The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 8

Early the next morning, Rufus rang at the cottage gate.

“Well, Mr. Frenchman, and how do you git along? And how’s Amelius?”

Toff, standing before the gate, answered with the utmost respect, but showed no inclination to let the visitor in.

“Amelius has his intervals of laziness,” Rufus proceeded; “I bet he’s in bed!”

“My young master was up and dressed an hour ago, sir — he has just gone out.”

“That is so, is it? Well, I’ll wait till he comes back.” He pushed by Toff, and walked into the cottage. “Your foreign ceremonies are clean thrown away on me,” he said, as Toff tried to stop him in the hall. “I’m the American savage; and I’m used up with travelling all night. Here’s a little order for you: whisky, bitters, lemon, and ice — I’ll take a cocktail in the library.”

Toff made a last desperate effort to get between the visitor and the door. “I beg your pardon, sir, a thousand times; I must most respectfully entreat you to wait —”

Before he could explain himself, Rufus, with the most perfect good humour, pulled the old man out of his way. “What’s troubling this venerable creature’s mind —” he inquired of himself, “does he think I don’t know my way in?”

He opened the library door — and found himself face to face with Sally. She had risen from her chair, hearing voices outside, and hesitating whether to leave the room or not. They confronted each other, on either side of the table, in silent dismay. For once Rufus was so completely bewildered, that he took refuge in his customary form of greeting before he was aware of it himself.

“How do you find yourself, Miss? I take pleasure in renewing our acquaintance — Thunder! that’s not it; I reckon I’m off my head. Do me the favour, young woman, to forget every word I’ve said to you. If any mortal creature had told me I should find you here, I should have said ’twas a lie — and I should have been the liar. That makes a man feel bad, I can tell you. No! don’t slide off, if you please, into the next room —that won’t set things right, nohow. Sit you down again. Now I’m here, I have something to say. I’ll speak first to Mr. Frenchman. Listen to this, old sir. If I happen to want a witness standing in the doorway, I’ll ring the bell; for the present I can do without you. Bong Shewer, as we say in your country.” He proceeded to shut the door on Toff and his remonstrances.

“I protest, sir, against acts of violence, unworthy of a gentleman!” cried Toff, struggling to get back again.

“Be as angry as you please in the kitchen,” Rufus answered, persisting in closing the door; “I won’t have a noise up here. If you know where your master is, go and fetch him — and the sooner the better.” He turned back to Sally, and surveyed her for a while in terrible silence. She was afraid to look at him; her eyes were on the book which she had been reading when he came in. “You look to me,” Rufus remarked, “as if you had been settled here for a time. Never mind your book now; you can go back to your reading after we’ve had a word or two together first.” He reached out his long arm, and pulled the book to his own side of the table. Sally innocently silenced him for the second time. He opened the book, and discovered — the New Testament.

“It’s my lesson, if you please, sir. I’m to learn it where the pencil mark is, before Amelius comes back.” She offered her poor little explanation, trembling with terror. In spite of himself, Rufus began to look at her less sternly.

“So you call him ‘Amelius’, do you?” he said. “I note that, Miss, as an unfavourable sign to begin with. How long, if you please, has Amelius turned schoolmarm, for your young ladyship’s benefit? Don’t you understand? Well, you’re not the only inhabitant of Great Britain who don’t understand the English language. I’ll put it plainer. When I last saw Amelius, you were learning your lessons at the Home. What ill wind, Miss, blew you in here? Did Amelius fetch you, or did you come of your own accord, without waiting to be whistled for?” He spoke coarsely but not ill-humouredly. Sally’s pretty downcast face was pleading with him for mercy, and (as he felt, with supreme contempt for himself) was not altogether pleading in vain. “If I guessed that you ran away from the home,” he resumed, “should I guess right?”

She answered with a sudden accession of confidence. “Don’t blame Amelius,” she said; “I did run away. I couldn’t live without him.”

“You don’t know how you can live, young one, till you’ve tried the experiment. Well, and what did they do at the Home? Did they send after you, to fetch you back?”

“They wouldn’t take me back — they sent my clothes here after me.”

“Ah, those were the rules, I reckon. I begin to see my way to the end of it now. Amelius gave you house-room?”

She looked at him proudly. “He gave me a room of my own,” she said.

His next question was the exact repetition of the question which he had put to Regina in Paris. The only variety was in the answer that he received.

“Are you fond of Amelius?”

“I would die for him!”

Rufus had hitherto spoken, standing. He now took a chair.

“If Amelius had not been brought up at Tadmor,” he said, “I should take my hat, and wish you good morning. As things are, a word more may be a word in season. Your lessons here seem to have agreed with you, Miss. You’re a different sort of girl to what you were when I last saw you.”

She surprised him by receiving that remark in silence. The colour left her face. She sighed bitterly. The sigh puzzled Rufus: he held his opinion of her in suspense, until he had heard more.

“You said just now you would die for Amelius,” he went on, eyeing her attentively. “I take that to be a woman’s hysterical way of mentioning that she feels interest in Amelius. Are you fond enough of him to leave him, if you could only be persuaded that leaving him was for his good?”

She abruptly left the table, and went to the window. When her back was turned to Rufus, she spoke. “Am I a disgrace to him?” she asked, in tones so faint that he could barely hear them. “I have had my fears of it, before now.”

If he had been less fond of Amelius, his natural kindness of heart might have kept him silent. Even as it was, he made no direct reply. “You remember how you were living when Amelius first met with you?” was all he said.

The sad blue eyes looked at him in patient sorrow; the low sweet voice answered —“Yes.” Only a look and a word — only the influence of an instant — and, in that instant, Rufus’s last doubts of her vanished!

“Don’t think I say it reproachfully, my child! I know it was not your fault; I know you are to be pitied, and not blamed.”

She turned her face towards him — pale, quiet, and resigned. “Pitied, and not blamed,” she repeated. “Am I to be forgiven?”

He shrank from answering her. There was silence.

“You said just now,” she went on, “that I looked like a different girl, since you last saw me. I am a different girl. I think of things that I never thought of before — some change, I don’t know what, has come over me. Oh, my heart does hunger so to be good! I do so long to deserve what Amelius has done for me! You have got my book there — Amelius gave it to me; we read in it every day. If Christ had been on earth now, is it wrong to think that Christ would have forgiven me?”

“No, my dear; it’s right to think so.”

“And, while I live, if I do my best to lead a good life, and if my last prayer to God is to take me to heaven, shall I be heard?”

“You will be heard, my child, I don’t doubt it. But, you see, you have got the world about you to reckon with — and the world has invented a religion of its own. There’s no use looking for it in this book of yours. It’s a religion with the pride of property at the bottom of it, and a veneer of benevolent sentiment at the top. It will be very sorry for you, and very charitable towards you: in short, it will do everything for you except taking you back again.”

She had her answer to that. “Amelius has taken me back again,” she said.

“Amelius has taken you back again,” Rufus agreed. “But there’s one thing he’s forgotten to do; he has forgotten to count the cost. It seems to be left to me to do that. Look here, my girl! I own I doubted you when I first came into this room; and I’m sorry for it, and I beg your pardon. I do believe you’re a good girl — I couldn’t say why if I was asked, but I do believe it for all that. I wish there was no more to be said — but there is more; and neither you nor I must shirk it. Public opinion won’t deal as tenderly with you as I do; public opinion will make the worst of you, and the worst of Amelius. While you’re living here with him — there’s no disguising it — you’re innocently in the way of the boy’s prospects in life. I don’t know whether you understand me?”

She had turned away from him; she was looking out of the window once more.

“I understand you,” she answered. “On the night when Amelius met with me, he did wrong to take me away with him. He ought to have left me where I was.”

“Wait a bit! that’s as far from my meaning as far can be. There’s a look-out for everybody; and, if you’ll trust me, I’ll find a look-out for you.“

She paid no heed to what he said: her next words showed that she was pursuing her own train of thought.

“I am in the way of his prospects in life,” she resumed. “You mean that he might be married some day, but for me?”

Rufus admitted it cautiously. “The thing might happen,” was all he said.

“And his friends might come and see him,” she went on; her face still turned away, and her voice sinking into dull subdued tones. “Nobody comes here now. You see I understand you. When shall I go away? I had better not say good-bye, I suppose? — it would only distress him. I could slip out of the house, couldn’t I?”

Rufus began to feel uneasy. He was prepared for tears — but not for such resignation as this. After a little hesitation, he joined her at the window. She never turned towards him; she still looked out straight before her; her bright young face had turned pitiably rigid and pale. He spoke to her very gently; advising her to think of what he had said, and to do nothing in a hurry. She knew the hotel at which he stayed when he was in London; and she could write to him there. If she decided to begin a new life in another country, he was wholly and truly at her service. He would provide a passage for her in the same ship that took him back to America. At his age, and known as he was in his own neighbourhood, there would be no scandal to fear. He could get her reputably and profitably employed, in work which a young girl might undertake. “I’ll be as good as a father to you, my poor child,” he said, “don’t think you’re going to be friendless, if you leave Amelius. I’ll see to that! You shall have honest people about you — and innocent pleasure in your new life.”

She thanked him, still with the same dull tearless resignation. “What will the honest people say,” she asked, “when they know who I am?”

“They have no business to know who you are — and they shan’t know it.”

“Ah! it comes back to the same thing,” she said. “You must deceive the honest people, or you can do nothing for me. Amelius had better have left me where I was! I disgraced nobody, I was a burden to nobody, there. Cold and hunger and ill-treatment can sometimes be merciful friends, in their way. If I had been left to them, they would have laid me at rest by this time.” She turned to Rufus, before he could speak to her. “I’m not ungrateful, sir; I’ll think of it, as you say; and I’ll do all that a poor foolish creature can do, to be worthy of the interest you take in me.” She lifted her hand to her head, with a momentary expression of pain. “I’ve got a dull kind of aching here,” she said; “it reminds me of my old life, when I was sometimes beaten on the head. May I go and lie down a little, by myself?”

Rufus took her hand, and pressed it in silence. She looked back at him as she opened the door of her room. “Don’t distress Amelius,” she said; “I can bear anything but that.”

Left alone in the library, Rufus walked restlessly to and fro, driven by a troubled mind. “I was bound to do it,” he thought; “and I ought to be satisfied with myself. I’m not satisfied. The world is hard on women — and the rights of property is a darned bad reason for it!”

The door from the hall was suddenly thrown open. Amelius entered the room. He looked flushed and angry — he refused to take the hand that Rufus offered to him.

“What’s this I hear from Toff? It seems that you forced your way in when Sally was here. There are limits to the liberties that a man may take in his friend’s house.”

“That’s true,” said Rufus quietly. “But when a man hasn’t taken liberties, there don’t seem much to be said. Sally was at the Home, when I last saw you — and nobody told me I should find her in this room.”

“You might have left the room, when you found her here. You have been talking to her. If you have said anything about Regina —”

“I have said nothing about Miss Regina. You have a hot temper of your own, Amelius. Wait a bit, and let it cool.”

“Never mind my temper. I want to know what you have been saying to Sally. Stop! I’ll ask Sally herself.” He crossed the room to the inner door, and knocked. “Come in here, my dear; I want to speak to you.”

The answer reached him faintly through the door. “I have got a bad headache, Amelius. Please let me rest a little.” He turned back to Rufus, and lowered his voice. But his eyes flashed; he was more angry than ever.

“You had better go,” he said. “I can guess how you have been talking to her — I know what her headache means. Any man who distresses that dear little affectionate creature is a man whom I hold as my enemy. I spit upon all the worldly considerations which pass muster with people like you! No sweeter girl than poor Sally ever breathed the breath of life. Her happiness is more precious to me than words can say. She is sacred to me! And I have just proved it — I have just come from a good woman, who will teach her an honest way of earning her bread. Not a breath of scandal shall blow on her. If you, or any people like you, think I will consent to cast her adrift on the world, or consign her to a prison under the name of a Home, you little know my nature and my principles. Here”— he snatched up the New Testament from the table, and shook it at Rufus —“here are my principles, and I’m not ashamed of them!”

Rufus took up his hat.

“There’s one thing you’ll be ashamed of, my son, when you’re cool enough to think about it,” he said; “you’ll be ashamed of the words you have spoken to a friend who loves you. I’m not a bit angry myself. You remind me of that time on board the steamer, when the quarter-master was going to shoot the bird. You made it up with him — and you’ll come to my hotel and make it up with me. And then we’ll shake hands, and talk about Sally. If it’s not taking another liberty, I’ll trouble you for a light.” He helped himself to a match from the box on the chimney-piece, lit his cigar, and left the room.

He had not been gone half an hour, before the better nature of Amelius urged him to follow Rufus and make his apologies. But he was too anxious about Sally to leave the cottage, until he had seen her first. The tone in which she had answered him, when he knocked at her door, suggested, to his sensitive apprehension, that there was something more serious the matter with her than a mere headache. For another hour, he waited patiently, on the chance that he might hear her moving in her room. Nothing happened. No sound reached his ears, except the occasional rolling of carriage-wheels on the road outside.

His patience began to fail him, as the second hour moved on. He went to the door, and listened, and still heard nothing. A sudden dread struck him that she might have fainted. He opened the door a few inches, and spoke to her. There was no answer. He looked in. The room was empty.

He ran into the hall, and called to Toff. Was she, by any chance, downstairs? No. Or out in the garden? No. Master and man looked at each other in silence. Sally was gone.

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