The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

The last dreary days of November came to their end.

No longer darkened by the shadows of crime and torment and death, the life of Amelius glided insensibly into the peaceful byways of seclusion, brightened by the companionship of Sally. The winter days followed one another in a happy uniformity of occupations and amusements. There were lessons to fill up the morning, and walks to occupy the afternoon — and, in the evenings, sometimes reading, sometimes singing, sometimes nothing but the lazy luxury of talk. In the vast world of London, with its monstrous extremes of wealth and poverty, and its all-permeating malady of life at fever-heat, there was one supremely innocent and supremely happy creature. Sally had heard of Heaven, attainable on the hard condition of first paying the debt of death. “I have found a kinder Heaven,” she said, one day. “It is here in the cottage; and Amelius has shown me the way to it.”

Their social isolation was at this time complete: they were two friendless people, perfectly insensible to all that was perilous and pitiable in their own position. They parted with a kiss at night, and they met again with a kiss in the morning — and they were as happily free from all mistrust of the future as a pair of birds. No visitors came to the house; the few friends and acquaintances of Amelius, forgotten by him, forgot him in return. Now and then, Toff’s wife came to the cottage, and exhibited the “cherubim-baby.” Now and then, Toff himself (a musician among his other accomplishments) brought his fiddle upstairs; and, saying modestly, “A little music helps to pass the time,” played to the young master and mistress the cheerful tinkling tunes of the old vaudevilles of France. They were pleased with these small interruptions when they came; and they were not disappointed when the days passed, and the baby and the vaudevilles were hushed in absence and silence. So the happy winter time went by; and the howling winds brought no rheumatism with them, and even the tax-gatherer himself, looking in at this earthly paradise, departed without a curse when he left his little paper behind him.

Now and then, at long intervals, the outer world intruded itself in the form of a letter.

Regina wrote, always with the same placid affection; always entering into the same minute narrative of the slow progress of “dear uncle’s” return to health. He was forbidden to exert himself in any way. His nerves were in a state of lamentable irritability. “I dare not even mention your name to him, dear Amelius; it seems, I cannot think why, to make him — oh, so unreasonably angry. I can only submit, and pray that he may soon be himself again.” Amelius wrote back, always in the same considerate and gentle tone; always laying the blame of his dull letters on the studious uniformity of his life. He preserved, with a perfectly easy conscience, the most absolute silence on the subject of Sally. While he was faithful to Regina, what reason had he to reproach himself with the protection that he offered to a poor motherless girl? When he was married, he might mention the circumstances under which he had met with Sally, and leave the rest to his wife’s sympathy.

One morning, the letters with the Paris post-mark were varied by a few lines from Rufus.

“Every morning, my bright boy, I get up and say to myself, ‘Well! I reckon it’s about time to take the route for London;’ and every morning, if you’ll believe me, I put it off till next day. Whether it’s in the good feeding (expensive, I admit; but when your cook helps you to digest instead of hindering you, a man of my dyspeptic nation is too grateful to complain)— or whether it’s in the air, which reminds me, I do assure you, of our native atmosphere at Coolspring, Mass., is more than I can tell, with a hard steel pen on a leaf of flimsy paper. You have heard the saying, ‘When a good American dies, he goes to Paris’. Maybe, sometimes, he’s smart enough to discount his own death, and rationally enjoy the future time in the present. This you see is a poetic light. But, mercy be praised, the moral of my residence in Paris is plain:— If I can’t go to Amelius, Amelius must come to me. Note the address Grand Hotel; and pack up, like a good boy, on receipt of this. Memorandum: The brown Miss is here. I saw her taking the air in a carriage, and raised my hat. She looked the other way.

“British — eminently British! But, there, I bear no malice; I am her most obedient servant, and yours affectionately, RUFUS. — Postscript: I want you to see some of our girls at this hotel. The genuine American material, sir, perfected by Worth.”

Another morning brought with it a few sad lines from Phoebe. “After what had happened, she was quite unable to face her friends; she had no heart to seek employment in her own country — her present life was too dreary and too hopeless to be endured. A benevolent lady had made her an offer to accompany a party of emigrants to New Zealand; and she had accepted the proposal. Perhaps, among the new people, she might recover her self-respect and her spirits, and live to be a better woman. Meanwhile, she bade Mr. Goldenheart farewell; and asked his pardon for taking the liberty of wishing him happy with Miss Regina.”

Amelius wrote a few kind lines to Phoebe, and a cordial reply to Rufus, making the pursuit of his studies his excuse for remaining in London. After this, there was no further correspondence. The mornings succeeded each other, and the postman brought no more news from the world outside.

But the lessons went on; and the teacher and pupil were as inconsiderately happy as ever in each other’s society. Observing with inexhaustible interest the progress of the mental development of Sally, Amelius was slow to perceive the physical development which was unobtrusively keeping pace with it. He was absolutely ignorant of the part which his own influence was taking in the gradual and delicate process of change. Ere long, the first forewarnings of the coming disturbance in their harmless relations towards each other, began to show themselves. Ere long, there were signs of a troubled mind in Sally, which were mysteries to Amelius, and subjects of wonderment, sometimes even trials of temper, to the girl herself.

One day, she looked in from the door of her room, in her white dressing-gown, and asked to be forgiven if she kept the lessons of the morning waiting for a little while.

“Come in,” said Amelius, “and tell me why.”

She hesitated. “You won’t think me lazy, if you see me in my dressing-gown?”

“Of course not! Your dressing-gown, my dear, is as good as any other gown. A young girl like you looks best in white.”

She came in with her work-basket, and her indoor dress over her arm.

Amelius laughed. “Why haven’t you put it on?” he asked.

She sat down in a corner, and looked at her work-basket, instead of looking at Amelius. “It doesn’t fit me so well as it did,” she answered. “I am obliged to alter it.”

Amelius looked at her — at the charming youthful figure that had filled out, at the softly-rounded outline of the face with no angles and hollows in it now. “Is it the dressmaker’s fault?” he asked slyly.

Her eyes were still on the basket. “It’s my fault,” she said. “You remember what a poor little skinny creature I was, when you first saw me. I— you won’t like me the worse for it, will you? — I am getting fat. I don’t know why. They say happy people get fat. Perhaps that’s why. I’m never hungry, and never frightened, and never miserable now —” She stopped; her dress slipped from her lap to the floor. “Don’t look at me!” she said — and suddenly put her hands over her face.

Amelius saw the tears finding their way through the pretty plump fingers, which he remembered so shapeless and so thin. He crossed the room, and touched her gently on the shoulder. “My dear child! have I said anything to distress you?”

“Nothing.”

“Then why are you crying?”

“I don’t know.” She hesitated; looked at him; and made a desperate effort to tell him what was in her mind. “I’m afraid you’ll get tired of me. There’s nothing about me to make you pity me now. You seem to be — not quite the same — no! it isn’t that — I don’t know what’s come to me — I’m a greater fool than ever. Give me my lesson, Amelius! please give me my lesson!”

Amelius produced the books, in some little surprise at Sally’s extraordinary anxiety to begin her lessons, while the unaltered dress lay neglected on the carpet at her feet. A discreet abstract of the history of England, published for the use of young persons, happened to be at the top of the books. The system of education under Amelius recognized the laws of chance: they began with the history, because it turned up first. Sally read aloud; and Sally’s master explained obscure passages, and corrected occasional errors of pronunciation, as she went on. On that particular morning, there was little to explain and nothing to correct. “Am I doing it well today?” Sally inquired, on reaching the end of her task.

“Very well, indeed.”

She shut the book, and looked at her teacher. “I wonder how it is,” she resumed, “that I get on so much better with my lessons here than I did at the Home? And yet it’s foolish of me to wonder. I get on better, because you are teaching me, of course. But I don’t feel satisfied with myself. I’m the same helpless creature — I feel your kindness, and can’t make any return to you — for all my learning. I should like —” She left the thought in her unexpressed, and opened her copy-book. “I’ll do my writing now,” she said, in a quiet resigned way. “Perhaps I may improve enough, some day, to keep your accounts for you.” She chose her pen a little absently, and began to write. Amelius looked over her shoulder, and laughed; she was writing his name. He pointed to the copper-plate copy on the top line, presenting an undeniable moral maxim, in characters beyond the reach of criticism:— Change Is A Law Of Nature. “There, my dear, you are to copy that till you’re tired of it,” said the easy master; “and then we’ll try overleaf, another copy beginning with letter D.”

Sally laid down her pen. “I don’t like ‘Change is a law of Nature’,” she said, knitting her pretty eyebrows into a frown. “I looked at those words yesterday, and they made me miserable at night. I was foolish enough to think that we should always go on together as we go on now, till I saw that copy. I hate the copy! It came to my mind when I was awake in the dark, and it seemed to tell me that we were going to change some day. That’s the worst of learning — one knows too much, and then there’s an end of one’s happiness. Thoughts come to you, when you don’t want them. I thought of the young lady we saw last week in the park.”

She spoke gravely and sadly. The bright contentment which had given a new charm to her eyes since she had been at the cottage, died out of them as Amelius looked at her. What had become of her childish manner and her artless smile? He drew his chair nearer to her. “What young lady do you mean?” he asked.

Sally shook her head, and traced lines with her pen on the blotting paper. “Oh, you can’t have forgotten her! A young lady, riding on a grand white horse. All the people were admiring her. I wonder you cared to look at me, after that beautiful creature had gone by. Ah, she knows all sorts of things that I don’t —she doesn’t sound a note at a time on the piano, and as often as not the wrong one; she can say her multiplication table, and knows all the cities in the world. I dare say she’s almost as learned as you are. If you had her living here with you, wouldn’t you like it better than only having me!” She dropped her arms on the table, and laid her head on them wearily. “The dreadful streets!” she murmured, in low tones of despair. “Why did I think of the dreadful streets, and the night I met with you — after I had seen the young lady? Oh, Amelius, are you tired of me? are you ashamed of me?” She lifted her head again, before he could answer, and controlled herself by a sudden effort of resolution. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me this morning,” she said, looking at him with a pleading fear in her eyes. “Never mind my nonsense — I’ll do the copy!” She began to write the unendurable assertion that change is a law of Nature, with trembling fingers and fast heaving breath. Amelius took the pen gently out of her hand. His voice faltered as he spoke to her.

“We will give up the lessons for today, Sally. You have had a bad night’s rest, my dear, and you are feeling it — that’s all. Do you think you are well enough to come out with me, and try if the air will revive you a little?”

She rose, and took his hand, and kissed it. “I believe, if I was dying, I should get well enough to go out with you! May I ask one little favour? Do you mind if we don’t go into the park today?”

“What has made you take a dislike to the park, Sally?”

“We might meet the beautiful young lady again,” she answered, with her head down. “I don’t want to do that.”

“We will go wherever you like, my child. You shall decide — not I.”

She gathered up her dress from the floor, and hurried away to her room — without looking back at him as usual when she opened the door.

Left by himself, Amelius sat at the table, mechanically turning over the lesson-books. Sally had perplexed and even distressed him. His capacity to preserve the harmless relations between them, depended mainly on the mute appeal which the girl’s ignorant innocence unconsciously addressed to him. He felt this vaguely, without absolutely realizing it. By some mysterious process of association which he was unable to follow, a saying of the wise Elder Brother at Tadmor revived in his memory, while he was trying to see his way through the difficulties that beset him. “You will meet with many temptations, Amelius, when you leave our Community,” the old man had said at parting; “and most of them will come to you through women. Be especially on your guard, my son, if you meet with a woman who makes you feel truly sorry for her. She is on the high-road to your passions, through the open door of your sympathies — and all the more certainly if she is not aware of it herself.” Amelius felt the truth expressed in those words as he had never felt it yet. There had been signs of a changing nature in Sally for some little time past. But they had expressed themselves too delicately to attract the attention of a man unprepared to be on the watch. Only on that morning, they had been marked enough to force themselves on his notice. Only on that morning, she had looked at him, and spoken to him, as she had never looked or spoken before. He began dimly to see the danger for both of them, to which he had shut his eyes thus far. Where was the remedy? what ought he to do? Those questions came naturally into his mind — and yet, his mind shrank from pursuing them.

He got up impatiently, and busied himself in putting away the lesson-books — a small duty hitherto always left to Toff.

It was useless; his mind dwelt persistently on Sally.

While he moved about the room, he still saw the look in her eyes, he still heard the tone of her voice, when she spoke of the young lady in the park. The words of the good physician whom he had consulted about her recurred to his memory now. “The natural growth of her senses has been stunted, like the natural growth of her body, by starvation, terror, exposure to cold, and other influences inherent in the life that she has led.” And then the doctor had spoken of nourishing food, pure air, and careful treatment — of the life, in short, which she had led at the cottage — and had predicted that she would develop into “an intelligent and healthy young woman.” Again he asked himself, “What ought I to do?”

He turned aside to the window, and looked out. An idea occurred to him. How would it be, if he summoned courage enough to tell her that he was engaged to be married?

No! Setting aside his natural dread of the shock that he might inflict on the poor grateful girl who had only known happiness under his care, the detestable obstacle of Mr. Farnaby stood immovably in his way. Sally would be sure to ask questions about his engagement, and would never rest until they were answered. It had been necessarily impossible to conceal her mother’s name from her. The discovery of her father, if she heard of Regina and Regina’s uncle, would be simply a question of time. What might such a man be not capable of doing, what new act of treachery might he not commit, if he found himself claimed by the daughter whom he had deserted? Even if the expression of Mrs. Farnaby’s last wishes had not been sacred to Amelius, this consideration alone would have kept him silent, for Sally’s sake.

He now doubted for the first time if he had calculated wisely in planning to trust Sally’s sad story, after his marriage, to the sympathies of his wife. The jealousy that she might naturally feel of a young girl, who was an object of interest to her husband, did not present the worst difficulty to contend with. She believed in her uncle’s integrity as she believed in her religion. What would she say, what would she do, if the innocent witness to Farnaby’s infamy was presented to her; if Amelius asked the protection for Sally which her own father had refused to her in her infancy; and if he said, as he must say, “Your uncle is the man”?

And yet, what prospect could he see but the prospect of making the disclosure when he looked to his own interests next, and thought of his wedding day? Again the sinister figure of Farnaby confronted him. How could he receive the wretch whom Regina would innocently welcome to the house? There would be no longer a choice left; it would be his duty to himself to tell his wife the terrible truth. And what would be the result? He recalled the whole course of his courtship, and saw Farnaby always on a level with himself in Regina’s estimation. In spite of his natural cheerfulness, in spite of his inbred courage, his heart failed him, when he thought of the time to come.

As he turned away from the window, Sally’s door opened: she joined him, ready for the walk. Her spirits had rallied, assisted by the cheering influence of dressing to go out. Her charming smile brightened her face. In sheer desperation, reckless of what he did or said, Amelius held out both hands to welcome her. “That’s right, Sally!” he cried. “Look pleased and pretty, my dear; let’s be happy while we can — and let the future take care of itself!”

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