Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 9

I had just given a porter the necessary directions for taking my portmanteau to Mr. Keller’s house, when I heard a woman’s voice behind me asking the way to the Poste Restante — or, in our roundabout English phrase, the office of letters to be left till called for.

The voice was delightfully fresh and sweet, with an undertone of sadness, which made it additionally interesting. I did what most other young men in my place would have done — I looked round directly.

Yes! the promise of the voice was abundantly kept by the person. She was quite a young girl, modest and ladylike; a little pale and careworn, poor thing, as if her experience of life had its sad side already. Her face was animated by soft sensitive eyes — the figure supple and slight, the dress of the plainest material, but so neatly made and so perfectly worn that I should have doubted her being a German girl, if I had not heard the purely South–German accent in which she put her question. It was answered, briefly and civilly, by the conductor of the post-carriage in which I had traveled. But, at that hour, the old court-yard of the post-office was thronged with people arriving and departing, meeting their friends and posting their letters. The girl was evidently not used to crowds. She was nervous and confused. After advancing a few steps in the direction pointed out to her, she stopped in bewilderment, hustled by busy people, and evidently in doubt already about which way she was to turn next.

If I had followed the strict line of duty, I suppose I should have turned my steps in the direction of Mr. Keller’s house. I followed my instincts instead, and offered my services to the young lady. Blame the laws of Nature and the attraction between the sexes. Don’t blame me.

“I heard you asking for the post-office,” I said. “Will you allow me to show you the way?”

She looked at me, and hesitated. I felt that I was paying the double penalty of being a young man, and of being perhaps a little too eager as well.

“Forgive me for venturing to speak to you,” I pleaded. “It is not very pleasant for a young lady to find herself alone in such a crowded place as this. I only ask permission to make myself of some trifling use to you.”

She looked at me again, and altered her first opinion.

“You are very kind, sir; I will thankfully accept your assistance.”

“May I offer you my arm?”

She declined this proposal — with perfect amiability, however. “Thank you, sir, I will follow you, if you please.”

I pushed my way through the crowd, with the charming stranger close at my heels. Arrived at the post-office, I drew aside to let her make her own inquiries. Would she mention her name? No; she handed in a passport, and asked if there was a letter waiting for the person named in it. The letter was found; but was not immediately delivered. As well as I could understand, the postage had been insufficiently paid, and the customary double-rate was due. The young lady searched in the pocket of her dress — a cry of alarm escaped her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “I have lost my purse, and the letter is so important!”

It occurred to me immediately that she had had her pocket picked by some thief in the crowd. The clerk thought so too. He looked at the clock. “You must be quick about it if you return for the letter,” he said, “the office closes in ten minutes.”

She clasped her hands in despair. “It’s more than ten minutes’ walk,” she said, “before I can get home.”

I immediately offered to lend her the money. “It is such a very small sum,” I reminded her, “that it would be absurd to consider yourself under any obligation to me.”

Between her eagerness to get possession of the letter, and her doubt of the propriety of accepting my offer, she looked sadly embarrassed, poor soul.

“You are very good to me,” she said confusedly; “but I am afraid it might not be quite right in me to borrow money of a stranger, however little it may be. And, even if I did venture, how am I——?” She looked at me shyly, and shrank from finishing the sentence.

“How are you to pay it back?” I suggested.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, it’s not worth the trouble of paying back. Give it to the first poor person you meet with to-morrow.” I said this, with the intention of reconciling her to the loan of the money. It had exactly the contrary effect on this singularly delicate and scrupulous girl. She drew back a step directly.

“No, I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I could only accept your kindness, if ——” She stopped again. The clerk looked once more at the clock. “Make up your mind, Miss, before it’s too late.”

In her terror of not getting the letter that day, she spoke out plainly at last. “Will you kindly tell me, sir, to what address I can return the money when I get home?”

I paid for the letter first, and then answered the question.

“If you will be so good as to send it to Mr. Keller’s house ——”

Before I could add the name of the street, her pale face suddenly flushed. “Oh!” she exclaimed impulsively, “do you know Mr. Keller?”

A presentiment of the truth occurred to my mind for the first time.

“Yes,” I said; “and his son Fritz too.”

She trembled; the color that had risen in her face left it instantly; she looked away from me with a pained, humiliated expression. Doubt was no longer possible. The charming stranger was Fritz’s sweetheart — and “Jezebel’s Daughter.”

My respect for the young lady forbade me to attempt any concealment of the discovery that I had made. I said at once, “I believe I have the honor of speaking to Miss Minna Fontaine?”

She looked at me in wonder, not unmixed with distrust.

“How do you know who I am?” she asked.

“I can easily tell you, Miss Minna. I am David Glenney, nephew of Mrs. Wagner, of London. Fritz is staying in her house, and he and I have talked about you by the hour together.”

The poor girl’s face, so pale and sad the moment before, became radiant with happiness. “Oh!” she cried innocently, “has Fritz not forgotten me?”

Even at this distance of time, my memory recalls her lovely dark eyes riveted in breathless interest on my face, as I spoke of Fritz’s love and devotion, and told her that she was still the one dear image in his thoughts by day, in his dreams by night. All her shyness vanished. She impulsively gave me her hand. “How can I be grateful enough to the good angel who has brought us together!” she exclaimed. “If we were not in the street, I do believe, Mr. David, I should go down on my knees to thank you! You have made me the happiest girl living.” Her voice suddenly failed her; she drew her veil down. “Don’t mind me,” she said; “I can’t help crying for joy.”

Shall I confess what my emotions were? For the moment, I forgot my own little love affair in England — and envied Fritz from the bottom of my heart.

The chance-passengers in the street began to pause and look at us. I offered Minna my arm, and asked permission to attend her on the way home.

“I should like it,” she answered, with a friendly frankness that charmed me. “But you are expected at Mr. Keller’s — you must go there first.”

“May I call and see you to-morrow?” I persisted, “and save you the trouble of sending my money to Mr. Keller’s?”

She lifted her veil and smiled at me brightly through her tears. “Yes,” she said; “come to-morrow and be introduced to my mother. Oh! how glad my dear mother will be to see you, when I tell her what has happened! I am a selfish wretch; I have not borne my sorrow and suspense as I ought; I have made her miserable about me, because I was miserable about Fritz. It’s all over now. Thank you again and again. There is our address on that card. No, no, we must say good-bye till to-morrow. My mother is waiting for her letter; and Mr. Keller is wondering what has become of you.” She pressed my hand warmly and left me.

On my way alone to Mr. Keller’s house, I was not quite satisfied with myself. The fear occurred to me that I might have spoken about Fritz a little too freely, and might have excited hopes which could never be realized. The contemplation of the doubtful future began to oppress my mind. Minna might have reason to regret that she had ever met with me.

I was received by Mr. Keller with truly German cordiality. He and his partner Mr. Engelman — one a widower, the other an old bachelor — lived together in the ancient building, in Main Street, near the river, which served for house and for offices alike.

The two old gentlemen offered the completest personal contrast imaginable. Mr. Keller was lean, tall, and wiry — a man of considerable attainments beyond the limits of his business, capable (when his hot temper was not excited) of speaking sensibly and strongly on any subject in which he was interested. Mr. Engelman, short and fat, devoted to the office during the hours of business, had never read a book in his life, and had no aspiration beyond the limits of his garden and his pipe. “In my leisure moments,” he used to say, “give me my flowers, my pipe, and my peace of mind — and I ask no more.” Widely as they differed in character, the two partners had the truest regard for one another. Mr. Engelman believed Mr. Keller to be the most accomplished and remarkable man in Germany. Mr. Keller was as firmly persuaded, on his side, that Mr. Engelman was an angel in sweetness of temper, and a model of modest and unassuming good sense. Mr. Engelman listened to Mr. Keller’s learned talk with an ignorant admiration which knew no limit. Mr. Keller, detesting tobacco in all its forms, and taking no sort of interest in horticulture, submitted to the fumes of Mr. Engelman’s pipe, and passed hours in Mr. Engelman’s garden without knowing the names of nine-tenths of the flowers that grew in it. There are still such men to be found in Germany and in England; but, oh! dear me, the older I get the fewer I find there are of them.

The two old friends and partners were waiting for me to join them at their early German supper. Specimens of Mr. Engelman’s flowers adorned the table in honor of my arrival. He presented me with a rose from the nosegay when I entered the room.

“And how did you leave dear Mrs. Wagner?” he inquired.

“And how is my boy Fritz?” asked Mr. Keller.

I answered in terms which satisfied them both, and the supper proceeded gaily. But when the table was cleared, and Mr. Engelman had lit his pipe, and I had kept him company with a cigar, then Mr. Keller put the fatal question. “And now tell me, David, do you come to us on business or do you come to us on pleasure?”

I had no alternative but to produce my instructions, and to announce the contemplated invasion of the office by a select army of female clerks. The effect produced by the disclosure was highly characteristic of the widely different temperaments of the two partners.

Mild Mr. Engelman laid down his pipe, and looked at Mr. Keller in helpless silence.

Irritable Mr. Keller struck his fist on the table, and appealed to Mr. Engelman with fury in his looks.

“What did I tell you,” he asked, “when we first heard that Mr. Wagner’s widow was appointed head-partner in the business? How many opinions of philosophers on the moral and physical incapacities of women did I quote? Did I, or did I not, begin with the ancient Egyptians, and end with Doctor Bernastrokius, our neighbor in the next street?”

Poor Mr. Engelman looked frightened.

“Don’t be angry, my dear friend,” he said softly.

“Angry?” repeated Mr. Keller, more furiously than ever. “My good Engelman, you never were more absurdly mistaken in your life! I am delighted. Exactly what I expected, exactly what I predicted, has come to pass. Put down your pipe! I can bear a great deal — but tobacco smoke is beyond me at such a crisis as this. And do for once overcome your constitutional indolence. Consult your memory; recall my own words when we were first informed that we had a woman for head-partner.”

“She was a very pretty woman when I first saw her,” Mr. Engelman remarked.

“Pooh!” cried Mr. Keller.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” said Mr. Engelman. “Allow me to present you with one of my roses as a peace-offering.”

“Will you be quiet, and let me speak?”

“My dear Keller, I am always too glad to hear you speak! You put ideas into my poor head, and my poor head lets them out, and then you put them in again. What noble perseverance! If I live a while longer I do really think you will make a clever man of me. Let me put the rose in your buttonhole for you. And I say, I wish you would allow me to go on with my pipe.”

Mr. Keller made a gesture of resignation, and gave up his partner in despair. “I appeal to you, David,” he said, and poured the full flow of his learning and his indignation into my unlucky ears.

Mr. Engelman, enveloped in clouds of tobacco-smoke, enjoyed in silence the composing influence of his pipe. I said, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” at the right intervals in the flow of Mr. Keller’s eloquence. At this distance of time, I cannot pretend to report the long harangue of which I was made the victim. In substance, Mr. Keller held that there were two irremediable vices in the composition of women. Their dispositions presented, morally speaking, a disastrous mixture of the imitativeness of a monkey and the restlessness of a child. Having proved this by copious references to the highest authorities, Mr. Keller logically claimed my aunt as a woman, and, as such, not only incapable of “letting well alone,” but naturally disposed to imitate her husband on the most superficial and defective sides of his character. “I predicted, David, that the fatal disturbance of our steady old business was now only a question of time — and there, in Mrs. Wagner’s ridiculous instructions, is the fulfillment of my prophecy!”

Before we went to bed that night, the partners arrived at two resolutions. Mr. Keller resolved to address a written remonstrance to my aunt. Mr. Engelman resolved to show me his garden the first thing in the morning.

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