Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 21

The next day, my calculation of possibilities in the matter of Fritz turned out to be correct.

Returning to Main Street, after a short absence from the house, the door was precipitately opened to me by Minna. Before she could say a word, her face told me the joyful news. Before I could congratulate her, Fritz himself burst headlong into the hall, and made one of his desperate attempts at embracing me. This time I succeeded (being the shorter man of the two) in slipping through his arms in the nick of time.

“Do you want to kiss me,“ I exclaimed, “when Minna is in the house!”

“I have been kissing Minna,” Fritz answered with perfect gravity, until we are both of us out of breath. “I look upon you as a sort of safety-valve.”

At this, Minna’s charming face became eloquent in another way. I only waited to ask for news of my aunt before I withdrew. Mrs. Wagner was already on the road to Frankfort, following Fritz by easy stages.

“And where is Jack Straw?” I inquired.

“Traveling with her,” said Fritz.

Having received this last extraordinary piece of intelligence, I put off all explanations until a fitter opportunity, and left the lovers together until dinner-time.

It was one of the last fine days of the autumn. The sunshine tempted me to take a turn in Mr. Engelman’s garden.

A shrubbery of evergreens divided the lawn near the house from the flower-beds which occupied the further extremity of the plot of ground. While I was on one side of the shrubbery, I heard the voices of Mr. Keller and Madame Fontaine on the other side. Then, and then only, I remembered that the doctor had suggested a little walking exercise for the invalid, while the sun was at its warmest in the first hours of the afternoon. Madame Fontaine was in attendance, in the absence of Mr. Engelman, engaged in the duties of the office.

I had just turned back again towards the house, thinking it better not to disturb them, when I heard my name on the widow’s lips. Better men than I, under stress of temptation, have been known to commit actions unworthy of them. I was mean enough to listen; and I paid the proverbial penalty for gratifying my curiosity — I heard no good of myself.

“You have honored me by asking my advice, sir,” I heard Madame Fontaine say. “With regard to young David Glenney, I can speak quite impartially. In a few days more, if I can be of no further use to you, I shall have left the house.”

Mr. Keller interrupted her there.

“Pardon me, Madame Fontaine; I can’t let you talk of leaving us. We are without a housekeeper, as you know. You will confer a favor on me and on Mr. Engelman, if you will kindly undertake the direction of our domestic affairs — for the present, at least. Besides, your charming daughter is the light of our household. What will Fritz say, if you take her away just when he has come home? No! no! you and Minna must stay with us.”

“You are only too good to me, sir! Perhaps I had better ascertain what Mr. Engelman’s wishes are, before we decide?”

Mr. Keller laughed — and, more extraordinary still, Mr. Keller made a little joke.

“My dear madam, if you don’t know what Mr. Engelman’s wishes are likely to be, without asking him, you are the most unobservant lady that ever lived! Speak to him, by all means, if you think it formally necessary — and let us return to the question of taking David Glenney into our office here. A letter which he has lately received from Mrs. Wagner expresses no intention of recalling him to London — and he has managed so cleverly in a business matter which I confided to him, that he would really be an acquisition to us. Besides (until the marriage takes place), he would be a companion for Fritz.”

“That is exactly where I feel a difficulty,” Madame Fontaine replied. “To my mind, sir, Mr. David is not at all a desirable companion for your son. The admirable candor and simplicity of Fritz’s disposition might suffer by association with a person of Mr. David’s very peculiar character.”

“May I ask, Madame Fontaine, in what you think his character peculiar?”

“I will endeavor to express what I feel, sir. You have spoken of his cleverness. I venture to say that he is too clever And I have observed that he is — for a young man — far too easily moved to suspect others. Do I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly. Pray go on.”

“I find, Mr. Keller, that there is something of the Jesuit about our young friend. He has a way of refining on trifles, and seeing under the surface, where nothing is to be seen. Don’t attach too much importance to what I say! It is quite likely that I am influenced by the popular prejudice against ‘old heads on young shoulders.’ At the same time, I confess I wouldn’t keep him here, if I were in your place. Shall we move a little further on?”

Madame Fontaine was, I daresay, perfectly right in her estimate of me. Looking back at the pages of this narrative, I discover some places in which I certainly appear to justify her opinion. I even justified it at the time. Before she and Mr. Keller were out of my hearing, I began to see “under the surface,” and “to refine” on what she had said.

Was it Jesuitical to doubt the disinterestedness of her advice? I did doubt it. Was it Jesuitical to suspect that she privately distrusted me, and had reasons of her own for keeping me out of her way, at the safe distance of London? I did suspect it.

And yet she was such a good Christian! And yet she had so nobly and so undeniably saved Mr. Keller’s life! What right had I to impute self-seeking motives to such a woman as this? Mean! mean! there was no excuse for me.

I turned back to the house, with my head feeling very old on my young shoulders.

Madame Fontaine’s manner to me was so charming, when we all met at the dinner-table, that I fell into a condition of remorseful silence. Fortunately, Fritz took most of the talking on himself, and the general attention was diverted from me. His high spirits, his boisterous nonsense, his contempt for all lawful forms and ceremonies which placed impediments in the way of his speedy marriage, were amusingly contrasted by Mr. Engelman’s courteous simplicity in trying to argue the question seriously with his reckless young friend.

“Don’t talk to me about the customary delays and the parson’s duty!” cried Fritz. “Tell me this: does he do his duty without being paid for it?”

“We must all live,” pleaded good Mr. Engelman; “the parson must pay the butcher and the baker, like the rest of us.”

“That’s shirking the question, my dear sir! Will the parson marry Minna and me, without being paid for it?”

“In all civilized countries, Fritz, there are fees for the performance of the marriage ceremony.”

“Very well. Now follow my train of reasoning, Mr. Engelman! On your own showing, the whole affair is a matter of money. The parson gets his fee for making Minna my wife, after the customary delays.”

There Minna modestly interposed. “Why do you object to the customary delays, dear Fritz?”

“I’ll tell you, my angel, when we are married. In the meantime, I resume my train of reasoning, and I entreat Mr. Engelman not to forget that this is a matter of money. Make it worth the parson’s while to marry us, without the customary delays. Double his fee, treble his fee — give him ten times his fee. It’s merely a question of what his reverence can resist. My father is a rich man. Favor me with a blank cheque, papa — and I will make Minna Mrs. Keller before the end of the week!”

The father, hitherto content to listen and be amused, checked the son’s flow of nonsense at this point.

“There is a time for everything, Fritz,” he said. “We have had laughing enough. When you talk of your marriage, I am sorry to observe that you entirely pass over the consideration which is due to your father’s only surviving relative.”

Madame Fontaine laid down her knife and fork as if her dinner had come to an end. The sudden appearance in the conversation of the “surviving relative,” had evidently taken her by surprise. Mr. Keller, observing her, turned away from his son, and addressed himself exclusively to the widow when he spoke next.

“I referred, Madame Fontaine, to my elder sister,” he said. “She and I are the sole survivors of a large family.”

“Does the lady live in this city, sir?” the widow inquired.

“No, she still lives in our birthplace — Munich.”

“May I ask another question?”

“As many questions, dear madam, as you like.”

“Is your sister married?”

“My sister has never been married.”

“Not for want of suitors,” said courteous Mr. Engelman. “A most majestic person. Witty and accomplished. Possessed of an enviable little fortune, entirely at her own disposal.”

Mr. Keller gently reproved this latter allusion to the question of money.

“My good friend, Madame Fontaine has a mind above all mercenary considerations. My sister’s place in her esteem and regard will not be influenced by my sister’s fortune, when they meet (as I hope they will meet) at Fritz’s marriage.”

At this, Fritz burst into the conversation in his usual headlong way.

“Oh, dear me, papa, have some consideration for us! If we wait for my aunt, we shall never be married on this side of eternity.”

“Fritz!”

“Don’t be angry, sir, I meant no harm. I was thinking of my aunt’s asthma. At her age, she will never take the long journey from Munich to Frankfort. Permit me to offer a suggestion. Let us be married first, and then pay her a visit in the honeymoon.”

Mr. Keller passed his son’s suggestion over without notice, and addressed himself once more to Madame Fontaine.

“I propose writing to my sister in a day or two,” he resumed, “to inform her of the contemplated marriage. She already knows your name through Mr. Engelman, who kindly wrote to allay her anxiety about my illness.”

“And to tell her,” Mr. Engelman interposed, “to whose devotion he owes his recovery.”

The widow received this tribute with eyes fixed modestly on her plate. Her black dress, rising and falling over her bosom, betrayed an agitation, which her enemies at Wurzburg might have attributed to the discovery of the rich sister at Munich. Mr. Keller went on —

“I am sure I may trust to your womanly sympathies to understand the affection which binds me to my last living relative. My sister’s presence at the marriage will be an inexpressible comfort and happiness to me. In spite of what my son has said (you are sadly given to talking at random, Fritz), I believe she will not shrink from the journey to Frankfort, if we only make it easier to her by consulting her health and convenience. Our young people have all their lives before them — our young people can wait.”

“Certainly, sir.”

She gave that short answer very quietly, with her eyes still on her plate. It was impossible to discover in what frame of mind she viewed the prospect of delay, involved in Mr. Keller’s consideration for his sister. For the moment, Fritz was simply confounded. He looked at Minna — recovered himself — and favored his father with another suggestion.

“I have got it now!” he exclaimed. “Why not spare my aunt the fatigue of the journey? Let us all start for Bavaria to — morrow, and have the marriage at Munich!”

“And leave the business at Frankfort to take care of itself, at the busiest time of the year!” his father added ironically. “When you open your mouth again, Fritz, put food and drink into it — and confine yourself to that.”

With those words the question of the marriage was closed for the time.

When dinner was over, Mr. Keller retired, to take some rest in his own room. Fritz and his sweetheart left the house together, on an errand in which they were both equally interested — the purchase of the ring which was to typify Minna’s engagement. Left alone with Mr. Engelman and the widow, I felt that I might be an obstacle to confidential conversation, and withdrew to the office. Though not regularly employed as one of the clerks, I had been admitted to serve as a volunteer, since my return from Hanau. In this way, I improved my experience of the details of our business, and I made some small return for the hospitable welcome which I had received from the two partners.

Half an hour or more had passed, when some papers arrived from the bank, which required the signature of the firm. Mr. Engelman being still absent, the head-clerk, at my suggestion, proceeded to the dining-room with the papers in his charge.

He came back again immediately, looking very much alarmed.

“Pray go into the dining-room!” he said to me. “I am afraid something is seriously wrong with Mr. Engelman.

“Do you mean that he is ill?” I asked.

“I can hardly say. His arms are stretched out on the table, and his face is hidden on them. He paid no attention to me. I am almost afraid he was crying.”

Crying? I had left him in excellent spirits, casting glances of the tenderest admiration at Madame Fontaine. Without waiting to hear more, I ran to the dining-room.

He was alone — in the position described by the clerk — and, poor old man, he was indeed weeping bitterly! I put my hand with all possible gentleness on his shoulder, and said, with the tenderness that I really felt for him: “Dear Mr. Engelman, what has happened to distress you?”

At the sound of my voice he looked up, and caught me fervently by the hand.

“Stay here with me a little while, David,” he said. “I have got my death-blow.”

I sat down by him directly. “Try and tell me what has happened,” I went on. “I left you here with Madame Fontaine ——”

His tears suddenly ceased; his hand closed convulsively on mine. “Don’t speak of her,” he cried, with an outburst of anger. “You were right about her, David. She is a false woman.” As the words passed his lips, he changed again. His voice faltered; he seemed to be frightened by his own violent language. “Oh, what am I talking about! what right have I to say that of her! I am a brute — I am reviling the best of women. It was all my fault, David — I have acted like a madman, like a fool. Oh, my boy! my boy! — would you believe it? — I asked her to marry me!”

It is needless to say that I wanted no further explanation. “Did she encourage you to ask her?” I inquired.

“I thought she did, David — I thought I would be clever and seize the opportunity. She said she wanted to consult me. She said: ‘Mr. Keller has asked me to stay here, and keep house for you; I have not given my answer yet, I have waited to know if you approved it.’ Upon that, I said the rash words. I asked her to be more than our housekeeper — to be my wife. I am naturally stupid,” said the poor simple gentleman; “whenever I try to do anything clever I always fail. She was very forbearing with me at first; she said No, but she said it considerately, as if she felt for me. I presumed on her kindness, like a fool; I couldn’t help it, David, I was so fond of her. I pressed her to say why she refused me. I was mad enough to ask if there was some other man whom she preferred. Oh, she said some hard things to me in her anger! And, worse still, when I went down on my knees to her, she said, ‘Get up, you old fool!’— and laughed — and left me. Take me away somewhere, David; I am too old to get over it, if I stay here. I can never see her or speak to her again. Take me to England with you — and, oh, don’t tell Keller!”

He burst into another fit of tears. It was dreadful to see and hear him.

I tried to think of some consoling words. Before I could give expression to my thought, the door of the room was gently opened; and Madame Fontaine herself stood before us. Her eyes looked at Mr. Engelman from under their heavy lids, with a quiet and scornful compassion. The poor wretch was of no further use to her. Quite needless to be on her best behavior with him now!

“There is not the least occasion, sir, to disturb yourself,” she said. “It is my duty to leave the house — and I will do it.”

Without waiting to be answered, she turned back to the door, and left us.

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