Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 14

Doctor Dormann was punctual to his appointment. He was accompanied by a stranger, whom he introduced as a surgeon. As before, Jack slipped into the room, and waited in a corner, listening and watching attentively.

Instead of improving under the administration of the remedies, the state of the patient had sensibly deteriorated. On the rare occasions when she attempted to speak, it was almost impossible to understand her. The sense of touch seemed to be completely lost — the poor woman could no longer feel the pressure of a friendly hand. And more ominous still, a new symptom had appeared; it was with evident difficulty that she performed the act of swallowing. Doctor Dormann turned resignedly to the surgeon.

“There is no other alternative,” he said; “you must bleed her.”

At the sight of the lancet and the bandage, Jack started out of his corner. His teeth were fast set; his eyes glared with rage. Before he could approach the surgeon Mr. Keller took him sternly by the arm and pointed to the door. He shook himself free — he saw the point of the lancet touch the vein. As the blood followed the incision, a cry of horror burst from him: he ran out of the room.

“Wretches! Tigers! How dare they take her blood from her! Oh, why am I only a little man? why am I not strong enough to fling the brutes out of the window? Mistress! Mistress! is there nothing I can do to help you?”

These wild words poured from his lips in the solitude of his little bedchamber. In the agony that he suffered, as the sense of Mrs. Wagner’s danger now forced itself on him, he rolled on the floor, and struck himself with his clenched fists. And, again and again, he cried out to her, “Mistress! Mistress! is there nothing I can do to help you?”

The strap that secured his keys became loosened, as his frantic movements beat the leather bag, now on one side, and now on the other, upon the floor. The jingling of the keys rang in his ears. For a moment, he lay quite still. Then, he sat up on the floor. He tried to think calmly. There was no candle in the room. The nearest light came from a lamp on the landing below. He got up, and went softly down the stairs. Alone on the landing, he held up the bag and looked at it. “There’s something in my mind, trying to speak to me,” he said to himself. “Perhaps, I shall find it in here?”

He knelt down under the light, and shook out the keys on the landing.

One by one he ranged them in a row, with a single exception. The key of the desk happened to be the first that he took up. He kissed it — it was her key — and put it back in the bag. Placing the others before him, the duplicate key was the last in the line. The inscription caught his eye. He held it to the light and read “Pink–Room Cupboard.”

The lost recollection now came back to him in intelligible form. The “remedy” that Madame Fontaine had locked up — the precious “remedy” made by the wonderful master who knew everything — was at his disposal. He had only to open the cupboard, and to have it in his own possession.

He threw the other keys back into the bag. They rattled as he ran down the lower flight of stairs. Opposite to the offices, he stopped and buckled them tight with the strap. No noise! Nothing to alarm Mrs. Housekeeper! He ascended the stairs in the other wing of the house, and paused again when he approached Madame Fontaine’s room. By this time, he was in the perilous fever of excitement, which was still well remembered among the authorities of Bedlam. Suppose the widow happened to be in her room? Suppose she refused to let him have the “remedy”?

He looked at the outstretched fingers of his right hand. “I am strong enough to throttle a woman,” he said, “and I’ll do it.”

He opened the door without knocking, without stopping to listen outside. Not a creature was in the room.

In another moment the fatal dose of “Alexander’s Wine,” which he innocently believed to be a beneficent remedy, was in his possession.

As he put it into the breast-pocket of his coat, the wooden chest caught his eye. He reached it down and tried the lid. The lid opened in his hand, and disclosed the compartments and the bottles placed in them. One of the bottles rose higher by an inch or two than any of the others. He drew that one out first to look at it, and discovered — the “blue-glass bottle.”

From that moment all idea of trying the effect on Mrs. Wagner of the treacherous “remedy” in his pocket vanished from his mind. He had secured the inestimable treasure, known to him by his own experience. Here was the heavenly bottle that had poured life down his throat, when he lay dying at Wurzburg! This was the true and only doctor who had saved Mr. Keller’s life, when the poor helpless fools about his bed had given him up for lost! The Mistress, the dear Mistress, was as good as cured already. Not a drop more of her precious blood should be shed by the miscreant, who had opened his knife and wounded her. Oh, of all the colors in the world, there’s no color like blue! Of all the friends in the world, there never was such a good friend as this! He kissed and hugged the bottle as if it had been a living thing. He jumped up and danced about the room with it in his arms. Ha! what music there was in the inner gurgling and splashing of the shaken liquid, which told him that there was still some left for the Mistress! The striking of the clock on the mantelpiece sobered him at the height of his ecstasy. It told him that time was passing. Minute by minute, Death might be getting nearer and nearer to her; and there he was, with Life in his possession, wasting the time, far from her bedside.

On his way to the door, he stopped. His eyes turned slowly towards the inner part of the room. They rested on the open cupboard — and then they looked at the wooden chest, left on the floor.

Suppose the housekeeper should return, and see the key in the cupboard, and the chest with one of the bottles missing?

His only counselor at that critical moment was his cunning; stimulated into action by the closely related motive powers of his inbred vanity, and his devotion to the benefactress whom he loved.

The chance of being discovered by Madame Fontaine never entered into his calculations. He cared nothing whether she discovered him or not — he had got the bottle, and woe to her if she tried to take it away from him! What he really dreaded was, that the housekeeper might deprive him of the glory of saving Mrs. Wagner’s life, if she found out what had happened. She might follow him to the bedside; she might claim the blue-glass bottle as her property; she might say, “I saved Mr. Keller; and now I have saved Mrs. Wagner. This little man is only the servant who gave the dose, which any other hand might have poured out in his place.”

Until these considerations occurred to him, his purpose had been to announce his wonderful discovery publicly at Mrs. Wagner’s bedside. This intention he now abandoned, without hesitation. He saw a far more inviting prospect before him. What a glorious position for him it would be, if he watched his opportunity of administering the life-giving liquid privately — if he waited till everybody was astonished at the speedy recovery of the suffering woman — and then stood up before them all, and proclaimed himself as the man who had restored her to health!

He replaced the chest, and locked the cupboard; taking the key away with him. Returning to the door, he listened intently to make sure that nobody was outside, and kept the blue-glass bottle hidden under his coat when he ventured at last to leave the room. He reached the other wing of the house, and ascended the second flight of stairs, without interruption of any kind. Safe again in his own room, he watched through the half-opened door.

Before long, Doctor Dormann and the surgeon appeared, followed by Mr. Keller. The three went downstairs together. On the way, the Doctor mentioned that he had secured a nurse for the night.

Still keeping the bottle concealed, Jack knocked softly at the door, and entered Mrs. Wagner’s room.

He first looked at the bed. She lay still and helpless, noticing nothing; to all appearance, poor soul, a dying woman. The servant was engaged in warming something over the fire. She shook her head gloomily, when Jack inquired if any favorable change had place in his absence. He sat down, vainly trying to discover how he might find the safe opportunity of which he was in search.

The slow minutes followed each other. After a little while the woman-servant looked at the clock. “It’s time Mrs. Wagner had her medicine,” she remarked, still occupied with her employment at the fire. Jack saw his opportunity in those words. “Please let me give the medicine,” he said.

“Bring it here,” she answered; “I mustn’t trust anybody to measure it out.

“Surely I can give it to her, now it’s ready?” Jack persisted.

The woman handed the glass to him. “I can’t very well leave what I am about,” she said. “Mind you are careful not to spill any of it. She’s as patient as a lamb, poor creature. If she can only swallow it, she won’t give you any trouble.”

Jack carried the glass round to the farther side of the bed, so as to keep the curtains as a screen between himself and the fire-place. He softly dropped out the contents of the glass on the carpet, and filled it again from the bottle concealed under his coat. Waiting a moment after that, he looked towards the door. What if the housekeeper came in, and saw the blue-glass bottle? He snatched it up — an empty bottle now — and put it in the side-pocket of his coat, and arranged his handkerchief so as to hide that part of it which the pocket was not deep enough to conceal. “Now!” he thought to himself, “now I may venture!” He gently put his arm round Mrs. Wagner, and raised her on the pillow.

“Your medicine, dear Mistress,” he whispered. “You will take it from poor Jack, won’t you?”

The sense of hearing still remained. Her vacant eyes turned towards him by slow degrees. No outward expression answered to her thought; she could show him that she submitted, and she could do no more.

He dashed away the tears that blinded him. Supported by the firm belief that he was saving her life, he took the glass from the bedside-table and put it to her lips.

With painful efforts, with many intervals of struggling breath, she swallowed the contents of the glass, by a few drops at a time. He held it up under the shadowed lamplight, and saw that it was empty.

As he laid her head back on the pillows, he ventured to touch her cold cheek with his lips. “Has she taken it?” the woman asked. He was just able to answer “Yes”— just able to look once more at the dear face on the pillow. The tumult of contending emotions, against which he had struggled thus far, overpowered his utmost resistance. He ran to hide the hysterical passion in him, forcing its way to relief in sobs and cries, on the landing outside.

In the calmer moments that followed, the fear still haunted him that Madame Fontaine might discover the empty compartment in the medicine-chest — might search every room in the house for the lost bottle — and might find it empty. Even if he broke it, and threw the fragments into the dusthole, the fragments might be remarked for their beautiful blue color, and the discovery might follow. Where could he hide it?

While he was still trying to answer that question, the hours of business came to an end, and the clerks were leaving the offices below. He heard them talking about the hard frost as they went out. One of them said there were blocks of ice floating down the river already. The river! It was within a few minutes’ walk of the house. Why not throw the bottle into the river?

He waited until there was perfect silence below, and then stole downstairs. As he opened the door, a strange man met him, ascending the house-steps, with a little traveling bag in his hand.

“Is this Mr. Keller’s?” asked the strange man.

He was a jolly-looking old fellow with twinkling black eyes and a big red nose. His breath was redolent of the smell of wine, and his thick lips expanded into a broad grin, when he looked at Jack.

“My name’s Schwartz,” he said; “and here in this bag are my sister’s things for the night.”

“Who is your sister?” Jack inquired.

Schwartz laughed. “Quite right, little man, how should you know who she is? My sister’s the nurse. She’s hired by Doctor Dormann, and she’ll be here in an hour’s time. I say! that’s a pretty bottle you’re hiding there under your coat. Is there any wine in it?”

Jack began to tremble. He had been discovered by a stranger. Even the river might not be deep enough to keep his secret now!

“The cold has got into my inside,” proceeded the jolly old man. “Be a good little fellow — and give us a drop!”

“I haven’t got any wine in it,” Jack answered.

Schwartz laid his forefinger confidentially along the side of his big red nose. “I understand,” he said, “you were just going out to get some.” He put his sister’s bag on one of the chairs in the hall, and took Jack’s arm in the friendliest manner. “Suppose you come along with me?” he suggested. “I am the man to help you to the best tap of wine in Frankfort. Bless your heart! you needn’t feel ashamed of being in my company. My sister’s a most respectable woman. And what do you think I am? I’m one of the city officers. Ho! ho! just think of that! I’m not joking, mind. The regular Night Watchman at the Deadhouse is ill in bed, and they’re obliged to find somebody to take his place till he gets well again. I’m the Somebody. They tried two other men — but the Deadhouse gave them the horrors. My respectable sister spoke for me, you know. “The regular watchman will be well in a week,” she says; “try him for a week.” And they tried me. I’m not proud, though I am a city officer. Come along — and let me carry the bottle.”

“The bottle” again! And, just as this intrusive person spoke of it, Joseph’s voice was audible below, and Joseph’s footsteps gave notice that he was ascending the kitchen stairs. In the utter bewilderment of the moment, Jack ran out, with the one idea of escaping the terrible possibilities of discovery in the hall. He heard the door closed behind him — then heavy boots thumping the pavement at a quick trot. Before he had got twenty yards from the house, the vinous breath of Schwartz puffed over his shoulder, and the arm of the deputy-night-watchman took possession of him again.

“Not too fast — I’m nimble on my legs for a man of my age — but not too fast,” said his new friend. “You’re just the sort of little man I like. My sister will tell you I take sudden fancies to people of your complexion. My sister’s a most respectable woman. What’s your name? — Jack? A capital name! Short, with a smack in it like the crack of a whip. Do give me the bottle!” He took it this time, without waiting to have it given to him. “There! might drop it, you know,” he said. “It’s safe in my friendly hands. Where are you going to? You don’t deal, I hope, at the public-house up that way? A word in your ear — the infernal scoundrel waters his wine. Here’s the turning where the honest publican lives. I have the truest affection for him. I have the truest affection for you. Would you like to see the Deadhouse, some night? It’s against the rules; but that don’t matter. The cemetery overseer is a deal too fond of his bed to turn out these cold nights and look after the watchman. It’s just the right place for me. There’s nothing to do but to drink, when you have got the liquor; and to sleep, when you haven’t. The Dead who come our way, my little friend, have one great merit. We are supposed to help them, if they’re perverse enough to come to life again before they’re buried. There they lie in our house, with one end of the line tied to their fingers, and the other end at the spring of the alarm-bell. And they have never rung the bell yet — never once, bless their hearts, since the Deadhouse was built! Come and see me in the course of the week, and we’ll drink a health to our quiet neighbors.”

They arrived at the door of the public-house.

“You’ve got some money about you, I suppose?” said Schwartz.

Madame Fontaine’s generosity, when she gave Jack the money to buy a pair of gloves, had left a small surplus in his pocket. He made a last effort to escape from the deputy-watchman. “There’s the money,” he said. “Give me back the bottle, and go and drink by yourself.”

Schwartz took him by the shoulder, and surveyed him from head to foot by the light of the public-house lamp. “Drink by myself?” he repeated. “Am I a jolly fellow, or am I not? Yes, or No?”

“Yes,” said Jack, trying hard to release himself.

Schwartz tightened his hold. “Did you ever hear of a jolly fellow, who left his friend at the public-house door?” he asked.

“If you please, sir, I don’t drink,” Jack pleaded.

Schwartz burst into a great roar of laughter, and kicked open the door of the public-house. “That’s the best joke I ever heard in my life,” he said. “We’ve got money enough to fill the bottle, and to have a glass a-piece besides. Come along!”

He dragged Jack into the house. The bottle was filled; the glasses were filled. “My sister’s health! Long life and prosperity to my respectable sister! You can’t refuse to drink the toast.” With those words, he put the fatal glass into his companion’s hand.

Jack tasted the wine. It was cool; it was good. Perhaps it was not so strong as Mr. Keller’s wine? He tried it again — and emptied the glass.

An hour later, there was a ring at the door of Mr. Keller’s house.

Joseph opened the door, and discovered a red-nosed old man, holding up another man who seemed to be three parts asleep, and who was quite unable to stand on his legs without assistance. The light of the hall lamp fell on this helpless creature’s face, and revealed — Jack.

“Put him to bed,” said the red-nosed stranger. “And, look here, take charge of the bottle for him, or he’ll break it. Somehow, the wine has all leaked out. Where’s my sister’s bag?”

“Do you mean the nurse?”

“Of course I do! I defy the world to produce the nurse’s equal. Has she come?”

Joseph held up his hand with a gesture of grave reproof.

“Not so loud,” he said. “The nurse has come too late.”

“Has the lady got well again?”

“The lady is dead.”

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