Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 15

Doctor Dormann had behaved very strangely.

He was the first person who made the terrible discovery of the death. When he came to the house, on his evening visit to his patient, Mr. Keller was in the room. Half an hour before, Mrs. Wagner had spoken to him. Seeing a slight movement of her lips, he had bent over her, and had just succeeded in hearing her few last words, “Be kind to Jack.” Her eyelids dropped wearily, after the struggle to speak. Mr. Keller and the servant in attendance both supposed that she had fallen asleep. The doctor’s examination was not only prolonged beyond all customary limits of time in such cases — it was the examination (judging by certain expressions which escaped him) of a man who seemed to be unwilling to trust his own experience. The new nurse arrived, before he had definitely expressed his opinion; and the servant was instructed to keep her waiting downstairs. In expectation of the doctor’s report, Mr. Keller remained in the bedroom. Doctor Dormann might not have noticed this circumstance, or might not have cared to conceal what was passing in his mind. In either case, when he spoke at last, he expressed himself in these extraordinary terms:—

“The second suspicious illness in this house! And the second incomprehensible end to it!”

Mr. Keller at once stepped forward, and showed himself.

“Did you mean me to hear what you have just said?” he asked.

The doctor looked at him gravely and sadly. “I must speak to you privately, Mr. Keller. Before we leave the room, permit me to send for the nurse. You may safely trust her to perform the last sad duties.”

Mr. Keller started. “Good God!” he exclaimed, “is Mrs. Wagner dead?”

“To my astonishment, she is dead.” He laid a strong emphasis on the first part of his reply.

The nurse having received her instructions, Mr. Keller led the way to his private room. “In my responsible position,” he said, “I may not unreasonably expect that you will explain yourself without reserve.”

“On such a serious matter as this,” Doctor Dormann answered, “it is my duty to speak without reserve. The person whom you employ to direct the funeral will ask you for the customary certificate. I refuse to give it.”

This startling declaration roused a feeling of anger, rather than of alarm, in a man of Mr. Keller’s resolute character. “For what reason do you refuse?” he asked sternly.

“I am not satisfied, sir, that Mrs. Wagner has died a natural death. My experience entirely fails to account for the suddenly fatal termination of the disease, in the case of a patient of her healthy constitution, and at her comparatively early age.”

“Doctor Dormann, do you suspect there is a poisoner in my house?”

“In plain words, I do.”

“In plain words on my side, I ask why?”

“I have already given you my reason.”

“Is your experience infallible? Have you never made a mistake?”

“I made a mistake, Mr. Keller (as it appeared at the time), in regard to your own illness.”

“What! you suspected foul play in my case too?”

“Yes; and, by way of giving you another reason, I will own that the suspicion is still in my mind. After what I have seen this evening — and only after that, observe — I say the circumstances of your recovery are suspicious circumstances in themselves. Remember, if you please, that neither I nor my colleague really understood what was the matter with you; and that you were cured by a remedy, not prescribed by either of us. You were rapidly sinking; and your regular physician had left you. I had to choose between the certainty of your death, and the risk of letting you try a remedy, with the nature of which (though I did my best to analyze it) I was imperfectly acquainted. I ran the risk. The result has justified me — and up to this day, I have kept my misgivings to myself. I now find them renewed by Mrs. Wagner’s death — and I speak.”

Mr. Keller’s manner began to change. His tone was sensibly subdued. He understood the respect which was due to the doctor’s motives at last.

“May I ask if the symptoms of my illness resembled the symptoms of Mrs. Wagner’s illness?” he said.

“Far from it. Excepting the nervous derangement, in both cases, there was no other resemblance in the symptoms. The conclusion, to my mind, is not altered by this circumstance. It simply leads me to the inference that more than one poison may have been used. I don’t attempt to solve the mystery. I have no idea why your life has been saved, and Mrs. Wagner’s life sacrificed — or what motives have been at work in the dark. Ask yourself — don’t ask me — in what direction suspicion points. I refuse to sign the certificate of death; and I have told you why.”

“Give me a moment,” said Mr. Keller, “I don’t shrink from my responsibility; I only ask for time to compose myself.”

It was the pride of his life to lean on nobody for help. He walked to the window; hiding all outward betrayal of the consternation that shook him to the soul. When he returned to his chair, he scrupulously avoided even the appearance of asking Doctor Dormann for advice.

“My course is plain,” he said quietly. “I must communicate your decision to the authorities; and I must afford every assistance in my power to the investigation that will follow. It shall be done, when the magistrates meet to-morrow morning.”

“We will go together to the town-hall, Mr. Keller. It is my duty to inform the burgomaster that this is a case for the special safeguards, sanctioned by the city regulations. I must also guarantee that there is no danger to the public health, in the removal of the body from your house.”

“The immediate removal?” Mr. Keller asked.

“No! The removal twenty-four hours after death.”

“To what place?”

“To the Deadhouse.”

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