Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 25

When supper was announced, I went upstairs again to show my aunt the way to the room in which we took our meals.

“Well?” I said.

“Well,” she answered coolly, “Madame Fontaine has promised to reconsider it.”

I confess I was staggered. By what possible motives could the widow have been animated? Even Mr. Engelman’s passive assistance was now of no further importance to her. She had gained Mr. Keller’s confidence; her daughter’s marriage was assured; her employment in the house offered her a liberal salary, a respectable position, and a comfortable home. Why should she consent to reconsider the question of marrying a man, in whom she could not be said to feel any sort of true interest, in any possible acceptation of the words? I began to think that my aunt was right, and that I really did know absolutely nothing about women.

At supper Madame Fontaine and her daughter were both unusually silent. Open-hearted Minna was not capable of concealing that her mother’s concession had been made known to her in some way, and that the disclosure had disagreeably surprised her. However, there was no want of gaiety at the table — thanks to my aunt, and to her faithful attendant.

Jack Straw followed us into the room, without waiting to be invited, and placed himself, to Joseph’s disgust, behind Mrs. Wagner’s chair.

“Nobody waits on Mistress at table,” he explained, “but me. Sometimes she gives me a bit or a drink over her shoulder. Very little drink — just a sip, and no more. I quite approve of only a sip myself. Oh, I know how to behave. None of your wine-merchant’s fire in my head; no Bedlam breaking loose again. Make your minds easy. There are no cooler brains among you than mine.” At this, Fritz burst into one of his explosions of laughter. Jack appealed to Fritz’s father, with unruffled gravity. “Your son, I believe, sir? Ha! what a blessing it is there’s plenty of room for improvement in that young man. I only throw out a remark. If I was afflicted with a son myself, I think I should prefer David.”

This specimen of Jack’s method of asserting himself, and other similar outbreaks which Fritz and I mischievously encouraged, failed apparently to afford any amusement to Madame Fontaine. Once she roused herself to ask Mr. Keller if his sister had written to him from Munich. Hearing that no reply had been received, she relapsed into silence. The old excuse of a nervous headache was repeated, when Mr. Keller and my aunt politely inquired if anything was amiss.

When the letters were delivered the next morning, two among them were not connected with the customary business of the office. One (with the postmark of Bingen) was for me. And one (with the postmark of Wurzburg) was for Madame Fontaine. I sent it upstairs to her immediately.

When I opened my own letter, I found sad news of poor Mr. Engelman. Time and change had failed to improve his spirits. He complained of a feeling of fullness and oppression in his head, and of hissing noises in his ears, which were an almost constant annoyance to him. On two occasions he had been cupped, and had derived no more than a temporary benefit from the employment of that remedy. His doctor recommended strict attention to diet, and regular exercise. He submitted willingly to the severest rules at table — but there was no rousing him to exert himself in any way. For hours together, he would sit silent in one place, half sleeping, half waking; noticing no one, and caring for nothing but to get to his bed as soon as possible.

This statement of the case seemed to me to suggest very grave considerations. I could no longer hesitate to inform Mr. Keller that I had received intelligence of his absent partner, and to place my letter in his hands.

Whatever little disagreements there had been between them were instantly forgotten. I had never before seen Mr. Keller so distressed and so little master of himself.

“I must go to Engelman directly,” he said.

I ventured to submit that there were two serious objections to his doing this: In the first place, his presence in the office was absolutely necessary. In the second place, his sudden appearance at Bingen would prove to be a serious, perhaps a fatal, shock to his old friend.

“What is to be done, then?” he exclaimed.

“I think my aunt may be of some use, sir, in this emergency.”

“Your aunt? How can she help us?”

I informed him of my aunt’s project; and I added that Madame Fontaine had not positively said No. He listened without conviction, frowning and shaking his head.

“Mrs. Wagner is a very impetuous person,” he said. “She doesn’t understand a complex nature like Madame Fontaine’s.”

“At least I may show my aunt the letter from Bingen, sir?”

“Yes. It can do no harm, if it does no good.”

On my way to my aunt’s room, I encountered Minna on the stairs. She was crying. I naturally asked what was the matter.

“Don’t stop me!” was the only answer I received.

“But where are you going, Minna?”

“I am going to Fritz, to be comforted.”

“Has anybody behaved harshly to you?”

“Yes, mamma has behaved harshly to me. For the first time in my life,” said the spoilt child, with a strong sense of injury, “she has locked the door of her room, and refused to let me in.”

“But why?”

“How can I tell? I believe it has something to do with that horrid man I told you of. You sent a letter upstairs this morning. I met Joseph on the landing, and took the letter to her myself. Why shouldn’t I look at the postmark? Where was the harm in saying to her, ‘A letter, mamma, from Wurzburg’? She looked at me as if I had mortally offended her — and pointed to the door, and locked herself in. I have knocked twice, and asked her to forgive me. Not a word of answer either time! I consider myself insulted. Let me go to Fritz.”

I made no attempt to detain her. She had set those every-ready suspicions of mine at work again.

Was the letter which I had sent upstairs a reply to the letter which Minna had seen her mother writing? Was the widow now informed that the senile old admirer who had advanced the money to pay her creditors had been found dead in his bed? and that her promissory note had passed into the possession of the heir-at-law? If this was the right reading of the riddle, no wonder she had sent her daughter out of the room — no wonder she had locked her door!

My aunt wasted no time in expressions of grief and surprise, when she was informed of Mr. Engelman’s state of health. “Send the widow here directly,” she said. “If there is anything like a true heart under that splendid silk dress of hers, I shall write and relieve poor Engelman by to-night’s post.”

To confide my private surmises, even to my aunt, would have been an act of inexcusable imprudence, to say the least of it. I could only reply that Madame Fontaine was not very well, and was (as I had heard from Minna) shut up in the retirement of her own room.

The resolute little woman got on her feet instantly. “Show me where she is, David — and leave the rest to me.”

I led her to the door, and was dismissed with these words —“Go and wait in my room till I come back to you.” As I retired, I heard a smart knock, and my aunt’s voice announcing herself outside —“Mrs. Wagner, ma’am, with something serious to say to you.” The reply was inaudible. Not so my aunt’s rejoinder: “Oh, very well! Just read that letter, will you? I’ll push it under the door, and wait for an answer.” I lingered for a minute longer — and heard the door opened and closed again.

In little more than half an hour, my aunt returned. She looked serious and thoughtful. I at once anticipated that she had failed. Her first words informed me that I was wrong.

“I’ve done it,” she said. “I am to write to Engelman to-night; and I have the widow’s permission to tell him that she regrets her hasty decision. Her own words, mind, when I asked her how I should put it!”

“So there is a true heart under that splendid silk dress of hers?” I said.

My aunt walked up and down the room, silent and frowning — discontented with me, or discontented with herself; it was impossible to tell which. On a sudden, she sat down by me, and hit me a smart slap on the shoulder.

“David!” she said, “I have found out something about myself which I never suspected before. If you want to see a cold-blooded wretch, look at me!”

It was so gravely said, and so perfectly absurd, that I burst out laughing. She was far too seriously perplexed about herself to take the smallest notice of my merriment.

“Do you know,” she resumed, “that I actually hesitate to write to Engelman? David! I ought to be whipped at the cart’s tail. I don’t believe in Madame Fontaine.”

She little knew how that abrupt confession interested me. “Tell me why!” I said eagerly.

“That’s the disgraceful part of it,” she answered. “I can’t tell you why. Madame Fontaine spoke charmingly — with perfect taste and feeling. And all the time some devilish spirit of distrust kept whispering to me, “Don’t believe her; she has her motive!” Are you sure, David, it is only a little illness that makes her shut herself up in her room, and look so frightfully pale and haggard? Do you know anything about her affairs? Engelman is rich; Engelman has a position. Has she got into some difficulty since she refused him? and could he, by the barest possibility, be of any use in helping her out of it?”

I declare solemnly that the idea suggested by my aunt never occurred to me until she asked those questions. As a rejected suitor, Mr. Engelman could be of no possible use to the widow. But suppose he was her accepted husband? and suppose the note fell due before Minna was married? In that case, Mr. Engelman might unquestionably be of use — he might lend the money.

My aunt’s sharp eyes were on me. “Out with it, David!” she cried. “You don’t believe in her, either — and you know why.”

“I know absolutely nothing,” I rejoined; “I am guessing in the dark; and the event may prove that I am completely at fault. Don’t ask me to degrade Madame Fontaine’s character in your estimation, without an atom of proof to justify what I say. I have something to propose which I think will meet the difficulty.”

With a strong exercise of self-restraint, my aunt resigned herself to listen. “Let’s hear your proposal,” she said. “Have you any Scotch blood in your veins, David? You are wonderfully prudent and cautious for so young a man.”

I went straight on with what I had to say.

“Send the widow’s message to Mr. Engelman, by all means,” I proceeded; “but not by post. I was with him immediately after his offer of marriage had been refused; and it is my belief that he is far too deeply wounded by the manner in which Madame Fontaine expressed herself when she rejected him, to be either able, or willing, to renew his proposal. I even doubt if he will believe in her expression of regret. This view of mine may turn out, of course, to be quite wrong; but let us at least put it to the test. I can easily get leave of absence for a few days. Let me take your letter to Bingen tomorrow, and see with my own eyes how it is received.”

At last I was fortunate enough to deserve my aunt’s approval. “An excellent suggestion,” she said. “But — I believe I have caught the infection of your prudence, David — don’t let us tell Madame Fontaine. Let her suppose that you have gone to Bingen in consequence of the unfavorable news of Engelman’s health.” She paused, and considered a little. “Or, better still, Bingen is on the way to England. There will be nothing extraordinary in your stopping to visit Engelman, on your journey to London.”

This took me completely, and far from agreeably, by surprise. I said piteously, “Must I really leave Frankfort?”

“My good fellow, I have other interests to consider besides Engelman’s interests,” my aunt explained. “Mr. Hartrey is waiting to hear from me. There is no hope that Engelman will be able to travel to London, in his present state of health, and no possibility of Mr. Keller taking his place until something is settled at Frankfort. I want you to explain all this to Mr. Hartrey, and to help him in the management of the business. There is nobody else here, David, whom I can trust, as I trust you. I see no alternative but to ask you to go to London.”

On my side, I had no alternative but to submit — and, what is more (remembering all that I owed to my aunt), to submit with my best grace. We consulted Mr. Keller; and he entirely agreed that I was the fittest person who could be found to reconcile Mr. Hartrey to the commercial responsibilities that burdened him. After a day’s delay at Bingen, to study the condition of Mr. Engelman’s health and to write the fullest report to Frankfort, the faster I could travel afterwards, and the sooner I could reach London, the better.

So hard necessity compelled me to leave the stage, before the curtain rose on the final acts of the drama. The mail-post started at six in the morning. I packed up, and took leave of everybody, overnight — excepting Madame Fontaine, who still kept her room, and who was not well enough to see me. The dear kind-hearted Minna offered me her cheek to kiss, and made me promise to return for her marriage. She was strangely depressed at my departure. “You first consoled me,” she said; “you have brought me happiness. I don’t like your leaving us. Oh, David, I do wish you were not going away!” “Come! come!” my aunt interposed; “no crying, young lady! Always keep a man’s spirits up when he leaves you. Give me a good hug, David — and think of the time when you will be a partner in the business.” Ah! what a woman she was! Look as you may, my young friends, you will not find the like of her now.

Jack Straw was the one person up and stirring when the coach stopped the next morning at the door. I expected to be amused — but there was no reckoning with Jack. His farewell words literally frightened me.

“I say!” he whispered, as I hurried into the hall, “there’s one thing I want to ask you before you go.”

“Be quick about it, Jack.”

“All right, David. I had a talk with Minna yesterday, about Mr. Keller’s illness. Is it true that he was cured out of the blue-glass bottle?”

“Perfectly true.

“Look here, David! I have been thinking of it all night. I was cured out of the blue-glass bottle.”

I suddenly stood still, with my eyes riveted on his face. He stepped close up to me, and lowered his voice suddenly.

“And I was poisoned,” he said. “What I want to know is — Who poisoned Mr. Keller?”

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