The Fallen Leaves

Wilkie Collins

The Fallen Leaves Page 02

In the agitation that now possessed her, her colour rose, her eyes brightened; she looked for the moment almost young enough to be Emma's sister. Her husband opened his hard old eyes in surly bewilderment. "Why need you make this fuss?" he asked. "I don't understand you." Mrs. Ronald shrank at those words as if he had struck her. She kissed him in silence, and joined her daughter in the cab.

For the rest of that day, the persons in the stationer's employment had a hard time of it with their master in the shop. Something had upset Old Ronald, He ordered the shutters to be put up earlier that evening than usual. Instead of going to his club (at the tavern round the corner), he took a long walk in the lonely and lifeless streets of the City by night. There was no disguising it from himself; his wife's behaviour at parting had made him uneasy. He naturally swore at her for taking that liberty, while he lay awake alone in his bed. "Damn the woman! What does she mean?" The cry of the soul utters itself in various forms of expression. That was the cry of Old Ronald's soul, literally translated.


The next morning brought him a letter from Ramsgate.

"I write immediately to tell you of our safe arrival. We have found comfortable lodgings (as the address at the head of this letter will inform you) in Albion Place. I thank you, and Emma desires to thank you also, for your kindness in providing us with ample means for taking our little trip. It is beautiful weather today; the sea is calm, and the pleasure-boats are out. We do not of course expect to see you here. But if you do, by any chance, overcome your objection to moving out of London, I have a little request to make. Please let me hear of your visit beforehand--so that I may not omit all needful preparations. I know you dislike being troubled with letters (except on business), so I will not write too frequently. Be so good as to take no news for good news, in the intervals. When you have a few minutes to spare, you will write, I hope, and tell me how you and the shop are going on. Emma sends you her love, in which I beg to join." So the letter was expressed, and so it ended.

"They needn't be afraid of my troubling them. Calm seas and pleasure-boats! Stuff and nonsense!" Such was the first impression which his wife's report of herself produced on Old Ronald's mind. After a while, he looked at the letter again--and frowned, and reflected. "Please let me hear of your visit beforehand," he repeated to himself, as if the request had been, in some incomprehensible way, offensive to him. He opened the drawer of his desk, and threw the letter into it. When business was over for the day, he went to his club at the tavern, and made himself unusually disagreeable to everybody.

A week passed. In the interval he wrote briefly to his wife. "I'm all right, and the shop goes on as usual." He also forwarded one or two letters which came for Mrs. Ronald. No more news reached him from Ramsgate. "I suppose they're enjoying themselves," he reflected. "The house looks queer without them; I'll go to the club."

He stayed later than usual, and drank more than usual, that night. It was nearly one in the morning when he let himself in with his latch-key, and went upstairs to bed.

Approaching the toilette-table, he found a letter lying on it, addressed to "Mr. Ronald--private." It was not in his wife's handwriting; not in any handwriting known to him. The characters sloped the wrong way, and the envelope bore no postmark. He eyed it over and over suspiciously. At last he opened it, and read these lines:

"You are advised by a true friend to lose no time in looking after your wife. There are strange doings at the seaside. If you don't believe me, ask Mrs. Turner, Number 1, Slains Row, Ramsgate."

No address, no date, no signature--an anonymous letter, the first he had ever received in the long course of his life.

His hard brain was in no way affected by the liquor that he had drunk. He sat down on his bed, mechanically folding and refolding the letter. The reference to "Mrs. Turner" produced no impression on him of any sort: no person of that name, common as it was, happened to be numbered on the list of his friends or his customers. But for one circumstance, he would have thrown the letter aside, in contempt. His memory reverted to his wife's incomprehensible behaviour at parting. Addressing him through that remembrance, the anonymous warning assumed a certain importance to his mind. He went down to his desk, in the back office, and took his wife's letter out of the drawer, and read it through slowly. "Ha!" he said, pausing as he came across the sentence which requested him to write beforehand, in the unlikely event of his deciding to go to Ramsgate. He thought again of the strangely persistent way in which his wife had dwelt on his trusting her; he recalled her nervous anxious looks, her deepening colour, her agitation at one moment, and then her sudden silence and sudden retreat to the cab. Fed by these irritating influences, the inbred suspicion in his nature began to take fire slowly. She might be innocent enough in asking him to give her notice before he joined her at the seaside--she might naturally be anxious to omit no needful preparation for his comfort. Still, he didn't like it; no, he didn't like it. An appearance as of a slow collapse passed little by little over his rugged wrinkled face. He looked many years older than his age, as he sat at the desk, with the flaring candlelight close in front of him, thinking. The anonymous letter lay before him, side by side with his wife's letter. On a sudden, he lifted his gray head, and clenched his fist, and struck the venomous written warning as if it had been a living thing that could feel. "Whoever you are," he said, "I'll take your advice."

He never even made the attempt to go to bed that night. His pipe helped him through the comfortless and dreary hours. Once or twice he thought of his daughter. Why had her mother been so anxious about her? Why had her mother taken her to Ramsgate? Perhaps, as a blind--ah, yes, perhaps as a blind! More for the sake of something to do than for any other reason, he packed a handbag with a few necessaries. As soon as the servant was stirring, he ordered her to make him a cup of strong coffee. After that, it was time to show himself as usual, on the opening of the shop. To his astonishment, he found his clerk taking down the shutters, in place of the porter.

"What does this mean?" he asked. "Where is Farnaby?"

The clerk looked at his master, and paused aghast with a shutter in his hands.

"Good Lord! what has come to you?" he cried. "Are you ill?"

Old Ronald angrily repeated his question: "Where is Farnaby?"

"I don't know," was the answer.

"You don't know? Have you been up to his bedroom?"



"Well, he isn't in his bedroom. And, what's more, his bed hasn't been slept in last night. Farnaby's off, sir--nobody knows where."

Old Ronald dropped heavily into the nearest chair.

Wilkie Collins

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Christopher Marlowe