The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 10

After Amelius had left him, Rufus remembered his promise to communicate with Regina by telegraph.

With his strict regard for truth, it was no easy matter to decide on what message he should send. To inspire Regina, if possible, with his own unshaken belief in the good faith of Amelius, appeared, on reflection, to be all that he could honestly do, under present circumstances. With an anxious and foreboding mind, he despatched his telegram to Paris in these terms:—“Be patient for a while, and do justice to A. He deserves it.”

Having completed his business at the telegraph-office, Rufus went next to pay his visit to Mrs. Payson.

The good lady received him with a grave face and a distant manner, in startling contrast to the customary warmth of her welcome. “I used to think you were a man in a thousand,” she began abruptly; “and I find you are no better than the rest of them. If you have come to speak to me about that blackguard young Socialist, understand, if you please, that I am not so easily imposed upon as Miss Regina. I have done my duty; I have opened her eyes to the truth, poor thing. Ah, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Rufus kept his temper, with his habitual self-command. “It’s possible you may be right,” he said quietly; “but the biggest rascal living has a claim to an explanation, when a lady puzzles him. Have you any particular objection, old friend, to tell me what you mean?”

The explanation was not of a nature to set his mind at ease.

Regina had written, by the mail which took Rufus to England, repeating to Mrs. Payson what had passed at the interview in the Champs Elysees, and appealing to her sympathy for information and advice. Receiving the letter that morning, Mrs. Payson, acting on her own generous and compassionate impulses, had already answered it, and sent it to the post. Her experience of the unfortunate persons received at the Home was far from inclining her to believe in the innocence of a runaway girl, placed under circumstances of temptation. As an act of justice towards Regina, she enclosed to her the letter in which Amelius had acknowledged that Sally had passed the night under his roof.

“I believe I am only telling you the shameful truth,” Mrs. Payson had written, “when I add that the girl has been an inmate of Mr. Goldenheart’s cottage ever since. If you can reconcile this disgraceful state of things, with Mr. Rufus Dingwell’s assertion of his friend’s fidelity to his marriage-engagement, I have no right, and no wish, to make any attempt to alter your opinion. But you have asked for my advice, and I must not shrink from giving it. I am bound as an honest woman, to tell you that your uncle’s resolution to break off the engagement represents the course that I should have taken myself, if a daughter of my own had been placed in your painful and humiliating position.”

There was still ample time to modify this strong expression of opinion by the day’s post. Rufus appealed vainly to Mrs. Payson to reconsider the conclusion at which she had arrived. A more charitable and considerate woman, within the limits of her own daily routine, it would not be possible to find. But the largeness of mind which, having long and trustworthy experience of a rule, can nevertheless understand that other minds may have equal experience of the exception to the rule, was one of the qualities which had not been included in the moral composition of Mrs. Payson. She held firmly to her own narrowly conscientious sense of her duty; stimulated by a natural indignation against Amelius, who had bitterly disappointed her — against Rufus, who had not scrupled to take up his defence. The two old friends parted in coldness, for the first time in their lives.

Rufus returned to his hotel, to wait there for news from Amelius.

The day passed — and the one visitor who enlivened his solitude was an American friend and correspondent, connected with the agency which managed his affairs in England. The errand of this gentleman was to give his client the soundest and speediest advice, relating to the investment of money. Having indicated the safe and solid speculation, the visitor added a warning word, relating to the plausible and dangerous investments of the day. “For instance,” he said, “there’s that bank started by Farnaby —”

“No need to warn me against Farnaby,” Rufus interposed; “I wouldn’t take shares in his bank if he made me a present of them.”

The American friend looked surprised. “Surely,” he exclaimed, “you can’t have heard the news already! They don’t even know it yet on the Stock Exchange.”

Rufus explained that he had only spoken under the influence of personal prejudice against Mr. Farnaby.

“What’s in the wind now?” he asked.

He was confidentially informed that a coming storm was in the wind: in other words, that a serious discovery had been made at the bank. Some time since, the directors had advanced a large sum of money to a man in trade, under Mr. Farnaby’s own guarantee. The man had just died; and examination of his affairs showed that he had only received a few hundred pounds, on condition of holding his tongue. The bulk of the money had been traced to Mr. Farnaby himself, and had all been swallowed up by his newspaper, his patent medicine, and his other rotten speculations, apart from his own proper business. “You may not know it,” the American friend concluded, “but the fact is, Farnaby rose from the dregs. His bankruptcy is only a question of time — he will drop back to the dregs; and, quite possibly, make his appearance to answer a criminal charge in a court of law. I hear that Melton, whose credit has held up the bank lately, is off to see his friend in Paris. They say Farnaby’s niece is a handsome girl, and Melton is sweet on her. Awkward for Melton.”

Rufus listened attentively. In signing the order for his investments, he privately decided to stir no further, for the present, in the matter of his young friend’s marriage-engagement.

For the rest of the day and evening, he still waited for Amelius, and waited in vain. It was drawing near to midnight, when Toff made his appearance with a message from his master. Amelius had discovered Sally, and had returned in such a state of fatigue that he was only fit to take some refreshment, and to go to his bed. He would be away from home again, on the next morning; but he hoped to call at the hotel in the course of the day. Observing Toff’s face with grave and steady scrutiny, Rufus tried to extract some further information from him. But the old Frenchman stood on his dignity, in a state of immovable reserve.

“You took me by the shoulder this morning, sir, and spun me round,” he said; “I do not desire to be treated a second time like a teetotum. For the rest, it is not my habit to intrude myself into my master’s secrets.”

“It’s not my habit,” Rufus coolly rejoined, “to bear malice. I beg to apologise sincerely, sir, for treating you like a teetotum; and I offer you my hand.”

Toff had got as far as the door. He instantly returned, with the dignity which a Frenchman can always command in the serious emergencies of his life. “You appeal to my heart and my honour, sir,” he said. “I bury the events of the morning in oblivion; and I do myself the honour of taking your hand.”

As the door closed on him, Rufus smiled grimly. “You’re not in the habit of intruding yourself into your master’s secrets,” he repeated. “If Amelius reads your face as I read it, he’ll look over his shoulder when he goes out tomorrow — and, ten to one, he’ll see you behind him in the distance!”

Late on the next day, Amelius presented himself at the hotel. In speaking of Sally, he was unusually reserved, merely saying that she was ill, and under medical care, and then changing the subject. Struck by the depressed and anxious expression of his face, Rufus asked if he had heard from Regina. No: a longer time than usual had passed since Regina had written to him. “I don’t understand it,” he said sadly. “I suppose you didn’t see anything of her in Paris?”

Rufus had kept his promise not to mention Regina’s name in Sally’s presence. But it was impossible for him to look at Amelius, without plainly answering the question put to him, for the sake of the friend whom he loved. “I’m afraid there’s trouble coming to you, my son, from that quarter.” With those warning words, he described all that had passed between Regina and himself. “Some unknown enemy of yours has spoken against you to her uncle,” he concluded. “I suppose you have made enemies, my poor old boy, since you have been in London?”

“I know the man,” Amelius answered. “He wanted to marry Regina before I met with her. His name is Melton.”

Rufus started. “I heard only yesterday, he was in Paris with Farnaby. And that’s not the worst of it, Amelius. There’s another of them making mischief — a good friend of mine who has shown a twist in her temper, that has taken me by surprise after twenty years’ experience of her. I reckon there’s a drop of malice in the composition of the best woman that ever lived — and the men only discover it when another woman steps in, and stirs it up. Wait a bit!” he went on, when he had related the result of his visit to Mrs. Payson. “I have telegraphed to Miss Regina to be patient, and to trust you. Don’t you write to defend yourself, till you hear how you stand in her estimation, after my message. Tomorrow’s post may tell.”

Tomorrow’s post did tell.

Two letters reached Amelius from Paris. One from Mr. Farnaby, curt and insolent, breaking off the marriage-engagement. The other, from Regina, expressed with great severity of language. Her weak nature, like all weak natures, ran easily into extremes, and, once roused into asserting itself, took refuge in violence as a shy person takes refuge in audacity. Only a woman of larger and firmer mind would have written of her wrongs in a more just and more moderate tone.

Regina began without any preliminary form of address. She had no heart to upbraid Amelius, and no wish to speak of what she was suffering, to a man who had but too plainly shown that he had no respect for himself, and neither love, nor pity even, for her. In justice to herself, she released him from his promise, and returned his letters and his presents. Her own letters might be sent in a sealed packet, addressed to her at her uncle’s place of business in London. She would pray that he might be brought to a sense of the sin that he had committed, and that he might yet live to be a worthy and a happy man. For the rest, her decision was irrevocable. His own letter to Mrs. Payson condemned him — and the testimony of an old and honoured friend of her uncle proved that his wickedness was no mere act of impulse, but a deliberate course of infamy and falsehood, continued over many weeks. From the moment when she made that discovery, he was a stranger to her — and she now bade him farewell.

“Have you written to her?” Rufus asked, when he had seen the letters.

Amelius reddened with indignation. He was not aware of it himself — but his look and manner plainly revealed that Regina had lost her last hold on him. Her letter had inflicted an insult — not a wound: he was outraged and revolted; the deeper and gentler feelings, the emotions of a grieved and humiliated lover, had been killed in him by her stern words of dismissal and farewell.

“Do you think I would allow myself to be treated in that way, without a word of protest?” he said to Rufus. “I have written, refusing to take back my promise. ‘I declare, on my word of honour, that I have been faithful to you and to my engagement’— that was how I put it —‘and I scorn the vile construction which your uncle and his friend have placed upon an act of Christian mercy on my part.’ I wrote more tenderly, before I finished my letter; feeling for her distress, and being anxious above all things not to add to it. We shall see if she has love enough left for me to trust my faith and honour, instead of trusting false appearances. I will give her time.”

Rufus considerately abstained from expressing any opinion. He waited until the morning when a reply might be expected from Paris; and then he called at the cottage.

Without a word of comment, Amelius put a letter into his friend’s hand. It was his own letter to Regina returned to him. On the back of it, there was a line in Mr. Farnaby’s handwriting:—“If you send any more letters they will be burnt unopened.” In those insolent terms the wretch wrote with bankruptcy and exposure hanging over his head.

Rufus spoke plainly upon this. “There’s an end of it now,” he said. “That girl would never have made the right wife for you, Amelius: you’re well out of it. Forget that you ever knew these people; and let us talk of something else. How is Sally?”

At that ill-timed inquiry, Amelius showed his temper again. He was in a state of nervous irritability which made him apt to take offence, where no offence was intended. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed!” he answered petulantly; “there’s no fear of the poor child coming back to live with me. She is still under the doctor’s care.”

Rufus passed over the angry reply without notice, and patted him on the shoulder. “I spoke of the girl,” he said, “because I wanted to help her; and I can help her, if you will let me. Before long, my son, I shall be going back to the United States. I wish you would go with me!”

“And desert Sally!” cried Amelius.

“Nothing of the sort! Before we go, I’ll see that Sally is provided for to your satisfaction. Will you think of it, to please me?”

Amelius relented. “Anything, to please you,” he said.

Rufus noticed his hat and gloves on the table, and left him without saying more. “The trouble with Amelius,” he thought, as he closed the cottage gate, “is not over yet.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52