|Between the stairwell railing and the wall was a cage of latticework. Its dimensions were four by four by twelve. A child could sit on the floor, curl up, or stand. Children, in fact, had and did and would; it was a punishment cage. There was a latticework door with a latch which could be undone by a determined prisoner but had better not be. Inside, the cage was dim on bright days and dark on cloudy ones. No one ever went in it at night.
A little girl was in the cage, now. She was ten, and as small and unyielding as a flatiron. Like a flatiron, she took a while to reach maximum heat, but she held that heat for a good long time.
Regarding her from the bottom up, we see a pair of black high-button boots, white stockings (rather wrinkled at the moment), a yellow dress with white stripes on the yoke, skinny arms truculently crossed, and bedraggled black hair bearing the corpse of a large yellow bow. As for the face, we see such a thrust of chin, a set of mouth, a clench of teeth, a furrow of brow, and a glare of ice-blue eyes as would turn aside armies.
This was Louisa.
Louisa was a cousin of the couple who owned the mansion (and, consequently, the cage). Louisa's parents had gone to Europe and left her in the cousins' care. Another couple had gone with them, leaving their son,
also ten, with the same cousins. It would be nice for the children, the adults had fantasized, to have one another for company.
The boy was stocky, pasty, fair-haired, chinless, and brutish. Ronald.
Ronald, taking Louisa's slowness to anger as passivity, had revelled in having such a convenient victim. He was a master at small cruelties and irritations: undoing bows, pulling hair, dirtying frocks, hiding
toys, carrying tales, pinching, pushing, lying.
Today, Louisa had been stretched out on the floor with a book open in front of her. Ronald had deliberately stepped on the book and twisted his weight; the pages had torn, the spine had cracked, and Louisa had flashed to her feet, boxing an ear here, blacking an eye there, bloodying a nose in between.
Louisa had refused to apologize and make friends, and had been consigned to the cage for the balance of the afternoon.
The October day waned. Ronald was ordered to take Louisa her dinner, which she was to eat in the cage. After Louisa had eaten, Ronald was to release her. Her gratitude for the food and the freedom was
supposed to soften her attitude toward her benefactor.
Ronald, instead, ate Louisa's dinner in front of her, mocking her all the while. Then he fetched a candle and placed it so that the light fell on him but not into the latticework cage.
"It's getting daaaark," Ronald said, with a malevolent grin. "It must
be even darker in there."
Louisa said nothing.
"John Coachman told me that a demon lives in there," Ronald said. "With red eyes. And it eats anybody left there after dark."
In spite of herself, Louisa raised her furious face and glared into the darkness so far above her.
Two points of red began to glow. They grew bright enough to illuminate the twisted curves of a hideous creature, clinging in the upper corner of the cage. With a shriek only Louisa could hear, the creature loosed its grip on the corner and began a terribly slow descent.
Demons can see in the dark. One good look at Louisa, and the demon faltered in its attack.
"Hello," said Louisa, coldly.
"Hello..." said the demon.
"Do you really eat children?"
"Certainly not. I possess them, when I'm offered one wicked enough to house me."
You can't possess me," Louisa said firmly, "because I am good. I never beg off church and I always do my lessons on time."
"Spinach?" asked the demon, without much hope.
"I eat it," said Louisa.
"Who are you talking to?" Ronald asked. "Are you trying to frighten me? You needn't bother, because it won't work."
"You may, however," said Louisa graciously, "have him."
With a shriek only Ronald could hear, the creature of spirit passed through the door and descended on its victim.
After the briefest of struggles, all was over.
"Free! At last! And I have you to thank. Well, turnabout is fair play, as we say down below."
The thing in Ronald's body stood and undid the latch of the cage. As another token of its gratitude, it conjured a dinner, much nicer than the one Ronald had eaten.
Among themselves, the grown-ups all agreed that the thrashing Louisa had given Ronald had done him a world of good, for he was a far more agreeable boy from that day on.