The Fallen Leaves – Wilkie Collins
In ‘Fallen Leaves’, Mr. Wilkie Collins has touched on some very difficult problems, and has done it with delicacy. Though the main interest of the story does not lie in the plot, but rather in the characters and in the novel situations he has found, yet there is a sense of consistency and completeness, which draws from the reader as he proceeds the keenest interest, in spite of an occasional touch of melodrama, which Mr. Wilkie Collins finds it very difficult to leave behind him. Amelius Goldenheart, the representative of an old English family, has been educated at a socialist institution in America ; and having fallen under a misconstruction, is glad to make his way to England, a tour for which his independent income of £500 a year is a happy sine qua non. On the voyage he makes acquaintance with a certain Rufus Dingwell, an admirable type of the better class Yankee ; and these two gentlemen are speedily on intimate terms with the family of a Mr. Farnaby, a rich City man, of some incidents in whose earlier life we have had a very significant glimpse in the opening. Mr. Farnaby had, in fact, for purposes of his own, to steal and to convey away his own illegitimate child, that he might compel Mr. Ronald, his rich master, to acquiesce in his wishes for marriage with his daughter. In this he completely succeeds ; and the story turns on the interest of the search for this lost daughter, on the success of which the poor mother finds her one hope. The sketches of Regina, Mr. Farnaby’s niece, of Phoebe, the maid, and her lover Jervy, are admirably done, and we should not forget the inevitable Mrs. Lowler, who, though her counterparts have been well done by Dickens and others, still, in Mr. Collins’s hands, has traits wholly her own. The scene in the low public-house, where Phoebe fell under the anger of Mrs. Lowler, and was cleverly saved from the results of it by Jervy, is very cleverly executed. Mrs. Farnaby soon takes Amelius into her confidence, and charges him to aid her in the search for her lost child, to which he agrees ; and whilst she is allowing herself to pass into the hands of swindlers, Amelius has all unconsciously found the lost child in ‘ Simple Sally,’ whom he has rescued from the cruel treatment of a foul wretch who held her as his property. The style of life to which these incidents conduct us is what gives the title to the book ; but Mr. Wilkie Collins has taken care to treat everything with such caution and reserve that he would be either a very sensitive or a very coarse person indeed who would feel any other than touched and elevated by the picture here presented.
The Fallen Leaves.
Excerpt from the text:
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.