Basil, by Wilkie Collins

vii.

The next morning, Ralph never appeared — the day passed on, and I heard nothing — at last, when it was evening, a letter came from him.

The letter informed me that my brother had written to Mr. Sherwin, simply asking whether he had recovered his daughter. The answer to this question did not arrive till late in the day; and was in the negative — Mr. Sherwin had not found his daughter. She had left the hospital before he got there; and no one could tell him whither she had gone. His language and manner, as he himself admitted, had been so violent that he was not allowed to enter the ward where Mannion lay. When he returned home, he found his wife at the point of death; and on the same evening she expired. Ralph described his letter, as the letter of a man half out of his senses. He only mentioned his daughter, to declare, in terms almost of fury, that he would accuse her before his wife’s surviving relatives, of having been the cause of her mother’s death; and called down the most terrible denunciations on his own head, if he ever spoke to his child again, though he should see her starving before him in the streets. In a postscript, Ralph informed me that he would call the next morning, and concert measures for tracking Sherwin’s daughter to her present retreat.

Every sentence in this letter bore warning of the crisis which was now close at hand; yet I had as little of the desire as of the power to prepare for it. A superstitious conviction that my actions were governed by a fatality which no human foresight could alter or avoid, began to strengthen within me. From this time forth, I awaited events with the uninquiring patience, the helpless resignation of despair.

My brother came, punctual to his appointment. When he proposed that I should at once accompany him to the hospital, I never hesitated at doing as he desired. We reached our destination; and Ralph approached the gates to make his first enquiries.

He was still speaking to the porter, when a gentleman advanced towards them, on his way out of the hospital. I saw him recognise my brother, and heard Ralph exclaim:

“Bernard! Jack Bernard! Have you come to England, of all the men in the world!”

“Why not?” was the answer. “I got every surgical testimonial the Hotel Dieu could give me, six months ago; and couldn’t afford to stay in Paris only for my pleasure. Do you remember calling me a ‘mute, inglorious Liston,’ long ago, when we last met? Well, I have come to England to soar out of my obscurity and blaze into a shining light of the profession. Plenty of practice at the hospital, here — very little anywhere else, I am sorry to say.”

“You don’t mean that you belong to this hospital?”

“My dear fellow, I am regularly on the staff; I’m here every day of my life.”

“You’re the very man to enlighten us. Here, Basil, cross over, and let me introduce you to an old Paris friend of mine. Mr. Bernard — my brother. You’ve often heard me talk, Basil, of a younger son of old Sir William Bernard’s, who preferred a cure of bodies to a cure of souls; and actually insisted on working in a hospital when he might have idled in a family living. This is the man — the best of doctors and good fellows.”

“Are you bringing your brother to the hospital to follow my mad example?” asked Mr. Bernard, as he shook hands with me.

“Not exactly, Jack! But we really have an object in coming here. Can you give us ten minutes’ talk, somewhere in private? We want to know about one of your patients.”

He led us into an empty room, on the ground-floor of the building. “Leave the matter in my hands,” whispered Ralph to me, as we sat down. “I’ll find out everything.”

“Now, Bernard,” he said, “you have a man here, who calls himself Mr. Turner?”

“Are you a friend of that mysterious patient? Wonderful! The students call him ‘The Great Mystery of London;’ and I begin to think the students are right. Do you want to see him? When he has not got his green shade on, he’s rather a startling sight, I can tell you, for unprofessional eyes.”

“No, no — at least, not at present; my brother here, not at all. The fact is, certain circumstances have happened which oblige us to look after this man; and which I am sure you won’t inquire into, when I tell you that it is our interest to keep them secret.”

“Certainly not!”

“Then, without any more words about it, our object here, to-day, is to find out everything we can about Mr. Turner, and the people who have been to see him. Did a woman come, the day before yesterday?”

“Yes; and behaved rather oddly, I believe. I was not here when she came, but was told she asked for Turner, in a very agitated manner. She was directed to the Victoria Ward, where he is; and when she got there, looked excessively flurried and excited — seeing the Ward quite full, and, perhaps, not being used to hospitals. However it was, though the nurse pointed out the right bed to her, she ran in a mighty hurry to the wrong one.”

“I understand,” said Ralph; “just as some women run into the wrong omnibus, when the right one is straight before them.”

“Exactly. Well, she only discovered her mistake (the room being rather dark), after she had stooped down close over the stranger, who was lying with his head away from her. By that time, the nurse was at her side, and led her to the right bed. There, I’m told, another scene happened. At sight of the patient’s face, which is very frightfully disfigured, she was on the point (as the nurse thought) of going into a fit; but Turner stopped her in an instant. He just laid his hand on her arm, and whispered something to her; and, though she turned as pale as ashes, she was quiet directly. The next thing they say he did, was to give her a slip of paper, coolly directing her to go to the address written on it, and to come back to the hospital again, as soon as she could show a little more resolution. She went away at once — nobody knows where.”

“Has nobody asked where?”

“Yes; a fellow who said he was her father, and who behaved like a madman. He came here about an hour after she had left, and wouldn’t believe that we knew nothing about her (how the deuce should we know anything!) He threatened Turner (whom, by the bye, he called Manning, or some such name) in such an outrageous manner, that we were obliged to refuse him admission. Turner himself will give no information on the subject; but I suspect that his injuries are the result of a quarrel with the father about the daughter — a pretty savage quarrel, I must say, looking to the consequences — I beg your pardon, but your brother seems ill! I’m afraid,” (turning to me), “you find the room rather close?”

“No, indeed; not at all. I have just recovered from a serious illness — but pray go on.”

“I have very little more to say. The father went away in a fury, just as he came; the daughter has not yet made her appearance a second time. But, after what was reported to me of the first interview, I daresay she will come. She must, if she wants to see Turner; he won’t be out, I suspect, for another fortnight. He has been making himself worse by perpetually writing letters; we were rather afraid of erysipelas, but he’ll get over that danger, I think.”

“About the woman,” said Ralph; “it is of the greatest importance that we should know where she is now living. Is there any possibility (we will pay well for it) of getting some sharp fellow to follow her home from this place, the next time she comes here?”

Mr. Bernard hesitated a moment, and considered.

“I think I can manage it for you with the porter, after you are gone,” he said, “provided you leave me free to give any remuneration I may think necessary.”

“Anything in the world, my dear fellow. Have you got pen and ink? I’ll write down my brother’s address; you can communicate results to him, as soon as they occur.”

While Mr. Bernard went to the opposite end of the room, in search of writing materials, Ralph whispered to me —

“If he wrote to my address, Mrs. Ralph might see the letter. She is the most amiable of her sex; but if written information of a woman’s residence, directed to me, fell into her hands — you understand, Basil! Besides, it will be easy to let me know, the moment you hear from Jack. Look up, young one! It’s all right — we are sailing with wind and tide.”

Here Mr. Bernard brought us pen and ink. While Ralph was writing my address, his friend said to me:

“I hope you will not suspect me of wishing to intrude on your secrets, if (assuming your interest in Turner to be the reverse of a friendly interest) I warn you to look sharply after him when he leaves the hospital. Either there has been madness in his family, or his brain has suffered from his external injuries. Legally, he may be quite fit to be at large; for he will be able to maintain the appearance of perfect self-possession in all the ordinary affairs of life. But, morally, I am convinced that he is a dangerous monomaniac; his mania being connected with some fixed idea which evidently never leaves him day or night. I would lay a heavy wager that he dies in a prison or a madhouse.”

“And I’ll lay another wager, if he’s mad enough to annoy us, that we are the people to shut him up,” said Ralph. “There is the address. And now, we needn’t waste your time any longer. I have taken a little place at Brompton, Jack — you and Basil must come and dine with me, as soon as the carpets are down.”

We left the room. As we crossed the hall, a gentleman came forward, and spoke to Mr. Bernard.

“That man’s fever in the Victoria Ward has declared itself at last,” he said. “This morning the new symptoms have appeared.”

“And what do they indicate?”

“Typhus of the most malignant character — not a doubt of it. Come up, and look at him.”

I saw Mr. Bernard start, and glance quickly at my brother. Ralph fixed his eyes searchingly on his friend’s face; exclaimed: “Victoria Ward! why you mentioned that —;” and then stopped, with a very strange and sudden alteration in his expression. The next moment he drew Mr. Bernard aside, saying: “I want to ask you whether the bed in Victoria Ward, occupied by this man whose fever has turned to typhus, is the same bed, or near the bed which —” The rest of the sentence was lost to me as they walked away.

After talking together in whispers for a few moments, they rejoined me. Mr. Bernard was explaining the different theories of infection to Ralph.

“My notion,” he said, “is, that infection is taken through the lungs; one breath inhaled from the infected atmosphere hanging immediately around the diseased person, and generally extending about a foot from him, being enough to communicate his malady to the breather — provided there exists, at the time, in the individual exposed to catch the malady, a constitutional predisposition to infection. This predisposition we know to be greatly increased by mental agitation, or bodily weakness; but, in the case we have been talking of,” (he looked at me,) “the chances of infection or non-infection may be equally balanced. At any rate, I can predict nothing about them at this stage of the discovery.”

“You will write the moment you hear anything?” said Ralph, shaking hands with him.

“The very moment. I have your brother’s address safe in my pocket.”

We separated. Ralph was unusually silent and serious on our way back. He took leave of me at the door of my lodging, very abruptly; without referring again to our visit to the hospital.

A week passed away, and I heard nothing from Mr. Bernard. During this interval, I saw little of my brother; he was occupied in moving into his new house. Towards the latter part of the week, he came to inform me that he was about to leave London for a few days. My father had asked him to go to the family house, in the country, on business connected with the local management of the estates. Ralph still retained all his old dislike of the steward’s accounts and the lawyer’s consultations; but he felt bound, out of gratitude for my father’s special kindness to him since his return to England, to put a constraint on his own inclinations, and go to the country as he was desired. He did not expect to be absent more than two or three days; but earnestly charged me to write to him, if I had any news from the hospital while he was away.

During the week, Clara came twice to see me — escaping from home by stealth, as before. On each occasion, she showed the same affectionate anxiety to set me an example of cheerfulness, and to sustain me in hope. I saw, with a sorrow and apprehension which I could not altogether conceal from her, that the weary look in her face had never changed, never diminished since I had first observed it. Ralph had, from motives of delicacy, avoided increasing the hidden anxieties which were but too evidently preying upon her health, by keeping her in perfect ignorance of our visit to the hospital, and, indeed, of the particulars of all our proceedings since his return. I took care to preserve the same secrecy, during her short interviews with me. She bade me farewell after her third visit, with a sadness which she vainly endeavoured to hide. I little thought, then, that the tones of her sweet, clear voice had fallen on my ear for the last time, before I wandered to the far West of England where I now write.

At the end of the week — it was on a Saturday, I remember — I left my lodgings early in the morning, to go into the country; with no intention of returning before evening. I had felt a sense of oppression, on rising, which was almost unendurable. The perspiration stood thick on my forehead, though the day was not unusually hot; the air of London grew harder and harder to breathe, with every minute; my heart felt tightened to bursting; my temples throbbed with fever-fury; my very life seemed to depend on escaping into pure air, into some place where there was shade from trees, and water that ran cool and refreshing to look on. So I set forth, careless in what direction I went; and remained in the country all day. Evening was changing into night as I got back to London.

I inquired of the servant at my lodging, when she let me in, whether any letter had arrived for me. She answered, that one had come just after I had gone out in the morning, and that it was lying on my table. My first glance at it, showed me Mr. Bernard’s name written in the corner of the envelope. I eagerly opened the letter, and read these words:

“Private.

“Friday.

“My DEAR SIR,

“On the enclosed slip of paper you will find the address of the young woman, of whom your brother spoke to me when we met at the hospital. I regret to say, that the circumstances under which I have obtained information of her residence, are of the most melancholy nature.

“The plan which I arranged for discovering her abode, in accordance with your brother’s suggestion, proved useless. The young woman never came to the hospital a second time. Her address was given to me this morning, by Turner himself; who begged that I would visit her professionally, as he had no confidence in the medical man who was then in attendance on her. Many circumstances combined to make my compliance with his request anything but easy or desirable; but knowing that you — or your brother I ought, perhaps, rather to say — were interested in the young woman, I determined to take the very earliest opportunity of seeing her, and consulting with her medical attendant. I could not get to her till late in the afternoon. When I arrived, I found her suffering from one of the worst attacks of Typhus I ever remember to have seen; and I think it my duty to state candidly, that I believe her life to be in imminent danger. At the same time, it is right to inform you that the gentleman in attendance on her does not share my opinion: he still thinks there is a good chance of saving her.

“There can be no doubt whatever, that she was infected with Typhus at the hospital. You may remember my telling you, how her agitation appeared to have deprived her of self-possession, when she entered the ward; and how she ran to the wrong bed, before the nurse could stop her. The man whom she thus mistook for Turner, was suffering from fever which had not then specifically declared itself; but which did so declare itself, as a Typhus fever, on the morning when you and your brother came to the hospital. This man’s disorder must have been infectious when the young woman stooped down close over him, under the impression that he was the person she had come to see. Although she started back at once, on discovering her mistake, she had breathed the infection into her system — her mental agitation at the time, accompanied (as I have since understood) by some physical weakness, rendering her specially liable to the danger to which she had accidentally exposed herself.

“Since the first symptoms of her disease appeared, on Saturday last, I cannot find that any error has been committed in the medical treatment, as reported to me. I remained some time by her bedside to-day, observing her. The delirium which is, more or less, an invariable result of Typhus, is particularly marked in her case, and manifests itself both by speech and gesture. It has been found impossible to quiet her, by any means hitherto tried. While I was watching by her, she never ceased calling on your name, and entreating to see you. I am informed by her medical attendant, that her wanderings have almost invariably taken this direction for the last four-and-twenty hours. Occasionally she mixes other names with yours, and mentions them in terms of abhorrence; but her persistency in calling for your presence, is so remarkable that I am tempted, merely from what I have heard myself; to suggest that you really should go to her, on the bare chance that you might exercise some tranquillising influence. At the same time, if you fear infection, or for any private reasons (into which I have neither the right nor the wish to inquire) feel unwilling to take the course I have pointed out, do not by any means consider it your duty to accede to my proposal. I can conscientiously assure you that duty is not involved in it.

“I have, however, another suggestion to make, which is of a positive nature, and which I am sure will meet with your approval. It is, that her parents, or some of her other relations, if her parents are not alive, should be informed of her situation. Possibly, you may know something of her connections, and can therefore do this good office. She is dying in a strange place, among people who avoid her as they would avoid a pestilence. Even though it be only to bury her, some relation ought to be immediately summoned to her bed-side.

“I shall visit her twice to-morrow, in the morning and at night. If you are not willing to risk seeing her (and I repeat that it is in no sense imperative that you should combat such unwillingness), perhaps you will communicate with me at my private address.

“I remain, dear Sir,

“Faithfully yours,

“JOHN BERNARD.

“P. S. — I open my letter again, to inform you that Turner, acting against all advice, has left the hospital to-day. He attempted to go on Tuesday last, when, I believe, he first received information of the young woman’s serious illness, but was seized with a violent attack of giddiness, on attempting to walk, and fell down just outside the door of the ward. On this second occasion, however, he has succeeded in getting away without any accident — as far, at least, as the persons employed about the hospital can tell.”

When the letter fell from my trembling hand, when I first asked of my own heart the fearful question:—“Have I, to whom the mere thought of ever seeing this woman again has been as a pollution to shrink from, the strength to stand by her death-bed, the courage to see her die?”— then, and not till then, did I really know how suffering had fortified, while it had humbled me; how affliction has the power to purify, as well as to pain.

All bitter memory of the ill that she had done me, of the misery I had suffered at her hands, lost its hold on my mind. Once more, her mother’s last words of earthly lament —“Oh, who will pray for her when I am gone!” seemed to be murmuring in my ear — murmuring in harmony with the divine words in which the Voice from the Mount of Olives taught forgiveness of injuries to all mankind.

She was dying: dying among strangers in the pining madness of fever — and the one being of all who knew her, whose presence at her bedside might yet bring calmness to her last moments, and give her quietly and tenderly to death, was the man whom she had pitilessly deceived and dishonoured, whose youth she had ruined, whose hopes she had wrecked for ever. Strangely had destiny brought us together — terribly had it separated us — awfully would it now unite us again, at the end!

What were my wrongs, heavy as they had been; what my sufferings, poignant as they still were, that they should stand between this dying woman, and the last hope of awakening her to the consciousness that she was going before the throne of God? The sole resource for her which human skill and human pity could now suggest, embraced the sole chance that she might still be recovered for repentance, before she was resigned to death. How did I know, but that in those ceaseless cries which had uttered my name, there spoke the last earthly anguish of the tortured spirit, calling upon me for one drop of water to cool its burning guilt — one drop from the waters of Peace?

I took up Mr. Bernard’s letter from the floor on which it had fallen, and re-directed it to my brother; simply writing on a blank place in the inside, “I have gone to soothe her last moments.” Before I departed, I wrote to her father, and summoned him to her bedside. The guilt of his absence — if his heartless and hardened nature did not change towards her — would now rest with him, and not with me. I forbore from thinking how he would answer my letter; for I remembered his written words to my brother, declaring that he would accuse his daughter of having caused her mother’s death; and I suspected him even then, of wishing to shift the shame of his conduct towards his unhappy wife from himself to his child.

After writing this second letter, I set forth instantly for the house to which Mr. Bernard had directed me. No thought of myself; no thought, even, of the peril suggested by the ominous disclosure about Mannion, in the postscript to the surgeon’s letter, ever crossed my mind. In the great stillness, in the heavenly serenity that had come to my spirit, the wasting fire of every sensation which was only of this world, seemed quenched for ever.

It was eleven o’clock when I arrived at the house. A slatternly, sulky woman opened the door to me. “Oh! I suppose you’re another doctor,” she muttered, staring at me with scowling eyes. “I wish you were the undertaker, to get her out of my house before we all catch our deaths of her! There! there’s the other doctor coming down stairs; he’ll show you the room — I won’t go near it.”

As I took the candle from her hand, I saw that Mr. Bernard was approaching me from the stairs.

“You can do no good, I am afraid,” he said, “but I am glad you have come.”

“There is no hope, then?”

“In my opinion, none. Turner came here this morning, whether she recognised him, or not, in her delirium, I cannot say; but she grew so much worse in his presence, that I insisted on his not seeing her again, except under medical permission. Just now, there is no one in the room — are you willing to go up stairs at once?”

“Does she still speak of me in her wanderings?”

“Yes, as incessantly as ever.”

“Then I am ready to go to her bedside.”

“Pray believe that I feel deeply what a sacrifice you are making. Since I wrote to you, much that she has said in her delirium has told me”—(he hesitated)—“has told me more, I am afraid, than you would wish me to have known, as a comparative stranger to you. I will only say, that secrets unconsciously disclosed on the death-bed are secrets sacred to me, as they are to all who pursue my calling; and that what I have unavoidably heard above stairs, is doubly sacred in my estimation, as affecting a near and dear relative of one of my oldest friends.” He paused, and took my hand very kindly; then added: “I am sure you will think yourself rewarded for any trial to your feelings to-night, if you can only remember in years to come, that your presence quieted her in her last moments!”

I felt his sympathy and delicacy too strongly to thank him in words; I could only look my gratitude as he asked me to follow him up stairs.

We entered the room softly. Once more, and for the last time in this world, I stood in the presence of Margaret Sherwin.

Not even to see her, as I had last seen her, was such a sight of misery as to behold her now, forsaken on her deathbed, to look at her, as she lay with her head turned from me, fretfully covering and uncovering her face with the loose tresses of her long black hair, and muttering my name incessantly in her fever-dream: “Basil! Basil! Basil! I’ll never leave off calling for him, till he comes. Basil! Basil! Where is he? Oh, where, where, where!”

“He is here,” said the doctor, taking the candle from my hand, and holding it, so that the light fell full on my face. “Look at her and speak to her as usual, when she turns round,” he whispered to me.

Still she never moved; still those hoarse, fierce, quick tones — that voice, once the music that my heart beat to; now the discord that it writhed under — muttered faster and faster: “Basil! Basil! Bring him here! bring me Basil!”

“He is here,” repeated Mr. Bernard loudly. “Look! look up at him!”

She turned in an instant, and tore the hair back from her face. For a moment, I forced myself to look at her; for a moment, I confronted the smouldering fever in her cheeks; the glare of the bloodshot eyes; the distortion of the parched lips; the hideous clutching of the outstretched fingers at the empty air — but the agony of that sight was more than I could endure: I turned away my head, and hid my face in horror.

“Compose yourself,” whispered the doctor. “Now she is quiet, speak to her; speak to her before she begins again; call her by her name.”

Her name! Could my lips utter it at such a moment as this?

“Quick! quick!” cried Mr. Bernard. “Try her while you have the chance.”

I struggled against the memories of the past, and spoke to her — God knows as gently, if not as happily, as in the bygone time!

“Margaret,” I said, “Margaret, you asked for me, and I have come.”

She tossed her arms above her head with a shrill scream, frightfully prolonged till it ended in low moanings and murmurings; then turned her face from us again, and pulled her hair over it once more.

“I am afraid she is too far gone,” said the doctor; “but make another trial.”

“Margaret,” I said again, “have you forgotten me? Margaret!”

She looked at me once more. This time, her dry, dull eyes seemed to soften, and her fingers twined themselves less passionately in her hair. She began to laugh — a low, vacant, terrible laugh.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “I know he’s come at last; I can make him do anything. Get me my bonnet and shawl; any shawl will do, but a mourning shawl is best, because we are going to the funeral of our wedding. Come, Basil! let’s go back to the church, and get unmarried again; that’s what I wanted you for. We don’t care about each other. Robert Mannion wants me more than you do — he’s not ashamed of me because my father’s a tradesman; he won’t make believe that he’s in love with me, and then marry me to spite the pride of his family. Come! I’ll tell the clergyman to read the service backwards; that makes a marriage no marriage at all, everybody knows.”

As the last wild words escaped her, some one below stairs called to Mr. Bernard. He went out for a minute, then returned again, telling me that he was summoned to a case of sudden illness which he must attend without a moment’s delay.

“The medical man whom I found here when I first came,” he said, “was sent for this evening into the country, to be consulted about an operation, I believe. But if anything happens, I shall be at your service. There is the address of the house to which I am now going” (he wrote it down on a card); “you can send, if you want me. I will get back, however, as soon as possible, and see her again; she seems to be a little quieter already, and may become quieter still, if you stay longer. The night-nurse is below — I will send her up as I go downstairs. Keep the room well ventilated, the windows open as they are now. Don’t breathe too close to her, and you need fear no infection. Look! her eyes are still fixed on you. This is the first time I have seen her look in the same direction for two minutes together; one would think she really recognised you. Wait till I come back, if you possibly can — I won’t be a moment longer than I can help.”

He hastily left the room. I turned to the bed, and saw that she was still looking at me. She had never ceased murmuring to herself while Mr. Bernard was speaking; and she did not stop when the nurse came in.

The first sight of this woman, on her entrance, sickened and shocked me. All that was naturally repulsive in her, was made doubly revolting by the characteristics of the habitual drunkard, lowering and glaring at me in her purple, bloated face. To see her heavy hands shaking at the pillow, as they tried mechanically to arrange it; to see her stand, alternately leering and scowling by the bedside, an incarnate blasphemy in the sacred chamber of death, was to behold the most horrible of all mockeries, the most impious of all profanations. No loneliness in the presence of mortal agony could try me to the quick, as the sight of that foul old age of degradation and debauchery, defiling the sick room, now tried me. I determined to wait alone by the bedside till Mr. Bernard returned.

With some difficulty, I made the wretched drunkard understand that she might go downstairs again; and that I would call her if she was wanted. At last, she comprehended my meaning, and slowly quitted the room. The door closed on her; and I was left alone to watch the last moments of the woman who had ruined me!

As I sat down near the open window, the sounds outside in the street told of the waning of the night. There was an echo of many footsteps, a hoarse murmur of conflicting voices, now near, now afar off. The public houses were dispersing their drunken crowds — the crowds of a Saturday night: it was twelve o’clock.

Through those street-sounds of fierce ribaldry and ghastly mirth, the voice of the dying woman penetrated, speaking more slowly, more distinctly, more terribly than it had spoken yet.

“I see him,” she said, staring vacantly at me, and moving her hands slowly to and fro in the air. “I see him! But he’s a long way off; he can’t hear our secrets, and he does not suspect you as mother does. Don’t tell me that about him any more; my flesh creeps at it! What are you looking at me in that way for? You make me feel on fire. You know I like you, because I must like you; because I can’t help it. It’s no use saying hush: I tell you he can’t hear us, and can’t see us. He can see nothing; you make a fool of him, and I make a fool of him. But mind! I will ride in my own carriage: you must keep things secret enough to let me do that. I say I will ride in my carriage: and I’ll go where father walks to business: I don’t care if I splash him with my carriage wheels! I’ll be even with him for some of the passions he’s been in with me. You see how I’ll go into our shop and order dresses! (be quiet! I say he can’t hear us). I’ll have velvet where his sister has silk, and silk where she has muslin: I’m a finer girl than she is, and I’ll be better dressed. Tell him anything, indeed! What have I ever let out? It’s not so easy always to make believe I’m in love with him, after what you have told me. Suppose he found us out? — Rash? I’m no more rash than you are! Why didn’t you come back from France in time, and stop it all? Why did you let me marry him? A nice wife I’ve been to him, and a nice husband he has been to me — a husband who waits a year! Ha! ha! he calls himself a man, doesn’t he? A husband who waits a year!”

I approached nearer to the bedside, and spoke to her again, in the hope to win her tenderly towards dreaming of better things. I know not whether she heard me, but her wild thoughts changed — changed darkly to later events.

“Beds! beds!” she cried, “beds everywhere, with dying men on them! And one bed the most terrible of all — look at it! The deformed face, with the white of the pillow all round it! His face? his face, that hadn’t a fault in it? Never! It’s the face of a devil; the finger-nails of the devil are on it! Take me away! drag me out! I can’t move for that face: it’s always before me: it’s walling me up among the beds: it’s burning me all over. Water! water! drown me in the sea; drown me deep, away from the burning face!”

“Hush, Margaret! hush! drink this, and you will be cool again.” I gave her some lemonade, which stood by the bedside.

“Yes, yes; hush, as you say. Where’s Robert? Robert Mannion? Not here! then I’ve got a secret for you. When you go home to-night, Basil, and say your prayers, pray for a storm of thunder and lightning; and pray that I may be struck dead in it, and Robert too. It’s a fortnight to my aunt’s party; and in a fortnight you’ll wish us both dead, so you had better pray for what I tell you in time. We shall make handsome corpses. Put roses into my coffin — scarlet roses, if you can find any, because that stands for Scarlet Woman — in the Bible, you know. Scarlet? What do I care! It’s the boldest colour in the world. Robert will tell you, and all your family, how many women are as scarlet as I am — virtue wears it at home, in secret; and vice wears it abroad, in public: that’s the only difference, he says. Scarlet roses! scarlet roses! throw them into the coffin by hundreds; smother me up in them; bury me down deep; in the dark, quiet street — where there’s a broad door-step in front of a house, and a white, wild face, something like Basil’s, that’s always staring on the doorstep awfully. Oh, why did I meet him! why did I marry him! oh, why! why!”

She uttered the last words in slow, measured cadence — the horrible mockery of a chaunt which she used to play to us at North Villa, on Sunday evenings. Then her voice sank again; her articulation thickened, and grew indistinct. It was like the change from darkness to daylight, in the sight of sleepless eyes, to hear her only murmuring now, after hearing her last terrible words.

The weary night-time passed on. Longer and longer grew the intervals of silence between the scattered noises from the streets; less and less frequent were the sounds of distant carriage-wheels, and the echoing rapid footsteps of late pleasure-seekers hurrying home. At last, the heavy tramp of the policeman going his rounds, alone disturbed the silence of the early morning hours. Still, the voice from the bed muttered incessantly; but now, in drowsy, languid tones: still, Mr. Bernard did not return: still the father of the dying girl never came, never obeyed the letter which summoned him for the last time to her side.

(There was yet one more among the absent — one from whose approach the death-bed must be kept sacred; one, whose evil presence was to be dreaded as a pestilence and a scourge. Mannion! — where was Mannion?)

I sat by the window, resigned to wait in loneliness till the end came, watching mechanically the vacant eyes that ever watched me — when, suddenly, the face of Margaret seemed to fade out of my sight. I started and looked round. The candle, which I had placed at the opposite end of the room, had burnt down without my noticing it, and was now expiring in the socket. I ran to light the fresh candle which lay on the table by its side, but was too late. The wick flickered its last; the room was left in darkness.

While I felt among the different objects under my hands for a box of matches: Margaret’s voice strengthened again.

“Innocent! innocent!” I heard her cry mournfully through the darkness. “I’ll swear I’m innocent, and father is sure to swear it too. Innocent Margaret! Oh, me! what innocence!”

She repeated these words over and over again, till the hearing them seemed to bewilder all my senses. I hardly knew what I touched. Suddenly, my searching hands stopped of themselves, I could not tell why. Was there some change in the room? Was there more air in it, as if a door had been opened? Was there something moving over the floor? Had Margaret left her bed? — No! the mournful voice was speaking unintermittingly, and speaking from the same distance.

I moved to search for the matches on a chest of drawers, which stood near the window. Though the morning was at its darkest, and the house stood midway between two gas-lamps, there was a glimmering of light in this place. I looked back into the room from the window, and thought I saw something shadowy moving near the bed. “Take him away!” I heard Margaret scream in her wildest tones. “His hands are on me: he’s feeling my face, to feel if I’m dead!”

I ran to her, striking against some piece of furniture in the darkness. Something passed swiftly between me and the bed, as I got near it. I thought I heard a door close. Then there was silence for a moment; and then, as I stretched out my hands, my right hand encountered the little table placed by Margaret’s side, and the next moment I felt the match-box that had been left on it.

As I struck a light, her voice repeated close at my ear:

“His hands are on me: he’s feeling my face to feel if I’m dead!”

The match flared up. As I carried it to the candle, I looked round, and noticed for the first time that there was a second door, at the further corner of the room, which lighted some inner apartment through glass panes at the top. When I tried this door, it was locked on the inside, and the room beyond was dark.

Dark and silent. But was no one there, hidden in that darkness and silence? Was there any doubt now, that stealthy feet had approached Margaret, that stealthy hands had touched her, while the room was in obscurity? — Doubt? There was none on that point, none on any other. Suspicion shaped itself into conviction in an instant, and identified the stranger who had passed in the darkness between me and the bedside, with the man whose presence I had dreaded, as the presence of an evil spirit in the chamber of death.

He was waiting secretly in the house — waiting for her last moments; listening for her last words; watching his opportunity, perhaps, to enter the room again, and openly profane it by his presence! I placed myself by the door, resolved, if he approached, to thrust him back, at any hazard, from the bedside. How long I remained absorbed in watching before the darkness of the inner room, I know not — but some time must have elapsed before the silence around me forced itself suddenly on my attention. I turned towards Margaret; and, in an instant, all previous thoughts were suspended in my mind, by the sight that now met my eyes.

She had altered completely. Her hands, so restless hitherto, lay quite still over the coverlid; her lips never moved; the whole expression of her face had changed — the fever-traces remained on every feature, and yet the fever-look was gone. Her eyes were almost closed; her quick breathing had grown calm and slow. I touched her pulse; it was beating with a wayward, fluttering gentleness. What did this striking alteration indicate? Recovery? Was it possible? As the idea crossed my mind, every one of my faculties became absorbed in the sole occupation of watching her face; I could not have stirred an instant from the bed, for worlds.

The earliest dawn of day was glimmering faintly at the window, before another change appeared — before she drew a long, sighing breath, and slowly opened her eyes on mine. Their first look was very strange and startling to behold; for it was the look that was natural to her; the calm look of consciousness, restored to what it had always been in the past time. It lasted only for a moment. She recognised me; and, instantly, an expression of anguish and shame flew over the first terror and surprise of her face. She struggled vainly to lift her hands — so busy all through the night; so idle now! A faint moan of supplication breathed from her lips; and she slowly turned her head on the pillow, so as to hide her face from my sight.

“Oh, my God! my God!” she murmured, in low, wailing tones, “I’ve broken his heart, and he still comes here to be kind to me! This is worse than death! I’m too bad to be forgiven — leave me! leave me! — oh, Basil, leave me to die!”

I spoke to her; but desisted almost immediately — desisted even from uttering her name. At the mere sound of my voice, her suffering rose to agony; the wild despair of the soul wrestling awfully with the writhing weakness of the body, uttered itself in words and cries horrible, beyond all imagination, to hear. I sank down on my knees by the bedside; the strength which had sustained me for hours, gave way in an instant, and I burst into a passion of tears, as my spirit poured from my lips in supplication for hers — tears that did not humiliate me; for I knew, while I shed them, that I had forgiven her!

The dawn brightened. Gradually, as the fair light of the new day flowed in lovely upon her bed; as the fresh morning breeze lifted tenderly and playfully the scattered locks of her hair that lay over the pillow — so, the calmness began to come back to her voice and the stillness of repose to her limbs. But she never turned her face to me again; never, when the wild words of her despair grew fewer and fainter; never, when the last faint supplication to me, to leave her to die forsaken as she deserved, ended mournfully in a long, moaning gasp for breath. I waited after this — waited a long time — then spoke to her softly — then waited once more; hearing her still breathe, but slowly and more slowly with every minute — then spoke to her for the second time, louder than before. She never answered, and never moved. Was she sleeping? I could not tell. Some influence seemed to hold me back from going to the other side of the bed, to look at her face, as it lay away from me, almost hidden in the pillow.

The light strengthened faster, and grew mellow with the clear beauty of the morning sunshine. I heard the sound of rapid footsteps advancing along the street; they stopped under the window: and a voice which I recognized, called me by my name. I looked out: Mr. Bernard had returned at last.

“I could not get back sooner,” he said; “the case was desperate, and I was afraid to leave it. You will find a key on the chimney-piece — throw it out to me, and I can let myself in; I told them not to bolt the door before I went out.”

I obeyed his directions. When he entered the room, I thought Margaret moved a little, and signed to him with my hand to make no noise. He looked towards the bed without any appearance of surprise, and asked me in a whisper when the change had come over her, and how. I told him very briefly, and inquired whether he had known of such changes in other cases, like hers.

“Many,” he answered, “many changes just as extraordinary, which have raised hopes that I never knew realised. Expect the worst from the change you have witnessed; it is a fatal sign.”

Still, in spite of what he said, it seemed as if he feared to wake her; for he spoke in his lowest tones, and walked very softly when he went close to the bedside.

He stopped suddenly, just as he was about to feel her pulse, and looked in the direction of the glass door — listened attentively — and said, as if to himself —“I thought I heard some one moving in that room, but I suppose I am mistaken; nobody can be up in the house yet.” With those words he looked down at Margaret, and gently parted back her hair from her forehead.

“Don’t disturb her,” I whispered, “she is asleep; surely she is asleep!”

He paused before he answered me, and placed his hand on her heart. Then softly drew up the bed-linen, till it hid her face.

“Yes, she is asleep,” he said gravely; “asleep, never to wake again. She is dead.”

I turned aside my head in silence, for my thoughts, at that moment, were not the thoughts which can be spoken by man to man.

“This has been a sad scene for any one at your age,” he resumed kindly, as he left the bedside, “but you have borne it well. I am glad to see that you can behave so calmly under so hard a trial.”

Calmly?

Yes! at that moment it was fit that I should be calm; for I could remember that I had forgiven her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/basil/part3.7.html

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