Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XIV. Mary’s Grave.

Matthew Grice was a resolute traveler; but no resolution is powerful enough to alter the laws of inexorable Time–Tables to suit the convenience of individual passengers. Although Mat left Rubbleford in less than an hour after he had arrived there, he only succeeded in getting half way to Bangbury, before he had to stop for the night, and wait at an intermediate station for the first morning train on what was termed the Trunk Line. By this main railroad he reached his destination early in the forenoon, and went at once to Dawson’s Buildings.

“Mrs. Peckover has just stepped out, sir — Mr. Randle being a little better this morning — for a mouthful of fresh air. She’ll be in again in half-an-hour,” said the maid-of-all-work who opened Mr. Randle’s door.

Mat began to suspect that something more than mere accident was concerned in keeping Mrs. Peckover and himself asunder. “I’ll come again in half-an-hour,” he said — then added, just as the servant was about to shut the door:— “Which is my way to the church?”

Bangbury church was close at hand, and the directions he received for finding it were easy to follow. But when he entered the churchyard, and looked about him anxiously to see where he should begin searching for his sister’s grave, his head grew confused, and his heart began to fail him. Bangbury was a large town, and rows and rows of tombstones seemed to fill the churchyard bewilderingly in every visible direction.

At a little distance a man was at work opening a grave, and to him Mat applied for help; describing his sister as a stranger who had been buried somewhere in the churchyard better than twenty years ago. The man was both stupid and surly, and would give no advice, except that it was useless to look near where he was digging, for they were all respectable townspeople buried about there.

Mat walked round to the other side of the church. Here the graves were thicker than ever; for here the poor were buried. He went on slowly through them, with his eyes fixed on the ground, towards some trees which marked the limits of the churchyard; looking out for a place to begin his search in, where the graves might be comparatively few, and where his head might not get confused at the outset. Such a place he found at last, in a damp corner under the trees. About this spot the thin grass languished; the mud distilled into tiny water-pools; and the brambles, briars, and dead leaves lay thickly and foully between a few ragged turf-mounds. Could they have laid her here? Could this be the last refuge to which Mary ran after she fled from home?

A few of the mounds had stained moldering tomb-stones at their heads. He looked at these first; and finding only strange names on them, turned next to the mounds marked out by cross-boards of wood. At one of the graves the cross-board had been torn, or had rotted away, from its upright supports, and lay on the ground weather-stained and split, but still faintly showing that it had once had a few letters cut in it. He examined this board to begin with, and was trying to make out what the letters were, when the sound of some one approaching disturbed him. He looked up, and saw a woman walking slowly towards the place where he was standing.

It was Mrs. Peckover herself! She had taken a prescription for her sick brother to the chemist’s — had bought him one or two little things he wanted in the High Street — and had now, before resuming her place at his bedside, stolen a few minutes to go and look at the grave of Madonna’s mother. It was many, many years since Mrs. Peckover had last paid a visit to Bangbury churchyard.

She stopped and hesitated when she first caught sight of Mat; but, after a moment or two, not being a woman easily baulked in anything when she had once undertaken to do it, continued to advance, and never paused for the second time until she had come close to the grave by which Mat stood, and was looking him steadily in the face, exactly across it.

He was the first to speak. “Do you know whose grave this is?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” answered Mrs. Peckover, glancing indignantly at the broken board and the mud and brambles all about it. “Yes, sir, I do know; and, what’s more, I know that it’s a disgrace to the parish. Money has been paid twice over to keep it decent; and look what a state it’s left in!”

“I asked you whose grave it was,” repeated Mat, impatiently.

“A poor, unfortunate, forsaken creature’s, who’s gone to Heaven if ever an afflicted, repenting woman went there yet!” answered Mrs. Peckover, warmly.

“Forsaken? Afflicted? A woman, too?” Mat repeated to himself, thoughtfully.

“Yes, forsaken and afflicted,” cried Mrs. Peckover, overhearing him. “Don’t you say no ill of her, whoever you are. She shan’t be spoken unkindly of in my hearing, poor soul!”

Mat looked up suddenly and eagerly. “What’s your name?” he inquired.

“My name’s Peckover, and I’m not ashamed of it,” was the prompt reply. “And, now, if I may make so bold, what’s yours?”

Mat took from his pocket the Hair Bracelet, and, fixing his eyes intently on her face, held it up, across the grave, for her to look at. “Do you know this?” he said.

Mrs. Peckover stooped forward, and closely inspected the Bracelet for a minute or two. “Lord save us!” she exclaimed, recognizing it, and confronting him with cheeks that had suddenly become colorless, and eyes that stared in terror and astonishment. “Lord save us! how did you come by that? And who for mercy’s sake are you?”

“My name’s Matthew Grice,” he answered quickly and sternly. “This Bracelet belonged to my sister, Mary Grice. She run away from home, and died, and was buried in Bangbury churchyard. If you know her grave, tell me in plain words — is it here?”

Breathless as she was with astonishment, Mrs. Peckover managed to stammer a faint answer in the affirmative, and to add that the initials, “M. G.,” would be found somewhere on the broken board lying at their feet. She then tried to ask a question or two in her turn; but the words died away in faint exclamations of surprise. “To think of me and you meeting together!” was all she could say; — “her own brother, too! Oh! to think of that! — only to think of that!”

Mat looked down at the mud, the brambles, and the rotting grass that lay over what had once been a living and loving human creature. The dangerous brightness glittered in his eyes, the cold change spread fast over his cheeks, and the scars of the arrow-wounds began to burn redly and more redly, as he whispered to himself — “I’ll be even yet, Mary, with the man who laid you here!”

“Does Mr. Blyth know who you are, sir?” asked Mrs. Peckover, hesitating and trembling as she put this question. “Did he give you the Bracelet?”

She stopped. Mat was not listening to her. His eyes were fastened on the grave: he was still talking to himself in quick whispering tones.

“Her Bracelet was hid from me in another man’s chest,” he said — “I’ve found her Bracelet. Her child was hid from me in another man’s house — I’ve found her child. Her grave was hid from me in a strange churchyard — I’ve found her grave. The man who laid her in it is hid from me still — I shall find him!“

“Please do listen to me, sir, for one moment,” pleaded Mrs. Peckover, more nervously than before. “Does Mr. Blyth know about you? And little Mary — oh, sir, whatever you do, pray, pray don’t take her away from where she is now! You can’t mean to do that, sir, though you are her own mother’s brother? You can’t, surely?”

He looked up at her so quickly, with such a fierce, steady, serpent-glitter in his light-grey eyes, that she recoiled a step or two; still pleading, however, with desperate perseverance for an answer to her last question.

“Only tell me, sir, that you don’t mean to take little Mary away, and I won’t ask you to say so much as another word! You’ll leave her with Mr. and Mrs. Blyth, won’t you, sir? For your sister’s sake, you’ll leave her with the poor bed-ridden lady that’s been like a mother to her for so many years past? — for your dear, lost sister’s sake, that I was with when she died — ”

“Tell me about her.” He said those few words with surprising gentleness, as Mrs. Peckover thought, for such a rough-looking man.

“Yes, yes, all you want to know,” she answered. “But I can’t stop here. There’s my brother — I’ve got such a turn with seeing you, it’s almost put him out of my head — there’s my brother, that I must go back to, and see if he’s asleep still. You just please to come along with me, and wait in the parlor — it’s close by — while I step upstairs — ” (Here she stopped in great confusion. It seemed like running some desperate risk to, ask this strange, stern-featured relation of Mary Grice’s into her brother’s house.) “And yet,” thought Mrs. Peckover, “if I can only soften his heart by telling him about his poor unfortunate sister, it may make him all the readier to leave little Mary — ”

At this point her perplexities were cut short by Matthew himself, who said, shortly, that he had been to Dawson’s Buildings already to look after her. On hearing this, she hesitated no longer. It was too late to question the propriety or impropriety of admitting him now.

“Come away, then,” she said; “don’t let’s wait no longer. And don’t fret about the infamous state they’ve left things in here,” she added, thinking to propitiate him, as she saw his eyes turn once more at parting, on the broken board and the brambles around the grave. “I know where to go, and who to speak to — ”

“Go nowhere, and speak to nobody,” he broke in sternly, to her great astonishment. “All what’s got to be done to it, I mean to do myself.”

“You!”

“Yes, me. It was little enough I ever did for her while she was alive; and it’s little enough now, only to make things look decent about the place where she’s buried. But I mean to do that much for her; and no other man shall stir a finger to help me.”

Roughly as it was spoken, this speech made Mrs. Peckover feel easier about Madonna’s prospects. The hard-featured man was, after all, not so hard-hearted as she had thought him at first. She even ventured to begin questioning him again, as they walked together towards Dawson’s Buildings.

He varied very much in his manner of receiving her inquiries, replying to some promptly enough, and gruffly refusing, in the plainest terms, to give a word of answer to others.

He was quite willing, for example, to admit that he had procured her temporary address at Bangbury from her daughter at Rubbleford; but he flatly declined to inform her how he had first found out that she lived at Rubbleford at all. Again, he readily admitted that neither Madonna nor Mr. Blyth knew who he really was; but he refused to say why he had not disclosed himself to them, or when he intended — if he ever intended at all — to inform them that he was the brother of Mary Grice. As to getting him to confess in what manner he had become possessed of the Hair Bracelet, Mrs. Peckover’s first question about it, although only answered by a look, was received in such a manner as to show her that any further efforts on her part in that direction would be perfectly fruitless.

On one side of the door, at Dawson’s Buildings, was Mr. Randle’s shop; and on the other was Mr. Randle’s little dining parlor. In this room Mrs. Peckover left Mat, while she went up stairs to see if her sick brother wanted anything. Finding that he was still quietly sleeping, she only waited to arrange the bed-clothes comfortably about him, and to put a hand-bell easily within his reach in case he should awake, and then went down stairs again immediately.

She found Mat sitting with his elbows on the one little table in the dining-parlor, his head resting on his hands. Upon the table lying by the side of the Bracelet, was the lock of hair out of Jane Holdsworth’s letter, which he had yet once more taken from his pocket to look at. “Why, mercy on me!” cried Mrs. Peckover, glancing at it, “surely it’s the same hair that’s worked into the Bracelet! Wherever, for goodness sake, did you get that?”

“Never mind where I got it. Do you know whose hair it is? Look a little closer. The man this hair belonged to was the man she trusted in — and he laid her in the churchyard for her pains.”

“Oh! who was he? who was he?” asked Mrs. Peckover, eagerly

“Who was he?” repeated Matthew, sternly. “What do you mean by asking me that?”

“I only mean that I never heard a word about the villain — I don’t so much as know his name.”

“You don’t?” He fastened his eyes suspiciously on her as he said those two words.

“No; as true as I stand here I don’t. Why, I didn’t even know that your poor dear sister’s name was Grice till you told me.”

His look of suspicion began to change to a look of amazement as he heard this. He hurriedly gathered up the Bracelet and the lock of hair, and put them into his pocket again.

“Let’s hear first how you met with her,” he said. “I’ll have a word or two about the other matter afterwards.”

Mrs. Peckover sat down near him, and began to relate the mournful story which she had told to Valentine, and Doctor and Mrs. Joyce, now many years ago, in the Rectory dining-room. But on this occasion she was not allowed to go through her narrative uninterruptedly. While she was speaking the few simple words which told how she had sat down by the road-side, and suckled the half-starved infant of the forsaken and dying Mary Grice, Mat suddenly reached out his heavy, trembling hand, and took fast hold of hers. He griped it with such force that, stout-hearted and hardy as she was, she cried out in alarm and pain, “Oh, don’t! you hurt me — you hurt me!”

He dropped her hand directly, and turned his face away from her; his breath quickening painfully, his fingers fastening on the side of his chair, as if some great pang of oppression were trying him to the quick. She rose and asked anxiously what ailed him; but, even as the words passed her lips, he mastered himself with that iron resolution of his which few trials could bend, and none break, and motioned to her to sit down again.

“Don’t mind me,” he said; “I’m old and tough-hearted with being battered about in the world, and I can’t give myself vent nohow with talking or crying like the rest of you. Never mind; it’s all over now. Go on.”

She complied, a little nervously at first; but he did not interrupt her again. He listened while she proceeded, looking straight at her; not speaking or moving — except when he winced once or twice, as a man winces under unexpected pain, while Mary’s death-bed words were repeated to him. Having reached this stage of her narrative, Mrs. Peckover added little more; only saying, in conclusion: “I took care of the poor soul’s child, as I said I would; and did my best to behave like a mother to her, till she got to be ten year old; then I give her up — because it was for her own good — to Mr. Blyth.”

He did not seem to notice the close of the narrative. The image of the forsaken girl, sitting alone by the roadside, with her child’s natural sustenance dried up within her — travel-worn, friendless, and desperate — was still uppermost in his mind; and when he next spoke, gratitude for the help that had been given to Mary in her last sore distress was the one predominant emotion, which strove roughly to express itself to Mrs. Peck over in these words:

“Is there any living soul you care about that a trifle of money would do a little good to?” he asked, with such abrupt eagerness that she was quite startled by it.

“Lord bless me!” she exclaimed, “what do you mean? What has that got to do with your poor sister, or Mr. Blyth?”

“It’s got this to do,” burst out Matthew, starting to his feet, as the struggling gratitude within him stirred body and soul both together; “you turned to and helped Mary when she hadn’t nobody else in the world to stand by her. She was always father’s darling — but father couldn’t help her then; and I was away on the wrong side of the sea, and couldn’t be no good to her neither. But I’m on the right side, now; and if there’s any friends of yours, north, south, east, or west, as would be happier for a trifle of money, here’s all mine; catch it, and give it ’em.” (He tossed his beaver-skin roll, with the bank-notes in it, into Mrs. Peckover’s lap.) “Here’s my two hands, that I dursn’t take a holt of yours with, for fear of hurting you again; here’s my two hands that can work along with any man’s. Only give ’em something to do for you, that’s all! Give ’em something to make or mend, I don’t care what — ”

“Hush! hush!” interposed Mrs. Peckover; “don’t be so dreadful noisy, there’s a good man! or you’ll wake my brother up stairs. And, besides, where’s the use to make such a stir about what I done for your sister? Anybody else would have took as kindly to her as I did, seeing what distress she was in, poor soul! Here,” she continued, handing him back the beaver-skin roll; “here’s your money, and thank you for the offer of it. Put it up safe in your pocket again. We manage to keep our heads above water, thank God! and don’t want to do no better than that. Put it up in your pocket again, and then I’ll make bold to ask you for something else.”

“For what?” inquired Mat, looking her eagerly in the face.

“Just for this: that you’ll promise not to take little Mary from Mr. Blyth. Do, pray do promise me you won’t.”

“I never thought to take her away,” he answered. “Where should I take her to? What can a lonesome old vagabond, like me, do for her? If she’s happy where she is — let her stop where she is.”

“Lord bless you for saying that!” fervently exclaimed Mrs. Peckover, smiling for the first time, and smoothing out her gown over her knees with an air of inexpressible relief. “I’m rid of my grand fright now, and getting to breathe again freely, which I haven’t once yet been able to do since I first set eyes on you. Ah! you’re rough to look at; but you’ve got your feelings like the rest of us. Talk away now as much as you like. Ask me about anything you please — ”

“What’s the good?” he broke in, gloomily. “You don’t know what I wanted you to know. I come down here for to find out the man as once owned this,” — he pulled the lock of hair out of his pocket again — “and you can’t help me. I didn’t believe it when you first said so, but I do now.”

“Well, thank you for saying that much; though you might have put it civiler — ”

“His name was Arthur Carr. Did you never hear tell of anybody with the name of Arthur Carr?”

“No: never — never till this very moment.”

“The Painter-man will know,” continued Mat, talking more to himself than to Mrs. Peckover. “I must go back, and chance it with the Painter-man, after all.”

“Painter-man?” repeated Mrs. Peckover. “Painter? Surely you don’t mean Mr. Blyth?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why, what in the name of fortune can you be thinking of! How should Mr. Blyth know more than me? He never set eyes on little Mary till she was ten year old; and he knows nothing about her poor unfortunate mother except what I told him.”

These words seemed at first to stupefy Mat: they burst upon him in the shape of a revelation for which he was totally unprepared. It had never once occurred to him to doubt that Valentine was secretly informed of all that he most wished to know. He had looked forward to what the painter might be persuaded — or, in the last resort, forced — to tell him, as the one certainty on which he might finally depend; and here was this fancied security exposed, in a moment, as the wildest delusion that ever man trusted in! What resource was left? To return to Dibbledean, and, by the legal help of Mr. Tatt, to possess himself of any fragments of evidence which Joanna Grice might have left behind her in writing? This seemed but a broken reed to depend on; and yet nothing else now remained.

“I shall find him! I don’t care where he’s hid away from me, I shall find him yet,” thought Mat, still holding with dogged and desperate obstinacy to his first superstition, in spite of every fresh sign that appeared to confute it.

“Why worrit yourself about finding Arthur Carr at all?” pursued Mrs. Peckover, noticing his perplexed and mortified expression. “The wretch is dead, most likely, by this time — ”

“I’m not dead!” retorted Mat, fiercely; “and you’re not dead; and you and me are as old as him. Don’t tell me he’s dead again! I say he’s alive; and, by God, I’ll be even with him!”

“Oh, don’t talk so, don’t! It’s shocking to hear you and see you,” said Mrs. Peckover, recoiling from the expression of his eye at that moment, just as she had recoiled from it already over Mary’s grave. “Suppose he is alive, why should you go taking vengeance into your own hands after all these years? Your poor sister’s happy in heaven; and her child’s took care of by the kindest people, I do believe, that ever drew breath in this world. Why should you want to be even with him now? If he hasn’t been punished already, I’ll answer for it he will be — in the next world, if not in this. Don’t talk about it, or think about it any more, that’s a good man! Let’s be friendly and pleasant together again — like we were just now — for Mary’s sake. Tell me where you’ve been to all these years. How is it you’ve never turned up before? Come! tell me, do.”

She ended by speaking to him in much the same tone which she would have made use of to soothe a fractious child. But her instinct as a woman guided her truly: in venturing on that little reference to “Mary,” she had not ventured in vain. It quieted him, and turned aside the current of his thoughts into the better and smoother direction. “Didn’t she never talk to you about having a brother as was away aboard ship?” he asked, anxiously.

“No. She wouldn’t say a word about any of her friends, and she didn’t say a word about you. But how did you come to be so long away? — that’s what I want to know,” said Mrs. Peckover, pertinaciously repeating her question, partly out of curiosity, partly out of the desire to keep him from returning to the dangerous subject of Arthur Carr.

“I was alway a bitter bad ’un, I was,” said Matthew, meditatively. “There was no keeping of me straight, try it anyhow you like. I bolted from home, I bolted from school, I bolted from aboard ship — ”

“Why? What for?”

“Partly because I was a bitter bad ’un, and partly because of a letter I picked up in port, at the Brazils, at the end of a long cruise. Here’s the letter — but it’s no good showing it to you: the paper’s so grimed and tore about, you can’t read it.”

“Who wrote it? Mary?”

“No: father — saying what had happened to Mary, and telling me not to come back home till things was pulled straight again. Here — here’s what he said — under the big grease-spot. ‘If you can get continued employment anywhere abroad, accept it instead of coming back. Better for you, at your age, to be spared the sight of such sorrow as we are now suffering.’ Do you see that?”

“Yes, yes, I see. Ah! poor man! he couldn’t give no kinder better advice; and you — ”

“Deserted from my ship. The devil was in me to be off on the tramp, and father’s letter did the rest. I got wild and desperate with the thought of what had happened to Mary, and with knowing they were ashamed to see me back again at home. So the night afore the ship sailed for England I slipped into a shore-boat, and turned my back on salt-junk and the boatswain’s mate for the rest of my life.”

“You don’t mean to say you’ve done nothing but wander about in foreign parts from that time to this?”

“I do, though! I’d a notion I should be shot for a deserter if I turned up too soon in my own country. That kep’ me away for ever so long, to begin with. Then tramps’ fever got into my head; and there was an end of it.”

“Tramps’ fever! Mercy on me! what do you mean?”

“I mean this: when a man turns gypsy on his own account, as I did, and tramps about through cold and hot, and winter and summer, not caring where he goes or what becomes of him, that sort of life ends by getting into his head, just like liquor does — except that it don’t get out again. It got into my head. It’s in it new. Tramps’ fever kep’ me away in the wild country. Tramps’ fever will take me back there afore long. Tramps’ fever will lay me down, some day, in the lonesome places, with my hand on my rifle and my face to the sky; and I shan’t get up again till the crows and vultures come and carry me off piecemeal.”

“Lord bless us! how can you talk about yourself in that way?” cried Mrs. Peckover, shuddering at the grim image which Mat’s last words suggested. “You’re trying to make yourself out worse than you are. Surely you must have thought of your father and sister sometimes — didn’t you?”

“Think of them? Of course I did! But, mind ye, there come a time when I as good as forgot them altogether. They seemed to get smeared out of my head — like we used to smear old sums off our slates at school.”

“More shame for you! Whatever else you forgot, you oughtn’t to have forgotten — ”

“Wait a bit. Father’s letter told me — I’d show you the place, only I know you couldn’t read it — that he was a going to look after Mary, and bring her back home, and forgive her. He’d done that twice for me, when I run away; so I didn’t doubt but what he’d do it just the same for her. She’ll pull through her scrape with father just as I used to pull through mine — was what I thought. And so she would, if her own kin hadn’t turned against her; if father’s own sister hadn’t — ” He stopped; the frown gathered on his brow, and the oath burst from his lips, as he thought of Joanna Grice’s share in preventing Mary’s restoration to her home.

“There! there!” interposed Mrs. Peckover, soothingly. “Talk about something pleasanter. Let’s hear how you come back to England.”

“I can’t rightly fix it when Mary first begun to drop out of my head like,” Mat continued, abstractedly pursuing his previous train of recollections. “I used to think of her often enough, when I started for my run in the wild country. That was the time, mind ye, when I had clear notions about coming back home. I got her a scarlet pouch and another feather plaything then, knowing she was fond of knick-knacks, and making it out in my own mind that we two was sure to meet together again. It must have been a longish while after that, afore I got ashamed to go home. But I did get ashamed. Thinks I, ‘I haven’t a rap in my pocket to show father, after being away all this time. I’m getting summut of a savage to look at already; and Mary would be more frighted than pleased to see me as I am now. I’ll wait a bit,’ says I, ‘and see if I can’t keep from tramping about, and try and get a little money, by doing some decent sort of work, afore I go home.’ I was nigh about a good ten days’ march then from any seaport where honest work could be got for such as me; but I’d fixed to try, and I did try, and got work in a ship-builder’s yard. It wasn’t no good. Tramps’ fever was in my head; and in two days more I was off again to the wild country, with my gun over my shoulder, just as damned a vagabond as ever.”

Mrs. Peckover held up her hands in mute amazement. Matthew, without taking notice of the action, went on, speaking partly to her and partly to himself.

“It must have been about that time when Mary and father, and all what had to do with them, begun to drop out of my head. But I kep’ them two knick-knacks, which was once meant for presents for her — long after I’d lost all clear notion of ever going back home again, I kep’ ’em — from first to last I kep’ ’em — I can’t hardly say why; unless it was that I’d got so used to keeping of them that I hadn’t the heart to let ’em go. Not, mind ye, but what they mightn’t now and then have set me thinking of father and Mary at home — at times, you know, when I changed ’em from one bag to another, or took and blew the dust off of ’em, for to keep ’em as nice as I could. But the older I got, the worse I got at calling anything to mind in a clear way about Mary and the old country. There seemed to be a sort of fog rolling up betwixt us now. I couldn’t see her face clear, in my own mind, no longer. It come upon me once or twice in dreams, when I nodded alone over my fire after a tough day’s march — it come upon me at such times so clear, that it startled me up, all in a cold sweat, wild and puzzled with not knowing at first whether the stars was shimmering down at me in father’s paddock at Dibbledean, or in the lonesome places over the sea, hundreds of miles away from any living soul. But that was only dreams, you know. Waking, I was all astray now, whenever I fell a-thinking about father or her. The longer I tramped it over the lonesome places, the thicker that fog got which seemed to have rose up in my mind between me and them I’d left at home. At last, it come to darken in altogether, and never lifted no more, that I can remember, till I crossed the seas again and got back to my own country.”

“But how did you ever think of coming back, after all those years?” asked Mrs. Peckover.

“Well, I got a good heap of money, for once in a way, with digging for gold in California,” he answered; “and my mate that I worked with, he says to me one day:— ‘I don’t see my way to how we are to spend our money, now we’ve got it, if we stop here. What can we treat ourselves to in this place, excepting bad brandy and cards? Let’s go over to the old country, where there ain’t nothing we want that we can’t get for our money; and, when it’s all gone, let’s turn tail again, and work for more.’ He wrought upon me, like that, till I went back with him. We quarreled aboard ship; and when we got into port, he went his way and I went mine. Not, mind ye, that I started off at once for the old place as soon as I was ashore. That fog in my mind, I told you of, seemed to lift a little when I heard my own language, and saw my own country-people’s faces about me again. And then there come a sort of fear over me — a fear of going back home at all, after the time I’d been away. I got over it, though, and went in a day or two. When I first laid my hand on the churchyard gate that Mary and me used to swing on, and when I looked up at the old house, with the gable ends just what they used to be (though the front was new painted, and strange names was over the shop-door) — then all my time in the wild country seem to shrivel up somehow, and better than twenty year ago begun to be a’most like yesterday. I’d seen father’s name in the churchyard — which was no more than I looked for; but when they told me Mary had never been brought back, when they said she’d died many a year ago among strange people, they cut me to the quick.”

“Ah! no wonder, no wonder!”

“It was a wonder to me, though. I should have laughed at any man, if he’d told me I should be took so at hearing what I heard about her, after all the time I’d been away. I couldn’t make it out then, and I can’t now. I didn’t feel like my own man, when I first set eyes on the old place. And then to hear she was dead — it cut me, as I told you. It cut me deeper still, when I come to tumble over the things she’d left behind her in her box. Twenty years ago got nigher and nigher to yesterday, with every fresh thing belonging to her that I laid a hand on. There was a arbor in father’s garden she used to be fond of working in of evenings. I’d lost all thought of that place for more years than I can reckon up. I called it to mind again — and called her to mind again, too, sitting and working and singing in the arbor — only with laying holt of a bit of patchwork stuff in the bottom of her box, with her needle and thread left sticking in it.”

“Ah, dear, dear!” sighed Mrs. Peckover, “I wish I’d seen her then! She was as happy, I dare say, as the bird on the tree. But there’s one thing I can’t exactly make out yet,” she added — “how did you first come to know all about Mary’s child?”

“All? There wasn’t no all in it, till I see the child herself. Except knowing that the poor creeter’s baby had been born alive, I knowed nothing when I first come away from the old place in the country. Child! I hadn’t nothing of the sort in my mind, when I got back to London. It was how to track the man as was Mary’s death, that I puzzled and worrited about in my head, at that time — ”

“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Peckover, interposing to keep him away from the dangerous subject, as she heard his voice change, and saw his eyes begin to brighten again. “Yes, yes — but how did you come to see the child? Tell me that.”

“Zack took me into the Painter-man’s big room — ”

“Zack! Why, good gracious Heavens! do you mean Master Zachary Thorpe?”

“I see a young woman standing among a lot of people as was all a staring at her,” continued Mat, without noticing the interruption. “I see her just as close to, and as plain, as I see you. I see her look up, all of a sudden, front face to front face with me. A creeping and a crawling went through me; and I says to myself, ‘Mary’s child has lived to grow up, and that’s her.’”

“But, do pray tell me, how ever you come to know Master Zack?”

“I says to myself ‘That’s her,’” repeated Mat, his rough voice sinking lower and lower, his attention wandering farther and farther away from Mrs. Peckover’s interruptions. “Twenty year ago had got to be like yesterday, when I was down at the old place; and things I hadn’t called to mind for long times past, I called to mind when I come to the churchyard-gate, and see father’s house. But there was looks Mary had with her eyes, turns Mary had with her head, bits of twitches Mary had with her eyebrows when she looked up at you, that I’d clean forgot. They all come back to me together, as soon as ever I see that young woman’s face.”

“And do you really never mean to let your sister’s child know who you are? You may tell me that, surely — though you won’t speak a word about Master Zack.”

“Let her know who I am? Mayhap I’ll let her know that much, before long. When I’m going back to the wild country, I may say to her: ‘Rough as I am to look at, I’m your mother’s brother, and you’re the only bit of my own flesh and blood I’ve got left to cotton to in all the world. Give us a shake of your hand, and a kiss for mother’s sake; and I won’t trouble you no more.’ I may say that, afore I go back, and lose sight of her for good and all.”

“Oh, but you won’t go back. Only you tell Mr. Blyth you don’t want to take her away, and then say to him, ‘I’m Mr. Grice, and — ’”

“Stop! Don’t you get a-talking about Mr. Grice.”

“Why not? It’s your lawful name, isn’t it?”

“Lawful enough, I dare say. But I don’t like the sound of it, though it is mine. Father as good as said he was ashamed to own it, when he wrote me that letter: and I was afraid to own it, when I deserted from my ship. Bad luck has followed the name from first to last. I ended with it years ago, and I won’t take up with it again now. Call me ‘Mat.’ Take it as easy with me as if I was kin to you.”

“Well, then — Mat,” said Mrs. Peckover with a smile. “I’ve got such a many things to ask you still — ”

“I wish you could make it out to ask them to-morrow,” rejoined Matthew. “I’ve overdone myself already, with more talking than I’m used to. I want to be quiet with my tongue, and get to work with my hands for the rest of the day. You don’t happen to have a foot-rule in the house, do you?”

On being asked to explain what motive could induce him to make this extraordinary demand for a foot-rule, Mat answered that he was anxious to proceed at once to the renewal of the cross-board at the head of his sister’s grave. He wanted the rule to measure the dimensions of the old board: he desired to be directed to a timber-merchant’s, where he could buy a new piece of wood; and, after that, he would worry Mrs. Peckover about nothing more. Extraordinary as his present caprice appeared to her, the good woman saw that it had taken complete possession of him, and wisely and willingly set herself to humor it. She procured for him the rule, and the address of a timber-merchant; and then they parted, Mat promising to call again in the evening at Dawson’s Buildings.

When he presented himself at the timber-merchant’s, after having carefully measured the old board in the churchyard, he came in no humor to be easily satisfied. Never was any fine lady more difficult to decide about the texture, pattern, and color to be chosen for a new dress, than Mat, was when he arrived at the timber-merchant’s, about the grain, thickness, and kind of wood to be chosen for the cross-board at the head of Mary’s grave. At last, he selected a piece of walnut-wood; and, having paid the price demanded for it, without any haggling, inquired next for a carpenter, of whom he might hire a set of tools. A man who has money to spare, has all things at his command. Before evening, Mat had a complete set of tools, a dry shed to use them in, and a comfortable living-room at a public-house near, all at his own sole disposal.

Being skillful enough at all carpenter’s work of an ordinary kind, he would, under most circumstances, have completed in a day or two such an employment as he had now undertaken. But a strange fastidiousness, a most uncharacteristic anxiety about the smallest matters, delayed him through every stage of his present undertaking. Mrs. Peckover, who came every morning to see how he was getting on, was amazed at the slowness of his progress. He was, from the first, morbidly scrupulous in keeping the board smooth and clean. After he had shaped it, and fitted it to its upright supports; after he had cut in it (by Mrs. Peckover’s advice) the same inscription which had been placed on the old board — the simple initials “M. G.,” with the year of Mary’s death, “1828” — after he had done these things, he was seized with an unreasonable, obstinate fancy for decorating the board at the sides. In spite of all that Mrs. Peckover could say to prevent him, he carved an anchor at one side, and a tomahawk at the other — these being the objects with which he was most familiar, and therefore the objects which he chose to represent. But even when the carving of his extraordinary ornaments had been completed, he could not be prevailed on to set the new cross-board up in its proper place. Fondly as artists or authors linger over their last loving touches to the picture or the book, did Mat now linger, day after day, over the poor monument to his sister’s memory, which his own rough hands had made. He smoothed it carefully with bits of sand-paper, he rubbed it industriously with leather, he polished it anxiously with oil, until, at last, Mrs. Peckover lost all patience; and, trusting in the influence she had already gained over him, fairly insisted on his bringing his work to a close. Even while obeying her, he was still true to his first resolution. He had said that no man’s hand should help in the labor he had now undertaken; and he was as good as his word, for he carried the cross-board himself to the churchyard.

All this time, he never once looked at that lock of hair which had been accustomed to take so frequently from his pocket but a few days back. Perhaps there was nothing in common between the thought of tracing Arthur Carr, and the thoughts of Mary that came to him while he was at work on the walnut-wood plank.

But when the cross-board had been set up; when he had cleared away the mud and brambles about the mound, and had made a smooth little path round it; when he had looked at his work from all points of view, and had satisfied himself that he could do nothing more to perfect it, the active, restless, and violent elements in his nature seemed to awake, as it were, on a sudden. His fingers began to search again in his pocket for the fatal lock of hair; and when he and Mrs. Peckover next met, the first words he addressed to her announced his immediate departure for Dibbledean.

She had strengthened her hold on his gratitude by getting him permission, through the Rector of Bangbury, to occupy himself, without molestation, in the work of repairing his sister’s grave. She had persuaded him to confide to her many of the particulars concerning himself which he had refused to communicate at their first interview. But when she tried, at parting, to fathom what his ultimate intentions really were, now that he was leaving Bangbury with the avowed purpose of discovering Arthur Carr, she failed to extract from him a single sentence of explanation, or even so much as a word of reply. When he took his farewell, he charged her not to communicate their meeting to Mr. Blyth, till she heard from him or saw him again; and he tried once more to thank her in as fit words as he could command, for the pity and kindness she had shewn towards Mary Grice; but, to the very last, he closed his lips resolutely on the ominous subject of Arthur Carr.

He had been a fortnight absent from London, when he set forth once more for Dibbledean, to try that last chance of tracing out the hidden man, which might be afforded him by a search among the papers of Joanna Grice.

The astonishment and delight of Mr. Tatt when Matthew, appearing in the character of a client at the desolate office door, actually announced himself as the sole surviving son of old Joshua Grice, flowed out in such a torrent of congratulatory words, that Mat was at first literally overwhelmed by them. He soon recovered himself, however; and while Mr. Tatt was still haranguing fluently about proving his client’s identity, and securing his client’s right of inheritance, silenced the solicitor, by declaring as bluntly as usual, that he had not come to Dibbledean to be helped to get hold of money, but to be helped to get hold of Joanna Grice’s papers. This extraordinary announcement produced a long explanation and a still longer discussion, in the middle of which Mat lost his patience, and declared that he would set aside all legal obstacles and delays forthwith, by going to Mr. Nawby’s office, and demanding of that gentleman, as the official guardian of the late Miss Grice’s papers, permission to look over the different documents which the old woman might have left behind her.

It was to no earthly purpose that Mr. Tatt represented this course of proceeding as unprofessional, injudicious, against etiquette, and utterly ruinous, looked at from any point of view. While he was still expostulating, Matthew was stepping out at the door; and Mr. Tatt, who could not afford to lose even this most outrageous and unmanageable of clients, had no other alternative but to make the best of it, and run after him.

Mr. Nawby was a remarkably lofty, solemn, and ceremonious gentleman, feeling as bitter a hatred and scorn for Mr. Tatt as it is well possible for one legal human being to entertain toward another. There is no doubt that he would have received the irregular visit of which he was now the object with the most chilling contempt, if he had only been allowed time to assert his own dignity. But before he could utter a single word, Matthew, in defiance of all that Mr. Tatt could say to silence him, first announced himself in his proper character; and then, after premising that he came to worry nobody about money matters, coolly added that he wanted to look over the late Joanna Grice’s letters and papers directly, for a purpose which was not of the smallest consequence to anyone but himself.

Under ordinary circumstances, Mr. Nawby would have simply declined to hold any communication with Mat, until his identity had been legally proved. But the prosperous solicitor of Dibbledean had a grudge against the audacious adventurer who had set up in practice against him; and he therefore resolved to depart a little on this occasion from the strictly professional course, for the express purpose of depriving Mr. Tatt of as many prospective six-and-eight-pences as possible. Waving his hand solemnly, when Mat had done speaking, he said: “Wait a moment, sir,” then rang a bell and ordered in his head clerk.

“Now, Mr. Scutt,” said Mr. Nawby, loftily addressing the clerk, “have the goodness to be a witness in the first place, that I protest against this visit on Mr. Tatt’s part, as being indecorous, unprofessional, and unbusiness-like. In the second place, be a witness, also, that I do not admit the identity of this party,” (pointing to Mat), “and that what I am now about to say to him, I say under protest, and denying pro forma that he is the party he represents himself to be. You thoroughly understand, Mr. Scutt?”

Mr. Scutt bowed reverently. Mr. Nawby went on.

“If your business connection, sir, with that party,” he said, addressing Matthew, and indicating Mr. Tatt, “was only entered into to forward the purpose you have just mentioned to me, I beg to inform you (denying, you will understand, at the same time, your right to ask for such information) that you may wind up matters with your solicitor whenever you please. The late Miss Grice has left neither letters nor papers. I destroyed them all, by her own wish, in her own presence, and under her own written authority, during her last illness. My head clerk here, who was present to assist me, will corroborate the statement, if you wish it.”

Mat listened attentively to these words, but listened to nothing more. A sturdy legal altercation immediately ensued between the two solicitors — but it hardly reached his ears. Mr. Tatt took his arm, and led him out, talking more fluently than ever; but he had not the poorest trifle of attention to bestow on Mr. Tatt. All his faculties together seemed to be absorbed by this one momentous consideration: Had he really and truly lost the last chance of tracing Arthur Carr?

When they got into the High Street, his mind somewhat recovered its freedom of action, and he began to feel the necessity of deciding at once on his future movements. Now that his final resource had failed him, what should he do next? It was useless to go back to Bangbury, useless to remain at Dibbledean. Yet the fit was on him to be moving again somewhere — better even to return to Kirk Street than to remain irresolute and inactive on the scene of his defeat.

He stopped suddenly; and saying — “It’s no good waiting here now; I shall go back to London;” impatiently shook himself free of Mr. Tatt’s arm in a moment. He found it by no means so easy, however, to shake himself free of Mr. Tatt’s legal services. “Depend on my zeal,” cried this energetic solicitor, following Matthew pertinaciously on his way to the station. “If there’s law in England, your identity shall be proved and your rights respected. I intend to throw myself into this case, heart and soul. Money, Justice, Law, Morality, are all concerned — One moment, my dear sir! If you must really go back to London, oblige me at any rate, with your address, and just state in a cursory way, whether you were christened or not at Dibbledean church. I want nothing more to begin with — absolutely nothing more, on my word of honor as a professional man.”

Willing in his present mood to say or do anything to get rid of his volunteer solicitor, Mat mentioned his address in Kirk Street, and the name by which he was known there, impatiently said “Yes,” to the inquiry as to whether he had been christened at Dibbledean church — and then abruptly turning away, left Mr. Tatt standing in the middle of the high road, excitably making a note of the evidence just collected, in a new legal memorandum-book.

As soon as Mat was alone, the ominous question suggested itself to him again: Had he lost the last chance of tracing Arthur Carr? Although inexorable facts seemed now to prove past contradiction that he had — even yet he held to his old superstition more doggedly and desperately than ever. Once more, on his way to the station, he pulled out the lock of hair, and obstinately pondered over it. Once more, while he journeyed to London, that strange conviction upheld him, which had already supported him under previous checks. “I shall find him,” thought Mat, whirling along in the train. “I don’t care where he’s hid away from me, I shall find him yet!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book2.14.html

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