Basil, by Wilkie Collins

ix.

London was rousing everywhere into morning activity, as I passed through the streets. The shutters were being removed from the windows of public-houses: the drink-vampyres that suck the life of London, were opening their eyes betimes to look abroad for the new day’s prey! Small tobacco and provision-shops in poor neighbourhoods; dirty little eating-houses, exhaling greasy-smelling steam, and displaying a leaf of yesterday’s paper, stained and fly-blown, hanging in the windows — were already plying, or making ready to ply, their daily trade. Here, a labouring man, late for his work, hurried by; there, a hale old gentleman started for his early walk before breakfast. Now a market-cart, already unloaded, passed me on its way back to the country; now, a cab, laden with luggage and carrying pale, sleepy-looking people, rattled by, bound for the morning train or the morning steamboat. I saw the mighty vitality of the great city renewing itself in every direction; and I felt an unwonted interest in the sight. It was as if all things, on all sides, were reflecting before me the aspect of my own heart.

But the quiet and torpor of the night still hung over Hollyoake Square. That dreary neighbourhood seemed to vindicate its dreariness by being the last to awaken even to a semblance of activity and life. Nothing was stirring as yet at North Villa. I walked on, beyond the last houses, into the sooty London fields; and tried to think of the course I ought to pursue in order to see Margaret, and speak to her, before I turned homeward again. After the lapse of more than half an hour, I returned to the square, without plan or project; but resolved, nevertheless, to carry my point.

The garden-gate of North Villa was now open. One of the female servants of the house was standing at it, to breathe the fresh air, and look about her, before the duties of the day began. I advanced; determined, if money and persuasion could do it, to secure her services.

She was young (that was one chance in my favour!)— plump, florid, and evidently not by any means careless about her personal appearance (that gave me another!) As she saw me approaching her, she smiled; and passed her apron hurriedly over her face — carefully polishing it for my inspection, much as a broker polishes a piece of furniture when you stop to look at it.

“Are you in Mr. Sherwin’s service?”— I asked, as I got to the garden gate.

“As plain cook, Sir,” answered the girl, administering to her face a final and furious rub of the apron.

“Should you be very much surprised if I asked you to do me a great favour?”

“Well — really, Sir — you’re quite a stranger to me — I’m sure I don’t know!” She stopped, and transferred the apron-rubbing to her arms.

“I hope we shall not be strangers long. Suppose I begin our acquaintance, by telling you that you would look prettier in brighter cap-ribbons, and asking you to buy some, just to see whether I am not right?”

“It’s very kind of you to say so, Sir; and thank you. But cap and ribbons are the last things I can buy while I’m in this place. Master’s master and missus too, here; and drives us half wild with the fuss he makes about our caps and ribbons. He’s such an austerious man, that he will have our caps as he likes ’em. It’s bad enough when a missus meddles with a poor servant’s ribbons; but to have master come down into the kitchen, and — Well, it’s no use telling you of it, Sir — and — and thank you, Sir, for what you’ve given me, all the same!”

“I hope this is not the last time I shall make you a present. And now I must come to the favour I want to ask of you: can you keep a secret?”

“That I can, Sir! I’ve kep’ a many secrets since I’ve been out at service.”

“Well: I want you to find me an opportunity of speaking to your young lady —”

“To Miss Margaret, Sir?”

“Yes. I want an opportunity of seeing Miss Margaret, and speaking to her in private — and not a word must be said to her about it, beforehand.”

“Oh Lord, Sir! I couldn’t dare to do it!”

“Come! come! Can’t you guess why I want to see your young lady, and what I want to say to her?”

The girl smiled, and shook her head archly. “Perhaps you’re in love with Miss Margaret, Sir! — But I couldn’t do it! I couldn’t dare to do it!”

“Very well; but you can tell me at least, whether Miss Margaret ever goes out to take a walk?”

“Oh, yes, Sir; mostly every day.”

“Do you ever go out with her? — just to take care of her when no one else can be spared?”

“Don’t ask me — please, Sir, don’t!” She crumpled her apron between her fingers, with a very piteous and perplexed air. “I don’t know you; and Miss Margaret don’t know you, I’m sure — I couldn’t, Sir, I really couldn’t!”

“Take a good look at me! Do you think I am likely to do you or your young lady any harm? Am I too dangerous a man to be trusted? Would you believe me on my promise?”

“Yes, Sir, I’m sure I would! — being so kind and so civil to me, too!” (a fresh arrangement of the cap followed this speech.)

“Then suppose I promised, in the first place, not to tell Miss Margaret that I had spoken to you about her at all. And suppose I promised, in the second place, that, if you told me when you and Miss Margaret go out together, I would only speak to her while she was in your sight, and would leave her the moment you wished me to go away. Don’t you think you could venture to help me, if I promised all that?”

“Well, Sir, that would make a difference, to be sure. But then, it’s master I’m so afraid of — couldn’t you speak to master first, Sir?”

“Suppose you were in Miss Margaret’s place, would you like to be made love to, by your father’s authority, without your own wishes being consulted first? would you like an offer of marriage, delivered like a message, by means of your father? Come, tell me honestly, would you?”

She laughed, and shook her head very expressively. I knew the strength of my last argument, and repeated it: “Suppose you were in Miss Margaret’s place?”

“Hush! don’t speak so loud,” resumed the girl in a confidential whisper. “I’m sure you’re a gentleman. I should like to help you — if I could only dare to do it, I should indeed!”

“That’s a good girl,” I said. “Now tell me, when does Miss Margaret go out to-day; and who goes with her?”

“Dear! dear! — it’s very wrong to say it; but I must. She’ll go out with me to market, this morning, at eleven o’clock. She’s done it for the last week. Master don’t like it; but Missus begged and prayed she might; for Missus says she won’t be fit to be married, if she knows nothing about housekeeping, and prices, and what’s good meat, and what isn’t, and all that, you know.”

“Thank you a thousand times! you have given me all the help I want. I’ll be here before eleven, waiting for you to come out.”

“Oh, please don’t, Sir — I wish I hadn’t told you — I oughtn’t, indeed I oughtn’t!”

“No fear — you shall not lose by what you have told me — I promise all I said I would promise — good bye. And mind, not a word to Miss Margaret till I see her!”

As I hurried away, I heard the girl run a few paces after me — then stop — then return, and close the garden gate, softly. She had evidently put herself once more in Miss Margaret’s place; and had given up all idea of further resistance as she did so.

How should I occupy the hours until eleven o’clock? Deceit whispered:— Go home; avoid even the chance of exciting suspicion, by breakfasting with your family as usual. And as deceit counselled, so I acted.

I never remember Clara more kind, more ready with all those trifling little cares and attentions which have so exquisite a grace, when offered by a woman to a man, and especially by a sister to a brother, as when she and I and my father assembled together at the breakfast-table. I now recollect with shame how little I thought about her, or spoke to her on that morning; with how little hesitation or self-reproach I excused myself from accepting an engagement which she wished to make with me for that day. My father was absorbed in some matter of business; to him she could not speak. It was to me that she addressed all her wonted questions and remarks of the morning. I hardly listened to them; I answered them carelessly and briefly. The moment breakfast was over, without a word of explanation I hastily left the house again.

As I descended the steps, I glanced by accident at the dining-room window. Clara was looking after me from it. There was the same anxious expression on her face which it had worn when she left me the evening before. She smiled as our eyes met — a sad, faint smile that made her look unlike herself. But it produced no impression on me then: I had no attention for anything but my approaching interview with Margaret. My life throbbed and burned within me, in that direction: it was all coldness, torpor, insensibility, in every other.

I reached Hollyoake Square nearly an hour before the appointed time. In the suspense and impatience of that long interval, it was impossible to be a moment in repose. I walked incessantly up and down the square, and round and round the neighbourhood, hearing each quarter chimed from a church clock near, and mechanically quickening my pace the nearer the time came for the hour to strike. At last, I heard the first peal of the eventful eleven. Before the clock was silent, I had taken up my position within view of the gate of North Villa.

Five minutes passed — ten — and no one appeared. In my impatience, I could almost have rung the bell and entered the house, no matter who might be there, or what might be the result. The first quarter struck; and at that very moment I heard the door open, and saw Margaret, and the servant with whom I had spoken, descending the steps.

They passed out slowly through the garden gate, and walked down the square, away from where I was standing. The servant noticed me by one significant look, as they went on. Her young mistress did not appear to see me. At first, my agitation was so violent that I was perfectly incapable of following them a single step. In a few moments I recovered myself; and hastened to overtake them, before they arrived at a more frequented part of the neighbourhood.

As I approached her side, Margaret turned suddenly and looked at me, with an expression of anger and astonishment in her eyes. The next instant, her lovely face became tinged all over with a deep, burning blush; her head drooped a little; she hesitated for a moment; and then abruptly quickened her pace. Did she remember me? The mere chance that she did, gave me confidence: I—

— No! I cannot write down the words that I said to her. Recollecting the end to which our fatal interview led, I recoil at the very thought of exposing to others, or of preserving in any permanent form, the words in which I first confessed my love. It may be pride — miserable, useless pride — which animates me with this feeling: but I cannot overcome it. Remembering what I do, I am ashamed to write, ashamed to recall, what I said at my first interview with Margaret Sherwin. I can give no good reason for the sensations which now influence me; I cannot analyse them; and I would not if I could.

Let it be enough to say that I risked everything, and spoke to her. My words, confused as they were, came hotly, eagerly, and eloquently from my heart. In the space of a few minutes, I confessed to her all, and more than all, that I have here painfully related in many pages. I made use of my name and my rank in life — even now, my cheeks burn while I think of it — to dazzle her girl’s pride, to make her listen to me for the sake of my station, if she would not for the sake of my suit, however honourably urged. Never before had I committed the meanness of trusting to my social advantages, what I feared to trust to myself. It is true that love soars higher than the other passions; but it can stoop lower as well.

Her answers to all that I urged were confused, commonplace, and chilling enough. I had surprised her — frightened her — it was impossible she could listen to such addresses from a total stranger — it was very wrong of me to speak, and of her to stop and hear me — I should remember what became me as a gentleman, and should not make such advances to her again — I knew nothing of her — it was impossible I could really care about her in so short a time — she must beg that I would allow her to proceed unhindered.

Thus she spoke; sometimes standing still, sometimes moving hurriedly a few steps forward. She might have expressed herself severely, even angrily; but nothing she could have said would have counteracted the fascination that her presence exercised over me. I saw her face, lovelier than ever in its confusion, in its rapid changes of expression; I saw her eloquent eyes once or twice raised to mine, then instantly withdrawn again — and so long as I could look at her, I cared not what I listened to. She was only speaking what she had been educated to speak; it was not in her words that I sought the clue to her thoughts and sensations; but in the tone of her voice, in the language of her eyes, in the whole expression of her face. All these contained indications which reassured me. I tried everything that respect, that the persuasion of love could urge, to win her consent to our meeting again; but she only answered with repetitions of what she had said before, walking onward rapidly while she spoke. The servant, who had hitherto lingered a few paces behind, now advanced to her young mistress’s side, with a significant look, as if to remind me of my promise. Saying a few parting words, I let them proceed: at this first interview, to have delayed them longer would have been risking too much.

As they walked away, the servant turned round, nodding her head and smiling, as if to assure me that I had lost nothing by the forbearance which I had exercised. Margaret neither lingered nor looked back. This last proof of modesty and reserve, so far from discouraging, attracted me to her more powerfully than ever. After a first interview, it was the most becoming virtue she could have shown. All my love for her before, seemed as nothing compared with my love for her now that she had left me, and left me without a parting look.

What course should I next pursue? Could I expect that Margaret, after what she had said, would go out again at the same hour on the morrow? No: she would not so soon abandon the modesty and restraint that she had shown at our first interview. How communicate with her? how manage most skilfully to make good the first favourable impression which vanity whispered I had already produced? I determined to write to her.

How different was the writing of that letter, to the writing of those once-treasured pages of my romance, which I had now abandoned for ever! How slowly I worked; how cautiously and diffidently I built up sentence after sentence, and doubtingly set a stop here, and laboriously rounded off a paragraph there, when I toiled in the service of ambition! Now, when I had given myself up to the service of love, how rapidly the pen ran over the paper; how much more freely and smoothly the desires of the heart flowed into words, than the thoughts of the mind! Composition was an instinct now, an art no longer. I could write eloquently, and yet write without pausing for an expression or blotting a word — It was the slow progress up the hill, in the service of ambition; it was the swift (too swift) career down it, in the service of love!

There is no need to describe the contents of my letter to Margaret; they comprised a mere recapitulation of what I had already said to her. I insisted often and strongly on the honourable purpose of my suit; and ended by entreating her to write an answer, and consent to allow me another interview.

The letter was delivered by the servant. Another present, a little more timely persuasion, and above all, the regard I had shown to my promise, won the girl with all her heart to my interests. She was ready to help me in every way, as long as her interference could be kept a secret from her master.

I waited a day for the reply to my letter; but none came. The servant could give me no explanation of this silence. Her young mistress had not said one word to her about me, since the morning when we had met. Still not discouraged, I wrote again. The letter contained some lover’s threats this time, as well as lover’s entreaties; and it produced its effect — an answer came.

It was very short — rather hurriedly and tremblingly written — and simply said that the difference between my rank and hers made it her duty to request of me, that neither by word nor by letter should I ever address her again.

“Difference in rank,”— that was the only objection then! “Her duty”— it was not from inclination that she refused me! So young a creature; and yet so noble in self-sacrifice, so firm in her integrity! I resolved to disobey her injunction, and see her again. My rank! What was my rank? Something to cast at Margaret’s feet, for Margaret to trample on!

Once more I sought the aid of my faithful ally, the servant. After delays which half maddened me with impatience, insignificant though they were, she contrived to fulfil my wishes. One afternoon, while Mr. Sherwin was away at business, and while his wife had gone out, I succeeded in gaining admission to the garden at the back of the house, where Margaret was then occupied in watering some flowers.

She started as she saw me, and attempted to return to the house. I took her hand to detain her. She withdrew it, but neither abruptly nor angrily. I seized the opportunity, while she hesitated whether to persist or not in retiring; and repeated what I had already said to her at our first interview (what is the language of love but a language of repetitions?). She answered, as she had answered me in her letter: the difference in our rank made it her duty to discourage me.

“But if this difference did not exist,” I said: “if we were both living in the same rank, Margaret —”

She looked up quickly; then moved away a step or two, as I addressed her by her Christian name.

“Are you offended with me for calling you Margaret so soon? I do not think of you as Miss Sherwin, but as Margaret — are you offended with me for speaking as I think?”

No: she ought not to be offended with me, or with anybody, for doing that.

“Suppose this difference in rank, which you so cruelly insist on, did not exist, would you tell me not to hope, not to speak then, as coldly as you tell me now?”

I must not ask her that — it was no use — the difference in rank did exist.

“Perhaps I have met you too late? — perhaps you are already —”

“No! oh, no!”— she stopped abruptly, as the words passed her lips. The same lovely blush which I had before seen spreading over her face, rose on it now. She evidently felt that she had unguardedly said too much: that she had given me an answer in a case where, according to every established love-law of the female code, I had no right to expect one. Her next words accused me — but in very low and broken tones — of having committed an intrusion which she should hardly have expected from a gentleman in my position.

“I will regain your better opinion,” I said, eagerly catching at the most favourable interpretation of her last words, “by seeing you for the next time, and for all times after, with your father’s full permission. I will write to-day, and ask for a private interview with him. I will tell him all I have told you: I will tell him that you take a rank in beauty and goodness, which is the highest rank in the land — a far higher rank than mine — the only rank I desire.” (A smile, which she vainly strove to repress, stole charmingly to her lips.) “Yes, I will do this; I will never leave him till his answer is favourable — and then what would be yours? One word, Margaret; one word before I go —”

I attempted to take her hand a second time; but she broke from me, and hurried into the house.

What more could I desire? What more could the modesty and timidity of a young girl concede to me?

The moment I reached home, I wrote to Mr. Sherwin. The letter was superscribed “Private;” and simply requested an interview with him on a subject of importance, at any hour he might mention. Unwilling to trust what I had written to the post, I sent my note by a messenger — not one of our own servants, caution forbade that — and instructed the man to wait for an answer: if Mr. Sherwin was out, to wait till he came home.

After a long delay — long to me; for my impatience would fain have turned hours into minutes — I received a reply. It was written on gilt-edged letter-paper, in a handwriting vulgarised by innumerable flourishes. Mr. Sherwin presented his respectful compliments, and would be happy to have the honour of seeing me at North Villa, if quite convenient, at five o’clock to-morrow afternoon.

I folded up the letter carefully: it was almost as precious as a letter from Margaret herself. That night I passed sleeplessly, revolving in my mind every possible course that I could take at the interview of the morrow. It would be a difficult and a delicate business. I knew nothing of Mr. Sherwin’s character; yet I must trust him with a secret which I dared not trust to my own father. Any proposals for paying addresses to his daughter, coming from one in my position, might appear open to suspicion. What could I say about marriage? A public, acknowledged marriage was impossible: a private marriage might be a bold, if not fatal proposal. I could come to no other conclusion, reflect as anxiously as I might, than that it was best for me to speak candidly at all hazards. I could be candid enough when it suited my purpose!

It was not till the next day, when the time approached for my interview with Mr. Sherwin, that I thoroughly roused myself to face the plain necessities of my position. Determined to try what impression appearances could make on him, I took unusual pains with my dress; and more, I applied to a friend whom I could rely on as likely to ask no questions — I write this in shame and sorrow: I tell truth here, where it is hard penance to tell it — I applied, I say, to a friend for the loan of one of his carriages to take me to North Villa; fearing the risk of borrowing my father’s carriage, or my sister’s — knowing the common weakness of rank-worship and wealth-worship in men of Mr. Sherwin’s order, and meanly determining to profit by it to the utmost. My friend’s carriage was willingly lent me. By my directions, it took me up at the appointed hour, at a shop where I was a regular customer.

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