Basil, by Wilkie Collins

ii.

The first change that passed over the calm uniformity of the life at North Villa, came in this manner:

One evening, on entering the drawing-room, I missed Mrs. Sherwin; and found to my great disappointment that her husband was apparently settled there for the evening. He looked a little flurried, and was more restless than usual. His first words, as we met, informed me of an event in which he appeared to take the deepest interest.

“News, my dear sir!” he said. “Mr. Mannion has come back — at least two days before I expected him!”

At first, I felt inclined to ask who Mr. Mannion was, and what consequence it could possibly be to me that he had come back. But immediately afterwards, I remembered that this Mr. Mannion’s name had been mentioned during my first conversation with Mr. Sherwin; and then I recalled to mind the description I had heard of him, as “confidential clerk;” as forty years of age; and as an educated man, who had made his information of some use to Margaret in keeping up the knowledge she had acquired at school. I knew no more than this about him, and I felt no curiosity to discover more from Mr. Sherwin.

Margaret and I sat down as usual with our books about us.

There had been something a little hurried and abrupt in her manner of receiving me, when I came in. When we began to read, her attention wandered incessantly; she looked round several times towards the door. Mr. Sherwin walked about the room without intermission, except when he once paused on his restless course, to tell me that Mr. Mannion was coming that evening; and that he hoped I should have no objection to be introduced to a person who was “quite like one of the family, and well enough read to be sure to please a great reader like me.” I asked myself rather impatiently, who was this Mr. Mannion, that his arrival at his employer’s house should make a sensation? When I whispered something of this to Margaret, she smiled rather uneasily, and said nothing.

At last the bell was rung. Margaret started a little at the sound. Mr. Sherwin sat down; composing himself into rather an elaborate attitude — the door opened, and Mr. Mannion came in.

Mr. Sherwin received his clerk with the assumed superiority of the master in his words; but his tones and manner flatly contradicted them. Margaret rose hastily, and then as hastily sat down again, while the visitor very respectfully took her hand, and made the usual inquiries. After this, he was introduced to me; and then Margaret was sent away to summon her mother down stairs. While she was out of the room, there was nothing to distract my attention from Mr. Mannion. I looked at him with a curiosity and interest, Which I could hardly account for at first.

If extraordinary regularity of feature were alone sufficient to make a handsome man, then this confidential clerk of Mr. Sherwin’s was assuredly one of the handsomest men I ever beheld. Viewed separately from the head (which was rather large, both in front and behind) his face exhibited, throughout, an almost perfect symmetry of proportion. His bald forehead was smooth and massive as marble; his high brow and thin eyelids had the firmness and immobility of marble, and seemed as cold; his delicately-formed lips, when he was not speaking, closed habitually, as changelessly still as if no breath of life ever passed them. There was not a wrinkle or line anywhere on his face. But for the baldness in front, and the greyness of the hair at the back and sides of his head, it would have been impossible from his appearance to have guessed his age, even within ten years of what it really was.

Such was his countenance in point of form; but in that which is the outward assertion of our immortality — in expression — it was, as I now beheld it, an utter void. Never had I before seen any human face which baffled all inquiry like his. No mask could have been made expressionless enough to resemble it; and yet it looked like a mask. It told you nothing of his thoughts, when he spoke: nothing of his disposition, when he was silent. His cold grey eyes gave you no help in trying to study him. They never varied from the steady, straightforward look, which was exactly the same for Margaret as it was for me; for Mrs. Sherwin as for Mr. Sherwin — exactly the same whether he spoke or whether he listened; whether he talked of indifferent, or of important matters. Who was he? What was he? His name and calling were poor replies to those questions. Was he naturally cold and unimpressible at heart? or had some fierce passion, some terrible sorrow, ravaged the life within him, and left it dead for ever after? Impossible to conjecture! There was the impenetrable face before you, wholly inexpressive — so inexpressive that it did not even look vacant — a mystery for your eyes and your mind to dwell on — hiding something; but whether vice or virtue you could not tell.

He was dressed as unobtrusively as possible, entirely in black; and was rather above the middle height. His manner was the only part of him that betrayed anything to the observation of others. Viewed in connection with his station, his demeanour (unobtrusive though it was) proclaimed itself as above his position in the world. He had all the quietness and self-possession of a gentleman. He maintained his respectful bearing, without the slightest appearance of cringing; and displayed a decision, both in word and action, that could never be mistaken for obstinacy or over-confidence. Before I had been in his company five minutes, his manner assured me that he must have descended to the position he now occupied.

On his introduction to me, he bowed without saying anything. When he spoke to Mr. Sherwin, his voice was as void of expression as his face: it was rather low in tone, but singularly distinct in utterance. He spoke deliberately, but with no emphasis on particular words, and without hesitation in choosing his terms.

When Mrs. Sherwin came down, I watched her conduct towards him. She could not repress a slight nervous shrinking, when he approached and placed a chair for her. In answering his inquiries after her health, she never once looked at him; but fixed her eyes all the time on Margaret and me, with a sad, anxious expression, wholly indescribable, which often recurred to my memory after that day. She always looked more or less frightened, poor thing, in her husband’s presence; but she seemed positively awe-struck before Mr. Mannion.

In truth, my first observation of this so-called clerk, at North Villa, was enough to convince me that he was master there — master in his own quiet, unobtrusive way. That man’s character, of whatever elements it might be composed, was a character that ruled. I could not see this in his face, or detect it in his words; but I could discover it in the looks and manners of his employer and his employer’s family, as he now sat at the same table with them. Margaret’s eyes avoided his countenance much less frequently than the eyes of her parents; but then he rarely looked at her in return — rarely looked at her at all, except when common courtesy obliged him to do so.

If any one had told me beforehand, that I should suspend my ordinary evening’s occupation with my young wife, for the sake of observing the very man who had interrupted it, and that man only Mr. Sherwin’s clerk, I should have laughed at the idea. Yet so it was. Our books lay neglected on the table — neglected by me, perhaps by Margaret too, for Mr. Mannion.

His conversation, on this occasion at least, baffled all curiosity as completely as his face. I tried to lead him to talk. He just answered me, and that was all; speaking with great respect of manner and phrase, very intelligibly, but very briefly. Mr. Sherwin — after referring to the business expedition on which he had been absent, for the purchase of silks at Lyons — asked him some questions about France and the French, which evidently proceeded from the most ludicrous ignorance both of the country and the people. Mr. Mannion just set him right; and did no more. There was not the smallest inflection of sarcasm in his voice, not the slightest look of sarcasm in his eye, while he spoke. When we talked among ourselves, he did not join in the conversation; but sat quietly waiting until he might be pointedly and personally addressed again. At these times a suspicion crossed my mind that he might really be studying my character, as I was vainly trying to study his; and I often turned suddenly round on him, to see whether he was looking at me. This was never the case. His hard, chill grey eyes were not on me, and not on Margaret: they rested most frequently on Mrs. Sherwin, who always shrank before them.

After staying little more than half an hour, he rose to go away. While Mr. Sherwin was vainly pressing him to remain longer, I walked to the round table at the other end of the room, on which the book was placed that Margaret and I had intended to read during the evening. I was standing by the table when he came to take leave of me. He just glanced at the volume under my hand, and said in tones too low to be heard at the other end of the room:

“I hope my arrival has not interrupted any occupation to-night, Sir. Mr. Sherwin, aware of the interest I must feel in whatever concerns the family of an employer whom I have served for years, has informed me in confidence — a confidence which I know how to respect and preserve — of your marriage with his daughter, and of the peculiar circumstances under which the marriage has been contracted. I may at least venture to congratulate the young lady on a change of life which must procure her happiness, having begun already by procuring the increase of her mental resources and pleasures.” He bowed, and pointed to the book on the table.

“I believe, Mr. Mannion,” I said, “that you have been of great assistance in laying a foundation for the studies to which I presume you refer.”

“I endeavoured to make myself useful in that way, Sir, as in all others, when my employer desired it.” He bowed again, as he said this; and then went out, followed by Mr. Sherwin, who held a short colloquy with him in the hall.

What had he said to me? Only a few civil words, spoken in a very respectful manner. There had been nothing in his tones, nothing in his looks, to give any peculiar significance to what he uttered. Still, the moment his back was turned, I found myself speculating whether his words contained any hidden meaning; trying to recall something in his voice or manner which might guide me in discovering the real sense he attached to what he said. It seemed as if the most powerful whet to my curiosity, were supplied by my own experience of the impossibility of penetrating beneath the unassailable surface which this man presented to me.

I questioned Margaret about him. She could not tell me more than I knew already. He had always been very kind and useful; he was a clever man, and could talk a great deal sometimes, when he chose; and he had taught her more of foreign languages and foreign literature in a month, than she had learned at school in a year. While she was telling me this, I hardly noticed that she spoke in a very hurried manner, and busied herself in arranging the books and work that lay on the table. My attention was more closely directed to Mrs. Sherwin. To my surprise, I saw her eagerly lean forward while Margaret was speaking, and fix her eyes on her daughter with a look of penetrating scrutiny, of which I could never have supposed a person usually so feeble and unenergetic to be capable. I thought of transferring to her my questionings on the subject of Mr. Mannion; but at that moment her husband entered the room, and I addressed myself for further enlightenment to him.

“Aha!”— cried Mr. Sherwin, rubbing his hands triumphantly —“I knew Mannion would please you. I told you so, my dear Sir, if you remember, before he came. Curious looking person — isn’t he?”

“So curious, that I may safely say I never saw a face in the slightest degree resembling his in my life. Your clerk, Mr. Sherwin, is a complete walking mystery that I want to solve. Margaret cannot give me much help, I am afraid. When you came in, I was about to apply to Mrs. Sherwin for a little assistance.”

“Don’t do any such thing! You’ll be quite in the wrong box there. Mrs. S. is as sulky as a bear, whenever Mannion and she are in company together. Considering her behaviour to him, I wonder he can be so civil to her as he is.”

“What can you tell me about him yourself, Mr. Sherwin?”

“I can tell you there’s not a house of business in London has such a managing man as he is: he’s my factotum — my right hand, in short; and my left too, for the matter of that. He understands my ways of doing business; and, in fact, carries things out in first-rate style. Why, he’d be worth his weight in gold, only for the knack he has of keeping the young men in the shop in order. Poor devils! they don’t know how he does it; but there’s a particular look of Mr. Mannion’s that’s as bad as transportation and hanging to them, whenever they see it. I’ll pledge you my word of honour he’s never had a day’s illness, or made a single mistake, since he’s been with me. He’s a quiet, steady-going, regular dragon at his work — he is! And then, so obliging in other things. I’ve only got to say to him: ‘Here’s Margaret at home for the holidays;’ or, ‘Here’s Margaret a little out of sorts, and going to be nursed at home for the half-year — what’s to be done about keeping up her lessons? I can’t pay for a governess (bad lot, governesses!) and school too.’— I’ve only got to say that; and up gets Mannion from his books and his fireside at home, in the evening — which begins to be something, you know, to a man of his time of life — and turns tutor for me, gratis; and a first-rate tutor, too! That’s what I call having a treasure! And yet, though he’s been with us for years, Mrs. S. there won’t take to him! — I defy her or anybody else to say why, or wherefore!”

“Do you know how he was employed before he came to you?”

“Ah! now you’ve hit it — that’s where you’re right in saying he’s a mystery. What he did before I knew him, is more than I can tell — a good deal more. He came to me with a capital recommendation and security, from a gentleman whom I knew to be of the highest respectability. I had a vacancy in the back office, and tried him, and found out what he was worth, in no time — I flatter myself I’ve a knack at that with everybody. Well: before I got used to his curious-looking face, and his quiet ways, I wanted badly enough to know something about him, and who his connections were. First, I asked his friend who had recommended him — the friend wasn’t at liberty to answer for anything but his perfect trustworthiness. Then I asked Mannion himself point-blank about it, one day. He just told me that he had reasons for keeping his family affairs to himself — nothing more — but you know the way he has with him; and, damn it, he put the stopper on me, from that time to this. I wasn’t going to risk losing the best clerk that ever man had, by worrying him about his secrets. They didn’t interfere with business, and didn’t interfere with me; so I put my curiosity in my pocket. I know nothing about him, but that he’s my right-hand man, and the honestest fellow that ever stood in shoes. He may be the Great Mogul himself, in disguise, for anything I care! In short, you may be able to find out all about him, my dear Sir; but I can’t.”

“There does not seem much chance for me, Mr. Sherwin, after what you have said.”

“Well: I’m not so sure of that — plenty of chances here, you know. You’ll see him often enough: he lives near, and drops in constantly of evenings. We settle business matters that won’t come into business hours, in my private snuggery up stairs. In fact, he’s one of the family; treat him as such, and get anything out of him you can — the more the better, as far as regards that. Ah! Mrs. S., you may stare, Ma’am; but I say again, he’s one of the family; may be, he’ll be my partner some of these days — you’ll have to get used to him then, whether you like it or not.”

“One more question: is he married or single?”

“Single, to be sure — a regular old bachelor, if ever there was one yet.”

During the whole time we had been speaking, Mrs. Sherwin had looked at us with far more earnestness and attention than I had ever seen her display before. Even her languid faculties seemed susceptible of active curiosity on the subject of Mr. Mannion — the more so, perhaps, from her very dislike of him. Margaret had moved her chair into the background, while her father was talking; and was apparently little interested in the topic under discussion. In the first interval of silence, she complained of headache, and asked leave to retire to her room.

After she left us, I took my departure: for Mr. Sherwin evidently had nothing more to tell me about his clerk that was worth hearing. On my way home, Mr. Mannion occupied no small share of my thoughts. The idea of trying to penetrate the mystery connected with him was an idea that pleased me; there was a promise of future excitement in it of no ordinary kind. I determined to have a little private conversation with Margaret about him; and to make her an ally in my new project. If there really had been some romance connected with Mr. Mannion’s early life — if that strange and striking face of his was indeed a sealed book which contained a secret story, what a triumph and a pleasure, if Margaret and I should succeed in discovering it together!

When I woke the next morning, I could hardly believe that this tradesman’s clerk had so interested my curiosity that he had actually shared my thoughts with my young wife, during the evening before. And yet, when I next saw him, he produced exactly the same impression on me again.

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