Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter XVI. The Day of Reckoning.

On the forenoon of the day that followed Mat’s return to Kirk Street, the ordinarily dull aspect of Baregrove Square was enlivened by a procession of three handsome private carriages which stopped at Mr. Thorpe’s door.

From each carriage there descended gentlemen of highly respectable appearance, clothed in shining black garments, and wearing, for the most part, white cravats. One of these gentlemen carried in his hands a handsome silver inkstand, and another gentleman who followed him, bore a roll of glossy paper, tied round with a broad ribbon of sober purple hue. The roll contained an Address to Mr. Thorpe, eulogizing his character in very affectionate terms; the inkstand was a Testimonial to be presented after the Address; and the gentlemen who occupied the three private carriages were all eminent members of the religious society which Mr. Thorpe had served in the capacity of Secretary, and from which he was now obliged to secede in consequence of the precarious state of his health.

A small and orderly assembly of idle people had collected on the pavement to see the gentlemen alight, to watch them go into the house, to stare at the inkstand, to wonder at the Address, to observe that Mr. Thorpe’s page wore his best livery, and that Mr. Thorpe’s housemaid had on new cap-ribbons and her Sunday gown. After the street door had been closed, and these various objects for popular admiration had disappeared, there still remained an attraction outside in the square, which addressed itself to the general ear. One of the footmen in attendance on the carriages, had collected many interesting particulars about the Deputation and the Testimonial, and while he related them in regular order to another footman anxious for information, the small and orderly public of idlers stood round about, and eagerly caught up any stray words explanatory of the ceremonies then in progress inside the house, which fell in their way.

One of the most attentive of these listeners was a swarthy-complexioned man with bristling whiskers and a scarred face, who had made one of the assembly on the pavement from the moment of its first congregating. He had been almost as much stared at by the people about him as the Deputation itself; and had been set down among them generally as a foreigner of the most outlandish kind: but, in plain truth, he was English to the back-bone, being no other than Matthew Grice.

Mat’s look, as he stood listening among his neighbors, was now just as quietly vigilant, his manner just as gruffly self-possessed, as usual. But it had cost him a hard struggle that morning, in the solitude of one of his longest and loneliest walks, to compose himself — or, in his favorite phrase, to “get to be his own man again.”

From the moment when he had thrown the lock of hair into the fire, to the moment when he was now loitering at Mr. Thorpe’s door, he had never doubted, whatever others might have done, that the man who had been the ruin of his sister, and the man who was the nearest blood relation of the comrade who shared his roof, and lay sick at that moment in his bed, were one and the same. Though he stood now, amid the casual street spectators, apparently as indolently curious as the most careless among them — looking at what they looked at, listening to what they listened to, and leaving the square when they left it — he was resolved all the time to watch his first opportunity of entering Mr. Thorpe’s house that very day; resolved to investigate through all its ramifications the secret which he had first discovered when the fragments of Zack’s hair were playfully held up for him to look at in the deaf and dumb girl’s hand.

The dispersion of the idlers on the pavement was accelerated, and the footman’s imaginary description of the proceedings then in progress at Mr. Thorpe’s was cut short, by the falling of a heavy shower. The frost, after breaking up, had been succeeded that year by prematurely mild spring weather — April seemed to have come a month before its time.

Regardless of the rain, Mat walked slowly up and down the streets round Baregrove Square, peering every now and then, from afar off, through the misty shower, to see if the carriages were still drawn up at Mr. Thorpe’s door. The ceremony of presenting the Testimonial was evidently a protracted one; for the vehicles were long kept waiting for their owners. The rain had passed away — the sun had reappeared — fresh clouds had gathered, and it was threatening a second shower, before the Deputation from the great Religious Society re-entered their vehicles and drove out of the square.

When they had quitted it, Mat advanced and knocked at Mr. Thorpe’s door. The clouds rolled up darkly over the sun, and the first warning drops of the new shower began to fall, as the door opened.

The servant hesitated about admitting him. He had anticipated that this sort of obstacle would be thrown in his way at the outset, and had provided against it in his own mind beforehand. “Tell your master,” he said, “that his son is ill, and I’ve come to speak to him about it.”

This message was delivered, and had the desired effect. Mat was admitted into the drawing-room immediately.

The chairs occupied by the members of the Deputation had not been moved away — the handsome silver inkstand was on the table — the Address, beautifully written on the fairest white paper, lay by it. Mr. Thorpe stood before the fireplace, and bending over towards the table, mechanically examined, for the second time, the signatures attached to the Address, while his strange visitor was being ushered up stairs.

Mat’s arrival had interrupted him just at the moment when he was going to Mrs. Thorpe’s room, to describe to her the Presentation ceremony which she had not been well enough to attend. He had stopped immediately, and the faint smile that was on his face had vanished from it, when the news of his son’s illness reached him through the servant. But the hectic flush of triumph and pleasure which his interview with the Deputation had called into his cheeks, still colored them as brightly as ever, when Matthew Grice entered the room.

“You have come, sir,” Mr. Thorpe began, “to tell me — ”

He hesitated, stammered out another word or two, then stopped. Something in the expression of the dark and strange face that he saw lowering at him under the black velvet skull-cap, suspended the words on his lips. In his present nervous, enfeebled state, any sudden emotions of doubt or surprise, no matter how slight and temporary in their nature, always proved too powerful for his self-control, and betrayed themselves in his speech and manner painfully.

Mat said not a word to break the ominous silence. Was he at that moment, in very truth, standing face to face with Arthur Carr? Could this man — so frail and meager, with the narrow chest, the drooping figure, the effeminate pink tinge on his wan wrinkled cheeks — be indeed the man who had driven Mary to that last refuge, where the brambles and weeds grew thick, and the foul mud-pools stagnated in the forgotten corner of the churchyard?

“You have come, sir,” resumed Mr. Thorpe, controlling himself by an effort which deepened the flush on his face, “to tell me news of my son, which I am not entirely unprepared for. I heard from him yesterday; and, though it did not strike me at first, I noticed on referring to his letter afterwards, that it was not in his own handwriting. My nerves are not very strong, and they have been tried — pleasurably, most pleasurably tried — already this morning, by such testimonies of kindness and sympathy as it does not fall to the lot of many men to earn. May I beg you, if your news should be of an alarming nature (which God forbid!) to communicate it as gently — ”

“My news is this,” Mat broke in: “Your son’s been hurt in the head, but he’s got over the worst of it now. He lives with me; I like him; and I mean to take care of him till he gets on his legs again. That’s my news about your son. But that’s not all I’ve got to say. I bring you news of somebody else.”

“Will you take a seat, and be good enough to explain yourself?”

They sat down at opposite sides of the table, with the Testimonial and the Address lying between them. The shower outside was beginning to fall at its heaviest. The splashing noise of the rain and the sound of running footsteps, as the few foot passengers in the square made for shelter at the top of their speed, penetrated into the room during the pause of silence which ensued after they had taken their seats. Mr. Thorpe spoke first.

“May I inquire your name?” he said, in his lowest and calmest tones.

Mat did not seem to hear the question. He took up the Address from the table, looked at the list of signatures, and turned to Mr. Thorpe.

“I’ve been hearing about this,” he said. “Are all them names there, the names of friends of yours?”

Mr. Thorpe looked a little astonished; but he answered after a moment’s hesitation:

“Certainly; the most valued friends I have in the world.”

“Friends,” pursued Mat, reading to himself the introductory sentence in the address, “who have put the most affectionate trust in you.“

Mr. Thorpe began to look rather offended as well as rather astonished. “Will you excuse me,” he said coldly, “if I beg you to proceed to the business that has brought you here.”

Mat placed the Address on the table again, immediately in front of him; and took a pencil from a tray with writing materials in it, which stood near at hand. “Friends ‘who have put the most affectionate trust in you,’” he repeated. “The name of one of them friends isn’t here. It ought to be; and I mean to put it down.”

As the point of his pencil touched the paper of the Address, Mr. Thorpe started from his chair.

“What am I to understand, sir, by this conduct?” he began haughtily, stretching out his hand to possess himself of the Address.

Mat looked up with the serpent-glitter in his eyes, and the angry red tinge glowing in the scars on his cheek. “Sit down,” he said, “I’m not quick at writing. Sit down, and wait till I’m done.”

Mr. Thorpe’s face began to look a little agitated. He took a step towards the fireplace, intending to ring the bell.

“Sit down, and wait,” Mat reiterated, in quick, fierce, quietly uttered tones of command, rising from his own chair, and pointing peremptorily to the seat just vacated by the master of the house.

A sudden doubt crossed Mr. Thorpe’s mind, and made him pause before he touched the bell. Could this man be in his right senses? His actions were entirely unaccountable — his words and his way of uttering them were alike strange — his scarred, scowling face looked hardly human at that moment. Would it be well to summon help? No, worse than useless. Except the page, who was a mere boy, there were none but women servants in the house. When he remembered this, he sat down again, and at the same moment Mat began, clumsily and slowly, to write on the blank space beneath the last signature attached to the Address.

The sky was still darkening apace, the rain was falling heavily and more heavily, as he traced the final letter, and then handed the paper to Mr. Thorpe, bearing inscribed on it the name of MARY GRICE.

“Read that name,” said Mat.

Mr. Thorpe looked at the characters traced by the pencil. His face changed instantly — he sank down into the chair — one faint cry burst from his lips — then he was silent.

Low, stifled, momentary as it was, that cry proclaimed him to be the man. He was self-denounced by it even before he cowered down, shuddering in the chair, with both his hands pressed convulsively over his face.

Mat rose to his feet and spoke; eyeing him pitilessly from head to foot.

“Not a friend of all of ’em,” he said, pointing down at the Address, “put such affectionate trust in you, as she did. When first I see her grave in the strange churchyard, I said I’d be even with the man who laid her in it. I’m here to-day to be even with you. Carr or Thorpe, whichever you call yourself; I know how you used her from first to last! Her father was my father; her name is my name: you were her worst enemy three-and-twenty year ago; you are my worst enemy now. I’m her brother, Matthew Grice!”

The hands of the shuddering figure beneath him suddenly dropped — the ghastly uncovered face looked up at him, with such a panic stare in the eyes, such a fearful quivering and distortion of all the features, that it tried even his firmness of nerve to look at it steadily. In spite of himself; he went back to his chair, and sat down doggedly by the table, and was silent.

A low murmuring and moaning, amid which a few disconnected words made themselves faintly distinguishable, caused him to look round again. He saw that the ghastly face was once more hidden. He heard the disconnected words reiterated, always in the same stifled wailing tones. Now and then, a half finished phrase was audible from behind the withered hands, still clasped over the face, He heard such fragments of sentences as these:— “Have pity on my wife” — “accept the remorse of many years” — “spare me the disgrace — ”

After those four last words, he listened for no more. The merciless spirit was roused in him again the moment he heard them.

“Spare you the disgrace?” he repeated, starting to his feet. “Did you spare her? — Not you!”

Once more the hands dropped; once more the ghastly face slowly and horribly confronted him. But this time he never recoiled from it. There was no mercy in him — none in his looks, none in his tones — as he went on.

“What! it would disgrace you, would it? Then disgraced you shall be! You’ve kep’ it a secret, have you? You shall tell that secret to every soul that comes about the house! You shall own Mary’s disgrace, Mary’s death, and Mary’s child before every man who’s put his name down on that bit of paper! — You shall, as soon as to-morrow if I like! You shall, if I have to bring your child with me to make you; if I have to stand up, hand in hand along with her, here on your own hearthstone.”

He stopped. The cowering figure was struggling upward from the chair: one of the withered hands, slowly raised, was stretching itself out towards him; the panic-stricken eyes were growing less vacant, and were staring straight into his with a fearful meaning in their look; the pale lips were muttering rapidly — at first he could not tell what; then he succeeded in catching the two words, “Mary’s child?” quickly, faintly, incessantly reiterated, until he spoke again,

“Yes,” he said, pitiless as ever. “Yes: Mary’s child. Your child. Haven’t you seen her? Is it that you’re staring and trembling about? Go and look at her: she lives within gunshot of you. Ask Zack’s friend, the Painter–Man, to show you the deaf and dumb girl he picked up among the horse-riders. Look here — look at this bracelet! Do you remember your own hair in it? The hands that brought up Mary’s child, took that bracelet from Mary’s pocket. Look at it again! Look at it as close as you like — ”

Once more he stopped. The frail figure which had been feebly rising out of the chair, while he held up the Hair Bracelet, suddenly and heavily sank back in it — he saw the eyelids half close, and a great stillness pass over the face — he heard one deep-drawn breath: but no cry now, no moaning, no murmuring — no sound whatever, except the steady splash of the fast-falling rain on the pavement outside.

Dead?

A thought of Zack welled up into his heart, and troubled it.

He hesitated for a moment, then bent over the chair, and put his hand on the bosom of the deathly figure reclining in it. A faint fluttering was still to be felt; and the pulse, when he tried that next, was beating feebly. It was not death he looked on now, but the swoon that is near neighbor to it.

For a minute or two, he stood with his eyes fixed on the white calm face beneath him, thinking. “If me and Zack,” he whispered to himself; “hadn’t been brothers together — ” He left the sentence unfinished, took his hat quickly, and quitted the room.

In the passage down-stairs, he met one of the female servants, who opened the street-door for him.

“Your master wants you,” he said, with an effort. He spoke those words, passed by her, and left the house.

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