The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

“Let me see the blister,” said Amelius.

Sally looked longingly at the fire.

“May I warm my feet first?” she asked; “they are so cold.”

In those words she innocently deferred the discovery which, if it had been made at the moment, might have altered the whole after-course of events. Amelius only thought now of preventing her from catching cold. He sent Toff for a pair of the warmest socks that he possessed, and asked if he should put them on for her. She smiled, and shook her head, and put them on for herself.

When they had done laughing at the absurd appearance of the little feet in the large socks, they only drifted farther and farther away from the subject of the blistered foot. Sally remembered the terrible matron, and asked if anything had been heard of her that morning. Being told that Mrs. Payson had written, and that the doors of the institution were closed to her, she recovered her spirits, and began to wonder whether the offended authorities would let her have her clothes. Toff offered to go and make the inquiry, later in the day; suggesting the purchase of slippers and stockings, in the mean time, while Sally was having her breakfast. Amelius approved of the suggestion; and Toff set off on his errand, with one of Sally’s boots for a pattern.

The morning had, by that time, advanced to ten o’clock.

Amelius stood before the fire talking, while Sally had her breakfast. Having first explained the reasons which made it impossible that she should live at the cottage in the capacity of his servant, he astonished her by announcing that he meant to undertake the superintendence of her education himself. They were to be master and pupil, while the lessons were in progress; and brother and sister at other times — and they were to see how they got on together, on this plan, without indulging in any needless anxiety about the future. Amelius believed with perfect sincerity that he had hit on the only sensible arrangement, under the circumstances; and Sally cried joyously, “Oh, how good you are to me; the happy life has come at last!” At the hour when those words passed the daughter’s lips, the discovery of the conspiracy burst upon the mother in all its baseness and in all its horror.

The suspicion of her infamous employer, which had induced Mrs. Sowler to attempt to intrude herself into Phoebe’s confidence, led her to make a visit of investigation at Jervy’s lodgings later in the day. Informed, as Phoebe had been informed, that he was not at home, she called again some hours afterwards. By that time, the landlord had discovered that Jervy’s luggage had been secretly conveyed away, and that his tenant had left him, in debt for rent of the two best rooms in the house.

No longer in any doubt of what had happened, Mrs. Sowler employed the remaining hours of the evening in making inquiries after the missing man. Not a trace of him had been discovered up to eight o’clock on the next morning.

Shortly after nine o’clock — that is to say, towards the hour at which Phoebe paid her visit to Amelius — Mrs. Sowler, resolute to know the worst, made her appearance at the apartments occupied by Mrs. Farnaby.

“I wish to speak to you,” she began abruptly, “about that young man we both know of. Have you seen anything of him lately?”

Mrs. Farnaby, steadily on her guard, deferred answering the question. “Why do you want to know?” she said.

The reply was instantly ready. “Because I have reason to believe he has bolted, with your money in his pocket.”

“He has done nothing of the sort,” Mrs. Farnaby rejoined.

“Has he got your money?” Mrs. Sowler persisted. “Tell me the truth — and I’ll do the same by you. He has cheated me. If you’re cheated too, it’s your own interest to lose no time in finding him. The police may catch him yet. Has he got your money?”

The woman was in earnest — in terrible earnest — her eyes and her voice both bore witness to it. She stood there, the living impersonation of those doubts and fears which Mrs. Farnaby had confessed, in writing to Amelius. Her position, at that moment, was essentially a position of command. Mrs. Farnaby felt it in spite of herself. She acknowledged that Jervy had got the money.

“Did you sent it to him, or give it to him?” Mrs. Sowler asked.

“I gave it to him.”

“When?”

“Yesterday evening.”

Mrs. Sowler clenched her fists, and shook them in impotent rage. “He’s the biggest scoundrel living,” she exclaimed furiously; “and you’re the biggest fool! Put on your bonnet and come to the police. If you get your money back again before he’s spent it all, don’t forget it was through me.”

The audacity of the woman’s language roused Mrs. Farnaby. She pointed to the door. “You are an insolent creature,” she said; “I have nothing more to do with you.”

“You have nothing more to do with me?” Mrs. Sowler repeated. “You and the young man have settled it all between you, I suppose.” She laughed scornfully. “I dare say now you expect to see him again?”

Mrs. Farnaby was irritated into answering this. “I expect to see him this morning,” she said, “at ten o’clock.”

“And the lost young lady with him?”

“Say nothing about my lost daughter! I won’t even hear you speak of her.”

Mrs. Sowler sat down. “Look at your watch,” she said. “It must be nigh on ten o’clock by this time. You’ll make a disturbance in the house if you try to turn me out. I mean to wait here till ten o’clock.”

On the point of answering angrily, Mrs. Farnaby restrained herself. “You are trying to force a quarrel on me,” she said; “you shan’t spoil the happiest morning of my life. Wait here by yourself.”

She opened the door that led into her bedchamber, and shut herself in. Perfectly impenetrable to any repulse that could be offered to her, Mrs. Sowler looked at the closed door with a sardonic smile, and waited.

The clock in the hall struck ten. Mrs. Farnaby returned again to the sitting-room, walked straight to the window, and looked out.

“Any sign of him?” said Mrs. Sowler.

There were no signs of him. Mrs. Farnaby drew a chair to the window, and sat down. Her hands turned icy cold. She still looked out into the street.

“I’m going to guess what’s happened,” Mrs. Sowler resumed. “I’m a sociable creature, you know, and I must talk about something. About the money, now? Has the young man had his travelling expenses of you? To go to foreign parts, and bring your girl back with him, eh? I expect that’s how it was. You see, I know him so well. And what happened, if you please, yesterday evening? Did he tell you he’d brought her back, and got her at his own place? And did he say he wouldn’t let you see her till you paid him his reward as well as his travelling expenses? And did you forget my warning to you not to trust him? I’m a good one at guessing when I try. I see you think so yourself. Any signs of him yet?”

Mrs. Farnaby looked round from the window. Her manner was completely changed; she was nervously civil to the wretch who was torturing her. “I beg your pardon, ma’am, if I have offended you,” she said faintly. “I am a little upset — I am so anxious about my poor child. Perhaps you are a mother yourself? You oughtn’t to frighten me; you ought to feel for me.” She paused, and put her hand to her head. “He told me yesterday evening,” she went on slowly and vacantly, “that my poor darling was at his lodgings; he said she was so worn out with the long journey from abroad, that she must have a night’s rest before she could come to me. I asked him to tell me where he lived, and let me go to her. He said she was asleep and must not be disturbed. I promised to go in on tiptoe, and only look at her; I offered him more money, double the money to tell me where she was. He was very hard on me. He only said, wait till ten tomorrow morning — and wished me goodnight. I ran out to follow him, and fell on the stairs, and hurt myself. The people of the house were very kind to me.” She turned her head back towards the window, and looked out into the street again. “I must be patient,” she said; “he’s only a little late.”

Mrs. Sowler rose, and tapped her smartly on the shoulder. “Lies!” she burst out. “He knows no more where your daughter is than I do — and he’s off with your money!”

The woman’s hateful touch struck out a spark of the old fire in Mrs. Farnaby. Her natural force of character asserted itself once more. “You lie!” she rejoined. “Leave the room!”

The door was opened, while she spoke. A respectable woman-servant came in with a letter. Mrs. Farnaby took it mechanically, and looked at the address. Jervy’s feigned handwriting was familiar to her. In the instant when she recognized it, the life seemed to go out of her like an extinguished light. She stood pale and still and silent, with the unopened letter in her hand.

Watching her with malicious curiosity, Mrs. Sowler coolly possessed herself of the letter, looked at it, and recognized the writing in her turn. “Stop!” she cried, as the servant was on the point of going out. “There’s no stamp on this letter. Was it brought by hand? Is the messenger waiting?”

The respectable servant showed her opinion of Mrs. Sowler plainly in her face. She replied as briefly and as ungraciously as possible:—“No.”

“Man or woman?” was the next question.

“Am I to answer this person, ma’am?” said the servant, looking at Mrs. Farnaby.

“Answer me instantly,” Mrs. Sowler interposed —“in Mrs. Farnaby’s own interests. Don’t you see she can’t speak to you herself?”

“Well, then,” said the servant, “it was a man.”

“A man with a squint?”

“Yes.”

“Which way did he go?”

“Towards the square.”

Mrs. Sowler tossed the letter on the table, and hurried out of the room. The servant approached Mrs. Farnaby. “You haven’t opened your letter yet, ma’am,” she said.

“No,” said Mrs. Farnaby vacantly, “I haven’t opened it yet.”

“I’m afraid it’s bad news, ma’am?”

“Yes. I think it’s bad news.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, thank you. Yes; one thing. Open my letter for me, please.”

It was a strange request to make. The servant wondered, and obeyed. She was a kind-hearted woman; she really felt for the poor lady. But the familiar household devil, whose name is Curiosity, and whose opportunities are innumerable, prompted her next words when she had taken the letter out of the envelope:—“Shall I read it to you, ma’am?”

“No. Put it down on the table, please. I’ll ring when I want you.”

The mother was alone — alone, with her death-warrant waiting for her on the table.

The clock downstairs struck the half hour after ten. She moved, for the first time since she had received the letter. Once more she went to the window, and looked out. It was only for a moment. She turned away again, with a sudden contempt for herself. “What a fool I am!” she said — and took up the open letter.

She looked at it, and put it down again. “Why should I read it,” she asked herself, “when I know what is in it, without reading?”

Some framed woodcuts from the illustrated newspapers were hung on the walls. One of them represented a scene of rescue from shipwreck. A mother embracing her daughter, saved by the lifeboat, was among the foreground groups. The print was entitled, “The Mercy of Providence.” Mrs. Farnaby looked at it with a moment’s steady attention. “Providence has its favourites,” she said; “I am not one of them.”

After thinking a little, she went into her bedroom, and took two papers out of her dressing-case. They were medical prescriptions.

She turned next to the chimneypiece. Two medicine-bottles were placed on it. She took one of them down — a bottle of the ordinary size, known among chemists as a six-ounce bottle. It contained a colourless liquid. The label stated the dose to be “two table-spoonfuls,” and bore, as usual, a number corresponding with a number placed on the prescription. She took up the prescription. It was a mixture of bi-carbonate of soda and prussic acid, intended for the relief of indigestion. She looked at the date, and was at once reminded of one of the very rare occasions on which she had required the services of a medical man. There had been a serious accident at a dinner-party, given by some friends. She had eaten sparingly of a certain dish, from which some of the other guests had suffered severely. It was discovered that the food had been cooked in an old copper saucepan. In her case, the trifling result had been a disturbance of digestion, and nothing more. The doctor had prescribed accordingly. She had taken but one dose: with her healthy constitution she despised physic. The remainder of the mixture was still in the bottle.

She considered again with herself — then went back to the chimneypiece, and took down the second bottle.

It contained a colourless liquid also; but it was only half the size of the first bottle, and not a drop had been taken. She waited, observing the difference between the two bottles with extraordinary attention. In this case also, the prescription was in her possession — but it was not the original. A line at the top stated that it was a copy made by the chemist, at the request of a customer. It bore the date of more than three years since. A morsel of paper was pinned to the prescription, containing some lines in a woman’s handwriting:—“With your enviable health and strength, my dear, I should have thought you were the last person in the world to want a tonic. However, here is my prescription, if you must have it. Be very careful to take the right dose, because there’s poison in it.” The prescription contained three ingredients, strychnine, quinine, and nitro-hydrochloric acid; and the dose was fifteen drops in water. Mrs. Farnaby lit a match, and burnt the lines of her friend’s writing. “As long ago as that,” she reflected, “I thought of killing myself. Why didn’t I do it?”

The paper having been destroyed, she put back the prescription for indigestion in her dressing-case; hesitated for a moment; and opened the bedroom window. It looked into a lonely little courtyard. She threw the dangerous contents of the second and smaller bottle out into the yard — and then put it back empty on the chimneypiece. After another moment of hesitation, she returned to the sitting-room, with the bottle of mixture, and the copied prescription for the tonic strychnine drops, in her hand.

She put the bottle on the table, and advanced to the fireplace to ring the bell. Warm as the room was, she began to shiver. Did the eager life in her feel the fatal purpose that she was meditating, and shrink from it? Instead of ringing the bell, she bent over the fire, trying to warm herself.

“Other women would get relief in crying,” she thought. “I wish I was like other women!”

The whole sad truth about herself was in that melancholy aspiration. No relief in tears, no merciful oblivion in a fainting-fit, for her. The terrible strength of the vital organization in this woman knew no yielding to the unutterable misery that wrung her to the soul. It roused its glorious forces to resist: it held her in a stony quiet, with a grip of iron.

She turned away from the fire wondering at herself. “What baseness is there in me that fears death? What have I got to live for now?“ The open letter on the table caught her eye. “This will do it!” she said — and snatched it up, and read it at last.

“The least I can do for you is to act like a gentleman, and spare you unnecessary suspense. You will not see me this morning at ten, for the simple reason that I really don’t know, and never did know, where to find your daughter. I wish I was rich enough to return the money. Not being able to do that, I will give you a word of advice instead. The next time you confide any secrets of yours to Mr. Goldenheart, take better care that no third person hears you.”

She read those atrocious lines, without any visible disturbance of the dreadful composure that possessed her. Her mind made no effort to discover the person who had listened and betrayed her. To all ordinary curiosities, to all ordinary emotions, she was morally dead already.

The one thought in her was a thought that might have occurred to a man. “If I only had my hands on his throat, how I could wring the life out of him! As it is —” Instead of pursuing the reflection, she threw the letter into the fire, and rang the bell.

“Take this at once to the nearest chemist’s,” she said, giving the strychnine prescription to the servant; “and wait, please, and bring it back with you.”

She opened her desk, when she was alone, and tore up the letters and papers in it. This done, she took her pen, and wrote a letter. It was addressed to Amelius.

When the servant entered the room again, bringing with her the prescription made up, the clock downstairs struck eleven.

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