The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

The medium of correspondence between Amelius and Regina’s maid was an old woman who kept a shop for the sale of newspapers and periodicals, in a by-street not far from Mr. Farnaby’s house. From this place his letters were delivered to the maid, under cover of the morning newspapers — and here he found the answers waiting for him later in the day. “If Rufus could only have taken her out for a walk, I might have seen Regina this afternoon,” thought Amelius. “As it is, I may have to wait till to-morrow, or later still. And then, there’s the sovereign to Phoebe.” He sighed as he thought of the fee. Sovereigns were becoming scarce in our young Socialist’s purse.

Arriving in sight of the newsvendor’s shop, Amelius noticed a man leaving it, who walked away towards the farther end of the street. When he entered the shop himself a minute afterwards, the woman took up a letter from the counter. “A young man has just left this for you,” she said.

Amelius recognised the maid’s handwriting on the address. The man whom he had seen leaving the shop was Phoebe’s messenger.

He opened the letter. Her mistress, Phoebe explained, was too much flurried to be able to write. The master had astonished the whole household by appearing among them at least three hours before the time at which he was accustomed to leave his place of business. He had found “Mrs. Ormond” (otherwise Regina’s friend and correspondent, Cecilia) paying a visit to his niece, and had asked to speak with her in private, before she took leave. The result was an invitation to Regina, from Mrs. Ormond, to stay for a little while at her house in the neighbourhood of Harrow. The ladies were to leave London together, in Mrs. Ormond’s carriage, that afternoon. Under stress of strong persuasion, on the part of her uncle and aunt as well as her friend, Regina had ended in giving way. But she had not forgotten the interests of Amelius. She was willing to see him privately on the next day, provided he left London by the train which reached Harrow soon after eleven in the forenoon. If it happened to rain, then he must put off his journey until the first fine day, arriving in any case at the same hour. The place at which he was to wait was described to him; and with these instructions the letter ended.

The rapidity with which Mr. Farnaby had carried out his resolution to separate the lovers placed the weakness of Regina’s character before Amelius in a new and startling light. Why had she not stood on her privileges, as a woman who had arrived at years of discretion, and refused to leave London until she had first heard what her lover had to say? Amelius had left his American friend, feeling sure that Regina’s decision would be in his favour, when she was called upon to choose between the man who was ready to marry her, and the man who was nothing but her uncle by courtesy. For the first time, he now felt that his own confident anticipations might, by bare possibility, deceive him. He returned to his lodgings, in such a state of depression, that compassionate Rufus insisted on taking him out to dinner, and hurried him off afterwards to the play. Thoroughly prostrated, Amelius submitted to the genial influence of his friend. He had not even energy enough to feel surprised when Rufus stopped, on their way to the tavern, at a dingy building adorned with a Grecian portico, and left a letter and a card in charge of a servant at the side-door.

The next day, by a happy interposition of Fortune, proved to be a day without rain. Amelius followed his instructions to the letter. A little watery sunshine showed itself as he left the station at Harrow. His mind was still in such a state of doubt and disturbance that it drew from superstition a faint encouragement to hope. He hailed the feeble November sunlight as a good omen.

Mr. and Mrs. Ormond’s place of residence stood alone, surrounded by its own grounds. A wooden fence separated the property, on one side, from a muddy little by-road, leading to a neighbouring farm. At a wicket-gate in this fence, giving admission to a shrubbery situated at some distance from the house, Amelius now waited for the appearance of the maid.

After a delay of a few minutes only, the faithful Phoebe approached the gate with a key in her hand. “Where is she?” Amelius asked, as the girl opened the gate for him.

“Waiting for you in the shrubbery. Stop, sir; I have something to say to you first.”

Amelius took out his purse, and produced the fee. Even he had observed that Phoebe was perhaps a little too eager to get her money!

“Thank you, sir. Please to look at your watch. You mustn’t be with Miss Regina a moment longer than a quarter of an hour.”

“Why not?”

“This is the time, sir, when Mrs. Ormond is engaged every day with her cook and housekeeper. In a quarter of an hour the orders will be given — and Mrs. Ormond will join Miss Regina for a walk in the grounds. You will be the ruin of me, sir, if she finds you here.” With that warning, the maid led the way along the winding paths of the shrubbery.

“I must thank you for your letter, Phoebe,” said Amelius, as he followed her. “By-the-by, who was your messenger?”

Phoebe’s answer was no answer at all. “Only a young man, sir,” she said.

“In plain words, your sweetheart, I suppose?”

Phoebe’s expressive silence was her only reply. She turned a corner, and pointed to her mistress standing alone before the entrance of a damp and deserted summer-house.

Regina put her handkerchief to her eyes, when the maid had discreetly retired. “Oh,” she said softly, “I am afraid this is very wrong.”

Amelius removed the handkerchief by the exercise of a little gentle force, and administered comfort under the form of a kiss. Having opened the proceedings in this way, he put his first question, “Why did you leave London?”

“How could I help it!” said Regina, feebly. “They were all against me. What else could I do?”

It occurred to Amelius that she might, at her age, have asserted a will of her own. He kept his idea, however, to himself, and, giving her his arm, led her slowly along the path of the shrubbery. “You have heard, I suppose, what Mr. Farnaby expects of me?” he said.

“Yes, dear.”

“I call it worse than mercenary — I call it downright brutal.”

“Oh, Amelius, don’t talk so!”

Amelius came suddenly to a standstill. “Does that mean you agree with him?” he asked.

“Don’t be angry with me, dear. I only meant there was some excuse for him.”

“What excuse?”

“Well, you see, he has a high idea of your family, and he thought you were rich people. And — I know you didn’t mean it, Amelius — but, still, you did disappoint him.”

Amelius dropped her arm. This mildly-persistent defence of Mr. Farnaby exasperated him.

“Perhaps I have disappointed you?“ he said.

“Oh, no, no! Oh, how cruel you are!” The ready tears showed themselves again in her magnificent eyes — gentle considerate tears that raised no storm in her bosom, and produced no unbecoming results in her face. “Don’t be hard on me!” she said, appealing to him helplessly, like a charming overgrown child.

Some men might have still resisted her; but Amelius was not one of them. He took her hand, and pressed it tenderly.

“Regina,” he said, “do you love me?”

“You know I do!”

He put his arm round her waist, he concentrated the passion that was in him into a look, and poured the look into her eyes. “Do you love me as dearly as I love you?” he whispered.

She felt it with all the little passion that was in her. After a moment of hesitation, she put one arm timidly round his neck, and, bending her grand head, laid it on his bosom. Her finely-rounded, supple, muscular figure trembled, as if she had been the most fragile woman living. “Dear Amelius!” she murmured inaudibly. He tried to speak to her — his voice failed him. She had, in perfect innocence, fired his young blood. He drew her closer and closer to him: he lifted her head, with a masterful resolution which she was not able to resist, and pressed his kisses in hot and breathless succession on her lips. His vehemence frightened her. She tore herself out of his arms with a sudden exertion of strength that took him completely by surprise. “I didn’t think you would have been rude to me!” With that mild reproach, she turned away, and took the path which led from the shrubbery to the house. Amelius followed her, entreating that she would accept his excuses and grant him a few minutes more. He modestly laid all the blame on her beauty — lamented that he had not resolution enough to resist the charm of it. When did that commonplace compliment ever fail to produce its effect? Regina smiled with the weakly complacent good-nature, which was only saved from being contemptible by its association with her personal attractions. “Will you promise to behave?” she stipulated. And Amelius, not very eagerly, promised.

“Shall we go into the summer-house?” he suggested.

“It’s very damp at this time of year,” Regina answered, with placid good sense. “Perhaps we might catch cold — we had better walk about.”

They walked accordingly. “I wanted to speak to you about our marriage,” Amelius resumed.

She sighed softly. “We have some time to wait,” she said, “before we can think of that.”

He passed this reply over without notice. “You know,” he went on, “that I have an income of five hundred a year?”

“Yes, dear.”

“There are hundreds of thousands of respectable artisans, Regina, (with large families), who live comfortably on less than half my income.”

“Do they, dear?”

“And many gentlemen are not better off. Curates, for instance. Do you see what I am coming to, my darling?”

“No, dear.”

“Could you live with me in a cottage in the country, with a nice garden, and one little maid to wait on us, and two or three new dresses in a year?”

Regina lifted her fine eyes in sober ecstasy to the sky. “It sounds very tempting,” she remarked, in the sweetest tones of her voice.

“And it could all be done,” Amelius proceeded, “on five hundred a year.”

“Could it, dear?”

“I have calculated it — allowing the necessary margin — and I am sure of what I say. And I have done something else; I have asked about the Marriage License. I can easily find lodgings in the neighbourhood. We might be married at Harrow in a fortnight.”

Regina started: her eyes opened widely, and rested on Amelius with an expression of incredulous wonder. “Married in a fortnight?” she repeated. “What would my uncle and aunt say?”

“My angel, our happiness doesn’t depend on your uncle and aunt — our happiness depends on ourselves. Nobody has any power to control us. I am a man, and you are a woman; and we have a right to be married whenever we like.” Amelius pronounced this last oracular sentence with his head held high, and a pleasant inner persuasion of the convincing manner in which he had stated his case.

“Without my uncle to give me away!” Regina exclaimed. “Without my aunt! With no bridesmaids, and no friends, and no wedding-breakfast! Oh, Amelius, what can you be thinking of?” She drew back a step, and looked at him in helpless consternation.

For the moment, and the moment only, Amelius lost all patience with her. “If you really loved me,” he said bitterly, “you wouldn’t think of the bridesmaids and the breakfast!” Regina had her answer ready in her pocket — she took out her handkerchief. Before she could lift it to her eyes, Amelius recovered himself. “No, no,” he said, “I didn’t mean that — I am sure you love me — take my arm again. Do you know, Regina, I doubt whether your uncle has told you everything that passed between us. Are you really aware of the hard terms that he insists on? He expects me to increase my five hundred a year to two thousand, before he will sanction our marriage.”

“Yes, dear, he told me that.”

“I have as much chance of earning fifteen hundred a year, Regina, as I have of being made King of England. Did he tell you that?“

“He doesn’t agree with you, dear — he thinks you might earn it (with your abilities) in ten years.”

This time it was the turn of Amelius to look at Regina in helpless consternation. “Ten years?” he repeated. “Do you coolly contemplate waiting ten years before we are married? Good heavens! is it possible that you are thinking of the money? that you can’t live without carriages and footmen, and ostentation and grandeur —?”

He stopped. For once, even Regina showed that she had spirit enough to be angry. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself to speak to me in that way!” she broke out indignantly. “If you have no better opinion of me than that, I won’t marry you at all — no, not if you had fifty thousand a year, sir, to-morrow! Am I to have no sense of duty to my uncle — to the good man who has been a second father to me? Do you think I am ungrateful enough to set his wishes at defiance? Oh yes, I know you don’t like him! I know that a great many people don’t like him. That doesn’t make any difference to Me! But for dear uncle Farnaby, I might have gone to the workhouse, I might have been a starving needlewoman, a poor persecuted maid-of-all-work. Am I to forget that, because you have no patience, and only think of yourself? Oh, I wish I had never met with you! I wish I had never been fool enough to be as fond of you as I am!” With that confession, she turned her back on him, and took refuge in her handkerchief once more.

Amelius stood looking at her in silent despair. After the tone in which she had spoken of her obligations to her uncle, it was useless to anticipate any satisfactory result from the exertion of his influence over Regina. Recalling what he had seen and heard, in Mrs. Farnaby’s room, Amelius could not doubt that the motive of pacifying his wife was the motive which had first led Farnaby to receive Regina into his house. Was it unreasonable or unjust to infer, that the orphan child must have been mainly indebted to Mrs. Farnaby’s sense of duty to the memory of her sister for the parental protection afforded to her, from that time forth? It would have been useless, and worse than useless, to place before Regina such considerations as these. Her exaggerated idea of the gratitude that she owed to her uncle was beyond the limited reach of reason. Nothing was to be gained by opposition; and no sensible course was left but to say some peace-making words and submit.

“I beg your pardon, Regina, if I have offended you. You have sadly disappointed me. I haven’t deliberately misjudged you; I can say no more.”

She turned round quickly, and looked at him. There was an ominous change to resignation in his voice, there was a dogged submission in his manner, that alarmed her. She had never yet seen him under the perilously-patient aspect in which he now presented himself, after his apology had been made.

“I forgive you, Amelius, with all my heart,” she said — and timidly held out her hand.

He took it, raised it silently to his lips, and dropped it again.

She suddenly turned pale. All the love that she had in her to give to a man, she had given to Amelius. Her heart sank; she asked herself, in blank terror, if she had lost him.

“I am afraid it is I who have offended you,“ she said. “Don’t be angry with me, Amelius! don’t make me more unhappy than I am!”

“I am not in the least angry,” he answered, still in the quiet subdued way that terrified her. “You can’t expect me, Regina, to contemplate a ten years’ engagement cheerfully.”

She took his hand, and held it in both her own hands — held it, as if his love for her was there and she was determined not to let it go.

“If you will only leave it to me,” she pleaded, “the engagement shan’t be so long as that. Try my uncle with a little kindness and respect, Amelius, instead of saying hard words to him. Or let me try him, if you are too proud to give way. May I say that you had no intention of offending him, and that you are willing to leave the future to me?”

“Certainly,” said Amelius, “if you think it will be of the slightest use.” His tone added plainly, “I don’t believe in your uncle, mind, as you do.”

She still persisted. “It will be of the greatest use,” she went on. “He will let me go home again, and he will not object to your coming to see me. He doesn’t like to be despised and set at defiance — who does? Be patient, Amelius; and I will persuade him to expect less money from you — only what you may earn, dear, with your talents, long before ten years have passed.” She waited for a word of reply which might show that she had encouraged him a little. He only smiled. “You talk of loving me,” she said, drawing back from him with a look of reproach; “and you don’t even believe what I say to you.” She stopped, and looked behind her with a faint cry of alarm. Hurried footsteps were audible on the other side of the evergreens that screened them. Amelius stepped back to a turn in the path, and discovered Phoebe.

“Don’t stay a moment longer, sir!” cried the girl. “I’ve been to the house — and Mrs. Ormond isn’t there — and nobody knows where she is. Get out by the gate, sir, while you have the chance.”

Amelius returned to Regina. “I mustn’t get the girl into a scrape,” he said. “You know where to write to me. Good-bye.”

Regina made a sign to the maid to retire. Amelius had never taken leave of her as he was taking leave of her now. She forgot the fervent embrace and the daring kisses — she was desperate at the bare idea of losing him. “Oh, Amelius, don’t doubt that I love you! Say you believe I love you! Kiss me before you go!”

He kissed her — but, ah, not as he had kissed her before. He said the words she wanted him to say — but only to please her, not with all his heart. She let him go; reproaches would be wasted at that moment.

Phoebe found her pale and immovable, rooted to the spot on which they had parted. “Dear, dear me, miss, what’s gone wrong?”

And her mistress answered wildly, in words that had never before passed her placid lips, “O Phoebe, I wish I was dead!”

Such was the impression left on the mind of Regina by the interview in the shrubbery.

The impression left on the mind of Amelius was stated in equally strong language, later in the day. His American friend asked innocently for news, and was answered in these terms:

“Find something to occupy my mind, Rufus, or I shall throw the whole thing over and go to the devil.”

The wise man from New England was too wise to trouble Amelius with questions, under these circumstances. “Is that so?” was all he said. Then he put his hand in his pocket, and, producing a letter, laid it quietly on the table.

“For me?” Amelius asked.

“You wanted something to occupy your mind,” the wily Rufus answered. “There ’tis.”

Amelius read the letter. It was dated, “Hampden Institution.” The secretary invited Amelius, in highly complimentary terms, to lecture, in the hall of the Institution, on Christian Socialism as taught and practised in the Community at Tadmor. He was offered two-thirds of the profits derived from the sale of places, and was left free to appoint his own evening (at a week’s notice) and to issue his own advertisements. Minor details were reserved to be discussed with the secretary, when the lecturer had consented to the arrangement proposed to him.

Having finished the letter, Amelius looked at his friend. “This is your doing,” he said.

Rufus admitted it, with his customary candour. He had a letter of introduction to the secretary, and he had called by appointment that morning. The Institution wanted something new to attract the members and the public. Having no present intention of lecturing himself, he had thought of Amelius, and had spoken his thought. “I mentioned,” Rufus added slyly, “that I didn’t reckon you would mount the platform. But he’s a sanguine creature, that secretary — and he said he’d try.”

“Why should I say No?” Amelius asked, a little irritably. “The secretary pays me a compliment, and offers me an opportunity of spreading our principles. Perhaps,” he added, more quietly, after a moment’s reflection, “you thought I might not be equal to the occasion — and, in that case, I don’t say you were wrong.”

Rufus shook his head. “If you had passed your life in this decrepit little island,” he replied, “I might have doubted you, likely enough. But Tadmor’s situated in the United States. If they don’t practise the boys in the art of orating, don’t you tell me there’s an American citizen with a voice in that society. Guess again, my son. You won’t? Well, then, ’twas uncle Farnaby I had in my mind. I said to myself — not to the secretary — Amelius is bound to consider uncle Farnaby. Oh, my! what would uncle Farnaby say?”

The hot temper of Amelius took fire instantly. “What the devil do I care for Farnaby’s opinions?” he burst out. “If there’s a man in England who wants the principles of Christian Socialism beaten into his thick head, it’s Farnaby. Are you going to see the secretary again?”

“I might look in,” Rufus answered, “in the course of the evening.”

“Tell him I’ll give the lecture — with my compliments and thanks. If I can only succeed,” pursued Amelius, hearing himself with the new idea, “I may make a name as a lecturer, and a name means money, and money means beating Farnaby with his own weapons. It’s an opening for me, Rufus, at the crisis of my life.”

“That is so,” Rufus admitted. “I may as well look up the secretary.”

“Why shouldn’t I go with you?” Amelius suggested.

“Why not?” Rufus agreed.

They left the house together.

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