Jezebel's Daughter by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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On further inquiry, it turned out that "the gentleman from Munich" had no time to spare. In the absence of Mr. Keller, he had asked if he could see "one of the other partners." This seemed to imply that commercial interests were in some way connected with the stranger's visit--in which case, Mrs. Wagner was perfectly competent to hear what he had to say.
"Where is the gentleman?" she asked.
"In the drawing-room," Joseph answered.
Mrs. Wagner at once left the office. She found herself in the presence of a dignified elderly gentleman, dressed entirely in black, and having the ribbon of some order of merit attached to the buttonhole of his long frock-coat. His eyes opened wide in surprise, behind his gold spectacles, when he found himself face to face with a lady. "I fear there is some mistake," he said, in the smoothest of voices, and with the politest of bows; "I asked to see one of the partners."
Mrs. Wagner added largely to his amazement, by informing him of the position that she held in the firm. "If you come on a matter of business," she proceeded, "you may trust me to understand you, sir, though I am only a woman. If your visit relates to private affairs, I beg to suggest that you should write to Mr. Keller--I will take care that he receives your letter the moment he returns."
"There is not the least necessity for my troubling you," the stranger replied. "I am a physician; and I have been summoned to Frankfort to consult with my colleagues here, on a serious case of illness. Mr. Keller's sister is one of my patients in Munich. I thought I would take the present opportunity of speaking to him about the state of her health."
He had just introduced himself in those words, when Mr. Keller entered the room. The merchant and the physician shook hands like old friends.
"No alarming news of my sister, I hope?" said Mr. Keller.
"Only the old trouble, my good friend. Another attack of asthma."
Mrs. Wagner rose to leave the room. Mr. Keller stopped her. "There is not the least necessity for you to leave us," he said. "Unless my presentiments deceive me, we may even have occasion to ask your advice. -- Is there any hope, doctor, of her being well enough to leave Munich, towards the end of the month?"
"I am sorry to say it," answered the physician--"having heard of the interesting occasion on which she had engaged to be one of your guests--but, at her age, I must ask for a little more time."
"In other words, it is impossible for my sister to be with us, on the day of my son's marriage?"
"Quite impossible. She has so few pleasures, poor soul, and she is so bitterly disappointed, that I volunteered to take advantage of my professional errand here, to make a very bold request. Let me first do your excellent sister justice. She will not hear of the young people being disappointed by any postponement of the wedding, on her account. And here is the famous necklace, committed to my care, to prove that she is sincere."
He took his little traveling-bag from the chair on which he had placed it, and produced the case containing the necklace. No woman--not even a head-partner in a great house of business--could have looked at those pearls, and preserved her composure. Mrs. Wagner burst out with a cry of admiration.
Mr. Keller passed the necklace over without notice; his sister was the one object of interest to him. "Would she be fit to travel," he asked, "if we put off the marriage for a month?"
"She shall be fit to travel, barring accidents," said the physician, "if you can put off the marriage for a fortnight. I start this evening on my return to Munich, and not a day shall pass without my seeing her."
Mr. Keller appealed to Mrs. Wagner. "Surely, we might make this trifling sacrifice?" he said. "The pleasure of seeing her nephew married is likely to be the last pleasure of my sister's life."
"In your place," said Mrs. Wagner, "I should not hesitate for an instant to grant the fortnight's delay. But the bride and bridegroom must be consulted, of course."
"And the bride's parents," suggested the discreet physician, "if they are still living."
"There is only her mother living," said Mr. Keller. "She is too high-minded a person to raise any objection, I am sure." He paused, and reflected for awhile. "Fritz counts for nothing," he went on. "I think we ought to put the question, in the first instance, to the bride?" He rang the bell, and then took the necklace out of Mrs. Wagner's hands. "I have a very high opinion of little Minna," he resumed. "We will see what the child's own kind heart says--undisturbed by the influence of the pearls, and without any prompting on the part of her mother."
He closed the jewel case, and put it into a cabinet that stood near him. Joseph was sent upstairs, with the necessary message. "Don't make any mistake," said his master; "I wish to see Miss Minna, alone."
The physician took a pinch of snuff while they were waiting. "The test is hardly conclusive," he remarked slily; "women are always capable of sacrificing themselves. What will the bridegroom say?"
"My good sir," Mr. Keller rejoined a little impatiently, "I have mentioned already that Fritz counts for nothing."
Minna came in. Her color rose when she found herself unexpectedly in the presence of a dignified and decorated stranger. The physician tapped his snuff-box, with the air of a man who thoroughly understood young women. "Charming indeed!" he said confidentially to Mrs. Wagner; "I am young enough (at heart, madam) to wish I was Fritz."
Mr. Keller advanced to meet Minna, and took her hand.
"My dear," he said, "what would you think of me, if I requested you to put off your marriage for two whole weeks--and all on account of an old woman?"
"I should think you had surely some reason, sir, for asking me to do that," Minna replied; "and I confess I should be curious to know who the old woman was."
In the fewest and plainest words, Mr. Keller repeated what the physician had told him. "Take your own time to think of it," he added; "and consult your mother first, if you like."
Minna's sweet face looked lovelier than ever, glowing with the heavenly light of true and generous feeling. "Oh, Mr. Keller!" she exclaimed, "do you really suppose I am coldhearted enough to want time to think of it? I am sure I may speak for my mother, as well as for myself. Fraulein Keller's time shall be our time. Please tell her so, with my duty-or, may I be bold enough to say already, with my love?"
Mr. Keller kissed her forehead with a fervor of feeling that was rare with him. "You are well worthy of my sister's bridal gift," he said--and took the necklace out of the cabinet, and gave it to her.
For some moments Minna stood looking at the magnificent pearls, in a state of speechless enchantment. When she did speak, her first delightful ardor of admiration had cooled under the chilling perception of a want of proper harmony between her pearls and herself. "They are too grand for me," she said sadly; "I ought to be a great lady, with a wardrobe full of magnificent dresses, to wear such pearls as these!" She looked at them again, with the natural longing of her sex and age. "May I take the necklace upstairs," she asked, with the most charming inconsistency, "and see how it looks when I put it on?"
Mr. Keller smiled and waved his hand. "You can do what you like with your own necklace, my dear," he said. "When I have written a line to my sister, perhaps I may follow you, and admire my daughter-in-law in all her grandeur."
The physician looked at his watch. "If you can write your letter in five minutes," he suggested, "I can take it with me to Munich."
Mrs. Wagner and Minna left the room together. "Come and see how it looks," said Minna; "I should so like to have your opinion."
"I will follow you directly, my dear. There is something I have forgotten in the office."
The events of the day had ended in making Jack drowsy; he was half-asleep on the window-seat. Mrs. Wagner effectually roused him.
"Mr. Keeper of the Keys," she said; "I want my desk opened."
Jack was on his legs in an instant. "Ha, Mistress, it's jolly to hear you say that--it's like being in London again."
The desk was of the spacious commercial sort, with a heavy mahogany lid. Everything inside was in the most perfect order. A row of "pigeon-holes" at the back had their contents specified by printed tickets. "Abstracts of correspondence, A to Z;" "Terms for commission agency;" "Key of the iron safe." "Key of the private ledger"--and so on. The ledger--a stout volume with a brass lock, like a private diary--was placed near the pigeonholes. On the top of it rested a smaller book, of the pocket--size, entitled "Private Accounts." Mrs. Wagner laid both books open before her, at the pages containing the most recent entries, and compared them. "I felt sure I had forgotten it!" she said to herself--and transferred an entry in the ledger to the private account-book. After replacing the ledger, she locked the desk, and returned the key to Jack.
"Remember," she said, "the rule in London is the rule here. My desk is never to be opened, except when I ask you to do it. And if you allow the key to pass out of your own possession, you cease to be Keeper."
"Did I ever do either of those two things in London?" Jack asked.
"Then don't be afraid of my doing them here. I say! you haven't put back the little book." He produced the key again, and put it into the lock--while Mrs. Wagner was occupied in placing her account-book in her pocket.
"Its proper place is not in the desk," she explained; "I usually keep it about me."
Jack's ready suspicion was excited. "Ah," he cried, with an outburst of indignation, "you won't trust it to me!"
"Take care I don't set a bad-conduct mark against you!" said Mrs. Wagner. "You foolish fellow, the little book is a copy of what is in the big book--and I trust you with the big book."
She knew Jack thoroughly well. His irritable dignity was at once appeased when he heard that the biggest of the duplicate books was in his keeping. He took the key out of the lock again. At the same moment, Mr. Keller entered the office. Jack possessed the dog's enviable faculty of distinguishing correctly between the people who are, and the people who are not, their true friends. Mr. Keller privately disliked the idea of having a person about him who had come out of a madhouse. Jack's instincts warned him to leave a room when Mr. Keller entered it. He left the office now.
"Is it possible that you trust that crazy creature with the key of your desk?" said Mr. Keller. "Even your bitterest enemy, Mrs. Wagner, would not believe you could be guilty of such an act of rashness."
"Pardon me, sir, it is you who are guilty of an act of rashness in forming your judgment. 'Fancy a woman in her senses trusting her keys to a man who was once in Bedlam!' Everybody said that of me, when I put Jack to the proof in my own house."
"Aha! there are other people then who agree with me?" said Mr. Keller.
"There are other people, sir (I say it with all needful respect), who know no more of the subject than you do. The most certain curative influence that can be exercised over the poor martyrs of the madhouse, is to appeal to their self-respect. From first to last, Jack has never been unworthy of the trust that I have placed in him. Do you think my friends owned they had been mistaken? No more than you will own it! Make your mind easy. I will be personally answerable for anything that is lost, while I am rash enough to trust my crazy creature with my key."
Mr. Keller's opinion was not in the least shaken; he merely checked any further expression of it, in deference to an angry lady. "I dare say you know best," he remarked politely. "Let me mention the little matter that has brought me here. David Glenney is, no doubt, closely occupied in London. He ought to know at once that the wedding-day is deferred. Will you write to him, or shall I?"
Mrs. Wagner began to recover her temper.
"I will write with pleasure, Mr. Keller. We have half an hour yet before post-time. I have promised Minna to see how the wonderful necklace looks on her. Will you excuse me for a few minutes? Or will you go upstairs with me?--I think you said something about it in the drawing-room."
"Certainly," said Mr. Keller, "if the ladies will let me in."
They ascended the stairs together. On the landing outside the drawing-room, they encountered Fritz and Minna--one out of temper, and the other in tears.
"What's wrong now?" Mr. Keller asked sharply. "Fritz! what does that sulky face mean?"
"I consider myself very badly used," Fritz answered. "I say there's a great want of proper consideration for Me, in putting off our marriage. And Madame Fontaine agrees with me."
"Madame Fontaine?" He looked at Minna, as he repeated the name. "Is this really true?"
Minna trembled at the bare recollection of what had passed. "Oh, don't ask me!" she pleaded piteously; "I can't tell what has come to my mother--she is so changed, she frightens me. And as for Fritz," she said, rousing herself, "if he is to be a selfish tyrant, I can tell him this--I won't marry him at all!"
Mr. Keller turned to Fritz, and pointed contemptuously down the stairs.
"Leave us!" he said. Fritz opened his lips to protest. Mr. Keller interposed, with a protest of his own. "One of these days," he went on, "you may possibly have a son. You will not find his society agreeable to you, when he happens to have made a fool of himself." He pointed down the stairs for the second time. Fritz retired, frowning portentously. His father addressed Minna with marked gentleness of manner. "Rest and recover yourself, my child. I will see your mother, and set things right."
"Don't go away by yourself, my dear," Mrs. Wagner added kindly; "come with me to my room."
Mr. Keller entered the drawing-room, and sent Joseph with another message. "Go up to Madame Fontaine, and say I wish to see her here immediately."