LETTER OF DEDICATION.
TO CHARLES JAMES WARD, ESQ.
IT has long been one of my pleasantest anticipations to look forward to the time when I might offer to you, my old and dear friend, some such acknowledgment of the value I place on your affection for me, and of my grateful sense of the many acts of kindness by which that affection has been proved, as I now gladly offer in this place. In dedicating the present work to you, I fulfil therefore a purpose which, for some time past, I have sincerely desired to achieve; and, more than that, I gain for myself the satisfaction of knowing that there is one page, at least, of my book, on which I shall always look with unalloyed pleasure--the page that bears your name.
I have founded the main event out of which this story springs, on a fact within my own knowledge. In afterwards shaping the course of the narrative thus suggested, I have guided it, as often as I could, where I knew by my own experience, or by experience related to me by others, that it would touch on something real and true in its progress. My idea was, that the more of the Actual I could garner up as a text to speak from, the more certain I might feel of the genuineness and value of the Ideal which was sure to spring out of it. Fancy and Imagination, Grace and Beauty, all those qualities which are to the work of Art what scent and colour are to the flower, can only grow towards heaven by taking root in earth. Is not the noblest poetry of prose fiction the poetry of every-day truth?
Directing my characters and my story, then, towards the light of Reality wherever I could find it, I have not hesitated to violate some of the conventionalities of sentimental fiction. For instance, the first love-meeting of two of the personages in this book, occurs (where the real love-meeting from which it is drawn, occurred) in the very last place and under the very last circumstances which the artifices of sentimental writing would sanction. Will my lovers excite ridicule instead of interest, because I have truly represented them as seeing each other where hundreds of other lovers have first seen each other, as hundreds of people will readily admit when they read the passage to which I refer? I am sanguine enough to think not.
So again, in certain parts of this book where I have attempted to excite the suspense or pity of the reader, I have admitted as perfectly fit accessories to the scene the most ordinary street-sounds that could be heard, and the most ordinary street-events that could occur, at the time and in the place represented--believing that by adding to truth, they were adding to tragedy--adding by all the force of fair contrast--adding as no artifices of mere writing possibly could add, let them be ever so cunningly introduced by ever so crafty a hand.
Allow me to dwell a moment longer on the story which these pages contain.
Believing that the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction; that the one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted; and that all the strong and deep emotions which the Play-writer is privileged to excite, the Novel-writer is privileged to excite also, I have not thought it either politic or necessary, while adhering to realities, to adhere to every-day realities only. In other words, I have not stooped so low as to assure myself of the reader's belief in the probability of my story, by never once calling on him for the exercise of his faith. Those extraordinary accidents and events which happen to few men, seemed to me to be as legitimate materials for fiction to work with--when there was a good object in using them--as the ordinary accidents and events which may, and do, happen to us all. By appealing to genuine sources of interest within the reader's own experience, I could certainly gain his attention to begin with; but it would be only by appealing to other sources (as genuine in their way) beyond his own experience, that I could hope to fix his interest and excite his suspense, to occupy his deeper feelings, or to stir his nobler thoughts.
In writing thus--briefly and very generally--(for I must not delay you too long from the story), I can but repeat, though I hope almost unnecessarily, that I am now only speaking of what I have tried to do. Between the purpose hinted at here, and the execution of that purpose contained in the succeeding pages, lies the broad line of separation which distinguishes between the will and the deed. How far I may fall short of another man's standard, remains to be discovered. How far I have fallen short of my own, I know painfully well.
One word more on the manner in which the purpose of the following pages is worked out--and I have done.
Nobody who admits that the business of fiction is to exhibit human life, can deny that scenes of misery and crime must of necessity, while human nature remains what it is, form part of that exhibition. Nobody can assert that such scenes are unproductive of useful results, when they are turned to a plainly and purely moral purpose. If I am asked why I have written certain scenes in this book, my answer is to be found in the universally-accepted truth which the preceding words express. I have a right to appeal to that truth; for I guided myself by it throughout. In deriving the lesson which the following pages contain, from those examples of error and crime which would most strikingly and naturally teach it, I determined to do justice to the honesty of my object by speaking out. In drawing the two characters, whose actions bring about the darker scenes of my story, I did not forget that it was my duty, while striving to portray them naturally, to put them to a good moral use; and at some sacrifice, in certain places, of dramatic effect (though I trust with no sacrifice of truth to Nature), I have shown the conduct of the vile, as always, in a greater or less degree, associated with something that is selfish, contemptible, or cruel in motive. Whether any of my better characters may succeed in endearing themselves to the reader, I know not: but this I do certainly know:--that I shall in no instance cheat him out of his sympathies in favour of the bad.
To those persons who dissent from the broad principles here adverted to; who deny that it is the novelist's vocation to do more than merely amuse them; who shrink from all honest and serious reference, in books, to subjects which they think of in private and talk of in public everywhere; who see covert implications where nothing is implied, and improper allusions where nothing improper is alluded to; whose innocence is in the word, and not in the thought; whose morality stops at the tongue, and never gets on to the heart--to those persons, I should consider it loss of time, and worse, to offer any further explanation of my motives, than the sufficient explanation which I have given already. I do not address myself to them in this book, and shall never think of addressing myself to them in any other.
Those words formed part of the original introduction to this novel. I wrote them nearly ten years since; and what I said then, I say now.
"Basil" was the second work of fiction which I produced. On its appearance, it was condemned off-hand, by a certain class of readers, as an outrage on their sense of propriety. Conscious of having designed and written, my story with the strictest regard to true delicacy, as distinguished from false--I allowed the prurient misinterpretation of certain perfectly innocent passages in this book to assert itself as offensively as it pleased, without troubling myself to protest against an expression of opinion which aroused in me no other feeling than a feeling of contempt. I knew that "Basil" had nothing to fear from pure-minded readers; and I left these pages to stand or fall on such merits as they possessed. Slowly and surely, my story forced its way through all adverse criticism, to a place in the public favour which it has never lost since. Some of the most valued friends I now possess, were made for me by "Basil." Some of the most gratifying recognitions of my labours which I have received, from readers personally strangers to me, have been recognitions of the purity of this story, from the first page to the last. All the indulgence I need now ask for "Basil," is indulgence for literary defects, which are the result of inexperience; which no correction can wholly remove; and which no one sees more plainly, after a lapse of ten years, than the writer himself.
I have only to add, that the present edition of this book is the first which has had the benefit of my careful revision. While the incidents of the story remain exactly what they were, the language in which they are told has been, I hope, in many cases greatly altered for the better.
Harley Street, London,
WHAT am I now about to write?
The history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of my life.
Why do I undertake such an employment as this?
Perhaps, because I think that my narrative may do good; because I hope that, one day, it may be put to some warning use. I am now about to relate the story of an error, innocent in its beginning, guilty in its progress, fatal in its results; and I would fain hope that my plain and true record will show that this error was not committed altogether without excuse. When these pages are found after my death, they will perhaps be calmly read and gently judged, as relics solemnized by the atoning shadows of the grave. Then, the hard sentence against me may be repented of; the children of the next generation of our house may be taught to speak charitably of my memory, and may often, of their own accord, think of me kindly in the thoughtful watches of the night.
Prompted by these motives, and by others which I feel, but cannot analyse, I now begin my self-imposed occupation. Hidden amid the far hills of the far West of England, surrounded only by the few simple inhabitants of a fishing hamlet on the Cornish coast, there is little fear that my attention will be distracted from my task; and as little chance that any indolence on my part will delay its speedy accomplishment. I live under a threat of impending hostility, which may descend and overwhelm me, I know not how soon, or in what manner. An enemy, determined and deadly, patient alike to wait days or years for his opportunity, is ever lurking after me in the dark. In entering on my new employment, I cannot say of my time, that it may be mine for another hour; of my life, that it may last till evening.
Thus it is as no leisure work that I begin my narrative--and begin it, too, on my birthday! On this day I complete my twenty-fourth year; the first new year of my life which has not been greeted by a single kind word, or a single loving wish. But one look of welcome can still find me in my solitude--the lovely morning look of nature, as I now see it from the casement of my room. Brighter and brighter shines out the lusty sun from banks of purple, rainy cloud; fishermen are spreading their nets to dry on the lower declivities of the rocks; children are playing round the boats drawn up on the beach; the sea-breeze blows fresh and pure towards the shore----all objects are brilliant to look on, all sounds are pleasant to hear, as my pen traces the first lines which open the story of my life.
I am the second son of an English gentleman of large fortune. Our family is, I believe, one of the most ancient in this country. On my father's side, it dates back beyond the Conquest; on my mother's, it is not so old, but the pedigree is nobler. Besides my elder brother, I have one sister, younger than myself. My mother died shortly after giving birth to her last child.
Circumstances which will appear hereafter, have forced me to abandon my father's name. I have been obliged in honour to resign it; and in honour I abstain from mentioning it here. Accordingly, at the head of these pages, I have only placed my Christian name--not considering it of any importance to add the surname which I have assumed; and which I may, perhaps, be obliged to change for some other, at no very distant period. It will now, I hope, be understood from the outset, why I never mention my brother and sister but by their Christian names; why a blank occurs wherever my father's name should appear; why my own is kept concealed in this narrative, as it is kept concealed in the world.
The story of my boyhood and youth has little to interest--nothing that is new. My education was the education of hundreds of others in my rank of life. I was first taught at a public school, and then went to college to complete what is termed "a liberal education."
My life at college has not left me a single pleasant recollection. I found sycophancy established there, as a principle of action; flaunting on the lord's gold tassel in the street; enthroned on the lord's dais in the dining-room. The most learned student in my college--the man whose life was most exemplary, whose acquirements were most admirable--was shown me sitting, as a commoner, in the lowest place. The heir to an Earldom, who had failed at the last examination, was pointed out a few minutes afterwards, dining in solitary grandeur at a raised table, above the reverend scholars who had turned him back as a dunce. I had just arrived at the University, and had just been congratulated on entering "a venerable seminary of learning and religion."
Trite and common-place though it be, I mention this circumstance attending my introduction to college, because it formed the first cause which tended to diminish my faith in the institution to which I was attached. I soon grew to regard my university training as a sort of necessary evil, to be patiently submitted to. I read for no honours, and joined no particular set of men. I studied the literature of France, Italy, and Germany; just kept up my classical knowledge sufficiently to take my degree; and left college with no other reputation than a reputation for indolence and reserve.
When I returned home, it was thought necessary, as I was a younger son, and could inherit none of the landed property of the family, except in the case of my brother's dying without children, that I should belong to a profession. My father had the patronage of some valuable "livings," and good interest with more than one member of the government. The church, the army, the navy, and, in the last instance, the bar, were offered me to choose from. I selected the last.
My father appeared to be a little astonished at my choice; but he made no remark on it, except simply telling me not to forget that the bar was a good stepping-stone to parliament. My real ambition, however, was, not to make a name in parliament, but a name in literature. I had already engaged myself in the hard, but glorious service of the pen; and I was determined to persevere. The profession which offered me the greatest facilities for pursuing my project, was the profession which I was ready to prefer. So I chose the bar.
Thus, I entered life under the fairest auspices. Though a younger son, I knew that my father's wealth, exclusive of his landed property, secured me an independent income far beyond my wants. I had no extravagant habits; no tastes that I could not gratify as soon as formed; no cares or responsibilities of any kind. I might practise my profession or not, just as I chose. I could devote myself wholly and unreservedly to literature, knowing that, in my case, the struggle for fame could never be identical--terribly, though gloriously identical--with the struggle for bread. For me, the morning sunshine of life was sunshine without a cloud!
I might attempt, in this place, to sketch my own character as it was at that time. But what man can say--I will sound the depth of my own vices, and measure the height of my own virtues; and be as good as his word? We can neither know nor judge ourselves; others may judge, but cannot know us: God alone judges and knows too. Let my character appear--as far as any human character can appear in its integrity, in this world--in my actions, when I describe the one eventful passage in my life which forms the basis of this narrative. In the mean time, it is first necessary that I should say more about the members of my family. Two of them, at least, will be found important to the progress of events in these pages. I make no attempt to judge their characters: I only describe them--whether rightly or wrongly, I know not--as they appeared to me.
I always considered my father--I speak of him in the past tense, because we are now separated for ever; because he is henceforth as dead to me as if the grave had closed over him--I always considered my father to be the proudest man I ever knew; the proudest man I ever heard of. His was not that conventional pride, which the popular notions are fond of characterising by a stiff, stately carriage; by a rigid expression of features; by a hard, severe intonation of voice; by set speeches of contempt for poverty and rags, and rhapsodical braggadocio about rank and breeding. My father's pride had nothing of this about it. It was that quiet, negative, courteous, inbred pride, which only the closest observation could detect; which no ordinary observers ever detected at all.
Who that observed him in communication with any of the farmers on any of his estates--who that saw the manner in which he lifted his hat, when he accidentally met any of those farmers' wives--who that noticed his hearty welcome to the man of the people, when that man happened to be a man of genius--would have thought him proud? On such occasions as these, if he had any pride, it was impossible to detect it. But seeing him when, for instance, an author and a new-made peer of no ancestry entered his house together--observing merely the entirely different manner in which he shook hands with each--remarking that the polite cordiality was all for the man of letters, who did not contest his family rank with him, and the polite formality all for the man of title, who did--you discovered where and how he was proud in an instant. Here lay his fretful point. The aristocracy of rank, as separate from the aristocracy of ancestry, was no aristocracy for him. He was jealous of it; he hated it. Commoner though he was, he considered himself the social superior of any man, from a baronet up to a duke, whose family was less ancient than his own.
Among a host of instances of this peculiar pride of his which I could cite, I remember one, characteristic enough to be taken as a sample of all the rest. It happened when I was quite a child, and was told me by one of my uncles now dead--who witnessed the circumstance himself, and always made a good story of it to the end of his life.
A merchant of enormous wealth, who had recently been raised to the peerage, was staying at one of our country houses. His daughter, my uncle, and an Italian Abbé were the only guests besides. The merchant was a portly, purple-faced man, who bore his new honours with a curious mixture of assumed pomposity and natural good-humour The Abbé was dwarfish and deformed, lean, sallow, sharp-featured, with bright bird-like eyes, and a low, liquid voice. He was a political refugee, dependent for the bread he ate, on the money he received for teaching languages. He might have been a beggar from the streets; and still my father would have treated him as the principal guest in the house, for this all-sufficient reason--he was a direct descendant of one of the oldest of those famous Roman families whose names are part of the history of the Civil Wars in Italy.
On the first day, the party assembled for dinner comprised the merchant's daughter, my mother, an old lady who had once been her governess, and had always lived with her since her marriage, the new Lord, the Abbé, my father, and my uncle. When dinner was announced, the peer advanced in new-blown dignity, to offer his arm as a matter of course to my mother. My father's pale face flushed crimson in a moment. He touched the magnificent merchant-lord on the arm, and pointed significantly, with a low bow, towards the decrepit old lady who had once been my mother's governess. Then walking to the other end of the room, where the penniless Abbé was looking over a book in a corner, he gravely and courteously led the little, deformed, limping language-master, clad in a long, threadbare, black coat, up to my mother (whose shoulder the Abbé's head hardly reached), held the door open for them to pass out first, with his own hand; politely invited the new nobleman, who stood half-paralysed between confusion and astonishment, to follow with the tottering old lady on his arm; and then returned to lead the peer's daughter down to dinner himself. He only resumed his wonted expression and manner, when he had seen the little Abbé--the squalid, half-starved representative of mighty barons of the olden time--seated at the highest place of the table by my mother's side.
It was by such accidental circumstances as these that you discovered how far he was proud. He never boasted of his ancestors; he never even spoke of them, except when he was questioned on the subject; but he never forgot them. They were the very breath of his life; the deities of his social worship: the family treasures to be held precious beyond all lands and all wealth, all ambitions and all glories, by his children and his children's children to the end of their race.
In home-life he performed his duties towards his family honourably, delicately, and kindly. I believe in his own way he loved us all; but we, his descendants, had to share his heart with his ancestors--we were his household property as well as his children. Every fair liberty was given to us; every fair indulgence was granted to us. He never displayed any suspicion, or any undue severity. We were taught by his direction, that to disgrace our family, either by word or action, was the one fatal crime which could never be forgotten and never be pardoned. We were formed, under his superintendence, in principles of religion, honour, and industry; and the rest was left to our own moral sense, to our own comprehension of the duties and privileges of our station. There was no one point in his conduct towards any of us that we could complain of; and yet there was something always incomplete in our domestic relations.
It may seem incomprehensible, even ridiculous, to some persons, but it is nevertheless true, that we were none of us ever on intimate terms with him. I mean by this, that he was a father to us, but never a companion. There was something in his manner, his quiet and unchanging manner, which kept us almost unconsciously restrained. I never in my life felt less at my ease--I knew not why at the time--than when I occasionally dined alone with him. I never confided to him my schemes for amusement as a boy, or mentioned more than generally my ambitious hopes, as a young man. It was not that he would have received such confidences with ridicule or severity, he was incapable of it; but that he seemed above them, unfitted to enter into them, too far removed by his own thoughts from such thoughts as ours. Thus, all holiday councils were held with old servants; thus, my first pages of manuscript, when I first tried authorship, were read by my sister, and never penetrated into my father's study.
Again, his mode of testifying displeasure towards my brother or myself, had something terrible in its calmness, something that we never forgot, and always dreaded as the worst calamity that could befall us.
Whenever, as boys, we committed some boyish fault, he never displayed outwardly any irritation--he simply altered his manner towards us altogether. We were not soundly lectured, or vehemently threatened, or positively punished in anyway; but, when we came in contact with him, we were treated with a cold, contemptuous politeness (especially if our fault showed a tendency to anything mean or ungentlemanlike) which cut us to the heart. On these occasions, we were not addressed by our Christian names; if we accidentally met him out of doors, he was sure to turn aside and avoid us; if we asked a question, it was answered in the briefest possible manner, as if we had been strangers. His whole course of conduct said, as though in so many words--You have rendered yourselves unfit to associate with your father; and he is now making you feel that unfitness as deeply as he does. We were left in this domestic purgatory for days, sometimes for weeks together. To our boyish feelings (to mine especially) there was no ignominy like it, while it lasted.
I know not on what terms my father lived with my mother. Towards my sister, his demeanour always exhibited something of the old-fashioned, affectionate gallantry of a former age. He paid her the same attention that he would have paid to the highest lady in the land. He led her into the dining-room, when we were alone, exactly as he would have led a duchess into a banqueting-hall. He would allow us, as boys, to quit the breakfast-table before he had risen himself; but never before she had left it. If a servant failed in duty towards him, the servant was often forgiven; if towards her, the servant was sent away on the spot. His daughter was in his eyes the representative of her mother: the mistress of his house, as well as his child. It was curious to see the mixture of high-bred courtesy and fatherly love in his manner, as he just gently touched her forehead with his lips, when he first saw her in the morning.
In person, my father was of not more than middle height. He was very slenderly and delicately made; his head small, and well set on his shoulders--his forehead more broad than lofty--his complexion singularly pale, except in moments of agitation, when I have already noticed its tendency to flush all over in an instant. His eyes, large and gray, had something commanding in their look; they gave a certain unchanging firmness and dignity to his expression, not often met with. They betrayed his birth and breeding, his old ancestral prejudices, his chivalrous sense of honour, in every glance. It required, indeed, all the masculine energy of look about the upper part of his face, to redeem the lower part from an appearance of effeminacy, so delicately was it moulded in its fine Norman outline. His smile was remarkable for its sweetness--it was almost like a woman's smile. In speaking, too, his lips often trembled as women's do. If he ever laughed, as a young man, his laugh must have been very clear and musical; but since I can recollect him, I never heard it. In his happiest moments, in the gayest society, I have only seen him smile.
There were other characteristics of my father's disposition and manner, which I might mention; but they will appear to greater advantage, perhaps, hereafter, connected with circumstances which especially called them forth.
When a family is possessed of large landed property, the individual of that family who shows least interest in its welfare; who is least fond of home, least connected by his own sympathies with his relatives, least ready to learn his duties or admit his responsibilities, is often that very individual who is to succeed to the family inheritance--the eldest son.
My brother Ralph was no exception to this remark. We were educated together. After our education was completed, I never saw him, except for short periods. He was almost always on the continent, for some years after he left college. And when he returned definitely to England, he did not return to live under our roof. Both in town and country he was our visitor, not our inmate.
I recollect him at school--stronger, taller, handsomer than I was; far beyond me in popularity among the little community we lived with; the first to lead a daring exploit, the last to abandon it; now at the bottom of the class, now at the top--just that sort of gay, boisterous, fine-looking, dare-devil boy, whom old people would instinctively turn round and smile after, as they passed him by in a morning walk.
Then, at college, he became illustrious among rowers and cricketers, renowned as a pistol shot, dreaded as a singlestick player. No wine parties in the university were such wine parties as his; tradesmen gave him the first choice of everything that was new; young ladies in the town fell in love with him by dozens; young tutors with a tendency to dandyism, copied the cut of his coat and the tie of his cravat; even the awful heads of houses looked leniently on his delinquencies. The gay, hearty, handsome young English gentleman carried a charm about him that subdued everybody. Though I was his favourite butt, both at school and college, I never quarrelled with him in my life. I always let him ridicule my dress, manners, and habits in his own reckless, boisterous way, as if it had been a part of his birthright privilege to laugh at me as much as he chose.
Thus far, my father had no worse anxieties about him than those occasioned by his high spirits and his heavy debts. But when he returned home--when the debts had been paid, and it was next thought necessary to drill the free, careless energies into something like useful discipline--then my father's trials and difficulties began in earnest.
It was impossible to make Ralph comprehend and appreciate his position, as he was desired to comprehend and appreciate it. The steward gave up in despair all attempts to enlighten him about the extent, value, and management of the estates he was to inherit. A vigorous effort was made to inspire him with ambition; to get him to go into parliament. He laughed at the idea. A commission in the Guards was next offered to him. He refused it, because he would never be buttoned up in a red coat; because he would submit to no restraints, fashionable or military; because in short, he was determined to be his own master. My father talked to him by the hour together, about his duties and his prospects, the cultivation of his mind, and the example of his ancestors; and talked in vain. He yawned and fidgetted over the emblazoned pages of his own family pedigree, whenever they were opened before him.
In the country, he cared for nothing but hunting and shooting--it was as difficult to make him go to a grand county dinner-party, as to make him go to church. In town, he haunted the theatres, behind the scenes as well as before; entertained actors and actresses at Richmond; ascended in balloons at Vauxhall; went about with detective policemen, seeing life among pickpockets and housebreakers; belonged to a whist club, a supper club, a catch club, a boxing club, a picnic club, an amateur theatrical club; and, in short, lived such a careless, convivial life, that my father, outraged in every one of his family prejudices and family refinements, almost ceased to speak to him, and saw him as rarely as possible. Occasionally, my sister's interference reconciled them again for a short time; her influence, gentle as it was, was always powerfully felt for good, but she could not change my brother's nature. Persuade and entreat as anxiously as she might, he was always sure to forfeit the paternal favour again, a few days after he had been restored to it.
At last, matters were brought to their climax by an awkward love adventure of Ralph's with one of our tenants' daughters. My father acted with his usual decision on the occasion. He determined to apply a desperate remedy: to let the refractory eldest son run through his career in freedom, abroad, until he had well wearied himself, and could return home a sobered man. Accordingly, he procured for my brother an attaché's place in a foreign embassy, and insisted on his leaving England forthwith. For once in a way, Ralph was docile. He knew and cared nothing about diplomacy; but he liked the idea of living on the continent, so he took his leave of home with his best grace. My father saw him depart, with ill-concealed agitation and apprehension; although he affected to feel satisfied that, flighty and idle as Ralph was, he was incapable of voluntarily dishonouring his family, even in his most reckless moods.
After this, we heard little from my brother. His letters were few and short, and generally ended with petitions for money. The only important news of him that reached us, reached us through public channels.
He was making quite a continental reputation--a reputation, the bare mention of which made my father wince. He had fought a duel; he had imported a new dance from Hungary; he had contrived to get the smallest groom that ever was seen behind a cabriolet; he had carried off the reigning beauty among the opera-dancers of the day from all competitors; a great French cook had composed a great French dish, and christened it by his name; he was understood to be the "unknown friend," to whom a literary Polish countess had dedicated her "Letters against the restraint of the Marriage Tie;" a female German metaphysician, sixty years old, had fallen (Platonically) in love with him, and had taken to writing erotic romances in her old age. Such were some of the rumours that reached my father's ears on the subject of his son and heir!
After a long absence, he came home on a visit. How well I remember the astonishment he produced in the whole household! He had become a foreigner in manners and appearance. His mustachios were magnificent; miniature toys in gold and jewellery hung in clusters from his watch-chain; his shirt-front was a perfect filigree of lace and cambric. He brought with him his own boxes of choice liqueurs and perfumes; his own smart, impudent, French valet; his own travelling bookcase of French novels, which he opened with his own golden key. He drank nothing but chocolate in the morning; he had long interviews with the cook, and revolutionized our dinner table. All the French newspapers were sent to him by a London agent. He altered the arrangements of his bed-room; no servant but his own valet was permitted to enter it. Family portraits that hung there, were turned to the walls, and portraits of French actresses and Italian singers were stuck to the back of the canvasses. Then he displaced a beautiful little ebony cabinet which had been in the family three hundred years; and set up in its stead a Cyprian temple of his own, in miniature, with crystal doors, behind which hung locks of hair, rings, notes written on blush-coloured paper, and other love-tokens kept as sentimental relics. His influence became all-pervading among us. He seemed to communicate to the house the change that had taken place in himself, from the reckless, racketty young Englishman to the super-exquisite foreign dandy. It was as if the fiery, effervescent atmosphere of the Boulevards of Paris had insolently penetrated into the old English mansion, and ruffled and infected its quiet native air, to the remotest corners of the place.
My father was even more dismayed than displeased by the alteration in my brother's habits and manners--the eldest son was now farther from his ideal of what an eldest son should be, than ever. As for friends and neighbours, Ralph was heartily feared and disliked by them, before he had been in the house a week. He had an ironically patient way of listening to their conversation; an ironically respectful manner of demolishing their old-fashioned opinions, and correcting their slightest mistakes, which secretly aggravated them beyond endurance. It was worse still, when my father, in despair, tried to tempt him into marriage, as the one final chance of working his reform; and invited half the marriageable young ladies of our acquaintance to the house, for his especial benefit.
Ralph had never shown much fondness at home, for the refinements of good female society. Abroad, he had lived as exclusively as he possibly could, among women whose characters ranged downwards by infinitesimal degrees, from the mysteriously doubtful to the notoriously bad. The highly-bred, highly-refined, highly-accomplished young English beauties had no charm for him. He detected at once the domestic conspiracy of which he was destined to become the victim. He often came up-stairs, at night, into my bed-room; and while he was amusing himself by derisively kicking about my simple clothes and simple toilette apparatus; while he was laughing in his old careless way at my quiet habits and monotonous life, used to slip in, parenthetically, all sorts of sarcasms about our young lady guests. To him, their manners were horribly inanimate; their innocence, hypocrisy of education. Pure complexions and regular features were very well, he said, as far as they went; but when a girl could not walk properly, when she shook hands with you with cold fingers, when having good eyes she could not make a stimulating use of them, then it was time to sentence the regular features and pure complexions to be taken back forthwith to the nursery from which they came. For his part, he missed the conversation of his witty Polish Countess, and longed for another pancake-supper with his favourite grisettes.
The failure of my father's last experiment with Ralph soon became apparent. Watchful and experienced mothers began to suspect that my brother's method of flirtation was dangerous, and his style of waltzing improper. One or two ultra-cautious parents, alarmed by the laxity of his manners and opinions, removed their daughters out of harm's way, by shortening their visits. The rest were spared any such necessity. My father suddenly discovered that Ralph was devoting himself rather too significantly to a young married woman who was staying in the house. The same day he had a long private interview with my brother. What passed between them, I know not; but it must have been something serious. Ralph came out of my father's private study, very pale and very silent; ordered his luggage to be packed directly; and the next morning departed, with his French valet, and his multifarious French goods and chattels, for the continent.
Another interval passed; and then we had another short visit from him. He was still unaltered. My father's temper suffered under this second disappointment. He became more fretful and silent; more apt to take offence than had been his wont. I particularly mention the change thus produced in his disposition, because that change was destined, at no very distant period, to act fatally upon me.
On this last occasion, also, there was another serious disagreement between father and son; and Ralph left England again in much the same way that he had left it before.
Shortly after that second departure, we heard that he had altered his manner of life. He had contracted, what would be termed in the continental code of morals, a reformatory attachment to a woman older than himself, who was living separated from her husband, when he met with her. It was this lady's lofty ambition to be Mentor and mistress, both together! And she soon proved herself to be well qualified for her courageous undertaking. To the astonishment of everyone who knew him, Ralph suddenly turned economical; and, soon afterwards, actually resigned his post at the embassy, to be out of the way of temptation! Since that, he has returned to England; has devoted himself to collecting snuff-boxes and learning the violin; and is now living quietly in the suburbs of London, still under the inspection of the resolute female missionary who first worked his reform.
Whether he will ever become the high-minded, high-principled country gentleman, that my father has always desired to see him, it is useless for me to guess. On the domains which he is to inherit, I shall never perhaps set foot again: in the halls where he will one day preside as master, I shall never more be sheltered. Let me now quit the subject of my elder brother, and turn to a theme which is nearer to my heart; dear to me as the last remembrance left that I can love; precious beyond all treasures in my solitude and my exile from home.
My sister!--well may I linger over your beloved name in such a record as this. A little farther on, and the darkness of crime and grief will encompass me; here, my recollections of you kindle like a pure light before my eyes--doubly pure by contrast with what lies beyond. May your kind eyes, love, be the first that fall on these pages, when the writer has parted from them for ever! May your tender hand be the first that touches these leaves, when mine is cold! Backward in my narrative, Clara, wherever I have but casually mentioned my sister, the pen has trembled and stood still. At this place, where all my remembrances of you throng upon me unrestrained, the tears gather fast and thick beyond control; and for the first time since I began my task, my courage and my calmness fail me.
It is useless to persevere longer. My hand trembles; my eyes grow dimmer and dimmer. I must close my labours for the day, and go forth to gather strength and resolution for to-morrow on the hill-tops that overlook the sea.
My sister Clara is four years younger than I am. In form of face, in complexion, and--except the eyes--in features, she bears a striking resemblance to my father. Her expressions however, must be very like what my mother's was. Whenever I have looked at her in her silent and thoughtful moments, she has always appeared to freshen, and even to increase, my vague, childish recollections of our lost mother. Her eyes have that slight tinge of melancholy in their tenderness, and that peculiar softness in their repose, which is only seen in blue eyes. Her complexion, pale as my father's when she is neither speaking nor moving, has in a far greater degree than his the tendency to flush, not merely in moments of agitation, but even when she is walking, or talking on any subject that interests her. Without this peculiarity her paleness would be a defect. With it, the absence of any colour in her complexion but the fugitive uncertain colour which I have described, would to some eyes debar her from any claims to beauty. And a beauty perhaps she is not--at least, in the ordinary acceptation of the term.
The lower part of her face is rather too small for the upper, her figure is too slight, the sensitiveness of her nervous organization is too constantly visible in her actions and her looks. She would not fix attention and admiration in a box at the opera; very few men passing her in the street would turn round to look after her; very few women would regard her with that slightingly attentive stare, that steady depreciating scrutiny, which a dashing decided beauty so often receives (and so often triumphs in receiving) from her personal inferiors among her own sex. The greatest charms that my sister has on the surface, come from beneath it.
When you really knew her, when she spoke to you freely, as to a friend--then, the attraction of her voice, her smile her manner, impressed you indescribably. Her slightest words and her commonest actions interested and delighted you, you knew not why. There was a beauty about her unassuming simplicity, her natural--exquisitely natural--kindness of heart, and word, and manner, which preserved its own unobtrusive influence over you, in spite of all other rival influences, be they what they might. You missed and thought of her, when you were fresh from the society of the most beautiful and the most brilliant women. You remembered a few kind, pleasant words of hers when you forgot the wit of the wittiest ladies, the learning of the most learned. The influence thus possessed, and unconsciously possessed, by my sister over every one with whom she came in contact--over men especially--may, I think be very simply accounted for, in very few sentences.
We live in an age when too many women appear to be ambitious of morally unsexing themselves before society, by aping the language and the manners of men--especially in reference to that miserable modern dandyism of demeanour, which aims at repressing all betrayal of warmth of feeling; which abstains from displaying any enthusiasm on any subject whatever; which, in short, labours to make the fashionable imperturbability of the face the faithful reflection of the fashionable imperturbability of the mind. Women of this exclusively modern order, like to use slang expressions in their conversation; assume a bastard-masculine abruptness in their manners, a bastard-masculine licence in their opinions; affect to ridicule those outward developments of feeling which pass under the general appellation of "sentiment." Nothing impresses, agitates, amuses, or delights them in a hearty, natural, womanly way. Sympathy looks ironical, if they ever show it: love seems to be an affair of calculation, or mockery, or contemptuous sufferance, if they ever feel it.
To women such as these, my sister Clara presented as complete a contrast as could well be conceived. In this contrast lay the secret of her influence, of the voluntary tribute of love and admiration which followed her wherever she went.
Few men have not their secret moments of deep feeling--moments when, amid the wretched trivialities and hypocrisies of modern society, the image will present itself to their minds of some woman, fresh, innocent, gentle, sincere; some woman whose emotions are still warm and impressible, whose affections and sympathies can still appear in her actions, and give the colour to her thoughts; some woman in whom we could put as perfect faith and trust, as if we were children; whom we despair of finding near the hardening influences of the world; whom we could scarcely venture to look for, except in solitary places far away in the country; in little rural shrines, shut up from society, among woods and fields, and lonesome boundary-hills. When any women happen to realise, or nearly to realise, such an image as this, they possess that universal influence which no rivalry can ever approach. On them really depends, and by then is really preserved, that claim upon the sincere respect and admiration of men, on which the power of the whole sex is based--the power so often assumed by the many, so rarely possessed but by the few.
It was thus with my sister. Thus, wherever she went, though without either the inclination, or the ambition to shine, she eclipsed women who were her superiors in beauty, in accomplishments, in brilliancy of manners and conversation--conquering by no other weapon than the purely feminine charm of everything she said, and everything she did.
But it was not amid the gaiety and grandeur of a London season that her character was displayed to the greatest advantage. It was when she was living where she loved to live, in the old country-house, among the old friends and old servants who would every one of them have died a hundred deaths for her sake, that you could study and love her best. Then, the charm there was in the mere presence of the kind, gentle, happy young English girl, who could enter into everybody's interests, and be grateful for everybody's love, possessed its best and brightest influence. At picnics, lawn-parties, little country gatherings of all sorts, she was, in her own quiet, natural manner, always the presiding spirit of general comfort and general friendship. Even the rigid laws of country punctilio relaxed before her unaffected cheerfulness and irresistible good-nature. She always contrived--nobody ever knew how--to lure the most formal people into forgetting their formality, and becoming natural for the rest of the day. Even a heavy-headed, lumbering, silent country squire, was not too much for her. She managed to make him feel at his ease, when no one else would undertake the task; she could listen patiently to his confused speeches about dogs, horses, and the state of the crops, when other conversations were proceeding in which she was really interested; she could receive any little grateful attention that he wished to pay her--no matter how awkward or ill-timed--as she received attentions from any one else, with a manner which showed she considered it as a favour granted to her sex, not as a right accorded to it.
So, again, she always succeeded in diminishing the long list of those pitiful affronts and offences, which play such important parts in the social drama of country society. She was a perfect Apostle-errant of the order of Reconciliation; and wherever she went, cast out the devil Sulkiness from all his strongholds--the lofty and the lowly alike. Our good rector used to call her his Volunteer Curate; and declare that she preached by a timely word, or a persuasive look, the best practical sermons on the blessings of peace-making that were ever composed.
With all this untiring good-nature, with all this resolute industry in the task of making every one happy whom she approached, there was mingled some indescribable influence, which invariably preserved her from the presumption, even of the most presuming people. I never knew anybody venturesome enough--either by word or look--to take a liberty with her. There was something about her which inspired respect as well as love. My father, following the bent of his peculiar and favourite ideas, always thought it was the look of her race in her eyes, the ascendancy of her race in her manners. I believe it to have proceeded from a simpler and a better cause. There is a goodness of heart, which carries the shield of its purity over the open hand of its kindness: and that goodness was hers.
To my father, she was more, I believe, than he himself ever imagined--or will ever know, unless he should lose her. He was often, in his intercourse with the world, wounded severely enough in his peculiar prejudices and peculiar refinements--he was always sure to find the first respected, and the last partaken by her. He could trust in her implicitly, he could feel assured that she was not only willing, but able, to share and relieve his domestic troubles and anxieties. If he had been less fretfully anxious about his eldest son; if he had wisely distrusted from the first his own powers of persuading and reforming, and had allowed Clara to exercise her influence over Ralph more constantly and more completely than he really did, I am persuaded that the long-expected epoch of my brother's transformation would have really arrived by this time, or even before it.
The strong and deep feelings of my sister's nature lay far below the surface--for a woman, too far below it. Suffering was, for her, silent, secret, long enduring; often almost entirely void of outward vent or development. I never remember seeing her in tears, except on rare and very serious occasions. Unless you looked at her narrowly, you would judge her to be little sensitive to ordinary griefs and troubles. At such times, her eyes only grew dimmer and less animated than usual; the paleness of her complexion became rather more marked; her lips closed and trembled involuntarily--but this was all: there was no sighing, no weeping, no speaking even. And yet she suffered acutely. The very strength of her emotions was in their silence and their secresy. I, of all others--I, guilty of infecting with my anguish the pure heart that loved me--ought to know this best!
How long I might linger over all that she has done for me! As I now approach nearer and nearer to the pages which are to reveal my fatal story, so I am more and more tempted to delay over those better and purer remembrances of my sister which now occupy my mind. The first little presents--innocent girlish presents--which she secretly sent to me at school; the first sweet days of our uninterrupted intercourse, when the close of my college life restored me to home; her first inestimable sympathies with my first fugitive vanities of embryo authorship, are thronging back fast and fondly on my thoughts, while I now write.
But these memories must be calmed and disciplined. I must be collected and impartial over my narrative--if it be only to make that narrative show fairly and truly, without suppression or exaggeration, all that I have owed to her.
Not merely all that I have owed to her; but all that I owe to her now. Though I may never see her again, but in my thoughts; still she influences, comforts, cheers me on to hope, as if she were already the guardian spirit of the cottage where I live. Even in my worst moments of despair, I can still remember that Clara is thinking of me and sorrowing for me: I can still feel that remembrance, as an invisible hand of mercy which supports me, sinking; which raises me, fallen; which may yet lead me safely and tenderly to my hard journey's end.
I have now completed all the preliminary notices of my near relatives, which it is necessary to present in these pages; and may proceed at once to the more immediate subject of my narrative.
Imagine to yourself that my father and my sister have been living for some months at our London residence; and that I have recently joined them, after having enjoyed a short tour on the continent.
My father is engaged in his parliamentary duties. We see very little of him. Committees absorb his mornings--debates his evenings. When he has a day of leisure occasionally, he passes it in his study, devoted to his own affairs. He goes very little into society--a political dinner, or a scientific meeting are the only social relaxations that tempt him.
My sister leads a life which is not much in accordance with her simple tastes. She is wearied of balls, operas, flower-shows, and all other London gaieties besides; and heartily longs to be driving about the green lanes again in her own little poney-chaise, and distributing plum-cake prizes to the good children at the Rector's Infant School. But the female friend who happens to be staying with her, is fond of excitement; my father expects her to accept the invitations which he is obliged to decline; so she gives up her own tastes and inclinations as usual, and goes into hot rooms among crowds of fine people, hearing the same glib compliments, and the same polite inquiries, night after night, until, patient as she is, she heartily wishes that her fashionable friends all lived in some opposite quarter of the globe, the farther away the better.
My arrival from the continent is the most welcome of events to her. It gives a new object and a new impulse to her London life.
I am engaged in writing a historical romance--indeed, it is principally to examine the localities in the country where my story is laid, that I have been abroad. Clara has read the first half-dozen finished chapters, in manuscript, and augurs wonderful success for my fiction when it is published. She is determined to arrange my study with her own hands; to dust my books, and sort my papers herself. She knows that I am already as fretful and precise about my literary goods and chattels, as indignant at any interference of housemaids and dusters with my library treasures, as if I were a veteran author of twenty years' standing; and she is resolved to spare me every apprehension on this score, by taking all the arrangements of my study on herself, and keeping the key of the door when I am not in need of it.
We have our London amusements, too, as well as our London employments. But the pleasantest of our relaxations are, after all, procured for us by our horses. We ride every day--sometimes with friends, sometimes alone together. On these latter occasions, we generally turn our horses' heads away from the parks, and seek what country sights we can get in the neighbourhood of London. The northern roads are generally our favourite ride.
Sometimes we penetrate so far that we can bait our horses at a little inn which reminds me of the inns near our country home. I see the same sanded parlour, decorated with the same old sporting prints, furnished with the same battered, deep-coloured mahogany table, and polished elm tree chairs, that I remember in our own village inn. Clara, also, finds bits of common, out of doors, that look like our common; and trees that might have been transplanted expressly for her, from our park.
These excursions we keep a secret, we like to enjoy them entirely by ourselves. Besides, if my father knew that his daughter was drinking the landlady's fresh milk, and his son the landlord's old ale, in the parlour of a suburban roadside inn, he would, I believe, be apt to suspect that both his children had fairly taken leave of their senses.
Evening parties I frequent almost as rarely as my father. Clara's good nature is called into requisition to do duty for me, as well as for him. She has little respite in the task. Old lady relatives and friends, always ready to take care of her, leave her no excuse for staying at home. Sometimes I am shamed into accompanying her a little more frequently than usual; but my old indolence in these matters soon possesses me again. I have contracted a bad habit of writing at night--I read almost incessantly in the day time. It is only because I am fond of riding, that I am ever willing to interrupt my studies, and ever ready to go out at all.
Such were my domestic habits, such my regular occupations and amusements, when a mere accident changed every purpose of my life, and altered me irretrievably from what I was then, to what I am now.
It happened thus:
I had just received my quarter's allowance of pocket-money, and had gone into the city to cash the cheque at my father's bankers.
The money paid, I debated for a moment how I should return homewards. First I thought of walking: then of taking a cab. While I was considering this frivolous point, an omnibus passed me, going westward. In the idle impulse of the moment, I hailed it, and got in.
It was something more than an idle impulse though. If I had at that time no other qualification for the literary career on which I was entering, I certainly had this one--an aptitude for discovering points of character in others: and its natural result, an unfailing delight in studying characters of all kinds, wherever I could meet with them.
I had often before ridden in omnibuses to amuse myself by observing the passengers. An omnibus has always appeared to me, to be a perambulatory exhibition-room of the eccentricities of human nature. I know not any other sphere in which persons of all classes and all temperaments are so oddly collected together, and so immediately contrasted and confronted with each other. To watch merely the different methods of getting into the vehicle, and taking their seats, adopted by different people, is to study no incomplete commentary on the infinitesimal varieties of human character--as various even as the varieties of the human face.
Thus, in addition to the idle impulse, there was the idea of amusement in my thoughts, as I stopped the public vehicle, and added one to the number of the conductor's passengers.
There were five persons in the omnibus when I entered it. Two middle-aged ladies, dressed with amazing splendour in silks and satins, wearing straw-coloured kid gloves, and carrying highly-scented pocket handkerchiefs, sat apart at the end of the vehicle; trying to look as if they occupied it under protest, and preserving the most stately gravity and silence. They evidently felt that their magnificent outward adornments were exhibited in a very unworthy locality, and among a very uncongenial company.
One side, close to the door, was occupied by a lean, withered old man, very shabbily dressed in black, who sat eternally mumbling something between his toothless jaws. Occasionally, to the evident disgust of the genteel ladies, he wiped his bald head and wrinkled forehead with a ragged blue cotton handkerchief, which he kept in the crown of his hat.
Opposite to this ancient sat a dignified gentleman and a sickly vacant-looking little girl. Every event of that day is so indelibly marked on my memory, that I remember, not only this man's pompous look and manner, but even the words he addressed to the poor squalid little creature by his side. When I entered the omnibus, he was telling her in a loud voice how she ought to dispose of her frock and her feet when people got into the vehicle, and when they got out. He then impressed on her the necessity in future life, when she grew up, of always having the price of her fare ready before it was wanted, to prevent unnecessary delay. Having delivered himself of this good advice, he began to hum, keeping time by drumming with his thick Malacca cane. He was still proceeding with this amusement--producing some of the most acutely unmusical sounds I ever heard--when the omnibus stopped to give admission to two ladies. The first who got in was an elderly person--pale and depressed--evidently in delicate health. The second was a young girl.
Among the workings of the hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain, are there any more remarkable than those mysterious moral influences constantly exercised, either for attraction or repulsion, by one human being over another? In the simplest, as in the most important affairs of life, how startling, how irresistible is their power! How often we feel and know, either pleasurably or painfully, that another is looking on us, before we have ascertained the fact with our own eyes! How often we prophesy truly to ourselves the approach of a friend or enemy, just before either have really appeared! How strangely and abruptly we become convinced, at a first introduction, that we shall secretly love this person and loathe that, before experience has guided us with a single fact in relation to their characters!
I have said that the two additional passengers who entered the vehicle in which I was riding, were, one of them, an elderly lady; the other, a young girl. As soon as the latter had seated herself nearly opposite to me, by her companion's side, I felt her influence on me directly--an influence that I cannot describe--an influence which I had never experienced in my life before, which I shall never experience again.
I had helped to hand her in, as she passed me; merely touching her arm for a moment. But how the sense of that touch was prolonged! I felt it thrilling through me--thrilling in every nerve, in every pulsation of my fast-throbbing heart.
Had I the same influence over her? Or was it I that received, and she that conferred, only? I was yet destined to discover; but not then--not for a long, long time.
Her veil was down when I first saw her. Her features and her expression were but indistinctly visible to me. I could just vaguely perceive that she was young and beautiful; but, beyond this, though I might imagine much, I could see little.
From the time when she entered the omnibus, I have no recollection of anything more that occurred in it. I neither remember what passengers got out, or what passengers got in. My powers of observation, hitherto active enough, had now wholly deserted me. Strange! that the capricious rule of chance should sway the action of our faculties that a trifle should set in motion the whole complicated machinery of their exercise, and a trifle suspend it.
We had been moving onward for some little time, when the girl's companion addressed an observation to her. She heard it imperfectly, and lifted her veil while it was being repeated. How painfully my heart beat! I could almost hear it--as her face was, for the first time, freely and fairly disclosed!
She was dark. Her hair, eyes, and complexion were darker than usual in English women. The form, the look altogether, of her face, coupled with what I could see of her figure, made me guess her age to be about twenty. There was the appearance of maturity already in the shape of her features; but their expression still remained girlish, unformed, unsettled. The fire in her large dark eyes, when she spoke, was latent. Their languor, when she was silent--that voluptuous languor of black eyes--was still fugitive and unsteady. The smile about her full lips (to other eyes, they might have looked too full) struggled to be eloquent, yet dared not. Among women, there always seems something left incomplete--a moral creation to be superinduced on the physical--which love alone can develop, and which maternity perfects still further, when developed. I thought, as I looked on her, how the passing colour would fix itself brilliantly on her round, olive cheek; how the expression that still hesitated to declare itself, would speak out at last, would shine forth in the full luxury of its beauty, when she heard the first words, received the first kiss, from the man she loved!
While I still looked at her, as she sat opposite speaking to her companion, our eyes met. It was only for a moment--but the sensation of a moment often makes the thought of a life; and that one little instant made the new life of my heart. She put down her veil again immediately; her lips moved involuntarily as she lowered it: I thought I could discern, through the lace, that the slight movement ripened to a smile.
Still there was enough left to see--enough to charm. There was the little rim of delicate white lace, encircling the lovely, dusky throat; there was the figure visible, where the shawl had fallen open, slender, but already well developed in its slenderness, and exquisitely supple; there was the waist, naturally low, and left to its natural place and natural size; there were the little millinery and jewellery ornaments that she wore--simple and common-place enough in themselves--yet each a beauty, each a treasure, on her. There was all this to behold, all this to dwell on, in spite of the veil. The veil! how little of the woman does it hide, when the man really loves her!
We had nearly arrived at the last point to which the omnibus would take us, when she and her companion got out. I followed them, cautiously and at some distance.
She was tall--tall at least for a woman. There were not many people in the road along which we were proceeding; but even if there had been, far behind as I was walking, I should never have lost her--never have mistaken any one else for her. Already, strangers though we were, I felt that I should know her, almost at any distance, only by her walk.
They went on, until we reached a suburb of new houses, intermingled with wretched patches of waste land, half built over. Unfinished streets, unfinished crescents, unfinished squares, unfinished shops, unfinished gardens, surrounded us. At last they stopped at a new square, and rang the bell at one of the newest of the new houses. The door was opened, and she and her companion disappeared. The house was partly detached. It bore no number; but was distinguished as North Villa. The square--unfinished like everything else in the neighbourhood--was called Hollyoake Square.
I noticed nothing else about the place at that time. Its newness and desolateness of appearance revolted me, just then. I had satisfied myself about the locality of the house, and I knew that it was her home; for I had approached sufficiently near, when the door was opened, to hear her inquire if anybody had called in her absence. For the present, this was enough. My sensations wanted repose; my thoughts wanted collecting. I left Hollyoake Square at once, and walked into the Regent's Park, the northern portion of which was close at hand.
Was I in love?--in love with a girl whom I had accidentally met in an omnibus? Or, was I merely indulging a momentary caprice--merely feeling a young man's hot, hasty admiration for a beautiful face? These were questions which I could not then decide. My ideas were in utter confusion, all my thoughts ran astray. I walked on, dreaming in full day--I had no distinct impressions, except of the stranger beauty whom I had just seen. The more I tried to collect myself, to resume the easy, equable feelings with which I had set forth in the morning, the less self-possessed I became. There are two emergencies in which the wisest man may try to reason himself back from impulse to principle; and try in vain:--the one when a woman has attracted him for the first time; the other, when, for the first time, also, she has happened to offend him.
I know not how long I had been walking in the park, thus absorbed yet not thinking, when the clock of a neighbouring church struck three, and roused me to the remembrance that I had engaged to ride out with my sister at two o'clock. It would be nearly half-an-hour more before I could reach home. Never had any former appointment of mine with Clara been thus forgotten! Love had not yet turned me selfish, as it turns all men, and even all women, more or less. I felt both sorrow and shame at the neglect of which I had been guilty; and hastened homeward.
The groom, looking unutterably weary and discontented, was still leading my horse up and down before the house. My sister's horse had been sent back to the stables. I went in; and heard that, after waiting for me an hour, Clara had gone out with some friends, and would not be back before dinner.
No one was in the house but the servants. The place looked dull, empty, inexpressibly miserable to me; the distant roll of carriages along the surrounding streets had a heavy boding sound; the opening and shutting of doors in the domestic offices below, startled and irritated me; the London air seemed denser to breathe than it had ever seemed before. I walked up and down one of the rooms, fretful and irresolute. Once I directed my steps towards my study; but retraced them before I had entered it. Reading or writing was out of the question at that moment.
I felt the secret inclination strengthening within me to return to Hollyoake Square; to try to see the girl again, or at least to ascertain who she was. I strove--yes, I can honestly say, strove to repress the desire. I tried to laugh it off, as idle and ridiculous; to think of my sister, of the book I was writing, of anything but the one subject that pressed stronger and stronger on me, the harder I struggled against it. The spell of the syren was over me. I went out, hypocritically persuading myself, that I was only animated by a capricious curiosity to know the girl's name, which once satisfied, would leave me at rest on the matter, and free to laugh at my own idleness and folly as soon as I got home again.
I arrived at the house. The blinds were all drawn down over the front windows, to keep out the sun. The little slip of garden was left solitary--baking and cracking in the heat. The square was silent; desolately silent, as only a suburban square can be. I walked up and down the glaring pavement, resolved to find out her name before I quitted the place. While still undecided how to act, a shrill whistling--sounding doubly shrill in the silence around--made me look up.
A tradesman's boy--one of those town Pucks of the highway; one of those incarnations of precocious cunning, inveterate mischief, and impudent humour, which great cities only can produce--was approaching me with his empty tray under his arm. I called to him to come and speak to me. He evidently belonged to the neighbourhood, and might be made of some use.
His first answer to my inquiries, showed that his master served the household at North Villa. A present of a shilling secured his attention at once to the few questions of any importance which I desired to put to him. I learned from his replies, that the name of the master of the house was "Sherwin:" and that the family only consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin, and the young lady, their daughter.
My last inquiry addressed to the boy was the most important of all. Did he know what Mr. Sherwin's profession or employment was?
His answer startled me into perfect silence. Mr. Sherwin kept a large linen-draper's shop in one of the great London thoroughfares! The boy mentioned the number, and the side of the way on which the house stood--then asked me if I wanted to know anything more. I could only tell him by a sign that he might leave me, and that I had heard enough.
Enough? If he had spoken the truth, I had heard too much.
A linen-draper's shop--a linen-draper's daughter! Was I still in love?--I thought of my father; I thought of the name I bore; and this time, though I might have answered the question, I dared not.
But the boy might be wrong. Perhaps, in mere mischief, he had been deceiving me throughout. I determined to seek the address he had mentioned, and ascertain the truth for myself.
I reached the place: there was the shop, and there the name "Sherwin" over the door. One chance still remained. This Sherwin and the Sherwin of Hollyoake Square might not be the same.
I went in and purchased something. While the man was tying up the parcel, I asked him whether his master lived in Hollyoake Square. Looking a little astonished at the question, he answered in the affirmative.
"There was a Mr. Sherwin I once knew," I said, forging in those words the first link in the long chain of deceit which was afterwards to fetter and degrade me--"a Mr. Sherwin who is now, as I have heard, living somewhere in the Hollyoake Square neighbourhood. He was a bachelor--I don't know whether my friend and your master are the same?"
"Oh dear no, Sir! My master is a married man, and has one daughter--Miss Margaret--who is reckoned a very fine young lady, Sir!" And the man grinned as he spoke--a grin that sickened and shocked me.
I was answered at last: I had discovered all. Margaret!--I had heard her name, too. Margaret!--it had never hitherto been a favourite name with me. Now I felt a sort of terror as I detected myself repeating it, and finding a new, unimagined poetry in the sound.
Could this be love?--pure, first love for a shopkeeper's daughter, whom I had seen for a quarter of an hour in an omnibus, and followed home for another quarter of an hour? The thing was impossible. And yet, I felt a strange unwillingness to go back to our house, and see my father and sister, just at that moment.
I was still walking onward slowly, but not in the direction of home, when I met an old college friend of my brother's, and an acquaintance of mine--a reckless, good-humoured, convivial fellow. He greeted me at once, with uproarious cordiality; and insisted on my accompanying him to dine at his club.
If the thoughts that still hung heavy on my mind were only the morbid, fanciful thoughts of the hour, here was a man whose society would dissipate them. I resolved to try the experiment, and accepted his invitation.
At dinner, I tried hard to rival him in jest and joviality; I drank much more than my usual quantity of wine--but it was useless. The gay words came fainting from my heart, and fell dead on my lips. The wine fevered, but did not exhilarate me. Still, the image of the dark beauty of the morning was the one reigning image of my thoughts--still, the influence of the morning, at once sinister and seductive, kept its hold on my heart.
I gave up the struggle. I longed to be alone again. My friend soon found that my forced spirits were flagging; he tried to rouse me, tried to talk for two, ordered more wine, but everything failed. Yawning at last, in undisguised despair, he suggested a visit to the theatre.
I excused myself--professed illness--hinted that the wine had been too much for me. He laughed, with something of contempt as well as good-nature in the laugh; and went away to the play by himself evidently feeling that I was still as bad a companion as he had found me at college, years ago.
As soon as we parted I felt a sense of relief. I hesitated, walked backwards and forwards a few paces in the street; and then, silencing all doubts, leaving my inclinations to guide me as they would--I turned my steps for the third time in that one day to Hollyoake Square.
The fair summer evening was tending towards twilight; the sun stood fiery and low in a cloudless horizon; the last loveliness of the last quietest daylight hour was fading on the violet sky, as I entered the square.
I approached the house. She was at the window--it was thrown wide open. A bird-cage hung rather high up, against the shutter-pannel. She was standing opposite to it, making a plaything for the poor captive canary of a piece of sugar, which she rapidly offered and drew back again, now at one bar of the cage, and now at another. The bird hopped and fluttered up and down in his prison after the sugar, chirping as if he enjoyed playing his part of the game with his mistress. How lovely she looked! Her dark hair, drawn back over each cheek so as just to leave the lower part of the ear visible, was gathered up into a thick simple knot behind, without ornament of any sort. She wore a plain white dress fastening round the neck, and descending over the bosom in numberless little wavy plaits. The cage hung just high enough to oblige her to look up to it. She was laughing with all the glee of a child; darting the piece of sugar about incessantly from place to place. Every moment, her head and neck assumed some new and lovely turn--every moment her figure naturally fell into the position which showed its pliant symmetry best. The last-left glow of the evening atmosphere was shining on her--the farewell pause of daylight over the kindred daylight of beauty and youth.
I kept myself concealed behind a pillar of the garden-gate; I looked, hardly daring either to move or breathe; for I feared that if she saw or heard me, she would leave the window. After a lapse of some minutes, the canary touched the sugar with his beak.
"There, Minnie!" she cried laughingly, "you have caught the runaway sugar, and now you shall keep it!"
For a moment more, she stood quietly looking at the cage; then raising herself on tip-toe, pouted her lips caressingly to the bird, and disappeared in the interior of the room.
The sun went down; the twilight shadows fell over the dreary square; the gas lamps were lighted far and near; people who had been out for a breath of fresh air in the fields, came straggling past me by ones and twos, on their way home--and still I lingered near the house, hoping she might come to the window again; but she did not re-appear. At last, a servant brought candles into the room, and drew down the Venetian blinds. Knowing it would be useless to stay longer, I left the square.
I walked homeward joyfully. That second sight of her completed what the first meeting had begun. The impressions left by it made me insensible for the time to all boding reflections, careless of exercising the smallest self-restraint. I gave myself up to the charm that was at work on me. Prudence, duty, memories and prejudices of home, were all absorbed and forgotten in love--love that I encouraged, that I dwelt over in the first reckless luxury of a new sensation.
I entered our house, thinking of nothing but how to see her, how to speak to her, on the morrow; murmuring her name to myself; even while my hand was on the lock of my study door. The instant I was in the room, I involuntarily shuddered and stopped speechless. Clara was there! I was not merely startled; a cold, faint sensation came over me. My first look at my sister made me feel as if I had been detected in a crime.
She was standing at my writing-table, and had just finished stringing together the loose pages of my manuscript, which had hitherto laid disconnectedly in a drawer. There was a grand ball somewhere, to which she was going that night. The dress she wore was of pale blue crape (my father's favourite colour, on her). One white flower was placed in her light brown hair. She stood within the soft steady light of my lamp, looking up towards the door from the leaves she had just tied together. Her slight figure appeared slighter than usual, in the delicate material that now clothed it. Her complexion was at its palest: her face looked almost statue-like in its purity and repose. What a contrast to the other living picture which I had seen at sunset!
The remembrance of the engagement that I had broken came back on me avengingly, as she smiled, and held my manuscript up before me to look at. With that remembrance there returned, too--darker than ever--the ominous doubts which had depressed me but a few hours since. I tried to steady my voice, and felt how I failed in the effort, as I spoke to her:
"Will you forgive me, Clara, for having deprived you of your ride to-day? I am afraid I have but a bad excuse--"
"Then don't make it, Basil; or wait till papa can arrange it for you, in a proper parliamentary way, when he comes back from the House of Commons to-night. See how I have been meddling with your papers; but they were in such confusion I was really afraid some of these leaves might have been lost."
"Neither the leaves nor the writer deserve half the pains you have taken with them; but I am really sorry for breaking our engagement. I met an old college friend--there was business too, in the morning--we dined together--he would take no denial."
"Basil, how pale you look! Are you ill?"
"No; the heat has been a little too much for me--nothing more."
"Has anything happened? I only ask, because if I can be of any use--if you want me to stay at home--"
"Certainly not, love. I wish you all success and pleasure at the ball."
For a moment she did not speak; but fixed her clear, kind eyes on me more gravely and anxiously than usual. Was she searching my heart, and discovering the new love rising, an usurper already, in the place where the love of her had reigned before?
Love! love for a shopkeeper's daughter! That thought came again, as she looked at me! and, strangely mingled with it, a maxim I had often heard my father repeat to Ralph-- "Never forget that your station is not yours, to do as you like with. It belongs to us, and belongs to your children. You must keep it for them, as I have kept it for you."
"I thought," resumed Clara, in rather lower tones than before, "that I would just look into your room before I went to the ball, and see that everything was properly arranged for you, in case you had any idea of writing tonight; I had just time to do this while my aunt, who is going with me, was upstairs altering her toilette. But perhaps you don't feel inclined to write?"
"I will try at least."
"Can I do anything more? Would you like my nosegay left in the room?--the flowers smell so fresh! I can easily get another. Look at the roses, my favourite white roses, that always remind me of my own garden at the dear old Park!"
"Thank you, Clara; but I think the nosegay is fitter for your hand than my table."
"Good night, Basil."
She walked to the door, then turned round, and smiled as if she were about to speak again; but checked herself, and merely looked at me for an instant. In that instant, however, the smile left her face, and the grave, anxious expression came again. She went out softly. A few minutes afterwards the roll of the carriage which took her and her companion to the ball, died away heavily on my ear. I was left alone in the house--alone for the night.
My manuscript lay before me, set in order by Clara's careful hand. I slowly turned over the leaves one by one; but my eye only fell mechanically on the writing. Yet one day since, and how much ambition, how much hope, how many of my heart's dearest sensations and my mind's highest thoughts dwelt in those poor paper leaves, in those little crabbed marks of pen and ink! Now I could look on them indifferently--almost as a stranger would have looked. The days of calm study, of steady toil of thought, seemed departed for ever. Stirring ideas; store of knowledge patiently heaped up; visions of better sights than this world can show, falling freshly and sunnily over the pages of my first book; all these were past and gone--withered up by the hot breath of the senses--doomed by a paltry fate, whose germ was the accident of an idle day!
I hastily put the manuscript aside. My unexpected interview with Clara had calmed the turbulent sensations of the evening: but the fatal influence of the dark beauty remained with me still. How could I write?
I sat down at the open window. It was at the back of the house, and looked out on a strip of garden--London garden--a close-shut dungeon for nature, where stunted trees and drooping flowers seemed visibly pining for the free air and sunlight of the country, in their sooty atmosphere, amid their prison of high brick walls. But the place gave room for the air to blow in it, and distanced the tumult of the busy streets. The moon was up, shined round tenderly by a little border-work of pale yellow light. Elsewhere, the awful void of night was starless; the dark lustre of space shone without a cloud.
A presentiment arose within me, that in this still and solitary hour would occur my decisive, my final struggle with myself. I felt that my heart's life or death was set on the hazard of the night.
This new love that was in me; this giant sensation of a day's growth, was first love. Hitherto, I had been heart-whole. I had known nothing of the passion, which is the absorbing passion of humanity. No woman had ever before stood between me and my ambitions, my occupations, my amusements. No woman had ever before inspired me with the sensations which I now felt.
In trying to realise my position, there was this one question to consider; was I still strong enough to resist the temptation which accident had thrown in my way? I had this one incentive to resistance: the conviction that, if I succumbed, as far as my family prospects were concerned, I should be a ruined man.
I knew my father's character well: I knew how far his affections and his sympathies might prevail over his prejudices--even over his principles--in some peculiar cases; and this very knowledge convinced me that the consequences of a degrading marriage contracted by his son (degrading in regard to rank), would be terrible: fatal to one, perhaps to both. Every other irregularity--every other offence even--he might sooner or later forgive. This irregularity, this offence, never--never, though his heart broke in the struggle. I was as sure of it, as I was of my own existence at that moment.
I loved her! All that I felt, all that I knew, was summed up in those few words! Deteriorating as my passion was in its effect on the exercise of my mental powers, and on my candour and sense of duty in my intercourse with home, it was a pure feeling towards her. This is truth. If I lay on my death-bed, at the present moment, and knew that, at the Judgment Day, I should be tried by the truth or falsehood of the lines just written, I could say with my last breath: So be it; let them remain.
But what mattered my love for her? However worthy of it she might be, I had misplaced it, because chance--the same chance which might have given her station and family--had placed her in a rank of life far--too far--below mine. As the daughter of a "gentleman," my father's welcome, my father's affection, would have been bestowed on her, when I took her home as my wife. As the daughter of a tradesman, my father's anger, my father's misery, my own ruin perhaps besides, would be the fatal dower that a marriage would confer on her. What made all this difference? A social prejudice. Yes: but a prejudice which had been a principle--nay, more, a religion--in our house, since my birth; and for centuries before it.
(How strange that foresight of love which precipitates the future into the present! Here was I thinking of her as my wife, before, perhaps, she had a suspicion of the passion with which she had inspired me--vexing my heart, wearying my thoughts, before I had even spoken to her, as if the perilous discovery of our marriage were already at hand! I have thought since how unnatural I should have considered this, if I had read it in a book.)
How could I best crush the desire to see her, to speak to her, on the morrow? Should I leave London, leave England, fly from the temptation, no matter where, or at what sacrifice? Or should I take refuge in my books--the calm, changeless old friends of my earliest fireside hours? Had I resolution enough to wear my heart out by hard, serious, slaving study? If I left London on the morrow, could I feel secure, in my own conscience, that I should not return the day after!
While, throughout the hours of the night, I was thus vainly striving to hold calm counsel with myself; the base thought never occurred to me, which might have occurred to some other men, in my position: Why marry the girl, because I love her? Why, with my money, my station, my opportunities, obstinately connect love and marriage as one idea; and make a dilemma and a danger where neither need exist? Had such a thought as this, in the faintest, the most shadowy form, crossed my mind, I should have shrunk from it, have shrunk from my self; with horror. Whatever fresh degradations may be yet in store for me, this one consoling and sanctifying remembrance must still be mine. My love for Margaret Sherwin was worthy to be offered to the purest and perfectest woman that ever God created.
The night advanced--the noises faintly reaching me from the streets, sank and ceased--my lamp flickered and went out--I heard the carriage return with Clara from the ball--the first cold clouds of day rose and hid the waning orb of the moon--the air was cooled with its morning freshness: the earth was purified with its morning dew--and still I sat by my open window, striving with my burning love-thoughts of Margaret; striving to think collectedly and usefully--abandoned to a struggle ever renewing, yet never changing; and always hour after hour, a struggle in vain.
At last I began to think less and less distinctly--a few moments more, and I sank into a restless, feverish slumber. Then began another, and a more perilous ordeal for me--the ordeal of dreams. Thoughts and sensations which had been more and more weakly restrained with each succeeding hour of wakefulness, now rioted within me in perfect liberation from all control.
This is what I dreamed:
I stood on a wide plain. On one side, it was bounded by thick woods, whose dark secret depths looked unfathomable to the eye: on the other, by hills, ever rising higher and higher yet, until they were lost in bright, beautifully white clouds, gleaming in refulgent sunlight. On the side above the woods, the sky was dark and vaporous. It seemed as if some thick exhalation had arisen from beneath the trees, and overspread the clear firmament throughout this portion of the scene.
As I still stood on the plain and looked around, I saw a woman coming towards me from the wood. Her stature was tall; her black hair flowed about her unconfined; her robe was of the dun hue of the vapour and mist which hung above the trees, and fell to her feet in dark thick folds. She came on towards me swiftly and softly, passing over the ground like cloud-shadows over the ripe corn-field or the calm water.
I looked to the other side, towards the hills; and there was another woman descending from their bright summits; and her robe was white, and pure, and glistening. Her face was illumined with a light, like the light of the harvest-moon; and her footsteps, as she descended the hills, left a long track of brightness, that sparkled far behind her, like the track of the stars when the winter night is clear and cold. She came to the place where the hills and the plain were joined together. Then she stopped, and I knew that she was watching me from afar off.
Meanwhile, the woman from the dark wood still approached; never pausing on her path, like the woman from the fair hills. And now I could see her face plainly. Her eyes were lustrous and fascinating, as the eyes of a serpent--large, dark and soft, as the eyes of the wild doe. Her lips were parted with a languid smile; and she drew back the long hair, which lay over her cheeks, her neck, her bosom, while I was gazing on her.
Then, I felt as if a light were shining on me from the other side. I turned to look, and there was the woman from the hills beckoning me away to ascend with her towards the bright clouds above. Her arm, as she held it forth, shone fair, even against the fair hills; and from her outstretched hand came long thin rays of trembling light, which penetrated to where I stood, cooling and calming wherever they touched me.
But the woman from the woods still came nearer and nearer, until I could feel her hot breath on my face. Her eyes looked into mine, and fascinated them, as she held out her arms to embrace me. I touched her hand, and in an instant the touch ran through me like fire, from head to foot. Then, still looking intently on me with her wild bright eyes, she clasped her supple arms round my neck, and drew me a few paces away with her towards the wood.
I felt the rays of light that had touched me from the beckoning hand, depart; and yet once more I looked towards the woman from the hills. She was ascending again towards the bright clouds, and ever and anon she stopped and turned round, wringing her hands and letting her head droop, as if in bitter grief. The last time I saw her look towards me, she was near the clouds. She covered her face with her robe, and knelt down where she stood. After this I discerned no more of her. For now the woman from the woods clasped me more closely than before, pressing her warm lips on mine; and it was as if her long hair fell round us both, spreading over my eyes like a veil, to hide from them the fair hill-tops, and the woman who was walking onward to the bright clouds above.
I was drawn along in the arms of the dark woman, with my blood burning and my breath failing me, until we entered the secret recesses that lay amid the unfathomable depths of trees. There, she encircled me in the folds of her dusky robe, and laid her cheek close to mine, and murmured a mysterious music in my ear, amid the midnight silence and darkness of all around us. And I had no thought of returning to the plain again; for I had forgotten the woman from the fair hills, and had given myself up, heart, and soul, and body, to the woman from the dark woods.
Here the dream ended, and I awoke.
It was broad daylight. The sun shone brilliantly, the sky was cloudless. I looked at my watch; it had stopped. Shortly afterwards I heard the hall clock strike six.
My dream was vividly impressed on my memory, especially the latter part of it. Was it a warning of coming events, foreshadowed in the wild visions of sleep? But to what purpose could this dream, or indeed any dream, tend? Why had it remained incomplete, failing to show me the visionary consequences of my visionary actions? What superstition to ask! What a waste of attention to bestow it on such a trifle as a dream!
Still, this trifle had produced one abiding result. I knew it not then; but I know it now. As I looked out on the reviving, re-assuring sunlight, it was easy enough for me to dismiss as ridiculous from my mind, or rather from my conscience, the tendency to see in the two shadowy forms of my dream, the types of two real living beings, whose names almost trembled into utterance on my lips; but I could not also dismiss from my heart the love-images which that dream had set up there for the worship of the senses. Those results of the night still remained within me, growing and strengthening with every minute.
If I had been told beforehand how the mere sight of the morning would reanimate and embolden me, I should have scouted the prediction as too outrageous for consideration; yet so it was. The moody and boding reflections, the fear and struggle of the hours of darkness were gone with the daylight. The love-thoughts of Margaret alone remained, and now remained unquestioned and unopposed. Were my convictions of a few hours since, like the night-mists that fade before returning sunshine? I knew not. But I was young; and each new morning is as much the new life of youth, as the new life of Nature.
So I left my study and went out. Consequences might come how they would, and when they would; I thought of them no more. It seemed as if I had cast off every melancholy thought, in leaving my room; as if my heart had sprung up more elastic than ever, after the burden that had been laid on it during the night. Enjoyment for the present, hope for the future, and chance and fortune to trust in to the very last! This was my creed, as I walked into the street, determined to see Margaret again, and to tell her of my love before the day was out. In the exhilaration of the fresh air and the gay sunshine, I turned my steps towards Hollyoake Square, almost as light-hearted as a boy let loose from school, joyously repeating Shakespeare's lines as I went:
"Hope is a lover's staff; walk hence with that,
And manage it against despairing thoughts."
London was rousing everywhere into morning activity, as I passed through the streets. The shutters were being removed from the windows of public-houses: the drink-vampyres that suck the life of London, were opening their eyes betimes to look abroad for the new day's prey! Small tobacco and provision-shops in poor neighbourhoods; dirty little eating-houses, exhaling greasy-smelling steam, and displaying a leaf of yesterday's paper, stained and fly-blown, hanging in the windows--were already plying, or making ready to ply, their daily trade. Here, a labouring man, late for his work, hurried by; there, a hale old gentleman started for his early walk before breakfast. Now a market-cart, already unloaded, passed me on its way back to the country; now, a cab, laden with luggage and carrying pale, sleepy-looking people, rattled by, bound for the morning train or the morning steamboat. I saw the mighty vitality of the great city renewing itself in every direction; and I felt an unwonted interest in the sight. It was as if all things, on all sides, were reflecting before me the aspect of my own heart.
But the quiet and torpor of the night still hung over Hollyoake Square. That dreary neighbourhood seemed to vindicate its dreariness by being the last to awaken even to a semblance of activity and life. Nothing was stirring as yet at North Villa. I walked on, beyond the last houses, into the sooty London fields; and tried to think of the course I ought to pursue in order to see Margaret, and speak to her, before I turned homeward again. After the lapse of more than half an hour, I returned to the square, without plan or project; but resolved, nevertheless, to carry my point.
The garden-gate of North Villa was now open. One of the female servants of the house was standing at it, to breathe the fresh air, and look about her, before the duties of the day began. I advanced; determined, if money and persuasion could do it, to secure her services.
She was young (that was one chance in my favour!)--plump, florid, and evidently not by any means careless about her personal appearance (that gave me another!) As she saw me approaching her, she smiled; and passed her apron hurriedly over her face--carefully polishing it for my inspection, much as a broker polishes a piece of furniture when you stop to look at it.
"Are you in Mr. Sherwin's service?"--I asked, as I got to the garden gate.
"As plain cook, Sir," answered the girl, administering to her face a final and furious rub of the apron.
"Should you be very much surprised if I asked you to do me a great favour?'
"Well--really, Sir--you're quite a stranger to me--I'm sure I don't know!" She stopped, and transferred the apron-rubbing to her arms.
"I hope we shall not be strangers long. Suppose I begin our acquaintance, by telling you that you would look prettier in brighter cap-ribbons, and asking you to buy some, just to see whether I am not right?"
"It's very kind of you to say so, Sir; and thank you. But cap and ribbons are the last things I can buy while I'm in this place. Master's master and missus too, here; and drives us half wild with the fuss he makes about our caps and ribbons. He's such an austerious man, that he will have our caps as he likes 'em. It's bad enough when a missus meddles with a poor servant's ribbons; but to have master come down into the kitchen, and-- Well, it's no use telling you of it, Sir--and--and thank you, Sir, for what you've given me, all the same!"
"I hope this is not the last time I shall make you a present. And now I must come to the favour I want to ask of you: can you keep a secret?"
"That I can, Sir! I've kep' a many secrets since I've been out at service."
"Well: I want you to find me an opportunity of speaking to your young lady--"
"To Miss Margaret, Sir?'
"Yes. I want an opportunity of seeing Miss Margaret, and speaking to her in private--and not a word must be said to her about it, beforehand."
"Oh Lord, Sir! I couldn't dare to do it!"
"Come! come! Can't you guess why I want to see your young lady, and what I want to say to her?"
The girl smiled, and shook her head archly. "Perhaps you're in love with Miss Margaret, Sir!--But I couldn't do it! I couldn't dare to do it!"
"Very well; but you can tell me at least, whether Miss Margaret ever goes out to take a walk?"
"Oh, yes, Sir; mostly every day."
"Do you ever go out with her?--just to take care of her when no one else can be spared?"
"Don't ask me--please, Sir, don't!" She crumpled her apron between her fingers, with a very piteous and perplexed air. "I don't know you; and Miss Margaret don't know you, I'm sure--I couldn't, Sir, I really couldn't!"
"Take a good look at me! Do you think I am likely to do you or your young lady any harm? Am I too dangerous a man to be trusted? Would you believe me on my promise?"
"Yes, Sir, I'm sure I would!--being so kind and so civil to me, too!" (a fresh arrangement of the cap followed this speech.)
"Then suppose I promised, in the first place, not to tell Miss Margaret that I had spoken to you about her at all. And suppose I promised, in the second place, that, if you told me when you and Miss Margaret go out together, I would only speak to her while she was in your sight, and would leave her the moment you wished me to go away. Don't you think you could venture to help me, if I promised all that?"
"Well, Sir, that would make a difference, to be sure. But then, it's master I'm so afraid of--couldn't you speak to master first, Sir?"
"Suppose you were in Miss Margaret's place, would you like to be made love to, by your father's authority, without your own wishes being consulted first? would you like an offer of marriage, delivered like a message, by means of your father? Come, tell me honestly, would you?"
She laughed, and shook her head very expressively. I knew the strength of my last argument, and repeated it: "Suppose you were in Miss Margaret's place?"
"Hush! don't speak so loud," resumed the girl in a confidential whisper. "I'm sure you're a gentleman. I should like to help you--if I could only dare to do it, I should indeed!"
"That's a good girl," I said. "Now tell me, when does Miss Margaret go out to-day; and who goes with her?"
"Dear! dear!--it's very wrong to say it; but I must. She'll go out with me to market, this morning, at eleven o'clock. She's done it for the last week. Master don't like it; but Missus begged and prayed she might; for Missus says she won't be fit to be married, if she knows nothing about housekeeping, and prices, and what's good meat, and what isn't, and all that, you know."
"Thank you a thousand times! you have given me all the help I want. I'll be here before eleven, waiting for you to come out."
"Oh, please don't, Sir--I wish I hadn't told you--I oughtn't, indeed I oughtn't!"
"No fear--you shall not lose by what you have told me--I promise all I said I would promise--good bye. And mind, not a word to Miss Margaret till I see her!"
As I hurried away, I heard the girl run a few paces after me--then stop--then return, and close the garden gate, softly. She had evidently put herself once more in Miss Margaret's place; and had given up all idea of further resistance as she did so.
How should I occupy the hours until eleven o'clock? Deceit whispered:--Go home; avoid even the chance of exciting suspicion, by breakfasting with your family as usual. And as deceit counselled, so I acted.
I never remember Clara more kind, more ready with all those trifling little cares and attentions which have so exquisite a grace, when offered by a woman to a man, and especially by a sister to a brother, as when she and I and my father assembled together at the breakfast-table. I now recollect with shame how little I thought about her, or spoke to her on that morning; with how little hesitation or self-reproach I excused myself from accepting an engagement which she wished to make with me for that day. My father was absorbed in some matter of business; to him she could not speak. It was to me that she addressed all her wonted questions and remarks of the morning. I hardly listened to them; I answered them carelessly and briefly. The moment breakfast was over, without a word of explanation I hastily left the house again.
As I descended the steps, I glanced by accident at the dining-room window. Clara was looking after me from it. There was the same anxious expression on her face which it had worn when she left me the evening before. She smiled as our eyes met--a sad, faint smile that made her look unlike herself. But it produced no impression on me then: I had no attention for anything but my approaching interview with Margaret. My life throbbed and burned within me, in that direction: it was all coldness, torpor, insensibility, in every other.
I reached Hollyoake Square nearly an hour before the appointed time. In the suspense and impatience of that long interval, it was impossible to be a moment in repose. I walked incessantly up and down the square, and round and round the neighbourhood, hearing each quarter chimed from a church clock near, and mechanically quickening my pace the nearer the time came for the hour to strike. At last, I heard the first peal of the eventful eleven. Before the clock was silent, I had taken up my position within view of the gate of North Villa.
Five minutes passed--ten--and no one appeared. In my impatience, I could almost have rung the bell and entered the house, no matter who might be there, or what might be the result. The first quarter struck; and at that very moment I heard the door open, and saw Margaret, and the servant with whom I had spoken, descending the steps.
They passed out slowly through the garden gate, and walked down the square, away from where I was standing. The servant noticed me by one significant look, as they went on. Her young mistress did not appear to see me. At first, my agitation was so violent that I was perfectly incapable of following them a single step. In a few moments I recovered myself; and hastened to overtake them, before they arrived at a more frequented part of the neighbourhood.
As I approached her side, Margaret turned suddenly and looked at me, with an expression of anger and astonishment in her eyes. The next instant, her lovely face became tinged all over with a deep, burning blush; her head drooped a little; she hesitated for a moment; and then abruptly quickened her pace. Did she remember me? The mere chance that she did, gave me confidence: I--
--No! I cannot write down the words that I said to her. Recollecting the end to which our fatal interview led, I recoil at the very thought of exposing to others, or of preserving in any permanent form, the words in which I first confessed my love. It may be pride--miserable, useless pride--which animates me with this feeling: but I cannot overcome it. Remembering what I do, I am ashamed to write, ashamed to recall, what I said at my first interview with Margaret Sherwin. I can give no good reason for the sensations which now influence me; I cannot analyse them; and I would not if I could.
Let it be enough to say that I risked everything, and spoke to her. My words, confused as they were, came hotly, eagerly, and eloquently from my heart. In the space of a few minutes, I confessed to her all, and more than all, that I have here painfully related in many pages. I made use of my name and my rank in life--even now, my cheeks burn while I think of it--to dazzle her girl's pride, to make her listen to me for the sake of my station, if she would not for the sake of my suit, however honourably urged. Never before had I committed the meanness of trusting to my social advantages, what I feared to trust to myself. It is true that love soars higher than the other passions; but it can stoop lower as well.
Her answers to all that I urged were confused, commonplace, and chilling enough. I had surprised her--frightened her--it was impossible she could listen to such addresses from a total stranger--it was very wrong of me to speak, and of her to stop and hear me--I should remember what became me as a gentleman, and should not make such advances to her again--I knew nothing of her--it was impossible I could really care about her in so short a time--she must beg that I would allow her to proceed unhindered.
Thus she spoke; sometimes standing still, sometimes moving hurriedly a few steps forward. She might have expressed herself severely, even angrily; but nothing she could have said would have counteracted the fascination that her presence exercised over me. I saw her face, lovelier than ever in its confusion, in its rapid changes of expression; I saw her eloquent eyes once or twice raised to mine, then instantly withdrawn again--and so long as I could look at her, I cared not what I listened to. She was only speaking what she had been educated to speak; it was not in her words that I sought the clue to her thoughts and sensations; but in the tone of her voice, in the language of her eyes, in the whole expression of her face. All these contained indications which reassured me. I tried everything that respect, that the persuasion of love could urge, to win her consent to our meeting again; but she only answered with repetitions of what she had said before, walking onward rapidly while she spoke. The servant, who had hitherto lingered a few paces behind, now advanced to her young mistress's side, with a significant look, as if to remind me of my promise. Saying a few parting words, I let them proceed: at this first interview, to have delayed them longer would have been risking too much.
As they walked away, the servant turned round, nodding her head and smiling, as if to assure me that I had lost nothing by the forbearance which I had exercised. Margaret neither lingered nor looked back. This last proof of modesty and reserve, so far from discouraging, attracted me to her more powerfully than ever. After a first interview, it was the most becoming virtue she could have shown. All my love for her before, seemed as nothing compared with my love for her now that she had left me, and left me without a parting look.
What course should I next pursue? Could I expect that Margaret, after what she had said, would go out again at the same hour on the morrow? No: she would not so soon abandon the modesty and restraint that she had shown at our first interview. How communicate with her? how manage most skilfully to make good the first favourable impression which vanity whispered I had already produced? I determined to write to her.
How different was the writing of that letter, to the writing of those once-treasured pages of my romance, which I had now abandoned for ever! How slowly I worked; how cautiously and diffidently I built up sentence after sentence, and doubtingly set a stop here, and laboriously rounded off a paragraph there, when I toiled in the service of ambition! Now, when I had given myself up to the service of love, how rapidly the pen ran over the paper; how much more freely and smoothly the desires of the heart flowed into words, than the thoughts of the mind! Composition was an instinct now, an art no longer. I could write eloquently, and yet write without pausing for an expression or blotting a word--It was the slow progress up the hill, in the service of ambition; it was the swift (too swift) career down it, in the service of love!
There is no need to describe the contents of my letter to Margaret; they comprised a mere recapitulation of what I had already said to her. I insisted often and strongly on the honourable purpose of my suit; and ended by entreating her to write an answer, and consent to allow me another interview.
The letter was delivered by the servant. Another present, a little more timely persuasion, and above all, the regard I had shown to my promise, won the girl with all her heart to my interests. She was ready to help me in every way, as long as her interference could be kept a secret from her master.
I waited a day for the reply to my letter; but none came. The servant could give me no explanation of this silence. Her young mistress had not said one word to her about me, since the morning when we had met. Still not discouraged, I wrote again. The letter contained some lover's threats this time, as well as lover's entreaties; and it produced its effect--an answer came.
It was very short--rather hurriedly and tremblingly written--and simply said that the difference between my rank and hers made it her duty to request of me, that neither by word nor by letter should I ever address her again.
"Difference in rank,"--that was the only objection then! "Her duty"--it was not from inclination that she refused me! So young a creature; and yet so noble in self-sacrifice, so firm in her integrity! I resolved to disobey her injunction, and see her again. My rank! What was my rank? Something to cast at Margaret's feet, for Margaret to trample on!
Once more I sought the aid of my faithful ally, the servant. After delays which half maddened me with impatience, insignificant though they were, she contrived to fulfil my wishes. One afternoon, while Mr. Sherwin was away at business, and while his wife had gone out, I succeeded in gaining admission to the garden at the back of the house, where Margaret was then occupied in watering some flowers.
She started as she saw me, and attempted to return to the house. I took her hand to detain her. She withdrew it, but neither abruptly nor angrily. I seized the opportunity, while she hesitated whether to persist or not in retiring; and repeated what I had already said to her at our first interview (what is the language of love but a language of repetitions?). She answered, as she had answered me in her letter: the difference in our rank made it her duty to discourage me.
"But if this difference did not exist," I said: "if we were both living in the same rank, Margaret--"
She looked up quickly; then moved away a step or two, as I addressed her by her Christian name.
"Are you offended with me for calling you Margaret so soon? I do not think of you as Miss Sherwin, but as Margaret--are you offended with me for speaking as I think?"
No: she ought not to be offended with me, or with anybody, for doing that.
"Suppose this difference in rank, which you so cruelly insist on, did not exist, would you tell me not to hope, not to speak then, as coldly as you tell me now?"
I must not ask her that--it was no use--the difference in rank did exist.
"Perhaps I have met you too late?--perhaps you are already--"
"No! oh, no!"--she stopped abruptly, as the words passed her lips. The same lovely blush which I had before seen spreading over her face, rose on it now. She evidently felt that she had unguardedly said too much: that she had given me an answer in a case where, according to every established love-law of the female code, I had no right to expect one. Her next words accused me--but in very low and broken tones--of having committed an intrusion which she should hardly have expected from a gentleman in my position.
"I will regain your better opinion," I said, eagerly catching at the most favourable interpretation of her last words, "by seeing you for the next time, and for all times after, with your father's full permission. I will write to-day, and ask for a private interview with him. I will tell him all I have told you: I will tell him that you take a rank in beauty and goodness, which is the highest rank in the land--a far higher rank than mine--the only rank I desire." (A smile, which she vainly strove to repress, stole charmingly to her lips.) "Yes, I will do this; I will never leave him till his answer is favourable--and then what would be yours? One word, Margaret; one word before I go--"
I attempted to take her hand a second time; but she broke from me, and hurried into the house.
What more could I desire? What more could the modesty and timidity of a young girl concede to me?
The moment I reached home, I wrote to Mr. Sherwin. The letter was superscribed "Private;" and simply requested an interview with him on a subject of importance, at any hour he might mention. Unwilling to trust what I had written to the post, I sent my note by a messenger--not one of our own servants, caution forbade that--and instructed the man to wait for an answer: if Mr. Sherwin was out, to wait till he came home.
After a long delay--long to me; for my impatience would fain have turned hours into minutes--I received a reply. It was written on gilt-edged letter-paper, in a handwriting vulgarised by innumerable flourishes. Mr. Sherwin presented his respectful compliments, and would be happy to have the honour of seeing me at North Villa, if quite convenient, at five o'clock to-morrow afternoon.
I folded up the letter carefully: it was almost as precious as a letter from Margaret herself. That night I passed sleeplessly, revolving in my mind every possible course that I could take at the interview of the morrow. It would be a difficult and a delicate business. I knew nothing of Mr. Sherwin's character; yet I must trust him with a secret which I dared not trust to my own father. Any proposals for paying addresses to his daughter, coming from one in my position, might appear open to suspicion. What could I say about marriage? A public, acknowledged marriage was impossible: a private marriage might be a bold, if not fatal proposal. I could come to no other conclusion, reflect as anxiously as I might, than that it was best for me to speak candidly at all hazards. I could be candid enough when it suited my purpose!
It was not till the next day, when the time approached for my interview with Mr. Sherwin, that I thoroughly roused myself to face the plain necessities of my position. Determined to try what impression appearances could make on him, I took unusual pains with my dress; and more, I applied to a friend whom I could rely on as likely to ask no questions--I write this in shame and sorrow: I tell truth here, where it is hard penance to tell it--I applied, I say, to a friend for the loan of one of his carriages to take me to North Villa; fearing the risk of borrowing my father's carriage, or my sister's--knowing the common weakness of rank-worship and wealth-worship in men of Mr. Sherwin's order, and meanly determining to profit by it to the utmost. My friend's carriage was willingly lent me. By my directions, it took me up at the appointed hour, at a shop where I was a regular customer.
On my arrival at North Villa, I was shown into what I presumed was the drawing-room.
Everything was oppressively new. The brilliantly-varnished door cracked with a report like a pistol when it was opened; the paper on the walls, with its gaudy pattern of birds, trellis-work, and flowers, in gold, red, and green on a white ground, looked hardly dry yet; the showy window-curtains of white and sky-blue, and the still showier carpet of red and yellow, seemed as if they had come out of the shop yesterday; the round rosewood table was in a painfully high state of polish; the morocco-bound picture books that lay on it, looked as if they had never been moved or opened since they had been bought; not one leaf even of the music on the piano was dogs-eared or worn. Never was a richly furnished room more thoroughly comfortless than this--the eye ached at looking round it. There was no repose anywhere. The print of the Queen, hanging lonely on the wall, in its heavy gilt frame, with a large crown at the top, glared on you: the paper, the curtains, the carpet glared on you: the books, the wax-flowers in glass-cases, the chairs in flaring chintz-covers, the china plates on the door, the blue and pink glass vases and cups ranged on the chimney-piece, the over-ornamented chiffoniers with Tonbridge toys and long-necked smelling bottles on their upper shelves--all glared on you. There was no look of shadow, shelter, secrecy, or retirement in any one nook or corner of those four gaudy walls. All surrounding objects seemed startlingly near to the eye; much nearer than they really were. The room would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour.
I was not kept waiting long. Another violent crack from the new door, announced the entrance of Mr. Sherwin himself.
He was a tall, thin man: rather round-shouldered; weak at the knees, and trying to conceal the weakness in the breadth of his trowsers. He wore a white cravat, and an absurdly high shirt collar. His complexion was sallow; his eyes were small, black, bright, and incessantly in motion--indeed, all his features were singularly mobile: they were affected by nervous contractions and spasms which were constantly drawing up and down in all directions the brow, the mouth, and the muscles of the cheek. His hair had been black, but was now turning to a sort of iron-grey; it was very dry, wiry, and plentiful, and part of it projected almost horizontally over his forehead. He had a habit of stretching it in this direction, by irritably combing it out, from time to time, with his fingers. His lips were thin and colourless, the lines about them being numerous and strongly marked. Had I seen him under ordinary circumstances, I should have set him down as a little-minded man; a small tyrant in his own way over those dependent on him; a pompous parasite to those above him--a great stickler for the conventional respectabilities of life, and a great believer in his own infallibility. But he was Margaret's father; and I was determined to be pleased with him.
He made me a low and rather a cringing bow--then looked to the window, and seeing the carriage waiting for me at his door, made another bow, and insisted on relieving me of my hat with his own hand. This done, he coughed, and begged to know what he could do for me.
I felt some difficulty in opening my business to him. It was necessary to speak, however, at once--I began with an apology.
"I am afraid, Mr. Sherwin, that this intrusion on the part of a perfect stranger--"
"Not entirely a stranger, Sir, if I may be allowed to say so."
"I had the great pleasure, Sir, and profit, and--and, indeed, advantage--of being shown over your town residence last year, when the family were absent from London. A very beautiful house--I happen to be acquainted with the steward of your respected father: he was kind enough to allow me to walk through the rooms. A treat; quite an intellectual treat--the furniture and hangings, and so on, arranged in such a chaste style--and the pictures, some of the finest pieces I ever saw--I was delighted--quite delighted, indeed."
He spoke in under-tones, laying great stress upon particular words that were evidently favourites with him--such as, "indeed." Not only his eyes, but his whole face, seemed to be nervously blinking and winking all the time he was addressing me, In the embarrassment and anxiety which I then felt, this peculiarity fidgetted and bewildered me more than I can describe. I would have given the world to have had his back turned, before I spoke to him again.
"I am delighted to hear that my family and my name are not unknown to you, Mr. Sherwin," I resumed. "Under those circumstances, I shall feel less hesitation and difficulty in making you acquainted with the object of my visit."
"Just so. May I offer you anything?--a glass of sherry, a--"
"Nothing, thank you. In the first place, Mr. Sherwin, I have reasons for wishing that this interview, whatever results it may lead to, may be considered strictly confidential. I am sure I can depend on your favouring me thus far?"
"Certainly--most certainly--the strictest secrecy of course--pray go on."
He drew his chair a little nearer to me. Through all his blinking and winking, I could see a latent expression of cunning and curiosity in his eyes. My card was in his hand: he was nervously rolling and unrolling it, without a moment's cessation, in his anxiety to hear what I had to say.
"I must also beg you to suspend your judgment until you have heard me to the end. You may be disposed to view--to view, I say, unfavourably at first--in short, Mr. Sherwin, without further preface, the object of my visit is connected with your daughter, with Miss Margaret Sherwin--"
"My daughter! Bless my soul--God bless my soul, I really can't imagine--"
He stopped, half-breathless, bending forward towards me, and crumpling my card between his fingers into the smallest possible dimensions.
"Rather more than a week ago," I continued, "I accidentally met Miss Sherwin in an omnibus, accompanied by a lady older than herself--"
"My wife; Mrs. Sherwin," he said, impatiently motioning with his hand, as if "Mrs. Sherwin" were some insignificant obstacle to the conversation, which he wished to clear out of the way as fast as possible.
"You will not probably be surprised to hear that I was struck by Miss Sherwin's extreme beauty. The impression she made on me was something more, however, than a mere momentary feeling of admiration. To speak candidly, I felt-- You have heard of such a thing as love at first sight, Mr. Sherwin?"
"In books, Sir." He tapped one of the morocco-bound volumes on the table, and smiled--a curious smile, partly deferential and partly sarcastic.
"You would be inclined to laugh, I dare say, if I asked you to believe that there is such a thing as love at first sight, out of books. But, without dwelling further on that, it is my duty to confess to you, in all candour and honesty, that the impression Miss Sherwin produced on me was such as to make me desire the privilege of becoming acquainted with her. In plain words, I discovered her place of residence by following her to this house."
"Upon my soul this is the most extraordinary proceeding----!"
"Pray hear me out, Mr. Sherwin: you will not condemn my conduct, I think, if you hear all I have to say."
He muttered something unintelligible; his complexion turned yellower; he dropped my card, which he had by this time crushed into fragments; and ran his hand rapidly through his hair until he had stretched it out like a penthouse over his forehead--blinking all the time, and regarding me with a lowering, sinister expression of countenance. I saw that it was useless to treat him as I should have treated a gentleman. He had evidently put the meanest and the foulest construction upon my delicacy and hesitation in speaking to him: so I altered my plan, and came to the point abruptly--"came to business," as he would have called it.
"I ought to have been plainer, Mr. Sherwin; I ought perhaps to have told you at the outset, in so many words, that I came to--" (I was about to say, "to ask your daughter's hand in marriage;" but a thought of my father moved darkly over my mind at that moment, and the words would not pass my lips).
"Well, Sir! to what?"
The tone in which he said this was harsh enough to rouse me. It gave me back my self-possession immediately.
"To ask your permission to pay my addresses to Miss Sherwin--or, to be plainer still, if you like, to ask of you her hand in marriage."
The words were spoken. Even if I could have done so, I would not have recalled what I had just said; but still, I trembled in spite of myself as I expressed in plain, blunt words what I had only rapturously thought over, or delicately hinted at to Margaret, up to this time.
"God bless me!" cried Mr. Sherwin, suddenly sitting back bolt upright in his chair, and staring at me in such surprise, that his restless features were actually struck with immobility for the moment--"God bless me, this is quite another story. Most gratifying, most astonishing--highly flattered I am sure; highly indeed, my dear Sir! Don't suppose, for one moment, I ever doubted your honourable feeling. Young gentlemen in your station of life do sometimes fail in respect towards the wives and daughters of their--in short, of those who are not in their rank exactly. But that's not the question--quite a misunderstanding--extremely stupid of me, to be sure. Pray let me offer you a glass of wine!"
"No wine, thank you, Mr. Sherwin. I must beg your attention a little longer, while I state to you, in confidence, how I am situated with regard to the proposals I have made. There are certain circumstances--"
He bent forward again eagerly towards me, as he spoke; looking more inquisitive and more cunning than ever.
"I have acknowledged to you, Mr. Sherwin, that I have found means to speak to your daughter--to speak to her twice. I made my advances honourably. She received them with a modesty and a reluctance worthy of herself, worthy of any lady, the highest lady in the land." (Mr. Sherwin looked round reverentially to his print of the Queen; then looked back at me, and bowed solemnly.) "Now, although in so many words she directly discouraged me--it is her due that I should say this--still, I think I may without vanity venture to hope that she did so as a matter of duty, more than as a matter of inclination."
"Ah--yes, yes! I understand. She would do nothing without my authority, of course?"
"No doubt that was one reason why she received me as she did; but she had another, which she communicated to me in the plainest terms--the difference in our rank of life."
"Ah! she said that, did she? Exactly so--she saw a difficulty there? Yes--yes! high principles, Sir--high principles, thank God!"
"I need hardly tell you, Mr. Sherwin, how deeply I feel the delicate sense of honour which this objection shows on your daughter's part. You will easily imagine that it is no objection to me, personally. The happiness of my whole life depends on Miss Sherwin; I desire no higher honour, as I can conceive no greater happiness, than to be your daughter's husband. I told her this: I also told her that I would explain myself on the subject to you. She made no objection; and I am, therefore, I think, justified in considering that if you authorised the removal of scruples which do her honour at present, she would not feel the delicacy she does now at sanctioning my addresses."
"Very proper--a very proper way of putting it. Practical, if I may be allowed to say so. And now, my dear Sir, the next point is: how about your own honoured family--eh?"
"It is exactly there that the difficulty lies. My father, on whom I am dependent as the younger son, has very strong prejudices--convictions I ought perhaps to call them--on the subject of social inequalities."
"Quite so--most natural; most becoming, indeed, on the part of your respected father. I honour his convictions, sir. Such estates, such houses, such a family as his--connected, I believe, with the nobility, especially on your late lamented mother's side. My dear Sir, I emphatically repeat it, your father's convictions do him honour; I respect them as much as I respect him; I do, indeed."
"I am glad you can view my father's ideas on social subjects in so favourable a light, Mr. Sherwin. You will be less surprised to hear how they are likely to affect me in the step I am now taking."
"He disapproves of it, of course--strongly, perhaps. Well, though my dear girl is worthy of any station; and a man like me, devoted to mercantile interests, may hold his head up anywhere as one of the props of this commercial country," (he ran his fingers rapidly through his hair, and tried to look independent), "still I am prepared to admit, under all the circumstances--I say under all the circumstances--that his disapproval is very natural, and was very much to be expected--very much indeed."
"He has expressed no disapproval, Mr. Sherwin."
"You don't say so!"
"I have not given him an opportunity. My meeting with your daughter has been kept a profound secret from him, and from every member of my family; and a secret it must remain. I speak from my intimate knowledge of my father, when I say that I hardly know of any means that he would not be capable of employing to frustrate the purpose of this visit, if I had mentioned it to him. He has been the kindest and best of fathers to me; but I firmly believe, that if I waited for his consent, no entreaties of mine, or of any one belonging to me, would induce him to give his sanction to the marriage I have come to you to propose."
"Bless my soul! this is carrying things rather far, though--dependent as you are on him, and all that. Why, what on earth can we do--eh?"
"We must keep both the courtship and the marriage secret."
"Secret! Good gracious, I don't at all see my way--"
"Yes, secret--a profound secret among ourselves, until I can divulge my marriage to my father, with the best chance of--"
"But I tell you, Sir, I can't see my way through it at all. Chance! what chance would there be, after what you have told me?"
"There might be many chances. For instance, when the marriage was solemnised, I might introduce your daughter to my father's notice--without disclosing who she was--and leave her, gradually and unsuspectedly, to win his affection and respect (as with her beauty, elegance, and amiability, she could not fail to do), while I waited until the occasion was ripe for confessing everything. Then if I said to him, 'This young lady, who has so interested and delighted you, is my wife;' do you think, with that powerful argument in my favour, he could fail to give us his pardon? If, on the other hand, I could only say, 'This young lady is about to become my wife,' his prejudices would assuredly induce him to recall his most favourable impressions, and refuse his consent. In short, Mr. Sherwin, before marriage, it would be impossible to move him--after marriage, when opposition could no longer be of any avail, it would be quite a different thing: we might be sure of producing, sooner or later, the most favourable results. This is why it would be absolutely necessary to keep our union secret at first."
I wondered then--I have since wondered more--how it was that I contrived to speak thus, so smoothly and so unhesitatingly, when my conscience was giving the lie all the while to every word I uttered.
"Yes, yes; I see--oh, yes, I see!" said Mr. Sherwin, rattling a bunch of keys in his pocket, with an expression of considerable perplexity; "but this is a ticklish business, you know--a very queer and ticklish business indeed. To have a gentleman of your birth and breeding for a son-in-law, is of course--but then there is the money question. Suppose you failed with your father after all--my money is out in my speculations--I can do nothing. Upon my word, you have placed me in a position that I never was placed in before."
"I have influential friends, Mr. Sherwin, in many directions--there are appointments, good appointments, which would be open to me, if I pushed my interests. I might provide in this way against the chance of failure."
"Ah!--well--yes. There's something in that, certainly."
"I can only assure you that my attachment to Miss Sherwin is not of a nature to be overcome by any pecuniary considerations. I speak in all our interests, when I say that a private marriage gives us a chance for the future, as opportunities arise of gradually disclosing it. My offer to you may be made under some disadvantages and difficulties, perhaps; for, with the exception of a very small independence, left me by my mother, I have no certain prospects. But I really think my proposals have some compensating advantages to recommend them--"
"Certainly! most decidedly so! I am not insensible, my dear Sir, to the great advantage, and honour, and so forth. But there is something so unusual about the whole affair. What would be my feelings, if your father should not come round, and my dear girl was disowned by the family? Well, well! that could hardly happen, I think, with her accomplishments and education, and manners too, so distinguished--though perhaps I ought not to say so. Her schooling alone was a hundred a-year, Sir, without including extras--"
"I am sure, Mr. Sherwin--"
"--A school, Sir, where it was a rule to take in no thing lower than the daughter of a professional man--they only waived the rule in my case--the most genteel school, perhaps, in all London! A drawing-room-deportment day once every week--the girls taught how to enter a room and leave a room with dignity and ease--a model of a carriage door and steps, in the back drawing-room, to practise the girls (with the footman of the establishment in attendance) in getting into a carriage and getting out again, in a lady-like manner! No duchess has had a better education than my Margaret!--"
"Permit me to assure you, Mr. Sherwin--"
"And then, her knowledge of languages--her French, and Italian, and German, not discontinued in holidays, or after she left school (she has only just left it); but all kept up and improved every evening, by the kind attention of Mr. Mannion--"
"May I ask who Mr. Mannion is?" The tone in which I put this question, cooled his enthusiasm about his daughter's education immediately. He answered in his former tones, and with one of his former bows:
"Mr. Mannion is my confidential clerk, Sir--a most superior person, most highly talented, and well read, and all that."
"Is he a young man?"
"Young! Oh, dear no! Mr. Mannion is forty, or a year or two more, if he's a day--an admirable man of business, as well as a great scholar. He's at Lyons now, buying silks for me. When he comes back I shall be delighted to introduce---"
"I beg your pardon, but I think we are wandering away from the point, a little."
"I beg yours--so we are. Well, my dear Sir, I must be allowed a day or two--say two days--to ascertain what my daughter's feelings are, and to consider your proposals, which have taken me very much by surprise, as you may in fact see. But I assure you I am most flattered, most honoured, most anxious.
"I hope you will consider my anxieties, Mr. Sherwin, and let me know the result of your deliberations as soon as possible."
"Without fail, depend upon it. Let me see: shall we say the second day from this, at the same time, if you can favour me with a visit?"
"And between that time and this, you will engage not to hold any communication with my daughter?"
"I promise not, Mr. Sherwin--because I believe that your answer will be favourable."
"Ah, well--well! lovers, they say, should never despair. A little consideration, and a little talk with my dear girl--really now, won't you change your mind and have a glass of sherry? (No again?) Very well, then, the day after tomorrow, at five o'clock."
With a louder crack than ever, the bran-new drawing-room door was opened to let me out. The noise was instantly succeeded by the rustling of a silk dress, and the banging of another door, at the opposite end of the passage. Had anybody been listening? Where was Margaret?
Mr. Sherwin stood at the garden-gate to watch my departure, and to make his farewell bow. Thick as was the atmosphere of illusion in which I now lived, I shuddered involuntarily as I returned his parting salute, and thought of him as my father-in-law!
The nearer I approached to our own door, the more reluctance I felt to pass the short interval between my first and second interview with Mr. Sherwin, at home. When I entered the house, this reluctance increased to something almost like dread. I felt unwilling and unfit to meet the eyes of my nearest and dearest relatives. It was a relief to me to hear that my father was not at home. My sister was in the house: the servant said she had just gone into the library, and inquired whether he should tell her that I had come in. I desired him not to disturb her, as it was my intention to go out again immediately.
I went into my study, and wrote a short note there to Clara; merely telling her that I should be absent in the country for two days. I had sealed and laid it on the table for the servant to deliver, and was about to leave the room, when I heard the library door open. I instantly drew back, and half-closed my own door again. Clara had got the book she wanted, and was taking it up to her own sitting-room. I waited till she was out of sight, and then left the house. It was the first time I had ever avoided my sister--my sister, who had never in her life asked a question, or uttered a word that could annoy me; my sister, who had confided all her own little secrets to my keeping, ever since we had been children. As I thought on what I had done, I felt a sense of humiliation which was almost punishment enough for the meanness of which I had been guilty.
I went round to the stables, and had my horse saddled immediately. No idea of proceeding in any particular direction occurred to me. I simply felt resolved to pass my two days' ordeal of suspense away from home--far enough away to keep me faithful to my promise not to see Margaret. Soon after I started, I left my horse to his own guidance, and gave myself up to my thoughts and recollections, as one by one they rose within me. The animal took the direction which he had been oftenest used to take during my residence in London--the northern road.
It was not until I had ridden half a mile beyond the suburbs that I looked round me, and discovered towards what part of the country I was proceeding. I drew the rein directly, and turned my horse's head back again, towards the south. To follow the favourite road which I had so often followed with Clara; to stop perhaps at some place where I had often stopped with her, was more than I had the courage or the insensibility to do at that moment.
I rode as far as Ewell, and stopped there: the darkness had overtaken me, and it was useless to tire my horse by going on any greater distance. The next morning, I was up almost with sunrise; and passed the greater part of the day in walking about among villages, lanes, and fields, just as chance led me. During the night, many thoughts that I had banished for the last week had returned--those thoughts of evil omen under which the mind seems to ache, just as the body aches under a dull, heavy pain, to which we can assign no particular place or cause. Absent from Margaret, I had no resource against the oppression that now overcame me. I could only endeavour to alleviate it by keeping incessantly in action; by walking or riding, hour after hour, in the vain attempt to quiet the mind by wearying out the body. Apprehension of the failure of my application to Mr. Sherwin had nothing to do with the vague gloom which now darkened my thoughts; they kept too near home for that. Besides, what I had observed of Margaret's father, especially during the latter part of my interview with him, showed me plainly enough that he was trying to conceal, under exaggerated surprise and assumed hesitation, his secret desire to profit at once by my offer; which, whatever conditions might clog it, was infinitely more advantageous in a social point of view, than any he could have hoped for. It was not his delay in accepting my proposals, but the burden of deceit, the fetters of concealment forced on me by the proposals themselves, which now hung heavy on my heart.
That evening I left Ewell, and rode towards home again, as far as Richmond, where I remained for the night and the forepart of the next day. I reached London in the afternoon; and got to North Villa--without going home first--about five o'clock.
The oppression was still on my spirits. Even the sight of the house where Margaret lived failed to invigorate or arouse me.
On this occasion, when I was shown into the drawing-room, both Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin were awaiting me there. On the table was the sherry which had been so perseveringly pressed on me at the last interview, and by it a new pound cake. Mrs. Sherwin was cutting the cake as I came in, while her husband watched the process with critical eyes. The poor woman's weak white fingers trembled as they moved the knife under conjugal inspection.
"Most happy to see you again--most happy indeed, my dear Sir," said Mr. Sherwin, advancing with hospitable smile and outstretched hand. "Allow me to introduce my better half, Mrs. S."
His wife rose in a hurry, and curtseyed, leaving the knife sticking in the cake; upon which Mr. Sherwin, with a stern look at her, ostentatiously pulled it out, and set it down rather violently on the dish.
Poor Mrs. Sherwin! I had hardly noticed her on the day when she got into the omnibus with her daughter--it was as if I now saw her for the first time. There is a natural communicativeness about women's emotions. A happy woman imperceptibly diffuses her happiness around her; she has an influence that is something akin to the influence of a sunshiny day. So, again, the melancholy of a melancholy woman is invariably, though silently, infectious; and Mrs. Sherwin was one of this latter order. Her pale, sickly, moist-looking skin; her large, mild, watery, light-blue eyes; the restless timidity of her expression; the mixture of useless hesitation and involuntary rapidity in every one of her actions--all furnished the same significant betrayal of a life of incessant fear and restraint; of a disposition full of modest generosities and meek sympathies, which had been crushed down past rousing to self-assertion, past ever seeing the light. There, in that mild, wan face of hers--in those painful startings and hurryings when she moved; in that tremulous, faint utterance when she spoke--there, I could see one of those ghastly heart-tragedies laid open before me, which are acted and re-acted, scene by scene, and year by year, in the secret theatre of home; tragedies which are ever shadowed by the slow falling of the black curtain that drops lower and lower every day--that drops, to hide all at last, from the hand of death.
"We have had very beautiful weather lately, Sir," said Mrs. Sherwin, almost inaudibly; looking as she spoke, with anxious eyes towards her husband, to see if she was justified in uttering even those piteously common-place words. "Very beautiful weather to be sure," continued the poor woman, as timidly as if she had become a little child again, and had been ordered to say her first lesson in a stranger's presence.
"Delightful weather, Mrs. Sherwin. I have been enjoying it for the last two days in the country--in a part of Surrey (the neighbourhood of Ewell) that I had not seen before."
There was a pause. Mr. Sherwin coughed; it was evidently a warning matrimonial peal that he had often rung before--for Mrs. Sherwin started, and looked up at him directly.
"As the lady of the house, Mrs. S., it strikes me that you might offer a visitor, like this gentleman, some cake and wine, without making any particular hole in your manners!"
"Oh dear me! I beg your pardon! I'm very sorry, I'm sure"--and she poured out a glass of wine, with such a trembling hand that the decanter tinkled all the while against the glass. Though I wanted nothing, I ate and drank something immediately, in common consideration for Mrs. Sherwin's embarrassment.
Mr. Sherwin filled himself a glass--held it up admiringly to the light--said, "Your good health, Sir, your very good health;" and drank the wine with the air of a connoisseur, and a most expressive smacking of the lips. His wife (to whom he offered nothing) looked at him all the time with the most reverential attention.
"You are taking nothing yourself, Mrs. Sherwin," I said.
"Mrs. Sherwin, Sir," interposed her husband, "never drinks wine, and can't digest cake. A bad stomach--a very bad stomach. Have another glass yourself. Won't you, indeed? This sherry stands me in six shillings a bottle--ought to be first-rate wine at that price: and so it is. Well, if you won't have any more, we will proceed to business. Ha! ha! business as I call it; pleasure I hope it will be to you."
Mrs. Sherwin coughed--a very weak, small cough, half-stifled in its birth.
"There you are again!" he said, turning fiercely towards her--"Coughing again! Six months of the doctor--a six months' bill to come out of my pocket--and no good done--no good, Mrs. S."
"Oh, I am much better, thank you--it was only a little--"
"Well, Sir, the evening after you left me, I had what you may call an explanation with my dear girl. She was naturally a little confused and--and embarrassed, indeed. A very serious thing of course, to decide at her age, and at so short a notice, on a point involving the happiness of her whole life to come."
Here Mrs. Sherwin put her handkerchief to her eyes--quite noiselessly; for she had doubtless acquired by long practice the habit of weeping in silence. Her husband's quick glance turned on her, however, immediately, with anything but an expression of sympathy.
"Good God, Mrs. S.! what's the use of going on in that way?" he said, indignantly. "What is there to cry about? Margaret isn't ill, and isn't unhappy--what on earth's the matter now? Upon my soul this is a most annoying circumstance: and before a visitor too! You had better leave me to discuss the matter alone--you always were in the way of business, and it's my opinion you always will be."
Mrs. Sherwin prepared, without a word of remonstrance, to leave the room. I sincerely felt for her; but could say nothing. In the impulse of the moment, I rose to open the door for her; and immediately repented having done so. The action added so much to her embarrassment that she kicked her foot against a chair, and uttered a suppressed exclamation of pain as she went out.
Mr. Sherwin helped himself to a second glass of wine, without taking the smallest notice of this.
"I hope Mrs. Sherwin has not hurt herself?" I said. "Oh dear no! not worth a moment's thought--awkwardness and nervousness, nothing else--she always was nervous--the doctors (all humbugs) can do nothing with her--it's very sad, very sad indeed; but there's no help for it."
By this time (in spite of all my efforts to preserve some respect for him, as Margaret's father) he had sunk to his proper place in my estimation.
"Well, my dear Sir," he resumed, "to go back to where I was interrupted by Mrs. S. Let me see: I was saying that my dear girl was a little confused, and so forth. As a matter of course, I put before her all the advantages which such a connection as yours promised--and at the same time, mentioned some of the little embarrassing circumstances--the private marriage, you know, and all that--besides telling her of certain restrictions in reference to the marriage, if it came off, which I should feel it my duty as a father to impose; and which I shall proceed, in short, to explain to you. As a man of the world, my dear Sir, you know as well as I do, that young ladies don't give very straightforward answers on the subject of their prepossessions in favour of young gentlemen. But I got enough out of her to show me that you had made pretty good use of your time--no occasion to despond, you know--I leave you to make her speak plain; it's more in your line than mine, more a good deal. And now let us come to the business part of the transaction. All I have to say is this:--if you agree to my proposals, then I agree to yours. I think that's fair enough--Eh?"
"Quite fair, Mr. Sherwin."
"Just so. Now, in the first place, my daughter is too young to be married yet. She was only seventeen last birthday."
"You astonish me! I should have imagined her three years older at least."
"Everybody thinks her older than she is--everybody, my dear Sir--and she certainly looks it. She's more formed, more developed I may say, than most girls at her age. However, that's not the point. The plain fact is, she's too young to be married now--too young in a moral point of view; too young in an educational point of view; too young altogether. Well: the upshot of this is, that I could not give my consent to Margaret's marrying, until another year is out--say a year from this time. One year's courtship for the finishing off of her education, and the formation of her constitution--you understand me, for the formation of her constitution."
A year to wait! At first, this seemed a long trial to endure, a trial that ought not to be imposed on me. But the next moment, the delay appeared in a different light. Would it not be the dearest of privileges to be able to see Margaret, perhaps every day, perhaps for hours at a time? Would it not be happiness enough to observe each development of her character, to watch her first maiden love for me, advancing nearer and nearer towards confidence and maturity the oftener we met? As I thought on this, I answered Mr. Sherwin without further hesitation.
"It will be some trial," I said, "to my patience, though none to my constancy, none to the strength of my affection--I will wait the year."
"Exactly so," rejoined Mr. Sherwin; "such candour and such reasonableness were to be expected from one who is quite the gentleman. And now comes my grand difficulty in this business--in fact, the little stipulation I have to make."
He stopped, and ran his fingers through his hair, in all directions; his features fidgetting and distorting themselves ominously, while he looked at me.
"Pray explain yourself, Mr. Sherwin. Your silence gives me some uneasiness at this particular moment, I assure you."
"Quite so--I understand. Now, you must promise me not to be huffed--offended, I should say--at what I am going to propose."
"Well, then, it may seem odd; but under all the circumstances--that is to say, as far as the case concerns you personally--I want you and my dear girl to be married at once, and yet not to be married exactly, for another year. I don't know whether you understand me?"
"I must confess I do not."
He coughed rather uneasily; turned to the table, and poured out another glass of sherry--his hand trembling a little as he did so. He drank off the wine at a draught; cleared his throat three or four times after it; and then spoke again.
"Well, to be still plainer, this is how the matter stands: If you were a party in our rank of life, coming to court Margaret with your father's full approval and permission when once you had consented to the year's engagement, everything would be done and settled; the bargain would have been struck on both sides; and there would be an end of it. But, situated as you are, I can't stop here safely--I mean, I can't end the agreement exactly in this way."
He evidently felt that he got fluent on wine; and helped himself, at this juncture, to another glass.
"You will see what I am driving at, my dear Sir, directly," he continued. "Suppose now, you came courting my daughter for a year, as we settled; and suppose your father found it out--we should keep it a profound secret of course: but still, secrets are sometimes found out, nobody knows how. Suppose, I say, your father got scent of the thing, and the match was broken off; where do you think Margaret's reputation would be? If it happened with somebody in her own station, we might explain it all, and be believed: but happening with somebody in yours, what would the world say? Would the world believe you had ever intended to marry her? That's the point--that's the point precisely."
"But the case could not happen--I am astonished you can imagine it possible. I have told you already, I am of age."
"Properly urged--very properly, indeed. But you also told me, if you remember, when I first had the pleasure of seeing you, that your father, if he knew of this match, would stick at nothing to oppose it--at nothing--I recollect you said so. Now, knowing this, my dear Sir--though I have the most perfect confidence in your honour, and your resolution to fulfil your engagement--I can't have confidence in your being prepared beforehand to oppose all your father might do if he found us out; because you can't tell yourself what he might be up to, or what influence he might set to work over you. This sort of mess is not very probable, you will say; but if it's at all possible--and there's a year for it to be possible in--by George, Sir, I must guard against accidents, for my daughter's sake--I must indeed!"
'In Heaven's name, Mr. Sherwin, pass over all these impossible difficulties of yours! and let me hear what you have finally to propose."
"Gently, my dear Sir! gently, gently, gently! I propose to begin with: that you should marry my daughter--privately marry her--in a week's time. Now, pray compose yourself!" (I was looking at him in speechless astonishment.) "Take it easy; pray take it easy! Supposing, then, you marry her in this way, I make one stipulation. I require you to give me your word of honour to leave her at the church door; and for the space of one year never to attempt to see her, except in the presence of a third party. At the end of that time, I will engage to give her to you, as your wife in fact, as well as in name. There! what do you say to that--eh?"
I was too astounded, too overwhelmed, to say anything at that moment; Mr. Sherwin went on:
"This plan of mine, you see, reconciles everything. If any accident does happen, and we are discovered, why your father can do nothing to stop the match, because the match will have been already made. And, at the same time, I secure a year's delay, for the formation of her constitution, and the finishing of her accomplishments, and so forth. Besides, what an opportunity this gives of sailing as near the wind as you choose, in breaking the thing, bit by bit, to your father, without fear of consequences, in case he should run rough after all. Upon my honour, my dear Sir, I think I deserve some credit for hitting on this plan--it makes everything so right and straight, and suits of course the wishes of all parties! I need hardly say that you shall have every facility for seeing Margaret, under the restrictions--under the restrictions, you understand. People may talk about your visits; but having got the certificate, and knowing it's all safe and settled, I shan't care for that. Well, what do you say? take time to think, if you wish it--only remember that I have the most perfect confidence in your honour, and that I act from a fatherly feeling for the interests of my dear girl!" He stopped, out of breath from the extraordinary volubility of his long harangue.
Some men more experienced in the world, less mastered by love than I was, would, in my position, have recognised this proposal an unfair trial of self-restraint--perhaps, something like an unfair humiliation as well. Others have detected the selfish motives which suggested it: the mean distrust of my honour, integrity, and firmness of purpose which it implied; and the equally mean anxiety on Sherwin's part to clench his profitable bargain at once, for fear it might be repented of. I discerned nothing of this. As soon as I had recovered from the natural astonishment of the first few moments, I only saw in the strange plan proposed to me, a certainty of assuring--no matter with what sacrifice, what hazard, or what delay--the ultimate triumph of my love. When Mr. Sherwin had ceased speaking, I replied at once:
"I accept your conditions--I accept them with all my heart."
He was hardly prepared for so complete and so sudden an acquiescence in his proposal, and looked absolutely startled by it, at first. But soon resuming his self-possession--his wily, "business-like" self-possession--he started up, and shook me vehemently by the hand.
"Delighted--most delighted, my dear Sir, to find how soon we understand each other, and that we pull together so well. We must have another glass; hang it, we really must! a toast, you know; a toast you can't help drinking--your wife! Ha! ha!--I had you there!--my dear, dear Margaret, God bless her!"
"We may consider all difficulties finally settled then," I said, anxious to close my interview with Mr. Sherwin as speedily as possible.
"Decidedly so. Done, and double done, I may say. There will be a little insurance on your life, that I shall ask you to effect for dear Margaret's sake; and perhaps, a memorandum of agreement, engaging to settle a certain proportion of any property you may become possessed of, on her and her children. You see I am looking forward to my grandfather days already! But this can wait for a future occasion--say in a day or two."
"Then I presume there will be no objection to my seeing Miss Sherwin now?"
"None whatever---at once, if you like. This way, my dear Sir; this way," and he led me across the passage, into the dining-room.
This apartment was furnished with less luxury, but with more bad taste (if possible) than the room we had just left. Near the window sat Margaret--it was the same window at which I had seen her, on the evening when I wandered into the square, after our meeting in the omnibus. The cage with the canary-bird hung in the same place. I just noticed--with a momentary surprise--that Mrs. Sherwin was sitting far away from her daughter, at the other end of the room; and then placed myself by Margaret's side. She was dressed in pale yellow--a colour which gave new splendour to her dark complexion and magnificently dark hair. Once more, all my doubts, all my self-upbraidings vanished, and gave place to the exquisite sense of happiness, the glow of joy and hope and love which seemed to rush over my heart, the moment I looked at her.
After staying in the room about five minutes, Mr. Sherwin whispered to his wife, and left us. Mrs. Sherwin still kept her place; but she said nothing, and hardly turned to look round at us more than once or twice. Perhaps she was occupied by her own thoughts; perhaps, from a motive of delicacy, she abstained even from an appearance of watching her daughter or watching me. Whatever feelings influenced her, I cared not to speculate on them. It was enough that I had the privilege of speaking to Margaret uninterruptedly; of declaring my love at last, without hesitation and without reserve.
How much I had to say to her, and how short a time seemed to be left me that evening to say it in! How short a time to tell her all the thoughts of the past which she had created in me; all the self-sacrifice to which I had cheerfully consented for her sake; all the anticipations of future happiness which were concentrated in her, which drew their very breath of life, only from the prospect of her rewarding love! She spoke but little; yet even that little it was a new delight to hear. She smiled now; she let me take her hand, and made no attempt to withdraw it. The evening had closed in; the darkness was stealing fast upon us; the still, dead-still figure of Mrs. Sherwin, always in the same place and the same attitude, grew fainter and fainter to the eye, across the distance of the room--but no thought of time, no thought of home ever once crossed my mind. I could have sat at the window with Margaret the long night through; without an idea of numbering the hours as they passed.
Ere long, however, Mr. Sherwin entered the room again, and effectually roused me by approaching and speaking to us. I saw that I had stayed long enough, and that we were not to be left together again, that night. So I rose and took my leave, having first fixed a time for seeing Margaret on the morrow. Mr. Sherwin accompanied me with great ceremony to the outer door. Just as I was leaving him, he touched me on the arm, and said in his most confidential tones:
"Come an hour earlier, to-morrow; and we'll go and get the licence together. No objection to that--eh? And the marriage, shall we say this day week? Just as you like, you know--don't let me seem to dictate. Ah! no objection to that, either, I see, and no objection on Margaret's side, I'll warrant! With respect to consents, in the marrying part of the business, there's complete mutuality--isn't there? Good night: God bless you!"
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 commonplace 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!
AN epoch in my narrative has now arrived. Up to the time of my marriage, I have appeared as an active agent in the different events I have described. After that period, and--with one or two exceptional cases--throughout the whole year of my probation, my position changed with the change in my life, and became a passive one.
During this interval year, certain events happened, some of which, at the time, excited my curiosity, but none my apprehension--some affected me with a temporary disappointment, but none with even a momentary suspicion. I can now look back on them, as so many timely warnings which I treated with fatal neglect. It is in these events that the history of the long year through which I waited to claim my wife as my own, is really comprised. They marked the lapse of time broadly and significantly; and to them I must now confine myself, as exclusively as may be, in the present portion of my narrative.
It will be first necessary, however, that I should describe what was the nature of my intercourse with Margaret, during the probationary period which followed our marriage.
Mr. Sherwin's anxiety was to make my visits to North Villa as few as possible: he evidently feared the consequences of my seeing his daughter too often. But on this point, I was resolute enough in asserting my own interests, to overpower any resistance on his part. I required him to concede to me the right of seeing Margaret every day--leaving all arrangements of time to depend on his own convenience. After the due number of objections, he reluctantly acquiesced in my demand. I was bound by no engagement whatever, limiting the number of my visits to Margaret; and I let him see at the outset, that I was now ready in my turn, to impose conditions on him, as he had already imposed them on me.
Accordingly, it was settled that Margaret and I were to meet every day. I usually saw her in the evening. When any alteration in the hour of my visit took place, that alteration was produced by the necessity (which we all recognised alike) of avoiding a meeting with any of Mr. Sherwin's friends.
Those portions of the day or the evening which I spent with Margaret, were seldom passed altogether in the Elysian idleness of love. Not content with only enumerating his daughter's school-accomplishments to me at our first interview, Mr. Sherwin boastfully referred to them again and again, on many subsequent occasions; and even obliged Margaret to display before me, some of her knowledge of languages--which he never forgot to remind us had been lavishly paid for out of his own pocket. It was at one of these exhibitions that the idea occurred to me of making a new pleasure for myself out of Margaret's society, by teaching her really to appreciate and enjoy the literature which she had evidently hitherto only studied as a task. My fancy revelled by anticipation in all the delights of such an employment as this. It would be like acting the story of Abelard and Heloise over again--reviving all the poetry and romance in which those immortal love-studies of old had begun, with none of the guilt and none of the misery that had darkened their end.
I had a definite purpose, besides, in wishing to assume the direction of Margaret's studies. Whenever the secret of my marriage was revealed, my pride was concerned in being able to show my wife to every one, as the all-sufficient excuse for any imprudence I might have committed for her sake. I was determined that my father, especially, should have no other argument against her than the one ungracious argument of her birth--that he should see her, fitted by the beauty of her mind, as well as by all her other beauties, for the highest station that society could offer. The thought of this gave me fresh ardour in my project; I assumed my new duties without delay, and continued them with a happiness which never once suffered even a momentary decrease.
Of all the pleasures which a man finds in the society of a woman whom he loves, are there any superior, are there many equal, to the pleasure of reading out of the same book with her? On what other occasion do the sweet familiarities of the sweetest of all companionships last so long without cloying, and pass and re-pass so naturally, so delicately, so inexhaustibly between you and her? When is your face so constantly close to hers as it is then?--when can your hair mingle with hers, your cheek touch hers, your eyes meet hers, so often as they can then? That is, of all times, the only time when you can breathe with her breath for hours together; feel every little warming of the colour on her cheek marking its own changes on the temperature of yours; follow every slight fluttering of her bosom, every faint gradation of her sighs, as if her heart was beating, her life glowing, within yours. Surely it is then--if ever--that we realize, almost revive, in ourselves, the love of the first two of our race, when angels walked with them on the same garden paths, and their hearts were pure from the pollution of the fatal tree!
Evening after evening passed away--one more happily than another--in what Margaret and I called our lessons. Never were lessons of literature so like lessons of love We read oftenest the lighter Italian poets--we studied the poetry of love, written in the language of love. But, as for the steady, utilitarian purpose I had proposed to myself of practically improving Margaret's intellect, that was a purpose which insensibly and deceitfully abandoned me as completely as if it had never existed. The little serious teaching I tried with her at first, led to very poor results. Perhaps, the lover interfered too much with the tutor; perhaps, I had over-estimated the fertility of the faculties I designed to cultivate--but I cared not, and thought not to inquire where the fault lay, then. I gave myself up unreservedly to the exquisite sensations which the mere act of looking on the same page with Margaret procured for me; and neither detected, nor wished to detect, that it was I who read the difficult passages, and left only a few even of the very easiest to be attempted by her.
Happily for my patience under the trial imposed on me by the terms on which Mr. Sherwin's restrictions, and my promise to obey them, obliged me to live with Margaret, it was Mrs. Sherwin who was generally selected to remain in the room with us. By no one could such ungrateful duties of supervision as those imposed on her, have been more delicately and more considerately performed.
She always kept far enough away to be out of hearing when we whispered to each other. We rarely detected her even in looking at us. She had a way of sitting for hours together in the same part of the room, without ever changing her position, without occupation of any kind, without uttering a word, or breathing a sigh. I soon discovered that she was not lost in thought, at these periods (as I had at first supposed): but lost in a strange lethargy of body and mind; a comfortless, waking trance, into which she fell from sheer physical weakness--it was like the vacancy and feebleness of a first convalescence, after a long illness. She never changed: never looked better, never worse. I often spoke to her: I tried hard to show my sympathy, and win her confidence and friendship. The poor lady was always thankful, always spoke to me gratefully and kindly, but very briefly. She never told me what were her sufferings or her sorrows. The story of that lonely, lingering life was an impenetrable mystery for her own family--for her husband and her daughter, as well as for me. It was a secret between her and God.
With Mrs. Sherwin as the guardian to watch over Margaret, it may easily be imagined that I felt none of the heavier oppressions of restraint. Her presence, as the third person appointed to remain with us, was not enough to repress the little endearments to which each evening's lesson gave rise; but was just sufficiently perceptible to invest them with the character of stolen endearments, and to make them all the more precious on that very account. Mrs. Sherwin never knew, I never thoroughly knew myself till later, how much of the secret of my patience under my year's probation lay in her conduct, while she was sitting in the room with Margaret and me.
In this solitude where I now write--in the change of life and of all life's hopes and enjoyments which has come over me--when I look back to those evenings at North Villa, I shudder as I look. At this moment, I see the room again--as in a dream--with the little round table, the reading lamp, and the open books. Margaret and I are sitting together: her hand is in mine; my heart is with hers. Love, and Youth, and Beauty--the mortal Trinity of this world's worship--are there, in that quiet softly-lit room; but not alone. Away in the dim light behind, is a solitary figure, ever mournful and ever still. It is a woman's form; but how wasted and how weak!--a woman's face; but how ghastly and changeless, with those eyes that are vacant, those lips that are motionless, those cheeks that the blood never tinges, that the freshness of health and happiness shall never visit again! Woeful, warning figure of dumb sorrow and patient pain, to fill the background of a picture of Love, and Beauty, and Youth!
I am straying from my task. Let me return to my narrative: its course begins to darken before me apace, while I now write.
The partial restraint and embarrassment, caused at first by the strange terms on which my wife and I were living together, gradually vanished before the frequency of my visits to North Villa. We soon began to speak with all the ease, all the unpremeditated frankness of a long intimacy. Margaret's powers of conversation were generally only employed to lead me to exert mine. She was never tired of inducing me to speak of my family. She listened with every appearance of interest, while I talked of my father, my sister, or my elder brother; but whenever she questioned me directly about any of them, her inquiries invariably led away from their characters and dispositions, to their personal appearance, their every-day habits, their dress, their intercourse with the gay world, the things they spent their money on, and other topics of a similar nature.
For instance; she always listened, and listened attentively, to what I told her of my father's character, and of the principles which regulated his life. She showed every disposition to profit by the instructions I gave her beforehand, about how she should treat his peculiarities when she was introduced to him. But, on all these occasions, what really interested her most, was to hear how many servants waited on him; how often he went to Court; how many lords and ladies he knew; what he said or did to his servants, when they committed mistakes; whether he was ever angry with his children for asking him for money; and whether he limited my sister to any given number of dresses in the course of the year?
Again; whenever our conversation turned on Clara, if I began by describing her kindness, her gentleness and goodness, her simple winning manners--I was sure to be led insensibly into a digression about her height, figure, complexion, and style of dress. The latter subject especially interested Margaret; she could question me on it, over and over again. What was Clara's usual morning dress? How did she wear her hair? What was her evening dress? Did she make a difference between a dinner party and a ball? What colours did she prefer? What dressmaker did she employ? Did she wear much jewellery? Which did she like best in her hair, and which were most fashionable, flowers or pearls? How many new dresses did she have in a year; and was there more than one maid especially to attend on her?
Then, again: Had she a carriage of her own? What ladies took care of her when she went out? Did she like dancing? What were the fashionable dances at noblemen's houses? Did young ladies in the great world practise the pianoforte much? How many offers had my sister had? Did she go to Court, as well as my father? What did she talk about to gentlemen, and what did gentlemen talk about to her? If she were speaking to a duke, how often would she say "your Grace" to him? and would a duke get her a chair, or an ice, and wait on her just as gentlemen without titles waited on ladies, when they met them in society?
My replies to these and hundreds of other questions like them, were received by Margaret with the most eager attention. On the favourite subject of Clara's dresses, my answers were an unending source of amusement and pleasure to her. She especially enjoyed overcoming the difficulties of interpreting aright my clumsy, circumlocutory phrases in attempting to describe shawls, gowns, and bonnets; and taught me the exact millinery language which I ought to have made use of with an arch expression of triumph and a burlesque earnestness of manner, that always enchanted me. At that time, every word she uttered, no matter how frivolous, was the sweetest of all music to my ears. It was only by the stern test of after-events that I learnt to analyse her conversation. Sometimes, when I was away from her, I might think of leading her girlish curiosity to higher things; but when we met again, the thought vanished; and it became delight enough for me simply to hear her speak, without once caring or considering what she spoke of.
Those were the days when I lived happy and unreflecting in the broad sunshine of joy which love showered round me--my eyes were dazzled; my mind lay asleep under it. Once or twice, a cloud came threatening, with chill and shadowy influence; but it passed away, and then the sunshine returned to me, the same sunshine that it was before.
The first change that passed over the calm uniformity of the life at North Villa, came in this manner:
One evening, on entering the drawing-room, I missed Mrs. Sherwin; and found to my great disappointment that her husband was apparently settled there for the evening. He looked a little flurried, and was more restless than usual. His first words, as we met, informed me of an event in which he appeared to take the deepest interest.
"News, my dear sir!" he said. "Mr. Mannion has come back--at least two days before I expected him!"
At first, I felt inclined to ask who Mr. Mannion was, and what consequence it could possibly be to me that he had come back. But immediately afterwards, I remembered that this Mr. Mannion's name had been mentioned during my first conversation with Mr. Sherwin; and then I recalled to mind the description I had heard of him, as "confidential clerk;" as forty years of age; and as an educated man, who had made his information of some use to Margaret in keeping up the knowledge she had acquired at school. I knew no more than this about him, and I felt no curiosity to discover more from Mr. Sherwin.
Margaret and I sat down as usual with our books about us.
There had been something a little hurried and abrupt in her manner of receiving me, when I came in. When we began to read, her attention wandered incessantly; she looked round several times towards the door. Mr. Sherwin walked about the room without intermission, except when he once paused on his restless course, to tell me that Mr. Mannion was coming that evening; and that he hoped I should have no objection to be introduced to a person who was "quite like one of the family, and well enough read to be sure to please a great reader like me." I asked myself rather impatiently, who was this Mr. Mannion, that his arrival at his employer's house should make a sensation? When I whispered something of this to Margaret, she smiled rather uneasily, and said nothing.
At last the bell was rung. Margaret started a little at the sound. Mr. Sherwin sat down; composing himself into rather an elaborate attitude--the door opened, and Mr. Mannion came in.
Mr. Sherwin received his clerk with the assumed superiority of the master in his words; but his tones and manner flatly contradicted them. Margaret rose hastily, and then as hastily sat down again, while the visitor very respectfully took her hand, and made the usual inquiries. After this, he was introduced to me; and then Margaret was sent away to summon her mother down stairs. While she was out of the room, there was nothing to distract my attention from Mr. Mannion. I looked at him with a curiosity and interest, Which I could hardly account for at first.
If extraordinary regularity of feature were alone sufficient to make a handsome man, then this confidential clerk of Mr. Sherwin's was assuredly one of the handsomest men I ever beheld. Viewed separately from the head (which was rather large, both in front and behind) his face exhibited, throughout, an almost perfect symmetry of proportion. His bald forehead was smooth and massive as marble; his high brow and thin eyelids had the firmness and immobility of marble, and seemed as cold; his delicately-formed lips, when he was not speaking, closed habitually, as changelessly still as if no breath of life ever passed them. There was not a wrinkle or line anywhere on his face. But for the baldness in front, and the greyness of the hair at the back and sides of his head, it would have been impossible from his appearance to have guessed his age, even within ten years of what it really was.
Such was his countenance in point of form; but in that which is the outward assertion of our immortality--in expression--it was, as I now beheld it, an utter void. Never had I before seen any human face which baffled all inquiry like his. No mask could have been made expressionless enough to resemble it; and yet it looked like a mask. It told you nothing of his thoughts, when he spoke: nothing of his disposition, when he was silent. His cold grey eyes gave you no help in trying to study him. They never varied from the steady, straightforward look, which was exactly the same for Margaret as it was for me; for Mrs. Sherwin as for Mr. Sherwin--exactly the same whether he spoke or whether he listened; whether he talked of indifferent, or of important matters. Who was he? What was he? His name and calling were poor replies to those questions. Was he naturally cold and unimpressible at heart? or had some fierce passion, some terrible sorrow, ravaged the life within him, and left it dead for ever after? Impossible to conjecture! There was the impenetrable face before you, wholly inexpressive--so inexpressive that it did not even look vacant--a mystery for your eyes and your mind to dwell on--hiding something; but whether vice or virtue you could not tell.
He was dressed as unobtrusively as possible, entirely in black; and was rather above the middle height. His manner was the only part of him that betrayed anything to the observation of others. Viewed in connection with his station, his demeanour (unobtrusive though it was) proclaimed itself as above his position in the world. He had all the quietness and self-possession of a gentleman. He maintained his respectful bearing, without the slightest appearance of cringing; and displayed a decision, both in word and action, that could never be mistaken for obstinacy or over-confidence. Before I had been in his company five minutes, his manner assured me that he must have descended to the position he now occupied.
On his introduction to me, he bowed without saying anything. When he spoke to Mr. Sherwin, his voice was as void of expression as his face: it was rather low in tone, but singularly distinct in utterance. He spoke deliberately, but with no emphasis on particular words, and without hesitation in choosing his terms.
When Mrs. Sherwin came down, I watched her conduct towards him. She could not repress a slight nervous shrinking, when he approached and placed a chair for her. In answering his inquiries after her health, she never once looked at him; but fixed her eyes all the time on Margaret and me, with a sad, anxious expression, wholly indescribable, which often recurred to my memory after that day. She always looked more or less frightened, poor thing, in her husband's presence; but she seemed positively awe-struck before Mr. Mannion.
In truth, my first observation of this so-called clerk, at North Villa, was enough to convince me that he was master there--master in his own quiet, unobtrusive way. That man's character, of whatever elements it might be composed, was a character that ruled. I could not see this in his face, or detect it in his words; but I could discover it in the looks and manners of his employer and his employer's family, as he now sat at the same table with them. Margaret's eyes avoided his countenance much less frequently than the eyes of her parents; but then he rarely looked at her in return--rarely looked at her at all, except when common courtesy obliged him to do so.
If any one had told me beforehand, that I should suspend my ordinary evening's occupation with my young wife, for the sake of observing the very man who had interrupted it, and that man only Mr. Sherwin's clerk, I should have laughed at the idea. Yet so it was. Our books lay neglected on the table--neglected by me, perhaps by Margaret too, for Mr. Mannion.
His conversation, on this occasion at least, baffled all curiosity as completely as his face. I tried to lead him to talk. He just answered me, and that was all; speaking with great respect of manner and phrase, very intelligibly, but very briefly. Mr. Sherwin--after referring to the business expedition on which he had been absent, for the purchase of silks at Lyons--asked him some questions about France and the French, which evidently proceeded from the most ludicrous ignorance both of the country and the people. Mr. Mannion just set him right; and did no more. There was not the smallest inflection of sarcasm in his voice, not the slightest look of sarcasm in his eye, while he spoke. When we talked among ourselves, he did not join in the conversation; but sat quietly waiting until he might be pointedly and personally addressed again. At these times a suspicion crossed my mind that he might really be studying my character, as I was vainly trying to study his; and I often turned suddenly round on him, to see whether he was looking at me. This was never the case. His hard, chill grey eyes were not on me, and not on Margaret: they rested most frequently on Mrs. Sherwin, who always shrank before them.
After staying little more than half an hour, he rose to go away. While Mr. Sherwin was vainly pressing him to remain longer, I walked to the round table at the other end of the room, on which the book was placed that Margaret and I had intended to read during the evening. I was standing by the table when he came to take leave of me. He just glanced at the volume under my hand, and said in tones too low to be heard at the other end of the room:
"I hope my arrival has not interrupted any occupation to-night, Sir. Mr. Sherwin, aware of the interest I must feel in whatever concerns the family of an employer whom I have served for years, has informed me in confidence--a confidence which I know how to respect and preserve--of your marriage with his daughter, and of the peculiar circumstances under which the marriage has been contracted. I may at least venture to congratulate the young lady on a change of life which must procure her happiness, having begun already by procuring the increase of her mental resources and pleasures." He bowed, and pointed to the book on the table.
"I believe, Mr. Mannion," I said, "that you have been of great assistance in laying a foundation for the studies to which I presume you refer."
"I endeavoured to make myself useful in that way, Sir, as in all others, when my employer desired it." He bowed again, as he said this; and then went out, followed by Mr. Sherwin, who held a short colloquy with him in the hall.
What had he said to me? Only a few civil words, spoken in a very respectful manner. There had been nothing in his tones, nothing in his looks, to give any peculiar significance to what he uttered. Still, the moment his back was turned, I found myself speculating whether his words contained any hidden meaning; trying to recall something in his voice or manner which might guide me in discovering the real sense he attached to what he said. It seemed as if the most powerful whet to my curiosity, were supplied by my own experience of the impossibility of penetrating beneath the unassailable surface which this man presented to me.
I questioned Margaret about him. She could not tell me more than I knew already. He had always been very kind and useful; he was a clever man, and could talk a great deal sometimes, when he chose; and he had taught her more of foreign languages and foreign literature in a month, than she had learned at school in a year. While she was telling me this, I hardly noticed that she spoke in a very hurried manner, and busied herself in arranging the books and work that lay on the table. My attention was more closely directed to Mrs. Sherwin. To my surprise, I saw her eagerly lean forward while Margaret was speaking, and fix her eyes on her daughter with a look of penetrating scrutiny, of which I could never have supposed a person usually so feeble and unenergetic to be capable. I thought of transferring to her my questionings on the subject of Mr. Mannion; but at that moment her husband entered the room, and I addressed myself for further enlightenment to him.
"Aha!"--cried Mr. Sherwin, rubbing his hands triumphantly--"I knew Mannion would please you. I told you so, my dear Sir, if you remember, before he came. Curious looking person--isn't he?"
"So curious, that I may safely say I never saw a face in the slightest degree resembling his in my life. Your clerk, Mr. Sherwin, is a complete walking mystery that I want to solve. Margaret cannot give me much help, I am afraid. When you came in, I was about to apply to Mrs. Sherwin for a little assistance."
"Don't do any such thing! You'll be quite in the wrong box there. Mrs. S. is as sulky as a bear, whenever Mannion and she are in company together. Considering her behaviour to him, I wonder he can be so civil to her as he is."
"What can you tell me about him yourself, Mr. Sherwin?"
"I can tell you there's not a house of business in London has such a managing man as he is: he's my factotum--my right hand, in short; and my left too, for the matter of that. He understands my ways of doing business; and, in fact, carries things out in first-rate style. Why, he'd be worth his weight in gold, only for the knack he has of keeping the young men in the shop in order. Poor devils! they don't know how he does it; but there's a particular look of Mr. Mannion's that's as bad as transportation and hanging to them, whenever they see it. I'll pledge yon my word of honour he's never had a day's illness, or made a single mistake, since he's been with me. He's a quiet, steady-going, regular dragon at his work--he is! And then, so obliging in other things. I've only got to say to him: 'Here's Margaret at home for the holidays;' or, 'Here's Margaret a little out of sorts, and going to be nursed at home for the half-year--what's to be done about keeping up her lessons? I can't pay for a governess (bad lot, governesses!) and school too.'--I've only got to say that; and up gets Mannion from his books and his fireside at home, in the evening--which begins to be something, you know, to a man of his time of life--and turns tutor for me, gratis; and a first-rate tutor, too! That's what I call having a treasure! And yet, though he's been with us for years, Mrs. S. there won't take to him!--I defy her or anybody else to say why, or wherefore!"
"Do you know how he was employed before he came to you?"
"Ah! now you've hit it--that's where you're right in saying he's a mystery. What he did before I knew him, is more than I can tell--a good deal more. He came to me with a capital recommendation and security, from a gentleman whom I knew to be of the highest respectability. I had a vacancy in the back office, and tried him, and found out what he was worth, in no time--I flatter myself I've a knack at that with everybody. Well: before I got used to his curious-looking face, and his quiet ways, I wanted badly enough to know something about him, and who his connections were. First, I asked his friend who had recommended him--the friend wasn't at liberty to answer for anything but his perfect trustworthiness. Then I asked Mannion himself point-blank about it, one day. He just told me that he had reasons for keeping his family affairs to himself--nothing more--but you know the way he has with him; and, damn it, he put the stopper on me, from that time to this. I wasn't going to risk losing the best clerk that ever man had, by worrying him about his secrets. They didn't interfere with business, and didn't interfere with me; so I put my curiosity in my pocket. I know nothing about him, but that he's my right-hand man, and the honestest fellow that ever stood in shoes. He may be the Great Mogul himself, in disguise, for anything I care! In short, you may be able to find out all about him, my dear Sir; but I can't."
"There does not seem much chance for me, Mr. Sherwin, after what you have said."
"Well: I'm not so sure of that--plenty of chances here, you know. You'll see him often enough: he lives near, and drops in constantly of evenings. We settle business matters that won't come into business hours, in my private snuggery up stairs. In fact, he's one of the family; treat him as such, and get anything out of him you can--the more the better, as far as regards that. Ah! Mrs. S., you may stare, Ma'am; but I say again, he's one of the family; may be, he'll be my partner some of these days--you'll have to get used to him then, whether you like it or not."
"One more question: is he married or single?"
"Single, to be sure--a regular old bachelor, if ever there was one yet."
During the whole time we had been speaking, Mrs. Sherwin had looked at us with far more earnestness and attention than I had ever seen her display before. Even her languid faculties seemed susceptible of active curiosity on the subject of Mr. Mannion--the more so, perhaps, from her very dislike of him. Margaret had moved her chair into the background, while her father was talking; and was apparently little interested in the topic under discussion. In the first interval of silence, she complained of headache, and asked leave to retire to her room.
After she left us, I took my departure: for Mr. Sherwin evidently had nothing more to tell me about his clerk that was worth hearing. On my way home, Mr. Mannion occupied no small share of my thoughts. The idea of trying to penetrate the mystery connected with him was an idea that pleased me; there was a promise of future excitement in it of no ordinary kind. I determined to have a little private conversation with Margaret about him; and to make her an ally in my new project. If there really had been some romance connected with Mr. Mannion's early life--if that strange and striking face of his was indeed a sealed book which contained a secret story, what a triumph and a pleasure, if Margaret and I should succeed in discovering it together!
When I woke the next morning, I could hardly believe that this tradesman's clerk had so interested my curiosity that he had actually shared my thoughts with my young wife, during the evening before. And yet, when I next saw him, he produced exactly the same impression on me again.
Some weeks passed away; Margaret and I resumed our usual employments and amusements; the life at North Villa ran on as smoothly and obscurely as usual--and still I remained ignorant of Mr. Mannion's history and Mr. Mannion's character. He came frequently to the house, in the evening; but was generally closeted with Mr. Sherwin, and seldom accepted his employer's constant invitation to him to join the party in the drawing-room. At those rare intervals when we did see him, his appearance and behaviour were exactly the same as on the night when I had met him for the first time; he spoke just as seldom, and resisted just as resolutely and respectfully the many attempts made on my part to lead him into conversation and familiarity. If he had really been trying to excite my interest, he could not have succeeded more effectually. I felt towards him much as a man feels in a labyrinth, when every fresh failure in gaining the centre, only produces fresh obstinacy in renewing the effort to arrive at it.
From Margaret I gained no sympathy for my newly-aroused curiosity. She appeared, much to my surprise, to care little about Mr. Mannion; and always changed the conversation, if it related to him, whenever it depended upon her to continue the topic or not.
Mrs. Sherwin's conduct was far from resembling her daughter's, when I spoke to her on the same subject. She always listened intently to what I said; but her answers were invariably brief, confused, and sometimes absolutely incomprehensible. It was only after great difficulty that I induced her to confess her dislike of Mr. Mannion. Whence it proceeded she could never tell. Did she suspect anything? In answering this question, she always stammered, trembled, and looked away from me. "How could she suspect anything? If she did suspect, it would very wrong without good reason: but she ought not to suspect, and did not, of course."
I never obtained any replies from her more intelligible than these. Attributing their confusion to the nervous agitation which more or less affected her when she spoke on any subject, I soon ceased making any efforts to induce her to explain herself; and determined to search for the clue to Mr. Mannion's character, without seeking assistance from any one.
Accident at length gave me an opportunity of knowing something of his habits and opinions; and so far, therefore, of knowing something about the man himself.
One night, I met him in the hall at North Villa, about to leave the house at the same time that I was, after a business-consultation in private with Mr. Sherwin. We went out together. The sky was unusually black; the night atmosphere unusually oppressive and still. The roll of distant thunder sounded faint and dreary all about us. The sheet lightning, flashing quick and low in the horizon, made the dark firmament look like a thick veil, rising and falling incessantly, over a heaven of dazzling light behind it. Such few foot-passengers as passed us, passed running--for heavy, warning drops were falling already from the sky. We quickened our pace; but before we had walked more than two hundred yards, the rain came down, furious and drenching; and the thunder began to peal fearfully, right over our heads.
"My house is close by," said my companion, just as quietly and deliberately as usual--"pray step in, Sir, until the storm is over."
I followed him down a bye street; he opened a door with his own key; and the next instant I was sheltered under Mr. Mannion's roof.
He led me at once into a room on the ground floor. The fire was blazing in the grate; an arm-chair, with a reading easel attached, was placed by it; the lamp was ready lit; the tea-things were placed on the table; the dark, thick curtains were drawn close over the window; and, as if to complete the picture of comfort before me, a large black cat lay on the rug, basking luxuriously in the heat of the fire. While Mr. Mannion went out to give some directions, as he said, to his servant, I had an opportunity of examining the apartment more in detail. To study the appearance of a man's dwelling-room, is very often nearly equivalent to studying his own character.
The personal contrast between Mr. Sherwin and his clerk was remarkable enough, but the contrast between the dimensions and furnishing of the rooms they lived in, was to the full as extraordinary. The apartment I now surveyed was less than half the size of the sitting-room at North Villa. The paper on the walls was of a dark red; the curtains were of the same colour; the carpet was brown, and if it bore any pattern, that pattern was too quiet and unpretending to be visible by candlelight. One wall was entirely occupied by rows of dark mahogany shelves, completely filled with books, most of them cheap editions of the classical works of ancient and modern literature. The opposite wall was thickly hung with engravings in maple-wood frames from the works of modern painters, English and French. All the minor articles of furniture were of the plainest and neatest order--even the white china tea-pot and tea-cup on the table, had neither pattern nor colouring of any kind. What a contrast was this room to the drawing-room at North Villa!
On his return, Mr. Mannion found me looking at his tea-equipage. "I am afraid, Sir, I must confess myself an epicure and a prodigal in two things," he said; "an epicure in tea, and a prodigal (at least for a person in my situation) in books. However, I receive a liberal salary, and can satisfy my tastes, such as they are, and save money too. What can I offer you, Sir?"
Seeing the preparations on the table, I asked for tea. While he was speaking to me, there was one peculiarity about him that I observed. Almost all men, when they stand on their own hearths, in their own homes, instinctively alter more or less from their out-of-door manner: the stiffest people expand, the coldest thaw a little, by their own firesides. It was not so with Mr. Mannion. He was exactly the same man at his own house that he was at Mr. Sherwin's.
There was no need for him to have told me that he was an epicure in tea; the manner in which he made it would have betrayed that to anybody. He put in nearly treble the quantity which would generally be considered sufficient for two persons; and almost immediately after he had filled the tea-pot with boiling water, began to pour from it into the cups--thus preserving all the aroma and delicacy of flavour in the herb, without the alloy of any of the coarser part of its strength. When we had finished our first cups, there was no pouring of dregs into a basin, or of fresh water on the leaves. A middle-aged female servant, neat and quiet, came up and took away the tray, bringing it to us again with the tea-pot and tea-cups clean and empty, to receive a fresh infusion from fresh leaves. These were trifles to notice; but I thought of other tradesmen's clerks who were drinking their gin-and-water jovially, at home or at a tavern, and found Mr. Mannion a more exasperating mystery to me than ever.
The conversation between us turned at first on trivial subjects, and was but ill sustained on my part--there were peculiarities in my present position which made me thoughtful. Once, our talk ceased altogether; and, just at that moment, the storm began to rise to its height. Hail mingled with the rain, and rattled heavily against the window. The thunder, bursting louder and louder with each successive peal, seemed to shake the house to its foundations. As I listened to the fearful crashing and roaring that seemed to fill the whole measureless void of upper air, and then looked round on the calm, dead-calm face of the man beside me--without one human emotion of any kind even faintly pictured on it--I felt strange, unutterable sensations creeping over me; our silence grew oppressive and sinister; I began to wish, I hardly knew why, for some third person in the room--for somebody else to look at and to speak to.
He was the first to resume the conversation. I should have imagined it impossible for any man, in the midst of such thunder as now raged above our heads, to think or talk of anything but the storm. And yet, when he spoke it was merely on a subject connected with his introduction to me at North Villa. His attention seemed as far from being attracted or impressed by the mighty elemental tumult without, as if the tranquillity of the night were uninvaded by the slightest murmur of sound.
"May I inquire, Sir," he began, "whether I am right in apprehending that my conduct towards you, since we first met at Mr. Sherwin's house, may have appeared strange, and even discourteous, in your eyes?"
"In what respect, Mr. Mannion?" I asked, a little startled by the abruptness of the question.
"I am perfectly sensible, Sir, that you have kindly set me the example, on many occasions, in trying to better our acquaintance. When such advances are made by one in your station to one in mine, they ought to be immediately and gratefully responded to."
Why did he pause? Was he about to tell me he had discovered that my advances sprang from curiosity to know more about him than he was willing to reveal? I waited for him to proceed.
"I have only failed," he continued, "in the courtesy and gratitude you had a right to expect from me, because, knowing how you were situated with Mr. Sherwin's daughter, I thought any intrusion on my part, while you were with the young lady, might not be so acceptable as you, Sir, in your kindness, were willing to lead me to believe."
"Let me assure you," I answered; relieved to find myself unsuspected, and really impressed by his delicacy--"let me assure you that I fully appreciate the consideration you have shown--"
Just as the last words passed my lips, the thunder pealed awfully over the house. I said no more: the sound silenced me.
"As my explanation has satisfied you, Sir," he went on; his clear and deliberate utterance rising discordantly audible above the long, retiring roll of the last burst of thunder--"may I feel justified in speaking on the subject of your present position in my employer's house, with some freedom? I mean, if I may say so without offence, with the freedom of a friend."
I begged he would use all the freedom he wished; feeling really desirous that he should do so, apart from any purpose of leading him to talk unreservedly on the chance of hearing him talk of himself. The profound respect of manner and phrase which he had hitherto testified--observed by a man of his age, to a man of mine--made me feel ill at ease. He was most probably my equal in acquirements: he had the manners and tastes of a gentleman, and might have the birth too, for aught I knew to the contrary. The difference between us was only in our worldly positions. I had not enough of my father's pride of caste to think that this difference alone, made it right that a man whose years nearly doubled mine, whose knowledge perhaps surpassed mine, should speak to me as Mr. Mannion. had spoken up to this time.
"I may tell you then," he resumed, "that while I am anxious to commit no untimely intrusion on your hours at North Villa, I am at the same time desirous of being something more than merely inoffensive towards you. I should wish to be positively useful, as far as I can. In my opinion Mr. Sherwin has held you to rather a hard engagement--he is trying your discretion a little too severely I think, at your years and in your situation. Feeling thus, it is my sincere wish to render what connection and influence I have with the family, useful in making the probation you have still to pass through, as easy as possible. I have more means of doing this, Sir, than you might at first imagine."
His offer took me a little by surprise. I felt with a sort of shame, that candour and warmth of feeling were what I had not expected from him. My attention insensibly wandered away from the storm, to attach itself more and more closely to him, as he went on:
"I am perfectly sensible," he resumed, "that such a proposition as I now make to you, proceeding from one little better than a stranger, may cause surprise and even suspicion, at first. I can only explain it, by asking you to remember that I have known the young lady since childhood; and that, having assisted in forming her mind and developing her character, I feel towards her almost as a second father, and am therefore naturally interested in the gentleman who has chosen her for a wife."
Was there a tremor at last in that changeless voice, as he spoke? I thought so; and looked anxiously to catch the answering gleam of expression, which might now, for the first time, be softening his iron features, animating the blank stillness of his countenance. If any such expression had been visible, I was too late to detect it. Just as I looked at him he stooped down to poke the fire. When he turned towards me again, his face was the same impenetrable face, his eye the same hard, steady, inexpressive eye as before.
"Besides," he continued, "a man must have some object in life for his sympathies to be employed on. I have neither wife nor child; and no near relations to think of--I have nothing but my routine of business in the day, and my books here by my lonely fireside, at night. Our life is not much; but it was made for a little more than this. My former pupil at North Villa is my pupil no longer. I can't help feeling that it would be an object in existence for me to occupy myself with her happiness and yours; to have two young people, in the heyday of youth and first love, looking towards me occasionally for the promotion of some of their pleasures--no matter how trifling. All this will seem odd and incomprehensible to you. If you were of my age, Sir, and in my position, you would understand it."
Was it possible that he could speak thus, without his voice faltering, or his eye softening in the slightest degree? Yes: I looked at him and listened to him intently; but here was not the faintest change in his face or his tones--there was nothing to show outwardly whether he felt what he said, or whether he did not. His words had painted such a picture of forlornness on my mind, that I had mechanically half raised my hand to take his, while he was addressing me; but the sight of him when he ceased, checked the impulse almost as soon as it was formed. He did not appear to have noticed either my involuntary gesture, or its immediate repression; and went on speaking.
"I have said perhaps more than I ought," he resumed. "If I have not succeeded in making you understand my explanation as I could wish, we will change the subject, and not return to it again, until you have known me for a much longer time."
"On no account change the subject, Mr. Mannion," I said; unwilling to let it be implied that I would not put trust in him. "I am deeply sensible of the kindness of your offer, and the interest you take in Margaret and me. We shall both, I am sure, accept your good offices--"
I stopped. The storm had decreased a little in violence: but my attention was now struck by the wind, which had risen as the thunder and rain had partially lulled. How drearily it was moaning down the street! It seemed, at that moment, to be wailing over me; to be wailing over him; to be wailing over all mortal things! The strange sensations I then felt, moved me to listen in silence; but I checked them, and spoke again.
"If I have not answered you as I should," I continued, "you must attribute it partly to the storm, which I confess rather discomposes my ideas; and partly to a little surprise--a very foolish surprise, I own--that you should still be able to feel so strong a sympathy with interests which are generally only considered of importance to the young."
"It is only in their sympathies, that men of my years can, and do, live their youth over again," he said. "You may be surprised to hear a tradesman's clerk talk in this manner; but I was not always what I am now. I have gathered knowledge, and suffered in the gathering. I have grown old before my time--my forty years are like the fifty of other men--"
My heart beat quicker--was he, unasked, about to disclose the mystery which evidently hung over his early life? No: he dropped the subject at once, when he continued. I longed to ask him to resume it, but could not. I feared the same repulse which Mr. Sherwin had received: and remained silent.
"What I was," he proceeded, "matters little; the question is what can I do for you? Any aid I can give, may be poor enough; but it may be of some use notwithstanding. For instance, the other day, if I mistake not, you were a little hurt at Mr. Sherwin's taking his daughter to a party to which the family had been invited. This was very natural. You could not be there to watch over her in your real character, without disclosing a secret which must be kept safe; and you could not know what young men she might meet, who would imagine her to be Miss Sherwin still, and would regulate their conduct accordingly. Now, I think I might be of use here. I have some influence--perhaps in strict truth I ought to say great influence--with my employer; and, if you wished it, I would use that influence to back yours, in inducing him to forego, for the future, any intention of taking his daughter into society, except when you desire it. Again: I think I am not wrong in assuming that you infinitely prefer the company of Mrs. Sherwin to that of Mr. Sherwin, during your interviews with the young lady?"
How he had found that out? At any rate, he was right; and I told him so candidly.
"The preference is on many accounts a very natural one," he said; "but if you suffered it to appear to Mr. Sherwin, it might, for obvious reasons, produce a most unfavourable effect. I might interfere in the matter, however, without suspicion; I should have many opportunities of keeping him away from the room, in the evening, which I could use if you wished it. And more than that, if you wanted longer and more frequent communication with North Villa than you now enjoy, I might be able to effect this also. I do not mention what I could do in these, and in other matters, in any disparagement, Sir, of the influence which you have with Mr. Sherwin, in your own right; but because I know that in what concerns your intercourse with his daughter, my employer has asked, and will ask my advice, from the habit of doing so in other things. I have hitherto declined giving him this advice in your affairs; but I will give it, and in your favour and the young lady's, if you and she choose."
I thanked him--but not in such warm terms as I should have employed, if I had seen even the faintest smile on his face, or had heard any change in his steady, deliberate tones, as he spoke. While his words attracted, his immovable looks repelled me, in spite of myself.
"I must again beg you"--he proceeded--"to remember what I have already said, in your estimate of the motives of my offer. If I still appear to be interfering officiously in your affairs, you have only to think that I have presumed impertinently on the freedom you have allowed me, and to treat me no longer on the terms of to-night. I shall not complain of your conduct, and shall try hard not to consider you unjust to me, if you do."
Such an appeal as this was not to be resisted: I answered him at once and unreservedly. What right had I to draw bad inferences from a man's face, voice, and manner, merely because they impressed me, as out of the common? Did I know how much share the influence of natural infirmity, or the outward traces of unknown sorrow and suffering, might have had in producing the external peculiarities which had struck me? He would have every right to upbraid me as unjust--and that in the strongest terms--unless I spoke out fairly in reply.
"I am quite incapable, Mr. Mannion," I said, "of viewing your offer with any other than grateful feelings. You will find I shall prove this by employing your good offices for Margaret and myself in perfect faith, and sooner perhaps than you may imagine."
He bowed and said a few cordial words, which I heard but imperfectly--for, as I addressed him, a blast of wind fiercer than usual, rushed down the street, shaking the window shutter violently as it passed, and dying away in a low, melancholy, dirging swell, like a spirit-cry of lamentation and despair.
When he spoke again, after a momentary silence, it was to make some change in the conversation. He talked of Margaret--dwelling in terms of high praise rather on her moral than on her personal qualities. He spoke of Mr. Sherwin, referring to solid and attractive points in his character which I had not detected. What he said of Mrs. Sherwin appeared to be equally dictated by compassion and respect--he even hinted at her coolness towards himself, considerately attributing it to the involuntary caprice of settled nervousness and ill-health. His language, in touching on these subjects, was just as unaffected, just as devoid of any peculiarities, as I had hitherto found it when occupied by other topics.
It was growing late. The thunder still rumbled at long intervals, with a dull, distant sound; and the wind showed no symptoms of subsiding. But the pattering of the rain against the window ceased to be audible. There was little excuse for staying longer; and I wished to find none. I had acquired quite knowledge enough of Mr. Mannion to assure me, that any attempt on my part at extracting from him, in spite of his reserve, the secrets which might be connected with his early life, would prove perfectly fruitless. If I must judge him at all, I must judge him by the experience of the present, and not by the history of the past. I had heard good, and good only, of him from the shrewd master who knew him best, and had tried him longest. He had shown the greatest delicacy towards my feelings, and the strongest desire to do me service--it would be a mean return for those acts of courtesy, to let curiosity tempt me to pry into his private affairs.
I rose to go. He made no effort to detain me; but, after unbarring the shutter and looking out of the window, simply remarked that the rain had almost entirely ceased, and that my umbrella would be quite sufficient protection against all that remained. He followed me into the passage to light me out. As I turned round upon his door-step to thank him for his hospitality, and to bid him good night, the thought came across me, that my manner must have appeared cold and repelling to him--especially when he was offering his services to my acceptance. If I had really produced this impression, he was my inferior in station, and it would be cruel to leave it. I tried to set myself right at parting.
"Let me assure you again," I said, "that it will not be my fault if Margaret and I do not thankfully employ your good offices, as the good offices of a well-wisher and a friend."
The lightning was still in the sky, though it only appeared at long intervals. Strangely enough, at the moment when I addressed him, a flash came, and seemed to pass right over his face. It gave such a hideously livid hue, such a spectral look of ghastliness and distortion to his features, that he absolutely seemed to be glaring and grinning on me like a fiend, in the one instant of its duration. For the moment, it required all my knowledge of the settled calmness of his countenance, to convince me that my eyes must have been only dazzled by an optical illusion produced by the lightning.
When the darkness had come again, I bade him good night--first mechanically repeating what I had just said, almost in the same words.
I walked home thoughtful. That night had given me much matter to think of.
About the time of my introduction to Mr. Mannion--or, to speak more correctly, both before and after that period--certain peculiarities in Margaret's character and conduct, which came to my knowledge by pure accident, gave me a little uneasiness and even a little displeasure. Neither of these feelings lasted very long, it is true; for the incidents which gave rise to them were of a trifling nature in themselves. While I now write, however, these domestic occurrences are all vividly present to my recollection. I will mention two of them as instances. Subsequent events, yet to be related, will show that they are not out of place at this part of my narrative.
One lovely autumn morning, I called rather before the appointed time at North Villa. As the servant opened the front garden-gate, the idea occurred to me of giving Margaret a surprise, by entering the drawing room unexpectedly, with a nosegay gathered for her from her own flower-bed. Telling the servant not to announce me, I went round to the back garden, by a gate which opened into it at the side of the house. The progress of my flower-gathering led me on to the lawn under one of the drawing-room windows, which was left a little open. The voices of my wife and her mother reached me from the room. It was this part of their conversation which I unintentionally overheard:--
"I tell you, mamma, I must and will have the dress, whether papa chooses or not."
This was spoken loudly and resolutely; in such tones as I had never heard from Margaret before.
"Pray--pray, my dear, don't talk so," answered the weak, faltering voice of Mrs. Sherwin; "you know you have had more than your year's allowance of dresses already."
"I won't be allowanced. His sister isn't allowanced: why should I be?"
"My dear love, surely there is some difference--"
"I'm sure there isn't, now I am his wife. I shall ride some day in my carriage, just as his sister does. He gives me my way in everything; and so ought you."
"It isn't me, Margaret: if I could do anything, I'm sure I would; but I really couldn't ask your papa for another new dress, after his having given you so many this year, already."
"That's the way it always is with you, mamma--you can't do this, and you can't do that--you are so excessively tiresome! But I will have the dress, I'm determined. He says his sister wears light blue crape of an evening; and I'll have light blue crape, too--see if I don't! I'll get it somehow from the shop, myself. Papa never takes any notice, I'm sure, what I have on; and he needn't find out anything about what's gone out of the shop, until they 'take stock,' or whatever it is he calls it. And then, if he flies into one of his passions--"
"My dear! my dear! you really ought not to talk so of your papa--it is very wrong, Margaret, indeed--what would Mr. Basil say if he heard you?"
I determined to go in at once, and tell Margaret that I had heard her--resolving, at the same time, to exert some firmness, and remonstrate with her, for her own good, on much of what she had said, which had really surprised and displeased me. On my unexpected entrance, Mrs. Sherwin started, and looked more timid than ever. Margaret, however, came forward to meet me with her wonted smile, and held out her hand with her wonted grace. I said nothing until we had got into our accustomed corner, and were talking together in whispers as usual. Then I began my remonstrance-very tenderly, and in the lowest possible tones. She took precisely the right way to stop me in full career, in spite of all my resolution. Her beautiful eyes filled with tears directly--the first I had ever seen in them: caused, too, by what I had said!--and she murmured a few plaintive words about the cruelty of being angry with her for only wanting to please me by being dressed as my sister was, which upset every intention I had formed but the moment before. I involuntarily devoted myself to soothing her for the rest of the morning. Need I say how the matter ended? I never mentioned the subject more; and I made her a present of the new dress.
Some weeks after the little home-breeze which I have just related, had died away into a perfect calm, I was accidentally witness of another domestic dilemma in which Margaret bore a principal share. On this occasion, as I walked up to the house (in the morning again), I found the front door open. A pail was on the steps--the servant had evidently been washing them, had been interrupted in her work, and had forgotten to close the door when she left it. The nature of the interruption I soon discovered as I entered the hall.
"For God's sake, Miss!" cried the housemaid's voice, from the dining-room, "for God's sake, put down the poker! Missus will be here directly; and it's her cat!"
"I'll kill the vile brute! I'll kill the hateful cat! I don't care whose it is!--my poor dear, dear, dear bird!" The voice was Margaret's. At first, its tones were tones of fury; they were afterwards broken by hysterical sobs.
"Poor thing," continued the servant, soothingly, "I'm sorry for it, and for you too, Miss! But, oh! do please to remember it was you left the cage on the table, in the cat's reach--"
"Hold your tongue, you wretch! How dare you hold me?--let me go!"
"Oh, you mustn't--you mustn't indeed! It's missus's cat, recollect--poor missus's, who's always ill, and hasn't got nothing else to amuse her."
"I don't care! The cat has killed my bird, and the cat shall be killed for doing it!--it shall!--it shall!!--it shall!!! I'll call in the first boy from the street to catch it, and hang it! Let me go! I will go!"
"I'll let the cat go first, Miss, as sure as my name's Susan!"
The next instant, the door was suddenly opened, and puss sprang past me, out of harm's way, closely followed by the servant, who stared breathless and aghast at seeing me in the hall. I went into the dining-room immediately.
On the floor lay a bird-cage, with the poor canary dead inside (it was the same canary that I had seen my wife playing with, on the evening of the day when I first met her). The bird's head had been nearly dragged through the bent wires of the cage, by the murderous claws of the cat. Near the fire-place, with the poker she had just dropped on the floor by her side, stood Margaret. Never had I seen her look so beautiful as she now appeared, in the fury of passion which possessed her. Her large black eyes were flashing grandly through her tears--the blood was glowing crimson in her cheeks--her lips were parted as she gasped for breath. One of her hands was clenched, and rested on the mantel-piece; the other was pressed tight over her bosom, with the fingers convulsively clasping her dress. Grieved as I was at the paroxysm of passion into which she had allowed herself to be betrayed, I could not repress an involuntary feeling of admiration when my eyes first rested on her. Even anger itself looked lovely in that lovely face!
She never moved when she saw me. As I approached her, she dropped down on her knees by the cage, sobbing with frightful violence, and pouring forth a perfect torrent of ejaculations of vengeance against the cat. Mrs. Sherwin came down; and by her total want of tact and presence of mind, made matters worse. In brief, the scene ended by a fit of hysterics.
To speak to Margaret on that day, as I wished to speak to her, was impossible. To approach the subject of the canary's death afterwards, was useless. If I only hinted in the gentlest way, and with the strongest sympathy for the loss of the bird, at the distress and astonishment she had caused me by the extremities to which she had allowed her passion to hurry her, a burst of tears was sure to be her only reply--just the reply, of all others, which was best calculated to silence me. If I had been her husband in fact, as well as in name; if I had been her father, her brother, or her friend, I should have let her first emotions have their way, and then have expostulated with her afterwards. But I was her lover still; and, to my eyes, Margaret's tears made virtues even of Margaret's faults.
Such occurrences as these, happening but at rare intervals, formed the only interruptions to the generally even and happy tenour of our intercourse. Weeks and weeks glided away, and not a hasty or a hard word passed between us. Neither, after one preliminary difference had been adjusted, did any subsequent disagreement take place between Mr. Sherwin and me. This last element in the domestic tranquillity of North Villa was, however, less attributable to his forbearance, or to mine, than to the private interference of Mr. Mannion.
For some days after my interview with the managing clerk, at his own house, I had abstained from calling his offered services into requisition. I was not conscious of any reason for this course of conduct. All that had been said, all that had happened during the night of the storm, had produced a powerful, though vague impression on me. Strange as it may appear, I could not determine whether my brief but extraordinary experience of my new friend had attracted me towards him, or repelled me from him. I felt an unwillingness to lay myself under an obligation to him, which was not the result of pride, or false delicacy, or sullenness, or suspicion--it was an inexplicable unwillingness, that sprang from the fear of encountering some heavy responsibility; but of what nature I could not imagine. I delayed and held back, by instinct; and, on his side, Mr. Mannion made no further advances. He maintained the same manner, and continued the same habits, during his intercourse with the family at North Villa, which I had observed as characterising him before I took shelter from the storm, in his house. He never referred again to the conversation of that evening, when we now met.
Margaret's behaviour, when I mentioned to her Mr. Mannion's willingness to be useful to us both, rather increased than diminished the vague uncertainties which perplexed me, on the subject of accepting or rejecting his overtures.
I could not induce her to show the smallest interest about him. Neither his house, his personal appearance, his peculiar habits, or his secrecy in relation to his early life--nothing, in short, connected with him--appeared to excite her attention or curiosity in the slightest degree. On the evening of his return from the continent, she had certainly shown some symptoms of interest in his arrival at North Villa, and some appearance of attention to him, when he joined our party. Now, she seemed completely and incomprehensibly changed on this point. Her manner became almost petulant, if I persisted long in making Mr. Mannion a topic of conversation--it was as if she resented his sharing my thoughts with her in the slightest degree. As to the difficult question whether we should engage him in our interests or not, that was a matter which she always seemed to think too trifling to be discussed between us at all.
Ere long, however, circumstances decided me as to the course I should take with Mr. Mannion.
A ball was given by one of Mr. Sherwin's rich commercial friends, to which he announced his intention of taking Margaret. Besides the jealousy which I felt--naturally enough, in my peculiar situation--at the idea of my wife going out as Miss Sherwin, and dancing in the character of a young unmarried lady with any young gentlemen who were introduced to her, I had also the strongest possible desire to keep Margaret out of the society of her own class, until my year's probation was over, and I could hope to instal her permanently in the society of my class. I had privately mentioned to her my ideas on this subject, and found that she fully agreed with them. She was not wanting in ambition to ascend to the highest degree in the social scale; and had already begun to look with indifference on the society which was offered to her by those in her own rank.
To Mr. Sherwin I could confide nothing of this. I could only object, generally, to his taking Margaret out, when neither she nor I desired it. He declared that she liked parties--that all girls did--that she only pretended to dislike them, to please me--and that he had made no engagement to keep her moping at home a whole year on my account. In the case of the particular ball now under discussion, he was determined to have his own way; and he bluntly told me as much.
Irritated by his obstinacy and gross want of consideration for my defenceless position, I forgot all doubts and scruples; and privately applied to Mr. Mannion to exert the influence which he had promised to use, if I wished it, in my behalf.
The result was as immediate as it was conclusive. The very next evening, Mr. Sherwin came to us with a note which he had just written, and informed me that it was an excuse for Margaret's non-appearance at the ball. He never mentioned Mr. Mannion's name, but sulkily and shortly said, that he had reconsidered the matter, and had altered his first decision for reasons of his own.
Having once taken a first step in the new direction, I soon followed it up, without hesitation, by taking many others. Whenever I wished to call oftener than once a-day at North Villa, I had but to tell Mr. Mannion, and the next morning I found the permission immediately accorded to me by the ruling power. The same secret machinery enabled me to regulate Mr. Sherwin's incomings and outgoings, just as I chose, when Margaret and I were together in the evening. I could feel almost certain, now, of never having any one with us, but Mrs. Sherwin, unless I desired it--which, as may be easily imagined, was seldom enough.
My new ally's ready interference for my advantage was exerted quietly, easily, and as a matter of course. I never knew how, or when, he influenced his employer, and Mr. Sherwin on his part, never breathed a word of that influence to me. He accorded any extra privilege I might demand, as if he acted entirely under his own will, little suspecting how well I knew what was the real motive power which directed him.
I was the more easily reconciled to employing the services of Mr. Mannion, by the great delicacy with which he performed them. He did not allow me to think--he did not appear to think himself--that he was obliging me in the smallest degree. He affected no sudden intimacy with me; his manners never altered; be still persisted in not joining us in the evening, but at my express invitation; and if I referred in any way to the advantages I derived from his devotion to my interests, he always replied in his brief undemonstrative way, that he considered himself the favoured person, in being permitted to make his services of some use to Margaret and me.
I had told Mr. Mannion, when I was leaving him on the night of the storm, that I would treat his offers as the offers of a friend; and I had now made good my words, much sooner and much more unreservedly than I had ever intended, when we parted at his own house-door.
The autumn was now over; the winter--a cold, gloomy winter--had fairly come. Five months had nearly elapsed since Clara and my father had departed for the country. What communication did I hold with them, during that interval?
No personal communication with either--written communication only with my sister. Clara's letters to me were frequent. They studiously avoided anything like a reproach for my long absence; and were confined almost exclusively to such details of country life as the writer thought likely to interest me. Their tone was as affectionate--nay, more affectionate, if possible--than usual; but Clara's gaiety and quiet humour, as a correspondent, were gone. My conscience taught me only too easily and too plainly how to account for this change--my conscience told me who had altered the tone of my sister's letters, by altering all the favourite purposes and favourite pleasures of her country life.
I was selfishly enough devoted to my own passions and my own interests, at this period of my life; but I was not so totally dead to every one of the influences which had guided me since childhood, as to lose all thought of Clara and my father, and the ancient house that was associated with my earliest and happiest recollections. Sometimes, even in Margaret's beloved presence, a thought of Clara put away from me all other thoughts. And, sometimes, in the lonely London house, I dreamed--with the strangest sleeping oblivion of my marriage, and of all the new interests which it had crowded into my life--of country rides with my sister, and of quiet conversations in the old gothic library at the Hall. Under such influences as these, I twice resolved to make amends for my long absence, by joining my father and my sister in the country, even though it were only for a few days--and, each time, I failed in my resolution. On the second occasion, I had actually mustered firmness enough to get as far as the railway station; and only at the last moment faltered and hung back. The struggle that it cost me to part for any length of time from Margaret, I had overcome; but the apprehension, as vivid as it was vague, that something--I knew not what--might happen to her in my absence, turned my steps backward at starting. I felt heartily ashamed of my own weakness; but I yielded to it nevertheless.
At last, a letter arrived from Clara, containing a summons to the country, which I could not disobey.
"I have never asked you," she wrote, "to come and see us for my sake; for I would not interfere with any of your interests or any of your plans; but I now ask you to come here for your own sake--just for one week, and no more, unless you like to remain longer. You remember papa telling you, in your room in London, that he believed you kept some secret from him. I am afraid this is preying on his mind: your long absence is making him uneasy about you. He does not say so; but he never sends any message, when I write; and if I speak about you, he always changes the subject directly. Pray come here, and show yourself for a few days--no questions will be asked, you may be sure. It will do so much good; and will prevent--what I hope and pray may never happen--a serious estrangement between papa and you. Recollect, Basil, in a month or six weeks we shall come back to town; and then the opportunity will be gone."
As I read these lines, I determined to start for the country at once, while the effect of them was still fresh on my mind. Margaret, when I took leave of her, only said that she should like to be going with me--"it would be such a sight for her, to see a grand country house like ours!" Mr. Sherwin laughed as coarsely as usual, at the difficulties I made about only leaving his daughter for a week. Mrs. Sherwin very earnestly, and very inaaccountably as I then thought, recommended me not to be away any longer than I had proposed. Mr. Mannion privately assured me, that I might depend on him in my absence from North Villa, exactly as I had always depended on him, during my presence there. It was strange that his parting words should be the only words which soothed and satisfied me on taking leave of London.
The winter afternoon was growing dim with the evening darkness, as I drove up to the Hall. Snow on the ground, in the country, has always a cheerful look to me. I could have wished to see it on the day of my arrival at home; but there had been a thaw for the last week--mud and water were all about me--a drizzling rain was falling--a raw, damp wind was blowing--a fog was rising, as the evening stole on--and the ancient leafless elms in the park avenue groaned and creaked above my head drearily, as I approached the house.
My father received me with more ceremony than I liked. I had known, from a boy, what it meant when he chose to be only polite to his own son. What construction he had put on my long absence and my persistence in keeping my secret from him, I could not tell; but it was evident that I had lost my usual place in his estimation, and lost it past regaining merely by a week's visit. The estrangement between us, which my sister had feared, had begun already.
I had been chilled by the desolate aspect of nature, as I approached the Hall; my father's reception of me, when I entered the house, increased the comfortless and melancholy impressions produced on my mind; it required all the affectionate warmth of Clara's welcome, all the pleasure of hearing her whisper her thanks, as she kissed me, for my readiness in following her advice, to restore my equanimity. But even then, when the first hurry and excitement of meeting had passed away, in spite of her kind words and looks, there was something in her face which depressed me. She seemed thinner, and her constitutional paleness was more marked than usual. Cares and anxieties had evidently oppressed her--was I the cause of them?
The dinner that evening proceeded very heavily and gloomily. My father only talked on general and commonplace topics, as if a mere acquaintance had been present. When my sister left us, he too quitted the room, to see some one who had arrived on business. I had no heart for the company of the wine bottles, so I followed Clara.
At first, we only spoke of her occupations since she had been in the country; I was unwilling, and she forbore, to touch on my long stay in London, or on my father's evident displeasure at my protracted absence. There was a little restraint between us, which neither had the courage to break through. Before long, however, an accident, trifling enough in itself, obliged me to be more candid; and enabled her to speak unreservedly on the subject nearest to her heart.
I was seated opposite to Clara, at the fire-place, and was playing with a favourite dog which had followed me into the room. While I was stooping towards the animal, a locket containing some of Margaret's hair, fell out of its place in my waistcoat, and swung towards my sister by the string which attached it round my neck. I instantly hid it again; but not before Clara, with a woman's quickness, had detected the trinket as something new, and drawn the right inference, as to the use to which I devoted it.
An expression of surprise and pleasure passed over her face; she rose, and putting her hands on my shoulders, as if to keep me still in the place I occupied, looked at me intently.
"Basil!" she exclaimed, "if that is all the secret you have been keeping from us, how glad I am! When I see a new locket drop out of my brother's waistcoat--" she continued, observing that I was too confused to speak--"and when I find him colouring very deeply, and hiding it again in a great hurry, I should be no true woman if I did not make my own discoveries, and begin to talk about them directly."
I made an effort--a very poor one--to laugh the thing off. Her expression grew serious and thoughtful, while she still fixed her eyes on me. She took my hand gently, and whispered in my ear: "Are you going to be married, Basil? Shall I love my new sister almost as much as I love you?"
At that moment the servant came in with tea. The interruption gave me a minute for consideration. Should I tell her all? Impulse answered, yes--reflection, no. If I disclosed my real situation, I knew that I must introduce Clara to Margaret. This would necessitate taking her privately to Mr. Sherwin's house, and exposing to her the humiliating terms of dependence and prohibition on which I lived with my own wife. A strange medley of feelings, in which pride was uppermost, forbade me to do that. Then again, to involve my sister in my secret, would be to involve her with me in any consequences which might be produced by its disclosure to my father. The mere idea of making her a partaker in responsibilities which I alone ought to bear, was not to be entertained for a moment. As soon as we were left together again, I said to her:
"Will you not think the worse of me, Clara, if I leave you to draw your own conclusions from what you have seen? only asking you to keep strict silence on the subject to every one. I can't speak yet, love, as I wish to speak: you will know why, some day, and say that my reserve was right. In the meantime, can you be satisfied with the assurance, that when the time comes for making my secret known, you shall be the first to know it--the first I put trust in?"
"As you have not starved my curiosity altogether," said Clara, smiling, "but have given it a little hope to feed on for the present, I think, woman though I am, I can promise all you wish. Seriously, Basil," she continued, "that telltale locket of yours has so pleasantly brightened some very gloomy thoughts of mine about you, that I can now live happily on expectation, without once mentioning your secret again, till you give me leave to do so."
Here my father entered the room, and we said no more. His manner towards me had not altered since dinner; and it remained the same during the week of my stay at the Hall. One morning, when we were alone, I took courage, and determined to try the dangerous ground a little, with a view towards my guidance for the future; but I had no sooner begun by some reference to my stay in London, and some apology for it, than he stopped me at once.
"I told you," he said, gravely and coldly, "some months ago, that I had too much faith in your honour to intrude on affairs which you choose to keep private. Until you have perfect confidence in me, and can speak with complete candour, I will hear nothing. You have not that confidence now--you speak hesitatingly--your eyes do not meet mine fairly and boldly. I tell you again, I will hear nothing which begins with such common-place excuses as you have just addressed to me. Excuses lead to prevarications, and prevarications to--what I will not insult you by imagining possible in your case. You are of age, and must know your own responsibilities and mine. Choose at once, between saying nothing, and saying all."
He waited a moment after he had spoken, and then quitted the room. If he could only have known how I suffered, at that instant, under the base necessities of concealment, I might have confessed everything; and he must have pitied, though he might not have forgiven me.
This was my first and last attempt at venturing towards the revelation of my secret to my father, by hints and half-admissions. As to boldly confessing it, I persuaded myself into a sophistical conviction that such a course could do no good, but might do much harm. When the wedded happiness I had already waited for, and was to wait for still, through so many months, came at last, was it not best to enjoy my married life in convenient secrecy, as long as I could?--best, to abstain from disclosing my secret to my father, until necessity absolutely obliged, or circumstances absolutely invited me to do so? My inclinations conveniently decided the question in the affirmative; and a decision of any kind, right or wrong, was enough to tranquillise me at that time.
So far as my father was concerned, my journey to the country did no good. I might have returned to London the day after my arrival at the Hall, without altering his opinion of me--but I stayed the whole week nevertheless, for Clara's sake.
In spite of the pleasure afforded by my sister's society, my visit was a painful one. The selfish longing to be back with Margaret, which I could not wholly repress; my father's coldness; and the winter gloom and rain which confined us almost incessantly within doors, all tended in their different degrees to prevent my living at ease in the Hall. But, besides these causes of embarrassment, I had the additional mortification of feeling, for the first time, as a stranger in my own home.
Nothing in the house looked to me what it used to look in former years. The rooms, the old servants, the walks and views, the domestic animals, all appeared to have altered, or to have lost something, since I had seen them last. Particular rooms that I had once been fond of occupying, were favourites no longer: particular habits that I had hitherto always practised in the country, I could only succeed in resuming by an effort which vexed and fretted me. It was as if my life had run into a new channel since my last autumn and winter at the Hall, and now refused to flow back at my bidding into its old course. Home seemed home no longer, except in name.
As soon as the week was over, my father and I parted exactly as we had met. When I took leave of Clara, she refrained from making any allusion to the shortness of my stay; and merely said that we should soon meet again in London. She evidently saw that my visit had weighed a little on my spirits, and was determined to give to our short farewell as happy and hopeful a character as possible. We now thoroughly understood each other; and that was some consolation on leaving her.
Immediately on my return to London I repaired to North Villa.
Nothing, I was told, had happened in my absence, but I remarked some change in Margaret. She looked pale and nervous, and was more silent than I had ever known her to be before, when we met. She accounted for this, in answer to my inquiries, by saying that confinement to the house, in consequence of the raw, wintry weather, had a little affected her; and then changed the subject. In other directions, household aspects had not deviated from their accustomed monotony. As usual, Mrs. Sherwin was at her post in the drawing-room; and her husband was reading the evening paper, over his renowned old port, in the dining-room. After the first five minutes of my arrival, I adapted myself again to my old way of life at Mr. Sherwin's, as easily as if I had never interrupted it for a single day. Henceforth, wherever my young wife was, there, and there only, would it be home for me!
Late in the evening, Mr. Mannion arrived with some business letters for Mr. Sherwin's inspection. I sent for him into the hall to see me, as I was going away. His hand was never a warm one; but as I now took it, on greeting him, it was so deadly cold that it literally chilled mine for the moment. He only congratulated me, in the usual terms, on my safe return; and said that nothing had taken place in my absence--but in his utterance of those few words, I discovered, for the first time, a change in his voice: his tones were lower, and his articulation quicker than usual. This, joined to the extraordinary coldness of his hand, made me inquire whether he was unwell. Yes, he too had been ill while I was away--harassed with hard work, he said. Then apologising for leaving me abruptly, on account of the letters he had brought with him, he returned to Mr. Sherwin, in the dining-room, with a greater appearance of hurry in his manner than I had ever remarked in it on any former occasion.
I had left Margaret and Mr. Mannion both well--I returned, and found them both ill. Surely this was something that had taken place in my absence, though they all said that nothing had happened. But trifling illnesses seemed to be little regarded at North Villa--perhaps, because serious illness was perpetually present there, in the person of Mrs. Sherwin.
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.
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?"
"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.
Part 3 - Conclusion [320k]
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