Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 5

Jack attempted to follow her, and look in. She waved him back with her hand.

“Wait at the window,” she said, “where you can see the medicine in the light.” She took the bottle of “Alexander’s Wine” from the chest, and having locked the cupboard again, replaced the key in her pocket. “Do you remember it?” she asked, showing him the bottle.

He shuddered as he recognized the color. “Medicine?” he said to himself — troubled anew by doubts which he was not able to realize. “I don’t remember how much I took when I tasted it. Do you?”

“I have told you already. You took twice the proper dose.”

“Did my master the Doctor say that?”

“Yes.”

“And did he tell you what the proper dose was?”

“Yes.”

Jack was not able to resist this. “I should like to see it!” he said eagerly. “My master was a wonderful man — my master knew everything.”

Madame Fontaine looked at him. He waited to see his request granted, like a child waiting to see a promised toy. “Shall I measure it out, and show you?” she said. “I suppose you don’t know what two drachms mean?”

“No, no! Let me see it.”

She looked at him again and hesitated. With a certain reluctance of manner, she opened her dressing-case. As she took out a medicine-measuring-glass, her hand began to tremble. A faint perspiration showed itself on her forehead. She put the glass on the table, and spoke to Jack.

“What makes you so curious to see what the dose is?” she said. “Do you think you are likely to want some of it yourself?”

His eyes looked longingly at the poison. “It cures you when you are tired or troubled in your mind,” he answered, repeating her own words. “I am but a little fellow — and I’m more easily tired sometimes than you would think.”

She passed her handkerchief over her forehead. “The fire makes the room rather warm,” she said.

Jack took no notice of the remark; he had not done yet with the confession of his little infirmities. He went on proving his claim to be favored with some of the wonderful remedy.

“And as for being troubled in my mind,” he said, “you haven’t a notion how bad I am sometimes. If I’m kept away from Mistress for a whole day — when I say or do something wrong, you know — I tell you this, I’m fit to hang myself! If you were to see me, I do think your heart would be touched; I do indeed!”

Instead of answering him, she rose abruptly, and hurried to the door.

“Surely there’s somebody outside,” she exclaimed —“somebody wanting to speak to me!”

“I don’t hear it,” said Jack; “and mine are the quickest ears in the house.”

“Wait a minute, and let me see.”

She opened the door: closed it again behind her; and hurried along the lonely corridor. Throwing up the window at the end, she put her head out into the keen wintry air, with a wild sense of relief. She was almost beside herself, without knowing why. Poor Jack’s innocent attempts to persuade her to his destruction had, in their pitiable simplicity, laid a hold on that complex and terrible nature which shook it to its center. The woman stood face to face with her own contemplated crime, and trembled at the diabolical treachery of it. “What’s the matter with me?” she wondered inwardly. “I feel as if I could destroy every poison in the chest with my own hands.”

Slowly she returned along the corridor, to her room. The refreshing air had strung up her nerves again! she began to recover herself. The strengthened body reacted on the wavering mind. She smiled as she recalled her own weakness, looking at the bottle of poison which she had mechanically kept in her hand. “That feeble little creature might do some serious mischief, between this and the wedding-day,” she thought; “and yet —— and yet ——”

“Well, was there anybody outside?” Jack asked.

“Nothing to matter,” she said. The answer was spoken mechanically. Something in him or something in herself, it was impossible to say which, had suddenly set her thinking of the day when her husband had dragged him out of the jaws of death. It seemed strange that the memory of the dead Doctor should come between them in that way, and at that time.

Jack recalled her to the passing moment. He offered her the medicine-measuring-glass left on the table. “It frightens me, when I think of what I did,” he said. “And yet it’s such a pretty color — I want to see it again.”

In silence, she took the glass; in silence, she measured out the fatal two drachms of the poison, and showed it to him.

“Do put it in something,” he pleaded, “and let me have it to keep: I know I shall want it.”

Still in silence, she turned to the table, and searching again in her dressing-case, found a little empty bottle. She filled it and carefully fitted in the glass stopper. Jack held out his hand. She suddenly drew her own hand back. “No,” she said. “On second thoughts, I won’t let you have it.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t govern your tongue, and can’t keep anything to yourself. You will tell everybody in the house that I have given you my wonderful medicine. They will all be wanting some — and I shall have none left for myself.”

“Isn’t that rather selfish?” said Jack. “I suppose it’s natural, though. Never mind, I’ll do anything to please you; I’ll keep it in my pocket and not say a word to anybody. Now?”

Once more, he held out his hand. Once more Madame Fontaine checked herself in the act of yielding to him. Her dead husband had got between them again. The wild words he had spoken to her, in the first horror of the discovery that his poor imbecile servant had found and tasted the fatal drug, came back to her memory —“If he dies I shall not survive him. And I firmly believe I shall not rest in my grave.” She had never been, like her husband, a believer in ghosts: superstitions of all sorts were to her mind unworthy of a reasonable being. And yet at that moment, she was so completely unnerved that she looked round the old Gothic room, with a nameless fear throbbing at her heart.

It was enough — though nothing appeared: it was enough — though superstitions of all sorts were unworthy of a reasonable being — to shake her fell purpose, for the time. Nothing that Jack could say had the least effect on her. Having arrived at a determination, she was mistress of herself again. “Not yet,” she resolved; “there may be consequences that I haven’t calculated on. I’ll take the night to think of it.” Jack tried a last entreaty as she put her hand into her pocket, searching for the cupboard key, and tried it in vain. “No,” she said; “I will keep it for you. Come to me when you are really ill, and want it.”

Her pocket proved to be entangled for the moment in the skirt of her dress. In irritably trying to disengage it, she threw out the key on the floor. Jack picked the key up and noticed the inscription on the handle. “Pink–Room Cupboard,” he read. “Why do they call it by that name?”

In her over-wrought state of mind, she had even felt the small irritating influence of an entangled pocket. She was in no temper to endure simple questions patiently. “Look at the pink curtains, you fool!” she said — and snatched the key out of his hand.

Jack instantly resented the language and the action. “I didn’t come here to be insulted,” he declared in his loftiest manner.

Madame Fontaine secured the poison in the cupboard without noticing him, and made him more angry than ever.

“Take back your new gloves,” he cried, “I don’t want them!” He rolled up his gloves, and threw them at her. “I wish I could throw all the cake I’ve eaten after them!” he burst out fervently.

He delivered this aspiration with an emphatic stamp of his foot. The hysterical excitement in Madame Fontaine forced its way outwards under a new form. She burst into a frantic fit of laughter. “You curious little creature,” she said; “I didn’t mean to offend you. Don’t you know that women will lose their patience sometimes? There! Shake hands and make it up. And take away the rest of the cake, if you like it.” Jack looked at her in speechless surprise. “Leave me to myself!” she cried, relapsing into irritability. “Do you hear? Go! go! go!”

Jack left the room without a word of protest. The rapid changes in her, the bewildering diversity of looks and tones that accompanied them, completely cowed him. It was only when he was safe outside in the corridor, that he sufficiently recovered himself to put his own interpretation on what had happened. He looked back at the door of Madame Fontaine’s room, and shook his little gray head solemnly.

“Now I understand it,” he thought to himself “Mrs. Housekeeper is mad. Oh, dear, dear me — Bedlam is the only place for her!”

He descended the first flight of stairs, and stopped again to draw the moral suggested by his own clever discovery. “I must speak to Mistress about this,” he concluded. “The sooner we are back in London, the safer I shall feel.”

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