The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

Two days later, Amelius moved into his cottage.

He had provided himself with a new servant, as easily as he had provided himself with a new abode. A foreign waiter at the hotel — a gray-haired Frenchman of the old school, reputed to be the most ill-tempered servant in the house — had felt the genial influence of Amelius with the receptive readiness of his race. Here was a young Englishman, who spoke to him as easily and pleasantly as if he was speaking to a friend — who heard him relate his little grievances, and never took advantage of that circumstance to turn him into ridicule — who said kindly, “I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your nickname,” when he ventured to explain that his Christian name was “Theophile,” and that his English fellow servants had facetiously altered and shortened it to “Toff,” to suit their insular convenience. “For the first time, sir,” he had hastened to add, “I feel it an honour to be Toff, when you speak to me.” Asking everybody whom he met if they could recommend a servant to him, Amelius had put the question, when Toff came in one morning with the hot water. The old Frenchman made a low bow, expressive of devotion. “I know of but one man, sir, whom I can safely recommend,” he answered —“take me.” Amelius was delighted; he had only one objection to make. “I don’t want to keep two servants,” he said, while Toff was helping him on with his dressing-gown. “Why should you keep two servants, sir?” the Frenchman inquired. Amelius answered, “I can’t ask you to make the beds.” “Why not?” said Toff — and made the bed, then and there, in five minutes. He ran out of the room, and came back with one of the chambermaid’s brooms. “Judge for yourself, sir — can I sweep a carpet?” He placed a chair for Amelius. “Permit me to save you the trouble of shaving yourself. Are you satisfied? Very good. I am equally capable of cutting your hair, and attending to your corns (if you suffer, sir, from that inconvenience). Will you allow me to propose something which you have not had yet for your breakfast?” In half an hour more, he brought in the new dish. “Oeufs a la Tripe. An elementary specimen, sir, of what I can do for you as a cook. Be pleased to taste it.” Amelius ate it all up on the spot; and Toff applied the moral, with the neatest choice of language. “Thank you, sir, for a gratifying expression of approval. One more specimen of my poor capabilities, and I have done. It is barely possible — God forbid! — that you may fall ill. Honour me by reading that document.” He handed a written paper to Amelius, dated some years since in Paris, and signed in an English name. “I testify with gratitude and pleasure that Theophile Leblond has nursed me through a long illness, with an intelligence and devotion which I cannot too highly praise.” “May you never employ me, sir, in that capacity,” said Toff. “I have only to add that I am not so old as I look, and that my political opinions have changed, in later life, from red-republican to moderate-liberal. I also confess, if necessary, that I still have an ardent admiration for the fair sex.” He laid his hand on his heart, and waited to be engaged.

So the household at the cottage was modestly limited to Amelius and Toff.

Rufus remained for another week in London, to watch the new experiment. He had made careful inquiries into the Frenchman’s character, and had found that the complaints of his temper really amounted to this — that “he gave himself the airs of a gentleman, and didn’t understand a joke.” On the question of honesty and sobriety, the testimony of the proprietor of the hotel left Rufus nothing to desire. Greatly to his surprise, Amelius showed no disposition to grow weary of his quiet life, or to take refuge in perilous amusements from the sober society of his books. He was regular in his inquiries at Mr. Farnaby’s house; he took long walks by himself; he never mentioned Sally’s name; he lost his interest in going to the theatre, and he never appeared in the smoking-room of the club. Some men, observing the remarkable change which had passed over his excitable temperament, would have hailed it as a good sign for the future. The New Englander looked below the surface, and was not so easily deceived. “My bright boy’s soul is discouraged and cast down,” was the conclusion that he drew. “There’s darkness in him where there once was light; and, what’s worse than all, he caves in, and keeps it to himself.” After vainly trying to induce Amelius to open his heart, Rufus at last went to Paris, with a mind that was ill at ease.

On the day of the American’s departure, the march of events was resumed; and the unnaturally quiet life of Amelius began to be disturbed again.

Making his customary inquiries in the forenoon at Mr. Farnaby’s door, he found the household in a state of agitation. A second council of physicians had been held, in consequence of the appearance of some alarming symptoms in the case of the patient. On this occasion, the medical men told him plainly that he would sacrifice his life to his obstinacy, if he persisted in remaining in London and returning to his business. By good fortune, the affairs of the bank had greatly benefited, through the powerful interposition of Mr. Melton. With the improved prospects, Mr. Farnaby (at his niece’s entreaty) submitted to the doctor’s advice. He was to start on the first stage of his journey the next morning; and, at his own earnest desire, Regina was to go with him. “I hate strangers and foreigners; and I don’t like being alone. If you don’t go with me, I shall stay where I am — and die.” So Mr. Farnaby put it to his adopted daughter, in his rasping voice and with his hard frown.

“I am grieved, dear Amelius, to go away from you,” Regina said; “but what can I do? It would have been so nice if you could have gone with us. I did hint something of the sort; but —”

Her downcast face finished the sentence. Amelius felt the bare idea of being Mr. Farnaby’s travelling companion make his blood run cold. And Mr. Farnaby, on his side, reciprocated the sentiment. “I will write constantly, dear,” Regina resumed; “and you will write back, won’t you? Say you love me; and promise to come tomorrow morning, before we go.”

She kissed him affectionately — and, the instant after, checked the responsive outburst of tenderness in Amelius, by that utter want of tact which (in spite of the popular delusion to the contrary) is so much more common in women than in men, “My uncle is so particular about packing his linen,” she said; “nobody can please him but me; I must ask you to let me run upstairs again.”

Amelius went out into the street, with his head down and his lips fast closed. He was not far from Mrs. Payson’s house. “Why shouldn’t I call?” he thought to himself. His conscience added, “And hear some news of Sally.”

There was good news. The girl was brightening mentally and physically — she was in a fair way, if she only remained in the Home, to be “Simple” Sally no longer. Amelius asked if she had got the photograph of the cottage. Mrs. Payson laughed. “Sleeps with it under her pillow, poor child,” she said, “and looks at it fifty times a day.” Thirty years since, with infinitely less experience to guide her, the worthy matron would have followed her instincts, and would have hesitated to tell Amelius quite so much about the photograph. But some of a woman’s finer sensibilities do get blunted with the advance of age and the accumulation of wisdom.

Instead of pursuing the subject of Sally’s progress, Amelius, to Mrs. Payson’s surprise, made a clumsy excuse, and abruptly took his leave.

He felt the need of being alone; he was conscious of a vague distrust of himself, which degraded him in his own estimation. Was he, like characters he had read of in books, the victim of a fatality? The slightest circumstances conspired to heighten his interest in Sally — just at the time when Regina had once more disappointed him. He was as firmly convinced, as if he had been the strictest moralist living, that it was an insult to Regina, and an insult to his own self-respect, to set the lost creature whom he had rescued in any light of comparison with the young lady who was one day to be his wife. And yet, try as he might to drive her out, Sally kept her place in his thoughts. There was, apparently, some innate depravity in him. If a looking-glass had been handed to him at that moment, he would have been ashamed to look himself in the face.

After walking until he was weary, he went to his club.

The porter gave him a letter as he crossed the hall. Mrs. Farnaby had kept her promise, and had written to him. The smoking-room was deserted at that time of day. He opened his letter in solitude, looked at it, crumpled it up impatiently, and put it into his pocket. Not even Mrs. Farnaby could interest him at that critical moment. His own affairs absorbed him. The one idea in his mind, after what he had heard about Sally, was the idea of making a last effort to hasten the date of his marriage before Mr. Farnaby left England. “If I can only feel sure of Regina —”

His thoughts went no further than that. He walked up and down the empty smoking-room, anxious and irritable, dissatisfied with himself, despairing of the future. “I can but try it!” he suddenly decided — and turned at once to the table to write a letter.

Death had been busy with the members of his family in the long interval that had passed since he and his father left England. His nearest surviving relative was his uncle — his father’s younger brother — who occupied a post of high importance in the Foreign Office. To this gentleman he now wrote, announcing his arrival in England, and his anxiety to qualify himself for employment in a Government office. “Be so good as to grant me an interview,” he concluded; “and I hope to satisfy you that I am not unworthy of your kindness, if you will exert your influence in my favour.”

He sent away his letter at once by a private messenger, with instructions to wait for an answer.

It was not without doubt, and even pain, that he had opened communication with a man whose harsh treatment of his father it was impossible for him to forget. What could the son expect? There was but one hope. Time might have inclined the younger brother to make atonement to the memory of the elder, by a favourable reception of his nephew’s request.

His father’s last words of caution, his own boyish promise not to claim kindred with his relations in England, were vividly present to the mind of Amelius, while he waited for the return of the messenger. His one justification was in the motives that animated him. Circumstances, which his father had never anticipated, rendered it an act of duty towards himself to make the trial at least of what his family interest could do for him. There could be no sort of doubt that a man of Mr. Farnaby’s character would yield, if Amelius could announce that he had the promise of an appointment under Government — with the powerful influence of a near relation to accelerate his promotion. He sat, idly drawing lines on the blotting-paper; at one moment regretting that he had sent his letter; at another, comforting himself in the belief that, if his father had been living to advise him, his father would have approved of the course that he had taken.

The messenger returned with these lines of reply:—

“Under any ordinary circumstances, I should have used my influence to help you on in the world. But, when you not only hold the most abominable political opinions, but actually proclaim those opinions in public, I am amazed at your audacity in writing to me. There must be no more communication between us. While you are a Socialist, you are a stranger to me.”

Amelius accepted this new rebuff with ominous composure. He sat quietly smoking in the deserted room, with his uncle’s letter in his hand.

Among the other disastrous results of the lecture, some of the newspapers had briefly reported it. Preoccupied by his anxieties, Amelius had forgotten this when he wrote to his relative. “Just like me!” he thought, as he threw the letter into the fire. His last hopes floated up the chimney, with the tiny puff of smoke from the burnt paper. There was now no other chance of shortening the marriage engagement left to try. He had already applied to the good friend whom he had mentioned to Regina. The answer, kindly written in this case, had not been very encouraging:—

“I have other claims to consider. All that I can do, I will do. Don’t be disheartened — I only ask you to wait.”

Amelius rose to go home — and sat down again. His natural energy seemed to have deserted him — it required an effort to leave the club. He took up the newspapers, and threw them aside, one after another. Not one of the unfortunate writers and reporters could please him on that inauspicious day. It was only while he was lighting his second cigar that he remembered Mrs. Farnaby’s unread letter to him. By this time, he was more than weary of his own affairs. He read the letter.

“I find the people who have my happiness at their mercy both dilatory and greedy.” (Mrs. Farnaby wrote); “but the little that I can persuade them to tell me is very favourable to my hopes. I am still, to my annoyance, only in personal communication with the hateful old woman. The young man either sends messages, or writes to me through the post. By this latter means he has accurately described, not only in which of my child’s feet the fault exists, but the exact position which it occupies. Here, you will agree with me, is positive evidence that he is speaking the truth, whoever he is.

“But for this reassuring circumstance, I should feel inclined to be suspicious of some things — of the obstinate manner, for instance, in which the young man keeps himself concealed; also, of his privately warning me not to trust the woman who is his own messenger, and not to tell her on any account of the information which his letters convey to me. I feel that I ought to be cautious with him on the question of money — and yet, in my eagerness to see my darling, I am ready to give him all that he asks for. In this uncertain state of mind, I am restrained, strangely enough, by the old woman herself. She warns me that he is the sort of man, if he once gets the money, to spare himself the trouble of earning it. It is the one hold I have over him (she says)— so I control the burning impatience that consumes me as well as I can.

“No! I must not attempt to describe my own state of mind. When I tell you that I am actually afraid of dying before I can give my sweet love the first kiss, you will understand and pity me. When night comes, I feel sometimes half mad.

“I send you my present address, in the hope that you will write and cheer me a little. I must not ask you to come and see me yet. I am not fit for it — and, besides, I am under a promise, in the present state of the negotiations, to shut the door on my friends. It is easy enough to do that; I have no friend, Amelius, but you.

“Try to feel compassionately towards me, my kind-hearted boy. For so many long years, my heart has had nothing to feed on but the one hope that is now being realized at last. No sympathy between my husband and me (on the contrary, a horrid unacknowledged enmity, which has always kept us apart); my father and mother, in their time both wretched about my marriage, and with good reason; my only sister dying in poverty — what a life for a childless woman! don’t let us dwell on it any longer.

“Goodbye for the present, Amelius. I beg you will not think I am always wretched. When I want to be happy, I look to the coming time.”

This melancholy letter added to the depression that weighed on the spirits of Amelius. It inspired him with vague fears for Mrs. Farnaby. In her own interests, he would have felt himself tempted to consult Rufus (without mentioning names), if the American had been in London. As things were, he put the letter back in his pocket with a sigh. Even Mrs. Farnaby, in her sad moments, had a consoling prospect to contemplate. “Everybody but me!” Amelius thought.

His reflections were interrupted by the appearance of an idle young member of the club, with whom he was acquainted. The new-comer remarked that he looked out of spirits, and suggested that they should dine together and amuse themselves somewhere in the evening. Amelius accepted the proposal: any man who offered him a refuge from himself was a friend to him on that day. Departing from his temperate habits, he deliberately drank more than usual. The wine excited him for the time, and then left him more depressed than ever; and the amusements of the evening produced the same result. He returned to his cottage so completely disheartened, that he regretted the day when he had left Tadmor.

But he kept his appointment, the next morning, to take leave of Regina.

The carriage was at the door, with a luggage-laden cab waiting behind it. Mr. Farnaby’s ill-temper vented itself in predictions that they would be too late to catch the train. His harsh voice, alternating with Regina’s meek remonstrances, reached the ears of Amelius from the breakfast-room. “I’m not going to wait for the gentleman-Socialist,” Mr. Farnaby announced, with his hardest sarcasm of tone. “Dear uncle, we have a quarter of an hour to spare!” “We have nothing of the sort; we want all that time to register the luggage.” The servant’s voice was heard next. “Mr. Goldenheart, miss.” Mr. Farnaby instantly stepped into the hall. “Goodbye!” he called to Amelius, through the open door of the dining-room — and passed straight on to the carriage. “I shan’t wait, Regina!” he shouted, from the doorstep. “Let him go by himself!” said Amelius indignantly, as Regina hurried into the room. “Oh, hush, hush, dear! Suppose he heard you? No week shall pass without my writing to you; promise you will write back, Amelius. One more kiss! Oh, my dear!” The servant interposed, keeping discreetly out of sight. “I beg your pardon, miss, my master wishes to know whether you are going with him or not.” Regina waited to hear no more. She gave her lover a farewell look to remember her by, and ran out.

That innate depravity which Amelius had lately discovered in his own nature, let the forbidden thoughts loose in him again as he watched the departing carriage from the door. “If poor little Sally had been in her place —!” He made an effort of virtuous resolution, and stopped there. “What a blackguard a man may be,” he penitently reflected, “without suspecting it himself!”

He descended the house-steps. The discreet servant wished him good morning, with a certain cheery respect — the man was delighted to have seen the last of his hard master for some months to come. Amelius stopped and turned round, smiling grimly. He was in such a reckless humour, that he was even ready to divert his mind by astonishing a footman. “Richard,” he said, “are you engaged to be married?” Richard stared in blank surprise at the strange question — and modestly admitted that he was engaged to marry the housemaid next door. “Soon?” asked Amelius, swinging his stick. “As soon as I have saved a little more money, sir.” “Damn the money!” cried Amelius — and struck his stick on the pavement, and walked away with a last look at the house as if he hated the sight of it. Richard watched the departing young gentleman, and shook his head ominously as he shut the door.

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