Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 16

Acting on the doctor’s information, the burgomaster issued his order. At eight o’clock in the evening, on the third of January, the remains of Mrs. Wagner were to be removed to the cemetery-building, outside the Friedberg Gate of Frankfort.

Long before the present century, the dread of premature interment — excited by traditions of persons accidentally buried alive — was a widely-spread feeling among the people of Germany. In other cities besides Frankfort, the municipal authorities devised laws, the object of which was to make this frightful catastrophe impossible. In the early part of the present century, these laws were re-enacted and revised by the City of Frankfort. The Deadhouse was attached to the cemetery, with a double purpose. First, to afford a decent resting-place for the corpse, when death occurred among the crowded residences of the poorer class of the population. Secondly, to provide as perfect a safeguard as possible against the chances of premature burial. The use of the Deadhouse (strictly confined to the Christian portion of the inhabitants) was left to the free choice of surviving relatives or representatives — excepting only those cases in which a doctor’s certificate justified the magistrate in pronouncing an absolute decision. Even in the event of valid objections to the Deadhouse as a last resting-place on the way to the grave, the doctor in attendance on the deceased person was subjected to certain restrictions in issuing his certificate. He was allowed to certify the death informally, for the purpose of facilitating the funeral arrangements. But he was absolutely forbidden to give his written authority for the burial, before the expiration of three nights from the time of the death; and he was further bound to certify that the signs of decomposition had actually begun to show themselves. Have these multiplied precautions, patiently applied in many German cities, through a long lapse of years, ever yet detected a case in which Death has failed to complete its unintelligible work? Let the answer be found in the cells of the dead. Pass, with the mourners, through the iron gates — hear and see!

On the evening of the third, as the time approached for the arrival of the hearse, the melancholy stillness in the house was only broken by Mr. Keller’s servants, below-stairs. Collecting together in one room, they talked confidentially, in low voices. An instinctive horror of silence, in moments of domestic distress, is, in all civilized nations, one of the marked characteristics of their class.

“In ten minutes,” said Joseph, “the men from the cemetery will be here to take her away. It will be no easy matter to carry her downstairs on the couch.”

“Why is she not put in her coffin, like other dead people?” the housemaid asked.

“Because the crazy creature she brought with her from London is allowed to have his own way in the house,” Joseph answered irritably. “If I had been brought to the door drunk last night, I should have been sent away this morning. If I had been mad enough to screech out, ‘She isn’t dead; not one of you shall put her in a coffin!’— I should have richly deserved a place in the town asylum, and I should have got my deserts. Nothing of the sort for Master Jack. Mr. Keller only tells him to be quiet, and looks distressed. The doctor takes him away, and speaks to him in another room — and actually comes back converted to Jack’s opinion!”

“You don’t mean to tell us,” exclaimed the cook, “that the doctor said she wasn’t dead?”

“Of course not. It was he who first found out that she was dead — I only mean that he let Jack have his own way. He asked me for a foot rule, and he measured the little couch in the bedroom. ‘It’s no longer than the coffin’ (he says); ‘and I see no objection to the body being laid on it, till the time comes for the burial.’ Those were his own words; and when the nurse objected to it, what do you think he said? —‘Hold your tongue! A couch is a pleasanter thing all the world over than a coffin.’”

“Blasphemous!” said the cook —“that’s what I call it.”

“Ah, well, well!” the housemaid remarked, “couch or coffin, she looks beautiful, poor soul, in her black velvet robe, with the winter flowers in her pretty white hands. Who got the flowers? Madame Fontaine, do you think?”

“Bah! Madame Fontaine, indeed! Little Crazybrains went out (instead of eating the good dinner I cooked for him), and got the flowers. He wouldn’t let anybody put them into her hands but himself — at least, so the nurse said. Has anybody seen Madame Housekeeper? Was she downstairs at dinner to-day, Joseph?”

“Not she! You mark my words,” said Joseph, “there’s some very serious reason for her keeping her room, on pretense of being ill.”

“Can you give any guess what it is?”

“You shall judge for yourself,” Joseph answered. “Did I tell you what happened yesterday evening, before Jack was brought home by the nurse’s brother? I answered a ring at the door-bell — and there was Mr. Fritz in a towering passion, with Miss Minna on his arm looking ready to drop with fatigue. They rang for some wine; and I heard what he said to his father. It seems that Madame Fontaine had gone out walking in the dark and the cold (and her daughter with her), without rhyme or reason. Mr. Fritz met them, and insisted on taking Miss Minna home. Her mother didn’t seem to care what he said or did. She went on walking by herself, as hard as she could lay her feet to the ground. And what do you suppose her excuse was? Her nerves were out of order! Mr. Fritz’s notion is that there is something weighing on her mind. An hour afterwards she came back to the house — and I found reason to agree with Mr. Fritz.”

“Tell us all about it, Joseph! What did she do?”

“You shall hear. It happened, just after I had seen crazy Jack safe in his bed. When I heard the bell, I was on my way downstairs, with a certain bottle in my hand. One of you saw the nurse’s brother give it to me, I think? How he and Crazybrains came into possession of it, mind you, is more than I know.”

“It looked just like the big medicine-bottle that cured Mr. Keller,” said the cook.

“It was the bottle; and, what is more, it smelt of wine, instead of medicine, and it was empty. Well, I opened the door to Madame Housekeeper, with the bottle in my hand. The instant she set eyes on it, she snatched it away from me. She looked — I give you my word of honor, she looked as if she could have cut my throat. “You wretch!”— nice language to use to a respectable servant, eh? —“You wretch” (she says), “how did you come by this?” I made her a low bow. I said, “Civility costs nothing, ma’am; and sometimes buys a great deal” (severe, eh?). I told her exactly what had happened, and exactly what Schwartz had said. And then I ended with another hard hit. “The next time anything of yours is put into my hands,” I said, “I shall leave it to take care of itself.” I don’t know whether she heard me; she was holding the bottle up to the light. When she saw it was empty — well! I can’t tell you, of course, what was passing in her mind. But this I can swear; she shivered and shuddered as if she had got a fit of the ague; and pale as she was when I let her into the house, I do assure you she turned paler still. I thought I should have to take her upstairs next. My good creatures, she’s made of iron! Upstairs she went. I followed her as far as the first landing, and saw Mr. Keller waiting — to tell her the news of Mrs. Wagner’s death, I suppose. What passed between them I can’t say. Mr. Fritz tells me she has never left her room since; and his father has not even sent a message to know how she is. What do you think of that?”

“I think Mr. Fritz was mistaken, when he told you she had never left her room,” said the housemaid. “I am next to certain I heard her whispering, early this morning, with crazy Jack. Do you think she will follow the hearse to the Deadhouse, with Mr. Keller and the doctor?”

“Hush!” said Joseph. As he spoke, the heavy wheels of the hearse were heard in the street. He led the way to the top of the kitchen stairs. “Wait here,” he whispered, “while I answer the door — and you will see.”

Upstairs, in the drawing-room, Fritz and Minna were alone. Madame Fontaine’s door, closed to everyone, was a closed door even to her daughter.

Fritz had refused to let Minna ask a second time to be let in. “It will soon be your husband’s privilege, my darling, to take care of you and comfort you,” he said. “At this dreadful time, there must be no separation between you and me.”

His arm was round her; her head rested on his shoulder. She looked up at him timidly.

“Are you not going with them to the cemetery?” she asked.

“I am going to stay with you, Minna.”

“You were angry yesterday, Fritz, when you met me with my mother. Don’t think the worse of her, because she is ill and troubled in her mind. You will make allowances for her as I do — won’t you?”

“My sweet girl, there is nothing I won’t do to please you! Kiss me, Minna. Again! again!”

On the higher floor of the house, Mr. Keller and the doctor were waiting in the chamber of death.

Jack kept his silent watch by the side of the couch, on which the one human creature who had befriended him lay hushed in the last earthly repose. Still, from time to time, he whispered to himself the sad senseless words, “No, no, no — not dead, Mistress! Not dead yet!”

There was a soft knock at the door. The doctor opened it. Madame Fontaine stood before him. She spoke in dull monotonous tones — standing in the doorway; refusing, when she was invited by a gesture, to enter the room.

“The hearse has stopped at the door,” she said. “The men wish to ask you if they can come in.”

It was Joseph’s duty to make this announcement. Her motive for forestalling him showed itself dimly in her eyes. They were not on Mr. Keller; not on the doctor; not on the couch. From the moment when the door had been opened to her, she fixed her steady look on Jack. It never moved until the bearers of the dead hid him from her when they entered the room.

The procession passed out. Jack, at Mr. Keller’s command, followed last. Standing back at the doorway, Madame Fontaine caught him by the arm as he came out.

“You were half asleep this morning,” she whispered. “You are not half asleep now. How did you get the blue-glass bottle? I insist on knowing.”

“I won’t tell you!”

Madame Fontaine altered her tone.

“Will you tell me who emptied the bottle? I have always been kind to you — it isn’t much to ask. Who emptied it?”

His variable temper changed; he lifted his head proudly. Absolutely sure of his mistress’s recovery, he now claimed the merit that was his due.

“I emptied it!”

“How did you empty it?” she asked faintly. “Did you throw away what was in it? Did you give it to anybody?”

He seized her in his turn — and dragged her to the railing of the corridor. “Look there!” he cried, pointing to the bearers, slowly carrying their burden down the stairs. “Do you see her, resting on her little sofa till she recovers? I gave it to her!”

He left her, and descended the stairs. She staggered back against the wall of the corridor. Her sight seemed to be affected. She groped for the stair-rail, and held by it. The air was wafted up through the open street-door. It helped her to rally her energies. She went down steadily, step by step, to the first landing — paused, and went down again. Arrived in the hall, she advanced to Mr. Keller, and spoke to him.

“Are you going to see the body laid in the Deadhouse?”

“Yes.”

“Is there any objection to my seeing it too?”

“The authorities have no objection to admitting friends of the deceased person,” Mr. Keller answered. He looked at her searchingly, and added, “Do you go as a friend?”

It was rashly said; and he knew it. The magistrates had decided that the first inquiries should be conducted with the greatest secrecy. For that day, at least, the inmates of the house were to enjoy their usual liberty of action (under private superintendence), so that no suspicion might be excited in the mind of the guilty person. Conscious of having trifled with the serious necessity of keeping a guard over his tongue, Mr. Keller waited anxiously for Madame Fontaine’s reply.

Not a word fell from her lips. There was a slight hardening of her face, and no more. In ominous silence, she turned about and ascended the stairs again.

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