Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 13

Madame Fontaine instantly left her room. Alarmed by the violent ringing of the bell, Minna followed her mother downstairs. The door of the office was open; they both saw what had happened as soon as they reached the hall. In sending for Madame Fontaine, Mr. Keller had placed a natural reliance on the experience and presence of mind of a woman of her age and character. To his surprise, she seemed to be as little able to control herself as her daughter. He was obliged to summon the assistance of the elder of the female servants, in carrying Mrs. Wagner to her room. Jack went with them, holding one of his mistress’s helpless hands.

His first paroxysm of terror had passed away with the appearance of Mr. Keller and the clerk, and had left his weak mind stunned by the shock that had fallen on it. He looked about him vacantly. Once or twice, on the slow sad progress up the stairs, they heard him whispering to himself, “She won’t die — no, no, no; she won’t die.” His only consolation seemed to be in that helpless confession of faith. When they laid her on the bed, he was close at the side of the pillow. With an effort, her eyes turned on him. With an effort she whispered, “The Key!”

He understood her — the desk downstairs had been left unlocked.

“I’ll take care of the key, Mistress; I’ll take care of them all,” he said.

As he left the room, he repeated his comforting words, “She won’t die — no, no, no; she won’t die.” He locked the desk and placed the key with the rest in his bag.

Leaving the office with the bag slung over his shoulder, he stopped at the door of the dining-room, on the opposite side of the hall. His head felt strangely dull. A sudden suspicion that the feeling might show itself in his face, made him change his mind and pause before he ascended the stairs. There was a looking-glass in the dining-room. He went straight to the glass, and stood before it, studying the reflection of his face with breathless anxiety. “Do I look stupid-mad?” he asked himself. “They won’t let me be with her; they’ll send me away, if I look stupid-mad.”

He turned from the glass, and dropped on his knees before the nearest chair. “Perhaps God will keep me quiet,” he thought, “if I say my prayers.”

Repeating his few simple words, the poor creature’s memory vaguely recalled to him the happy time when his good mistress had first taught him his prayers. The one best relief that could come to him, came — the relief of tears. Mr. Keller, descending to the hall in his impatience for the arrival of the doctor, found himself unexpectedly confronted by Mrs. Wagner’s crazy attendant.

“May I go upstairs to Mistress?” Jack asked humbly. “I’ve said my prayers, sir, and I’ve had a good cry — and my head’s easier now.”

Mr. Keller spoke to him more gently than usual. “You had better not disturb your mistress before the doctor comes.”

“May I wait outside her door, sir? I promise to be very quiet.”

Mr. Keller consented by a sign. Jack took off his shoes, and noiselessly ascended the stairs. Before he reached the first landing, he turned and looked back into the hall. “Mind this!” he announced very earnestly; “I say she won’t die —I say that!”

He went on up the stairs. For the first time Mr. Keller began to pity the harmless little man whom he had hitherto disliked. “Poor wretch!” he said to himself, as he paced up and down the hall, “what will become of him, if she does die?”

In ten minutes more, Doctor Dormann arrived at the house.

His face showed that he thought badly of the case, as soon as he looked at Mrs. Wagner. He examined her, and made all the necessary inquiries, with the unremitting attention to details which was part of his professional character. One of his questions could only be answered generally. Having declared his opinion that the malady was paralysis, and that some of the symptoms were far from being common in his medical experience, he inquired if Mrs. Wagner had suffered from any previous attack of the disease. Mr. Keller could only reply that he had known her from the time of her marriage, and that he had never (in the course of a long and intimate correspondence with her husband) heard of her having suffered from serious illness of any kind. Doctor Dormann looked at his patient narrowly, and looked back again at Mr. Keller with unconcealed surprise.

“At her age,” he said, “I have never seen any first attack of paralysis so complicated and so serious as this.”

“Is there danger?” Mr. Keller asked in a whisper.

“She is not an old woman,” the doctor answered; “there is always hope. The practice in these cases generally is to bleed. In this case, the surface of the body is cold; the heart’s action is feeble — I don’t like to try bleeding, if I can possibly avoid it.”

After some further consideration, he directed a system of treatment which, in some respects, anticipated the practice of a later and wiser time. Having looked at the women assembled round the bed — and especially at Madame Fontaine — he said he would provide a competent nurse, and would return to see the effect of the remedies in two hours.

Looking at Madame Fontaine, after the doctor had gone away, Mr. Keller felt more perplexed than ever. She presented the appearance of a woman who was completely unnerved. “I am afraid you are far from well yourself,” he said.

“I have not felt well, sir, for some time past,” she answered, without looking at him.

“You had better try what rest and quiet will do for you,” he suggested.

“Yes, I think so.” With that reply — not even offering, for the sake of appearances, to attend on Mrs. Wagner until the nurse arrived — she took her daughter’s arm, and went out.

The woman-servant was fortunately a discreet person. She remembered the medical instructions, and she undertook all needful duties, until the nurse relieved her. Jack (who had followed the doctor into the room, and had watched him attentively) was sent away again for the time. He would go no farther than the outer side of the door. Mr. Keller passed him, crouched up on the mat, biting his nails. He was apparently thinking of the doctor. He said to himself, “That man looked puzzled; that man knows nothing about it.”

In the meantime, Madame Fontaine reached her room.

“Where is Fritz?” she asked, dropping her daughter’s arm.

“He has gone out, mamma. Don’t send me away! You seem to be almost as ill as poor Mrs. Wagner — I want to be with you.”

Madame Fontaine hesitated. “Do you love me with all your heart and soul?” she asked suddenly. “Are you worthy of any sacrifice that a mother can make for her child?”

Before the girl could answer, she spoke more strangely still.

“Are you just as fond of Fritz as ever? would it break your heart if you lost him?”

Minna placed her mother’s hand on her bosom.

“Feel it, mamma,” she said quietly. Madame Fontaine took her chair by the fire-side — seating herself with her back to the light. She beckoned to her daughter to sit by her. After an interval, Minna ventured to break the silence.

“I am very sorry for Mrs. Wagner, mamma; she has always been so kind to me. Do you think she will die?” Resting her elbows on her knees, staring into the fire, the widow lifted her head — looked round — and looked back again at the fire.

“Ask the doctor,” she said. “Don’t ask me.”

There was another long interval of silence. Minna’s eyes were fixed anxiously on her mother. Madame Fontaine remained immovable, still looking into the fire.

Afraid to speak again, Minna sought refuge from the oppressive stillness in a little act of attention. She took a fire-screen from the chimney-piece, and tried to place it gently in her mother’s hand.

At that light touch, Madame Fontaine sprang to her feet as if she had felt the point of a knife. Had she seen some frightful thing? had she heard some dreadful sound? “I can’t bear it!” she cried —“I can’t bear it any longer!”

“Are you in pain, mamma? Will you lie down on the bed?” Her mother only looked at her. She drew back trembling, and said no more.

Madame Fontaine crossed the room to the wardrobe. When she spoke next, she was outwardly quite calm again. “I am going out for a walk,” she said.

“A walk, mamma? It’s getting dark already.”

“Dark or light, my nerves are all on edge — I must have air and exercise.”

“Let me go with you?”

She paced backwards and forwards restlessly, before she answered. “The room isn’t half large enough!” she burst out. “I feel suffocated in these four walls. Space! space! I must have space to breathe in! Did you say you wished to go out with me? I want a companion, Minna. Don’t you mind the cold?”

“I don’t even feel it, in my fur cloak.”

“Get ready, then, directly.”

In ten minutes more, the mother and daughter were out of the house.

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