Basil, by Wilkie Collins

i.

An epoch in my narrative has now arrived. Up to the time of my marriage, I have appeared as an active agent in the different events I have described. After that period, and — with one or two exceptional cases — throughout the whole year of my probation, my position changed with the change in my life, and became a passive one.

During this interval year, certain events happened, some of which, at the time, excited my curiosity, but none my apprehension — some affected me with a temporary disappointment, but none with even a momentary suspicion. I can now look back on them, as so many timely warnings which I treated with fatal neglect. It is in these events that the history of the long year through which I waited to claim my wife as my own, is really comprised. They marked the lapse of time broadly and significantly; and to them I must now confine myself, as exclusively as may be, in the present portion of my narrative.

It will be first necessary, however, that I should describe what was the nature of my intercourse with Margaret, during the probationary period which followed our marriage.

Mr. Sherwin’s anxiety was to make my visits to North Villa as few as possible: he evidently feared the consequences of my seeing his daughter too often. But on this point, I was resolute enough in asserting my own interests, to overpower any resistance on his part. I required him to concede to me the right of seeing Margaret every day — leaving all arrangements of time to depend on his own convenience. After the due number of objections, he reluctantly acquiesced in my demand. I was bound by no engagement whatever, limiting the number of my visits to Margaret; and I let him see at the outset, that I was now ready in my turn, to impose conditions on him, as he had already imposed them on me.

Accordingly, it was settled that Margaret and I were to meet every day. I usually saw her in the evening. When any alteration in the hour of my visit took place, that alteration was produced by the necessity (which we all recognised alike) of avoiding a meeting with any of Mr. Sherwin’s friends.

Those portions of the day or the evening which I spent with Margaret, were seldom passed altogether in the Elysian idleness of love. Not content with only enumerating his daughter’s school-accomplishments to me at our first interview, Mr. Sherwin boastfully referred to them again and again, on many subsequent occasions; and even obliged Margaret to display before me, some of her knowledge of languages — which he never forgot to remind us had been lavishly paid for out of his own pocket. It was at one of these exhibitions that the idea occurred to me of making a new pleasure for myself out of Margaret’s society, by teaching her really to appreciate and enjoy the literature which she had evidently hitherto only studied as a task. My fancy revelled by anticipation in all the delights of such an employment as this. It would be like acting the story of Abelard and Heloise over again — reviving all the poetry and romance in which those immortal love-studies of old had begun, with none of the guilt and none of the misery that had darkened their end.

I had a definite purpose, besides, in wishing to assume the direction of Margaret’s studies. Whenever the secret of my marriage was revealed, my pride was concerned in being able to show my wife to every one, as the all-sufficient excuse for any imprudence I might have committed for her sake. I was determined that my father, especially, should have no other argument against her than the one ungracious argument of her birth — that he should see her, fitted by the beauty of her mind, as well as by all her other beauties, for the highest station that society could offer. The thought of this gave me fresh ardour in my project; I assumed my new duties without delay, and continued them with a happiness which never once suffered even a momentary decrease.

Of all the pleasures which a man finds in the society of a woman whom he loves, are there any superior, are there many equal, to the pleasure of reading out of the same book with her? On what other occasion do the sweet familiarities of the sweetest of all companionships last so long without cloying, and pass and re-pass so naturally, so delicately, so inexhaustibly between you and her? When is your face so constantly close to hers as it is then? — when can your hair mingle with hers, your cheek touch hers, your eyes meet hers, so often as they can then? That is, of all times, the only time when you can breathe with her breath for hours together; feel every little warming of the colour on her cheek marking its own changes on the temperature of yours; follow every slight fluttering of her bosom, every faint gradation of her sighs, as if her heart was beating, her life glowing, within yours. Surely it is then — if ever — that we realize, almost revive, in ourselves, the love of the first two of our race, when angels walked with them on the same garden paths, and their hearts were pure from the pollution of the fatal tree!

Evening after evening passed away — one more happily than another — in what Margaret and I called our lessons. Never were lessons of literature so like lessons of love We read oftenest the lighter Italian poets — we studied the poetry of love, written in the language of love. But, as for the steady, utilitarian purpose I had proposed to myself of practically improving Margaret’s intellect, that was a purpose which insensibly and deceitfully abandoned me as completely as if it had never existed. The little serious teaching I tried with her at first, led to very poor results. Perhaps, the lover interfered too much with the tutor; perhaps, I had over-estimated the fertility of the faculties I designed to cultivate — but I cared not, and thought not to inquire where the fault lay, then. I gave myself up unreservedly to the exquisite sensations which the mere act of looking on the same page with Margaret procured for me; and neither detected, nor wished to detect, that it was I who read the difficult passages, and left only a few even of the very easiest to be attempted by her.

Happily for my patience under the trial imposed on me by the terms on which Mr. Sherwin’s restrictions, and my promise to obey them, obliged me to live with Margaret, it was Mrs. Sherwin who was generally selected to remain in the room with us. By no one could such ungrateful duties of supervision as those imposed on her, have been more delicately and more considerately performed.

She always kept far enough away to be out of hearing when we whispered to each other. We rarely detected her even in looking at us. She had a way of sitting for hours together in the same part of the room, without ever changing her position, without occupation of any kind, without uttering a word, or breathing a sigh. I soon discovered that she was not lost in thought, at these periods (as I had at first supposed): but lost in a strange lethargy of body and mind; a comfortless, waking trance, into which she fell from sheer physical weakness — it was like the vacancy and feebleness of a first convalescence, after a long illness. She never changed: never looked better, never worse. I often spoke to her: I tried hard to show my sympathy, and win her confidence and friendship. The poor lady was always thankful, always spoke to me gratefully and kindly, but very briefly. She never told me what were her sufferings or her sorrows. The story of that lonely, lingering life was an impenetrable mystery for her own family — for her husband and her daughter, as well as for me. It was a secret between her and God.

With Mrs. Sherwin as the guardian to watch over Margaret, it may easily be imagined that I felt none of the heavier oppressions of restraint. Her presence, as the third person appointed to remain with us, was not enough to repress the little endearments to which each evening’s lesson gave rise; but was just sufficiently perceptible to invest them with the character of stolen endearments, and to make them all the more precious on that very account. Mrs. Sherwin never knew, I never thoroughly knew myself till later, how much of the secret of my patience under my year’s probation lay in her conduct, while she was sitting in the room with Margaret and me.

In this solitude where I now write — in the change of life and of all life’s hopes and enjoyments which has come over me — when I look back to those evenings at North Villa, I shudder as I look. At this moment, I see the room again — as in a dream — with the little round table, the reading lamp, and the open books. Margaret and I are sitting together: her hand is in mine; my heart is with hers. Love, and Youth, and Beauty — the mortal Trinity of this world’s worship — are there, in that quiet softly-lit room; but not alone. Away in the dim light behind, is a solitary figure, ever mournful and ever still. It is a woman’s form; but how wasted and how weak! — a woman’s face; but how ghastly and changeless, with those eyes that are vacant, those lips that are motionless, those cheeks that the blood never tinges, that the freshness of health and happiness shall never visit again! Woeful, warning figure of dumb sorrow and patient pain, to fill the background of a picture of Love, and Beauty, and Youth!

I am straying from my task. Let me return to my narrative: its course begins to darken before me apace, while I now write.

The partial restraint and embarrassment, caused at first by the strange terms on which my wife and I were living together, gradually vanished before the frequency of my visits to North Villa. We soon began to speak with all the ease, all the unpremeditated frankness of a long intimacy. Margaret’s powers of conversation were generally only employed to lead me to exert mine. She was never tired of inducing me to speak of my family. She listened with every appearance of interest, while I talked of my father, my sister, or my elder brother; but whenever she questioned me directly about any of them, her inquiries invariably led away from their characters and dispositions, to their personal appearance, their every-day habits, their dress, their intercourse with the gay world, the things they spent their money on, and other topics of a similar nature.

For instance; she always listened, and listened attentively, to what I told her of my father’s character, and of the principles which regulated his life. She showed every disposition to profit by the instructions I gave her beforehand, about how she should treat his peculiarities when she was introduced to him. But, on all these occasions, what really interested her most, was to hear how many servants waited on him; how often he went to Court; how many lords and ladies he knew; what he said or did to his servants, when they committed mistakes; whether he was ever angry with his children for asking him for money; and whether he limited my sister to any given number of dresses in the course of the year?

Again; whenever our conversation turned on Clara, if I began by describing her kindness, her gentleness and goodness, her simple winning manners — I was sure to be led insensibly into a digression about her height, figure, complexion, and style of dress. The latter subject especially interested Margaret; she could question me on it, over and over again. What was Clara’s usual morning dress? How did she wear her hair? What was her evening dress? Did she make a difference between a dinner party and a ball? What colours did she prefer? What dressmaker did she employ? Did she wear much jewellery? Which did she like best in her hair, and which were most fashionable, flowers or pearls? How many new dresses did she have in a year; and was there more than one maid especially to attend on her?

Then, again: Had she a carriage of her own? What ladies took care of her when she went out? Did she like dancing? What were the fashionable dances at noblemen’s houses? Did young ladies in the great world practise the pianoforte much? How many offers had my sister had? Did she go to Court, as well as my father? What did she talk about to gentlemen, and what did gentlemen talk about to her? If she were speaking to a duke, how often would she say “your Grace” to him? and would a duke get her a chair, or an ice, and wait on her just as gentlemen without titles waited on ladies, when they met them in society?

My replies to these and hundreds of other questions like them, were received by Margaret with the most eager attention. On the favourite subject of Clara’s dresses, my answers were an unending source of amusement and pleasure to her. She especially enjoyed overcoming the difficulties of interpreting aright my clumsy, circumlocutory phrases in attempting to describe shawls, gowns, and bonnets; and taught me the exact millinery language which I ought to have made use of with an arch expression of triumph and a burlesque earnestness of manner, that always enchanted me. At that time, every word she uttered, no matter how frivolous, was the sweetest of all music to my ears. It was only by the stern test of after-events that I learnt to analyse her conversation. Sometimes, when I was away from her, I might think of leading her girlish curiosity to higher things; but when we met again, the thought vanished; and it became delight enough for me simply to hear her speak, without once caring or considering what she spoke of.

Those were the days when I lived happy and unreflecting in the broad sunshine of joy which love showered round me — my eyes were dazzled; my mind lay asleep under it. Once or twice, a cloud came threatening, with chill and shadowy influence; but it passed away, and then the sunshine returned to me, the same sunshine that it was before.

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