The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

Rufus and his young friend walked together silently as far as a large square. Here they stopped, having reached the point at which it was necessary to take different directions on their way home.

“I’ve a word of advice, my son, for your private ear,” said the New Englander. “The barometer behind your waistcoat points to a downhearted state of the moral atmosphere. Come along to home with me — you want a whisky cocktail badly.”

“No, thank you, my dear fellow,” Amelius answered a little sadly. “I own I’m downhearted, as you say. You see, I expected this lecture to be a new opening for me. Personally, as you know, I don’t care two straws about money. But my marriage depends on my adding to my income; and the first attempt I’ve made to do it has ended in a total failure. I’m all abroad again, when I look to the future — and I’m afraid I’m fool enough to let it weigh on my spirits. No, the cocktail isn’t the right remedy for me. I don’t get the exercise and fresh air, here, that I used to get at Tadmor. My head burns after all that talking to-night. A good long walk will put me right, and nothing else will.”

Rufus at once offered to accompany him. Amelius shook his head. “Did you ever walk a mile in your life, when you could ride?” he asked good-humouredly. “I mean to be on my legs for four or five hours; I should only have to send you home in a cab. Thank you, old fellow, for the brotherly interest you take in me. I’ll breakfast with you to-morrow, at your hotel. Good night.”

Some curious prevision of evil seemed to trouble the mind of the good New Englander. He held Amelius fast by the hand: he said, very earnestly, “It goes against the grit with me to see you wandering off by yourself at this time of night — it does, I tell you! Do me a favour for once, my bright boy — go right away to bed.”

Amelius laughed, and released his hand. “I shouldn’t sleep, if I did go to bed. Breakfast to-morrow, at ten o’clock. Goodnight, again!”

He started on his walk, at a pace which set pursuit on the part of Rufus at defiance. The American stood watching him, until he was lost to sight in the darkness. “What a grip that young fellow has got on me, in no more than a few months!” Rufus thought, as he slowly turned away in the direction of his hotel. “Lord send the poor boy may keep clear of mischief this night!”

Meanwhile, Amelius walked on swiftly, straight before him, careless in what direction he turned his steps, so long as he felt the cool air and kept moving.

His thoughts were not at first occupied with the doubtful question of his marriage; the lecture was still the uppermost subject in his mind. He had reserved for the conclusion of his address the justification of his view of the future, afforded by the widespread and frightful poverty among the millions of the population of London alone. On this melancholy theme he had spoken with the eloquence of true feeling, and had produced a strong impression, even on those members of the audience who were most resolutely opposed to the opinions which he advocated. Without any undue exercise of self-esteem, he could look back on the close of his lecture with the conviction that he had really done justice to himself and to his cause. The retrospect of the public discussion that had followed failed to give him the same pleasure. His warm temper, his vehemently sincere belief in the truth of his own convictions, placed him at a serious disadvantage towards the more self-restrained speakers (all older than himself) who rose, one after another, to combat his views. More than once he had lost his temper, and had been obliged to make his apologies. More than once he had been indebted to the ready help of Rufus, who had taken part in the battle of words, with the generous purpose of covering his retreat. “No!” he thought to himself, with bitter humility, “I’m not fit for public discussions. If they put me into Parliament tomorrow, I should only get called to order and do nothing.”

He reached the bank of the Thames, at the eastward end of the Strand.

Walking straight on, as absently as ever, he crossed Waterloo Bridge, and followed the broad street that lay before him on the other side. He was thinking of the future again: Regina was in his mind now. The one prospect that he could see of a tranquil and happy life — with duties as well as pleasures; duties that might rouse him to find the vocation for which he was fit — was the prospect of his marriage. What was the obstacle that stood in his way? The vile obstacle of money; the contemptible spirit of ostentation which forbade him to live humbly on his own sufficient little income, and insisted that he should purchase domestic happiness at the price of the tawdry splendour of a rich tradesman and his friends. And Regina, who was free to follow her own better impulses — Regina, whose heart acknowledged him as its master — bowed before the golden image which was the tutelary deity of her uncle’s household, and said resignedly, Love must wait!

Still walking blindly on, he was roused on a sudden to a sense of passing events. Crossing a side-street at the moment, a man caught him roughly by the arm, and saved him from being run over. The man had a broom in his hand; he was a crossing-sweeper. “I think I’ve earned my penny, sir!” he said.

Amelius gave him half-a-crown. The man shouldered his broom, and tossed up the money, in a transport of delight. “Here’s something to go home with!” he cried, as he caught the half-crown again.

“Have you got a family at home?” Amelius asked.

“Only one, sir,” said the man. “The others are all dead. She’s as good a girl and as pretty a girl as ever put on a petticoat — though I say it that shouldn’t. Thank you kindly, sir. Good night!”

Amelius looked after the poor fellow, happy at least for that night! “If I had only been lucky enough to fall in love with the crossing-sweeper’s daughter,” he thought bitterly, “she would have married me when I asked her.”

He looked along the street. It curved away in the distance, with no visible limit to it. Arrived at the next side-street on his left, Amelius turned down it, weary of walking longer in the same direction. Whither it might lead him he neither knew nor cared. In his present humour it was a pleasurable sensation to feel himself lost in London.

The short street suddenly widened; a blaze of flaring gaslight dazzled his eyes; he heard all round him the shouting of innumerable voices. For the first time since he had been in London, he found himself in one of the street-markets of the poor.

On either side of the road, the barrows of the costermongers — the wandering tradesmen of the highway — were drawn up in rows; and every man was advertising his wares, by means of the cheap publicity of his own voice. Fish and vegetables; pottery and writing-paper; looking-glasses, saucepans, and coloured prints — all appealed together to the scantily filled purses of the crowds who thronged the pavement. One lusty vagabond stood up in a rickety donkey-cart, knee-deep in apples, selling a great wooden measure full for a penny, and yelling louder than all the rest. “Never was such apples sold in the public streets before! Sweet as flowers, and sound as a bell. Who says the poor ain’t looked after,” cried the fellow, with ferocious irony, “when they can have such apple-sauce as this to their loin of pork? Here’s nobby apples; here’s a penn’orth for your money. Sold again! Hullo, you! you look hungry. Catch! there’s an apple for nothing, just to taste. Be in time, be in time before they’re all sold!” Amelius moved forward a few steps, and was half deafened by rival butchers, shouting, “Buy, buy, buy!” to audiences of ragged women, who fingered the meat doubtfully, with longing eyes. A little farther — and there was a blind man selling staylaces, and singing a Psalm; and, beyond him again, a broken-down soldier playing “God save the Queen” on a tin flageolet. The one silent person in this sordid carnival was a Lascar beggar, with a printed placard round his neck, addressed to “The Charitable Public.” He held a tallow candle to illuminate the copious narrative of his misfortunes; and the one reader he obtained was a fat man, who scratched his head, and remarked to Amelius that he didn’t like foreigners. Starving boys and girls lurked among the costermongers’ barrows, and begged piteously on pretence of selling cigar-lights and comic songs. Furious women stood at the doors of public-houses, and railed on their drunken husbands for spending the house-money in gin. A thicker crowd, towards the middle of the street, poured in and out at the door of a cookshop. Here the people presented a less terrible spectacle — they were even touching to see. These were the patient poor, who bought hot morsels of sheep’s heart and liver at a penny an ounce, with lamentable little mouthfuls of peas-pudding, greens, and potatoes at a halfpenny each. Pale children in corners supped on penny basins of soup, and looked with hungry admiration at their enviable neighbours who could afford to buy stewed eels for twopence. Everywhere there was the same noble resignation to their hard fate, in old and young alike. No impatience, no complaints. In this wretched place, the language of true gratitude was still to be heard, thanking the good-natured cook for a little spoonful of gravy thrown in for nothing — and here, humble mercy that had its one superfluous halfpenny to spare gave that halfpenny to utter destitution, and gave it with right good-will. Amelius spent all his shillings and sixpences, in doubling and trebling the poor little pennyworths of food — and left the place with tears in his eyes.

He was near the end of the street by this time. The sight of the misery about him, and the sense of his own utter inability to remedy it, weighed heavily on his spirits. He thought of the peaceful and prosperous life at Tadmor. Were his happy brethren of the Community and these miserable people about him creatures of the same all-merciful God? The terrible doubts which come to all thinking men — the doubts which are not to be stifled by crying “Oh, fie!” in a pulpit — rose darkly in his mind. He quickened his pace. “Let me let out of it,” he said to himself, “let me get out of it!”

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