Basil, by Wilkie Collins

iii.

The morning which was to decide all between my father and me, the morning on whose event hung the future of my home life, was the brightest and loveliest that my eyes ever looked on. A cloudless sky, a soft air, sunshine so joyous and dazzling that the commonest objects looked beautiful in its light, seemed to be mocking at me for my heavy heart, as I stood at my window, and thought of the hard duty to be fulfilled, on the harder judgment that might be pronounced, before the dawning of another day.

During the night, I had arranged no plan on which to conduct the terrible disclosure which I was now bound to make — the greatness of the emergency deprived me of all power of preparing myself for it. I thought on my father’s character, on the inbred principles of honour which ruled him with the stern influence of a fanaticism: I thought on his pride of caste, so unobtrusive, so rarely hinted at in words, and yet so firmly rooted in his nature, so intricately entwined with every one of his emotions, his aspirations, his simplest feelings and ideas: I thought on his almost feminine delicacy in shrinking from the barest mention of impurities which other men could carelessly discuss, or could laugh over as good material for an after-dinner jest. I thought over all this, and when I remembered that it was to such a man that I must confess the infamous marriage which I had contracted in secret, all hope from his fatherly affection deserted me; all idea of appealing to his chivalrous generosity became a delusion in which it was madness to put a moment’s trust.

The faculties of observation are generally sharpened, in proportion as the faculties of reflection are dulled, under the influence of an absorbing suspense. While I now waited alone in my room, the most ordinary sounds and events in the house, which I never remembered noticing before, absolutely enthralled me. It seemed as if the noise of a footstep, the echo of a voice, the shutting or opening of doors down stairs, must, on this momentous day, presage some mysterious calamity, some strange discovery, some secret project formed against me, I knew not how, or by whom. Two or three times I found myself listening intently on the staircase, with what object I could hardly tell. It was always, however, on those occasions, that a dread, significant quiet appeared to have fallen suddenly on the house. Clara never came to me, no message arrived from my father; the door-bell seemed strangely silent, the servants strangely neglectful of their duties above stairs. I caught myself returning to my own room softly, as if I expected that some hidden catastrophe might break forth, if sound of my footsteps were heard.

Would my father seek me again in my own room, or would he send for me down stairs? It was not long before the doubt was decided. One of the servants knocked at my door — the servant whose special duty it had been to wait on me in my illness. I longed to take the man’s hand, and implore his sympathy and encouragement while he addressed me.

“My master, Sir, desires me to say that, if you feel well enough, he wishes to see you in his own room.”

I rose, and immediately followed the servant. On our way, we passed the door of Clara’s private sitting-room — it opened, and my sister came out and laid her hand on my arm. She smiled as I looked at her; but the tears stood thick in her eyes, and her face was deadly pale.

“Think of what I said last night, Basil,” she whispered, “and, if hard words are spoken to you, think of me. All that our mother would have done for you, if she had been still among us, I will do. Remember that, and keep heart and hope to the very last.”

She hastily returned to her room, and I went on down stairs. In the hall, the servant was waiting for me, with a letter in his hand.

“This was left for you, Sir, a little while ago. The messenger who brought it said he was not to wait for an answer.”

It was no time for reading letters — the interview with my father was too close at hand. I hastily put the letter into my pocket, barely noticing, as I did so, that the handwriting on the address was very irregular, and quite unknown to me.

I went at once into my father’s room.

He was sitting at his table, cutting the leaves of some new books that lay on it. Pointing to a chair placed opposite to him, he briefly inquired after my health; and then added, in a lower tone —

“Take any time you like, Basil, to compose and collect yourself. This morning my time is yours.”

He turned a little away from me, and went on cutting the leaves of the books placed before him. Still utterly incapable of preparing myself in any way for the disclosure expected from me; without thought or hope, or feeling of any kind, except a vague sense of thankfulness for the reprieve granted me before I was called on to speak — I mechanically looked round and round the room, as if I expected to see the sentence to be pronounced against me, already written on the walls, or grimly foreshadowed in the faces of the old family portraits which hung above the fireplace.

What man has ever felt that all his thinking powers were absorbed, even by the most poignant mental misery that could occupy them? In moments of imminent danger, the mind can still travel of its own accord over the past, in spite of the present — in moments of bitter affliction, it can still recur to every-day trifles, in spite of ourselves. While I now sat silent in my father’s room, long-forgotten associations of childhood connected with different parts of it, began to rise on my memory in the strangest and most startling independence of any influence or control, which my present agitation and suspense might be supposed to exercise over them. The remembrances that should have been the last to be awakened at this time of heavy trial, were the very remembrances which now moved within me.

With burdened heart and aching eyes I looked over the walls around me. There, in that corner, was the red cloth door which led to the library. As children, how often Ralph and I had peeped curiously through that very door, to see what my father was about in his study, to wonder why he had so many letters to write, and so many books to read. How frightened we both were, when he discovered us one day, and reproved us severely! How happy the moment afterwards, when we had begged him to pardon us, and were sent back to the library again with a great picture-book to look at, as a token that we were both forgiven! Then, again, there was the high, old-fashioned, mahogany press before the window, with the same large illustrated folio about Jewish antiquities lying on it, which, years and years ago, Clara and I were sometimes allowed to look at, as a special treat, on Sunday afternoons; and which we always examined and re-examined with never-ending delight — standing together on two chairs to reach up to the thick, yellow-looking leaves, and turn them over with our own hands. And there, in the recess between two bookcases, still stood the ancient desk-table, with its rows of little inlaid drawers; and on the bracket above it the old French clock, which had once belonged to my mother, and which always chimed the hours so sweetly and merrily. It was at that table that Ralph and I always bade my father farewell, when we were going back to school after the holidays, and were receiving our allowance of pocket-money, given to us out of one of the tiny inlaid drawers, just before we started. Near that spot, too, Clara — then a little rosy child — used to wait gravely and anxiously, with her doll in her arms, to say good-bye for the last time, and to bid us come back soon, and then never go away again. I turned, and looked abruptly towards the window; for such memories as the room suggested were more than I could bear.

Outside, in the dreary strip of garden, the few stunted, dusky trees were now rustling as pleasantly in the air, as if the breeze that stirred them came serenely over an open meadow, or swept freshly under their branches from the rippling surface of a brook. Distant, but yet well within hearing, the mighty murmur from a large thoroughfare — the great mid-day voice of London — swelled grandly and joyously on the ear. While, nearer still, in a street that ran past the side of the house, the notes of an organ rang out shrill and fast; the instrument was playing its liveliest waltz tune — a tune which I had danced to in the ball-room over and over again. What mocking memories within, what mocking sounds without, to herald and accompany such a confession as I had now to make!

Minute after minute glided on, inexorably fast; and yet I never broke silence. My eyes turned anxiously and slowly on my father.

He was still looking away from me, still cutting the leaves of the books before him. Even in that trifling action, the strong emotions which he was trying to conceal, were plainly and terribly betrayed. His hand, usually so steady and careful, trembled perceptibly; and the paper-knife tore through the leaves faster and faster — cutting them awry, rending them one from another, so as to spoil the appearance of every page. I believe he felt that I was looking at him; for he suddenly discontinued his employment, turned round towards me, and spoke —

“I have resolved to give you your own time,” he said, “and from that resolve I have no wish to depart — I only ask you to remember that every minute of delay adds to the suffering and suspense which I am enduring on your account.” He opened the books before him again, adding in lower and colder tones, as he did so —“In your place, Ralph would have spoken before this.”

Ralph, and Ralph’s example quoted to me again! — I could remain silent no longer.

“My brother’s faults towards you, and towards his family, are not such faults as mine, Sir,” I began. “I have not imitated his vices; I have acted as he would not have acted. And yet, the result of my error will appear far more humiliating, and even disgraceful, in your eyes, than the results of any errors of Ralph’s.”

As I pronounced the word “disgraceful,” he suddenly looked me full in the face. His eyes lightened up sternly, and the warning red spot rose on his pale cheeks.

“What do you mean by ‘disgraceful?’” he asked abruptly; “what do you mean by associating such a word as disgrace with your conduct — with the conduct of a son of mine?”

“I must reply to your question indirectly, Sir,” I continued. “You asked me last night who the Mr. Sherwin was who has called here so often —”

“And this morning I ask it again. I have other questions to put to you, besides — you called constantly on a woman’s name in your delirium. But I will repeat last night’s question first — who is Mr. Sherwin?”

“He lives —”

“I don’t ask where he lives. Who is he? What is he?”

“Mr. Sherwin is a linen-draper —”

“You owe him money? — you have borrowed money of him? Why did you not tell me this before? You have degraded my house by letting a man call at the door — I know it! — in the character of a dun. He has inquired about you as his ‘friend,’— the servants told me of it. This money-lending tradesman, your ’friend!‘ If I had heard that the poorest labourer on my land called you ‘friend,’ I should have held you honoured by the attachment and gratitude of an honest man. When I hear that name given to you by a tradesman and money-lender, I hold you contaminated by connection with a cheat. You were right, Sir! — this is disgrace; how much do you owe? Where are your dishonoured acceptances? Where have you used my name and my credit? Tell me at once — I insist on it!”

He spoke rapidly and contemptuously, and rising from his chair as he ended, walked impatiently up and down the room.

“I owe no money to Mr. Sherwin, Sir — no money to any one.”

He stopped suddenly:

“No money to any one?” he repeated very slowly, and in very altered tones. “You spoke of disgrace just now. There is a worse disgrace then that you have hidden from me, than debts dishonourably contracted?”

At this moment, a step passed across the hall. He instantly turned round, and locked the door on that side of the room — then continued:

“Speak! and speak honestly if you can. How have you been deceiving me? A woman’s name escaped you constantly, when your delirium was at its worst. You used some very strange expressions about her, which it was impossible altogether to comprehend; but you said enough to show that her character was one of the most abandoned; that her licentiousness — it is too revolting to speak of her— I return to you. I insist on knowing how far your vices have compromised you with that vicious woman.”

“She has wronged me — cruelly, horribly, wronged me —” I could say no more. My head drooped on my breast; my shame overpowered me.

“Who is she? You called her Margaret, in your illness — who is she?”

“She is Mr. Sherwin’s daughter —” The words that I would fain have spoken next, seemed to suffocate me. I was silent again.

I heard him mutter to himself:

“That man’s daughter! — a worse bait than the bait of money!”

He bent forward, and looked at me searchingly. A frightful paleness flew over his face in an instant.

“Basil!” he cried, “in God’s name, answer me at once! What is Mr. Sherwin’s daughter to you?

“She is my wife!”

I heard no answer — not a word, not even a sigh. My eyes were blinded with tears, my face was bent down; I saw nothing at first. When I raised my head, and dashed away the blinding tears, and looked up, the blood chilled at my heart.

My father was leaning against one of the bookcases, with his hands clasped over his breast. His head was drawn back; his white lips moved, but no sound came from them. Over his upturned face there had passed a ghastly change, as indescribable in its awfulness as the change of death.

I ran horror-stricken to his side, and attempted to take his hand. He started instantly into an erect position, and thrust me from him furiously, without uttering a word. At that fearful moment, in that fearful silence, the sounds out of doors penetrated with harrowing distinctness and merriment into the room. The pleasant rustling of the trees mingled musically with the softened, monotonous rolling of carriages in the distant street, while the organ-tune, now changed to the lively measure of a song, rang out clear and cheerful above both, and poured into the room as lightly and happily as the very sunshine itself.

For a few minutes we stood apart, and neither of us moved or spoke. I saw him take out his handkerchief, and pass it over his face, breathing heavily and thickly, and leaning against the bookcase once more. When he withdrew the handkerchief and looked at me again, I knew that the sharp pang of agony had passed away, that the last hard struggle between his parental affection and his family pride was over, and that the great gulph which was hence-forth to separate father and son, had now opened between us for ever.

He pointed peremptorily to me to go back to my former place, but did not return to his own chair. As I obeyed, I saw him unlock the door of the bookcase against which he had been leaning, and place his hand on one of the books inside. Without withdrawing it from its place, without turning or looking towards me, he asked if I had anything more to say to him.

The chilling calmness of his tones, the question itself, and the time at which he put it, the unnatural repression of a single word of rebuke, of passion, or of sorrow, after such a confession as I had just made, struck me speechless. He turned a little away from the bookcase — still keeping his hand on the book inside — and repeated the question. His eyes, when they met mine, had a pining, weary look, as if they had been long condemned to rest on woeful and revolting objects; his expression had lost its natural refinement, its gentleness of repose, and had assumed a hard, lowering calmness, under which his whole countenance appeared to have shrunk and changed — years of old age seemed to have fallen on it, since I had spoken the last fatal words!

“Have you anything more to say to me?”

On the repetition of that terrible question, I sank down in the chair at my side, and hid my face in my hands. Unconscious how I spoke, or why I spoke; with no hope in myself, or in him; with no motive but to invite and bear the whole penalty of my disgrace, I now disclosed the miserable story of my marriage, and of all that followed it. I remember nothing of the words I used —— nothing of what I urged in my own defence. The sense of bewilderment and oppression grew heavier and heavier on my brain; I spoke more and more rapidly, confusedly, unconsciously, until I was again silenced and recalled to myself by the sound of my father’s voice. I believe I had arrived at the last, worst part of my confession, when he interrupted me.

“Spare me any more details,” he said, bitterly, “you have humiliated me sufficiently — you have spoken enough.”

He removed the book on which his hand had hitherto rested from the case behind him, and advanced with it to the table — paused for a moment, pale and silent — then slowly opened it at the first page, and resumed his chair.

I recognised the book instantly. It was a biographical history of his family, from the time of his earliest ancestors down to the date of the births of his own children. The thick quarto pages were beautifully illuminated in the manner of the ancient manuscripts; and the narrative, in written characters, had been produced under his own inspection. This book had cost him years of research and perseverance. The births and deaths, the marriages and possessions, the battle achievements and private feuds of the old Norman barons from whom he traced his descent, were all enrolled in regular order on every leaf — headed, sometimes merely by representations of the Knight’s favourite weapon; sometimes by copies of the Baron’s effigy on his tombstone in a foreign land. As the history advanced to later dates, beautiful miniature portraits were inlaid at the top of each leaf; and the illuminations were so managed as to symbolize the remarkable merits or the peculiar tastes of the subject of each biography. Thus, the page devoted to my mother was surrounded by her favourite violets, clustering thickest round the last melancholy lines of writing which told the story of her death.

Slowly and in silence, my father turned over the leaves of the book which, next to the Bible, I believe he most reverenced in the world, until he came to the last-written page but one — the page which I knew, from its position, to be occupied by my name. At the top, a miniature portrait of me, when a child, was let into the leaf. Under it, was the record of my birth and names, of the School and College at which I had been taught, and of the profession that I had adopted. Below, a large blank space was left for the entry of future particulars. On this page my father now looked, still not uttering a word, still with the same ghastly calmness on his face. The organ-notes sounded no more; but the trees rustled as pleasantly, and the roar of the distant carriages swelled as joyously as ever on the ear. Some children had come out to play in the garden of a neighbouring house. As their voices reached us, so fresh, and clear, and happy — but another modulation of the thanksgiving song to God which the trees were singing in the summer air — I saw my father, while he still looked on the page before him, clasp his trembling hands over my portrait so as to hide it from sight.

Then he spoke; but without looking up, and more as if he were speaking to himself than to me. His voice, at other times clear and gentle in its tones, was now so hard and harsh in its forced calmness and deliberation of utterance, that it sounded like a stranger’s.

“I came here, this morning,” he began, “prepared to hear of faults and misfortunes which should pain me to the heart; which I might never, perhaps, be able to forget, however willing and even predetermined to forgive. But I did not come prepared to hear, that unutterable disgrace had been cast on me and mine, by my own child. I have no words of rebuke or of condemnation for this: the reproach and the punishment have fallen already where the guilt was — and not there only. My son’s infamy defiles his brother’s birthright, and puts his father to shame. Even his sister’s name —”

He stopped, shuddering. When he proceeded, his voice faltered, and his head drooped low.

“I say it again:— you are below all reproach and all condemnation; but I have a duty to perform towards my two who are absent, and I have a last word to say to you when that duty is done. On this page —” (as he pointed to the family history, his tones strengthened again)—“on this page there is a blank space left, after the last entry, for writing the future events of your life. Here, then, if I still acknowledge you to be my son; if I think your presence and the presence of my daughter possible in the same house, must be written such a record of dishonour and degradation as has never yet defiled a single page of this book — here, the foul stain of your marriage, and its consequences, must be admitted to spread over all that is pure before it, and to taint to the last whatever comes after. This shall not be. I have no faith or hope in you more. I know you now, only as an enemy to me and to my house — it is mockery and hypocrisy to call you son; it is an insult to Clara, and even to Ralph, to think of you as my child. In this record your place is destroyed — and destroyed for ever. Would to God I could tear the past from my memory, as I tear the leaf from this book!”

As he spoke, the hour struck; and the old French clock rang out gaily the same little silvery chime which my mother had so often taken me into her room to listen to, in the bygone time. The shrill, lively peal mingled awfully with the sharp, tearing sound, as my father rent out from the book before him the whole of the leaf which contained my name; tore it into fragments, and cast them on the floor.

He rose abruptly, after he had closed the book again. His cheeks flushed once more; and when he next spoke, his voice grew louder and louder with every word he uttered. It seemed as if he still distrusted his resolution to abandon me; and sought, in his anger, the strength of purpose which, in his calmer mood, he might even yet have been unable to command.

“Now, Sir,” he said, “we treat together as strangers. You are Mr. Sherwin’s son — not mine. You are the husband of his daughter — not a relation of my family. Rise, as I do: we sit together no longer in the same room. Write!” (he pushed pen, ink, and paper before me,) “write your terms there — I shall find means to keep you to a written engagement — the terms of your absence, for life, from this country; and of hers: the terms of your silence, and of the silence of your accomplices; of all of them. Write what you please; I am ready to pay dearly for your absence, your secrecy, and your abandonment of the name you have degraded. My God! that I should live to bargain for hushing up the dishonour of my family, and to bargain for it with you.

I had listened to him hitherto without pleading a word in my own behalf; but his last speech roused me. Some of his pride stirred in my heart against the bitterness of his contempt. I raised my head, and met his eye steadily for the first time — then, thrust the writing materials away from me, and left my place at the table.

“Stop!” he cried. “Do you pretend that you have not understood me?”

“It is because I have understood you, Sir, that I go. I have deserved your anger, and have submitted without a murmur to all that it could inflict. If you see in my conduct towards you no mitigation of my offence; if you cannot view the shame and wrong inflicted on me, with such grief as may have some pity mixed with it — I have, I think, the right to ask that your contempt may be silent, and your last words to me, not words of insult.”

“Insult! After what has happened, is it for you to utter that word in the tone in which you have just spoken it? I tell you again, I insist on your written engagement as I would insist on the engagement of a stranger — I will have it, before you leave this room!”

“All, and more than all, which that degrading engagement could imply, I will do. But I have not fallen so low yet, as to be bribed to perform a duty. You may be able to forget that you are my father; I can never forget that I am your son.”

“The remembrance will avail you nothing as long as I live. I tell you again, I insist on your written engagement, though it were only to show that I have ceased to believe in your word. Write at once — do you hear me? — Write!”

I neither moved nor answered. His face changed again, and grew livid; his fingers trembled convulsively, and crumpled the sheet of paper, as he tried to take it up from the table on which it lay.

“You refuse?” he said quickly.

“I have already told you, Sir —”

“Go!” he interrupted, pointing passionately to the door, “go out from this house, never to return to it again — go, not as a stranger to me, but as an enemy! I have no faith in a single promise you have made: there is no baseness which I do not believe you will yet be guilty of. But I tell you, and the wretches with whom you are leagued, to take warning: I have wealth, power, and position; and there is no use to which I will not put them against the man or woman who threatens the fair fame of this family. Leave me, remembering that — and leave me for ever!”

Just as he uttered the last word, just as my hand was on the lock of the door, a faint sound — something between breathing and speaking — was audible in the direction of the library. He started, and looked round. Impelled, I know not how, I paused on the point of going out. My eyes followed his, and fixed on the cloth door which led into the library.

It opened a little — then shut again — then opened wide. Slowly and noiselessly, Clara came into the room.

The silence and suddenness of her entrance at such a moment; the look of terror which changed to unnatural vacancy the wonted softness and gentleness of her eyes, her pale face, her white dress, and slow, noiseless step, made her first appearance in the room seem almost supernatural; it was as if an apparition had been walking towards us, and not Clara herself! As she approached my father, he pronounced her name in astonishment; but his voice sank to a whisper, while he spoke it. For an instant, she paused, hesitating — I saw her tremble as her eyes met his — then, as they turned towards me, the brave girl came on; and, taking my hand, stood and faced my father, standing by my side.

“Clara!” he exclaimed again, still in the same whispering tones.

I felt her cold hand close fast on mine; the grasp of the chill, frail fingers was almost painful to me. Her lips moved, but her quick, hysterical breathing made the few words she uttered inarticulate.

“Clara!” repeated my father, for the third time, his voice rising, but sinking again immediately — when he spoke his next words, “Clara,” he resumed, sadly and gently, “let go his hand; this is not a time for your presence, I beg you to leave us. You must not take his hand! He has ceased to be my son, or your brother. Clara, do you not hear me?”

“Yes, Sir, I hear you,” she answered. “God grant that my mother in heaven may not hear you too!”

He was approaching while she replied; but at her last words, he stopped instantly, and turned his face away from us. Who shall say what remembrances of other days shook him to the heart?

“You have spoken, Clara, as you should not have spoken,” he went on, without looking up. “Your mother —” his voice faltered and failed him. “Can you still hold his hand after what I have said? I tell you again, he is unworthy to be in your presence; my house is his home no longer — must I command you to leave him?”

The deeply planted instinct of gentleness and obedience prevailed; she dropped my hand, but did not move away from me, even yet.

“Now leave us, Clara,” he said. “You were wrong, my love, to be in that room, and wrong to come in here. I will speak to you up-stairs — you must remain here no longer.”

She clasped her trembling fingers together, and sighed heavily.

“I cannot go, Sir,” she said quickly and breathlessly.

“Must I tell you for the first time in your life, that you are acting disobediently?” he asked.

“I cannot go,” she repeated in the same manner, “till you have said you will let him atone for his offence, and will forgive him.”

“For his offence there is neither atonement nor forgiveness. Clara! are you so changed, that you can disobey me to my face?”

He walked away from us as he said this.

“Oh, no! no!” She ran towards him; but stopped halfway, and looked back at me affrightedly, as I stood near the door. “Basil,” she cried, “you have not done what you promised me; you have not been patient. Oh, Sir, if I have ever deserved kindness from you, be kind to him for my sake! Basil! speak, Basil! Ask his pardon on your knees. Father, I promised him he should be forgiven, if I asked you. Not a word; not a word from either? Basil! you are not going yet — not going at all! Remember, Sir, how good and kind he has always been to me. My poor mother, (I must speak of her), my poor mother’s favourite son — you have told me so yourself! and he has always been my favourite brother; I think because my mother loved him so! His first fault, too! his first grief! And will you tell him for this, that our home is his home no longer? Punish me, Sir! I have done wrong like him; when I heard your voices so loud, I listened in the library. He’s going! No, no, no! not yet!”

She ran to the door as I opened it, and pushed it to again. Overwhelmed by the violence of her agitation, my father had sunk into a chair while she was speaking.

“Come back — come back with me to his knees!” she whispered, fixing her wild, tearless eyes on mine, flinging her arms round my neck, and trying to lead me with her from the door. “Come back, or you will drive me mad!” she repeated loudly, drawing me away towards my father.

He rose instantly from his chair.

“Clara,” he said, “I command you, leave him!” He advanced a few steps towards me. “Go!” he cried; “if you are human in your villany, you will release me from this!”

I whispered in her ear, “I will write, love — I will write,” and disengaged her arms from my neck — they were hanging round it weakly, already! As I passed the door, I turned back, and looked again into the room for the last time.

Clara was in my father’s arms, her head lay on his shoulder, her face was as still in its heavenly calmness as if the world and the world’s looks knew it no more, and the only light that fell on it now, was light from the angel’s eyes. She had fainted.

He was standing with one arm round her, his disengaged hand was searching impatiently over the wall behind him for the bell, and his eyes were fixed in anguish and in love unutterable on the peaceful face, hushed in its sad repose so close beneath his own. For one moment, I saw him thus, ere I closed the door — the next, I had left the house.

I never entered it again — I have never seen my father since.

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