Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 16

Mr. Keller and Mr. Engelman were both waiting to receive me. They looked over my written report of my inquiries at Hanau, and expressed the warmest approval of it. So far, all was well.

But, when we afterwards sat down to our supper, I noticed a change in the two partners, which it was impossible to see without regret. On the surface they were as friendly towards each other as ever. But a certain constraint of look and manner, a palpable effort, on either side, to speak with the old unsought ease and gaiety, showed that the disastrous discovery of Madame Fontaine in the hall had left its evil results behind it. Mr. Keller retired, when the meal was over, to examine my report minutely in all its details.

When we were alone, Mr. Engelman lit his pipe. He spoke to me once more with the friendly familiarity of past days — before he met the too-fascinating widow on the bridge.

“My dear boy, tell me frankly, do you notice any change in Keller?”

“I see a change in both of you,” I answered: “you are not such pleasant companions as you used to be.”

Mr. Engelman blew out a mouthful of smoke, and followed it by a heavy sigh.

“Keller has become so bitter,” he said. “His hasty temper I never complained of, as you know. But in these later days he is hard — hard as stone. Do you know what he did with dear Madame Fontaine’s letter? A downright insult, David — he sent it back to her!”

“Without explanation or apology?” I asked.

“With a line on the envelope. ‘I warned you that I should refuse to read your letter. You see that I am a man of my word.’ What a message to send to a poor mother, who only asks leave to plead for her child’s happiness! You saw the letter. Enough to melt the heart of any man, as I should have thought. I spoke to Keller on the subject; I really couldn’t help it.”

“Wasn’t that rather indiscreet, Mr. Engelman?”

“I said nothing that could reasonably offend him. ‘Do you know of some discreditable action on the part of Madame Fontaine, which has not been found out by anyone else?’ I asked. ‘I know the character she bears in Wurzburg,’ he said; ‘and the other night I saw her face. That is all I know, friend Engelman, and that is enough for me.’ With those sour words, he walked out of the room. What lamentable prejudice! What an unchristian way of thinking! The name of Madame Fontaine will never be mentioned between us again. When that much-injured lady honors me with another visit, I can only receive her where she will be protected from insult, in a house of my own.”

“Surely you are not going to separate yourself from Mr. Keller?” I said.

“Not for the present. I will wait till your aunt comes here, and brings that restless reforming spirit of hers into the business. Changes are sure to follow — and my change of residence may pass as one of them.”

He got up to leave the room, and stopped at the door.

“I wish you would come with me, David, to Madame Fontaine’s. She is very anxious to see you.” Feeling no such anxiety on my side, I attempted to excuse myself; but he went on without giving me time to speak —“Nice little Miss Minna is very dull, poor child. She has no friend of her own age here at Frankfort, excepting yourself. And she has asked me more than once when Mr. David would return from Hanau.”

My excuses failed me when I heard this. Mr. Engelman and I left the house together.

As we approached the door of Madame Fontaine’s lodgings, it was opened from within by the landlady, and a stranger stepped out into the street. He was sufficiently well dressed to pass for a gentleman — but there were obstacles in his face and manner to a successful personation of the character. He cast a peculiarly furtive look at us both, as we ascended the house-steps. I thought he was a police spy. Mr. Engelman set him down a degree lower in the social scale.

“I hope you are not in debt, ma’am,” he said to the landlady; “that man looks to me like a bailiff in disguise.”

“I manage to pay my way, sir, though it is a hard struggle,” the woman replied. “As for the gentleman who has just gone out, I know no more of him than you do.”

“May I ask what he wanted here?”

“He wanted to know when Madame Fontaine was likely to quit my apartments. I told him my lodger had not appointed any time for leaving me yet.”

“Did he mention Madame Fontaine’s name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did he know that she lived here?”

“He didn’t say.”

“And you didn’t think of asking him?”

“It was very stupid of me, sir — I only asked him how he came to know that I let apartments. He said, ‘Never mind, now; I am well recommended, and I’ll call again, and tell you about it.’ And then I opened the door for him, as you saw.”

“Did he ask to see Madame Fontaine?”

“No, sir.”

“Very odd!” said Mr. Engelman, as we went upstairs. “Do you think we ought to mention it?”

I thought not. There was nothing at all uncommon in the stranger’s inquiries, taken by themselves. We had no right, that I could see, to alarm the widow, because we happened to attach purely fanciful suspicions to a man of whom we knew nothing. I expressed this opinion to Mr. Engelman; and he agreed with me.

The same subdued tone which had struck me in the little household in Main Street, was again visible in the welcome which I received in Madame Fontaine’s lodgings. Minna looked weary of waiting for the long-expected letter from Fritz. Minna’s mother pressed my hand in silence, with a melancholy smile. Her reception of my companion struck me as showing some constraint. After what had happened on the night of her visit to the house, she could no longer expect him to help her to an interview with Mr. Keller. Was she merely keeping up appearances, on the chance that he might yet be useful to her, in some other way? The trifling change which I observed did not appear to present itself to Mr. Engelman. I turned away to Minna. Knowing what I knew, it grieved me to see that the poor old man was fonder of the widow, and prouder of her than ever.

It was no very hard task to revive the natural hopefulness of Minna’s nature. Calculating the question of time in the days before railroads, I was able to predict the arrival of Fritz’s letter in two, or at most three days more. This bright prospect was instantly reflected in the girl’s innocent face. Her interest in the little world about her revived. When her mother joined us, in our corner of the room, I was telling her all that could be safely related of my visit to Hanau. Madame Fontaine seemed to be quite as attentive as her daughter to the progress of my trivial narrative — to Mr. Engelman’s evident surprise.

“Did you go farther than Hanau?” the widow asked.

“No farther.”

“Were there any guests to meet you at the dinner-party?”

“Only the members of the family.”

“I lived so long, David, in dull old Wurzburg, that I can’t help feeling a certain interest in the town. Did the subject turn up? Did you hear of anything that was going on there?”

I answered this as cautiously as I had answered the questions that had gone before it. Frau Meyer had, I fear, partially succeeded in perverting my sense of justice. Before my journey to Hanau, I might have attributed the widow’s inquiries to mere curiosity. I believed suspicion to be the ruling motive with her, now.

Before any more questions could be asked, Mr. Engelman changed the topic to a subject of greater interest to himself. “I have told David, dear lady, of Mr. Keller’s inhuman reception of your letter.”

“Don’t say ‘inhuman,’” Madame Fontaine answered gently; “it is I alone who am to blame. I have been a cause of estrangement between you and your partner, and I have destroyed whatever little chance I might once have had of setting myself right in Mr. Keller’s estimation. All due to my rashness in mentioning my name. If I had been less fond of my little girl here, and less eager to seize the first opportunity of pleading for her, I should never have committed that fatal mistake.”

So far, this was sensibly said — and, as an explanation of her own imprudence, was unquestionably no more than the truth.

I was less favorably impressed by what followed, when she went on;

“Pray understand, David, that I don’t complain. I feel no ill-will towards Mr. Keller. If chance placed the opportunity of doing him a service in my hands, I should be ready and willing to make use of it — I should be only too glad to repair the mischief that I have so innocently done.”

She raised her handkerchief to her eyes. Mr. Engelman raised his handkerchief to his eyes. Minna took her mother’s hand. I alone sat undemonstrative, with my sympathies in a state of repose. Frau Meyer again! Nothing but the influence of Frau Meyer could have hardened me in this way!

“I have entreated our sweet friend not to leave Frankfort in despair,” Mr. Engelman explained in faltering tones. “Although my influence with Keller is, for the present, a lost influence in this matter, I am more than willing — I am eager — to speak to Mrs. Wagner on Madame Fontaine’s behalf. My advice is, Wait for Mrs. Wagner’s arrival, and trust to my zeal, and my position in the firm. When both his partners summon him to do justice to an injured woman, even Keller must submit!”

The widow’s eyes were still hidden behind her handkerchief. But the lower part of her face was visible. Unless I completely misinterpreted the mute language of her lips, she had not the faintest belief in the fulfillment of Mr. Engelman’s prediction. Whatever reason she might have for remaining in Frankfort, after the definite rejection of her too-confident appeal to Mr. Keller’s sympathies, was thus far undoubtedly a reason known only to herself. That very night, after we had left her, an incident occurred which suggested that she had some motive for ingratiating herself with one of the servants in Mr. Keller’s house.

Our domestic establishment indoors consisted of the sour-tempered old housekeeper (who was perfectly unapproachable); of a little kitchen-maid (too unimportant a person to be worth conciliating); and of the footman Joseph, who performed the usual duties of waiting on us at table, and answering the door. This last was a foolish young man, excessively vain of his personal appearance — but a passably good servant, making allowance for these defects.

Having occasion to ring for Joseph, to do me some little service, I noticed that the loose ends of his necktie were connected by a smart new pin, presenting a circle of malachite set in silver.

“Have you had a present lately,” I asked, “or are you extravagant enough to spend your money on buying jewelry?”

Joseph simpered in undisguised satisfaction with himself. “It’s a present, sir, from Madame Fontaine. I take her flowers almost every day from Mr. Engelman, and I have done one or two trifling errands for her in the town. She was pleased with my attention to her wishes. ‘I have very little money, Mr. Joseph,’ she said; ‘oblige me by accepting this pin in return for the trouble I have given you.’ And she took the pin out of the beautiful white lace round her neck, and made me a present of it with her own hand. A most liberal lady, isn’t she, sir?”

“Liberal indeed, Joseph, considering the small services which you seem to have rendered to her. Are you quite sure that she doesn’t expect something more of you?”

“Oh, quite sure, sir.” He blushed as he said that — and rather hurriedly left the room. How would Frau Meyer have interpreted Joseph’s blushes, and the widow’s liberality? I went to bed without caring to pursue that question.

A lapse of two days more brought with it two interesting events: the opening night of a traveling opera company on a visit to Frankfort, and the arrival by a late post of our long-expected letters from London.

The partners (both of them ardent lovers of music) had taken a box for the short season, and, with their usual kindness, had placed a seat at my disposal. We were all three drinking our coffee before going to the theater, and Joseph was waiting on us, when the rheumatic old housekeeper brought in the letters, and handed them to me, as the person who sat nearest to the door.

“Why, my good creature, what has made you climb the stairs, when you might have rung for Joseph?” asked kind-hearted Mr. Engelman.

“Because I have got something to ask of my masters,” answered crabbed Mother Barbara. “There are your letters, to begin with. Is it true that you are, all three of you, going to the theater to-night?”

She never used any of the ordinary terms of respect. If she had been their mother, instead of their housekeeper, she could not have spoken more familiarly to the two old gentlemen who employed her.

“Well,” she went on, “my daughter is in trouble about her baby, and wants my advice. Teething, and convulsions, and that sort of thing. As you are all going out for the evening, you don’t want me, after I have put your bedrooms tidy. I can go to my daughter for an hour or two, I suppose — and Joseph (who isn’t of much use, heaven knows) can take care of the house.”

Mr. Keller, refreshing his memory of the opera of the night (Gluck’s “Armida”) by consulting the book, nodded, and went on with his reading. Mr. Engelman said, “Certainly, my good soul; give my best wishes to your daughter for the baby’s health.” Mother Barbara grunted, and hobbled out of the room.

I looked at the letters. Two were for me — from my aunt and Fritz. One was for Mr. Keller — addressed also in the handwriting of my aunt. When I handed it to him across the table, he dropped “Armida” the moment he looked at the envelope. It was the answer to his remonstrance on the subject of the employment of women.

For Minna’s sake, I opened Fritz’s letter first. It contained the long-expected lines to his sweetheart. I went out at once, and, enclosing the letter in an envelope, sent Joseph away with it to the widow’s lodgings before Mother Barbara’s departure made it necessary for him to remain in the house.

Fritz’s letter to me was very unsatisfactory. In my absence, London was unendurably dull to him, and Minna was more necessary to the happiness of his life than ever. He desired to be informed, by return of post, of the present place of residence of Madame Fontaine and her daughter. If I refused to comply with this request, he could not undertake to control himself, and he thought it quite likely that he might “follow his heart’s dearest aspirations,” and set forth on the journey to Frankfort in search of Minna.

My aunt’s letter was full of the subject of Jack Straw.

In the first place she had discovered, while arranging her late husband’s library, a book which had evidently suggested his ideas of reformation in the treatment of the insane. It was called, “Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for insane persons of the Society of Friends. Written by Samuel Tuke.” She had communicated with the institution; had received the most invaluable help; and would bring the book with her to Frankfort, to be translated into German, in the interests of humanity. (1)

(1) Tuke’s Description of the Retreat near York is reviewed by Sydney Smith in a number of the “Edinburgh Review,” for 1814.

As for her merciful experiment with poor Jack, it had proved to be completely successful — with one serious drawback. So long as he was under her eye, and in daily communication with her, a more grateful, affectionate, and perfectly harmless creature never breathed the breath of life. Even Mr. Hartrey and the lawyer had been obliged to confess that they had been in the wrong throughout, in the view they had taken of the matter. But, when she happened to be absent from the house, for any length of time, it was not to be denied that Jack relapsed. He did nothing that was violent or alarming — he merely laid himself down on the mat before the door of her room, and refused to eat, drink, speak, or move, until she returned. He heard her outside the door, before anyone else was aware that she was near the house; and his joy burst out in a scream which did certainly recall Bedlam. That was the drawback, and the only drawback; and how she was to take the journey to Frankfort, which Mr. Keller’s absurd remonstrance had rendered absolutely necessary, was more than my aunt’s utmost ingenuity could thus far discover. Setting aside the difficulty of disposing of Jack, there was another difficulty, represented by Fritz. It was in the last degree doubtful if he could be trusted to remain in London in her absence. “But I shall manage it,” the resolute woman concluded. “I never yet despaired of anything — and I don’t despair now.”

Returning to the sitting-room, when it was time to go to the theater, I found Mr. Keller with his temper in a flame, and Mr. Engelman silently smoking as usual.

“Read that!” cried Mr. Keller, tossing my aunt’s reply to him across the table. “It won’t take long.”

It was literally a letter of four lines! “I have received your remonstrance. It is useless for two people who disagree as widely as we do, to write to each other. Please wait for my answer, until I arrive at Frankfort.”

“Let’s go to the music!” cried Mr. Keller. “God knows, I want a composing influence of some kind.”

At the end of the first act of the opera, a new trouble exhausted his small stock of patience. He had been too irritated, on leaving the house, to remember his opera-glass; and he was sufficiently near-sighted to feel the want of it. It is needless to say that I left the theater at once to bring back the glass in time for the next act.

My instructions informed me that I should find it on his bedroom-table.

I thought Joseph looked confused when he opened the house-door to me. As I ran upstairs, he followed me, saying something. I was in too great a hurry to pay any attention to him.

Reaching the second floor by two stairs at a time, I burst into Mr. Keller’s bedroom, and found myself face to face with — Madame Fontaine!

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