After Dark – Wilkie Collins
The setting for the six stories in this book is an episode in the life of a travelling portrait-painter, which we are made to learn through the charmingly simple narrative of his wife’s diary. Disabled for a time by weakness of the eyes from working at his profession, his wife suggests that he should fill up the consequent deficit in their purse by dictating to her “after dark,” when her household work is done, some of the good stories he has gathered in the course of his wanderings. The well-known necessity for getting a “sitter” to talk of something that will interest him and make him forget that he has to look dignified, renders the portrait-painter ingenious in extracting personal anecdotes and bits of striking experience, so that he has two sources of unusual knowledge about men and their fortunes-observation of his sitters themselves, and a peculiar opportunity of learning what they have to tell about others. In the prologue to each of his stories our painter, in ‘After Dark,’ gives us something of what he has gathered from the former source; he describes one of his sitters or the persons with whom a certain commission brought him into contact, and tells us the conversation that led to his eliciting the succeeding story. These prologues are carefully and agreeably written, and have the negative charm, in these days of spasmodic writing fast rising into the importance of a positive merit-of being free from all affectation. Of the tales themselves, the main element is the excitement either of curiosity or of terror; their great merit consists either in the effective presentation of a mystery or the effective working up of striking situations. Yet the writer does not care to interest us in his personages, but only in what happens to them. Mr. Wilkie Collins seems to be without a rival in the skillful movement of a ghost or murder story, and he knows how to give the thrill of terror, without mingling that sort of offence to refined sensibilities which causes terror to pass into horror and disgust. Three admirable stories of this class are “The terribly strange Bed,” “Gabriel’s Wedding,” and “The Yellow Mask.” The author of ‘After Dark’ seeks his moving incidents in modern life, and he usually, in the end, interprets the supernatural into the natural.
Excerpt from the text:
26th February, 1827.—The doctor has just called for the third time to examine my husband’s eyes. Thank God, there is no fear at present of my poor William losing his sight, provided he can be prevailed on to attend rigidly to the medical instructions for preserving it. These instructions, which forbid him to exercise his profession for the next six months at least, are, in our case, very hard to follow. They will but too probably sentence us to poverty, perhaps to actual want; but they must be borne resignedly, and even thankfully, seeing that my husband’s forced cessation from work will save him from the dreadful affliction of loss of sight. I think I can answer for my own cheerfulness and endurance, now that we know the worst. Can I answer for our children also? Surely I can, when there are only two of them. It is a sad confession to make, but now, for the first time since my marriage, I feel thankful that we have no more.
17th.—A dread came over me last night, after I had comforted William as well as I could about the future, and had heard him fall off to sleep, that the doctor had not told us the worst. Medical men do sometimes deceive their patients, from what has always seemed to me to be misdirected kindness of heart. The mere suspicion that I had been trifled with on the subject of my husband’s illness, caused me such uneasiness, that I made an excuse to get out, and went in secret to the doctor. Fortunately, I found him at home, and in three words I confessed to him the object of my visit.
He smiled, and said I might make myself easy; he had told us the worst.
“And that worst,” I said, to make certain, “is, that for the next six months my husband must allow his eyes to have the most perfect repose?”
“Exactly,” the doctor answered. “Mind, I don’t say that he may not dispense with his green shade, indoors, for an hour or two at a time, as the inflammation gets subdued. But I do most positively repeat that he must not employ his eyes. He must not touch a brush or pencil; he must not think of taking another likeness, on any consideration whatever, for the next six months. His persisting in finishing those two portraits, at the time when his eyes first began to fail, was the real cause of all the bad symptoms that we have had to combat ever since. I warned him (if you remember, Mrs. Kerby?) when he first came to practice in our neighborhood.”
“I know you did, sir,” I replied. “But what was a poor traveling portrait-painter like my husband, who lives by taking likenesses first in one place and then in another, to do? Our bread depended on his using his eyes, at the very time when you warned him to let them have a rest.”
“Have you no other resources? No money but the money Mr. Kerby can get by portrait-painting?” asked the doctor.
“None,” I answered, with a sinking at my heart as I thought of his bill for medical attendance.
“Will you pardon me?” he said, coloring and looking a little uneasy, “or, rather, will you ascribe it to the friendly interest I feel in you, if I ask whether Mr. Kerby realizes a comfortable income by the practice of his profession? Don’t,” he went on anxiously, before I could reply—“pray don’t think I make this inquiry from a motive of impertinent curiosity!”
I felt quite satisfied that he could have no improper motive for asking the question, and so answered it at once plainly and truly.
“My husband makes but a small income,” I said. “Famous London portrait-painters get great prices from their sitters; but poor unknown artists, who only travel about the country, are obliged to work hard and be contented with very small gains. After we have paid all that we owe here, I am afraid we shall have little enough left to retire on, when we take refuge in some cheaper place.”
“In that case,” said the good doctor (I am so glad and proud to remember that I always liked him from the first!), “in that case, don’t make yourself anxious about my bill when you are thinking of clearing off your debts here. I can afford to wait till Mr. Kerby’s eyes are well again, and I shall then ask him for a likeness of my little daughter. By that arrangement we are sure to be both quits, and both perfectly satisfied.”
He considerately shook hands and bade me farewell before I could say half the grateful words to him that were on my lips. Never, never shall I forget that he relieved me of my two heaviest anxieties at the most anxious time of my life. The merciful, warm-hearted man! I could almost have knelt down and kissed his doorstep, as I crossed it on my way home.
18th.—If I had not resolved, after what happened yesterday, to look only at the cheerful side of things for the future, the events of to-day would have robbed me of all my courage, at the very outset of our troubles. First, there was the casting up of our bills, and the discovery, when the amount of them was balanced against all the money we have saved up, that we shall only have between three and four pounds left in the cash-box, after we have got out of debt. Then there was the sad necessity of writing letters in my husband’s name to the rich people who were ready to employ him, telling them of the affliction that had overtaken him, and of the impossibility of his executing their orders for portraits for the next six months to come. And, lastly, there was the heart-breaking business for me to go through of giving our landlord warning, just as we had got comfortably settled in our new abode. If William could only have gone on with his work, we might have stopped in this town, and in these clean, comfortable lodgings for at least three or four months. We have never had the use of a nice empty garret before, for the children to play in; and I never met with any landlady so pleasant to deal with in the kitchen as the landlady here. And now we must leave all this comfort and happiness, and go—I hardly know where. William, in his bitterness, says to the workhouse; but that shall never be, if I have to go out to service to prevent it. The darkness is coming on, and we must save in candles, or I could write much more. Ah, me! what a day this has been. I have had but one pleasant moment since it began; and that was in the morning, when I set my little Emily to work on a bead purse for the kind doctor’s daughter. My child, young as she is, is wonderfully neat-handed at stringing beads; and even a poor little empty purse as a token of our gratitude, is better than nothing at all.
19th.—A visit from our best friend—our only friend here—the doctor. After he had examined William’s eyes, and had reported that they were getting on as well as can be hoped at present, he asked where we thought of going to live? I said in the cheapest place we could find, and added that I was about to make inquiries in the by-streets of the town that very day. “Put off those inquiries,” he said, “till you hear from me again. I am going now to see a patient at a farmhouse five miles off. (You needn’t look at the children, Mrs. Kerby, it’s nothing infectious—only a clumsy lad, who has broken his collarbone by a fall from a horse.) They receive lodgers occasionally at the farmhouse, and I know no reason why they should not be willing to receive you. If you want to be well housed and well fed at a cheap rate, and if you like the society of honest, hearty people, the farm of Appletreewick is the very place for you. Don’t thank me till you know whether I can get you these new lodgings or not. And in the meantime settle all your business affairs here, so as to be able to move at a moment’s notice.” With those words the kind-hearted gentleman nodded and went out. Pray heaven he may succeed at the farmhouse! We may be sure of the children’s health, at least, if we live in the country. Talking of the children, I must not omit to record that Emily has nearly done one end of the bead purse already.
20th.—A note from the doctor, who is too busy to call. Such good news! They will give us two bedrooms, and board us with the family at Appletreewick for seventeen shillings a week. By my calculations, we shall have three pounds sixteen shillings left, after paying what we owe here. That will be enough, at the outset, for four weeks’ living at the farmhouse, with eight shillings to spare besides. By embroidery-work I can easily make nine shillings more to put to that, and there is a fifth week provided for. Surely, in five weeks’ time—considering the number of things I can turn my hand to—we may hit on some plan for getting a little money. This is what I am always telling my husband, and what, by dint of constantly repeating it, I am getting to believe myself. William, as is but natural, poor fellow, does not take so lighthearted view of the future as I do. He says that the prospect of sitting idle and being kept by his wife for months to come, is something more wretched and hopeless than words can describe. I try to raise his spirits by reminding him of his years of honest hard work for me and the children, and of the doctor’s assurance that his eyes will get the better, in good time, of their present helpless state. But he still sighs and murmurs—being one of the most independent and high spirited of men—about living a burden on his wife. I can only answer, what in my heart of hearts I feel, that I took him for Better and for Worse; that I have had many years of the Better, and that, even in our present trouble, the Worse shows no signs of coming yet!
The bead purse is getting on fast. Red and blue, in a pretty striped pattern.
21st.—A busy day. We go to Appletreewick to-morrow. Paying bills and packing up. All poor William’s new canvases and painting-things huddled together into a packing-case. He looked so sad, sitting silent with his green shade on, while his old familiar working materials were disappearing around him, as if he and they were never to come together again, that the tears would start into my eyes, though I am sure I am not one of the crying sort. Luckily, the green shade kept him from seeing me: and I took good care, though the effort nearly choked me, that he should not hear I was crying, at any rate.
The bead purse is done. How are we to get the steel rings and tassels for it? I am not justified now in spending sixpence unnecessarily, even for the best of purposes.
23d. The Farm of Appletreewick.—Too tired, after our move yesterday, to write a word in my diary about our journey to this delightful place. But now that we are beginning to get settled, I can manage to make up for past omissions.
My first occupation on the morning of the move had, oddly enough, nothing to do with our departure for the farmhouse. The moment breakfast was over I began the day by making Emily as smart and nice-looking as I could, to go to the doctor’s with the purse. She had her best silk frock on, showing the mending a little in some places, I am afraid, and her straw hat trimmed with my bonnet ribbon. Her father’s neck-scarf, turned and joined so that nobody could see it, made a nice mantilla for her; and away she went to the doctor’s, with her little, determined step, and the purse in her hand (such a pretty hand that it is hardly to be regretted I had no gloves for her). They were delighted with the purse—which I ought to mention was finished with some white beads; we found them in rummaging among our boxes, and they made beautiful rings and tassels, contrasting charmingly with the blue and red of the rest of the purse. The doctor and his little girl were, as I have said, delighted with the present; and they gave Emily, in return, a workbox for herself, and a box of sugar-plums for her baby sister. The child came back all flushed with the pleasure of the visit, and quite helped to keep up her father’s spirits with talking to him about it. So much for the highly interesting history of the bead purse.
Toward the afternoon the light cart from the farmhouse came to fetch us and our things to Appletreewick. It was quite a warm spring day, and I had another pang to bear as I saw poor William helped into the cart, looking so sickly and sad, with his miserable green shade, in the cheerful sunlight. “God only knows, Leah, how this will succeed with us,” he said, as we started; then sighed, and fell silent again.