The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

The capricious influences which combine to make us happy are never so certain to be absent influences as when we are foolish enough to talk about them. Amelius had talked about them. When he and Sally left the cottage, the road which led them away from the park was also the road which led them past a church. The influences of happiness left them at the church door.

Rows of carriages were in waiting; hundreds of idle people were assembled about the church steps; the thunderous music of the organ rolled out through the open doors — a grand wedding, with choral service, was in course of celebration. Sally begged Amelius to take her in to see it. They tried the front entrance, and found it impossible to get through the crowd. A side entrance, and a fee to a verger, succeeded better. They obtained space enough to stand on, with a view of the altar.

The bride was a tall buxom girl, splendidly dressed: she performed her part in the ceremony with the most unruffled composure. The bridegroom exhibited an instructive spectacle of aged Nature, sustained by Art. His hair, his complexion, his teeth, his breast, his shoulders, and his legs, showed what the wig-maker, the valet, the dentist, the tailor, and the hosier can do for a rich old man, who wishes to present a juvenile appearance while he is buying a young wife. No less than three clergymen were present, conducting the sale. The demeanour of the rich congregation was worthy of the glorious bygone days of the Golden Calf. So far as could be judged by appearances, one old lady, in a pew close to the place at which Amelius and Sally were standing, seemed to be the only person present who was not favourably impressed by the ceremony.

“I call it disgraceful,” the old lady remarked to a charming young person seated next to her.

But the charming young person — being the legitimate product of the present time — had no more sympathy with questions of sentiment than a Hottentot. “How can you talk so, grandmamma!” she rejoined. “He has twenty thousand a year — and that lucky girl will be mistress of the most splendid house in London.”

“I don’t care,” the old lady persisted; “it’s not the less a disgrace to everybody concerned in it. There is many a poor friendless creature, driven by hunger to the streets, who has a better claim to our sympathy than that shameless girl, selling herself in the house of God! I’ll wait for you in the carriage — I won’t see any more of it.”

Sally touched Amelius. “Take me out!” she whispered faintly.

He supposed that the heat in the church had been too much for her. “Are you better now?” he asked, when they got into the open air.

She held fast by his arm. “Let’s get farther away,” she said. “That lady is coming after us — I don’t want her to see me again. I am one of the creatures she talked about. Is the mark of the streets on me, after all you have done to rub it out?”

The wild misery in her words presented another development in her character which was entirely new to Amelius. “My dear child,” he remonstrated, “you distress me when you talk in that way. God knows the life you are leading now.”

But Sally’s mind was still full of its own acutely painful sense of what the lady had said. “I saw her,” she burst out —“I saw her look at me while she spoke!”

“And she thought you better worth looking at than the bride — and quite right, too!” Amelius rejoined. “Come, come, Sally, be like yourself. You don’t want to make me unhappy about you, I am sure?”

He had taken the right way with her: she felt that simple appeal, and asked his pardon with all the old charm in her manner and her voice. For the moment, she was “Simple Sally” again. They walked on in silence. When they had lost sight of the church, Amelius felt her hand beginning to tremble on his arm. A mingled expression of tenderness and anxiety showed itself in her blue eyes as they looked up at him. “I am thinking of something else now,” she said; “I am thinking of You. May I ask you something?”

Amelius smiled. The smile was not reflected as usual in Sally’s face. “It’s nothing particular,” she explained in an odd hurried way; “the church put it into my head. You —” She hesitated, and tried it under another form. “Will you be married yourself, Amelius, one of these days?”

He did his best to evade the question. “I am not rich, Sally, like the old gentleman we have just seen.”

Her eyes turned away from him; she sighed softly to herself. “You will be married some day,” she said. “Will you do one kind thing more for me, Amelius, when I die? You remember my reading in the newspaper of the new invention for burning the dead — and my asking you about it. You said you thought it was better than burying, and you had a good mind to leave directions to be burnt instead of buried, when your time came. When my time has come, will you leave other directions about yourself, if I ask you?”

“My dear, you are talking in a very strange way! If you will have it that I am to be married some day, what has that to do with your death?”

“It doesn’t matter, Amelius. When I have nothing left to live for, I suppose it’s as likely as not I may die. Will you tell them to bury me in some quiet place, away from London, where there are very few graves? And when you leave your directions, don’t say you are to be burnt. Say — when you have lived a long, long life, and enjoyed all the happiness you have deserved so well — say you are to be buried, and your grave is to be near mine. I should like to think of the same trees shading us, and the same flowers growing over us. No! don’t tell me I’m talking strangely again — I can’t bear it; I want you to humour me and be kind to me about this. Do you mind going home? I’m feeling a little tired — and I know I’m poor company for you today.”

The talk flagged at dinner-time, though Toff did his best to keep it going.

In the evening, the excellent Frenchman made an effort to cheer the two dull young people. He came in confidentially with his fiddle, and said he had a favour to ask. “I possess some knowledge, sir, of the delightful art of dancing. Might I teach young Miss to dance? You see, if I may venture to say so, the other lessons — oh, most useful, most important, the other lessons! but they are just a little serious. Something to relieve her mind, sir — if you will forgive me for mentioning it. I plead for innocent gaiety — let us dance!”

He played a few notes on the fiddle, and placed his right foot in position, and waited amiably to begin. Sally thanked him, and made the excuse that she was tired. She wished Amelius good night, without waiting until they were alone together — and, for the first time, without giving him the customary kiss.

Toff waited until she had gone, and approached his master on tiptoe, with a low bow.

“May I take the liberty of expressing an opinion, sir. A young girl who rejects the remedy of the fiddle presents a case of extreme gravity. Don’t despair, sir! It is my pride and pleasure to be never at a loss, where your interests are concerned. This is, I think, a matter for the ministrations of a woman. If you have confidence in my wife, I venture to suggest a visit from Madame Toff.”

He discreetly retired, and left his master to think about it.

The time passed — and Amelius was still thinking, and still as far as ever from arriving at a conclusion, when he heard a door opened behind him. Sally crossed the room before he could rise from his chair: her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, her hair fell loose over her shoulders — she dropped at his feet, and hid her face on his knees. “I’m an ungrateful wretch!” she burst out; “I never kissed you when I said good night.”

With the best intentions, Amelius took the worst possible way of composing her — he treated her trouble lightly. “Perhaps you forgot it?” he said.

She lifted her head, and looked at him, with the tears in her eyes. “I’m bad enough,” she answered; “but not so bad as that. Oh, don’t laugh! there’s nothing to laugh at. Have you done with liking me? Are you angry with me for behaving so badly all day, and bidding you good night as if you were Toff? You shan’t be angry with me!” She jumped up, and sat on his knee, and put her arms round his neck. “I haven’t been to bed,” she whispered; “I was too miserable to go to sleep. I don’t know what’s been the matter with me today. I seem to be losing the little sense I ever had. Oh, if I could only make you understand how fond I am of you! And yet I’ve had bitter thoughts, as if I was a burden to you, and I had done a wrong thing in coming here — and you would have told me so, only you pitied the poor wretch who had nowhere else to go.” She tightened her hold round his neck, and laid her burning cheek against his face. “Oh, Amelius, my heart is sore! Kiss me, and say, ‘Good night, Sally!’”

He was young — he was a man — for a moment he lost his self control; he kissed her as he had never kissed her yet.

Then, he remembered; he recovered himself; he put her gently away from him, and led her to the door of her room, and closed it on her in silence. For a little while, he waited alone. The interval over, he rang for Toff.

“Do you think your wife would take Miss Sally as an apprentice?” he asked.

Toff looked astonished. “Whatever you wish, sir, my wife will do. Her knowledge of the art of dressmaking is —” Words failed him to express his wife’s immense capacity as a dressmaker. He kissed his hand in mute enthusiasm, and blew the kiss in the direction of Madame Toff’s establishment. “However,” he proceeded, “I ought to tell you one thing, sir; the business is small, small, very small. But we are all in the hands of Providence — the business will improve, one day.” He lifted his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows, and looked perfectly satisfied with his wife’s prospects.

“I will go and speak to Madame Toff myself, tomorrow morning,” Amelius resumed. “It’s quite possible that I may be obliged to leave London for a little while — and I must provide in some way for Miss Sally. Don’t say a word about it to her yet, Toff, and don’t look miserable. If I go away, I shall take you with me. Good night.”

Toff, with his handkerchief halfway to his eyes, recovered his native cheerfulness. “I am invariably sick at sea, sir,” he said; “but, no matter, I will attend you to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

So honest Amelius planned his way of escape from the critical position in which he found himself. He went to his bed, troubled by anxieties which kept him waking for many weary hours. Where was he to go to, when he left Sally? If he could have known what had happened, on that very day, on the other side of the Channel, he might have decided (in spite of the obstacle of Mr. Farnaby) on surprising Regina by a visit to Paris.

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