Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 8

The widow presented herself, with a dogged resignation singularly unlike her customary manner. Her eyes had a set look of hardness; her lips were fast closed; her usually colorless complexion had faded to a strange grayish pallor. If her dead husband could have risen from the grave, and warned Mr. Keller, he would have said, “Once or twice in my life, I have seen her like that — mind what you are about!”

She puzzled Mr. Keller. He tried to gain time — he bowed and pointed to a chair. Madame Fontaine took the chair in silence. Her hard eyes looked straight at the master of the house, overhung more heavily than usual by their drooping lids. Her thin lips never opened. The whole expression of the woman said plainly, “You speak first!”

Mr. Keller spoke. His kindly instinct warned him not to refer to Minna, in alluding to the persons from whom he had derived his information. “I hear from my son,” he said, “that you do not approve of our putting off the wedding-day, though it is only for a fortnight. Are you aware of the circumstances?”

“I am aware of the circumstances.”

“Your daughter informed you of my sister’s illness, I suppose?”

At that first reference to Minna, some inner agitation faintly stirred the still surface of Madame Fontaine’s face.

“Yes,” she said. “My thoughtless daughter informed me.”

The epithet applied to Minna, aggravated by the deliberate emphasis laid on it, jarred on Mr. Keller’s sense of justice. “It appears to me,” he said, “that your daughter acted in this matter, not only with the truest kindness, but with the utmost good sense. Mrs. Wagner and my sister’s physician were both present at the time, and both agreed with me in admiring her conduct. What has she done to deserve that you should call her thoughtless?”

“She ought to have remembered her duty to her mother. She ought to have consulted me, before she presumed to decide for herself.”

“In that case, Madame Fontaine, would you have objected to change the day of the marriage?”

“I am well aware, sir, that your sister has honored my daughter by making her a magnificent present ——”

Mr. Keller’s face began to harden. “May I beg you to be so good as answer my question plainly?” he said, in tones which were peremptory for the first time. “Would you have objected to grant the fortnight’s delay?”

She answered him, on the bare chance that a strong expression of her opinion, as the bride’s mother, might, even now, induce him to revert to the date originally chosen for the wedding. “I should certainly have objected,” she said firmly.

“What difference could it possibly make to you?“ There was suspicion in his manner, as well as surprise, when he put that question. “For what reason would you have objected?”

“Is my objection, as Minna’s mother, not worthy of some consideration, sir, without any needless inquiry into motives?”

“Your daughter’s objection — as the bride — would have been a final objection, to my mind,” Mr. Keller answered. “But your objection is simply unaccountable; and I press you for your motives, having this good reason for doing so on my side. If I am to disappoint my sister — cruelly to disappoint her — it must be for some better cause than a mere caprice.”

It was strongly put, and not easily answered. Madame Fontaine made a last effort — she invented the likeliest motives she could think of. “I object, sir, in the first place, to putting off the most important event in my daughter’s life, and in my life, as if it was some trifling engagement. Besides, how do I know that some other unlucky circumstance may not cause more delays; and perhaps prevent the marriage from taking place at all?”

Mr. Keller rose from his chair. Whatever her true motives might be, it was now perfectly plain that she was concealing them from him. “If you have any more serious reasons to give me than these,” he said quietly and coldly, “let me hear them between this and post-time tomorrow. In the meanwhile, I need not detain you any longer.”

Madame Fontaine rose also — but she was not quite defeated yet.

“As things are, then,” she resumed, “I am to understand, sir, that the marriage is put off to the thirteenth of January next?”

“Yes, with your daughter’s consent.”

“Suppose my daughter changes her mind, in the interval?”

“Under your influence?”

“Mr. Keller! you insult me.”

“I should insult your daughter, Madame Fontaine — after what she said in this room before me and before other witnesses — if I supposed her to be capable of changing her mind, except under your influence.

“Good evening, sir.”

“Good evening, madam.”

She went back to her room.

The vacant spaces on the walls were prettily filled up with prints and water-color drawings. Among these last was a little portrait of Mr. Keller, in a glazed frame. She approached it — looked at it — and, suddenly tearing it from the wall, threw it on the floor. It happened to fall with the glass uppermost. She stamped on it, in a perfect frenzy of rage; not only crushing the glass, but even breaking the frame, and completely destroying the portrait as a work of art. “There! that has done me good,” she said to herself — and kicked the fragments into a corner of the room.

She was now able to take a chair at the fireside, and shape out for herself the course which it was safest to follow.

Minna was first in her thoughts. She could bend the girl to her will, and send her to Mr. Keller. But he would certainly ask, under what influence she was acting, in terms which would place the alternative between a downright falsehood, or a truthful answer. Minna was truth itself; in her youngest days, she had been one of those rare children who never take their easy refuge in a lie. What influence would be most likely to persuade her to deceive Fritz’s father? The widow gave up the idea, in the moment when it occurred to her. Once again, “Jezebel’s Daughter” unconsciously touched Jezebel’s heart with the light of her purity and her goodness. The mother shrank from deliberately degrading the nature of her own child.

The horrid question of the money followed. On the thirty-first of the month, the promissory note would be presented for payment. Where was the money to be found?

Some little time since, having the prospect of Minna’s marriage on the thirtieth of December before her, she had boldly resolved on referring the holder of the note to Mr. Keller. Did it matter to her what the sordid old merchant said or thought, after Minna had become his son’s wife? She would coolly say to him, “The general body of the creditors harassed me. I preferred having one creditor to deal with, who had no objection to grant me time. His debt has fallen due; and I have no money to pay it. Choose between paying it yourself, and the disgrace of letting your son’s mother-in-law be publicly arrested in Frankfort for debt.”

So she might have spoken, if her daughter had been a member of Mr. Keller’s family. With floods of tears, with eloquent protestations, with threats even of self-destruction, could she venture on making the confession now?

She remembered how solemnly she had assured Mr. Keller that her debts were really and truly paid. She remembered the inhuman scorn with which he had spoken of persons who failed to meet their pecuniary engagements honestly. Even if he forgave her for deceiving him — which was in the last degree improbable — he was the sort of man who would suspect her of other deceptions. He would inquire if she had been quite disinterested in attending at his bedside, and saving his life. He might take counsel privately with his only surviving partner, Mrs. Wagner. Mrs. Wagner might recall the interview in the drawing-room, and the conversation about Jack; and might see her way to consulting Jack’s recollections of his illness at Wurzburg. The risk to herself of encountering these dangers was trifling. But the risk to Minna involved nothing less than the breaking off of the marriage. She decided on keeping up appearances, at any sacrifice, until the marriage released her from the necessities of disguise.

So it came back again to the question of how the money was to be found.

Had she any reasonable hope of success, if she asked for a few days’ leave of absence, and went to Wurzburg? Would the holder of the bill allow her to renew it for a fortnight?

She got up, and consulted her glass — and turned away from it again, with a sigh. “If I was only ten years younger!” she thought.

The letter which she received from Wurzburg had informed her that the present holder of the bill was “a middle-aged man.” If he had been very young, or very old, she would have trusted in the autumn of her beauty, backed by her ready wit. But experience had taught her that the fascinations of a middle-aged woman are, in the vast majority of cases, fascinations thrown away on a middle-aged man. Even if she could hope to be one of the exceptions that prove the rule, the middle-aged man was an especially inaccessible person, in this case. He had lost money by her already — money either paid, or owing, to the spy whom he had set to watch her. Was this the sort of man who would postpone the payment of his just dues?

She opened one of the drawers in the toilette table, and took out the pearl necklace. “I thought it would come to this,” she said quietly. “Instead of paying the promissory note, Mr. Keller will have to take the necklace out of pledge.”

The early evening darkness of winter had set in. She dressed herself for going out, and left her room, with the necklace in its case, concealed under her shawl.

Poor puzzled Minna was waiting timidly to speak to her in the corridor. “Oh mamma, do forgive me! I meant it for the best.”

The widow put one arm (the other was not at liberty) round her daughter’s waist. “You foolish child,” she said, “will you never understand that your poor mother is getting old and irritable? I may think you have made a great mistake, in sacrificing yourself to the infirmities of an asthmatic stranger at Munich; but as to being ever really angry with you ——! Kiss me, my love; I never was fonder of you than I am now. Lift my veil. Oh, my darling, I don’t like giving you to anybody, even to Fritz.”

Minna changed the subject — a sure sign that she and Fritz were friends again. “How thick and heavy your veil is!” she said.

“It is cold out of doors, my child, to-night.”

“But why are you going out?”

“I don’t feel very well, Minna. A brisk walk in the frosty air will do me good.”

“Mamma, do let me go with you!”

“No, my dear. You are not a hard old woman like me — and you shall not run the risk of catching cold. Go into my room, and keep the fire up. I shall be back in half an hour.

“Where is my necklace, mamma?”

“My dear, the bride’s mother keeps the bride’s necklace — and, when we do try it on, we will see how it looks by daylight.”

In a minute more, Madame Fontaine was out in the street, on her way to the nearest jeweler.

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