Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VIII. Mentor and Telemachus.

It is now some time since we left Mr. Blyth and Madonna in the studio. The first was engaged, it may be remembered, in the process of brushing up Bacchanalian Nymphs in the foreground of a Classical landscape. The second was modestly occupied in making a copy of the head of the Venus de’ Medici.

The clock strikes one — and a furious ring is heard at the house-bell.

“There he is!” cries Mr. Blyth to himself. “There’s Zack! I know his ring among a thousand; it’s worse even than the postman’s; it’s like an alarm of fire!”

Here Valentine drums gently with his mahl-stick on the floor. Madonna looks towards him directly; he waves his hand round and round rapidly above his head. This is the sign which means “Zack.” The girl smiles brightly, and blushes as she sees it. Zack is apparently one of her special favorites.

While the young gentleman is being admitted at the garden gate, there is a leisure moment to explain how he became acquainted with Mr. Blyth.

Valentine’s father, and Mrs. Thorpe’s father (the identical Mr. Goodworth who figures at the beginning of this narrative as one of the actors in the Sunday Drama at Baregrove Square), had been intimate associates of the drowsy-story-telling and copious-port-drinking old school. The friendly intercourse between these gentlemen spread, naturally enough, to the sons and daughters who formed their respective families. From the time of Mr. Thorpe’s marriage to Miss Goodworth, however, the connection between the junior Goodworths and Blyths began to grow less intimate — so far, at least, as the new bride and Valentine were concerned. The rigid modern Puritan of Baregrove Square, and the eccentric votary of the Fine Arts, mutually disapproved of each other from the very first. Visits of ceremony were exchanged at long intervals; but even these were discontinued on Madonna’s arrival under Valentine’s roof: Mr. Thorpe being one of the first of the charitable friends of the family who suspected her to be the painter’s natural child. An almost complete separation accordingly ensued for some years, until Zack grew up to boy’s estate, and was taken to see Valentine, one day in holiday time, by his grandfather. He and the painter became friends directly. Mr. Blyth liked boys, and boys of all degrees liked him. From this time, Zack frequented Valentine’s house at every opportunity, and never neglected his artist-friend in after years. At the date of this story, one of the many points in his son’s conduct of which Mr. Thorpe disapproved on the highest moral grounds, was the firm determination the lad showed to keep up his intimacy with Mr. Blyth.

We may now get back to the ring at the bell.

Zack’s approach to the painting-room was heralded by a scuffling of feet, a loud noise of talking, and a great deal of suspicious giggling on the part of the housemaid, who had let him in. Suddenly these sounds ceased — the door was dashed open — and Mr. Thorpe, junior, burst into the room.

“Dear old Blyth! how are you?” cried Zack. “Have you had any leap-frog since I was here last? Jump up, and let’s celebrate my return to the painting-room with a bit of manly exercise in our old way. Come on! I’ll give the first back. No shirking! Put down your palette; and one, two, three — and over!”

Pronouncing these words, Zack ran to the end of the room opposite to Valentine; and signalized his entry into the studio by the extraordinary process of giving its owner, what is termed in the technical language of leap-frog, “a capital back.”

Mr. Blyth put down his palette, brushes, and mahl-stick — tucked up his cuffs and smiled — took a little trial skip into the air — and, running down the room with the slightly tremulous step of a gentleman of fifty, cleared Zack in gallant style; fell over on the other side, all in a lump on his hands and feet; gave the return “back” conscientiously, at the other end of the studio; and was leapt over in an instant, with a shout of triumph, by Zack. The athletic ceremonies thus concluded, the two stood up together and shook hands heartily.

“Too stiff, Blyth — too stiff and shaky by half,” said young Thorpe. “I haven’t kept you up enough in your gymnastics lately. We must have some more leap-frog in the garden; and I’ll bring my boxing gloves next time, and open your chest by teaching you to fight. Splendid exercise, and so good for your sluggish old liver.”

Delivering this opinion, Zack ran off to Madonna, who had been keeping the Venus de’ Medici from being shaken down, while she looked on at the leap-frog. “How is the dearest, prettiest, gentlest love in the world?” cried Zack, taking her hand, and kissing it with boisterous fondness. “Ah! she lets other old friends kiss her cheek, and only lets me kiss her hand! — I say, Blyth, what a little witch she is — I’ll lay you two to one she’s guessed what I’ve just been saying to her.”

A bright flush overspread the girl’s face while Zack addressed her. Her tender blue eyes looked up at him, shyly conscious of the pleasure that their expression was betraying; and the neat folds of her pretty grey dress, which had lain so still over her bosom when she was drawing, began to rise and fall gently now, when Zack was holding her hand. If young Thorpe had not been the most thoughtless of human beings — as much a boy still, in many respects, as when he was locked up in his father’s dressing-room for bad behavior at church — he might have guessed long ago why he was the only one of Madonna’s old friends whom she did not permit to kiss her on the cheek!

But Zack neither guessed, nor thought of guessing, anything of this sort. His flighty thoughts flew off in a moment from the young lady to his cigar-case; and he walked away to the hearth-rug, twisting up a piece of waste paper into a lighter as he went.

When Madonna returned to her drawing, her eyes wandered timidly once or twice to the place where Zack was standing, when she thought he was not looking at her; and, assuredly, so far as personal appearance was concerned, young Thorpe was handsome enough to tempt any woman into glancing at him with approving eyes. He was over six feet in height; and, though then little more than nineteen years old, was well developed in proportion to his stature. His boxing, rowing, and other athletic exercises had done wonders towards bringing his naturally vigorous, upright frame to the perfection of healthy muscular condition. Tall and strong as he was, there was nothing stiff or ungainly in his movements, He trod easily and lightly, with a certain youthful suppleness and hardy grace in all his actions, which set off his fine bodily formation to the best advantage. He had keen, quick, mischievous grey eyes — a thoroughly English red and white complexion — admirably bright and regular teeth — and curly light brown hair, with a very peculiar golden tinge in it, which was only visible when his head was placed in a particular light. In short, Zack was a manly, handsome fellow, a thorough Saxon, every inch of him; and (physically speaking at least) a credit to the parents and the country that had given him birth.

“I say, Blyth, do you and Madonna mind smoke?” asked Zack, lighting his cigar before there was time to answer him.

“No — no,” said Valentine. “But, Zack, you wrote me word that your father had taken all your cigars away from you — ”

“So he has, and all my pocket-money too. But I’ve taken to helping myself, and I’ve got some splendid cigars. Try one, Blyth,” said the young gentleman, luxuriously puffing out a stream of smoke through each nostril.

“Taken to helping yourself!” exclaimed Mr. Blyth. “What do you mean?”

“Oh!” said Zack, “don’t be afraid. It’s not thieving — it’s only barter. Look here, my dear fellow, this is how it is. A friend of mine, a junior clerk in our office, has three dozen cigars, and I have two staring flannel shirts, which are only fit for a snob to wear. The junior clerk gives me the three dozen cigars, and I give the junior clerk the two staring flannel shirts. That’s barter, and barter’s commerce, old boy! it’s all my father’s fault; he will make a tradesman of me. Dutiful behavior, isn’t it, to be doing a bit of commerce already on my own account?”

“I’ll tell you what, Zack,” said Mr. Blyth, “I don’t like the way you’re going on in at all. Your last letter made me very uneasy, I can promise you.”

“You can’t be half as uneasy as I am,” rejoined Zack. “I’m jolly enough here, to be sure, because I can’t help it somehow; but at home I’m the most miserable devil on the face of the earth. My father baulks me in everything, and makes me turn hypocrite, and take him in, in all sorts of ways — which I hate myself for doing; and yet can’t help doing, because he forces me to it. Why does he want to make me live in the same slow way that he does himself? There’s some difference in our ages, I rather think! Why does he bully me about being always home by eleven o’clock? Why does he force me into a tea-merchant’s office, when I want to be an artist, like you? I’m a perfect slave to commerce already. What do you think? I’m supposed to be sampling in the city at this very moment. The junior clerk’s doing the work for me; and he’s to have one of my dress-waistcoats to compensate him for the trouble. First my shirts; then my waistcoat; then my — confound it, sir, I shall be stripped to the skin, if this sort of thing goes on much longer!”

“Gently, Zack, gently. What would your father say if he heard you?”

“Oh, yes! it’s all very well, you old humbug, to shake your head at me; but you wouldn’t like being forced into an infernal tea-shop, and having all your pocket-money stopped, if it was your case. I won’t stand it — I have the patience of Job — but I won’t stand it! My mind’s made up: I want to be an artist, and I will be an artist. Don’t lecture, Blyth — it’s no use; but just tell me how I’m to begin learning to draw.”

Here Zack cunningly touched Valentine on his weak point. Art was his grand topic; and to ask his advice on that subject was to administer the sweetest flattery to his professional pride. He wheeled his chair round directly, so as to face young Thorpe. “If you’re really set on being an artist,” he began enthusiastically, “I rather fancy, Master Zack, I’m the man to help you. First of all, you must purify your taste by copying the glorious works of Greek sculpture — in short, you must form yourself on the Antique. Look there! — just what Madonna’s doing now; she’s forming herself on the Antique.”

Zack went immediately to look at Madonna’s drawing, the outline of which was now finished. “Beautiful! Splendid! Ah! confound it! yes! the glorious Greeks, and so forth, just as you say, Blyth. A most wonderful drawing! the finest thing of the kind I ever saw in my life!” Here he transferred his superlatives to his fingers, communicating them to Madonna through the medium of the deaf and dumb alphabet, which he had superficially mastered with extraordinary rapidity under Mr. and Mrs. Blyth’s tuition. Whatever Zack’s friends did Zack always admired with the wildest enthusiasm, and without an instant’s previous consideration. Any knowledge of what he praised, or why he praised it, was a slight superfluity of which he never felt the want. If Madonna had been a great astronomer, and had shown him pages of mathematical calculations, he would have overwhelmed her with eulogies just as glibly as — by means of the finger alphabet — he was overwhelming her now.

But Valentine’s pupil was used to be criticized as well as praised; and her head was in no danger of being turned by Zack’s admiration of her drawing. Looking up at him with a sly expression of incredulity, she signed these words in reply:— “I am afraid it ought to be a much better drawing than it is. Do you really like it?” Zack rejoined impetuously by a fresh torrent of superlatives. She watched his face, for a moment, rather anxiously and inquiringly, then bent down quickly over her drawing. He walked back to Valentine. Her eyes followed him — then returned once more to the paper before her. The color began to rise again in her cheek; a thoughtful expression stole calmly over her clear, happy eyes; she played nervously with the port-crayon that held her black and white chalk; looked attentively at the drawing; and, smiling very prettily at some fancy of her own, proceeded assiduously with her employment, altering and amending, as she went on, with more than usual industry and care.

What was Madonna thinking of? If she had been willing, and able, to utter her thoughts, she might have expressed them thus: “I wonder whether he likes my drawing? Shall I try hard if I can’t make it better worth pleasing him? I will! it shall be the best thing I have ever done. And then, when it is nicely finished, I will take it secretly to Mrs. Blyth to give from me, as my present to Zack.”

“Look there,” said Valentine, turning from his picture towards Madonna, “look, my boy, how carefully that dear good girl there is working from the Antique! Only copy her example, and you may be able to draw from the life in less than a year’s time.”

“You don’t say so? I should like to sit down and begin at once. But, look here, Blyth, when you say ‘draw from the life,’ there can’t be the smallest doubt, of course, about what you mean — but, at the same time, if you would only be a little less professional in your way of expressing yourself — ”

“Good heavens, Zack, in what barbarous ignorance of art your parents must have brought you up! ‘Drawing from the life,’ means drawing the living human figure from the living human being which sits at a shilling an hour, and calls itself a model.”

“Ah, to be sure! Some of these very models whose names are chalked up here over your fireplace? — Delightful! Glorious! Drawing from the life — just the very thing I long for most. Hullo!” exclaimed Zack, reading the memoranda, which it was Mr. Blyth’s habit to scrawl, as they occurred to him, on the wall over the chimney-piece — “Hullo! here’s a woman-model; ‘Amelia Bibby’ — Blyth! let me dash at once into drawing from the life, and let me begin with Amelia Bibby.”

“Nothing of the sort, Master Zack,” said Valentine. “You may end with Amelia Bibby, when you are fit to study at the Royal Academy. She’s a capital model, and so is her sister, Sophia. The worst of it is, they quarreled mortally a little while ago; and now, if an artist has Sophia, Amelia won’t come to him. And Sophia of course returns the compliment, and won’t sit to Amelia’s friends. It’s awkward for people who used to employ them both, as I did.”

“What did they quarrel about?” inquired Zack.

“About a tea-pot,” answered Mr. Blyth. “You see, they are daughters of one of the late king’s footmen, and are desperately proud of their aristocratic origin. They used to live together as happy as birds, without a hard word ever being spoken between them, till, one day, they happened to break their tea-pot, which of course set them talking about getting a new one. Sophia said it ought to be earthenware, like the last; Amelia contradicted her, and said it ought to be metal. Sophia said all the aristocracy used earthenware; Amelia said all the aristocracy used metal. Sophia said she was oldest, and knew best; Amelia said she was youngest, and knew better. Sophia said Amelia was an impudent jackanapes; Amelia said Sophia was a plebeian wretch. From that moment, they parted. Sophia sits in her own lodging, and drinks tea out of earthenware; Amelia sits in her own lodging, and drinks tea out of metal. They swear never to make it up, and abuse each other furiously to everybody who will listen to them. Very shocking, and very curious at the same time — isn’t it, Zack?”

“Oh, capital! A perfect picture of human nature to us men of the world,” exclaimed the young gentleman, smoking with the air of a profound philosopher. “But tell me, Blyth, which is the prettiest, Amelia or Sophia? Metal or Earthenware? My mind’s made up, beforehand, to study from the best-looking of the two, if you have no objection.”

“I have the strongest possible objection, Zack, to talking nonsense where a serious question is concerned. Are you, or are you not, in earnest in your dislike of commerce and your resolution to be an artist?”

“I mean to be a painter, or I mean to leave home,” answered Zack, resolutely. “If you don’t help me, I’ll be off as sure as fate! I have half a mind to cut the office from this moment. Lend me a shilling, Blyth; and I’ll toss up for it. Heads — liberty and the fine arts! Tails — the tea-merchant!”

“If you don’t go back to the City to-day,” said Valentine, “and stick to your engagements, I wash my hands of you — but if you wait patiently, and promise to show all the attention you can to your father’s wishes, I’ll teach you myself to draw from the Antique. If somebody can be found who has influence enough with your father to get him to enter you at the Royal Academy, you must be prepared beforehand with a drawing that’s fit to show. Now, if you promise to be a good boy, you shall come here, and learn the A B C of Art, every evening if you like. We’ll have a regular little academy,” continued Valentine, putting down his palette and brushes, and rubbing his hands in high glee; “and if it isn’t too much for Lavvie, the evening studies shall take place in her room; and she shall draw, poor dear soul, as well as the rest of us. There’s an idea for you, Zack! Mr. Blyth’s Drawing Academy, open every evening — with light refreshment for industrious students. What do you say to it?”

“Say? by George, sir, I’ll come every night, and get through acres of chalk and miles of drawing paper!” cried Zack, catching all Valentine’s enthusiasm on the instant. “Let’s go up stairs and tell Mrs. Blyth about it directly.”

“Stop a minute, Zack,” interposed Mr. Blyth. “What time ought you to be back in the City? it’s close on two o’clock now.”

“Oh! three o’clock will do. I’ve got lots of time, yet — I can walk it in half-an-hour.”

“You have got about ten minutes more to stay,” said Valentine in his firmest manner. “Occupy them if you like, in going up stairs to Mrs. Blyth, and take Madonna with you. I’ll follow as soon as I’ve put away my brushes.”

Saying those words, Mr. Blyth walked to the place where Madonna was still at work. She was so deeply engaged over her drawing that she had never once looked up from it, for the last quarter-of-an-hour, or more; and when Valentine patted her shoulder approvingly, and made her a sign to leave off, she answered by a gesture of entreaty, which eloquently enough implored him to let her proceed a little longer with her employment. She had never at other times claimed an indulgence of this kind, when she was drawing from the Antique — but then, she had never, at other times, been occupied in making a copy which was secretly intended as a present for Zack.

Valentine, however, easily induced her to relinquish her port-crayon. He laid his hand on his heart, which was the sign that had been adopted to indicate Mrs. Blyth. Madonna started up, and put her drawing materials aside immediately.

Zack, having thrown away the end of his cigar, gallantly advanced and offered her his arm. As she approached, rather shyly, to take it, he also laid his hand on his heart, and pointed up stairs. The gesture was quite enough for her. She understood at once that they were going together to see Mrs. Blyth.

“Whether Zack really turns out a painter or not,” said Valentine to himself, as the door closed on the two young people, “I believe I have hit on the best plan that ever was devised for keeping him steady. As long as he comes to me regularly, he can’t break out at night, and get into mischief. Upon my word, the more I think of that notion of mine the better I like it. I shouldn’t at all wonder if my evening Academy doesn’t end in working the reformation of Zack!”

When Mr. Blyth pronounced those last words, if he could only have looked a little way into the future — if he could only have suspected how strangely the home-interests dearest to his heart were connected with his success in working the reformation of Zack — the smile which was now on his face would have left it in a moment; and, for the first time in his life, he would have sat before one of his own pictures in the character of an unhappy man.

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