Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 12

Two days passed, and I perceived another change in Mr. Engelman.

He was now transformed into a serious and reticent man. Had he committed indiscretions which might expose him to ridicule if they were known? Or had the widow warned him not to be too ready to take me into his confidence? In any case, he said not one word to me about Madame Fontaine’s reception of him, and he left the house secretly when he paid his next visit to her. Having no wish to meet him unexpectedly, and feeling (if the truth be told) not quite at ease about the future, I kept away from Minna and her mother, and waited for events.

On the third day, an event happened. I received a little note from Minna:—

“Dear Mr. David — If you care to see mamma and me, stay at home this evening. Good Mr. Engelman has promised to show us his interesting old house, after business hours.”

There was nothing extraordinary in making an exhibition of “the old house.” It was one among the many picturesque specimens of the domestic architecture of bygone days, for which Frankfort is famous; and it had been sketched by artists of all nations, both outside and in. At the same time, it was noticeable (perhaps only as a coincidence) that the evening chosen for showing the house to the widow, was also the evening on which Mr. Keller had an engagement with some friends in another part of the city.

As the hour approached for the arrival of the ladies, I saw that Mr. Engelman looked at me with an expression of embarrassment.

“Are you not going out this evening, David?” he asked.

“Am I in the way, sir?” I inquired mischievously.

“Oh, no!”

“In that case then, I think I shall stay at home.”

He said no more, and walked up and down the room with an air of annoyance. The bell of the street-door rang. He stopped and looked at me again.

“Visitors?” I said.

He was obliged to answer me. “Friends of mine, David, who are coming to see the house.”

I was just sufficiently irritated by his persistence in keeping up the mystery to set him the example of speaking plainly.

“Madame Fontaine and her daughter?” I said.

He turned quickly to answer me, and hesitated. At the same moment, the door was opened by the sour old housekeeper, frowning suspiciously at the two elegantly-dressed ladies whom she ushered into the room.

If I had been free to act on my own impulse, I should certainly (out of regard for Mr. Engelman) have refrained from accompanying the visitors when they were shown over the house. But Minna took my arm. I had no choice but to follow Mr. Engelman and her mother when they left the room.

Minna spoke to me as confidentially as if I had been her brother.

“Do you know,” she whispered, “that nice old gentleman and mamma are like old friends already. Mamma is generally suspicious of strangers. Isn’t it odd? And she actually invites him to bring his pipe when he comes to see us! He sits puffing smoke, and admiring mamma — and mamma does all the talking. Do come and see us soon! I have nobody to speak to about Fritz. Mamma and Mr. Engelman take no more notice of me than if I was a little dog in the room.”

As we passed from the ground floor to the first floor, Madame Fontaine’s admiration of the house rose from one climax of enthusiasm to another. Among the many subjects that she understood, the domestic architecture of the seventeenth century seemed to be one, and the art of water-color painting soon proved to be another.

“I am not quite contemptible as a lady-artist,” I heard her say to Mr. Engelman; “and I should so like to make some little studies of these beautiful old rooms — as memorials to take with me when I am far away from Frankfort. But I don’t ask it, dear Mr. Engelman. You don’t want enthusiastic ladies with sketch-books in this bachelor paradise of yours. I hope we are not intruding on Mr. Keller. Is he at home?”

“No,” said Mr. Engelman; “he has gone out.”

Madame Fontaine’s flow of eloquence suddenly ran dry. She was silent as we ascended from the first floor to the second. In this part of the house our bedrooms were situated. The chamber in which I slept presented nothing particularly worthy of notice. But the rooms occupied by Mr. Keller and Mr. Engelman contained some of the finest carved woodwork in the house.

It was beginning to get dark. Mr. Engelman lit the candles in his own room. The widow took one of them from him, and threw the light skillfully on the different objects about her. She was still a little subdued; but she showed her knowledge of wood-carving by picking out the two finest specimens in the room — a wardrobe and a toilet-table.

“My poor husband was fond of old carving,” she explained modestly; “what I know about it, I know from him. Dear Mr. Engelman, your room is a picture in itself. What glorious colors! How simple and how grand! Might we ——” she paused, with a becoming appearance of confusion. Her voice dropped softly to lower tones. “Might we be pardoned, do you think, if we ventured to peep into Mr. Keller’s room?”

She spoke of “Mr. Keller’s room” as if it had been a shrine, approachable only by a few favored worshippers. “Where is it?” she inquired, with breathless interest. I led the way out into the passage, and threw open the door without ceremony. Madame Fontaine looked at me as if I had committed an act of sacrilege.

Mr. Engelman, following us with one of his candles, lit an ancient brass lamp which hung from the middle of the ceiling. “My learned partner,” he explained, “does a great deal of his reading in his bedroom, and he likes plenty of light. You will have a good view when the lamp has burnt up. The big chimney-piece is considered the finest thing of that sort in Frankfort.”

The widow confronted the chimney-piece, and clasped her hands in silent rapture. When she was able to speak, she put her arm round Minna’s waist.

“Let me teach you, my love, to admire this glorious work,” she said, and delivered quite a little lecture on the merits of the chimney-piece. “Oh, if I could but take the merest sketch of it!” she exclaimed, by way of conclusion. “But no, it is too much to ask.” She examined everything in the room with the minutest attention. Even the plain little table by the bed-side, with a jug and a glass on it, did not escape her observation. “Is that his drink?” she asked, with an air of respectful curiosity. “Do you think I might taste it?”

Mr. Engelman laughed. “It’s only barley-water, dear lady,” he said. “Our rheumatic old housekeeper makes as few journeys as possible up and down stairs. When she sets the room in order in the evening, she takes the night-drink up with her, and so saves a second journey.”

“Taste it, Minna,” said the widow, handing the glass to her daughter. “How refreshing! how pure!”

Mr. Engelman, standing on the other side of her, whispered in her ear. I was just behind them, and could not help hearing him. “You will make me jealous,” he said; “you never noticed my night-drink —I have beer.”

The widow answered him by a look; he heaved a little sigh of happiness. Poor Mr. Engelman!

Minna innocently broke in on this mute scene of sentiment.

She was looking at the pictures in the room, and asked for explanations of them which Mr. Engelman only could afford. It struck me as odd that her mother’s artistic sympathies did not appear to be excited by the pictures. Instead of joining her daughter at the other end of the room, she stood by the bedside with her hand resting on the little table, and her eyes fixed on the jug of barley-water, absorbed in thought. On a sudden, she started, turned quickly, and caught me observing her. I might have been deceived by the lamp-light; but I thought I saw a flash of expression under her heavy eyelids, charged with such intensity of angry suspicion that it startled me. She was herself again, before I could decide whether to trust my own strong impression or not.

“Do I surprise you, David?” she asked in her gentlest tones. “I ought to be looking at the pictures, you think? My friend! I can’t always control my own sad recollections. They will force themselves on me — sometimes when the most trifling associations call them up. Dear Mr. Engelman understands me. He, no doubt, has suffered too. May I sit down for a moment?”

She dropped languidly into a chair, and sat looking at the famous chimney-piece. Her attitude was the perfection of grace. Mr. Engelman hurried through his explanation of the pictures, and placed himself at her side, and admired the chimney-piece with her.

“Artists think it looks best by lamplight,” he said. “The big pediment between the windows keeps out the light in the daytime.”

Madame Fontaine looked round at him with a softly approving smile. “Exactly what I was thinking myself, when you spoke,” she said. “The effect by this light is simply perfect. Why didn’t I bring my sketch-book with me? I might have stolen some little memorial of it, in Mr. Keller’s absence.” She turned towards me when she said that.

“If you can do without colors,” I suggested, “we have paper and pencils in the house.”

The clock in the corridor struck the hour.

Mr. Engelman looked uneasy, and got up from his chair. His action suggested that the time had passed by us unperceived, and that Mr. Keller’s return might take place at any moment. The same impression was evidently produced on Minna. For once in her life, the widow’s quick perception seemed to have deserted her. She kept her seat as composedly as if she had been at home.

“I wonder whether I could manage without my colors?” she said placidly. “Perhaps I might try.”

Mr. Engelman’s uneasiness increased to downright alarm. Minna perceived the change, as I did, and at once interfered.

“I am afraid, mamma, it is too late for sketching to-night,” she said. “Suppose Mr. Keller should come back?”

Madame Fontaine rose instantly, with a look of confusion. “How very stupid of me not to think of it!” she exclaimed. “Forgive me, Mr. Engelman — I was so interested, so absorbed — thank you a thousand times for your kindness!” She led the way out, with more apologies and more gratitude. Mr. Engelman recovered his tranquillity. He looked at her lovingly, and gave her his arm to lead her down-stairs.

On this occasion, Minna and I were in front. We reached the first landing, and waited there. The widow was wonderfully slow in descending the stairs. Judging by what we heard, she was absorbed in the old balusters now. When she at last joined us on the landing, the doors of the rooms on the first floor delayed her again: it was simply impossible, she said, to pass them without notice. Once more, Minna and I waited on the ground floor. Here, there was another ancient brass lamp which lighted the hall; and, therefore, another object of beauty which it was impossible to pass over in a hurry.

“I never knew mamma to behave so oddly before,” said Minna. “If such a thing wasn’t impossible, in our situation, one would really think she wanted Mr. Keller to catch us in the house!”

There was not the least doubt in my mind (knowing as I did, how deeply Madame Fontaine was interested in forcing her acquaintance on Mr. Keller) that this was exactly what she did want. Fortune is proverbially said to favor the bold; and Fortune offered to the widow the perilous opportunity of which she had been in search.

While she was still admiring the lamp, the grating sound became audible of a key put into the street door.

The door opened, and Mr. Keller walked into the hall.

He stopped instantly at the sight of two ladies who were both strangers to him, and looked interrogatively at his partner. Mr. Engelman had no choice but to risk an explanation of some kind. He explained, without mentioning names.

“Friends of mine, Keller,” he said confusedly, “to whom I have been showing the house.”

Mr. Keller took off his hat, and bowed to the widow. With a boldness that amazed me, under the circumstances, she made a low curtsey to him, smiled her sweetest smile, and deliberately mentioned her name.

“I am Madame Fontaine, sir,” she said. “And this is my daughter, Minna.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52