The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

Toff returned to the cottage, with the slippers and the stockings.

“What a time you have been gone!” said Amelius.

“It is not my fault, sir,” Toff explained. “The stockings I obtained without difficulty. But the nearest shoe shop in this neighbourhood sold only coarse manufactures, and all too large. I had to go to my wife, and get her to take me to the right place. See!” he exclaimed, producing a pair of quilted silk slippers with blue rosettes, “here is a design, that is really worthy of pretty feet. Try them on, Miss.”

Sally’s eyes sparkled at the sight of the slippers. She rose at once, and limped away to her room. Amelius, observing that she still walked in pain, called her back. “I had forgotten the blister,” he said. “Before you put on the new stockings, Sally, let me see your foot.” He turned to Toff. “You’re always ready with everything,” he went on; “I wonder whether you have got a needle and a bit of worsted thread?”

The old Frenchman answered, with an air of respectful reproach. “Knowing me, sir, as you do,” he said, “could you doubt for a moment that I mend my own clothes and darn my own stockings?” He withdrew to his bedroom below, and returned with a leather roll. “When you are ready, sir?” he said, opening the roll at the table, and threading the needle, while Sally removed the sock from her left foot.

She took a chair near the window, at the suggestion of Amelius. He knelt down so as to raise her foot to his knee. “Turn a little more towards the light,” he said. He took the foot in his hand, lifted it, looked at it — and suddenly let it drop back on the floor.

A cry of alarm from Sally instantly brought Toff to the window. “Oh, look!” she cried; “he’s ill!” Toff lifted Amelius to a chair. “For God’s sake, sir,” cried the terrified old man, “what’s the matter?” Amelius had turned to the strange ashy paleness which is only seen in men of his florid complexion, overwhelmed by sudden emotion. He stammered when he tried to speak. “Fetch the brandy!” said Toff, pointing to the liqueur-case on the sideboard. Sally brought it at once; the strong stimulant steadied Amelius.

“I’m sorry to have frightened you,” he said faintly. “Sally! — Dear, dear little Sally, go in, and get your things on directly. You must come out with me; I’ll tell you why afterwards. My God! why didn’t I find this out before?” He noticed Toff, wondering and trembling. “Good old fellow! don’t alarm yourself — you shall know about it, too. Go! run! get the first cab you can find!”

Left alone for a few minutes, he had time to compose himself. He did his best to take advantage of the time; he tried to prepare his mind for the coming interview with Mrs. Farnaby. “I must be careful of what I do,” he thought, conscious of the overwhelming effect of the discovery on himself; “She doesn’t expect me to bring her daughter to her.”

Sally returned to him, ready to go out. She seemed to be afraid of him, when he approached her, and took her hand. “Have I done anything wrong?” she asked, in her childish way. “Are you going to take me to some other Home?” The tone and look with which she put the question burst through the restraints which Amelius had imposed on himself for her sake. “My dear child!” he said, “can you bear a great surprise? I’m dying to tell you the truth — and I hardly dare do it.” He took her in his arms. She trembled piteously. Instead of answering him, she reiterated her question, “Are you going to take me to some other Home?” He could endure it no longer. “This is the happiest day of your life, Sally!” he cried; “I am going to take you to your mother.”

He held her close to him, and looked at her in dread of having spoken too plainly.

She slowly lifted her eyes to him in vacant fear and surprise; she burst into no expression of delight; no overwhelming emotion made her sink fainting in his arms. The sacred associations which gather round the mere name of Mother were associations unknown to her; the man who held her to him so tenderly, the hero who had pitied and saved her, was father and mother both to her simple mind. She dropped her head on his breast; her faltering voice told him that she was crying. “Will my mother take me away from you?” she asked. “Oh, do promise to bring me back with you to the cottage!”

For the moment, and the moment only, Amelius was disappointed in her. The generous sympathies in his nature guided him unerringly to the truer view. He remembered what her life had been. Inexpressible pity for her filled his heart. “Oh, my poor Sally, the time is coming when you will not think as you think now! I will do nothing to distress you. You mustn’t cry — you must be happy, and loving and true to your mother.” She dried her eyes, “I’ll do anything you tell me,” she said, “as long as you bring me back with you.”

Amelius sighed, and said no more. He took her out with him gravely and silently, when the cab was announced to be ready. “Double your fare,” he said, when he gave the driver his instructions, “if you get there in a quarter of an hour.” It wanted twenty-five minutes to twelve when the cab left the cottage.

At that moment, the contrast of feeling between the two could hardly have been more strongly marked. In proportion as Amelius became more and more agitated, so Sally recovered the composure and confidence that she had lost. The first question she put to him related, not to her mother, but to his strange behaviour when he had knelt down to look at her foot. He answered, explaining to her briefly and plainly what his conduct meant. The description of what had passed between her mother and Amelius interested and yet perplexed her. “How can she be so fond of me, without knowing anything about me for all those years?” she asked. “Is my mother a lady? Don’t tell her where you found me; she might be ashamed of me.” She paused, and looked at Amelius anxiously. “Are you vexed about something? May I take hold of your hand?” Amelius gave her his hand; and Sally was satisfied.

As the cab drew up at the house, the door was opened from within. A gentleman, dressed in black, hurriedly came out; looked at Amelius; and spoke to him as he stepped from the cab to the pavement.

“I beg your pardon, sir. May I ask if you are any relative of the lady who lives in this house?”

“No relative,” Amelius answered. “Only a friend, who brings good news to her.”

The stranger’s grave face suddenly became compassionate as well as grave. “I must speak with you before you go upstairs,” he said, lowering his voice as he looked at Sally, still seated in the cab. “You will perhaps excuse the liberty I am taking, when I tell you that I am a medical man. Come into the hall for a moment — and don’t bring the young lady with you.”

Amelius told Sally to wait in the cab. She saw his altered looks, and entreated him not to leave her. He promised to keep the house door open so that she could see him while he was away from her, and hastened into the hall.

“I am sorry to say I have bad, very bad, news for you,” the doctor began. “Time is of serious importance — I must speak plainly. You have heard of mistakes made by taking the wrong bottle of medicine? The poor lady upstairs is, I fear, in a dying state, from an accident of that sort. Try to compose yourself. You may really be of use to me, if you are firm enough to take my place while I am away.”

Amelius steadied himself instantly. “What I can do, I will do,” he answered.

The doctor looked at him. “I believe you,” he said. “Now listen. In this case, a dose limited to fifteen drops has been confounded with a dose of two table-spoonsful; and the drug taken by mistake is strychnine. One grain of the poison has been known to prove fatal — she has taken three. The convulsion fits have begun. Antidotes are out of the question — the poor creature can swallow nothing. I have heard of opium as a possible means of relief; and I am going to get the instrument for injecting it under the skin. Not that I have much belief in the remedy; but I must try something. Have you courage enough to hold her, if another of the convulsions comes on in my absence?”

“Will it relieve her, if I hold her?” Amelius, asked.

“Certainly.”

“Then I promise to do it.”

“Mind! you must do it thoroughly. There are only two women upstairs; both perfectly useless in this emergency. If she shrieks to you to be held, exert your strength — take her with a firm grasp. If you only touch her (I can’t explain it, but it is so), you will make matters worse.”

The servant ran downstairs, while he was speaking. “Don’t leave us, sir — I’m afraid it’s coming on again.”

“This gentleman will help you, while I am away,” said the doctor. “One word more,” he went on, addressing Amelius. “In the intervals between the fits, she is perfectly conscious; able to listen, and even to speak. If she has any last wishes to communicate, make good use of the time. She may die of exhaustion, at any moment. I will be back directly.”

He hurried to the door.

“Take my cab,” said Amelius, “and save time.”

“But the young lady —”

“Leave her to me.” He opened the cab door, and gave his hand to Sally. It was done in a moment. The doctor drove off.

Amelius saw the servant waiting for them in the hall. He spoke to Sally, telling her, considerately and gently, what he had heard, before he took her into the house. “I had such good hopes for you,” he said; “and it has come to this dreadful end! Have you courage to go through with it, if I take you to her bedside? You will be glad one day, my dear, to remember that you cheered your mother’s last moments on earth.”

Sally put her hand in his. “I will go anywhere,” she said softly, “with You.”

Amelius led her into the house. The servant, in pity for her youth, ventured on a word of remonstrance. “Oh, sir, you’re not going to let the poor young lady see that dreadful sight upstairs!”

“You mean well,” Amelius answered; “and I thank you. If you knew what I know, you would take her upstairs, too. Show the way.”

Sally looked at him in silent awe as they followed the servant together. He was not like the same man. His brows were knit; his lips were fast set; he held the girl’s hand in a grip that hurt her. The latent strength of will in him — that reserved resolution, so finely and firmly entwined in the natures of sensitively organized men — was rousing itself to meet the coming trial. The doctor would have doubly believed in him, if the doctor had seen him at that moment.

They reached the first-floor landing.

Before the servant could open the drawing-room door, a shriek rang frightfully through the silence of the house. The servant drew back, and crouched trembling on the upper stairs. At the same moment, the door was flung open, and another woman ran out, wild with terror. “I can’t bear it!” she cried, and rushed up the stairs, blind to the presence of strangers in the panic that possessed her. Amelius entered the drawing-room, with his arm round Sally, holding her up. As he placed her in a chair, the dreadful cry was renewed. He only waited to rouse and encourage her by a word and a look — and ran into the bedroom.

For an instant, and an instant only, he stood horror-struck in the presence of the poisoned woman.

The fell action of the strychnine wrung every muscle in her with the torture of convulsion. Her hands were fast clenched; her head was bent back: her body, rigid as a bar of iron, was arched upwards from the bed, resting on the two extremities of the head and the heels: the staring eyes, the dusky face, the twisted lips, the clenched teeth, were frightful to see. He faced it. After the one instant of hesitation, he faced it.

Before she could cry out again, his hands were on her. The whole exertion of his strength was barely enough to keep the frenzied throbs of the convulsion, as it reached its climax, from throwing her off the bed. Through the worst of it, he was still equal to the trust that had been placed in him, still faithful to the work of mercy. Little by little, he felt the lessening resistance of the rigid body, as the paroxysm began to subside. He saw the ghastly stare die out of her eyes, and the twisted lips relax from their dreadful grin. The tortured body sank, and rested; the perspiration broke out on her face; her languid hands fell gently over on the bed. For a while, the heavy eyelids closed — then opened again feebly. She looked at him. “Do you know me?” he asked, bending over her. And she answered in a faint whisper, “Amelius!”

He knelt down by her, and kissed her hand. “Can you listen, if I tell you something?”

She breathed heavily; her bosom heaved under the suffocating oppression that weighed upon it. As he took her in his arms to raise her in the bed, Sally’s voice reached him, in low imploring tones, from the next room. “Oh, let me come to you! I’m so frightened here by myself.”

He waited, before he told her to come in, looking for a moment at the face that was resting on his breast. A gray shadow was stealing over it; a cold and clammy moisture struck a chill through him as he put his hand on her forehead. He turned towards the next room. The girl had ventured as far as the door; he beckoned to her. She came in timidly, and stood by him, and looked at her mother. Amelius signed to her to take his place. “Put your arms round her,” he whispered. “Oh, Sally, tell her who you are in a kiss!” The girl’s tears fell fast as she pressed her lips on her mother’s cheek. The dying woman looked at her, with a glance of helpless inquiry — then looked at Amelius. The doubt in her eyes was too dreadful to be endured. Arranging the pillows so that she could keep her raised position in the bed, he signed to Sally to approach him, and removed the slipper from her left foot. As he took it off, he looked again at the bed — looked and shuddered. In a moment more, it might be too late. With his knife he ripped up the stocking, and, lifting her on the bed, put her bare foot on her mother’s lap. “Your child! your child!” he cried; “I’ve found your own darling! For God’s sake, rouse yourself! Look!”

She heard him. She lifted her feebly declining head. She looked. She knew.

For one awful moment, the sinking vital forces rallied, and hurled back the hold of Death. Her eyes shone radiant with the divine light of maternal love; an exulting cry of rapture burst from her. Slowly, very slowly, she bent forward, until her face rested on her daughter’s foot. With a faint sigh of ecstasy she kissed it. The moments passed — and the bent head was raised no more. The last beat of the heart was a beat of joy.

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