The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Amelius went straight back to the cottage, with the one desperate purpose of reverting to the old plan, and burying himself in his books. Surveying his well-filled shelves with an impatience unworthy of a scholar, Hume’s “History of England” unhappily caught his eye. He took down the first volume. In less than half an hour he discovered that Hume could do nothing for him. Wisely inspired, he turned to the truer history next, which men call fiction. The writings of the one supreme genius, who soars above all other novelists as Shakespeare soars above all other dramatists — the writings of Walter Scott — had their place of honour in his library. The collection of the Waverley Novels at Tadmor had not been complete. Enviable Amelius had still to read Rob Roy. He opened the book. For the rest of the day he was in love with Diana Vernon; and when he looked out once or twice at the garden to rest his eyes, he saw “Andrew Fairservice” busy over the flowerbeds.

He closed the last page of the noble story as Toff came in to lay the cloth for dinner.

The master at table and the servant behind his chair were accustomed to gossip pleasantly during meals. Amelius did his best to carry on the talk as usual. But he was no longer in the delightful world of illusion which Scott had opened to him. The hard realities of his own everyday life had gathered round him again. Observing him with unobtrusive attention, the Frenchman soon perceived the absence of the easy humour and the excellent appetite which distinguished his young master at other times.

“May I venture to make a remark, sir?” Toff inquired, after a long pause in the conversation.

“Certainly.”

“And may I take the liberty of expressing my sentiments freely?”

“Of course you may.”

“Dear sir, you have a pretty little simple dinner to-day,” Toff began. “Forgive me for praising myself, I am influenced by the natural pride of having cooked the dinner. For soup, you have Croute au pot; for meat, you have Tourne-dos a la sauce poivrade; for pudding, you have Pommes au beurre. All so nice — and you hardly eat anything, and your amiable conversation falls into a melancholy silence which fills me with regret. Is it you who are to blame for this? No, sir! it is the life you lead. I call it the life of a monk; I call it the life of a hermit — I say boldly it is the life of all others which is most unsympathetic to a young man like you. Pardon the warmth of my expressions; I am eager to make my language the language of utmost delicacy. May I quote a little song? It is in an old, old, old French piece, long since forgotten, called ‘Les Maris Garcons’. There are two lines in that song (I have often heard my good father sing them) which I will venture to apply to your case; ‘Amour, delicatesse, et gaite; D’un bon Francais c’est la devise!’ Sir, you have naturally delicatesse and gaite — but the last has, for some days, been under a cloud. What is wanted to remove that cloud? L’Amour! Love, as you say in English. Where is the charming woman, who is the only ornament wanting to this sweet cottage? Why is she still invisible? Remedy that unhappy oversight, sir. You are here in a suburban Paradise. I consult my long experience; and I implore you to invite Eve. — Ha! you smile; your lost gaiety returns, and you feel it as I do. Might I propose another glass of claret, and the reappearance on the table of the Tourne-dos a la poivrade?”

It was impossible to be melancholy in this man’s company. Amelius sanctioned the return of the Tourne-dos, and tried the other glass of claret. “My good friend,” he said, with something like a return of his old easy way, “you talk about charming women, and your long experience. Let’s hear what your experience has been.”

For the first time Toff began to look a little confused.

“You have honoured me, sir, by calling me your good friend,” he said. “After that, I am sure you will not send me away if I own the truth. No! My heart tells me I shall not appeal to your indulgence in vain. Dear sir, in the holidays which you kindly give me, I provide competent persons to take care of the house in my absence, don’t I? One person, if you remember, was a most handsome engaging young man. He is, if you please, my son by my first wife — now an angel in heaven. Another person, who took care of the house, on the next occasion, was a little black-eyed boy; a miracle of discretion for his age. He is my son by my second wife — now another angel in heaven. Forgive me, I have not done yet. Some few days since, you thought you heard an infant crying downstairs. Like a miserable wretch, I lied; I declared it was the infant in the next house. Ah, sir, it was my own cherubim baby by my third wife — an angel close by in the Edgeware Road, established in a small milliner shop, which will expand to great things by-and-by. The intervals between my marriages are not worthy of your notice. Fugitive caprices, sir — fugitive caprices! To sum it all up (as you say in England), it is not in me to resist the enchanting sex. If my third angel dies, I shall tear my hair — but I shall none the less take a fourth.”

“Take a dozen if you like,” said Amelius. “Why should you have kept all this from my knowledge?”

Toff hung his head. “I think it was one of my foreign mistakes,” he pleaded. “The servants’ advertisements in your English newspapers frighten me. How does the most meritorious manservant announce himself when he wants the best possible place? He says he is ‘without encumbrances.’ Gracious heaven, what a dreadful word to describe the poor pretty harmless children! I was afraid, sir, you might have some English objection to my ‘encumbrances.’ A young man, a boy, and a cherubim-baby; not to speak of the sacred memories of two women, and the charming occasional society of a third; all inextricably enveloped in the life of one amorous-meritorious French person — surely there was reason for hesitation here? No matter; I bless my stars I know better now, and I withdraw myself from further notice. Permit me to recall your attention to the Roquefort cheese, and a mouthful of potato-salad to correct the richness of him.”

The dinner was over at last. Amelius was alone again.

It was a still evening. Not a breath of wind stirred among the trees in the garden; no vehicles passed along the by-road in which the cottage stood. Now and then, Toff was audible downstairs, singing French songs in a high cracked voice, while he washed the plates and dishes, and set everything in order for the night. Amelius looked at his bookshelves — and felt that, after Rob Roy, there was no more reading for him that evening. The slow minutes followed one another wearily; the deadly depression of the earlier hours of the day was stealthily fastening its hold on him again. How might he best resist it? His healthy out-of-door habits at Tadmor suggested the only remedy that he could think of. Be his troubles what they might, his one simple method of resisting them, at all other times, was his simple method now. He went out for a walk.

For two hours he rambled about the great north-western suburb of London. Perhaps he felt the heavy oppressive weather, or perhaps his good dinner had not agreed with him. Any way, he was so thoroughly worn out, that he was obliged to return to the cottage in a cab.

Toff opened the door — but not with his customary alacrity. Amelius was too completely fatigued to notice any trifling circumstance. Otherwise, he would certainly have perceived something odd in the old Frenchman’s withered face. He looked at his master, as he relieved him of his hat and coat, with the strangest expression of interest and anxiety; modified by a certain sardonic sense of amusement underlying the more serious emotions. “A nasty dull evening,” Amelius said wearily. And Toff, always eager to talk at other times, only answered, “Yes, sir”— and retreated at once to the kitchen regions.

The fire was bright; the curtains were drawn; the reading-lamp, with its ample green shade, was on the table — a more comfortable room no man could have found to receive him after a long walk. Reclining at his ease in his chair, Amelius thought of ringing for some restorative brandy-and-water. While he was thinking, he fell asleep; and, while he slept, he dreamed.

Was it a dream?

He certainly saw the library — not fantastically transformed, but just like what the room really was. So far, he might have been wide awake, looking at the familiar objects round him. But, after a while, an event happened which set the laws of reality at defiance. Simple Sally, miles away in the Home, made her appearance in the library, nevertheless. He saw the drawn curtains over the window parted from behind; he saw the girl step out from them, and stop, looking at him timidly. She was clothed in the plain dress that he had bought for her; and she looked more charming in it than ever. The beauty of health claimed kindred now, in her pretty face, with the beauty of youth: the wan cheeks had begun to fill out, and the pale lips were delicately suffused with their natural rosy red. Little by little her first fears seemed to subside. She smiled, and softly crossed the room, and stood at his side. After looking at him with a rapt expression of tenderness and delight, she laid her hands on the arm of the chair, and said, in the quaintly quiet way which he remembered so well, “I want to kiss you.” She bent over him, and kissed him with the innocent freedom of a child. Then she raised herself again, and looked backwards and forwards between Amelius and the lamp. “The firelight is the best,” she said. Darkness fell over the room as she spoke; he saw her no more; he heard her no more. A blank interval followed; there flowed over him the oblivion of perfect sleep. His next conscious sensation was a feeling of cold — he shivered, and woke.

The impression of the dream was in his mind at the moment of waking. He started as he raised himself in the chair. Was he dreaming still? No; he was certainly awake. And, as certainly, the room was dark!

He looked and looked. It was not to be denied, or explained away. There was the fire burning low, and leaving the room chilly — and there, just visible on the table, in the flicker of the dying flame, was the extinguished lamp!

He mended the fire, and put his hand on the bell to ring for Toff, and thought better of it. What need had he of the lamplight? He was too weary for reading; he preferred going to sleep again, and dreaming again of Sally. Where was the harm in dreaming of the poor little soul, so far away from him? The happiest part of his life now was the part of it that was passed in sleep.

As the fresh coals began to kindle feebly, he looked again at the lamp. It was odd, to say the least of it, that the light should have accidentally gone out, exactly at the right time to realize the fanciful extinction of it in his dream. How was it there was no smell of a burnt-out lamp? He was too lazy, or too tired, to pursue the question. Let the mystery remain a mystery — and let him rest in peace! He settled himself fretfully in his chair. What a fool he was to bother his head about a lamp, instead of closing his eyes and going to sleep again!

The room began to recover its pleasant temperature. He shifted the cushion in the chair, so that it supported his head in perfect comfort, and composed himself to rest. But the capricious influences of sleep had deserted him: he tried one position after another, and all in vain. It was a mere mockery even to shut his eyes. He resigned himself to circumstances, and stretched out his legs, and looked at the companionable fire.

Of late he had thought more frequently than usual of his past days in the Community. His mind went back again now to that bygone time. The clock on the mantelpiece struck nine. They were all at supper, at Tadmor — talking over the events of the day. He saw himself again at the long wooden table, with shy little Mellicent in the chair next to him, and his favourite dog at his feet waiting to be fed. Where was Mellicent now? It was a sad letter that she had written to him, with the strange fixed idea that he was to return to her one day. There was something very winning and lovable about the poor creature who had lived such a hard life at home, and had suffered so keenly. It was a comfort to think that she would go back to the Community. What happier destiny could she hope for? Would she take care of his dog for him when she went back? They had all promised to be kind to his pet animals in his absence; but the dog was fond of Mellicent; he would be happier with Mellicent than with the rest of them. And his little tame fawn, and his birds — how were they doing? He had not even written to inquire after them; he had been cruelly forgetful of those harmless dumb loving friends. In his present solitude, in his dreary doubts of the future, what would he not give to feel the dog nestling in his bosom, and the fawn’s little rough tongue licking his hand! His heart ached as he thought of it: a choking hysterical sensation oppressed his breathing. He tried to rise, and ring for lights, and rouse his manhood to endure and resist. It was not to be done. Where was his courage? where was the cheerfulness which had never failed him at other time? He sank back in the chair, and hid his face in his hands for shame at his own weakness, and burst out crying.

The touch of soft persuasive fingers suddenly thrilled through him.

His hands were gently drawn away from his face; a familiar voice, sweet and low, said, “Oh, don’t cry!” Dimly through his tears he saw the well-remembered little figure standing between him and the fire. In his unendurable loneliness, he had longed for his dog, he had longed for his fawn. There was the martyred creature from the streets, whom he had rescued from nameless horror, waiting to be his companion, servant, friend! There was the child-victim of cold and hunger, still only feeling her way to womanhood; innocent of all other aspirations, so long as she might fill the place which had once been occupied by the dog and the fawn!

Amelius looked at her with a momentary doubt whether he was waking or sleeping. “Good God!” he cried, “am I dreaming again?”

“No,” she said, simply. “You are awake this time. Let me dry your eyes; I know where you put your handkerchief.” She perched on his knee, and wiped away the tears, and smoothed his hair over his forehead. “I was frightened to show myself till I heard you crying,” she confessed. “Then I thought, ‘Come! he can’t be angry with me now’— and I crept out from behind the curtains there. The old man let me in. I can’t live without seeing you; I’ve tried till I could try no longer. I owned it to the old man when he opened the door. I said, ‘I only want to look at him; won’t you let me in?’ And he says, ‘God bless me, here’s Eve come already!’ I don’t know what he meant — he let me in, that’s all I care about. He’s a funny old foreigner. Send him away; I’m to be your servant now. Why were you crying? I’ve cried often enough about You. No; that can’t be — I can’t expect you to cry about me; I can only expect you to scold me. I know I’m a bad girl.”

She cast one doubtful look at him, and hung her head — waiting to be scolded. Amelius lost all control over himself. He took her in his arms and kissed her again and again. “You are a dear good grateful little creature!” he burst out — and suddenly stopped, aware too late of the act of imprudence which he had committed. He put her away from him; he tried to ask severe questions, and to administer merited reproof. Even if he had succeeded, Sally was too happy to listen to him. “It’s all right now,” she cried. “I’m never, never, never to go back to the Home! Oh, I’m so happy! Let’s light the lamp again!”

She found the matchbox on the chimneypiece. In a minute more the room was bright. Amelius sat looking at her, perfectly incapable of deciding what he ought to say or do next. To complete his bewilderment, the voice of the attentive old Frenchman made itself heard through the door, in discreetly confidential tones.

“I have prepared an appetising little supper, sir,” said Toff. “Be pleased to ring when you and the young lady are ready.”

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