Basil, by Wilkie Collins

v.

The autumn was now over; the winter — a cold, gloomy winter — had fairly come. Five months had nearly elapsed since Clara and my father had departed for the country. What communication did I hold with them, during that interval?

No personal communication with either — written communication only with my sister. Clara’s letters to me were frequent. They studiously avoided anything like a reproach for my long absence; and were confined almost exclusively to such details of country life as the writer thought likely to interest me. Their tone was as affectionate — nay, more affectionate, if possible — than usual; but Clara’s gaiety and quiet humour, as a correspondent, were gone. My conscience taught me only too easily and too plainly how to account for this change — my conscience told me who had altered the tone of my sister’s letters, by altering all the favourite purposes and favourite pleasures of her country life.

I was selfishly enough devoted to my own passions and my own interests, at this period of my life; but I was not so totally dead to every one of the influences which had guided me since childhood, as to lose all thought of Clara and my father, and the ancient house that was associated with my earliest and happiest recollections. Sometimes, even in Margaret’s beloved presence, a thought of Clara put away from me all other thoughts. And, sometimes, in the lonely London house, I dreamed — with the strangest sleeping oblivion of my marriage, and of all the new interests which it had crowded into my life — of country rides with my sister, and of quiet conversations in the old gothic library at the Hall. Under such influences as these, I twice resolved to make amends for my long absence, by joining my father and my sister in the country, even though it were only for a few days — and, each time, I failed in my resolution. On the second occasion, I had actually mustered firmness enough to get as far as the railway station; and only at the last moment faltered and hung back. The struggle that it cost me to part for any length of time from Margaret, I had overcome; but the apprehension, as vivid as it was vague, that something — I knew not what — might happen to her in my absence, turned my steps backward at starting. I felt heartily ashamed of my own weakness; but I yielded to it nevertheless.

At last, a letter arrived from Clara, containing a summons to the country, which I could not disobey.

“I have never asked you,” she wrote, “to come and see us for my sake; for I would not interfere with any of your interests or any of your plans; but I now ask you to come here for your own sake — just for one week, and no more, unless you like to remain longer. You remember papa telling you, in your room in London, that he believed you kept some secret from him. I am afraid this is preying on his mind: your long absence is making him uneasy about you. He does not say so; but he never sends any message, when I write; and if I speak about you, he always changes the subject directly. Pray come here, and show yourself for a few days — no questions will be asked, you may be sure. It will do so much good; and will prevent — what I hope and pray may never happen — a serious estrangement between papa and you. Recollect, Basil, in a month or six weeks we shall come back to town; and then the opportunity will be gone.”

As I read these lines, I determined to start for the country at once, while the effect of them was still fresh on my mind. Margaret, when I took leave of her, only said that she should like to be going with me —“it would be such a sight for her, to see a grand country house like ours!” Mr. Sherwin laughed as coarsely as usual, at the difficulties I made about only leaving his daughter for a week. Mrs. Sherwin very earnestly, and very inaccountably as I then thought, recommended me not to be away any longer than I had proposed. Mr. Mannion privately assured me, that I might depend on him in my absence from North Villa, exactly as I had always depended on him, during my presence there. It was strange that his parting words should be the only words which soothed and satisfied me on taking leave of London.

The winter afternoon was growing dim with the evening darkness, as I drove up to the Hall. Snow on the ground, in the country, has always a cheerful look to me. I could have wished to see it on the day of my arrival at home; but there had been a thaw for the last week — mud and water were all about me — a drizzling rain was falling — a raw, damp wind was blowing — a fog was rising, as the evening stole on — and the ancient leafless elms in the park avenue groaned and creaked above my head drearily, as I approached the house.

My father received me with more ceremony than I liked. I had known, from a boy, what it meant when he chose to be only polite to his own son. What construction he had put on my long absence and my persistence in keeping my secret from him, I could not tell; but it was evident that I had lost my usual place in his estimation, and lost it past regaining merely by a week’s visit. The estrangement between us, which my sister had feared, had begun already.

I had been chilled by the desolate aspect of nature, as I approached the Hall; my father’s reception of me, when I entered the house, increased the comfortless and melancholy impressions produced on my mind; it required all the affectionate warmth of Clara’s welcome, all the pleasure of hearing her whisper her thanks, as she kissed me, for my readiness in following her advice, to restore my equanimity. But even then, when the first hurry and excitement of meeting had passed away, in spite of her kind words and looks, there was something in her face which depressed me. She seemed thinner, and her constitutional paleness was more marked than usual. Cares and anxieties had evidently oppressed her — was I the cause of them?

The dinner that evening proceeded very heavily and gloomily. My father only talked on general and commonplace topics, as if a mere acquaintance had been present. When my sister left us, he too quitted the room, to see some one who had arrived on business. I had no heart for the company of the wine bottles, so I followed Clara.

At first, we only spoke of her occupations since she had been in the country; I was unwilling, and she forbore, to touch on my long stay in London, or on my father’s evident displeasure at my protracted absence. There was a little restraint between us, which neither had the courage to break through. Before long, however, an accident, trifling enough in itself, obliged me to be more candid; and enabled her to speak unreservedly on the subject nearest to her heart.

I was seated opposite to Clara, at the fire-place, and was playing with a favourite dog which had followed me into the room. While I was stooping towards the animal, a locket containing some of Margaret’s hair, fell out of its place in my waistcoat, and swung towards my sister by the string which attached it round my neck. I instantly hid it again; but not before Clara, with a woman’s quickness, had detected the trinket as something new, and drawn the right inference, as to the use to which I devoted it.

An expression of surprise and pleasure passed over her face; she rose, and putting her hands on my shoulders, as if to keep me still in the place I occupied, looked at me intently.

“Basil!” she exclaimed, “if that is all the secret you have been keeping from us, how glad I am! When I see a new locket drop out of my brother’s waistcoat —” she continued, observing that I was too confused to speak —“and when I find him colouring very deeply, and hiding it again in a great hurry, I should be no true woman if I did not make my own discoveries, and begin to talk about them directly.”

I made an effort — a very poor one — to laugh the thing off. Her expression grew serious and thoughtful, while she still fixed her eyes on me. She took my hand gently, and whispered in my ear: “Are you going to be married, Basil? Shall I love my new sister almost as much as I love you?”

At that moment the servant came in with tea. The interruption gave me a minute for consideration. Should I tell her all? Impulse answered, yes — reflection, no. If I disclosed my real situation, I knew that I must introduce Clara to Margaret. This would necessitate taking her privately to Mr. Sherwin’s house, and exposing to her the humiliating terms of dependence and prohibition on which I lived with my own wife. A strange medley of feelings, in which pride was uppermost, forbade me to do that. Then again, to involve my sister in my secret, would be to involve her with me in any consequences which might be produced by its disclosure to my father. The mere idea of making her a partaker in responsibilities which I alone ought to bear, was not to be entertained for a moment. As soon as we were left together again, I said to her:

“Will you not think the worse of me, Clara, if I leave you to draw your own conclusions from what you have seen? only asking you to keep strict silence on the subject to every one. I can’t speak yet, love, as I wish to speak: you will know why, some day, and say that my reserve was right. In the meantime, can you be satisfied with the assurance, that when the time comes for making my secret known, you shall be the first to know it — the first I put trust in?”

“As you have not starved my curiosity altogether,” said Clara, smiling, “but have given it a little hope to feed on for the present, I think, woman though I am, I can promise all you wish. Seriously, Basil,” she continued, “that telltale locket of yours has so pleasantly brightened some very gloomy thoughts of mine about you, that I can now live happily on expectation, without once mentioning your secret again, till you give me leave to do so.”

Here my father entered the room, and we said no more. His manner towards me had not altered since dinner; and it remained the same during the week of my stay at the Hall. One morning, when we were alone, I took courage, and determined to try the dangerous ground a little, with a view towards my guidance for the future; but I had no sooner begun by some reference to my stay in London, and some apology for it, than he stopped me at once.

“I told you,” he said, gravely and coldly, “some months ago, that I had too much faith in your honour to intrude on affairs which you choose to keep private. Until you have perfect confidence in me, and can speak with complete candour, I will hear nothing. You have not that confidence now — you speak hesitatingly — your eyes do not meet mine fairly and boldly. I tell you again, I will hear nothing which begins with such common-place excuses as you have just addressed to me. Excuses lead to prevarications, and prevarications to — what I will not insult you by imagining possible in your case. You are of age, and must know your own responsibilities and mine. Choose at once, between saying nothing, and saying all.”

He waited a moment after he had spoken, and then quitted the room. If he could only have known how I suffered, at that instant, under the base necessities of concealment, I might have confessed everything; and he must have pitied, though he might not have forgiven me.

This was my first and last attempt at venturing towards the revelation of my secret to my father, by hints and half-admissions. As to boldly confessing it, I persuaded myself into a sophistical conviction that such a course could do no good, but might do much harm. When the wedded happiness I had already waited for, and was to wait for still, through so many months, came at last, was it not best to enjoy my married life in convenient secrecy, as long as I could? — best, to abstain from disclosing my secret to my father, until necessity absolutely obliged, or circumstances absolutely invited me to do so? My inclinations conveniently decided the question in the affirmative; and a decision of any kind, right or wrong, was enough to tranquillise me at that time.

So far as my father was concerned, my journey to the country did no good. I might have returned to London the day after my arrival at the Hall, without altering his opinion of me — but I stayed the whole week nevertheless, for Clara’s sake.

In spite of the pleasure afforded by my sister’s society, my visit was a painful one. The selfish longing to be back with Margaret, which I could not wholly repress; my father’s coldness; and the winter gloom and rain which confined us almost incessantly within doors, all tended in their different degrees to prevent my living at ease in the Hall. But, besides these causes of embarrassment, I had the additional mortification of feeling, for the first time, as a stranger in my own home.

Nothing in the house looked to me what it used to look in former years. The rooms, the old servants, the walks and views, the domestic animals, all appeared to have altered, or to have lost something, since I had seen them last. Particular rooms that I had once been fond of occupying, were favourites no longer: particular habits that I had hitherto always practised in the country, I could only succeed in resuming by an effort which vexed and fretted me. It was as if my life had run into a new channel since my last autumn and winter at the Hall, and now refused to flow back at my bidding into its old course. Home seemed home no longer, except in name.

As soon as the week was over, my father and I parted exactly as we had met. When I took leave of Clara, she refrained from making any allusion to the shortness of my stay; and merely said that we should soon meet again in London. She evidently saw that my visit had weighed a little on my spirits, and was determined to give to our short farewell as happy and hopeful a character as possible. We now thoroughly understood each other; and that was some consolation on leaving her.

Immediately on my return to London I repaired to North Villa.

Nothing, I was told, had happened in my absence, but I remarked some change in Margaret. She looked pale and nervous, and was more silent than I had ever known her to be before, when we met. She accounted for this, in answer to my inquiries, by saying that confinement to the house, in consequence of the raw, wintry weather, had a little affected her; and then changed the subject. In other directions, household aspects had not deviated from their accustomed monotony. As usual, Mrs. Sherwin was at her post in the drawing-room; and her husband was reading the evening paper, over his renowned old port, in the dining-room. After the first five minutes of my arrival, I adapted myself again to my old way of life at Mr. Sherwin’s, as easily as if I had never interrupted it for a single day. Henceforth, wherever my young wife was, there, and there only, would it be home for me!

Late in the evening, Mr. Mannion arrived with some business letters for Mr. Sherwin’s inspection. I sent for him into the hall to see me, as I was going away. His hand was never a warm one; but as I now took it, on greeting him, it was so deadly cold that it literally chilled mine for the moment. He only congratulated me, in the usual terms, on my safe return; and said that nothing had taken place in my absence — but in his utterance of those few words, I discovered, for the first time, a change in his voice: his tones were lower, and his articulation quicker than usual. This, joined to the extraordinary coldness of his hand, made me inquire whether he was unwell. Yes, he too had been ill while I was away — harassed with hard work, he said. Then apologising for leaving me abruptly, on account of the letters he had brought with him, he returned to Mr. Sherwin, in the dining-room, with a greater appearance of hurry in his manner than I had ever remarked in it on any former occasion.

I had left Margaret and Mr. Mannion both well — I returned, and found them both ill. Surely this was something that had taken place in my absence, though they all said that nothing had happened. But trifling illnesses seemed to be little regarded at North Villa — perhaps, because serious illness was perpetually present there, in the person of Mrs. Sherwin.

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