The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

Late that night Amelius sat alone in his room, making notes for the lecture which he had now formally engaged himself to deliver in a week’s time.

Thanks to his American education (as Rufus had supposed), he had not been without practice in the art of public speaking. He had learnt to face his fellow-creatures in the act of oratory, and to hear the sound of his own voice in a silent assembly, without trembling from head to foot. English newspapers were regularly sent to Tadmor, and English politics were frequently discussed in the little parliament of the Community. The prospect of addressing a new audience, with their sympathies probably against him at the outset, had its terrors undoubtedly. But the more formidable consideration, to the mind of Amelius, was presented by the limits imposed on him in the matter of time. The lecture was to be succeeded (at the request of a clerical member of the Institution) by a public discussion; and the secretary’s experience suggested that the lecturer would do well to reduce his address within the compass of an hour. “Socialism is a large subject to be squeezed into that small space,” Amelius had objected. And the secretary sighed, and answered, “They won’t listen any longer.”

Making notes, from time to time, of the points on which it was most desirable to insist, and on the relative positions which they should occupy in his lecture, the memory of Amelius became more and more absorbed in recalling the scenes in which his early life had been passed.

He laid down his pen, as the clock of the nearest church struck the first dark hour of the morning, and let his thoughts take him back again, without interruption or restraint, to the hills and vales of Tadmor. Once more the kind old Elder Brother taught him the noble lessons of Christianity as they came from the inspired Teacher’s own lips; once more he took his turn of healthy work in the garden and the field; once more the voices of his companions joined with him in the evening songs, and the timid little figure of Mellicent stood at his side, content to hold the music-book and listen. How poor, how corrupt, did the life look that he was leading now, by comparison with the life that he had led in those earlier and happier days! How shamefully he had forgotten the simple precepts of Christian humility, Christian sympathy, and Christian self-restraint, in which his teachers had trusted as the safeguards that were to preserve him from the foul contact of the world! Within the last two days only, he had refused to make merciful allowance for the errors of a man, whose life had been wasted in the sordid struggle upward from poverty to wealth. And, worse yet, he had cruelly distressed the poor girl who loved him, at the prompting of those selfish passions which it was his first and foremost duty to restrain. The bare remembrance of it was unendurable to him, in his present frame of mind. With his customary impetuosity, he snatched up the pen, to make atonement before he went to rest that night. He wrote in few words to Mr. Farnaby, declaring that he regretted having spoken impatiently and contemptuously at the interview between them, and expressing the hope that their experience of each other, in the time to come, might perhaps lead to acceptable concessions on either side. His letter to Regina was written, it is needless to say, in warmer terms and at much greater length: it was the honest outpouring of his love and his penitence. When the letters were safe in their envelopes he was not satisfied, even yet. No matter what the hour might be, there was no ease of mind for Amelius, until he had actually posted his letters. He stole downstairs, and softly unbolted the door, and hurried away to the nearest letter-box. When he had let himself in again with his latch-key, his mind was relieved at last. “Now,” he thought, as he lit his bed-room candle, “I can go to sleep!”

A visit from Rufus was the first event of the day.

The two set to work together to draw out the necessary advertisement of the lecture. It was well calculated to attract attention in certain quarters. The announcement addressed itself, in capital letters, to all honest people who were poor and discontented. “Come, and hear the remedy which Christian Socialism provides for your troubles, explained to you by a friend and a brother; and pay no more than sixpence for the place that you occupy.” The necessary information as to time and place followed this appeal; including the offer of reserved seats at higher prices. By advice of the secretary, the advertisement was not sent to any journal having its circulation among the wealthier classes of society. It appeared prominently in one daily paper and in two weekly papers; the three possessing an aggregate sale of four hundred thousand copies. “Assume only five readers to each copy,” cried sanguine Amelius, “and we appeal to an audience of two millions. What a magnificent publicity!”

There was one inevitable result of magnificent publicity which Amelius failed to consider. His advertisements were certain to bring people together, who might otherwise never have met in the great world of London, under one roof. All over England, Scotland, and Ireland, he invited unknown guests to pass the evening with him. In such circumstances, recognitions may take place between persons who have lost sight of each other for years; conversations may be held, which might otherwise never have been exchanged; and results may follow, for which the hero of the evening may be innocently responsible, because two or three among his audience happen to be sitting to hear him on the same bench. A man who opens his doors, and invites the public indiscriminately to come in, runs the risk of playing with inflammable materials, and can never be sure at what time or in what direction they may explode.

Rufus himself took the fair copies of the advertisement to the nearest agent. Amelius stayed at home to think over his lecture.

He was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Farnaby’s answer to his letter. The man of the oily whiskers wrote courteously and guardedly. He was evidently flattered and pleased by the advance that had been made to him; and he was quite willing “under the circumstances” to give the lovers opportunities of meeting at his house. At the same time, he limited the number of the opportunities. “Once a week, for the present, my dear sir. Regina will doubtless write to you, when she returns to London.”

Regina wrote, by return of post. The next morning Amelius received a letter from her which enchanted him. She had never loved him as she loved him now; she longed to see him again; she had prevailed on Mrs. Ormond to let her shorten her visit, and to intercede for her with the authorities at home. They were to return together to London on the afternoon of the next day. Amelius would be sure to find her, if he arranged to call in time for five-o’clock tea.

Towards four o’clock on the next day, while Amelius was putting the finishing touches to his dress, he was informed that “a young person wished to see him.” The visitor proved to be Phoebe, with her handkerchief to her eyes; indulging in grief, in humble imitation of her young mistress’s gentle method of proceeding on similar occasions.

“Good God!” cried Amelius, “has anything happened to Regina?”

“No, sir,” Phoebe murmured behind the handkerchief. “Miss Regina is at home, and well.”

“Then what are you crying about?”

Phoebe forgot her mistress’s gentle method. She answered, with an explosion of sobs, “I’m ruined, sir!”

“What do you mean by being ruined? Who’s done it?”

“You’ve done it, sir!”

Amelius started. His relations with Phoebe had been purely and entirely of the pecuniary sort. She was a showy, pretty girl, with a smart little figure — but with some undeniably bad lines, which only observant physiognomists remarked, about her eyebrows and her mouth. Amelius was not a physiognomist; but he was in love with Regina, which at his age implied faithful love. It is only men over forty who can court the mistress, with reserves of admiration to spare for the maid.

“Sit down,” said Amelius; “and tell me in two words what you mean.”

Phoebe sat down, and dried her eyes. “I have been infamously treated, sir, by Mrs. Farnaby,” she began — and stopped, overpowered by the bare remembrance of her wrongs. She was angry enough, at that moment, to be off her guard. The vindictive nature that was in the girl found its way outward, and showed itself in her face. Amelius perceived the change, and began to doubt whether Phoebe was quite worthy of the place which she had hitherto held in his estimation.

“Surely there must be some mistake,” he said. “What opportunity has Mrs. Farnaby had of ill-treating you? You have only just got back to London.”

“I beg your pardon, sir, we got back sooner than we expected. Mrs. Ormond had business in town: and she left Miss Regina at her own door, nearly two hours since.”

“Well?”

“Well, sir, I had hardly taken off my bonnet and shawl, when I was sent for by Mrs. Farnaby. ‘Have you unpacked your box yet?’ says she. I told her I hadn’t had time to do so. ‘You needn’t trouble yourself to unpack,’ says she. ‘You are no longer in Miss Regina’s service. There are your wages — with a month’s wages besides, in place of the customary warning.’ I’m only a poor girl, sir, but I up and spoke to her as plain as she spoke to me. ‘I want to know,’ I says, ‘why I am sent away in this uncivil manner?’ I couldn’t possibly repeat what she said. My blood boils when I think of it,” Phoebe declared, with melodramatic vehemence. “Somebody has found us out, sir. Somebody has told Mrs. Farnaby of your private meeting with Miss Regina in the shrubbery, and the money you kindly gave me. I believe Mrs. Ormond is at the bottom of it; you remember nobody knew where she was, when I thought she was in the house speaking to the cook. That’s guess-work, I allow, so far. What is certain is, that I have been spoken to as if I was the lowest creature that walks the streets. Mrs. Farnaby refuses to give me a character, sir. She actually said she would call in the police, if I didn’t leave the house in half an hour. How am I to get another place, without a character? I’m a ruined girl, that’s what I am — and all through You!”

Threatened at this point with an illustrative outburst of sobbing Amelius was simple enough to try the consoling influence of a sovereign. “Why don’t you speak to Miss Regina?” he asked. “You know she will help you.”

“She has done all she can, sir. I have nothing to say against Miss Regina — she’s a good creature. She came into the room, and begged, and prayed, and took all the blame on herself. Mrs. Farnaby wouldn’t hear a word. ‘I’m mistress here,’ she says; ‘you had better go back to your room.’ Ah, Mr. Amelius, I can tell you Mrs. Farnaby is your enemy as well as mine! you’ll never marry her niece if she can stop it. Mark my words, sir, that’s the secret of the vile manner in which she has used me. My conscience is clear, thank God. I’ve tried to serve the cause of true love — and I’m not ashamed of it. Never mind! my turn is to come. I’m only a poor servant, sent adrift in the world without a character. Wait a little! you see if I am not even (and better than even) with Mrs. Farnaby, before long! I know what I know. I am not going to say any more than that. She shall rue the day,” cried Phoebe, relapsing into melodrama again, “when she turned me out of the house like a thief!”

“Come! come!” said Amelius, sharply, “you mustn’t speak in that way.”

Phoebe had got her money: she could afford to be independent. She rose from her chair. The insolence which is the almost invariable accompaniment of a sense of injury among Englishwomen of her class expressed itself in her answer to Amelius. “I speak as I think, sir. I have some spirit in me; I am not a woman to be trodden underfoot — and so Mrs. Farnaby shall find, before she is many days older.”

“Phoebe! Phoebe! you are talking like a heathen. If Mrs. Farnaby has behaved to you with unjust severity, set her an example of moderation on your side. It’s your duty as a Christian to forgive injuries.”

Phoebe burst out laughing. “Hee-hee-hee! Thank you, sir, for a sermon as well as a sovereign. You have been most kind, indeed!” She changed suddenly from irony to anger. “I never was called a heathen before! Considering what I have done for you, I think you might at least have been civil. Good afternoon, sir.” She lifted her saucy little snub-nose, and walked with dignity out of the room.

For the moment, Amelius was amused. As he heard the house-door closed, he turned laughing to the window, for a last look at Phoebe in the character of an injured Christian. In an instant the smile left his lips — he drew back from the window with a start.

A man had been waiting for Phoebe, in the street. At the moment when Amelius looked out, she had just taken his arm. He glanced back at the house, as they walked away together. Amelius immediately recognised, in Phoebe’s companion (and sweetheart), a vagabond Irishman, nicknamed Jervy, whose face he had last seen at Tadmor. Employed as one of the agents of the Community in transacting their business with the neighbouring town, he had been dismissed for misconduct, and had been unwisely taken back again, at the intercession of a respectable person who believed in his promises of amendment. Amelius had suspected this man of being the spy who officiously informed against Mellicent and himself, but having discovered no evidence to justify his suspicions, he had remained silent on the subject. It was now quite plain to him that Jervy’s appearance in London could only be attributed to a second dismissal from the service of the Community, for some offence sufficiently serious to oblige him to take refuge in England. A more disreputable person it was hardly possible for Phoebe to have become acquainted with. In her present vindictive mood, he would be emphatically a dangerous companion and counsellor. Amelius felt this so strongly, that he determined to follow them, on the chance of finding out where Jervy lived. Unhappily, he had only arrived at this resolution after a lapse of a minute or two. He ran into the street but it was too late; not a trace of them was to be discovered. Pursuing his way to Mr. Farnaby’s house, he decided on mentioning what had happened to Regina. Her aunt had not acted wisely in refusing to let the maid refer to her for a character. She would do well to set herself right with Phoebe, in this particular, before it was too late.

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