Some weeks passed away; Margaret and
I resumed our usual employments and amusements; the
life at North Villa ran on as smoothly and obscurely
as usual and still I remained ignorant
of Mr. Mannion’s history and Mr. Mannion’s
character. He came frequently to the house, in
the evening; but was generally closeted with Mr. Sherwin,
and seldom accepted his employer’s constant
invitation to him to join the party in the drawing-room.
At those rare intervals when we did see him, his appearance
and behaviour were exactly the same as on the night
when I had met him for the first time; he spoke just
as seldom, and resisted just as resolutely and respectfully
the many attempts made on my part to lead him into
conversation and familiarity. If he had really
been trying to excite my interest, he could not have
succeeded more effectually. I felt towards him
much as a man feels in a labyrinth, when every fresh
failure in gaining the centre, only produces fresh
obstinacy in renewing the effort to arrive at it.
From Margaret I gained no sympathy
for my newly-aroused curiosity. She appeared,
much to my surprise, to care little about Mr. Mannion;
and always changed the conversation, if it related
to him, whenever it depended upon her to continue
the topic or not.
Mrs. Sherwin’s conduct was far
from resembling her daughter’s, when I spoke
to her on the same subject. She always listened
intently to what I said; but her answers were invariably
brief, confused, and sometimes absolutely incomprehensible.
It was only after great difficulty that I induced
her to confess her dislike of Mr. Mannion. Whence
it proceeded she could never tell. Did she suspect
anything? In answering this question, she always
stammered, trembled, and looked away from me.
“How could she suspect anything? If she
did suspect, it would be very wrong without good reason:
but she ought not to suspect, and did not, of course.”
I never obtained any replies from
her more intelligible than these. Attributing
their confusion to the nervous agitation which more
or less affected her when she spoke on any subject,
I soon ceased making any efforts to induce her to
explain herself; and determined to search for the
clue to Mr. Mannion’s character, without seeking
assistance from any one.
Accident at length gave me an opportunity
of knowing something of his habits and opinions; and
so far, therefore, of knowing something about the
One night, I met him in the hall at
North Villa, about to leave the house at the same
time that I was, after a business-consultation in
private with Mr. Sherwin. We went out together.
The sky was unusually black; the night atmosphere
unusually oppressive and still. The roll of distant
thunder sounded faint and dreary all about us.
The sheet lightning, flashing quick and low in the
horizon, made the dark firmament look like a thick
veil, rising and falling incessantly, over a heaven
of dazzling light behind it. Such few foot-passengers
as passed us, passed running for heavy,
warning drops were falling already from the sky.
We quickened our pace; but before we had walked more
than two hundred yards, the rain came down, furious
and drenching; and the thunder began to peal fearfully,
right over our heads.
“My house is close by,”
said my companion, just as quietly and deliberately
as usual “pray step in, Sir, until
the storm is over.”
I followed him down a bye street;
he opened a door with his own key; and the next instant
I was sheltered under Mr. Mannion’s roof.
He led me at once into a room on the
ground floor. The fire was blazing in the grate;
an arm-chair, with a reading easel attached, was placed
by it; the lamp was ready lit; the tea-things were
placed on the table; the dark, thick curtains were
drawn close over the window; and, as if to complete
the picture of comfort before me, a large black cat
lay on the rug, basking luxuriously in the heat of
the fire. While Mr. Mannion went out to give
some directions, as he said, to his servant, I had
an opportunity of examining the apartment more in detail.
To study the appearance of a man’s dwelling-room,
is very often nearly equivalent to studying his own
The personal contrast between Mr.
Sherwin and his clerk was remarkable enough, but the
contrast between the dimensions and furnishing of the
rooms they lived in, was to the full as extraordinary.
The apartment I now surveyed was less than half the
size of the sitting-room at North Villa. The
paper on the walls was of a dark red; the curtains
were of the same colour; the carpet was brown, and
if it bore any pattern, that pattern was too quiet
and unpretending to be visible by candlelight.
One wall was entirely occupied by rows of dark mahogany
shelves, completely filled with books, most of them
cheap editions of the classical works of ancient and
modern literature. The opposite wall was thickly
hung with engravings in maple-wood frames from the
works of modern painters, English and French.
All the minor articles of furniture were of the plainest
and neatest order even the white china tea-pot
and tea-cup on the table, had neither pattern nor
colouring of any kind. What a contrast was this
room to the drawing-room at North Villa!
On his return, Mr. Mannion found me
looking at his tea-equipage. “I am afraid,
Sir, I must confess myself an epicure and a prodigal
in two things,” he said; “an epicure in
tea, and a prodigal (at least for a person in my situation)
in books. However, I receive a liberal salary,
and can satisfy my tastes, such as they are, and save
money too. What can I offer you, Sir?”
Seeing the preparations on the table,
I asked for tea. While he was speaking to me,
there was one peculiarity about him that I observed.
Almost all men, when they stand on their own hearths,
in their own homes, instinctively alter more or less
from their out-of-door manner: the stiffest people
expand, the coldest thaw a little, by their own firesides.
It was not so with Mr. Mannion. He was exactly
the same man at his own house that he was at Mr. Sherwin’s.
There was no need for him to have
told me that he was an epicure in tea; the manner
in which he made it would have betrayed that to anybody.
He put in nearly treble the quantity which would generally
be considered sufficient for two persons; and almost
immediately after he had filled the tea-pot with boiling
water, began to pour from it into the cups thus
preserving all the aroma and delicacy of flavour in
the herb, without the alloy of any of the coarser
part of its strength. When we had finished our
first cups, there was no pouring of dregs into a basin,
or of fresh water on the leaves. A middle-aged
female servant, neat and quiet, came up and took away
the tray, bringing it to us again with the tea-pot
and tea-cups clean and empty, to receive a fresh infusion
from fresh leaves. These were trifles to notice;
but I thought of other tradesmen’s clerks who
were drinking their gin-and-water jovially, at home
or at a tavern, and found Mr. Mannion a more exasperating
mystery to me than ever.
The conversation between us turned
at first on trivial subjects, and was but ill sustained
on my part there were peculiarities in my
present position which made me thoughtful. Once,
our talk ceased altogether; and, just at that moment,
the storm began to rise to its height. Hail mingled
with the rain, and rattled heavily against the window.
The thunder, bursting louder and louder with each
successive peal, seemed to shake the house to its
foundations. As I listened to the fearful crashing
and roaring that seemed to fill the whole measureless
void of upper air, and then looked round on the calm,
dead-calm face of the man beside me without
one human emotion of any kind even faintly pictured
on it I felt strange, unutterable sensations
creeping over me; our silence grew oppressive and
sinister; I began to wish, I hardly knew why, for
some third person in the room for somebody
else to look at and to speak to.
He was the first to resume the conversation.
I should have imagined it impossible for any man,
in the midst of such thunder as now raged above our
heads, to think or talk of anything but the storm.
And yet, when he spoke, it was merely on a subject
connected with his introduction to me at North Villa.
His attention seemed as far from being attracted or
impressed by the mighty elemental tumult without, as
if the tranquillity of the night were uninvaded by
the slightest murmur of sound.
“May I inquire, Sir,”
he began, “whether I am right in apprehending
that my conduct towards you, since we first met at
Mr. Sherwin’s house, may have appeared strange,
and even discourteous, in your eyes?”
“In what respect, Mr. Mannion?”
I asked, a little startled by the abruptness of the
“I am perfectly sensible, Sir,
that you have kindly set me the example, on many occasions,
in trying to better our acquaintance. When such
advances are made by one in your station to one in
mine, they ought to be immediately and gratefully
Why did he pause? Was he about
to tell me he had discovered that my advances sprang
from curiosity to know more about him than he was
willing to reveal? I waited for him to proceed.
“I have only failed,”
he continued, “in the courtesy and gratitude
you had a right to expect from me, because, knowing
how you were situated with Mr. Sherwin’s daughter,
I thought any intrusion on my part, while you were
with the young lady, might not be so acceptable as
you, Sir, in your kindness, were willing to lead me
“Let me assure you,” I
answered; relieved to find myself unsuspected, and
really impressed by his delicacy “let
me assure you that I fully appreciate the consideration
you have shown ”
Just as the last words passed my lips,
the thunder pealed awfully over the house. I
said no more: the sound silenced me.
“As my explanation has satisfied
you, Sir,” he went on; his clear and deliberate
utterance rising discordantly audible above the long,
retiring roll of the last burst of thunder “may
I feel justified in speaking on the subject of your
present position in my employer’s house, with
some freedom? I mean, if I may say so without
offence, with the freedom of a friend.”
I begged he would use all the freedom
he wished; feeling really desirous that he should
do so, apart from any purpose of leading him to talk
unreservedly on the chance of hearing him talk of himself.
The profound respect of manner and phrase which he
had hitherto testified observed by a man
of his age, to a man of mine made me feel
ill at ease. He was most probably my equal in
acquirements: he had the manners and tastes of
a gentleman, and might have the birth too, for aught
I knew to the contrary. The difference between
us was only in our worldly positions. I had not
enough of my father’s pride of caste to think
that this difference alone, made it right that a man
whose years nearly doubled mine, whose knowledge perhaps
surpassed mine, should speak to me as Mr. Mannion
had spoken up to this time.
“I may tell you then,”
he resumed, “that while I am anxious to commit
no untimely intrusion on your hours at North Villa,
I am at the same time desirous of being something
more than merely inoffensive towards you. I should
wish to be positively useful, as far as I can.
In my opinion Mr. Sherwin has held you to rather a
hard engagement he is trying your discretion
a little too severely I think, at your years and in
your situation. Feeling thus, it is my sincere
wish to render what connection and influence I have
with the family, useful in making the probation you
have still to pass through, as easy as possible.
I have more means of doing this, Sir, than you might
at first imagine.”
His offer took me a little by surprise.
I felt with a sort of shame, that candour and warmth
of feeling were what I had not expected from him.
My attention insensibly wandered away from the storm,
to attach itself more and more closely to him, as
he went on:
“I am perfectly sensible,”
he resumed, “that such a proposition as I now
make to you, proceeding from one little better than
a stranger, may cause surprise and even suspicion,
at first. I can only explain it, by asking you
to remember that I have known the young lady since
childhood; and that, having assisted in forming her
mind and developing her character, I feel towards
her almost as a second father, and am therefore naturally
interested in the gentleman who has chosen her for
Was there a tremor at last in that
changeless voice, as he spoke? I thought so;
and looked anxiously to catch the answering gleam of
expression, which might now, for the first time, be
softening his iron features, animating the blank stillness
of his countenance. If any such expression had
been visible, I was too late to detect it. Just
as I looked at him he stooped down to poke the fire.
When he turned towards me again, his face was the
same impenetrable face, his eye the same hard, steady,
inexpressive eye as before.
“Besides,” he continued,
“a man must have some object in life for his
sympathies to be employed on. I have neither wife
nor child; and no near relations to think of I
have nothing but my routine of business in the day,
and my books here by my lonely fireside, at night.
Our life is not much; but it was made for a little
more than this. My former pupil at North Villa
is my pupil no longer. I can’t help feeling
that it would be an object in existence for me to
occupy myself with her happiness and yours; to have
two young people, in the heyday of youth and first
love, looking towards me occasionally for the promotion
of some of their pleasures no matter how
trifling. All this will seem odd and incomprehensible
to you. If you were of my age, Sir, and in my
position, you would understand it.”
Was it possible that he could speak
thus, without his voice faltering, or his eye softening
in the slightest degree? Yes: I looked at
him and listened to him intently; but here was not
the faintest change in his face or his tones there
was nothing to show outwardly whether he felt what
he said, or whether he did not. His words had
painted such a picture of forlornness on my mind,
that I had mechanically half raised my hand to take
his, while he was addressing me; but the sight of him
when he ceased, checked the impulse almost as soon
as it was formed. He did not appear to have noticed
either my involuntary gesture, or its immediate repression;
and went on speaking.
“I have said perhaps more than
I ought,” he resumed. “If I have not
succeeded in making you understand my explanation as
I could wish, we will change the subject, and not
return to it again, until you have known me for a
much longer time.”
“On no account change the subject,
Mr. Mannion,” I said; unwilling to let it be
implied that I would not put trust in him. “I
am deeply sensible of the kindness of your offer,
and the interest you take in Margaret and me.
We shall both, I am sure, accept your good offices ”
I stopped. The storm had decreased
a little in violence: but my attention was now
struck by the wind, which had risen as the thunder
and rain had partially lulled. How drearily it
was moaning down the street! It seemed, at that
moment, to be wailing over me; to be wailing
over him; to be wailing over all mortal things!
The strange sensations I then felt, moved me to listen
in silence; but I checked them, and spoke again.
“If I have not answered you
as I should,” I continued, “you must attribute
it partly to the storm, which I confess rather discomposes
my ideas; and partly to a little surprise a
very foolish surprise, I own that you should
still be able to feel so strong a sympathy with interests
which are generally only considered of importance to
“It is only in their sympathies,
that men of my years can, and do, live their youth
over again,” he said. “You may be
surprised to hear a tradesman’s clerk talk in
this manner; but I was not always what I am now.
I have gathered knowledge, and suffered in the gathering.
I have grown old before my time my forty
years are like the fifty of other men ”
My heart beat quicker was
he, unasked, about to disclose the mystery which evidently
hung over his early life? No: he dropped
the subject at once, when he continued. I longed
to ask him to resume it, but could not. I feared
the same repulse which Mr. Sherwin had received:
and remained silent.
“What I was,” he proceeded,
“matters little; the question is what can I
do for you? Any aid I can give, may be poor enough;
but it may be of some use notwithstanding. For
instance, the other day, if I mistake not, you were
a little hurt at Mr. Sherwin’s taking his daughter
to a party to which the family had been invited.
This was very natural. You could not be there
to watch over her in your real character, without
disclosing a secret which must be kept safe; and you
could not know what young men she might meet, who
would imagine her to be Miss Sherwin still, and would
regulate their conduct accordingly. Now, I think
I might be of use here. I have some influence perhaps
in strict truth I ought to say great influence with
my employer; and, if you wished it, I would use that
influence to back yours, in inducing him to forego,
for the future, any intention of taking his daughter
into society, except when you desire it. Again:
I think I am not wrong in assuming that you infinitely
prefer the company of Mrs. Sherwin to that of Mr. Sherwin,
during your interviews with the young lady?”
How he had found that out? At
any rate, he was right; and I told him so candidly.
“The preference is on many accounts
a very natural one,” he said; “but if
you suffered it to appear to Mr. Sherwin, it might,
for obvious reasons, produce a most unfavourable effect.
I might interfere in the matter, however, without
suspicion; I should have many opportunities of keeping
him away from the room, in the evening, which I could
use if you wished it. And more than that, if
you wanted longer and more frequent communication
with North Villa than you now enjoy, I might be able
to effect this also. I do not mention what I
could do in these, and in other matters, in any disparagement,
Sir, of the influence which you have with Mr. Sherwin,
in your own right; but because I know that in what
concerns your intercourse with his daughter, my employer
has asked, and will ask my advice, from
the habit of doing so in other things. I have
hitherto declined giving him this advice in your affairs;
but I will give it, and in your favour and the young
lady’s, if you and she choose.”
I thanked him but not in
such warm terms as I should have employed, if I had
seen even the faintest smile on his face, or had heard
any change in his steady, deliberate tones, as he
spoke. While his words attracted, his immovable
looks repelled me, in spite of myself.
“I must again beg you” he
proceeded “to remember what I have
already said, in your estimate of the motives of my
offer. If I still appear to be interfering officiously
in your affairs, you have only to think that I have
presumed impertinently on the freedom you have allowed
me, and to treat me no longer on the terms of to-night.
I shall not complain of your conduct, and shall try
hard not to consider you unjust to me, if you do.”
Such an appeal as this was not to
be resisted: I answered him at once and unreservedly.
What right had I to draw bad inferences from a man’s
face, voice, and manner, merely because they impressed
me, as out of the common? Did I know how much
share the influence of natural infirmity, or the outward
traces of unknown sorrow and suffering, might have
had in producing the external peculiarities which
had struck me? He would have every right to upbraid
me as unjust and that in the strongest
terms unless I spoke out fairly in reply.
“I am quite incapable, Mr. Mannion,”
I said, “of viewing your offer with any other
than grateful feelings. You will find I shall
prove this by employing your good offices for Margaret
and myself in perfect faith, and sooner perhaps than
you may imagine.”
He bowed and said a few cordial words,
which I heard but imperfectly for, as I
addressed him, a blast of wind fiercer than usual,
rushed down the street, shaking the window shutter
violently as it passed, and dying away in a low, melancholy,
dirging swell, like a spirit-cry of lamentation and
When he spoke again, after a momentary
silence, it was to make some change in the conversation.
He talked of Margaret dwelling in terms
of high praise rather on her moral than on her personal
qualities. He spoke of Mr. Sherwin, referring
to solid and attractive points in his character which
I had not detected. What he said of Mrs. Sherwin
appeared to be equally dictated by compassion and respect he
even hinted at her coolness towards himself, considerately
attributing it to the involuntary caprice of settled
nervousness and ill-health. His language, in
touching on these subjects, was just as unaffected,
just as devoid of any peculiarities, as I had hitherto
found it when occupied by other topics.
It was growing late. The thunder
still rumbled at long intervals, with a dull, distant
sound; and the wind showed no symptoms of subsiding.
But the pattering of the rain against the window ceased
to be audible. There was little excuse for staying
longer; and I wished to find none. I had acquired
quite knowledge enough of Mr. Mannion to assure me,
that any attempt on my part at extracting from him,
in spite of his reserve, the secrets which might be
connected with his early life, would prove perfectly
fruitless. If I must judge him at all, I must
judge him by the experience of the present, and not
by the history of the past. I had heard good,
and good only, of him from the shrewd master who knew
him best, and had tried him longest. He had shown
the greatest delicacy towards my feelings, and the
strongest desire to do me service it would
be a mean return for those acts of courtesy, to let
curiosity tempt me to pry into his private affairs.
I rose to go. He made no effort
to detain me; but, after unbarring the shutter and
looking out of the window, simply remarked that the
rain had almost entirely ceased, and that my umbrella
would be quite sufficient protection against all that
remained. He followed me into the passage to
light me out. As I turned round upon his door-step
to thank him for his hospitality, and to bid him good
night, the thought came across me, that my manner
must have appeared cold and repelling to him especially
when he was offering his services to my acceptance.
If I had really produced this impression, he was my
inferior in station, and it would be cruel to leave
it. I tried to set myself right at parting.
“Let me assure you again,”
I said, “that it will not be my fault if Margaret
and I do not thankfully employ your good offices, as
the good offices of a well-wisher and a friend.”
The lightning was still in the sky,
though it only appeared at long intervals. Strangely
enough, at the moment when I addressed him, a flash
came, and seemed to pass right over his face.
It gave such a hideously livid hue, such a spectral
look of ghastliness and distortion to his features,
that he absolutely seemed to be glaring and grinning
on me like a fiend, in the one instant of its duration.
For the moment, it required all my knowledge of the
settled calmness of his countenance, to convince me
that my eyes must have been only dazzled by an optical
illusion produced by the lightning.
When the darkness had come again,
I bade him good night first mechanically
repeating what I had just said, almost in the same
I walked home thoughtful. That
night had given me much matter to think of.