Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter V. Madonna’s Misfortune.

As the clown’s wife ended her narrative, but little was said in the way of comment on it by those who had listened to her. They were too much affected by what they had heard to speak, as yet, except briefly and in low voices. Mrs. Joyce more than once raised her handkerchief to her eyes. Her husband murmured some cordial words of sympathy and thanks — in an unusually subdued manner, however. Valentine said nothing; but he drew his chair close to Mrs. Peckover, and turning his face away as if he did not wish it to be seen, took her hand in one of his and patted it gently with the other. There was now perfect silence in the room for a few minutes. Then they all looked out with one accord, and as it seemed with one feeling, towards the garden.

In a shady place, just visible among the trees, the rector’s daughters, and little Mary, and the great Newfoundland dog were all sitting together on the grass. The two young ladies appeared to be fastening a garland of flowers round the child’s neck, while she was playfully offering a nosegay for Leo to smell at. The sight was homely and simple enough; but it was full of the tenderest interest — after the narrative which had just engaged them — to those who now witnessed it. They looked out on the garden scene silently for some little time. Mrs. Joyce was the first to speak again.

“Would it be asking too much of you, Mrs. Peckover,” said she, “to inquire how the poor little thing really met with the accident that caused her misfortune? I know there is an account of it in the bills of the circus but — ”

“It’s the most infamous thing I ever read!” interrupted Mr. Blyth indignantly. “The man who wrote it ought to be put in the pillory. I never remember wanting to throw a rotten egg at any of my fellow-creatures before; but I feel certain that I should enjoy having a shy at Mr. Jubber!”

“Gently, Valentine — gently,” interposed the rector. “I think, my love,” he continued, turning to Mrs. Joyce, “that it is hardly considerate to Mrs. Peckover to expect her to comply with your request. She has already sacrificed herself once to our curiosity; and, really, to ask her now to recur a second time to recollections which I am sure must distress her — ”

“It’s worse than distressing, indeed, sir, even to think of that dreadful accident,” said Mrs. Peckover, “and specially as I can’t help taking some blame to myself for it. But if the lady wishes to know how it happened, I’m sure I’m agreeable to tell her. People in our way of life, ma’am — as I’ve often heard Peggy Burke say — are obliged to dry the tear at their eyes long before it’s gone from their hearts. But pray don’t think, sir, I mean that now about myself and in your company. If I do feel low at talking of little Mary’s misfortune, I can take a look out into the garden there, and see how happy she is — and that’s safe to set me right again.”

“I ought to tell you first, sir,” proceeded the clown’s wife, after waiting thoughtfully for a moment or two before she spoke again, “that I got on much better with little Mary than ever I thought I should for the first six years of her life. She grew up so pretty that gentlefolks was always noticing her, and asking about her; and nearly in every place the circus went to they made her presents, which helped nicely in her keep and clothing. And our own people, too, petted her and were fond of her. All those six years we got on as pleasantly as could be. It was not till she was near her seventh birthday that I was wicked and foolish enough to consent to her being shown in the performances.

“I was sorely tried and tempted before I did consent. Jubber first said he wanted her to perform with the riders; and I said ‘No’ at once, though I was awful frightened of him in those days. But soon after, Jemmy (who wasn’t the clown then that he is now, sir; there was others to be got for his money, to do what he did at that time) — Jemmy comes to me, saying he’s afraid he shall lose his place, if I don’t give in about Mary. This staggered me a good deal; for I don’t know what we should have done then, if my husband had lost his engagement. And, besides, there was the poor dear child herself, who was mad to be carried up in the air on horseback, always begging and praying to be made a little rider of. And all the rest of ’em in the circus worried and laughed at me; and, in short, I give in at last against my conscience, but I couldn’t help it.

“I made a bargain, though, that she should only be trusted to the steadiest, soberest man, and the best rider of the whole lot. They called him ‘Muley’ in the bills, and stained his face to make him look like a Turk, or something of that sort; but his real name was Francis Yapp, and a very good fatherly sort of man he was in his way, having a family of his own to look after. He used to ride splendid, at full straddle, with three horses under him — one foot, you know, sir, being on the outer horse’s back, and one foot on the inner. Him and Jubber made it out together that he was to act a wild man, flying for his life across some desert, with his only child, and poor little Mary was to be the child. They darkened her face to look like his; and put an outlandish kind of white dress on her; and buckled a red belt round her waist, with a sort of handle in it for Yapp to hold her by. After first making believe in all sorts of ways, that him and the child was in danger of being taken and shot, he had to make believe afterwards that they had escaped; and to hold her up, in a sort of triumph, at the full stretch of his arm — galloping round and round the ring all the while. He was a tremendous strong man, and could do it as easy as I could hold up a bit of that plum cake.

“Poor little love! she soon got over the first fright of the thing, and had a sort of mad fondness for it that I never liked to see, for it wasn’t natural to her. Yapp, he said, she’d got the heart of a lion, and would grow up the finest woman-rider in the world. I was very unhappy about it, and lived a miserable life, always fearing some accident. But for some time nothing near an accident happened; and lots of money come into the circus to see Yapp and little Mary — but that was Jubber’s luck and not ours. One night — when she was a little better than seven year old —

“Oh, ma’am, how I ever lived over that dreadful night I don’t know! I was a sinful, miserable wretch not to have starved sooner than let the child go into danger; but I was so sorely tempted and driven to it, God knows! — No, sir! no, ma’am; and many thanks for your kindness, I’ll go on now I’ve begun. Don’t mind me crying; I’ll manage to tell it somehow. The strap — no, I mean the handle; the handle in the strap gave way all of a sudden — just at the last too! just at the worst time, when he couldn’t catch her —!

“Never — oh, never, never, to my dying day shall I forget the horrible screech that went up from the whole audience; and the sight of the white thing lying huddled dead-still on the boards! We hadn’t such a number in as usual that night; and she fell on an empty place between the benches. I got knocked down by the horses in running to her — I was clean out of my senses, and didn’t know where I was going — Yapp had fallen among them, and hurt himself badly, trying to catch her — they were running wild in the ring — the horses was — frantic-like with the noise all round them. I got up somehow, and a crowd of people jostled me, and I saw my innocent darling carried among them. I felt hands on me, trying to pull me back; but I broke away, and got into the waiting-room along with the rest.

“There she was — my own, own little Mary, that I’d promised her poor mother to take care of — there she was, lying all white and still on an old box, with my cloak rolled up as a pillow for her. And people crowding round her. And a doctor feeling her head all over. And Yapp among them, held up by two men, with his face all over blood. I wasn’t able to speak or move; I didn’t feel as if I was breathing even, till the doctor stopped, and looked up; and then a great shudder went through all of us together, as if we’d been one body, instead of twenty or more.

“‘It’s not killed her,’ says the doctor. ‘Her brain’s escaped injury.’

“I didn’t hear another word.

“I don’t know how long it was before I seemed to wake up like, with a dreadful feeling of pain and tearing of everything inside me. I was on the landlady’s bed, and Jemmy was standing over me with a bottle of salts. ‘They’ve put her to bed,’ he says to me, ‘and the doctor’s setting her arm.’ I didn’t recollect at first; but when I did, it was almost as bad as seeing the dreadful accident all over again.

“It was some time before any of us found out what had really happened. The breaking of her arm, the doctor said, had saved her head; which was only cut and bruised a little, not half as bad as was feared. Day after day, and night after night, I sat by her bedside, comforting her through her fever, and the pain of the splints on her arm, and never once suspecting — no more, I believe, than she did — the awful misfortune that had really happened. She was always wonderful quiet and silent for a child, poor lamb, in little illnesses that she’d had before; and somehow, I didn’t wonder — at least, at first — why she never said a word, and never answered me when I spoke to her.

“This went on, though, after she got better in her health; and a strange look came over her eyes. They seemed to be always wondering and frightened, in a confused way, about something or other. She took, too, to rolling her head about restlessly from one side of the pillow to the other; making a sort of muttering and humming now and then, but still never seeming to notice or to care for anything I said to her. One day, I was warming her a nice cup of beef-tea over the fire, when I heard, quite sudden and quite plain, these words from where she lay on the bed, ‘Why are you always so quiet here? Why doesn’t somebody speak to me?’

“I knew there wasn’t another soul in the room but the poor child at that time; and yet, the voice as spoke those words was no more like little Mary’s voice, than my voice, sir, is like yours. It sounded, somehow, hoarse and low, and deep and faint, all at the same time; the strangest, shockingest voice to come from a child, who always used to speak so clearly and prettily before, that ever I heard. If I was only cleverer with my words, ma’am, and could tell you about it properly — but I can’t. I only know it gave me such a turn to hear her, that I upset the beef-tea, and ran back in a fright to the bed. ‘Why, Mary! Mary!’ says I, quite loud, ‘are you so well already that you’re trying to imitate Mr. Jubber’s gruff voice?’

“There was the same wondering look in her eyes — only wilder than I had ever seen it yet — while I was speaking. When I’d done, she says in the same strange way, ‘Speak out, mother; I can’t hear you when you whisper like that.’ She was as long saying these words, and bungled over them as much, as if she was only just learning to speak. I think I got the first suspicion then, of what had really happened. ‘Mary!’ I bawled out as loud as I could, ‘Mary! can’t you hear me?’ She shook her head, and stared up at me with the frightened, bewildered look again: then seemed to get pettish and impatient all of a sudden — the first time I ever saw her so — and hid her face from me on the pillow.

“Just then the doctor come in. ‘Oh, sir!’ says I, whispering to him — just as if I hadn’t found out a minute ago that she couldn’t hear me at the top of my voice — ‘I’m afraid there’s something gone wrong with her hearing — .’ ‘Have you only just now suspected that?’ says he; ‘I’ve been afraid of it for some days past, but I thought it best to say nothing till I’d tried her; and she’s hardly well enough yet, poor child, to be worried with experiments on her ears.’ ‘She’s much better,’ says I; ‘indeed, she’s much better to-day, sir! Oh, do try her now, for it’s so dreadful to be in doubt a moment longer than we can help.’

“He went up to the bedside, and I followed him. She was lying with her face hidden away from us on the pillow, just as it was when I left her. The doctor says to me, ‘Don’t disturb her, don’t let her look round, so that she can see us — I’m going to call to her.’ And he called ‘Mary’ out loud, twice; and she never moved. The third time he tried her, it was with such a shout at the top of his voice, that the landlady come up, thinking something had happened. I was looking over his shoulder, and saw that my dear child never started in the least. ‘Poor little thing,’ says the doctor, quite sorrowful, ‘this is worse than I expected.’ He stooped down and touched her, as he said this; and she turned round directly, and put out her hand to have her pulse felt as usual. I tried to get out of her sight, for I was crying, and didn’t wish her to see it; but she was too sharp for me. She looked hard in my face and the landlady’s, then in the doctor’s, which was downcast enough; for he had got very fond of her, just as everybody else did who saw much of little Mary.

“‘What’s the matter?’ she says, in the same sort of strange unnatural voice again. We tried to pacify her, but only made her worse. ‘Why do you keep on whispering?’ she asks. ‘Why don’t you speak out loud, so that I can — ’ and then she stopped, seemingly in a sort of helpless fright and bewilderment. She tried to get up in bed, and her face turned red all over. ‘Can she read writing?’ says the doctor. ‘Oh, yes, sir, says I; ‘she can read and write beautiful for a child of her age; my husband taught her.’ ‘Get me paper and pen and ink directly,’ says he to the landlady; who went at once and got him what he wanted. ‘We must quiet her at all hazards,’ says the doctor, ‘or she’ll excite herself into another attack of fever. She feels what’s the matter with her, but don’t understand it; and I’m going to tell her by means of this paper. It’s a risk,’ he says, writing down on the paper in large letters, You Are Deaf; ‘but I must try all I can do for her ears immediately; and this will prepare her,’ says he, going to the bed, and holding the paper before her eyes.

“She shrank back on the pillow, as still as death, the instant she saw it; but didn’t cry, and looked more puzzled and astonished, I should say, than distressed. But she was breathing dreadful quick — I felt that, as I stooped down and kissed her. ‘She’s too young,’ says the doctor, ‘to know what the extent of her calamity really is. You stop here and keep her quiet till I come back, for I trust the case is not hopeless yet.’ ‘But whatever has made her deaf, sir?’ says the landlady, opening the door for him. ‘The shock of that fall in the circus,’ says he, going out in a very great hurry. I thought I should never have held up my head again, as I heard them words, looking at little Mary, with my arm round her neck all the time.

“Well, sir, the doctor come back; and he syringed her ears first — and that did no good. Then he tried blistering, and then he put on leeches; and still it was no use. ‘I’m afraid it is a hopeless case,’ says he; ‘but there’s a doctor who’s had more practice than I’ve had with deaf people, who comes from where he lives to our Dispensary once a week. To-morrow’s his day, and I’ll bring him here with me.’

“And he did bring this gentleman, as he promised he would — an old gentleman, with such a pleasant way of speaking that I understood everything he said to me directly. ‘I’m afraid you must make up your mind to the worst,’ says he. ‘I have been hearing about the poor child from my friend who’s attended her; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think there’s much hope.’ Then he goes to the bed and looks at her. ‘Ah,’ says he, ‘there’s just the same expression in her face that I remember seeing in a mason’s boy — a patient of mine — who fell off a ladder, and lost his hearing altogether by the shock. You don’t hear what I’m saying, do you, my dear?’ says he in a hearty cheerful way. ‘You don’t hear me saying that you’re the prettiest little girl I ever saw in my life?’ She looked up at him confused, and quite silent. He didn’t speak to her again, but told me to turn her on the bed, so that he could get at one of her ears.

“He pulled out some instruments, while I did what he asked, and put them into her ear, but so tenderly that he never hurt her. Then he looked in, through a sort of queer spy-glass thing. Then he did it all over again with the other ear; and then he laid down the instruments and pulled out his watch. ‘Write on a piece of paper,’ says he to the other doctor: ‘Do you know that the watch is ticking?’ When this was done, he makes signs to little Mary to open her mouth, and puts as much of his watch in as would go between her teeth, while the other doctor holds up the paper before her. When he took the watch out again, she shook her head, and said ‘No,’ just in the same strange voice as ever. The old gentleman didn’t speak a word as he put the watch back in his fob; but I saw by his face that he thought it was all over with her hearing, after what had just happened.

“‘Oh, try and do something for her, sir!’ says I. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, don’t give her up, sir!’ ‘My good soul,’ says he, ‘you must set her an example of cheerfulness, and keep up her spirits — that’s all that can be done for her now.’ ‘Not all, sir,’ says I, ‘surely not all!‘ ‘Indeed it is,’ says he; ‘her hearing is completely gone; the experiment with my watch proves it. I had an exactly similar case with the mason’s boy,’ he says, turning to the other doctor. ‘The shock of that fall has, I believe, paralyzed the auditory nerve in her, as it did in him.’ I remember those words exactly, sir, though I didn’t quite understand them at the time. But he explained himself to me very kindly; telling me over again, in a plain way, what he’d just told the doctor. He reminded me, too, that the remedies which had been already tried had been of no use; and told me I might feel sure that any others would only end in the same way, and put her to useless pain into the bargain. ‘I hope,’ says he, ‘the poor child is too young to suffer much mental misery under her dreadful misfortune. Keep her amused, and keep her talking, if you possibly can — though I doubt very much whether, in a little time, you won’t fail completely in getting her to speak at all.’

“‘Don’t say that, sir,’ says I; ‘don’t say she’ll be dumb as well as deaf; it’s enough to break one’s heart only to think of it.’ ‘But I must say so,’ says he; ‘for I’m afraid it’s the truth.’ And then he asks me whether I hadn’t noticed already that she was unwilling to speak; and that, when she did speak, her voice wasn’t the same voice it used to be. I said ‘Yes,’ to that; and asked him whether the fall had had anything to do with it. He said, taking me up very short, it had everything to do with it, because the fall had made her, what they call, stone deaf, which prevented her from hearing the sound of her own voice. So it was changed, he told me, because she had no ear now to guide herself by in speaking, and couldn’t know in the least whether the few words she said were spoken soft or loud, or deep or clear. ‘So far as the poor child herself is concerned,’ says he, ‘she might as well be without a voice at all; for she has nothing but her memory left to tell her that she has one.’

“I burst out a-crying as he said this; for somehow I’d never thought of anything so dreadful before. ‘I’ve been a little too sudden in telling you the worst, haven’t I?’ says the old gentleman kindly; ‘but you must be taught how to make up your mind to meet the full extent of this misfortune for the sake of the child, whose future comfort and happiness depend greatly on you.’ And then he bid me keep up her reading and writing, and force her to use her voice as much as I could, by every means in my power. He told me I should find her grow more and more unwilling to speak every day, just for the shocking reason that she couldn’t hear a single word she said, or a single tone of her own voice. He warned me that she was already losing the wish and the want to speak; and that it would very soon be little short of absolute pain to her to be made to say even a few words; but he begged and prayed me not to let my good nature get the better of my prudence on that account, and not to humor her, however I might feel tempted to do so — for if I did, she would be dumb as well as deaf most certainly. He told me my own common sense would show me the reason why; but I suppose I was too distressed or too stupid to understand things as I ought. He had to explain it to me in so many words, that if she wasn’t constantly exercised in speaking, she would lose her power of speech altogether, for want of practice — just the same as if she’d been born dumb. ‘So, once again,’ says he, ‘mind you make her use her voice. Don’t give her her dinner, unless she asks for it. Treat her severely in that way, poor little soul, because it’s for her own good.’

“It was all very well for him to say that, but it was impossible for me to do it. The dear child, ma’am, seemed to get used to her misfortune, except when we tried to make her speak. It was the saddest, prettiest sight in the world to see how patiently and bravely she bore with her hard lot from the first. As she grew better in her health, she kept up her reading and writing quite cleverly with my husband and me; and all her nice natural cheerful ways come back to her just the same as ever. I’ve read or heard somewhere, sir, about God’s goodness in tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. I don’t know who said that first; but it might well have been spoken on account of my own darling little Mary, in those days. Instead of us being the first to comfort her, it was she that was first to comfort us. And so she’s gone on ever since — bless her heart! Only treat her kindly, and, in spite of her misfortune, she’s the merriest, happiest little thing — the easiest pleased and amused, I do believe, that ever lived.

“If we were wrong in not forcing her to speak more than we did, I must say this much for me and my husband, that we hadn’t the heart to make her miserable and keep on tormenting her from morning to night, when she was always happy and comfortable if we would only let her alone. We tried our best for some time to do what the gentleman told us; but it’s so hard — as you’ve found I dare say, ma’am — not to end by humoring them you love! I never see the tear in her eye, except when we forced her to speak to us; and then she always cried, and was fretful and out of sorts for the whole day. It seemed such a dreadful difficulty and pain to her to say only two or three words; and the shocking husky moaning voice that sounded somehow as if it didn’t belong to her, never changed. My husband first gave up worrying her to speak. He practiced her with her book and writing, but let her have her own will in everything else; and he teached her all sorts of tricks on the cards, for amusement, which was a good way of keeping her going with her reading and her pen pleasantly, by reason, of course, of him and her being obliged to put down everything they had to say to each other on a little slate that we bought for her after she got well.

“It was Mary’s own notion, if you please, ma’am, to have the slate always hanging at her side. Poor dear! she thought it quite a splendid ornament, and was as proud of it as could be. Jemmy, being neat-handed at such things, did the frame over for her prettily with red morocco, and got our propertyman to do it all round with a bright golden border. And then we hung it at her side, with a nice little bit of silk cord — just as you see it now.

“I held out in making her speak some time after my husband: but at last I gave in too. I know it was wrong and selfish of me; but I got a fear that she wouldn’t like me as well as she used to do, and would take more kindly to Jemmy than to me, if I went on. Oh, how happy she was the first day I wrote down on her slate that I wouldn’t worry her about speaking any more! She jumped up on my knees — being always as nimble as a squirrel — and kissed me over and over again with all her heart. For the rest of the day she run about the room, and all over the house, like a mad thing, and when Jemmy came home at night from performing, she would get out of bed and romp with him, and ride pickaback on him, and try and imitate the funny faces she’d seen him make in the ring. I do believe, sir, that was the first regular happy night we had all had together since the dreadful time when she met with her accident.

“Long after that, my conscience was uneasy though, at times, about giving in as I had. At last I got a chance of speaking to another doctor about little Mary; and he told me that if we had kept her up in her speaking ever so severely, it would still have been a pain and a difficulty to her to say her words, to her dying day. He said too, that he felt sure — though he couldn’t explain it to me — that people afflicted with such stone deafness as hers didn’t feel the loss of speech, because they never had the want to use their speech; and that they took to making signs, and writing, and such like, quite kindly as a sort of second nature to them. This comforted me, and settled my mind a good deal. I hope in God what the gentleman said was true; for if I was in fault in letting her have her own way and be happy, it’s past mending by this time. For more than two years, ma’am, I’ve never heard her say a single word, no more than if she’d been born dumb, and it’s my belief that all the doctors in the world couldn’t make her speak now.

“Perhaps, sir, you might wish to know how she first come to show her tricks on the cards in the circus. There was no danger in her doing that, I know — and yet I’d have given almost everything I have, not to let her be shown about as she is. But I was threatened again, in the vilest, wickedest way — I hardly know how to tell it, gentlemen, in the presence of such as you — Jubber, you must know — ”

Just as Mrs. Peckover, with very painful hesitation, pronounced the last words, the hall clock of the Rectory struck two. She heard it, and stopped instantly.

“Oh, if you please, sir, was that two o’clock?” she asked, starting up with a look of alarm.

“Yes, Mrs. Peckover,” said the rector; “but really, after having been indebted to you for so much that has deeply interested and affected us, we can’t possibly think of letting you and little Mary leave the Rectory yet.”

“Indeed we must, sir; and many thanks to you for wanting to keep us longer,” said Mrs. Peckover. “What I was going to say isn’t much; it’s quite as well you shouldn’t hear it — and indeed, indeed, ma’am, we must go directly. I told this gentleman here, Mr. Blyth, when I come in, that I’d stolen to you unawares, under pretense of taking little Mary out for a walk. If we are not back to the two o’clock dinner in the circus, it’s unknown what Jubber may not do. This gentleman will tell you how infamously he treated the poor child last night — we must go, sir, for her sake; or else — ”

“Stop!” cried Valentine, all his suppressed excitability bursting bounds in an instant, as he took Mrs. Peckover by the arm, and pressed her back into her chair. “Stop! — hear me; I must speak, or I shall go out of my senses! Don’t interrupt me, Mrs. Peckover; and don’t get up. All I want to say is this: you must never take that little angel of a child near Jubber again — no, never! By heavens! if I thought he was likely to touch her any more, I should go mad, and murder him! — Let me alone, doctor! I beg Mrs. Joyce’s pardon for behaving like this; I’ll never do it again. Be quiet, all of you! I must take the child home with me — oh, Mrs. Peckover, don’t, don’t say no! I’ll make her as happy as the day is long. I’ve no child of my own: I’ll watch over her, and love her, and teach her all my life. I’ve got a poor, suffering, bedridden wife at home, who would think such a companion as little Mary the greatest blessing God could send her. My own dear, patient Lavvie! Oh, doctor, doctor! think how kind Lavvie would be to that afflicted little child; and try if you can’t make Mrs. Peckover consent. I can’t speak any more — I know I’m wrong to burst out in this way; and I beg all your pardons for it, I do indeed! Speak to her, doctor — pray speak to her directly, if you don’t want to make me miserable for the rest of my life!”

With those words, Valentine darted precipitately into the garden, and made straight for the spot where the little girls were still sitting together in their shady resting-place among the trees.

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