Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XIII. The Search for Arthur Carr.

Mr. Blyth was astir betimes on the morning after Mat and young Thorpe had visited him in the studio. Manfully determined not to give way an inch to his own continued reluctance to leave home, he packed up his brushes and colors, and started on his portrait-painting tour by the early train which he had originally settled to travel by.

Although he had every chance of spending his time, during his absence, agreeably as well as profitably, his inexplicable sense of uneasiness at being away from home, remained with him even on the railway; defying all the exhilarating influences of rapid motion and change of scene, and oppressing him as inveterately as it had oppressed him the night before. Bad, however, as his spirits now were, they would have been much worse, if he had known of two remarkable domestic events, which it had been the policy of his household to keep strictly concealed from him on the day of his departure.

When Mr. Blyth’s cook descended the first thing in the morning to air the studio in the usual way, by opening the garden door, she was not a little amazed and alarmed to find that, although it was closed, it was neither bolted nor locked. She communicated this circumstance (reproachfully, of course) to the housemaid, who answered (indignantly, as was only natural) by reiterating her assertion of the past night, that she had secured the door properly at six o’clock in the evening. Polly, appealing to contradictory visible fact, rejoined that the thing was impossible. Patty, holding fast to affirmatory personal knowledge, retorted that the thing had been done. Upon this, the two had a violent quarrel — followed by a sulky silence — succeeded by an affectionate reconciliation — terminated by a politic resolution to say nothing more about the matter, and especially to abstain from breathing a word in connection with it to the ruling authorities above stairs. Thus it happened that neither Valentine nor his wife knew anything of the suspicious appearance presented that morning by the garden door.

But, though Mrs. Blyth was ignorant on this point, she was well enough informed on another of equal, if not greater, domestic importance. While her husband was down-stairs taking his early breakfast, Madonna came into her room; and communicated confidentially all the particulars of the terrible fright that she had suffered, while looking for her bodkin-case in the studio, on the night before. How her candle could possibly have gone out, as it did in an instant, she could not say. She was quite sure that nobody was in the room when she entered it; and quite sure that she felt no draught of wind in any direction — in short, she knew nothing of her own experience, but that her candle suddenly went out; that she remained for a little time, half dead with fright, in the darkness; and that she then managed to grope her way back to her bedroom, in which a night-light was always burning.

Mrs. Blyth followed the progress of this strange story on Madonna’s fingers with great interest to the end; and then — after suggesting that the candle might have gone out through some defect in the make of it, or might really have been extinguished by a puff of air which the girl was too much occupied in looking for her bodkin-case to attend to — earnestly charged her not to say a word on the subject of her adventure to Valentine, when she went to help him in packing up his painting materials. “He is nervous and uncomfortable enough already, poor fellow, at the idea of leaving home,” thought Mrs. Blyth; “and if he heard the story about the candle going out, it would only make him more uneasy still.” To explain this consideration to Madonna was to ensure her discretion. She accordingly kept her adventure in the studio so profound a secret from Mr. Blyth, that he no more suspected what had happened to her, than he suspected what had happened to the Hair Bracelet, when he hastily assured himself that he was leaving his bureau properly locked, by trying the lid of it the last thing before going away.

Such were the circumstances under which Valentine left home. He was not, however, the only traveler of the reader’s acquaintance, whose departure from London took place on the morning after the mysterious extinguishing of Madonna’s light in the painting-room. By a whimsical coincidence, it so happened that, at the very same hour when Mr. Blyth was journeying in one direction, to paint portraits, Mr. Matthew Marksman (now, perhaps, also recognizable as Mr. Matthew Grice) was journeying in another, to pay a second visit to Dibbledean.

Not a visit of pleasure by any means, but a visit of business — business, which, in every particular, Mat had especially intended to keep secret from Zack; but some inkling of which he had nevertheless allowed to escape him, during his past night’s conversation with the lad in Kirk Street.

When young Thorpe and he met on the morning after that conversation, he was sufficiently aware of the fact that his overdose of brandy had set him talking in a very unguarded manner; and desired Zack, as bluntly as usual, to repeat to him all that he had let out while the liquor was in his head. After this request had been complied with, he volunteered no additional confidences. He simply said that what had slipped from his tongue was no more than the truth; but that he could add nothing to it, and explain nothing about it, until he had first discovered whether “Arthur Carr” were alive or dead. On being asked how, and when, he intended to discover this, he answered that he was going into the country to make the attempt that very morning; and that, if he succeeded, he would, on his return, tell his fellow-lodger unreservedly all that the latter might wish to know. Favored with this additional promise, Zack was left alone in Kirk Street, to quiet his curiosity as well as he could, with the reflection that he might hear something more about his friend’s secrets, when Mat returned from his trip to the country.

In order to collect a little more information on the subject of these secrets than was at present possessed by Zack, it will be necessary to return for a moment to the lodgings in Kirk Street, at that particular period of the night when Mr. Marksman was sitting alone in the front room, and was holding the Hair Bracelet crumpled up tight in one of his hands.

His first glance at the letters engraved on the clasp not only showed him to whom the Bracelet had once belonged, but set at rest in his mind all further doubt as to the identity of the young woman, whose face had so startled and impressed him in Mr. Blyth’s studio. He was neither logical enough nor legal enough in his mode of reasoning, to see, that, although he had found his sister’s bracelet in Valentine’s bureau, it did not actually follow as a matter of proof — though it might as a matter of suspicion — that he had also found his sister’s child in Valentine’s house. No such objection as this occurred to him. He was now perfectly satisfied that Madonna was what he had suspected her to be from the first — Mary’s child.

But to the next questions that he asked himself, concerning the girl’s unknown father, the answers were not so easy to be found:— Who was Arthur Carr? Where was he? Was he still alive?

His first hasty suspicion that Valentine might have assumed the name of Arthur Carr, and might therefore be the man himself, was set at rest immediately by another look at the Bracelet. He knew that the lightest in color, of the two kinds of hair of which it was made, was Carr’s hair, because it exactly resembled the surplus lock sent back by the jeweler, and enclosed in Jane Holdsworth’s letter. He made the comparison and discovered the resemblance at a glance. The evidence of his own eyesight, which was enough for this, was also enough to satisfy him immediately that Arthur Carr’s hair was, in color, as nearly as possible the exact opposite of Mr. Blyth’s hair.

Still, though the painter was assuredly not the father, might he not know who the father was, or had been? How could he otherwise have got possession of Mary Grice’s bracelet and Mary Grice’s child?

These two questions suggested a third in Mat’s mind. Should he discover himself at once to Mr. Blyth; and compel him, by fair means or foul, to solve all doubts, and disclose what he knew?

No: not at once. That would be playing, at the outset, a desperate and dangerous move in the game, which had best be reserved to the last. Besides, it was useless to think of questioning Mr. Blyth just now — except by the uncertain and indiscreet process of following him into the country — for he had settled to take his departure from London, early the next morning.

But it was now impossible to rest, after what had been already discovered, without beginning, in one direction or another, the attempt to find out Arthur Carr. Mat’s purpose of doing this sprang from the strongest of all resolutions — a vindictive resolution. That dangerous part of the man’s nature which his life among the savages and his wanderings in the wild places of the earth had been stealthily nurturing for many a long year past, was beginning to assert itself, now that he had succeeded in penetrating the mystery of Madonna’s parentage by the mother’s side. Placed in his position, the tender thought of their sister’s child would, at this particular crisis, have been uppermost in many men’s hearts. The one deadly thought of the villain who had been Mary’s ruin was uppermost in Mat’s.

He pondered but a little while on the course that he should pursue, before the idea of returning to Dibbledean, and compelling Joanna Grice to tell more than she had told at their last interview, occurred to him. He disbelieved the passage in her narrative which stated that she had seen and heard nothing of Arthur Carr in all the years that had elapsed since the flight and death of her niece: he had his own conviction, or rather his own presentiment (which he had mentioned to Zack), that the man was still alive somewhere; and he felt confident that he had it in his power, as a last resource, to awe the old woman into confessing everything that she knew. To Dibbledean, therefore, in the first instance, he resolved to go.

If he failed there in finding any clue to the object of his inquiry, he determined to repair next to Rubbleford, and to address himself boldly to Mrs. Peckover. He remembered that, when Zack had first mentioned her extraordinary behavior about the Hair Bracelet in Mr. Blyth’s hall, he had prefaced his words by saying, that she knew apparently as much of Madonna’s history as the painter did himself; and that she kept that knowledge just as close and secret. This woman, therefore, doubtless possessed information which she might be either entrapped or forced into communicating. There would be no difficulty about finding out where she lived; for, on the evening when he had mimicked her, young Thorpe had said that she kept a dairy and muffin-shop at Rubbleford. To that town, then, he proposed to journey, in the event of failing in his purpose at Dibbledean.

And if, by any evil chance, he should end in ascertaining no more from Mrs. Peckover than from Joanna Grice, what course should he take next? There would be nothing to be done then, but to return to London — to try the last great hazard — to discover himself to Mr. Blyth, come what might, with the Hair Bracelet to vouch for him in his hand.

These were his thoughts, as he sat alone in the lodging in Kirk Street. At night, they had ended in the fatal consolation of the brandy bottle — in the desperate and solitary excess, which had so cheated him of his self-control, that the lurking taint which his life among the savages had left in his disposition, and the deadly rancor which his recent discovery of his sister’s fate had stored up in his heart, escaped from concealment, and betrayed themselves in that half-drunken, half-sober occupation of scouring the rifle-barrel, which it had so greatly amazed Zack to witness, and which the lad had so suddenly and strangely suspended by his few chance words of sympathizing reference to Mary’s death.

But, in the morning, Mat’s head was clear, and his dangerous instincts were held once more under cunning control. In the morning, therefore, he declined explaining himself to young Thorpe, and started quietly for the country by the first train.

On being set down at the Dibbledean Station, Mat lingered a little and looked about him, just as he had lingered and looked on the occasion of his first visit. He subsequently took the same road to the town which he had then taken; and, on gaining the church, stopped, as he had formerly stopped, at the churchyard-gate.

This time, however, he seemed to have no intention of passing the entrance — no intention, indeed, of doing anything, unless standing vacantly by the gate, and mechanically swinging it backwards and forwards with both his hands, can be considered in the light of an occupation. As for the churchyard, he hardly looked at it now. There were two or three people, at a little distance, walking about among the graves, who it might have been thought would have attracted his attention; but he never took the smallest notice of them. He was evidently meditating about something, for he soon began to talk to himself — being, like most men who have passed much of their time in solitude, unconsciously in the habit of thinking aloud.

“I wonder how many year ago it is, since she and me used to swing back’ards and for’ards on this,” he said, still pushing the gate slowly to and fro. “The hinges used to creak then. They go smooth enough now. Oiled, I suppose.” As he said this, he moved his hands from the bar on which they rested, and turned away to go on to the town; but stopped, and walking back to the gate, looked attentively at its hinges — “Ah,” he said, “not oiled. New.”

“New,” he repeated, walking slowly towards the High Street — “new since my time, like everything else here. I wish I’d never come back — I wish to God I’d never come back!”

On getting into the town, he stopped at the same place where he had halted on his first visit to Dibbledean, to look up again, as he had looked then, at the hosier’s shop which had once belonged to Joshua Grice. Here, those visible and tangible signs and tokens which he required to stimulate his sluggish memory, were not very easy to recognize. Though the general form of his father’s old house was still preserved, the re-painting and renovating of the whole front had somewhat altered it, in its individual parts, to his eyes. He looked up and down at the gables, and all along from window to window; and shook his head discontentedly.

“New again here,” he said. “I can’t make out for certain which winder it was Mary and me broke between us, when I come away from school, the year afore I went to sea. Whether it was Mary that broke the winder, and me that took the blame,” he continued, slowly pursuing his way — “or whether it was her that took the blame, and me that broke the winder, I can’t rightly call to mind. And no great wonder neither, if I’ve forgot such a thing as that, when I can’t even fix it for certain, yet, whether she used to wear her Hair Bracelet or not, while I was at home.”

Communing with himself in this way, he reached the turning that led to Joanna Grice’s cottage.

His thoughts had thus far been straying away idly and uninterruptedly to the past. They were now recalled abruptly to present emergencies by certain unexpected appearances which met his eye, the moment he looked down the lane along which he was walking.

He remembered this place as having struck him by its silence and its loneliness, on the occasion of his first visit to Dibbledean. He now observed with some surprise that it was astir with human beings, and noisy with the clamor of gossiping tongues. All the inhabitants of the cottages on either side of the road were out in their front gardens. All the townspeople who ought to have been walking about the principal streets, seemed to be incomprehensibly congregated in this one narrow little lane. What were they assembled here to do? What subject was it that men and women — and even children as well — were all eagerly talking about?

Without waiting to hear, without questioning anybody, without appearing to notice that he was stared at (as indeed all strangers are in rural England), as if he were walking about among a breeched and petticoated people in the character of a savage with nothing but war paint on him, Mat steadily and rapidly pursued his way down the lane to Joanna Grice’s cottage. “Time enough,” thought he, “to find out what all this means, when I’ve got quietly into the house I’m bound for.” As he approached the cottage, he saw, standing at the gate, what looked, to his eyes, like two coaches — one, very strange in form: both very remarkable in color. All about the coaches stood solemn-looking gentlemen; and all about the solemn-looking gentlemen, circled inquisitively and excitably, the whole vagabond boy-and-girl population of Dibbledean.

Amazed, and even bewildered (though he hardly knew why) by what he saw, Mat hastened on to the cottage. Just as he arrived at the garden paling, the door opened, and from the inside of the dwelling there protruded slowly into the open air a coffin carried on four men’s shoulders, and covered with a magnificent black velvet pall.

Mat stopped the moment he saw the coffin, and struck his hand violently on the paling by his side. “Dead!” he exclaimed under his breath.

“A friend of the late Miss Grice’s?” asked a gently inquisitive voice near him.

He did not hear. All his attention was fixed on the coffin, as it was borne slowly over the garden path. Behind it walked two gentlemen, mournfully arrayed in black cloaks and hat-bands. They carried white handkerchiefs in their hands, and used them to wipe — not their eyes — but their lips, on which the balmy dews of recent wine-drinking glistened gently.

“Dix, and Nawby — the medical attendant of the deceased, and the solicitor who is her sole executor,” said the voice near Mat, in tones which had ceased to be gently inquisitive, and had become complacently explanatory instead. “That’s Millbury the undertaker, and the other is Gutteridge of the White Hart Inn, his brother-in-law, who supplies the refreshments, which in my opinion makes a regular job of it,” continued the voice, as two red-faced gentlemen followed the doctor and the lawyer. “Something like a funeral, this! Not a halfpenny less than forty pound, I should say, when it’s all paid for. Beautiful, ain’t it?” concluded the voice, becoming gently inquisitive again.

Still Mat kept his eyes fixed on the funeral proceedings in front, and took not the smallest notice of the pertinacious speaker behind him.

The coffin was placed in the hearse. Dr. Dix and Mr. Nawby entered the mourning coach provided for them. The smug human vultures who prey commercially on the civilized dead, arranged themselves, with black wands, in solemn Undertakers’ order of procession on either side of the funeral vehicles. Those clumsy pomps of feathers and velvet, of strutting horses and marching mutes, which are still permitted among us to desecrate with grotesquely-shocking fiction the solemn fact of death, fluttered out in their blackest state grandeur and showed their most woeful state paces, as the procession started magnificently with its meager offering of one dead body more to the bare and awful grave.

When Mary Grice died, a fugitive and an outcast, the clown’s wife and the Irish girl who rode in the circus wept for her, stranger though she was, as they followed her coffin to the poor corner of the churchyard. When Joanna Grice died in the place of her birth, among the townspeople with whom her whole existence had been passed, every eye was tearless that looked on her funeral procession; the two strangers who made part of it, gossiped pleasantly as they rode after the hearse about the news of the morning; and the sole surviving member of her family, whom chance had brought to her door on her burial-day, stood aloof from the hired mourners, and moved not a step to follow her to the grave.

No: not a step. The hearse rolled on slowly towards the churchyard, and the sight-seers in the lane followed it; but Matthew Grice stood by the garden paling, at the place where he had halted from the first. What was her death to him? Nothing but the loss of his first chance of tracing Arthur Carr. Tearlessly and pitilessly she had left it to strangers to bury her brother’s daughter; and now, tearlessly and pitilessly, there stood her brother’s son, leaving it to strangers to bury her.

“Don’t you mean to follow to the churchyard, and see the last of it?” inquired the same inquisitive voice, which had twice already endeavored to attract Mat’s attention.

He turned round this time to look at the speaker, and confronted a wizen, flaxen-haired, sharp-faced man, dressed in a jaunty shooting-jacket, carrying a riding-cane in his hand, and having a thorough-bred black-and-tan terrier in attendance at his heels.

“Excuse me asking the question,” said the wizen man; “but I noticed how dumbfoundered you were when you saw the coffin come out. ‘A friend of the deceased,’ I thought to myself directly — ”

“Well,” interrupted Mat, gruffly, “suppose I am; what then?”

“Will you oblige me by putting this in your pocket?” asked the wizen man, giving Mat a card. “My name’s Tatt, and I’ve recently started in practice here as a solicitor. I don’t want to ask any improper questions, but, being a friend of the deceased, you may perhaps have some claim on the estate; in which case, I should feel proud to take care of your interests. It isn’t strictly professional, I know, to be touting for the chance of a client in this way; but I’m obliged to do it in self-defense. Dix, Nawby, Millbury, and Gutteridge, all play into one another’s hands, and want to monopolize among ’em the whole Doctoring, Lawyering, Undertaking, and Licensed Victualling business of Dibbledean. I’ve made up my mind to break down Nawby’s monopoly, and keep as much business out of his office as I can. That’s why I take time by the forelock, and give you my card.” Here Mr. Tatt left off explaining, and began to play with his terrier.

Mat looked up thoughtfully at Joanna Grice’s cottage. Might she not, in all probability, have left some important letters behind her? And, if he mentioned who he was, could not the wizen man by his side help him to get at them?

“A good deal of mystery about the late Miss Grice,” resumed Mr. Tatt, still playing with the terrier. “Nobody but Dix and Nawby can tell exactly when she died, or how she’s left her money. Queer family altogether. (Rats, Pincher! where are the rats?) There’s a son of old Grice’s, who has never, they say, been properly accounted for. (Hie, boy! there’s a cat! hie after her, Pincher!) If he was only to turn up now, I believe, between ourselves, it would put such a spoke in Nawby’s wheel — ”

“I may have a question or two to ask you one of these days,” interposed Mat, turning away from the garden paling at last. While his new acquaintance had been speaking, he had been making up his mind that he should best serve his purpose of tracing Arthur Carr, by endeavoring forthwith to get all the information that Mrs. Peckover might be able to afford him. In the event of this resource proving useless, there would be plenty of time to return to Dibbledean, discover himself to Mr. Tatt, and ascertain whether the law would not give to Joshua Grice’s son the right of examining Joanna Grice’s papers.

“Come to my office,” cried Mr. Tatt, enthusiastically. “I can give you a prime bit of Stilton, and as good a glass of bitter beer as ever you drank in your life.”

Mat declined this hospitable invitation peremptorily, and set forth at once on his return to the station. All Mr. Tatt’s efforts to engage him for an “early day,” and an “appointed hour,” failed. He would only repeat, doggedly, that at some future time he might have a question or two to ask about a matter of law, and that his new acquaintance should then be the man to whom he would apply for information.

They wished each other “good morning” at the entrance of the lane, — Mr. Tatt lounging slowly up the High Street, with his terrier at his heels; and Mat walking rapidly in the contrary direction, on his way back to the railway station.

As he passed the churchyard, the funeral procession had just arrived at its destination, and the bearers were carrying the coffin from the hearse to the church door. He stopped a little by the road-side to see it go in. “She was no good to anybody about her, all her lifetime,” he thought bitterly, as the last heavy fold of the velvet pall was lost to view in the darkness of the church entrance. “But if she’d only lived a day or two longer, she might have been of some good to me. There’s more of what I wanted to know nailed down along with her in that coffin, than ever I’m likely to find out anywhere else. It’s a long hunt of mine, this is — a long hunt on a dull scent; and her death has made it duller.” With this farewell thought, he turned from the church.

As he pursued his way back to the railroad, he took Jane Holdsworth’s letter out of his pocket, and looked at the hair enclosed in it. It was the fourth or fifth time he had done this during the few hours that had passed since he had possessed himself of Mary’s Bracelet. From that period there had grown within him a vague conviction, that the possession of Carr’s hair might in some way lead to the discovery of Carr himself. He knew perfectly well that there was not the slightest present or practical use in examining this hair, and yet, there was something that seemed to strengthen him afresh in his purpose, to encourage him anew after his unexpected check at Dibbledean, merely in the act of looking at it. “If I can’t track him no other way,” he muttered, replacing the hair in his pocket, “I’ve got the notion into my head, somehow, that I shall track him by this.”

Mat found it no very easy business to reach Rubbleford. He had to go back a little way on the Dibbledean line, then to diverge by a branch line, and then to get upon another main line, and travel along it some distance before he reached his destination. It was dark by the time he reached Rubbleford. However, by inquiring of one or two people, he easily found the dairy and muffin-shop when he was once in the town; and saw, to his great delight, that it was not shut up for the night. He looked in at the window, under a plaster cast of a cow, and observed by the light of one tallow candle burning inside, a chubby, buxom girl sitting at the counter, and either drawing or writing something on a slate. Entering the shop, after a moment or two of hesitation, he asked if he could see Mrs. Peckover.

“Mother went away, sir, three days ago, to nurse uncle Bob at Bangbury,” answered the girl.

(Here was a second check — a second obstacle to defer the tracing of Arthur Carr! It seemed like a fatality!)

“When do you expect her back?” asked Mat.

“Not for a week or ten days, sir,” answered the girl. “Mother said she wouldn’t have gone, but for uncle Bob being her only brother, and not having wife or child to look after him at Bangbury.”

(Bangbury! — Where had he heard that name before?)

“Father’s up at the rectory, sir,” continued the girl, observing that the stranger looked both disappointed and puzzled. “If it’s dairy business you come upon, I can attend to it; but it’s anything about accounts to settle, mother said they were to be sent on to her.”

“Maybe I shall have a letter to send your mother,” said Mat, after a moment’s consideration. “Can you write me down on a bit of paper where she is?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” And the girl very civilly and readily wrote in her best round hand, on a slip of bill-paper, this address:— “Martha Peckover, at Rob: Randle, 2 Dawson’s Buildings, Bangbury.”

Mat absently took the slip of paper from her, and put it into his pocket; then thanked the girl, and went out. While he was inside the shop, he had been trying in vain to call to mind where he had heard the name of Bangbury before: the moment he was in the street, the lost remembrance came back to him. Surely, Bangbury was the place where Joanna Grice had told him that Mary was buried!

After walking a few paces, he came to a large linen-draper’s shop, with plenty of light in the window. Stopping here, he hastily drew from his pocket the manuscript containing the old woman’s “Justification” of her conduct; for he wished to be certain about the accuracy of his recollection, and he had an idea that the part of the Narrative which mentioned Mary’s death would help to decide him in his present doubt.

Yes! on turning to the last page, there it was written in so many words: “I sent, by a person I could depend on, money enough to bury her decently in Bangbury churchyard.”

“I’ll go there to-night,” said Mat to himself, thrusting the letter into his pocket, and taking the way back to the railway station immediately.

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