Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

“My husband was connected with many charitable institutions,” the widow began. “Am I right in believing that he was one of the governors of Bethlehem Hospital?”

At this reference to the famous asylum for insane persons, popularly known among the inhabitants of London as “Bedlam,” I saw the lawyer start, and exchange a look with the head-clerk. Mr. Hartrey answered with evident reluctance; he said, “Quite right, madam”— and said no more. The lawyer, being the bolder man of the two, added a word of warning, addressed directly to my aunt.

“I venture to suggest,” he said, “that there are circumstances connected with the late Mr. Wagner’s position at the Hospital, which make it desirable not to pursue the subject any farther. Mr. Hartrey will confirm what I say, when I tell you that Mr. Wagner’s proposals for a reformation in the treatment of the patients ——”

“Were the proposals of a merciful man,” my aunt interposed “who abhorred cruelty in all its forms, and who held the torturing of the poor mad patients by whips and chains to be an outrage on humanity. I entirely agree with him. Though I am only a woman, I will not let the matter drop. I shall go to the Hospital on Monday morning next — and my business with you to-day is to request that you will accompany me.”

“In what capacity am I to have the honor of accompanying you?” the lawyer asked, in his coldest manner.

“In your professional capacity,” my aunt replied. “I may have a proposal to address to the governors; and I shall look to your experience to express it in the proper form.”

The lawyer was not satisfied yet. “Excuse me if I venture on making another inquiry,” he persisted. “Do you propose to visit the madhouse in consequence of any wish expressed by the late Mr. Wagner?”

“Certainly not! My husband always avoided speaking to me on that melancholy subject. As you have heard, he even left me in doubt whether he was one of the governing body at the asylum. No reference to any circumstance in his life which might alarm or distress me ever passed his lips.” Her voice failed her as she paid that tribute to her husband’s memory. She waited to recover herself. “But, on the night before his death,” she resumed, “when he was half waking, half dreaming, I heard him talking to himself of something that he was anxious to do, if the chance of recovery had been still left to him. Since that time I have looked at his private diary; and I have found entries in it which explain to me what I failed to understand clearly at his bedside. I know for certain that the obstinate hostility of his colleagues had determined him on trying the effect of patience and kindness in the treatment of mad people, at his sole risk and expense. There is now in Bethlehem Hospital a wretched man — a friendless outcast, found in the streets — whom my noble husband had chosen as the first subject of his humane experiment, and whose release from a life of torment he had the hope of effecting through the influence of a person in authority in the Royal Household. You know already that the memory of my husband’s plans and wishes is a sacred memory to me. I am resolved to see that poor chained creature whom he would have rescued if he had lived; and I will certainly complete his work of mercy, if my conscience tells me that a woman should do it.”

Hearing this bold announcement — I am almost ashamed to confess it, in these enlightened days — we all three protested. Modest Mr. Hartrey was almost as loud and as eloquent as the lawyer, and I was not far behind Mr. Hartrey. It is perhaps to be pleaded as an excuse for us that some of the highest authorities, in the early part of the present century, would have been just as prejudiced and just as ignorant as we were. Say what we might, however, our remonstrances produced no effect on my aunt. We merely roused the resolute side of her character to assert itself.

“I won’t detain you any longer,” she said to the lawyer. “Take the rest of the day to decide what you will do. If you decline to accompany me, I shall go by myself. If you accept my proposal, send me a line this evening to say so.”

In that way the conference came to an end.

Early in the evening young Mr. Keller made his appearance, and was introduced to my aunt and to me. We both took a liking to him from the first. He was a handsome young man, with light hair and florid complexion, and with a frank ingratiating manner — a little sad and subdued, in consequence, no doubt, of his enforced separation from his beloved young lady at Wurzburg. My aunt, with her customary kindness and consideration, offered him a room next to mine, in place of his room in Mr. Hartrey’s house. “My nephew David speaks German; and he will help to make your life among us pleasant to you.” With those words our good mistress left us together.

Fritz opened the conversation with the easy self-confidence of a German student.

“It is one bond of union between us that you speak my language,” he began. “I am good at reading and writing English, but I speak badly. Have we any other sympathies in common? Is it possible that you smoke?”

Poor Mr. Wagner had taught me to smoke. I answered by offering my new acquaintance a cigar.

“Another bond between us,” cried Fritz. “We must be friends from this moment. Give me your hand.” We shook hands. He lit his cigar, looked at me very attentively, looked away again, and puffed out his first mouthful of smoke with a heavy sigh.

“I wonder whether we are united by a third bond?” he said thoughtfully. “Are you a stiff Englishman? Tell me, friend David, may I speak to you with the freedom of a supremely wretched man?”

“As freely as you like,” I answered. He still hesitated.

“I want to be encouraged,” he said. “Be familiar with me. Call me Fritz.”

I called him “Fritz.” He drew his chair close to mine, and laid his hand affectionately on my shoulder. I began to think I had perhaps encouraged him a little too readily.

“Are you in love, David?” He put the question just as coolly as if he had asked me what o’clock it was.

I was young enough to blush. Fritz accepted the blush as a sufficient answer. “Every moment I pass in your society,” he cried with enthusiasm, “I like you better — find you more eminently sympathetic. You are in love. One word more — are there any obstacles in your way?”

There were obstacles in my way. She was too old for me, and too poor for me — and it all came to nothing in due course of time. I admitted the obstacles; abstaining, with an Englishman’s shyness, from entering into details. My reply was enough, and more than enough, for Fritz. “Good Heavens!” he exclaimed; “our destinies exactly resemble each other! We are both supremely wretched men. David, I can restrain myself no longer; I must positively embrace you!”

I resisted to the best of my ability — but he was the stronger man of the two. His long arms almost strangled me; his bristly mustache scratched my cheek. In my first involuntary impulse of disgust, I clenched my fist. Young Mr. Keller never suspected (my English brethren alone will understand) how very near my fist and his head were to becoming personally and violently acquainted. Different nations — different customs. I can smile as I write about it now.

Fritz took his seat again. “My heart is at ease; I can pour myself out freely,” he said. “Never, my friend, was there such an interesting love-story as mine. She is the sweetest girl living. Dark, slim, gracious, delightful, desirable, just eighteen. The image, I should suppose, of what her widowed mother was at her age. Her name is Minna. Daughter and only child of Madame Fontaine. Madame Fontaine is a truly grand creature, a Roman matron. She is the victim of envy and scandal. Would you believe it? There are wretches in Wurzburg (her husband the doctor was professor of chemistry at the University)— there are wretches, I say, who call my Minna’s mother ‘Jezebel,’ and my Minna herself ‘Jezebel’s Daughter!’ I have fought three duels with my fellow-students to avenge that one insult. Alas, David, there is another person who is influenced by those odious calumnies! — a person sacred to me — the honored author of my being. Is it not dreadful? My good father turns tyrant in this one thing; declares I shall never marry ‘Jezebel’s Daughter;’ exiles me, by his paternal commands, to this foreign country; and perches me on a high stool to copy letters. Ha! he little knows my heart. I am my Minna’s and my Minna is mine. In body and soul, in time and in eternity, we are one. Do you see my tears? Do my tears speak for me? The heart’s relief is in crying freely. There is a German song to that effect. When I recover myself, I will sing it to you. Music is a great comforter; music is the friend of love. There is another German song to that effect.” He suddenly dried his eyes, and got on his feet; some new idea had apparently occurred to him. “It is dreadfully dull here,” he said; “I am not used to evenings at home. Have you any music in London? Help me to forget Minna for an hour or two. Take me to the music.”

Having, by this time, heard quite enough of his raptures, I was eager on my side for a change of any kind. I helped him to forget Minna at a Vauxhall Concert. He thought our English orchestra wanting in subtlety and spirit. On the other hand, he did full justice, afterwards, to our English bottled beer. When we left the Gardens he sang me that German song, ‘My heart’s relief is crying freely,’ with a fervor of sentiment which must have awakened every light sleeper in the neighborhood.

Retiring to my bedchamber, I found an open letter on my toilet-table. It was addressed to my aunt by the lawyer; and it announced that he had decided on accompanying her to the madhouse — without pledging himself to any further concession. In leaving the letter for me to read, my aunt had written across it a line in pencil: “You can go with us, David, if you like.”

My curiosity was strongly aroused. It is needless to say I decided on being present at the visit to Bedlam.

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