Basil by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
Darkly and wearily the days of my recovery went on. After that first outburst of sorrow on the evening when I recognised my sister, and murmured her name as she sat by my side, there sank over all my faculties a dull, heavy trance of mental pain.
I dare not describe what remembrances of the guilty woman who had deceived and ruined me, now gnawed unceasingly and poisonously at my heart. My bodily strength feebly revived; but my mental energies never showed a sign of recovering with them. My father's considerate forbearance, Clara's sorrowful reserve in touching on the subject of my long illness, or of the wild words which had escaped me in my delirium, mutely and gently warned me that the time was come when I owed the tardy atonement of confession to the family that I had disgraced; and still, I had no courage to speak, no resolution to endure. The great misery of the past, shut out from me the present and the future alike--every active power of my mind seemed to be destroyed hopelessly and for ever. There were moments--most often at the early morning hours, while the heaviness of the night's sleep still hung over me in my wakefulness--when I could hardly realise the calamity which had overwhelmed me; when it seemed that I must have dreamt, during the night, of scenes of crime and woe and heavy trial which had never actually taken place. What was the secret of the terrible influence which--let her even be the vilest of the vile--Mannion must have possessed over Margaret Sherwin, to induce her to sacrifice me to him? Even the crime itself was not more hideous and more incredible than the mystery in which its evil motives, and the manner of its evil ripening, were still impenetrably veiled.
Mannion! It was a strange result of the mental malady under which I suffered, that, though the thought of Mannion was now inextricably connected with every thought of Margaret, I never once asked myself, or had an idea of asking myself, for days together, after my convalescence, what had been the issue of our struggle, for him. In the despair of first awakening to a perfect sense of the calamity which had been hurled on me from the hand of my wife--in the misery of first clearly connecting together, after the wanderings of delirium, the Margaret to whom with my hand I had given all my heart, with the Margaret who had trampled on the gift and ruined the giver--all minor thoughts and minor feelings, all motives of revengeful curiosity or of personal apprehension were suppressed. And yet, the time was soon to arrive when that lost thought of inquiry into Mannion's fate, was to become the one master-thought that possessed me--the thought that gave back its vigilance to my intellect, and its manhood to my heart. One evening I was sitting alone in my room. My father had taken Clara out for a little air and exercise, and the servant had gone away at my own desire. It was in this quiet and solitude, when the darkness was fast approaching, when the view from my window was at its loneliest, when my mind was growing listless and confused as the weary day wore out--it was exactly at this time that the thought suddenly and mysteriously flashed across me: Had Mannion been taken up from the stones on which I had hurled him, a living man or a dead?
I instinctively started to my feet with something of the vigour of my former health; repeating the question to myself; and feeling, as I unconsciously murmured aloud the few words which expressed it, that my life had purposes and duties, trials and achievements, which were yet to be fulfilled. How could I instantly solve the momentous doubt which had now, for the first time, crossed my mind? One moment I paused in eager consideration--the next, I descended to the library. A daily newspaper was kept there, filed for reference. I might possibly decide the fatal question in a few moments by consulting it. In my burning anxiety and impatience I could hardly handle the leaves or see the letters, as I tried to turn back to the right date--the day (oh anguish of remembrance!) on which I was to have claimed Margaret Sherwin as my wife!
At last, I found the number I desired; but the closely-printed columns swam before me as I looked at them. A glass of water stood on a table near me--I dipped my handkerchief in it, and cooled my throbbing eyes. The destiny of my future life might be decided by the discovery I was now about to make! I locked the door to guard against all intrusion, and then returned to my task-returned to my momentous search--slowly tracing my way through the paper, paragraph by paragraph, column by column.
On the last page, and close to the end, I read these lines:
"About one o'clock this morning, a gentleman was discovered lying on his face in the middle of the road, in Westwood Square, by the policeman on duty. The unfortunate man was to all appearance dead. He had fallen on a part of the road which had been recently macadamised; and his face, we are informed, is frightfully mutilated by contact with the granite. The policeman conveyed him to the neighbouring hospital, where it was discovered that he was still alive, and the promptest attentions were immediately paid him. We understand that the surgeon in attendance considers it absolutely impossible that he could have been injured as he was, except by having been violently thrown down on his face, either by a vehicle driven at a furious rate, or by a savage attack from some person or persons unknown. In the latter case, robbery could not have been the motive; for the unfortunate man's watch, purse, and ring were all found about him. No cards of address or letters of any kind were discovered in his pockets, and his linen and handkerchief were only marked with the letter M. He was dressed in evening costume--entirely in black. After what has been already said about the injuries to his face, any recognisable personal description of him is, for the present, unfortunately out of the question. We wait with much anxiety to gain some further insight into this mysterious affair, when the sufferer is restored to consciousness. The last particulars which our reporter was able to collect at the hospital were, that the surgeon expected to save his patient's life, and the sight of one of his eyes. The sight of the other is understood to be entirely destroyed." With sensations of horror which I could not then, and cannot now analyse, I turned to the next day's paper; but found in it no further reference to the object of my search. In the number for the day after, however, the subject was resumed in these words:
"The mystery of the accident in Westwood Square thickens. The sufferer is restored to consciousness; he is perfectly competent to hear and understand what is said to him, and is able to articulate, but not very plainly, and only for a moment or so, at a time. The authorities at the hospital anticipated, as we did, that, on the patient's regaining his senses, some information of the manner in which the terrible accident from which he is suffering was caused, would be obtained from him. But, to the astonishment of every one, he positively refuses to answer any questions as to the circumstances under which his frightful injuries were inflicted. With the same unaccountable secrecy, he declines to tell his name, his place of abode, or the names of any friends to whom notice of his situation might be communicated. It is quite in vain to press him for any reason for this extraordinary course of conduct--he appears to be a man of very unusual firmness of character; and his refusal to explain himself in any way, is evidently no mere caprice of the moment. All this leads to the conjecture that the injuries he has sustained were inflicted on him from some motive of private vengeance; and that certain persons are concerned in this disgraceful affair, whom he is unwilling to expose to public odium, for some secret reason which it is impossible to guess at. We understand that he bears the severe pain consequent upon his situation, in such a manner as to astonish every person about him--no agony draws from him a word or a sigh. He displayed no emotion even when the surgeons informed him that the sight of one of his eyes was hopelessly destroyed; and merely asked to be supplied with writing materials as soon as he could see to use them, when he was told that the sight of the other would be saved. He further added, we are informed, that he was in a position to reward the hospital authorities for any trouble he gave, by making a present to the funds of the charity, as soon as he should be discharged as cured. His coolness in the midst of sufferings which would deprive most other men of all power of thinking or speaking, is as remarkable as his unflinching secrecy--a secrecy which, for the present at least, we cannot hope to penetrate."
I closed the newspaper. Even then, a vague forewarning of what Mannion's inexplicable reserve boded towards me, crossed my mind. There was yet more difficulty, danger, and horror to be faced, than I had hitherto confronted. The slough of degradation and misery into which I had fallen, had its worst perils yet in store for me.
As I became impressed by this conviction, the enervating remembrance of the wickedness to which I had been sacrificed, grew weaker in its influence over me; the bitter tears that I had shed in secret for so many days past, dried sternly at their sources; and I felt the power to endure and to resist coming back to me with my sense of the coming strife. On leaving the library, I ascended again to my own room. In a basket, on my table, lay several unopened letters, which had arrived for me during my illness. There were two which I at once suspected, in hastily turning over the collection, might be all-important in enlightening me on the vile subject of Mannion's female accomplice. The addresses of both these letters were in Mr. Sherwin's handwriting. The first that I opened was dated nearly a month back, and ran thus:
"North Villa, Hollyoake Square.
"With agonised feelings which no one but a parent, and I will add, an affectionate parent, can possibly form an idea of, I address you on the subject of the act of atrocity committed by that perjured villain, Mannion. You will find that I and my innocent daughter have been, like you, victims of the most devilish deceit that ever was practised on respectable and unsuspecting people.
"Let me ask you, Sir, to imagine the state of my feelings on the night of that most unfortunate party, when I saw my beloved Margaret, instead of coming home quietly as usual, rush into the room in a state bordering on distraction, with a tale the most horrible that ever was addressed to a father's ears. The double-faced villain (I really can't mention his name again) had, I blush to acknowledge, attempted to take advantage of her innocence and confidence--all our innocences and confidences, I may say--but my dear Margaret showed a virtuous courage beyond her years, the natural result of the pious principles and the moral bringing up which I have given her from her cradle. Need I say what was the upshot? Virtue triumphed, as virtue always does, and the villain left her to herself. It was when she was approaching the door-step to fly to the bosom of her home that, I am given to understand, you, by a most remarkable accident, met her. As a man of the world, you will easily conceive what must have been the feelings of a young female, under such peculiar and shocking circumstances. Besides this, your manner, as I am informed, was so terrifying and extraordinary, and my poor Margaret felt so strongly that deceitful appearances might be against her, that she lost all heart, and fled at once, as I said before, to the bosom of her home.
"She is still in a very nervous and unhappy state; she fears that you may be too ready to believe appearances; but I know better. Her explanation will be enough for you, as it was for me. We may have our little differences on minor topics, but we have both the same manly confidence, I am sure--you in your wife, and me in my daughter.
"I called at your worthy father's mansion, to have a fuller explanation with you than I can give here, the morning after this to-all-parties-most-distressing occurrence happened: and was then informed of your serious illness, for which pray accept my best condolences. The next thing I thought of doing was to write to your respected father, requesting a private interview. But on maturer consideration, I thought it perhaps slightly injudicious to take such a step, while you, as the principal party concerned, were ill in bed, and not able to come forward and back me. I was anxious, you will observe, to act for your interests, as well as the interests of my darling girl--of course, knowing at the same time that I had the marriage certificate in my possession, if needed as a proof, and supposing I was driven to extremities and obliged to take my own course in the matter. But, as I said before, I have a fatherly and friendly confidence in your feeling as convinced of the spotless innocence of my child as I do. So will write no more on this head.
"Having determined, as best under all circumstances, to wait till your illness was over, I have kept my dear Margaret in strict retirement at home (which, as she is your wife, you will acknowledge I had no obligation to do), until you were well enough to come forward and do her justice before her family and yours. I have not omitted to make almost daily inquiries after you, up to the time of penning these lines, and shall continue so to do until your convalescence, which I sincerely hope may be speedily at hand; I am unfortunately obliged to ask that our first interview, when you are able to see me and my daughter, may not take place at North Villa, but at some other place, any you like to fix on. The fact is, my wife, whose wretched health has been a trouble and annoyance to us for years past, has now, I grieve to say, under pressure of this sad misfortune, quite lost her reason. I am sorry to say that she would be capable of interrupting us here, in a most undesirable manner to all parties, and therefore request that our first happy meeting may not take place at my house.
"Trusting that this letter will quite remove all unpleasant feelings from your mind, and that I shall hear from you soon, on your much-to-be-desired recovery, "I remain, dear Sir, "Your faithful, obedient servant, "STEPHEN SHERWIN.
"P. S.--I have not been able to find out where that scoundrel Mannion, has betaken himself to; but if you should know, or suspect, I wish to tell you, as a proof that my indignation at his villany is as great as yours, that I am ready and anxious to pursue him with the utmost rigour of the law, if law can only reach him--paying out of my own pocket all expenses of punishing him and breaking him for the rest of his life, if I go through every court in the country to do it!--S. S." Hurriedly as I read over this wretched and revolting letter, I detected immediately how the new plot had been framed to keep me still deceived; to heap wrong after wrong on me with the same impunity. She was not aware that I had followed her into the house, and had heard all from her voice and Mannion's--she believed that I was still ignorant of everything, until we met at the door-step; and in this conviction she had forged the miserable lie which her father's hand had written down. Did he really believe it, or was he writing as her accomplice? It was not worth while to inquire: the worst and darkest discovery which it concerned me to make, had already proclaimed itself--she was a liar and a hypocrite to the very last!
And it was this woman's lightest glance which had once been to me as the star that my life looked to!---it was for this woman that I had practised a deceit on my family which it now revolted me to think of; had braved whatever my father's anger might inflict; had risked cheerfully the loss of all that birth and fortune could bestow! Why had I ever risen from my weary bed of sickness?--it would have been better, far better, that I had died!
But, while life remained, life had its trials and its toils, from which it was useless to shrink. There was still another letter to be opened: there was yet more wickedness which I must know how to confront.
The second of Mr. Sherwin's letters was much shorter than the first, and had apparently been written not more than a day or two back. His tone was changed; he truckled to me no longer--he began to threaten. I was reminded that the servant's report pronounced me to have been convalescent for several days past: and was asked why, under these circumstances, I had never even written. I was warned that my silence had been construed greatly to my disadvantage; and that if it continued longer, the writer would assert his daughter's cause loudly and publicly, not to my father only, but to all the world. The letter ended by according to me three days more of grace, before the fullest disclosure would be made. For a moment, my indignation got the better of me. I rose, to go that instant to North Villa and unmask the wretches who still thought to make their market of me as easily as ever. But the mere momentary delay caused by opening the door of my room, restored me to myself. I felt that my first duty, my paramount obligation, was to confess all to my father immediately; to know and accept my future position in my own home, before I went out from it to denounce others. I returned to the table, and gathered up the letters scattered on it. My heart beat fast, my head felt confused; but I was resolute in my determination to tell my father, at all hazards, the tale of degradation which I have told in these pages. I waited in the stillness and loneliness, until it grew nearly dark. The servant brought in candles. Why could I not ask him whether my father and Clara had come home yet? Was I faltering in my resolution already?
Shortly after this, I heard a step on the stairs and a knock at my door.--My father? No! Clara. I tried to speak to her unconcernedly, when she came in. "Why, you have been walking till it is quite dark, Clara!"
"We have only been in the garden of the Square--neither papa nor I noticed how late it was. We were talking on a subject of the deepest interest to us both." She paused a moment, and looked down; then hurriedly came nearer to me, and drew a chair to my side. There was a strange expression of sadness and anxiety in her face, as she continued:
"Can't you imagine what the subject was? It was you, Basil. Papa is coming here directly, to speak to you."
She stopped once more. Her cheeks reddened a little, and she mechanically busied herself in arranging some books that lay on the table. Suddenly, she abandoned this employment; the colour left her face; it was quite pale when she addressed me again, speaking in very altered tones; so altered, that I hardly recognised them as hers.
"You know, Basil, that for a long time past, you have kept some secret from us; and you promised that I should know it first; but I--I have changed my mind; I have no wish to know it, dear: I would rather we never said anything about it." (She coloured, and hesitated a little again, then proceeded quickly and earnestly:) "But I hope you will tell it all to papa: he is coming here to ask you--oh, Basil! be candid with him, and tell him everything; let us all be to one another what we were before this time last year! You have nothing to fear, if you only speak openly; for I have begged him to be gentle and forgiving with you, and you know he refuses me nothing. I only came here to prepare you; to beg you to be candid and patient. Hush! there is a step on the stairs. Speak out, Basil, for my sake--pray, pray, speak out, and then leave the rest to me."
She hurriedly left the room. The next minute, my father entered it. Perhaps my guilty conscience deceived me, but I thought he looked at me more sadly and severely than I had ever seen him look before. His voice, too, was troubled when he spoke. This was a change, which meant much in him. "I have come to speak to you," he said, "on a subject about which I had much rather you had spoken to me first."
"I think, Sir, I know to what subject you refer. I--"
"I must beg you will listen to me as patiently as you can," he rejoined; "I have not much to say."
He paused, and sighed heavily. I thought he looked at me more kindly. My heart grew very sad; and I yearned to throw my arms round his neck, to give freedom to the repressed tears which half choked me, to weep out on his bosom my confession that I was no more worthy to be called his son. Oh, that I had obeyed the impulse which moved me to do this!
"Basil," pursued my father, gravely and sadly; "I hope and believe that I have little to reproach myself with in my conduct towards you. I think I am justified in saying, that very few fathers would have acted towards a son as I have acted for the last year or more. I may often have grieved over the secresy which has estranged you from us; I may even have shown you by my manner that I resented it; but I have never used my authority to force you into the explanation of your conduct, which you have been so uniformly unwilling to volunteer. I rested on that implicit faith in the honour and integrity of my son, which I will not yet believe to have been ill-placed, but which, I fear, has led me to neglect too long the duty of inquiry which I owed to your own well-being, and to my position towards you. I am now here to atone for this omission; circumstances have left me no choice. It deeply concerns my interest as a father, and my honour as the head of our family, to know what heavy misfortune it was (I can imagine it to be nothing else) that stretched my son senseless in the open street, and afflicted him afterwards with an illness which threatened his reason and his life. You are now sufficiently recovered to reveal this; and I only use my legitimate authority over my own children, when I tell you that I must now know all. If you persist in remaining silent, the relations between us must henceforth change for life." "I am ready to make my confession, Sir. I only ask you to believe beforehand, that if I have sinned grievously against you, I have been already heavily punished for the sin. I am afraid it is impossible that your worst forebodings can have prepared you--"
"The words you spoke in your delirium--words which I heard, but will not judge you by--justified the worst forebodings."
"My illness has spared me the hardest part of a hard trial, Sir, if it has prepared you for what I have to confess; if you suspect--"
"I do not suspect--I feel but too sure, that you, my second son, from whom I had expected far better things, have imitated in secret--I am afraid, outstripped--the worst vices of your elder brother."
"My brother!--my brother's faults mine! Ralph!"
"Yes, Ralph. It is my last hope that you will now imitate Ralph's candour. Take example from that best part of him, as you have already taken example from the worst."
My heart grew faint and cold as he spoke. Ralph's example! Ralph's vices!--vices of the reckless hour, or the idle day!--vices whose stain, in the world's eye, was not a stain for life!--convenient, reclaimable vices, that men were mercifully unwilling to associate with grinning infamy and irreparable disgrace! How far-how fearfully far, my father was from the remotest suspicion of what had really happened! I tried to answer his last words, but the apprehension of the life-long humiliation and grief which my confession might inflict on him--absolutely incapable, as he appeared to be, of foreboding even the least degrading part of it--kept me speechless. When he resumed, after a momentary silence, his tones were stern, his looks searching--pitilessly searching, and bent full upon my face. "A person has been calling, named Sherwin," he said, "and inquiring about you every day. What intimate connection between you authorises this perfect stranger to me to come to the house as frequently as he does, and to make his inquiries with a familiarity of tone and manner which has struck every one of the servants who have, on different occasions, opened the door to him? Who is this Mr. Sherwin?"
"It is not with him, Sir, that I can well begin. I must go back--"
"You must go back farther, I am afraid, than you will be able to return. You must go back to the time when you had nothing to conceal from me, and when you could speak to me with the frankness and directness of a gentleman." "Pray be patient with me, Sir; give me a few minutes to collect myself. I have much need for a little self-possession before I tell you all."
"All? your tones mean more than your words--they are candid, at least! Have I feared the worst, and yet not feared as I ought? Basil!--do you hear me, Basil? You are trembling very strangely; you are growing pale!"
"I shall be better directly, Sir. I am afraid I am not quite so strong yet as I thought myself. Father! I am heart-broken and spirit-broken: be patient and kind to me, or I cannot speak to you."
I thought I saw his eyes moisten. He shaded them a moment with his hand, and sighed again--the same long, trembling sigh that I had heard before. I tried to rise from my chair, and throw myself on my knees at his feet. He mistook the action, and caught me by the arm, believing that I was fainting.
'No more to-night, Basil," he said, hurriedly, but very gently; "no more on this subject till to-morrow."
"I can speak now, Sir; it is better to speak at once."
"No: you are too much agitated; you are weaker than I thought. To-morrow, in the morning, when you are stronger after a night's rest. No! I will hear nothing more. Go to bed now; I will tell your sister not to disturb you to-night. To-morrow, you shall speak to me; and speak in your own way, without interruption. Good-night, Basil, good-night."
Without waiting to shake hands with me, he hastened to the door, as if anxious to hide from my observation the grief and apprehension which had evidently overcome him. But, just at the moment when he was leaving the room, he hesitated, turned round, looked sorrowfully at me for an instant, and then, retracing his steps, gave me his hand, pressed mine for a moment in silence, and left me.
After the morrow was over, would he ever give me that hand again?