Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter II. The Prodigal’s Return.

When Zack reached Baregrove Square, it was four in the morning. The neighboring church clock struck the hour as he approached his own door.

Immediately after parting with Mat, malicious Fate so ordained it that he passed one of those late — or, to speak more correctly, early — public-houses, which are open to customers during the “small hours” of the morning. He was parched with thirst; and the hiccuping fit which had seized him in the company of his new friend had not yet subsided. “Suppose I try what a drop of brandy will do for me,” thought Zack, stopping at the fatal entrance of the public-house.

He went in easily enough — but he came out with no little difficulty. However, he had achieved his purpose of curing the hiccups. The remedy employed acted, to be sure, on his legs as well as his stomach — but that was a trifling physiological eccentricity quite unworthy of notice.

He was far too exclusively occupied in chuckling over the remembrance of the agreeably riotous train of circumstances which had brought his new acquaintance and himself together, to take any notice of his own personal condition, or to observe that his course over the pavement was of a somewhat sinuous nature, as he walked home. It was only when he pulled the door-key out of his pocket, and tried to put it into the keyhole, that his attention was fairly directed to himself; and then he discovered that his hands were helpless, and that he was also by no means rigidly steady on his legs.

There are some men whose minds get drunk, and some men whose bodies get drunk, under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Zack belonged to the second class. He was perfectly capable of understanding what was said to him, and of knowing what he said himself, long after his utterance had grown thick, and his gait had become uncertain. He was now quite conscious that his visit to the public-house had by no means tended to sober him; and quite awake to the importance of noiselessly stealing up to bed — but he was, at the same time, totally unable to put the key into the door at the first attempt, or to look comfortably for the key-hole, without previously leaning against the area railings at his side.

“Steady,” muttered Zack, “I’m done for if I make any noise.” Here he felt for the keyhole, and guided the key elaborately, with his left hand, into its proper place. He next opened the door, so quietly that he was astonished at himself — entered the passage with marvelous stealthiness — then closed the door again, and cried “Hush!” when he found that he had let the lock go a little too noisily.

He listened before he attempted to light his candle. The air of the house felt strangely close and hot, after the air out of doors. The dark stillness above and around him was instinct with an awful and virtuous repose; and was deepened ominously by the solemn tick-tick of the kitchen clock — never audible from the passage in the day time: terribly and incomprehensibly distinct at this moment.

“I won’t bolt the door,” he whispered to himself, “till I have struck a — ” Here the unreliability of brandy as a curative agent in cases of fermentation in the stomach, was palpably demonstrated by a sudden return of the hiccuping fit. “Hush!” cried Zack for the second time; terrified at the violence and suddenness of the relapse, and clapping his hand to his mouth when it was too late.

After groping, on his knees, with extraordinary perseverance all round the rim of his bed-room candlestick, which stood on one of the hall chairs, he succeeded — not in finding the box of matches — but in knocking it off the chair, and sending it rolling over the stone floor, until it was stopped by the opposite wall. With some difficulty he captured it, and struck a light. Never, in all Zack’s experience, had any former matches caught flame with such a shrill report, as was produced from the one disastrous match which he happened to select to light his candle with.

The next thing to be done was to bolt the door. He succeeded very well with the bolt at the top, but failed signally with the bolt at the bottom, which appeared particularly difficult to deal with that night. It first of all creaked fiercely on being moved — then stuck spitefully just at the entrance of the staple — then slipped all of a sudden, under moderate pressure, and ran like lightning into its appointed place, with a bang of malicious triumph. “If that doesn’t bring my father down” — thought Zack, listening with all his ears, and stifling the hiccups with all his might — “he’s a harder sleeper than I take him for.”

But no door opened, no voice called, no sound of any kind broke the mysterious stillness of the bedroom regions. Zack sat down on the stairs, and took his boots off, got up again with some little difficulty, listened, took his candlestick, listened once more, whispered to himself, “Now for it!” and began the perilous ascent to his own room.

He held tight by the banisters, only falling against them, and making them crack from top to bottom once, before he reached the drawing-room landing. He ascended the second flight of stairs without casualties of any kind, until he got to the top step, close by his father’s bed-room door. Here, by a dire fatality, the stifled hiccups burst beyond all control; and distinctly asserted themselves by one convulsive yelp, which betrayed Zack into a start of horror. The start shook his candlestick: the extinguisher, which lay loose in it, dropped out, hopped playfully down the stone stairs, and rolled over the landing with a loud and lively ring — a devilish and brazen flourish of exultation in honor of its own activity.

“Oh Lord!” faintly ejaculated Zack, as he heard somebody’s voice speaking, and somebody’s body moving, in the bed-room; and remembered that he had to mount another flight of stairs — wooden stairs this time — before he got to his own quarters on the garret-floor.

He went up, however, directly, with the recklessness of despair; every separate stair creaking and cracking under him, as if a young elephant had been retiring to bed instead of a young man. He blew out his light, tore off his clothes, and, slipping between the sheets, began to breathe elaborately, as if he was fast asleep — in the desperate hope of being still able to deceive his father, if Mr. Thorpe came up stairs to look after him.

No sooner had he assumed a recumbent position than a lusty and ceaseless singing began in his ears, which bewildered and half deafened him. His bed, the room, the house, the whole world tore round and round, and heaved up and down frantically with him. He ceased to be a human being: he became a giddy atom, spinning drunkenly in illimitable space. He started up in bed, and was recalled to a sense of his humanity by a cold perspiration and a deathly qualm. Hiccups burst from him no longer; but they were succeeded by another and a louder series of sound — sounds familiar to everybody who has ever been at sea — sounds nautically and lamentably associated with white basins, whirling waves, and misery of mortal stomachs wailing in emetic despair.

In the momentary pauses between the rapidly successive attacks of the malady which now overwhelmed him, and which he attributed in after-life entirely to the dyspeptic influences of toasted cheese, Zack was faintly conscious of the sound of slippered feet ascending the stairs. His back was to the door. He had no strength to move, no courage to look round, no voice to raise in supplication. He knew that his door was opened — that a light came into the room — that a voice cried “Degraded beast!” — that the door was suddenly shut again with a bang — and that he was left once more in total darkness. He did not care for the light, or the voice, or the banging of the door: he did not think of them afterwards; he did not mourn over the past, or speculate on the future. He just sank back on his pillow with a gasp, drew the clothes over him with a groan, and fell asleep, blissfully reckless of the retribution that was to come with the coming daylight.

When he woke, late the next morning, conscious of nothing, at first, except that it was thawing fast out of doors, and that he had a violent headache, but gradually recalled to a remembrance of the memorable fight in the Snuggery by a sense of soreness in his ribs, and a growing conviction that his nose had become too large for his face, Zack’s memory began, correctly though confusedly, to retrace the circumstances attending his return home, and his disastrous journey up stairs to bed. With these recollections were mingled others of the light which had penetrated into his room, after his own candle was out; of the voice which had denounced him as a “Degraded beast;” and of the banging of the door which had followed. There could be no doubt that it was his father who had entered the room and apostrophized him in the briefly emphatic terms which he was now calling to mind. Never had Mr. Thorpe, on any former occasion, been known to call names, or bang doors. It was quite clear that he had discovered everything, and was exasperated with his son as he had never been exasperated with any other human being before in his life.

Just as Zack arrived at this conclusion, he heard the rustling of his mother’s dress on the stairs, and Mrs. Thorpe, with her handkerchief to her eyes, presented herself woefully at his bedside. Profoundly and penitently wretched, he tried to gain his mother’s forgiveness before he encountered his father’s wrath. To do him justice, he was so thoroughly ashamed to meet her eye, that he turned his face to the wall, and in that position appealed to his mother’s compassion in the most moving terms, and with the most vehement protestations which he had ever addressed to her.

The only effect he produced on Mrs. Thorpe was to make her walk up and down the room in violent agitation, sobbing bitterly. Now and then a few words burst lamentably and incoherently from her lips. They were just articulate enough for him to gather from them that his father had discovered everything, had suffered in consequence from an attack of palpitation of the heart, and had felt himself, on rising that morning, so unequal, both in mind and body, to deal unaided with the enormity of his son’s offense, that he had just gone out to request the co-operation of the Reverend Aaron Yollop. On discovering this, Zack’s penitence changed instantly into a curious mixture of indignation and alarm. He turned round quickly towards his mother. But, before he could open his lips, she informed him, speaking with an unexampled severity of tone, that he was on no account to think of going to the office as usual, but was to wait at home until his father’s return — and then hurried from the room. The fact was, that Mrs. Thorpe distrusted her own inflexibility, if she stayed too long in the presence of her penitent son; but Zack could not, unhappily, know this. He could only see that she left him abruptly, after delivering an ominous message; and could only place the gloomiest interpretation on her conduct.

“When mother turns against me, I’ve lost my last chance.” He stopped before he ended the sentence, and sat up in bed, deliberating with himself for a minute or two. “I could make up my mind to bear anything from my father, because he has a right to be angry with me, after what I’ve done. But if I stand old Yollop again, I’ll be — ” Here, whatever Zack said was smothered in the sound of a blow, expressive of fury and despair, which he administered to the mattress on which he was sitting. Having relieved himself thus, he jumped out of bed, pronouncing at last in real earnest those few words of fatal slang which had often burst from his lips in other days as an empty threat:—

“It’s all over with me; I must bolt from home.”

He refreshed both mind and body by a good wash; but still his resolution did not falter. He hurried on his clothes, looked out of window, listened at his door; and all this time his purpose never changed. Remembering but too well the persecution he had already suffered at the hands of Mr. Yollop, the conviction that it would now be repeated with fourfold severity was enough of itself to keep him firm to his desperate intention. When he had done dressing, his thoughts were suddenly recalled by the sight of his pocket-book to his companion of the past night. As he reflected on the appointment for Thursday morning, his eyes brightened, and he said to himself aloud, while he turned resolutely to the door, “That queer fellow talked of going back to America. If I can’t do anything else, I’ll go back with him!”

Just as his hand was on the lock, he was startled by a knock at the door. He opened it, and found the housemaid on the landing with a letter for him. Returning to the window, he hastily undid the envelope. Several gaily-printed invitation cards with gilt edges dropped out. There was a letter among them, which proved to be in Mr. Blyth’s handwriting, and ran thus:—

             “Wednesday.

“MY DEAR ZACK— The enclosed are the tickets for my picture show, which I told you about yesterday evening. I send them now, instead of waiting to give them to you to-night, at Lavvie’s suggestion. She thinks only three days’ notice, from now to Saturday, rather short, and considers it advisable to save even a few hours, so as to enable you to give your friends the most time possible to make their arrangements for coming to my studio. Post all the invitation tickets, therefore, that you send about among your connection, at once, as I am posting mine; and you will save a day by that means, which is a good deal. Patty is obliged to pass your house this morning on an errand, so I send my letter by her. How conveniently things sometimes turn out, don’t they?

“Introduce anybody you like; but I should prefer intellectual people; my figure-subject of ‘Columbus in sight of the New World’ being treated mystically, and, therefore, adapted to tax the popular mind to the utmost. Please warn your friends beforehand that it is a work of high art, and that nobody can hope to understand it in a hurry.

                        “Affectionately yours,

                        “V. BLYTH.”

The perusal of this letter reminded Zack of certain recent aspirations in the direction of the fine arts, which had escaped his slippery memory altogether, while he was thinking of his future prospects. “I’ll stick to my first idea,” he thought, “and be an artist, if Blyth will let me, after what’s happened. If he won’t, I’ve got Mat to fall back upon; and I’ll run as wild in America as ever he did.”

Reflecting thus, Zack descended cautiously to the back parlor, which was called a “library.” The open door showed him that no one was in the room. He went in, and in great haste scrawled the following answer to Mr. Blyth’s letter:—

“MY DEAR BLYTH— Thank you for the tickets. I have got into a dreadful scrape, having been found out coming home tipsy at four in the morning, which I did by stealing the family door-key. My prospects after this are so extremely unpleasant that I am going to make a bolt of it. I write these lines in a tearing hurry, for fear my father should come home before I have done — he having gone to Yollop’s to set the parson at me again worse than ever.

“I can’t come to you to-night, because your house would be the first place they would send to after me. But I mean to be an artist, if you won’t desert me. Don’t, my dear fellow! I know I’m a scamp; but I’ll try and be a reformed character, if you will only stick by me. When you take your walk tomorrow, I shall be at the turnpike in the Laburnum Road, waiting for you, at three o’clock. If you won’t come there, or won’t speak to me when you do come, I shall leave England and take to something desperate.

“I have got a new friend — the best and most interesting fellow in the world. He has been half his life in the wilds of America; so, if you don’t give me the go-by, I shall bring him to see your picture of Columbus.

“I feel so miserable, and have got such a headache, that I can’t write any more. Ever yours,

                        “Z. THORPE, JUN.”

After directing this letter, and placing it in his pocket to be put into the post by his own hand, Zack looked towards the door and hesitated — advanced a step or two to go out — and ended by returning to the writing-table, and taking a fresh sheet of paper out of the portfolio before him.

“I can’t leave the old lady (though she won’t forgive me) without writing a line to keep up her spirits and say goodbye,” he thought, as he dipped the pen in the ink, and began in his usual dashing, scrawling way. But he could not get beyond “My dear Mother.” The writing of those three words seemed to have suddenly paralyzed him. The strong hand that had struck out so sturdily all through the fight, trembled now at merely touching a sheet of paper. Still, he tried desperately to write something, even if it were only the one word, “Goodbye.” — tried till the tears came into his eyes, and made all further effort hopeless.

He crumpled up the paper and rose hastily, brushing away the tears with his hand, and feeling a strange dread and distrust of himself as he did so. It was rarely, very rarely, that his eyes were moistened as they were moistened now. Few human beings have lived to be twenty years of age without shedding more tears than had ever been shed by Zack.

“I can’t write to her while I’m at home, and I know she’s in the next room to me. I will send her a letter when I’m out of the house, saying it’s only for a little time, and that I’m coming back when the angry part of this infernal business is all blown over.” Such was his resolution, as he tore up the crumpled paper, and went out quickly into the passage.

He took his hat from the table. His hat? No: he remembered that it was the hat which had been taken from the man at the tavern. At the most momentous instant of his life — when his heart was bowing down before the thought of his mother — when he was leaving home in secret, perhaps for ever — the current of his thoughts could be incomprehensibly altered in its course by the influence of such a trifle as this!

It was thus with him; it is thus with all of us. Our faculties are never more completely at the mercy of the smallest interests of our being, than when they appear to be most fully absorbed by the mightiest. And it is well for us that there exists this seeming imperfection in our nature. The first cure of many a grief, after the hour of parting, or in the house of death, has begun, insensibly to ourselves, with the first moment when we were betrayed into thinking of so little a thing even as a daily meal.

The rain which had accompanied the thaw was falling faster and faster; inside the house was dead silence, and outside it damp desolation, as Zack opened the street door, and, without hesitating a moment, dashed out desperately through mud and wet, to cast himself loose on the thronged world of London as a fugitive from his own home.

He paused before he took the turning out of the square; the recollections of weeks, months, years past, all whirling through his memory in a few moments of time. He paused, looking through the damp, foggy atmosphere at the door which he had just left — never, it might be, to approach it again; then moved away, buttoned his coat over his chest with trembling, impatient fingers, and saying to himself, “I’ve done it, and nothing can undo it now,” turned his back resolutely on Baregrove Square.

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