Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 1

In the preceding portion of this narrative I spoke as an eye-witness. In the present part of it, my absence from Frankfort leaves me dependent on the documentary evidence of other persons. This evidence consists (first) of letters addressed to myself; (secondly) of statements personally made to me; (thirdly) of extracts from a diary discovered after the lifetime of the writer. In all three cases the materials thus placed at my disposal bear proof of truthfulness on the face of them.

Early in the month of December, Mr. Keller sent a message to Madame Fontaine, requesting to see her on a matter of importance to both of them.

“I hope you feel better to-day, madam,” he said, rising to receive the widow when she entered the room.

“You are very good, sir,” she answered, in tones barely audible — with her eyes on the ground. “I can’t say that I feel much better.”

“I have news for you, which ought to act as the best of all restoratives,” Mr. Keller proceeded. “At last I have heard from my sister on the subject of the marriage.”

He stopped, and, suddenly stepping forward, caught the widow by the arm. At his last words she had started to her feet. Her face suddenly turned from pale to red — and then changed again to a ghastly whiteness. She would have fallen if Mr. Keller had not held her up. He placed her at once in his own easy chair. “You must really have medical advice,” he said gravely; “your nerves are seriously out of order. Can I get you anything?”

“A glass of water, sir, if you will be so kind as to ring for it.”

“There is no need to ring for it; I have water in the next room.”

She laid her hand on his arm, and stopped him as he was about to leave her.

“One word first, sir. You will forgive a woman’s curiosity on such an interesting subject as the marriage of her child. Does your sister propose a day for the wedding?”

“My sister suggests,” Mr. Keller answered, “the thirtieth of this month.”

He left her and opened the door of the next room.

As he disappeared, she rapidly followed out a series of calculations on her fingers. Her eyes brightened, her energies rallied. “No matter what happens so long as my girl is married first,” she whispered to herself. “The wedding on the thirtieth, and the money due on the thirty-first. Saved by a day! Saved by a day!”

Mr. Keller returned with a glass of water. He started as he looked at her.

“You seem to have recovered already — you look quite a different woman!” he exclaimed.

She drank the water nevertheless. “My unlucky nerves play me strange tricks, sir,” she answered, as she set the empty glass down on a table at her side.

Mr. Keller took a chair and referred to his letter from Munich.

“My sister hopes to be with us some days before the end of the year,” he resumed. “But in her uncertain state of health, she suggests the thirtieth so as to leave a margin in case of unexpected delays. I presume this will afford plenty of time (I speak ignorantly of such things) for providing the bride’s outfit?”

Madame Fontaine smiled sadly. “Far more time than we want, sir. My poor little purse will leave my girl to rely on her natural attractions — with small help from the jeweler and the milliner, on her wedding day.”

Mr. Keller referred to his letter again, and looked up from it with a grim smile.

“My sister will in one respect at least anticipate the assistance of the jeweler,” he said. “She proposes to bring with her, as a present to the bride, an heirloom on the female side of our family. It is a pearl necklace (of very great value, I am told) presented to my mother by the Empress Maria Theresa — in recognition of services rendered to that illustrious person early in life. As an expression of my sister’s interest in the marriage, I thought an announcement of the proposed gift might prove gratifying to you.”

Madame Fontaine clasped her hands, with a fervor of feeling which was in this case, at least, perfectly sincere. A pearl necklace, the gift of an Empress, would represent in money value a little fortune in itself. “I can find no words to express my sense of gratitude,” she said; “my daughter must speak for herself and for me.”

“And your daughter must hear the good news as soon as possible,” Mr. Keller added kindly. “I won’t detain you. I know you must be anxious to see Minna. One word before you go. You will, of course, invite any relatives and friends whom you would like to see at the wedding.”

Madame Fontaine lifted her sleepy eyes by slow gradations to the ceiling, and devoutly resigned herself to mention her family circumstances.

“My parents cast me off, sir, when I married,” she said; “my other relatives here and in Brussels refused to assist me when I stood in need of help. As for friends — you, dear Mr. Keller, are our only friend. Thank you again and again.”

She lowered her eyes softly to the floor, and glided out of the room. The back view of her figure was its best view. Even Mr. Keller — constitutionally inaccessible to exhibitions of female grace — followed her with his eyes, and perceived that his housekeeper was beautifully made.

On the stairs she met with the housemaid.

“Where is Miss Minna?” she asked impatiently. “In her room?”

“In your room, madam. I saw Miss Minna go in as I passed the door.”

Madame Fontaine hurried up the next flight of stairs, and ran along the corridor as lightly as a young girl. The door of her room was ajar; she saw her daughter through the opening sitting on the sofa, with some work lying idle on her lap. Minna started up when her mother appeared.

“Am I in the way, mamma? I am so stupid, I can’t get on with this embroidery ——”

Madame Fontaine tossed the embroidery to the other end of the room, threw her arms round Minna, and lifted her joyously from the floor as if she had been a little child.

“The day is fixed, my angel!” she cried; “You are to be married on the thirtieth!”

She shifted one hand to her daughter’s head, and clasped it with a fierce fondness to her bosom. “Oh, my darling, you had lovely hair even when you were a baby! We won’t have it dressed at your wedding. It shall flow down naturally in all its beauty — and no hand shall brush it but mine.” She pressed her lips on Minna’s head, and devoured it with kisses; then, driven by some irresistible impulse, pushed the girl away from her, and threw herself on the sofa with a cry of pain.

“Why did you start up, as if you were afraid of me, when I came in?” she said wildly. “Why did you ask if you were in the way? Oh, Minna! Minna! can’t you forget the day when I locked you out of my room? My child! I was beside myself — I was mad with my troubles. Do you think I would behave harshly to you? Oh, my own love! when I came to tell you of your marriage, why did you ask me if you were in the way? My God! am I never to know a moment’s pleasure again without something to embitter it? People say you take after your father, Minna. Are you as cold-blooded as he was? There! there! I don’t mean it; I am a little hysterical, I think — don’t notice me. Come and be a child again. Sit on my knee, and let us talk of your marriage.”

Minna put her arm round her mother’s neck a little nervously. “Dear, sweet mamma, how can you think me so hard-hearted and so ungrateful? I can’t tell you how I love you! Let this tell you.”

With a tender and charming grace, she kissed her mother — then drew back a little and looked at Madame Fontaine. The subsiding conflict of emotions still showed itself with a fiery brightness in the widow’s eyes. “Do you know what I am thinking?” Minna asked, a little timidly.

“What is it, my dear?”

“I think you are almost too fond of me, mamma. I shouldn’t like to be the person who stood between me and my marriage — if you knew of it.”

Madame Fontaine smiled. “You foolish child, do you take me for a tigress?” she said playfully. “I must have another kiss to reconcile me to my new character.”

She bent her head to meet the caress — looked by chance at a cupboard fixed in a recess in the opposite wall of the room — and suddenly checked herself. “This is too selfish of me,” she said, rising abruptly. “All this time I am forgetting the bridegroom. His father will leave him to hear the good news from you. Do you think I don’t know what you are longing to do?” She led Minna hurriedly to the door. “Go, my dear one — go and tell Fritz!”

The instant her daughter disappeared, she rushed across the room to the cupboard. Her eyes had not deceived her. The key was left in the lock.

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