Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 10

The office hours, in the winter-time, began at nine o’clock. From the head-clerk to the messenger, not one of the persons employed slept in the house: it was Mr. Keller’s wish that they should all be absolutely free to do what they liked with their leisure time in the evening: “I know that I can trust them, from the oldest to the youngest man in my service,” he used to say; “and I like to show it.”

Under these circumstances, Mrs. Wagner had only to rise earlier than usual, to be sure of having the whole range of the offices entirely to herself. At eight o’clock, with Jack in attendance, she was seated at her desk, carefully examining the different objects that it contained.

Nothing was missing; nothing had been moved out of its customary place. No money was kept in the desk. But her valuable watch, which had stopped on the previous day, had been put there, to remind her that it must be sent to be cleaned. The watch, like everything else, was found in its place. If some person had really opened her desk in the night, no common thief had been concerned, and no common object had been in view.

She took the key of the iron safe from its pigeon-hole, and opened the door. Her knowledge of the contents of this repository was far from being accurate. The partners each possessed a key, but Mr. Keller had many more occasions than Mrs. Wagner for visiting the safe. And to make a trustworthy examination more difficult still, the mist of the early morning was fast turning into a dense white fog.

Of one thing, however, Mrs. Wagner was well aware — a certain sum of money, in notes and securities, was always kept in this safe as a reserve fund. She took the tin box in which the paper money was placed close to the light, and counted its contents. Then, replacing it in the safe, she opened the private ledger next, to compare the result of her counting with the entry relating to the Fund.

Being unwilling to cause surprise, perhaps to excite suspicion, by calling for a candle before the office hours had begun, she carried the ledger also to the window. There was just light enough to see the sum total in figures. To her infinite relief, it exactly corresponded with the result of her counting. She secured everything again in its proper place; and, after finally locking the desk, handed the key to Jack. He shook his head, and refused to take it. More extraordinary still, he placed his bag, with all the other keys in it, on the desk, and said, “Please keep it for me; I’m afraid to keep it myself.”

Mrs. Wagner looked at him with a first feeling of alarm, which changed instantly to compassion. The tears were in his eyes; his sensitive vanity was cruelly wounded. “My poor boy,” she said gently, “what is it that troubles you?”

The tears rolled down Jack’s face. “I’m a wretched creature,” he said; “I’m not fit to keep the keys, after letting a thief steal them last night. Take them back, Mistress — I’m quite broken-hearted. Please try me again, in London.”

“A thief?” Mrs. Wagner repeated. “Haven’t you seen me examine everything? And mind, if there had been any dishonest person about the house last night, the key of my desk is the only key that a thief would have thought worth stealing. I happen to be sure of that. Come! come! don’t be down-hearted. You know I never deceive you — and I say you are quite wrong in suspecting that your bag was stolen last night.”

Jack solemnly lifted his hand, as his custom was in the great emergencies of his life. “And I say,” he reiterated, “there is a thief in the house. And you will find it out before long. When we are back in London again, I will be Keeper of the Keys. Never, never, never more, here!”

It was useless to contend with him; the one wise course was to wait until his humor changed. Mrs. Wagner locked up his bag, and put the key of the desk back in her pocket. She was not very willing to own it even to herself — Jack’s intense earnestness had a little shaken her.

After breakfast that morning, Minna lingered at the table, instead of following her mother upstairs as usual. When Mr. Keller also had left the room, she addressed a little request of her own to Mrs. Wagner.

“I have got a very difficult letter to write,” she said, “and Fritz thought you might be kind enough to help me.”

“With the greatest pleasure, my dear. Does your mother know of this letter?”

“Yes; it was mamma who said I ought to write it. But she is going out this morning; and, when I asked for a word of advice, she shook her head. ‘They will think it comes from me,’ she said, ‘and the whole effect of it will be spoilt.’ It’s a letter, Mrs. Wagner, announcing my marriage to mamma’s relations here, who have behaved so badly to her — and she says they may do something for me, if I write to them as if I had done it all out of my own head. I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly, Minna. Come to my writing-room, and we will see what we can do together.”

Mrs. Wagner led the way out. As she opened the door, Madame Fontaine passed her in the hall, in walking costume, with a small paper-packet in her hand.

“There is a pen, Minna. Sit down by me, and write what I tell you.”

The ink-bottle had been replenished by the person charged with that duty; and he had filled it a little too full. In a hurry to write the first words dictated, Minna dipped her pen too deeply in the bottle. On withdrawing it she not only blotted the paper but scattered some of the superfluous ink over the sleeve of Mrs. Wagner’s dress. “Oh, how awkward I am!” she exclaimed. “Excuse me for one minute. Mamma has got something in her dressing-case which will take out the marks directly.”

She ran upstairs, and returned with the powder which her mother had used, in erasing the first sentences on the label attached to the blue-glass bottle. Mrs. Wagner looked at the printed instructions on the little paper box, when the stains had been removed from her dress, with some curiosity. “Macula Exstinctor,” she read, “or Destroyer of Stains. Partially dissolve the powder in a teaspoonful of water; rub it well over the place, and the stain will disappear, without taking out the color of the dress. This extraordinary specific may also be used for erasing written characters without in any way injuring the paper, otherwise than by leaving a slight shine on the surface.”

“Is this to be got in Frankfort?” asked Mrs. Wagner. “I only know lemon-juice as a remedy against ink-marks, when I get them on my dress or my fingers.”

“Keep it, dear Mrs. Wagner. I can easily buy another box for mamma where we got this one, at a chemist’s in the Zeil. See how easily I can take off the blot that I dropped on the paper! Unless you look very close, you can hardly see the shine — and the ink has completely disappeared.”

“Thank you, my dear. But your mother might meet with some little accident, and might want your wonderful powder when I am out of the way. Take it back when we have done our letter. And we will go to the chemist together and buy another box in a day or two.”

On the thirtieth of December, after dinner, Mr. Keller proposed a toast —“Success to the adjourned wedding-day!” There was a general effort to be cheerful, which was not rewarded by success. Nobody knew why; but the fact remained that nobody was really merry.

On the thirty-first, there was more hard work at the office. The last day of the old year was the day on which the balance was struck.

Towards noon, Mr. Keller appeared in Mrs. Wagner’s office, and opened the safe.

“We must see about the Reserve Fund,” he said; “I will count the money, if you will open the ledger and see that the entry is right. I don’t know what you think, but my idea is that we keep too much money lying idle in these prosperous times. What do you say to using half of the customary fund for investment? By the by, our day for dividing the profits is not your day in London. When my father founded this business, the sixth of January was the chosen date — being one way, among others, of celebrating his birthday. We have kept to the old custom, out of regard for his memory; and your worthy husband entirely approved of our conduct. I am sure you agree with him?”

“With all my heart,” said Mrs. Wagner. “Whatever my good husband thought, I think.”

Mr. Keller proceeded to count the Fund. “Fifteen thousand florins,” he announced. “I thought it had been more than that. If poor dear Engelman had been here — Never mind! What does the ledger say?”

“Fifteen thousand florins,” Mrs. Wagner answered.

“Ah, very well, my memory must have deceived me. This used to be Engelman’s business; and you are as careful as he was — I can say no more.”

Mr. Keller replaced the money in the safe, and hastened back to his own office.

Mrs. Wagner raised one side of the ledger off the desk to close the book — stopped to think — and laid it back again.

The extraordinary accuracy of Mr. Keller’s memory was proverbial in the office. Remembering the compliment which he had paid to her sense of responsibility as Mr. Engelman’s successor, Mrs. Wagner was not quite satisfied to take it for granted that he had made a mistake — even on the plain evidence of the ledger. A reference to the duplicate entry, in her private account-book, would at once remove even the shadow of a doubt.

The last day of the old year was bright and frosty; the clear midday light fell on the open page before her. She looked again at the entry, thus recorded in figures —“15,000 florins”— and observed a trifling circumstance which had previously escaped her.

The strokes which represented the figures “15” were unquestionably a little, a very little, thicker than the strokes which represented the three zeros or “noughts” that followed. Had a hair got into the pen of the head-clerk, who had made the entry? or was there some trifling defect in the paper, at that particular part of the page?

She once more raised one side of the ledger so that the light fell at an angle on the writing. There was a difference between that part of the paper on which the figures “15” were written, and the rest of the page — and the difference consisted in a slight shine on the surface.

The side of the ledger dropped from her hand on the desk. She left the office, and ran upstairs to her own room. Her private account-book had not been wanted lately — it was locked up in her dressing-case. She took it out, and referred to it. There was the entry as she had copied it, and compared it with the ledger —“20,000 florins.”

“Madame Fontaine!” she said to herself in a whisper.

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