THE FALLEN LEAVES
By Wilkie Collins
Experience of the reception of The Fallen Leaves by intelligent readers, who have followed the course of the periodical publication at home and abroad, has satisfied me that the design of the work speaks for itself, and that the scrupulous delicacy of treatment, in certain portions of the story, has been as justly appreciated as I could wish. Having nothing to explain, and (so far as my choice of subject is concerned) nothing to excuse, I leave my book, without any prefatory pleading for it, to make its appeal to the reading public on such merits as it may possess.
W. C. GLOUCESTER PLACE, LONDON July 1st, 1879
The resistless influences which are one day to reign supreme over our poor hearts, and to shape the sad short course of our lives, are sometimes of mysteriously remote origin, and find their devious ways to us through the hearts and the lives of strangers.
While the young man whose troubled career it is here proposed to follow was wearing his first jacket, and bowling his first hoop, a domestic misfortune, falling on a household of strangers, was destined nevertheless to have its ultimate influence over his happiness, and to shape the whole aftercourse of his life.
For this reason, some First Words must precede the Story, and must present the brief narrative of what happened in the household of strangers. By what devious ways the event here related affected the chief personage of these pages, when he grew to manhood, it will be the business of the story to trace, over land and sea, among men and women, in bright days and dull days alike, until the end is reached, and the pen (God willing) is put back in the desk.
Old Benjamin Ronald (of the Stationers' Company) took a young wife at the ripe age of fifty, and carried with him into the holy estate of matrimony some of the habits of his bachelor life.
As a bachelor, he had never willingly left his shop (situated in that exclusively commercial region of London which is called "the City") from one year's end to another. As a married man, he persisted in following the same monotonous course; with this one difference, that he now had a woman to follow it with him. "Travelling by railway," he explained to his wife, "will make your head ache—it makes my head ache. Travelling by sea will make you sick—it makes me sick. If you want change of air, every sort of air is to be found in the City. If you admire the beauties of Nature, there is Finsbury Square with the beauties of Nature carefully selected and arranged. When we are in London, you (and I) are all right; and when we are out of London, you (and I) are all wrong." As surely as the autumn holiday season set in, so surely Old Ronald resisted his wife's petition for a change of scene in that form of words. A man habitually fortified behind his own inbred obstinacy and selfishness is for the most part an irresistible power within the limits of his domestic circle. As a rule, patient Mrs. Ronald yielded; and her husband stood revealed to his neighbours in the glorious character of a married man who had his own way.
But in the autumn of 1856, the retribution which sooner or later descends on all despotisms, great and small, overtook the iron rule of Old Ronald, and defeated the domestic tyrant on the battle-field of his own fireside.
The children born of the marriage, two in number, were both daughters. The elder had mortally offended her father by marrying imprudently—in a pecuniary sense. He had declared that she should never enter his house again; and he had mercilessly kept his word. The younger daughter (now eighteen years of age) proved to be also a source of parental inquietude, in another way. She was the passive cause of the revolt which set her father's authority at defiance. For some little time past she had been out of health. After many ineffectual trials of the mild influence of persuasion, her mother's patience at last gave way. Mrs. Ronald insisted—yes, actually insisted—on taking Miss Emma to the seaside.
"What's the matter with you?" Old Ronald asked; detecting something that perplexed him in his wife's look and manner, on the memorable occasion when she asserted a will of her own for the first time in her life.
A man of finer observation would have discovered the signs of no ordinary anxiety and alarm, struggling to show themselves openly in the poor woman's face. Her husband only saw a change that puzzled him. "Send for Emma," he said, his natural cunning inspiring him with the idea of confronting the mother and daughter, and of seeing what came of that. Emma appeared, plump and short, with large blue eyes, and full pouting lips, and splendid yellow hair: otherwise, miserably pale, languid in her movements, careless in her dress, sullen in her manner. Out of health as her mother said, and as her father saw.
"You can see for yourself," said Mrs. Ronald, "that the girl is pining for fresh air. I have heard Ramsgate recommended."
Old Ronald looked at his daughter. She represented the one tender place in his nature. It was not a large place; but it did exist. And the proof of it is, that he began to yield—with the worst possible grace.
"Well, we will see about it," he said.
"There is no time to be lost," Mrs. Ronald persisted. "I mean to take her to Ramsgate tomorrow."
Mr. Ronald looked at his wife as a dog looks at the maddened sheep that turns on him. "You mean?" repeated the stationer. "Upon my soul—what next? You mean? Where is the money to come from? Answer me that."
Mrs. Ronald declined to be drawn into a conjugal dispute, in the presence of her daughter. She took Emma's arm, and led her to the door. There she stopped, and spoke. "I have already told you that the girl is ill," she said to her husband. "And I now tell you again that she must have the sea air. For God's sake, don't let us quarrel! I have enough to try me without that." She closed the door on herself and her daughter, and left her lord and master standing face to face with the wreck of his own outraged authority.
What further progress was made by the domestic revolt, when the bedroom candles were lit, and the hour of retirement had arrived with the night, is naturally involved in mystery. This alone is certain: On the next morning, the luggage was packed, and the cab was called to the door. Mrs. Ronald spoke her parting words to her husband in private.
"I hope I have not expressed myself too strongly about taking Emma to the seaside," she said, in gentle pleading tones. "I am anxious about our girl's health. If I have offended you—without meaning it, God knows!—say you forgive me before I go. I have tried honestly, dear, to be a good wife to you. And you have always trusted me, haven't you? And you trust me still?"
She took his lean cold hand, and pressed it fervently: her eyes rested on him with a strange mixture of timidity and anxiety. Still in the prime of her life, she preserved the personal attractions—the fair calm refined face, the natural grace of look and movement—which had made her marriage to a man old enough to be her father a cause of angry astonishment among all her friends. In the agitation that now possessed her, her colour rose, her eyes brightened; she looked for the moment almost young enough to be Emma's sister. Her husband opened his hard old eyes in surly bewilderment. "Why need you make this fuss?" he asked. "I don't understand you." Mrs. Ronald shrank at those words as if he had struck her. She kissed him in silence, and joined her daughter in the cab.
For the rest of that day, the persons in the stationer's employment had a hard time of it with their master in the shop. Something had upset Old Ronald. He ordered the shutters to be put up earlier that evening than usual. Instead of going to his club (at the tavern round the corner), he took a long walk in the lonely and lifeless streets of the City by night. There was no disguising it from himself; his wife's behaviour at parting had made him uneasy. He naturally swore at her for taking that liberty, while he lay awake alone in his bed. "Damn the woman! What does she mean?" The cry of the soul utters itself in various forms of expression. That was the cry of Old Ronald's soul, literally translated.
The next morning brought him a letter from Ramsgate.
"I write immediately to tell you of our safe arrival. We have found comfortable lodgings (as the address at the head of this letter will inform you) in Albion Place. I thank you, and Emma desires to thank you also, for your kindness in providing us with ample means for taking our little trip. It is beautiful weather today; the sea is calm, and the pleasure-boats are out. We do not of course expect to see you here. But if you do, by any chance, overcome your objection to moving out of London, I have a little request to make. Please let me hear of your visit beforehand—so that I may not omit all needful preparations. I know you dislike being troubled with letters (except on business), so I will not write too frequently. Be so good as to take no news for good news, in the intervals. When you have a few minutes to spare, you will write, I hope, and tell me how you and the shop are going on. Emma sends you her love, in which I beg to join." So the letter was expressed, and so it ended.
"They needn't be afraid of my troubling them. Calm seas and pleasure-boats! Stuff and nonsense!" Such was the first impression which his wife's report of herself produced on Old Ronald's mind. After a while, he looked at the letter again—and frowned, and reflected. "Please let me hear of your visit beforehand," he repeated to himself, as if the request had been, in some incomprehensible way, offensive to him. He opened the drawer of his desk, and threw the letter into it. When business was over for the day, he went to his club at the tavern, and made himself unusually disagreeable to everybody.
A week passed. In the interval he wrote briefly to his wife. "I'm all right, and the shop goes on as usual." He also forwarded one or two letters which came for Mrs. Ronald. No more news reached him from Ramsgate. "I suppose they're enjoying themselves," he reflected. "The house looks queer without them; I'll go to the club."
He stayed later than usual, and drank more than usual, that night. It was nearly one in the morning when he let himself in with his latch-key, and went upstairs to bed.
Approaching the toilette-table, he found a letter lying on it, addressed to "Mr. Ronald—private." It was not in his wife's handwriting; not in any handwriting known to him. The characters sloped the wrong way, and the envelope bore no postmark. He eyed it over and over suspiciously. At last he opened it, and read these lines:
"You are advised by a true friend to lose no time in looking after your wife. There are strange doings at the seaside. If you don't believe me, ask Mrs. Turner, Number 1, Slains Row, Ramsgate."
No address, no date, no signature—an anonymous letter, the first he had ever received in the long course of his life.
His hard brain was in no way affected by the liquor that he had drunk. He sat down on his bed, mechanically folding and refolding the letter. The reference to "Mrs. Turner" produced no impression on him of any sort: no person of that name, common as it was, happened to be numbered on the list of his friends or his customers. But for one circumstance, he would have thrown the letter aside, in contempt. His memory reverted to his wife's incomprehensible behaviour at parting. Addressing him through that remembrance, the anonymous warning assumed a certain importance to his mind. He went down to his desk, in the back office, and took his wife's letter out of the drawer, and read it through slowly. "Ha!" he said, pausing as he came across the sentence which requested him to write beforehand, in the unlikely event of his deciding to go to Ramsgate. He thought again of the strangely persistent way in which his wife had dwelt on his trusting her; he recalled her nervous anxious looks, her deepening colour, her agitation at one moment, and then her sudden silence and sudden retreat to the cab. Fed by these irritating influences, the inbred suspicion in his nature began to take fire slowly. She might be innocent enough in asking him to give her notice before he joined her at the seaside—she might naturally be anxious to omit no needful preparation for his comfort. Still, he didn't like it; no, he didn't like it. An appearance as of a slow collapse passed little by little over his rugged wrinkled face. He looked many years older than his age, as he sat at the desk, with the flaring candlelight close in front of him, thinking. The anonymous letter lay before him, side by side with his wife's letter. On a sudden, he lifted his gray head, and clenched his fist, and struck the venomous written warning as if it had been a living thing that could feel. "Whoever you are," he said, "I'll take your advice."
He never even made the attempt to go to bed that night. His pipe helped him through the comfortless and dreary hours. Once or twice he thought of his daughter. Why had her mother been so anxious about her? Why had her mother taken her to Ramsgate? Perhaps, as a blind—ah, yes, perhaps as a blind! More for the sake of something to do than for any other reason, he packed a handbag with a few necessaries. As soon as the servant was stirring, he ordered her to make him a cup of strong coffee. After that, it was time to show himself as usual, on the opening of the shop. To his astonishment, he found his clerk taking down the shutters, in place of the porter.
"What does this mean?" he asked. "Where is Farnaby?"
The clerk looked at his master, and paused aghast with a shutter in his hands.
"Good Lord! what has come to you?" he cried. "Are you ill?"
Old Ronald angrily repeated his question: "Where is Farnaby?"
"I don't know," was the answer.
"You don't know? Have you been up to his bedroom?"
"Well, he isn't in his bedroom. And, what's more, his bed hasn't been slept in last night. Farnaby's off, sir—nobody knows where."
Old Ronald dropped heavily into the nearest chair. This second mystery, following on the mystery of the anonymous letter, staggered him. But his business instincts were still in good working order. He held out his keys to the clerk. "Get the petty cash-book," he said, "and see if the money is all right."
The clerk received the keys under protest. "That's not the right reading of the riddle," he remarked.
"Do as I tell you!"
The clerk opened the money-drawer under the counter; counted the pounds, shillings and pence paid by chance customers up to the closing of the shop on the previous evening; compared the result with the petty cash-book, and answered, "Right to a halfpenny."
Satisfied so far, old Ronald condescended to approach the speculative side of the subject, with the assistance of his subordinate. "If what you said just now means anything," he resumed, "it means that you suspect the reason why Farnaby has left my service. Let's hear it."
"You know that I never liked John Farnaby," the clerk began. "An active young fellow and a clever young fellow, I grant you. But a bad servant for all that. False, Mr. Ronald—false to the marrow of his bones."
Mr. Ronald's patience began to give way. "Come to the facts," he growled. "Why has Farnaby gone off without a word to anybody? Do you know that?"
"I know no more than you do," the clerk answered coolly. "Don't fly into a passion. I have got some facts for you, if you will only give me time. Turn them over in your own mind, and see what they come to. Three days ago I was short of postage-stamps, and I went to the office. Farnaby was there, waiting at the desk where they pay the post-office orders. There must have been ten or a dozen people with letters, orders, and what not, between him and me. I got behind him quietly, and looked over his shoulder. I saw the clerk give him the money for his post-office order. Five pounds in gold, which I reckoned as they lay on the counter, and a bank-note besides, which he crumpled up in his hand. I can't tell you how much it was for; I only know it was a bank-note. Just ask yourself how a porter on twenty shillings a week (with a mother who takes in washing, and a father who takes in drink) comes to have a correspondent who sends him an order for five sovereigns—and a bank-note, value unknown. Say he's turned betting-man in secret. Very good. There's the post-office order, in that case, to show that he's got a run of luck. If he has got a run of luck, tell me this—why does he leave his place like a thief in the night? He's not a slave; he's not even an apprentice. When he thinks he can better himself, he has no earthly need to keep it a secret that he means to leave your service. He may have met with an accident, to be sure. But that's not my belief. I say he's up to some mischief And now comes the question: What are we to do?"
Mr. Ronald, listening with his head down, and without interposing a word on his own part, made an extraordinary answer. "Leave it," he said. "Leave it till tomorrow."
"Why?" the clerk answered, without ceremony.
Mr. Ronald made another extraordinary answer. "Because I am obliged to go out of town for the day. Look after the business. The ironmonger's man over the way will help you to put up the shutters at night. If anybody inquires for me, say I shall be back tomorrow." With those parting directions, heedless of the effect that he had produced on the clerk, he looked at his watch, and left the shop.
The bell which gave five minutes' notice of the starting of the Ramsgate train had just rung.
While the other travellers were hastening to the platform, two persons stood passively apart as if they had not even yet decided on taking their places in the train. One of the two was a smart young man in a cheap travelling suit; mainly noticeable by his florid complexion, his restless dark eyes, and his profusely curling black hair. The other was a middle-aged woman in frowsy garments; tall and stout, sly and sullen. The smart young man stood behind the uncongenial-looking person with whom he had associated himself, using her as a screen to hide him while he watched the travellers on their way to the train. As the bell rang, the woman suddenly faced her companion, and pointed to the railway clock.
"Are you waiting to make up your mind till the train has gone?" she asked.
The young man frowned impatiently. "I am waiting for a person whom I expect to see," he answered. "If the person travels by this train, we shall travel by it. If not, we shall come back here, and look out for the next train, and so on till night-time, if it's necessary."
The woman fixed her small scowling gray eyes on the man as he replied in those terms. "Look here!" she broke out. "I like to see my way before me. You're a stranger, young Mister; and it's as likely as not you've given me a false name and address. That don't matter. False names are commoner than true ones, in my line of life. But mind this! I don't stir a step farther till I've got half the money in my hand, and my return-ticket there and back."
"Hold your tongue!" the man suddenly interposed in a whisper. "It's all right. I'll get the tickets."
He looked while he spoke at an elderly traveller, hastening by with his head down, deep in thought, noticing nobody. The traveller was Mr. Ronald. The young man, who had that moment recognized him, was his runaway porter, John Farnaby.
Returning with the tickets, the porter took his repellent travelling companion by the arm, and hurried her along the platform to the train. "The money!" she whispered, as they took their places. Farnaby handed it to her, ready wrapped up in a morsel of paper. She opened the paper, satisfied herself that no trick had been played her, and leaned back in her corner to go to sleep. The train started. Old Ronald travelled by the second class; his porter and his porter's companion accompanied him secretly by the third.
It was still early in the afternoon when Mr. Ronald descended the narrow street which leads from the high land of the South-Eastern railway station to the port of Ramsgate. Asking his way of the first policeman whom he met, he turned to the left, and reached the cliff on which the houses in Albion Place are situated. Farnaby followed him at a discreet distance; and the woman followed Farnaby.
Arrived in sight of the lodging-house, Mr. Ronald paused—partly to recover his breath, partly to compose himself. He was conscious of a change of feeling as he looked up at the windows: his errand suddenly assumed a contemptible aspect in his own eyes. He almost felt ashamed of himself. After twenty years of undisturbed married life, was it possible that he had doubted his wife—and that at the instigation of a stranger whose name even was unknown to him? "If she was to step out in the balcony, and see me down here," he thought, "what a fool I should look!" He felt half-inclined, at the moment when he lifted the knocker of the door, to put it back again quietly, and return to London. No! it was too late. The maid-servant was hanging up her birdcage in the area of the house; the maid-servant had seen him.
"Does Mrs. Ronald lodge here?" he asked.
The girl lifted her eyebrows and opened her mouth—stared at him in speechless confusion—and disappeared in the kitchen regions. This strange reception of his inquiry irritated him unreasonably. He knocked with the absurd violence of a man who vents his anger on the first convenient thing that he can find. The landlady opened the door, and looked at him in stern and silent surprise.
"Does Mrs. Ronald lodge here?" he repeated.
The landlady answered with some appearance of effort—the effort of a person who was carefully considering her words before she permitted them to pass her lips.
"Mrs. Ronald has taken rooms here. But she has not occupied them yet."
"Not occupied them yet?" The words bewildered him as if they had been spoken in an unknown tongue. He stood stupidly silent on the doorstep. His anger was gone; an all-mastering fear throbbed heavily at his heart. The landlady looked at him, and said to her secret self: "Just what I suspected; there is something wrong!"
"Perhaps I have not sufficiently explained myself, sir," she resumed with grave politeness. "Mrs. Ronald told me that she was staying at Ramsgate with friends. She would move into my house, she said, when her friends left—but they had not quite settled the day yet. She calls here for letters. Indeed, she was here early this morning, to pay the second week's rent. I asked when she thought of moving in. She didn't seem to know; her friends (as I understood) had not made up their minds. I must say I thought it a little odd. Would you like to leave any message?"
He recovered himself sufficiently to speak. "Can you tell me where her friends live?" he said.
The landlady shook her head. "No, indeed. I offered to save Mrs. Ronald the trouble of calling here, by sending letters or cards to her present residence. She declined the offer—and she has never mentioned the address. Would you like to come in and rest, sir? I will see that your card is taken care of, if you wish to leave it."
"Thank you, ma'am—it doesn't matter—good morning."
The landlady looked after him as he descended the house-steps. "It's the husband, Peggy," she said to the servant, waiting inquisitively behind her. "Poor old gentleman! And such a respectable-looking woman, too!"
Mr. Ronald walked mechanically to the end of the row of houses, and met the wide grand view of sea and sky. There were some seats behind the railing which fenced the edge of the cliff. He sat down, perfectly stupefied and helpless, on the nearest bench.
At the close of life, the loss of a man's customary nourishment extends its debilitating influence rapidly from his body to his mind. Mr. Ronald had tasted nothing but his cup of coffee since the previous night. His mind began to wander strangely; he was not angry or frightened or distressed. Instead of thinking of what had just happened, he was thinking of his young days when he had been a cricket-player. One special game revived in his memory, at which he had been struck on the head by the ball. "Just the same feeling," he reflected vacantly, with his hat off, and his hand on his forehead. "Dazed and giddy—just the same feeling!"
He leaned back on the bench, and fixed his eyes on the sea, and wondered languidly what had come to him. Farnaby and the woman, still following, waited round the corner where they could just keep him in view.
The blue lustre of the sky was without a cloud; the sunny sea leapt under the fresh westerly breeze. From the beach, the cries of children at play, the shouts of donkey-boys driving their poor beasts, the distant notes of brass instruments playing a waltz, and the mellow music of the small waves breaking on the sand, rose joyously together on the fragrant air. On the next bench, a dirty old boatman was prosing to a stupid old visitor. Mr. Ronald listened, with a sense of vacant content in the mere act of listening. The boatman's words found their way to his ears like the other sounds that were abroad in the air. "Yes; them's the Goodwin Sands, where you see the lightship. And that steamer there, towing a vessel into the harbour, that's the Ramsgate Tug. Do you know what I should like to see? I should like to see the Ramsgate Tug blow up. Why? I'll tell you why. I belong to Broadstairs; I don't belong to Ramsgate. Very well. I'm idling here, as you may see, without one copper piece in my pocket to rub against another. What trade do I belong to? I don't belong to no trade; I belong to a boat. The boat's rotting at Broadstairs, for want of work. And all along of what? All along of the Tug. The Tug has took the bread out of our mouths: me and my mates. Wait a bit; I'll show you how. What did a ship do, in the good old times, when she got on them sands—Goodwin Sands? Went to pieces, if it come on to blow; or got sucked down little by little when it was fair weather. Now I'm coming to it. What did We do (in the good old times, mind you) when we happened to see that ship in distress? Out with our boat; blow high or blow low, out with our boat. And saved the lives of the crew, did you say? Well, yes; saving the crew was part of the day's work, to be sure; the part we didn't get paid for. We saved the cargo, Master! and got salvage!! Hundreds of pounds, I tell you, divided amongst us by law!!! Ah, those times are gone. A parcel of sneaks get together, and subscribe to build a Steam-Tug. When a ship gets on the sands now, out goes the Tug, night and day alike, and brings her safe into harbour, and takes the bread out of our mouths. Shameful—that's what I call it—shameful."
The last words of the boatman's lament fell lower, lower, lower on Mr. Ronald's ears—he lost them altogether—he lost the view of the sea—he lost the sense of the wind blowing over him. Suddenly, he was roused as if from a deep sleep. On one side, the man from Broadstairs was shaking him by the collar. "I say, Master, cheer up; what's come to you?" On the other side, a compassionate lady was offering her smelling-bottle. "I am afraid, sir, you have fainted." He struggled to his feet, and vacantly thanked the lady. The man from Broadstairs—with an eye to salvage—took charge of the human wreck, and towed him to the nearest public-house. "A chop and a glass of brandy-and-water," said this good Samaritan of the nineteenth century. "That's what you want. I'm peckish myself, and I'll keep you company."
He was perfectly passive in the hands of any one who would take charge of him; he submitted as if he had been the boatman's dog, and had heard the whistle.
It could only be truly said that he had come to himself, when there had been time enough for him to feel the reanimating influence of the food and drink. Then he got to his feet, and looked with incredulous wonder at the companion of his meal. The man from Broadstairs opened his greasy lips, and was silenced by the sudden appearance of a gold coin between Mr. Ronald's finger and thumb. "Don't speak to me; pay the bill, and bring me the change outside." When the boatman joined him, he was reading a letter; walking to and fro, and speaking at intervals to himself. "God help me, have I lost my senses? I don't know what to do next." He referred to the letter again: "if you don't believe me, ask Mrs. Turner, Number 1, Slains Row, Ramsgate." He put the letter back in his pocket, and rallied suddenly. "Slains Row," he said, turning to the boatman. "Take me there directly, and keep the change for yourself."
The boatman's gratitude was (apparently) beyond expression in words. He slapped his pocket cheerfully, and that was all. Leading the way inland, he went downhill, and uphill again—then turned aside towards the eastern extremity of the town.
Farnaby, still following, with the woman behind him, stopped when the boatman diverged towards the east, and looked up at the name of the street. "I've got my instructions," he said; "I know where he's going. Step out! We'll get there before him, by another way."
Mr. Ronald and his guide reached a row of poor little houses, with poor little gardens in front of them and behind them. The back windows looked out on downs and fields lying on either side of the road to Broadstairs. It was a lost and lonely spot. The guide stopped, and put a question with inquisitive respect. "What number, sir?" Mr. Ronald had sufficiently recovered himself to keep his own counsel. "That will do," he said. "You can leave me." The boatman waited a moment. Mr. Ronald looked at him. The boatman was slow to understand that his leadership had gone from him. "You're sure you don't want me any more?" he said. "Quite sure," Mr. Ronald answered. The man from Broadstairs retired—with his salvage to comfort him.
Number 1 was at the farther extremity of the row of houses. When Mr. Ronald rang the bell, the spies were already posted. The woman loitered on the road, within view of the door. Farnaby was out of sight, round the corner, watching the house over the low wooden palings of the back garden.
A lazy-looking man, in his shirt sleeves, opened the door. "Mrs. Turner at home?" he repeated. "Well, she's at home; but she's too busy to see anybody. What's your pleasure?" Mr. Ronald declined to accept excuses or to answer questions. "I must see Mrs. Turner directly," he said, "on important business." His tone and manner had their effect on the lazy man. "What name?" he asked. Mr. Ronald declined to mention his name. "Give my message," he said. "I won't detain Mrs. Turner more than a minute." The man hesitated—and opened the door of the front parlour. An old woman was fast asleep on a ragged little sofa. The man gave up the front parlour, and tried the back parlour next. It was empty. "Please to wait here," he said—and went away to deliver his message.
The parlour was a miserably furnished room. Through the open window, the patch of back garden was barely visible under fluttering rows of linen hanging out on lines to dry. A pack of dirty cards, and some plain needlework, littered the bare little table. A cheap American clock ticked with stern and steady activity on the mantelpiece. The smell of onions was in the air. A torn newspaper, with stains of beer on it, lay on the floor. There was some sinister influence in the place which affected Mr. Ronald painfully. He felt himself trembling, and sat down on one of the rickety chairs. The minutes followed one another wearily. He heard a trampling of feet in the room above—then a door opened and closed—then the rustle of a woman's dress on the stairs. In a moment more, the handle of the parlour door was turned. He rose, in anticipation of Mrs. Turner's appearance. The door opened. He found himself face to face with his wife.
John Farnaby, posted at the garden paling, suddenly lifted his head and looked towards the open window of the back parlour. He reflected for a moment—and then joined his female companion on the road in front of the house.
"I want you at the back garden," he said. "Come along!"
"How much longer am I to be kept kicking my heels in this wretched hole?" the woman asked sulkily.
"As much longer as I please—if you want to go back to London with the other half of the money." He showed it to her as he spoke. She followed him without another word.
Arrived at the paling, Farnaby pointed to the window, and to the back garden door, which was left ajar. "Speak softly," he whispered. "Do you hear voices in the house?"
"I don't hear what they're talking about, if that's what you mean."
"I don't hear, either. Now mind what I tell you—I have reasons of my own for getting a little nearer to that window. Sit down under the paling, so that you can't be seen from the house. If you hear a row, you may take it for granted that I am found out. In that case, go back to London by the next train, and meet me at the terminus at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. If nothing happens, wait where you are till you hear from me or see me again."
He laid his hand on the low paling, and vaulted over it. The linen hanging up in the garden to dry offered him a means of concealment (if any one happened to look out of the window) of which he skilfully availed himself. The dust-bin was at the side of the house, situated at a right angle to the parlour window. He was safe behind the bin, provided no one appeared on the path which connected the patch of garden at the back with the patch in front. Here, running the risk, he waited and listened.
The first voice that reached his ears was the voice of Mrs. Ronald. She was speaking with a firmness of tone that astonished him.
"Hear me to the end, Benjamin," she said. "I have a right to ask as much as that of my husband, and I do ask it. If I had been bent on nothing but saving the reputation of our miserable girl, you would have a right to blame me for keeping you ignorant of the calamity that has fallen on us—"
There the voice of her husband interposed sternly. "Calamity! Say disgrace, everlasting disgrace."
Mrs. Ronald did not notice the interruption. Sadly and patiently she went on.
"But I had a harder trial still to face," she said. "I had to save her, in spite of herself, from the wretch who has brought this infamy on us. He has acted throughout in cold blood; it is his interest to marry her, and from first to last he has plotted to force the marriage on us. For God's sake, don't speak loud! She is in the room above us; if she hears you it will be the death of her. Don't suppose I am talking at random; I have looked at his letters to her; I have got the confession of the servant-girl. Such a confession! Emma is his victim, body and soul. I know it! I know that she sent him money (my money) from this place. I know that the servant (at her instigation) informed him by telegraph of the birth of the child. Oh, Benjamin, don't curse the poor helpless infant—such a sweet little girl! don't think of it! I don't think of it! Show me the letter that brought you here; I want to see the letter. Ah, I can tell you who wrote it! He wrote it. In his own interests; always with his own interests in view. Don't you see it for yourself? If I succeed in keeping this shame and misery a secret from everybody—if I take Emma away, to some place abroad, on pretence of her health—there is an end of his hope of becoming your son-in-law; there is an end of his being taken into the business. Yes! he, the low-lived vagabond who puts up the shop-shutters, he looks forward to being taken into partnership, and succeeding you when you die! Isn't his object in writing that letter as plain to you now as the heaven above us? His one chance is to set your temper in a flame, to provoke the scandal of a discovery—and to force the marriage on us as the only remedy left. Am I wrong in making any sacrifice, rather than bind our girl for life, our own flesh and blood, to such a man as that? Surely you can feel for me, and forgive me, now. How could I own the truth to you, before I left London, knowing you as I do? How could I expect you to be patient, to go into hiding, to pass under a false name—to do all the degrading things that must be done, if we are to keep Emma out of this man's way? No! I know no more than you do where Farnaby is to be found. Hush! there is the door-bell. It's the doctor's time for his visit. I tell you again I don't know—on my sacred word of honour, I don't know where Farnaby is. Oh, be quiet! be quiet! there's the doctor going upstairs! don't let the doctor hear you!"
So far, she had succeeded in composing her husband. But the fury which she had innocently roused in him, in her eagerness to justify herself, now broke beyond all control. "You lie!" he cried furiously. "If you know everything else about it, you know where Farnaby is. I'll be the death of him, if I swing for it on the gallows! Where is he? Where is he?"
A shriek from the upper room silenced him before Mrs. Ronald could speak again. His daughter had heard him; his daughter had recognized his voice.
A cry of terror from her mother echoed the cry from above; the sound of the opening and closing of the door followed instantly. Then there was a momentary silence. Then Mrs. Ronald's voice was heard from the upper room calling to the nurse, asleep in the front parlour. The nurse's gruff tones were just audible, answering from the parlour door. There was another interval of silence; broken by another voice—a stranger's voice—speaking at the open window, close by.
"Follow me upstairs, sir, directly," the voice said in peremptory tones. "As your daughter's medical attendant, I tell you in the plainest terms that you have seriously frightened her. In her critical condition, I decline to answer for her life, unless you make the attempt at least to undo the mischief you have done. Whether you mean it or not, soothe her with kind words; say you have forgiven her. No! I have nothing to do with your domestic troubles; I have only my patient to think of. I don't care what she asks of you, you must give way to her now. If she falls into convulsions, she will die—and her death will be at your door."
So, with feebler and feebler interruptions from Mr. Ronald, the doctor spoke. It ended plainly in his being obeyed. The departing footsteps of the men were the next sounds to be heard. After that, there was a pause of silence—a long pause, broken by Mrs. Ronald, calling again from the upper regions. "Take the child into the back parlour, nurse, and wait till I come to you. It's cooler there, at this time of the day."
The wailing of an infant, and the gruff complaining of the nurse, were the next sounds that reached Farnaby in his hiding place. The nurse was grumbling to herself over the grievance of having been awakened from her sleep. "After being up all night, a person wants rest. There's no rest for anybody in this house. My head's as heavy as lead, and every bone in me has got an ache in it."
Before long, the renewed silence indicated that she had succeeded in hushing the child to sleep. Farnaby forgot the restraints of caution for the first time. His face flushed with excitement; he ventured nearer to the window, in his eagerness to find out what might happen next. After no long interval, the next sound came—a sound of heavy breathing, which told him that the drowsy nurse was falling asleep again. The window-sill was within reach of his hands. He waited until the heavy breathing deepened to snoring. Then he drew himself up by the window-sill, and looked into the room.
The nurse was fast asleep in an armchair; and the child was fast asleep on her lap.
He dropped softly to the ground again. Taking off his shoes, and putting them in his pockets, he ascended the two or three steps which led to the half-open back garden door. Arrived in the passage, he could just hear them talking upstairs. They were no doubt still absorbed in their troubles; he had only the servant to dread. The splashing of water in the kitchen informed him that she was safely occupied in washing. Slowly and softly he opened the back parlour door, and stole across the room to the nurse's chair.
One of her hands still rested on the child. The serious risk was the risk of waking her, if he lost his presence of mind and hurried it!
He glanced at the American clock on the mantelpiece. The result relieved him; it was not so late as he had feared. He knelt down, to steady himself, as nearly as possible on a level with the nurse's knees. By a hair's breadth at a time, he got both hands under the child. By a hair's breadth at a time, he drew the child away from her; leaving her hand resting on her lap by degrees so gradual that the lightest sleeper could not have felt the change. That done (barring accidents), all was done. Keeping the child resting easily on his left arm, he had his right hand free to shut the door again. Arrived at the garden steps, a slight change passed over the sleeping infant's face—the delicate little creature shivered as it felt the full flow of the open air. He softly laid over its face a corner of the woollen shawl in which it was wrapped. The child reposed as quietly on his arm as if it had still been on the nurse's lap.
In a minute more he was at the paling. The woman rose to receive him, with the first smile that had crossed her face since they had left London.
"So you've got the baby," she said, "Well, you are a deep one!"
"Take it," he answered irritably. "We haven't a moment to lose."
Only stopping to put on his shoes, he led the way towards the more central part of the town. The first person he met directed him to the railway station. It was close by. In five minutes more the woman and the baby were safe in the train to London.
"There's the other half of the money," he said, handing it to her through the carriage window.
The woman eyed the child in her arms with a frowning expression of doubt. "All very well as long as it lasts," she said. "And what after that?"
"Of course, I shall call and see you," he answered.
She looked hard at him, and expressed the whole value she set on that assurance in four words. "Of course you will!"
The train started for London. Farnaby watched it, as it left the platform, with a look of unfeigned relief. "There!" he thought to himself. "Emma's reputation is safe enough now! When we are married, we mustn't have a love-child in the way of our prospects in life."
Leaving the station, he stopped at the refreshment room, and drank a glass of brandy-and-water. "Something to screw me up," he thought, "for what is to come." What was to come (after he had got rid of the child) had been carefully considered by him, on the journey to Ramsgate. "Emma's husband-that-is-to-be"—he had reasoned it out—"will naturally be the first person Emma wants to see, when the loss of the baby has upset the house. If Old Ronald has a grain of affection left in him, he must let her marry me after that!"
Acting on this view of his position, he took the way that led back to Slains Row, and rang the door-bell as became a visitor who had no reasons for concealment now.
The household was doubtless already disorganized by the discovery of the child's disappearance. Neither master nor servant was active in answering the bell. Farnaby submitted to be kept waiting with perfect composure. There are occasions on which a handsome man is bound to put his personal advantages to their best use. He took out his pocket-comb, and touched up the arrangement of his whiskers with a skilled and gentle hand. Approaching footsteps made themselves heard along the passage at last. Farnaby put back his comb, and buttoned his coat briskly. "Now for it!" he said, as the door was opened at last.
BOOK THE FIRST. AMELIUS AMONG THE SOCIALISTS
Sixteen years after the date of Mr. Ronald's disastrous discovery at Ramsgate—that is to say, in the year 1872—the steamship Aquila left the port of New York, bound for Liverpool.
It was the month of September. The passenger-list of the Aquila had comparatively few names inscribed on it. In the autumn season, the voyage from America to England, but for the remunerative value of the cargo, would prove to be for the most part a profitless voyage to shipowners. The flow of passengers, at that time of year, sets steadily the other way. Americans are returning from Europe to their own country. Tourists have delayed the voyage until the fierce August heat of the United States has subsided, and the delicious Indian summer is ready to welcome them. At bed and board the passengers by the Aquila on her homeward voyage had plenty of room, and the choicest morsels for everybody alike on the well spread dinner-table.
The wind was favourable, the weather was lovely. Cheerfulness and good-humour pervaded the ship from stem to stern. The courteous captain did the honours of the cabin-table with the air of a gentleman who was receiving friends in his own house. The handsome doctor promenaded the deck arm-in-arm with ladies in course of rapid recovery from the first gastric consequences of travelling by sea. The excellent chief engineer, musical in his leisure moments to his fingers' ends, played the fiddle in his cabin, accompanied on the flute by that young Apollo of the Atlantic trade, the steward's mate. Only on the third morning of the voyage was the harmony on board the Aquila disturbed by a passing moment of discord—due to an unexpected addition to the ranks of the passengers, in the shape of a lost bird!
It was merely a weary little land-bird (blown out of its course, as the learned in such matters supposed); and it perched on one of the yards to rest and recover itself after its long flight.
The instant the creature was discovered, the insatiable Anglo-Saxon delight in killing birds, from the majestic eagle to the contemptible sparrow, displayed itself in its full frenzy. The crew ran about the decks, the passengers rushed into their cabins, eager to seize the first gun and to have the first shot. An old quarter-master of the Aquila was the enviable man, who first found the means of destruction ready to his hand. He lifted the gun to his shoulder, he had his finger on the trigger, when he was suddenly pounced upon by one of the passengers—a young, slim, sunburnt, active man—who snatched away the gun, discharged it over the side of the vessel, and turned furiously on the quarter-master. "You wretch! would you kill the poor weary bird that trusts our hospitality, and only asks us to give it a rest? That little harmless thing is as much one of God's creatures as you are. I'm ashamed of you—I'm horrified at you—you've got bird-murder in your face; I hate the sight of you!"
The quarter-master—a large grave fat man, slow alike in his bodily and his mental movements—listened to this extraordinary remonstrance with a fixed stare of amazement, and an open mouth from which the unspat tobacco-juice tricked in little brown streams. When the impetuous young gentleman paused (not for want of words, merely for want of breath), the quarter-master turned about, and addressed himself to the audience gathered round. "Gentlemen," he said, with a Roman brevity, "this young fellow is mad."
The captain's voice checked the general outbreak of laughter. "That will do, quarter-master. Let it be understood that nobody is to shoot the bird—and let me suggest to you, sir, that you might have expressed your sentiments quite as effectually in less violent language."
Addressed in those terms, the impetuous young man burst into another fit of excitement. "You're quite right, sir! I deserve every word you have said to me; I feel I have disgraced myself." He ran after the quartermaster, and seized him by both hands. "I beg your pardon; I beg your pardon with all my heart. You would have served me right if you had thrown me overboard after the language I used to you. Pray excuse my quick temper; pray forgive me. What do you say? 'Let bygones be bygones'? That's a capital way of putting it. You're a thorough good fellow. If I can ever be of the smallest use to you (there's my card and address in London), let me know it; I entreat you let me know it." He returned in a violent hurry to the captain. "I've made it up with the quarter-master, sir. He forgives me; he bears no malice. Allow me to congratulate you on having such a good Christian in your ship. I wish I was like him! Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, for the disturbance I have made. It shan't happen again—I promise you that."
The male travellers in general looked at each other, and seemed to agree with the quarter-master's opinion of their fellow-passenger. The women, touched by his evident sincerity, and charmed with his handsome blushing eager face, agreed that he was quite right to save the poor bird, and that it would be all the better for the weaker part of creation generally if other men were more like him. While the various opinions were still in course of expression, the sound of the luncheon bell cleared the deck of the passengers, with two exceptions. One was the impetuous young man. The other was a middle-aged traveller, with a grizzled beard and a penetrating eye, who had silently observed the proceedings, and who now took the opportunity of introducing himself to the hero of the moment.
"Are you not going to take any luncheon?" he asked.
"No, sir. Among the people I have lived with we don't eat at intervals of three or four hours, all day long."
"Will you excuse me," pursued the other, "if I own I should like to know what people you have been living with? My name is Hethcote; I was associated, at one time of my life, with a college devoted to the training of young men. From what I have seen and heard this morning, I fancy you have not been educated on any of the recognized systems that are popular at the present day. Am I right?"
The excitable young man suddenly became the picture of resignation, and answered in a formula of words as if he was repeating a lesson.
"I am Claude-Amelius-Goldenheart. Aged twenty-one. Son, and only child, of the late Claude Goldenheart, of Shedfield Heath, Buckinghamshire, England. I have been brought up by the Primitive Christian Socialists, at Tadmor Community, State of Illinois. I have inherited an income of five hundred a year. And I am now, with the approval of the Community, going to London to see life."
Mr. Hethcote received this copious flow of information, in some doubt whether he had been made the victim of coarse raillery, or whether he had merely heard a quaint statement of facts.
Claude-Amelius-Goldenheart saw that he had produced an unfavourable impression, and hastened to set himself right.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "I am not making game of you, as you seem to suppose. We are taught to be courteous to everybody, in our Community. The truth is, there seems to be something odd about me (I'm sure I don't know what), which makes people whom I meet on my travels curious to know who I am. If you'll please to remember, it's a long way from Illinois to New York, and curious strangers are not scarce on the journey. When one is obliged to keep on saying the same thing over and over again, a form saves a deal of trouble. I have made a form for myself—which is respectfully at the disposal of any person who does me the honour to wish for my acquaintance. Will that do, sir? Very well, then; shake hands, to show you're satisfied."
Mr. Hethcote shook hands, more than satisfied. He found it impossible to resist the bright honest brown eyes, the simple winning cordial manner of the young fellow with the quaint formula and the strange name. "Come, Mr. Goldenheart," he said, leading the way to a seat on deck, "let us sit down comfortably, and have a talk."
"Anything you like, sir—but don't call me Mr. Goldenheart."
"Well, it sounds formal. And, besides, you're old enough to be my father; it's my duty to call you Mister—or Sir, as we say to our elders at Tadmor. I have left all my friends behind me at the Community—and I feel lonely out here on this big ocean, among strangers. Do me a kindness, sir. Call me by my Christian name; and give me a friendly slap on the back if you find we get along smoothly in the course of the day."
"Which of your names shall it be?" Mr. Hethcote asked, humouring this odd lad. "Claude?"
"No. Not Claude. The Primitive Christians said Claude was a finicking French name. Call me Amelius, and I shall begin to feel at home again. If you're in a hurry, cut it down to three letters (as they did at Tadmor), and call me Mel."
"Very good," said Mr. Hethcote. "Now, my friend Amelius (or Mel), I am going to speak out plainly, as you do. The Primitive Christian Socialists must have great confidence in their system of education, to turn you adrift in the world without a companion to look after you."
"You've hit it, sir," Amelius answered coolly. "They have unlimited confidence in their system of education. And I'm a proof of it."
"You have relations in London, I suppose?" Mr. Hethcote proceeded.
For the first time the face of Amelius showed a shadow of sadness on it.
"I have relations," he said. "But I have promised never to claim their hospitality. 'They are hard and worldly; and they will make you hard and worldly, too.' That's what my father said to me on his deathbed." He took off his hat when he mentioned his father's death, and came to a sudden pause—with his head bent down, like a man absorbed in thought. In less than a minute he put on his hat again, and looked up with his bright winning smile. "We say a little prayer for the loved ones who are gone, when we speak of them," he explained. "But we don't say it out loud, for fear of seeming to parade our religious convictions. We hate cant in our Community."
"I cordially agree with the Community, Amelius. But, my good fellow, have you really no friend to welcome you when you get to London?"
Amelius answered the question mysteriously. "Wait a little!" he said—and took a letter from the breast-pocket of his coat. Mr. Hethcote, watching him, observed that he looked at the address with unfeigned pride and pleasure.
"One of our brethren at the Community has given me this," he announced. "It's a letter of introduction, sir, to a remarkable man—a man who is an example to all the rest of us. He has risen, by dint of integrity and perseverance, from the position of a poor porter in a shop to be one of the most respected mercantile characters in the City of London."
With this explanation, Amelius handed his letter to Mr. Hethcote. It was addressed as follows:—
To John Farnaby, Esquire, Messrs. Ronald & Farnaby, Stationers, Aldersgate Street, London.
Mr. Hethcote looked at the address on the letter with an expression of surprise, which did not escape the notice of Amelius. "Do you know Mr. Farnaby?" he asked.
"I have some acquaintance with him," was the answer, given with a certain appearance of constraint.
Amelius went on eagerly with his questions. "What sort of man is he? Do you think he will be prejudiced against me, because I have been brought up in Tadmor?"
"I must be a little better acquainted, Amelius, with you and Tadmor before I can answer your question. Suppose you tell me how you became one of the Socialists, to begin with?"
"I was only a little boy, Mr. Hethcote, at that time."
"Very good. Even little boys have memories. Is there any objection to your telling me what you can remember?"
Amelius answered rather sadly, with his eyes bent on the deck. "I remember something happening which threw a gloom over us at home in England. I heard that my mother was concerned in it. When I grew older, I never presumed to ask my father what it was; and he never offered to tell me. I only know this: that he forgave her some wrong she had done him, and let her go on living at home—and that relations and friends all blamed him, and fell away from him, from that time. Not long afterwards, while I was at school, my mother died. I was sent for, to follow her funeral with my father. When we got back, and were alone together, he took me on his knee and kissed me. 'Which will you do, Amelius,' he said; 'stay in England with your uncle and aunt? or come with me all the way to America, and never go back to England again? Take time to think of it.' I wanted no time to think of it; I said, 'Go with you, papa.' He frightened me by bursting out crying; it was the first time I had ever seen him in tears. I can understand it now. He had been cut to the heart, and had borne it like a martyr; and his boy was his one friend left. Well, by the end of the week we were on board the ship; and there we met a benevolent gentleman, with a long gray beard, who bade my father welcome, and presented me with a cake. In my ignorance, I thought he was the captain. Nothing of the sort. He was the first Socialist I had ever seen; and it was he who had persuaded my father to leave England."
Mr. Hethcote's opinions of Socialists began to show themselves (a little sourly) in Mr. Hethcote's smile. "And how did you get on with this benevolent gentleman?" he asked. "After converting your father, did he convert you—with the cake?"
Amelius smiled. "Do him justice, sir; he didn't trust to the cake. He waited till we were in sight of the American land—and then he preached me a little sermon, on our arrival, entirely for my own use."
"A sermon?" Mr. Hethcote repeated. "Very little religion in it, I suspect."
"Very little indeed, sir," Amelius answered. "Only as much religion as there is in the New Testament. I was not quite old enough to understand him easily—so he wrote down his discourse on the fly-leaf of a story-book I had with me, and gave it to me to read when I was tired of the stories. Stories were scarce with me in those days; and, when I had exhausted my little stock, rather than read nothing I read my sermon—read it so often that I think I can remember every word of it now. 'My dear little boy, the Christian religion, as Christ taught it, has long ceased to be the religion of the Christian world. A selfish and cruel Pretence is set up in its place. Your own father is one example of the truth of this saying of mine. He has fulfilled the first and foremost duty of a true Christian—the duty of forgiving an injury. For this, he stands disgraced in the estimation of all his friends: they have renounced and abandoned him. He forgives them, and seeks peace and good company in the New World, among Christians like himself. You will not repent leaving home with him; you will be one of a loving family, and, when you are old enough, you will be free to decide for yourself what your future life shall be.' That was all I knew about the Socialists, when we reached Tadmor after our long journey."
Mr. Hethcote's prejudices made their appearance again. "A barren sort of place," he said, "judging by the name."
"Barren? What can you be thinking of? A prettier place I never saw, and never expect to see again. A clear winding river, running into a little blue lake. A broad hill-side, all laid out in flower-gardens, and shaded by splendid trees. On the top of the hill, the buildings of the Community, some of brick and some of wood, so covered with creepers and so encircled with verandahs that I can't tell you to this day what style of architecture they were built in. More trees behind the houses—and, on the other side of the hill, cornfields, nothing but cornfields rolling away and away in great yellow plains, till they reached the golden sky and the setting sun, and were seen no more. That was our first view of Tadmor, when the stage-coach dropped us at the town."
Mr. Hethcote still held out. "And what about the people who live in this earthly Paradise?" he asked. "Male and female saints—eh?"
"Oh dear no, sir! The very opposite of saints. They eat and drink like their neighbours. They never think of wearing dirty horsehair when they can get clean linen. And when they are tempted to misconduct themselves, they find a better way out of it than knotting a cord and thrashing their own backs. Saints! They all ran out together to bid us welcome like a lot of school-children; the first thing they did was to kiss us, and the next thing was to give us a mug of wine of their own making. Saints! Oh, Mr. Hethcote, what will you accuse us of being next? I declare your suspicions of the poor Socialists keep cropping up again as fast as I cut them down. May I make a guess, sir, without offending you? From one or two things I have noticed, I strongly suspect you're a British clergyman."
Mr. Hethcote was conquered at last: he burst out laughing. "You have discovered me," he said, "travelling in a coloured cravat and a shooting jacket! I confess I should like to know how."
"It's easily explained, sir. Visitors of all sorts are welcome at Tadmor. We have a large experience of them in the travelling season. They all come with their own private suspicion of us lurking about the corners of their eyes. They see everything we have to show them, and eat and drink at our table, and join in our amusements, and get as pleasant and friendly with us as can be. The time comes to say goodbye—and then we find them out. If a guest who has been laughing and enjoying himself all day, suddenly becomes serious when he takes his leave, and shows that little lurking devil of suspicion again about the corners of his eyes—it's ten chances to one that he's a clergyman. No offence, Mr. Hethcote! I acknowledge with pleasure that the corners of your eyes are clear again. You're not a very clerical clergyman, sir, after all—I don't despair of converting you, yet!"
"Go on with your story, Amelius. You're the queerest fellow I have met with, for many a long day past."
"I'm a little doubtful about going on with my story, sir. I have told you how I got to Tadmor, and what it looks like, and what sort of people live in the place. If I am to get on beyond that, I must jump to the time when I was old enough to learn the Rules of the Community."
"Well—and what then?"
"Well, Mr. Hethcote, some of the Rules might offend you."
"All right, sir! don't blame me; I'm not ashamed of the Rules. And now, if I am to speak, I must speak seriously on a serious subject; I must begin with our religious principles. We find our Christianity in the spirit of the New Testament—not in the letter. We have three good reasons for objecting to pin our faith on the words alone, in that book. First, because we are not sure that the English translation is always to be depended on as accurate and honest. Secondly, because we know that (since the invention of printing) there is not a copy of the book in existence which is free from errors of the press, and that (before the invention of printing) those errors, in manuscript copies, must as a matter of course have been far more serious and far more numerous. Thirdly, because there is plain internal evidence (to say nothing of discoveries actually made in the present day) of interpolations and corruptions, introduced into the manuscript copies as they succeeded each other in ancient times. These drawbacks are of no importance, however, in our estimation. We find, in the spirit of the book, the most simple and most perfect system of religion and morality that humanity has ever received—and with that we are content. To reverence God; and to love our neighbour as ourselves: if we had only those two commandments to guide us, we should have enough. The whole collection of Doctrines (as they are called) we reject at once, without even stopping to discuss them. We apply to them the test suggested by Christ himself: by their fruits ye shall know them. The fruits of Doctrines, in the past (to quote three instances only), have been the Spanish Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the Thirty Years' War—and the fruits, in the present, are dissension, bigotry, and opposition to useful reforms. Away with Doctrines! In the interests of Christianity, away with them! We are to love our enemies; we are to forgive injuries; we are to help the needy; we are to be pitiful and courteous, slow to judge others, and ashamed to exalt ourselves. That teaching doesn't lead to tortures, massacres, and wars; to envy, hatred, and malice—and for that reason it stands revealed to us as the teaching that we can trust. There is our religion, sir, as we find it in the Rules of the Community."
"Very well, Amelius. I notice, in passing, that the Community is in one respect like the Pope—the Community is infallible. We won't dwell on that. You have stated your principles. As to the application of them next? Nobody has a right to be rich among you, of course?"
"Put it the other way, Mr. Hethcote. All men have a right to be rich—provided they don't make other people poor, as a part of the process. We don't trouble ourselves much about money; that's the truth. We are farmers, carpenters, weavers, and printers; and what we earn (ask our neighbours if we don't earn it honestly) goes into the common fund. A man who comes to us with money puts it into the fund, and so makes things easy for the next man who comes with empty pockets. While they are with us, they all live in the same comfort, and have their equal share in the same profits—deducting the sum in reverse for sudden calls and bad times. If they leave us, the man who has brought money with him has his undisputed right to take it away again; and the man who has brought none bids us good-bye, all the richer for his equal share in the profits which he has personally earned. The only fuss at our place about money that I can remember was the fuss about my five hundred a year. I wanted to hand it over to the fund. It was my own, mind—inherited from my mother's property, on my coming of age. The Elders wouldn't hear of it: the Council wouldn't hear of it: the general vote of the Community wouldn't hear of it. 'We agreed with his father that he should decide for himself, when he grew to manhood'—that was how they put it. 'Let him go back to the Old World; and let him be free to choose, by the test of his own experience, what his future life shall be.' How do you think it will end, Mr. Hethcote? Shall I return to the Community? Or shall I stop in London?"
Mr. Hethcote answered, without a moment's hesitation. "You will stop in London."
"I'll bet you two to one, Sir, he goes back to the Community."
In those words, a third voice (speaking in a strong New England accent) insinuated itself into the conversation from behind. Amelius and Mr. Hethcote, looking round, discovered a long, lean, grave stranger—with his face overshadowed by a huge felt hat. "Have you been listening to our conversation?" Mr. Hethcote asked haughtily.
"I have been listening," answered the grave stranger, "with considerable interest. This young man, I find, opens a new chapter to me in the book of humanity. Do you accept my bet, Sir? My name is Rufus Dingwell; and my home is at Coolspring, Mass. You do not bet? I express my regret, and have the pleasure of taking a seat alongside of you. What is your name, Sir? Hethcote? We have one of that name at Coolspring. He is much respected. Mr. Claude A. Goldenheart, you are no stranger to me—no, Sir. I procured your name from the steward, when the little difficulty occurred just now about the bird. Your name considerably surprised me."
"Why?" Amelius asked.
"Well, sir—not to say that your surname (being Goldenheart) reminds one unexpectedly of The Pilgrim's Progress—I happen to be already acquainted with you. By reputation."
Amelius looked puzzled. "By reputation?" he said. "What does that mean?"
"It means, sir, that you occupy a prominent position in a recent number of our popular journal, entitled The Coolspring Democrat. The late romantic incident which caused the withdrawal of Miss Mellicent from your Community has produced a species of social commotion at Coolspring. Among our ladies, the tone of sentiment, Sir, is universally favourable to you. When I left, I do assure you, you were a popular character among us. The name of Claude A. Goldenheart was, so to speak, in everybody's mouth."
Amelius listened to this, with the colour suddenly deepening on his face, and with every appearance of heartfelt annoyance and regret. "There is no such thing as keeping a secret in America," he said, irritably. "Some spy must have got among us; none of our people would have exposed the poor lady to public comment. How would you like it, Mr. Dingwell, if the newspaper published the private sorrows of your wife or your daughter?"
Rufus Dingwell answered with the straightforward sincerity of feeling which is one of the indisputable virtues of his nation. "I had not thought of it in that light, sir," he said. "You have been good enough to credit me with a wife or a daughter. I do not possess either of those ladies; but your argument hits me, notwithstanding—hits me hard, I tell you." He looked at Mr. Hethcote, who sat silently and stiffly disapproving of all this familiarity, and applied himself in perfect innocence and good faith to making things pleasant in that quarter. "You are a stranger, Sir," said Rufus; "and you will doubtless wish to peruse the article which is the subject of conversation?" He took a newspaper slip from his pocket-book, and offered it to the astonished Englishman. "I shall be glad to hear your sentiments, sir, on the view propounded by our mutual friend, Claude A. Goldenheart."
Before Mr. Hethcote could reply, Amelius interposed in his own headlong way. "Give it to me! I want to read it first!"
He snatched at the newspaper slip. Rufus checked him with grave composure. "I am of a cool temperament myself, sir; but that don't prevent me from admiring heat in others. Short of boiling point—mind that!" With this hint, the wise New Englander permitted Amelius to take possession of the printed slip.
Mr. Hethcote, finding an opportunity of saying a word at last, asserted himself a little haughtily. "I beg you will both of you understand that I decline to read anything which relates to another person's private affairs."
Neither the one nor the other of his companions paid the slightest heed to this announcement. Amelius was reading the newspaper extract, and placid Rufus was watching him. In another moment, he crumpled up the slip, and threw it indignantly on the deck. "It's as full of lies as it can hold!" he burst out.
"It's all over the United States, by this time," Rufus remarked. "And I don't doubt we shall find the English papers have copied it, when we get to Liverpool. If you will take my advice, sir, you will cultivate a sagacious insensibility to the comments of the press."
"Do you think I care for myself?" Amelius asked indignantly. "It's the poor woman I am thinking of. What can I do to clear her character?"
"Well, sir," suggested Rufus, "in your place, I should have a notification circulated through the ship, announcing a lecture on the subject (weather permitting) in the course of the afternoon. That's the way we should do it at Coolspring."
Amelius listened without conviction. "It's certainly useless to make a secret of the matter now," he said; "but I don't see my way to making it more public still." He paused, and looked at Mr. Hethcote. "It so happens, sir," he resumed, "that this unfortunate affair is an example of some of the Rules of our Community, which I had not had time to speak of, when Mr. Dingwell here joined us. It will be a relief to me to contradict these abominable falsehoods to somebody; and I should like (if you don't mind) to hear what you think of my conduct, from your own point of view. It might prepare me," he added, smiling rather uneasily, "for what I may find in the English newspapers."
With these words of introduction he told his sad story—jocosely described in the newspaper heading as "Miss Mellicent and Goldenheart among the Socialists at Tadmor."
"Nearly six months since," said Amelius, "we had notice by letter of the arrival of an unmarried English lady, who wished to become a member of our Community. You will understand my motive in keeping her family name a secret: even the newspaper has grace enough only to mention her by her Christian name. I don't want to cheat you out of your interest; so I will own at once that Miss Mellicent was not beautiful, and not young. When she came to us, she was thirty-eight years old, and time and trial had set their marks on her face plainly enough for anybody to see. Notwithstanding this, we all thought her an interesting woman. It might have been the sweetness of her voice; or perhaps it was something in her expression that took our fancy. There! I can't explain it; I can only say there were young women and pretty women at Tadmor who failed to win us as Miss Mellicent did. Contradictory enough, isn't it?"
Mr. Hethcote said he understood the contradiction. Rufus put an appropriate question: "Do you possess a photograph of this lady, sir?"
"No," said Amelius; "I wish I did. Well, we received her, on her arrival, in the Common Room—called so because we all assemble there every evening, when the work of the day is done. Sometimes we have the reading of a poem or a novel; sometimes debates on the social and political questions of the time in England and America; sometimes music, or dancing, or cards, or billiards, to amuse us. When a new member arrives, we have the ceremonies of introduction. I was close by the Elder Brother (that's the name we give to the chief of the Community) when two of the women led Miss Mellicent in. He's a hearty old fellow, who lived the first part of his life on his own clearing in one of the Western forests. To this day, he can't talk long, without showing, in one way or another, that his old familiarity with the trees still keeps its place in his memory. He looked hard at Miss Mellicent, under his shaggy old white eyebrows; and I heard him whisper to himself, 'Ah, dear me! Another of The Fallen Leaves!' I knew what he meant. The people who have drawn blanks in the lottery of life—the people who have toiled hard after happiness, and have gathered nothing but disappointment and sorrow; the friendless and the lonely, the wounded and the lost—these are the people whom our good Elder Brother calls The Fallen Leaves. I like the saying myself; it's a tender way of speaking of our poor fellow-creatures who are down in the world."
He paused for a moment, looking out thoughtfully over the vast void of sea and sky. A passing shadow of sadness clouded his bright young face. The two elder men looked at him in silence, feeling (in widely different ways) the same compassionate interest. What was the life that lay before him? And—God help him!—what would he do with it?
"Where did I leave off?" he asked, rousing himself suddenly.
"You left Miss Mellicent, sir, in the Common Room—the venerable citizen with the white eyebrows being suitably engaged in moralizing on her." In those terms the ever-ready Rufus set the story going again.
"Quite right," Amelius resumed. "There she was, poor thing, a little thin timid creature, in a white dress, with a black scarf over her shoulders, trembling and wondering in a room full of strangers. The Elder Brother took her by the hand, and kissed her on the forehead, and bade her heartily welcome in the name of the Community. Then the women followed his example, and the men all shook hands with her. And then our chief put the three questions, which he is bound to address to all new arrivals when they join us: 'Do you come here of your own free will? Do you bring with you a written recommendation from one of our brethren, which satisfies us that we do no wrong to ourselves or to others in receiving you? Do you understand that you are not bound to us by vows, and that you are free to leave us again if the life here is not agreeable to you?' Matters being settled so far, the reading of the Rules, and the Penalties imposed for breaking them, came next. Some of the Rules you know already; others of smaller importance I needn't trouble you with. As for the Penalties, if you incur the lighter ones, you are subject to public rebuke, or to isolation for a time from the social life of the Community. If you incur the heavier ones, you are either sent out into the world again for a given period, to return or not as you please; or you are struck off the list of members, and expelled for good and all. Suppose these preliminaries agreed to by Miss Mellicent with silent submission, and let us go on to the close of the ceremony—the reading of the Rules which settle the questions of Love and Marriage."
"Aha!" said Mr. Hethcote, "we are coming to the difficulties of the Community at last!"
"Are we also coming to Miss Mellicent, sir?" Rufus inquired. "As a citizen of a free country in which I can love in one State, marry in another, and be divorced in a third, I am not interested in your Rules—I am interested in your Lady."
"The two are inseparable in this case," Amelius answered gravely. "If I am to speak of Miss Mellicent, I must speak of the Rules; you will soon see why. Our Community becomes a despotism, gentlemen, in dealing with love and marriage. For example, it positively prohibits any member afflicted with hereditary disease from marrying at all; and it reserves to itself, in the case of every proposed marriage among us, the right of permitting or forbidding it, in council. We can't even fall in love with each other, without being bound, under penalties, to report it to the Elder Brother; who, in his turn, communicates it to the monthly council; who, in their turn, decide whether the courtship may go on or not. That's not the worst of it, even yet! In some cases—where we haven't the slightest intention of falling in love with each other—the governing body takes the initiative. 'You two will do well to marry; we see it, if you don't. Just think of it, will you?' You may laugh; some of our happiest marriages have been made in that way. Our governors in council act on an established principle: here it is in a nutshell. The results of experience in the matter of marriage, all over the world, show that a really wise choice of a husband or a wife is an exception to the rule; and that husbands and wives in general would be happier together if their marriages were managed for them by competent advisers on either side. Laws laid down on such lines as these, and others equally strict, which I have not mentioned yet, were not put in force, Mr. Hethcote, as you suppose, without serious difficulties—difficulties which threatened the very existence of the Community. But that was before my time. When I grew up, I found the husbands and wives about me content to acknowledge that the Rules fulfilled the purpose with which they had been made—the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It all looks very absurd, I dare say, from your point of view. But these queer regulations of ours answer the Christian test—by their fruits ye shall know them. Our married people don't live on separate sides of the house; our children are all healthy; wife-beating is unknown among us; and the practice in our divorce court wouldn't keep the most moderate lawyer on bread and cheese. Can you say as much for the success of the marriage laws in Europe? I leave you, gentlemen, to form your own opinions."
Mr. Hethcote declined to express an opinion. Rufus declined to resign his interest in the lady. "And what did Miss Mellicent say to it?" he inquired.
"She said something that startled us all," Amelius replied. "When the Elder Brother began to read the first words relating to love and marriage in the Book of Rules, she turned deadly pale; and rose up in her place with a sudden burst of courage or desperation—I don't know which. 'Must you read that to me?' she asked. 'I have nothing to do with love or marriage.' The Elder Brother laid aside his Book of Rules. 'If you are afflicted with an hereditary malady,' he said, 'the doctor from the town will examine you, and report to us.' She answered, 'I have no hereditary malady.' The Elder Brother took up his book again. 'In due course of time, my dear, the Council will decide for you whether you are to love and marry or not.' And he read the Rules. She sat down again, and hid her face in her hands, and never moved or spoke until he had done. The regular questions followed. Had she anything to say, in the way of objection? Nothing! In that case, would she sign the Rules? Yes! When the time came for supper, she excused herself, just like a child. 'I feel very tired; may I go to bed?' The unmarried women in the same dormitory with her anticipated some romantic confession when she grew used to her new friends. They proved to be wrong. 'My life has been one long disappointment,' was all she said. 'You will do me a kindness if you will take me as I am, and not ask me to talk about myself.' There was nothing sulky or ungracious in the expression of her wish to keep her own secret. A kinder and sweeter woman—never thinking of herself, always considerate of others—never lived. An accidental discovery made me her chief friend, among the men: it turned out that her childhood had been passed, where my childhood had been passed, at Shedfield Heath, in Buckinghamshire. She was never weary of consulting my boyish recollections, and comparing them with her own. 'I love the place,' she used to say; 'the only happy time of my life was the time passed there.' On my sacred word of honour, this was the sort of talk that passed between us, for week after week. What other talk could pass between a man whose one and twentieth birthday was then near at hand, and a woman who was close on forty? What could I do, when the poor, broken, disappointed creature met me on the hill or by the river, and said, 'You are going out for a walk; may I come with you?' I never attempted to intrude myself into her confidence; I never even asked her why she had joined the Community. You see what is coming, don't you? I never saw it. I didn't know what it meant, when some of the younger women, meeting us together, looked at me (not at her), and smiled maliciously. My stupid eyes were opened at last by the woman who slept in the next bed to her in the dormitory—a woman old enough to be my mother, who took care of me when I was a child at Tadmor. She stopped me one morning, on my way to fish in the river. 'Amelius,' she said, 'don't go to the fishing-house; Mellicent is waiting for you.' I stared at her in astonishment. She held up her finger at me: 'Take care, you foolish boy! You are drifting into a false position as fast as you can. Have you no suspicion of what is going on?' I looked all round me, in search of what was going on. Nothing out of the common was to be seen anywhere. 'What can you possibly mean?' I asked. 'You will only laugh at me, if I tell you,' she said. I promised not to laugh. She too looked all round her, as if she was afraid of somebody being near enough to hear us; and then she let out the secret. 'Amelius, ask for a holiday—and leave us for a while. Mellicent is in love with you.'"
Amelius looked at his companions, in some doubt whether they would preserve their gravity at this critical point in his story. They both showed him that his apprehensions were well founded. He was a little hurt, and he instantly revealed it. "I own to my shame that I burst out laughing myself," he said. "But you two gentlemen are older and wiser than I am. I didn't expect to find you just as ready to laugh at poor Miss Mellicent as I was."
Mr. Hethcote declined to be reminded of his duties as a middle-aged gentleman in this backhanded manner. "Gently, Amelius! You can't expect to persuade us that a laughable thing is not a thing to be laughed at. A woman close on forty who falls in love with a young fellow of twenty-one—"
"Is a laughable circumstance," Rufus interposed. "Whereas a man of forty who fancies a young woman of twenty-one is all in the order of Nature. The men have settled it so. But why the women are to give up so much sooner than the men is a question, sir, on which I have long wished to hear the sentiments of the women themselves."
Mr. Hethcote dismissed the sentiments of the women with a wave of his hand. "Let us hear the rest of it, Amelius. Of course you went on to the fishing-house? And of course you found Miss Mellicent there?"
"She came to the door to meet me, much as usual," Amelius resumed, "and suddenly checked herself in the act of shaking hands with me. I can only suppose she saw something in my face that startled her. How it happened, I can't say; but I felt my good spirits forsake me the moment I found myself in her presence. I doubt if she had ever seen me so serious before. 'Have I offended you?' she asked. Of course, I denied it; but I failed to satisfy her. She began to tremble. 'Has somebody said something against me? Are you weary of my company?' Those were the next questions. It was useless to say No. Some perverse distrust of me, or some despair of herself, overpowered her on a sudden. She sank down on the floor of the fishing-house, and began to cry—not a good hearty burst of tears; a silent, miserable, resigned sort of crying, as if she had lost all claim to be pitied, and all right to feel wounded or hurt. I was so distressed, that I thought of nothing but consoling her. I meant well, and I acted like a fool. A sensible man would have lifted her up, I suppose, and left her to herself. I lifted her up, and put my arm round her waist. She looked at me as I did it. For just a moment, I declare she became twenty years younger! She blushed as I have never seen a woman blush before or since—the colour flowed all over her neck as well as her face. Before I could say a word, she caught hold of my hand, and (of all the confusing things in the world!) kissed it. 'No!' she cried, 'don't despise me! don't laugh at me! Wait, and hear what my life has been, and then you will understand why a little kindness overpowers me.' She looked round the corner of the fishing-house suspiciously. 'I don't want anybody else to hear us,' she said, 'all the pride isn't beaten out of me yet. Come to the lake, and row me about in the boat.' I took her out in the boat. Nobody could hear us certainly; but she forgot, and I forgot, that anybody might see us, and that appearances on the lake might lead to false conclusions on shore."
Mr. Hethcote and Rufus exchanged significant looks. They had not forgotten the Rules of the Community, when two of its members showed a preference for each other's society.
Amelius proceeded. "Well, there we were on the lake. I paddled with the oars, and she opened her whole heart to me. Her troubles had begun, in a very common way, with her mother's death and her father's second marriage. She had a brother and a sister—the sister married a German merchant, settled in New York; the brother comfortably established as a sheep-farmer in Australia. So, you see, she was alone at home, at the mercy of the step-mother. I don't understand these cases myself, but people who do, tell me that there are generally faults on both sides. To make matters worse, they were a poor family; the one rich relative being a sister of the first wife, who disapproved of the widower marrying again, and never entered the house afterwards. Well, the step-mother had a sharp tongue, and Mellicent was the first person to feel the sting of it. She was reproached with being an encumbrance on her father, when she ought to be doing something for herself. There was no need to repeat those harsh words. The next day she answered an advertisement. Before the week was over, she was earning her bread as a daily governess."
Here Rufus stopped the narrative, having an interesting question to put. "Might I inquire, sir, what her salary was?"
"Thirty pounds a year," Amelius replied. "She was out teaching from nine o'clock to two—and then went home again."
"There seems to be nothing to complain of in that, as salaries go," Mr. Hethcote remarked.
"She made no complaint," Amelius rejoined. "She was satisfied with her salary; but she wasn't satisfied with her life. The meek little woman grew downright angry when she spoke of it. 'I had no reason to complain of my employers,' she said. 'I was civilly treated and punctually paid; but I never made friends of them. I tried to make friends of the children; and sometimes I thought I had succeeded—but, oh dear, when they were idle, and I was obliged to keep them to their lessons, I soon found how little hold I had on the love that I wanted them to give me. We see children in books who are perfect little angels; never envious or greedy or sulky or deceitful; always the same sweet, pious, tender, grateful, innocent creatures—and it has been my misfortune never to meet with them, go where I might! It is a hard world, Amelius, the world that I have lived in. I don't think there are such miserable lives anywhere as the lives led by the poor middle classes in England. From year's end to year's end, the one dreadful struggle to keep up appearances, and the heart-breaking monotony of an existence without change. We lived in the back street of a cheap suburb. I declare to you we had but one amusement in the whole long weary year—the annual concert the clergyman got up, in aid of his schools. The rest of the year it was all teaching for the first half of the day, and needlework for the young family for the other half. My father had religious scruples; he prohibited theatres, he prohibited dancing and light reading; he even prohibited looking in at the shop-windows, because we had no money to spare and they tempted us to buy. He went to business in the morning, and came back at night, and fell asleep after dinner, and woke up and read prayers—and next day to business and back, and sleeping and waking and reading prayers—and no break in it, week after week, month after month, except on Sunday, which was always the same Sunday; the same church, the same service, the same dinner, the same book of sermons in the evening. Even when we had a fortnight once a year at the seaside, we always went to the same place and lodged in the same cheap house. The few friends we had led just the same lives, and were beaten down flat by just the same monotony. All the women seemed to submit to it contentedly except my miserable self. I wanted so little! Only a change now and then; only a little sympathy when I was weary and sick at heart; only somebody whom I could love and serve, and be rewarded with a smile and a kind word in return. Mothers shook their heads, and daughters laughed at me. Have we time to be sentimental? Haven't we enough to do, darning and mending, and turning our dresses, and making the joint last as long as possible, and keeping the children clean, and doing the washing at home—and tea and sugar rising, and my husband grumbling every week when I have to ask him for the house-money. Oh, no more of it! no more of it! People meant for better things all ground down to the same sordid and selfish level—is that a pleasant sight to contemplate? I shudder when I think of the last twenty years of my life!' That's what she complained of, Mr. Hethcote, in the solitary middle of the lake, with nobody but me to hear her."