It must no be imagined, however, that M. Linders was quite without conscience as regarded his child; there were some people with whom he took care that she should not associate, some society into which he never took her. Many an evening did Madelon spend happily enough while her father was out, in the snug little parlours of the hotels, where Madame, the landlady, would be doing up her accounts perhaps, and Monsieur, the landlord, reposing after the exertions of the day; whilst Mademoiselle Madelon, seated at the table, would build card-houses, or play at dominoes, and eat galette and confitures to her heart's content. Here, too, she would get queer little glimpses into life—hearing very likely how Monsieur B. had made off without paying his bill, or how those trunks that Madame la Comtesse C. had left eighteen months ago, as a pledge of her return, had been opened at last, and been found to contain but old clothes, fit for the rag-market; how a few francs might be advantageously added on here and there in the bill for the rich English family at the premier; how the gentleman known as No. 5 was looked upon as a suspicious character; and how Pierre the waiter had been set to watch the door of No. 8, who had spent three months in the house without paying a sou, and was daily suspected of attempting to abscond. All these, and a dozen similar stories, and half the gossip of the town, would come buzzing round Madelon's ears as she sat gravely balancing one card one the top of the other. She heard and comprehended them with such comprehension as was in her; and no doubt they modified in some degree her childish views of life, which in these early days was presented to her, poor child! under no very sublime or elevated aspect; but they had little interest for her, and she paid small heed to them. In truth, her passionate love for her father was, no doubt, at this time her great preservative and safeguard, ennobling her, as every pure unselfish passion must ennoble, and by absorbing her thoughts and heart, acting as a charm against many an unworthy influence around her. The first sound of his footstep outside was enough to put both stories and gossip out of her head, and was the signal for her to spring from her chair, and rush into the passage to meet him; and a few minutes after they would be seated together in their room upstairs, she nestling on his knee most likely, with her arm tight round his neck, while he recounted the adventures of the evening. His purse would be brought out, and it was Madelon's special privilege and treat to pour out the contents on the table and count them over. If M. Linders had won it was a little fete for both—calculations as to how it should be spent, where they should go the next day, what new toy, or frock, or trinket should be bought; if he had lost, there would be a moment of discouragement perhaps, and then Madelon would say,
"It does not signify, papa, does it?—you will win to-morrow, you know."
As for M. Linders, the thought of the little, eager innocent face that would greet his return home was the brightest and purest vision that lighted his dark and wayward life, and he appealed to his child's sympathy and encouragement in a way that had something touching in it, showing as it did the gentler side of a man who was always reckless, and could be hard and merciless enough sometimes; but he was never anything but tender with his little Madelon, and one can fancy the two sitting together, as she counts over the little gold pieces shining in the candlelight. Once, not long after his marriage, he had appealed to his wife in the same way, when, after an unusual run of luck, he had returned in triumph with his winnings. She, poor girl, looked first at them and then at him, with a piteous little attempt at a smile; then suddenly burst into tears, and turned away. It was the first and last time he tried to win her sympathy in these matters, and was, perhaps, the beginning of the sort of estrangement that grew up between them.
These were happy evenings, Madelon thought, but she found those happier still when her father was at home, generally with one or two men who would come in to play cards with him. They were always good-natured and kind to the little girl who sat so still and close to her father's side, watching the game with her quick, intelligent eyes; though some of them, foolish smooth-faced lads, perhaps, would go away cursing the fate that had ever led them across M. Linders' path, and carrying an undying hatred in their hearts for the handsome courteous man who had enticed them on to ruin. How M. Linders lured these poor birds into the snare, and by what means he plucked them when there, Madelon never knew; all that belonged to the darker side of this character, which she never fully understood, and on which, for her sake, we will not dwell.
Most of all, however, did Madelon enjoy being at the German watering-places, for then she went out with her father constantly. The fair-haired, brown-eyed little girl was almost as well-known in the Kursaals of Homburg and Wiesbaden as the famous gambler himself, as evening after evening they entered the great lighted salons together, and took their places amongst the motley crowd gathered round the long green tables. There she would remain contented for hours, sometimes sitting on his knee, sometimes herself staking a florin or two—"to change the luck," M. Linders would say laughingly,—sometimes wearied out, curled up fast asleep in a corner of one of the sofas. Then there were the theatres, to which her father often took her, and where, with delighted, wondering eyes, she made acquaintance with most of the best operas and learnt to sing half Bellini's and Weber's music in her clear little voice. More than once, too, she was taken behind the scenes, where she saw so much of the mysteries of stage-working and carpentering as would have destroyed the illusions of an older person; but it did not make much difference to her; the next time she found herself in the stalls or balcony she forget all about what was going on behind, and was as much enchanted as ever with the fine results prepared for the public gaze.
On other nights there would be the balls, always a supreme enjoyment. It must be owned that Madelon took great pleasure in seeing her small person arrayed in a smart frock; and she was never weary of admiring the big rooms with their gilded furniture, and mirrors, and brilliant lights, and polished floors, where a crowd of gay people would be twirling about to the sound of the music. She danced like a little fairy, too, with pure delight in the mere motion, was never tired, and rarely sat down; for Mademoiselle, who generally held herself rather aloof from strangers, would be pleased on these occasions to put on a little winning graciousness, giving her hand with the air of a small princess to any one soliciting the honour of a dance; and she was seldom without some tall partner, attracted by her gentillesse and naive prattle—a moustached Austrian or Prussian officer, perhaps, in white or blue uniform, or one of her counts or barons, with a bit of ribbon dangling from his button-hole; or, if all else failed, there was always her father, who was ever ready to indulge her in any of her fancies, and never resisted her coaxing pleading for one more dance.
These were the evenings; for the days there were pleasures enough too, though of a simpler kind, and more profitable, perhaps, for our poor little Madelon, in her gay unconscious dance through that mad Vanity Fair, innocent though it was for her as yet.
Except on some special emergency, M. Linders rarely went to the gambling tables during the day. He had a theory that daylight was prejudicial to his prosperity, and that it was only at night that he could play there with any fair chance of success; but he not unfrequently had other business of a similar nature on hand to occupy his mornings and afternoons; and when he was engaged or absent, Madelon, with the happy adaptability of a solitary child, had no difficulty in amusing herself alone with her toys, and picture-books, and dolls. At other times, when her father was at leisure, there would be walks with him, long afternoons spent in the gay Kursaal gardens, listening to the bands of music; and on idle days, which with M. Linders were neither few nor far between, excursions perhaps into the country, sometimes the two alone, but more frequently accompanied by one or two of M. Linders' companions. There they would dine at some rustic Gasthof, and afterwards, whilst her father and his friends smoked, drank their Rhine wine, and brought out the inevitable cards and dice in the shady, vine-trellised garden, Madelon, wandering about here and there, in and out, through yard and court, and garden and kitchen, poking her small nose everywhere, gained much primary information on many subjects, from the growing of cabbages to the making sauerkraut—from the laying of eggs by ever-hopeful hens, to their final fulfilment of a ruthless destiny in a frying-pan. In return, she was not unwilling to impart to the good Hausfrau, and her troop of little ones and retainers, many details concerning her town life; and might sometimes be found, perched on the kitchen table, relating long histories to an admiring audience, in which the blue silk frocks and tall partners made no small figure, one may be sure.
It was a golden childhood. Even in after years, when, reading the history of these early days in a new light, she suffered a pang for almost every pleasure she had then enjoyed, even then Madelon maintained that her childhood had been one of unclouded happiness, such as few children know. The sudden changes of fortune, from splendour to poverty of the shabbiest description, the reckless, dishonest expenditure, and the endless debts consequent on it; the means—doubtful to say the least of them—employed by M. Linders for procuring money; the sense of alienation from all that is best, and noblest, and truest in life;—all these, which had gone far to make up the sum of her mother's misery, affected our Madelon hardly at all. Some of them she did not know of; the rest she took as a matter of course. In truth, it mattered little to her whether they lived in a big hotel or a little one; whether the debts were paid or unpaid; whether money were forthcoming or not; she never felt the want of it, we may be sure. If she did not have some promised fete or amusement on one day, it was certain to come on another; and even the one or two occasions on which M. Linders, absolutely unable to leave an hotel until he had paid part of what he owed there, had been obliged to confiscate everything, caused her no uneasiness. The next week, very likely, she had other trinkets and knick-knacks, newer and prettier; and indeed, so long as she had her father, she cared for little else. In any small childish misfortune or ailment she had but to run to him to find help, and sympathy, and caresses; and she had no grief or care in these first years for which these were not a sufficient remedy.
Amidst all the miserable failures, and more unworthy successes of a wasted life, M. Linders gained at least one legitimate triumph, when he won his child's undying love and gratitude. All her life long, one may fancy, would Madelon cherish the remembrance of his unceasing tenderness, of his unwearying love for his little girl, which showed itself in a thousand different ways, and which, with one warm, loving little heart, at any rate, would ever go far to cover a multitude of sins. The only drawback to her perfect content in these early days was the presence of her uncle Charles, whom she could not bear, and who, for his part, looked upon her as a mere encumbrance, and her being with them at all as a piece of fatuity on the part of his brother-in-law. There were constant skirmishes between them while they were together; but even these ceased after a time, for Moore, who, ever since his sister's marriage, had clung fitfully to M. Linders, as a luckier and more prosperous man than himself, was accustomed to be absent on his own account for months together, and during one of these solitary journeys he died, about two years after Horace Graham had seen him at Chaudfontaine. Henceforth Madelon and her father were alone.
Madelon, then, by the time she was eight years old, had learnt to sing, dance, speak several languages, to write, to play rouge et noir, and roulette, and indeed piquet and ecarte, too, to great perfection, and to read books of fairy tales. At ten years old, her education was still at the same point; and it must be owned that, however varied and sufficient for the purposes of the moment, it left open a wide field for labour in the future years; though M. Linders appeared perfectly satisfied with the results of his teaching so far, and showed no particular desire to enlarge her ideas upon any point. As for religion, no wild Arab of our London streets ever knew or heard less about it than did our little Madelon; or was left more utterly uninstructed in its simplest truths and dogmas. What M. Linders' religious beliefs were, or whether he had any at all, we need not inquire. He at least took care that none should be instilled into his child's mind; feeling, probably, that under whatever form they were presented to her, they would assuredly clash sooner or later with his peculiar system of education. For himself, his opinions on such matters were expressed when occasion arose, only in certain unvarying and vehement declamations against priests and nuns—the latter particularly, where his general sense of aversion to a class in the abstract, became specific and definite, when he looked upon that class as represented in the person of his sister Therese.
Of the outward forms and ceremonies of religion Madelon could not, indeed, remain entirely ignorant, living constantly, as she did, in Roman Catholic countries; but her very familiarity with these from her babyhood robbed them in great measure of the interest they might otherwise have excited in her mind, and their significance she was never taught to understand. As a rule, a child must have its attention drawn in some particular way to its everyday surroundings, or they must strike it in some new and unfamiliar light, before they rouse more than a passing curiosity; and though Madelon would sometimes question her father as to the meaning and intention of this or that procession passing along the streets, he found no difficulty in putting her off with vague answers. It was a wedding or a funeral, he would say, or connected with some other ordinary event, which Madelon knew to be of daily recurrence; though none such had as yet had part in the economy of her small world; and priests, and nuns, and monks became classed, without difficulty, in her mind, with doctors and soldiers, and the mass of people generally, who made money in a different way from her father, with whom, therefore, she seldom came into personal contact, and with whom she had little to do—money making being still her one idea of the aim and business of life.
The first time, however, that she ever entered a church, when she was little more than nine years old, was an experience in her life, and this was the occasion of it. It was in a French provincial town, where M. Linders had stopped for a day on business—only for one day, but that Madelon was to spend for the most part alone; for her father, occupied with his affairs, was obliged to go out very early, and leave her to her own devices; and very dull she found them, after the first hour or two. She was a child of many resources, it is true, but these will come to an end when a little girl of nine years old, with books and dolls all packed up, has to amuse herself for ever so many hours in a dull country hotel, an hotel, too, which was quite strange to her, and where she could not, therefore, fall back upon the society and conversation of a friendly landlady. Madelon wandered upstairs and downstairs, looked out of all the windows she could get at, and at last stood leaning against the hall-door, which opened on to the front courtyard. It was very quiet and very dull, nothing moving anywhere; no one crossed the square, sunny space, paved with little stones, and adorned with the usual round-topped trees, in green boxes. Inside the house there was an occasional clatter of plates and dishes, or the resonant nasal cry of "Auguste," or "Henri," from one or other of the servants, but that was all. Madelon found it too tiresome; the porte-cochere stood half open, she crossed the courtyard and peeped out. She saw a quiet, sunny street, with not much more life or movement than there was within, but still a little better. Over the high walls surrounding the houses opposite green trees were waving; at one end of the street there was the gleam of a river, a bridge, and a row of poplars; the other end she could not see, for the street made a bend, and a fountain with dribbling water filled up the angle. Presently a little boy in a blue blouse, and a little girl with a tight round white cap, came up to the stone basin, each with a pitcher to fill; they were a long time about it, for what would be pleasanter, on this hot summer morning, than to stand dabbling one's fingers in the cool water? Madelon watched them till she became possessed with an irresistible desire to do the same. It was only a few steps off, and though she was strictly forbidden by her father ever to go out alone, still— she had so seldom an opportunity of being naughty, that her present consciousness of disobedience rather added, perhaps, to the zest of the adventure. She would go just for this once— and in another moment she was out in the street. The little boy and girl fled with full pitchers as she came up to the fountain, suddenly awakened to a sense of the waste of time in which they had been indulging; but that made no difference to Madelon; she stood gazing with mute admiration at the open- mouthed monsters, from whose wide jaws the water trickled into the basin below; and then she held her hands to catch the drops till they were quite cold, and thought it the best play she had ever known. By-the-by, however, she began to look about her in search of further excitement, and, emboldened by success, turned the corner of the street, and ventured out of sight of the hotel. On one side large portes-cocheres at intervals, shutting in the white, green-shuttered houses, that appeared beyond; on the other a long, high, blank wall, with nothing to be seen above it, and one small arched doorway about half-way down. This was the shady side; and Madelon, crossing over to it, arrived at the arched door, and stood for a moment contemplating it, wondering what could be inside.
She was not left long in doubt, for two priests crossed the road, and pushed open the door, without seeing the child, who, urged by a spirit of curiosity, crept unnoticed after them, and suddenly found herself in a cloister, running round a quadrangle, on one side of which rose the walls and spires and buttresses of a great church; in the centre a carefully kept space of smooth grass. Madelon stood for a moment motionless with delight; it reminded her of a scene in some opera or play to which she had been in Paris with her father, but, oh! how much more beautiful, and all real! The sunlight streamed through the tracery of the cloisters, and fell chequered with sharp shadows on the pavement; the bright blue sky was crossed with pinnacles and spires, and there was an echo of music from the church which lured her on. The two priests walked quickly along, she followed, and all three entered the building by a side door together.
A vast, dim church, with long aisles and lofty pillars, which seemed to Madeleine's unpractised eye, fresh from the outer glare, to vanish in infinite mysterious gloom; a blaze of light, at the far-off high altar, with its priests, and incense, and gorgeous garments and tall candles; on every side shrines and tapers, and pictures, awful, agonised, compassionate Saviours, sad, tender Madonnas; a great silent multitude of kneeling people, and, above all, the organ peeling out, wave after wave of sound, which seemed to strike her, surround her, thrill her with a sense of—what? What was it all? What did it all mean? An awful instinct suddenly woke in the child's heart, painfully struggling with inarticulate cries, as it were, to make itself understood, even to herself. Wholly inarticulate, for she had been taught no words that could express, however feebly, these vague yearnings, these unutterable longings, suddenly stirring in her heart. This wonderful, solemn music, this place, so strange, so separate from any other she had known, what was it? what did it all mean? Ah, yes, what did it all mean? A little girl, no older than herself, who knelt close by the door, with careless eyes that roamed everywhere, and stared wondering at Madelon's cotton frock and rough uncovered little head, could have explained it all very well; she had a fine gilt prayer-book in her hand, and knew most of her Catechism, and could have related the history of all the saints in the church; she did not find it at all impressive, though she liked coming well enough on these grand fete-days, when everyone wore their best clothes, and she could put on her very newest frock. But our little stray Madelon, who knew of none of all these things, could find nothing better to do at last than to creep into a dark corner, between a side chapel and a confessional, crouch down, and begin to sob with all her heart.
Presently the music ceased, and the people went pouring out of the great doors of the church. Madelon, roused by the movement around her, looked up, dried her eyes, and came out of her corner; then, following the stream, found herself once more outside, not in the cloister by the door of which she had entered, but at the top of a wide flight of steps, leading down to a large sunny Place, surrounded with houses, where a fair was going on. She was fairly bewildered; she had never been in the town before, and though, in fact, not very far from the hotel where she was staying, she felt completely lost.
As she stood still for a moment, in the midst of the dispersing crowd, looking scared and dazed enough very likely, she once more attracted the attention of the little girl who had been kneeling near her in the church, and who now pointed her out to her parents, good, substantial-looking bourgeois.
"Comme elle a l'air drole," said the child, "with her hair all rough, and that old cotton frock!"
"She looks as if she had lost someone," says the kindly mother. "I will ask her."
"No, she had not lost anyone," Madelon said, in answer to her inquiries, "but she did not know where she was; could Madame tell her the way to the Hotel de l'Aigle d'Or?"
"It is quite near," Madame answered; "we are going that way; if you like to come with us, we will show it to you."
So Madelon followed the three down the broad steps, and out into the Place, where she looked a queer figure enough, perhaps, in the midst of all the gay holiday-folk who were gathered round the booths and stalls. She did not concern herself about that, however, for her mind was still full of what she had seen and heard in the church; and she walked on silently, till presently Madame, with some natural curiosity as to this small waif and stray she had picked up, said, "Are you staying at the hotel, ma petite?"
"Yes," answered Madelon, "we came there last night."
"And how was it you went to church all alone?"
"Papa had to go out," says Madelon, getting rather red and confused, "and I was so dull by myself, and I—I went out into the street, and got into the church by a little door at the side—not that other one we came out at just now; so I did not know where I was, nor the way back again."
"Then you are a stranger here, and have never been to the church before?" said Monsieur.
"No," said Madelon; and then, full of her own ideas, she asked abruptly—"what was everyone doing in there?"
"In there!—in the church, do you mean?"
"Yes, in the church—what was everyone doing?"
"But do you not know, then," said the mother, "that it is to- day a great fete—the fete of the Assumption?"
"No," said Madelon, "I did not know. Was that why so many people were there? What were they doing?" she persisted.
"How do you mean?—do you not go the messe every Sunday?" said Madame, surprised.
"To the messe!" answered Madelon—"what is that? I never was in a church before."
"Never in a church before!" echoed a chorus of three astonished voices, while Monsieur added—"Never in this church, you mean."
"No," answered Madelon, "it is the first time I ever went into a church at all."
"But, mon enfant," said the mother, "you are big enough to have gone to church long before this. Why, you must be eight or nine years old, and Nanette here went to the grand' messe before she was five—did you not, Nanette?"
"Yes," says Nanette, with a further sense of superiority added to that already induced by the contrast of her new white muslin frock with Madelon's somewhat limp exterior.
"And never missed it for a single Sunday of fete-day since," continued Madame, "except last year, when she had the measles."
"Do you go there every Sunday?" asked Madelon of the child.
"Yes, every Sunday and fete-days. Would you like to see my new Paroissien? My god-father gave it to me on my last birthday."
"And is it always like to-day, with all the singing, and music, and people?"
"Yes, always the same, only not always quite so grand, you know, because to-day is a great fete. Why don't you go to church always?"
"She is perhaps a little Protestant," suggested the father, "and goes to the Temple. Is that not it, my child?"
"I do not know," said Madelon, bewildered; "I never went to any Temple, and I never heard of Protestants. Papa never took me to church; but then we do not live here, you know."
"But in other churches it is the same—everywhere," cries Madame.
"What, in all the big churches in Paris, and everywhere?" said Madelon. "I did not know; I never went into them, but I will ask papa to take me there now." Then, recurring to her first difficulty, she repeated, "But what do people go there for?"
"Mais—pour prier le bon Dieu!" said the good man.
"I do not understand," said Madelon, despairingly. "What does that mean? What were the music and the lights for, and what were all the pictures about?"
"But is it, then, possible, ma petite, that you have had no one to teach you all these things? And on Sundays, what do you do then?" said the mother, while Nanette stared more and more at Madelon, with round eyes.
"We generally go into the country on Sundays," said Madelon. "Papa never goes to church, I am sure, or he would have taken me. I will ask him to let me go again—I like it very much." It was at this moment that they turned into the street in which stood the hotel. "Ah! there is papa," cried Madelon, rushing forward as she saw him coming towards them, and springing into his arms. He had returned to the hotel for a late dejeuner, and was in terrible dismay when Madelon, being sought for, was nowhere to be found. One of the waiters said he had seen her run out of the courtyard, and M. Linders was just going out to look for her.
"Mon Dieu! Madelon," he cried, "where, then, have you been?"
"I ran out, papa," said Madelon, abashed. "I am very sorry—I will not do it again. I lost myself, but Monsieur and Madame here showed me the way back."
Her friendly guides stood watching the two for a moment, as, after a thousand thanks and acknowledgments, they entered the hotel together.
"It is singular," said Madame; "he is handsome, and looks like a gentleman. How can anyone bring up a little child like that in such ignorance? She can have no mother, pauvre petite!"
"What an odd little girl, Maman," cried Nanette, "never to have been to church before, and not to know why people go!"
"Chut, Nanette!" said her father. "Thou also woudst have known nothing, unless some good friends had taught thee." And so these kindly people went their way.
Madelon, meanwhile, was relating all her adventures to her father. He was too rejoiced at having found her again to scold her for running away; but he was greatly put out, nevertheless, as he listened to her little history. Here, then, was en emergency, such as he had dimly foreseen, and done much to avoid, which yet had come upon him unawares, without fault of his, and which he was quite unprepared to meet. He did not, indeed, fully understand its importance, nor all that was passing in his child's mind; but he did perceive that she had caught a glimpse through doors he had vainly tried to keep closed to her, and that that one glance had so aroused her curiosity and interest, that it would be less easy than usual to satisfy her.
"Why do you never go to church, papa?" she was asking. "Why do you not take me? It was so beautiful, and there were such numbers of people. Why do we not go?"
"I don't care about it myself," he answered, at last, "but you shall go again some day, ma petite, if you like it so much."
"May I?" said Madelon. "And will you take me, papa? What makes so many people go? Madame said they went every Sunday and fete day."
"I suppose they like it," answered M. Linders. "Some people go every day, and all day long—nuns, for instance, who have nothing else to do."
"It is, then, when people have nothing else to do that they go?" asked Madelon, misunderstanding him, with much simplicity.
"Something like it," answered M. Linders, rather grimly; then, with a momentary compunction, added, "Not precisely. They do it also, I suppose, because they think it right."
"And do you not think it right, papa? Why should they? I have seen people coming out of church before, but I never knew what it was like inside. I may go again some day?"
"When you are older, my child, I will take you again, perhaps."
"But that little girl Nanette, papa, was only five years old when she went first, her mother said, and I have never been at all," said Madelon, feeling rather aggrieved.
"Well, when we go to Florence next winter, Madelon, you shall visit all the churches. They are much more splendid than these, and have the most beautiful pictures, which I should like you to see."
"And will there be music, and lights, and flowers there, the same as here, papa?"
"Oh! for that, it is much the same everywhere," replied M. Linders. "People are much alike all the world over, as you will find, Madelon. Priests, and mummery, and a gaping crowd, to stare and say, 'How wonderful! how beautiful!' as you do now, ma petite; but you shall know better some day."
He spoke with a certain bitterness that Madelon did not understand, any more than she did his little speech; but it silenced her for a moment, and then she said more timidly,
"But, papa, he said—ce Monsieur—he said that people go to church pour prier le bon Dieu. What did he mean? We often say 'Mon Dieu,' and I have heard them talk of le bon Dieu; is that the same? Who is He then—le bon Dieu?"
M. Linders did not at once reply. Madelon was looking up into his face with wide-open perplexed eyes, frowning a little with an unusual effort of thought, with the endeavour to penetrate a momentary mystery, which she instinctively felt lay somewhere, and which she looked to him to explain; and he could not give her a careless, mocking answer; he sat staring blankly at her for a few seconds, and then said slowly,
"I cannot tell you."
"Do you not know, papa?"
"Yes, yes, certainly I know," he answered hastily, and with some annoyance; "but—in short, Madelon, you are too young to trouble your head about these things; you cannot understand them possibly; when you are older you shall have them explained to you."
"Oh, I don't know—one of these days, when you are a great girl, grown up."
"And you can't tell me now?" said Madelon, a little wistfully; "but you will let me go to the church again before that? Oh, indeed it was beautiful, with the lights, and the singing, and the music. Do you know, papa, it made me cry," she added, in a half whisper.
"Vraiment!" said M. Linders, with some contempt in his voice, and a slight, involuntary shrug of the shoulders.
The contempt was for a class of emotion with which he had no sympathy, and for that which he imagined had called it forth; not for his little Madelon, nor for her expression of it. But the child shrank back, blushing scarlet. He saw his mistake, perhaps, for he drew her towards him again, and with a tender caress and word tried to turn her thoughts in another direction; but it was too late; the impression had been made, and could never again be effaced. All unconsciously, with that one inadvertent word, M. Linders had raised the first slight barrier between himself and his child, had given the first shock to that confidence which he had fondly hoped was ever to exist undisturbed between them. In the most sacred hour her short life had yet known, Madeleine had appealed to him for help and sympathy, and she had been repulsed without finding either. She did not indeed view it in that light, nor believe in and love him the less; she only thought she must have been foolish; but she took well to heart the lesson that she should henceforth keep such folly to herself—as far as he was concerned, at any rate.
As for M. Linders, this little conversation left him alarmed, perplexed, uneasy. What if, after all, this small being whom he had proposed to identify, as it were, with himself, by teaching her to see with his eyes, to apprehend with his understanding, what if she were beginning to develop an independent soul, to have thoughts, notions, ideas of her own, perhaps, to look out into life with eager eyes that would penetrate beyond the narrow horizon it had pleased him to fix as her range of vision, to ask questions whose answers might lead to awkward conclusions? For the moment it seemed to him that his whole system of education, which had worked so well hitherto, was beginning to totter, ready at any time, it might be, to fall into ruins, leaving him and his child vainly calling to each other across an ever-widening, impassable gulf. Already he foresaw as possible results all that he had most wished to avoid, and felt himself powerless to avert them; for, however ready to alienate her from good influences, and expose her to bad ones, he yet shrank from inculcating falsehood and wrong by precept. With a boy it would have been different, and he might have had little hesitation in bringing him up, by both precept and example, in the way he was to go; but with his little innocent woman-child—no, it was impossible. She must be left to the silent and negative teachings of surrounding influences, and in ignorance of all others; and what if these should fail? Perhaps he over- estimated the immediate danger, not taking sufficiently into account the strength and loyalty of her affection for him; but, on the other hand, he perhaps undervalued the depth and force of those feelings to the consciousness of which she had first been roused that day. "It shall not occur again, and in time she will forget all about it," was his first conclusion. His second was perhaps wiser in his generation, taking into consideration a wider range of probabilities. "No," he reflected, "there has been an error somewhere. I should have accustomed Madelon to all these things, and then she would have thought nothing of them. Well, that shall be remedied, for she shall go to every church in Florence, and so get used to them."
If we have dwelt with disproportionate detail on the above little incident, we must be forgiven in consideration of its real importance to our Madeleine, marking, as it did, the commencement of a new era in her life. The sudden inspiration that had kindled for a moment in the great church died away, indeed, as newer impressions more imperatively claimed her attention; but the memory of it remained as a starting point to which any similar sensations subsequently recurring might be referred, as a phenomenon which seemed to contain within itself the germ and possible explanation of a thousand vague aspirations, yearnings which began about this time to spring up in her mind, and which almost unconsciously linked themselves with that solemn hour the remembrance of which, after her conversation with her father, she had set apart in her own heart, to be pondered on from time to time, but in silence,—a reticence too natural and legitimate not to be followed by a hundred others of a similar kind.
M. Linders, for reasons of his own, with which we need not concern ourselves here, spent the following autumn and winter in Florence, establishing himself in an apartment for the season, contrary to his usual practice of living in hotels; and this was how it happened that Madelon made two friends who introduced quite a new element into her life, one which, under other circumstances, might hardly have entered into it as a principle of education at all. The rooms M. Linders had taken were on the third floor of a large palazzo with many occupants, where a hundred feet daily passed up and down the common staircase, the number of steps they had to tread increasing for the most part in direct proportion to their descent in the social grade which, with sufficiently imposing representatives on the first floor, reached its minimum, in point of wealth and station, in the fifth storey garret. On the same floor as Madelon and her father, but on the opposite side of the corridor, lived an American artist; and M. Linders had not been a week in the house before he recognized in him an ancient confrere of his old Parisian artist days, who, after many wanderings to and fro on the earth, had finally settled himself in Florence. The old intimacy was renewed without difficulty on either side. M. Linders was made free of the American's atelier, and he, for his part, willingly smoked his pipe of an evening in the Frenchman's little salon. He was a great black-bearded yellow-faced fellow, with a certain careless joviality about him, that made him popular, though leading a not very respectable life; always extravagant, always in debt, and not averse to a little gambling and betting when they came in his way. He was a sufficiently congenial spirit for M. Linders to associate with freely; but he was kind-hearted, honourable after his own fashion, and had redeeming points in an honest enthusiasm, in a profound conviction of the grand possibilities of life in general, and of his art in particular. He was no great artist, and his business consisted mainly in making copies of well-known pictures, which he did with great skill, so that they always commanded a ready sale in the Florence market. But he also painted a variety of original subjects; and, in unambitious moments, occasionally surprised himself by producing some charming little picture which encouraged him to persevere in this branch of his art.
This man took a great fancy to Madelon, in the first instance from hearing how prettily and deftly she spoke English; and she, after holding herself aloof in dignified reserve for three days from this new acquaintance, was suddenly won over in a visit to his atelier, which henceforth became to her a sort of wonderland, a treasure domain, where she might come and go as she pleased, and where, from beneath much accumulated dust, persevering fingers might extract inimagined prizes, in the shape of sketches, drawings, plaster casts, prints, and divers queer possessions of different kinds. After this, she soon became fast friends with the American, who was very kind and good-natured to her, and M. Linders' promise that she should see all the churches in Florence was fulfilled by the artist. He took her to visit both them and the galleries, showed her the famous pictures, and told her the names of their painters; and the genuine reverence with which he gazed on them, his ever-fresh enjoyment and appreciation of them, impressed her, child as she was, far more than any mere expressions of admiration or technical explanations of their merits would have done.
Sometimes, if she accompanied him to any of the churches where he happened to be copying a picture, he would leave her to wander about alone, and they were strange weird hours that she spent in this way. She did not indeed again assist at any of the great church ceremonies, but the silent spaces of these chill, grand, solemn interiors impressed her scarcely less with a sense of mysterious awe. Tapers twinkled in dim side chapels, pictures and mosaics looked down on her from above, rare footsteps echoed along the marble pavements, silent figures knelt about here and there, pillars, marbles, statues gleamed, and heavy doors and curtains shut in the shadowy, echoing, silent place from the sunshine, and blue sky, and many coloured life without. Madelon, wandering about in the gloom, gliding softly into every nook and corner, gazing at tombs and decorated altars and pictures, wondered more and more at this strange new world in which she found herself, and which she had no one to interpret to her. It had a mysterious attraction for her, as nothing had ever had before; and yet it was almost a relief at last to escape again into the warm, sunny out-of-door life, to walk home with the painter through the bright narrow streets, listening to his gay careless talk, and lingering, perhaps, at some stall, in the busy market- place, to buy grapes and figs; and then to take a walk with her father into the country, where roses nodded at her over garden walls, and vines were yellowing beneath the autumn sky. Her sensitive perception of beauty and grandeur was so much greater than her power of grasping and comprehending them, that her poor little mind became oppressed and bewildered by the disproportion between the vividness with which she received new impressions, and her ability for seizing their meaning.
The pictures themselves, which, before long, she learnt to delight in, and even in some sort to appreciate, were a perpetual source of perplexity to her in the unknown subjects they represented. Her want of knowledge in such matters was so complete that her American friend, who, no doubt, took it for granted that she had been brought up in the religion of the country, never even guessed at it, not imagining that a child could remain so utterly uninstructed in the simple facts and histories; and, somehow, Madelon divined this, and began to have a shy reluctance in asking questions which would betray an unsuspected ignorance. "This is such or such a Madonna," the artist would say; "there you see St. Elizabeth, and that is St. John the Baptist, you know." Or he would point out St. Agnes, or St. Cecilia, or St. Catherine, as the case might be.
"Who was St. Catherine?" Madelon ventured to ask one day.
"Did you never hear of her?" he answered. "Well then, I will tell you all about her. There were, in fact, two St. Catherines, but this one here, who, you see, has a wheel, lived long before the other. There once dwelt in Alexandria a lovely and accomplished maiden—" And he would no doubt have related to her the whole of the beautiful old mystical legend; but her father, who happened to be with them that day, interrupted him.
"Don't stuff the child's head with that nonsense," he said, and, perhaps, afterwards gave his friend a hint; for Madelon heard no more about the saints, and was left to puzzle out meanings and stories for the pictures for herself—and queer enough ones she often made, very likely. On the other hand, the American, who liked to talk to her in his own tongue, and to make her chatter to him in return, would tell her many a story of the old master painters, of Cimabue and the boy Giotto, of Lionardo da Vinci, and half a dozen others; old, old tales of the days when, as we sometimes fancy, looking back through the mist of centuries, there were giants on the earth, but all new and fresh to our little Madelon, and with a touch or romance and poetry about them as told by the enthusiastic artist, which readily seized her imagination; indeed he himself, with his black velvet cap, and short pipe, and old coat, became somehow ennobled and idealised in her simple mind by his association through his art with the mighty men he was teaching her to reverence.
Madelon spent much of her time in the painter's atelier, for her father took it into his head this winter to try his hand once more at his long-neglected art, and, armed with brushes and palette, passed many of his leisure hours in his friend's society. We cannot accredit M. Linders with any profound penetration, or with any subtle perception of what was working in his little daughter's mind, but with the most far-reaching wisdom he could hardly have devised better means, at this crisis in her life, for maintaining his old hold upon her, and keeping up the sense of sympathy between them, which had in one instance been disturbed and endangered.
She was just beginning to be conscious of the existence of a new and glorious world, where money-making was, on the whole, in abeyance, and roulette-tables and croupiers had apparently no existence at all; and the sight of her father at his easel day after day, at once connected him with it, as it were, since he also could produce pictures—tout comme un autre. Then M. Linders could talk well on most subjects, and in the discussions that the two men would not unfrequently hold concerning pictures, Madelon was too young, and had too strong a conviction of her father's perfect wisdom, to discern between his mere clever knowledge of art and the American's pure love and enthusiasm; or if, with some instinctive sense of the difference, she turned more readily to the latter for information, that was because it was his metier; whereas with papa——Oh! with papa it was only an amusement; his business was of quite another kind.
The American amused himself by painting Madelon more than once; and she made a famous little model, sitting still and patiently for hours to him and to her father, who had a knack of producing any number of little, affected, meretricious pictures, in the worst possible style and taste. Years afterwards, Madelon revisited the studio, where the black- bearded friendly American, grown a little bent and a little grey, was still stepping backwards and forwards before the same easel standing in the old place; orange and pomegranate trees still bloomed in the windows; footsteps still passed up and down the long corridor outside where her light childish ones had so often echoed; the old properties hung about on the walls; and there, amongst dusty rolls piled up in a corner, Madelon came upon more than one portrait of herself, a pale- faced, curly-headed child, who looked out at her from the canvas with wistful brown eyes that seemed full of the thoughts that at that time had begun to agitate her poor little brain. How the sight of them brought back the old vanished days! How it stirred within her sudden tender recollections of the quiet hours when, dressed out in some quaint head-gear, or contadina costume, or merely in her own everyday frock, she had sat perched up on a high stool, or on a pile of boxes, dreaming to herself, or listening to the talk between the two men.
"That man is a fool," the American would exclaim, dashing his brush across a whole morning's work; "that man is a presumptuous fool who, here in Florence, here where those others have lived and died, dares to stand before an easel and imagine that he can paint—and I have been that man!" He was wont to grow noisy and loquacious over his failures—not moody and dumb, as some men do.
"You concern yourself too much," M. Linders would reply calmly, putting the finishing touch to Madelon as a bergere standing in the midst of a flock of sheep, and a green landscape—like the enlarged top of a bonbonniere. "You are too ambitious, mon cher—you are little, and want to be great—hence your discomfort; whilst I, who am little, and know it, remain content."
"May I be spared such content!" growled the other, who was daily exasperated by the atrocities his friend produced by way of pictures. It was beyond his comprehension how any man could paint such to his disgrace, and then calmly contemplate them as the work of his own hands. "Heaven preserve me from such content, I say!"
"But it is there you are all in the wrong," says M. Linders, quite unmoved by his companion's uncomplimentary energy. "You agitate, you disturb yourself with the idea that some day you will become something great—you begin to compare yourself with these men whose works you are for ever copying, with who knows? —with Raffaelle, with Da Vinci——"
"I compare myself with them!" cries the American, interrupting him. "I! No, mon ami, I am not quite such a fool as that. I reverence them, I adore their memory, I bow down before their wonderful genius"—and as he spoke he lifted his cap from his head, suiting his action to his words—"but compare myself! — I!" Then picking up his brush again, he added, "But the world needs its little men as well as its great ones—at any rate, the little ones need their pot au feu; so to work again. Allons, ma petite, your head a little more this way."
This little conversation, which occurred nearly at the beginning of their acquaintance, the painter's words and manner, his energy, his simple, dignified gesture as he raised his cap—all made a great impression on our Madelon; it was indeed one of her first lessons in that hero-worship whereby lesser minds are brought into rapport with great ones; and, even while they reverence afar off, exultingly feel that they in some sort share in their genius through their power of appreciating it. Nor was it her last lesson of the same kind.
Her second friend was an old German violinist, who inhabited two little rooms at the top of the big house, a tall, broad- shouldered, stooping man, whose thick yellow hair and moustache, plentifully mixed with grey, blue eyes, and fair complexion, testified to his nationality, as did his queer, uncouth accent, though he has spent at least two-thirds of his life in Florence. He was an old friend of the American painter's, and paid frequent visits to his studio; and it was there he first met Madelon and her father. He did not much affect M. Linders' company, but he took a fancy to the child, as indeed most people did, and made her promise that she would come and see him; and when she had once found her way, and been welcomed to his little bare room, where an old piano, a violin, and heaps of dusty folios of music, were the principal furniture, a day seldom passed without her paying him a visit. She would perch herself at his window, which commanded a wide view over the city, with its countless roofs, and domes, and towers, and beyond the encircling hills, with their scattered villas, and slopes of terraced gardens, and pines, and olives, all under the soft blue transparent sky; and with her eyes fixed on this sunny view, Madelon would go off into some dreamy fit, as she listened to the violinist, of whose playing she never wearied. He was devoted to his art, though he had never attained to any remarkable proficiency in it; and at any hour of the day he might be heard scraping, and tuning, and practising, for he belonged to the orchestra of one of the theatres. It was quite a new sensation for Madelon to hear so much music in private life, and she thought it all beautiful— tuning and scraping and all.
"But that is all rubbish," the German would cry, after spending an hour in going through some trashy modern Italian music. "Now, my child, you shall hear something worth listening to;" and with a sigh of relief he would turn to some old piece by Mozart or Bach, some minuet of Haydn's, some romance of Beethoven's, which he would play with no great power of execution, indeed, but with a rare sweetness and delicacy of touch and expression, and with an intense absorption in the music, which communicated itself to even so small a listener as Madelon.
It would have been hard to say which of the two had the more enjoyment—she, as she sat motionless, her chin propped on her two hands, her brown eyes gazing into space, and a hundred dreamy fancies vaguely shaped by the music, flitting through her brain; or he, as he bent over his violin, lovingly exacting the sweet sounds, and his thoughts—who knows where? — anywhere, one may be sure, rather than in the low-ceiled, dusty garret, redolent of tobacco smoke, and not altogether free from a suspicion of onions.
"There, my child," he would say at the end, "that is music— that is art! What I was playing before was mere rubbish—trash, unworthy of me and of my violin."
"And why do you play it?" asks Madelon, simply.
"Ah! why indeed?" said the violinist—"because one must live, my little Frauelein; and since they will play nothing else at the theatre, I must play it also, or I should be badly off."
"You are not rich, then?" said Madelon.
"Rich enough," he answered. "I gain enough to live upon, and I ask no more."
"Why don't you make money like papa?" says Madelon; "then you could play what you liked, you know. We are very rich sometimes."
The old German screwed up his queer, kind, ugly face.
"It—it's not my way," he said drily. "As for money, I might have had plenty by this time, if I had not run away from home when I was a boy, because I preferred being a poor musician to a rich merchant. Money is not the only nor the best thing in the world, my little lady."
M. Linders apparently saw no danger to Madelon's principles in these new friendships, or else, perhaps, he was bent on carrying out his plan of letting her get used to things; at any rate, he did not interfere with her spending as much time as she liked with both painter and musician; and every day through the winter she grew fonder of the society of the old violinist. He was a lonely man, who lived with his music and his books, cared little for company, and had few friends; but he liked to see Madelon flitting about his dusky room, carrying with her bright suggestions of the youth, and gaiety, and hopefulness he had almost forgotten. He talked to her, taught her songs, played to her as much as she liked, and often gave her and her father orders for the theatre to which he belonged, where, with delight, she would recognise his familiar face as he nodded and smiled at her from the orchestra. He instructed her, too, in music; made her learn her notes, and practise on the jangling old piano, and even, at her particular request, to scrape a little on the violin; but she cared most for singing, and for hearing him play and talk. She never felt shy or timid with him, and one day, at the end of a long rhapsody about German music and German composers, she asked him innocently enough—
"Who was Beethoven, and Mozart, and—and all those others you talk about? I never heard of them before."
"Never before!" he cried, in a sort of comic amazement and dismay. "Here is a little girl who has lived half her life in Germany, who talks German, and yet never heard of Beethoven, nor of Mozart, nor of—of all those others! Listen, then—they were some of the greatest men that ever lived."
And, indeed, Madelon heard enough about them after that; for delighted to have a small, patient listener, to whom he could rhapsodize as much as he pleased in his native tongue, the violinist henceforth lost no opportunity of delivering his little lectures, and would harangue for an hour together, not only about music and musicians, but about a thousand other things—a queer, high-flown, rambling jumble, often enough, which Madelon could not possibly follow nor understand, but to which she nevertheless liked to listen. A safer teacher she could hardly have had; she gained much positive information from him, and when he got altogether beyond her, she remained impressed with the conviction that he was speaking from the large experiences of deep, mysterious wisdom and knowledge, and sat listening with a reverential awe, as to some strange, lofty strain, coming to her from some higher and nobler region than she could hope to attain to as yet, and of which she could in some sort catch the spirit, though she could not enter into the idea. At the same time there was a certain childlike vein running through all the old man's rambling talk, which made it, after all, not unsuited to meet the instinctive aspirations of a child's mind. With him love and veneration for greatness and beauty, in every form, amounted almost to a passion, which was still fresh and genuine, as in the lad to whom the realization of the word blase seems the one incomprehensible impossibility of life. In the simple reverence with which he spoke of the great masters of his art, Madelon might have recognized the same spirit as that which animated the American; and as the artist had once uncovered at the name of Raffaelle and Lionardo da Vinci, so did the musician figuratively bow down at the shrines of Handel, or Bach, or Beethoven. From both these men, so different in other respects, the child began to learn the same lesson, which in all her life before she had never even heard hinted at.
All this, however, almost overtaxed our little Madelon's faculties, and it was not surprising that, as the winter wore on, a change gradually came over her. In truth, both intellect and imagination were being overstrained by the constant succession of new images, new ideas, new thoughts, that presented themselves to her. She by no means grew accustomed to churches—not in the sense, at any rate, which her father had hoped would be the result of his new system. It was not possible that she should, while so much remained that was mysterious and unexplained; she only wearied her small brain with the effort to find the explanation for all these new perplexities, which she felt must exist somewhere, though she could not find it; add to this, these long conversations, this music, with its strange, vague suggestions, and even the thousand novelties of the picturesque Italian life around her, not one of which was lost on her impressionable little mind, and we need not wonder that she began to suffer from an excitement that gathered in strength from day to day. She grew thin, morbid, nervous, ate almost nothing, and lost her usual vivacity, sitting absorbed in dreamy fits, from which it was difficult to arouse her, and which were very different from the quiet, happy silence in which she used to remain contented by her father's side for hours. All night she was haunted with what she had seen by day in picture-galleries and churches. The heavenly creations of Fra Angelico or Sandro Botticelli, of Ghirlandaio or Raffaelle, over which she had mused and pondered, re-produced themselves in dreams, with the intensity and reality of actual visions, and with accessories borrowed from all that, in her new life, had impressed itself most vividly on her imagination. Once more she would stand in the vast church, the censers swinging, the organ pealing overhead, round her a great throng of beatified adoring saints, with golden glories, with palms, and tall white lilies, and many- coloured garments; or pillars and arches would melt away, and she would find herself wandering through flower-enamelled grass, in fair rose-gardens of Paradise; or radiant forms would come gliding towards her through dark-blue skies; or the heavens themselves would seem to open, and reveal a blaze of glory, where, round a blue-robed, star-crowned Madonna, choirs of rapturous angels repeated the divine melodies she had heard faintly echoed in the violinist's dim little room. All day long these dreams clung to her, oppressing her with their strange unreal semblance of reality, associating themselves with every glowing sunset, with every starry sky, till the pictures themselves that had suggested them looked pale by comparison.
She was, in fact, going through a mental crisis, such as, in other circumstances, and under fostering influences, has produced more than one small ecstatic enthusiast; the infant shining light of some Methodist conventicle; the saintly child visionary of some Catholic convent. But Madelon had no one to foster, nor to interpret for her these feverish visions, so inexplicable to herself, poor child! To the good-natured, careless, jovial American, she would not have even hinted at them for worlds, and not less carefully did she shun appealing to her father for sympathy. That contemptuous "vraiment" dwelt in her memory, not as a matter of resentment, but as something to be avoided henceforth at the cost of any amount of self- repression. She would sit leaning her languid little head on his shoulder; but when he anxiously asked her what ailed her, she could only reply, "I don't know, papa." And indeed she did not know; nor even if she had, could she have found the words with which to have explained it to him. It was, after all, the old German who won her confidence at last. There was, as we have said, something simple, genuine, homely about the old man; a reminiscence, perhaps, of his homely Fatherland still clinging about him, after more than forty years of voluntary exile, which Madelon could well appreciate, though she could not have defined it; for a child judges more by instinct than reflection, and it was through no long process of reasoning that she had arrived at the certainty that she would be met here by neither contempt nor indifference. Moreover, his generally lofty and slightly incomprehensible style of conversation, and the endless stores of learning with which she had innocently accredited him, had surrounded him with that vague halo of wisdom and goodness, so dear to the hearts of children of larger as of smaller growth, and which they are so eager to recognize, that they do not always distinguish between the false and the true. From the very beginning of their acquaintance, it had occurred to Madelon that she might be able to gain some information on that subject, which her father had pronounced to be above her comprehension as yet; but which, on reflection, and encouraged by a Nanette's example, she felt quite sure she could understand if it were only explained to her. Twenty times had that still unanswered question trembled on her lips, but a shy timidity, not so much of her old friend as of the subject itself, which had become invested in her mind with a kind of awful mystery, to which a hundred circumstances daily contributed, checked her at the moment of utterance.
One evening, however, she was sitting as usual at the window in the old man's room. The sun had set, the short twilight was drawing to a close, church bells were ringing, down in the city yellow lights were gleaming in windows here and there, above, the great sky rounded upward from a faint glow on the horizon through imperceptible gradations of tint, to pure depths of transparent blue overhead, where stars were beginning to flash and tremble; within, in the gloom, the musician sat playing a sacred melody of Spohr's, and as Madelon listened, some subtle affinity between this hour and the first one she had spent in the church touched her, and her eyes filled with sudden tears of painful ecstasy. As the old German ceased, she went up to him with an impulse that admitted of no hesitation, and, as well as she could, told him all that was in her mind—her dreams, her strange weird fancies, all that for the last few months had been haunting and oppressing her with its weight of mystery. "Papa said I could not understand," she said in conclusion, "but I think I could. Will you not explain it to me? Can you not tell me what it all means, and who—who is God?"
The German had heard in silence till then, but at this last question he started from his listening attitude.
"Was—was—" he stammered, and suddenly rising—"Ach, mein Gott!" he cried, with the familiar ejaculation, "to ask me!—to ask me!"
He walked twice up and down the room, as stirred by some hidden emotion, his head bowed, his hands behind his back, murmuring to himself, and then stopped where Madelon was standing by the window. She looked up, half trembling, into the rugged face bent over her. He was her priest for the moment, standing as it were between earth and heaven—her confessor, to whom she had revealed the poor little secrets of her heart; and she waited with a sort of awe for his answer.
"My child," he said at length, looking down sadly enough into her eager, inquiring eyes, "when I was no older than thou art, I had a pious, gentle mother, at whose knee night and morning I said my prayers—and believed. If she were alive now, I would say, 'Go to her, and she will tell thee of all these things'— but do not speak of them to me. Old Karl Wendler is neither good, nor wise, nor believing enough to instruct thee, an innocent child."
He made this little speech very gently and solemnly; then turned away abruptly, took up his hat, and left the room without another word. Madelon stood still for a minute baffled, repulsed, with a sort of bruised, sore feeling at her heart, and yet with a new sense of wondering pity, roused by something in his words and manner; then she too left the room, and though the darkness crept softly downstairs.
So ended this little episode with the violinist. Not that she did not visit and sit with him as much as before; the very next day, when she returned, rather shyly, upstairs, she found him sitting in the old place, with the old nod and smile to welcome her, but somehow he managed to put things on a different footing—he spared her his long metaphysical discourses, and talked to her more as the child that she was, laughing, joking, and telling her queer hobgoblin and fairy stories, some of which she knew before indeed, but which he related with a quaint simplicity and naivete, which gave them a fresh charm for her; and under this new aspect of things, she brightened up, began to lose her fits of dreaminess, to chatter as in old times, and cheered many an hour of the musician's solitary life. The American artist, too, left Florence about this time for a visit to Rome; and during his absence the atelier was closed, and wandering through churches and picture galleries were exchanged for long excursions into the country with her father; by degrees dreams, fancies, visions floated away, and Madelon became herself again.
She had gone through a phase, and one not altogether natural to her, and which readily passed away with the abnormal conditions that had occasioned it. She was by no means one of those dreamy, thoughtful, often melancholy children who startle us by the precocious grasp of their intellect, by their intuitive perception of truths which we had deemed far above their comprehension. Madelon's precocity was of quite another order. In her quick, impulsive, energetic little mind there was much that was sensitive and excitable, little that was morbid or unhealthy. One might see that, with her, action would always willingly take the place of reflection; that her impulses would have the strength of inspirations; that she would be more ready to receive impressions than to reason upon them. Meditation, comparison, introspection, were wholly foreign to this little, eager, impetuous nature, however they might be forced upon it in the course of years and events; and with her keen sense of enjoyment in all glad outward influences, one might have feared that the realities of life present to her would too readily preclude any contemplation of its hidden possibilities, but for a lively, susceptible imagination, which would surely intervene to prevent any such tendency being carried out to its too prosaic end. It was through appeals to her imagination and affection, rather than to her reason and intellect, that Madeleine could be influenced; and whatever large sympathies with humanity she might acquire through life, whatever aspirations after a high and noble ideal, whatever gleams of inspiration from the great beyond that lies below the widest, as well as the narrowest horizon, might visit her—all these would come to her, we may fancy, through the exercise of pure instincts and a sensitive imagination, rather than through the power of logical deduction from given causes.
From our small, ten-year-old Madelon, however, all this still lay hidden; for the present, the outward pressure, which had weighed too heavily on her little mind and brain, removed, she returned with a glad reaction to her old habits of thought and speech. Not entirely indeed; the education she had received, remained and worked; the "obstinate questionings," an answer to which she had twice vainly sought, were unforgotten, and still awaited their reply. This little Madelon, to whom the golden gates had been opened, though ever so slightly—to whom the divine, lying all about her and within her, had been revealed, though ever so dimly—could never be quite the same as the little Madelon who, careless and unthinking, had strayed into the great church that summer morning six months ago; but the child herself was as yet hardly conscious of this, and neither, we may be sure, was M. Linders, as with renewed cheerfulness, and spirits, and chatter, she danced along by his side under the new budding trees, under the fair blue skies.
It was soon after this, when the delicious promise of an early spring was brightening the streets and gardens of Florence, filling them with sunshine and flowers, that another shadow fell upon the brightness of Madelon's life, and one so dark and real, as to make all others seem faint and illusory by comparison. Her father had a serious illness. He had not been well all the winter; and one day, Madelon, coming down from the violinist's room, had been frightened almost out of her small wits at finding him lying back unconscious in a chair in their little salon. She called the old woman who acted as their servant to her assistance, and between them they had soon succeeded in restoring him to consciousness, when he had made light of it, saying it was merely a fit of giddiness, which would have passed off. He had refused to be alarmed, or to send for a doctor, even after a second and third attack of the same kind; but then a fever, which in the mild spring weather was lurking about, lying in wait of victims, seized him, and laid him fairly prostrate.
His illness never took a really dangerous turn, but it kept him weak and helpless for some weary weeks, during which Madelon learnt to be a most efficient little nurse, taking turns with the old servant and with the violinist, who willingly came down from his upper regions to do all he could to help his little favourite. In some respects she, perhaps, made the best nurse of all, with her small skilful fingers, and entire devotion to her father. She had a curious courage, too, for such an inexperienced child, and the sense of an emergency was quite sufficient to make her conquer the horrible pang it gave her loving little heart to see her father lying racked with pain, unconscious, and sometimes delirious. She never failed to be ready when wanted; the doctor complimented her, and said jokingly that the little Signorina would make a capital doctor's assistant. Her German friend nodded approval, and, best of all, it was always to his Madelon that M. Linders turned in his most weary moments—from her that he liked to receive drinks and medicine; and she it was who, as he declared, arranged his pillows and coverings more comfortably than anyone else. In delirium he asked for her continually; his eyes sought her when she was not in the room, and lighted up when she came with her little noiseless step to his bedside. The old German, who had had a strong dislike to, and prejudice against this man, took almost a liking to him, as he noted the great love existing between him and his little daughter.
The American did not return till M. Linders was nearly well again, and thinking of departure. Madelon was in despair at the idea of leaving Florence; it had been more like home to her than any place she had yet known, and it almost broke her heart to think of parting with her old German friend; but M. Linders was impatient to be gone. He wanted change of air, he said, after his illness; but, indeed, had other reasons which he proclaimed less openly, but which were far more imperative, and made him anxious to pay an earlier visit to Germany this year than was usual with him. Certain speculations, on the success of which he had counted, had failed, so that a grand coup at Homburg or Baden seemed no less necessary than desirable to set him straight again with the world, and he accordingly fixed on a day towards the end of April for their departure.
The American made a festive little supper the evening before in his atelier, but it was generally felt to be a melancholy failure, for not even the artist's rather forced gaiety, nor M. Linders' real indifference, could enliven it. As for the old German, he sat there, saying little, eating less, and smoking a great deal; and Madelon at his side was speechless, only rousing herself later in the evening to coax him into playing once more all her favourite tunes. Everyone, except, perhaps, M. Linders, felt more or less sorry at the breaking up of a pleasant little society which had lasted for some months, and the violinist almost felt as if he were being separated from his own child. Madelon wished him good-bye that night, but she ran upstairs very early the next morning to see him once more before starting.
The old man was greatly moved; he was standing looking sadly out of the window when she came in, and when he saw her in her little travelling cloak, the tears began to run down his rugged old cheeks.
"God bless thee, my little one!" he said. "I shall miss thee sorely—but thou wilt not forget me?"
"Never, never!" cries Madelon, with a little sob, and squeezing the kind hands that held hers so tightly.
"And if I should never see thee again," said the German, in broken accents, "if—if—remember, I——" He hesitated and stammered, and M. Linders' voice was heard calling Madelon.
"I must go," she said, "papa is calling me; but I will never forget you—never; ah! you have been so good, so kind to me. See here," she said, unclosing one of her hands which she had kept tightly shut, and showing the little green and gold fish Horace Graham had given her years before, "I promised never to part with this, but I have nothing else—and—and I love you so much—will you have it?"
"No, no," said the old man, smiling and shaking his head, "keep thy promise, and thy treasure, my child; I do not require that to remind me of thee. Farewell!"
He put her gently out of the door as her father's step was heard coming upstairs, and closed it after her. She never did see him again, for he died in less than two years after their parting.
M. Linders went to Homburg, to Baden, to Wiesbaden, but he was no longer the man he had been before his illness; he won largely, indeed, at times, but he lost as largely at others, playing with a sort of reckless, feverish impatience, instead of with the steady coolness that had distinguished him formerly. Old acquaintance who met him said that M. Linders was a broken man, and that his best days were over: men who had been accustomed to bet on his success, shrugged their shoulders, and sought for some steadier and luckier player to back; he himself, impatient of ill-luck, and of continual defeat in the scenes of his former triumphs, grew restless and irritable, wandered from place to place in search of better fortune and better health, and at length, at the end of a fortnight's stay at Wiesbaden, after winning a large sum at rouge-et-noir, and losing half of it the next day, announced abruptly that he was tired of Germany, and should set off at once for Paris. Madelon had noticed the alteration in her father less than anyone else perhaps; she was used to changes of fortune, and whatever he might feel he never showed it in his manner to her; outwardly, at least, this summer had appeared to her very similar to any preceding one, and she was too much accustomed to M. Linders' sudden moves, to find anything unusual in this one, although, dictated as it was by a caprice of weariness and disgust, it took them away from the Germany tables just at the height of the season. Once more, then, the two set out together, and towards the middle of August found themselves established in their old quarters in the Paris Hotel, where Madame Linders had died, and where Madame Lavaux still reigned head of the establishment.
After five Years.
One evening, about three weeks after their arrival in Paris, Madelon was standing at a window at the end of the long corridor into which M. Linders' apartment opened; the moon was shining brightly, and she had a book in her hand, which she was reading by its clear light, stopping, however, every minute to gaze down into the front courtyard of the hotel, which lay beneath the window, quiet, almost deserted after the bustle of the day, and full of white moonlight and black shadows. Her father was out, and she was watching for his return, though it was now long past eleven o'clock.
There was nothing unusual on her part in this late vigil, for she was quite accustomed to sit up for her father, when he spent his evenings away from home; but there must have been something strange and forlorn-looking in the little figure standing there all alone at such an hour, for a gentleman, who had come in late from the theatre, paused as he was turning the key of the door before entering his room, looked at her once or twice, and, after a moment's hesitation, walked up to the window. Madelon did not notice him till he was close behind her, and then turned round with a little start, dropping her book.
"I did not think it was you—" she began; then seeing a stranger, stopped short in the middle of her speech.
"I am afraid I have startled you," said the gentleman in English-French, but with a pleasant voice and manner, "and disappointed you too."
"I beg your pardon, Monsieur," she answered, "I thought it was papa; I have been looking for him so long," and she turned round to the window again.
It was five years since Horace Graham and Madeleine had spent an hour together in the courtyard at Chaudfontaine, so that it was not surprising that they did not at once recognise each other at this second unforeseen meeting; the young man, as well as the child, had then been of an age to which five years cannot be added without bringing with them most appreciable changes. For Graham, these years had been precisely that transition period in which a lad separates himself from the aggregate mass of youth, and stands forth in the world as a man of his own right, according to that which is in him. This tall, thin, brown young army doctor, who has passed brilliant examinations, who is already beginning to be known favourably in the profession, whose name has appeared at the end of more than one approved article in scientific Reviews; who has travelled, seen something of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium; who for five years has been studying, thinking, living through youthful experiences and failures, and out-living some youthful illusions, cannot fail, one may be sure, to be a different personage, in many respects, from the fresh-hearted medical student who had sauntered away an idle Sunday amongst the woods and valleys round Chaudfontaine, and had looked with curious, half wondering eyes at the new little world disclosed to him at the hotel. As for our little Madelon, the small, round, pinafored child was hardly recognisable in this slim little girl, in white frock, with brown hair that hung in short wayward tangling waves, instead of curling in soft ringlets all over her head; and yet Graham, who rarely forgot a face, was haunted by a vague remembrance of her eyes, with the peculiar look, half-startled, half-confiding, with which they met the first glance of strangers. Madelon's brown eyes were the greatest charm of a face which was hardly pretty yet, though it had the promise of beauty in after years; to liken them to those of some dumb, soft, dark-eyed animal is to use a trite comparison; and yet there is, perhaps, no other that so well describes eyes such as these, which seem charged with a meaning beyond that which their owner is able to express in words, or is, perhaps, even conscious of. When seen in children, they seem to contain a whole prophecy of their future lives, and in Madelon they had probably a large share in the powers of attraction which she undoubtedly possessed; few could resist their mute appeal, which, child as she was, went beyond her own thought, and touched deeper sympathies than any she could yet have known.
There was a moment's silence after Madelon had spoken, and then she once more turned from the window with a disappointed air.
"Pardon, Monsieur," she said again, "but can you tell me what time it is? Is it past eleven?"
"It is more than half-past," said Graham, looking at his watch. "Have you been waiting here long?"
"Since ten o'clock," said Madelon, "papa said he would be in by ten. I cannot think where he can be."
"He has probably found something to detain him," suggested Graham.
"No," answered Madelon, rejecting this obvious proposition; "for he had an appointment here; there is some one waiting for him now."
"Then he has perhaps come in without your knowing it?"
"I do not think so," said Madelon, "he would have called me; and besides, I should have seen him cross the courtyard. I saw you come in just now, Monsieur."
Nevertheless she left her station by the window, and moved slowly along the passage to their apartment; it was just opposite Graham's, and as she went in, leaving the door open, Horace, who had followed her without any very definite purpose, looked in. It was a tolerably large room, with a door to the left opening into a smaller apartment, Utrecht velvet chairs and sofa, a mantelpiece also covered with velvet, on which stood a clock, a tall looking-glass, and two lighted wax candles; a table in the middle with some packs of cards, and a liqueur bottle and glasses, and a bed on one side opposite the fireplace. The window looked on to a side street, noisy with the incessant rattling of vehicles, and so narrow that the numerous lighted interiors of the houses opposite were visible to the most casual observer. A smell of smoking pervaded the room, explained by the presence of a young man, who held a cigar in one hand, whilst he leaned half out of the window, over the low iron balcony in front, shouting to some one in the street below. He looked round as Madelon came in, and slowly drew himself back into the room, exhibiting a lean, yellow face, surrounded with dishevelled hair, and ornamented by black unkempt beard and moustache.
"Monsieur votre pere does not arrive apparently, Mademoiselle," he said.
"I have not seen him come in, Monsieur," answered Madelon; "I thought he was perhaps here."
"Not at all, I have seen nothing of him this evening. But this is perhaps a trick that Monsieur le Papa is playing me; he fears to give me his little revenge of which he spoke, and wishes to keep out of my way. What do you say to that, Mademoiselle?"
"I am quite sure it is not so," answered Madelon, with a little defiant air. "I heard papa say it was quite by chance he had lost all that money to you, for you did not understand the first principles of the game."
"Ah! he said that? But it is lucky for us other poor devils that we have these chances sometimes! You will at least admit that, Mademoiselle?"
"Papa plays better than anyone," says Madelon, retreating from argument to the safer ground of assertion, and still standing in the middle of the room in her defiant attitude, with her hands clasped behind her.
"Without a doubt, Mademoiselle; but then, as he says, we also have our chances. Well, I cannot wait for mine this evening, for it is nearly midnight, and I have another appointment. These gentlemen will wonder what has become of me. Mademoiselle, I have the honour to wish you good evening."
He made a profound bow, and left the room.
Madelon gave a great sigh, and then came out into the passage again where Horace was standing. He had been a somewhat bewildered spectator of this queer little interview, but the child evidently saw nothing out of the way in it, for she made no remark upon it, and only said rather piteously,
"I cannot imagine where papa can be; I do wish he would come back."
"Does he often stay out so late as this?" asked Graham.
"Oh! yes, often, but not when he says he is coming in early, or when he is expecting anyone."
"And do you know where he is gone?"
"No, not at all. He said he was going to dine with some gentlemen, but I don't know where! Oh! do you think anything— anything can have happened?" cried Madelon, her hidden anxiety suddenly finding utterance.
"Indeed I do not," answered Graham, in his kindest voice. "His friends have persuaded him to stay late, I have no doubt; you must not be so uneasy—these things often happen, you know. Let us go and look out of the window again; perhaps we shall see him just coming in."
They went to the end of the corridor accordingly; but no one was to be seen, except the man who had just left M. Linders' apartment walking briskly across the moonlight space below, the great doors of the porte-cochere closing after him with a clang that resounded through the silent courtyard. Graham had nothing further to say in the way of consolation; he could think of no more possible contingencies to suggest, and, indeed, it was useless to go on reasoning concerning perfectly unknown conditions. Madelon, however, seemed a little reassured by his confident tone, and he changed the subject by asking her whether the gentleman who had just left was a friend of hers.
"Who? Monsieur Legros?" Madelon answered. "No, I don't know him much, and I do not like him at all; he comes sometimes to play with papa."
"To play with him?"
"Yes, at cards, you know—at ecarte, or piquet, or one of those games."
"And it was with him that your father had an appointment?"
"Yes," said Madelon; "he came last night, and papa told him to be here again this evening at ten, and that is why I cannot think why he does not come."
She turned again disconsolately to the window, and there was another pause. Madelon relapsed into the silence habitual to her with strangers, and Graham hardly knew how to continue the conversation; yet he was unwilling to leave the child alone with her anxiety at that late hour: and besides, he was haunted by vague, floating memories that refused to shape themselves definitely. Some time—somewhere—he had heard or seen, or dreamt of some one—he could not catch the connecting link which would serve to unite some remote, foregone experience with his present sensations.
He moved a little away from the window, and in so doing his foot struck against the book which Madelon had dropped on first seeing him, and he stooped to pick it up. It was a German story-book, full of bright coloured pictures; so he saw as he opened it and turned over the leaves, scarcely thinking of what he did, when his eye was suddenly arrested by the inscription on the fly-leaf. The book had been given to Madelon only the year before by a German lady she had met at Chaudfontaine, and there was her name, "Madeleine Linders," that of the donor, the date, and below, "Hotel des Bains, Chaudfontaine." It was a revelation to Horace. Of course he understood it all now. Here was the clue to his confused recollections, to the strange little scene he had just witnessed. Another moonlit courtyard came to his remembrance, a gleaming, rushing river, a background of shadowy hills, and a little coy, wilful, chattering girl, with curly hair and great brown eyes—those very eyes that had been perplexing him not ten minutes ago.
"I think you and I have met before," he said to Madelon, smiling; "but I daresay you don't remember much about it, though I recollect you very well now."
"We have met before?" said Madelon. "Pardon, Monsieur, but I do not very well recall it."
"At Chaudfontaine, five years ago, when you were quite a little girl. You are Madeleine Linders, are you not?"