Jezebel's Daughter by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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There was something so absurd in the association of Madame Fontaine's charms with the extinction of Mr. Engelman's pipe, that I burst out laughing. My good old friend looked at me in grave surprise.
"What is there to laugh at in my forgetting to keep my pipe alight?" he asked. "My whole mind, David, was absorbed in that magnificent woman the instant I set eyes on her. The image of her is before me at this moment--an image of an angel in moonlight. Am I speaking poetically for the first time in my life? I shouldn't wonder. I really don't know what is the matter with me. You are a young man, and perhaps you can tell. Have I fallen in love, as the saying is?" He took me confidentially by the arm, before I could answer this formidable question. "Don't tell friend Keller!" he said, with a sudden outburst of alarm. "Keller is an excellent man, but he has no mercy on sinners. I say, David! couldn't you introduce me to her?"
Still haunted by the fear that I had spoken too unreservedly during my interview with the widow, I was in the right humor to exhibit extraordinary prudence in my intercourse with Mr. Engelman.
"I couldn't venture to introduce you," I said; "the lady is living here in the strictest retirement."
"At any rate, you can tell me her name," pleaded Mr. Engelman. "I dare say you have mentioned it to Keller?"
"I have done nothing of the sort. I have reasons for saying nothing about the lady to Mr. Keller."
Well, you can trust me to keep the secret, David. Come! I only want to send her some flowers from my garden. She can't object to that. Tell me where I am to send my nosegay, there's a dear fellow."
I dare say I did wrong--indeed, judging by later events, I know I did wrong. But I could not view the affair seriously enough to hold out against Mr. Engelman in the matter of the nosegay. He started when I mentioned the widow's name.
"Not the mother of the girl whom Fritz wants to marry?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, the same. Don't you admire Fritz's taste? Isn't Miss Minna a charming girl?"
"I can't say, David. I was bewitched--I had no eyes for anybody but her mother. Do you think Madame Fontaine noticed me?"
"Oh, yes. I saw her look at you." "Turn this way, David. The effect of the moonlight on you seems to make you look younger. Has it the same effect on me? How old should you guess me to be to-night? Fifty or sixty?"
"Somewhere between the two, sir."
(He was close on seventy. But who could have been cruel enough to say so, at that moment?)
My answer proved to be so encouraging to the old gentleman that he ventured on the subject of Madame Fontaine's late husband. "Was she very fond of him, David? What sort of man was he?"
I informed him that I had never even seen Dr. Fontaine; and then, by way of changing the topic, inquired if I was too late for the regular supper-hour at Main Street.
"My dear boy, the table was cleared half an hour ago. But I persuaded our sour-tempered old housekeeper to keep something hot for you. You won't find Keller very amiable tonight, David. He was upset, to begin with, by writing that remonstrance to your aunt--and then your absence annoyed him. 'This is treating our house like an hotel; I won't allow anybody to take such liberties with us.' Yes! that was really what he said of you. He was so cross, poor fellow, that I left him, and went out for a stroll on the bridge. And met my fate," added poor Mr. Engelman, in the saddest tones I had ever heard fall from his lips.
My reception at the house was a little chilly.
"I have written my mind plainly to your aunt," said Mr. Keller; "you will probably be recalled to London by return of post. In the meantime, on the next occasion when you spend the evening out, be so obliging as to leave word to that effect with one of the servants." The crabbed old housekeeper (known in the domestic circle as Mother Barbara) had her fling at me next. She set down the dish which she had kept hot for me, with a bang that tried the resisting capacity of the porcelain severely. "I've done it this once," she said. "Next time you're late, you and the dog can sup together."
The next day, I wrote to my aunt, and also to Fritz, knowing how anxious he must be to hear from me.
To tell him the whole truth would probably have been to bring him to Frankfort as fast as sailing-vessels and horses could carry him. All I could venture to say was, that I had found the lost trace of Minna and her mother, and that I had every reason to believe there was no cause to feel any present anxiety about them. I added that I might be in a position to forward a letter secretly, if it would comfort him to write to his sweetheart.
In making this offer, I was, no doubt, encouraging my friend to disobey the plain commands which his father had laid on him.
But, as the case stood, I had really no other alternative. With Fritz's temperament, it would have been simply impossible to induce him to remain in London, unless his patience was sustained in my absence by a practical concession of some kind. In the interests of peace, then--and I must own in the interests of the pretty and interesting Minna as well--I consented to become a medium for correspondence, on the purely Jesuitical principle that the end justified the means. I had promised to let Minna know of it when I wrote to Fritz. My time being entirely at my own disposal, until the vexed question of the employment of women was settled between Mr. Keller and my aunt, I went to the widow's lodgings, after putting my letters in the post.
Having made Minna happy in the anticipation of hearing from Fritz, I had leisure to notice an old china punch-bowl on the table, filled to overflowing with magnificent flowers. To anyone who knew Mr. Engelman as well as I did, the punch-bowl suggested serious considerations. He, who forbade the plucking of a single flower on ordinary occasions, must, with his own hands, have seriously damaged the appearance of his beautiful garden.
"What splendid flowers!" I said, feeling my way cautiously. "Mr. Engelman himself might be envious of such a nosegay as that."
The widow's heavy eyelids drooped lower for a moment, in unconcealed contempt for my simplicity.
"Do you really think you can mystify me?" she asked ironically. "Mr. Engelman has done more than send the flowers--he has written me a too-flattering note. And I," she said, glancing carelessly at the mantelpiece, on which a letter was placed, "have written the necessary acknowledgment. It would be absurd to stand on ceremony with the harmless old gentleman who met us on the bridge. How fat he is! and what a wonderful pipe he carries--almost as fat as himself!"
Alas for Mr. Engelman! I could not resist saying a word in his favor--she spoke of him with such cruelly sincere contempt.
"Though he only saw you for a moment," I said, "he is your ardent admirer already."
"Is he indeed?" She was so utterly indifferent to Mr. Engelman's admiration that she could hardly take the trouble to make that commonplace reply. The next moment she dismissed the subject. "So you have written to Fritz?" she went on. "Have you also written to your aunt?"
"Yes, by the same post."
"Mainly on business, no doubt? Is it indiscreet to ask if you slipped in a little word about the hopes that I associate with Mrs. Wagner's arrival at Frankfort?"
This seemed to give me a good opportunity of moderating her "hopes," in mercy to her daughter and to herself.
"I thought it undesirable to mention the subject--for the present, at least," I answered. "There is a serious difference of opinion between Mrs. Wagner and Mr. Keller, on a subject connected with the management of the office here. I say serious, because they are both equally firm in maintaining their convictions. Mr. Keller has written to my aunt by yesterday's post; and I fear it may end in an angry correspondence between them."
I saw that I had startled her. She suddenly drew her chair close to mine.
"Do you think the correspondence will delay your aunt's departure from England?" she asked.
"On the contrary. My aunt is a very resolute person, and it may hasten her departure. But I am afraid it will indispose her to ask any favors of Mr. Keller, or to associate herself with his personal concerns. Any friendly intercourse between them will indeed be impossible, if she asserts her authority as head-partner, and forces him to submit to a woman in a matter of business."
She sank back in her chair. "I understand." she said faintly.
While we had been talking, Minna had walked to the window, and had remained there looking out. She suddenly turned round as her mother spoke.
"Mamma! the landlady's little boy has just gone out. Shall I tap at the window and call him back?"
The widow roused herself with an effort. "What for, my love?" she asked, absently.
Minna pointed to the mantelpiece. "To take your letter to Mr. Engelman, mamma." Madame Fontaine looked at the letter--paused for a moment--and answered, "No, my dear; let the boy go. It doesn't matter for the present."
She turned to me, with an abrupt recovery of her customary manner.
"I am fortunately, for myself, a sanguine person," she resumed. "I always did hope for the best; and (feeling the kind motive of what you have said to me) I shall hope for the best still. Minna, my darling, Mr. David and I have been talking on dry subjects until we are tired. Give us a little music." While her daughter obediently opened the piano, she looked at the flowers. "You are fond of flowers, David?" she went on. "Do you understand the subject? I ignorantly admire the lovely colors, and enjoy the delicious scents--and I can do no more. It was really very kind of your old friend Mr. Engelman. Does he take any part in this deplorable difference of opinion between your aunt and Mr. Keller?"
What did that new allusion to Mr. Engelman mean? And why had she declined to despatch her letter to him, when the opportunity offered of sending it by the boy?
Troubled by the doubts which these considerations suggested, I committed an act of imprudence--I replied so reservedly that I put her on her guard. All I said was that I supposed Mr. Engelman agreed with Mr. Keller, but that I was not in the confidence of the two partners. From that moment she saw through me, and was silent on the subject of Mr. Engelman. Even Minna's singing had lost its charm, in my present frame of mind. It was a relief to me when I could make my excuses, and leave the house.
On my way back to Main Street, when I could think freely, my doubts began to develop into downright suspicion. Madame Fontaine could hardly hope, after what I had told her, to obtain the all-important interview with Mr. Keller, through my aunt's intercession. Had she seen her way to trying what Mr. Engelman's influence with his partner could do for her? Would she destroy her formal acknowledgment of the receipt of his flowers, as soon as my back was turned, and send him a second letter, encouraging him to visit her? And would she cast him off, without ceremony, when he had served her purpose?
These were the thoughts that troubled me on my return to the house. When we met at supper, some hours later, my worst anticipations were realized. Poor innocent Mr. Engelman was dressed with extraordinary smartness, and was in the highest good spirits. Mr. Keller asked him jestingly if he was going to be married. In the intoxication of happiness that possessed him, he was quite reckless; he actually retorted by a joke on the sore subject of the employment of women! "Who knows what may happen," he cried gaily, "when we have young ladies in the office for clerks?" Mr. Keller was so angry that he kept silence through the whole of our meal. When Mr. Engelman left the room I slipped out after him.
"You are going to Madame Fontaine's," I said.
He smirked and smiled. "Just a little evening visit, David. Aha! you young men are not to have it all your own way." He laid his hand tenderly on the left breast-pocket of his coat. "Such a delightful letter!" he said. "It is here, over my heart. No, a woman's sentiments are sacred; I mustn't show it to you."
I was on the point of telling him the whole truth, when the thought of Minna checked me for the time. My interest in preserving Mr. Engelman's tranquillity was in direct conflict with my interest in the speedy marriage of my good friend Fritz. Besides, was it likely that anything I could say would have the slightest effect on the deluded old man, in the first fervor of his infatuation? I thought I would give him a general caution, and wait to be guided by events.
"One word, sir, for your private ear," I said. "Even the finest women have their faults. You will find Madame Fontaine perfectly charming; but don't be too ready to believe that she is in earnest."
Mr. Engelman felt infinitely flattered, and owned it without the slightest reserve.
"Oh, David! David!" he said, "are you jealous of me already?" He put on his hat (with a jaunty twist on one side), and swung his stick gaily, and left the room. For the first time, in my experience of him, he went out without his pipe; and (a more serious symptom still) he really did not appear to miss it.