Chapter III madonna’s childhood
Chapter III madonna’s childhood
- Wilkie Collins
In the autumn of 1838, Mrs Blyth’s malady had for some time past assumed the permanent form from which it seldom afterwards varied. She now suffered little actual pain, except when she quitted a recumbent posture. But the general disorganization produced by almost exclusive confinement to one position, had, even at this early period, begun to work sad changes in her personal appearance. She suffered that mortifying misfortune just as bravely and resignedly as she had suffered the first great calamity of her incurable disorder. Valentine never showed that he thought her altered; Valentine’s kindness was just as affectionate and as constant as it had ever been in the happier days of their marriage. So encouraged, Lavinia had the heart to bear all burdens patiently; and could find sources of happiness for herself, where others could discover nothing but causes for grief.
The room she inhabited was already, through Valentine’s self-denying industry, better furnished than any other room in the house; but was far from presenting the same appearance of luxury and completeness to which it attained in the course of after-years.
The charming maple-wood and ivory bookcase, with the prettily-bound volumes ranged in such bright regularity along its shelves, was there certainly, as early as the autumn of 1838. It would not, however, at that time have formed part of the furniture of Mrs Blyth’s room, if her husband had not provided himself with the means of paying for it, p. 54↵by accepting a certain professional invitation to the country, which he knew before, and would enable him to face the terrors of the upholsterer’s bill.
The invitation in question had been sent to him by a clerical friend, the Reverend Doctor Joyce, Rector of St Judy’s, in the large agricultural town of Rubbleford. Valentine had produced a water-colour drawing of one of the Doctor’s babies, when the family at the Rectory were in London for a season, and this drawing had been shown to all the neighbours by the worthy clergyman on his return. Now, although Mr Blyth was not over-successful in the adult department of portrait-art, he was invariably victorious in the infant department. He painted all babies on one ingenious plan; giving them the roundest eyes, the chubbiest red cheeks, the most serenely good-humoured smiles, and the neatest and whitest caps ever seen on paper. If fathers and their male friends rarely appreciated the fidelity of his likenesses, mothers and nurses invariably made amends for their want of taste. It followed, therefore, almost as a matter of course, that the local exhibition of the Doctor’s drawing must bring offers of long-clothes-portrait employment to Valentine. Three resident families decided immediately to have portraits of their babies, if the painter would only travel to their houses to take the likenesses. A bachelor sporting squire in the neighbourhood also volunteered a commission of another sort. This gentleman arrived (by a logical process which it is hopeless to think of tracing) at the conclusion, that a man who was great at babies, must necessarily be marvellous at horses; and determined, in consequence, that Valentine should paint his celebrated cover-hack.* In writing to inform his friend of these offers, Doctor Joyce added another professional order on his own account, by way of appropriate conclusion to his letter. Here, then, were five commissions, which would produce enough—cheaply as Valentine worked—to pay, not only for the new bookcase, but for the books to put in it when it came home.
Having left his wife in charge of two of her sisters, who were forbidden to leave the house till his return, Mr Blyth p. 55↵started for the Rectory; and once there, set to work on the babies with a zeal and good-humour which straightway won the hearts of mothers and nurses, and made him a great Rubbleford reputation in the course of a few days. Having done the babies to admiration, he next undertook the bachelor squire’s hack. Here he had some trouble. The sporting gentleman would look over him while he painted; would bewilder him with the pedigree of the horse; would have the animal done in the most unpicturesque view; and sternly forbade all introduction of ‘tone’, ‘light and shade’, or purely artistic embellishment of any kind, in any part of the canvas. In short, the squire wanted a sign-board instead of a picture, and he at last got what he wanted to his heart’s content.
One evening, while Valentine—still deeply immersed in the difficulties of depicting the cover-hack—was returning to the Rectory, after a day’s work at the Squire’s house, his attention was suddenly attracted in the high street of Rubbleford, by a flaming placard pasted up on a dead wall opposite the market-house.
He immediately joined the crowd of rustics congregated around the many-coloured and magnificent sheet of paper, and read at the top of it, in huge blue letters:—‘Jubber’s Circus. The Eighth Wonder of the World’. After this came some small print, which nobody lost any time in noticing. But below the small print appeared a perfect galaxy of fancifully shaped scarlet letters, which fascinated all eyes, and informed the public that the equestrian company included ‘Miss Florinda Beverley, known,’ (here the letters turned suddenly green) ‘wherever the English language was known, as The Amazonian Empress of Equitation.’ This announcement was followed by the names of inferior members of the company; by a programme of the evening’s entertainments; by testimonials extracted from the provincial press; by illustrations of gentlemen with lusty calves and spangled drawers, and of ladies with smiling faces, shameless petticoats, and pirouetting legs. These illustrations, and the particulars which preceded them were carefully digested by all Mr Blyth’s p. 56↵neighbours; but Mr Blyth himself passed them over unnoticed. His eye had been caught by something at the bottom of the placard, which instantly absorbed his whole attention.
In this place the red letters appeared again, and formed the following words and marks of admiration:—
The Mysterious Foundling!
Aged Ten Years!!
Totally Deaf And Dumb!!!
Underneath came an explanation of what the red letters referred to, occupying no less than three paragraphs of stumpy small print, every word of which Valentine eagerly devoured. This is what he read:—
‘Mr Jubber, as proprietor of the renowned Circus, has the honour of informing the nobility, gentry, and public, that the above wonderful Deaf and Dumb Female Child will appear between the first and second parts of the evening’s performances. Mr J. has taken the liberty of entitling this Marvel of Nature, The Mysterious Foundling; no one knowing who her father is, and her mother having died soon after her birth, leaving her in charge of the Equestrian Company, who have been fond parents and careful guardians to her ever since.
‘She was originally celebrated in the annals of Jubber’s Circus, or Eighth Wonder of the World, as The Hurricane Child of the Desert; having appeared in that character, whirled aloft at the age of seven years in the hand of Muley Ben Hassan, the renowned Scourer of Sahara, in his daring act of Equitation, as exhibited to the terror of all England, in Jubber’s Circus. At that time she had her hearing and speech quite perfect. But Mr J. deeply regrets to state that a terrific accident happened to her soon afterwards. Through no fault on the part of The Scourer (who, overcome by his feelings at the result of the above-mentioned frightful accident, has gone back to his native wilds a moody and broken-hearted man), she slipped from his hand while the three horses bestrode by the fiery but humane p. 57↵Arab were going at a gallop, and fell, shocking to relate, outside the Ring, on the boarded floor of the Circus. She was supposed to be dead. Mr Jubber instantly secured the inestimable assistance of the Faculty, who found that she was still alive, and set her arm, which had been broken. It was only afterwards discovered that she had utterly lost her sense of hearing. To use the emphatic language of the medical gentlemen (who all spoke with tears in their eyes), she had been struck stone deaf by the shock. Under these melancholy circumstances, it was found that the faculty of speech soon failed her altogether; and she is now therefore Totally Deaf and Dumb—but Mr J. rejoices to say, quite cheerful and in good health notwithstanding.
‘Mr Jubber being himself the father of a family, ventures to think that these little particulars may prove of some interest to an Intelligent, a Sympathetic, and a Benevolent Public. He will simply allude, in conclusion, to the performances of the Mysterious Foundling, as exhibiting perfection hitherto unparalleled in the Art of Legerdemain, with wonders of untraceable intricacy on the cards, originally the result of abstruse calculations made by that renowned Algebraist, Mohammed Engedi, extending over a period of ten years, dating from the year 1215 of the Arab Chronology. More than this Mr Jubber will not venture to mention, for “Seeing is Believing”, and the Mysterious Foundling must be seen to be believed. For prices of admission consult bottom of bill.’
Mr Blyth read this grotesquely shocking narrative with sentiments which were anything rather than complimentary to the taste, the delicacy, and the humanity of the fluent Mr Jubber. He consulted the bottom of the bill, however, as requested; and ascertained what were the prices of admission—then glanced at the top, and observed that the first performance was fixed for that very evening—looked about him absently for a minute or two—and resolved to be present at it.
Most assuredly, Valentine’s resolution did not proceed from that dastard insensibility to all decent respect for p. 58↵human suffering which could feast itself on the spectacle of calamity paraded for hire, in the person of a deaf and dumb child of ten years old. His motives for going to the circus were stained by no trace of such degradation as this. But what were they then? That question he himself could not have answered: it was a common predicament with him not to know his own motives, generally from not inquiring into them. There are men who run breathlessly—men who walk cautiously—and men who saunter easily through the journey of life. Valentine belonged to the latter class; and, like the rest of his order, often strayed down a new turning, without being able to realize at the time what purpose it was which first took him that way. Our destinies shape the future for us out of strange materials: a travelling circus sufficed them, in the first instance, to shape a new future for Mr Blyth.
He first went on to the Rectory to tell them where he was going, and to get a cup of tea, and then hurried off to the circus, in a field outside the town.
The performance had begun some time when he got in. The Amazonian Empress (known otherwise as Miss Florinda Beverley) was dancing voluptuously on the back of a cantering piebald horse with a Roman nose. Round and round careered the Empress, beating time on the saddle with her imperial legs to the tune of ‘Let the Toast be Dear Woman’, played with intense feeling by the band. Suddenly the melody changed to ‘See the Conquering Hero comes’; the piebald horse increased his speed; the Empress raised a flag in one hand, and a javelin in the other, and began slaying invisible enemies in the empty air, at full (circus) gallop. The result on the audience was prodigious; Mr Blyth alone sat unmoved. Miss Florinda Beverley was not even a good model to draw legs from, in the estimation of this anti-Amazonian painter!
When the Empress was succeeded by a Spanish Guerilla, who robbed, murdered, danced, caroused, and made love on the back of a cream-coloured horse—and when the Guerilla was followed by a clown who performed superhuman contortions, and made jokes by the yard, without p. 59↵the slightest appearance of intellectual effort—still Mr Blyth exhibited ho demonstration of astonishment or pleasure. It was only when a bell rang between the first and second parts of the performance, and the band struck up ‘Gentle Zitella’, that he showed any symptoms of animation. Then he suddenly rose; and, moving down to a bench close against the low partition which separated the ring from the audience, fixed his eyes intently on a doorway opposite to him, overhung by a frowsy red curtain with a tinsel border.
From this doorway there now appeared Mr Jubber himself, clothed in white trowsers with a gold stripe, and a green jacket with military epaulettes. He had big, bold eyes, a dyed moustache, great fat, flabby cheeks, long hair parted in the middle, a turn-down collar with a rose-coloured handkerchief; and was, in every respect, the most atrocious looking stage vagabond that ever painted a blackguard face. He led with him, holding her hand, the little deaf and dumb girl, whose misfortune he had advertised to the whole population of Rubbleford.
The face and manner of the child, as she walked into the centre of the circus, and made her innocent curtsey and kissed her hand, went to the hearts of the whole audience in an instant. They greeted her with such a burst of applause as might have frightened a grown actress. But not a note from those cheering voices, not a breath of sound from those loudly clapping hands could reach her; she could see that they were welcoming her kindly, and that was all!
When the applause had subsided, Mr Jubber asked for the loan of a handkerchief from one of the ladies present, and ostentatiously bandaged the child’s eyes. He then lifted her upon the broad low wall which encircled the ring, and walked her round a little way (beginning from the door through which he had entered), inviting the spectators to test her total deafness by clapping their hands, shouting, or making any loud noise they pleased close at her ear. ‘You might fire off a cannon, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr Jubber, ‘and it wouldn’t make her start till after she’d smelt the smoke!’
p. 60↵To the credit of the Rubbleford audience, the majority of them declihed making any practical experiments to test the poor child’s utter deafness. The women set the example of forbearance, by entreating that the handkerchief might be taken off, so that they might see her pretty eyes again. This was done at once, and she began to perform her conjuring tricks with Mr Jubber and one of the ring-keepers on either side of her, officiating as assistants. These tricks, in themselves, were of the simplest and commonest kind; and derived all their attraction from the child’s innocently earnest manner of exhibiting them, and from the novelty to the audience of communicating with her only by writing on a slate. They never tired of scrawling questions, of saying ‘poor little thing!’ and of kissing her whenever they could get the opportunity, while she slowly went round the circus. ‘Deaf and dumb! ah, dear, dear, deaf and dumb!’ was the general murmur of sympathy which greeted her from each new group, as she advanced; Mr Jubber invariably adding with a smile: ‘And as you see, ladies and gentlemen, in excellent health and spirits, notwithstanding: as hearty and happy, I pledge you my sacred word of honour, as the very best of us!’
While she was thus delighting the spectators on one side of the circus, how were the spectators on the other side, whose places she had not yet reached, contriving to amuse themselves?
From the moment of the little girl’s first appearance, ample recreation had been unconsciously provided for them by a tall, stout, and florid stranger, who appeared suddenly to lose his senses the moment he set eyes on the deaf and dumb child. This gentleman jumped up and sat down again excitably a dozen times in a minute; constantly apologizing on being called to order, and constantly repeating the offence the moment afterwards. Mad and mysterious words, never heard before in Rubbleford, poured from his lips. ‘Devotional beauty’, ‘Fra Angelico’s angels’, ‘Giotto and the cherubs’, ‘Enough to bring the divine Raphael down from heaven to paint her.’ Such were a few fragments of the mad gentleman’s incoherent mutterings, as they p. 61↵reached his neighbours’ ears. The amusement they yielded was soon wrought to its climax by a joke from an attorney’s clerk, who suggested that this queer man, with the rosy face, must certainly be the long-lost father of the ‘Mysterious Foundling’! Great gratification was consequently anticipated from what might take place when the child arrived opposite the bench occupied by the excitable stranger.
Slowly, slowly, the little light figure went round upon the broad partition wall of the ring, until it came near, very near, to the place where Valentine was sitting.
Ah, woful sight! so lovely, yet so piteous to look on! Shall she never hear kindly human voices, the song of birds, the pleasant murmur of the trees again? Are all the sweet sounds that sing of happiness to childhood, silent for ever to her? From those fresh, rosy lips shall no glad words pour forth, when she runs and plays in the sunshine? Shall the clear, laughing tones be hushed always? the young, tender life be for ever a speechless thing, shut up in dumbness from the free world of voices? Oh! Angel of judgment! hast thou snatched her hearing and her speech from this little child, to abandon her in helpless affliction to such profanation as she now undergoes? Oh, Spirit of mercy! how long thy white-winged feet have tarried on their way to this innocent sufferer, to this lost lamb that cannot cry to the fold for help! Lead, ah, lead her tenderly to such shelter as she has never yet found for herself! Guide her, pure as she is now, from this tainted place to pleasant pastures, where the sunshine of human kindness shall be clouded no more, and Love and Pity shall temper every wind that blows over her with the gentleness of perpetual spring!
Slowly, slowly, the light figure went round the great circle of gazers, ministering obediently to their pleasure, waiting patiently till their curiosity was satisfied. And now, her weary pilgrimage was well nigh over for the night. She had arrived at the last group of spectators who had yet to see what she looked like close, and what tricks she could exhibit with her cards.
She stopped exactly opposite to Valentine; and when she looked up, she looked on him alone.
p. 62↵Was there something in the eager sympathy of his eyes as they met hers, which spoke to the little lonely heart in the sole language that could ever reach it? Did the child, with the quick instinct of the deaf and dumb, read his compassionate disposition, his pity and longing to help her, in his expression at that moment? It might have been so. Her pretty lips smiled on him as they had smiled on no one else that night; and when she held out some cards to be chosen from, she left unnoticed the eager hands extended on either side of her, and presented them to Valentine only.
He saw the small fingers trembling as they held the cards; he saw the delicate little shoulders and the poor frail neck and chest bedizened with tawdry mock jewelry and spangles; he saw the innocent young face, whose pure beauty no soil of stage paint could disfigure, with the smile still on the parted lips, but with a patient forlomness in the sad blue eyes, as if the seeing-sense that was left, mourned always for the hearing and speaking senses that were gone—he marked all these things in an instant, and felt that his heart was sinking as he looked. A dimness stole over his sight; a suffocating sensation oppressed his breathing; the lights in the circus danced and mingled together; he bent down over the child’s hand, and took it in his own; twice kissed it fervently; then, to the utter amazement of the laughing crowd about him, rose up suddenly, and forced his way out as if he had been flying for his life.
There was a momentary confusion among the audience. But Mr Jubber was too old an adept in stage-business of all kinds not to know how to stop the growing tumult directly, and turn it into universal applause.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he cried, with a deep theatrical quiver in his voice—‘I implore you to be seated, and to excuse the conduct of the party who has just absented himself. The talent of the Mysterious Foundling has overcome people in that way in every town of England. Do I err in believing that a Rubbleford audience can make kind allowances for their weaker fellow-creatures? Thanks, a thousand thanks in the name of this darling and talented child, for your cordial, your generous, your affectionate, your inestimable p. 63↵reception of her exertions to-night!’ With this peroration Mr Jubber took his pupil out of the ring, amid the most vehement cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs. He was too much excited by his triumph to notice that the child, as she walked after him, looked wistfully to the last in the direction by which Valentine had gone out.
‘The public like excitement,’ soliloquized Mr Jubber, as he disappeared behind the red curtain. ‘I must have all this in the bills to-morrow. It’s safe to draw at least thirty shillings extra into the house at night.’
In the meantime, Valentine, after some blundering at wrong doors, at last found his way out of the circus, and stood alone on the cool grass, in the cloudless autumn moonlight. He struck his stick violently on the ground, which at that moment represented to him the head of Mr Jubber; and was about to return straight to the Rectory, when he heard a breathless voice behind him, calling:—‘Stop, sir! oh, do please stop for one minute!’
He turned round. A buxom woman in a tawdry and tattered gown was running towards him as fast as her natural impediments to quick progression would permit.
‘Please, sir,’ she cried—‘Please, sir, wasn’t you the gentleman that was taken queer at seeing our little Foundling? I was peeping through the red curtain, sir, just at the time.’
Instead of answering the question, Valentine instantly began to rhapsodize about the child’s face.
‘Oh, sir! if you know anything about her,’ interposed the woman, ‘for God’s sake don’t scruple to tell it to me! I’m only Mrs Peckover, sir, the wife of Jemmy Peckover, the clown, that you saw in the circus to-night. But I took and nursed the little thing by her poor mother’s own wish; and ever since that time—’
‘My dear, good soul,’ said Mr Blyth, ‘I know nothing of the poor little creature. I only wish from the bottom of my heart that I could do something to help her and make her happy. If Lavvie and I had had such an angel of a child as that,’ continued Valentine, clasping his hands together fervently, ‘deaf and dumb as she is, we should have thanked God for her every day of our lives!’
‘Mrs Peckover! Hullo there. Peck! where are you?’ roared a stem voice from the stable department of the circus, just as the clown’s wife seemed about to speak again.
Mrs Peckover started, curtseyed, and, without uttering another word, went back even faster than she had come out. Valentine looked after her intently, but made no attempt to follow: he was thinking too much of the child to think of that. When he moved again, it was to return to the Rectory.
He penetrated at once into the library, where Doctor Joyce was spelling over the ‘Rubbleford Mercury’, while Mrs Joyce sat opposite to him, knitting a fancy jacket for her youngest but one. He was hardly inside the door before he began to expatiate in the wildest manner on the subject of the beautiful deaf and dumb girl. If ever man was in love with a child at first sight, he was that man. As an artist, as a gentleman of refined tastes, and as the softest-hearted of male human beings, in all three capacities, he was enslaved by that little innocent, sad face. He made the doctor’s head whirl again; he fairly stopped Mrs Joyce’s progress with the fancy jacket, as he sang the child’s praises, and compared her face to every angel’s face that had ever been painted, from the days of Giotto to the present time. At last, when he had fairly exhausted his hearers and himself, he dashed abruptly out of the room, to cool down his excitement by a moonlight walk in the Rectory garden.
‘What a very odd man he is!’ said Mrs Joyce, taking up a dropped stitch in the fancy jacket.
‘Valentine, my love, is the best creature in the world,’ rejoined the doctor, folding up the Rubbleford Mercury, and directing it for the post; ‘but, as I often used to tell his poor father (who never would believe me), a little cracked. I’ve known him go on in this way about children before—though I must own, not quite so wildly, perhaps, as he talked just now.’
‘Do you think he’ll do anything imprudent about the child? Poor thing! I’m sure I pity her as heartily as anybody can.’
p. 65↵‘I don’t presume to think,’ answered the doctor, calmly pressing the blotting-paper over the address he had just written. ‘Valentine is one of those people who defy all conjecture. No one can say what he will do, or what he won’t. A man who cannot resist an application for shelter and supper from any stray cur who wags his tail at him in the street; a man who blindly believes in the troubles of begging-letter impostors; a man whom I myself caught, last time he was down here, playing at marbles with three of my charity-boys in the street, and promising to treat them to hardbake* and ginger-beer afterwards, is—in short, is not a man whose actions it is possible to speculate on.’
Here the door opened, and Mr Blyth’s head was popped in, surmounted by a ragged straw hat with a sky-blue ribbon round it. ‘Doctor,’ said Valentine, ‘may I ask an excellent woman, with whom I have made acquaintance, to bring the child here to-morrow morning for you and Mrs Joyce to see?’
‘Certainly,’ said the good-humoured rector, laughing. ‘The child by all means, and the excellent woman too.’
‘Not if it’s Miss Florinda Beverley!’ interposed Mrs Joyce (who had read the Circus placard). ‘Florinda, indeed! Jezebel would be a better name for her!’
‘My dear Madam, it isn’t Florinda,’ cried Valentine, eagerly. ‘I quite agree with you; her name ought to be Jezebel. And, what’s worse, her legs are out of drawing.’
‘Mr Blyth!!!’ exclaimed Mrs Joyce, indignant at this professional criticism on Jezebel’s legs.
‘Why don’t you tell us at once who the excellent woman is?’ cried the doctor, secretly tickled by the allusion which had shocked his wife.
‘Her name’s Peckover,’ said Valentine; ‘she’s a respectable married woman; she doesn’t ride in the circus at all; and she nursed the poor child by her mother’s own wish.’
‘We shall be delighted to see her to-morrow,’ said the warm-hearted rector—‘or, no—stop! Not to-morrow; I shall be out. The day after. Cake and cowslip wine for the deaf and dumb child at twelve o’clock—eh, my dear?’
‘That’s right! God bless you! you’re always kindness itself,’ cried Valentine; ‘I’ll find out Mrs Peckover, and let p. 66↵her know. Not a wink of sleep for me to-night—never mind!’ Here Valentine suddenly shut the door, then as suddenly opened it again, and added, ‘I mean to finish that infernal horse-picture to-morrow, and go to the circus again in the evening.’ With these words he vanished; and they heard him soon afterwards whistling his favourite ‘Drops of Brandy’, in the Rectory garden.
‘Cracked! cracked!’ cried the doctor. ‘Dear old Valentine!’
‘I’m afraid his principles are very loose,’ said Mrs Joyce, whose thoughts still ran on the unlucky professional allusion to Jezebel’s legs.
The next morning, when Mr Blyth presented himself at the stables, and went on with the portrait of the cover-hack, the squire had no longer the slightest reason to complain of the painter’s desire to combine in his work picturesqueness of effect with accuracy of resemblance. Valentine argued no longer about introducing ‘light and shade’, or ‘keeping the background subdued in tone’. His thoughts were all with the deaf and dumb child and Mrs Peckover; and he smudged away recklessly, just as he was told, without once uttering so much as a word of protest. By the evening he had concluded his labour. The squire said it was one of the best portraits of a horse that had ever been taken: to which piece of criticism the writer of the present narrative is bound in common candour to add, that it was also the very worst picture that Mr Blyth had ever painted.
On returning to Rubbleford, Valentine proceeded at once to the circus; placing himself, as nearly as he could, in the same position which he had occupied the night before.
The child was again applauded by the whole audience, and again went through her performance intelligently and gracefully, until she approached the place where Valentine was standing. She started as she recognized his face, and made a step forward to get nearer to him; but was stopped by Mr Jubber, who saw that the people immediately in front of her were holding out their hands to write on her slate, and have her cards dealt round to them in their turn. The child’s attention appeared to be distracted by seeing the p. 67↵stranger again who had kissed her hand so fervently—she began to look confused—and ended by committing an open and most palpable blunder in the very first trick that she performed.
The spectators good-naturedly laughed, and some of them wrote on her slate, ‘Try again, little girl.’ Mr Jubber made an apology, saying that the extreme enthusiasm of the reception accorded to his pupil had shaken her nerves; and then signed to her, with a benevolent smile, but with a very sinister expression in his eyes, to try another trick. She succeeded in this; but still showed so much hesitation, that Mr Jubber, fearing another failure, took her away with him while there was a chance of making a creditable exit.
As she was led across the ring, the child looked intently at Valentine.
There was terror in her eyes—terror palpable enough to be remarked by some of the careless people near Mr Blyth. ‘Poor little thing! she seems frightened at the man in the fine green jacket,’ said one. ‘And not without cause, I dare say,’ added another. ‘You don’t mean that he could ever be brute enough to ill use a child like that?—it’s impossible!’ cried a third.
At this moment the clown entered the ring. The instant before he shouted the well-known ‘Here we are!’ Valentine thought he heard a strange cry behind the red curtain. He was not certain about it, but the mere doubt made his blood run chill. He listened for a minute anxiously. There was no chance now, however, for testing the correctness of his suspicion. The band had struck up a noisy jig tune, and the clown was capering and tumbling wonderfully, amid roars of laughter.
‘This may be my fault,’ thought Valentine. ‘This! What?’ He was afraid to pursue that inquiry. His ruddy face suddenly turned pale; and he left the circus, determined to find out what was really going on behind the red curtain.
He walked round the outside of the building, wasting some time before he found a door to apply at for admission. At last he came to a sort of a passage, with some tattered horse-cloths hanging over its outer entrance.
Mr Blyth took out half-a-crown. ‘I want to see the deaf and dumb child directly!’
‘Oh, all right! go in,’ muttered the lad, pocketing the money greedily.
Valentine hastily entered the passage. As soon as he was inside, a sound reached his ears at which his heart sickened and turned faint. No words can describe it in all the horror of its helplessness—it was the moan of pain from a dumb human creature.
He thrust aside a curtain, and stood in a filthy place, partitioned off from the stables on one side, and the circus on the other, with canvas and old boards. There, on a wooden stool, sat the woman who had accosted him the night before, crying, and soothing the child, who lay shuddering on her bosom. The sobs of the clown’s wife mingled with the inarticulate wailing, so low, yet so awful to hear; and both sounds were audible with a fearful, unnatural distinctness, through the merry melody of the jig, and the peals of hearty laughter from the audience in the circus.
‘Oh, my God!’ cried Valentine, horror-struck at what he heard, ‘stop her! don’t let her moan in that way!’
The woman started from her seat, and put the child down, then recognized Mr Blyth and rushed up to him.
‘Hush!’ she whispered eagerly, ‘don’t call out like that! The villain, the brutal, heartless villain is somewhere about the stables. If he hears you, he’ll come in and beat her again.—Oh, hush! hush, for God’s sake! It’s true he beat her—the cowardly, hellish brute!—only for making that one little mistake with the cards. No! no! no! don’t speak out so loud, or you’ll ruin us. How did you ever get in here?—Oh! you must be quiet! There, sit down.—Hark! I’m sure he’s coming! Oh! go away—go away!’
She tried to pull Valentine out of the chair into which she had thrust him but the instant before. He seized tight hold of her hand and refused to move. If Mr Jubber had come in at that moment, he would have been thrashed within an inch of his life.
‘I can’t go yet—I’ll promise only to whisper—you must listen to me,’ said Mr Blyth, pale and panting for breath; ‘I mean to prevent this from happening again—don’t speak!—I’ll take that injured, beautiful, patient little angel away from this villainous place: I will, if I go before a magistrate!’
The woman stopped him by pointing suddenly to the child.
She had put back the handkerchief, and was approaching him. She came close and laid one hand on his knee, and timidly raised the other as high as she could towards his neck. Standing so, she looked up quietly into his face. The pretty lips tried hard to smile once more; but they only trembled for an instant, and then closed again. The clear, soft eyes, still dim with tears, sought his with an innocent gaze of inquiry and wonder. At that moment, the expression of the sad and lovely little face seemed to say—‘You look as if you wanted to be kind to me; I wish you could find out some way of telling me of it.’
Valentine’s heart told him what was the only way. He caught her up in his arms, and half smothered her with kisses. The frail, childish hands rose trembling, and clasped themselves gently round his neck; and the fair head drooped lower and lower, wearily, until it lay on his shoulder.
The clown’s wife turned away her face, desperately stifling with both hands the sobs that were beginning to burst from her afresh. She whispered, ‘Oh, go, sir,—pray go! Some of the riders will be in here directly; you’ll get us into dreadful trouble!’
Valentine rose, still holding the child in his arms. ‘I’ll go if you promise me——’
‘I’ll promise you anything, sir!’
‘You know the Rectory! Doctor Joyce’s—the clergyman—my kind friend—’
‘Mary! Her name’s Mary!’ Valentine drew back into a comer, and began kissing the child again.
‘You must be out of your senses to keep on in that way after what I’ve told you!’ cried the clown’s wife, wringing her hands in despair, and trying to drag him out of the comer. ‘Jubber will be in here in another minute. She’ll be beaten again, if you’re caught with her; oh Lord! oh Lord! will nothing make you understand that?’
He understood it only too well, and put the child down instantly, his face turning pale again; his agitation becoming so violent that he never noticed the hand which she held out towards him, or the appealing look that said so plainly and pathetically: ‘I want to bid you good-bye; but I can’t say it as other children can.’ He never observed this; for he had taken Mrs Peckover by the arm, and had drawn her away hurriedly after him into the passage.
The child made no attempt to follow them: she turned aside, and, sitting down in the darkest comer of the miserable place, rested her head against the rough partition which was all that divided her from the laughing audience. Her lips began to tremble again: she took out the handkerchief once more, and hid her face in it.
‘Now, recollect your promise,’ whispered Valentine to the clown’s wife, who was slowly pushing him out all the time he was speaking to her. ‘You must bring little Mary to the Rectory to-morrow morning at twelve o’clock exactly—you must! or I’ll come and fetch her myself—’
‘I’ll bring her, sir, if you’ll only go now. I’ll bring her—I will, as true as I stand here!’
‘If you don’t!’ cried Valentine, still distrustful, and trembling all over with agitation—‘If you don’t!’—
He stopped; for he suddenly felt the open air blowing on his face. The clown’s wife was gone, and nothing remained for him to threaten, but the tattered horse-cloths that hung over the empty doorway.