The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Mrs. Farnaby stood at the door of her own room, and looked at her niece with an air of contemptuous curiosity.

“Well? You and your lover have had a fine time of it together, I suppose? What do you want here?”

“Amelius wishes particularly to speak to you, aunt.”

“Tell him to save himself the trouble. He may reconcile your uncle to his marriage — he won’t reconcile Me.”

“It’s not about that, aunt; it’s about Phoebe.”

“Does he want me to take Phoebe back again?”

At that moment Amelius appeared in the hall, and answered the question himself. “I want to give you a word of warning,” he said.

Mrs. Farnaby smiled grimly. “That excites my curiosity,” she replied. “Come in. I don’t want you,“ she added, dismissing her niece at the door. “So you’re willing to wait ten years for Regina?” she continued, when Amelius was alone with her. “I’m disappointed in you; you’re a poor weak creature, after all. What about that young hussy, Phoebe?”

Amelius told her unreservedly all that had passed between the discarded maid and himself, not forgetting, before he concluded, to caution her on the subject of the maid’s companion. “I don’t know what that man may not do to mislead Phoebe,” he said. “If I were you, I wouldn’t drive her into a corner.”

Mrs. Farnaby eyed him scornfully from head to foot. “You used to have the spirit of a man in you,” she answered. “Keeping company with Regina has made you a milksop already. If you want to know what I think of Phoebe and her sweetheart —” she stopped, and snapped her fingers. “There!” she said, “that’s what I think! Now go back to Regina. I can tell you one thing — she will never be your wife.”

Amelius looked at her in quiet surprise. “It seems odd,” he remarked, “that you should treat me as you do, after what you said to me, the last time I was in this room. You expect me to help you in the dearest wish of your life — and you do everything you can to thwart the dearest wish of my life. A man can’t keep his temper under continual provocation. Suppose I refuse to help you?”

Mrs. Farnaby looked at him with the most exasperating composure. “I defy you to do it,” she answered.

“You defy me to do it!” Amelius exclaimed.

“Do you take me for a fool?” Mrs. Farnaby went on. “Do you think I don’t know you better than you know yourself?” She stepped up close to him; her voice sank suddenly to low and tender tones. “If that last unlikely chance should turn out in my favour,” she went on; “if you really did meet with my poor girl, one of these days, and knew that you had met with her — do you mean to say you could be cruel enough, no matter how badly I behaved to you, to tell me nothing about it? Is that the heart I can feel beating under my hand? Is that the Christianity you learnt at Tadmor? Pooh, pooh, you foolish boy! Go back to Regina; and tell her you have tried to frighten me, and you find it won’t do.”

The next day was Saturday. The advertisement of the lecture appeared in the newspapers. Rufus confessed that he had been extravagant enough, in the case of the two weekly journals, to occupy half a page. “The public,” he explained, “have got a nasty way of overlooking advertisements of a modest and retiring character. Hit ’em in the eyes when they open the paper, or you don’t hit ’em at all.”

Among the members of the public attracted by the new announcement, Mrs. Farnaby was one. She honoured Amelius with a visit at his lodgings. “I called you a poor weak creature yesterday” (these were her first words on entering the room); “I talked like a fool. You’re a splendid fellow; I respect your courage, and I shall attend your lecture. Never mind what Mr. Farnaby and Regina say. Regina’s poor little conventional soul is shaken, I dare say; you needn’t expect to have my niece among your audience. But Farnaby is a humbug, as usual. He affects to be horrified; he talks big about breaking off the match. In his own self, he’s bursting with curiosity to know how you will get through with it. I tell you this — he will sneak into the hall and stand at the back where nobody can see him. I shall go with him; and, when you’re on the platform, I’ll hold up my handkerchief like this. Then you’ll know he’s there. Hit him hard, Amelius — hit him hard! Where is your friend Rufus? just gone away? I like that American. Give him my love, and tell him to come and see me.” She left the room as abruptly as she had entered it. Amelius looked after her in amazement. Mrs. Farnaby was not like herself; Mrs. Farnaby was in good spirits!

Regina’s opinion of the lecture arrived by post.

Every other word in her letter was underlined; half the sentences began with “Oh!”; Regina was shocked, astonished, ashamed, alarmed. What would Amelius do next? Why had he deceived her, and left her to find it out in the papers? He had undone all the good effect of those charming letters to her father and herself. He had no idea of the disgust and abhorrence which respectable people would feel at his odious Socialism. Was she never to know another happy moment? and was Amelius to be the cause of it? and so on, and so on.

Mr. Farnaby’s protest followed, delivered by Mr. Farnaby himself. He kept his gloves on when he called; he was solemn and pathetic; he remonstrated, in the character of one of the ancestors of Amelius; he pitied the ancient family “mouldering in the silent grave,” he would abstain from deciding in a hurry, but his daughter’s feelings were outraged, and he feared it might be his duty to break off the match. Amelius, with perfect good temper, offered him a free admission, and asked him to hear the lecture and decide for himself whether there was any harm in it. Mr. Farnaby turned his head away from the ticket as if it was something indecent. “Sad! sad!” That was his only farewell to the gentleman-Socialist.

On the Sunday (being the only day in London on which a man can use his brains without being interrupted by street music), Amelius rehearsed his lecture. On the Monday, he paid his weekly visit to Regina.

She was reported — whether truly or not it was impossible for him to discover — to have gone out in the carriage with Mrs. Ormond. Amelius wrote to her in soothing and affectionate terms, suggesting, as he had suggested to her father, that she should wait to hear the lecture before she condemned it. In the mean time, he entreated her to remember that they had promised to be true to one another, in time and eternity — Socialism notwithstanding.

The answer came back by private messenger. The tone was serious. Regina’s principles forbade her to attend a Socialist lecture. She hoped Amelius was in earnest in writing as he did about time and eternity. The subject was very awful to a rightly-constituted mind. On the next page, some mitigation of this severity followed in a postscript. Regina would wait at home to see Amelius, the day after his “regrettable appearance in public.”

The evening of Tuesday was the evening of the lecture.

Rufus posted himself at the ticket-taker’s office, in the interests of Amelius. “Even sixpences do sometimes stick to a man’s fingers, on their way from the public to the money-box,” he remarked. The sixpences did indeed flow in rapidly; the advertisements had, so far, produced their effect. But the reserved seats sold very slowly. The members of the Institution, who were admitted for nothing, arrived in large numbers, and secured the best places. Towards eight o’clock (the hour at which the lecture was to begin), the sixpenny audience was still pouring in. Rufus recognised Phoebe among the late arrivals, escorted by a person in the dress of a gentleman, who was palpably a blackguard nevertheless. A short stout lady followed, who warily shook hands with Rufus, and said, “Let me introduce you to Mr. Farnaby.” Mr. Farnaby’s mouth and chin were shrouded in a wrapper; his hat was over his eyebrows. Rufus observed that he looked as if he was ashamed of himself. A gaunt, dirty, savage old woman, miserably dressed, offered her sixpence to the moneytaker, while the two gentlemen were shaking hands; the example, it is needless to say, being set by Rufus. The old woman looked attentively at all that was visible of Mr. Farnaby — that is to say, at his eyes and his whiskers — by the gas-lamp hanging in the corridor. She instantly drew back, though she had got her ticket; waited until Mr. Farnaby had paid for his wife and himself, and then followed close behind them, into the hall.

And why not? The advertisements addressed this wretched old creature as one of the poor and discontented public. Sixteen years ago, John Farnaby had put his own child into that woman’s hands at Ramsgate, and had never seen either of them since.

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