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"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."
Nevertheless he obeyed the hushing gesture of her hand, and held his breath, as she led him out to the garden-seat, where they had spent so many happy quiet hours. Then he flung himself down and repeated his exclamation, half piteous, half defiant. "Leave me alone! Leave me alone! It has me! It is all of no use."
"What has you, my poor child?"
"The evil spirit. You will have it that I'm not one of--one of them--so it must be as my father says, that I am possessed--the evil spirit. I was at peace with you--so happy--happier than ever I was before--and now--those boys. It has me again--I could not help it-- I've even hurt her--Mistress Anne. Let me alone--send me home--to be scorned, and shunned, and brow-beaten--and as bad as ever--then at least she will be safe from me."
All this came out between sobs such that Mrs. Woodford could not attempt to speak, but she kept her hand on him, and at last she said, when he could hear her: "Every one of us has to fight with an evil spirit, and when we are not on our guard he is but too apt to take advantage of us."
The boy rather sullenly repeated that it was of no use to fight against his.
"Indeed! Nay. Were you ever so much grieved before at having let him have the mastery?"
"No--but no one ever was good to me before."
"Yes; all about you lived under a cruel error, and you helped them in it. But if you had not a better nature in you, my poor child, you would not be happy here and thankful for what we can do for you."
"I was like some one else here," said Peregrine, picking a daisy to pieces, "but they stirred it all up. And at home I shall be just the same as ever I was."
She longed to tell him that there was hope of a change in his life, but she durst not till it was more certain, so she said--
"There was One who came to conquer the evil spirit and the evil nature, and to give each one of us the power to get the victory. The harder the victory, the more glorious!" and her eyes sparkled at the thought.
He caught a moment's glow, then fell back. "For those that are chosen," he said.
"You are chosen--you were chosen by your baptism. You have the stirrings of good within you. You can win and beat back the evil side of you in Christ's strength, if you will ask for it, and go on in His might."
The boy groaned. Mrs. Woodford knew that the great point with him would be to teach him to hope and to pray, but the very name of prayer had been rendered so distasteful to him that she scarce durst press the subject by name, and her heart sank at the thought of sending him home again, but she was glad to be interrupted, and said no more.
At night, however, she heard sounds of moaning and stifled babbling that reminded her of his times of delirium, and going into his room she found him tossing and groaning so that it was manifestly a kindness to wake him; but her gentle touch occasioned a scream of terror, and he started aside with open glassy eyes, crying, "Oh take me not!"
"My dear boy! It is I. Perry, do you not know me?"
"Oh, madam!" in infinite relief, "it is you. I thought--I thought I was in elfland and that they were paying me for the tithe to hell;" and he still shuddered all over.
"No elf--no elf, dear boy; a christened boy--God's child, and under His care;" and she began the 121st Psalm.
"Oh, but I am not under His shadow! The Evil One has had me again! He will have me. Aren't those his claws? He will have me!"
"Never, my child, if you will cry to God for help. Say this with me, 'Lord, be Thou my keeper.'"
He did so, and grew more quiet, and she began to repeat Dr. Ken's evening hymn, which had become known in manuscript in Winchester. It soothed him, and she thought he was dropping off to sleep, but no sooner did she move than he started with "There it is again--the black wings--the claws--" then while awake, "Say it again! Oh, say it again. Fold me in your prayers--you can pray." She went back to the verse, and he became quiet, but her next attempt to leave him caused an entreaty that she would remain, nor could she quit him till the dawn, happily very early, was dispelling the terrors of the night, and then, when he had himself murmured once--
"Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest,"
he fell asleep at last, with a softer look on his pinched face. Poor boy, would that verse be his first step to prayer and deliverance from his own too real enemy?
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