My Mysterious Mademoiselle
"Ah, Monsieur, do not hurt me, for I am helpless. Take my little purse; take all I have, but spare my life."
MY MYSTERIOUS MADEMOISELLE.
At Lyons I engaged a coupé, laid in a substantial lunch, got out my novels and cigars, and prepared to make myself as comfortable as circumstances permitted; for we should not reach Nice till morning, and a night journey was my especial detestation. Nothing would have induced me to undertake it in midwinter, but a pathetic letter from my sister, imploring me to come to her as she was failing fast, and had a precious gift to bestow upon me before she died. This sister had mortally offended our father by marrying a Frenchman. The old man never forgave her, never would see her, and cut her off with a shilling in his will. I bad been forbidden to have any communication with her on pain of disinheritance, and had obeyed, for I shared my father's prejudice, and made no attempt to befriend my sister, even when I learned that she was a widow, although my father's death freed me from my promise. For more than fifteen years we had been utterly estranged; but when her pleading letter came to me, my heart softened, and I longed to see her. My conscience reproached me, and, leaving my cozy bachelor establishment in London, I hurried away, hoping to repair the neglect of years by tardy tenderness and care.
My thoughts worried me that night, and the fear of being too late haunted me distressfully. I could neither read, sleep, nor smoke, and soon heartily wished I had taken a seat in a double carriage, where society of some sort would have made the long hours more endurable. As we stopped at a way-station, I was roused from a remorseful reverie by the guard, who put in his head to inquire, with an insinuating shrug and smile:
"Will monsieur permit a lady to enter? The train is very full, and no place remains for her in the first-class. It will be a great kindness if monsieur will take pity on the charming little mademoiselle."
He dropped his voice in uttering the last words, and gave a nod, which plainly expressed his opinion that monsieur would not regret the courtesy. Glad to be relieved from the solitude that oppressed me, I consented at once, and waited with some curiosity to see what sort of companion I was to have for the next few hours.
The first glance satisfied me; but, like a true Englishman, I made no demonstration of interest beyond a bow and a brief reply to the apologies and thanks uttered in a fresh young voice as the new-comer took her seat. A slender girl of sixteen or so, simply dressed in black, with a little hat tied down over golden curls, and a rosy face, lit up by lustrous hazel eyes, at once arch, modest and wistful. A cloak and a plump traveling bag were all her luggage, and quickly arranging them, she drew out a book, sank back in her corner, and appeared to read, as if anxious to render me forgetful of her presence as soon as possible.
I liked that, and resolved to convince her at the first opportunity that I was no English bear, but a gentleman who could be very agreeable when he chose.
The opportunity did not arrive as soon as I hoped, and I began to grow impatient to hear the fresh young voice again. I made a few attempts at conversation, but the little girl seemed timid, for she answered in the briefest words, and fell to reading again, forcing me to content myself with admiring the long curled lashes, the rosy mouth, and the golden hair of this demure demoiselle.
She was evidently afraid of the big, black-bearded gentleman, and would not be drawn out, so I solaced myself by watching her in the windows opposite, which reflected every movement like a mirror.
Presently the book slipped from her hand, the bright eyes grew heavy, the pretty head began to nod, and sleep grew more and more irresistible. Half closing my eyes, I feigned slumber, and was amused at the little girl's evident relief. She peeped at first, then took a good look, then smiled to herself as if well pleased, yawned, and rubbed her eyes like a sleepy child, took off her hat, tied a coquettish rose-colored rigolette over her soft hair, viewed herself in the glass, and laughed a low laugh, so full of merriment, that I found it difficult to keep my countenance. Then, with a roguish glance at me, she put out her hand toward the flask of wine lying on the leaf, with a half-open case of chocolate croquettes, which I had been munching, lifted the flask to her lips, put it hastily down again, took one bon-bon, and, curling herself up like a kitten, seemed to drop asleep at once.
"Poor little thing," I thought to myself, "she is hungry, cold, and tired; she longs for a warm sip, a sugar-plum, and a kind word, I dare say. She is far too young and pretty to be traveling alone. I must take care of her."
In pursuance of which friendly resolve I laid my rug lightly over her, slipped a soft shawl under her head, drew the curtains for warmth, and then repaid myself for these attentions by looking long and freely at the face encircled by the rosy cloud. Prettier than ever when flushed with sleep did it look, and I quite lost myself in the pleasant reverie which came to me while leaning over the young girl, watching the silken lashes lying quietly on the blooming cheeks, listening to her soft breath, touching the yellow curls that strayed over the arm of the seat, and wondering who the charming little person might be. She reminded me of my first sweetheart—a pretty cousin, who had captivated my boyish heart at eighteen, and dealt it a wound it never could forget. At five-and-thirty these little romances sometimes return to one's memory fresher and dearer for the years have taught us the sweetness of youth—the bitterness of regret. In a sort of waking dream I sat looking at the stranger, who seemed to wear the guise of my first love, till suddenly the great eyes flashed wide open, the girl sprung up, and, clasping her hands, cried, imploringly:
"Ah, monsieur, do not hurt me, for I am helpless. Take my little purse; take all I have, but spare my life for my poor mother's sake!"
"Good heavens, child, do you take me for a robber?" I exclaimed, startled out of my sentimental fancies by this unexpected performance.
"Pardon; I was dreaming: I woke to find you bending over me, and I was frightened," she murmured, eying me timidly.
"That was also a part of your dream. Do I look like a rascal, mademoiselle?" I demanded, anxious to reassure her.
"Indeed no; you look truly kind, and I trust you. But I am not used to traveling alone; I am anxious and timid, yet now I do not fear. Pardon, monsieur; pray, pardon a poor child who has no friend to protect her."
She put out her hand with an impulsive gesture, as the soft eyes were lifted confidingly to mine, and what could I do but kiss the hand in true French style, and smile back into the eyes with involuntary tenderness, as I replied, with unusual gallantry:
"Not without a friend to protect her, if mademoiselle will permit me the happiness. Rest tranquil, no one shall harm you. Confide in me, and you shall find that we 'cold English' have hearts, and may be trusted."
"Ah, so kind, so pitiful! A thousand thanks; but do not let me disturb monsieur. I will have no more panics, and can only atone for my foolish fancy by remaining quiet, that monsieur may sleep."
"Sleep! Not I; and the best atonement you can make is to join me at supper, and wile away this tedious night with friendly confidences. Shall it be so, mademoiselle!" I asked, assuming a paternal air to reassure her.
"That would be pleasant; for I confess I am hungry, and have nothing with me. I left in such haste I forgot—" She paused suddenly, turned scarlet, and drooped her eyes, as if on the point of betraying some secret.
I took no notice, but began to fancy that my little friend was engaged in some romance which might prove interesting. Opening my traveling-case, I set forth cold chicken, tartines, wine, and sweetmeats, and served her as respectfully as if she had been a duchess, instead of what I suspected—a run-away school-girl. My manner put her at her ease, and she chatted away with charming frankness, though now and then she checked some word on her lips, blushed and laughed, and looked so merry and mysterious, that I began to find my school-girl a most captivating companion. The hours flew rapidly now: remorse and anxiety slept; I felt blithe and young again, for my lost love seemed to sit beside me: I forgot my years, and almost fancied myself an ardent lad again.
What mademoiselle thought of me I could only guess; but look, tone and manner betrayed the most flattering confidence. I enjoyed the little adventure without a thought of consequences.
At Toulon we changed cars, and I could not get a coupé, but fortunately found places in a carriage, whose only occupant was a sleepy old woman. As I was about taking my seat, after bringing my companion a cup of hot coffee, she uttered an exclamation, dragged her vail over her face, and shrunk into the corner of our compartment.
"What alarms you ?" I asked, anxiously, for her mystery piqued my curiosity.
"Look out and see if a tall young man is not promenading the platform, and looking into every carriage," returned mademoiselle, in good English, for the first time.
I looked out, saw the person described, watched him approach, and observed that he glanced eagerly into each car as he passed.
"He is there, and is about to favor us with an inspection. What are your commands, mademoiselle?" I asked.
"Oh, sir, befriend me; cover me up; say that I am ill; call yourself my father for a moment—I will explain it all. Hush, he is here!" and the girl clung to my arm with a nervous gesture, an imploring look, which I could not resist.
The stranger appeared, entered with a grave bow, seated himself opposite, and glanced from me to the muffled figure at my side. We were off in a moment, and no one spoke, till a little cough behind the rail gave the new-comer a pretext for addressing me.
"Mademoiselle is annoyed by the air: permit me to close the window."
"Madame is an invalid, and will thank you to do," I replied, taking a malicious satisfaction in disobeying the girl, for the idea of passing as her father disgusted me, and I preferred a more youthful title.
A sly pinch of the arm was all the revenge she could take; and, as I stooped to settle the cloaks about her, I got a glance from the hazel eyes, reproachful, defiant, and merry.
"Ah, she has spirit, this little wandering princess. Let us see what our friend opposite has to do with her," I said to myself, feeling almost jealous of the young man, who was a handsome, resolute-looking fellow, in a sort of uniform.
"Does he understand English, madame, my wife?" I whispered to the girl.
"Not a word," she whispered back, with another charming pinch.
"Good; then tell me all about him. I demand an explanation."
"Not now; not here, wait a little. Can you not trusted when I confide so much to you?"
"No, I am burning with curiosity, and I deserve some reward for my good behavior. Shall I not have it, ma amie?"
"Truly, you do, and I will give you anything by-and-by," she began.
"Anything?" I asked, quickly.
"Yes; I give you my word."
"I shall hold you to your promise. Come, we will make a little bargain. I will blindly obey you till we reach Nice, if you will frankly tell me the cause of all this mystery before we part."
"Done!" cried the girl, with an odd laugh.
"Done!" said I, feeling that I was probably making a fool of myself.
The young man eyed us sharply as we spoke, but said nothing, and, wishing to make the most of my bargain, I pillowed my little wife's head on my shoulder, and talked in whispers while she nestled in shelter of my arm, and seemed to enjoy the escapade with all the thoughtless abandon of a girl. Why she went off into frequent fits of quiet laughter I did not quite understand, for my whispers were decidedly more tender than witty, but I fancied it hysterical, and, having made up my mind that some touching romance was soon to he revealed to me, I prepared myself for it, by playing my part with spirit, finding something very agreeable in my new rôle of devoted husband.
The remarks of our neighbors amused us immensely: for, the old lady, on waking, evidently took us for an English couple on a honeymoon trip, and confided her opinion of the "mad English" to the young man, who knit his brows and mused moodily.
To our great satisfaction, both of our companions quitted us at midnight; and the moment the door closed behind them, the girl tore off her vail, threw herself on the sent opposite me, and laughed till the tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Now, mademoiselle, I demand an explanation," I said, seriously, when her merriment subsided.
"You shall have it; but first tell me what do I look like?" and she turned her face toward me with a wicked smile, that puzzled me more than her words.
"Like a very charming young lady who has run away from school or pension, either to escape from a lover or to meet one."
My faith! but that is a compliment to my skill," muttered the girl, as if to herself; then aloud, and solberly, though her eyes still danced with irrepressible mirth: "Monsieur is right in one thing. I have run away from school, but not to meet or fly a lover. Ah, no; I go to find my mother. She is ill; they concealed it from me; I ran away, and would have walked from Lyons to Nice if old Justine had not helped me."
"And this young man—why did you dread him!" I asked, eagerly.
"He is one of the teachers. He goes to find and reclaim me; but, thanks to my disguise, and your kindness, he has not discovered me."
"But why should he reclaim you! Surely, if your mother is ill, you have a right to visit her, and she would desire it."
"Ah, it is a sad story! I can only tell you that we are poor. I am too young yet to help my mother. Two rich aunts placed me in a fine school, and support me till I am eighteen, on condition that my mother does not see me. They hate her, and I would have rejected their charity, but for the thought that soon I can earn my bread and support her. She wished me to go, and I obeyed, though it broke my heart. I study hard. I suffer many trials. I make no complaint; but I hope and wait, and when the time comes I fly to her, and never leave her any more.
What had come to the girl? The words poured from her lips with impetuous force; her eyes flashed; her face glowed; her voice was possessed with strange eloquence, by turns tender, defiant, proud, and pathetic. She clinched her hands, and dashed her little hat at her feet with a vehement gesture when speaking of her aunts. Her eyes shone through indignant tears when alluding to her trials; and, as she said, brokenly, "I fly to her, and never leave her any more," she opened her arms as if to embrace and hold her mother fast.
It moved me strangely: for, instead of a shallow, coquettish school-girl, I found a passionate, resolute creature, ready to do and dare anything for the mother she loved. I resolved to see the end of this adventure, and wished my sister had a child as fond and faithful to comfort and sustain her; but her only son had died a baby, and she was alone, for I had deserted her.
"Have you no friends but these cruel aunts?" I asked, compassionately.
"No, not one. My father is dead, my mother poor and ill, and I am powerless to help her," she answered, with a sob.
"Not quite; remember I am a friend."
As I spoke I offered my hand; but, to my intense surprise, the girl struck it away from her with a passionate motion, saying, almost fiercely:
"No; it is too late—too late! You should have come before."
"My poor child, calm yourself. I am indeed a friend; believe it, and let me help you. I can sympathize with your distress, for I, too, go to Nice to find one dear to me. My poor sister, whom I have neglected many years; but now I go to ask pardon, and to serve her with all my heart. Come, then, let us comfort one another, and go hopefully to meet those who love and long for us."
Still another surprise; for, with a face as sweetly penitent as it had been sternly proud before, this strange girl caught my hand in hers, kissed it warmly, and whispered, gratefully:
"I often dreamed of a friend like this, but never thought to find him so. God bless you, my—" She paused there, hid her face an instant, then looked up without a shadow in her eyes, saying more quietly, and with a smile I could not understand:
"What shall I give you to prove my thanks for your kindness to me?"
"When we part, you shall give me an English good-by."
"A kiss on the lips! Fie! monsieur will not demand that of me," cried the girl, whose changeful face was gay again.
"And why not, since I am old enough to be called your father."
"Ah, that displeased you! Well, you had your revenge: rest content with that, mon mari," laughed the girl, retreating to a corner with a rebellious air.
"I shall claim my reward when we part; so resign yourself, mademoiselle. By-the-way, what name has my little friend?"
"I will tell you when I pay my debt. Now let me sleep. I am tired, and so are you. Good-night, Monsieur George Vane." and, leaving me to wonder how she had learned my name, the tormenting creature barricaded herself with cloaks and bags, and seemed to sleep tranquilly.
Tired with the long night, I soon dropped off into a doze, which must have been a long one; for, when I woke, I found myself in the dark.
"Where the deuce are we?" I exclaimed; for the lamp was out, and no sign of dawn visible, though I had seen a ruddy streak when I last looked out.
"In the long tunnel near Nice," answered a voice from the gloom.
"Ah, mademoiselle is awake! Is she not afraid that I may demand payment now?"
"Wait till the light comes, and if you deserve it then, you shall have it," and I heard the little gipsy laughing in her corner. The next minute a spark glowed opposite me; the odor of my choice cigarettes filled the air, and the crackle of a bon-bon was heard.
Before I could make up my mind how to punish these freaks, we shot out of the tunnel, and I sat petrified with amazement, for there, opposite me, lounged, not my pretty blonde school-girl, but a handsome black-haired, mischievous lad, in the costume of a pupil of a French military academy: with his little cap rakishly askew, his blue coat buttoned smartly to the chin, his well-booted feet on the beside him, and his small hands daintily gloved, this young rascal lay staring at me with such a world of fun in his fine eyes, that I tingled all over with a shock of surprise which almost took my breath away.
"Have a light, uncle"" was the cool remark that broke the long silence.
"Where is the girl?" was all I could say, with a dazed expression.
There, sir," pointing to the bag, with a smile that made me feel as if I was not yet awake, so like the girl's was it.
"And who the devil are you?" I cried, getting angry all at once.
Standing as straight as an arrow, the boy answered, with a military salute:
"George Vane Vandeleur, at your service, uncle."
"My sister has no children; her boy died years ago, you young villain."
"He tried to, but they wouldn't let him. I'm sorry to contradict you, sir; but I'm your sister's son, and that will prove it."
Much bewildered, I took the letter be handed me, and found it impossible to doubt the boy's word. It was from my sister to her son, telling him that she had written to me, that I had answered kindly, and promised to come to her. She bade the boy visit her if possible, that I night see him, for she could not doubt that I would receive him for her sake, and free him from dependence on the French aunts who made their favors burdensome by reproach and separation.
As I read, I forgave the boy his prank, and longed to give him a hearty welcome; but recollections of my own part in that night's masquerade annoyed me so much that to conceal my chagrin I assumed a stern air, and demanded, coldly:
"Was it necessary to make a girl of yourself in order to visit your mother?"
"Yes, sir," answered the boy, promptly, adding, with the most engaging frankness: "I'll tell you how it was, uncle, and I know you will pardon me, because mamma has often told me of your pranks when a boy, and I made you my hero. See, then, mamma sends me this letter, and I am wild to go, that I may embrace her and see my uncle. But my aunts say, "No," and tell them at school that I am to be kept close. Ah, they are strict there: the boys are left no freedom, and my only chance was the one holiday when I go to my aunts. I resolved to run away, and walk to mamma, for nothing shall part us but her will. I had a little money, and I confided my plan to Justine, my old nurse. She is a brave one! She said:
"'You shall go, but not as a beggar. See, I have money. Take it, my son, and visit your mother like a gentleman.'
"That was grand; but I feared to be caught before I could leave Lyons, so I resolved to disguise myself, and then if they followed I should escape them. Often at school I have played girl-parts, because I am small, and have as yet no beard. So Justine dressed me in the skirt, cloak and hat of her granddaughter. I had the blonde wig I wore on the stage, a little rouge, a soft tone, a modest air, and—voilà mademoiselle!"
"Exactly; it was well done, though at times you forgot the 'modest air,' nephew," I said, with as much dignity as suppressed merriment permitted.
"It was impossible to remember it at all times; and you did not seem to like mademoiselle the less for a little coquetry," replied the rogue, with a sly glance out of the handsome eyes that had bewitched me.
"Continue your story, sir. Was the young man we met really a teacher?"
"Yes, uncle; but you so kindly protected me that he could not even suspect your delicate wife."
The boy choked over the last word, and burst into a laugh so irresistably infectious that I joined him, and lost my dignity for ever.
"George, you are a scapegrace," was the only reproof I had breath enough to make.
"But uncle pardons me, since he gives me my name, and looks at me so kindly that I must embrace him."
And with a demonstrative affection which an English boy would have died rather than betray, my French nephew threw his arms about my neck, and kissed me heartily on both checks. I had often ridiculed the fashion, but now I rather liked it, and began to think my prejudice ill-founded, as I listened to the lad's account of the sorrows and hardships they had been called on to suffer since his father died.
"Why was I never told of your existence?" I asked, feeling how much I had lost in my long ignorance of this bright boy, who was already dear to me.
"When I was so ill while a baby, mamma wrote to my grandfather, hoping to touch his heart; but he never answered her, and she wrote no more. If uncle had cared to find his nephew, be might easily have done so; the channel is not very wide."
The reproach in the last words went straight to my heart; but I only said, stroking the curly head:
"Did you never mean to make yourself known to me? When your mother was suffering, could you not try me?"
"I never could beg, even for her, and trusted to the good God, and we were helped. I did mean to make myself known to you when I had done something to be proud of: not before."
I knew where that haughty spirit came from, and was as as glad to see it as I was to see how much the boy resembled my once lovely sister.
"How did you know me, George?" I asked, finding pleasure in uttering the familiar name, unspoken since my father died.
"I saw your name on your luggage at Marseilles, and thought you looked like the picture mamma cherishes so tenderly, and I resolved to try and touch your heart before you knew who I was. The guard put me into your coupé, for I bribed him, and then I acted my best; but it was so droll I nearly spoiled it all by some boy's word, or a laugh. My faith, uncle, I did not know the English were so gallant."
"It did not occur to you that I might be acting also, perhaps? I own I was puzzled at first, but I soon made up my mind that you were some little adventuress out on a lark, as we say in England, and I behaved accordingly."
"If all little adventuresses got on as well as I did, I fancy many would go on this lark of yours. A talent for acting runs in the family, that is evident," said the boy.
"Hold your tongue, jackanapes!" sternly. "How old are you, my lad?" mildly.
"That young to begin the world, with no friends but two cold-hearted old women!"
"Ah, no, I have the good God and my mother, and now—may I say an uncle who loves me a little, and permits me to love him with all my heart!"
Never mind what answer I made; I have recorded weaknesses enough already, so let that pass, as well as the conversation which left both pair of eyes a little wet, but both pair of hearts very happy.
As the train thundered into the station at Nice, just as the sun rose gloriously over the blue Mediterranean, George whispered to me, with the irrepressible impudence of a mischief-loving boy:
"Uncle, shall I give you the English good-by now?"
"No, my lad; give me a hearty English welcome, and God bless you!" I answered, as we shook hands, manfully, and walked away together, laughing over the adventure with my mysterious mademoiselle.