Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 14

Thanks to the instructions confided to me, my errand presented no difficulties. There were certain persons to whom I was introduced, and certain information to be derived from them, which it was my duty to submit to Mr. Keller on my return. Fidelity was required of me, and discretion was required of me — and that was all.

At the close of my day’s work, the hospitable merchant, whose references I had been engaged in verifying, refused to permit me to return to the hotel. His dinner-hour had been put off expressly to suit my convenience. “You will only meet the members of my family,” he said, “and a cousin of my wife’s who is here with her daughter, on a visit to us — Frau Meyer, of Wurzburg.”

I accepted the invitation, feeling privately an Englishman’s reluctance to confronting an assembly of strangers, and anticipating nothing remarkable in reference to Frau Meyer, although she did come from Wurzburg. Even when I was presented to the ladies in due form, as “the honored representative of Mr. Keller, of Frankfort,” I was too stupid, or too much absorbed in the business on which I had been engaged, to be much struck by the sudden interest with which Frau Meyer regarded me. She was a fat florid old lady, who looked coarsely clever and resolute; and she had a daughter who promised to resemble her but too faithfully, in due course of time. It was a relief to me, at dinner, to find myself placed between the merchant’s wife and her eldest son. They were far more attractive neighbors at table, to my thinking, than Frau Meyer.

Dinner being over, we withdrew to another room to take our coffee. The merchant and his son, both ardent musicians in their leisure hours, played a sonata for pianoforte and violin. I was at the opposite extremity of the room, looking at some fine proof impressions of prints from the old masters, when a voice at my side startled me by an unexpected question.

“May I ask, sir, if you are acquainted with Mr. Keller’s son?”

I looked round, and discovered Frau Meyer.

“Have you seen him lately?” she proceeded, when I had acknowledged that I was acquainted with Fritz. “And can you tell me where he is now?”

I answered both these questions. Frau Meyer looked thoroughly well satisfied with me. “Let us have a little talk,” she said, and seated herself, and signed to me to take a chair near her.

“I feel a true interest in Fritz,” she resumed, lowering her voice so as not to be heard by the musicians at the other end of the room. “Until to-day, I have heard nothing of him since he left Wurzburg. I like to talk about him — he once did me a kindness a long time since. I suppose you are in his confidence? Has he told you why his father sent him away from the University?”

My reply to this was, I am afraid, rather absently given. The truth is, my mind was running on some earlier words which had dropped from the old lady’s lips. “He once did me a kindness a long time since.” When had I last heard that commonplace phrase? and why did I remember it so readily when I now heard it again?

“Ah, his father did a wise thing in separating him from that woman and her daughter!” Frau Meyer went on. “Madame Fontaine deliberately entrapped the poor boy into the engagement. But perhaps you are a friend of hers? In that case, I retract and apologize.”

“Quite needless,” I said.

“You are not a friend of Madame Fontaine?” she persisted.

This cool attempt to force an answer from me failed in its object. It was like being cross-examined in a court of law; and, in our common English phrase, “it set my back up.” In the strict sense of the word, Madame Fontaine might be termed an acquaintance, but certainly not a friend, of mine. For once, I took the prudent course, and said, No.

Frau Meyer’s expansive bosom emitted a hearty sigh of relief. “Ah!” she said, “now I can talk freely — in Fritz’s interest, mind. You are a young man like himself, he will be disposed to listen to you. Do all you can to back his father’s influence, and cure him of his infatuation. I tell you plainly, his marriage would be his ruin!”

“You speak very strongly, madam. Do you object to the young lady?”

“Not I; a harmless insignificant creature — nothing more and nothing less. It’s her vile mother that I object to.”

“As I have heard, Frau Meyer, there are two sides to that question. Fritz is persuaded that Madame Fontaine is an injured woman. He assures me, for instance, that she is the fondest of mothers.”

“Bah! What does that amount to? It’s as much a part of a woman’s nature to take to her child when she has got one, as it is to take to her dinner when she is hungry. A fond mother? What stuff! Why, a cat is a fond mother! — What’s the matter?”

A cat is a fond mother. Another familiar phrase — and this time a phrase remarkable enough to lead my memory back in the right direction. In an instant I recollected the anonymous letter to Fritz. In an instant I felt the conviction that Frau Meyer, in her eagerness to persuade me, had unconsciously repeated two of the phrases which she had already used, in her eagerness to persuade Fritz. No wonder I started in my chair, when I felt that I was face to face with the writer of the anonymous letter!

I made some excuse — I forget what — and hastened to resume the conversation. The opportunity of making discoveries which might be invaluable to Fritz (to say nothing of good Mr. Engelman) was not an opportunity to be neglected. I persisted in quoting Fritz’s authority; I repeated his assertion relative to the love of scandal at Wurzburg, and the envy of Madame Fontaine’s superior attractions felt among the ladies. Frau Meyer laughed disdainfully.

“Poor Fritz!” she said. “An excellent disposition — but so easily persuaded, so much too amiable. Our being all envious of Widow Fontaine is too ridiculous. It is a mere waste of time to notice such nonsense. Wait a little, Mr. David, and you will see. If you and Mr. Keller can only keep Fritz out of the widow’s way for a few months longer, his eyes will be opened in spite of himself. He may yet come back to us with a free heart, and he may choose his future wife more wisely next time.”

As she said this her eyes wandered away to her daughter, at the other end of the room. Unless her face betrayed her, she had evidently planned, at some past time, to possess herself of Fritz as a son-in-law, and she had not resigned the hope of securing him yet. Madame Fontaine might be a deceitful and dangerous woman. But what sort of witness against her was this abusive old lady, the unscrupulous writer of an anonymous letter? “You prophesy very confidently about what is to come in the future,” I ventured to say.

Frau Meyer’s red face turned a shade redder. “Does that mean that you don’t believe me?” she asked.

“Certainly not, madam. It only means that you speak severely of Doctor Fontaine’s widow — without mentioning any facts that justify you.”

“Oh! you want facts, do you? I’ll soon show you whether I know what I am talking about or not. Has Fritz mentioned that among Madame Fontaine’s other virtues, she has paid her debts? I’ll tell you how she has paid them — as an example, young gentleman, that I am not talking at random. Your admirable widow, sir, is great at fascinating old men; they are always falling in love with her, the idiots! A certain old man at Wurzburg — close on eighty, mind — was one of her victims. I had a letter this morning which tells me that he was found dead in his bed, two days since, and that his nephew is the sole heir to all that he leaves behind him. Examination of his papers has shown that he paid the widow’s creditors, and that he took a promissory note from her — ha! ha! ha! — a promissory note from a woman without a farthing! — in payment of the sum that he had advanced. The poor old man would, no doubt, have destroyed the note if he had known that his end was so near. His sudden death has transferred it to the hands of his heir. In money-matters, the nephew is reported to be one of the hardest men living. When that note falls due, he will present it for payment. I don’t know where Madame Fontaine is now. No matter! Sooner or later, she is sure to hear of what has happened — and she must find the money, or see the inside of a debtor’s prison. Those are the facts that I had in my mind, Mr. David, when I spoke of events opening Fritz’s eyes to the truth.”

I submitted with all possible humility to the lady’s triumph over me. My thoughts were with Minna. What a prospect for the innocent, affectionate girl! Assuming the statement that I had just heard to be true, there was surely a chance that Madame Fontaine (with time before her) might find the money. I put this view of the case to Frau Meyer.

“If I didn’t know Mr. Keller to be a thoroughly resolute man,” she answered, “I should say she might find the money too. She has only to succeed in marrying her daughter to Fritz, and Mr. Keller would be obliged to pay the money for the sake of the family credit. But he is one of the few men whom she can’t twist round her finger. If you ever fall in with her, take care of yourself. She may find your influence with Fritz an obstacle in her way — and she may give you reason to remember that the mystery of her husband’s lost chest of poisons is not cleared up yet. It was all in the German newspapers — you know what I mean.”

This seemed to me to be passing all bounds of moderation. “And you know, madam,” I answered sharply, “that there was no evidence against her — nothing whatever to associate her with the robbery of the medicine chest.”

“Not even suspicion, Mr. David?”

“Not even suspicion.”

I rose from my chair as I spoke. Minna was still in my thoughts; I was not merely unwilling, I was almost afraid to hear more.

“One minute,” said Frau Meyer. “Which of the two hotels here are you staying at? I want to send you something to read to-night, after you have left us.”

I told her the name of the hotel; and we joined our friends at the other end of the room. Not long afterwards I took my leave. My spirits were depressed; a dark cloud of uncertainty seemed to hang over the future. Even the prospect of returning to Frankfort, the next day, became repellent to me. I was almost inclined to hope that my aunt might (as Mr. Keller had predicted) recall me to London.

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