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LA PETITE MADELAINE.
I was surprised the other day by a visit from a strange old lady, brought hither to be introduced to me, at her own request, by some friends of mine with whom she was staying in this neighbourhood. Having been, I was informed, intimately acquainted, in her early years, with a branch of my mother's family, to which she was distantly related, she had conceived a desire to see one of its latest descendants, and I was in consequence honoured with her visit. But if the honour done me was unquestionable, the motive to which I was indebted for it was not to be easily divined; for, truth to speak, little indication of good will towards me, or of kindly feeling, was discernible in the salutation of my visitor, in her stiff and stately curtsy, her cold ceremonious expressions, and in the sharp and severe scrutiny of the keen grey eyes, with which she leisurely took note of me from head to foot.
Mrs Ormond's appearance was that of a person far advanced in years; older than my mother would have been if still living; but her form, of uncommon height, gaunt, bony, and masculine, was firm and erect as in the vigour of life, and in perfect keeping with the hard-featured, deep-lined countenance, surmounted by a coiffure that, perched on the summit of a roll of grizzled hair, strained tight from the high and narrow forehead, was, with the rest of her attire, a facsimile of that of my great-aunt Barbara (peace be to her memory!) as depicted in a certain invaluable portrait of that virtuous gentlewoman, now deposited, for more inviolable security, in the warmest corner of the lumber-room. Though no believer in the influence of "the evil eye," there was something in the expression of the large, prominent, light grey orbs, so strangely fixed upon me, that had the effect of troubling me so far, as to impose a degree of embarrassment and restraint on my endeavours to play the courteous hostess, and very much to impede all my attempts at conversation.
As the likeliest means of breaking down the barrier of formality, I introduced the subject most calculated, it might be supposed, to awaken feelings of mutual interest. I spoke of my maternal ancestry-of the Norman blood and Norman land from which the race had sprung, and of my inherited love for the birthplace of those nearest and dearest to me in the last departed generation; though the daughter of an English father, his country was my native, as well as my "Fatherland."
Mrs Ormond, though the widow of an English husband, spoke with a foreign accent so familiar to my ear, that, in spite of the sharp thin tones of the voice that uttered them, I could have fancied musical, had there been a gleam of kindness in her steady gaze. But I courted it in vain. The eyes of Freya were never fixed in more stony hardness on a rejected votary, than were those of my stern inspectress, on my almost deprecating face; and her ungracious reserve baffled all my attempts at conversation.
All she allowed to escape her, in reference to the Norman branches of our respective families, was a brief allusion to the intimacy which had subsisted between her mother and my maternal grandmother; and when I endeavoured from that slight clue to lead her farther into the family relations, my harmless pertinacity was rebuked by a shake of the head as portentous as Lord Burleigh's, accompanied by so grim a smile, and a look of such undefinable meaning, as put the finishing stroke to my previous bewilderment, and prevented me from recalling to mind, as I should otherwise have done, certain circumstances associated with a proper name-that of her mother's family, which she spoke with peculiar emphasis-and having done so, and in so doing (as she seemed persuaded)
spoken daggers" to my conscience, she signified by a stately sign to the ladies who had accompanied her, that she was ready to depart, and the carriage being announced, forthwith arose, and honouring me with a fare
well curtsy, as formal as that which had marked her introduction, sailed out of the apartment, if not with swan-like grace, with much of that sublimer majesty of motion, with which a heron on a mud-bank stalks deliberately on, with head erect and close depending pinions. And as if subjugated by the strange influence of the sharp grey eyes, bent on me to the last with sinister expression, unconsciously I returned my grim visitor's parting salutation, with so profound a curtsy, that my knees (all unaccustomed to such Richardsonian ceremony) had scarcely recovered from it, when the closing door shut out her stately figure, and it was not till the sound of carriagewheels certified her final departure, that, recovering my own identity, I started from the statue-like posture in which I had remained standing after that unwonted genuflection, and sank back on the sofa to meditate at leisure on my strange morning ad
My ungracious visitor had left me little cause, in truth, for pleasing meditation, so far as her gaunt self was immediately concerned, but a harsh strain, or an ungraceful object, will sometimes (as well as the sweetest and most beautiful) revive a long train of interesting associations, and the plea alleged for her introduction to me, had been of itself sufficient to awaken a chord of memory, whose vibration ceased not at her departure. On the contrary, I fell forthwith into a dreaming mood, that led me back to recollections of old stories, of old times-such as I had loved to listen to in long past days, from those who had since followed in their turn the elders of our race (whose faithful historians they were) to the dark and narrow house appointed for all living.
Who that has ever been addicted to the idle, and I fear me profitless, speculation of waking dreams, but may call to mind how, when the spell was on him, as outward and tangible things (apparently the objects of intent gaze) faded on the eye of sense, the inward vision proportionately cleared and strengthened-and circumstances long unremembered-names long unspokenhistories and descriptions once at
tended to with deep interest, but long past from recollection, are confined, as it were, from the dark recesses of the mind, at first like wandering atoms confused and undefined, but gradually assuming distinctness and consistency, till the things that be are to us the unreal world, and we live and move again (all intervening space a blank) among the things that have been?
Far back into that shadowy region did I wander, when left as described by "the grim white woman," to ponder over the few words she had vouchsafed to utter, and my own "thick-coming fancies." The one proper name she had pronounced— that of her mother's family, had struck on my ear like a familiar sound -yet-how could I have heard it? If ever-from one person only-from my dear mother's lips-" De St Hilaire!"-again and again I slowly repeated to myself-and then-I scarce know how-the Christian name of Adrienne rose spontaneously to my lips, and no sooner were the two united, than the spell of memory was complete, and fresh on my mind, as if I had heard it but yesterday, returned the whole history of Adrienne de St Hilaire.
Adrienne de St Hilaire and Madelaine du Résnél were far removed cousins; both demoiselles de bonnes familles, residing at contiguous chateaux, near a small hamlet not far from Caen, in Normandy; both well born and well connected, but very unequally endowed with the gifts of fortune. Mademoiselle de St Hilaire was the only child and heiress of wealthy parents, both of whom were still living. Madelaine du Résnél, the youngest of seven, left in tender infancy to the guardianship of a widowed mother, whose scanty dower (the small family estate devolving on her only son) would have been insufficient for the support of herself and her younger children (all daughters), had she not continued mistress of her son's house and establishment during his minority.
"La petite Madelaine" (as, being the latest born, she was long called by her family and friends) opened her eyes upon this mortal scene but a week before her father was carried
to his grave, and never was poor babe so coldly welcomed under circumstances that should have made her doubly an object of tenderness.
"Petite malheureuse! je me serois bien passée de toi," was the maternal salutation, when her new-born daughter was first presented to Madame du Résnél- —a cold-hearted, strong-minded woman, more absorb ed in the change about to be operated in her own situation by her approaching widowhood, than by her impending bereavement of a most excellent and tender husband. But one precious legacy was in reserve for the forlorn infant. She was clasped to the heart of her dying father his blessing was breathed over her, and his last tears fell on her innocent, unconscious face. "Mon enfant ! tu ne connoitra jamais ton père, mais il veillera sur toi," were the tender, emphatic words with which he resigned her to the arms of the old servant, who failed not to repeat them to her little charge when she was old enough to comprehend their affecting purport. And well and holily did la petite Madelaine treasure that saying in her heart of hearts; and early reason had the poor child to fly for comfort to that secret source. Madame du Résnél could not be accused of over-indulgence to any of her children-least of all to the poor little one whom she looked on from the first almost as an intruder; but she felt maternal pride in the resemblance already visible in her elder daughters, to her own fine form and handsome features,-while la petite Madelaine, a small creature from her birth, though delicately and perfectly proportioned-fair and blue-eyed, and meek-looking as innocence itself, but without one feature in her face that could be called handsome, had the additional misfortune, when about five years old, to be marked though not seamed-by the smallpox, from which cruel disease her life escaped almost miraculously.
"Qu'elle est affreuse!" was the mother's tender exclamation at the first full view of her restored child's disfigured face. Those words, young as she was, went to the poor child's heart, that swelled so to bursting, it might have broken, (who knows?) but for her hoarded comfort; and she sobbed herself to sleep that night,
over and over again repeating to herself," Mon papa veille sur moi." If there be much truth in that poetical axiom,
"A favourite has no friend," it is at least as frequently evident, that even in domestic circles, the degree of favour shewn by the head of the household to any individual memnber, too often regulates the general tone of consideration; and that even among the urchins of the family, an instinctive perception is never wanting, of how far, and over whom, they may tyrannize with impunity.
No creature in whose nature was a spark of human feeling, could tyrannize over la petite Madelaine, she was so gentle, so loving, (when she dared shew her love,) so perfectly tractable and unoffending; but in the Chateau du Résnél, no one could have passed two whole days without perceiving she was no favourite, except with one old servant-the same who had placed her in her dying father's arms, and recorded for her his last precious benediction-and with her little brother, who always vowed to those most in his confidence, and to Madelaine herself, when her tears flowed for some short, sharp sorrow, that when he was a man, "toutes ces demoiselles"-meaning his elder sisters and monitressesshould go and live away where they pleased, and leave him and la petite Madelaine to keep house together.
Except from these two, any one would have observed that there were "shortcomings" towards her; "shortcomings" of tenderness from the superiors of the household"shortcomings" of observances from the menials; any thing was good enough for Madelaine-any time was time enough for Madelaine. She had to finish wearing out all her sisters' old frocks and wardrobes in general, to eat the crumb of the loaf they had pared the crust from, and to be satisfied with half a portion of soupe au lait, if they had chosen to take double allowance; and, blessedly for la petite Madelaine, it was her nature to be satisfied with every thing not embittered by marked and intentional unkindness. It was her nature to sacrifice itself for others. Might that sacrifice have been repaid by a return of love, her little heart would
have overflowed with happiness. As it was, she had not yet learnt to reason upon the want of sympathy; she felt without analyzing. She was not harshly treated,- -was seldom found fault with, though far more rarely commended, was admitted to share in her sisters' sports, with the proviso that she had no choice in them, -old Jeannette and le petit frère Armand loved her dearly; so did Roland, her father's old faithful hound, and on the whole, la petite Madelaine was a happy little girl.
And happier she was, a thousand times happier, than her cousin Adrienne-than Adrienne de St Hilaire, the spoilt child of fortune and of her doting parents, who lived but in her, and for her, exhausting all the ingenuity of love, and all the resources of wealth, in vain endeavours to perfect the felicity of their beautiful but heartless idol.
belle Adrienne sixteen, it therefore happened that the former was much oftener to be found at Chateau St Hilaire, than at le Manoir du Résnél; for whenever the parental efforts of Monsieur and Madame de St Hilaire failed (and they failed too often) to divert the ennui, and satisfy the caprices, of their spoiled darling, the latter was wont to exclaim, in the pettish tone of peevish impatience, "Faites donc vénir la petite Madelaine!" and the innocent charmer was as eagerly sought out and welcomed by the harassed parents as ever David was sought for by the servants of Saul, to lay with the sweet breathings of his harp the evil spirit that possessed their unhappy master. Something similar was the influence of la petite Madelaine's nature over that of her beautiful cousin. No wonder that her presence could scarcely be dispensed with at Chateau St Hilaire. Had her own home been more a home of love, not all the blandishments of the kindest friends, not all the luxuries of a wealthy establishment, would ever have reconciled her to be so much separated from her nearest connexions. But, alas! except when her services were required (and no sparing and light tasks were her assigned ones), she was but too welcome to bestow her companionship on others; and except Roland, and le petit frère, who was there to miss la petite Madelaine? And Roland was mostly her escort to St Hilaire; and on fine evenings, when le petit frère had escaped from his tutor and his sisters, Jeannette was easily persuaded to take him as far as the old mill, half-way between the chateaux, to meet her on her way home. Those were pleasant meetings. Madelaine loved often, in after life, to talk of them with that dear brother, always her faithful friend. So time went on
The families of St Hilaire and Du Résnél were, as has been mentioned, distantly related, and the ties of kindred were strengthened by similarity of faith, both professing that of the Reformed Church, and living on that account very much within their own circle, though on terms of perfect good-will with the surrounding Catholic neighbourhood. Mlle. de St Hilaire might naturally have been expected to select among the elder of her cousins, her companion and intimate, their ages nearly assimilating with her own; but, too coldhearted to seek for sympathy, too proud to brook companionship on equal terms, and too selfish and indolent to sacrifice any caprice, or make any exertion for the sake of others, she found it most convenient to patronise la petite Madelaine, whose gentle spirit and sweet temper ensured willing though not servile compliance with even the unreasonable fancies of all who were kind to her, and whose quickness of intel-Time, the traveller whose pace is lect and excellent capacity more than fitted her for companionship with Adrienne, though the latter was six years her senior. Besides all, there was the pleasure of patronage-not the least influential motive to a proud and mean spirit, or to the heart of a beauty, wellnigh satiated, if that were possible, by the contemplation of her perfections. When la petite Taine was ten years old, and la
so variously designated by various humours-is always the restless, the unpausing-till Mademoiselle de St Hilaire had attained the perfection of blooming womanhood-the glowing loveliness of her one-and-twentieth summer-and la petite Madelaine began to think people ought to treat her more like a woman-for was she not fifteen complete? Poor little Madelaine! thou hadst indeed
arrived at that most womanly era. But, to look at that small slight form, still childishly attired in frock and sash, of the simplest form and homeliest materials, at that almost infantine face, that looked more youthful, and almost beautiful, when it smiled, from the effect of a certain dimple in the left cheek (Adrienne always insisted it was a pock-mark);-to look at that form and face, and the babyish curls of light-brown hair that hung about it quite down the little throat, and lay clustering on the girlish neck-who could ever have thought of paying thee honour due as to the dignity of confirmed wo
So it was Madelaine's fate still to be "La petite Madelaine”—still nobody-that anomalous personage who plays so many parts in society; as often to suit his own convenience as for that of others; and though people are apt to murmur at being forced into the character, many a one lives to assume it willingly-as one slips off a troublesome costume at a masque, to take shelter under a quiet domino. As for la petite Madelaine, who did not care very much about the matter, though it was a little mortifying to be patted on the head, and called "bonne petite," instead of "mademoiselle," as was her undoubted right, from strangers at least, it was better to be somebody in one, or two hearts (le petit frère et Jeannette), than in the mere respects of a hundred indifferent people; and as for la belle cousine, Madelaine, though on excellent terms with her, never dreamed of her having a heart,-one cause, perhaps, of their mutual good understanding; for la petite Madelaine, actuated by instinctive perception, felt that it would be perfectly irrational to expect warmth of affection from one constituted so differently from herself; so she went on, satisfied with the consciousness of giving pleasure, and with such return as was made for it.
But la petite Madelaine was soon to be invested with a most important office; one, however, that was by no means to supersede her character of Nobody, but, enigmatical as it may sound, to double her usefulness in that capacity-while, on private and particular occasions, she
was to enact a somebody of infinite consequence-that of confidante in a love affair-as la belle cousine was pleased to term her liaison with a very handsome and elegant young officer, who, after some faint opposition on the part of her parents, was duly installed at St Hilaire, as the accepted and acknowledged lover of its beautiful heiress. Walter Barnard (for he was of English birth and parentage) the youngest of three brothers, the elder of whom was a baronet, was most literally a soldier of fortune, his portion, at his father's death, amounting to no more than a pair of colours in a marching regiment-and the splendid income thereunto annexed. But high in health and hope, and "all the world before him where to choose"-of high principles-simple and unvitiated habits-the object of the love of many friends, and the esteem of all his brother officers-the young man was rather disposed to consider his lot in life as peculiarly fortunate, till the pressure of disease fell heavy on him, and he rose from a sick-bed which had held him captive many weeks, the victim of infectious fever, so debilitated in constitution as to be under the necessity of obtaining leave of absence from his regiment, for the purpose (peremptorily insisted on by his physician) of seeking the perfect change of air and scene, which was essential to effect his restoration. He was especially enjoined to try the influence of another climate-that of France was promptly decided on-not only from the proximity of that country (a consideration of no small weight in the young soldier's prudential calculations), but because a brother officer was about to join a part of his family then resident at Caen in Normandy, and the pleasure of travelling with him, settled the point of Walter's destination so far-and, as it fell out, even to that other station in the route of life, only second in awfulness to the "bourne from whence no traveller returns." His English friends, who had been some years inhabitants of Caen, were acquainted with many French families in that town and its vicinity, and, among others, Walter was introduced by them at the Chateau de St Hilaire, where the Protestant Eng