The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Amelius rose impulsively from his chair.

Mrs. Farnaby turned at the same moment, and signed to him to resume his seat. “You have given me your promise,” she whispered. “All I ask of you is to be silent.” She softly drew the key out of the door, and showed it to him. “You can’t get out,” she said, “unless you take the key from me by force!”

Whatever Amelius might think of the situation in which he now found himself, the one thing that he could honourably do was to say nothing, and submit to it. He remained quietly by the fire. No imaginable consideration (he mentally resolved) should induce him to consent to a second confidential interview in Mrs. Farnaby’s room.

The servant opened the house-door. Regina’s voice was heard in the hall.

“Has my aunt come in?”

“No, miss.”

“Have you heard nothing of her?”

“Nothing, miss.”

“Has Mr. Goldenheart been here?”

“No, miss.”

“Very extraordinary! What can have become of them, Cecilia?”

The voice of the other lady was heard in answer. “We have probably missed them, on leaving the concert room. Don’t alarm yourself, Regina. I must go back, under any circumstances; the carriage will be waiting for me. If I see anything of your aunt, I will say that you are expecting her at home.”

“One moment, Cecilia! (Thomas, you needn’t wait.) Is it really true that you don’t like Mr. Goldenheart?”

“What! has it come to that, already? I’ll try to like him, Regina. Goodbye again.”

The closing of the street door told that the ladies had separated. The sound was followed, in another moment, by the opening and closing of the dining-room door. Mrs. Farnaby returned to her chair at the fireplace.

“Regina has gone into the dining-room to wait for us,” she said. “I see you don’t like your position here; and I won’t keep you more than a few minutes longer. You are of course at a loss to understand what I was saying to you, when the knock at the door interrupted us. Sit down again for five minutes; it fidgets me to see you standing there, looking at your boots. I told you I had one consolation still possibly left. Judge for yourself what the hope of it is to me, when I own to you that I should long since have put an end to my life, without it. Don’t think I am talking nonsense; I mean what I say. It is one of my misfortunes that I have no religious scruples to restrain me. There was a time when I believed that religion might comfort me. I once opened my heart to a clergyman — a worthy person, who did his best to help me. All useless! My heart was too hard, I suppose. It doesn’t matter — except to give you one more proof that I am thoroughly in earnest. Patience! patience! I am coming to the point. I asked you some odd questions, on the day when you first dined here? You have forgotten all about them, of course?”

“I remember them perfectly well,” Amelius answered.

“You remember them? That looks as if you had thought about them afterwards. Come! tell me plainly what you did think?”

Amelius told her plainly. She became more and more interested, more and more excited, as he went on.

“Quite right!” she exclaimed, starting to her feet and walking swiftly backwards and forwards in the room. “There is a lost girl whom I want to find; and she is between sixteen and seventeen years old, as you thought. Mind! I have no reason — not the shadow of a reason — for believing that she is still a living creature. I have only my own stupid obstinate conviction; rooted here,” she pressed both hands fiercely on her heart, “so that nothing can tear it out of me! I have lived in that belief — Oh, don’t ask me how long! it is so far, so miserably far, to look back!” She stopped in the middle of the room. Her breath came and went in quick heavy gasps; the first tears that had softened the hard wretchedness in her eyes rose in them now, and transfigured them with the divine beauty of maternal love. “I won’t distress you,” she said, stamping on the floor, as she struggled with the hysterical passion that was raging in her. “Give me a minute, and I’ll force it down again.”

She dropped into a chair, threw her arms heavily on the table, and laid her head on them. Amelius thought of the child’s frock and cap hidden in the cabinet. All that was manly and noble in his nature felt for the unhappy woman, whose secret was dimly revealed to him now. The little selfish sense of annoyance at the awkward situation in which she had placed him, vanished to return no more. He approached her, and put his hand gently on her shoulder. “I am truly sorry for you,” he said. “Tell me how I can help you, and I will do it with all my heart.”

“Do you really mean that?” She roughly dashed the tears from her eyes, and rose as she put the question. Holding him with one hand, she parted the hair back from his forehead with the other. “I must see your whole face,” she said —“your face will tell me. Yes: you do mean it. The world hasn’t spoilt you, yet. Do you believe in dreams?”

Amelius looked at her, startled by the sudden transition. She deliberately repeated her question.

“I ask you seriously,” she said; “do you believe in dreams?”

Amelius answered seriously, on his side, “I can’t honestly say that I do.”

“Ah!” she exclaimed, “like me. I don’t believe in dreams, either — I wish I did! But it’s not in me to believe in superstitions; I’m too hard — and I’m sorry for it. I have seen people who were comforted by their superstitions; happy people, possessed of faith. Don’t you even believe that dreams are sometimes fulfilled by chance?”

“Nobody can deny that,” Amelius replied; “the instances of it are too many. But for one dream fulfilled by a coincidence, there are —”

“A hundred at least that are not fulfilled,” Mrs. Farnaby interposed. “Very well. I calculate on that. See how little hope can live on! There is just the barest possibility that what I dreamed of you the other night may come to pass. It’s a poor chance; but it has encouraged me to take you into my confidence, and ask you to help me.”

This strange confession — this sad revelation of despair still unconsciously deceiving itself under the disguise of hope — only strengthened the compassionate sympathy which Amelius already felt for her. “What did you dream about me?” he asked gently.

“It’s nothing to tell,” she replied. “I was in a room that was quite strange to me; and the door opened, and you came in leading a young girl by the hand. You said, ‘Be happy at last; here she is.’ My heart knew her instantly, though my eyes had never seen her since the first days of her life. And I woke myself, crying for joy. Wait! it’s not all told yet. I went to sleep again, and dreamed it again, and woke, and lay awake for awhile, and slept once more, and dreamed it for the third time. Ah, if I could only feel some people’s confidence in three times! No; it produced an impression on me — and that was all. I got as far as thinking to myself, there is just a chance; I haven’t a creature in the world to help me; I may as well speak to him. O, you needn’t remind me that there is a rational explanation of my dream. I have read it all up, in the Encyclopaedia in the library. One of the ideas of wise men is that we think of something, consciously or unconsciously, in the daytime, and then reproduce it in a dream. That’s my case, I daresay. When you were first introduced to me, and when I heard where you had been brought up, I thought directly that she might have been one among the many forlorn creatures who had drifted to your Community, and that I might find her through you. Say that thought went to my bed with me — and we have the explanation of my dream. Never mind! There is my one poor chance in a hundred still left. You will remember me, Amelius, if you should meet with her, won’t you?”

The implied confession of her own intractable character, without religious faith to ennoble it, without even imagination to refine it — the unconscious disclosure of the one tender and loving instinct in her nature still piteously struggling for existence, with no sympathy to sustain it, with no light to guide it — would have touched the heart of any man not incurably depraved. Amelius spoke with the fervour of his young enthusiasm. “I would go to the uttermost ends of the earth, if I thought I could do you any good. But, oh, it sounds so hopeless!”

She shook her head, and smiled faintly.

“Don’t say that! You are free, you have money, you will travel about in the world and amuse yourself. In a week you will see more than stay-at-home people see in a year. How do we know what the future has in store for us? I have my own idea. She may be lost in the labyrinth of London, or she may be hundreds of thousands of miles away. Amuse yourself, Amelius — amuse yourself. Tomorrow or ten years hence, you might meet with her!”

In sheer mercy to the poor creature, Amelius refused to encourage her delusion. “Even supposing such a thing could happen,” he objected, “how am I to know the lost girl? You can’t describe her to me; you have not seen her since she was a child. Do you know anything of what happened at the time — I mean at the time when she was lost?”

“I know nothing.”

“Absolutely nothing?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Have you never felt a suspicion of how it happened?”

Her face changed: she frowned as she looked at him. “Not till weeks and months had passed,” she said, “not till it was too late. I was ill at the time. When my mind got clear again, I began to suspect one particular person — little by little, you know; noticing trifles, and thinking about them afterwards.” She stopped, evidently restraining herself on the point of saying more.

Amelius tried to lead her on. “Did you suspect the person —?” he began.

“I suspected him of casting the child helpless on the world!” Mrs. Farnaby interposed, with a sudden burst of fury. “Don’t ask me any more about it, or I shall break out and shock you!” She clenched her fists as she said the words. “It’s well for that man,” she muttered between her teeth, “that I have never got beyond suspecting, and never found out the truth! Why did you turn my mind that way? You shouldn’t have done it. Help me back again to what we were saying a minute ago. You made some objection; you said —?”

“I said,” Amelius reminded her, “that, even if I did meet with the missing girl, I couldn’t possibly know it. And I must say more than that — I don’t see how you yourself could be sure of recognizing her, if she stood before you at this moment.”

He spoke very gently, fearing to irritate her. She showed no sign of irritation — she looked at him, and listened to him, attentively.

“Are you setting a trap for me?” she asked. “No!” she cried, before Amelius could answer, “I am not mean enough to distrust you — I forgot myself. You have innocently said something that rankles in my mind. I can’t leave it where you have left it; I don’t like to be told that I shouldn’t recognize her. Give me time to think. I must clear this up.”

She consulted her own thoughts, keeping her eyes fixed on Amelius.

“I am going to speak plainly,” she announced, with a sudden appearance of resolution. “Listen to this. When I banged to the door of that big cupboard of mine, it was because I didn’t want you to see something on the shelves. Did you see anything in spite of me?”

The question was not an easy one to answer. Amelius hesitated. Mrs. Farnaby insisted on a reply.

“Did you see anything?” she reiterated

Amelius owned that he had seen something.

She turned away from him, and looked into the fire. Her firm full tones sank so low, when she spoke next, that he could barely hear them.

“Was it something belonging to a child?”

“Yes.”

“Was it a baby’s frock and cap? Answer me. We have gone too far to go back. I don’t want apologies or explanations — I want, Yes or No.”

“Yes.”

There was an interval of silence. She never moved; she still looked into fire — looked, as if all her past life was pictured there in the burning coals.

“Do you despise me?” she asked at last, very quietly.

“As God hears me, I am only sorry for you!” Amelius answered.

Another woman would have melted into tears. This woman still looked into the fire — and that was all. “What a good fellow!” she said to herself, “what a good fellow he is!”

There was another pause. She turned towards him again as abruptly as she had turned away.

“I had hoped to spare you, and to spare myself,” she said. “If the miserable truth has come out, it is through no curiosity of yours, and (God knows!) against every wish of mine. I don’t know if you really felt like a friend towards me before — you must be my friend now. Don’t speak! I know I can trust you. One last word, Amelius, about my lost child. You doubt whether I should recognize her, if she stood before me now. That might be quite true, if I had only my own poor hopes and anxieties to guide me. But I have something else to guide me — and, after what has passed between us, you may as well know what it is: it might even, by accident, guide you. Don’t alarm yourself; it’s nothing distressing this time. How can I explain it?” she went on; pausing, and speaking in some perplexity to herself. “It would be easier to show it — and why not?” She addressed herself to Amelius once more. “I’m a strange creature,” she resumed. “First, I worry you about my own affairs — then I puzzle you — then I make you sorry for me — and now (would you think it?) I am going to amuse you! Amelius, are you an admirer of pretty feet?”

Amelius had heard of men (in books) who had found reason to doubt whether their own ears were not deceiving them. For the first time, he began to understand those men, and to sympathize with them. He admitted, in a certain bewildered way, that he was an admirer of pretty feet — and waited for what was to come next.

“When a woman has a pretty hand,” Mrs. Farnaby proceeded; “she is ready enough to show it. When she goes out to a ball, she favours you with a view of her bosom, and a part of her back. Now tell me! If there is no impropriety in a naked bosom — where is the impropriety in a naked foot?”

Amelius agreed, like a man in a dream.

“Where, indeed!” he remarked — and waited again for what was to come next.

“Look out of the window,” said Mrs. Farnaby.

Amelius obeyed. The window had been opened for a few inches at the top, no doubt to ventilate the room. The dull view of the courtyard was varied by the stables at the farther end, and by the kitchen skylight rising in the middle of the open space. As Amelius looked out, he observed that some person at that moment in the kitchen required apparently a large supply of fresh air. The swinging window, on the side of the skylight which was nearest to him, was invisibly and noiselessly pulled open from below; the similar window, on the other side, being already wide open also. Judging by appearance, the inhabitants of the kitchen possessed a merit which is exceedingly rare among domestic servants — they understood the laws of ventilation, and appreciated the blessing of fresh air.

“That will do,” said Mrs. Farnaby. “You can turn round now.”

Amelius turned. Mrs. Farnaby’s boots and stockings were on the hearthrug, and one of Mrs. Farnaby’s feet was placed, ready for inspection, on the chair which he had just left. “Look at my right foot first,” she said, speaking gravely and composedly in her ordinary tone.

It was well worth looking at — a foot equally beautiful in form and in colour: the instep arched and high, the ankle at once delicate and strong, the toes tinged with rose-colour at the tips. In brief, it was a foot to be photographed, to be cast in plaster, to be fondled and kissed. Amelius attempted to express his admiration, but was not allowed to get beyond the first two or three words. “No,” Mrs. Farnaby explained, “this is not vanity — simply information. You have seen my right foot; and you have noticed that there is nothing the matter with it. Very well. Now look at my left foot.”

She put her left foot up on the chair. “Look between the third toe and the fourth,” she said.

Following his instructions, Amelius discovered that the beauty of the foot was spoilt, in this case, by a singular defect. The two toes were bound together by a flexible web, or membrane, which held them to each other as high as the insertion of the nail on either side.

“Do you wonder,” Mrs. Farnaby asked, “why I show you the fault in my foot? Amelius! my poor darling was born with my deformity — and I want you to know exactly what it is, because neither you nor I can say what reason for remembering it there may not be in the future.” She stopped, as if to give him an opportunity of speaking. A man shallow and flippant by nature might have seen the disclosure in a grotesque aspect. Amelius was sad and silent. “I like you better and better,” she went on. “You are not like the common run of men. Nine out of ten of them would have turned what I have just told you into a joke — nine out of ten would have said, ‘Am I to ask every girl I meet to show me her left foot?’ You are above that; you understand me. Have I no means of recognizing my own child, now?”

She smiled, and took her foot off the chair — then, after a moment’s thought, she pointed to it again.

“Keep this as strictly secret as you keep everything else,” she said. “In the past days, when I used to employ people privately to help me to find her, it was my only defence against being imposed upon. Rogues and vagabonds thought of other marks and signs — but not one of them could guess at such a mark as that. Have you got your pocket-book, Amelius? In case we are separated at some later time, I want to write the name and address in it of a person whom we can trust. I persist, you see, in providing for the future. There’s the one chance in a hundred that my dream may come true — and you have so many years before you, and so many girls to meet with in that time!”

She handed back the pocket-book, which Amelius had given to her, after having inscribed a man’s name and address on one of the blank leaves.

“He was my father’s lawyer,” she explained; “and he and his son are both men to be trusted. Suppose I am ill, for instance — no, that’s absurd; I never had a day’s illness in my life. Suppose I am dead (killed perhaps by some accident, or perhaps by my own hand), the lawyers have my written instructions, in the case of my child being found. Then again — I am such an unaccountable woman — I may go away somewhere, all by myself. Never mind! The lawyers shall have my address, and my positive orders (though they keep it a secret from all the world besides) to tell it to you. I don’t ask your pardon, Amelius, for troubling you. The chances are so terribly against me; it is all but impossible that I shall ever see you — as I saw you in my dream — coming into the room, leading my girl by the hand. Odd, isn’t it? This is how I veer about between hope and despair. Well, it may amuse you to remember it, one of these days. Years hence, when I am at rest in mother earth, and when you are a middle aged married man, you may tell your wife how strangely you once became the forlorn hope of the most wretched woman that ever lived — and you may say to each other, as you sit by your snug fireside, ‘Perhaps that poor lost daughter is still living somewhere, and wondering who her mother was.’ No! I won’t let you see the tears in my eyes again — I’ll let you go at last.”

She led the way to the door — a creature to be pitied, if ever there was a pitiable creature yet: a woman whose whole nature was maternal, who was nothing if not a mother; and who had lived through sixteen years of barren life, in the hopeless anticipation of recovering her lost child!

“Goodbye, and thank you,” she said. “I want to be left by myself, my dear, with that little frock and cap which you found out in spite of me. Go, and tell my niece it’s all right — and don’t be stupid enough to fall in love with a girl who has no love to give you in return.” She pushed Amelius into the hall. “Here he is, Regina!” she called out; “I have done with him.”

Before Amelius could speak, she had shut herself into her room. He advanced along the hall, and met Regina at the door of the dining-room.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/fallen-leaves/book3.2.html

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