The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

Toff’s interference proved to have its use. The announcement of the little supper — plainly implying Simple Sally’s reception at the cottage — reminded Amelius of his responsibilities. He at once stepped out into the passage, and closed the door behind him.

The old Frenchman was waiting to be reprimanded or thanked, as the case might be, with his head down, his shoulders shrugged up to his ears, and the palms of his hands spread out appealingly on either side of him — a model of mute resignation to circumstances.

“Do you know that you have put me in a very awkward position?” Amelius began.

Toff lifted one of his hands to his heart. “You are aware of my weakness, sir. When that charming little creature presented herself at the door, sinking with fatigue, I could no more resist her than I could take a hop-skip-and-jump over the roof of this cottage. If I have done wrong, take no account of the proud fidelity with which I have served you — tell me to pack up and go; but don’t ask me to assume a position of severity towards that enchanting Miss. It is not in my heart to do it,” said Toff, lifting his eyes with tearful solemnity to an imaginary heaven. “On my sacred word of honour as a Frenchman, I would die rather than do it!”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” Amelius rejoined a little impatiently. “I don’t blame you — but you have got me into a scrape, for all that. If I did my duty, I should send for a cab, and take her back.”

Toff opened his twinkling old eyes in a perfect transport of astonishment. “What!” he cried, “take her back? Without rest, without supper? And you call that duty? How inconceivably ugly does duty look when it assumes an inhospitable aspect towards a woman! Pardon me, sir; I must express my sentiments or I shall burst. You will say perhaps that I have no conception of duty? Pardon me again — my conception of duty is here!“

He threw open the door of the sitting-room. In spite of his anxiety, Amelius burst out laughing. The Frenchman’s inexhaustible contrivances had transformed the sitting-room into a bedroom for Sally. The sofa had become a snug little white bed; a hairbrush and comb, and a bottle of eau-de-cologne, were on the table; a bath stood near the fire, with cans of hot and cold water, and a railway rug placed under them to save the carpet. “I dare not presume to contradict you, sir,” said Toff, “but there is my conception of duty! In the kitchen, I have another conception, keeping warm; you can smell it up the stairs. Salmi of partridge, with the littlest possible dash of garlic in the sauce. Oh, sir, let that angel rest and refresh herself! Virtuous severity, believe me, is a most horribly unbecoming virtue at your age!” He spoke quite seriously, with the air of a profound moralist, asserting principles that did equal honour to his head and his heart.

Amelius went back to the library.

Sally was resting in the easy-chair; her position showed plainly that she was suffering from fatigue. “I have had a long, long walk,” she said; “and I don’t know which aches worst, my back or my feet. I don’t care — I’m quite happy now I’m here.” She nestled herself comfortably in the chair. “Do you mind my looking at you?” she asked. “Oh, it’s so long since I saw you!”

There was a new undertone of tenderness in her voice — innocent tenderness that openly avowed itself. The reviving influences of the life at the Home had done much — and had much yet left to do. Her wasted face and figure were filling out, her cheeks and lips were regaining their lovely natural colour, as Amelius had seen in his dream. But her eyes, in repose, still resumed their vacantly patient look; and her manner, with a perceptible increase of composure and confidence, had not lost its quaint childish charm. Her growth from girl to woman was a growth of fine gradations, guided by the unerring deliberation of Nature and Time.

“Do you think they will follow you here, from the Home?” Amelius asked.

She looked at the clock. “I don’t think so,” she said quietly. “It’s hours since I slipped out by the back door. They have very strict rules about runaway girls — even when their friends bring them back. If you send me back —” she stopped, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.

“What will you do, if I send you back?”

“What one of our girls did, before they took her in at the Home. She jumped into the river. ‘Made a hole in the water’; that’s how she calls it. She’s a big strong girl; and they got her out, and saved her. She says it wasn’t painful, till they brought her to again. I’m little and weak — I don’t think they could bring me to life, if they tried.”

Amelius made a futile attempt to reason with her. He even got so far as to tell her that she had done very wrong to leave the Home. Sally’s answer set all further expostulation at defiance. Instead of attempting to defend herself, she sighed wearily, and said, “I had no money; I walked all the way here.”

The well-intended remonstrances of Amelius were lost in compassionate surprise. “You poor little soul!” he exclaimed, “it must be seven or eight miles at least!”

“I dare say,” said Sally. “It don’t matter, now I’ve found you.”

“But how did you find me? Who told you where I lived?”

She smiled, and took from her bosom the photograph of the cottage.

“But Mrs. Payson cut off the address!” cried Amelius, bursting out with the truth in the impulse of the moment.

Sally turned over the photograph, and pointed to the back of the card, on which the photographer’s name and address were printed. “Mrs. Payson didn’t think of this,” she said shyly.

“Did you think of it?” Amelius asked.

Sally shook her head. “I’m too stupid,” she replied. “The girl who made the hole in the water put me up to it. ‘Have you made up your mind to run away?’ she says. And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘You go to the man who did the picture,’ she says; ‘he knows where the place is, I’ll be bound.’ I asked my way till I found him. And he did know. And he told me. He was a good sort; he gave me a glass of beer, he said I looked so tired. I said we’d go and have our portraits taken some day — you, and your servant. May I tell the funny old foreigner that he is to go away now I have come to you?” The complete simplicity with which she betrayed her jealousy of Toff made Amelius smile. Sally, watching every change in his face, instantly drew her own conclusion. “Ah!” she said cheerfully, “I’ll keep your room cleaner than he keeps it! I smelt dust on the curtains when I was hiding from you.”

Amelius thought of his dream. “Did you come out while I was asleep?” he asked.

“Yes; I wasn’t frightened of you, when you were asleep. I had a good look at you; and I gave you a kiss.” She made that confession without the slightest sign of confusion; her calm blue eyes looked him straight in the face. “You got restless,” she went on; “and I got frightened again. I put out the lamp. I says to myself, ‘If he does scold me, I can bear it better in the dark.’”

Amelius listened, wondering. Had he seen drowsily what he thought he had dreamed, or was there some mysterious sympathy between Sally and himself? The occult speculations were interrupted by Sally. “May I take off my bonnet, and make myself tidy?” she asked. Some men might have said No. Amelius was not one of them.

The library possessed a door of communication with the sitting-room; the bedchamber occupied by Amelius being on the other side of the cottage. When Sally saw Toff’s reconstructed room, she stood at the door, in speechless admiration of the vision of luxury revealed to her. From time to time Amelius, alone in the library, heard her dabbling in her bath, and humming the artless old English song from which she had taken her name. Once she knocked at the closed door, and made a request through it —“There is scent on the table; may I have some?” And once Toff knocked at the other door, opening into the passage, and asked when “pretty young Miss” would be ready for supper. Events went on in the little household as if Sally had become an integral part of it already. “What am I to do?” Amelius asked himself. And Toff, entering at the moment to lay the cloth, answered respectfully, “Hurry the young person, sir, or the salmi will be spoilt.”

She came out from her room, walking delicately on her sore feet — so fresh and charming, that Toff, absorbed in admiration, made a mistake in folding a napkin for the first time in his life. “Champagne, of course, sir?” he said in confidence to Amelius. The salmi of partridge appeared; the inspiriting wine sparkled in the glasses; Toff surpassed himself in all the qualities which made a servant invaluable at a supper table. Sally forgot the Home, forgot the cruel streets, and laughed and chattered as gaily as the happiest girl living. Amelius, expanding in the joyous atmosphere of youth and good spirits, shook off his sense of responsibility, and became once more the delightful companion who won everybody’s love. The effervescent gaiety of the evening was at its climax; the awful forms of duty, propriety, and good sense had been long since laughed out of the room — when Nemesis, goddess of retribution, announced her arrival outside, by a crashing of carriage-wheels and a peremptory ring at the cottage bell.

There was dead silence; Amelius and Sally looked at each other. The experienced Toff at once guessed what had happened. “Is it her father or mother?” he asked of Amelius, a little anxiously. Hearing that she had never even seen her father or mother, he snapped his fingers joyously, and led the way on tiptoe into the hall. “I have my idea,” he whispered. “Let us listen.”

A woman’s voice, high, clear, and resolute, speaking apparently to the coachman, was the next audible sound. “Say I come from Mrs. Payson, and must see Mr. Goldenheart directly.” Sally trembled and turned pale. “The matron!” she said faintly. “Oh, don’t let her in!” Amelius took the terrified girl back to the library. Toff followed them, respectfully asking to be told what a “matron” was. Receiving the necessary explanation, he expressed his contempt for matrons bent on carrying charming persons into captivity, by opening the library door and spitting into the hall. Having relieved his mind in this way, he returned to his master and laid a lank skinny forefinger cunningly along the side of his nose. “I suppose, sir, you don’t want to see this furious woman?” he said. Before it was possible to say anything in reply, another ring at the bell announced that the furious woman wanted to see Amelius. Toff read his master’s wishes in his master’s face. Not even this emergency could find him unprepared: he was as ready to circumvent a matron as to cook a dinner. “The shutters are up, and the curtains are drawn,” he reminded Amelius. “Not a morsel of light is visible outside. Let them ring — we have all gone to bed.” He turned to Sally, grinning with impish enjoyment of his own stratagem. “Ha, Miss! what do you think of that?” There was a third pull at the bell as he spoke. “Ring away, Missess Matrone!” he cried. “We are fast asleep — wake us if you can.” The fourth ring was the last. A sharp crack revealed the breaking of the bellwire, and was followed by the shrill fall of the iron handle on the pavement before the garden gate. The gate, like the palings, was protected at the top from invading cats. “Compose yourself, Miss,” said Toff, “if she tries to get over the gate, she will stick on the spikes.” In another moment, the sound of retiring carriage-wheels announced the defeat of the matron, and settled the serious question of receiving Sally for the night.

She sat silent by the window, when Toff had left the room, holding back the curtains and looking out at the murky sky.

“What are you looking for?” Amelius asked.

“I was looking for the stars.”

Amelius joined her at the window. “There are no stars to be seen tonight.”

She let the curtain fall to again. “I was thinking of night-time at the Home,” she said. “You see, I got on pretty well, in the day, with my reading and writing. I wanted so to improve myself. My mind was troubled with the fear of your despising such an ignorant creature as I am; so I kept on at my lessons. I thought I might surprise you by writing you a pretty letter some day. One of the teachers (she’s gone away ill) was very good to me. I used to talk to her; and, when I said a wrong word, she took me up, and told me the right one. She said you would think better of me when you heard me speak properly — and I do speak better, don’t I? All this was in the day. It was the night that was the hard time to get through — when the other girls were all asleep, and I had nothing to think of but how far away I was from you. I used to get up, and put the counterpane round me, and stand at the window. On fine nights the stars were company to me. There were two stars, near together, that I got to know. Don’t laugh at me — I used to think one of them was you, and one of them me. I wondered whether you would die, or I should die, before I saw you again. And, most always, it was my star that went out first. Lord, how I used to cry! It got into my poor stupid head that I should never see you again. I do believe I ran away because of that. You won’t tell anybody, will you? It was so foolish, I am ashamed of it now. I wanted to see your star and my star tonight. I don’t know why. Oh, I’m so fond of you!” She dropped on her knees, and took his hand, and put it on her head. “It’s burning hot,” she said, “and your kind hand cools it.”

Amelius raised her gently, and led her to the door of her room. “My poor Sally, you are quite worn out. You want rest and sleep. Let us say good night.”

“I will do anything you tell me,” she answered. “If Mrs. Payson comes tomorrow, you won’t let her take me away? Thank you. Goodnight.” She put her hands on his shoulders, with innocent familiarity, and lifted herself to him on tiptoe, and kissed him as a sister might have kissed him.

Long after Sally was asleep in her bed, Amelius sat by the library fire, thinking.

The revival of the crushed feeling and fancy in the girl’s nature, so artlessly revealed in her sad little story of the stars that were “company to her,” not only touched and interested him, but clouded his view of the future with doubts and anxieties which had never troubled him until that moment. The mysterious influences under which the girl’s development was advancing were working morally and physically together. Weeks might pass harmlessly, months might pass harmlessly — but the time must come when the innocent relations between them would be beset by peril. Unable, as yet, fully to realize these truths, Amelius nevertheless felt them vaguely. His face was troubled, as he lit the candle at last to go to his bed. “I don’t see my way as clearly as I could wish,” he reflected. “How will it end?”

How indeed!

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