Part 2 out of 6
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instantly withdrawn again--and so long as I could look at her, I cared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
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
"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_
"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
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
"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
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
"My daughter! Bless my soul--God bless my soul, I really can't
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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,
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
'In Heaven's name, Mr. Sherwin, pass over all these impossible
difficulties of yours! and let me hear what you have finally to
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,