Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 18

The breakfast-room proved to be empty when I entered it the next morning. It was the first time in my experience that I had failed to find Mr. Keller established at the table. He had hitherto set the example of early rising to his partner and to myself. I had barely noticed his absence, when Mr. Engelman followed me into the room with a grave and anxious face, which proclaimed that something was amiss.

“Where is Mr. Keller?” I asked.

“In bed, David.”

“Not ill, I hope?”

“I don’t know what is the matter with him, my dear boy. He says he has passed a bad night, and he can’t leave his bed and attend to business as usual. Is it the close air of the theater, do you think?”

“Suppose I make him a comfortable English cup of tea?” I suggested.

“Yes, yes! And take it up yourself. I should like to know what you think of him.”

Mr. Keller alarmed me in the first moment when I looked at him. A dreadful apathy had possessed itself of this naturally restless and energetic man. He lay quite motionless, except an intermittent trembling of his hands as they rested on the counterpane. His eyes opened for a moment when I spoke to him — then closed again as if the effort of looking at anything wearied him. He feebly shook his head when I offered him the cup of tea, and said in a fretful whisper, “Let me be!” I looked at his night-drink. The jug and glass were both completely empty. “Were you thirsty in the night?” In the same fretful whisper he answered, “Horribly!” “Are you not thirsty now?” He only repeated the words he had first spoken —“Let me be!” There he lay, wanting nothing, caring for nothing; his face looking pinched and wan already, and the intermittent trembling still at regular intervals shaking his helpless hands.

We sent at once for the physician who had attended him in trifling illnesses at former dates.

The doctor who is not honest enough to confess it when he is puzzled, is a well-known member of the medical profession in all countries. Our present physician was one of that sort. He pronounced the patient to be suffering from low (or nervous) fever — but it struck Mr. Engelman, as it struck me, that he found himself obliged to say something, and said it without feeling sure of the correctness of his own statement. He prescribed, and promised to pay us a second visit later in the day. Mother Barbara, the housekeeper, was already installed as nurse. Always a domestic despot, she made her tyranny felt even in the sick-room. She declared that she would leave the house if any other woman presumed to enter it as nurse. “When my master is ill,” said Mother Barbara, “my master is my property.” It was plainly impossible that a woman, at her advanced age, could keep watch at the bedside by day and night together. In the interests of peace we decided on waiting until the next day. If Mr. Keller showed no signs of improvement by that time, I undertook to inquire at the hospital for a properly qualified nurse.

Later in the day, our doubts of the doctor were confirmed. He betrayed his own perplexity in arriving at a true “diagnosis” of the patient’s case, by bringing with him, at his second visit, a brother-physician, whom he introduced as Doctor Dormann, and with whom he asked leave to consult at the bedside.

The new doctor was the younger, and evidently the firmer person of the two.

His examination of the sick man was patient and careful in the extreme. He questioned us minutely about the period at which the illness had begun; the state of Mr. Keller’s health immediately before it; the first symptoms noticed; what he had eaten, and what he had drunk; and so on. Next, he desired to see all the inmates of the house who had access to the bed-chamber; looking with steady scrutiny at the housekeeper, the footman, and the maid, as they followed each other into the room — and dismissing them again without remark. Lastly, he astounded his old colleague by proposing to administer an emetic. There was no prevailing on him to give his reasons. “If I prove to be right, you shall hear my reasons. If I prove to be wrong, I have only to say so, and no reasons will be required. Clear the room, administer the emetic, and keep the door locked till I come back.”

With those parting directions he hurried out of the house.

“What can he mean?” said Mr. Engelman, leading the way out of the bedchamber.

The elder doctor left in charge heard the words, and answered them, addressing himself, not to Mr. Engelman, but to me. He caught me by the arm, as I was leaving the room in my turn.

“Poison!” the doctor whispered in my ear. “Keep it a secret; that’s what he means.”

I ran to my own bedchamber and bolted myself in. At that one word, “Poison,” the atrocious suggestion of Frau Meyer, when she had referred to Doctor Fontaine’s lost medicine-chest, instantly associated itself in my memory with Madame Fontaine’s suspicious intrusion into Mr. Keller’s room. Good God! had I not surprised her standing close by the table on which the night-drink was set? and had I not heard Doctor Dormann say, “That’s unlucky,” when he was told that the barley-water had been all drunk by the patient, and the jug and glass washed as usual? For the first few moments, I really think I must have been beside myself, so completely was I overpowered by the horror of my own suspicions. I had just sense enough to keep out of Mr. Engelman’s way until I felt my mind restored in some degree to its customary balance.

Recovering the power of thinking connectedly, I began to feel ashamed of the panic which had seized on me.

What conceivable object had the widow to gain by Mr. Keller’s death? Her whole interest in her daughter’s future centered, on the contrary, in his living long enough to be made ashamed of his prejudices, and to give his consent to the marriage. To kill him for the purpose of removing Fritz from the influence of his father’s authority would be so atrocious an act in itself, and would so certainly separate Minna and Fritz for ever, in the perfectly possible event of a discovery, that I really recoiled from the contemplation of this contingency as I might have recoiled from deliberately disgracing myself. Doctor Dormann had rashly rushed at a false conclusion — that was the one comforting reflection that occurred to me. I threw open my door again in a frenzy of impatience to hear the decision, whichever way it might turn.

The experiment had been tried in my absence. Mr. Keller had fallen into a broken slumber. Doctor Dormann was just closing the little bag in which he had brought his testing apparatus from his own house. Even now there was no prevailing on him to state his suspicions plainly.

“It’s curious,” he said, “to see how all mortal speculations on events, generally resolve themselves into threes. Have we given the emetic too late? Are my tests insufficient? Or have I made a complete mistake?” He turned to his elder colleague. “My dear doctor, I see you want a positive answer. No need to leave the room, Mr. Engelman! You and the young English gentleman, your friend, must not be deceived for a single moment so far as I am concerned. I see in the patient a mysterious wasting of the vital powers, which is not accompanied by the symptoms of any disease known to me to which I can point as a cause. In plain words, I tell you, I don’t understand Mr. Keller’s illness.”

It was perhaps through a motive of delicacy that he persisted in making a needless mystery of his suspicions. In any case he was evidently a man who despised all quackery from the bottom of his heart. The old doctor looked at him with a frown of disapproval, as if his frank confession had violated the unwritten laws of medical etiquette.

“If you will allow me to watch the case,” he resumed, “under the superintendence of my respected colleague, I shall be happy to submit to approval any palliative treatment which may occur to me. My respected colleague knows that I am always ready to learn.”

His respected colleague made a formal bow, looked at his watch, and hastened away to another patient. Doctor Dormann, taking up his hat, stopped to look at Mother Barbara, fast asleep in her easy chair by the bedside.

“I must find you a competent nurse to-morrow,” he said. “No, not one of the hospital women — we want someone with finer feelings and tenderer hands than theirs. In the meantime, one of you must sit up with Mr. Keller to-night. If I am not wanted before, I will be with you to-morrow morning.”

I volunteered to keep watch; promising to call Mr. Engelman if any alarming symptoms showed themselves. The old housekeeper, waking after her first sleep, characteristically insisted on sending me to bed, and taking my place. I was too anxious and uneasy (if I may say it of myself) to be as compliant as usual. Mother Barbara, for once, found that she had a resolute person to deal with. At a less distressing time, there would have been something irresistibly comical in her rage and astonishment, when I settled the dispute by locking her out of the room.

Soon afterwards Joseph came in with a message. If there was no immediate necessity for his presence in the bedchamber, Mr. Engelman would go out to get a breath of fresh air, before he retired for the night. There was no necessity for his presence; and I sent a message downstairs to that effect.

An hour later Mr. Engelman came in to see his old friend, and to say good-night. After an interval of restlessness, the sufferer had become composed, and was dozing again under the influence of his medicine. Making all allowances for the sorrow and anxiety which Mr. Engelman must necessarily feel under the circumstances, I thought his manner strangely absent and confused. He looked like a man with some burden on his mind which he was afraid to reveal and unable to throw off.

“Somebody must be found, David, who does understand the case,” he said, looking at the helpless figure on the bed.

“Who can we find?” I asked.

He bade me good-night without answering. It is no exaggeration to say that I passed my night at the bedside in a miserable state of indecision and suspense. The doctor’s experiment had failed to prove absolutely that the doctor’s doubts were without foundation. In this state of things, was it my bounden duty to tell the medical men what I had seen, when I went back to the house to look for Mr. Keller’s opera-glass? The more I thought of it, the more I recoiled from the idea of throwing a frightful suspicion on Minna’s mother which would overshadow an innocent woman for the rest of her life. What proof had I that she had lied to me about the sketch and the mantlepiece? And, without proof, how could I, how dare I, open my lips? I succeeded in deciding firmly enough for the alternative of silence, during the intervals when my attendance on the sick man was not required. But, when he wanted his medicine, when his pillows needed a little arrangement, when I saw his poor eyes open, and look at me vacantly — then my resolution failed me; my indecision returned; the horrid necessity of speaking showed itself again, and shook me to the soul. Never in the trials of later life have I passed such a night as that night at Mr. Keller’s bedside.

When the light of the new day shone in at the window, it was but too plainly visible that the symptoms had altered for the worse.

The apathy was more profound, the wan pinched look of the face had increased, the intervals between the attacks of nervous trembling had grown shorter and shorter. Come what might of it, when Dr. Dormann paid his promised visit, I felt I was now bound to inform him that another person besides the servants and ourselves had obtained access secretly to Mr. Keller’s room.

I was so completely worn out by agitation and want of sleep — and I showed it, I suppose, so plainly — that good Mr. Engelman insisted on my leaving him in charge, and retiring to rest. I lay down on my bed, with the door of my room ajar, resolved to listen for the doctor’s footsteps on the stairs, and to speak to him privately after he had seen the patient.

If I had been twenty years older, I might have succeeded in carrying out my intention. But, with the young, sleep is a paramount necessity, and nature insists on obedience to its merciful law. I remember feeling drowsy; starting up from the bed, and walking about my room, to keep myself awake; then lying down again from sheer fatigue; and after that — total oblivion! When I woke, and looked at my watch, I found that I had been fast asleep for no less than six hours!

Bewildered and ashamed of myself — afraid to think of what might have happened in that long interval — I hurried to Mr. Keller’s room, and softly knocked at the door.

A woman’s voice answered me, “Come in!”

I paused with my hand on the door — the voice was familiar to me. I had a moment’s doubt whether I was mad or dreaming. The voice softly repeated, “Come in!” I entered the room.

There she was, seated at the bedside, smiling quietly and lifting her finger to her lips! As certainly as I saw the familiar objects in the room, and the prostrate figure on the bed, I saw — Madame Fontaine!

“Speak low,” she said. “He sleeps very lightly; he must not be disturbed.”

I approached the bed and looked at him. There was a faint tinge of color in his face; there was moisture on his forehead; his hands lay as still on the counterpane, in the blessed repose that possessed him, as the hands of a sleeping child. I looked round at Madame Fontaine.

She smiled again; my utter bewilderment seemed to amuse her. “He is left entirely to me, David,” she said, looking tenderly at her patient. “Go downstairs and see Mr. Engelman. There must be no talking here.”

She lightly wiped the perspiration from his forehead; lightly laid her fingers on his pulse — then reclined in the easy chair, with her eyes fixed in silent interest on the sleeping man. She was the very ideal of the nurse with fine feelings and tender hands, contemplated by Doctor Dormann when I had last seen him. Any stranger looking into the room at that moment would have said, “What a charming picture! What a devoted wife!”

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