The landlady of the lodgings decided what was to be done.
"You will be so good, sir, as to leave my apartments immediately," she said to Amelius. "I make no claim to the week's rent, in consideration of the short notice. This is a respectable house, and it shall be kept respectable at any sacrifice."
Amelius explained and protested; he appealed to the landlady's sense of justice and sense of duty, as a Christian woman.
The reasoning which would have been irresistible at Tadmor was reasoning completely thrown away in London. The landlady remained as impenetrable as the Egyptian Sphinx. "If that creature in the bedroom is not out of my house in an hour's time, I shall send for the police." Having answered her lodger's arguments in those terms, she left the room, and banged the door after her.
"Thank you, sir, for being so kind to me. I'll go away directly--and then, perhaps, the lady will forgive you."
Amelius looked round. Simple Sally had heard it all. She was dressed in her wretched clothes, and was standing at the open bedroom door, crying,
"Wait a little" said Amelius, wiping her eyes with his own handkerchief; "and we will go away together. I want to get you some better clothes; and I don't exactly know how to set about it. Don't cry, my dear--don't cry."
The deaf maid-of-all-work came in, as he spoke. She too was in tears. Amelius had been good to her, in many little ways--and she was the guilty person who had led to the discovery in the bedroom. "If you had only told me, sir," she said pentitently, "I'd have kep' it secret. But, there, I went in with your 'ot water, as usual, and, O Lor', I was that startled I dropped the jug, and run downstairs again--!"
Amelius stopped the further progress of the apology. "I don't blame you, Maria," he said; "I'm in a difficulty. Help me out of it; and you will do me a kindness."
Maria partially heard him, and no more. Afraid of reaching the landlady's ears, as well as the maid's ears, if he raised his voice, he asked if she could read writing. Yes, she could read writing, if it was plain. Amelius immediately reduced the expression of his necessities to writing, in large text. Maria was delighted. She knew the nearest shop at which ready-made outer clothing for women could be obtained, and nothing was wanted, as a certain guide to an ignorant man, but two pieces of string. With one piece, she measured Simple Sally's height, and with the other she took the slender girth of the girl's waist--while Amelius opened his writing-desk, and supplied himself with the last sum of spare money that he possessed. He had just closed the desk again, when the voice of the merciless landlady was heard, calling imperatively for Maria.
The maid-of-all-work handed the two indicative strings to Amelius. "They'll 'elp you at the shop," she said--and shuffled out of the room.
Amelius turned to Simple Sally. "I am going to get you some new clothes," he began.
The girl stopped him there: she was incapable of listening to a word more. Every trace of sorrow vanished from her face in an instant. She clapped her hands. "Oh!" she cried, "new clothes! clean clothes! Let me go with you."
Even Amelius saw that it was impossible to take her out in the streets with him in broad daylight, dressed as she was then. "No, no," he said, "wait here till you get your new things. I won't be half an hour gone. Lock yourself in if you're afraid, and open the door to nobody till I come back!"
Sally hesitated; she began to look frightened.
"Think of the new dress, and the pretty bonnet," suggested Amelius, speaking unconsciously in the tone in which he might have promised a toy to a child.
He had taken the right way with her. Her face brightened again. "I'll do anything you tell me," she said.
He put the key in her hand, and was out in the street directly.
Amelius possessed one valuable moral quality which is exceedingly rare among Englishmen. He was not in the least ashamed of putting himself in a ridiculous position, when he was conscious that his own motives justified him. The smiling and tittering of the shop-women, when he stated the nature of his errand, and produced his two pieces of string, failed to annoy him in the smallest degree. He laughed too. "Funny, isn't it," he said, "a man like me buying gowns and the rest of it? She can't come herself--and you'll advise me, like good creatures, won't you?" They advised their handsome young customer to such good purpose, that he was in possession of a gray walking costume, a black cloth jacket, a plain lavender-coloured bonnet, a pair of black gloves, and a paper of pins, in little more than ten minutes' time. The nearest trunk-maker supplied a travelling-box to hold all these treasures; and a passing cab took Amelius back to his lodgings, just as the half-hour was out. But one event had happened during his absence. The landlady had knocked at the door, had called through it in a terrible voice, "Half an hour more!" and had retired again without waiting for an answer.
Amelius carried the box into the bedroom. "Be as quick as you can, Sally," he said--and left her alone, to enjoy the full rapture of discovering the new clothes.
When she opened the door and showed herself, the change was so wonderful that Amelius was literally unable to speak to her. Joy flushed her pale cheeks, and diffused its tender radiance over her pure blue eyes. A more charming little creature, in that momentary transfiguration of pride and delight, no man's eyes ever looked on. She ran across the room to Amelius, and threw her arms round his neck. "Let me be your servant!" she cried; "I want to live with you all my life. Jump me up! I'm wild--I want to fly through the window." She caught sight of herself in the looking-glass, and suddenly became composed and serious. "Oh," she said, with the quaintest mixture of awe and astonishment, "was there ever such another bonnet as this? Do look at it--do please look at it!"
Amelius good-naturedly approached to look at it. At the same moment the sitting-room door was opened, without any preliminary ceremony of knocking--and Rufus walked into the room. "It's half after ten," he said, "and the breakfast is spoiling as fast as it can."
Before Amelius could make his excuses for having completely forgotten his engagement, Rufus discovered Sally. No woman, young or old, high in rank or low in rank, ever found the New Englander unprepared with his own characteristic acknowledgment of the debt of courtesy which he owed to the sex. With his customary vast strides, he marched up to Sally and insisted on shaking hands with her. "How do you find yourself, miss? I take pleasure in making your acquaintance." The girl turned to Amelius with wide-eyed wonder and doubt. "Go into the next room, Sally, for a minute or two," he said. "This gentleman is a friend of mine, and I have something to say to him."
"That's an active little girl," said Rufus, looking after her as she ran to the friendly shelter of the bedroom. "Reminds me of one of our girls at Coolspring--she does. Well, now, and who may Sally be?"
Amelius answered the question, as usual, without the slightest reserve. Rufus waited in impenetrable silence until he had completed his narrative--then took him gently by the arm, and led him to the window. With his hands in his pockets and his long legs planted wide apart on his big feet, the American carefully studied the face of his young friend under the strongest light that could fall on it.
"No," said Rufus, speaking quietly to himself, "the boy is not raving mad, so far as I can see. He has every appearance on him of meaning what he says. And this is what comes of the Community of Tadmor, is it? Well, civil and religious liberty is dearly purchased sometimes in the United States--and that's a fact."
Amelius turned away to pack his portmanteau. "I don't understand you," he said.
"I don't suppose you do," Rufus remarked. "I am at a similar loss myself to understand you. My store of sensible remarks is copious on most occasions--but I'm darned if I ain't dried up in the face of this! Might I venture to ask what that venerable Chief Christian at Tadmor would say to the predicament in which I find my young Socialist this morning?"
"What would he say?" Amelius repeated. "Just what he said when Mellicent first came among us. 'Ah, dear me! Another of the Fallen Leaves!' I wish I had the dear old man here to help me. He would know how to restore that poor starved, outraged, beaten creature to the happy place on God's earth which God intended her to fill!"
Rufus abruptly took him by the hand. "You mean that?" he said.
"What else could I mean?" Amelius rejoined sharply.
"Bring her right away to breakfast at the hotel!" cried Rufus, with every appearance of feeling infinitely relieved. "I don't say I can supply you with the venerable Chief Christian--but I can find a woman to fix you, who is as nigh to being an angel, barring the wings, as any she-creature since the time of mother Eve." He knocked at the bedroom door, turning a deaf ear to every appeal for further information which Amelius could address to him. "Breakfast is waiting, miss!" he called out; "and I'm bound to tell you that the temper of the cook at our hotel is a long way on the wrong side of uncertain. Well, Amelius, this is the age of exhibition. If there's ever an exhibition of ignorance in the business of packing a portmanteau, you run for the Gold Medal--and a unanimous jury will vote it, I reckon, to a young man from Tadmor. Clear out, will you, and leave it to me."
He pulled off his coat, and conquered the difficulties of packing in a hurry, as if he had done nothing else all his life. The landlady herself, appearing with pitiless punctuality exactly at the expiration of the hour, "smoothed her horrid front" in the polite and placable presence of Rufus. He insisted on shaking hands with her; he took pleasure in making her acquaintance; she reminded him, he did assure her, of the lady of the captain-general of the Coolspring Branch of the St. Vitus Commandery; and he would take the liberty to inquire whether they were related or not. Under cover of this fashionable conversation, Simple Sally was taken out of the room by Amelius without attracting notice. She insisted on carrying her threadbare old clothes away with her in the box which had contained the new dress. "I want to look at them sometimes," she said, "and think how much better off I am now." Rufus was the last to take his departure; he persisted in talking to the landlady all the way down the stairs and out to the street door.
While Amelius was waiting for his friend on the house-steps, a young man driving by in a cab leaned out and looked at him. The young man was Jervy, on his way from Mr. Ronald's tombstone to Doctors' Commons.
With a rapid succession of events the morning had begun. With a rapid succession of events the day went on.
The breakfast being over, rooms at the hotel were engaged by Rufus for his "two young friends." After this, the next thing to be done was to provide Simple Sally with certain necessary, but invisible, articles of clothing, which Amelius had never thought of. A note to the nearest shop produced the speedy arrival of a smart lady, accompanied by a boy and a large basket. There was some difficulty in persuading Sally to trust herself alone in her room with the stranger. She was afraid, poor soul, of everybody but Amelius. Even the good American failed to win her confidence. The distrust implanted in her feeble mind by the terrible life that she had led, was the instinctive distrust of a wild animal. "Why must I go among other people?" she whispered piteously to Amelius. "I only want to be with You!" It was as completely useless to reason with her as it would have been to explain the advantages of a comfortable cage to a newly caught bird. There was but one way of inducing her to submit to the most gently exerted interference. Amelius had only to say, "Do it, Sally, to please me." And Sally sighed, and did it.
In her absence Amelius reiterated his inquiries, in relation to that unknown friend whom Rufus had not scrupled to describe as "an angel--barring the wings."
The lady in question, the American briefly explained, was an Englishwoman--the wife of one of his countrymen, established in London as a merchant. He had known them both intimately before their departure from the United States; and the old friendship had been cordially renewed on his arrival in England. Associated with many other charitable institutions, Mrs. Payson was one of the managing committee of a "Home for Friendless Women," especially adapted to receive poor girls in Sally's melancholy position. Rufus offered to write a note to Mrs. Payson; inquiring at what hour she could receive his friend and himself, and obtain permission for them to see the "Home." Amelius, after some hesitation, accepted the proposal. The messenger had not been long despatched with the note before the smart person from the shop made her appearance once more, reporting that "the young lady's outfit had been perfectly arranged," and presenting the inevitable result in the shape of a bill. The last farthing of ready money in the possession of Amelius proved to be insufficient to discharge the debt. He accepted a loan from Rufus, until he could give his bankers the necessary order to sell out some of his money invested in the Funds. His answer, when Rufus protested against this course, was characteristic of the teaching which he owed to the Community. "My dear fellow, I am bound to return the money you have lent to me--in the interests of our poor brethren. The next friend who borrows of you may not have the means of paying you back."
After waiting for the return of Simple Sally, and waiting in vain, Amelius sent a chambermaid to her room, with a message to her. Rufus disapproved of this hasty proceeding. "Why disturb the girl at her looking-glass?" asked the old bachelor, with his quaintly humorous smile.
Sally came in with no bright pleasure in her eyes this time; the girl looked worn and haggard. She drew Amelius away into a corner, and whispered to him. "I get a pain sometimes where the bruise is," she said; "and I've got it bad, now." She glanced, with an odd furtive jealousy, at Rufus. "I kept away from you," she explained, "because I didn't want him to know." She stopped, and put her hand on her bosom, and clenched her teeth fast. "Never mind," she said cheerfully, as the pang passed away again; "I can bear it."
Amelius, acting on impulse, as usual, instantly ordered the most comfortable carriage that the hotel possessed. He had heard terrible stories of the possible result of an injury to a woman's bosom. "I shall take her to the best doctor in London," he announced. Sally whispered to him again--still with her eye on Rufus. "Is he going with us?" she asked. "No," said Amelius; "one of us must stay here to receive a message." Rufus looked after them very gravely, as the two left the room together.
Applying for information to the mistress of the hotel, Amelius obtained the address of a consulting surgeon of great celebrity, while Sally was getting ready to go out.
"Why don't you like my good friend upstairs?" he said to the girl as they drove away from the house. The answer came swift and straight from the heart of the daughter of Eve. "Because you like him!" Amelius changed the subject: he asked if she was still in pain. She shook her head impatiently. Pain or no pain, the uppermost idea in her mind was still that idea of being his servant, which had already found expression in words before they left the lodgings. "Will you let me keep my beautiful new dress for going out on Sundays?" she asked. "The shabby old things will do when I am your servant. I can black your boots, and brush your clothes, and keep your room tidy--and I will try hard to learn, if you will have me taught to cook." Amelius attempted to change the subject again. He might as well have talked to her in an unknown tongue. The glorious prospect of being his servant absorbed the whole of her attention. "I'm little and I'm stupid," she went on; "but I do think I could learn to cook, if I knew I was doing it for You." She paused, and looked at him anxiously. "Do let me try!" she pleaded; "I haven't had much pleasure in my life--and I should like it so!" It was impossible to resist this. "You shall be as happy as I can make you, Sally," Amelius answered; "God knows it isn't much you ask for!"
Something in those compassionate words set her thinking in another direction. It was sad to see how slowly and painfully she realized the idea that had been suggested to her.
"I wonder whether you can make me happy?" she said. "I suppose I have been happy before this--but I don't know when. I don't remember a time when I was not hungry or cold. Wait a bit. I do think I was happy once. It was a long while ago, and it took me a weary time to do it--but I did learn at last to play a tune on the fiddle. The old man and his wife took it in turns to teach me. Somebody gave me to the old man and his wife; I don't know who it was, and I don't remember their names. They were musicians. In the fine streets they sang hymns, and in the poor streets they sang comic songs. It was cold, to be sure, standing barefoot on the pavement--but I got plenty of halfpence. The people said I was so little it was a shame to send me out, and so I got halfpence. I had bread and apples for supper, and a nice little corner under the staircase, to sleep in. Do you know, I do think I did enjoy myself at that time," she concluded, still a little doubtful whether those faint and far-off remembrances were really to be relied on.
Amelius tried to lead her to other recollections. He asked her how old she was when she played the fiddle.
"I don't know," she answered; "I don't know how old I am now. I don't remember anything before the fiddle. I can't call to mind how long it was first--but there came a time when the old man and his wife got into trouble. They went to prison, and I never saw them afterwards. I ran away with the fiddle; to get the halfpence, you know, all to myself. I think I should have got a deal of money, if it hadn't been for the boys. They're so cruel, the boys are. They broke my fiddle. I tried selling pencils after that; but people didn't seem to want pencils. They found me out begging. I got took up, and brought before the what-do-you-call-him--the gentleman who sits in a high place, you know, behind a desk. Oh, but I was frightened, when they took me before the gentleman! He looked very much puzzled. He says, 'Bring her up here; she's so small I can hardly see her.' He says, 'Good God! what am I to do with this unfortunate child?' There was plenty of people about. One of them says, 'The workhouse ought to take her.' And a lady came in, and she says, 'I'll take her, sir, if you'll let me.' And he knew her, and he let her. She took me to a place they called a Refuge--for wandering children, you know. It was very strict at the Refuge. They did give us plenty to eat, to be sure, and they taught us lessons. They told us about Our Father up in Heaven. I said a wrong thing--I said, 'I don't want him up in Heaven; I want him down here.' They were very much ashamed of me when I said that. I was a bad girl; I turned ungrateful. After a time, I ran away. You see, it was so strict, and I was so used to the streets. I met with a Scotchman in the streets. He wore a kilt, and played the pipes; he taught me to dance, and dressed me up like a Scotch girl. He had a curious wife, a sort of half-black woman. She used to dance too--on a bit of carpet, you know, so as not to spoil her fine shoes, They taught me songs; he taught me a Scotch song. And one day his wife said she was English (I don't know how that was, being a half-black woman), and I should learn an English song. And they quarrelled about it. And she had her way. She taught me 'Sally in our Alley'. That's how I come to be called Sally. I hadn't any name of my own--I always had nicknames. Sally was the last of them, and Sally has stuck to me. I hope it isn't too common a name to please you? Oh, what a fine house! Are we really going in? Will they let me in? How stupid I am! I forgot my beautiful clothes. You won't tell them, will you, if they take me for a lady?"
The carriage had stopped at the great surgeon's house: the waiting-room was full of patients. Some of them were trying to read the books and newspapers on the table; and some of them were looking at each other, not only without the slightest sympathy, but occasionally even with downright distrust and dislike. Amelius took up a newspaper, and gave Sally an illustrated book to amuse her, while they waited to see the Surgeon in their turn.
Two long hours passed, before the servant summoned Amelius to the consulting-room. Sally was wearily asleep in her chair. He left her undisturbed, having questions to put relating to the imperfectly developed state of her mind, which could not be asked in her presence. The surgeon listened, with no ordinary interest, to the young stranger's simple and straightforward narrative of what had happened on the previous night. "You are very unlike other young men," he said; "may I ask how you have been brought up?" The reply surprised him. "This opens quite a new view of Socialism," he said. "I thought your conduct highly imprudent at first--it seems to be the natural result of your teaching now. Let me see what I can do to help you."
He was very grave and very gentle, when Sally was presented to him. His opinion of the injury to her bosom relieved the anxiety of Amelius: there might be pain for some little time to come, but there were no serious consequences to fear. Having written his prescription, and having put several questions to Sally, the surgeon sent her back, with marked kindness of manner, to wait for Amelius in the patients' room.
"I have young daughters of my own," he said, when the door was closed; "and I cannot but feel for that unhappy creature, when I contrast her life with theirs. So far as I can see it, the natural growth of her senses--her higher and her lower senses alike--has been stunted, like the natural growth of her body, by starvation, terror, exposure to cold, and other influences inherent in the life that she has led. With nourishing food, pure air, and above all kind and careful treatment, I see no reason, at her age, why she should not develop into an intelligent and healthy young woman. Pardon me if I venture on giving you a word of advice. At your time of life, you will do well to place her at once under competent and proper care. You may live to regret it, if you are too confident in your own good motives in such a case as this. Come to me again, if I call be of any use to you. No," he continued, refusing to take his fee; "my help to that poor lost girl is help given freely." He shook hands with Amelius--a worthy member of the noble order to which he belonged.
The surgeon's parting advice, following on the quaint protest of Rufus, had its effect on Amelius. He was silent and thoughtful when he got into the carriage again.
Simple Sally looked at him with a vague sense of alarm. Her heart beat fast, under the perpetually recurring fear that she had done something or said something to offend him. "Was it bad behaviour in me," she asked, "to fall asleep in the chair?" Reassured, so far, she was still as anxious as ever to get at the truth. After long hesitation, and long previous thought, she ventured to try another question. "The gentleman sent me out of the room--did he say anything to set you against me?"
"The gentleman said everything that was kind of you," Amelius replied, "and everything to make me hope that you will live to be a happy girl."
She said nothing to that; vague assurances were no assurances to her--she only looked at him with the dumb fidelity of a dog. Suddenly, she dropped on her knees in the carriage, hid her face in her hands, and cried silently. Surprised and distressed, he attempted to raise her and console her. "No!" she said obstinately. "Something has happened to vex you, and you won't tell me what it is. Do, do, do tell me what it is!"
"My dear child," said Amelius, "I was only thinking anxiously about you, in the time to come."
She looked up at him quickly. "What! have you forgotten already?" she exclaimed. "I'm to be your servant in the time to come." She dried her eyes, and took her place again joyously by his side. "You did frighten me," she said, "and all for nothing. But you didn't mean it, did you?"
An older man might have had the courage to undeceive her: Amelius shrank from it. He tried to lead her back to the melancholy story--so common and so terrible; so pitiable in its utter absence of sentiment or romance--the story of her past life.
"No," she answered, with that quick insight where her feelings were concerned, which was the only quick insight that she possessed. "I don't like making you sorry; and you did look sorry--you did--when I talked about it before. The streets, the streets, the streets; little girl, or big girl, it's only the streets; and always being hungry or cold; and cruel men when it isn't cruel boys. I want to be happy! I want to enjoy my new clothes! You tell me about your own self. What makes you so kind? I can't make it out; try as I may, I can't make it out."
Some time elapsed before they got back to the hotel. Amelius drove as far as the City, to give the necessary instructions to his bankers.
On returning to the sitting-room at last, he discovered that his American friend was not alone. A gray-haired lady with a bright benevolent face was talking earnestly to Rufus. The instant Sally discovered the stranger, she started back, fled to the shelter of her bedchamber, and locked herself in. Amelius, entering the room after a little hesitation, was presented to Mrs. Payson.
"There was something in my old friend's note," said the lady, smiling and turning to Rufus, "which suggested to me that I should do well to answer it personally. I am not too old yet to follow the impulse of the moment, sometimes; and I am very glad that I did so. I have heard what is, to me, a very interesting story. Mr. Goldenheart, I respect you! And I will prove it by helping you, with all my heart and soul, to save that poor little girl who has just run away from me. Pray don't make excuses for her; I should have run away too, at her age. We have arranged," she continued, looking again at Rufus, "that I shall take you both to the Home, this afternoon. If we can prevail on Sally to go with us, one serious obstacle in our way will be overcome. Tell me the number of her room. I want to try if I can't make friends with her. I have had some experience; and I don't despair of bringing her back here, hand in hand with the terrible person who has frightened her."
The two men were left together. Amelius attempted to speak.
"Keep it down," said Rufus; "no premature outbreak of opinion, if you please, yet awhile. Wait till she has fixed Sally, and shown us the Paradise of the poor girls. It's within the London postal district, and that's all I know about it. Well, now, and did you go to the doctor? Thunder! what's come to the boy? Seems as though he had left his complexion in the carriage! He looks, I do declare, as if he wanted medical tinkering himself."
Amelius explained that his past night had been a wakeful one, and that the events of the day had not allowed him any opportunities of repose. "Since the morning," he said, "things have hurried so, one on the top of the other, that I am beginning to feel a little dazed and weary." Without a word of remark, Rufus produced the remedy. The materials were ready on the sideboard--he made a cocktail.
"Another?" asked the New Englander, after a reasonable lapse of time.
Amelius declined taking another. He stretched himself on the sofa; his good friend considerately took up a newspaper. For the first time that day, he had now the prospect of a quiet interval for rest and thought. In less than a minute the delusive prospect vanished. He started to his feet again, disturbed by a new anxiety. Having leisure to think, he had thought of Regina. "Good heavens!" he exclaimed; "she's waiting to see me--and I never remembered it till this moment!" He looked at his watch: it was five o'clock. "What am I to do?" he said helplessly.
Rufus laid down the newspaper, and considered the new difficulty in its various aspects.
"We are bound to go with Mrs. Payson to the Home," he said; "and, I tell you this, Amelius, the matter of Sally is not a matter to be played with; it's a thing that's got to be done. In your place I should write politely to Miss Regina, and put it off till to-morrow."
In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a man who took Rufus for his counsellor was a man who acted wisely in every sense of the word. Events, however, of which Amelius and his friend were both ignorant alike, had so ordered it, that the American's well-meant advice, in this one exceptional case, was the very worst advice that could have been given. In an hour more, Jervy and Mrs. Sowler were to meet at the tavern door. The one last hope of protecting Mrs. Farnaby from the abominable conspiracy of which she was the destined victim, rested solely on the fulfilment by Amelius of his engagement with Regina for that day. Always ready to interfere with the progress of the courtship, Mrs. Farnaby would be especially eager to seize the first opportunity of speaking to her young Socialist friend on the subject of his lecture. In the course of the talk between them, the idea which, in the present disturbed state of his mind, had not struck him yet--the idea that the outcast of the streets might, by the barest conceivable possibility, be identified with the lost daughter--would, in one way or another, be almost infallibly suggested to Amelius; and, at the eleventh hour, the conspiracy would be foiled. If, on the other hand, the American's fatal advice was followed, the next morning's post might bring a letter from Jervy to Mrs. Farnaby--with this disastrous result. At the first words spoken by Amelius, she would put an end to all further interest in the subject on his part, by telling him that the lost girl had been found, and found by another person.
Rufus pointed to the writing-materials on a side table, which he had himself used earlier in the day. The needful excuse was, unhappily, quite easy to find. A misunderstanding with his landlady had obliged Amelius to leave his lodgings at an hour's notice, and had occupied him in trying to find a new residence for the rest of the day. The note was written. Rufus, who was nearest to the bell, stretched out his hand to ring for the messenger. Amelius suddenly stopped him.
"She doesn't like me to disappoint her," he said. "I needn't stay long--I might get there and back in half an hour, in a fast cab."
His conscience was not quite easy. The sense of having forgotten Regina--no matter how naturally and excusably--oppressed him with a feeling of self-reproach. Rufus raised no objection; the hesitation of Amelius was unquestionably creditable to him. "If you must do it, my son," he said, "do it right away--and we'll wait for you."
Amelius took up his hat. The door opened as he approached it, and Mrs. Payson entered the room, leading Simple Sally by the hand.
"We are all going together," said the genial old lady, "to see my large family of daughters at the Home. We can have our talk in the carriage. It's an hour's drive from this place--and I must be back again to dinner at half-past seven."
Amelius and Rufus looked at each other. Amelius thought of pleading an engagement, and asking to be excused. Under the circumstances, it was assuredly not a very gracious thing to do. Before he could make up his mind, one way or the other, Sally stole to his side, and put her hand on his arm. Mrs. Payson had done wonders in conquering the girl's inveterate distrust of strangers, and, to a certain extent at least, winning her confidence. But no early influence could shake Sally's dog-like devotion to Amelius. Her jealous instinct discovered something suspicious in his sudden silence. "You must go with us," she said, "I won't go without you."
"Certainly not," Mrs. Payson added; "I promised her that, of course, beforehand."
Rufus rang the bell, and despatched the messenger to Regina. "That's the one way out of it, my son," he whispered to Amelius, as they followed Mrs. Payson and Sally down the stairs of the hotel.
They had just driven up to the gates of the Home, when Jervy and his accomplice met at the tavern, and entered on their consultation in a private room.
In spite of her poverty-stricken appearance, Mrs. Sowler was not absolutely destitute. In various underhand and wicked ways, she contrived to put a few shillings in her pocket from week to week. If she was half starved, it was for the very ordinary reason, among persons of her vicious class, that she preferred spending her money on drink. Stating his business with her, as reservedly and as cunningly as usual, Jervy found, to his astonishment, that even this squalid old creature presumed to bargain with him. The two wretches were on the point of a quarrel which might have delayed the execution of the plot against Mrs. Farnaby, but for the vile self-control which made Jervy one of the most formidable criminals living. He gave way on the question of money--and, from that moment, he had Mrs. Sowler absolutely at his disposal.
"Meet me to-morrow morning, to receive your instructions," he said. "The time is ten sharp; and the place is the powder-magazine in Hyde Park. And mind this! You must be decently dressed--you know where to hire the things. If I smell you of spirits to-morrow morning, I shall employ somebody else. No; not a farthing now. You will have your money--first instalment only, mind!--to-morrow at ten."
Left by himself, Jervy sent for pen, ink, and paper. Using his left hand, which was just as serviceable to him as his right, he traced these lines:--
"You are informed, by an unknown friend, that a certain lost young lady is now living in a foreign country, and may be restored to her afflicted mother on receipt of a sufficient sum to pay expenses, and to reward the writer of this letter, who is undeservedly, in distressed circumstances.
"Are you, madam, the mother? I ask the question in the strictest confidence, knowing nothing certainly but that your husband was the person who put the young lady out to nurse in her infancy.
"I don't address your husband, because his inhuman desertion of the poor baby does not incline me to trust him. I run the risk of trusting you--to a certain extent--at starting. Shall I drop a hint which may help you to identify the child, in your own mind? It would be inexcusably foolish on my part to speak too plainly, just yet. The hint must be a vague one. Suppose I use a poetical expression, and say that the young lady is enveloped in mystery from head to foot--especially the foot?
"In the event of my addressing the right person, I beg to offer a suggestion for a preliminary interview.
"If you will take a walk on the bridge over the Serpentine River, on Kensington Gardens side, at half-past ten o'clock to-morrow morning, holding a white handkerchief in your left hand, you will meet the much-injured woman, who was deceived into taking charge of the infant child at Ramsgate, and will be satisfied so far that you are giving your confidence to persons who really deserve it."
Jervy addressed this infamous letter to Mrs. Farnaby, in an ordinary envelope, marked "Private." He posted it, that night, with his own hand.
"Rufus! I don't quite like the way you look at me. You seem to think--"
"Give it tongue, my son. What do I seem to think?"
"You think I'm forgetting Regina. You don't believe I'm just as fond of her as ever. The fact is, you're an old bachelor."
"That is so. Where's the harm, Amelius?"
"I don't understand--"
"You're out there, my bright boy. I reckon I understand more than you think for. The wisest thing you ever did in your life is what you did this evening, when you committed Sally to the care of those ladies at the Home."
"Good night, Rufus. We shall quarrel if I stay here any longer."
"Good night, Amelius. We shan't quarrel, stay here as long as you like."
The good deed had been done; the sacrifice--already a painful sacrifice--had been made. Mrs. Payson was old enough to speak plainly, as well as seriously, to Amelius of the absolute necessity of separating himself from Simple Sally, without any needless delay. "You have seen for yourself," she said, "that the plan on which this little household is ruled is the unvarying plan of patience and kindness. So far as Sally is concerned, you can be quite sure that she will never hear a harsh word, never meet with a hard look, while she is under our care. The lamentable neglect under which the poor creature has suffered, will be tenderly remembered and atoned for, here. If we can't make her happy among us, I promise that she shall leave the Home, if she wishes it, in six weeks' time. As to yourself, consider your position if you persist in taking her back with you. Our good friend Rufus has told me that you are engaged to be married. Think of the misinterpretations, to say the least of it, to which you would subject yourself--think of the reports which would sooner or later find their way to the young lady's ears, and of the deplorable consequences that would follow. I believe implicitly in the purity of your motives. But remember Who taught us to pray that we may not be led into temptation--and complete the good work that you have begun, by leaving Sally among friends and sisters in this house."
To any honourable man, these were unanswerable words. Coming after what Rufus and the surgeon had already said to him, they left Amelius no alternative but to yield. He pleaded for leave to write to Sally, and to see her, at a later interval, when she might be reconciled to her new life. Mrs. Payson had just consented to both requests, Rufus had just heartily congratulated him on his decision--when the door was thrown violently open. Simple Sally ran into the room, followed by one of the women-attendants in a state of breathless surprise.
"She showed me a bedroom," cried Sally, pointing indignantly to the woman; "and she asked if I should like to sleep there." She turned to Amelius, and caught him by the hand to lead him away. The ineradicable instinct of distrust had been once more roused in her by the too zealous attendant. "I'm not going to stay here," she said; "I'm going away with You!" Amelius glanced at Mrs. Payson. Sally tried to drag him to the door. He did his best to reassure her by a smile; he spoke confusedly some composing words. But his honest face, always accustomed to tell the truth, told the truth now. The poor lost creature, whose feeble intelligence was so slow to discern, so inapt to reflect, looked at him with the heart's instantaneous perception, and saw her doom. She let go of his hand. Her head sank. Without word or cry, she dropped on the floor at his feet.
The attendant instantly raised her, and placed her on a sofa. Mrs. Payson saw how resolutely Amelius struggled to control himself, and felt for him with all her heart. Turning aside for a moment, she hastily wrote a few lines, and returned to him. "Go, before we revive her," she whispered; "and give what I have written to the coachman. You shall suffer no anxiety that I can spare you," said the excellent woman; "I will stay here myself to-night, and reconcile her to the new life."
She held out her hand; Amelius kissed it in silence. Rufus led him out. Not a word dropped from his lips on the long drive back to London.
His mind was disturbed by other subjects besides the subject of Sally. He thought of his future, darkened by the doubtful marriage-engagement that was before him. Alone with Rufus, for the rest of the evening, he petulantly misunderstood the sympathy with which the kindly American regarded him. Their bedrooms were next to each other. Rufus heard him walking restlessly to and fro, and now and then talking to himself. After a while, these sounds ceased. He was evidently worn out, and was getting the rest that he needed, at last.
The next morning he received a few lines from Mrs. Payson, giving a favourable account of Sally, and promising further particulars in a day or two.
Encouraged by this good news, revived by a long night's sleep, he went towards noon to pay his postponed visit to Regina. At that early hour, he could feel sure that his interview with her would not be interrupted by visitors. She received him quietly and seriously, pressing his hand with a warmer fondness than usual. He had anticipated some complaint of his absence on the previous day, and some severe allusion to his appearance in the capacity of a Socialist lecturer. Regina's indulgence, or Regina's interest in circumstances of more pressing importance, preserved a merciful silence on both subjects.
"It is a comfort to me to see you, Amelius," she said; "I am in trouble about my uncle, and I am weary of my own anxious thoughts. Something unpleasant has happened in Mr. Farnaby's business. He goes to the City earlier, and he returns much later, than usual. When he does come back, he doesn't speak to me--he locks himself into his room; and he looks worn and haggard when I make his breakfast for him in the morning. You know that he is one of the directors of the new bank? There was something about the bank in the newspaper yesterday which upset him dreadfully; he put down his cup of coffee--and went away to the City, without eating his breakfast. I don't like to worry you about it, Amelius. But my aunt seems to take no interest in her husband's affairs--and it is really a relief to me to talk of my troubles to you. I have kept the newspaper; do look at what it says about the bank, and tell me if you understand it!"
Amelius read the passage pointed out to him. He knew as little of banking business as Regina. "So far as I can make it out," he said, "they're paying away money to their shareholders which they haven't earned. Now do they do that, I wonder?"
Regina changed the subject in despair. She asked Amelius if he had found new lodgings. Hearing that he had not yet succeeded in the search for a residence, she opened a drawer of her work-table, and took out a card.
"The brother of one of my schoolfellows is going to be married," she said. "He has a pretty bachelor cottage in the neighbourhood of the Regent's Park--and he wants to sell it, with the furniture, just as it is. I don't know whether you care to encumber yourself with a little house of your own. His sister has asked me to distribute some of his cards, with the address and the particulars. It might be worth your while, perhaps, to look at the cottage when you pass that way."
Amelius took the card. The small feminine restraints and gentlenesses of Regina, her quiet even voice, her serene grace of movement, had a pleasantly soothing effect on his mind after the anxieties of the last four and twenty hours. He looked at her bending over her embroidery, deftly and gracefully industrious--and drew his chair closer to her. She smiled softly over her work, conscious that he was admiring her, and placidly pleased to receive the tribute.
"I would buy the cottage at once," said Amelius, "if I thought you would come and live in it with me."
She looked up gravely, with her needle suspended in her hand.
"Don't let us return to that," she answered, and went on again with her embroidery.
"Why not?" Amelius asked.
She persisted in working, as industriously as if she had been a poor needlewoman, with serious reasons for being eager to get her money. "It is useless," she replied, "to speak of what cannot be for some time to come."
Amelius stopped the progress of the embroidery by taking her hand. Her devotion to her work irritated him.
"Look at me, Regina," he said, steadily controlling himself. "I want to propose that we shall give way a little on both sides. I won't hurry you; I will wait a reasonable time. If I promise that, surely you may yield a little in return. Money seems to be a hard taskmaster, my darling, after what you have told me about your uncle. See how he suffers because he is bent on being rich; and ask yourself if it isn't a warning to us not to follow his example! Would you like to see me too wretched to speak to you, or to eat my breakfast--and all for the sake of a little outward show? Come, come! let us think of ourselves. Why should we waste the best days of our life apart, when we are both free to be happy together? I have another good friend besides Rufus--the good friend of my father before me. He knows all sorts of great people, and he will help me to some employment. In six months' time I might have a little salary to add to my income. Say the sweetest words, my darling, that ever fell from your lips--say you will marry me in six months!"
It was not in a woman's nature to be insensible to such pleading as this. She all but yielded. "I should like to say it, dear!" she answered, with a little fluttering sigh.
"Say it, then!" Amelius suggested tenderly.
She took refuge again in her embroidery. "If you would only give me a little time," she suggested, "I might say it."
"Time for what, my own love?"
"Time to wait, dear, till my uncle is not quite so anxious as he is now."
"Don't talk of your uncle, Regina! You know as well as I do what he would say. Good heavens! why can't you decide for yourself? No! I don't want to hear over again about what you owe to Mr. Farnaby--I heard enough of it on that day in the shrubbery. Oh, my dear girl, do have some feeling for me! do for once have a will of your own!"
Those last words were an offence to her self-esteem. "I think it's very rude to tell me I have no will of my own," she said, "and very hard to press in this way when you know I am in trouble." The inevitable handkerchief appeared, adding emphasis to the protest--and the becoming tears showed themselves modestly in Regina's magnificent eyes.
Amelius started out of his chair, and walked away to the window. That last reference to Mr. Farnaby's pecuniary cares was more than he had patience to endure. "She can't even forget her uncle and his bank," he thought, "when I am speaking to her of our marriage!"
He kept his face hidden from her, at the window. By some subtle process of association which he was unable to trace, the image of Simple Sally rose in his mind. An irresistible influence forced him to think of her--not as the poor, starved, degraded, half-witted creature of the streets, but as the grateful girl who had asked for no happier future than to be his servant, who had dropped senseless at his feet at the bare prospect of parting with him. His sense of self-respect, his loyalty to his betrothed wife, resolutely resisted the unworthy conclusion to which his own thoughts were leading him. He turned back again to Regina; he spoke so loudly and so vehemently that the gathering flow of her tears was suspended in surprise. "You're right, you're quite right, my dear! I ought to give you time, of course. I try to control my hasty temper, but I don't always succeed--just at first. Pray forgive me; it shall be exactly as you wish."
Regina forgave him, with a gentle and ladylike astonishment at the excitable manner in which he made his excuses. She even neglected her embroidery, and put her face up to him to be kissed. "You are so nice, dear," she said, "when you are not violent and unreasonable. It is such a pity you were brought up in America. Won't you stay to lunch?"
Happily for Amelius, the footman appeared at this critical moment with a message: "My mistress wishes particularly to see you, sir, before you go."
This was the first occasion, in the experience of the lovers, on which Mrs. Farnaby had expressed her wishes through the medium of a servant, instead of appearing personally. The curiosity of Regina was mildly excited. "What a very odd message!" she said; "what does it mean? My aunt went out earlier than usual this morning, and I have not seen her since. I wonder whether she is going to consult you about my uncle's affairs?"
"I'll go and see," said Amelius.
"And stay to lunch?" Regina reiterated.
"Not to-day, my dear."
"Yes, to-morrow." So he escaped. As he opened the door, he looked back, and kissed his hand. Regina raised her head for a moment, and smiled charmingly. She was hard at work again over her embroidery.
The door of Mrs. Farnaby's ground-floor room, at the back of the house, was partially open. She was on the watch for Amelius.
"Come in!" she cried, the moment he appeared in the hall. She pulled him into the room, and shut the door with a bang. Her face was flushed, her eyes were wild. "I have something to tell you, you dear good fellow," she burst out excitedly--"Something in confidence, between you and me!" She paused, and looked at him with sudden anxiety and alarm. "What's the matter with you?" she asked.
The sight of the room, the reference to a secret, the prospect of another private conference, forced back the mind of Amelius, in one breathless instant, to his first memorable interview with Mrs. Farnaby. The mother's piteously hopeful words, in speaking of her lost daughter, rang in his ears again as if they had just fallen from her lips. "She may be lost in the labyrinth of London. . . . To-morrow, or ten years hence, you might meet with her." There were a hundred chances against it--a thousand, ten thousand chances against it. The startling possibility flashed across his brain, nevertheless, like a sudden flow of daylight across the dark. "Have I met with her, at the first chance?"
"Wait" he cried; "I have something to say before you speak to me. Don't deceive yourself with vain hopes. Promise me that, before I begin."
She waved her hand derisively. "Hopes?" she repeated; "I have done with hopes, I have done with fears--I have got to certainties, at last!"
He was too eager to heed anything that she said to him; his whole soul was absorbed in the coming disclosure. "Two nights since," he went on, "I was wandering about London, and I met--"
She burst out laughing. "Go on!" she cried, with a wild derisive gaiety.
Amelius stopped, perplexed and startled. "What are you laughing at?" he asked.
"Go on!" she repeated. "I defy you to surprise me. Out with it! Whom did you meet?"
Amelius proceeded doubtfully, by a word at a time. "I met a poor girl in the streets," he said, steadily watching her.
She changed completely at those words; she looked at him with an aspect of stern reproach. "No more of it," she interposed; "I have not waited all these miserable years for such a horrible end as that." Her face suddenly brightened; a radiant effusion of tenderness and triumph flowed over it, and made it young and happy again. "Amelius!" she said, "listen to this. My dream has come true--my girl is found! Thanks to you, though you don't know it."
Amelius looked at her. Was she speaking of something that had really happened? or had she been dreaming again?
Absorbed in her own happiness, she made no remark on his silence. "I have seen the woman," she went on. "This bright blessed morning I have seen the woman who took her away in the first days of her poor little life. The wretch swears she was not to blame. I tried to forgive her. Perhaps I almost did forgive her, in the joy of hearing what she had to tell me. I should never have heard it, Amelius, if you had not given that glorious lecture. The woman was one of your audience. She would never have spoken of those past days; she would never have thought of me--"
At those words, Mrs. Farnaby abruptly stopped, and turned her face away from Amelius. After waiting a little, finding her still silent, still immovable, he ventured on putting a question.
"Are you sure you are not deceived?" he asked. "I remember you told me that rogues had tried to impose on you, in past times when you employed people to find her."
"I have proof that I am not being imposed upon," Mrs. Farnaby answered, still keeping her face hidden from him. "One of them knows of the fault in her foot."
"One of them?" Amelius repeated. "How many of them are there?"
"Two. The old woman, and a young man."
"What are their names?"
"They won't tell me their names yet."
"Isn't that a little suspicious?"
"One of them knows," Mrs. Farnaby reiterated, "of the fault in her foot."
"May I ask which of them knows? The old woman, I suppose?"
"No, the young man."
"That's strange, isn't it? Have you seen the young man?"
"I know nothing of him, except the little that the woman told me. He has written me a letter."
"May I look at it?"
"I daren't let you look at it!"
Amelius said no more. If he had felt the smallest suspicion that the disclosure volunteered by Mrs. Farnaby, at their first interview, had been overheard by the unknown person who had opened the swinging window in the kitchen, he might have recalled Phoebe's vindictive language at his lodgings, and the doubts suggested to him by his discovery of the vagabond waiting for her in the street. As it was, he was simply puzzled. The one plain conclusion to his mind was, unhappily, the natural conclusion after what he had heard--that Mrs. Farnaby had no sort of interest in the discovery of Simple Sally, and that he need trouble himself with no further anxiety in that matter. Strange as Mrs. Farnaby's mysterious revelation seemed, her correspondent's knowledge of the fault in the foot was circumstance in his favour, beyond dispute. Amelius still wondered inwardly how it was that the woman who had taken charge of the child had failed to discover what appeared to be known to another person. If he had been aware that Mrs. Sowler's occupation at the time was the occupation of a "baby-farmer," and that she had many other deserted children pining under her charge, he might have easily understood that she was the last person in the world to trouble herself with a minute examination of any one of the unfortunate little creatures abandoned to her drunken and merciless neglect. Jervy had satisfied himself, before he trusted her with his instructions, that she knew no more than the veriest stranger of any peculiarity in one or the other of the child's feet.
Interpreting Mrs. Farnaby's last reply to him as an intimation that their interview was at an end, Amelius took up his hat to go.
"I hope with all my heart," he said, "that what has begun so well will end well. If there is any service that I can do for you--"
She drew nearer to him, and put her hand gently on his shoulder. "Don't think that I distrust you," she said very earnestly; "I am unwilling to shock you--that is all. Even this great joy has a dark side to it; my miserable married life casts its shadow on everything that happens to me. Keep secret from everybody the little that I have told you--you will ruin me if you say one word of it to any living creature. I ought not to have opened my heart to you--but how could I help it, when the happiness that is coming to me has come through you? When you say good-bye to me to-day, Amelius, you say good-bye to me for the last time in this house. I am going away. Don't ask me why--that is one more among the things which I daren't tell you! You shall hear from me, or see me--I promise that. Give me some safe address to write to; some place where there are no inquisitive women who may open my letter in your absence."
She handed him her pocket-book. Amelius wrote down in it the address of his club.
She took his hand. "Think of me kindly," she said. "And, once more, don't be afraid of my being deceived. There is a hard part of me still left which keeps me on my guard. The old woman tried, this morning, to make me talk to her about that little fault we know of in my child's foot. But I thought to myself, 'If you had taken a proper interest in my poor baby while she was with you, you must sooner or later have found it out.' Not a word passed my lips. No, no, don't be anxious when you think of me. I am as sharp as they are; I mean to find out how the man who wrote to me discovered what he knows; he shall satisfy me, I promise you, when I see him or hear from him next. All this is between ourselves strictly, sacredly between ourselves. Say nothing--I know I can trust you. Good-bye, and forgive me for having been so often in your way with Regina. I shall never be in your way again. Marry her, if you think she is good enough for you; I have no more interest now in your being a roving bachelor, meeting with girls here, there, and everywhere. You shall know how it goes on. Oh, I am so happy!"
She burst into tears, and signed to Amelius with a wild gesture of treaty to leave her.
He pressed her hand in silence, and went out.
Almost as the door closed on him, the variable woman changed again. For a while she walked rapidly to and fro, talking to herself. The course of her tears ceased. Her lips closed firmly; her eyes assumed an expression of savage resolve. She sat down at the table and opened her desk. "I'll read it once more," she said to herself, "before I seal it up."
She took from her desk a letter of her own writing, and spread it out before her. With her elbows on the table, and her hands clasped fiercely in her hair, she read these lines addressed to her husband:--
JOHN FARNABY,--I have always suspected that you had something to do with the disappearance of our child. I know for certain now that you deliberately cast your infant daughter on the mercy of the world, and condemned your wife to a life of wretchedness.
"Don't suppose that I have been deceived! I have spoken with the woman who waited by the garden-paling at Ramsgate, and who took the child from your hands. She saw you with me at the lecture; and she is absolutely sure that you are the man.
"Thanks to the meeting at the lecture-hall, I am at last on the trace of my lost daughter. This morning I heard the woman's story. She kept the child, on the chance of its being reclaimed, until she could afford to keep it no longer. She met with a person who was willing to adopt it, and who took it away with her to a foreign country, not mentioned to me yet. In that country my daughter is still living, and will be restored to me on conditions which will be communicated in a few days' time.
"Some of this story may be true, and some of it may be false; the woman may be lying to serve her own interests with me. Of one thing I am sure--my girl is identified, by means known to me of which there can be no doubt. And she must be still living, because the interest of the persons treating with me is an interest in her life.
"When you receive this letter, on your return from business to-night, I shall have left you, and left you for ever. The bare thought of even looking at you again fills me with horror. I have my own income, and I mean to take my own way. In your best interests I warn you, make no attempt to trace me. I declare solemnly that, rather than let your deserted daughter be polluted by the sight of you, I would kill you with my own hand, and die for it on the scaffold. If she ever asks for her father, I will do you one service. For the honour of human nature, I will tell her that her father is dead. It will not be all a falsehood. I repudiate you and your name--you are dead to me from this time forth.
"I sign myself by my father's name--
She had said herself that she was unwilling to shock Amelius. This was the reason.
After thinking a little, she sealed and directed the letter. This done, she unlocked the wooden press which had once contained the baby's frock and cap, and those other memorials of the past which she called her "dead consolations." After satisfying herself that the press was empty, she wrote on a card, "To be called for by a messenger from my bankers"--and tied the card to a tin box in a corner, secured by a padlock. She lifted the box, and placed it in front of the press, so that it might be easily visible to any one entering the room. The safe keeping of her treasures provided for, she took the sealed letter, and, ascending the stairs, placed it on the table in her husband's dressing-room. She hurried out again, the instant after, as if the sight of the place were intolerable to her.
Passing to the other end of the corridor, she entered her own bedchamber, and put on her bonnet and cloak. A leather handbag was on the bed. She took it up, and looked round the large luxurious room with a shudder of disgust. What she had suffered, within those four walls, no human creature knew but herself. She hurried out, as she had hurried out of her husband's dressing-room.
Her niece was still in the drawing-room. As she reached the door, she hesitated, and stopped. The girl was a good girl, in her own dull placid way--and her sister's daughter, too. A last little act of kindness would perhaps be a welcome act to remember. She opened the door so suddenly that Regina started, with a small cry of alarm. "Oh, aunt, how you frighten one! Are you going out?" "Yes; I'm going out," was the short answer. "Come here. Give me a kiss." Regina looked up in wide-eyed astonishment. Mrs. Farnaby stamped impatiently on the floor. Regina rose, gracefully bewildered. "My dear aunt, how very odd!" she said--and gave the kiss demanded, with a serenely surprised elevation of her finely shaped eyebrows. "Yes," said Mrs. Farnaby; "that's it--one of my oddities. Go back to your work. Good-bye."
She left the room, as abruptly as she had entered it. With her firm heavy step she descended to the hall, passed out at the house door, and closed it behind her--never to return to it again.
Amelius left Mrs. Farnaby, troubled by emotions of confusion and alarm, which he was the last man living to endure patiently. Her extraordinary story of the discovered daughter, the still more startling assertion of her solution to leave the house, the absence of any plain explanation, the burden of secrecy imposed on him--all combined together to irritate his sensitive nerves. "I hate mysteries," he thought; "and ever since I landed in England, I seem fated to be mixed up in them. Does she really mean to leave her husband and her niece? What will Farnaby do? What will become of Regina?"
To think of Regina was to think of the new repulse of which he had been made the subject. Again he had appealed to her love for him, and again she had refused to marry him at his own time.
He was especially perplexed and angry, when he reflected on the unassailably strong influence which her uncle appeared to have over her. All Regina's sympathy was with Mr. Farnaby and his troubles. Amelius might have understood her a little better, if she had told him what had passed between her uncle and herself on the night of Mr. Farnaby's return, in a state of indignation, from the lecture. In terror of the engagement being broken off, she had been forced to confess that she was too fond of Amelius to prevail on herself to part with him. If he attempted a second exposition of his Socialist principles on the platform, she owned that it might be impossible to receive him again as a suitor. But she pleaded hard for the granting of a pardon to the first offence, in the interests of her own tranquillity, if not in mercy to Amelius. Mr. Farnaby, already troubled by his commercial anxieties, had listened more amiably, and also more absently, than usual; and had granted her petition with the ready indulgence of a preoccupied man. It had been decided between them that the offence of the lecture should be passed over in discreet silence. Regina's gratitude for this concession inspired her sympathy with her uncle in his present state of suspense. She had been sorely tempted to tell Amelius what had happened. But the natural reserve of her character--fortified, in this instance, by the defensive pride which makes a woman unwilling, before marriage, to confess her weakness unreservedly to the man who has caused it--had sealed her lips. "When he is a little less violent and a little more humble," she thought, "perhaps I may tell him."
So it fell out that Amelius took his way through the streets, a mystified and an angry man.
Arrived in sight of the hotel, he stopped, and looked about him.
It was impossible to disguise from himself that a lurking sense of regret was making itself felt, in his present frame of mind, when he thought of Simple Sally. In all probability, he would have quarrelled with any man who had accused him of actually lamenting the girl's absence, and wanting her back again. He happened to recollect her artless blue eyes, with their vague patient look, and her quaint childish questions put so openly in so sweet a voice--and that was all. Was there anything reprehensible, if you please, in an act of remembrance? Comforting himself with these considerations, he moved on again a step or two--and stopped once more. In his present humour, he shrank from facing Rufus. The American read him like a book; the American would ask irritating questions. He turned his back on the hotel, and looked at his watch. As he took it out, his finger and thumb touched something else in his waistcoat-pocket. It was the card that Regina had given to him--the card of the cottage to let. He had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Why not look at the cottage? If it proved to be not worth seeing, the Zoological Gardens were in the neighbourhood--and there are periods in a man's life when he finds the society that walks on four feet a welcome relief from the society that walks on two.
It was a fairly fine day. He turned northward towards the Regent's Park.
The cottage was in a by-road, just outside the park: a cottage in the strictest sense of the word. A sitting-room, a library, and a bedroom--all of small proportions--and, under them a kitchen and two more rooms, represented the whole of the little dwelling from top to bottom. It was simply and prettily furnished; and it was completely surrounded by its own tiny plot of garden-ground. The library especially was a perfect little retreat, looking out on the back garden; peaceful and shady, and adorned with bookcases of old carved oak.
Amelius had hardly looked round the room, before his inflammable brain was on fire with a new idea. Other idle men in trouble had found the solace and the occupation of their lives in books. Why should he not be one of them? Why not plunge into study in this delightful retirement--and perhaps, one day, astonish Regina and Mr. Farnaby by bursting on the world as the writer of a famous book? Exactly as Amelius, two days since, had seen himself in the future, a public lecturer in receipt of glorious fees--so he now saw himself the celebrated scholar and writer of a new era to come. The woman who showed the cottage happened to mention that a gentleman had already looked over it that morning, and had seemed to like it. Amelius instantly gave her a shilling, and said, "I take it on the spot." The wondering woman referred him to the house-agent's address, and kept at a safe distance from the excitable stranger as she let him out. In less than another hour, Amelius had taken the cottage, and had returned to the hotel with a new interest in life and a new surprise for Rufus.
As usual, in cases of emergency, the American wasted no time in talking. He went out at once to see the cottage, and to make his own inquiries of the agent. The result amply proved that Amelius had not been imposed upon. If he repented of his bargain, the gentleman who had first seen the cottage was ready to take it off his hands, at a moment's notice.
Going back to the Hotel, Rufus found Amelius resolute to move into his new abode, and eager for the coming life of study and retirement. Knowing perfectly well before-hand how this latter project would end, the American tried the efficacy of a little worldly temptation. He had arranged, he said, "to have a good time of it in Paris"; and he proposed that Amelius should be his companion. The suggestion produced not the slightest effect; Amelius talked as if he was a confirmed recluse, in the decline of life. "Thank you," he said, with the most amazing gravity; "I prefer the company of my books, and the seclusion of my study." This declaration was followed by more selling-out of money in the Funds, and by a visit to a bookseller, which left a handsome pecuniary result inscribed on the right side of the ledger.
On the next day, Amelius presented himself towards two o'clock at Mr. Farnaby's house. He was not so selfishly absorbed in his own projects as to forget Mrs. Farnaby. On the contrary, he was honestly anxious for news of her.
A certain middle-aged man of business has been briefly referred to, in these pages, as one of Regina's faithful admirers, patiently submitting to the triumph of his favoured young rival. This gentleman, issuing from his carriage with his card-case ready in his hand, met Amelius at the door, with a face which announced plainly that a catastrophe had happened. "You have heard the sad news, no doubt?" he said, in a rich bass voice attuned to sadly courteous tones. The servant opened the door before Amelius could answer. After a contest of politeness, the middle-aged gentleman consented to make his inquiries first. "How is Mr. Farnaby? No better? And Miss Regina? Very poorly, oh? Dear, dear me! Say I called, if you please." He handed in two cards, with a severe enjoyment of the melancholy occasion and the rich bass sounds of his own voice. "Very sad, is it not?" he said, addressing his youthful rival with an air of paternal indulgence. "Good morning." He bowed with melancholy grace, and got into his carriage.
Amelius looked after the prosperous merchant, as the prancing horses drew him away. "After all," he thought bitterly, "she might be happier with that rich prig than she could be with me." He stepped into the hall, and spoke to the servant. The man had his message ready. Miss Regina would see Mr. Goldenheart, if he would be so good as to wait in the dinning-room.
Regina appeared, pale and scared; her eyes inflamed with weeping. "Oh, Amelius, can you tell me what this dreadful misfortune means? Why has she left us? When she sent for you yesterday, what did she say?"
In his position, Amelius could make but one answer. "Your aunt said she thought of going away. But," he added, with perfect truth, "she refused to tell me why, or where she was going. I am quite as much at a loss to understand her as you are. What does your uncle propose to do?"
Mr. Farnaby's conduct, as described by Regina, thickened the mystery--he proposed to do nothing.
He had been found on the hearth-rug in his dressing-room; having apparently been seized with a fit, in the act of burning some paper. The ashes were discovered close by him, just inside the fender. On his recovery, his first anxiety was to know if a letter had been burnt. Satisfied on this point, he had ordered the servants to assemble round his bed, and had peremptorily forbidden them to open the door to their mistress, if she ever returned at any future time to the house. Regina's questions and remonstrances, when she was left alone with him, were answered, once for all, in these pitiless terms:--"If you wish to deserve the fatherly interest that I take in you, do as I do: forget that such a person as your aunt ever existed. We shall quarrel, if you ever mention her name in my hearing again." This said, he had instantly changed the subject; instructing Regina to write an excuse to "Mr. Melton" (otherwise, the middle-aged rival), with whom he had been engaged to dine that evening. Relating this latter event, Regina's ever-ready gratitude overflowed in the direction of Mr. Melton. "He was so kind! he left his guests in the evening, and came and sat with my uncle for nearly an hour." Amelius made no remark on this; he led the conversation back to the subject of Mrs. Farnaby. "She once spoke to me of her lawyers," he said. "Do they know nothing about her?"
The answer to this question showed that the sternly final decision of Mr. Farnaby was matched by equal resolution on the part of his wife.
One of the partners in the legal firm had called that morning, to see Regina on a matter of business. Mrs. Farnaby had appeared at the office on the previous day, and had briefly expressed her wish to make a small annual provision for her niece, in case of future need. Declining to enter into any explanation, she had waited until the necessary document had been drawn out; had requested that Regina might be informed of the circumstance; and had then taken her departure in absolute silence. Hearing that she had left her husband, the lawyer, like every one else, was completely at a loss to understand what it meant.
"And what does the doctor say?" Amelius asked next.
"My uncle is to be kept perfectly quiet," Regina answered; "and is not to return to business for some time to come. Mr. Melton, with his usual kindness, has undertaken to look after his affairs for him. Otherwise, my uncle, in his present state of anxiety about the bank, would never have consented to obey the doctor's orders. When he can safely travel, he is recommended to go abroad for the winter, and get well again in some warmer climate. He refuses to leave his business--and the doctor refuses to take the responsibility. There is to be a consultation of physicians tomorrow. Oh, Amelius, I was really fond of my aunt--I am heart-broken at this dreadful change!"
There was a momentary silence. If Mr. Melton had been present, he would have said a few neatly sympathetic words. Amelius knew no more than a savage of the art of conventional consolation. Tadmor had made him familiar with the social and political questions of the time, and had taught him to speak in public. But Tadmor, rich in books and newspapers, was a powerless training institution in the matter of small talk.
"Suppose Mr. Farnaby is obliged to go abroad," he suggested, after waiting a little, "what will you do?"
Regina looked at him, with an air of melancholy surprise. "I shall do my duty, of course," she answered gravely. "I shall accompany my dear uncle, if he wishes it." She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. "It is time he took his medicine," she resumed; "you will excuse me, I am sure." She shook hands, not very warmly--and hastened out of the room.
Amelius left the house, with a conviction which disheartened him--the conviction that he had never understood Regina, and that he was not likely to understand her in the future. He turned for relief to the consideration of Mr. Farnaby's strange conduct, under the domestic disaster which had befallen him.
Recalling what he had observed for himself, and what he had heard from Mrs. Farnaby when she had first taken him into her confidence, he inferred that the subject of the lost child had not only been a subject of estrangement between the husband and wife, but that the husband was, in some way, the person blamable for it. Assuming this theory to be the right one, there would be serious obstacles to the meeting of the mother and child, in the mother's home. The departure of Mrs. Farnaby was, in that case, no longer unintelligible--and Mr. Farnaby's otherwise inexplicable conduct had the light of a motive thrown on it, which might not unnaturally influence a hard-hearted man weary alike of his wife and his wife's troubles. Arriving at this conclusion by a far shorter process than is here indicated, Amelius pursued the subject no further. At the time when he had first visited the Farnabys, Rufus had advised him to withdraw from closer intercourse with them, while he had the chance. In his present mood, he was almost in danger of acknowledging to himself that Rufus had proved to be right.
He lunched with his American friend at the hotel. Before the meal was over Mrs. Payson called, to say a few cheering words about Sally.
It was not to be denied that the girl remained persistently silent and reserved. In other respects the report was highly favourable. She was obedient to the rules of the house; she was always ready with any little services that she could render to her companions; and she was so eager to improve herself, by means of her reading-lessons and writing-lessons, that it was not easy to induce her to lay aside her book and her slate. When the teacher offered her some small reward for her good conduct, and asked what she would like, the sad little face brightened, and the faithful creature's answer was always the same--"I should like to know what he is doing now." (Alas for Sally!--"he" meant Amelius.)
"You must wait a little longer before you write to her," Mrs. Payson concluded, "and you must not think of seeing her for some time to come. I know you will help us by consenting to this--for Sally's sake."
Amelius bowed in silence. He would not have confessed what he felt, at that moment, to any living soul--it is doubtful if he even confessed it to himself. Mrs. Payson, observing him with a woman's keen sympathy, relented a little. "I might give her a message," the good lady suggested--"just to say you are glad to hear she is behaving so well."
"Will you give her this?" Amelius asked.
He took from his pocket a little photograph of the cottage, which he had noticed on the house-agent's desk, and had taken away with him. "It is my cottage now," he explained, in tones that faltered a little; "I am going to live there; Sally might like to see it."
"Sally shall see it," Mrs. Payson agreed--"if you will only let me take this away first." She pointed to the address of the cottage, printed under the photograph. Past experience in the Home made her reluctant to trust Sally with the address in London at which Amelius was to be found.
Rufus produced a huge complex knife, out of the depths of which a pair of scissors burst on touching a spring. Mrs. Payson cut off the address, and placed the photograph in her pocket-book. "Now," she said, "Sally will be happy, and no harm can come of it."
"I've known you, ma'am, nigh on twenty years," Rufus remarked. "I do assure you that's the first rash observation I ever heard from your lips."
THE VANISHING HOPES
Two days later, Amelius moved into his cottage.
He had provided himself with a new servant, as easily as he had provided himself with a new abode. A foreign waiter at the hotel--a gray-haired Frenchman of the old school, reputed to be the most ill-tempered servant in the house--had felt the genial influence of Amelius with the receptive readiness of his race. Here was a young Englishman, who spoke to him as easily and pleasantly as if he was speaking to a friend--who heard him relate his little grievances, and never took advantage of that circumstance to turn him into ridicule--who said kindly, "I hope you don't mind my calling you by your nickname," when he ventured to explain that his Christian name was "Théophile," and that his English fellow servants had facetiously altered and shortened it to "Toff," to suit their insular convenience. "For the first time, sir," he had hastened to add, "I feel it an honour to be Toff, when you speak to me." Asking everybody whom he met if they could recommend a servant to him, Amelius had put the question, when Toff came in one morning with the hot water. The old Frenchman made a low bow, expressive of devotion. "I know of but one man, sir, whom I can safely recommend," he answered--"take me." Amelius was delighted; he had only one objection to make. "I don't want to keep two servants," he said, while Toff was helping him on with his dressing-gown. "Why should you keep two servants, sir?" the Frenchman inquired. Amelius answered, "I can't ask you to make the beds." "Why not?" said Toff--and made the bed, then and there, in five minutes. He ran out of the room, and came back with one of the chambermaid's brooms. "Judge for yourself, sir--can I sweep a carpet?" He placed a chair for Amelius. "Permit me to save you the trouble of shaving yourself. Are you satisfied? Very good. I am equally capable of cutting your hair, and attending to your corns (if you suffer, sir, from that inconvenience). Will you allow me to propose something which you have not had yet for your breakfast?" In half an hour more, he brought in the new dish. "OEufs à la Tripe. An elementary specimen, sir, of what I can do for you as a cook. Be pleased to taste it." Amelius ate it all up on the spot; and Toff applied the moral, with the neatest choice of language. "Thank you, sir, for a gratifying expression of approval. One more specimen of my poor capabilities, and I have done. It is barely possible--God forbid!--that you may fall ill. Honour me by reading that document." He handed a written paper to Amelius, dated some years since in Paris, and signed in an English name. "I testify with gratitude and pleasure that Théophile Leblond has nursed me through a long illness, with an intelligence and devotion which I cannot too highly praise." "May you never employ me, sir, in that capacity," said Toff. "I have only to add that I am not so old as I look, and that my political opinions have changed, in later life, from red-republican to moderate-liberal. I also confess, if necessary, that I still have an ardent admiration for the fair sex." He laid his hand on his heart, and waited to be engaged.
So the household at the cottage was modestly limited to Amelius and Toff.
Rufus remained for another week in London, to watch the new experiment. He had made careful inquiries into the Frenchman's character, and had found that the complaints of his temper really amounted to this--that "he gave himself the airs of a gentleman, and didn't understand a joke." On the question of honesty and sobriety, the testimony of the proprietor of the hotel left Rufus nothing to desire. Greatly to his surprise, Amelius showed no disposition to grow weary of his quiet life, or to take refuge in perilous amusements from the sober society of his books. He was regular in his inquiries at Mr. Farnaby's house; he took long walks by himself; he never mentioned Sally's name; he lost his interest in going to the theatre, and he never appeared in the smoking-room of the club. Some men, observing the remarkable change which had passed over his excitable temperament, would have hailed it as a good sign for the future. The New Englander looked below the surface, and was not so easily deceived. "My bright boy's soul is discouraged and cast down," was the conclusion that he drew. "There's darkness in him where there once was light; and, what's worse than all, he caves in, and keeps it to himself." After vainly trying to induce Amelius to open his heart, Rufus at last went to Paris, with a mind that was ill at ease.
On the day of the American's departure, the march of events was resumed; and the unnaturally quiet life of Amelius began to be disturbed again.
Making his customary inquiries in the forenoon at Mr. Farnaby's door, he found the household in a state of agitation. A second council of physicians had been held, in consequence of the appearance of some alarming symptoms in the case of the patient. On this occasion, the medical men told him plainly that he would sacrifice his life to his obstinacy, if he persisted in remaining in London and returning to his business. By good fortune, the affairs of the bank had greatly benefited, through the powerful interposition of Mr. Melton. With the improved prospects, Mr. Farnaby (at his niece's entreaty) submitted to the doctor's advice. He was to start on the first stage of his journey the next morning; and, at his own earnest desire, Regina was to go with him. "I hate strangers and foreigners; and I don't like being alone. If you don't go with me, I shall stay where I am--and die." So Mr. Farnaby put it to his adopted daughter, in his rasping voice and with his hard frown.
"I am grieved, dear Amelius, to go away from you," Regina said; "but what can I do? It would have been so nice if you could have gone with us. I did hint something of the sort; but--"
Her downcast face finished the sentence. Amelius felt the bare idea of being Mr. Farnaby's travelling companion make his blood run cold. And Mr. Farnaby, on his side, reciprocated the sentiment. "I will write constantly, dear," Regina resumed; "and you will write back, won't you? Say you love me; and promise to come tomorrow morning, before we go."
She kissed him affectionately--and, the instant after, checked the responsive outburst of tenderness in Amelius, by that utter want of tact which (in spite of the popular delusion to the contrary) is so much more common in women than in men, "My uncle is so particular about packing his linen," she said; "nobody can please him but me; I must ask you to let me run upstairs again."
Amelius went out into the street, with his head down and his lips fast closed. He was not far from Mrs. Payson's house. "Why shouldn't I call?" he thought to himself. His conscience added, "And hear some news of Sally."
There was good news. The girl was brightening mentally and physically--she was in a fair way, if she only remained in the Home, to be "Simple" Sally no longer. Amelius asked if she had got the photograph of the cottage. Mrs. Payson laughed. "Sleeps with it under her pillow, poor child," she said, "and looks at it fifty times a day." Thirty years since, with infinitely less experience to guide her, the worthy matron would have followed her instincts, and would have hesitated to tell Amelius quite so much about the photograph. But some of a woman's finer sensibilities do get blunted with the advance of age and the accumulation of wisdom.
Instead of pursuing the subject of Sally's progress, Amelius, to Mrs. Payson's surprise, made a clumsy excuse, and abruptly took his leave.
He felt the need of being alone; he was conscious of a vague distrust of himself, which degraded him in his own estimation. Was he, like characters he had read of in books, the victim of a fatality? The slightest circumstances conspired to heighten his interest in Sally--just at the time when Regina had once more disappointed him. He was as firmly convinced, as if he had been the strictest moralist living, that it was an insult to Regina, and an insult to his own self-respect, to set the lost creature whom he had rescued in any light of comparison with the young lady who was one day to be his wife. And yet, try as he might to drive her out, Sally kept her place in his thoughts. There was, apparently, some innate depravity in him. If a looking-glass had been handed to him at that moment, he would have been ashamed to look himself in the face.
After walking until he was weary, he went to his club.
The porter gave him a letter as he crossed the hall. Mrs. Farnaby had kept her promise, and had written to him. The smoking-room was deserted at that time of day. He opened his letter in solitude, looked at it, crumpled it up impatiently, and put it into his pocket. Not even Mrs. Farnaby could interest him at that critical moment. His own affairs absorbed him. The one idea in his mind, after what he had heard about Sally, was the idea of making a last effort to hasten the date of his marriage before Mr. Farnaby left England. "If I can only feel sure of Regina--"
His thoughts went no further than that. He walked up and down the empty smoking-room, anxious and irritable, dissatisfied with himself, despairing of the future. "I can but try it!" he suddenly decided--and turned at once to the table to write a letter.
Death had been busy with the members of his family in the long interval that had passed since he and his father left England. His nearest surviving relative was his uncle--his father's younger brother--who occupied a post of high importance in the Foreign Office. To this gentleman he now wrote, announcing his arrival in England, and his anxiety to qualify himself for employment in a Government office. "Be so good as to grant me an interview," he concluded; "and I hope to satisfy you that I am not unworthy of your kindness, if you will exert your influence in my favour."
He sent away his letter at once by a private messenger, with instructions to wait for an answer.
It was not without doubt, and even pain, that he had opened communication with a man whose harsh treatment of his father it was impossible for him to forget. What could the son expect? There was but one hope. Time might have inclined the younger brother to make atonement to the memory of the elder, by a favourable reception of his nephew's request.
His father's last words of caution, his own boyish promise not to claim kindred with his relations in England, were vividly present to the mind of Amelius, while he waited for the return of the messenger. His one justification was in the motives that animated him. Circumstances, which his father had never anticipated, rendered it an act of duty towards himself to make the trial at least of what his family interest could do for him. There could be no sort of doubt that a man of Mr. Farnaby's character would yield, if Amelius could announce that he had the promise of an appointment under Government--with the powerful influence of a near relation to accelerate his promotion. He sat, idly drawing lines on the blotting-paper; at one moment regretting that he had sent his letter; at another, comforting himself in the belief that, if his father had been living to advise him, his father would have approved of the course that he had taken.
The messenger returned with these lines of reply:--
"Under any ordinary circumstances, I should have used my influence to help you on in the world. But, when you not only hold the most abominable political opinions, but actually proclaim those opinions in public, I am amazed at your audacity in writing to me. There must be no more communication between us. While you are a Socialist, you are a stranger to me."
Amelius accepted this new rebuff with ominous composure. He sat quietly smoking in the deserted room, with his uncle's letter in his hand.
Among the other disastrous results of the lecture, some of the newspapers had briefly reported it. Preoccupied by his anxieties, Amelius had forgotten this when he wrote to his relative. "Just like me!" he thought, as he threw the letter into the fire. His last hopes floated up the chimney, with the tiny puff of smoke from the burnt paper. There was now no other chance of shortening the marriage engagement left to try. He had already applied to the good friend whom he had mentioned to Regina. The answer, kindly written in this case, had not been very encouraging:--
"I have other claims to consider. All that I can do, I will do. Don't be disheartened--I only ask you to wait."
Amelius rose to go home--and sat down again. His natural energy seemed to have deserted him--it required an effort to leave the club. He took up the newspapers, and threw them aside, one after another. Not one of the unfortunate writers and reporters could please him on that inauspicious day. It was only while he was lighting his second cigar that he remembered Mrs. Farnaby's unread letter to him. By this time, he was more than weary of his own affairs. He read the letter.
"I find the people who have my happiness at their mercy both dilatory and greedy." (Mrs. Farnaby wrote); "but the little that I can persuade them to tell me is very favourable to my hopes. I am still, to my annoyance, only in personal communication with the hateful old woman. The young man either sends messages, or writes to me through the post. By this latter means he has accurately described, not only in which of my child's feet the fault exists, but the exact position which it occupies. Here, you will agree with me, is positive evidence that he is speaking the truth, whoever he is.
"But for this reassuring circumstance, I should feel inclined to be suspicious of some things--of the obstinate manner, for instance, in which the young man keeps himself concealed; also, of his privately warning me not to trust the woman who is his own messenger, and not to tell her on any account of the information which his letters convey to me. I feel that I ought to be cautious with him on the question of money--and yet, in my eagerness to see my darling, I am ready to give him all that he asks for. In this uncertain state of mind, I am restrained, strangely enough, by the old woman herself. She warns me that he is the sort of man, if he once gets the money, to spare himself the trouble of earning it. It is the one hold I have over him (she says)--so I control the burning impatience that consumes me as well as I can.
"No! I must not attempt to describe my own state of mind. When I tell you that I am actually afraid of dying before I can give my sweet love the first kiss, you will understand and pity me. When night comes, I feel sometimes half mad.
"I send you my present address, in the hope that you will write and cheer me a little. I must not ask you to come and see me yet. I am not fit for it--and, besides, I am under a promise, in the present state of the negotiations, to shut the door on my friends. It is easy enough to do that; I have no friend, Amelius, but you.
"Try to feel compassionately towards me, my kind-hearted boy. For so many long years, my heart has had nothing to feed on but the one hope that is now being realized at last. No sympathy between my husband and me (on the contrary, a horrid unacknowledged enmity, which has always kept us apart); my father and mother, in their time both wretched about my marriage, and with good reason; my only sister dying in poverty--what a life for a childless woman! don't let us dwell on it any longer.
"Goodbye for the present, Amelius. I beg you will not think I am always wretched. When I want to be happy, I look to the coming time."
This melancholy letter added to the depression that weighed on the spirits of Amelius. It inspired him with vague fears for Mrs. Farnaby. In her own interests, he would have felt himself tempted to consult Rufus (without mentioning names), if the American had been in London. As things were, he put the letter back in his pocket with a sigh. Even Mrs. Farnaby, in her sad moments, had a consoling prospect to contemplate. "Everybody but me!" Amelius thought.
His reflections were interrupted by the appearance of an idle young member of the club, with whom he was acquainted. The new-comer remarked that he looked out of spirits, and suggested that they should dine together and amuse themselves somewhere in the evening. Amelius accepted the proposal: any man who offered him a refuge from himself was a friend to him on that day. Departing from his temperate habits, he deliberately drank more than usual. The wine excited him for the time, and then left him more depressed than ever; and the amusements of the evening produced the same result. He returned to his cottage so completely disheartened, that he regretted the day when he had left Tadmor.
But he kept his appointment, the next morning, to take leave of Regina.
The carriage was at the door, with a luggage-laden cab waiting behind it. Mr. Farnaby's ill-temper vented itself in predictions that they would be too late to catch the train. His harsh voice, alternating with Regina's meek remonstrances, reached the ears of Amelius from the breakfast-room. "I'm not going to wait for the gentleman-Socialist," Mr. Farnaby announced, with his hardest sarcasm of tone. "Dear uncle, we have a quarter of an hour to spare!" "We have nothing of the sort; we want all that time to register the luggage." The servant's voice was heard next. "Mr. Goldenheart, miss." Mr. Farnaby instantly stepped into the hall. "Goodbye!" he called to Amelius, through the open door of the dining-room--and passed straight on to the carriage. "I shan't wait, Regina!" he shouted, from the doorstep. "Let him go by himself!" said Amelius indignantly, as Regina hurried into the room. "Oh, hush, hush, dear! Suppose he heard you? No week shall pass without my writing to you; promise you will write back, Amelius. One more kiss! Oh, my dear!" The servant interposed, keeping discreetly out of sight. "I beg your pardon, miss, my master wishes to know whether you are going with him or not." Regina waited to hear no more. She gave her lover a farewell look to remember her by, and ran out.
That innate depravity which Amelius had lately discovered in his own nature, let the forbidden thoughts loose in him again as he watched the departing carriage from the door. "If poor little Sally had been in her place--!" He made an effort of virtuous resolution, and stopped there. "What a blackguard a man may be," he penitently reflected, "without suspecting it himself!"
He descended the house-steps. The discreet servant wished him good morning, with a certain cheery respect--the man was delighted to have seen the last of his hard master for some months to come. Amelius stopped and turned round, smiling grimly. He was in such a reckless humour, that he was even ready to divert his mind by astonishing a footman. "Richard," he said, "are you engaged to be married?" Richard stared in blank surprise at the strange question--and modestly admitted that he was engaged to marry the housemaid next door. "Soon?" asked Amelius, swinging his stick. "As soon as I have saved a little more money, sir." "Damn the money!" cried Amelius--and struck his stick on the pavement, and walked away with a last look at the house as if he hated the sight of it. Richard watched the departing young gentleman, and shook his head ominously as he shut the door.
Amelius went straight back to the cottage, with the one desperate purpose of reverting to the old plan, and burying himself in his books. Surveying his well-filled shelves with an impatience unworthy of a scholar, Hume's "History of England" unhappily caught his eye. He took down the first volume. In less than half an hour he discovered that Hume could do nothing for him. Wisely inspired, he turned to the truer history next, which men call fiction. The writings of the one supreme genius, who soars above all other novelists as Shakespeare soars above all other dramatists--the writings of Walter Scott--had their place of honour in his library. The collection of the Waverley Novels at Tadmor had not been complete. Enviable Amelius had still to read Rob Roy. He opened the book. For the rest of the day he was in love with Diana Vernon; and when he looked out once or twice at the garden to rest his eyes, he saw "Andrew Fairservice" busy over the flowerbeds.
He closed the last page of the noble story as Toff came in to lay the cloth for dinner.
The master at table and the servant behind his chair were accustomed to gossip pleasantly during meals. Amelius did his best to carry on the talk as usual. But he was no longer in the delightful world of illusion which Scott had opened to him. The hard realities of his own everyday life had gathered round him again. Observing him with unobtrusive attention, the Frenchman soon perceived the absence of the easy humour and the excellent appetite which distinguished his young master at other times.
"May I venture to make a remark, sir?" Toff inquired, after a long pause in the conversation.
"And may I take the liberty of expressing my sentiments freely?"
"Of course you may."
"Dear sir, you have a pretty little simple dinner to-day," Toff began. "Forgive me for praising myself, I am influenced by the natural pride of having cooked the dinner. For soup, you have Croûte au pot; for meat, you have Tourne-dos à la sauce poivrade; for pudding, you have Pommes au beurre. All so nice--and you hardly eat anything, and your amiable conversation falls into a melancholy silence which fills me with regret. Is it you who are to blame for this? No, sir! it is the life you lead. I call it the life of a monk; I call it the life of a hermit--I say boldly it is the life of all others which is most unsympathetic to a young man like you. Pardon the warmth of my expressions; I am eager to make my language the language of utmost delicacy. May I quote a little song? It is in an old, old, old French piece, long since forgotten, called 'Les Maris Garçons'. There are two lines in that song (I have often heard my good father sing them) which I will venture to apply to your case; 'Amour, délicatesse, et gaîté; D'un bon Français c'est la devise!' Sir, you have naturally délicatesse and gaîté--but the last has, for some days, been under a cloud. What is wanted to remove that cloud? L'Amour! Love, as you say in English. Where is the charming woman, who is the only ornament wanting to this sweet cottage? Why is she still invisible? Remedy that unhappy oversight, sir. You are here in a suburban Paradise. I consult my long experience; and I implore you to invite Eve. --Ha! you smile; your lost gaiety returns, and you feel it as I do. Might I propose another glass of claret, and the reappearance on the table of the Tourne-dos à la poivrade?"
It was impossible to be melancholy in this man's company. Amelius sanctioned the return of the Tourne-dos, and tried the other glass of claret. "My good friend," he said, with something like a return of his old easy way, "you talk about charming women, and your long experience. Let's hear what your experience has been."
For the first time Toff began to look a little confused.
"You have honoured me, sir, by calling me your good friend," he said. "After that, I am sure you will not send me away if I own the truth. No! My heart tells me I shall not appeal to your indulgence in vain. Dear sir, in the holidays which you kindly give me, I provide competent persons to take care of the house in my absence, don't I? One person, if you remember, was a most handsome engaging young man. He is, if you please, my son by my first wife--now an angel in heaven. Another person, who took care of the house, on the next occasion, was a little black-eyed boy; a miracle of discretion for his age. He is my son by my second wife--now another angel in heaven. Forgive me, I have not done yet. Some few days since, you thought you heard an infant crying downstairs. Like a miserable wretch, I lied; I declared it was the infant in the next house. Ah, sir, it was my own cherubim baby by my third wife--an angel close by in the Edgeware Road, established in a small milliner shop, which will expand to great things by-and-by. The intervals between my marriages are not worthy of your notice. Fugitive caprices, sir--fugitive caprices! To sum it all up (as you say in England), it is not in me to resist the enchanting sex. If my third angel dies, I shall tear my hair--but I shall none the less take a fourth."
"Take a dozen if you like," said Amelius. "Why should you have kept all this from my knowledge?"
Toff hung his head. "I think it was one of my foreign mistakes," he pleaded. "The servants' advertisements in your English newspapers frighten me. How does the most meritorious manservant announce himself when he wants the best possible place? He says he is 'without encumbrances.' Gracious heaven, what a dreadful word to describe the poor pretty harmless children! I was afraid, sir, you might have some English objection to my 'encumbrances.' A young man, a boy, and a cherubim-baby; not to speak of the sacred memories of two women, and the charming occasional society of a third; all inextricably enveloped in the life of one amorous-meritorious French person--surely there was reason for hesitation here? No matter; I bless my stars I know better now, and I withdraw myself from further notice. Permit me to recall your attention to the Roquefort cheese, and a mouthful of potato-salad to correct the richness of him."
The dinner was over at last. Amelius was alone again.
It was a still evening. Not a breath of wind stirred among the trees in the garden; no vehicles passed along the by-road in which the cottage stood. Now and then, Toff was audible downstairs, singing French songs in a high cracked voice, while he washed the plates and dishes, and set everything in order for the night. Amelius looked at his bookshelves--and felt that, after Rob Roy, there was no more reading for him that evening. The slow minutes followed one another wearily; the deadly depression of the earlier hours of the day was stealthily fastening its hold on him again. How might he best resist it? His healthy out-of-door habits at Tadmor suggested the only remedy that he could think of. Be his troubles what they might, his one simple method of resisting them, at all other times, was his simple method now. He went out for a walk.
For two hours he rambled about the great north-western suburb of London. Perhaps he felt the heavy oppressive weather, or perhaps his good dinner had not agreed with him. Any way, he was so thoroughly worn out, that he was obliged to return to the cottage in a cab.
Toff opened the door--but not with his customary alacrity. Amelius was too completely fatigued to notice any trifling circumstance. Otherwise, he would certainly have perceived something odd in the old Frenchman's withered face. He looked at his master, as he relieved him of his hat and coat, with the strangest expression of interest and anxiety; modified by a certain sardonic sense of amusement underlying the more serious emotions. "A nasty dull evening," Amelius said wearily. And Toff, always eager to talk at other times, only answered, "Yes, sir"--and retreated at once to the kitchen regions.
The fire was bright; the curtains were drawn; the reading-lamp, with its ample green shade, was on the table--a more comfortable room no man could have found to receive him after a long walk. Reclining at his ease in his chair, Amelius thought of ringing for some restorative brandy-and-water. While he was thinking, he fell asleep; and, while he slept, he dreamed.
Was it a dream?
He certainly saw the library--not fantastically transformed, but just like what the room really was. So far, he might have been wide awake, looking at the familiar objects round him. But, after a while, an event happened which set the laws of reality at defiance. Simple Sally, miles away in the Home, made her appearance in the library, nevertheless. He saw the drawn curtains over the window parted from behind; he saw the girl step out from them, and stop, looking at him timidly. She was clothed in the plain dress that he had bought for her; and she looked more charming in it than ever. The beauty of health claimed kindred now, in her pretty face, with the beauty of youth: the wan cheeks had begun to fill out, and the pale lips were delicately suffused with their natural rosy red. Little by little her first fears seemed to subside. She smiled, and softly crossed the room, and stood at his side. After looking at him with a rapt expression of tenderness and delight, she laid her hands on the arm of the chair, and said, in the quaintly quiet way which he remembered so well, "I want to kiss you." She bent over him, and kissed him with the innocent freedom of a child. Then she raised herself again, and looked backwards and forwards between Amelius and the lamp. "The firelight is the best," she said. Darkness fell over the room as she spoke; he saw her no more; he heard her no more. A blank interval followed; there flowed over him the oblivion of perfect sleep. His next conscious sensation was a feeling of cold--he shivered, and woke.
The impression of the dream was in his mind at the moment of waking. He started as he raised himself in the chair. Was he dreaming still? No; he was certainly awake. And, as certainly, the room was dark!
He looked and looked. It was not to be denied, or explained away. There was the fire burning low, and leaving the room chilly--and there, just visible on the table, in the flicker of the dying flame, was the extinguished lamp!
He mended the fire, and put his hand on the bell to ring for Toff, and thought better of it. What need had he of the lamplight? He was too weary for reading; he preferred going to sleep again, and dreaming again of Sally. Where was the harm in dreaming of the poor little soul, so far away from him? The happiest part of his life now was the part of it that was passed in sleep.
As the fresh coals began to kindle feebly, he looked again at the lamp. It was odd, to say the least of it, that the light should have accidentally gone out, exactly at the right time to realize the fanciful extinction of it in his dream. How was it there was no smell of a burnt-out lamp? He was too lazy, or too tired, to pursue the question. Let the mystery remain a mystery--and let him rest in peace! He settled himself fretfully in his chair. What a fool he was to bother his head about a lamp, instead of closing his eyes and going to sleep again!
The room began to recover its pleasant temperature. He shifted the cushion in the chair, so that it supported his head in perfect comfort, and composed himself to rest. But the capricious influences of sleep had deserted him: he tried one position after another, and all in vain. It was a mere mockery even to shut his eyes. He resigned himself to circumstances, and stretched out his legs, and looked at the companionable fire.
Of late he had thought more frequently than usual of his past days in the Community. His mind went back again now to that bygone time. The clock on the mantelpiece struck nine. They were all at supper, at Tadmor--talking over the events of the day. He saw himself again at the long wooden table, with shy little Mellicent in the chair next to him, and his favourite dog at his feet waiting to be fed. Where was Mellicent now? It was a sad letter that she had written to him, with the strange fixed idea that he was to return to her one day. There was something very winning and lovable about the poor creature who had lived such a hard life at home, and had suffered so keenly. It was a comfort to think that she would go back to the Community. What happier destiny could she hope for? Would she take care of his dog for him when she went back? They had all promised to be kind to his pet animals in his absence; but the dog was fond of Mellicent; he would be happier with Mellicent than with the rest of them. And his little tame fawn, and his birds--how were they doing? He had not even written to inquire after them; he had been cruelly forgetful of those harmless dumb loving friends. In his present solitude, in his dreary doubts of the future, what would he not give to feel the dog nestling in his bosom, and the fawn's little rough tongue licking his hand! His heart ached as he thought of it: a choking hysterical sensation oppressed his breathing. He tried to rise, and ring for lights, and rouse his manhood to endure and resist. It was not to be done. Where was his courage? where was the cheerfulness which had never failed him at other time? He sank back in the chair, and hid his face in his hands for shame at his own weakness, and burst out crying.
The touch of soft persuasive fingers suddenly thrilled through him.
His hands were gently drawn away from his face; a familiar voice, sweet and low, said, "Oh, don't cry!" Dimly through his tears he saw the well-remembered little figure standing between him and the fire. In his unendurable loneliness, he had longed for his dog, he had longed for his fawn. There was the martyred creature from the streets, whom he had rescued from nameless horror, waiting to be his companion, servant, friend! There was the child-victim of cold and hunger, still only feeling her way to womanhood; innocent of all other aspirations, so long as she might fill the place which had once been occupied by the dog and the fawn!
Amelius looked at her with a momentary doubt whether he was waking or sleeping. "Good God!" he cried, "am I dreaming again?"
"No," she said, simply. "You are awake this time. Let me dry your eyes; I know where you put your handkerchief." She perched on his knee, and wiped away the tears, and smoothed his hair over his forehead. "I was frightened to show myself till I heard you crying," she confessed. "Then I thought, 'Come! he can't be angry with me now'--and I crept out from behind the curtains there. The old man let me in. I can't live without seeing you; I've tried till I could try no longer. I owned it to the old man when he opened the door. I said, 'I only want to look at him; won't you let me in?' And he says, 'God bless me, here's Eve come already!' I don't know what he meant--he let me in, that's all I care about. He's a funny old foreigner. Send him away; I'm to be your servant now. Why were you crying? I've cried often enough about You. No; that can't be--I can't expect you to cry about me; I can only expect you to scold me. I know I'm a bad girl."
She cast one doubtful look at him, and hung her head--waiting to be scolded. Amelius lost all control over himself. He took her in his arms and kissed her again and again. "You are a dear good grateful little creature!" he burst out--and suddenly stopped, aware too late of the act of imprudence which he had committed. He put her away from him; he tried to ask severe questions, and to administer merited reproof. Even if he had succeeded, Sally was too happy to listen to him. "It's all right now," she cried. "I'm never, never, never to go back to the Home! Oh, I'm so happy! Let's light the lamp again!"
She found the matchbox on the chimneypiece. In a minute more the room was bright. Amelius sat looking at her, perfectly incapable of deciding what he ought to say or do next. To complete his bewilderment, the voice of the attentive old Frenchman made itself heard through the door, in discreetly confidential tones.
"I have prepared an appetising little supper, sir," said Toff. "Be pleased to ring when you and the young lady are ready."
Toff's interference proved to have its use. The announcement of the little supper--plainly implying Simple Sally's reception at the cottage--reminded Amelius of his responsibilities. He at once stepped out into the passage, and closed the door behind him.
The old Frenchman was waiting to be reprimanded or thanked, as the case might be, with his head down, his shoulders shrugged up to his ears, and the palms of his hands spread out appealingly on either side of him--a model of mute resignation to circumstances.
"Do you know that you have put me in a very awkward position?" Amelius began.
Toff lifted one of his hands to his heart. "You are aware of my weakness, sir. When that charming little creature presented herself at the door, sinking with fatigue, I could no more resist her than I could take a hop-skip-and-jump over the roof of this cottage. If I have done wrong, take no account of the proud fidelity with which I have served you--tell me to pack up and go; but don't ask me to assume a position of severity towards that enchanting Miss. It is not in my heart to do it," said Toff, lifting his eyes with tearful solemnity to an imaginary heaven. "On my sacred word of honour as a Frenchman, I would die rather than do it!"
"Don't talk nonsense," Amelius rejoined a little impatiently. "I don't blame you--but you have got me into a scrape, for all that. If I did my duty, I should send for a cab, and take her back."
Toff opened his twinkling old eyes in a perfect transport of astonishment. "What!" he cried, "take her back? Without rest, without supper? And you call that duty? How inconceivably ugly does duty look when it assumes an inhospitable aspect towards a woman! Pardon me, sir; I must express my sentiments or I shall burst. You will say perhaps that I have no conception of duty? Pardon me again--my conception of duty is here!"
He threw open the door of the sitting-room. In spite of his anxiety, Amelius burst out laughing. The Frenchman's inexhaustible contrivances had transformed the sitting-room into a bedroom for Sally. The sofa had become a snug little white bed; a hairbrush and comb, and a bottle of eau-de-cologne, were on the table; a bath stood near the fire, with cans of hot and cold water, and a railway rug placed under them to save the carpet. "I dare not presume to contradict you, sir," said Toff, "but there is my conception of duty! In the kitchen, I have another conception, keeping warm; you can smell it up the stairs. Salmi of partridge, with the littlest possible dash of garlic in the sauce. Oh, sir, let that angel rest and refresh herself! Virtuous severity, believe me, is a most horribly unbecoming virtue at your age!" He spoke quite seriously, with the air of a profound moralist, asserting principles that did equal honour to his head and his heart.
Amelius went back to the library.
Sally was resting in the easy-chair; her position showed plainly that she was suffering from fatigue. "I have had a long, long walk," she said; "and I don't know which aches worst, my back or my feet. I don't care--I'm quite happy now I'm here." She nestled herself comfortably in the chair. "Do you mind my looking at you?" she asked. "Oh, it's so long since I saw you!"
There was a new undertone of tenderness in her voice--innocent tenderness that openly avowed itself. The reviving influences of the life at the Home had done much--and had much yet left to do. Her wasted face and figure were filling out, her cheeks and lips were regaining their lovely natural colour, as Amelius had seen in his dream. But her eyes, in repose, still resumed their vacantly patient look; and her manner, with a perceptible increase of composure and confidence, had not lost its quaint childish charm. Her growth from girl to woman was a growth of fine gradations, guided by the unerring deliberation of Nature and Time.
"Do you think they will follow you here, from the Home?" Amelius asked.
She looked at the clock. "I don't think so," she said quietly. "It's hours since I slipped out by the back door. They have very strict rules about runaway girls--even when their friends bring them back. If you send me back--" she stopped, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.
"What will you do, if I send you back?"
"What one of our girls did, before they took her in at the Home. She jumped into the river. 'Made a hole in the water'; that's how she calls it. She's a big strong girl; and they got her out, and saved her. She says it wasn't painful, till they brought her to again. I'm little and weak--I don't think they could bring me to life, if they tried."
Amelius made a futile attempt to reason with her. He even got so far as to tell her that she had done very wrong to leave the Home. Sally's answer set all further expostulation at defiance. Instead of attempting to defend herself, she sighed wearily, and said, "I had no money; I walked all the way here."
The well-intended remonstrances of Amelius were lost in compassionate surprise. "You poor little soul!" he exclaimed, "it must be seven or eight miles at least!"
"I dare say," said Sally. "It don't matter, now I've found you."
"But how did you find me? Who told you where I lived?"
She smiled, and took from her bosom the photograph of the cottage.
"But Mrs. Payson cut off the address!" cried Amelius, bursting out with the truth in the impulse of the moment.
Sally turned over the photograph, and pointed to the back of the card, on which the photographer's name and address were printed. "Mrs. Payson didn't think of this," she said shyly.
"Did you think of it?" Amelius asked.
Sally shook her head. "I'm too stupid," she replied. "The girl who made the hole in the water put me up to it. 'Have you made up your mind to run away?' she says. And I said, 'Yes.' 'You go to the man who did the picture,' she says; 'he knows where the place is, I'll be bound.' I asked my way till I found him. And he did know. And he told me. He was a good sort; he gave me a glass of beer, he said I looked so tired. I said we'd go and have our portraits taken some day--you, and your servant. May I tell the funny old foreigner that he is to go away now I have come to you?" The complete simplicity with which she betrayed her jealousy of Toff made Amelius smile. Sally, watching every change in his face, instantly drew her own conclusion. "Ah!" she said cheerfully, "I'll keep your room cleaner than he keeps it! I smelt dust on the curtains when I was hiding from you."
Amelius thought of his dream. "Did you come out while I was asleep?" he asked.
"Yes; I wasn't frightened of you, when you were asleep. I had a good look at you; and I gave you a kiss." She made that confession without the slightest sign of confusion; her calm blue eyes looked him straight in the face. "You got restless," she went on; "and I got frightened again. I put out the lamp. I says to myself, 'If he does scold me, I can bear it better in the dark.'"
Amelius listened, wondering. Had he seen drowsily what he thought he had dreamed, or was there some mysterious sympathy between Sally and himself? The occult speculations were interrupted by Sally. "May I take off my bonnet, and make myself tidy?" she asked. Some men might have said No. Amelius was not one of them.
The library possessed a door of communication with the sitting-room; the bedchamber occupied by Amelius being on the other side of the cottage. When Sally saw Toff's reconstructed room, she stood at the door, in speechless admiration of the vision of luxury revealed to her. From time to time Amelius, alone in the library, heard her dabbling in her bath, and humming the artless old English song from which she had taken her name. Once she knocked at the closed door, and made a request through it--"There is scent on the table; may I have some?" And once Toff knocked at the other door, opening into the passage, and asked when "pretty young Miss" would be ready for supper. Events went on in the little household as if Sally had become an integral part of it already. "What am I to do?" Amelius asked himself. And Toff, entering at the moment to lay the cloth, answered respectfully, "Hurry the young person, sir, or the salmi will be spoilt."
She came out from her room, walking delicately on her sore feet--so fresh and charming, that Toff, absorbed in admiration, made a mistake in folding a napkin for the first time in his life. "Champagne, of course, sir?" he said in confidence to Amelius. The salmi of partridge appeared; the inspiriting wine sparkled in the glasses; Toff surpassed himself in all the qualities which made a servant invaluable at a supper table. Sally forgot the Home, forgot the cruel streets, and laughed and chattered as gaily as the happiest girl living. Amelius, expanding in the joyous atmosphere of youth and good spirits, shook off his sense of responsibility, and became once more the delightful companion who won everybody's love. The effervescent gaiety of the evening was at its climax; the awful forms of duty, propriety, and good sense had been long since laughed out of the room--when Nemesis, goddess of retribution, announced her arrival outside, by a crashing of carriage-wheels and a peremptory ring at the cottage bell.
There was dead silence; Amelius and Sally looked at each other. The experienced Toff at once guessed what had happened. "Is it her father or mother?" he asked of Amelius, a little anxiously. Hearing that she had never even seen her father or mother, he snapped his fingers joyously, and led the way on tiptoe into the hall. "I have my idea," he whispered. "Let us listen."
A woman's voice, high, clear, and resolute, speaking apparently to the coachman, was the next audible sound. "Say I come from Mrs. Payson, and must see Mr. Goldenheart directly." Sally trembled and turned pale. "The matron!" she said faintly. "Oh, don't let her in!" Amelius took the terrified girl back to the library. Toff followed them, respectfully asking to be told what a "matron" was. Receiving the necessary explanation, he expressed his contempt for matrons bent on carrying charming persons into captivity, by opening the library door and spitting into the hall. Having relieved his mind in this way, he returned to his master and laid a lank skinny forefinger cunningly along the side of his nose. "I suppose, sir, you don't want to see this furious woman?" he said. Before it was possible to say anything in reply, another ring at the bell announced that the furious woman wanted to see Amelius. Toff read his master's wishes in his master's face. Not even this emergency could find him unprepared: he was as ready to circumvent a matron as to cook a dinner. "The shutters are up, and the curtains are drawn," he reminded Amelius. "Not a morsel of light is visible outside. Let them ring--we have all gone to bed." He turned to Sally, grinning with impish enjoyment of his own stratagem. "Ha, Miss! what do you think of that?" There was a third pull at the bell as he spoke. "Ring away, Missess Matrone!" he cried. "We are fast asleep--wake us if you can." The fourth ring was the last. A sharp crack revealed the breaking of the bellwire, and was followed by the shrill fall of the iron handle on the pavement before the garden gate. The gate, like the palings, was protected at the top from invading cats. "Compose yourself, Miss," said Toff, "if she tries to get over the gate, she will stick on the spikes." In another moment, the sound of retiring carriage-wheels announced the defeat of the matron, and settled the serious question of receiving Sally for the night.
She sat silent by the window, when Toff had left the room, holding back the curtains and looking out at the murky sky.
"What are you looking for?" Amelius asked.
"I was looking for the stars."
Amelius joined her at the window. "There are no stars to be seen tonight."
She let the curtain fall to again. "I was thinking of night-time at the Home," she said. "You see, I got on pretty well, in the day, with my reading and writing. I wanted so to improve myself. My mind was troubled with the fear of your despising such an ignorant creature as I am; so I kept on at my lessons. I thought I might surprise you by writing you a pretty letter some day. One of the teachers (she's gone away ill) was very good to me. I used to talk to her; and, when I said a wrong word, she took me up, and told me the right one. She said you would think better of me when you heard me speak properly--and I do speak better, don't I? All this was in the day. It was the night that was the hard time to get through--when the other girls were all asleep, and I had nothing to think of but how far away I was from you. I used to get up, and put the counterpane round me, and stand at the window. On fine nights the stars were company to me. There were two stars, near together, that I got to know. Don't laugh at me--I used to think one of them was you, and one of them me. I wondered whether you would die, or I should die, before I saw you again. And, most always, it was my star that went out first. Lord, how I used to cry! It got into my poor stupid head that I should never see you again. I do believe I ran away because of that. You won't tell anybody, will you? It was so foolish, I am ashamed of it now. I wanted to see your star and my star tonight. I don't know why. Oh, I'm so fond of you!" She dropped on her knees, and took his hand, and put it on her head. "It's burning hot," she said, "and your kind hand cools it."
Amelius raised her gently, and led her to the door of her room. "My poor Sally, you are quite worn out. You want rest and sleep. Let us say good night."
"I will do anything you tell me," she answered. "If Mrs. Payson comes tomorrow, you won't let her take me away? Thank you. Goodnight." She put her hands on his shoulders, with innocent familiarity, and lifted herself to him on tiptoe, and kissed him as a sister might have kissed him.
Long after Sally was asleep in her bed, Amelius sat by the library fire, thinking.
The revival of the crushed feeling and fancy in the girl's nature, so artlessly revealed in her sad little story of the stars that were "company to her," not only touched and interested him, but clouded his view of the future with doubts and anxieties which had never troubled him until that moment. The mysterious influences under which the girl's development was advancing were working morally and physically together. Weeks might pass harmlessly, months might pass harmlessly--but the time must come when the innocent relations between them would be beset by peril. Unable, as yet, fully to realize these truths, Amelius nevertheless felt them vaguely. His face was troubled, as he lit the candle at last to go to his bed. "I don't see my way as clearly as I could wish," he reflected. "How will it end?"
At eight o'clock the next morning, Amelius was awakened by Toff. A letter had arrived, marked "Immediate," and the messenger was waiting for an answer.
The letter was from Mrs. Payson. She wrote briefly, and in formal terms. After referring to the matron's fruitless visit to the cottage on the previous night, Mrs. Payson proceeded in these words:--"I request you will immediately let me know whether Sally has taken refuge with you, and has passed the night under your roof. If I am right in believing that she has done so, I have only to inform you that the doors of the Home are henceforth closed to her, in conformity with our rules. If I am wrong, it will be my painful duty to lose no time in placing the matter in the hands of the police."
Amelius began his reply, acting on impulse as usual. He wrote, vehemently remonstrating with Mrs. Payson on the unforgiving and unchristian nature of the rules at the Home. Before he was halfway through his composition, the person who had brought the letter sent a message to say that he was expected back immediately, and that he hoped Mr. Goldenheart would not get a poor man into trouble by keeping him much longer. Checked in the full flow of his eloquence, Amelius angrily tore up the unfinished remonstrance, and matched Mrs. Payson's briefly business-like language by an answer in one line:--"I beg to inform you that you are quite right." On reflection, he felt that the second letter was not only discourteous as a reply to a lady, but also ungrateful as addressed to Mrs. Payson personally. At the third attempt, he wrote becomingly as well as briefly. "Sally has passed the night here, as my guest. She was suffering from severe fatigue; it would have been an act of downright inhumanity to send her away. I regret your decision, but of course I submit to it. You once said, you believed implicitly in the purity of my motives. Do me the justice, however you may blame my conduct, to believe in me still."
Having despatched these lines, the mind of Amelius was at ease again, He went into the library, and listened to hear if Sally was moving. The perfect silence on the other side of the door informed him that the weary girl was still fast asleep. He gave directions that she was on no account to be disturbed, and sat down to breakfast by himself.
While he was still at table, Toff appeared, with profound mystery in his manner, and discreet confidence in the tones of his voice. "Here's another one, sir!" the Frenchman announced, in his master's ear.
"Another one?" Amelius repeated. "What do you mean?"
"She is not like the sweet little sleeping Miss." Toff explained. "This time, sir, it's the beauty of the devil himself, as we say in France. She refuses to confide in me; and she appears to be agitated--both bad signs. Shall I get rid of her before the other Miss wakes?"
"Hasn't she got a name?" Amelius asked.
Toff answered, in his foreign accent, "One name only--Faybay."
"Do you mean Phoebe?"
"Have I not said it, sir?"
"Show her in directly."
Toff glanced at the door of Sally's room, shrugged his shoulders, and obeyed his instructions.
Phoebe appeared, looking pale and anxious. Her customary assurance of manner had completely deserted her: she stopped in the doorway, as if she was afraid to enter the room.
"Come in, and sit down," said Amelius. "What's the matter?"
"I'm troubled in my mind, sir," Phoebe answered. "I know it's taking a liberty to come to you. But I went yesterday to ask Miss Regina's advice, and found she had gone abroad with her uncle. I have something to say about Mrs. Farnaby, sir; and there's no time to be lost in saying it. I know of nobody but you that I can speak to, now Miss Regina is away. The footman told me where you lived."
She stopped, evidently in the greatest embarrassment. Amelius tried to encourage her. "If I can be of any use to Mrs. Farnaby," he said, "tell me at once what to do."
Phoebe's eyes dropped before his straightforward look as he spoke to her.
"I must ask you to please excuse my mentioning names, sir," she resumed confusedly. "There's a person I'm interested in, whom I wouldn't get into trouble for the whole world. He's been misled--I'm sure he's been misled by another person--a wicked drunken old woman, who ought to be in prison if she had her deserts. I'm not free from blame myself--I know I'm not. I listened, sir, to what I oughtn't to have heard; and I told it again (I'm sure in the strictest confidence, and not meaning anything wrong) to the person I've mentioned. Not the old women--I mean the person I'm interested in. I hope you understand me, sir? I wish to speak openly, excepting the names, on account of Mrs. Farnaby."
Amelius thought of Phoebe's vindictive language the last time he had seen her. He looked towards a cabinet in a corner of the room, in which he had placed Mrs. Farnaby's letter. An instinctive distrust of his visitor began to rise in his mind. His manner altered--he turned to his plate, and went on with his breakfast. "Can't you speak to me plainly?" he said. "Is Mrs. Farnaby in any trouble?"
"And can I do anything to help her out of it?"
"I am sure you can, sir--if you only know where to find her."
"I do know where to find her. She has written to tell me. The last time I saw you, you expressed yourself very improperly about Mrs. Farnaby; you spoke as if you meant some harm to her."
"I mean nothing but good to her now, sir."
"Very well, then. Can't you go and speak to her yourself, if I give you the address?"
Phoebe's pale face flushed a little. "I couldn't do that, sir," she answered, "after the way Mrs. Farnaby has treated me. Besides, if she knew that I had listened to what passed between her and you--" She stopped again, more painfully embarrassed than ever.
Amelius laid down his knife and fork. "Look here!" he said; "this sort of thing is not in my way. If you can't make a clean breast of it, let's talk of something else. I'm very much afraid," he went on, with his customary absence of all concealment, "you're not the harmless sort of girl I once took you for. What do you mean by 'what passed between Mrs. Farnaby and me'?"
Phoebe put her handkerchief to her eyes. "It's very hard to speak to me so harshly," she said, "when I'm sorry for what I've done, and am only anxious to prevent harm coming of it."
"What have you done?" cried honest Amelius, weary of the woman's inveterately indirect way of explaining herself to him.
The flash of his quick temper in his eyes, as he put that straightforward question, roused a responsive temper in Phoebe which stung her into speaking openly at last. She told Amelius what she had heard in the kitchen as plainly as she had told it to Jervy--with this one difference, that she spoke without insolence when she referred to Mrs. Farnaby.
Listening in silence until she had done, Amelius started to his feet, and opening the cabinet, took from it Mrs. Farnaby's letter. He read the letter, keeping his back towards Phoebe--waited a moment thinking--and suddenly turned on the woman with a look that made her shrink in her chair. "You wretch!" he said; "you detestable wretch!"
In the terror of the moment, Phoebe attempted to leave the room. Amelius stopped her instantly. "Sit down again," he said; "I mean to have the whole truth out of you, now."
Phoebe recovered her courage. "You have had the whole truth, sir; I could tell you no more if I was on my deathbed."
Amelius refused to believe her. "There is a vile conspiracy against Mrs. Farnaby," he said. "Do you mean to tell me you are not in it?"
"So help me God, sir, I never even heard of it till yesterday!"
The tone in which she spoke shook the conviction of Amelius; the indescribable ring of truth was in it.
"There are two people who are cruelly deluding and plundering this poor lady," he went on. "Who are they?"
"I told you, if you remember, that I couldn't mention names, sir."
Amelius looked again at the letter. After what he had heard, there was no difficulty in identifying the invisible "young man," alluded to by Mrs. Farnaby, with the unnamed "person" in whom Phoebe was interested. Who was he? As the question passed through his mind, Amelius remembered the vagabond whom he had recognized with Phoebe, in the street. There was no doubt of it now--the man who was directing the conspiracy in the dark was Jervy! Amelius would unquestionably have been rash enough to reveal this discovery, if Phoebe had not stopped him. His renewed reference to Mrs. Farnaby's letter and his sudden silence after looking at it roused the woman's suspicions. "If you're planning to get my friend into trouble," she burst out, "not another word shall pass my lips!"
Even Amelius profited by the warning which that threat unintentionally conveyed to him.
"Keep your own secrets," he said; "I only want to spare Mrs. Farnaby a dreadful disappointment. But I must know what I am talking about when I go to her. Can't you tell me how you found out this abominable swindle?"
Phoebe was perfectly willing to tell him. Interpreting her long involved narrative into plain English, with the names added, these were the facts related:--Mrs. Sowler, bearing in mind some talk which had passed between them on the occasion of a supper, had called at Phoebe's lodgings on the previous day, and had tried to entrap her into communicating what she knew of Mrs. Farnaby's secrets. The trap failing, Mrs. Sowler had tried bribery next; had promised Phoebe a large sum of money, to be equally divided between them, if she would only speak; had declared that Jervy was perfectly capable of breaking his promise of marriage, and "leaving them both in the lurch, if he once got the money into his own pocket" and had thus informed Phoebe, that the conspiracy, which she supposed to have been abandoned, was really in full progress, without her knowledge. She had temporised with Mrs. Sowler, being afraid to set such a person openly at defiance; and had hurried away at once, to have an explanation with Jervy. He was reported to be "not at home." Her fruitless visit to Regina had followed--and there, so far as facts were concerned, was an end of the story.
Amelius asked her no questions, and spoke as briefly as possible when she had done. "I will go to Mrs. Farnaby this morning," was all he said.
"Would you please let me hear how it ends?" Phoebe asked.
Amelius pushed his pocket-book and pencil across the table to her, pointing to a blank leaf on which she could write her address. While she was thus employed the attentive Toff came in, and (with his eye on Phoebe) whispered in his master's ear. He had heard Sally moving about. Would it be more convenient, under the circumstances, if she had her breakfast in her own room? Toff's astonishment was a sight to see when Amelius answered, "Certainly not. Let her breakfast here."
Phoebe rose to go. Her parting words revealed the double-sided nature that was in her; the good and evil in perpetual conflict which should be uppermost.
"Please don't mention me, sir, to Mrs. Farnaby," she said. "I don't forgive her for what she's done to me; I don't say I won't be even with her yet. But not in that way! I won't have her death laid at my door. Oh, but I know her temper--and I say it's as likely as not to kill her or drive her mad, if she isn't warned about it in time. Never mind her losing her money. If it's lost, it's lost, and she's got plenty more. She may be robbed a dozen times over for all I care. But don't let her set her heart on seeing her child, and then find it's all a swindle. I hate her; but I can't and won't, let that go on. Good-morning, sir."
Amelius was relieved by her departure. For a minute or two, he sat absently stirring his coffee, and considering how he might most safely perform the terrible duty of putting Mrs. Farnaby on her guard. Toff interrupted his meditations by preparing the table for Sally's breakfast; and, almost at the same moment, Sally herself, fresh and rosy, opened her door a little way, and looked in.
"You have had a fine long sleep," said Amelius. "Have you quite got over your walk yesterday?"
"Oh yes," she answered gaily; "I only feel my long walk now in my feet. It hurts me to put my boots on. Can you lend me a pair of slippers?"
"A pair of my slippers? Why, Sally, you would be lost in them! What's the matter with your feet?"
"They're both sore. And I think one of them has got a blister on it."
"Come in, and let's have a look at it?"
She came limping in, with her feet bare. "Don't scold me," she pleaded, "I couldn't put my stockings on again, without washing them; and they're not dry yet."
"I'll get you new stockings and slippers," said Amelius. "Which is the foot with the blister?"
"The left foot," she answered, pointing to it.
"Let me see the blister," said Amelius.
Sally looked longingly at the fire.
"May I warm my feet first?" she asked; "they are so cold."
In those words she innocently deferred the discovery which, if it had been made at the moment, might have altered the whole after-course of events. Amelius only thought now of preventing her from catching cold. He sent Toff for a pair of the warmest socks that he possessed, and asked if he should put them on for her. She smiled, and shook her head, and put them on for herself.
When they had done laughing at the absurd appearance of the little feet in the large socks, they only drifted farther and farther away from the subject of the blistered foot. Sally remembered the terrible matron, and asked if anything had been heard of her that morning. Being told that Mrs. Payson had written, and that the doors of the institution were closed to her, she recovered her spirits, and began to wonder whether the offended authorities would let her have her clothes. Toff offered to go and make the inquiry, later in the day; suggesting the purchase of slippers and stockings, in the mean time, while Sally was having her breakfast. Amelius approved of the suggestion; and Toff set off on his errand, with one of Sally's boots for a pattern.
The morning had, by that time, advanced to ten o'clock.
Amelius stood before the fire talking, while Sally had her breakfast. Having first explained the reasons which made it impossible that she should live at the cottage in the capacity of his servant, he astonished her by announcing that he meant to undertake the superintendence of her education himself. They were to be master and pupil, while the lessons were in progress; and brother and sister at other times--and they were to see how they got on together, on this plan, without indulging in any needless anxiety about the future. Amelius believed with perfect sincerity that he had hit on the only sensible arrangement, under the circumstances; and Sally cried joyously, "Oh, how good you are to me; the happy life has come at last!" At the hour when those words passed the daughter's lips, the discovery of the conspiracy burst upon the mother in all its baseness and in all its horror.
The suspicion of her infamous employer, which had induced Mrs. Sowler to attempt to intrude herself into Phoebe's confidence, led her to make a visit of investigation at Jervy's lodgings later in the day. Informed, as Phoebe had been informed, that he was not at home, she called again some hours afterwards. By that time, the landlord had discovered that Jervy's luggage had been secretly conveyed away, and that his tenant had left him, in debt for rent of the two best rooms in the house.
No longer in any doubt of what had happened, Mrs. Sowler employed the remaining hours of the evening in making inquiries after the missing man. Not a trace of him had been discovered up to eight o'clock on the next morning.
Shortly after nine o'clock--that is to say, towards the hour at which Phoebe paid her visit to Amelius--Mrs. Sowler, resolute to know the worst, made her appearance at the apartments occupied by Mrs. Farnaby.
"I wish to speak to you," she began abruptly, "about that young man we both know of. Have you seen anything of him lately?"
Mrs. Farnaby, steadily on her guard, deferred answering the question. "Why do you want to know?" she said.
The reply was instantly ready. "Because I have reason to believe he has bolted, with your money in his pocket."
"He has done nothing of the sort," Mrs. Farnaby rejoined.
"Has he got your money?" Mrs. Sowler persisted. "Tell me the truth--and I'll do the same by you. He has cheated me. If you're cheated too, it's your own interest to lose no time in finding him. The police may catch him yet. Has he got your money?"
The woman was in earnest--in terrible earnest--her eyes and her voice both bore witness to it. She stood there, the living impersonation of those doubts and fears which Mrs. Farnaby had confessed, in writing to Amelius. Her position, at that moment, was essentially a position of command. Mrs. Farnaby felt it in spite of herself. She acknowledged that Jervy had got the money.
"Did you sent it to him, or give it to him?" Mrs. Sowler asked.
"I gave it to him."
Mrs. Sowler clenched her fists, and shook them in impotent rage. "He's the biggest scoundrel living," she exclaimed furiously; "and you're the biggest fool! Put on your bonnet and come to the police. If you get your money back again before he's spent it all, don't forget it was through me."
The audacity of the woman's language roused Mrs. Farnaby. She pointed to the door. "You are an insolent creature," she said; "I have nothing more to do with you."
"You have nothing more to do with me?" Mrs. Sowler repeated. "You and the young man have settled it all between you, I suppose." She laughed scornfully. "I dare say now you expect to see him again?"
Mrs. Farnaby was irritated into answering this. "I expect to see him this morning," she said, "at ten o'clock."
"And the lost young lady with him?"
"Say nothing about my lost daughter! I won't even hear you speak of her."
Mrs. Sowler sat down. "Look at your watch," she said. "It must be nigh on ten o'clock by this time. You'll make a disturbance in the house if you try to turn me out. I mean to wait here till ten o'clock."
On the point of answering angrily, Mrs. Farnaby restrained herself. "You are trying to force a quarrel on me," she said; "you shan't spoil the happiest morning of my life. Wait here by yourself."
She opened the door that led into her bedchamber, and shut herself in. Perfectly impenetrable to any repulse that could be offered to her, Mrs. Sowler looked at the closed door with a sardonic smile, and waited.
The clock in the hall struck ten. Mrs. Farnaby returned again to the sitting-room, walked straight to the window, and looked out.
"Any sign of him?" said Mrs. Sowler.
There were no signs of him. Mrs. Farnaby drew a chair to the window, and sat down. Her hands turned icy cold. She still looked out into the street.
"I'm going to guess what's happened," Mrs. Sowler resumed. "I'm a sociable creature, you know, and I must talk about something. About the money, now? Has the young man had his travelling expenses of you? To go to foreign parts, and bring your girl back with him, eh? I expect that's how it was. You see, I know him so well. And what happened, if you please, yesterday evening? Did he tell you he'd brought her back, and got her at his own place? And did he say he wouldn't let you see her till you paid him his reward as well as his travelling expenses? And did you forget my warning to you not to trust him? I'm a good one at guessing when I try. I see you think so yourself. Any signs of him yet?"
Mrs. Farnaby looked round from the window. Her manner was completely changed; she was nervously civil to the wretch who was torturing her. "I beg your pardon, ma'am, if I have offended you," she said faintly. "I am a little upset--I am so anxious about my poor child. Perhaps you are a mother yourself? You oughtn't to frighten me; you ought to feel for me." She paused, and put her hand to her head. "He told me yesterday evening," she went on slowly and vacantly, "that my poor darling was at his lodgings; he said she was so worn out with the long journey from abroad, that she must have a night's rest before she could come to me. I asked him to tell me where he lived, and let me go to her. He said she was asleep and must not be disturbed. I promised to go in on tiptoe, and only look at her; I offered him more money, double the money to tell me where she was. He was very hard on me. He only said, wait till ten tomorrow morning--and wished me goodnight. I ran out to follow him, and fell on the stairs, and hurt myself. The people of the house were very kind to me." She turned her head back towards the window, and looked out into the street again. "I must be patient," she said; "he's only a little late."
Mrs. Sowler rose, and tapped her smartly on the shoulder. "Lies!" she burst out. "He knows no more where your daughter is than I do--and he's off with your money!"
The woman's hateful touch struck out a spark of the old fire in Mrs. Farnaby. Her natural force of character asserted itself once more. "You lie!" she rejoined. "Leave the room!"
The door was opened, while she spoke. A respectable woman-servant came in with a letter. Mrs. Farnaby took it mechanically, and looked at the address. Jervy's feigned handwriting was familiar to her. In the instant when she recognized it, the life seemed to go out of her like an extinguished light. She stood pale and still and silent, with the unopened letter in her hand.
Watching her with malicious curiosity, Mrs. Sowler coolly possessed herself of the letter, looked at it, and recognized the writing in her turn. "Stop!" she cried, as the servant was on the point of going out. "There's no stamp on this letter. Was it brought by hand? Is the messenger waiting?"
The respectable servant showed her opinion of Mrs. Sowler plainly in her face. She replied as briefly and as ungraciously as possible:--"No."
"Man or woman?" was the next question.
"Am I to answer this person, ma'am?" said the servant, looking at Mrs. Farnaby.
"Answer me instantly," Mrs. Sowler interposed--"in Mrs. Farnaby's own interests. Don't you see she can't speak to you herself?"
"Well, then," said the servant, "it was a man."
"A man with a squint?"
"Which way did he go?"
"Towards the square."
Mrs. Sowler tossed the letter on the table, and hurried out of the room. The servant approached Mrs. Farnaby. "You haven't opened your letter yet, ma'am," she said.
"No," said Mrs. Farnaby vacantly, "I haven't opened it yet."
"I'm afraid it's bad news, ma'am?"
"Yes. I think it's bad news."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No, thank you. Yes; one thing. Open my letter for me, please."
It was a strange request to make. The servant wondered, and obeyed. She was a kind-hearted woman; she really felt for the poor lady. But the familiar household devil, whose name is Curiosity, and whose opportunities are innumerable, prompted her next words when she had taken the letter out of the envelope:--"Shall I read it to you, ma'am?"
"No. Put it down on the table, please. I'll ring when I want you."
The mother was alone--alone, with her death-warrant waiting for her on the table.
The clock downstairs struck the half hour after ten. She moved, for the first time since she had received the letter. Once more she went to the window, and looked out. It was only for a moment. She turned away again, with a sudden contempt for herself. "What a fool I am!" she said--and took up the open letter.
She looked at it, and put it down again. "Why should I read it," she asked herself, "when I know what is in it, without reading?"
Some framed woodcuts from the illustrated newspapers were hung on the walls. One of them represented a scene of rescue from shipwreck. A mother embracing her daughter, saved by the lifeboat, was among the foreground groups. The print was entitled, "The Mercy of Providence." Mrs. Farnaby looked at it with a moment's steady attention. "Providence has its favourites," she said; "I am not one of them."
After thinking a little, she went into her bedroom, and took two papers out of her dressing-case. They were medical prescriptions.
She turned next to the chimneypiece. Two medicine-bottles were placed on it. She took one of them down--a bottle of the ordinary size, known among chemists as a six-ounce bottle. It contained a colourless liquid. The label stated the dose to be "two table-spoonfuls," and bore, as usual, a number corresponding with a number placed on the prescription. She took up the prescription. It was a mixture of bi-carbonate of soda and prussic acid, intended for the relief of indigestion. She looked at the date, and was at once reminded of one of the very rare occasions on which she had required the services of a medical man. There had been a serious accident at a dinner-party, given by some friends. She had eaten sparingly of a certain dish, from which some of the other guests had suffered severely. It was discovered that the food had been cooked in an old copper saucepan. In her case, the trifling result had been a disturbance of digestion, and nothing more. The doctor had prescribed accordingly. She had taken but one dose: with her healthy constitution she despised physic. The remainder of the mixture was still in the bottle.
She considered again with herself--then went back to the chimneypiece, and took down the second bottle.
It contained a colourless liquid also; but it was only half the size of the first bottle, and not a drop had been taken. She waited, observing the difference between the two bottles with extraordinary attention. In this case also, the prescription was in her possession--but it was not the original. A line at the top stated that it was a copy made by the chemist, at the request of a customer. It bore the date of more than three years since. A morsel of paper was pinned to the prescription, containing some lines in a woman's handwriting:--"With your enviable health and strength, my dear, I should have thought you were the last person in the world to want a tonic. However, here is my prescription, if you must have it. Be very careful to take the right dose, because there's poison in it." The prescription contained three ingredients, strychnine, quinine, and nitro-hydrochloric acid; and the dose was fifteen drops in water. Mrs. Farnaby lit a match, and burnt the lines of her friend's writing. "As long ago as that," she reflected, "I thought of killing myself. Why didn't I do it?"
The paper having been destroyed, she put back the prescription for indigestion in her dressing-case; hesitated for a moment; and opened the bedroom window. It looked into a lonely little courtyard. She threw the dangerous contents of the second and smaller bottle out into the yard--and then put it back empty on the chimneypiece. After another moment of hesitation, she returned to the sitting-room, with the bottle of mixture, and the copied prescription for the tonic strychnine drops, in her hand.
She put the bottle on the table, and advanced to the fireplace to ring the bell. Warm as the room was, she began to shiver. Did the eager life in her feel the fatal purpose that she was meditating, and shrink from it? Instead of ringing the bell, she bent over the fire, trying to warm herself.
"Other women would get relief in crying," she thought. "I wish I was like other women!"
The whole sad truth about herself was in that melancholy aspiration. No relief in tears, no merciful oblivion in a fainting-fit, for her. The terrible strength of the vital organization in this woman knew no yielding to the unutterable misery that wrung her to the soul. It roused its glorious forces to resist: it held her in a stony quiet, with a grip of iron.
She turned away from the fire wondering at herself. "What baseness is there in me that fears death? What have I got to live for now?" The open letter on the table caught her eye. "This will do it!" she said--and snatched it up, and read it at last.
"The least I can do for you is to act like a gentleman, and spare you unnecessary suspense. You will not see me this morning at ten, for the simple reason that I really don't know, and never did know, where to find your daughter. I wish I was rich enough to return the money. Not being able to do that, I will give you a word of advice instead. The next time you confide any secrets of yours to Mr. Goldenheart, take better care that no third person hears you."
She read those atrocious lines, without any visible disturbance of the dreadful composure that possessed her. Her mind made no effort to discover the person who had listened and betrayed her. To all ordinary curiosities, to all ordinary emotions, she was morally dead already.
The one thought in her was a thought that might have occurred to a man. "If I only had my hands on his throat, how I could wring the life out of him! As it is--" Instead of pursuing the reflection, she threw the letter into the fire, and rang the bell.
"Take this at once to the nearest chemist's," she said, giving the strychnine prescription to the servant; "and wait, please, and bring it back with you."
She opened her desk, when she was alone, and tore up the letters and papers in it. This done, she took her pen, and wrote a letter. It was addressed to Amelius.
When the servant entered the room again, bringing with her the prescription made up, the clock downstairs struck eleven.
Toff returned to the cottage, with the slippers and the stockings.
"What a time you have been gone!" said Amelius.
"It is not my fault, sir," Toff explained. "The stockings I obtained without difficulty. But the nearest shoe shop in this neighbourhood sold only coarse manufactures, and all too large. I had to go to my wife, and get her to take me to the right place. See!" he exclaimed, producing a pair of quilted silk slippers with blue rosettes, "here is a design, that is really worthy of pretty feet. Try them on, Miss."
Sally's eyes sparkled at the sight of the slippers. She rose at once, and limped away to her room. Amelius, observing that she still walked in pain, called her back. "I had forgotten the blister," he said. "Before you put on the new stockings, Sally, let me see your foot." He turned to Toff. "You're always ready with everything," he went on; "I wonder whether you have got a needle and a bit of worsted thread?"
The old Frenchman answered, with an air of respectful reproach. "Knowing me, sir, as you do," he said, "could you doubt for a moment that I mend my own clothes and darn my own stockings?" He withdrew to his bedroom below, and returned with a leather roll. "When you are ready, sir?" he said, opening the roll at the table, and threading the needle, while Sally removed the sock from her left foot.
She took a chair near the window, at the suggestion of Amelius. He knelt down so as to raise her foot to his knee. "Turn a little more towards the light," he said. He took the foot in his hand, lifted it, looked at it--and suddenly let it drop back on the floor.
A cry of alarm from Sally instantly brought Toff to the window. "Oh, look!" she cried; "he's ill!" Toff lifted Amelius to a chair. "For God's sake, sir," cried the terrified old man, "what's the matter?" Amelius had turned to the strange ashy paleness which is only seen in men of his florid complexion, overwhelmed by sudden emotion. He stammered when he tried to speak. "Fetch the brandy!" said Toff, pointing to the liqueur-case on the sideboard. Sally brought it at once; the strong stimulant steadied Amelius.
"I'm sorry to have frightened you," he said faintly. "Sally!--Dear, dear little Sally, go in, and get your things on directly. You must come out with me; I'll tell you why afterwards. My God! why didn't I find this out before?" He noticed Toff, wondering and trembling. "Good old fellow! don't alarm yourself--you shall know about it, too. Go! run! get the first cab you can find!"
Left alone for a few minutes, he had time to compose himself. He did his best to take advantage of the time; he tried to prepare his mind for the coming interview with Mrs. Farnaby. "I must be careful of what I do," he thought, conscious of the overwhelming effect of the discovery on himself; "She doesn't expect me to bring her daughter to her."
Sally returned to him, ready to go out. She seemed to be afraid of him, when he approached her, and took her hand. "Have I done anything wrong?" she asked, in her childish way. "Are you going to take me to some other Home?" The tone and look with which she put the question burst through the restraints which Amelius had imposed on himself for her sake. "My dear child!" he said, "can you bear a great surprise? I'm dying to tell you the truth--and I hardly dare do it." He took her in his arms. She trembled piteously. Instead of answering him, she reiterated her question, "Are you going to take me to some other Home?" He could endure it no longer. "This is the happiest day of your life, Sally!" he cried; "I am going to take you to your mother."
He held her close to him, and looked at her in dread of having spoken too plainly.
She slowly lifted her eyes to him in vacant fear and surprise; she burst into no expression of delight; no overwhelming emotion made her sink fainting in his arms. The sacred associations which gather round the mere name of Mother were associations unknown to her; the man who held her to him so tenderly, the hero who had pitied and saved her, was father and mother both to her simple mind. She dropped her head on his breast; her faltering voice told him that she was crying. "Will my mother take me away from you?" she asked. "Oh, do promise to bring me back with you to the cottage!"
For the moment, and the moment only, Amelius was disappointed in her. The generous sympathies in his nature guided him unerringly to the truer view. He remembered what her life had been. Inexpressible pity for her filled his heart. "Oh, my poor Sally, the time is coming when you will not think as you think now! I will do nothing to distress you. You mustn't cry--you must be happy, and loving and true to your mother." She dried her eyes, "I'll do anything you tell me," she said, "as long as you bring me back with you."
Amelius sighed, and said no more. He took her out with him gravely and silently, when the cab was announced to be ready. "Double your fare," he said, when he gave the driver his instructions, "if you get there in a quarter of an hour." It wanted twenty-five minutes to twelve when the cab left the cottage.
At that moment, the contrast of feeling between the two could hardly have been more strongly marked. In proportion as Amelius became more and more agitated, so Sally recovered the composure and confidence that she had lost. The first question she put to him related, not to her mother, but to his strange behaviour when he had knelt down to look at her foot. He answered, explaining to her briefly and plainly what his conduct meant. The description of what had passed between her mother and Amelius interested and yet perplexed her. "How can she be so fond of me, without knowing anything about me for all those years?" she asked. "Is my mother a lady? Don't tell her where you found me; she might be ashamed of me." She paused, and looked at Amelius anxiously. "Are you vexed about something? May I take hold of your hand?" Amelius gave her his hand; and Sally was satisfied.
As the cab drew up at the house, the door was opened from within. A gentleman, dressed in black, hurriedly came out; looked at Amelius; and spoke to him as he stepped from the cab to the pavement.
"I beg your pardon, sir. May I ask if you are any relative of the lady who lives in this house?"
"No relative," Amelius answered. "Only a friend, who brings good news to her."
The stranger's grave face suddenly became compassionate as well as grave. "I must speak with you before you go upstairs," he said, lowering his voice as he looked at Sally, still seated in the cab. "You will perhaps excuse the liberty I am taking, when I tell you that I am a medical man. Come into the hall for a moment--and don't bring the young lady with you."
Amelius told Sally to wait in the cab. She saw his altered looks, and entreated him not to leave her. He promised to keep the house door open so that she could see him while he was away from her, and hastened into the hall.
"I am sorry to say I have bad, very bad, news for you," the doctor began. "Time is of serious importance--I must speak plainly. You have heard of mistakes made by taking the wrong bottle of medicine? The poor lady upstairs is, I fear, in a dying state, from an accident of that sort. Try to compose yourself. You may really be of use to me, if you are firm enough to take my place while I am away."
Amelius steadied himself instantly. "What I can do, I will do," he answered.
The doctor looked at him. "I believe you," he said. "Now listen. In this case, a dose limited to fifteen drops has been confounded with a dose of two table-spoonsful; and the drug taken by mistake is strychnine. One grain of the poison has been known to prove fatal--she has taken three. The convulsion fits have begun. Antidotes are out of the question--the poor creature can swallow nothing. I have heard of opium as a possible means of relief; and I am going to get the instrument for injecting it under the skin. Not that I have much belief in the remedy; but I must try something. Have you courage enough to hold her, if another of the convulsions comes on in my absence?"
"Will it relieve her, if I hold her?" Amelius, asked.
"Then I promise to do it."
"Mind! you must do it thoroughly. There are only two women upstairs; both perfectly useless in this emergency. If she shrieks to you to be held, exert your strength--take her with a firm grasp. If you only touch her (I can't explain it, but it is so), you will make matters worse."
The servant ran downstairs, while he was speaking. "Don't leave us, sir--I'm afraid it's coming on again."
"This gentleman will help you, while I am away," said the doctor. "One word more," he went on, addressing Amelius. "In the intervals between the fits, she is perfectly conscious; able to listen, and even to speak. If she has any last wishes to communicate, make good use of the time. She may die of exhaustion, at any moment. I will be back directly."
He hurried to the door.
"Take my cab," said Amelius, "and save time."
"But the young lady--"
"Leave her to me." He opened the cab door, and gave his hand to Sally. It was done in a moment. The doctor drove off.
Amelius saw the servant waiting for them in the hall. He spoke to Sally, telling her, considerately and gently, what he had heard, before he took her into the house. "I had such good hopes for you," he said; "and it has come to this dreadful end! Have you courage to go through with it, if I take you to her bedside? You will be glad one day, my dear, to remember that you cheered your mother's last moments on earth."
Sally put her hand in his. "I will go anywhere," she said softly, "with You."
Amelius led her into the house. The servant, in pity for her youth, ventured on a word of remonstrance. "Oh, sir, you're not going to let the poor young lady see that dreadful sight upstairs!"
"You mean well," Amelius answered; "and I thank you. If you knew what I know, you would take her upstairs, too. Show the way."
Sally looked at him in silent awe as they followed the servant together. He was not like the same man. His brows were knit; his lips were fast set; he held the girl's hand in a grip that hurt her. The latent strength of will in him--that reserved resolution, so finely and firmly entwined in the natures of sensitively organized men--was rousing itself to meet the coming trial. The doctor would have doubly believed in him, if the doctor had seen him at that moment.
They reached the first-floor landing.
Before the servant could open the drawing-room door, a shriek rang frightfully through the silence of the house. The servant drew back, and crouched trembling on the upper stairs. At the same moment, the door was flung open, and another woman ran out, wild with terror. "I can't bear it!" she cried, and rushed up the stairs, blind to the presence of strangers in the panic that possessed her. Amelius entered the drawing-room, with his arm round Sally, holding her up. As he placed her in a chair, the dreadful cry was renewed. He only waited to rouse and encourage her by a word and a look--and ran into the bedroom.
For an instant, and an instant only, he stood horror-struck in the presence of the poisoned woman.
The fell action of the strychnine wrung every muscle in her with the torture of convulsion. Her hands were fast clenched; her head was bent back: her body, rigid as a bar of iron, was arched upwards from the bed, resting on the two extremities of the head and the heels: the staring eyes, the dusky face, the twisted lips, the clenched teeth, were frightful to see. He faced it. After the one instant of hesitation, he faced it.
Before she could cry out again, his hands were on her. The whole exertion of his strength was barely enough to keep the frenzied throbs of the convulsion, as it reached its climax, from throwing her off the bed. Through the worst of it, he was still equal to the trust that had been placed in him, still faithful to the work of mercy. Little by little, he felt the lessening resistance of the rigid body, as the paroxysm began to subside. He saw the ghastly stare die out of her eyes, and the twisted lips relax from their dreadful grin. The tortured body sank, and rested; the perspiration broke out on her face; her languid hands fell gently over on the bed. For a while, the heavy eyelids closed--then opened again feebly. She looked at him. "Do you know me?" he asked, bending over her. And she answered in a faint whisper, "Amelius!"
He knelt down by her, and kissed her hand. "Can you listen, if I tell you something?"
She breathed heavily; her bosom heaved under the suffocating oppression that weighed upon it. As he took her in his arms to raise her in the bed, Sally's voice reached him, in low imploring tones, from the next room. "Oh, let me come to you! I'm so frightened here by myself."
He waited, before he told her to come in, looking for a moment at the face that was resting on his breast. A gray shadow was stealing over it; a cold and clammy moisture struck a chill through him as he put his hand on her forehead. He turned towards the next room. The girl had ventured as far as the door; he beckoned to her. She came in timidly, and stood by him, and looked at her mother. Amelius signed to her to take his place. "Put your arms round her," he whispered. "Oh, Sally, tell her who you are in a kiss!" The girl's tears fell fast as she pressed her lips on her mother's cheek. The dying woman looked at her, with a glance of helpless inquiry--then looked at Amelius. The doubt in her eyes was too dreadful to be endured. Arranging the pillows so that she could keep her raised position in the bed, he signed to Sally to approach him, and removed the slipper from her left foot. As he took it off, he looked again at the bed--looked and shuddered. In a moment more, it might be too late. With his knife he ripped up the stocking, and, lifting her on the bed, put her bare foot on her mother's lap. "Your child! your child!" he cried; "I've found your own darling! For God's sake, rouse yourself! Look!"
She heard him. She lifted her feebly declining head. She looked. She knew.
For one awful moment, the sinking vital forces rallied, and hurled back the hold of Death. Her eyes shone radiant with the divine light of maternal love; an exulting cry of rapture burst from her. Slowly, very slowly, she bent forward, until her face rested on her daughter's foot. With a faint sigh of ecstasy she kissed it. The moments passed--and the bent head was raised no more. The last beat of the heart was a beat of joy.
DAME NATURE DECIDES
The day which had united the mother and daughter, only to part them again in this world for ever, had advanced to evening.
Amelius and Sally were together again in the cottage, sitting by the library fire. The silence in the room was uninterrupted. On the open desk, near Amelius, lay the letter which Mrs. Farnaby had written to him on the morning of her death.
He had found the letter--with the envelope unfastened--on the floor of the bedchamber, and had fortunately secured it before the landlady and the servant had ventured back to the room. The doctor, returning a few minutes afterwards, had warned the two women that a coroner's inquest would be held in the house, and had vainly cautioned them to be careful of what they said or did in the interval. Not only the subject of the death, but a discovery which had followed, revealing the name of the ill-fated woman marked on her linen, and showing that she had used an assumed name in taking the lodgings as Mrs. Ronald, became the gossip of the neighbourhood in a few hours. Under these circumstances, the catastrophe was made the subject of a paragraph in the evening journals; the name being added for the information of any surviving relatives who might be ignorant of the sad event. If the landlady had found the letter, that circumstance also would in all probability, have formed part of the statement in the newspapers, and the secret of Mrs. Farnaby's life and death would have been revealed to the public view.
"I can trust you, and you only," she wrote to Amelius, "to fulfil the last wishes of a dying woman. You know me, and you know how I looked forward to the prospect of a happy life in retirement with my child. The one hope that I lived for has proved to be a cruel delusion. I have only this morning discovered, beyond the possibility of doubt, that I have been made the victim of wretches who have deliberately lied to me from first to last. If I had been a happier woman, I might have had other interests to sustain me under this frightful disaster. Such as I am, Death is my one refuge left.
"My suicide will be known to no creature but yourself. Some years since, the idea of self destruction--concealed under the disguise of a common mistake--presented itself to my mind. I kept the means, very simple means, by me, thinking I might end in that way after all. When you read this I shall be at rest for ever. You will do what I have yet to ask of you, in merciful remembrance of me--I am sure of that.
"You have a long life before you, Amelius. My foolish fancy about you and my lost girl still lingers in my mind; I still think it may be just possible that you may meet with her, in the course of years.
"If this does happen, I implore you, by the tenderness and pity that you once felt for me, to tell no human creature that she is my daughter; and, if John Farnaby is living at the time, I forbid you, with the authority of a dying friend, to let her see him, or to let her know even that such a person exists. Are you at a loss to account for my motives? I may make the shameful confession which will enlighten you, now I know that we shall never meet again. My child was born before my marriage; and the man who afterwards became my husband--a man of low origin, I should tell you--was the father. He had calculated on this disgraceful circumstance to force my parents to make his fortune, by making me his wife. I now know, what I only vaguely suspected before, that he deliberately abandoned his child, as a likely cause of hindrance and scandal in the way of his prosperous career in life. Do you now think I am asking too much, when I entreat you never even to speak to my lost darling of this unnatural wretch? As for my own fair fame, I am not thinking of myself. With Death close at my side, I think of my poor mother, and of all that she suffered and sacrificed to save me from the disgrace that I had deserved. For her sake, not for mine, keep silence to friends and enemies alike if they ask you who my girl is--with the one exception of my lawyer. Years since, I left in his care the means of making a small provision for my child, on the chance that she might live to claim it. You can show him this letter as your authority, in case of need.
"Try not to forget me, Amelius--but don't grieve about me. I go to my death as you go to your sleep when you are tired. I leave you my grateful love--you have always been good to me. There is no more to write; I hear the servant returning from the chemist's, bringing with her only release from the hard burden of life without hope. May you be happier than I have been! Goodbye!"
So she parted from him for ever. But the fatal association of the unhappy woman's sorrows with the life and fortune of Amelius was not at an end yet.
He had neither hesitation nor misgiving in resolving to show a natural respect to the wishes of the dead. Now that the miserable story of the past had been unreservedly disclosed to him, he would have felt himself bound in honour, even without instructions to guide him, to keep the discovery of the daughter a secret, for the mother's sake. With that conviction, he had read the distressing letter. With that conviction, he now rose to provide for the safe keeping of it under lock and key.
Just as he had secured the letter in a private drawer of his desk, Toff came in with a card, and announced that a gentleman wished to see him. Amelius, looking at the card, was surprised to find on it the name of "Mr. Melton." Some lines were written on it in pencil: "I have called to speak with you on a matter of serious importance." Wondering what his middle-aged rival could want with him, Amelius instructed Toff to admit the visitor.
Sally started to her feet, with her customary distrust of strangers. "May I run away before he comes in?" she asked. "If you like," Amelius answered quietly. She ran to the door of her room, at the moment when Toff appeared again, announcing the visitor. Mr. Melton entered just before she disappeared: he saw the flutter of her dress as the door closed behind her.
"I fear I am disturbing you?" he said, looking hard at the door.
He was perfectly dressed: his hat and gloves were models of what such things ought to be; he was melancholy and courteous; blandly distrustful of the flying skirts which he had seen at the door. When Amelius offered him a chair, he took it with a mysterious sigh; mournfully resigned to the sad necessity of sitting down. "I won't prolong my intrusion on you," he resumed. "You have no doubt seen the melancholy news in the evening papers?"
"I haven't seen the evening papers," Amelius answered; "what news do you mean?"
Mr. Melton leaned back in his chair, and expressed emotions of sorrow and surprise, in a perfect state of training, by gently raising his smooth white hands.
"Oh dear, dear! this is very sad. I had hoped to find you in full possession of the particulars--reconciled, as we must all be, to the inscrutable ways of Providence. Permit me to break it to you as gently as possible. I came here to inquire if you had heard yet from Miss Regina. Understand my motive! there must be no misapprehension between us on that subject. There is a very serious necessity--pray follow me carefully--I say, a very serious necessity for my communicating immediately with Miss Regina's uncle; and I know of nobody who is so likely to hear from the travellers, so soon after their departure, as yourself. You are, in a certain sense, a member of the family--"
"Stop a minute" said Amelius.
"I beg your pardon?" said Mr. Melton politely, at a loss to understand the interruption.
"I didn't at first know what you meant," Amelius explained. "You put it, if you will forgive me for saying so, in rather a roundabout way. If you are alluding, all this time, to Mrs. Farnaby's death, I must honestly tell you that I know of it already."
The bland self-possession of Mr. Melton's face began to show signs of being ruffled. He had been in a manner deluded into exhibiting his conventionally fluent eloquence, in the choicest modulations of his sonorous voice--and it wounded his self esteem to be placed in his present position. "I understood you to say," he remarked stiffly, "that you had not seen the evening newspapers."
"You are quite right," Amelius rejoined; "I have not seen them."
"Then may I inquire," Mr. Melton proceeded, "how you became informed of Mrs. Farnaby's death?"
Amelius replied with his customary frankness. "I went to call on the poor lady this morning," he said, "knowing nothing of what had happened. I met the doctor at the door; and I was present at her death."
Even Mr. Melton's carefully-trained composure was not proof against the revelation that now opened before him. He burst out with an exclamation of astonishment, like an ordinary man.
"Good heavens, what does this mean!"
Amelius took it as a question addressed to himself. "I'm sure I don't know," he said quietly.
Mr. Melton, misunderstanding Amelius on his side, interpreted those innocent words as an outbreak of vulgar interruption. "Pardon me," he said coldly. "I was about to explain myself. You will presently understand my surprise. After seeing the evening paper, I went at once to make inquiries at the address mentioned. In Mr. Farnaby's absence, I felt bound to do this as his old friend. I saw the landlady, and, with her assistance, the doctor also. Both these persons spoke of a gentleman who had called that morning, accompanied by a young lady; and who had insisted on taking the young lady upstairs with him. Until you mentioned just now that you were present at the death, I had no suspicion that you were 'the gentleman'. Surprise on my part was, I think, only natural. I could hardly be expected to know that you were in Mrs. Farnaby's confidence about the place of her retreat. And with regard to the young lady, I am still quite at a loss to understand--"
"If you understand that the people at the house told you the truth, so far as I am concerned," Amelius interposed, "I hope that will be enough. With regard to the young lady, I must beg you to excuse me for speaking plainly. I have nothing to say about her, to you or to anybody."
Mr. Melton rose with the utmost dignity and the fullest possession of his vocal resources.
"Permit me to assure you," he said, with frigidly fluent politeness, "that I have no wish to force myself into your confidence. One remark I will venture to make. It is easy enough, no doubt, to keep your own secrets, when you are speaking to me. You will find some difficulty, I fear, in pursuing the same course, when you are called upon to give evidence before the coroner. I presume you know that you will be summoned as a witness at the inquest?"
"I left my name and address with the doctor for that purpose," Amelius rejoined as composedly as ever; "and I am ready to bear witness to what I saw at poor Mrs. Farnaby's bedside. But if all the coroners in England questioned me about anything else, I should say to them just what I have said to you."
Mr. Melton smiled with well bred irony. "We shall see," he said. "In the mean time, I presume I may ask you, in the interests of the family, to send me the address on the letter, as soon as you hear from Miss Regina. I have no other means of communicating with Mr. Farnaby. In respect to the melancholy event, I may add that I have undertaken to provide for the funeral, and to pay any little outstanding debts, and so forth. As Mr. Farnaby's old friend and representative--"
The conclusion of the sentence was interrupted by the entrance of Toff with a note, and an apology for his intrusion. "I beg your pardon, sir; the person is waiting. She says it's only a receipt to sign. The box is in the hall."
Amelius examined the enclosure. It was a formal document, acknowledging the receipt of Sally's clothes, returned to her by the authorities at the Home. As he took a pen to sign the receipt he looked towards the door of Sally's room. Mr. Melton, observing the look, prepared to retire. "I am only interrupting you," he said. "You have my address on my card. Good evening."
On his way out, he passed an elderly woman, waiting in the hall. Toff, hastening before him to open the garden gate, was saluted by the gruff voice of a cabman, outside. "The lady whom he had driven to the cottage had not paid him his right fare; he meant to have the money, or the lady's name and address, and summon her." Quietly crossing the road, Mr. Melton heard the woman's voice next: she had got her receipt, and had followed him out. In the dispute about fares and distances that ensued, the contending parties more than once mentioned the name of the Home and of the locality in which it was situated. Possessing this information, Mr. Melton looked in at his club; consulted a directory, under the heading of "Charitable Institutions;" and solved the mystery of the vanishing petticoats at the door. He had discovered an inmate of an asylum for lost women, in the house of the man to whom Regina was engaged to be married!
The next morning's post brought to Amelius a letter from Regina. It was dated from an hotel in Paris. Her "dear uncle" had over estimated his strength. He had refused to stay and rest for the night at Boulogne; and had suffered so severely from the fatigue of the long journey that he had been confined to his bed since his arrival. The English physician consulted had declined to say when he would be strong enough to travel again; the constitution of the patient must have received some serious shock; he was brought very low. Having carefully reported the new medical opinion, Regina was at liberty to indulge herself, next, in expressions of affection, and to assure Amelius of her anxiety to hear from him as soon as possible. But, in this case again, the "dear uncle's" convenience was still the first consideration. She reverted to Mr. Farnaby, in making her excuses for a hurriedly written letter. The poor invalid suffered from depression of spirits; his great consolation in his illness was to hear his niece read to him: he was calling for her, indeed, at that moment. The inevitable postscript warmed into a mild effusion of fondness, "How I wish you could be with us. But, alas, it cannot be!"
Amelius copied the address on the letter, and sent it to Mr. Melton immediately.
It was then the twenty-fourth day of the month. The tidal train did not leave London early that morning; and the inquest was deferred, to suit other pressing engagements of the coroner, until the twenty-sixth. Mr. Melton decided, after his interview with Amelius, that the emergency was sufficiently serious to justify him in following his telegram to Paris. It was clearly his duty, as an old friend, to mention to Mr. Farnaby what he had discovered at the cottage, as well as what he had heard from the landlady and the doctor; leaving it to the uncle's discretion to act as he thought right in the interests of the niece. Whether that course of action might not also serve the interests of Mr. Melton himself, in the character of an unsuccessful suitor for Regina's hand, he did not stop to inquire. Beyond his duty it was, for the present at least, not his business to look.
That night, the two gentlemen held a private consultation in Paris; the doctor having previously certified that his patient was incapable of supporting the journey back to London, under any circumstances.
The question of the formal proceedings rendered necessary by Mrs. Farnaby's death having been discussed and disposed of, Mr. Melton next entered on the narrative which the obligations of friendship imperatively demanded from him. To his astonishment and alarm, Mr. Farnaby started up in the bed like a man panic-stricken. "Did you say," he stammered, as soon as he could speak, "you mean to make inquiries about that--that girl?"
"I certainly thought it desirable, bearing in mind Mr. Goldenheart's position in your family."
"Do nothing of the sort! Say nothing to Regina or to any living creature. Wait till I get well again--and leave me to deal with it. I am the proper person to take it in hand. Don't you see that for yourself? And, look here! there may be questions asked at the inquest. Some impudent scoundrel on the jury may want to pry into what doesn't concern him. The moment you're back in London, get a lawyer to represent us--the sharpest fellow that can be had for money. Tell him to stop all prying questions. Who the girl is, and what made that cursed young Socialist Goldenheart take her upstairs with him--all that sort of thing has nothing to do with the manner in which my wife met her death. You understand? I look to you, Melton, to see yourself that this is done. The less said at the infernal inquest, the better. In my position, it's an exposure that my enemies will make the most of, as it is. I'm too ill to go into the thing any further. No: I don't want Regina. Go to her in the sitting room, and tell the courier to get you something to eat and drink. And, I say! For God's sake don't be late for the Boulogne train tomorrow morning."
Left by himself, he gave full vent to his fury; he cursed Amelius with oaths that are not to be written.
He had burnt the letter which Mrs. Farnaby had written to him, on leaving him forever; but he had not burnt out of his memory the words which that letter contained. With his wife's language vividly present to his mind, he could arrive at but one conclusion, after what Mr. Melton had told him. Amelius was concerned in the discovery of his deserted daughter; Amelius had taken the girl to her dying mother's bedside. With his idiotic Socialist notions, he would be perfectly capable of owning the truth, if inquiries were made. The unblemished reputation which John Farnaby had built up by the self-seeking hypocrisy of a lifetime was at the mercy of a visionary young fool, who believed that rich men were created for the benefit of the poor, and who proposed to regenerate society by reviving the obsolete morality of the Primitive Christians. Was it possible for him to come to terms with such a person as this? There was not an inch of common ground on which they could meet. He dropped back on his pillow in despair, and lay for a while frowning and biting his nails. Suddenly he sat up again in the bed, and wiped his moist forehead, and heaved a heavy breath of relief. Had his illness obscured his intelligence? How was it he had not seen at once the perfectly easy way out of the difficulty which was presented by the facts themselves? Here is a man, engaged to marry my niece, who has been discovered keeping a girl at his cottage--who even had the audacity to take her upstairs with him when he made a call on my wife. Charge him with it in plain words; break off the engagement publicly in the face of society; and, if the profligate scoundrel tries to defend himself by telling the truth, who will believe him--when the girl was seen running out of his room? and when he refused, on the question being put to him, to say who she was?
So, in ignorance of his wife's last instructions to Amelius--in equal ignorance of the compassionate silence which an honourable man preserves when a woman's reputation is at his mercy--the wretch needlessly plotted and planned to save his usurped reputation; seeing all things, as such men invariably do, through the foul light of his own inbred baseness and cruelty. He was troubled by no retributive emotions of shame or remorse, in contemplating this second sacrifice to his own interests of the daughter whom he had deserted in her infancy. If he felt any misgivings, they related wholly to himself. His head was throbbing, his tongue was dry; a dread of increasing his illness shook him suddenly. He drank some of the lemonade at his bedside, and lay down to compose himself to sleep.
It was not to be done; there was a burning in his eyeballs, there was a wild irregular beating at his heart, which kept him awake. In some degree, at least, retribution seemed to be on the way to him already.
Mr. Melton, delicately administering sympathy and consolation to Regina--whose affectionate nature felt keenly the calamity of her aunt's death--Mr. Melton, making himself modestly useful, by reading aloud certain devotional poems much prized by Regina, was called out of the room by the courier.
"I have just looked in at Mr. Farnaby, sir," said the man; "and I am afraid he is worse."
The physician was sent for. He thought so seriously of the change in the patient, that he obliged Regina to accept the services of a professed nurse. When Mr. Melton started on his return journey the next morning, he left his friend in a high fever.
The inquiry into the circumstances under which Mrs. Farnaby had died was held in the forenoon of the next day.
Mr. Melton surprised Amelius by calling for him, and taking him to the inquest. The carriage stopped on the way, and a gentleman joined them, who was introduced as Mr. Melton's legal adviser. He spoke to Amelius about the inquest; stating, as his excuse for asking certain discreet questions, that his object was to suppress any painful disclosures. On reaching the house, Mr. Melton and his lawyer said a few words to the coroner downstairs, while the jury were assembling on the floor above.
The first witness examined was the landlady.
After deposing to the date at which the late Mrs. Farnaby had hired her lodgings, and verifying the statements which had appeared in the newspapers, she was questioned about the life and habits of the deceased. She described her late lodger as a respectable lady, punctual in her payments, and quiet and orderly in her way of life: she received letters, but saw no friends. On several occasions, an old woman was admitted to speak with her; and these visits seemed to be anything but agreeable to the deceased. Asked if she knew anything of the old woman, or of what had passed at the interviews described, the witness answered both questions in the negative. When the woman called, she always told the servant to announce her as "the nurse."
Mr. Melton was next examined, to prove the identity of the deceased.
He declared that he was quite unable to explain why she had left her husband's house under an assumed name. Asked if Mr. and Mrs. Farnaby had lived together on affectionate terms, he acknowledged that he had heard, at various times, of a want of harmony between them, but was not acquainted with the cause. Mr. Farnaby's high character and position in the commercial world spoke for themselves: the restraints of a gentleman guided him in his relations with his wife. The medical certificate of his illness in Paris was then put in; and Mr. Melton's examination came to an end.
The chemist who had made up the prescription was the third witness. He knew the woman who brought it to his shop to be in the service of the first witness examined; an old customer of his, and a highly respected resident in the neighbourhood. He made up all prescriptions himself in which poisons were conspicuous ingredients; and he had affixed to the bottle a slip of paper, bearing the word "Poison," printed in large letters. The bottle was produced and identified; and the directions in the prescription were shown to have been accurately copied on the label.
A general sensation of interest was excited by the appearance of the next witness--the woman servant. It was anticipated that her evidence would explain how the fatal mistake about the medicine had occurred. After replying to the formal inquiries, she proceeded as follows:
"When I answered the bell, at the time I have mentioned, I found the deceased standing at the fireplace. There was a bottle of medicine on the table, by her writing desk. It was a much larger bottle than that which the last witness identified, and it was more than three parts full of some colourless medicine. The deceased gave me a prescription to take to the chemist's, with instructions to wait, and bring back the physic. She said, 'I don't feel at all well this morning; I thought of trying some of this medicine,' pointing to the bottle by her desk; 'but I am not sure it is the right thing for me. I think I want a tonic. The prescription I have given you is a tonic.' I went out at once to our chemist and got it. I found her writing a letter when I came back, but she finished it immediately, and pushed it away from her. When I put the bottle I had brought from the chemist on the table, she looked at the other larger bottle which she had by her; and she said, 'You will think me very undecided; I have been doubting, since I sent you to the chemist, whether I had not better begin with this medicine here, before I try the tonic. It's a medicine for the stomach; and I fancy it's only indigestion that's the matter with me, after all.' I said, 'You eat but a poor breakfast, ma'am, this morning. It isn't for me to advise; but, as you seem to be in doubt about yourself, wouldn't it be better to send for a doctor?' She shook her head, and said she didn't want to have a doctor if she could possibly help it. 'I'll try the medicine for indigestion first,' she says; 'and if it doesn't relieve me, we will see what is to be done, later in the day.' While we were talking, the tonic was left in its sealed paper cover, just as I had brought it from the shop. She took up the bottle containing the stomach medicine, and read the directions on it: 'Two tablespoonsful by measure-glass twice a day.' I asked if she had a measure-glass; and she said, Yes, and sent me to her bedroom to look for it. I couldn't find it. While I was looking, I heard her cry out, and ran back to the drawing-room to see what was the matter. 'Oh!' she says, 'how clumsy I am! I've broken the bottle.' She held up the bottle of the stomach medicine and showed it to me, broken just below the neck. 'Go back to the bedroom,' she says, 'and see if you can find an empty bottle; I don't want to waste the medicine if I can help it.' There was only one empty bottle in the bedroom, a bottle on the chimney-piece. I took it to her immediately. She gave me the broken bottle; and while I poured the medicine into the bottle which I had found in the bedroom, she opened the paper which covered the tonic I had brought from the chemist. When I had done, and the two bottles were together on the table--the bottle that I had filled, and the bottle that I had brought front the chemist--I noticed that they were both of the same size, and that both had a label pasted on them, marked 'Poison.' I said to her, 'You must take care, ma'am, you don't make any mistake, the two bottles are so exactly alike.' 'I can easily prevent that,' she says, and dipped her pen in the ink, and copied the directions on the broken bottle, on to the label of the bottle that I had just filled. 'There!' she said. 'Now I hope your mind's at ease?' She spoke cheerfully, as if she was joking with me. And then she said, 'But where's the measure-glass?' I went back to the bedroom to look for it, and couldn't find it again. She changed all at once, upon that--she became quite angry; and walked up and down in a fume, abusing me for my stupidity. It was very unlike her. On all other occasions she was a most considerate lady. I made allowances for her. She had been very much upset earlier in the morning, when she had received a letter, which she told me herself contained bad news. Yes; another person was present at the time--the same woman that my mistress told you of. The woman looked at the address on the letter, and seemed to know who it was from. I told her a squint-eyed man had brought it to the house--and then she left directly. I don't know where she went, or the address at which she lives, or who the messenger was who brought the letter. As I have said, I made allowances for the deceased lady. I went downstairs, without answering, and got a tumbler and a tablespoon to serve instead of the measure-glass. When I came back with the things, she was still walking about in a temper. She took no notice of me. I left the room again quietly, seeing she was not in a state to be spoken to. I saw nothing more of her, until we were alarmed by hearing her scream. We found the poor lady on the floor in a kind of fit. I ran out and fetched the nearest doctor. This is the whole truth, on my oath; and this is all I know about it."
The landlady was recalled at the request of the jury, and questioned again about the old woman. She could give no information. Being asked next if any letters or papers belonging to, or written by, the deceased lady had been found, she declared that, after the strictest search, nothing had been discovered but two medical prescriptions. The writing desk was empty.
The doctor was the next witness.
He described the state in which he found the patient, on being called to the house. The symptoms were those of poisoning by strychnine. Examination of the prescriptions and the bottles, aided by the servant's information, convinced him that a fatal mistake had been made by the deceased; the nature of which he explained to the jury as he had already explained it to Amelius. Having mentioned the meeting with Amelius at the house-door, and the events which had followed, he closed his evidence by stating the result of the postmortem examination, proving that the death was caused by the poison called strychnine.
The landlady and the servant were examined again. They were instructed to inform the jury exactly of the time that had elapsed, from the moment when the servant had left the deceased alone in the drawing-room, to the time when the screams were first heard. Having both given the same evidence, on this point, they were next asked whether any person, besides the old woman, had visited the deceased lady--or had on any pretence obtained access to her in the interval. Both swore positively that there had not even been a knock at the house-door in the interval, and that the area-gate was locked, and the key in the possession of the landlady. This evidence placed it beyond the possibility of doubt that the deceased had herself taken the poison. The question whether she had taken it by accident was the only question left to decide, when Amelius was called as the next witness.
The lawyer retained by Mr. Melton, to watch the case on behalf of Mr. Farnaby, had hitherto not interfered. It was observed that he paid the closest attention to the inquiry, at the stage which it had now reached.
Amelius was nervous at the outset. The early training in America, which had hardened him to face an audience and speak with self-possession on social and political subjects had not prepared him for the very difficult ordeal of a first appearance as a witness. Having answered the customary inquiries, he was so painfully agitated in describing Mrs. Farnaby's sufferings, that the coroner suspended the examination for a few minutes, to give him time to control himself. He failed, however, to recover his composure, until the narrative part of his evidence had come to an end. When the critical questions, bearing on his relations with Mrs. Farnaby, began, the audience noticed that he lifted his head, and looked and spoke, for the first time, like a man with a settled resolution in him, sure of himself.
The questions proceeded:
Was he in Mrs. Farnaby's confidence, on the subject of her domestic differences with her husband? Did those differences lead to her withdrawing herself from her husband's roof? Did Mrs. Farnaby inform him of the place of her retreat? To these three questions the witness, speaking quite readily in each case, answered Yes. Asked next, what the nature of the 'domestic differences' had been; whether they were likely to affect Mrs. Farnaby's mind seriously; why she had passed under an assumed name, and why she had confided the troubles of her married life to a young man like himself, only introduced to her a few months since, the witness simply declined to reply to the inquiries addressed to him. "The confidence Mrs. Farnaby placed in me," he said to the coroner, "was a confidence which I gave her my word of honour to respect. When I have said that, I hope the jury will understand that I owe it to the memory of the dead to say no more."
There was a murmur of approval among the audience, instantly checked by the coroner. The foreman of the jury rose, and remarked that scruples of honour were out of place at a serious inquiry of that sort. Hearing this, the lawyer saw his opportunity, and got on his legs. "I represent the husband of the deceased lady," he said. "Mr. Goldenheart has appealed to the law of honour to justify him in keeping silence. I am astonished that there is a man to be found in this assembly who fails to sympathize with him. But as there appears to be such a person present, I ask permission, sir, to put a question to the witness. It may, or may not, satisfy the foreman of the jury; but it will certainly assist the object of the present inquiry."
The coroner, after a glance at Mr. Melton, permitted the lawyer to put his question in these terms:--
"Did your knowledge of Mrs. Farnaby's domestic troubles give you any reason to apprehend that they might urge her to commit suicide?
"Certainly not," Amelius answered. "When I called on her, on the morning of her death, I had no apprehension whatever of her committing suicide. I went to the house as the bearer of good news; and I said so to the doctor, when he first spoke to me."
The doctor confirmed this. The foreman was silenced, if not convinced. One of his brother-jurymen, however, feeling the force of example, interrupted the proceedings, by assailing Amelius with another question:--"We have heard that you were accompanied by a young lady at the time you have mentioned, and that you took her upstairs with you. We want to know what business the young lady had in the house?"
The lawyer interfered again. "I object to that question," he said. "The purpose of the inquest is to ascertain how Mrs. Farnaby met with her death. What has the young lady to do with it? The doctor's evidence has already told us that she was not at the house, until after he had been called in, and the deadly action of the poison had begun. I appeal, sir, to the law of evidence, and to you, as the presiding authority, to enforce it. Mr. Goldenheart, who is acquainted with the circumstances of the deceased lady's life, has declared on his oath that there was nothing in those circumstances to inspire him with any apprehension of her committing suicide. The evidence of the servant at the lodgings points plainly to the conclusion already arrived at by the medical witness, that the death was the result of a lamentable mistake, and of that alone. Is our time to be wasted in irrelevant questions, and are the feelings of the surviving relatives to be cruelly lacerated to no purpose, to satisfy the curiosity of strangers?"
A strong expression of approval from the audience followed this. The lawyer whispered to Mr. Melton, "It's all right!"
Order being restored, the coroner ruled that the juryman's question was not admissible, and that the servant's evidence, taken with the statements of the doctor and the chemist, was the only evidence for the consideration of the jury. Summing up to this effect, he recalled Amelius, at the request of the foreman, to inquire if the witness knew anything of the old woman who had been frequently alluded to in the course of the proceedings. Amelius could answer this question as honestly as he had answered the questions preceding it. He neither knew the woman's name, nor where she was to be found. The coroner inquired, with a touch of irony, if the jury wished the inquest to be adjourned, under existing circumstances.
For the sake of appearances, the jury consulted together. But the luncheon-hour was approaching; the servant's evidence was undeniably clear and conclusive; the coroner, in summing up, had requested them not to forget that the deceased had lost her temper with the servant, and that an angry woman might well make a mistake which would be unlikely in her cooler moments. All these influences led the jury irrepressibly, over the obstacles of obstinacy, on the way to submission. After a needless delay, they returned a verdict of "death by misadventure." The secret of Mrs. Farnaby's suicide remained inviolate; the reputation of her vile husband stood as high as ever; and the future life of Amelius was, from that fatal moment, turned irrevocably into a new course.
On the conclusion of the proceedings, Mr. Melton, having no further need of Amelius or the lawyer, drove away by himself. But he was too inveterately polite to omit making his excuses for leaving them in a hurry; he expected, he said, to find a telegram from Paris waiting at his house. Amelius only delayed his departure to ask the landlady if the day of the funeral was settled. Hearing that it was arranged for the next morning, he thanked her, and returned at once to the cottage.
Sally was waiting his arrival to complete some purchases of mourning for her unhappy mother; Toff's wife being in attendance to take care of her. She was curious to know how the inquest had ended. In answering her question, Amelius was careful to warn her, if her companion made any inquiries, only to say that she had lost her mother under very sad circumstances. The two having left the cottage, he instructed Toff to let in a stranger, who was to call by previous appointment, and to close the door to every one else. In a few minutes, the expected person, a young man, who gave the name of Morcross, made his appearance, and sorely puzzled the old Frenchman. He was well dressed; his manner was quiet and self-possessed--and yet he did not look like a gentleman, In fact, he was a policeman of the higher order, in plain clothes.
Being introduced to the library, he spread out on the table some sheets of manuscript, in the handwriting of Amelius, with notes in red ink on the margin, made by himself.
"I understand, sir," he began, "that you have reasons for not bringing this case to trial in a court of law?"
"I am sorry to say," Amelius answered, "that I dare not consent to the exposure of a public trial, for the sake of persons living and dead. For the same reason, I have written the account of the conspiracy with certain reserves. I hope I have not thrown any needless difficulties in your way?"
"Certainly not, sir. But I should wish to ask, what you propose to do, in case I discover the people concerned in the conspiracy?"
Amelius owned, very reluctantly, that he could do nothing with the old woman who had been the accomplice. "Unless," he added, "I can induce her to assist me in bringing the man to justice for other crimes which I believe him to have committed."
"Meaning the man named Jervy, sir, in this statement?"
"Yes. I have reason to believe that he has been obliged to leave the United States, after committing some serious offence--"
"I beg your pardon for interrupting you, sir. Is it serious enough to charge him with, under the treaty between the two countries?"
"I don't doubt it's serious enough. I have telegraphed to the persons who formerly employed him, for the particulars. Mind this! I will stick at no sacrifice to make that scoundrel suffer for what he has done."
In those plain words Amelius revealed, as frankly as usual, the purpose that was in him. The terrible remembrances associated with Mrs. Farnaby's last moments had kindled, in his just and generous nature, a burning sense of the wrong inflicted on the poor heart-broken creature who had trusted and loved him. The unendurable thought that the wretch who had tortured her, robbed her, and driven her to her death had escaped with impunity, literally haunted him night and day. Eager to provide for Sally's future, he had followed Mrs. Farnaby's instructions, and had seen the lawyer privately, during the period that had elapsed between the death and the inquest. Hearing that there were formalities to be complied with, which would probably cause some delay, he had at once announced his determination to employ the interval in attempting the pursuit of Jervy. The lawyer--after vainly pointing out the serious objections to the course proposed--so far yielded to the irresistible earnestness and good faith of Amelius as to recommend him to a competent man, who could be trusted not to deceive him. The same day the man had received a written statement of the case; and he had now arrived to report the result of his first proceedings to his employer.
"One thing I want to know, before you tell me anything else," Amelius resumed. "Is my written description of Jervy plain enough to help you to find him?"
"It's so plain, sir, that some of the older men in our office have recognized him by it--under another name than the name you give him."
"Does that add to the difficulty of tracing him?"
"He has been a long time away from England, sir; and it's by no means easy to trace him, on that account. I have been to the young woman, named Phoebe in your statement, to find out what she can tell me about him. She's ready enough, in the intervals of crying, to help us to lay our hands on the man who has deserted her. It's the old story of a fellow getting at a girl's secrets and a girl's money, under pretence of marrying her. At one time, she's furious with him, and at another she's ready to cry her eyes out. I got some information from her; it's not much, but it may help us. The name of the old woman, who has been the go-between in the business, is Mrs. Sowler--known to the police as an inveterate drunkard, and worse. I don't think there will be much difficulty in tracing Mrs. Sowler. As to Jervy, if the young woman is to be believed, and I think she is, there's little doubt that he has got the money from the lady mentioned in my instructions here, and that he has bolted with the sum about him. Wait a bit, sir, I haven't done with my discoveries yet. I asked the young woman, of course, if she had his photograph. He's a sharp fellow; she had it, but he got it away from her, on pretence of giving her a better one, before he took himself off. Having missed this chance, I asked next if she knew where he lived last. She directed me to the place; and I have had a talk with the landlord. He tells me of a squint-eyed man, who was a good deal about the house, doing Jervy's dirty work for him. If I am not misled by the description, I think I know the man. I have my own notion of what he's capable of doing, if he gets the chance--and I propose to begin by finding our way to him, and using him as a means of tracing Jervy. It's only right to tell you that it may take some time to do this--for which reason I have to propose, in the mean while, trying a shorter way to the end in view. Do you object, sir, to the expense of sending a copy of your description of Jervy to every police-station in London?"
"I object to nothing which may help to find him. Do you think the police have got him anywhere?"
"You forget, sir, that the police have no orders to take him. What I'm speculating on is the chance that he has got the money about him--say in small banknotes, for convenience of changing them, you know."
"Well, sir, the people he lives among--the squint-eyed man, for instance!--don't stick at trifles. If any of them have found out that Jervy's purse is worth having--"
"You mean they would rob him?"
"And murder him too, sir, if he tried to resist."
Amelius started to his feet. "Send round to the police-stations without losing another minute," he said. "And let me hear what the answer is, the instant you receive it."
"Suppose I get the answer late at night, sir?"
"I don't care when you get it, night or day. Dead or living, I will undertake to identify him. Here's a duplicate key of the garden gate. Come this way, and I'll show you where my bedroom is. If we are all in bed, tap at the window--and I will be ready for you at a moment's notice."
On that understanding Morcross left the cottage.
The day when the mortal remains of Mrs. Farnaby were laid at rest was a day of heavy rain. Mr. Melton, and two or three other old friends, were the attendants at the funeral. When the coffin was borne into the damp and reeking burial ground, a young man and a woman were the only persons, beside the sexton and his assistants, who stood by the open grave. Mr. Melton, recognizing Amelius, was at a loss to understand who his companion could be. It was impossible to suppose that he would profane that solemn ceremony by bringing to it the lost woman at the cottage. The thick black veil of the person with him hid her face from view. No visible expressions of grief escaped her. When the last sublime words of the burial service had been read, those two mourners were left, after the others had all departed, still standing together by the grave. Mr. Melton decided on mentioning the circumstance confidentially when he wrote to his friend in Paris. Telegrams from Regina, in reply to his telegrams from London, had informed him that Mr. Farnaby had felt the benefit of the remedies employed, and was slowly on the way to recovery. It seemed likely that he would, in no long time, take the right course for the protection of his niece. For the enlightenment which might, or might not, come with that time, Mr. Melton was resigned to wait, with the disciplined patience to which he had been mainly indebted for his success in life.
"Always remember your mother tenderly, my child," said Amelius, as they left the burial ground. "She was sorely tried, poor thing, in her life time, and she loved you very dearly."
"Do you know anything of my father?" Sally asked timidly. "Is he still living?"
"My dear, you will never see your father. I must be all that the kindest father and mother could have been to you, now. Oh, my poor little girl!"
She pressed his arm to her as she held it. "Why should you pity me?" she said. "Haven't I got You?"
They passed the day together quietly at the cottage. Amelius took down some of his books, and pleased Sally by giving her his first lessons. Soon after ten o'clock she withdrew, at the usual early hour, to her room. In her absence, he sent for Toff, intending to warn him not to be alarmed if he heard footsteps in the garden, after they had all gone to bed. The old servant had barely entered the library, when he was called away by the bell at the outer gate. Amelius, looking into the hall, discovered Morcross, and signed to him eagerly to come in. The police-officer closed the door cautiously behind him. He had arrived with news that Jervy was found.
"Where has he been found?" Amelius asked, snatching up his hat.
"There's no hurry, sir," Morcross answered quietly. "When I had the honour of seeing you yesterday, you said you meant to make Jervy suffer for what he had done. Somebody else has saved you the trouble. He was found this evening in the river."
"Stabbed in three places, sir; and put out of the way in the river--that's the surgeon's report. Robbed of everything he possessed--that's the police report, after searching his pockets."
Amelius was silent. It had not entered into his calculations that crime breeds crime, and that the criminal might escape him under that law. For the moment, he was conscious of a sense of disappointment, revealing plainly that the desire for vengeance had mingled with the higher motives which animated him. He felt uneasy and ashamed, and longed as usual to take refuge in action from his own unwelcome thoughts. "Are you sure it is the man?" he asked. "My description may have misled the police--I should like to see him myself."
"Certainly, sir. While we are about it, if you feel any curiosity to trace Jervy's ill-gotten money, there's a chance (from what I have heard) of finding the man with the squint. The people at our place think it's likely he may have been concerned in the robbery, if he hasn't committed the murder."
In an hour after, under the guidance of Morcross, Amelius passed through the dreary doors of a deadhouse, situated on the southern bank of the Thames, and saw the body of Jervy stretched out on a stone slab. The guardian who held the lantern, inured to such horrible sights, declared that the corpse could not have been in the water more than two days. To any one who had seen the murdered man, the face, undisfigured by injury of any kind, was perfectly recognizable. Amelius knew him again, dead, as certainly as he had known him again, living, when he was waiting for Phoebe in the street.
"If you're satisfied, sir," said Morcross, "the inspector at the police-station is sending a sergeant to look after 'Wall-Eyes'--the name they give hereabouts to the man suspected of the robbery. We can take the sergeant with us in the cab, if you like."
Still keeping on the southern bank of the river, they drove for a quarter of an hour in a westerly direction, and stopped at a public-house. The sergeant of police went in by himself to make the first inquiries. "We are a day too late, sir," he said to Amelius, on returning to the cab. "Wall-Eyes was here last night, and Mother Sowler with him, judging by the description. Both of them drunk--and the woman the worse of the two. The landlord knew nothing more about it; but there's a man at the bar tells me he heard of them this morning (still drinking) at the Dairy."
"The Dairy?" Amelius repeated.
Morcross interposed with the necessary explanation. "An old house, sir, which once stood by itself in the fields. It was a dairy a hundred years ago; and it has kept the name ever since, though it's nothing but a low lodging house now."
"One of the worst places on this side of the river," the sergeant added, "The landlord's a returned convict. Sly as he is we shall have him again yet, for receiving stolen goods. There's every sort of thief among his lodgers, from a pickpocket to a housebreaker. It's my duty to continue the inquiry, sir; but a gentleman like you will be better, I should say, out of such a place as that."
Still disquieted by the sight that he had seen in the deadhouse, and by the associations which that sight had recalled, Amelius was ready for any adventure which might relieve his mind. Even the prospect of a visit to a thieves' lodging house was more welcome to him than the prospect of going home alone. "If there's no serious objection to it," he said, "I own I should like to see the place."
"You'll be safe enough with us," the sergeant replied. "If you don't mind filthy people and bad language--all right, sir! Cabman, drive to the Dairy."
Their direction was now towards the south, through a perfect labyrinth of mean and dirty streets. Twice the driver was obliged to ask his way. On the second occasion the sergeant, putting his head out of the window to stop the cab, cried, "Hullo! there's something up."
They got out in front of a long low rambling house, a complete contrast to the modern buildings about it. Late as the hour was, a mob had assembled in front of the door. The police were on the spot keeping the people in order.
Morcross and the sergeant pushed their way through the crowd, leading Amelius between them. "Something wrong, sir, in the back kitchen," said one of the policemen answering the sergeant while he opened the street door. A few yards down the passage there was a second door, with a man on the watch by it. "There's a nice to-do downstairs," the man announced, recognizing the sergeant, and unlocking the door with a key which he took from his pocket. "The landlord at the Dairy knows his lodgers, sir," Morcross whispered to Amelius; "the place is kept like a prison." As they passed through the second door, a frantic voice startled them, shouting in fury from below. An old man came hobbling up the kitchen stairs, his eyes wild with fear, his long grey hair all tumbled over his face. "Oh, Lord, have you got the tools for breaking open the door?" he asked, wringing his dirty hands in an agony of supplication. "She'll set the house on fire! she'll kill my wife and daughter!" The sergeant pushed him contemptuously out of the way, and looked round for Amelius. "It's only the landlord, sir; keep near Morcross, and follow me,"
They descended the kitchen stairs, the frantic cries below growing louder and louder at every step they took; and made their way through the thieves and vagabonds crowding together in the passage. Passing on their right hand a solid old oaken door fast closed, they reached an open wicket-gate of iron which led into a stone-paved yard. A heavily barred window was now visible in the back wall of the house, raised three or four feet from the pavement of the yard. The room within was illuminated by a blaze of gaslight. More policemen were here, keeping back more inquisitive lodgers. Among the spectators was a man with a hideous outward squint, holding by the window-bars in a state of drunken terror. The sergeant looked at him, and beckoned to one of the policemen. "Take him to the station; I shall have something to say to Wall-Eyes when he's sober. Now then! stand back all of you, and let's see what's going on in the kitchen."
He took Amelius by the arm, and led him to the window. Even the sergeant started when the scene inside met his view. "By God!" he cried, "it's Mother Sowler herself."
It was Mother Sowler. The horrible woman was tramping round and round in the middle of the kitchen, like a beast in a cage; raving in the dreadful drink-madness called delirium tremens. In the farthest corner of the room, barricaded behind the table, the landlord's wife and daughter crouched in terror of their lives. The gas, turned full on, blazed high enough to blacken the ceiling, and showed the heavy bolts shot at the top and bottom of the solid door. Nothing less than a battering-ram could have burst that door in from the outer side; an hour's work with the file would have failed to break a passage through the bars over the window. "How did she get there?" the sergeant asked. "Run downstairs, and bolted herself in, while the missus and the young 'un were cooking"--was the answering cry from the people in the yard. As they spoke, another vain attempt was made to break in the door from the passage. The noise of the heavy blows redoubled the frenzy of the terrible creature in the kitchen, still tramping round and round under the blazing gaslight. Suddenly, she made a dart at the window, and confronted the men looking in from the yard. Her staring eyes were bloodshot; a purple-red flush was over her face; her hair waved wildly about her, torn away in places by her own hands. "Cats!" she screamed, glaring out of the window, "millions of cats! all their months wide open spitting at me! Fire! fire to scare away the cats!" She searched furiously in her pocket, and tore out a handful of loose papers. One of them escaped, and fluttered downward to a wooden press under the window. Amelius was nearest, and saw it plainly as it fell, "Good heavens!" he exclaimed, "it's a bank-note!" "Wall-Eyes' money!" shouted the thieves in the yard; "She's going to burn Wall-Eyes' money!" The madwoman turned back to the middle of the kitchen, leapt up at the gas-burner, and set fire to the bank-notes. She scattered them flaming all round her on the kitchen floor. "Away with you!" she shouted, shaking her fists at the visionary multitude of cats. "Away with you, up the chimney! Away with you, out of the window!" She sprang back to the window, with her crooked fingers twisted in her hair! "The snakes!" she shrieked; "the snakes are hissing again in my hair! the beetles are crawling over my face!" She tore at her hair; she scraped her face with long black nails that lacerated the flesh. Amelius turned away, unable to endure the sight of her. Morcross took his place, eyed her steadily for a moment, and saw the way to end it. "A quarter of gin!" he shouted. "Quick! before she leaves the window!" In a minute he had the pewter measure in his hand, and tapped at the window. "Gin, Mother Sowler! Break the window, and have a drop of gin!" For a moment, the drunkard mastered her own dreadful visions at the sight of the liquor. She broke a pane of glass with her clenched fist. "The door!" cried Morcross, to the panic-stricken women, barricaded behind the table. "The door!" he reiterated, as he handed the gin in through the bars. The elder woman was too terrified to understand him; her bolder daughter crawled under the table, rushed across the kitchen, and drew the bolts. As the madwoman turned to attack her, the room was filled with men, headed by the sergeant. Three of them were barely enough to control the frantic wretch, and bind her hand and foot. When Amelius entered the kitchen, after she had been conveyed to the hospital, a five-pound note on the press (secured by one of the police), and a few frail black ashes scattered thinly on the kitchen floor, were the only relics left of the ill-gotten money.
After-inquiry, patiently pursued in more than one direction, failed to throw any light on the mystery of Jervy's death. Morcross's report to Amelius, towards the close of the investigation, was little more than ingenious guess-work.
"It seems pretty clear, sir, in the first place, that Mother Sowler must have overtaken Wall-Eyes, after he had left the letter at Mrs. Farnaby's lodgings. In the second place, we are justified (as I shall show you directly) in assuming that she told him of the money in Jervy's possession, and that the two succeeded in discovering Jervy--no doubt through Wall-Eyes' superior knowledge of his master's movements. The evidence concerning the bank-notes proves this. We know, by the examination of the people at the Dairy, that Wall-Eyes took from his pocket a handful of notes, when they refused to send for liquor without having the money first. We are also informed, that the breaking-out of the drink-madness in Mother Sowler showed itself in her snatching the notes out of his hand, and trying to strangle him--before she ran down into the kitchen and bolted herself in. Lastly, Mrs. Farnaby's bankers have identified the note saved from the burning, as one of forty five-pound notes paid to her cheque. So much for the tracing of the money.
"I wish I could give an equally satisfactory account of the tracing of the crime. We can make nothing of Wall-Eyes. He declares that he didn't even know Jervy was dead, till we told him; and he swears he found the money dropped in the street. It is needless to say that this last assertion is a lie. Opinions are divided among us as to whether he is answerable for the murder as well as the robbery, or whether there was a third person concerned in it. My own belief is that Jervy was drugged by the old woman (with a young woman very likely used as a decoy), in some house by the riverside, and then murdered by Wall-Eyes in cold blood. We have done our best to clear the matter up, and we have not succeeded. The doctors give us no hope of any assistance from Mother Sowler. If she gets over the attack (which is doubtful), they say she will die to a certainty of liver disease. In short, my own fear is that this will prove to be one more of those murders which are mysteries to the police as well as the public."
The report of the case excited some interest, published in the newspapers in conspicuous type. Meddlesome readers wrote letters, offering complacently stupid suggestions to the police. After a while, another crime attracted general attention; and the murder of Jervy disappeared from the public memory, among other forgotten murders of modern times.
The last dreary days of November came to their end.
No longer darkened by the shadows of crime and torment and death, the life of Amelius glided insensibly into the peaceful byways of seclusion, brightened by the companionship of Sally. The winter days followed one another in a happy uniformity of occupations and amusements. There were lessons to fill up the morning, and walks to occupy the afternoon--and, in the evenings, sometimes reading, sometimes singing, sometimes nothing but the lazy luxury of talk. In the vast world of London, with its monstrous extremes of wealth and poverty, and its all-permeating malady of life at fever-heat, there was one supremely innocent and supremely happy creature. Sally had heard of Heaven, attainable on the hard condition of first paying the debt of death. "I have found a kinder Heaven," she said, one day. "It is here in the cottage; and Amelius has shown me the way to it."
Their social isolation was at this time complete: they were two friendless people, perfectly insensible to all that was perilous and pitiable in their own position. They parted with a kiss at night, and they met again with a kiss in the morning--and they were as happily free from all mistrust of the future as a pair of birds. No visitors came to the house; the few friends and acquaintances of Amelius, forgotten by him, forgot him in return. Now and then, Toff's wife came to the cottage, and exhibited the "cherubim-baby." Now and then, Toff himself (a musician among his other accomplishments) brought his fiddle upstairs; and, saying modestly, "A little music helps to pass the time," played to the young master and mistress the cheerful tinkling tunes of the old vaudevilles of France. They were pleased with these small interruptions when they came; and they were not disappointed when the days passed, and the baby and the vaudevilles were hushed in absence and silence. So the happy winter time went by; and the howling winds brought no rheumatism with them, and even the tax-gatherer himself, looking in at this earthly paradise, departed without a curse when he left his little paper behind him.
Now and then, at long intervals, the outer world intruded itself in the form of a letter.
Regina wrote, always with the same placid affection; always entering into the same minute narrative of the slow progress of "dear uncle's" return to health. He was forbidden to exert himself in any way, His nerves were in a state of lamentable irritability. "I dare not even mention your name to him, dear Amelius; it seems, I cannot think why, to make him--oh, so unreasonably angry. I can only submit, and pray that he may soon be himself again." Amelius wrote back, always in the same considerate and gentle tone; always laying the blame of his dull letters on the studious uniformity of his life. He preserved, with a perfectly easy conscience, the most absolute silence on the subject of Sally. While he was faithful to Regina, what reason had he to reproach himself with the protection that he offered to a poor motherless girl? When he was married, he might mention the circumstances under which he had met with Sally, and leave the rest to his wife's sympathy.
One morning, the letters with the Paris post-mark were varied by a few lines from Rufus.
"Every morning, my bright boy, I get up and say to myself, 'Well! I reckon it's about time to take the route for London;' and every morning, if you'll believe me, I put it off till next day. Whether it's in the good feeding (expensive, I admit; but when your cook helps you to digest instead of hindering you, a man of my dyspeptic nation is too grateful to complain)--or whether it's in the air, which reminds me, I do assure you, of our native atmosphere at Coolspring, Mass., is more than I can tell, with a hard steel pen on a leaf of flimsy paper. You have heard the saying, 'When a good American dies, he goes to Paris'. Maybe, Sometimes, he's smart enough to discount his own death, and rationally enjoy the future time in the present. This you see is a poetic light. But, mercy be praised, the moral of my residence in Paris is plain:--If I can't go to Amelius, Amelius must come to me. Note the address Grand Hotel; and pack up, like a good boy, on receipt of this. Memorandum: The brown Miss is here. I saw her taking the air in a carriage, and raised my hat. She looked the other way. British--eminently British! But, there, I bear no malice; I am her most obedient servant, and yours affectionately, RUFUS.--Postscript: I want you to see some of our girls at this hotel. The genuine American material, sir, perfected by Worth."
Another morning brought with it a few sad lines from Phoebe. "After what had happened, she was quite unable to face her friends; she had no heart to seek employment in her own country--her present life was too dreary and too hopeless to be endured. A benevolent lady had made her an offer to accompany a party of emigrants to New Zealand; and she had accepted the proposal. Perhaps, among the new people, she might recover her self-respect and her spirits, and live to be a better woman. Meanwhile, she bade Mr. Goldenheart farewell; and asked his pardon for taking the liberty of wishing him happy with Miss Regina."
Amelius wrote a few kind lines to Phoebe, and a cordial reply to Rufus, making the pursuit of his studies his excuse for remaining in London. After this, there was no further correspondence. The mornings succeeded each other, and the postman brought no more news from the world outside.
But the lessons went on; and the teacher and pupil were as inconsiderately happy as ever in each other's society. Observing with inexhaustible interest the progress of the mental development of Sally, Amelius was slow to perceive the physical development which was unobtrusively keeping pace with it. He was absolutely ignorant of the part which his own influence was taking in the gradual and delicate process of change. Ere long, the first forewarnings of the coming disturbance in their harmless relations towards each other, began to show themselves. Ere long, there were signs of a troubled mind in Sally, which were mysteries to Amelius, and subjects of wonderment, sometimes even trials of temper, to the girl herself.
One day, she looked in from the door of her room, in her white dressing-gown, and asked to be forgiven if she kept the lessons of the morning waiting for a little while.
"Come in," said Amelius, "and tell me why."
She hesitated. "You won't think me lazy, if you see me in my dressing-gown?"
"Of course not! Your dressing-gown, my dear, is as good as any other gown. A young girl like you looks best in white."
She came in with her work-basket, and her indoor dress over her arm.
Amelius laughed. "Why haven't you put it on?" he asked.
She sat down in a corner, and looked at her work-basket, instead of looking at Amelius. "It doesn't fit me so well as it did," she answered. "I am obliged to alter it."
Amelius looked at her--at the charming youthful figure that had filled out, at the softly-rounded outline of the face with no angles and hollows in it now. "Is it the dressmaker's fault?" he asked slyly.
Her eyes were still on the basket. "It's my fault," she said. "You remember what a poor little skinny creature I was, when you first saw me. I--you won't like me the worse for it, will you?--I am getting fat. I don't know why. They say happy people get fat. Perhaps that's why. I'm never hungry, and never frightened, and never miserable now--" She stopped; her dress slipped from her lap to the floor. "Don't look at me!" she said--and suddenly put her hands over her face.
Amelius saw the tears finding their way through the pretty plump fingers, which he remembered so shapeless and so thin. He crossed the room, and touched her gently on the shoulder. "My dear child! have I said anything to distress you?"
"Then why are you crying?"
"I don't know." She hesitated; looked at him; and made a desperate effort to tell him what was in her mind. "I'm afraid you'll get tired of me. There's nothing about me to make you pity me now. You seem to be--not quite the same--no! it isn't that--I don't know what's come to me--I'm a greater fool than ever. Give me my lesson, Amelius! please give me my lesson!"
Amelius produced the books, in some little surprise at Sally's extraordinary anxiety to begin her lessons, while the unaltered dress lay neglected on the carpet at her feet. A discreet abstract of the history of England, published for the use of young persons, happened to be at the top of the books. The system of education under Amelius recognized the laws of chance: they began with the history, because it turned up first. Sally read aloud; and Sally's master explained obscure passages, and corrected occasional errors of pronunciation, as she went on. On that particular morning, there was little to explain and nothing to correct. "Am I doing it well today?" Sally inquired, on reaching the end of her task.
"Very well, indeed."
She shut the book, and looked at her teacher. "I wonder how it is," she resumed, "that I get on so much better with my lessons here than I did at the Home? And yet it's foolish of me to wonder. I get on better, because you are teaching me, of course. But I don't feel satisfied with myself. I'm the same helpless creature--I feel your kindness, and can't make any return to you--for all my learning. I should like--" She left the thought in her unexpressed, and opened her copy-book. "I'll do my writing now," she said, in a quiet resigned way. "Perhaps I may improve enough, some day, to keep your accounts for you." She chose her pen a little absently, and began to write. Amelius looked over her shoulder, and laughed; she was writing his name. He pointed to the copper-plate copy on the top line, presenting an undeniable moral maxim, in characters beyond the reach of criticism:--Change Is A Law Of Nature. "There, my dear, you are to copy that till you're tired of it," said the easy master; "and then we'll try overleaf, another copy beginning with letter D."
Sally laid down her pen. "I don't like 'Change is a law of Nature'," she said, knitting her pretty eyebrows into a frown. "I looked at those words yesterday, and they made me miserable at night. I was foolish enough to think that we should always go on together as we go on now, till I saw that copy. I hate the copy! It came to my mind when I was awake in the dark, and it seemed to tell me that we were going to change some day. That's the worst of learning--one knows too much, and then there's an end of one's happiness. Thoughts come to you, when you don't want them. I thought of the young lady we saw last week in the park."
She spoke gravely and sadly. The bright contentment which had given a new charm to her eyes since she had been at the cottage, died out of them as Amelius looked at her. What had become of her childish manner and her artless smile? He drew his chair nearer to her. "What young lady do you mean?" he asked.
Sally shook her head, and traced lines with her pen on the blotting paper. "Oh, you can't have forgotten her! A young lady, riding on a grand white horse. All the people were admiring her. I wonder you cared to look at me, after that beautiful creature had gone by. Ah, she knows all sorts of things that I don't--she doesn't sound a note at a time on the piano, and as often as not the wrong one; she can say her multiplication table, and knows all the cities in the world. I dare say she's almost as learned as you are. If you had her living here with you, wouldn't you like it better than only having me!" She dropped her arms on the table, and laid her head on them wearily. "The dreadful streets!" she murmured, in low tones of despair. "Why did I think of the dreadful streets, and the night I met with you--after I had seen the young lady? Oh, Amelius, are you tired of me? are you ashamed of me?" She lifted her head again, before he could answer, and controlled herself by a sudden effort of resolution. "I don't know what's the matter with me this morning," she said, looking at him with a pleading fear in her eyes. "Never mind my nonsense-- I'll do the copy!" She began to write the unendurable assertion that change is a law of Nature, with trembling fingers and fast heaving breath. Amelius took the pen gently out of her hand. His voice faltered as he spoke to her.
"We will give up the lessons for today, Sally. You have had a bad night's rest, my dear, and you are feeling it--that's all. Do you think you are well enough to come out with me, and try if the air will revive you a little?"
She rose, and took his hand, and kissed it. "I believe, if I was dying, I should get well enough to go out with you! May I ask one little favour? Do you mind if we don't go into the park today?"
"What has made you take a dislike to the park, Sally?"
"We might meet the beautiful young lady again," she answered, with her head down. "I don't want to do that."
"We will go wherever you like, my child. You shall decide--not I"
She gathered up her dress from the floor, and hurried away to her room--without looking back at him as usual when she opened the door.
Left by himself, Amelius sat at the table, mechanically turning over the lesson-books. Sally had perplexed and even distressed him. His capacity to preserve the harmless relations between them, depended mainly on the mute appeal which the girl's ignorant innocence unconsciously addressed to him. He felt this vaguely, without absolutely realizing it. By some mysterious process of association which he was unable to follow, a saying of the wise Elder Brother at Tadmor revived in his memory, while he was trying to see his way through the difficulties that beset him. "You will meet with many temptations, Amelius, when you leave our Community," the old man had said at parting; "and most of them will come to you through women. Be especially on your guard, my son, if you meet with a woman who makes you feel truly sorry for her. She is on the high-road to your passions, through the open door of your sympathies--and all the more certainly if she is not aware of it herself." Amelius felt the truth expressed in those words as he had never felt it yet. There had been signs of a changing nature in Sally for some little time past. But they had expressed themselves too delicately to attract the attention of a man unprepared to be on the watch. Only on that morning, they had been marked enough to force themselves on his notice. Only on that morning, she had looked at him, and spoken to him, as she had never looked or spoken before. He began dimly to see the danger for both of them, to which he had shut his eyes thus far. Where was the remedy? what ought he to do? Those questions came naturally into his mind--and yet, his mind shrank from pursuing them.
He got up impatiently, and busied himself in putting away the lesson-books--a small duty hitherto always left to Toff.
It was useless; his mind dwelt persistently on Sally.
While he moved about the room, he still saw the look in her eyes, he still heard the tone of her voice, when she spoke of the young lady in the park. The words of the good physician whom he had consulted about her recurred to his memory now. "The natural growth of her senses has been stunted, like the natural growth of her body, by starvation, terror, exposure to cold, and other influences inherent in the life that she has led." And then the doctor had spoken of nourishing food, pure air, and careful treatment--of the life, in short, which she had led at the cottage--and had predicted that she would develop into "an intelligent and healthy young woman." Again he asked himself, "What ought I to do?"
He turned aside to the window, and looked out. An idea occurred to him. How would it be, if he summoned courage enough to tell her that he was engaged to be married?
No! Setting aside his natural dread of the shock that he might inflict on the poor grateful girl who had only known happiness under his care, the detestable obstacle of Mr. Farnaby stood immovably in his way. Sally would be sure to ask questions about his engagement, and would never rest until they were answered. It had been necessarily impossible to conceal her mother's name from her. The discovery of her father, if she heard of Regina and Regina's uncle, would be simply a question of time. What might such a man be not capable of doing, what new act of treachery might he not commit, if he found himself claimed by the daughter whom he had deserted? Even if the expression of Mrs. Farnaby's last wishes had not been sacred to Amelius, this consideration alone would have kept him silent, for Sally's sake.
He now doubted for the first time if he had calculated wisely in planning to trust Sally's sad story, after his marriage, to the sympathies of his wife. The jealousy that she might naturally feel of a young girl, who was an object of interest to her husband, did not present the worst difficulty to contend with. She believed in her uncle's integrity as she believed in her religion. What would she say, what would she do, if the innocent witness to Farnaby's infamy was presented to her; if Amelius asked the protection for Sally which her own father had refused to her in her infancy; and if he said, as he must say, "Your uncle is the man"?
And yet, what prospect could he see but the prospect of making the disclosure when he looked to his own interests next, and thought of his wedding day? Again the sinister figure of Farnaby confronted him. How could he receive the wretch whom Regina would innocently welcome to the house? There would be no longer a choice left; it would be his duty to himself to tell his wife the terrible truth. And what would be the result? He recalled the whole course of his courtship, and saw Farnaby always on a level with himself in Regina's estimation. In spite of his natural cheerfulness, in spite of his inbred courage, his heart failed him, when he thought of the time to come.
As he turned away from the window, Sally's door opened: she joined him, ready for the walk. Her spirits had rallied, assisted by the cheering influence of dressing to go out. Her charming smile brightened her face. In sheer desperation, reckless of what he did or said, Amelius held out both hands to welcome her. "That's right, Sally!" he cried. "Look pleased and pretty, my dear; let's be happy while we can--and let the future take care of itself!"
The capricious influences which combine to make us happy are never so certain to be absent influences as when we are foolish enough to talk about them. Amelius had talked about them. When he and Sally left the cottage, the road which led them away from the park was also the road which led them past a church. The influences of happiness left them at the church door.
Rows of carriages were in waiting; hundreds of idle people were assembled about the church steps; the thunderous music of the organ rolled out through the open doors--a grand wedding, with choral service, was in course of celebration. Sally begged Amelius to take her in to see it. They tried the front entrance, and found it impossible to get through the crowd. A side entrance, and a fee to a verger, succeeded better. They obtained space enough to stand on, with a view of the altar.
The bride was a tall buxom girl, splendidly dressed: she performed her part in the ceremony with the most unruffled composure. The bridegroom exhibited an instructive spectacle of aged Nature, sustained by Art. His hair, his complexion, his teeth, his breast, his shoulders, and his legs, showed what the wig-maker, the valet, the dentist, the tailor, and the hosier can do for a rich old man, who wishes to present a juvenile appearance while he is buying a young wife. No less than three clergymen were present, conducting the sale. The demeanour of the rich congregation was worthy of the glorious bygone days of the Golden Calf. So far as could be judged by appearances, one old lady, in a pew close to the place at which Amelius and Sally were standing, seemed to be the only person present who was not favourably impressed by the ceremony.
"I call it disgraceful," the old lady remarked to a charming young person seated next to her.
But the charming young person--being the legitimate product of the present time--had no more sympathy with questions of sentiment than a Hottentot. "How can you talk so, grandmamma!" she rejoined. "He has twenty thousand a year--and that lucky girl will be mistress of the most splendid house in London."
"I don't care," the old lady persisted; "it's not the less a disgrace to everybody concerned in it. There is many a poor friendless creature, driven by hunger to the streets, who has a better claim to our sympathy than that shameless girl, selling herself in the house of God! I'll wait for you in the carriage--I won't see any more of it."
Sally touched Amelius. "Take me out!" she whispered faintly.
He supposed that the heat in the church had been too much for her. "Are you better now?" he asked, when they got into the open air.
She held fast by his arm. "Let's get farther away," she said. "That lady is coming after us--I don't want her to see me again. I am one of the creatures she talked about. Is the mark of the streets on me, after all you have done to rub it out?"
The wild misery in her words presented another development in her character which was entirely new to Amelius. "My dear child," he remonstrated, "you distress me when you talk in that way. God knows the life you are leading now."
But Sally's mind was still full of its own acutely painful sense of what the lady had said. "I saw her," she burst out--"I saw her look at me while she spoke!"
"And she thought you better worth looking at than the bride--and quite right, too!" Amelius rejoined. "Come, come, Sally, be like yourself. You don't want to make me unhappy about you, I am sure?"
He had taken the right way with her: she felt that simple appeal, and asked his pardon with all the old charm in her manner and her voice. For the moment, she was "Simple Sally" again. They walked on in silence. When they had lost sight of the church, Amelius felt her hand beginning to tremble on his arm. A mingled expression of tenderness and anxiety showed itself in her blue eyes as they looked up at him. "I am thinking of something else now," she said; "I am thinking of You. May I ask you something?"
Amelius smiled. The smile was not reflected as usual in Sally's face. "It's nothing particular," she explained in an odd hurried way; "the church put it into my head. You--" She hesitated, and tried it under another form. "Will you be married yourself, Amelius, one of these days?"
He did his best to evade the question. "I am not rich, Sally, like the old gentleman we have just seen."
Her eyes turned away from him; she sighed softly to herself. "You will be married some day," she said. "Will you do one kind thing more for me, Amelius, when I die? You remember my reading in the newspaper of the new invention for burning the dead--and my asking you about it. You said you thought it was better than burying, and you had a good mind to leave directions to be burnt instead of buried, when your time came. When my time has come, will you leave other directions about yourself, if I ask you?"
"My dear, you are talking in a very strange way! If you will have it that I am to be married some day, what has that to do with your death?"
"It doesn't matter, Amelius. When I have nothing left to live for, I suppose it's as likely as not I may die. Will you tell them to bury me in some quiet place, away from London, where there are very few graves? And when you leave your directions, don't say you are to be burnt. Say--when you have lived a long, long life, and enjoyed all the happiness you have deserved so well--say you are to be buried, and your grave is to be near mine. I should like to think of the same trees shading us, and the same flowers growing over us. No! don't tell me I'm talking strangely again--I can't bear it; I want you to humour me and be kind to me about this. Do you mind going home? I'm feeling a little tired--and I know I'm poor company for you today."
The talk flagged at dinner-time, though Toff did his best to keep it going.
In the evening, the excellent Frenchman made an effort to cheer the two dull young people. He came in confidentially with his fiddle, and said he had a favour to ask. "I possess some knowledge, sir, of the delightful art of dancing. Might I teach young Miss to dance? You see, if I may venture to say so, the other lessons--oh, most useful, most important, the other lessons! but they are just a little serious. Something to relieve her mind, sir--if you will forgive me for mentioning it. I plead for innocent gaiety--let us dance!"
He played a few notes on the fiddle, and placed his right foot in position, and waited amiably to begin. Sally thanked him, and made the excuse that she was tired. She wished Amelius good night, without waiting until they were alone together--and, for the first time, without giving him the customary kiss.
Toff waited until she had gone, and approached his master on tiptoe, with a low bow.
"May I take the liberty of expressing an opinion, sir. A young girl who rejects the remedy of the fiddle presents a case of extreme gravity. Don't despair, sir! It is my pride and pleasure to be never at a loss, where your interests are concerned. This is, I think, a matter for the ministrations of a woman. If you have confidence in my wife, I venture to suggest a visit from Madame Toff."
He discreetly retired, and left his master to think about it.
The time passed--and Amelius was still thinking, and still as far as ever from arriving at a conclusion, when he heard a door opened behind him. Sally crossed the room before he could rise from his chair: her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, her hair fell loose over her shoulders--she dropped at his feet, and hid her face on his knees. "I'm an ungrateful wretch!" she burst out; "I never kissed you when I said good night."
With the best intentions, Amelius took the worst possible way of composing her--he treated her trouble lightly. "Perhaps you forgot it?" he said.
She lifted her head, and looked at him, with the tears in her eyes. "I'm bad enough," she answered; "but not so bad as that. Oh, don't laugh! there's nothing to laugh at. Have you done with liking me? Are you angry with me for behaving so badly all day, and bidding you good night as if you were Toff? You shan't be angry with me!" She jumped up, and sat on his knee, and put her arms round his neck. "I haven't been to bed," she whispered; "I was too miserable to go to sleep. I don't know what's been the matter with me today. I seem to be losing the little sense I ever had. Oh, if I could only make you understand how fond I am of you! And yet I've had bitter thoughts, as if I was a burden to you, and I had done a wrong thing in coming here--and you would have told me so, only you pitied the poor wretch who had nowhere else to go." She tightened her hold round his neck, and laid her burning cheek against his face. "Oh, Amelius, my heart is sore! Kiss me, and say, 'Good night, Sally!'"
He was young--he was a man--for a moment he lost his self control; he kissed her as he had never kissed her yet.
Then, he remembered; he recovered himself; he put her gently away from him, and led her to the door of her room, and closed it on her in silence. For a little while, he waited alone. The interval over, he rang for Toff.
"Do you think your wife would take Miss Sally as an apprentice?" he asked,
Toff looked astonished. "Whatever you wish, sir, my wife will do. Her knowledge of the art of dressmaking is--" Words failed him to express his wife's immense capacity as a dressmaker. He kissed his hand in mute enthusiasm, and blew the kiss in the direction of Madame Toff's establishment. "However," he proceeded, "I ought to tell you one thing, sir; the business is small, small, very small. But we are all in the hands of Providence--the business will improve, one day." He lifted his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows, and looked perfectly satisfied with his wife's prospects.
"I will go and speak to Madame Toff myself, tomorrow morning," Amelius resumed. "It's quite possible that I may be obliged to leave London for a little while--and I must provide in some way for Miss Sally. Don't say a word about it to her yet, Toff, and don't look miserable. If I go away, I shall take you with me. Good night."
Toff, with his handkerchief halfway to his eyes, recovered his native cheerfulness. "I am invariably sick at sea, sir," he said; "but, no matter, I will attend you to the uttermost ends of the earth."
So honest Amelius planned his way of escape from the critical position in which he found himself. He went to his bed, troubled by anxieties which kept him waking for many weary hours. Where was he to go to, when he left Sally? If he could have known what had happened, on that very day, on the other side of the Channel, he might have decided (in spite of the obstacle of Mr. Farnaby) on surprising Regina by a visit to Paris.
On the morning when Amelius and Sally (in London) entered the church to look at the wedding. Rufus (in Paris) went to the Champs Elysées 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--"
"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."
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.
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."
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 Elysées, 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."
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 Théphile 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.
After waiting a day or two for news from Amelius, and hearing nothing, Rufus went to make inquiries at the cottage.
"My master has gone out of town, sir," said Toff, opening the door.
"I don't know, sir."
"Anybody with him?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Any news of Sally?"
"I don't know, sir."
Rufus stepped into the hall. "Look here, Mr. Frenchman, three times is enough. I have already apologized for treating you like a teetotum, on a former occasion. I'm afraid I shall do it again, sir, if I don't get an answer to my next question--my hands are itching to be at you, they are! When is Amelius expected back?"
"Your question is positive, sir," said Toff, with dignity. "I am happy to be able to meet it with a positive reply. My master is expected back in three weeks' time."
Having obtained some information at last, Rufus debated with himself what he should do next. He decided that "the boy was worth waiting for," and that his wisest course (as a good American) would be to go back, and wait in Paris.
Passing through the Garden of the Tuileries, two or three days later, and crossing to the Rue de Rivoli, the name of one of the hotels in that quarter reminded him of Regina. He yielded to the prompting of curiosity, and inquired if Mr. Farnaby and his niece were still in Paris.
The manager of the hotel was in the porter's lodge at the time. So far as he knew, he said, Mr. Farnaby and his niece, and an English gentleman with them, were now on their travels. They had left the hotel with an appearance of mystery. The courier had been discharged; and the coachman of the hired carriage which took them away had been told to drive straight forward until further orders. In short, as the manager put it, the departure resembled a flight. Remembering what his American agent had told him, Rufus received this information without surprise. Even the apparently incomprehensible devotion of Mr. Melton to the interests of such a man as Farnaby, failed to present itself to him as a perplexing circumstance. To his mind, Mr. Melton's conduct was plainly attributable to a reward in prospect; and the name of that reward was--Miss Regina.
At the end of the three weeks, Rufus returned to London.
Once again, he and Toff confronted each other on the threshold of the door. This time, the genial old man presented an appearance that was little less than dazzling. From head to foot he was arrayed in new clothes; and he exhibited an immense rosette of white ribbon in his button-hole.
"Thunder!" cried Rufus. "Here's Mr. Frenchman going to be married!"
Toff declined to humour the joke. He stood on his dignity as stiffly as ever. "Pardon me, sir, I possess a wife and family already."
"Do you, now? Well--none of your know-nothing answers this time. Has Amelius come back?"
And what's the news of Sally?"
"Good news, sir. Miss Sally has come back too."
"You call that good news, do you? I'll say a word to Amelius. What are you standing there for? Let me by."
"Pardon me once more, sir. My master and Miss Sally do not receive visitors today."
"Your master and Miss Sally?" Rufus repeated. "Has this old creature been liquoring up a little too freely? What do you mean," he burst out, with a sudden change of tone to stern surprise--"what do you mean by putting your master and Sally together?"
Toff shot his bolt at last. "They will be together, sir, for the rest of their lives. They were married this morning."
Rufus received the blow in dead silence. He turned about, and went back to his hotel.
Reaching his room, he opened the despatch box in which he kept his correspondence, and picked out the long letter containing the description by Amelius of his introduction to the ladies of the Farnaby family. He took up the pen, and wrote the indorsement which has been quoted as an integral part of the letter itself, in the Second Book of this narrative:--
"Ah, poor Amelius! He had better have gone back to Miss Mellicent, and put up with the little drawback of her age. What a bright lovable fellow he was! Goodbye to Goldenheart!"
Were the forebodings of Rufus destined to be fulfilled? This question will be answered, it is hoped, in a Second Series of The Fallen Leaves. The narrative of the married life of Amelius presents a subject too important to be treated within the limits of the present story--and the First Series necessarily finds its end in the culminating event of his life, thus far.
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