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The widow stopped at a jeweler's window in the famous street called the Zeil. The only person in the shop was a simple-looking old man, sitting behind the counter, reading a newspaper.
She went in. "I have something to show you, sir," she said, in her softest and sweetest tones. The simple old man first looked at her thick veil, and then at the necklace. He lifted his hands in amazement and admiration. "May I examine these glorious pearls?" he asked--and looked at them through a magnifying glass, and weighed them in his hand. "I wonder you are not afraid to walk out alone in the dark, with such a necklace as this," he said. "May I send to my foreman, and let him see it?"
Madame Fontaine granted his request. He rang the bell which communicated with the work-rooms. Being now satisfied that she was speaking to the proprietor of the shop, she risked her first inquiry.
"Have you any necklace of imitation pearls which resembles my necklace?" she asked.
The old gentleman started, and looked harder than ever at the impenetrable veil. "Good heavens--no!" he exclaimed. "There is no such thing in all Frankfort.
"Could an imitation be made, sir?"
The foreman entered the shop--a sullen, self-concentrated man. "Fit for a queen," he remarked, with calm appreciation of the splendid pearls. His master repeated to him Madame Fontaine's last question. "They might do it in Paris," he answered briefly. "What time could you give them, madam?"
"I should want the imitation sent here before the thirteenth of next month."
The master, humanely pitying the lady's ignorance, smiled and said nothing. The foreman's decision was rough and ready. "Nothing like time enough; quite out of the question."
Madame Fontaine had no choice but to resign herself to circumstances. She had entered the shop with the idea of exhibiting the false necklace on the wedding-day, whilst the genuine pearls were pledged for the money of which she stood in need. With the necklace in pawn, and with no substitute to present in its place, what would Minna say, what would Mr. Keller think? It was useless to pursue those questions--some plausible excuse must be found. No matter what suspicions might be excited, the marriage would still take place. The necklace was no essential part of the ceremony which made Fritz and Minna man and wife--and the money must be had.
"I suppose, sir, you grant loans on valuable security--such as this necklace?" she said.
"Provided you have the lady's name and address," the disagreeable foreman suggested, turning to his master.
The old man cordially agreed. "Quite true! quite true! And a reference besides--some substantial person, madam, well known in this city. The responsibility is serious with such pearls as these."
"Is the reference absolutely necessary?" Madame Fontaine asked.
The foreman privately touched his master behind the counter. Understanding the signal, the simple old gentleman closed the jewel-case, and handed it back. "Absolutely necessary," he answered.
Madame Fontaine went out again into the street. "A substantial reference" meant a person of some wealth and position in Frankfort--a person like Mr. Keller, for example. Where was she to find such a reference? Her relatives in the city had deliberately turned their backs on her. Out of Mr. Keller's house, they were literally the only "substantial" people whom she knew. The one chance left seemed to be to try a pawnbroker.
At this second attempt, she was encountered by a smart young man. The moment he saw the necklace, he uttered a devout ejaculation of surprise and blew a whistle. The pawnbroker himself appeared--looked at the pearls--looked at the veiled lady--and answered as the jeweler had answered, but less civilly. "I'm not going to get myself into a scrape," said the pawnbroker; "I must have a good reference."
Madame Fontaine was not a woman easily discouraged. She turned her steps towards the noble medieval street called the Judengasse--then thickly inhabited; now a spectacle of decrepit architectural old age, to be soon succeeded by a new street.
By twos and threes at a time, the Jews in this quaint quarter of the town clamorously offered their services to the lady who had come among them. When the individual Israelite to whom she applied saw the pearls, he appeared to take leave of his senses. He screamed; he clapped his hands; he called upon his wife, his children, his sisters, his lodgers, to come and feast their eyes on such a necklace as had never been seen since Solomon received the Queen of Sheba.
The first excitement having worn itself out, a perfect volley of questions followed. What was the lady's name? Where did she live? How had she got the necklace? Had it been given to her? and, if so, who had given it? Where had it been made? Why had she brought it to the Judengasse? Did she want to sell it? or to borrow money on it? Aha! To borrow money on it. Very good, very good indeed; but--and then the detestable invitation to produce the reference made itself heard once more.
Madame Fontaine's answer was well conceived. "I will pay you good interest, in place of a reference," she said. Upon this, the Jewish excitability, vibrating between the desire of gain and the terror of consequences, assumed a new form. Some of them groaned; some of them twisted their fingers frantically in their hair; some of them called on the Deity worshipped by their fathers to bear witness how they had suffered, by dispensing with references in other cases of precious deposits; one supremely aged and dirty Jew actually suggested placing an embargo on the lady and her necklace, and sending information to the city authorities at the Town Hall. In the case of a timid woman, this sage's advice might actually have been followed. Madame Fontaine preserved her presence of mind, and left the Judengasse as freely as she had entered it. "I can borrow the money elsewhere," she said haughtily at parting. "Yes," cried a chorus of voices, answering, "you can borrow of a receiver of stolen goods."
It was only too true! The extraordinary value of the pearls demanded, on that account, extraordinary precautions on the part of moneylenders of every degree. Madame Fontaine put back the necklace in the drawer of her toilette-table. The very splendor of Minna's bridal gift made it useless as a means of privately raising money among strangers.
And yet, the money must be found--at any risk, under any circumstances, no matter how degrading or how dangerous they might be.
With that desperate resolution, she went to her bed. Hour after hour she heard the clock strike. The faint cold light of the new day found her still waking and thinking, and still unprepared with a safe plan for meeting the demand on her, when the note became due. As to resources of her own, the value of the few jewels and dresses that she possessed did not represent half the amount of her debt.
It was a busy day at the office. The work went on until far into the evening.
Even when the household assembled at the supper-table, there was an interruption. A messenger called with a pressing letter, which made it immediately necessary to refer to the past correspondence of the firm. Mr. Keller rose from the table. "The Abstracts will rake up less time to examine," he said to Mrs. Wagner; "you have them in your desk, I think?" She at once turned to Jack, and ordered him to produce the key. He took it from his bag, under the watchful eyes of Madame Fontaine, observing him from the opposite side of the table. "I should have preferred opening the desk myself," Jack remarked when Mr. Keller had left the room; "but I suppose I must give way to the master. Besides, he hates me."
The widow was quite startled by this strong assertion. "How can you say so?" she exclaimed. "We all like you, Jack. Come and have a little wine, out of my glass."
Jack refused this proposal. "I don't want wine," he said; "I am sleepy and cold--I want to go to bed."
Madame Fontaine was too hospitably inclined to take No for an answer. "Only a little drop," she pleaded. "You look so cold."
"Surely you forget what I told you?" Mrs. Wagner interposed. "Wine first excites, and then stupefies him. The last time I tried it, he was as dull and heavy as if I had given him laudanum. I thought I mentioned it to you." She turned to Jack. "You look sadly tired, my poor little man. Go to bed at once."
"Without the key?" cried Jack indignantly. "I hope I know my duty better than that."
Mr. Keller returned, perfectly satisfied with the result of his investigation. "I knew it!" he said. "The mistake is on the side of our clients; I have sent them the proof of it."
He handed back the key to Mrs. Wagner. She at once transferred it to Jack. Mr. Keller shook his head in obstinate disapproval. "Would you run such a risk as that?" he said to Madame Fontaine, speaking in French. "I should be afraid," she replied in the same language. Jack secured the key in his bag, kissed his mistress's hand, and approached the door on his way to bed. "Won't you wish me good-night?" said the amiable widow. "I didn't know whether German or English would do for you," Jack answered; "and I can't speak your unknown tongue."
He made one of his fantastic bows, and left the room. "Does he understand French?" Madame Fontaine asked. "No," said Mrs. Wagner; "he only understood that you and Mr. Keller had something to conceal from him."
In due course of time the little party at the supper-table rose, and retired to their rooms. The first part of the night passed as tranquilly as usual. But, between one and two in the morning, Mrs. Wagner was alarmed by a violent beating against her door, and a shrill screaming in Jack's voice. "Let me in! I want a light--I've lost the keys!"
She called out to him to be quiet, while she put on her dressing-gown, and struck a light. They were fortunately on the side of the house occupied by the offices, the other inhabited bedchambers being far enough off to be approached by a different staircase. Still, in the silence of the night, Jack's reiterated cries of terror and beatings at the door might possibly reach the ears of a light sleeper. She pulled him into the room and closed the door again, with an impetuosity that utterly confounded him. "Sit down there, and compose yourself!" she said sternly. "I won't give you the light until you are perfectly quiet. You disgrace me if you disturb the house."
Between cold and terror, Jack shuddered from head to foot. "May I whisper?" he asked, with a look of piteous submission.
Mrs. Wagner pointed to the last living embers in the fireplace. She knew by experience the tranquilizing influence of giving him something to do. "Rake the fire together," she said; "and warm yourself first."
He obeyed, and then laid himself down in his dog-like way on the rug. A quarter of an hour, at least, passed before his mistress considered him to be in a fit state to tell his story. There was little or nothing to relate. He had put his bag under his pillow as usual; and (after a long sleep) he had woke with a horrid fear that something had happened to the keys. He had felt in vain for them under the pillow, and all over the bed, and all over the floor. "After that," he said, "the horrors got hold of me; and I am afraid I went actually mad, for a little while. I'm all right now, if you please. See! I'm as quiet as a bird with its head under its wing."
Mrs. Wagner took the light, and led the way to his little room, close by her own bedchamber. She lifted the pillow--and there lay the leather bag, exactly where he had placed it when he went to bed.
Jack's face, when this discovery revealed itself, would have pleaded for mercy with a far less generous woman than Mrs. Wagner. She took his hand. "Get into bed again," she said kindly; "and the next time you dream, try not to make a noise about it."
No! Jack refused to get into bed again, until he had been heard in his own defense. He dropped on his knees, and held up his clasped hands, as if he was praying.
"When you first taught me to say my prayers," he answered, "you said God would hear me. As God hears me now Mistress, I was wide awake when I put my hand under the pillow--and the bag was not there. Do you believe me?"
Mrs. Wagner was strongly impressed by the simple fervor of this declaration. It was no mere pretense, when she answered that she did believe him. At her suggestion, the bag was unstrapped and examined. Not only the unimportant keys (with another one added to their number) but the smaller key which opened her desk were found safe inside. "We will talk about it to-morrow," she said. Having wished him good-night, she paused in the act of opening the door, and looked at the lock. There was no key in it, but there was another protection in the shape of a bolt underneath. "Did you bolt your door when you went to bed?" she asked.
The obvious suspicion, suggested by this negative answer, crossed her mind.
"What has become of the key of your door?" she inquired next.
Jack hung his head. "I put it along with the other keys," he confessed, "to make the bag look bigger."
Alone again in her own room, Mrs. Wagner stood by the reanimated fire, thinking.
While Jack was asleep, any person, with a soft step and a delicate hand, might have approached his bedside, when the house was quiet for the night, and have taken his bag. And, again, any person within hearing of the alarm that he had raised, some hours afterwards, might have put the bag back, while he was recovering himself in Mrs. Wagner's room. Who could have been near enough to hear the alarm? Somebody in the empty bedrooms above? Or somebody in the solitary offices below? If a theft had really been committed, the one likely object of it would be the key of the desk. This pointed to the probability that the alarm had reached the ears of the thief in the offices. Was there any person in the house, from the honest servants upwards, whom it would be reasonably possible to suspect of theft? Mrs. Wagner returned to her bed. She was not a woman to be daunted by trifles--but on this occasion her courage failed her when she was confronted by her own question.
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