Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VII. Madonna in Her New Home.

The result of Mr. Blyth’s Adventure in the traveling Circus, and of the events which followed it, was that little Mary at once became a member of the painter’s family, and grew up happily, in her new home, into the young lady who was called “Madonna” by Valentine, by his wife, and by all intimate friends who were in the habit of frequenting the house.

Mr. Blyth’s first proceeding, after he had brought the little girl home with him, was to take her to the most eminent aural surgeon of the day. He did this, not in the hope of any curative result following the medical examination, but as a first duty which he thought he owed to her, now that she was under his sole charge. The surgeon was deeply interested in the case; but, after giving it the most careful attention, he declared that it was hopeless. Her sense of hearing, he said, was entirely gone; but her faculty of speech, although it had been totally disused (as Mrs. Peckover had stated) for more than two years past, might, he thought, be imperfectly regained, at some future time, if a tedious, painful, and uncertain process of education were resorted to, under the direction of an experienced teacher of the deaf and dumb. The child, however, had such a horror of this resource being tried, when it was communicated to her, that Mr. Blyth instinctively followed Mrs. Peckover’s example, and consulted the little creature’s feelings, by allowing her in this particular — and indeed in most others — to remain perfectly happy and contented in her own way.

The first influence which reconciled her almost immediately to her new life, was the influence of Mrs. Blyth. The perfect gentleness and patience with which the painter’s wife bore her incurable malady, seemed to impress the child in a very remarkable manner from the first. The sight of that frail, wasted life, which they told her, by writing, had been shut up so long in the same room, and had been condemned to the same weary inaction for so many years past, struck at once to Mary’s heart and filled her with one of those new and mysterious sensations which mark epochs in the growth of a child’s moral nature. Nor did these first impressions ever alter. When years had passed away, and when Mary, being “little” Mary no longer, possessed those marked characteristics of feature and expression which gained for her the name of “Madonna,” she still preserved all her child’s feeling for the painter’s wife. However playful her manner might often be with Valentine, it invariably changed when she was in Mrs. Blyth’s presence; always displaying, at such times, the same anxious tenderness, the same artless admiration, and the same watchful and loving sympathy. There was something secret and superstitious in the girl’s fondness for Mrs. Blyth. She appeared unwilling to let others know what this affection really was in all its depth and fullness: it seemed to be intuitively preserved by her in the most sacred privacy of her own heart, as if the feeling had been part of her religion, or rather as if it had been a religion in itself.

Her love for her new mother, which testified itself thus strongly and sincerely, was returned by that mother with equal fervor. From the day when little Mary first appeared at her bedside, Mrs. Blyth felt, to use her own expression, as if a new strength had been given her to enjoy her new happiness. Brighter hopes, better health, calmer resignation, and purer peace seemed to follow the child’s footsteps and be always inherent in her very presence, as she moved to and fro in the sick room. All the little difficulties of communicating with her and teaching her, which her misfortune rendered inevitable, and which might sometime have been felt as tedious by others, were so many distinct sources of happiness, so many exquisite occupations of once-weary time to Mrs. Blyth. All the friends of the family declared that the child had succeeded where doctors, and medicines, and luxuries, and the sufferer’s own courageous resignation had hitherto failed — for she had succeeded in endowing Mrs. Blyth with a new life. And they were right. A fresh object for the affections of the heart and the thoughts of the mind, is a fresh life for every feeling and thinking human being, in sickness even as well as in health.

In this sense, indeed, the child brought fresh life with her to all who lived in her new home — to the servants, as well as to the master and mistress. The cloud had rarely found its way into that happy dwelling in former days: now the sunshine seemed fixed there for ever. No more beautiful and touching proof of what the heroism of patient dispositions and loving hearts can do towards guiding human existence, unconquered and unsullied, through its hardest trials, could be found anywhere than was presented by the aspect of the painter’s household. Here were two chief members of one little family circle, afflicted by such incurable bodily calamity as it falls to the lot of but few human beings to suffer — yet here were no sighs, no tears, no vain repinings with each new morning, no gloomy thoughts to set woe and terror watching by the pillow at night. In this homely sphere, life, even in its frailest aspects, was still greater than its greatest trials; strong to conquer by virtue of its own innocence and purity, its simple unworldly aspirations, its self-sacrificing devotion to the happiness and the anxieties of others.

As the course of her education proceeded, many striking peculiarities became developed in Madonna’s disposition, which seemed to be all more or less produced by the necessary influence of her affliction on the formation of her character. The social isolation to which that affliction condemned her, the solitude of thought and feeling into which it forced her, tended from an early period to make her mind remarkably self-reliant, for so young a girl. Her first impression of strangers seemed invariably to decide her opinion of them at once and for ever. She liked or disliked people heartily; estimating them apparently from considerations entirely irrespective of age, or sex, or personal appearance. Sometimes, the very person who was thought certain to attract her, proved to be absolutely repulsive to her — sometimes, people, who, in Mr. Blyth’s opinion, were sure to be unwelcome visitors to Madonna, turned out, incomprehensibly, to be people whom she took a violent liking to directly. She always betrayed her pleasure or uneasiness in the society of others with the most diverting candor — showing the extremest anxiety to conciliate and attract those whom she liked; running away and hiding herself like a child, from those whom she disliked. There were some unhappy people, in this latter class, whom no persuasion could ever induce her to see a second time.

She could never give any satisfactory account of how she proceeded in forming her opinions of others. The only visible means of arriving at them, which her deafness and dumbness permitted her to use, consisted simply in examination of a stranger’s manner, expression, and play of features at a first interview. This process, however, seemed always amply sufficient for her; and in more than one instance events proved that her judgment had not been misled by it. Her affliction had tended, indeed, to sharpen her faculties of observation and her powers of analysis to such a remarkable degree, that she often guessed the general tenor of a conversation quite correctly, merely by watching the minute varieties of expression and gesture in the persons speaking — fixing her attention always with especial intentness on the changeful and rapid motions of their lips.

Exiled alike from the worlds of sound and speech, the poor girl’s enjoyment of all that she could still gain of happiness, by means of the seeing sense that was left her, was hardly conceivable to her speaking and hearing fellow-creatures. All beautiful sights, and particularly the exquisite combinations that Nature presents, filled her with an artless rapture, which it affected the most unimpressible people to witness. Trees were beyond all other objects the greatest luxuries that her eyes could enjoy. She would sit for hours, on fresh summer evenings, watching the mere waving of the leaves; her face flushed, her whole nervous organization trembling with the sensations of deep and perfect happiness which that simple sight imparted to her. All the riches and honors which this world can afford, would not have added to her existence a tithe of that pleasure which Valentine easily conferred on her, by teaching her to draw; he might almost be said to have given her a new sense in exchange for the senses that she had lost. She used to dance about the room with the reckless ecstasy of a child, in her ungovernable delight at the prospect of a sketching expedition with Mr. Blyth in the Hampstead fields.

At a very early date of her sojourn with Valentine, it was discovered that her total deafness did not entirely exclude her from every effect of sound. She was acutely sensitive to the influence of percussion — that is to say (if so vague and contradictory an expression may be allowed), she could, under certain conditions, feel the sounds that she could not hear. For example, if Mr. Blyth wished to bring her to his side when they were together in the painting-room, and when she happened neither to be looking at him nor to be within reach of a touch he used to rub his foot, or the end of his mahl-stick gently against the floor. The slight concussion so produced, reached her nerves instantly; provided always that some part of her body touched the floor on which such experiments were tried.

As a means of extending her facilities of social communication, she was instructed in the deaf and dumb alphabet by Valentine’s direction; he and his wife, of course, learning it also; and many of their intimate friends, who were often in the house, following their example for Madonna’s sake. Oddly enough, however, she frequently preferred to express herself, or to be addressed by others, according to the clumsier and slower system of signs and writing, to which she had been accustomed from childhood. She carefully preserved her little slate, with its ornamented frame, and kept it hanging at her side, just as she wore it on the morning of her visit to the Rectory-house at Rubbleford.

In one exceptional case, and one only, did her misfortune appear to have the power of affecting her tranquillity seriously. Whenever, by any accident, she happened to be left in the dark, she was overcome by the most violent terror. It was found, even when others were with her, that she still lost her self-possession at such times. Her own explanation of her feelings on these occasions, suggested the simplest of reasons to account for this weakness in her character. “Remember,” she wrote on her slate, when a new servant was curious to know why she always slept with a light in her room — “Remember that I am deaf and blind too in the darkness. You, who can hear, have a sense to serve you instead of sight, in the dark — your ears are of use to you then, as your eyes are in the light. I hear nothing, and see nothing — I lose all my senses together in the dark.”

It was only by rare accidents, which there was no providing against, that she was ever terrified in this way, after her peculiarity had first disclosed itself. In small things as well as in great, Valentine never forgot that her happiness was his own especial care. He was more nervously watchful over her than anyone else in the house — for she cost him those secret anxieties which make the objects of our love doubly precious to us. In all the years that she had lived under his roof, he had never conquered his morbid dread that Madonna might be one day traced and discovered by her father, or by relatives, who might have a legal claim to her. Under this apprehension he had written to Doctor Joyce and Mrs. Peckover a day or two after the child’s first entry under his roof, pledging both the persons whom he addressed to the strictest secrecy in all that related to Madonna and to the circumstances which had made her his adopted child. As for the hair bracelet, if his conscience had allowed him, he would have destroyed it immediately; but feeling that this would be an inexcusable breach of trust, he was fain to be content with locking it up, as well as the pocket-handkerchief, in an old bureau in his painting-room, the key of which he always kept attached to his own watch chain.

Not one of his London friends ever knew how he first met with Madonna. He boldly baffled all forms of inquiry by requesting that they would consider her history before she came into his house as a perfect blank, and by simply presenting her to them as his adopted child. This method of silencing troublesome curiosity succeeded certainly to admiration; but at the expense of Mr. Blyth’s own moral character. Persons who knew little or nothing of his real disposition and his early life, all shook their heads, and laughed in secret; asserting that the mystery was plain enough to the most ordinary capacity, and that the young lady could be nothing more nor less than a natural child of his own.

Mrs. Blyth was far more indignant at this report than her husband, when in due time it reached the painter’s house. Valentine rather approved of the scandal than not, because it was likely to lead inquisitive people in the wrong direction. He might have been now perfectly easy about the preservation of his secret, but for the distrust which still clung to him, in spite of himself, on the subject of Mrs. Peckover’s discretion. He never wearied of warning that excellent woman to be careful in keeping the important secret, every time she came to London to see Madonna. Whether she only paid them a visit for the day, and then went away again; or whether she spent her Christmas with them, Valentine’s greeting always ended nervously with the same distrustful question:— “Excuse me for asking, Mrs. Peckover, but are you quite sure you have kept what you know about little Mary and her mother, and dates and places and all that, properly hidden from prying people, since you were here last?” At which point Mrs. Peckover generally answered by repeating, always with the same sarcastic emphasis:— “Properly hidden, did you say, sir? Of course I keep what I know properly hidden, for of course I can hold my tongue. In my time, sir, it used always to take two parties to play at a game of Hide and Seek. Who in the world is seeking after little Mary, I should like to know?”

Perhaps Mrs. Peckover’s view of the case was the right one; or, perhaps, the extraordinary discretion observed by the persons who were in the secret of Madonna’s history, prevented any disclosure of the girl’s origin from reaching her father or friends — presuming them to be still alive and anxiously looking for her. But, at any rate, this much at least is certain:— Nobody appeared to assert a claim to Valentine’s adopted child, from the time when he took her home with him as his daughter, to the time when the reader first made his acquaintance, many pages back, in the congenial sphere of his own painting-room.*

* Note to Chapter vii.

I DO not know that any attempt has yet been made in English fiction to draw the character of a “Deaf Mute,” simply and exactly after nature — or, in other words, to exhibit the peculiar effects produced by the loss of the senses of hearing and speaking on the disposition of the person so afflicted. The famous Fenella, in Scott’s “Peveril of the Peak,” only assumes deafness and dumbness; and the whole family of dumb people on the stage have the remarkable faculty — so far as my experience goes — of always being able to hear what is said to them. When the idea first occurred to me of representing the character of a “Deaf Mute” as literally as possible according to nature, I found the difficulty of getting at tangible and reliable materials to work from, much greater than I had anticipated; so much greater, indeed, that I believe my design must have been abandoned, if a lucky chance had not thrown in my way Dr. Kitto’s delightful little book, “The Lost Senses.” In the first division of that work, which contains the author’s interesting and touching narrative of his own sensations under the total loss of the sense of hearing, and its consequent effect on the faculties of speech, will be found my authority for most of those traits in Madonna’s character which are especially and immediately connected with the deprivation from which she is represented as suffering. The moral purpose to be answered by the introduction of such a personage as this, and of the kindred character of the Painter’s Wife, lies, I would fain hope, so plainly on the surface, that it can be hardly necessary for me to indicate it even to the most careless reader. I know of nothing which more firmly supports our faith in the better parts of human nature, than to see — as we all may — with what patience and cheerfulness the heavier bodily afflictions of humanity are borne, for the most part, by those afflicted; and also to note what elements of kindness and gentleness the spectacle of these afflictions constantly develops in the persons of the little circle by which the sufferer is surrounded. Here is the ever bright side, the ever noble and consoling aspect of all human calamity and the object of presenting this to the view of others, as truly and as tenderly as in him lies, seems to me to be a fit object for any writer who desires to address himself to the best sympathies of his readers.

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