The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 7

On the morning when Amelius and Sally (in London) entered the church to look at the wedding. Rufus (in Paris) went to the Champs Elysees to take a walk.

He had advanced half-way up the magnificent avenue, when he saw Regina for the second time, taking her daily drive, with an elderly woman in attendance on her. Rufus took off his hat again, perfectly impenetrable to the cold reception which he had already experienced. Greatly to his surprise, Regina not only returned his salute, but stopped the carriage and beckoned to him to speak to her. Looking at her more closely, he perceived signs of suffering in her face which completely altered her expression as he remembered it. Her magnificent eyes were dim and red; she had lost her rich colour; her voice trembled as she spoke to him.

“Have you a few minutes to spare?” she asked.

“The whole day, if you like, Miss,” Rufus answered.

She turned to the woman who accompanied her. “Wait here for me, Elizabeth; I have something to say to this gentleman.”

With those words, she got out of the carriage. Rufus offered her his arm. She put her hand in it as readily as if they had been old friends. “Let us take one of the side paths,” she said; “they are almost deserted at this time of day. I am afraid I surprise you very much. I can only trust to your kindness to forgive me for passing you without notice the last time we met. Perhaps it may be some excuse for me that I am in great trouble. It is just possible you may be able to relieve my mind. I believe you know I am engaged to be married?”

Rufus looked at her with a sudden expression of interest. “Is this about Amelius?” he asked.

She answered him almost inaudibly —“Yes.”

Rufus still kept his eyes fixed on her. “I don’t wish to say anything, Miss,” he explained; “but, if you have any complaint to make of Amelius, I should take it as a favour if you would look me straight in the face, and mention it plainly.”

In the embarrassment which troubled Regina at that moment, he had preferred the two requests of all others with which it was most impossible for her to comply. She still looked obstinately on the ground; and, instead of speaking of Amelius, she diverged to the subject of Mr. Farnaby’s illness.

“I am staying in Paris with my uncle,” she said. “He has had a long illness; but he is strong enough now to speak to me of things that have been on his mind for some time past. He has so surprised me; he has made me so miserable about Amelius —” She paused, and put her handkerchief to her eyes. Rufus said nothing to console her — he waited doggedly until she was ready to go on. “You know Amelius well,” she resumed; “you are fond of him; you believe in him, don’t you? Do you think he is capable of behaving basely to any person who trusts him? Is it likely, is it possible, he could be false and cruel to Me?”

The mere question roused the indignation of Rufus. “Whoever said that of him, Miss, told you a lie! I answer for my boy as I answer for myself.”

She looked at him at last, with a sudden expression of relief. “I said so too,” she rejoined; “I said some enemy had slandered him. My uncle won’t tell me who it is. He positively forbids me to write to Amelius; he tells me I must never see Amelius again — he is going to write and break off the engagement. Oh, it’s too cruel! too cruel!”

Thus far they had been walking on slowly. But now Rufus stopped, determined to make her speak plainly.

“Take a word of advice from me, Miss,” he said. “Never trust anybody by halves. There’s nothing I’m not ready to do, to set this matter right; but I must know what I’m about first. What’s said against Amelius? Out with it, no matter what ’tis! I’m old enough to be your father; and I feel for you accordingly — I do.”

The thorough sincerity of tone and manner which accompanied those words had its effect. Regina blushed and trembled — but she spoke out.

“My uncle says Amelius has disgraced himself, and insulted me; my uncle says there is a person — a girl living with him —” She stopped, with a faint cry of alarm. Her hand, still testing on the arm of Rufus, felt him start as the allusion to the girl passed her lips. “You have heard of it!” she cried. “Oh, God help me, it’s true!”

“True?” Rufus repeated, with stern contempt. “What’s come to you? Haven’t I told you already, it’s a lie? I’ll answer to it, Amelius is true to you. Will that do? No? You’re an obstinate one, Miss — that you are. Well! it’s due to the boy that I should set him right with you, if words will do it. You know how he’s been brought up at Tadmor? Bear that in mind — and now you shall have the truth of it, on the word of an honest man.”

Without further preface, he told her how Amelius had met with Sally, insisting strongly on the motives of pure humanity by which his friend had been actuated. Regina listened with an obstinate expression of distrust which would have discouraged most men. Rufus persisted, nevertheless; and, to some extent at least, succeeded in producing the right impression. When he reached the close of the narrative — when he asserted that he had himself seen Amelius confide the girl unreservedly to the care of a lady who was a dear and valued friend of his own; and when he declared that there had been no after-meeting between them and no written correspondence — then, at last, Regina owned that he had not encouraged her to trust in the honour of Amelius, without reason to justify him. But, even under these circumstances, there was a residue of suspicion still left in her mind. She asked for the name of the lady to whose benevolent assistance Amelius had been indebted. Rufus took out one of his cards, and wrote Mrs. Payson’s name and address on it.

“Your nature, my dear, is not quite so confiding as I could have wished to see it,” he said, quietly handing her the card. “But we can’t change our natures — can we? And you’re not bound to believe a man like me, without witnesses to back him. Write to Mrs. Payson, and make your mind easy. And, while we are about it, tell me where I can telegraph to you tomorrow — I’m off to London by the night mail.”

“Do you mean, you are going to see Amelius?

“That is so. I’m too fond of Amelius to let this trouble rest where ’tis now. I’ve been away from him, here in Paris, for some little time — and you may tell me (and quite right, too) I can’t answer for what may have been going on in my absence. No! now we are about it, we’ll have it out. I mean to see Amelius and see Mrs. Payson, tomorrow morning. Just tell your uncle to hold his hand, before he breaks off your marriage, and wait for a telegram from me. Well? and this is your address, is it? I know the hotel. A nice look-out on the Twillery Gardens — but a bad cellar of wine, as I hear. I’m at the Grand Hotel myself, if there’s anything else that troubles you before evening. Now I look at you again, I reckon there’s something more to be said, if you’ll only let it find its way to your tongue. No; it ain’t thanks. We’ll take the gratitude for granted, and get to what’s behind it. There’s your carriage — and the good lady looks tired of waiting. Well, now?”

“It’s only one thing,” Regina acknowledged, with her eyes on the ground again. “Perhaps, when you go to London, you may see the —”

“The girl?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not likely. Say I do see her — what then?”

Regina’s colour began to show itself again. “If you do see her,” she said, “I beg and entreat you won’t speak of me in her hearing. I should die of the shame of it, if she thought herself asked to give him up out of pity for me. Promise I am not to be brought forward; promise you won’t even mention my having spoken to you about it. On your word of honour!”

Rufus gave her his promise, without showing any hesitation, or making any remark. But when she shook hands with him, on returning to the carriage, he held her hand for a moment. “Please to excuse me, Miss, if I ask one question,” he said, in tones too low to be heard by any other person. “Are you really fond of Amelius?”

“I am surprised you should doubt it,” she answered; “I am more — much more than fond of him!”

Rufus handed her silently into the carriage, “Fond of him, are you?” he thought, as he walked away by himself. “I reckon it’s a sort of fondness that don’t wear well, and won’t stand washing.”

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