Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XI. The Garden Door.

“Hit or miss, I’ll chance it to-night” Those words were the first that issued from Mat’s lips on the morning after Mr. Blyth’s visit, as he stood alone amid the festive relics of the past evening, in the front room at Kirk Street. “To-night,” he repeated to himself, as he pulled off his coat and prepared to make his toilette for the day in a pail of cold water, with the assistance of a short bar of wholesome yellow soap.

Though it was still early, his mind had been employed for some hours past in considering how the second and only difficulty, which now stood between him and the possession of the Hair Bracelet, might best be overcome. Having already procured the first requisite for executing his design, how was he next to profit by what he had gained? Knowing that the false key would be placed in his hands that evening, how was he to open Mr. Blyth’s bureau without risking discovery by the owner, or by some other person in the house?

To this important question he had as yet found no better answer than was involved in the words he had just whispered to himself, while preparing for his morning ablutions. As for any definite plan, by which to guide himself; he was desperately resigned to trust for the discovery of it to the first lucky chance which might be brought about by the events of the day. “I should like though to have one good look by daylight round that place they call the Painting Room,” thought Mat, plunging his face into two handsful of hissing soap-suds.

He was still vigorously engaged over the pail of cold water, when a loud yawn, which died away gradually into a dreary howl, sounded from the next room, and announced that Zack was awake. In another minute the young gentleman appeared gloomily, in his night gown, at the folding doors by which the two rooms communicated. His eyes looked red-rimmed and blinking, his cheeks mottled and sodden, his hair tangled and dirty. He had one hand to his forehead, and groaning with the corners of his mouth lamentably drawn down, exhibited a shocking and salutary picture of the consequences of excessive conviviality.

“Oh Lord, Mat!” he moaned, “my head’s coming in two.”

“Souse it in a pail of cold water, and walk off what you can’t get rid of; after that, along with me,” suggested his friend.

Zack wisely took this advice. As they left Kirk Street for their walk, Mat managed that they should shape their course so as to pass Valentine’s house on their way to the fields. As he had anticipated, young Thorpe proposed to call in for a minute, to see how Mr. Blyth was after the festivities of the past night, and to ascertain if he still remained in the same mind about making the drawing of Mat’s arms that evening.

“I suspect you didn’t brew the Squaw’s Mixture half as weak as you told us you did,” said Zack slily, when they rang at the bell. “It wasn’t a bad joke for once in a way. But really, Blyth is such a good kind-hearted fellow, it seems too bad — in short, don’t let’s do it next time, that’s all!”

Mat gruffly repudiated the slightest intention of deceiving their guest as to the strength of the liquor he had drunk. They went into the Painting Room, and found Mr. Blyth there, pale and penitent, but manfully preparing to varnish The Golden Age, with a very trembling hand, and a very headachy contraction of the eyebrows.

“Ah, Zack, Zack! I ought to lecture you about last night,” said Valentine; “but I have no right to say a word, for I was much the worst of the two. I’m wretchedly ill this morning, which is just what I deserve; and heartily ashamed of myself, which is only what I ought to be. Look at my hand! It’s all in a tremble like an old man’s. Not a thimbleful of spirits shall ever pass my lips again: I’ll stick to lemonade and tea for the rest of my life. No more Squaw’s Mixture for me! Not, my dear sir,” continued Valentine, addressing Mat, who had been quietly stealing a glance at the bureau, while the painter was speaking to young Thorpe. “Not, my dear sir, that I think of blaming you, or doubt for a moment that the drink you kindly mixed for me would have been considered quite weak and harmless by people with stronger heads than mine. It was all my own fault, my own want of proper thoughtfulness and caution. If I misconducted myself last night, as I am afraid I did, pray make allowances — ”

“Nonsense!” cried Zack, seeing that Mat was beginning to fidget away from Valentine, instead of returning an answer. “Nonsense! you were glorious company. We were three choice spirits, and you were number One of the social Trio. Away with Melancholy! Do you still keep in the same mind about drawing Mat’s arms? He will be delighted to come, and so shall I; and we’ll all get virtuously uproarious this time, on toast-and-water and tea.”

“Of course I keep in the same mind,” returned Mr. Blyth. “I had my senses about me, at any rate, when I invited you and your friend here to-night. Not that I shall be able to do much, I am afraid, in the way of drawing — for a letter has come this morning to hurry me into the country. Another portrait-job has turned up, and I shall have to start to-morrow. However, I can get in the outline of your friend’s arms to-night, and leave the rest to be done when I come back — Shall I take that sketch down for you, my dear sir, to look at close?” continued Valentine, suddenly raising his voice, and addressing himself to Mat. “I venture to think it one of my most contentious studies from actual nature.”

While Mr. Blyth and Zack had been whispering together, Mat had walked away from them quietly towards one end of the room, and was now standing close to a door, lined inside with sheet iron, having bolts at top and bottom, and leading down a flight of steps from the studio into the back garden. Above this door hung a large chalk sketch of an old five-barred gate, being the identical study from nature, which, as Valentine imagined, was at that moment the special object of interest to Mat.

“No, no! don’t trouble to get the sketch now,” said Zack, once more answering for his friend. “We are going out to get freshened up by a long walk, and can’t stop. Now then, Mat; what on earth are you staring at? The garden door, or the sketch of the five-barred gate?”

“The picter, in course,” answered Mat, with unusual quickness and irritability.

“It shall be taken down for you to look at close to-night,” said Mr. Blyth, delighted by the impression which the five-barred gate seemed to have produced on the new visitor.

On leaving Mr. Blyth’s, young Thorpe and his companion turned down a lane partially built over, which led past Valentine’s back garden wall. This was their nearest way to the fields and to the high road into the country beyond. Before they had taken six steps down the lane, Mat, who had been incomprehensibly stolid and taciturn inside the house, became just as incomprehensibly curious and talkative all on a sudden outside it.

In the first place, he insisted on mounting some planks lying under Valentine’s wall (to be used for the new houses that were being built in the lane), and peeping over to see what sort of garden the painter had. Zack summarily pulled him down from his elevation by the coat-tails, but not before his quick eye had traveled over the garden; had ascended the steps leading from it to the studio; and had risen above them as high as the brass handle of the door by which they were approached from the painting-room.

In the second place, when he had been prevailed on to start fairly for the walk, Mat began to ask questions with the same pertinacious inquisitiveness which he had already displayed on the day of the picture-show. He set out with wanting to know whether there were to be any strange visitors at Mr. Blyth’s that evening; and then, on being reminded that Valentine had expressly said at parting, “Nobody but ourselves,” asked if they were likely to see the painter’s wife downstairs. After the inquiry had of necessity been answered in the negative, he went on to a third question, and desired to know whether “the young woman” (as he persisted in calling Madonna) might be expected to stay upstairs with Mrs. Blyth, or to show herself occasionally in the painting-room. Zack answered this inquiry also in the negative — with a running accompaniment of bad jokes, as usual. Madonna, except under extraordinary circumstances, never came down into the studio in the evening, when Mr. Blyth had company there.

Satisfied on these points, Mat now wanted to know at what time Mr. Blyth and his family were accustomed to go to bed; and explained, when Zack expressed astonishment at the inquiry, that he had only asked this question in order to find out the hour at which it would be proper to take leave of their host that night. On hearing this, young Thorpe answered as readily and carelessly as usual, that the painter’s family were early people, who went to bed before eleven o’clock; adding, that it was, of course, particularly necessary to leave the studio in good time on the occasion referred to, because Valentine would most probably start for the country next day, by one of the morning trains.

Mat’s next question was preceded by a silence of a few minutes. Possibly he was thinking in what terms he might best put it. If this were the case, he certainly decided on using the briefest possible form of expression, for when he spoke again, he asked in so many words, what sort of a woman the painter’s wife was.

Zack characteristically answered the inquiry by a torrent of his most superlative eulogies on Mrs. Blyth; and then, passing from the lady herself to the chamber that she inhabited, wound up with a magnificent and exaggerated description of the splendor of her room.

Mat listened to him attentively; then said he supposed Mrs. Blyth must be fond of curiosities, and all sorts of “knick-knack things from foreign parts.” Young Thorpe not only answered the question in the affirmative, but added, as a private expression of his own opinion, that he believed these said curiosities and “knick-knacks” had helped, in their way, to keep her alive by keeping her amused. From this, he digressed to a long narrative of poor Mrs. Blyth’s first illness; and having exhausted that sad subject at last, ended by calling on his friend to change the conversation to some less mournful topic.

But just at this point, it seemed that Mat was perversely determined to let himself lapse into another silent fit. He not only made no attempt to change the conversation, but entirely ceased asking questions; and, indeed, hardly uttered another word of any kind, good or bad. Zack, after vainly trying to rally him into talking, lit a cigar in despair, and the two walked on together silently — Mat having his hands in his pockets, keeping his eyes bent on the ground, and altogether burying himself, as it were, from the outer world, in the inner-most recesses of a deep brown study.

As they returned, and got near Kirk Street, Mat gradually began to talk again, but only on indifferent subjects; asking no more questions about Mr. Blyth, or any one else. They arrived at their lodgings at half-past five o’clock. Zack went into the bed-room to wash his hands. While he was thus engaged, Mat opened that leather bag of his which has been already described as lying in the corner with the bear-skins, and taking out the feather-fan and the Indian tobacco-pouch, wrapped them up separately in paper. Having done this, he called to Zack; and, saying that he was about to step over to the shaving shop to get his face scraped clean before going to Mr. Blyth’s, left the house with his two packages in his hand.

“If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll chance it to-night with the garden-door,” said Mat to himself, as he took the first turning that led towards the second-hand iron shop. “This will do to get rid of the painter-man with. And this will send Zack after him,” he added, putting first the fan and then the tobacco-pouch into separate pockets of his coat. A cunning smile hovered about his lips for a moment, as he disposed of his two packages in this manner; but it passed away again almost immediately, and was succeeded by a curious contraction and twitching of the upper part of his face. He began muttering once again that name of “Mary,” which had been often on his lips lately; and quickened his pace mechanically, as it was always his habit to do when anything vexed or disturbed him.

When he reached the shop, the hunchback was at the door, with the tin tobacco-box in his hand. On this occasion, not a single word was exchanged between the two. The squalid shopman, as the customer approached, rattled something significantly inside the box, and then handed it to Mat; and Mat put his finger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket, winked, nodded, and handed some money to the squalid shopman. The brief ceremony of giving and taking thus completed, these two originals turned away from each other without a word of farewell; the hunchback returning to the counter, and his customer proceeding to the shaving shop.

Mat opened the box for an instant, on his way to the barber’s; and, taking out the false key, (which, though made of baser metal, was almost as bright as the original), put it carefully into his waistcoat pocket. He then stopped at an oil and candle shop, and bought a wax taper and a box of matches. “The garden door’s safest: I’ll chance it with the garden-door,” thought Mat, as he sat down in the shaving-shop chair, and ordered the barber to operate on his chin.

Punctually at seven o’clock Mr. Blyth’s visitors rang at his bell.

When they entered the studio, they found Valentine all ready for them, with his drawing-board at his side, and his cartoon-sketch for the proposed new picture of Hercules bringing to King Eurystheus the Erymanthian Boar, lying rolled up at feet. He said he had got rid of his headache, and felt perfectly well now; but Zack observed that he was not in his good spirits. Mat, on his side, observed nothing but the garden door, towards which he lounged carelessly as soon as the first salutations were over.

“This way, my dear sir,” said Valentine, walking after him. “I have taken down the drawing you were so good as to admire this morning, as I said I would. Here it is on this painting-stand, if you would like to look at it.”

Mat, whose first glance at the garden door had assured him that it was bolted and locked for the night, wheeled round immediately: and, to Mr. Blyth’s great delight, inspected the sketch of the old five-barred gate with the most extraordinary and flattering attention. “Wants doing up, don’t it?” said Mat, referring to the picturesquely-ruinous original of the gate represented. “Yes, indeed,” answered Valentine, thinking he spoke of the creased and ragged condition of the paper on which the sketch was made; “a morsel of paste and a sheet of fresh paper to stretch it on, would make quite another thing of it.” Mat stared. “Paste and paper for a five-barred gate? A nice carpenter you would make!” he felt inclined to say. Zack, however, spoke at that moment: so he left the sketch, and wisely held his tongue.

“Now, then, Mat, strip to your chest, and put your arms in any position Blyth tells you. Remember, you are going to be drawn as Hercules; and mind you look as if you were bringing the Erymanthian Boar to King Eurystheus, for the rest of the evening,” said young Thorpe, composedly warming himself at the fire.

While Mat awkwardly, and with many expressions of astonishment at the strange piece of service required from him by his host, divested himself of his upper garments, Valentine unrolled on the floor the paper cartoon of his classical composition; and, having refreshed his memory from it, put his model forthwith into the position of Hercules, with a chair to hold instead of an Erymanthian Boar, and Zack to look at as the only available representative of King Eurystheus. This done, Mr. Blyth wasted some little time, as usual, before he began to work, in looking for his drawing materials. In the course of his search over the littered studio table, he accidentally laid his hand on two envelopes with enclosures, which, after examining the addresses, he gave immediately to young Thorpe.

“Here, Zack,” he said, “these belong to you. The large envelope contains your permission to draw at the British Museum. The small one has a letter of introduction inside, presenting you, with my best recommendations, to my friend, Mr. Strather, a very pleasing artist, and the Curator of an excellent private Drawing Academy. You had better call tomorrow, before eleven. Mr. Strather will go with you to the Museum, and show you how to begin, and will introduce you to his drawing academy the same evening. Pray, pray, Zack, be steady and careful. Remember all you have promised your mother and me; and show us that you are now really determined to study the Art in good earnest.”

Zack expressed great gratitude for his friend’s kindness, and declared, with the utmost fervor of voice and manner, that he would repair all his past faults by unflagging future industry as a student of Art. After a little longer delay Valentine at last collected his drawing materials, and fairly began to work; Mat displaying from the first the most extraordinary and admirable steadiness as a model. But, while the work of the studio thus proceeded with all the smoothness and expedition that could be desired, the incidental conversation by no means kept pace with it. In spite of all that young Thorpe could say or do, the talk lagged more and more, and grew duller and duller. Valentine was evidently out of spirits, and the Hercules of the evening had stolidly abandoned himself to the most inveterate silence. At length Zack gave up all further effort to be sociable, and left the painting-room to go up stairs and visit the ladies. Mat looked after him as he quitted the studio, and seemed about to speak — then glancing aside at the bureau, checked himself suddenly, and did not utter a word.

Mr. Blyth’s present depression of spirits was not entirely attributable to a certain ominous reluctance to leave home, which he had been vainly trying to shake off since the morning. He had a secret reason for his uneasiness which happened to be intimately connected with the model, whose Herculean chest and arms he was now busily engaged in drawing.

The plain fact was, that Mr. Blyth’s tender conscience smote him sorely, when he remembered the trust Mrs. Thorpe placed in his promised supervision over her son, and when he afterwards reflected that he still knew as little of Zack’s strange companion, as Zack did himself. His visit to Kirk Street, undertaken for the express purpose of guarding the lad’s best interests by definitely ascertaining who Mr. Mathew Marksman really was, had ended in — what he was now ashamed to dwell over, or even to call to mind. “Dear, dear me!” thought Mr. Blyth, while he worked away silently at the outline of his drawing, “I ought to find out whether this very friendly, good-natured, and useful man is fit to be trusted with Zack; and now the lad is out of the room, I might very well do it. Might? I will!” And, acting immediately on this conscientious resolve, simple-hearted Mr. Blyth actually set himself to ask Mat the important question of who he really was!

Mat was candor itself in answering all inquiries that related to his wanderings over the American Continent. He confessed with the utmost frankness that he had been sent to sea, as a wild boy whom it was impossible to keep steady at home; and he quite readily admitted that he had not introduced himself to Zack under his real name. But at this point his communicativeness stopped. He did not quibble, or prevaricate; he just bluntly and simply declared that he would tell nothing more than he had told already.

“I said to the young ’un,” concluded Mat, “when we first come together, ‘I haven’t heard the sound of my own name for better than twenty year past; and I don’t care if I never hear it again.’ That’s what I said to him. That’s what I say to you. I’m a rough ’un, I know; but I hav’n’t broke out of prison, or cheated the gallows — ”

“My dear sir,” interposed Valentine, eagerly and alarmedly, “pray don’t imagine any such offensive ideas ever entered my head! I might perhaps have thought that family troubles — ”

“That’s it,” Mat broke in quickly. “Family troubles. Drop it there; and you’ll leave it right.”

Before Mr. Blyth could make any attempt to shift the conversation to some less delicate topic, he was interrupted (to his own great relief) by the return of young Thorpe to the studio.

Zack announced the approaching arrival of the supper-tray; and warned “Hercules” to cover up his neck and shoulders immediately, unless he wished to frighten the housemaid out of her wits. At this hint Mr. Blyth laid aside his drawing-board, and Mat put on his flannel waistcoat; not listening the while to one word of the many fervent expressions of gratitude addressed to him by the painter, but appearing to be in a violent hurry to array himself in his coat again. As soon as he had got it on, he put his hand in one of the pockets, and looked hard at Valentine. Just then, however, the servant came in with the tray; upon which he turned round impatiently, and walked away once again to the lower end of the room.

When the door had closed on the departing housemaid, he returned to Mr. Blyth with the feather fan in his hand; and saying, in his usual downright way, that he had heard from Zack of Mrs. Blyth’s invalid condition and of her fondness for curiosities, bluntly asked the painter if he thought his wife would like such a fan as that now produced.

“I got this plaything for a woman in the old country, many a long year ago,” said Mat, pressing the fan roughly into Mr. Blyth’s hands. “When I come back, and thought for to give it her, she was dead and gone. There’s not another woman in England as cares about me, or knows about me. If you’re too proud to let your wife have the thing, throw it into the fire. I hav’n’t got nobody to give it to; and I can’t keep it by me, and won’t keep it by me, no longer.”

In the utterance of these words there was a certain rough pathos and bitter reference to past calamity, which touched Valentine in one of his tender places. His generous instincts overcame his prudent doubts in a moment; and moved him, not merely to accept the present, but also to predict warmly that Mrs. Blyth would be delighted with it.

“Zack,” he said, speaking in an undertone to young Thorpe, who had been listening to Mat’s last speech, and observing his production of the fan, in silent curiosity and surprise. “Zack, I’ll run up stairs with the fan to Lavvie at once, so as not to seem careless about your friend’s gift. Mind you do the honors of the supper table with proper hospitality, while I am away.”

Speaking these words, Mr. Blyth bustled out of the room as nimbly as usual. A minute or two after his departure, Mat put his hand into his pocket once more; mysteriously approached young Thorpe, and opened before him the paper containing the Indian tobacco pouch, which was made of scarlet cloth, and was very prettily decorated with colored beads.

“Do you think the young woman would fancy this for a kind of plaything?” he asked.

Zack, with a shout of laughter, snatched the pouch out of his hands, and began to rally his friend more unmercifully than ever. For the first time, Mat seemed to be irritated by the boisterous merriment of which he was made the object; and cut his tormentor short quite fiercely, with a frown and an oath.

“Don’t lose your temper, you amorous old savage!” cried Zack, with incorrigible levity. “I’ll take your pouch upstairs to the Beloved Object; and, if Blyth will let her have it, I’ll bring her down here to thank you for it herself!” Saying this, young Thorpe ran laughing out of the room, with the scarlet pouch in his hand.

Mat listened intently till the sound of Zack’s rapid footsteps died away upstairs — then walked quickly and softly down the studio to the garden door — gently unlocked it — gently drew the bolts back — gently opened it, and ascertained that it could also be opened from without, merely by turning the handle — then, quietly closing it again, left it, to all appearance, as fast for the night as before; provided no one went near enough, or had sufficiently sharp eyes, to observe that it was neither bolted nor locked.

“Now for the big chest!” thought Mat, taking the false key out of his pocket, and hastening back to the bureau. “If Zack or the Painter Man come down before I’ve time to get at the drawer inside, I’ve made sure of my second chance with the garden door.”

He had the key in the lock of the bureau, as this thought passed through his mind. He was just about to turn it, when the sound of rapidly-descending footsteps upon the stairs struck on his quick ear.

“Too late!” muttered Mat. “I must chance it, after all, with the garden door.”

Putting the key into his pocket again, as he said this, he walked back to the fireplace. The moment after he got there, Mr. Blyth entered the studio.

“I am quite shocked that you should have been so unceremoniously left alone,” said Valentine, whose naturally courteous nature prompted him to be just as scrupulously polite in his behavior to his rough guest, as if Mat had been a civilized gentleman of the most refined feeling and the most exalted rank. “I am so sorry you should have been left, through Zack’s carelessness, without anybody to ask you to take a little supper,” continued Valentine, turning to the table. “Mrs. Blyth, my dear sir (do take a sandwich!), desires me to express her best thanks for your very pretty present (that is the brandy in the bottle next to you). She admires the design (spongecake? Ah! you don’t care about sweets), and thinks the color of the center feathers — ”

At this moment the door opened, and Mr. Blyth, abruptly closing his lips, looked towards it with an expression of the blankest astonishment; for he beheld Madonna entering the painting-room in company with Zack.

Valentine had been persuaded to let the deaf and dumb girl accept the scarlet pouch by his wife; but neither she nor Zack had said a word before him upstairs about taking Madonna into the studio. When the painter was well out of earshot, young Thorpe had confided to Mrs. Blyth the new freak in which he wanted to engage; and, signing unscrupulously to Madonna that she was wanted in the studio, to be presented to the “generous man who had given her the tobacco-pouch,” took her out of the room without stopping to hear to the end the somewhat faint remonstrance by which his proposition was met. To confess the truth, Mrs. Blyth — seeing no great impropriety in the girl’s being introduced to the stranger, while Valentine was present in the room, and having moreover a very strong curiosity to hear all she could about Zack’s odd companion — was secretly anxious to ascertain what impressions Madonna would bring away of Mat’s personal appearance and manners. And thus it was that Zack, by seizing his opportunity at the right moment, and exerting a little of that cool assurance in which he was never very deficient, now actually entered the painting-room in a glow of mischievous triumph with Madonna on his arm.

Valentine gave him a look as he entered which he found it convenient not to appear to see. The painter felt strongly inclined, at that moment, to send his adopted child upstairs again directly; but he restrained himself out of a feeling of delicacy towards his guest — for Mat had not only seen Madonna, but had hesitatingly advanced a step or two to meet her, the instant she came into the room.

Few social tests for analyzing female human nature can be more safely relied on than that which the moral investigator may easily apply, by observing how a woman conducts herself towards a man who shows symptoms of confusion on approaching her for the first time. If she has nothing at all in her, she awkwardly forgets the advantage of her sex, and grows more confused than he is. If she has nothing but brains in her, she cruelly abuses the advantage, and treats him with quiet contempt. If she has plenty of heart in her, she instinctively turns the advantage to its right use, and forthwith sets him at his ease by the timely charity of a word or the mute encouragement of a look.

Now Madonna, perceiving that the stranger showed evident signs, on approaching her, of what appeared like confusion to her apprehension, quietly drew her arm out of Zack’s, and, to his unmeasured astonishment, stepped forward in front of him — looked up brightly into the grim, scarred face of Mat — dropped her usual curtsey — wrote a line hurriedly on her slate — then offered it to him with a smile and a nod, to read if he pleased, and to write on in return.

“Who would ever have thought it?” cried Zack, giving vent to his amazement; “she has taken to old Rough and Tough, and made him a prime favorite at first sight!”

Valentine was standing near, but he did not appear to hear this speech. He was watching the scene before him closely and curiously. Accustomed as he was to the innocent candor with which the deaf and dumb girl always showed her approval or dislike of strangers at a first interview — as also to her apparent perversity in often displaying a decided liking for the very people whose looks and manners had been previously considered certain to displease her — he was now almost as much surprised as Zack, when he witnessed her reception of Mat. It was an infallible sign of Madonna’s approval, if she followed up an introduction by handing her slate of her own accord to a stranger. When she was presented to people whom she disliked, she invariably kept it by her side until it was formally asked for.

Eccentric in everything else, Mat was consistently eccentric even in his confusion. Some men who are bashful in a young lady’s presence show it by blushing — Mat’s color sank instead of rising. Other men, similarly affected, betray their burdensome modesty by fidgeting incessantly. — Mat was as still as a statue. His eyes wandered heavily and vacantly over the girl, beginning with her soft brown hair, then resting for a moment on her face, then descending to the gay pink ribbon on her breast, and to her crisp black silk apron with its smart lace pockets — then dropping at last to her neat little shoes, and to the thin bright line of white stocking that just separated them from the hem of her favorite grey dress. He only looked up again, when she touched his hand and put her slate pencil into it. At that signal he raised his eyes once more, read the line she had written to thank him for the scarlet pouch, and tried to write something in return. But his hand shook, and his thoughts seemed to fail him, he gave her back the slate and pencil, looking her full in the eyes as he did so. A curious change came over his face at the same time — a change like that which had altered him so remarkably in the hosier’s shop at Dibbledean.

“Zack might, after all, have made many a worse friend than this man,” thought Mr. Blyth, still attentively observing Mat. “Vagabonds don’t behave in the presence of young girls as he is behaving now.”

With this idea in his mind, Valentine advanced to help his guest by showing Mat how to communicate with Madonna. The painter was interrupted, however, by young Thorpe, who, the moment he recovered from his first sensations of surprise began to talk nonsense again, at the top of his voice, with the mischievous intention of increasing Mat’s embarrassment.

While Mr. Blyth was attempting to silence Zack by leading him to the supper table, Madonna was trying her best to reassure the great bulky, sunburnt man who seemed to be absolutely afraid of her! She moved to a stool, which stood near a second table in a corner by the fireplace; and sitting down, produced the scarlet pouch, intimating by a gesture that Mat was to look at what she was now doing. She then laid the pouch open on her lap, and put into it several little work-box toys, a Tonbridge silk-reel, an ivory needle case, a silver thimble with an enameled rim, a tiny pair of scissors, and other things of the same kind — which she took first from one pocket of her apron and then from another. While she was engaged in filling the pouch, Zack, standing at the supper-table, drummed on the floor with his foot to attract her attention, and interrogatively held up a decanter of wine and a glass. She started as the sound struck on her delicate nerves; and, looking at young Thorpe directly, signed that she did not wish for any wine. The sudden movement of her body thus occasioned, shook off her lap a little mother-of-pearl bodkin case, which lay more than half out of one of the pockets of her apron. The bodkin case rolled under the stool, without her seeing it, for she was looking towards the supper-table: without being observed by Mat, for his eyes were following the direction of her’s: without being heard by Mr. Blyth, for Zack was, as usual, chattering and making a noise.

When she had put two other little toys that remained in her pockets into the pouch, she drew the mouth of it tight, passed the loops of the loose thongs that fastened it, over one of her arms, and then, rising to her feet, pointed to it, and looked at Mat with a very significant nod. The action expressed the idea she wished to communicate, plainly enough:— “See,” it seemed to say, “see what a pretty work-bag I can make of your tobacco-pouch!”

But Mat, to all appearance, was not able to find out the meaning of one of her gestures, easy as they were to interpret. His senses seemed to grow more and more perturbed the longer he looked at her. As she curtseyed to him again, and moved away in despair, he stepped forward a little, and suddenly and awkwardly held out his hand. “The big man seems to be getting a little less afraid of me,” thought Madonna, turning directly, and meeting his clumsy advance towards her, with a smile. But the instant he took her hand, her lips closed, and she shivered through her whole body as if dead fingers had touched her. “Oh!” she thought now, “how cold his hand is! how cold his hand is!”

“If I hadn’t felt her warm to touch, I should have been dreaming to-night that I’d seen Mary’s ghost.” This was the grim fancy which darkly troubled Mat’s mind, at the very same moment when Madonna was thinking how cold his hand was. He turned away impatiently from some wine offered to him just then by Zack; and, looking vacantly into the fire, drew his coat-cuff several times over his eyes and forehead.

The chill from the strange man’s hand still lingered icily about Madonna’s fingers, and made her anxious, though she hardly knew why, to leave the room. She advanced hastily to Valentine, and made the sign which indicated Mrs. Blyth, by laying her hand on her heart; she then pointed up-stairs. Valentine, understanding what she wanted, gave her leave directly to return to his wife’s room. Before Zack could make even a gesture to detain her, she had slipped out of the studio, after not having remained in it much longer than five minutes.

“Zack,” whispered Mr. Blyth, as the door closed, “I am anything but pleased with you for bringing Madonna down-stairs. You have broken through all rule in doing so; and, besides that, you have confused your friend by introducing her to him without any warning or preparation.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” interrupted young Thorpe. “He’s not the sort of man to want warning about anything. I apologize for breaking rules; but as for Mat — why, hang it, Blyth, it’s plain enough what has been wrong with him since supper came in! He’s fairly knocked up with doing Hercules for you. You have kept the poor old Guy for near two hours standing in one position, without a rag on his back; and then you wonder — ”

“Bless my soul! that never occurred to me. I’m afraid you’re right,” exclaimed Valentine. “Do let us make him take something hot and comfortable! Dear, dear me! how ought one to mix grog?”

Mr. Blyth had been for some little time past trying his best to compound a species of fiery and potential Squaw’s Mixture for Mat. He had begun the attempt some minutes before Madonna left the studio; having found it useless to offer any explanations to his inattentive guest of the meaning of the girl’s signs and gestures with the slate and tobacco-pouch. He had persevered in his hospitable endeavor all through the whispered dialogue which had just passed between Zack and himself; and he had now filled the glass nearly to the brim, when it suddenly occurred to him that he had put sherry in at the top of the tumbler, after having begun with brandy at the bottom; also that he had altogether forgotten some important ingredient which he was, just then, perfectly incapable of calling to mind.

“Here, Mat!” cried Zack. “Come and mix yourself something hot. Blyth’s been trying to do it for you, and can’t.”

Mat, who had been staring more and more vacantly into the fire all this time, turned round again at last towards his friends at the supper table. He started a little when he saw that Madonna was no longer in the room — then looked aside from the door by which she had departed, to the bureau. He had been pretty obstinately determined to get possession of the Hair Bracelet from the first: but he was doubly and trebly determined now.

“It’s no use looking about for the young lady,” said Zack; “you behaved so clumsily and queerly, that you frightened her out of the room.”

“No! no! nothing of the sort,” interposed Valentine, good-naturedly. “Pray take something to warm you. I am quite ashamed of my want of consideration in keeping you standing so long, when I ought to have remembered that you were not used to being a painter’s model. I hope I have not given you cold — ”

“Given me cold?” repeated Mat, amazedly. He seemed about to add a sufficiently indignant assertion of his superiority to any such civilized bodily weakness, as a liability to catch cold — but just as the words were on his lips, he looked fixedly at Mr. Blyth, and checked himself.

“I am afraid you must be tired with the long sitting you have so kindly given me,” added Valentine.

“No,” answered Mat, after a moment’s consideration; “not tired. Only sleepy. I’d best go home. What’s o’clock?”

A reference to young Thorpe’s watch showed that it was ten minutes past ten. Mat held out his hand directly to take leave; but Valentine positively refused to let him depart until he had helped himself to something from the supper-table. Hearing this, he poured out a glass of brandy and drank it off; then held out his hand once more, and said good night.

“Well, I won’t press you to stay against your will,” said Mr. Blyth, rather mournfully. “I will only thank you most heartily for your kindness in sitting to me, and say that I hope to see you again when I return from the country. Good bye, Zack. I shall start in the morning by an early train. Pray, my dear boy, be steady, and remember your mother and your promises, and call on Mr. Strather in good time to-morrow, and stick to your work, Zack — for all our sakes, stick to your work!”

As they left the studio, Mat cast one parting glance at the garden door. Would the servant, who had most likely bolted and locked it early in the evening, go near it again, before she went to bed? Would Mr. Blyth walk to the bottom of the room to see that the door was safe, after he had raked the fire out? Important questions these, which only the events of the night could answer.

A little way down Kirk Street, at the end by which Zack and his friend entered it on returning from Mr. Blyth’s, stood the local theater — all ablaze with dazzling gas, and all astir with loitering blackguards. Young Thorpe stopped, as he and his companion passed under the portico, on the way to their lodgings further up the street.

“It’s only half-past ten, now,” he said. “I shall drop in here, and see the last scenes of the pantomime. Won’t you come too?”

“No,” said Mat; “I’m too sleepy. I shall go on home.”

They separated. While Zack entered the theater, Mat proceeded steadily in the direction of the tobacco shop. As soon, however, as he was well out of the glare of gas from the theater door, he crossed the street; and, returning quickly by the opposite side of the way, took the road that led him back to Valentine’s house.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book2.11.html

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