Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

The superintendent opened the cell door with his own hand.

We found ourselves in a narrow, lofty prison, like an apartment in a tower. High up, in one corner, the grim stone walls were pierced by a grated opening, which let in air and light. Seated on the floor, in the angle formed by the junction of two walls, we saw the superintendent’s “lucky lunatic” at work, with a truss of loose straw on either side of him. The slanting rays of light from the high window streamed down on his prematurely gray hair, and showed us the strange yellow pallor of his complexion, and the youthful symmetry of his hands, nimbly occupied with their work. A heavy chain held him to the wall. It was not only fastened round his waist, it also fettered his legs between the knee and the ankle. At the same time, it was long enough to allow him a range of crippled movement, within a circle of five or six feet, as well as I could calculate at the time. Above his head, ready for use if required, hung a small chain evidently intended to confine his hands at the wrists. Unless I was deceived by his crouching attitude, he was small in stature. His ragged dress barely covered his emaciated form. In other and happier days, he must have been a well-made little man; his feet and ankles, like his hands, were finely and delicately formed. He was so absorbed in his employment that he had evidently not heard the talking outside his cell. It was only when the door was banged to by the assistant (who kept behind us, at a sign from the superintendent) that he looked up. We now saw his large vacantly-patient brown eyes, the haggard outline of his face, and his nervously sensitive lips. For a moment, he looked from one to the other of the visitors with a quiet childish curiosity. Then his wandering glances detected the assistant, waiting behind us with the whip still in his hand.

In an instant the whole expression of the madman’s face changed. Ferocious hatred glittered in his eyes; his lips, suddenly retracted, showed his teeth like the teeth of a wild beast. My aunt perceived the direction in which he was looking, and altered her position so as to conceal from him the hateful figure with the whip, and to concentrate his attention on herself. With startling abruptness, the poor creature’s expression changed once more. His eyes softened, a faint sad smile trembled on his lips. He dropped the straw which he had been plaiting, and lifted his hands with a gesture of admiration. “The pretty lady!” he whispered to himself. “Oh, the pretty lady!”

He attempted to crawl out from the wall, as far as his chain would let him. At a sign from the superintendent he stopped, and sighed bitterly. “I wouldn’t hurt the lady for the world,” he said; “I beg your pardon, Mistress, if I have frightened you.”

His voice was wonderfully gentle. But there was something strange in his accent — and there was perhaps a foreign formality in his addressing my aunt as “Mistress.” Englishmen in general would have called her “ma’am.”

We men kept our places at a safe distance from his chain. My aunt, with a woman’s impulsive contempt of danger when her compassion is strongly moved, stepped forward to him. The superintendent caught her by the arm and checked her. “Take care,” he said. “You don’t know him as well as we do.”

Jack’s eyes turned on the superintendent, dilating slowly. His lips began to part again — I feared to see the ferocious expression in his face once more. I was wrong. In the very moment of another outbreak of rage, the unhappy man showed that he was still capable, under strong internal influence, of restraining himself. He seized the chain that held him to the wall in both hands, and wrung it with such convulsive energy that I almost expected to see the bones of his fingers start through the skin. His head dropped on his breast, his wasted figure quivered. It was only for an instant. When he looked up again, his poor vacant brown eyes turned on my aunt, dim with tears. She instantly shook off the superintendent’s hold on her arm. Before it was possible to interfere, she was bending over Jack Straw, with one of her pretty white hands laid gently on his head.

“How your head burns, poor Jack!” she said simply. “Does my hand cool it?”

Still holding desperately by the chain, he answered like a timid child. “Yes, Mistress; your hand cools it. Thank you.”

She took up a little straw hat on which he had been working when his door was opened. “This is very nicely done, Jack,” she went on. “Tell me how you first came to make these pretty things with your straw.”

He looked up at her with a sudden accession of confidence; her interest in the hat had flattered him.

“Once,” he said, “there was a time when my hands were the maddest things about me. They used to turn against me and tear my hair and my flesh. An angel in a dream told me how to keep them quiet. An angel said, “Let them work at your straw.” All day long I plaited my straw. I would have gone on all night too, if they would only have given me a light. My nights are bad, my nights are dreadful. The raw air eats into me, the black darkness frightens me. Shall I tell you what is the greatest blessing in the world? Daylight! Daylight!! Daylight!!!”

At each repetition of the word his voice rose. He was on the point of breaking into a scream, when he took a tighter turn of his chain and instantly silenced himself. “I am quiet, sir,” he said, before the superintendent could reprove him.

My aunt added a word in his favor. “Jack has promised not to frighten me; and I am sure he will keep his word. Have you never had parents or friends to be kind to you, my poor fellow?” she asked, turning to him again.

He looked up at her. “Never,” he said, “till you came here to see me.” As he spoke, there was a flash of intelligence in the bright gratitude of his eyes. “Ask me something else,” he pleaded; “and see how quietly I can answer you.”

“Is it true, Jack, that you were once poisoned by accident, and nearly killed by it?”

“Yes!”

“Where was it?”

“Far away in another country. In the doctor’s big room. In the time when I was the doctor’s man.”

“Who was the doctor?”

He put his hand to his head, “Give me more time,” he said. “It hurts me when I try to remember too much. Let me finish my hat first. I want to give you my hat when it’s done. You don’t know how clever I am with my fingers and thumbs. Just look and see!”

He set to work on the hat; perfectly happy while my aunt was looking at him. The lawyer was the unlucky person who produced a change for the worse. Having hitherto remained passive, this worthy gentleman seemed to think it was due to his own importance to take a prominent part in the proceedings. “My professional experience will come in well here,” he said; “I mean to treat him as an unwilling witness; you will see we shall get something out of him in that way. Jack!”

The unwilling witness went on impenetrably with his work. The lawyer (keeping well out of reach of the range of the chain) raised his voice. “Hullo, there!” he cried, “you’re not deaf, are you?”

Jack looked up, with an impish expression of mischief in his eyes. A man with a modest opinion of himself would have taken warning, and would have said no more. The lawyer persisted.

“Now, my man! let us have a little talk. ‘Jack Straw’ can’t be your proper name. What is your name?”

“Anything you like,” said Jack. “What’s yours?”

“Oh, come! that won’t do. You must have had a father and mother.”

“Not that I know of.”

“Where were you born?”

“In the gutter.”

“How were you brought up?”

“Sometimes with a cuff on the head.”

“And at other times?”

“At other times with a kick. Do be quiet, and let me finish my hat.”

The discomfited lawyer tried a bribe as a last resource. He held up a shilling. “Do you see this?”

“No, I don’t. I see nothing but my hat.”

This reply brought the examination to an end. The lawyer looked at the superintendent, and said, “A hopeless case, sir.” The superintendent looked at the lawyer, and answered, “Perfectly hopeless.”

Jack finished his hat, and gave it to my aunt. “Do you like it, now it’s done?” he asked.

“I like it very much,” she answered: “and one of these days I shall trim it with ribbons, and wear it for your sake.”

She appealed to the superintendent, holding out the hat to him.

“Look,” she said. “There is not a false turn anywhere in all this intricate plaiting. Poor Jack is sane enough to fix his attention to this subtle work. Do you give him up as incurable, when he can do that?”

The superintendent waved away the question with his hand. “Purely mechanical,” he replied. “It means nothing.”

Jack touched my aunt. “I want to whisper,” he said. She bent down to him, and listened.

I saw her smile, and asked, after we had left the asylum, what he had said. Jack had stated his opinion of the principal officer of Bethlehem Hospital in these words: “Don’t you listen to him, Mistress; he’s a poor half-witted creature. And short, too — not above six inches taller than I am!”

But my aunt had not done with Jack’s enemy yet.

“I am sorry to trouble you, sir,” she resumed —“I have something more to say before I go, and I wish to say it privately. Can you spare me a few minutes?”

The amiable superintendent declared that he was entirely at her service. She turned to Jack to say good-bye. The sudden discovery that she was about to leave him was more than he could sustain; he lost his self-control.

“Stay with me!” cried the poor wretch, seizing her by both hands. “Oh, be merciful, and stay with me!”

She preserved her presence of mind — she would permit no interference to protect her. Without starting back, without even attempting to release herself, she spoke to him quietly.

“Let us shake hands for to-day,” she said; “you have kept your promise, Jack — you have been quiet and good. I must leave you for a while. Let me go.”

He obstinately shook his head, and still held her.

“Look at me,” she persisted, without showing any fear of him. “I want to tell you something. You are no longer a friendless creature, Jack. You have a friend in me. Look up.”

Her clear firm tones had their effect on him; he looked up. Their eyes met.

“Now, let me go, as I told you.”

He dropped her hand, and threw himself back in his corner and burst out crying.

“I shall never see her again,” he moaned to himself. “Never, never, never again!”

“You shall see me to-morrow,” she said.

He looked at her through his tears, and looked away again with an abrupt change to distrust. “She doesn’t mean it,” he muttered, still speaking to himself; “she only says it to pacify me.”

“You shall see me to-morrow,” my aunt reiterated; “I promise it.”

He was cowed, but not convinced; he crawled to the full length of his chain, and lay down at her feet like a dog. She considered for a moment — and found her way to his confidence at last.

“Shall I leave you something to keep for me until I see you again?”

The idea struck him like a revelation: he lifted his head, and eyed her with breathless interest. She gave him a little ornamental handbag, in which she was accustomed to carry her handkerchief, and purse, and smelling-bottle.

“I trust it entirely to you, Jack: you shall give it back to me when we meet to-morrow.”

Those simple words more than reconciled him to her departure — they subtly flattered his self-esteem.

“You will find your bag torn to pieces, to-morrow,” the superintendent whispered, as the door was opened for us to go out.

“Pardon me, sir,” my aunt replied; “I believe I shall find it quite safe.”

The last we saw of poor Jack, before the door closed on him, he was hugging the bag in both arms, and kissing it.

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