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THE FINDING OF THE CLUE.
Mr. Blyth's visitors, now that their common center of attraction had disappeared, either dispersed again in the painting-room, or approached the door to take their departure. Zack, turning round sharply after Madonna had left the studio, encountered his queer companion, who had not stirred an inch while other people were all moving about him.
"In the name of wonder, what has come to you now? Are you ill? Have you hurt yourself with that picture?" asked Zack, startled by the incomprehensible change which he beheld in his friend's face and manner.
"Come out," said Mat. Young Thorpe looked at him in amazement; even the sound of his voice had altered!
"What's wrong?" asked Zack. No answer. They went quickly along the passage and down to the garden gate, in silence. As soon as they had got into one of the lonely bye-roads of the new suburb, Mat stopped short; and, turning full on his companion, said: "Who is she?" The sudden eagerness with which he spoke, so strangely at variance with his usual deliberation of tone and manner, made those three common words almost startling to hear.
"She? Who do you mean?" inquired young Thorpe.
"I mean that young woman they were all staring at."
For a moment, Zack contemplated the anxiety visible in his friend's face, with an expression of blank astonishment; then burst into one of his loudest, heartiest, and longest fits of laughter. "Oh, by Jove, I wouldn't have missed this for fifty pounds. Here's old Rough and Tough smitten with the tender passion, like all the rest of us! Blush, you brazen old beggar, blush! You've fallen in love with Madonna at first sight!"
"Damn your laughing! Tell me who she is."
"Tell you who she is? That's exactly what I can't do."
"Why not? What do you mean? Does she belong to painter-man?"
"Oh, fie, Mat! You mustn't talk of a young lady belonging to anybody, as if she was a piece of furniture, or money in the Three per Cents, or something of that sort. Confound it man, don't shake me in that way! You'll pull my arm off. Let me have my laugh, and I'll tell you every thing."
"Tell it then; and be quick about it."
"Well, first of all, she is not Blyth's daughter--though some scandal-mongering people have said she is--"
"Nor yet his wife?"
"Nor yet his wife. What a question! He adopted her, as they call it, years ago, when she was a child. But who she is, or where he picked her up, or what is her name, Blyth never has told anybody, and never will. She's the dearest, kindest, prettiest little soul that ever lived; and that's all I know about her. It's a short story, old boy; but surprisingly romantic--isn't it?"
Mat did not immediately answer. He paid the most breathless attention to the few words of information which Zack had given him--repeated them over again to himself--reflected for a moment--then said--
"Why won't the painter-man tell any body who she is?"
"How should I know? It's a whim of his. And, I'll tell you what, here's a piece of serious advice for you:--If you want to go there again, and make her acquaintance, don't you ask Blyth who she is, or let him fancy you want to know. He's touchy on that point--I can't say why; but he is. Every man has a raw place about him somewhere: that's Blyth's raw place, and if you hit him on it, you won't get inside of his house again in a hurry, I can tell you."
Still, Mat's attention fastened greedily on every word--still, his eyes fixed eagerly on his informant's face--still, he repeated to himself what Zack was telling him.
"By the bye, I suppose you saw the poor dear little soul is deaf and dumb," young Thorpe continued. "She's been so from a child. Some accident; a fall, I believe. But it don't affect her spirits a bit. She's as happy as the day is long--that's one comfort."
"Deaf and dumb! So like her, it was a'most as awful as seeing the dead come to life again. She had Mary's turn with her head; Mary's--poor creature! poor creature!" He whispered those words to himself, under his breath, his face turned aside, his eyes wandering over the ground at his feet, with a faint, troubled, vacantly anxious expression.
"Come! come! don't be getting into the dolefuls already," cried Zack, administering an exhilarating thump on the back to his friend. "Cheer up! We're all in love with her; you're rowing in the same boat with Bullivant, and Gimble, and me, and lots more; and you'll get used to it in time, like the rest of us. I'll act the generous rival with you, brother Mat! You shall have all the benefit of my advice gratis; and shall lay siege to our little beauty in regular form. I don't think your own experience among the wild Indians will help you much, over here. How do you mean to make love to her? Did you ever make love to a Squaw?"
"She isn't his wife; and she isn't his daughter; he won't say where he picked her up, or who she is." Repeating these words to himself in a quick, quiet whisper, Mat did not appear to be listening to a single word that young Thorpe said. His mind was running now on one of the answers that he had wrested from Joanna Grice, at Dibbledean--the answer which had informed him that Mary's child had been born alive!
"Wake up, Mat! You shall have your fair chance with the lady, along with the rest of us; and I'll undertake to qualify you on the spot for civilized courtship," continued Zack, pitilessly carrying on his joke. "In the first place, always remember that you mustn't go beyond admiration at a respectful distance, to begin with. At the second interview, you may make amorous faces at close quarters--what you call looking unutterable things, you know. At the third, you may get bold, and try her with a little present. Lots of people have done that, before you. Gimble tried it, and Bullivant wanted to; but Blyth wouldn't let him; and I mean to give her--oh, by the bye, I have another important caution for you." Here he indulged himself in a fresh burst of laughter, excited by the remembrance of his interview with Mrs. Peckover, in Mr. Blyth's hall. "Remember that the whole round of presents is open for you to choose from, except one; and that one is a Hair Bracelet."
Zack's laughter came to an abrupt termination. Mat had raised his head suddenly, and was now staring him full in the face again, with a bright, searching look--an expression in which suspicious amazement and doubting curiosity were very strangely mingled together.
"You're not angry with me for cracking a few respectable old jokes?" said Zack. "Have I said anything?--Stop! yes, I have, though I didn't mean it. You looked up at me in that savage manner, when I warned you not to give her a Hair Bracelet. Surely you don't think me brute enough to make fun of your not having any hair on your own head to give anybody? Surely you have a better opinion of me than that? I give you my word of honor, I never thought of you, or your head, or that infernal scalping business, when I said what I did. It was true--it happened to me."
"How did it happen?" said. Mat, with eager, angry curiosity.
"Only in this way. I wanted to give her a Hair Bracelet myself--my hair and Blyth's, and so on. And an addle-headed old woman who seems to know Madonna (that's a name we give her) as well as Blyth himself, and keeps what she knows just as close, got me into a corner, and talked nonsense about the whole thing, as old women will."
"What did she say?" asked Mat, more eager, more angry, and more curious than ever.
"She talked nonsense, I tell you. She said a Hair Bracelet would be unlucky to Madonna; and then told me Madonna had one already; and then wouldn't let me ask Blyth whether it was true, because I should get her into dreadful trouble if I said anything to him about it; besides a good deal more which you wouldn't care to be bothered with. But I have told you enough--haven't I?--to show I was not thinking of you, when I said that just now by way of a joke. Come, shake hands, old fellow. You're not offended with me, now I have explained everything?"
Mat gave his hand, but he put it out like a man groping in the dark. His mind was full of that memorable letter about a Hair Bracelet, which he had found in the box given to him by Joanna Grice.
"A Hair Bracelet?" he said, vacantly.
"Don't be sulky!" cried Zack, clapping him on the shoulder.
"A Hair Bracelet is unlucky to the young woman--and she's got one already" (he was weighing attentively the lightest word that Zack had spoken to him). "What's it like?" he asked aloud, turning suddenly to young Thorpe.
"What's what like?"
"A Hair Bracelet."
"Still harping on that, after all my explanations! Like? Why it's hair plaited up, and made to fasten round the wrist, with gold at each end to clasp it by. What are you stopping for again? I'll tell you what, Mat, I can make every allowance for a man in your love-struck situation; but if I didn't know how you had been spending the morning, I should say you were drunk."
They had been walking along quickly, while Mat asked what a Hair Bracelet was like. But no sooner had Zack told him than he came to a dead pause--started and changed color--opened his lips to speak--then checked himself, and remained silent. The information which he had just received had recalled to him a certain object that he had seen in the drawer of Mr. Blyth's bureau; and the resemblance between the two had at once flashed upon him. The importance which this discovery assumed in his eyes, in connection with what he had already heard, may be easily estimated, when it is remembered that his barbarian life had kept him totally ignorant that a Hair Bracelet is in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman's wear.
"Are we going to stop here all day?" asked Zack. "If you're turning from sulky to sentimental again, I shall go back to Blyth's, and pave the way for you with Madonna, old boy!" He turned gaily in the direction of Valentine's house, as he said those words.
Mat did not offer to detain him; did not say a word at parting. He passed his hand wearily over his eyes as Zack left him. "I'm sober," he said vacantly to himself; "I'm not dreaming; I'm not light-headed, though I feel a'most like it. I saw that young woman as plain as I see them houses in front of me now; and by God, if she had been Mary's ghost, she couldn't have been more like her!"
He stopped. His hand fell to his side; then fastened mechanically on the railings of a house near him. His rough, misshapen fingers trembled round the iron. Recollections that had slumbered for years and years past, were awakening again awfully to life within him. Through the obscurity and oblivion of long absence, through the changeless darkness of the tomb, there was shining out now, vivid and solemn on his memory, the image--as she had been in her youth-time--of the dead woman whose name was "Mary." And it was only the sight of that young girl, of that poor, shy, gentle, deaf and dumb creature, that had wrought the miracle!
He tried to shake himself clear of the influences which were now at work on him. He moved forward a step or two, and looked up. Zack?--where was Zack?
Away, at the other end of the solitary suburban street, just visible sauntering along and swinging his stick in his hand.
Without knowing why he did so, Mat turned instantly and walked after him, calling to him to come back. The third summons reached him: he stopped, hesitated, made comic gesticulations with his stick in the air--then began to retrace his steps.
The effort of walking and calling after him, had turned Mat's thoughts in another direction. They now occupied themselves again with the hints that Zack had dropped of some incomprehensible connection between a Hair Bracelet, and the young girl who was called by the strange name of "Madonna." With the remembrance of this, there came back also the recollection of the letter about a bracelet, and its enclosure of hair, which he had examined in the lonely cattle-shed at Dibbledean, and which still lay in the little box bearing on it the name of "Mary Grice."
"Well!" cried Zack, speaking as he came on. "Well, Cupid! what do you want with me now?"
Mat did not immediately answer. His thoughts were still traveling back cautiously over the ground which they had already explored. Once more, he was pondering on that little circle of plaited hair, having gold at each end, and looking just big enough to go round a woman's wrist, which he had seen in the drawer of Mr. Blyth's bureau. And once again, the identity between this object and the ornament which young Thorpe had described as being the thing called a Hair Bracelet, began surely and more surely to establish itself in his mind.
"Now then, don't keep me waiting," continued Zack, laughing again as he came nearer; "clap your hand on your heart, and give me your tender message for the future Mrs. Marksman."
It was on the tip of Mat's tongue to emulate the communicativeness of young Thorpe, and to speak unreservedly of what he had seen in the drawer of the bureau--but he suddenly restrained the words just as they were dropping from his lips. At the same moment his eyes began to lose their vacant perturbed look, and to brighten again with something of craft and cunning, added to their customary watchful expression.
"What's the young woman's real name?" he asked carelessly, just as Zack was beginning to banter him for the third time.
"Is that all you called me back for? Her real name's Mary."
Mat had made his inquiry with the air of a man whose thoughts were far away from his words, and who only spoke because he felt obliged to say something. Zack's reply to his question startled him into instant and anxious attention.
"Mary!" he repeated in a tone of surprise. "What else, besides Mary?"
"How should I know? Didn't I try and beat it into your muddled old head, half-an-hour ago, that Blyth won't tell his friends anything about her?" There was another pause. The secrecy in which Mr. Blyth chose to conceal Madonna's history, and the sequestered place in the innermost drawer of his bureau where he kept the Hair Bracelet, began vaguely to connect themselves together in Mat's mind. A curious smile hovered about his lips, and the cunning look brightened in his eyes. "The Painter-Man won't tell anything about her, won't he? Perhaps that thing in his drawer will." He muttered the words to himself, putting his hands in his pockets, and mechanically kicking away a stone which happened to lie at his feet on the pavement.
"What are you grumbling about now?" asked Zack. "Do you think I'm going to stop here all day for the pleasure of hearing you talk to yourself?" As he spoke, he vivaciously rapped his friend on the shoulder with his stick. "Trust me to pave the way for you with Madonna!" he called out mischievously, as he turned back in the direction of Mr. Blyth's house.
"Trust me to have another look at your friend's Hair Bracelet," said Mat quietly to himself. "I'll handle it this time, before I'm many days older."
He nodded over his shoulder at Zack, and walked away quickly in the direction of Kirk Street.
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