Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 17

The departure from the house was interrupted by an unforeseen cause of delay.

Jack refused to follow the hearse with Doctor Dormann and Mr. Keller. “I won’t lose sight of her!” he cried —“no! not for a moment! Of all living creatures, I must be the first to see her when she wakes.”

Mr. Keller turned to the doctor. “What does he mean?”

The doctor, standing back in the shadow of the house, seemed to have some reason for not answering otherwise than by gesture. He touched his forehead significantly; and, stepping out into the road, took Jack by the hand. The canopy of the hearse, closed at the sides, was open at either end. From the driver’s seat, the couch became easily visible on looking round. With inexhaustible patience the doctor quieted the rising excitement in Jack, and gained him permission to take his place by the driver’s side. Always grateful for kindness, he thanked Doctor Dormann, with the tears falling fast over his cheeks. “I’m not crying for her,“ said the poor little man; “she will soon be herself again. But it’s so dreadful, sir, to go out driving with her in such a carriage as this!”

The hearse moved away.

Doctor Dormann, walking with Mr. Keller, felt his arm touched, and, looking round, saw the dimly-outlined figure of a woman beckoning to him. He drew back, after a word of apology to his companion, who continued to follow the hearse. The woman met him half way. He recognized Madame Fontaine.

“You are a learned man,” she began abruptly. “Do you understand writing in cipher?”

“Sometimes.”

“If you have half an hour to spare this evening, look at that — and do me the favor of telling me what it means.”

She offered something to him, which appeared in the dim light to be only a sheet of paper. He hesitated to take it from her. She tried to press it on him.

“I found it among my husband’s papers,” she said. “He was a great chemist, as you know. It might be interesting to you.”

He still hesitated.

“Are you acquainted with chemical science?” he asked.

“I am perfectly ignorant of chemical science.”

“Then what interest can you have in interpreting the cipher?”

“I have a very serious interest. There may be something dangerous in it, if it fell into unscrupulous hands. I want to know if I ought to destroy it.”

He suddenly took the paper from her. It felt stiff, like a sheet of cartridge-paper.

“You shall hear,” he said. “In case of necessity, I will destroy it myself. Anything more?”

“One thing more. Does Jack go to the cemetery with you and Mr. Keller?”

“Yes.”

Walking away rapidly to overtake Mr. Keller, he looked behind him once or twice. The street was dimly lit, in those days, by a few oil lamps. He might be mistaken — but he thought that Madame Fontaine was following him.

On leaving the city, the lanterns were lit to guide the hearse along the road that led to the cemetery. The overseer met the bearers at the gates.

They passed, under a Doric portico, into a central hall. At its right-hand extremity, an open door revealed a room for the accommodation of mourners. Beyond this there was a courtyard; and, farther still, the range of apartments devoted to the residence of the cemetery-overseer. Turning from the right-hand division of the building, the bearers led the way to the opposite extremity of the hall; passed through a second room for mourners; crossed a second courtyard beyond it; and, turning into a narrow passage, knocked at a closed door.

The door was opened by a watchman. He admitted them into a long room, situated between the courtyard at one end, and the cemetery at the other, and having ten side recesses which opened out of it. The long room was the Watchman’s Chamber. The recesses were the cells which held the dead.

The couch was set down in the Watchman’s Chamber. It was a novelty in the Deadhouse; and the overseer asked for an explanation. Doctor Dormann informed him that the change had been made, with his full approval, to satisfy a surviving friend, and that the coffin would be provided before the certificate was granted for the burial.

While the persons present were all gathered round the doctor and the overseer, Madame Fontaine softly pushed open the door from the courtyard. After a look at the recesses — situated, five on either side of the length of the room, and closed by black curtains — she parted the curtains of the nearest recess to her, on her left hand; and stepped in without being noticed by anyone.

“You take the responsibility of the couch, doctor, if the authorities raise any objection?” said the overseer.

This condition being complied with, he addressed himself to the watchman. “The cells are all empty to-night, Duntzer, are they not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you off duty, early or late this evening?”

“I am off duty in half an hour, sir.”

The overseer pointed to the couch. “You can attend to this,” he said. “Take the cell that is the nearest to you, where the watchman’s chair is placed — Number Five.”

He referred to the fifth recess, at the upper end of the room on the right, counting from the courtyard door. The watchman looped up the black curtains, while the bearers placed the couch in the cell. This done, the bearers were dismissed.

Doctor Dormann pointed through the parted curtains to the lofty cell, ventilated from the top, and warmed (like the Watchman’s Chamber) by an apparatus under the flooring. In the middle of the cell was a stand, placed there to support the coffin. Above the stand a horizontal bar projected, which was fixed over the doorway. It was furnished with a pulley, through which passed a long thin string hanging loosely downward at one end, and attached at the other to a small alarm-bell, placed over the door on the outer side — that is to say, on the side of the Watchman’s Chamber.

“All the cells are equal in size,” said the doctor to Mr. Keller, “and are equally clean, and well warmed. The hot bath, in another room, is always ready; and a cabinet, filled with restorative applications, is close by. Now look at the watchman, and mark the care that is taken — in the event, for instance, of a cataleptic trance, and of a revival following it.”

Duntzer led the way into the cell. He took the loose end of the string, hanging from above, and attached to it two shorter and lighter strings, each of which terminated in five loose ends.

From these ten ends hung ten little thimble-shaped objects, made of brass.

First slightly altering the position of the couch on the stand, Duntzer lifted the dead hands — fitted the ten brass thimbles to the fingers and the thumbs — and gently laid the hands back on the breast of the corpse. When he had looked up, and had satisfied himself of the exact connection between the hands and the line communicating with the alarm-bell outside, his duty was done. He left the cell; and, seating himself in his chair, waited the arrival of the night-watchman who was to relieve him.

Mr. Keller came out into the chamber, and spoke to the overseer.

“Is all done now?”

“All is done.”

“I should like, while I am here, to speak to you about the grave.”

The overseer bowed. “You can see the plan of the cemetery,” he said, “in my office on the other side of the building.”

Mr. Keller looked back into the cell. Jack had taken his place in it, when the couch had been carried in; and Doctor Dormann was quietly observing him. Mr. Keller beckoned to Jack. “I am waiting for you,” he said. “Come!”

“And leave Mistress?” Jack answered. “Never!”

Mr. Keller was on the point of stepping into the cell, when Doctor Dormann took his arm, and led him away out of hearing.

“I want to ask you a question,” said the doctor. “Was that poor creature’s madness violent madness, when Mrs. Wagner took him out of the London asylum?”

“I have heard her say so.”

“Be careful what you do with him. Mrs. Wagner’s death has tried his weak brain seriously. I am afraid of a relapse into that violent madness — leave him to me.”

Mr. Keller left the room with the overseer. Doctor Dormann returned to the cell.

“Listen to me, Jack,” he said. “If your mistress revives (as you think), I want you to see for yourself how she will tell it to the man who is on the watch.” He turned, and spoke to Duntzer. “Is the alarm-bell set?”

“Yes, sir.”

The doctor addressed himself once more to Jack.

“Now look, and listen!” he said.

He delicately touched one of the brass thimbles, fitted to the fingers of the corpse. The bell rang instantly in the Watchman’s Chamber.

“The moment the man hears that,” he resumed, “he will make the signal, which calls the overseer and the nurses to help your mistress back to life. At the same time, a messenger will be sent to Mr. Keller’s house to tell you what has happened. You see how well she is taken care of — and you will behave sensibly, I am sure? I am going away. Come with me.”

Jack answered as he had answered Mr. Keller.

“Never!” he said.

He flung himself on the floor, and clasped his arms round one of the pillars supporting the stand on which the couch was placed. “Tear my arms out of their sockets,” he cried —“you won’t get me away till you’ve done that!”

Before the doctor could answer, footsteps were heard in the Watchman’s Chamber. A jolly voice asked a question. “Any report for the night, Duntzer?”

Jack seemed to recognize the voice. He looked round eagerly.

“A corpse in Number Five,” Duntzer answered. “And strangers in the cell. Contrary to the order for the night, as you know. I have reported them; it’s your duty to send them away. Good night.”

A red-nosed old man looked in at the doorway of the cell. Jack started to his feet. “Here’s Schwartz!” he cried —“leave me with Schwartz!”

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