The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

The young lady spoke first.

“Mr. Goldenheart,” she said, with the coldest possible politeness, “perhaps you will be good enough to explain what this means?”

She turned back into the dining-room. Amelius followed her in silence. “Here I am, in another scrape with a woman!” he thought to himself. “Are men in general as unlucky as I am, I wonder?”

“You needn’t close the door,” said Regina maliciously. “Everybody in the house is welcome to hear what I have to say to you.”

Amelius made a mistake at the outset — he tried what a little humility would do to help him. There is probably no instance on record in which humility on the part of a man has ever really found its way to the indulgence of an irritated woman. The best and the worst of them alike have at least one virtue in common — they secretly despise a man who is not bold enough to defend himself when they are angry with him.

“I hope I have not offended you?” Amelius ventured to say.

She tossed her head contemptuously. “Oh dear, no! I am not offended. Only a little surprised at your being so very ready to oblige my aunt.”

In the short experience of her which had fallen to the lot of Amelius, she had never looked so charmingly as she looked now. The nervous irritability under which she was suffering brightened her face with the animation which was wanting in it at ordinary times. Her soft brown eyes sparkled; her smooth dusky cheeks glowed with a warm red flush; her tall supple figure asserted its full dignity, robed in a superb dress of silken purple and black lace, which set off her personal attractions to the utmost advantage. She not only roused the admiration of Amelius — she unconsciously gave him back the self-possession which he had, for the moment, completely lost. He was man enough to feel the humiliation of being despised by the one woman in the world whose love he longed to win; and he answered with a sudden firmness of tone and look that startled her.

“You had better speak more plainly still, Miss Regina,” he said. “You may as well blame me at once for the misfortune of being a man.”

She drew back a step. “I don’t understand you,” she answered.

“Do I owe no forbearance to a woman who asks a favour of me?” Amelius went on. “If a man had asked me to steal into the house on tiptoe, I should have said — well! I should have said something I had better not repeat. If a man had stood between me and the door when you came back, I should have taken him by the collar and pulled him out of my way. Could I do that, if you please, with Mrs. Farnaby?”

Regina saw the weak point of this defence with a woman’s quickness of perception. “I can’t offer any opinion,” she said; “especially when you lay all the blame on my aunt.”

Amelius opened his lips to protest — and thought better of it. He wisely went straight on with what he had still to say.

“If you will let me finish,” he resumed, “you will understand me a little better than that. Whatever blame there may be, Miss Regina, I am quite ready to take on myself. I merely wanted to remind you that I was put in an awkward position, and that I couldn’t civilly find a way out of it. As for your aunt, I will only say this: I know of hardly any sacrifice that I would not submit to, if I could be of the smallest service to her. After what I heard, while I was in her room —”

Regina interrupted him at that point. “I suppose it’s a secret between you?” she said.

“Yes; it’s a secret,” Amelius proceeded, “as you say. But one thing I may tell you, without breaking my promise. Mrs. Farnaby has — well! has filled me with kindly feeling towards her. She has a claim, poor soul, to my truest sympathy. And I shall remember her claim. And I shall be faithful to what I feel towards her as long as I live!”

It was not very elegantly expressed; but the tone was the tone of true feeling in his voice trembled, his colour rose. He stood before her, speaking with perfect simplicity straight from his heart — and the woman’s heart felt it instantly. This was the man whose ridicule she had dreaded, if her aunt’s rash confidence struck him in an absurd light! She sat down in silence, with a grave sad face, reproaching herself for the wrong which her too ready distrust had inflicted on him; longing to ask his pardon, and yet hesitating to say the simple words.

He approached her chair, and, placing his hand on the back of it, said gently, “do you think a little better of me now?”

She had taken off her gloves: she silently folded and refolded them in her lap.

“Your good opinion is very precious to me,” Amelius pleaded, bending a little nearer to her. “I can’t tell you how sorry I should be —” He stopped, and put it more strongly. “I shall never have courage enough to enter the house again, if I have made you think meanly of me.”

A woman who cared nothing for him would have easily answered this. The calm heart of Regina began to flutter: something warned her not to trust herself to speak. Little as he suspected it, Amelius had troubled the tranquil temperament of this woman. He had found his way to those secret reserves of tenderness — placid and deep — of which she was hardly conscious herself, until his influence had enlightened her. She was afraid to look up at him; her eyes would have told him the truth. She lifted her long, finely shaped, dusky hand, and offered it to him as the best answer that she could make.

Amelius took it, looked at it, and ventured on his first familiarity with her — he kissed it. She only said, “Don’t!” very faintly.

“The Queen would let me kiss her hand if I went to Court,” Amelius reminded her, with a pleasant inner conviction of his wonderful readiness at finding an excuse.

She smiled in spite of herself. “Would the Queen let you hold it?” she asked, gently releasing her hand, and looking at him as she drew it away. The peace was made without another word of explanation. Amelius took a chair at her side. “I’m quite happy now you have forgiven me,” he said. “You don’t know how I admire you — and how anxious I am to please you, if I only knew how!”

He drew his chair a little nearer; his eyes told her plainly that his language would soon become warmer still, if she gave him the smallest encouragement. This was one reason for changing the subject. But there was another reason, more cogent still. Her first painful sense of having treated him unjustly had ceased to make itself keenly felt; the lower emotions had their opportunity of asserting themselves. Curiosity, irresistible curiosity, took possession of her mind, and urged her to penetrate the mystery of the interview between Amelius and her aunt.

“Will you think me very indiscreet,” she began slyly, “if I made a little confession to you?”

Amelius was only too eager to hear the confession: it would pave the way for something of the same sort on his part.

“I understand my aunt making the heat in the concert-room a pretence for taking you away with her,” Regina proceeded; “but what astonishes me is that she should have admitted you to her confidence after so short an acquaintance. You are still — what shall I say? — you are still a new friend of ours.”

“How long will it be before I become an old friend?” Amelius asked. “I mean,” he added, with artful emphasis, “an old friend of yours?“

Confused by the question, Regina passed it over without notice. “I am Mrs. Farnaby’s adopted daughter,” she resumed. “I have been with her since I was a little girl — and yet she has never told me any of her secrets. Pray don’t suppose that I am tempting you to break faith with my aunt! I am quite incapable of such conduct as that.”

Amelius saw his way to a thoroughly commonplace compliment which possessed the charm of complete novelty so far as his experience was concerned. He would actually have told her that she was incapable of doing anything which was not perfectly becoming to a charming person, if she had only given him time! She was too eager in the pursuit of her own object to give him time. “I should like to know,” she went on, “whether my aunt has been influenced in any way by a dream that she had about you.”

Amelius started. “Has she told you of her dream?” he asked, with some appearance of alarm.

Regina blushed and hesitated, “My room is next to my aunt’s,” she explained. “We keep the door between us open. I am often in and out when she is disturbed in her sleep. She was talking in her sleep, and I heard your name — nothing more. Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned it? Perhaps I ought not to expect you to answer me?”

“There is no harm in my answering you,” said Amelius. “The dream really had something to do with her trusting me. You may not think quite so unfavourably of her conduct now you know that.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Regina replied constrainedly. “If my aunt’s secrets have interested you — what right have I to object? I am sure I shall say nothing. Though I am not in my aunt’s confidence, nor in your confidence, you will find I can keep a secret.”

She folded up her gloves for the twentieth time at least, and gave Amelius his opportunity of retiring by rising from her chair. He made a last effort to recover the ground that he had lost, without betraying Mrs. Farnaby’s trust in him.

“I am sure you can keep a secret,” he said. “I should like to give you one of my secrets to keep — only I mustn’t take the liberty, I suppose, just yet?”

She new perfectly well what he wanted to say. Her heart began to quicken its beat; she was at a loss how to answer. After an awkward silence, she made an attempt to dismiss him. “Don’t let me detain you,” she said, “if you have any engagement.”

Amelius silently looked round him for his hat. On a table behind him a monthly magazine lay open, exhibiting one of those melancholy modern “illustrations” which present the English art of our day in its laziest and lowest state of degradation. A vacuous young giant, in flowing trousers, stood in a garden, and stared at a plump young giantess with enormous eyes and rotund hips, vacantly boring holes in the grass with the point of her parasol. Perfectly incapable of explaining itself, this imbecile production put its trust in the printer, whose charitable types helped it, at the bottom of the page, with the title of “Love at First Sight.” On those remarkable words Amelius seized, with the desperation of the drowning man, catching at the proverbial straw. They offered him a chance of pleading his cause, this time, with a happy indirectness of allusion at which not even a young lady’s susceptibility could take offence.

“Do you believe in that?” he said, pointing to the illustration.

Regina declined to understand him. “In what?” she asked.

“In love at first sight.”

It would be speaking with inexcusable rudeness to say plainly that she told him a lie. Let the milder form of expression be, that she modestly concealed the truth. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said.

I do,” Amelius remarked smartly.

She persisted in looking at the illustration. Was there an infection of imbecility in that fatal work? She was too simple to understand him, even yet! “You do — what?” she inquired innocently.

“I know what love at first sight is,” Amelius burst out.

Regina turned over the leaves of the magazine. “Ah,” she said, “you have read the story.”

“I haven’t read the story,” Amelius answered. “I know what I felt myself — on being introduced to a young lady.”

She looked up at him with a sly smile. “A young lady in America?” she asked.

“In England, Miss Regina.” He tried to take her hand — but she kept it out of his reach. “In London,” he went on, drifting back into his customary plainness of speech. “In this very street,” he resumed, seizing her hand before she was aware of him. Too much bewildered to know what else to do, Regina took refuge desperately in shaking hands with him. “Goodbye, Mr. Goldenheart,” she said — and gave him his dismissal for the second time.

Amelius submitted to his fate; there was something in her eyes which warned him that he had ventured far enough for that day.

“May I call again, soon?” he asked piteously.

“No!” answered a voice at the door which they both recognized — the voice of Mrs. Farnaby.

“Yes!” Regina whispered to him, as her aunt entered the room. Mrs. Farnaby’s interference, following on the earlier events of the day, had touched the young lady’s usually placable temper in a tender place — and Amelius reaped the benefit of it.

Mrs. Farnaby walked straight up to him, put her hand in his arm, and led him out into the hall.

“I had my suspicions,” she said; “and I find they have not misled me. Twice already, I have warned you to let my niece alone. For the third, and last time, I tell you that she is as cold as ice. She will trifle with you as long as it flatters her vanity; and she will throw you over, as she has thrown other men over. Have your fling, you foolish fellow, before you marry anybody. Pay no more visits to this house, unless they are visits to me. I shall expect to hear from you.” She paused, and pointed to a statue which was one of the ornaments in the hall. “Look at that bronze woman with the clock in her hand. That’s Regina. Be off with you — goodbye!”

Amelius found himself in the street. Regina was looking out at the dining-room window. He kissed his hand to her: she smiled and bowed. “Damn the other men!” Amelius said to himself. “I’ll call on her tomorrow.”

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