Basil, by Wilkie Collins

vi.

It was still early in the morning, when a loud knock sounded at the house-door, and I heard the landlady calling to the servant: “A gentleman to see the gentleman who came in last night.” The moment the words reached me, my thoughts recurred to the letter of yesterday — Had Mannion found me out in my retreat? As the suspicion crossed my mind, the door opened, and the visitor entered.

I looked at him in speechless astonishment. It was my elder brother! It was Ralph himself who now walked into the room!

“Well, Basil! how are you?” he said, with his old off-hand manner and hearty voice.

“Ralph! You in England! — you here!”

“I came back from Italy last night. Basil, how awfully you’re changed! I hardly know you again.”

His manner altered as he spoke the last words. The look of sorrow and alarm which he fixed on me, went to my heart. I thought of holiday-time, when we were boys; of Ralph’s boisterous ways with me; of his good-humoured school-frolics, at my expense; of the strong bond of union between us, so strangely compounded of my weakness and his strength; of my passive and of his active nature; I saw how little he had changed since that time, and knew, as I never knew before, how miserably I was altered. All the shame and grief of my banishment from home came back on me, at sight of his friendly, familiar face. I struggled hard to keep my self-possession, and tried to bid him welcome cheerfully; but the effort was too much for me. I turned away my head, as I took his hand; for the old school-boy feeling of not letting Ralph see that I was in tears, influenced me still.

“Basil! Basil! what are you about? This won’t do. Look up, and listen to me. I have promised Clara to pull you through this wretched mess; and I’ll do it. Get a chair, and give me a light. I’m going to sit on your bed, smoke a cigar, and have a long talk with you.”

While he was lighting his cigar, I looked more closely at him than before. Though he was the same as ever in manner; though his expression still preserved its reckless levity of former days, I now detected that he had changed a little in some other respects. His features had become coarser — dissipation had begun to mark them. His spare, active, muscular figure had filled out; he was dressed rather carelessly; and of all his trinkets and chains of early times, not one appeared about him now. Ralph looked prematurely middle-aged, since I had seen him last.

“Well,” he began, “first of all, about my coming back. The fact is, the morganatic Mrs. Ralph —” (he referred to his last mistress) “wanted to see England, and I was tired of being abroad. So I brought her back with me; and we’re going to live quietly, somewhere in the Brompton neighbourhood. That woman has been my salvation — you must come and see her. She has broke me of gaming altogether; I was going to the devil as fast as I could, when she stopped me — but you know all about it, of course. Well: we got to London yesterday afternoon; and in the evening I left her at the hotel, and went to report myself at home. There, the first thing I heard, was that you had cut me out of my old original distinction of being the family scamp. Don’t look distressed, Basil; I’m not laughing at you; I’ve come to do something better than that. Never mind my talk: nothing in the world ever was serious to me, and nothing ever will be.”

He stopped to knock the ash off his cigar, and settle himself more comfortably on my bed; then proceeded.

“It has been my ill-luck to see my father pretty seriously offended on more than one occasion; but I never saw him so very quiet and so very dangerous as last night when he was telling me about you. I remember well enough how he spoke and looked, when he caught me putting away my trout-flies in the pages of that family history of his; but it was nothing to see him or hear him then, to what it is now. I can tell you this, Basil — if I believed in what the poetical people call a broken heart (which I don’t), I should be almost afraid that he was broken-hearted. I saw it was no use to say a word for you just yet, so I sat quiet and listened to him till I got my dismissal for the evening. My next proceeding was to go up-stairs, and see Clara. Upstairs, I give you my word of honour, it was worse still. Clara was walking about the room with your letter in her hand — just reach me the matches: my cigar’s out. Some men can talk and smoke in equal proportions — I never could.

“You know as well as I do,” he continued when he had relit his cigar, “that Clara is not usually demonstrative. I always thought her rather a cold temperament — but the moment I put my head in at the door, I found I’d been just as great a fool on that point as on most others. Basil, the scream Clara gave when she first saw me, and the look in her eyes when she talked about you, positively frightened me. I can’t describe anything; and I hate descriptions by other men (most likely on that very account): so I won’t describe what she said and did. I’ll only tell you that it ended in my promising to come here the first thing this morning; promising to get you out of the scrape; promising, in short, everything she asked me. So here I am, ready for your business before my own. The fair partner of my existence is at the hotel, half-frantic because I won’t go lodging-hunting with her; but Clara is paramount, Clara is the first thought. Somebody must be a good boy at home; and now you have resigned, I’m going to try and succeed you, by way of a change!”

“Ralph! Ralph! can you mention Clara’s name, and that woman’s name, in the same breath? Did you leave Clara quieter and better! For God’s sake be serious about that, though serious about nothing else!”

“Gently, Basil! Doucement mon ami! I did leave her quieter: my promise made her look almost like herself again. As for what you say about mentioning Clara and Mrs. Ralph in the same breath, I’ve been talking and smoking till I have no second breaths left to devote to second-rate virtue. There is an unanswerable reason for you, if you want one! And now let us get to the business that brings me here. I don’t want to worry you by raking up this miserable mess again, from beginning to end, in your presence; but I must make sure at the same time that I have got hold of the right story, or I can’t be of any use to you. My father was a little obscure on certain points. He talked enough, and more than enough, about consequences to the family, about his own affliction, about his giving you up for ever; and, in short, about everything but the case itself as it really stands against us. Now that is just what I ought to be put up to, and must be put up to. Let me tell you in three words what I was told last night.”

“Go on, Ralph: speak as you please.”

“Very good. First of all, I understand that you took a fancy to some shopkeeper’s daughter — so far, mind, I don’t blame you: I’ve spent time very pleasantly among the ladies of the counter myself. But in the second place, I’m told that you actually married the girl! I don’t wish to be hard upon you, my good fellow, but there was an unparalleled insanity about that act, worthier of a patient in Bedlam than of my brother. I am not quite sure whether I understand exactly what virtuous behaviour is; but if that was virtuous behaviour — there! there! don’t look shocked. Let’s have done with the marriage, and get on. Well, you made the girl your wife; and then innocently consented to a very queer condition of waiting a year for her (virtuous behaviour again, I suppose!) At the end of that time — don’t turn away your head, Basil! I may be a scamp; but I am not blackguard enough to make a joke — either in your presence, or out of it — of this part of the story. I will pass it over altogether, if you like; and only ask you a question or two. You see, my father either could not or would not speak plainly of the worst part of the business; and you know him well enough to know why. But somebody must be a little explicit, or I can do nothing. About that man? You found the scoundrel out? Did you get within arm’s length of him?”

I told my brother of the struggle with Mannion in the Square.

He heard me almost with his former schoolboy delight, when I had succeeded, to his satisfaction, in a feat of strength or activity. He jumped off the bed, and seized both my hands in his strong grasp; his face radiant, his eyes sparkling. “Shake hands, Basil! Shake hands, as we haven’t shaken hands yet: this makes amends for everything! One word more, though, about that fellow; where is he now?”

“In the hospital.”

Ralph laughed heartily, and jumped back on the bed. I remembered Mannion’s letter, and shuddered as I thought of it.

“The next question is about the girl,” said my brother. “What has become of her? Where was she all the time of your illness?”

“At her father’s house; she is there still.”

“Ah, yes! I see; the old story; innocent, of course. And her father backs her, doesn’t he? To be sure, that’s the old story too. I have got at our difficulty now; we are threatened with an exposure, if you don’t acknowledge her. Wait a minute! Have you any evidence against her, besides your own?”

“I have a letter, a long letter from her accomplice, containing a confession of his guilt and hers.”

“She is sure to call that confession a conspiracy. It’s of no use to us, unless we dared to go to law — and we daren’t. We must hush the thing up at any price; or it will be the death of my father. This is a case for money, just as I thought it would be. Mr. and Miss Shopkeeper have got a large assortment of silence to sell; and we must buy it of them, over the domestic counter, at so much a yard. Have you been there yet, Basil, to ask the price and strike the bargain?”

“I was at the house, yesterday.”

“The deuce you were! And who did you see? — The father? Did you bring him to terms? did you do business with Mr. Shopkeeper?”

“His manner was brutal: his language, the language of a bully —?”

“So much the better. Those men are easiest dealt with: if he will only fly into a passion with me, I engage for success beforehand. But the end — how did it end?”

“As it began:— in threats on his part, in endurance on mine.”

“Ah! we’ll see how he likes my endurance next: he’ll find it rather a different sort of endurance from yours. By-the-bye, Basil, what money had you to offer him?”

“I made no offer to him then. Circumstances happened which rendered me incapable of thinking of it. I intended to go there again, to-day; and if money would bribe him to silence, and save my family from sharing the dishonour which has fallen on me, to abandon to him the only money I have of my own — the little income left me by our mother.”

“Do you mean to say that your only resource is in that wretched trifle, and that you ever really intend to let it go, and start in the world without a rap? Do you mean to say that my father gave you up without making the smallest provision for you, in such a mess as your’s? Hang it! do him justice. He has been hard enough on you, I know; but he can’t have coolly turned you over to ruin in that way.”

“He offered me money, at parting; but with such words of contempt and insult that I would have died rather than take it. I told him that, unaided by his purse, I would preserve him, and preserve his family from the infamous consequences of my calamity — though I sacrificed my own happiness and my own honour for ever in doing it. And I go to-day to make that sacrifice. The loss of the little I have to depend on, is the least part of it. He may not see his injustice in doubting me, till too late; but he shall see it.”

“I beg your pardon, Basil; but this is almost as great an insanity, as the insanity of your marriage. I honour the independence of your principle, my dear fellow; but, while I am to the fore, I’ll take good care that you don’t ruin yourself gratuitously, for the sake of any principles whatever! Just listen to me, now. In the first place, remember that what my father said to you, he said in a moment of violent exasperation. You had been trampling the pride of his life in the mud: no man likes that — my father least of any. And, as for the offer of your poor little morsel of an income to stop these people’s greedy mouths, it isn’t a quarter enough for them. They know our family is a wealthy family; and they will make their demand accordingly. Any other sacrifice, even to taking the girl back (though you never could bring yourself to do that!), would be of no earthly use. Nothing but money will do; money cunningly doled out, under the strongest possible stipulations. Now, I’m just the man to do that, and I have got the money — or, rather, my father has, which comes to the same thing. Write me the fellow’s name and address; there’s no time to be lost — I’m off to see him at once!”

“I can’t allow you, Ralph, to ask my father for what I would not ask him myself —”

“Give me the name and address, or you will sour my excellent temper for the rest of my life. Your obstinacy won’t do with me, Basil — it didn’t at school, and it won’t now. I shall ask my father for money for myself; and use as much of it as I think proper for your interests. He’ll give me anything I want, now I have turned good boy. I don’t owe fifty pounds, since my last debts were paid off — thanks to Mrs. Ralph, who is the most managing woman in the world. By-the-bye, when you see her, don’t seem surprised at her being older than I am. Oh! this is the address, is it? Hollyoake Square? Where the devil’s that! Never mind, I’ll take a cab, and shift the responsibility of finding the place on the driver. Keep up your spirits, and wait here till I come back. You shall have such news of Mr. Shopkeeper and his daughter as you little expect! Au revoir, my dear fellow —au revoir.

He left the room as rapidly as he had entered it. The minute afterwards, I remembered that I ought to have warned him of the fatal illness of Mrs. Sherwin. She might be dying — dead for aught I knew — when he reached the house. I ran to the window, to call him back: it was too late. Ralph was gone.

Even if he were admitted at North Villa, would he succeed? I was little capable of estimating the chances. The unexpectedness of his visit; the strange mixture of sympathy and levity in his manner, of worldly wisdom and boyish folly in his conversation, appeared to be still confusing me in his absence, just as they had confused me in his presence. My thoughts imperceptibly wandered away from Ralph, and the mission he had undertaken on my behalf, to a subject which seemed destined, for the future, to steal on my attention, irresistibly and darkly, in all my lonely hours. Already, the fatality denounced against me in Mannion’s letter had begun to act: already, that terrible confession of past misery and crime, that monstrous declaration of enmity which was to last with the lasting of life, began to exercise its numbing influence on my faculties, to cast its blighting shadow over my heart.

I opened the letter again, and re-read the threats against me at its conclusion. One by one, the questions now arose in my mind: how can I resist, or how escape the vengeance of this evil spirit? how shun the dread deformity of that face, which is to appear before me in secret? how silence that fiend’s tongue, or make harmless the poison which it will pour drop by drop into my life? When should I first look for that avenging presence? — now, or not till months hence? Where should I first see it? in the house? — or in the street? At what time would it steal to my side? by night — or by day? Should I show the letter to Ralph? — it would be useless. What would avail any advice or assistance which his reckless courage could give, against an enemy who combined the ferocious vigilance of a savage with the far-sighted iniquity of a civilised man?

As this last thought crossed my mind, I hastily closed the letter; determining (alas! how vainly!) never to open it again. Almost at the same instant, I heard another knock at the house-door. Could Ralph have returned already? impossible! Besides, the knock was very different from his — it was only just loud enough to be audible where I now sat.

Mannion? But would he come thus? openly, fairly, in the broad daylight, through the populous street?

A light, quick step ascended the stairs — my heart bounded; I started to my feet. It was the same step which I used to listen for, and love to hear, in my illness. I ran to the door, and opened it. My instinct had not deceived me! it was my sister!

“Basil!” she exclaimed, before I could speak —“has Ralph been here?”

“Yes, love — yes.”

“Where has he gone? what has he done for you? He promised me —”

“And he has kept his promise nobly, Clara: he is away helping me now.”

“Thank God! thank God!”

She sank breathless into a chair, as she spoke. Oh, the pang of looking at her at that moment, and seeing how she was changed! — seeing the dimness and weariness of the gentle eyes; the fear and the sorrow that had already overshadowed the bright young face!

“I shall be better directly,” she said, guessing from my expression what I then felt —“but, seeing you in this strange place, after what happened yesterday; and having come here so secretly, in terror of my father finding it out — I can’t help feeling your altered position and mine a little painfully at first. But we won’t complain, as long as I can get here sometimes to see you: we will only think of the future now. What a mercy, what a happiness it is that Ralph has come back! We have always done him injustice; he is far kinder and far better than we ever thought him. But, Basil, how worn and ill you are looking! Have you not told Ralph everything? Are you in any danger?”

“None, Clara — none, indeed!”

“Don’t grieve too deeply about yesterday! Try and forget that horrible parting, and all that brought it about. He has not spoken of it since, except to tell me that I must never know more of your fault and your misfortune, than the little — the very little — I know already. And I have resolved not to think about it, as well as not to ask about it, for the future. I have a hope already, Basil — very, very far off fulfilment — but still a hope. Can you not think what it is?”

“Your hope is far off fulfilment, indeed, Clara, if it is hope from my father!”

“Hush! don’t say so; I know better. Something occurred, even so soon as last night — a very trifling event — but enough to show that he thinks of you, already, in grief far more than in anger.”

“I wish I could believe it, love; but my remembrance of yesterday —”

“Don’t trust that remembrance; don’t recall it! I will tell you what occurred. Some time after you had gone, and after I had recovered myself a little in my own room, I went downstairs again to see my father; for I was too terrified and too miserable at what had happened, to be alone. He was not in his room when I got there. As I looked round me for a moment, I saw the pieces of your page in the book about our family, scattered on the floor; and the miniature likeness of you, when you were a child, was lying among the other fragments. It had been torn out of its setting in the paper, but not injured. I picked it up, Basil, and put it on the table, at the place where he always sits; and laid my own little locket, with your hair in it, by the side, so that he might know that the miniature had not been accidentally taken up and put there by the servant. Then, I gathered together the pieces of the page and took them away with me, thinking it better that he should not see them again. Just as I had got through the door that leads into the library, and was about to close it, I heard the other door, by which you enter the study from the hall, opening; and he came in, and went directly to the table. His back was towards me, so I could look at him unperceived. He observed the miniature directly and stood quite still with it in his hand; then sighed — sighed so bitterly! — and then took the portrait of our dear mother from one of the drawers of the table, opened the case in which it is kept, and put your miniature inside, very gently and tenderly. I could not trust myself to see any more, so I went up to my room again: and shortly afterwards he came in with my locket, and gave it me back, only saying —‘You left this on my table, Clara.’ But if you had seen his face then, you would have hoped all things from him in the time to come, as I hope now.”

“And as I will hope, Clara, though it be from no stronger motive than gratitude to you.”

“Before I left home,” she proceeded, after a moment’s silence, “I thought of your loneliness in this strange place — knowing that I could seldom come to see you, and then only by stealth; by committing a fault which, if my father found it out — but we won’t speak of that! I thought of your lonely hours here; and I have brought with me an old, forgotten companion of yours, to bear you company, and to keep you from thinking too constantly on what you have suffered. Look, Basil! won’t you welcome this old friend again?”

She gave me a small roll of manuscript, with an effort to resume her kind smile of former days, even while the tears stood thick in her eyes. I untied the leaves, glanced at the handwriting, and saw before me, once more, the first few chapters of my unfinished romance! Again I looked on the patiently-laboured pages, familiar relics of that earliest and best ambition which I had abandoned for love; too faithful records of the tranquil, ennobling pleasures which I had lost for ever! Oh, for one Thought–Flower now, from the dream-garden of the happy Past!

“I took more care of those leaves of writing, after you had thrown them aside, than of anything else I had,” said Clara. “I always thought the time would come, when you would return again to the occupation which it was once your greatest pleasure to pursue, and my greatest pleasure to watch. And surely that time has arrived. I am certain, Basil, your book will help you to wait patiently for happier times, as nothing else can. This place must seem very strange and lonely; but the sight of those pages, and the sight of me sometimes (when I can come), may make it look almost like home to you! The room is not — not very —”

She stopped suddenly. I saw her lip tremble, and her eyes grow dim again, as she looked round her. When I tried to speak all the gratitude I felt, she turned away quickly, and began to busy herself in re-arranging the wretched furniture; in setting in order the glaring ornaments on the chimney-piece; in hiding the holes in the ragged window-curtains; in changing, as far as she could, all the tawdry discomfort of my one miserable little room. She was still absorbed in this occupation, when the church-clocks of the neighbourhood struck the hour — the hour that warned her to stay no longer.

“I must go,” she said; “it is later than I thought. Don’t be afraid about my getting home: old Martha came here with me, and is waiting downstairs to go back (you know we can trust her). Write to me as often as you can; I shall hear about you every day, from Ralph; but I should like a letter sometimes, as well. Be as hopeful and as patient yourself, dear, under misfortune, as you wish me to be; and I shall despair of nothing. Don’t tell Ralph I have been here — he might be angry. I will come again, the first opportunity. Good-bye, Basil! Let us try and part happily, in the hope of better days. Good-bye, dear — good-bye, only for the present!”

Her self-possession nearly failed her, as she kissed me, and then turned to the door. She just signed to me not to follow her down-stairs, and, without looking round again, hurried from the room.

It was well for the preservation of our secret, that she had so resolutely refrained from delaying her departure. She had been gone but for a few minutes — the lovely and consoling influence of her presence was still fresh in my heart — I was still looking sadly over the once precious pages of manuscript which she had restored to me — when Ralph returned from North Villa. I heard him leaping, rather than running, up the ricketty wooden stairs. He burst into my room more impetuously than ever.

“All right!” he said, jumping back to his former place on the bed. “We can buy Mr. Shopkeeper for anything we like — for nothing at all, if we choose to be stingy. His innocent daughter has made the best of all confessions, just at the right time. Basil, my boy, she has left her father’s house!”

“What do you mean?”

“She has eloped to the hospital!”

“Mannion!”

“Yes, Mannion: I have got his letter to her. She is criminated by it, even past her father’s contradiction — and he doesn’t stick at a trifle! But I’ll begin at the beginning, and tell you everything. Hang it, Basil, you look as if I’d brought you bad news instead of good!”

“Never mind how I look, Ralph — pray go on!”

“Well: the first thing I heard, on getting to the house, was that Sherwin’s wife was dying. The servant took in my name: but I thought of course I shouldn’t be admitted. No such thing! I was let in at once, and the first words this fellow, Sherwin, said to me, were, that his wife was only ill, that the servants were exaggerating, and that he was quite ready to hear what Mr. Basil’s ‘highly-respected’ brother (fancy calling me ‘highly-respected!’) had to say to him. The fool, however, as you see, was cunning enough to try civility to begin with. A more ill-looking human mongrel I never set eyes on! I took the measure of my man directly, and in two minutes told him exactly what I came for, without softening a single word.”

“And how did he answer you?”

“As I anticipated, by beginning to bluster immediately. I took him down, just as he swore his second oath. ‘Sir,’ I said very politely, ‘if you mean to make a cursing and a swearing conference of this, I think it only fair to inform you before-hand that you are likely to get the worst of it. When the whole collection of British oaths is exhausted, I can swear fluently in five foreign languages: I have always made it a principle to pay back abuse at compound interest, and I don’t exaggerate in saying, that I am quite capable of swearing you out of your senses, if you persist in setting me the example. And now, if you like to go on, pray do — I’m ready to hear you.’ While I was speaking, he stared at me in a state of helpless astonishment; when I had done, he began to bluster again — but it was a pompous, dignified, parliamentary sort of bluster, now, ending in his pulling your unlucky marriage-certificate out of his pocket, asserting for the fiftieth time, that the girl was innocent, and declaring that he’d make you acknowledge her, if he went before a magistrate to do it. That’s what he said when you saw him, I suppose?”

“Yes: almost word for word.”

“I had my answer ready for him, before he could put the certificate back in his pocket. ‘Now, Mr. Sherwin,’ I said, ‘have the goodness to listen to me. My father has certain family prejudices and nervous delicacies, which I do not inherit from him, and which I mean to take good care to prevent you from working on. At the same time, I beg you to understand that I have come here without his knowledge. I am not my father’s ambassador, but my brother’s — who is unfit to deal with you, himself; because he is not half hard-hearted, or half worldly enough. As my brother’s envoy, therefore, and out of consideration for my father’s peculiar feelings, I now offer you, from my own resources, a certain annual sum of money, far more than sufficient for all your daughter’s expenses — a sum payable quarterly, on condition that neither you nor she shall molest us; that you shall never make use of our name anywhere; and that the fact of my brother’s marriage (hitherto preserved a secret) shall for the future be consigned to oblivion. We keep our opinion of your daughter’s guilt —you keep your opinion of her innocence. We have silence to buy, and you have silence to sell, once a quarter; and if either of us break our conditions, we both have our remedy —your’s the easy remedy, our’s the difficult. This arrangement — a very unfair and dangerous for us; a very advantageous and safe one for you — I understand that you finally refuse?’ ‘Sir,’ says he, solemnly, ‘I should be unworthy the name of a father —’ ‘Thank you’— I remarked, feeling that he was falling back on paternal sentiment —‘thank you; I quite understand. We will get on, if you please, to the reverse side of the question.’”

“The reverse side! What reverse side, Ralph? What could you possibly say more?”

“You shall hear. ‘Being, on your part, thoroughly determined,’ I said, ‘to permit no compromise, and to make my brother (his family of course included) acknowledge a woman, of whose guilt they entertain not the slightest doubt, you think you can gain your object by threatening an exposure. Don’t threaten any more! Make your exposure! Go to the magistrate at once, if you like! Gibbet our names in the newspaper report, as a family connected by marriage with Mr. Sherwin the linen-draper’s daughter, whom they believe to have disgraced herself as a woman and a wife for ever. Do your very worst; make public every shameful particular that you can — what advantage will you get by it? Revenge, I grant you. But will revenge put a halfpenny into your pocket? Will revenge pay a farthing towards your daughter’s keep? Will revenge make us receive her? Not a bit of it! We shall be driven into a corner; we shall have no exposure to dread after you have exposed us; we shall have no remedy left, but a desperate remedy, and we’ll go to law — boldly, openly go to law, and get a divorce. We have written evidence, which you know nothing about, and can call testimony which you cannot gag. I am no lawyer, but I’ll bet you five hundred to one (quite in a friendly way, my dear Sir!) that we get our case. What follows? We send you back your daughter, without a shred of character left to cover her; and we comfortably wash our hands of you altogether.’”

“Ralph! Ralph! how could you —”

“Stop! hear the end of it. Of course I knew that we couldn’t carry out this divorce-threat, without its being the death of my father; but I thought a little quiet bullying on my part might do Mr. Shopkeeper Sherwin some good. And I was right. You never saw a man sit sorer on the sharp edges of a dilemma than he did. I stuck to my point in spite of everything; silence and money, or exposure and divorce — just which he pleased. ‘I deny every one of your infamous imputations,’ said he. ‘That’s not the question,’ said I. ‘I’ll go to your father,’ said he. ‘You won’t be let in,’ said I. ‘I’ll write to him,’ said he. ‘He won’t receive your letter,’ said I. There we came to a pull-up. He began to stammer, and I refreshed myself with a pinch of snuff. Finding it wouldn’t do, he threw off the Roman at last, and resumed the Tradesman. ‘Even supposing I consented to this abominable compromise, what is to become of my daughter?’ he asked. ‘Just what becomes of other people who have comfortable annuities to live on,’ I answered. ‘Affection for my deeply-wronged child half inclines me to consult her wishes, before we settle anything — I’ll go up-stairs,’ said he. ‘And I’ll wait for you down here,’ said I.”

“Did he object to that?”

“Not he. He went up-stairs, and in a few minutes ran down again, with an open letter in his hand, looking as if the devil was after him before his time. At the last three or four stairs, he tripped, caught at the bannisters, dropped the letter over them in doing so, tumbled into the passage in such a fury and fright that he looked like a madman, tore his hat off a peg, and rushed out. I just heard him say his daughter should come back, if he put a straight waistcoat on her, as he passed the door. Between his tumble, his passion, and his hurry, he never thought of coming back for the letter he had dropped over the bannisters. I picked it up before I went away, suspecting it might be good evidence on our side; and I was right. Read it yourself; Basil; you have every moral and legal claim on the precious document — and here it is.”

I took the letter, and read (in Mannion’s handwriting) these words, dated from the hospital:—

“I have received your last note, and cannot wonder that you are getting impatient under restraint. But, remember, that if you had not acted as I warned you beforehand to act in case of accidents — if you had not protested innocence to your father, and preserved total silence towards your mother; if you had not kept in close retirement, behaving like a domestic martyr, and avoiding, in your character of a victim, all voluntary mention of your husband’s name — your position might have been a very awkward one. Not being able to help you, the only thing I could do was to teach you how to help yourself. I gave you the lesson, and you have been wise enough to profit by it.

“The time has now come for a change in my plans. I have suffered a relapse; and the date of my discharge from this place is still uncertain. I doubt the security, both on your account, and on mine, of still leaving you at your father’s house, to await my cure. Come to me here, therefore, to-morrow, at any hour when you can get away unperceived. You will be let in as a visitor, and shown to my bedside, if you ask for Mr. Turner — the name I have given to the hospital authorities. Through the help of a friend outside these walls, I have arranged for a lodging in which you can live undiscovered, until I am discharged and can join you. You can come here twice a week, if you like, and you had better do so, to accustom yourself to the sight of my injuries. I told you in my first letter how and where they had been inflicted — when you see them with your own eyes, you will be best prepared to hear what my future purposes are, and how you can aid them.

“R. M.”

This was evidently the letter about which I had been consulted by the servant at North Villa; the date corresponded with the date of Mannion’s letter to me. I noticed that the envelope was missing, and asked Ralph whether he had got it.

“No,” he replied; “Sherwin dropped the letter just in the state in which I have given it to you. I suspect the girl took away the envelope with her, thinking that the letter which she left behind her was inside. But the loss of the envelope doesn’t matter. Look there: the fellow has written her name at the bottom of the leaf; as coolly as if it was an ordinary correspondence. She is identified with the letter, and that’s all we want in our future dealings with her father.”

“But, Ralph, do you think —”

“Do I think her father will get her back? If he’s in time to catch her at the hospital, he assuredly will. If not, we shall have some little trouble on our side, I suspect. This seems to me to be how the matter stands now, Basil:— After that letter, and her running away, Sherwin will have nothing for it but to hold his tongue about her innocence; we may consider him as settled and done with. As for the other rascal, Mannion, he certainly writes as if he meant to do something dangerous. If he really does attempt to annoy us, we will mark him again (I’ll do it next time, by way of a little change!); he has no marriage certificate to shake over our heads, at any rate. What’s the matter now? — you’re looking pale again.”

I felt that my colour was changing, while he spoke. There was something ominous in the contrast which, at that moment, I could not fail to draw between Mannion’s enmity, as Ralph ignorantly estimated it, and as I really knew it. Already the first step towards the conspiracy with which I was threatened, had been taken by the departure of Sherwin’s daughter from her father’s house. Should I, at this earliest warning of coming events, show my brother the letter I had received from Mannion? No! such defence against the dangers threatened in it as Ralph would be sure to counsel, and to put in practice, might only include him in the life-long persecution which menaced me. When he repeated his remark about my sudden paleness, I merely accounted for it by some common-place excuse, and begged him to proceed.

“I suppose, Basil,” he said, “the truth is, that you can’t help being a little shocked — though you could expect nothing better from the girl — at her boldly following this fellow Mannion, even to the hospital” (Ralph was right; in spite of myself, this feeling was one among the many which now influenced me.) “Setting that aside, however, we are quite ready, I take it, to let her stick to her choice, and live just as she pleases, so long as she doesn’t live under our name. There is the great fear and great difficulty now! If Sherwin can’t find her, we must; otherwise, we can never feel certain that she is not incurring all sorts of debts as your wife. If her father gets her back, I shall be able to bring her to terms at North Villa; if not, I must get speech of her, wherever she happens to be hidden. She’s the only thorn in our side now, and we must pull her out with gold pincers immediately. Don’t you see that, Basil?”

“I see it, Ralph!”

“Very well. Either to-night or to-morrow morning, I’ll communicate with Sherwin, and find out whether he has laid hands on her. If he hasn’t, we must go to the hospital, and see what we can discover for ourselves. Don’t look miserable and downhearted, Basil, I’ll go with you: you needn’t see her again, or the man either; but you must come with me, for I may be obliged to make use of you. And now, I’m off for to-day, in good earnest. I must get back to Mrs. Ralph (unfortunately she happens to be one of the most sensitive women in the world), or she will be sending to advertise me in the newspapers. We shall pull through this, my dear fellow — you will see we shall! By the bye, you don’t know of a nice little detached house in the Brompton neighbourhood, do you? Most of my old theatrical friends live about there — a detached house, mind! The fact is, I have taken to the violin lately (I wonder what I shall take to next?); Mrs. Ralph accompanies me on the pianoforte; and we might be an execrable nuisance to very near neighbours — that’s all! You don’t know of a house? Never mind; I can go to an agent, or something of that sort. Clara shall know to-night that we are moving prosperously, if I can only give the worthiest creature in the world the slip: she’s a little obstinate, but, I assure you, a really superior woman. Only think of my dropping down to playing the fiddle, and paying rent and taxes in a suburban villa! How are the fast men fallen! Good bye, Basil, good bye!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/basil/part3.6.html

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