Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Book II. The Seeking.

Chapter I. The Man with the Black Skull-Cap.

The Roman poet who, writing of vice, ascribed its influence entirely to the allurement of the fair disguises that it wore, and asserted that it only needed to be seen with the mask off to excite the hatred of all mankind, uttered a very plausible moral sentiment, which wants nothing to recommend it to the admiration of posterity but a seasoning of practical truth. Even in the most luxurious days of old Rome, it may safely be questioned whether vice could ever afford to disguise itself to win recruits, except from the wealthier classes of the population. But in these modern times it may be decidedly asserted as a fact, that vice, in accomplishing the vast majority of its seductions, uses no disguise at all; appears impudently in its naked deformity; and, instead of horrifying all beholders, in accordance with the prediction of the classical satirist, absolutely attracts a much more numerous congregation of worshippers than has ever yet been brought together by the divinest beauties that virtue can display for the allurement of mankind.

That famous place of public amusement known, a few years since, to the late-roaming youth of London by the name of the Snuggery, affords, among hosts of other instances which might be cited, a notable example to refute the assertion of the ancient poet. The place was principally devoted to the exhibition of musical talent, and opened at a period of the night when the performances at the theaters were over. The orchestral arrangements were comprised in one bad piano, to which were occasionally added, by way of increasing the attractions, performances on the banjo and guitar. All the singers were called “ladies and gentlemen;” and the one long room in which the performances took place was simply furnished with a double row of benches, bearing troughs at their backs for the reception of glasses of liquor.

Innocence itself must have seen at a glance that the Snuggery was an utterly vicious place. Vice never so much as thought of wearing any disguise here. No glimmer of wit played over the foul substance of the songs that were sung, and hid it in dazzle from too close observation. No relic of youth and freshness, no artfully-assumed innocence and vivacity, concealed the squalid deterioration of the worn-out human counterfeits which stood up to sing, and were coarsely painted and padded to look like fine women. Their fellow performers among the men were such sodden-faced blackguards as no shop-boy who applauded them at night would dare to walk out with in the morning. The place itself had as little of the allurement of elegance and beauty about it as the people. Here was no bright gilding on the ceiling — no charm of ornament, no comfort of construction even, in the furniture. Here were no viciously-attractive pictures on the walls — no enervating sweet odors in the atmosphere — no contrivances of ventilation to cleanse away the stench of bad tobacco-smoke and brandy-flavored human breath with which the room reeked all night long. Here, in short, was vice wholly undisguised; recklessly showing itself to every eye, without the varnish of beauty, without the tinsel of wit, without even so much as the flavor of cleanliness to recommend it. Were all beholders instinctively overcome by horror at the sight? Far from it. The Snuggery was crammed to its last benches every night; and the proprietor filled his pockets from the purses of applauding audiences. For, let classical moralists say what they may, vice gathers followers as easily, in modern times, with the mask off, as ever it gathered them in ancient times with the mask on.

It was two o’clock in the morning; and the entertainments in the Snuggery were fast rising to the climax of joviality. A favorite comic song had just been sung by a bloated old man with a bald head and a hairy chin. There was a brief lull of repose, before the amusements resumed their noisy progress. Orders for drink were flying abroad in all directions. Friends were talking at the tops of their voices, and strangers were staring at each other — except at the lower end of the room, where the whole attention of the company was concentrated strangely upon one man.

The person who thus attracted to himself the wandering curiosity of all his neighbors had come in late, had taken the first vacant place he could find near the door, and had sat there listening and looking about him very quietly. He drank and smoked like the rest of the company; but never applauded, never laughed, never exhibited the slightest symptom of astonishment, or pleasure, or impatience, or disgust — though it was evident, from his manner of entering and giving his orders to the waiters, that he visited the Snuggery that night for the first time.

He was not in mourning, for there was no band round his hat; but he was dressed nevertheless in a black frock-coat, waistcoat, and trousers, and wore black kid gloves. He seemed to be very little at his ease in this costume, moving his limbs, whenever he changed his position, as cautiously and constrainedly as if he had been clothed in gossamer instead of stout black broadcloth, shining with its first new gloss on it. His face was tanned to a perfectly Moorish brown, was scarred in two places by the marks of old wounds, and was overgrown by coarse, iron-grey whiskers, which met under his chin. His eyes were light, and rather large, and seemed to be always quietly but vigilantly on the watch. Indeed the whole expression of his face, coarse and heavy as it was in form, was remarkable for its acuteness, for its cool, collected penetration, for its habitually observant, passively-watchful look. Any one guessing at his calling from his manner and appearance would have set him down immediately as the captain of a merchantman, and would have been willing to lay any wager that he had been several times round the world.

But it was not his face, or his dress, or his manner, that drew on him the attention of all his neighbors; it was his head. Under his hat, (which was bran new, like everything else he wore), there appeared, fitting tight round his temples and behind his ears, a black velvet skull-cap. Not a vestige of hair peeped from under it. All round his head, as far as could be seen beneath his hat, which he wore far back over his coat collar, there was nothing but bare flesh, encircled by a rim of black velvet.

From a great proposal for reform, to a small eccentricity in costume, the English are the most intolerant people in the world, in their reception of anything which presents itself to them under the form of a perfect novelty. Let any man display a new project before the Parliament of England, or a new pair of light-green trousers before the inhabitants of London, let the project proclaim itself as useful to all listening ears, and the trousers eloquently assert themselves as beautiful to all beholding eyes, the nation will shrink suspiciously, nevertheless, both from the one and the other; will order the first to “lie on the table,” and will hoot, laugh, and stare at the second; will, in short, resent either novelty as an unwarrantable intrusion, for no other discernible reason than that people in general are not used to it.

Quietly as the strange man in black had taken his seat in the Snuggery, he and his skull-cap attracted general attention; and our national weakness displayed itself immediately.

Nobody paused to reflect that he probably wore his black velvet head-dress from necessity; nobody gave him credit for having objections to a wig, which might be perfectly sensible and well founded; and nobody, even in this free country, was liberal enough to consider that he had really as much right to put on a skull-cap under his hat if he chose, as any other man present had to put on a shirt under his waistcoat. The audience saw nothing but the novelty in the way of a head-dress which the stranger wore, and they resented it unanimously, because it was a novelty. First, they expressed this resentment by staring indignantly at him, then by laughing at him, then by making sarcastic remarks on him. He bore their ridicule with the most perfect and provoking coolness. He did not expostulate, or retort, or look angry, or grow red in the face, or fidget in his seat, or get up to go away. He just sat smoking and drinking as quietly as ever, not taking the slightest notice of any of the dozens of people who were all taking notice of him.

His unassailable composure only served to encourage his neighbors to take further liberties with him. One rickety little man, with a spirituous nose and watery eyes, urged on by some women near him, advanced to the stranger’s bench, and, expressing his admiration of a skull-cap as a becoming ornamental addition to a hat, announced, with a bow of mock politeness, his anxiety to feel the quality of the velvet. He stretched out his hand as he spoke, not a word of warning or expostulation being uttered by the victim of the intended insult; but the moment his fingers touched the skull-cap, the strange man, still without speaking, without even removing his cigar from his mouth, very deliberately threw all that remained of the glass of hot brandy and water before him in the rickety gentleman’s face.

With a scream of pain as the hot liquor flew into his eyes, the miserable little man struck out helplessly with both his fists, and fell down between the benches. A friend who was with him, advanced to avenge his injuries, and was thrown sprawling on the floor. Yells of “Turn him out!” and “Police!” followed; people at the other end of the room jumped up excitably on their seats; the women screamed, the men shouted and swore, glasses were broken, sticks were waved, benches were cracked, and, in one instant, the stranger was assailed by every one of his neighbors who could get near him, on pretense of turning him out.

Just as it seemed a matter of certainty that he must yield to numbers, in spite of his gallant resistance, and be hurled out of the door down the flight of stairs that led to it, a tall young gentleman, with a quantity of light curly hair on his hatless head, leapt up on one of the benches at the opposite side of the gangway running down the middle of the room, and apostrophized the company around him with vehement fistic gesticulation. Alas for the tranquillity of parents with pleasure-loving sons! — alas for Mr. Valentine Blyth’s idea of teaching his pupil to be steady, by teaching him to draw! — this furious young gentleman was no other than Mr. Zachary Thorpe, Junior, of Baregrove Square.

“Damn you all, you cowardly counter-jumping scoundrels!” roared Zack, his eyes aflame with valor, generosity, and gin-and-water. “What do you mean by setting on one man in that way? Hit out, sir — hit out right and left! I saw you insulted; and I’m coming to help you!”

With these words Zack tucked up his cuffs, and jumped into the crowd about him. His height, strength, and science as a boxer carried him triumphantly to the opposite bench. Two or three blows on the ribs, and one on the nose which drew blood plentifully, only served to stimulate his ardor and increase the pugilistic ferocity of his expression. In a minute he was by the side of the man with the skull-cap; and the two were fighting back to back, amid roars of applause from the audience at the upper end of the room, who were only spectators of the disturbance.

In the meantime the police had been summoned. But the waiters down-stairs, in their anxiety to see a struggle between two men on one side, and somewhere about two dozen on the other, had neglected to close the street door. The consequence was, that all the cabmen on the stand outside, and all the vagabond night-idlers in the vagabond neighborhood of the Snuggery, poured into the narrow passage, and got up an impromptu riot of their own with the waiters, who tried, too late, to turn them out. Just as the police were forcing their way through the throng below, Zack and the stranger had fought their way out of the throng above, and had got clear of the room.

On the right of the landing, as they approached it, was a door, through which the man with the skull-cap now darted, dragging Zack after him. His temper was just as cool, his quick eye just as vigilant as ever. The key of the door was inside. He locked it, amid a roar of applauding laughter from the people on the staircase, mixed with cries of “Police!” and “Stop ’em in the Court!” from the waiters. The two then descended a steep flight of stairs at headlong speed, and found themselves in a kitchen, confronting an astonished man cook and two female servants. Zack knocked the man down before he could use the rolling-pin which he had snatched up on their appearance; while the stranger coolly took a hat that stood on the dresser, and jammed it tight with one smack of his large hand on young Thorpe’s bare head. The next moment they were out in a court into which the kitchen opened, and were running at the top of their speed.

The police, on their side, lost no time; but they had to get out of the crowd in the passage and go round the front of the house, before they could arrive at the turning which led into the court from the street. This gave the fugitives a start; and the neighborhood of alleys, lanes, and by-streets in which their flight immediately involved them, was the neighborhood of all others to favor their escape. While the springing of rattles and the cries of “Stop thief!” were rending the frosty night air in one direction, Zack and the stranger were walking away quietly, arm in arm, in the other.

The man with the skull-cap had taken the lead hitherto, and he took it still; though, from the manner in which he stared about him at corners of streets, and involved himself and his companion every now and then in blind alleys, it was clear enough that he was quite unfamiliar with the part of the town through which they were now walking. Zack, having treated himself that night to his fatal third glass of grog, and having finished half of it before the fight began, was by this time in no condition to care about following any particular path in the great labyrinth of London. He walked on, talking thickly and incessantly to the stranger, who never once answered him. It was of no use to applaud his bravery; to criticize his style of fighting, which was anything but scientific; to express astonishment at his skill in knocking his hat on again, all through the struggle, every time it was knocked off; and to declare admiration of his quickness in taking the cook’s hat to cover his companion’s bare head, which might have exposed him to suspicion and capture as he passed through the streets. It was of no use to speak on these subjects, or on any others. The imperturbable hero who had not uttered a word all through the fight, was as imperturbable as ever, and would not utter a word after it.

They strayed at last into Fleet Street, and walked to the foot of Ludgate Hill. Here the stranger stopped — glanced towards the open space on the right, where the river ran — gave a rough gasp of relief and satisfaction — and made directly for Blackfriars bridge. He led Zack, who was still thick in his utterance, and unsteady on his legs, to the parapet wall; let go of his arm there, and looking steadily in his face by the light of the gas-lamp, addressed him, for the first time, in a remarkably grave, deliberate voice, and in these words:

“Now, then, young ’un, suppose you pull a breath, and wipe that bloody nose of yours.”

Zack, instead of resenting this unceremonious manner of speaking to him — which he might have done, had he been sober — burst into a frantic fit of laughter. The remarkable gravity and composure of the stranger’s tone and manner, contrasted with the oddity of the proposition by which he opened the conversation, would have been irresistibly ludicrous even to a man whose faculties were not in an intoxicated condition.

While Zack was laughing till the tears rolled down his cheeks, his odd companion was leaning over the parapet of the bridge, and pulling off his black kid gloves, which had suffered considerably during the progress of the fight. Having rolled them up into a ball, he jerked them contemptuously into the river.

“There goes the first pair of gloves as ever I had on, and the last as ever I mean to wear,” he said, spreading out his brawny hands to the sharp night breeze.

Young Thorpe heaved a few last expiring gasps of laughter; then became quiet and serious from sheer exhaustion.

“Go it again,” said the man of the skull-cap, staring at him as gravely as ever, “I like to hear you.”

“I can’t go it again,” answered Zack faintly; “I’m out of breath. I say, old boy, you’re quite a character! Who are you?”

“I ain’t nobody in particular; and I don’t know as I’ve got a single friend to care about who I am, in all England,” replied the other. “Give us your hand, young ’un! In the foreign parts where I come from, when one man stands by another, as you’ve stood by me to-night, them two are brothers together afterwards. You needn’t be a brother to me, if you don’t like. I mean to be a brother to you, whether you like it or not. My name’s Mat. What’s your’s?”

“Zack,” returned young Thorpe, clapping his new acquaintance on the back with brotherly familiarity already. “You’re a glorious fellow; and I like your way of talking. Where do you come from, Mat? And what do you wear that queer cap under your hat for?”

“I come from America last,” replied Mat, as grave and deliberate as ever. “And I wear this cap because I haven’t got no scalp on my head.”

“What do you mean?” cried Zack, startled into temporary sobriety, and taking his hand off his new friend’s shoulder as quickly as if he had put it on red-hot iron.

“I always mean what I say,” continued Mat; “I’ve got that much good about me, if I haven’t got no more. Me and my scalp parted company years ago. I’m here, on a bridge in London, talking to a young chap of the name of Zack. My scalp’s on the top of a high pole in some Indian village, anywhere you like about the Amazon country. If there’s any puffs of wind going there, like there is here, it’s rattling just now, like a bit of dry parchment; and all my hair’s a flip-flapping about like a horse’s tail, when the flies is in season. I don’t know nothing more about my scalp or my hair than that. If you don’t believe me, just lay hold of my hat, and I’ll show you — ”

“No, thank you!” exclaimed Zack, recoiling from the offered hat. “I don’t want to see it. But how the deuce do you manage without a scalp? — I never heard of such a thing before in my life — how is it you’re not dead? eh?”

“It takes a deal more to kill a tough man than you London chaps think,” said Mat. “I was found before my head got cool, and plastered over with leaves and ointment. They’d left a bit of scalp at the back, being in rather too great a hurry to do their work as handily as usual; and a new skin growed over, after a little — a babyish sort of skin, that wasn’t half thick enough, and wouldn’t bear no new crop of hair. So I had to eke out and keep my head comfortable with an old yellow handkercher; which I always wore till I got to San Francisco, on my way back here. I met with a priest at San Francisco, who told me that I should look a little less like a savage, if I wore a skull-cap like his, instead of a handkercher, when I got back into what he called the civilized world. So I took his advice, and bought this cap. I suppose it looks better than my old yellow handkercher; but it ain’t half as comfortable.”

“But how did you lose your scalp?” asked Zack — “tell us all about it. Upon my life, you’re the most interesting fellow I ever met with! And, I say, let’s walk about, while we talk. I feel steadier on my legs now; and it’s so infernally cold standing here.”

“Which way can we soonest get out of this muck of houses and streets?” asked Mat, surveying the London view around him with an expression of grim disgust. “There ain’t no room, even on this bridge, for the wind to blow fairly over a man. I’d just as soon be smothered up in a bed, as smothered up in smoke and stink here.”

“What a delightful fellow you are! so entirely out of the common way! Steady, my dear friend. The grog’s not quite out of my head yet; and I find I’ve got the hiccups. Here’s my way home, and your way into the fresh air, if you really want it. Come along; and tell me how you lost your scalp.”

“There ain’t nothing particular to tell. What’s your name again?”

“Zack.”

“Well, Zack, I was out on the tramp, dodging about after any game that turned up, on the banks of the Amazon — ”

“Amazon? what’s that? a woman? or a place?”

“Did you ever hear of South America?”

“I can’t positively swear to it; but, to the best of my belief, I think I have.”

“Well; the Amazon’s a longish bit of a river in those parts. I was out, as I told you, on the tramp.”

“So I should think! you look like the sort of man who has tramped everywhere, and done everything.”

“You’re about right there, for a wonder! I’ve druv cattle in Mexico; I’ve been out with a gang that went to find an overland road to the North Pole; I’ve worked through a season or two in catching wild horses on the Pampas; and another season or two in digging gold in California. I went away from England, a tidy lad aboard ship; and here I am back again now, an old vagabond as hasn’t a friend to own him. If you want to know exactly who I am, and what I’ve been up to all my life, that’s about as much as I can tell you.”

“You don’t say so! Wait a minute, though; there’s one thing — you’re not troubled with the hiccups, are you, after eating supper? (I’ve been a martyr to hiccups ever since I was a child.) But, I say, there’s one thing you haven’t told me yet; you haven’t told me what your other name is besides Mat. Mine’s Thorpe.”

“I haven’t heard the sound of the other name you’re asking after for a matter of better than twenty year: and I don’t care if I never hear it again.” His voice sank huskily, and he turned his head a little away from Zack, as he said those words. “They nicknamed me ‘Marksman,’ when I used to go out with the exploring gangs, because I was the best shot of all of them. You call me Marksman, too, if you don’t like Mat. Mister Mathew Marksman, if you please: everybody seems to be a ‘Mister’ here. You’re one, of course. I don’t mean to call you ‘Mister’ for all that. I shall stick to Zack; it’s short, and there’s no bother about it.”

“All right, old fellow! and I’ll stick to Mat, which is shorter still by a whole letter. But, I say, you haven’t told the story yet about how you lost your scalp.”

“There’s no story in it, Do you know what it is to have a man dodging after you through these odds and ends of streets here? I dare say you do. Well, I had three skulking thieves of Indians dodging after me, over better than four hundred miles of lonesome country, where I might have bawled for help for a whole week on end, and never made anybody hear me. They wanted my scalp, and they wanted my rifle, and they got both at last, at the end of their man-hunt, because I couldn’t get any sleep.”

“Not get any sleep. Why not?”

“Because they was three, and I was only one, to be sure! One of them kep’ watch while the other two slept. I hadn’t nobody to keep watch for me; and my life depended on my eyes being open night and day. I took a dog’s snooze once, and was woke out of it by an arrow in my face. I kep’ on a long time after that, before I give out; but at last I got the horrors, and thought the prairie was all a-fire, and run from it. I don’t know how long I run on in that mad state; I only know that the horrors turned out to be the saving of my life. I missed my own trail, and struck into another, which was a trail of friendly Indians — people I’d traded with, you know. And I came up with ’em somehow, near enough for the stragglers of their hunting party to hear me skreek when my scalp was took. Now you know as much about it as I do; I can’t tell you no more, except that I woke up like, in an Indian wigwam, with a crop of cool leaves on my head, instead of a crop of hair.”

“A crop of leaves! What a jolly old Jack-in-the-Green you must have looked like! Which of those scars on your face is the arrow-wound, eh? Oh, that’s it — is it? I say, old boy, you’ve got a black eye! Did any of those fellows in the Snuggery hit hard enough to hurt you?”

“Hurt me? Chaps like them hurt Me!!“ Tickled by the extravagance of the idea which Zack’s question suggested to him, Mat shook his sturdy shoulders, and indulged himself in a gruff chuckle, which seemed to claim some sort of barbarous relationship with a laugh.

“Ah! of course they haven’t hurt you; — I didn’t think they had,” said Zack, whose pugilistic sympathies were deeply touched by the contempt with which his new friend treated the bumps and bruises received in the fight. “Go on, Mat, I like adventures of your sort. What did you do after your head healed up?”

“Well, I got tired of dodging about the Amazon, and went south, and learnt to throw a lasso, and took a turn at the wild horses. Galloping did my head good.”

“It’s just what would do my head good too. Yours is the sort of life, Mat, for me! How did you first come to lead it? Did you run away from home?”

“No. I served aboard ship, where I was put out, being too idle a vagabond to be kep’ at home. I always wanted to run wild somewheres for a change; but I didn’t really go to do it, till I picked up a letter which was waiting for me in port, at the Brazils. There was news in that letter which sickened me of going home again; so I deserted, and went off on the tramp. And I’ve been mostly on the tramp ever since, till I got here last Sunday.”

“What! have you only been in England since Sunday?”

“That’s all. I made a good time of it in California, where I’ve been last, digging gold. My mate, as was with me, got a talking about the old country, and wrought on me so that I went back with him to see it again. So, instead of gambling away all my money over there” (Mat carelessly jerked his hand in a westerly direction), “I’ve come to spend it over here; and I’m going down into the country to-morrow, to see if anybody lives to own me at the old place.”

“And suppose nobody does? What then?”

“Then I shall go back again. After twenty years among the savages, or little better, I’m not fit for the sort of thing as goes on among you here. I can’t sleep in a bed; I can’t stop in a room; I can’t be comfortable in decent clothes; I can’t stray into a singing-shop, as I did to-night, without a dust being kicked up all round me, because I haven’t got a proper head of hair like everybody else. I can’t shake up along with the rest of you, nohow; I’m used to hard lines and a wild country; and I shall go back and die over there among the lonesome places where there’s plenty of room for me.” And again Mat jerked his hand carelessly in the direction of the American continent.

“Oh, don’t talk about going back!” cried Zack; “you’re sure to find somebody left at home — don’t you think so yourself, old fellow?”

Mat made no answer. He suddenly slackened; then, as suddenly, increased his pace; dragging young Thorpe with him at a headlong rate.

“You’re sure to find somebody,” continued Zack, in his offhand, familiar way. “I don’t know — gently! we’re not walking for a wager — I don’t know whether you’re married or not?” (Mat still made no answer, and walked faster than ever.) “But if you havn’t got wife or child, every fellow’s got a father and mother, you know; and most fellows have got brothers or sisters — ”

“Good night,” said Mat, stopping short, and abruptly holding out his hand.

“Why! what’s the matter now?” asked Zack, in astonishment. “What do you want to part company for already? We are not near the end of the streets yet. Have I said anything that’s offended you?”

“No, you havn’t. You can come and talk to me if you like, the day after to-morrow. I shall be back then, whatever happens. I said I’d be like a brother to you; and that means, in my lingo, doing anything you ask. Come and smoke a pipe along with me, as soon as I’m back again. Do you know Kirk Street? It’s nigh on the Market. Do you know a ‘bacco shop in Kirk Street? It’s got a green door, and Fourteen written on it in yaller paint. When I am shut up in a room of my own, which isn’t often, I’m shut up there. I can’t give you the key of the house, because I want it myself.”

“Kirk Street? That’s my way. Why can’t we go on together? What do you want to say good-night here for?”

“Because I want to be left by myself. It’s not your fault; but you’ve set me thinking of something that don’t make me easy in my mind. I’ve led a lonesome life of it, young ’un; straying away months and months out in the wilderness, without a human being to speak to, I dare say that wasn’t a right sort of life for a man to take up with; but I did take up with it; and I can’t get over liking it sometimes still. When I’m not easy in my mind, I want to be left lonesome as I used to be. I want it now. Good night.”

Before Zack could enter his new friend’s address in his pocket-book, Mat had crossed the road, and had disappeared in the dark distance dotted with gaslights. In another moment, the last thump of his steady footstep died away on the pavement, in the morning stillness of the street.

“That’s rather an odd fellow” — thought Zack as he pursued his own road — “and we have got acquainted with each other in rather an odd way. I shall certainly go and see him though, on Thursday; something may come of it, one of these days.”

Zack was a careless guesser; but, in this case, he guessed right. Something did come of it.

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