Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 19

“A tumbler of the old Marcobrunner, David, and a slice of the game pie — before I say one word about what we owe to that angel upstairs. Off with the wine, my dear boy; you look as pale as death!”

With those words Mr. Engelman lit his pipe, and waited in silence until the good eating and drinking had done their good work.

“Now carry your mind back to last night,” he began. “You remember my going out to get a breath of fresh air. Can you guess what that meant?”

I guessed of course that it meant a visit to Madame Fontaine.

“Quite right, David. I promised to call on her earlier in the day; but poor Keller’s illness made that impossible. She wrote to me under the impression that something serious must have happened to prevent me, for the first time, from keeping an appointment that I had made with her. When I left you I went to answer her note personally. She was not only distressed to hear of Mr. Keller’s illness, she was interested enough in my sad news to ask particularly in what form the illness declared itself. When I mentioned what the symptoms were, she showed an agitation which took me quite by surprise. ‘Do the doctors understand what is the matter with him?’ she asked. I told her that one of the doctors was evidently puzzled, and that the other had acknowledged that the malady was so far incomprehensible to him. She clasped her hands in despair — she said, ‘Oh, if my poor husband had been alive!’ I naturally asked what she meant. I wish I could give her explanation, David, in her own delightful words. It came in substance to this. Some person in her husband’s employment at the University of Wurzburg had been attacked by a malady presenting exactly the same symptoms from which Mr. Keller was suffering. The medical men had been just as much at a loss what to do as our medical men. Alone among them Doctor Fontaine understood the case. He made up the medicine that he administered with his own hand. Madame Fontaine, under her husband’s instructions, assisted in nursing the sick man, and in giving the nourishment prescribed when he was able to eat. His extraordinary recovery is remembered in the University to this day.”

I interrupted Mr. Engelman at that point. “Of course you asked her for the prescription?” I said. “I begin to understand it now.”

“No, David; you don’t understand it yet. I certainly asked her for the prescription. No such thing was known to be in existence — she reminded me that her husband had made up the medicine himself. But she remembered that the results had exceeded his anticipations, and that only a part of the remedy had been used. The bottle might still perhaps be found at Wurzburg. Or it might be in a small portmanteau belonging to her husband, which she had found in his bedroom, and had brought away with her, to be examined at some future time. ‘I have not had the heart to open it yet,’ she said; ‘but for Mr. Keller’s sake, I will look it over before you go away.’ There is a Christian woman, David, if ever there was one yet! After the manner in which poor Keller had treated her, she was as eager to help him as if he had been her dearest friend. Minna offered to take her place. ‘Why should you distress yourself, mamma?’ she said. ‘Tell me what the bottle is like, and let me try if I can find it.’ No! It was quite enough for Madame Fontaine that there was an act of mercy to be done. At any sacrifice of her own feelings, she was prepared to do it.”

I interrupted him again, eager to hear the end.

“And she found the bottle?” I said.

“She found the bottle,” Mr. Engelman resumed. “I can show it to you, if you like. She has herself requested me to keep it under lock and key, so long as it is wanted in this house.”

He opened an old cabinet, and took out a long narrow bottle of dark-blue glass. In form, it was quaintly and remarkably unlike any modern bottle that I had ever seen. The glass stopper was carefully secured by a piece of leather, for the better preservation, I suppose, of the liquid inside. Down one side of the bottle ran a narrow strip of paper, notched at regular intervals to indicate the dose that was to be given. No label appeared on it; but, examining the surface of the glass carefully, I found certain faintly-marked stains, which suggested that the label might have been removed, and that some traces of the paste or gum by which it had been secured had not been completely washed away. I held the bottle up to the light, and found that it was still nearly half full. Mr. Engelman forbade me to remove the stopper. It was very important, he said, that no air should be admitted to the bottle, except when there was an actual necessity for administering the remedy.

“I took it away with me the same night,” he went on. “And a wretched state of mind I was in, between my anxiety to give the medicine to poor dear Keller immediately, and my fear of taking such a serious responsibility entirely on myself. Madame Fontaine, always just in her views, said, ‘You had better wait and consult the doctors.’ She made but one condition (the generous creature!) relating to herself. ‘If the remedy is tried,’ she said, ‘I must ask you to give it a fair chance by permitting me to act as nurse; the treatment of the patient when he begins to feel the benefit of the medicine is of serious importance. I know this from my husband’s instructions, and it is due to his memory (to say nothing of what is due to Mr. Keller) that I should be at the bedside.’ It is needless to say that I joyfully accepted the offered help. So the night passed. The next morning, soon after you fell asleep, the doctors came. You may imagine what they thought of poor Keller, when I tell you that they recommended me to write instantly to Fritz in London summoning him to his father’s bedside. I was just in time to catch the special mail which left this morning. Don’t blame me, David. I could not feel absolutely sure of the new medicine; and, with time of such terrible importance, and London so far off, I was really afraid to miss a post.”

I was far from blaming him — and I said so. In his place I should have done what he did. We arranged that I should write to Fritz by that night’s mail, on the chance that my announcement of the better news might reach him before he left London.

“My letter despatched,” Mr. Engelman continued, “I begged both the doctors to speak with me before they went away, in my private room. There I told them, in the plainest words I could find, exactly what I have told you. Doctor Dormann behaved like a gentleman. He said, ‘Let me see the lady, and speak to her myself, before the new remedy is tried.’ As for the other, what do you think he did? Walked out of the house (the old brute!) and declined any further attendance on the patient. And who do you think followed him out of the house, David, when I sent for Madame Fontaine? Another old brute — Mother Barbara!”

After what I had seen myself of the housekeeper’s temper on the previous evening, this last piece of news failed to surprise me. To be stripped of her authority as nurse in favor of a stranger, and that stranger a handsome lady, was an aggravation of the wrong which Mother Barbara had contemplated, when she threatened us with the alternative of leaving the house.

“Well,” Mr. Engelman resumed, “Doctor Dormann asked his questions, and smelt and tasted the medicine, and with Madame Fontaine’s full approval took away a little of it to be analyzed. That came to nothing! The medicine kept its own secret. All the ingredients but two set analysis at defiance! In the meantime we gave the first dose. Half an hour since we tried the second. You have seen the result with your own eyes. She has saved his life, David, and we have you to thank for it. But for you we might never have known Madame Fontaine.”

The door opened as he spoke, and I found myself confronted by a second surprise. Minna came in, wearing a cook’s apron, and asked if her mother had rung for her yet. Under the widow’s instructions, she was preparing the peculiar vegetable diet which had been prescribed by Doctor Fontaine as part of the cure. The good girl was eager to make herself useful to us in any domestic capacity. What a charming substitute for the crabbed old housekeeper who had just left us!

So here were Madame Fontaine and Minna actually established as inmates under the same roof with Mr. Keller! What would Fritz think, when he knew of it? What would Mr. Keller say when he recognized his nurse, and when he heard that she had saved his life? “All’s well that ends well” is a good proverb. But we had not got as far as that yet. The question in our case was, How will it end?

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