Basil, by Wilkie Collins


About six weeks after I had left the Hall, my father and Clara returned to London for the season.

It is not my intention to delay over my life either at home or at North Villa, during the spring and summer. This would be merely to repeat much of what has been already related. It is better to proceed at once to the closing period of my probation; to a period which it taxes my resolution severely to write of at all. A few weeks more of toil at my narrative, and the penance of this poor task-work will be over.

Imagine then, that the final day of my long year of expectation has arrived; and that on the morrow, Margaret, for whose sake I have sacrificed and suffered so much, is at last really to be mine.

On the eve of the great change in my life that was now to take place, the relative positions in which I, and the different persons with whom I was associated, stood towards each other, may be sketched thus:—

My father’s coldness of manner had not altered since his return to London. On my side, I carefully abstained from uttering a word before him, which bore the smallest reference to my real situation. Although when we met, we outwardly preserved the usual relations of parent and child, the estrangement between us had now become complete.

Clara did not fail to perceive this, and grieved over it in secret. Other and happier feelings, however, became awakened within her, when I privately hinted that the time for disclosing my secret to my sister was not far off. She grew almost as much agitated as I was, though by very different expectations — she could think of nothing else but the explanation and the surprise in store for her. Sometimes, I almost feared to keep her any longer in suspense; and half regretted having said anything on the subject of the new and absorbing interest of my life, before the period when I could easily have said all.

Mr. Sherwin and I had not latterly met on the most cordial terms. He was dissatisfied with me for not having boldly approached the subject of my marriage in my father’s presence; and considered my reasons for still keeping it secret, as dictated by morbid apprehension, and as showing a total want of proper firmness. On the other hand, he was obliged to set against this omission on my part, the readiness I had shown in meeting his wishes on all remaining points. My life was insured in Margaret’s favour; and I had arranged to be called to the bar immediately, so as to qualify myself in good time for every possible place within place-hunting range. My assiduity in making these preparations for securing Margaret’s prospects and mine against any evil chances that might happen, failed in producing the favourable effect on Mr. Sherwin, which they must assuredly have produced on a less selfish man. But they obliged him, at least, to stop short at occasional grumblings about my reserve with my father, and to maintain towards me a sort of sulky politeness, which was, after all, less offensive than the usual infliction of his cordiality, with its unfailing accompaniment of dull stories and duller jokes.

During the spring and summer, Mrs. Sherwin appeared to grow feebler and feebler, from continued ill-health. Occasionally, her words and actions — especially in her intercourse with me — suggested fears that her mind was beginning to give way, as well as her body. For instance, on one occasion, when Margaret had left the room for a minute or two, she suddenly hurried up to me, whispering with eager looks and anxious tones:—“Watch over your wife — mind you watch over her, and keep all bad people from her! I’ve tried to do it — mind you do it, too!” I asked immediately for an explanation of this extraordinary injunction; but she only answered by muttering something about a mother’s anxieties, and then returned hastily to her place. It was impossible to induce her to be more explicit, try how I might.

Margaret once or twice occasioned me much perplexity and distress, by certain inconsistencies and variations in her manner, which began to appear shortly after my return to North Villa from the country. At one time, she would become, on a sudden, strangely sullen and silent — at another, irritable and capricious. Then, again, she would abruptly change to the most affectionate warmth of speech and demeanour, anxiously anticipating every wish I could form, eagerly showing her gratitude for the slightest attentions I paid her. These unaccountable alterations of manner vexed and irritated me indescribably. I loved Margaret too well to be able to look philosophically on the imperfections of her character; I knew of no cause given by me for the frequent changes in her conduct, and, if they only proceeded from coquetry, then coquetry, as I once told her, was the last female accomplishment that could charm me in any woman whom I really loved. However, these causes of annoyance and regret — her caprices, and my remonstrances — all passed happily away, as the term of my engagement with Mr. Sherwin approached its end, Margaret’s better and lovelier manner returned. Occasionally, she might betray some symptoms of confusion, some evidences of unusual thoughtfulness — but I remembered how near was the day of the emancipation of our love, and looked on her embarrassment as a fresh charm, a new ornament to the beauty of my maiden wife.

Mr. Mannion continued — as far as attention to my interests went — to be the same ready and reliable friend as ever; but he was, in some other respects, an altered man. The illness of which he had complained months back, when I returned to London, seemed to have increased. His face was still the same impenetrable face which had so powerfully impressed me when I first saw him, but his manner, hitherto so quiet and self-possessed, had now grown abrupt and variable. Sometimes, when he joined us in the drawing-room at North Villa, he would suddenly stop before we had exchanged more than three or four words, murmur something, in a voice unlike his usual voice, about an attack of spasm and giddiness, and leave the room. These fits of illness had something in their nature of the same secrecy which distinguished everything else connected with him: they produced no external signs of distortion, no unusual paleness in his face — you could not guess what pain he was suffering, or where he was suffering it. Latterly, I abstained from ever asking him to join us; for the effect on Margaret of his sudden attacks of illness was, naturally, such as to discompose her seriously for the remainder of the evening. Whenever I saw him accidentally, at later periods of the year, the influence of the genial summer season appeared to produce no alteration for the better in him. I remarked that his cold hand, which had chilled me when I took it on the raw winter night of my return from the country, was as cold as ever, on the warm summer days which preceded the close of my engagement at North Villa.

Such was the posture of affairs at home, and at Mr. Sherwin’s, when I went to see Margaret for the last time in my old character, on the last night which yet remained to separate us from each other.

I had been all day preparing for our reception, on the morrow, in a cottage which I had taken for a month, in a retired part of the country, at some distance from London. One month’s unalloyed happiness with Margaret, away from the world and all worldly considerations, was the Eden upon earth towards which my dearest hope and anticipations had pointed for a whole year past — and now, now at last, those aspirations were to be realized! All my arrangements at the cottage were completed in time to allow me to return home, just before our usual late dinner hour. During the meal, I provided for my month’s absence from London, by informing my father that I proposed visiting one of my country friends. He heard me as coldly and indifferently as usual; and, as I anticipated, did not even ask to what friend’s house I was going. After dinner, I privately informed Clara that on the morrow, before starting, I would, in accordance with my promise, make her the depositary of my long-treasured secret — which, as yet, was not to be divulged to any one besides. This done, I hurried away, between nine and ten o’clock, for a last half-hour’s visit to North Villa; hardly able to realise my own situation, or to comprehend the fulness and exaltation of my own joy.

A disappointment was in store for me. Margaret was not in the house; she had gone out to an evening party, given by a maiden aunt of hers, who was known to be very rich, and was, accordingly, a person to be courted and humoured by the family.

I was angry as well as disappointed at what had taken place. To send Margaret out, on this evening of all others, showed a want of consideration towards both of us, which revolted me. Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin were in the room when I entered; and to him I spoke my opinion on the subject, in no very conciliatory terms. He was suffering from a bad attack of headache, and a worse attack of ill-temper, and answered as irritably as he dared.

“My good Sir!” he said, in sharp, querulous tones, “do, for once, allow me to know what’s best. You’ll have it all your way to-morrow — just let me have mine, for the last time, to-night. I’m sure you’ve been humoured often enough about keeping Margaret away from parties — and we should have humoured you this time, too; but a second letter came from the old lady, saying she should be affronted if Margaret wasn’t one of her guests. I couldn’t go and talk her over, because of this infernal headache of mine — Hang it! it’s your interest that Margaret should keep in with her aunt; she’ll have all the old girl’s money, if she only plays her cards decently well. That’s why I sent her to the party — her going will be worth some thousands to both of you one of these days. She’ll be back by half-past twelve, or before. Mannion was asked; and though he’s all out of sorts, he’s gone to take care of her, and bring her back. I’ll warrant she comes home in good time, when he’s with her. So you see there’s nothing to make a fuss about, after all.”

It was certainly a relief to hear that Mr. Mannion was taking care of Margaret. He was, in my opinion, much fitter for such a trust than her own father. Of all the good services he had done for me, I thought this the best — but it would have been even better still, if he had prevented Margaret from going to the party.

“I must say again,” resumed Mr. Sherwin, still more irritably, finding I did not at once answer him, “there’s nothing that any reasonable being need make a fuss about. I’ve been doing everything for Margaret’s interests and yours — and she’ll be back by twelve — and Mr. Mannion takes care of her — and I don’t know what you would have — and it’s devilish hard, so ill as I am too, to cut up rough with me like this — devilish hard!”

“I am sorry for your illness, Mr. Sherwin; and I don’t doubt your good intentions, or the advantage of Mr. Mannion’s protection for Margaret; but I feel disappointed, nevertheless, that she should have gone out to-night.”

“I said she oughtn’t to go at all, whatever her aunt wrote —I said that.”

This bold speech actually proceeded from Mrs. Sherwin! I had never before heard her utter an opinion in her husband’s presence — such an outburst from her, was perfectly inexplicable. She pronounced the words with desperate rapidity, and unwonted power of tone, fixing her eyes all the while on me with a very strange expression.

“Damn it, Mrs. S.!” roared her husband in a fury, “will you hold your tongue? What the devil do you mean by giving your opinion, when nobody wants it? Upon my soul I begin to think you’re getting a little cracked. You’ve been meddling and bothering lately, so that I don’t know what the deuce has come to you! I’ll tell you what it is, Mr. Basil,” he continued, turning snappishly round upon me, “you had better stop that fidgetty temper of yours, by going to the party yourself. The old lady told me she wanted gentlemen; and would be glad to see any friends of mine I liked to send her. You have only to mention my name: Mannion will do the civil in the way of introduction. There! there’s an envelope with the address to it — they won’t know who you are, or what you are, at Margaret’s aunt’s — you’ve got your black dress things on, all right and ready — for Heaven’s sake, go to the party yourself, and then I hope you’ll be satisfied!”

Here he stopped; and vented the rest of his ill-humour by ringing the bell violently for “his arrow-root,” and abusing the servant when she brought it.

I hesitated about accepting his proposal. While I was in doubt, Mrs. Sherwin took the opportunity, when her husband’s eye was off her, of nodding her head at me significantly. She evidently wished me to join Margaret at the party — but why? What did her behaviour mean?

It was useless to inquire. Long bodily suffering and weakness had but too palpably produced a corresponding feebleness in her intellect. What should I do? I was resolved to see Margaret that night; but to wait for her between two and three hours, in company with her father and mother at North Villa, was an infliction not to be endured. I determined to go to the party. No one there would know anything about me. They would be all people who lived in a different world from mine; and whose manners and habits I might find some amusement in studying. At any rate, I should spend an hour or two with Margaret, and could make it my own charge to see her safely home. Without further hesitation, therefore I took up the envelope with the address on it, and bade Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin good-night.

It struck ten as I left North Villa. The moonlight which was just beginning to shine brilliantly on my arrival there, now appeared but at rare intervals; for the clouds were spreading thicker and thicker over the whole surface of the sky, as the night advanced.

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