Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter VII. The Box of Letters.

The first thing Mat did when he got to his lodgings, was to fill and light his pipe. He then sat down on his bear-skins, and dragged the box close to him which he had brought from Dibbledean.

Although the machinery of Mat’s mind was constructed of very clumsy and barbaric materials; although book-learning had never oiled it, and wise men’s talk had never quickened it; nevertheless, it always contrived to work on — much as it was working now — until it reached, sooner or later, a practical result. Solitude and Peril are stern schoolmasters, but they do their duty for good or evil, thoroughly with some men; and they had done it thoroughly, amid the rocks and wildernesses of the great American continent, with Mat.

Many a pipe did he empty and fill again, many a dark change passed over his heavy features, as he now pondered long and laboriously over every word of the dialogue that had just been held between himself and Zack. But not so much as five minutes out of all the time he thus consumed, was, in any true sense of the word, time wasted. He had sat down to his first pipe, resolved that, if any human means could compass it, he would find out how the young girl whom he had seen in Mr. Blyth’s studio, had first come there, and who she really was. When he rose up at last, and put the pipe away to cool, he had thought the matter fairly out from beginning to end, had arrived at his conclusions, and had definitely settled his future plans.

Reflection had strengthened him in the resolution to follow his first impulse when he parted from Zack in the street, and begin the attempt to penetrate the suspicious secret that hid from him and from every one the origin of Valentine’s adopted child, by getting possession of the Hair Bracelet which he had seen laid away in the inner drawer of the bureau. As for any assignable reason for justifying him in associating this Hair Bracelet with Madonna, he found it, to his own satisfaction, in young Thorpe’s account of the strange words spoken by Mrs. Peckover in Mr. Blyth’s hall — the suspicions resulting from these hints being also immensely strengthened, by his recollections of the letter signed “Jane Holdsworth,” and containing an enclosure of hair, which he had examined in the cattle-shed at Dibbledean.

According to that letter, a Hair Bracelet (easily recognizable if still in existence, by comparing it with the hair enclosed in Jane Holdsworth’s note) had once been the property of Mary Grice. According to what Zack had said, there was apparently some incomprehensible confusion and mystery in connection with a Hair Bracelet and the young woman whose extraordinary likeness to what Mary Grice had been in her girlhood, had first suggested to him the purpose he was now pursuing. Lastly, according to what he himself now knew, there was actually a hair Bracelet lying in the innermost drawer of Mr. Blyth’s bureau — this latter fragment of evidence assuming in his mind, as has been already remarked, an undue significance in relation to the fragments preceding it, from his not knowing that hair bracelets are found in most houses where there are women in a position to wear any jewelry ornament at all.

Vague as they might be, these coincidences were sufficient to startle him at first — then to fill him with an eager, devouring curiosity — and then to suggest to him the uncertain and desperate course which he was now firmly resolved to follow. How he was to gain possession of the Hair Bracelet without Mr. Blyth’s knowledge, and without exciting the slightest suspicion in the painter’s family, he had not yet determined. But he was resolved to have it, he was perfectly unscrupulous as to means, and he felt certain beforehand of attaining his object. Whither, or to what excesses, that object might lead him, he never stopped and never cared to consider. The awful face of the dead woman (now fixed for ever in his memory by the living copy of it that his own eyes had beheld) seemed to be driving him on swiftly into unknown darkness, to bring him out into unexpected light at the end. The influence which was thus sternly at work in him was not to be questioned — it was to be obeyed.

His resolution in reference to the Hair Bracelet was not more firmly settled than his resolution to keep his real sensations on seeing Madonna, and the purpose which had grown out of them, a profound secret from young Thorpe, who was too warmly Mr. Blyth’s friend to be trusted. Every word that Zack had let slip, had been of vital importance, hitherto; every word that might yet escape him, might be of the most precious use for future guidance. “If it’s his fun and fancy,” mused Mat, “to go on thinking I’m sweet on the girl, let him think it. The more he thinks, the more he’ll talk. All I’ve got to do is to hold in; and then he’s sure to let out.“

While schooling himself thus as to his future conduct towards Zack, he did not forget another person who was less close at hand certainly, but who might also be turned to good account. Before he fairly decided on his plan of action, he debated with himself the propriety of returning to Dibbledean, and forcing from the old woman, Joanna Grice, more information than she had been willing to give him at their first interview. But, on reflection, he considered that it was better to leave this as a resource to be tried, in case of the failure of his first experiment with the Hair Bracelet. One look at that — one close comparison of the hair it was made of, with the surplus hair which had not been used by the jeweler, in Mary Grice’s bracelet, and which had been returned to her in her friend’s letter — was all he wanted in the first place; for this would be enough to clear up every present uncertainty and suspicion connected with the ornament in the drawer of Mr. Blyth’s bureau.

These were mainly the resolutions to which his long meditation had now crookedly and clumsily conducted him. His next immediate business was to examine those letters in the box, which he had hitherto not opened; and also to possess himself of the enclosure of hair, in the letter to “Mary Grice,” that he might have it always about him ready for any emergency.

Before he opened the box, however, he took a quick, impatient turn or two up and down his miserable little room. Not once, since he had set forth to return to his own country, and to the civilization from which, for more than twenty years, he had been an outcast, had he felt (to use his favorite expression) that he was “his own man again,” until now. A thrill of the old, breathless, fierce suspense of his days of deadly peril ran through him, as he thought on the forbidden secret into which he was about to pry, and for the discovery of which he was ready to dare any hazard and use any means. “It goes through and through me, a’most like dodging for life again among the bloody Indians,” muttered Mat to himself, as he trod restlessly to and fro in his cage of a room, rubbing all the while at the scars on his face, as his way was when any new excitement got the better of him.

At the very moment when this thought was rising ominously in his mind, Valentine was expounding anew the whole scope and object of “Columbus” to a fresh circle of admiring spectators — while his wife was interpreting to Madonna above stairs Zack’s wildest jokes about his friend’s love-stricken condition; and all three were laughing gaily at a caricature, which he was maliciously drawing for them, of “poor old Mat” in the character of a scalped Cupid. Even the little minor globe of each man’s social sphere has its antipodes-points; and when it is all bright sunshine in one part of the miniature world, it is all pitch darkness, at the very same moment, in another.

Mat’s face had grown suddenly swarthier than ever, while he walked across his room, and said those words to himself which have just been recorded. It altered again, though, in a minute or two, and turned once more to the cold clay-color which had overspread it in the hosier’s shop at Dibbledean, as he returned to his bear-skins and opened the box that had belonged to “Mary Grice.”

He took out first the letter with the enclosure of hair, and placed it carefully in the breast pocket of his coat. He next searched a moment or two for the letter superscribed and signed by Joanna Grice; and, having found it, placed it on one side of him, on the floor. After this he paused a moment, looking into the box with a curious, scowling sadness on his face; while his hand vacantly stirred hither and thither the different objects that lay about among the papers — the gaily-bound album, the lace-collar, the dried flower-leaves, and the other little womanly possessions which had once belonged to Mary Grice.

Then he began to collect together all the letters in the box. Having got them into his hands — some tied up in a packet, some loose — he spread them out before him on his lap, first drawing up an end of one of the bear-skins over his legs for them to lie on conveniently. He began by examining the addresses. They were all directed to “Mary Grice,” in the same clear, careful, sharply-shaped handwriting. Though they were letters in form, they proved to be only notes in substance, when he opened them: the writing, in some, not extending to more than four or five lines. At least fifteen or twenty were expressed, with unimportant variations, in this form:

“MY DEAREST MARY— Pray try all you can to meet me to-morrow evening at the usual place. I have been waiting and longing for you in vain to-day. Only think of me, love, as I am now, and always, thinking of you; and I know you will come. Ever and only yours,

                        “A. C.”

All these notes were signed in the same way, merely with initial letters. They contained nothing in the shape of a date, except the day of the week on which they had been written; and they had evidently been delivered by some private means, for there did not appear to be a post-mark on any of them. One after another Mat opened and glanced at them — then tossed them aside into a heap. He pursued this employment quietly and methodically; but as he went on with it, a strange look flashed into his eyes from time to time, giving to them a certain sinister brightness which altered very remarkably the whole natural expression of his face.

Other letters, somewhat longer than the note already quoted, fared no better at his hands. Dry leaves dropped out of some, as he threw them aside; and little water-color drawings of rare flowers fluttered out of others. Hard botanical names which he could not spell through, and descriptions of plants which he could not understand, occurred here and there in postscripts and detached passages of the longer letters. But still, whether long or short, they bore no signature but the initials “A. C.;” still the dates afforded no information of the year, month, or place in which they had been written; and still Mat quietly and quickly tossed them aside one after the other, without so much as a word or a sigh escaping him, but with that sinister brightness flashing into his eyes from time to time. Out of the whole number of the letters, there were only two that he read more than once through, and then pondered over anxiously, before he threw them from him like the rest.

The first of the two was expressed thus:—

“I shall bring the dried ferns and the passion flower for your album with me this evening. You cannot imagine, dearest, how happy and how vain I feel at having made you as enthusiastic a botanist as I am myself. Since you have taken an interest in my favorite pursuit, it has been more exquisitely delightful to me than any words can express. I believe that I never really knew how to touch tender leaves tenderly until now, when I gather them with the knowledge that they are all to be shown to you, and all to be placed in your dear hand.

“Do you know, my own love, I thought I detected an alteration in you yesterday evening? I never saw you so serious. And then your attention often wandered; and, besides, you looked at me once or twice quite strangely, Mary. — I mean strangely, because your color seemed to be coming and going constantly without any imaginable reason. I really fancied, as I walked home — and I fancy still — that you had something to say, and were afraid to say it. Surely, love, you can have no secrets from me! — But we shall meet to-night, and then you will tell me everything (will you not?) without reserve. Farewell, dearest, till seven o’clock.”

Mat slowly read the second paragraph of this letter twice over, abstractedly twisting about his great bristly whiskers between his finger and thumb. There was evidently something in the few lines which he was thus poring over, that half saddened, half perplexed him. Whatever the difficulty was, he gave it up, and went on doggedly to the next letter, which was an exception to the rest of the collection, for it had a postmark on it. He had failed to notice this, on looking at the outside; but he detected directly on glancing at the inside that it was dated differently from those which had gone before it. Under the day of the week was written the word “London” — noting which, he began to read the letter with some appearance of anxiety. It ran thus:

“I write, my dearest love, in the greatest possible agitation and despair. All the hopes I felt, and expressed to you, that any absence would not last more than a few days, and that I should not be obliged to journey farther from Dibbledean than London, have been entirely frustrated. I am absolutely compelled to go to Germany, and may be away as long as three or four months. You see, I tell you the worst at once, Mary, because I know your courage and high spirit, and feel sure that you will bear up bravely against this unforeseen parting, for both our sakes. How glad I am that I gave you my hair for your Bracelet, when I did; and that I got yours in return! It will be such a consolation to both of us to have our keepsakes to look at now.

“If it only rested with me to go or not, no earthly consideration should induce me to take this journey. But the rights and interests of others are concerned in my setting forth; and I must, therefore, depart at the expense of my own wishes, and my own happiness. I go this very day, and can only steal a few minutes to write to you. My pen hurries over the paper without stopping an instant — I am so agitated that I hardly know what I am saying to you.

“If anything, dearest Mary, could add to my sense of the misfortune of being obliged to leave you, it would be the apprehension which I now feel, that I may have ignorantly offended you, or that something has happened which you don’t like to tell me. Ever since I noticed, ten days ago, that little alteration in your manner, I have been afraid you had something on your mind that you were unwilling to confide to me. The very last time we saw each other I thought you had been crying; and I am sure you looked away uneasily, whenever our eyes met. What is it? Do relieve my anxiety by telling me what it is in your first letter! The moment I get to the other side of the Channel, I will send you word, where to direct to. I will write constantly — mind you write constantly too. Love me, and remember me always, till I return, never, I hope, to leave you again. — A. C.”

Over this letter, Mat meditated long before he quietly cast it away among the rest. When he had at last thrown it from him there remained only three more to examine. They proved to be notes of no consequence, and had been evidently written at an earlier period than the letters he had just read. After hastily looking them over, he searched carefully all through the box, but no papers, of any sort remained in it. That hurried letter, with its abrupt announcement of the writer’s departure from England, was the latest in date — the last of the series!

After he had made this discovery, he sat for a little while vacantly gazing out of the window. His sense of the useless result to which the search he had been prosecuting had led him, thus far, seemed to have robbed him of half his energy already. He looked once or twice at the letter superscribed by Joanna Grice, mechanically reading along the line on the cover:— “Justification of my conduct towards my niece,” — but not attempting to examine what was written inside. It was only after a long interval of hesitation and delay that he at last roused himself. “I must sweep these things out of the way, and read all what I’ve got to read before Zack comes in,” he said to himself, gathering up the letters heaped at his feet, and thrusting them all back again together, with an oath, into the box.

He listened carefully once or twice after he had shut down the lid, and while he was tying the cords over it, to ascertain whether his wild young friend was opening the street door yet, or not. How short a time he had passed in Zack’s company, yet how thoroughly well he knew him, not as to his failings only, but as to his merits besides! How wisely he foreboded that his boisterous fellow-lodger would infallibly turn against him as an enemy, and expose him without an instant’s hesitation, if young Thorpe got any hint of his first experimental scheme for discovering poor Mr. Blyth’s anxiously-treasured secret by underhand and treacherous means! Mat’s cunning had proved an invaluable resource to him on many a critical occasion already; but he had never been more admirably served by it than now, when it taught him to be cautious of betraying himself to Zack.

For the present there seemed to be no danger of interruption. He corded up the box at his leisure, concealed it in its accustomed place, took his brandy-bottle from the cupboard, opened Joanna Grice’s letter — and still there was no sound of any one entering, in the passage downstairs. Before he began to read, he drank some of the spirit from the neck of the bottle. Was there some inexplicable dread stealing over him at the mere prospect of examining the contents of this one solitary letter?

It seemed as if there was. His finger trembled so, when he tried to guide himself by it along each successive line of the cramped writing which he was now attempting to decipher, that he had to take a second dram to steady it. And when he at length fairly began the letter, he did not pursue his occupation either as quietly or as quickly as he had followed it before. Sometimes he read a line or two aloud, sometimes he overlooked several sentences, and went on to another part of the long narrative — now growling out angry comments on what he was reading; and now dashing down the paper impatiently on his knees, with fierce outbursts of oaths, which he had picked up in the terrible swearing-school of the Californian gold mines.

He began, however, with perfect regularity at the proper part of the letter; sitting as near to the window as he could, and slanting the closely written page before him, so as to give himself the full benefit of all the afternoon light which still flowed into the room.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/hide_and_seek/book2.7.html

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