Basil, by Wilkie Collins


That night I went home with none of the reluctance or the apprehension which I had felt on the last occasion, when I approached our own door. The assurance of success contained in the events of the afternoon, gave me a trust in my own self-possession — a confidence in my own capacity to parry all dangerous questions — which I had not experienced before. I cared not how soon, or for how long a time, I might find myself in company with Clara or my father. It was well for the preservation of my secret that I was in this frame of mind; for, on opening my study door, I was astonished to see both of them in my room.

Clara was measuring one of my over-crowded book-shelves, with a piece of string; and was apparently just about to compare the length of it with a vacant space on the wall close by, when I came in. Seeing me, she stopped; and looked round significantly at my father, who was standing near her, with a file of papers in his hand.

“You may well feel surprised, Basil, at this invasion of your territory,” he said, with peculiar kindness of manner —“you must, however, apply there, to the prime minister of the household,” pointing to Clara, “for an explanation. I am only the instrument of a domestic conspiracy on your sister’s part.”

Clara seemed doubtful whether she should speak. It was the first time I had ever seen such an expression in her face, when she looked into mine.

“We are discovered, papa,” she said, after a momentary silence, “and we must explain: but you know I always leave as many explanations as I can to you.”

“Very well,” said my father smiling; “my task in this instance will be an easy one. I was intercepted, Basil, on my way to my own room by your sister, and taken in here to advise about a new set of bookcases for you, when I ought to have been attending to my own money matters. Clara’s idea was to have had these new bookcases made in secret, and put up as a surprise, some day when you were not at home. However, as you have caught her in the act of measuring spaces, with all the skill of an experienced carpenter, and all the impetuosity of an arbitrary young lady who rules supreme over everybody, further concealment is out of the question. We must make a virtue of necessity, and confess everything.”

Poor Clara! This was her only return for ten days’ utter neglect — and she had been half afraid to tell me of it herself. I approached and thanked her; not very gratefully, I am afraid, for I felt too confused to speak freely. It seemed like a fatality. The more evil I was doing in secret, evil to family ties and family principles, the more good was unconsciously returned to me by my family, through my sister’s hands.

“I made no objection, of course, to the bookcase plan,” continued my father. “More room is really wanted for the volumes on volumes that you have collected about you; but I certainly suggested a little delay in the execution of the project. The bookcases will, at all events, not be required here for five months to come. This day week we return to the country.”

I could not repress a start of astonishment and dismay. Here was a difficulty which I ought to have provided for; but which I had most unaccountably never once thought of, although it was now the period of the year at which on all former occasions we had been accustomed to leave London. This day week too! The very day fixed by Mr. Sherwin for my marriage!

“I am afraid, Sir, I shall not be able to go with you and Clara so soon as you propose. It was my wish to remain in London some time longer.” I said this in a low voice, without venturing to look at my sister. But I could not help hearing her exclamation as I spoke, and the tone in which she uttered it.

My father moved nearer to me a step or two, and looked in my face intently, with the firm, penetrating expression which peculiarly characterized him.

“This seems an extraordinary resolution,” he said, his tones and manner altering ominously while he spoke. “I thought your sudden absence for the last two days rather odd; but this plan of remaining in London by yourself is really incomprehensible. What can you have to do?”

An excuse — no! not an excuse; let me call things by their right names in these pages — a lie was rising to my lips; but my father checked the utterance of it. He detected my embarrassment immediately, anxiously as I strove to conceal it.

“Stop,” he said coldly, while the red flush which meant so much when it rose on his cheek, began to appear there for the first time. “Stop! If you must make excuses, Basil, I must ask no questions. You have a secret which you wish to keep from me; and I beg you will keep it. I have never been accustomed to treat my sons as I would not treat any other gentlemen with whom I may happen to be associated. If they have private affairs, I cannot interfere with those affairs. My trust in their honour is my only guarantee against their deceiving me; but in the intercourse of gentlemen that is guarantee enough. Remain here as long as you like: we shall be happy to see you in the country, when you are able to leave town.”

He turned to Clara. “I suppose, my love, you want me no longer. While I settle my own matters of business, you can arrange about the bookcases with your brother. Whatever you wish, I shall be glad to do.” And he left the room without speaking to me, or looking at me again. I sank into a chair, feeling disgraced in my own estimation by the last words he had spoken to me. His trust in my honour was his only guarantee against my deceiving him. As I thought over that declaration, every syllable of it seemed to sear my conscience; to brand Hypocrite on my heart.

I turned towards my sister. She was standing at a little distance from me, silent and pale, mechanically twisting the measuring-string, which she still held between her trembling fingers; and fixing her eyes upon me so lovingly, so mournfully, that my fortitude gave way when I looked at her. At that instant, I seemed to forget everything that had passed since the day when I first met Margaret, and to be restored once more to my old way of life and my old home-sympathies. My head drooped on my breast, and I felt the hot tears forcing themselves into my eyes.

Clara stepped quietly to my side; and sitting down by me in silence, put her arm round my neck.

When I was calmer, she said gently:

“I have been very anxious about you, Basil; and perhaps I have allowed that anxiety to appear more than I ought. Perhaps I have been accustomed to exact too much from you — you have been too ready to please me. But I have been used to it so long; and I have nobody else that I can speak to as I can to you. Papa is very kind; but he can’t be what you are to me exactly; and Ralph does not live with us now, and cared little about me, I am afraid, when he did. I have friends, but friends are not —”

She stopped again; her voice was failing her. For a moment, she struggled to keep her self-possession — struggled as only women can — and succeeded in the effort. She pressed her arm closer round my neck; but her tones were steadier and clearer when she resumed:

“It will not be very easy for me to give up our country rides and walks together, and the evening talk that we always had at dusk in the old library at the park. But I think I can resign all this, and go away alone with papa, for the first time, without making you melancholy by anything I say or do at parting, if you will only promise that when you are in any difficulty you will let me be of some use. I think I could always be of use, because I should always feel an interest in anything that concerned you. I don’t want to intrude on your secret; but if that secret should ever bring you trouble or distress (which I hope and pray it may not), I want you to have confidence in my being able to help you, in some way, through any mischances. Let me go into the country, Basil, knowing that you can still put trust in me, even though a time should come when you can put trust in no one else — let me know this: do let me!”

I gave her the assurance she desired — gave it with my whole heart. She seemed to have recovered all her old influence over me by the few simple words she had spoken. The thought crossed my mind, whether I ought not in common gratitude to confide my secret to her at once, knowing as I did, that it would be safe in her keeping, however the disclosure might startle or pain her, I believe I should have told her all, in another minute, but for a mere accident — the trifling interruption caused by a knock at the door.

It came from one of the servants. My father desired to see Clara on some matter connected with their impending departure for the country. She was unfit enough to obey such a summons at such a time; but with her usual courage in disciplining her own feelings into subserviency to the wishes of any one whom she loved, she determined to obey immediately the message which had been delivered to her. A few moments of silence; a slight trembling soon repressed; a parting kiss for me; these few farewell words of encouragement at the door; “Don’t grieve about what papa has said; you have made me feel happy about you, Basil; I will make him feel happy too,” and Clara was gone.

With those few minutes of interruption, the time for the disclosure of my secret had passed by. As soon as my sister was out of the room, my former reluctance to trust it to home-keeping returned, and remained unchanged throughout the whole of the long year’s probation which I had engaged to pass. But this mattered little. As events turned out, if I had told Clara all, the end would have come in the same way, the fatality would have been accomplished by the same means.

I went out shortly after my sister had left me. I could give myself to no occupation at home, for the rest of that night; and I knew that it would be useless to attempt to sleep just then. As I walked through the streets, bitter thoughts against my father rose in my mind — bitter thoughts against his inexorable family pride, which imposed on me the concealment and secrecy, under the oppression of which I had already suffered so much — bitter thoughts against those social tyrannies, which take no account of human sympathy and human love, and which my father now impersonated, as it were, to my ideas. Gradually these reflections merged in others that were better. I thought of Clara again; consoling myself with the belief, that, however my father might receive the news of my marriage, I might count upon my sister as certain to love my wife and be kind to her, for my sake. This thought led my heart back to Margaret — led it gently and happily. I went home, calmed and reassured again — at least for the rest of the night.

The events of that week, so fraught with importance for the future of my life, passed with ominous rapidity.

The marriage license was procured; all remaining preliminaries with Mr. Sherwin were adjusted; I saw Margaret every day, and gave myself up more and more unreservedly to the charm that she exercised over me, at each succeeding interview. At home, the bustle of approaching departure; the farewell visitings; the multitudinous minor arrangements preceding a journey to the country, seemed to hurry the hours on faster and faster, as the parting day for Clara, and the marriage day for me, drew near. Incessant interruptions prevented any more lengthened or private conversations with my sister; and my father was hardly ever accessible for more than five minutes together, even to those who specially wished to speak with him. Nothing arose to embarrass or alarm me now, out of my intercourse with home.

The day came. I had not slept during the night that preceded it; so I rose early to look out on the morning.

It is strange how frequently that instinctive belief in omens and predestinations, which we flippantly term Superstition, asserts its natural prerogative even over minds trained to repel it, at the moment of some great event in our lives. I believe this has happened to many more men than ever confessed it; and it happened to me. At any former period of my life, I should have laughed at the bare imputation of a “superstitious” feeling ever having risen in my mind. But now, as I looked on the sky, and saw the black clouds that overspread the whole firmament, and the heavy rain that poured down from them, an irrepressible sinking of the heart came over me. For the last ten days the sun had shone almost uninterruptedly — with my marriage-day came the cloud, the mist and the rain. I tried to laugh myself out of the forebodings which this suggested, and tried in vain.

The departure for the country was to take place at an early hour. We all breakfasted together; the meal was hurried over comfortlessly and silently. My father was either writing notes, or examining the steward’s accounts, almost the whole time; and Clara was evidently incapable of uttering a single word, without risking the loss of her self-possession. The silence was so complete, while we sat together at the table, that the fall of the rain outside (which had grown softer and thicker as the morning advanced), and the quick, quiet tread of the servants, as they moved about the room, were audible with a painful distinctness. The oppression of our last family breakfast in London, for that year, had an influence of wretchedness which I cannot describe — which I can never forget.

At last the hour of starting came. Clara seemed afraid to trust herself even to look at me now. She hurriedly drew down her veil the moment the carriage was announced. My father shook hands with me rather coldly. I had hoped he would have said something at parting; but he only bade me farewell in the simplest and shortest manner. I had rather he would have spoken to me in anger than restrained himself as he did, to what the commonest forms of courtesy required. There was but one more slight, after this, that he could cast on me; and he did not spare it. While my sister was taking leave of me, he waited at the door of the room to lead her down stairs, as if he knew by intuition that this was the last little parting attention which I had hoped to show her myself.

Clara whispered (in such low, trembling tones that I could hardly hear her):

“Think of what you promised in your study, Basil, whenever you think of me: I will write often.”

As she raised her veil for a moment, and kissed me, I felt on my own cheek the tears that were falling fast over hers. I followed her and my father down stairs. When they reached the street, she gave me her hand — it was cold and powerless. I knew that the fortitude she had promised to show, was giving way, in spite of all her efforts to preserve it; so I let her hurry into the carriage without detaining her by any last words. The next instant she and my father were driven rapidly from the door.

When I re-entered the house, my watch showed me that I had still an hour to wait, before it was time to go to North Villa.

Between the different emotions produced by my impressions of the scene I had just passed through, and my anticipations of the scene that was yet to come, I suffered in that one hour as much mental conflict as most men suffer in a life. It seemed as if I were living out all my feelings in this short interval of delay, and must die at heart when it was over. My restlessness was a torture to me; and yet I could not overcome it. I wandered through the house from room to room, stopping nowhere. I took down book after book from the library, opened them to read, and put them back on the shelves the next instant. Over and over again I walked to the window to occupy myself with what was passing in the street; and each time I could not stay there for one minute together. I went into the picture-gallery, looked along the walls, and yet knew not what I was looking at. At last I wandered into my father’s study — the only room I had not yet visited.

A portrait of my mother hung over the fireplace: my eyes turned towards it, and for the first time I came to a long pause. The picture had an influence that quieted me; but what influence I hardly knew. Perhaps it led my spirit up to the spirit that had gone from us — perhaps those secret voices from the unknown world, which only the soul can listen to, were loosed at that moment, and spoke within me. While I sat looking up at the portrait, I grew strangely and suddenly calm before it. My memory flew back to a long illness that I had suffered from, as a child, when my little cradle-couch was placed by my mother’s bedside, and she used to sit by me in the dull evenings and hush me to sleep. The remembrance of this brought with it a dread imagining that she might now be hushing my spirit, from her place among the angels of God. A stillness and awe crept over me; and I hid my face in my hands.

The striking of the hour from a clock in the room, startled me back to the outer world. I left the house and went at once to North Villa.

Margaret and her father and mother were in the drawing-room when I entered it. I saw immediately that neither of the two latter had passed the morning calmly. The impending event of the day had exercised its agitating influence over them, as well as over me. Mrs. Sherwin’s face was pale to her very lips: not a word escaped her. Mr. Sherwin endeavoured to assume the self-possession which he was evidently far from feeling, by walking briskly up and down the room, and talking incessantly — asking the most common-place questions, and making the most common-place jokes. Margaret, to my surprise, showed fewer symptoms of agitation than either of her parents. Except when the colour came and went occasionally on her cheek, I could detect no outward evidences of emotion in her at all.

The church was near at hand. As we proceeded to it, the rain fell heavily, and the mist of the morning was thickening to a fog. We had to wait in the vestry for the officiating clergyman. All the gloom and dampness of the day seemed to be collected in this room — a dark, cold, melancholy place, with one window which opened on a burial-ground steaming in the wet. The rain pattered monotonously on the pavement outside. While Mr. Sherwin exchanged remarks on the weather with the clerk, (a tall, lean man, arrayed in a black gown), I sat silent, near Mrs. Sherwin and Margaret, looking with mechanical attention at the white surplices which hung before me in a half-opened cupboard — at the bottle of water and tumbler, and the long-shaped books, bound in brown leather, which were on the table. I was incapable of speaking — incapable even of thinking — during that interval of expectation.

At length the clergyman arrived, and we went into the church — the church, with its desolate array of empty pews, and its chill, heavy, week-day atmosphere. As we ranged ourselves round the altar, a confusion overspread all my faculties. My sense of the place I was in, and even of the ceremony in which I took part, grew more and more vague and doubtful every minute. My attention wandered throughout the whole service. I stammered and made mistakes in uttering the responses. Once or twice I detected myself in feeling impatient at the slow progress of the ceremony — it seemed to be doubly, trebly longer than its usual length. Mixed up with this impression was another, wild and monstrous as if it had been produced by a dream — an impression that my father had discovered my secret, and was watching me from some hidden place in the church; watching through the service, to denounce and abandon me publicly at the end. This morbid fancy grew and grew on me until the termination of the ceremony, until we had left the church and returned to the vestry once more.

The fees were paid; we wrote our names in the books and on the certificate; the clergyman quietly wished me happiness; the clerk solemnly imitated him; the pew-opener smiled and curtseyed; Mr. Sherwin made congratulatory speeches, kissed his daughter, shook hands with me, frowned a private rebuke at his wife for shedding tears, and, finally, led the way with Margaret out of the vestry. The rain was still falling, as they got into the carriage. The fog was still thickening, as I stood alone under the portico of the church, and tried to realise to myself that I was married.

Married! The son of the proudest man in England, the inheritor of a name written on the roll of Battle Abbey, wedded to a linen-draper’s daughter! And what a marriage! What a condition weighed on it! What a probation was now to follow it! Why had I consented so easily to Mr. Sherwin’s proposals? Would he not have given way, if I had only been resolute enough to insist on my own conditions?

How useless to inquire! I had made the engagement and must abide by it — abide by it cheerfully until the year was over, and she was mine for ever. This must be my all-sufficing thought for the future. No more reflections on consequences, no more forebodings about the effect of the disclosure of my secret on my family — the leap into a new life had been taken, and, lead where it might, it was a leap that could never be retraced!

Mr. Sherwin had insisted, with the immovable obstinacy which characterises all feeble-minded people in the management of their important affairs, that the first clause in our agreement (the leaving my wife at the church-door) should be performed to the letter. As a due compensation for this, I was to dine at North Villa that day. How should I employ the interval that was to elapse before the dinner-hour?

I went home, and had my horse saddled. I was in no mood for remaining in an empty house, in no mood for calling on any of my friends — I was fit for nothing but a gallop through the rain. All my wearing and depressing emotions of the morning, had now merged into a wild excitement of body and mind. When the horse was brought round, I saw with delight that the groom could hardly hold him. “Keep him well in hand, Sir,” said the man, “he’s not been out for three days.” I was just in the humour for such a ride as the caution promised me.

And what a ride it was, when I fairly got out of London; and the afternoon brightening of the foggy atmosphere, showed the smooth, empty high road before me! The dashing through the rain that still fell; the feel of the long, powerful, regular stride of the horse under me; the thrill of that physical sympathy which establishes itself between the man and the steed; the whirling past carts and waggons, saluted by the frantic barking of dogs inside them; the flying by roadside alehouses, with the cheering of boys and half-drunken men sounding for an instant behind me, then lost in the distance — this was indeed to occupy, to hurry on, to annihilate the tardy hours of solitude on my wedding day, exactly as my heart desired!

I got home wet through; but with my body in a glow from the exercise, with my spirits boiling up at fever heat. When I arrived at North Villa, the change in my manner astonished every one. At dinner, I required no pressing now to partake of the sherry which Mr. Sherwin was so fond of extolling, nor of the port which he brought out afterwards, with a preliminary account of the vintage-date of the wine, and the price of each bottle. My spirits, factitious as they were, never flagged. Every time I looked at Margaret, the sight of her stimulated them afresh. She seemed pre-occupied, and was unusually silent during dinner; but her beauty was just that voluptuous beauty which is loveliest in repose. I had never felt its influence so powerful over me as I felt it then.

In the drawing-room, Margaret’s manner grew more familiar, more confident towards me than it had ever been before. She spoke to me in warmer tones, looked at me with warmer looks. A hundred little incidents marked our wedding-evening — trifles that love treasures up — which still remain in my memory. One among them, at least, will never depart from it: I first kissed her on that evening.

Mr. Sherwin had gone out of the room; Mrs. Sherwin was at the other end of it, watering some plants at the window; Margaret, by her father’s desire, was showing me some rare prints. She handed me a magnifying glass, through which I was to look at a particular part of one of the engravings, that was considered a master-piece of delicate workmanship. Instead of applying the magnifying test to the print, for which I cared nothing, I laughingly applied it to Margaret’s face. Her lovely lustrous black eye seemed to flash into mine through the glass; her warm, quick breathing played on my cheek — it was but for an instant, and in that instant I kissed her for the first time. What sensations the kiss gave me then! — what remembrances it has left me now!

It was one more proof how tenderly, how purely I loved her, that, before this time, I had feared to take the first love-privilege which I had longed to assert, and might well have asserted, before. Men may not understand this; women, I believe, will.

The hour of departure arrived; the inexorable hour which was to separate me from my wife on my wedding evening. Shall I confess what I felt, on the first performance of my ill-considered promise to Mr. Sherwin? No: I kept this a secret from Margaret; I will keep it a secret here.

I took leave of her as hurriedly and abruptly as possible — I could not trust myself to quit her in any other way. She had contrived to slip aside into the darkest part of the room, so that I only saw her face dimly at parting.

I went home at once. When I lay down to sleep — then the ordeal which I had been unconsciously preparing for myself throughout the day, began to try me. Every nerve in my body, strung up to the extremest point of tension since the morning, now at last gave way. I felt my limbs quivering, till the bed shook under me. I was possessed by a gloom and horror, caused by no thought, and producing no thought: the thinking faculty seemed paralysed within me, altogether. The physical and mental reaction, after the fever and agitation of the day, was so sudden and severe, that the faintest noise from the street now terrified — yes, literally terrified me. The whistling of the wind — which had risen since sunset — made me start up in bed, with my heart throbbing, and my blood all chill. When no sounds were audible, then I listened for them to come — listened breathlessly, without daring to move. At last, the agony of nervous prostration grew more than I could bear — grew worse even than the child’s horror of walking in the darkness, and sleeping alone on the bed-room floor, which had overcome me, almost from the first moment when I laid down. I groped my way to the table and lit the candle again; then wrapped my dressing-gown round me, and sat shuddering near the light, to watch the weary hours out till morning.

And this was my wedding-night! This was how the day ended which had begun by my marriage with Margaret Sherwin!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52