The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

Some men would have found it no easy task to console Phoebe, under the circumstances. Jervy had the immense advantage of not feeling the slightest sympathy for her: he was in full command of his large resources of fluent assurance and ready flattery. In less than five minutes, Phoebe’s tears were dried, and her lover had his arm round her waist again, in the character of a cherished and forgiven man.

“Now, my angel!” he said (Phoebe sighed tenderly; he had never called her his angel before), “tell me all about it in confidence. Only let me know the facts, and I shall see my way to protecting you against any annoyance from Mrs. Sowler in the future. You have made a very extraordinary discovery. Come closer to me, my dear girl. Did it happen in Farnaby’s house?”

“I heard it in the kitchen,” said Phoebe.

Jervy started. “Did any one else hear it?” he asked.

“No. They were all in the housekeeper’s room, looking at the Indian curiosities which her son in Canada had sent to her. I had left my bird on the dresser — and I ran into the kitchen to put the cage in a safe place, being afraid of the cat. One of the swinging windows in the skylight was open; and I heard voices in the back room above, which is Mrs. Farnaby’s room.”

“Whose voices did you hear?”

“Mrs. Farnaby’s voice, and Mr. Goldenheart’s.”

“Mrs. Farnaby?” Jervy repeated, in surprise. “Are you sure it was Mrs.?“

“Of course I am! Do you think I don’t know that horrid woman’s voice? She was saying a most extraordinary thing when I first heard her — she was asking if there was anything wrong in showing her naked foot. And a man answered, and the voice was Mr. Goldenheart’s. You would have felt curious to hear more, if you had been in my place, wouldn’t you? I opened the second window in the kitchen, so as to make sure of not missing anything. And what do you think I heard her say?”

“You mean Mrs. Farnaby?”

“Yes. I heard her say, ‘Look at my right foot — you see there’s nothing the matter with it.’ And then, after a while, she said, ‘Look at my left foot — look between the third toe and the fourth.’ Did you ever hear of such a audacious thing for a married woman to say to a young man?”

“Go on! go on! What did he say?”

“Nothing; I suppose he was looking at her foot.”

“Her left foot?”

“Yes. Her left foot was nothing to be proud of, I can tell you! By her own account, she has some horrid deformity in it, between the third toe and the fourth. No; I didn’t hear her say what the deformity was. I only heard her call it so — and she said her ‘poor darling’ was born with the same fault, and that was her defence against being imposed upon by rogues — I remember the very words —‘in the past days when I employed people to find her.’ Yes! she said ’her.‘ I heard it plainly. And she talked afterwards of her ‘poor lost daughter’, who might be still living somewhere, and wondering who her mother was. Naturally enough, when I heard that hateful old drunkard talking about a child given to her by Mr. Farnaby, I put two and two together. Dear me, how strangely you look! What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m only very much interested — that’s all. But there’s one thing I don’t understand. What had Mr. Goldenheart to do with all this?”

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“No.”

“Well, then, I tell you now. Mrs. Farnaby is not only a heartless wretch, who turns a poor girl out of her situation, and refuses to give her a character — she’s a fool besides. That precious exhibition of her nasty foot was to inform Mr. Goldenheart of something she wanted him to know. If he happened to meet with a girl, in his walks or his travels, and if he found that she had the same deformity in the same foot, then he might know for certain —”

“All right! I understand. But why Mr. Goldenheart?”

“Because she had a dream that Mr. Goldenheart had found the lost girl, and because she thought there was one chance in a hundred that her dream might come true! Did you ever hear of such a fool before? From what I could make out, I believe she actually cried about it. And that same woman turns me into the street to be ruined, for all she knows or cares. Mind this! I would have kept her secret — it was no business of mine, after all — if she had behaved decently to me. As it is, I mean to be even with her; and what I heard down in the kitchen is more than enough to help me to it. I’ll expose her somehow — I don’t quite know how; but that will come with time. You will keep the secret, dear, I’m sure. We are soon to have all our secrets in common, when we are man and wife, ain’t we? Why, you’re not listening to me! What is the matter with you?”

Jervy suddenly looked up. His soft insinuating manner had vanished; he spoke roughly and impatiently.

“I want to know something. Has Farnaby’s wife got money of her own?”

Phoebe’s mind was still disturbed by the change in her lover. “You speak as if you were angry with me,” she said.

Jervy recovered his insinuating tones, with some difficulty. “My dear girl, I love you! How can I be angry with you? You’ve set me thinking — and it bothers me a little, that’s all. Do you happen to know if Mrs. Farnaby has got money of her own?”

Phoebe answered this time. “I’ve heard Miss Regina say that Mrs. Farnaby’s father was a rich man,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“Ronald.”

“Do you know when he died?”

“No.”

Jervy fell into thought again, biting his nails in great perplexity. After a moment or two, an idea came to him. “The tombstone will tell me!” he exclaimed, speaking to himself. He turned to Phoebe, before she could express her surprise, and asked if she knew where Mr. Ronald was buried.

“Yes,” said Phoebe, “I’ve heard that. In Highgate cemetery. But why do you want to know?”

Jervy looked at his watch. “It’s getting late,” he said; “I’ll see you safe home.”

“But I want to know —”

“Put on your bonnet, and wait till we are out in the street.”

Jervy paid the bill, with all needful remembrance of the waiter. He was generous, he was polite; but he was apparently in no hurry to favour Phoebe with the explanation that he had promised. They had left the tavern for some minutes — and he was still rude enough to remain absorbed in his own reflections. Phoebe’s patience gave way.

“I have told you everything,” she said reproachfully; “I don’t call it fair dealing to keep me in the dark after that.”

He roused himself directly. “My dear girl, you entirely mistake me!”

The reply was as ready as usual; but it was spoken rather absently. Only that moment, he had decided on informing Phoebe (to some extent, at least) of the purpose which he was then meditating. He would infinitely have preferred using Mrs. Sowler as his sole accomplice. But he knew the girl too well to run that risk. If he refused to satisfy her curiosity, she would be deterred by no scruples of delicacy from privately watching him; and she might say something (either by word of month or by writing) to the kind young mistress who was in correspondence with her, which might lead to disastrous results. It was of the last importance to him, so far to associate Phoebe with his projected enterprise, as to give her an interest of her own in keeping his secrets.

“I have not the least wish,” he resumed, “to conceal any thing from you. So far as I can see my way at present, you shall see it too.” Reserving in this dexterous manner the freedom of lying, whenever he found it necessary to depart from the truth, he smiled encouragingly, and waited to be questioned.

Phoebe repeated the inquiry she had made at the tavern. “Why do you want to know where Mr. Ronald is buried?” she asked bluntly.

“Mr. Ronald’s tombstone, my dear, will tell me the date of Mr. Ronald’s death,” Jervy rejoined. “When I have got the date, I shall go to a place near St. Paul’s, called Doctors’ Commons; I shall pay a shilling fee, and I shall have the privilege of looking at Mr. Ronald’s will.”

“And what good will that do you?”

“Very properly put, Phoebe! Even shillings are not to be wasted, in our position. But my shilling will buy two sixpennyworths of information. I shall find out what sum of money Mr. Ronald has left to his daughter; and I shall know for certain whether Mrs. Farnaby’s husband has any power over it, or not.”

“Well?” said Phoebe, not much interested so far —“and what then?”

Jervy looked about him. They were in a crowded thoroughfare at the time. He preserved a discreet silence, until they had arrived at the first turning which led down a quiet street.

“What I have to tell you,” he said, “must not be accidentally heard by anybody. Here, my dear, we are all but out of the world — and here I can speak to you safely. I promise you two good things. You shall bring Mrs. Farnaby to that day of reckoning; and we will find money enough to marry on comfortably as soon as you like.”

Phoebe’s languid interest in the subject began to revive: she insisted on having a clearer explanation than this. “Do you mean to get the money out of Mr. Farnaby?” she inquired.

“I will have nothing to do with Mr. Farnaby — unless I find that his wife’s money is not at her own disposal. What you heard in the kitchen has altered all my plans. Wait a minute — and you will see what I am driving at. How much do you think Mrs. Farnaby would give me, if I found that lost daughter of hers?”

Phoebe suddenly stood still, and looked at the sordid scoundrel who was tempting her in blank amazement.

“But nobody knows where the daughter is,” she objected.

“You and I know that the daughter has a deformity in her left foot,” Jervy replied; “and you and I know exactly in what part of the foot it is. There’s not only money to be made out of that knowledge — but money made easily, without the slightest risk. Suppose I managed the matter by correspondence, without appearing in it personally? Don’t you think Mrs. Farnaby would open her purse beforehand, if I mentioned the exact position of that little deformity, as a proof that I was to be depended on?”

Phoebe was unable, or unwilling, to draw the obvious conclusion, even now.

“But, what would you do,” she said, “when Mrs. Farnaby insisted on seeing her daughter?”

There was something in the girl’s tone — half fearful, half suspicious — which warned Jervy that he was treading on dangerous ground. He knew perfectly well what he proposed to do, in the case that had been so plainly put him. It was the simplest thing in the world. He had only to make an appointment with Mrs. Farnaby for a meeting on a future day, and to take to flight in the interval; leaving a polite note behind him to say that it was all a mistake, and that he regretted being too poor to return the money. Having thus far acknowledged the design he had in view, could he still venture on answering his companion without reserve? Phoebe was vain, Phoebe was vindictive; and, more promising still, Phoebe was a fool. But she was not yet capable of consenting to an act of the vilest infamy, in cold blood. Jervy looked at her — and saw that the foreseen necessity for lying had come at last.

“That’s just the difficulty,” he said; “that’s just where I don’t see my way plainly yet. Can you advise me?”

Phoebe started, and drew back from him. “I advise you!” she exclaimed. “It frightens me to think of it. If you make her believe she is going to see her daughter, and if she finds out that you have robbed and deceived her, I can tell you this — with her furious temper — you would drive her mad.”

Jervy’s reply was a model of well-acted indignation. “Don’t talk of anything so horrible,” he exclaimed. “If you believe me capable of such cruelty as that, go to Mrs. Farnaby, and warn her at once!”

“It’s too bad to speak to me in that way!” Phoebe rejoined, with the frank impetuosity of an offended woman. “You know I would die, rather than get you into trouble. Beg my pardon directly — or I won’t walk another step with you!”

Jervy made the necessary apologies, with all possible humility. He had gained his end — he could now postpone any further discussion of the subject, without arousing Phoebe’s distrust. “Let us say no more about it, for the present,” he suggested; “we will think it over, and talk of pleasanter things in the mean time. Kiss me, my dear girl; there’s nobody looking.”

So he made peace with his sweetheart, and secured to himself, at the same time, the full liberty of future action of which he stood in need. If Phoebe asked any more questions, the necessary answer was obvious to the meanest capacity. He had merely to say, “The matter is beset with difficulties which I didn’t see at first — I have given it up.”

Their nearest way back to Phoebe’s lodgings took them through the street which led to the Hampden Institution. Passing along the opposite side of the road, they saw the private door opened. Two men stepped out. A third man, inside, called after one of them. “Mr. Goldenheart! you have left the statement of receipts in the waiting-room.” “Never mind,” Amelius answered; “the night’s receipts are so small that I would rather not be reminded of them again.” “In my country,” a third voice remarked, “if he had lectured as he has lectured to-night, I reckon I’d have given him three hundred dollars, gold (sixty pounds, English currency), and have made my own profit by the transaction. The British nation has lost its taste, sir, for intellectual recreation. I wish you good evening.”

Jervy hurried Phoebe out of the way, just as the two gentlemen were crossing the street. He had not forgotten events at Tadmor — and he was by no means eager to renew his former acquaintance with Amelius.

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