The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

At eight o’clock the next morning, Amelius was awakened by Toff. A letter had arrived, marked “Immediate,” and the messenger was waiting for an answer.

The letter was from Mrs. Payson. She wrote briefly, and in formal terms. After referring to the matron’s fruitless visit to the cottage on the previous night, Mrs. Payson proceeded in these words:—“I request you will immediately let me know whether Sally has taken refuge with you, and has passed the night under your roof. If I am right in believing that she has done so, I have only to inform you that the doors of the Home are henceforth closed to her, in conformity with our rules. If I am wrong, it will be my painful duty to lose no time in placing the matter in the hands of the police.”

Amelius began his reply, acting on impulse as usual. He wrote, vehemently remonstrating with Mrs. Payson on the unforgiving and unchristian nature of the rules at the Home. Before he was halfway through his composition, the person who had brought the letter sent a message to say that he was expected back immediately, and that he hoped Mr. Goldenheart would not get a poor man into trouble by keeping him much longer. Checked in the full flow of his eloquence, Amelius angrily tore up the unfinished remonstrance, and matched Mrs. Payson’s briefly business-like language by an answer in one line:—“I beg to inform you that you are quite right.” On reflection, he felt that the second letter was not only discourteous as a reply to a lady, but also ungrateful as addressed to Mrs. Payson personally. At the third attempt, he wrote becomingly as well as briefly. “Sally has passed the night here, as my guest. She was suffering from severe fatigue; it would have been an act of downright inhumanity to send her away. I regret your decision, but of course I submit to it. You once said, you believed implicitly in the purity of my motives. Do me the justice, however you may blame my conduct, to believe in me still.”

Having despatched these lines, the mind of Amelius was at ease again, He went into the library, and listened to hear if Sally was moving. The perfect silence on the other side of the door informed him that the weary girl was still fast asleep. He gave directions that she was on no account to be disturbed, and sat down to breakfast by himself.

While he was still at table, Toff appeared, with profound mystery in his manner, and discreet confidence in the tones of his voice. “Here’s another one, sir!” the Frenchman announced, in his master’s ear.

“Another one?” Amelius repeated. “What do you mean?”

“She is not like the sweet little sleeping Miss.” Toff explained. “This time, sir, it’s the beauty of the devil himself, as we say in France. She refuses to confide in me; and she appears to be agitated — both bad signs. Shall I get rid of her before the other Miss wakes?”

“Hasn’t she got a name?” Amelius asked.

Toff answered, in his foreign accent, “One name only — Faybay.”

“Do you mean Phoebe?”

“Have I not said it, sir?”

“Show her in directly.”

Toff glanced at the door of Sally’s room, shrugged his shoulders, and obeyed his instructions.

Phoebe appeared, looking pale and anxious. Her customary assurance of manner had completely deserted her: she stopped in the doorway, as if she was afraid to enter the room.

“Come in, and sit down,” said Amelius. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m troubled in my mind, sir,” Phoebe answered. “I know it’s taking a liberty to come to you. But I went yesterday to ask Miss Regina’s advice, and found she had gone abroad with her uncle. I have something to say about Mrs. Farnaby, sir; and there’s no time to be lost in saying it. I know of nobody but you that I can speak to, now Miss Regina is away. The footman told me where you lived.”

She stopped, evidently in the greatest embarrassment. Amelius tried to encourage her. “If I can be of any use to Mrs. Farnaby,” he said, “tell me at once what to do.”

Phoebe’s eyes dropped before his straightforward look as he spoke to her.

“I must ask you to please excuse my mentioning names, sir,” she resumed confusedly. “There’s a person I’m interested in, whom I wouldn’t get into trouble for the whole world. He’s been misled — I’m sure he’s been misled by another person — a wicked drunken old woman, who ought to be in prison if she had her deserts. I’m not free from blame myself — I know I’m not. I listened, sir, to what I oughtn’t to have heard; and I told it again (I’m sure in the strictest confidence, and not meaning anything wrong) to the person I’ve mentioned. Not the old women — I mean the person I’m interested in. I hope you understand me, sir? I wish to speak openly, excepting the names, on account of Mrs. Farnaby.”

Amelius thought of Phoebe’s vindictive language the last time he had seen her. He looked towards a cabinet in a corner of the room, in which he had placed Mrs. Farnaby’s letter. An instinctive distrust of his visitor began to rise in his mind. His manner altered — he turned to his plate, and went on with his breakfast. “Can’t you speak to me plainly?” he said. “Is Mrs. Farnaby in any trouble?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And can I do anything to help her out of it?”

“I am sure you can, sir — if you only know where to find her.”

“I do know where to find her. She has written to tell me. The last time I saw you, you expressed yourself very improperly about Mrs. Farnaby; you spoke as if you meant some harm to her.”

“I mean nothing but good to her now, sir.”

“Very well, then. Can’t you go and speak to her yourself, if I give you the address?”

Phoebe’s pale face flushed a little. “I couldn’t do that, sir,” she answered, “after the way Mrs. Farnaby has treated me. Besides, if she knew that I had listened to what passed between her and you —” She stopped again, more painfully embarrassed than ever.

Amelius laid down his knife and fork. “Look here!” he said; “this sort of thing is not in my way. If you can’t make a clean breast of it, let’s talk of something else. I’m very much afraid,” he went on, with his customary absence of all concealment, “you’re not the harmless sort of girl I once took you for. What do you mean by ‘what passed between Mrs. Farnaby and me’?”

Phoebe put her handkerchief to her eyes. “It’s very hard to speak to me so harshly,” she said, “when I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and am only anxious to prevent harm coming of it.”

“What have you done?” cried honest Amelius, weary of the woman’s inveterately indirect way of explaining herself to him.

The flash of his quick temper in his eyes, as he put that straightforward question, roused a responsive temper in Phoebe which stung her into speaking openly at last. She told Amelius what she had heard in the kitchen as plainly as she had told it to Jervy — with this one difference, that she spoke without insolence when she referred to Mrs. Farnaby.

Listening in silence until she had done, Amelius started to his feet, and opening the cabinet, took from it Mrs. Farnaby’s letter. He read the letter, keeping his back towards Phoebe — waited a moment thinking — and suddenly turned on the woman with a look that made her shrink in her chair. “You wretch!” he said; “you detestable wretch!”

In the terror of the moment, Phoebe attempted to leave the room. Amelius stopped her instantly. “Sit down again,” he said; “I mean to have the whole truth out of you, now.”

Phoebe recovered her courage. “You have had the whole truth, sir; I could tell you no more if I was on my deathbed.”

Amelius refused to believe her. “There is a vile conspiracy against Mrs. Farnaby,” he said. “Do you mean to tell me you are not in it?”

“So help me God, sir, I never even heard of it till yesterday!”

The tone in which she spoke shook the conviction of Amelius; the indescribable ring of truth was in it.

“There are two people who are cruelly deluding and plundering this poor lady,” he went on. “Who are they?”

“I told you, if you remember, that I couldn’t mention names, sir.”

Amelius looked again at the letter. After what he had heard, there was no difficulty in identifying the invisible “young man,” alluded to by Mrs. Farnaby, with the unnamed “person” in whom Phoebe was interested. Who was he? As the question passed through his mind, Amelius remembered the vagabond whom he had recognized with Phoebe, in the street. There was no doubt of it now — the man who was directing the conspiracy in the dark was Jervy! Amelius would unquestionably have been rash enough to reveal this discovery, if Phoebe had not stopped him. His renewed reference to Mrs. Farnaby’s letter and his sudden silence after looking at it roused the woman’s suspicions. “If you’re planning to get my friend into trouble,” she burst out, “not another word shall pass my lips!”

Even Amelius profited by the warning which that threat unintentionally conveyed to him.

“Keep your own secrets,” he said; “I only want to spare Mrs. Farnaby a dreadful disappointment. But I must know what I am talking about when I go to her. Can’t you tell me how you found out this abominable swindle?”

Phoebe was perfectly willing to tell him. Interpreting her long involved narrative into plain English, with the names added, these were the facts related:— Mrs. Sowler, bearing in mind some talk which had passed between them on the occasion of a supper, had called at Phoebe’s lodgings on the previous day, and had tried to entrap her into communicating what she knew of Mrs. Farnaby’s secrets. The trap failing, Mrs. Sowler had tried bribery next; had promised Phoebe a large sum of money, to be equally divided between them, if she would only speak; had declared that Jervy was perfectly capable of breaking his promise of marriage, and “leaving them both in the lurch, if he once got the money into his own pocket” and had thus informed Phoebe, that the conspiracy, which she supposed to have been abandoned, was really in full progress, without her knowledge. She had temporised with Mrs. Sowler, being afraid to set such a person openly at defiance; and had hurried away at once, to have an explanation with Jervy. He was reported to be “not at home.” Her fruitless visit to Regina had followed — and there, so far as facts were concerned, was an end of the story.

Amelius asked her no questions, and spoke as briefly as possible when she had done. “I will go to Mrs. Farnaby this morning,” was all he said.

“Would you please let me hear how it ends?” Phoebe asked.

Amelius pushed his pocket-book and pencil across the table to her, pointing to a blank leaf on which she could write her address. While she was thus employed the attentive Toff came in, and (with his eye on Phoebe) whispered in his master’s ear. He had heard Sally moving about. Would it be more convenient, under the circumstances, if she had her breakfast in her own room? Toff’s astonishment was a sight to see when Amelius answered, “Certainly not. Let her breakfast here.”

Phoebe rose to go. Her parting words revealed the double-sided nature that was in her; the good and evil in perpetual conflict which should be uppermost.

“Please don’t mention me, sir, to Mrs. Farnaby,” she said. “I don’t forgive her for what she’s done to me; I don’t say I won’t be even with her yet. But not in that way! I won’t have her death laid at my door. Oh, but I know her temper — and I say it’s as likely as not to kill her or drive her mad, if she isn’t warned about it in time. Never mind her losing her money. If it’s lost, it’s lost, and she’s got plenty more. She may be robbed a dozen times over for all I care. But don’t let her set her heart on seeing her child, and then find it’s all a swindle. I hate her; but I can’t and won’t, let that go on. Good-morning, sir.”

Amelius was relieved by her departure. For a minute or two, he sat absently stirring his coffee, and considering how he might most safely perform the terrible duty of putting Mrs. Farnaby on her guard. Toff interrupted his meditations by preparing the table for Sally’s breakfast; and, almost at the same moment, Sally herself, fresh and rosy, opened her door a little way, and looked in.

“You have had a fine long sleep,” said Amelius. “Have you quite got over your walk yesterday?”

“Oh yes,” she answered gaily; “I only feel my long walk now in my feet. It hurts me to put my boots on. Can you lend me a pair of slippers?”

“A pair of my slippers? Why, Sally, you would be lost in them! What’s the matter with your feet?”

“They’re both sore. And I think one of them has got a blister on it.”

“Come in, and let’s have a look at it?”

She came limping in, with her feet bare. “Don’t scold me,” she pleaded, “I couldn’t put my stockings on again, without washing them; and they’re not dry yet.”

“I’ll get you new stockings and slippers,” said Amelius. “Which is the foot with the blister?”

“The left foot,” she answered, pointing to it.

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