The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

“Where has he been found?” Amelius asked, snatching up his hat.

“There’s no hurry, sir,” Morcross answered quietly. “When I had the honour of seeing you yesterday, you said you meant to make Jervy suffer for what he had done. Somebody else has saved you the trouble. He was found this evening in the river.”

“Drowned?”

“Stabbed in three places, sir; and put out of the way in the river — that’s the surgeon’s report. Robbed of everything he possessed — that’s the police report, after searching his pockets.”

Amelius was silent. It had not entered into his calculations that crime breeds crime, and that the criminal might escape him under that law. For the moment, he was conscious of a sense of disappointment, revealing plainly that the desire for vengeance had mingled with the higher motives which animated him. He felt uneasy and ashamed, and longed as usual to take refuge in action from his own unwelcome thoughts. “Are you sure it is the man?” he asked. “My description may have misled the police — I should like to see him myself.”

“Certainly, sir. While we are about it, if you feel any curiosity to trace Jervy’s ill-gotten money, there’s a chance (from what I have heard) of finding the man with the squint. The people at our place think it’s likely he may have been concerned in the robbery, if he hasn’t committed the murder.”

In an hour after, under the guidance of Morcross, Amelius passed through the dreary doors of a deadhouse, situated on the southern bank of the Thames, and saw the body of Jervy stretched out on a stone slab. The guardian who held the lantern, inured to such horrible sights, declared that the corpse could not have been in the water more than two days. To any one who had seen the murdered man, the face, undisfigured by injury of any kind, was perfectly recognizable. Amelius knew him again, dead, as certainly as he had known him again, living, when he was waiting for Phoebe in the street.

“If you’re satisfied, sir,” said Morcross, “the inspector at the police-station is sending a sergeant to look after ‘Wall–Eyes’— the name they give hereabouts to the man suspected of the robbery. We can take the sergeant with us in the cab, if you like.”

Still keeping on the southern bank of the river, they drove for a quarter of an hour in a westerly direction, and stopped at a public-house. The sergeant of police went in by himself to make the first inquiries.

“We are a day too late, sir,” he said to Amelius, on returning to the cab. “Wall–Eyes was here last night, and Mother Sowler with him, judging by the description. Both of them drunk — and the woman the worse of the two. The landlord knew nothing more about it; but there’s a man at the bar tells me he heard of them this morning (still drinking) at the Dairy.”

“The Dairy?” Amelius repeated.

Morcross interposed with the necessary explanation. “An old house, sir, which once stood by itself in the fields. It was a dairy a hundred years ago; and it has kept the name ever since, though it’s nothing but a low lodging house now.”

“One of the worst places on this side of the river,” the sergeant added, “The landlord’s a returned convict. Sly as he is we shall have him again yet, for receiving stolen goods. There’s every sort of thief among his lodgers, from a pickpocket to a housebreaker. It’s my duty to continue the inquiry, sir; but a gentleman like you will be better, I should say, out of such a place as that.”

Still disquieted by the sight that he had seen in the deadhouse, and by the associations which that sight had recalled, Amelius was ready for any adventure which might relieve his mind. Even the prospect of a visit to a thieves’ lodging house was more welcome to him than the prospect of going home alone. “If there’s no serious objection to it,” he said, “I own I should like to see the place.”

“You’ll be safe enough with us,” the sergeant replied. “If you don’t mind filthy people and bad language — all right, sir! Cabman, drive to the Dairy.”

Their direction was now towards the south, through a perfect labyrinth of mean and dirty streets. Twice the driver was obliged to ask his way. On the second occasion the sergeant, putting his head out of the window to stop the cab, cried, “Hullo! there’s something up.”

They got out in front of a long low rambling house, a complete contrast to the modern buildings about it. Late as the hour was, a mob had assembled in front of the door. The police were on the spot keeping the people in order.

Morcross and the sergeant pushed their way through the crowd, leading Amelius between them. “Something wrong, sir, in the back kitchen,” said one of the policemen answering the sergeant while he opened the street door. A few yards down the passage there was a second door, with a man on the watch by it. “There’s a nice to-do downstairs,” the man announced, recognizing the sergeant, and unlocking the door with a key which he took from his pocket. “The landlord at the Dairy knows his lodgers, sir,” Morcross whispered to Amelius; “the place is kept like a prison.” As they passed through the second door, a frantic voice startled them, shouting in fury from below. An old man came hobbling up the kitchen stairs, his eyes wild with fear, his long grey hair all tumbled over his face. “Oh, Lord, have you got the tools for breaking open the door?” he asked, wringing his dirty hands in an agony of supplication. “She’ll set the house on fire! she’ll kill my wife and daughter!” The sergeant pushed him contemptuously out of the way, and looked round for Amelius. “It’s only the landlord, sir; keep near Morcross, and follow me.”

They descended the kitchen stairs, the frantic cries below growing louder and louder at every step they took; and made their way through the thieves and vagabonds crowding together in the passage. Passing on their right hand a solid old oaken door fast closed, they reached an open wicket-gate of iron which led into a stone-paved yard. A heavily barred window was now visible in the back wall of the house, raised three or four feet from the pavement of the yard. The room within was illuminated by a blaze of gaslight. More policemen were here, keeping back more inquisitive lodgers. Among the spectators was a man with a hideous outward squint, holding by the window-bars in a state of drunken terror. The sergeant looked at him, and beckoned to one of the policemen. “Take him to the station; I shall have something to say to Wall–Eyes when he’s sober. Now then! stand back all of you, and let’s see what’s going on in the kitchen.”

He took Amelius by the arm, and led him to the window. Even the sergeant started when the scene inside met his view. “By God!” he cried, “it’s Mother Sowler herself.”

It was Mother Sowler. The horrible woman was tramping round and round in the middle of the kitchen, like a beast in a cage; raving in the dreadful drink-madness called delirium tremens. In the farthest corner of the room, barricaded behind the table, the landlord’s wife and daughter crouched in terror of their lives. The gas, turned full on, blazed high enough to blacken the ceiling, and showed the heavy bolts shot at the top and bottom of the solid door. Nothing less than a battering-ram could have burst that door in from the outer side; an hour’s work with the file would have failed to break a passage through the bars over the window. “How did she get there?” the sergeant asked. “Run downstairs, and bolted herself in, while the missus and the young ’un were cooking”— was the answering cry from the people in the yard. As they spoke, another vain attempt was made to break in the door from the passage. The noise of the heavy blows redoubled the frenzy of the terrible creature in the kitchen, still tramping round and round under the blazing gaslight. Suddenly, she made a dart at the window, and confronted the men looking in from the yard. Her staring eyes were bloodshot; a purple-red flush was over her face; her hair waved wildly about her, torn away in places by her own hands. “Cats!” she screamed, glaring out of the window, “millions of cats! all their months wide open spitting at me! Fire! fire to scare away the cats!” She searched furiously in her pocket, and tore out a handful of loose papers. One of them escaped, and fluttered downward to a wooden press under the window. Amelius was nearest, and saw it plainly as it fell, “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “it’s a bank-note!” “Wall–Eyes’ money!” shouted the thieves in the yard; “She’s going to burn Wall–Eyes’ money!” The madwoman turned back to the middle of the kitchen, leapt up at the gas-burner, and set fire to the bank-notes. She scattered them flaming all round her on the kitchen floor. “Away with you!” she shouted, shaking her fists at the visionary multitude of cats. “Away with you, up the chimney! Away with you, out of the window!” She sprang back to the window, with her crooked fingers twisted in her hair! “The snakes!” she shrieked; “the snakes are hissing again in my hair! the beetles are crawling over my face!” She tore at her hair; she scraped her face with long black nails that lacerated the flesh. Amelius turned away, unable to endure the sight of her. Morcross took his place, eyed her steadily for a moment, and saw the way to end it. “A quarter of gin!” he shouted. “Quick! before she leaves the window!” In a minute he had the pewter measure in his hand, and tapped at the window. “Gin, Mother Sowler! Break the window, and have a drop of gin!” For a moment, the drunkard mastered her own dreadful visions at the sight of the liquor. She broke a pane of glass with her clenched fist. “The door!” cried Morcross, to the panic-stricken women, barricaded behind the table. “The door!” he reiterated, as he handed the gin in through the bars. The elder woman was too terrified to understand him; her bolder daughter crawled under the table, rushed across the kitchen, and drew the bolts. As the madwoman turned to attack her, the room was filled with men, headed by the sergeant. Three of them were barely enough to control the frantic wretch, and bind her hand and foot. When Amelius entered the kitchen, after she had been conveyed to the hospital, a five-pound note on the press (secured by one of the police), and a few frail black ashes scattered thinly on the kitchen floor, were the only relics left of the ill-gotten money.

After-inquiry, patiently pursued in more than one direction, failed to throw any light on the mystery of Jervy’s death. Morcross’s report to Amelius, towards the close of the investigation, was little more than ingenious guess-work.

“It seems pretty clear, sir, in the first place, that Mother Sowler must have overtaken Wall–Eyes, after he had left the letter at Mrs. Farnaby’s lodgings. In the second place, we are justified (as I shall show you directly) in assuming that she told him of the money in Jervy’s possession, and that the two succeeded in discovering Jervy — no doubt through Wall–Eyes’ superior knowledge of his master’s movements. The evidence concerning the bank-notes proves this. We know, by the examination of the people at the Dairy, that Wall–Eyes took from his pocket a handful of notes, when they refused to send for liquor without having the money first. We are also informed, that the breaking-out of the drink-madness in Mother Sowler showed itself in her snatching the notes out of his hand, and trying to strangle him — before she ran down into the kitchen and bolted herself in. Lastly, Mrs. Farnaby’s bankers have identified the note saved from the burning, as one of forty five-pound notes paid to her cheque. So much for the tracing of the money.

“I wish I could give an equally satisfactory account of the tracing of the crime. We can make nothing of Wall–Eyes. He declares that he didn’t even know Jervy was dead, till we told him; and he swears he found the money dropped in the street. It is needless to say that this last assertion is a lie. Opinions are divided among us as to whether he is answerable for the murder as well as the robbery, or whether there was a third person concerned in it. My own belief is that Jervy was drugged by the old woman (with a young woman very likely used as a decoy), in some house by the riverside, and then murdered by Wall–Eyes in cold blood. We have done our best to clear the matter up, and we have not succeeded. The doctors give us no hope of any assistance from Mother Sowler. If she gets over the attack (which is doubtful), they say she will die to a certainty of liver disease. In short, my own fear is that this will prove to be one more of those murders which are mysteries to the police as well as the public.”

The report of the case excited some interest, published in the newspapers in conspicuous type. Meddlesome readers wrote letters, offering complacently stupid suggestions to the police. After a while, another crime attracted general attention; and the murder of Jervy disappeared from the public memory, among other forgotten murders of modern times.

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