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THE BREWING OF THE STORM.
Time had lavishly added to Mrs. Peckover's size, but had generously taken little or nothing from her in exchange. Her hair had certainly turned grey since the period when Valentine first met her at the circus; but the good-humored face beneath was just as hearty to look at now, as ever it had been in former days. Her cheeks had ruddily expanded; her chin had passed from the double to the triple stage of jovial development--any faint traces of a waist which she might formerly have possessed were utterly obliterated--but it was pleasantly evident, to judge only from the manner of her bustling entry into Mrs. Blyth's room, that her active disposition had lost nothing of its early energy, and could still gaily defy all corporeal obstructions to the very last.
Nodding and smiling at Mr. and Mrs. Blyth, and Zack, till her vast country bonnet trembled aguishly on her head, the good woman advanced, shaking every moveable object in the room, straight to the tea-table, and enfolded Madonna in her capacious arms. The girl's light figure seemed to disappear in a smothering circumambient mass of bonnet ribbons and unintelligible drapery, as Mrs. Peckover saluted her with a rattling fire of kisses, the report of which was audible above the voluble talking of Mr. Blyth and the boisterous laughter of Zack.
"I'll tell you all about how I came here directly, sir; only I couldn't help saying how-d'ye-do in the old way to little Mary to begin with," said Mrs. Peckover apologetically. It had been found impossible to prevail on her to change the familiar name of "little Mary," which she had pronounced so often and so fondly in past years, for the name which had superseded it in Valentine's house. The truth was, that this worthy creature knew nothing whatever about Raphael; and, considering "Madonna" to be an outlandish foreign word intimately connected with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, firmly believed that no respectable Englishwoman ought to compromise her character by attempting to pronounce it.
"I'll tell you, sir--I'll tell you directly why I've come to London," repeated Mrs. Peckover, backing majestically from the tea-table, and rolling round easily on her own axis in the direction of the couch, to ask for the fullest particulars of the state of Mrs. Blyth's health.
"Much better, my good friend--much better," was the cheerful answer; "but do tell us (we are so glad to see you!) how you came to surprise us all in this way?"
"Well, ma'am," began Mrs. Peckover, "it's almost as great a surprise to me to be in London, as it is--Be quiet, young Good-for-Nothing; I won't even shake hands with you if you don't behave yourself!" These last words she addressed to Zack, whose favorite joke it had always been, from the day of their first acquaintance at Valentine's house, to pretend to be violently in love with her. He was now standing with his arms wide open, the toasting-fork in one hand and the muffin he had burnt in the other, trying to look languishing, and entreating Mrs. Peckover to give him a kiss.
"When you know how to toast a muffin properly, p'raps I may give you one," said she, chuckling as triumphantly over her own small retort as if she had been a professed wit. "Do, Mr. Blyth, sir, please to keep him quiet, or I shan't be able to get on with a single word of what I've got to say. Well, you see, ma'am, Doctor Joyce--"
"How is he?" interrupted Valentine, handing Mrs. Peckover a cup of tea.
"He's the best gentleman in the world, sir, but he will have his glass of port after dinner; and the end of it is, he's laid up again with the gout."
"And Mrs. Joyce?"
"Laid up too, sir--it's a dreadful sick house at the Rectory--laid up with the inferlenzer."
"Have any of the children caught the influenza too?" asked Mrs. Blyth. "I hope not."
"No, ma'am, they're all nicely, except the youngest; and it's on account of her--don't you remember her, sir, growing so fast, when you was last at the Rectory?--that I'm up in London.
"Is the child ill?" asked Valentine anxiously. "She's such a picturesque little creature, Lavvie! I long to paint her."
"I'm afraid, sir, she's not fit to be put into a picter now," said Mrs. Peckover. "Mrs. Joyce is in sad trouble about her, because of one of her shoulders which has growed out somehow. The doctor at Rubbleford don't doubt but what it may be got right again; but he said she ought to be shown to some great London doctor as soon as possible. So, neither her papa nor her mamma being able to take her up to her aunt's house, they trusted her to me. As you know, sir, ever since Doctor Joyce got my husband that situation at Rubbleford, I've been about the Rectory, helping with the children and the housekeeping, and all that:--and Miss Lucy being used to me, we come along together in the railroad quite pleasant and comfortable. I was glad enough, you may be sure, of the chance of getting here, after not having seen little Mary for so long. So I just left Miss Lucy at her aunt's, where they were very kind, and wanted me to stop all night. But I told them that, thanks to your goodness, I always had a bed here when I was in London; and I took the cab on, after seeing the little girl safe and comfortable up-stairs. That's the whole story of how I come to surprise you in this way, ma'am,--and now I'll finish my tea."
Having got to the bottom of her cup, and to the end of a muffin amorously presented to her by the incorrigible Zack, Mrs. Peckover had leisure to turn again to Madonna; who, having relieved her of her bonnet and shawl, was now sitting close at her side.
"I didn't think she was looking quite so well as usual, when I first come in," said Mrs. Peckover, patting the girl's cheek with her chubby fingers; "but she seems to have brightened up again now." (This was true: the sad stillness had left Madonna's face, at sight of the friend and mother of her early days.) "Perhaps she's been sticking a little too close to her drawing lately--"
"By the bye, talking of drawings, what's become of my drawing?" cried Zack, suddenly recalled for the first time to the remembrance of Madonna's gift.
"Dear me!" pursued Mrs. Peckover, looking towards the three drawing-boards, which had been placed together round the pedestal of the cast; "are all those little Mary's doings? She's cleverer at it, I suppose, by this time, than ever. Ah, Lord! what an old woman I feel, when I think of the many years ago--"
"Come and look at what she has done to-night," interrupted Valentine, taking Mrs. Peckover by the arm, and pressing it very significantly as he glanced at the part of the table where young Thorpe was sitting.
"My drawing--where's my drawing?" repeated Zack. "Who put it away when tea came in? Oh, there it is, all safe on the book case."
"I congratulate you, sir, on having succeeded at last in remembering that there is such a thing in the world as Madonna's present," said Mrs. Blyth sarcastically.
Zack looked up bewildered from his tea, and asked directly what those words meant.
"Oh, never mind," said Mrs. Blyth in the same tone, "they're not worth explaining. Did you ever hear of a young gentleman who thought more of a plate of muffins than of a lady's gift? I dare say not! I never did. It's too ridiculously improbable to be true, isn't it? There! don't speak to me; I've got a book here that I want to finish. No, it's no use; I shan't say another word."
"What have I done that's wrong?" asked Zack, looking piteously perplexed as he began to suspect that he had committed some unpardonable mistake earlier in the evening. "I know I burnt a muffin; but what has that got to do with Madonna's present to me?" (Mrs. Blyth shook her head; and, opening her book, became quite absorbed over it in a moment.) "Didn't I thank her properly for it? I'm sure I meant to." (Here he stopped; but Mrs. Blyth took no notice of him.) "I suppose I've got myself into some scrape? Make as much fun as you like about it; but tell me what it is. You won't? Then I'll find out all about it from Madonna. She knows, of course; and she'll tell me. Look here, Mrs. Blyth; I'm not going to get up till she's told me everything." And Zack, with a comic gesture of entreaty, dropped on his knees by Madonna's chair; preventing her from leaving it, which she tried to do, by taking immediate possession of the slate that hung at her side.
While young Thorpe was scribbling questions, protestations, and extravagances of every kind, in rapid succession, on the slate; and while Madonna, her face half smiling, half tearful, as she felt that he was looking up at it--was reading what he wrote, trying hard, at first, not to believe in him too easily when he scribbled an explanation, and not to look down on him too leniently when he followed it up by an entreaty; and ending at last, in defiance of Mrs. Blyth's private signs to the contrary, in forgiving his carelessness, and letting him take her hand again as usual, in token that she was sincere,--while this little scene of the home drama was proceeding at one end of the room, a scene of another kind--a dialogue in mysterious whispers--was in full progress between Mr. Blyth and his visitor from the country, at the other.
Time had in no respect lessened Valentine's morbid anxiety about the strict concealment of every circumstance attending Mrs. Peckover's first connection with Madonna, and Madonna's mother. The years that had now passed and left him in undisputed possession of his adopted child, had not diminished that excess of caution in keeping secret all the little that was known of her early history, which had even impelled him to pledge Doctor and Mrs. Joyce never to mention in public any particulars of the narrative related at the Rectory. Still, he had not got over his first dread that she might one day be traced, claimed, and taken away from him, if that narrative, meagre as it was, should ever be trusted to other ears than those which had originally listened to it. Still, he kept the hair bracelet and the handkerchief that had belonged to her mother carefully locked up out of sight in his bureau; and still, he doubted Mrs. Peckover's discretion in the government of her tongue, as he had doubted it in the bygone days when the little girl was first established in his own home.
After making a pretense of showing her the drawings begun that evening, Mr. Blyth artfully contrived to lead Mrs. Peckover past them into a recess at the extreme end of the room.
"Well," he said, speaking in an unnecessarily soft whisper, considering the distance which now separated him from Zack. "Well, I suppose you're quite sure of not having let out anything by chance, since I last saw you, about how you first met with our darling girl? or about her poor mother? or--?"
"What, you're at it again, sir," interrupted Mrs. Peckover loftily, but dropping her voice in imitation of Mr. Blyth,--"a clever man, too, like you! Dear, dear me! how often must I keep on telling you that I'm old enough to be able to hold my tongue? How much longer are you going to worrit yourself about hiding what nobody's seeking after?"
"I'm afraid I shall always worry myself about it," replied Valentine seriously. "Whenever I see you, my good friend, I fancy I hear all that melancholy story over again about our darling child, and that poor lost forsaken mother of hers, whose name even we don't know. I feel, too, when you come and see us, almost more than at other times, how inexpressibly precious the daughter whom you have given to us is to Lavvie and me; and I think with more dread than I well know how to describe, of the horrible chance, if anything was incautiously said, and carried from mouth to mouth--about where you met with her mother, for instance, or what time of the year it was, and so forth--that it might lead, nobody knows how, to some claim being laid to her, by somebody who might be able to prove the right to make it."
"Lord, sir! after all these years, what earthly need have you to be anxious about such things as that?"
"I'm never anxious long, Mrs. Peckover. My good spirits always get the better of every anxiety, great and small. But while I don't know that relations of hers--perhaps her vile father himself--may not be still alive, and seeking for her--"
"Bless your heart, Mr. Blyth, none of her relations are alive; or if they are, none of them care about her, poor lamb; I'll answer for it."
"I hope in God you are right," said Valentine, earnestly. "But let us think no more about it now," he added, resuming his usual manner. "I have asked my regular question, that I can't help asking whenever I see you; and you have forgiven me, as usual, for putting it; and now I am quite satisfied. Take my arm, Mrs. Peckover: I mean to give the students of my new drawing academy a holiday for the rest of the night, in honor of your arrival. What do you say to devoting the evening in the old way to a game at cards?"
"Just what I was thinking I should like myself as long as it's only sixpence a game, sir," said Mrs. Peckover gaily. "I say, young gentleman," she continued, addressing Zack after Mr. Blyth had left her to look for the cards, "what nonsense are you writing on our darling's slate that puts her all in a flutter, and makes her blush up to the eyes, when she's only looking at her poor old Peck? Bless her heart! she's just as easily amused now as when she was a child. Give us another kiss, my own little love. You understand what I mean, don't you, though you can't hear me? Ah, dear, dear! when she stands and looks at me with her eyes like that, she's the living image of--"
"Cribbage," cried Mr. Blyth, knocking a triangular board for three players on the table, and regarding Mrs. Peckover with the most reproachful expression that his features could assume.
She felt that the look had been deserved, and approached the card-table rather confusedly, without uttering another word. But for Valentine's second interruption she would have declared, before young Thorpe, that "little Mary" was the living image of her mother.
"Madonna's going to play, as usual. Will you make the third, Lavvie?" inquired Valentine, shuffling the cards. "It's no use asking Zack; he can't even count yet."
"No, thank you, dear. I shall have quite enough to do in going on with my book, and trying to keep master Mad-Cap in order while you play," replied Mrs. Blyth.
The game began. It was a regular custom, whenever Mrs. Peckover came to Mr. Blyth's house, that cribbage should be played, and that Madonna should take a share in it. This was done, on her part, principally in affectionate remembrance of the old times when she lived under the care of the clown's wife, and when she had learnt cribbage from Mr. Peckover to amuse her, while the frightful accident which had befallen her in the circus was still a recent event. It was characteristic of the happy peculiarity of her disposition that the days of suffering and affliction, and the after-period of hard tasks in public, with which cards were connected in her case, never seemed to recur to her remembrance painfully when she saw them in later life. The pleasanter associations which belonged to them, and which reminded her of homely kindness that had soothed her in pain, and self-denying affection that had consoled her in sorrow, were the associations instinctively dwelt on by her heart to the exclusion of all others.
To Mrs. Blyth's great astonishment, Zack, for full ten minutes, required no keeping in order whatever while the rest were playing at cards. It was the most marvelous of human phenomena, but there he certainly was, standing quietly by the fireplace with the drawing in his hand, actually thinking! Mrs. Blyth's amazement at this unexampled change in his manner so completely overcame her, that she fairly laid down her book to look at him. He noticed the action, and approached the couch directly.
"That's right," he said; "don't read any more. I want to have a serious consultation with you."
First a visit from Mrs. Peckover, then a serious consultation with Zack. This is a night of wonders!--thought Mrs. Blyth.
"I've made it all right with Madonna," Zack continued. "She don't think a bit the worse of me because I went on like a fool about the muffins at tea-time. But that's not what I want to talk about now: it's a sort of secret. In the first place--"
"Do you usually mention your secrets in a voice that everybody can hear?" asked Mrs. Blyth, laughing.
"Oh, never mind about that," he replied, not lowering his tone in the least; "it's only a secret from Madonna, and we can talk before her, poor little soul, just as if she wasn't in the room. Now this is the thing: she's made me a present, and I think I ought to show my gratitude by making her another in return." (He resumed his ordinary manner as he warmed with the subject, and began to walk up and down the room in his usual flighty way.) "Well, I have been thinking what the present ought to be--something pretty, of course. I can't do her a drawing worth a farthing; and even if I could--"
"Suppose you come here and sit down, Zack," interposed Mrs. Blyth. "While you are wandering backwards and forwards in that way before the card-table, you take Madonna's attention off the game."
No doubt he did. How could she see him walking about close by her, and carrying her drawing with him wherever he went--as if he prized it too much to be willing to put it down--without feeling gratified in more than one of the innocent little vanities of her sex, without looking after him much too often to be properly alive to the interests of her game?
Zack took Mrs. Blyth's advice, and sat down by her, with his back towards the cribbage players.
"Well, the question is, What present am I to give her?" he went on. "I've been twisting and turning it over in my mind, and the long and the short of it is--"
("Fifteen two, fifteen four, and a pair's six," said Valentine, reckoning up the tricks he had in his hand at that moment.)
"Did you ever notice that she has a particularly pretty hand and arm?" proceeded Zack, somewhat evasively. "I'm rather a judge of these things myself; and of all the other girls I ever saw--"
"Never mind about other girls," said Mrs. Blyth. "Tell me what you mean to give Madonna."
("Two for his heels," cried Mrs. Peckover, turning up a knave with great glee.)
"I mean to give her a Bracelet," said Zack.
Valentine looked up quickly from the card table.
("Play, please sir," said Mrs. Peckover; "little Mary's waiting for you.")
"Well, Zack," rejoined Mrs. Blyth, "your idea of returning a present only errs on the side of generosity. I should recommend something less costly. Don't you know that it's one of Madonna's oddities not to care about jewelry? She might have bought herself a bracelet long ago, out of her own savings, if trinkets had been things to tempt her."
"Wait a bit, Mrs. Blyth," said Zack, "you haven't heard the best of my notion yet: all the pith and marrow of it has got to come. The bracelet I mean to give her is one that she will prize to the day of her death, or she's not the affectionate, warm-hearted girl I take her for. What do you think of a bracelet that reminds her of you and Valentine, and jolly old Peck there--and a little of me, too, which I hope won't make her think the worse of it. I've got a design against all your heads," he continued, imitating the cutting action of a pair of scissors with two of his fingers, and raising his voice in high triumph. "It's a splendid idea: I mean to give Madonna a Hair Bracelet!"
Mrs. Peckover and Mr. Blyth started back in their chairs, and stared at each other as amazedly as if Zack's last words had sprung from a charged battery, and had struck them both at the same moment with a smart electrical shock.
"Of all the things in the world, how came he ever to think of giving her that!" ejaculated Mrs. Peckover under her breath; her memory reverting, while she spoke, to the mournful day when strangers had searched the body of Madonna's mother, and had found the Hair Bracelet hidden away in a corner of the dead woman's pocket.
"Hush! let's go on with the game," said Valentine. He, too, was thinking of the Hair Bracelet--thinking of it as it now lay locked up in his bureau down stairs, remembering how he would fain have destroyed it years ago, but that his conscience and sense of honor forbade him; pondering on the fatal discoveries to which, by bare possibility, it might yet lead, if ever it should fall into strangers' hands.
"A Hair Bracelet," continued Zack, quite unconscious of the effect he was producing on two of the card-players behind him; "and such hair, too, as I mean it to be made of!--Why, Madonna will think it more precious than all the diamonds in the world. I defy anybody to have hit on a better idea of the sort of present she's sure to like; it's elegant and appropriate, and all that sort of thing--isn't it?"
"Oh, yes! very nice and pretty indeed," replied Mrs. Blyth, rather absently and confusedly. She knew as much of Madonna's history as her husband did; and was wondering what he would think of the present which young Thorpe proposed giving to their adopted child.
"The thing I want most to know," said Zack, "is what you think would be the best pattern for the bracelet. There will be two kinds of hair in it, which can be made into any shape, of course--your hair and Mrs. Peckover's."
("Not a morsel of my hair shall go towards the bracelet!" muttered Mrs. Peckover, who was listening to what was said, while she went on playing.)
"The difficult hair to bring in, will be mine and Valentine's," pursued Zack. "Mine's long enough, to be sure; I ought to have got it cut a month ago; but it's so stiff and curly; and Blyth keeps his cropped so short--I don't see what they can do with it (do you?), unless they make rings, or stars, or knobs, or something stumpy, in the way of a cross pattern of it."
"The people at the shop will know best," said Mrs. Blyth, resolving to proceed cautiously.
"One thing I'm determined on, though, beforehand," cried Zack,--"the clasp. The clasp shall be a serpent, with turquoise eyes, and a carbuncle tail; and all our initials scored up somehow on his scales. Won't that be splendid? I should like to surprise Madonna with it this very evening."
("You shall never give it to her, if I can help it," grumbled Mrs. Peckover, still soliloquizing under her breath. "If anything in this world can bring her ill-luck, it will be a Hair Bracelet!")
These last words were spoken with perfect seriousness; for they were the result of the strongest superstitious conviction.
From the time when the Hair Bracelet was found on Madonna's mother, Mrs. Peckover had persuaded herself--not unnaturally, in the absence of any information to the contrary--that it had been in some way connected with the ruin and shame which had driven its unhappy possessor forth as an outcast, to die amongst strangers. To believe, in consequence, that a Hair Bracelet had brought "ill-luck" to the mother, and to derive from that belief the conviction that a Hair Bracelet would therefore also bring "ill-luck" to the child, was a perfectly direct and inevitable deductive process to Mrs. Peckover's superstitious mind. The motives which had formerly influenced her to forbid her "little Mary" ever to begin anything important on a Friday, or ever to imperil her prosperity by walking under a ladder, were precisely the motives by which she was now actuated in determining to prevent the presentation of young Thorpe's ill-omened gift.
Although Valentine had only caught a word here and there, to guide him to the subject of Mrs. Peckover's mutterings to herself while the game was going on, he guessed easily enough the general tenor of her thoughts, and suspected that she would, ere long, begin to talk louder than was at all desirable, if Zack proceeded much further with his present topic of conversation. Accordingly, he took advantage of a pause in the game, and of a relapse into another restless fit of walking about the room on young Thorpe's part, to approach his wife's couch, as if he wanted to find something lying near it, and to whisper to her, "Stop his talking any more about that present to Madonna; I'll tell you why another time."
Mrs. Blyth very readily and easily complied with this injunction, by telling Zack (with perfect truth) that she had been already a little too much excited by the events of the evening; and that she must put off all further listening or talking, on her part, till the next night, when she promised to advise him about the bracelet to the best of her power.
He was, however, still too full of his subject to relinquish it easily under no stronger influence than the influence of a polite hint. Having lost one listener in Mrs. Blyth, he boldly tried the experiment of inviting two others to replace her, by addressing himself to the players at the card-table.
"I dare say you have heard what I have been talking about to Mrs. Blyth?" he began.
"Lord, Master Zack!" said Mrs. Peckover, "do you think we haven't had something else to do here, besides listening to you? There, now, don't talk to us, please, till we are done, or you'll throw us out altogether. Don't, sir, on any account, because we are playing for money--sixpence a game."
Repelled on both sides, Zack was obliged to give way. He walked off to try and amuse himself at the book-case. Mrs. Peckover, with a very triumphant air, nodded and winked several times at Valentine across the table; desiring, by these signs, to show him that she could not only be silent herself when the conversation was in danger of approaching a forbidden subject, but could make other people hold their tongues too.
The room was now perfectly quiet, and the game at cribbage proceeded smoothly enough, but not so pleasantly as usual on other occasions. Valentine did not regain his customary good spirits; and Mrs. Peckover relapsed into whispering discontentedly to herself--now and then looking towards the bookcase, where young Thorpe was sitting sleepily, with a volume of engravings on his knee. It was, more or less, a relief to everybody when the supper-tray came up, and the cards were put away for the night.
Zack, becoming quite lively again at the prospect of a little eating and drinking, tried to return to the dangerous subject of the Hair Bracelet; addressing himself, on this occasion, directly to Valentine. He was interrupted, however, before he had spoken three words. Mr. Blyth suddenly remembered that he had an important communication of his own to make to young Thorpe.
"Excuse me, Zack," he said, "I have some news to tell you, which Mrs. Peckover's arrival drove out of my head; and which I must mention at once, while I have the opportunity. Both my pictures are done--what do you think of that?--done, and in their frames. I settled the titles yesterday. The classical landscape is to be called 'The Golden Age,' which is a pretty poetical sort of name; and the figure-subject is to be 'Columbus in Sight of the New World;' which is, I think, simple, affecting, and grand. Wait a minute! the best of it has yet to come. I am going to exhibit both the pictures in the studio to my friends, and my friends' friends, as early as Saturday next."
"You don't mean it!" exclaimed Zack. "Why, it's only January now; and you always used to have your private view of your own pictures, in April, just before they were sent into the Academy Exhibition."
"Quite right," interposed Valentine, "but I am going to make a change this year. The fact is, I have got a job to do in the provinces, which will prevent me from having my picture-show at the usual time. So I mean to have it now. The cards of invitation are coming home from the printer's tomorrow morning. I shall reserve a packet, of course, for you and your friends, when we see you to-morrow night."
Just as Mr. Blyth spoke those words, the clock on the mantel-piece struck the half hour after ten. Having his own private reasons for continuing to preserve the appearance of perfect obedience to his father's domestic regulations, Zack rose at once to say good night, in order to insure being home before the house-door was bolted at eleven o'clock. This time he did not forget Madonna's drawing; but, on the contrary, showed such unusual carefulness in tying his pocket-handkerchief over the frame to preserve it from injury as he carried it through the streets, that she could not help--in the fearless innocence of her heart--unreservedly betraying to him, both by look and manner, how warmly she appreciated his anxiety for the safe preservation of her gift. Never had the bright, kind young face been lovelier in its artless happiness than it appeared at the moment when she was shaking hands with Zack.
Just as Valentine was about to follow his guest out of the room, Mrs. Blyth called him back, reminding him that he had a cold, and begging him not to expose himself to the wintry night air by going down to the door.
"But the servants must be going to bed by this time; and somebody ought to fasten the bolts," remonstrated Mr. Blyth.
"I'll go, sir," said Mrs. Peckover, rising with extraordinary alacrity. "I'll see Master Zack out, and do up the door. Bless your heart! it's no trouble to me. I'm always moving about at home from morning to night, to prevent myself getting fatter. Don't say no, Mr. Blyth, unless you are afraid of trusting an old gossip like me alone with your visitors."
The last words were intended as a sarcasm, and were whispered into Valentine's ear. He understood the allusion to their private conversation together easily enough; and felt that unless he let her have her own way without further contest, he must risk offending an old friend by implying a mistrust of her, which would be simply ridiculous, under the circumstances in which they were placed. So, when his wife nodded to him to take advantage of the offer just made, he accepted it forthwith.
"Now, I'll stop his giving Mary a Hair Bracelet!" thought Mrs. Peckover, as she bustled out after young Thorpe, and closed the room door behind her.
"Wait a bit, young gentleman," she said, arresting his further progress on the first landing. "Just leave off talking a minute, and let me speak. I've got something to say to you. Do you really mean to give Mary that Hair Bracelet?"
"Oho! then you did hear something at the card-table about it, after all?" said Zack. "Mean? Of course I mean--"
"And you want to put some of my hair in it?"
"To be sure I do! Madonna wouldn't like it without."
"Then you had better make up your mind at once to give her some other present; for not one morsel of my hair shall you have. There now! what do you think of that?"
"I don't believe it, my old darling."
"It's true enough, I can tell you. Not a hair of my head shall you have."
"Never mind why. I've got my own reasons."
"Very well: if you come to that, I've got my reasons for giving the bracelet; and I mean to give it. If you won't let any of your hair be plaited up along with the rest, it's Madonna you will disappoint--not me."
Mrs. Peckover saw that she must change her tactics, or be defeated.
"Don't you be so dreadful obstinate, Master Zack, and I'll tell you the reason," she said in an altered tone, leading the way lower down into the passage. "I don't want you to give her a Hair Bracelet, because I believe it will bring ill-luck to her--there!"
Zack burst out laughing. "Do you call that a reason? Who ever heard of a Hair Bracelet being an unlucky gift?"
At this moment, the door of Mrs. Blyth's room opened.
"Anything wrong with the lock?" asked Valentine from above. He was rather surprised at the time that elapsed without his hearing the house-door shut.
"All quite right, sir," said Mrs. Peckover; adding in a whisper to Zack:--"Hush! don't say a word!"
"Don't let him keep you in the cold with his nonsense," said Valentine.
"My nonsense!--" began Zack, indignantly.
"He's going, sir," interrupted Mrs. Peckover. "I shall be upstairs in a moment."
"Come in, dear, pray! You're letting all the cold air into the room," exclaimed the voice of Mrs. Blyth.
The door of the room closed again.
"What are you driving at?" asked Zack, in extreme bewilderment.
"I only want you to give her some other present," said Mrs. Peckover, in her most persuasive tones. "You may think it all a whim of mine, if you like--I dare say I'm an old fool; but I don't want you to give her a Hair Bracelet."
"A whim of yours!!!" repeated Zack, with a look which made Mrs. Peckover's cheeks redden with rising indignation. "What! a woman at your time of life subject to whims! My darling Peckover, it won't do! My mind's made up to give her the Hair Bracelet. Nothing in the world can stop me--except, of course, Madonna's having a Hair Bracelet already, which I know she hasn't."
"Oh! you know that, do you, you mischievous Imp? Then, for once in a way, you just know wrong!" exclaimed Mrs. Peckover, losing her temper altogether.
"You don't mean to say so? How very remarkable, to think of her having a Hair Bracelet already, and of my not knowing it!--Mrs. Peckover," continued Zack, mimicking the tone and manner of his old clerical enemy, the Reverend Aaron Yollop, "what I am now about to say grieves me deeply; but I have a solemn duty to discharge, and in the conscientious performance of that duty, I now unhesitatingly express my conviction that the remark you have just made is--a flam."
"It isn't--Monkey!" returned Mrs. Peckover, her anger fairly boiling over, as she nodded her head vehemently in Zack's face.
Just then, Valentine's step became audible in the room above; first moving towards the door, then suddenly retreating from it, as if he had been called back.
"I hav'n't let out what I oughtn't, have I?" thought Mrs. Peckover; calming down directly, when she heard the movement upstairs.
"Oh, you stick to it, do you?" continued Zack. "It's rather odd, old lady, that Mrs. Blyth should have said nothing about this newly-discovered Hair Bracelet of yours while I was talking to her. But she doesn't know, of course: and Valentine doesn't know either, I suppose? By Jove! he's not gone to bed yet: I'll run back, and ask him if Madonna really has got a Hair Bracelet!"
"For God's sake don't!--don't say a word about it, or you'll get me into dreadful trouble!" exclaimed Mrs. Peckover, turning pale as she thought of possible consequences, and catching young Thorpe by the arm when he tried to pass her in the passage.
The step up stairs crossed the room again.
"Well, upon my life," cried Zack, "of all the extraordinary old women
"Hush! he's going to open the door this time; he is indeed!"
"Never mind if he does; I won't say anything," whispered young Thorpe, his natural good nature prompting him to relieve Mrs. Peckover's distress, the moment he became convinced that it was genuine.
"That's a good chap! that's a dear good chap!" exclaimed Mrs. Peckover, squeezing Zack's hand in a fervor of unbounded gratitude.
The door of Mrs. Blyth's room opened for the second time.
"He's gone, sir; he's gone at last!" cried Mrs. Peckover, shutting the house door on the parting guest with inhospitable rapidity, and locking it with elaborate care and extraordinary noise.
"I must manage to make it all safe with Master Zack tomorrow night; though I don't believe I have said a single word I oughtn't to say," thought she, slowly ascending the stairs. "But Mr. Blyth makes such fusses, and works himself into such fidgets about the poor thing being traced and taken away from him (which is all stuff and nonsense), that he would go half distracted if he knew what I said just now to Master Zack. Not that it's so much what I said to him, as what he made out somehow and said to me. But they're so sharp, these young London chaps--they are so awful sharp!"
Here she stopped on the landing to recover her breath; then whispered to herself, as she went on and approached Mr. Blyth's door:
"But one thing I'm determined on; little Mary shan't have that Hair Bracelet!"
* * * * * * *
Even as Mrs. Peckover walked thinking all the way up-stairs, so did Zack walk wondering all the way home.
What the deuce could these extraordinary remonstrances about his present to Madonna possibly mean? Was it not at least clear from Mrs. Peckover's terror when he talked of asking Blyth whether Madonna really had a Hair Bracelet, that she had told the truth after all? And was it not even plainer still that she had let out a secret in telling that truth, which Blyth must have ordered her to keep? Why keep it? Was this mysterious Hair Bracelet mixed up somehow with the grand secret about Madonna's past history, which Valentine had always kept from him and from everybody? Very likely it was--but why cudgel his brains about what didn't concern him? Was it not--considering the fact, previously forgotten, that he had but fifteen shillings and threepence of disposable money in the world--rather lucky than otherwise that Mrs. Peckover had taken it into her head to stop him from buying what he hadn't the means of paying for? What other present could he buy for Madonna that was pretty, and cheap enough to suit the present state of his pocket? Would she like a thimble? or an almanack? or a pair of cuffs? or a pot of bear's grease?
Here Zack suddenly paused in his mental interrogatories; for he had arrived within sight of his home in Baregrove Square.
A change passed over his handsome face: he frowned, and his color deepened as he looked up at the light in his father's window.
"I'll slip out again to-night, and see life," he muttered doggedly to himself, approaching the door. "The more I'm bullied at home, the oftener I'll go out on the sly."
This rebellious speech was occasioned by the recollection of a domestic scene, which had contributed, early that evening, to swell the list of the Tribulations of Zack. Mr. Thorpe had moral objections to Mr. Blyth's profession, and moral doubts on the subject of Mr. Blyth himself--these last being strengthened by that gentleman's own refusal to explain away the mystery which enveloped the birth and parentage of his adopted child. As a necessary consequence, Mr. Thorpe considered the painter to be no fit companion for a devout young man; and expressed, severely enough, his unmeasured surprise at finding that his son had accepted an invitation from a person of doubtful character. Zack's rejoinder to his father's reproof was decisive, if it was nothing else. He denied everything alleged or suggested against his friend's reputation--lost his temper on being sharply rebuked for the "indecent vehemence" of his language--and left the paternal tea-table in defiance, to go and cultivate the Fine Arts in the doubtful company of Mr. Valentine Blyth.
"Just in time, sir," said the page, grinning at his young master as he opened the door. "It's on the stroke of eleven."
Zack muttered something savage in reply, which it is not perhaps advisable to report. The servant secured the lock and bolts, while he put his hat on the hall table, and lit his bedroom candle.
* * * * * * *
Rather more than an hour after this time--or, in other words, a little past midnight--the door opened again softly, and Zack appeared on the step, equipped for his nocturnal expedition.
He hesitated, as he put the key into the lock from outside, before he closed the door behind him. He had never done this on former occasions; he could not tell why he did it now. We are mysteries even to ourselves; and there are times when the Voices of the future that are in us, yet not ours, speak, and make the earthly part of us conscious of their presence. Oftenest our mortal sense feels that they are breaking their dread silence at those supreme moments of existence, when on the choice between two apparently trifling alternatives hangs suspended the whole future of a life. And thus it was now with the young man who stood on the threshold of his home, doubtful whether he should pursue or abandon the purpose which was then uppermost in his mind. On his choice between the two alternatives of going on, or going back--which the closing of a door would decide--depended the future of his life, and of other lives that were mingled with it.
He waited a minute undecided, for the warning Voices within him were stronger than his own will: he waited, looking up thoughtfully at the starry loveliness of the winter's night--then closed the door behind him as softly as usual--hesitated again at the last step that led on to the pavement--and then fairly set forth from home, walking at a rapid pace through the streets.
He was not in his usual good spirits. He felt no inclination to sing as was his wont, while passing through the fresh, frosty air: and he wondered why it was so.
The Voices were still speaking faintly and more faintly within him. But we must die before we can become immortal as they are; and their language to us in this life is often as an unknown tongue.
THE END of BOOK I
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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