Basil, by Wilkie Collins

iii.

Some weeks passed away; Margaret and I resumed our usual employments and amusements; the life at North Villa ran on as smoothly and obscurely as usual — and still I remained ignorant of Mr. Mannion’s history and Mr. Mannion’s character. He came frequently to the house, in the evening; but was generally closeted with Mr. Sherwin, and seldom accepted his employer’s constant invitation to him to join the party in the drawing-room. At those rare intervals when we did see him, his appearance and behaviour were exactly the same as on the night when I had met him for the first time; he spoke just as seldom, and resisted just as resolutely and respectfully the many attempts made on my part to lead him into conversation and familiarity. If he had really been trying to excite my interest, he could not have succeeded more effectually. I felt towards him much as a man feels in a labyrinth, when every fresh failure in gaining the centre, only produces fresh obstinacy in renewing the effort to arrive at it.

From Margaret I gained no sympathy for my newly-aroused curiosity. She appeared, much to my surprise, to care little about Mr. Mannion; and always changed the conversation, if it related to him, whenever it depended upon her to continue the topic or not.

Mrs. Sherwin’s conduct was far from resembling her daughter’s, when I spoke to her on the same subject. She always listened intently to what I said; but her answers were invariably brief, confused, and sometimes absolutely incomprehensible. It was only after great difficulty that I induced her to confess her dislike of Mr. Mannion. Whence it proceeded she could never tell. Did she suspect anything? In answering this question, she always stammered, trembled, and looked away from me. “How could she suspect anything? If she did suspect, it would be very wrong without good reason: but she ought not to suspect, and did not, of course.”

I never obtained any replies from her more intelligible than these. Attributing their confusion to the nervous agitation which more or less affected her when she spoke on any subject, I soon ceased making any efforts to induce her to explain herself; and determined to search for the clue to Mr. Mannion’s character, without seeking assistance from any one.

Accident at length gave me an opportunity of knowing something of his habits and opinions; and so far, therefore, of knowing something about the man himself.

One night, I met him in the hall at North Villa, about to leave the house at the same time that I was, after a business-consultation in private with Mr. Sherwin. We went out together. The sky was unusually black; the night atmosphere unusually oppressive and still. The roll of distant thunder sounded faint and dreary all about us. The sheet lightning, flashing quick and low in the horizon, made the dark firmament look like a thick veil, rising and falling incessantly, over a heaven of dazzling light behind it. Such few foot-passengers as passed us, passed running — for heavy, warning drops were falling already from the sky. We quickened our pace; but before we had walked more than two hundred yards, the rain came down, furious and drenching; and the thunder began to peal fearfully, right over our heads.

“My house is close by,” said my companion, just as quietly and deliberately as usual —“pray step in, Sir, until the storm is over.”

I followed him down a bye street; he opened a door with his own key; and the next instant I was sheltered under Mr. Mannion’s roof.

He led me at once into a room on the ground floor. The fire was blazing in the grate; an arm-chair, with a reading easel attached, was placed by it; the lamp was ready lit; the tea-things were placed on the table; the dark, thick curtains were drawn close over the window; and, as if to complete the picture of comfort before me, a large black cat lay on the rug, basking luxuriously in the heat of the fire. While Mr. Mannion went out to give some directions, as he said, to his servant, I had an opportunity of examining the apartment more in detail. To study the appearance of a man’s dwelling-room, is very often nearly equivalent to studying his own character.

The personal contrast between Mr. Sherwin and his clerk was remarkable enough, but the contrast between the dimensions and furnishing of the rooms they lived in, was to the full as extraordinary. The apartment I now surveyed was less than half the size of the sitting-room at North Villa. The paper on the walls was of a dark red; the curtains were of the same colour; the carpet was brown, and if it bore any pattern, that pattern was too quiet and unpretending to be visible by candlelight. One wall was entirely occupied by rows of dark mahogany shelves, completely filled with books, most of them cheap editions of the classical works of ancient and modern literature. The opposite wall was thickly hung with engravings in maple-wood frames from the works of modern painters, English and French. All the minor articles of furniture were of the plainest and neatest order — even the white china tea-pot and tea-cup on the table, had neither pattern nor colouring of any kind. What a contrast was this room to the drawing-room at North Villa!

On his return, Mr. Mannion found me looking at his tea-equipage. “I am afraid, Sir, I must confess myself an epicure and a prodigal in two things,” he said; “an epicure in tea, and a prodigal (at least for a person in my situation) in books. However, I receive a liberal salary, and can satisfy my tastes, such as they are, and save money too. What can I offer you, Sir?”

Seeing the preparations on the table, I asked for tea. While he was speaking to me, there was one peculiarity about him that I observed. Almost all men, when they stand on their own hearths, in their own homes, instinctively alter more or less from their out-of-door manner: the stiffest people expand, the coldest thaw a little, by their own firesides. It was not so with Mr. Mannion. He was exactly the same man at his own house that he was at Mr. Sherwin’s.

There was no need for him to have told me that he was an epicure in tea; the manner in which he made it would have betrayed that to anybody. He put in nearly treble the quantity which would generally be considered sufficient for two persons; and almost immediately after he had filled the tea-pot with boiling water, began to pour from it into the cups — thus preserving all the aroma and delicacy of flavour in the herb, without the alloy of any of the coarser part of its strength. When we had finished our first cups, there was no pouring of dregs into a basin, or of fresh water on the leaves. A middle-aged female servant, neat and quiet, came up and took away the tray, bringing it to us again with the tea-pot and tea-cups clean and empty, to receive a fresh infusion from fresh leaves. These were trifles to notice; but I thought of other tradesmen’s clerks who were drinking their gin-and-water jovially, at home or at a tavern, and found Mr. Mannion a more exasperating mystery to me than ever.

The conversation between us turned at first on trivial subjects, and was but ill sustained on my part — there were peculiarities in my present position which made me thoughtful. Once, our talk ceased altogether; and, just at that moment, the storm began to rise to its height. Hail mingled with the rain, and rattled heavily against the window. The thunder, bursting louder and louder with each successive peal, seemed to shake the house to its foundations. As I listened to the fearful crashing and roaring that seemed to fill the whole measureless void of upper air, and then looked round on the calm, dead-calm face of the man beside me — without one human emotion of any kind even faintly pictured on it — I felt strange, unutterable sensations creeping over me; our silence grew oppressive and sinister; I began to wish, I hardly knew why, for some third person in the room — for somebody else to look at and to speak to.

He was the first to resume the conversation. I should have imagined it impossible for any man, in the midst of such thunder as now raged above our heads, to think or talk of anything but the storm. And yet, when he spoke, it was merely on a subject connected with his introduction to me at North Villa. His attention seemed as far from being attracted or impressed by the mighty elemental tumult without, as if the tranquillity of the night were uninvaded by the slightest murmur of sound.

“May I inquire, Sir,” he began, “whether I am right in apprehending that my conduct towards you, since we first met at Mr. Sherwin’s house, may have appeared strange, and even discourteous, in your eyes?”

“In what respect, Mr. Mannion?” I asked, a little startled by the abruptness of the question.

“I am perfectly sensible, Sir, that you have kindly set me the example, on many occasions, in trying to better our acquaintance. When such advances are made by one in your station to one in mine, they ought to be immediately and gratefully responded to.”

Why did he pause? Was he about to tell me he had discovered that my advances sprang from curiosity to know more about him than he was willing to reveal? I waited for him to proceed.

“I have only failed,” he continued, “in the courtesy and gratitude you had a right to expect from me, because, knowing how you were situated with Mr. Sherwin’s daughter, I thought any intrusion on my part, while you were with the young lady, might not be so acceptable as you, Sir, in your kindness, were willing to lead me to believe.”

“Let me assure you,” I answered; relieved to find myself unsuspected, and really impressed by his delicacy —“let me assure you that I fully appreciate the consideration you have shown —”

Just as the last words passed my lips, the thunder pealed awfully over the house. I said no more: the sound silenced me.

“As my explanation has satisfied you, Sir,” he went on; his clear and deliberate utterance rising discordantly audible above the long, retiring roll of the last burst of thunder —“may I feel justified in speaking on the subject of your present position in my employer’s house, with some freedom? I mean, if I may say so without offence, with the freedom of a friend.”

I begged he would use all the freedom he wished; feeling really desirous that he should do so, apart from any purpose of leading him to talk unreservedly on the chance of hearing him talk of himself. The profound respect of manner and phrase which he had hitherto testified — observed by a man of his age, to a man of mine — made me feel ill at ease. He was most probably my equal in acquirements: he had the manners and tastes of a gentleman, and might have the birth too, for aught I knew to the contrary. The difference between us was only in our worldly positions. I had not enough of my father’s pride of caste to think that this difference alone, made it right that a man whose years nearly doubled mine, whose knowledge perhaps surpassed mine, should speak to me as Mr. Mannion had spoken up to this time.

“I may tell you then,” he resumed, “that while I am anxious to commit no untimely intrusion on your hours at North Villa, I am at the same time desirous of being something more than merely inoffensive towards you. I should wish to be positively useful, as far as I can. In my opinion Mr. Sherwin has held you to rather a hard engagement — he is trying your discretion a little too severely I think, at your years and in your situation. Feeling thus, it is my sincere wish to render what connection and influence I have with the family, useful in making the probation you have still to pass through, as easy as possible. I have more means of doing this, Sir, than you might at first imagine.”

His offer took me a little by surprise. I felt with a sort of shame, that candour and warmth of feeling were what I had not expected from him. My attention insensibly wandered away from the storm, to attach itself more and more closely to him, as he went on:

“I am perfectly sensible,” he resumed, “that such a proposition as I now make to you, proceeding from one little better than a stranger, may cause surprise and even suspicion, at first. I can only explain it, by asking you to remember that I have known the young lady since childhood; and that, having assisted in forming her mind and developing her character, I feel towards her almost as a second father, and am therefore naturally interested in the gentleman who has chosen her for a wife.”

Was there a tremor at last in that changeless voice, as he spoke? I thought so; and looked anxiously to catch the answering gleam of expression, which might now, for the first time, be softening his iron features, animating the blank stillness of his countenance. If any such expression had been visible, I was too late to detect it. Just as I looked at him he stooped down to poke the fire. When he turned towards me again, his face was the same impenetrable face, his eye the same hard, steady, inexpressive eye as before.

“Besides,” he continued, “a man must have some object in life for his sympathies to be employed on. I have neither wife nor child; and no near relations to think of — I have nothing but my routine of business in the day, and my books here by my lonely fireside, at night. Our life is not much; but it was made for a little more than this. My former pupil at North Villa is my pupil no longer. I can’t help feeling that it would be an object in existence for me to occupy myself with her happiness and yours; to have two young people, in the heyday of youth and first love, looking towards me occasionally for the promotion of some of their pleasures — no matter how trifling. All this will seem odd and incomprehensible to you. If you were of my age, Sir, and in my position, you would understand it.”

Was it possible that he could speak thus, without his voice faltering, or his eye softening in the slightest degree? Yes: I looked at him and listened to him intently; but here was not the faintest change in his face or his tones — there was nothing to show outwardly whether he felt what he said, or whether he did not. His words had painted such a picture of forlornness on my mind, that I had mechanically half raised my hand to take his, while he was addressing me; but the sight of him when he ceased, checked the impulse almost as soon as it was formed. He did not appear to have noticed either my involuntary gesture, or its immediate repression; and went on speaking.

“I have said perhaps more than I ought,” he resumed. “If I have not succeeded in making you understand my explanation as I could wish, we will change the subject, and not return to it again, until you have known me for a much longer time.”

“On no account change the subject, Mr. Mannion,” I said; unwilling to let it be implied that I would not put trust in him. “I am deeply sensible of the kindness of your offer, and the interest you take in Margaret and me. We shall both, I am sure, accept your good offices —”

I stopped. The storm had decreased a little in violence: but my attention was now struck by the wind, which had risen as the thunder and rain had partially lulled. How drearily it was moaning down the street! It seemed, at that moment, to be wailing over me; to be wailing over him; to be wailing over all mortal things! The strange sensations I then felt, moved me to listen in silence; but I checked them, and spoke again.

“If I have not answered you as I should,” I continued, “you must attribute it partly to the storm, which I confess rather discomposes my ideas; and partly to a little surprise — a very foolish surprise, I own — that you should still be able to feel so strong a sympathy with interests which are generally only considered of importance to the young.”

“It is only in their sympathies, that men of my years can, and do, live their youth over again,” he said. “You may be surprised to hear a tradesman’s clerk talk in this manner; but I was not always what I am now. I have gathered knowledge, and suffered in the gathering. I have grown old before my time — my forty years are like the fifty of other men —”

My heart beat quicker — was he, unasked, about to disclose the mystery which evidently hung over his early life? No: he dropped the subject at once, when he continued. I longed to ask him to resume it, but could not. I feared the same repulse which Mr. Sherwin had received: and remained silent.

“What I was,” he proceeded, “matters little; the question is what can I do for you? Any aid I can give, may be poor enough; but it may be of some use notwithstanding. For instance, the other day, if I mistake not, you were a little hurt at Mr. Sherwin’s taking his daughter to a party to which the family had been invited. This was very natural. You could not be there to watch over her in your real character, without disclosing a secret which must be kept safe; and you could not know what young men she might meet, who would imagine her to be Miss Sherwin still, and would regulate their conduct accordingly. Now, I think I might be of use here. I have some influence — perhaps in strict truth I ought to say great influence — with my employer; and, if you wished it, I would use that influence to back yours, in inducing him to forego, for the future, any intention of taking his daughter into society, except when you desire it. Again: I think I am not wrong in assuming that you infinitely prefer the company of Mrs. Sherwin to that of Mr. Sherwin, during your interviews with the young lady?”

How he had found that out? At any rate, he was right; and I told him so candidly.

“The preference is on many accounts a very natural one,” he said; “but if you suffered it to appear to Mr. Sherwin, it might, for obvious reasons, produce a most unfavourable effect. I might interfere in the matter, however, without suspicion; I should have many opportunities of keeping him away from the room, in the evening, which I could use if you wished it. And more than that, if you wanted longer and more frequent communication with North Villa than you now enjoy, I might be able to effect this also. I do not mention what I could do in these, and in other matters, in any disparagement, Sir, of the influence which you have with Mr. Sherwin, in your own right; but because I know that in what concerns your intercourse with his daughter, my employer has asked, and will ask my advice, from the habit of doing so in other things. I have hitherto declined giving him this advice in your affairs; but I will give it, and in your favour and the young lady’s, if you and she choose.”

I thanked him — but not in such warm terms as I should have employed, if I had seen even the faintest smile on his face, or had heard any change in his steady, deliberate tones, as he spoke. While his words attracted, his immovable looks repelled me, in spite of myself.

“I must again beg you”— he proceeded —“to remember what I have already said, in your estimate of the motives of my offer. If I still appear to be interfering officiously in your affairs, you have only to think that I have presumed impertinently on the freedom you have allowed me, and to treat me no longer on the terms of to-night. I shall not complain of your conduct, and shall try hard not to consider you unjust to me, if you do.”

Such an appeal as this was not to be resisted: I answered him at once and unreservedly. What right had I to draw bad inferences from a man’s face, voice, and manner, merely because they impressed me, as out of the common? Did I know how much share the influence of natural infirmity, or the outward traces of unknown sorrow and suffering, might have had in producing the external peculiarities which had struck me? He would have every right to upbraid me as unjust — and that in the strongest terms — unless I spoke out fairly in reply.

“I am quite incapable, Mr. Mannion,” I said, “of viewing your offer with any other than grateful feelings. You will find I shall prove this by employing your good offices for Margaret and myself in perfect faith, and sooner perhaps than you may imagine.”

He bowed and said a few cordial words, which I heard but imperfectly — for, as I addressed him, a blast of wind fiercer than usual, rushed down the street, shaking the window shutter violently as it passed, and dying away in a low, melancholy, dirging swell, like a spirit-cry of lamentation and despair.

When he spoke again, after a momentary silence, it was to make some change in the conversation. He talked of Margaret — dwelling in terms of high praise rather on her moral than on her personal qualities. He spoke of Mr. Sherwin, referring to solid and attractive points in his character which I had not detected. What he said of Mrs. Sherwin appeared to be equally dictated by compassion and respect — he even hinted at her coolness towards himself, considerately attributing it to the involuntary caprice of settled nervousness and ill-health. His language, in touching on these subjects, was just as unaffected, just as devoid of any peculiarities, as I had hitherto found it when occupied by other topics.

It was growing late. The thunder still rumbled at long intervals, with a dull, distant sound; and the wind showed no symptoms of subsiding. But the pattering of the rain against the window ceased to be audible. There was little excuse for staying longer; and I wished to find none. I had acquired quite knowledge enough of Mr. Mannion to assure me, that any attempt on my part at extracting from him, in spite of his reserve, the secrets which might be connected with his early life, would prove perfectly fruitless. If I must judge him at all, I must judge him by the experience of the present, and not by the history of the past. I had heard good, and good only, of him from the shrewd master who knew him best, and had tried him longest. He had shown the greatest delicacy towards my feelings, and the strongest desire to do me service — it would be a mean return for those acts of courtesy, to let curiosity tempt me to pry into his private affairs.

I rose to go. He made no effort to detain me; but, after unbarring the shutter and looking out of the window, simply remarked that the rain had almost entirely ceased, and that my umbrella would be quite sufficient protection against all that remained. He followed me into the passage to light me out. As I turned round upon his door-step to thank him for his hospitality, and to bid him good night, the thought came across me, that my manner must have appeared cold and repelling to him — especially when he was offering his services to my acceptance. If I had really produced this impression, he was my inferior in station, and it would be cruel to leave it. I tried to set myself right at parting.

“Let me assure you again,” I said, “that it will not be my fault if Margaret and I do not thankfully employ your good offices, as the good offices of a well-wisher and a friend.”

The lightning was still in the sky, though it only appeared at long intervals. Strangely enough, at the moment when I addressed him, a flash came, and seemed to pass right over his face. It gave such a hideously livid hue, such a spectral look of ghastliness and distortion to his features, that he absolutely seemed to be glaring and grinning on me like a fiend, in the one instant of its duration. For the moment, it required all my knowledge of the settled calmness of his countenance, to convince me that my eyes must have been only dazzled by an optical illusion produced by the lightning.

When the darkness had come again, I bade him good night — first mechanically repeating what I had just said, almost in the same words.

I walked home thoughtful. That night had given me much matter to think of.

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