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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.
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