Jezebel's Daughter, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 15

From these reflections I was roused by the appearance of a waiter, with a letter for me. The envelope contained a slip cut from a German newspaper, and these lines of writing, signed by Frau Meyer:—

“You are either a very just, or a very obstinate young man. In either case, it will do you no harm to read what I enclose. I am not such a scandal-mongering old woman as you seem to think. The concealment of the names will not puzzle you. Please return the slip. It belongs to our excellent host, and forms part of his collection of literary curiosities.”

Such was the introduction to my reading. I translate it from the German newspaper into English as literally as I can.

The Editor’s few prefatory words were at the top of the column, bearing the date of September 1828.

“We have received, in strictest confidence, extracts from letters written by a lady to a once-beloved female friend. The extracts are dated and numbered, and are literally presented in this column — excepting the obviously necessary precaution of suppressing names, places, and days of the month. Taken in connection with a certain inquiry which is just now occupying the public mind, these fragments may throw some faint glimmer of light on events which are at present involved in darkness.”

Number I. 1809. —“Yes, dearest Julie, I have run the grand risk. Only yesterday, I was married to Doctor ——. The people at the church were our only witnesses.

“My father declares that I have degraded his noble blood by marrying a medical man. He forbade my mother to attend the ceremony. Poor simple soul! She asked me if I loved my young doctor, and was quite satisfied when I said Yes. As for my father’s objections, my husband is a man of high promise in his profession. In his country — I think I told you in my last letter that he was a Frenchman — a famous physician is ennobled by the State. I shall leave no stone unturned, my dear, to push my husband forward. And when he is made a Baron, we shall see what my father will say to us then.”

Number II. 1810. —“We have removed, my Julie, to this detestably dull old German town, for no earthly reason but that the University is famous as a medical school.

“My husband informs me, in his sweetest manner, that he will hesitate at no sacrifice of our ordinary comforts to increase his professional knowledge. If you could see how the ladies dress in this lost hole of a place, if you could hear the twaddle they talk, you would pity me. I have but one consolation — a lovely baby, Julie, a girl: I had almost said an angel. Were you as fond of your first child, I wonder, as I am of mine? And did you utterly forget your husband, when the little darling was first put into your arms? Write and tell me.”

Number III. 1811. —“I have hardly patience to take up my pen But I shall do something desperate, if I don’t relieve my overburdened mind in some way.

“After I wrote to you last year, I succeeded in getting my husband away from the detestable University. But he persisted in hanging about Germany, and conferring with moldy old doctors (whom he calls “Princes of Science”!) instead of returning to Paris, taking a handsome house, and making his way to the top of the tree with my help. I am the very woman to give brilliant parties, and to push my husband’s interests with powerful people of all degrees. No; I really must not dwell on it. When I think of what has happened since, it will drive me mad.

“Six weeks ago, a sort of medical congress was announced to be at the University. Something in the proposed discussion was to be made the subject of a prize-essay. The doctor’s professional interest in this matter decided him on trying for the prize — and the result is our return to the hateful old town and its society.

“Of course, my husband resumes his professional studies; of course, I am thrown once more among the dowdy gossiping women. But that is far from being the worst of it. Among the people in the School of Chemistry here, there is a new man, who entered the University shortly after we left it last year. This devil — it is the only right word for him — has bewitched my weak husband; and, for all I can see to the contrary, has ruined our prospects in life.

“He is a Hungarian. Small, dirty, lean as a skeleton, with hands like claws, eyes like a wild beast’s, and the most hideously false smile you ever saw in a human face. What his history is, nobody knows. The people at the medical school call him the most extraordinary experimental chemist living. His ideas astonish the Professors themselves. The students have named him ‘The new Paracelsus.’

“I ventured to ask him, one day, if he believed he could make gold. He looked at me with his frightful grin, and said, “Yes, and diamonds too, with time and money to help me.” He not only believes in The Philosopher’s Stone; he says he is on the trace of some explosive compound so terrifically destructive in its effect, that it will make war impossible. He declares that he will annihilate time and space by means of electricity; and that he will develop steam as a motive power, until travelers can rush over the whole habitable globe at the rate of a mile in a minute.

“Why do I trouble you with these ravings? My dear, this boastful adventurer has made himself master of my husband, has talked him out of his senses, has reduced my influence over him to nothing. Do you think I am exaggerating? Hear how it has ended. My husband absolutely refuses to leave this place. He cares no longer even to try for the prize. The idea of medical practice has become distasteful to him, and he has decided on devoting his life to discovery in chemical science.

“And this is the man whom I married with the sincerest belief in the brilliant social career that was before him! For this contemptible creature I have sacrificed my position in the world, and alienated my father from me for ever. I may look forward to being the wife of a poor Professor, who shows experiments to stupid lads in a school. And the friends in Paris, who, to my certain knowledge, are now waiting to give him introductions to the Imperial Court itself, may transfer their services to some other man.

“No words can tell you what I feel at this complete collapse of all my hopes and plans. The one consideration of my child is all that restrains me from leaving my husband, never to see him again. As it is, I must live a life of deceit, and feign respect and regard for a man whom I despise with my whole heart.

“Power — oh, if I had the power to make the fury that consumes me felt! The curse of our sex is its helplessness. Every day, Julie, the conviction grows on me that I shall end badly. Who among us knows the capacity for wickedness that lies dormant in our natures, until the fatal event comes and calls it forth?

“No! I am letting you see too much of my tortured soul. Let me close my letter, and play with my child.”

Number IV. 1812. —“My heartfelt congratulations, dearest, on your return to Germany, after your pleasant visit to the United States. And more congratulations yet on the large addition to your income, due to your husband’s intelligence and spirit of enterprise on American ground. Ah, you have married a Man! Happy woman! I am married to a Machine.

“Why have I left your kind letters from America without reply? My Julie, I have constantly thought of you; but the life I lead is slowly crushing my energies. Over and over again, I have taken up my pen; and over and over again, I have laid it aside, recoiling from the thought of myself and my existence; too miserable (perhaps too proud) to tell you what a wretched creature I am, and what thoughts come to me sometimes in the wakeful hours of the night.

“After this confession, you wonder, perhaps, why I write to you now.

“I really believe it is because I have been threatened with legal proceedings by my creditors, and have just come victoriously out of a hard struggle to appease them for the time. This little fight has roused me from my apathy; it has rallied my spirits, and made me feel like my old self again. I am no longer content with silently loving my dearest friend; I open my heart and write to her.

“‘Oh, dear, how sad that she should be in debt!’ I can hear you say this, and sigh to yourself — you who have never known what it was to be in want of money since you were born. Shall I tell you what my husband earns at the University? No: I feel the blood rushing into my face at the bare idea of revealing it.

“Let me do the Professor justice. My Animated Mummy has reached the height of his ambition at last — he is Professor of Chemistry, and is perfectly happy for the rest of his life. My dear, he is as lean, and almost as dirty, as the wretch who first perverted him. Do you remember my once writing to you about a mysterious Hungarian, whom we found in the University? A few years since, this man died by suicide, as mysteriously as he had lived. They found him in the laboratory, with a strange inscription traced in chalk on the wall by which he lay dead. These were the words:—‘After giving it a fair trial, I find that life is not worth living for. I have decided to destroy myself with a poison of my own discovery. My chemical papers and preparations are hereby bequeathed to my friend Doctor —— and my body is presented as a free gift to the anatomy school. Let a committee of surgeons and analysts examine my remains. I defy them to discover a trace of the drug that has killed me.’ And they did try, Julie — and discovered nothing. I wonder whether the suicide has left the receipt for that poison, among his other precious legacies, to his ‘friend Doctor ——.’

“Why do I trouble you with these nauseous details? Because they are in no small degree answerable for my debts. My husband devotes all his leisure hours to continuing the detestable experiments begun by the Hungarian; and my yearly dress-money for myself and my child has been reduced one half, to pay the chemical expenses.

“Ought I, in this hard case, to have diminished my expenditure to the level of my reduced income?

“If you say Yes, I answer that human endurance has its limits. I can support the martyrdom of my life; the loss of my dearest illusions and hopes; the mean enmity of our neighbors; the foul-mouthed jealousy of the women; and, more than all, the exasperating patience of a husband who never resents the hardest things I can say to him, and who persists in loving and admiring me as if we were only married last week. But I cannot see my child in a stuff frock, on promenade days in the Palace Gardens, when other people’s children are wearing silk. And plain as my own dress may be, I must and will have the best material that is made. When the wife of the military commandant (a woman sprung from the people) goes out in an Indian shawl with Brussels lace in her bonnet, am I to meet her and return her bow, in a camelot cloak and a beaver hat? No! When I lose my self-respect let me lose my life too. My husband may sink as low as he pleases. I always have stood above him, and I always will!

“And so I am in debt, and my creditors threaten me. What does it matter? I have pacified them, for the time, with some small installments of money, and a large expenditure of smiles.

“I wish you could see my darling little Minna; she is the loveliest and sweetest child in the world — my pride at all times, and my salvation in my desperate moods. There are moments when I feel inclined to set fire to the hateful University, and destroy all the moldy old creatures who inhabit it. I take Minna out and buy her a little present, and see her eyes sparkle and her color rise, and feel her innocent kisses, and become, for awhile, quite a good woman again. Yesterday, her father — no, I shall work myself up into a fury if I tell you about it. Let me only say that Minna saved me as usual. I took her to the jeweler’s and bought her a pair of pearl earrings. If you could have heard her, if you could have seen her, when the little angel first looked at herself in the glass! I wonder when I shall pay for the earrings?

“Ah, Julie, if I only had such an income as yours, I would make my power felt in this place. The insolent women should fawn on me and fear me. I would have my own house and establishment in the country, to purify me after the atmosphere of the Professor’s drugs. I would — well! well! never mind what else I would have.

“Talking of power, have you read the account of the execution last year of that wonderful criminal, Anna Maria Zwanziger? Wherever she went, the path of this terrific woman is strewed with the dead whom she has poisoned. She appears to have lived to destroy her fellow-creatures, and to have met her doom with the most undaunted courage. What a career! and what an end! (1)

“The foolish people in Wurzburg are at a loss to find motives for some of the murders she committed, and try to get out of the difficulty by declaring that she must have been a homicidal maniac. That is not my explanation. I can understand the murderess becoming morally intoxicated with the sense of her own tremendous power. A mere human creature — only a woman, Julie! — armed with the means of secretly dealing death with her, wherever she goes — meeting with strangers who displease her, looking at them quietly, and saying to herself, “I doom you to die, before you are a day older”— is there no explanation, here, of some of Zwanziger’s poisonings which are incomprehensible to commonplace minds?

“I put this view, in talking of the trial, to the military commandant a few days since. His vulgar wife answered me before he could speak. ‘Madame Fontaine,’ said this spitfire, ‘my husband and I don’t feel your sympathy with poisoners!’ Take that as a specimen of the ladies of Wurzburg — and let me close this unmercifully long letter. I think you will acknowledge, my dear, that, when I do write, I place a flattering trust in my friend’s patient remembrance of me.”

There the newspaper extracts came to an end.

As a picture of a perverted mind, struggling between good and evil, and slowly losing ground under the stealthy influence of temptation, the letters certainly possessed a melancholy interest for any thoughtful reader. But (not being a spiteful woman) I failed to see, in these extracts, the connection which Frau Meyer had attempted to establish between the wickedness of Madame Fontaine and the disappearance of her husband’s medicine chest.

At the same time, I must acknowledge that a vague impression of distrust was left on my mind by what I had read. I felt a certain sense of embarrassment at the prospect of renewing my relations with the widow, on my return to Frankfort; and I was also conscious of a decided increase of anxiety to hear what had been Mr. Keller’s reception of Madame Fontaine’s letter. Add to this, that my brotherly interest in Minna was sensibly strengthened — and the effect on me of the extracts in the newspaper is truly stated, so far as I can remember it at this distant time.

On the evening of the next day, I was back again at Frankfort.

(1) The terrible career of Anna Maria Zwanziger, sentenced to death at Bamberg in the year 1811, will be found related in Lady Duff–Gordon’s translation of Feuerbach’s “Criminal Trials.”

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