Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 23

Circumstances had obliged my aunt to perform the last stage of her journey to Frankfort by the night mail. She had only stopped at our house on her way to the hotel; being unwilling to trespass on the hospitality of her partners, while she was accompanied by such a half-witted fellow as Jack. Mr. Keller, however, refused even to hear of the head partner in the business being reduced to accept a mercenary welcome at an hotel. One whole side of the house, situated immediately over the offices, had been already put in order in anticipation of Mrs. Wagner’s arrival. The luggage was then and there taken off the carriage; and my aunt was obliged, by all the laws of courtesy and good fellowship, to submit.

This information was communicated to me by Joseph, on my return from an early visit to one of our warehouses at the riverside. When I asked if I could see my aunt, I was informed that she had already retired to rest in her room, after the fatigue of a seven hours’ journey by night.

“And where is Jack Straw?” I asked.

“Playing the devil already, sir, with the rules of the house,” Joseph answered.

Fritz’s voice hailed me from the lower regions.

“Come down, David; here’s something worth seeing!”

I descended at once to the servants’ offices. There, crouched up in a corner of the cold stone corridor which formed the medium of communication between the kitchen and the stairs, I saw Jack Straw again — in the very position in which I had found him at Bedlam; excepting the prison, the chains, and the straw.

But for his prematurely gray hair and the strange yellow pallor of his complexion, I doubt if I should have recognized him again. He looked fat and happy; he was neatly and becomingly dressed, with a flower in his button-hole and rosettes on his shoes. In one word, so far as his costume was concerned, he might have been taken for a lady’s page, dressed under the superintendence of his mistress herself.

“There he is!” said Fritz, “and there he means to remain, till your aunt wakes and sends for him.”

“Upsetting the women servants, on their way to their work,” Joseph added, with an air of supreme disgust —“and freezing in that cold corner, when he might be sitting comfortably by the kitchen fire!”

Jack listened to this with an ironical expression of approval. “That’s very well said, Joseph,” he remarked. “Come here; I want to speak to you. Do you see that bell?” He pointed to a row of bells running along the upper wall of the corridor, and singled out one of them which was numbered ten. “They tell me that’s the bell of Mistress’s bedroom,” he resumed, still speaking of my aunt by the name which he had first given to her on the day when they met in the madhouse. “Very well, Joseph! I don’t want to be in anybody’s way; but no person in the house must see that bell ring before me. Here I stay till Mistress rings — and then you will get rid of me; I shall move to the mat outside her door, and wait till she whistles for me. Now you may go. That’s a poor half-witted creature,” he said as Joseph retired. “Lord! what a lot of them there are in this world!” Fritz burst out laughing. “I’m afraid you’re another of them,” said Jack, looking at him with an expression of the sincerest compassion.

“Do you remember me?” I asked.

Jack nodded his head in a patronizing way. “Oh, yes — Mistress has been talking of you. I know you both. You’re David, and he’s Fritz. All right! all right!”

“What sort of journey from London have you had?” I inquired next.

He stretched out his shapely little arms and legs, and yawned. “Oh, a pretty good journey. We should have been better without the courier and the maid. The courier is a tall man. I have no opinion of tall men. I am a man myself of five foot — that’s the right height for a courier. I could have done all the work, and saved Mistress the money. Her maid is another tall person; clumsy with her fingers. I could dress Mistress’s hair a deal better than the maid, if she would only let me. The fact is, I want to do everything for her myself. I shall never be quite happy till I’m the only servant she has about her.”

“Ah, yes,” said Fritz, good-naturedly sympathizing with him. “You’re a grateful little man; you remember what Mrs. Wagner has done for you.”

“Remember?” Jack reported scornfully. “I say, if you can’t talk more sensibly than that, you had better hold your tongue.” He turned and appealed to me. “Did you ever hear anything like Fritz? He seems to think it wonderful that I remember the day when she took me out of Bedlam!”

“Ah, Jack, that was a great day in your life, wasn’t it?”

“A great day? Oh, good Lord in Heaven! where are there words that are big enough to speak about it?” He sprang to his feet, wild with the sudden tumult of his own recollections. “The sun — the warm, golden, glorious, beautiful sun — met us when we came out of the gates, and all but drove me stark-staring-mad with the joy of it! Forty thousand devils — little straw-colored, lively, tempting devils —(mind, I counted them!)— all crawled over me together. They sat on my shoulders — and they tickled my hands — and they scrambled in my hair — and they were all in one cry at me like a pack of dogs. ‘Now, Jack! we are waiting for you; your chains are off, and the sun’s shining, and Mistress’s carriage is at the gate — join us, Jack, in a good yell; a fine, tearing, screeching, terrifying, mad yell!’ I dropped on my knees, down in the bottom of the carriage; and I held on by the skirts of Mistress’s dress. ‘Look at me!’ I said; ‘I won’t burst out; I won’t frighten you, if I die for it. Only help me with your eyes! only look at me!’ And she put me on the front seat of the carriage, opposite her, and she never took her eyes off me all the way through the streets till we got to the house. ‘I believe in you, Jack,’ she said. And I wouldn’t even open my lips to answer her — I was so determined to be quiet. Ha! ha! how you two fellows would have yelled, in my place!” He sat down again in his corner, delighted with his own picture of the two fellows who would have yelled in his place.

“And what did Mistress do with you when she brought you home?” I asked.

His gaiety suddenly left him. He lifted one of his hands, and waved it to and fro gently in the air.

“You are too loud, David,” he said. “All this part of it must be spoken softly — because all this part of it is beautiful, and kind, and good. There was a picture in the room, of angels and their harps. I wish I had the angels and the harps to help me tell you about it. Fritz there came in with us, and called it a bedroom. I knew better than that; I called it Heaven. You see, I thought of the prison and the darkness and the cold and the chains and the straw — and I named it Heaven. You two may say what you please; Mistress said I was right.”

He closed his eyes with a luxurious sense of self-esteem, and appeared to absorb himself in his own thoughts. Fritz unintentionally roused him by continuing the story of Jack’s introduction to the bedroom.

“Our little friend,” Fritz began confidentially, “did the strangest things when he found himself in his new room. It was a cold day; and he insisted on letting the fire out. Then he looked at the bedclothes, and ——”

Jack solemnly opened his eyes again, and stopped the narrative at that point.

“You are not the right person to speak of it,” he said. “Nobody must speak of it but a person who understands me. You shan’t be disappointed, David. I understand myself —I’ll tell you about it. You saw what sort of place I lived in and slept in at the madhouse, didn’t you?”

“I saw it, Jack — and I can never forget it.”

“Now just think of my having a room, to begin with. And add, if you please, a fire — and a light — and a bed — and blankets and sheets and pillows — and clothes, splendid new clothes, for Me! And then ask yourself if any man could bear it, all pouring on him at once (not an hour after he had left Bedlam), without going clean out of his senses and screeching for joy? No, no. If I have a quality, it’s profound common sense. Down I went on my knees before her again! ‘If you have any mercy on me, Mistress, let me have all this by a bit at a time. Upon my soul, I can’t swallow it at once!’ She understood me. We let the fire out — and surprised that deficient person, Fritz. A little of the Bedlam cold kept me nice and quiet. The bed that night if you like — but Heaven defend me from the blankets and the sheets and the pillows till I’m able to bear them! And as to putting on coat, waistcoat, and breeches, all together, the next morning — it was as much as I could do, when I saw myself in my breeches, to give the word of command in the voice of a gentleman —‘Away with the rest of them! The shirt for to-morrow, the waistcoat for next day, and the coat — if I can bear the sight of it without screaming — the day after!’ A gradual process, you see, David. And every morning Mistress helped me by saying the words she said in the carriage, ‘I believe in you, Jack.’ You ask her, when she gets up, if I ever once frightened her, from the day when she took me home.” He looked again, with undiminished resentment, at Fritz. “Now do you understand what I did when I got into my new room? Is Fritz in the business, David? He’ll want a deal of looking after if he is. Just step this way — I wish to speak to you.”

He got up again, and taking my arm with a look of great importance, led me a few steps away — but not far enough to be out of sight of my aunt’s bell.

“I say,” he began, “I’ve heard they call this place Frankfort. Am I right?”

“Quite right!”

“And there’s a business here, like the business in London?”

“Certainly.”

“And Mistress is Mistress here, like she is in London?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then, I want to know something. What about the Keys?”

I looked at him, entirely at a loss to understand what this last question meant. He stamped his foot impatiently.

“Do you mean to say, David, you have never heard what situation I held in the London office?”

“Never, Jack!”

He drew himself up and folded his arms, and looked at me from the immeasurable height of his own superiority.

“I was Keeper of the Keys in London!” he announced. “And what I want to know is — Am I to be Keeper of the Keys here?”

It was now plain enough that my aunt — proceeding on the wise plan of always cultivating the poor creature’s sense of responsibility — had given him some keys to take care of, and had put him on his honor to be worthy of his little trust. I could not doubt that she would find some means of humoring him in the same way at Frankfort.

“Wait till the bells rings,” I answered “and perhaps you will find the Keys waiting for you in Mistress’ room.”

He rubbed his hands in delight. “That’s it!” he said. “Let’s keep watch on the bell.”

As he turned to go back again to his corner, Madame Fontaine’s voice reached us from the top of the kitchen stairs. She was speaking to her daughter. Jack stopped directly and waited, looking round at the stairs.

“Where is the other person who came here with Mrs. Wagner?” the widow asked. “A man with an odd English name. Do you know, Minna, if they have found a room for him?”

She reached the lower stair as she spoke — advanced along the corridor — and discovered Jack Straw. In an instant, her languid indifferent manner disappeared. Her eyes opened wildly under their heavy lids. She stood motionless, like a woman petrified by surprise — perhaps by terror.

“Hans Grimm!” I heard her say to herself. “God in heaven! what brings him here?”

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