Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 12

As the presiding genius of the household, Madame Fontaine was always first in the room when the table was laid for the early German dinner. A knife with a speck on the blade, a plate with a suspicion of dirt on it, never once succeeded in escaping her observation. If Joseph folded a napkin carelessly, Joseph not only heard of it, but suffered the indignity of seeing his work performed for him to perfection by the housekeeper’s dexterous hands.

On the second day of the New Year, she was at her post as usual, and Joseph stood convicted of being wasteful in the matter of wine.

He had put one bottle of Ohligsberger on the table, at the place occupied by Madame Fontaine. The wine had already been used at the dinner and the supper of the previous day. At least two-thirds of it had been drunk. Joseph set down a second bottle on the opposite side of the table, and produced his corkscrew. Madame Fontaine took it out of his hand.

“Why do you open that bottle, before you are sure it will be wanted?” She asked sharply. “You know that Mr. Keller and his son prefer beer.”

“There is so little left in the other bottle,” Joseph pleaded; “not a full tumbler altogether.”

“It may be enough, little as it is, for Mrs. Wagner and for me.” With that reply she pointed to the door. Joseph retired, leaving her alone at the table, until the dinner was ready to be brought into the room.

In five minutes more, the family assembled at their meal.

Joseph performed his customary duties sulkily, resenting the housekeeper’s reproof. When the time came for filling the glasses, he had the satisfaction of hearing Madame Fontaine herself give him orders to draw the cork of a new bottle, after all.

Mrs. Wagner turned to Jack, standing behind her chair as usual, and asked for some wine. Madame Fontaine instantly took up the nearly empty bottle by her side, and, half-filling a glass, handed it with grave politeness across the table. “If you have no objection,” she said, “we will finish one bottle, before we open another.”

Mrs. Wagner drank her small portion of wine at a draught. “It doesn’t seem to keep well, after it has once been opened,” she remarked, as she set down her glass. “The wine has quite lost the good flavor it had yesterday.”

“It ought to keep well,” said Mr. Keller, speaking from his place at the top of the table. “It’s old wine, and good wine. Let me taste what is left.”

Joseph advanced to carry the remains of the wine to his master. But Madame Fontaine was beforehand with him. “Open the other bottle directly,” she said — and rose so hurriedly to take the wine herself to Mr. Keller, that she caught her foot in her dress. In saving herself from falling, she lost her hold of the bottle. It broke in two pieces, and the little wine left in it ran out on the floor.

“Pray forgive me,” she said, smiling faintly. “It is the first thing I have broken since I have been in the house.”

The wine from the new bottle was offered to Mrs. Wagner. She declined to take any: and she left her dinner unfinished on her plate.

“My appetite is very easily spoilt,” she said. “I dare say there might have been something I didn’t notice in the glass — or perhaps my taste may be out of order.”

“Very likely,” said Mr. Keller. “You didn’t find anything wrong with the wine yesterday. And there is certainly nothing to complain of in the new bottle,” he added, after tasting it. “Let us have your opinion, Madame Fontaine.”

He filled the housekeeper’s glass. “I am a poor judge of wine,” she remarked humbly. “It seems to me to be delicious.”

She put her glass down, and noticed that Jack’s eyes were fixed on her, with a solemn and scrutinizing attention. “Do you see anything remarkable in me?” she asked lightly.

“I was thinking,” Jack answered.

“Thinking of what?”

“This is the first time I ever saw you in danger of tumbling down. It used to be a remark of mine, at Wurzburg, that you were as sure-footed as a cat. That’s all.”

“Don’t you know that there are exceptions to all rules?” said Madame Fontaine, as amiably as ever. “I notice an exception in You,” she continued, suddenly changing the subject. “What has become of your leather bag? May I ask if you have taken away his keys, Mrs. Wagner?”

She had noticed Jack’s pride in his character as “Keeper of the Keys.” There would be no fear of his returning to the subject of what he had remarked at Wurzburg, if she stung him in that tender place. The result did not fail to justify her anticipations. In fierce excitement, Jack jumped up on the hind rail of his mistress’s chair, eager for the most commanding position that he could obtain, and opened his lips to tell the story of the night alarm. Before he could utter a word, Mrs. Wagner stopped him, with a very unusual irritability of look and manner. “The question was put to me,“ she said. “I am taking care of the keys, Madame Fontaine, at Jack’s own request. He can have them back again, whenever he chooses to ask for them.”

“Tell her about the thief,” Jack whispered.

“Be quiet!”

Jack was silenced at last. He retired to a corner. When he followed Mrs. Wagner as usual, on her return to her duties in the office he struck his favorite place on the window seat with his clenched fist. “The devil take Frankfort!” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I hate Frankfort. You were always kind to me in London. You do nothing but lose your temper with me here. It’s really too cruel. Why shouldn’t I have told Mrs. Housekeeper how I lost my keys in the night? Now I come to think of it, I believe she was the thief.”

“Hush! hush! you must not say that. Come and shake hands, Jack, and make it up. I do feel irritable — I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Remember, Mr. Keller doesn’t like your joining in the talk at dinner-time — he thinks it is taking a liberty. That was one reason why I stopped you. And you might have said something to offend Madame Fontaine — that was another. It will not be long before we go back to our dear old London. Now, be a good boy, and leave me to my work.”

Jack was not quite satisfied; but he was quiet again.

For awhile he sat watching Mrs. Wagner at her work. His thoughts went back to the subject of the keys. Other people — the younger clerks and the servants, for example — might have observed that he was without his bag, and might have injuriously supposed that the keys had been taken away from him. Little by little, he reached the conclusion that he had been in too great a hurry perhaps to give up the bag. Why not prove himself to be worthier of it than ever, by asking to have it back again, and taking care always to lock the door of his bedroom at night? He looked at Mrs. Wagner, to see if she paused over her work, so as to give him an opportunity of speaking to her.

She was not at work; she was not pausing over it. Her head hung down over her breast; her hands and arms lay helpless on the desk.

He got up and crossed the room on tiptoe, to look at her.

She was not asleep.

Slowly and silently, she turned her head. Her eyes stared at him awfully. Her mouth was a little crooked. There was a horrid gray paleness all over her face.

He dropped terrified on his knees, and clasped her dress in both hands. “Oh, Mistress, Mistress, you are ill! What can I do for you?”

She tried to reassure him by a smile. Her mouth became more crooked still. “I’m not well,” she said, speaking thickly and slowly, with an effort. “Help me down. Bed. Bed.”

He held out his hands. With another effort, she lifted her arms from the desk, and turned to him on the high office-stool.

“Take hold of me,” she said.

“I have got hold of you, Mistress! I have got your hands in my hands. Don’t you feel it?”

“Press me harder.”

He closed his hands on hers with all his strength. Did she feel it now?

Yes; she could just feel it now.

Leaning heavily upon him, she set her feet on the floor. She felt with them as if she was feeling the floor, without quite understanding that she stood on it. The next moment, she reeled against the desk. “Giddy,” she said, faintly and thickly. “My head.” Her eyes looked at him, cold and big and staring. They maddened the poor affectionate creature with terror. The frightful shrillness of the past days in Bedlam was in his voice, as he screamed for help.

Mr. Keller rushed into the room from his office, followed by the clerks.

“Fetch the doctor, one of you,” he cried. “Stop.”

He mastered himself directly, and called to mind what he had heard of the two physicians who had attended him, during his own illness. “Not the old man,” he said. “Fetch Doctor Dormann. Joseph will show you where he lives.” He turned to another of the clerks, supporting Mrs. Wagner in his arms while he spoke. “Ring the bell in the hall — the upstairs bell for Madame Fontaine!”

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