Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter V. Fate Works, with Mr. Blyth for an Instrument.

The great day of the year in Valentine’s house was always the day on which his pictures for the Royal Academy Exhibition were shown in their completed state to friends and admiring spectators, congregated in his own painting room. His visitor represented almost every variety of rank in the social scale; and grew numerous in proportion as they descended from the higher to the lower degrees. Thus, the aristocracy of race was usually impersonated, in his studio, by his one noble patron, the Dowager Countess of Brambledown; the aristocracy of art by two or three Royal Academicians; and the aristocracy of money by eight or ten highly respectable families, who came quite as much to look at the Dowager Countess as to look at the pictures. With these last, the select portion of the company might be said to terminate; and, after them, flowed in promiscuously the obscure majority of the visitors — a heterogeneous congregation of worshippers at the shrine of art, who were some of them of small importance, some of doubtful importance, some of no importance at all; and who included within their numbers, not only a sprinkling of Mr. Blyth’s old-established tradesmen, but also his gardener, his wife’s old nurse, the brother of his housemaid, and the father of his cook. Some of his respectable friends deplored, on principle, the “leveling tendencies” which induced him thus to admit a mixture of all classes into his painting-room, on the days when he exhibited his pictures. But Valentine was warmly encouraged in taking this course by no less a person than Lady Brambledown herself, whose perverse pleasure it was to exhibit herself to society as an uncompromising Radical, a reviler of the Peerage, a teller of scandalous Royal anecdotes, and a worshipper of the memory of Oliver Cromwell.

On the eventful Saturday which was to display his works to an applauding public of private friends, Mr. Blyth’s studio, thanks to Madonna’s industry and attention, looked really in perfect order — as neat and clean as a room could be. A semicircle of all the available chairs in the house — drawing-room and bed-room chairs intermingled — ranged itself symmetrically in front of the pictures. That imaginative classical landscape, “The Golden Age,” reposed grandly on its own easel; while “Columbus in Sight of the New World” — the largest canvas Mr. Blyth had ever worked on, encased in the most gorgeous frame he had ever ordered for one of his own pictures — was hung on the wall at an easy distance from the ground, having proved too bulky to be safely accommodated by any easel in Valentine’s possession.

Except Mr. Blyth’s bureau, all the ordinary furniture and general litter of the room had been cleared out of it, or hidden away behind convenient draperies in corners. Backwards and forwards over the open space thus obtained, Mr. Blyth walked expectant, with the elastic skip peculiar to him; looking ecstatically at his pictures, as he passed and repassed them — now singing, now whistling; sometimes referring mysteriously to a small manuscript which he carried in his hand, jauntily tied round with blue ribbon; sometimes following the lines of the composition in “Columbus,” by flourishing his right hand before it in the air, with dreamy artistic grace; — always, turn where he would, instinct from top to toe with an excitable activity which defied the very idea of rest — and always hospitably ready to rush to the door and receive the first enthusiastic visitor with open arms, at a moment’s notice.

Above stairs, in the invalid room, the scene was of a different kind. Here also the arrival of the expected visitors was an event of importance; but it was awaited in perfect tranquillity and silence. Mrs. Blyth lay in her usual position on the couch-side of the bed, turning over a small portfolio of engravings; and Madonna stood at the front window, where she could command a full view of the garden gate, and of the approach from it to the house. This was always her place on the days when the pictures were shown; for, while occupying this position, she was able, by signs, to indicate the arrival of the different guests to her adopted mother, who lay too far from the window to see them. On all other days of the year, it was Mrs. Blyth who devoted herself to Madonna’s service, by interpreting for her advantage the pleasant conversations that she could not hear. On this day, it was Madonna who devoted herself to Mrs. Blyth’s service, by identifying for her amusement the visitors whose approach up the garden walk she could not safely leave her bed to see.

No privilege that the girl enjoyed under Valentine’s roof was more valued by her than this; for by the exercise of it, she was enabled to make some slight return in kind for the affectionate attention of which she was the constant object. Mrs. Blyth always encouraged her to indicate who the different guests were, as they followed each other, by signs of her own choosing, — these signs being almost invariably suggested by some characteristic peculiarity of the person represented, which her quick observation had detected at a first interview, and which she copied with the quaintest exactness of imitation. The correctness with which her memory preserved these signs, and retained, after long intervals, the recollection of the persons to whom they alluded, was very extraordinary. The name of any mere acquaintance, who came seldom to the house, she constantly forgot, having only perhaps had it interpreted to her once or twice, and not hearing it as others did, whenever it accidentally occurred in conversation. But if the sign by which she herself had once designated that acquaintance — no matter how long ago — happened to be repeated by those about her, it was then always found that the forgotten person was recalled to her recollection immediately.

From eleven till three had been notified in the invitation cards as the time during which the pictures would be on view. It was now long past ten. Madonna still stood patiently by the window, going on with a new purse which she was knitting for Valentine; and looking out attentively now and then towards the road. Mrs. Blyth, humming a tune to herself, slowly turned over the engravings in her portfolio, and became so thoroughly absorbed in looking at them, that she forgot altogether how time was passing, and was quite astonished to hear Madonna suddenly clap her hands at the window, as a signal that the first punctual visitor had passed the garden-gate.

Mrs. Blyth raised her eyes from the prints directly, and smiled as she saw the girl puckering up her fresh, rosy face into a childish imitation of old age, bending her light figure gravely in a succession of formal bows, and kissing her hand several times with extreme suavity and deliberation. These signs were meant to indicate Mrs. Blyth’s father, the poor engraver, whose old-fashioned habit it was to pay homage to all his friends among the ladies, by saluting them from afar off with tremulous bows and gallant kissings of the hand.

“Ah!” thought Mrs. Blyth, nodding, to show that she understood the signs — “Ah! there’s father. I felt sure he would be the first; and I know exactly what he will do when he gets in. He will admire the pictures more than anybody, and have a better opinion to give of them than anybody else has; but before he can mention a word of it to Valentine, there will be dozens of people in the painting-room, and then he will get taken suddenly nervous, and come up here to me.”

While Mrs. Blyth was thinking about her father, Madonna signalized the advent of two more visitors. First, she raised her hand sharply, and began pulling at an imaginary whisker on her own smooth cheek — then stood bolt upright, and folded her arms majestically over her bosom. Mrs. Blyth immediately recognized the originals of these two pantomime portrait-sketches. The one represented Mr. Hemlock, the small critic of a small newspaper, who was principally remarkable for never letting his whiskers alone for five minutes together. The other portrayed Mr. Bullivant, the aspiring fair-haired sculptor, who wrote poetry, and studied dignity in his attitudes so unremittingly, that he could not even stop to look in at a shop-window, without standing before it as if he was his own statue.

In a minute or two more, Mrs. Blyth heard a prodigious grating of wheels, and trampling of horses, and banging of carriage-steps violently let down. Madonna immediately took a seat on the nearest chair, rolled the skirt of her dress up into her lap, tucked both her hands inside it, then drew one out, and imitated the action of snuff-taking — looking up merrily at Mrs. Blyth, as much as to say, “You can’t mistake that, I think?” — Impossible! old Lady Brambledown, with her muff and snuff-box, to the very life.

Close on the Dowager Countess followed a visitor of low degree. Madonna — looking as if she was a little afraid of the boldness of her own imitation — began chewing an imaginary quid of tobacco; then pretended to pull it suddenly out of his month, and throw it away behind her. It was all over in a moment; but it represented to perfection Mangles, the gardener; who, though an inveterate chewer of tobacco, always threw away his quid whenever he confronted his betters, as a duty that he owed to his own respectability.

Another carriage. Madonna put on a suppositions pair of spectacles, pretended to pull them off, rub them bright, and put them on again; then, retiring a little from the window, spread out her dress into the widest dimensions that it could be made to assume. The new arrivals thus portrayed, were the doctor, whose spectacles were never clean enough to please him; and the doctor’s wife, an emaciated fine lady, who deceitfully suggested the presence of vanished charms, by wearing a balloon under her gown — which benevolent rumor pronounced to be only a crinoline petticoat.

Here there was a brief pause in the procession of visitors. Mrs. Blyth beckoned to Madonna, and began talking on her fingers.

“No signs of Zack yet — are there, love?”

The girl looked anxiously towards the window, and shook her head.

“If he ventures up here, when he does come, we must not be so kind to him as usual. He has been behaving very badly, and we must see if we can’t make him ashamed of himself.”

Madonna’s color rose directly. She looked amazed, sorry, perplexed, and incredulous by turns. Zack behaving badly? — she would never believe it!

“I mean to make him ashamed of himself, if he ventures near me!” pursued Mrs. Blyth.

“And I shall try if I can’t console him afterwards,” thought Madonna, turning away her head for fear her face should betray her.

Another ring at the bell! “There he is, perhaps,” continued Mrs. Blyth, nodding in the direction of the window, as she signed those words.

Madonna ran to look: then turned round, and with a comic air of disappointment, hooked her thumbs in the arm-holes of an imaginary waistcoat. Only Mr. Gimble, the picture-dealer, who always criticized works of art with his hands in that position.

Just then, a soft knock sounded at Mrs. Blyth’s door; and her father entered, sniffing with a certain perpetual cold of his which nothing could cure — bowing, kissing his hand, and frightened up-stairs by the company, just as his daughter had predicted.

“Oh, Lavvie! the Dowager Countess is downstairs, and her ladyship likes the pictures,” exclaimed the old man, snuffling and smiling infirmly in a flutter of nervous glee.

“Come and sit down by me, father, and see Madonna doing the visitors. It’s funnier than any play that ever was acted.”

“And her ladyship likes the pictures,” repeated the engraver, his poor old watery eyes sparkling with pleasure as he told his little morsel of good news over again, and sat down by the bedside of his favorite child.

The rings at the bell began to multiply at compound interest. Madonna was hardly still at the window for a moment, so many were the visitors whose approach up the garden walk it was now necessary for her to signalize. Down-stairs, all the vacant seats left in the painting room were filling rapidly; and the ranks of standers in the back places were getting two-deep already.

There was Lady Brambledown (whose calls at the studio always lasted the whole morning), sitting in the center, or place of honor, taking snuff fiercely, talking liberal sentiments in a cracked voice, and apparently feeling extreme pleasure in making the respectable middle classes stare at her in reverent amazement. Also, two Royal Academicians — a saturnine Academician, swaddled in a voluminous cloak; and a benevolent Academician, with a slovenly umbrella, and a perpetual smile. Also, the doctor and his wife, who admired the massive frame of “Columbus,” but said not a word about the picture itself. Also, Mr. Bullivant, the sculptor, and Mr. Hemlock, the journalist, exchanging solemnly that critical small talk, in which such words as “sensuous,” “aesthetic,” “objective,” and “subjective,” occupy prominent places, and out of which no man ever has succeeded, or ever will succeed, in extricating an idea. Also, Mr. Gimble, fluently laudatory, with the whole alphabet of Art–Jargon at his fingers’ ends, and without the slightest comprehension of the subject to embarrass him in his flow of language. Also, certain respectable families who tried vainly to understand the pictures, opposed by other respectable families who never tried at all, but confined themselves exclusively to the Dowager Countess. Also, the obscure general visitors, who more than made up in enthusiasm what they wanted in distinction. And, finally, the absolute democracy, or downright low-life party among the spectators — represented for the time being by Mr. Blyth’s gardener, and Mr. Blyth’s cook’s father — who, standing together modestly outside the door, agreed, in awe-struck whispers, that the “Golden Age” was a Tasty Thing, and “Columbus in sight of the New World,” a Beautiful Piece.

All Valentine’s restlessness before the Visitors arrived was as nothing compared with his rapturous activity, now that they were fairly assembled. Not once had he stood still, or ceased talking since the first spectator entered the room. And not once, probably, would he have permitted either his legs or his tongue to take the slightest repose until the last guest had departed from the Studio, but for Lady Brambledown, who accidentally hit on the only available means of fixing his attention to one thing, and keeping him comparatively quiet in one place.

“I say, Blyth,” cried her ladyship (she never prefixed the word “Mister” to the names of any of her male friends) — “I say, Blyth, I can’t for the life of me understand your picture of Columbus. You talked some time ago about explaining it in detail. When are you going to begin?”

“Directly, my dear madam, directly: I was only waiting till the room got well filled,” answered Valentine, taking up the long wand which he used to steady his hand while he was painting, and producing the manuscript tied round with blue ribbon. “The fact is — I don’t know whether you mind it? — I have just thrown together a few thoughts on art, as a sort of introduction to — to Columbus, in short. They are written down on this paper — the thoughts are. Would anybody be kind enough to read them, while I point out what they mean on the picture? I only ask, because it seems egotistical to be reading my opinions about my own works. — Will anybody be kind enough?” repeated Mr. Blyth, walking all along the semicircle of chairs, and politely offering his manuscript to anybody who would take it.

Not a hand was held out. Bashfulness is frequently infectious; and it proved to be so on this particular occasion.

“Nonsense, Blyth!” exclaimed Lady Brambledown. “Read it yourself. Egotistical? Stuff! Everybody’s egotistical. I hate modest men; they’re all rascals. Read it and assert your own importance. You have a better right to do so than most of your neighbors, for you belong to the aristocracy of talent — the only aristocracy, in my opinion, that is worth a straw.” Here her ladyship took a pinch of snuff, and looked at the middle-class families, as much as to say:— “There! what do you think of that from a Member of your darling Peerage?”

Thus encouraged, Valentine took his station (wand in hand) beneath “Columbus,” and unrolled the manuscript.

“What a very peculiar man Mr. Blyth is!” whispered one of the lady visitors to an acquaintance behind her.

“And what a very unusual mixture of people he seems to have asked!” rejoined the other, looking towards the doorway, where the democracy loomed diffident in Sunday clothes.

“The pictures which I have the honor to exhibit,” began Valentine from the manuscript, “have been painted on a principle — ”

“I beg your pardon, Blyth,” interrupted Lady Brambledown, whose sharp ears had caught the remark made on Valentine and his “mixture of people,” and whose liberal principles were thereby instantly stimulated into publicly asserting themselves. “I beg your pardon; but where’s my old ally, the gardener, who was here last time? — Out at the door is he? What does he mean by not coming in? Here, gardener! come behind my chair.”

The gardener approached, internally writhing under the honor of public notice, and covered with confusion in consequence of the noise his boots made on the floor.

“How do you do? and how are your family? What did you stop out at the door for? You’re one of Mr. Blyth’s guests, and have as much right inside as any of the rest of us. Stand there, and listen, and look about you, and inform your mind. This is an age of progress, gardener; your class is coming uppermost, and time it did too. Go on, Blyth.” And again the Dowager Countess took a pinch of snuff, looking contemptuously at the lady who had spoken of the “mixture of people.”

“I take the liberty,” continued Valentine, resuming the manuscript, “of dividing all art into two great classes, the landscape subjects, and the figure subjects; and I venture to describe these classes, in their highest development, under the respective titles of Art Pastoral and Art Mystic. The ‘Golden Age’ is an attempt to exemplify Art Pastoral. ‘Columbus in Sight of the New World’ is an effort to express myself in Art Mystic. In ‘The Golden Age’ “ — (everybody looked at Columbus immediately) — “In the ‘Golden Age,’” continued Mr. Blyth, waving his wand persuasively towards the right picture, “you have, in the foreground-bushes, the middle-distance trees, the horizon mountains, and the superincumbent sky, what I would fain hope is a tolerably faithful transcript of mere nature. But in the group of buildings to the right” (here the wand touched the architectural city, with its acres of steps and forests of pillars), “in the dancing nymphs, and the musing philosopher” (Mr. Blyth rapped the philosopher familiarly on the head with the padded end of his wand), “you have the Ideal — the elevating poetical view of ordinary objects, like cities, happy female peasants, and thoughtful spectators. Thus nature is exalted; and thus Art Pastoral — no! — thus Art Pastoral exalts — no! I beg your pardon — thus Art Pastoral and Nature exalt each other, and — I beg your pardon again! — in short, exalt each other — ”

Here Valentine broke down at the end of a paragraph; and the gardener made an abortive effort to get back to the doorway.

“Capital, Blyth!” cried Lady Brambledown. “Liberal, comprehensive, progressive, profound. Gardener, don’t fidget!”

“The true philosophy of art — the true philosophy of art, my lady,” added Mr. Gimble, the picture-dealer.

“Crude?” said Mr. Hemlock, the critic, appealing confidentially to Mr. Bullivant, the sculptor.

“What?” inquired that gentleman.

“Blyth’s principles of criticism,” answered Mr. Hemlock.

“Oh, yes! extremely so,” said Mr. Bullivant.

“Having glanced at Art Pastoral, as attempted in the ‘Golden Age,’” pursued Valentine, turning over a leaf, “I will now, with your permission, proceed to Art Mystic and ‘Columbus.’ Art Mystic, I would briefly endeavor to define, as aiming at the illustration of fact on the highest imaginative principles. It takes a scene, for instance, from history, and represents that scene as exactly and naturally as possible. And here the ordinary thinker might be apt to say, Art Mystic has done enough.” (“So it has,” muttered Mr. Hemlock.) “On the contrary, Art Mystic has only begun. Besides the representation of the scene itself, the spirit of the age” — (“Ah! quite right,” said Lady Brambledown; “yes, yes, the spirit of the age.”) — “the spirit of the age which produced that scene, must also be indicated, mystically, by the introduction of those angelic or infernal winged forms — those cherubs and airy female geniuses — those demons and dragons of darkness — which so many illustrious painters have long since taught us to recognize as impersonating to the eye the good and evil influences, Virtue and Vice, Glory and Shame, Success and Failure, Past and Future, Heaven and Earth — all on the same canvas.” Here Mr. Blyth stopped again: this passage had cost him some trouble, and he was proud of having got smoothly to the end of it.

“Glorious!” cried enthusiastic Mr. Gimble.

“Turgid,” muttered critical Mr. Hemlock.

“Very,” assented compliant Mr. Bullivant.

“Go on — get to the picture — don’t stop so often,” said Lady Brambledown. “Bless my soul, how the man does fidget!” This was not directed at Valentine (who, however, richly deserved it), but at the unhappy gardener, who had made a second attempt to escape to the sheltering obscurity of the doorway, and had been betrayed by his boots.

“To exemplify what has just been remarked, by the picture at my side,” proceeded Mr. Blyth. “The moment sought to be represented is sunrise on the 12th of October, 1492, when the great Columbus first saw land clearly at the end of his voyage. Observe, now, in the upper portions of the composition, how the spirit of the age is mystically developed before the spectator. Of the two winged female figures hovering in the morning clouds, immediately over Columbus and his ship, the first is the Spirit of Discovery, holding the orb of the world in her left hand, and pointing with a laurel crown (typical of Columbus’s fame) towards the newly-discovered Continent. The other figure symbolizes the Spirit of Royal Patronage, impersonated by Queen Isabella, Columbus’s warm friend and patron, who offered her jewels to pay his expenses, and who, throughout his perilous voyage, was with him in spirit, as here represented. The tawny figure with feathered head, floating hair, and wildly-extended pinions, soaring upward from the western horizon, represents the Genius of America advancing to meet her great discoverer; while the shadowy countenances, looming dimly through the morning mist behind her, are portrait-types of Washington and Franklin, who would never have flourished in America, if that continent had not been discovered, and who are here, therefore, associated prophetically with the first voyagers from the Old World to the New.”

Pausing once more, Mr. Blyth used his explanatory wand freely on the Spirit of Discovery, the Spirit of Royal Patronage, and the Genius of America — not forgetting an indicative knock a-piece for the embryo physiognomies of Washington and Franklin. Everybody’s eyes followed the progress of the wand vacantly; but nobody spoke, except Mr. Hemlock, who frowned and whispered — “Bosh!” to Mr. Bullivant; who smiled, and whispered — “Quite so,” to Mr. Hemlock.

“Let me now ask your attention,” resumed Valentine, “to the same mystic style of treatment, as carried from the sky into the sea. Writhing defeated behind Columbus’s ship, in the depths of the transparent Atlantic, you have shadowy types of the difficulties and enemies that the dauntless navigator had to contend with. Crushed headlong into the waters, sinks first the Spirit of Superstition, delineated by monastic robes — the council of monks having set itself against Columbus from the very first. Behind the Spirit of Superstition, and impersonated by a fillet of purple grapes around her head, descends the Genius of Portugal — the Portuguese having repulsed Columbus, and having treacherously sent out frigates to stop his discovery, by taking him prisoner. The scaly forms entwined around these two, represent Envy, Hatred, Malice, Ignorance, and Crime generally; and thus the mystic element is, so to speak, led through the sea out of the picture.”

(Another pause. Nobody said a word, but everybody was relieved by the final departure of the mystic element.)

“All that now remains to be noticed,” continued Mr. Blyth, “is the central portion of the composition, which is occupied by Columbus and his ships, and which represents the scene as it may actually be supposed to have occurred. Here we get to Reality, and to that sort of correctly-imitative art which is simple enough to explain itself. As a proof of this, let me point attention to the rig of the ships, the actions of the sailors, and, more than all, to Columbus himself. Weeks of the most laborious consultation of authorities of which the artist is capable, have been expended over the impersonation of that one figure, — expended, I would say, in obtaining that faithful representation of individual character, which it is my earnest desire to combine with the higher or mystic element. One instance of this fidelity to Nature I may perhaps be permitted to point out in the person of Columbus, in conclusion. Pray observe him, standing rapturously on the high stern of his vessel — and oblige me, at the same time, by minutely inspecting his outstretched arms. First, however, let me remind you that this great man went to sea at the age of fourteen, and cast himself freely into all the hardships of nautical life; next, let me beg you to enter into my train of thought, and consider these hardships as naturally comprising, among other things, industrious haulings at ropes and manful tuggings at long oars; and, finally, let me now direct your attention to the manner in which the muscular system of the famous navigator is developed about the arms in anatomical harmony with this idea. Follow the wand closely, and observe, bursting, as it were, through his sleeves, the characteristic vigor of Columbus’s Biceps Flexor Cubiti — ”

“Mercy on us! what’s that?” cried Lady Brambledown. “Anything improper?”

“The Biceps Flexor Cubiti, your ladyship,” began the Doctor, delighted to pour professional information into the mind of a Dowager Countess, “may be literally interpreted as the Two–Headed Bender of the Elbow, and is a muscle situated on, what we term, the Os — ”

“Follow the wand, my dear madam, pray follow the wand! This is the Biceps,“ interrupted Valentine, tapping till the canvas quivered again on the upper part of Columbus’s arms, which obtruded their muscular condition through a pair of tight-fitting chamoy leather sleeves. “The Biceps, Lady Brambledown, is a tremendously strong muscle — ”

“Which arises in the human body, your Ladyship,” interposed the Doctor, “by two heads — ”

“Which is used,” continued Valentine, cutting him short — “I beg your pardon, Doctor, but this is important — which is used — ”

“I beg yours,” rejoined the Doctor, testily. “The origin of the muscle, or place where it arises, is the first thing to be described. The use comes afterwards. It is an axiom of anatomical science — ”

“But, my dear sir!” cried Valentine —

“No,” said the Doctor, peremptorily, “you must really excuse me. This is a professional point. If I allow erroneous explanations of the muscular system to pass unchecked in my presence — ”

“I don’t want to make any!” cried Mr. Blyth, gesticulating violently in the direction of Columbus. “I only want to — ”

“To describe the use of a muscle before you describe the place of its origin in the human body,” persisted the Doctor. “No, my dear sir! I can’t sanction it. No, indeed! I really can NOT sanction it!”

“Will you let me say two words?” asked Valentine.

“Two hundred thousand, my good sir, on any other subject,” assented the Doctor, with a sarcastic smile; “but on this subject — ”

“On art?” shouted Mr. Blyth, with a tap on Columbus, which struck a sound from the canvas like a thump on a muffled drum. “On art, Doctor? I only want to say that, as Columbus’s early life must have exercised him considerably in hauling ropes and pulling oars, I have shown the large development of his Biceps muscle (which is principally used in those actions) through his sleeves, as a good characteristic point to insist on in his physical formation. — That’s all! As to the origin — ”

“The origin of the Biceps Flexor Cubiti, your Ladyship,” resumed the pertinacious Doctor; “is by two heads. The first begins, if I may so express myself, tendinous, from the glenoid cavity of the scapula — ”

“That man is a pedantic jackass,” whispered Mr. Hemlock to his friend.

“And yet he hasn’t a bad head for a bust!” rejoined Mr. Bullivant.

“Pray, Mr. Blyth,” pleaded the polite and ever-admiring Mr. Gimble — “pray let me beg you, in the name of the company to proceed with your most interesting and suggestive explanations and views on art!”

“Indeed, Mr. Gimble,” said Valentine, a little crest-fallen under the anatomical castigation inflicted on him by the Doctor, “I am very much delighted and gratified by your approval; but I have nothing more to read. I thought that point about Columbus a good point to leave off with, and considered that I might safely allow the rest of the picture to explain itself to the intelligent spectator.”

Hearing this, some of the spectators, evidently distrusting their own intelligence, rose to take leave — new visitors making their appearance, however, to fill the vacant chairs and receive Mr. Blyth’s hearty welcome. Meanwhile, through all the bustle of departing and arriving friends, and through all the fast-strengthening hum of general talk, the voice of the unyielding doctor still murmured solemnly of “capsular ligaments,” “adjacent tendons,” and “corracoid processes” to Lady Brambledown, who listened to him with satirical curiosity, as a species of polite medical buffoon whom it rather amused her to become acquainted with.

Among the next applicants for admission at the painting-room door were two whom Valentine had expected to see at a much earlier period of the day — Mr. Matthew Marksman and Zack.

“How late you are!” he said, as he shook hands with young Thorpe.

“I wish I could have come earlier, my dear fellow,” answered Zack, rather importantly; “but I had some business to do” (he had been recovering his watch from the pawnbroker); “and my friend here had some business to do also” (Mr. Marksman had been toasting red herrings for an early dinner); “and so somehow we couldn’t get here before. Mat, let me introduce you. This is my old friend, Mr. Blyth, whom I told you of.”

Valentine had barely time to take the hand of the new guest before his attention was claimed by fresh visitors. Young Thorpe did the honors of the painting-room in the artist’s absence. “Lots of people, as I told you. My friend’s a great genius,” whispered Zack, wondering, as he spoke, whether the scene of civilized life now displayed before Mr. Marksman would at all tend to upset his barbarian self-possession.

No: not in the least. There stood Mat, just as grave, cool, and quietly observant of things about him as ever. Neither the pictures, nor the company, nor the staring of many eyes that wondered at his black skull-cap and scarred swarthy face, were capable of disturbing the Olympian serenity of this Jupiter of the back-woods.

“There!” cried Zack, pointing triumphantly across the room to “Columbus.” “Cudgel your brains, old boy, and guess what that is a picture of, without coming to me to help you.”

Mat attentively surveyed the figure of Columbus, the rig of his ship, and the wings of the typical female spirits, hovering overhead in the morning clouds — thought a little — then gravely and deliberately answered:—

“Peter Wilkins taking a voyage along with his flying wives.”

Zack pulled out his handkerchief, and stifled his laughter as well as he could, out of consideration for Mat, who, however, took not the smallest notice of him, but added, still staring intently at the picture.

“Peter Wilkins was the only book I had, when I was a lad aboard ship. I used to read it over and over again, at odds and ends of spare time, till I pretty nigh got it by heart. That was many a year ago; and a good lot of what I knowed then I don’t know now. But, mind ye, it’s my belief that Peter Wilkins was something of a sailor.”

“Well?” whispered Zack, humoring him, “suppose he was, what of that?”

“Do you think a man as was anything of a sailor would ever be fool enough to put to sea in such a craft as that?” asked Mr. Marksman, pointing scornfully to Columbus’s ship.

“Hush! old Rough and Tough: the picture hasn’t anything to do with Peter Wilkins,” said Zack. “Keep quiet, and wait here a minute for me. There are some friends of mine at the other end of the room that I must go and speak to. And, I say, if Blyth comes up to you and asks you about the picture, say it’s Columbus, and remarkably like him.”

Left by himself, Mat looked about for better standing-room than he then happened to occupy; and seeing a vacant space left between the door-post and Mr. Blyth’s bureau, retreated to it. Putting his hands in his pockets, he leaned comfortably against the wall, and began to examine the room and everything in it at his leisure. It was not long, however, before he was disturbed. One of his neighbors, seeing that his back was against a large paper sketch nailed on the wall behind him, told him bluntly that he was doing mischief there, and made him change his position. He moved accordingly to the door-post; but even here he was not left in repose. A fresh relay of visitors arrived, and obliged him to make way for them to pass into the room — which he did by politely rolling himself round the door-post into the passage.

As he disappeared in this way, Mr. Blyth bustled up to the place where Mat had been standing, and received his guests there, with great cordiality, but also with some appearance of flurry and perplexity of mind. The fact was, that Lady Brambledown had just remembered that she had not examined Valentine’s works yet, through one of those artistic tubes which effectively concentrate the rays of light on a picture, when applied to the eye. Knowing, by former experience, that the studio was furnished with one of these little instruments, her ladyship now intimated her ardent desire to use it instantly on “Columbus.” Valentine promised to get it, with his usual ready politeness; but he had not the slightest idea where it actually was, for all that. Among the litter of small things that had been cleared out of the way, when the painting-room was put in order, there were several which he vaguely remembered having huddled together for safety in the bottom of his bureau. The tube might possibly have been among them; so in this place he determined to look for it — being quite ignorant, if the search turned out unsuccessful, where he ought to look next.

After begging the new visitors to walk in, he opened the bureau, which was large and old-fashioned, with a little bright key hanging by a chain that he unhooked from his watch-guard; and began searching inside amid infinite confusion — all his attention concentrated in the effort to discover the lost tube. It was not to be found in the bottom of the bureau. He next looked, after a little preliminary hesitation, into a long narrow drawer opening beneath some pigeon-hole recesses at the back.

The tube was not there, either; and he shut the drawer to again, carefully and gently — for inside it was the Hair Bracelet that had belonged to Madonna’s mother, lying on the white handkerchief, which had also been taken from the dead woman’s pocket. Just as he closed the drawer, he heard footsteps at his right hand, and turned in that direction rather suspiciously — locking down the lid of the bureau as he looked round. It was only the civil Mr. Gimble, wanting to know what Mr. Blyth was searching for, and whether he could help him. Valentine mentioned the loss of the tube; and Mr. Gimble immediately volunteered to make one of pasteboard. “Ten thousand thanks,” said Mr. Blyth, hooking the key to his watch-guard again, as he returned to Lady Brambledown with his friend. “Ten thousand thanks; but the worst of it is, I don’t know where to find the pasteboard.”

If, instead of turning to the right hand to speak to Mr. Gimble, Valentine had turned to the left, he would have seen that, just as he opened the bureau and began to search in it, Mr. Marksman finding the way into the painting-room clear once more, had rolled himself quietly round the door-post again; and had then, just as quietly, bent forward a little, so as to look sideways into the bureau with those observant eyes of his which nothing could escape, and which had been trained by his old Indian experience to be always unscrupulously at work, watching something. Little did Mr. Blyth think, as he walked away, talking with Mr. Gimble, and carefully hooking his key on to its swivel again, that Zack’s strange friend had seen as much of the inside of the bureau as he had seen of it himself.

“He shut up his big box uncommon sharp, when that smilin’ little chap come near him,” thought Mat. “And yet there didn’t seem nothing in it that strangers mightn’t see. There wasn’t no money there — at least none that I set eyes on. Well! it’s not my business. Let’s have another look at the picter.”

In the affairs of art, as in other matters, important discoveries are sometimes made, and great events occasionally accomplished, by very ignoble agencies. Mat’s deplorable ignorance of Painting in general, and grossly illiterate misunderstanding of the subject represented by Columbus in particular, seemed to mark him out as the last man in the world who could possibly be associated with Art Mystic in the character of guardian genius. Yet such was the proud position which he was now selected by Fate to occupy. In plain words, Mr. Blyth’s greatest historical work had been for some little time in imminent danger of destruction by falling; and Mat’s “look at the picter,” was the all-important look which enabled him to be the first person in the room who perceived that it was in peril.

The eye with which Mr. Marksman now regarded the picture was certainly the eye of a barbarian; but the eye with which he afterwards examined the supports by which it was suspended, was the eye of a sailor, and of a good practical carpenter to boot. He saw directly, that one of the two iron clamps to which the frame-lines of “Columbus” were attached, had been carelessly driven into a part of the wall that was not strong enough to hold it against the downward stress of the heavy frame. Little warning driblets of loosened plaster had been trickling down rapidly behind the canvas; but nobody heard them fall in the general buzz of talking; and nobody noticed the thin, fine crack above the iron clamp, which was now lengthening stealthily minute by minute.

“Just let me by, will you?” said Mat quietly to some of his neighbors. “I want to stop those flying women and the man in the crank ship from coming down by the long run.”

Dozens of alarmed ladies and gentlemen started up from their chairs. Mat pushed through them unceremoniously; and was indebted to his want of politeness for being in time to save the picture. With a grating crack, and an accompanying descent of a perfect slab of plaster, the loose clamp came clean out of the wall, just as Mat seized the unsupported end and side of the frame in his sturdy hands, and so prevented the picture from taking the fatal swing downwards, which would have infallibly torn it from the remaining fastening, and precipitated it on the chairs beneath.

A prodigious confusion and clamoring of tongues ensued; Mr. Blyth being louder, wilder, and more utterly useless in the present emergency than any of his neighbors. Mat, cool as ever, kept his hold of the picture; and, taking no notice of the confused advice and cumbersome help offered to him, called to Zack to fetch a ladder, or, failing that, to “get a hoist” on some chairs, and cut the rope from the clamp that remained firm. Wooden steps, as young Thorpe knew, were usually kept in the painting-room. Where had they been removed to now? Mr. Blyth’s memory was lost altogether in his excitement. Zack made a speculative dash at the flowing draperies which concealed the lumber in one corner, and dragged out the steps in triumph.

“All right; take your time, young ’un: there’s a knife in my left-hand breeches’ pocket,” said Mat. “Now then, cut away at that bit of rope’s-end, and hold on tight at top, while I lower away at bottom. Steady! Take it easy, and — there you are!” With which words, the guardian genius left Art–Mystic resting safely on the floor, and began to shake his coattails free of the plaster that had dropped on them.

“My dear sir! you have saved the finest picture I ever painted,” cried Valentine, warmly seizing him by both hands. “I can’t find words to express my gratitude and admiration — ”

“Don’t worry yourself about that,” answered Mat; “I don’t suppose I should understand you if you could find ’em. If you want the picter put up again, I’ll do it. And if you want the carpenter’s muddle head punched, who put it up before, I shouldn’t much mind doing that either,” added Mat, looking at the hole from which the clamp had been torn with an expression of the profoundest workmanlike disgust.

A new commotion in the room — near the door this time — prevented Mr. Blyth from giving an immediate answer to the two friendly propositions just submitted to him.

At the first alarm of danger, all the ladies — headed by the Dowager Countess, in whom the instinct of self-preservation was largely developed — had got as far away as they could from the falling picture, before they ventured to look round at the process by which it was at last safely landed on the floor. Just as this had been accomplished, Lady Brambledown — who stood nearest to the doorway — caught sight of Madonna in the passage that led to it. Mrs. Blyth had heard the noise and confusion downstairs, and finding that her bell was not answered by the servants, and that it was next to impossible to overcome her father’s nervous horror of confronting the company alone, had sent Madonna down-stairs with him, to assist in finding out what had happened in the studio.

While descending the stairs with her companion, the girl had anticipated that they might easily discover whether anything was amiss, without going further than the passage, by merely peeping through the studio door. But all chance of escaping the ordeal of the painting-room was lost the moment Lady Brambledown set eyes on her. The Dowager Countess was one of Madonna’s warmest admirers; and now expressed that admiration by pouncing on her with immense affection and enthusiasm from the painting-room door-way. Other people, to whom the deaf and dumb girl was a much more interesting sight than “Columbus,” or the “Golden Age,” crowded round her; all trying together, with great amiability and small intelligence, to explain what had happened by signs which no human being could possibly understand. Fortunately for Madonna, Zack (who ever since he had cut the picture down had been assailed by an incessant fire of questions about his strange friend, from dozens of inquisitive gentlemen) happened to look towards her, over the ladies’ heads, and came directly to explain the danger from which “Columbus” had escaped. She tried hard to get away, and bear the intelligence to Mrs. Blyth; but Lady Brambledown, feeling amiably unwilling to resign her too soon, pitched on the poor engraver standing tremulous in the passage, as being quite clever enough to carry a message up-stairs, and sent him off to take the latest news from the studio to his daughter immediately.

Thus it was that when Mr. Blyth left Zack’s friend to see what was going on near the door, he found Madonna in the painting-room, surrounded by sympathizing and admiring ladies. The first words of explanation by which Lady Brambledown answered his mute look of inquiry, reminded him of the anxiety and alarm that his wife must have suffered; and he ran up-stairs directly, promising to be back again in a minute or two.

Mat carelessly followed Valentine to the group at the doorway — carelessly looked over some ladies’ bonnets — and saw Madonna, offering her slate to the Dowager Countess at that moment.

The sweet feminine gentleness and youthful softness of the girl’s face, looked inexpressibly lovely, as she now stood shy and confused under the eager eyes that were all gazing on her. Her dress, too, had never more powerfully aided the natural attractions of her face and figure by its own loveable charms of simplicity and modesty, than now, when the plain grey merino gown, and neat little black silk apron which she always wore, were contrasted with the fashionable frippery of fine colors shining all around her. Was the rough Mr. Marksman himself lured at first sight into acknowledging her influence? If he was, his face and manner showed it very strangely.

Almost at the instant when his eyes fell on her, that clay-cold change which had altered the color of his swarthy cheeks in the hosier’s shop at Dibbledean, passed over them again. The first amazed look that he cast on her, slowly darkened, while his eyes rested on her face, into a fixed, heavy, vacant stare of superstitious awe. He never moved, he hardly seemed to breathe, until the head of a person before him accidentally intercepted his view. Then he stepped back a few paces; looked about him bewildered, as if he had forgotten where he was; and turned quickly towards the door, as if resolved to leave the room immediately.

But there was some inexplicable influence at work in his heart that drew him back, in spite of his own will. He retraced his steps to the group round Madonna — looked at her once more — and, from that moment, never lost sight of her till she went up stairs again. Whichever way her face turned, he followed the direction, outside the circle, so as to be always in front of it. When Valentine re-appeared in the studio, and Madonna besought him by a look, to set her free from general admiration, and send her back to Mrs. Blyth, Mat was watching her over the painter’s shoulder. And when young Thorpe, who had devoted himself to helping her in communicating with the visitors, nodded to her as she left the room, his friend from the backwoods was close behind him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book2.5.html

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