The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

The day which had united the mother and daughter, only to part them again in this world for ever, had advanced to evening.

Amelius and Sally were together again in the cottage, sitting by the library fire. The silence in the room was uninterrupted. On the open desk, near Amelius, lay the letter which Mrs. Farnaby had written to him on the morning of her death.

He had found the letter — with the envelope unfastened — on the floor of the bedchamber, and had fortunately secured it before the landlady and the servant had ventured back to the room. The doctor, returning a few minutes afterwards, had warned the two women that a coroner’s inquest would be held in the house, and had vainly cautioned them to be careful of what they said or did in the interval. Not only the subject of the death, but a discovery which had followed, revealing the name of the ill-fated woman marked on her linen, and showing that she had used an assumed name in taking the lodgings as Mrs. Ronald, became the gossip of the neighbourhood in a few hours. Under these circumstances, the catastrophe was made the subject of a paragraph in the evening journals; the name being added for the information of any surviving relatives who might be ignorant of the sad event. If the landlady had found the letter, that circumstance also would in all probability, have formed part of the statement in the newspapers, and the secret of Mrs. Farnaby’s life and death would have been revealed to the public view.

“I can trust you, and you only,” she wrote to Amelius, “to fulfil the last wishes of a dying woman. You know me, and you know how I looked forward to the prospect of a happy life in retirement with my child. The one hope that I lived for has proved to be a cruel delusion. I have only this morning discovered, beyond the possibility of doubt, that I have been made the victim of wretches who have deliberately lied to me from first to last. If I had been a happier woman, I might have had other interests to sustain me under this frightful disaster. Such as I am, Death is my one refuge left.

“My suicide will be known to no creature but yourself. Some years since, the idea of self destruction — concealed under the disguise of a common mistake — presented itself to my mind. I kept the means, very simple means, by me, thinking I might end in that way after all. When you read this I shall be at rest for ever. You will do what I have yet to ask of you, in merciful remembrance of me — I am sure of that.

“You have a long life before you, Amelius. My foolish fancy about you and my lost girl still lingers in my mind; I still think it may be just possible that you may meet with her, in the course of years.

“If this does happen, I implore you, by the tenderness and pity that you once felt for me, to tell no human creature that she is my daughter; and, if John Farnaby is living at the time, I forbid you, with the authority of a dying friend, to let her see him, or to let her know even that such a person exists. Are you at a loss to account for my motives? I may make the shameful confession which will enlighten you, now I know that we shall never meet again. My child was born before my marriage; and the man who afterwards became my husband — a man of low origin, I should tell you — was the father. He had calculated on this disgraceful circumstance to force my parents to make his fortune, by making me his wife. I now know, what I only vaguely suspected before, that he deliberately abandoned his child, as a likely cause of hindrance and scandal in the way of his prosperous career in life. Do you now think I am asking too much, when I entreat you never even to speak to my lost darling of this unnatural wretch? As for my own fair fame, I am not thinking of myself. With Death close at my side, I think of my poor mother, and of all that she suffered and sacrificed to save me from the disgrace that I had deserved. For her sake, not for mine, keep silence to friends and enemies alike if they ask you who my girl is — with the one exception of my lawyer. Years since, I left in his care the means of making a small provision for my child, on the chance that she might live to claim it. You can show him this letter as your authority, in case of need.

“Try not to forget me, Amelius — but don’t grieve about me. I go to my death as you go to your sleep when you are tired. I leave you my grateful love — you have always been good to me. There is no more to write; I hear the servant returning from the chemist’s, bringing with her only release from the hard burden of life without hope. May you be happier than I have been! Goodbye!”

So she parted from him for ever. But the fatal association of the unhappy woman’s sorrows with the life and fortune of Amelius was not at an end yet.

He had neither hesitation nor misgiving in resolving to show a natural respect to the wishes of the dead. Now that the miserable story of the past had been unreservedly disclosed to him, he would have felt himself bound in honour, even without instructions to guide him, to keep the discovery of the daughter a secret, for the mother’s sake. With that conviction, he had read the distressing letter. With that conviction, he now rose to provide for the safe keeping of it under lock and key.

Just as he had secured the letter in a private drawer of his desk, Toff came in with a card, and announced that a gentleman wished to see him. Amelius, looking at the card, was surprised to find on it the name of “Mr. Melton.” Some lines were written on it in pencil: “I have called to speak with you on a matter of serious importance.” Wondering what his middle-aged rival could want with him, Amelius instructed Toff to admit the visitor.

Sally started to her feet, with her customary distrust of strangers. “May I run away before he comes in?” she asked. “If you like,” Amelius answered quietly. She ran to the door of her room, at the moment when Toff appeared again, announcing the visitor. Mr. Melton entered just before she disappeared: he saw the flutter of her dress as the door closed behind her.

“I fear I am disturbing you?” he said, looking hard at the door.

He was perfectly dressed: his hat and gloves were models of what such things ought to be; he was melancholy and courteous; blandly distrustful of the flying skirts which he had seen at the door. When Amelius offered him a chair, he took it with a mysterious sigh; mournfully resigned to the sad necessity of sitting down. “I won’t prolong my intrusion on you,” he resumed. “You have no doubt seen the melancholy news in the evening papers?”

“I haven’t seen the evening papers,” Amelius answered; “what news do you mean?”

Mr. Melton leaned back in his chair, and expressed emotions of sorrow and surprise, in a perfect state of training, by gently raising his smooth white hands.

“Oh dear, dear! this is very sad. I had hoped to find you in full possession of the particulars — reconciled, as we must all be, to the inscrutable ways of Providence. Permit me to break it to you as gently as possible. I came here to inquire if you had heard yet from Miss Regina. Understand my motive! there must be no misapprehension between us on that subject. There is a very serious necessity — pray follow me carefully — I say, a very serious necessity for my communicating immediately with Miss Regina’s uncle; and I know of nobody who is so likely to hear from the travellers, so soon after their departure, as yourself. You are, in a certain sense, a member of the family —”

“Stop a minute,” said Amelius.

“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Melton politely, at a loss to understand the interruption.

“I didn’t at first know what you meant,” Amelius explained. “You put it, if you will forgive me for saying so, in rather a roundabout way. If you are alluding, all this time, to Mrs. Farnaby’s death, I must honestly tell you that I know of it already.”

The bland self-possession of Mr. Melton’s face began to show signs of being ruffled. He had been in a manner deluded into exhibiting his conventionally fluent eloquence, in the choicest modulations of his sonorous voice — and it wounded his self esteem to be placed in his present position. “I understood you to say,” he remarked stiffly, “that you had not seen the evening newspapers.”

“You are quite right,” Amelius rejoined; “I have not seen them.”

“Then may I inquire,” Mr. Melton proceeded, “how you became informed of Mrs. Farnaby’s death?”

Amelius replied with his customary frankness. “I went to call on the poor lady this morning,” he said, “knowing nothing of what had happened. I met the doctor at the door; and I was present at her death.”

Even Mr. Melton’s carefully-trained composure was not proof against the revelation that now opened before him. He burst out with an exclamation of astonishment, like an ordinary man.

“Good heavens, what does this mean!”

Amelius took it as a question addressed to himself. “I’m sure I don’t know,” he said quietly.

Mr. Melton, misunderstanding Amelius on his side, interpreted those innocent words as an outbreak of vulgar interruption. “Pardon me,” he said coldly. “I was about to explain myself. You will presently understand my surprise. After seeing the evening paper, I went at once to make inquiries at the address mentioned. In Mr. Farnaby’s absence, I felt bound to do this as his old friend. I saw the landlady, and, with her assistance, the doctor also. Both these persons spoke of a gentleman who had called that morning, accompanied by a young lady; and who had insisted on taking the young lady upstairs with him. Until you mentioned just now that you were present at the death, I had no suspicion that you were ‘the gentleman’. Surprise on my part was, I think, only natural. I could hardly be expected to know that you were in Mrs. Farnaby’s confidence about the place of her retreat. And with regard to the young lady, I am still quite at a loss to understand —”

“If you understand that the people at the house told you the truth, so far as I am concerned,” Amelius interposed, “I hope that will be enough. With regard to the young lady, I must beg you to excuse me for speaking plainly. I have nothing to say about her, to you or to anybody.”

Mr. Melton rose with the utmost dignity and the fullest possession of his vocal resources.

“Permit me to assure you,” he said, with frigidly fluent politeness, “that I have no wish to force myself into your confidence. One remark I will venture to make. It is easy enough, no doubt, to keep your own secrets, when you are speaking to me. You will find some difficulty, I fear, in pursuing the same course, when you are called upon to give evidence before the coroner. I presume you know that you will be summoned as a witness at the inquest?”

“I left my name and address with the doctor for that purpose,” Amelius rejoined as composedly as ever; “and I am ready to bear witness to what I saw at poor Mrs. Farnaby’s bedside. But if all the coroners in England questioned me about anything else, I should say to them just what I have said to you.”

Mr. Melton smiled with well bred irony. “We shall see,” he said. “In the mean time, I presume I may ask you, in the interests of the family, to send me the address on the letter, as soon as you hear from Miss Regina. I have no other means of communicating with Mr. Farnaby. In respect to the melancholy event, I may add that I have undertaken to provide for the funeral, and to pay any little outstanding debts, and so forth. As Mr. Farnaby’s old friend and representative —”

The conclusion of the sentence was interrupted by the entrance of Toff with a note, and an apology for his intrusion. “I beg your pardon, sir; the person is waiting. She says it’s only a receipt to sign. The box is in the hall.”

Amelius examined the enclosure. It was a formal document, acknowledging the receipt of Sally’s clothes, returned to her by the authorities at the Home. As he took a pen to sign the receipt he looked towards the door of Sally’s room. Mr. Melton, observing the look, prepared to retire. “I am only interrupting you,” he said. “You have my address on my card. Good evening.”

On his way out, he passed an elderly woman, waiting in the hall. Toff, hastening before him to open the garden gate, was saluted by the gruff voice of a cabman, outside. “The lady whom he had driven to the cottage had not paid him his right fare; he meant to have the money, or the lady’s name and address, and summon her.” Quietly crossing the road, Mr. Melton heard the woman’s voice next: she had got her receipt, and had followed him out. In the dispute about fares and distances that ensued, the contending parties more than once mentioned the name of the Home and of the locality in which it was situated. Possessing this information, Mr. Melton looked in at his club; consulted a directory, under the heading of “Charitable Institutions;” and solved the mystery of the vanishing petticoats at the door. He had discovered an inmate of an asylum for lost women, in the house of the man to whom Regina was engaged to be married!

The next morning’s post brought to Amelius a letter from Regina. It was dated from an hotel in Paris. Her “dear uncle” had over estimated his strength. He had refused to stay and rest for the night at Boulogne; and had suffered so severely from the fatigue of the long journey that he had been confined to his bed since his arrival. The English physician consulted had declined to say when he would be strong enough to travel again; the constitution of the patient must have received some serious shock; he was brought very low. Having carefully reported the new medical opinion, Regina was at liberty to indulge herself, next, in expressions of affection, and to assure Amelius of her anxiety to hear from him as soon as possible. But, in this case again, the “dear uncle’s” convenience was still the first consideration. She reverted to Mr. Farnaby, in making her excuses for a hurriedly written letter. The poor invalid suffered from depression of spirits; his great consolation in his illness was to hear his niece read to him: he was calling for her, indeed, at that moment. The inevitable postscript warmed into a mild effusion of fondness, “How I wish you could be with us. But, alas, it cannot be!”

Amelius copied the address on the letter, and sent it to Mr. Melton immediately.

It was then the twenty-fourth day of the month. The tidal train did not leave London early that morning; and the inquest was deferred, to suit other pressing engagements of the coroner, until the twenty-sixth. Mr. Melton decided, after his interview with Amelius, that the emergency was sufficiently serious to justify him in following his telegram to Paris. It was clearly his duty, as an old friend, to mention to Mr. Farnaby what he had discovered at the cottage, as well as what he had heard from the landlady and the doctor; leaving it to the uncle’s discretion to act as he thought right in the interests of the niece. Whether that course of action might not also serve the interests of Mr. Melton himself, in the character of an unsuccessful suitor for Regina’s hand, he did not stop to inquire. Beyond his duty it was, for the present at least, not his business to look.

That night, the two gentlemen held a private consultation in Paris; the doctor having previously certified that his patient was incapable of supporting the journey back to London, under any circumstances.

The question of the formal proceedings rendered necessary by Mrs. Farnaby’s death having been discussed and disposed of, Mr. Melton next entered on the narrative which the obligations of friendship imperatively demanded from him. To his astonishment and alarm, Mr. Farnaby started up in the bed like a man panic-stricken. “Did you say,” he stammered, as soon as he could speak, “you mean to make inquiries about that — that girl?”

“I certainly thought it desirable, bearing in mind Mr. Goldenheart’s position in your family.”

“Do nothing of the sort! Say nothing to Regina or to any living creature. Wait till I get well again — and leave me to deal with it. I am the proper person to take it in hand. Don’t you see that for yourself? And, look here! there may be questions asked at the inquest. Some impudent scoundrel on the jury may want to pry into what doesn’t concern him. The moment you’re back in London, get a lawyer to represent us — the sharpest fellow that can be had for money. Tell him to stop all prying questions. Who the girl is, and what made that cursed young Socialist Goldenheart take her upstairs with him — all that sort of thing has nothing to do with the manner in which my wife met her death. You understand? I look to you, Melton, to see yourself that this is done. The less said at the infernal inquest, the better. In my position, it’s an exposure that my enemies will make the most of, as it is. I’m too ill to go into the thing any further. No: I don’t want Regina. Go to her in the sitting room, and tell the courier to get you something to eat and drink. And, I say! For God’s sake don’t be late for the Boulogne train tomorrow morning.”

Left by himself, he gave full vent to his fury; he cursed Amelius with oaths that are not to be written.

He had burnt the letter which Mrs. Farnaby had written to him, on leaving him forever; but he had not burnt out of his memory the words which that letter contained. With his wife’s language vividly present to his mind, he could arrive at but one conclusion, after what Mr. Melton had told him. Amelius was concerned in the discovery of his deserted daughter; Amelius had taken the girl to her dying mother’s bedside. With his idiotic Socialist notions, he would be perfectly capable of owning the truth, if inquiries were made. The unblemished reputation which John Farnaby had built up by the self-seeking hypocrisy of a lifetime was at the mercy of a visionary young fool, who believed that rich men were created for the benefit of the poor, and who proposed to regenerate society by reviving the obsolete morality of the Primitive Christians. Was it possible for him to come to terms with such a person as this? There was not an inch of common ground on which they could meet. He dropped back on his pillow in despair, and lay for a while frowning and biting his nails. Suddenly he sat up again in the bed, and wiped his moist forehead, and heaved a heavy breath of relief. Had his illness obscured his intelligence? How was it he had not seen at once the perfectly easy way out of the difficulty which was presented by the facts themselves? Here is a man, engaged to marry my niece, who has been discovered keeping a girl at his cottage — who even had the audacity to take her upstairs with him when he made a call on my wife. Charge him with it in plain words; break off the engagement publicly in the face of society; and, if the profligate scoundrel tries to defend himself by telling the truth, who will believe him — when the girl was seen running out of his room? and when he refused, on the question being put to him, to say who she was?

So, in ignorance of his wife’s last instructions to Amelius — in equal ignorance of the compassionate silence which an honourable man preserves when a woman’s reputation is at his mercy — the wretch needlessly plotted and planned to save his usurped reputation; seeing all things, as such men invariably do, through the foul light of his own inbred baseness and cruelty. He was troubled by no retributive emotions of shame or remorse, in contemplating this second sacrifice to his own interests of the daughter whom he had deserted in her infancy. If he felt any misgivings, they related wholly to himself. His head was throbbing, his tongue was dry; a dread of increasing his illness shook him suddenly. He drank some of the lemonade at his bedside, and lay down to compose himself to sleep.

It was not to be done; there was a burning in his eyeballs, there was a wild irregular beating at his heart, which kept him awake. In some degree, at least, retribution seemed to be on the way to him already.

Mr. Melton, delicately administering sympathy and consolation to Regina — whose affectionate nature felt keenly the calamity of her aunt’s death — Mr. Melton, making himself modestly useful, by reading aloud certain devotional poems much prized by Regina, was called out of the room by the courier.

“I have just looked in at Mr. Farnaby, sir,” said the man; “and I am afraid he is worse.”

The physician was sent for. He thought so seriously of the change in the patient, that he obliged Regina to accept the services of a professed nurse. When Mr. Melton started on his return journey the next morning, he left his friend in a high fever.

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