Transcribed by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
A REPUTED CHANGELING, or, THREE SEVENTH YEARS TWO CENTURIES AGO
I do not think I have here forced the hand of history except by giving Portchester to two imaginary Rectors, and by a little injustice to her whom Princess Anne termed 'the brick-bat woman.'
The trial is not according to present rules, but precedents for its irregularities are to be found in the doings of the seventeenth century, notably in the trial of Spencer Cowper by the same Judge Hatsel, and I have done my best to represent the habits of those country gentry who were not infected by the evils of the later Stewart reigns.
There is some doubt as to the proper spelling of Portchester, but, judging by analogy, the t ought not to be omitted.
C. M. YONGE. 2d May 1889.
CHAPTER I: THE EXPERIENCES OF GOODY MADGE
"Dear Madam, think me not to blame; Invisible the fairy came. Your precious babe is hence conveyed, And in its place a changeling laid. Where are the father's mouth and nose, The mother's eyes as black as sloes? See here, a shocking awkward creature, That speaks a fool in every feature."
"He is an ugly ill-favoured boy—just like Riquet a la Houppe."
"That he is! Do you not know that he is a changeling?"
Such were the words of two little girls walking home from a school for young ladies kept, at the Cathedral city of Winchester, by two Frenchwomen of quality, refugees from the persecutions preluding the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and who enlivened the studies of their pupils with the Contes de Commere L'Oie.
The first speaker was Anne Jacobina Woodford, who had recently come with her mother, the widow of a brave naval officer, to live with her uncle, the Prebendary then in residence. The other was Lucy Archfield, daughter to a knight, whose home was a few miles from Portchester, Dr. Woodford's parish on the southern coast of Hampshire.
In the seventeenth century, when roads were mere ditches often impassable, and country-houses frequently became entirely isolated in the winter, it was usual with the wealthier county families to move into their local capital, where some owned mansions and others hired prebendal houses, or went into lodgings in the roomy dwellings of the superior tradesmen. For the elders this was the season of social intercourse, for the young people, of education.
The two girls, who were about eight years old, had struck up a rapid friendship, and were walking hand in hand to the Close attended by the nurse in charge of Mistress Lucy. This little lady wore a black silk hood and cape, trimmed with light brown fur, and lined with pink, while Anne Woodford, being still in mourning for her father, was wrapped in a black cloak, unrelieved except by the white border of her round cap, fringed by fair curls, contrasting with her brown eyes. She was taller and had a more upright bearing of head and neck, with more promise of beauty than her companion, who was much more countrified and would not have been taken for the child of higher station.
They had traversed the graveyard of the Cathedral, and were passing through a narrow archway known as the Slype, between the south- western angle of the Cathedral and a heavy mass of old masonry forming part of the garden wall of the present abode of the Archfield family, when suddenly both children stumbled and fell, while an elfish peal of laughter sounded behind them.
Lucy came down uppermost, and was scarcely hurt, but Anne had fallen prone, striking her chin on the ground, so as to make her bite her lip, and bruising knees and elbows severely. Nurse detected the cause of the fall so as to avoid it herself. It was a cord fastened across the archway, close to the ground, and another shout of derision greeted the discovery; while Lucy, regaining her feet, beheld for a moment a weird exulting grimace on a visage peeping over a neighbouring headstone.
"It is he! it is he! The wicked imp! There's no peace for him! I say," she screamed, "see if you don't get a sound flogging!" and she clenched her little fist as the provoking "Ho! ho! ho!" rang farther and farther off. "Don't cry, Anne dear; the Dean and Chapter shall take order with him, and he shall be soundly beaten. Are you hurt? O nurse, her mouth is all blood."
"I hope she has not broken a tooth," said nurse, who had been attending to the sobbing child. "Come in, my lamb, we will wash your face, and make you well."
Anne, blinded with tears, jarred, bruised, bleeding, and bewildered, submitted to be led by kind nurse the more willingly because she knew that her mother, together with all the quality, were at Sir Thomas Charnock's. They had dined at the fashionable hour of two, and were to stay till supper-time, the elders playing at Ombre, the juniors dancing. As a rule the ordinary clergy did not associate with the county families, but Dr. Woodford was of good birth and a royal chaplain, and his deceased brother had been a favourite officer of the Duke of York, and had been so severely wounded by his side in the battle of Southwold as to be permanently disabled. Indeed Anne Jacobina was godchild to the Duke and his first Duchess, whose favoured attendant her mother had been. Thus Mrs. Woodford was in great request, and though she had not hitherto gone into company since her widowhood, she had yielded to Lady Charnock's entreaty that she would come and show her how to deal with that strange new Chinese infusion, a costly packet of which had been brought to her from town by Sir Thomas, as the Queen's favourite beverage, wherewith the ladies of the place were to be regaled and astonished.
It had been already arranged that the two little girls should spend the evening together, and as they entered the garden before the house a rude voice exclaimed, "Holloa! London Nan whimpering. Has my fine lady met a spider or a cow?" and a big rough lad of twelve, in a college gown, spread out his arms, and danced up and down in the doorway to bar the entrance.
"Don't, Sedley," said a sturdy but more gentlemanlike lad of the same age, thrusting him aside. "Is she hurt? What is it?"
"That spiteful imp, Peregrine Oakshott," said Lucy passionately. "He had a cord across the Slype to trip us up. I heard him laughing like a hobgoblin, and saw him too, grinning over a tombstone like the malicious elf he is."
The college boy uttered a horse laugh, which made Lucy cry, "Cousin Sedley, you are as bad!" but the other boy was saying, "Don't cry, Anne None-so-pretty. I'll give it him well! Though I'm younger, I'm bigger, and I'll show him reason for not meddling with my little sweetheart."
"Have with you then!" shouted Sedley, ready for a fray on whatever pretext, and off they rushed, as nurse led little Anne up the broad shallow steps of the dark oak staircase, but Lucy stood laughing with exultation in the intended vengeance, as her brother took down her father's hunting-whip.
"He must be wellnigh a fiend to play such wicked pranks under the very Minster!" she said.
"And a rascal of a Whig, and that's worse," added Charles; "but I'll have it out of him!"
"Take care, Charley; if you offend him, and he does really belong to those—those creatures"—Lucy lowered her voice—"who knows what they might do to you?"
Charles laughed long and loud. "I'll take care of that," he said, swinging out at the door. "Elf or no elf, he shall learn what it is to play off his tricks on my sister and my little sweetheart."
Lucy betook herself to the nursery, where Anne was being comforted, her bleeding lip washed with essence, and repaired with a pinch of beaver from a hat, and her other bruises healed with lily leaves steeped in strong waters.
"Charley is gone to serve him out!" announced Lucy as the sovereign remedy.
"Oh, but perhaps he did not mean it," Anne tried to say.
"Mean it? Small question of that, the cankered young slip! Nurse, do you think those he belongs to can do Charley any harm if he angers them?"
"I cannot say, missie. Only 'tis well we be not at home, or there might be elf knots in the horses' manes to-night. I doubt me whether that sort can do much hurt here, seeing as 'tis holy ground."
"But is he really a changeling? I thought there were no such things as—"
"Hist, hist, Missie Anne!" cried the dame; "'tis not good to name them."
"Oh, but we are on the Minster ground, nurse," said Lucy, trembling a little however, looking over her shoulder, and coming closer to the old servant.
"Why do they think so?" asked Anne. "Is it because he is so ugly and mischievous and rude? Not like boys in London."
"Prithee, nurse, tell her the tale," entreated Lucy, who had made large eyes over it many a time before.
"Ay, and who should tell you all about it save me, who had it all from Goody Madge Bulpett, as saw it all!"
"Goody Madge! It was she that came when poor little Kitty was born and died," suggested Lucy, as Anne, laying her aching head upon nurse's knees, prepared to listen to the story.
"Well, deary darlings, you see poor Madam Oakshott never had her health since the Great Fire in London, when she was biding with her kinsfolk to be near Major Oakshott, who had got into trouble about some of his nonconforming doings. The poor lady had a mortal fright before she could be got out of Gracechurch Street as was all of a blaze, and she was so afeard of her husband being burnt as he lay in Newgate that she could scarce be got away, and whether it was that, or that she caught cold lying out in a tent on Highgate Hill, she has never had a day's health since."
"And the gentleman—her husband?" asked Anne.
"They all broke prison, poor fellows, as they had need to do, and the Major's time was nearly up. He made himself busy in saving and helping the folk in the streets; and his brother, Sir Peregrine, who was thick with the King, and is in foreign parts now, took the chance to speak of the poor lady's plight and say it would be the death of her if he could not get his discharge, and his Majesty, bless his kind heart, gave the order at once. So they took madam home to the Chace, but she has been but an ailing body ever since."
"But the fairy, the fairy, how did she change the babe?" cried Anne.
"Hush, hush, dearie! name them not. I am coming to it all in good time. I was telling you how the poor lady failed and pined from that hour, and was like to die. My gossip Madge told me how when, next Midsummer, this unlucky babe was born they had to take him from her chamber at once because any sound of crying made her start in her sleep, and shriek that she heard a poor child wailing who had been left in a burning house. Moll Owens, the hind's wife, a comely lass, was to nurse him, and they had him at once to her in the nursery, where was the elder child, two years old, Master Oliver, as you know well, Mistress Lucy, a fine-grown, sturdy little Turk as ever was."
"Yes, I know him," answered Lucy; "and if his brother's a changeling, he is a bear! The Whig bear is what Charley calls him."
"Well, what does that child do but trot out of the nursery, and try to scramble down the stairs.—Never tell me but that they you wot of trained him out—not that they had power over a Christian child, but that they might work their will on the little one. So they must needs trip him up, so that he rolled down the stair hollering and squalling all the way enough to bring the house down, and his poor lady mother, she woke up in a fit. The womenfolk ran, Molly and all, she being but a slip of a girl herself and giddy-pated, and when they came back after quieting Master Oliver, the babe was changed."
"Then they didn't see the—"
"Hush, hush, missie! no one never sees 'em or they couldn't do nothing. They cannot, if a body is looking. But what had been as likely a child before as you would wish to handle was gone! The poor little mouth was all of a twist, and his eyelid drooped, and he never ceased mourn, mourn, mourn, wail, wail, wail, day and night, and whatever food he took he never was satisfied, but pined and peaked and dwined from day to day, so as his little legs was like knitting pins. The lady was nigh upon death as it seemed, so that no one took note of the child at first, but when Madge had time to look at him, she saw how it was, as plain as plain could be, and told his father. But men are unbelieving, my dears, and always think they know better than them as has the best right, and Major Oakshott would hear of no such thing, only if the boy was like to die, he must be christened. Well, Madge knew that sometimes they flee at touch of holy water, but no; though the thing mourned and moaned enough to curdle your blood and screeched out when the water touched him, there he was the same puny little canker. So when madam was better, and began to fret over the child that was nigh upon three months old, and no bigger than a newborn babe, Madge up and told her how it was, and the way to get her own again."
"What was that, nurse?"
"There be different ways, my dear. Madge always held to breaking five and twenty eggs and have a pot boiling on a good sea-coal fire with the poker in it red hot, and then drop the shells in one by one, in sight of the creature in the cradle. Presently it will up and ask whatever you are about. Then you gets the poker in your hand as you says, "A-brewing of egg shells." Then it says, "I'm forty hundred years old and odd, and yet I never heard of a-brewing of egg shells." Then you ups with the poker and at him to thrust it down his ugly throat, and there's a hissing and a whirling, and he is snatched away, and the real darling, all plump and rosy, is put back in the cradle."
"And did they?"
"No, my dears. Madam was that soft-hearted she could not bring her mind to it, though they promised her not to touch him unless he spoke. But nigh on two years later, Master Robert was born, as fine and lusty and straight-limbed as a chrisom could be, while the other could not walk a step, but sat himself about on the floor, a-moaning and a-fretting with the legs of him for all the world like the drumsticks of a fowl, and his hands like claws, and his face wizened up like an old gaffer of a hundred, or the jackanapes that Martin Boats'n brought from Barbary. So after a while madam saw the rights of it, and gave consent that means should be taken as Madge and other wise folk would have it; but he was too old by that time for the egg shells, for he could talk, talk, and ask questions enough to drive you wild. So they took him out under the privet hedge, Madge and her gossip Deborah Clint, and had got his clothes off to flog him with nettles till they changed him, when the ill-favoured elf began to squall and shriek like a whole litter of pigs, and as ill luck would have it, the master was within hearing, though they had watched him safe off to one of his own 'venticles, but it seems there had been warning that the justices were on the look-out, so home he came. And behold, the thing that never knew the use of his feet before, ups and flies at him, and lays hold of his leg, hollering out, "Sir, father, don't let them," and what not. So then it was all over with them, as though that were not proof enow what manner of thing it was! Madge tried to put him off with washing with yarbs being good for the limbs, but when he saw that Deb was there, he saith, saith he, as grim as may be, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," which was hard, for she is but a white witch; and he stormed and raved at them with Bible texts, and then he vowed (men are so headstrong, my dears) that if ever he ketched them at it again, he would see Deb burnt for a witch at the stake, and Madge hung for the murder of the child, and he is well known to be a man of his word. So they had to leave him to abide by his bargain, and a sore handful he has of it."
Anne drew a long sigh and asked whether the real boy in fairyland would never come back.
"There's no telling, missie dear. Some say they are bound there for ever and a day, some that they as holds 'em are bound to bring them back for a night once in seven years, and in the old times if they was sprinkled with holy water, and crossed, they would stay, but there's no such thing as holy water now, save among the Papists, and if one knew the way to cross oneself, it would be as much as one's life was worth."
"If Peregrine was to die," suggested Lucy.
"Bless your heart, dearie, he'll never die! When the true one's time comes, you'll see, if so be you be alive to see it, as Heaven grant, he will go off like the flame of a candle and nothing be left in his place but a bit of a withered sting nettle. But come, my sweetings, 'tis time I got your supper. I'll put some nice rosy- cheeked apples down to roast, to be soft for Mistress Woodford's sore mouth."
Before the apples were roasted, Charles Archfield and his cousin, the colleger Sedley Archfield, a big boy in a black cloth gown, came in with news of having—together with the other boys, including Oliver and Robert Oakshott—hunted Peregrine all round the Close, but he ran like a lapwing, and when they had pinned him up in the corner by Dr. Ken's house, he slipped through their fingers up the ivy, and grinned at them over the wall like the imp he was. Noll said it was always the way, he was no more to be caught than a bit of thistledown, but Sedley meant to call out all the college boys and hunt and bait him down like a badger on 'Hills.'
CHAPTER II: HIGH TREASON
"Whate'er it be that is within his reach, The filching trick he doth his fingers teach."
There was often a considerable distance between children and their parents in the seventeenth century, but Anne Woodford, as the only child of her widowed mother, was as solace, comfort, and companion; and on her pillow in early morning the child poured forth in grave earnest the entire story of the changeling, asking whether he could not be "taken to good Dr. Ken, or the Dean, or the Bishop to be ex— ex—what is it, mother? Not whipped with nettles. Oh no! nor burnt with red hot pokers, but have holy words said so that the right one may come back."
"My dear child, did you really believe that old nurse's tale?"
"O madam, she knew it. The other old woman saw it! I always thought fairies and elves were only in tales, but Lucy's nurse knows it is true. And he is not a bit like other lads, mamma dear. He is lean and small, and his eyes are of different colours, look two ways at once, and his mouth goes awry when he speaks, and he laughs just like—like a fiend. Lucy and I call him Riquet a la Houppe, because he is just like the picture in Mademoiselle's book, with a great stubbly bunch of hair sticking out on one side, and though he walks a little lame, he can hop and skip like a grasshopper, faster than any of the boys, and leap up a wall in a moment, and grin—oh most frightfully. Have you ever seen him, mamma?"
"I think so. I saw a poor boy, who seemed to me to have had a stroke of some sort when he was an infant."
"But, madam, that would not make him so spiteful and malicious!"
"If every one is against him and treats him as a wicked mischievous elf, it is only too likely to make him bitter and spiteful. Nay, Anne, if you come back stuffed with old wives' tales, I shall not allow you to go home with Lucy Archfield."
The threat silenced Anne, who was a grave and rather silent little person, and when she mentioned it to her friend, the answer was, "Did you tell your mother? If I had told mine, I should have been whipped for repeating lying tales."
"Oh then you don't believe it!"
"It must be true, for Madge knew it. But that's the way always if one lets out that one knows more than they think."
"It is not the way with my mother," stoutly said Anne, drawing up her dignified little head. And she kept her resolution, for though a little excited by her first taste of lively youthful companionship, she was naturally a thoughtful reticent child, with a character advanced by companionship with her mother as an only child, through a great sorrow. Thus she was in every respect more developed than her contemporary Lucy, who regarded her with wonder as well as affection, and she was the object of the boyish devotion of Charley, who often defended her from his cousin Sedley's endeavours to put down what he considered upstart airs in a little nobody from London. Sedley teased and baited every weak thing in his way, and Lucy had been his chief butt till Anne Woodford's unconscious dignity and more cultivated manners excited his utmost spleen.
Lucy might be incredulous, but she was eager to tell that when her cousin Sedley Archfield was going back to 'chambers,' down from the Close gate came the imp on his shoulders in the twilight and twisted both legs round his neck, holding tight on in spite of plunges, pinches, and endeavours to scrape him off against the wall, which were frustrated or retaliated by hair pulling, choking, till just ere entering the college gateway, where Sedley looked to get his revenge among his fellows, he found his shoulders free, and heard "Ho! ho! ho!" from the top of a wall close at hand. All the more was the young people's faith in the changeling story confirmed, and child-world was in those days even more impenetrable to their elders than at present.
Changeling or no, it was certain that Peregrine Oakshott was the plague of the Close, where his father, an ex-officer of the Parliamentary army, had unwillingly hired a house for the winter, for the sake of medical treatment for his wife, a sufferer from a complication of ailments. Oakwood, his home, was about five miles from Dr. Woodford's living of Portchester, and as the families would thus be country neighbours, Mrs. Woodford thought it well to begin the acquaintance at Winchester. While knocking at the door of the house on the opposite side of the Close, she was aware of an elfish visage peering from an upper window. There was the queer mop of dark hair, the squinting light eyes, the contorted grin crooking the mouth, the odd sallow face, making her quite glad to get out of sight of the strange grimaces which grew every moment more hideous.
Mrs. Oakshott sat in an arm-chair beside a large fire in a wainscotted room, with a folding-screen shutting off the window. Her spinning-wheel was near, but it was only too plain that 'feeble was the hand, and silly the thread.' She bent her head in its wadded black velvet hood, but excused herself from rising, as she was crippled by rheumatic pains. She had evidently once been a pretty little person, innocent and inane, and her face had become like that of a withered baby, piteous in its expression of pain and weariness, but otherwise somewhat vacant. At first, indeed, there was a look of alarm. Perhaps she expected every visitor to come with a complaint of her unlucky Peregrine, but when Mrs. Woodford spoke cheerfully of being her neighbour in the country, she was evidently relieved and even gratified, prattling in a soft plaintive tone about her sufferings and the various remedies, ranging from woodlice rolled into natural pills, and grease off the church bells, to diamond dust and Goa stones, since, as she said, there was no cost to which Major Oakshott would not go for her benefit. He had even procured for her a pound of the Queen's new Chinese herb, and it certainly was as nauseous as could be wished, when boiled in milk, but she was told that was not the way it was taken at my Lady Charnock's. She was quite animated when Mrs. Woodford offered to show her how to prepare it.
Therewith the master of the house came in, and the aspect of affairs changed. He was a tall, dark, grave man, plainly though handsomely dressed, and in a gentlemanly way making it evident that visits to his wife were not welcome. He said that her health never permitted her to go abroad, and that his poor house contained nothing that could please a Court lady. Mrs. Oakshott shrank into herself, and became shy and silent, and Mrs. Woodford felt constrained to take leave, courteously conducted to the door by her unwilling host.
She had not taken many steps before she was startled by a sharp shower from a squirt coming sidelong like a blow on her cheek and surprising her into a low cry, which was heard by the Major, so that he hastened out, exclaiming, "Madam, I trust that you are not hurt."
"Oh no, sir! It is nothing—not a stone—only water!" she said, wiping it with her handkerchief.
"I am grieved and ashamed at the evil pranks of my unhappy son, but he shall suffer for it."
"Nay, sir, I pray you. It was only childish mischief."
He had not waited to hear her pleadings, and before she was half across the Close he had overtaken her, dragging the cowering struggling boy in his powerful grasp.
"Now, Peregrine," he commanded, "let me instantly hear you ask the lady's pardon for your dastardly trick. Or—!" and his other hand was raised for a blow.
"I am sure he is sorry," said Mrs. Woodford, making a motion to ward off the stroke, and as the queer eyes glanced up at her in wondering inquiry, she laid her hand on the bony shoulder, saying, "I know you did not mean to hurt me. You are sorry, are you not?"
"Ay," the boy muttered, and she saw a look of surprise on his father's face.
"There," she said, "he has made his amends, and surely that may suffice."
"Nay, madam, it would be a weak and ungodly tenderness that would spare to drive forth the evil spirit which possesses the child by the use of the rod. I should fail in my duty alike to God and man," he added, in reply to a fresh gesture of intercession, "did I not teach him what it is to insult a lady at mine own door."
Mrs. Woodford could only go away, heartily sorry for the boy. From that time, however, both she and her little daughter were untouched by his tricks, though every one else had some complaint. Peas were shot from unknown recesses at venerable canons, mice darted out before shrieking ladies, frogs' clammy forms descended on the nape of their necks, hedgehogs were curled up on their chairs, and though Peregrine Oakshott was not often caught in the act, no mischief ever took place that was not attributed to him; and it was popularly believed in the Close that his father flogged him every morning for what he was about to do, and his tutor repeated the castigation every evening for what he had done, besides interludes at each detection.
Perhaps frequent usage had toughened his skin, or he had become expert in wriggling from the full force of the blow, or else, as many believed, the elfish nature was impervious; for he was as ready as ever for a trick the moment he was released, like, as his brother said, the dog Keeper, who, with a slaughtered chick hung round his neck in penance, rushed murderously upon the rest of the brood.
Yet Mrs. Woodford, on her way through the Cathedral nave, was aware of something leaning against one of the great columns, crouching together so that the dark head, supported on the arms, rested against the pillar which fluted the pier. The organ was pealing softly and plaintively, and the little gray coat seemed to heave as with a sob. She stood, impelled to offer to take him with her into the choir, but a verger, spying him, began rating him in a tone fit for expelling a dog, "Come, master, none of your pranks here! Be not you ashamed of yourself to be lying in wait for godly folk on their way to prayers? If I catch you here again the Dean shall hear of it, and you shall smart for it."
Mrs. Woodford began, "He was only hearkening to the music," but she caught such a look of malignity cast upon the verger as perfectly appalled her, and in another moment the boy had dashed, head over heels, out at the nearest door.
The next report that reached her related how a cloud of lime had suddenly descended from a broken arch of the cloister on the solemn verger, on his way to escort the Dean to the Minster, powdering his wig, whitening his black gown from collar to hem, and not a little endangering his eyesight.
The culprit eluded all pursuit on this occasion; but Mrs. Woodford soon after was told that the Major had caught Peregrine listening at the little south door of the choir, had collared him, and flogged him worse than ever, for being seduced by the sounds of the popish and idolatrous worship, and had told all his sons that the like chastisement awaited them if they presumed to cross the threshold of the steeple house.
Nevertheless the Senior Prefect of the college boys, when about to come out of the Cathedral on Sunday morning, found his gown pinned with a skewer so fast to the seat that he was only set free at the expense of a rent. Public opinion decided that the deed had been done by the imp of Oakshott, and accordingly the whole of the Wykeham scholars set on him with hue and cry the first time they saw him outside the Close, and hunted him as far as St. Cross, where he suddenly and utterly vanished from their sight.
Mrs. Woodford agreed with Anne that it was a very strange story. For how could he have been in the Cathedral at service time when it was well known that Major Oakshott had all his family together at his own form of worship in his house? Anne, who had been in hopes that her mother would be thus convinced of his supernatural powers, looked disappointed, but she had afterwards to confess that Charles Archfield had found out that it was his cousin Sedley Archfield who had played the audacious trick, in revenge for a well-merited tunding from the Prefect.
"And then saddled it on young Oakshott?" asked her mother.
"Charley says one such matter more or less makes no odds to the Whig ape; but I cannot endure Sedley Archfield, mamma."
"If he lets another lad bear the blame of his malice he cannot indeed be a good lad."
"So Charley and Lucy say," returned Anne. "We shall be glad to be away from Winchester, for while Peregrine Oakshott torments slyly, Sedley Archfield loves to frighten us openly, and to hurt us to see how much we can bear, and if Charley tries to stand up for us, Sedley calls him a puny wench, and a milksop, and knocks him down. But, dear madam, pray do not tell what I have said to her ladyship, for there is no knowing what Sedley would do to us."
"My little maid has not known before what boys can be!"
"No; but indeed Charles Archfield is quite different, almost as if he had been bred in London. He is a very gentleman. He never is rude to any girl, and he is courteous and gentle and kind. He gathered walnuts for us yesterday, and cracked all mine, and I am to make him a purse with two of the shells."
Mrs. Woodford smiled, but there was a short thrill of anxiety in her motherly heart as her glance brought up a deeper colour into Anne's cheeks. There was a reserve to bring that glow, for the child knew that if she durst say that Charles called her his little sweetheart and wife, and that the walnut-shell purse would be kept as a token, she should be laughed at as a silly child, perhaps forbidden to make it, or else her uncle might hear and make a joke of it. It was not exactly disingenuousness, but rather the first dawn of maidenly reserve and modesty that reddened her cheek in a manner her mother did not fail to observe.
Yet it was with more amusement than misgiving, for children played at courtship like other games in mimicry of being grown up, and a baronet's only son was in point of fact almost as much out of the reach of a sea captain's daughter and clergyman's niece as a prince of the blood royal; and Master Archfield would probably be contracted long before he could choose for himself, for his family were not likely to take into account that if Captain Woodford had not been too severely wounded to come forward after the battle of Southwold Bay he would have been knighted. On the strength of which Anne, as her companions sometimes said, gave herself in consequence more airs than Mistress Lucy ever did.
Sedley, a poor cousin, a destitute cavalier's orphan, who had been placed on the foundation at Winchester College in hopes that he might be provided for in the Church, would have been far more on her level, and indeed Lady Archfield, a notable matchmaker, had already hinted how suitable such a thing would be. However, the present school character of Master Sedley, as well as her own observations, by no means inclined Mrs. Woodford towards the boy, large limbed and comely faced, but with a bullying, scowling air that did not augur well for his wife or his parish.
Whether it were this lad's threats, or more likely, the fact that all the Close was on the alert, Peregrine's exploits were less frequent there, and began to extend to the outskirts of the city. There were some fine yew trees on the southern borders, towards the chalk down, with massive dark foliage upon stout ruddy branches, among which Peregrine, armed with a fishing-rod, line, and hook, sat perched, angling for what might be caught from unconscious passengers along a path which led beneath.
From a market-woman's basket he abstracted thus a fowl! His "Ho! ho! ho!" startled her into looking up, and seeing it apparently resuscitated, and hovering aloft. Full of dismay, she hurried shrieking away to tell the story of the bewitched chick at the market-cross among her gossips.
His next capture was a chop from a butcher boy's tray, but this involved more peril, for with a fierce oath that he would be revenged on the Whiggish imp, the lad darted at the tree, in vain, however, for Peregrine had dropped down on the other side, and crept unseen to another bush, where he lay perdu, under the thick green branches, rod and all, while the youth, swearing and growling, was shaking his former refuge.
As soon as the coast was clear he went back to his post, and presently was aware of three gentlemen advancing over the down, pointing, measuring, and surveying. One was small and slight, as simply dressed as a gentleman of the period could be; another was clad in a gay coat with a good deal of fluttering ribbon and rich lace; the third, a tall well-made man, had a plain walking suit, surmounted by a flowing periwig and plumed beaver. Coming close beneath Peregrine's tree, and standing with their backs to it, they eagerly conversed. "Such a cascade will drown the honours of the Versailles fountains, if only the water can be raised to such a height. Are you sure of it, Wren?"
"As certain as hydraulics can make me, sir," and the lesser man began drawing lines with his stick in the dust of the path in demonstration.
The opportunity was irresistible, and the hook from above deftly caught the band of the feathered hat of the taller man, slowly and steadily drawing it up, entirely unperceived by the owner, on whose wig it had rested, and who was bending over the dust-traced diagram in absorbed attention. Peregrine deferred his hobgoblin laughter, for success emboldened him farther. Detaching the hat from his hook, and depositing it safely in a fork of the tree, he next cautiously let down his line, and contrived to get a strong hold of one of the black locks on the top of the wig, just as the wearer was observing, "Oliver's Battery, eh? A cupola with a light to be seen out at sea? Our sailors will make another St. Christopher of you! Ha! what's this'"
For feeling as if a branch were touching the structure on his head, he had stepped forward, thus favouring Peregrine's manoeuvres so that the wig dangled in the air, suddenly disclosing the bare skull of a very dark man, with such marked features that it needed not the gentlemen's outcry to show the boy who was the victim of his mischief.
"What imp is there?" cried the King, spying up into the tree, while his attendant drew his sword, "How now?" as Peregrine half climbed, half tumbled down, bringing hat and wig with him, and, whether by design or accident, fell at his feet. "Will nothing content you but royal game?" he continued laughing, as Sir Christopher Wren helped him to resume his wig. "Why, what a shrimp it is! a mere goblin sprite! What's thy name, master wag?"
"Peregrine Oakshott, so please you," the boy answered, raising himself with a face scared indeed, but retaining its queer impishness. "Sir, I never guessed—"
"Young rogue! have you our licence to waylay our loyal subjects?" demanded the King, with an affected fierceness. "Know you not 'tis rank treason to discrown our sacred Majesty, far more to dishevel or destroy our locks? Why! I might behead you on the spot." To his great amazement the boy, with an eager face and clasped hands, exclaimed, "O sir! Oh, please your Majesty, do so."
"Do so!" exclaimed the King astounded. "Didst hear what I said?"
"Yes, sir! You said it was a beheading matter, and I'm willing, sir."
"Of all the petitions that ever were made to me, this is the strangest!" exclaimed Charles. "An urchin like this weary of life! What next? So," with a wink to his companions, "Peregrine Oakshott, we condemn thee for high treason against our most sacred Majesty's beaver and periwig, and sentence thee to die by having thine head severed from thy body. Kneel down, open thy collar, bare thy neck. Ay, so, lay thy neck across that bough. Killigrew, do thy duty."
To the general surprise, the boy complied with all these directions, never flinching nor showing sign of fear, except that his lips were set and his cheek whitened. As he knelt, with closed eyes, the flat cold blade descended on his neck, the tension relaxed, and he sank!
"Hold!" cried the King. "It is gone too far! He has surely not carried out the jest by dying on our hands."
"No, no, sir," said Wren, after a moment's alarm, "he has only swooned. Has any one here a flask of wine to revive him?"
Several gentlemen had come up, and as Peregrine stirred, some wine was held to his lips, and he presently asked in a faint voice, "Is this fairyland?"
"Not yet, my lad," said Charles, "whatever it may be when Wren's work is done."
The boy opened his eyes, and as he beheld the same face, and the too familiar sky and trees, he sighed heavily, and said, "Then it is all the same! O sir, would you but have cut off my head in good earnest, I might be at home again!"
"Home! what means the elf?"
"An elf! That is what they say I am—changed in the cradle," said Peregrine, incited to confidence by the good-natured eyes, "and I thought if I were close on death mine own people might take me home, and bring back the right one."
"He really believes it!" exclaimed Charles much diverted. "Tell me, good Master Elf, who is thy father, I mean not my brother Oberon, but him of the right one, as thou sayst."
"Mr. Robert Oakshott of Oakwood, sir," said Peregrine.
"A sturdy squire of the country party," said the King. "I am much minded to secure the lad for an elfin page," he added aside to Killigrew. "There's a fund of excellent humour and drollery in those queer eyes of his! So, Sir Hobgoblin, if you are proof against cold steel, I know not what is to be done with you. Get you back, and devise some other mode of finding your way home to fairyland."
Peregrine said not a word of his adventure, so that the surprise of his family was the greater when overtures were made through Sir Christopher Wren for his appointment as a royal page.
"I would as soon send my son at once to be a page to Beelzebub," returned Major Oakshott.
And though Sir Christopher did not return the answer exactly in those terms, he would not say that the Puritan Major did not judge rightly.
CHAPTER III: THE FAIRY KING
"She's turned her right and round about, And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn, And she sware by the moon and the stars above That she'd gar me rue the day I was born."
Old Ballad of Alison Cross.
Dr. Woodford's parish was Portchester, where stood the fine old royal castle at present ungarrisoned, and partly dismantled in the recent troubles, on a chalk peninsula, a spur from Portsdown, projecting above the alluvial flats, and even into the harbour, whose waves at high tide laved the walls. The church and churchyard were within the ample circuit of the fortifications, about two furlongs distant from the main building, where rose the mighty Norman keep, above the inner court, with a gate tower at this date, only inhabited by an old soldier as porter with his family. A massive square tower at each angle of the huge wall likewise defied decay.
It was on Midsummer eve, that nearly about sundown, Dr. Woodford was summoned by the severe illness of the gatekeeper's old father, and his sister-in-law went with him to attempt what her skill could accomplish for the old man's relief.
They were detained there till the sun had long set, though the air, saturated with his redness, was full of soft twilight, while the moon, scarcely past the full, was just high enough to silver the quiet sea, and throw the shadow of the battlements and towers on the sward whitened with dew.
After the close atmosphere of the sickroom the freshness was welcome, and Mrs. Woodford, once a friend of Katherine Phillips, 'the Matchless Orinda,' had an eye and a soul to appreciate the beauty, and she even murmured the lines of Il Penseroso as she leant on the arm of her brother-in-law, who, in his turn, thought of Homer.
Suddenly, as they stood in the shadow, they were aware of a small, slight, fantastic figure in the midst of the grass-grown court, where there was a large green mushroom circle or fairy ring. On the borders of this ring it paused with an air of disappointment. Then entering it stood still, took off the hat, whose lopsided appearance had given so strange an outline, and bowed four times in opposite directions, when, as the face was turned towards the spectators, invisible in the dark shadow, the lady recognised Peregrine Oakshott. She pressed the Doctor's arm, and they both stood still watching the boy bathing his hand in the dew, and washing his face with it, then kneeling on one knee, and clasping his hands, as he cried aloud in a piteous chant—
"Fairy mother, fairy mother! Oh, come, come and take me home! My very life is sore to me. They all hate me! My brothers and the servants, every one of them. And my father and tutor say I am possessed with an evil spirit, and I am beaten daily, and more than daily. I can never, never get a good word from living soul! This is the second seven years, and Midsummer night! Oh, bring the other back again! I'm weary, I'm weary! Good elves, good elves, take me home. Fairy mother! Come, come, come!" Shutting his eyes he seemed to be in a state of intense expectation. Tears filled Mrs. Woodford's eyes. The Doctor moved forward, but no sooner did the boy become conscious of human presence than he started up, and fled wildly towards a postern door, but no sooner had he disappeared in the shadow than there was a cry and a fall.
"Poor child!" exclaimed Dr. Woodford, "he has fallen down the steps to the vault. It is a dangerous pitfall."
They both hurried to the place, and found the boy lying on the steps leading down to the vault, but motionless, and when they succeeded in lifting him up, he was quite unconscious, having evidently struck his head against the mouth of the vault.
"We must carry him home between us," said Mrs. Woodford. "That will be better than rousing Miles Gateward, and making a coil."
Dr. Woodford, however, took the entire weight, which he declared to be very slight. "No one would think the poor child fourteen years old," he observed, "yet did he not speak of a second seven?"
"True," said Mrs. Woodford, "he was born after the Great Fire of London, which, as I have good cause to know, was in the year '66."
There was still little sign of revival about the boy when he had been carried into the Parsonage, undressed and laid in the Doctor's own bed, only a few moans when he was handled, and on his thin, sharp features there was a piteous look of sadness entirely unlike his ordinary expression of malignant fun, and which went to the kind hearts of the Doctor and Mrs. Woodford. After exhausting their own remedies, as soon as the early daylight was available Dr. Woodford called up a couple of servants, and sent one into Portsmouth for a surgeon, and another to Oakwood to the parents.
The doctor was the first to arrive, though not till the morning was well advanced. He found that three ribs were broken against the edge of the stone step, and the head severely injured, and having had sufficient experience in the navy to be a reasonably safe practitioner, he did nothing worse than bleed the patient, and declared that absolute rest was the only hope of recovery.
He was being regaled with cold roast pig and ale when Major Oakshott rode up to the door. Four horses were dragging the great lumbering coach over Portsdown hill, but he had gone on before, to thank Dr. and Mrs. Woodford for their care of his unfortunate son, and to make preparations for his transport home under the care of his wife's own woman, who was coming in the coach in the stead of the invalid lady.
"Nay, sir. Master Brent here has a word to say to that matter," replied the Doctor.
"Truly, sir, I have," said the surgeon; "in his present state it is as much as your son's life is worth to move him."
"Be that as it may seem to man, he is in the hand of Heaven, and he ought to be at home, whether for life or death."
"For death it will assuredly be, sir, if he be jolted and shaken along the Portsdown roads—yea, I question whether you would get him to Oakwood alive," said Brent, with naval roughness.
"Indeed, sir," added Mrs. Woodford, "Mrs. Oakshott may be assured of my giving him as tender care as though he were mine own son."
"I am beholden to you, madam," said the Major; "I know your kindliness of heart; but in good sooth, the unhappy and rebellious lad merits chastisement rather than pity, since what should he be doing at this distance from home, where he was shut up for his misdemeanours, save fleeing like the Prodigal of the parable, or else planning another of his malicious pranks, as I greatly fear, on you or your daughter, madam. If so, he hath fallen into the pit that he made for others."
The impulse was to tell what had occurred, but the surgeon's presence, and the dread of making all worse for the poor boy checked both the hosts, and Mrs. Woodford only declared that since the day of the apology he had never molested her or her little girl.
"Still," said the Major, "it is not possible to leave him in a stranger's house, where at any moment the evil spirit that is in him may break forth."
"Come and see him, and judge," said Dr. Woodford.
When the father beheld the deathly face and motionless form, stern as he was, he was greatly shocked. His heavy tread caused a moan, and when he said "What, Perry, how now?" there was a painful shrinking and twitching, which the surgeon greeted as evidence of returning animation, but which made him almost drag the Major out of the room for fear of immediate consequences.
Major Oakshott, and still more the servant, who had arrived in the coach and come upstairs, could not but be convinced that removal was not to be thought of. The maid was, moreover, too necessary to her mistress to be left to undertake the nursing, much to her master's regret, but to the joy of Mrs. Woodford, who felt certain that by far the best chance for the poor boy was in his entire separation from all associations with the home where he had evidently suffered so much.
There was, perhaps, nothing except the pageship at Court that could have gone more against Major Oakshott's principles than to leave his son in the house of a prelatical minister, but alternative there was none, and he could only express how much he was beholden to the Dr. and Mrs. Woodford.
All their desire was that he would remain at a distance, for during the long and weary watch they had to keep over the half-conscious lad, the sound of a voice or even a horse's tread from Oakwood occasioned moans and restlessness. The Major rode over, or sent his sons, or a servant daily to inquire during the first fortnight, except on the Sundays, and on each of these the patient made a step towards improvement.
At first he lay in a dull, death-like stupor, only groaning if disturbed, but by and by there was a babbling murmur of words, and soon the sound of his brother's loud voice at the door, demanding from the saddle how it went to-day with Peregrine, caused a shriek of terror and such a fit of trembling that Mrs. Woodford had to go out and make a personal request that Oliver would never again speak under the window. To her great relief, when the balance between life and death had decidedly turned, the inquiries became less frequent, and could often be forestalled by sending messengers to Oakwood.
The boy usually lay still all day in the darkened room, only showing pain at light or noise, but at night he often talked and rambled a good deal. Sometimes it was Greek or Latin, sometimes whole chapters of Scripture, either denunciating portions or genealogies from the First Book of Chronicles, the polysyllabic names pouring from his mouth whenever he was particularly oppressed or suffering, so that when Mrs. Woodford had with some difficulty made out what they were, she concluded that they had been set as tasks of penance.
At other times Peregrine talked as if he absolutely believed himself in fairyland, accepting a strawberry or cherry as elfin food, promising a tester in Anne's shoe when she helped to change his pillow, or conversing in the style of Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, on intended pranks. Often he fancied himself the lubber fiend resting at the fire his hairy strength, and watching for cock-crow as the signal for flinging out-of-doors. It was wonderful how in the grim and strict Puritanical household he could have imbibed so much fairy lore, but he must have eagerly assimilated and recollected whatever he heard, holding them as tidings from his true kith and kin; and, indeed, when he was running on thus, Mrs. Woodford sometimes felt a certain awe and chill, as of the preternatural, and could hardly believe that he belonged to ordinary human nature. Either she or the Doctor always took the night-watch after the talking mood set in, for they could not judge of the effect it might have on any of the servants. Indeed they sometimes doubted whether this were not the beginning of permanent insanity, as the delusion seemed to strengthen with symptoms of recovery.
"Then," said Dr. Woodford, "Heaven help the poor lad!"
For sad indeed was the lot in those days of even the most harmless lunatic.
"Yet," said the lady, "I scarcely think anything can be worse than what he undergoes at home. When I hear the terror and misery of his voice, I doubt whether we did him any true kindness by hindering his father from killing him outright by the shaking of his old coach."
"Nay, sister, we strove to do our duty, though it may be we have taken on ourselves a further charge."
CHAPTER IV: IMP OR NO IMP
"But wist I of a woman bold Who thrice my brow durst sign, I might regain my mortal mould, As fair a form as thine."
At last came a wakening with intelligence in the eyes. In the summer morning light that streamed through the chinks of the shutters Mrs. Woodford perceived the glance of inquiry, and when she brought some cool drink, a rational though feeble voice asked those first questions, "Who? and where?"
"I am Mrs. Woodford, my dear child. You remember me at Winchester. You are at Portchester. You fell down and hurt yourself, but you are getting better."
She was grieved to see the look of utter disappointment and weariness that overspread the features, and the boy hardly spoke again all day. There was much drowsiness, but also depression, and more than once Mrs. Woodford detected tears, but at other times he received her attentions with smiles and looks of wondering gratitude, as though ordinary kindness and solicitude were so new to him that he did not know what to make of them, and perhaps was afraid of breaking a happy dream by saying too much.
The surgeon saw him, and declared him so much better that he might soon be taken home, recommending his sitting up for a little while as a first stage. Peregrine, however, seemed far from being cheered, and showed himself so unwilling to undergo the fatigue of being dressed, even when good Dr. Woodford had brought up his own large chair—the only approach to an easy one in the house—that the proposal was dropped, and he was left in peace for the rest of the day.
In the evening Mrs. Woodford was sitting by the window, letting her needlework drop as the light faded, and just beginning to doze, when her repose was broken by a voice saying "Madam."
"Come near, I pray. Will you tell no one?"
"No; what is it?"
In so low a tone that she had to bend over him: "Do you know how the Papists cross themselves?"
"Yes, I have seen the Queen's confessor and some of the ladies make the sign."
"Dear lady, you have been very good to me! If you would only cross me thrice, and not be afraid! They could not hurt you!"
"Who? What do you mean?" she asked, for fairy lore had not become a popular study, but comprehension came when he said in an awe- stricken voice, "You know what I am."
"I know there have been old wives' tales about you, my poor boy, but surely you do not believe them yourself."
"Ah! if you will not believe them, there is no hope. I might have known. You were so good to me;" and he hid his face.
She took his unwilling hand and said, "Be you what you will, my poor child, I am sorry for you, for I see you are very unhappy. Come, tell me all."
"Nay, then you would be like the rest," said Peregrine, "and I could not bear that," and he wrung her hand.
"Perhaps not," she said gently, "for I know that a story is afloat that you were changed in your cradle, and that there are folk ignorant enough to believe it."
"They all know it," he said impressively. "My mother and brothers and all the servants. Every soul knows it except my father and Mr. Horncastle, and they will never hear a word, but will have it that I am possessed with a spirit of evil that is to be flogged out of me. Goody Madge and Moll Owens, they knew how it was at the first, and would fain have forced them—mine own people—to take me home, and bring the other back, but my father found it out and hindered them."
"To save your life."
"Much good does my life do me! Every one hates or fears me. No one has a word for me. Every mischance is laid on me. When the kitchen wench broke a crock, it was because I looked at it. If the keeper misses a deer, he swears at Master Perry! Oliver and Robert will not let me touch a thing of theirs; they bait me for a moon-calf, and grin when I am beaten for their doings. Even my mother quakes and trembles when I come near, and thinks I give her the creeps. As to my father and tutor, it is ever the rod with them, though I can learn my tasks far better than those jolter-heads Noll and Robin. I never heard so many kind words in all my life as you have given me since I have been lying here!"
He stopped in a sort of awe, for tears fell from her eyes, and she kissed his forehead.
"Will you not help me, good madam?" he entreated. "I went down to Goody Madge, and she said there was a chance for me every seven years. The first went by, but this is my fourteenth year. I had a hope when the King spoke of beheading me, but he was only in jest, as I might have known. Then methought I would try what Midsummer night in the fairy ring would do, but that was in vain; and now you, who could cross me if you would, will not believe. Oh, will you not make the trial?"
"Alas! Peregrine, supposing I could do it in good faith, would you become a mere tricksy sprite, a thing of the elements, and yield up your hopes as a Christian soul, a child of God and heir of Heaven?"
"My father says I am an heir of hell."
"No, no, never," she cried, shuddering at his quiet way of saying it. "You are flesh and blood, christened, and with the hope set before you."
"The christening came too late," he said. "O lady, you who are so good and pitiful, let my mother get back her true Peregrine—a straight-limbed, comely dullard, such as would be welcome to her. She would bless and thank you, and for me, to be a Will-of-the-wisp, or what not, would be far better than the life I lead. Never did I know what my mother calls peace till I lay here."
"Ah, Peregrine, poor lad, your value for peace and for my poor kindness proves that you have a human heart and are no elf."
"Indeed, I meant to flit about and give you good dreams, and keep off all that could hurt or frighten you," he said earnestly.
"Only the human soul could feel so, dear boy," she answered tenderly.
"And you really disbelieve—the other," he said wistfully.
"This is what I verily believe, my child: that there were causes to make you weakly, and that you may have had some palsy stroke or convulsive fit perhaps at the moment you were left alone. Such would explain much of your oddness of face, which made the ignorant nurses deem you changed; and thus it was only your father who, by God's mercy, saved you from a miserable death, to become, as I trust, a good and true man, and servant of God." Then answering a hopeless groan, she added, "Yes, it is harder for you than for many. I see that these silly servants have so nurtured you in this belief that you have never even thought it worth while to strive for goodness, but supposed tricksomeness and waywardness a part of your nature."
"The only pleasure in life is paying folk off," said Peregrine, with a glitter in his eye. "It serves them right."
"And thus," she said sadly, "you have gone on hating and spiting, deeming yourself a goblin without hope or aim; but now you feel that you have a Christian soul you will strive with evil, you will so love as to win love, you will pray and conquer."
"My father and Mr. Horncastle pray," said Peregrine bitterly. "I hate it! They go on for ever, past all bearing; I must do something—stand on my head, pluck some one's stool away, or tickle Robin with a straw, if I am birched the next moment. That's the goblin."
"Yet you love the Minster music."
"Ay! Father calls it rank Popery. I listened many a time he never guessed, hid away in the Holy Hole, or within old Bishop Wykeham's little house."
"Ah, Peregrine, could an imp of evil brook to lie hidden in the Holy Hole behind the very altar?" said Mrs. Woodford. "But I hear Nick bringing in supper, and I must leave you for the present. God in His mercy bless you, His poor child, and lead you in His ways."
As she went Peregrine muttered, "Is that a prayer? It is not like father's."
She was anxious to consult her brother-in-law on the strange mood of her patient. She found that he had heard more than he had told her of what Major Oakshott deemed the hopeless wickedness of his son, the antics at prayers, the hatred of everything good, the spiteful tricks that were the family torment. No doubt much was due to the boy's entire belief in his own elfship, and these two good people seriously considered how to save him from himself.
"If we could only keep him here," said Mrs. Woodford, "I think we might bring him to have some faith and love in God and man."
"You could, dear sister," said the Doctor, smiling affectionately; "but Major Oakshott would never leave his son in our house. He abhors our principles too much, and besides, it is too near home. All the servants have heard rumours of this cruel fable, and would ascribe the least misadventure to his goblin origin. I must ride over to Oakwood and endeavour to induce his father to remove him to safe and judicious keeping."
Some days, however, elapsed before Dr. Woodford could do this, and in the meantime the good lady did her best to infuse into her poor young guest the sense that he had a human soul, responsible for his actions, and with hope set before him, and that he was not a mere frolicsome and malicious sprite, the creature of unreasoning impulse.
It was a matter only to be attempted by gentle hints, for though reared in a strictly religious household, Peregrine's ears seemed to have been absolutely closed, partly by nursery ideas of his own exclusion from the pale of humanity, partly by the harsh treatment that he was continually bringing on himself. Preachings and prayers to him only meant a time of intolerable restraint, usually ending in disgrace and punishment; Scripture and the Westminster Catechism contained a collection of tasks more tedious and irksome than the Latin and Greek Grammar; Sunday was his worst day of the week, and these repugnances, as he had been taught to believe, were so many proofs that he was a being beyond the power of grace.
Mrs. Woodford scrupled to leave him to any one else on this first Sunday of his recovered consciousness, and in hopes of keeping him quiet through fatigue, she contrived that it should be the first day of his being dressed, and seated in the arm-chair, resting against cushions beside the open window, whence he could watch the church- goers, Anne in her little white cap, with her book in one hand, and a posy in the other, tripping demurely beside her uncle, stately in gown, cassock, and scarlet hood.
Peregrine could not refrain from boasting to his hostess how he had once grimaced from outside the church window at Havant, and at the women shrieking that the fiend was there. She would not smile, and shook her head sadly, so that he said, "I would never do so here."
"Nor anywhere, I hope."
Whereupon, thinking better to please the churchwoman, he related how, when imprisoned for popping a toad into the soup, he had escaped over the leads, and had beaten a drum outside the barn, during a discourse of the godly tinker, John Bunyan, tramping and rattling so that all thought the troopers were come, and rushed out, tumbling one over the other, while he yelled out his "Ho! ho! ho!" from the haystack where he had hidden.
"When you feel how kind and loving God is," said Mrs. Woodford gravely, "you will not like to disturb those who are doing Him honour."
"Is He kind?" asked Peregrine. "I thought He was all wrath and anger."
She replied, "The Lord is loving unto every man, and His mercy is over all His works."
He made no answer. If he were sullen, this subsided into sleepiness, and when he awoke he found the lady on her knees going through the service with her Prayer-book. She encountered his wistful eyes, but no remark was made, though on her return from fetching him some broth, she found him peeping into her book, which he laid down hastily, as though afraid of detection.
She had to go down to the Sunday dinner, where, according to good old custom, half a dozen of the poor and aged were regaled with the parish priest and his household. There she heard inquiries and remarks showing how widely spread and deeply rooted was the notion of Peregrine's elfish extraction. If Daddy Hoskins did ask after the poor young gentleman as if he were a human being, the three old dames present shook their heads, and while the more bashful only groaned, Granny Perkins demanded, "Well, now, my lady, do he eat and sleep like other folk?"
"Exactly, granny, now that he's mending in health."
"And don't he turn and writhe when there's prayers?"
Mrs. Woodford deposed to having observed no such demonstrations.
"Think of that now! Lauk-a-daisy! I've heard tell by my nevvy Davy, as is turnspit at Oak'ood, as how when there's prayers and expounding by Master Horncastle, as is a godly man, saving his Reverence's presence, he have seen him, have Davy—Master Perry, as they calls him, a-twisted round with his heels on the chair, and his head where his heels should be, and a grin on his face enough to give one a turn."
"Did Davy never see a mischievous boy fidgeting at prayers?" asked the Doctor, who was nearer than she thought. "If so, he has been luckier than I have been."
There was a laugh, out of deference to the clergyman, but the old woman held to her point. "Begging your Reverence's pardon, sir, there be more in this than we knows. They says up at Oakwood, there's no peace in the place for the spite of him, and when they thinks he is safe locked into his chamber, there he be a-clogging of the spit, or changing sugar into pepper, or making the stool break down under one. Oh, he be a strange one, sir, or summat worse. I have heerd him myself hollaing 'Ho! ho! ho!' on the downs enough to make one's flesh creep."
"I will tell you what he is, dame," said the Doctor gravely. "He is a poor child who had a fit in his cradle, and whom all around have joined in driving to folly, evil, and despair through your foolish superstitions. He is my guest, and I will have no more said against him at my table."
The village gossips might be silenced by awe of the parson, but their opinion was unshaken; and Silas Hewlett, a weather-beaten sailor with a wooden leg, was bold enough to answer, "Ay, ay, sir, you parsons and gentlefolk don't believe naught; but you've not seen what I have with my own two bodily eyes—" and this of course was the prelude to the history of an encounter with a mermaid, which alternated with the Flying Dutchman and a combat with the Moors, as regular entertainment at the Sunday meal.
When Mrs. Woodford went upstairs she was met by the servant Nicolas, declaring that she might get whom she would to wait on that there moon-calf, he would not go neist the spiteful thing, and exhibiting a swollen finger, stung by a dead wasp, which Peregrine had cunningly disposed on the edge of his empty plate.
She soothed the man's wrath, and healed his wound as best she might, ere returning to her patient, who looked at her with an impish grin on his lips, and yet human deprecation in his eyes. Feeling unprepared for discussion, she merely asked whether the dinner had been relished, and sat down to her book; but there was a grave, sorrowful expression on her countenance, and, after an interval of lying back uneasily in his chair, he exclaimed, "It is of no use; I could not help it. It is my nature."
"It is the nature of many lads to be mischievous," she answered; "but grace can cure them."
Therewith she began to read aloud. She had bought the Pilgrim's Progress (the first part) from a hawker, and she was glad to have at hand something that could hardly be condemned as frivolous or prelatical. The spell of the marvellous book fell on Peregrine; he listened intently, and craved ever to hear more, not being yet able to read without pain and dizziness. He was struck by hearing that the dream of Christian's adventures had visited that same tinker, whose congregation his own wicked practices had broken up.
"He would take me for one of the hobgoblins that beset Master Christian."
"Nay," said Mrs. Woodford, "he would say you were Christian floundering in the Slough of Despond, and deeming yourself one of its efts or tadpoles."
He made no answer, but on the whole behaved so well that the next day Mrs. Woodford ventured to bring her little daughter in after having extracted a promise that there should be no tricks nor teasing, a pledge honourably kept.
Anne did not like the prospect of the interview. "Oh, ma'am, don't leave me alone with him!" she said. "Do you know what he did to Mistress Martha Browning, his own cousin, you know, who lives at Emsworth with her aunt? He put a horsehair slily round her glass of wine, and tipped it over her best gray taffeta, and her aunt whipped her for the stain. She never would say it was his doing, and yet he goes on teasing her the same as ever, though his brother Oliver found it out, and thrashed him for it: you know Oliver is to marry Mistress Martha."
"My dear child, where did you hear all this?" asked Mrs. Woodford, rather overwhelmed with this flood of gossip from her usually quiet daughter.
"Lucy told me, mamma. She heard it from Sedley, who says he does not wonder at any one serving out Martha Browning, for she is as ugly as sin."
"Hush, hush, Anne! Such sayings do not become a young maid. This poor lad has scarce known kindness. Every one's hand has been against him, and so his hand has been against every one. I want my little daughter to be brave enough not to pain and anger him by shrinking from him as if he were not like other people. We must teach him to be happy before we can teach him to be good."
"Madam, I will try," said the child, with a great gulp; "only if you would be pleased not to leave me alone with him the first time!"
This Mrs. Woodford promised. At first the boy lay and looked at Anne as if she were a rare curiosity brought for his examination, and it took all her resolution, even to a heroic exertion of childish fortitude, not to flinch under the gaze of those queer eyes. However, Mrs. Woodford diverted the glances by producing a box of spillekins, and in the interest of the game the children became better acquainted.
Over their next day's game Mrs. Woodford left them, and Anne became at ease since Peregrine never attempted any tricks. She taught him to play at draughts, the elders thinking it expedient not to doubt whether such vanities were permissible at Oakwood.
Soon there was such merriment between them that the kind Doctor said it did his heart good to hear the boy's hearty natural laugh in lieu of the "Ho! ho! ho!" of malice or derision.
They were odd conversations that used to take place between that boy and girl. The King's offer of a pageship had oozed out in the Oakshott family, and Peregrine greatly resented the refusal, which he naturally attributed to his father's Whiggery and spite at all things agreeable, and he was fond of discussing his wrongs and longings with Anne, who, from her childish point of view, thought the walls of Portchester and the sluggish creek a very bad exchange for her enjoyments at Greenwich, where she had lived during her father's years of broken health, after he had been disabled at Southwold by a wound which had prevented his being knighted by the Duke of York for his daring in the excitement of the critical moment, a fact which Mistress Anne never forgot, though she only knew it by hearsay, as it happened a few weeks after she was born, and her father always averred that he was thankful to have missed the barren and expensive honour, and that the worst which had come of his exploit was the royal sponsorship to his little maid.
Anne had, however, been the pet of her father's old friends, the sea captains, had played with the little Evelyns under the yew hedges of Says Court, had been taken to London to behold the Lord Mayor's show and more than one Court pageant, had been sometimes at the palaces as the plaything of the Ladies Mary and Anne of York, had been more than once kissed by their father, the Duke, and called a pretty little poppet, and had even shared with them a notable game at romps with their good-natured uncle the King, when she had actually caught him at Blind-man's-buff!
Ignorant as she was of evil, her old surroundings appeared to her delightful, and Peregrine, bred in a Puritan home, was at fourteen not much more advanced than she was in the meaning of the vices and corruptions that he heard inveighed against in general or scriptural terms at home, and was only too ready to believe that all that his father proscribed must be enchanting. Thus they built castles together about brilliant lives at a Court of which they knew as little as of that at Timbuctoo.
There was another Court, however, of which Peregrine seemed to know all the details, namely, that of King Oberon and Queen Mab. How much was village lore picked up from Moll Owens and her kind, or how much was the work of his own imagination, no one could tell, probably not himself, certainly not Anne. When he appeared on intimate terms with Hip, Nip, and Skip, and described catching Daddy Long Legs to make a fence with his legs, or dwelt upon a terrible fight between two armies of elves mounted on grasshoppers and crickets, and armed with lances tipped with stings of bees and wasps, she would exclaim, "Is it true, Perry?" and he would wink his green eye and look at her with his yellow one till she hardly knew where she was.
He would tell of his putting a hornet in a sluttish maid's shoe, which was credible, if scarcely meriting that elfish laughter which made his auditor shrink, but when he told of dancing over the mud banks with a lantern, like a Will-of-the-wisp, till he lured boats to get stranded, or horsemen to get stuck, in the hopeless mud, Anne never questioned the possibility, but listened with wide open eyes, and a restrained shudder, feeling as if under a spell. That mysterious childish feeling which dreads even what common sense forbids the calmer mind to believe, made her credit Peregrine, for the time at least, with strange affinities to the underground folk, and kept her under a strange fascination, half attraction, half repulsion, which made her feel as if she must obey and follow him if he turned those eyes on her, whether she were willing or not.
Nor did she ever tell her mother of these conversations. She had been rebuked once for repeating nurse's story of the changeling, and again for her shrinking from him; and this was quite enough in an essentially reserved, as well as proud and sensitive, nature, to prevent further confidences on a subject which she knew would be treated as a foolish fancy, bringing both herself and her companion into trouble.
CHAPTER V: PEREGRINE'S HOME
"For, at a word, be it understood, He was always for ill and never for good."
A week had passed since any of the family from Oakwood had come to make inquiries after the convalescent at Portchester, when Dr. Woodford mounted his sleek, sober-paced pad, and accompanied by a groom, rode over to make his report and tender his counsel to Major Oakshott. He arrived just as the great bell was clanging to summon the family to the mid-day meal, since he had reckoned on the Squire being more amenable as a 'full man,' especially towards a guest, and he was well aware that the Major was thoroughly a gentleman in behaviour even to those with whom he differed in politics and religion.
Accordingly there was a ready welcome at the door of the old red house, which was somewhat gloomy looking, being on the north side of the hill, and a good deal stifled with trees. In a brief interval the Doctor found himself seated beside the pale languid lady at the head of the long table, placed in a large hall, wainscotted with the blackest of oak, which seemed to absorb into itself all the light from the windows, large enough indeed but heavily mullioned, and with almost as much of leading as of octagons and lozenges—greenish glass—in them, while the coats of arms, repeated in upper portions and at the intersections of beams and rafters, were not more cheerful, being sable chevrons on an argent field. The crest, a horse shoe, was indeed azure, but the blue of this and of the coats of the serving-men only deepened the thunderous effect of the black. Strangely, however, among these sad-coloured men there moved a figure entirely differently. A negro, white turbaned, and with his blue livery of a lighter shade, of fantastic make and relieved by a great deal of white and shining silver, so as to have an entirely different effect.
He placed himself behind the chair of Dr. Woodford's opposite neighbour, a shrewd business-like looking gentleman, soberly but handsomely dressed, with a certain foreign cut about his clothes, and a cravat of rich Flemish lace. He was presented to the Doctor as Major Oakshott's brother, Sir Peregrine. The rest of the party consisted of Oliver and Robert, sturdy, ruddy lads of fifteen and twelve, and their tutor, Mr. Horncastle, an elderly man, who twenty years before had resigned his living because he could not bring himself to accept all the Liturgy.
While Sir Peregrine courteously relieved his sister-in-law of the trouble of carving the gammon of bacon which accompanied the veal which her husband was helping, Dr. Woodford informed her of her son's progress towards recovery.
"Ah," she said, "I knew you had come to tell us that he is ready to be brought home;" and her tone was fretful.
"We are greatly beholden to you, sir," said the Major from the bottom of the table. "The boy shall be fetched home immediately."
"Not so, sir, as yet, I beg of you. Neither his head nor his side can brook the journey for at least another week, and indeed my good sister Woodford will hardly know how to part with her patient."
"She will not long be of that mind after Master Perry gets to his feet again," muttered the chaplain.
"Indeed no," chimed in the mother. "There will be no more peace in the house when he is come back."
"I assure you, madam," said Dr. Woodford, "that he has been a very good child, grateful and obedient, nor have I heard any complaints."
"Your kindness, or else that of Mrs. Woodford, carries you far, sir," answered his host.
"What? Is my nephew and namesake so peevish a scapegrace?" demanded the visitor.
On which anecdotes broke forth from all quarters. Peregrine had greased the already slippery oak stairs, had exchanged Oliver's careful exercise for a ribald broadsheet, had filled Mr. Horncastle's pipe with gunpowder, and mixed snuff with the chocolate specially prepared for the peculiar godly guest Dame Priscilla Waller. Every one had something to adduce, even the serving-men behind the chairs; and if Oliver and Robert did not add their quota, it was because absolute silence at meals was the rule for nonage. However, the subject was evidently distasteful to the father, who changed the conversation by asking his brother questions about the young Prince of Orange and the Grand Pensionary De Witt. For the gentleman had been acting as English attache to the Embassy at the Hague, whence he had come on affairs of State to London, and after being knighted by Charles, had newly arrived at the old home, which he had scarcely seen since his brother's marriage. Dr. Woodford enjoyed his conversation, and his information on foreign politics, and the Major, though now and then protesting, was evidently proud of his brother.
When grace had been pronounced by the chaplain the lady withdrew to her parlour, the two boys, each with an obeisance and request for permission, departed for an hour's recreation, and Dr. Woodford intimated that he wished for some conversation with his host respecting the boy Peregrine.
"Let us discuss it here," said Major Oakshott, turning towards a small table set in the deep bay window, and garnished with wine, fruit, and long slender glasses. "Good Mr. Horncastle," he added, as he motioned his guest to one of the four seats, "is with me in all that concerns my children, and I desire my brother's counsel respecting the untoward lad with whom it has pleased Heaven to afflict me."
When the glasses had been filled with claret Dr. Woodford uttered a diplomatic compliment on the healthful and robust appearance of the eldest and youngest sons, and asked whether any cause had been assigned for the difference between them and the intermediate brother.
"None, sir," returned the father with a sigh, "save the will of the Almighty to visit us for our sins with a son who has thus far shown himself one of the marred vessels doomed to be broken by the potter. It may be in order to humble me and prove me that this hath been laid upon me."
The chaplain groaned acquiescence, but there was vexation in the brother's face.
"Sir," said the Doctor, "it is my opinion and that of my sister-in- law, an excellent, discreet, and devout woman, that the poor child would give you more cause for hope if the belief had not become fixed in his mind that he is really and truly a fairy elf—yes, in very sooth—a changeling!"
All the auditors broke out into exclamations that it was impossible that a boy of fourteen could entertain so absurd an idea, and the tutor evidently thought it a fresh proof of depravity that he should thus have tried to deceive his kind hosts.
In proof that Peregrine veritably believed it himself, Dr. Woodford related what he had witnessed on Midsummer night, mentioning how in delirium the boy had evidently believed himself in fairyland, and how disappointed he had been, on regaining his senses, to find himself on common earth; telling also of the adventure with the King, which Sir Christopher Wren had described to him, but of which Major Oakshott was unaware, though it explained the offer of the pageship. He was a good deal struck by these revelations, proving misery that he had never suspected, though, as he said, he had often pleaded, "Why will ye revolt more and more? ye will be stricken more and more."
"Have you ever sought his confidence?" asked the travelled brother, a question evidently scarcely understood, for the reply was, "I have always required of my sons to speak the truth, nor have they failed of late years save this unfortunate Peregrine."
"And," said Sir Peregrine, "if the unlucky lad actually supposes himself to be no human being, admonitions and chastisements would naturally be vain."
"I cannot believe it," exclaimed the Major. "'Tis true, as I now remember, I once came on a couple of beldames, my wife's nurse and another, who has since been ducked for witchcraft, and found them about to flog the babe with nettles, and lay him in the thorn hedge because he was a sickly child, whom, forsooth, they took to be a changeling; but I forbade the profane folly to be ever again mentioned in my household, nor did I ever hear thereof again."
"There are a good many more things mentioned in a household, brother, than the master is wont to hear of," remarked Sir Peregrine.
Dr. Woodford then begged as a personal favour for an individual examination of the family and servants on their opinion. The master was reluctant thus, as he expressed it, to go a-fooling, but his brother backed the Doctor up, and further prevented a general assembly to put one another to shame, but insisted on the witnesses being called in one by one. Oliver, the first summoned, was beginning to be somewhat less overawed by his father than in his earlier boyhood. To the inquiry what he thought of his brother Peregrine, he made a tentative sort of reply, that he was a strange fellow, who never could keep out of disgrace.
"That is not the question," said his father. "I am almost ashamed to speak it! Do you—nay, have you ever supposed him to be a—" he really could not bring out the word.
"A changeling, sir?" returned Oliver. "I do not believe so now, knowing that it is impossible, but as a child I always did."
"Who durst possess you with so foolish and profane a falsehood?"
"Every one, sir. I cannot recollect the time when I did not as entirely deem Peregrine a changeling elf as that Robin was my own brother. He believes so himself."
"You have never striven to disabuse him."
"Indeed, sir, he would scarce have listened to me had I done go; besides, to tell the truth, it has only been of late, since I have been older, and have studied more, that I have come to perceive the folly of it."
Major Oakshott groaned, and bade him call Robert without saying wherefore. The little fellow came in, somewhat frightened, and when asked the question that had been put to his elder, his face lighted up, and he exclaimed, "Oh, have they brought him back again?"
"Our real brother, sir, who was carried off to fairyland!"
"Who told you so, Robert?"
He looked puzzled, and said, "Sir, they all know it. Molly Owens, that was his foster-mother, saw the fairies bear him off on a broomstick up the chimney."
"Robert, no lying!"
The boy was only restrained from tears by fear of his father, and just managed to say, "'Tis what they all say, and Perry knows."
"Knows!" muttered Major Oakshott in despair, but the uncle, drawing Robin towards him, extracted that Perry had been seen flying out of the loft window, when he had been locked up—Robin had never seen it himself, but the maids had often done so. Moreover, there was proof positive, in the mark on Oliver's head, where he had nearly killed himself by tumbling downstairs, being lured by the fairies while they stole away the babe.
The Major could not listen with patience. "A boy of that age to repeat such blasphemous nonsense!" he exclaimed; and Robert, restraining with difficulty his sobs of terror, was dismissed to fetch the butler.
The old Ironside who now appeared would not avouch his own disbelief in the identity of Master Peregrine, being, as he said, a man who had studied his Bible, listened to godly preachers, and seen the world; but he had no hesitation in declaring that almost every other soul in the household believed in it as firmly as in the Gospel, certainly all the women, and probably all the men, nor was there any doubt that the young gentleman conducted himself more like a goblin than the son of pious Christian parents. In effect both the clergyman and the Diplomate could not help suspecting that in other company the worthy butler's disavowal of all share in the superstition might have been less absolute.
"After this," said Major Oakshott with a sigh, "it seems useless to carry the inquiry farther."
"What says my sister Oakshott?" inquired Sir Peregrine. "She! Poor soul, she is too feeble to be fretted," said her husband. "She has never been the same woman since the Fire of London, and it would be vain to vex her with questions. She would be of one mind while I spoke to her, and another while her women were pouring their tales into her ear. Methinks I now understand why she has always seemed to shrink from this unfortunate child, and to fear rather than love him."
"Even so, sir," added the tutor. "Much is explained that I never before understood. The question is how to deal with him under this fresh light. I will, so please your honour, assemble the family this very night, and expound to them that such superstitions are contrary to the very word of Scripture."
"Much good will that do," muttered the knight.
"I should humbly suggest," put in Dr. Woodford, "that the best hope for the poor lad would be to place him where these foolish tales were unknown, and he could start afresh on the same terms with other youths."
"There is no school in accordance with my principles," said the Squire gloomily. "Godly men who hold the faith as I do are inhibited by the powers that be from teaching in schools."
"And," said his brother, "you hold these principles as more important than the causing your son to be bred up a human being instead of being pointed at and rendered hopeless as a demon."
"I am bound to do so," said the Major.
"Surely," said Dr. Woodford, "some scholar might be found, either here or in Holland, who might share your opinions, and could receive the boy without incurring penalties for opening a school without license."
"It is a matter for prayer and consideration," said Major Oakshott. "Meantime, reverend sir, I thank you most heartily for the goodness with which you have treated my untoward son, and likewise for having opened my eyes to the root of his freakishness."
The Doctor understood this as dismissal, and asked for his horse, intimating, however, that he would gladly keep the boy till some arrangement had been decided upon. Then he rode home to tell his sister-in-law that he had done his best, and that he thought it a fortunate conjunction that the travelled brother had been present.
CHAPTER VI: A RELAPSE
"A tell-tale in their company They never could endure, And whoso kept not secretly Their pranks was punished sure. It was a just and Christian deed To pinch such black and blue; Oh, how the commonwealth doth need Such justices as you!"
Several days passed, during which there could be no doubt that Peregrine Oakshott knew how to behave himself, not merely to grown- up people, but to little Anne, who had entirely lost her dread of him, and accepted him as a playfellow. He was able to join the family meals, and sit in the pleasant garden, shaded by the walls of the old castle, as well as by its own apple-trees, and looking out on the little bay in front, at full tide as smooth and shining as a lake.
There, while Anne did her task of spinning or of white seam, Mrs. Woodford would tell the children stories, or read to them from the Pilgrim's Progress, a wonderful romance to both. Peregrine, still tamed by weakness, would lie on the grass at her feet, in a tranquil bliss such as he had never known before, and his fairy romances to Anne were becoming mitigated, when one day a big coach came along the road from Fareham, with two boys riding beside it, escorting Lady Archfield and Mistress Lucy.
The lady was come to study Mrs. Woodford's recipe for preserved cherries, the young people, Charles, Lucy, and their cousin Sedley, now at home for the summer holidays, to spend an afternoon with Mistress Anne.
Great was Lady Archfield's surprise at finding that Major Oakshott's cross-grained slip of a boy was still at Portchester.
"If you were forced to take him in for very charity when he was hurt," she said, "I should have thought you would have been rid of him as soon as he could leave his bed."
"The road to Oakwood is too rough for broken ribs as yet," said Mrs. Woodford, "nor is the poor boy ready for discipline."
"Ay, I fancy that Major Oakshott is a bitter Puritan in his own house; but no discipline could be too harsh for such a boy as that, according to all that I hear," said her ladyship, "nor does he look as if much were amiss with him so far as may be judged of features so strange and writhen."
"He is nearly well, but not yet strong, and we are keeping him here till his father has decided on what is best for him."
"You even trust him with your little maid! And alone! I wonder at you, madam."
"Indeed, my lady, I have seen no harm come of it. He is gentle and kind with Anne, and I think she softens him."
Still Mrs. Woodford would gladly not have been bound to her colander and preserving-pan in her still-room, where her guest's housewifely mind found great scope for inquiry and comment, lasting for nearly two hours.
When at length the operations were over, and numerous little pots of jam tied up as specimens for the Archfield family to taste at home, the children were not in sight. No doubt, said Mrs. Woodford, they would be playing in the castle court, and the visitor accompanied her thither in some anxiety about broken walls and steps, but they were not in sight, nor did calls bring them.
The children had gone out together, Anne feeling altogether at ease and natural with congenial playmates. Even Sedley's tortures were preferable to Peregrine's attentions, since the first were only the tyranny of a graceless boy, the other gave her an indescribable sense of strangeness from which these ordinary mundane comrades were a relief and protection.
However, Charles and Sedley rushed off to see a young colt in which they were interested, and Lucy, in spite of her first shrinking, found Peregrine better company than she could have expected, when he assisted in swinging her and Anne by turns under the old ash tree.
When the other two were seen approaching, the swinging girl hastily sprang out, only too well aware what Sedley's method of swinging would be. Then as the boys came up followed inquiries why Peregrine had not joined them, and jests in schoolboy taste ensued as to elf- locks in the horses' manes, and inquiries when he had last ridden to a witch's sabbath. Little Anne, in duty bound, made her protest, but this only incited Charles to add his word to the teasing, till Lucy joined in the laugh.
By and by, as they loitered along, they came to the Doctor's little boat, and there was a proposal to get in and rock. Lucy refused, out of respect for her company attire, and Anne could not leave her, so the two young ladies turned away with arms round each other's waists, Lucy demonstratively rejoicing to be quit of the troublesome boys.
Before they had gone far an eldritch shout of laughter was responded to by a burst of furious dismay and imprecation. The boat with the two boys was drifting out to sea, and Peregrine capering wildly on the shore, but in another instant he had vanished into the castle.
Anne had presence of mind enough to rush to the nearest fisherman's cottage, and send him out to bring them back, and it was at this juncture that the two mothers arrived on the scene. There was little real danger. A rope was thrown and caught, and after about half an hour of watching they were safely landed, but the tide had ebbed so far that they had to take off their shoes and stockings and wade through the mud. They were open-mouthed against the imp who had enticed them to rock in the boat, then in one second had cut the painter, bounded out, and sent them adrift with his mocking 'Ho! ho! ho!' Sedley Archfield clenched his fists, and gazed round wildly in search of the goblin to chastise him soundly, and Charles was ready to rush all over the castle in search of him.
"Two to one!" cried Anne, "and he so small; you would never be so cowardly."
"As if he were like an honest fellow," said Charley. "A goblin like that has his odds against a dozen of us."
"I'd teach him, if I could but catch him," cried Sedley.
"I told you," said Anne, "that he would be good if you would let him alone and not plague him."
"Now, Anne," said Charles, as he sat putting on his stockings, "how could I stand being cast off for that hobgoblin, that looks as if he had been cut out of a root of yew with a blunt knife, and all crooked! I that always was your sweetheart, to see you consorting with a mis-shapen squinting Whig of a Nonconformist like that."
"Nonconformist! I'll Nonconform him indeed," added Sedley. "I wish I had the wringing of his neck."
"Now is not that hard!" said Anne; "a poor lad who has been very sick, and that every one baits and spurns."
"Serve him right," said Sedley; "he shall have more of the same sauce!"
"I think he has cast his spell on Anne," added Charles, "or how can she stand up for him?"
"My mamma bade me be kind to him."
"Kind! I would as lief be kind to a toad!" put in Lucy.
"To see you kind to him makes me sick," exclaimed Charles. "You see what comes of it."
"It did not come of my kindness, but of your unkindness," reasoned Anne.
"I told you so," said Charles. "You would have been best pleased if we had been carried out to sea and drowned!"
Anne burst into tears and disavowed any such intention, and Charles was protesting that he would only forgive her on condition of her never showing any kindness to Peregrine again, when a sudden shower of sand and pebbles descended, one of them hitting Sedley pretty sharply on the ear. The boys sprang up with a howl of imprecation and vengeance, but no one was to be seen, only 'Ho! ho! ho!' resounded from the battlements. Off they rushed headlong, but the nearest door was in a square tower a good way off, and when they reached it the door defied their efforts of frantic rage, whilst another shower descended on them from above, accompanied by the usual shout. But while they were dashing off in quest of another entrance they were met by a servant sent to summon them to return home. Coach and horses were at the door, and Lady Archfield was in haste to get them away, declaring that she should not think their lives safe near that fiendish monster. Considering that Sedley was nearly twice as big as Peregrine, and Charles a strong well-grown lad, this was a tribute to his preternatural powers.
Very unwillingly they went, and if Lady Archfield had not kept a strict watch from her coach window, they would certainly have turned back to revenge the pranks played on them. The last view of them showed Sedley turning round shaking his whip and clenching his teeth in defiance. Mrs. Woodford was greatly concerned, especially as Peregrine could not be found and did not appear at supper.
"Had he run away to sea?" the usual course of refractory lads at Portchester, but for so slight a creature only half recovered it did not seem probable. It was more likely that he had gone home, and that Mrs. Woodford felt as somewhat a mortifying idea. However, on looking into his chamber, as she sought her own, she beheld him in bed, with his face turned into the pillow, whether asleep or feigning slumber there was no knowing.
Later, she heard sounds that induced her to go and look at him. He was starting, moaning, and babbling in his sleep. But with morning all his old nature seemed to have returned.
There was a hedgehog in Anne's bowl of milk, Mrs. Woodford's poultry were cackling hysterically at an unfortunate kitten suspended from an apple tree and let down and drawn up among them. The three- legged stool of the old waiting-woman 'toppled down headlong' as though by the hands of Puck, and even on Anne's arms certain black and blue marks of nails were discovered, and when her mother examined her on them she only cried and begged not to be made to answer.
And while Dr. Woodford was dozing in his chair as usual after the noonday dinner Mrs. Woodford actually detected a hook suspended from a horsehair descending in the direction of his big horn spectacles, and quietly moving across to frustrate the attempt, she unearthed Peregrine on a chair angling from behind the window curtain.
She did not speak, but fixed her calm eyes on him with a look of sad, grave disappointment as she wound up the line. In a few seconds the boy had thrown himself at her feet, rolling as if in pain, and sobbing out, "'Tis all of no use! Let me alone."