The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

I particularly want you to come and lunch with us, dearest Cecilia, the day after tomorrow. Don’t say to yourself, “The Farnaby’s house is dull, and Regina is too slow for me,” and don’t think about the long drive for the horses, from your place to London. This letter has an interest of its own, my dear — I have got something new for you. What do you think of a young man, who is clever and handsome and agreeable — and, wonder of wonders, quite unlike any other young Englishman you ever saw in your life? You are to meet him at luncheon; and you are to get used to his strange name beforehand. For which purpose I enclose his card.

He made his first appearance at our house, at dinner yesterday evening.

When he was presented to me at the tea-table, he was not to be put off with a bow — he insisted on shaking hands. “Where I have been,” he explained, “we help a first introduction with a little cordiality.” He looked into his tea-cup, after he said that, with the air of a man who could say something more, if he had a little encouragement. Of course, I encouraged him. “I suppose shaking hands is much the same form in America that bowing is in England?” I said, as suggestively as I could.

He looked up directly, and shook his head. “We have too many forms in this country,” he said. “The virtue of hospitality, for instance, seems to have become a form in England. In America, when a new acquaintance says, ‘Come and see me,’ he means it. When he says it here, in nine cases out of ten he looks unaffectedly astonished if you are fool enough to take him at his word. I hate insincerity, Miss Regina — and now I have returned to my own country, I find insincerity one of the established institutions of English Society. ‘Can we do anything for you?’ Ask them to do something for you — and you will see what it means. ‘Thank you for such a pleasant evening!’ Get into the carriage with them when they go home — and you will find that it means, ‘What a bore!’ ‘Ah, Mr. So-and-so, allow me to congratulate you on your new appointment.’ Mr. So-and-so passes out of hearing — and you discover what the congratulations mean. ‘Corrupt old brute! he has got the price of his vote at the last division.’ ‘Oh, Mr. Blank, what a charming book you have written!’ Mr. Blank passes out of hearing — and you ask what his book is about. ‘To tell you the truth, I haven’t read it. Hush! he’s received at Court; one must say these things.’ The other day a friend took me to a grand dinner at the Lord Mayor’s. I accompanied him first to his club; many distinguished guests met there before going to the dinner. Heavens, how they spoke of the Lord Mayor! One of them didn’t know his name, and didn’t want to know it; another wasn’t certain whether he was a tallow-chandler or a button-maker; a third, who had met with him somewhere, described him as a damned ass; a fourth said, ‘Oh, don’t be hard on him; he’s only a vulgar old Cockney, without an h in his whole composition.’ A chorus of general agreement followed, as the dinner-hour approached: ‘What a bore!’ I whispered to my friend, ‘Why do they go?’ He answered, ‘You see, one must do this sort of thing.’ And when we got to the Mansion House, they did that sort of thing with a vengeance! When the speech-making set in, these very men who had been all expressing their profound contempt for the Lord Mayor behind his back, now flattered him to his face in such a shamelessly servile way, with such a meanly complete insensibility to their own baseness, that I did really and literally turn sick. I slipped out into the fresh air, and fumigated myself, after the company I had kept, with a cigar. No, no! it’s useless to excuse these things (I could quote dozens of other instances that have come under my own observation) by saying that they are trifles. When trifles make themselves habits of yours or of mine, they become a part of your character or mine. We have an inveterately false and vicious system of society in England. If you want to trace one of the causes, look back to the little organized insincerities of English life.”

Of course you understand, Cecilia, that this was not all said at one burst, as I have written it here. Some of it came out in the way of answers to my inquiries, and some of it was spoken in the intervals of laughing, talking, and tea-drinking. But I want to show you how very different this young man is from the young men whom we are in the habit of meeting, and so I huddle his talk together in one sample, as Papa Farnaby would call it.

My dear, he is decidedly handsome (I mean our delightful Amelius); his face has a bright, eager look, indescribably refreshing as a contrast to the stolid composure of the ordinary young Englishman. His smile is charming; he moves as gracefully — with as little self-consciousness — as my Italian greyhound. He has been brought up among the strangest people in America; and (would you believe it?) he is actually a Socialist. Don’t be alarmed. He shocked us all dreadfully by declaring that his Socialism was entirely learnt out of the New Testament. I have looked at the New Testament, since he mentioned some of his principles to me; and, do you know, I declare it is true!

Oh, I forgot — the young Socialist plays and sings! When we asked him to go to the piano, he got up and began directly. “I don’t do it well enough,” he said, “to want a great deal of pressing.” He sang old English songs, with great taste and sweetness. One of the gentlemen of our party, evidently disliking him, spoke rather rudely, I thought. “A Socialist who sings and plays,” he said, “is a harmless Socialist indeed. I begin to feel that my balance is safe at my banker’s, and that London won’t be set on fire with petroleum this time.” He got his answer, I can tell you. “Why should we set London on fire? London takes a regular percentage of your income from you, sir, whether you like it or not, on sound Socialist principles. You are the man who has got the money, and Socialism says:— You must and shall help the man who has got none. That is exactly what your own Poor Law says to you, every time the collector leaves the paper at your house.” Wasn’t it clever? — and it was doubly severe, because it was good-humouredly said.

Between ourselves, Cecilia, I think he is struck with me. When I walked about the room, his bright eyes followed me everywhere. And, when I took a chair by somebody else, not feeling it quite right to keep him all to myself, he invariably contrived to find a seat on the other side of me. His voice, too, had a certain tone, addressed to me, and to no other person in the room. Judge for yourself when you come here; but don’t jump to conclusions, if you please. Oh no — I am not going to fall in love with him! It isn’t in me to fall in love with anybody. Do you remember what the last man whom I refused said of me? “She has a machine on the left side of her that pumps blood through her body, but she has no heart.” I pity the woman who marries that man!

One thing more, my dear. This curious Amelius seems to notice trifles which escape men in general, just as we do. Towards the close of the evening, poor Mamma Farnaby fell into one of her vacant states; half asleep and half awake on the sofa in the back drawing-room. “Your aunt interests me,” he whispered. “She must have suffered some terrible sorrow, at some past time in her life.” Fancy a man seeing that! He dropped some hints, which showed that he was puzzling his brains to discover how I got on with her, and whether I was in her confidence or not: he even went the length of asking what sort of life I led with the uncle and aunt who have adopted me. My dear, it was done so delicately, with such irresistible sympathy and such a charming air of respect, that I was quite startled when I remembered, in the wakeful hours of the night, how freely I had spoken to him. Not that I have betrayed any secrets; for, as you know, I am as ignorant as everybody else of what the early troubles of my poor dear aunt may have been. But I did tell him how I came into the house a helpless little orphan girl; and how generously these two good relatives adopted me; and how happy it made me to find that I could really do something to cheer their sad childless lives. “I wish I was half as good as you are,” he said. “I can’t understand how you became fond of Mrs. Farnaby. Perhaps it began in sympathy and compassion?” Just think of that, from a young Englishman! He went on confessing his perplexities, as if we had known one another from childhood. “I am a little surprised to see Mrs. Farnaby present at parties of this sort; I should have thought she would have stayed in her own room.” “That’s just what she objects to do,” I answered; “She says people will report that her husband is ashamed of her, or that she is not fit to be seen in society, if she doesn’t appear at the parties — and she is determined not to be misrepresented in that way.” Can you understand my talking to him with so little reserve? It is a specimen, Cecilia, of the odd manner in which my impulses carry me away, in this man’s company. He is so nice and gentle — and yet so manly. I shall be curious to see if you can resist him, with your superior firmness and knowledge of the world.

But the strangest incident of all I have not told you yet — feeling some hesitation about the best way of describing it, so as to interest you in what has deeply interested me. I must tell it as plainly as I can, and leave it to speak for itself.

Who do you think has invited Amelius Goldenheart to luncheon? Not Papa Farnaby, who only invites him to dinner. Not I, it is needless to say. Who is it, then? Mamma Farnaby herself. He has actually so interested her that she has been thinking of him, and dreaming of him, in his absence!

I heard her last night, poor thing, talking and grinding her teeth in her sleep; and I went into her room to try if I could quiet her, in the usual way, by putting my cool hand on her forehead, and pressing it gently. (The old doctor says it’s magnetism, which is ridiculous.) Well, it didn’t succeed this time; she went on muttering, and making that dreadful sound with her teeth. Occasionally a word was spoken clearly enough to be intelligible. I could make no connected sense of what I heard; but I could positively discover this — that she was dreaming of our guest from America!

I said nothing about it, of course, when I went upstairs with her cup of tea this morning. What do you think was the first thing she asked for? Pen, ink, and paper. Her next request was that I would write Mr. Goldenheart’s address on an envelope. “Are you going to write to him?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “I want to speak to him, while John is out of the way at business,” “Secrets?” I said, turning it off with a laugh. She answered, speaking gravely and earnestly. “Yes; secrets.” The letter was written, and sent to his hotel, inviting him to lunch with us on the first day when he was disengaged. He has replied, appointing the day after tomorrow. By way of trying to penetrate the mystery, I inquired if she wished me to appear at the luncheon. She considered with herself, before she answered that. “I want him to be amused, and put in a good humour,” she said, “before I speak to him. You must lunch with us — and ask Cecilia.” She stopped, and considered once more. “Mind one thing,” she went on. “Your uncle is to know nothing about it. If you tell him, I will never speak to you again.”

Is this not extraordinary? Whatever her dream may have been, it has evidently produced a strong impression on her. I firmly believe she means to take him away with her to her own room, when the luncheon is over. Dearest Cecilia, you must help me to stop this! I have never been trusted with her secrets; they may, for all I know, be innocent secrets enough, poor soul! But it is surely in the highest degree undesirable that she should take into her confidence a young man who is only an acquaintance of ours: she will either make herself ridiculous, or do something worse. If Mr. Farnaby finds it out, I really tremble for what may happen.

For the sake of old friendship, don’t leave me to face this difficulty by myself. A line, only one line, dearest, to say that you will not fail me.

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