The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 9

Toff was the first who recovered himself.

“Courage, sir!” he said. “With a little thinking, we shall see the way to find her. That rude American man, who talked with her this morning, may be the person who has brought this misfortune on us.”

Amelius waited to hear no more. There was the chance, at least, that something might have been said which had induced her to take refuge with Rufus. He ran back to the library to get his hat.

Toff followed his master, with another suggestion. “One word more, sir, before you go. If the American man cannot help us, we must be ready to try another way. Permit me to accompany you as far as my wife’s shop. I propose that she shall come back here with me, and examine poor little Miss’s bedroom. We will wait, of course, for your return, before anything is done. In the mean time, I entreat you not to despair. It is at least possible that the means of discovery may be found in the bedroom.”

They went out together, taking the first cab that passed them. Amelius proceeded alone to the hotel.

Rufus was in his room. “What’s gone wrong?” he asked, the moment Amelius opened the door. “Shake hands, my son, and smother up that little trouble between us in silence. Your face alarms me — it does! What of Sally?”

Amelius started at the question. “Isn’t she here?” he asked.

Rufus drew back. The mere action said, No, before he answered in words.

“Have you seen nothing of her? heard nothing of her?”

“Nothing. Steady, now! Meet it like a man; and tell me what has happened.”

Amelius told him in two words. “Don’t suppose I’m going to break out again as I did this morning,” he went on; “I’m too wretched and too anxious to be angry. Only tell me, Rufus, have you said anything to her —?”

Rufus held up his hand. “I see what you’re driving at. It will be more to the purpose to tell you what she said to me. From first to last, Amelius, I spoke kindly to her, and I did her justice. Give me a minute to rummage my memory.” After brief consideration, he carefully repeated the substance of what had passed between Sally and himself, during the latter part of the interview between them. “Have you looked about in her room?” he inquired, when he had done. “There might be a trifling something to help you, left behind her there.”

Amelius told him of Toff’s suggestion. They returned together at once to the cottage. Madame Toff was waiting to begin the search.

The first discovery was easily made. Sally had taken off one or two little trinkets — presents from Amelius, which she was in the habit of wearing — and had left them, wrapped up in paper, on the dressing-table. No such thing as a farewell letter was found near them. The examination of the wardrobe came next — and here a startling circumstance revealed itself. Every one of the dresses which Amelius had presented to her was hanging in its place. They were not many; and they had all, on previous occasions, been passed in review by Toff’s wife. She was absolutely certain that the complete number of the dresses was there in the bedroom. Sally must have worn something, in place of her new clothes. What had she put on?

Looking round the room, Amelius noticed in a corner the box in which he had placed the first new dress that he had purchased for Sally, on the morning after they had met. He tried to open the box: it was locked — and the key was not to be found. The ever-ready Toff fetched a skewer from the kitchen, and picked the lock in two minutes. On lifting the cover, the box proved to be empty.

The one person present who understood what this meant was Amelius.

He remembered that Sally had taken her old threadbare clothes away with her in the box, when the angry landlady had insisted on his leaving the house. “I want to look at them sometimes,” the poor girl had said, “and think how much better off I am now.” In those miserable rags she had fled from the cottage, after hearing the cruel truth. “He had better have left me where I was,” she had said. “Cold and hunger and ill-treatment would have laid me at rest by this time.” Amelius fell on his knees before the empty box, in helpless despair. The conclusion that now forced itself on his mind completely unmanned him. She had gone back, in the old dress, to die under the cold, the hunger, and the horror of the old life.

Rufus took his hand, and spoke to him kindly. He rallied, and dashed the tears from his eyes, and rose to his feet. “I know where to look for her,” was all he said; “and I must do it alone.” He refused to enter into any explanation, or to be assisted by any companion. “This is my secret and hers,” he answered, “Go back to your hotel, Rufus — and pray that I may not bring news which will make a wretched man of you for the rest of your life.” With that he left them.

In another hour he stood once more on the spot at which he and Sally had met.

The wild bustle and uproar of the costermongers’ night market no longer rioted round him: the street by daylight was in a state of dreary repose. Slowly pacing up and down, from one end to another, he waited with but one hope to sustain him — the hope that she might have taken refuge with the two women who had been her only friends in the dark days of her life. Ignorant of the place in which they lived, he had no choice but to wait for the appearance of one or other of them in the street. He was quiet and resolved. For the rest of the day, and for the whole of the night if need be, his mind was made up to keep steadfastly on the watch.

When he could walk no longer, he obtained rest and refreshment in the cookshop which he remembered so well; sitting on a stool near the window, from which he could still command a view of the street. The gas-lamps were alight, and the long winter’s night was beginning to set in, when he resumed his weary march from end to end of the pavement. As the darkness became complete, his patience was rewarded at last. Passing the door of a pawnbroker’s shop, he met one of the women face to face, walking rapidly, with a little parcel under her arm.

She recognized him with a cry of joyful surprise.

“Oh, sir, how glad I am to see you, to be sure! You’ve come to look after Sally, haven’t you? Yes, yes; she’s safe in our poor place — but in such a dreadful state. Off her head! clean off her head! Talks of nothing but you. ‘I’m in the way of his prospects in life.’ Over and over and over again, she keeps on saying that. Don’t be afraid; Jenny’s at home, taking care of her. She wants to go out. Hot and wild, with a kind of fever on her, she wants to go out. She asked if it rained. ‘The rain may kill me in these ragged clothes,’ she says; ‘and then I shan’t be in the way of his prospects in life.’ We tried to quiet her by telling her it didn’t rain — but it was no use; she was as eager as ever to go out. ‘I may get another blow on the bosom,’ she says; ‘and, maybe, it will fall on the right place this time.’ No! there’s no fear of the brute who used to beat her — he’s in prison. Don’t ask to see her just yet, sir; please don’t! I’m afraid you would only make her worse, if I took you to her now; I wouldn’t dare to risk it. You see, we can’t get her to sleep; and we thought of buying something to quiet her at the chemist’s. Yes, sir, it would be better to get a doctor to her. But I wasn’t going to the doctor. If I must tell you, I was obliged to take the sheets off the bed, to raise a little money — I was going to the pawnbroker’s.” She looked at the parcel under her arm, and smiled. “I may take the sheets back again, now I’ve met with you; and there’s a good doctor lives close by — I can show you the way to him. Oh how pale you do look! Are you very much tired? It’s only a little way to the doctor. I’ve got an arm at your service — but you mightn’t like to be seen waiting with such a person as me.”

Mentally and physically, Amelius was completely prostrated. The woman’s melancholy narrative had overwhelmed him: he could neither speak nor act. He mechanically put his purse in her hand, and went with her to the house of the nearest medical man.

The doctor was at home, mixing drugs in his little surgery. After one sharp look at Amelius, he ran into a back parlour, and returned with a glass of spirits. “Drink this, sir,” he said —“unless you want to find yourself on the floor in a fainting fit. And don’t presume again on your youth and strength to treat your heart as if it was made of cast-iron.” He signed to Amelius to sit down and rest himself, and turned to the woman to hear what was wanted of him. After a few questions, he said she might go; promising to follow her in a few minutes, when the gentleman would be sufficiently recovered to accompany him.

“Well, sir, are you beginning to feel like yourself again?” He was mixing a composing draught, while he addressed Amelius in those terms. “You may trust that poor wretch, who has just left us, to take care of the sick girl,” he went on, in the quaintly familiar manner which seemed to be habitual with him. “I don’t ask how you got into her company — it’s no business of mine. But I am pretty well acquainted with the people in my neighbourhood; and I can tell you one thing, in case you’re anxious. The woman who brought you here, barring the one misfortune of her life, is as good a creature as ever breathed; and the other one who lives with her is the same. When I think of what they’re exposed to — well! I take to my pipe, and compose my mind in that way. My early days were all passed as a ship’s surgeon. I could get them both respectable employment in Australia, if I only had the money to fit them out. They’ll die in the hospital, like the rest, if something isn’t done for them. In my hopeful moments, I sometimes think of a subscription. What do you say? Will you put down a few shillings to set the example?”

“I will do more than that,” Amelius answered. “I have reasons for wishing to befriend both those two poor women; and I will gladly engage to find the outfit.”

The familiar old doctor held out his hand over the counter. “You’re a good fellow, if ever there was one yet!” he burst out. “I can show references which will satisfy you that I am not a rogue. In the mean time, let’s see what is the matter with this little girl; you can tell me about her as we go along.” He put his bottle of medicine in his pocket, and his arm in the arm of Amelius — and so led the way out.

When they reached the wretched lodging-house in which the women lived, he suggested that his companion would do well to wait at the door. “I’m used to sad sights: it would only distress you to see the place. I won’t keep you long waiting.”

He was as good as his word. In little more than ten minutes, he joined Amelius again in the street.

“Don’t alarm yourself,” he said. “The case is not so serious as it looks. The poor child is suffering under a severe shock to the brain and nervous system, caused by that sudden and violent distress you hinted at. My medicine will give her the one thing she wants to begin with — a good night’s sleep.”

Amelius asked when she would be well enough to see him.

“Ah, my young friend, it’s not so easy to say, just yet! I could answer you to better purpose tomorrow. Won’t that do? Must I venture on a rash opinion? She ought to be composed enough to see you in three or four days. And, when that time comes, it’s my belief you will do more than I can do to set her right again.”

Amelius was relieved, but not quite satisfied yet. He inquired if it was not possible to remove her from that miserable place.

“Quite impossible — without doing her serious injury. They have got money to go on with; and I have told you already, she will be well taken care of. I will look after her myself tomorrow morning. Go home, and get to bed, and eat a bit of supper first, and make your mind easy. Come to my house at twelve o’clock, noon, and you will find me ready with my references, and my report of the patient. Surgeon Pinfold, Blackacre Buildings; there’s the address. Good night.”

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