Wilkie Collins – Hide and Seek, or the Mystery of Mary Grice, 1854

Book I. The Hiding. Chapter II. Mr. Blyth in his Studio

It was wintry weather–not such a November winter’s day as some of us may remember looking at fourteen years ago, in Baregrove Square, but a brisk frosty morning in January. The country view visible from the back windows of Mr. Blyth’s house, which stood on the extreme limit of the new suburb, was thinly and brightly dressed out for the sun’s morning levee, in its finest raiment of pure snow. The cold blue sky was cloudless; every sound out of doors fell on the ear with a hearty and jocund ring; all newly-lit fires burnt up brightly and willingly without coaxing; and the robin-redbreasts hopped about expectantly on balconies and windowsills, as if they only waited for an invitation to walk in and warm themselves, along with their larger fellow creatures, round the kindly hearth.

The Studio was a large and lofty room, lighted by a skylight, and running along the side of the house throughout its whole depth. Its walls were covered with plain brown paper, and its floor was only carpeted in the middle. The most prominent pieces of furniture were two large easels placed at either extremity of the room; each supporting a picture of considerable size, covered over for the present with a pair of sheets which looked woefully in want of washing. There was a painting-stand with quantities of shallow little drawers, some too full to open, others, again, too full to shut; there was a movable platform to put sitters on, covered with red cloth much disguised in dust; there was a small square table of new deal, and a large round table of dilapidated rosewood, both laden with sketch-books, portfolios, dog’s-eared sheets of drawing paper, tin pots, scattered brushes, palette-knives, rags variously defiled by paint and oil, pencils, chalks, port-crayons–the whole smelling powerfully at all points of turpentine.

Finally, there were chairs in plenty, no one of which, however, at all resembled the other. In one corner stood a moldy antique chair with a high back, and a basin of dirty water on the seat. By the side of the fireplace a cheap straw chair of the beehive pattern was tilted over against a dining-room chair, with a horse-hair cushion. Before the largest of the two pictures, and hard by a portable flight of steps, stood a rickety office-stool. On the platform for sitters a modern easy chair, with the cover in tatters, invited all models to picturesque repose. Close to the rosewood table was placed a rocking-chair, and between the legs of the deal table were huddled together a camp-stool and a hassock. In short, every remarkable variety of the illustrious family of Seats was represented in one corner or another of Mr. Blyth’s painting-room.

All the surplus small articles which shelves, tables, and chairs were unable to accommodate, reposed in comfortable confusion on the floor. One half at least of a pack of cards seemed to be scattered about in this way. A shirt-collar, three gloves, a boot, a shoe, and half a slipper; a silk stocking, and a pair of worsted muffetees; three old play-bills rolled into a ball; a pencil-case, a paper-knife, a tooth-powder-box without a lid, and a superannuated black-beetle trap turned bottom upwards, assisted in forming part of the heterogeneous collection of rubbish strewed about the studio floor. And worse than all–as tending to show that the painter absolutely enjoyed his own disorderly habits–Mr. Blyth had jocosely desecrated his art, by making it imitate litter where, in all conscience, there was real litter enough already. Just in the way of anybody entering the room, he had painted, on the bare floor, exact representations of a new quill pen and a very expensive-looking sable brush, lying all ready to be trodden upon by entering feet. Fresh visitors constantly attested the skillfulness of these imitations by involuntarily stooping to pick up the illusive pen and brush; Mr. Blyth always enjoying the discomfiture and astonishment of every new victim, as thoroughly as if the practical joke had been a perfectly new one on each successive occasion.

Such was the interior condition of the painting-room, after the owner had inhabited it for a period of little more than two months!

The church-clock of the suburb has just struck ten, when quick, light steps approach the studio door. A gentleman enters–trips gaily over the imitative pen and brush–and, walking up to the fire, begins to warm his back at it, looking about him rather absently, and whistling “Drops of Brandy” in the minor key. This gentleman is Mr. Valentine Blyth.

He looks under forty, but is really a little over fifty. His face is round and rosy, and not marked by a single wrinkle in any part of it. He has large, sparkling black eyes; wears neither whiskers, beard, nor mustache; keeps his thick curly black hair rather too closely cut; and has a briskly-comical kindness of expression in his face, which it is not easy to contemplate for the first time without smiling at him. He is tall and stout, always wears very tight trousers, and generally keeps his wristbands turned up over the cuffs of his coat. All his movements are quick and fidgety. He appears to walk principally on his toes, and seems always on the point of beginning to dance, or jump, or run whenever he moves about, either in or out of doors. When he speaks he has an odd habit of ducking his head suddenly, and looking at the person whom he addresses over his shoulder. These, and other little personal peculiarities of the same undignified nature, all contribute to make him exactly that sort of person whom everybody shakes hands with, and nobody bows to, on a first introduction. Men instinctively choose him to be the recipient of a joke, girls to be the male confidant of all flirtations which they like to talk about, children to be their petitioner for the pardon of a fault, or the reward of a half-holiday. On the other hand, he is decidedly unpopular among that large class of Englishmen, whose only topics of conversation are public nuisances and political abuses; for he resolutely looks at everything on the bright side, and has never read a leading article or a parliamentary debate in his life. In brief, men of business habits think him a fool, and intellectual women with independent views cite him triumphantly as an excellent specimen of the inferior male sex.

Still whistling, Mr. Blyth walks towards an earthen pipkin in one corner of the studio, and takes from it a little china palette which he has neglected to clean since he last used it. Looking round the room for some waste paper, on which he can deposit the half-dried old paint that has been scraped off with the palette knife, Mr. Blyth’s eyes happen to light first on the deal table, and on four or five notes which lie scattered over it.

These he thinks will suit his purpose as well as anything else, so he takes up the notes, but before making use of them, reads their contents over for the second time–partly by way of caution, partly though a dawdling habit, which men of his absent disposition are always too ready to contract. Three of these letters happen to be in the same scrambling, blotted handwriting. They are none of them very long, and are the production of a former acquaintance of the reader’s, who has somewhat altered in height and personal appearance during the course of the last fourteen years. Here is the first of the notes which Valentine is now reading:–

“Dear Blyth,–My father says Theaters are the Devil’s Houses, and I must be home by eleven o’clock. I’m sure I never did anything wrong at a Theater, which I might not have done just the same anywhere else; unless laughing over a good play is one of the _national sins_ he’s always talking about. I can’t stand it much longer, even for my mother’s sake! You are my only friend. I shall come and see you to-morrow, so mind and be at home. How I wish I was an artist! Yours ever, Z. THORPE, JUN.”

Shaking his head and smiling at the same time, Mr. Blyth finishes this letter–drops a perfect puddle of dirty paint and turpentine in the middle, over the words “national sins,” throws the paper into the fire–and goes on to note number two:

“Dear Blyth,–I couldn’t come yesterday, because of another quarrel at home, and my mother crying about it, of course. My father smelt tobacco smoke at morning prayers. It was my coat, which I forgot to air at the fire the night before; and he found it out, and said he wouldn’t have me smoke, because it led to dissipation–but I told him (which is true) that lots of parsons smoked. I wish you visited at our house, and could come and say a word on my side. Dear Blyth, I am perfectly wretched; for I have had all my cigars taken from me; and I am, yours truly, Z. THORPE, JUN.”

A third note is required before the palette can be scraped clean. Mr. Blyth reads the contents rather gravely on this occasion; rapidly plastering his last morsels of waste paint upon the paper as he goes on, until at length it looks as if it had been well peppered with all the colors of the rainbow.

Zack’s third letter of complaint certainly promised serious domestic tribulation for the ruling power at Baregrove Square:–

“Dear Blyth,–I have given in–at least for the present. I told my father about my wanting to be an artist, and about your saying that I had a good notion of drawing, and an eye for a likeness; but I might just as well have talked to one of your easels. He means to make a man of business of me. And here I have been, for the last three weeks, at a Tea Broker’s office in the city, in consequence. They all say it’s a good opening for me, and talk about the respectability of commercial pursuits. I don’t want to be respectable, and I hate commercial pursuits. What is the good of forcing me into a merchant’s office, when I can’t say my Multiplication table? Ask my mother about that: _she’ll_ tell you! Only fancy me going round tea warehouses in filthy Jewish places like St. Mary-Axe, to take samples, with a blue bag to carry them about in; and a dirty junior clerk, who cleans his pen in his hair, to teach me how to fold up parcels! Isn’t it enough to make my blood boil to think of it? I can’t go on, and I won’t go on in this way! Mind you’re at home to-morrow; I’m coming to speak to you about how I’m to begin learning to be an artist. The junior clerk is going to do all my sampling work for me in the morning; and we are to meet in the afternoon, after I have come away from you, at a chop-house; and then go back to the office as if we had been together all day, just as usual. Ever yours, Z. THORPE, JUN.–P. S. My mind’s made up: if the worst comes to the worst, I shall leave home.”

“Oh, dear me! oh, dear! dear me!” says Valentine, mournfully rubbing his palette clean with a bit of rag. “What will it all end in, I wonder. Old Thorpe’s going just the way, with his obstinate severity, to drive Zack to something desperate. Coming here to-morrow, he says?” continues Mr. Blyth, approaching the smallest of the two pictures, placed on easels at opposite extremities of the room. “Coming to-morrow! He never dates his notes; but I suppose, as this one came last night, to-morrow means to-day.”

Saying these words with eyes absently fixed on his picture, Valentine withdraws the sheet stretched over the canvas, and discloses a Classical Landscape of his own composition.

If Mr. Blyth had done nothing else in producing the picture which now confronted him, he had at least achieved one great end of all Classic Art, by reminding nobody of anything simple, familiar, or pleasing to them in nature. In the foreground of his composition, were the three lanky ruined columns, the dancing Bacchantes, the musing philosopher, the mahogany-colored vegetation, and the bosky and branchless trees, with which we have all been familiar, from our youth upwards, in “classical compositions.” Down the middle of the scene ran that wonderful river, which is always rippling with the same regular waves; and always bearing onward the same capsizable galleys, with the same vermilion and blue revelers striking lyres on the deck. On the bank where there was most room for it, appeared our old, old friend, the architectural City, which nobody could possibly live in; and which is composed of nothing but temples, towers, monuments, flights of steps, and bewildering rows of pillars. In the distance, our favorite blue mountains were as blue and as peaky as ever, on Valentine’s canvas; and our generally-approved pale yellow sun was still disfigured by the same attack of aerial jaundice, from which he has suffered ever since classical compositions first forbade him to take refuge from the sight behind a friendly cloud.

After standing before his picture in affectionate contemplation of its beauties for a minute or so, Valentine resumes the business of preparing his palette.

Wilkie Collins, 1824-1889

Title: Hide and Seek, or the Mystery of Mary Grice 1854

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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