The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

“Rufus! I don’t quite like the way you look at me. You seem to think —”

“Give it tongue, my son. What do I seem to think?”

“You think I’m forgetting Regina. You don’t believe I’m just as fond of her as ever. The fact is, you’re an old bachelor.”

“That is so. Where’s the harm, Amelius?”

“I don’t understand —”

“You’re out there, my bright boy. I reckon I understand more than you think for. The wisest thing you ever did in your life is what you did this evening, when you committed Sally to the care of those ladies at the Home.”

“Good night, Rufus. We shall quarrel if I stay here any longer.”

“Good night, Amelius. We shan’t quarrel, stay here as long as you like.”

The good deed had been done; the sacrifice — already a painful sacrifice — had been made. Mrs. Payson was old enough to speak plainly, as well as seriously, to Amelius of the absolute necessity of separating himself from Simple Sally, without any needless delay. “You have seen for yourself,” she said, “that the plan on which this little household is ruled is the unvarying plan of patience and kindness. So far as Sally is concerned, you can be quite sure that she will never hear a harsh word, never meet with a hard look, while she is under our care. The lamentable neglect under which the poor creature has suffered, will be tenderly remembered and atoned for, here. If we can’t make her happy among us, I promise that she shall leave the Home, if she wishes it, in six weeks’ time. As to yourself, consider your position if you persist in taking her back with you. Our good friend Rufus has told me that you are engaged to be married. Think of the misinterpretations, to say the least of it, to which you would subject yourself — think of the reports which would sooner or later find their way to the young lady’s ears, and of the deplorable consequences that would follow. I believe implicitly in the purity of your motives. But remember Who taught us to pray that we may not be led into temptation — and complete the good work that you have begun, by leaving Sally among friends and sisters in this house.”

To any honourable man, these were unanswerable words. Coming after what Rufus and the surgeon had already said to him, they left Amelius no alternative but to yield. He pleaded for leave to write to Sally, and to see her, at a later interval, when she might be reconciled to her new life. Mrs. Payson had just consented to both requests, Rufus had just heartily congratulated him on his decision — when the door was thrown violently open. Simple Sally ran into the room, followed by one of the women-attendants in a state of breathless surprise.

“She showed me a bedroom,” cried Sally, pointing indignantly to the woman; “and she asked if I should like to sleep there.” She turned to Amelius, and caught him by the hand to lead him away. The ineradicable instinct of distrust had been once more roused in her by the too zealous attendant. “I’m not going to stay here,” she said; “I’m going away with You!”

Amelius glanced at Mrs. Payson. Sally tried to drag him to the door. He did his best to reassure her by a smile; he spoke confusedly some composing words. But his honest face, always accustomed to tell the truth, told the truth now. The poor lost creature, whose feeble intelligence was so slow to discern, so inapt to reflect, looked at him with the heart’s instantaneous perception, and saw her doom. She let go of his hand. Her head sank. Without word or cry, she dropped on the floor at his feet.

The attendant instantly raised her, and placed her on a sofa. Mrs. Payson saw how resolutely Amelius struggled to control himself, and felt for him with all her heart. Turning aside for a moment, she hastily wrote a few lines, and returned to him. “Go, before we revive her,” she whispered; “and give what I have written to the coachman. You shall suffer no anxiety that I can spare you,” said the excellent woman; “I will stay here myself to-night, and reconcile her to the new life.”

She held out her hand; Amelius kissed it in silence. Rufus led him out. Not a word dropped from his lips on the long drive back to London.

His mind was disturbed by other subjects besides the subject of Sally. He thought of his future, darkened by the doubtful marriage-engagement that was before him. Alone with Rufus, for the rest of the evening, he petulantly misunderstood the sympathy with which the kindly American regarded him. Their bedrooms were next to each other. Rufus heard him walking restlessly to and fro, and now and then talking to himself. After a while, these sounds ceased. He was evidently worn out, and was getting the rest that he needed, at last.

The next morning he received a few lines from Mrs. Payson, giving a favourable account of Sally, and promising further particulars in a day or two.

Encouraged by this good news, revived by a long night’s sleep, he went towards noon to pay his postponed visit to Regina. At that early hour, he could feel sure that his interview with her would not be interrupted by visitors. She received him quietly and seriously, pressing his hand with a warmer fondness than usual. He had anticipated some complaint of his absence on the previous day, and some severe allusion to his appearance in the capacity of a Socialist lecturer. Regina’s indulgence, or Regina’s interest in circumstances of more pressing importance, preserved a merciful silence on both subjects.

“It is a comfort to me to see you, Amelius,” she said; “I am in trouble about my uncle, and I am weary of my own anxious thoughts. Something unpleasant has happened in Mr. Farnaby’s business. He goes to the City earlier, and he returns much later, than usual. When he does come back, he doesn’t speak to me — he locks himself into his room; and he looks worn and haggard when I make his breakfast for him in the morning. You know that he is one of the directors of the new bank? There was something about the bank in the newspaper yesterday which upset him dreadfully; he put down his cup of coffee — and went away to the City, without eating his breakfast. I don’t like to worry you about it, Amelius. But my aunt seems to take no interest in her husband’s affairs — and it is really a relief to me to talk of my troubles to you. I have kept the newspaper; do look at what it says about the bank, and tell me if you understand it!”

Amelius read the passage pointed out to him. He knew as little of banking business as Regina. “So far as I can make it out,” he said, “they’re paying away money to their shareholders which they haven’t earned. How do they do that, I wonder?”

Regina changed the subject in despair. She asked Amelius if he had found new lodgings. Hearing that he had not yet succeeded in the search for a residence, she opened a drawer of her work-table, and took out a card.

“The brother of one of my schoolfellows is going to be married,” she said. “He has a pretty bachelor cottage in the neighbourhood of the Regent’s Park — and he wants to sell it, with the furniture, just as it is. I don’t know whether you care to encumber yourself with a little house of your own. His sister has asked me to distribute some of his cards, with the address and the particulars. It might be worth your while, perhaps, to look at the cottage when you pass that way.”

Amelius took the card. The small feminine restraints and gentlenesses of Regina, her quiet even voice, her serene grace of movement, had a pleasantly soothing effect on his mind after the anxieties of the last four and twenty hours. He looked at her bending over her embroidery, deftly and gracefully industrious — and drew his chair closer to her. She smiled softly over her work, conscious that he was admiring her, and placidly pleased to receive the tribute.

“I would buy the cottage at once,” said Amelius, “if I thought you would come and live in it with me.”

She looked up gravely, with her needle suspended in her hand.

“Don’t let us return to that,” she answered, and went on again with her embroidery.

“Why not?” Amelius asked.

She persisted in working, as industriously as if she had been a poor needlewoman, with serious reasons for being eager to get her money. “It is useless,” she replied, “to speak of what cannot be for some time to come.”

Amelius stopped the progress of the embroidery by taking her hand. Her devotion to her work irritated him.

“Look at me, Regina,” he said, steadily controlling himself. “I want to propose that we shall give way a little on both sides. I won’t hurry you; I will wait a reasonable time. If I promise that, surely you may yield a little in return. Money seems to be a hard taskmaster, my darling, after what you have told me about your uncle. See how he suffers because he is bent on being rich; and ask yourself if it isn’t a warning to us not to follow his example! Would you like to see me too wretched to speak to you, or to eat my breakfast — and all for the sake of a little outward show? Come, come! let us think of ourselves. Why should we waste the best days of our life apart, when we are both free to be happy together? I have another good friend besides Rufus — the good friend of my father before me. He knows all sorts of great people, and he will help me to some employment. In six months’ time I might have a little salary to add to my income. Say the sweetest words, my darling, that ever fell from your lips — say you will marry me in six months!”

It was not in a woman’s nature to be insensible to such pleading as this. She all but yielded. “I should like to say it, dear!” she answered, with a little fluttering sigh.

“Say it, then!” Amelius suggested tenderly.

She took refuge again in her embroidery. “If you would only give me a little time,” she suggested, “I might say it.”

“Time for what, my own love?”

“Time to wait, dear, till my uncle is not quite so anxious as he is now.”

“Don’t talk of your uncle, Regina! You know as well as I do what he would say. Good heavens! why can’t you decide for yourself? No! I don’t want to hear over again about what you owe to Mr. Farnaby — I heard enough of it on that day in the shrubbery. Oh, my dear girl, do have some feeling for me! do for once have a will of your own!”

Those last words were an offence to her self-esteem. “I think it’s very rude to tell me I have no will of my own,” she said, “and very hard to press in this way when you know I am in trouble.” The inevitable handkerchief appeared, adding emphasis to the protest — and the becoming tears showed themselves modestly in Regina’s magnificent eyes.

Amelius started out of his chair, and walked away to the window. That last reference to Mr. Farnaby’s pecuniary cares was more than he had patience to endure. “She can’t even forget her uncle and his bank,” he thought, “when I am speaking to her of our marriage!”

He kept his face hidden from her, at the window. By some subtle process of association which he was unable to trace, the image of Simple Sally rose in his mind. An irresistible influence forced him to think of her — not as the poor, starved, degraded, half-witted creature of the streets, but as the grateful girl who had asked for no happier future than to be his servant, who had dropped senseless at his feet at the bare prospect of parting with him. His sense of self-respect, his loyalty to his betrothed wife, resolutely resisted the unworthy conclusion to which his own thoughts were leading him. He turned back again to Regina; he spoke so loudly and so vehemently that the gathering flow of her tears was suspended in surprise. “You’re right, you’re quite right, my dear! I ought to give you time, of course. I try to control my hasty temper, but I don’t always succeed — just at first. Pray forgive me; it shall be exactly as you wish.”

Regina forgave him, with a gentle and ladylike astonishment at the excitable manner in which he made his excuses. She even neglected her embroidery, and put her face up to him to be kissed. “You are so nice, dear,” she said, “when you are not violent and unreasonable. It is such a pity you were brought up in America. Won’t you stay to lunch?”

Happily for Amelius, the footman appeared at this critical moment with a message: “My mistress wishes particularly to see you, sir, before you go.”

This was the first occasion, in the experience of the lovers, on which Mrs. Farnaby had expressed her wishes through the medium of a servant, instead of appearing personally. The curiosity of Regina was mildly excited. “What a very odd message!” she said; “what does it mean? My aunt went out earlier than usual this morning, and I have not seen her since. I wonder whether she is going to consult you about my uncle’s affairs?”

“I’ll go and see,” said Amelius.

“And stay to lunch?” Regina reiterated.

“Not to-day, my dear.”

“To-morrow, then?”

“Yes, to-morrow.” So he escaped. As he opened the door, he looked back, and kissed his hand. Regina raised her head for a moment, and smiled charmingly. She was hard at work again over her embroidery.

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