The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

With a rapid succession of events the morning had begun. With a rapid succession of events the day went on.

The breakfast being over, rooms at the hotel were engaged by Rufus for his “two young friends.” After this, the next thing to be done was to provide Simple Sally with certain necessary, but invisible, articles of clothing, which Amelius had never thought of. A note to the nearest shop produced the speedy arrival of a smart lady, accompanied by a boy and a large basket. There was some difficulty in persuading Sally to trust herself alone in her room with the stranger. She was afraid, poor soul, of everybody but Amelius. Even the good American failed to win her confidence. The distrust implanted in her feeble mind by the terrible life that she had led, was the instinctive distrust of a wild animal. “Why must I go among other people?” she whispered piteously to Amelius. “I only want to be with You!” It was as completely useless to reason with her as it would have been to explain the advantages of a comfortable cage to a newly caught bird. There was but one way of inducing her to submit to the most gently exerted interference. Amelius had only to say, “Do it, Sally, to please me.” And Sally sighed, and did it.

In her absence Amelius reiterated his inquiries, in relation to that unknown friend whom Rufus had not scrupled to describe as “an angel — barring the wings.”

The lady in question, the American briefly explained, was an Englishwoman — the wife of one of his countrymen, established in London as a merchant. He had known them both intimately before their departure from the United States; and the old friendship had been cordially renewed on his arrival in England. Associated with many other charitable institutions, Mrs. Payson was one of the managing committee of a “Home for Friendless Women,” especially adapted to receive poor girls in Sally’s melancholy position. Rufus offered to write a note to Mrs. Payson; inquiring at what hour she could receive his friend and himself, and obtain permission for them to see the “Home.” Amelius, after some hesitation, accepted the proposal. The messenger had not been long despatched with the note before the smart person from the shop made her appearance once more, reporting that “the young lady’s outfit had been perfectly arranged,” and presenting the inevitable result in the shape of a bill. The last farthing of ready money in the possession of Amelius proved to be insufficient to discharge the debt. He accepted a loan from Rufus, until he could give his bankers the necessary order to sell out some of his money invested in the Funds. His answer, when Rufus protested against this course, was characteristic of the teaching which he owed to the Community. “My dear fellow, I am bound to return the money you have lent to me — in the interests of our poor brethren. The next friend who borrows of you may not have the means of paying you back.”

After waiting for the return of Simple Sally, and waiting in vain, Amelius sent a chambermaid to her room, with a message to her. Rufus disapproved of this hasty proceeding. “Why disturb the girl at her looking-glass?” asked the old bachelor, with his quaintly humorous smile.

Sally came in with no bright pleasure in her eyes this time; the girl looked worn and haggard. She drew Amelius away into a corner, and whispered to him. “I get a pain sometimes where the bruise is,” she said; “and I’ve got it bad, now.” She glanced, with an odd furtive jealousy, at Rufus. “I kept away from you,” she explained, “because I didn’t want him to know.” She stopped, and put her hand on her bosom, and clenched her teeth fast. “Never mind,” she said cheerfully, as the pang passed away again; “I can bear it.”

Amelius, acting on impulse, as usual, instantly ordered the most comfortable carriage that the hotel possessed. He had heard terrible stories of the possible result of an injury to a woman’s bosom. “I shall take her to the best doctor in London,” he announced. Sally whispered to him again — still with her eye on Rufus. “Is he going with us?” she asked. “No,” said Amelius; “one of us must stay here to receive a message.” Rufus looked after them very gravely, as the two left the room together.

Applying for information to the mistress of the hotel, Amelius obtained the address of a consulting surgeon of great celebrity, while Sally was getting ready to go out.

“Why don’t you like my good friend upstairs?” he said to the girl as they drove away from the house. The answer came swift and straight from the heart of the daughter of Eve. “Because you like him!” Amelius changed the subject: he asked if she was still in pain. She shook her head impatiently. Pain or no pain, the uppermost idea in her mind was still that idea of being his servant, which had already found expression in words before they left the lodgings. “Will you let me keep my beautiful new dress for going out on Sundays?” she asked. “The shabby old things will do when I am your servant. I can black your boots, and brush your clothes, and keep your room tidy — and I will try hard to learn, if you will have me taught to cook.” Amelius attempted to change the subject again. He might as well have talked to her in an unknown tongue. The glorious prospect of being his servant absorbed the whole of her attention. “I’m little and I’m stupid,” she went on; “but I do think I could learn to cook, if I knew I was doing it for You.“ She paused, and looked at him anxiously. “Do let me try!” she pleaded; “I haven’t had much pleasure in my life — and I should like it so!” It was impossible to resist this. “You shall be as happy as I can make you, Sally,” Amelius answered; “God knows it isn’t much you ask for!”

Something in those compassionate words set her thinking in another direction. It was sad to see how slowly and painfully she realized the idea that had been suggested to her.

“I wonder whether you can make me happy?” she said. “I suppose I have been happy before this — but I don’t know when. I don’t remember a time when I was not hungry or cold. Wait a bit. I do think I was happy once. It was a long while ago, and it took me a weary time to do it — but I did learn at last to play a tune on the fiddle. The old man and his wife took it in turns to teach me. Somebody gave me to the old man and his wife; I don’t know who it was, and I don’t remember their names. They were musicians. In the fine streets they sang hymns, and in the poor streets they sang comic songs. It was cold, to be sure, standing barefoot on the pavement — but I got plenty of halfpence. The people said I was so little it was a shame to send me out, and so I got halfpence. I had bread and apples for supper, and a nice little corner under the staircase, to sleep in. Do you know, I do think I did enjoy myself at that time,” she concluded, still a little doubtful whether those faint and far-off remembrances were really to be relied on.

Amelius tried to lead her to other recollections. He asked her how old she was when she played the fiddle.

“I don’t know,” she answered; “I don’t know how old I am now. I don’t remember anything before the fiddle. I can’t call to mind how long it was first — but there came a time when the old man and his wife got into trouble. They went to prison, and I never saw them afterwards. I ran away with the fiddle; to get the halfpence, you know, all to myself. I think I should have got a deal of money, if it hadn’t been for the boys. They’re so cruel, the boys are. They broke my fiddle. I tried selling pencils after that; but people didn’t seem to want pencils. They found me out begging. I got took up, and brought before the what-do-you-call-him — the gentleman who sits in a high place, you know, behind a desk. Oh, but I was frightened, when they took me before the gentleman! He looked very much puzzled. He says, ‘Bring her up here; she’s so small I can hardly see her.’ He says, ‘Good God! what am I to do with this unfortunate child?’ There was plenty of people about. One of them says, ‘The workhouse ought to take her.’ And a lady came in, and she says, ‘I’ll take her, sir, if you’ll let me.’ And he knew her, and he let her. She took me to a place they called a Refuge — for wandering children, you know. It was very strict at the Refuge. They did give us plenty to eat, to be sure, and they taught us lessons. They told us about Our Father up in Heaven. I said a wrong thing — I said, ‘I don’t want him up in Heaven; I want him down here.’ They were very much ashamed of me when I said that. I was a bad girl; I turned ungrateful. After a time, I ran away. You see, it was so strict, and I was so used to the streets. I met with a Scotchman in the streets. He wore a kilt, and played the pipes; he taught me to dance, and dressed me up like a Scotch girl. He had a curious wife, a sort of half-black woman. She used to dance too — on a bit of carpet, you know, so as not to spoil her fine shoes. They taught me songs; he taught me a Scotch song. And one day his wife said she was English (I don’t know how that was, being a half-black woman), and I should learn an English song. And they quarrelled about it. And she had her way. She taught me ‘Sally in our Alley’. That’s how I come to be called Sally. I hadn’t any name of my own — I always had nicknames. Sally was the last of them, and Sally has stuck to me. I hope it isn’t too common a name to please you? Oh, what a fine house! Are we really going in? Will they let me in? How stupid I am! I forgot my beautiful clothes. You won’t tell them, will you, if they take me for a lady?”

The carriage had stopped at the great surgeon’s house: the waiting-room was full of patients. Some of them were trying to read the books and newspapers on the table; and some of them were looking at each other, not only without the slightest sympathy, but occasionally even with downright distrust and dislike. Amelius took up a newspaper, and gave Sally an illustrated book to amuse her, while they waited to see the Surgeon in their turn.

Two long hours passed, before the servant summoned Amelius to the consulting-room. Sally was wearily asleep in her chair. He left her undisturbed, having questions to put relating to the imperfectly developed state of her mind, which could not be asked in her presence. The surgeon listened, with no ordinary interest, to the young stranger’s simple and straightforward narrative of what had happened on the previous night. “You are very unlike other young men,” he said; “may I ask how you have been brought up?” The reply surprised him. “This opens quite a new view of Socialism,” he said. “I thought your conduct highly imprudent at first — it seems to be the natural result of your teaching now. Let me see what I can do to help you.”

He was very grave and very gentle, when Sally was presented to him. His opinion of the injury to her bosom relieved the anxiety of Amelius: there might be pain for some little time to come, but there were no serious consequences to fear. Having written his prescription, and having put several questions to Sally, the surgeon sent her back, with marked kindness of manner, to wait for Amelius in the patients’ room.

“I have young daughters of my own,” he said, when the door was closed; “and I cannot but feel for that unhappy creature, when I contrast her life with theirs. So far as I can see it, the natural growth of her senses — her higher and her lower senses alike — has been stunted, like the natural growth of her body, by starvation, terror, exposure to cold, and other influences inherent in the life that she has led. With nourishing food, pure air, and above all kind and careful treatment, I see no reason, at her age, why she should not develop into an intelligent and healthy young woman. Pardon me if I venture on giving you a word of advice. At your time of life, you will do well to place her at once under competent and proper care. You may live to regret it, if you are too confident in your own good motives in such a case as this. Come to me again, if I can be of any use to you. No,” he continued, refusing to take his fee; “my help to that poor lost girl is help given freely.” He shook hands with Amelius — a worthy member of the noble order to which he belonged.

The surgeon’s parting advice, following on the quaint protest of Rufus, had its effect on Amelius. He was silent and thoughtful when he got into the carriage again.

Simple Sally looked at him with a vague sense of alarm. Her heart beat fast, under the perpetually recurring fear that she had done something or said something to offend him. “Was it bad behaviour in me,” she asked, “to fall asleep in the chair?” Reassured, so far, she was still as anxious as ever to get at the truth. After long hesitation, and long previous thought, she ventured to try another question. “The gentleman sent me out of the room — did he say anything to set you against me?”

“The gentleman said everything that was kind of you,” Amelius replied, “and everything to make me hope that you will live to be a happy girl.”

She said nothing to that; vague assurances were no assurances to her — she only looked at him with the dumb fidelity of a dog. Suddenly, she dropped on her knees in the carriage, hid her face in her hands, and cried silently. Surprised and distressed, he attempted to raise her and console her. “No!” she said obstinately. “Something has happened to vex you, and you won’t tell me what it is. Do, do, do tell me what it is!”

“My dear child,” said Amelius, “I was only thinking anxiously about you, in the time to come.”

She looked up at him quickly. “What! have you forgotten already?” she exclaimed. “I’m to be your servant in the time to come.” She dried her eyes, and took her place again joyously by his side. “You did frighten me,” she said, “and all for nothing. But you didn’t mean it, did you?”

An older man might have had the courage to undeceive her: Amelius shrank from it. He tried to lead her back to the melancholy story — so common and so terrible; so pitiable in its utter absence of sentiment or romance — the story of her past life.

“No,” she answered, with that quick insight where her feelings were concerned, which was the only quick insight that she possessed. “I don’t like making you sorry; and you did look sorry — you did — when I talked about it before. The streets, the streets, the streets; little girl, or big girl, it’s only the streets; and always being hungry or cold; and cruel men when it isn’t cruel boys. I want to be happy! I want to enjoy my new clothes! You tell me about your own self. What makes you so kind? I can’t make it out; try as I may, I can’t make it out.”

Some time elapsed before they got back to the hotel. Amelius drove as far as the City, to give the necessary instructions to his bankers.

On returning to the sitting-room at last, he discovered that his American friend was not alone. A gray-haired lady with a bright benevolent face was talking earnestly to Rufus. The instant Sally discovered the stranger, she started back, fled to the shelter of her bedchamber, and locked herself in. Amelius, entering the room after a little hesitation, was presented to Mrs. Payson.

“There was something in my old friend’s note,” said the lady, smiling and turning to Rufus, “which suggested to me that I should do well to answer it personally. I am not too old yet to follow the impulse of the moment, sometimes; and I am very glad that I did so. I have heard what is, to me, a very interesting story. Mr. Goldenheart, I respect you! And I will prove it by helping you, with all my heart and soul, to save that poor little girl who has just run away from me. Pray don’t make excuses for her; I should have run away too, at her age. We have arranged,” she continued, looking again at Rufus, “that I shall take you both to the Home, this afternoon. If we can prevail on Sally to go with us, one serious obstacle in our way will be overcome. Tell me the number of her room. I want to try if I can’t make friends with her. I have had some experience; and I don’t despair of bringing her back here, hand in hand with the terrible person who has frightened her.”

The two men were left together. Amelius attempted to speak.

“Keep it down,” said Rufus; “no premature outbreak of opinion, if you please, yet awhile. Wait till she has fixed Sally, and shown us the Paradise of the poor girls. It’s within the London postal district, and that’s all I know about it. Well, now, and did you go to the doctor? Thunder! what’s come to the boy? Seems as though he had left his complexion in the carriage! He looks, I do declare, as if he wanted medical tinkering himself.”

Amelius explained that his past night had been a wakeful one, and that the events of the day had not allowed him any opportunities of repose. “Since the morning,” he said, “things have hurried so, one on the top of the other, that I am beginning to feel a little dazed and weary.” Without a word of remark, Rufus produced the remedy. The materials were ready on the sideboard — he made a cocktail.

“Another?” asked the New Englander, after a reasonable lapse of time.

Amelius declined taking another. He stretched himself on the sofa; his good friend considerately took up a newspaper. For the first time that day, he had now the prospect of a quiet interval for rest and thought. In less than a minute the delusive prospect vanished. He started to his feet again, disturbed by a new anxiety. Having leisure to think, he had thought of Regina. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed; “she’s waiting to see me — and I never remembered it till this moment!” He looked at his watch: it was five o’clock. “What am I to do?” he said helplessly.

Rufus laid down the newspaper, and considered the new difficulty in its various aspects.

“We are bound to go with Mrs. Payson to the Home,” he said; “and, I tell you this, Amelius, the matter of Sally is not a matter to be played with; it’s a thing that’s got to be done. In your place I should write politely to Miss Regina, and put it off till to-morrow.”

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a man who took Rufus for his counsellor was a man who acted wisely in every sense of the word. Events, however, of which Amelius and his friend were both ignorant alike, had so ordered it, that the American’s well-meant advice, in this one exceptional case, was the very worst advice that could have been given. In an hour more, Jervy and Mrs. Sowler were to meet at the tavern door. The one last hope of protecting Mrs. Farnaby from the abominable conspiracy of which she was the destined victim, rested solely on the fulfilment by Amelius of his engagement with Regina for that day. Always ready to interfere with the progress of the courtship, Mrs. Farnaby would be especially eager to seize the first opportunity of speaking to her young Socialist friend on the subject of his lecture. In the course of the talk between them, the idea which, in the present disturbed state of his mind, had not struck him yet — the idea that the outcast of the streets might, by the barest conceivable possibility, be identified with the lost daughter — would, in one way or another, be almost infallibly suggested to Amelius; and, at the eleventh hour, the conspiracy would be foiled. If, on the other hand, the American’s fatal advice was followed, the next morning’s post might bring a letter from Jervy to Mrs. Farnaby — with this disastrous result. At the first words spoken by Amelius, she would put an end to all further interest in the subject on his part, by telling him that the lost girl had been found, and found by another person.

Rufus pointed to the writing-materials on a side table, which he had himself used earlier in the day. The needful excuse was, unhappily, quite easy to find. A misunderstanding with his landlady had obliged Amelius to leave his lodgings at an hour’s notice, and had occupied him in trying to find a new residence for the rest of the day. The note was written. Rufus, who was nearest to the bell, stretched out his hand to ring for the messenger. Amelius suddenly stopped him.

“She doesn’t like me to disappoint her,” he said. “I needn’t stay long — I might get there and back in half an hour, in a fast cab.”

His conscience was not quite easy. The sense of having forgotten Regina — no matter how naturally and excusably — oppressed him with a feeling of self-reproach. Rufus raised no objection; the hesitation of Amelius was unquestionably creditable to him. “If you must do it, my son,” he said, “do it right away — and we’ll wait for you.”

Amelius took up his hat. The door opened as he approached it, and Mrs. Payson entered the room, leading Simple Sally by the hand.

“We are all going together,” said the genial old lady, “to see my large family of daughters at the Home. We can have our talk in the carriage. It’s an hour’s drive from this place — and I must be back again to dinner at half-past seven.”

Amelius and Rufus looked at each other. Amelius thought of pleading an engagement, and asking to be excused. Under the circumstances, it was assuredly not a very gracious thing to do. Before he could make up his mind, one way or the other, Sally stole to his side, and put her hand on his arm. Mrs. Payson had done wonders in conquering the girl’s inveterate distrust of strangers, and, to a certain extent at least, winning her confidence. But no early influence could shake Sally’s dog-like devotion to Amelius. Her jealous instinct discovered something suspicious in his sudden silence. “You must go with us,” she said, “I won’t go without you.”

“Certainly not,” Mrs. Payson added; “I promised her that, of course, beforehand.”

Rufus rang the bell, and despatched the messenger to Regina. “That’s the one way out of it, my son,” he whispered to Amelius, as they followed Mrs. Payson and Sally down the stairs of the hotel.

They had just driven up to the gates of the Home, when Jervy and his accomplice met at the tavern, and entered on their consultation in a private room.

In spite of her poverty-stricken appearance, Mrs. Sowler was not absolutely destitute. In various underhand and wicked ways, she contrived to put a few shillings in her pocket from week to week. If she was half starved, it was for the very ordinary reason, among persons of her vicious class, that she preferred spending her money on drink. Stating his business with her, as reservedly and as cunningly as usual, Jervy found, to his astonishment, that even this squalid old creature presumed to bargain with him. The two wretches were on the point of a quarrel which might have delayed the execution of the plot against Mrs. Farnaby, but for the vile self-control which made Jervy one of the most formidable criminals living. He gave way on the question of money — and, from that moment, he had Mrs. Sowler absolutely at his disposal.

“Meet me to-morrow morning, to receive your instructions,” he said. “The time is ten sharp; and the place is the powder-magazine in Hyde Park. And mind this! You must be decently dressed — you know where to hire the things. If I smell you of spirits to-morrow morning, I shall employ somebody else. No; not a farthing now. You will have your money — first instalment only, mind! — to-morrow at ten.”

Left by himself, Jervy sent for pen, ink, and paper. Using his left hand, which was just as serviceable to him as his right, he traced these lines:—

“You are informed, by an unknown friend, that a certain lost young lady is now living in a foreign country, and may be restored to her afflicted mother on receipt of a sufficient sum to pay expenses, and to reward the writer of this letter, who is undeservedly, in distressed circumstances.

“Are you, madam, the mother? I ask the question in the strictest confidence, knowing nothing certainly but that your husband was the person who put the young lady out to nurse in her infancy.

“I don’t address your husband, because his inhuman desertion of the poor baby does not incline me to trust him. I run the risk of trusting you — to a certain extent — at starting. Shall I drop a hint which may help you to identify the child, in your own mind? It would be inexcusably foolish on my part to speak too plainly, just yet. The hint must be a vague one. Suppose I use a poetical expression, and say that the young lady is enveloped in mystery from head to foot — especially the foot?

“In the event of my addressing the right person, I beg to offer a suggestion for a preliminary interview.

“If you will take a walk on the bridge over the Serpentine River, on Kensington Gardens side, at half-past ten o’clock to-morrow morning, holding a white handkerchief in your left hand, you will meet the much-injured woman, who was deceived into taking charge of the infant child at Ramsgate, and will be satisfied so far that you are giving your confidence to persons who really deserve it.”

Jervy addressed this infamous letter to Mrs. Farnaby, in an ordinary envelope, marked “Private.” He posted it, that night, with his own hand.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/fallen-leaves/book6.3.html

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