Basil, by Wilkie Collins


The address to which I was now proceeding, led me some distance away from Mr. Sherwin’s place of abode, in the direction of the populous neighbourhood which lies on the western side of the Edgeware Road. The house of Margaret’s aunt was plainly enough indicated to me, as soon as I entered the street where it stood, by the glare of light from the windows, the sound of dance music, and the nondescript group of cabmen and linkmen, with their little train of idlers in attendance, assembled outside the door. It was evidently a very large party. I hesitated about going in.

My sensations were not those which fit a man for exchanging conventional civilities with perfect strangers; I felt that I showed outwardly the fever of joy and expectation within me. Could I preserve my assumed character of a mere friend of the family, in Margaret’s presence? — and on this night too, of all others? It was far more probable that my behaviour, if I went to the party, would betray everything to everybody assembled. I determined to walk about in the neighbourhood of the house, until twelve o’clock; and then to go into the hall, and send up my card to Mr. Mannion, with a message on it, intimating that I was waiting below to accompany him to North Villa with Margaret.

I crossed the street, and looked up again at the house from the pavement opposite. Then lingered a little, listening to the music as it reached me through the windows, and imagining to myself Margaret’s occupation at that moment. After this, I turned away; and set forth eastward on my walk, careless in which direction I traced my steps.

I felt little impatience, and no sense of fatigue; for in less than two hours more I knew that I should see my wife again. Until then, the present had no existence for me — I lived in the past and future. I wandered indifferently along lonely bye-streets, and crowded thoroughfares. Of all the sights which attend a night-walk in a great city, not one attracted my notice. Uninformed and unobservant, neither saddened nor startled, I passed through the glittering highways of London. All sounds were silent to me save the love-music of my own thoughts; all sights had vanished before the bright form that moved through my bridal dream. Where was my world, at that moment? Narrowed to the cottage in the country which was to receive us on the morrow. Where were the beings in the world? All merged in one — Margaret.

Sometimes, my thoughts glided back, dreamily and voluptuously, to the day when I first met her. Sometimes, I recalled the summer evenings when we sat and read together out of the same book; and, once more, it was as if I breathed with the breath, and hoped with the hopes, and longed with the old longings of those days. But oftenest it was with the morrow that my mind was occupied. The first dream of all young men — the dream of living rapturously with the woman they love, in a secret retirement kept sacred from friends and from strangers alike, was now my dream; to be realised in a few hours, to be realised with my waking on the morning which was already at hand!

For the last quarter of an hour of my walk, I must have been unconsciously retracing my steps towards the house of Margaret’s aunt. I came in sight of it again, just as the sound of the neighbouring church clocks, striking eleven, roused me from my abstraction. More cabs were in the street; more people were gathered about the door, by this time. Was all this bustle, the bustle of arrival or of departure? Was the party about to break up, at an hour when parties usually begin? I determined to go nearer to the house, and ascertain whether the music had ceased, or not.

I had approached close enough to hear the notes of the harp and pianoforte still sounding as gaily as ever, when the house-door was suddenly flung open for the departure of a lady and gentleman. The light from the hall-lamps fell on their faces; and showed me Margaret and Mr. Mannion.

Going home already! An hour and a half before it was time to return! Why?

There could be but one reason. Margaret was thinking of me, and of what I should feel if I called at North Villa, and had to wait for her till past midnight. I ran forward to speak to them, as they descended the steps; but exactly at the same moment, my voice was overpowered, and my further progress barred, by a scuffle on the pavement among the people who stood between us. One man said that his pocket had been picked; others roared to him that they had caught the thief. There was a fight — the police came up — I was surrounded on all sides by a shouting, struggling mob that seemed to have gathered in an instant.

Before I could force myself out of the crowd, and escape into the road, Margaret and Mr. Mannion had hurried into a cab. I just saw the vehicle driving off rapidly, as I got free. An empty cab was standing near me — I jumped into it directly — and told the man to overtake them. After having waited my time so patiently, to let a mere accident stop me from going home with them, as I had resolved, was not to be thought of for a moment. I was hot and angry, after my contest with the crowd; and could have flogged on the miserable cab-horse with my own hand, rather than have failed in my purpose.

We were just getting closer behind them: I had just put my head out of the window to call to them, and to bid the man who was driving me, call, too — when their cab abruptly turned down a bye-street, in a direction exactly opposite to the direction which led to North Villa.

What did this mean? Why were they not going straight home?

The cabman asked me whether he should not hail them before they got farther away from us; frankly confessing, as he put the question, that his horse was nothing like equal to the pace of the horse ahead. Mechanically, without assignable purpose or motive, I declined his offer, and told him simply to follow at any distance he could. While the words passed my lips, a strange sensation stole over me: I seemed to be speaking as the mere mouthpiece of some other voice. From feeling hot, and moving about restlessly the moment before, I felt unaccountably cold, and sat still now. What caused this?

My cab stopped. I looked out, and saw that the horse had fallen. “We’ve lots of time, Sir,” said the driver, as he coolly stepped off the box, “they are just pulling up further down the road.” I gave him some money, and got out immediately — determined to overtake them on foot.

It was a very lonely place — a colony of half-finished streets, and half-inhabited houses, which had grown up in the neighbourhood of a great railway station. I heard the fierce scream of the whistle, and the heaving, heavy throb of the engine starting on its journey, as I advanced along the gloomy Square in which I now found myself. The cab I had been following stood at a turning which led into a long street, occupied towards the farther end, by shops closed for the night, and at the end nearest me, apparently by private houses only. Margaret and Mr. Mannion hastily left the cab, and without looking either to the right or the left, hurried down the street. They stopped at the ninth house. I followed just in time to hear the door closed on them, and to count the number of doors intervening between that door and the Square.

The awful thrill of a suspicion which I hardly knew yet for what it really was, began to creep over me — to creep like a dead-cold touch crawling through and through me to the heart. I looked up at the house. It was an hotel — a neglected, deserted, dreary-looking building. Still acting mechanically; still with no definite impulse that I could recognise, even if I felt it, except the instinctive resolution to follow them into the house, as I had already followed them through the street — I walked up to the door, and rang the bell.

It was answered by a waiter — a mere lad. As the light in the passage fell on my face, he paused in the act of addressing me, and drew back a few steps. Without stopping for any explanations, I closed the door behind me, and said to him at once:

“A lady and gentleman came into this hotel a little while ago.”

“What may your business be?”— He hesitated, and added in an altered tone, “I mean, what may you want with them, Sir?”

“I want you to take me where I can hear their voices, and I want nothing more. Here’s a sovereign for you, if you do what I ask.”

His eyes fastened covetously on the gold, as I held it before them. He retired a few steps on tiptoe, and listened at the end of the passage. I heard nothing but the thick, rapid beating of my own heart. He came back, muttering to himself: “Master’s safe at supper down stairs — I’ll risk it! You’ll promise to go away directly,” he added, whispering to me, “and not disturb the house? We are quiet people here, and can’t have anything like a disturbance. Just say at once, will you promise to step soft, and not speak a word?”

“I promise.”

“This way then, Sir — and mind you don’t forget to step soft.”

A strange coldness and stillness, an icy insensibility, a dream-sensation of being impelled by some hidden, irresistible agency, possessed me, as I followed him upstairs. He showed me softly into an empty room; pointed to one of the walls, whispering, “It’s only boards papered over —” and then waited, keeping his eyes anxiously and steadily fixed upon all my movements.

I listened; and through the thin partition, I heard voices —her voice, and his voice. I heard and I knew— knew my degradation in all its infamy, knew my wrongs in all their nameless horror. He was exulting in the patience and secrecy which had brought success to the foul plot, foully hidden for months on months; foully hidden until the very day before I was to have claimed as my wife, a wretch as guilty as himself!

I could neither move nor breathe. The blood surged and heaved upward to my brain; my heart strained and writhed in anguish; the life within me raged and tore to get free. Whole years of the direst mental and bodily agony were concentrated in that one moment of helpless, motionless torment. I never lost the consciousness of suffering. I heard the waiter say, under his breath, “My God! he’s dying.” I felt him loosen my cravat — I knew that he dashed cold water over me; dragged me out of the room; and, opening a window on the landing, held me firmly where the night-air blew upon my face. I knew all this; and knew when the paroxysm passed, and nothing remained of it, but a shivering helplessness in every limb.

Erelong, the power of thinking began to return to me by degrees.

Misery, and shame, and horror, and a vain yearning to hide myself from all human eyes, and weep out my life in secret, overcame me. Then, these subsided; and ONE THOUGHT slowly arose in their stead — arose, and cast down before it every obstacle of conscience, every principle of education, every care for the future, every remembrance of the past, every weakening influence of present misery, every repressing tie of family and home, every anxiety for good fame in this life, and every idea of the next that was to come. Before the fell poison of that Thought, all other thoughts — good or evil — died. As it spoke secretly within me, I felt my bodily strength coming back; a quick vigour leapt hotly through my frame. I turned, and looked round towards the room we had just left — my mind was looking at the room beyond it, the room they were in.

The waiter was still standing by my side, watching me intently. He suddenly started back; and, with pale face and staring eyes, pointed down the stairs.

“You go,” he whispered, “go directly! You’re well now — I’m afraid to have you here any longer. I saw your look, your horrid look at that room! You’ve heard what you wanted for your money — go at once; or, if I lose my place for it, I’ll call out Murder, and raise the house. And mind this: as true as God’s in heaven, I’ll warn them both before they go outside our door!”

Hearing, but not heeding him, I left the house. No voice that ever spoke, could have called me back from the course on which I was now bound. The waiter watched me vigilantly from the door, as I went out. Seeing this, I made a circuit, before I returned to the spot where, as I had suspected, the cab they had ridden in was still waiting for them.

The driver was asleep inside. I awoke him; told him I had been sent to say that he was not wanted again that night: and secured his ready departure, by at once paying him on his own terms. He drove off; and the first obstacle on the fatal path which I had resolved to tread unopposed, was now removed.

As the cab disappeared from my sight, I looked up at the sky. It was growing very dark. The ragged black clouds, fantastically parted from each other in island shapes over the whole surface of the heavens, were fast drawing together into one huge, formless, lowering mass, and had already hidden the moon for, good. I went back to the street, and stationed myself in the pitch darkness of a passage which led down a mews, situated exactly opposite to the hotel.

In the silence and obscurity, in the sudden pause of action while I now waited and watched, my Thought rose to my lips, and my speech mechanically formed it into words. I whispered softly to myself: I will kill him when he comes out. My mind never swerved for an instant from this thought — never swerved towards myself; never swerved towards her. Grief was numbed at my heart; and the consciousness of my own misery was numbed with grief. Death chills all before it — and Death and my Thought were one.

Once, while I stood on the watch, a sharp agony of suspense tried me fiercely.

Just as I had calculated that the time was come which would force them to depart, in order to return to North Villa by the appointed hour, I heard the slow, heavy, regular tramp of a footstep advancing along the street. It was the policeman of the district going his round. As he approached the entrance to the mews he paused, yawned, stretched his arms, and began to whistle a tune. If Mannion should come out while he was there! My blood seemed to stagnate on its course, while I thought that this might well happen. Suddenly, the man ceased whistling, looked steadily up and down the street, and tried the door of a house near him — advanced a few steps — then paused again, and tried another door — then muttered to himself, in drowsy tones —“I’ve seen all safe here already: it’s the other street I forgot just now.” He turned, and retraced his way. I fixed my aching eyes vigilantly on the hotel, while I heard the sound of his footsteps grow fainter and fainter in the distance. It ceased altogether; and still there was no change — still the man whose life I was waiting for, never appeared.

Ten minutes after this, so far as I can guess, the door opened; and I heard Mannion’s voice, and the voice of the lad who had let me in. “Look about you before you go out,” said the waiter, speaking in the passage; “the street’s not safe for you.” Disbelieving, or affecting to disbelieve, what he heard, Mannion interrupted the waiter angrily; and endeavoured to reassure his companion in guilt, by asserting that the warning was nothing but an attempt to extort money by way of reward. The man retorted sulkily, that he cared nothing for the gentleman’s money, or the gentleman either. Immediately afterwards an inner door in the house banged violently; and I knew that Mannion had been left to his fate.

There was a momentary silence; and then I heard him tell his accomplice that he would go alone to look for the cab, and that she had better close the door and wait quietly in the passage till he came back. This was done. He walked out into the street. It was after twelve o’clock. No sound of a strange footfall was audible — no soul was at hand to witness, and prevent, the coming struggle. His life was mine. His death followed him as fast as my feet followed, while I was now walking on his track.

He looked up and down, from the entrance to the street, for the cab. Then, seeing that it was gone, he hastily turned back. At that instant I met him face to face. Before a word could be spoken, even before a look could be exchanged, my hands were on his throat.

He was a taller and heavier man than I was; and struggled with me, knowing that he was struggling for his life. He never shook my grasp on him for a moment; but he dragged me out into the road — dragged me away eight or ten yards from the street. The heavy gasps of approaching suffocation beat thick on my forehead from his open mouth: he swerved to and fro furiously, from side to side; and struck at me, swinging his clenched fists high above his head. I stood firm, and held him away at arm’s length. As I dug my feet into the ground to steady myself, I heard the crunching of stones — the road had been newly mended with granite. Instantly, a savage purpose goaded into fury the deadly resolution by which I was possessed. I shifted my hold to the back of his neck, and the collar of his coat, and hurled him, with the whole impetus of the raging strength that was let loose in me, face downwards, on to the stones.

In the mad triumph of that moment, I had already stooped towards him, as he lay insensible beneath me, to lift him again, and beat out of him, on the granite, not life only, but the semblance of humanity as well; when, in the blank stillness that followed the struggle, I heard the door of the hotel in the street open once more. I left him directly, and ran back from the square — I knew not with what motive, or what idea — to the spot.

On the steps of the house, on the threshold of that accursed place, stood the woman whom God’s minister had given to me in the sight of God, as my wife.

One long pang of shame and despair shot through my heart as I looked at her, and tortured out of its trance the spirit within me. Thousands on thousands of thoughts seemed to be whirling in the wildest confusion through and through my brain — thoughts, whose track was a track of fire — thoughts that struck me with a hellish torment of dumbness, at the very time when I would have purchased with my life the power of a moment’s speech. Voiceless and tearless, I went up to her, and took her by the arm, and drew her away from the house. There was some vague purpose in me, as I did this, of never quitting my hold of her, never letting her stir from me by so much as an inch, until I had spoken certain words to her. What words they were, and when I should utter them, I could not tell.

The cry for mercy was on her lips, but the instant our eyes met, it died away in long, low, hysterical moanings. Her cheeks were ghastly, her features were rigid, her eyes glared like an idiot’s; guilt and terror had made her hideous to look upon already.

I drew her onward a few paces towards the Square. Then I stopped, remembering the body that lay face downwards on the road. The savage strength of a few moments before, had left me from the time when I first saw her. I now reeled where I stood, from sheer physical weakness. The sound of her pantings and shudderings, of her abject inarticulate murmurings for mercy, struck me with a supernatural terror. My fingers trembled round her arm, the perspiration dripped down my face, like rain; I caught at the railings by my side, to keep myself from falling. As I did so, she snatched her arm from my grasp, as easily as if I had been a child; and, with a cry for help, fled towards the further end of the street.

Still, the strange instinct of never losing hold of her, influenced me. I followed, staggering like a drunken man. In a moment, she was out of my reach; in another, out of my sight. I went on, nevertheless; on, and on, and on, I knew not whither. I lost all ideas of time and distance. Sometimes I went round and round the same streets, over and over again. Sometimes I hurried in one direction, straight forward. Wherever I went, it seemed to me that she was still just before; that her track and my track were one; that I had just lost my hold of her, and that she was just starting on her flight.

I remember passing two men in this way, in some great thoroughfare. They both stopped, turned, and walked a few steps after me. One laughed at me, as a drunkard. The other, in serious tones, told him to be silent; for I was not drunk, but mad — he had seen my face as I passed under a gas-lamp, and he knew that I was mad.

“MAD!”— that word, as I heard it, rang after me like a voice of judgment. “MAD!”— a fear had come over me, which, in all its frightful complication, was expressed by that one word — a fear which, to the man who suffers it, is worse even than the fear of death; which no human language ever has conveyed, or ever will convey, in all its horrible reality, to others. I had pressed onward, hitherto, because I saw a vision that led me after it — a beckoning shadow, ahead, darker even than the night darkness. I still pressed on, now; but only because I was afraid to stop.

I know not how far I had gone, when my strength utterly failed me, and I sank down helpless, in a lonely place where the houses were few and scattered, and trees and fields were dimly discernible in the obscurity beyond. I hid my face in my hands, and tried to assure myself that I was still in possession of my senses. I strove hard to separate my thoughts; to distinguish between my recollections; to extricate from the confusion within me any one idea, no matter what — and I could not do it. In that awful struggle for the mastery over my own mind, all that had passed, all the horror of that horrible night, became as nothing to me. I raised myself, and looked up again, and tried to steady my reason by the simplest means — even by endeavouring to count all the houses within sight. The darkness bewildered me. Darkness? —Was it dark? or was day breaking yonder, far away in the murky eastern sky? Did I know what I saw? Did I see the same thing for a few moments together? What was this under me? Grass? yes! cold, soft, dewy grass. I bent down my forehead upon it, and tried, for the last time, to steady my faculties by praying; tried if I could utter the prayer which I had known and repeated every day from childhood — the Lord’s Prayer. The Divine Words came not at my call — no! not one of them, from the beginning to the end! I started up on my knees. A blaze of lurid sunshine flashed before my eyes; a hell-blaze of brightness, with fiends by millions, raining down out of it on my head; then a rayless darkness — the darkness of the blind — then God’s mercy at last — the mercy of utter oblivion.

When I recovered my consciousness, I was lying on the couch in my own study. My father was supporting me on the pillow; the doctor had his fingers on my pulse; and a policeman was telling them where he had found me, and how he had brought me home.

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