Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter X. Mr. Blyth’s Drawing Academy.

When the week of delay had elapsed, and when Mrs. Blyth felt strong enough to receive company in her room, Valentine sent the promised invitation to Zack which summoned him to his first drawing-lesson.

The locality in which the family drawing academy was to be held deserves a word of preliminary notice. It formed the narrow world which bounded, by day and night alike, the existence of the painter’s wife.

By throwing down a partition-wall, Mrs. Blyth’s room had been so enlarged, as to extend along the whole breadth of one side of the house, measuring from the front to the back garden windows. Considerable as the space was which had been thus obtained, every part of it from floor to ceiling was occupied by objects of beauty proper to the sphere in which they were placed: some, solid and serviceable, where usefulness was demanded; others light and elegant, where ornament alone was necessary — and all won gloriously by Valentine’s brush; by the long, loving, unselfish industry of many years. Mrs. Blyth’s bed, like everything else that she used in her room, was so arranged as to offer her the most perfect comfort and luxury attainable in her suffering condition. The framework was broad enough to include within its dimensions a couch for day and a bed for night. Her reading easel and work-table could be moved within reach, in whatever position she lay. Immediately above her hung an extraordinary complication of loose cords, which ran through ornamental pulleys of the quaintest kind, fixed at different places in the ceiling, and communicating with the bell, the door, and a pane of glass in the window which opened easily on hinges. These were Valentine’s own contrivances to enable his wife to summon attendance, admit visitors, and regulate the temperature of her room at will, by merely pulling at any one of the loops hanging within reach of her hand, and neatly labeled with ivory tablets, inscribed “Bell,” “Door,” “Window.” The cords comprising this rigging for invalid use were at least five times more numerous than was necessary for the purpose they were designed to serve; but Mrs. Blyth would never allow them to be simplified by dexterous hands. Clumsy as their arrangement might appear to others, in her eyes it was without a fault: every useless cord was sacred from the reforming knife, for Valentine’s sake.

Imprisoned to one room, as she had now been for years, she had not lost her natural womanly interest in the little occupations and events of household life. From the studio to the kitchen, she managed every day, through channels of communication invented by herself, to find out the latest domestic news; to be present in spirit at least if not in body, at family consultations which could not take place in her room; to know exactly how her husband was getting on downstairs with his pictures; to rectify in time any omission of which Mr. Blyth or Madonna might be guilty in making the dinner arrangements, or in sending orders to tradespeople; to keep the servants attentive to their work, and to indulge or control them, as the occasion might require. Neither by look nor manner did she betray any of the sullen listlessness or fretful impatience sometimes attendant on long, incurable illness. Her voice, low as its tones were, was always cheerful, and varied musically and pleasantly with her varying thoughts. On her days of weakness, when she suffered much under her malady, she was accustomed to be quite still and quiet, and to keep her room darkened — these being the only signs by which any increase in her disorder could be detected by those about her. She never complained when the bad symptoms came on; and never voluntarily admitted, even on being questioned, that the spine was more painful to her than usual.

She was dressed very prettily for the opening night of the Drawing Academy, wearing a delicate lace cap, and a new silk gown of Valentine’s choosing, made full enough to hide the emaciation of her figure. Her husband’s love, faithful through all affliction and change to the girlish image of its first worship, still affectionately exacted from her as much attention to the graces and luxuries of dress as she might have bestowed on them of her own accord, in the best and gayest days of youth and health. She had never looked happier and better in any new gown than in that, which Mr. Blyth had insisted on giving her, to commemorate the establishment of the domestic drawing school in her own room.

Seven o’clock had been fixed as the hour at which the business of the academy was to begin. Always punctual, wherever his professional engagements were concerned, Valentine put the finishing touch to his preparations as the clock struck; and perching himself gaily on a corner of Mrs. Blyth’s couch, surveyed his drawing-boards, his lamps, and the plaster cast set up for his pupils to draw from, with bland artistic triumph.

“Now, Lavvie,” he said, “before Zack comes and confuses me, I’ll just check off all the drawing things one after another, to make sure that nothing’s left down stairs in the studio, which ought to be up here.”

As her husband said these words, Mrs. Blyth touched Madonna gently on the shoulder. For some little time the girl had been sitting thoughtfully, with her head bent down, her cheek resting on her hand, and a bright smile just parting her lips very prettily. The affliction which separated her from the worlds of hearing and speech — which set her apart among her fellow-creatures, a solitary living being in a sphere of death-silence that others might approach, but might never enter — gave a touching significance to the deep, meditative stillness that often passed over her suddenly, even in the society of her adopted parents, and of friends who were all talking around her. Sometimes, the thoughts by which she was thus absorbed — thoughts only indicated to others by the shadow of their mysterious presence, moving in the expression that passed over her face — held her long under their influence: sometimes, they seemed to die away in her mind almost as suddenly as they had arisen to life in it. It was one of Valentine’s many eccentric fancies that she was not meditating only, at such times as these, but that, deaf and dumb as she was with the creatures of this world, she could talk with the angels, and could hear what the heavenly voices said to her in return.

The moment she was touched on the shoulder, she looked up, and nestled close to her adopted mother; who, passing one arm round her neck, explained to her, by means of the manual signs of the deaf and dumb alphabet, what Valentine was saying at that moment.

Nothing was more characteristic of Mrs. Blyth’s warm sympathies and affectionate consideration for Madonna than this little action. The kindest people rarely think it necessary, however well practiced in communicating by the fingers with the deaf, to keep them informed of any ordinary conversation which may be proceeding in their presence. Wise disquisitions, witty sayings, curious stories, are conveyed to their minds by sympathizing friends and relatives, as a matter of course; but the little chatty nothings of everyday talk, which most pleasantly and constantly employ our speaking and address our hearing faculties, are thought too slight and fugitive in their nature to be worthy of transmission by interpreting fingers or pens, and are consequently seldom or never communicated to the deaf. No deprivation attending their affliction is more severely felt by them than the special deprivation which thus ensues; and which exiles their sympathies, in a great measure, from all share in the familiar social interests of life around them.

Mrs. Blyth’s kind heart, quick intelligence, and devoted affection for her adopted child, had long since impressed it on her, as the first of duties and pleasures, to prevent Madonna from feeling the excluding influences of her calamity, while in the society of others, by keeping her well informed of every one of the many conversations, whether jesting or earnest, that were held in her presence, in the invalid-room. For years and years past, Mrs. Blyth’s nimble fingers had been accustomed to interpret all that was said by her bedside before the deaf and dumb girl, as they were interpreting for her now.

“Just stop me, Lavvie, if I miss anything out, in making sure that I’ve got all that’s wanted for everybody’s drawing lesson,” said Valentine, preparing to reckon up the list of his materials correctly, by placing his right forefinger on his left thumb. “First, there’s the statue that all my students are to draw from — the Dying Gladiator. Secondly, the drawing-boards and paper. Thirdly, the black and white chalk. Fourthly, — where are the port-crayons to hold the chalk? Down in the painting-room, of course. No! no! don’t trouble Madonna to fetch them. Tell her to poke the fire instead: I’ll be back directly.” And Mr. Blyth skipped out of the room as nimbly as if he had been fifteen instead of fifty.

No sooner was Valentine’s back turned than Mrs. Blyth’s hand was passed under the pretty swan’s-down coverlet that lay over her couch, as if in search of something hidden beneath it. In a moment the hand reappeared, holding a chalk drawing very neatly framed. It was Madonna’s copy from the head of the Venus de’ Medici — the same copy which Zack had honored with his most superlative exaggeration of praise, at his last visit to the studio. She had not since forgotten, or altered her purpose of making him a present of the drawing which he had admired so much. It had been finished with the utmost care and completeness which she could bestow upon it; had been put into a very pretty frame which she had paid for out of her own little savings of pocket-money; and was now hidden under Mrs. Blyth’s coverlet, to be drawn forth as a grand surprise for Zack, and for Valentine too, on that very evening.

After looking once or twice backwards and forwards between the copyist and the copy, her pale kind face beaming with the quiet merriment that overspread it, Mrs. Blyth laid down the drawing, and began talking with her fingers to Madonna.

“So you will not even let me tell Valentine who this is a present for?” were the first words which she signed.

The girl was sitting with her back half turned on the drawing; glancing at it quickly from time to time with a strange shyness and indecision, as if the work of her own hands had undergone some transformation which made her doubt whether she was any longer privileged to look at it. She shook her head in reply to the question just put to her, then moved round suddenly on her chair; her fingers playing nervously with the fringes of the coverlet at her side.

“We all like Zack,” proceeded Mrs. Blyth, enjoying the amusement which her womanly instincts extracted from Madonna’s confusion; “but you must like him very much, love, to take more pains with this particular drawing than with any drawing you ever did before.”

This time Madonna neither looked up nor moved an inch in her chair, her fingers working more and more nervously amid the fringe; her treacherous cheeks, neck, and bosom answered for her.

Mrs. Blyth touched her shoulder gaily, and, after placing the drawing again under the coverlet, made her look up, while signing these words;

“I shall give the drawing to Zack very soon after he comes in. It is sure to make him happy for the rest of the evening, and fonder of you than ever.”

Madonna’s eyes followed Mrs. Blyth’s fingers eagerly to the last letter they formed; then rose softly to her face with the same wistful questioning look which they had assumed before Valentine, years and years ago, when he first interfered to protect her in the traveling circus. There was such an irresistible tenderness in the faint smile that wavered about her lips; such a sadness of innocent beauty in her face, now growing a shade paler than it was wont to be, that Mrs. Blyth’s expression became serious the instant their eyes met. She drew the girl forward and kissed her. The kiss was returned many times, with a passionate warmth and eagerness remarkably at variance with the usual gentleness of all Madonna’s actions. What had changed her thus? Before it was possible to inquire or to think, she had broken away from the kind arms that were round her, and was kneeling with her face hidden in the pillows that lay over the head of the couch.

“I must quiet her directly. I ought to make her feel that this is wrong,” said Mrs. Blyth to herself; looking startled and grieved as she withdrew her hand wet with tears, after trying vainly to raise the girl’s face from the pillows. “She has been thinking too much lately — too much about that drawing; too much, I am afraid, about Zack.”

Just at that moment Mr. Blyth opened the door. Feeling the slight shock, as he let it bang to after entering, Madonna instantly started up and ran to the fireplace. Valentine did not notice her when he came in.

He bustled about the neighborhood of the Dying Gladiator, talking incessantly, arranging his port-crayons by the drawing-boards, and trimming the lamps that lit the model. Mrs. Blyth cast many an anxious look towards the fireplace. After the lapse of a few minutes Madonna turned round and came back to the couch. The traces of tears had almost entirely disappeared from her face. She made a little appealing gesture that asked Mrs. Blyth to be silent about what had happened while they were alone; kissed, as a sign that she wished to be forgiven, the hand that was held out to her; and then sat down quietly again in her accustomed place.

At the same moment a voice was heard talking and laughing boisterously in the hall. Then followed a long whispering, succeeded by a burst of giggling from the housemaid, who presently ascended to Mrs. Blyth’s room alone, and entered — after an explosion of suppressed laughter behind the door — holding out at arm’s length a pair of boxing-gloves.

“If you please, sir,” said the girl, addressing Valentine, and tittering hysterically at every third word, “Master Zack’s down stairs on the landing, and he says you’re to be so kind as put on these things (he’s putting another pair on hisself) and give him the pleasure of your company for a few minutes in the painting-room.”

“Come on, Blyth,” cried the voice from the stairs. “I told you I should bring the gloves, and make a fighting man of you, last time I was here, you know. Come on! I only want to open your chest by knocking you about a little in the painting-room before we begin to draw.”

The servant still held the gloves away from her at the full stretch of her arm, as if she feared they were yet alive with the pugilistic energies that had been imparted to them by their last wearer. Mrs. Blyth burst out laughing, Valentine followed her example. The housemaid began to look bewildered, and begged to know if her master would be so kind as to take “the things” away from her.

“Did you say, come up stairs?” continued the voice outside. “All right; I have no objection, if Mrs. Blyth hasn’t.” Here Zack came in with his boxing-gloves fitted on. “How are you, Blyth? These are the pills for that sluggish old liver of yours that you’re always complaining of. Put ’em on. Stand with your left leg forward — keep your right leg easily bent — and fix your eye on me!”

“Hold your tongue!” cried Mr. Blyth, at last recovering breath enough to assert his dignity as master of the new drawing-school. “Take off those things directly! What do you mean, sir, by coming into my academy, which is devoted to the peaceful arts, in the attitude of a prize-fighter?”

“Don’t lose your temper, my dear fellow,” rejoined Zack; “you will never learn to use your fists prettily if you do. Here, Patty, the boxing lesson’s put off till to-morrow. Take the gloves up-stairs into your master’s dressing-room, and put them in the drawer where his clean shirts are, because they must be kept nice and dry. Shake hands, Mrs. Blyth: it does one good to see you laugh like that, you look so much the better for it. And how is Madonna? I’m afraid she’s been sitting before the fire, and trying to spoil her pretty complexion. Why, what’s the matter with her? Poor little darling, her hands are quite cold!”

“Come to your lesson, sir, directly,” said Valentine, assuming his most despotic voice, and leading the disorderly student by the collar to his appointed place.

“Hullo!” cried Zack, looking at the Dying Gladiator. “The gentleman in plaster’s making a face — I’m afraid he isn’t quite well. I say, Blyth, is that the statue of an ancient Greek patient, suffering under the prescription of an ancient Greek physician?”

Will you hold your tongue and take up your drawing-board?” cried Mr. Blyth. “You young barbarian, you deserve to be expelled my academy for talking in that way of the Dying Gladiator. Now then; where’s Madonna? No! stop where you are, Zack. I’ll show her her place, and give her the drawing-board. Wait a minute, Lavvie! Let me prop you up comfortably with the pillows before you begin. There! I never saw a more beautiful effect of light and shade, my dear, than there is on your view of the model. Has everybody got a port-crayon and two bits of chalk? Yes, everybody has. Order! order! order!” shouted Valentine, suddenly forgetting his assumed dignity in the exultation of the moment. “Mr. Blyth’s drawing academy for the promotion of family Art is now open, and ready for general inspection. Hooray!”

“Hooray!” echoed Zack, “hooray for family Art! I say, Blyth, which chalk do I begin with — the white or the black? The black — eh? Do I start with the what’s his name’s wry face? and if so, where am I to begin? With his eyes, or his nose, or his mouth, or the top of his head, or the bottom of his chin — or what?”

“First sketch in the general form with a light and flowing stroke, and without attention to details,” said Mr. Blyth, illustrating these directions by waving his hand gracefully about his own person. “Then measure with the eye, assisted occasionally by the port-crayon, the proportion of the parts. Then put dots on the paper; a dot where his head comes; another dot where his elbows and knees come, and so forth. Then strike it all in boldly — it’s impossible to give you better advice than that — strike it in, Zack; strike it in boldly!”

“Here goes at his head and shoulders to begin with,” said Zack, taking one comprehensive and confident look at the Dying Gladiator, and drawing a huge half circle, with a preliminary flourish of his hand on the paper. “Oh, confound it, I’ve broken the chalk!”

“Of course you have,” retorted Valentine. “Take another bit; the Academy grants supplementary chalk to ignorant students, who dig their lines on the paper, instead of drawing them. Now, break off a bit of that bread-crumb, and rub out what you have done. ‘Buy a penny loaf, and rub it all out,’ as Mr. Fuseli once said to me in the Schools of the Royal Academy, when I showed him my first drawing, and was excessively conceited about it.”

“I remember,” said Mrs. Blyth, “when my father was working at his great engraving, from Mr. Scumble’s picture of the ‘Fair Gleaner Surprised,’ that he used often to say how much harder his art was than drawing, because you couldn’t rub out a false line on copper, like you could on paper. We all thought he never would get that print done, he used to groan over it so in the front drawing-room, where he was then at work. And the publishers paid him infamously, all in bills, which he had to get discounted; and the people who gave him the money cheated him. My mother said it served him right for being always so imprudent; which I thought very hard on him, and I took his part — so harassed too as he was by the tradespeople at that time.”

“I can feel for him, my love,” said Valentine, pointing a piece of chalk for Zack. “The tradespeople have harassed me — not because I could not pay them certainly, but because I could not add up their bills. Never owe any man enough, Zack, to give him the chance of punishing you for being in his debt, with a sum to do in simple addition. At the time when I had bills (go on with your drawing; you can listen, and draw too), I used, of course, to think it necessary to check the tradespeople, and see that their Total was right. You will hardly believe me, but I don’t remember ever making the sum what the shop made it, on more than about three occasions. And, what was worse, if I tried a second time, I could not even get it to agree with what I had made it myself the first time. Thank Heaven, I’ve no difficulties of that sort to grapple with now! Everything’s paid for the moment it comes in. If the butcher hands a leg of mutton to the cook over the airey railings, the cook hands him back six and nine — or whatever it is — and takes his bill and receipt. I eat my dinners now, with the blessed conviction that they won’t all disagree with me in an arithmetical point of view at the end of the year. What are you stopping and scratching your head for in that way?”

“It’s no use,” replied Zack; “I’ve tried it a dozen times, and I find I can’t draw a Gladiator’s nose.”

“Can’t!” cried Mr. Blyth, “what do you mean by applying the word ‘can’t’ to any process of art in my presence? There, that’s the line of the Gladiator’s nose. Go over it yourself with this fresh piece of chalk. No; wait a minute. Come here first, and see how Madonna is striking in the figure; the front view of it, remember, which is the most difficult. She hasn’t worked as fast as usual, though. Do you find your view of the model a little too much for you, my love?” continued Valentine, transferring the last words to his fingers, to communicate them to Madonna.

She shook her head in answer. It was not the difficulty of drawing from the cast before her, but the difficulty of drawing at all, which was retarding her progress. Her thoughts would wander to the copy of the Venus de Medici that was hidden under Mrs. Blyth’s coverlid; would vibrate between trembling eagerness to see it presented without longer delay, and groundless apprehension that Zack might, after all, not remember it, or not care to have it when it was given to him. And as her thoughts wandered, so her eyes followed them. Now she stole an anxious, inquiring look at Mrs. Blyth, to see if her hand was straying towards the hidden drawing. Now she glanced shyly at Zack — only by moments at a time, and only when he was hardest at work with his port-crayon — to assure herself that he was always in the same good humor, and likely to receive her little present kindly, and with some appearance of being pleased to see what pains she had taken with it. In this way her attention wandered incessantly from her employment; and thus it was that she made so much less progress than usual, and caused Mr. Blyth to suspect that the task he had set her was almost beyond her abilities.

“Splendid beginning, isn’t it?” said Zack, looking over her drawing. “I defy the whole Royal Academy to equal it,” continued the young gentleman, scrawling this uncompromising expression of opinion on the blank space at the bottom of Madonna’s drawing, and signing his name with a magnificent flourish at the end.

His arm touched her shoulder while he wrote. She colored a little, and glanced at him, playfully affecting to look very proud of his sentence of approval — then hurriedly resumed her drawing as their eyes met. He was sent back to his place by Valentine before he could write anything more. She took some of the bread-crumb near her to rub out what he had written — hesitated as her hand approached the lines — colored more deeply than before, and went on with her drawing, leaving the letters beneath it to remain just as young Thorpe had traced them.

“I shall never be able to draw as well as she does,” said Zack, looking at the little he had done with a groan of despair. “The fact is, I don’t think drawing’s my forte. It’s color, depend upon it. Only wait till I come to that; and see how I’ll lay on the paint! Didn’t you find drawing infernally difficult, Blyth, when you first began?”

“I find it difficult still, Master Zack,” replied Mr. Blyth. “Art wouldn’t be the glorious thing it is, if it wasn’t all difficulty from beginning to end; if it didn’t force out all the fine points in a man’s character as soon as he takes to it. Just eight o’clock,” continued Valentine, looking at his watch. “Put down your drawing-boards for the present. I pronounce the sitting of this Academy to be suspended till after tea.”

“Valentine, dear,” said Mrs. Blyth, smiling mysteriously, as she slipped her hand under the coverlid of the couch, “I can’t get Madonna to look at me, and I want her here. Will you oblige me by bringing her to my bedside?”

“Certainly, my love,” returned Mr. Blyth, obeying the request. “You have a double claim on my services to-night, for you have shown yourself the most promising of my pupils. Come here, Zack, and see what Mrs. Blyth has done. The best drawing of the evening — just what I thought it would be — the best drawing of the evening!”

Zack, who had been yawning disconsolately over his own copy, with his fists stuck into his cheeks, and his elbows on his knees, bustled up to the couch directly. As he approached, Madonna tried to get back to her former position at the fireplace, but was prevented by Mrs. Blyth, who kept tight hold of her hand. Just then, Zack fixed his eyes on her and increased her confusion.

“She looks prettier than ever to-night, don’t she, Mrs. Blyth?” he said, sitting down and yawning again. “I always like her best when her eyes brighten up and look twenty different ways in a minute, just as they’re doing now. She may not be so like Raphael’s pictures at such times, I dare say (here he yawned once more); but for my part — What’s she wanting to get away for? And what are you laughing about, Mrs. Blyth? I say, Valentine, there’s some joke going on here between the ladies!”

“Do you remember this, Zack?” asked Mrs. Blyth, tightening her hold of Madonna with one hand, and producing the framed drawing of the Venus de’ Medici with the other.

“Madonna’s copy from my bust of the Venus!” cried Valentine, interposing with his usual readiness, and skipping forward with his accustomed alacrity.

“Madonna’s copy from Blyth’s bust of the Venus,” echoed Zack, coolly; his slippery memory not having preserved the slightest recollection of the drawing at first sight of it.

“Dear me! how nicely it’s framed, and how beautifully she has finished it!” pursued Valentine, gently patting Madonna’s shoulder, in token of his high approval and admiration.

“Very nicely framed, and beautifully finished, as you say, Blyth,” glibly repeated Zack, rising from his chair, and looking rather perplexed, as he noticed the expression with which Mrs. Blyth was regarding him.

“But who got it framed?” asked Valentine. “She would never have any of her drawings framed before. I don’t understand what it all means.”

“No more do I,” said Zack, dropping back into his chair in lazy astonishment. “Is it some riddle, Mrs. Blyth? Something about why is Madonna like the Venus de’ Medici, eh? If it is, I object to the riddle, because she’s a deal prettier than any plaster face that ever was made. Your face beats Venus’s hollow,” continued Zack, communicating this bluntly sincere compliment to Madonna by the signs of the deaf and dumb alphabet.

She smiled as she watched the motion of his fingers — perhaps at his mistakes, for he made two in expressing one short sentence of five words — perhaps at the compliment, homely as it was.

“Oh, you men, how dreadfully stupid you are sometimes!” exclaimed Mrs. Blyth. “Why, Valentine, dear, it’s the easiest thing in the world to guess what she has had the drawing framed for. To make it a present to somebody, of course! And who does she mean to give it to?”

“Ah! who indeed?” interrupted Zack, sliding down cozily in his chair, resting his head on the back rail, and spreading his legs out before him at full stretch.

“I have a great mind to throw the drawing at your head, instead of giving it to you!” cried Mrs. Blyth, losing all patience.

“You don’t mean to say the drawing’s a present to me!“ exclaimed Zack, starting from his chair with one prodigious jump of astonishment.

“You deserve to have your ears well boxed for not having guessed that it was long ago!” retorted Mrs. Blyth. “Have you forgotten how you praised that very drawing, when you saw it begun in the studio? Didn’t you tell Madonna — ”

“Oh! the dear, good, generous, jolly little soul!” cried Zack, snatching up the drawing from the couch, as the truth burst upon him at last in a flash of conviction. “Tell her on your fingers, Mrs. Blyth, how proud I am of my present. I can’t do it with mine, because I can’t let go of the drawing. Here, look here! — make her look here, and see how I like it!” And Zack hugged the copy of the Venus de’ Medici to his waistcoat, by way of showing how highly he prized it.

At this outburst of sentimental pantomime, Madonna raised her head and glanced at young Thorpe. Her face, downcast, anxious, and averted even from Mrs. Blyth’s eyes during the last few minutes (as if she had guessed every word that could pain her, out of all that had been said in her presence), now brightened again with pleasure as she looked up — with innocent, childish pleasure, that affected no reserve, dreaded no misconstruction, foreboded no disappointment. Her eyes, turning quickly from Zack, and appealing gaily to Valentine, beamed with triumph when he pointed to the drawing, and smilingly raised his hands in astonishment, as a sign that he had been pleasantly surprised by the presentation of her drawing to his new pupil. Mrs. Blyth felt the hand which she still held in hers, and which had hitherto trembled a little from time to time, grow steady and warm in her grasp, and dropped it. There was no fear that Madonna would now leave the side of the couch and steal away by herself to the fireplace.

“Go on, Mrs. Blyth — you never make mistakes in talking on your fingers, and I always do — go on, please, and tell her how much I thank her,” continued Zack, holding out the drawing at arm’s length, and looking at it with his head on one side, by way of imitating Valentine’s manner of studying his own pictures. “Tell her I’ll take such care of it as I never took of anything before in my life. Tell her I’ll hang it up in my bed-room, where I can see it every morning as soon as I wake. Have you told her that? — or shall I write it on her slate? Hullo! here comes the tea. And, by heavens, a whole bagful of muffins! What!!! the kitchen fire’s too black to toast them. I’ll undertake the whole lot in the drawing academy. Here, Patty, give us the toasting-fork: I’m going to begin. I never saw such a splendid fire for toasting muffins before in my life! Rum-dum-diddy-iddy-dum-dee, dum-diddy-iddy-dum!” And Zack fell on his knees at the fireplace, humming “Rule Britannia,” and toasting his first muffin in triumph; utterly forgetting that he had left Madonna’s drawing lying neglected, with its face downwards, on the end of Mrs. Blyth’s couch.

Valentine, who in the innocence of his heart suspected nothing, burst out laughing at this new specimen of Zack’s inveterate flightiness. His kind instincts, however, guided his hand at the same moment to the drawing. He took it up carefully, and placed it on a low bookcase at the opposite side of the room. If any increase had been possible in his wife’s affection for him, she would have loved him better than ever at the moment when he performed that one little action.

As her husband removed the drawing, Mrs. Blyth looked at Madonna. The poor girl stood shrinking close to the couch, with her hands clasped tightly together in front of her, and with no trace of their natural lovely color left on her cheeks. Her eyes followed Valentine listlessly to the bookcase, then turned towards Zack, not reproachfully nor angrily — not even tearfully — but again with that same look of patient sadness, of gentle resignation to sorrow, which used to mark their expression so tenderly in the days of her bondage among the mountebanks of the traveling circus. So she stood, looking towards the fireplace and the figure kneeling at it, bearing her new disappointment just as she had borne many a former mortification that had tried her sorely while she was yet a little child. How carefully she had labored at that neglected drawing in the secrecy of her own room! How happy she had been in anticipating the moment when it would be given to young Thorpe; in imagining what he would say on receiving it, and how he would communicate his thanks to her; in wondering what he would do with it when he got it: where he would hang it, and whether he would often look at his present after he had got used to seeing it on the wall! Thoughts such as these had made the moment of presenting that drawing the moment of a great event in her life — and there it was now, placed on one side by other hands than the hands into which it had been given; laid down carelessly at the mere entrance of a servant with a tea-tray; neglected for the childish pleasure of kneeling on the hearth-rug, and toasting a muffin at a clear coal-fire!

Mrs. Blyth’s generous, impulsive nature, and sensitively tempered affection for her adopted child, impelled her to take instant and not very merciful notice of Zack’s unpardonable thoughtlessness. Her face flushed, her dark eyes sparkled, as he turned quickly on her couch towards the fire-place. But, before she could utter a word, Madonna’s hand was on her lips, and Madonna’s eyes were fixed with a terrified, imploring expression on her face. The next instant, the girl’s trembling fingers rapidly signed these words:

“Pray — pray don’t say anything! I would not have you speak to him just now for the world!”

Mrs. Blyth hesitated, and looked towards her husband; but he was away at the other end of the room, amusing himself professionally by casting the drapery of the window-curtains hither and thither into all sorts of picturesque folds. She looked next at Zack. Just at that moment he was turning his muffin and singing louder than ever. The temptation to startle him out of his provoking gaiety by a good sharp reproof was almost too strong to be resisted; but Mrs. Blyth forced herself to resist it, nevertheless, for Madonna’s sake. She did not, however, communicate with the girl, either by signs or writing, until she had settled herself again in her former position; then her fingers expressed these sentences of reply:

“If you promise not to let his thoughtlessness distress you, my love, I promise not to speak to him about it. Do you agree to that bargain? If you do, give me a kiss.”

Madonna only paused to repress a sigh that was just stealing from her, before she gave the required pledge. Her cheeks did not recover their color, nor her lips the smile that had been playing on them earlier in the evening; but she arranged Mrs. Blyth’s pillow even more carefully than usual, before she left the couch, and went away to perform as neatly and prettily as ever, her own little household duty of making the tea.

Zack, entirely unconscious of having given pain to one lady and cause of anger to another, had got on to his second muffin, and had changed his accompanying song from “Rule Britannia” to the “Lass o’ Gowrie,” when the hollow, ringing sound of rapidly-running wheels penetrated into the room from the frosty road outside; advancing nearer and nearer, and then suddenly ceasing opposite Mr. Blyth’s own door.

“Dear me! — surely that’s at our gate,” exclaimed Valentine; “who can be coming to see us so late, on such a cold night as this? And in a carriage, too!”

“It’s a cab, by the rattling of the wheels, and it brings us the ‘Lass o’ Gowrie,’” sang Zack, combining the original text of his song, and the suggestion of a possible visitor, in his concluding words.

“Do leave off singing nonsense out of tune, and let us listen when the door opens,” said Mrs. Blyth, glad to seize the slightest opportunity of administering the smallest reproof to Zack.

“Suppose it should be Mr. Gimble, come to deal at last for that picture of mine that he has talked of buying so long,” exclaimed Valentine.

“Suppose it should be my father!” cried Zack, suddenly turning round on his knees with a very blank face. “Or that infernal old Yollop, with his gooseberry eyes and his hands full of tracts. They’re both of them quite equal to coming after me and spoiling my pleasure here, just as they spoil it everywhere else.”

“Hush!” said Mrs. Blyth. “The visitor has come in, whoever it is. It can’t be Mr. Gimble, Valentine; he always runs up two stairs at a time.”

“And this is one of the heavy-weights. Not an ounce less than sixteen stone, I should say, by the step,” remarked Zack, letting his muffin burn while he listened.

“It can’t be that tiresome old Lady Brambledown come to worry you again about altering her picture,” said Mrs. Blyth.

“Stop! surely it isn’t — ” began Valentine. But before he could say another word, the door opened; and, to the utter amazement of everybody but the poor girl whose ear no voice could reach, the servant announced:

“MRS. PECKOVER.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book1.10.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30