Basil, by Wilkie Collins

i.

When the blind are operated on for the restoration of sight, the same succouring hand which has opened to them the visible world, immediately shuts out the bright prospect again, for a time. A bandage is passed over the eyes, lest in the first tenderness of the recovered sense, it should be fatally affected by the sudden transition from darkness to light. But between the awful blank of total privation of vision, and the temporary blank of vision merely veiled, there lies the widest difference. In the moment of their restoration, the blind have had one glimpse of light, flashing on them in an overpowering gleam of brightness, which the thickest, closest veiling cannot extinguish. The new darkness is not like the void darkness of old; it is filled with changing visions of brilliant colours and ever-varying forms, rising, falling, whirling hither and thither with every second. Even when the handkerchief is passed over them, the once sightless eyes, though bandaged fast, are yet not blinded as they were before.

It was so with my mental vision. After the utter oblivion and darkness of a deep swoon, consciousness flashed like light on my mind, when I found myself in my father’s presence, and in my own home. But, almost at the very moment when I first awakened to the bewildering influence of that sight, a new darkness fell upon my faculties — a darkness, this time, which was not utter oblivion; a peopled darkness, like that which the bandage casts over the opened eyes of the blind.

I had sensations, I had thoughts, I had visions, now — but they all acted in the frightful self-concentration of delirium. The lapse of time, the march of events, the alternation of day and night, the persons who moved about me, the words they spoke, the offices of kindness they did for me — all these were annihilated from the period when I closed my eyes again, after having opened them for an instant on my father, in my own study.

My first sensation (how soon it came after I had been brought home, I know not) was of a terrible heat; a steady, blazing heat, which seemed to have shrivelled and burnt up the whole of the little world around me, and to have left me alone to suffer, but never to consume in it. After this, came a quick, restless, unintermittent toiling of obscure thought, ever in the same darkened sphere, ever on the same impenetrable subject, ever failing to reach some distant and visionary result. It was as if something were imprisoned in my mind, and moving always to and fro in it — moving, but never getting free.

Soon, these thoughts began to take a form that I could recognise.

In the clinging heat and fierce seething fever, to which neither waking nor sleeping brought a breath of freshness or a dream of change, I began to act my part over again, in the events that had passed, but in a strangely altered character. Now, instead of placing implicit trust in others, as I had done; instead of failing to discover a significance and a warning in each circumstance as it arose, I was suspicious from the first — suspicious of Margaret, of her father, of her mother, of Mannion, of the very servants in the house. In the hideous phantasmagoria of my own calamity on which I now looked, my position was reversed. Every event of the doomed year of my probation was revived. But the doom itself, the night-scene of horror through which I had passed, had utterly vanished from my memory. This lost recollection, it was the one unending toil of my wandering mind to recover, and I never got it back. None who have not suffered as I suffered then, can imagine with what a burning rage of determination I followed past events in my delirium, one by one, for days and nights together — followed, to get to the end which I knew was beyond, but which I never could see, not even by glimpses, for a moment at a time.

However my visions might alter in their course of succession, they always began with the night when Mannion returned from the continent to North Villa. I stood again in the drawing-room; I saw him enter; I marked the slight confusion of Margaret; and instantly doubted her. I noticed his unwillingness to meet her eye or mine; I looked on the sinister stillness of his face; and suspected him. From that moment, love vanished, and hatred came in its place. I began to watch; to garner up slight circumstances which confirmed my suspicions; to wait craftily for the day when I should discover, judge, and punish them both — the day of disclosure and retribution that never came.

Sometimes, I was again with Mannion, in his house, on the night of the storm. I detected in every word he spoke an artful lure to trap me into trusting him as my second father, more than as my friend. I heard in the tempest sounds which mysteriously interrupted, or mingled with, my answers, voices supernaturally warning me of my enemy, each time that I spoke to him. I saw once more the hideous smile of triumph on his face, as I took leave of him on the doorstep: and saw it, this time, not as an illusion produced by a flash of lightning, but as a frightful reality which the lightning disclosed.

Sometimes, I was again in the garden at North Villa accidentally overhearing the conversation between Margaret and her mother — overhearing what deceit she was willing to commit, for the sake of getting a new dress — then going into the room, and seeing her assume her usual manner on meeting me, as if no such words as I had listened to but the moment before, had ever proceeded from her lips. Or, I saw her on that other morning, when, to revenge the death of her bird, she would have killed with her own hand the one pet companion that her sick mother possessed. Now, no generous, trusting love blinded me to the real meaning of such events as these. Now, instead of regarding them as little weaknesses of beauty, and little errors of youth, I saw them as timely warnings, which bade me remember when the day of my vengeance came, that in the contriving of the iniquity on which they were both bent, the woman had been as vile as the man.

Sometimes, I was once more on my way to North Villa, after my week’s absence at our country house. I saw again the change in Margaret since I had left her — the paleness, the restlessness, the appearance of agitation. I took the hand of Mannion, and started as I felt its deadly coldness, and remarked the strange alteration in his manner. When they accounted for these changes by telling me that both had been ill, in different ways, since my departure, I detected the miserable lie at once; I knew that an evil advantage had been taken of my absence; that the plot against me was fast advancing towards consummation: and that, at the sight of their victim, even the two wretches who were compassing my dishonour could not repress all outward manifestation of their guilt.

Sometimes, the figure of Mrs. Sherwin appeared to me, wan and weary, and mournful with a ghostly mournfulness. Again I watched her, and listened to her; but now with eager curiosity, with breathless attention. Once more, I saw her shudder when Mannion’s cold eyes turned on her face — I marked the anxious, imploring look that she cast on Margaret and on me — I heard her confused, unwilling answer, when I inquired the cause of her dislike of the man in whom her husband placed the most implicit trust — I listened to her abrupt, inexplicable injunction to “watch continually over my wife, and keep bad people from her.” All these different circumstances occurred again as vividly as in the reality; but I did not now account for them, as I had once accounted for them, by convincing myself that Mrs. Sherwin’s mind was wandering, and that her bodily sufferings had affected her intellect. I saw immediately, that she suspected Mannion, and dared not openly confess her suspicions; I saw, that in the stillness, and abandonment, and self-concentration of her neglected life, she had been watching more vigilantly than others had watched; I detected in every one of her despised gestures, and looks, and halting words, the same concealed warning ever lying beneath the surface; I knew they had not succeeded in deceiving her; I was determined they should not succeed in deceiving me.

It was oftenest at this point, that my restless memory recoiled before the impenetrable darkness which forbade it to see further — to see on to the last evening, to the fatal night. It was oftenest at this point, that I toiled and struggled back, over and over again, to seek once more the lost events of the End, through the events of the Beginning. How often my wandering thoughts thus incessantly and desperately traced and retraced their way over their own fever track, I cannot tell: but there came a time when they suddenly ceased to torment me; when the heavy burden that was on my mind fell off; when a sudden strength and fury possessed me, and I plunged down through a vast darkness into a world whose daylight was all radiant flame. Giant phantoms mustered by millions, flashing white as lightning in the ruddy air. They rushed on me with hurricane speed; their wings fanned me with fiery breezes; and the echo of their thunder-music was like the groaning and rending of an earthquake, as they tore me away with them on their whirlwind course.

Away! to a City of Palaces, to measureless halls, and arches, and domes, soaring one above another, till their flashing ruby summits are lost in the burning void, high overhead. On! through and through these mountain-piles, into countless, limitless corridors, reared on pillars lurid and rosy as molten lava. Far down the corridors rise visions of flying phantoms, ever at the same distance before us — their raving voices clanging like the hammers of a thousand forges. Still on and on; faster and faster, for days, years, centuries together, till there comes, stealing slowly forward to meet us, a shadow — a vast, stealthy, gliding shadow — the first darkness that has ever been shed over that world of blazing light! It comes nearer — nearer and nearer softly, till it touches the front ranks of our phantom troop. Then in an instant, our rushing progress is checked: the thunder-music of our wild march stops; the raving voices of the spectres ahead, cease; a horror of blank stillness is all about us — and as the shadow creeps onward and onward, until we are enveloped in it from front to rear, we shiver with icy cold under the fiery air and amid the lurid lava pillars which hem us in on either side.

A silence, like no silence ever known on earth; a darkening of the shadow, blacker than the blackest night in the thickest wood — a pause — then, a sound as of the heavy air being cleft asunder; and then, an apparition of two figures coming on out of the shadow — two monsters stretching forth their gnarled yellow talons to grasp at us; leaving on their track a green decay, oozing and shining with a sickly light. Beyond and around me, as I stood in the midst of them, the phantom troop dropped into formless masses, while the monsters advanced. They came close to me; and I alone, of all the myriads around, changed not at their approach. Each laid a talon on my shoulder — each raised a veil which was one hideous net-work of twining worms. I saw through the ghastly corruption of their faces the look that told me who they were — the monstrous iniquities incarnate in monstrous forms; the fiend-souls made visible in fiend-shapes — Margaret and Mannion!

A moment more! and I was alone with those two. Not a wreck of the phantom-multitude remained; the towering city, the gleaming corridors, the fire-bright radiance had vanished. We stood on a wilderness — a still, black lake of dead waters was before us; a white, faint, misty light shone on us. Outspread over the noisome ground lay the ruins of a house, rooted up and overthrown to its foundations. The demon figures, still watching on either side of me, drew me slowly forward to the fallen stones, and pointed to two dead bodies lying among them.

My father! — my sister! — both cold and still, and whiter than the white light that showed them to me. The demons at my side stretched out their crooked talons, and forbade me to kneel before my father, or to kiss Clara’s wan face, before I went to torment. They struck me motionless where I stood — and unveiled their hideous faces once more, jeering at me in triumph. Anon, the lake of black waters heaved up and overflowed, and noiselessly sucked us away into its central depths — depths that were endless; depths of rayless darkness, in which we slowly eddied round and round, deeper and deeper down at every turn. I felt the bodies of my father and my sister touching me in cold contact: I stretched out my arms to clasp them and sink with them; and the demon pair glided between us, and separated me from them. This vain striving to join myself to my dead kindred when we touched each other in the slow, endless whirlpool, ever continued and was ever frustrated in the same way. Still we sank apart, down the black gulphs of the lake; still there was no light, no sound, no change, no pause of repose — and this was eternity: the eternity of Hell!

Such was one dream-vision out of many that I saw. It must have been at this time that men were set to watch me day and night (as I afterwards heard), in order that I might be held down in my bed, when a paroxysm of convulsive strength made me dangerous to myself and to all about me. The period too when the doctors announced that the fever had seized on my brain, and was getting the better of their skill, must have been this period.

But though they gave up my life as lost, I was not to die. There came a time, at last, when the gnawing fever lost its hold; and I awoke faintly one morning to a new existence — to a life frail and helpless as the life of a new-born babe.

I was too weak to move, to speak, to open my eyes, to exert in the smallest degree any one faculty, bodily or mental, that I possessed. The first sense of which I regained the use, was the sense of hearing; and the first sound that I recognised, was of a light footstep which mysteriously approached, paused, and then retired again gently outside my door. The hearing of this sound was my first pleasure, the waiting for its repetition my first source of happy expectation, since I had been ill. Once more the footsteps approached — paused a moment — then seemed to retire as before — then returned slowly. A sigh, very faint and trembling; a whisper of which I could not yet distinguish the import, caught my ear — and after that, there was silence. Still I waited (oh, how happily and calmly!) to hear the whisper soon repeated, and to hear it better when it next came. Ere long, for the third time, the footsteps advanced, and the whispering accents sounded again. I could now hear that they pronounced my name — once, twice, three times — very softly and imploringly, as if to beg the answer which I was still too weak to give. But I knew the voice: I knew it was Clara’s. Long after it had ceased, the whisper lingered gently on my ear, like a lullaby that alternately soothed me to slumber, and welcomed me to wakefulness. It seemed to be thrilling through my frame with a tender, reviving influence — the same influence which the sunshine had, weeks afterwards, when I enjoyed it for the first time out of doors.

The next sound that came to me was audible in my room; audible sometimes, close at my pillow. It was the simplest sound imaginable — nothing but the soft rustling of a woman’s dress. And yet, I heard in it innumerable harmonies, sweet changes, and pauses minute beyond all definition. I could only open my eyes for a minute at a time, and even then, could not fix them steadily on anything; but I knew that the rustling dress was Clara’s; and fresh sensations seemed to throng upon me, as I listened to the sound which told me that she was in the room. I felt the soft summer air on my face; I enjoyed the sweet scent of flowers, wafted on that air; and once, when my door was left open for a moment, the twittering of birds in the aviary down stairs, rang with exquisite clearness and sweetness on my ear. It was thus that my faculties strengthened, hour by hour, always in the same gradual way, from the time when I first heard the footstep and the whisper outside my chamber-door.

One evening I awoke from a cool, dreamless sleep; and, seeing Clara sitting by my bedside, faintly uttered her name, and moved my wasted hand to take hers. As I saw the calm, familiar face bending over me; the anxious eyes looking tenderly and lovingly into mine — as the last melancholy glory of sunset hovered on my bed, and the air, sinking already into its twilight repose, came softly and more softly into the room — as my sister took me in her arms, and raising me on my weary pillow, bade me for her sake lie hushed and patient a little longer — the memory of the ruin and the shame that had overwhelmed me; the memory of my love that had become an infamy; and of my brief year’s hope miserably fulfilled by a life of despair, swelled darkly over my heart. The red, retiring rays of sunset just lingered at that moment on my face. Clara knelt down by my pillow, and held up her handkerchief to shade my eyes —“God has given you back to us, Basil,” she whispered, “to make us happier than ever.” As she spoke, the springs of the grief so long pent up within me were loosened; hot tears dropped heavily and quickly from my eyes; and I wept for the first time since the night of horror which had stretched me where I now lay — wept in my sister’s arms, at that quiet evening hour, for the lost honour, the lost hope, the lost happiness that had gone from me for ever in my youth!

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