The New Year had come.
On the morning of the second of January, Mrs. Wagner (on her way to the office at the customary hour) was stopped at the lower flight of stairs by Madame Fontaine — evidently waiting with a purpose.
“Pardon me,” said the widow, “I must speak to you.”
“These are business hours, madam; I have no time to spare.”
Without paying the slightest heed to this reply — impenetrable, in the petrifying despair that possessed her, to all that looks, tones, and words could say — Madame Fontaine stood her ground, and obstinately repeated, “I must speak to you.”
Mrs. Wagner once more refused. “All that need be said between us has been said,” she answered. “Have you replaced the money?”
“That is what I want to speak about?”
“Have you replaced the money?”
“Don’t drive me mad, Mrs. Wagner! As you hope for mercy yourself, at the hour of your death, show mercy to the miserable woman who implores you to listen to her! Return with me as far as the drawing-room. At this time of day, nobody will disturb us there. Give me five minutes!”
Mrs. Wagner looked at her watch.
“I will give you five minutes. And mind, I mean five minutes. Even in trifles, I speak the truth.”
They returned up the stairs, Mrs. Wagner leading the way.
There were two doors of entrance to the drawing-room — one, which opened from the landing, and a smaller door, situated at the farther end of the corridor. This second entrance communicated with a sort of alcove, in which a piano was placed, and which was only separated by curtains from the spacious room beyond. Mrs. Wagner entered by the main door, and paused, standing near the fire-place. Madame Fontaine, following her, turned aside to the curtains, and looked through. Having assured herself that no person was in the recess, she approached the fire-place, and said her first words.
“You told me just now, madam, that you spoke the truth. Does that imply a doubt of the voluntary confession ——?”
“You made no voluntary confession,” Mrs. Wagner interposed. “I had positive proof of the theft that you have committed, when I entered your room. I showed you my private account-book, and when you attempted to defend yourself, I pointed to the means of falsifying the figures in the ledger which lay before me in your own dressing-case. What do you mean by talking of a voluntary confession, after that?”
“You mistake me, madam. I was speaking of the confession of my motives — the motives which, in my dreadful position, forced me to take the money, or to sacrifice the future of my daughter’s life. I declare that I have concealed nothing from you. As you are a Christian woman, don’t be hard on me!”
Mrs. Wagner drew back, and eyed her with an expression of contemptuous surprise.
“Hard on you?” she repeated. “Do you know what you are saying? Have you forgotten already how I have consented to degrade myself? Must I once more remind you of my position? I am bound to tell Mr. Keller that his money and mine has been stolen; I am bound to tell him that he has taken into his house, and has respected and trusted, a thief. There is my plain duty — and I have consented to trifle with it. Are you lost to all sense of decency? Have you no idea of the shame that an honest woman must feel, when she knows that her unworthy silence makes her — for the time at least — the accomplice of your crime? Do you think it was for your sake — not to be hard on You — that I have consented to this intolerable sacrifice? In the instant when I discovered you I would have sent for Mr. Keller, but for the sweet girl whose misfortune it is to be your child. Once for all, have you anything to say which it is absolutely necessary that I should hear? Have you, or have you not, complied with the conditions on which I consented — God help me! — to be what I am?”
Her voice faltered. She turned away proudly to compose herself. The look that flashed out at her from the widow’s eyes, the suppressed fury struggling to force its way in words through the widow’s lips, escaped her notice. It was the first, and last, warning of what was to come — and she missed it.
“I wished to speak to you of your conditions,” Madame Fontaine resumed, after a pause. “Your conditions are impossibilities. I entreat you, in Minna’s interests — oh! not in mine! — to modify them.”
The tone in which those words fell from her lips was so unnaturally quiet, that Mrs. Wagner suddenly turned again with a start, and faced her.
“What do you mean by impossibilities? Explain yourself.”
“You are an honest woman, and I am a thief,” Madame Fontaine answered, with the same ominous composure. “How can explanations pass between you and me? Have I not spoken plainly enough already? In my position, I say again, your conditions are impossibilities — especially the first of them.”
There was something in the bitterly ironical manner which accompanied this reply that was almost insolent. Mrs. Wagner’s color began to rise for the first time. “Honest conditions are always possible conditions to honest people,” she said.
Perfectly unmoved by the reproof implied in those words, Madame Fontaine persisted in pressing her request. “I only ask you to modify your terms,” she explained. “Let us understand each other. Do you still insist on my replacing what I have taken, by the morning of the sixth of this month?”
“I still insist.”
“Do you still expect me to resign my position here as director of the household, on the day when Fritz and Minna have become man and wife?”
“I still expect that.”
“Permit me to set the second condition aside for awhile. Suppose I fail to replace the five thousand florins in your reserve fund?”
“If you fail, I shall do my duty to Mr. Keller, when we divide profits on the sixth of the month.”
“And you will expose me in this way, knowing that you make the marriage impossible — knowing that you doom my daughter to shame and misery for the rest of her life?”
“I shall expose you, knowing that I have kept your guilty secret to the last moment — and knowing what I owe to my partner and to myself. You have still four days to spare. Make the most of your time.”
“I can do absolutely nothing in the time.”
“Have you tried?”
The suppressed fury in Madame Fontaine began to get beyond her control.
“Do you think I should have exposed myself to the insults that you have heaped upon me if I had not tried?” she asked. “Can I get the money back from the man to whom it was paid at Wurzburg, when my note fell due on the last day of the old year? Do I know anybody who will lend me five thousand florins? Will my father do it? His house has been closed to me for twenty years — and my mother, who might have interceded for me, is dead. Can I appeal to the sympathy and compassion (once already refused in the hardest terms) of my merciless relatives in this city? I have appealed! I forced my way to them yesterday — I owned that I owed a sum of money which was more, far more, than I could pay. I drank the bitter cup of humiliation to the dregs — I even offered my daughter’s necklace as security for a loan. Do you want to know what reply I received? The master of the house turned his back on me; the mistress told me to my face that she believed I had stolen the necklace. Was the punishment of my offense severe enough, when I heard those words? Surely I have asserted some claim to your pity, at last? I only want more time. With a few months before me — with my salary as housekeeper, and the sale of my little valuables, and the proceeds of my work for the picture-dealers — I can, and will, replace the money. You are rich. What is a loan of five thousand florins to you? Help me to pass through the terrible ordeal of your day of reckoning on the sixth of the month! Help me to see Minna married and happy! And if you still doubt my word, take the pearl necklace as security that you will suffer no loss.”
Struck speechless by the outrageous audacity of this proposal, Mrs. Wagner answered by a look, and advanced to the door. Madame Fontaine instantly stopped her.
“Wait!” cried the desperate creature. “Think — before you refuse me!”
Mrs. Wagner’s indignation found its way at last into words. “I deserved this,” she said, “when I allowed you to speak to me. Let me pass, if you please.”
Madame Fontaine made a last effort — she fell on her knees. “Your hard words have roused my pride,” she said; “I have forgotten that I am a disgraced woman; I have not spoken humbly enough. See! I am humbled now — I implore your mercy on my knees. This is not only my last chance; it is Minna’s last chance. Don’t blight my poor girl’s life, for my fault!”
“For the second time, Madame Fontaine, I request you to let me pass.
“Without an answer to my entreaties? Am I not even worthy of an answer?”
“Your entreaties are an insult. I forgive you the insult.”
Madame Fontaine rose to her feet. Every trace of agitation disappeared from her face and her manner. “Yes,” she said, with the unnatural composure that was so strangely out of harmony with the terrible position in which she stood —“Yes, from your point of view, I can’t deny that it may seem like an insult. When a thief, who has already robbed a person of money, asks that same person to lend her more money, by way of atoning for the theft, there is something very audacious (on the surface) in such a request. I can’t fairly expect you to understand the despair which wears such an insolent look. Accept my apologies, madam; I didn’t see it at first in that light. I must do what I can, while your merciful silence still protects me from discovery — I must do what I can between this and the sixth of the month. Permit me to open the door for you.” She opened the drawing-room door, and waited.
Mrs. Wagner’s heart suddenly quickened its beat.
Under what influence? Could it be fear? She was indignant with herself at the bare suspicion of it. Her face flushed deeply, under the momentary apprehension that some outward change might betray her. She left the room, without even trusting herself to look at the woman who stood by the open door, and bowed to her with an impenetrable assumption of respect as she passed out.
Madame Fontaine remained in the drawing-room.
She violently closed the door with a stroke of her hand — staggered across the room to a sofa — and dropped on it. A hoarse cry of rage and despair burst from her, now that she was alone. In the fear that someone might hear her, she forced her handkerchief into her mouth, and fastened her teeth into it. The paroxysm passed, she sat up on the sofa, and wiped the perspiration from her face, and smiled to herself. “It was well I stopped here,” she thought; “I might have met someone on the stairs.”
As she rose to leave the drawing-room, Fritz’s voice reached her from the far end of the corridor.
“You are out of spirits, Minna. Come in, and let us try what a little music will do for you.”
The door leading into the recess was opened. Minna’s voice became audible next, on the inner side of the curtains.
“I am afraid I can’t sing to-day, Fritz. I am very unhappy about mamma. She looks so anxious and so ill; and when I ask what is troubling her, she puts me off with an excuse.”
The melody of those fresh young tones, the faithful love and sympathy which the few simple words expressed, seemed to wring with an unendurable pain the whole being of the mother who heard them. She lifted her hands above her head, and clenched them in the agony which could only venture to seek that silent means of relief. With swift steps, as if the sound of her daughter’s voice was unendurable to her, she made for the door. But her movements, on ordinary occasions the perfection of easy grace, felt the disturbing influence of the agitation that possessed her. In avoiding a table on one side, as she passed it, she struck against a chair on the other.
Fritz instantly opened the curtains, and looked through. “Why, here is mamma!” he exclaimed, in his hearty boyish way.
Minna instantly closed the piano, and hastened to her mother. When Madame Fontaine looked at her, she paused, with an expression of alarm. “Oh, how dreadfully pale and ill you look!” She advanced again, and tried to throw her arms round her mother, and kiss her. Gently, very gently, Madame Fontaine signed to her to draw back.
“Mamma! what have I done to offend you?”
“Nothing, my dear.”
“Then why won’t you let me come to you?”
“No time now, Minna. I have something to do. Wait till I have done it.”
“Not even one little kiss, mamma?”
Madame Fontaine hurried out of the room without answering and ran up the stairs without looking back. Minna’s eyes filled with tears. Fritz stood at the open door, bewildered.
“I wouldn’t have believed it, if anybody had told me,” he said; “your mother seems to be afraid to let you touch her.”
Fritz had made many mistaken guesses in his time — but, for once, he had guessed right. She was afraid.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52