Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

Mrs. Wagner was still hard at work at her desk, when Jack Straw made his appearance again in the private office.

“Where have you been all this time?” she asked. “And what have you done with your new gloves?”

“I threw them at Madame Fontaine,” Jack answered. “Don’t alarm yourself. I didn’t hit her.”

Mrs. Wagner laid down her pen, smiling. “Even business must give way to such an extraordinary event as this,” she said. “What has gone wrong between you and Madame Fontaine?”

Jack entered into a long rambling narrative of what he had heard on the subject of the wonderful remedy, and of the capricious manner in which a supply of it had been first offered to him, and then taken away again. “Turn it over in your own mind,” he said grandly, “and tell me what your opinion is, so far.”

“I think you had better let Madame Fontaine keep her medicine in the cupboard,” Mrs. Wagner answered; “and when you want anything of that sort, mention it to me.” The piece of cake which Jack had brought away with him attracted her attention, as she spoke. Had he bought it himself? or had he carried it off from the housekeeper’s room? “Does that belong to you, or to Madame Fontaine?” she asked. “Anything that belongs to Madame Fontaine must be taken back to her.”

“Do you think I would condescend to take anything that didn’t belong to me?” said Jack indignantly. He entered into another confused narrative, which brought him, in due course of time, to the dropping of the key and the picking of it up. “I happened to read ‘Pink–Room Cupboard’ on the handle,” he proceeded; “and when I asked what it meant she called me a fool, and snatched the key out of my hand. Do you suppose I was going to wear her gloves after that? No! I am as capable of self-sacrifice as any of you — I acted nobly — I threw them at her. Wait a bit! You may laugh at that, but there’s something terrible to come. What do you think of a furious person who insults me, suddenly turning into a funny person who shakes hands with me and bursts out laughing? She did that. On the honor of a gentleman, she did that. Follow my wise example; keep out of her way — and let’s get back to London as soon as we can. Oh, I have got a reason for what I say. Just let me look through the keyhole before I mention it. All right; there’s nobody at the keyhole; I may say it safely. It’s a dreadful secret to reveal — Mrs. Housekeeper is mad! No, no; there can be no possible mistake about it. If there’s a creature living who thoroughly understands madness when he sees it — by Heaven, I’m that man!”

Watching Jack attentively while he was speaking. Mrs. Wagner beckoned to him to come nearer, and took him by the hand.

“No more now,” she said quietly; “you are beginning to get a little excited.”

“Who says that?” cried Jack.

“Your eyes say it. Come here to your place.”

She rose, and led him to his customary seat in the recess of the old-fashioned window. “Sit down,” she said.

“I don’t want to sit down.”

“Not if I ask you?”

He instantly sat down. Mrs. Wagner produced her pocket-book, and made a mark in it with her pencil. “One good conduct-mark already for Jack,” she said. “Now I must go on with my work; and you must occupy yourself quietly, in some way that will amuse you. What will you do?”

Jack, steadily restraining himself under the firm kind eyes that rested on him, was not in the right frame of mind for discovering a suitable employment. “You tell me,” he said.

Mrs. Wagner pointed to the bag of keys, hanging over his shoulder. “Have you cleaned them yet?” she asked.

His attention was instantly diverted to the keys; he was astonished at having forgotten them. Mrs. Wagner rang the bell, and supplied him with sandpaper, leather, and whiting. “Now then,” she said, pointing to the clock, “for another hour at least — silence and work!”

She returned to her desk; and Jack opened his bag.

He spread out the rusty keys in a row, on the seat at his side. Looking from one to the other before he began the cleansing operations, he started, picked out one key, and held it up to the light. There was something inscribed on the handle, under a layer of rust and dirt. He snatched up his materials, and set to work with such good will that the inscription became visible in a few minutes. He could read it plainly —“Pink–Room Cupboard.” A word followed which was not quite so intelligible to him — the word “Duplicate.” But he had no need to trouble himself about this. “Pink–Room Cupboard,” on a second key, told him all he wanted to know.

His eyes sparkled — he opened his lips — looked at Mrs. Wagner, busily engaged with her pen — and restrained himself within the hard limits of silence. “Aha! I can take Mrs. Housekeeper’s medicine whenever I like,” he thought slily.

His faith in the remedy was not at all shaken by his conviction that Madame Fontaine was mad. It was the Doctor who had made the remedy — and the Doctor could not commit a mistake. “She’s not fit to have the keeping of such a precious thing,” he concluded. “I’ll take the whole of it under my own charge. Shall I tell Mistress, when we have done work?”

He considered this question, cleaning his keys, and looking furtively from time to time at Mrs. Wagner. The cunning which is almost invariably well developed in a feeble intelligence, decided him on keeping his discovery to himself. “Anything that belongs to Madame Fontaine must be taken back to her”— was what the Mistress had just said to him. He would certainly be ordered to give up the duplicate key (which meant giving up the wonderful remedy) if he took Mrs. Wagner into his confidence. “When I have got what I want,” he thought, “I can throw away the key — and there will be an end of it.”

The minutes followed each other, the quarters struck — and still the two strangely associated companions went on silently with their strangely dissimilar work. It was close on the time for the striking of the hour, when a third person interrupted the proceedings — that person being no other than Madame Fontaine again.

“A thousand pardons, Mrs. Wagner! At what time can I say two words to you in confidence?”

“You could not have chosen your time better, Madame Fontaine. My work is done for to-day.” She paused, and looked at Jack, ostentatiously busy with his keys. The wisest course would be to leave him in the window-seat, harmlessly employed. “Shall we step into the dining-room?” she suggested, leading the way out. “Wait there, Jack, till I return; I may have another good mark to put in my pocket-book.”

The two ladies held their conference, with closed doors, in the empty dining-room.

“My only excuse for troubling you, madam,” the widow began, “is that I speak in the interest of that poor little Jack, whom we have just left in the office. May I ask if you have lately observed any signs of excitement in him?”

“Certainly!” Mrs. Wagner answered, with her customary frankness of reply; “I found it necessary to compose him, when he came to me about an hour ago — and you have just seen that he is as quiet again as a man can be. I am afraid you have had reason to complain of his conduct yourself?”

Madame Fontaine lifted her hands in gently-expressed protest. “Oh, dear, no — not to complain! To pity our afflicted Jack, and to feel, perhaps, that your irresistible influence over him might be required — no more.”

“You are very good,” said Mrs. Wagner dryly. “At the same time, I beg you to accept my excuses — not only for Jack, but for myself. I found him so well behaved, and so capable of restraining himself in London, that I thought I was running no risk in bringing him with me to Frankfort.”

“Pray say no more, dear madam — you really confuse me. I am the innocent cause of his little outbreak. I most unfortunately reminded him of the time when he lived with us at Wurzburg — and in that way I revived one of his old delusions, which even your admirable treatment has failed to remove from his mind.”

“May I ask what the delusion is, Madame Fontaine?”

“One of the commonest delusions among insane persons, Mrs. Wagner — the delusion that he has been poisoned. Has he ever betrayed it in your presence?”

“I heard something of it,” Mrs. Wagner answered, “from the superintendent at the madhouse in London.”

“Ah, indeed? The superintendent merely repeated, I suppose, what Jack had told him?”

“Exactly. I was careful not to excite him, by referring to it myself, when I took him under my charge. At the same time, it is impossible to look at his hair and his complexion, without seeing that some serious accident must have befallen him.”

“Most unquestionably! He is the victim, poor creature — not of poison — but of his own foolish curiosity, in my husband’s surgery, and you see the result. Alas! I cannot give you the scientific reasons for it.”

“I shouldn’t understand them, Madame Fontaine, if you could.”

“Ah, dear lady, you kindly say so, because you are unwilling to humiliate me. Is there anything Jack may have said to you about me, which seems to require an explanation — if I can give it?”

She slipped in this question, concealing perfectly the anxiety that suggested it, so far as her voice and her eyes were concerned. But the inner agitation rose to the surface in a momentary trembling of her lips.

Slight as it was, that sign of self-betrayal did not escape Mrs. Wagner’s keen observation. She made a cautious reply. “On the contrary,” she said, “from what Jack has told me, the conclusion is plain that you have really done him a service. You have succeeded in curing that delusion you spoke of — and I applaud your good sense in refusing to trust him with the medicine.”

Madame Fontaine made a low curtsey. “I shall remember those kind words, among the happy events of my life,” she said, with her best grace. “Permit me to take your hand.” She pressed Mrs. Wagner’s hand gratefully — and made an exit which was a triumph of art. Even a French actress might have envied the manner in which she left the room.

But, when she ascended the stairs, with no further necessity for keeping up appearances, her step was as slow and as weary as the step of an old woman. “Oh, my child,” she thought sadly, with her mind dwelling again on Minna, “shall I see the end of all these sacrifices, when your wedding-day comes with the end of the year?” She sat down by the fire in her room, and for the first time in her life, the harmless existence of one of those domestic drudges whom she despised began to seem enviable to her. There were merits visible now, in the narrow social horizon that is bounded by gossip, knitting, and tea.

Left by herself in the dining-room, Mrs. Wagner took a turn up and down, with her mind bent on penetrating Madame Fontaine’s motives.

There were difficulties in her way. It was easy to arrive at the conclusion that there was something under the surface; but the obstacles to advancing beyond this point of discovery seemed to defy removal. To distrust the graceful widow more resolutely than ever, and to lament that she had not got wise David Glenney to consult with, were the principal results of Mrs. Wagner’s reflections when she returned to the office.

There was Jack — in the nursery phrase, as good as gold — still in his place on the window seat, devoted to his keys. His first words related entirely to himself.

“If this isn’t good conduct,” he said, “I should like to know what is. Give me my other mark.”

Mrs. Wagner took out her pocket-book and made the new mark.

“Thank you,” said Jack. “Now I want something else. I want to know what Mrs. Housekeeper has been saying. I have been seriously alarmed about you.”

“Why, Jack?”

“She hasn’t bitten you, has she? Oh, they do it sometimes! What lies has she been telling you of me? Oh, they lie in the most abominable manner! What? She has been talking of me in the kindest terms? Then why did she want to get out of my hearing? Ah, they’re so infernally deceitful! I do hate mad people.”

Mrs. Wagner produced her pocket-book again. “I shall scratch out your mark,” she said sternly, “if I hear any more talk of that sort.”

Jack gathered his keys together with a strong sense of injury, and put them back in his leather bag. “You’re a little hard on me,” he said, “when I’m only warning you for your own good. I don’t know why it is, you’re not as kind to me here, as you used to be in London. And I feel it, I do!” He laid himself down on the window seat, and began to cry.

Mrs. Wagner was not the woman to resist this expression of the poor little man’s feeling. In a moment she was at the window comforting him and drying his eyes, as if he had been a child. And, like a child, Jack took advantage of the impression that he had made. “Look at your desk,” he said piteously; “there’s another proof how hard you are on me. I used to keep the key of your desk in London. You won’t trust it to me here.”

Mrs. Wagner went to the desk, locked it, and returned to Jack. Few people know how immensely an act of kindness gains in effect, by being performed in silence. Mrs. Wagner was one of the few. Without a word, she opened the leather bag and dropped the key into it. Jack’s gratitude rushed innocently to an extreme which it had never reached yet. “Oh!” he cried, “would you mind letting me kiss you?”

Mrs. Wagner drew back, and held up a warning hand. Before she could express herself in words, Jack’s quick ear caught the sound of footsteps approaching the door. “Is she coming back?” he cried, still suspicious of Madame Fontaine. Mrs. Wagner instantly opened the door, and found herself face to face with Joseph the footman.

“Do you know, ma’am, when Mr. Keller will be back?” he asked.

“I didn’t even know that he was out, Joseph. Who wants him?”

“A gentleman, ma’am, who says he comes from Munich.”

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