Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

On our return to home, I found Fritz Keller smoking his pipe in the walled garden at the back of the house.

In those days, it may not be amiss to remark that merchants of the old-fashioned sort still lived over their counting-houses in the city. The late Mr. Wagner’s place of business included two spacious houses standing together, with internal means of communication. One of these buildings was devoted to the offices and warehouses. The other (having the garden at the back) was the private residence.

Fritz advanced to meet me, and stopped, with a sudden change in his manner. “Something has happened,” he said —“I see it in your face! Has the madman anything to do with it?”

“Yes. Shall I tell you what has happened, Fritz?”

“Not for the world. My ears are closed to all dreadful and distressing narratives. I will imagine the madman — let us talk of something else.”

“You will probably see him, Fritz, in a few weeks’ time.”

“You don’t mean to tell me he is coming into this house?”

“I am afraid it’s likely, to say the least of it.”

Fritz looked at me like a man thunderstruck. “There are some disclosures,” he said, in his quaint way, “which are too overwhelming to be received on one’s legs. Let us sit down.”

He led the way to a summer-house at the end of the garden. On the wooden table, I observed a bottle of the English beer which my friend prized so highly, with glasses on either side of it.

“I had a presentiment that we should want a consoling something of this sort,” said Fritz. “Fill your glass, David, and let out the worst of it at once, before we get to the end of the bottle.”

I let out the best of it first — that is to say, I told him what I have related in the preceding pages. Fritz was deeply interested: full of compassion for Jack Straw, but not in the least converted to my aunt’s confidence in him.

“Jack is supremely pitiable,” he remarked; “but Jack is also a smoldering volcano — and smoldering volcanos burst into eruption when the laws of nature compel them. My only hope is in Mr. Superintendent. Surely he will not let this madman loose on us, with nobody but your aunt to hold the chain? What did she really say, when you left Jack, and had your private talk in the reception-room? One minute, my friend, before you begin,” said Fritz, groping under the bench upon which we were seated. “I had a second presentiment that we might want a second bottle — and here it is! Fill your glass; and let us establish ourselves in our respective positions — you to administer, and I to sustain, a severe shock to the moral sense. I think, David, this second bottle is even more deliciously brisk than the first. Well, and what did your aunt say?”

My aunt had said much more than I could possibly tell him.

In substance it had come to this:— After seeing the whip, and seeing the chains, and seeing the man — she had actually determined to commit herself to the perilous experiment which her husband would have tried, if he had lived! As to the means of procuring Jack Straw’s liberation from the Hospital, the powerful influence which had insisted on his being received by the Institution, in defiance of rules, could also insist on his release, and could be approached by the intercession of the same official person, whose interest in the matter had been aroused by Mr. Wagner in the last days of his life. Having set forth her plans for the future in these terms, my aunt appealed to the lawyer to state the expression of her wishes and intentions, in formal writing, as a preliminary act of submission towards the governors of the asylum.

“And what did the lawyer say to it?” Fritz inquired, after I had reported my aunt’s proceedings thus far.

“The lawyer declined, Fritz, to comply with her request. He said, ‘It would be inexcusable, even in a man, to run such a risk — I don’t believe there is another woman in England who would think of such a thing.’ Those were his words.”

“Did they have any effect on her?”

“Not the least in the world. She apologized for having wasted his valuable time, and wished him good morning. ‘If nobody will help me,’ she said, quietly, ‘I must help myself.’ Then she turned to me. ‘You have seen how carefully and delicately poor Jack can work,’ she said; ‘you have seen him tempted to break out, and yet capable of restraining himself in my presence. And, more than that, on the one occasion when he did lose his self-control, you saw how he recovered himself when he was calmly and kindly reasoned with. Are you content, David, to leave such a man for the rest of his life to the chains and the whip?’ What could I say? She was too considerate to press me; she only asked me to think of it. I have been trying to think of it ever since — and the more I try, the more I dread the consequences if that madman is brought into the house.”

Fritz shuddered at the prospect.

“On the day when Jack comes into the house, I shall go out of it,” he said. The social consequences of my aunt’s contemplated experiment suddenly struck him while he spoke. “What will Mrs. Wagner’s friends think?” he asked piteously. “They will refuse to visit her — they will say she’s mad herself.”

“Don’t let that distress you, gentlemen — I shan’t mind what my friends say of me.”

We both started in confusion to our feet. My aunt herself was standing at the open door of the summer-house with a letter in her hand.

“News from Germany, just come for you, Fritz.”

With those words, she handed him the letter, and left us.

We looked at each other thoroughly ashamed of ourselves, if the truth must be told. Fritz cast an uneasy glance at the letter, and recognized the handwriting on the address. “From my father!” he said. As he opened the envelope a second letter enclosed fell out on the floor. He changed color as he picked it up, and looked at it. The seal was unbroken — the postmark was Wurzburg.

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