Most of us see some romances in life. In
my capacity as Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office, I think
I have within the last thirty years seen more romances than the
generality of men, however unpromising the opportunity may, at
first sight, seem.
As I have retired,
and live at my ease, I possess the means that I used to want,
of considering what I have seen, at leisure. My experiences have
a more remarkable aspect, so reviewed, than they had when they
were in progress. I have come home from the Play now, and can
recall the scenes of the Drama upon which the curtain has fallen,
free from the glare, bewilderment, and bustle of the Theatre.
Let me recall one
of these Romances of the real world.
There is nothing
truer than physiognomy, taken in connection with manner. The art
of reading that book of which Eternal Wisdom obliges every human
creature to present his or her own page with the individual character
written on it, is a difficult one, perhaps, and is little studied.
It may require some natural aptitude, and it must require (for
everything does) some patience and some pains. That these are
not usually given to it, - that numbers of people accept a few
stock commonplace expressions of the face as the whole list of
characteristics, and neither seek nor know the refinements that
are truest, - that You, for instance, give a great deal of time
and attention to the reading of music, Greek, Latin, French, Italian,
Hebrew, if you please, and do not qualify yourself to read the
face of the master or mistress looking over your shoulder teaching
it to you, - I assume to be five hundred times more probable than
improbable. Perhaps a little self-sufficiency may be at the bottom
of this; facial expression requires no study from you, you think;
it comes by nature to you to know enough about it, and you are
not to be taken in.
I confess, for my
part, that I HAVE been taken in, over and over again. I have been
taken in by acquaintances, and I have been taken in (of course)
by friends; far oftener by friends than by any other class of
persons. How came I to be so deceived? Had I quite misread their
No. Believe me,
my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner
alone, was invariably true. My mistake was in suffering them to
come nearer to me and explain themselves away.
The partition which
separated my own office from our general outer office in the City
was of thick plate-glass. I could see through it what passed in
the outer office, without hearing a word. I had it put up in place
of a wall that had been there for years, - ever since the house
was built. It is no matter whether I did or did not make the change
in order that I might derive my first impression of strangers,
who came to us on business, from their faces alone, without being
influenced by anything they said. Enough to mention that I turned
my glass partition to that account, and that a Life Assurance
Office is at all times exposed to be practised upon by the most
crafty and cruel of the human race.
It was through my
glass partition that I first saw the gentleman whose story I am
going to tell.
He had come in without
my observing it, and had put his hat and umbrella on the broad
counter, and was bending over it to take some papers from one
of the clerks. He was about forty or so, dark, exceedingly well
dressed in black, - being in mourning, - and the hand he extended
with a polite air, had a particularly well-fitting black-kid glove
upon it. His hair, which was elaborately brushed and oiled, was
parted straight up the middle; and he presented this parting to
the clerk, exactly (to my thinking) as if he had said, in so many
words: 'You must take me, if you please, my friend, just as I
show myself. Come straight up here, follow the gravel path, keep
off the grass, I allow no trespassing.'
I conceived a very
great aversion to that man the moment I thus saw him.
He had asked for
some of our printed forms, and the clerk was
giving them to him
and explaining them. An obliged and agreeable smile was on his
face, and his eyes met those of the clerk with a sprightly look.
(I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men
not looking you in the face. Don't trust that conventional idea.
Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the
week, if there is anything to be got by it.)
I saw, in the corner
of his eyelash, that he became aware of my looking at him. Immediately
he turned the parting in his hair toward the glass partition,
as if he said to me with a sweet smile, 'Straight up here, if
you please. Off the grass!'
In a few moments
he had put on his hat and taken up his umbrella, and was gone.
I beckoned the clerk
into my room, and asked, 'Who was that?'
He had the gentleman's
card in his hand. 'Mr. Julius Slinkton, Middle Temple.'
'A barrister, Mr.
'I think not, sir.'
'I should have thought
him a clergyman, but for his having no
his appearance,' Mr. Adams replied, 'he is reading for orders.'
I should mention
that he wore a dainty white cravat, and dainty linen altogether.
'What did he want,
'Merely a form of
proposal, sir, and form of reference.'
Did he say?'
'Yes, he said he
was recommended here by a friend of yours. He noticed you, but
said that as he had not the pleasure of your personal acquaintance
he would not trouble you.'
'Did he know my
'O yes, sir! He
said, "There IS Mr. Sampson, I see!"'
'A well-spoken gentleman,
'Very much so, indeed,
'Hah!' said I. 'I
want nothing at present, Mr. Adams.'
Within a fortnight
of that day I went to dine with a friend of mine, a merchant,
a man of taste, who buys pictures and books, and the first man
I saw among the company was Mr. Julius Slinkton.There he was,
standing before the fire, with good large eyes and an open expression
of face; but still (I thought) requiring everybody to come at
him by the prepared way he offered, and by no other.
I noticed him ask
my friend to introduce him to Mr. Sampson, and my friend did so.
Mr. Slinkton was very happy to see me. Not too happy; there was
no over-doing of the matter; happy in a thoroughly well-bred,
perfectly unmeaning way.
'I thought you had
met,' our host observed.
'No,' said Mr. Slinkton.
'I did look in at Mr. Sampson's office, on your recommendation;
but I really did not feel justified in troubling Mr. Sampson himself,
on a point in the everyday, routine of an ordinary clerk.'
I said I should
have been glad to show him any attention on our friend's introduction.
'I am sure of that,'
said he, 'and am much obliged. At another time, perhaps, I may
be less delicate. Only, however, if I have real business; for
I know, Mr. Sampson, how precious business time is, and what a
vast number of impertinent people there are in the world.'
I acknowledged his
consideration with a slight bow. 'You were thinking,' said I,
'of effecting a policy on your life.'
'O dear no! I am
afraid I am not so prudent as you pay me the compliment of supposing
me to be, Mr. Sampson. I merely inquired for a friend. But you
know what friends are in such matters. Nothing may ever come of
it. I have the greatest reluctance to trouble men of business
with inquiries for friends, knowing the probabilities to be a
thousand to one that the friends will never follow them up. People
are so fickle, so selfish, so inconsiderate. Don't you, in your
business, find them so every day, Mr. Sampson?'
I was going to give
a qualified answer; but he turned his smooth, white parting on
me with its 'Straight up here, if you please!' and I answered
'I hear, Mr. Sampson,'
he resumed presently, for our friend had a new cook, and dinner
was not so punctual as usual, 'that your profession has recently
suffered a great loss.'
'In money?' said
He laughed at my
ready association of loss with money, and replied, 'No, in talent
Not at once following
out his allusion, I considered for a moment. 'HAS it sustained
a loss of that kind?' said I. 'I was not aware of it.'
Mr. Sampson. I don't imagine that you have
retired. It is not
so bad as that. But Mr. Meltham - '
'O, to be sure!'
said I. 'Yes! Mr. Meltham, the young actuary of the "Inestimable."'
'Just so,' he returned
in a consoling way.
'He is a great loss.
He was at once the most profound, the most original, and the most
energetic man I have ever known connected with Life Assurance.'
I spoke strongly;
for I had a high esteem and admiration for
Meltham; and my
gentleman had indefinitely conveyed to me some suspicion that
he wanted to sneer at him. He recalled me to my guard by presenting
that trim pathway up his head, with its internal 'Not on the grass,
if you please - the gravel.'
'You knew him, Mr.
'Only by reputation.
To have known him as an acquaintance or as a friend, is an honour
I should have sought if he had remained in society, though I might
never have had the good fortune to attain it, being a man of far
inferior mark. He was scarcely above thirty, I suppose?'
'Ah!' he sighed
in his former consoling way. 'What creatures we are! To break
up, Mr. Sampson, and become incapable of business at that time
of life! - Any reason assigned for the melancholy fact?'
I, as I looked at him. 'But I WON'T go up the track, and I WILL
go on the grass.')
'What reason have
you heard assigned, Mr. Slinkton?' I asked,
'Most likely a false
one. You know what Rumour is, Mr. Sampson. I never repeat what
I hear; it is the only way of paring the nails and shaving the
head of Rumour. But when YOU ask me what reason I have heard assigned
for Mr. Meltham's passing away from among men, it is another thing.
I am not gratifying idle gossip then. I was told, Mr. Sampson,
that Mr. Meltham had relinquished all his avocations and all his
prospects, because he was, in fact, broken-hearted. A disappointed
attachment I heard, - though it hardly seems probable, in the
case of a man so distinguished and so attractive.'
distinctions are no armour against death,' said I.
'O, she died? Pray
pardon me. I did not hear that. That, indeed, makes it very, very
sad. Poor Mr. Meltham! She died? Ah, dear me! Lamentable, lamentable!'
I still thought
his pity was not quite genuine, and I still
suspected an unaccountable
sneer under all this, until he said, as
we were parted,
like the other knots of talkers, by the
'Mr. Sampson, you
are surprised to see me so moved on behalf of a man whom I have
never known. I am not so disinterested as you may suppose. I have
suffered, and recently too, from death myself. I have lost one
of two charming nieces, who were my constant companions. She died
young - barely three-and-twenty; and even her remaining sister
is far from strong. The world is a grave!'
He said this with
deep feeling, and I felt reproached for the
coldness of my manner.
Coldness and distrust had been engendered in me, I knew, by my
bad experiences; they were not natural to me;and I often thought
how much I had lost in life, losing trustfulness, and how little
I had gained, gaining hard caution. This state of mind being habitual
to me, I troubled myself more about this conversation than I might
have troubled myself about a greater matter. I listened to his
talk at dinner, and observed how readily other men responded to
it, and with what a graceful instinct he adapted his subjects
to the knowledge and habits of those he talked with. As, in talking
with me, he had easily started the subject I might be supposed
to understand best, and to be the most interested in, so, in talking
with others, he guided himself by the same rule. The company was
of a varied character; but he was not at fault, that I could discover,
with any member of it. He knew just as much of each man's pursuit
as made him agreeable to that man in reference to it, and just
as little as made it natural in him to seek modestly for information
when the theme was broached.
As he talked and
talked - but really not too much, for the rest of us seemed to
force it upon him - I became quite angry with myself. I took his
face to pieces in my mind, like a watch, and examined it in detail.
I could not say much against any of his features separately; I
could say even less against them when they were put together.
'Then is it not monstrous,' I asked myself, 'that because a man
happens to part his hair straight up the middle of his head, I
should permit myself to suspect, and even to detest him?'
(I may stop to remark
that this was no proof of my sense. An
observer of men
who finds himself steadily repelled by some
thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be
the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a
lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.)
I took my part in
the conversation with him after a time, and we got on remarkably
well. In the drawing-room I asked the host how long he had known
Mr. Slinkton. He answered, not many months; he had met him at
the house of a celebrated painter then present, who had known
him well when he was travelling with his nieces in Italy for their
health. His plans in life being broken by the death of one of
them, he was reading with the intention of going back to college
as a matter of form, taking his degree, and going into orders.
I could not but argue with myself that here was the true explanation
of his interest in poor Meltham, and that I had been almost brutal
in my distrust on that simple head.
On the very next
day but one I was sitting behind my glass
partition, as before,
when he came into the outer office, as
before. The moment
I saw him again without hearing him, I hated him worse than ever.
It was only for
a moment that I had this opportunity; for he waved his tight-fitting
black glove the instant I looked at him, and came straight in.
'Mr. Sampson, good-day!
I presume, you see, upon your kind
permission to intrude
upon you. I don't keep my word in being justified by business,
for my business here - if I may so abuse the word - is of the
I asked, was it
anything I could assist him in?
'I thank you, no.
I merely called to inquire outside whether my dilatory friend
had been so false to himself as to be practical and sensible.
But, of course, he has done nothing. I gave him your papers with
my own hand, and he was hot upon the intention, but of course
he has done nothing. Apart from the general human disinclination
to do anything that ought to be done, I dare say there is a specially
about assuring one's life. You find it like will-making. People
are so superstitious, and take it for granted they will die soon
'Up here, if you
please; straight up here, Mr. Sampson. Neither to the right nor
to the left.' I almost fancied I could hear him breathe the words
as he sat smiling at me, with that intolerable parting exactly
opposite the bridge of my nose.
'There is such a
feeling sometimes, no doubt,' I replied; 'but I don't think it
obtains to any great extent.'
'Well,' said he,
with a shrug and a smile, 'I wish some good angel would influence
my friend in the right direction. I rashly promised his mother
and sister in Norfolk to see it done, and he promised them that
he would do it. But I suppose he never will.'
He spoke for a minute
or two on indifferent topics, and went away.
I had scarcely unlocked
the drawers of my writing-table next
morning, when he
reappeared. I noticed that he came straight to the door in the
glass partition, and did not pause a single moment outside.
'Can you spare me
two minutes, my dear Mr. Sampson?'
'By all means.'
laying his hat and umbrella on the table; 'I came early, not to
interrupt you. The fact is, I am taken by surprise in reference
to this proposal my friend has made.'
'Has he made one?'
'Ye-es,' he answered,
deliberately looking at me; and then a bright idea seemed to strike
him - 'or he only tells me he has. Perhaps that may be a new way
of evading the matter. By Jupiter, I never thought of that!'
Mr. Adams was opening
the morning's letters in the outer office. 'What is the name,
Mr. Slinkton?' I asked.
I looked out at
the door and requested Mr. Adams, if there were a proposal in
that name, to bring it in. He had already laid it out of his hand
on the counter. It was easily selected from the rest, and he gave
it me. Alfred Beckwith. Proposal to effect a policy with us for
two thousand pounds. Dated yesterday.
'From the Middle
Temple, I see, Mr. Slinkton.'
'Yes. He lives on
the same staircase with me; his door is
opposite. I never
thought he would make me his reference though.'
'It seems natural
enough that he should.'
'Quite so, Mr. Sampson;
but I never thought of it. Let me see.' He took the printed paper
from his pocket. 'How am I to answer all these questions?'
'According to the
truth, of course,' said I.
'O, of course!'
he answered, looking up from the paper with a
smile; 'I meant
they were so many. But you do right to be
particular. It stands
to reason that you must be particular. Will you allow me to use
your pen and ink?'
'And your desk?'
He had been hovering
about between his hat and his umbrella for a place to write on.
He now sat down in my chair, at my blotting-paper and inkstand,
with the long walk up his head in accurate perspective before
me, as I stood with my back to the fire.
each question he ran over it aloud, and discussed it. How long
had he known Mr. Alfred Beckwith? That he had to calculate by
years upon his fingers. What were his habits? No difficulty about
them; temperate in the last degree, and took a little too much
exercise, if anything. All the answers were satisfactory. When
he had written them all, he looked them over, and finally signed
them in a very pretty hand. He supposed he had now done with the
business. I told him he was not likely to be troubled any farther.
Should he leave the papers there? If he pleased. Much obliged.
I had had one other
visitor before him; not at the office, but at my own house. That
visitor had come to my bedside when it was not yet daylight, and
had been seen by no one else but by my faithful confidential servant.
A second reference
paper (for we required always two) was sent down into Norfolk,
and was duly received back by post. This, likewise, was satisfactorily
answered in every respect. Our forms were all complied with; we
accepted the proposal, and the premium for one year was paid.
For six or seven
months I saw no more of Mr. Slinkton. He called once at my house,
but I was not at home; and he once asked me to dine with him in
the Temple, but I was engaged. His friend's assurance was effected
in March. Late in September or early in October I was down at
Scarborough for a breath of sea-air, where I met him on the beach.
It was a hot evening; he came toward me with his hat in his hand;
and there was the walk I had felt so strongly disinclined to take
in perfect order again, exactly in front of the bridge of my nose.
He was not alone,
but had a young lady on his arm.
She was dressed
in mourning, and I looked at her with great
interest. She had
the appearance of being extremely delicate, and her face was remarkably
pale and melancholy; but she was very pretty. He introduced her
as his niece, Miss Niner.
'Are you strolling,
Mr. Sampson? Is it possible you can be idle?'
It WAS possible,
and I WAS strolling.
'Shall we stroll
The young lady walked
between us, and we walked on the cool sea sand, in the direction
'There have been
wheels here,' said Mr. Slinkton. 'And now I look again, the wheels
of a hand-carriage! Margaret, my love, your shadow without doubt!'
'Miss Niner's shadow?'
I repeated, looking down at it on the sand.
'Not that one,'
Mr. Slinkton returned, laughing. 'Margaret, my dear, tell Mr.
'Indeed,' said the
young lady, turning to me, 'there is nothing to tell - except
that I constantly see the same invalid old gentleman at all times,
wherever I go. I have mentioned it to my uncle, and he calls the
gentleman my shadow.'
'Does he live in
Scarborough?' I asked.
'He is staying here.'
'Do you live in
'No, I am staying
here. My uncle has placed me with a family here, for my health.'
'And your shadow?'
said I, smiling.
'My shadow,' she
answered, smiling too, 'is - like myself not very robust,
I fear; for I lose my shadow sometimes, as my shadow loses me
at other times. We both seem liable to confinement to the house.
I have not seen my shadow for days and days; but it does oddly
happen, occasionally, that wherever I go, for many days together,
this gentleman goes. We have come together in the most unfrequented
nooks on this shore.'
'Is this he?' said
I, pointing before us.
The wheels had swept
down to the water's edge, and described a great loop on the sand
in turning. Bringing the loop back towards us, and spinning it
out as it came, was a hand-carriage, drawn by a
'Yes,' said Miss
Niner, 'this really is my shadow, uncle.'
As the carriage
approached us and we approached the carriage, I saw within it
an old man, whose head was sunk on his breast, and who was enveloped
in a variety of wrappers. He was drawn by a very quiet but very
keen-looking man, with iron-gray hair, who was slightly lame.
They had passed us, when the carriage stopped, and the old gentleman
within, putting out his arm, called to me by my name. I went back,
and was absent from Mr. Slinkton and his niece for about five
When I rejoined
them, Mr. Slinkton was the first to speak. Indeed, he said to
me in a raised voice before I came up with him:
'It is well you
have not been longer, or my niece might have died of curiosity
to know who her shadow is, Mr. Sampson.'
'An old East India
Director,' said I. 'An intimate friend of our friend's, at whose
house I first had the pleasure of meeting you. A certain Major
Banks. You have heard of him?'
'Very rich, Miss
Niner; but very old, and very crippled. An
amiable man, sensible
- much interested in you. He has just been expatiating on the
affection that he has observed to exist between you and your uncle.'
Mr. Slinkton was
holding his hat again, and he passed his hand up the straight
walk, as if he himself went up it serenely, after me.
'Mr. Sampson,' he
said, tenderly pressing his niece's arm in his, 'our affection
was always a strong one, for we have had but few near ties. We
have still fewer now. We have associations to bring us together,
that are not of this world, Margaret.'
'Dear uncle!' murmured
the young lady, and turned her face aside to hide her tears.
'My niece and I
have such remembrances and regrets in common, Mr. Sampson,' he
feelingly pursued, 'that it would be strange indeed if the relations
between us were cold or indifferent. If I remember a conversation
we once had together, you will understand the reference I make.
Cheer up, dear Margaret. Don't droop, don't droop. My Margaret!
I cannot bear to see you droop!'
The poor young lady
was very much affected, but controlled herself. His feelings,
too, were very acute. In a word, he found himself under such great
need of a restorative, that he presently went away, to take a
bath of sea-water, leaving the young lady and me sitting by a
point of rock, and probably presuming - but that you will say
was a pardonable indulgence in a luxury - that she would praise
him with all her heart.
She did, poor thing!
With all her confiding heart, she praised him to me, for his care
of her dead sister, and for his untiring devotion in her last
illness. The sister had wasted away very slowly, and wild and
terrible fantasies had come over her toward the end, but he had
never been impatient with her, or at a loss; had always been gentle,
watchful, and self-possessed. The sister had known him, as she
had known him, to be the best of men, the kindest of men, and
yet a man of such admirable strength of character, as to be a
very tower for the support of their weak natures while their poor
'I shall leave him,
Mr. Sampson, very soon,' said the young lady; 'I know my life
is drawing to an end; and when I am gone, I hope he will marry
and be happy. I am sure he has lived single so long, only for
my sake, and for my poor, poor sister's.'
The little hand-carriage
had made another great loop on the damp sand, and was coming back
again, gradually spinning out a slim figure of eight, half a mile
'Young lady,' said
I, looking around, laying my hand upon her arm, and speaking in
a low voice, 'time presses. You hear the gentle murmur of that
She looked at me
with the utmost wonder and alarm, saying, 'Yes!'
'And you know what
a voice is in it when the storm comes?'
'You see how quiet
and peaceful it lies before us, and you know what an awful sight
of power without pity it might be, this very night!'
'But if you had
never heard or seen it, or heard of it in its
cruelty, could you
believe that it beats every inanimate thing in its way to pieces,
without mercy, and destroys life without
'You terrify me,
sir, by these questions!'
'To save you, young
lady, to save you! For God's sake, collect your strength and collect
your firmness! If you were here alone, and hemmed in by the rising
tide on the flow to fifty feet above your head, you could not
be in greater danger than the danger you are now to be saved from.'
The figure on the
sand was spun out, and straggled off into a
crooked little jerk
that ended at the cliff very near us.
'As I am, before
Heaven and the Judge of all mankind, your friend, and your dead
sister's friend, I solemnly entreat you, Miss Niner, without one
moment's loss of time, to come to this gentleman with me!'
If the little carriage
had been less near to us, I doubt if I could have got her away;
but it was so near that we were there before she had recovered
the hurry of being urged from the rock. I did not remain there
with her two minutes. Certainly within five, I had the inexpressible
satisfaction of seeing her - from the point we had sat on, and
to which I had returned - half supported and half carried up some
rude steps notched in the cliff, by the figure of an active man.
With that figure beside her, I knew she was safe anywhere.
I sat alone on the
rock, awaiting Mr. Slinkton's return. The
twilight was deepening
and the shadows were heavy, when he came round the point, with
his hat hanging at his button-hole, smoothing his wet hair with
one of his hands, and picking out the old path with the other
and a pocket-comb.
'My niece not here,
Mr. Sampson?' he said, looking about.
'Miss Niner seemed
to feel a chill in the air after the sun was down, and has gone
He looked surprised,
as though she were not accustomed to do
him; even to originate so slight a proceeding.
'I persuaded Miss
Niner,' I explained.
'Ah!' said he. 'She
is easily persuaded - for her good. Thank you, Mr. Sampson; she
is better within doors. The bathing-place was farther than I thought,
to say the truth.'
'Miss Niner is very
delicate,' I observed.
He shook his head
and drew a deep sigh. 'Very, very, very. You may recollect my
saying so. The time that has since intervened has not strengthened
her. The gloomy shadow that fell upon her sister so early in life
seems, in my anxious eyes, to gather over her, ever darker, ever
darker. Dear Margaret, dear Margaret! But we must hope.'
was spinning away before us at a most indecorous pace for an invalid
vehicle, and was making most irregular curves upon the sand. Mr.
Slinkton, noticing it after he had put his handkerchief to his
'If I may judge
from appearances, your friend will be upset, Mr. Sampson.'
'It looks probable,
certainly,' said I.
'The servant must
'The servants of
old gentlemen will get drunk sometimes,' said I.
'The major draws
very light, Mr. Sampson.'
'The major does
draw light,' said I.
By this time the
carriage, much to my relief, was lost in the
darkness. We walked
on for a little, side by side over the sand, in silence. After
a short while he said, in a voice still affected by the emotion
that his niece's state of health had awakened in him,
'Do you stay here
long, Mr. Sampson?'
'Why, no. I am going
'So soon? But business
always holds you in request. Men like Mr. Sampson are too important
to others, to be spared to their own need of relaxation and enjoyment.'
'I don't know about
that,' said I. 'However, I am going back.'
'I shall be there
too, soon after you.'
I knew that as well
as he did. But I did not tell him so. Any more than I told him
what defensive weapon my right hand rested on in my pocket, as
I walked by his side. Any more than I told him why I did not walk
on the sea side of him with the night closing in.
We left the beach,
and our ways diverged. We exchanged goodnight, and had parted
indeed, when he said, returning,
'Mr. Sampson, MAY
I ask? Poor Meltham, whom we spoke of, dead yet?'
'Not when I last
heard of him; but too broken a man to live long, and hopelessly
lost to his old calling.'
'Dear, dear, dear!'
said he, with great feeling. 'Sad, sad, sad! The world is a grave!'
And so went his way.
It was not his fault
if the world were not a grave; but I did not call that observation
after him, any more than I had mentioned those other things just
now enumerated. He went his way, and I went mine with all expedition.
This happened, as I have said, either at the end of September
or beginning of October. The next time I saw him, and the last
time, was late in November.
I had a very particular
engagement to breakfast in the Temple. It was a bitter north-easterly
morning, and the sleet and slush lay inches deep in the streets.
I could get no conveyance, and was soon wet to the knees; but
I should have been true to that appointment, though I had to wade
to it up to my neck in the same impediments.
took me to some chambers in the Temple. They were at the top of
a lonely corner house overlooking the river. The name, MR. ALFRED
BECKWITH, was painted on the outer door. On the door opposite,
on the same landing, the name MR. JULIUS SLINKTON. The doors of
both sets of chambers stood open, so that anything said aloud
in one set could be heard in the other.
I had never been
in those chambers before. They were dismal,
and oppressive; the furniture, originally good, and not yet old,
was faded and dirty, - the rooms were in great disorder; there
was a strong prevailing smell of opium, brandy, and tobacco; the
grate and fire-irons were splashed all over with unsightly blotches
of rust; and on a sofa by the fire, in the room where breakfast
had been prepared, lay the host, Mr. Beckwith, a man with all
the appearances of the worst kind of drunkard, very far advanced
upon his shameful way to death.
'Slinkton is not
come yet,' said this creature, staggering up when I went in; 'I'll
call him. - Halloa! Julius Caesar! Come and drink!' As he hoarsely
roared this out, he beat the poker and tongs together in a mad
way, as if that were his usual manner of summoning his associate.
The voice of Mr.
Slinkton was heard through the clatter from the opposite side
of the staircase, and he came in. He had not expected the pleasure
of meeting me. I have seen several artful men brought to a stand,
but I never saw a man so aghast as he was when his eyes rested
cried Beckwith, staggering between us, 'Mist' Sampson! Mist' Sampson,
Julius Caesar! Julius, Mist' Sampson, is the friend of my soul.
Julius keeps me plied with liquor, morning, noon, and night. Julius
is a real benefactor. Julius threw the tea and coffee out of window
when I used to have any. Julius empties all the water-jugs of
their contents, and fills 'em with spirits. Julius winds me up
and keeps me going. - Boil the brandy, Julius!'
There was a rusty
and furred saucepan in the ashes, - the ashes looked like the
accumulation of weeks, - and Beckwith, rolling and staggering
between us as if he were going to plunge headlong into the fire,
got the saucepan out, and tried to force it into Slinkton's hand.
'Boil the brandy,
Julius Caesar! Come! Do your usual office. Boil the brandy!'
He became so fierce
in his gesticulations with the saucepan, that I expected to see
him lay open Slinkton's head with it. I therefore put out my hand
to check him. He reeled back to the sofa, and sat there panting,
shaking, and red-eyed, in his rags of dressing-gown, looking at
us both. I noticed then that there was nothing to drink on the
table but brandy, and nothing to eat but salted herrings, and
a hot, sickly, highly-peppered stew.
'At all events,
Mr. Sampson,' said Slinkton, offering me the smooth gravel path
for the last time, 'I thank you for interfering between me and
this unfortunate man's violence. However you came here, Mr. Sampson,
or with whatever motive you came here, at least I thank you for
'Boil the brandy,'
his desire to know how I came there, I said, quietly, 'How is
your niece, Mr. Slinkton?'
He looked hard at
me, and I looked hard at him.
'I am sorry to say,
Mr. Sampson, that my niece has proved
ungrateful to her best friend. She left me without a word of notice
or explanation. She was misled, no doubt, by some designing rascal.
Perhaps you may have heard of it.'
'I did hear that
she was misled by a designing rascal. In fact, I have proof of
'Are you sure of
that?' said he.
'Boil the brandy,'
muttered Beckwith. 'Company to breakfast,
Julius Caesar. Do
your usual office, - provide the usual
tea, and supper. Boil the brandy!'
The eyes of Slinkton
looked from him to me, and he said, after a moment's consideration,
'Mr. Sampson, you
are a man of the world, and so am I. I will be plain with you.'
'O no, you won't,'
said I, shaking my head.
'I tell you, sir,
I will be plain with you.'
'And I tell you
you will not,' said I. 'I know all about you. YOU plain with any
one? Nonsense, nonsense!'
'I plainly tell
you, Mr. Sampson,' he went on, with a manner almost composed,
'that I understand your object. You want to save your funds, and
escape from your liabilities; these are old tricks of trade with
you Office-gentlemen. But you will not do it, sir; you will not
succeed. You have not an easy adversary to play against, when
you play against me. We shall have to inquire, in due time, when
and how Mr. Beckwith fell into his present habits. With that remark,
sir, I put this poor creature, and his incoherent wanderings of
speech, aside, and wish you a good morning and a better case next
While he was saying
this, Beckwith had filled a half-pint glass with brandy. At this
moment, he threw the brandy at his face, and threw the glass after
it. Slinkton put his hands up, half blinded with the spirit, and
cut with the glass across the forehead. At the sound of the breakage,
a fourth person came into the room, closed the door, and stood
at it; he was a very quiet but very keen-looking man, with iron-gray
hair, and slightly lame.
out his handkerchief, assuaged the pain in his smarting eyes,
and dabbled the blood on his forehead. He was a long time about
it, and I saw that in the doing of it, a tremendous change came
over him, occasioned by the change in Beckwith, - who ceased to
pant and tremble, sat upright, and never took his eyes off him.
I never in my life saw a face in which abhorrence and determination
were so forcibly painted as in Beckwith's then.
'Look at me, you
villain,' said Beckwith, 'and see me as I really am. I took these
rooms, to make them a trap for you. I came into them as a drunkard,
to bait the trap for you. You fell into the trap, and you will
never leave it alive. On the morning when you last went to Mr.
Sampson's office, I had seen him first. Your plot has been known
to both of us, all along, and you have been counter-plotted all
along. What? Having been cajoled into putting that prize of two
thousand pounds in your power, I was to be done to death with
brandy, and, brandy not proving quick enough, with something quicker?
Have I never seen you, when you thought my senses gone, pouring
from your little bottle into my glass? Why, you Murderer and Forger,
alone here with you in the dead of night, as I have so often been,
I have had my hand upon the trigger of a pistol, twenty times,
to blow your brains out!'
This sudden starting
up of the thing that he had supposed to be his imbecile victim
into a determined man, with a settled resolution to hunt him down
and be the death of him, mercilessly expressed from head to foot,
was, in the first shock, too much for him. Without any figure
of speech, he staggered under it. But there is no greater mistake
than to suppose that a man who is a calculating criminal, is,
in any phase of his guilt, otherwise than true to himself, and
perfectly consistent with his whole character. Such a man commits
murder, and murder is the natural culmination of his course; such
a man has to outface murder, and will do it with hardihood and
effrontery. It is a sort of fashion to express surprise that any
notorious criminal, having such crime upon his conscience, can
so brave it out. Do you think that if he had it on his conscience
at all, or had a conscience to have it upon, he would ever have
committed the crime?
with himself, as I believe all such monsters to be, this Slinkton
recovered himself, and showed a defiance that was sufficiently
cold and quiet. He was white, he was haggard, he was changed;
but only as a sharper who had played for a great stake and had
been outwitted and had lost the game.
'Listen to me, you
villain,' said Beckwith, 'and let every word you hear me say be
a stab in your wicked heart. When I took these rooms, to throw
myself in your way and lead you on to the scheme that I knew my
appearance and supposed character and habits would suggest to
such a devil, how did I know that? Because you were no stranger
to me. I knew you well. And I knew you to be the cruel wretch
who, for so much money, had killed one innocent girl while she
trusted him implicitly, and who was by inches killing another.'
Slinkton took out
a snuff-box, took a pinch of snuff, and laughed.
'But see here,'
said Beckwith, never looking away, never raising his voice, never
relaxing his face, never unclenching his hand. 'See what a dull
wolf you have been, after all! The infatuated drunkard who never
drank a fiftieth part of the liquor you plied him with, but poured
it away, here, there, everywhere almost before your eyes;
who bought over the fellow you set to watch him and to ply him,
by outbidding you in his bribe, before he had been at his work
three days - with whom you have observed no caution, yet who was
so bent on ridding the earth of you as a wild beast, that he would
have defeated you if you had been ever so prudent - that drunkard
whom you have, many a time, left on the floor of this room, and
who has even let you go out of it, alive and undeceived,when you
have turned him over with your foot - has, almost as often, on
the same night, within an hour, within a few minutes, watched
you awake, had his hand at your pillow when you were asleep, turned
over your papers, taken samples from your bottles and packets
of powder, changed their contents, rifled every secret of your
He had had another
pinch of snuff in his hand, but had gradually let it drop from
between his fingers to the floor; where he now smoothed it out
with his foot, looking down at it the while.
said Beckwith, 'who had free access to your rooms at all times,
that he might drink the strong drinks that you left in his way
and be the sooner ended, holding no more terms with you than he
would hold with a tiger, has had his master-key for all your locks,
his test for all your poisons, his clue to your cipher-writing.
He can tell you, as well as you can tell him, how long it took
to complete that deed, what doses there were, what intervals,
what signs of gradual decay upon mind and body; what distempered
fancies were produced, what observable changes, what physical
pain.He can tell you, as well as you can tell him, that all this
was recorded day by day, as a lesson of experience for future
service. He can tell you, better than you can tell him, where
that journal is at this moment.'
the action of his foot, and looked at Beckwith.
'No,' said the latter,
as if answering a question from him. 'Not in the drawer of the
writing-desk that opens with a spring; it is not there, and it
never will be there again.'
'Then you are a
thief!' said Slinkton.
Without any change
whatever in the inflexible purpose, which it was quite terrific
even to me to contemplate, and from the power of which I had always
felt convinced it was impossible for this wretch to escape, Beckwith
'And I am your niece's
With an imprecation
Slinkton put his hand to his head, tore out some hair, and flung
it to the ground. It was the end of the smooth walk; he destroyed
it in the action, and it will soon be seen that his use for it
Beckwith went on:
'Whenever you left here, I left here. Although I understood that
you found it necessary to pause in the completion of that purpose,
to avert suspicion, still I watched you close, with the poor confiding
girl. When I had the diary, and could read it word by word, -
it was only about the night before your last visit to Scarborough,
- you remember the night? you slept with a small flat vial tied
to your wrist, - I sent to Mr. Sampson, who was kept out of view.
This is Mr. Sampson's trusty servant standing by the door. We
three saved your niece among us.'
at us all, took an uncertain step or two from the place where
he had stood, returned to it, and glanced about him in a very
curious way, - as one of the meaner reptiles might, looking for
a hole to hide in. I noticed at the same time, that a singular
change took place in the figure of the man, - as if it collapsed
within his clothes, and they consequently became ill-shapen and
'You shall know,'
said Beckwith, 'for I hope the knowledge will be bitter and terrible
to you, why you have been pursued by one man, and why, when the
whole interest that Mr. Sampson represents would have expended
any money in hunting you down, you have been tracked to death
at a single individual's charge. I hear you have had the name
of Meltham on your lips sometimes?'
I saw, in addition
to those other changes, a sudden stoppage come upon his breathing.
'When you sent the
sweet girl whom you murdered (you know with what artfully made-out
surroundings and probabilities you sent her) to Meltham's office,
before taking her abroad to originate the transaction that doomed
her to the grave, it fell to Meltham's lot to see her and to speak
with her. It did not fall to his lot to save her, though I know
he would freely give his own life to have done it. He admired
her; - I would say he loved her deeply, if I thought it possible
that you could understand the word. When she was sacrificed, he
was thoroughly assured of your guilt. Having lost her, he had
but one object left in life, and that was to avenge her and destroy
I saw the villain's
nostrils rise and fall convulsively; but I saw no moving at his
'That man Meltham,'
Beckwith steadily pursued, 'was as absolutely certain that you
could never elude him in this world, if he devoted himself to
your destruction with his utmost fidelity and earnestness, and
if he divided the sacred duty with no other duty in life, as he
was certain that in achieving it he would be a poor instrument
in the hands of Providence, and would do well before Heaven in
striking you out from among living men. I am that man, and I thank
God that I have done my work!'
If Slinkton had
been running for his life from swift-footed
savages, a dozen
miles, he could not have shown more emphatic signs of being oppressed
at heart and labouring for breath, than he showed now, when he
looked at the pursuer who had so relentlessly hunted him down.
'You never saw me
under my right name before; you see me under my right name now.
You shall see me once again in the body, when you are tried for
your life. You shall see me once again in the spirit, when the
cord is round your neck, and the crowd are crying against you!'
When Meltham had
spoken these last words, the miscreant suddenly turned away his
face, and seemed to strike his mouth with his open hand. At the
same instant, the room was filled with a new and powerful odour,
and, almost at the same instant, he broke into a crooked run,
leap, start, - I have no name for the spasm, - and fell, with
a dull weight that shook the heavy old doors and windows in their
That was the fitting
end of him.
When we saw that
he was dead, we drew away from the room, and
me his hand, said, with a weary air, 'I have no more work on earth,
my friend. But I shall see her again elsewhere.'
It was in vain that
I tried to rally him. He might have saved her, he said; he had
not saved her, and he reproached himself; he hadlost her, and
he was broken-hearted.
'The purpose that
sustained me is over, Sampson, and there is
nothing now to hold
me to life. I am not fit for life; I am weak and spiritless; I
have no hope and no object; my day is done.'
In truth, I could
hardly have believed that the broken man who then spoke to me
was the man who had so strongly and so differently impressed me
when his purpose was before him. I used such entreaties with him,
as I could; but he still said, and always said, in a patient,
undemonstrative way, - nothing could avail him,- he was broken-hearted.
He died early in
the next spring. He was buried by the side of the poor young lady
for whom he had cherished those tender and unhappy regrets; and
he left all he had to her sister. She lived to be a happy wife
and mother; she married my sister's son, who succeeded poor Meltham;
she is living now, and her children ride about the garden on my
walking-stick when I go to see her.