On the afternoon of the next day, while my two good friends were still occupied by the duties of the office, I stole out to pay my promised visit to Minna and Minna’s mother.
It was impossible not to arrive at the conclusion that they were indeed in straitened circumstances. Their lodgings were in the cheap suburban quarter of Frankfort on the left bank of the river. Everything was scrupulously neat, and the poor furniture was arranged with taste — but no dexterity of management could disguise the squalid shabbiness of the sitting-room into which I was shown. I could not help thinking how distressed Fritz would feel, if he could have seen his charming Minna in a place so unworthy of her as this.
The rickety door opened, and the “Jezebel” of the anonymous letter (followed by her daughter) entered the room.
There are certain remarkable women in all countries who, whatever sphere they may be seen in, fill that sphere as completely as a great actor fills the stage. Widow Fontaine was one of these noteworthy persons. The wretched little room seemed to disappear when she softly glided into it; and even the pretty Minna herself receded into partial obscurity in her mother’s presence. And yet there was nothing in the least obtrusive in the manner of Madame Fontaine, and nothing remarkable in her stature. Her figure, reaching to no more than the middle height, was the well-rounded figure of a woman approaching forty years of age. The influence she exercised was, in part, attributable, as I suppose, to the supple grace of all her movements; in part, to the commanding composure of her expression and the indescribable witchery of her manner. Her dark eyes, never fully opened in my remembrance, looked at me under heavy overhanging upper eyelids. Her enemies saw something sensual in their strange expression. To my mind it was rather something furtively cruel — except when she looked at her daughter. Sensuality shows itself most plainly in the excessive development of the lower part of the face. Madame Fontaine’s lips were thin, and her chin was too small. Her profuse black hair was just beginning to be streaked with gray. Her complexion wanted color. In spite of these drawbacks, she was still a striking, I might almost say a startling, creature, when you first looked at her. And, though she only wore the plainest widow’s weeds, I don’t scruple to assert that she was the most perfectly dressed woman I ever saw.
Minna made a modest attempt to present me in due form. Her mother put her aside playfully, and held out both her long white powerful hands to me as cordially as if we had known each other for years.
“I wait to prove other people before I accept them for my friends,” she said. “Mr. David, you have been more than kind to my daughter — and you are my friend at our first meeting.”
I believe I repeat the words exactly. I wish I could give any adequate idea of the exquisite charm of voice and manner which accompanied them.
And yet, I was not at my ease with her — I was not drawn to her irresistibly, as I had felt drawn to her daughter. Those dark, steady, heavy-lidded eyes of hers seemed to be looking straight into my heart, and surprising all my secrets. To say that I actually distrusted and disliked her would be far from the truth. Distrust and dislike would have protected me, in some degree at least, from feeling her influence as I certainly did feel it. How that influence was exerted — whether it was through her eyes, or through her manner, or, to speak the jargon of these latter days, through some “magnetic emanation” from her, which invisibly overpowered me — is more than I can possibly say. I can only report that she contrived by slow degrees to subject the action of my will more and more completely to the action of hers, until I found myself answering her most insidious questions as unreservedly as if she had been in very truth my intimate and trusted friend.
“And is this your first visit to Frankfort, Mr. David?” she began.
“Oh, no, madam! I have been at Frankfort on two former occasions.”
“Ah, indeed? And have you always stayed with Mr. Keller?”
She looked unaccountably interested when she heard that reply, brief as it was.
“Then, of course, you are intimate with him,” she said. “Intimate enough, perhaps, to ask a favor or to introduce a friend?”
I made a futile attempt to answer this cautiously.
“As intimate, madam, as a young clerk in the business can hope to be with a partner,” I said.
“A clerk in the business?” she repeated. “I thought you lived in London, with your aunt.”
Here Minna interposed for the first time.
“You forget, mamma, that there are three names in the business. The inscription over the door in Main Street is Wagner, Keller, and Engelman. Fritz once told me that the office here in Frankfort was only the small office — and the grand business was Mr. Wagner’s business in London. Am I right, Mr. David?”
“Quite right, Miss Minna. But we have no such magnificent flower-garden at the London house as Mr. Engelman’s flower-garden here. May I offer you a nosegay which he allowed me to gather?”
I had hoped to make the flowers a means of turning the conversation to more interesting topics. But the widow resumed her questions, while Minna was admiring the flowers.
“Then you are Mr. Wagner’s clerk?” she persisted.
“I was Mr. Wagner’s clerk. Mr. Wagner is dead.”
“Ha! And who takes care of the great business now?”
Without well knowing why, I felt a certain reluctance to speak of my aunt and her affairs. But Widow Fontaine’s eyes rested on me with a resolute expectation in them which I felt myself compelled to gratify. When she understood that Mr. Wagner’s widow was now the chief authority in the business, her curiosity to hear everything that I could tell her about my aunt became all but insatiable. Minna’s interest in the subject was, in quite another way, as vivid as her mother’s. My aunt’s house was the place to which cruel Mr. Keller had banished her lover. The inquiries of the mother and daughter followed each other in such rapid succession that I cannot pretend to remember them now. The last question alone remains vividly impressed on my memory, in connection with the unexpected effect which my answer produced. It was put by the widow in these words:
“Your aunt is interested, of course, in the affairs of her partners in this place. Is it possible, Mr. David, that she may one day take the journey to Frankfort?”
“It is quite likely, madam, that my aunt may be in Frankfort on business before the end of the year.”
As I replied in those terms the widow looked round slowly at her daughter. Minna was evidently quite as much at a loss to understand the look as I was. Madame Fontaine turned to me again, and made an apology.
“Pardon me, Mr. David, there is a little domestic duty that I had forgotten.” She crossed the room to a small table, on which writing-materials were placed, wrote a few lines, and handed the paper, without enclosing it, to Minna. “Give that, my love, to our good friend downstairs — and, while you are in the kitchen, suppose you make the tea. You will stay and drink tea with us, Mr. David? It is our only luxury, and we always make it ourselves.”
My first impulse was to find an excuse for declining the invitation. There was something in the air of mystery with which Madame Fontaine performed her domestic duties that was not at all to my taste. But Minna pleaded with me to say Yes. “Do stay with us a little longer,” she said, in her innocently frank way, “we have so few pleasures in this place.” I might, perhaps, have even resisted Minna — but her mother literally laid hands on me. She seated herself, with the air of an empress, on a shabby little sofa in the corner of the room, and beckoning me to take my place by her side, laid her cool firm hand persuasively on mine. Her touch filled me with a strange sense of disturbance, half pleasurable, half painful — I don’t know how to describe it. Let me only record that I yielded, and that Minna left us together.
“I want to tell you the whole truth,” said Madame Fontaine, as soon as we were alone; “and I can only do so in the absence of my daughter. You must have seen for yourself that we are very poor?”
Her hand pressed mine gently. I answered as delicately as I could — I said I was sorry, but not surprised, to hear it.
“When you kindly helped Minna to get that letter yesterday,” she went on, “you were the innocent means of inflicting a disappointment on me — one disappointment more, after others that had gone before it. I came here to place my case before some wealthy relatives of mine in this city. They refused to assist me. I wrote next to other members of my family, living in Brussels. The letter of yesterday contained their answer. Another refusal! The landlady of this house is an afflicted creature, with every claim on my sympathies; she, too, is struggling with poverty. If I failed to pay her, it would be too cruel. Only yesterday I felt it my hard duty to give her notice of our departure in a week more. I have just written to recall that notice. The reason is, that I see a gleam of hope in the future — and you, Mr. David, are the friend who has shown it to me.”
I was more than surprised at this. “May I ask how?” I said.
She patted my hand with a playful assumption of petulance.
“A little more patience,” she rejoined; “and you shall soon hear. If I had only myself to think of, I should not feel the anxieties that now trouble me. I could take a housekeeper’s place to-morrow. Yes! I was brought up among surroundings of luxury and refinement; I descended in rank when I married — but for all that, I could fill a domestic employment without repining my lot, without losing my self-respect. Adversity is a hard teacher of sound lessons, David. May I call you David? And if you heard of a housekeeper’s place vacant, would you tell me of it?”
I could hardly understand whether she was in jest or in earnest. She went on without waiting for me to reply.
“But I have my daughter to think of,” she resumed, “and to add to my anxieties my daughter has given her heart to Mr. Keller’s son. While I and my dear Minna had only our own interests to consider, we might have earned our daily bread together; we might have faced the future with courage. But what might once have been the calm course of our lives is now troubled by a third person — a rival with me in my daughter’s love — and, worse still, a man who is forbidden to marry her. Is it wonderful that I feel baffled, disheartened, helpless? Oh, I am not exaggerating! I know my child’s nature. She is too delicate, too exquisitely sensitive, for the rough world she lives in. When she loves, she loves with all her heart and soul. Day by day I have seen her pining and fading under her separation from Fritz. You have revived her hopes for the moment — but the prospect before her remains unaltered. If she loses Fritz she will die of a broken heart. Oh, God! the one creature I love — and how I am to help her and save her I don’t know!”
For the first time, I heard the fervor of true feeling in her voice. She turned aside from me, and hid her face with a wild gesture of despair that was really terrible to see. I tried, honestly tried, to comfort her.
“Of one thing at least you may be sure.” I said. “Fritz’s whole heart is given to your daughter. He will be true to her, and worthy of her, through all trials.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she answered sadly, “I have nothing to say against my girl’s choice. Fritz is good, and Fritz is true, as you say. But you forget his father. Personally, mind, I despise Mr. Keller.” She looked round at me with unutterable contempt flashing through the tears that filled her eyes. “A man who listens to every lie that scandal can utter against the character of a helpless woman — who gives her no opportunity of defending herself (I have written to him and received no answer)— who declares that his son shall never marry my daughter (because we are poor, of course); and who uses attacks on my reputation which he has never verified, as the excuse for his brutal conduct — can anybody respect such a man as that? And yet on this despicable creature my child’s happiness and my child’s life depend! For her sake, no matter what my own feeling may be, I must stoop to defend myself. I must make my opportunity of combating his cowardly prejudice, and winning his good opinion in spite of himself. How am I to get a hearing? how am I to approach him? I understand that you are not in a position to help me. But you have done wonders for me nevertheless, and God bless you for it!”
She lifted my hand to her lips. I foresaw what was coming; I tried to speak. But she gave me no opportunity; her eloquent enthusiasm rushed into a new flow of words.
“Yes, my best of friends, my wisest of advisers,” she went on; “you have suggested the irresistible interference of a person whose authority is supreme. Your excellent aunt is the head of the business; Mr. Keller must listen to his charming chief. There is my gleam of hope. On that chance, I will sell the last few valuables I possess, and wait till Mrs. Wagner arrives at Frankfort. You start, David! What is there to alarm you? Do you suppose me capable of presuming on your aunt’s kindness — of begging for favors which it may not be perfectly easy for her to grant? Mrs. Wagner knows already from Fritz what our situation is. Let her only see my Minna; I won’t intrude on her myself. My daughter shall plead for me; my daughter shall ask for all I want — an interview with Mr. Keller, and permission to speak in my own defense. Tell me, honestly, am I expecting too much, if I hope that your aunt will persuade Fritz’s father to see me?”
It sounded modestly enough in words. But I had my own doubts, nevertheless.
I had left Mr. Keller working hard at his protest against the employment of women in the office, to be sent to my aunt by that day’s post. Knowing them both as I did, I thought it at least probable that a written controversy might be succeeded by a personal estrangement. If Mr. Keller proved obstinate, Mrs. Wagner would soon show him that she had a will of her own. Under those circumstances, no favors could be asked, no favors could be granted — and poor Minna’s prospects would be darker than ever.
This was one view of the case. I must own, however, that another impression had been produced on me. Something in Madame Fontaine’s manner suggested that she might not be quite so modest in her demands on my aunt, when they met at Frankfort, as she had led me to believe. I was vexed with myself for having spoken too unreservedly, and was quite at a loss to decide what I ought to say in answer to the appeal that had been made to me. In this state of perplexity I was relieved by a welcome interruption. Minna’s voice reached us from the landing outside. “I have both hands engaged,” she said; “please let me in.”
I ran to the door. The widow laid her finger on her lips. “Not a word, mind, to Minna!” she whispered. “We understand each other — don’t we?”
I said, “Yes, certainly.” And so the subject was dropped for the rest of the evening.
The charming girl came in carrying the tea-tray. She especially directed my attention to a cake which she had made that day with her own hands. “I can cook,” she said, “and I can make my own dresses — and if Fritz is a poor man when he marries me, I can save him the expense of a servant.” Our talk at the tea-table was, I dare say, too trifling to be recorded. I only remember that I enjoyed it. Later in the evening, Minna sang to me. I heard one of those simple German ballads again, not long since, and the music brought the tears into my eyes.
The moon rose early that night. When I looked at my watch, I found that it was time to go. Minna was at the window, admiring the moonlight. “On such a beautiful night,” she said, “it seems a shame to stay indoors. Do let us walk a part of the way back with Mr. David, mamma! Only as far as the bridge, to see the moon on the river.”
Her mother consented, and we three left the house together.
Arrived at the bridge, we paused to look at the view. But the clouds were rising already, and the moonlight only showed itself at intervals. Madame Fontaine said she smelt rain in the air, and took her daughter’s arm to go home. I offered to return with them as far as their own door; but they positively declined to delay me on my way back. It was arranged that I should call on them again in a day or two.
Just as we were saying good-night, the fitful moonlight streamed out brightly again through a rift in the clouds. At the same moment a stout old gentleman, smoking a pipe, sauntered past us on the pavement, noticed me as he went by, stopped directly, and revealed himself as Mr. Engelman. “Good-night, Mr. David,” said the widow. The moon shone full on her as she gave me her hand; Minna standing behind her in the shadow. In a moment more the two ladies had left us.
Mr. Engelman’s eyes followed the smoothly gliding figure of the widow, until it was lost to view at the end of the bridge. He laid his hand eagerly on my arm. “David!” he said, “who is that glorious creature?”
“Which of the two ladies do you mean?” I asked, mischievously.
“The one with the widow’s cap, of course!”
“Do you admire the widow, sir?”
“Admire her!” repeated Mr. Engelman. “Look here, David!” He showed me the long porcelain bowl of his pipe. “My dear boy, she has done what no woman ever did with me yet — she has put my pipe out!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06