Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

After leaving Mrs. Wagner, the widow considered with herself, and then turned away from the commercial regions of the house, in search of her daughter.

She opened the dining-room door, and found the bagatelle-board on the table. Fritz and Minna were playing a game of the desultory sort — with the inevitable interruptions appropriate to courtship.

“Are you coming to join us, mamma? Fritz is playing very badly.”

“This sort of thing requires mathematical calculation,” Fritz remarked; “and Minna distracts my attention.”

Madame Fontaine listened with a smile of maternal indulgence. “I am on my way back to my room,” she said. “If either of you happen to see Jack Straw ——”

“He has gone out,” Fritz interposed. “I saw him through the window. He started at a run — and then remembered his dignity, and slackened his pace to a walk. How will he come back, I wonder?”

“He will come back with greater dignity than ever, Fritz. I have given him the money to buy himself a pair of gloves. If you or Minna happen to meet with him before I do, tell him he may come upstairs and show me his new gloves. I like to indulge the poor imbecile creature. You mustn’t laugh at him — he is to be pitied.”

Expressing these humane sentiments, she left the lovers to their game. While Jack was still pleasurably excited by the new gift, he would be in the right frame of mind to feel her influence. Now or never (if the thing could be done) was the time to provide against the danger of chance-allusions to what had happened at Wurzburg. It was well known in the house that Mrs. Wagner wished to return to London, as soon after the marriage as certain important considerations connected with the management of the office would permit. By Madame Fontaine’s calculations, Jack would be happily out of the way of doing mischief (if she could keep him quiet in the meanwhile) in a month or six weeks’ time.

The game went on in the dining-room — with the inevitable intervals. Beyond reproach as a lover, Fritz showed no signs of improvement as a bagatelle-player. In a longer pause than usual, during which the persons concerned happened to have their backs turned to the door, a disagreeable interruption occurred. At a moment of absolute silence an intruding voice made itself heard, inviting immediate attention in these words:—

“I say, you two! If you want to see the finest pair of gloves in Frankfort, just look here.”

There he stood with outstretched hands, exhibiting a pair of bright green gloves, and standing higher in his own estimation than ever.

“Why do you always come in without knocking?” Fritz asked, with excusable indignation.

“Why have you always got your arm round her waist?” Jack retorted. “I say, Miss Minna (I only offer a remark), the more he kisses you the more you seem to like it.”

“Send him away, for Heaven’s sake!” Minna whispered.

“Go upstairs!” cried Fritz.

“What! do you want to be at it again?” asked Jack.

“Go and show your new gloves to Madame Fontaine,” said Minna.

The girl’s quick wit had discovered the right way to get rid of Jack. He accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “that’s a good idea! It would never have entered your head, Fritz, would it?”

Before Fritz could reply, Jack was out of his reach.

The widow sat in her room, innocently reading the newspaper. A cake happened to be on the table at her side; and a bottle of sparkling lemonade, by the merest coincidence, was in the near neighborhood of the cake. Jack’s eyes brightened, as they turned towards the table when he entered the room.

“And those are the gloves!” said Madame Fontaine, with her head held critically a little on one side, as if she was a connoisseur enjoying a fine picture. “How very pretty! And what good taste you have!”

Jack (with his eyes still on the cake) accepted these flattering expressions as no more than his due. “I am pleased with my walk,” he remarked. “I have made a successful appearance in public. When the general attention was not occupied with my bag of keys, it was absorbed in my gloves. I showed a becoming modesty — I took no notice of anybody.”

“Perhaps your walk has given you a little appetite?” the widow suggested.

“What did you say?” cried Jack. “Appetite! Upon my soul, I could eat —— No, that’s not gentleman-like. Mistress gave me one of her looks when I said ‘Upon my soul’ down in the office. Thank you. Yes; I like cake. Excuse me — I hope it has got plums in it?”

“Plums and other fine things besides. Taste!”

Jack tried hard to preserve his good manners, and only taste as he was told. But the laws of Nature were too much for him. He was as fond of sweet things as a child — he gobbled. “I say, you’re uncommonly good to me all of a sudden,” he exclaimed between the bites. “You didn’t make much of me like this at Wurzburg!”

He had given Madame Fontaine her opportunity. She was not the woman to let it slip. “Oh, Jack!” she said, in tones of gentle reproach, “didn’t I nurse you at Wurzburg?”

“Well,” Jack admitted, “you did something of the sort.”

“What do you mean?”

He had finished his first slice of cake; his politeness began to show signs of wearing out.

“You did what my master the Doctor told you to do,” he said. “But I don’t believe you cared whether I lived or died. When you had to tuck me up in bed, for instance, you did it with the grossest indifference. Ha! you have improved since that time. Give me some more cake. Never mind cutting it thick. Is that bottle of lemonade for me?”

“You hardly deserve it, Jack, after the way you have spoken of me. Don’t you remember,” she added, cautiously leading him back to the point, “I used to make your lemonade when you were ill?”

Jack persisted in wandering away from the point. “You are so hungry for compliments,” he objected. “Haven’t I told you that you have improved? Only go on as you are going on now, and I dare say I shall put you next to Mistress in my estimation, one of these days. Let the cork go out with a pop; I like noises of all kinds. Your good health! Is it manners to smack one’s lips after lemonade? — it is such good stuff, and there’s such pleasure in feeling it sting one’s throat as it goes down. You didn’t give me such lemonade as this, when I was ill — Oh! that reminds me.”

“Reminds you of something that happened at Wurzburg?” Madame Fontaine inquired.

“Yes. Wait a bit. I’m going to try how the cake tastes dipped in lemonade. Ha! ha! how it fizzes as I stir it round! Yes; something that happened at Wurzburg, as you say. I asked David about it, the morning he went away. But the coach was waiting for him; and he ran off without saying a word. I call that rude.”

He was still stirring his lemonade with his bit of cake — or he might have seen something in the widow’s face that would have startled him. He did look up, when she spoke to him. His sense of hearing was his quickest sense; and he was struck by the sudden change in her voice.

“What did you ask David?”— was all she ventured to say.

Jack still looked at her. “Anything the matter with you?” he inquired.

“Nothing. What did you ask David?”

“Something I wanted to know.”

“Perhaps I can tell you what you want to know?”

“I shouldn’t wonder. No: dipping the cake in lemonade doesn’t improve it, and it leaves crumbs in the drink.”

“Throw away that bit of cake, Jack, and have some more.

“May I help myself?”

“Certainly. But you haven’t told me yet what you want to know.”

At last he answered directly. “What I want to know is this,” he said. “Who poisoned Mr. Keller?”

He was cutting the cake as he spoke, and extracted a piece of candied orange peel with the point of the knife. Once more, the widow’s face had escaped observation. She turned away quickly, and occupied herself in mending the fire. In this position, her back was turned towards the table — she could trust herself to speak.

“You are talking nonsense!” she said.

Jack stopped — with the cake half-way to his mouth. Here was a direct attack on his dignity, and he was not disposed to put up with it. “I never talk nonsense,” he answered sharply.

“You do,” Madame Fontaine rejoined, just as sharply on her side. “Mr. Keller fell ill, as anyone else might fall ill. Nobody poisoned him.”

Jack got on his legs. For the moment he actually forgot the cake. “Nobody?” he repeated. “Tell me this, if you please: Wasn’t Mr. Keller cured out of the blue-glass bottle — like me?”

(Who had told him this? Joseph might have told him; Minna might have told him. It was no time for inquiry; the one thing needful was to eradicate the idea from his mind. She answered boldly, “Quite right, so far”— and waited to see what came of it.)

“Very well,” said Jack, “Mr. Keller was cured out of the blue-glass bottle, like me. And I was poisoned. Now?”

She flatly contradicted him again. “You were not poisoned!”

Jack crossed the room, with a flash of the old Bedlam light in his eyes, and confronted her at the fire place. “The devil is the father of lies,” he said, lifting his hand solemnly. “No lies! I heard my master the Doctor say I was poisoned.”

She was ready with her answer. “Your master the Doctor said that to frighten you. He didn’t want you to taste his medicines in his absence again. You drank double what any person ought to have drunk, you greedy Jack, when you tasted that pretty violet-colored medicine in your master’s workshop. And you had yourself to thank — not poison, when you fell ill.”

Jack looked hard at her. He could reason so far as that he and Mr. Keller must have taken the same poison, because he and Mr. Keller had been cured out of the same bottle. But to premise that he had been made ill by an overdose of medicine, and that Mr. Keller had been made ill in some other way, and then to ask, how two different illnesses could both have been cured by the same remedy — was an effort utterly beyond him. He hung his head sadly, and went back to the table.

“I wish I hadn’t asked you about it,” he said. “You puzzle me horribly.” But for that unendurable sense of perplexity, he would still have doubted and distrusted her as resolutely as ever. As it was, his bewildered mind unconsciously took its refuge in belief. “If it was medicine,” asked the poor creature vacantly, “what is the medicine good for?”

At those words, an idea of the devil’s own prompting entered Madame Fontaine’s mind. Still standing at the fireplace, she turned her head slowly, and looked at the cupboard.

“It’s a better remedy even than the blue-glass bottle,” she said; “it cures you so soon when you are tired, or troubled in your mind, that I have brought it away with me from Wurzburg, to use it for myself.”

Jack’s face brightened with a new interest. “Oh,” he said eagerly, “do let me see it again!”

She put her hand in her pocket, took out the key, and hesitated at the last moment.

“Just one look at it,” Jack pleaded, “to see if it’s the same.”

She unlocked the cupboard.

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