Basil, by Wilkie Collins

iv.

About the time of my introduction to Mr. Mannion — or, to speak more correctly, both before and after that period — certain peculiarities in Margaret’s character and conduct, which came to my knowledge by pure accident, gave me a little uneasiness and even a little displeasure. Neither of these feelings lasted very long, it is true; for the incidents which gave rise to them were of a trifling nature in themselves. While I now write, however, these domestic occurrences are all vividly present to my recollection. I will mention two of them as instances. Subsequent events, yet to be related, will show that they are not out of place at this part of my narrative.

One lovely autumn morning, I called rather before the appointed time at North Villa. As the servant opened the front garden-gate, the idea occurred to me of giving Margaret a surprise, by entering the drawing room unexpectedly, with a nosegay gathered for her from her own flower-bed. Telling the servant not to announce me, I went round to the back garden, by a gate which opened into it at the side of the house. The progress of my flower-gathering led me on to the lawn under one of the drawing-room windows, which was left a little open. The voices of my wife and her mother reached me from the room. It was this part of their conversation which I unintentionally overheard:—

“I tell you, mamma, I must and will have the dress, whether papa chooses or not.”

This was spoken loudly and resolutely; in such tones as I had never heard from Margaret before.

“Pray — pray, my dear, don’t talk so,” answered the weak, faltering voice of Mrs. Sherwin; “you know you have had more than your year’s allowance of dresses already.”

“I won’t be allowanced. His sister isn’t allowanced: why should I be?”

“My dear love, surely there is some difference —”

“I’m sure there isn’t, now I am his wife. I shall ride some day in my carriage, just as his sister does. He gives me my way in everything; and so ought you.”

“It isn’t me, Margaret: if I could do anything, I’m sure I would; but I really couldn’t ask your papa for another new dress, after his having given you so many this year, already.”

“That’s the way it always is with you, mamma — you can’t do this, and you can’t do that — you are so excessively tiresome! But I will have the dress, I’m determined. He says his sister wears light blue crape of an evening; and I’ll have light blue crape, too — see if I don’t! I’ll get it somehow from the shop, myself. Papa never takes any notice, I’m sure, what I have on; and he needn’t find out anything about what’s gone out of the shop, until they ‘take stock,’ or whatever it is he calls it. And then, if he flies into one of his passions —”

“My dear! my dear! you really ought not to talk so of your papa — it is very wrong, Margaret, indeed — what would Mr. Basil say if he heard you?”

I determined to go in at once, and tell Margaret that I had heard her — resolving, at the same time, to exert some firmness, and remonstrate with her, for her own good, on much of what she had said, which had really surprised and displeased me. On my unexpected entrance, Mrs. Sherwin started, and looked more timid than ever. Margaret, however, came forward to meet me with her wonted smile, and held out her hand with her wonted grace. I said nothing until we had got into our accustomed corner, and were talking together in whispers as usual. Then I began my remonstrance — very tenderly, and in the lowest possible tones. She took precisely the right way to stop me in full career, in spite of all my resolution. Her beautiful eyes filled with tears directly — the first I had ever seen in them: caused, too, by what I had said! — and she murmured a few plaintive words about the cruelty of being angry with her for only wanting to please me by being dressed as my sister was, which upset every intention I had formed but the moment before. I involuntarily devoted myself to soothing her for the rest of the morning. Need I say how the matter ended? I never mentioned the subject more; and I made her a present of the new dress.

Some weeks after the little home-breeze which I have just related, had died away into a perfect calm, I was accidentally witness of another domestic dilemma in which Margaret bore a principal share. On this occasion, as I walked up to the house (in the morning again), I found the front door open. A pail was on the steps — the servant had evidently been washing them, had been interrupted in her work, and had forgotten to close the door when she left it. The nature of the interruption I soon discovered as I entered the hall.

“For God’s sake, Miss!” cried the housemaid’s voice, from the dining-room, “for God’s sake, put down the poker! Missus will be here directly; and it’s her cat!”

“I’ll kill the vile brute! I’ll kill the hateful cat! I don’t care whose it is! — my poor dear, dear, dear bird!” The voice was Margaret’s. At first, its tones were tones of fury; they were afterwards broken by hysterical sobs.

“Poor thing,” continued the servant, soothingly, “I’m sorry for it, and for you too, Miss! But, oh! do please to remember it was you left the cage on the table, in the cat’s reach —”

“Hold your tongue, you wretch! How dare you hold me? — let me go!”

“Oh, you mustn’t — you mustn’t indeed! It’s missus’s cat, recollect — poor missus’s, who’s always ill, and hasn’t got nothing else to amuse her.”

“I don’t care! The cat has killed my bird, and the cat shall be killed for doing it! — it shall! — it shall!! — it shall!!! I’ll call in the first boy from the street to catch it, and hang it! Let me go! I will go!”

“I’ll let the cat go first, Miss, as sure as my name’s Susan!”

The next instant, the door was suddenly opened, and puss sprang past me, out of harm’s way, closely followed by the servant, who stared breathless and aghast at seeing me in the hall. I went into the dining-room immediately.

On the floor lay a bird-cage, with the poor canary dead inside (it was the same canary that I had seen my wife playing with, on the evening of the day when I first met her). The bird’s head had been nearly dragged through the bent wires of the cage, by the murderous claws of the cat. Near the fire-place, with the poker she had just dropped on the floor by her side, stood Margaret. Never had I seen her look so beautiful as she now appeared, in the fury of passion which possessed her. Her large black eyes were flashing grandly through her tears — the blood was glowing crimson in her cheeks — her lips were parted as she gasped for breath. One of her hands was clenched, and rested on the mantel-piece; the other was pressed tight over her bosom, with the fingers convulsively clasping her dress. Grieved as I was at the paroxysm of passion into which she had allowed herself to be betrayed, I could not repress an involuntary feeling of admiration when my eyes first rested on her. Even anger itself looked lovely in that lovely face!

She never moved when she saw me. As I approached her, she dropped down on her knees by the cage, sobbing with frightful violence, and pouring forth a perfect torrent of ejaculations of vengeance against the cat. Mrs. Sherwin came down; and by her total want of tact and presence of mind, made matters worse. In brief, the scene ended by a fit of hysterics.

To speak to Margaret on that day, as I wished to speak to her, was impossible. To approach the subject of the canary’s death afterwards, was useless. If I only hinted in the gentlest way, and with the strongest sympathy for the loss of the bird, at the distress and astonishment she had caused me by the extremities to which she had allowed her passion to hurry her, a burst of tears was sure to be her only reply — just the reply, of all others, which was best calculated to silence me. If I had been her husband in fact, as well as in name; if I had been her father, her brother, or her friend, I should have let her first emotions have their way, and then have expostulated with her afterwards. But I was her lover still; and, to my eyes, Margaret’s tears made virtues even of Margaret’s faults.

Such occurrences as these, happening but at rare intervals, formed the only interruptions to the generally even and happy tenour of our intercourse. Weeks and weeks glided away, and not a hasty or a hard word passed between us. Neither, after one preliminary difference had been adjusted, did any subsequent disagreement take place between Mr. Sherwin and me. This last element in the domestic tranquillity of North Villa was, however, less attributable to his forbearance, or to mine, than to the private interference of Mr. Mannion.

For some days after my interview with the managing clerk, at his own house, I had abstained from calling his offered services into requisition. I was not conscious of any reason for this course of conduct. All that had been said, all that had happened during the night of the storm, had produced a powerful, though vague impression on me. Strange as it may appear, I could not determine whether my brief but extraordinary experience of my new friend had attracted me towards him, or repelled me from him. I felt an unwillingness to lay myself under an obligation to him, which was not the result of pride, or false delicacy, or sullenness, or suspicion — it was an inexplicable unwillingness, that sprang from the fear of encountering some heavy responsibility; but of what nature I could not imagine. I delayed and held back, by instinct; and, on his side, Mr. Mannion made no further advances. He maintained the same manner, and continued the same habits, during his intercourse with the family at North Villa, which I had observed as characterising him before I took shelter from the storm, in his house. He never referred again to the conversation of that evening, when we now met.

Margaret’s behaviour, when I mentioned to her Mr. Mannion’s willingness to be useful to us both, rather increased than diminished the vague uncertainties which perplexed me, on the subject of accepting or rejecting his overtures.

I could not induce her to show the smallest interest about him. Neither his house, his personal appearance, his peculiar habits, or his secrecy in relation to his early life — nothing, in short, connected with him — appeared to excite her attention or curiosity in the slightest degree. On the evening of his return from the continent, she had certainly shown some symptoms of interest in his arrival at North Villa, and some appearance of attention to him, when he joined our party. Now, she seemed completely and incomprehensibly changed on this point. Her manner became almost petulant, if I persisted long in making Mr. Mannion a topic of conversation — it was as if she resented his sharing my thoughts with her in the slightest degree. As to the difficult question whether we should engage him in our interests or not, that was a matter which she always seemed to think too trifling to be discussed between us at all.

Ere long, however, circumstances decided me as to the course I should take with Mr. Mannion.

A ball was given by one of Mr. Sherwin’s rich commercial friends, to which he announced his intention of taking Margaret. Besides the jealousy which I felt — naturally enough, in my peculiar situation — at the idea of my wife going out as Miss Sherwin, and dancing in the character of a young unmarried lady with any young gentlemen who were introduced to her, I had also the strongest possible desire to keep Margaret out of the society of her own class, until my year’s probation was over, and I could hope to instal her permanently in the society of my class. I had privately mentioned to her my ideas on this subject, and found that she fully agreed with them. She was not wanting in ambition to ascend to the highest degree in the social scale; and had already begun to look with indifference on the society which was offered to her by those in her own rank.

To Mr. Sherwin I could confide nothing of this. I could only object, generally, to his taking Margaret out, when neither she nor I desired it. He declared that she liked parties — that all girls did — that she only pretended to dislike them, to please me — and that he had made no engagement to keep her moping at home a whole year on my account. In the case of the particular ball now under discussion, he was determined to have his own way; and he bluntly told me as much.

Irritated by his obstinacy and gross want of consideration for my defenceless position, I forgot all doubts and scruples; and privately applied to Mr. Mannion to exert the influence which he had promised to use, if I wished it, in my behalf.

The result was as immediate as it was conclusive. The very next evening, Mr. Sherwin came to us with a note which he had just written, and informed me that it was an excuse for Margaret’s non-appearance at the ball. He never mentioned Mr. Mannion’s name, but sulkily and shortly said, that he had reconsidered the matter, and had altered his first decision for reasons of his own.

Having once taken a first step in the new direction, I soon followed it up, without hesitation, by taking many others. Whenever I wished to call oftener than once a-day at North Villa, I had but to tell Mr. Mannion, and the next morning I found the permission immediately accorded to me by the ruling power. The same secret machinery enabled me to regulate Mr. Sherwin’s incomings and outgoings, just as I chose, when Margaret and I were together in the evening. I could feel almost certain, now, of never having any one with us, but Mrs. Sherwin, unless I desired it — which, as may be easily imagined, was seldom enough.

My new ally’s ready interference for my advantage was exerted quietly, easily, and as a matter of course. I never knew how, or when, he influenced his employer, and Mr. Sherwin on his part, never breathed a word of that influence to me. He accorded any extra privilege I might demand, as if he acted entirely under his own will, little suspecting how well I knew what was the real motive power which directed him.

I was the more easily reconciled to employing the services of Mr. Mannion, by the great delicacy with which he performed them. He did not allow me to think — he did not appear to think himself — that he was obliging me in the smallest degree. He affected no sudden intimacy with me; his manners never altered; he still persisted in not joining us in the evening, but at my express invitation; and if I referred in any way to the advantages I derived from his devotion to my interests, he always replied in his brief undemonstrative way, that he considered himself the favoured person, in being permitted to make his services of some use to Margaret and me.

I had told Mr. Mannion, when I was leaving him on the night of the storm, that I would treat his offers as the offers of a friend; and I had now made good my words, much sooner and much more unreservedly than I had ever intended, when we parted at his own house-door.

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