Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IV. Madonna’s Mother.

It is a quarter to twelve by the hall clock at the Rectory, and one of the finest autumn mornings of the whole season. Vance, Doctor Joyce’s middle-aged man servant, or “Bishop” Vance, as the small wits of Rubbleford call him, in allusion to his sleek and solemn appearance, his respectable manner, his clerical cravat, and his speckless black garments, is placing the cake and cowslip wine on the dining-table, with as much formality and precision as if his master expected an archbishop to lunch, instead of a clown’s wife and a little child of ten years old. It is quite a sight to see Vance retiring and looking at the general effect of each knife and fork as he lays it down; or solemnly strutting about the room, with a spotless napkin waving gently in his hand; or patronisingly confronting the pretty housemaid at the door, and taking plates and dishes from her with the air of a kitchen Sultan who can never afford to lose his dignity for a moment in the presence of the female slaves.

The dining-room window opens into the Rectory garden. The morning shadows cast by the noble old elm-trees that grow all round, are fading from the bright lawn. The rich flower-beds gleam like beds of jewels in the radiant sunshine. The rookery is almost deserted, a solitary sleepy caw being only heard now and then at long intervals. The singing of birds, and the buzzing of busy insects sound faint, distant, and musical. On a shady seat, among the trees, Mrs. Joyce is just visible, working in the open air. One of her daughters sits reading on the turf at her feet. The other is giving the younger children a ride by turns on the back of a large Newfoundland dog, who walks along slowly with his tongue hanging out, and his great bushy tail wagging gently. A prettier scene of garden beauty and family repose could not be found in all England, than the scene which the view through the Rectory window now presents. The household tranquillity, however, is not entirely uninterrupted. Across the picture, of which Vance and the luncheon-table form the foreground, and the garden with Mrs. Joyce and the young ladies the middle-distance and background, there flits from time to time an unquiet figure. This personage is always greeted by Leo, the Newfoundland dog, with an extra wag of the tail; and is apostrophized laughingly by the young ladies, under the appellation of “funny Mr. Blyth.”

Valentine has in truth let nobody have any rest, either in the house or the garden, since the first thing in the morning. The rector having some letters to write, has bolted himself into his study in despair, and defies his excitable friend from that stronghold, until the arrival of Mrs. Peckover with the deaf and dumb child has quieted the painter’s fidgety impatience for the striking of twelve o’clock, and the presence of the visitors from the circus. As for the miserable Vance, Mr. Blyth has discomposed, worried, and put him out, till he looks suffocated with suppressed indignation. Mr. Blyth has invaded his sanctuary to ask whether the hall clock is right, and has caught him “cleaning himself” in his shirt sleeves. Mr. Blyth has broken one of his tumblers, and has mutinously insisted on showing him how to draw the cork of the cowslip wine bottle. Mr. Blyth has knocked down a fork and two spoons, just as they were laid straight, by whisking past the table like a madman on his way into the garden. Mr. Blyth has bumped up against the housemaid in returning to the dining-room, and has apologized to Susan by a joke which makes her giggle ecstatically in Vance’s own face. If this sort of thing is to go on for a day or two longer, though he has been twenty years at the Rectory, Vance will be goaded into giving the doctor warning.

It is five minutes to twelve. Valentine has skipped into the garden for the thirtieth time at least, to beg that Mrs. Joyce and the young ladies will repair to the dining-room, and be ready to set Mrs. Peckover and her little charge quite at their ease the moment they come in. Mrs. Joyce consents to this proposal at last, and takes his offered arm; touching it, however, very gingerly, and looking straight before her, while he talks, with an air of matronly dignity and virtuous reserve. She is still convinced that Mr. Blyth’s principles are extremely loose, and treats him as she might have treated Don Juan himself under similar circumstances.

They all go into the dining-room. Mrs. Joyce and her daughters take their places, looking deliciously cool and neat in their bright morning dresses. Leo drops down lazily on the rug inside the window, with a thump of his great heavy body that makes the glasses ring. The doctor comes in with his letters for the post, and apostrophizes Valentine with a harmless clerical joke. Vance solemnly touches up the already perfect arrangement of the luncheon table. The clock strikes twelve. A faint meek ring is heard at the Rectory bell.

Vance struts slowly to the door, when — Heaven and earth! are no conventions held sacred by these painters of pictures? — Mr. Blyth dashes past him with a shout of “Here they are!” and flies into the hall to answer the gate himself. Vance turns solemnly round towards his master, trembling and purple in the face, with an appealing expression, which says plainly enough:— “If you mean to stand this sort of outrage, sir, I beg most respectfully to inform you that I don’t.” The rector bursts out laughing; the young ladies follow his example; the Newfoundland dog jumps up, and joins in with his mighty bark. Mrs. Joyce sits silent, and looks at Vance, and sympathizes with him.

Mr. Blyth is soon heard again in the hall, talking at a prodigious rate, without one audible word of answer proceeding from any other voice. The door of the dining-room, which has swung to, is suddenly pushed open, jostling the outraged Vance, who stands near it, into such a miserably undignified position flat against the wall, that the young ladies begin to titter behind their handkerchiefs as they look at him. Valentine enters, leading in Mrs. Peckover and the deaf and dumb child, with such an air of supreme happiness, that he looks absolutely handsome for the moment. The rector, who is, in the best and noblest sense of the word, a gentleman, receives Mrs. Peckover as politely and cordially as he would have received the best lady in Rubbleford. Mrs. Joyce comes forward with him, very kind too, but a little reserved in her manner, nevertheless; being possibly apprehensive that any woman connected with the circus must be tainted with some slight flavor of Miss Florinda Beverley. The young ladies drop down into the most charming positions on either side of the child, and fall straightway into fits of ecstasy over her beauty. The dog walks up, and pokes his great honest muzzle among them companionably. Vance stands rigid against the wall, and disapproves strongly of the whole proceeding.

Poor Mrs. Peckover! She had never been in such a house as the Rectory, she had never spoken to a doctor of divinity before in her life. She was very hot and red and trembling, and made fearful mistakes in grammar, and clung as shyly to Mr. Blyth as if she had been a little girl. The rector soon contrived, however, to settle her comfortably in a seat by the table. She curtseyed reverentially to Vance, as she passed by him; doubtless under the impression that he was a second doctor of divinity, even greater and more learned than the first. He stared in return straight over her head, with small unwinking eyes, his cheeks turning slowly from deep red to dense purple. Mrs. Peckover shuddered inwardly, under the conviction that she had insulted a dignitary, who was hoisted up on some clerical elevation, too tremendous to be curtseyed to by such a social atom as a clown’s wife.

Mrs. Joyce had to call three times to her daughters before she could get them to the luncheon-table. If she had possessed Valentine’s eye for the picturesque and beautiful, she would certainly have been incapable of disturbing the group which her third summons broke up.

In the center stood the deaf and dumb child, dressed in a white frock, with a little silk mantilla over it, made from a cast-off garment belonging to one of the ladies of the circus. She wore a plain straw hat, ornamented with a morsel of narrow white ribbon, and tied under the chin with the same material. Her clear, delicate complexion was overspread by a slight rosy tinge — the tender coloring of nature, instead of the coarsely-glaring rouge with which they disfigured her when she appeared before the public. Her wondering blue eyes, that looked so sad in the piercing gas-light, appeared to have lost that sadness in the mellow atmosphere of the Rectory dining-room. The tender and touching stillness which her affliction had cast over her face, seemed a little at variance with its childish immaturity of feature and roundness of form, but harmonized exquisitely with the quiet smile which seemed habitual to her when she was happy — gratefully and unrestrainedly happy, as she now felt among the new friends who were receiving her, not like a stranger and an inferior, but like a younger sister who had been long absent from them.

She stood near the window, the center figure of the group, offering a little slate that hung by her side, with a pencil attached to it, to the rector’s eldest daughter, who was sitting at her right hand on a stool. The second of the young ladies knelt on the other side, with both her arms round the dog’s neck; holding him back as he stood in front of the child, so as to prevent him from licking her face, which he had made several resolute attempts to do, from the moment when she first entered the room. Both the Doctor’s daughters were healthy, rosy English beauties in the first bloom of girlhood; and both were attired in the simplest and prettiest muslin dresses, very delicate in color and pattern. Pity and admiration, mixed with some little perplexity and confusion, gave an unusual animation to their expressions; for they could hardly accustom themselves as yet to the idea of the poor child’s calamity. They talked to her eagerly, as if she could hear and answer them — while she, on her part, stood looking alternately from one to the other, watching their lips and eyes intently, and still holding out the slate, with her innocent gesture of invitation and gentle look of apology, for the eldest girl to write on. The varying expressions of the three; the difference in their positions, the charming contrast between their light, graceful figures and the bulky strength and grand solidity of form in the noble Newfoundland dog who stood among them; the lustrous background of lawn and flowers and trees, seen through the open window; the sparkling purity of the sunshine which fell brightly over one part of the group; the transparency of the warm shadows that lay so caressingly, sometimes on a round smooth cheek, sometimes over ringlets of glistening hair, sometimes on the crisp folds of a muslin dress — all these accidental combinations of the moment, these natural and elegant positions of nature’s setting, these accessories of light and shade and background garden objects beautifully and tenderly filling up the scene, presented together a picture which it was a luxury to be able to look on, which it seemed little short of absolute profanation to disturb.

Mrs. Joyce, nevertheless, pitilessly disarranged it. In a moment the living picture was destroyed; the young ladies were called to their mother’s side; the child was placed between Valentine and Mrs. Peckover, and the important business of luncheon began in earnest.

It was wonderful to hear how Mr. Blyth talked; how he alternately glorified the clown’s wife for the punctual performance of her promise, and appealed triumphantly to the rector to say, whether he had not underrated rather than exaggerated little Mary’s beauty. It was also wonderful to see Mrs. Peckover’s blank look of astonishment when she found the rigid doctor of divinity, who would not so much as notice her curtsey, suddenly relax into blandly supplying her with everything she wanted to eat or drink. But a very much more remarkable study of human nature than either of these, was afforded by the grimly patronizing and profoundly puzzled aspect of Vance, as he waited, under protest, upon a woman from a traveling circus. It is something to see the Pope serving the Pilgrims their dinner, during the Holy Week at Rome. Even that astounding sight, however, fades into nothing, as compared with the sublimer spectacle of Mr. Vance waiting upon Mrs. Peckover.

The rector, who was a sharp observer in his own quiet, unobtrusive way, was struck by two peculiarities in little Mary’s behavior during lunch. In the first place, he remarked with some interest and astonishment, that while the clown’s wife was, not unnaturally, very shy and embarrassed in her present position, among strangers who were greatly her social superiors, little Mary had maintained her self-possession, and had unconsciously adapted herself to her new sphere from the moment when she first entered the dining-room. In the second place, he observed that she constantly nestled close to Valentine; looked at him oftener than she looked at any one else; and seemed to be always trying, sometimes not unsuccessfully, to guess what he was saying to others by watching his expression, his manner, and the action of his lips. “That child’s character is no common one,” thought Doctor Joyce; “she is older at heart than she looks; and is almost as fond of Blyth already as he is of her.”

When lunch was over, the eldest Miss Joyce whispered a petition in her mother’s ear, “May Carry and I take the dear little girl out with us to see our gardens, mamma?”

“Certainly, my love, if she likes to go. You had better ask her — Ah, dear! dear! I forgot — I mean, write on her slate. It’s so hard to remember she’s deaf and dumb, when one sees her sitting there looking so pretty and happy. She seems to like the cake. Remind me, Emmy, to tie some up for her in paper before she goes away.”

Miss Emily and Miss Caroline went round to the child directly, and made signs for the slate. They alternately wrote on it with immense enthusiasm, until they had filled one side; signing their initials in the most business-like manner at the end of each line, thus:—

“Oh, do come and see my gardens. E. J.” — “We will gather you such a nice nosegay. C. J.” — “I have got some lovely little guinea-pigs. B. J.” — “And Mark, our gardener, has made me a summer-house, with such funny chairs in it. C. J.” — “You shall have my parasol to keep the sun off. B. J.” — “And we will send Leo into the water as often as you like him to go. C. J.” — Thus they went on till they got to the bottom of the slate.

The child, after nodding her head and smiling as she read each fresh invitation, turned the slate over, and, with some little triumph at showing that she could write too, began slowly to trace some large text letters in extremely crooked lines. It took her a long time — especially as Mr. Blyth was breathlessly looking over her shoulder all the while — to get through these words: “Thank you for being so kind to me. I will go with you anywhere you like.”

In a few minutes more the two young ladies and little Mary were walking over the bright lawn, with Leo in close attendance, carrying a stick in his mouth.

Valentine started up to follow them; then appeared suddenly to remember something, and sat down again with a very anxious expression on his face. He and Doctor Joyce looked at one another significantly. Before breakfast, that morning, they had been closeted at a private interview. Throughout the conversation which then took place, Mr. Blyth had been unusually quiet, and very much in earnest. The doctor had begun by being incredulous and sarcastic in a good-humored way; but had ended by speaking seriously, and making a promise under certain conditions. The time for the performance of that promise had now arrived.

“You needn’t wait, Vance,” said the rector. “Never mind about taking the things away. I’ll ring when you’re wanted.”

Vance gloomily departed.

“Now the young people have left us, Mrs. Peckover,” said Doctor Joyce, turning to the clown’s wife, “there is a good opportunity for my making a proposition to you, on behalf of my old and dear friend here, Mr. Blyth, who, as you must have noticed, feels great sympathy and fondness for your little Mary. But, before I mention this proposal (which I am sure you will receive in the best spirit, however it may surprise you), I should wish — we should all wish, if you have no objection — to hear any particulars you can give us on the subject of this poor child. Do you feel any reluctance to tell us in confidence whatever you know about her?”

“Oh dear no, sir!” exclaimed Mrs. Peckover, very much amazed. “I should be ashamed of myself if I went making any objections to anything you wanted to know about little Mary. But it’s strange to me to be in a beautiful place like this, drinking wine with gentlefolks — and I’m almost afraid — ”

“Not afraid, I hope, that you can’t tell us what we are so anxious to know, quite at your ease, and in your own way?” said the rector, pleasantly. “Pray, Mrs. Peckover, believe I am sincere in saying that we meet on equal terms here. I have heard from Mr. Blyth of your motherly kindness to that poor helpless child; and I am indeed proud to take your hand, and happy to see you here, as one who should always be an honored guest in a clergyman’s house — the doer of a good and charitable deed. I have always, I hope, valued the station to which it has pleased God to call me, because it especially offers me the privilege of being the friend of all my fellow-christians, whether richer or poorer, higher or lower in worldly rank, than am myself.”

Mrs. Peckover’s eyes began to fill. She could have worshipped Doctor Joyce at that moment.

“Mr. Blyth!” exclaimed Mrs. Joyce, sharply, before another word could be spoken — “excuse me, Mr. Blyth; but really — ”

Valentine was trying to pour out a glass of sherry for Mrs. Peckover. His admiration of the doctor’s last speech, and his extreme anxiety to reassure the clown’s wife, must have interfered with his precision of eye and hand; for one-half of the wine, as he held the decanter, was dropping into the glass, and the other half was dribbling into a little river on the cloth. Mrs. Joyce thought of the walnut-wood table underneath, and felt half distracted as she spoke. Mrs. Peckover, delighted to be of some use, forgot her company manners in an instant, pulled out her red cotton pocket-handkerchief and darted at the spilt sherry. But the rector was even quicker with his napkin. Mrs. Peckover’s cheeks turned the color of her handkerchief as she put it back in her pocket, and sat down again.

“Much obliged — no harm done — much obliged, ma’am,” said Doctor Joyce. “Now, Valentine, if you don’t leave off apologizing, and sit down directly in that arm-chair against the wall, I shall take Mrs. Peckover into my study, and hear everything she has to say, at a private interview. There! we are all comfortable and composed again at last, and ready to be told how little Mary and the good friend who has been like a mother to her first met.”

Thus appealed to, Mrs. Peckover began her narrative; sometimes addressing it to the Doctor, sometimes to Mrs. Joyce, and sometimes to Valentine. From beginning to end, she was only interrupted at rare intervals by a word of encouragement, or sympathy, or surprise, from her audience. Even Mr. Blyth sat most uncharacteristically still and silent; his expression alone showing the varying influences of the story on him, from its strange commencement to its melancholy close.

“It’s better than ten years ago, sir,” began the clown’s wife, speaking first to Doctor Joyce, “since my little Tommy was born; he being now, if you please, at school and costing nothing, through a presentation, as they call it I think, which was given us by a kind patron to my husband. Some time after I had got well over my confinement, I was out one afternoon taking a walk with baby and Jemmy; which last is my husband, ma’am. We were at Bangbury, then, just putting up the circus: it was a fine large neighborhood, and we hoped to do good business there. Jemmy and me and the baby went out into the fields, and enjoyed ourselves very much; it being such nice warm spring weather, though it was March at the time. We came back to Bangbury by the road; and just as we got near the town, we see a young woman sitting on the bank, and holding her baby in her arms, just as I had got my baby in mine.

“‘How dreadful ill and weak she do look, don’t she?’ says Emmy. Before I could say as much as ‘Yes,’ she stares up at us, and asks in a wild voice, though it wasn’t very loud either, if we can tell her the way to Bangbury workhouse. Having pretty sharp eyes of our own, we both of us knew that a workhouse was no fit place for her. Her gown was very dusty, and one of her boots was burst, and her hair was draggled all over her face, and her eyes was sunk in her head, like; but we saw somehow that she was a lady — or, if she wasn’t exactly a lady, that no workhouse was proper for her, at any rate. I stooped down to speak to her; but her baby was crying so dreadful she could hardly hear me. ‘Is the poor thing ill?’ says I. ‘Starving,’ says she, in such a desperate, fierce way, that it gave me a turn. ‘Is that your child?’ says I, a bit frightened about how she’d answer me. ‘Yes,’ she says in quite a new voice, very soft and sorrowful, and bending her face away from me over the child. ‘Then why don’t you suckle it?’ says I. She looks up at me, and then at Jenny and shakes her head, and says nothing. I give my baby to Jemmy to hold, and went and sat down by her. He walked away a little; and I whispered to her again, ‘Why don’t you suckle it?’ and she whispered to me, ‘My milk’s all dried up. I couldn’t wait to hear no more till I’d got her baby at my own breast.

“That was the first time I suckled little Mary, ma’am. She wasn’t a month old then, and oh, so weak and small! such a mite of a baby compared to mine!

“You may be sure, sir, that I asked the young woman lots of questions, while I was sitting side by side with her. She stared at me with a dazed look in her face, seemingly quite stupefied by weariness or grief, or both together. Sometimes she give me an answer and sometimes she wouldn’t. She was very secret. She wouldn’t say where she come from, or who her friends were, or what her name was. She said she should never have name or home or friends again. I just quietly stole a look down at her left hand, and saw that there was no wedding-ring on her finger, and guessed what she meant. ‘Does the father know you are wandering about in this way?’ says I. She flushes up directly; ‘No;’ says she, ‘he doesn’t know where I am. He never had any love for me, and he has no pity for me now. God’s curse on him wherever he goes!’ — ‘Oh, hush! hush!’ says I, ‘don’t talk like that!’ ‘Why do you ask me questions?’ says she more fiercely than ever. ‘What business have you to ask me questions that make me mad?’ ‘I’ve only got one more to bother you with,’ says I, quite cool; ‘and that is, haven’t you got any money at all with you?’ You see, ma’am, now I’d got her child at my own bosom, I didn’t care for what she said, or fear for what she might do to me. The poor mite of a baby was sure to be a peacemaker between us, sooner or later.

“It turned out she’d got sixpence and a few half-pence — not a farthing more, and too proud to ask help from any one of her friends. I managed to worm out of her that she had run away from home before her confinement, and had gone to some strange place to be confined, where they’d ill-treated and robbed her. She hadn’t long got away from the wretches who’d done it. By the time I’d found out all this, her baby was quite quiet, and ready to go to sleep. I gave it her back. She said nothing, but took and kissed my hand, her lips feeling like burning coals on my flesh. ‘You’re kindly welcome,’ says I, a little flustered at such a queer way of thanking me. ‘Just wait a bit while I speak to my husband.’ Though she’d been and done wrong, I couldn’t for the life of me help pitying her, for her fierce ways. She was so young, and so forlorn and ill, and had such a beautiful face (little Mary’s is the image of it, ‘specially about the eyes), and seemed so like a lady, that it was almost a sin, as I thought, to send her to such a place as a workhouse.

“Well: I went and told Jemmy all I had got out of her — my own baby kicking and crowing in my arms again, as happy as a king, all the time I was speaking. ‘It seems shocking,’ says I, ‘to let such as her go into a workhouse. What had we better do?’ — Says Jemmy, ‘Let’s take her with us to the circus and ask Peggy Burke.’

“Peggy Burke, if you please, sir, was the finest rider that ever stepped on a horse’s back. We’ve had nothing in our circus to come near her, since she went to Astley’s. She was the wildest devil of an Irish girl — oh! I humbly beg your pardon, sir, for saying such a word; but she really was so wild, I hope you’ll excuse it. She’d go through fire and water, as they say, to serve people she liked; but as for them she didn’t, she’d often use her riding-whip among ’em as free as her tongue. That cowardly brute Jubber would never have beaten my little Mary, if Peggy had been with us still! He was so frightened of her that she could twist him round her finger; and she did, for he dursn’t quarrel with the best rider in England, and let other circuses get hold of her. Peggy was a wonderful sharp girl besides, and was always fond of me, and took my part; so when Jemmy said he thought it best to ask her what we had better do, you may be sure that I thought it best too. We took the young woman and the baby with us to the circus at once. She never asked any questions; she didn’t seem to care where she went, or what she did; she was dazed and desperate — a sight, Ma’am, to make your heart ache.

“They were just getting tea in the circus, which was nearly finished. We mostly have tea and dinner there, sir; finding it come cheaper in the end to mess together when we can. Peggy Burke, I remember, was walking about on the grass outside, whistling (that was one of her queer ways) ‘The girl I left behind me.’ ‘Ah! Peck,’ says she, ‘what have you been after now? Who’s the company lady ye’ve brought to tea with us?’ I told her, sir, all I have told you; while Jemmy set the young woman down on one of our trunks, and got her a cup of tea. ‘It seems dreadful,’ says I when I’d done, ‘to send such as her to the workhouse, don’t it?’ ‘Workhouse!’ says Peggy, firing up directly; ‘I only wish we could catch the man who’s got her in that scrape, and put him in there on water-gruel for the rest of his life. I’d give a shillin’ a wheal out of my own pocket for the blessed privilege of scoring the thief’s face with my whip, till his own mother wouldn’t know him!’ And then she went on, sir, abusing all the men in her Irish way, which I can’t repeat. At last she stops, and claps me on the back. ‘You’re a darlin’ old girl, Peck!’ says she, ‘and your friends are my friends. Stop where you are, and let me speak a word to the young woman on the trunk.’

“After a little while she comes back, and says, ‘I’ve done it, Peck! She’s mighty close, and as proud as Lucifer; but she’s only a dressmaker, for all that.’ ‘A dressmaker!’ says I; ‘how did you find out she was a dressmaker?’ ‘Why, I looked at her forefinger, in course,’ says Peggy, ‘and saw the pricks of the needle on it, and soon made her talk a bit after that. She knows fancy-work and cuttin’ out — would ye ever have thought it? And I’ll show her how to give the workhouse the go-by to-morrow, if she only holds out, and keeps in her senses. Stop where you are, Peck! I’m going to make Jubber put his dirty hand into his pocket and pull out some money; and that’s a sight worth stoppin’ to see any day in the week.’

“I waited as she told me; and she called for Jubber, just as if he’d been her servant; and he come out of the circus. ‘I want ten shillings advance of wages for that lady on the trunk,’ says Peggy. He laughed at her. ‘Show your ugly teeth at me again,’ says she, ‘and I’ll box your ears. I’ve my light hand for a horse’s mouth, and my heavy hand for a man’s cheek; you ought to know that by this time! Pull out the ten shillings.’ ‘What for?’ said he, frowning at her. ‘Just this,’ says she. ‘I mean to leave your circus, unless I get those six character dresses you promised me; and the lady there can do them up beautiful. Pull out the ten shillings! for I’ve made up my mind to appear before the Bangbury public on Garryowen’s back, as six women at once.’

“What she meant by this, sir, was, that she was to have six different dresses on, one over another; and was to go galloping round the ring on Garryowen (which was a horse), beginning, I think it was, as Empress of Roossia; and then throwing off the top dress without the horse stopping, and showing next as some famous Frenchwoman, in the dress underneath; and keeping on so with different nations, till she got down to the last dress, which was to be Britannia and the Union–Jack. We’d got bits of remnants, and old dresses and things to make and alter, but hadn’t anybody clever enough at cutting out, and what they call ‘Costoom,’ to do what Peggy wanted — Jubber being too stingy to pay the regular people who understand such things. The young woman, knowing as she did about fancy work, was just what was wanted, if she could only get well enough to use her needle. ‘I’ll see she works the money out,’ says Peggy; ‘but she’s dead beat to-night, and must have her rest and bit o’ supper, before she begins to-morrow.’ Jubber wanted to give less than ten shillings; but between threatening, and saying it should buy twenty shillings’ worth of tailor’s work, she got the better of him. And he gave the money, sulky enough.

“‘Now,’ says Peggy, ‘you take her away, and get her a lodging in the place where you’re staying; and I’ll come tomorrow with some of the things to make up.’ But, ah dear me! sir, she was never to work as much as sixpence of that ten shillings out. She was took bad in the night, and got so much worse in the morning that we had to send for the doctor.

“As soon as he’d seen her, he takes me into the passage, and says he to me, ‘Do you know who her friends are?’ ‘No, sir,’ says I; ‘I can’t get her to tell me. I only met her by accident yesterday.’ ‘Try and find out again,’ says he; ‘for I’m afraid she won’t live over the night. I’ll come back in the evening and see if there is any change.’

“Peggy and me went into her room together; but we couldn’t even get her to speak to us for ever so long a time. All at once she cries out, ‘I can’t see things as I ought. Where’s the woman who suckled my baby when I was alone by the roadside?’ ‘Here,’ says I— ‘here; I’ve got hold of your hand. Do tell us where we can write to about you.’ ‘Will you promise to take care of my baby, and not let it go into the workhouse?’ says she. ‘Yes, I promise,’ says I; ‘I do indeed promise with my whole heart.’ ‘We’ll all take care of the baby,’ says Peggy; ‘only you try and cheer up, and you’ll get well enough to see me on Garryowen’s back, before we leave Bangbury — you will for certain, if you cheer up a bit.’ ‘I give my baby,’ she says, clutching tight at my hand, ‘to the woman who suckled it by the roadside; and I pray God to bless her and forgive me, for Jesus Christ’s sake.’ After that, she lay quiet for a minute or two. Then she says faintly, ‘Its name’s to be Mary. Put it into bed to me again; I should like to touch its cheek, and feel how soft and warm it is once more.’ And I took the baby out of its crib, and lifted it, asleep as it was, into the bed by her side, and guided her hand up to its cheek. I saw her lips move a little, and bent down over her. ‘Give me one kiss,’ she whispered, ‘before I die.’ And I kissed her, and tried to stop crying as I did it. Then I says to Peggy, ‘You wait here while I run and fetch the doctor back; for I’m afraid she’s going fast.’ He wasn’t at home when I got to his house. I did’n’t know what to do next, when I see a gentleman in the street who looked like a clergyman, and I asked him if he was one; and he said ‘Yes;’ and he went back with me. I heard a low wailing and crying in the room, and saw Peggy sitting on the bundle of dresses she’d brought in the morning, rocking herself backwards and forwards as Irish people always do when they’re crying. I went to the bed, and looked through the curtains. The baby was still sleeping as pretty as ever, and its mother’s hand was touching one of its arms. I was just going to speak to her again, when the clergyman said ‘Hush,’ and took a bit of looking-glass that was set up on the chimney-piece, and held it over her lips. She was gone. Her poor white wasted hand lay dead on the living baby’s arm.

“I answered all the clergyman’s questions quite straightforward, telling him everything I knew from beginning to end. When I’d done, Peggy starts up from the bundle and says, ‘Mind, sir, whatever you do, the child’s not to be took away from this person here, and sent to the workhouse. The mother give it to her on that very bed, and I’m a witness of it.’ ‘And I promised to be a mother to the baby, sir,’ says I. He turns round to me, and praises me for what I done, and says nobody shall take it away from me, unless them as can show their right comes forward to claim it. ‘But now,’ says he, ‘we must think of other things. We must try and find out something about this poor woman who has died in such a melancholy way.’

“It was easier to say that than to do it. The poor thing had nothing with her but a change of linen for herself and the child, and that gave us no clue. Then we searched her pocket. There was a cambric handkerchief in it, marked ‘M. G.;’ and some bits of rusks to sop for the child; and the sixpence and halfpence which she had when I met her; and beneath all, in a corner, as if it had been forgotten there, a small hair bracelet. It was made of two kinds of hair — very little of one kind, and a good deal of the other. And on the flat clasp of the bracelet there was cut in tiny letters, ‘In memory of S. G.’ I remember all this, sir, for I’ve often and often looked at the bracelet since that time.

“We found nothing more — no letters, or cards, or anything. The clergyman said that the ‘M. G.’ on the handkerchief must be the initials of her name; and the ‘S. G.’ on the bracelet must mean, he thought, some relation whose hair she wore as a sort of keepsake. I remember Peggy and me wondering which was S. G.‘s hair; and who the other person might be, whose hair was wove into the bracelet. But the clergyman he soon cut us short by asking for pen, ink, and paper directly. ‘I’m going to write out an advertisement,’ says he, ‘saying how you met with the young woman, and what she was like, and how she was dressed.’ ‘Do you mean to say anything about the baby, sir?’ says I. ‘Certainly,’ says he; ‘it’s only right, if we get at her friends by advertising, to give them the chance of doing something for the child. And if they live anywhere in county, I believe we shall find them out; for the Bangbury Chronicle, into which I mean to put the advertisement, goes everywhere in our part of England.’

“So he sits down, and writes what he said he would, and takes it away to be printed in the next day’s number of the newspaper. ‘If nothing comes of this,’ says he, ‘I think I can manage about the burial with a charitable society here. I’ll take care and inform you the moment the advertisement’s answered.’ I hardly know how it was, sir; but I almost hoped they wouldn’t answer it. Having suckled the baby myself, and kissed its mother before she died, I couldn’t make up my mind to the chance of its being took away from me just then. I ought to have thought how poor we were, and how hard it would be for us to bring the child up. But, somehow, I never did think of that — no more did Peggy — no more did Jemmy; not even when we put the baby to bed that night along with our own.

“Well, sir, sure enough, two days after the advertisement come out, it was answered in the cruelest letter I ever set eyes on. The clergyman he come to me with it. ‘It was left this evening,’ says he, ‘by a strange messenger, who went away directly. I told my servant to follow him; but it was too late — he was out of sight.’ The letter was very short, and we thought it was in a woman’s handwriting — a feigned handwriting, the clergyman said. There was no name signed, and no date at top or bottom. Inside it there was a ten-pound bank-note; and the person as sent it wrote that it was enclosed to bury the young woman decently. ‘She was better dead than alive’ — the letter went on — ‘after having disgraced her father and her relations. As for the child, it was the child of sin, and had no claim on people who desired to preserve all that was left of their good name, and to set a moral example to others. The parish must support it if nobody else would. It would be useless to attempt to trace them, or to advertise again. The baby’s father had disappeared, they didn’t know where; and they could hold no communication now with such a monster of wickedness, even if he was found. She was dead in her shame and her sin; and her name should never be mentioned among them she belonged to henceforth for ever.’

“This was what I remember in the letter, sir. A shocking and unchristian letter I said; and the clergyman he said so too.

“She was buried in the poor corner of the churchyard. They marked out the place, in case anybody should ever want to see it, by cutting the two letters M. G., and the date of when she died, upon a board of wood at the head of the grave. The clergyman then give me the hair bracelet and the handkerchief, and said, ‘You keep these as careful as you keep the child; for they may be of great importance one of these days. I shall seal up the letter (which is addressed to me) and put it in my strong box.’ He’d asked me, before this, if I’d thought of what a responsibility it was for such as me to provide for the baby. And I told him I’d promised, and would keep my promise, and trust to God’s providence for the rest. The clergyman was a very kind gentleman, and got up a subscription for the poor babe; and Peggy Burke, when she had her benefit before the circus left Bangbury, give half of what she got as her subscription. I never heard nothing about the child’s friends from that time to this; and I know no more who its father is now than I did then. And glad I am that he’s never come forward — though, perhaps, I oughtn’t to say so. I keep the hair bracelet and the handkerchief as careful as the clergyman told me, for the mother’s sake as well as the child’s. I’ve known some sorrow with her since I took her as my own; but I love her only the dearer for it, and still think the day a happy day for both of us, when I first stopped and suckled her by the road-side.

“This is all I have to say, if you please, sir, about how I first met with little Mary; and I wish I could have told it in a way that was more fit for such as you to hear.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book1.4.html

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