Hide and Seek – Wilkie Collins
One of the principal characters in Mr. Collins’s “Hide and Seek” is an artist; but the writer has not sketched him as labouring in his vocation amid alternations of despair and hope. “The painter in this story,” he says, “only assumes to be a homely study from nature, done by a student who has had more opportunities than most men, out of the profession, of observing what the novelties of artist-life, and the eccentricities of artist-character, are really like, when they are looked at close. It may be necessary to mention this, by way of warning, as I have ventured on the startling novelty, in fiction, of trying to make an artist interesting, without representing him as friendless, consumptive, and penniless, to say nothing of the more daring innovation of attempting to extract some amusement from his character, and yet not exhibiting him as . a speaker of bad English, a reckless contractor of debts, and an utterly irreclaimable sot.” Mr. Collins, has perfectly succeeded in his attempt. Valentine Blyth, the painter, is an enthusiast in his art, but an amiable, rational, sensible, though not strong-minded, man; in fact, a “naturalist,” in his art and out of it; a painter who loves his profession so dearly, and fancies himself so well able to grapple with it at all points, that he hesitates at nothing, whether it be the portrait of a horse, or of a baby in swaddling clothes, a “grand classical landscape with Bacchanalian nymphs,” or “Columbus in sight of the New World.” ‘Antonina’ and ‘Basil’ have placed Mr. Collins among the most popular novelists, and “Hide and Seek” will not lessen his reputation, but the contrary. The heroine of the story is a deaf and dumb orphan girl, of great beauty, picked up by Mr. Blyth, from a company of strolling players, taken home by him, and “hidden,” lest she should be found by any chance relatives, as a companion to his invalid wife; in time, however, there comes one to “seek” her; hence the title of the story. The “Madonna” of Mr. Collins is a pure and lovely creation, reminding us of the “Nina” in Bulwer’s “Last Days of Pompeii.” The idea of making a young girl, bereft of the powers of speech and hearing, but exquisitely sensitive to that of sight, and able to appreciate all the sources of enjoyment which a true painter feels-to make such an one a helpmate in the studio, as well as the friend and companion of another woman, delicate in mind as feeble in body, was a new and most happy thought; these two characters are touchingly and charmingly described. There are others of a different description; Mr. Zachary Thorpe, who endeavours to force his son to “take kindly to religious teaching” by rendering it irksome and distasteful-how many Mr. Thorpes are there in the world!-and, in consequence, he breaks through all restraint and runs riot. Then there is a strange wild fellow, called Mat, who has travelled into savage regions, lost his scalp in a foray with wild Indians, and comes home from the diggings with his tomahawk, his tobacco-pouch, some bear skins, and his pockets lined with bank-notes. These are the chief personages of Mr. Collins’s tale, we shall leave our readers to find out for themselves what they do, and what becomes of them all. The writer’s observation of nature, animate and inanimate, and his powers of description, are clear and vigorous; he can be humorous or pathetic, gentle or boisterous; can paint the tastefully ornamented chamber of the bed-ridden invalid and its inmates, or the noisy revelries of the dissipated frequenters of the “Temple of Harmony,” or the peculiarities of a painter’s studio, with the hand of a master.
Hide and Seek.
Excerpt from the text:
At a quarter to one o’clock, on a wet Sunday afternoon, in November 1837, Samuel Snoxell, page to Mr. Zachary Thorpe, of Baregrove Square, London, left the area gate with three umbrellas under his arm, to meet his master and mistress at the church door, on the conclusion of morning service. Snoxell had been specially directed by the housemaid to distribute his three umbrellas in the following manner: the new silk umbrella was to be given to Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe; the old silk umbrella was to be handed to Mr. Goodworth, Mrs. Thorpe’s father; and the heavy gingham was to be kept by Snoxell himself, for the special protection of “Master Zack,” aged six years, and the only child of Mr. Thorpe. Furnished with these instructions, the page set forth on his way to the church.
The morning had been fine for November; but before midday the clouds had gathered, the rain had begun, and the inveterate fog of the season had closed dingily over the wet streets, far and near. The garden in the middle of Baregrove Square—with its close-cut turf, its vacant beds, its bran-new rustic seats, its withered young trees that had not yet grown as high as the railings around them—seemed to be absolutely rotting away in yellow mist and softly-steady rain, and was deserted even by the cats. All blinds were drawn down for the most part over all windows; what light came from the sky came like light seen through dusty glass; the grim brown hue of the brick houses looked more dirtily mournful than ever; the smoke from the chimney-pots was lost mysteriously in deepening superincumbent fog; the muddy gutters gurgled; the heavy rain-drops dripped into empty areas audibly. No object great or small, no out-of-door litter whatever appeared anywhere, to break the dismal uniformity of line and substance in the perspective of the square. No living being moved over the watery pavement, save the solitary Snoxell. He plodded on into a Crescent, and still the awful Sunday solitude spread grimly humid all around him. He next entered a street with some closed shops in it; and here, at last, some consoling signs of human life attracted his attention. He now saw the crossing-sweeper of the district (off duty till church came out) smoking a pipe under the covered way that led to a mews. He detected, through half closed shutters, a chemist’s apprentice yawing over a large book. He passed a navigator, an ostler, and two costermongers wandering wearily backwards and forwards before a closed public-house door. He heard the heavy clop clop of thickly-booted feet advancing behind him, and a stern voice growling, “Now then! be off with you, or you’ll get locked up!”—and, looking round, saw an orange-girl, guilty of having obstructed an empty pavement by sitting on the curb-stone, driven along before a policeman, who was followed admiringly by a ragged boy gnawing a piece of orange-peel. Having delayed a moment to watch this Sunday procession of three with melancholy curiosity as it moved by him, Snoxell was about to turn the corner of a street which led directly to the church, when a shrill series of cries in a child’s voice struck on his ear and stopped his progress immediately.
The page stood stock-still in astonishment for an instant—then pulled the new silk umbrella from under his arm, and turned the corner in a violent hurry. His suspicions had not deceived him. There was Mr. Thorpe himself walking sternly homeward through the rain, before church was over. He led by the hand “Master Zack,” who was trotting along under protest, with his hat half off his head, hanging as far back from his father’s side as he possibly could, and howling all the time at the utmost pitch of a very powerful pair of lungs.
Mr. Thorpe stopped as he passed the page, and snatched the umbrella out of Snoxell’s hand, with unaccustomed impetuity; said sharply, “Go to your mistress, go on to the church;” and then resumed his road home, dragging his son after him faster than ever.
“Snoxy! Snoxy!” screamed Master Zack, turning round towards the page, so that he tripped himself up and fell against his father’s legs at every third step; “I’ve been a naughty boy at church!”
“Ah! you look like it, you do,” muttered Snoxell to himself sarcastically, as he went on. With that expression of opinion, the page approached the church portico, and waited sulkily among his fellow servants and their umbrellas for the congregation to come out.
When Mr. Goodworth and Mrs. Thorpe left the church, the old gentleman, regardless of appearances, seized eagerly on the despised gingham umbrella, because it was the largest he could get, and took his daughter home under it in triumph. Mrs. Thorpe was very silent, and sighed dolefully once or twice, when her father’s attention wandered from her to the people passing along the street.
“You’re fretting about Zack,” said the old gentleman, looking round suddenly at his daughter. “Never mind! leave it to me. I’ll undertake to beg him off this time.”
“It’s very disheartening and shocking to find him behaving so,” said Mrs. Thorpe, “after the careful way we’ve brought him up in, too!”
“Nonsense, my love! No, I don’t mean that—I beg your pardon. But who can be surprised that a child of six years old should be tired of a sermon forty minutes long by my watch? I was tired of it myself I know, though I wasn’t candid enough to show it as the boy did. There! there! we won’t begin to argue: I’ll beg Zack off this time, and we’ll say no more about it.”
Mr. Goodworth’s announcement of his benevolent intentions towards Zack seemed to have very little effect on Mrs. Thorpe; but she said nothing on that subject or any other during the rest of the dreary walk home, through rain, fog, and mud, to Baregrove Square.
Rooms have their mysterious peculiarities of physiognomy as well as men. There are plenty of rooms, all of much the same size, all furnished in much the same manner, which, nevertheless, differ completely in expression (if such a term may be allowed) one from the other; reflecting the various characters of their inhabitants by such fine varieties of effect in the furniture-features generally common to all, as are often, like the infinitesimal varieties of eyes, noses, and mouths, too intricately minute to be traceable. Now, the parlor of Mr. Thorpe’s house was neat, clean, comfortably and sensibly furnished. It was of the average size. It had the usual side-board, dining-table, looking-glass, scroll fender, marble chimney-piece with a clock on it, carpet with a drugget over it, and wire window-blinds to keep people from looking in, characteristic of all respectable London parlors of the middle class. And yet it was an inveterately severe-looking room—a room that seemed as if it had never been convivial, never uproarious, never anything but sternly comfortable and serenely dull—a room which appeared to be as unconscious of acts of mercy, and easy unreasoning over-affectionate forgiveness to offenders of any kind—juvenile or otherwise—as if it had been a cell in Newgate, or a private torturing chamber in the Inquisition. Perhaps Mr. Goodworth felt thus affected by the parlor (especially in November weather) as soon as he entered it—for, although he had promised to beg Zack off, although Mr. Thorpe was sitting alone by the table and accessible to petitions, with a book in his hand, the old gentleman hesitated uneasily for a minute or two, and suffered his daughter to speak first.
“Where is Zack?” asked Mrs. Thorpe, glancing quickly and nervously all round her.
“He is locked up in my dressing-room,” answered her husband without taking his eyes off the book.
“In your dressing-room!” echoed Mrs. Thorpe, looking as startled and horrified as if she had received a blow instead of an answer; “in your dressing-room! Good heavens, Zachary! how do you know the child hasn’t got at your razors?”
“They are locked up,” rejoined Mr. Thorpe, with the mildest reproof in his voice, and the mournfullest self-possession in his manner. “I took care before I left the boy, that he should get at nothing which could do him any injury. He is locked up, and will remain locked up, because”—
“I say, Thorpe! won’t you let him off this time?” interrupted Mr. Goodworth, boldly plunging head foremost, with his petition for mercy, into the conversation.
“If you had allowed me to proceed, sir,” said Mr. Thorpe, who always called his father-in-law Sir, “I should have simply remarked that, after having enlarged to my son (in such terms, you will observe, as I thought best fitted to his comprehension) on the disgrace to his parents and himself of his behavior this morning, I set him as a task three verses to learn out of the ‘Select Bible Texts for Children;’ choosing the verses which seemed most likely, if I may trust my own judgment on the point, to impress on him what his behavior ought to be for the future in church. He flatly refused to learn what I told him. It was, of course, quite impossible to allow my authority to be set at defiance by my own child (whose disobedient disposition has always, God knows, been a source of constant trouble and anxiety to me); so I locked him up, and locked up he will remain until he has obeyed me. My dear,” (turning to his wife and handing her a key), “I have no objection, if you wish, to your going and trying what you can do towards overcoming the obstinacy of this unhappy child.”
Mrs. Thorpe took the key, and went up stairs immediately—went up to do what all women have done, from the time of the first mother; to do what Eve did when Cain was wayward in his infancy, and cried at her breast—in short, went up to coax her child.
Mr. Thorpe, when his wife closed the door, carefully looked down the open page on his knee for the place where he had left off—found it—referred back a moment to the last lines of the preceding leaf—and then went on with his book, not taking the smallest notice of Mr. Goodworth.
“Thorpe!” cried the old gentleman, plunging head-foremost again, into his son-in-law’s reading this time instead of his talk, “You may say what you please; but your notion of bringing up Zack is a wrong one altogether.”
With the calmest imaginable expression of face, Mr. Thorpe looked up from his book; and, first carefully putting a paper-knife between the leaves, placed it on the table. He then crossed one of his legs over the other, rested an elbow on each arm of his chair, and clasped his hands in front of him. On the wall opposite hung several lithographed portraits of distinguished preachers, in and out of the Establishment—mostly represented as very sturdily-constructed men with bristly hair, fronting the spectator interrogatively and holding thick books in their hands. Upon one of these portraits—the name of the original of which was stated at the foot of the print to be the Reverend Aaron Yollop—Mr. Thorpe now fixed his eyes, with a faint approach to a smile on his face (he never was known to laugh), and with a look and manner which said as plainly as if he had spoken it: “This old man is about to say something improper or absurd to me; but he is my wife’s father, it is my duty to bear with him, and therefore I am perfectly resigned.”
“It’s no use looking in that way, Thorpe,” growled the old gentleman; “I’m not to be put down by looks at my time of life. I may have my own opinions I suppose, like other people; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t express them, especially when they relate to my own daughter’s boy. It’s very unreasonable of me, I dare say, but I think I ought to have a voice now and then in Zack’s bringing up.”
Mr. Thorpe bowed respectfully—partly to Mr. Goodworth, partly to the Reverend Aaron Yollop. “I shall always be happy, sir, to listen to any expression of your opinion—”
“My opinion’s this,” burst out Mr. Goodworth. “You’ve no business to take Zack to church at all, till he’s some years older than he is now. I don’t deny that there may be a few children, here and there, at six years old, who are so very patient, and so very—(what’s the word for a child that knows a deal more than he has any business to know at his age? Stop! I’ve got it!—precocious—that’s the word)—so very patient and so very precocious that they will sit quiet in the same place for two hours; making believe all the time that they understand every word of the service, whether they really do or not. I don’t deny that there may be such children, though I never met with them myself, and should think them all impudent little hypocrites if I did! But Zack isn’t one of that sort: Zack’s a genuine child (God bless him)! Zack—”