What he could do, he did, and it was more than he thought. Madelon's sudden devotion to him, of which indeed he knew and suspected nothing, was of infinite service to her in her first bitterness of her grief, by giving a new current to her ideas, whilst it did away with the sense of lonely desolation that had nearly overpowered her in that first dark hour. In her ardent little nature there was a necessity for loving, even stronger perhaps than for being loved, a certain enthusiasm, a capacity for devotion that had opportunely found an object in the time of extreme need. For a short hour it had seemed to her as if life itself had come to an end with her father's death; the darkness and vagueness of the future had crushed her down, all the more that she had scarcely comprehended what was the weight that so oppressed her—and then a moment had changed it all; a kind word spoken, a kind face looking down upon her, a friendly hand stretched out, and the vague terrors had vanished. From that time Horace Graham's presence was bliss to our Madelon; when she was unhappy, she dried her tears if he consoled her; if he was out, she sat listening for his returning footsteps; if he was busy, she was content to remain for hours with her book on her knee, her chin propped on her hands, her wistful eyes following his every movement. Monsieur Horace, as it pleased Madelon to call him, knew nothing of all this, we may be sure; but he was very good and tender to the little girl, and did all he could to cheer and console her in the sudden overpowering fits of grief that came upon her from time to time. Finding that she liked to talk of the past, he encouraged her to do so, being anxious, indeed, to learn all he could of her former life, and to ascertain, if, after all, there were indeed no friends to whom he could apply, in the event of his mission to her Aunt Therese proving, from any cause, unsuccessful. But as before, on this point he obtained no sort of satisfaction. Madelon never got much beyond the Florence artists, and her German countess, and Russian princess. M. Linders, it was evident, had had no friends beyond the acquaintance he had made at the different places at which he had been wont to tarry from time to time; and these, for the most part, Graham inferred to have been of so doubtful a character that he could only rejoice for Madelon's sake that all further chance of connection was broken off. Madelon dwelt at great length on their last winter at Florence; she loved Italy, she said; she liked it better than France or Belgium, and Florence was such a beautiful place; had Monsieur Horace ever been there? There were such splendid churches, and palaces and galleries, with such grand pictures and statues; the American used to take her to see them. Papa had several friends there who knew a great deal about pictures, who were artists indeed; she used to go to their studios sometimes, and she liked hearing them talk. And then there were the fetes and processions, and the country people in such gay dresses, and all with such a blue sky and such bright sunshine; and then the Sundays! very often she and papa would go out into the country to some inn where they would breakfast and dine; ah! it had been so pleasant. "I shall never be so happy again," sighs Madelon.
The warm, glowing, picturesque Italian life had, as we know, forcibly seized her imagination, her eyes shone with delight as she recalled it, and, almost involuntarily in describing it, she made use of the soft words and phrases of the Italian tongue, which with the ready talent she possessed for languages, she had caught up, and spoke fluently.
"Where did you go when you left Florence?" asked Graham.
"We came north across the Alps and through Switzerland to Baden, and then we stayed a little while at Homburg, and then we were at Wiesbaden for six weeks: do you know Wiesbaden, Monsieur Horace?"
"I was there once for two days," answered Graham; "were you happy there too?"
"Ah yes, I was always happy with papa, but I like Wiesbaden very much. It is so pretty and gay; do you remember the Kursaal gardens? I used to walk there and listen to the band, and sometimes we sat and had coffee at the little round tables, and looked at all the people passing. And then in the evening there were the balls; last summer I used sometimes to go to them with the Russian Princess."
"And who was the Russian Princess?" Graham inquired.
"She was a Russian lady papa knew there, and she was very kind to me; I used to walk with her, and sit by her at the tables, and prick her cards for her; she said I brought her luck."
"Prick her cards!" cried Graham.
"Yes—don't you know? at rouge-et-noir," says Madelon in explanation, "one has little cards to prick, and then one remembers how many times each colour has won; otherwise one would not know at all what to do."
"I see," said Graham; "and so your Russian Princess played at rouge-et-noir—did she win much?"
"Yes, a great deal," cried Madelon, spreading out her hands, "she always had chance and was very rich; she wore such beautiful toilettes at the balls; she knew a great many gentlemen, and when I went with her they all danced with me."
And so on, da capo; it was always the same story, and Graham soon found that he had reached the limits of Madelon's experiences in that direction. As a last resource, he wrote to her American and German friends at Florence, the most respectable apparently of M. Linders' many doubtful acquaintance, and indeed the only ones with whose address Madelon could furnish him. From the old German he received a prompt reply. The American was absent from Florence, he said on a visit to his own country, which was to be regretted, as it was he who had been M. Linders' friend, and who could have given more information concerning him than it was in his power to do. Indeed, for himself, he knew little about him; he had spent the last winter at Florence, but his society and associates were not such as he, the German, affected. M. Linders had once been an artist, he believed; he had spent much of his time in painting, but he knew nothing of his early life. That he was a notorious gambler he was well aware, and had heard more than one story about him that certainly placed his character in no very favourable light; more than this he could not say. Of Madelon he spoke with the warmest affection, and there was a little note enclosed to her in Graham's letter, which she placed, and carefully preserved, we may be sure, amongst her most precious treasures.
These letters written, and M. Linders' few papers, which were of little interest or importance, examined, Graham had exhausted his sources of possible information, and could only trust no obstacle would intervene to prevent his little charge being at once received at the convent, and placed under her aunt's guardianship and care. So, with as little delay as possible, they had packed up, and set off on their journey: and now, as Madelon stands at the window of the little hotel salon, Paris lies many a league behind them, beyond the great northern levels, across which they have been speeding for so many hours. And behind her, too, already separated from her by a distance more impassable than that which can be counted by leagues, lies Madelon's old life, to which many and many a time, with passionate outcries, perhaps, with tender unspeakable yearnings, she will look back across an ever- widening space, only to see it recede more hopelessly into a remoter past.
She does not understand all this yet, however, with the new life scarcely a week old. She is thinking of Monsieur Horace, as she stands there looking out at the sunset sky; they have just dined, and behind her a deft waiter is removing the cloth; and in a minute she turns round gladly, as Monsieur Horace himself comes into the room.
"Shall we take a walk, Madelon?" he says, "or are you too tired?"
"I am not at all tired," Madelon answered. "I should like to have a walk; may we go and look at the convent where Aunt Therese lives? I should like to see it."
"That is a good idea," said Horace. "I will inquire whereabouts it is, and we will go and have a look at it."
The convent, they were told, stood on the outskirts of Liege, about a quarter of a mile outside the town, and a little off the great highroad leading through Chaudfontaine and its adjacent villages to Pepinster and Spa. It was at some distance from the hotel; but Madelon repeated that she was not at all tired, and would like a long walk, so they set off together in the mild September evening. To their left lay the old town with its picturesque churches, its quaint old Bishop's palace, its tall chimneys and busy quays, and wharves, and warehouses, stretching along the river banks; but all this they left on one side as they went along the wide, tree-planted boulevards, where carriages were rolling, and lamps lighting, and people walking about in the ruddy glow; and presently these too were passed by, and they came out on the dusty high-road. A few scattered houses were still to their right hand and to their left; but the city, with its cloud of smoke, its kindling lights and ceaseless movement, was behind them now. Of all its restless stir no sound reached them through the soft twilight but the chime of bells from its many towers, which rang out the evening angelus just as they saw, standing on the summit of a gentle slope to their left, a building with steep grey slate roofs and belfry, rising above low white surrounding walls, and knew that they had reached their destination.
The carriage-road up to the convent made a circuit, and swept round to the other side of the little declivity: but in front, separated from the highroad by a hedge, there was only the slope of a ploughed field, with a gate at the lower end, opening on to a narrow path that led straight through it up the hill; and this path Graham and Madelon followed, to where it joined a weed-grown footway skirting the outer wall of the building. There was a garden inside apparently, for trees were waving their topmost branches overhead, and vines, and westeria, and Virginia creeper hung down in long, many- coloured tangled shoots and tendrils over the angle of the wall outside. A little beyond was a side-door, with a bench placed beside it; and above, surmounted by a crucifix under a little pent-house, a narrow shelf on which stood an empty bowl and spoon, just placed there probably by some wandering pensioner, who had come there, not in vain, to seek his evening meal.
"Shall we sit down for a minute and rest?" said Graham.
Madelon seated herself at his side without speaking; she had been talking fast enough, and not without cheerfulness, during the early part of her walk; but since they had come within sight of the convent, her chatter had died away into silence. Perhaps she was tired, for she sat quite still now, and showed no wish to resume the conversation. The sound of the city chimes died away; the little bell in the belfry close by kept up its sharp monotone for a minute longer, and then it too was hushed; the trees whispered and rustled, the grasshoppers chirped shrilly all around, but a great stillness seemed to fall upon the darkling earth as the grey evening came down, and enfolded it in its soft mists. Grey fields stretched away on either hand, grey clouds that had been rosy-red half an hour ago, floated overhead; only the trees looked dark against the tender grey sky, the encircling hills of Liege against the lingering twilight glow.
The silent influence of the hour made itself felt on these two also, perhaps, for neither of them spoke at first; indeed, Graham's thoughts had wandered far beyond the horizon before him, when he was aroused by the sound of a little sob, and turning round, he saw that Madelon was crying.
"What is it, Madelon?" he said; "are you tired? What is the matter?"
She did not answer at once, she was struggling with her tears; at last out came the grief.
"It—it all looks so sad, and gloomy, and triste," she said. "I do not want to come here and be shut up in the convent; oh, take me away, take me away!"
She clung to Graham as if she were to be parted from him that moment, whilst he soothed her as best he could.
"We will go away at once if you like," he said; "I think we did wrong to come at this time of the evening; everything looks grey and cheerless now—you will see to-morrow how much brighter it will all appear."
"It is not only that," said Madelon, striving to check her sobs; "but just now, when we were sitting here, somehow I had forgotten all about where I was, and everything; and I thought I was out walking with papa, as I used to be, and I was planning what we would do to-morrow—and then all at once I remembered—and to-morrow I shall be in there, and I shall never see him again, and you will be gone too—oh, papa, papa——"
She was shaking all over with one of her sudden bursts of passionate crying. What could he do to console her? What could he say to comfort her? Not much, perhaps, but then much was not needed; only a few words commonplace enough, I daresay—but then, as we have said, Monsieur Horace's voice and words always had a wonderful influence with our little Madelon. How is it, indeed, that amidst a hundred tones that fret and jar on our ears, there is one kind voice that has power to calm and soothe us—amid a hundred alien forms, one hand to which we cling for help and support? Graham did not say much, and yet, as Madelon listened, her sobs grew less violent, her tears ceased, she began to control herself again. "Listen," said Graham, presently, "is not that singing that we hear? I think it must be the nuns."
Madelon raised her head and held her breath to listen; and sure enough, from within the convent came the sound of the voices of the nuns at their evening prayers. She listened breathlessly, a change came over her face, a light into her eyes, and she tightened her grasp of Graham's hand. The melancholy voices rising and falling in unison, seemed a pathetic, melodious interpretation of the inarticulate harmonies of the evening hour.
"I like that," said Madelon, relaxing her hold as they ceased at last; "do you think they sing like that every evening, Monsieur Horace?"
"I have no doubt of it," he answered, "it is their evening service; see, that must be the chapel where the windows are lighted up."
"Perhaps they will let me sing too," said Madelon. "Ah, I shall like that—I love singing so much; do you think they will?"
"I think it very likely," said Horace; "but now, Madelon, we must be going towards home; it is almost quite dark, and we have a long walk before us."
Madelon was almost cheerful again now. She so readily seized the brighter side of any prospect, that it was only when the dark side was too forcibly presented to her that she would consent to dwell on it; and now the sound of the nuns singing had, unconsciously to herself, idealised the life that had appeared so dull and cheerless when viewed in connexion with the grey twilight, and had changed its whole aspect. When they reached the boulevards, where the lamps were all lighted now, and the people still walking up and down, it was she who proposed that they should sit down on one of the benches for a while.
"This is the last walk I shall have with you," she said, "for such a long, long time."
"Not so very long," said Graham, "you know I am to come and see you on my way back from Germany, and then if I can manage it, we will have another walk together."
"That will be very nice," said Madelon; and then, after a pause, she added, "Monsieur Horace, supposing Aunt Therese says she will not have me, what shall I do then?"
This very same question had, as we know, presented itself to Graham before now, and he had felt the full force of the possible difficulty that had now occurred to our unthinking Madelon for the first time.
"Indeed I do not know, Madelon," he answered, half laughing, "but I don't think we need be afraid; your aunt is not likely to turn you away."
"But if she did," persisted Madelon, "what should I do? Would you take me away to live with you?"
"With me?" said Graham, smiling, "I don't think that would quite do, Madelon; you know I am a soldiers' doctor, and have to go where they go, and could not have you following the regiment."
"Then you cannot come and go about as you please," said Madelon; "I thought you always went where you liked; you are not with the regiment now."
"No, I have a holiday just now; but that will come to an end in two or three weeks, and then I must do as I am bid, and go where I am told."
"And you have no home then? Ah, take me with you, Monsieur Horace, I should like to see the world—let me go with you."
"Would you like to put on a little red coat, and shoulder a musket and stand to be shot at?" says Graham, laughing at her. "I hope to see more of the world than you would quite like, I fancy, Madelon, that is, if we have any luck and get ordered out to the Crimea."
For indeed it was just the moment of the Crimean war, and while the events recorded in this little story were going on, the world was all astir with the great game in which kingdoms are staked, and a nation's destinies decided; treaties were being torn, alliances formed, armies marching, all Europe arming and standing at arms to prepare for the mighty struggle, and Graham, like many another young fellow, was watching anxiously to see whether, in the great tide rolling eastward, some wave would not reach to where he stood, and sweep him away to the scene of action.
Madelon had not heard much about the Crimea, and did not very well know what Horace meant; but she understood the first part of his speech, and she, too, laughed at this picture of herself in a little red coat. Presently, however, she recurred to her original question.
"If you were not marching about, would you let me come and live with you?" she asked again.
"Indeed, I do not say that I would," said Graham, laughing, "and I don't mean to settle down for a long time yet; I have to make my fortune, you know."
"To make your fortune!" cries Madelon, pricking up her ears at the sound of the words, for indeed they had a most familiar ring in them; "why, I could do that for you," she added after a moment's pause.
"Could you?" said Graham absently; he did not follow out her thought in the least, and, in fact, hardly heard what she said, for the words were suggestive to him also, and carried with them their own train of ideas.
"Yes, and I will too," says Madelon, in one brief moment conceiving, weighing, and forming a great resolution. "Ah, I know how to do it—I know, and I will; I promise you, and I always keep my promises, you know. I promised papa that I would never become a nun, and I never will."
"Indeed, I cannot fancy you a nun at all," said Graham, rousing himself, and getting up. "Don't you think we had better be going back to the hotel now? It is getting quite late."
"And when your fortune is made, may I come and live with you?" said Madelon, without moving.
"We shall see about that afterwards," he answered, smiling, "there is time enough to think about it, you may be sure. Come, Madelon, we must be going."
"Ah, you do not know, and I will not tell you," said Madelon, jumping up as she spoke.
"What do I not know?" asked Graham, taking her hand in his, as they walked off together.
"What I will do—it is my secret, but you will see—yes, you will see, I promise you that."
She almost danced with glee as she walked along at Graham's side. He did not understand what she was talking about; he had missed the first sentence that might have given him the clue, and merely supposed that it was some childish mystery with which she was amusing herself.
But Madelon understood full well, and her busy little brain was full of plans and projects as she walked along. Make a fortune! how many fortunes had she not seen made in a day—in an hour! "Give me only ten francs, et je ferai fortune!" The old speech that she had quoted years ago to Horace Graham— though, indeed, she had no remembrance of having done so—was familiar to her now as then. Ah! she knew how fortunes were made, and Monsieur Horace did not—that was strange, but it was evident to her—and she would not tell him. Her superior knowledge on this point was a hidden treasure, for a great ambition had suddenly fired our ten-year-old Madelon. Not only in maturer years are great plans laid, great campaigns imagined, great victories fought for; within the narrow walls of many a nursery, on the green lawns of many a garden, the mimic fort is raised, the siege-train laid, the fortress stormed; and in many a tiny head the germs of the passions and ambitions and virtues of later years are already working out for themselves such paths as surrounding circumstances will allow them to find. But Madelon's childhood had known neither nursery nor sheltered home-garden. Her earliest experiences had been amidst the larger ventures of life, the deeper interests that gather round advancing years; her playground had been the salons of the gayest watering-places in Europe, her playthings the roulette-board and the little gold and silver pieces that had passed so freely backwards and forwards on the long green tables where desperate stakes were ventured, and fortunes won and lost in a night; and it was amongst these that she now proposed to try her own little game of enterprise, and prepare this grand surprise for Monsieur Horace. The idea was an inspiration to her. Her whole soul was bound up in Horace Graham; I think she would willingly have laid down her life for him, and have thought little of the offering; a sort of furore of gratitude and devotion possessed her, and here at length was an opportunity for doing something for him—something he did not know how to do for himself, great and wise though he was, and this idea added not a little zest to the plan, in Madelon's opinion, one may be sure. Ah, yes, she knew what to do, she would go to the gambling-tables, as she had seen her father and his associates go scores of times; she would win money for him, she would make his fortune!
So Madelon schemed as she walked along by Graham's side, whilst he, for his part, had already forgotten her little speech, if indeed he had ever heard it.
So it is often—a few careless words between two people, quickly spoken, soon forgotten, by at least one of them—and yet, perhaps, destined to alter the course of two lives. Before they had reached the hotel Madelon had arranged not only the outline, but the details of her scheme. Spa was, as she well knew, but a short distance from Liege; she would at once beg her aunt to allow her to go over there for a day, or two days, if one were not enough, and then—why, once there, everything would be easy, and perhaps, even before Monsieur Horace came back from Germany, as he had said he would, all might be done, the promise redeemed, the fortune made! A most childish and childlike plan, founded so entirely on deductions drawn from experiences in the past, so wholly without reference to the probabilities of the future, and yet not the less the result of a fixed resolution in Madelon's mind, which no subsequent change in the mere details of carrying it out could affect. For, in her small undeveloped character lay latent an integrity and strength of will, a tenacity of purpose, which were already beginning to work, unconsciously, and by instinct as it were, for she could assuredly never have learnt from her father, who regarded honesty and integrity as merely inconvenient weaknesses incidental to human nature under certain conditions. But to Madelon they were precisely those sacred truths which lie hidden in our inmost hearts, and which, when once revealed to us, we cling to as our most steadfast law, and which to deny were to denounce our best and purest self. Not to every one are the same truths revealed with the same force; for the most part it is only through a searching experience that we can come clearly to understand one or another, which is to our neighbour as his most unerring instinct; and such must have been this integrity of purpose in Madelon, who, in affirming that she always kept her promises, had uttered no idle vaunt, nor even the proved result of such experience as her short life had afforded, but had simply given expression to what she instinctively knew to be the strongest truth in her nature.
That evening, after Madelon had gone up to bed, she stood long at her open window looking out into the night. Her bedroom was high up in the hotel, and overlooked a large public place; just opposite was a big, lighted theatre, and from where she stood she could catch the sound of the music, and could fancy the bright interior, the gay dresses, the balcony, the great chandeliers, the actors, the stage. It was her farewell for many a long day to the scenes and pleasures of her past life, but she did not know it. The sound of the music stirred within her a sort of vague excitement, an indefinite longing, and she was busy peopling the future—a child's future, it is true, not extending beyond two or three weeks, but yet sufficient to make her forget the past for the moment. She must have stood there for nearly an hour; any one looking up might have wondered to see the little head popped out of window, the little figure so still and motionless. Up above the stars twinkled unheeded; down below other stars seemed to be dancing across the wide Place, but they were only the lamps of the carriages as they drove to and fro from the theatre. And yonder, on the outskirts of this busy town, with its lights and crowds and gay bustle, sleeping under the silent, slow- moving constellations, surrounded by the dark rustling trees, stands the still convent, where a narrow room awaits this dreaming eager little watcher. Our poor little Madelon! Not more difference between this gay, familiar music to which all her life has been set hitherto, and the melancholy chant of the nuns, whose echoes have already passed from her memory, than between the future she is picturing to herself and the one preparing for her—but she does not know it.
Immediately after breakfast the next morning Graham once more started for the convent, this time, however, leaving Madelon at the hotel. He had written from Paris to the Superior immediately after her brother's death, but had received no reply. M. Linders' letter he had kept by him to deliver in person when he should have reached Liege.
Madelon was watching for his return, and ran to meet him with a most eager face.
"Have you seen my aunt?" she said. "Am I to go?"
"Yes, you are to go, Madelon," he said, looking down on her, and taking her hands in his. "I have seen your aunt, and we have agreed that it is best I should take you there this afternoon."
He sat down and gave her some little account of the interview he had had with her father's sister; not the whole, however, for he said nothing of his own feeling of disappointment in the turn that it had taken, nor of the compassion that he felt for his little charge.
The fact of M. Linders having quarrelled with his sister had, on the whole, tended to prejudice the latter in his favour rather than otherwise, for M. Linders unfortunately seemed to have had a talent for quarrelling with every respectable friend and relation that he possessed; and it was with a strong hope of finding a good and kind guardian for Madelon in her aunt, that he had started for the convent. He wrote a few words of explanation on his card, and this, with M. Linders' letter, he sent in to the Lady Superior, and in return was requested to wait in the parlour till she should come to him. A key was handed to him, and he let himself into a large, square room, furnished with a table, a piano, and some straw chairs; a wooden grating shut off one end, within which were another table and more chairs; one or two prints of sacred subjects were on the walls, two large windows high up showed the tops of green trees in a sunny inner courtyard,—Graham had time to take in all these details before a door on the other side of the grating opened and the Lady Superior appeared.
Mademoiselle Linders had doubtless displayed a wise judgment in her choice of life; she could never under any circumstances have shone in society, but there was something imposing in her tall figure in its straight black draperies, and the ease and dignity to which she could never have attained in a Paris salon, she had acquired without difficulty in her convent parlour. She had worked hard to obtain her present position, and she filled it with a certain propriety of air and demeanour. But her features were harsh, and her thin, worn face, so far as could be distinguished beneath the half- concealing black veil, wore a stern, discontented expression. Somehow, Graham already felt very sorry for little Madelon, as holding M. Linders' letter in one hand, the Superior approached the grating, and sitting down on the inner side, invited him by action, rather than words, to resume his chair on the other.
"If I am not mistaken, Monsieur," she began in a constrained, formal voice, "it was from you that I received a letter last week, announcing my brother's death?" Graham bowed.
"I thought it unnecessary to answer it," continued the Superior, "as you stated that you proposed coming to Liege almost immediately. If I understand rightly, you attended my brother in his last illness?"
"I did, Madame—it was a short one, as you are aware——"
"Yes, yes, an accident—I understood as much from your letter," says Madame, dismissing that part of the subject with a wave of her hand; "and the little girl?"
"She is here—in Liege that is—we arrived last night."
"In this letter," says the Superior, slowly unfolding the paper, "with the contents of which you are doubtless acquainted, Monsieur——"
"I wrote it at M. Linders' dictation, Madame."
"Ah, exactly—in this letter then, I see that my brother wishes me to take charge of his child. I confess that, after all that has passed between us, I am at a loss to imagine on what grounds he can found such a request."
"But—pardon me, Madame—" said Graham, "as your brother's only surviving relative—so at least I understood him to say—you surely become the natural guardian of his child."
"My brother and I renounced each other, and parted years ago, Monsieur; were you at all intimate with him?"
"Not in the least," replied Graham; "I knew nothing, or next to nothing, of him, till I attended him in his last illness; it was by the merest accident that I became, in any way, mixed up in his affairs."
"Then you are probably unaware of the character he bore," Therese Linders said, suddenly exchanging her air of cold constraint for a voice and manner expressive of the bitterest scorn; "he was a gambler by profession, a man of the most reckless and dissipated life; he plunged by choice into the lowest society he could find; he broke his mother's heart before he was one-and-twenty; he neglected, and all but deserted his wife; he ruined the lives of all who came in his way—he was a man without principle or feeling, without affection for any living being."
"Pardon me, Madame," Graham said again, "he was devotedly attached to his little daughter, and—and he is dead; to the dead much may surely be forgiven," for indeed at that moment his sympathies were rather with the man by whose death-bed he had watched than with the bitter woman before him.
"There is no question of forgiveness here," says Madame the Superior, with a slight change of manner; "I bear my brother no malice; it was not I that he injured, though he would doubtless have done so had it been in his power. In separating myself from him, I felt that I was only doing my duty; but I have kept myself informed as to his career, and had I seen many change or hope of amendment, I might have made some steps towards reconciliation."
"And that step, Madame," Graham ventured to say, "was taken by your brother on his death-bed——"
"Are you alluding to this letter, Monsieur?" she inquired, crushing it in her hand as she spoke, "you have forgotten its contents strangely, if you imagine that I consider that as a step towards reconciliation. My brother expresses no wish of the kind; he was no hypocrite at least, and he says with sufficient plainness, that he only turns to me as a last resource."
And, in fact, the letter was, as we know, couched in no very pleasant or conciliatory terms, and Graham was silenced for the moment. At last, ——
"He appeals to your mother's memory on behalf of his child," he said.
"He does well to allude to our mother!" cried the Superior. "Yes, I recognise him here. He does well to speak of her, when he knows that he broke her heart. She adored him, Monsieur. He was her one thought in life, when there were others who—who perhaps—but all that signifies little now. But in appealing to my mother's memory he suggests the strongest reason why, even now that he is dead, I should refuse to be reconciled to his memory."
Graham was confounded by her vehemence. What argument had he to oppose to this torrent of bitter words? Or how reason with such a woman as this—one with a show of right, too, on her side, as he was bound to own? He did not attempt it, but gave up the point at once, turning to a more practical consideration.
"If you are not disposed to take charge of your little niece, Madame," he said, "can you at least suggest any one in whose care she can be left? I promised her father to place her in your hands, but you must see it is impossible for me to take any further responsibility on myself. Even if I had the will, I have not at present the power."
"I never said I would not take charge of my niece, Monsieur," said the Superior.
And to what end then, wonders Graham, this grand tirade, this fine display of what to him could not but appear very like hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness? To what end indeed? And yet, perhaps, not wholly unnatural. After five-and-twenty years of convent life, Therese Linders still clung to the memory of the closing scenes of her worldly career, as the most eventful in the dead level of a grey monotonous life, still held to the remembrance of her mother's death, and of her fierce quarrel with her brother, as the period when all her keenest emotions had been most actively called into play. And indeed what memories are so precious to us, which, in our profound egotism, do we cherish so closely, as those of the times which stirred our strongest passions to their depth, and which, gathering up, as it were, all lesser experiences into one supreme moment, revealed to us the intensest life of which we are capable? There are women who would willingly barter months of placid existence for one such moment, though it be a bitter one; and though Mademoiselle Linders was not one of these, or she would never have discovered that her vocation lay within the walls of a convent, she was, nevertheless, a woman capable of strong feelings, of vehement passions; and these had, perhaps, found their widest scope in the love, though it had been a wayward one, that she had felt for her mother, and in her intense jealousy of her brother. For a quarter of a century these passions had lain dormant, crushed beneath the slow routine of daily duties; but these, in their unvarying monotony, had, on the other hand, made that lapse of years appear but as a few weeks, and kept the memory of those stormy scenes fresher than that of the events that, one by one, had crept into the convent life, and slowly modified its dull course. The news of her brother's death had affected her but little; but the sight of the familiar handwriting, the very framing of the sentences and choice of words, which had seemed to her like a fresh challenge even from his grave, had revived a thousand passions, jealousies, enmities, which one might have thought dead and buried for ever. What ghosts from old years that Graham could not see, what memories from her childhood and girlhood, what shadows from the old Paris life, were thronging round Therese Linders, as with changed name and dress she sat there in her convent parlour! Old familiar forms flitting to and fro, old voices ringing in her ears, her brother young, handsome, and indulged, herself plain, unprepossessing, neglected, and a mother whom she had held to and watched till the last, yet turning from her to the son who had scorned her wishes and broken her heart. It had all happened twenty-five years ago, but to the Superior it seemed but as yesterday. The old hatred blazed up again, in the form, as it doubtless appeared to her, of an anger righteous even against the dead. Nor was the revival without its charms, with all its old associations of strife and antagonism—like a breeze blowing freshly from the outer world, and suddenly stirring the slow, creeping current of her daily life.
"I never said I would not take charge of my niece," she said; "on the contrary, I have every intention of so doing. I only wish to make it clearly understood that my brother had no sort of claim upon me, and that I consider every line of this letter an insult."
"His child, at least, is innocent," began Graham.
"I am not likely to hold her responsible for her father's misdeeds," says Madame, drawing herself up. "I repeat that I am willing to receive my niece at once, though I cannot suppose that with the education and training she has received, she is likely to be anything but a burden and a care; however, that can be looked to and corrected!"
"Indeed you will find her a most innocent and loveable child," pleaded Graham eagerly, and not without an inward dismay at the idea of our little unconscious Madelon being looked to, and corrected by this grim woman; "she thinks her father was perfection, it is true, but it is through her total want of comprehension of his real character, and of the nature of his pursuits; and—believe me, Madame, it would be cruel to disturb that ignorance."
"She has nothing to fear from me in that respect," said the Superior coldly; "my brother might have spared the threats with which he insults me; his child will never hear his name mentioned by me. From the time she enters this house her past life is at an end; she must lean to forget it, and prepare for the future she will spend here."
"Not as a nun!" cried Graham involuntarily.
"And why not as a nun, Monsieur?"
"It was her father's last wish, his dying request that she should never become a nun: it was the fear of some such design on your part that made him hesitate about sending her to you, Madame. You must surely understand from his letter how anxious he is on that point."
"I see that he proposes an alternative that I cannot contemplate for a moment; it is not to train actresses that we receive pupils at the convent, Monsieur; and I have too much regard for my niece's welfare not to prepare her for that life which on earth is the most peaceful and blessed, and which will win for its followers so rich a reward hereafter. But pardon me—I cannot expect you to agree with me on this point, and it is one that it is useless for us to discuss."
She rose as she spoke, and Graham rose also; there was nothing more to be said.
"Then it only remains for me to bring Madelon here," he said, "and hand over to you the sum of money which M. Linders left for her use."
"That is all," replied the Superior; "if you can bring her this afternoon I shall be ready to receive her. You must accept my thanks, Monsieur, for your kindness to her, and for the trouble you have taken."
Graham, as he walked back to the hotel, was ready to vow that nothing should induce him to hand Madelon over to the care of her grim aunt. He understood now M. Linders' reluctance to send her to his sister, and sympathised with it fully. Poor little Madelon, with her pretty, impulsive ways, her naive ignorance,—Madelon, so used to be petted and indulged, she to be shut up within those dull walls, with that horrible, harsh, unforgiving woman, to be taught, and drilled, and turned into a nun—he hated to think of it! He would take her away with him, he would hide her somewhere, he would send her to his sister who had half a dozen children of her own to look after, he would make his aunt adopt her—his aunt, who would as soon have thought of adopting the Great Mogul. A thousand impossible schemes and notions flitted through the foolish young fellow's brain as he walked along, chafed and irritated with his interview—all ending, as we have seen, in his coming into the hotel and telling Madelon she was to go to the convent that very afternoon. One thing indeed he determined upon, that against her own will she should never become a nun, if it were in his power to prevent it. He had promised her father not to lose sight of her, and, as far as he was able, he would keep his engagement.
He did not witness the meeting between his little charge and her aunt. He bade farewell to a tearful, half-frightened little Madelon at the door of the parlour, he saw it close upon her, and it was with quite a heavy heart that he turned away, leaving behind him the little girl who had occupied so large a share of his thoughts and anxieties during the last ten days. He had nothing to detain him in Liege now, and he left it the next morning, with the intention of carrying out as much of his proposed tour as he should find practicable. His original intention had been to proceed from Paris to Strasbourg, and so into Switzerland, and over the Alps to the Italian lakes. So much of his holiday was already gone, however, that he gave up the idea of the lakes; but Switzerland might still be accomplished, and Strasbourg at any rate must be in his first point, as it was there that, on leaving England, he had directed his letters to be sent in the first instance, and he expected to find them lying awaiting them.
He did find them, and their contents were such as to drive all thoughts of his tour out of his head. It was with a wild throb of excitement and exultation, such as he had never known before, that, on opening the first that came to hand, one that had been lying there for nearly a week, he read that the regiment to which he was attached was under immediate orders for the Crimea, and that he must return, without loss of time, to England. Even then, however, he did not forget little Madelon. He knew that she would be counting on his promised return, and could not bear the idea of going away without seeing her again, and wishing her good-bye. He calculated that he had still half a day to spare, and, notwithstanding his hurry, resolved to return by Brussels rather than Paris, choosing those trains that would allow him to spend a couple of hours in Liege, and pay a visit to the convent.
It was only three days since he had last seen the white walls and grey roofs that were growing quite familiar to him now, and yet how life seemed to have changed its whole aspect to him—and not to him only, perhaps, but to somebody else too, who within those walls had been spending three of the saddest, dreariest days her small life had ever known.
When Graham asked for Madelon, he was shown, not into the parlour, but into a corridor leading to it from the outer door; straw chairs were placed here also, on either side of the grating that divided it down the middle, and on the inner side was a window looking into another and smaller courtyard. As Graham sat there waiting, an inner door opened and a number of children came trooping out; they were the externes, children of the bourgeois class for the most part, who came to school twice a-day at the convent; indeed they were the only pupils, the building not being large enough to accommodate boarders.
The children, laughing and chattering, vanished through the front door to disperse to their different homes, and then, in a minute, the inner door opened again, and a small figure appeared; a nun followed, but she remained in the background, whilst Madelon came forward with a look of eager expectation on the mignonne face that seemed to have grown thinner and paler since Graham had last seen it only three days ago. His return, so much sooner than she had expected, had filled her with a sudden joy, and raised in her a vague hope, that she stood sadly in need of just then, poor child!
"So you see I have come back sooner than I expected, Madelon," said Graham, taking the little hands that were stretched out to him so eagerly through the grating, "but I don't know what you will say to me, for I shall not have time for the walk I promised you, when I thought I should stay two or three days in Liege. I must go away this afternoon, but I was determined not to leave without wishing you good-bye."
"Go away this afternoon!" faltered Madelon, "then you are going away quite—and I shall never see you again!"
"Yes, yes, some day, I hope," said Horace; "why, you don't think I am going to forget you? My poor little Madelon, I am sorry to have startled you, but I will explain how it is," and then he told her how there was a great war going on, and he had been called away to join his regiment which was ordered out to the Crimea; "you know," he said smiling at her, "I told you it would never do for you to come marching about with me, and running the chance of being shot at."
He tried to speak cheerfully, but indeed it was not easy with that sad little face before him. Madelon did not answer; she only leant her head against the wooden bars of the grating, and sobbed in the most miserable, heart-broken way. It made Graham quite unhappy to see her.
"Don't cry so, Madelon," he kept on saying, almost as much distressed as she was, "I cannot bear to see you cry." And indeed he could not, for the kind-hearted young fellow had a theory that children and dogs and birds and all such irresponsible creatures should be happy as the day is long, and there seemed something too grievous in this overpowering distress in little Madelon. She checked herself a little presently, however, drawing back one hand to wipe away her tears, while she clung to him tightly with the other. He began to talk to her again as soon as she was able to listen, saying everything he could to cheer and encourage her, telling her what he was going to do, and how he would write to her, and she must write to him, and tell him all about herself, and how she must be a good little girl, and study very hard, and learn all sorts of things, and how he would certainly come back some day and see her.
"When?" asks Madelon.
"Ah, that I cannot tell you, but before very long I hope, and meantime you must make haste and grow tall—let me see how tall shall I expect you to be? as tall as that——" touching one of the bars above her head.
She tried to smile as she answered, "It would take me a long time to grow as tall as that."
"Not if you make haste and try very hard," he said; "and by that time you will have learnt such a number of things, music, and geography, and sewing, and—what is it little girls learn?" So he went on talking; but she scarcely answered him, only held his hands tighter and tighter, as if she was afraid he would escape from her. Something seemed to have gone from her in these last few days, something of energy, and spirit, and hopefulness; Horace had never seen her so utterly forlorn and downcast before, not even on the night of her father's death.
At last he looked at his watch. "I must go, Madelon," he said, "I have to catch the train."
"No, no, don't go!" she cried, suddenly starting from her desponding attitude, "don't go and leave me, I cannot stay here—I cannot—don't go!"
She was holding him so tightly that he could not move, her eyes fixed on his face with an intensity of pleading. He was almost sorry that he had come at all.
"My poor little Madelon," he said, "I must go—I must, you know—there—there, good-bye, good-bye."
He squeezed the little hands that were clinging so desperately to him, again and again, and then tried gently to unloose them; suddenly she relaxed her hold, and flung herself away from him. Graham hastened away without another word, but as he reached the door he turned round for one more look. Madelon had thrown herself down upon the low window-seat, her face buried in her folded arms, her frame shaking with sobs; the nun had come forward and was trying to comfort her—the bare grey walls, the black dresses, the despairing little figure crouching there, and outside the courtyard all aglow in the afternoon sunshine, with pigeons whirring and perching on the sloping roofs, spreading their wings against the blue sky—it was a little picture that long lived in Graham's memory. Poor little Madelon!
In the Convent.
Not till Monsieur Horace was indeed gone, and there was no longer any hope of seeing him return, not till the last door was closed between them, the last link broken with the outer world, not till then perhaps did our little Madelon begin to comprehend the change that one brief fortnight had worked in her whole life. Till now, she had scarcely felt the full bitterness of her father's death, or understood that the old, happy, bright, beautiful life was at an end for ever. These last days had been so full of excitement, she had been so hurried from one new sensation to another, that she had not had time to occupy herself exclusively with this great sorrow that had fallen upon her; but there was nothing to distract her now. Her father's death, which she had found so hard to understand in the midst of everyday life and familiar associations, she realized all too bitterly when such realization was aided by the blank convent walls and the dull convent routine; the sorrow that had been diverted for a moment by another strong predominant feeling, returned with overwhelming force when on every side she saw none but strange faces, heard none but unfamiliar voices; liberty, and joy, and affection seemed suddenly to have taken to themselves wings and deserted her, and she was left alone with her desolation.
The child was half-crazed in these first days in the extremity of her grief; the nuns tried to console her, but she was at first beyond consolation. She did not know what to do with her sense of misery, her hopeless yearning, with the sudden darkness which had fallen upon her bright life, and where she was left to grope without one hand stretched out by which she could reach back as it were, into the past, and grasp some familiar reality that should help her to a comprehension of this strange new world in which she found herself. We hear often enough of the short life of childish troubles, quickly excited, and as quickly forgotten—true enough perhaps of the griefs isolated, so to speak, in the midst of long days of happiness. But the grief that is not isolated? The grief over which the child cries itself to sleep every night, and which wakes with it in the morning, saddening and darkening with its own gloom the day which ought to be so joyous? In such a grief as this, there is, perhaps, for the time it lasts, no sorrow so sad, so acute, so hopeless, as a child's. For us, who with our wide experience have lived through so much, and must expect to live through so much more, a strength has risen up out of our very extremity, as we have learnt to believe in a beyond, in a future that must succeed the darkest hour. But a child, as a rule, has neither past nor future; it lives in the present. The past lies behind, already half forgotten in to- day's happiness or trouble; the future is utterly wide, vague, and impracticable, in nowise modifying or limiting the sorrow which, to its unpractised imagination, can have no ending. When a child has learnt to live in the past, or the future, rather than in the present, it has learnt one of the first and saddest of life's experiences—a lesson so hard in the learning, so impossible to unlearn in all the years to come.
A lesson that our Madelon, too, must soon take to heart, in the midst of such dreary distasteful surroundings, with a past so bright to look back upon, with a future which she can fill with any amount of day-dreams, of whatever hue she pleases—a lesson therefore, which she is not long in acquiring, but with the too usual result, a most weary impatience of the present. The first violence of her grief exhausted itself in time, as was only natural, and something of her old energy and spirit began to show itself again; but the change was not much for the better. She did not mope nor pine, that was not her way; but she became possessed with a spirit of restless petulance, which at first, indeed, was only another phase of unhappiness, but which, not being recognized as such, presently developed into a most decided wilfulness. She turned impatiently from the nun's well-meant kindness and efforts to console her, which somehow were not what she wanted—not that, but something so different, poor child!—she was cross, peevish, fractious without intending it, scarcely knowing why; the nuns set her down as a perverse unamiable child: and so it happened, that she had not been many weeks in the convent before she came to be regarded with general disfavour and indifference instead of with the kindly feeling that had at first been shown to the forlorn little stranger.
Graham had indeed wasted some pity on her, in imagining her under the immediate control of her aunt. The Superior had far too many things to think about for her to trouble herself with any direct superintendence of her little niece; Madelon hardly ever saw her, and in fact, of the convent life in general she knew but little. Her lessons she soon began to do with the other children in the class, and for the rest she was placed under the special care of one of the younger Sisters, Soeur Lucie by name.
Like Madelon, Soeur Lucie had been brought, a little ten-year- old orphan to the convent, to be under the care of one of the nuns who was her aunt; and it was, perhaps, on this account, that she was chosen by Mademoiselle Linders as a sort of gouvernante for her niece. But there was no other resemblance between this placid, fair-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked Flemish girl, whose early recollections were all of farms and farmyards, of flat grassy meadows watered by slow moving streams, of red cows feeding tranquilly in rich pastures, of milking, and cheese-making, and butter-making, of dairies with shining pots and pans and spotless floors, and our vehement brown-eyed Madelon, who in her ten years had seen more of the world than Soeur Lucie was likely to see if she lived to be a hundred. Soeur Lucie had passed a happy, peaceful childhood in the convent, and, as she grew up into girlhood, had listened submissively to the words of exhortation which urged her to give up the world and its vanities, which she had never known, and by such voluntary renunciation to pass from a state of mere negative virtue into that one of superior holiness only to be attained beneath the nun's veil, and behind the convent grating. She took the vows as soon as she was old enough, endowed the convent with her fortune, and was perfectly happy. She had neither friends nor relations outside this little world in which she had been brought up, and she desired nothing beyond what it could afford her. She had, as she well knew, secured for herself in the next world a sure compensation for any little sacrifices she might have made in this—a reflection that often consoled her under a too prolonged course of prayer and meditation, for which, to say the truth, she had little aptitude—and for the rest, she was universally allowed to be the best compote-maker (the nuns were famous for their compotes, which were in great demand), the best embroiderer, the best altar-decorator in the convent. What more could be expected or demanded of life? Soeur Lucie, at any rate, was quite satisfied with her position, and this perfectly simple-minded, good-tempered little sister was a general favourite. Madelon could not have fallen into kinder hands; Soeur Lucie, if not always very wise, was at least very good-natured, and if she did not win much respect or admiration from our little Madelon, who was not long in discovering that she knew a great deal about a great many things that the nun had never heard or dreamt of, the poor child at least learnt to recognize hers as a friendly face, and to turn to her in these dreary days.
The convent was neither very large nor very wealthy. The building itself had formerly been a chateau-farm, which, with its sheds and outlying buildings, had, many years ago, been converted with considerable alterations into its present form; rooms had been partitioned off, a little chapel had been built, the hall turned into a refectory, the farmyard and orchard into a pleasant sunny garden with lawn, and flower- beds, and shrubs, with vines and fruit-trees alternating with creepers along the old walls. As for the sisters, few were from the upper ranks of society, belonging for the most part, rather to the middle and bourgeois class. Mademoiselle Linders had gained her present position not less by her superior birth and education, than by that to which she would more willingly have attributed her elevation—a certain asceticism of life which she affected, an extra observance of fasts and vigils, which the good nuns looked upon with reverence, without caring to emulate such peculiar sanctity in their own persons. The rule was not a strict one, nor, though the Superior was careful to enforce it to its utmost rigour, was the life one of particular hardship or privation. They were a simple, kind, good-hearted set, these Sisters, having their little disputes, and contentions, and jealousies among themselves occasionally, no doubt, but leading good, peaceable lives on the whole, with each day and hour well filled with its appointed tasks, leading through a continual, not useless round of embroidery, teaching, compote-making, and prayers.
Perhaps some one looking round on them, with their honest, homely Belgian faces, would have tried to imagine some history for them, in accordance with the traditions that cling about convent walls, and associate themselves with the very mention of a nun; and most likely they would have been all wrong. None of these Sisters had had very eventful lives, and they had, for the most part, dropped into their present mode of existence quite naturally. With little romance to look back upon, save such as finds a place in even the homeliest life, with an imperfect middle-class education that had failed to elevate the mind, or give it wide conceptions of life, and religion, and duty, a certain satisfaction at having done with secular life and its cares, and at having their future here and hereafter comfortably provided for, was perhaps the general tone amongst this prosaic, unimaginative community. We are, indeed, far from affirming that in that little society there was no higher tone of religious enthusiasm, that there were not some who not only found their highest religious ideal in the life they had chosen, but to whom it formed, in fact, the highest ideal to which they could attain, and calculated, therefore, to develope in them the best and noblest part of their natures. To such, the appointed, monotonous round, the unquestioning submission to the will of another, the obedience at once voluntary and enforced, would not only bring a gracious sense of repose after conflict, but, by satisfying their religious cravings and aspirations, by demanding the exercise of those virtues which appeared to them at once the highest and the most attainable, would give peace to souls which, in the world's active life, would have tossed for ever to and fro in reckless unquiet warfare, nor have ever once perceived that in such warfare they might, after all, be fulfilling the noblest ends. "Peace, and rest, and time for heavenly meditation," they had cried, stretching out weary hands to this quiet little harbour of refuge, and perhaps—who knows?—they had there found them.
Such, then, was this little world in which our Madelon suddenly found herself placed to her utter bewilderment at first, so alien was it to all her former experiences, so little could she understand of its meaning, its aims, its spirit and intention; no more than, as it seemed to her, those around her understood her, or her wants and wishes. To her, the convent only appeared inexpressibly triste and dreary, a round of dull tasks, enlivened by duller recreations, day after day, for ever bounded by those blank, grey walls—no change, no variety, no escape. The bare, scantily-furnished rooms, the furniture itself, the food, the nuns' perpetual black dress, and ungraceful headgear,—Madelon hated them all, as she gradually recovered from her first desolation, and became alive again to external impressions; and, as the first keenness of her sorrow wore off, this vague sense of general unhappiness and discomfort showed itself in an attitude of opposition and defiance to every one and everything around her. From being helplessly wretched and cross, she became distinctly naughty, and before long our Madelon had drifted into the hopeless position of a child always refractory, always in disgrace, a position from which, when once assumed, it is almost impossible for the small hapless delinquent to struggle free.
That Madelon was very naughty cannot be denied, and the fact surprised no one so much as herself. The nuns, accustomed to all sorts of children of every variety of temper, of every shade of docility and wilfulness, of cleverness and stupidity, found nothing astonishing in one more perverse little specimen, but Madelon could not understand it at all. She was not used to feeling naughty, and did not know what it meant at first. In her life hitherto, when she had been as happy as the day is long, she had had singularly few opportunities for exercising the privilege of every child of Adam, and exhibiting her original waywardness. But it was far otherwise now, and she could not understand why she always felt cross, always obstinate, always perverse; she only knew that she was very miserable, and it was quite a discovery to be told one day that it was because she was naughty, and that if she were good, she would be happy.
"I always am good," said Madelon, firing up, and speaking from the experience of former days, "and I am not at all happy—I never shall be here."
But alas! it was proved too clearly that she was not at all good, and indeed she began to think so herself, only she did not see how she could help it.
Madelon got into great disgrace in the very first weeks after her arrival at the convent, and this was the occasion of it. The only room vacant for her was a cell that had been occupied by a sister who had died a short time previously, a sister of a devout turn of mind, who had assisted her meditations by the contemplation of a skull of unusual size and shininess. The cell was a cheerful, narrow little room, looking out on the convent garden, and the first pleasant sensation that Madelon knew in the convent was when she was taken into it, and saw the afternoon sun shining upon its white-washed walls, and the late climbing roses nodding in at the open window; but she became possessed with a perfect horror of the skull. She discovered it the first evening when she was going to bed, and was quite glad to pop her head under the bed-clothes, to shut out all sight and thought of it. But awaking again that first night in her grief and loneliness, she saw a stray moonbeam shining in, and lighting it up into ghastly whiteness and distinctness, as it stood on a little bracket against the wall beneath a tall wooden crucifix. For the first minute she was half paralysed with terror; she lay staring at it without power to move, and then she would assuredly have run to some one for protection had she known to whom to go, or, indeed, had she not been too terrified to do more than hide her head under the counterpane again. From that time it became a perpetual nightmare to her. By day its terrors were less apparent, though even then, with her innate love for all things bright, and joyous, and pleasant, it was a positive grief to her to have such a grim object before her eyes whenever she came into the room; but at night no sooner was she in bed, and the light taken away, than her imagination conjured up a hundred frightful shapes, that all associated themselves with the grinning death's-head. In vain she covered it up, in vain she shut her eyes—sleeping or waking it seemed always there. At length she could bear it no longer, and entreated piteously that it might be taken away; but Soeur Lucie, to whom the little prayer was made, did not view the matter in at all the same light as Madelon. In the first place, if formed part of the furniture of the room, and had always been there, so far as he knew—which, to the nun, whose life was founded on a series of unquestioned precedents, allowing of nothing arbitrary but the will of the Superior, appeared an unanswerable reason why it should always remain; and, in the next place, with the lack of sympathy that one sometimes remarks in unimaginative minds, she did not in the least understand the terror with which it inspired the child, but assured her, in her good-humoured way, that that was all nonsense, and the she would get over it in time. So the skull remained, and Madelon was miserable, till one night, in a moment of desperation, she jumped out of bed, seized it with both hands, and flung it with all her might through the window into the garden below. She was frightened when she heard the crash of falling glass, for in her excitement she had never stopped to open the window, but greatly relieved, notwithstanding, to think that her enemy was gone, and slept more soundly that night than she had done for a long time previously.
Next morning, however, Madelon had a cold, a pane of glass was found in fragments on the gravel walk beneath the window, a skull was discovered, lying among the long grass on the lawn; one can fancy the exclamations, the inquiries, the commotion. Madelon, though not a little frightened, avowed boldly enough what she had done, and so far gained her end that the skull never reappeared, and a safe precedent was established for Soeur Lucie's future guidance; but she got into great trouble at the time, and gained moreover the unenviable distinction of having committed a deed of unparalleled audacity. After this, what might not be expected of such a child? The nuns at once formed a bad opinion of her, which they owed it to themselves to confirm on the occasion of each succeeding offence, by a reference to this past misdeed which had first taught them of what enormities she was capable.
Matters were no better when there came to be a question of lessons. Madelon did not mind the actual learning, though she wearied a little of the continued application to which she was unused; but she resented to the last degree the astonishment that her ignorance on all sorts of subjects excited both in the nuns who taught her, and in the other children in the class, and which was expressed with sufficient distinctness. "Never studied geography, nor history, nor arithmetic!" cries Soeur Ursule, who superintended the school; "not know the principal cities in Europe, nor the kings of France, nor even your multiplication table!" These speeches, with strongly implied notes of admiration after each sentence, and illustrated by the expression on the faces of a small, open- mouthed audience in the background, roused Madelon's most indignant feelings; she rebelled alike against the injustice of being held up to public reprobation for not knowing what she had never been taught, and against the imputations cast upon her education hitherto. "I can do a great many things you cannot," she would answer defiantly, "I can talk English, and German, and Italian—you can't; I can dance—you can't; I can sing songs, and—and, oh! a great many things that you cannot do!" A speech of this sort would bring our poor Madelon into dire disgrace we may be sure; and then angry, impenitent, she would go away into some corner, and cry—oh! how sadly—for her father; for the happy old days, for Monsieur Horace, too, perhaps, to come back, and take her out of all this misery.
Behind the convent was a strip of ground, which produced cabbages and snails on one side, and apple-trees on the other; a straight walk divided these useful productions from each other. When Madelon was en penitence she used sometimes to be sent to walk here alone during the hour of recreation, and would wander disconsolately enough among the apple-trees, counting the apples by way of something to do, and getting intimately acquainted with the snails and green caterpillars amongst the cabbages. Our poor little Madelon! I could almost wish that we had kept her always in that pretty green valley where we first saw her; but I suppose in every life there come times when cabbages, or things of no cheerfuller aspect than cabbages, are the only prospect, and this was one of her times. She used to feel very unhappy and very lonely as she paced up and down, thinking of the past—ah, how far that past already lay behind her, how separate, how different from anything she did, or saw, or heard in these dull days! She did not find many friends to console her in her troubles; good- natured Soeur Lucie did indeed try to comfort her when she found her crying, and though she was not very successful in her efforts, Madeleine began to give her almost as much gratitude as if she had been. Soeur Lucie could not think of anything to tell her but that she was very naughty, and must try to be good, which Madelon knew too well already. It would have been more to the purpose, perhaps, if she had told her she was not so very bad after all, but Soeur Lucie never thought of that; perhaps she did not care much about the child; by this time Madelon was beginning to be established as the black sheep of the little community, and Soeur Lucie only expressed the general sense; but being very good-natured, she said in a kind way what other people said disagreeably.
Neither from her companions did she meet with much sympathy, and, indeed, when out of disgrace, Madelon was apt to be rather ungracious to her schoolfellows, with whom she had little in common. The children who came daily to the convent were of two classes—children of the poor and children of a higher bourgeois grade, shopkeepers for the most part. Madelon was naturally classed with the latter of these two sets during the lesson hours, but she stood decidedly aloof from them afterwards, at first through shyness, and then with a sort of wondering disdain. She had never been used to children's society; all her life her father had been careful to keep her apart from companions of her own age, and, accustomed to associate continually with grown-up people, she chose to regard with great contempt the trivial chatter, and squabbles, and amusements of her small contemporaries. After a time, indeed, she condescended to astonish their minds with some of her old stories, and was gratified by the admiration of a round-eyed, open-mouthed audience, who listened with rapt attention as she related some of the glories of past days, balls, and theatres, and kursaals, princes and counts, and fine dresses; it served in some sort to maintain the sense of superiority which was sorely tried during the untoward events of the lesson hours; but this also was destined to come to an end. One day there was a whispering among the listeners, which resulted in the smallest of them saying boldly,—
"Marie-Louise says your papa must have been a very bad man."
"What!" cries Madelon, jumping off the high stool on which she had been seated. This little scene took place during the hour of recreation, when the children ate their luncheon of bread and fruit.
"Ah, yes," says Marie-Louise, a broad-faced, flaxen-haired damsel, half a head taller than Madelon, and nodding her head knowingly. "Those are very fine stories that you tell us there, Mademoiselle, but when I related them at home they said it was clear your papa must have been a very wicked man."
Madelon turned quite white and walked up to the girl, her teeth set, her small fists clenched. "You are wicked!" she stammered out; "how dare you say such things? I—I will never speak to you again!" and then she turned, and walked off without another word.
The matter did not end here, however, for the children talked of it among themselves, the nuns heard of it, and, finally, it reached the ears of Madame la Superieure herself. Madelon, summoned into the awful presence of her aunt, received the strictest orders never again to refer to these past experiences in any way. "You are my child now," says Madame, overwhelming the poor little culprit before her with her severest demeanour, "and must learn to forget all these follies." If Madelon feared any one, it was her aunt, who had never cared to win her little niece's love by any show of affection; the child came before her trembling, and escaped from her gladly. She had no inclination to draw down further reprimands by disobedience in this particular, so far as words went, nor indeed had she any temptation to do so. From this time she kept more apart from the rest of the children, rarely joining in their games, and preferring even Soeur Lucie's society to that of her small companions. So, altogether, Madelon's first attempts at a convent life were not a success, and time only brought other sad deficiencies to light.
Whatever the nuns may have thought or said, concerning her ignorance of history, geography, and arithmetic, it was a far more serious matter when there came to be a question of her religious knowledge. The good sisters were really horrified at the complete blank they found, and lost no time in putting her through a course of the most orthodox instruction. Before she had been a month in the convent, she knew almost as much as Nanette, had learnt why people go to church and what they do there, had studied her catechism, could find her places in her prayer-book, could repeat Ave Marias and Paternosters, and tell her beads like every one else. And so Madelon's questions are answered at last, her perplexities solved, her yearnings satisfied! She apprehended quickly all that she was taught, so far as in her lay, and vaguely perceived something still beyond her powers of apprehension, something that still confusedly connected itself with the great church, with the violinist's playing, with the pictures and the music of old days, and which, for the present, in her new life, found its clearest expression, not in the nuns' teaching, for, kind and affectionate as it in truth was, it was marred from the first to Madelon by the inevitable exclamation of wonder and horror that she should not know all about it already—not in the questions and answers in her catechism, nor in the religious dogmas and formulas which she accepted, but could hardly appreciate—not in all these, but in the little chapel with its gaudy altars, and twinkling lights, its services, and music, and incense. Indeed, apart from all higher considerations, the pictures, the colouring, the singing, all were the happiest relief to the child, who, used to perpetual change and brightness, wearied indescribably of the dull, colourless life, the uniform dress, the want of all artistic beauty in the convent. Her greatest reward when she had been good was to be allowed to join in the singing in the chapel—her greatest punishment, to be banished from the evening services.
No need, however, to pursue this part of little Madelon's history further. With the nuns' instruction, and the learning of her catechism, vanished all that had distinguished her, in this respect, from other children of her years and station. She had learnt most of what can be learnt by such teaching, and for her, as for others, there remained the verifying and realization of these lessons, according to her capacity and experience. Only, one may somehow feel sure, that to this passionate, wilful little nature, religion would hardly present itself as one simple sublime truth, high, pure, and serene as the over-arching, all-embracing heaven, through which the sun shines down on the clashing creeds of men; but rather as a complex, many-sided problem, too often at variance with her scheme of life, to be felt after through the medium of conflicting emotions, to be worked out at last through what doubts, questionings, with what perplexities, strivings, yearnings, cries for light—along this in nowise singular path, no need to follow our little Madelon.
For the rest, she imbibed readily enough at this time many of the particular views of religious subjects affected by the nuns, at first, indeed, not without a certain incredulity that such things could be, when her father had never spoken to her about them, nor made her aware of their existence; but presently, with more confidence, as she remembered that he was to have told her all about them when she was older. There were the legends and histories of the saints, for instance, in which Madelon learnt to take special delight, though it way be feared that she regarded them rather as pretty romantic stories, illustrated and glorified by her recollections of the old pictures in Florence, than as the vehicle of religious instruction that the nuns would willingly have made them. She used to beg Soeur Lucie to tell them to her again and again, and the good little nun, delighted to find at least one pious disposition in her small rebellious charge, was always ready to comply with her request, and went over the whole list of saints and their lives, not sparing one miracle or miraculous virtue we may be sure, and telling them all in her simple, matter-of-fact language, with details drawn from her daily life to give a touch of reality, which invested the mystic old Eastern and Southern legends with a quaint naive homeliness not without its own charm—like the same subjects as interpreted by some of the old Dutch and Flemish masters, in contrast with the high-wrought, idealised conceptions of the earlier Italian schools. But it was through the medium of these last that Madelon saw them all pass before her—St. Cecilia, St. Catherine, St. Dorothea, St. Agnes, St. Elizabeth—she knew them all by name. Soeur Lucie almost changed her opinion of Madelon when she discovered this—for about a day and a half that is, till the child's next flagrant delinquency—and Madelon found a host of recollections in which she might safely indulge, as she chatted to Soeur Lucie about the pictures, and galleries, and churches of Florence, not a little pleased when the nun's exclamations and questions revealed that she herself had never seen but two churches in her life, that near her old home and the convent chapel.
"Oh, I have seen a great many," Madelon would say, "and palaces too; I daresay you never saw a palace either? but I like the churches best because of the chapels, and altars, and tombs, and pictures. At Florence the churches were so big—oh! as big as the whole convent—but I think the chapel here very pretty too; will you let me help you to decorate the altar for the next fete, if I am good?"
So she chattered on, and these were her happiest hours perhaps. Sometimes she would be allowed to accompany Soeur Lucie to the big kitchen, and assist in the grand compote- making, which seemed to be going on at all seasons of the year. There, sometimes helping, sometimes perched on her favourite seat on the corner of the table, Madelon would forget her sorrows for awhile in the contemplation of the old farm-kitchen with its rough white-washed walls, decorated with pots and pans, and shining kettles, its shelves with endless rows of blue and white crockery, its great black rafters crossing below the high-pitched ceiling leaving a gloomy space, full of mystery to Madelon's imagination; and then, below, the long white wooden table, the piles of fruit, the busy figures of the nuns as they moved to and fro. Outside in the courtyard the sun would be shining perhaps, the trees would wave, and cast flickering shadows on Madelon, as she sat, the pigeons would come fluttering and perching on the window-sill, and Soeur Lucie, whilst paring, cutting, boiling, skimming, would crone out for Madelon's benefit the old tales she knew so well that she could almost have repeated them in her sleep. Madelon only begged to be let off the tragical ending, which she could not bear, at last always stopping her ears when the critical moment of the sword, or the wheel, or the fire approached. She took great interest in the history of Ste. Therese, especially in the account of her running away in her childhood, which seemed to her most worthy of imitation— only, thinks Madelon, she would have taken care not to have been caught, and brought back again. The subsequent history of the saint she found less edifying; nothing that savoured of conventual life found favour in Madelon's eyes in these days; and indeed her whole faith in saints and legends was rudely shaken one day by a broad and somewhat reckless assertion on the part of Soeur Lucie, that all the female saints had been nuns—an assertion certainly unsupported by the facts, whether legendary or ascertained, but which had somehow become a fixed idea in Soeur Lucie's mind, and was dear to the heart of the little nun.
"They were not nuns like you, then," says Madelon at last, after some combating of the point, "for they could go out, and walk about, and do a great many things you must not do—and if I were a saint, I would never, never become a nun!"
"But it is the nuns that have become saints," cries Soeur Lucie, with the happiest conviction; and Madelon, unable to argue out her own ideas on the subject, contented herself with repeating, that anyhow they had not all been nuns like Soeur Lucie, which was indisputable.
These were, as we have said, Madelon's happiest times, and, indeed, they hardly repaid the child for long days of weariness and despondency, for hours of heart-sick longing for she knew not what, of objectless hoping, of that saddest form of home-sickness, that knows of no home for which to pine. In all the future there was but one point on which her mind could rest—Monsieur Horace's promised return, and that was too vague, too remote to afford her much comfort. And her own promise to him, has she forgotten that? She would not have been the Madelon that we know if she had done so, but we need hardly say that she had not been two days in the convent, before she instinctively perceived how futile were all those poor little schemes with which she had been so busy the evening before she parted with Graham, how impossible it would be to ask or obtain her aunt's permission for going to Spa on such an errand. The convent was to all intents and purposes a prison to our little Madelon, and she could only wait and cherish her purpose till a happier moment.
She heard twice from Graham in the first few months. He wrote just before leaving England, and once from the Crimae; but this last letter elicited an icy response from the Superior, to the effect generally that her niece being now under her care, and receiving the education that would fit her for the life that would be hers for the future, she wished all old connections and associations to be broken off; in short, that it would be useless for Graham to write any more letters, as Madelon would not be allowed to see them. Graham received this letter at Balaklava, at the end of a long day's work, and laughed out loud as he read the stiff, formal little epistle, which, to the young man in the midst of the whirl and bustle of camps and hospitals, seemed like a voice from another world; there was something too ludicrous in the notion of a child of eleven years old being forbidden to receive letters, because she might possibly be a nun nine or ten years hence.
"As for that, we'll see about it by-and-by, old lady," he said to himself, "but in the meantime there is no use in writing letters that are not to be delivered;" and then he thrust Mademoiselle Linders' letter into his pocket, and thought no more about it.
So Madelon heard nothing more of Monsieur Horace, though she often, often thought of him, and wondered what he was doing. He was very busy, very hard-worked; an army-surgeon had no sinecure in the Crimea in those days, as we know, and it was perhaps well for the child, who cared more for him than for any one else in the world, that she knew nothing of his life at this time, of wintry battle-fields and hospital tents, of camps and trenches, where, day and night, he had to fight in his own battle with sickness, and wounds, and death. No news from the war came to Madelon's ears, no whisper from all the din and clamour that were filling Europe, penetrated to this quiet, out-of-the-world, little world in which her lot was cast. The mighty thunder of the guns before Sebastopol rolled, echoing, to the north, and roused sunny cities basking in the south, and stirred a million hearts in the far islands of the west; but it died away before the vine-covered gate, the white-washed walls of the little Belgian convent. There life stole on at an even pace, little asked of it, yielding little in return, and amongst that peaceful Sisterhood, one little restless spirit, ever seeking and feeling after what she could not find, looking in the faces of all around her, if so be some one could help her, and, with a child's instinct, rejecting each in turn.
END OF VOL. I.
MY LITTLE LADY.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
The Right of Translation is reserved.
MY LITTLE LADY.
For more than two uneventful years Madelon remained in the convent; but early in the third spring after her arrival, a low fever broke out, which for the time completely disturbed the peaceful, even current of existence there, and, by its results, altered, as it happened, the whole course of her own life.
She was between twelve and thirteen then, and had grown into a slim little maiden, rather tall for her age, with a little pale face as in old days, but with her wavy brown hair all braided now, and fastened in long plaits round her head. In these two years she has become somewhat reconciled to her convent life; not, indeed, as a permanent arrangement—it never occurred to her to regard it in that light—but as something that must be endured till a new future should open out before her. She learns her lessons, sings in the chapel, knows something of compote-making, and can embroider with skilful little fingers almost after Soeur Lucie's own heart. She still holds aloof from her companions, turning to Soeur Lucie for society, though rather with the feeling of the simple-hearted little nun being bon camarade, than with any deeper sentiment of friendship or respect. She is rarely en penitence now; the vehement little spirit seems laid; and if something of her old spring and energy have gone with it, if she is sometimes sad, and almost always quiet, there is no one to note it much, or to heed the change that has apparently come over her. And yet Madelon was in truth little altered, and was scarcely less of a child than when Graham had brought her to the convent. She had learned a variety of things, it is true; she could have named all the principal cities in Europe now; and though she still stumbled over the kings of France, her multiplication- table was unexceptionable; but her education had been one of acquisition rather than of development. Her mind had not yet had time to assimilate itself with those around her, nor to become reconciled to the life that was so at variance with all her old traditions; and she maintained a nucleus, as it were, of independent thought, which no mere extraneous influences or knowledge could affect. In the total silence imposed upon herself, and those around her, concerning her past life, there had been no possibility of modifying her ideas on that subject, and they were still at the same point as when she entered the convent. She still clung to her father's memory, with all the passionate love of which her ardent little soul was capable; she still believed in his perfection, and held to her recollections of the old days with a strength and tenacity only enhanced by the contrast which her present life daily forced upon her. The past lived in her memory as a bright, changeful dream, varying from one pleasure to another, with an ever-shifting background of fair, foreign towns and cities, Kursaals, palaces, salons, gardens, mountains, and lakes, and quiet green nooks of country—all, as it seemed to her, with the power of generalization that seizes on the most salient points, and takes them as types of the whole, shining in sunlight that never clouded, under clear blue skies that never darkened. Madelon knew that that time had gone by for ever; and yet, in all her dreams for the future, her imagination never went beyond a repetition of it all—only for her father she, perhaps, substituted Monsieur Horace: for Monsieur Horace, we may be sure, was not forgotten, any more than her promise to him; though, indeed, this last had been so long in abeyance that she had ceased to think of it as likely to be speedily fulfilled. She had almost come to regard it as one of the many things referred to that somewhat vague period when she should be grown up, and when, in some way—how she did not know—she would be released from the convent and from Aunt Therese, and be at liberty to come and go as she pleased. In the meantime she had almost given up hoping for Monsieur Horace's return. The time when she had last seen him and heard from him already seemed so remote to her childish memory. No one ever spoke to her about him, and he never wrote to her. She did not for a moment think he had forgotten her; she had too much confidence in him for that; but by degrees a notion, vague at first, but gradually becoming a fixed idea destined to have results, established itself in foolish little Madelon's head, that he was waiting till he should hear from her that his fortune was made before he would come back to her. Madelon would get quite unhappy when she thought of this— he must think her so faithless and forgetful, yet how could she help it? That the promise had made as deep an impression upon him as upon her she never doubted for a moment; and was it not most possible, and even probable, that he was expecting to hear of the result, perhaps even in want of this wonderful fortune, on which he must be counting? It was a sad thought, this, to our Madelon, but gradually it became a confirmed one in her mind.
How long this state of things would have lasted—whether, with the fading of childish impressions, present abiding influences might have taken possession of her, whether, some few years hence, some sudden development of her devotional tendencies might have roused her latent powers of enthusiasm, and turned them in a new direction just at the moment when youthful ardour is most readily kindled, and tender, fervent hearts most easily touched—whether, in such a case, our little Madelon, inspired with new beliefs, would have renounced her old life in the fervour of her acceptance of the new, and, after all, have taken the nun's vows, and been content to allow her native energy and earnestness to find scope in the loftiest aspirations of a convent life—all this can never now be known. Something there was in her character which, under certain conditions, might have developed in such a direction. The time might, indeed, surely would have come, had she remained in the convent, when a sudden need and hunger for sympathy, and perhaps excitement, would have risen in her soul, too keen and imperative to be satisfied with past memories; and when, in the absence of all support and friendship in the outer world, she might have seized on whatever she could find in the narrow circle in which she moved, to still that imperious craving. Not in vain, then, might have appeared those old dreams and visions in Florence long ago. Madelon might have learnt to find in them a new and deep significance, an interpretation in accordance with her latest teaching, and through the dim years they might have come back to her—prophetic warnings, as she might have been taught to consider them—linking themselves with present influences, to urge her on to one course. Her father's last command, her own promises, sacred as she held them now, might have availed nothing then, against what she might have been taught to consider a voice from on high, a call of more than earthly authority.
Such, we say, might have been the turn things would have taken with Madelon, had the uninterrupted, monotonous convent life continued to be hers. But long before her mind was prepared for any such influences, early in the third year after her father's death, certain events occurred, which brought this period of her history to an abrupt close.
How, or why the fever broke out—whether it was the result of a damp, unhealthy winter, or through infection brought by one of the school-children, or from any other obvious cause, we need not inquire here. It first showed itself about the middle of February, and within a fortnight half the nuns had taken it, the school was broken up, and the whole convent turned into a hospital for the sick and dying.
Two of the sisters died within the first week or two; one was very old, so old, indeed, that the fever seemed to be only the decisive touch needed to extinguish the feeble life, that had been uncertainly wavering for months previously; the other was younger, and much beloved. And then came a sense as of some general great calamity, a sort of awe-struck mourning, with which real grief had, perhaps, little to do. The Superior herself had been struck with the fever, and in three days she was dead. Her vigils, her fastings, the wearying abnegations of her stern, hard life had left her little strength for struggling against the disease when it laid hold of her at last, and so she too died in her cell one cold, bleak March morning, with a hushed sisterhood gathered round her death- bed, and gazing on it, as on that of a departing saint. Little beloved, but much revered, Therese Linders also had got that she had laboured for, and was now gone to prove the worth of it; that which she had valued most in her narrow world had been awarded her to the full—much honour, but small affection; much glorification to her memory as to one of surpassing sanctity, few tears of tender or regretful recollection. She had had a strange, loveless life, with a certain pathos in it too, as in the life of every human being, if looked at aright. Not always, one may imagine, had such cold, relentless pietism, such harsh indifference possessed her. She lies there now, still and silent for evermore on earth, a crucifix between her hands, tapers burning at her head and feet, with the hard lines fixed on her cold grey face; and yet she also had been a little, soft, round child, with yearnings too, like other children, for a mother's kisses and a mother's love. "Go away, Adolphe, you are very naughty, and I do not love you; mamma always kisses you, and she never, never kisses me!" This little speech, uttered by our poor saintly Superior when she was but eight years old, may perhaps give the key to much in her after life; and if we cannot, with an admiring sisterhood, henceforth count this unhappy, soured woman in our catalogue of saints, we will at least grant her a place amongst the great company of "might-have-beens," most inscrutable problems in this puzzling life of ours, and so bid her a not unkindly farewell.