Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

In the gloom thrown over the household by Mr. Engelman’s death, Mrs. Wagner, with characteristic energy and good sense, had kept her mind closely occupied. During the office hours, she studied those details of the business at Frankfort which differed from the details of the business in London; and soon mastered them sufficiently to be able to fill the vacancy which Mr. Engelman had left. The position that he had held became, with all its privileges and responsibilities, Mrs. Wagner’s position — claimed, not in virtue of her rank as directress of the London house, but in recognition of the knowledge that she had specially acquired to fit her for the post.

Out of office-hours, she corresponded with the English writer on the treatment of insane persons, whose work she had discovered in her late husband’s library, and assisted him in attracting public attention to the humane system which he advocated. Even the plan for the employment of respectable girls, in suitable departments of the office, was not left neglected by this indefatigable woman. The same friendly consideration which had induced her to spare Mr. Keller any allusion to the subject, while his health was not yet completely restored, still kept her silent until time had reconciled him to the calamity of his partner’s death. Privately, however, she had caused inquiries to be made in Frankfort, which would assist her in choosing worthy candidates for employment, when the favorable time came — probably after the celebration of Fritz’s marriage — for acting in the interests of the proposed reform.

“Pray send me away, if I interrupt you,” said Madame Fontaine, pausing modestly on the threshold before she entered the room. She spoke English admirably, and made a point of ignoring Mrs. Wagner’s equally perfect knowledge of German, by addressing her always in the English language.

“Come in by all means,” Mrs. Wagner answered. “I am only writing to David Glenney, to tell him (at Minna’s request) that the wedding-day is fixed.”

“Give your nephew my kind regards, Mrs. Wagner. He will be one of the party at the wedding, of course?”

“Yes — if he can be spared from his duties in London. Is there anything I can do for you, Madame Fontaine?”

“Nothing, thank you — except to excuse my intrusion. I am afraid I have offended our little friend there, with the pretty straw hat in his hand, and I want to make my peace with him.”

Jack looked up from his work with an air of lofty disdain. “Oh, dear me, it doesn’t matter,” he said, in his most magnificent manner.

“I was dressing when he knocked at my door,” pursued Madame Fontaine; “and I asked him to come back, and show me his keys in half an hour. Why didn’t you return, Jack? Won’t you show me the keys now?”

“You see it’s a matter of business,” Jack replied as loftily as ever. “I am in the business — Keeper of the Keys. Mistress is in the business; Mr. Keller is in the business. You are not in the business. It doesn’t matter. Upon my soul, it doesn’t matter.”

Mrs. Wagner held up her forefinger reprovingly. “Jack! don’t forget you are speaking to a lady.”

Jack audaciously put his hand to his head, as if this was an effort of memory which was a little too much to expect of him.

“Anything to please you, Mistress,” he said. “I’ll show her the bag.”

He exhibited to Madame Fontaine a leather bag, with a strap fastened round it. “The keys are inside,” he explained. “I wore them loose this morning: and they made a fine jingle. Quite musical to my ear. But Mistress thought the noise likely to be a nuisance in the long run. So I strapped them up in a bag to keep them quiet. And when I move about, the bag hangs from my shoulder, like this, by another strap. When the keys are wanted, I open the bag. You don’t want them — you’re not in the business. Besides, I’m thinking of going out, and showing myself and my bag in the fashionable quarter of the town. On such an occasion, I think I ought to present the appearance of a gentleman — I ought to wear gloves. Oh, it doesn’t matter! I needn’t detain you any longer. Good morning.”

He made one of his fantastic bows, and waved his hand, dismissing Madame Fontaine from further attendance on him. Secretly, he was as eager as ever to show the keys. But the inordinate vanity which was still the mad side of him and the incurable side of him, shrank from opening the leather bag unless the widow first made a special request and a special favor of it. Feeling no sort of interest in the subject, she took the shorter way of making her peace with him. She took out her purse.

“Let me make you a present of the gloves,” she said, with her irresistible smile.

Jack lost all his dignity in an instant.

He leapt off the window seat and snatched at the money, like a famished animal snatching at a piece of meat. Mrs. Wagner caught him by the arm, and looked at him. He lifted his eyes to hers, then lowered them again as if he was ashamed of himself.

“Oh, to be sure!” he said, “I have forgotten my manners, I haven’t said Thank you. A lapse of memory, I suppose. Thank you, Mrs. Housekeeper.” In a moment more, he and his bag were on their way to the fashionable quarter of the town.

“You will make allowances for my poor little Jack, I am sure,” said Mrs. Wagner.

“My dear madam, Jack amuses me!”

Mrs. Wagner winced a little at the tone of the widow’s reply. “I have cured him of all the worst results of his cruel imprisonment in the mad-house,” she went on. “But his harmless vanity seems to be inbred; I can do nothing with him on that side of his character. He is proud of being trusted with anything, especially with keys; and he has been kept waiting for them, while I had far more important matters to occupy me. In a day or two he will be more accustomed to his great responsibility, as he calls it.”

“Of course you don’t trust him,” said Madame Fontaine, “with keys that are of any importance; like the key of your desk there, for instance.”

Mrs. Wagner’s steady gray eyes began to brighten. “I can trust him with anything,” she answered emphatically.

Madame Fontaine arched her handsome brows in a mutely polite expression of extreme surprise.

“In my experience of the world,” Mrs. Wagner went on, “I have found that the rarest of all human virtues is the virtue of gratitude. In a hundred little ways my poor friendless Jack has shown me that he is grateful. To my mind that is reason enough for trusting him.”

“With money?” the widow inquired.

“Certainly. In London I trusted him with money — with the happiest results. I quieted his mind by an appeal to his sense of trust and self-respect, which he thoroughly appreciated. As yet I have not given him the key of my desk here, because I reserve it as a special reward for good conduct. In a few days more I have no doubt he will add it to the collection in his bag.”

“Ah,” said Madame Fontaine, with the humility which no living woman knew better when and how to assume, “you understand these difficult questions — you have your grand national common-sense. I am only a poor limited German woman. But, as you say in England, ‘Live and learn.’ You have indescribably interested me. Good morning.”

She left the room. “Hateful woman!” she said in her own language, on the outer side of the door.

“Humbug!” said Mrs. Wagner in her language, on the inner side of the door.

If there had been more sympathy between the two ladies, or if Madame Fontaine had felt a little curiosity on the subject of crazy Jack’s keys, she might have taken away with her some valuable materials for future consideration. As it was, Mrs. Wagner had not troubled her with any detailed narrative of the manner in which she had contrived to fill Jack’s leather bag.

In London, she had begun cautiously by only giving him some of the useless old keys which accumulate about a house in course of years. When the novelty of merely keeping them had worn off, and when he wanted to see them put to some positive use, she had added one or two keys of her own, and had flattered his pride by asking him to open the box or the desk for her, as the case might be. Proceeding on the same wisely gradual plan at Frankfort, she had asked Mr. Keller to help her, and had been taken by him (while Jack was out of the way) to a lumber-room in the basement of the house, on the floor of which several old keys were lying about. “Take as many as you like,” he had said; “they have been here, for all I know, ever since the house was repaired and refurnished in my grandfather’s time, and they might be sold for old iron, if there were only enough of them.” Mrs. Wagner had picked up the first six keys that presented themselves, and had made Jack Straw the happiest of men. He found no fault with them for being rusty. On the contrary, he looked forward with delight to the enjoyment of cleaning away the rust. “They shall be as bright as diamonds,” he had said to his mistress, “before I have done with them.”

And what did Madame Fontaine lose, by failing to inform herself of such trifles as these? She never discovered what she had lost. But she had not done with Jack Straw yet.

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