Jezebel's DaughterWilkie Collins
by Wilkie Collins
TO ALBERTO CACCIA
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
Gloucester Place, London:
February 9, 1880.
MR. DAVID GLENNEY CONSULTS HIS MEMORY AND OPENS THE STORY
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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