Basil, by Wilkie Collins

xi.

The nearer I approached to our own door, the more reluctance I felt to pass the short interval between my first and second interview with Mr. Sherwin, at home. When I entered the house, this reluctance increased to something almost like dread. I felt unwilling and unfit to meet the eyes of my nearest and dearest relatives. It was a relief to me to hear that my father was not at home. My sister was in the house: the servant said she had just gone into the library, and inquired whether he should tell her that I had come in. I desired him not to disturb her, as it was my intention to go out again immediately.

I went into my study, and wrote a short note there to Clara; merely telling her that I should be absent in the country for two days. I had sealed and laid it on the table for the servant to deliver, and was about to leave the room, when I heard the library door open. I instantly drew back, and half-closed my own door again. Clara had got the book she wanted, and was taking it up to her own sitting-room. I waited till she was out of sight, and then left the house. It was the first time I had ever avoided my sister — my sister, who had never in her life asked a question, or uttered a word that could annoy me; my sister, who had confided all her own little secrets to my keeping, ever since we had been children. As I thought on what I had done, I felt a sense of humiliation which was almost punishment enough for the meanness of which I had been guilty.

I went round to the stables, and had my horse saddled immediately. No idea of proceeding in any particular direction occurred to me. I simply felt resolved to pass my two days’ ordeal of suspense away from home — far enough away to keep me faithful to my promise not to see Margaret. Soon after I started, I left my horse to his own guidance, and gave myself up to my thoughts and recollections, as one by one they rose within me. The animal took the direction which he had been oftenest used to take during my residence in London — the northern road.

It was not until I had ridden half a mile beyond the suburbs that I looked round me, and discovered towards what part of the country I was proceeding. I drew the rein directly, and turned my horse’s head back again, towards the south. To follow the favourite road which I had so often followed with Clara; to stop perhaps at some place where I had often stopped with her, was more than I had the courage or the insensibility to do at that moment.

I rode as far as Ewell, and stopped there: the darkness had overtaken me, and it was useless to tire my horse by going on any greater distance. The next morning, I was up almost with sunrise; and passed the greater part of the day in walking about among villages, lanes, and fields, just as chance led me. During the night, many thoughts that I had banished for the last week had returned — those thoughts of evil omen under which the mind seems to ache, just as the body aches under a dull, heavy pain, to which we can assign no particular place or cause. Absent from Margaret, I had no resource against the oppression that now overcame me. I could only endeavour to alleviate it by keeping incessantly in action; by walking or riding, hour after hour, in the vain attempt to quiet the mind by wearying out the body. Apprehension of the failure of my application to Mr. Sherwin had nothing to do with the vague gloom which now darkened my thoughts; they kept too near home for that. Besides, what I had observed of Margaret’s father, especially during the latter part of my interview with him, showed me plainly enough that he was trying to conceal, under exaggerated surprise and assumed hesitation, his secret desire to profit at once by my offer; which, whatever conditions might clog it, was infinitely more advantageous in a social point of view, than any he could have hoped for. It was not his delay in accepting my proposals, but the burden of deceit, the fetters of concealment forced on me by the proposals themselves, which now hung heavy on my heart.

That evening I left Ewell, and rode towards home again, as far as Richmond, where I remained for the night and the forepart of the next day. I reached London in the afternoon; and got to North Villa — without going home first — about five o’clock.

The oppression was still on my spirits. Even the sight of the house where Margaret lived failed to invigorate or arouse me.

On this occasion, when I was shown into the drawing-room, both Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin were awaiting me there. On the table was the sherry which had been so perseveringly pressed on me at the last interview, and by it a new pound cake. Mrs. Sherwin was cutting the cake as I came in, while her husband watched the process with critical eyes. The poor woman’s weak white fingers trembled as they moved the knife under conjugal inspection.

“Most happy to see you again — most happy indeed, my dear Sir,” said Mr. Sherwin, advancing with hospitable smile and outstretched hand. “Allow me to introduce my better half, Mrs. S.”

His wife rose in a hurry, and curtseyed, leaving the knife sticking in the cake; upon which Mr. Sherwin, with a stern look at her, ostentatiously pulled it out, and set it down rather violently on the dish.

Poor Mrs. Sherwin! I had hardly noticed her on the day when she got into the omnibus with her daughter — it was as if I now saw her for the first time. There is a natural communicativeness about women’s emotions. A happy woman imperceptibly diffuses her happiness around her; she has an influence that is something akin to the influence of a sunshiny day. So, again, the melancholy of a melancholy woman is invariably, though silently, infectious; and Mrs. Sherwin was one of this latter order. Her pale, sickly, moist-looking skin; her large, mild, watery, light-blue eyes; the restless timidity of her expression; the mixture of useless hesitation and involuntary rapidity in every one of her actions — all furnished the same significant betrayal of a life of incessant fear and restraint; of a disposition full of modest generosities and meek sympathies, which had been crushed down past rousing to self-assertion, past ever seeing the light. There, in that mild, wan face of hers — in those painful startings and hurryings when she moved; in that tremulous, faint utterance when she spoke —there, I could see one of those ghastly heart-tragedies laid open before me, which are acted and re-acted, scene by scene, and year by year, in the secret theatre of home; tragedies which are ever shadowed by the slow falling of the black curtain that drops lower and lower every day — that drops, to hide all at last, from the hand of death.

“We have had very beautiful weather lately, Sir,” said Mrs. Sherwin, almost inaudibly; looking as she spoke, with anxious eyes towards her husband, to see if she was justified in uttering even those piteously common-place words. “Very beautiful weather to be sure,” continued the poor woman, as timidly as if she had become a little child again, and had been ordered to say her first lesson in a stranger’s presence.

“Delightful weather, Mrs. Sherwin. I have been enjoying it for the last two days in the country — in a part of Surrey (the neighbourhood of Ewell) that I had not seen before.”

There was a pause. Mr. Sherwin coughed; it was evidently a warning matrimonial peal that he had often rung before — for Mrs. Sherwin started, and looked up at him directly.

“As the lady of the house, Mrs. S., it strikes me that you might offer a visitor, like this gentleman, some cake and wine, without making any particular hole in your manners!”

“Oh dear me! I beg your pardon! I’m very sorry, I’m sure”— and she poured out a glass of wine, with such a trembling hand that the decanter tinkled all the while against the glass. Though I wanted nothing, I ate and drank something immediately, in common consideration for Mrs. Sherwin’s embarrassment.

Mr. Sherwin filled himself a glass — held it up admiringly to the light — said, “Your good health, Sir, your very good health;” and drank the wine with the air of a connoisseur, and a most expressive smacking of the lips. His wife (to whom he offered nothing) looked at him all the time with the most reverential attention.

“You are taking nothing yourself, Mrs. Sherwin,” I said.

“Mrs. Sherwin, Sir,” interposed her husband, “never drinks wine, and can’t digest cake. A bad stomach — a very bad stomach. Have another glass yourself. Won’t you, indeed? This sherry stands me in six shillings a bottle — ought to be first-rate wine at that price: and so it is. Well, if you won’t have any more, we will proceed to business. Ha! ha! business as I call it; pleasure I hope it will be to you.”

Mrs. Sherwin coughed — a very weak, small cough, half-stifled in its birth.

“There you are again!” he said, turning fiercely towards her —“Coughing again! Six months of the doctor — a six months’ bill to come out of my pocket — and no good done — no good, Mrs. S.”

“Oh, I am much better, thank you — it was only a little —”

“Well, Sir, the evening after you left me, I had what you may call an explanation with my dear girl. She was naturally a little confused and — and embarrassed, indeed. A very serious thing of course, to decide at her age, and at so short a notice, on a point involving the happiness of her whole life to come.”

Here Mrs. Sherwin put her handkerchief to her eyes — quite noiselessly; for she had doubtless acquired by long practice the habit of weeping in silence. Her husband’s quick glance turned on her, however, immediately, with anything but an expression of sympathy.

“Good God, Mrs. S.! what’s the use of going on in that way?” he said, indignantly. “What is there to cry about? Margaret isn’t ill, and isn’t unhappy — what on earth’s the matter now? Upon my soul this is a most annoying circumstance: and before a visitor too! You had better leave me to discuss the matter alone — you always were in the way of business, and it’s my opinion you always will be.”

Mrs. Sherwin prepared, without a word of remonstrance, to leave the room. I sincerely felt for her; but could say nothing. In the impulse of the moment, I rose to open the door for her; and immediately repented having done so. The action added so much to her embarrassment that she kicked her foot against a chair, and uttered a suppressed exclamation of pain as she went out.

Mr. Sherwin helped himself to a second glass of wine, without taking the smallest notice of this.

“I hope Mrs. Sherwin has not hurt herself?” I said. “Oh dear no! not worth a moment’s thought — awkwardness and nervousness, nothing else — she always was nervous — the doctors (all humbugs) can do nothing with her — it’s very sad, very sad indeed; but there’s no help for it.”

By this time (in spite of all my efforts to preserve some respect for him, as Margaret’s father) he had sunk to his proper place in my estimation.

“Well, my dear Sir,” he resumed, “to go back to where I was interrupted by Mrs. S. Let me see: I was saying that my dear girl was a little confused, and so forth. As a matter of course, I put before her all the advantages which such a connection as yours promised — and at the same time, mentioned some of the little embarrassing circumstances — the private marriage, you know, and all that — besides telling her of certain restrictions in reference to the marriage, if it came off, which I should feel it my duty as a father to impose; and which I shall proceed, in short, to explain to you. As a man of the world, my dear Sir, you know as well as I do, that young ladies don’t give very straightforward answers on the subject of their prepossessions in favour of young gentlemen. But I got enough out of her to show me that you had made pretty good use of your time — no occasion to despond, you know — I leave you to make her speak plain; it’s more in your line than mine, more a good deal. And now let us come to the business part of the transaction. All I have to say is this:— if you agree to my proposals, then I agree to yours. I think that’s fair enough — Eh?”

“Quite fair, Mr. Sherwin.”

“Just so. Now, in the first place, my daughter is too young to be married yet. She was only seventeen last birthday.”

“You astonish me! I should have imagined her three years older at least.”

“Everybody thinks her older than she is — everybody, my dear Sir — and she certainly looks it. She’s more formed, more developed I may say, than most girls at her age. However, that’s not the point. The plain fact is, she’s too young to be married now — too young in a moral point of view; too young in an educational point of view; too young altogether. Well: the upshot of this is, that I could not give my consent to Margaret’s marrying, until another year is out — say a year from this time. One year’s courtship for the finishing off of her education, and the formation of her constitution — you understand me, for the formation of her constitution.”

A year to wait! At first, this seemed a long trial to endure, a trial that ought not to be imposed on me. But the next moment, the delay appeared in a different light. Would it not be the dearest of privileges to be able to see Margaret, perhaps every day, perhaps for hours at a time? Would it not be happiness enough to observe each development of her character, to watch her first maiden love for me, advancing nearer and nearer towards confidence and maturity the oftener we met? As I thought on this, I answered Mr. Sherwin without further hesitation.

“It will be some trial,” I said, “to my patience, though none to my constancy, none to the strength of my affection — I will wait the year.”

“Exactly so,” rejoined Mr. Sherwin; “such candour and such reasonableness were to be expected from one who is quite the gentleman. And now comes my grand difficulty in this business — in fact, the little stipulation I have to make.”

He stopped, and ran his fingers through his hair, in all directions; his features fidgetting and distorting themselves ominously, while he looked at me.

“Pray explain yourself, Mr. Sherwin. Your silence gives me some uneasiness at this particular moment, I assure you.”

“Quite so — I understand. Now, you must promise me not to be huffed — offended, I should say — at what I am going to propose.”

“Certainly not.”

“Well, then, it may seem odd; but under all the circumstances — that is to say, as far as the case concerns you personally — I want you and my dear girl to be married at once, and yet not to be married exactly, for another year. I don’t know whether you understand me?”

“I must confess I do not.”

He coughed rather uneasily; turned to the table, and poured out another glass of sherry — his hand trembling a little as he did so. He drank off the wine at a draught; cleared his throat three or four times after it; and then spoke again.

“Well, to be still plainer, this is how the matter stands: If you were a party in our rank of life, coming to court Margaret with your father’s full approval and permission when once you had consented to the year’s engagement, everything would be done and settled; the bargain would have been struck on both sides; and there would be an end of it. But, situated as you are, I can’t stop here safely — I mean, I can’t end the agreement exactly in this way.”

He evidently felt that he got fluent on wine; and helped himself, at this juncture, to another glass.

“You will see what I am driving at, my dear Sir, directly,” he continued. “Suppose now, you came courting my daughter for a year, as we settled; and suppose your father found it out — we should keep it a profound secret of course: but still, secrets are sometimes found out, nobody knows how. Suppose, I say, your father got scent of the thing, and the match was broken off; where do you think Margaret’s reputation would be? If it happened with somebody in her own station, we might explain it all, and be believed: but happening with somebody in yours, what would the world say? Would the world believe you had ever intended to marry her? That’s the point — that’s the point precisely.”

“But the case could not happen — I am astonished you can imagine it possible. I have told you already, I am of age.”

“Properly urged — very properly, indeed. But you also told me, if you remember, when I first had the pleasure of seeing you, that your father, if he knew of this match, would stick at nothing to oppose it —at nothing— I recollect you said so. Now, knowing this, my dear Sir — though I have the most perfect confidence in your honour, and your resolution to fulfil your engagement — I can’t have confidence in your being prepared beforehand to oppose all your father might do if he found us out; because you can’t tell yourself what he might be up to, or what influence he might set to work over you. This sort of mess is not very probable, you will say; but if it’s at all possible — and there’s a year for it to be possible in — by George, Sir, I must guard against accidents, for my daughter’s sake — I must indeed!”

“In Heaven’s name, Mr. Sherwin, pass over all these impossible difficulties of yours! and let me hear what you have finally to propose.”

“Gently, my dear Sir! gently, gently, gently! I propose to begin with: that you should marry my daughter — privately marry her — in a week’s time. Now, pray compose yourself!” (I was looking at him in speechless astonishment.) “Take it easy; pray take it easy! Supposing, then, you marry her in this way, I make one stipulation. I require you to give me your word of honour to leave her at the church door; and for the space of one year never to attempt to see her, except in the presence of a third party. At the end of that time, I will engage to give her to you, as your wife in fact, as well as in name. There! what do you say to that — eh?”

I was too astounded, too overwhelmed, to say anything at that moment; Mr. Sherwin went on:

“This plan of mine, you see, reconciles everything. If any accident does happen, and we are discovered, why your father can do nothing to stop the match, because the match will have been already made. And, at the same time, I secure a year’s delay, for the formation of her constitution, and the finishing of her accomplishments, and so forth. Besides, what an opportunity this gives of sailing as near the wind as you choose, in breaking the thing, bit by bit, to your father, without fear of consequences, in case he should run rough after all. Upon my honour, my dear Sir, I think I deserve some credit for hitting on this plan — it makes everything so right and straight, and suits of course the wishes of all parties! I need hardly say that you shall have every facility for seeing Margaret, under the restrictions — under the restrictions, you understand. People may talk about your visits; but having got the certificate, and knowing it’s all safe and settled, I shan’t care for that. Well, what do you say? take time to think, if you wish it — only remember that I have the most perfect confidence in your honour, and that I act from a fatherly feeling for the interests of my dear girl!” He stopped, out of breath from the extraordinary volubility of his long harangue.

Some men more experienced in the world, less mastered by love than I was, would, in my position, have recognised this proposal an unfair trial of self-restraint — perhaps, something like an unfair humiliation as well. Others have detected the selfish motives which suggested it: the mean distrust of my honour, integrity, and firmness of purpose which it implied; and the equally mean anxiety on Sherwin’s part to clench his profitable bargain at once, for fear it might be repented of. I discerned nothing of this. As soon as I had recovered from the natural astonishment of the first few moments, I only saw in the strange plan proposed to me, a certainty of assuring — no matter with what sacrifice, what hazard, or what delay — the ultimate triumph of my love. When Mr. Sherwin had ceased speaking, I replied at once:

“I accept your conditions — I accept them with all my heart.”

He was hardly prepared for so complete and so sudden an acquiescence in his proposal, and looked absolutely startled by it, at first. But soon resuming his self-possession — his wily, “business-like” self-possession — he started up, and shook me vehemently by the hand.

“Delighted — most delighted, my dear Sir, to find how soon we understand each other, and that we pull together so well. We must have another glass; hang it, we really must! a toast, you know; a toast you can’t help drinking — your wife! Ha! ha! — I had you there! — my dear, dear Margaret, God bless her!”

“We may consider all difficulties finally settled then,” I said, anxious to close my interview with Mr. Sherwin as speedily as possible.

“Decidedly so. Done, and double done, I may say. There will be a little insurance on your life, that I shall ask you to effect for dear Margaret’s sake; and perhaps, a memorandum of agreement, engaging to settle a certain proportion of any property you may become possessed of, on her and her children. You see I am looking forward to my grandfather days already! But this can wait for a future occasion — say in a day or two.”

“Then I presume there will be no objection to my seeing Miss Sherwin now?”

“None whatever —— at once, if you like. This way, my dear Sir; this way,” and he led me across the passage, into the dining-room.

This apartment was furnished with less luxury, but with more bad taste (if possible) than the room we had just left. Near the window sat Margaret — it was the same window at which I had seen her, on the evening when I wandered into the square, after our meeting in the omnibus. The cage with the canary-bird hung in the same place. I just noticed — with a momentary surprise — that Mrs. Sherwin was sitting far away from her daughter, at the other end of the room; and then placed myself by Margaret’s side. She was dressed in pale yellow — a colour which gave new splendour to her dark complexion and magnificently dark hair. Once more, all my doubts, all my self-upbraidings vanished, and gave place to the exquisite sense of happiness, the glow of joy and hope and love which seemed to rush over my heart, the moment I looked at her.

After staying in the room about five minutes, Mr. Sherwin whispered to his wife, and left us. Mrs. Sherwin still kept her place; but she said nothing, and hardly turned to look round at us more than once or twice. Perhaps she was occupied by her own thoughts; perhaps, from a motive of delicacy, she abstained even from an appearance of watching her daughter or watching me. Whatever feelings influenced her, I cared not to speculate on them. It was enough that I had the privilege of speaking to Margaret uninterruptedly; of declaring my love at last, without hesitation and without reserve.

How much I had to say to her, and how short a time seemed to be left me that evening to say it in! How short a time to tell her all the thoughts of the past which she had created in me; all the self-sacrifice to which I had cheerfully consented for her sake; all the anticipations of future happiness which were concentrated in her, which drew their very breath of life, only from the prospect of her rewarding love! She spoke but little; yet even that little it was a new delight to hear. She smiled now; she let me take her hand, and made no attempt to withdraw it. The evening had closed in; the darkness was stealing fast upon us; the still, dead-still figure of Mrs. Sherwin, always in the same place and the same attitude, grew fainter and fainter to the eye, across the distance of the room — but no thought of time, no thought of home ever once crossed my mind. I could have sat at the window with Margaret the long night through; without an idea of numbering the hours as they passed.

Ere long, however, Mr. Sherwin entered the room again, and effectually roused me by approaching and speaking to us. I saw that I had stayed long enough, and that we were not to be left together again, that night. So I rose and took my leave, having first fixed a time for seeing Margaret on the morrow. Mr. Sherwin accompanied me with great ceremony to the outer door. Just as I was leaving him, he touched me on the arm, and said in his most confidential tones:

“Come an hour earlier, to-morrow; and we’ll go and get the licence together. No objection to that — eh? And the marriage, shall we say this day week? Just as you like, you know — don’t let me seem to dictate. Ah! no objection to that, either, I see, and no objection on Margaret’s side, I’ll warrant! With respect to consents, in the marrying part of the business, there’s complete mutuality — isn’t there? Good night: God bless you!”

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