Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 19

Jack looked eagerly into the cell again. There was no change — not a sign of that happy waking in which he so firmly believed.

Schwartz opened the drawer of the table. Tobacco and pipes; two or three small drinking-glasses; a dirty pack of playing-cards; the mad watchman’s song, with a woodcut illustration of the suicide — all lay huddled together. He took from the drawer the song, and two of the drinking-glasses, and called to his little guest to come out of the cell.

“There;” he said, filling the glasses, “you never tasted such wine as that in all your life. Off with it!”

Jack turned away with a look of disgust. “What did you say of wine, when I drank with you the other night?” he asked reproachfully. “You said it would warm my heart, and make a man of me. And what did it do? I couldn’t stand on my legs. I couldn’t hold up my head — I was so sleepy and stupid that Joseph had to take me upstairs to bed. I hate your wine! Your wine’s a liar, who promises and doesn’t perform! I’m weary enough, and wretched enough in my mind, as it is. No more wine for me!”

“Wrong!” remarked Schwartz, emptying his glass, and smacking his lips after it.

“You made a serious mistake the other night — you didn’t drink half enough. Give the good liquor a fair chance, my son. No, you won’t? Must I try a little gentle persuasion before you will come back to your chair?” Suiting the action to the word, he put his arm round Jack. “What’s this I feel under my hand?” he asked. “A bottle?” He took it out of Jack’s breast-pocket. “Lord help us!” he exclaimed; “it looks like physic!”

Jack snatched it away from him, with a cry of delight. “The very thing for me — and I never thought of it!”

It was the phial which Madame Fontaine had repentantly kept to herself, after having expressly filled it for him with the fatal dose of “Alexander’s Wine”— the phial which he had found, when he first opened the “Pink–Room Cupboard.” In the astonishment and delight of finding the blue-glass bottle immediately afterwards, he had entirely forgotten it. Nothing had since happened to remind him that it was in his pocket, until Schwartz had stumbled on the discovery.

“It cures you when you are tired or troubled in your mind,” Jack announced in his grandest manner, repeating Madame Fontaine’s own words. “Is there any water here?”

“Not a drop, thank Heaven!” said Schwartz, devoutly.

“Give me my glass, then. I once tried the remedy by itself, and it stung me as it went down. The wine won’t hurt me, with this splendid stuff in it. I’ll take it in the wine.”

“Who told you to take it?” Schwartz asked, holding back the glass.

“Mrs. Housekeeper told me.”

“A woman!” growled Schwartz, in a tone of sovereign contempt. “How dare you let a woman physic you, when you’ve got me for a doctor? Jack! I’m ashamed of you.”

Jack defended his manhood. “Oh, I don’t care what she says! I despise her — she’s mad. You don’t suppose she made this? I wouldn’t touch it, if she had. No, no; her husband made it — a wonderful man! the greatest man in Germany!”

He reached across the table and secured his glass of wine. Before it was possible to interfere, he had emptied the contents of the phial into it, and had raised it to his lips. At that moment, Schwartz’s restraining hand found its way to his wrist. The deputy watchman had far too sincere a regard for good wine to permit it to be drunk, in combination with physic, at his own table.

“Put it down!” he said gruffly. “You’re my visitor, ain’t you? Do you think I’m going to let housekeeper’s cat-lap be drunk at my table? Look here!”

He held up his traveling-flask, with the metal drinking-cup taken off, so as to show the liquor through the glass. The rich amber color of it fascinated Jack. He put his wine-glass back on the table. “What is it?” he asked eagerly.

“Drinkable gold, Jack! My physic. Brandy!”

He poured out a dram into the metal cup. “Try that,” he said, “and don’t let me hear any more about the housekeeper’s physic.”

Jack tasted it. The water came into his eyes — he put his hands on his throat. “Fire!” he gasped faintly.

“Wait!” said Schwartz.

Jack waited. The fiery grip of the brandy relaxed; the genial warmth of it was wafted through him persuasively from head to foot. He took another sip. His eyes began to glitter. “What divine being made this?” he asked. Without waiting to be answered, he tried it again, and emptied the cup. “More!” he cried. “I never felt so big, I never felt so strong, I never felt so clever, as I feel now!”

Schwartz, drinking freely from his own bottle, recovered, and more than recovered, his Bacchanalian good humor. He clapped Jack on the shoulder. “Who’s the right doctor now?” he asked cheerfully. “A drab of a housekeeper? or Father Schwartz? Your health, my jolly boy! When the bottle’s empty, I’ll help you to finish the flask. Drink away! and the devil take all heel-taps!”

The next dose of brandy fired Jack’s excitable brain with a new idea. He fell on his knees at the table, and clasped his hands in a sudden fervor of devotion. “Silence!” he commanded sternly. “Your wine’s only a poor devil. Your drinkable gold is a god. Take your cap off, Schwartz — I’m worshipping drinkable gold!”

Schwartz, highly diverted, threw his cap up to the ceiling. “Drinkable gold, ora pro nobis!” he shouted, profanely adapting himself to Jack’s humor. “You shall be Pope, my boy — and I’ll be the Pope’s butler. Allow me to help your sacred majesty back to your chair.”

Jack’s answer betrayed another change in him. His tones were lofty; his manner was distant. “I prefer the floor,” he said; “hand me down my mug.” As he reached up to take it, the alarm-bell over the door caught his eye. Debased as he was by the fiery strength of the drink, his ineradicable love for his mistress made its noble influence felt through the coarse fumes that were mounting to his brain. “Stop!” he cried. “I must be where I can see the bell — I must be ready for her, the instant it rings.”

He crawled across the floor, and seated himself with his back against the wall of one of the empty cells, on the left-hand side of the room. Schwartz, shaking his fat sides with laughter, handed down the cup to his guest. Jack took no notice of it. His eyes, reddened already by the brandy, were fixed on the bell opposite to him. “I want to know about it,” he said. “What’s that steel thing there, under the brass cover?”

“What’s the use of asking?” Schwartz replied, returning to his bottle.

“I want to know!”

“Patience, Jack — patience. Follow my fore-finger. My hand seems to shake a little; but it’s as honest a hand as ever was. That steel thing there, is the bell hammer, you know. And, bless your heart, the hammer’s everything. Cost, Lord knows how much. Another toast, my son. Good luck to the bell!”

Jack changed again; he began to cry. “She’s sleeping too long on that sofa, in there,” he said sadly. “I want her to speak to me; I want to hear her scold me for drinking in this horrid place. My heart’s all cold again. Where’s the mug?” He found it, as he spoke; the fire of the brandy went down his throat once more, and lashed him into frantic high spirits. “I’m up in the clouds!” he shouted; “I’m riding on a whirlwind. Sing, Schwartz! Ha! there are the stars twinkling through the skylight! Sing the stars down from heaven!”

Schwartz emptied his bottle, without the ceremony of using the glass. “Now we are primed!” he said —“now for the mad watchman’s song!” He snatched up the paper from the table, and roared out hoarsely the first verse:

The moon was shining, cold and bright, In the Frankfort Deadhouse, on New Year’s night And I was the watchman, left alone, While the rest to feast and dance were gone; I envied their lot, and cursed my own — Poor me!

“Chorus, Jack! ‘I envied their lot and cursed my own’——”

The last words of the verse were lost in a yell of drunken terror. Schwartz started out of his chair, and pointed, panic-stricken, to the lower end of the room. “A ghost!” he screamed. “A ghost in black, at the door!”

Jack looked round, and burst out laughing. “Sit down again, you old fool,” he said. “It’s only Mrs. Housekeeper. We are singing, Mrs. Housekeeper! You haven’t heard my voice yet — I’m the finest singer in Germany.”

Madame Fontaine approached him humbly. “You have a kind heart, Jack — I am sure you will help me,” she said. “Show me how to get out of this frightful place.”

“The devil take you!” growled Schwartz, recovering himself. “How did you get in?”

“She’s a witch!” shouted Jack. “She rode in on a broomstick — she crept in through the keyhole. Where’s the fire? Let’s take her downstairs, and burn her!”

Schwartz applied himself to the brandy-flask, and began to laugh again. “There never was such good company as Jack,” he said, in his oiliest tones. “You can’t get out to-night, Mrs. Witch. The gates are locked — and they don’t trust me with the key. Walk in, ma’am. Plenty of accommodation for you, on that side of the room where Jack sits. We are slack of guests for the grave, to-night. Walk in.”

She renewed her entreaties. “I’ll give you all the money I have about me! Who can I go to for the key? Jack! Jack! speak for me!”

“Go on with the song!” cried Jack.

She appealed again in her despair to Schwartz. “Oh, sir, have mercy on me! I fainted, out there — and, when I came to myself, I tried to open the gates — and I called, and called, and nobody heard me.”

Schwartz’s sense of humor was tickled by this. “If you could bellow like a bull,” he said, “nobody would hear you. Take a seat, ma’am.”

“Go on with the song!” Jack reiterated. “I’m tired of waiting.”

Madame Fontaine looked wildly from one to the other of them. “Oh, God, I’m locked in with an idiot and a drunkard!” The thought of it maddened her as it crossed her mind. Once more, she fled from the room. Again, and again, in the outer darkness, she shrieked for help.

Schwartz advanced staggering towards the door, with Jack’s empty chair in his hand. “Perhaps you’ll be able to pipe a little higher, ma’am, if you come back, and sit down? Now for the song, Jack!”

He burst out with the second verse:

Backwards and forwards, with silent tread, I walked on my watch by the doors of the dead. And I said, It’s hard, on this New Year, While the rest are dancing to leave me here, Alone with death and cold and fear — Poor me!

“Chorus, Jack! Chorus, Mrs. Housekeeper! Ho! ho! look at her! She can’t resist the music — she has come back to us already. What can we do for you, ma’am? The flask’s not quite drained yet. Come and have a drink.”

She had returned, recoiling from the outer darkness and silence, giddy with the sickening sense of faintness which was creeping over her again. When Schwartz spoke she advanced with tottering steps. “Water!” she exclaimed, gasping for breath. “I’m faint — water! water!”

“Not a drop in the place, ma’am! Brandy, if you like?”

“I forbid it!” cried Jack, with a peremptory sign of the hand. “Drinkable gold is for us — not for her!”

The glass of wine which Schwartz had prevented him from drinking caught his notice. To give Madame Fontaine her own “remedy,” stolen from her own room, was just the sort of trick to please Jack in his present humor. He pointed to the glass, and winked at the watchman. After a momentary hesitation, Schwartz’s muddled brain absorbed the new idea. “Here’s a drop of wine left, ma’am,” he said. “Suppose you try it?”

She leaned one hand on the table to support herself. Her heart sank lower and lower; a cold perspiration bedewed her face. “Quick! quick!” she murmured faintly. She seized the glass, and emptied it eagerly to the last drop.

Schwartz and Jack eyed her with malicious curiosity. The idea of getting away was still in her mind. “I think I can walk now,” she said. “For God’s sake, let me out!”

“Haven’t I told you already? I can’t get out myself.”

At that brutal answer, she shrank back. Slowly and feebly she made her way to the chair, and dropped on it.

“Cheer up, ma’am!” said Schwartz. “You shall have more music to help you — you shall hear how the mad watchman lost his wits. Another drop of the drinkable gold, Jack. A dram for you and a dram for me — and here goes!” He roared out the last verses of the song:—

Any company’s better than none, I said: If I can’t have the living, I’d like the dead. In one terrific moment more, The corpse-bell rang at each cell door, The moonlight shivered on the floor — Poor me!

The curtains gaped; there stood a ghost, On every threshold, as white as frost, You called us, they shrieked, and we gathered soon; Dance with your guests by the New Year’s moon! I danced till I dropped in a deadly swoon — Poor me!

And since that night I’ve lost my wits, And I shake with ceaseless ague-fits: For the ghosts they turned me cold as stone, On that New Year’s night when the white moon shone, And I walked on my watch, all, all alone — Poor me!

And, oh, when I lie in my coffin-bed, Heap thick the earth above my head! Or I shall come back, and dance once more, With frantic feet on the Deadhouse floor, And a ghost for a partner at every door — Poor me!

The night had cleared. While Schwartz was singing, the moon shone in at the skylight. At the last verse of the song, a ray of the cold yellow light streamed across Jack’s face. The fire of the brandy leapt into flame — the madness broke out in him, with a burst of its by-gone fury. He sprang, screaming, to his feet.

“The moon!” he shouted —“the mad watchman’s moon! The mad watchman himself is coming back. There he is, sliding down on the slanting light! Do you see the brown earth of the grave dropping from him, and the rope round his neck? Ha! how he skips, and twists, and twirls! He’s dancing again with the dead ones. Make way there! I mean to dance with them too. Come on, mad watchman — come on! I’m as mad as you are!”

He whirled round and round with the fancied ghost for a partner in the dance. The coarse laughter of Schwartz burst out again at the terrible sight. He called, with drunken triumph, to Madame Fontaine. “Look at Jacky, ma’am. There’s a dancer for you! There’s good company for a dull winter night!” She neither looked nor moved — she sat crouched on the chair, spellbound with terror. Jack threw up his arms, turned giddily once or twice, and sank exhausted on the floor. “The cold of him creeps up my hands,” he said, still possessed by the vision of the watchman. “He cools my eyes, he calms my heart, he stuns my head. I’m dying, dying, dying — going back with him to the grave. Poor me! poor me!”

He lay hushed in a strange repose; his eyes wide open, staring up at the moon. Schwartz drained the last drop of brandy out of the flask. “Jack’s name ought to be Solomon,” he pronounced with drowsy solemnity; “Solomon was wise; and Jack’s wise. Jack goes to sleep, when the liquor’s done. Take away the bottle, before the overseer comes in. If any man says I am not sober, that man lies. The Rhine wine has a way of humming in one’s head. That’s all, Mr. Overseer — that’s all. Do I see the sun rising, up there in the skylight? I wish you good-night; I wish — you — good — night.”

He laid his heavy arms on the table; his head dropped on them — he slept.

The time passed. No sound broke the silence but the lumpish snoring of Schwartz. No change appeared in Jack; there he lay, staring up at the moon.

Somewhere in the building (unheard thus far in the uproar) a clock struck the first hour of the morning.

Madame Fontaine started. The sound shook her with a new fear — a fear that expressed itself in a furtive look at the cell in which the dead woman lay. If the corpse-bell rang, would the stroke of it be like the single stroke of the clock?

“Jack!” she whispered. “Do you hear the clock? Oh, Jack, the stillness is dreadful — speak to me.”

He slowly raised himself. Perhaps the striking of the clock — perhaps some inner prompting — had roused him. He neither answered Madame Fontaine, nor looked at her. With his arms clasped round his knees, he sat on the floor in the attitude of a savage. His eyes, which had stared at the moon, now stared with the same rigid, glassy look at the alarm-bell over the cell-door.

The time went on. Again the oppression of silence became more than Madame Fontaine could endure. Again she tried to make Jack speak to her.

“What are you looking at?” she asked. “What are you waiting for? Is it ——?” The rest of the sentence died away on her lips: the words that would finish it were words too terrible to be spoken.

The sound of her voice produced no visible impression on Jack. Had it influenced him, in some unseen way? Something did certainly disturb the strange torpor that held him. He spoke. The tones were slow and mechanical — the tones of a man searching his memory with pain and difficulty; repeating his recollections, one by one, as he recovered them, to himself.

“When she moves,” he muttered, “her hands pull the string. Her hands send a message up: up and up to the bell.” He paused, and pointed to the cell-door.

The action had a horrible suggestiveness to the guilty wretch who was watching him.

“Don’t do that!” she cried. “Don’t point there!“

His hand never moved; he pursued his newly-found recollections of what the doctor had shown to him.

“Up and up to the bell,” he repeated. “And the bell feels it. The steel thing moves. The bell speaks. Good bell! Faithful bell!”

The clock struck the half-hour past one. Madame Fontaine shrieked at the sound — her senses knew no distinction between the clock and the bell.

She saw his pointing hand drop back, and clasp itself with the other hand, round his knees. He spoke — softly and tenderly now — he was speaking to the dead. “Rise Mistress, rise! Dear soul, the time is long; and poor Jack is waiting for you!”

She thought the closed curtains moved: the delusion was reality to her. She tried to rouse Schwartz.

“Watchman! watchman! Wake up!”

He slept on as heavily as ever.

She half rose from her chair. She was almost on her feet — when she sank back again. Jack had moved. He got up on his knees. “Mistress hears me!” he said. The light of vivid expression showed itself in his eyes. Their vacancy was gone: they looked longingly at the door of the cell. He got on his feet — he pressed both hands over his bosom. “Come!” he said. “Oh, Mistress, come!”

There was a sound — a faint premonitory rustling sound — over the door.

The steel hammer moved — rose — struck the metal globe. The bell rang.

He stood rooted to the floor, sobbing hysterically. The iron grasp of suspense held him.

Not a cry, not a movement escaped Madame Fontaine. The life seemed to have been struck out of her by the stroke of the bell. It woke Schwartz. Except that he looked up, he too never moved: he too was like a living creature turned to stone.

A minute passed.

The curtains swayed gently. Tremulous fingers crept out, parting them. Slowly, over the black surface of the curtain, a fair naked arm showed itself, widening the gap.

The figure appeared, in its velvet pall. On the pale face the stillness of repose was barely ruffled yet. The eyes alone were conscious of returning life. They looked out on the room, softly surprised and perplexed — no more. They looked downwards: the lips trembled sweetly into a smile. She saw Jack, kneeling in ecstasy at her feet.

And now again, there was stillness in the room. Unutterable happiness rejoiced, unutterable dread suffered, in the same silence.

The first sound heard came suddenly from the lonely outer hall. Hurrying footsteps swept over the courtyard. The flash of lights flew along the dark passage. Voices of men and women, mingled together, poured into the Watchman’s Chamber.

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