Part 3 out of 6
and fix her eyes on her daughter with a look of penetrating scrutiny,
of which I could never have supposed a person usually so feeble and
unenergetic to be capable. I thought of transferring to her my
questionings on the subject of Mr. Mannion; but at that moment her
husband entered the room, and I addressed myself for further
enlightenment to him.
"Aha!"--cried Mr. Sherwin, rubbing his hands triumphantly--"I knew
Mannion would please you. I told you so, my dear Sir, if you remember,
before he came. Curious looking person--isn't he?"
"So curious, that I may safely say I never saw a face in the slightest
degree resembling his in my life. Your clerk, Mr. Sherwin, is a
complete walking mystery that I want to solve. Margaret cannot give me
much help, I am afraid. When you came in, I was about to apply to Mrs.
Sherwin for a little assistance."
"Don't do any such thing! You'll be quite in the wrong box there. Mrs.
S. is as sulky as a bear, whenever Mannion and she are in company
together. Considering her behaviour to him, I wonder he can be so
civil to her as he is."
"What can you tell me about him yourself, Mr. Sherwin?"
"I can tell you there's not a house of business in London has such a
managing man as he is: he's my factotum--my right hand, in short; and
my left too, for the matter of that. He understands my ways of doing
business; and, in fact, carries things out in first-rate style. Why,
he'd be worth his weight in gold, only for the knack he has of keeping
the young men in the shop in order. Poor devils! they don't know how
he does it; but there's a particular look of Mr. Mannion's that's as
bad as transportation and hanging to them, whenever they see it. I'll
pledge yon my word of honour he's never had a day's illness, or made a
single mistake, since he's been with me. He's a quiet, steady-going,
regular dragon at his work--he is! And then, so obliging in other
things. I've only got to say to him: 'Here's Margaret at home for the
holidays;' or, 'Here's Margaret a little out of sorts, and going to be
nursed at home for the half-year--what's to be done about keeping up
her lessons? I can't pay for a governess (bad lot, governesses!) and
school too.'--I've only got to say that; and up gets Mannion from his
books and his fireside at home, in the evening--which begins to be
something, you know, to a man of his time of life--and turns tutor for
me, gratis; and a first-rate tutor, too! That's what I call having a
treasure! And yet, though he's been with us for years, Mrs. S. there
won't take to him!--I defy her or anybody else to say why, or
"Do you know how he was employed before he came to you?"
"Ah! now you've hit it--that's where you're right in saying he's a
mystery. What he did before I knew him, is more than I can tell--a
good deal more. He came to me with a capital recommendation and
security, from a gentleman whom I knew to be of the highest
respectability. I had a vacancy in the back office, and tried him, and
found out what he was worth, in no time--I flatter myself I've a knack
at that with everybody. Well: before I got used to his curious-looking
face, and his quiet ways, I wanted badly enough to know something
about him, and who his connections were. First, I asked his friend who
had recommended him--the friend wasn't at liberty to answer for
anything but his perfect trustworthiness. Then I asked Mannion himself
point-blank about it, one day. He just told me that he had reasons for
keeping his family affairs to himself--nothing more--but you know the
way he has with him; and, damn it, he put the stopper on me, from that
time to this. I wasn't going to risk losing the best clerk that ever
man had, by worrying him about his secrets. They didn't interfere with
business, and didn't interfere with me; so I put my curiosity in my
pocket. I know nothing about him, but that he's my right-hand man, and
the honestest fellow that ever stood in shoes. He may be the Great
Mogul himself, in disguise, for anything I care! In short, you may be
able to find out all about him, my dear Sir; but I can't."
"There does not seem much chance for me, Mr. Sherwin, after what you
"Well: I'm not so sure of that--plenty of chances here, you know.
You'll see him often enough: he lives near, and drops in constantly of
evenings. We settle business matters that won't come into business
hours, in my private snuggery up stairs. In fact, he's one of the
family; treat him as such, and get anything out of him you can--the
more the better, as far as regards that. Ah! Mrs. S., you may stare,
Ma'am; but I say again, he's one of the family; may be, he'll be my
partner some of these days--you'll have to get used to him then,
whether you like it or not."
"One more question: is he married or single?"
"Single, to be sure--a regular old bachelor, if ever there was one
During the whole time we had been speaking, Mrs. Sherwin had looked at
us with far more earnestness and attention than I had ever seen her
display before. Even her languid faculties seemed susceptible of
active curiosity on the subject of Mr. Mannion--the more so, perhaps,
from her very dislike of him. Margaret had moved her chair into the
background, while her father was talking; and was apparently little
interested in the topic under discussion. In the first interval of
silence, she complained of headache, and asked leave to retire to her
After she left us, I took my departure: for Mr. Sherwin evidently had
nothing more to tell me about his clerk that was worth hearing. On my
way home, Mr. Mannion occupied no small share of my thoughts. The idea
of trying to penetrate the mystery connected with him was an idea that
pleased me; there was a promise of future excitement in it of no
ordinary kind. I determined to have a little private conversation with
Margaret about him; and to make her an ally in my new project. If
there really had been some romance connected with Mr. Mannion's early
life--if that strange and striking face of his was indeed a sealed
book which contained a secret story, what a triumph and a pleasure, if
Margaret and I should succeed in discovering it together!
When I woke the next morning, I could hardly believe that this
tradesman's clerk had so interested my curiosity that he had actually
shared my thoughts with my young wife, during the evening before. And
yet, when I next saw him, he produced exactly the same impression on
Some weeks passed away; Margaret and I resumed our usual employments
and amusements; the life at North Villa ran on as smoothly and
obscurely as usual--and still I remained ignorant of Mr. Mannion's
history and Mr. Mannion's character. He came frequently to the house,
in the evening; but was generally closeted with Mr. Sherwin, and
seldom accepted his employer's constant invitation to him to join the
party in the drawing-room. At those rare intervals when we did see
him, his appearance and behaviour were exactly the same as on the
night when I had met him for the first time; he spoke just as seldom,
and resisted just as resolutely and respectfully the many attempts
made on my part to lead him into conversation and familiarity. If he
had really been trying to excite my interest, he could not have
succeeded more effectually. I felt towards him much as a man feels in
a labyrinth, when every fresh failure in gaining the centre, only
produces fresh obstinacy in renewing the effort to arrive at it.
From Margaret I gained no sympathy for my newly-aroused curiosity. She
appeared, much to my surprise, to care little about Mr. Mannion; and
always changed the conversation, if it related to him, whenever it
depended upon her to continue the topic or not.
Mrs. Sherwin's conduct was far from resembling her daughter's, when I
spoke to her on the same subject. She always listened intently to what
I said; but her answers were invariably brief, confused, and sometimes
absolutely incomprehensible. It was only after great difficulty that I
induced her to confess her dislike of Mr. Mannion. Whence it proceeded
she could never tell. Did she suspect anything? In answering this
question, she always stammered, trembled, and looked away from me.
"How could she suspect anything? If she did suspect, it would very
wrong without good reason: but she ought not to suspect, and did not,
I never obtained any replies from her more intelligible than these.
Attributing their confusion to the nervous agitation which more or
less affected her when she spoke on any subject, I soon ceased making
any efforts to induce her to explain herself; and determined to search
for the clue to Mr. Mannion's character, without seeking assistance
from any one.
Accident at length gave me an opportunity of knowing something of his
habits and opinions; and so far, therefore, of knowing something about
the man himself.
One night, I met him in the hall at North Villa, about to leave the
house at the same time that I was, after a business-consultation in
private with Mr. Sherwin. We went out together. The sky was unusually
black; the night atmosphere unusually oppressive and still. The roll
of distant thunder sounded faint and dreary all about us. The sheet
lightning, flashing quick and low in the horizon, made the dark
firmament look like a thick veil, rising and falling incessantly, over
a heaven of dazzling light behind it. Such few foot-passengers as
passed us, passed running--for heavy, warning drops were falling
already from the sky. We quickened our pace; but before we had walked
more than two hundred yards, the rain came down, furious and
drenching; and the thunder began to peal fearfully, right over our
"My house is close by," said my companion, just as quietly and
deliberately as usual--"pray step in, Sir, until the storm is over."
I followed him down a bye street; he opened a door with his own key;
and the next instant I was sheltered under Mr. Mannion's roof.
He led me at once into a room on the ground floor. The fire was
blazing in the grate; an arm-chair, with a reading easel attached, was
placed by it; the lamp was ready lit; the tea-things were placed on
the table; the dark, thick curtains were drawn close over the window;
and, as if to complete the picture of comfort before me, a large black
cat lay on the rug, basking luxuriously in the heat of the fire. While
Mr. Mannion went out to give some directions, as he said, to his
servant, I had an opportunity of examining the apartment more in
detail. To study the appearance of a man's dwelling-room, is very
often nearly equivalent to studying his own character.
The personal contrast between Mr. Sherwin and his clerk was remarkable
enough, but the contrast between the dimensions and furnishing of the
rooms they lived in, was to the full as extraordinary. The apartment I
now surveyed was less than half the size of the sitting-room at North
Villa. The paper on the walls was of a dark red; the curtains were of
the same colour; the carpet was brown, and if it bore any pattern,
that pattern was too quiet and unpretending to be visible by
candlelight. One wall was entirely occupied by rows of dark mahogany
shelves, completely filled with books, most of them cheap editions of
the classical works of ancient and modern literature. The opposite
wall was thickly hung with engravings in maple-wood frames from the
works of modern painters, English and French. All the minor articles
of furniture were of the plainest and neatest order--even the white
china tea-pot and tea-cup on the table, had neither pattern nor
colouring of any kind. What a contrast was this room to the
drawing-room at North Villa!
On his return, Mr. Mannion found me looking at his tea-equipage. "I am
afraid, Sir, I must confess myself an epicure and a prodigal in two
things," he said; "an epicure in tea, and a prodigal (at least for a
person in my situation) in books. However, I receive a liberal salary,
and can satisfy my tastes, such as they are, and save money too. What
can I offer you, Sir?"
Seeing the preparations on the table, I asked for tea. While he was
speaking to me, there was one peculiarity about him that I observed.
Almost all men, when they stand on their own hearths, in their own
homes, instinctively alter more or less from their out-of-door manner:
the stiffest people expand, the coldest thaw a little, by their own
firesides. It was not so with Mr. Mannion. He was exactly the same man
at his own house that he was at Mr. Sherwin's.
There was no need for him to have told me that he was an epicure in
tea; the manner in which he made it would have betrayed that to
anybody. He put in nearly treble the quantity which would generally be
considered sufficient for two persons; and almost immediately after he
had filled the tea-pot with boiling water, began to pour from it into
the cups--thus preserving all the aroma and delicacy of flavour in the
herb, without the alloy of any of the coarser part of its strength.
When we had finished our first cups, there was no pouring of dregs
into a basin, or of fresh water on the leaves. A middle-aged female
servant, neat and quiet, came up and took away the tray, bringing it
to us again with the tea-pot and tea-cups clean and empty, to receive
a fresh infusion from fresh leaves. These were trifles to notice; but
I thought of other tradesmen's clerks who were drinking their
gin-and-water jovially, at home or at a tavern, and found Mr. Mannion
a more exasperating mystery to me than ever.
The conversation between us turned at first on trivial subjects, and
was but ill sustained on my part--there were peculiarities in my
present position which made me thoughtful. Once, our talk ceased
altogether; and, just at that moment, the storm began to rise to its
height. Hail mingled with the rain, and rattled heavily against the
window. The thunder, bursting louder and louder with each successive
peal, seemed to shake the house to its foundations. As I listened to
the fearful crashing and roaring that seemed to fill the whole
measureless void of upper air, and then looked round on the calm,
dead-calm face of the man beside me--without one human emotion of any
kind even faintly pictured on it--I felt strange, unutterable
sensations creeping over me; our silence grew oppressive and sinister;
I began to wish, I hardly knew why, for some third person in the
room--for somebody else to look at and to speak to.
He was the first to resume the conversation. I should have imagined it
impossible for any man, in the midst of such thunder as now raged
above our heads, to think or talk of anything but the storm. And yet,
when he spoke. it was merely on a subject connected with his
introduction to me at North Villa. His attention seemed as far from
being attracted or impressed by the mighty elemental tumult without,
as if the tranquillity of the night were uninvaded by the slightest
murmur of sound.
"May I inquire, Sir," he began, "whether I am right in apprehending
that my conduct towards you, since we first met at Mr. Sherwin's
house, may have appeared strange, and even discourteous, in your
"In what respect, Mr. Mannion?" I asked, a little startled by the
abruptness of the question.
"I am perfectly sensible, Sir, that you have kindly set me the
example, on many occasions, in trying to better our acquaintance. When
such advances are made by one in your station to one in mine, they
ought to be immediately and gratefully responded to."
Why did he pause? Was he about to tell me he had discovered that my
advances sprang from curiosity to know more about him than he was
willing to reveal? I waited for him to proceed.
"I have only failed," he continued, "in the courtesy and gratitude you
had a right to expect from me, because, knowing how you were situated
with Mr. Sherwin's daughter, I thought any intrusion on my part, while
you were with the young lady, might not be so acceptable as you, Sir,
in your kindness, were willing to lead me to believe."
"Let me assure you," I answered; relieved to find myself unsuspected,
and really impressed by his delicacy--"let me assure you that I fully
appreciate the consideration you have shown--"
Just as the last words passed my lips, the thunder pealed awfully over
the house. I said no more: the sound silenced me.
"As my explanation has satisfied you, Sir," he went on; his clear and
deliberate utterance rising discordantly audible above the long,
retiring roll of the last burst of thunder--"may I feel justified in
speaking on the subject of your present position in my employer's
house, with some freedom? I mean, if I may say so without offence,
with the freedom of a friend."
I begged he would use all the freedom he wished; feeling really
desirous that he should do so, apart from any purpose of leading him
to talk unreservedly on the chance of hearing him talk of himself. The
profound respect of manner and phrase which he had hitherto
testified--observed by a man of his age, to a man of mine--made me
feel ill at ease. He was most probably my equal in acquirements: he
had the manners and tastes of a gentleman, and might have the birth
too, for aught I knew to the contrary. The difference between us was
only in our worldly positions. I had not enough of my father's pride
of caste to think that this difference alone, made it right that a man
whose years nearly doubled mine, whose knowledge perhaps surpassed
mine, should speak to me as Mr. Mannion. had spoken up to this time.
"I may tell you then," he resumed, "that while I am anxious to commit
no untimely intrusion on your hours at North Villa, I am at the same
time desirous of being something more than merely inoffensive towards
you. I should wish to be positively useful, as far as I can. In my
opinion Mr. Sherwin has held you to rather a hard engagement--he is
trying your discretion a little too severely I think, at your years
and in your situation. Feeling thus, it is my sincere wish to render
what connection and influence I have with the family, useful in making
the probation you have still to pass through, as easy as possible. I
have more means of doing this, Sir, than you might at first imagine."
His offer took me a little by surprise. I felt with a sort of shame,
that candour and warmth of feeling were what I had not expected from
him. My attention insensibly wandered away from the storm, to attach
itself more and more closely to him, as he went on:
"I am perfectly sensible," he resumed, "that such a proposition as I
now make to you, proceeding from one little better than a stranger,
may cause surprise and even suspicion, at first. I can only explain
it, by asking you to remember that I have known the young lady since
childhood; and that, having assisted in forming her mind and
developing her character, I feel towards her almost as a second
father, and am therefore naturally interested in the gentleman who has
chosen her for a wife."
Was there a tremor at last in that changeless voice, as he spoke? I
thought so; and looked anxiously to catch the answering gleam of
expression, which might now, for the first time, be softening his iron
features, animating the blank stillness of his countenance. If any
such expression had been visible, I was too late to detect it. Just as
I looked at him he stooped down to poke the fire. When he turned
towards me again, his face was the same impenetrable face, his eye the
same hard, steady, inexpressive eye as before.
"Besides," he continued, "a man must have some object in life for his
sympathies to be employed on. I have neither wife nor child; and no
near relations to think of--I have nothing but my routine of business
in the day, and my books here by my lonely fireside, at night. Our
life is not much; but it was made for a little more than this. My
former pupil at North Villa is my pupil no longer. I can't help
feeling that it would be an object in existence for me to occupy
myself with her happiness and yours; to have two young people, in the
heyday of youth and first love, looking towards me occasionally for
the promotion of some of their pleasures--no matter how trifling. All
this will seem odd and incomprehensible to _you._ If you were of my
age, Sir, and in my position, you would understand it."
Was it possible that he could speak thus, without his voice faltering,
or his eye softening in the slightest degree? Yes: I looked at him and
listened to him intently; but here was not the faintest change in his
face or his tones--there was nothing to show outwardly whether he felt
what he said, or whether he did not. His words had painted such a
picture of forlornness on my mind, that I had mechanically half raised
my hand to take his, while he was addressing me; but the sight of him
when he ceased, checked the impulse almost as soon as it was formed.
He did not appear to have noticed either my involuntary gesture, or
its immediate repression; and went on speaking.
"I have said perhaps more than I ought," he resumed. "If I have not
succeeded in making you understand my explanation as I could wish, we
will change the subject, and not return to it again, until you have
known me for a much longer time."
"On no account change the subject, Mr. Mannion," I said; unwilling to
let it be implied that I would not put trust in him. "I am deeply
sensible of the kindness of your offer, and the interest you take in
Margaret and me. We shall both, I am sure, accept your good offices--"
I stopped. The storm had decreased a little in violence: but my
attention was now struck by the wind, which had risen as the thunder
and rain had partially lulled. How drearily it was moaning down the
street! It seemed, at that moment, to be wailing over _me;_ to be
wailing over _him;_ to be wailing over all mortal things! The strange
sensations I then felt, moved me to listen in silence; but I checked
them, and spoke again.
"If I have not answered you as I should," I continued, "you must
attribute it partly to the storm, which I confess rather discomposes
my ideas; and partly to a little surprise--a very foolish surprise, I
own--that you should still be able to feel so strong a sympathy with
interests which are generally only considered of importance to the
"It is only in their sympathies, that men of my years can, and do,
live their youth over again," he said. "You may be surprised to hear a
tradesman's clerk talk in this manner; but I was not always what I am
now. I have gathered knowledge, and suffered in the gathering. I have
grown old before my time--my forty years are like the fifty of other
My heart beat quicker--was he, unasked, about to disclose the mystery
which evidently hung over his early life? No: he dropped the subject
at once, when he continued. I longed to ask him to resume it, but
could not. I feared the same repulse which Mr. Sherwin had received:
and remained silent.
"What I was," he proceeded, "matters little; the question is what can
I do for you? Any aid I can give, may be poor enough; but it may be of
some use notwithstanding. For instance, the other day, if I mistake
not, you were a little hurt at Mr. Sherwin's taking his daughter to a
party to which the family had been invited. This was very natural. You
could not be there to watch over her in your real character, without
disclosing a secret which must be kept safe; and you could not know
what young men she might meet, who would imagine her to be Miss
Sherwin still, and would regulate their conduct accordingly. Now, I
think I might be of use here. I have some influence--perhaps in strict
truth I ought to say great influence--with my employer; and, if you
wished it, I would use that influence to back yours, in inducing him
to forego, for the future, any intention of taking his daughter into
society, except when you desire it. Again: I think I am not wrong in
assuming that you infinitely prefer the company of Mrs. Sherwin to
that of Mr. Sherwin, during your interviews with the young lady?"
How he had found that out? At any rate, he was right; and I told him
"The preference is on many accounts a very natural one," he said; "but
if you suffered it to appear to Mr. Sherwin, it might, for obvious
reasons, produce a most unfavourable effect. I might interfere in the
matter, however, without suspicion; I should have many opportunities
of keeping him away from the room, in the evening, which I could use
if you wished it. And more than that, if you wanted longer and more
frequent communication with North Villa than you now enjoy, I might be
able to effect this also. I do not mention what I could do in these,
and in other matters, in any disparagement, Sir, of the influence
which you have with Mr. Sherwin, in your own right; but because I know
that in what concerns your intercourse with his daughter, my employer
_has_ asked, and _will_ ask my advice, from the habit of doing so in
other things. I have hitherto declined giving him this advice in your
affairs; but I will give it, and in your favour and the young lady's,
if you and she choose."
I thanked him--but not in such warm terms as I should have employed,
if I had seen even the faintest smile on his face, or had heard any
change in his steady, deliberate tones, as he spoke. While his words
attracted, his immovable looks repelled me, in spite of myself.
"I must again beg you"--he proceeded--"to remember what I have already
said, in your estimate of the motives of my offer. If I still appear
to be interfering officiously in your affairs, you have only to think
that I have presumed impertinently on the freedom you have allowed me,
and to treat me no longer on the terms of to-night. I shall not
complain of your conduct, and shall try hard not to consider you
unjust to me, if you do."
Such an appeal as this was not to be resisted: I answered him at once
and unreservedly. What right had I to draw bad inferences from a man's
face, voice, and manner, merely because they impressed me, as out of
the common? Did I know how much share the influence of natural
infirmity, or the outward traces of unknown sorrow and suffering,
might have had in producing the external peculiarities which had
struck me? He would have every right to upbraid me as unjust--and that
in the strongest terms--unless I spoke out fairly in reply.
"I am quite incapable, Mr. Mannion," I said, "of viewing your offer
with any other than grateful feelings. You will find I shall prove
this by employing your good offices for Margaret and myself in perfect
faith, and sooner perhaps than you may imagine."
He bowed and said a few cordial words, which I heard but
imperfectly--for, as I addressed him, a blast of wind fiercer than
usual, rushed down the street, shaking the window shutter violently as
it passed, and dying away in a low, melancholy, dirging swell, like a
spirit-cry of lamentation and despair.
When he spoke again, after a momentary silence, it was to make some
change in the conversation. He talked of Margaret--dwelling in terms
of high praise rather on her moral than on her personal qualities. He
spoke of Mr. Sherwin, referring to solid and attractive points in his
character which I had not detected. What he said of Mrs. Sherwin
appeared to be equally dictated by compassion and respect--he even
hinted at her coolness towards himself, considerately attributing it
to the involuntary caprice of settled nervousness and ill-health. His
language, in touching on these subjects, was just as unaffected, just
as devoid of any peculiarities, as I had hitherto found it when
occupied by other topics.
It was growing late. The thunder still rumbled at long intervals, with
a dull, distant sound; and the wind showed no symptoms of subsiding.
But the pattering of the rain against the window ceased to be audible.
There was little excuse for staying longer; and I wished to find none.
I had acquired quite knowledge enough of Mr. Mannion to assure me,
that any attempt on my part at extracting from him, in spite of his
reserve, the secrets which might be connected with his early life,
would prove perfectly fruitless. If I must judge him at all, I must
judge him by the experience of the present, and not by the history of
the past. I had heard good, and good only, of him from the shrewd
master who knew him best, and had tried him longest. He had shown the
greatest delicacy towards my feelings, and the strongest desire to do
me service--it would be a mean return for those acts of courtesy, to
let curiosity tempt me to pry into his private affairs.
I rose to go. He made no effort to detain me; but, after unbarring the
shutter and looking out of the window, simply remarked that the rain
had almost entirely ceased, and that my umbrella would be quite
sufficient protection against all that remained. He followed me into
the passage to light me out. As I turned round upon his door-step to
thank him for his hospitality, and to bid him good night, the thought
came across me, that my manner must have appeared cold and repelling
to him--especially when he was offering his services to my acceptance.
If I had really produced this impression, he was my inferior in
station, and it would be cruel to leave it. I tried to set myself
right at parting.
"Let me assure you again," I said, "that it will not be my fault if
Margaret and I do not thankfully employ your good offices, as the good
offices of a well-wisher and a friend."
The lightning was still in the sky, though it only appeared at long
intervals. Strangely enough, at the moment when I addressed him, a
flash came, and seemed to pass right over his face. It gave such a
hideously livid hue, such a spectral look of ghastliness and
distortion to his features, that he absolutely seemed to be glaring
and grinning on me like a fiend, in the one instant of its duration.
For the moment, it required all my knowledge of the settled calmness
of his countenance, to convince me that my eyes must have been only
dazzled by an optical illusion produced by the lightning.
When the darkness had come again, I bade him good night--first
mechanically repeating what I had just said, almost in the same words.
I walked home thoughtful. That night had given me much matter to think
About the time of my introduction to Mr. Mannion--or, to speak more
correctly, both before and after that period--certain peculiarities in
Margaret's character and conduct, which came to my knowledge by pure
accident, gave me a little uneasiness and even a little displeasure.
Neither of these feelings lasted very long, it is true; for the
incidents which gave rise to them were of a trifling nature in
themselves. While I now write, however, these domestic occurrences are
all vividly present to my recollection. I will mention two of them as
instances. Subsequent events, yet to be related, will show that they
are not out of place at this part of my narrative.
One lovely autumn morning, I called rather before the appointed time
at North Villa. As the servant opened the front garden-gate, the idea
occurred to me of giving Margaret a surprise, by entering the drawing
room unexpectedly, with a nosegay gathered for her from her own
flower-bed. Telling the servant not to announce me, I went round to
the back garden, by a gate which opened into it at the side of the
house. The progress of my flower-gathering led me on to the lawn under
one of the drawing-room windows, which was left a little open. The
voices of my wife and her mother reached me from the room. It was this
part of their conversation which I unintentionally overheard:--
"I tell you, mamma, I must and will have the dress, whether papa
chooses or not."
This was spoken loudly and resolutely; in such tones as I had never
heard from Margaret before.
"Pray--pray, my dear, don't talk so," answered the weak, faltering
voice of Mrs. Sherwin; "you know you have had more than your year's
allowance of dresses already."
"I won't be allowanced. _His_ sister isn't allowanced: why should I
"My dear love, surely there is some difference--"
"I'm sure there isn't, now I am his wife. I shall ride some day in my
carriage, just as his sister does. _He_ gives me my way in everything;
and so ought you."
"It isn't _me,_ Margaret: if I could do anything, I'm sure I would;
but I really couldn't ask your papa for another new dress, after his
having given you so many this year, already."
"That's the way it always is with you, mamma--you can't do this, and
you can't do that--you are so excessively tiresome! But I will have
the dress, I'm determined. He says his sister wears light blue crape
of an evening; and I'll have light blue crape, too--see if I don't!
I'll get it somehow from the shop, myself. Papa never takes any
notice, I'm sure, what I have on; and he needn't find out anything
about what's gone out of the shop, until they 'take stock,' or
whatever it is he calls it. And then, if he flies into one of his
"My dear! my dear! you really ought not to talk so of your papa--it is
very wrong, Margaret, indeed--what would Mr. Basil say if he heard
I determined to go in at once, and tell Margaret that I had heard
her--resolving, at the same time, to exert some firmness, and
remonstrate with her, for her own good, on much of what she had said,
which had really surprised and displeased me. On my unexpected
entrance, Mrs. Sherwin started, and looked more timid than ever.
Margaret, however, came forward to meet me with her wonted smile, and
held out her hand with her wonted grace. I said nothing until we had
got into our accustomed corner, and were talking together in whispers
as usual. Then I began my remonstrance-very tenderly, and in the
lowest possible tones. She took precisely the right way to stop me in
full career, in spite of all my resolution. Her beautiful eyes filled
with tears directly--the first I had ever seen in them: caused, too,
by what I had said!--and she murmured a few plaintive words about the
cruelty of being angry with her for only wanting to please me by being
dressed as my sister was, which upset every intention I had formed but
the moment before. I involuntarily devoted myself to soothing her for
the rest of the morning. Need I say how the matter ended? I never
mentioned the subject more; and I made her a present of the new dress.
Some weeks after the little home-breeze which I have just related, had
died away into a perfect calm, I was accidentally witness of another
domestic dilemma in which Margaret bore a principal share. On this
occasion, as I walked up to the house (in the morning again), I found
the front door open. A pail was on the steps--the servant had
evidently been washing them, had been interrupted in her work, and had
forgotten to close the door when she left it. The nature of the
interruption I soon discovered as I entered the hall.
"For God's sake, Miss!" cried the housemaid's voice, from the
dining-room, "for God's sake, put down the poker! Missus will be here
directly; and it's _her_ cat!"
"I'll kill the vile brute! I'll kill the hateful cat! I don't care
whose it is!--my poor dear, dear, dear bird!" The voice was
Margaret's. At first, its tones were tones of fury; they were
afterwards broken by hysterical sobs.
"Poor thing," continued the servant, soothingly, "I'm sorry for it,
and for you too, Miss! But, oh! do please to remember it was you left
the cage on the table, in the cat's reach--"
"Hold your tongue, you wretch! How dare you hold me?--let me go!"
"Oh, you mustn't--you mustn't indeed! It's missus's cat,
recollect--poor missus's, who's always ill, and hasn't got nothing
else to amuse her."
"I don't care! The cat has killed my bird, and the cat shall be killed
for doing it!--it shall!--it shall!!--it shall!!! I'll call in the
first boy from the street to catch it, and hang it! Let me go! I
"I'll let the cat go first, Miss, as sure as my name's Susan!"
The next instant, the door was suddenly opened, and puss sprang past
me, out of harm's way, closely followed by the servant, who stared
breathless and aghast at seeing me in the hall. I went into the
On the floor lay a bird-cage, with the poor canary dead inside (it was
the same canary that I had seen my wife playing with, on the evening
of the day when I first met her). The bird's head had been nearly
dragged through the bent wires of the cage, by the murderous claws of
the cat. Near the fire-place, with the poker she had just dropped on
the floor by her side, stood Margaret. Never had I seen her look so
beautiful as she now appeared, in the fury of passion which possessed
her. Her large black eyes were flashing grandly through her tears--the
blood was glowing crimson in her cheeks--her lips were parted as she
gasped for breath. One of her hands was clenched, and rested on the
mantel-piece; the other was pressed tight over her bosom, with the
fingers convulsively clasping her dress. Grieved as I was at the
paroxysm of passion into which she had allowed herself to be betrayed,
I could not repress an involuntary feeling of admiration when my eyes
first rested on her. Even anger itself looked lovely in that lovely
She never moved when she saw me. As I approached her, she dropped down
on her knees by the cage, sobbing with frightful violence, and pouring
forth a perfect torrent of ejaculations of vengeance against the cat.
Mrs. Sherwin came down; and by her total want of tact and presence of
mind, made matters worse. In brief, the scene ended by a fit of
To speak to Margaret on that day, as I wished to speak to her, was
impossible. To approach the subject of the canary's death afterwards,
was useless. If I only hinted in the gentlest way, and with the
strongest sympathy for the loss of the bird, at the distress and
astonishment she had caused me by the extremities to which she had
allowed her passion to hurry her, a burst of tears was sure to be her
only reply--just the reply, of all others, which was best calculated
to silence me. If I had been her husband in fact, as well as in name;
if I had been her father, her brother, or her friend, I should have
let her first emotions have their way, and then have expostulated with
her afterwards. But I was her lover still; and, to my eyes, Margaret's
tears made virtues even of Margaret's faults.
Such occurrences as these, happening but at rare intervals, formed the
only interruptions to the generally even and happy tenour of our
intercourse. Weeks and weeks glided away, and not a hasty or a hard
word passed between us. Neither, after one preliminary difference had
been adjusted, did any subsequent disagreement take place between Mr.
Sherwin and me. This last element in the domestic tranquillity of
North Villa was, however, less attributable to his forbearance, or to
mine, than to the private interference of Mr. Mannion.
For some days after my interview with the managing clerk, at his own
house, I had abstained from calling his offered services into
requisition. I was not conscious of any reason for this course of
conduct. All that had been said, all that had happened during the
night of the storm, had produced a powerful, though vague impression
on me. Strange as it may appear, I could not determine whether my
brief but extraordinary experience of my new friend had attracted me
towards him, or repelled me from him. I felt an unwillingness to lay
myself under an obligation to him, which was not the result of pride,
or false delicacy, or sullenness, or suspicion--it was an inexplicable
unwillingness, that sprang from the fear of encountering some heavy
responsibility; but of what nature I could not imagine. I delayed and
held back, by instinct; and, on his side, Mr. Mannion made no further
advances. He maintained the same manner, and continued the same
habits, during his intercourse with the family at North Villa, which I
had observed as characterising him before I took shelter from the
storm, in his house. He never referred again to the conversation of
that evening, when we now met.
Margaret's behaviour, when I mentioned to her Mr. Mannion's
willingness to be useful to us both, rather increased than diminished
the vague uncertainties which perplexed me, on the subject of
accepting or rejecting his overtures.
I could not induce her to show the smallest interest about him.
Neither his house, his personal appearance, his peculiar habits, or
his secrecy in relation to his early life--nothing, in short,
connected with him--appeared to excite her attention or curiosity in
the slightest degree. On the evening of his return from the continent,
she had certainly shown some symptoms of interest in his arrival at
North Villa, and some appearance of attention to him, when he joined
our party. Now, she seemed completely and incomprehensibly changed on
this point. Her manner became almost petulant, if I persisted long in
making Mr. Mannion a topic of conversation--it was as if she resented
his sharing my thoughts with her in the slightest degree. As to the
difficult question whether we should engage him in our interests or
not, that was a matter which she always seemed to think too trifling
to be discussed between us at all.
Ere long, however, circumstances decided me as to the course I should
take with Mr. Mannion.
A ball was given by one of Mr. Sherwin's rich commercial friends, to
which he announced his intention of taking Margaret. Besides the
jealousy which I felt--naturally enough, in my peculiar situation--at
the idea of my wife going out as Miss Sherwin, and dancing in the
character of a young unmarried lady with any young gentlemen who were
introduced to her, I had also the strongest possible desire to keep
Margaret out of the society of her own class, until my year's
probation was over, and I could hope to instal her permanently in the
society of my class. I had privately mentioned to her my ideas on this
subject, and found that she fully agreed with them. She was not
wanting in ambition to ascend to the highest degree in the social
scale; and had already begun to look with indifference on the society
which was offered to her by those in her own rank.
To Mr. Sherwin I could confide nothing of this. I could only object,
generally, to his taking Margaret out, when neither she nor I desired
it. He declared that she liked parties--that all girls did--that she
only pretended to dislike them, to please me--and that he had made no
engagement to keep her moping at home a whole year on my account. In
the case of the particular ball now under discussion, he was
determined to have his own way; and he bluntly told me as much.
Irritated by his obstinacy and gross want of consideration for my
defenceless position, I forgot all doubts and scruples; and privately
applied to Mr. Mannion to exert the influence which he had promised to
use, if I wished it, in my behalf.
The result was as immediate as it was conclusive. The very next
evening, Mr. Sherwin came to us with a note which he had just written,
and informed me that it was an excuse for Margaret's non-appearance at
the ball. He never mentioned Mr. Mannion's name, but sulkily and
shortly said, that he had reconsidered the matter, and had altered his
first decision for reasons of his own.
Having once taken a first step in the new direction, I soon followed
it up, without hesitation, by taking many others. Whenever I wished to
call oftener than once a-day at North Villa, I had but to tell Mr.
Mannion, and the next morning I found the permission immediately
accorded to me by the ruling power. The same secret machinery enabled
me to regulate Mr. Sherwin's incomings and outgoings, just as I chose,
when Margaret and I were together in the evening. I could feel almost
certain, now, of never having any one with us, but Mrs. Sherwin,
unless I desired it--which, as may be easily imagined, was seldom
My new ally's ready interference for my advantage was exerted quietly,
easily, and as a matter of course. I never knew how, or when, he
influenced his employer, and Mr. Sherwin on his part, never breathed a
word of that influence to me. He accorded any extra privilege I might
demand, as if he acted entirely under his own will, little suspecting
how well I knew what was the real motive power which directed him.
I was the more easily reconciled to employing the services of Mr.
Mannion, by the great delicacy with which he performed them. He did
not allow me to think--he did not appear to think himself--that he was
obliging me in the smallest degree. He affected no sudden intimacy
with me; his manners never altered; be still persisted in not joining
us in the evening, but at my express invitation; and if I referred in
any way to the advantages I derived from his devotion to my interests,
he always replied in his brief undemonstrative way, that he considered
himself the favoured person, in being permitted to make his services
of some use to Margaret and me.
I had told Mr. Mannion, when I was leaving him on the night of the
storm, that I would treat his offers as the offers of a friend; and I
had now made good my words, much sooner and much more unreservedly
than I had ever intended, when we parted at his own house-door.
The autumn was now over; the winter--a cold, gloomy winter--had fairly
come. Five months had nearly elapsed since Clara and my father had
departed for the country. What communication did I hold with them,
during that interval?
No personal communication with either--written communication only with
my sister. Clara's letters to me were frequent. They studiously
avoided anything like a reproach for my long absence; and were
confined almost exclusively to such details of country life as the
writer thought likely to interest me. Their tone was as
affectionate--nay, more affectionate, if possible--than usual; but
Clara's gaiety and quiet humour, as a correspondent, were gone. My
conscience taught me only too easily and too plainly how to account
for this change--my conscience told me who had altered the tone of my
sister's letters, by altering all the favourite purposes and favourite
pleasures of her country life.
I was selfishly enough devoted to my own passions and my own
interests, at this period of my life; but I was not so totally dead to
every one of the influences which had guided me since childhood, as to
lose all thought of Clara and my father, and the ancient house that
was associated with my earliest and happiest recollections. Sometimes,
even in Margaret's beloved presence, a thought of Clara put away from
me all other thoughts. And, sometimes, in the lonely London house, I
dreamed--with the strangest sleeping oblivion of my marriage, and of
all the new interests which it had crowded into my life--of country
rides with my sister, and of quiet conversations in the old gothic
library at the Hall. Under such influences as these, I twice resolved
to make amends for my long absence, by joining my father and my sister
in the country, even though it were only for a few days--and, each
time, I failed in my resolution. On the second occasion, I had
actually mustered firmness enough to get as far as the railway
station; and only at the last moment faltered and hung back. The
struggle that it cost me to part for any length of time from Margaret,
I had overcome; but the apprehension, as vivid as it was vague, that
something--I knew not what--might happen to her in my absence, turned
my steps backward at starting. I felt heartily ashamed of my own
weakness; but I yielded to it nevertheless.
At last, a letter arrived from Clara, containing a summons to the
country, which I could not disobey.
"I have never asked you," she wrote, "to come and see us for my sake;
for I would not interfere with any of your interests or any of your
plans; but I now ask you to come here for your own sake--just for one
week, and no more, unless you like to remain longer. You remember papa
telling you, in your room in London, that he believed you kept some
secret from him. I am afraid this is preying on his mind: your long
absence is making him uneasy about you. He does not say so; but he
never sends any message, when I write; and if I speak about you, he
always changes the subject directly. Pray come here, and show yourself
for a few days--no questions will be asked, you may be sure. It will
do so much good; and will prevent--what I hope and pray may never
happen--a serious estrangement between papa and you. Recollect, Basil,
in a month or six weeks we shall come back to town; and then the
opportunity will be gone."
As I read these lines, I determined to start for the country at once,
while the effect of them was still fresh on my mind. Margaret, when I
took leave of her, only said that she should like to be going with
me--"it would be such a sight for her, to see a grand country house
like ours!" Mr. Sherwin laughed as coarsely as usual, at the
difficulties I made about only leaving his daughter for a week. Mrs.
Sherwin very earnestly, and very inaaccountably as I then thought,
recommended me not to be away any longer than I had proposed. Mr.
Mannion privately assured me, that I might depend on him in my absence
from North Villa, exactly as I had always depended on him, during my
presence there. It was strange that his parting words should be the
only words which soothed and satisfied me on taking leave of London.
The winter afternoon was growing dim with the evening darkness, as I
drove up to the Hall. Snow on the ground, in the country, has always a
cheerful look to me. I could have wished to see it on the day of my
arrival at home; but there had been a thaw for the last week--mud and
water were all about me--a drizzling rain was falling--a raw, damp
wind was blowing--a fog was rising, as the evening stole on--and the
ancient leafless elms in the park avenue groaned and creaked above my
head drearily, as I approached the house.
My father received me with more ceremony than I liked. I had known,
from a boy, what it meant when he chose to be only polite to his own
son. What construction he had put on my long absence and my
persistence in keeping my secret from him, I could not tell; but it
was evident that I had lost my usual place in his estimation, and lost
it past regaining merely by a week's visit. The estrangement between
us, which my sister had feared, had begun already.
I had been chilled by the desolate aspect of nature, as I approached
the Hall; my father's reception of me, when I entered the house,
increased the comfortless and melancholy impressions produced on my
mind; it required all the affectionate warmth of Clara's welcome, all
the pleasure of hearing her whisper her thanks, as she kissed me, for
my readiness in following her advice, to restore my equanimity. But
even then, when the first hurry and excitement of meeting had passed
away, in spite of her kind words and looks, there was something in her
face which depressed me. She seemed thinner, and her constitutional
paleness was more marked than usual. Cares and anxieties had evidently
oppressed her--was I the cause of them?
The dinner that evening proceeded very heavily and gloomily. My father
only talked on general and commonplace topics, as if a mere
acquaintance had been present. When my sister left us, he too quitted
the room, to see some one who had arrived on business. I had no heart
for the company of the wine bottles, so I followed Clara.
At first, we only spoke of her occupations since she had been in the
country; I was unwilling, and she forbore, to touch on my long stay in
London, or on my father's evident displeasure at my protracted
absence. There was a little restraint between us, which neither had
the courage to break through. Before long, however, an accident,
trifling enough in itself, obliged me to be more candid; and enabled
her to speak unreservedly on the subject nearest to her heart.
I was seated opposite to Clara, at the fire-place, and was playing
with a favourite dog which had followed me into the room. While I was
stooping towards the animal, a locket containing some of Margaret's
hair, fell out of its place in my waistcoat, and swung towards my
sister by the string which attached it round my neck. I instantly hid
it again; but not before Clara, with a woman's quickness, had detected
the trinket as something new, and drawn the right inference, as to the
use to which I devoted it.
An expression of surprise and pleasure passed over her face; she rose,
and putting her hands on my shoulders, as if to keep me still in the
place I occupied, looked at me intently.
"Basil!" she exclaimed, "if that is all the secret you have been
keeping from us, how glad I am! When I see a new locket drop out of my
brother's waistcoat--" she continued, observing that I was too
confused to speak--"and when I find him colouring very deeply, and
hiding it again in a great hurry, I should be no true woman if I did
not make my own discoveries, and begin to talk about them directly."
I made an effort--a very poor one--to laugh the thing off. Her
expression grew serious and thoughtful, while she still fixed her eyes
on me. She took my hand gently, and whispered in my ear: "Are you
going to be married, Basil? Shall I love my new sister almost as much
as I love you?"
At that moment the servant came in with tea. The interruption gave me
a minute for consideration. Should I tell her all? Impulse answered,
yes--reflection, no. If I disclosed my real situation, I knew that I
must introduce Clara to Margaret. This would necessitate taking her
privately to Mr. Sherwin's house, and exposing to her the humiliating
terms of dependence and prohibition on which I lived with my own wife.
A strange medley of feelings, in which pride was uppermost, forbade me
to do that. Then again, to involve my sister in my secret, would be to
involve her with me in any consequences which might be produced by its
disclosure to my father. The mere idea of making her a partaker in
responsibilities which I alone ought to bear, was not to be
entertained for a moment. As soon as we were left together again, I
said to her:
"Will you not think the worse of me, Clara, if I leave you to draw
your own conclusions from what you have seen? only asking you to keep
strict silence on the subject to every one. I can't speak yet, love,
as I wish to speak: you will know why, some day, and say that my
reserve was right. In the meantime, can you be satisfied with the
assurance, that when the time comes for making my secret known, you
shall be the first to know it--the first I put trust in?"
"As you have not starved my curiosity altogether," said Clara,
smiling, "but have given it a little hope to feed on for the present,
I think, woman though I am, I can promise all you wish. Seriously,
Basil," she continued, "that telltale locket of yours has so
pleasantly brightened some very gloomy thoughts of mine about you,
that I can now live happily on expectation, without once mentioning
your secret again, till you give me leave to do so."
Here my father entered the room, and we said no more. His manner
towards me had not altered since dinner; and it remained the same
during the week of my stay at the Hall. One morning, when we were
alone, I took courage, and determined to try the dangerous ground a
little, with a view towards my guidance for the future; but I had no
sooner begun by some reference to my stay in London, and some apology
for it, than he stopped me at once.
"I told you," he said, gravely and coldly, "some months ago, that I
had too much faith in your honour to intrude on affairs which you
choose to keep private. Until you have perfect confidence in me, and
can speak with complete candour, I will hear nothing. You have not
that confidence now--you speak hesitatingly--your eyes do not meet
mine fairly and boldly. I tell you again, I will hear nothing which
begins with such common-place excuses as you have just addressed to
me. Excuses lead to prevarications, and prevarications to--what I will
not insult you by imagining possible in _your_ case. You are of age,
and must know your own responsibilities and mine. Choose at once,
between saying nothing, and saying all."
He waited a moment after he had spoken, and then quitted the room. If
he could only have known how I suffered, at that instant, under the
base necessities of concealment, I might have confessed everything;
and he must have pitied, though he might not have forgiven me.
This was my first and last attempt at venturing towards the revelation
of my secret to my father, by hints and half-admissions. As to boldly
confessing it, I persuaded myself into a sophistical conviction that
such a course could do no good, but might do much harm. When the
wedded happiness I had already waited for, and was to wait for still,
through so many months, came at last, was it not best to enjoy my
married life in convenient secrecy, as long as I could?--best, to
abstain from disclosing my secret to my father, until necessity
absolutely obliged, or circumstances absolutely invited me to do so?
My inclinations conveniently decided the question in the affirmative;
and a decision of any kind, right or wrong, was enough to tranquillise
me at that time.
So far as my father was concerned, my journey to the country did no
good. I might have returned to London the day after my arrival at the
Hall, without altering his opinion of me--but I stayed the whole week
nevertheless, for Clara's sake.
In spite of the pleasure afforded by my sister's society, my visit was
a painful one. The selfish longing to be back with Margaret, which I
could not wholly repress; my father's coldness; and the winter gloom
and rain which confined us almost incessantly within doors, all tended
in their different degrees to prevent my living at ease in the Hall.
But, besides these causes of embarrassment, I had the additional
mortification of feeling, for the first time, as a stranger in my own
Nothing in the house looked to me what it used to look in former
years. The rooms, the old servants, the walks and views, the domestic
animals, all appeared to have altered, or to have lost something,
since I had seen them last. Particular rooms that I had once been fond
of occupying, were favourites no longer: particular habits that I had
hitherto always practised in the country, I could only succeed in
resuming by an effort which vexed and fretted me. It was as if my life
had run into a new channel since my last autumn and winter at the
Hall, and now refused to flow back at my bidding into its old course.
Home seemed home no longer, except in name.
As soon as the week was over, my father and I parted exactly as we had
met. When I took leave of Clara, she refrained from making any
allusion to the shortness of my stay; and merely said that we should
soon meet again in London. She evidently saw that my visit had weighed
a little on my spirits, and was determined to give to our short
farewell as happy and hopeful a character as possible. We now
thoroughly understood each other; and that was some consolation on
Immediately on my return to London I repaired to North Villa.
Nothing, I was told, had happened in my absence, but I remarked some
change in Margaret. She looked pale and nervous, and was more silent
than I had ever known her to be before, when we met. She accounted for
this, in answer to my inquiries, by saying that confinement to the
house, in consequence of the raw, wintry weather, had a little
affected her; and then changed the subject. In other directions,
household aspects had not deviated from their accustomed monotony. As
usual, Mrs. Sherwin was at her post in the drawing-room; and her
husband was reading the evening paper, over his renowned old port, in
the dining-room. After the first five minutes of my arrival, I adapted
myself again to my old way of life at Mr. Sherwin's, as easily as if I
had never interrupted it for a single day. Henceforth, wherever my
young wife was, there, and there only, would it be home for _me!_
Late in the evening, Mr. Mannion arrived with some business letters
for Mr. Sherwin's inspection. I sent for him into the hall to see me,
as I was going away. His hand was never a warm one; but as I now took
it, on greeting him, it was so deadly cold that it literally chilled
mine for the moment. He only congratulated me, in the usual terms, on
my safe return; and said that nothing had taken place in my
absence--but in his utterance of those few words, I discovered, for
the first time, a change in his voice: his tones were lower, and his
articulation quicker than usual. This, joined to the extraordinary
coldness of his hand, made me inquire whether he was unwell. Yes, he
too had been ill while I was away--harassed with hard work, he said.
Then apologising for leaving me abruptly, on account of the letters he
had brought with him, he returned to Mr. Sherwin, in the dining-room,
with a greater appearance of hurry in his manner than I had ever
remarked in it on any former occasion.
I had left Margaret and Mr. Mannion both well--I returned, and found
them both ill. Surely this was something that had taken place in my
absence, though they all said that nothing had happened. But trifling
illnesses seemed to be little regarded at North Villa--perhaps,
because serious illness was perpetually present there, in the person
of Mrs. Sherwin.
About six weeks after I had left the Hall, my father and Clara
returned to London for the season.
It is not my intention to delay over my life either at home or at
North Villa, during the spring and summer. This would be merely to
repeat much of what has been already related. It is better to proceed
at once to the closing period of my probation; to a period which it
taxes my resolution severely to write of at all. A few weeks more of
toil at my narrative, and the penance of this poor task-work will be
* * * * * *
Imagine then, that the final day of my long year of expectation has
arrived; and that on the morrow, Margaret, for whose sake I have
sacrificed and suffered so much, is at last really to be mine.
On the eve of the great change in my life that was now to take place,
the relative positions in which I, and the different persons with whom
I was associated, stood towards each other, may be sketched thus:--
My father's coldness of manner had not altered since his return to
London. On my side, I carefully abstained from uttering a word before
him, which bore the smallest reference to my real situation. Although
when we met, we outwardly preserved the usual relations of parent and
child, the estrangement between us had now become complete.
Clara did not fail to perceive this, and grieved over it in secret.
Other and happier feelings, however, became awakened within her, when
I privately hinted that the time for disclosing my secret to my sister
was not far off. She grew almost as much agitated as I was, though by
very different expectations--she could think of nothing else but the
explanation and the surprise in store for her. Sometimes, I almost
feared to keep her any longer in suspense; and half regretted having
said anything on the subject of the new and absorbing interest of my
life, before the period when I could easily have said all.
Mr. Sherwin and I had not latterly met on the most cordial terms. He
was dissatisfied with me for not having boldly approached the subject
of my marriage in my father's presence; and considered my reasons for
still keeping it secret, as dictated by morbid apprehension, and as
showing a total want of proper firmness. On the other hand, he was
obliged to set against this omission on my part, the readiness I had
shown in meeting his wishes on all remaining points. My life was
insured in Margaret's favour; and I had arranged to be called to the
bar immediately, so as to qualify myself in good time for every
possible place within place-hunting range. My assiduity in making
these preparations for securing Margaret's prospects and mine against
any evil chances that might happen, failed in producing the favourable
effect on Mr. Sherwin, which they must assuredly have produced on a
less selfish man. But they obliged him, at least, to stop short at
occasional grumblings about my reserve with my father, and to maintain
towards me a sort of sulky politeness, which was, after all, less
offensive than the usual infliction of his cordiality, with its
unfailing accompaniment of dull stories and duller jokes.
During the spring and summer, Mrs. Sherwin appeared to grow feebler
and feebler, from continued ill-health. Occasionally, her words and
actions--especially in her intercourse with me--suggested fears that
her mind was beginning to give way, as well as her body. For instance,
on one occasion, when Margaret had left the room for a minute or two,
she suddenly hurried up to me, whispering with eager looks and anxious
tones:--"Watch over your wife--mind you watch over her, and keep all
bad people from her! _I've_ tried to do it--mind _you_ do it, too!" I
asked immediately for an explanation of this extraordinary injunction;
but she only answered by muttering something about a mother's
anxieties, and then returned hastily to her place. It was impossible
to induce her to be more explicit, try how I might.
Margaret once or twice occasioned me much perplexity and distress, by
certain inconsistencies and variations in her manner, which began to
appear shortly after my return to North Villa from the country. At one
time, she would become, on a sudden, strangely sullen and silent--at
another, irritable and capricious. Then, again, she would abruptly
change to the most affectionate warmth of speech and demeanour,
anxiously anticipating every wish I could form, eagerly showing her
gratitude for the slightest attentions I paid her. These unaccountable
alterations of manner vexed and irritated me indescribably. I loved
Margaret too well to be able to look philosophically on the
imperfections of her character; I knew of no cause given by me for the
frequent changes in her conduct, and, if they only proceeded from
coquetry, then coquetry, as I once told her, was the last female
accomplishment that could charm me in any woman whom I really loved.
However, these causes of annoyance and regret--her caprices, and my
remonstrances--all passed happily away, as the term of my engagement
with Mr. Sherwin approached its end, Margaret's better and lovelier
manner returned. Occasionally, she might betray some symptoms of
confusion, some evidences of unusual thoughtfulness--but I remembered
how near was the day of the emancipation of our love, and looked on
her embarrassment as a fresh charm, a new ornament to the beauty of my
Mr. Mannion continued--as far as attention to my interests went--to be
the same ready and reliable friend as ever; but he was, in some other
respects, an altered man. The illness of which he had complained
months back, when I returned to London, seemed to have increased. His
face was still the same impenetrable face which had so powerfully
impressed me when I first saw him, but his manner, hitherto so quiet
and self-possessed, had now grown abrupt and variable. Sometimes, when
he joined us in the drawing-room at North Villa, he would suddenly
stop before we had exchanged more than three or four words, murmur
something, in a voice unlike his usual voice, about an attack of spasm
and giddiness, and leave the room. These fits of illness had something
in their nature of the same secrecy which distinguished everything
else connected with him: they produced no external signs of
distortion, no unusual paleness in his face--you could not guess what
pain he was suffering, or where he was suffering it. Latterly, I
abstained from ever asking him to join us; for the effect on Margaret
of his sudden attacks of illness was, naturally, such as to discompose
her seriously for the remainder of the evening. Whenever I saw him
accidentally, at later periods of the year, the influence of the
genial summer season appeared to produce no alteration for the better
in him. I remarked that his cold hand, which had chilled me when I
took it on the raw winter night of my return from the country, was as
cold as ever, on the warm summer days which preceded the close of my
engagement at North Villa.
Such was the posture of affairs at home, and at Mr. Sherwin's, when I
went to see Margaret for the last time in my old character, on the
last night which yet remained to separate us from each other.
I had been all day preparing for our reception, on the morrow, in a
cottage which I had taken for a month, in a retired part of the
country, at some distance from London. One month's unalloyed happiness
with Margaret, away from the world and all worldly considerations, was
the Eden upon earth towards which my dearest hope and anticipations
had pointed for a whole year past--and now, now at last, those
aspirations were to be realized! All my arrangements at the cottage
were completed in time to allow me to return home, just before our
usual late dinner hour. During the meal, I provided for my month's
absence from London, by informing my father that I proposed visiting
one of my country friends. He heard me as coldly and indifferently as
usual; and, as I anticipated, did not even ask to what friend's house
I was going. After dinner, I privately informed Clara that on the
morrow, before starting, I would, in accordance with my promise, make
her the depositary of my long-treasured secret--which, as yet, was not
to be divulged to any one besides. This done, I hurried away, between
nine and ten o'clock, for a last half-hour's visit to North Villa;
hardly able to realise my own situation, or to comprehend the fulness
and exaltation of my own joy.
A disappointment was in store for me. Margaret was not in the house;
she had gone out to an evening party, given by a maiden aunt of hers,
who was known to be very rich, and was, accordingly, a person to be
courted and humoured by the family.
I was angry as well as disappointed at what had taken place. To send
Margaret out, on this evening of all others, showed a want of
consideration towards both of us, which revolted me. Mr. and Mrs.
Sherwin were in the room when I entered; and to _him_ I spoke my
opinion on the subject, in no very conciliatory terms. He was
suffering from a bad attack of headache, and a worse attack of
ill-temper, and answered as irritably as he dared.
"My good Sir!" he said, in sharp, querulous tones, "do, for once,
allow me to know what's best. You'll have it all _your_ way
to-morrow--just let me have _mine,_ for the last time, to-night. I'm
sure you've been humoured often enough about keeping Margaret away
from parties--and we should have humoured you this time, too; but a
second letter came from the old lady, saying she should be affronted
if Margaret wasn't one of her guests. I couldn't go and talk her over,
because of this infernal headache of mine--Hang it! it's your interest
that Margaret should keep in with her aunt; she'll have all the old
girl's money, if she only plays her cards decently well. That's why I
sent her to the party--her going will be worth some thousands to both
of you one of these days. She'll be back by half-past twelve, or
before. Mannion was asked; and though he's all out of sorts, he's gone
to take care of her, and bring her back. I'll warrant she comes home
in good time, when _he's_ with her. So you see there's nothing to make
a fuss about, after all."
It was certainly a relief to hear that Mr. Mannion was taking care of
Margaret. He was, in my opinion, much fitter for such a trust than her
own father. Of all the good services he had done for me, I thought
this the best--but it would have been even better still, if he had
prevented Margaret from going to the party.
"I must say again," resumed Mr. Sherwin, still more irritably, finding
I did not at once answer him, "there's nothing that any reasonable
being need make a fuss about. I've been doing everything for
Margaret's interests and yours--and she'll be back by twelve--and Mr.
Mannion takes care of her--and I don't know what you would have--and
it's devilish hard, so ill as I am too, to cut up rough with me like
"I am sorry for your illness, Mr. Sherwin; and I don't doubt your good
intentions, or the advantage of Mr. Mannion's protection for Margaret;
but I feel disappointed, nevertheless, that she should have gone out
"I said she oughtn't to go at all, whatever her aunt wrote--_I_ said
This bold speech actually proceeded from Mrs. Sherwin! I had never
before heard her utter an opinion in her husband's presence--such an
outburst from _her,_ was perfectly inexplicable. She pronounced the
words with desperate rapidity, and unwonted power of tone, fixing her
eyes all the while on me with a very strange expression.
"Damn it, Mrs. S.!" roared her husband in a fury, "will you hold your
tongue? What the devil do you mean by giving _your_ opinion, when
nobody wants it? Upon my soul I begin to think you're getting a little
cracked. You've been meddling and bothering lately, so that I don't
know what the deuce has come to you! I'll tell you what it is, Mr.
Basil," he continued, turning snappishly round upon me, "you had
better stop that fidgetty temper of yours, by going to the party
yourself. The old lady told me she wanted gentlemen; and would be glad
to see any friends of mine I liked to send her. You have only to
mention my name: Mannion will do the civil in the way of introduction.
There! there's an envelope with the address to it--they won't know who
you are, or what you are, at Margaret's aunt's--you've got your black
dress things on, all right and ready--for Heaven's sake, go to the
party yourself, and then I hope you'll be satisfied!"
Here he stopped; and vented the rest of his ill-humour by ringing the
bell violently for "his arrow-root," and abusing the servant when she
I hesitated about accepting his proposal. While I was in doubt, Mrs.
Sherwin took the opportunity, when her husband's eye was off her, of
nodding her head at me significantly. She evidently wished me to join
Margaret at the party--but why? What did her behaviour mean?
It was useless to inquire. Long bodily suffering and weakness had but
too palpably produced a corresponding feebleness in her intellect.
What should I do? I was resolved to see Margaret that night; but to
wait for her between two and three hours, in company with her father
and mother at North Villa, was an infliction not to be endured. I
determined to go to the party. No one there would know anything about
me. They would be all people who lived in a different world from mine;
and whose manners and habits I might find some amusement in studying.
At any rate, I should spend an hour or two with Margaret, and could
make it my own charge to see her safely home. Without further
hesitation, therefore I took up the envelope with the address on it,
and bade Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin good-night.
It struck ten as I left North Villa. The moonlight which was just
beginning to shine brilliantly on my arrival there, now appeared but
at rare intervals; for the clouds were spreading thicker and thicker
over the whole surface of the sky, as the night advanced.
The address to which I was now proceeding, led me some distance away
from Mr. Sherwin's place of abode, in the direction of the populous
neighbourhood which lies on the western side of the Edgeware Road. The
house of Margaret's aunt was plainly enough indicated to me, as soon
as I entered the street where it stood, by the glare of light from the
windows, the sound of dance music, and the nondescript group of cabmen
and linkmen, with their little train of idlers in attendance,
assembled outside the door. It was evidently a very large party. I
hesitated about going in.
My sensations were not those which fit a man for exchanging
conventional civilities with perfect strangers; I felt that I showed
outwardly the fever of joy and expectation within me. Could I preserve
my assumed character of a mere friend of the family, in Margaret's
presence?--and on this night too, of all others? It was far more
probable that my behaviour, if I went to the party, would betray
everything to everybody assembled. I determined to walk about in the
neighbourhood of the house, until twelve o'clock; and then to go into
the hall, and send up my card to Mr. Mannion, with a message on it,
intimating that I was waiting below to accompany him to North Villa
I crossed the street, and looked up again at the house from the
pavement opposite. Then lingered a little, listening to the music as
it reached me through the windows, and imagining to myself Margaret's
occupation at that moment. After this, I turned away; and set forth
eastward on my walk, careless in which direction I traced my steps.
I felt little impatience, and no sense of fatigue; for in less than
two hours more I knew that I should see my wife again. Until then, the
present had no existence for me--I lived in the past and future. I
wandered indifferently along lonely bye-streets, and crowded
thoroughfares. Of all the sights which attend a night-walk in a great
city, not one attracted my notice. Uninformed and unobservant, neither
saddened nor startled, I passed through the glittering highways of
London. All sounds were silent to me save the love-music of my own
thoughts; all sights had vanished before the bright form that moved
through my bridal dream. Where was my world, at that moment? Narrowed
to the cottage in the country which was to receive us on the morrow.
Where were the beings in the world? All merged in one--Margaret.
Sometimes, my thoughts glided back, dreamily and voluptuously, to the
day when I first met her. Sometimes, I recalled the summer evenings
when we sat and read together out of the same book; and, once more, it
was as if I breathed with the breath, and hoped with the hopes, and
longed with the old longings of those days. But oftenest it was with
the morrow that my mind was occupied. The first dream of all young
men--the dream of living rapturously with the woman they love, in a
secret retirement kept sacred from friends and from strangers alike,
was now my dream; to be realised in a few hours, to be realised with
my waking on the morning which was already at hand!
For the last quarter of an hour of my walk, I must have been
unconsciously retracing my steps towards the house of Margaret's aunt.
I came in sight of it again, just as the sound of the neighbouring
church clocks, striking eleven, roused me from my abstraction. More
cabs were in the street; more people were gathered about the door, by
this time. Was all this bustle, the bustle of arrival or of departure?
Was the party about to break up, at an hour when parties usually
begin? I determined to go nearer to the house, and ascertain whether
the music had ceased, or not.
I had approached close enough to hear the notes of the harp and
pianoforte still sounding as gaily as ever, when the house-door was
suddenly flung open for the departure of a lady and gentleman. The
light from the hall-lamps fell on their faces; and showed me Margaret
and Mr. Mannion.
Going home already! An hour and a half before it was time to return!
There could be but one reason. Margaret was thinking of me, and of
what I should feel if I called at North Villa, and had to wait for her
till past midnight. I ran forward to speak to them, as they descended
the steps; but exactly at the same moment, my voice was overpowered,
and my further progress barred, by a scuffle on the pavement among the
people who stood between us. One man said that his pocket had been
picked; others roared to him that they had caught the thief. There was
a fight--the police came up--I was surrounded on all sides by a
shouting, struggling mob that seemed to have gathered in an instant.
Before I could force myself out of the crowd, and escape into the
road, Margaret and Mr. Mannion had hurried into a cab. I just saw the
vehicle driving off rapidly, as I got free. An empty cab was standing
near me--I jumped into it directly--and told the man to overtake them.
After having waited my time so patiently, to let a mere accident stop
me from going home with them, as I had resolved, was not to be thought
of for a moment. I was hot and angry, after my contest with the crowd;
and could have flogged on the miserable cab-horse with my own hand,
rather than have failed in my purpose.
We were just getting closer behind them: I had just put my head out of
the window to call to them, and to bid the man who was driving me,
call, too--when their cab abruptly turned down a bye-street, in a
direction exactly opposite to the direction which led to North Villa.
What did this mean? Why were they not going straight home?
The cabman asked me whether he should not hail them before they got
farther away from us; frankly confessing, as he put the question, that
his horse was nothing like equal to the pace of the horse ahead.
Mechanically, without assignable purpose or motive, I declined his
offer, and told him simply to follow at any distance he could. While
the words passed my lips, a strange sensation stole over me: I seemed
to be speaking as the mere mouthpiece of some other voice. From
feeling hot, and moving about restlessly the moment before, I felt
unaccountably cold, and sat still now. What caused this?
My cab stopped. I looked out, and saw that the horse had fallen.
"We've lots of time, Sir," said the driver, as he coolly stepped off
the box, "they are just pulling up further down the road." I gave him
some money, and got out immediately--determined to overtake them on
It was a very lonely place--a colony of half-finished streets, and
half-inhabited houses, which had grown up in the neighbourhood of a
great railway station. I heard the fierce scream of the whistle, and
the heaving, heavy throb of the engine starting on its journey, as I
advanced along the gloomy Square in which I now found myself. The cab
I had been following stood at a turning which led into a long street,
occupied towards the farther end, by shops closed for the night, and
at the end nearest me, apparently by private houses only. Margaret and
Mr. Mannion hastily left the cab, and without looking either to the
right or the left, hurried down the street. They stopped at the ninth
house. I followed just in time to hear the door closed on them, and to
count the number of doors intervening between that door and the
The awful thrill of a suspicion which I hardly knew yet for what it
really was, began to creep over me--to creep like a dead-cold touch
crawling through and through me to the heart. I looked up at the
house. It was an hotel--a neglected, deserted, dreary-looking
building. Still acting mechanically; still with no definite impulse
that I could recognise, even if I felt it, except the instinctive
resolution to follow them into the house, as I had already followed
them through the street--I walked up to the door, and rang the bell.
It was answered by a waiter--a mere lad. As the light in the passage
fell on my face, he paused in the act of addressing me, and drew back
a few steps. Without stopping for any explanations, I closed the door
behind me, and said to him at once:
"A lady and gentleman came into this hotel a little while ago."
"What may your business be?"--He hesitated, and added in an altered
tone, "I mean, what may you want with them, Sir?"
"I want you to take me where I can hear their voices, and I want
nothing more. Here's a sovereign for you, if you do what I ask."
His eyes fastened covetously on the gold, as I held it before them. He
retired a few steps on tiptoe, and listened at the end of the passage.
I heard nothing but the thick, rapid beating of my own heart. He came
back, muttering to himself: "Master's safe at supper down stairs--I'll
risk it! You'll promise to go away directly," he added, whispering to
me, "and not disturb the house? We are quiet people here, and can't
have anything like a disturbance. Just say at once, will you promise
to step soft, and not speak a word?"
"This way then, Sir--and mind you don't forget to step soft."
A strange coldness and stillness, an icy insensibility, a
dream-sensation of being impelled by some hidden, irresistible agency,
possessed me, as I followed him upstairs. He showed me softly into an
empty room; pointed to one of the walls, whispering, "It's only boards
papered over--" and then waited, keeping his eyes anxiously and
steadily fixed upon all my movements.
I listened; and through the thin partition, I heard voices--_her_
voice, and _his_ voice. _I heard and I knew_--knew my degradation in
all its infamy, knew my wrongs in all their nameless horror. He was
exulting in the patience and secrecy which had brought success to the
foul plot, foully hidden for months on months; foully hidden until the
very day before I was to have claimed as my wife, a wretch as guilty
I could neither move nor breathe. The blood surged and heaved upward
to my brain; my heart strained and writhed in anguish; the life within
me raged and tore to get free. Whole years of the direst mental and
bodily agony were concentrated in that one moment of helpless,
motionless torment. I never lost the consciousness of suffering. I
heard the waiter say, under his breath, "My God! he's dying." I felt
him loosen my cravat--I knew that he dashed cold water over me;
dragged me out of the room; and, opening a window on the landing, held
me firmly where the night-air blew upon my face. I knew all this; and
knew when the paroxysm passed, and nothing remained of it, but a
shivering helplessness in every limb.
Erelong, the power of thinking began to return to me by degrees.
Misery, and shame, and horror, and a vain yearning to hide myself from
all human eyes, and weep out my life in secret, overcame me. Then,
these subsided; and ONE THOUGHT slowly arose in their stead--arose,
and cast down before it every obstacle of conscience, every principle
of education, every care for the future, every remembrance of the
past, every weakening influence of present misery, every repressing
tie of family and home, every anxiety for good fame in this life, and
every idea of the next that was to come. Before the fell poison of
that Thought, all other thoughts--good or evil--died. As it spoke
secretly within me, I felt my bodily strength coming back; a quick
vigour leapt hotly through my frame. I turned, and looked round
towards the room we had just left--my mind was looking at the room
beyond it, the room they were in.
The waiter was still standing by my side, watching me intently. He
suddenly started back; and, with pale face and staring eyes, pointed
down the stairs.
"You go," he whispered, "go directly! You're well now--I'm afraid to
have you here any longer. I saw your look, your horrid look at that
room! You've heard what you wanted for your money--go at once; or, if
I lose my place for it, I'll call out Murder, and raise the house. And
mind this: as true as God's in heaven, I'll warn them both before they
go outside our door!"
Hearing, but not heeding him, I left the house. No voice that ever
spoke, could have called me back from the course on which I was now
bound. The waiter watched me vigilantly from the door, as I went out.
Seeing this, I made a circuit, before I returned to the spot where, as
I had suspected, the cab they had ridden in was still waiting for
The driver was asleep inside. I awoke him; told him I had been sent to
say that he was not wanted again that night: and secured his ready
departure, by at once paying him on his own terms. He drove off; and
the first obstacle on the fatal path which I had resolved to tread
unopposed, was now removed.
As the cab disappeared from my sight, I looked up at the sky. It was
growing very dark. The ragged black clouds, fantastically parted from
each other in island shapes over the whole surface of the heavens,
were fast drawing together into one huge, formless, lowering mass, and
had already hidden the moon for, good. I went back to the street, and
stationed myself in the pitch darkness of a passage which led down a
mews, situated exactly opposite to the hotel.
In the silence and obscurity, in the sudden pause of action while I
now waited and watched, my Thought rose to my lips, and my speech
mechanically formed it into words. I whispered softly to myself: _I
will kill him when he comes out._ My mind never swerved for an instant
from this thought--never swerved towards myself; never swerved towards
_her._ Grief was numbed at my heart; and the consciousness of my own
misery was numbed with grief. Death chills all before it--and Death
and my Thought were one.
Once, while I stood on the watch, a sharp agony of suspense tried me
Just as I had calculated that the time was come which would force them
to depart, in order to return to North Villa by the appointed hour, I
heard the slow, heavy, regular tramp of a footstep advancing along the
street. It was the policeman of the district going his round. As he
approached the entrance to the mews he paused, yawned, stretched his
arms, and began to whistle a tune. If Mannion should come out while he
was there! My blood seemed to stagnate on its course, while I thought
that this might well happen. Suddenly, the man ceased whistling,
looked steadily up and down the street, and tried the door of a house
near him--advanced a few steps--then paused again, and tried another
door--then muttered to himself, in drowsy tones--"I've seen all safe
here already: it's the other street I forgot just now." He turned, and
retraced his way. I fixed my aching eyes vigilantly on the hotel,
while I heard the sound of his footsteps grow fainter and fainter in
the distance. It ceased altogether; and still there was no
change--still the man whose life I was waiting for, never appeared.
Ten minutes after this, so far as I can guess, the door opened; and I
heard Mannion's voice, and the voice of the lad who had let me in.
"Look about you before you go out," said the waiter, speaking in the
passage; "the street's not safe for you." Disbelieving, or affecting
to disbelieve, what he heard, Mannion interrupted the waiter angrily;
and endeavoured to reassure his companion in guilt, by asserting that
the warning was nothing but an attempt to extort money by way of
reward. The man retorted sulkily, that he cared nothing for the
gentleman's money, or the gentleman either. Immediately afterwards an
inner door in the house banged violently; and I knew that Mannion had
been left to his fate.
There was a momentary silence; and then I heard him tell his
accomplice that he would go alone to look for the cab, and that she
had better close the door and wait quietly in the passage till he came
back. This was done. He walked out into the street. It was after
twelve o'clock. No sound of a strange footfall was audible--no soul
was at hand to witness, and prevent, the coming struggle. His life was
mine. His death followed him as fast as my feet followed, while I was
now walking on his track.
He looked up and down, from the entrance to the street, for the cab.
Then, seeing that it was gone, he hastily turned back. At that instant
I met him face to face. Before a word could be spoken, even before a
look could be exchanged, my hands were on his throat.
He was a taller and heavier man than I was; and struggled with me,
knowing that he was struggling for his life. He never shook my grasp
on him for a moment; but he dragged me out into the road--dragged me
away eight or ten yards from the street. The heavy gasps of
approaching suffocation beat thick on my forehead from his open mouth:
he swerved to and fro furiously, from side to side; and struck at me,
swinging his clenched fists high above his head. I stood firm, and
held him away at arm's length. As I dug my feet into the ground to
steady myself, I heard the crunching of stones--the road had been
newly mended with granite. Instantly, a savage purpose goaded into
fury the deadly resolution by which I was possessed. I shifted my hold
to the back of his neck, and the collar of his coat, and hurled him,
with the whole impetus of the raging strength that was let loose in
me, face downwards, on to the stones.
In the mad triumph of that moment, I had already stooped towards him,
as he lay insensible beneath me, to lift him again, and beat out of
him, on the granite, not life only, but the semblance of humanity as
well; when, in the blank stillness that followed the struggle, I heard
the door of the hotel in the street open once more. I left him
directly, and ran back from the square--I knew not with what motive,
or what idea--to the spot.
On the steps of the house, on the threshold of that accursed place,
stood the woman whom God's minister had given to me in the sight of
God, as my wife.
One long pang of shame and despair shot through my heart as I looked
at her, and tortured out of its trance the spirit within me. Thousands
on thousands of thoughts seemed to be whirling in the wildest
confusion through and through my brain--thoughts, whose track was a
track of fire--thoughts that struck me with a hellish torment of
dumbness, at the very time when I would have purchased with my life
the power of a moment's speech. Voiceless and tearless, I went up to
her, and took her by the arm, and drew her away from the house. There
was some vague purpose in me, as I did this, of never quitting my hold
of her, never letting her stir from me by so much as an inch, until I
had spoken certain words to her. What words they were, and when I
should utter them, I could not tell.
The cry for mercy was on her lips, but the instant our eyes met, it
died away in long, low, hysterical moanings. Her cheeks were ghastly,
her features were rigid, her eyes glared like an idiot's; guilt and
terror had made her hideous to look upon already.
I drew her onward a few paces towards the Square. Then I stopped,
remembering the body that lay face downwards on the road. The savage
strength of a few moments before, had left me from the time when I
first saw her. I now reeled where I stood, from sheer physical
weakness. The sound of her pantings and shudderings, of her abject
inarticulate murmurings for mercy, struck me with a supernatural
terror. My fingers trembled round her arm, the perspiration dripped
down my face, like rain; I caught at the railings by my side, to keep
myself from falling. As I did so, she snatched her arm from my grasp,
as easily as if I had been a child; and, with a cry for help, fled
towards the further end of the street.
Still, the strange instinct of never losing hold of her, influenced
me. I followed, staggering like a drunken man. In a moment, she was
out of my reach; in another, out of my sight. I went on, nevertheless;
on, and on, and on, I knew not whither. I lost all ideas of time and
distance. Sometimes I went round and round the same streets, over and
over again. Sometimes I hurried in one direction, straight forward.
Wherever I went, it seemed to me that she was still just before; that
her track and my track were one; that I had just lost my hold of her,
and that she was just starting on her flight.
I remember passing two men in this way, in some great thoroughfare.
They both stopped, turned, and walked a few steps after me. One
laughed at me, as a drunkard. The other, in serious tones, told him to
be silent; for I was not drunk, but mad--he had seen my face as I
passed under a gas-lamp, and he knew that I was mad.
"MAD!"--that word, as I heard it, rang after me like a voice of
judgment. "MAD!"--a fear had come over me, which, in all its frightful
complication, was expressed by that one word--a fear which, to the man
who suffers it, is worse even than the fear of death; which no human
language ever has conveyed, or ever will convey, in all its horrible
reality, to others. I had pressed onward, hitherto, because I saw a
vision that led me after it--a beckoning shadow, ahead, darker even
than the night darkness. I still pressed on, now; but only because I
was afraid to stop.
I know not how far I had gone, when my strength utterly failed me, and
I sank down helpless, in a lonely place where the houses were few and
scattered, and trees and fields were dimly discernible in the
obscurity beyond. I hid my face in my hands, and tried to assure
myself that I was still in possession of my senses. I strove hard to
separate my thoughts; to distinguish between my recollections; to
extricate from the confusion within me any one idea, no matter
what--and I could not do it. In that awful struggle for the mastery
over my own mind, all that had passed, all the horror of that horrible
night, became as nothing to me. I raised myself, and looked up again,
and tried to steady my reason by the simplest means--even by
endeavouring to count all the houses within sight. The darkness
bewildered me. Darkness?--_Was_ it dark? or was day breaking yonder,
far away in the murky eastern sky? Did I know what I saw? Did I see
the same thing for a few moments together? What was this under me?
Grass? yes! cold, soft, dewy grass. I bent down my forehead upon it,
and tried, for the last time, to steady my faculties by praying; tried
if I could utter the prayer which I had known and repeated every day
from childhood--the Lord's Prayer. The Divine Words came not at my
call--no! not one of them, from the beginning to the end! I started up
on my knees. A blaze of lurid sunshine flashed before my eyes; a
hell-blaze of brightness, with fiends by millions, raining down out of
it on my head; then a rayless darkness--the darkness of the
blind--then God's mercy at last--the mercy of utter oblivion.
* * * * *
When I recovered my consciousness, I was lying on the couch in my own
study. My father was supporting me on the pillow; the doctor had his
fingers on my pulse; and a policeman was telling them where he had
found me, and how he had brought me home.
WHEN the blind are operated on for the restoration of sight, the same
succouring hand which has opened to them the visible world,
immediately shuts out the bright prospect again, for a time. A bandage
is passed over the eyes, lest in the first tenderness of the recovered
sense, it should be fatally affected by the sudden transition from
darkness to light. But between the awful blank of total privation of
vision, and the temporary blank of vision merely veiled, there lies
the widest difference. In the moment of their restoration, the blind
have had one glimpse of light, flashing on them in an overpowering
gleam of brightness, which the thickest, closest veiling cannot
extinguish. The new darkness is not like the void darkness of old; it
is filled with changing visions of brilliant colours and ever-varying
forms, rising, falling, whirling hither and thither with every second.
Even when the handkerchief is passed over them, the once sightless
eyes, though bandaged fast, are yet not blinded as they were before.
It was so with my mental vision. After the utter oblivion and darkness
of a deep swoon, consciousness flashed like light on my mind, when I
found myself in my father's presence, and in my own home. But, almost
at the very moment when I first awakened to the bewildering influence
of that sight, a new darkness fell upon my faculties--a darkness, this
time, which was not utter oblivion; a peopled darkness, like that
which the bandage casts over the opened eyes of the blind.
I had sensations, I had thoughts, I had visions, now--but they all
acted in the frightful self-concentration of delirium. The lapse of
time, the march of events, the alternation of day and night, the
persons who moved about me, the words they spoke, the offices of
kindness they did for me--all these were annihilated from the period
when I closed my eyes again, after having opened them for an instant
on my father, in my own study.
My first sensation (how soon it came after I had been brought home, I
know not) was of a terrible heat; a steady, blazing heat, which seemed
to have shrivelled and burnt up the whole of the little world around
me, and to have left me alone to suffer, but never to consume in it.
After this, came a quick, restless, unintermittent toiling of obscure
thought, ever in the same darkened sphere, ever on the same
impenetrable subject, ever failing to reach some distant and visionary
result. It was as if something were imprisoned in my mind, and moving
always to and fro in it--moving, but never getting free.
Soon, these thoughts began to take a form that I could recognise.
In the clinging heat and fierce seething fever, to which neither
waking nor sleeping brought a breath of freshness or a dream of
change, I began to act my part over again, in the events that had
passed, but in a strangely altered character. Now, instead of placing
implicit trust in others, as I had done; instead of failing to
discover a significance and a warning in each circumstance as it
arose, I was suspicious from the first--suspicious of Margaret, of her
father, of her mother, of Mannion, of the very servants in the house.
In the hideous phantasmagoria of my own calamity on which I now
looked, my position was reversed. Every event of the doomed year of my
probation was revived. But the doom itself, the night-scene of horror
through which I had passed, had utterly vanished from my memory. This
lost recollection, it was the one unending toil of my wandering mind
to recover, and I never got it back. None who have not suffered as I
suffered then, can imagine with what a burning rage of determination I
followed past events in my delirium, one by one, for days and nights
together,--followed, to get to the end which I knew was beyond, but
which I never could see, not even by glimpses, for a moment at a time.
However my visions might alter in their course of succession, they
always began with the night when Mannion returned from the continent
to North Villa. I stood again in the drawing-room; I saw him enter; I
marked the slight confusion of Margaret; and instantly doubted her. I
noticed his unwillingness to meet her eye or mine; I looked on the
sinister stillness of his face; and suspected him. From that moment,
love vanished, and hatred came in its place. I began to watch; to
garner up slight circumstances which confirmed my suspicions; to wait
craftily for the day when I should discover, judge, and punish them
both--the day of disclosure and retribution that never came.
Sometimes, I was again with Mannion, in his house, on the night of the
storm. I detected in every word he spoke an artful lure to trap me
into trusting him as my second father, more than as my friend. I heard
in the tempest. sounds which mysteriously interrupted, or mingled
with, my answers, voices supernaturally warning me of my enemy, each
time that I spoke to him. I saw once more the hideous smile of triumph
on his face, as I took leave of him on the doorstep: and saw it, this
time, not as an illusion produced by a flash of lightning, but as a
frightful reality which the lightning disclosed.
Sometimes, I was again in the garden at North Villa accidentally
overhearing the conversation between Margaret and her
mother--overhearing what deceit she was willing to commit, for the
sake of getting a new dress--then going into the room, and seeing her
assume her usual manner on meeting me, as if no such words as I had
listened to but the moment before, had ever proceeded from her lips.
Or, I saw her on that other morning, when, to revenge the death of her
bird, she would have killed with her own hand the one pet companion
that her sick mother possessed. Now, no generous, trusting love
blinded me to the real meaning of such events as these. Now, instead
of regarding them as little weaknesses of beauty, and little errors of
youth, I saw them as timely warnings, which bade me remember when the
day of my vengeance came, that in the contriving of the iniquity on
which they were both bent, the woman had been as vile as the man.
Sometimes, I was once more on my way to North Villa, after my week's
absence at our country house. I saw again the change in Margaret since
I had left her--the paleness, the restlessness, the appearance of
agitation. I took the hand of Mannion, and started as I felt its
deadly coldness, and remarked the strange alteration in his manner.
When they accounted for these changes by telling me that both had been
ill, in different ways, since my departure, I detected the miserable
lie at once; I knew that an evil advantage had been taken of my
absence; that the plot against me was fast advancing towards
consummation: and that, at the sight of their victim, even the two
wretches who were compassing my dishonour could not repress all
outward manifestation of their guilt.
Sometimes, the figure of Mrs. Sherwin appeared to me, wan and weary,
and mournful with a ghostly mournfulness. Again I watched her, and
listened to her; but now with eager curiosity, with breathless
attention. Once more, I saw her shudder when Mannion's cold eyes
turned on her face--I marked the anxious, imploring look that she cast
on Margaret and on me--I heard her confused, unwilling answer, when I
inquired the cause of her dislike of the man in whom her husband
placed the most implicit trust--I listened to her abrupt, inexplicable
injunction to "watch continually over my wife, and keep bad people
from her." All these different circumstances occurred again as vividly
as in the reality; but I did not now account for them, as I had once
accounted for them, by convincing myself that Mrs. Sherwin's mind was
wandering, and that her bodily sufferings had affected her intellect.
I saw immediately, that she suspected Mannion, and dared not openly
confess her suspicions; I saw, that in the stillness, and abandonment,
and self-concentration of her neglected life, she had been watching
more vigilantly than others had watched; I detected in every one of
her despised gestures, and looks, and halting words, the same
concealed warning ever lying beneath the surface; I knew they had not
succeeded in deceiving her; I was determined they should not succeed
in deceiving me.
It was oftenest at this point, that my restless memory recoiled before
the impenetrable darkness which forbade it to see further--to see on
to the last evening, to the fatal night. It was oftenest at this
point, that I toiled and struggled back, over and over again, to seek
once more the lost events of the End, through the events of the
Beginning. How often my wandering thoughts thus incessantly and
desperately traced and retraced their way over their own fever track,
I cannot tell: but there came a time when they suddenly ceased to
torment me; when the heavy burden that was on my mind fell off; when a
sudden strength and fury possessed me, and I plunged down through a
vast darkness into a world whose daylight was all radiant flame. Giant
phantoms mustered by millions, flashing white as lightning in the
ruddy air. They rushed on me with hurricane speed; their wings fanned
me with fiery breezes; and the echo of their thunder-music was like
the groaning and rending of an earthquake, as they tore me away with
them on their whirlwind course.
Away! to a City of Palaces, to measureless halls, and arches, and
domes, soaring one above another, till their flashing ruby summits are
lost in the burning void, high overhead. On! through and through these
mountain-piles, into countless, limitless corridors, reared on pillars
lurid and rosy as molten lava. Far down the corridors rise visions of
flying phantoms, ever at the same distance before us--their raving
voices clanging like the hammers of a thousand forges. Still on and
on; faster and faster, for days, years, centuries together, till there
comes, stealing slowly forward to meet us, a shadow--a vast, stealthy,
gliding shadow--the first darkness that has ever been shed over that
world of blazing light! It comes nearer--nearer and nearer softly,
till it touches the front ranks of our phantom troop. Then in an
instant, our rushing progress is checked: the thunder-music of our
wild march stops; the raving voices of the spectres ahead, cease; a
horror of blank stillness is all about us--and as the shadow creeps
onward and onward, until we are enveloped in it from front to rear, we
shiver with icy cold under the fiery air and amid the lurid lava
pillars which hem us in on either side.
A silence, like no silence ever known on earth; a darkening of the
shadow, blacker than the blackest night in the thickest wood--a
pause--then, a sound as of the heavy air being cleft asunder; and
then, an apparition of two figures coming on out of the shadow--two
monsters stretching forth their gnarled yellow talons to grasp at us;
leaving on their track a green decay, oozing and shining with a sickly
light. Beyond and around me, as I stood in the midst of them, the
phantom troop dropped into formless masses. while the monsters
advanced. They came close to me; and I alone, of all the myriads
around, changed not at their approach. Each laid a talon on my
shoulder--each raised a veil which was one hideous net-work of twining
worms. I saw through the ghastly corruption of their faces the look
that told me who they were--the monstrous iniquities incarnate in
monstrous forms; the fiend-souls made visible in
fiend-shapes--Margaret and Mannion!
A moment more! and I was alone with those two. Not a wreck of the
phantom-multitude remained; the towering city, the gleaming corridors,
the fire-bright radiance had vanished. We stood on a wilderness--a
still, black lake of dead waters was before us; a white, faint, misty
light shone on us. Outspread over the noisome ground lay the ruins of
a house, rooted up and overthrown to its foundations. The demon
figures, still watching on either side of me, drew me slowly forward
to the fallen stones, and pointed to two dead bodies lying among them.
My father!--my sister!--both cold and still, and whiter than the white
light that showed them to me. The demons at my side stretched out
their crooked talons, and forbade me to kneel before my father, or to
kiss Clara's wan face, before I went to torment. They struck me
motionless where I stood--and unveiled their hideous faces once more,
jeering at me in triumph. Anon, the lake of black waters heaved up and
overflowed, and noiselessly sucked us away into its central
depths--depths that were endless; depths of rayless darkness, in which
we slowly eddied round and round, deeper and deeper down at every
turn. I felt the bodies of my father and my sister touching me in cold
contact: I stretched out my arms to clasp them and sink with them; and
the demon pair glided between us, and separated me from them. This
vain striving to join myself to my dead kindred when we touched each
other in the slow, endless whirlpool, ever continued and was ever
frustrated in the same way. Still we sank apart, down the black gulphs
of the lake; still there was no light, no sound, no change, no pause
of repose--and this was eternity: the eternity of Hell!
* * * * *
Such was one dream-vision out of many that I saw. It must have been at
this time that men were set to watch me day and night (as I afterwards
heard), in order that I might be held down in my bed, when a paroxysm
of convulsive strength made me dangerous to myself and to all about
me. The period too when the doctors announced that the fever had
seized on my brain, and was getting the better of their skill, must
have been _this_ period.
But though they gave up my life as lost, I was not to die. There came
a time, at last, when the gnawing fever lost its hold; and I awoke
faintly one morning to a new existence--to a life frail and helpless
as the life of a new-born babe.
I was too weak to move, to speak, to open my eyes, to exert in the
smallest degree any one faculty, bodily or mental, that I possessed.
The first sense of which I regained the use, was the sense of hearing;
and the first sound that I recognised, was of a light footstep which
mysteriously approached, paused, and then retired again gently outside
my door. The hearing of this sound was my first pleasure, the waiting
for its repetition my first source of happy expectation, since I had
been ill. Once more the footsteps approached--paused a moment--then
seemed to retire as before--then returned slowly. A sigh, very faint
and trembling; a whisper of which I could not yet distinguish the
import, caught my ear--and after that, there was silence. Still I
waited (oh, how happily and calmly!) to hear the whisper soon
repeated, and to hear it better when it next came. Ere long, for the
third time, the footsteps advanced, and the whispering accents sounded