The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

In an interval of no more than three weeks what events may not present themselves? what changes may not take place? Behold Amelius, on the first drizzling day of November, established in respectable lodgings, at a moderate weekly rent. He stands before his small fireside, and warms his back with an Englishman’s severe sense of enjoyment. The cheap looking-glass on the mantelpiece reflects the head and shoulders of a new Amelius. His habits are changed; his social position is in course of development. Already, he is a strict economist. Before long, he expects to become a married man.

It is good to be economical: it is, perhaps, better still to be the accepted husband of a handsome young woman. But, for all that, a man in a state of moral improvement, with prospects which his less favoured fellow creatures may reasonably envy, is still a man subject to the mischievous mercy of circumstances, and capable of feeling it keenly. The face of the new Amelius wore an expression of anxiety, and, more remarkable yet, the temper of the new Amelius was out of order.

For the first time in his life he found himself considering trivial questions of sixpences, and small favours of discount for cash payments — an irritating state of things in itself. There were more serious anxieties, however, to trouble him than these. He had no reason to complain of the beloved object herself. Not twelve hours since he had said to Regina, with a voice that faltered, and a heart that beat wildly, “Are you fond enough of me to let me marry you?” And she had answered placidly, with a heart that would have satisfied the most exacting stethoscope in the medical profession, “Yes, if you like.” There was a moment of rapture, when she submitted for the first time to be kissed, and when she consented, on being gently reminded that it was expected of her, to return the kiss — once, and no more. But there was also an attendant train of serious considerations which followed on the heels of Amelius when the kissing was over, and when he had said goodbye for the day.

He had two women for enemies, both resolutely against him in the matter of his marriage.

Regina’s correspondent and bosom friend, Cecilia, who had begun by disliking him, without knowing why, persisted in maintaining her unfavourable opinion of the new friend of the Farnabys. She was a young married woman; and she had an influence over Regina which promised, when the fit opportunity came, to make itself felt. The second, and by far the more powerful hostile influence, was the influence of Mrs. Farnaby. Nothing could exceed the half sisterly, half motherly, goodwill with which she received Amelius on those rare occasions when they happened to meet, unembarrassed by the presence of a third person in the room. Without actually reverting to what had passed between them during their memorable interview, Mrs. Farnaby asked questions, plainly showing that the forlorn hope which she associated with Amelius was a hope still firmly rooted in her mind. “Have you been much about London lately?” “Have you met with any girls who have taken your fancy?” “Are you getting tired of staying in the same place, and are you going to travel soon?” Inquiries such as these she was, sooner or later, sure to make when they were alone. But if Regina happened to enter the room, or if Amelius contrived to find his way to her in some other part of the house, Mrs. Farnaby deliberately shortened the interview and silenced the lovers — still as resolute as ever to keep Amelius exposed to the adventurous freedom of a bachelor’s life. For the last week, his only opportunities of speaking to Regina had been obtained for him secretly by the well-rewarded devotion of her maid. And he had now the prospect before him of asking Mr. Farnaby for the hand of his adopted daughter, with the certainty of the influence of two women being used against him — even if he succeeded in obtaining a favourable reception for his proposal from the master of the house.

Under such circumstances as these — alone, on a rainy November day, in a lodging on the dreary eastward side of the Tottenham Court Road — even Amelius bore the aspect of a melancholy man. He was angry with his cigar because it refused to light freely. He was angry with the poor deaf servant-of-all-work, who entered the room, after one thumping knock at the door, and made, in muffled tones, the barbarous announcement, “Here’s somebody a-wantin’ to see yer.”

“Who the devil is Somebody?” Amelius shouted.

“Somebody is a citizen of the United States,” answered Rufus, quietly entering the room. “And he’s sorry to find Claude A. Goldenheart’s temperature at boiling-point already!”

He had not altered in the slightest degree since he had left the steamship at Queenstown. Irish hospitality had not fattened him; the change from sea to land had not suggested to him the slightest alteration in his dress. He still wore the huge felt hat in which he had first presented himself to notice on the deck of the vessel. The maid-of-all-work raised her eyes to the face of the long lean stranger, overshadowed by the broadbrimmed hat, in reverent amazement. “My love to you, miss,” said Rufus, with his customary grave cordiality; “I’ll shut the door.” Having dismissed the maid with that gentle hint, he shook hands heartily with Amelius. “Well, I call this a juicy morning,” he said, just as if they had met at the cabin breakfast-table as usual.

For the moment, at least, Amelius brightened at the sight of his fellow-traveller. “I am really glad to see you,” he said. “It’s lonely in these new quarters, before one gets used to them.”

Rufus relieved himself of his hat and great coat, and silently looked about the room. “I’m big in the bones,” he remarked, surveying the rickety lodging-house furniture with some suspicion; “and I’m a trifle heavier than I look. I shan’t break one of these chairs if I sit down on it, shall I?” Passing round the table (littered with books and letters) in search of the nearest chair, he accidentally brushed against a sheet of paper with writing on it. “Memorandum of friends in London, to be informed of my change of address,” he read, looking at the paper, as he picked it up, with the friendly freedom that characterized him. “You have made pretty good use of your time, my son, since I took my leave of you in Queenstown harbour. I call this a reasonable long list of acquaintances made by a young stranger in London.”

“I met with an old friend of my family at the hotel,” Amelius explained. “He was a great loss to my poor father, when he got an appointment in India; and, now he has returned, he has been equally kind to me. I am indebted to his introduction for most of the names on that list.”

“Yes?” said Rufus, in the interrogative tone of a man who was waiting to hear more. “I’m listening, though I may not look like it. Git along.”

Amelius looked at his visitor, wondering in what precise direction he was to “git along.”

“I’m no friend to partial information,” Rufus proceeded; “I like to round it off complete, as it were, in my own mind. There are names on this list that you haven’t accounted for yet. Who provided you, sir, with the balance of your new friends?”

Amelius answered, not very willingly, “I met them at Mr. Farnaby’s house.”

Rufus looked up from the list with the air of a man surprised by disagreeable information, and unwilling to receive it too readily. “How?” he exclaimed, using the old English equivalent (often heard in America) for the modern “What?”

“I met them at Mr. Farnaby’s,” Amelius repeated.

“Did you happen to receive a letter of my writing, dated Dublin?” Rufus asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you set any particular value on my advice?”

“Certainly!”

“And you cultivate social relations with Farnaby and family, notwithstanding?”

“I have motives for being friendly with them, which — which I haven’t had time to explain to you yet.”

Rufus stretched out his long legs on the floor, and fixed his shrewd grave eyes steadily on Amelius.

“My friend,” he said, quietly, “in respect of personal appearance and pleasing elasticity of spirits, I find you altered for the worse, I do. It may be Liver, or it may be Love. I reckon, now I think of it, you’re too young yet for Liver. It’s the brown miss — that’s what ’tis. I hate that girl, sir, by instinct.”

“A nice way of talking of a young lady you never saw!” Amelius broke out.

Rufus smiled grimly. “Go ahead!” he said. “If you can get vent in quarrelling with me, go ahead, my son.”

He looked round the room again, with his hands in his pockets, whistling. Descending to the table in due course of time, his quick eye detected a photograph placed on the open writing desk which Amelius had been using earlier in the day. Before it was possible to stop him, the photograph was in his hand. “I believe I’ve got her likeness,” he announced. “I do assure you I take pleasure in making her acquaintance in this sort of way. Well, now, I declare she’s a columnar creature! Yes, sir; I do justice to your native produce — your fine fleshy beef-fed English girl. But I tell you this: after a child or two, that sort runs to fat, and you find you have married more of her than you bargained for. To what lengths may you have proceeded, Amelius, with this splendid and spanking person?”

Amelius was just on the verge of taking offence. “Speak of her respectfully,” he said, “if you expect me to answer you.”

Rufus stared in astonishment. “I’m paying her all manner of compliments,” he protested, “and you’re not satisfied yet. My friend, I still find something about you, on this occasion, which reminds me of meat cut against the grain. You’re almost nasty — you are! The air of London, I reckon, isn’t at all the thing for you. Well, it don’t matter to me; I like you. Afloat or ashore, I like you. Do you want to know what I should do, in your place, if I found myself steering a little too nigh to the brown miss? I should — well, to put it in one word, I should scatter. Where’s the harm, I’ll ask you, if you try another girl or two, before you make your mind up. I shall be proud to introduce you to our slim and snaky sort at Coolspring. Yes. I mean what I say; and I’ll go back with you across the pond.” Referring in this disrespectful manner to the Atlantic Ocean, Rufus offered his hand in token of unalterable devotion and goodwill.

Who could resist such a man as this? Amelius, always in extremes, wrung his hand, with an impetuous sense of shame. “I’ve been sulky,” he said, “I’ve been rude, I ought to be ashamed of myself — and I am. There’s only one excuse for me, Rufus. I love her with all my heart and soul; and I’m engaged to be married to her. And yet, if you understand my way of putting it, I’m — in short, I’m in a mess.”

With this characteristic preface, he described his position as exactly as he could; having due regard to the necessary reserve on the subject of Mrs. Farnaby. Rufus listened, with the closest attention, from beginning to end; making no attempt to disguise the unfavourable impression which the announcement of the marriage-engagement had made on him. When he spoke next, instead of looking at Amelius as usual, he held his head down, and looked gloomily at his boots.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve gone ahead this time, and that’s a fact. She didn’t raise any difficulties that a man could ride off on — did she?”

“She was all that was sweet and kind!” Amelius answered, with enthusiasm.

“She was all that was sweet and kind,” Rufus absently repeated, still intent on the solid spectacle of his own boots. “And how about uncle Farnaby? Perhaps he’s sweet and kind likewise, or perhaps he cuts up rough? Possible — is it not, sir?”

“I don’t know; I haven’t spoken to him yet.”

Rufus suddenly looked up. A faint gleam of hope irradiated his long lank face. “Mercy be praised! there’s a last chance for you,” he remarked. “Uncle Farnaby may say No.”

“It doesn’t matter what he says,” Amelius rejoined. “She’s old enough to choose for herself, he can’t stop the marriage.”

Rufus lifted one wiry yellow forefinger, in a state of perpendicular protest. “He cannot stop the marriage,” the sagacious New Englander admitted; “but he can stop the money, my son. Find out how you stand with him before another day is over your head.”

“I can’t go to him this evening.” said Amelius; “he dines out.”

“Where is he now?”

“At his place of business.”

“Fix him at his place of business. Right away!” cried Rufus, springing with sudden energy to his feet.

“I don’t think he would like it,” Amelius objected. “He’s not a very pleasant fellow, anywhere; but he’s particularly disagreeable at his place of business.”

Rufus walked to the window, and looked out. The objections to Mr. Farnaby appeared to fail, so far, in interesting him.

“To put it plainly,” Amelius went on, “there’s something about him that I can’t endure. And — though he’s very civil to me, in his way — I don’t think he has ever got over the discovery that I am a Christian Socialist.”

Rufus abruptly turned round from the window, and became attentive again. “So you told him that — did you?” he said.

“Of course!” Amelius rejoined, sharply. “Do you suppose I am ashamed of the principles in which I have been brought up?”

“You don’t care, I reckon, if all the world knows your principles, persisted Rufus, deliberately leading him on.

“Care?” Amelius reiterated. “I only wish I had all the world to listen to me. They should hear of my principles, with no bated breath, I promise you!”

There was a pause. Rufus turned back again to the window. “When Farnaby’s at home, where does he live?” he asked suddenly — still keeping his face towards the street.

Amelius mentioned the address. “You don’t mean that you are going to call there?” he inquired, with some anxiety.

“Well, I reckoned I might catch him before dinner-time. You seem to be sort of feared to speak to him yourself. I’m your friend, Amelius — and I’ll speak for you.”

The bare idea of the interview struck Amelius with terror. “No, no!” he said. “I’m much obliged to you, Rufus. But in a matter of this sort, I shouldn’t like to transfer the responsibility to my friend. I’ll speak to Mr. Farnaby in a day or two.”

Rufus was evidently not satisfied with this. “I do suppose, now,” he suggested, “you’re not the only man moving in this metropolis who fancies Miss Regina. Query, my son: if you put off Farnaby much longer —” He paused and looked at Amelius. “Ah,” he said, “I reckon I needn’t enlarge further: there is another man. Well, it’s the same in my country; I don’t know what he does, with You: he always turns up, with Us, just at the time when you least want to see him.”

There was another man — an older and a richer man than Amelius; equally assiduous in his attentions to the aunt and to the niece; submissively polite to his favoured young rival. He was the sort of person, in age and in temperament, who would be perfectly capable of advancing his own interests by means of the hostile influence of Mrs. Farnaby. Who could say what the result might be if, by some unlucky accident, he made the attempt before Amelius had secured for himself the support of the master of the house? In his present condition of nervous irritability, he was ready to believe in any coincidence of the disastrous sort. The wealthy rival was a man of business, a near city neighbour of Mr. Farnaby. They might be together at that moment; and Regina’s fidelity to her lover might be put to a harder test than she was prepared to endure. Amelius remembered the gentle conciliatory smile (too gentle by half) with which his placid mistress had received his first kisses — and, without stopping to weigh conclusions, snatched up his hat. “Wait here for me, Rufus, like a good fellow. I’m off to the stationer’s shop.” With those parting words, he hurried out of the room.

Left by himself, Rufus began to rummage the pockets of his frockcoat — a long, loose, and dingy garment which had become friendly and comfortable to him by dint of ancient use. Producing a handful of correspondence, he selected the largest envelope of all; shook out on the table several smaller letters enclosed; picked one out of the number; and read the concluding paragraph only, with the closest attention.

“I enclose letters of introduction to the secretaries of literary institutions in London, and in some of the principal cities of England. If you feel disposed to lecture yourself, or if you can persuade friends and citizens known to you to do so, I believe it may be in your power to advance in this way the interests of our Bureau. Please take notice that the more advanced institutions, which are ready to countenance and welcome free thought in religion, politics, and morals, are marked on the envelopes with a cross in red ink. The envelopes without a mark are addressed to platforms on which the customary British prejudices remain rampant, and in which the charge for places reaches a higher figure than can be as yet obtained in the sanctuaries of free thought.”

Rufus laid down the letter, and, choosing one among the envelopes marked in red ink, looked at the introduction enclosed. “If the right sort of invitation reached Amelius from this institution,” he thought, “the boy would lecture on Christian Socialism with all his heart and soul. I wonder what the brown miss and her uncle would say to that?”

He smiled to himself, and put the letter back in the envelope, and considered the subject for a while. Below the odd rough surface, he was a man in ten thousand; no more single-hearted and more affectionate creature ever breathed the breath of life. He had not been understood in his own little circle; there had been a want of sympathy with him, and even a want of knowledge of him, at home. Amelius, popular with everybody, had touched the great heart of this man. He perceived the peril that lay hidden under the strange and lonely position of his fellow-voyager — so innocent in the ways of the world, so young and so easily impressed His fondness for Amelius, it is hardly too much to say, was the fondness of a father for a son. With a sigh, he shook his head, and gathered up his letters, and put them back in his pockets. “No, not yet,” he decided. “The poor boy really loves her; and the girl may be good enough to make the happiness of his life.” He got up and walked about the room. Suddenly he stopped, struck by a new idea. “Why shouldn’t I judge for myself?” he thought. “I’ve got the address — I reckon I’ll look in on the Farnabys, in a friendly way.”

He sat down at the desk, and wrote a line, in the event of Amelius being the first to return to the lodgings:

DEAR BOY,

“I don’t find her photograph tells me quite so much as I want to know. I have a mind to see the living original. Being your friend, you know, it’s only civil to pay my respects to the family. Expect my unbiased opinion when I come back.

“Yours,

“RUFUS.”

Having enclosed and addressed these lines, he took up his greatcoat — and checked himself in the act of putting it on. The brown miss was a British miss. A strange New Englander had better be careful of his personal appearance, before he ventured into her presence. Urged by this cautious motive, he approached the looking-glass, and surveyed himself critically.

“I doubt I might be the better,” it occurred to him, “if I brushed my hair, and smelt a little of perfume. Yes. I’ll make a toilet. Where’s the boy’s bedroom, I wonder?”

He observed a second door in the sitting-room, and opened it at hazard. Fortune had befriended him, so far: he found himself in his young friend’s bedchamber.

The toilet of Amelius, simple as it was, had its mysteries for Rufus. He was at a loss among the perfumes. They were all contained in a modest little dressing case, without labels of any sort to describe the contents of the pots and bottles. He examined them one after another, and stopped at some recently invented French shaving-cream. “It smells lovely,” he said, assuming it to be some rare pomatum. “Just what I want, it seems, for my head.” He rubbed the shaving cream into his bristly iron-gray hair, until his arms ached. When he had next sprinkled his handkerchief and himself profusely, first with rose water, and then (to make quite sure) with eau-de-cologne used as a climax, he felt that he was in a position to appeal agreeably to the senses of the softer sex. In five minutes more, he was on his way to Mr. Farnaby’s private residence.

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