Basil, by Wilkie Collins

iv.

We are seldom able to discover under any ordinary conditions of self-knowledge, how intimately that spiritual part of us, which is undying, can attach to itself and its operations the poorest objects of that external world around us, which is perishable. In the ravelled skein, the slightest threads are the hardest to follow. In analysing the associations and sympathies which regulate the play of our passions, the simplest and homeliest are the last that we detect. It is only when the shock comes, and the mind recoils before it — when joy is changed into sorrow, or sorrow into joy — that we really discern what trifles in the outer world our noblest mental pleasures, or our severest mental pains, have made part of themselves; atoms which the whirlpool has drawn into its vortex, as greedily and as surely as the largest mass.

It was reserved for me to know this, when — after a moment’s pause before the door of my father’s house, more homeless, then, than the poorest wretch who passed me on the pavement, and had wife or kindred to shelter him in a garret that night — my steps turned, as of old, in the direction of North Villa.

Again I passed over the scene of my daily pilgrimage, always to the same shrine, for a whole year; and now, for the first time, I knew that there was hardly a spot along the entire way, which my heart had not unconsciously made beautiful and beloved to me by some association with Margaret Sherwin. Here was the friendly, familiar shop-window, filled with the glittering trinkets which had so often lured me in to buy presents for her, on my way to the house. There was the noisy street corner, void of all adornment in itself, but once bright to me with the fairy-land architecture of a dream, because I knew that at that place I had passed over half the distance which separated my home from hers. Farther on, the Park trees came in sight — trees that no autumn decay or winter nakedness could make dreary, in the bygone time; for she and I had walked under them together. And further yet, was the turning which led from the long, suburban road into Hollyoake Square — the lonely, dust-whitened place, around which my past happiness and my wasted hopes had flung their golden illusions, like jewels hung round the coarse wooden image of a Roman saint. Dishonoured and ruined, it was among such associations as these — too homely to have been recognised by me in former times — that I journeyed along the well-remembered way to North Villa.

I went on without hesitating, without even a thought of turning back. I had said that the honour of my family should not suffer by the calamity which had fallen on me; and, while life remained, I was determined that nothing should prevent me from holding to my word. It was from this resolution that I drew the faith in myself, the confidence in my endurance, the sustaining calmness under my father’s sentence of exclusion, which nerved me to go on. I must inevitably see Mr. Sherwin (perhaps even suffer the humiliation of seeing her!)— must inevitably speak such words, disclose such truths, as should show him that deceit was henceforth useless. I must do this and more, I must be prepared to guard the family to which — though banished from it — I still belonged, from every conspiracy against them that detected crime or shameless cupidity could form, whether in the desire of revenge, or in the hope of gain.. A hard, almost an impossible task — but, nevertheless, a task that must be done!

I kept the thought of this necessity before my mind unceasingly; not only as a duty, but as a refuge from another thought, to which I dared not for a moment turn. The still, pale face which I had seen lying hushed on my father’s breast — CLARA! — That way, lay the grief that weakens, the yearning and the terror that are near despair; that way was not it for me.

The servant was at the garden-gate of North Villa — the same servant whom I had seen and questioned in the first days of my fatal delusion. She was receiving a letter from a man, very poorly dressed, who walked away the moment I approached. Her confusion and surprise were so great as she let me in, that she could hardly look at, or speak to me. It was only when I was ascending the door-steps that she said —

“Miss Margaret”—(she still gave her that name!)—“Miss Margaret is upstairs, Sir. I suppose you would like —”

“I have no wish to see her: I want to speak to Mr. Sherwin.”

Looking more bewildered, and even frightened, than before, the girl hurriedly opened one of the doors in the passage. I saw, as I entered, that she had shown me, in her confusion, into the wrong room. Mr. Sherwin, who was in the apartment, hastily drew a screen across the lower end of it, apparently to hide something from me; which, however, I had not seen as I came in.

He advanced, holding out his hand; but his restless eyes wandered unsteadily, looking away from me towards the screen.

“So you have come at last, have you? Just let’s step into the drawing-room: the fact is — I thought I wrote to you about it —?”

He stopped suddenly, and his outstretched arm fell to his side. I had not said a word. Something in my look and manner must have told him already on what errand I had come.

“Why don’t you speak?” he said, after a moment’s pause. “What are you looking at me like that for? Stop! Let’s say our say in the other room.” He walked past me towards the door, and half opened it.

Why was he so anxious to get me away? Who, or what, was he hiding behind the screen? The servant had said his daughter was upstairs; remembering this, and suspecting every action or word that came from him, I determined to remain in the room, and discover his secret. It was evidently connected with me.

“Now then,” he continued, opening the door a little wider, “it’s only across the hall, you know; and I always receive visitors in the best room.”

“I have been admitted here,” I replied, “and have neither time nor inclination to follow you from room to room, just as you like. What I have to say is not much; and, unless you give me fit reasons to the contrary, I shall say it here.”

“You will, will you? Let me tell you that’s damned like what we plain mercantile men call downright incivility. I say it again — incivility; and rudeness too, if you like it better.” He saw I was determined, and closed the door as he spoke, his face twitching and working violently, and his quick, evil eyes turned again in the direction of the screen.

“Well,” he continued, with a sulky defiance of manner and look, “do as you like; stop here — you’ll wish you hadn’t before long, I’ll be bound! You don’t seem to hurry yourself much about speaking, so I shall sit down. You can do as you please. Now then! just let’s cut it short — do you come here in a friendly way, to ask me to send for my girl downstairs, and to show yourself the gentleman, or do you not?”

“You have written me two letters, Mr. Sherwin —”

“Yes: and took devilish good care you should get them — I left them myself.”

“In writing those letters, you were either grossly deceived; and, in that case, are only to be pitied, or —”

“Pitied! what the devil do you mean by that? Nobody wants your pity here.”

“Or you have been trying to deceive me; and in that case, I have to tell you that deceit is henceforth useless. I know all — more than you suspect: more, I believe, than you would wish me to have known.”

“Oh, that’s your tack, is it? By God, I expected as much the moment you came in! What! you don’t believe my girl — don’t you? You’re going to fight shy, and behave like a scamp — are you? Damn your infernal coolness and your aristocratic airs and graces! You shall see I’ll be even with you — you shall. Ha! ha! look here! — here’s the marriage certificate safe in my pocket. You won’t do the honourable by my poor child — won’t you? Come out! Come away! You’d better — I’m off to your father to blow the whole business; I am, as sure as my name’s Sherwin!”

He struck his fist on the table, and started up, livid with passion. The screen trembled a little, and a slight rustling noise was audible behind it, just as he advanced towards me. He stopped instantly, with an oath, and looked back.

“I warn you to remain here,” I said. “This morning, my father has heard all from my lips. He has renounced me as his son, and I have left his house for ever.”

He turned round quickly, staring at me with a face of mingled fury and dismay.

“Then you come to me a beggar!” he burst out; “a beggar who has taken me in about his fine family, and his fine prospects; a beggar who can’t support my child — Yes! I say it again, a beggar who looks me in the face, and talks as you do. I don’t care a damn about you or your father! I know my rights; I’m an Englishman, thank God! I know my rights, and my Margaret’s rights; and I’ll have them in spite of you both. Yes! you may stare as angry as you like; staring don’t hurt. I’m an honest man, and my girl’s an honest girl!”

I was looking at him, at that moment, with the contempt that I really felt; his rage produced no other sensation in me. All higher and quicker emotions seemed to have been dried at their sources by the events of the morning.

“I say my girl’s an honest girl,” he repeated, sitting down again; “and I dare you, or anybody — I don’t care who — to prove the contrary. You told me you knew all, just now. What all? Come! we’ll have this out before we do anything else. She says she’s innocent, and I say she’s innocent: and if I could find out that damnation scoundrel Mannion, and get him here, I’d make him say it too. Now, after all that, what have you got against her? — against your lawful wife; and I’ll make you own her as such, and keep her as such, I can promise you!”

“I am not here to ask questions, or to answer them,” I replied —“my errand in this house is simply to tell you, that the miserable falsehoods contained in your letter, will avail you as little as the foul insolence of language by which you are now endeavouring to support them. I told you before, and I now tell you again, I know all. I had been inside that house, before I saw your daughter at the door; and had heard, from her voice and his voice, what such shame and misery as you cannot comprehend forbid me to repeat. To your past duplicity, and to your present violence, I have but one answer to give:— I will never see your daughter again.”

“But you shall see her again — yes! and keep her too! Do you think I can’t see through you and your precious story? Your father’s cut you off with a shilling; and now you want to curry favour with him again by trumping up a case against my girl, and trying to get her off your hands that way. But it won’t do! You’ve married her, my fine gentleman, and you shall stick to her! Do you think I wouldn’t sooner believe her, than believe you? Do you think I’ll stand this? Here she is up-stairs, half heart-broken, on my hands; here’s my wife”—(his voice sank suddenly as he said this)—“with her mind in such a state that I’m kept away from business, day after day, to look after her; here’s all this crying and misery and mad goings-on in my house, because you choose to behave like a scamp — and do you think I’ll put up with it quietly? I’ll make you do your duty to my girl, if she goes to the parish to appeal against you! Your story indeed! Who’ll believe that a young female, like Margaret, could have taken to a fellow like Mannion? and kept it all a secret from you? Who believes that, I should like to know?”

“I believe it!“

The third voice which pronounced those words was Mrs. Sherwin’s.

But was the figure that now came out from behind the screen, the same frail, shrinking figure which had so often moved my pity in the past time? the same wan figure of sickness and sorrow, ever watching in the background of the fatal love-scenes at North Villa; ever looking like the same spectre-shadow, when the evenings darkened in as I sat by Margaret’s side?

Had the grave given up its dead? I stood awe-struck, neither speaking nor moving while she walked towards me. She was clothed in the white garments of the sick-room — they looked on her like the raiment of the tomb. Her figure, which I only remembered as drooping with premature infirmity, was now straightened convulsively to its proper height; her arms hung close at her side, like the arms of a corpse; the natural paleness of her face had turned to an earthy hue; its natural expression, so meek, so patient, so melancholy in uncomplaining sadness, was gone; and, in its stead, was left a pining stillness that never changed; a weary repose of lifeless waking — the awful seal of Death stamped ghastly on the living face; the awful look of Death staring out from the chill, shining eyes.

Her husband kept his place, and spoke to her as she stopped opposite to me. His tones were altered, but his manner showed as little feeling as ever.

“There now!” he began, “you said you were sure he’d come here, and that you’d never take to your bed, as the Doctor wanted you, till you’d seen him and spoken to him. Well, he has come; there he is. He came in while you were asleep, I rather think; and I let him stop, so that if you woke up and wanted to see him, you might. You can’t say — nobody can say — I haven’t given in to your whims and fancies after that. There! you’ve had your way, and you’ve said you believe him; and now, if I ring for the nurse, you’ll go upstairs at last, and make no more worry about it — Eh?”

She moved her head slowly, and looked at him. As those dying eyes met his, as that face on which the light of life was darkening fast, turned on him, even his gross nature felt the shock. I saw him shrink — his sallow cheeks whitened, he moved his chair away, and said no more.

She looked back to me again, and spoke. Her voice was still the same soft, low voice as ever. It was fearful to hear how little it had altered, and then to look on the changed face.

“I am dying,” she said to me. “Many nights have passed since that night when Margaret came home by herself and I felt something moving down into my heart, when I looked at her, which I knew was death — many nights, since I have been used to say my prayers, and think I had said them for the last time, before I dared shut my eyes in the darkness and the quiet. I have lived on till to-day, very weary of my life ever since that night when Margaret came in; and yet, I could not die, because I had an atonement to make to you, and you never came to hear it and forgive me. I was not fit for God to take me till you came — I know that, know it to be truth from a dream.”

She paused, still looking at me, but with the same deathly blank of expression. The eye had ceased to speak already; nothing but the voice was left.

“My husband has asked, who will believe you?” she went on; her weak tones gathering strength with every fresh word she uttered. “I have answered that I will; for you have spoken the truth. Now, when the light of this world is fading from my eyes; here, in this earthly home of much sorrow and suffering, which I must soon quit — in the presence of my husband — under the same roof with my sinful child — I bear you witness that you have spoken the truth. I, her mother, say it of her: Margaret Sherwin is guilty; she is no more worthy to be called your wife.”

She pronounced the last words slowly, distinctly, solemnly. Till that fearful denunciation was spoken, her husband had been looking sullenly and suspiciously towards us, as we stood together; but while she uttered it, his eyes fell, and he turned away his head in silence.

He never looked up, never moved, or interrupted her, as she continued, still addressing me; but now speaking very slowly and painfully, pausing longer and longer between every sentence.

“From this room I go to my death-bed. The last words I speak in this world shall be to my husband, and shall change his heart towards you. I have been weak of purpose,” (as she said this, a strange sweetness and mournfulness began to steal over her tones,) “miserably, guiltily weak, all my life. Much sorrow and pain and heavy disappointment, when I was young, did some great harm to me which I have never recovered since. I have lived always in fear of others, and doubt of myself; and this has made me guilty of a great sin towards you. Forgive me before I die! I suspected the guilt that was preparing — I foreboded the shame that was to come — they hid it from others’ eyes; but, from the first, they could not hide it from mine — and yet I never warned you as I ought! That man had the power of Satan over me! I always shuddered before him, as I used to shudder at the darkness when I was a little child! My life has been all fear — fear of him; fear of my husband, and even of my daughter; fear, worse still, of my own thoughts, and of what I had discovered that should be told to you. When I tried to speak, you were too generous to understand me — I was afraid to think my suspicions were right, long after they should have been suspicions no longer. It was misery! — oh, what misery from then till now!”

Her voice died away for a moment, in faint, breathless murmurings. She struggled to recover it, and repeated in a whisper:

“Forgive me before I die! I have made a terrible atonement; I have borne witness against the innocence of my own child. My own child! I dare not bid God bless her, if they bring her to my bedside! — forgive me! — forgive me before I die!”

She took my hand, and pressed it to her cold lips. The tears gushed into my eyes, as I tried to speak to her.

“No tears for me!” she murmured gently. “Basil! — let me call you as your mother would call you if she was alive — Basil! pray that I may be forgiven in the dreadful Eternity to which I go, as you have forgiven me! And, for her?— oh! who will pray for her when I am gone?”

Those words were the last I heard her pronounce. Exhausted beyond the power of speaking more, though it were only in a whisper, she tried to take my hand again, and express by a gesture the irrevocable farewell. But her strength failed her even for this — failed her with awful suddenness. Her hand moved halfway towards mine; then stopped, and trembled for a moment in the air; then fell to her side, with the fingers distorted and clenched together. She reeled where she stood, and sank helplessly as I stretched out my arms to support her.

Her husband rose fretfully from his chair, and took her from me. When his eyes met mine, the look of sullen self-restraint in his countenance was crossed, in an instant, by an expression of triumphant malignity. He whispered to me: “If you don’t change your tone by to-morrow!”— paused — and then, without finishing the sentence, moved away abruptly, and supported his wife to the door.

Just when her face was turned towards where I stood, as he took her out, I thought I saw the cold, vacant eyes soften as they rested on me, and change again tenderly to the old look of patience and sadness which I remembered so well. Was my imagination misleading me? or had the light of that meek spirit shone out on earth, for the last time at parting, in token of farewell to mine? She was gone to me, gone for ever — before I could look nearer, and know.

I was told, afterwards, how she died.

For the rest of that day, and throughout the night, she lay speechless, but still alive. The next morning, the faint pulse still fluttered. As the day wore on, the doctors applied fresh stimulants, and watched her in astonishment; for they had predicted her death as impending every moment, at least twelve hours before. When they spoke of this to her husband, his behaviour was noticed as very altered and unaccountable by every one. He sulkily refused to believe that her life was in danger; he roughly accused anybody who spoke of her death, as wanting to fix on him the imputation of having ill-used her, and so being the cause of her illness; and more than this, he angrily vindicated himself to every one about her — even to the servants — by quoting the indulgence he had shown to her fancy for seeing me when I called, and his patience while she was (as he termed it) wandering in her mind in trying to talk to me. The doctors, suspecting how his uneasy conscience was accusing him, forbore in disgust all expostulation. Except when he was in his daughter’s room, he was shunned by everybody in the house.

Just before noon, on the second day, Mrs. Sherwin rallied a little under the stimulants administered to her, and asked to see her husband alone. Both her words and manner gave the lie to his assertion that her faculties were impaired — it was observed by all her attendants, that whenever she had strength to speak, her speech never wandered in the slightest degree. Her husband quitted her room more fretfully uneasy, more sullenly suspicious of the words and looks of those about him than ever — went instantly to seek his daughter — and sent her in alone to her mother’s bedside. In a few minutes, she hurriedly came out again, pale, and violently agitated; and was heard to say, that she had been spoken to so unnaturally, and so shockingly, that she could not, and would not, enter that room again until her mother was better. Better! the father and daughter were both agreed in that; both agreed that she was not dying, but only out of her mind.

During the afternoon, the doctors ordered that Mrs. Sherwin should not be allowed to see her husband or her child again, without their permission. There was little need of taking such a precaution to preserve the tranquillity of her last moments. As the day began to decline, she sank again into insensibility: her life was just not death, and that was all. She lingered on in this quiet way, with her eyes peacefully closed, and her breathing so gentle as to be quite inaudible, until late in the evening. Just as it grew quite dark, and the candle was lit in the sick room, the servant who was helping to watch by her, drew aside the curtain to look at her mistress; and saw that, though her eyes were still closed, she was smiling. The girl turned round, and beckoned to the nurse to come to the bedside. When they lifted the curtains again to look at her, she was dead.

Let me return to the day of my last visit to North Villa. More remains to be recorded, before my narrative can advance to the morrow.

After the door had closed, and I knew that I had looked my last on Mrs. Sherwin in this world, I remained a few minutes alone in the room, until I had steadied my mind sufficiently to go out again into the streets. As I walked down the garden-path to the gate, the servant whom I had seen on my entrance, ran after me, and eagerly entreated that I would wait one moment and speak to her.

When I stopped and looked at the girl, she burst into tears. “I’m afraid I’ve been doing wrong, Sir,” she sobbed out, “and at this dreadful time too, when my poor mistress is dying! If you please, Sir, I must tell you about it!”

I gave her a little time to compose herself; and then asked what she had to say.

“I think you must have seen a man leaving a letter with me, Sir,” she continued, “just when you came up to the door, a little while ago?”

“Yes: I saw him.”

“It was for Miss Margaret, Sir, that letter; and I was to keep it secret; and — and — it isn’t the first I’ve taken in for her. It’s weeks and weeks ago, Sir, that the same man came with a letter, and gave me money to let nobody see it but Miss Margaret — and that time, Sir, he waited; and she sent me with an answer to give him, in the same secret way. And now, here’s this second letter; I don’t know who it comes from — but I haven’t taken it to her yet; I waited to show it to you, Sir, as you came out, because —”

“Why, Susan? — tell me candidly why?”

“I hope you won’t take it amiss, Sir, if I say that having lived in the family so long as I have, I can’t help knowing a little about what you and Miss Margaret used to be to each other, and that something’s happened wrong between you lately; and so, Sir, it seems to be very bad and dishonest in me (after first helping you to come together, as I did), to be giving her strange letters, unknown to you. They may be bad letters. I’m sure I wouldn’t wish to say anything disrespectful, or that didn’t become my place; but —”

“Go on, Susan — speak as freely and as truly to me as ever.”

“Well, Sir, Miss Margaret’s been very much altered, ever since that night when she came home alone, and frightened us so. She shuts herself up in her room, and won’t speak to anybody except my master; she doesn’t seem to care about anything that happens; and sometimes she looks so at me, when I’m waiting on her, that I’m almost afraid to be in the same room with her. I’ve never heard her mention your name once, Sir; and I’m fearful there’s something on her mind that there oughtn’t to be. He’s a very shabby man that leaves the letters — would you please to look at this, and say whether you think it’s right in me to take it up-stairs.”

She held out a letter. I hesitated before I looked at it.

“Oh, Sir! please, please do take it!” said the girl earnestly. “I did wrong, I’m afraid, in giving her the first; but I can’t do wrong again, when my poor mistress is dying in the house. I can’t keep secrets, Sir, that may be bad secrets, at such a dreadful time as this; I couldn’t have laid down in my bed to-night, when there’s likely to be death in the house, if I hadn’t confessed what I’ve done; and my poor mistress has always been so kind and good to us servants — better than ever we deserved.”

Weeping bitterly as she said this, the kind-hearted girl held out the letter to me once more. This time I took it from her, and looked at the address.

Though I did not know the handwriting, still there was something in those unsteady characters which seemed familiar to me. Was it possible that I had ever seen them before? I tried to consider; but my memory was confused, my mind wearied out, after all that had happened since the morning. The effort was fruitless: I gave back the letter.

“I know as little about it, Susan, as you do.”

“But ought I to take it up-stairs, Sir? only tell me that!”

“It is not for me to say. All interest or share on my part, Susan, in what she — in what your young mistress receives, is at an end.”

“I’m very sorry to hear you say that, Sir; very, very sorry. But what would you advise me to do?”

“Let me look at the letter once more.”

On a second view, the handwriting produced the same effect on me as before, ending too with just the same result. I returned the letter again.

“I respect your scruples, Susan, but I am not the person to remove or to justify them. Why should you not apply in this difficulty to your master?”

“I dare not, Sir; I dare not for my life. He’s been worse than ever, lately; if I said as much to him as I’ve said to you, I believe he’d kill me!” She hesitated, then continued more composedly; “Well, at any rate I’ve told you, Sir, and that’s made my mind easier; and — and I’ll give her the letter this once, and then take in no more — if they come, unless I hear a proper account of them.”

She curtseyed; and, bidding me farewell very sadly and anxiously, returned to the house with the letter in her hand. If I had guessed at that moment who it was written by! If I could only have suspected what were its contents!

I left Hollyoake Square in a direction which led to some fields a little distance on. It was very strange; but that unknown handwriting still occupied my thoughts: that wretched trifle absolutely took possession of my mind, at such a time as this; in such a position as mine was now.

I stopped wearily in the fields at a lonely spot, away from the footpath. My eyes ached at the sunlight, and I shaded them with my hand. Exactly at the same instant, the lost recollection flashed back on me so vividly that I started almost in terror. The handwriting shown me by the servant at North Villa, was the same as the handwriting on that unopened and forgotten letter in my pocket, which I had received from the servant at home — received in the morning, as I crossed the hall to enter my father’s room.

I took out the letter, opened it with trembling fingers, and looked through the cramped, closely-written pages for the signature.

It was “ROBERT MANNION.”

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