried at last, his patience utterly exhausted; "he is dumb. We shall get nothing from him here. Let us see what the water will do for him. Luke, the cloak!"

Jack controlled his fears until the man's hands were actually upon him. Then instinct prevailed, and in despair he gave way to shriek upon shriek, so that the house rang with the pitiful outcry. "The cloak!" Simon cried impatiently, looking this way and that for it, while the butler turned pale at the sounds. "That is better; now open the door."

One of the Edgingtons went towards it, but when he was close to it, stopped on a sudden and held up his hand. The gesture was one of warning, but it came too late; for before those behind could profit by it, or do more than surmise what it meant, the door shook under a heavy knock, and a hand outside lifted the latch. The neighing of horses and the sound of hoofs trampling the stones of the fold gave the party some idea what they had to expect; but late also, for ere Simon could lay down the child, or Edgington move from his position, the door was thrown wide open. Half a dozen figures appeared on the threshold, and one detatching itself from the crowd strode in with an air of st.u.r.dy authority.

The person who thus put himself forward was a middle-aged man of good height, strongly and squarely made. His reddish face and broad, ma.s.sive features were shaded by a wide-leaved hat, in the band of which a little roll of papers was stuck. He wore a buff coat and breastplate, and a heavy sword, and had, besides, a pistol and a leather glove thrust through his girdle. For a second after his entrance, he looked from one face to another with quick, searching glances which nothing escaped. Then he spoke.

"Tut-tut-tut-tut!" he said. "What is this? Have we honest, G.o.d-fearing soldiers here, halting by the way, whether such halting is in the way or not, or in the morning orders? Or have we ramping, roystering, babe-killing free-companions?--eh, man? Speak!" he continued rapidly, his utterance somewhat thick. "What have you here? Unfasten this cloak, some one!"

Thunderstruck, and taken completely by surprise--for the doorway was filled with faces--the party in the room fell back a step. Simon mechanically laid the boy down, but still maintained his position by him. Nor did the Puritan, though he found himself thus abruptly challenged by one who seemed to be able to make good his words, lose a jot of his grim aspect. He was aware of no wrong he had done. His conscience was clear.

"They are not soldiers, your excellency," one of the persons in the doorway said briskly. "Four of them live here, and the other two are honest men from Bradford."

"That man has worn the bandoliers," the first speaker retorted, in a voice which brooked no denial. "Sirrah, find your tongue," he continued sternly, bending a brow which was never of the lightest.

"Have you not served?"

"I was in the forlorn of horse at Naseby," Simon answered sullenly.

"In what troop?"

"Captain Rawlins's."

"Is it so?" his excellency answered, dropping his voice at once to a more genial note. "Well, friend, you had for commander a good man and serviceable. You could no better. And who are these with you?"

"Two are his brothers," the voice in the doorway explained. "They were very forward against Langdale's horse in the skirmish at Settle three days ago, your excellency."

"Good, good, all this is good," Cromwell answered briskly; for that redoubtable man, Lieutenant-General at this time of the armies of the Parliament, it was. "Then why were you backward to answer my questions, friend, being questions it lay in me to put, I being at the head of this poor army and in authority? But there, you were modest.

Here, Pownall," he continued, "lay the maps on the table. We can examine them here in shelter. 'Twas a happy thought of yours. And let the prisoners be brought here also. Yet, stay," he added, feeing round once more, his brow dark. "Methinks there comes a strange whimpering from that cloak! Is't a dog? To it, Pownall, and see what it is."

The officer he addressed sprang zealously forward, and whipping up the cloak disclosed the child lying bound on the floor. Terror and the exertion of screaming had reduced the boy to the last stage of consciousness. He lay motionless, his face pale, and his eyes half closed; his little bound hands appealing powerfully to the feelings of the spectators. Even the presence of so many strangers failed to rouse him, or move him to a last appeal. He appeared to be unconscious of their entrance, or of any change in his surroundings.

The sight was one to awaken indignation in a man, and Cromwell was a man. "What!" he exclaimed roundly, and with something like an oath; "what is this? Why have you bound him? Who is he? Is he your son?"

"No," Simon answered, scowling.

"Who is he?"

"His name is Patten."

"Patten, Patten, Patten? Where have I heard the name?" Cromwell answered. "Ho, I remember! There is a young malignant of that name on the black list, is there not? For this county, too!"

An officer replied that there was; adding that the young man was supposed to be in Duke Hamilton's army.

"Very well! We will deal with him when we catch him," Cromwell answered sharply. "But, in the name of sense, what has that to do with this boy? Why, 'tis a child! His mother's milk is hardly dry on his lips! Why have you bound him, man?"

Simon Gridley strove to give back look for look, and to make the outward countenance answer to the inward innocence. But the General's sharp questions, and the astonished and indignant faces which filled the room, made this difficult. A sudden doubt springing up in his own mind, thus untimely, lent additional gloom to his manner, as he answered: "He is no child. He is a witch!"

"A witch!" Cromwell cried, his voice drowning a dozen exclamations of astonishment. "Why, mercy on us, a witch is a woman! And 'tis a boy!"

"Ay, but 'tis a witch too," Simon answered stubbornly.