Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 20

When, late that night, I entered my bedroom again, how I blessed the lucky accident of my six hours’ sleep, after a night’s watching at Mr. Keller’s bedside!

If I had spoken to Doctor Dormann as I had positively resolved to speak, he would, beyond all doubt, have forbidden the employment of Madame Fontaine’s remedy; Mr. Keller would have died; and the innocent woman who had saved his life would have been suspected, perhaps even tried, on a charge of murdering him. I really trembled when I looked back on the terrible consequences which must have followed, if I had succeeded that morning in keeping myself awake.

The next day, the doses of the wonderful medicine were renewed at the regular intervals; and the prescribed vegetable diet was carefully administered. On the day after, the patient was so far advanced on the way to recovery, that the stopper of the dark-blue bottle was permanently secured again under its leather guard. Mr. Engelman told me that nearly two doses of it were still left at the bottom. He also mentioned, on my asking to look at it again, that the widow had relieved him of the care of the bottle, and had carefully locked it up in her own room.

Late on this day also, the patient being well-enough to leave his bed and to occupy the armchair in his room, the inevitable disclosure took place; and Madame Fontaine stood revealed in the character of the Good Samaritan who had saved Mr. Keller’s life.

By Doctor Dormann’s advice, those persons only were permitted to enter the bedroom whose presence was absolutely necessary. Besides Madame Fontaine and the doctor himself, Mr. Engelman and Minna were the other witnesses of the scene. Mr. Engelman had his claim to be present as an old friend; and Minna was to be made useful, at her mother’s suggestion, as a means of gently preparing Mr. Keller’s mind for the revelation that was to come. Under these circumstances, I can only describe what took place, by repeating the little narrative with which Minna favored me, after she had left the room.

“We arranged that I should wait downstairs,” she said, “until I heard the bedroom bell ring — and then I myself was to take up Mr. Keller’s dinner of lentils and cream, and put it on his table without saying a word.”

“Exactly like a servant!” I exclaimed.

Gentle sweet-tempered Minna answered my foolish interruption with her customary simplicity and good sense.

“Why not?” she asked. “Fritz’s father may one day be my father; and I am happy to be of the smallest use to him, whenever he wants me. Well, when I went in, I found him in his chair, with the light let into the room, and with plenty of pillows to support him. Mr. Engelman and the doctor were on either side of him; and poor dear mamma was standing back in a corner behind the bed, where he could not see her. He looked up at me, when I came in with my tray. ‘Who’s this?’ he asked of Mr. Engelman —‘is she a new servant?’ Mr. Engelman, humoring him, answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘A nice-looking girl,’ he said; ‘but what does Mother Barbara say to her?’ Upon this, Mr. Engelman told him how the housekeeper had left her place and why. As soon as he had recovered his surprise, he looked at me again. ‘But who has been my nurse?’ he inquired; ‘surely not this young girl?’ ‘No, no; the young girl’s mother has nursed you,’ said Mr. Engelman. He looked at the doctor as he spoke; and the doctor interfered for the first time. ‘She has not only nursed you, sir,’ he said; ‘I can certify medically that she has saved your life. Don’t excite yourself. You shall hear exactly how it happened.’ In two minutes, he told the whole story, so clearly and beautifully that it was quite a pleasure to hear him. One thing only he concealed — the name. ‘Who is she?’ Mr. Keller cried out. ‘Why am I not allowed to express my gratitude? Why isn’t she here?’ ‘She is afraid to approach you, sir,’ said the doctor; ‘you have a very bad opinion of her.’ ‘A bad opinion,’ Mr. Keller repeated, ‘of a woman I don’t know? Who is the slanderer who has said that of me?’ The doctor signed to Mr. Engelman to answer. ‘Speak plainly,’ he whispered, behind the chair. Mr. Engelman did speak plainly. ‘Pardon me, my dear Keller, there is no slanderer in this matter. Your own action has spoken for you. A short time since — try if you cannot remember it yourself — a lady sent a letter to you; and you sent the letter back to her, refusing to read it. Do you know how she has returned the insult? That noble creature is the woman to whom you owe your life.’ When he had said those words, the doctor crossed the room, and returned again to Mr. Keller, leading my mother by the hand.”

Minna’s voice faltered; she stopped at the most interesting part of her narrative.

“What did Mr. Keller say?” I asked.

“There was silence in the room,” Minna answered softly. “I heard nothing except the ticking of the clock.”

“But you must have seen something?”

“No, David. I couldn’t help it — I was crying. After a while, my mother put her arm round me and led me to Mr. Keller. I dried my eyes as well as I could, and saw him again. His head was bent down on his breast — his hands hung helpless over the arms of the chair — it was dreadful to see him so overwhelmed by shame and sorrow! ‘What can I do?’ he groaned to himself. ‘God help me, what can I do?’ Mamma spoke to him — so sweetly and so prettily —‘You can give this poor girl of mine a kiss, sir; the new servant who has waited on you is my daughter Minna.’ He looked up quickly, and drew me to him. ‘I can make but one atonement, my dear,’ he said — and then he kissed me, and whispered, ‘Send for Fritz.’ Oh, don’t ask me to tell you any more, David; I shall only begin crying again — and I am so happy!”

She left me to write to Fritz by that night’s post. I tried vainly to induce her to wait a little. We had no electric telegraphs at our disposal, and we were reduced to guessing at events. But there was certainly a strong probability that Fritz might have left London immediately on the receipt of Mr. Engelman’s letter, announcing that his father was dangerously ill. In this case, my letter, despatched by the next mail to relieve his anxiety, would be left unopened in London; and Fritz might be expected to arrive (if he traveled without stopping) in the course of the next day or two. I put this reasonable view of the matter to Minna, and received a thoroughly irrational and womanly reply.

“I don’t care, David; I shall write to him, for all that.”

“Why?”

“Because I like writing to him.

“What! whether he receives your letter or not?”

“Whether he receives it or not,” she answered saucily, “I shall have the pleasure of writing to him — that is all I want.”

She covered four pages of note-paper, and insisted on posting them herself.

The next morning Mr. Keller was able, with my help and Mr. Engelman’s, to get downstairs to the sitting-room. We were both with him, when Madame Fontaine came in.

“Well,” he asked, “have you brought it with you?”

She handed to him a sealed envelope, and then turned to explain herself to me.

“The letter that you put on Mr. Keller’s desk,” she said pleasantly. “This time, David, I act as my own postman — at Mr. Keller’s request.”

In her place, I should certainly have torn it up. To keep it, on the bare chance of its proving to be of some use in the future, seemed to imply either an excessive hopefulness or an extraordinary foresight, on the widow’s part. Without in the least comprehending my own state of mind, I felt that she had, in some mysterious way, disappointed me by keeping that letter. As a matter of course, I turned to leave the room, and Mr. Engelman (from a similar motive of delicacy) followed me to the door. Mr. Keller called us both back.

“Wait, if you please,” he said, “until I have read it.”

Madame Fontaine was looking out of the window. It was impossible for us to discover whether she approved of our remaining in the room or not.

Mr. Keller read the closely written pages with the steadiest attention. He signed to the widow to approach him, and took her hand when he had arrived at the last words.

“Let me ask your pardon,” he said, “in the presence of my partner and in the presence of David Glenney, who took charge of your letter. Madame Fontaine, I speak the plain truth, in the plainest words, when I tell you that I am ashamed of myself.”

She dropped on her knees before him, and entreated him to say no more. Mr. Engelman looked at her, absorbed in admiration. Perhaps it was the fault of my English education — I thought the widow’s humility a little overdone. What Mr. Keller’s opinion might be, he kept to himself. He merely insisted on her rising, and taking a chair by his side.

“To say that I believe every word of your letter,” he resumed, “is only to do you the justice which I have too long delayed. But there is one passage which I must feel satisfied that I thoroughly understand, if you will be pleased to give me the assurance of it with your own lips. Am I right in concluding, from what is here written of your husband’s creditors, that his debts (which have now, in honor, become your debts) have been all actually paid to the last farthing?”

“To the last farthing!” Madame Fontaine answered, without a moment’s hesitation. “I can show you the receipts, sir, if you like.”

“No, madam! I take your word for it — I require nothing more. Your title to my heart-felt respect is now complete. The slanders which I have disgraced myself by believing would never have found their way to my credulity, if they had not first declared you to have ruined your husband by your debts. I own that I have never been able to divest myself of my inbred dislike and distrust of people who contract debts which they are not able to pay. The light manner in which the world is apt to view the relative positions of debtor and creditor is abhorrent to me. If I promise to pay a man money, and fail to keep my promise, I am no better than a liar and a cheat. That always has been, and always will be, my view.” He took her hand again as he made that strong declaration. “There is another bond of sympathy between us,” he said warmly; “you think as I do.”

Good Heavens, if Frau Meyer had told me the truth, what would happen when Madame Fontaine discovered that her promissory note was in the hands of a stranger — a man who would inexorably present it for payment on the day when it fell due? I tried to persuade myself that Frau Meyer had not told me the truth. Perhaps I might have succeeded — but for my remembrance of the disreputable-looking stranger on the door-step, who had been so curious to know if Madame Fontaine intended to leave her lodgings.

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