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The instant she satisfied herself of this, her maternal imagination, uninfluenced by what Mr. Thorpe had said below stairs, conjured up an appalling vision of Zack before his father’s looking-glass, with his chin well lathered, and a bare razor at his naked throat. The child had indeed a singular aptitude for amusing himself with purely adult occupations. Having once been incautiously taken into church by his nurse, to see a female friend of hers married, Zack had, the very next day, insisted on solemnizing the nuptial ceremony from recollection, before a bride and bridegroom of his own age, selected from his playfellows in the garden of the square. Another time, when the gardener had incautiously left his lighted pipe on a bench while he went to gather a flower for one of the local nursery-maids, whom he was accustomed to favor horticulturally in this way, Zack contrived, undetected, to take three greedy whiffs of pigtail in close succession; was discovered reeling about the grass like a little drunkard; and had to be smuggled home (deadly pale, and bathed in cold perspiration) to recover, out of his mother’s sight, in the congenial gloom of the back kitchen. Although the precise infantine achievements here cited were unknown to Mrs. Thorpe, there were plenty more, like them, which she had discovered; and the warning remembrance of which now hurried the poor lady up the second flight of stairs in a state of breathless agitation and alarm.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.*

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She stood near the window, the center figure of the group, offering a little slate that hung by her side, with a pencil attached to it, to the rector’s eldest daughter, who was sitting at her right hand on a stool. The second of the young ladies knelt on the other side, with both her arms round the dog’s neck; holding him back as he stood in front of the child, so as to prevent him from licking her face, which he had made several resolute attempts to do, from the moment when she first entered the room. Both the Doctor’s daughters were healthy, rosy English beauties in the first bloom of girlhood; and both were attired in the simplest and prettiest muslin dresses, very delicate in color and pattern. Pity and admiration, mixed with some little perplexity and confusion, gave an unusual animation to their expressions; for they could hardly accustom themselves as yet to the idea of the poor child’s calamity. They talked to her eagerly, as if she could hear and answer them—while she, on her part, stood looking alternately from one to the other, watching their lips and eyes intently, and still holding out the slate, with her innocent gesture of invitation and gentle look of apology, for the eldest girl to write on. The varying expressions of the three; the difference in their positions, the charming contrast between their light, graceful figures and the bulky strength and grand solidity of form in the noble Newfoundland dog who stood among them; the lustrous background of lawn and flowers and trees, seen through the open window; the sparkling purity of the sunshine which fell brightly over one part of the group; the transparency of the warm shadows that lay so caressingly, sometimes on a round smooth cheek, sometimes over ringlets of glistening hair, sometimes on the crisp folds of a muslin dress—all these accidental combinations of the moment, these natural and elegant positions of nature’s setting, these accessories of light and shade and background garden objects beautifully and tenderly filling up the scene, presented together a picture which it was a luxury to be able to look on, which it seemed little short of absolute profanation to disturb.Here Valentine remained, working industriously, until his twenty-first birthday. On that occasion, Mr. Blyth had a little serious talk with him about his prospects in life. In the course of this conversation, the young man was informed that a rich merchant-uncle was ready to take him into partnership; and that his father was equally ready to start him in business with his whole share, as one of three children, in the comfortable inheritance acquired for the family by the well-known City house of Blyth and Company. If Valentine consented to this arrangement, his fortune was secured, and he might ride in his carriage before he was thirty. If, on the other hand, he really chose to fling away a fortune, he should not be pinched for means to carry on his studies as a painter. The interest of his inheritance on his father’s death, should be paid quarterly to him during his father’s lifetime: the annual independence thus secured to the young artist, under any circumstances, being calculated as amounting to a little over four hundred pounds a year.

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“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.”“Who is he? What’s his name?”

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