Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 18

The discovery of Jack agreeably surprised Schwartz, without in the least perplexing him.

His little friend (as he reasoned) had, no doubt, remembered the invitation to the Deadhouse, and had obtained admission through the interference of the strange gentleman who was with him. But who was the gentleman? The deputy night-watchman (though he might carry messages for his relative the nurse) was not personally acquainted with his sister’s medical patrons in Frankfort. He looked at the doctor with an expression of considerable doubt.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” he ventured to say, “you’re not a member of the city council, are you?”

“I have nothing to do with the city council.”

“And nothing to do with managing the Deadhouse?”

“Nothing. I am Doctor Dormann.”

Schwartz snapped his clumsy fingers, as an appropriate expression of relief. “All right, sir! Leave the little man with me — I’ll take care of him.”

“Do you know this person?” asked the doctor, turning to Jack.

“Yes! yes! leave me here with him,” Jack answered eagerly. “Good-night, sir — good-night!”

Doctor Dormann looked again at Jack’s friend.

“I thought strangers were not allowed here at night,” he said.

“It’s against the rules,” Schwartz admitted. “But, Lord love you, sir, think of the dullness of this place! Besides, I’m only a deputy. In three nights more, the regular man will come on duty again. It’s an awful job, doctor, watching alone here, all night. One of the men actually went mad, and hanged himself. To be sure he was a poet in his way, which makes it less remarkable. I’m not a poet myself — I’m only a sociable creature. Leave little Jack with me! I’ll send him home safe and sound — I feel like a father to him.”

The doctor hesitated. What was he to do? Jack had already returned to the cell in which his mistress lay. To remove him by the brutal exercise of main force was a proceeding from which Doctor Dormann’s delicacy of feeling naturally recoiled — to say nothing of the danger of provoking that outbreak of madness against which the doctor had himself warned Mr. Keller. Persuasion he had already tried in vain. Delegated authority to control Jack had not been conferred on him. There seemed to be no other course than to yield.

“If you persist in your obstinacy,” he said to Jack, “I must return alone to Mr. Keller’s house, and tell him that I have left you here with your friend.”

Jack was already absorbed in his own thoughts. He only repeated vacantly, “Good-night.”

Doctor Dormann left the room. Schwartz looked in at his guest. “Wait there for the present,” he said. “The porter will be here directly: I don’t want him to see you.”

The porter came in after an interval. “All right for the night?” he asked.

“All right,” Schwartz answered.

The porter withdrew in silence. The night-watchman’s reply was his authority for closing the gates of the Deadhouse until the next morning.

Schwartz returned to Jack — still watching patiently by the side of the couch. “Was she a relation of yours?” he asked.

“All the relations in the world to me!” Jack burst out passionately. “Father and mother — and brother and sister and wife.”

“Aye, aye? Five relations in one is what I call an economical family,” said Schwartz. “Come out here, to the table. You stood treat last time — my turn now. I’ve got the wine handy. Yes, yes — she was a fine woman in her time, I dare say. Why haven’t you put her into a coffin like other people?”

“Why?” Jack repeated indignantly. “I couldn’t prevent them from bringing her here; but I could have burnt the house down over their heads, if they had dared to put her into a coffin! Are you stupid enough to suppose that Mistress is dead? Don’t you know that I’m watching and waiting here till she wakes? Ah! I beg your pardon — you don’t know. The rest of them would have let her die. I saved her life. Come here, and I’ll tell you how.”

He dragged Schwartz into the cell. As the watchman disappeared from view, the wild white face of Madame Fontaine appeared between the curtains of her hiding-place, listening to Jack’s narrative of the opening of the cupboard, and the discovery that had followed.

Schwartz humored his little friend (evidently, as he now concluded, his crazy little friend), by listening in respectful silence. Instead of making any remark at the end, he mentioned once more that the wine was handy. “Come!” he reiterated; “come to the table!”

Madame Fontaine drew back again behind the curtains. Jack remained obstinately in the cell. “I mean to see it,” he said, “the moment she moves.”

“Do you think your eyes will tell you?” Schwartz remonstrated. “You look dead-beat already; your eyes will get tired. Trust the bell here, over the door. Brass and steel don’t get tired; brass and steel don’t fall asleep; brass and steel will ring, and call you to her. Take a rest and a drink.”

These words reminded Jack of the doctor’s experiment with the alarm-bell. He could not disguise from himself the stealthily-growing sense of fatigue in his head and his limbs. “I’m afraid you’re right,” he said sadly. “I wish I was a stronger man.” He joined Schwartz at the table, and dropped wearily into the watchman’s chair.

His head sank on his breast, his eyes closed. He started up again. “She may want help when she wakes!” he cried, with a look of terror. “What must we do? Can we carry her home between us? Oh! Schwartz, I was so confident in myself a little while since — and it seems all to have left me now!”

“Don’t worry that weary little head of yours about nothing,” Schwartz answered, with rough good-nature. “Come along with me, and I’ll show you where help’s to be got when help’s wanted. No! no! you won’t be out of hearing of the bell — if it rings. We’ll leave the door open. It’s only on the other side of the passage here.”

He lighted a lantern, and led Jack out.

Leaving the courtyard and the waiting-room on their left hand, he advanced along the right-hand side of the passage, and opened the door of a bed-chamber, always kept ready for use. A second door in the bed-chamber led to a bath-room. Here, opposite the bath, stood the cabinet in which the restorative applications were kept, under the care of the overseer.

When the two men had gone out, Madame Fontaine ventured into the Watchman’s Chamber. Her eyes turned towards the one terrible cell, at the farther end of the row of black curtains. She advanced towards it; and stopped, lifting her hands to her head in the desperate effort to compose herself.

The terror of impending discovery had never left her, since Jack had owned the use to which he had put the contents of the blue-glass bottle.

Animated by that all-mastering dread, she had thrown away every poison in the medicine-chest — had broken the bottles into fragments — and had taken those fragments out with her, when she left the house to follow Doctor Dormann. On the way to the cemetery, she had scattered the morsels of broken glass and torn paper on the dark road outside the city gate. Nothing now remained but the empty medicine-chest, and the writing in cipher, once rolled round the poison called the “Looking–Glass Drops.”

Under these altered circumstances, she had risked asking Doctor Dormann to interpret the mysterious characters, on the bare chance of their containing some warning by which she might profit, in her present ignorance of the results which Jack’s ignorant interference might produce.

Acting under the same vague terror of that possible revival, to which Jack looked forward with such certain hope, she had followed him to the Deadhouse, and had waited, hidden in the cells, to hear what dangerous confidences he might repose in the doctor or in Mr. Keller, and to combat on the spot the suspicion which he might ignorantly rouse in their minds. Still in the same agony of doubt, she now stood, with her eyes on the cell, trying to summon the resolution to judge for herself. One look at the dead woman, while the solitude in the room gave her the chance — one look might assure her of the livid pallor of death, or warn her of the terrible possibilities of awakening life. She hurried headlong over the intervening space, and looked in.

There, grand and still, lay her murderous work! There, ghostly white on the ground of the black robe, were the rigid hands, topped by the hideous machinery which was to betray them, if they trembled under the mysterious return of life!

In the instant when she saw it, the sight overwhelmed her with horror. She turned distractedly, and fled through the open door. She crossed the courtyard, like a deeper shadow creeping swiftly through the darkness of the winter night. On the threshold of the solitary waiting-room, exhausted nature claimed its rest. She wavered — groped with her hands at the empty air — and sank insensible on the floor.

In the meantime, Schwartz revealed the purpose of his visit to the bath-room.

The glass doors which protected the upper division of the cabinet were locked; the key being in the possession of the overseer. The cupboard in the lower division, containing towels and flannel wrappers, was left unsecured. Opening the door, the watchman drew out a bottle and an old traveling flask, concealed behind the bath-linen. “I call this my cellar,” he explained. “Cheer up, Jacky; we’ll have a jolly night of it yet.”

“I don’t want to see your cellar!” said Jack impatiently. “I want to be of use to Mistress — show me the place where we call for help.”

“Call?” repeated Schwartz, with a roar of laughter. “Do you think they can hear us at the overseer’s, through a courtyard, and a waiting-room, and a grand hall, and another courtyard, and another waiting-room beyond? Not if we were twenty men all bawling together till we were hoarse! I’ll show you how we can make the master hear us — if that miraculous revival of yours happens,” he added facetiously in a whisper to himself.

He led the way back into the passage, and held up his lantern so as to show the cornice. A row of fire-buckets was suspended there by books. Midway between them, a stout rope hung through a metal-lined hole in the roof.

“Do you see that?” said Schwartz. “You have only to pull, and there’s an iron tongue in the belfry above that will speak loud enough to be heard at the city gate. The overseer will come tumbling in, with his bunch of keys, as if the devil was at his heels, and the two women-servants after him — old and ugly, Jack! — they attend to the bath, you know, when a woman wants it. Wait a bit! Take the light into the bedroom, and get a chair for yourself — we haven’t much accommodation for evening visitors. Got it? that’s right. Would you like to see where the mad watchman hung himself? On the last hook at the end of the row there. We’ve got a song he made about the Deadhouse. I think it’s in the drawer of the table. A gentleman had it printed and sold, for the benefit of the widow and children. Wait till we are well warmed with our liquor, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do — I’ll sing you the mad watchman’s song; and Jacky, my man, you shall sing the chorus! Tow-row-rub-a-dub-boom — that’s the tune. Pretty, isn’t it? Come along back to our snuggery.” He led the way to the Watchman’s Chamber.

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