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"I then did ask of her, her changeling child."
Midsummer Night's Dream.
Mrs. Woodford was too good a housewife to allow herself any extra rest on account of her vigil, and she had just put her Juneating apple-tart into the oven when Anne rushed into the kitchen with the warning that there was a grand gentleman getting off his horse at the gateway, and speaking to her uncle--she thought it must be Peregrine's uncle.
Mrs. Woodford was of the same opinion, and asked where Peregrine was.
"Fast asleep in the window-seat of the parlour, mother! I did not waken him, for he looked so tired."
"That was right, my little maiden," said Mrs. Woodford, hastily washing her hands, taking off her cooking apron, letting down her black gown from its pocket holes, and arranging her veil-like widow's coif, after which, in full trim for company, she sallied out to the front door, to avert, if possible, the wakening of the boy, whom she wished to appear to the best advantage.
She met in the garden her brother-in-law, and Sir Peregrine Oakshott, on being presented to her, made such a bow as had seldom been seen in those parts, as he politely said that he was the bearer of his brother's thanks for her care of his nephew.
Mrs. Woodford explained that the boy had had so bad a night that it would be well not to break his present sleep, and invited the guest to walk in the garden or sit in the Doctor's study or in the shade of the castle wall.
This last was what he preferred, and there they seated themselves, with a green slope before them down to the pale gray creek, and the hill beyond lying in the summer sunshine.
"I have been long in coming hither," said the knight, "partly on account of letters on affairs of State, and partly likewise because I desired to come alone, thinking that I might better understand how it is with the lad without the presence of his father or brothers."
"I am very glad you have so done, sir."
"Then, madam, I entreat of you to speak freely and tell me your opinion of him without reserve. You need not fear offence by speaking of the mode in which they have treated him at home. My poor brother has meant to do his duty, but he has stood so far aloof from his sons that he has dealt with them in ignorance, and their mother, between sickliness and timidity, is a mere prey to the folly of her gossips. So speak plainly, madam, I beg of you."
Mrs. Woodford did speak plainly of the boy's rooted belief in his own elfish origin, and how when arguing against it she had found the alternative even sadder and more hopeless, how well he comported himself as long as he was treated as a human and rational being, but how the taunts and jests of the young Archfields had renewed all the mischief, to the poor fellow's own remorse and despair.
Sir Peregrine listened with only a word of comment, or question now and then, like a man of the world well used to hearing all before he committed himself, and the description was only just ended when the clang of the warning dinner-bell sounded and they rose; but as they were passing the window of the dining-parlour a shriek of Anne's startled them all, and as they sprang forward, Mrs. Woodford first, Peregrine's voice was heard, "No, no, Anne, don't be afraid. It is for me he is come; I knew he would."
Something in a strange language was heard. A black face with round eyes and gleaming teeth might be seen bending forward. Anne gave another shriek, but was heard crying, "No, no! Get away, sir. He is our Lord Christ's! He is! You can't! you shan't have him."
And Anne was seen standing over Peregrine, who had dropped shuddering and nearly fainting on the floor, while she stood valiantly up warding off the advance of him whom she took for the Prince of Darkness, and in her excitement not at first aware of those who were come to her aid at the window. In one second the negro was saying something which his master answered, and sent him off. Mrs. Woodford had called out, "Don't be afraid, dear children. 'Tis Sir Peregrine's black servant"; and the Doctor, "Foolish children! What is this nonsense?" A moment or two more and they were in the room, Anne, all trembling, flying up to her mother and hiding her face against her between fright and shame at not having thought of the black servant, and the while they lifted up Peregrine, who, as he met his kind friend's eyes, said faintly, "Is he gone? Was it the dream again?"
"It was your uncle's blackamoor servant," said Mrs. Woodford. "You woke up, and no wonder you were startled. Come with me, both of you, and make you ready for dinner."
Peregrine had rather collapsed than fainted, for he was able to walk with her hand on his shoulder, and Sir Peregrine understood her sign and did not attempt to accost either of the children, though as the Doctor took him to his chamber he expressed his admiration of the little maiden.
"That's the right woman," he said, "losing herself when there is one to guard. Nay, sir, she needs no excuse. Such a spirit may well redeem a child's mistake."
Mrs. Woodford had reassured the children, so that they were more than half ashamed, though scarce willing to reappear when she had made Peregrine wash his face and hands, smooth the hair ruffled in his nap, freshly tying his little cravat and the ribbons on his shoes and at his knees. To make his hair into anything but elf locks, or to obliterate the bristly tuft that made him like Riquet, was impossible, illness had made him additionally lean and sallow, and his keen eyes, under their black contracted brows and dark lashes, showed all the more the curious variation in their tints, and with an obliquity that varied according to the state of the nerves. There was a satirical mischievous cast in the mould of the face, though individually the features were not amiss except for their thinness, and in fact the unpleasantness of the expression had insensibly been softened during this last month, and there was nothing repellent, though much that was quaint, in the slight figure, with the indescribably one-sided air, and stature more befitting ten than fourteen years. What would the visitor think of him? The Doctor called to him, "Come, Peregrine, your uncle, Sir Peregrine Oakshott, has been good enough to come over to see you."
Peregrine had been well trained enough in that bitter school of home to make a correct bow, though his feelings were betrayed by his yellow eye going almost out of sight.
"My namesake--your father will not let me say my godson," said Sir Peregrine smiling. "We ought to be good friends."
The boy looked up. Perhaps he had never been greeted in so human a manner before, and there was something confiding in the way those bony fingers of his rested a moment in his uncle's clasp.
"And this is your little daughter, madam, Peregrine's kind playmate? You may well be proud of her valour," said the knight, while Anne made her courtesy, which he, in the custom of the day, returned with a kiss; and she, who had been mortally ashamed of her terror, marvelled at his praise.
The pair of fowls were by this time on the table, and good manners required silence on the part of the children, but while Sir Peregrine explained that he had been appointed by his Majesty as Envoy to the Elector of Brandenburg, and gave various interesting particulars of foreign life, Mrs. Woodford saw that he was keeping a quiet watch over his nephew's habits at table, and she was thankful that when unmoved by any wayward spirit of mischief they were quite beyond reproach. Something of the refinement of his poor mother's tastes must have been inherited by Peregrine, for a certain daintiness of taste and habit had probably added to his discomforts in the austere, not to say rude simplicity imposed upon the children of the family.
When the meal was over the children were dismissed to the garden, but bidden to keep within call, in case Sir Peregrine should wish to see his nephew again. The others repaired again to the garden seat, with wine and fruit, but the knight begged Mrs. Woodford not to leave them.
"I am satisfied," he said. "The boy shows gentle blood and breeding. There was cause enough for fright without cowardice, and there is not, what I was led to fear, such uncouthness or ungainliness as should hinder me from having him with me."
"Oh, sir, is that your purpose?" cried the lady, almost as eagerly as if it had been high preferment for her own child.
"I had thought thereon," said the envoy. "There is reason that he should be my charge, and my brother is like to give a ready consent, since he is sorely perplexed what to do with this poor untoward slip."
"He would be less untoward were he happier," said Mrs. Woodford. "Indeed, sir, I do not think you will repent it, if--" and she paused.
"What would you say, madam?"
"If only all your honour's household are absolutely ignorant of all these tales."
"That can well be, madam. I have only one body-servant with me, this unlucky blackamoor, who speaks nothing save Dutch. I had already thought of leaving my grooms here, and returning to London by sea, and this could well be done, and would cut off all channels of gossiping. The boy is, the chaplain tells me, quick-witted, and a fair scholar for his years, and I can find good schooling for him."
"When his head is able to bear it," said Mrs. Woodford.
"Truly, sir," added the Doctor, "you are doing a good work, and I trust that the boy will requite you worthily."
"I tell your reverence," said Sir Peregrine, "crooked stick though they term him, I had ten times rather have the dealing with him than with those comely great lubbers his brothers! The question now is, shall I tell him what is in store for him?"
"I should say," returned Dr. Woodford, "that provided it is certain that the intention can be carried out, nothing would be so good for him as hope. Do you not say so, sister?"
"Indeed I do," she replied. "I believe that he would be a very different boy if he were relieved from the misery he suffers at home and requites by mischievous pranks. I do not say he will or can be a good lad at once, but if your honour can have patience with him, I do believe there is that in him which can be turned to good. If he only can believe in the better nature and higher guidings, and pray, and not give himself up in despair." She had tears in her eyes.
"My good madam, I can believe it all," said Sir Peregrine. "Short of being supposed an elf, I have gone through the same, and it was not my good father's fault that I did not loathe the very name of preaching or prayer. But I had a mother who knew how to deal with me, whereas this poor child's mother, I am sure, believes in her secret heart that he is none of hers, though she has enough sense not to dare to avow it. Alas! I cannot give the boy the woman's tending by which you have already wrought so much," and Mrs. Woodford remembered to have heard that his wife had died at Rotterdam, "but I can treat him like a human being, I hope indeed as a son; and, at any rate, there will be no one to remind him of these old wives' tales."
"I can only say that I am heartily rejoiced," said Mrs. Woodford.
So Peregrine was summoned, and shambled up, his eyes showing that he expected a trying interview, and, moreover, with a certain twinkle of mischief or perverseness in their corners.
"Soh! my lad, we ought to be better acquainted," said the uncle. "D'ye know what our name means?"
"Peregrinus, a vagabond," responded the boy.
"Eh! The translation may be correct, but 'tis scarce the most complimentary. I wonder now if you, like me, were born on a Wednesday. 'Wednesday's child has far to go.'"
"No. I was born on a Sunday, and if to see goblins and oafs--"
"Nay, I read it, 'Sunday's child is full of grace.'"
Peregrine's mouth twitched ironically, but his uncle continued, "Look you, my boy, what say you to fulfilling the augury of your name with me. His Majesty has ordered me off again to represent the British name to the Elector of Brandenburg, and I have a mind to carry you with me. What do you say?"
If any one expected Peregrine to be overjoyed his demeanour was disappointing. He shuffled with his feet, and after two or three "Ehs?" from his uncle, he mumbled, "I don't care," and then shrank together, as one prepared for the stripe with the riding-whip which such a rude answer merited: but his uncle had, as a diplomate, learnt a good deal of patience, and he said, "Ha! don't care to leave home and brothers. Eh?"
Peregrine's chin went down, and there was no answer; his hair dropped over his heavy brow.
"See, boy, this is no jest," said his uncle. "You are too big to be told that 'I'll put you into my pocket and carry you off.' I am in earnest."
Peregrine looked up, and with one sudden flash surveyed his uncle. His lips trembled, but he did not speak.
"It is sudden," said the knight to the other two. "See, boy, I am not about to take you away with me now. In a week or ten days' time I start for London; and there we will fit you out for Konigsberg or Berlin, and I trust we shall make a man of you, and a good man. Your tutor tells me you have excellent parts, and I mean that you shall do me credit."
Dr. Woodford could not help telling the lad that he ought to thank his uncle, whereat he scowled; but Sir Peregrine said, "He is not ready for that yet. Wait till he feels he has something to thank me for."
So Peregrine was dismissed, and his friends exclaimed with some wonder and annoyance that the boy who had been willing to be decapitated to put an end to his wretchedness, should be so reluctant to accept such an offer, but Sir Peregrine only laughed, and said--
"The lad has pith in him! I like him better than if he came like a spaniel to my foot. But I will say no more till I fully have my brother's consent. No one knows what crooks there may be in folks' minds."
He took his leave, and presently Mrs. Woodford had a fresh surprise. She found this strange boy lying flat on the grass, sobbing as if his heart would break, and when she tried to soothe and comfort him it was very hard to get a word from him; but at last, as she asked, "And does it grieve you so much to leave home?" the answer was--
"No, no! not home!"
"What is it, then? What are you sorry to leave?"
"Oh, you don't know! you and Anne--the only ones that ever were good to me--and drove away--it."
"Nay, my dear boy. Your uncle means to be good to you."
"No, no. No one ever will be like you and Anne. Oh, let me stay with you, or they will have me at last!"
He was too much shaken, in his still half-recovered state, by the events of these last days, to be reasoned with. Mrs. Woodford was afraid he would work himself into delirium, and could only soothe him into a calmer state. She found from Anne that the children had some vague hopes of his being allowed to remain at Portchester, and that this was the ground of his disappointment, since he seemed to be attaching himself to them as the first who had ever touched his heart or opened to him a gleam of better things.
By the next day, however, he was in a quieter and more reasonable state, and Mrs. Woodford was able to have a long talk with him. She represented that the difference of opinions made it almost certain that his father would never consent to his remaining under her roof, and that even if this were possible, Portchester was far too much infected with the folly from which he had suffered so much; and his uncle would take care that no one he would meet should ever hear of it.
"There's little good in that," said the boy moodily. "I'm a thing they'll jibe at and bait any way."
"I do not see that, if you take pains with yourself. Your uncle said you showed blood and breeding, and when you are better dressed, and with him, no one will dare to mock his Excellency's nephew. Depend upon it, Peregrine, this is the fresh start that you need."
"If you were there--"
"My boy, you must not ask for what is impossible. You must learn to conquer in God's strength, not mine."
All, however, that passed may not here be narrated, and it apparently left that wayward spirit unconvinced. Nevertheless, when on the second day Major Oakshott himself came over with his brother, and informed Peregrine that his uncle was good enough to undertake the charge of him, and to see that he was bred up in godly ways in a Protestant land, free from prelacy and superstition, the boy seemed reconciled to his fate. Major Oakshott spoke more kindly than usual to him, being free from fresh irritation at his misdemeanours; but even thus there was a contrast with the gentler, more persuasive tones of the diplomatist, and no doubt this tended to increase Peregrine's willingness to be thus handed over.
The next question was whether he should go home first, but both the uncle and the friends were averse to his remaining there, amid the unavoidable gossip and chatter of the household, and it was therefore decided that he should only ride over with Dr. Woodford for an hour or two to take leave of his mother and brothers.
This settled, Mrs. Woodford found him much easier to deal with. He had really, through his midnight invocation of the fairies, obtained an opening into a new world, and he was ready to believe that with no one to twit him with being a changeling or worse, he could avoid perpetual disgrace and punishment and live at peace. Nor was he unwilling to promise Mrs. Woodford to say daily, and especially when tempted, one or two brief collects and ejaculations which she selected to teach him, as being as unlike as possible to the long extempore exercises which had made him hate the very name of prayer. The Doctor gave him a Greek Testament, as being least connected with unpleasant recollections.
"And," entreated Peregrine humbly, in a low voice to Mrs. Woodford on his last Sunday evening, "may I not have something of yours, to lay hold of, and remember you if--when--the evil spirit tries to lay hold of me again?"
She would fain have given him a prayer-book, but she knew that would be treason to his father, and with tears in her eyes and something of a pang, she gave him a tiny miniature of herself, which had been her husband's companion at sea, and hung it round his neck with the chain of her own hair that had always held it.
"It will always keep my heart warm," said Peregrine, as he hid it under his vest. There was a shade of disappointment on Anne's face when he showed it to her, for she had almost deemed it her own.
"Never mind, Anne," he said; "I am coming back a knight like my uncle to marry you, and then it will be yours again."
"I--I'm not going to wed you--I have another sweetheart," added Anne in haste, lest he should think she scorned him.
"Oh, that lubberly Charles Archfield! No fear of him. He is promised long ago to some little babe of quality in London. You may whistle for him. So you'd better wait for me."
"It is not true. You only say it to plague me."
"It's as true as Gospel! I heard Sir Philip telling one of the big black gowns one day in the Close, when I was sitting up in a tree overhead, how they had fixed a marriage between his son and his old friend's daughter, who would have ever so many estates. So I'd give that"--snapping his fingers--"for your chances of being my Lady Archfield in the salt mud at Fareham."
"I shall ask Lucy. It is not kind of you, Perry, when you are just going away."
"Come, come, don't cry, Anne."
"But I knew Charley ever so long first, and--"
"Oh, yes. Maids always like straight, comely, dull fellows, I know that. But as you can't have Charles Archfield, I mean to have you, Anne--for I shall look to you as the only one as can ever make a good man of me! Ay--your mother--I'd wed her if I could, but as I can't, I mean to have you, Anne Woodford."
"I don't mean to have you! I shall go to Court, and marry some noble earl or gentleman! Why do you laugh and make that face, Peregrine? you know my father was almost a knight--"
"Nobody is long with you without knowing that!" retorted Peregrine; "but a miss is as good as a mile, and you will find the earls and the lords will think so, and be fain to take the crooked stick at last!"
Mistress Anne tossed her head--and Peregrine returned a grimace. Nevertheless they parted with a kiss, and for some time the thought of Peregrine haunted the little girl with a strange, fateful feeling, between aversion and attraction, which wore off, as a folly of her childhood, with her growth in years.
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