Madelon, meanwhile, knew nothing of these things; she had taken the fever also, and while death was busy in other parts of the convent, she lay unconscious in her little cell, tossing in delirium, or lying in feverish stupor, with Soeur Lucie coming softly in and out. In this desolated overworked household, the child had come to be considered as only another item of trouble, hardly of anxiety; for her life or death just then was felt to be of the very smallest consequence to any one. The one tie that had bound her to the convent had been snapped by her aunt's death; if she lives, think the nuns—if indeed they find time to think of her at all—she is a burthen on our hands; if she dies, well then, one more coffin and another grave. This is perhaps the ebb-tide of Madelon's importance in the world; never before has been, never again will be, we may trust, her existence of so little moment to any human being—that existence which, meanwhile, in spite of all such indifference, in perfect unconsciousness of it indeed, is beginning to assert itself again. For though the Superior had died amidst lamentations, and the places of Soeurs Eulalie and Marguerite will know them no more, our little Madelon, over whom there are none to lament or rejoice, will live.
One afternoon she awoke, as from a long sleep. The low sun was shining into the cell, lighting up the wooden crucifix on the white-washed wall; Soeur Lucie, in her strait coif and long black veil, was sitting by the bedside reading her book of hours; through the window could be seen a strip of blue sky crossed by some budding tree in the convent garden, little birds were beginning to chirp and twitter amongst the branches. The spring had come in these last days whilst Madelon had been lying there, and in the midst of the glad resurrection of all nature, she too was stirring and awakening to consciousness, and a new life.
Madelon overhears a Conversation.
Amidst the springing flowers, the twitter of pairing birds, and the bursting of green leaves through the brown, downy husks, in the bounteous April weather, Madelon began to recover rapidly. She was nursed with kindness and care, if not exactly with tenderness, by Soeur Lucie; but tenderness our little black sheep had long since learnt not to expect in the convent, and she hardly missed it now. It was in the first days of her convalescence that she heard of the death of her aunt Therese, through some chance remark of one of the Sisters who came into her cell. Had it not been for this, they would have kept it from her longer; but the news scarcely affected her at all. Her aunt had shown her no affection in these last two years that they had lived under the same roof, and, on the few occasions on which Madelon had come in contact with her, the pale, cold face, and severe manner of the nun had inspired her niece with a dread, which only lacked opportunity to become a more active dislike. She heard the news then with apathy, and was still too languid and weak to think of the loss in reference to herself, or to realise that, so far as she knew, she had now no relation in the world. Nor did such realization come at once, even when she grew stronger; her aunt had counted for so little in her present mode of life, that it did not occur to her that her death might bring any possible change into it; indeed, as we have said, she had ceased to look for any immediate change. Monsieur Horace had brought her to the convent, and Soeur Lucie took care of her there, and so she supposed matters would go on for the present.
If, however, the news of her aunt's death affected her but little, it was quite otherwise with another conversation that she overheard a few days later, and which, indeed, was not meant for her ears either. She had awakened one evening from a long, sound sleep, and was lying quietly in the dusk, dreamily wondering how soon she should make up her mind to arouse herself and take the medicine that she knew awaited her as soon as she should declare herself awake, when Soeur Ursule entered the room. She had come with some message to Soeur Lucie, and when it was delivered, stood chatting a few minutes by the window where Soeur Lucie sat knitting. She was a gaunt, brisk, elderly woman, who had been governess in a large school, before an opportune legacy had enabled her to fulfil her dearest wish and enter the convent, where, with fresh zeal and energy, she resumed the duties most congenial to her, as teacher and superintendent of the school. Thoroughly devout and conscientious, and with a kind heart au fond, she nevertheless brought with her into her new sphere all the habits and modes of thought acquired during a long struggle with a very hard, secular world—a practical turn of mind, verging on hardness, a dictatorial manner, a certain opinion- activeness, which still showed itself now and then in oddest contrast with the habitual submission demanded of a nun.
"She looks better this evening," she said now, nodding towards the bed where Madelon lay with her eyes still closed.
"Yes, yes, she is getting on; I shall have her up to-morrow, I hope," answered Soeur Lucie, with some natural pride in this specimen of successful nursing.
"Ah, well—she could have been better spared though, than some that are gone," answered the other; "but no doubt it is all for the best. Not but that I am glad that the child is recovering—still we shall certainly find her a great burthen on our hands."
"It is true, then," cried Soeur Lucie, "what I heard Soeur Marie saying—that our sainted mother had bequeathed her to the care of the convent, and left directions that she is to take the veil as soon as she is old enough."
"Yes, it is true enough, and, as I was saying, all is no doubt for the best; otherwise it is really a great charge for us to have a child of that age on our hands to bring up."
"But that was just my case," replied Soeur Lucie simply. "I have not been out of the convent for more than six months since I was ten years old, as you know, Soeur Ursule."
"You, ma Soeur! That was quite a different matter; every one knows what a marked vocation you had even in your childhood, and how willingly you devoted your fortune, and resigned all worldly hopes—whereas this little one has always been the most tiresome child in the class, and, moreover, will have to live at the expense of the convent."
"That is true," said Soeur Lucie reflecting; "I never heard that she had any money, and of course people cannot live for nothing."
"She has not a sou—you may depend upon it," said Soeur Ursule emphatically; "she brought nothing with her when she came."
"Nothing!" cried Soeur Lucie.
"Or so little, that it must all be gone by this time. I really do not see how it can be arranged—Soeurs Marie and Catherine settled it with our late sainted Superior, and I think even they are beginning to repent a little, for they were talking only this morning of all the expense we have had lately."
"Poor child," murmured Soeur Lucie, who had no unkindly feelings towards her little charge, "there is surely enough for one more."
"That is all very well, ma Soeur, but an extra person is an extra person, as we all know. We might keep the child for a time out of charity, but when there is a question of her taking the vows, and living here always, it is another matter altogether. It has not been the custom in our house to receive sisters without dots, and it will never do—never; but of course our sainted mother knew best, and my opinion was not asked, though it might have been as well worth having as that of some others."
"Poor child," said good little Soeur Lucie again, looking towards the bed; "and she has improved very much lately, don't you think so, ma Soeur?"
"Oh, yes, she has improved, no doubt; it would be astonishing if she had not, after being here more than two years; but that is not the question. However, I must be going," she added, "I have a hundred things to do before vespers. And the border for that altar-cloth will be ready by the end of the month, you think?"
"I hope so," answered Soeur Lucie. "Madelon shall help me as soon as she is strong enough again; she can embroider quite nicely now."
"So much the better; she will have to do plenty by-and-by, and make herself useful if she is to stay here."
Soeur Ursule left the room as she spoke, and Soeur Lucie, with her knitting in her lap, sat meditating in the darkness. Presently a restless movement in the bed roused her. "Are you awake, Madelon?" she said softly.
No answer, only another toss, and a sort of long sigh. Soeur Lucie rose, lighted a candle, measured out some medicine, and then with the glass in one hand, and the light in the other, she came to the bedside. Madelon was lying with her back towards her, her arms flung over her head, her face buried in the pillow. She did not move, and Soeur Lucie touched her gently.
"It is time to take your medicine, mon enfant," she said.
Madelon turned round then, and taking the glass, drank off the contents without a word; as she gave it back to the nun, something in her face or expression, fairly startled the little sister.
"Why, whatever is the matter, mon enfant?" she cried, "you must have been dreaming, I think."
"No, I have not been dreaming," answered Madelon; and then, as the nun turned away to put the glass and candle on the table, she caught hold of her gown with all the strength of which her feeble fingers were capable.
"Don't go, please don't go, Soeur Lucie," she said, "I want to speak to you."
"In a moment; I am not going," answered the sister. "Well, what is it, ma petite?" she added, coming back to the bedside.
"What—what was it Soeur Ursule was saying to you just now?" asks Madelon.
"Just now!" cried Soeur Lucie, taken aback; "why, I thought you were asleep."
"No, I was not asleep," Madelon answered, "I only had my eyes shut."
"But that is very naughty, mon enfant, to pretend to be asleep when you are awake."
"I didn't pretend," said Madelon aggrieved, "only I hadn't opened my eyes, and I could not help hearing what you said."
"Ah well, if you heard, there is no use in my telling you," says Soeur Lucie, who was not at all above using that imperfect, but irrefragable, logic familiar to us from our nurseries; "so you had better go to sleep again, for I cannot stop here any longer. Let me smoothe your pillow."
"No," said Madelon, escaping from her hands with an impatient toss. "Ah, don't go away yet," she added piteously. "Was it true what Soeur Ursule said about me?"
"About you, mon enfant?"
"Yes, about me—that I was to become a nun."
"Ah!" said Soeur Lucie, with the air of being suddenly enlightened, "yes—yes, I suppose so, since she said it. Now I must go, and do you go to sleep."
"No, no," cried Madelon, raising herself in the bed and stretching out both arms after Soeur Lucie's retreating figure. "Ah, Soeur Lucie, don't leave me. I can't be a nun; don't let them make me a nun!"
There was something so pitiful and beseeching in her accent, something so frail-looking in the little, white, imploring hands, that Soeur Lucie's heart was touched. She came back again.
"Ecoute, Madelon," she said, "you will be ill again to-morrow if you talk so much; lie down now, and tell me what it is you want. No one is going to make you a nun now, you know."
"No, not now, but by-and-by. Is it true that Aunt Therese said I was to be made one?"
"Yes, that is true enough, I believe; but there is nothing to be unhappy about in that," answered Soeur Lucie, who naturally looked at things from a different point of view than Madelon's. "There are many girls who would be glad of such a chance; for you see, mon enfant, it is only because nothing could be refused to our late sainted Superior, that it has been arranged at all."
"Soeur Ursule said I should be a burthen," answered Madelon. "I don't want to be a burthen; I only want to go away. Ah! why do you keep me? I am miserable here; I always have been, and I always shall be—always."
"But that is foolish," replied Soeur Lucie, "for you will be very happy—far happier than you could ever be out in the world, ma petite; it is full of snares, and temptations, and wickedness, that never can come near us here. Look at me; I was no older than you when I first came here, and never has girl been happier, I believe. No, no, Madelon," she went on, with a good-natured wish to make things pleasant, "you will stay with us, and be our child, and we will take care of you."
"I don't want you to take care of me!" cries Madelon, the burning tears starting painfully to her eyes. "I hate convents, and I hate nuns, and it is wicked and cruel to keep me here!"
"Am I cruel and wicked? Do you hate me?" said Soeur Lucie, rather aggrieved in her turn.
"No, no," cried Madelon, with compunction, and throwing her arms round Soeur Lucie's neck; "you are very kind, Soeur Lucie, and you won't let them make me a nun, will you? You will tell them all that I should be miserable—ah! I should die, I know I should!"
"Well, well, we will not talk about it any more to-night. As for me, I have nothing to do with it—nothing; but I cannot have you make yourself ill with chattering; so now let me put your pillow straight, and then you must go to sleep as fast as you can."
With a final shake of the pillow and arrangement of the bed- clothes, Soeur Lucie went away, leaving Madelon, not to sleep, but to lie broad awake, framing the most dismal little pictures of the future. And was this to be the end of it all, then?—the end of her vague dreams, her undefined hopes, which, leaping over a dim space of intervening years, had rested on a future of indefinite brightness lying somewhere outside these convent walls? Ah, was all indeed at an end? Never to pass these dull walls again, never to see anything but these dreary rooms,—all her life to be one unvarying, relentless routine, day after day, year after year—to be forced to teach stupid children, like Soeur Ursule, or to make jam and embroider alter-cloths, like Soeur Lucie, to say such long prayers, and to wear such ugly dresses, thinks poor Madelon, with a queer jumble of the duties and obligations of a nun's life. Ah! what would be the use of getting well and strong again, if that were all that life had in store for her? "Why did I not die?" thinks the poor child, tossing restlessly from side to side. "I wish I was dead! Ah! why did I not die? I wish I had never been born!" To her, as to all inexperienced minds, life appeared as a series of arbitrary events, rather than as a chain of dependent circumstances ceaselessly modifying each other, and she could not conceive the possibility of any gradual change of position being brought about in the slow course of years. The long succession of grey, weary days, which she had lately taught herself to consider as a path that must be traversed, but which would still lead ultimately to a future of most supreme happiness, suddenly seemed to terminate in a grave black as death itself, from which there could be no escape. "If papa were here," thinks Madelon, "he would never allow it; he would never leave me in this horrible place, he would take me away. Oh! papa, papa, why did you die?" And burying her face in the pillow, she began to sob and cry in her weakness and despair.
But this last thought of her father had suggested a new set of ideas and memories to Madelon, and by-and-by she stopped crying, and began to think again, confusedly at first, but presently with a more definite purpose gradually forming itself in the darkness of her bewildered thoughts. Has she not promised her father never to become a nun? Perhaps he had thought of something like this happening, and that was why he had made her promise, and of course she must keep her word. But how is she to do that? wonders Madelon. If Monsieur Horace were here, indeed, he might help her. Ah, if Monsieur Horace was but here! Should she write to him, and tell him how unhappy she was, and ask him to come and take her away? He had given her his English address, and told her to be sure and let him know, if she were in any trouble, or wanted any help. "But then," thinks our foolish little Madelon, with the most quixotic notions busy in her tired little brain, "I have not done what I said I would, and he will think, perhaps, I want to break my word." Alas, must that grand surprise that was to have been prepared for him, all those fine schemes, and plans, and projects, must they all fall to the ground? Was she never, never to show him how much she loved him? And yet, if they made her a nun, how could she do it all? He would never have his fortune made then, though she had promised to do it, and he would think she had forgotten him, and cared nothing about him. So wearily did Madelon's mind revolve, dwelling most of all on that promise made so long ago; and as she realized the possibility of her never being able to fulfil it at all, she became possessed with a feverish desire to get up that very moment and set about it. If—if—ah, supposing she were to run away—Aunt Therese is not here now, and she would not be afraid of the other nuns finding her, she would hide herself too well for that—supposing she were to run away, go to Spa, make the fortune, and then write to Monsieur Horace? Would not that be an idea?
When Soeur Lucie came in an hour later, to look after Madelon, she found her fast asleep; the traces of tears were still on her cheeks, and the pillow and bedclothes were all disarranged and tossed about again, but she was lying quite quietly now. Soeur Lucie stood for a moment, looking down upon the child's white face, that had grown so small and thin. Her hair had been all cut off during her illness, and curled in soft brown rings all over her head, as when she was a little child, and indeed there was something most childlike in the peaceful little face, which had a look of repose that it seldom wore when the wistful brown eyes were open, with their expression of always longing and seeking for something beyond their ken. Somehow Soeur Lucie was touched with a sudden feeling of unwonted tenderness for her little charge. "Pauvre petite," she murmured, gently raising one hand that hung over the side of the bed, and smoothing back a stray lock of hair. Madelon opened her eyes for a moment; "Monsieur Horace," she said, "I have not forgotten, I—I will——" and then she turned away and fell sound asleep again.
The Red Silk Purse.
It was about three weeks later, that Madelon was sitting one evening at her bed-room window; it was open, and the breeze blew in pleasantly, bringing with it the faint scent of early roses and lingering violets. In the garden below, lengthening shadows fell across the cherished centre square of grass, the trees were all golden-green in the western sunlight; black- veiled Sisters were walking about breaking the stillness with their voices and laughter; along the convent wall the vines were shooting and spreading their long tender sprays, and on the opposite side a great westeria was shedding showers of lilac blossoms with every breath of wind amongst the shrubs and evergreens below.
Madelon, sitting forward on her chair, her chin propped on her hands, her embroidery lying in her lap, saw and heeded none of these things; her eyes were fixed dreamily on the sky, but her thoughts were by no means dreamy, very intent rather upon one idea which she was endeavouring to rescue from the region of dreams and vagueness, and set before her with a distinctness that should ensure a practical result. This idea, which indeed was no new one, but simply that of running away from the convent, which had first occurred to her three weeks before, had presented itself with more assurance to her mind during every day of her convalescence; and now that she was nearly well again, it was fast becoming an unalterable resolution. There were difficulties in the way—she was considering them now—but she knew she should be able to overcome them; we say advisedly; she knew it, for the child already recognized in herself an unwavering strength of mind and purpose, which assured her that no foreseen obstacles could stand between her and any fixed end that she proposed to herself; as for unforeseen ones—our small-experienced Madelon did not take them into account at all.
It was not that she was a prodigy compounded of nothing but firmness, and resolution, and obstinacy, this little slender girl, who sat there in the evening sunlight, puzzling out her plan; there were plenty of weak points in her character, which would perhaps make themselves sufficiently apparent in years to come. But these at least she possessed—a persistency of purpose in whatever she undertook, on which she could confidently rely, and a certain courage and independence that promised to carry her successfully through all difficulties; and these things are, I think, as the charmed cakes that the Princess carried to the enchanted castle, and wherewith she tamed the great lions that tried to oppose her entrance. Madelon sees before her a very fair enchanted castle, lying outside these convent walls—even something like a Prince to rescue—and she will not fail to provide herself with such charms as lie within her reach, to appease any possible menagerie that may be lying between her and it.
She had already sketched out a little scheme whereby she might redeem the two promises which, lying latent in her mind for these two years past, had suddenly sprung into such abnormal activity, and, in the limited circle of her small past, present and future, monopolized at once her memories, and energies, and hopes. She must get out of the convent—that was evidently the first thing to be done; and this safely accomplished, the path of action seemed tolerably clear. She would make her way to Spa, which, as she well knew, was not far off, and go to an hotel there, which her father had frequented a good deal, and where there was a good-natured landlady, who had always petted and made much of the little lonely child, once at Spa— but here Madelon's plans assumed a bright and dazzling aspect, which, undimmed by any prophetic mist, unshaded by any foreboding cloud, almost deprived them of that distinctness so requisite for their calm and impartial consideration. All the difficulties seemed to lie on the road between the convent and the Redoute at Spa; once there, there could be no doubt but that this fortune, which she was pledged in her poor little foolish idea to obtain, would be made in no time at all. She could perfectly figure to herself the piles of notes and gold that would flow in upon her; and how she would then write to Monsieur Horace at the address he had given her; and then Madelon had in her own mind a distinct little picture of herself, pouring out a bag of gold at Monsieur Horace's feet, with a little discourse, which there was still time enough to compose!
But it could not be denied that there were two formidable obstacles standing between her and this so brilliant consummation; first, that she was not yet out of the convent, and that there was no perfectly obvious means of getting out; secondly, that she had no money. The former of these objections did not, however, appear absolutely insurmountable. Just beneath her window the wall was covered with a tangle of vines, and jessamine, and climbing roses; to a slim active child, with an unalterable purpose, the descent of even twenty feet of wall with so much friendly assistance might have seemed not unfeasible; but, in fact, Madelon's window was raised hardly ten feet above the flower-bed below. Once in the garden, there was, as in most old garden walls, a corner where certain displaced bricks would afford a sufficient footing, aided by the wide-spreading branches of the great westeria, and the tough shoots of clinging ivy. The wall was not high; what might be its aspect on the other side she was not certain, though she had an unpleasant haunting memory of a smooth, white-washed surface; but once on the top, it would be hard indeed if she could not get down; and then, as she knew, there was only a field to be crossed, and she would find herself in the highroad leading from Liege to Chaudfontaine, and so through Pepinster to Spa. No, getting out of the convent was not the difficulty. It would be easier, certainly, if one could walk out at the front door; but this being a possibility not to be calculated upon, two walls should not stand in the way. The real problem, of which even Madelon's sanguine mind saw no present solution, was how to get on without money, or rather how to procure any. She had none, not even a centime, and she was well aware that her fortune could in no wise be procured without some small invested capital: and besides, how was she to get to Spa at all without money? Could she walk there? Her ideas of the actual distance were too vague for her to make such a plan with any certainty; and besides, the chances of her discovery and capture by the nuns (chances too horribly unpleasing, and involving too many unknown consequences for Madelon to contemplate them with anything but a shudder), would be multiplied indefinitely by so slow a method of proceeding. Certainly this question of money was a serious one, and it was this that Madelon was revolving, as she sat gazing at the golden sunset sky, when she was startled by a sudden rumbling and tumbling in the corridor; in another moment the door was burst open, and Soeur Lucie and another sister appeared, dragging between them a corded trunk, of the most secular appearance, which had apparently seen many places, for it was pasted all over with half-effaced addresses and illustrated hotel advertisements.
Madelon gave a little cry and sprang forward; she knew the box well, and had brought it with her to Liege, but had never seen it since then till to-day. It was like a little bit of her former life suddenly revived, and rescued from the past years with which so much was buried.
"This is yours apparently, Madeleine," said Soeur Lucie, her broad, good-humoured face illumined with a smile at the child's eagerness; "the sight of it has done you good, I think; it is long since you have looked so gay."
"Yes, it is mine," cried Madelon; "where had it been all this time, Soeur Lucie?"
"Soeur Marie and I were clearing out a room downstairs, and we found it pushed away in a corner, so we thought we had better bring it up for you to see what was in it."
"I know," said Madelon, "it was a trunk of mamma's; there are some things of hers put away in it, I think. I never saw them, for we did not take it about with us everywhere; but I brought it with me from Paris, and I suppose Aunt Therese put it away."
"Our sainted Superior doubtless knew best," said Soeur Lucie, with a ready faith, which was capable, however, of adjusting itself to meet altered circumstances, "but we are clearing out that room below, which we think of turning into another store- room; we have not half space enough for our confitures as it is, and another large order has arrived to-day. And so, Madeleine, we had better see of there is anything in the box you wish to keep, and then it can be sent away. We shall perhaps find some clothes that can be altered for you."
"Yes," said Madelon, on whom, in spite of her new schemes and resolutions, that little sentence about sending the box away had a chilling effect; it was like cutting off another link between her and the world. Soeur Lucie went down on her knees and began to uncord the trunk.
"Here is the key tied to it," she said; "now we shall see."
She raised the lid as she spoke, but at that moment a bell began to ring.
"That is for vespers," she cried, "we must go; Madeleine, in a few days you will be able to come to the chapel again; to- night you can stay and take out these things. Ah, just as I thought—there are clothes," she added, taking a hurried peep, and then followed Soeur Marie out of the room.
Madelon approached the box with a certain awe mixed with her curiosity. It was quite true that she had never seen what it contained; she only knew that it had been her mother's, and that various articles belonging to her had been put away in it after her death. It had never been opened since, to her knowledge; her father had once told her that she might have the contents one day when she was a big girl, but that was all she knew about it.
Madelon had no very keen emotion respecting the mother she had never known; her father had spoken of her so seldom, and everything in connection with her had so completely dropped out of sight, that there had been no scope for the imaginative, shadowy adoration with which children who have early lost their mother are wont to regard her memory; her father had been everything to her, and of her mother's brother she had none but unpleasant recollections. But now, for the first time, she was brought face to face with something that had actually been her mother's, and it was with a sort of instinctive reverence that she went up to the box and took out one thing after another. There was some faint scent pervading them all, which ever afterwards associated itself in Madelon's mind with that hour in the narrow room and gathering twilight.
There was nothing apparently of the smallest value in the trunk. Any trinkets that Madame Linders might once have possessed had been parted with long before her death; and anything else that seemed likely to produce money had been sold afterwards. Here were nothing but linen clothes, which, as Soeur Lucie had hinted, might be made available for Madelon; a shawl, and a cloak of an old-fashioned pattern, a few worn English books, with the name "Magdalen Moore" written on the fly-leaf, at which Madelon looked curiously; a half-empty workbox, and two or three gowns. Amongst these was a well-worn black silk, lying almost at the bottom of the trunk; and Madelon, taking it out, unfolded it with some satisfaction at the thought of seeing it transformed into a garment for herself. As she did so, she perceived that some things had been left in the pocket. It had probably been the last gown worn by Madame Linders, and after her death, in the hurry and confusion that had attended the packing away of her things, under Monsieur Linders' superintendence, it had been put away with the rest without examination.
A cambric handkerchief was the first thing Madelon pulled out, and, as she did so, a folded paper fluttered on to the ground. She picked it up, and took it to the window to examine it. It was the fragment of a half-burned letter, a half sheet of foreign paper closely written in a small, clear hand; but only a fragment, for there was neither beginning nor ending. It was in English, but Madelon remembered enough of the language to make out the meaning, and this was what she read in the fading light.
It began abruptly thus:—
"... cannot come to me, and that I must not come to you, that it would do no good, and that M. Linders would not like it. Well, I must admit, I suppose, but if you could imagine, Magdalen, how I long to see your face, to hear your voice again! It is hard to be parted for so long, and I weary, oh, how I weary for you sometimes. To think that you are unhappy, and that I cannot comfort you; that you also sometimes wish for me, and that I cannot come to you—all this seems at times very hard to bear. I think sometimes that to die for those we love would be too easy a thing; to suffer for them and with them—would not that be better? And I do suffer with you in my heart—do you not believe it? But of what good is it? it cannot remove one pang or lighten your burthen for a single moment. This is folly, you will say; well, perhaps it is; you know I like to be sentimental sometimes, and I am in just such a mood to- night. Is it folly too to say, that after all the years since we parted, I still miss you? and yet so it is. Sometimes sitting by the fire of an evening, or looking out at the twilight garden, I seem to hear a voice and a step, and half expect to see my pretty Maud—you tell me you are altered, but I cannot realize it, and yet, of course, you must be; we are both growing old women now—we two girls will never meet again. Don't laugh at me if I tell you a dream I had last night; I dreamt that..." Below these words the page had been destroyed, but there was more written on the other side, and Madelon read on:
"... no doubt tired of all this about my love and regrets and sympathy, and you have heard it all before, have you not? Only believe it, Magdalen, for it comes from my heart. I think sometimes from your letters that you doubt it, that you doubt me; never do that—trust me when I say that my love for you is a part of myself, that can only end with life and consciousness. Well, let us talk of something else. I am so glad to hear that your baby thrives; it was good of you to wish to give it my name, but your husband was quite right in saying it should be called Madeleine after you, and I shall love it all the better. I already feel as if I had a possession in it, and if big Maud will not come to me, why then I shall have to put up with little Maud, and insist on her coming to pay me a visit some day. But you must come too, Magdalen; your room is all ready for you, it has been prepared ever since I came into this house, and if I could see your baby in the little empty bed in my nursery I think it would take away some of the heartache that looking at it gives me. I am writing a dismal letter instead of a cheery one, such as I ought to send you in your solitude; but the rain it is raining, and the wind it is blowing, and when all looks so gray and forlorn outside, one is apt to be haunted by the sound of small feet and chattering voices; you also, do you not know what that is? I am alone too, to-day, for Hor..."
Here the sentence broke off abruptly; the edges of the paper were all charred and brown; one could fancy that the letter had been condemned to the flames, and then that this page had been rescued, as if the possessor could not bear to part with all the loving words.
It was like a sigh from the past. Still holding the paper in her hand, Madelon leant her head against the window-frame and looked out. The sun had set, the trees were blowing about, black against the clear pale yellow of the evening sky, overhead stars were shining faintly here and there, the wind was sighing and scattering the faint-scented petals of the over-blown roses. Half unconsciously, Madelon felt that the scene, the hour, were in harmony with the pathos of the brown, faded words, like a chord struck in unison with the key-note of a mournful song. As she gazed, the tears began to gather in her eyes; she tried to read the letter again, and the big drops fell on the paper, already stained with other tears that had been dried ever so many years ago. But it was already too dark, she could hardly see the words; she laid the paper down and began to cry.
It was not the first part of the letter that moved her so much, though there was something in her that responded to the devoted, loving words; but she had not the key to their meaning. She knew nothing of her mother's life, nor of her causes for unhappiness; and for the moment she did not draw the inferences that to an older and more experienced person would have been at once obvious. It was the allusion to herself that was making Madelon cry with a tender little self- pity. The child was so weary of the convent, was feeling so friendless and so homeless just then, that this mention of the little empty bed that sometime and somewhere had been prepared and waiting to receive her, awoke in her quite a new longing, such as she had never had before, for a home and a mother, and kind protection and care, like other children. When at last she folded the letter up, it was to put it carefully away in the little box that contained her few treasures. It belonged to a life in which she somehow felt she had some part, though it lay below the horizon of her own memories and consciousness.
Only then, as Madelon prepared to put back the things that she had taken out of the trunk, did it occur to her to look if anything else remained in the pocket of the black silk gown. There was not much—only a half-used pencil, a small key, and a faded red silk netted purse. There was money in this last—at one end a few sous and about six francs in silver, at the other twenty francs in gold.
Out of the Convent.
"I think you might very well come down to vespers to-night, mon enfant," said Soeur Lucie one evening about a week later.
"To-night!" said Madelon, starting.
"Yes; why not? You are quite well and strong enough now, and we must set to work again. I think you have been idle long enough, and we can't begin better than by your coming to chapel this evening."
Madelon was silent and dismayed. Ever since she had found the money her project of flight had become a question of time only, and it was precisely this hour of vespers she had fixed on as the only one possible for her escape: the nuns would all be in the chapel, and, once outside the convent, the increasing darkness would favour her.
"Ah, not to-night, Soeur Lucie, please," she said, in a faltering voice; "I—I am tired—I have been in the garden all the afternoon;—that is, I am not tired; but I don't want to come down to-night."
"Well, I will let you off this one evening," said Soeur Lucie, good-naturedly; "though you used to be fond of coming to vespers, and certainly I don't think you can be very tired with sitting in the garden. However, we must begin work regularly to-morrow; so you had better go to bed at once, and get well rested. Good night, ma petite."
"Good-night," said Madelon; and then, as Soeur Lucie turned to leave the room, she felt a sudden pang of self-reproach. She was deceiving the good-humoured, simple little sister, who had been kind to her after her own fashion; and she was going away, and would never see her any more. She thought she would like to have one more kind word from her, as she could not wish her good-bye.
"Do you love me, Soeur Lucie?" she said, flinging her arms round her neck.
"To be sure, mon enfant," answers Soeur Lucie, with some astonishment; then, hastening to add the qualifying clause by which so many worthy people take care to proclaim that their love is human, and not divine, "that is, when you are good, you know, and do what you are told."
"Ah," said Madeleine, relaxing her hold, "then if I were to do something you thought very naughty, you would not love me any more?"
"Indeed, I don't know. You are not going to be naughty, I hope?" answered the nun; "but I can't wait any longer now. Make haste, and go to bed quietly."
She hurried out of the room as she spoke. Madelon listened till the sound of her footsteps died away; and then, without a moment's further pause or hesitation, began pulling together a few things into a small bundle. She had no time to waste in vain regrets: what she had to do must be done quickly, or not at all. A dozen windows overlooked the garden, and presently the nuns would be returning to their cells, and her chances would be over. Even now it was possible that one or another might have been detained from the chapel, but that she must risk; better that, she thought, than to wait till later, when a prolonged vigil or a wakeful sister might be the cause of frustrating all her hopes and plans. She had no fear of her flight being discovered before the morning. Since her illness she had always gone to bed early, and Soeur Lucie never did anything more than put her head in at the door, on her way to her own room, which was in a different part of the building, to see that all was dark and quiet; and if Madelon did not speak, would go away at once, satisfied that she was asleep.
The chapel bell was still ringing as she went swiftly about her few preparations, but it had ceased by the time the small bundle was made up, and Madelon, in her hat and cloak, stood ready to depart. She had laid all her plans in her own mind, and knew exactly what she meant to do. She had decided that she would walk to Chaudfontaine; she knew that she had only to follow the highroad to get there, and the distance she thought could not be very great, for she remembered having once walked it with her father years ago. To be sure she had been very tired, but she had been only a little girl then, and could do much better now; and it appeared to her this would be simpler and better than going into Liege to find the railway-station, of whose situation she had no very distinct idea, and where she might have to wait all night for a train, thus doubling her chances of detection. She would rather walk the five or six miles to Chaudfontaine during the night, and take the first morning train to Pepinster and Spa; once there, there could of course be no further difficulties.
She stood at the window now, ready to take the first step. She had on the old black silk gown, in which Soeur Lucie's skilful fingers had already made the necessary alterations, a black cloth cloak, and a little round hat and veil. She had grown a good deal during her illness, and the idea of height was aided by the straight black skirt, which, reaching to her ankles, gave her a quaint, old-fashioned air. She had her bundle on her arm, but there was still a moment of irresolution, as she looked for the last time round the little whitewashed room. It appeared to her that she was going to do something so dreadfully naughty. Our Madelon had not lived so long in a convent atmosphere, without imbibing some of the convent ideas and opinions, and she was aware that in the eyes of the nuns there were few offences so heinous as that which she was going to commit. "But I am not a nun yet," thinks the poor child, clasping and unclasping her hands in her perplexity, and struggling with the conscience-stricken sense of naughtiness, which threatened at this last moment to overpower all her foregone conclusions, and disconcert her in spite of herself— "I am not a nun yet, so it cannot be so very wrong in me; and then there is Monsieur Horace——" and with the thought of him all Madelon's courage returned. The rush of associations linking his name with a hundred aspirations, hopes, plans, which had become a habit of mind with her, revived in full force, and with these came a sudden realization of the imminent nature of the present opportunity, which, if lost, might never return.
The next moment she had dropped her bundle on the flower-bed below, and was scrambling out of the low window, clinging to the window-sill, catching hold of tough stems and pliant branches, crashing down through twigs, and leaves, and flowers, on to the ground beneath. Could these convent-trained vines and roses have known what daring little culprit was amongst them, would they have cried aloud for aid, I wonder, stretching out thorny sprays, and twining tendrils, to catch and detain her prisoner?—or would they not rather, in their sweet liberty of air, and dew, and sunshine, have done their best to help forward this poor little captive in her flight, aiding her in her descent, and shielding her from all prying eyes with their leafy branches, their interlacing sprays of red buds, and soft, faint flowers?
But they paid no heed one way or the other, and Madelon, with not a few scratches on her hands, and more that one rent in her frock, was safely on the ground. It was all the work of a moment; in another she had caught up her bundle, and was darting over the lawn, across the twilit garden, as if the whole sisterhood were in pursuit. Hardly knowing how she did it, she clambered up the wall, through the big westeria, reached the top, and slipping, sliding, found herself in the pathway running round the outside, scratched, bruised, and breathless, but without the walls, and so far free, at any rate. Months afterwards she found some withered lilac-blossoms lodged amongst the ribbons of her hat; how they recalled to her the moment of that desperate rush and clamber, the faint, dewy scent of the flowers, which she noticed even then, the rustle and crash of the branches, which startled her as with the sound of pursuing footsteps.
Once outside, she paused for a moment to take breath, and be certain that no one was following her. All was quiet, and in the stillness she could hear, as once before, the voices of the nuns singing in the chapel. Picking up her bundle again, she walked quickly away, along the little weed-grown path at the back of the building, down the slope of the ploughed field, up which she had come with Horace Graham two years and a half ago. In thinking over her journey beforehand, she had decided that it would be unwise to be walking along the highroad whilst there was still any daylight left, and that she would hide herself somewhere till it should be quite dark, before setting out on her walk to Chaudfontaine. So, as soon as she had reached the bottom of the unsheltered slope, she looked about for a place of refuge. She found it in a clump of trees and bushes growing by the roadside; and creeping in amongst them, our Madelon's slim little figure was very well concealed amongst the shadows from any passer-by. Eight o'clock had struck as she left the convent. "I will wait till nine," she resolved. "An hour will not be very long, and it will be quite dark by that time." And so she did wait, with the most determined impatient patience, through an hour that seemed as if it would never end, whilst the darkness fell, and passing footsteps became more and more rare. At last she heard the shrill-toned convent clock strike nine, and coming out of her place of concealment, she began her journey in earnest.
It was a dark, still, cloudy night. Above was the black mass of the convent dimly defined against the sullen sky; she took one glance at it before she bade it farewell; all was silent, not a light shone from its windows, not a tree waved above the surrounding walls. Behind her hung the great cloud of smoke that ever darkens over the city of Liege. Here and there a sudden glare illuminated the gloom of the surrounding hills; it came from the furnaces of the great iron-foundries; before her stretched the dusky road, between hedges and trees and scattered houses, soon lost in the obscurity beyond. Not a footstep could be heard, not a leaf rustled as Madelon and her bundle emerged from their hiding-place; but the child felt no alarm at the silence and solitude—the darkness and loneliness of the road could not frighten her. Indeed she was naturally of so courageous a temperament, and just then, through joy and hope, of so brave a spirit, that it would have been only a very real and present danger that could have alarmed her, and she did not even dream if imaginary ones. She almost danced as she went along, she felt so free and happy. "How glad I am to have quitted the convent," she thought to herself; "how triste it was, how dismal! How can people exist who always, always live there? They do not live, I think, they seem half dead already. Aunt Therese, how mournful and cold she always looked; she never smiled, she hardly ever spoke; she was not alive as other people are. Soeur Lucie told me that she would be a glorious saint in Heaven, and ten thousand times more happy than if she had not lived in the convent; how does Soeur Lucie know, I wonder? If so, she must have been glad to die—it was, perhaps, for that, that she made herself so miserable, that she might not dread death when it came; but that seems to me a very foolish way of spending one's life. And if to be like Aunt Therese was to be a saint, I am sure all the nuns were not so. How they used to chatter and quarrel sometimes; Soeur Marie would hardly speak to Soeur Lucie for a week, I remember, because she said Soeur Lucie had made Aunt Therese give her the best piece of embroidery to do, after it had been promised to her. I do not believe that; I love Soeur Lucie, she was always kind to me, and never quarrelled with any one. Oh! even if I had not made that promise to papa, I could never, never, have been a nun; I have done well in running away."
She walked on for a long time, her thoughts running on the scenes she had left behind, on the last two years of her life; she had no remorse now, no regrets at their having come to an end. To our lively, independent, excitable Madelon, they had, as we know, been years of restraint, of penance, of utter weariness; and never, perhaps, had she felt them to be so more keenly than in these first moments of her release. But she would have found them harder still without the memory of Monsieur Horace, and her promise to him, to fill her heart and imagination, and her thoughts reverted to him now; how, when she had made his fortune, she would take it all to him; how he would look, what he would say. This was a little picture the child was never weary of imagining to herself. She filled it in with a hundred different backgrounds, to suit the fancy of the moment; she tinted it with the brightest colours. Out in the vague future, into which no one can venture to look without some point on which to rest the mind, this little scene had gradually become at once the end of her present hopes, the beginning of another life, of which, indeed, she knew nothing, but that it lay in a sort of luminous haze of success and happiness. She never doubted she would attain it; it was not an affair of the imagination only, it was to be a most certain reality; she had arranged it all in those long weeks gone by, and now that the beginning was actually made, she was ready to look at it from the most practical point of view. Taking out her little purse, she began to count her money for at least the fiftieth time, as she walked along in the darkness.
"I have here twenty-six francs," she said to herself; "out of these, I must pay my journey to Spa. Why should I not go to Spa on foot? It cannot be a very long way; I remember that papa sometimes went backwards and forwards twice in the day from Chaudfontaine. I have already come a great way, and I am not in the lest fatigued. If I could do that, I should save a great deal of money—not that I am afraid I shall not have plenty without that; ten francs would be sufficient, but it will be perhaps safer if I can keep fifteen. Let me see; I must pay for my room at Spa. I wonder whether Madame Bertrand is still the landlady at the Hotel de Madrid. Also I must have some breakfast and some dinner; all this, however, will not cost me ten francs. I imagine I could still take the train from Chaudfontaine to Spa. Ah, I am getting very tired; I wonder if I have much further to go. I think I must rest a little while."
Madelon, in fact, but lately recovered from her fever, and for many months unused to much exercise, was in no sort of condition for a six or seven miles' walk. She had started with great courage, but it seemed to her that she had already been on her journey quite an indefinite length of time, and that she must be near the end, whilst in fact she had only accomplished half the distance. She would sit down for a short time, she thought, and then the rest would soon be accomplished, and she looked about for a seat of some kind. The road hitherto could hardly have been called lonely, for houses had been scattered on either side, and part of the way had led through a large village, where, from some uncurtained window, from some cafe or restaurant, long gleams of light had shot across the road, revealing for an instant the little figure passing swiftly along, glad to hide again in the obscurity beyond. But all this was left behind now, and as far as she could make out, she was quite in the open country, though in the darkness she could hardly distinguish objects three yards off. She found a big stone however, before long, and sitting down on it, leaning her head against a tree, in five minutes the child was soundly asleep.
How long she slept she never knew. Tired out, her repose was at first profound and unconscious; but presently it began to be haunted by confused dreams, in which past, present, and future were mingled together. She dreamt that she was wandering in some immense vaulted hall, where she had never been before, and which yet resembled the refectory of the convent; for long tables were spread as for the evening meal, and in the twilight, black-robed nuns whose faces she could never see, were gliding to and fro. And then, how or why she did not know, they were no longer the deal tables of the convent, with their coarse white cloths and earthenware plates, but the long green tables of the Kursaal, with Aunt Therese as croupier, and all the nuns pushing and raking the piles of money backwards and forwards. She was amongst them, and it seemed to her she had just won a great heap of gold; but when she tried to get it, Aunt Therese, in the character of croupier, refused to let her touch it. "It is mine; is it not, papa?" she cried to somebody standing at her side; and then looking up, saw it was Monsieur Horace; he did not speak, but gazing at her for a moment, shook his head, and moved away slowly into the gloom. And then the nuns and Aunt Therese also seemed to vanish, and she was left alone with the tables and the money, in the midst of which lay a long figure covered with a sheet, as she had seen her father the night that he had died. She did not think of that, however, but ran eagerly up to the table to take her winnings, when the figure moved, a hand was put out to seize the gold, and the sheet falling off, Madelon recognized her dead father's face.
With a shriek she awoke, and sprang up, shivering and trembling with cold and fright—all the terrors of the night suddenly come upon her. She looked round; all was as it had been when she went to sleep; the lonely road, the dark fields, the trees and hedges; but a breeze had sprung up before the dawn, and was rustling the leaves and branches; overhead a star or two was shining in dark rifts, and in the east a melancholy waning moon was slowly rising, half obscured by scattered clouds. With a sudden impulse, born of an urgent sense of utter loneliness and helplessness, the child fell on her knees and repeated an Ave Maria; the clouds drifted away, and the low moon shone out between the trees with a pale glow, that to our convent-taught Madelon seemed suddenly to irradiate and transfigure the night with a glory not of earth. Never in after years did she, in church or picture-gallery, come across glorified Madonna, or saint floating in ethereal spaces, without the memory returning to her of a silent road, dark, rustling trees, a midnight sky swept with clouds; and then a vision, as it were, of light and hope, giving new strength and courage to one little terrified heart.
Madelon started on her journey with renewed energy, but she hardly knew how she got through the miles that remained. The moon rose higher and higher, the road bordered with poplar- trees seemed to stretch before and behind into a never-ending length, as in some wearying nightmare. Madelon, in her straight, old-fashioned silk frock, her bundle on her arm, marching steadily on, looked nothing but a queer little black speck, casting a long narrow shadow, as she passed from one moon-lit space to another. Ever afterwards, when she looked back upon that night, the whole seemed like some perplexed, struggling dream, of which the waking reality appeared less vivid than the visions that had haunted her sleep. Perhaps she would have broken down altogether but for the friendly hints of the coming day that presently began to show themselves. There came a moment when the night grew more silent, and the breeze more chilly, and the surrounding world more dim and fantastic in the uncertain moonlight; and then the shadows began to waver and grow confused, long streaks of light showed themselves in the east, the moon grew fainter in the brightening sky, the birds began to chirp and twitter in every tree and bush. The night had vanished, and the horizon was all aglow with the ruddy light of a new day, when Madelon turned the last bend of the road, and saw before her the white cottages, the big hotel, the stream and hills of Chaudfontaine.
The Countess G——.
No one was yet stirring in the little village, which, scarcely emerged from the early twilight, lay still and silent, except for the ceaseless, monotonous clang of the forges. Madelon was tired out; she knew it was too early for any train to start for Spa, and nothing better occurred to her than to sit down and rest once more in a sheltered corner amongst some bushes under a big hawthorn-tree growing on the bank of the river; and in a few minutes she was again sound asleep, whilst the mass of snowy blossoms above her head grew rosy in the sunlight.
It was broad daylight when she awoke again, and sat up rubbing her eyes, and feeling very chilly, and stiff, and sleepy, but with a quickly succeeding delight in the bright May morning, a joyous sense of escape and freedom, of all that she had accomplished already, and was going to accomplish on this day to which she had looked forward so long. Everything looked gold and blue in the early sunlight; the river danced and sparkled, the poplar-trees were now green, now silvery-grey, as they waved about in the breeze; the country people were passing along the road, laughing and chattering gaily in their queer patois. The dark night seemed to have vanished into indefinite remoteness, like some incongruous dream, which, on waking, one recalls with difficulty and wonder, in the midst of bright familiar surroundings. The two years of convent life, too, seemed to be slipping out of little Madelon's existence, as if they had never been; she could almost fancy she had been sleeping all these months, and had awakened to find all the same—ah! no, not quite the same. Madelon had a sharp little pang of grief as she thought of her father, and then a glad throb of joy as she thought of Monsieur Horace—and then she suddenly discovered that she was horribly hungry, and, jumping up, she began to walk towards the village.
Not fifty yards from where she had been sleeping stood the hotel where she had so often stayed, and where she had first met Horace Graham. There, too, everything was stirring and awakening into activity—shutters being thrown back, windows opened, the sunny courtyard swept out. Madelon stood still for a moment looking on. She wondered whether her old friend, Mademoiselle Cecile, was still there; she thought it would be very pleasant to go in and see her, and have some breakfast in the big salle-a-manger, with the pink and yellow paper roses, and long rows of windows looking out into the courtyard and garden. But then, she further reflected, breakfasting at an hotel might probably cost a great deal of money, and she had so little money to spare; so that on the whole it might be better to see what she could find in a shop, and she walked quickly up the village street. Chaudfontaine contains none of the luxuries, and as few as possible of the necessaries of life, which are for the most part supplied from Liege; but sour bread is not unknown there, and Madelon having procured a great, dark tough hunch for her sous, turned back towards the hotel. She stood outside the iron railing, eating her bread, and watching what was going on inside; the stir and small bustle had a positive fascination for her, after her months of seclusion in the convent. It brought back her old life with the strangest vividness, joining on the present with the past which had been so happy; it was as if she had been suddenly brought back into air and light after long years of darkness and silence. Through the open door of the hotel she could see the shadowy green of the garden beyond. Was the swing in which she had so often sat for hours still there? The windows of the salon were open too, and there were the old pictures on the wall, the piano just where it used to stand, and a short, stout figure, in skirt and camisole, moving about, who might be Mademoiselle Cecile herself. Presently some children came running out into the courtyard, with shining hair and faces, and clean white pinafores, fresh out of the nurse's hands. Madelon looked at them with a sudden sense of having grown much older than she used to be—almost grown up, compared to these small things. She had been no bigger than that when she had first seen Monsieur Horace. She tried to recall their first meeting, but in truth she could not remember much about it; it was so long ago, and succeeding visits had so nearly effaced the remembrance of that early time, that it was rather the shadowy memory of a memory, than the reality itself, that came back to her mind.
Madelon had long finished her breakfast, but, busy with these recollections, was still lingering outside the courtyard, when a gentleman and lady came out of the hotel and walked down towards the gate. The gentleman was stout, black-haired, red- faced, and good-humoured-looking; the lady elderly, thin, and freckled, with a much tumbled silk gown, and frizzy, sandy hair, under a black net bonnet, adorned with many artificial flowers. In all our Madelon's reminiscences of the past, these two figures assuredly had no place, and yet this was by no means the first time they had met at this very hotel. The lady was the Countess G——, with whom one memorable evening Madelon had had a grand fight over a roulette board; the gentleman was Horace Graham's quondam fellow-traveller, the Countess's old admirer, and now her husband.
They were talking as they came together down the courtyard, and Madelon caught the last words of their conversation.
"Adieu, mon ami," cried the lady, as they approached the gate; "I shall rejoin you this afternoon at Liege."
"And by the earliest train possible, I beg of you," answered the other. "I may find it necessary to go on to Brussels this evening."
"By the earliest train possible, mon ami. Adieu, then,—au revoir."
"Au revoir, ma cherie," answered the gentleman, turning back to the hotel, but pausing before he had taken a dozen steps.
"Ma cherie, you will not forget my business at Madame Bertrand's?"
"But no, mon ami, it shall be attended to without fail."
"You must hasten, or you will miss the train."
"I go, I go," cried the Countess, waving her parasol in token of farewell, and hurrying out of the gateway. These last words aroused Madelon also. In hearing strange voices talking what seemed some familiar, half-forgotten tongue, she had almost forgotten the train; but she started up now from where she had been half standing, half leaning, and followed the Countess across the bridge into the railway station. Indeed she had only just time to take her ticket, before the train for Spa came rushing up with slackening speed into the station. There were few passengers either coming or going at this early hour, but Madelon's heart gave a great jump as she saw two black- robed figures get out of one of the carriages and come towards her. In another moment she saw they were Soeurs de Charite, with a dress quite different from that worn by the nuns; but the imaginary alarm suggested very real causes of fear, which somehow had almost slipped from her mind since the first hours of her escape from the convent. In her new, glad sense of freedom, she had quite forgotten that the hour had long since arrived when her flight must most certainly be discovered, and that there were, after all, still only six miles of road between her and her old life; and it was with quite a newly awakened dread that even now unfriendly eyes might be watching her from some one of the carriage-windows, that she jumped hastily into the nearest compartment she could find. It was not empty, however, for the Countess, who had preceded her across the bridge had already taken her place, and was arranging her flounces in one corner. She looked up, astounded at Madelon's somewhat precipitate entrance; and as the train moved off, she treated her small companion to a most unceremonious stare, which took in every detail of her personal appearance.
"Are you travelling alone?" she asked, at length, abruptly.
"Yes, madame," said Madelon, getting rather red. She had resented the stare, and did not want to be talked to; her one idea now was to get to Spa unnoticed. But she had ill-chosen her travelling companion—the Countess was a lady whose impertinent curiosity was rarely baffled.
"What! quite alone? Is there nobody at all with you?"
"But that is very extraordinary, and not at all the thing for a young person of your age. What makes you go about all by yourself?"
"I—I have no one to go with me," faltered Madelon, getting more and more hot and uncomfortable.
"But that is very strange, and, as one may say, very improper; have you no friends?"
"Yes,—no," began Madelon; but at that moment, with a shriek, the train entered a tunnel, and the sudden noise and darkness put a stop to the conversation for a time. The Countess began again presently, however, as they went speeding across the next valley.
"Do you live at Chaudfontaine?" was her next inquiry.
"No," says poor Madelon, looking around despairingly, as for some means of escape; but that was hopeless, and she could only shrink further into her corner.
"And where are you going now, then?"
"I am going to Spa."
"To Spa? Ah, indeed—and what are you going to do there? Perhaps," said the Countess, more graciously, and with another glance at the shabby frock and poor little bundle, "perhaps you are going into some situation there?"
"Situation?" repeated Madelon, bewildered.
"Yes—you would make a very nice little nursery-maid, I dare say," said the Countess, with much condescension; "and, indeed, if you should be wanting any assistance in that way, you have only to apply to me; and if you can produce good credentials, I shall be most happy to assist you. I am always ready to help deserving young people."
Madelon grew red as fire. "I am not a nursery-maid," she said, with much indignation; "I don't know what you mean, and you have no right to ask me so many questions—I will not answer any more."
Another shriek and another tunnel; when they once more emerged into daylight, Madelon had retreated into that corner of the carriage remotest from the Countess, who, for her part, showed some wisdom, perhaps, in making no attempt to resume the conversation.
At Pepinster, they changed trains; and here Madelon found an empty carriage, where, without disturbance, she might sit and congratulate herself on having accomplished this first step in her journey. Indeed, this seemed to her so great a success, that she felt nothing but hope as she sat curled up in a corner, only wishing vaguely, from time to time, that her head would not ache so much, and that she did not feel so very, very tired. She had a great confidence in the swiftness of the train, which was every moment increasing the distance between herself and Liege, and so, as she thought, lessening the chances of her being discovered in case of pursuit; and yet, when it stopped at length at the well-remembered Spa station, she lingered a moment in the carriage, feeling as if it were a friendly place of refuge she was leaving, to face unknown dangers in the outer world.
No one noticed her, however, as she slowly alighted and looked about her. There were, as we have said, but few passengers at this early hour, and the platform was already nearly deserted. At a little distance she could see Madame la Comtesse and her flounces walking briskly away; on one side was an English family of the received type, wrangling with porters and omnibus-drivers in the midst of their luggage; on the other, an invalid Russian wrapped to the nose in furs, leaning on his valet's arm; in the foreground, a party of gay Liegeois, come over for a day's amusement. No one looked at our poor little Madelon, as, half-bewildered, she stood for a moment on the platform, her bundle on her arm, her veil pulled down over her face; one after the other they vanished, and then she too followed, out into the tree-bordered road, with the familiar hills on either side, sheltering the little gay white town. The day had changed within the last hour, the sunshine was gone, and in its place was a grey, lowering sky. Madelon shivered as she walked along; her head ached more and more; she wondered what it was that made her feel so tired and weak, and then she remembered that she had been ill for a long time, and that she had been up all night. "I will ask Madame Bertrand to let me lie down and go to sleep," she thought, "before I go to the Redoute, and then I shall be all right." She walked on as fast as she could, so as to arrive sooner at the hotel; she remembered its situation perfectly, in the Place Royale, not far from the stand where the band used to play every evening; and there its was at last, all unchanged since she had last seen it three years ago, and with "Hotel de Madrid" shining in big gold letters above the door.
Every one who knows Spa, knows the Place Royale, with its broad walks and rows of trees, leading from the shady avenues of the Promenade a Sept Heures at the one end, to the winding street with its gay shops at the other. The Hotel de Madrid was situated about half-way down the Place, and, as compared with the great hotels of Spa, it was small, mean, and third- rate, little frequented therefore by the better class of visitors, and with no particular recommendation beyond its situation on the Place Royale, its cheap terms, and its excellent landlady. M. Linders, whose means did not always admit of reckless expenditure, and whose credit was not wholly unlimited, had gone there two or three times, when visiting Spa to retrieve fallen fortunes; and the first time he had taken Madelon with him, she and Madame Bertrand had become such fast friends, that, for his child's sake, he never afterwards went anywhere else. Madelon had the most lively, pleasant recollections of the stout motherly landlady, whose store of bonbons and confitures had been absolutely endless. Of all her friends in this class, Madame Bertrand had been the one to whom she had most attached herself, and now it was almost with the feeling of finding herself at home that she saw the hotel before her.
The door stood open, and she went into the small hall, or rather passage, which ran through the house, ending in another door, which, also open, afforded a green view of many currant and gooseberry bushes in Madame Bertrand's garden. To the right was the staircase, to the left the salle-a-manger, a low room with two windows looking on to the Place, and furnished with half-a-dozen small round tables, for the hotel was of too unpretentious a nature to aspire to a table d'hote; the floor lacked polish, and the furniture was shabby, yet the room had a friendly look to our homeless Madelon, as a frequent resting-place in such wanderings to and fro as had been hers in former years. She went in. A man was sitting at one of the tables, a tall bottle of red wine at his side, and a dish of cutlets before him, eating his late dejeuner, and reading a newspaper; whilst a waiter moved about, arranging knives and forks, table-napkins, and pistolets, with occasional pauses for such glimpses of the outer world as could be obtained through the muslin curtains hanging before the somewhat dingy windows.
"Is Madame Bertrand at home?" asked Madelon, coming up to him.
The man stared down at the shabbily dressed little figure before him, glanced at the bundle hanging on her arm, and then answered civilly enough that Madame Bertrand was not at home. Did Mademoiselle want anything?
"I wanted to speak to Madame Bertrand," answered Madelon rather piteously; "will she be back soon, do you think? When can I see her?"
"Eh, je n'en sais rien," said the man. "If Mademoiselle wants to see her, she had better call again—or she can leave a message," and he went on laying the tables.
Madelon sat down despondingly on a chair near the door, hardly knowing what to do next. It was the first check in the carrying out of her little programme, a programme so neatly arranged, but with this defect, mainly arising from inexperience, that it had made no sort of allowance for unforeseen circumstances—and yet of such so many were likely to arise. She had quite settled in her own mind what she was going to say to Madame Bertrand, and also what Madame Bertrand would say to her, but she had not provided for this other contingency of not finding her at all. She sat and considered for a minute. Two or three men came in laughing and talking, and stared in her face as they passed by and called for what they wanted. She began to feel uncomfortable; she could not stay there till Madame Bertrand returned; what if she were to go to the Redoute first, and then return to the hotel? Yes, that would be the best plan; if only she had not felt so very tired, with such aching limbs and head; the sight and smell of the meat and wine made her feel almost faint. However, that could not be helped, she must do the best she could. She went up to the waiter again. "I must go now," she said, "but I will come back presently to see Madame Bertrand; may I leave these things here?" and she held up her bundle.
"Mademoiselle wants a room—or is it something for Madame?" said the man, perplexed at this strange little visitor, who was wholly out of the range of his experience.
"No, no, it is mine," said Madelon; "if I might leave it here——"
The waiter set down the tray he was holding, and left the room followed by Madelon. "Mademoiselle Henriette!" he cried.
"Mademoiselle Henriette is in the garden," answered a shrill voice from above; and at the same moment a trim little figure appeared from amongst the currant and gooseberry bushes, and came in at the open door leading into the passage.
"Does any one want me?" she cried.
"Pardon, Madame," said Madelon, coming forward to tell her little story, whilst the waiter returned to his plates and dishes, "I wanted to see Madame Bertrand, but they say she is out, and that I must return later; might I leave my things here for a little while till I come back?"
"Do you want a room, Mademoiselle?" said the other; "I regret to say that the hotel is quite full; we have not a single bed at your disposal."
"Ah, what shall I do? what do you think would be best?" said poor Madelon, piteously, suddenly breaking down in the grown- up part she had been half unconsciously acting, and ready to burst into tears. Things were not turning out at all as she had wished or intended. "I did want a room, but I thought I should have found Madame Bertrand, and she would have helped me; I don't know what to do now."
"Do you know my aunt? I am Madame Bertrand's niece," says Mademoiselle Henriette in explanation. "She will not be in just yet, but if you like to wait in here a little while, you can do so, or you can return by-and-by."
She opened the door of a small parlour as she spoke, and stood aside for Madelon to enter. A little faded room, with a high desk standing in the window, gaudy ornaments on the mantelpiece, a worn Utrecht velvet sofa, and a semicircle of worsted-work chairs—not much in it all to awaken enthusiasm, one would think, and yet, as Madelon came in, she forgot disappointment, and fatigue, and everything else for a moment, in a glad recognition of well-remembered objects.
"It is not a bit altered," she cried, quite joyfully, turning to Mademoiselle Henriette as she spoke.
"You have been here before then," says Mademoiselle, looking curiously at the child, and seeing for the first time, in the clearer light of the room, what a child she was.
"Yes," answered Madelon, "I used to come here very often; we liked coming, because Madame Bertrand was so kind. I know she will be glad to see me again—ah!" she cried, breaking off in the middle of her sentence, "there is the little china dog I used to play with, and the bonbonniere with the flowers painted on the top—ah, and my little glass—do you know, Madame used always let me drink out of that glass when I had supper with her—but you were not here, then, Mademoiselle."
"That is true, I have only been with my aunt about six months; she is growing old, and wants some one to help her," answered Mademoiselle Henriette, a most brisk, capable-looking little personage, "but I daresay she will recollect you. Are you all alone? Have you come far to-day?"
"Not very far," said Madelon, colouring up, and suddenly recalled to the present. "I think, please, I will leave my things here now, and come back presently."
"I think you had better stay here quietly and rest; you look very tired," said Mademoiselle kindly; and indeed as the glow faded from her cheeks, Madelon showed a most colourless little face, with heavy eyelids, that seemed as if they could hardly open.
"No, I would rather go out now," she answered; "I can rest afterwards."
Indeed, tired as she felt, she had changed her mind, thinking that if she stayed now, it would be hard to set off again by- and-by, and she was determined to get her business done to- day—she had a morbid dread, too, of questions from strangers, after her experience with the Countess.
"I must go out," she repeated; "but I will come back again, and then perhaps Madame Bertrand will have come in, and will tell me where I can sleep to-night."
Mademoiselle Henriette had neither time nor sufficient interest in the child to contest the point further; and Madelon, having safely deposited her bundle in a corner of the sofa, departed on her errand.
What Madelon did at the Redoute.
And so more than half Madelon's troubles are over, and she is really approaching the moment so looked and longed for, for which so much has been dared and risked! Ah, is it so that our dearest hopes get fulfilled? In after years Madelon always looked back upon the remainder of that day, as upon the previous night, as a sort of horrible nightmare, through which she struggled more and more painfully—to what awakening we shall presently see. The golden morning had faded into a grey drizzle; the mist hung upon the hills, hiding their tops, and there were low heavy clouds, presaging an afternoon of more decided rain. The golden hope, too, that had so sustained and cheered our Madelon, seemed to have suddenly faded also; and in its place was that ever-increasing sense of utter weariness and aching limbs, which seemed as if it would overpower her before she had gone a dozen yards from the house. She went on bravely, however, trying to brace herself with the consciousness of a great purpose, very near its fulfilment now; but somehow she seemed almost to have forgotten what it was, or why she had ever formed it. Her keenest feeling at that moment was, perhaps, that expressed by the quick, furtive glance with which she looked round from time to time, as some following footstep made itself heard behind her. The sudden alarm at Chaudfontaine had given rise to a haunting dread, which she was unable to shake off, though even that was rather a vague sensation than a well-defined, reasonable fear.
Still she kept on her way, strong in the strength of a resolution that had so taken possession of all the deepest feelings and affections of a most ardent little nature, that nothing but absolute physical inability could have held her back from keeping to it now. It was perhaps well for her, however, that with her childish pleasure in planning every detail, she had arranged everything beforehand with such minuteness, that she had no need to reflect now as to what she had to do. She had only to go on mechanically, and indeed she seemed to have no power of reflection left in her at all, as she walked slowly up the street, past the gay shops, where, a happy, chattering little girl, she had so often lingered with her father, to choose some pretty trifle. Almost without thinking, so familiar was the road, did she enter the Redoute, and ascend the wide staircase; and then at last she feels a thrill as she sees before her the big salons that she has so often re-visited in her dreams, with their gilding, and mirrors, and velvet, that she loves so well, and with which some of her happiest hours are associated—sees, too, the long green tables, where Monsieur Horace's fortune is to be made, and Madelon's promise redeemed at last.
Nothing seemed so strange to our inexperienced Madelon, as that everything should be unchanged; only yesterday she had been sitting quietly in the convent garden, with long years separating her from the old life—and now it seemed but yesterday that she had been here. She went straight up to the rouge-et-noir table. She was familiar with both it and roulette, but of the two games rouge-et-noir was that which M. Linders had always most affected; and without thinking much about it, Madelon had fixed upon it as the one at which she would try her fortune. It was still early, and the tables had not long been opened, yet there was already a crowd two or three deep round them; and Madelon, hovering on the outside, had to wait some time for an opening that would enable her to approach near enough to lay down her money. It seemed so natural to be standing there watching the play—the expectant silence, the clink of the coin, the monotonous drone of the croupier, were all so familiar, that for a minute she quite forgot that she had any special object in view; and then, with one of those starts of realization with which from time to time she seemed to waken up out of some confused dream, she remembered why she was there, and what she had to do. It was only then, that on taking out her purse with its cherished contents, so as to be ready when her turn should come, it flashed across her mind that she had intended to ask Madame Bertrand to change the two ten-franc pieces that formed her capital, into pieces of five francs, which would have given her two chances more. Well—it could not be helped now, and, after all, had she not more than enough? "Dix francs, et je ferai fortune—dix francs, et je ferai fortune—" The old words seemed to set themselves to a tune in Madelon's head, chiming in with the croupier's perpetual "Rouge gagne et la couleur," "Rouge perd et la couleur," whilst the two precious coins grew warm in the little hand that was clasped so tightly over them. She had half relapsed into her dreamy state, when a woman who had been standing in front of her came pushing through the crowd. Madelon instinctively stepped forward to take her place, and roused up on finding that she was near enough to the table to lay down her money. The croupier was counting out the cards for the next stakes. Madelon waited till that turn was over, and then, leaning across the back of the chair before her, threw one of her little gold pieces on the table.
It was on the red she had staked. There was a pause as the other players made their game; Madelon's languid pulses began to flutter with a sudden interest, increasing to breathless excitement as the croupier began to deal out the cards. "Rouge perd et la couleur," and the poor little piece was swept away. Madelon's heart sank with a sudden pang, and then it beat faster, and her cheeks flushed, as, with a quick impulse, without a moment's hesitation, she threw her remaining ten francs on to the same spot. Another pause—another deal. "Rouge perd et la couleur!" She had lost again, and her last chance was gone.
Surely at the gambling-tables of Spa that day there was no more pitiful little tragedy played out than that represented by these two warm little gold coins, raked away by an indifferent croupier into a great careless heap, and carrying with them how many hopes, and ambitions, and longings—all crushed and scattered in one brief moment. Madelon half uttered a stifled cry, half made an involuntary movement forward; then, recollecting herself, shrank back, disengaging herself from the crowd. The gap was immediately filled up; no one remarked, or cared for, the poor, despairing child. The brave little spirit almost gave way, as Madelon, with a sudden sick feeling of faintness and giddiness, was obliged to sit down on the nearest sofa—but not quite even then. All was lost—nothing now remained for her to do in those salons, and she must not stay there, she knew; so in a minute she got up again, and made her way out of the room and down the staircase, clinging to the balustrade, blindly groping her way, as it were, till she was once more in the street.
Here the fresh air revived her a little, and she was able to consider what she should do next. Ah! what, indeed, was she to do, with a programme so rudely disarranged, with all her little plans and projects so shattered to fragments, that to restore them to anything like their former shape seemed hopeless? Madelon could think of nothing better to do than to go back to the hotel from which she had come. She had left all her small possessions there, and perhaps Madame Bertrand would have come in, and would be able to help her. In all the world our despairing Madelon could turn her thoughts nowhere at this crisis but to the good, unconscious Madame Bertrand, the one friend to whom she could apply, and who might perhaps be willing to assist her.
It seemed a long time before she found herself at the hotel again, and yet, in fact, it was scarcely more than half an hour since she had left it. Through the open door to the left she might have seen the waiter still busy over his plates and glasses, while the gentleman who had been breakfasting had only just finished his newspaper. But Madelon never thought of them, nor looked in that direction, indeed; with dazed eyes she was making her way along the semi-darkness of the passage to the parlour at the end, when she ran right up against some one who was coming towards her—a stout old lady, with grey hair, and a little grey moustache, a very gay shawl, and a large bonnet, with primrose-coloured ribbons. Madelon recognised her in an instant. "Oh! Madame Bertrand!" she cried, flinging her arms round her, "don't you know me? I am Madeleine Linders."
Madame Bertrand stepped back, a little overwhelmed by this vehement salutation, and then,—
"Madeleine Linders?" she cried. "What! little Mademoiselle Madelon, who used to come here so often with her papa?"
"Yes, I am little Madelon," she answered; and indeed the sight of the kind old face, the sound of the cheery, familiar voice, made her feel quite a small Madelon again. "You have not forgotten me, have you, Madame Bertrand?"
"Indeed I have not, though you have grown into such a tall young lady. But why have you not been here for such a long time? Where is your papa?"
"Ah! Madame," says Madelon, her sense of utter discouragement gaining ground again, as the first flush of pleasure at the sight of her old friend died away, "I am very unhappy. Papa died nearly three years ago, and I have been in a convent ever since, with Aunt Therese; but Aunt Therese is dead too; and they said that I was to be a nun, so I ran away."
"To be a nun!—a child like you? How could they think of such a thing?" cried the good old woman. "And you look tired out. Come in here and tell me all about it."
She drew her into the little parlour as she spoke. Mademoiselle Henriette was sitting at the high desk in the window looking on the garden, and some one else was there too, fanning herself in one of the worsted-work chairs. It was Madame la Comtesse, who had come there to settle her husband's business with Madame Bertrand. Both looked up as the landlady came into the room, half carrying, half dragging Madelon.
"Pauvre petite! pauvre petite!" she kept on saying, shaking and nodding her kind old head the while.
She made the child lie down on the sofa, pulled a cushion under her head, and then introduced her generally with "They wanted to make her a nun, and so she has run away from the convent."
"Run away!" cried Mademoiselle Henriette, turning quite round. "Well, I thought there was something very queer——"
"Run away!" cried the Countess. "Dear me, but that is very naughty!"
These little speeches, coming in the midst of Madame Bertrand's effusive benevolence, seemed quite irrelevant to the matter in hand, but nevertheless imparted a sudden chill.
"Not at all naughty," said Madame, at last, rallying, and still busy about the sofa, where Madelon had passively and wearily laid back her aching little head. "It was the very best thing she could do. Nun, indeed! I have no great opinion of convents, nor nuns either, myself; an idle pack—the best of them only say more prayers than their neighbours, and there is nothing very clever in that. I could do it myself, if I had the time."
"But it is very singular," said the Countess, getting up. "That is certainly the same little girl I travelled with from Chaudfontaine this morning. I thought there was something odd about her; she would not answer any of my questions. But there is no convent at Chaudfontaine. Are you sure she is telling you the truth?"
"Of course she is, Madame—I have known her since—since she was that high," replied Madame Bertrand, with some indignation; a reply so conclusive to herself, that its want of apparent logic may be pardoned. "Tell me, mon enfant, where is your convent that you speak of."
"At Liege," said Madelon, rousing and trying to sit up. "Aunt Therese was the Superior, but she is dead. I walked to Chaudfontaine in the night—and—oh, Madame Bertrand, don't let them come and take me back!" She gave a terrified glance round the room, and caught hold of Madame Bertrand.
"No one shall take you away; don't be afraid, chere petite; but tell us all bout it. Walked to Chaudfontaine in the night! Why, you must be half dead, poor little one! And what have you come to Spa for—have you any friends here?"
"No," said Madelon, "I thought you would help me, and let me stay here for a little while."
"And so you shall—for as long as you like," said Madame; "but what have you come here for? Have you no friends to go to?"
"Yes—I—I—ah, I forgot!" cried Madelon, burying her face in her hands. All of a sudden she remembered how she had intended writing to Monsieur Horace, all that she had meant to say to him, and how she would have asked him to come and help her—and now all that was at an end. As to telling Madame Bertrand or any one else of her cherished plans—never; that was her own secret, which she would never, never part with, except to Monsieur Horace himself. "I forgot," she cried, "I have no one—ah? what shall I do, what shall I do?"
"Do!" said the Countess, interposing with much prompt energy, "it is not difficult to know what you must do; you must go back to the convent, of course. I never heard of anything so improper as your running away."
"No, no, no," cried Madelon; "I cannot go back there—never; they would kill me." She flung herself down on the sofa again, while old Madame Bertrand tried to comfort her. No one should make her go back; she was her chere petite, she would take care of her—and was she not very hungry? would she like some soup, or some cakes, or some bread and confiture?
Meanwhile the Countess was saying to Mademoiselle Henriette, "This is a most extraordinary affair. If we do not take care, your excellent aunt will be imposed upon; but I am going back to Liege in an hour, and can perfectly well take the little girl with me, and leave her at the convent."
"Indeed, Madame, we should be much indebted to you," said mademoiselle Henriette, briskly; "it is evident that she has no friends, and has come to my aunt simply because she was in some way acquainted with her formerly. As you say, if we do not take care we shall certainly have her on our hands; my aunt is quite capable of it."
"Then that is easily settled," said the Countess; "I will take charge of her. No thanks, Mademoiselle, I am only doing my duty. I really do not know what young people of the present day will come to. Does any one know what her name is, or anything about her?"
Madame Bertrand, who had been vainly endeavouring to extract from our desponding little Madelon any decided expression of opinion on the subject of cakes or confitures, overheard this last question. "Poor little one, I know her very well," she said, lowering her voice confidentially, "her name is Linders; her father was Monsieur Linders, a famous gambler—it was long before you came here, Henriette, and Madame will not have heard of him probably; but here in Spa he was well known, and he used often to come to our hotel."
"Linders!" cried the Countess—"M. Linders—yes, certainly I remember him perfectly, and the little girl too. M. Linders?— of course, every one knew him."
"Ah! Madame, did you know my father?" said Madelon, raising her head at these last words, and clasping her hands imploringly; "be good to me then, I entreat of you; do not speak of sending me back to the convent. I cannot go!"
There was something pitiful in the child's voice and gesture, something pathetic in the little appeal to her father's memory, that might have touched any one less animated by a stern sense of duty than the Countess. As it was, she was not in the least affected.