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Jezebel's Daughter

Wilkie Collins


  by Wilkie Collins


  Let me begin by informing you, that this new novel does not present the

  proposed sequel to my last work of fiction--"The Fallen Leaves."

  The first part of that story has, through circumstances connected with

  the various forms of publications adopted thus far, addressed itself to a

  comparatively limited class of readers in England. When the book is

  finally reprinted in its cheapest form--then, and then only, it will

  appeal to the great audience of the English people. I am waiting for that

  time, to complete my design by writing the second part of "The Fallen



  Your knowledge of English Literature--to which I am indebted for the

  first faithful and intelligent translation of my novels into the Italian

  language--has long since informed you, that there are certain important

  social topics which are held to be forbidden to the English novelist (no

  matter how seriously and how delicately he may treat them), by a

  narrow-minded minority of readers, and by the critics who flatter their

  prejudices. You also know, having done me the honor to read my books,

  that I respect my art far too sincerely to permit limits to be wantonly

  assigned to it, which are imposed in no other civilized country on the

  face of the earth. When my work is undertaken with a pure purpose, I

  claim the same liberty which is accorded to a writer in a newspaper, or

  to a clergyman in a pulpit; knowing, by previous experience, that the

  increase of readers and the lapse of time will assuredly do me justice,

  if I have only written well enough to deserve it.

  In the prejudiced quarters to which I have alluded, one of the characters

  in "The Fallen Leaves" offended susceptibilities of the sort felt by

  Tartuffe, when he took out his handkerchief, and requested Dorine to

  cover her bosom. I not only decline to defend myself, under such

  circumstances as these--I say plainly, that I have never asserted a truer

  claim to the best and noblest sympathies of Christian readers than in

  presenting to them, in my last novel, the character of the innocent

  victim of infamy, rescued and purified from the contamination of the

  streets. I remember what the nasty posterity of Tartuffe, in this

  country, said of "Basil," of "Armadale," of "The New Magdalen," and I

  know that the wholesome audience of the nation at large has done liberal

  justice to those books. For this reason, I wait to write the second part

  of "The Fallen Leaves," until the first part of the story has found its

  way to the people.

  Turning for a moment to the present novel, you will (I hope) find two

  interesting studies of humanity in these pages.

  In the character called "Jack Straw," you have the exhibition of an

  enfeebled intellect, tenderly shown under its lightest and happiest

  aspect, and used as a means of relief in some of the darkest scenes of

  terror and suspense occurring in this story. Again, in "Madame Fontaine,"

  I have endeavored to work out the interesting moral problem, which takes

  for its groundwork the strongest of all instincts in a woman, the

  instinct of maternal love, and traces to its solution the restraining and

  purifying influence of this one virtue over an otherwise cruel, false,

  and degraded nature.

  The events in which these two chief personages play their parts have been

  combined with all possible care, and have been derived, to the best of my

  ability, from natural and simple causes. In view of the distrust which

  certain readers feel, when a novelist builds his fiction on a foundation

  of fact, it may not be amiss to mention (before I close these lines),

  that the accessories of the scenes in the Deadhouse of Frankfort have

  been studied on the spot. The published rules and ground-plans of that

  curious mortuary establishment have also been laid on my desk, as aids to

  memory while I was writing the closing passages of the story.

  With this, I commend "Jezebel's Daughter" to my good friend and brother

  in the art--who will present this last work also to the notice of Italian


  W. C.

  Gloucester Place, London:

  February 9, 1880.




  In the matter of Jezebel's Daughter, my recollections begin with the

  deaths of two foreign gentlemen, in two different countries, on the same

  day of the same year.

  They were both men of some importance in their way, and both strangers to

  each other.

  Mr. Ephraim Wagner, merchant (formerly of Frankfort-on-the-Main), died in

  London on the third day of September, 1828.

  Doctor Fontaine--famous in his time for discoveries in experimental

  chemistry--died at Wurzburg on the third day of September, 1828.

  Both the merchant and the doctor left widows. The merchant's widow (an

  Englishwoman) was childless. The doctor's widow (of a South German

  family) had a daughter to console her.

  At that distant time--I am writing these lines in the year 1878, and

  looking back through half a century--I was a lad employed in Mr. Wagner's

  office. Being his wife's nephew, he most kindly received me as a member

  of his household. What I am now about to relate I saw with my own eyes

  and heard with my own ears. My memory is to be depended on. Like other

  old men, I recollect events which happened at the beginning of my career

  far more clearly than events which happened only two or three years


  Good Mr. Wagner had been ailing for many months; but the doctors had no

  immediate fear of his death. He proved the doctors to be mistaken; and

  took the liberty of dying at a time when they all declared that there was

  every reasonable hope of his recovery. When this affliction fell upon his

  wife, I was absent from the office in London on a business errand to our

  branch-establishment at Frankfort-on-the-Main, directed by Mr. Wagner's

  partners. The day of my return happened to be the day after the funeral.

  It was also the occasion chosen for the reading of the will. Mr. Wagner,

  I should add, had been a naturalized British citizen, and his will was

  drawn by an English lawyer.

  The fourth, fifth, and sixth clauses of the will are the only portions of

  the document which it is necessary to mention in this place.

  The fourth clause left the whole of the testator's property, in lands and

  in money, absolutely to his widow. In the fifth clause he added a new

  proof of his implicit confidence in her--he appointed her sole executrix

  of his will.

  The sixth and last clause began in these words:--

  "During my long illness, my dear wife has acted as my secretary and

  representative. She has made herself so thoroughly well acquainted with

  the system on which I have conducted my business, that she is th
e fittest

  person to succeed me. I not only prove the fullness of my trust in her

  and the sincerity of my gratitude towards her, but I really act in the

  best interests of the firm of which I am the head, when I hereby appoint

  my widow as my sole successor in the business, with all the powers and

  privileges appertaining thereto."

  The lawyer and I both looked at my aunt. She had sunk back in her chair;

  her face was hidden in her handkerchief. We waited respectfully until she

  might be sufficiently recovered to communicate her wishes to us. The

  expression of her husband's love and respect, contained in the last words

  of the will, had completely overwhelmed her. It was only after she had

  been relieved by a burst of tears that she was conscious of our presence,

  and was composed enough to speak to us.

  "I shall be calmer in a few days' time," she said. "Come to me at the end

  of the week. I have something important to say to both of you."

  The lawyer ventured on putting a question. "Does it relate in any way to

  the will?" he inquired.

  She shook her head. "It relates," she answered, "to my husband's last


  She bowed to us, and went away to her own room.

  The lawyer looked after her gravely and doubtfully as she disappeared.

  "My long experience in my profession," he said, turning to me, "has

  taught me many useful lessons. Your aunt has just called one of those

  lessons to my mind.

  "May I ask what it is, sir?"

  "Certainly." He took my arm and waited to repeat the lesson until we had

  left the house; "Always distrust a man's last wishes on his

  death-bed--unless they are communicated to his lawyer, and expressed in

  his will."

  At the time, I thought this rather a narrow view to take. How could I

  foresee that coming events in the future life of my aunt would prove the

  lawyer to be right? If she had only been content to leave her husband's

  plans and projects where he had left them at his death, and if she had

  never taken that rash journey to our branch office at Frankfort--but what

  is the use of speculating on what might or might not have happened? My

  business in these pages is to describe what did happen. Let me return to

  my business.


  At the end of the week we found the widow waiting to receive us.

  To describe her personally, she was a little lady, with a remarkably

  pretty figure, a clear pale complexion, a broad low forehead, and large,

  steady, brightly-intelligent gray eyes. Having married a man very much

  older than herself, she was still (after many years of wedded life) a

  notably attractive woman. But she never seemed to be conscious of her

  personal advantages, or vain of the very remarkable abilities which she

  did unquestionably possess. Under ordinary circumstances, she was a

  singularly gentle, unobtrusive creature. But let the occasion call for

  it, and the reserves of resolution in her showed themselves instantly. In

  all my experience I have never met with such a firm woman, when she was

  once roused.

  She entered on her business with us, wasting no time in preliminary

  words. Her face showed plain signs, poor soul, of a wakeful and tearful

  night. But she claimed no indulgence on that account. When she spoke of

  her dead husband--excepting a slight unsteadiness in her voice--she

  controlled herself with a courage which was at once pitiable and

  admirable to see.

  "You both know," she began, "that Mr. Wagner was a man who thought for

  himself. He had ideas of his duty to his poor and afflicted

  fellow-creatures which are in advance of received opinions in the world

  about us. I love and revere his memory--and (please God) I mean to carry

  out his ideas."

  The lawyer began to look uneasy. "Do you refer, madam, to Mr. Wagner's

  political opinions?" he inquired.

  Fifty years ago, my old master's political opinions were considered to be

  nothing less than revolutionary. In these days--when his Opinions have

  been sanctioned by Acts of Parliament, with the general approval of the

  nation--people would have called him a "Moderate Liberal," and would have

  set him down as a discreetly deliberate man in the march of modern


  "I have nothing to say about politics," my aunt answered. "I wish to

  speak to you, in the first place, of my husband's opinions on the

  employment of women.

  Here, again, after a lapse of half a century, my master's heresies of the

  year 1828 have become the orthodox principles of the year 1878. Thinking

  the subject over in his own independent way, he had arrived at the

  conclusion that there were many employments reserved exclusively for men,

  which might with perfect propriety be also thrown open to capable and

  deserving women. To recognize the claims of justice was, with a man of

  Mr. Wagner's character, to act on his convictions without a moment's

  needless delay. Enlarging his London business at the time, he divided the

  new employments at his disposal impartially between men and women alike.

  The scandal produced in the city by this daring innovation is remembered

  to the present day by old men like me. My master's audacious experiment

  prospered nevertheless, in spite of scandal.

  "If my husband had lived," my aunt continued, "it was his intention to

  follow the example, which he has already set in London, in our house at

  Frankfort. There also our business is increasing, and we mean to add to

  the number of our clerks. As soon as I am able to exert myself, I shall

  go to Frankfort, and give German women the same opportunities which my

  husband has already given to English women in London. I have his notes on

  the best manner of carrying out this reform to guide me. And I think of

  sending you, David," she added, turning to me, "to our partners in

  Frankfort, Mr. Keller and Mr. Engelman, with instructions which will keep

  some of the vacant situations in the office open, until I can follow

  you." She paused, and looked at the lawyer. "Do you see any objection to

  what I propose?" she said.

  "I see some risks," he answered, cautiously.

  "What risks?"

  "In London, madam, the late Mr. Wagner had special means of investigating

  the characters of the women whom he took into his office. It may not be

  so easy for you, in a strange place like Frankfort, to guard against the

  danger----" He hesitated, at a loss for the moment to express himself

  with sufficient plainness and sufficient delicacy.

  My aunt made no allowances for his embarrassment.

  "Don't be afraid to speak out, sir," she said, a little coldly. "What

  danger are you afraid of?"

  "Yours is a generous nature, madam: and generous natures are easily

  imposed upon. I am afraid of women with bad characters, or, worse still,

  of other women----"

  He stopped again. This time there was a positive interruption. We heard a

  knock at the door.

  Our head-clerk was the person who presented himself at the summons to

  come in. My aunt held up her hand. "Excuse me, Mr. Hartrey--I will attend

  to you in one moment
." She turned to the lawyer. "What other women are

  likely to impose on me?" she asked.

  "Women, otherwise worthy of your kindness, who may be associated with

  disreputable connections," the lawyer replied. "The very women, if I know

  anything of your quick sympathies, whom you would be most anxious to

  help, and who might nevertheless be a source of constant trouble and

  anxiety, under pernicious influences at home."

  My aunt made no answer. For the moment, the lawyer's objections seemed to

  annoy her. She addressed herself to Mr. Hartrey; asking rather abruptly

  what he had to say to her.

  Our head-clerk was a methodical gentleman of the old school. He began by

  confusedly apologizing for his intrusion; and ended by producing a


  "When you are able to attend to business, madam, honor me by reading this

  letter. And, in the meantime, will you forgive me for taking a liberty in

  the office, rather than intrude on your grief so soon after the death of

  my dear and honored master?" The phrases were formal enough; but there

  was true feeling in the man's voice as he spoke. My aunt gave him her

  hand. He kissed it, with the tears in his eyes.

  "Whatever you have done has been well done, I am sure," she said kindly.

  "Who is the letter from?"

  "From Mr. Keller, of Frankfort, madam."

  My aunt instantly took the letter from him, and read it attentively. It

  has a very serious bearing on passages in the present narrative which are

  yet to come. I accordingly present a copy of it in this place:

  "Private and confidential.

  "Dear Mr. Hartrey,--It is impossible for me to address myself to Mrs.

  Wagner, in the first days of the affliction that has fallen on her. I am

  troubled by a pressing anxiety; and I venture to write to you, as the

  person now in charge at our London office.

  "My only son Fritz is finishing his education at the university of

  Wurzburg. He has, I regret to say, formed an attachment to a young woman,

  the daughter of a doctor at Wurzburg, who has recently died. I believe

  the girl to be a perfectly reputable and virtuous young person. But her

  father has not only left her in poverty, he has done worse--he has died

  in debt. Besides this, her mother's character does not stand high in the

  town. It is said, among other things, that her extravagance is mainly

  answerable for her late husband's debts. Under these circumstances, I

  wish to break off the connection while the two young people are separated

  for the time by the event of the doctor's recent death. Fritz has given

  up the idea of entering the medical profession, and has accepted my

  proposal that he shall succeed me in our business. I have decided on

  sending him to London, to learn something of commercial affairs, at

  headquarters, in your office.

  "My son obeys me reluctantly; but he is a good and dutiful lad--and he

  yields to his father's wishes. You may expect him in a day or two after

  receipt of these lines. Oblige me by making a little opening for him in

  one of your official departments, and by keeping him as much as possible

  under your own eye, until I can venture on communicating directly with

  Mrs. Wagner--to whom pray convey the expression of my most sincere and

  respectful sympathy."

  My aunt handed back the letter. "Has the young man arrived yet?" she


  "He arrived yesterday, madam."

  "And have you found some employment for him?"

  "I have ventured to place him in our corresponding department, the

  head-clerk answered. "For the present he will assist in copying letters;

  and, after business-hours, he will have a room (until further orders) in

  my house. I hope you think I have done right, madam?"

  "You have done admirably, Mr. Hartrey. At the same time, I will relieve