The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

The rain that had begun with the morning still poured on steadily in the afternoon. After one look out of the window, Regina decided on passing the rest of the day luxuriously, in the company of a novel, by her own fireside. With her feet on the tender, and her head on the soft cushion of her favourite easy-chair, she opened the book. Having read the first chapter and part of the second, she was just lazily turning over the leaves in search of a love scene, when her languid interest in the novel was suddenly diverted to an incident in real life. The sitting-room door was gently opened, and her maid appeared in a state of modest confusion.

“If you please, miss, here’s a strange gentleman who comes from Mr. Goldenheart. He wishes particularly to say —”

She paused, and looked behind her. A faint and curious smell of mingled soap and scent entered the room, followed closely by a tall, calm, shabbily-dressed man, who laid a wiry yellow hand on the maid’s shoulder, and stopped her effectually before she could say a word more.

“Don’t you think of troubling yourself to git through with it, my dear; I’m here, and I’ll finish for you.” Addressing the maid in these encouraging terms, the stranger advanced to Regina, and actually attempted to shake hands with her! Regina rose — and looked at him. It was a look that ought to have daunted the boldest man living; it produced no sort of effect on this man. He still held out his hand; his lean face broadened with a pleasant smile. “My name is Rufus Dingwell,” he said. “I come from Coolspring, Mass.; and Amelius is my introduction to yourself and family.”

Regina silently acknowledged this information by a frigid bow, and addressed herself to the maid, waiting at the door: “Don’t leave the room, Phoebe.”

Rufus, inwardly wondering what Phoebe was wanted for, proceeded to express the cordial sentiments proper to the occasion. “I have heard about you, miss; and I take pleasure in making your acquaintance.”

The unwritten laws of politeness obliged Regina to say something. “I have not heard Mr. Goldenheart mention your name,” she remarked. “Are you an old friend of his?”

Rufus explained with genial alacrity. “We crossed the Pond together, miss. I like the boy; he’s bright and spry; he refreshes me — he does. We go ahead with most things in my country; and friendship’s one of them. How do you find yourself? Won’t you shake hands?” He took her hand, without waiting to be repelled this time, and shook it with the heartiest good-will.

Regina shuddered faintly: she summoned assistance in case of further familiarity. “Phoebe, tell my aunt.”

Rufus added a message on his own account. “And say this, my dear. I sincerely desire to make the acquaintance of Miss Regina’s aunt, and any other members of the family circle.”

Phoebe left the room, smiling. Such an amusing visitor as this was a rare person in Mr. Farnaby’s house. Rufus looked after her, with unconcealed approval. The maid appeared to be more to his taste than the mistress. “Well, that’s a pretty creature, I do declare,” he said to Regina. “Reminds me of our American girls — slim in the waist, and carries her head nicely. How old may she be, now?”

Regina expressed her opinion of this familiar question by pointing, with silent dignity, to a chair.

“Thank you, miss; not that one,” said Rufus. “You see, I’m long in the legs, and if I once got down as low as that, I reckon I should have to restore the balance by putting my feet up on the grate; and that’s not manners in Great Britain — and quite right too.”

He picked out the highest chair he could find, and admired the workmanship as he drew it up to the fireplace. “Most sumptuous and elegant,” he said. “The style of the Renaysance, as they call it.” Regina observed with dismay that he had not got his hat in his hand like other visitors. He had left it no doubt in the hall; he looked as if he had dropped in to spend the day, and stay to dinner.

“Well, miss, I’ve seen your photograph,” he resumed; “and I don’t much approve of it, now I see You. My sentiments are not altogether favourable to that art. I delivered a lecture on photographic portraiture at Coolspring; and I described it briefly as justice without mercy. The audience took the idea; they larfed, they did. Larfin’ reminds me of Amelius. Do you object to his being a Christian Socialist, miss?”

The young lady’s look, when she answered the question, was not lost on Rufus. He registered it, mentally, in case of need. “Amelius will soon get over all that nonsense,” she said, “when he has been a little longer in London.”

“Possible,” Rufus admitted. “The boy is fond of you. Yes: he loves you. I have noticed him, and I can certify to that. I may also remark that he wants a deal of love in return. No doubt, miss, you have observed that circumstance yourself?”

Regina resented this last inquiry as an outrage on propriety. “What next will he say?” she thought to herself. “I must put this presuming man in his proper place.” She darted another annihilating look at him, as she spoke in her turn. “May I ask, Mr. — Mr. ——?”

“Dingwell,” said Rufus, prompting her.

“May I ask, Mr. Dingwell, if you have favoured me by calling here at the request of Mr. Goldenheart?”

Genial and simple-minded as he was, eagerly as he desired to appreciate at her full value the young lady who was one day to be the wife of Amelius, Rufus felt the tone in which those words were spoken. It was not easy to stimulate his modest sense of what was fairly due to him into asserting itself, but the cold distrust, the deliberate distance of Regina’s manner, exhausted the long-suffering indulgence of this singularly patient man. “The Lord, in his mercy, preserve Amelius from marrying You,” he thought, as he rose from his chair, and advanced with a certain simple dignity to take leave of her.

“It did not occur to me, miss, to pay my respects to you, till Amelius and I had parted company,” he said. “Please to excuse me. I should have been welcome, in my country, with no better introduction than being (as I may say) his friend and well-wisher. If I have made a mistake —”

He stopped. Regina had suddenly changed colour. Instead of looking at him, she was looking over his shoulder, apparently at something behind him. He turned to see what it was. A lady, short and stout, with strange wild sorrowful eyes, had noiselessly entered the room while he was speaking: she was waiting, as it seemed, until he had finished what he had to say. When they confronted each other, she moved to meet him, with a firm heavy step, and with her hand held out in token of welcome.

“You may feel equally sure, sir, of a friendly reception here,” she said, in her steady self-possessed way. “I am this young lady’s aunt; and I am glad to see the friend of Amelius in my house.” Before Rufus could answer, she turned to Regina. “I waited,” she went on, “to give you an opportunity of explaining yourself to this gentleman. I am afraid he has mistaken your coldness of manner for intentional rudeness.”

The colour rushed back into Regina’s face — she vibrated for a moment between anger and tears. But the better nature in her broke its way through the constitutional shyness and restraint which habitually kept it down. “I meant no harm, sir,” she said, raising her large beautiful eyes submissively to Rufus; “I am not used to receiving strangers. And you did ask me some very strange questions,” she added, with a sudden burst of self-assertion. “Strangers are not in the habit of saying such things in England.” She looked at Mrs. Farnaby, listening with impenetrable composure, and stopped in confusion. Her aunt would not scruple to speak to the stranger about Amelius in her presence — there was no knowing what she might not have to endure. She turned again to Rufus. “Excuse me,” she said, “if I leave you with my aunt — I have an engagement.” With that trivial apology, she made her escape from the room.

“She has no engagement,” Mrs. Farnaby briefly remarked as the door closed. “Sit down, sir.”

For once, even Rufus was not as his ease. “I can hit it off, ma’am, with most people,” he said. “I wonder what I’ve done to offend your niece?”

“My niece (with many good qualities) is a narrow-minded young woman,” Mrs. Farnaby explained. “You are not like the men she is accustomed to see. She doesn’t understand you — you are not a commonplace gentleman. For instance,” Mrs. Farnaby continued, with the matter-of-fact gravity of a woman innately inaccessible to a sense of humour, “you have got something strange on your hair. It seems to be melting, and it smells like soap. No: it’s no use taking out your handkerchief — your handkerchief won’t mop it up. I’ll get a towel.” She opened an inner door, which disclosed a little passage, and a bath-room beyond it. “I’m the strongest person in the house,” she resumed, returning with a towel in her hand, as gravely as ever. “Sit still, and don’t make apologies. If any of us can rub you dry, I’m the woman.” She set to work with the towel, as if she had been Rufus’s mother, making him presentable in the days of his boyhood. Giddy under the violence of the rubbing, staggered by the contrast between the cold reception accorded to him by the niece, and the more than friendly welcome offered by the aunt, Rufus submitted to circumstances in docile and silent bewilderment. “There; you’ll do till you get home — nobody can laugh at you now,” Mrs. Farnaby announced. “You’re an absent-minded man, I suppose? You wanted to wash your head, and you forgot the warm water and the towel. Was that how it happened, sir?”

“I thank you with all my heart, ma’am; I took it for pomatum,” Rufus answered. “Would you object to shaking hands again? This cordial welcome of yours reminds me, I do assure you, of home. Since I left New England, I’ve never met with the like of you. I do suppose now it was my hair that set Miss Regina’s back up? I’m not quite easy in my mind, ma’am, about your niece. I’m sort of feared of what she may say of me to Amelius. I meant no harm, Lord knows.”

The secret of Mrs. Farnaby’s extraordinary alacrity in the use of the towel began slowly to show itself now. The tone of her American guest had already become the friendly and familiar tone which it had been her object to establish. With a little management, he might be made an invaluable ally in the great work of hindering the marriage of Amelius.

“You are very fond of your young friend?” she began quietly.

“That is so, ma’am.”

“And he has told you that he has taken a liking to my niece?”

“And shown me her likeness,” Rufus added.

“And shown you her likeness. And you thought you would come here, and see for yourself what sort of girl she was?”

“Naturally,” Rufus admitted.

Mrs. Farnaby revealed, without further hesitation, the object that she had in view. “Amelius is little more than a lad, still,” she said. “He has got all his life before him. It would be a sad thing, if he married a girl who didn’t make him happy.” She turned in her chair, and pointed to the door by which Regina had left them. “Between ourselves,” she resumed, dropping her voice to a whisper, “do you believe my niece will make him happy?”

Rufus hesitated.

“I’m above family prejudices,” Mrs. Farnaby proceeded. “You needn’t be afraid of offending me. Speak out.”

Rufus would have spoken out to any other woman in the universe. This woman had preserved him from ridicule —this woman had rubbed his head dry. He prevaricated.

“I don’t suppose I understand the ladies in this country,” he said.

But Mrs. Farnaby was not to be trifled with. “If Amelius was your son, and if he asked you to consent to his marriage with my niece,” she rejoined, “would you say Yes?”

This was too much for Rufus. “Not if he went down on both his knees to ask me,” he answered.

Mrs. Farnaby was satisfied at last, and owned it without reserve. “My own opinion,” she said, “exactly expressed! don’t be surprised. Didn’t I tell you I had no family prejudices? Do you know if he has spoken to my husband, yet?”

Rufus looked at his watch. “I reckon he’s just about done it by this time.”

Mrs. Farnaby paused, and reflected for a moment. She had already attempted to prejudice her husband against Amelius, and had received an answer which Mr. Farnaby considered to be final. “Mr. Goldenheart honours us if he seeks our alliance; he is the representative of an old English family.” Under these circumstances, it was quite possible that the proposals of Amelius had been accepted. Mrs. Farnaby was not the less determined that the marriage should never take place, and not the less eager to secure the assistance of her new ally. “When will Amelius tell you about it?” she asked.

“When I go back to his lodgings, ma’am.”

“Go back at once — and bear this in mind as you go. If you can find out any likely way of parting these two young people (in their own best interests), depend on one thing — if I can help you, I will. I’m as fond of Amelius as you are. Ask him if I haven’t done my best to keep him away from my niece. Ask him if I haven’t expressed my opinion, that she’s not the right wife for him. Come and see me again as soon as you like. I’m fond of Americans. Good morning.”

Rufus attempted to express his sense of gratitude, in his own briefly eloquent way. He was not allowed a hearing. With one and the same action, Mrs. Farnaby patted him on the shoulder, and pushed him out of the room.

“If that woman was an American citizen,” Rufus reflected, on his way through the streets, “she’d be the first female President of the United States!” His admiration of Mrs. Farnaby’s energy and resolution, expressed in these strong terms, acknowledged but one limit. Highly as he approved of her, there was nevertheless an unfathomable something in the woman’s eyes that disturbed and daunted him.

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