The Fallen Leaves, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 11

The day on which worthy old Surgeon Pinfold had predicted that Sally would be in a fair way of recovery had come and gone; and still the medical report to Amelius was the same:—“You must be patient, sir; she is not well enough to see you yet.”

Toff, watching his young master anxiously, was alarmed by the steadily progressive change in him for the worse, which showed itself at this time. Now sad and silent, and now again bitter and irritable, he had deteriorated physically as well as morally, until he really looked like the shadow of his former self. He never exchanged a word with his faithful old servant, except when he said mechanically, “good morning” or “good night.” Toff could endure it no longer. At the risk of being roughly misinterpreted, he followed his own kindly impulse, and spoke. “May I own to you, sir,” he said, with perfect gentleness and respect, “that I am indeed heartily sorry to see you so ill?”

Amelius looked up at him sharply. “You servants always make a fuss about trifles. I am a little out of sorts; and I want a change — that’s all. Perhaps I may go to America. You won’t like that; I shan’t complain if you look out for another situation.”

The tears came into the old man’s eyes. “Never!” he answered fervently. “My last service, sir, if you send me away, shall be my dearly loved service here.”

All that was most tender in the nature of Amelius was touched to the quick. “Forgive me, Toff,” he said; “I am lonely and wretched, and more anxious about Sally than words can tell. There can be no change in my life, until my mind is easy about that poor little girl. But if it does end in my going to America, you shall go with me — I wouldn’t lose you, my good friend, for the world.”

Toff still remained in the room, as if he had something left to say. Entirely ignorant of the marriage engagement between Amelius and Regina, and of the rupture in which it had ended, he vaguely suspected nevertheless that his master might have fallen into an entanglement with some lady unknown. The opportunity of putting the question was now before him. He risked it in a studiously modest form.

“Are you going to America to be married, sir?”

Amelius eyed him with a momentary suspicion. “What has put that in your head?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Toff answered humbly —“unless it was my own vivid imagination. Would there be anything very wonderful in a gentleman of your age and appearance conducting some charming person to the altar?”

Amelius was conquered once more; he smiled faintly. “Enough of your nonsense, Toff! I shall never be married — understand that.”

Toff’s withered old face brightened slyly. He turned away to withdraw; hesitated; and suddenly went back to his master.

“Have you any occasion for my services, sir, for an hour or two?” he asked.

“No. Be back before I go out, myself — be back at three o’clock.”

“Thank you, sir. My little boy is below, if you want anything in my absence.”

The little boy dutifully attending Toff to the gate, observed with grave surprise that his father snapped his fingers gaily at starting, and hummed the first bars of the Marseillaise. “Something is going to happen,” said Toff’s boy, on his way back to the house.

From the Regent’s Park to Blackacre Buildings is almost a journey from one end of London to the other. Assisted for part of the way by an omnibus, Toff made the journey, and arrived at the residence of Surgeon Pinfold, with the easy confidence of a man who knew thoroughly well where he was going, and what he was about. The sagacity of Rufus had correctly penetrated his intentions; he had privately followed his master, and had introduced himself to the notice of the surgeon — with a mixture of motives, in which pure devotion to the interests of Amelius played the chief part. His experience of the world told him that Sally’s departure was only the beginning of more trouble to come. “What is the use of me to my master,” he had argued, “except to spare him trouble, in spite of himself?”

Surgeon Pinfold was prescribing for a row of sick people, seated before him on a bench. “You’re not ill, are you?” he said sharply to Toff. “Very well, then, go into the parlour and wait.”

The patients being dismissed, Toff attempted to explain the object of his visit. But the old naval surgeon insisted on clearing the ground by means of a plain question first. “Has your master sent you here — or is this another private interview, like the last?”

“It is all that is most private,” Toff answered; “my poor master is wasting away in unrelieved wretchedness and suspense. Something must be done for him. Oh, dear and good sir, help me in this most miserable state of things! Tell me the truth about Miss Sally!”

Old Pinfold put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the parlour wall, looking at the Frenchman with a complicated expression, in which genuine sympathy mingled oddly with a quaint sense of amusement. “You’re a worthy chap,” he said; “and you shall have the truth. I have been obliged to deceive your master about this troublesome young Sally; I have stuck to it that she is too ill to see him, or to answer his letters. Both lies. There’s nothing the matter with her now, but a disease that I can’t cure, the disease of a troubled mind. She’s got it into her head that she has everlastingly degraded herself in his estimation by leaving him and coming here. It’s no use telling her — what, mind you, is perfectly true — that she was all but out of her senses, and not in the least responsible for what she did at the time when she did it. She holds to her own opinion, nevertheless. ‘What can he think of me, but that I have gone back willingly to the disgrace of my old life? I should throw myself out of the window, if he came into the room!’ That’s how she answers me — and, what makes matters worse still, she’s breaking her heart about him all the time. The poor wretch is so eager for any little word of news about his health and his doings, that it’s downright pitiable to see her. I don’t think her fevered little brain will bear it much longer — and hang me if I can tell what to do next to set things right! The two women, her friends, have no sort of influence over her. When I saw her this morning, she was ungrateful enough to say, ‘Why didn’t you let me die?’ How your master got among these unfortunate people is more than I know, and is no business of mine; I only wish he had been a different sort of man. Before I knew him as well as I know him now, I predicted, like a fool, that he would be just the person to help us in managing the girl. I have altered my opinion. He’s such a glorious fellow — so impulsive and so tender-hearted — that he would be certain, in her present excited state, to do her more harm than good. Do you know if he is going to be married?”

Toff, listening thus far in silent distress, suddenly looked up.

“Why do you ask me, sir?”

“It’s an idle question, I dare say,” old Pinfold remarked. “Sally persists in telling us she’s in the way of his prospects in life — and it’s got somehow into her perverse little head that his prospects in life mean his marriage, and she’s in the way of that.— Hullo! are you going already?”

“I want to go to Miss Sally, sir. I believe I can say something to comfort her. Do you think she will see me?”

“Are you the man who has got the nickname of Toff? She sometimes talks about Toff.”

“Yes, sir, yes! I am Theophile Leblond, otherwise Toff. Where can I find her?”

Surgeon Pinfold rang a bell. “My errand-boy is going past the house, to deliver some medicine,” he answered. “It’s a poor place; but you’ll find it neat and nice enough — thanks to your good master. He’s helping the two women to begin life again out of this country; and, while they’re waiting their turn to get a passage, they’ve taken an extra room and hired some decent furniture, by your master’s own wish. Oh, here’s the boy; he’ll show you the way. One word before you go. What do you think of saying to Sally?”

“I shall tell her, for one thing, sir, that my master is miserable for want of her.”

Surgeon Pinfold shook his head. “That won’t take you very far on the way to persuading her. You will make her miserable too — and there’s about all you will get by it.”

Toff lifted his indicative forefinger to the side of his nose. “Suppose I tell her something else, sir? Suppose I tell her my master is not going to be married to anybody?”

“She won’t believe you know anything about it.”

“She will believe, for this reason,” said Toff, gravely; “I put the question to my master before I came here; and I have it from his own lips that there is no young lady in the way, and that he is not — positively not — going to be married. If I tell Miss Sally this, sir, how do you say it will end? Will you bet me a shilling it has no effect on her?”

“I won’t bet a farthing! Follow the boy — and tell young Sally I have sent her a better doctor than I am.”

While Toff was on his way to Sally, Toff’s boy was disturbing Amelius by the announcement of a visitor. The card sent in bore this inscription: “Brother Bawkwell, from Tadmor.”

Amelius looked at the card; and ran into the hall to receive the visitor, with both hands held out in hearty welcome. “Oh, I am so glad to see you!” he cried. “Come in, and tell me all about Tadmor!”

Brother Bawkwell acknowledged the enthusiastic reception offered to him by a stare of grim surprise. He was a dry, hard old man, with a scrubby white beard, a narrow wrinkled forehead, and an obstinate lipless mouth; fitted neither by age nor temperament to be the intimate friend of any of his younger brethren among the Community. But, at that saddest time of his life, the heart of Amelius warmed to any one who reminded him of his tranquil and happy days at Tadmor. Even this frozen old Socialist now appeared to him, for the first time, under the borrowed aspect of a welcome friend.

Brother Bawkwell took the chair offered to him, and opened the proceedings, in solemn silence, by looking at his watch. “Twenty-five minutes past two,” he said to himself — and put the watch back again.

“Are you pressed for time?” Amelius asked.

“Much may be done in ten minutes,” Brother Bawkwell answered, in a Scotch accent which had survived the test of half a lifetime in America. “I would have you know I am in England on a mission from the Community, with a list of twenty-seven persons in all, whom I am appointed to confer with on matters of varying importance. Yours, friend Amelius, is a matter of minor importance. I can give you ten minutes.”

He opened a big black pocket-book, stuffed with a mass of letters; and, placing two of them on the table before him, addressed Amelius as if he was making a speech at a public meeting.

“I have to request your attention to certain proceedings of the Council at Tadmor, bearing date the third of December last; and referring to a person under sentence of temporary separation from the Community, along with yourself —”

“Mellicent!” Amelius exclaimed.

“We have no time for interruptions,” Brother Bawkwell remarked. “The person is Sister Mellicent; and the business before the Council was to consider a letter, under her signature, received December second. Said letter,” he proceeded, taking up one of his papers, “is abridged as follows by the Secretary to the Council. In substance, the writer states (first): ‘That the married sister under whose protection she has been living at New York is about to settle in England with her husband, appointed to manage the branch of his business established in London. (Second): That she, meaning Sister Mellicent, has serious reasons for not accompanying her relatives to England, and has no other friends to take charge of her welfare, if she remains in New York. (Third): That she appeals to the mercy of the Council, under these circumstances, to accept the expression of her sincere repentance for the offence of violating a Rule, and to permit a friendless and penitent creature to return to the only home left to her, her home at Tadmor.’ No, friend Amelius — we have no time for expressions of sympathy; the first half of the ten minutes has nearly expired. I have further to notify you that the question was put to the vote, in this form: ‘Is it consistent with the serious responsibility which rests on the Council, to consider the remission of any sentence justly pronounced under the Book of Rules?’ The result was very remarkable; the votes for and against being equally divided. In this event, as you know, our laws provide that the decision rests with the Elder Brother — who gave his vote thereupon for considering the remission of the sentence; and moved the next resolution that the sentence be remitted accordingly. Carried by a small majority. Whereupon, Sister Mellicent was received again at Tadmor.”

“Ah, the dear old Elder Brother,” cried Amelius —“always on the side of mercy!”

Brother Bawkwell held up his hand in protest. “You seem to have no idea,” he said, “of the value of time. Do be quiet! As travelling representative of the Council, I am further instructed to say, that the sentence pronounced against yourself stands duly remitted, in consequence of the remission of the sentence against Sister Mellicent. You likewise are free to return to Tadmor, at your own will and pleasure. But — attend to what is coming, friend Amelius! — the Council holds to its resolution that your choice between us and the world shall be absolutely unbiased. In the fear of exercising even an indirect influence, we have purposely abstained from corresponding with you. With the same motive we now say, that if you do return to us, it must be with no interference on our part. We inform you of an event that has happened in your absence — and we do no more.”

He paused, and looked again at his watch. Time proverbially works wonders. Time closed his lips.

Amelius replied with a heavy heart. The message from the Council had recalled him from the remembrance of Mellicent to the sense of his own position. “My experience of the world has been a very hard one,” he said. “I would gladly go back to Tadmor this very day, but for one consideration —” He hesitated; the image of Sally was before him. The tears rose in his eyes; he said no more.

Brother Bawkwell, driven hard by time, got on his legs, and handed to Amelius the second of the two papers which he had taken out of his pocket-book.

“Here is a purely informal document,” he said; “being a few lines from Sister Mellicent, which I was charged to deliver to you. Be pleased to read it as quickly as you can, and tell me if there is any reply.”

There was not much to read:—“The good people here, Amelius, have forgiven me and let me return to them. I am living happily now, dear, in my remembrances of you. I take the walks that we once took together — and sometimes I go out in the boat on the lake, and think of the time when I told you my sad story. Your poor little pet creatures are under my care; the dog, and the fawn, and the birds — all well, and waiting for you, with me. My belief that you will come back to me remains the same unshaken belief that it has been from the first. Once more I say it — you will find me the first to welcome you, when your spirits are sinking under the burden of life, and your heart turns again to the friends of your early days. Until that time comes, think of me now and then. Good-bye.”

“I am waiting,” said Brother Bawkwell, taking his hat in his hand.

Amelius answered with an effort. “Thank her kindly in my name,” he said: “that is all.” His head drooped while he spoke; he fell into thought as if he had been alone in the room.

But the emissary from Tadmor, warned by the minute-hand on the watch, recalled his attention to passing events. “You would do me a kindness,” said Brother Bawkwell, producing a list of names and addresses, “if you could put me in the way of finding the person named, eighth from the top. It’s getting on towards twenty minutes to three.”

The address thus pointed out was at no great distance, on the northern side of the Regent’s Park. Amelius, still silent and thoughtful, acted willingly as a guide. “Please thank the Council for their kindness to me,” he said, when they reached their destination. Brother Bawkwell looked at friend Amelius with a calm inquiring eye. “I think you’ll end in coming back to us,” he said. “I’ll take the opportunity, when I see you at Tadmor, of making a few needful remarks on the value of time.”

Amelius went back to the cottage, to see if Toff had returned, in his absence, before he paid his daily visit to Surgeon Pinfold. He called down the kitchen stairs, “Are you there, Toff?” And Toff answered briskly, “At your service, sir.”

The sky had become cloudy, and threatened rain. Not finding his umbrella in the hall, Amelius went into the library to look for it. As he closed the door behind him, Toff and his boy appeared on the kitchen stairs; both walking on tiptoe, and both evidently on the watch for something.

Amelius found his umbrella. But it was characteristic of the melancholy change in him that he dropped languidly into the nearest chair, instead of going out at once with the easy activity of happier days. Sally was in his mind again; he was rousing his resolution to set the doctor’s commands at defiance, and to insist on seeing her, come what might of it.

He suddenly looked up. A slight sound had startled him.

It was a faint rustling sound; and it came from the sadly silent room which had once been Sally’s.

He listened, and heard it again. He sprang to his feet — his heart beat wildly — he opened the door of the room.

She was there.

Her hands were clasped over her fast-heaving breast. She was powerless to look at him, powerless to speak to him — powerless to move towards him, until he opened his arms to her. Then, all the love and all the sorrow in the tender little heart flowed outward to him in a low murmuring cry. She hid her blushing face on his bosom. The rosy colour softly tinged her neck — the unspoken confession of all she feared, and all she hoped.

It was a time beyond words. They were silent in each other’s arms.

But under them, on the floor below, the stillness in the cottage was merrily broken by an outburst of dance-music — with a rhythmical thump-thump of feet, keeping time to the cheerful tune. Toff was playing his fiddle; and Toff’s boy was dancing to his father’s music.

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