Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2

Madame Fontaine dropped into a chair, overwhelmed by the discovery.

She looked at the key left in the cupboard. It was of an old-fashioned pattern — but evidently also of the best workmanship of the time. On its flat handle it bore engraved the words, “Pink–Room Cupboard”— so called from the color of the curtains and hangings in the bedchamber.

“Is my brain softening?” she said to herself. “What a horrible mistake! What a frightful risk to have run!”

She got on her feet again, and opened the cupboard.

The two lower shelves were occupied by her linen, neatly folded and laid out. On the higher shelf, nearly on a level with her eyes, stood a plain wooden box about two feet in height by one foot in breadth. She examined the position of this box with breathless interest and care — then gently lifted it in both hands and placed it on the floor. On a table near the window lay a half-finished watercolor drawing, with a magnifying glass by the side of it. Providing herself with the glass, she returned to the cupboard, and closely investigated the place on which the box had stood. The slight layer of dust — so slight as to be imperceptible to the unassisted eye — which had surrounded the four sides of the box, presented its four delicate edges in perfectly undisturbed straightness of line. This mute evidence conclusively proved that the box had not been moved during her quarter of an hour’s absence in Mr. Keller’s room. She put it back again, and heaved a deep breath of relief.

But it was a bad sign (she thought) that her sense of caution had been completely suspended, in the eagerness of her curiosity to know if Mr. Keller’s message of invitation referred to the wedding day. “I lose my best treasure,” she said to herself sadly, “if I am beginning to lose my steadiness of mind. If this should happen again ——”

She left the expression of the idea uncompleted; locked the door of the room; and returned to the place on which she had left the box.

Seating herself, she rested the box on her knee and opened it.

Certain tell-tale indentations, visible where the cover fitted into the lock, showed that it had once been forced open. The lock had been hampered on some former occasion; and the key remained so fast fixed in it that it could neither be turned nor drawn out. In her newly-aroused distrust of her own prudence, she was now considering the serious question of emptying the box, and sending it to be fitted with a lock and key.

“Have I anything by me,” she thought to herself, “in which I can keep the bottles?”

She emptied the box, and placed round her on the floor those terrible six bottles which had been the special subjects of her husband’s precautionary instructions on his death-bed. Some of them were smaller than others, and were manufactured in glass of different colors — the six compartments in the medicine-chest being carefully graduated in size, so as to hold them all steadily. The labels on three of the bottles were unintelligible to Madame Fontaine; the inscriptions were written in barbarously abridged Latin characters.

The bottle which was the fourth in order, as she took them out one by one, was wrapped in a sheet of thick cartridge-paper, covered on its inner side with characters written in mysterious cipher. But the label pasted on the bottle contained an inscription in good readable German, thus translated:

“The Looking–Glass Drops. Fatal dose, as discovered by experiment on animals, the same as in the case of ‘Alexander’s Wine.’ But the effect, in producing death, more rapid, and more indistinguishable, in respect of presenting traces on post-mortem examination.”

The lines thus written were partially erased by strokes of the pen — drawn through them at a later date, judging by the color of the ink. In the last blank space left at the foot of the label, these words were added — also in ink of a fresher color:

“After many patient trials, I can discover no trustworthy antidote to this infernal poison. Under these circumstances, I dare not attempt to modify it for medical use. I would throw it away — but I don’t like to be beaten. If I live a little longer I will try once more, with my mind refreshed by other studies.”

Madame Fontaine paused before she wrapped the bottle up again in its covering, and looked with longing eyes at the ciphers which filled the inner side of the sheet of paper. There, perhaps, was the announcement of the discovery of the antidote; or possibly, the record of some more recent experiment which placed the terrible power of the poison in a new light! And there also was the cipher defying her to discover its secret!

The fifth bottle that she took from the chest contained “Alexander’s Wine.” The sixth, and last, was of the well-remembered blue glass, which had played such an important part in the event of Mr. Keller’s recovery.

David Glenney had rightly conjectured that the label had been removed from the blue-glass bottle. Madame Fontaine shook it out of the empty compartment. The inscription (also in the German language) ran as follows:—

“Antidote to Alexander’s Wine. The fatal dose, in case of accident, is indicated by the notched slip of paper attached to the bottle. Two fluid drachms of the poison (more than enough to produce death) were accidentally taken in my experience. So gradual is the deadly effect that, after a delay of thirty-six hours before my attention was called to the case, the administration of the antidote proved successful. The doses are to be repeated every three or four hours. Any person watching the patient may know that the recovery is certain, and that the doses are therefore to be discontinued, by these signs: the cessation of the trembling in the hands; the appearance of natural perspiration; and the transition from the stillness of apathy to the repose of sleep. For at least a week or ten days afterwards a vegetable diet, with cream, is necessary as a means of completing the cure.”

She laid the label aside, and looked at the two bottles — the poison and the antidote — ranged together at her feet.

“Power!” she thought, with a superb smile of triumph. “The power that I have dreamed of all my life is mine at last! Alone among mortal creatures, I have Life and Death for my servants. You were deaf, Mr. Keller, to my reasons, and deaf to my entreaties. What wonderful influence brought you to my feet, and made you the eager benefactor of my child? My servant Death, who threatened you in the night; and my servant Life, who raised you up in the morning. What a position! I stand here, a dweller in a populous city — and every creature in it, from highest to lowest, is a creature in my power!”

She looked through the window of her room over the houses of Frankfort. At last her sleepy eyes opened wide; an infernal beauty irradiated her face. For one moment, she stood — a demon in human form. The next, she suddenly changed into a timid woman, shaken in every limb by the cold grasp of fear.

What influence had wrought the transformation?

Nothing but a knock at the door.

“Who’s there?” she cried.

The voice that answered her was the voice of Jack Straw.

“Hullo, there, Mrs. Fontaine! Let me in.”

She placed a strong constraint on herself; she spoke in friendly tones. “What do you want, Jack?”

“I want to show you my keys.”

“What do I care about the crazy wretch’s keys?”— was the thought that passed through Madame Fontaine’s mind, when Jack answered her from the outer side of the door. But she was still careful, when she spoke to him, to disguise her voice in its friendliest tones.

“Excuse me for keeping you waiting, Jack. I can’t let you in yet.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am dressing. Come back in half an hour; and I shall be glad to see you.”

There was no reply to this. Jack’s step was so light that it was impossible to hear, through the door, whether he had gone away or not. After waiting a minute, the widow ventured on peeping out. Jack had taken himself off. Not a sign of him was to be seen, when she bent over the railing of the corridor, and looked down on the stairs.

She locked herself in again. “I hope I haven’t offended him!” she thought, as she returned to the empty medicine-chest.

The fear that Jack might talk of what had happened to him in the laboratory at Wurzburg, and that he might allude to his illness in terms which could not fail to recall the symptoms of Mr. Keller’s illness, was constantly present to her mind. She decided on agreeably surprising him by a little present, which might help her to win his confidence and to acquire some influence over him. As a madman lately released from Bedlam, it might perhaps not greatly matter what he said. But suspicion was easily excited. Though David Glenney had been sent out of the way, his aunt remained at Frankfort; and an insolent readiness in distrusting German ladies seemed to run in the family.

Having arrived at these conclusions, she gave her mind again to the still unsettled question of the new lock to the medicine-chest.

Measuring the longest of the bottles (the bottle containing the antidote), she found that her dressing case was not high enough to hold it, while the chest was in the locksmith’s workshop. Her trunks, on the other hand, were only protected by very ordinary locks, and were too large to be removed to the safe keeping of the cupboard. She must either leave the six bottles loose on the shelf or abandon the extra security of the new lock.

The one risk of taking the first of these two courses, was the risk of leaving the key again in the cupboard. Was this likely to occur, after the fright she had already suffered? The question was not really worth answering. She had already placed two of the bottles on the shelf — when a fatal objection to trusting the empty box out of her own possession suddenly crossed her mind.

Her husband’s colleagues at Wurzburg and some of the elder students, were all acquainted (externally, at least) with the appearance of the Professor’s ugly old medicine-chest. It could be easily identified by the initials of his name, inscribed in deeply-burnt letters on the lid. Suppose one of these men happened to be in Frankfort? and suppose he saw the stolen chest in the locksmith’s shop? Two such coincidences were in the last degree improbable — but it was enough that they were possible. Who but a fool, in her critical position, would run the risk of even one chance in a hundred turning against her? Instead of trusting the chest in a stranger’s hands, the wiser course would be to burn it at the first safe opportunity, and be content with the security of the cupboard, while she remained in Mr. Keller’s house. Arriving at this conclusion, she put the chest and its contents back again on the shelf — with the one exception of the label detached from the blue-glass bottle.

In the preternatural distrust that now possessed her, this label assumed the character of a dangerous witness, if, through some unlucky accident, it happened to fall into the hands of any person in the house. She picked it up — advanced to the fireplace to destroy it — paused — and looked at it again.

Nearly two doses of the antidote were still left. Who could say, looking at the future of such a life as hers, that she might not have some need of it yet — after it had already served her so well? Could she be sure, if she destroyed it, of remembering the instructions which specified the intervals at which the doses were to be given, the signs which signified recovery, and the length of time during which the vegetable diet was to be administered?

She read the first sentences again carefully.

“Antidote to Alexander’s Wine. The fatal dose, in case of accident, is indicated by the notched slip of paper attached to the bottle. Two fluid drachms of the poison (more than enough to produce death) were accidentally taken in my experience. So gradual is the deadly effect that, after a delay of thirty-six hours before my attention was called to the case, the administration of the antidote proved successful. The doses are to be repeated ——”

The remaining instructions, beginning with this last sentence, were not of a nature to excite suspicion. Taken by themselves, they might refer to nothing more remarkable than a remedy in certain cases of illness. First she thought of cutting off the upper part of the label: but the lines of the writing were so close together, that they would infallibly betray the act of mutilation. She opened her dressing-case and took from it a common-looking little paper-box, purchased at the chemist’s, bearing the ambitious printed title of “Macula Exstinctor, or Destroyer of Stains”— being an ordinary preparation, in powder, for removing stains from dresses, ink-stains included. The printed directions stated that the powder, partially dissolved in water, might also be used to erase written characters without in any way injuring the paper, otherwise than by leaving a slight shine on the surface. By these means, Madame Fontaine removed the first four sentences on the label, and left the writing on it to begin harmlessly with the instructions for repeating the doses.

“Now I can trust you to refresh my memory without telling tales,” she said to herself, when she put the label back in the chest. As for the recorded dose of the poison, she was not likely to forget that. It was her medicine-measuring glass, filled up to the mark of two drachms. Having locked the cupboard, and secured the key in her pocket, she was ready for the reception of Jack. Her watch told her that the half-hour’s interval had more than expired. She opened the door of her room. There was no sign of him outside. She looked over the stairs, and called to him softly. There was no reply; the little man’s sensitive dignity had evidently taken offense.

The one thing to be done (remembering all that she had to dread from the wanton exercise of Jack’s tongue) was to soothe his ruffled vanity without further delay. There would be no difficulty in discovering him, if he had not gone out. Wherever his Mistress might be at the moment, there he was sure to be found.

Trying Mrs. Wagner’s room first, without success, the widow descended to the ground floor and made her way to the offices. In the private room, formerly occupied by Mr. Engelman, David Glenney’s aunt was working at her desk; and Jack Straw was perched on the old-fashioned window-seat, putting the finishing touches to Minna’s new straw hat.

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