By Wilkie Collins
LETTER OF DEDICATION.
TO CHARLES JAMES WARD, ESQ.
IT has long been one of my pleasantest anticipations to look forward to the time when I might offer to you, my old and dear friend, some such acknowledgment of the value I place on your affection for me, and of my grateful sense of the many acts of kindness by which that affection has been proved, as I now gladly offer in this place. In dedicating the present work to you, I fulfil therefore a purpose which, for some time past, I have sincerely desired to achieve; and, more than that, I gain for myself the satisfaction of knowing that there is one page, at least, of my book, on which I shall always look with unalloyed pleasure—the page that bears your name.
I have founded the main event out of which this story springs, on a fact within my own knowledge. In afterwards shaping the course of the narrative thus suggested, I have guided it, as often as I could, where I knew by my own experience, or by experience related to me by others, that it would touch on something real and true in its progress. My idea was, that the more of the Actual I could garner up as a text to speak from, the more certain I might feel of the genuineness and value of the Ideal which was sure to spring out of it. Fancy and Imagination, Grace and Beauty, all those qualities which are to the work of Art what scent and colour are to the flower, can only grow towards heaven by taking root in earth. Is not the noblest poetry of prose fiction the poetry of every-day truth?
Directing my characters and my story, then, towards the light of Reality wherever I could find it, I have not hesitated to violate some of the conventionalities of sentimental fiction. For instance, the first love-meeting of two of the personages in this book, occurs (where the real love-meeting from which it is drawn, occurred) in the very last place and under the very last circumstances which the artifices of sentimental writing would sanction. Will my lovers excite ridicule instead of interest, because I have truly represented them as seeing each other where hundreds of other lovers have first seen each other, as hundreds of people will readily admit when they read the passage to which I refer? I am sanguine enough to think not.
So again, in certain parts of this book where I have attempted to excite the suspense or pity of the reader, I have admitted as perfectly fit accessories to the scene the most ordinary street-sounds that could be heard, and the most ordinary street-events that could occur, at the time and in the place represented—believing that by adding to truth, they were adding to tragedy—adding by all the force of fair contrast—adding as no artifices of mere writing possibly could add, let them be ever so cunningly introduced by ever so crafty a hand.
Allow me to dwell a moment longer on the story which these pages contain.
Believing that the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction; that the one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted; and that all the strong and deep emotions which the Play-writer is privileged to excite, the Novel-writer is privileged to excite also, I have not thought it either politic or necessary, while adhering to realities, to adhere to every-day realities only. In other words, I have not stooped so low as to assure myself of the reader's belief in the probability of my story, by never once calling on him for the exercise of his faith. Those extraordinary accidents and events which happen to few men, seemed to me to be as legitimate materials for fiction to work with—when there was a good object in using them—as the ordinary accidents and events which may, and do, happen to us all. By appealing to genuine sources of interest within the reader's own experience, I could certainly gain his attention to begin with; but it would be only by appealing to other sources (as genuine in their way) beyond his own experience, that I could hope to fix his interest and excite his suspense, to occupy his deeper feelings, or to stir his nobler thoughts.
In writing thus—briefly and very generally—(for I must not delay you too long from the story), I can but repeat, though I hope almost unnecessarily, that I am now only speaking of what I have tried to do. Between the purpose hinted at here, and the execution of that purpose contained in the succeeding pages, lies the broad line of separation which distinguishes between the will and the deed. How far I may fall short of another man's standard, remains to be discovered. How far I have fallen short of my own, I know painfully well.
One word more on the manner in which the purpose of the following pages is worked out—and I have done.
Nobody who admits that the business of fiction is to exhibit human life, can deny that scenes of misery and crime must of necessity, while human nature remains what it is, form part of that exhibition. Nobody can assert that such scenes are unproductive of useful results, when they are turned to a plainly and purely moral purpose. If I am asked why I have written certain scenes in this book, my answer is to be found in the universally-accepted truth which the preceding words express. I have a right to appeal to that truth; for I guided myself by it throughout. In deriving the lesson which the following pages contain, from those examples of error and crime which would most strikingly and naturally teach it, I determined to do justice to the honesty of my object by speaking out. In drawing the two characters, whose actions bring about the darker scenes of my story, I did not forget that it was my duty, while striving to portray them naturally, to put them to a good moral use; and at some sacrifice, in certain places, of dramatic effect (though I trust with no sacrifice of truth to Nature), I have shown the conduct of the vile, as always, in a greater or less degree, associated with something that is selfish, contemptible, or cruel in motive. Whether any of my better characters may succeed in endearing themselves to the reader, I know not: but this I do certainly know:—that I shall in no instance cheat him out of his sympathies in favour of the bad.
To those persons who dissent from the broad principles here adverted to; who deny that it is the novelist's vocation to do more than merely amuse them; who shrink from all honest and serious reference, in books, to subjects which they think of in private and talk of in public everywhere; who see covert implications where nothing is implied, and improper allusions where nothing improper is alluded to; whose innocence is in the word, and not in the thought; whose morality stops at the tongue, and never gets on to the heart—to those persons, I should consider it loss of time, and worse, to offer any further explanation of my motives, than the sufficient explanation which I have given already. I do not address myself to them in this book, and shall never think of addressing myself to them in any other.
Those words formed part of the original introduction to this novel. I wrote them nearly ten years since; and what I said then, I say now.
"Basil" was the second work of fiction which I produced. On its appearance, it was condemned off-hand, by a certain class of readers, as an outrage on their sense of propriety. Conscious of having designed and written, my story with the strictest regard to true delicacy, as distinguished from false—I allowed the prurient misinterpretation of certain perfectly innocent passages in this book to assert itself as offensively as it pleased, without troubling myself to protest against an expression of opinion which aroused in me no other feeling than a feeling of contempt. I knew that "Basil" had nothing to fear from pure-minded readers; and I left these pages to stand or fall on such merits as they possessed. Slowly and surely, my story forced its way through all adverse criticism, to a place in the public favour which it has never lost since. Some of the most valued friends I now possess, were made for me by "Basil." Some of the most gratifying recognitions of my labours which I have received, from readers personally strangers to me, have been recognitions of the purity of this story, from the first page to the last. All the indulgence I need now ask for "Basil," is indulgence for literary defects, which are the result of inexperience; which no correction can wholly remove; and which no one sees more plainly, after a lapse of ten years, than the writer himself.
I have only to add, that the present edition of this book is the first which has had the benefit of my careful revision. While the incidents of the story remain exactly what they were, the language in which they are told has been, I hope, in many cases greatly altered for the better.
Harley Street, London, July, 1862.
WHAT am I now about to write?
The history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of my life.
Why do I undertake such an employment as this?
Perhaps, because I think that my narrative may do good; because I hope that, one day, it may be put to some warning use. I am now about to relate the story of an error, innocent in its beginning, guilty in its progress, fatal in its results; and I would fain hope that my plain and true record will show that this error was not committed altogether without excuse. When these pages are found after my death, they will perhaps be calmly read and gently judged, as relics solemnized by the atoning shadows of the grave. Then, the hard sentence against me may be repented of; the children of the next generation of our house may be taught to speak charitably of my memory, and may often, of their own accord, think of me kindly in the thoughtful watches of the night.
Prompted by these motives, and by others which I feel, but cannot analyse, I now begin my self-imposed occupation. Hidden amid the far hills of the far West of England, surrounded only by the few simple inhabitants of a fishing hamlet on the Cornish coast, there is little fear that my attention will be distracted from my task; and as little chance that any indolence on my part will delay its speedy accomplishment. I live under a threat of impending hostility, which may descend and overwhelm me, I know not how soon, or in what manner. An enemy, determined and deadly, patient alike to wait days or years for his opportunity, is ever lurking after me in the dark. In entering on my new employment, I cannot say of my time, that it may be mine for another hour; of my life, that it may last till evening.
Thus it is as no leisure work that I begin my narrative—and begin it, too, on my birthday! On this day I complete my twenty-fourth year; the first new year of my life which has not been greeted by a single kind word, or a single loving wish. But one look of welcome can still find me in my solitude—the lovely morning look of nature, as I now see it from the casement of my room. Brighter and brighter shines out the lusty sun from banks of purple, rainy cloud; fishermen are spreading their nets to dry on the lower declivities of the rocks; children are playing round the boats drawn up on the beach; the sea-breeze blows fresh and pure towards the shore——all objects are brilliant to look on, all sounds are pleasant to hear, as my pen traces the first lines which open the story of my life.
I am the second son of an English gentleman of large fortune. Our family is, I believe, one of the most ancient in this country. On my father's side, it dates back beyond the Conquest; on my mother's, it is not so old, but the pedigree is nobler. Besides my elder brother, I have one sister, younger than myself. My mother died shortly after giving birth to her last child.
Circumstances which will appear hereafter, have forced me to abandon my father's name. I have been obliged in honour to resign it; and in honour I abstain from mentioning it here. Accordingly, at the head of these pages, I have only placed my Christian name—not considering it of any importance to add the surname which I have assumed; and which I may, perhaps, be obliged to change for some other, at no very distant period. It will now, I hope, be understood from the outset, why I never mention my brother and sister but by their Christian names; why a blank occurs wherever my father's name should appear; why my own is kept concealed in this narrative, as it is kept concealed in the world.
The story of my boyhood and youth has little to interest—nothing that is new. My education was the education of hundreds of others in my rank of life. I was first taught at a public school, and then went to college to complete what is termed "a liberal education."
My life at college has not left me a single pleasant recollection. I found sycophancy established there, as a principle of action; flaunting on the lord's gold tassel in the street; enthroned on the lord's dais in the dining-room. The most learned student in my college—the man whose life was most exemplary, whose acquirements were most admirable—was shown me sitting, as a commoner, in the lowest place. The heir to an Earldom, who had failed at the last examination, was pointed out a few minutes afterwards, dining in solitary grandeur at a raised table, above the reverend scholars who had turned him back as a dunce. I had just arrived at the University, and had just been congratulated on entering "a venerable seminary of learning and religion."
Trite and common-place though it be, I mention this circumstance attending my introduction to college, because it formed the first cause which tended to diminish my faith in the institution to which I was attached. I soon grew to regard my university training as a sort of necessary evil, to be patiently submitted to. I read for no honours, and joined no particular set of men. I studied the literature of France, Italy, and Germany; just kept up my classical knowledge sufficiently to take my degree; and left college with no other reputation than a reputation for indolence and reserve.
When I returned home, it was thought necessary, as I was a younger son, and could inherit none of the landed property of the family, except in the case of my brother's dying without children, that I should belong to a profession. My father had the patronage of some valuable "livings," and good interest with more than one member of the government. The church, the army, the navy, and, in the last instance, the bar, were offered me to choose from. I selected the last.
My father appeared to be a little astonished at my choice; but he made no remark on it, except simply telling me not to forget that the bar was a good stepping-stone to parliament. My real ambition, however, was, not to make a name in parliament, but a name in literature. I had already engaged myself in the hard, but glorious service of the pen; and I was determined to persevere. The profession which offered me the greatest facilities for pursuing my project, was the profession which I was ready to prefer. So I chose the bar.
Thus, I entered life under the fairest auspices. Though a younger son, I knew that my father's wealth, exclusive of his landed property, secured me an independent income far beyond my wants. I had no extravagant habits; no tastes that I could not gratify as soon as formed; no cares or responsibilities of any kind. I might practise my profession or not, just as I chose. I could devote myself wholly and unreservedly to literature, knowing that, in my case, the struggle for fame could never be identical—terribly, though gloriously identical—with the struggle for bread. For me, the morning sunshine of life was sunshine without a cloud!
I might attempt, in this place, to sketch my own character as it was at that time. But what man can say—I will sound the depth of my own vices, and measure the height of my own virtues; and be as good as his word? We can neither know nor judge ourselves; others may judge, but cannot know us: God alone judges and knows too. Let my character appear—as far as any human character can appear in its integrity, in this world—in my actions, when I describe the one eventful passage in my life which forms the basis of this narrative. In the mean time, it is first necessary that I should say more about the members of my family. Two of them, at least, will be found important to the progress of events in these pages. I make no attempt to judge their characters: I only describe them—whether rightly or wrongly, I know not—as they appeared to me.
I always considered my father—I speak of him in the past tense, because we are now separated for ever; because he is henceforth as dead to me as if the grave had closed over him—I always considered my father to be the proudest man I ever knew; the proudest man I ever heard of. His was not that conventional pride, which the popular notions are fond of characterising by a stiff, stately carriage; by a rigid expression of features; by a hard, severe intonation of voice; by set speeches of contempt for poverty and rags, and rhapsodical braggadocio about rank and breeding. My father's pride had nothing of this about it. It was that quiet, negative, courteous, inbred pride, which only the closest observation could detect; which no ordinary observers ever detected at all.
Who that observed him in communication with any of the farmers on any of his estates—who that saw the manner in which he lifted his hat, when he accidentally met any of those farmers' wives—who that noticed his hearty welcome to the man of the people, when that man happened to be a man of genius—would have thought him proud? On such occasions as these, if he had any pride, it was impossible to detect it. But seeing him when, for instance, an author and a new-made peer of no ancestry entered his house together—observing merely the entirely different manner in which he shook hands with each—remarking that the polite cordiality was all for the man of letters, who did not contest his family rank with him, and the polite formality all for the man of title, who did—you discovered where and how he was proud in an instant. Here lay his fretful point. The aristocracy of rank, as separate from the aristocracy of ancestry, was no aristocracy for him. He was jealous of it; he hated it. Commoner though he was, he considered himself the social superior of any man, from a baronet up to a duke, whose family was less ancient than his own.
Among a host of instances of this peculiar pride of his which I could cite, I remember one, characteristic enough to be taken as a sample of all the rest. It happened when I was quite a child, and was told me by one of my uncles now dead—who witnessed the circumstance himself, and always made a good story of it to the end of his life.
A merchant of enormous wealth, who had recently been raised to the peerage, was staying at one of our country houses. His daughter, my uncle, and an Italian Abbe were the only guests besides. The merchant was a portly, purple-faced man, who bore his new honours with a curious mixture of assumed pomposity and natural good-humour. The Abbe was dwarfish and deformed, lean, sallow, sharp-featured, with bright bird-like eyes, and a low, liquid voice. He was a political refugee, dependent for the bread he ate, on the money he received for teaching languages. He might have been a beggar from the streets; and still my father would have treated him as the principal guest in the house, for this all-sufficient reason—he was a direct descendant of one of the oldest of those famous Roman families whose names are part of the history of the Civil Wars in Italy.
On the first day, the party assembled for dinner comprised the merchant's daughter, my mother, an old lady who had once been her governess, and had always lived with her since her marriage, the new Lord, the Abbe, my father, and my uncle. When dinner was announced, the peer advanced in new-blown dignity, to offer his arm as a matter of course to my mother. My father's pale face flushed crimson in a moment. He touched the magnificent merchant-lord on the arm, and pointed significantly, with a low bow, towards the decrepit old lady who had once been my mother's governess. Then walking to the other end of the room, where the penniless Abbe was looking over a book in a corner, he gravely and courteously led the little, deformed, limping language-master, clad in a long, threadbare, black coat, up to my mother (whose shoulder the Abbe's head hardly reached), held the door open for them to pass out first, with his own hand; politely invited the new nobleman, who stood half-paralysed between confusion and astonishment, to follow with the tottering old lady on his arm; and then returned to lead the peer's daughter down to dinner himself. He only resumed his wonted expression and manner, when he had seen the little Abbe—the squalid, half-starved representative of mighty barons of the olden time—seated at the highest place of the table by my mother's side.
It was by such accidental circumstances as these that you discovered how far he was proud. He never boasted of his ancestors; he never even spoke of them, except when he was questioned on the subject; but he never forgot them. They were the very breath of his life; the deities of his social worship: the family treasures to be held precious beyond all lands and all wealth, all ambitions and all glories, by his children and his children's children to the end of their race.
In home-life he performed his duties towards his family honourably, delicately, and kindly. I believe in his own way he loved us all; but we, his descendants, had to share his heart with his ancestors—we were his household property as well as his children. Every fair liberty was given to us; every fair indulgence was granted to us. He never displayed any suspicion, or any undue severity. We were taught by his direction, that to disgrace our family, either by word or action, was the one fatal crime which could never be forgotten and never be pardoned. We were formed, under his superintendence, in principles of religion, honour, and industry; and the rest was left to our own moral sense, to our own comprehension of the duties and privileges of our station. There was no one point in his conduct towards any of us that we could complain of; and yet there was something always incomplete in our domestic relations.
It may seem incomprehensible, even ridiculous, to some persons, but it is nevertheless true, that we were none of us ever on intimate terms with him. I mean by this, that he was a father to us, but never a companion. There was something in his manner, his quiet and unchanging manner, which kept us almost unconsciously restrained. I never in my life felt less at my ease—I knew not why at the time—than when I occasionally dined alone with him. I never confided to him my schemes for amusement as a boy, or mentioned more than generally my ambitious hopes, as a young man. It was not that he would have received such confidences with ridicule or severity, he was incapable of it; but that he seemed above them, unfitted to enter into them, too far removed by his own thoughts from such thoughts as ours. Thus, all holiday councils were held with old servants; thus, my first pages of manuscript, when I first tried authorship, were read by my sister, and never penetrated into my father's study.
Again, his mode of testifying displeasure towards my brother or myself, had something terrible in its calmness, something that we never forgot, and always dreaded as the worst calamity that could befall us.
Whenever, as boys, we committed some boyish fault, he never displayed outwardly any irritation—he simply altered his manner towards us altogether. We were not soundly lectured, or vehemently threatened, or positively punished in anyway; but, when we came in contact with him, we were treated with a cold, contemptuous politeness (especially if our fault showed a tendency to anything mean or ungentlemanlike) which cut us to the heart. On these occasions, we were not addressed by our Christian names; if we accidentally met him out of doors, he was sure to turn aside and avoid us; if we asked a question, it was answered in the briefest possible manner, as if we had been strangers. His whole course of conduct said, as though in so many words—You have rendered yourselves unfit to associate with your father; and he is now making you feel that unfitness as deeply as he does. We were left in this domestic purgatory for days, sometimes for weeks together. To our boyish feelings (to mine especially) there was no ignominy like it, while it lasted.
I know not on what terms my father lived with my mother. Towards my sister, his demeanour always exhibited something of the old-fashioned, affectionate gallantry of a former age. He paid her the same attention that he would have paid to the highest lady in the land. He led her into the dining-room, when we were alone, exactly as he would have led a duchess into a banqueting-hall. He would allow us, as boys, to quit the breakfast-table before he had risen himself; but never before she had left it. If a servant failed in duty towards him, the servant was often forgiven; if towards her, the servant was sent away on the spot. His daughter was in his eyes the representative of her mother: the mistress of his house, as well as his child. It was curious to see the mixture of high-bred courtesy and fatherly love in his manner, as he just gently touched her forehead with his lips, when he first saw her in the morning.
In person, my father was of not more than middle height. He was very slenderly and delicately made; his head small, and well set on his shoulders—his forehead more broad than lofty—his complexion singularly pale, except in moments of agitation, when I have already noticed its tendency to flush all over in an instant. His eyes, large and gray, had something commanding in their look; they gave a certain unchanging firmness and dignity to his expression, not often met with. They betrayed his birth and breeding, his old ancestral prejudices, his chivalrous sense of honour, in every glance. It required, indeed, all the masculine energy of look about the upper part of his face, to redeem the lower part from an appearance of effeminacy, so delicately was it moulded in its fine Norman outline. His smile was remarkable for its sweetness—it was almost like a woman's smile. In speaking, too, his lips often trembled as women's do. If he ever laughed, as a young man, his laugh must have been very clear and musical; but since I can recollect him, I never heard it. In his happiest moments, in the gayest society, I have only seen him smile.
There were other characteristics of my father's disposition and manner, which I might mention; but they will appear to greater advantage, perhaps, hereafter, connected with circumstances which especially called them forth.
When a family is possessed of large landed property, the individual of that family who shows least interest in its welfare; who is least fond of home, least connected by his own sympathies with his relatives, least ready to learn his duties or admit his responsibilities, is often that very individual who is to succeed to the family inheritance—the eldest son.
My brother Ralph was no exception to this remark. We were educated together. After our education was completed, I never saw him, except for short periods. He was almost always on the continent, for some years after he left college. And when he returned definitely to England, he did not return to live under our roof. Both in town and country he was our visitor, not our inmate.
I recollect him at school—stronger, taller, handsomer than I was; far beyond me in popularity among the little community we lived with; the first to lead a daring exploit, the last to abandon it; now at the bottom of the class, now at the top—just that sort of gay, boisterous, fine-looking, dare-devil boy, whom old people would instinctively turn round and smile after, as they passed him by in a morning walk.
Then, at college, he became illustrious among rowers and cricketers, renowned as a pistol shot, dreaded as a singlestick player. No wine parties in the university were such wine parties as his; tradesmen gave him the first choice of everything that was new; young ladies in the town fell in love with him by dozens; young tutors with a tendency to dandyism, copied the cut of his coat and the tie of his cravat; even the awful heads of houses looked leniently on his delinquencies. The gay, hearty, handsome young English gentleman carried a charm about him that subdued everybody. Though I was his favourite butt, both at school and college, I never quarrelled with him in my life. I always let him ridicule my dress, manners, and habits in his own reckless, boisterous way, as if it had been a part of his birthright privilege to laugh at me as much as he chose.
Thus far, my father had no worse anxieties about him than those occasioned by his high spirits and his heavy debts. But when he returned home—when the debts had been paid, and it was next thought necessary to drill the free, careless energies into something like useful discipline—then my father's trials and difficulties began in earnest.
It was impossible to make Ralph comprehend and appreciate his position, as he was desired to comprehend and appreciate it. The steward gave up in despair all attempts to enlighten him about the extent, value, and management of the estates he was to inherit. A vigorous effort was made to inspire him with ambition; to get him to go into parliament. He laughed at the idea. A commission in the Guards was next offered to him. He refused it, because he would never be buttoned up in a red coat; because he would submit to no restraints, fashionable or military; because in short, he was determined to be his own master. My father talked to him by the hour together, about his duties and his prospects, the cultivation of his mind, and the example of his ancestors; and talked in vain. He yawned and fidgetted over the emblazoned pages of his own family pedigree, whenever they were opened before him.
In the country, he cared for nothing but hunting and shooting—it was as difficult to make him go to a grand county dinner-party, as to make him go to church. In town, he haunted the theatres, behind the scenes as well as before; entertained actors and actresses at Richmond; ascended in balloons at Vauxhall; went about with detective policemen, seeing life among pickpockets and housebreakers; belonged to a whist club, a supper club, a catch club, a boxing club, a picnic club, an amateur theatrical club; and, in short, lived such a careless, convivial life, that my father, outraged in every one of his family prejudices and family refinements, almost ceased to speak to him, and saw him as rarely as possible. Occasionally, my sister's interference reconciled them again for a short time; her influence, gentle as it was, was always powerfully felt for good, but she could not change my brother's nature. Persuade and entreat as anxiously as she might, he was always sure to forfeit the paternal favour again, a few days after he had been restored to it.
At last, matters were brought to their climax by an awkward love adventure of Ralph's with one of our tenants' daughters. My father acted with his usual decision on the occasion. He determined to apply a desperate remedy: to let the refractory eldest son run through his career in freedom, abroad, until he had well wearied himself, and could return home a sobered man. Accordingly, he procured for my brother an attache's place in a foreign embassy, and insisted on his leaving England forthwith. For once in a way, Ralph was docile. He knew and cared nothing about diplomacy; but he liked the idea of living on the continent, so he took his leave of home with his best grace. My father saw him depart, with ill-concealed agitation and apprehension; although he affected to feel satisfied that, flighty and idle as Ralph was, he was incapable of voluntarily dishonouring his family, even in his most reckless moods.
After this, we heard little from my brother. His letters were few and short, and generally ended with petitions for money. The only important news of him that reached us, reached us through public channels.
He was making quite a continental reputation—a reputation, the bare mention of which made my father wince. He had fought a duel; he had imported a new dance from Hungary; he had contrived to get the smallest groom that ever was seen behind a cabriolet; he had carried off the reigning beauty among the opera-dancers of the day from all competitors; a great French cook had composed a great French dish, and christened it by his name; he was understood to be the "unknown friend," to whom a literary Polish countess had dedicated her "Letters against the restraint of the Marriage Tie;" a female German metaphysician, sixty years old, had fallen (Platonically) in love with him, and had taken to writing erotic romances in her old age. Such were some of the rumours that reached my father's ears on the subject of his son and heir!
After a long absence, he came home on a visit. How well I remember the astonishment he produced in the whole household! He had become a foreigner in manners and appearance. His mustachios were magnificent; miniature toys in gold and jewellery hung in clusters from his watch-chain; his shirt-front was a perfect filigree of lace and cambric. He brought with him his own boxes of choice liqueurs and perfumes; his own smart, impudent, French valet; his own travelling bookcase of French novels, which he opened with his own golden key. He drank nothing but chocolate in the morning; he had long interviews with the cook, and revolutionized our dinner table. All the French newspapers were sent to him by a London agent. He altered the arrangements of his bed-room; no servant but his own valet was permitted to enter it. Family portraits that hung there, were turned to the walls, and portraits of French actresses and Italian singers were stuck to the back of the canvasses. Then he displaced a beautiful little ebony cabinet which had been in the family three hundred years; and set up in its stead a Cyprian temple of his own, in miniature, with crystal doors, behind which hung locks of hair, rings, notes written on blush-coloured paper, and other love-tokens kept as sentimental relics. His influence became all-pervading among us. He seemed to communicate to the house the change that had taken place in himself, from the reckless, racketty young Englishman to the super-exquisite foreign dandy. It was as if the fiery, effervescent atmosphere of the Boulevards of Paris had insolently penetrated into the old English mansion, and ruffled and infected its quiet native air, to the remotest corners of the place.
My father was even more dismayed than displeased by the alteration in my brother's habits and manners—the eldest son was now farther from his ideal of what an eldest son should be, than ever. As for friends and neighbours, Ralph was heartily feared and disliked by them, before he had been in the house a week. He had an ironically patient way of listening to their conversation; an ironically respectful manner of demolishing their old-fashioned opinions, and correcting their slightest mistakes, which secretly aggravated them beyond endurance. It was worse still, when my father, in despair, tried to tempt him into marriage, as the one final chance of working his reform; and invited half the marriageable young ladies of our acquaintance to the house, for his especial benefit.
Ralph had never shown much fondness at home, for the refinements of good female society. Abroad, he had lived as exclusively as he possibly could, among women whose characters ranged downwards by infinitesimal degrees, from the mysteriously doubtful to the notoriously bad. The highly-bred, highly-refined, highly-accomplished young English beauties had no charm for him. He detected at once the domestic conspiracy of which he was destined to become the victim. He often came up-stairs, at night, into my bed-room; and while he was amusing himself by derisively kicking about my simple clothes and simple toilette apparatus; while he was laughing in his old careless way at my quiet habits and monotonous life, used to slip in, parenthetically, all sorts of sarcasms about our young lady guests. To him, their manners were horribly inanimate; their innocence, hypocrisy of education. Pure complexions and regular features were very well, he said, as far as they went; but when a girl could not walk properly, when she shook hands with you with cold fingers, when having good eyes she could not make a stimulating use of them, then it was time to sentence the regular features and pure complexions to be taken back forthwith to the nursery from which they came. For his part, he missed the conversation of his witty Polish Countess, and longed for another pancake-supper with his favourite grisettes.
The failure of my father's last experiment with Ralph soon became apparent. Watchful and experienced mothers began to suspect that my brother's method of flirtation was dangerous, and his style of waltzing improper. One or two ultra-cautious parents, alarmed by the laxity of his manners and opinions, removed their daughters out of harm's way, by shortening their visits. The rest were spared any such necessity. My father suddenly discovered that Ralph was devoting himself rather too significantly to a young married woman who was staying in the house. The same day he had a long private interview with my brother. What passed between them, I know not; but it must have been something serious. Ralph came out of my father's private study, very pale and very silent; ordered his luggage to be packed directly; and the next morning departed, with his French valet, and his multifarious French goods and chattels, for the continent.
Another interval passed; and then we had another short visit from him. He was still unaltered. My father's temper suffered under this second disappointment. He became more fretful and silent; more apt to take offence than had been his wont. I particularly mention the change thus produced in his disposition, because that change was destined, at no very distant period, to act fatally upon me.
On this last occasion, also, there was another serious disagreement between father and son; and Ralph left England again in much the same way that he had left it before.
Shortly after that second departure, we heard that he had altered his manner of life. He had contracted, what would be termed in the continental code of morals, a reformatory attachment to a woman older than himself, who was living separated from her husband, when he met with her. It was this lady's lofty ambition to be Mentor and mistress, both together! And she soon proved herself to be well qualified for her courageous undertaking. To the astonishment of everyone who knew him, Ralph suddenly turned economical; and, soon afterwards, actually resigned his post at the embassy, to be out of the way of temptation! Since that, he has returned to England; has devoted himself to collecting snuff-boxes and learning the violin; and is now living quietly in the suburbs of London, still under the inspection of the resolute female missionary who first worked his reform.
Whether he will ever become the high-minded, high-principled country gentleman, that my father has always desired to see him, it is useless for me to guess. On the domains which he is to inherit, I shall never perhaps set foot again: in the halls where he will one day preside as master, I shall never more be sheltered. Let me now quit the subject of my elder brother, and turn to a theme which is nearer to my heart; dear to me as the last remembrance left that I can love; precious beyond all treasures in my solitude and my exile from home.
My sister!—well may I linger over your beloved name in such a record as this. A little farther on, and the darkness of crime and grief will encompass me; here, my recollections of you kindle like a pure light before my eyes—doubly pure by contrast with what lies beyond. May your kind eyes, love, be the first that fall on these pages, when the writer has parted from them for ever! May your tender hand be the first that touches these leaves, when mine is cold! Backward in my narrative, Clara, wherever I have but casually mentioned my sister, the pen has trembled and stood still. At this place, where all my remembrances of you throng upon me unrestrained, the tears gather fast and thick beyond control; and for the first time since I began my task, my courage and my calmness fail me.
It is useless to persevere longer. My hand trembles; my eyes grow dimmer and dimmer. I must close my labours for the day, and go forth to gather strength and resolution for to-morrow on the hill-tops that overlook the sea.
My sister Clara is four years younger than I am. In form of face, in complexion, and—except the eyes—in features, she bears a striking resemblance to my father. Her expressions however, must be very like what my mother's was. Whenever I have looked at her in her silent and thoughtful moments, she has always appeared to freshen, and even to increase, my vague, childish recollections of our lost mother. Her eyes have that slight tinge of melancholy in their tenderness, and that peculiar softness in their repose, which is only seen in blue eyes. Her complexion, pale as my father's when she is neither speaking nor moving, has in a far greater degree than his the tendency to flush, not merely in moments of agitation, but even when she is walking, or talking on any subject that interests her. Without this peculiarity her paleness would be a defect. With it, the absence of any colour in her complexion but the fugitive uncertain colour which I have described, would to some eyes debar her from any claims to beauty. And a beauty perhaps she is not—at least, in the ordinary acceptation of the term.
The lower part of her face is rather too small for the upper, her figure is too slight, the sensitiveness of her nervous organization is too constantly visible in her actions and her looks. She would not fix attention and admiration in a box at the opera; very few men passing her in the street would turn round to look after her; very few women would regard her with that slightingly attentive stare, that steady depreciating scrutiny, which a dashing decided beauty so often receives (and so often triumphs in receiving) from her personal inferiors among her own sex. The greatest charms that my sister has on the surface, come from beneath it.
When you really knew her, when she spoke to you freely, as to a friend—then, the attraction of her voice, her smile her manner, impressed you indescribably. Her slightest words and her commonest actions interested and delighted you, you knew not why. There was a beauty about her unassuming simplicity, her natural—exquisitely natural—kindness of heart, and word, and manner, which preserved its own unobtrusive influence over you, in spite of all other rival influences, be they what they might. You missed and thought of her, when you were fresh from the society of the most beautiful and the most brilliant women. You remembered a few kind, pleasant words of hers when you forgot the wit of the wittiest ladies, the learning of the most learned. The influence thus possessed, and unconsciously possessed, by my sister over every one with whom she came in contact—over men especially—may, I think be very simply accounted for, in very few sentences.
We live in an age when too many women appear to be ambitious of morally unsexing themselves before society, by aping the language and the manners of men—especially in reference to that miserable modern dandyism of demeanour, which aims at repressing all betrayal of warmth of feeling; which abstains from displaying any enthusiasm on any subject whatever; which, in short, labours to make the fashionable imperturbability of the face the faithful reflection of the fashionable imperturbability of the mind. Women of this exclusively modern order, like to use slang expressions in their conversation; assume a bastard-masculine abruptness in their manners, a bastard-masculine licence in their opinions; affect to ridicule those outward developments of feeling which pass under the general appellation of "sentiment." Nothing impresses, agitates, amuses, or delights them in a hearty, natural, womanly way. Sympathy looks ironical, if they ever show it: love seems to be an affair of calculation, or mockery, or contemptuous sufferance, if they ever feel it.
To women such as these, my sister Clara presented as complete a contrast as could well be conceived. In this contrast lay the secret of her influence, of the voluntary tribute of love and admiration which followed her wherever she went.
Few men have not their secret moments of deep feeling—moments when, amid the wretched trivialities and hypocrisies of modern society, the image will present itself to their minds of some woman, fresh, innocent, gentle, sincere; some woman whose emotions are still warm and impressible, whose affections and sympathies can still appear in her actions, and give the colour to her thoughts; some woman in whom we could put as perfect faith and trust, as if we were children; whom we despair of finding near the hardening influences of the world; whom we could scarcely venture to look for, except in solitary places far away in the country; in little rural shrines, shut up from society, among woods and fields, and lonesome boundary-hills. When any women happen to realise, or nearly to realise, such an image as this, they possess that universal influence which no rivalry can ever approach. On them really depends, and by then is really preserved, that claim upon the sincere respect and admiration of men, on which the power of the whole sex is based—the power so often assumed by the many, so rarely possessed but by the few.
It was thus with my sister. Thus, wherever she went, though without either the inclination, or the ambition to shine, she eclipsed women who were her superiors in beauty, in accomplishments, in brilliancy of manners and conversation—conquering by no other weapon than the purely feminine charm of everything she said, and everything she did.
But it was not amid the gaiety and grandeur of a London season that her character was displayed to the greatest advantage. It was when she was living where she loved to live, in the old country-house, among the old friends and old servants who would every one of them have died a hundred deaths for her sake, that you could study and love her best. Then, the charm there was in the mere presence of the kind, gentle, happy young English girl, who could enter into everybody's interests, and be grateful for everybody's love, possessed its best and brightest influence. At picnics, lawn-parties, little country gatherings of all sorts, she was, in her own quiet, natural manner, always the presiding spirit of general comfort and general friendship. Even the rigid laws of country punctilio relaxed before her unaffected cheerfulness and irresistible good-nature. She always contrived—nobody ever knew how—to lure the most formal people into forgetting their formality, and becoming natural for the rest of the day. Even a heavy-headed, lumbering, silent country squire was not too much for her. She managed to make him feel at his ease, when no one else would undertake the task; she could listen patiently to his confused speeches about dogs, horses, and the state of the crops, when other conversations were proceeding in which she was really interested; she could receive any little grateful attention that he wished to pay her—no matter how awkward or ill-timed—as she received attentions from any one else, with a manner which showed she considered it as a favour granted to her sex, not as a right accorded to it.
So, again, she always succeeded in diminishing the long list of those pitiful affronts and offences, which play such important parts in the social drama of country society. She was a perfect Apostle-errant of the order of Reconciliation; and wherever she went, cast out the devil Sulkiness from all his strongholds—the lofty and the lowly alike. Our good rector used to call her his Volunteer Curate; and declare that she preached by a timely word, or a persuasive look, the best practical sermons on the blessings of peace-making that were ever composed.
With all this untiring good-nature, with all this resolute industry in the task of making every one happy whom she approached, there was mingled some indescribable influence, which invariably preserved her from the presumption, even of the most presuming people. I never knew anybody venturesome enough—either by word or look—to take a liberty with her. There was something about her which inspired respect as well as love. My father, following the bent of his peculiar and favourite ideas, always thought it was the look of her race in her eyes, the ascendancy of her race in her manners. I believe it to have proceeded from a simpler and a better cause. There is a goodness of heart, which carries the shield of its purity over the open hand of its kindness: and that goodness was hers.
To my father, she was more, I believe, than he himself ever imagined—or will ever know, unless he should lose her. He was often, in his intercourse with the world, wounded severely enough in his peculiar prejudices and peculiar refinements—he was always sure to find the first respected, and the last partaken by her. He could trust in her implicitly, he could feel assured that she was not only willing, but able, to share and relieve his domestic troubles and anxieties. If he had been less fretfully anxious about his eldest son; if he had wisely distrusted from the first his own powers of persuading and reforming, and had allowed Clara to exercise her influence over Ralph more constantly and more completely than he really did, I am persuaded that the long-expected epoch of my brother's transformation would have really arrived by this time, or even before it.
The strong and deep feelings of my sister's nature lay far below the surface—for a woman, too far below it. Suffering was, for her, silent, secret, long enduring; often almost entirely void of outward vent or development. I never remember seeing her in tears, except on rare and very serious occasions. Unless you looked at her narrowly, you would judge her to be little sensitive to ordinary griefs and troubles. At such times, her eyes only grew dimmer and less animated than usual; the paleness of her complexion became rather more marked; her lips closed and trembled involuntarily—but this was all: there was no sighing, no weeping, no speaking even. And yet she suffered acutely. The very strength of her emotions was in their silence and their secresy. I, of all others—I, guilty of infecting with my anguish the pure heart that loved me—ought to know this best!
How long I might linger over all that she has done for me! As I now approach nearer and nearer to the pages which are to reveal my fatal story, so I am more and more tempted to delay over those better and purer remembrances of my sister which now occupy my mind. The first little presents—innocent girlish presents—which she secretly sent to me at school; the first sweet days of our uninterrupted intercourse, when the close of my college life restored me to home; her first inestimable sympathies with my first fugitive vanities of embryo authorship, are thronging back fast and fondly on my thoughts, while I now write.
But these memories must be calmed and disciplined. I must be collected and impartial over my narrative—if it be only to make that narrative show fairly and truly, without suppression or exaggeration, all that I have owed to her.
Not merely all that I have owed to her; but all that I owe to her now. Though I may never see her again, but in my thoughts; still she influences, comforts, cheers me on to hope, as if she were already the guardian spirit of the cottage where I live. Even in my worst moments of despair, I can still remember that Clara is thinking of me and sorrowing for me: I can still feel that remembrance, as an invisible hand of mercy which supports me, sinking; which raises me, fallen; which may yet lead me safely and tenderly to my hard journey's end.
I have now completed all the preliminary notices of my near relatives, which it is necessary to present in these pages; and may proceed at once to the more immediate subject of my narrative.
Imagine to yourself that my father and my sister have been living for some months at our London residence; and that I have recently joined them, after having enjoyed a short tour on the continent.
My father is engaged in his parliamentary duties. We see very little of him. Committees absorb his mornings—debates his evenings. When he has a day of leisure occasionally, he passes it in his study, devoted to his own affairs. He goes very little into society—a political dinner, or a scientific meeting are the only social relaxations that tempt him.
My sister leads a life which is not much in accordance with her simple tastes. She is wearied of balls, operas, flower-shows, and all other London gaieties besides; and heartily longs to be driving about the green lanes again in her own little poney-chaise, and distributing plum-cake prizes to the good children at the Rector's Infant School. But the female friend who happens to be staying with her, is fond of excitement; my father expects her to accept the invitations which he is obliged to decline; so she gives up her own tastes and inclinations as usual, and goes into hot rooms among crowds of fine people, hearing the same glib compliments, and the same polite inquiries, night after night, until, patient as she is, she heartily wishes that her fashionable friends all lived in some opposite quarter of the globe, the farther away the better.
My arrival from the continent is the most welcome of events to her. It gives a new object and a new impulse to her London life.
I am engaged in writing a historical romance—indeed, it is principally to examine the localities in the country where my story is laid, that I have been abroad. Clara has read the first half-dozen finished chapters, in manuscript, and augurs wonderful success for my fiction when it is published. She is determined to arrange my study with her own hands; to dust my books, and sort my papers herself. She knows that I am already as fretful and precise about my literary goods and chattels, as indignant at any interference of housemaids and dusters with my library treasures, as if I were a veteran author of twenty years' standing; and she is resolved to spare me every apprehension on this score, by taking all the arrangements of my study on herself, and keeping the key of the door when I am not in need of it.
We have our London amusements, too, as well as our London employments. But the pleasantest of our relaxations are, after all, procured for us by our horses. We ride every day—sometimes with friends, sometimes alone together. On these latter occasions, we generally turn our horses' heads away from the parks, and seek what country sights we can get in the neighbourhood of London. The northern roads are generally our favourite ride.
Sometimes we penetrate so far that we can bait our horses at a little inn which reminds me of the inns near our country home. I see the same sanded parlour, decorated with the same old sporting prints, furnished with the same battered, deep-coloured mahogany table, and polished elm tree chairs, that I remember in our own village inn. Clara, also, finds bits of common, out of doors, that look like our common; and trees that might have been transplanted expressly for her, from our park.
These excursions we keep a secret, we like to enjoy them entirely by ourselves. Besides, if my father knew that his daughter was drinking the landlady's fresh milk, and his son the landlord's old ale, in the parlour of a suburban roadside inn, he would, I believe, be apt to suspect that both his children had fairly taken leave of their senses.
Evening parties I frequent almost as rarely as my father. Clara's good nature is called into requisition to do duty for me, as well as for him. She has little respite in the task. Old lady relatives and friends, always ready to take care of her, leave her no excuse for staying at home. Sometimes I am shamed into accompanying her a little more frequently than usual; but my old indolence in these matters soon possesses me again. I have contracted a bad habit of writing at night—I read almost incessantly in the day time. It is only because I am fond of riding, that I am ever willing to interrupt my studies, and ever ready to go out at all.
Such were my domestic habits, such my regular occupations and amusements, when a mere accident changed every purpose of my life, and altered me irretrievably from what I was then, to what I am now.
It happened thus:
I had just received my quarter's allowance of pocket-money, and had gone into the city to cash the cheque at my father's bankers.
The money paid, I debated for a moment how I should return homewards. First I thought of walking: then of taking a cab. While I was considering this frivolous point, an omnibus passed me, going westward. In the idle impulse of the moment, I hailed it, and got in.
It was something more than an idle impulse though. If I had at that time no other qualification for the literary career on which I was entering, I certainly had this one—an aptitude for discovering points of character in others: and its natural result, an unfailing delight in studying characters of all kinds, wherever I could meet with them.
I had often before ridden in omnibuses to amuse myself by observing the passengers. An omnibus has always appeared to me, to be a perambulatory exhibition-room of the eccentricities of human nature. I know not any other sphere in which persons of all classes and all temperaments are so oddly collected together, and so immediately contrasted and confronted with each other. To watch merely the different methods of getting into the vehicle, and taking their seats, adopted by different people, is to study no incomplete commentary on the infinitesimal varieties of human character—as various even as the varieties of the human face.
Thus, in addition to the idle impulse, there was the idea of amusement in my thoughts, as I stopped the public vehicle, and added one to the number of the conductor's passengers.
There were five persons in the omnibus when I entered it. Two middle-aged ladies, dressed with amazing splendour in silks and satins, wearing straw-coloured kid gloves, and carrying highly-scented pocket handkerchiefs, sat apart at the end of the vehicle; trying to look as if they occupied it under protest, and preserving the most stately gravity and silence. They evidently felt that their magnificent outward adornments were exhibited in a very unworthy locality, and among a very uncongenial company.
One side, close to the door, was occupied by a lean, withered old man, very shabbily dressed in black, who sat eternally mumbling something between his toothless jaws. Occasionally, to the evident disgust of the genteel ladies, he wiped his bald head and wrinkled forehead with a ragged blue cotton handkerchief, which he kept in the crown of his hat.
Opposite to this ancient sat a dignified gentleman and a sickly vacant-looking little girl. Every event of that day is so indelibly marked on my memory, that I remember, not only this man's pompous look and manner, but even the words he addressed to the poor squalid little creature by his side. When I entered the omnibus, he was telling her in a loud voice how she ought to dispose of her frock and her feet when people got into the vehicle, and when they got out. He then impressed on her the necessity in future life, when she grew up, of always having the price of her fare ready before it was wanted, to prevent unnecessary delay. Having delivered himself of this good advice, he began to hum, keeping time by drumming with his thick Malacca cane. He was still proceeding with this amusement—producing some of the most acutely unmusical sounds I ever heard—when the omnibus stopped to give admission to two ladies. The first who got in was an elderly person—pale and depressed—evidently in delicate health. The second was a young girl.
Among the workings of the hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain, are there any more remarkable than those mysterious moral influences constantly exercised, either for attraction or repulsion, by one human being over another? In the simplest, as in the most important affairs of life, how startling, how irresistible is their power! How often we feel and know, either pleasurably or painfully, that another is looking on us, before we have ascertained the fact with our own eyes! How often we prophesy truly to ourselves the approach of a friend or enemy, just before either have really appeared! How strangely and abruptly we become convinced, at a first introduction, that we shall secretly love this person and loathe that, before experience has guided us with a single fact in relation to their characters!
I have said that the two additional passengers who entered the vehicle in which I was riding, were, one of them, an elderly lady; the other, a young girl. As soon as the latter had seated herself nearly opposite to me, by her companion's side, I felt her influence on me directly—an influence that I cannot describe—an influence which I had never experienced in my life before, which I shall never experience again.
I had helped to hand her in, as she passed me; merely touching her arm for a moment. But how the sense of that touch was prolonged! I felt it thrilling through me—thrilling in every nerve, in every pulsation of my fast-throbbing heart.
Had I the same influence over her? Or was it I that received, and she that conferred, only? I was yet destined to discover; but not then—not for a long, long time.
Her veil was down when I first saw her. Her features and her expression were but indistinctly visible to me. I could just vaguely perceive that she was young and beautiful; but, beyond this, though I might imagine much, I could see little.
From the time when she entered the omnibus, I have no recollection of anything more that occurred in it. I neither remember what passengers got out, or what passengers got in. My powers of observation, hitherto active enough, had now wholly deserted me. Strange! that the capricious rule of chance should sway the action of our faculties that a trifle should set in motion the whole complicated machinery of their exercise, and a trifle suspend it.
We had been moving onward for some little time, when the girl's companion addressed an observation to her. She heard it imperfectly, and lifted her veil while it was being repeated. How painfully my heart beat! I could almost hear it—as her face was, for the first time, freely and fairly disclosed!
She was dark. Her hair, eyes, and complexion were darker than usual in English women. The form, the look altogether, of her face, coupled with what I could see of her figure, made me guess her age to be about twenty. There was the appearance of maturity already in the shape of her features; but their expression still remained girlish, unformed, unsettled. The fire in her large dark eyes, when she spoke, was latent. Their languor, when she was silent—that voluptuous languor of black eyes—was still fugitive and unsteady. The smile about her full lips (to other eyes, they might have looked too full) struggled to be eloquent, yet dared not. Among women, there always seems something left incomplete—a moral creation to be superinduced on the physical—which love alone can develop, and which maternity perfects still further, when developed. I thought, as I looked on her, how the passing colour would fix itself brilliantly on her round, olive cheek; how the expression that still hesitated to declare itself, would speak out at last, would shine forth in the full luxury of its beauty, when she heard the first words, received the first kiss, from the man she loved!
While I still looked at her, as she sat opposite speaking to her companion, our eyes met. It was only for a moment—but the sensation of a moment often makes the thought of a life; and that one little instant made the new life of my heart. She put down her veil again immediately; her lips moved involuntarily as she lowered it: I thought I could discern, through the lace, that the slight movement ripened to a smile.
Still there was enough left to see—enough to charm. There was the little rim of delicate white lace, encircling the lovely, dusky throat; there was the figure visible, where the shawl had fallen open, slender, but already well developed in its slenderness, and exquisitely supple; there was the waist, naturally low, and left to its natural place and natural size; there were the little millinery and jewellery ornaments that she wore—simple and common-place enough in themselves—yet each a beauty, each a treasure, on her. There was all this to behold, all this to dwell on, in spite of the veil. The veil! how little of the woman does it hide, when the man really loves her!
We had nearly arrived at the last point to which the omnibus would take us, when she and her companion got out. I followed them, cautiously and at some distance.
She was tall—tall at least for a woman. There were not many people in the road along which we were proceeding; but even if there had been, far behind as I was walking, I should never have lost her—never have mistaken any one else for her. Already, strangers though we were, I felt that I should know her, almost at any distance, only by her walk.
They went on, until we reached a suburb of new houses, intermingled with wretched patches of waste land, half built over. Unfinished streets, unfinished crescents, unfinished squares, unfinished shops, unfinished gardens, surrounded us. At last they stopped at a new square, and rang the bell at one of the newest of the new houses. The door was opened, and she and her companion disappeared. The house was partly detached. It bore no number; but was distinguished as North Villa. The square—unfinished like everything else in the neighbourhood—was called Hollyoake Square.
I noticed nothing else about the place at that time. Its newness and desolateness of appearance revolted me, just then. I had satisfied myself about the locality of the house, and I knew that it was her home; for I had approached sufficiently near, when the door was opened, to hear her inquire if anybody had called in her absence. For the present, this was enough. My sensations wanted repose; my thoughts wanted collecting. I left Hollyoake Square at once, and walked into the Regent's Park, the northern portion of which was close at hand.
Was I in love?—in love with a girl whom I had accidentally met in an omnibus? Or, was I merely indulging a momentary caprice—merely feeling a young man's hot, hasty admiration for a beautiful face? These were questions which I could not then decide. My ideas were in utter confusion, all my thoughts ran astray. I walked on, dreaming in full day—I had no distinct impressions, except of the stranger beauty whom I had just seen. The more I tried to collect myself, to resume the easy, equable feelings with which I had set forth in the morning, the less self-possessed I became. There are two emergencies in which the wisest man may try to reason himself back from impulse to principle; and try in vain:—the one when a woman has attracted him for the first time; the other, when, for the first time, also, she has happened to offend him.
I know not how long I had been walking in the park, thus absorbed yet not thinking, when the clock of a neighbouring church struck three, and roused me to the remembrance that I had engaged to ride out with my sister at two o'clock. It would be nearly half-an-hour more before I could reach home. Never had any former appointment of mine with Clara been thus forgotten! Love had not yet turned me selfish, as it turns all men, and even all women, more or less. I felt both sorrow and shame at the neglect of which I had been guilty; and hastened homeward.
The groom, looking unutterably weary and discontented, was still leading my horse up and down before the house. My sister's horse had been sent back to the stables. I went in; and heard that, after waiting for me an hour, Clara had gone out with some friends, and would not be back before dinner.
No one was in the house but the servants. The place looked dull, empty, inexpressibly miserable to me; the distant roll of carriages along the surrounding streets had a heavy boding sound; the opening and shutting of doors in the domestic offices below, startled and irritated me; the London air seemed denser to breathe than it had ever seemed before. I walked up and down one of the rooms, fretful and irresolute. Once I directed my steps towards my study; but retraced them before I had entered it. Reading or writing was out of the question at that moment.
I felt the secret inclination strengthening within me to return to Hollyoake Square; to try to see the girl again, or at least to ascertain who she was. I strove—yes, I can honestly say, strove to repress the desire. I tried to laugh it off, as idle and ridiculous; to think of my sister, of the book I was writing, of anything but the one subject that pressed stronger and stronger on me, the harder I struggled against it. The spell of the syren was over me. I went out, hypocritically persuading myself, that I was only animated by a capricious curiosity to know the girl's name, which once satisfied, would leave me at rest on the matter, and free to laugh at my own idleness and folly as soon as I got home again.
I arrived at the house. The blinds were all drawn down over the front windows, to keep out the sun. The little slip of garden was left solitary—baking and cracking in the heat. The square was silent; desolately silent, as only a suburban square can be. I walked up and down the glaring pavement, resolved to find out her name before I quitted the place. While still undecided how to act, a shrill whistling—sounding doubly shrill in the silence around—made me look up.
A tradesman's boy—one of those town Pucks of the highway; one of those incarnations of precocious cunning, inveterate mischief, and impudent humour, which great cities only can produce—was approaching me with his empty tray under his arm. I called to him to come and speak to me. He evidently belonged to the neighbourhood, and might be made of some use.
His first answer to my inquiries, showed that his master served the household at North Villa. A present of a shilling secured his attention at once to the few questions of any importance which I desired to put to him. I learned from his replies, that the name of the master of the house was "Sherwin:" and that the family only consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Sherwin, and the young lady, their daughter.
My last inquiry addressed to the boy was the most important of all. Did he know what Mr. Sherwin's profession or employment was?
His answer startled me into perfect silence. Mr. Sherwin kept a large linen-draper's shop in one of the great London thoroughfares! The boy mentioned the number, and the side of the way on which the house stood—then asked me if I wanted to know anything more. I could only tell him by a sign that he might leave me, and that I had heard enough.
Enough? If he had spoken the truth, I had heard too much.
A linen-draper's shop—a linen-draper's daughter! Was I still in love?—I thought of my father; I thought of the name I bore; and this time, though I might have answered the question, I dared not.
But the boy might be wrong. Perhaps, in mere mischief, he had been deceiving me throughout. I determined to seek the address he had mentioned, and ascertain the truth for myself.
I reached the place: there was the shop, and there the name "Sherwin" over the door. One chance still remained. This Sherwin and the Sherwin of Hollyoake Square might not be the same.
I went in and purchased something. While the man was tying up the parcel, I asked him whether his master lived in Hollyoake Square. Looking a little astonished at the question, he answered in the affirmative.
"There was a Mr. Sherwin I once knew," I said, forging in those words the first link in the long chain of deceit which was afterwards to fetter and degrade me—"a Mr. Sherwin who is now, as I have heard, living somewhere in the Hollyoake Square neighbourhood. He was a bachelor—I don't know whether my friend and your master are the same?"
"Oh dear no, Sir! My master is a married man, and has one daughter—Miss Margaret—who is reckoned a very fine young lady, Sir!" And the man grinned as he spoke—a grin that sickened and shocked me.
I was answered at last: I had discovered all. Margaret!—I had heard her name, too. Margaret!—it had never hitherto been a favourite name with me. Now I felt a sort of terror as I detected myself repeating it, and finding a new, unimagined poetry in the sound.
Could this be love?—pure, first love for a shopkeeper's daughter, whom I had seen for a quarter of an hour in an omnibus, and followed home for another quarter of an hour? The thing was impossible. And yet, I felt a strange unwillingness to go back to our house, and see my father and sister, just at that moment.
I was still walking onward slowly, but not in the direction of home, when I met an old college friend of my brother's, and an acquaintance of mine—a reckless, good-humoured, convivial fellow. He greeted me at once, with uproarious cordiality; and insisted on my accompanying him to dine at his club.
If the thoughts that still hung heavy on my mind were only the morbid, fanciful thoughts of the hour, here was a man whose society would dissipate them. I resolved to try the experiment, and accepted his invitation.
At dinner, I tried hard to rival him in jest and joviality; I drank much more than my usual quantity of wine—but it was useless. The gay words came fainting from my heart, and fell dead on my lips. The wine fevered, but did not exhilarate me. Still, the image of the dark beauty of the morning was the one reigning image of my thoughts—still, the influence of the morning, at once sinister and seductive, kept its hold on my heart.
I gave up the struggle. I longed to be alone again. My friend soon found that my forced spirits were flagging; he tried to rouse me, tried to talk for two, ordered more wine, but everything failed. Yawning at last, in undisguised despair, he suggested a visit to the theatre.
I excused myself—professed illness—hinted that the wine had been too much for me. He laughed, with something of contempt as well as good-nature in the laugh; and went away to the play by himself evidently feeling that I was still as bad a companion as he had found me at college, years ago.
As soon as we parted I felt a sense of relief. I hesitated, walked backwards and forwards a few paces in the street; and then, silencing all doubts, leaving my inclinations to guide me as they would—I turned my steps for the third time in that one day to Hollyoake Square.
The fair summer evening was tending towards twilight; the sun stood fiery and low in a cloudless horizon; the last loveliness of the last quietest daylight hour was fading on the violet sky, as I entered the square.
I approached the house. She was at the window—it was thrown wide open. A bird-cage hung rather high up, against the shutter-panel. She was standing opposite to it, making a plaything for the poor captive canary of a piece of sugar, which she rapidly offered and drew back again, now at one bar of the cage, and now at another. The bird hopped and fluttered up and down in his prison after the sugar, chirping as if he enjoyed playing his part of the game with his mistress. How lovely she looked! Her dark hair, drawn back over each cheek so as just to leave the lower part of the ear visible, was gathered up into a thick simple knot behind, without ornament of any sort. She wore a plain white dress fastening round the neck, and descending over the bosom in numberless little wavy plaits. The cage hung just high enough to oblige her to look up to it. She was laughing with all the glee of a child; darting the piece of sugar about incessantly from place to place. Every moment, her head and neck assumed some new and lovely turn—every moment her figure naturally fell into the position which showed its pliant symmetry best. The last-left glow of the evening atmosphere was shining on her—the farewell pause of daylight over the kindred daylight of beauty and youth.
I kept myself concealed behind a pillar of the garden-gate; I looked, hardly daring either to move or breathe; for I feared that if she saw or heard me, she would leave the window. After a lapse of some minutes, the canary touched the sugar with his beak.
"There, Minnie!" she cried laughingly, "you have caught the runaway sugar, and now you shall keep it!"
For a moment more, she stood quietly looking at the cage; then raising herself on tip-toe, pouted her lips caressingly to the bird, and disappeared in the interior of the room.
The sun went down; the twilight shadows fell over the dreary square; the gas lamps were lighted far and near; people who had been out for a breath of fresh air in the fields, came straggling past me by ones and twos, on their way home—and still I lingered near the house, hoping she might come to the window again; but she did not re-appear. At last, a servant brought candles into the room, and drew down the Venetian blinds. Knowing it would be useless to stay longer, I left the square.
I walked homeward joyfully. That second sight of her completed what the first meeting had begun. The impressions left by it made me insensible for the time to all boding reflections, careless of exercising the smallest self-restraint. I gave myself up to the charm that was at work on me. Prudence, duty, memories and prejudices of home, were all absorbed and forgotten in love—love that I encouraged, that I dwelt over in the first reckless luxury of a new sensation.
I entered our house, thinking of nothing but how to see her, how to speak to her, on the morrow; murmuring her name to myself; even while my hand was on the lock of my study door. The instant I was in the room, I involuntarily shuddered and stopped speechless. Clara was there! I was not merely startled; a cold, faint sensation came over me. My first look at my sister made me feel as if I had been detected in a crime.
She was standing at my writing-table, and had just finished stringing together the loose pages of my manuscript, which had hitherto laid disconnectedly in a drawer. There was a grand ball somewhere, to which she was going that night. The dress she wore was of pale blue crape (my father's favourite colour, on her). One white flower was placed in her light brown hair. She stood within the soft steady light of my lamp, looking up towards the door from the leaves she had just tied together. Her slight figure appeared slighter than usual, in the delicate material that now clothed it. Her complexion was at its palest: her face looked almost statue-like in its purity and repose. What a contrast to the other living picture which I had seen at sunset!
The remembrance of the engagement that I had broken came back on me avengingly, as she smiled, and held my manuscript up before me to look at. With that remembrance there returned, too—darker than ever—the ominous doubts which had depressed me but a few hours since. I tried to steady my voice, and felt how I failed in the effort, as I spoke to her:
"Will you forgive me, Clara, for having deprived you of your ride to-day? I am afraid I have but a bad excuse—"
"Then don't make it, Basil; or wait till papa can arrange it for you, in a proper parliamentary way, when he comes back from the House of Commons to-night. See how I have been meddling with your papers; but they were in such confusion I was really afraid some of these leaves might have been lost."
"Neither the leaves nor the writer deserve half the pains you have taken with them; but I am really sorry for breaking our engagement. I met an old college friend—there was business too, in the morning—we dined together—he would take no denial."
"Basil, how pale you look! Are you ill?"
"No; the heat has been a little too much for me—nothing more."
"Has anything happened? I only ask, because if I can be of any use—if you want me to stay at home—"
"Certainly not, love. I wish you all success and pleasure at the ball."
For a moment she did not speak; but fixed her clear, kind eyes on me more gravely and anxiously than usual. Was she searching my heart, and discovering the new love rising, an usurper already, in the place where the love of her had reigned before?
Love! love for a shopkeeper's daughter! That thought came again, as she looked at me! and, strangely mingled with it, a maxim I had often heard my father repeat to Ralph—"Never forget that your station is not yours, to do as you like with. It belongs to us, and belongs to your children. You must keep it for them, as I have kept it for you."
"I thought," resumed Clara, in rather lower tones than before, "that I would just look into your room before I went to the ball, and see that everything was properly arranged for you, in case you had any idea of writing tonight; I had just time to do this while my aunt, who is going with me, was upstairs altering her toilette. But perhaps you don't feel inclined to write?"
"I will try at least."
"Can I do anything more? Would you like my nosegay left in the room?—the flowers smell so fresh! I can easily get another. Look at the roses, my favourite white roses, that always remind me of my own garden at the dear old Park!"
"Thank you, Clara; but I think the nosegay is fitter for your hand than my table."
"Good night, Basil."
She walked to the door, then turned round, and smiled as if she were about to speak again; but checked herself, and merely looked at me for an instant. In that instant, however, the smile left her face, and the grave, anxious expression came again. She went out softly. A few minutes afterwards the roll of the carriage which took her and her companion to the ball, died away heavily on my ear. I was left alone in the house—alone for the night.
My manuscript lay before me, set in order by Clara's careful hand. I slowly turned over the leaves one by one; but my eye only fell mechanically on the writing. Yet one day since, and how much ambition, how much hope, how many of my heart's dearest sensations and my mind's highest thoughts dwelt in those poor paper leaves, in those little crabbed marks of pen and ink! Now I could look on them indifferently—almost as a stranger would have looked. The days of calm study, of steady toil of thought, seemed departed for ever. Stirring ideas; store of knowledge patiently heaped up; visions of better sights than this world can show, falling freshly and sunnily over the pages of my first book; all these were past and gone—withered up by the hot breath of the senses—doomed by a paltry fate, whose germ was the accident of an idle day!
I hastily put the manuscript aside. My unexpected interview with Clara had calmed the turbulent sensations of the evening: but the fatal influence of the dark beauty remained with me still. How could I write?
I sat down at the open window. It was at the back of the house, and looked out on a strip of garden—London garden—a close-shut dungeon for nature, where stunted trees and drooping flowers seemed visibly pining for the free air and sunlight of the country, in their sooty atmosphere, amid their prison of high brick walls. But the place gave room for the air to blow in it, and distanced the tumult of the busy streets. The moon was up, shined round tenderly by a little border-work of pale yellow light. Elsewhere, the awful void of night was starless; the dark lustre of space shone without a cloud.
A presentiment arose within me, that in this still and solitary hour would occur my decisive, my final struggle with myself. I felt that my heart's life or death was set on the hazard of the night.
This new love that was in me; this giant sensation of a day's growth, was first love. Hitherto, I had been heart-whole. I had known nothing of the passion, which is the absorbing passion of humanity. No woman had ever before stood between me and my ambitions, my occupations, my amusements. No woman had ever before inspired me with the sensations which I now felt.
In trying to realise my position, there was this one question to consider; was I still strong enough to resist the temptation which accident had thrown in my way? I had this one incentive to resistance: the conviction that, if I succumbed, as far as my family prospects were concerned, I should be a ruined man.
I knew my father's character well: I knew how far his affections and his sympathies might prevail over his prejudices—even over his principles—in some peculiar cases; and this very knowledge convinced me that the consequences of a degrading marriage contracted by his son (degrading in regard to rank), would be terrible: fatal to one, perhaps to both. Every other irregularity—every other offence even—he might sooner or later forgive. This irregularity, this offence, never—never, though his heart broke in the struggle. I was as sure of it, as I was of my own existence at that moment.
I loved her! All that I felt, all that I knew, was summed up in those few words! Deteriorating as my passion was in its effect on the exercise of my mental powers, and on my candour and sense of duty in my intercourse with home, it was a pure feeling towards her. This is truth. If I lay on my death-bed, at the present moment, and knew that, at the Judgment Day, I should be tried by the truth or falsehood of the lines just written, I could say with my last breath: So be it; let them remain.
But what mattered my love for her? However worthy of it she might be, I had misplaced it, because chance—the same chance which might have given her station and family—had placed her in a rank of life far—too far—below mine. As the daughter of a "gentleman," my father's welcome, my father's affection, would have been bestowed on her, when I took her home as my wife. As the daughter of a tradesman, my father's anger, my father's misery, my own ruin perhaps besides, would be the fatal dower that a marriage would confer on her. What made all this difference? A social prejudice. Yes: but a prejudice which had been a principle—nay, more, a religion—in our house, since my birth; and for centuries before it.
(How strange that foresight of love which precipitates the future into the present! Here was I thinking of her as my wife, before, perhaps, she had a suspicion of the passion with which she had inspired me—vexing my heart, wearying my thoughts, before I had even spoken to her, as if the perilous discovery of our marriage were already at hand! I have thought since how unnatural I should have considered this, if I had read it in a book.)
How could I best crush the desire to see her, to speak to her, on the morrow? Should I leave London, leave England, fly from the temptation, no matter where, or at what sacrifice? Or should I take refuge in my books—the calm, changeless old friends of my earliest fireside hours? Had I resolution enough to wear my heart out by hard, serious, slaving study? If I left London on the morrow, could I feel secure, in my own conscience, that I should not return the day after!
While, throughout the hours of the night, I was thus vainly striving to hold calm counsel with myself; the base thought never occurred to me, which might have occurred to some other men, in my position: Why marry the girl, because I love her? Why, with my money, my station, my opportunities, obstinately connect love and marriage as one idea; and make a dilemma and a danger where neither need exist? Had such a thought as this, in the faintest, the most shadowy form, crossed my mind, I should have shrunk from it, have shrunk from my self; with horror. Whatever fresh degradations may be yet in store for me, this one consoling and sanctifying remembrance must still be mine. My love for Margaret Sherwin was worthy to be offered to the purest and perfectest woman that ever God created.
The night advanced—the noises faintly reaching me from the streets, sank and ceased—my lamp flickered and went out—I heard the carriage return with Clara from the ball—the first cold clouds of day rose and hid the waning orb of the moon—the air was cooled with its morning freshness: the earth was purified with its morning dew—and still I sat by my open window, striving with my burning love-thoughts of Margaret; striving to think collectedly and usefully—abandoned to a struggle ever renewing, yet never changing; and always hour after hour, a struggle in vain.
At last I began to think less and less distinctly—a few moments more, and I sank into a restless, feverish slumber. Then began another, and a more perilous ordeal for me—the ordeal of dreams. Thoughts and sensations which had been more and more weakly restrained with each succeeding hour of wakefulness, now rioted within me in perfect liberation from all control.
This is what I dreamed:
I stood on a wide plain. On one side, it was bounded by thick woods, whose dark secret depths looked unfathomable to the eye: on the other, by hills, ever rising higher and higher yet, until they were lost in bright, beautifully white clouds, gleaming in refulgent sunlight. On the side above the woods, the sky was dark and vaporous. It seemed as if some thick exhalation had arisen from beneath the trees, and overspread the clear firmament throughout this portion of the scene.
As I still stood on the plain and looked around, I saw a woman coming towards me from the wood. Her stature was tall; her black hair flowed about her unconfined; her robe was of the dun hue of the vapour and mist which hung above the trees, and fell to her feet in dark thick folds. She came on towards me swiftly and softly, passing over the ground like cloud-shadows over the ripe corn-field or the calm water.
I looked to the other side, towards the hills; and there was another woman descending from their bright summits; and her robe was white, and pure, and glistening. Her face was illumined with a light, like the light of the harvest-moon; and her footsteps, as she descended the hills, left a long track of brightness, that sparkled far behind her, like the track of the stars when the winter night is clear and cold. She came to the place where the hills and the plain were joined together. Then she stopped, and I knew that she was watching me from afar off.
Meanwhile, the woman from the dark wood still approached; never pausing on her path, like the woman from the fair hills. And now I could see her face plainly. Her eyes were lustrous and fascinating, as the eyes of a serpent—large, dark and soft, as the eyes of the wild doe. Her lips were parted with a languid smile; and she drew back the long hair, which lay over her cheeks, her neck, her bosom, while I was gazing on her.
Then, I felt as if a light were shining on me from the other side. I turned to look, and there was the woman from the hills beckoning me away to ascend with her towards the bright clouds above. Her arm, as she held it forth, shone fair, even against the fair hills; and from her outstretched hand came long thin rays of trembling light, which penetrated to where I stood, cooling and calming wherever they touched me.
But the woman from the woods still came nearer and nearer, until I could feel her hot breath on my face. Her eyes looked into mine, and fascinated them, as she held out her arms to embrace me. I touched her hand, and in an instant the touch ran through me like fire, from head to foot. Then, still looking intently on me with her wild bright eyes, she clasped her supple arms round my neck, and drew me a few paces away with her towards the wood.
I felt the rays of light that had touched me from the beckoning hand, depart; and yet once more I looked towards the woman from the hills. She was ascending again towards the bright clouds, and ever and anon she stopped and turned round, wringing her hands and letting her head droop, as if in bitter grief. The last time I saw her look towards me, she was near the clouds. She covered her face with her robe, and knelt down where she stood. After this I discerned no more of her. For now the woman from the woods clasped me more closely than before, pressing her warm lips on mine; and it was as if her long hair fell round us both, spreading over my eyes like a veil, to hide from them the fair hill-tops, and the woman who was walking onward to the bright clouds above.
I was drawn along in the arms of the dark woman, with my blood burning and my breath failing me, until we entered the secret recesses that lay amid the unfathomable depths of trees. There, she encircled me in the folds of her dusky robe, and laid her cheek close to mine, and murmured a mysterious music in my ear, amid the midnight silence and darkness of all around us. And I had no thought of returning to the plain again; for I had forgotten the woman from the fair hills, and had given myself up, heart, and soul, and body, to the woman from the dark woods.
Here the dream ended, and I awoke.
It was broad daylight. The sun shone brilliantly, the sky was cloudless. I looked at my watch; it had stopped. Shortly afterwards I heard the hall clock strike six.
My dream was vividly impressed on my memory, especially the latter part of it. Was it a warning of coming events, foreshadowed in the wild visions of sleep? But to what purpose could this dream, or indeed any dream, tend? Why had it remained incomplete, failing to show me the visionary consequences of my visionary actions? What superstition to ask! What a waste of attention to bestow it on such a trifle as a dream!