Basil, by Wilkie Collins

x.

On my arrival at North Villa, I was shown into what I presumed was the drawing-room.

Everything was oppressively new. The brilliantly-varnished door cracked with a report like a pistol when it was opened; the paper on the walls, with its gaudy pattern of birds, trellis-work, and flowers, in gold, red, and green on a white ground, looked hardly dry yet; the showy window-curtains of white and sky-blue, and the still showier carpet of red and yellow, seemed as if they had come out of the shop yesterday; the round rosewood table was in a painfully high state of polish; the morocco-bound picture books that lay on it, looked as if they had never been moved or opened since they had been bought; not one leaf even of the music on the piano was dogs-eared or worn. Never was a richly furnished room more thoroughly comfortless than this — the eye ached at looking round it. There was no repose anywhere. The print of the Queen, hanging lonely on the wall, in its heavy gilt frame, with a large crown at the top, glared on you: the paper, the curtains, the carpet glared on you: the books, the wax-flowers in glass-cases, the chairs in flaring chintz-covers, the china plates on the door, the blue and pink glass vases and cups ranged on the chimney-piece, the over-ornamented chiffoniers with Tonbridge toys and long-necked smelling bottles on their upper shelves — all glared on you. There was no look of shadow, shelter, secrecy, or retirement in any one nook or corner of those four gaudy walls. All surrounding objects seemed startlingly near to the eye; much nearer than they really were. The room would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour.

I was not kept waiting long. Another violent crack from the new door, announced the entrance of Mr. Sherwin himself.

He was a tall, thin man: rather round-shouldered; weak at the knees, and trying to conceal the weakness in the breadth of his trowsers. He wore a white cravat, and an absurdly high shirt collar. His complexion was sallow; his eyes were small, black, bright, and incessantly in motion — indeed, all his features were singularly mobile: they were affected by nervous contractions and spasms which were constantly drawing up and down in all directions the brow, the mouth, and the muscles of the cheek. His hair had been black, but was now turning to a sort of iron-grey; it was very dry, wiry, and plentiful, and part of it projected almost horizontally over his forehead. He had a habit of stretching it in this direction, by irritably combing it out, from time to time, with his fingers. His lips were thin and colourless, the lines about them being numerous and strongly marked. Had I seen him under ordinary circumstances, I should have set him down as a little-minded man; a small tyrant in his own way over those dependent on him; a pompous parasite to those above him — a great stickler for the conventional respectabilities of life, and a great believer in his own infallibility. But he was Margaret’s father; and I was determined to be pleased with him.

He made me a low and rather a cringing bow — then looked to the window, and seeing the carriage waiting for me at his door, made another bow, and insisted on relieving me of my hat with his own hand. This done, he coughed, and begged to know what he could do for me.

I felt some difficulty in opening my business to him. It was necessary to speak, however, at once — I began with an apology.

“I am afraid, Mr. Sherwin, that this intrusion on the part of a perfect stranger —”

“Not entirely a stranger, Sir, if I may be allowed to say so.”

“Indeed!”

“I had the great pleasure, Sir, and profit, and — and, indeed, advantage — of being shown over your town residence last year, when the family were absent from London. A very beautiful house — I happen to be acquainted with the steward of your respected father: he was kind enough to allow me to walk through the rooms. A treat; quite an intellectual treat — the furniture and hangings, and so on, arranged in such a chaste style — and the pictures, some of the finest pieces I ever saw — I was delighted — quite delighted, indeed.”

He spoke in under-tones, laying great stress upon particular words that were evidently favourites with him — such as, “indeed.” Not only his eyes, but his whole face, seemed to be nervously blinking and winking all the time he was addressing me, In the embarrassment and anxiety which I then felt, this peculiarity fidgetted and bewildered me more than I can describe. I would have given the world to have had his back turned, before I spoke to him again.

“I am delighted to hear that my family and my name are not unknown to you, Mr. Sherwin,” I resumed. “Under those circumstances, I shall feel less hesitation and difficulty in making you acquainted with the object of my visit.”

“Just so. May I offer you anything? — a glass of sherry, a —”

“Nothing, thank you. In the first place, Mr. Sherwin, I have reasons for wishing that this interview, whatever results it may lead to, may be considered strictly confidential. I am sure I can depend on your favouring me thus far?”

“Certainly — most certainly — the strictest secrecy of course — pray go on.”

He drew his chair a little nearer to me. Through all his blinking and winking, I could see a latent expression of cunning and curiosity in his eyes. My card was in his hand: he was nervously rolling and unrolling it, without a moment’s cessation, in his anxiety to hear what I had to say.

“I must also beg you to suspend your judgment until you have heard me to the end. You may be disposed to view — to view, I say, unfavourably at first — in short, Mr. Sherwin, without further preface, the object of my visit is connected with your daughter, with Miss Margaret Sherwin —”

“My daughter! Bless my soul — God bless my soul, I really can’t imagine —”

He stopped, half-breathless, bending forward towards me, and crumpling my card between his fingers into the smallest possible dimensions.

“Rather more than a week ago,” I continued, “I accidentally met Miss Sherwin in an omnibus, accompanied by a lady older than herself —”

“My wife; Mrs. Sherwin,” he said, impatiently motioning with his hand, as if “Mrs. Sherwin” were some insignificant obstacle to the conversation, which he wished to clear out of the way as fast as possible.

“You will not probably be surprised to hear that I was struck by Miss Sherwin’s extreme beauty. The impression she made on me was something more, however, than a mere momentary feeling of admiration. To speak candidly, I felt — You have heard of such a thing as love at first sight, Mr. Sherwin?”

“In books, Sir.” He tapped one of the morocco-bound volumes on the table, and smiled — a curious smile, partly deferential and partly sarcastic.

“You would be inclined to laugh, I dare say, if I asked you to believe that there is such a thing as love at first sight, out of books. But, without dwelling further on that, it is my duty to confess to you, in all candour and honesty, that the impression Miss Sherwin produced on me was such as to make me desire the privilege of becoming acquainted with her. In plain words, I discovered her place of residence by following her to this house.”

“Upon my soul this is the most extraordinary proceeding ——!”

“Pray hear me out, Mr. Sherwin: you will not condemn my conduct, I think, if you hear all I have to say.”

He muttered something unintelligible; his complexion turned yellower; he dropped my card, which he had by this time crushed into fragments; and ran his hand rapidly through his hair until he had stretched it out like a penthouse over his forehead — blinking all the time, and regarding me with a lowering, sinister expression of countenance. I saw that it was useless to treat him as I should have treated a gentleman. He had evidently put the meanest and the foulest construction upon my delicacy and hesitation in speaking to him: so I altered my plan, and came to the point abruptly —“came to business,” as he would have called it.

“I ought to have been plainer, Mr. Sherwin; I ought perhaps to have told you at the outset, in so many words, that I came to —” (I was about to say, “to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage;” but a thought of my father moved darkly over my mind at that moment, and the words would not pass my lips).

“Well, Sir! to what?”

The tone in which he said this was harsh enough to rouse me. It gave me back my self-possession immediately.

“To ask your permission to pay my addresses to Miss Sherwin — or, to be plainer still, if you like, to ask of you her hand in marriage.”

The words were spoken. Even if I could have done so, I would not have recalled what I had just said; but still, I trembled in spite of myself as I expressed in plain, blunt words what I had only rapturously thought over, or delicately hinted at to Margaret, up to this time.

“God bless me!” cried Mr. Sherwin, suddenly sitting back bolt upright in his chair, and staring at me in such surprise, that his restless features were actually struck with immobility for the moment —“God bless me, this is quite another story. Most gratifying, most astonishing — highly flattered I am sure; highly indeed, my dear Sir! Don’t suppose, for one moment, I ever doubted your honourable feeling. Young gentlemen in your station of life do sometimes fail in respect towards the wives and daughters of their — in short, of those who are not in their rank exactly. But that’s not the question — quite a misunderstanding — extremely stupid of me, to be sure. Pray let me offer you a glass of wine!”

“No wine, thank you, Mr. Sherwin. I must beg your attention a little longer, while I state to you, in confidence, how I am situated with regard to the proposals I have made. There are certain circumstances —”

“Yes — yes?”

He bent forward again eagerly towards me, as he spoke; looking more inquisitive and more cunning than ever.

“I have acknowledged to you, Mr. Sherwin, that I have found means to speak to your daughter — to speak to her twice. I made my advances honourably. She received them with a modesty and a reluctance worthy of herself, worthy of any lady, the highest lady in the land.” (Mr. Sherwin looked round reverentially to his print of the Queen; then looked back at me, and bowed solemnly.) “Now, although in so many words she directly discouraged me — it is her due that I should say this — still, I think I may without vanity venture to hope that she did so as a matter of duty, more than as a matter of inclination.”

“Ah — yes, yes! I understand. She would do nothing without my authority, of course?”

“No doubt that was one reason why she received me as she did; but she had another, which she communicated to me in the plainest terms — the difference in our rank of life.”

“Ah! she said that, did she? Exactly so — she saw a difficulty there? Yes — yes! high principles, Sir — high principles, thank God!”

“I need hardly tell you, Mr. Sherwin, how deeply I feel the delicate sense of honour which this objection shows on your daughter’s part. You will easily imagine that it is no objection to me, personally. The happiness of my whole life depends on Miss Sherwin; I desire no higher honour, as I can conceive no greater happiness, than to be your daughter’s husband. I told her this: I also told her that I would explain myself on the subject to you. She made no objection; and I am, therefore, I think, justified in considering that if you authorised the removal of scruples which do her honour at present, she would not feel the delicacy she does now at sanctioning my addresses.”

“Very proper — a very proper way of putting it. Practical, if I may be allowed to say so. And now, my dear Sir, the next point is: how about your own honoured family — eh?”

“It is exactly there that the difficulty lies. My father, on whom I am dependent as the younger son, has very strong prejudices — convictions I ought perhaps to call them — on the subject of social inequalities.”

“Quite so — most natural; most becoming, indeed, on the part of your respected father. I honour his convictions, sir. Such estates, such houses, such a family as his — connected, I believe, with the nobility, especially on your late lamented mother’s side. My dear Sir, I emphatically repeat it, your father’s convictions do him honour; I respect them as much as I respect him; I do, indeed.”

“I am glad you can view my father’s ideas on social subjects in so favourable a light, Mr. Sherwin. You will be less surprised to hear how they are likely to affect me in the step I am now taking.”

“He disapproves of it, of course — strongly, perhaps. Well, though my dear girl is worthy of any station; and a man like me, devoted to mercantile interests, may hold his head up anywhere as one of the props of this commercial country,” (he ran his fingers rapidly through his hair, and tried to look independent), “still I am prepared to admit, under all the circumstances — I say under all the circumstances — that his disapproval is very natural, and was very much to be expected — very much indeed.”

“He has expressed no disapproval, Mr. Sherwin.”

“You don’t say so!”

“I have not given him an opportunity. My meeting with your daughter has been kept a profound secret from him, and from every member of my family; and a secret it must remain. I speak from my intimate knowledge of my father, when I say that I hardly know of any means that he would not be capable of employing to frustrate the purpose of this visit, if I had mentioned it to him. He has been the kindest and best of fathers to me; but I firmly believe, that if I waited for his consent, no entreaties of mine, or of any one belonging to me, would induce him to give his sanction to the marriage I have come to you to propose.”

“Bless my soul! this is carrying things rather far, though — dependent as you are on him, and all that. Why, what on earth can we do — eh?”

“We must keep both the courtship and the marriage secret.”

“Secret! Good gracious, I don’t at all see my way —”

“Yes, secret — a profound secret among ourselves, until I can divulge my marriage to my father, with the best chance of —”

“But I tell you, Sir, I can’t see my way through it at all. Chance! what chance would there be, after what you have told me?”

“There might be many chances. For instance, when the marriage was solemnised, I might introduce your daughter to my father’s notice — without disclosing who she was — and leave her, gradually and unsuspectedly, to win his affection and respect (as with her beauty, elegance, and amiability, she could not fail to do), while I waited until the occasion was ripe for confessing everything. Then if I said to him, ‘This young lady, who has so interested and delighted you, is my wife;’ do you think, with that powerful argument in my favour, he could fail to give us his pardon? If, on the other hand, I could only say, ‘This young lady is about to become my wife,’ his prejudices would assuredly induce him to recall his most favourable impressions, and refuse his consent. In short, Mr. Sherwin, before marriage, it would be impossible to move him — after marriage, when opposition could no longer be of any avail, it would be quite a different thing: we might be sure of producing, sooner or later, the most favourable results. This is why it would be absolutely necessary to keep our union secret at first.”

I wondered then — I have since wondered more — how it was that I contrived to speak thus, so smoothly and so unhesitatingly, when my conscience was giving the lie all the while to every word I uttered.

“Yes, yes; I see — oh, yes, I see!” said Mr. Sherwin, rattling a bunch of keys in his pocket, with an expression of considerable perplexity; “but this is a ticklish business, you know — a very queer and ticklish business indeed. To have a gentleman of your birth and breeding for a son-in-law, is of course — but then there is the money question. Suppose you failed with your father after all —my money is out in my speculations —I can do nothing. Upon my word, you have placed me in a position that I never was placed in before.”

“I have influential friends, Mr. Sherwin, in many directions — there are appointments, good appointments, which would be open to me, if I pushed my interests. I might provide in this way against the chance of failure.”

“Ah! — well — yes. There’s something in that, certainly.”

“I can only assure you that my attachment to Miss Sherwin is not of a nature to be overcome by any pecuniary considerations. I speak in all our interests, when I say that a private marriage gives us a chance for the future, as opportunities arise of gradually disclosing it. My offer to you may be made under some disadvantages and difficulties, perhaps; for, with the exception of a very small independence, left me by my mother, I have no certain prospects. But I really think my proposals have some compensating advantages to recommend them —”

“Certainly! most decidedly so! I am not insensible, my dear Sir, to the great advantage, and honour, and so forth. But there is something so unusual about the whole affair. What would be my feelings, if your father should not come round, and my dear girl was disowned by the family? Well, well! that could hardly happen, I think, with her accomplishments and education, and manners too, so distinguished — though perhaps I ought not to say so. Her schooling alone was a hundred a-year, Sir, without including extras —”

“I am sure, Mr. Sherwin —”

“— A school, Sir, where it was a rule to take in no thing lower than the daughter of a professional man — they only waived the rule in my case — the most genteel school, perhaps, in all London! A drawing-room-deportment day once every week — the girls taught how to enter a room and leave a room with dignity and ease — a model of a carriage door and steps, in the back drawing-room, to practise the girls (with the footman of the establishment in attendance) in getting into a carriage and getting out again, in a lady-like manner! No duchess has had a better education than my Margaret! —”

“Permit me to assure you, Mr. Sherwin —”

“And then, her knowledge of languages — her French, and Italian, and German, not discontinued in holidays, or after she left school (she has only just left it); but all kept up and improved every evening, by the kind attention of Mr. Mannion —”

“May I ask who Mr. Mannion is?” The tone in which I put this question, cooled his enthusiasm about his daughter’s education immediately. He answered in his former tones, and with one of his former bows:

“Mr. Mannion is my confidential clerk, Sir — a most superior person, most highly talented, and well read, and all that.”

“Is he a young man?”

“Young! Oh, dear no! Mr. Mannion is forty, or a year or two more, if he’s a day — an admirable man of business, as well as a great scholar. He’s at Lyons now, buying silks for me. When he comes back I shall be delighted to introduce ——”

“I beg your pardon, but I think we are wandering away from the point, a little.”

“I beg yours— so we are. Well, my dear Sir, I must be allowed a day or two — say two days — to ascertain what my daughter’s feelings are, and to consider your proposals, which have taken me very much by surprise, as you may in fact see. But I assure you I am most flattered, most honoured, most anxious —”.

“I hope you will consider my anxieties, Mr. Sherwin, and let me know the result of your deliberations as soon as possible.”

“Without fail, depend upon it. Let me see: shall we say the second day from this, at the same time, if you can favour me with a visit?”

“Certainly.”

“And between that time and this, you will engage not to hold any communication with my daughter?”

“I promise not, Mr. Sherwin — because I believe that your answer will be favourable.”

“Ah, well — well! lovers, they say, should never despair. A little consideration, and a little talk with my dear girl — really now, won’t you change your mind and have a glass of sherry? (No again?) Very well, then, the day after tomorrow, at five o’clock.”

With a louder crack than ever, the brand-new drawing-room door was opened to let me out. The noise was instantly succeeded by the rustling of a silk dress, and the banging of another door, at the opposite end of the passage. Had anybody been listening? Where was Margaret?

Mr. Sherwin stood at the garden-gate to watch my departure, and to make his farewell bow. Thick as was the atmosphere of illusion in which I now lived, I shuddered involuntarily as I returned his parting salute, and thought of him as my father-in-law!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29