The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

The landlady of the lodgings decided what was to be done.

“You will be so good, sir, as to leave my apartments immediately,” she said to Amelius. “I make no claim to the week’s rent, in consideration of the short notice. This is a respectable house, and it shall be kept respectable at any sacrifice.”

Amelius explained and protested; he appealed to the landlady’s sense of justice and sense of duty, as a Christian woman.

The reasoning which would have been irresistible at Tadmor was reasoning completely thrown away in London. The landlady remained as impenetrable as the Egyptian Sphinx. “If that creature in the bedroom is not out of my house in an hour’s time, I shall send for the police.” Having answered her lodger’s arguments in those terms, she left the room, and banged the door after her.

“Thank you, sir, for being so kind to me. I’ll go away directly — and then, perhaps, the lady will forgive you.”

Amelius looked round. Simple Sally had heard it all. She was dressed in her wretched clothes, and was standing at the open bedroom door, crying,

“Wait a little,” said Amelius, wiping her eyes with his own handkerchief; “and we will go away together. I want to get you some better clothes; and I don’t exactly know how to set about it. Don’t cry, my dear — don’t cry.”

The deaf maid-of-all-work came in, as he spoke. She too was in tears. Amelius had been good to her, in many little ways — and she was the guilty person who had led to the discovery in the bedroom. “If you had only told me, sir,” she said pentitently, “I’d have kep’ it secret. But, there, I went in with your ‘ot water, as usual, and, O Lor’, I was that startled I dropped the jug, and run downstairs again —!”

Amelius stopped the further progress of the apology. “I don’t blame you, Maria,” he said; “I’m in a difficulty. Help me out of it; and you will do me a kindness.”

Maria partially heard him, and no more. Afraid of reaching the landlady’s ears, as well as the maid’s ears, if he raised his voice, he asked if she could read writing. Yes, she could read writing, if it was plain. Amelius immediately reduced the expression of his necessities to writing, in large text. Maria was delighted. She knew the nearest shop at which ready-made outer clothing for women could be obtained, and nothing was wanted, as a certain guide to an ignorant man, but two pieces of string. With one piece, she measured Simple Sally’s height, and with the other she took the slender girth of the girl’s waist — while Amelius opened his writing-desk, and supplied himself with the last sum of spare money that he possessed. He had just closed the desk again, when the voice of the merciless landlady was heard, calling imperatively for Maria.

The maid-of-all-work handed the two indicative strings to Amelius. “They’ll ‘elp you at the shop,” she said — and shuffled out of the room.

Amelius turned to Simple Sally. “I am going to get you some new clothes,” he began.

The girl stopped him there: she was incapable of listening to a word more. Every trace of sorrow vanished from her face in an instant. She clapped her hands. “Oh!” she cried, “new clothes! clean clothes! Let me go with you.”

Even Amelius saw that it was impossible to take her out in the streets with him in broad daylight, dressed as she was then. “No, no,” he said, “wait here till you get your new things. I won’t be half an hour gone. Lock yourself in if you’re afraid, and open the door to nobody till I come back!”

Sally hesitated; she began to look frightened.

“Think of the new dress, and the pretty bonnet,” suggested Amelius, speaking unconsciously in the tone in which he might have promised a toy to a child.

He had taken the right way with her. Her face brightened again. “I’ll do anything you tell me,” she said.

He put the key in her hand, and was out in the street directly.

Amelius possessed one valuable moral quality which is exceedingly rare among Englishmen. He was not in the least ashamed of putting himself in a ridiculous position, when he was conscious that his own motives justified him. The smiling and tittering of the shop-women, when he stated the nature of his errand, and produced his two pieces of string, failed to annoy him in the smallest degree. He laughed too. “Funny, isn’t it,” he said, “a man like me buying gowns and the rest of it? She can’t come herself — and you’ll advise me, like good creatures, won’t you?” They advised their handsome young customer to such good purpose, that he was in possession of a gray walking costume, a black cloth jacket, a plain lavender-coloured bonnet, a pair of black gloves, and a paper of pins, in little more than ten minutes’ time. The nearest trunk-maker supplied a travelling-box to hold all these treasures; and a passing cab took Amelius back to his lodgings, just as the half-hour was out. But one event had happened during his absence. The landlady had knocked at the door, had called through it in a terrible voice, “Half an hour more!” and had retired again without waiting for an answer.

Amelius carried the box into the bedroom. “Be as quick as you can, Sally,” he said — and left her alone, to enjoy the full rapture of discovering the new clothes.

When she opened the door and showed herself, the change was so wonderful that Amelius was literally unable to speak to her. Joy flushed her pale cheeks, and diffused its tender radiance over her pure blue eyes. A more charming little creature, in that momentary transfiguration of pride and delight, no man’s eyes ever looked on. She ran across the room to Amelius, and threw her arms round his neck. “Let me be your servant!” she cried; “I want to live with you all my life. Jump me up! I’m wild — I want to fly through the window.” She caught sight of herself in the looking-glass, and suddenly became composed and serious. “Oh,” she said, with the quaintest mixture of awe and astonishment, “was there ever such another bonnet as this? Do look at it — do please look at it!”

Amelius good-naturedly approached to look at it. At the same moment the sitting-room door was opened, without any preliminary ceremony of knocking — and Rufus walked into the room. “It’s half after ten,” he said, “and the breakfast is spoiling as fast as it can.”

Before Amelius could make his excuses for having completely forgotten his engagement, Rufus discovered Sally. No woman, young or old, high in rank or low in rank, ever found the New Englander unprepared with his own characteristic acknowledgment of the debt of courtesy which he owed to the sex. With his customary vast strides, he marched up to Sally and insisted on shaking hands with her. “How do you find yourself, miss? I take pleasure in making your acquaintance.” The girl turned to Amelius with wide-eyed wonder and doubt. “Go into the next room, Sally, for a minute or two,” he said. “This gentleman is a friend of mine, and I have something to say to him.”

“That’s an active little girl,” said Rufus, looking after her as she ran to the friendly shelter of the bedroom. “Reminds me of one of our girls at Coolspring — she does. Well, now, and who may Sally be?”

Amelius answered the question, as usual, without the slightest reserve. Rufus waited in impenetrable silence until he had completed his narrative — then took him gently by the arm, and led him to the window. With his hands in his pockets and his long legs planted wide apart on his big feet, the American carefully studied the face of his young friend under the strongest light that could fall on it.

“No,” said Rufus, speaking quietly to himself, “the boy is not raving mad, so far as I can see. He has every appearance on him of meaning what he says. And this is what comes of the Community of Tadmor, is it? Well, civil and religious liberty is dearly purchased sometimes in the United States — and that’s a fact.”

Amelius turned away to pack his portmanteau. “I don’t understand you,” he said.

“I don’t suppose you do,” Rufus remarked. “I am at a similar loss myself to understand you. My store of sensible remarks is copious on most occasions — but I’m darned if I ain’t dried up in the face of this! Might I venture to ask what that venerable Chief Christian at Tadmor would say to the predicament in which I find my young Socialist this morning?”

“What would he say?” Amelius repeated. “Just what he said when Mellicent first came among us. ‘Ah, dear me! Another of the Fallen Leaves!’ I wish I had the dear old man here to help me. He would know how to restore that poor starved, outraged, beaten creature to the happy place on God’s earth which God intended her to fill!”

Rufus abruptly took him by the hand. “You mean that?” he said.

“What else could I mean?” Amelius rejoined sharply.

“Bring her right away to breakfast at the hotel!” cried Rufus, with every appearance of feeling infinitely relieved. “I don’t say I can supply you with the venerable Chief Christian — but I can find a woman to fix you, who is as nigh to being an angel, barring the wings, as any she-creature since the time of mother Eve.” He knocked at the bedroom door, turning a deaf ear to every appeal for further information which Amelius could address to him. “Breakfast is waiting, miss!” he called out; “and I’m bound to tell you that the temper of the cook at our hotel is a long way on the wrong side of uncertain. Well, Amelius, this is the age of exhibition. If there’s ever an exhibition of ignorance in the business of packing a portmanteau, you run for the Gold Medal — and a unanimous jury will vote it, I reckon, to a young man from Tadmor. Clear out, will you, and leave it to me.”

He pulled off his coat, and conquered the difficulties of packing in a hurry, as if he had done nothing else all his life. The landlady herself, appearing with pitiless punctuality exactly at the expiration of the hour, “smoothed her horrid front” in the polite and placable presence of Rufus. He insisted on shaking hands with her; he took pleasure in making her acquaintance; she reminded him, he did assure her, of the lady of the captain-general of the Coolspring Branch of the St. Vitus Commandery; and he would take the liberty to inquire whether they were related or not. Under cover of this fashionable conversation, Simple Sally was taken out of the room by Amelius without attracting notice. She insisted on carrying her threadbare old clothes away with her in the box which had contained the new dress. “I want to look at them sometimes,” she said, “and think how much better off I am now.” Rufus was the last to take his departure; he persisted in talking to the landlady all the way down the stairs and out to the street door.

While Amelius was waiting for his friend on the house-steps, a young man driving by in a cab leaned out and looked at him. The young man was Jervy, on his way from Mr. Ronald’s tombstone to Doctors’ Commons.

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