The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

“Three dozen oysters, bread-and-butter, and bottled stout; a private room and a good fire.” Issuing these instructions, on his arrival at the tavern, Jervy was surprised by a sudden act of interference on the part of his venerable guest. Mrs. Sowler actually took it on herself to order her own supper!

“Nothing cold to eat or drink for me,” she said. “Morning and night, waking and sleeping, I can’t keep myself warm. See for yourself, Jervy, how I’ve lost flesh since you first knew me! A steak, broiling hot from the gridiron, and gin-and-water, hotter still — that’s the supper for me.”

“Take the order, waiter,” said Jervy, resignedly; “and let us see the private room.”

The tavern was of the old-fashioned English sort, which scorns to learn a lesson of brightness and elegance from France. The private room can only be described as a museum for the exhibition of dirt in all its varieties. Behind the bars of the rusty little grate a dying fire was drawing its last breath. Mrs. Sowler clamoured for wood and coals; revived the fire with her own hands; and seated herself shivering as close to the fender as the chair would go. After a while, the composing effect of the heat began to make its influence felt: the head of the half-starved wretch sank: a species of stupor overcame her — half faintness, and half sleep.

Phoebe and her sweetheart sat together, waiting the appearance of the supper, on a little sofa at the other end of the room. Having certain objects to gain, Jervy put his arm round her waist, and looked and spoke in his most insinuating manner.

“Try and put up with Mother Sowler for an hour or two,” he said. “My sweet girl, I know she isn’t fit company for you! But how can I turn my back on an old friend?”

“That’s just what surprises me,” Phoebe answered. “I don’t understand such a person being a friend of yours.”

Always ready with the necessary lie, whenever the occasion called for it, Jervy invented a pathetic little story, in two short parts. First part: Mrs. Sowler, rich and respected; a widow inhabiting a villa-residence, and riding in her carriage. Second part: a villainous lawyer; misplaced confidence; reckless investments; death of the villain; ruin of Mrs. Sowler. “Don’t talk about her misfortunes when she wakes,” Jervy concluded, “or she’ll burst out crying, to a dead certainty. Only tell me, dear Phoebe, would you turn your back on a forlorn old creature because she has outlived all her other friends, and hasn’t a farthing left in the world? Poor as I am, I can help her to a supper, at any rate.”

Phoebe expressed her admiration of these noble sentiments by an inexpensive ebullition of tenderness, which failed to fulfill Jervy’s private anticipations. He had aimed straight at her purse — and he had only hit her heart! He tried a broad hint next. “I wonder whether I shall have a shilling or two left to give Mrs. Sowler, when I have paid for the supper?” He sighed, and pulled out some small change, and looked at it in eloquent silence. Phoebe was hit in the right place at last. She handed him her purse. “What is mine will be yours, when we are married,” she said; “why not now?” Jervy expressed his sense of obligation with the promptitude of a grateful man; he repeated those precious words, “My sweet girl!” Phoebe laid her head on his shoulder — and let him kiss her, and enjoyed it in silent ecstasy with half-closed eyes. The scoundrel waited and watched her, until she was completely under his influence. Then, and not till then, he risked the gradual revelation of the purpose which had induced him to withdraw from the hall, before the proceedings of the evening had reached their end.

“Did you hear what Mrs. Sowler said to me, just before we left the lecture?” he asked.

“No, dear.”

“You remember that she asked me to tell her Farnaby’s address?”

“Oh yes! And she wanted to know if he had ever gone by the name of Morgan. Ridiculous — wasn’t it?”

“I’m not so sure of that, my dear. She told me, in so many words, that Farnaby owed her money. He didn’t make his fortune all at once, I suppose. How do we know what he might have done in his young days, or how he might have humbugged a feeble woman. Wait till our friend there at the fire has warmed her old bones with some hot grog — and I’ll find out something more about Farnaby’s debt.”

“Why, dear? What is it to you?”

Jervy reflected for a moment, and decided that the time had come to speak more plainly.

“In the first place,” he said, “it would only be an act of common humanity, on my part, to help Mrs. Sowler to get her money. You see that, don’t you? Very well. Now, I am no Socialist, as you are aware; quite the contrary. At the same time, I am a remarkably just man; and I own I was struck by what Mr. Goldenheart said about the uses to which wealthy people are put, by the Rules at Tadmor. ‘The man who has got the money is bound, by the express law of Christian morality, to use it in assisting the man who has got none.’ Those were his words, as nearly as I can remember them. He put it still more strongly afterwards; he said, ‘A man who hoards up a large fortune, from a purely selfish motive — either because he is a miser, or because he looks only to the aggrandisement of his own family after his death — is, in either case, an essentially unchristian person, who stands in manifest need of enlightenment and control by Christian law.’ And then, if you remember, some of the people murmured; and Mr. Goldenheart stopped them by reading a line from the New Testament, which said exactly what he had been saying — only in fewer words. Now, my dear girl, Farnaby seems to me to be one of the many people pointed at in this young gentleman’s lecture. Judging by looks, I should say he was a hard man.”

“That’s just what he is — hard as iron! Looks at his servants as if they were dirt under his feet; and never speaks a kind word to them from one year’s end to another.”

“Suppose I guess again? He’s not particularly free-handed with his money — is he?”

“He! He will spend anything on himself and his grandeur; but he never gave away a halfpenny in his life.”

Jervy pointed to the fireplace, with a burst of virtuous indignation. “And there’s that poor old soul starving for want of the money he owes her! Damn it, I agree with the Socialists; it’s a virtue to make that sort of man bleed. Look at you and me! We are the very people he ought to help — we might be married at once, if we only knew where to find a little money. I’ve seen a deal of the world, Phoebe; and my experience tells me there’s something about that debt of Farnaby’s which he doesn’t want to have known. Why shouldn’t we screw a few five-pound notes for ourselves out of the rich miser’s fears?”

Phoebe was cautious. “It’s against the law — ain’t it?” she said.

“Trust me to keep clear of the law,” Jervy answered. “I won’t stir in the matter till I know for certain that he daren’t take the police into his confidence. It will be all easy enough when we are once sure of that. You have been long enough in the family to find out Farnaby’s weak side. Would it do, if we got at him, to begin with, through his wife?”

Phoebe suddenly reddened to the roots of her hair. “Don’t talk to me about his wife!” she broke out fiercely; “I’ve got a day of reckoning to come with that lady —” She looked at Jervy and checked herself. He was watching her with an eager curiosity, which not even his ready cunning was quick enough to conceal.

“I wouldn’t intrude on your little secrets, darling, for the world!” he said, in his most persuasive tones. “But, if you want advice, you know that I am heart and soul at your service.”

Phoebe looked across the room at Mrs. Sowler, still nodding over the fire.

“Never mind now,” she said; “I don’t think it’s a matter for a man to advise about — it’s between Mrs. Farnaby and me. Do what you like with her husband; I don’t care; he’s a brute, and I hate him. But there’s one thing I insist on — I won’t have Miss Regina frightened or annoyed; mind that! She’s a good creature. There, read the letter she wrote to me yesterday, and judge for yourself.”

Jervy looked at the letter. It was not very long. He resignedly took upon himself the burden of reading it.

“DEAR PHOEBE,

“Don’t be downhearted. I am your friend always, and I will help you to get another place. I am sorry to say that it was indeed Mrs. Ormond who found us out that day. She had her suspicions, and she watched us, and told my aunt. This she owned to me with her own lips. She said, ‘I would do anything, my dear, to save you from an ill-assorted marriage.’ I am very wretched about it, because I can never look on her as my friend again. My aunt, as you know, is of Mrs. Ormond’s way of thinking. You must make allowances for her hot temper. Remember, out of your kindness towards me, you had been secretly helping forward the very thing which she was most anxious to prevent. That made her very angry; but, never fear, she will come round in time. If you don’t want to spend your little savings, while you are waiting for another situation, let me know. A share of my pocket-money is always at your service.

“Your friend,

“REGINA.”

“Very nice indeed,” said Jervy, handing the letter back, and yawning as he did it. “And convenient, too, if we run short of money. Ah, here’s the waiter with the supper, at last! Now, Mrs. Sowler, there’s a time for everything — it’s time to wake up.”

He lifted the old woman off her chair, and settled her before the table, like a child. The sight of the hot food and drink roused her to a tigerish activity. She devoured the meat with her eyes as well as her teeth; she drank the hot gin-and-water in fierce gulps, and set down the glass with audible gasps of relief. “Another one,” she cried, “and I shall begin to feel warm again!”

Jervy, watching her from the opposite side of the table, with Phoebe close by him as usual, had his own motives for encouraging her to talk, by the easy means of encouraging her to drink. He sent for another glass of the hot grog. Phoebe, daintily picking up her oysters with her fork, affected to be shocked at Mrs. Sowler’s coarse method of eating and drinking. She kept her eyes on her plate, and only consented to taste malt liquor under modest protest. When Jervy lit a cigar, after finishing his supper, she reminded him, in an impressively genteel manner, of the consideration which he owed to the presence of an elderly lady. “I like it myself, dear,” she said mincingly; “but perhaps Mrs. Sowler objects to the smell?”

Mrs. Sowler burst into a hoarse laugh. “Do I look as if I was likely to be squeamish about smells?” she asked, with the savage contempt for her own poverty, which was one of the dangerous elements in her character. “See the place I live in, young woman, and then talk about smells if you like!”

This was indelicate. Phoebe picked a last oyster out of its shell, and kept her eyes modestly fixed on her plate. Observing that the second glass of gin-and-water was fast becoming empty, Jervy risked the first advances, on his way to Mrs. Sowler’s confidence.

“About that debt of Farnaby’s?” he began. “Is it a debt of long standing?”

Mrs. Sowler was on her guard. In other words, Mrs. Sowler’s head was only assailable by hot grog, when hot grog was administered in large quantities. She said it was a debt of long standing, and she said no more.

“Has it been standing seven years?”

Mrs. Sowler emptied her glass, and looked hard at Jervy across the table. “My memory isn’t good for much, at my time of life.” She gave him that answer, and she gave him no more.

Jervy yielded with his best grace. “Try a third glass,” he said; “there’s luck, you know, in odd numbers.”

Mrs. Sowler met this advance in the spirit in which it was made. She was obliging enough to consult her memory, even before the third glass made its appearance. “Seven years, did you say?” she repeated. “More than twice seven years, Jervy! What do you think of that?”

Jervy wasted no time in thinking. He went on with his questions.

“Are you quite sure that the man I pointed out to you, at the lecture, is the same man who went by the name of Morgan, and had his letters addressed to the public-house?”

“Quite sure. I’d swear to him anywhere — only by his eyes.”

“And have you never yet asked him to pay the debt?”

“How could I ask him, when I never knew what his name was till you told me to-night?”

“What amount of money does he owe you?”

Whether Mrs. Sowler had her mind prophetically fixed on a fourth glass of grog, or whether she thought it time to begin asking questions on her own account, is not easy to say. Whatever her motive might be, she slyly shook her head, and winked at Jervy. “The money’s my business,” she remarked. “You tell me where he lives — and I’ll make him pay me.”

Jervy was equal to the occasion. “You won’t do anything of the sort,” he said.

Mrs. Sowler laughed defiantly. “So you think, my fine fellow!”

“I don’t think at all, old lady — I’m certain. In the first place, Farnaby don’t owe you the debt by law, after seven years. In the second place, just look at yourself in the glass there. Do you think the servants will let you in, when you knock at Farnaby’s door? You want a clever fellow to help you — or you’ll never recover that debt.”

Mrs. Sowler was accessible to reason (even half-way through her third glass of grog), when reason was presented to her in convincing terms. She came to the point at once. “How much do you want?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Jervy answered; “I don’t look to you to pay my commission.”

Mrs. Sowler reflected a little — and understood him. “Say that again,” she insisted, “in the presence of your young woman as witness.”

Jervy touched his young woman’s hand under the table, warning her to make no objection, and to leave it to him. Having declared for the second time that he would not take a farthing from Mrs. Sowler, he went on with his inquiries.

“I’m acting in your interests, Mother Sowler,” he said; “and you’ll be the loser, if you don’t answer my questions patiently, and tell me the truth. I want to go back to the debt. What is it for?”

“For six weeks’ keep of a child, at ten shillings a week.”

Phoebe looked up from her plate.

“Whose child?” Jervy asked, noticing the sudden movement.

“Morgan’s child — the same man you said was Farnaby.”

“Do you know who the mother was?”

“I wish I did! I should have got the money out of her long ago.”

Jervy stole a look at Phoebe. She had turned pale; she was listening, with her eyes riveted on Mrs. Sowler’s ugly face.

“How long ago was it?” Jervy went on.

“Better than sixteen years.”

“Did Farnaby himself give you the child?”

“With his own hands, over the garden-paling of a house at Ramsgate. He saw me and the child into the train for London. I had ten pounds from him, and no more. He promised to see me, and settle everything, in a month’s time. I have never set eyes on him from that day, till I saw him paying his money this evening at the door of the hall.”

Jervy stole another look at Phoebe. She was still perfectly unconscious that he was observing her. Her attention was completely absorbed by Mrs. Sowler’s replies. Speculating on the possible result, Jervy abandoned the question of the debt, and devoted his next inquiries to the subject of the child.

“I promise you every farthing of your money, Mother Sowler,” he said, “with interest added to it. How old was the child when Farnaby gave it to you?”

“Old? Not a week old, I should say!”

“Not a week old?” Jervy repeated, with his eye on Phoebe. “Dear, dear me, a newborn baby, one may say!”

The girl’s excitement was fast getting beyond control. She leaned across the table, in her eagerness to hear more.

“And how long was this poor child under your care?” Jervy went on.

“How can I tell you, at this distance of time? For some months, I should say. This I’m certain of — I kept it for six good weeks after the ten pounds he gave me were spent. And then —” she stopped, and looked at Phoebe.

“And then you got rid of it?”

Mrs. Sowler felt for Jervy’s foot under the table, and gave it a significant kick. “I have done nothing to be ashamed of, miss,” she said, addressing her answer defiantly to Phoebe. “Being too poor to keep the little dear myself, I placed it under the care of a good lady, who adopted it.”

Phoebe could restrain herself no longer. She burst out with the next question, before Jervy could open his lips.

“Do you know where the lady is now?”

“No,” said Mrs. Sowler shortly; “I don’t.”

“Do you know where to find the child?”

Mrs. Sowler slowly stirred up the remains of her grog. “I know no more than you do. Any more questions, miss?”

Phoebe’s excitement completely blinded her to the evident signs of a change in Mrs. Sowler’s temper for the worse. She went on headlong.

“Have you never seen the child since you gave her to the lady?”

Mrs. Sowler set down her glass, just as she was raising it to her lips. Jervy paused, thunderstruck, in the act of lighting a second cigar.

“Her?“ Mrs. Sowler repeated slowly, her eyes fixed on Phoebe with a lowering expression of suspicion and surprise. “Her?” She turned to Jervy. “Did you ask me if the child was a girl or a boy?”

“I never even thought of it,” Jervy replied.

“Did I happen to say it myself, without being asked?”

Jervy deliberately abandoned Phoebe to the implacable old wretch, before whom she had betrayed herself. It was the only likely way of forcing the girl to confess everything. “No,” he answered; “you never said it without being asked.”

Mrs. Sowler turned once more to Phoebe. “How do you know the child was a girl?” she inquired.

Phoebe trembled, and said nothing. She sat with her head down, and her hands, fast clasped together, resting on her lap.

“Might I ask, if you please,” Mrs. Sowler proceeded, with a ferocious assumption of courtesy, “how old you are, miss? You’re young enough and pretty enough not to mind answering to your age, I’m sure.”

Even Jervy’s villainous experience of the world failed to forewarn him of what was coming. Phoebe, it is needless to say, instantly fell into the trap.

“Twenty-four,” she replied, “next birthday.”

“And the child was put into my hands, sixteen years ago,” said Mrs. Sowler. “Take sixteen from twenty-four, and eight remains. I’m more surprised than ever, miss, at your knowing it to be a girl. It couldn’t have been your child — could it?”

Phoebe started to her feet, in a state of fury. “Do you hear that?” she cried, appealing to Jervy. “How dare you bring me here to be insulted by that drunken wretch?”

Mrs. Sowler rose, on her side. The old savage snatched up her empty glass — intending to throw it at Phoebe. At the same moment, the ready Jervy caught her by the arm, dragged her out of the room, and shut the door behind them.

There was a bench on the landing outside. He pushed Mrs. Sowler down on the bench with one hand, and took Phoebe’s purse out of his pocket with the other. “Here’s a pound,” he said, “towards the recovery of that debt of yours. Go home quietly, and meet me at the door of this house tomorrow evening, at six.”

Mrs. Sowler, opening her lips to protest, suddenly closed them again, fascinated by the sight of the gold. She clutched the coin, and became friendly and familiar in a moment. “Help me downstairs, deary,” she said, “and put me into a cab. I’m afraid of the night air.”

“One word more, before I put you into a cab,” said Jervy. “What did you really do with the child?”

Mrs. Sowler grinned hideously, and whispered her reply, in the strictest confidence.

“Sold her to Moll Davies, for five-and-sixpence.”

“Who was Moll Davis?”

“A cadger.”

“And you really know nothing now of Moll Davis or the child?”

“Should I want you to help me if I did?” Mrs. Sowler asked contemptuously. “They may be both dead and buried, for all I know to the contrary.”

Jervy put her into the cab, without further delay. “Now for the other one!” he said to himself, as he hurried back to the private room.

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