The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

Amelius left Mrs. Farnaby, troubled by emotions of confusion and alarm, which he was the last man living to endure patiently. Her extraordinary story of the discovered daughter, the still more startling assertion of her solution to leave the house, the absence of any plain explanation, the burden of secrecy imposed on him — all combined together to irritate his sensitive nerves. “I hate mysteries,” he thought; “and ever since I landed in England, I seem fated to be mixed up in them. Does she really mean to leave her husband and her niece? What will Farnaby do? What will become of Regina?”

To think of Regina was to think of the new repulse of which he had been made the subject. Again he had appealed to her love for him, and again she had refused to marry him at his own time.

He was especially perplexed and angry, when he reflected on the unassailably strong influence which her uncle appeared to have over her. All Regina’s sympathy was with Mr. Farnaby and his troubles. Amelius might have understood her a little better, if she had told him what had passed between her uncle and herself on the night of Mr. Farnaby’s return, in a state of indignation, from the lecture. In terror of the engagement being broken off, she had been forced to confess that she was too fond of Amelius to prevail on herself to part with him. If he attempted a second exposition of his Socialist principles on the platform, she owned that it might be impossible to receive him again as a suitor. But she pleaded hard for the granting of a pardon to the first offence, in the interests of her own tranquillity, if not in mercy to Amelius. Mr. Farnaby, already troubled by his commercial anxieties, had listened more amiably, and also more absently, than usual; and had granted her petition with the ready indulgence of a preoccupied man. It had been decided between them that the offence of the lecture should be passed over in discreet silence. Regina’s gratitude for this concession inspired her sympathy with her uncle in his present state of suspense. She had been sorely tempted to tell Amelius what had happened. But the natural reserve of her character — fortified, in this instance, by the defensive pride which makes a woman unwilling, before marriage, to confess her weakness unreservedly to the man who has caused it — had sealed her lips. “When he is a little less violent and a little more humble,” she thought, “perhaps I may tell him.”

So it fell out that Amelius took his way through the streets, a mystified and an angry man.

Arrived in sight of the hotel, he stopped, and looked about him.

It was impossible to disguise from himself that a lurking sense of regret was making itself felt, in his present frame of mind, when he thought of Simple Sally. In all probability, he would have quarrelled with any man who had accused him of actually lamenting the girl’s absence, and wanting her back again. He happened to recollect her artless blue eyes, with their vague patient look, and her quaint childish questions put so openly in so sweet a voice — and that was all. Was there anything reprehensible, if you please, in an act of remembrance? Comforting himself with these considerations, he moved on again a step or two — and stopped once more. In his present humour, he shrank from facing Rufus. The American read him like a book; the American would ask irritating questions. He turned his back on the hotel, and looked at his watch. As he took it out, his finger and thumb touched something else in his waistcoat-pocket. It was the card that Regina had given to him — the card of the cottage to let. He had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Why not look at the cottage? If it proved to be not worth seeing, the Zoological Gardens were in the neighbourhood — and there are periods in a man’s life when he finds the society that walks on four feet a welcome relief from the society that walks on two.

It was a fairly fine day. He turned northward towards the Regent’s Park.

The cottage was in a by-road, just outside the park: a cottage in the strictest sense of the word. A sitting-room, a library, and a bedroom — all of small proportions — and, under them a kitchen and two more rooms, represented the whole of the little dwelling from top to bottom. It was simply and prettily furnished; and it was completely surrounded by its own tiny plot of garden-ground. The library especially was a perfect little retreat, looking out on the back garden; peaceful and shady, and adorned with bookcases of old carved oak.

Amelius had hardly looked round the room, before his inflammable brain was on fire with a new idea. Other idle men in trouble had found the solace and the occupation of their lives in books. Why should he not be one of them? Why not plunge into study in this delightful retirement — and perhaps, one day, astonish Regina and Mr. Farnaby by bursting on the world as the writer of a famous book? Exactly as Amelius, two days since, had seen himself in the future, a public lecturer in receipt of glorious fees — so he now saw himself the celebrated scholar and writer of a new era to come. The woman who showed the cottage happened to mention that a gentleman had already looked over it that morning, and had seemed to like it. Amelius instantly gave her a shilling, and said, “I take it on the spot.” The wondering woman referred him to the house-agent’s address, and kept at a safe distance from the excitable stranger as she let him out. In less than another hour, Amelius had taken the cottage, and had returned to the hotel with a new interest in life and a new surprise for Rufus.

As usual, in cases of emergency, the American wasted no time in talking. He went out at once to see the cottage, and to make his own inquiries of the agent. The result amply proved that Amelius had not been imposed upon. If he repented of his bargain, the gentleman who had first seen the cottage was ready to take it off his hands, at a moment’s notice.

Going back to the Hotel, Rufus found Amelius resolute to move into his new abode, and eager for the coming life of study and retirement. Knowing perfectly well before-hand how this latter project would end, the American tried the efficacy of a little worldly temptation. He had arranged, he said, “to have a good time of it in Paris”; and he proposed that Amelius should be his companion. The suggestion produced not the slightest effect; Amelius talked as if he was a confirmed recluse, in the decline of life. “Thank you,” he said, with the most amazing gravity; “I prefer the company of my books, and the seclusion of my study.” This declaration was followed by more selling-out of money in the Funds, and by a visit to a bookseller, which left a handsome pecuniary result inscribed on the right side of the ledger.

On the next day, Amelius presented himself towards two o’clock at Mr. Farnaby’s house. He was not so selfishly absorbed in his own projects as to forget Mrs. Farnaby. On the contrary, he was honestly anxious for news of her.

A certain middle-aged man of business has been briefly referred to, in these pages, as one of Regina’s faithful admirers, patiently submitting to the triumph of his favoured young rival. This gentleman, issuing from his carriage with his card-case ready in his hand, met Amelius at the door, with a face which announced plainly that a catastrophe had happened. “You have heard the sad news, no doubt?” he said, in a rich bass voice attuned to sadly courteous tones. The servant opened the door before Amelius could answer. After a contest of politeness, the middle-aged gentleman consented to make his inquiries first. “How is Mr. Farnaby? No better? And Miss Regina? Very poorly, oh? Dear, dear me! Say I called, if you please.” He handed in two cards, with a severe enjoyment of the melancholy occasion and the rich bass sounds of his own voice. “Very sad, is it not?” he said, addressing his youthful rival with an air of paternal indulgence. “Good morning.” He bowed with melancholy grace, and got into his carriage.

Amelius looked after the prosperous merchant, as the prancing horses drew him away. “After all,” he thought bitterly, “she might be happier with that rich prig than she could be with me.” He stepped into the hall, and spoke to the servant. The man had his message ready. Miss Regina would see Mr. Goldenheart, if he would be so good as to wait in the dinning-room.

Regina appeared, pale and scared; her eyes inflamed with weeping. “Oh, Amelius, can you tell me what this dreadful misfortune means? Why has she left us? When she sent for you yesterday, what did she say?”

In his position, Amelius could make but one answer. “Your aunt said she thought of going away. But,” he added, with perfect truth, “she refused to tell me why, or where she was going. I am quite as much at a loss to understand her as you are. What does your uncle propose to do?”

Mr. Farnaby’s conduct, as described by Regina, thickened the mystery — he proposed to do nothing.

He had been found on the hearth-rug in his dressing-room; having apparently been seized with a fit, in the act of burning some paper. The ashes were discovered close by him, just inside the fender. On his recovery, his first anxiety was to know if a letter had been burnt. Satisfied on this point, he had ordered the servants to assemble round his bed, and had peremptorily forbidden them to open the door to their mistress, if she ever returned at any future time to the house. Regina’s questions and remonstrances, when she was left alone with him, were answered, once for all, in these pitiless terms:—“If you wish to deserve the fatherly interest that I take in you, do as I do: forget that such a person as your aunt ever existed. We shall quarrel, if you ever mention her name in my hearing again.” This said, he had instantly changed the subject; instructing Regina to write an excuse to “Mr. Melton” (otherwise, the middle-aged rival), with whom he had been engaged to dine that evening. Relating this latter event, Regina’s ever-ready gratitude overflowed in the direction of Mr. Melton. “He was so kind! he left his guests in the evening, and came and sat with my uncle for nearly an hour.” Amelius made no remark on this; he led the conversation back to the subject of Mrs. Farnaby. “She once spoke to me of her lawyers,” he said. “Do they know nothing about her?”

The answer to this question showed that the sternly final decision of Mr. Farnaby was matched by equal resolution on the part of his wife.

One of the partners in the legal firm had called that morning, to see Regina on a matter of business. Mrs. Farnaby had appeared at the office on the previous day, and had briefly expressed her wish to make a small annual provision for her niece, in case of future need. Declining to enter into any explanation, she had waited until the necessary document had been drawn out; had requested that Regina might be informed of the circumstance; and had then taken her departure in absolute silence. Hearing that she had left her husband, the lawyer, like every one else, was completely at a loss to understand what it meant.

“And what does the doctor say?” Amelius asked next.

“My uncle is to be kept perfectly quiet,” Regina answered; “and is not to return to business for some time to come. Mr. Melton, with his usual kindness, has undertaken to look after his affairs for him. Otherwise, my uncle, in his present state of anxiety about the bank, would never have consented to obey the doctor’s orders. When he can safely travel, he is recommended to go abroad for the winter, and get well again in some warmer climate. He refuses to leave his business — and the doctor refuses to take the responsibility. There is to be a consultation of physicians tomorrow. Oh, Amelius, I was really fond of my aunt — I am heart-broken at this dreadful change!”

There was a momentary silence. If Mr. Melton had been present, he would have said a few neatly sympathetic words. Amelius knew no more than a savage of the art of conventional consolation. Tadmor had made him familiar with the social and political questions of the time, and had taught him to speak in public. But Tadmor, rich in books and newspapers, was a powerless training institution in the matter of small talk.

“Suppose Mr. Farnaby is obliged to go abroad,” he suggested, after waiting a little, “what will you do?”

Regina looked at him, with an air of melancholy surprise. “I shall do my duty, of course,” she answered gravely. “I shall accompany my dear uncle, if he wishes it.” She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. “It is time he took his medicine,” she resumed; “you will excuse me, I am sure.” She shook hands, not very warmly — and hastened out of the room.

Amelius left the house, with a conviction which disheartened him — the conviction that he had never understood Regina, and that he was not likely to understand her in the future. He turned for relief to the consideration of Mr. Farnaby’s strange conduct, under the domestic disaster which had befallen him.

Recalling what he had observed for himself, and what he had heard from Mrs. Farnaby when she had first taken him into her confidence, he inferred that the subject of the lost child had not only been a subject of estrangement between the husband and wife, but that the husband was, in some way, the person blamable for it. Assuming this theory to be the right one, there would be serious obstacles to the meeting of the mother and child, in the mother’s home. The departure of Mrs. Farnaby was, in that case, no longer unintelligible — and Mr. Farnaby’s otherwise inexplicable conduct had the light of a motive thrown on it, which might not unnaturally influence a hard-hearted man weary alike of his wife and his wife’s troubles. Arriving at this conclusion by a far shorter process than is here indicated, Amelius pursued the subject no further. At the time when he had first visited the Farnabys, Rufus had advised him to withdraw from closer intercourse with them, while he had the chance. In his present mood, he was almost in danger of acknowledging to himself that Rufus had proved to be right.

He lunched with his American friend at the hotel. Before the meal was over Mrs. Payson called, to say a few cheering words about Sally.

It was not to be denied that the girl remained persistently silent and reserved. In other respects the report was highly favourable. She was obedient to the rules of the house; she was always ready with any little services that she could render to her companions; and she was so eager to improve herself, by means of her reading-lessons and writing-lessons, that it was not easy to induce her to lay aside her book and her slate. When the teacher offered her some small reward for her good conduct, and asked what she would like, the sad little face brightened, and the faithful creature’s answer was always the same —“I should like to know what he is doing now.” (Alas for Sally! —“he” meant Amelius.)

“You must wait a little longer before you write to her,” Mrs. Payson concluded, “and you must not think of seeing her for some time to come. I know you will help us by consenting to this — for Sally’s sake.”

Amelius bowed in silence. He would not have confessed what he felt, at that moment, to any living soul — it is doubtful if he even confessed it to himself. Mrs. Payson, observing him with a woman’s keen sympathy, relented a little. “I might give her a message,” the good lady suggested —“just to say you are glad to hear she is behaving so well.”

“Will you give her this?” Amelius asked.

He took from his pocket a little photograph of the cottage, which he had noticed on the house-agent’s desk, and had taken away with him. “It is my cottage now,” he explained, in tones that faltered a little; “I am going to live there; Sally might like to see it.”

“Sally shall see it,” Mrs. Payson agreed —“if you will only let me take this away first.” She pointed to the address of the cottage, printed under the photograph. Past experience in the Home made her reluctant to trust Sally with the address in London at which Amelius was to be found.

Rufus produced a huge complex knife, out of the depths of which a pair of scissors burst on touching a spring. Mrs. Payson cut off the address, and placed the photograph in her pocket-book. “Now,” she said, “Sally will be happy, and no harm can come of it.”

“I’ve known you, ma’am, nigh on twenty years,” Rufus remarked. “I do assure you that’s the first rash observation I ever heard from your lips.”

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