Basil, by Wilkie Collins


On the fourth day from the morning when she had died, I stood alone in the churchyard by the grave of Margaret Sherwin.

It had been left for me to watch her dying moments; it was left for me to bestow on her remains the last human charity which the living can extend to the dead. If I could have looked into the future on our fatal marriage-day, and could have known that the only home of my giving which she would ever inhabit, would be the home of the grave! —

Her father had written me a letter, which I destroyed at the time; and which, if I had it now, I should forbear from copying into these pages. Let it be enough for me to relate here, that he never forgave the action by which she thwarted him in his mercenary designs upon me and upon my family; that he diverted from himself the suspicion and disgust of his wife’s surviving relatives (whose hostility he had some pecuniary reasons to fear), by accusing his daughter, as he had declared he would accuse her, of having been the real cause of her mother’s death; and that he took care to give the appearance of sincerity to the indignation which he professed to feel against her, by refusing to follow her remains to the place of burial.

Ralph had returned to London, as soon as he received the letter from Mr. Bernard which I had forwarded to him. He offered me his assistance in performing the last duties left to my care, with an affectionate earnestness that I had never seen him display towards me before. But Mr. Bernard had generously undertaken to relieve me of every responsibility which could be assumed by others; and on this occasion, therefore, I had no need to put my brother’s ready kindness in helping me to the test.

I stood alone by the grave. Mr. Bernard had taken leave of me; the workers and the idlers in the churchyard had alike departed. There was no reason why I should not follow them; and yet I remained, with my eyes fixed upon the freshly-turned earth at my feet, thinking of the dead.

Some time had passed thus, when the sound of approaching footsteps attracted my attention. I looked up, and saw a man, clothed in a long cloak drawn loosely around his neck, and wearing a shade over his eyes, which hid the whole upper part of his face, advancing slowly towards me, walking with the help of a stick. He came on straight to the grave, and stopped at the foot of it — stopped opposite me, as I stood at the head.

“Do you know me again?” he said. “Do you know me for Robert Mannion?” As he pronounced his name, he raised the shade and looked at me.

The first sight of that appalling face, with its ghastly discolouration of sickness, its hideous deformity of feature, its fierce and changeless malignity of expression glaring full on me in the piercing noonday sunshine — glaring with the same unearthly look of fury and triumph which I had seen flashing through the flashing lightning, when I parted from him on the night of the storm — struck me speechless where I stood, and has never left me since. I must not, I dare not, describe that frightful sight; though it now rises before my imagination, vivid in its horror as on the first day when I saw it — though it moves hither and thither before me fearfully, while I write; though it lowers at my window, a noisome shadow on the radiant prospect of earth, and sea, and sky, whenever I look up from the page I am now writing towards the beauties of my cottage view.

“Do you know me for Robert Mannion?” he repeated. “Do you know the work of your own hands, now you see it? Or, am I changed to you past recognition, as your father might have found my father changed, if he had seen him on the morning of his execution, standing under the gallows, with the cap over his face?”

Still I could neither speak nor move. I could only look away from him in horror, and fix my eyes on the ground.

He lowered the shade to its former position on his face, then spoke again.

“Under this earth that we stand on,” he said, setting his foot on the grave; “down here, where you are now looking, lies buried with the buried dead, the last influence which might one day have gained you respite and mercy at my hands. Did you think of the one, last chance that you were losing, when you came to see her die? I watched you, and I watched her. I heard as much as you heard; I saw as much as you saw; I know when she died, and how, as you know it; I shared her last moments with you, to the very end. It was my fancy not to give her up, as your sole possession, even on her death-bed: it is my fancy, now, not to let you stand alone — as if her corpse was your property — over her grave!”

While he uttered the last words, I felt my self-possession returning. I could not force myself to speak, as I would fain have spoken — I could only move away, to leave him.

“Stop,” he said, “what I have still to say concerns you. I have to tell you, face to face, standing with you here, over her dead body, that what I wrote from the hospital, is what I will do; that I will make your whole life to come, one long expiation of this deformity;” (he pointed to his face), “and of that death” (he set his foot once more on the grave). “Go where you will, this face of mine shall never be turned away from you; this tongue, which you can never silence but by a crime, shall awaken against you the sleeping superstitions and cruelties of all mankind. The noisome secret of that night when you followed us, shall reek up like a pestilence in the nostrils of your fellow-beings, be they whom they may. You may shield yourself behind your family and your friends — I will strike at you through the dearest and the bravest of them! Now you have heard me, go! The next time we meet, you shall acknowledge with your own lips that I can act as I speak. Live the free life which Margaret Sherwin has restored to you by her death — you will know it soon for the life of Cain!”

He turned from the grave, and left me by the way that he had come; but the hideous image of him, and the remembrance of the words he had spoken, never left me. Never for a moment, while I lingered alone in the churchyard; never, when I quitted it, and walked through the crowded streets. The horror of the fiend-face was still before my eyes, the poison of the fiend-words was still in my ears, when I returned to my lodging, and found Ralph waiting to see me as soon as I entered my room.

“At last you have come back!” he said; “I was determined to stop till you did, if I stayed all day. Is anything the matter? Have you got into some worse difficulty than ever?”

“No, Ralph — no. What have you to tell me?”

“Something that will rather surprise you, Basil: I have to tell you to leave London at once! Leave it for your own interests and for everybody else’s. My father has found out that Clara has been to see you.”

“Good heavens! how?”

“He won’t tell me. But he has found it out. You know how you stand in his opinion — I leave you to imagine what he thinks of Clara’s conduct in coming here.”

“No! no! tell me yourself, Ralph — tell me how she bears his displeasure!”

“As badly as possible. After having forbidden her ever to enter this house again, he now only shows how he is offended, by his silence; and it is exactly that, of course, which distresses her. Between her notions of implicit obedience to him, and her opposite notions, just as strong, of her sisterly duties to you, she is made miserable from morning to night. What she will end in, if things go on like this, I am really afraid to think; and I’m not easily frightened, as you know. Now, Basil, listen to me: it is your business to stop this, and my business to tell you how.”

“I will do anything you wish — anything for Clara’s sake!”

“Then leave London; and so cut short the struggle between her duty and her inclination. If you don’t, my father is quite capable of taking her at once into the country, though I know he has important business to keep him in London. Write a letter to her, saying that you have gone away for your health, for change of scene and peace of mind — gone away, in short, to come back better some day. Don’t say where you’re going, and don’t tell me, for she is sure to ask, and sure to get it out of me if I know. Then she might be writing to you, and that might be found out, too. She can’t distress herself about your absence, if you account for it properly, as she distresses herself now — that is one consideration. And you will serve your own interests, as well as Clara’s, by going away — that is another.”

“Never mind my interests. Clara! I can only think of Clara!”

“But you have interests, and you must think of them. I told my father of the death of that unhappy woman, and of your noble behaviour when she was dying. Don’t interrupt me, Basil — it was noble; I couldn’t have done what you did, I can tell you! I saw he was more struck by it than he was willing to confess. An impression has been made on him by the turn circumstances have taken. Only leave that impression to strengthen, and you’re safe. But if you destroy it by staying here, after what has happened, and keeping Clara in this new dilemma — my dear fellow, you destroy your best chance! There is a sort of defiance of him in stopping; there is a downright concession to him in going away.”

“I will go, Ralph; you have more than convinced me that I ought! I will go to-morrow, though where —”

“You have the rest of the day to think where. I should go abroad and amuse myself; but your ideas of amusement are, most likely, not mine. At any rate, wherever you go, I can always supply you with money, when you want it; you can write to me, after you have been away some little time, and I can write back, as soon as I have good news to tell you. Only stick to your present determination, Basil, and, I’ll answer for it, you will be back in your own study at home, before you are many months older!”

“I will put it out of my power to fail in my resolution, by writing to Clara at once, and giving you the letter to place in her hands to-morrow evening, when I shall have left London some hours.”

“That’s right, Basil! that’s acting and speaking like a man!”

I wrote immediately, accounting for my sudden absence as Ralph had advised me — wrote, with a heavy heart, all that I thought would be most reassuring and cheering to Clara; and then, without allowing myself time to hesitate or to think, gave the letter to my brother.

“She shall have it to-morrow night,” he said, “and my father shall know why you have left town, at the same time. Depend on me in this, as in everything else. And now, Basil, I must say good bye — unless you’re in the humour for coming to look at my new house this evening. Ah! I see that won’t suit you just now, so, good bye, old fellow! Write when you are in any necessity — get back your spirits and your health — and never doubt that the step you are now taking will be the best for Clara, and the best for yourself!”

He hurried out of the room, evidently feeling more at saying farewell than he was willing to let me discover. I was left alone for the rest of the day, to think whither I should turn my steps on the morrow.

I knew that it would be best that I should leave England; but there seemed to have grown within me, suddenly, a yearning towards my own country that I had never felt before — a home-sickness for the land in which my sister lived. Not once did my thoughts wander away to foreign places, while I now tried to consider calmly in what direction I should depart when I left London.

While I was still in doubt, my earliest impressions of childhood came back to my memory; and influenced by them, I thought of Cornwall. My nurse had been a Cornish woman; my first fancies and first feelings of curiosity had been excited by her Cornish stories, by the descriptions of the scenery, the customs, and the people of her native land, with which she was ever ready to amuse me. As I grew older, it had always been one of my favourite projects to go to Cornwall, to explore the wild western land, on foot, from hill to hill throughout. And now, when no motive of pleasure could influence my choice — now, when I was going forth homeless and alone, in uncertainty, in grief, in peril — the old fancy of long-past days still kept its influence, and pointed out my new path to me among the rocky boundaries of the Cornish shore.

My last night in London was a night made terrible by Mannion’s fearful image in all my dreams — made mournful, in my waking moments, by thoughts of the morrow which was to separate me from Clara. But I never faltered in my resolution to leave London for her sake. When the morning came, I collected my few necessaries, added to them one or two books, and was ready to depart.

My way through the streets took me near my father’s house. As I passed by the well-remembered neighbourhood, my self-control so far deserted me, that I stopped and turned aside into the Square, in the hope of seeing Clara once more before I went away. Cautiously and doubtfully, as if I was a trespasser even on the public pavement, I looked up at the house which was no more my home — at the windows, side by side, of my sister’s sitting-room and bed-room. She was neither standing near them, nor passing accidentally from one room to another at that moment. Still I could not persuade myself to go on. I thought of many and many an act of kindness that she had done for me, which I seemed never to have appreciated until now — I thought of what she had suffered, and might yet suffer, for my sake — and the longing to see her once more, though only for an instant, still kept me lingering near the house and looking up vainly at the lonely windows.

It was a bright, cool, autumnal morning; perhaps she might have gone out into the garden of the square: it used often to be her habit, when I was at home, to go there and read at this hour. I walked round, outside the railings, searching for her between gaps in the foliage; and had nearly made the circuit of the garden thus, before the figure of a lady sitting alone under one of the trees, attracted my attention. I stopped — looked intently towards her — and saw that it was Clara.

Her face was almost entirely turned from me; but I knew her by her dress, by her figure — even by her position, simple as it was. She was sitting with her hands on a closed book which rested on her knee. A little spaniel that I had given her lay asleep at her feet: she seemed to be looking down at the animal, as far as I could tell by the position of her head. When I moved aside, to try if I could see her face, the trees hid her from sight. I was obliged to be satisfied with the little I could discern of her, through the one gap in the foliage which gave me a clear view of the place where she was sitting. To speak to her, to risk the misery to both of us of saying farewell, was more than I dared trust myself to do. I could only stand silent, and look at her — it might be for the last time! — until the tears gathered in my eyes, so that I could see nothing more. I resisted the temptation to dash them away. While they still hid her from me — while I could not see her again, if I would — I turned from the garden view, and left the Square.

Amid all the thoughts which thronged on me, as I walked farther and farther away from the neighbourhood of what was once my home; amid all the remembrances of past events — from the first day when I met Margaret Sherwin to the day when I stood by her grave — which were recalled by the mere act of leaving London, there now arose in my mind, for the first time, a doubt, which from that day to this has never left it; a doubt whether Mannion might not be tracking me in secret along every step of my way.

I stopped instinctively, and looked behind me. Many figures were moving in the distance; but the figure that I had seen in the churchyard was nowhere visible among them. A little further on, I looked back again, and still with the same result. After this, I let a longer interval elapse before I stopped; and then, for the third time, I turned round, and scanned the busy street-scene behind me, with eager, suspicious eyes. Some little distance back, on the opposite side of the way, I caught sight of a man who was standing still (as I was standing), amid the moving throng. His height was like Mannion’s height; and he wore a cloak like the cloak I had seen on Mannion, when he approached me at Margaret’s grave. More than this I could not detect, without crossing over. The passing vehicles and foot-passengers constantly intercepted my view, from the position in which I stood.

Was this figure, thus visible only by intervals, the figure of Mannion? and was he really tracking my steps? As the suspicion strengthened in my mind that it was so, the remembrance of his threat in the churchyard: “You may shield yourself behind your family and your friends: I will strike at you through the dearest and the bravest of them —” suddenly recurred to me; and brought with it a thought which urged me instantly to proceed on my way. I never looked behind me again, as I now walked on; for I said within myself:—“If he is following me, I must not, and will not avoid him: it will be the best result of my departure, that I shall draw after me that destroying presence; and thus at least remove it far and safely away from my family and my home!”

So, I neither turned aside from the straight direction, nor hurried my steps, nor looked back any more. At the time I had resolved on, I left London for Cornwall, without making any attempt to conceal my departure. And though I knew that he must surely be following me, still I never saw him again: never discovered how close or how far off he was on my track.

Two months have passed since that period; and I know no more about him now than I knew then.

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