Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 24

Almost instantaneously Madame Fontaine recovered her self-control.

“I really couldn’t help feeling startled,” she said, explaining herself to Fritz and to me. “The last time I saw this man, he was employed in a menial capacity at the University of Wurzburg. He left us one day, nobody knew why. And he suddenly appears again, without a word of warning, in this house.”

I looked at Jack. A smile of mischievous satisfaction was on his face. He apparently enjoyed startling Madame Fontaine. His expression changed instantly for the better, when Minna approached and spoke to him.

“Don’t you remember me, Hans?” she said.

“Oh, yes, Missie, I remember you. You are a good creature. You take after your papa. He was a good creature — except when he had his beastly medical bottles in his hand. But, I say, I mustn’t be called by the name they gave me at the University! I was a German then — I am an Englishman now. All nations are alike to me. But I am particular about my name, because it’s the name Mistress knew me by. I will never have another. ‘Jack Straw,’ if you please. There’s my name, and I am proud of it. Lord! what an ugly little hat you have got on your head! I’ll soon make you a better one.” He turned on Madame Fontaine, with a sudden change to distrust.

“I don’t like the way you spoke of my leaving the University, just now. I had a right to go, if I liked — hadn’t I?”

“Oh, yes, Hans.”

“Not Hans! Didn’t you hear what I mentioned just now? Say Jack.”

She said it, with a ready docility which a little surprised me.

“Did I steal anything at the University?” Jack proceeded.

“Not that I know of.”

“Then speak respectfully of me, next time. Say, ‘Mr. Jack retired from the University, in the exercise of his discretion.’” Having stated this formula with an air of great importance, he addressed himself to me. “I appeal to you,” he said. “Suppose you had lost your color here” (he touched his cheek), “and your color there” (he touched his hair); “and suppose it had happened at the University — would you“ (he stood on tip-toe, and whispered the next words in my ear) “would you have stopped there, to be poisoned again? No!” he cried, raising his voice once more, “you would have drifted away like me. From Germany to France; from France to England — and so to London, and so under the feet of her Highness’s horses, and so to Bedlam, and so to Mistress. Oh, Lord help me, I’m forgetting the bell! good-bye, all of you. Let me be in my corner till the bell rings.”

Madame Fontaine glanced at me compassionately, and touched her bead.

“Come to my sitting-room, Jack,” she said, “and have something to eat and drink, and tell me your adventures after you left Wurzburg.”

She favored him with her sweetest smile, and spoke in her most ingratiating tones. That objectionable tendency of mine to easily suspect others was, I suppose, excited once more. At any rate, I thought the widow showed a very remarkable anxiety to conciliate Jack. He was proof, however, against all attempts at fascination — he shook his head obstinately, and pointed to the bell. We went our several ways, and left the strange little man crouched up in his corner.

In the afternoon, I was sent for to see my aunt.

I found Jack at his post; established in a large empty wardrobe, on the landing outside his mistress’s door. His fingers were already busy with the framework of the new straw hat which he had promised to make for Minna.

“All right, David!” he said, patronizing me as indulgently as ever. “Mistress has had her good sleep and her nice breakfast, and she looks lovely. Go in, and see her — go in!”

I thought myself that she looked perhaps a little worn, and certainly thinner than when I had seen her last. But these were trifles. It is not easy to describe the sense of relief and pleasure that I felt — after having been accustomed to the sleepy eyes and serpentine graces of Madame Fontaine — when I looked again at the lithe active figure and the bright well-opened gray eyes of my dear little English aunt.

“Tell me, David,” she began, as soon as the first greetings were over, “what do you think of Jack Straw? Was my poor dear husband not right? and have I not done well to prove it?”

I could, and did, honestly congratulate her on the result of the visit to Bedlam.

“And now about the people here,” she went on. “I find Fritz’s father completely changed on the subject of Fritz’s marriage. And when I ask what it means, I am told that Madame Fontaine has set everything right, in the most wonderful manner, by saving Mr. Keller’s life. Is this true?”

“Quite true. What do you think of Madame Fontaine?”

“Ask me that, David, to-morrow or the next day. My head is muddled by traveling — I have not made up my mind yet.”

“Have you seen Minna?”

“Seen her, and kissed her too! There’s a girl after my own heart. I consider our scatter-brained friend Fritz to be the luckiest young fellow living.”

“If Minna was not going to be married,” I suggested, “she would just do for one of your young-lady clerks, wouldn’t she?”

My aunt laughed. “Exactly what I thought myself, when I saw her. But you are not to make a joke of my young-lady clerks. I am positively determined to carry out that useful reform in the office here. However, as Mr. Keller has been so lately ill, and as we are sure to have a fight about it, I will act considerately towards my opponent — I won’t stir in the matter until he is quite himself again. In the meantime, I must find somebody, while I am away, to take my place in the London house. The business is now under the direction of Mr. Hartrey. He is perfectly competent to carry it on; but, as you know, our excellent head-clerk has his old — fashioned prejudices. According to strict rule, a partner ought always to be in command, at the London business — and Hartrey implores me (if Mr. Keller is not well enough to take the journey) to send Mr. Engelman to London. Where is Mr. Engelman? How is it that I have neither heard nor seen anything of him?”

This was a delicate and difficult question to answer — at least, to my way of thinking. There was little prospect of keeping the poor old gentleman’s sad secret. It was known to Fritz and Minna, as well as to Mr. Keller. Still, I felt an unconquerable reluctance to be the first person who revealed the disaster that had befallen him.

“Mr. Engelman is not in good health and spirits,” I said. “He has gone away for a little rest and change.”

My aunt looked astonished.

“Both the partners ill!” she exclaimed. “I remember Mr. Engelman, in the days when I was first married. He used to boast of never having had a day’s illness in his life. Not at all a clever man — but good as gold, and a far more sensitive person than most people gave him credit for being. He promised to be fat as years grew on him. Has he kept his promise? What is the matter with him?”

I hesitated. My aunt eyed me sharply, and put another question before I had quite made up my mind what to say.

“If you can’t tell me what is the matter with him, can you tell me where he is? I may want to write to him.”

I hesitated again. Mr. Engelman’s address had been confidentially communicated to me, for reasons which I was bound to respect. “I am afraid I can’t answer that question either,” I said awkwardly enough.

“Good heavens!” cried my aunt, “what does all this mystery mean? Has Mr. Engelman killed a man in a duel? or run away with an opera-dancer? or squandered the whole profits of the business at the gambling-table? or what? As she put these bold views of the case, we heard voices outside, followed by a gentle knock at the door. Minna entered the room with a message.

“Mamma has sent me, Mrs. Wagner, to ask at what time you would like to dine.”

“My dear, I am much obliged to your mother. I have only just breakfasted, and I can wait quite well till supper-time comes. Stop a minute! Here is my nephew driving me to the utmost verge of human endurance, by making a mystery of Mr. Engelman’s absence from Frankfort. Should I be very indiscreet if I asked — Good gracious, how the girl blushes! You are evidently in the secret too, Miss Minna. Is it an opera-dancer? Leave us together, David.”

This made Minna’s position simply unendurable. She looked at me appealingly. I did at last, what I ought to have done at first — I spoke out plainly.

“The fact is, aunt,” I said, “poor Mr. Engelman has left us for awhile, sadly mortified and distressed. He began by admiring Madame Fontaine; and he ended in making her an offer of marriage.”

“Mamma was indeed truly sorry for him,” Minna added; “but she had no other alternative than to refuse him, of course.”

“Upon my word, child, I see no ‘of course’ in the matter!” my aunt answered sharply.

Minna was shocked. “Oh, Mrs. Wagner! Mr. Engelman is more than twenty years older than mamma — and (I am sure I pity him, poor man)— and so fat!”

“Fat is a matter of taste,” my aunt remarked, more and more resolute in taking Mr. Engelman’s part. “And as for his being twenty years older than your mother, I can tell you, young lady, that my dear lost husband was twenty years my senior when he married me — and a happier couple never lived. I know more of the world than you do; and I say Madame Fontaine has made a great mistake. She has thrown away an excellent position in life, and has pained and humiliated one of the kindest-hearted men living. No! no! I am not going to argue the matter with you now; I’ll wait till you are married to Fritz. But I own I should like to speak to your mother about it. Ask her to favor me by stepping this way for a few minutes, when she has nothing to do.”

Minna seemed to think this rather a high-handed method of proceeding, and entered a modest protest accordingly.

“Mamma is a very sensitive person,” she began with dignity.

My aunt stopped her with a pat on the cheek.

“Good child! I like you for taking your mother’s part. Mamma has another merit, my dear. She is old enough to understand me better than you do. Go and fetch her.”

Minna left us, with her pretty little head carried high in the air. “Mrs. Wagner is a person entirely without sentiment!” she indignantly whispered to me in passing, when I opened the door for her.

“I declare that girl is absolute perfection!” my aunt exclaimed with enthusiasm. “The one thing she wanted, as I thought, was spirit — and I find she has got it. Ah! she will take Fritz in hand, and make something of him. He is one of the many men who absolutely need being henpecked. I prophesy confidently — their marriage will be a happy one.”

“I don’t doubt it, aunt. But tell me, what are you going to say to Madame Fontaine?”

“It depends on circumstances. I must know first if Mr. Engelman has really set his heart on the woman with the snaky movements and the sleepy eyes. Can you certify to that?”

“Positively. Her refusal has completely crushed him.”

“Very well. Then I mean to make Madame Fontaine marry him — always supposing there is no other man in his way.”

“My dear aunt, how you talk! At Madame Fontaine’s age! With a grown-up daughter!”

“My dear nephew, you know absolutely nothing about women. Counting by years, I grant you they grow old. Counting by sensations, they remain young to the end of their days. Take a word of advice from me. The evidence of their gray hair may look indisputable; the evidence of their grown-up children may look indisputable. Don’t believe it! There is but one period in the women’s lives when you may feel quite certain that they have definitely given the men their dismissal — the period when they are put in their coffins. Hush! What’s that outside? When there is a noisy silk dress and a silent foot on the stairs, in this house, I know already what it means. Be off with you!”

She was quite right. Madame Fontaine entered, as I rose to leave the room.

The widow showed none of her daughter’s petulance. She was sweet and patient; she saluted Mrs. Wagner with a sad smile which seemed to say, “Outrage my most sacred feelings, dear madam; they are entirely at your disposal.” If I had believed that my aunt had the smallest chance of carrying her point, I should have felt far from easy about Mr. Engelman’s prospects. As it was, I left the two ladies to their fruitless interview, and returned composedly to my work.

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