The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

Mr. Hethcote was the first to speak again.

“I can understand the poor creature’s motive in joining your Community,” he said. “To a person of any sensibility her position, among such relatives as you describe, must have been simply unendurable after what had happened. How did she hear of Tadmor and the Socialists?”

“She had read one of our books,” Amelius answered; “and she had her married sister at New York to go to. There were moments, after her recovery (she confessed it to me frankly), when the thought of suicide was in her mind. Her religious scruples saved her. She was kindly received by her sister and her sister’s husband. They proposed to keep her with them to teach their children. No! the new life offered to her was too like the old life — she was broken in body and mind; she had no courage to face it. We have a resident agent in New York; and he arranged for her journey to Tadmor. There is a gleam of brightness, at any rate, in this part of her story. She blessed the day, poor soul, when she joined us. Never before had she found herself among such kind-hearted, unselfish, simple people. Never before —” he abruptly checked himself, and looked a little confused.

Obliging Rufus finished the sentence for him. “Never before had she known a young man with such natural gifts of fascination as C.A.G. Don’t you be too modest, sir; it doesn’t pay, I assure you, in the nineteenth century.”

Amelius was not as ready with his laugh as usual. “I wish I could drop it at the point we have reached now,” he said. “But she has left Tadmor; and, in justice to her (after the scandals in the newspaper), I must tell you how she left it, and why. The mischief began when I was helping her out of the boat. Two of our young women met us on the bank of the lake, and asked me how I got on with my fishing. They didn’t mean any harm — they were only in their customary good spirits. Still, there was no mistaking their looks and tones when they put the question. Miss Mellicent, in her confusion, made matters worse. She coloured up, and snatched her hand out of mine, and ran back to the house by herself. The girls, enjoying their own foolish joke, congratulated me on my prospects. I must have been out of sorts in some way — upset, perhaps, by what I had heard in the boat. Anyhow, I lost my temper, and I made matters worse, next. I said some angry words, and left them. The same evening I found a letter in my room. ‘For your sake, I must not be seen alone with you again. It is hard to lose the comfort of your sympathy, but I must submit. Think of me as kindly as I think of you. It has done me good to open my heart to you.’ Only those lines, signed by Mellicent’s initials. I was rash enough to keep the letter, instead of destroying it. All might have ended well, nevertheless, if she had only held to her resolution. But, unluckily, my twenty-first birthday was close at hand; and there was talk of keeping it as a festival in the Community. I was up with sunrise when the day came; having some farming work to look after, and wanting to get it over in good time. My shortest way back to breakfast was through a wood. In the wood I met her.”

“Alone?” Mr. Hethcote asked.

Rufus expressed his opinion of the wisdom of putting this question with his customary plainness of language. “When there’s a rash thing to be done by a man and a woman together, sir, philosophers have remarked that it’s always the woman who leads the way. Of course she was alone.”

“She had a little present for me on my birthday,” Amelius explained —“a purse of her own making. And she was afraid of the ridicule of the young women, if she gave it to me openly. ‘You have my heart’s dearest wishes for your happiness; think of me sometimes, Amelius, when you open your purse.’ If you had been in my place, could you have told her to go away, when she said that, and put her gift into your hand? Not if she had been looking at you at the moment — I’ll swear you couldn’t have done it!”

The lean yellow face of Rufus Dingwell relaxed for the first time into a broad grin. “There are further particulars, sir, stated in the newspaper,” he said slily.

“Damn the newspaper!” Amelius answered.

Rufus bowed, serenely courteous, with the air of a man who accepted a British oath as an unwilling compliment paid by the old country to the American press. “The newspaper report states, sir, that she kissed you.”

“It’s a lie!” Amelius shouted.

“Perhaps it’s an error of the press,” Rufus persisted. “Perhaps, you kissed her?“

“Never mind what I did,” said Amelius savagely.

Mr. Hethcote felt it necessary to interfere. He addressed Rufus in his most magnificent manner. “In England, Mr. Dingwell, a gentleman is not in the habit of disclosing these — er — these — er, er —”

“These kissings in a wood?” suggested Rufus. “In my country, sir, we do not regard kissing, in or out of a wood, in the light of a shameful proceeding. Quite the contrary, I do assure you.”

Amelius recovered his temper. The discussion was becoming too ridiculous to be endured by the unfortunate person who was the object of it.

“Don’t let us make mountains out of molehills,” he said. “I did kiss her — there! A woman pressing the prettiest little purse you ever saw into your hand, and wishing you many happy returns of the day with the tears in her eyes; I should like to know what else was to be done but to kiss her. Ah, yes, smooth out your newspaper report, and have another look at it! She did rest her head on my shoulder, poor soul, and she did say, ‘Oh, Amelius, I thought my heart was turned to stone; feel how you have made it beat!’ When I remembered what she had told me in the boat, I declare to God I almost burst out crying myself — it was so innocent and so pitiful.”

Rufus held out his hand with true American cordiality. “I do assure you, sir, I meant no harm,” he said. “The right grit is in you, and no mistake — and there goes the newspaper!” He rolled up the slip, and flung it overboard.

Mr. Hethcote nodded his entire approval of this proceeding. Amelius went on with his story.

“I’m near the end now,” he said. “If I had known it would have taken so long to tell — never mind! We got out of the wood at last, Mr. Rufus; and left it without a suspicion that we had been watched. I was prudent enough (when it was too late, you will say) to suggest to her that we had better be careful for the future. Instead of taking it seriously, she laughed. ‘Have you altered your mind, since you wrote to me?’ I asked. ‘To be sure I have,’ she said. ‘When I wrote to you I forgot the difference between your age and mine. Nothing that we do will be taken seriously. I am afraid of their laughing at me, Amelius; but I am afraid of nothing else.’ I did my best to undeceive her. I told her plainly that people unequally matched in years — women older than men, as well as men older than women — were not uncommonly married among us. The council only looked to their being well suited in other ways, and declined to trouble itself about the question of age. I don’t think I produced much effect; she seemed, for once in her life, poor thing, to be too happy to look beyond the passing moment. Besides, there was the birthday festival to keep her mind from dwelling on doubts and fears that were not agreeable to her. And the next day there was another event to occupy our attention — the arrival of the lawyer’s letter from London, with the announcement of my inheritance on coming of age. It was settled, as you know, that I was to go out into the world, and to judge for myself; but the date of my departure was not fixed. Two days later, the storm that had been gathering for weeks past burst on us — we were cited to appear before the council to answer for an infraction of the Rules. Everything that I have confessed to you, and some things besides that I have kept to myself, lay formally inscribed on a sheet of paper placed on the council table — and pinned to the sheet of paper was Mellicent’s letter to me, found in my room. I took the whole blame on myself, and insisted on being confronted with the unknown person who had informed against us. The council met this by a question:—‘Is the information, in any particular, false?’ Neither of us could deny that it was, in every particular, true. Hearing this, the council decided that there was no need, on our own showing, to confront us with the informer. From that day to this, I have never known who the spy was. Neither Mellicent nor I had an enemy in the Community. The girls who had seen us on the lake, and some other members who had met us together, only gave their evidence on compulsion — and even then they prevaricated, they were so fond of us and so sorry for us. After waiting a day, the governing body pronounced their judgment. Their duty was prescribed to them by the Rules. We were sentenced to six months’ absence from the Community; to return or not as we pleased. A hard sentence, gentlemen — whatever we may think of it — to homeless and friendless people, to the Fallen Leaves that had drifted to Tadmor. In my case it had been already arranged that I was to leave. After what had happened, my departure was made compulsory in four-and-twenty hours; and I was forbidden to return, until the date of my sentence had expired. In Mellicent’s case they were still more strict. They would not trust her to travel by herself. A female member of the Community was appointed to accompany her to the house of her married sister at New York: she was ordered to be ready for the journey by sunrise the next morning. We both understood, of course, that the object of this was to prevent our travelling together. They might have saved themselves the trouble of putting obstacles in our way.”

“So far as You were concerned, I suppose?” said Mr. Hethcote.

“So far as She was concerned also,” Amelius answered.

“How did she take it, sir?” Rufus inquired.

“With a composure that astonished us all,” said Amelius. “We had anticipated tears and entreaties for mercy. She stood up perfectly calm, far calmer than I was, with her head turned towards me, and her eyes resting quietly on my face. If you can imagine a woman whose whole being was absorbed in looking into the future; seeing what no mortal creature about her saw; sustained by hopes that no mortal creature about her could share — you may see her as I did, when she heard her sentence pronounced. The members of the Community, accustomed to take leave of an erring brother or sister with loving and merciful words, were all more or less distressed as they bade her farewell. Most of the women were in tears as they kissed her. They said the same kind words to her over and over again. ‘We are heartily sorry for you, dear; we shall all be glad to welcome you back.’ They sang our customary hymn at parting — and broke down before they got to the end. It was she who consoled them! Not once, through all that melancholy ceremony, did she lose her strange composure, her rapt mysterious look. I was the last to say farewell; and I own I couldn’t trust myself to speak. She held my hand in hers. For a moment, her face lighted up softly with a radiant smile — then the strange preoccupied expression flowed over her again, like shadow over a light. Her eyes, still looking into mine, seemed to look beyond me. She spoke low, in sad steady tones. ‘Be comforted, Amelius; the end is not yet.’ She put her hands on my head, and drew it down to her. ‘You will come back to me,’ she whispered — and kissed me on the forehead, before them all. When I looked up again, she was gone. I have neither seen her nor heard from her since. It’s all told, gentlemen — and some of it has distressed me in the telling. Let me go away for a minute by myself, and look at the sea.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/fallen-leaves/book1.5.html

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