The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

Amelius looked at his companions, in some doubt whether they would preserve their gravity at this critical point in his story. They both showed him that his apprehensions were well founded. He was a little hurt, and he instantly revealed it. “I own to my shame that I burst out laughing myself,” he said. “But you two gentlemen are older and wiser than I am. I didn’t expect to find you just as ready to laugh at poor Miss Mellicent as I was.”

Mr. Hethcote declined to be reminded of his duties as a middle-aged gentleman in this backhanded manner. “Gently, Amelius! You can’t expect to persuade us that a laughable thing is not a thing to be laughed at. A woman close on forty who falls in love with a young fellow of twenty-one —”

“Is a laughable circumstance,” Rufus interposed. “Whereas a man of forty who fancies a young woman of twenty-one is all in the order of Nature. The men have settled it so. But why the women are to give up so much sooner than the men is a question, sir, on which I have long wished to hear the sentiments of the women themselves.”

Mr. Hethcote dismissed the sentiments of the women with a wave of his hand. “Let us hear the rest of it, Amelius. Of course you went on to the fishing-house? And of course you found Miss Mellicent there?”

“She came to the door to meet me, much as usual,” Amelius resumed, “and suddenly checked herself in the act of shaking hands with me. I can only suppose she saw something in my face that startled her. How it happened, I can’t say; but I felt my good spirits forsake me the moment I found myself in her presence. I doubt if she had ever seen me so serious before. ‘Have I offended you?’ she asked. Of course, I denied it; but I failed to satisfy her. She began to tremble. ‘Has somebody said something against me? Are you weary of my company?’ Those were the next questions. It was useless to say No. Some perverse distrust of me, or some despair of herself, overpowered her on a sudden. She sank down on the floor of the fishing-house, and began to cry — not a good hearty burst of tears; a silent, miserable, resigned sort of crying, as if she had lost all claim to be pitied, and all right to feel wounded or hurt. I was so distressed, that I thought of nothing but consoling her. I meant well, and I acted like a fool. A sensible man would have lifted her up, I suppose, and left her to herself. I lifted her up, and put my arm round her waist. She looked at me as I did it. For just a moment, I declare she became twenty years younger! She blushed as I have never seen a woman blush before or since — the colour flowed all over her neck as well as her face. Before I could say a word, she caught hold of my hand, and (of all the confusing things in the world!) kissed it. ‘No!’ she cried, ‘don’t despise me! don’t laugh at me! Wait, and hear what my life has been, and then you will understand why a little kindness overpowers me.’ She looked round the corner of the fishing-house suspiciously. ‘I don’t want anybody else to hear us,’ she said, ‘all the pride isn’t beaten out of me yet. Come to the lake, and row me about in the boat.’ I took her out in the boat. Nobody could hear us certainly; but she forgot, and I forgot, that anybody might see us, and that appearances on the lake might lead to false conclusions on shore.”

Mr. Hethcote and Rufus exchanged significant looks. They had not forgotten the Rules of the Community, when two of its members showed a preference for each other’s society.

Amelius proceeded. “Well, there we were on the lake. I paddled with the oars, and she opened her whole heart to me. Her troubles had begun, in a very common way, with her mother’s death and her father’s second marriage. She had a brother and a sister — the sister married a German merchant, settled in New York; the brother comfortably established as a sheep-farmer in Australia. So, you see, she was alone at home, at the mercy of the step-mother. I don’t understand these cases myself, but people who do, tell me that there are generally faults on both sides. To make matters worse, they were a poor family; the one rich relative being a sister of the first wife, who disapproved of the widower marrying again, and never entered the house afterwards. Well, the step-mother had a sharp tongue, and Mellicent was the first person to feel the sting of it. She was reproached with being an encumbrance on her father, when she ought to be doing something for herself. There was no need to repeat those harsh words. The next day she answered an advertisement. Before the week was over, she was earning her bread as a daily governess.”

Here Rufus stopped the narrative, having an interesting question to put. “Might I inquire, sir, what her salary was?”

“Thirty pounds a year,” Amelius replied. “She was out teaching from nine o’clock to two — and then went home again.”

“There seems to be nothing to complain of in that, as salaries go,” Mr. Hethcote remarked.

“She made no complaint,” Amelius rejoined. “She was satisfied with her salary; but she wasn’t satisfied with her life. The meek little woman grew downright angry when she spoke of it. ‘I had no reason to complain of my employers,’ she said. ‘I was civilly treated and punctually paid; but I never made friends of them. I tried to make friends of the children; and sometimes I thought I had succeeded — but, oh dear, when they were idle, and I was obliged to keep them to their lessons, I soon found how little hold I had on the love that I wanted them to give me. We see children in books who are perfect little angels; never envious or greedy or sulky or deceitful; always the same sweet, pious, tender, grateful, innocent creatures — and it has been my misfortune never to meet with them, go where I might! It is a hard world, Amelius, the world that I have lived in. I don’t think there are such miserable lives anywhere as the lives led by the poor middle classes in England. From year’s end to year’s end, the one dreadful struggle to keep up appearances, and the heart-breaking monotony of an existence without change. We lived in the back street of a cheap suburb. I declare to you we had but one amusement in the whole long weary year — the annual concert the clergyman got up, in aid of his schools. The rest of the year it was all teaching for the first half of the day, and needlework for the young family for the other half. My father had religious scruples; he prohibited theatres, he prohibited dancing and light reading; he even prohibited looking in at the shop-windows, because we had no money to spare and they tempted us to buy. He went to business in the morning, and came back at night, and fell asleep after dinner, and woke up and read prayers — and next day to business and back, and sleeping and waking and reading prayers — and no break in it, week after week, month after month, except on Sunday, which was always the same Sunday; the same church, the same service, the same dinner, the same book of sermons in the evening. Even when we had a fortnight once a year at the seaside, we always went to the same place and lodged in the same cheap house. The few friends we had led just the same lives, and were beaten down flat by just the same monotony. All the women seemed to submit to it contentedly except my miserable self. I wanted so little! Only a change now and then; only a little sympathy when I was weary and sick at heart; only somebody whom I could love and serve, and be rewarded with a smile and a kind word in return. Mothers shook their heads, and daughters laughed at me. Have we time to be sentimental? Haven’t we enough to do, darning and mending, and turning our dresses, and making the joint last as long as possible, and keeping the children clean, and doing the washing at home — and tea and sugar rising, and my husband grumbling every week when I have to ask him for the house-money. Oh, no more of it! no more of it! People meant for better things all ground down to the same sordid and selfish level — is that a pleasant sight to contemplate? I shudder when I think of the last twenty years of my life!’ That’s what she complained of, Mr. Hethcote, in the solitary middle of the lake, with nobody but me to hear her.”

“In my country, sir,” Rufus remarked, “the Lecture Bureau would have provided for her amusement, on economical terms. And I reckon, if a married life would fix her, she might have tried it among Us by way of a change.”

“That’s the saddest part of the story,” said Amelius. “There came a time, only two years ago, when her prospects changed for the better. Her rich aunt (her mother’s sister) died; and — what do you think? — left her a legacy of six thousand pounds. There was a gleam of sunshine in her life! The poor teacher was an heiress in a small way, with her fortune at her own disposal. They had something like a festival at home, for the first time; presents to everybody, and kissings and congratulations, and new dresses at last. And, more than that, another wonderful event happened before long. A gentleman made his appearance in the family circle, with an interesting object in view — a gentleman, who had called at the house in which she happened to be employed as teacher at the time, and had seen her occupied with her pupils. He had kept it to himself to be sure, but he had secretly admired her from that moment — and now it had come out! She had never had a lover before; mind that. And he was a remarkably handsome man: dressed beautifully, and sang and played, and was so humble and devoted with it all. Do you think it wonderful that she said Yes, when he proposed to marry her? I don’t think it wonderful at all. For the first few weeks of the courtship, the sunshine was brighter than ever. Then the clouds began to rise. Anonymous letters came, describing the handsome gentleman (seen under his fair surface) as nothing less than a scoundrel. She tore up the letters indignantly — she was too delicate even to show them to him. Signed letters came next, addressed to her father by an uncle and an aunt, both containing one and the same warning: ‘If your daughter insists on having him, tell her to take care of her money.’ A few days later, a visitor arrived — a brother, who spoke out more plainly still. As an honourable man, he could not hear of what was going on, without making the painful confession that his brother was forbidden to enter his house. That said, he washed his hands of all further responsibility. You two know the world, you will guess how it ended. Quarrels in the household; the poor middle-aged woman, living in her fool’s paradise, blindly true to her lover; convinced that he was foully wronged; frantic when he declared that he would not connect himself with a family which suspected him. Ah, I have no patience when I think of it, and I almost wish I had never begun to tell the story! Do you know what he did? She was free of course, at her age, to decide for herself; there was no controlling her. The wedding day was fixed. Her father had declared he would not sanction it; and her step-mother kept him to his word. She went alone to the church, to meet her promised husband. He never appeared; he deserted her, mercilessly deserted her — after she had sacrificed her own relations to him — on her wedding-day. She was taken home insensible, and had a brain fever. The doctors declined to answer for her life. Her father thought it time to look to her banker’s pass-book. Out of her six thousand pounds she had privately given no less than four thousand to the scoundrel who had deceived and forsaken her! Not a month afterwards he married a young girl — with a fortune of course. We read of such things in newspapers and books. But to have them brought home to one, after living one’s own life among honest people — I tell you it stupefied me!”

He said no more. Below them in the cabin, voices were laughing and talking, to a cheerful accompaniment of clattering knives and forks. Around them spread the exultant glory of sea and sky. All that they heard, all that they saw, was cruelty out of harmony with the miserable story which had just reached its end. With one accord the three men rose and paced the deck, feeling physically the same need of some movement to lighten their spirits. With one accord they waited a little, before the narrative was resumed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/fallen-leaves/book1.4.html

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