The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

Amelius found it no easy matter to pass quickly through the people loitering and gossiping about him. There was greater freedom for a rapid walker in the road. He was on the point of stepping off the pavement, when a voice behind him — a sweet soft voice, though it spoke very faintly — said, “Are you good-natured, sir?”

He turned, and found himself face to face with one of the saddest sisterhood on earth — the sisterhood of the streets.

His heart ached as he looked at her, she was so poor and so young. The lost creature had, to all appearance, barely passed the boundary between childhood and girlhood — she could hardly be more than fifteen or sixteen years old. Her eyes, of the purest and loveliest blue, rested on Amelius with a vacantly patient look, like the eyes of a suffering child. The soft oval outline of her face would have been perfect if the cheeks had been filled out; they were wasted and hollow, and sadly pale. Her delicate lips had none of the rosy colour of youth; and her finely modelled chin was disfigured by a piece of plaster covering some injury. She was little and thin; her worn and scanty clothing showed her frail youthful figure still waiting for its perfection of growth. Her pretty little bare hands were reddened by the raw night air. She trembled as Amelius looked at her in silence, with compassionate wonder. But for the words in which she had accosted him, it would have been impossible to associate her with the lamentable life that she led. The appearance of the girl was artlessly virginal and innocent; she looked as if she had passed through the contamination of the streets without being touched by it, without fearing it, or feeling it, or understanding it. Robed in pure white, with her gentle blue eyes raised to heaven, a painter might have shown her on his canvas as a saint or an angel; and the critical world would have said, Here is the true ideal — Raphael himself might have painted this!

“You look very pale,” said Amelius. “Are you ill?”

“No, sir — only hungry.”

Her eyes half closed; she reeled from sheer weakness as she said the words. Amelius held her up, and looked round him. They were close to a stall at which coffee and slices of bread-and-butter were sold. He ordered some coffee to be poured out, and offered her the food. She thanked him and tried to eat. “I can’t help it, sir,” she said faintly. The bread dropped from her hand; her weary head sank on his shoulder.

Two young women — older members of the sad sisterhood — were passing at the moment. “She’s too far gone, sir, to eat,” said one of them. “I know what would do her good, if you don’t mind going into a public-house.”

“Where is it?” said Amelius. “Be quick!”

One of the women led the way. The other helped Amelius to support the girl. They entered the crowded public-house. In less than a minute, the first woman had forced her way through the drunken customers at the bar, and had returned with a glass of port-wine and cloves. The girl revived as the stimulant passed her lips. She opened her innocent blue eyes again, in vague surprise. “I shan’t die this time,” she said quietly.

A corner of the place was not occupied; a small empty cask stood there. Amelius made the poor creature sit down and rest a little. He had only gold in his purse; and, when the woman had paid for the wine, he offered her some of the change. She declined to take it. “I’ve got a shilling or two, sir,” she said; “and I can take care of myself. Give it to Simple Sally.”

“You’ll save her a beating, sir, for one night at least,” said the other woman. “We call her Simple Sally, because she’s a little soft, poor soul — hasn’t grown up, you know, in her mind, since she was a child. Give her some of your change, sir, and you’ll be doing a kind thing.”

All that is most unselfish, all that is most divinely compassionate and self-sacrificing in a woman’s nature, was as beautiful and as undefiled as ever in these women — the outcasts of the hard highway!

Amelius turned to the girl. Her head had sunk on her bosom; she was half asleep. She looked up as he approached her.

“Would you have been beaten to-night,” he asked, “if you had not met with me?”

“Father always beats me, sir,” said Simple Sally, “if I don’t bring money home. He threw a knife at me last night. It didn’t hurt much — it only cut me here,” said the girl, pointing to the plaster on her chin.

One of the women touched Amelius on the shoulder, and whispered to him. “He’s no more her father, sir, than I am. She’s a helpless creature — and he takes advantage of her. If I only had a place to take her to, he should never set eyes on her again. Show the gentleman your bosom, Sally.”

She opened her poor threadbare little shawl. Over the lovely girlish breast, still only growing to the rounded beauty of womanhood, there was a hideous blue-black bruise. Simple Sally smiled, and said, “That did hurt me, sir. I’d rather have the knife.”

Some of the nearest drinkers at the bar looked round and laughed. Amelius tenderly drew the shawl over the girl’s cold bosom. “For God’s sake, let us get away from this place!” he said.

The influence of the cool night air completed Simple Sally’s recovery. She was able to eat now. Amelius proposed retracing his steps to the provision-shop, and giving her the best food that the place afforded. She preferred the bread-and-butter at the coffee-stall. Those thick slices, piled up on the plate, tempted her as a luxury. On trying the luxury, one slice satisfied her. “I thought I was hungry enough to eat the whole plateful,” said the girl, turning away from the stall, in the vacantly submissive manner which it saddened Amelius to see. He bought more of the bread-and-butter, on the chance that her appetite might revive. While he was wrapping it in a morsel of paper, one of her elder companions touched him and whispered, “There he is, sir!” Amelius looked at her. “The brute who calls himself her father,” the woman explained impatiently.

Amelius turned, and saw Simple Sally with her arm in the grasp of a half-drunken ruffian; one of the swarming wild beasts of Low London, dirtied down from head to foot to the colour of the street mud — the living danger and disgrace of English civilization. As Amelius eyed him, he drew the girl away a step or two. “You’ve got a gentleman this time,” he said to her; “I shall expect gold to-night, or else —!” He finished the sentence by lifting his monstrous fist, and shaking it in her face. Cautiously as he had lowered his tones in speaking, the words had reached the keenly sensitive ears of Amelius. Urged by his hot temper, he sprang forward. In another moment, he would have knocked the brute down — but for the timely interference of the arm of the law, clad in a policeman’s great-coat. “Don’t get yourself into trouble, sir,” said the man good-humouredly. “Now, you Hell-fire (that’s the nice name they know him by, sir, in these parts), be off with you!” The wild beast on two legs cowered at the voice of authority, like the wild beast on four: he was lost to sight, at the dark end of the street, in a moment.

“I saw him threaten her with his fist,” said Amelius, his eyes still aflame with indignation. “He has bruised her frightfully on the breast. Is there no protection for the poor creature?”

“Well, sir,” the policeman answered, “you can summon him if you like. I dare say he’d get a month’s hard labour. But, don’t you see, it would be all the worse for her when he came out of prison.”

The policeman’s view of the girl’s position was beyond dispute. Amelius turned to her gently; she was shivering with cold or terror, perhaps with both. “Tell me,” he said, “is that man really your father?”

“Lord bless you, sir!” interposed the policeman, astonished at the gentleman’s simplicity, “Simple Sally hasn’t got father or mother — have you, my girl?”

She paid no heed to the policeman. The sorrow and sympathy, plainly visible in Amelius, filled her with a childish interest and surprise. She dimly understood that it was sorrow and sympathy for her. The bare idea of distressing this new friend, so unimaginably kind and considerate, seemed to frighten her. “Don’t fret about me, sir,” she said timidly; “I don’t mind having no father nor mother; I don’t mind being beaten.” She appealed to the nearest of her two women-friends. “We get used to everything, don’t we, Jenny?”

Amelius could bear no more. “It’s enough to break one’s heart to hear you, and see you!” he burst out — and suddenly turned his head aside. His generous nature was touched to the quick; he could only control himself by an effort of resolution that shook him, body and soul. “I can’t and won’t let that unfortunate creature go back to be beaten and starved!” he said, passionately addressing himself to the policeman. “Oh, look at her! How helpless, and how young!”

The policeman stared. These were strange words to him. But all true emotion carries with it, among all true people, its own title to respect. He spoke to Amelius with marked respect.

“It’s a hard case, sir, no doubt,” he said. “The girl’s a quiet, well-disposed creature — and the other two there are the same. They’re of the sort that keep to themselves, and don’t drink. They all of them do well enough, as long as they don’t let the liquor overcome them. Half the time it’s the men’s fault when they do drink. Perhaps the workhouse might take her in for the night. What’s this you’ve got girl, in your hand? Money?”

Amelius hastened to say that he had given her the money. “The workhouse!” he repeated. “The very sound of it is horrible.”

“Make your mind easy, sir,” said the policeman; “they won’t take her in at the workhouse, with money in her hand.”

In sheer despair, Amelius asked helplessly if there was no hotel near. The policeman pointed to Simple Sally’s threadbare and scanty clothes, and left them to answer the question for themselves. “There’s a place they call a coffee-house,” he said, with the air of a man who thought he had better provoke as little further inquiry on that subject as possible.

Too completely pre-occupied, or too innocent in the ways of London, to understand the man, Amelius decided on trying the coffee-house. A suspicious old woman met them at the door, and spied the policeman in the background. Without waiting for any inquiries, she said, “All full for to-night,”— and shut the door in their faces.

“Is there no other place?” said Amelius.

“There’s a lodging-house,” the policeman answered, more doubtfully than ever. “It’s getting late, sir; and I’m afraid you’ll find ’em packed like herrings in a barrel. Come, and see for yourself.”

He led the way into a wretchedly lighted by-street, and knocked with his foot on a trap-door in the pavement. The door was pushed open from below, by a sturdy boy with a dirty night-cap on his head.

“Any of ’em wanted to-night, sir?” asked the sturdy boy, the moment he saw the policeman.

“What does he mean?” said Amelius.

“There’s a sprinkling of thieves among them, sir,” the policeman explained. “Stand out of the way, Jacob, and let the gentleman look in.”

He produced his lantern, and directed the light downwards, as he spoke. Amelius looked in. The policeman’s figure of speech, likening the lodgers to “herrings in a barrel,” accurately described the scene. On the floor of a kitchen, men, women, and children lay all huddled together in closely packed rows. Ghastly faces rose terrified out of the seething obscurity, when the light of the lantern fell on them. The stench drove Amelius back, sickened and shuddering.

“How’s the sore place on your head, Jacob?” the policeman inquired. “This is a civil boy,” he explained to Amelius, “and I like to encourage him.”

“I’m getting better, sir, as fast as I can,” said the boy.

“Good night, Jacob.”

“Good night, sir.” The trap-door fell — and the lodging-house disappeared like the vision of a frightful dream.

There was a moment of silence among the little group on the pavement. It was not easy to solve the question of what to do next. “There seems to be some difficulty,” the policeman remarked, “about housing this girl for the night.”

“Why shouldn’t we take her along with us?” one of the women suggested. “She won’t mind sleeping three in a bed, I know.”

“What are you thinking of?” the other woman remonstrated. “When he finds she don’t come home, our place will be the first place he looks for her in.”

Amelius settled the difficulty, in his own headlong way, “I’ll take care of her for the night,” he said. “Sally, will you trust yourself with me?”

She put her hand in his, with the air of a child who was ready to go home. Her wan face brightened for the first time. “Thank you, sir,” she said; “I’ll go anywhere along with you.”

The policeman smiled. The two women looked thunderstruck. Before they had recovered themselves, Amelius forced them to take some money from him, and cordially shook hands with them. “You’re good creatures,” he said, in his eager, hearty way; “I’m sincerely sorry for you. Now, Mr. Policeman, show me where to find a cab — and take that for the trouble I am giving you. You’re a humane man, and a credit to the force.”

In five minutes more, Amelius was on the way to his lodgings, with Simple Sally by his side. The act of reckless imprudence which he was committing was nothing but an act of Christian duty, to his mind. Not the slightest misgiving troubled him. “I shall provide for her in some way!” he thought to himself cheerfully. He looked at her. The weary outcast was asleep already in her corner of the cab. From time to time she still shivered, even in her sleep. Amelius took off his great-coat, and covered her with it. How some of his friends at the club would have laughed, if they had seen him at that moment!

He was obliged to wake her when the cab stopped. His key admitted them to the house. He lit his candle in the hall, and led her up the stairs. “You’ll soon be asleep again, Sally,” he whispered.

She looked round the little sitting-room with drowsy admiration. “What a pretty place to live in!” she said.

“Are you hungry again?” Amelius asked.

She shook her head, and took off her shabby bonnet; her pretty light-brown hair fell about her face and her shoulders. “I think I’m too tired, sir, to be hungry. Might I take the sofa-pillow, and lay down on the hearth-rug?”

Amelius opened the door of his bedroom. “You are to pass the night more comfortably than that,” he answered. “There is a bed for you here.”

She followed him in, and looked round the bedroom, with renewed admiration of everything that she saw. At the sight of the hairbrushes and the comb, she clapped her hands in ecstasy. “Oh, how different from mine!” she exclaimed. “Is the comb tortoise-shell, sir, like one sees in the shop-windows?” The bath and the towels attracted her next; she stood, looking at them with longing eyes, completely forgetful of the wonderful comb. “I’ve often peeped into the ironmongers’ shops,” she said, “and thought I should be the happiest girl in the world, if I had such a bath as that. A little pitcher is all I have got of my own, and they swear at me when I want it filled more than once. In all my life, I have never had as much water as I should like.” She paused, and thought for a moment. The forlorn, vacant look appeared again, and dimmed the beauty of her blue eyes. “It will be hard to go back, after seeing all these pretty things,” she said to herself — and sighed, with that inborn submission to her fate so melancholy to see in a creature so young.

“You shall never go back again to that dreadful life,” Amelius interposed. “Never speak of it, never think of it any more. Oh, don’t look at me like that!”

She was listening with an expression of pain, and with both her hands lifted to her head. There was something so wonderful in the idea which he had suggested to her, that her mind was not able to take it all in at once. “You make my head giddy,” she said. “I’m such a poor stupid girl — I feel out of myself, like, when a gentleman like you sets me thinking of new things. Would you mind saying it again, sir?”

“I’ll say it to-morrow morning,” Amelius rejoined kindly. “You are tired, Sally — go to rest.”

She roused herself, and looked at the bed. “Is that your bed, sir?”

“It’s your bed to-night,” said Amelius. “I shall sleep on the sofa, in the next room.”

Her eyes rested on him, for a moment, in speechless surprise; she looked back again at the bed. “Are you going to leave me by myself?” she asked wonderingly. Not the faintest suggestion of immodesty — nothing that the most profligate man living could have interpreted impurely — showed itself in her look or manner, as she said those words.

Amelius thought of what one of her women-friends had told him. “She hasn’t grown up, you know, in her mind, since she was a child.” There were other senses in the poor victim that were still undeveloped, besides the mental sense. He was at a loss how to answer her, with the respect which was due to that all-atoning ignorance. His silence amazed and frightened her.

“Have I said anything to make you angry with me?” she asked.

Amelius hesitated no longer. “My poor girl,” he said, “I pity you from the bottom of my heart! Sleep well, Simple Sally — sleep well.” He left her hurriedly, and shut the door between them.

She followed him as far as the closed door; and stood there alone, trying to understand him, and trying all in vain! After a while, she found courage enough to whisper through the door. “If you please, sir —” She stopped, startled by her own boldness. He never heard her; he was standing at the window, looking out thoughtfully at the night; feeling less confident of the future already. She still stood at the door, wretched in the firm persuasion that she had offended him. Once she lifted her hand to knock at the door, and let it drop again at her side. A second time she made the effort, and desperately summoned the resolution to knock. He opened the door directly.

“I’m very sorry if I said anything wrong,” she began faintly, her breath coming and going in quick hysteric gasps. “Please forgive me, and wish me good night.” Amelius took her hand; he said good night with the utmost gentleness, but he said it sorrowfully. She was not quite comforted yet. “Would you mind, sir —?” She paused awkwardly, afraid to go on. There was something so completely childlike in the artless perplexity of her eyes, that Amelius smiled. The change in his expression gave her back her courage in an instant; her pale delicate lips reflected his smile prettily. “Would you mind giving me a kiss, sir?” she said. Amelius kissed her. Let the man who can honestly say he would have done otherwise, blame him. He shut the door between them once more. She was quite happy now. He heard her singing to herself as she got ready for bed.

Once, in the wakeful watches of the night, she startled him. He heard a cry of pain or terror in the bedroom. “What is it?” he asked through the door; “what has frightened you?” There was no answer. After a minute or two, the cry was repeated. He opened the door, and looked in. She was sleeping, and dreaming as she slept. One little thin white arm was lifted in the air, and waved restlessly to and fro over her head. “Don’t kill me!” she murmured, in low moaning tones —“oh, don’t kill me!” Amelius took her arm gently, and laid it back on the coverlet of the bed. His touch seemed to exercise some calming influence over her: she sighed, and turned her head on the pillow; a faint flush rose on her wasted cheeks, and passed away again — she sank quietly into dreamless sleep.

Amelius returned to his sofa, and fell into a broken slumber. The hours of the night passed. The sad light of the November morning dawned mistily through the uncurtained window, and woke him.

He started up, and looked at the bedroom door. “Now what is to be done?” That was his first thought, on waking: he was beginning to feel his responsibilities at last.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/fallen-leaves/book6.1.html

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