The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

It is an afternoon concert; and modern German music was largely represented on the programme. The patient English people sat in closely-packed rows, listening to the pretentious instrumental noises which were impudently offered to them as a substitute for melody. While these docile victims of the worst of all quackeries (musical quackery) were still toiling through their first hour of endurance, a passing ripple of interest stirred the stagnant surface of the audience caused by the sudden rising of a lady overcome by the heat. She was quickly led out of the concert-room (after whispering a word of explanation to two young ladies seated at her side) by a gentleman who made a fourth member of the party. Left by themselves, the young ladies looked at each other, whispered to each other, half rose from their places, became confusedly conscious that the wandering attention of the audience was fixed on them, and decided at last on following their companions out of the hall.

But the lady who had preceded them had some reason of her own for not waiting to recover herself in the vestibule. When the gentleman in charge of her asked if he should get a glass of water, she answered sharply, “Get a cab — and be quick about it.”

The cab was found in a moment; the gentleman got in after her, by the lady’s invitation. “Are you better now?” he asked.

“I have never had anything the matter with me,” she replied, quietly; “tell the man to drive faster.”

Having obeyed his instructions, the gentleman (otherwise Amelius) began to look a little puzzled. The lady (Mrs. Farnaby herself) perceived his condition of mind, and favoured him with an explanation.

“I had my own motive for asking you to luncheon today,” she began, in that steady downright way of speaking that was peculiar to her. “I wanted to have a word with you privately. My niece Regina — don’t be surprised at my calling her my niece, when you have heard Mr. Farnaby call her his daughter. She is my niece. Adopting her is a mere phrase. It doesn’t alter facts; it doesn’t make her Mr. Farnaby’s child or mine, does it?”

She had ended with a question, but she seemed to want no answer to it. Her face was turned towards the cab-window, instead of towards Amelius. He was one of those rare people who are capable of remaining silent when they have nothing to say. Mrs. Farnaby went on.

“My niece Regina is a good creature in her way; but she suspects people. She has some reason of her own for trying to prevent me from taking you into my confidence; and her friend Cecilia is helping her. Yes, yes; the concert was the obstacle which they had arranged to put in my way. You were obliged to go, after telling them you wanted to hear the music; and I couldn’t complain, because they had got a fourth ticket for me. I made up my mind what to do; and I have done it. Nothing wonderful in my being taken ill with the heat; nothing wonderful in your doing your duty as a gentleman and looking after me — and what is the consequence? Here we are together, on our way to my room, in spite of them. Not so bad for a poor helpless creature like me, is it?”

Inwardly wondering what it all meant, and what she could possibly want with him, Amelius suggested that the young ladies might leave the concert-room, and, not finding them in the vestibule, might follow them back to the house.

Mrs. Farnaby turned her head from the window, and looked him in the face for the first time. “I have been a match for them so far,” she said; “leave it to me, and you will find I can be a match for them still.”

After saying this, she watched the puzzled face of Amelius with a moment’s steady scrutiny. Her full lips relaxed into a faint smile; her head sank slowly on her bosom. “I wonder whether he thinks I am a little crazy?” she said quietly to herself. “Some women in my place would have gone mad years ago. Perhaps it might have been better for me?“ She looked up again at Amelius. “I believe you are a good-tempered fellow,” she went on. “Are you in your usual temper now? Did you enjoy your lunch? Has the lively company of the young ladies put you in a good humour with women generally? I want you to be in a particularly good humour with me.”

She spoke quite gravely. Amelius, a little to his own astonishment, found himself answering gravely on his side; assuring her, in the most conventional terms, that he was entirely at her service. Something in her manner affected him disagreeably. If he had followed his impulse, he would have jumped out of the cab, and have recovered his liberty and his light-heartedness at one and the same moment, by running away at the top of his speed.

The driver turned into the street in which Mr. Farnaby’s house was situated. Mrs. Farnaby stopped him, and got out at some little distance from the door. “You think the young ones will follow us back,” she said to Amelius. “It doesn’t matter, the servants will have nothing to tell them if they do.” She checked him in the act of knocking, when they reached the house door. “It’s tea-time downstairs,” she whispered, looking at her watch. “You and I are going into the house, without letting the servants know anything about it. Now do you understand?”

She produced from her pocket a steel ring, with several keys attached to it. “A duplicate of Mr. Farnaby’s key,” she explained, as she chose one, and opened the street door. “Sometimes, when I find myself waking in the small hours of the morning, I can’t endure my bed; I must go out and walk. My key lets me in again, just as it lets us in now, without disturbing anybody. You had better say nothing about it to Mr. Farnaby. Not that it matters much; for I should refuse to give up my key if he asked me. But you’re a good-natured fellow — and you don’t want to make bad blood between man and wife, do you? Step softly, and follow me.”

Amelius hesitated. There was something repellent to him in entering another man’s house under these clandestine conditions. “All right!” whispered Mrs. Farnaby, perfectly understanding him. “Consult your dignity; go out again, and knock at the door, and ask if I am at home. I only wanted to prevent a fuss and an interruption when Regina comes back. If the servants don’t know we are here, they will tell her we haven’t returned — don’t you see?”

It would have been absurd to contest the matter, after this. Amelius followed her submissively to the farther end of the hall. There, she opened the door of a long narrow room, built out at the back of the house.

“This is my den,” she said, signing to Amelius to pass in. “While we are here, nobody will disturb us.” She laid aside her bonnet and shawl, and pointed to a box of cigars on the table. “Take one,” she resumed. “I smoke too, when nobody sees me. That’s one of the reasons, I dare say, why Regina wished to keep you out of my room. I find smoking composes me. What do you say?”

She lit a cigar, and handed the matches to Amelius. Finding that he stood fairly committed to the adventure, he resigned himself to circumstances with his customary facility. He too lit a cigar, and took a chair by the fire, and looked about him with an impenetrable composure worthy of Rufus Dingwell himself.

The room bore no sort of resemblance to a boudoir. A faded old turkey carpet was spread on the floor. The common mahogany table had no covering; the chintz on the chairs was of a truly venerable age. Some of the furniture made the place look like a room occupied by a man. Dumb-bells and clubs of the sort used in athletic exercises hung over the bare mantelpiece; a large ugly oaken structure with closed doors, something between a cabinet and a wardrobe, rose on one side to the ceiling; a turning lathe stood against the opposite wall. Above the lathe were hung in a row four prints, in dingy old frames of black wood, which especially attracted the attention of Amelius. Mostly foreign prints, they were all discoloured by time, and they all strangely represented different aspects of the same subject — infants parted from their parents by desertion or robbery. The young Moses was there, in his ark of bulrushes, on the river bank. Good St. Francis appeared next, roaming the streets, and rescuing forsaken children in the wintry night. A third print showed the foundling hospital of old Paris, with the turning cage in the wall, and the bell to ring when the infant was placed in it. The next and last subject was the stealing of a child from the lap of its slumbering nurse by a gipsy woman. These sadly suggestive subjects were the only ornaments on the walls. No traces of books or music were visible; no needlework of any sort was to be seen; no elegant trifles; no china or flowers or delicate lacework or sparkling jewelry — nothing, absolutely nothing, suggestive of a woman’s presence appeared in any part of Mrs. Farnaby’s room.

“I have got several things to say to you,” she began; “but one thing must be settled first. Give me your sacred word of honour that you will not repeat to any mortal creature what I am going to tell you now.” She reclined in her chair, and drew in a mouthful of smoke and puffed it out again, and waited for his reply.

Young and unsuspicious as he was, this unscrupulous method of taking his confidence by storm startled Amelius. His natural tact and good sense told him plainly that Mrs. Farnaby was asking too much.

“Don’t be angry with me, ma’am,” he said; “I must remind you that you are going to tell me your secrets, without any wish to intrude on them on my part —”

She interrupted him there. “What does that matter?” she asked coolly.

Amelius was obstinate; he went on with what he had to say. “I should like to know,” he proceeded, “that I am doing no wrong to anybody, before I give you my promise?”

“You will be doing a kindness to a miserable creature,” she answered, as quietly as ever; “and you will be doing no wrong to yourself or to anybody else, if you promise. That is all I can say. Your cigar is out. Take a light.”

Amelius took a light, with the dog-like docility of a man in a state of blank amazement. She waited, watching him composedly until his cigar was in working order again.

“Well?” she asked. “Will you promise now?”

Amelius gave her his promise.

“On your sacred word of honour?” she persisted.

Amelius repeated the formula. She reclined in her chair once more. “I want to speak to you as if I was speaking to an old friend,” she explained. “I suppose I may call you Amelius?”

“Certainly.”

“Well, Amelius, I must tell you first that I committed a sin, many long years ago. I have suffered the punishment; I am suffering it still. Ever since I was a young woman, I have had a heavy burden of misery on my heart. I am not reconciled to it, I cannot submit to it, yet. I never shall be reconciled to it, I never shall submit to it, if I live to be a hundred. Do you wish me to enter into particulars? or will you have mercy on me, and be satisfied with what I have told you so far?”

It was not said entreatingly, or tenderly, or humbly: she spoke with a savage self-contained resignation in her manner and in her voice. Amelius forgot his cigar again — and again she reminded him of it. He answered her as his own generous impulsive temperament urged him; he said, “Tell me nothing that causes you a moment’s pain; tell me only how I can help you.” She handed him the box of matches; she said, “Your cigar is out again.”

He laid down his cigar. In his brief span of life he had seen no human misery that expressed itself in this way. “Excuse me,” he answered; “I won’t smoke just now.”

She laid her cigar aside like Amelius, and crossed her arms over her bosom, and looked at him, with the first softening gleam of tenderness that he had seen in her face. “My friend,” she said, “yours will be a sad life — I pity you. The world will wound that sensitive heart of yours; the world will trample on that generous nature. One of these days, perhaps, you will be a wretch like me. No more of that. Get up; I have something to show you.”

Rising herself, she led the way to the large oaken press, and took her bunch of keys out of her pocket again.

“About this old sorrow of mine,” she resumed. “Do me justice, Amelius, at the outset. I haven’t treated it as some women treat their sorrows — I haven’t nursed it and petted it and made the most of it to myself and to others. No! I have tried every means of relief, every possible pursuit that could occupy my mind. One example of what I say will do as well as a hundred. See it for yourself.”

She put the key in the lock. It resisted her first efforts to open it. With a contemptuous burst of impatience and a sudden exertion of her rare strength, she tore open the two doors of the press. Behind the door on the left appeared a row of open shelves. The opposite compartment, behind the door on the right, was filled by drawers with brass handles. She shut the left door; angrily banging it to, as if the opening of it had disclosed something which she did not wish to be seen. By the merest chance, Amelius had looked that way first. In the one instant in which it was possible to see anything, he had noticed, carefully laid out on one of the shelves, a baby’s long linen frock and cap, turned yellow by the lapse of time.

The half-told story of the past was more than half told now. The treasured relics of the infant threw their little glimmer of light on the motive which had chosen the subjects of the prints on the wall. A child deserted and lost! A child who, by bare possibility, might be living still!

She turned towards Amelius suddenly, “There is nothing to interest you on that side,” she said. “Look at the drawers here; open them for yourself.” She drew back as she spoke, and pointed to the uppermost of the row of drawers. A narrow slip of paper was pasted on it, bearing this inscription:— “Dead Consolations.“

Amelius opened the drawer; it was full of books. “Look at them,” she said. Amelius, obeying her, discovered dictionaries, grammars, exercises, poems, novels, and histories — all in the German language.

“A foreign language tried as a relief,” said Mrs. Farnaby, speaking quietly behind him. “Month after month of hard study — all forgotten now. The old sorrow came back in spite of it. A dead consolation! Open the next drawer.”

The next drawer revealed water-colours and drawing materials huddled together in a corner, and a heap of poor little conventional landscapes filling up the rest of the space. As works of art, they were wretched in the last degree; monuments of industry and application miserably and completely thrown away.

“I had no talent for that pursuit, as you see,” said Mrs. Farnaby. “But I persevered with it, week after week, month after month. I thought to myself, ‘I hate it so, it costs me such dreadful trouble, it so worries and persecutes and humiliates me, that this surely must keep my mind occupied and my thoughts away from myself!’ No; the old sorrow stared me in the face again on the paper that I was spoiling, through the colours that I couldn’t learn to use. Another dead consolation! Shut it up.”

She herself opened a third and a fourth drawer. In one there appeared a copy of Euclid, and a slate with the problems still traced on it; the other contained a microscope, and the treatises relating to its use. “Always the same effort,” she said, shutting the door of the press as she spoke; “and always the same result. You have had enough of it, and so have I.” She turned, and pointed to the lathe in the corner, and to the clubs and dumb-bells over the mantelpiece. “I can look at them patiently,” she went on; “they give me bodily relief. I work at the lathe till my back aches; I swing the clubs till I’m ready to drop with fatigue. And then I lie down on the rug there, and sleep it off, and forget myself for an hour or two. Come back to the fire again. You have seen my dead consolations; you must hear about my living consolation next. In justice to Mr. Farnaby — ah, how I hate him!”

She spoke those last vehement words to herself, but with such intense bitterness of contempt that the tones were quite loud enough to be heard. Amelius looked furtively towards the door. Was there no hope that Regina and her friend might return and interrupt them? After what he had seen and heard, could he hope to console Mrs. Farnaby? He could only wonder what object she could possibly have in view in taking him into her confidence. “Am I always to be in a mess with women?” he thought to himself. “First poor Mellicent, and now this one. What next?” He lit his cigar again. The brotherhood of smokers, and they alone, will understand what a refuge it was to him at that moment.

“Give me a light,” said Mrs. Farnaby, recalled to the remembrance of her own cigar. “I want to know one thing before I go on. Amelius, I watched those bright eyes of yours at luncheon-time. Did they tell me the truth? You’re not in love with my niece, are you?”

Amelius took his cigar out of his mouth, and looked at her.

“Out with it boldly!” she said.

Amelius let it out, to a certain extent. “I admire her very much,” he answered.

“Ah,” Mrs. Farnaby remarked, “you don’t know her as well as I do.”

The disdainful indifference of her tone irritated Amelius. He was still young enough to believe in the existence of gratitude; and Mrs. Farnaby had spoken ungratefully. Besides, he was fond enough of Regina already to feel offended when she was referred to slightingly.

“I am surprised to hear what you say of her,” he burst out. “She is quite devoted to you.”

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Farnaby, carelessly. “She is devoted to me, of course — she is the living consolation I told you of just now. That was Mr. Farnaby’s notion in adopting her. Mr. Farnaby thought to himself, ‘Here’s a ready-made daughter for my wife — that’s all this tiresome woman wants to comfort her: now we shall do.’ Do you know what I call that? I call it reasoning like an idiot. A man may be very clever at his business — and may be a contemptible fool in other respects. Another woman’s child a consolation to me! Pah! it makes me sick to think of it. I have one merit, Amelius, I don’t cant. It’s my duty to take care of my sister’s child; and I do my duty willingly. Regina’s a good sort of creature — I don’t dispute it. But she’s like all those tall darkish women: there’s no backbone in her, no dash; a kind, feeble, goody-goody, sugarish disposition; and a deal of quiet obstinacy at the bottom of it, I can tell you. Oh yes, I do her justice; I don’t deny that she’s devoted to me, as you say. But I am making a clean breast of it now. And you ought to know, and you shall know, that Mr. Farnaby’s living consolation is no more a consolation to me than the things you have seen in the drawers. There! now we’ve done with Regina. No: there’s one thing more to be cleared up. When you say you admire her, what do you mean? Do you mean to marry her?”

For once in his life Amelius stood on his dignity. “I have too much respect for the young lady to answer your question,” he said loftily.

“Because, if you do,” Mrs. Farnaby proceeded, “I mean to put every possible obstacle in your way. In short, I mean to prevent it.”

This plain declaration staggered Amelius. He confessed the truth by implication in one word.

“Why?” he asked sharply.

“Wait a little, and recover your temper,” she answered.

There was a pause. They sat, on either side of the fireplace, and eyed each other attentively.

“Now are you ready?” Mrs. Farnaby resumed. “Here is my reason. If you marry Regina, or marry anybody, you will settle down somewhere, and lead a dull life.”

“Well,” said Amelius; “and why not, if I like it?”

“Because I want you to remain a roving bachelor; here today and gone tomorrow — travelling all over the world, and seeing everything and everybody.”

“What good will that do to you, Mrs. Farnaby?”

She rose from her own side of the fireplace, crossed to the side on which Amelius was sitting, and, standing before him, placed her hands heavily on his shoulders. Her eyes grew radiant with a sudden interest and animation as they looked down on him, riveted on his face.

“I am still waiting, my friend, for the living consolation that may yet come to me,” she said. “And, hear this, Amelius! After all the years that have passed, you may be the man who brings it to me.”

In the momentary silence that followed, they heard a double knock at the house-door.

“Regina!” said Mrs. Farnaby.

As the name passed her lips, she sprang to the door of the room, and turned the key in the lock.

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