Hide and Seek, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter IV. Fate Works, with Zack for an Instrument.

A quarter of an hour’s rapid walking from his father’s door, took Zack well out of the neighborhood of Baregrove Square, and launched him in vagabond independence loose on the world. He had a silk handkerchief and sevenpence halfpenny in his pockets — his available assets consisted of a handsome gold watch and chain — his only article of baggage was a blackthorn stick — and his anchor of hope was the Pawnbroker.

His first action, now that he had become his own master, was to go direct to the nearest stationer’s shop that he could find, and there to write the penitent letter to his mother over which his heart had failed him in the library at Baregrove Square. It was about as awkward, scrambling, and incoherent an epistolary production as ever was composed. But Zack felt easier when he had completed it — easier still when he had actually dropped it into the post-office along with his other letter to Mr. Valentine Blyth.

The next duty that claimed him was the first great duty of civilized humanity — the filling of an empty purse. Most young gentlemen in his station of life would have found the process of pawning a watch in the streets of London, and in broad daylight, rather an embarrassing one. But Zack was born impervious to a sense of respectability. He marched into the first pawnbroker’s he came to with as solemn an air of business, and marched out again with as serene an expression of satisfaction, as if he had just been drawing a handsome salary, or just been delivering a heavy deposit into the hands of his banker.

Once provided with pecuniary resources, Zack felt himself at liberty to indulge forthwith in a holiday of his own granting. He opened the festival by a good long ride in a cab, with a bottle of pale ale and a packet of cigars inside, to keep the miserable state of the weather from affecting his spirits. He closed the festival with a visit to the theater, a supper in mixed company, total self-oblivion, a bed at a tavern, and a blinding headache the next morning. Thus much, in brief, for the narrative of his holiday. The proceedings, on his part, which followed that festival, claim attention next; and are of sufficient importance, in the results to which they led, to be mentioned in detail.

The new morning was the beginning of an important day in Zack’s life. Much depended on the interviews he was about to seek with his new friend, Mat, in Kirk Street, and with Mr. Blyth, at the turnpike in the Laburnum Road. As he paid his bill at the tavern, his conscience was not altogether easy, when he recalled a certain passage in his letter to his mother, which had assured her that he was on the high road to reformation already. “I’ll make a clean breast of it to Blyth, and do exactly what he tells me, when I meet him at the turnpike.” Fortifying himself with this good resolution, Zack arrived at Kirk Street, and knocked at the private door of the tobacconist’s shop.

Mat, having seen him from the window, called to him to come up, as soon as the door was opened. The moment they shook hands, young Thorpe noticed that his new friend looked altered. His face seemed to have grown downcast and weary — heavy and vacant, since they had last met.

“What’s happened to you?” asked Zack. “You have been somewhere in the country, haven’t you? What news do you bring back, my dear fellow? Good, I hope?”

“Bad as can be,” returned Mat, gruffly. “Don’t you say another word to me about it. If you do, we part company again. Talk of something else. Anything you like; and the sooner the better.”

Forbidden to discourse any more concerning his friend’s affairs, Zack veered about directly, and began to discourse concerning his own. Candor was one of his few virtues: and he now confided to Mat the entire history of his tribulations, without a single reserved point at any part of the narrative, from beginning to end.

Without putting a question, or giving an answer, without displaying the smallest astonishment or the slightest sympathy, Mat stood gravely listening until Zack had quite done. He then went to the corner of the room where the round table was; pulled the upturned lid back upon the pedestal; drew from the breast pocket of his coat a roll of beaver-skin; slowly undid it; displayed upon the table a goodly collection of bank notes; and pointing to them, said to young Thorpe, — “Take what you want.”

It was not easy to surprise Zack; but this proceeding so completely astonished him, that he stared at the bank notes in speechless amazement. Mat took his pipe from a nail in the wall, filled the bowl with tobacco, and pointing with the stem towards the table, gruffly repeated, — “Take what you want.”

This time, Zack found words in which to express himself, and used them pretty freely to praise his new friend’s unexampled generosity, and to decline taking a single farthing. Mat deliberately lit his pipe, in the first place, and then bluntly answered in these terms:—

“Take my advice, young ’un, and keep all that talking for somebody else: it’s gibberish to me. Don’t bother; and help yourself to what you want. Money’s what you want — though you won’t own it. That’s money. When it’s gone, I can go back to California and get more. While it lasts, make it spin. What is there to stare at? I told you I’d be brothers with you, because of what you done for me the other night. Well: I’m being brothers with you now. Get your watch out of pawn, and shake a loose leg at the world. Will you take what you want? And when you have, just tie up the rest, and chuck ’em over here.” With those words the man of the black skull-cap sat down on his bearskins, and sulkily surrounded himself with clouds of tobacco smoke.

Finding it impossible to make Mat understand those delicacies and refinements of civilized life which induce one gentleman (always excepting a clergyman at Easter time) to decline accepting money from another gentleman as a gift — perceiving that he was resolved to receive all remonstrances as so many declarations of personal enmity and distrust — and well knowing, moreover, that a little money to go on with would be really a very acceptable accommodation under existing circumstances, Zack consented to take two ten-pound notes as a loan. At this reservation Mat chuckled contemptuously; but young Thorpe enforced it, by tearing a leaf out of his pocket-book, and writing an acknowledgment for the sum he had borrowed. Mat roughly and resolutely refused to receive the document; but Zack tied it up along with the bank-notes, and threw the beaver-skin roll back to its owner, as requested.

“Do you want a bed to sleep in?” asked Mat next. “Say yes or no at once! I won’t have no more gibberish. I’m not a gentleman, and I can’t shake up along with them as are. It’s no use trying it on with me, young ’un. I’m not much better than a cross between a savage and a Christian. I’m a battered, lonesome, scalped old vagabond — that’s what I am! But I’m brothers with you for all that. What’s mine is yours; and if you tell me it isn’t again, me and you are likely to quarrel. Do you want a bed to sleep in? Yes? or No?”

Yes; Zack certainly wanted a bed; but —

“There’s one for you,” remarked Mat, pointing through the folding-doors into the back room. “I don’t want it. I haven’t slep’ in a bed these twenty years and more, and I can’t do it now. I take dog’s snoozes in this corner; and I shall take more dog’s snoozes out of doors in the day-time, when the sun begins to shine. I haven’t been used to much sleep, and I don’t want much. Go in and try if the bed’s long enough for you.”

Zack tried to expostulate again, but Mat interrupted him more gruffly than ever.

“I suppose you don’t care to sleep next door to such as me,” he said. “You wouldn’t turn your back on a bit of my blanket, though, if we were out in the lonesome places together. Never mind! You won’t cotton to me all at once, I dare say. I cotton to you in spite of that. Damn the bed! Take or leave it, which you like.”

Zack the reckless, who was always ready at five minutes’ notice to make friends with any living being under the canopy of heaven — Zack the gregarious, who in his days of roaming the country, before he was fettered to an office stool, had “cottoned” to every species of rustic vagabond, from a traveling tinker to a resident poacher — at once declared that he would sleep in the offered bed that very night, by way of showing himself worthy of his host’s assistance and regard, if worthy of nothing else. Greatly relieved by this plain declaration, Mat crossed his legs luxuriously on the floor, shook his great shoulders with a heartier chuckle than usual, and made his young friend free of the premises in these hospitable words:—

“There! now the bother’s over at last, I suppose,” cried Mat. “Pull in the buffalo hide, and bring your legs to an anchor anywhere you like. I’m smoking. Suppose you smoke too. — Hoi! Bring up a clean pipe,” cried this rough diamond, in conclusion, turning up a loose corner of the carpet, and roaring through a crack in the floor into the shop below.

The pipe was brought. Zack sat down on the buffalo hide, and began to ask his queer friend about the life he had been leading in the wilds of North and South America. From short replies at first, Mat was gradually beguiled into really relating some of his adventures. Wild, barbarous fragments of narrative they were; mingling together in one darkly-fantastic record, fierce triumphs and deadly dangers; miseries of cold, and hunger, and thirst; glories of hunters’ feasts in mighty forests; gold-findings among desolate rocks; gallopings for life from the flames of the blazing prairie; combats with wild beasts and with men wilder still; weeks of awful solitude in primeval wastes; days and nights of perilous orgies among drunken savages; visions of meteors in heaven, of hurricanes on earth, and of icebergs blinding bright, when the sunshine was beautiful over the Polar seas.

Young Thorpe listened in a fever of excitement. Here was the desperate, dangerous, roving life of which he had dreamed! He longed already to engage in it: he could have listened to descriptions of it all day long. But Mat was the last man in the world to err, at any time, on the side of diffuseness in relating the results of his own experience. And he now provokingly stopped, on a sudden, in the middle of an adventure among the wild horses on the Pampas; declaring that he was tired of feeling his own tongue wag, and had got so sick of talking of himself, that he was determined not to open his mouth again — except to put a rump-steak and a pipe in it — for the rest of the day.

Finding it impossible to make him alter this resolution, Zack thought of his engagement with Mr. Blyth, and asked what time it was. Mat, having no watch, conveyed this inquiry into the shop by the same process of roaring through the crack in the ceiling which he had already employed to produce a clean pipe. The answer showed Zack that he had barely time enough left to be punctual to his appointment in the Laburnum Road.

“I must be off to my friend at the turnpike,” he said, rising and putting on his hat; “but I shall be back again in an hour or two. I say, have you thought seriously yet about going back to America?” His eyes sparkled eagerly as he put this question.

“There ain’t no need to think about it,” answered Mat. “I mean to go back; but I haven’t settled what day yet. I’ve got something to do first.” His face darkened, and he glanced aside at the box which he had brought from Dibbledean, and which was now covered with one of his bearskins. “Never mind what it is; I’ve got it to do, and that’s enough. Don’t you go asking again whether I’ve brought news from the country, or whether I haven’t. Don’t you ever do that, and we shall sail along together easy enough. I like you, Zack, when you don’t bother me. If you want to go, what are you stopping for? Why don’t you clear out at once?”

Young Thorpe departed, laughing. It was a fine clear day, and the bright sky showed signs of a return of the frost. He was in high spirits as he walked along, thinking of Mat’s wild adventures. What was the happiest painter’s life, after all, compared to such a life as he had just heard described? Zack was hardly in the Laburnum Road before he began to doubt whether he had really made up his mind to be guided entirely by Mr. Blyth’s advice, and to devote all his energies for the future to the cultivation of the fine arts.

Near the turnpike stood a tall gentleman, making a sketch in a note-book of some felled timber lying by the road side. This could be no other than Valentine — and Valentine it really was.

Mr. Blyth looked unusually serious, as he shook hands with young Thorpe. “Don’t begin to justify yourself, Zack,” he said; “I’m not going to blame you now. Let’s walk on a little. I have some news to tell you from Baregrove Square.”

It appeared from the narrative on which Valentine now entered, that, immediately on the receipt of Zack’s letter, he had called on Mr. Thorpe, with the kindly purpose of endeavoring to make peace between father and son. His mission had entirely failed. Mr. Thorpe had grown more and more irritable as the interview proceeded; and had accused his visitor of unwarrantable interference, when Valentine suggested the propriety of holding out some prospect of forgiveness to the runaway son.

This outbreak Mr. Blyth had abstained from noticing, out of consideration for the agitated state of the speaker’s feelings. But when the Reverend Mr. Yollop (who had been talking with Mrs. Thorpe up stairs) came into the room soon afterwards, and joined in the conversation, words had been spoken which had obliged Valentine to leave the house. The reiteration of some arguments on the side of mercy which he had already advanced, had caused Mr. Yollop to hint, with extreme politeness and humility, that Mr. Blyth’s profession was not of a nature to render him capable of estimating properly the nature and consequences of moral guilt; while Mr. Thorpe had referred almost openly to the scandalous reports which had been spread abroad in certain quarters, years ago, on the subject of Madonna’s parentage. These insinuations had roused Valentine instantly. He had denounced them as false in the strongest terms he could employ; and had left the house, resolved never to hold any communication again either with Mr. Yollop or Mr. Thorpe.

About an hour after his return home, a letter marked “Private” had been brought to him from Mrs. Thorpe. The writer referred, with many expressions of sorrow, to what had occurred at the interview of the morning; and earnestly begged Mr. Blyth to take into consideration the state of Mr. Thorpe’s health, which was such, that the family doctor (who had just called) had absolutely forbidden him to excite himself in the smallest degree by receiving any visitors, or by taking any active steps towards the recovery of his absent son. If these rules were not strictly complied with for many days to come, the doctor declared that the attack of palpitation of the heart, from which Mr. Thorpe had suffered on the night of Zack’s return, might occur again, and might be strengthened into a confirmed malady. As it was, if proper care was taken, nothing of an alarming nature need be apprehended.

Having referred to her husband in these terms, Mrs. Thorpe next reverted to herself. She mentioned the receipt of a letter from Zack; but said it had done little towards calming her anxiety and alarm. Feeling certain that Mr. Blyth would be the first friend her son would go to, she now begged him to use his influence to keep Zack from abandoning himself to any desperate courses, or from leaving the country, which she greatly feared he might be tempted to do. She asked this of Mr. Blyth as a favor to herself, and hinted that if he would only enable her, by granting it, to tell her husband, without entering into details, that their son was under safe guidance for the present, half the anxiety from which she was now suffering would be alleviated. Here the letter ended abruptly; a request for a speedy answer being added in the postscript.

“Now, Zack,” said Valentine, after he had related the result of his visit to Baregrove Square, and had faithfully reported the contents of Mrs. Thorpe’s letter, “I shall only add that whatever has happened between your father and me, makes no difference in the respect I have always felt for your mother, and in my earnest desire to do her every service in my power. I tell you fairly — as between friends — that I think you have been very much to blame; but I have sufficient confidence and faith in you, to leave everything to be decided by your own sense of honor, and by the affection which I am sure you feel for your mother.”

This appeal, and the narrative which had preceded it, had their due effect on Zack. His ardor for a wandering life of excitement and peril, began to cool in the quiet temperature of the good influences that were now at work within him. “It shan’t be my fault, Blyth, if I don’t deserve your good opinion,” he said warmly. “I know I’ve behaved badly; and I know, too, that I have had some severe provocations. Only tell me what you advise, and I’ll do it — I will, upon my honor, for my mother’s sake.”

“That’s right! that’s talking like a man!” cried Valentine, clapping him on the shoulder. “In the first place, it would be no use your going back home at once — even if you were willing, which I am afraid you are not. In your father’s present state your return to Baregrove Square would do him a great deal of harm, and do you no good. Employed, however, you must be somehow while you’re away from home; and what you’re fit for — unless it’s Art — I’m sure I don’t know. You have been talking a great deal about wanting to be a painter; and now is the time to test your resolution. If I get you an order to draw in the British Museum, to fill up your mornings; and if I enter you at some private Academy, to fill up your evenings (mine at home is not half strict enough for you) — will you stick to it?”

“With all my heart,” replied Zack, resolutely dismissing his dreams of life in the wilds to the limbo of oblivion. “I ask nothing better, Blyth, than to stick to you and your plan for the future.”

“Bravo!” cried Valentine, in his old gay, hearty manner. “The heaviest load of anxiety that has been on my shoulders for some time past is off now. I will write and comfort your mother this very afternoon — ”

“Give her my love,” interposed Zack. — “Giving her your love; in the belief, of course, that you are going to prove yourself worthy to send such a message,” continued Mr. Blyth. “Let us turn, and walk back at once. The sooner I write, the easier and happier I shall be. By the bye, there’s another important question starts up now, which your mother seems to have forgotten in the hurry and agitation of writing her letter. What are you going to do about money matters? Have you thought about a place to live in for the present? Can I help you in any way?”

These questions admitted of but one candid form of answer, which the natural frankness of Zack’s character led him to adopt without hesitation. He immediately related the whole history of his first meeting with Mat, (formally describing him, on this occasion, as Mr. Mathew Marksman), and of the visit to Kirk Street which had followed it that very morning.

Though in no way remarkable for excess of caution, or for the possession of any extraordinary fund of worldly wisdom, Mr. Blyth frowned and shook his head suspiciously, while he listened to the curious narrative now addressed to him. As soon as it was concluded, he expressed the most decided disapprobation of the careless readiness with which Zack had allowed a perfect stranger to become intimate with him — reminding him that he had met his new acquaintance (of whom, by his own confession, he knew next to nothing) in a very disreputable place — and concluded by earnestly recommending him to break off all connection with so dangerous an associate, at the earliest possible opportunity.

Zack, on his side, was not slow in mustering arguments to defend his conduct. He declared that Mr. Marksman had gone into the Snuggery innocently, and had been grossly insulted before he became the originator of the riot there. As to his family affairs and his real name, he might have good and proper reasons for concealing them; which was the more probable, as his account of himself in other respects was straightforward and unreserved enough. He might be a little eccentric, and might have led an adventurous life; but it was surely not fair to condemn him, on that account only, as a bad character. In conclusion, Zack cited the loan he had received, as a proof that the stranger could not be a swindler, at any rate; and referred to the evident familiarity with localities and customs in California, which he had shown in conversation that afternoon, as affording satisfactory proof in support of his own statement that he had gained his money by gold-digging.

Mr. Blyth, however, still held firmly to his original opinion; and, first offering to advance the money from his own purse, suggested that young Thorpe should relieve himself of the obligation which he had imprudently contracted, by paying back what he had borrowed, that very afternoon.

“Get out of his debt,” said Valentine, earnestly — “Get out of his debt, at any rate.”

“You don’t know him as well as I do,” replied Zack. “He wouldn’t think twice about knocking me down, if I showed I distrusted him in that way — and let me tell you, Blyth, he’s one of the few men alive who could really do it.”

“This is no laughing matter, Zack,” said Valentine, shaking his head doubtfully.

“I never was more serious in my life,” rejoined Zack. “I won’t say I should be afraid, but I will say I should be ashamed to pay him his money back on the day when I borrowed it. Why, he even refused to accept my written acknowledgment of the loan! I only succeeded in forcing it on him unawares, by slipping it in among his banknotes; and, if he finds it there, I’ll lay you any wager you like, he tears it up, or throws it into the fire.”

Mr. Blyth began to look a little puzzled. The stranger’s behavior about the money was rather staggering, to say the least of it.

“Let me bring him to your picture-show,” pursued Zack. “Judge of him yourself, before you condemn him. Surely I can’t say fairer than that? May I bring him to see the pictures? Or will you come back at once with me to Kirk Street, where he lives?”

“I must write to your mother, before I do any thing else; and I have work in hand besides for to-day and tomorrow,” said Valentine. “All things considered, you had better bring your friend as you proposed just now. But remember the distinction I always make between my public studio and my private house. I consider the glorious mission of Art to apply to everybody; so I am proud to open my painting room to any honest man who wants to look at my pictures. But the freedom of my other rooms is only for my own friends. I can’t have strangers brought up stairs: remember that.”

“Of course! I shouldn’t think of it, my dear fellow. Only you look at old Rough and Tough, and hear him talk; and I’ll answer for the rest.”

“Ah, Zack! Zack! I wish you were not so dreadfully careless about whom you get acquainted with. I have often warned you that you will bring yourself or your friends into trouble some day, when you least expect it. Where are you going now?”

“Back to Kirk Street. This is my nearest way; and I promised Mat — ”

“Remember what you promised me, and what I am going to promise your mother — ”

“I’ll remember everything, Blyth. Good bye and thank you. Only wait till we meet on Saturday, and you see my new friend; and you will find it all right.”

“I hope I shan’t find it all wrong,” said Mr. Blyth, forebodingly, as he followed the road to his own house.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52