Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 8

“I will lay any wager you like,” said Fritz, when we had come to the end of the letter, “that the wretch who has written this is a woman.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because all the false reports about poor Madame Fontaine, when I was at Wurzburg, were traced to women. They envy and hate Minna’s mother. She is superior to them in everything; handsome, distinguished, dresses to perfection, possesses all the accomplishments — a star, I tell you, a brilliant star among a set of dowdy domestic drudges. Isn’t it infamous, without an atom of evidence against her, to take it for granted that she is guilty? False to her dead husband’s confidence in her, a breaker of seals, a stealer of poisons — what an accusation against a defenseless woman! Oh, my poor dear Minna! how she must feel it; she doesn’t possess her mother’s strength of mind. I shall fly to Wurzburg to comfort her. My father may say what he pleases; I can’t leave these two persecuted women without a friend. Suppose the legal decision goes against the widow? How do I know that judgment has not been pronounced already? The suspense is intolerable. Do you mean to tell me I am bound to obey my father, when his conduct is neither just nor reasonable?”

“Gently, Fritz — gently!”

“I tell you, David, I can prove what I say. Just listen to this. My father has never even seen Minna’s mother; he blindly believes the scandals afloat about her — he denies that any woman can be generally disliked and distrusted among her neighbors without some good reason for it. I assure you, on my honor, he has no better excuse for forbidding me to marry Minna than that. Is it just, is it reasonable, to condemn a woman without first hearing what she has to say in her own defense? Ah, now indeed I feel the loss of my own dear mother! If she had been alive she would have exerted her influence, and have made my father ashamed of his own narrow prejudices. My position is maddening; my head whirls when I think of it. If I go to Wurzburg, my father will never speak to me again. If I stay here, I shall cut my throat.”

There was still a little beer left in the bottom of the second bottle. Fritz poured it out, with a gloomy resolution to absorb it to the last drop.

I took advantage of this momentary pause of silence to recommend the virtue of patience to the consideration of my friend. News from Wurzburg, I reminded him, might be obtained in our immediate neighborhood by consulting a file of German journals, kept at a foreign coffee-house. By way of strengthening the good influence of this suggestion, I informed Fritz that I expected to be shortly sent to Frankfort, as the bearer of a business communication addressed to Mr. Keller by my aunt; and I offered privately to make inquiries, and (if possible) even to take messages to Wurzburg — if he would only engage to wait patiently for the brighter prospects that might show themselves in the time to come.

I had barely succeeded in tranquilizing Fritz, when my attention was claimed by the more serious and pressing subject of the liberation of Jack Straw. My aunt sent to say that she wished to see me.

I found her at her writing-table, with the head-clerk established at the desk opposite.

Mr. Hartrey was quite as strongly opposed as the lawyer to any meddling with the treatment of mad people on the part of my aunt. But he placed his duty to his employer before all other considerations; and he rendered, under respectful protest, such services as were required of him. He was now engaged in drawing out the necessary memorials and statements, under the instructions of my aunt. Her object in sending for me was to inquire if I objected to making fair copies of the rough drafts thus produced. In the present stage of the affair, she was unwilling to take the clerks at the office into her confidence. As a matter of course, I followed Mr. Hartrey’s example, and duly subordinated my own opinions to my aunt’s convenience.

On the next day, she paid her promised visit to poor Jack.

The bag which she had committed to his care was returned to her without the slightest injury. Naturally enough, she welcomed this circumstance as offering a new encouragement to the design that she had in view. Mad Jack could not only understand a responsibility, but could prove himself worthy of it. The superintendent smiled, and said, in his finely ironical way, “I never denied, madam, that Jack was cunning.”

From that date, my aunt’s venturesome enterprise advanced towards completion with a rapidity that astonished us.

Applying, in the first instance, to the friend of her late husband, holding a position in the Royal Household, she was met once more by the inevitable objections to her design. She vainly pleaded that her purpose was to try the experiment modestly in the one pitiable case of Jack Straw, and that she would willingly leave any further development of her husband’s humane project to persons better qualified to encounter dangers and difficulties than herself. The only concession that she could obtain was an appointment for a second interview, in the presence of a gentleman whose opinion it would be important to consult. He was one of the physicians attached to the Court, and he was known to be a man of liberal views in his profession. Mrs. Wagner would do well, in her own interests, to be guided by his disinterested advice.

Keeping this second appointment, my aunt provided herself with a special means of persuasion in the shape of her husband’s diary, containing his unfinished notes on the treatment of insanity by moral influence.

As she had anticipated, the physician invited to advise her was readier to read the notes than to listen to her own imperfect explanation of the object in view. He was strongly impressed by the novelty and good sense of the ideas that her husband advocated, and was candid enough openly to acknowledge it. But he, too, protested against any attempt on the part of a woman to carry out any part of the proposed reform, even on the smallest scale. Exasperated by these new remonstrances, my aunt’s patience gave way. Refusing to submit herself to the physician’s advice, she argued the question boldly from her own point of view. The discussion was at its height, when the door of the room was suddenly opened from without. A lady in walking-costume appeared, with two ladies in attendance on her. The two gentlemen started to their feet, and whispered to my aunt, “The Princess!”

This was the exalted personage whom the superintendent at Bethlehem had been too discreet to describe more particularly as a daughter of George the Third. Passing the door on her way to the Palace-gardens, the Princess had heard the contending voices, and the name of Jack distinctly pronounced in a woman’s tones. Inheriting unusually vigorous impulses of curiosity from her august father, her Highness opened the door and joined the party without ceremony.

“What are you quarreling about?” inquired the Princess. “And who is this lady?”

Mrs. Wagner was presented, to answer for herself. She made the best of the golden opportunity that had fallen into her hands. The Princess was first astonished, then interested, then converted to my aunt’s view of the case. In the monotonous routine of Court life, here was a romantic adventure in which even the King’s daughter could take some share. Her Highness quoted Boadicea, Queen Elizabeth, and Joan of Arc, as women who had matched the men on their own ground — and complimented Mrs. Wagner as a heroine of the same type.

“You are a fine creature,” said the Princess, “and you may trust to me to help you with all my heart. Come to my apartments tomorrow at this time — and tell poor Jack that I have not forgotten him.”

Assailed by Royal influence, all the technical obstacles that lawyers, doctors, and governors could raise to the liberation of Jack Straw were set aside by an ingenious appeal to the letter of the law, originating in a suggestion made by the Princess herself.

“It lies in a nutshell, my dear,” said her Highness to my aunt. “They tell me I broke the rules when I insisted on having Jack admitted to the Hospital. Now, your late husband was one of the governors; and you are his sole executor. Very good. As your husband’s representative, complain of the violation of the rules, and insist on the discharge of Jack. He occupies a place which ought to be filled by an educated patient in a higher rank of life. Oh, never mind me! I shall express my regret for disregarding the regulations — and, to prove my sincerity, I shall consent to the poor creature’s dismissal, and assume the whole responsibility of providing for him myself. There is the way out of our difficulty. Take it — and you shall have Jack whenever you want him.”

In three weeks from that time, the “dangerous lunatic” was free (as our friend the lawyer put it) to “murder Mrs. Wagner, and to burn the house down.”

How my aunt’s perilous experiment was conducted — in what particulars it succeeded and in what particulars it failed — I am unable to state as an eyewitness, owing to my absence at the time. This curious portion of the narrative will be found related by Jack himself, on a page still to come. In the meanwhile, the course of events compels me to revert to the circumstances which led to my departure from London.

While Mrs. Wagner was still in attendance at the palace, a letter reached her from Mr. Keller, stating the necessity of increasing the number of clerks at the Frankfort branch of our business. Closely occupied as she then was, she found time to provide me with those instructions to her German partners, preparing them for the coming employment of women in their office, to which she had first alluded when the lawyer and I had our interview with her after the reading of the will.

“The cause of the women,” she said to me, “must not suffer because I happen to be just now devoted to the cause of poor Jack. Go at once to Frankfort, David. I have written enough to prepare my partners there for a change in the administration of the office, and to defer for the present the proposed enlargement of our staff of clerks. The rest you can yourself explain from your own knowledge of the plans that I have in contemplation. Start on your journey as soon as possible — and understand that you are to say No positively, if Fritz proposes to accompany you. He is not to leave London without the express permission of his father.”

Fritz did propose to accompany me, the moment he heard of my journey. I must own that I thought the circumstances excused him.

On the previous evening, we had consulted the German newspapers at the coffee-house, and had found news from Wurzburg which quite overwhelmed my excitable friend.

Being called upon to deliver their judgment, the authorities presiding at the legal inquiry into the violation of the seals and the loss of the medicine-chest failed to agree in opinion, and thus brought the investigation to a most unsatisfactory end. The moral effect of this division among the magistrates was unquestionably to cast a slur on the reputation of Widow Fontaine. She was not pronounced to be guilty — but she was also not declared to be innocent. Feeling, no doubt, that her position among her neighbors had now become unendurable, she and her daughter had left Wurzburg. The newspaper narrative added that their departure had been privately accomplished. No information could be obtained of the place of their retreat.

But for this last circumstance, I believe Fritz would have insisted on traveling with me. Ignorant of what direction to begin the search for Minna and her mother, he consented to leave me to look for traces of them in Germany, while he remained behind to inquire at the different foreign hotels, on the chance that they might have taken refuge in London.

The next morning I started for Frankfort.

My spirits were high as I left the shores of England. I had a young man’s hearty and natural enjoyment of change. Besides, it flattered my self-esteem to feel that I was my aunt’s business-representative; and I was almost equally proud to be Fritz’s confidential friend. Never could any poor human creature have been a more innocent instrument of mischief in the hands of Destiny than I was, on that fatal journey. The day was dark, when the old weary way of traveling brought me at last to Frankfort. The unseen prospect, at the moment when I stepped out of the mail-post-carriage, was darker still.

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