Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 17

The widow was alone in the room; standing by the bedside table on which Mr. Keller’s night-drink was placed. I was so completely taken by surprise, that I stood stock-still like a fool, and stared at Madame Fontaine in silence.

On her side she was, as I believe, equally astonished and equally confounded, but better able to conceal it. For the moment, and only for the moment, she too had nothing to say. Then she lifted her left hand from under her shawl. “You have caught me, Mr. David!” she said — and held up a drawing-book as she spoke.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

She pointed with the book to the famous carved mantelpiece.

“You know how I longed to make a study of that glorious work,” she answered. “Don’t be hard on a poor artist who takes her opportunity when she finds it.”

“May I ask how you came to know of the opportunity, Madame Fontaine?”

“Entirely through your kind sympathy, my friend,” was the cool reply.

“My sympathy? What do you mean?”

“Was it not you, David, who considerately thought of Minna when the post came in? And did you not send the man-servant to us, with her letter from Fritz?”

The blubbering voice of Joseph, trembling for his situation, on the landing outside, interrupted me before I could speak again.

“I’m sure I meant no harm, sir. I only said I was in a hurry to get back, because you had all gone to the theater, and I was left (with nobody but the kitchen girl) to take care of the house. When the lady came, and showed me her drawing-book ——”

“That will do, friend Joseph,” said the widow, signing to him to go downstairs in her easy self-possessed way. “Mr. David is too sensible to take notice of trifles. There! there! go down,” She turned to me, with an expression of playful surprise. “How very serious you look!” she said gaily.

“It might have been serious for you, Madame Fontaine, if Mr. Keller had returned to the house to fetch his opera-glass himself.”

“Ah! he has left his opera-glass behind him? Let me help you to look for it. I have done my sketch; I am quite at your service.” She forestalled me in finding the opera-glass. “I really had no other chance of making a study of the chimney-piece,” she went on, as she handed the glass to me. “Impossible to ask Mr. Engelman to let me in again, after what happened on the last occasion. And, if I must confess it, there is another motive besides my admiration for the chimney-piece. You know how poor we are. The man who keeps the picture-shop in the Zeil is willing to employ me. He can always sell these memorials of old Frankfort to English travelers. Even the few forms he gives me will find two half-starved women in housekeeping money for a week.”

It was all very plausible; and perhaps (in my innocent days before I met with Frau Meyer) I might have thought it quite likely to be true. In my present frame of mind, I only asked the widow if I might see her sketch.

She shook her head, and sheltered the drawing-book again under her shawl.

“It is little better than a memorandum at present,” she explained. “Wait till I have touched it up, and made it saleable — and I will show it to you with pleasure. You will not make mischief, Mr. David, by mentioning my act of artistic invasion to either of the old gentlemen? It shall not be repeated — I give you my word of honor. There is poor Joseph, too. You don’t want to ruin a well-meaning lad, by getting him turned out of his place? Of course not! We part as friends who understand each other, don’t we? Minna would have sent her love and thanks, if she had known I was to meet you. Good-night.”

She ran downstairs, humming a little tune to herself, as blithe as a young girl. I heard a momentary whispering with Joseph in the hall. Then the house-door closed — and there was an end of Madame Fontaine for that time.

After no very long reflection, I decided that my best course would be to severely caution Joseph, and to say nothing to the partners of what had happened — for the present, at least. I should certainly do mischief, by setting the two old friends at variance again on the subject of the widow, if I spoke; to say nothing (as another result) of the likelihood of Joseph’s dismissal by Mr. Keller. Actuated by these reasonable considerations, I am bound frankly to add that I must have felt some vague misgivings as well. Otherwise, why did I carefully examine Mr. Keller’s room (before I returned to the theater), without any distinct idea of any conceivable discovery that I might make? Not the vestige of a suspicious appearance rewarded my search. The room was in its customary state of order, from the razors and brushes on the toilet-table to the regular night-drink of barley-water, ready as usual in the jug by the bedside.

I left the bedchamber at last. Why was I still not at my ease? Why was I rude enough, when I thought of the widow, to say to myself, “Damn her!” Why did I find Gluck’s magnificent music grow wearisome from want of melody as it went on? Let the learned in such things realize my position, and honor me by answering those questions for themselves.

We were quite gay at supper; the visit to the theater had roused the spirits of the two partners, by means of a wholesome break in the monotony of their lives. I had seldom seen Mr. Keller so easy and so cheerful. Always an abstemious man, he exercised his usual moderation in eating and drinking; and he was the first to go to bed. But, while he was with us, he was, in the best sense of the word, a delightful companion; and he looked forward to the next opera night with the glee of a schoolboy looking forward to a holiday.

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