The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

Entering the hall, Mr. Farnaby discovered without difficulty the position of modest retirement of which he was in search.

The cheap seats were situated, as usual, on that part of the floor of the building which was farthest from the platform. A gallery at this end of the hall threw its shadow over the hindermost benches and the gangway by which they were approached. In the sheltering obscurity thus produced, Mr. Farnaby took his place; standing in the corner formed by the angle it which the two walls of the building met, with his dutiful wife at his side.

Still following them, unnoticed in the crowd, the old woman stopped at the extremity of the hindermost bench, looked close at a smartly-dressed young man who occupied the last seat at the end, and who paid marked attention to a pretty girl sitting by him, and whispered in his ear, “Now then, Jervy! can’t you make room for Mother Sowler?”

The man started and looked round. “You here?” he exclaimed, with an oath.

Before he could say more, Phoebe whispered to him on the other side, “What a horrid old creature! How did you ever come to know her?”

At the same moment, Mrs. Sowler reiterated her request in more peremptory language. “Do you hear, Jervy — do you hear? Sit a little closer.”

Jervy apparently had his reasons for treating the expression of Mrs. Sowler’s wishes with deference, shabby as she was. Making abundant apologies, he asked his neighbours to favour him by sitting a little nearer to each other, and so contrive to leave a morsel of vacant space at the edge of the bench.

Phoebe, making room under protest, began to whisper again. “What does she mean by calling you Jervy? She looks like a beggar. Tell her your name is Jervis.”

The reply she received did not encourage her to say more. “Hold your tongue; I have reasons for being civil to her — you be civil too.”

He turned to Mrs. Sowler, with the readiest submission to circumstances. Under the surface of his showy looks and his vulgar facility of manner, there lay hidden a substance of callous villainy and impenetrable cunning. He had in him the materials out of which the clever murderers are made, who baffle the police. If he could have done it with impunity, he would have destroyed without remorse the squalid old creature who sat by him, and who knew enough of his past career in England to send him to penal servitude for life. As it was, he spoke to her with a spurious condescension and good humour. “Why, it must be ten years, Mrs. Sowler, since I last saw you! What have you been doing?”

The woman frowned at him as she answered. “Can’t you look at me, and see? Starving!” She eyed his gaudy watch and chain greedily. “Money don’t seem to be scarce with you. Have you made your fortune in America?”

He laid his hand on her arm, and pressed it warningly. “Hush!” he said, under his breath. “We’ll talk about that, after the lecture.” His bright shifty black eyes turned furtively towards Phoebe — and Mrs. Sowler noticed it. The girl’s savings in service had paid for his jewelry and his fine clothes. She silently resented his rudeness in telling her to “hold her tongue”; sitting, sullen, with her impudent little nose in the air. Jervy tried to include her indirectly in his conversation with his shabby old friend. “This young lady,” he said, “knows Mr. Goldenheart. She feels sure he’ll break down; and we’ve come here to see the fun. I don’t hold with Socialism myself — I am for, what my favourite newspaper calls, the Altar and the Throne. In short, my politics are Conservative.”

“Your politics are in your girl’s pocket,” muttered Mrs. Sowler. “How long will her money last?”

Jervy turned a deaf ear to the interruption. “And what has brought you here?” he went on, in his most ingratiating way. “Did you see the advertisement in the papers?”

Mrs. Sowler answered loud enough to be heard above the hum of talking in the sixpenny places. “I was having a drop of gin, and I saw the paper at the public-house. I’m one of the discontented poor. I hate rich people; and I’m ready to pay my sixpence to hear them abused.”

“Hear, hear!” said a man near, who looked like a shoemaker.

“I hope he’ll give it to the aristocracy,” added one of the shoemaker’s neighbours, apparently a groom out of place.

“I’m sick of the aristocracy,” cried a woman with a fiery face and a crushed bonnet. “It’s them as swallows up the money. What business have they with their palaces and their parks, when my husband’s out of work, and my children hungry at home?”

The acquiescent shoemaker listened with admiration. “Very well put,” he said; “very well put.”

These expressions of popular feeling reached the respectable ears of Mr. Farnaby. “Do you hear those wretches?” he said to his wife.

Mrs. Farnaby seized the welcome opportunity of irritating him. “Poor things!” she answered. “In their place, we should talk as they do.”

“You had better go into the reserved seats,” rejoined her husband, turning from her with a look of disgust. “There’s plenty of room. Why do you stop here?”

“I couldn’t think of leaving you, my dear! How did you like my American friend?”

“I am astonished at your taking the liberty of introducing him to me. You knew perfectly well that I was here incognito. What do I care about a wandering American?”

Mrs. Farnaby persisted as maliciously as ever. “Ah, but you see, I like him. The wandering American is my ally.”

“Your ally! What do you mean?”

“Good heavens, how dull you are! don’t you know that I object to my niece’s marriage engagement? I was quite delighted when I heard of this lecture, because it’s an obstacle in the way. It disgusts Regina, and it disgusts You — and my dear American is the man who first brought it about. Hush! here’s Amelius. How well he looks! So graceful and so gentlemanlike,” cried Mrs. Farnaby, signalling with her handkerchief to show Amelius their position in the hall. “I declare I’m ready to become a Socialist before he opens his lips!”

The personal appearance of Amelius took the audience completely by surprise. A man who is young and handsome is not the order of man who is habitually associated in the popular mind with the idea of a lecture. After a moment of silence, there was a spontaneous burst of applause. It was renewed when Amelius, first placing on his table a little book, announced his intention of delivering the lecture extempore. The absence of the inevitable manuscript was in itself an act of mercy that cheered the public at starting.

The orator of the evening began.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thoughtful people accustomed to watch the signs of the times in this country, and among the other nations of Europe, are (so far as I know) agreed in the conclusion, that serious changes are likely to take place in present forms of government, and in existing systems of society, before the century in which we live has reached its end. In plain words, the next revolution is not so unlikely, and not so far off, as it pleases the higher and wealthier classes among European populations to suppose. I am one of those who believe that the coming convulsion will take the form, this time, of a social revolution, and that the man at the head of it will not be a military or a political man — but a Great Citizen, sprung from the people, and devoted heart and soul to the people’s cause. Within the limits assigned to me to-night, it is impossible that I should speak to you of government and society among other nations, even if I possessed the necessary knowledge and experience to venture on so vast a subject. All that I can now attempt to do is (first) to point out some of the causes which are paving the way for a coming change in the social and political condition of this country; and (secondly) to satisfy you that the only trustworthy remedy for existing abuses is to be found in the system which Christian Socialism extracts from this little book on my table — the book which you all know under the name of The New Testament. Before, however, I enter on my task, I feel it a duty to say one preliminary word on the subject of my claim to address you, such as it is. I am most unwilling to speak of myself — but my position here forces me to do so. I am a stranger to all of you; and I am a very young man. Let me tell you, then, briefly, what my life has been, and where I have been brought up — and then decide for yourselves whether it is worth your while to favour me with your attention, or not.”

“A very good opening,” remarked the shoemaker.

“A nice-looking fellow,” said the fiery-faced woman, “I should like to kiss him.”

“He’s too civil by half,” grumbled Mrs. Sowler; “I wish I had my sixpence back in my pocket.”

“Give him time.” whispered Jervy, “and he’ll warm up. I say, Phoebe, he doesn’t begin like a man who is going to break down. I don’t expect there will be much to laugh at to-night.”

“What an admirable speaker!” said Mrs. Farnaby to her husband. “Fancy such a man as that, being married to such an idiot as Regina!”

“There’s always a chance for him,” returned Mr. Farnaby, savagely, “as long as he’s not married to such a woman as You!”

In the mean time, Amelius had claimed national kindred with his audience as an Englishman, and had rapidly sketched his life at Tadmor, in its most noteworthy points. This done, he put the question whether they would hear him. His frankness and freshness had already won the public: they answered by a general shout of applause.

“Very well,” Amelius proceeded, “now let us get on. Suppose we take a glance (we have no time to do more) at the present state of our religious system, first. What is the public aspect of the thing called Christianity, in the England of our day? A hundred different sects all at variance with each other. An established church, rent in every direction by incessant wrangling — disputes about black gowns or white; about having candlesticks on tables, or off tables; about bowing to the east or bowing to the west; about which doctrine collects the most respectable support and possesses the largest sum of money, the doctrine in my church, or the doctrine in your church, or the doctrine in the church over the way. Look up, if you like, from this multitudinous and incessant squabbling among the rank and file, to the high regions in which the right reverend representatives of state religion sit apart. Are they Christians? If they are, show me the Bishop who dare assert his Christianity in the House of Lords, when the ministry of the day happens to see its advantage in engaging in a war! Where is that Bishop, and how many supporters does he count among his own order? Do you blame me for using intemperate language — language which I cannot justify? Take a fair test, and try me by that. The result of the Christianity of the New Testament is to make men true, humane, gentle, modest, strictly scrupulous and strictly considerate in their dealings with their neighbours. Does the Christianity of the churches and the sects produce these results among us? Look at the staple of the country, at the occupation which employs the largest number of Englishmen of all degrees — Look at our Commerce. What is its social aspect, judged by the morality which is in this book in my hand? Let those organised systems of imposture, masquerading under the disguise of banks and companies, answer the question — there is no need for me to answer it. You know what respectable names are associated, year after year, with the shameless falsification of accounts, and the merciless ruin of thousands on thousands of victims. You know how our poor Indian customer finds his cotton-print dress a sham that falls to pieces; how the savage who deals honestly with us for his weapon finds his gun a delusion that bursts; how the half-starved needlewoman who buys her reel of thread finds printed on the label a false statement of the number of yards that she buys; you know that, in the markets of Europe, foreign goods are fast taking the place of English goods, because the foreigner is the most honest manufacturer of the two — and, lastly, you know, what is worse than all, that these cruel and wicked deceptions, and many more like them, are regarded, on the highest commercial authority, as ‘forms of competition’ and justifiable proceedings in trade. Do you believe in the honourable accumulation of wealth by men who hold such opinions and perpetrate such impostures as these? I don’t! Do you find any brighter and purer prospect when you look down from the man who deceives you and me on the great scale, to the man who deceives us on the small? I don’t! Everything we eat, drink, and wear is a more or less adulterated commodity; and that very adulteration is sold to us by the tradesmen at such outrageous prices, that we are obliged to protect ourselves on the Socialist principle, by setting up cooperative shops of our own. Wait! and hear me out, before you applaud. Don’t mistake the plain purpose of what I am saying to you; and don’t suppose that I am blind to the brighter side of the dark picture that I have drawn. Look within the limits of private life, and you will find true Christians, thank God, among clergymen and laymen alike; you will find men and women who deserve to be called, in the highest sense of the word, disciples of Christ. But my business is not with private life — my business is with the present public aspect of the religion, morals, and politics of this country; and again I say it, that aspect presents one wide field of corruption and abuse, and reveals a callous and shocking insensibility on the part of the nation at large to the spectacle of its own demoralisation and disgrace.”

There Amelius paused, and took his first drink of water.

Reserved seats at public performances seem, by some curious affinity, to be occupied by reserved persons. The select public, seated nearest to the orator, preserved discreet silence. But the hearty applause from the sixpenny places made ample amends. There was enough of the lecturer’s own vehemence and impetuosity in this opening attack — sustained as it undeniably was by a sound foundation of truth — to appeal strongly to the majority of his audience. Mrs. Sowler began to think that her sixpence had been well laid out, after all; and Mrs. Farnaby pointed the direct application to her husband of all the hardest hits at commerce, by nodding her head at him as they were delivered.

Amelius went on.

“The next thing we have to discover is this: Will our present system of government supply us with peaceable means for the reform of the abuses which I have already noticed? not forgetting that other enormous abuse, represented by our intolerable national expenditure, increasing with every year. Unless you insist on it, I do not propose to waste our precious time by saying anything about the House of Lords, for three good reasons. In the first place, that assembly is not elected by the people, and it has therefore no right of existence in a really free country. In the second place, out of its four hundred and eighty-five members, no less than one hundred and eighty-four directly profit by the expenditure of the public money; being in the annual receipt, under one pretence or another, of more than half a million sterling. In the third place, if the assembly of the Commons has in it the will, as well as the capacity, to lead the way in the needful reforms, the assembly of the Lords has no alternative but to follow, or to raise the revolution which it only escaped, by a hair’s-breadth, some forty years since. What do you say? Shall we waste our time in speaking of the House of Lords?”

Loud cries from the sixpenny benches answered No; the ostler and the fiery-faced woman being the most vociferous of all. Here and there, certain dissentient individuals raised a little hiss — led by Jervy, in the interests of “the Altar and the Throne.”

Amelius resumed.

“Well, will the House of Commons help us to get purer Christianity, and cheaper government, by lawful and sufficient process of reform? Let me again remind you that this assembly has the power — if it has the will. Is it so constituted at present as to have the will? There is the question! The number of members is a little over six hundred and fifty. Out of this muster, one fifth only represent (or pretend to represent) the trading interests of the country. As for the members charged with the interests of the working class, they are more easily counted still — they are two in number! Then, in heaven’s name (you will ask), what interest does the majority of members in this assembly represent? There is but one answer — the military and aristocratic interest. In these days of the decay of representative institutions, the House of Commons has become a complete misnomer. The Commons are not represented; modern members belong to classes of the community which have really no interest in providing for popular needs and lightening popular burdens. In one word, there is no sort of hope for us in the House of Commons. And whose fault is this? I own it with shame and sorrow — it is emphatically the fault of the people. Yes, I say to you plainly, it is the disgrace and the peril of England that the people themselves have elected the representative assembly which ignores the people’s wants! You voters, in town and county alike, have had every conceivable freedom and encouragement secured to you in the exercise of your sacred trust — and there is the modern House of Commons to prove that you are thoroughly unworthy of it!”

These bold words produced an outbreak of disapprobation from the audience, which, for the moment, completely overpowered the speaker’s voice. They were prepared to listen with inexhaustible patience to the enumeration of their virtues and their wrongs — but they had not paid sixpence each to be informed of the vicious and contemptible part which they play in modern politics. They yelled and groaned and hissed — and felt that their handsome young lecturer had insulted them!

Amelius waited quietly until the disturbance had worn itself out.

“I am sorry I have made you angry with me,” he said, smiling. “The blame for this little disturbance really rests with the public speakers who are afraid of you and who flatter you — especially if you belong to the working classes. You are not accustomed to have the truth told you to your faces. Why, my good friends, the people in this country, who are unworthy of the great trust which the wise and generous English constitution places in their hands, are so numerous that they can be divided into distinct classes! There is the highly-educated class which despairs, and holds aloof. There is the class beneath — without self-respect, and therefore without public spirit — which can be bribed indirectly, by the gift of a place, by the concession of a lease, even by an invitation to a party at a great house which includes the wives and the daughters. And there is the lower class still — mercenary, corrupt, shameless to the marrow of its bones — which sells itself and its liberties for money and drink. When I began this discourse, and adverted to great changes that are to come, I spoke of them as revolutionary changes. Am I an alarmist? Do I unjustly ignore the capacity for peaceable reformation which has preserved modern England from revolutions, thus far? God forbid that I should deny the truth, or that I should alarm you without need! But history tells me, if I look no farther back than to the first French Revolution, that there are social and political corruptions, which strike their roots in a nation so widely and so deeply, that no force short of the force of a revolutionary convulsion can tear them up and cast them away. And I do personally fear (and older and wiser men than I agree with me), that the corruptions at which I have only been able to hint, in this brief address, are fast extending themselves — in England, as well as in Europe generally — beyond the reach of that lawful and bloodless reform which has served us so well in past years. Whether I am mistaken in this view (and I hope with all my heart it may be so), or whether events yet in the future will prove that I am right, the remedy in either case, the one sure foundation on which a permanent, complete, and worthy reformation can be built — whether it prevents a convulsion or whether it follows a convulsion — is only to be found within the covers of this book. Do not, I entreat you, suffer yourselves to be persuaded by those purblind philosophers who assert that the divine virtue of Christianity is a virtue which is wearing out with the lapse of time. It is the abuse and corruption of Christianity that is wearing out — as all falsities and all impostures must and do wear out. Never, since Christ and his apostles first showed men the way to be better and happier, have the nations stood in sorer need of a return to that teaching, in its pristine purity and simplicity, than now! Never, more certainly than at this critical time, was it the interest as well as the duty of mankind to turn a deaf ear to the turmoil of false teachers, and to trust in that all-wise and all-merciful Voice which only ceased to exalt, console, and purify humanity, when it expired in darkness under the torture of the cross! Are these the wild words of an enthusiast? Is this the dream of an earthly Paradise in which it is sheer folly to believe? I can tell you of one existing community (one among others) which numbers some hundreds of persons; and which has found prosperity and happiness, by reducing the whole art and mystery of government to the simple solution set forth in the New Testament — fear God, and love thy neighbour as thyself.”

By these gradations Amelius arrived at the second of the two parts into which he had divided his address.

He now repeated, at greater length and with a more careful choice of language, the statement of the religious and social principles of the Community at Tadmor, which he had already addressed to his two fellow-travellers on the voyage to England. While he confined himself to plain narrative, describing a mode of life which was entirely new to his hearers, he held the attention of the audience. But when he began to argue the question of applying Christian Socialism to the government of large populations as well as small — when he inquired logically whether what he had proved to be good for some hundreds of persons was not also good for some thousands, and, conceding that, for some hundreds of thousands, and so on until he had arrived, by dint of sheer argument, at the conclusion that what had succeeded at Tadmor must necessarily succeed on a fair trial in London — then the public interest began to flag. People remembered their coughs and colds, and talked in whispers, and looked about them with a vague feeling of relief in staring at each other. Mrs. Sowler, hitherto content with furtively glancing at Mr. Farnaby from time to time, now began to look at him more boldly, as he stood in his corner with his eyes fixed sternly on the platform at the other end of the hall. He too began to feel that the lecture was changing its tone. It was no longer the daring outbreak which he had come to hear, as his sufficient justification (if necessary) for forbidding Amelius to enter his house. “I have had enough of it,” he said, suddenly turning to his wife, “let us go.”

If Mrs. Farnaby could have been forewarned that she was standing in that assembly of strangers, not as one of themselves, but as a woman with a formidable danger hanging over her head — or if she had only happened to look towards Phoebe, and had felt a passing reluctance to submit herself to the possibly insolent notice of a discharged servant — she might have gone out with her husband, and might have so escaped the peril that had been lying in wait for her, from the fatal moment when she first entered the hall. As it was she refused to move. “You forget the public discussion,” she said. “Wait and see what sort of fight Amelius makes of it when the lecture is over.”

She spoke loud enough to be heard by some of the people seated nearest to her. Phoebe, critically examining the dresses of the few ladies in the reserved seats, twisted round on the bench, and noticed for the first time the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Farnaby in their dim corner. “Look!” she whispered to Jervy, “there’s the wretch who turned me out of her house without a character, and her husband with her.”

Jervy looked round, in his turn, a little doubtful of the accuracy of his sweetheart’s information. “Surely they wouldn’t come to the sixpenny places,” he said. “Are you certain it’s Mr. and Mrs. Farnaby?”

He spoke in cautiously-lowered tones; but Mrs. Sowler had seen him look back at the lady and gentleman in the corner, and was listening attentively to catch the first words that fell from his lips.

“Which is Mr. Farnaby?” she asked.

“The man in the corner there, with the white silk wrapper over his mouth, and his hat down to his eyebrows.”

Mrs. Sowler looked round for a moment — to make sure that Jervy’s man and her man were one and the same.

“Farnaby?” she muttered to herself, in the tone of a person who heard the name for the first time. She considered a little, and leaning across Jervy, addressed herself to his companion. “My dear,” she whispered, “did that gentleman ever go by the name of Morgan, and have his letters addressed to the George and Dragon, in Tooley-street?”

Phoebe lifted her eyebrows with a look of contemptuous surprise, which was an answer in itself. “Fancy the great Mr. Farnaby going by an assumed name, and having his letters addressed to a public-house!” she said to Jervy.

Mrs. Sowler asked no more questions. She relapsed into muttering to herself, under her breath. “His whiskers have turned gray, to be sure — but I know his eyes again; I’ll take my oath to it, there’s no mistaking his eyes!” She suddenly appealed to Jervy. “Is Mr. Farnaby rich?” she asked.

“Rolling in riches!” was the answer.

“Where does he live?”

Jervy was cautious how he replied to that; he consulted Phoebe. “Shall I tell her?”

Phoebe answered petulantly, “I’m turned out of the house; I don’t care what you tell her!”

Jervy again addressed the old woman, still keeping his information in reserve. “Why do you want to know where he lives?”

“He owes me money,” said Mrs. Sowler.

Jervy looked hard at her, and emitted a long low whistle, expressive of blank amazement. The persons near, annoyed by the incessant whispering, looked round irritably, and insisted on silence. Jervy ventured nevertheless on a last interruption. “You seem to be tired of this,” he remarked to Phoebe; “let’s go and get some oysters.” She rose directly. Jervy tapped Mrs. Sowler on the shoulder, as they passed her. “Come and have some supper,” he said; “I’ll stand treat.”

The three were necessarily noticed by their neighbours as they passed out. Mrs. Farnaby discovered Phoebe — when it was too late. Mr. Farnaby happened to look first at the old woman. Sixteen years of squalid poverty effectually disguised her, in that dim light. He only looked away again, and said to his wife impatiently, “Let us go too!”

Mrs. Farnaby was still obstinate. “You can go if you like,” she said; “I shall stay here.”

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