The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

The door of Mrs. Farnaby’s ground-floor room, at the back of the house, was partially open. She was on the watch for Amelius.

“Come in!” she cried, the moment he appeared in the hall. She pulled him into the room, and shut the door with a bang. Her face was flushed, her eyes were wild. “I have something to tell you, you dear good fellow,” she burst out excitedly —“Something in confidence, between you and me!” She paused, and looked at him with sudden anxiety and alarm. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

The sight of the room, the reference to a secret, the prospect of another private conference, forced back the mind of Amelius, in one breathless instant, to his first memorable interview with Mrs. Farnaby. The mother’s piteously hopeful words, in speaking of her lost daughter, rang in his ears again as if they had just fallen from her lips. “She may be lost in the labyrinth of London. . . . To-morrow, or ten years hence, you might meet with her.” There were a hundred chances against it — a thousand, ten thousand chances against it. The startling possibility flashed across his brain, nevertheless, like a sudden flow of daylight across the dark. “Have I met with her, at the first chance?”

“Wait,” he cried; “I have something to say before you speak to me. Don’t deceive yourself with vain hopes. Promise me that, before I begin.”

She waved her hand derisively. “Hopes?” she repeated; “I have done with hopes, I have done with fears — I have got to certainties, at last!”

He was too eager to heed anything that she said to him; his whole soul was absorbed in the coming disclosure. “Two nights since,” he went on, “I was wandering about London, and I met —”

She burst out laughing. “Go on!” she cried, with a wild derisive gaiety.

Amelius stopped, perplexed and startled. “What are you laughing at?” he asked.

“Go on!” she repeated. “I defy you to surprise me. Out with it! Whom did you meet?”

Amelius proceeded doubtfully, by a word at a time. “I met a poor girl in the streets,” he said, steadily watching her.

She changed completely at those words; she looked at him with an aspect of stern reproach. “No more of it,” she interposed; “I have not waited all these miserable years for such a horrible end as that.” Her face suddenly brightened; a radiant effusion of tenderness and triumph flowed over it, and made it young and happy again. “Amelius!” she said, “listen to this. My dream has come true — my girl is found! Thanks to you, though you don’t know it.”

Amelius looked at her. Was she speaking of something that had really happened? or had she been dreaming again?

Absorbed in her own happiness, she made no remark on his silence. “I have seen the woman,” she went on. “This bright blessed morning I have seen the woman who took her away in the first days of her poor little life. The wretch swears she was not to blame. I tried to forgive her. Perhaps I almost did forgive her, in the joy of hearing what she had to tell me. I should never have heard it, Amelius, if you had not given that glorious lecture. The woman was one of your audience. She would never have spoken of those past days; she would never have thought of me —”

At those words, Mrs. Farnaby abruptly stopped, and turned her face away from Amelius. After waiting a little, finding her still silent, still immovable, he ventured on putting a question.

“Are you sure you are not deceived?” he asked. “I remember you told me that rogues had tried to impose on you, in past times when you employed people to find her.”

“I have proof that I am not being imposed upon,” Mrs. Farnaby answered, still keeping her face hidden from him. “One of them knows of the fault in her foot.”

“One of them?” Amelius repeated. “How many of them are there?”

“Two. The old woman, and a young man.”

“What are their names?”

“They won’t tell me their names yet.”

“Isn’t that a little suspicious?”

“One of them knows,” Mrs. Farnaby reiterated, “of the fault in her foot.”

“May I ask which of them knows? The old woman, I suppose?”

“No, the young man.”

“That’s strange, isn’t it? Have you seen the young man?”

“I know nothing of him, except the little that the woman told me. He has written me a letter.”

“May I look at it?”

“I daren’t let you look at it!”

Amelius said no more. If he had felt the smallest suspicion that the disclosure volunteered by Mrs. Farnaby, at their first interview, had been overheard by the unknown person who had opened the swinging window in the kitchen, he might have recalled Phoebe’s vindictive language at his lodgings, and the doubts suggested to him by his discovery of the vagabond waiting for her in the street. As it was, he was simply puzzled. The one plain conclusion to his mind was, unhappily, the natural conclusion after what he had heard — that Mrs. Farnaby had no sort of interest in the discovery of Simple Sally, and that he need trouble himself with no further anxiety in that matter. Strange as Mrs. Farnaby’s mysterious revelation seemed, her correspondent’s knowledge of the fault in the foot was circumstance in his favour, beyond dispute. Amelius still wondered inwardly how it was that the woman who had taken charge of the child had failed to discover what appeared to be known to another person. If he had been aware that Mrs. Sowler’s occupation at the time was the occupation of a “baby-farmer,” and that she had many other deserted children pining under her charge, he might have easily understood that she was the last person in the world to trouble herself with a minute examination of any one of the unfortunate little creatures abandoned to her drunken and merciless neglect. Jervy had satisfied himself, before he trusted her with his instructions, that she knew no more than the veriest stranger of any peculiarity in one or the other of the child’s feet.

Interpreting Mrs. Farnaby’s last reply to him as an intimation that their interview was at an end, Amelius took up his hat to go.

“I hope with all my heart,” he said, “that what has begun so well will end well. If there is any service that I can do for you —”

She drew nearer to him, and put her hand gently on his shoulder. “Don’t think that I distrust you,” she said very earnestly; “I am unwilling to shock you — that is all. Even this great joy has a dark side to it; my miserable married life casts its shadow on everything that happens to me. Keep secret from everybody the little that I have told you — you will ruin me if you say one word of it to any living creature. I ought not to have opened my heart to you — but how could I help it, when the happiness that is coming to me has come through you? When you say good-bye to me to-day, Amelius, you say good-bye to me for the last time in this house. I am going away. Don’t ask me why — that is one more among the things which I daren’t tell you! You shall hear from me, or see me — I promise that. Give me some safe address to write to; some place where there are no inquisitive women who may open my letter in your absence.”

She handed him her pocket-book. Amelius wrote down in it the address of his club.

She took his hand. “Think of me kindly,” she said. “And, once more, don’t be afraid of my being deceived. There is a hard part of me still left which keeps me on my guard. The old woman tried, this morning, to make me talk to her about that little fault we know of in my child’s foot. But I thought to myself, ‘If you had taken a proper interest in my poor baby while she was with you, you must sooner or later have found it out.’ Not a word passed my lips. No, no, don’t be anxious when you think of me. I am as sharp as they are; I mean to find out how the man who wrote to me discovered what he knows; he shall satisfy me, I promise you, when I see him or hear from him next. All this is between ourselves strictly, sacredly between ourselves. Say nothing — I know I can trust you. Good-bye, and forgive me for having been so often in your way with Regina. I shall never be in your way again. Marry her, if you think she is good enough for you; I have no more interest now in your being a roving bachelor, meeting with girls here, there, and everywhere. You shall know how it goes on. Oh, I am so happy!”

She burst into tears, and signed to Amelius with a wild gesture of treaty to leave her.

He pressed her hand in silence, and went out.

Almost as the door closed on him, the variable woman changed again. For a while she walked rapidly to and fro, talking to herself. The course of her tears ceased. Her lips closed firmly; her eyes assumed an expression of savage resolve. She sat down at the table and opened her desk. “I’ll read it once more,” she said to herself, “before I seal it up.”

She took from her desk a letter of her own writing, and spread it out before her. With her elbows on the table, and her hands clasped fiercely in her hair, she read these lines addressed to her husband:—

JOHN FARNABY— I have always suspected that you had something to do with the disappearance of our child. I know for certain now that you deliberately cast your infant daughter on the mercy of the world, and condemned your wife to a life of wretchedness.

“Don’t suppose that I have been deceived! I have spoken with the woman who waited by the garden-paling at Ramsgate, and who took the child from your hands. She saw you with me at the lecture; and she is absolutely sure that you are the man.

“Thanks to the meeting at the lecture-hall, I am at last on the trace of my lost daughter. This morning I heard the woman’s story. She kept the child, on the chance of its being reclaimed, until she could afford to keep it no longer. She met with a person who was willing to adopt it, and who took it away with her to a foreign country, not mentioned to me yet. In that country my daughter is still living, and will be restored to me on conditions which will be communicated in a few days’ time.

“Some of this story may be true, and some of it may be false; the woman may be lying to serve her own interests with me. Of one thing I am sure — my girl is identified, by means known to me of which there can be no doubt. And she must be still living, because the interest of the persons treating with me is an interest in her life.

“When you receive this letter, on your return from business to-night, I shall have left you, and left you for ever. The bare thought of even looking at you again fills me with horror. I have my own income, and I mean to take my own way. In your best interests I warn you, make no attempt to trace me. I declare solemnly that, rather than let your deserted daughter be polluted by the sight of you, I would kill you with my own hand, and die for it on the scaffold. If she ever asks for her father, I will do you one service. For the honour of human nature, I will tell her that her father is dead. It will not be all a falsehood. I repudiate you and your name — you are dead to me from this time forth.

“I sign myself by my father’s name —

“EMMA RONALD.”

She had said herself that she was unwilling to shock Amelius. This was the reason.

After thinking a little, she sealed and directed the letter. This done, she unlocked the wooden press which had once contained the baby’s frock and cap, and those other memorials of the past which she called her “dead consolations.” After satisfying herself that the press was empty, she wrote on a card, “To be called for by a messenger from my bankers”— and tied the card to a tin box in a corner, secured by a padlock. She lifted the box, and placed it in front of the press, so that it might be easily visible to any one entering the room. The safe keeping of her treasures provided for, she took the sealed letter, and, ascending the stairs, placed it on the table in her husband’s dressing-room. She hurried out again, the instant after, as if the sight of the place were intolerable to her.

Passing to the other end of the corridor, she entered her own bedchamber, and put on her bonnet and cloak. A leather handbag was on the bed. She took it up, and looked round the large luxurious room with a shudder of disgust. What she had suffered, within those four walls, no human creature knew but herself. She hurried out, as she had hurried out of her husband’s dressing-room.

Her niece was still in the drawing-room. As she reached the door, she hesitated, and stopped. The girl was a good girl, in her own dull placid way — and her sister’s daughter, too. A last little act of kindness would perhaps be a welcome act to remember. She opened the door so suddenly that Regina started, with a small cry of alarm. “Oh, aunt, how you frighten one! Are you going out?” “Yes; I’m going out,” was the short answer. “Come here. Give me a kiss.” Regina looked up in wide-eyed astonishment. Mrs. Farnaby stamped impatiently on the floor. Regina rose, gracefully bewildered. “My dear aunt, how very odd!” she said — and gave the kiss demanded, with a serenely surprised elevation of her finely shaped eyebrows. “Yes,” said Mrs. Farnaby; “that’s it — one of my oddities. Go back to your work. Good-bye.”

She left the room, as abruptly as she had entered it. With her firm heavy step she descended to the hall, passed out at the house door, and closed it behind her — never to return to it again.

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