Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 22

“For heaven’s sake, sir, allow me to go!”

“On no account, Madame Fontaine. If you won’t remain here, in justice to yourself, remain as a favor to me.”

When I opened my bedroom door the next morning, the widow and Mr. Keller were on the landing outside, and those were the words exchanged between them.

Mr. Keller approached, and spoke to me.

“What do you know, David, about the disappearance of Mr. Engelman?”

“Disappearance?” I repeated. “I was with him yesterday evening — and I bade him good-night in his own room.”

“He must have left the house before the servants were up this morning,” said Mr. Keller. “Read that.”

He handed me a morsel of paper with writing on it in pencil:—

“Forgive me, dear friend and partner, for leaving you without saying good-bye; also for burdening you with the direction of business, before you are perhaps strong enough to accept the charge. My mind is in such a state of confusion that I should be worse than useless in the office. While I write this, my poor weak head burns as if there was fire in it. I cannot face her, I cannot face you— I must go, before I lose all control over myself. Don’t attempt to trace me. If change and absence restore me to myself I will return. If not, a man at my age and in my state of mind is willing to die. Please tell Madame Fontaine that I ask her pardon with all my heart. Good-bye — and God bless and prosper you.”

I was unaffectedly distressed. There was something terrible in this sudden break-up of poor Engelman’s harmless life — something cruel and shocking in the passion of love fixing its relentless hold on an innocent old man, fast nearing the end of his days. There are hundreds of examples of this deplorable anomaly in real life; and yet, when we meet with it in our own experience, we are always taken by surprise, and always ready to express doubt or derision when we hear of it in the experience of others.

Madame Fontaine behaved admirably. She sat down on the window-seat at the end of the landing, and wrung her hands with a gesture of despair.

“Oh!” she said, “if he had asked me for anything else! If I could have made any other sacrifice to him! God knows I never dreamed of it; I never gave him the smallest encouragement. We might have all been so happy together here — and I, who would have gone to the world’s end to serve Mr. Keller and Mr. Engelman, I am the unhappy creature who has broken up the household!”

Mr. Keller was deeply affected. He sat down on the window-seat by Madame Fontaine.

“My dear, dear lady,” he said, “you are entirely blameless in this matter. Even my unfortunate partner feels it, and asks your pardon. If inquiries can discover him, they shall be set on foot immediately. In the meantime, let me entreat you to compose yourself. Engelman has perhaps done wisely, to leave us for a time. He will get over his delusion, and all may be well yet.”

I went downstairs, not caring to hear more. All my sympathies, I confess, were with Mr. Engelman — though he was a fat simple old man. Mr. Keller seemed to me (here is more of the “old head on young shoulders!”) to have gone from one extreme to the other. He had begun by treating the widow with unbecoming injustice; and he was now flattering her with unreasonable partiality.

For the next few days there was tranquillity, if not happiness, in the house. Mr. Keller wrote to his sister in Munich, inviting her to mention the earliest date at which it might suit her convenience to be present at the marriage of his son. Madame Fontaine assumed the regular management of our domestic affairs. Fritz and Minna found sufficient attraction in each other’s society. The new week was just beginning, and our inquiries after Mr. Engelman had thus far led to no result — when I received a letter containing news of the fugitive, confided to me under strict reserve.

The writer of the letter proved to be a married younger brother of Mr. Engelman, residing at Bingen, on the Rhine.

“I write to you, dear sir, at my brother’s request. My wife and I are doing all that we can to relieve and comfort him, but his mind has not yet sufficiently recovered to enable him to write to you himself. He desires to thank you heartily for your sympathy, at the most trying period of his life; and he trusts to your kindness to let him hear, from time to time, of Mr. Keller’s progress towards recovery, and of the well-being of the business. In addressing your letters to me at Bingen, you will be pleased to consider the information of my brother’s whereabouts herein afforded to you as strictly confidential, until you hear from me to the contrary. In his present frame of mind, it would be in the last degree painful to him to be made the subject of inquiries, remonstrances, or entreaties to return.”

The arrival of this sad news proved to be not the only noteworthy event of the day. While I was still thinking of poor Mr. Engelman, Fritz came into the office with his hat in his hand.

“Minna is not in very good spirits this morning,” he said. “I am going to take her out for half an hour to look at the shops. Can you come with us?”

This invitation rather surprised me. “Does Minna wish it?” I asked.

Fritz dropped his voice so that the clerks in the room could not hear his reply. “Minna has sent me to you,” he answered. “She is uneasy about her mother. I can make nothing of it — and she wants to ask your advice.”

It was impossible for me to leave my desk at that moment. We arranged to put off the walk until after dinner. During the meal, I observed that not Minna only, but her mother also, appeared to be out of spirits. Mr. Keller and Fritz probably noticed the change as I did. We were all of us more silent than usual. It was a relief so find myself with the lovers, out in the cheerful street.

Minna seemed to want to be encouraged before she could speak to me. I was obliged to ask in plain words if anything had happened to annoy her mother and herself.

“I hardly know how to tell you,” she said. “I am very unhappy about my mother.”

“Begin at the beginning,” Fritz suggested; “tell him where you went, and what happened yesterday.”

Minna followed her instructions. “Mamma and I went to our lodgings yesterday,” she began. “We had given notice to leave when it was settled we were to live in Mr. Keller’s house. The time was nearly up; and there were some few things still left at the apartments, which we could carry away in our hands. Mamma, who speaks considerately to everybody, said she hoped the landlady would soon let the rooms again. The good woman answered: ‘I don’t quite know, madam, whether I have not let them already.’— Don’t you think that rather a strange reply?”

“It seems to require some explanation, certainly. What did the landlady say?”

“The landlady’s explanation explained nothing,” Fritz interposed. “She appears to have spoken of a mysterious stranger, who had once before inquired if Madame Fontaine was likely to leave the lodgings — and who came yesterday to inquire again. You tell him the rest of it, Minna.”

Before she could speak, I had already recognized the suspicious-looking personage whom Mr. Engelman and I had some time since encountered on the door-step. I inquired what the man had said when he heard that the lodgings were to let.

“There is the suspicious part of it,” cried Fritz. “Be very particular, Minna, to leave nothing out.”

Fritz’s interruptions seemed only to confuse Minna. I begged him to be silent, and did my best to help her to find the lost thread of her story.

“Did the man ask to see the lodgings?” I said.

“No.”

“Did he talk of taking the lodgings?”

“He said he wished to have the refusal of them until the evening,” Minna replied; “and then he asked if Madame Fontaine had left Frankfort. When the landlady said No, he had another question ready directly. He wanted to know in what part of Frankfort Madame Fontaine was now living.”

“And the old fool of a landlady actually told him the address,” said Fritz, interrupting again.

“And, I am afraid, did some serious mischief by her folly,” Minna added. “I saw mamma start and turn pale. She said to the landlady, ‘How long ago did this happen?’ ‘About half an hour ago,’ the landlady answered. ‘Which way did he turn when he left you — towards Mr. Keller’s house or the other way?’ The landlady said, ‘Towards Mr. Keller’s house.’ Without another word, mamma took me by the arm. ‘It’s time we were home again,’ she said — and we went back at once to the house.”

“You were too late, of course, to find the man there?”

“Yes, David — but we heard of him. Mamma asked Joseph if anyone had called while we were out. Joseph said a stranger had called, and had inquired if Madame Fontaine was at home. Hearing that she was out, he had said, ‘I think I had better write to her. She is here for a short time only, I believe?’ And innocent Joseph answered, ‘Oh, dear no! Madame Fontaine is Mr. Keller’s new housekeeper.’ ‘Well?’ mamma asked, ‘and what did he say when he heard that?’ ‘He said nothing,’ Joseph answered, ‘and went away directly.’”

“Was that all that passed between your mother and Joseph?”

“All,” Minna replied. “My mother wouldn’t even let me speak to her. I only tried to say a few words of sympathy — and I was told sharply to be silent. ‘Don’t interrupt me,’ she said, ‘I want to write a letter.’”

“Did you see the letter?”

“Oh, no! But I was so anxious and uneasy that I did peep over her shoulder while she was writing the address.”

“Do you remember what it was?”

“I only saw the last word on it. The last word was ‘Wurzburg.’”

“Now you know as much as we do,” Fritz resumed. “How does it strike you, David? And what do you advise?”

How could I advise? I could only draw my own conclusions privately. Madame Fontaine’s movements were watched by somebody; possibly in the interests of the stranger who now held the promissory note. It was, of course, impossible for me to communicate this view of the circumstances to either of my two companions. I could only suggest a patient reliance on time, and the preservation of discreet silence on Minna’s part, until her mother set the example of returning to the subject.

My vaguely-prudent counsels were, naturally enough, not to the taste of my young hearers. Fritz openly acknowledged that I had disappointed him; and Minna turned aside her head, with a look of reproach. Her quick perception had detected, in my look and manner, that I was keeping my thoughts to myself. Neither she nor Fritz made any objection to my leaving them, to return to the office before post-time. I wrote to Mr. Engelman before I left my desk that evening.

Recalling those memorable days of my early life, I remember that a strange and sinister depression pervaded our little household, from the time when Mr. Engelman left us.

In some mysterious way the bonds of sympathy, by which we had been hitherto more or less united, seemed to slacken and fall away. We lived on perfectly good terms with one another; but there was an unrecognized decrease of confidence among us, which I for one felt sometimes almost painfully. An unwholesome atmosphere of distrust enveloped us. Mr. Keller only believed, under reserve, that Madame Fontaine’s persistent low spirits were really attributable, as she said, to nothing more important than nervous headaches. Fritz began to doubt whether Mr. Keller was really as well satisfied as he professed to be with the choice that his son had made of a portionless bride. Minna, observing that Fritz was occasionally rather more subdued and silent than usual, began to ask herself whether she was quite as dear to him, in the time of their prosperity, as in the time of their adversity. To sum up all, Madame Fontaine had her doubts of me — and I had my doubts (although she had saved Mr. Keller’s life) of Madame Fontaine.

From this degrading condition of dullness and distrust, we were roused, one morning, by the happy arrival of Mrs. Wagner, attended by her maid, her courier — and Jack Straw.

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