The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Mr. Hethcote looked at the address on the letter with an expression of surprise, which did not escape the notice of Amelius. “Do you know Mr. Farnaby?” he asked.

“I have some acquaintance with him,” was the answer, given with a certain appearance of constraint.

Amelius went on eagerly with his questions. “What sort of man is he? Do you think he will be prejudiced against me, because I have been brought up in Tadmor?”

“I must be a little better acquainted, Amelius, with you and Tadmor before I can answer your question. Suppose you tell me how you became one of the Socialists, to begin with?”

“I was only a little boy, Mr. Hethcote, at that time.”

“Very good. Even little boys have memories. Is there any objection to your telling me what you can remember?”

Amelius answered rather sadly, with his eyes bent on the deck. “I remember something happening which threw a gloom over us at home in England. I heard that my mother was concerned in it. When I grew older, I never presumed to ask my father what it was; and he never offered to tell me. I only know this: that he forgave her some wrong she had done him, and let her go on living at home — and that relations and friends all blamed him, and fell away from him, from that time. Not long afterwards, while I was at school, my mother died. I was sent for, to follow her funeral with my father. When we got back, and were alone together, he took me on his knee and kissed me. ‘Which will you do, Amelius,’ he said; ‘stay in England with your uncle and aunt? or come with me all the way to America, and never go back to England again? Take time to think of it.’ I wanted no time to think of it; I said, ‘Go with you, papa.’ He frightened me by bursting out crying; it was the first time I had ever seen him in tears. I can understand it now. He had been cut to the heart, and had borne it like a martyr; and his boy was his one friend left. Well, by the end of the week we were on board the ship; and there we met a benevolent gentleman, with a long gray beard, who bade my father welcome, and presented me with a cake. In my ignorance, I thought he was the captain. Nothing of the sort. He was the first Socialist I had ever seen; and it was he who had persuaded my father to leave England.”

Mr. Hethcote’s opinions of Socialists began to show themselves (a little sourly) in Mr. Hethcote’s smile. “And how did you get on with this benevolent gentleman?” he asked. “After converting your father, did he convert you — with the cake?”

Amelius smiled. “Do him justice, sir; he didn’t trust to the cake. He waited till we were in sight of the American land — and then he preached me a little sermon, on our arrival, entirely for my own use.”

“A sermon?” Mr. Hethcote repeated. “Very little religion in it, I suspect.”

“Very little indeed, sir,” Amelius answered. “Only as much religion as there is in the New Testament. I was not quite old enough to understand him easily — so he wrote down his discourse on the fly-leaf of a story-book I had with me, and gave it to me to read when I was tired of the stories. Stories were scarce with me in those days; and, when I had exhausted my little stock, rather than read nothing I read my sermon — read it so often that I think I can remember every word of it now. ‘My dear little boy, the Christian religion, as Christ taught it, has long ceased to be the religion of the Christian world. A selfish and cruel Pretence is set up in its place. Your own father is one example of the truth of this saying of mine. He has fulfilled the first and foremost duty of a true Christian — the duty of forgiving an injury. For this, he stands disgraced in the estimation of all his friends: they have renounced and abandoned him. He forgives them, and seeks peace and good company in the New World, among Christians like himself. You will not repent leaving home with him; you will be one of a loving family, and, when you are old enough, you will be free to decide for yourself what your future life shall be.’ That was all I knew about the Socialists, when we reached Tadmor after our long journey.”

Mr. Hethcote’s prejudices made their appearance again. “A barren sort of place,” he said, “judging by the name.”

“Barren? What can you be thinking of? A prettier place I never saw, and never expect to see again. A clear winding river, running into a little blue lake. A broad hill-side, all laid out in flower-gardens, and shaded by splendid trees. On the top of the hill, the buildings of the Community, some of brick and some of wood, so covered with creepers and so encircled with verandahs that I can’t tell you to this day what style of architecture they were built in. More trees behind the houses — and, on the other side of the hill, cornfields, nothing but cornfields rolling away and away in great yellow plains, till they reached the golden sky and the setting sun, and were seen no more. That was our first view of Tadmor, when the stage-coach dropped us at the town.”

Mr. Hethcote still held out. “And what about the people who live in this earthly Paradise?” he asked. “Male and female saints — eh?”

“Oh dear no, sir! The very opposite of saints. They eat and drink like their neighbours. They never think of wearing dirty horsehair when they can get clean linen. And when they are tempted to misconduct themselves, they find a better way out of it than knotting a cord and thrashing their own backs. Saints! They all ran out together to bid us welcome like a lot of school-children; the first thing they did was to kiss us, and the next thing was to give us a mug of wine of their own making. Saints! Oh, Mr. Hethcote, what will you accuse us of being next? I declare your suspicions of the poor Socialists keep cropping up again as fast as I cut them down. May I make a guess, sir, without offending you? From one or two things I have noticed, I strongly suspect you’re a British clergyman.”

Mr. Hethcote was conquered at last: he burst out laughing. “You have discovered me,” he said, “travelling in a coloured cravat and a shooting jacket! I confess I should like to know how.”

“It’s easily explained, sir. Visitors of all sorts are welcome at Tadmor. We have a large experience of them in the travelling season. They all come with their own private suspicion of us lurking about the corners of their eyes. They see everything we have to show them, and eat and drink at our table, and join in our amusements, and get as pleasant and friendly with us as can be. The time comes to say goodbye — and then we find them out. If a guest who has been laughing and enjoying himself all day, suddenly becomes serious when he takes his leave, and shows that little lurking devil of suspicion again about the corners of his eyes — it’s ten chances to one that he’s a clergyman. No offence, Mr. Hethcote! I acknowledge with pleasure that the corners of your eyes are clear again. You’re not a very clerical clergyman, sir, after all — I don’t despair of converting you, yet!”

“Go on with your story, Amelius. You’re the queerest fellow I have met with, for many a long day past.”

“I’m a little doubtful about going on with my story, sir. I have told you how I got to Tadmor, and what it looks like, and what sort of people live in the place. If I am to get on beyond that, I must jump to the time when I was old enough to learn the Rules of the Community.”

“Well — and what then?”

“Well, Mr. Hethcote, some of the Rules might offend you.”

“Try!”

“All right, sir! don’t blame me; I’m not ashamed of the Rules. And now, if I am to speak, I must speak seriously on a serious subject; I must begin with our religious principles. We find our Christianity in the spirit of the New Testament — not in the letter. We have three good reasons for objecting to pin our faith on the words alone, in that book. First, because we are not sure that the English translation is always to be depended on as accurate and honest. Secondly, because we know that (since the invention of printing) there is not a copy of the book in existence which is free from errors of the press, and that (before the invention of printing) those errors, in manuscript copies, must as a matter of course have been far more serious and far more numerous. Thirdly, because there is plain internal evidence (to say nothing of discoveries actually made in the present day) of interpolations and corruptions, introduced into the manuscript copies as they succeeded each other in ancient times. These drawbacks are of no importance, however, in our estimation. We find, in the spirit of the book, the most simple and most perfect system of religion and morality that humanity has ever received — and with that we are content. To reverence God; and to love our neighbour as ourselves: if we had only those two commandments to guide us, we should have enough. The whole collection of Doctrines (as they are called) we reject at once, without even stopping to discuss them. We apply to them the test suggested by Christ himself: by their fruits ye shall know them. The fruits of Doctrines, in the past (to quote three instances only), have been the Spanish Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the Thirty Years’ War — and the fruits, in the present, are dissension, bigotry, and opposition to useful reforms. Away with Doctrines! In the interests of Christianity, away with them! We are to love our enemies; we are to forgive injuries; we are to help the needy; we are to be pitiful and courteous, slow to judge others, and ashamed to exalt ourselves. That teaching doesn’t lead to tortures, massacres, and wars; to envy, hatred, and malice — and for that reason it stands revealed to us as the teaching that we can trust. There is our religion, sir, as we find it in the Rules of the Community.”

“Very well, Amelius. I notice, in passing, that the Community is in one respect like the Pope — the Community is infallible. We won’t dwell on that. You have stated your principles. As to the application of them next? Nobody has a right to be rich among you, of course?”

“Put it the other way, Mr. Hethcote. All men have a right to be rich — provided they don’t make other people poor, as a part of the process. We don’t trouble ourselves much about money; that’s the truth. We are farmers, carpenters, weavers, and printers; and what we earn (ask our neighbours if we don’t earn it honestly) goes into the common fund. A man who comes to us with money puts it into the fund, and so makes things easy for the next man who comes with empty pockets. While they are with us, they all live in the same comfort, and have their equal share in the same profits — deducting the sum in reverse for sudden calls and bad times. If they leave us, the man who has brought money with him has his undisputed right to take it away again; and the man who has brought none bids us good-bye, all the richer for his equal share in the profits which he has personally earned. The only fuss at our place about money that I can remember was the fuss about my five hundred a year. I wanted to hand it over to the fund. It was my own, mind — inherited from my mother’s property, on my coming of age. The Elders wouldn’t hear of it: the Council wouldn’t hear of it: the general vote of the Community wouldn’t hear of it. ‘We agreed with his father that he should decide for himself, when he grew to manhood’— that was how they put it. ‘Let him go back to the Old World; and let him be free to choose, by the test of his own experience, what his future life shall be.’ How do you think it will end, Mr. Hethcote? Shall I return to the Community? Or shall I stop in London?”

Mr. Hethcote answered, without a moment’s hesitation. “You will stop in London.”

“I’ll bet you two to one, Sir, he goes back to the Community.”

In those words, a third voice (speaking in a strong New England accent) insinuated itself into the conversation from behind. Amelius and Mr. Hethcote, looking round, discovered a long, lean, grave stranger — with his face overshadowed by a huge felt hat. “Have you been listening to our conversation?” Mr. Hethcote asked haughtily.

“I have been listening,” answered the grave stranger, “with considerable interest. This young man, I find, opens a new chapter to me in the book of humanity. Do you accept my bet, Sir? My name is Rufus Dingwell; and my home is at Coolspring, Mass. You do not bet? I express my regret, and have the pleasure of taking a seat alongside of you. What is your name, Sir? Hethcote? We have one of that name at Coolspring. He is much respected. Mr. Claude A. Goldenheart, you are no stranger to me — no, Sir. I procured your name from the steward, when the little difficulty occurred just now about the bird. Your name considerably surprised me.”

“Why?” Amelius asked.

“Well, sir — not to say that your surname (being Goldenheart) reminds one unexpectedly of The Pilgrim’s Progress— I happen to be already acquainted with you. By reputation.”

Amelius looked puzzled. “By reputation?” he said. “What does that mean?”

“It means, sir, that you occupy a prominent position in a recent number of our popular journal, entitled The Coolspring Democrat. The late romantic incident which caused the withdrawal of Miss Mellicent from your Community has produced a species of social commotion at Coolspring. Among our ladies, the tone of sentiment, Sir, is universally favourable to you. When I left, I do assure you, you were a popular character among us. The name of Claude A. Goldenheart was, so to speak, in everybody’s mouth.”

Amelius listened to this, with the colour suddenly deepening on his face, and with every appearance of heartfelt annoyance and regret. “There is no such thing as keeping a secret in America,” he said, irritably. “Some spy must have got among us; none of our people would have exposed the poor lady to public comment. How would you like it, Mr. Dingwell, if the newspaper published the private sorrows of your wife or your daughter?”

Rufus Dingwell answered with the straightforward sincerity of feeling which is one of the indisputable virtues of his nation. “I had not thought of it in that light, sir,” he said. “You have been good enough to credit me with a wife or a daughter. I do not possess either of those ladies; but your argument hits me, notwithstanding — hits me hard, I tell you.” He looked at Mr. Hethcote, who sat silently and stiffly disapproving of all this familiarity, and applied himself in perfect innocence and good faith to making things pleasant in that quarter. “You are a stranger, Sir,” said Rufus; “and you will doubtless wish to peruse the article which is the subject of conversation?” He took a newspaper slip from his pocket-book, and offered it to the astonished Englishman. “I shall be glad to hear your sentiments, sir, on the view propounded by our mutual friend, Claude A. Goldenheart.”

Before Mr. Hethcote could reply, Amelius interposed in his own headlong way. “Give it to me! I want to read it first!”

He snatched at the newspaper slip. Rufus checked him with grave composure. “I am of a cool temperament myself, sir; but that don’t prevent me from admiring heat in others. Short of boiling point — mind that!” With this hint, the wise New Englander permitted Amelius to take possession of the printed slip.

Mr. Hethcote, finding an opportunity of saying a word at last, asserted himself a little haughtily. “I beg you will both of you understand that I decline to read anything which relates to another person’s private affairs.”

Neither the one nor the other of his companions paid the slightest heed to this announcement. Amelius was reading the newspaper extract, and placid Rufus was watching him. In another moment, he crumpled up the slip, and threw it indignantly on the deck. “It’s as full of lies as it can hold!” he burst out.

“It’s all over the United States, by this time,” Rufus remarked. “And I don’t doubt we shall find the English papers have copied it, when we get to Liverpool. If you will take my advice, sir, you will cultivate a sagacious insensibility to the comments of the press.”

“Do you think I care for myself?” Amelius asked indignantly. “It’s the poor woman I am thinking of. What can I do to clear her character?”

“Well, sir,” suggested Rufus, “in your place, I should have a notification circulated through the ship, announcing a lecture on the subject (weather permitting) in the course of the afternoon. That’s the way we should do it at Coolspring.”

Amelius listened without conviction. “It’s certainly useless to make a secret of the matter now,” he said; “but I don’t see my way to making it more public still.” He paused, and looked at Mr. Hethcote. “It so happens, sir,” he resumed, “that this unfortunate affair is an example of some of the Rules of our Community, which I had not had time to speak of, when Mr. Dingwell here joined us. It will be a relief to me to contradict these abominable falsehoods to somebody; and I should like (if you don’t mind) to hear what you think of my conduct, from your own point of view. It might prepare me,” he added, smiling rather uneasily, “for what I may find in the English newspapers.”

With these words of introduction he told his sad story — jocosely described in the newspaper heading as “Miss Mellicent and Goldenheart among the Socialists at Tadmor.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30