Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 13

Mr. Keller fixed his eyes on the widow in stern silence; walked past her to the inner end of the hall; and entered a room at the back of the house, closing the door behind him. Even if he had felt inclined to look at Minna, it would not have been possible for him to see her. After one timid glance at him, the poor girl hid herself behind me, trembling piteously. I took her hand to encourage her. “Oh, what hope is there for us,” she whispered, “with such a man as that?”

Madame Fontaine turned as Mr. Keller passed her, and watched his progress along the hall until he disappeared from view. “No,” she said quietly to herself, “you don’t escape me in that way.”

As if moved by a sudden impulse, she set forth on the way by which Mr. Keller had gone before her; walking, as he had walked, to the door at the end of the hall.

I had remained with Minna, and was not in a position to see how her mother looked. Mr. Engelman’s face, as he stretched out his hands entreatingly to stop Madame Fontaine, told me that the fierce passions hidden deep in the woman’s nature had risen to the surface and shown themselves. “Oh, dear lady! dear lady!” cried the simple old man, “Don’t look like that! It’s only Keller’s temper — he will soon be himself again.”

Without answering him, without looking at him, she lifted her hand, and put him back from her as if he had been a troublesome child. With her firm graceful step, she resumed her progress along the hall to the room at the end, and knocked sharply at the door.

Mr. Keller’s voice answered from within, “Who is there?”

“Madame Fontaine,” said the widow. “I wish to speak to you.”

“I decline to receive Madame Fontaine.”

“In that case, Mr. Keller, I will do myself the honor of writing to you.”

“I refuse to read your letter.”

“Take the night to think of it, Mr. Keller, and change your mind in the morning.”

She turned away, without waiting for a reply, and joined us at the outer end of the hall.

Minna advanced to meet her, and kissed her tenderly. “Dear, kind mamma, you are doing this for my sake,” said the grateful girl. “I am ashamed that you should humble yourself — it is so useless!”

“It shall not be useless,” her mother answered. “If fifty Mr. Kellers threatened your happiness, my child, I would brush the fifty out of your way. Oh, my darling, my darling!”

Her voice — as firm as the voice of a man, while she declared her resolution — faltered and failed her when the last words of endearment fell from her lips. She drew Minna to her bosom, and embraced in silent rapture the one creature whom she loved. When she raised her head again she was, to my mind, more beautiful than I had ever yet seen her. The all-ennobling tears of love and grief filled her eyes. Knowing the terrible story that is still to be told, let me do that miserable woman justice. Hers was not a wholly corrupted heart. It was always in Minna’s power to lift her above her own wickedness. When she held out the hand that had just touched her daughter to Mr. Engelman, it trembled as if she had been the most timid woman living.

“Good night, dear friend,” she said to him; “I am sorry to have been the innocent cause of this little embarrassment.”

Simple Mr. Engelman put his handkerchief to his eyes; never, in all his life, had he been so puzzled, so frightened, and so distressed. He kissed the widow’s hand. “Do let me see you safe home!” he said, in tones of the tenderest entreaty.

“Not to-night,” she answered. He attempted a faint remonstrance. Madame Fontaine knew perfectly well how to assert her authority over him — she gave him another of those tender looks which had already become the charm of his life. Mr. Engelman sat down on one of the hall chairs completely overwhelmed. “Dear and admirable woman!” I heard him say to himself softly.

Taking leave of me in my turn, the widow dropped my hand, struck, to all appearance, by a new idea.

“I have a favor to ask of you, David,” she said. “Do you mind going back with us?”

As a matter of course I took my hat, and placed myself at her service. Mr. Engelman got on his feet, and lifted his plump hands in mute and melancholy protest. “Don’t be uneasy,” Madame Fontaine said to him, with a faint smile of contempt. “David doesn’t love me!”

I paused for a moment, as I followed her out, to console Mr. Engelman. “She is old enough to be my mother, sir,” I whispered; “and this time, at any rare, she has told you the truth.”

Hardly a word passed between us on our way through the streets and over the bridge. Minna was sad and silent, thinking of Fritz; and whatever her mother might have to say to me, was evidently to be said in private. Arrived at the lodgings, Madame Fontaine requested me to wait for her in the shabby little sitting-room, and graciously gave me permission to smoke. “Say good night to David,” she continued, turning to her daughter. “Your poor little heart is heavy to-night, and mamma means to put you to bed as if you were a child again. Ah! me, if those days could only come back!”

After a short absence the widow returned to me, with a composed manner and a quiet smile. The meeting with Mr. Keller seemed to have been completely dismissed from her thoughts, in the brief interval since I had seen her last.

“We often hear of parents improving their children,” she said. “It is my belief that the children quite as often improve the parents. I have had some happy minutes with Minna — and (would you believe it?) I am already disposed to forgive Mr. Keller’s brutality, and to write to him in a tone of moderation, which must surely have its effect. All Minna’s doing — and my sweet girl doesn’t in the least suspect it herself! If you ever have children of your own, David, you will understand me and feel for me. In the meantime, I must not detain you by idle talk — I must say plainly what I want of you.” She opened her writing-desk and took up a pen. “If I write to Mr. Keller under your own eye, do you object to take charge of my letter?”

I hesitated how to answer. To say the least of it, her request embarrassed me.

“I don’t expect you to give it to Mr. Keller personally,” she explained. “It is of very serious importance to me” (she laid a marked emphasis on those words) “to be quite sure that my letter has reached him, and that he has really had the opportunity of reading it. If you will only place it on his desk in the office, with your own hand, that is all I ask you to do. For Minna’s sake, mind; not for mine!”

For Minna’s sake, I consented. She rose directly, and signed to me to take her place at the desk.

“It will save time,” she said, “if you write the rough draft of the letter from my dictation. I am accustomed to dictate my letters, with Minna for secretary. Of course, you shall see the fair copy before I seal it.”

She began to walk up and down the little room, with her hands crossed behind her in the attitude made famous by the great Napoleon. After a minute of consideration, she dictated the draft as follows:

“Sir — I am well aware that scandalous reports at Wurzburg have prejudiced you against me. Those reports, so far as I know, may be summed up under three heads.

“(First.) That my husband died in debt through my extravagance.

“(Second.) That my respectable neighbors refuse to associate with me.

“(Third.) That I entrapped your son Fritz into asking for my daughter’s hand in marriage, because I knew his father to be a rich man.

“To the first calumny I reply, that the debts are due to expensive chemical experiments in which my late husband engaged, and that I have satisfied the creditors to the last farthing. Grant me an audience, and I will refer you to the creditors themselves.

“To the second calumny I reply, that I received invitations, on my arrival in Wurzburg after my marriage, from every lady of distinguished social position in the town. After experience of the society thus offered to me, I own to having courteously declined subsequent invitations, and having devoted myself in retirement to my husband, to my infant child, and to such studies in literature and art as I had time to pursue. Gossip and scandal, with an eternal accompaniment of knitting, are not to my taste; and, while I strictly attend to domestic duties, I do not consider them as constituting, in connection with tea-drinking, the one great interest of a woman’s life. I plead guilty to having been foolish enough to openly acknowledge these sentiments, and to having made bitter enemies everywhere as the necessary consequence. If this plain defense of myself fails to satisfy you, grant me an audience, and I will answer your questions, whatever they may be.

“To the third calumny, I reply, that if you had been a Prince instead of a merchant, I would still have done everything in my power to keep your son away from my daughter — for this simple reason, that the idea of parting with her to any man fills me with grief and dismay. I only yielded to the marriage engagement, when the conviction was forced upon me that my poor child’s happiness depended on her union with your son. It is this consideration alone which induces me to write to you, and to humiliate myself by pleading for a hearing. As for the question of money, if through some unexpected misfortune you became a bankrupt to-morrow, I would entreat you to consent to the marriage exactly as I entreat you now. Poverty has no terrors for me while I have health to work. But I cannot face the idea of my child’s life being blighted, because you choose to believe the slanders that are spoken of her mother. For the third time I ask you to grant me an audience, and to hear me in my own defense.”

There she paused, and looked over my shoulder.

“I think that is enough,” she said. “Do you see anything objectionable in my letter?”

How could I object to the letter? From beginning to end, it was strongly, and yet moderately, expressed. I resigned my place at the desk, and the widow wrote the fair copy, with her own hand. She made no change whatever, except by adding these ominous lines as a postscript:

“I implore you not to drive me to despair. A mother who is pleading for her child’s life — it is nothing less, in this case — is a woman who surely asserts a sacred claim. Let no wise man deny it.”

“Do you think it quite discreet,” I ventured to ask, “to add those words?”

She looked at me with a moment’s furtive scrutiny, and only answered after she had sealed the letter, and placed it in my hands.

“I have my reasons,” she replied. “Let the words remain.”

Returning to the house at rather a late hour for Frankfort, I was surprised to find Mr. Keller waiting to see me.

“I have had a talk with my partner,” he said. “It has left (for the time only, I hope), a painful impression on both sides — and I must ask you to do me a service, in the place of Mr. Engelman — who has an engagement to-morrow, which prevents him from leaving Frankfort.”

His tone indicated plainly enough that the “engagement” was with Madame Fontaine. Hard words must have passed between the two old friends on the subject of the widow. Even Mr. Engelman’s placid temper had, no doubt, resented Mr. Keller’s conduct at the meeting in the hall.

“The service I ask of you,” he resumed, “will be easily rendered. The proprietor of a commercial establishment at Hanau is desirous of entering into business-relations with us, and has sent references to respectable persons in the town and neighborhood, which it is necessary to verify. We are so busy in the office that it is impossible for me to leave Frankfort myself, or to employ our clerks on this errand. I have drawn out the necessary instructions — and Hanau, as you are aware, is within an easy distance of Frankfort. Have you any objection to be the representative of the house in this matter?”

It is needless to say that I was gratified by the confidence that had been placed in me, and eager to show that I really deserved it. We arranged that I should leave Frankfort by the earliest conveyance the next morning.

On our way upstairs to our bed-chambers, Mr. Keller detained me for a moment more.

“I have no claim to control you in the choice of your friends,” he said; “but I am old enough to give you a word of advice. Don’t associate yourself too readily, David, with the woman whom I found here to-night.”

He shook hands cordially, and left me. I thought of Madame Fontaine’s letter in my pocket, and felt a strong conviction that he would persist in his refusal to read it.

The servants were the only persons stirring in the house, when I rose the next morning. Unobserved by anyone, I placed the letter on the desk in Mr. Keller’s private room. That done, I started on my journey to Hanau.

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