Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IX. The Tribulations of Zack.

A week elapsed before Mrs. Blyth’s wavering health permitted her husband to open the sittings of his evening drawing-academy in the invalid room.

During every day of that week, the chances of taming down Zack into a reformed character grew steadily more and more hopeless. The lad’s home-position, at this period, claims a moment’s serious attention. Zack’s resistance to his father’s infatuated severity was now shortly to end in results of the last importance to himself, to his family, and to his friends.

A specimen has already been presented of Mr. Thorpe’s method of religiously educating his son, at six years old, by making him attend a church service of two hours in length; as, also, of the manner in which he sought to drill the child into premature discipline by dint of Sabbath restrictions and Select Bible Texts. When that child grew to a boy, and when the boy developed to a young man, Mr. Thorpe’s educational system still resolutely persisted in being what it had always been from the first. His idea of Religion defined it to be a system of prohibitions; and, by a natural consequence, his idea of Education defined that to be a system of prohibitions also.

His method of bringing up his son once settled, no earthly consideration could move him from it an inch, one way or the other. He had two favorite phrases to answer every form of objection, every variety of reasoning, every citation of examples. No matter with what arguments the surviving members of Mrs. Thorpe’s family from time to time assailed him, the same two replies were invariably shot back at them in turn from the parental quiver. Mr. Thorpe calmly — always calmly — said, first, that he “would never compound with vice” (which was what nobody asked him to do), and, secondly, that he would, in no instance, great or small, “consent to act from a principle of expediency:” this last assertion, in the case of Zack, being about equivalent to saying that if he set out to walk due north, and met a lively young bull galloping with his head down, due south, he would not consent to save his own bones, or yield the animal space enough to run on, by stepping aside a single inch in a lateral direction, east or west.

“My son requires the most unremitting parental discipline and control,” Mr. Thorpe remarked, in explanation of his motives for forcing Zack to adopt a commercial career. “When he is not under my own eye at home, he must be under the eyes of devout friends, in whom I can place unlimited confidence. One of these devout friends is ready to receive him into his counting-house; to keep him industriously occupied from nine in the morning till six in the evening; to surround him with estimable examples; and, in short, to share with me the solemn responsibility of managing his moral and religious training. Persons who ask me to allow motives of this awfully important nature to be modified in the smallest degree by any considerations connected with the lad’s natural disposition (which has been a source of grief to me from his childhood) with his bodily gifts of the flesh (which have hitherto only served to keep him from the cultivation of the gifts of the spirit); or with his own desires (which I know by bitter experience to be all of the world, worldly); — persons, I say, who ask me to do any of these things, ask me also to act from a godless principle of expediency, and to violate moral rectitude by impiously compounding with vice.”

Acting on such principles of parental discipline as these, Mr. Thorpe conscientiously believed that he had done his duty, when he had at last forced his son into the merchant’s office. He had, in truth, perpetrated one of the most serious mistakes which it is possible for a wrong-headed father to commit. For once, Zack had not exaggerated in saying that his aversion to employment in a counting-house amounted to absolute horror. His physical peculiarities, and the habits which they had entailed on him from boyhood, made life in the open air, and the constant use of his hardy thews and sinews a constitutional necessity. He felt — and there was no self-delusion in the feeling — that he should mope and pine, like a wild animal in a cage, under confinement in an office, only varied from morning to evening by commercial walking expeditions of a miserable mile or two in close and crowded streets. These forebodings — to say nothing of his natural yearning towards adventure, change of scene, and exhilarating bodily exertion — would have been sufficient of themselves to have decided him to leave his home, and battle his way through the world (he cared not where or how, so long as he battled it freely), but for one consideration. Reckless as he was, that consideration stayed his feet on the brink of a sacred threshold which he dared not pass, perhaps to leave it behind him for ever — the threshold of his mother’s door.

Strangely as it expressed itself, and irregularly as it influenced his conduct, Zack’s love for his mother was yet, in its own nature, a beautiful and admirable element in his character; full of promise for the future, if his father had been able to discover it, and had been wise enough to be guided by the discovery. As to outward expression, the lad’s fondness for Mrs. Thorpe was a wild, boisterous, inconsiderate, unsentimental fondness, noisily in harmony with his thoughtless, rattle-pated disposition. It swayed him by fits and starts; influencing him nobly to patience and forbearance at one time; abandoning him, to all appearance, at another. But it was genuine, ineradicable fondness, nevertheless — however often heedlessness and temptation might overpower the still small voice in which its impulses spoke to his conscience, and pleaded with his heart.

Among other unlucky results of Mr. Thorpe’s conscientious imprisonment of his son in a merchant’s office, was the vast increase which Zack’s commercial penance produced in his natural appetite for the amusements and dissipations of the town. After nine hours of the most ungrateful daily labor that could well have been inflicted on him, the sight of play-bills and other wayside advertisements of places of public recreation appealed to him on his way home, with irresistible fascination.

Mr. Thorpe drew the line of demarcation between permissible and forbidden evening amusements at the lecture-rooms of the Royal and Polytechnic Institutions, and the oratorio performances in Exeter Hall. All gates opening on the outer side of the boundary thus laid down, were gates of Vice — gates that no son of his should ever be allowed to pass. The domestic laws which obliged Zack to be home every night at eleven o’clock, and forbade the possession of a door-key, were directed especially to the purpose of closing up against him the forbidden entrances to theaters and public gardens — places of resort which Mr. Thorpe characterized, in a strain of devout allegory, as “Labyrinths of National Infamy.” It was perfectly useless to suggest to the father (as some of Zack’s maternal relatives did suggest to him), that the son was originally descended from Eve, and was consequently possessed of an hereditary tendency to pluck at forbidden fruit; and that his disposition and age made it next to a certainty, that if he were restrained from enjoying openly the amusements most attractive to him, he would probably end in enjoying them by stealth. Mr. Thorpe met all arguments of this kind by registering his usual protest against “compounding with vice;” and then drew the reins of discipline tighter than ever, by way of warning off all intrusive hands from attempting to relax them for the future.

Before long, the evil results predicted by the opponents of the father’s plan for preventing the son from indulging in public amusements, actually occurred. At first, Zack gratified his taste for the drama, by going to the theater whenever he felt inclined; leaving the performances early enough to get home by eleven o’clock, and candidly acknowledging how he had occupied the evening, when the question was asked at breakfast the next morning. This frankness of confession was always rewarded by rebukes, threats, and reiterated prohibitions, administered by Mr. Thorpe with a crushing assumption of superiority to every mitigating argument, entreaty, or excuse that his son could urge, which often irritated Zack into answering defiantly, and recklessly repeating his offense. Finding that all menaces and reproofs only ended in making the lad ill-tempered and insubordinate for days together, Mr. Thorpe so far distrusted his own powers of correction as to call in the aid of his prime clerical adviser, the Reverend Aaron Yollop; under whose ministry he sat, and whose portrait, in lithograph, hung in the best light on the dining-room wall at Baregrove Square.

Mr. Yollop’s interference was at least weighty enough to produce a positive and immediate result: it drove Zack to the very last limits of human endurance. The reverend gentleman’s imperturbable self possession defied the young rebel’s utmost powers of irritating reply, no matter how vigorously he might exert them. Once vested with the paternal commission to rebuke, prohibit, and lecture, as the spiritual pastor and master of Mr. Thorpe’s disobedient son, Mr. Yollop flourished in his new vocation in exact proportion to the resistance offered to the exercise of his authority. He derived a grim encouragement from the wildest explosions of Zack’s fury at being interfered with by a man who had no claim of relationship over him, and who gloried, professionally, in experimenting on him, as a finely-complicated case of spiritual disease. Thrice did Mr. Yollop, in his capacity of a moral surgeon, operate on his patient, and triumph in the responsive yells which his curative exertions elicited. At the fourth visit of attendance, however, every angry symptom suddenly and marvelously disappeared before the first significant flourish of the clerical knife. Mr. Yollop had triumphed where Mr. Thorpe had failed! The case which had defied lay treatment had yielded to the parsonic process of cure; and Zack, the rebellious, was tamed at last into spending his evenings in decorous dullness at home!

It never occurred to Mr. Yollop to doubt, or to Mr. Thorpe to ascertain, whether the young gentleman really went to bed, after he had retired obediently, at the proper hour, to his sleeping room. They saw him come home from business sullenly docile and speechlessly subdued, take his dinner and his book in the evening, and go up stairs quietly, after the house door had been bolted for the night. They saw him thus acknowledge, by every outward proof, that he was crushed into thorough submission; and the sight satisfied them to their heart’s content. No men are so short-sighted as persecuting men. Both Mr. Thorpe and his coadjutor were persecutors on principle, wherever they encountered opposition; and both were consequently incapable of looking beyond immediate results. The sad truth was, however, that they had done something more than discipline the lad. They had fairly worried his native virtues of frankness and fair-dealing out of his heart; they had beaten him back, inch by inch, into the miry refuge of sheer duplicity. Zack was deceiving them both.

Eleven o’clock was the family hour for going to bed at Baregrove Square. Zack’s first proceeding on entering his room was to open his window softly, put on an old traveling cap, and light a cigar. It was December weather at that time; but his hardy constitution rendered him as impervious to cold as a young Polar bear. Having smoked quietly for half an hour, he listened at his door till the silence in Mr. Thorpe’s dressing-room below assured him that his father was safe in bed, and invited him to descend on tiptoe — with his boots under his arm — into the hall. Here he placed his candle, with a box of matches by it, on a chair, and proceeded to open the house door with the noiseless dexterity of a practiced burglar — being always careful to facilitate the safe performance of this dangerous operation by keeping lock, bolt, and hinges well oiled. Having secured the key, blown out the candle, and noiselessly closed the door behind him, he left the house, and started for the Haymarket, Covent Garden, or the Strand, a little before midnight — or, in other words, set forth on a nocturnal tour of amusement, just at the time when the doors of respectable places of public recreation (which his father prevented him from attending) were all closed, and the doors of disreputable places all thrown open.

One precaution, and one only, did Zack observe while enjoying the dangerous diversions into which paternal prohibitions, assisted by filial perversity, now thrust him headlong, He took care to keep sober enough to be sure of getting home before the servants had risen, and to be certain of preserving his steadiness of hand and stealthiness of foot, while bolting the door and stealing up stairs for an hour or two of bed. Knowledge of his own perilous weakness of brain, as a drinker, rendered him thus uncharacteristically temperate and self-restrained, so far as indulgence in strong liquor was concerned. His first glass of grog comforted him; his second agreeably excited him; his third (as he knew by former experience) reached his weak point on a sudden, and robbed him treacherously of his sobriety.

Three or four times a week, for nearly a month, had he now enjoyed his unhallowed nocturnal rambles with perfect impunity — keeping them secret even from his friend Mr. Blyth, whose toleration, expansive as it was, he well knew would not extend to viewing leniently such offenses as haunting night-houses at two in the morning, while his father believed him to be safe in bed. But one mitigating circumstance can be urged in connection with the course of misconduct which he was now habitually following. He had still grace enough left to feel ashamed of his own successful duplicity, when he was in his mother’s presence.

But circumstances unhappily kept him too much apart from Mrs. Thorpe, and so prevented the natural growth of a good feeling, which flourished only under her influence: and which, had it been suffered to arrive at maturity, might have led to his reform. All day he was at the office, and his irksome life there only inclined him to look forward with malicious triumph to the secret frolic of the night. Then, in the evening, Mr. Thorpe often thought it advisable to harangue him seriously, by way of not letting the reformed rake relapse for want of a little encouraging admonition of the moral sort. Nor was Mr. Yollop at all behindhand in taking similar precautions to secure the new convert permanently, after having once caught him. Every word these two gentlemen spoke only served to harden the lad afresh, and to deaden the reproving and reclaiming influence of his mother’s affectionate looks and confiding words. “I should get nothing by it, even if I could turn over a new leaf;” thought Zack, shrewdly and angrily, when his father or his father’s friend favored him with a little improving advice: “Here they are, worrying away again already at their pattern good boy, to make him a better.”

Such was the point at which the Tribulations of Zack had arrived, at the period when Mr. Valentine Blyth resolved to set up a domestic Drawing Academy in his wife’s room; with the double purpose of amusing his family circle in the evening, and reforming his wild young friend by teaching him to draw from the “glorious Antique.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book1.9.html

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