Jezebel's Daughter

Wilkie Collins

Jezebel's Daughter Page 02

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 wishes.

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 progress.

"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.

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