The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

“Nearly six months since,” said Amelius, “we had notice by letter of the arrival of an unmarried English lady, who wished to become a member of our Community. You will understand my motive in keeping her family name a secret: even the newspaper has grace enough only to mention her by her Christian name. I don’t want to cheat you out of your interest; so I will own at once that Miss Mellicent was not beautiful, and not young. When she came to us, she was thirty-eight years old, and time and trial had set their marks on her face plainly enough for anybody to see. Notwithstanding this, we all thought her an interesting woman. It might have been the sweetness of her voice; or perhaps it was something in her expression that took our fancy. There! I can’t explain it; I can only say there were young women and pretty women at Tadmor who failed to win us as Miss Mellicent did. Contradictory enough, isn’t it?”

Mr. Hethcote said he understood the contradiction. Rufus put an appropriate question: “Do you possess a photograph of this lady, sir?”

“No,” said Amelius; “I wish I did. Well, we received her, on her arrival, in the Common Room — called so because we all assemble there every evening, when the work of the day is done. Sometimes we have the reading of a poem or a novel; sometimes debates on the social and political questions of the time in England and America; sometimes music, or dancing, or cards, or billiards, to amuse us. When a new member arrives, we have the ceremonies of introduction. I was close by the Elder Brother (that’s the name we give to the chief of the Community) when two of the women led Miss Mellicent in. He’s a hearty old fellow, who lived the first part of his life on his own clearing in one of the Western forests. To this day, he can’t talk long, without showing, in one way or another, that his old familiarity with the trees still keeps its place in his memory. He looked hard at Miss Mellicent, under his shaggy old white eyebrows; and I heard him whisper to himself, ‘Ah, dear me! Another of The Fallen Leaves!’ I knew what he meant. The people who have drawn blanks in the lottery of life — the people who have toiled hard after happiness, and have gathered nothing but disappointment and sorrow; the friendless and the lonely, the wounded and the lost — these are the people whom our good Elder Brother calls The Fallen Leaves. I like the saying myself; it’s a tender way of speaking of our poor fellow-creatures who are down in the world.”

He paused for a moment, looking out thoughtfully over the vast void of sea and sky. A passing shadow of sadness clouded his bright young face. The two elder men looked at him in silence, feeling (in widely different ways) the same compassionate interest. What was the life that lay before him? And — God help him! — what would he do with it?

“Where did I leave off?” he asked, rousing himself suddenly.

“You left Miss Mellicent, sir, in the Common Room — the venerable citizen with the white eyebrows being suitably engaged in moralizing on her.” In those terms the ever-ready Rufus set the story going again.

“Quite right,” Amelius resumed. “There she was, poor thing, a little thin timid creature, in a white dress, with a black scarf over her shoulders, trembling and wondering in a room full of strangers. The Elder Brother took her by the hand, and kissed her on the forehead, and bade her heartily welcome in the name of the Community. Then the women followed his example, and the men all shook hands with her. And then our chief put the three questions, which he is bound to address to all new arrivals when they join us: ‘Do you come here of your own free will? Do you bring with you a written recommendation from one of our brethren, which satisfies us that we do no wrong to ourselves or to others in receiving you? Do you understand that you are not bound to us by vows, and that you are free to leave us again if the life here is not agreeable to you?’ Matters being settled so far, the reading of the Rules, and the Penalties imposed for breaking them, came next. Some of the Rules you know already; others of smaller importance I needn’t trouble you with. As for the Penalties, if you incur the lighter ones, you are subject to public rebuke, or to isolation for a time from the social life of the Community. If you incur the heavier ones, you are either sent out into the world again for a given period, to return or not as you please; or you are struck off the list of members, and expelled for good and all. Suppose these preliminaries agreed to by Miss Mellicent with silent submission, and let us go on to the close of the ceremony — the reading of the Rules which settle the questions of Love and Marriage.”

“Aha!” said Mr. Hethcote, “we are coming to the difficulties of the Community at last!”

“Are we also coming to Miss Mellicent, sir?” Rufus inquired. “As a citizen of a free country in which I can love in one State, marry in another, and be divorced in a third, I am not interested in your Rules — I am interested in your Lady.”

“The two are inseparable in this case,” Amelius answered gravely. “If I am to speak of Miss Mellicent, I must speak of the Rules; you will soon see why. Our Community becomes a despotism, gentlemen, in dealing with love and marriage. For example, it positively prohibits any member afflicted with hereditary disease from marrying at all; and it reserves to itself, in the case of every proposed marriage among us, the right of permitting or forbidding it, in council. We can’t even fall in love with each other, without being bound, under penalties, to report it to the Elder Brother; who, in his turn, communicates it to the monthly council; who, in their turn, decide whether the courtship may go on or not. That’s not the worst of it, even yet! In some cases — where we haven’t the slightest intention of falling in love with each other — the governing body takes the initiative. ‘You two will do well to marry; we see it, if you don’t. Just think of it, will you?’ You may laugh; some of our happiest marriages have been made in that way. Our governors in council act on an established principle: here it is in a nutshell. The results of experience in the matter of marriage, all over the world, show that a really wise choice of a husband or a wife is an exception to the rule; and that husbands and wives in general would be happier together if their marriages were managed for them by competent advisers on either side. Laws laid down on such lines as these, and others equally strict, which I have not mentioned yet, were not put in force, Mr. Hethcote, as you suppose, without serious difficulties — difficulties which threatened the very existence of the Community. But that was before my time. When I grew up, I found the husbands and wives about me content to acknowledge that the Rules fulfilled the purpose with which they had been made — the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It all looks very absurd, I dare say, from your point of view. But these queer regulations of ours answer the Christian test — by their fruits ye shall know them. Our married people don’t live on separate sides of the house; our children are all healthy; wife-beating is unknown among us; and the practice in our divorce court wouldn’t keep the most moderate lawyer on bread and cheese. Can you say as much for the success of the marriage laws in Europe? I leave you, gentlemen, to form your own opinions.”

Mr. Hethcote declined to express an opinion. Rufus declined to resign his interest in the lady. “And what did Miss Mellicent say to it?” he inquired.

“She said something that startled us all,” Amelius replied. “When the Elder Brother began to read the first words relating to love and marriage in the Book of Rules, she turned deadly pale; and rose up in her place with a sudden burst of courage or desperation — I don’t know which. ‘Must you read that to me?’ she asked. ‘I have nothing to do with love or marriage.’ The Elder Brother laid aside his Book of Rules. ‘If you are afflicted with an hereditary malady,’ he said, ‘the doctor from the town will examine you, and report to us.’ She answered, ‘I have no hereditary malady.’ The Elder Brother took up his book again. ‘In due course of time, my dear, the Council will decide for you whether you are to love and marry or not.’ And he read the Rules. She sat down again, and hid her face in her hands, and never moved or spoke until he had done. The regular questions followed. Had she anything to say, in the way of objection? Nothing! In that case, would she sign the Rules? Yes! When the time came for supper, she excused herself, just like a child. ‘I feel very tired; may I go to bed?’ The unmarried women in the same dormitory with her anticipated some romantic confession when she grew used to her new friends. They proved to be wrong. ‘My life has been one long disappointment,’ was all she said. ‘You will do me a kindness if you will take me as I am, and not ask me to talk about myself.’ There was nothing sulky or ungracious in the expression of her wish to keep her own secret. A kinder and sweeter woman — never thinking of herself, always considerate of others — never lived. An accidental discovery made me her chief friend, among the men: it turned out that her childhood had been passed, where my childhood had been passed, at Shedfield Heath, in Buckinghamshire. She was never weary of consulting my boyish recollections, and comparing them with her own. ‘I love the place,’ she used to say; ‘the only happy time of my life was the time passed there.’ On my sacred word of honour, this was the sort of talk that passed between us, for week after week. What other talk could pass between a man whose one and twentieth birthday was then near at hand, and a woman who was close on forty? What could I do, when the poor, broken, disappointed creature met me on the hill or by the river, and said, ‘You are going out for a walk; may I come with you?’ I never attempted to intrude myself into her confidence; I never even asked her why she had joined the Community. You see what is coming, don’t you? I never saw it. I didn’t know what it meant, when some of the younger women, meeting us together, looked at me (not at her), and smiled maliciously. My stupid eyes were opened at last by the woman who slept in the next bed to her in the dormitory — a woman old enough to be my mother, who took care of me when I was a child at Tadmor. She stopped me one morning, on my way to fish in the river. ‘Amelius,’ she said, ‘don’t go to the fishing-house; Mellicent is waiting for you.’ I stared at her in astonishment. She held up her finger at me: ‘Take care, you foolish boy! You are drifting into a false position as fast as you can. Have you no suspicion of what is going on?’ I looked all round me, in search of what was going on. Nothing out of the common was to be seen anywhere. ‘What can you possibly mean?’ I asked. ‘You will only laugh at me, if I tell you,’ she said. I promised not to laugh. She too looked all round her, as if she was afraid of somebody being near enough to hear us; and then she let out the secret. ‘Amelius, ask for a holiday — and leave us for a while. Mellicent is in love with you.’”

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